Showing posts with label Robert Browning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Browning. Show all posts

21 April 2022

Twickenham Garden


The last couple of weeks were wild. Last week, I was exposed to Covid at an AVP workshop at the pen (which was a really excellent workshop), and so, out of an abundance of caution (because I'm fully vaxxed and double boosted) I isolated for 5 days except for brief forays for necessities with an N-95 mask firmly in place.  Covid test was negative, praise God. Boosters work!

Even wilder was the weather - we had 3 days of 50-60 mph wind gusts, and we all now understand why Beret in Giants in the Earth went mad from the wind. Seriously, semi-trucks were being blown over on the highway. 

And the South Dakota House Legislature voted to impeach AG Jason Ravnsborg for killing Joe Boever. This surprised a lot of us because the House Judiciary Committee voted against recommending impeachment. But then a lot of information leaked - such as the fact that the investigating officers were convinced that Ravnsborg lied, lied, and lied some more, and wrote it down, but the House Judiciary Committee refused to hear any of their evidence. (If you're surprised by this, you haven't been keeping up with my reports from South Dakota.)  It also didn't help that Ravnsborg put out the most incoherent, whiny letter you ever read defending himself (See HERE.) South Dakota can put up with a lot of misbehavior, but the key virtues up here are hard work, more hard work, and no whining. Ravnsborg's impeachment trial in the Senate will begin June 21st. 

Anyway, Allan and I began watching the Irish shows recommended by David Edgerly Gates in his The Irish & Their Discontents. The opening episode of Single-Handed had Jack Driscoll coming back to the rural Northwestern Irish community he grew up in, and finding out that nothing is as simple as he hoped it would be. The line that stuck with me was "I thought I knew the place. But it's a cesspit." 

And that is so true. Any community can seem beautiful, carefree and innocent on the surface. Look long enough and all the cockroaches come out; the mold's ankle-deep; and innocence - what happened to that? And it is, apparently, always  more shocking when it's a rural area, a small town, where everyone knows everyone and they appear - from the outside - to be all happy families together. (That's why Agatha Christie set so many of her stories in the countryside.) Our illusions die hard. 

  • Familiarity can breed contempt, but when you're stuck with the same people in a small area for life, what it really breeds is secrecy.  
  • It's pretty easy for the biggest bully and/or the richest person to take over, like the boss cow, because how are you going to stop them? Think of what's going on in Ukraine right now. At the beginning a lot of pundits said that NATO and the US could not even think about going in militarily - i.e., help to defend Ukraine - because Putin might use the nuclear option. Well, that's how bullies win and take over - they threaten to do something and everyone (see above) goes along or ignores it. 
  • There's always a group of wealthy and/or powerful (usually men) who run everything. If they like you, you get jobs and contracts and help and protection. If not... 
  • There's always a gossip, dripping with venom and spite, who's willing to let everyone know any little nasty tid-bit s/he finds out. (They're just as likely to be male as female.)
  • No one will ever talk about domestic or sexual abuse at all. "That doesn't happen here." If the victim runs away, there will be a lot of whispers. If they ever return for a visit, well, they won't be admired for their courage. That's a big can of worms, and no one wants it open.
  • For that matter, if you leave a small town to go make your fortune in the big city, at least some people will hold it against you. How dare you make us look bad? What's good enough for us should have been good enough for you.

All because humans are humans, whether rural or urban or in a monastery:

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
Gr-r-r--there go, my heart's abhorrence!
  Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
  God's blood, would not mine kill you!
What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming?
  Oh, that rose has prior claims--
Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?
  Hell dry you up with its flames!
             - Robert Browning

(See the whole diabolical poem HERE)

John Donne © Wikipedia
Twickenham Garden
Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears,
Hither I come to seek the spring,
And at mine eyes, and at mine ears,
Receive such balms as else cure every thing.
But O! self-traitor, I do bring
The spider Love, which transubstantiates all,
And can convert manna to gall;
And that this place may thoroughly be thought
True paradise, I have the serpent brought.
                - John Donne

(See the entire poem - with interesting commentary - HERE)

We all carry the serpent with us, don't we?

05 July 2018

The Wrong Books


I have a DVD set of the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, and I asked my husband if he'd like to watch it sometime.  He declined: "I'm not up for Tolstoy."  And what he meant by "Tolstoy" was War and Peace.  He'd tried to read it, decades ago, and stalled out pretty quickly, which I think happens to a lot of people.  A lot of people complain about its length, and at over 1,200 pages, it's long enough to complain about.  But then, Outlander is half that length, and then you've still got 7 more hefty books to go in that series.

But I think that reading War and Peace is a classic example of the wrong book.  I think one of the reasons why people avoid "great literature" is that
(1) they're told that it's great,
(2) there's this illusion that great = dull / hard to understand / heavy (ie., depressing), and
(3) they're started off with the wrong book.


L.N.Tolstoy Prokudin-Gorsky.jpgSo, with Tolstoy, start with Anna Karenina, and make sure it's the old Constance Garnett translation:  Anna, about to go into the major midlife crisis in literature, her cheerfully cheating brother Stepan, her pompous irritating husband Karenin, her soon to be lover Vronsky (a/k/a the man who isn't worth it), future soccer mom Kitty, bewildered Levin (only a few jokes away from being played by Seth Rogen), Countess Lydia (think Texas cheerleader mom), and other classic characters all presented with wit, verve,  heartbreak, and amazing insight. As the British poet and critic Matthew Arnold said, "A novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life."


George Eliot.  Forget Silas Marner, (ESPECIALLY in schools).  Start the kids off with Adam Bede, with its amazing portrait of Hetty Sorrel, whose beauty is "like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief—a beauty with which you can never be angry."
No one knows, no one can believe, that such an obviously childlike, innocent young thing like Hetty could be an egoist of the highest caliber.  And from that comes all the rest.
(NOTE:  My major problem with every production of Adam Bede is that the actresses cast as Hetty have been, so far, always sophisticated 20-somethings so that you can't get the essentially transgressive tragedy of Hetty:  it's the fact that she looks like a child that turns her seducer on.) 
Or Dostoevsky.  Don't start with Crime and Punishment.  Unless you're a huge Cormac McCarthy fan.

Start with The Brother's Karamazov, which is about one of the most dysfunctional families on the planet.  The Karamazovs are led by Fyodor, an absolute horror as a man and a father, whose constant womanizing and drunkenness never stand in the way of trying to ruin his sons' lives.  Dmitri's a sensualist, Ivan's an atheist, Alyosha's a novice monk, and Smerdyakov is illegitimate.  One of them kills Fyodor, and while we all say good riddance, the question is who and why and how...  Incredible writing, and even the saints are human.

Speaking of who killed Fyodor, what about mysteries?

Which Sherlock Holmes story should you try to start someone off with?  First off, a heresy:  I think the novels are inferior to the short stories.  The Hound of the Baskervilles, frankly, has too much padding for me, and as for A Study in Scarlet...

Me, I'd start someone off with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which contains "A Scandal In Bohemia", "The Speckled Band," "The Copper Beeches," and "The Red Headed League", among others.  The collection ranges from hilarious to deadly serious, and are what hooked me as a child.  After you read that collection, chances are you'll read all the rest.  I did.

Which Agatha Christie?  Personally, my favorite is Nemesis, which always seemed to have less mechanical plot (although the plot is very good) and more atmosphere.
"Miss Marple remembered saying to her nephew, who was standing her this Shakespearean treat, "You know, Raymond, my dear, if I were ever producing this splendid play I would make the three witches quite different. I would have them three ordinary, normal old women. Old Scottish women. They wouldn't dance or caper. They would look at each other rather slyly and you would feel a sort of menace just behind the ordinariness of them."  — Nemesis
And then Miss Marple looks around to the three Bradbury-Scott girls...

Dashiell Hammett:  The Maltese Falcon, of course, but Red Harvest is fast and furious.
Ellis Peters:  An Excellent Mystery (my favorite of the Cadfael Chronicles)
E. X. Ferrars:  Frog in the Throat 
Josephine Tey:  The Daughter of Time, with a special shout-out to Miss Pym Disposes
Rex Stout:  Death of a Doxy  
Dennis Lehane:  Mystic River 
Liza Cody:  Rift  

Oh, and if you want to try some poetry, try Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book - written in 1868-69, about a real-life Italian murder trial of 1698. Count Guido Franceschini, impoverished nobleman, despite professing his innocence, has been found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia and her parents. They were all stabbed; he's admitted he suspected Pompilia of having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi.  Each canto is a monologue from the point of view of a different character, including Count Guido and Pompilia on her death bed.  Multiple viewpoints, multiple voices, multiple excuses:  What's the truth?  Read it and decide for yourself.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Speaking of the Brownings, here's a story for you.  Elizabeth Barrett, of course, was a well known poet in Victorian times, perhaps the best known poetess.  Her father - a Jamaican plantation owner who'd made his money off slaves and sugar - raised his family in England.  He was a family dictator, micro-managing his children's lives, and disinheriting each and every one of them as they married.  Elizabeth and Robert's courtship had to be done mostly by letter and only occasional meetings, because Edward Barrett would never have approved it.  In fact, when the 40 year old Elizabeth married Robert Browning in 1846, she literally had to escape while Daddy was out.  It worked, and they were married and moved to Italy.  

There have been some theories about Mr. Barrett's possessiveness:
(1) There was African blood (from Jamaican slaves) in the family tree, and Mr. Barrett didn't want it perpetuated.
"For the love of God,
Montressor!"
"Yes, for the love of God."
(2) He was simply a control freak, who wanted to keep his children under his control forever, and almost succeeded entirely.  He certainly seemed determined to keep Elizabeth confined as an invalid for her entire life.  
(3) The Barretts of Wimpole Street flat-out said that he wanted Elizabeth, and perhaps her sister, to be more ( ahem ) than a daughter to him...

BTW: Edgar Allan Poe greatly admired Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry. Poe reviewed her work in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, saying that "her poetic inspiration is the highest — we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself." In return, she praised The Raven, and Poe dedicated his 1845 collection The Raven and Other Poems to her, referring to her as "the noblest of her sex". 

I think that Edgar Allan Poe would have cheerfully made Mr. Barrett the object of my favorite Poe story, The Cask of Amontillado.  Who knows?  Maybe he did.  

Read the classics - it will take you to places you never thought you'd go.  Just make sure to start off with the right book.