Friday, March 25, 2011

Howards End Conclusion

Phew. It feels like it was a long time coming. But we finally concluded our Howard's End book club with a dinner at our friend's new apartment on Waverly Place. Over gazpacho (secret ingredient: pureed avacado) and family style mexican, we discussed EM Forster's novel.
A few of the members of our book club were concerned with Forster's chauvinist depiction of women as option-less. Throughout the book, EM Forster via posh toff Henry Wilcox lampoons the domestic habits of women. Ms. Wilcox before her death gives Helen and Margaret the deed to Howard's End on a mere whim, the Shlegel's luncheon of ideas is lambasted as frivolity, and Margaret and Helen are given to fits of fancy i.e. Margaret jumps out of the carriage to save a runover dog and the men wonder aloud to themselves if perhaps she's been possessed by a devil. WWVWD*?

In the conclusion, EM Forster and the Merchant Ivory Collection provide us with a complex sort of closure. The sisters, Margaret and Helen Shlegel, are reunited once more at Howard's End. Margaret and Mr. Wilcox, the ultimate anti-feminist frat boy, stay together- despite Mr. Wilcox's past infidelity and his present hypocrisy. But Margaret has learned to properly manipulate her man (Yay EM Forster!?). It is she who holds the cards in this sad little family unit. We agreed (bar a few of us who, let's not lie, watched the movie instead of read the book) that the ending was far from happy.

Another point that was much discussed was the character of Leonard Bast. Most people felt that Leonard, despite his poetic soul, a trait that in many novels of the 19th century would be applauded, was sort of pathetic. They thought that his inability to come up with moral grounding for his ideas were to the detriment of his character. When the Schlegel sisters ask him why he chose to walk through the evening and into the day, he can't come up with an answer.

I think that Leonard is just another example of one of Forster's typically robust characters. Leonard isn't an idiot for not being able to base his feelings on anything; he just hasn't been given the same intellectual tools as families such as the Wilcoxs or the Shlegels. It's this degree of subtlety that keeps people returning to Forster. Throughout his body of work, Forster continually gives us characters that are flawed in ways that would have gone against the grain of their literary antecedents. It was an interesting effect to make Leonard a character that pushes the reader to form her (it's an all girls book club okay) own conclusions about the traditionally lauded stereotype 'pauper with a heart of gold' storyline.

EM Forster was, of course, a member of Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury group and he would have been intimately familiar with early 20th century fiction's cliches and tired storylines. It's like a breath of fresh air to read a novel where the characters, plot, and ending have been turned on its side and reexamined.

*What would Virgina Woolf do?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Howard's End Book Club is Tomorrow

The big day is almost here! All eight of us are meeting at our friends house in the West Village for dinner, drinks and a discussion on EM Forster. We'll be reporting back Thursday, so make sure you check in! xx A & E

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Movie Adaptation: Mrs. Dalloway

After a long weekend with Acton, Victoria and Adam in East Hampton, I unwound Sunday evening by watching the 1997 Marleen Gorris adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway. There are potential pitfalls in a movie version of Woolf's classic since so much of Mrs. Dalloway's splendor lies in the prose. But Gorris manages to create a fine, lasting interpretation of Woolf's book.

This was in part due to the insanely good acting, for sure. Vanessa Redgrave as the older Mrs. Dalloway is luminous and sage; Natasha McElhone as the younger Mrs. Dalloway and Lena Headly as Sally perfectly encapsulate the girls' complex relationship. (I was inspired to pick up Orlando after reading that the Sally-Clarissa dynamic pays homage to the famous Virginia-Vita Sackville West affair). Peter was played by a Robert Downey Jr. look alike, no joke, named Alan Cox and was a joy to watch.

The movie makes clear the comparison, which Woolf intended, between the clinically depressed Septimus and the trenchant frippery of Mrs. Dalloway. Septimus goes to the war, faces his demons and kills himself; Dalloway chooses comfort over love, fills her days with parties and dress mending- but endures.

In the book, we're lead through Mrs. Dalloway's London by a motley host of characters. But the two ideological figure heads of the novel are clearly D & S. In some of Virginia Woolf's earliest notes on the book she says, "I adumbrate here a study of insanity & suicide: the world seen by the sane and insane side by side."

The movie, without the syntactical fireworks Woolf is known for, distills and clarifies her thematic vision, which is helpful if your not reading the book in a college English class.  It's the perfect companion piece. Let us know what you think!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Dedication Poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

If hard experience is the stuff that precedes meaningful poetry, than surely Ted Hughes had enough big, dark matter walking around with him to birth a small library. And, true that, his body of work is certainly prolific. Hughes was the British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. A full list of his works can be found here.

Hughes married Sylvia Plath in 1956. At the time, Plath was a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge; Hughes had already begun to publish his poetry in the St. Botolphs Review, a literary magazine which he and some of his Pembroke peers founded. Plath attended the aforementioned journal's launch party and met Hughes there. They married just four months later.

Here's a poem by Plath written in the Spring of their relationship:

Ode for Ted
From under crunch of my man's boot
green oat-sprouts jut;
he names lapwing, starts rabbits in a rout
legging it most nmble
to sprigged hedge of bramble,
stalks red fox, shrewd stoat.

Loam-humps, he says, moles shunt
up from delved worm-hhaunt;
blue fur, moles have; hefting chalk-hulled flint
he with rock splits open 
knobbed quartz; flayed colors ripen
rich, brown, sudden in sunglint;

For his least look, scant acres  yield:
each finger furrowed field
heaves forth stalk, leaf, fruit nubbed emerald;
bright grain sprung so rarel 
he hauls to his will early;
at his hand's stuanch hest, birds build.

Ringdoves roost well within his wood
shirr songs to suit which mood
he saunters in; how but most glad
cold be this adam's woman
when all earth his words do summon
leaps to laud such man's blood.

-21 April 1956

The Plath- Hughes relationship deteriorated significantly in the following years, an article by A Alvarez in the New Yorker attributes the decline to Plath's poetic destiny.

"Finally, provoked by his wife's violence, into blind rage, he unwittingly handed her the key she had been looking for: "'Marvellous?' I shoulted...'That's the stuff you're keeping out of your poems!'" Always the good student, she went down into the cellarage, key in hand. But the ghouls she released were malign. They helped her write the great poems first collected in "Ariel," but they destroyed her marriage, and then they destroyed her."

Hughes and Plath split in 1963 after Plath discovered that Hughes had been cheating on her with Assia Welvill (also Susan Alliston at the time). Plath committed suicide just six months later, Assia Welvill followed suit, killing herself and her small child in the exact same manner as Plath-gas in the kitchen.*

Hughes never publicly discussed his relationship with either woman. Plath fans site Hughes as indirectly or directly responsible for their reigning heroines early death. Hughes's public silence on the subject of Plath never aided his case.

But in 1998 he published Birthday Letters, a book of poems that explores his relationship with Plath in heartbreaking detail. No one knew it at the time, but Hughes was suffering from terminal cancer. He died that same year. Birthday Letters went on to win the Whitbread Poetry Award, the TS Elliot Prize for Poetry and the Forward Poetry Prize. It is believed to be his best work by some and a study in image/spin by others.

A Pink Wool Knitted Dress
In your pink wool knitted dress
Before anything had smudged anything. 
You stood at the altar. Bloomsday.

Rain-so that a just bought umbrella
Was the only furnishing about me
Newer than three years inured.
My tie- sole, drab, veteran RAF black-
Was the used-up sybol of tie.
My cord kjacket-thrice-dyed black, exhausted. Just hanging on to itself.

I was a post-war, utility son-in-law!
Not quite the Frog-Prince. Maybe the Swineherd
Stealing this daughter's pedigree dreams
From under her watchtowered searchlit future.

(two stanzas missing)

You were transfigured. 
So slender and new and naked,
A nodding spray of wet lilac.
You shook with joy, you were ocean depth
Brimming with God
You said you saw the heavens open
And show riches, ready to drop upon us.
Levitated beside you, I stood subjected
To a strange tense: the spellbound future.

In that echo-gaunt, weekday chancel
I see you,
Wrestling to contain your flames
In your pinkwool knitted dress
And in your ete-pupils-great cut jewels
Jostling their tear-flames, truly like big jewels
Shaken in a dice-cup and held up to me.

In the Happy Birthday poems critics often talk about the appropriation of Plath's lexicon by Hughes. I think it's interesting that in the early poems of Plath, in particular, the poem To Ted, Plath seems to do the same thing. She's almost poking fun at the traditional iconography of nature poems. It's irreverant and has none of the self-awareness that Plath's later work is famous for. And then those last few lines: how but most glad/ could be this adam's woman/when all earth his words do summon/leaps to laud such man's blood. His writing holds command of natures plenty. It's the work of a women in love with her new husband's talent.

*Maybe Susan was feeling guilty for this small atrocity: Several weeks after her death, Assia Gutmann sent the final gas bill for Plath's flat to one of Plath's best friends with a note that read, "You were her friend. You pay the bill." (Paul Alexander, NY Observer, 04.05.98)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sylvia Plath & The Collected Poems

Last night, our parents took Acton, Victoria and I out to a wonderful dinner at Remi. Over an assortment of shared appetizers, the most tasty being a mushroom polenta, Sylvia Plath came up. I realized that, after reading Ariel once in highschool, I had somehow neglected to ever pick up the Bell Jar.  Nor had I ever read the Pulitzer Prize winning Collected Poems, which Ted Hughes published on behalf of Plath posthumously in 1981.

I stopped by Greenlight this morning and picked up a copy of both books. In the Collected Poems,  Hughes has written a five page introduction. The Hughes-Plath relationship was, of course, famously fraught. Hughes cheated on Plath. And the couple separated just six months before the author fell in to a deep depression and took her life in a kitchen oven. Plath fans have oft-sighted Hughes's mistreatment of his young wife as the catalyst for her suicide.

Hughes's introduction feels a little perfunctory for my tastes. He touches mostly on the decisions he had to make in order to give a chronological rendering of Plath's poems. But he does offer this one insight:

 "Her attitude to her verse was artisan like: if she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a succesful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity."

That idea of writing because it's pouring from you really struck me. And I kept it with me while I read through the poems this afternoon. Here's one of my favorites from Collected Poems thus far. I think it so perfectly captures the listlessness of depression.

I Am Vertical

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil.
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unkowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one's longevity and the other's daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but non of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them-
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation.
And I shall be useful when I lie fown finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.
-28 March 1961

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Books are well written or badly written. That is all."

Don't these images from HomeDesigning of an expanded man cave look just like a Tim Burton-directed Picture of Dorian Gray? (Are you reading, Tim? You should do that!)

If you're not familiar with the book, it is a bizarre parable of art about some dandy aesthetes in Victorian London who convince the stunning, and youthful, Dorian Gray to become so obsessed with his own image that he sells his soul for a gorgeous portrait of himself. Lol.

I always think of Oscar Wilde around St. Patrick's Day. Not because he was Irish (he was), but because sometimes you see some sloppy, unattractive, anti-dandy sporting one of these:

So ironic! So Oscar Wilde! The green carnation was the symbol of the dandy that Oscar Wilde and his crew would wear on their lapels.

My favorite story about Oscar Wilde is not the depressing end of his life in which he was jailed for sodomy and indecency, exiled to France, and eventually died at only 46, destitute and alone, as it is often told.

My favorite part of his life is the time he spent touring the US. Wilde's trip started as a lecture series scheduled to last four months, to coincide with the American premiere of the Gilbert and Sullivan show, Patience, which satirized effeminate men. It was meant to introduce America to the prototype in question, in the flesh, at a time when effeminacy was sorely lacking in the serious states.

Leadville, Colorado in 1904

Due to the popular success of Oscar Wilde's lecture series, his tour was extended to last a year and resulted in a hilarious essay documenting his uproarious travels. His tour took him around the wild west, where he not only amused but genuinely charmed his audiences. In Leadville, Colorado he saw what he said in the essay was (I'm paraphrasing) the greatest piece of art criticism he had ever come across. It was a sign on the piano in an old time saloon that read:


Monday, March 14, 2011

Twighlight Boosts Sympathy for Bronte's Wuthering Heights

You heard it hear first, though. Remember back in January when Acton discussed our book club's Cathy problemo?

"Interestingly, the first Twilight book makes allusions to Wuthering Heights, via the star-crossed lovers connection. But they have a lot else in common, namely the stamp of an adolescent love. Like the perpetually angry Kristin Stewart in the Twilight movies, Cathy is pretty unredeemably unlikeable. But she has the love of two admirers to her name, and so, in some audiences' eyes, she is enviable and de-facto redeemed. We of the jaded book club set were all rolling our eyes a little bit with a montage of images swimming in our brains"
-Acton, Livre Life
 "But no one has done more for Team Emily than Bella of the Twilight franchise. Her favorite novel is Wuthering Heights (she first reads it as a school assignment, and in the third book, Eclipse, she and Edward trade Cathy and Heathcliff quotes about, of course, undying love). When HarperCollins released a paperback of the book in the U.K. "endorsed" by Bella and Edward, sales quadrupled. “Wuthering Heights has always appealed more to teenagers,” says Cristina Lara, curator of the Bronte Blog, an exhaustive and very serious-minded compendium of all things Brontë. (Lara and her co-curator, Manuel Del Estal, decline to choose between the two books.) “It’s a rite-of-passage kind of novel.”
-Jenni Yarbroff of Book Beast discussing Wuthering Heights vs. Jane Eyre.
Most interesting from this passage is that Yarbroff raises a great point about changing perspective. Often the protagonists you empathize with as a teenager are very different from the protagonists you empathize with as an adult. My mother's book club, after re-reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, said that many of them had identified with Anna as a college student. At that point in their life, they could forgive Tolstoy's heroine for her impetuous, passionate nature, her apathy towards Alexei, her love for Vronsky. But as adults, they came to think of Anna as that character who heads towards the garage in a horror movie, wearing a mini skirt, and looking for one last can of beer. Okay, fine. So those weren't their exact words. But you get the idea. It's hard to watch Anna make a mess of her life for Vronsky, who aside from being handsome and exciting isn't, let's be honest, much else.

Are there any characters that have caused you to do a 180? 
We read Wuthering Heights recently. But it's definitely making me want to re-read Jane Eyre before I drag my boyfriend to see the movie.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sense of Self

The other evening my little sister Kira and I went to a cocktail party at MOMA for a new Andy Warhol installation. Attendees were invited to slip into a video booth and take their own Factory-esque Screen Tests. Almost all of the ST's were artsy types and in on the joke; they barely moved a muscle under the eyes of the video camera, which made their images legit, but honestly not all that interesting.

Their screen tests were then projected onto a big wall opposite for all the party goers to admire (read: judge). After a few minutes, we got bored and wandered upstairs to the permanent exhibits. Kira pointed out this hilarious caption on a Matisse painting:

"Matisse described the abstract zone at the right of this composition as containing "a person who has a palette in his hand and who is observing." Most likely it is the artist himself. The Surrealist poet Andre Breton said the painting, "I believe Matisse's genius is here...nowhere has Matisse put so much of himself as in this picture."*
Goldfish and Palette, Paris
Late November 1914-1915, oil on canvas

*Whichever museum intern is writing these things has absolutely got to step up his/her game. I mean, really.

Actually, I've been thinking a lot about authorial representation reading Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.  When a writer puts his or herself into a thought, it always makes the text burn particularly bright. Thus far, the strongest parts of Mrs. Dalloway have been these strikingly personal moments that feel as if they've been extracted from Mrs. Woolf's quotidien rituals. Here Peter Walsh talking about Clarissa (Mrs. Dalloway):

"There was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didnt mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination." P78, Mrs. Dalloway.

The idea that you were 'frittering away time' discussing high minded ideals or pop-culture trivialities must have weighed heavily on the Bloomsbury Group, because here's EM Forster talking about the very same thing in the context of Helen and Margaret Schlegl, who I think must have been modeled on Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, no?

"But London thwarted her; in its atmosphere she could not concentrate. London only stimulates, it cannot sustain; and Margaret, hurrying over its surface for a house wihtout knowing what sort of a house she wanted, was paying for many a thrilling sensation in the past. She could not break loose from culture, and her time was wasted by concerts which it would be a sin to miss, and invitations which it would never do to refuse. At last she grew desperate; she resolved that she would go nowhere and be at home to no one until she found a house, and broke the resolution in half an hour." P157, Howards End.

Equally wonderful and poignant is the description of Septimus's depression. Virginia Woolf suffered a nervous breakdown when she was just 13 after her mother died; she had another much worse attack after her father died, and there after lived in fear of having a repeat episode. There's evidence that right before she killed herself by walking into the Ose river in 1941 she had felt another attack coming on. Weirdly, Woolf is at her funniest here, describing the quack pyschologist that Septimus's clueless wife Rezia hires.

"Human nature, in short, was on him-the repulsive brute, with the blood red nostrils. Holmes was on him. Dr. Holmes came quite regularly every day. Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on the back of a postcard, human nature is on you. Holmes is on you. Their only chance was to escape, without letting Holmes know; to Italy-anywhere, anywhere, away from from Dr. Holmes.
But Rezia could not understand him. Dr. Holmes was such a kind man. He was so interested in Septimus. He only wanted to help them, he said. He had four little children and he had asked her to tea, she told Septimus. So he was deserted. The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he kill himself for their sakes? " p92.

Remind you of another famous author who writes about suicide in a true and funny voice? Click here for the link.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Marginalia by Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."


Marginalia has been in the news of late. Recently, GalleyCat published a post on the release of Other People's Books, a collection of essays on marginalia, compiled by the Caxton Club that's to be release this spring. The Morgan Library is winding down a stunning exhibit that puts the research material and early drafts of Mark Twain on display. And the Ransom Center devotes a good portion of their archives to contemporary authors libraries. They have 300 volumes from David Foster Wallace's archives alone. It's a fascinating collection of 'handwritten comments, lists of words he found interesting, doodles, smiley faces, and underlining." It was far and away the most exciting part of our visit there.

Above are a few of the volumes from the DFW library at the Ransom Center. Annotating books is such a personal process (it's one of the reasons I'm not such a fan of lending or borrowing reads); it was thrilling getting to see the notations taken by a truly great fiction writer. And also to see them in the greater context as part of the author's creative process.

Annotated Copy of Underworld by Don DeLillo: "David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo corresponded frequently about their writing and their struggles when they were both working on complex and lenghty novels. DeLillo's Underworld (1997) and Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996). They also shared pre-published drafts of the novels with each other. Displayed here is one fo the three bound voumes of Wallace's heavily annotated copy of Don DeLillo's draft of Underworld. 
"David Foster Wallace's library includes a number of books he used for research related to his writings. He read this text while preparing for his posthumously published novel, The Pale King (April 2011), which centers on characters who work at the IRS."

I normally underline and take notes as I read. But I liked DFW's use of an index. It's nice to have a master list at the beginning to organize themes/motifs. My, inspired, copy of our book club read, Howard's End, is below.

 At the top are words I had to look up as I read
Adumbrated-To Conceal
Lucent- To produce a faint image of
Super Annuate- Retire someone with a pension
(Obviously, not something DFW would have had use for being essentially, as far as I can tell, a human dictionary)

The T's next to the page numbers are all those capital t truths that I mentioned in our earlier post. Tiny daily observations that make Howard's End, despite an overwraught plot, so great. My boyfriend was telling me that the very same eye for detail is often credited to Nicholson Baker. Baker in his books has been known to leave plot out all together, opting to relay the super-mundane in a super-mundane format, as in A Box of Matches, which follows one man's thought process as he throws matches into a dying fire. I'd love to have seen EM Forster try something as daring.