Harriet Doerr’s Consider This, Señora

Harriet Doerr’s second novel, (following her 1984 National Book Award-winning The Stones of Ibarrra, Consider This, Señor, (1993), is also focused on expatriate American characters experiencing life in rural Mexico. Sue Ames, a recently divorced painter, and Bud Loomis, a real estate developed who has fled tax liabilities in Arizona, but the remnants of a hacienda, including the ruins of a mansion. Both plan to build houses for themselves and to finance their houses by selling other lots. (They give the lot with the ruins to the still influential scion of the family that once, before the revolution, ran everything farther than the eye could see.)

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Sue enjoys the vistas and builds a comfortable house. Bud has had to transfer his raison d’être from accumulating dollars to accumulating pesos, but remains dedicated to the pursuit of quick profits, and builds a boxy “functional” house.

While observing a fiesta, Sue meets another American divorcée, Frances Bowles, who gathers local color professionally (for guidebooks). Frances is enamored (and loudly banging) Paco. She decides that she will build a house for herself and another for her widowed 79-year-old mother Ursula next to Sue’s and makes it her base. “When Fran told her mother about Paco, Ursula almost believed she had already met and been charmed by him. He was the third excessively charming man her daughter had loved” and Ursula has forebodings he will slip away as his predecessors did.

The novel switches from expatriate American to expatriate American, with Ursula and Bud having the most extensive dealings with the locals, particularly the priest, the faded aristocratic lawyer, and the girls who work in their houses. Fran is preoccupied with the elusive Paco, and Sue largely fades out of view through the middle of the novel, but plays a central role in the end. The book is considerably more “about” the relationships that develop between expatriate American and Mexican characters than those between the four expatriate Americans living fairly close together above the town. Doerr does not condescend to/about the Mexican characters in the manner of the greatest Anglophone expatriate in Mexico novel, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano or trowel on mystic projections as D. H. Lawrence did in The Plumed Serpent. The alternation between puzzlement and bemusement the Mexican characters have for the strange behavior of the foreigners who have set up lives in their neighborhood ring true to me. The octogenarian novelist was not sentimental about the characters she created, but was affectionate toward them (even Bud).

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The book is not as searing as the title story from The Tiger in the Grass, but is a sure-footed exploration of lives that intersect more than they connect. Doerr’s ear for different ways of speaking was as keen as her eye for telling detail of landscape, architecture, or raiment. For me, she provides the image of an ideal mother maintaining an interior life of her own through and beyond a lengthy marriage. I realize this is an particular projection of my own, but I can’t imagine anyone reading her work not agreeing that she wrote with lucidity and concision. (I especially enjoy how the very last line is set up!)

 

©2003, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Harriet Doerr’s The Tiger in the Grass

I seem especially to like work by writers who began serious writing in their mid-60s, that is, after reaching what traditionally was “retirement age.” It’s not that I identify with those who were silent until then, honing their memories. Some of it may be the burnished, lucid prose they tend to write. The best single example is Norman MacLean who was in his 70s when A River Runs Through It seemed to burst out of nowhere. (He followed it with burrowing into the firefighter disaster in Young Men and Fire.) The writer who produced a stream of novels about pasts not her own as well as her own past was Penelope Fitzgerald.. The Tiger in the Grass is more akin to the gleanings into a very slender volume of short stories of Fitzgerald’s last book The Means of Escape.

Harriet Doerr (née Harriet Green Huntington: yes, those Huntingtons: her paternal grandfather’s estate is now the Huntington Library and Gardens, though she does not mention that) left her studies at Stanford University to marry in 1930, and accompanied her husband to Mexico, where they moved to live fulltime during the 1950s. After his death, she returned to complete her degree. Forty-plus years older than other creative writing students, her work silenced any questions about her place in the (highly competitive) program. I suspect that she also silenced the young woman who asked if she had been happy throughout the forty-two years of her marriage: “I never heard of anyone being happy for forty-two years. And would a person who was happy for forty-two years write a book?”

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Her first novel, The Stones of Ibarra published when she was 84, was a best-seller, won the National Book Award, and was adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame production. Stones is more a collection of stories based on her experiences with her husband who ran a mine in Mexico than a novel, but Cosider This, Seora, her second book, is novelistic in structure, interweaving the stories of four American expatriated to rural Mexico.

The central collection of fragments of fictionalized memoir, or bits not included in from the autobiographical fiction of The Stones of Ibarra, A Tiger in the Grass, have the lyrical but unsentimental recalling of sights, sounds, smells, and characters of her Mexican life — I mean of Sara Everton’s… These most directly repeat the magic of her earlier books.

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Despite my interest in (and experience of) Mexico, it is the two longer pieces that begin and end the book that make me shiver in admiration. (Knocking readers out was not her intention. She may make readers cry, but her narrators can convey heartbreaking details without seeming to flinch, let alone cry. Like “Big, two-hearted river.”)

The title story (or essay) juxtaposes Doerr’s experiences of growing up in Pasadena , going to Smith College for a year, then to Stanford, meeting her future husband, an engineering student, going to Mexico, returning to Stanford and hesitatingly starting to write juxtaposed with shards of a son Michael’s experience with cancer. The concluding story is a memoir (or in the form of a memoir) of a nanny who came from England to raise twins whose birth caused their mother’s death and two older daughters. Edie stayed on in California, relatively neglected by those she raised until on her deathbed.

In choosing precise details that establish character in these two nonfiction summaries of long lives, Doerr shares Penelope Fitzgerald’s strength. This is also the case for a story (seemingly written in the Stanford creative writing program) that seems the least autobiographically based, “The extinguishing of Great Aunt Alice.” It is the most comic piece in the volume, though the comedy is quite dark.

My favorite pair of the six Mexican pieces, “Way stations” and “The watchman at the gate” also have slivers of dark humor and, like “Aunt Alive” are more plot-driven than the rest of the contents of the book. There is a lot of pain and loss , a lot of death and cancer, in the book, but the tone is not bleak. There is no self-pity. Doerr exults experiences from her long life (she was 85 when the book was published in 1995; she died last year; glaucoma prevented her maintaining her sentence-a-day pace after the death, also in 1995, of the son for whom she wrote), precisely detailed memories of sleeves of rain, low tide on a long-ago summer day, the walls of the sleeping porch in her childhood home, etc.)

Although there is not really enough material to fill even a small-sized book, the best parts are so luminous that it would be a shame not to have them gathered together. The first two pieces of the section “First Work” and the wispy first two pieces of “Memory” strike me as padding (the reason my overall rating is four stars, but the pieces I’ve mentioned definitely rate with five stars). However, the title (nonfiction) story delivers more than most long novels do, without telling the reader what to think or what to feel. “Edie,” the last tale would, I think, have satisfied Flaubert and is less sentimental than his “A Simple Heart.”

Doerr did not write sentimentally about any of the deaths of those she remembered. I began reading the book the night before my mother’s funeral and it helped me focus away from the deathbed at which I had been sitting, helpless, to the memories of my mother’s childhood that I elicited a few years before her death (also at 92). From admiration for Stones of Ibarra, which I read at a less fraught time, I’m confident that the best parts of The Tiger in the Grass would have impressed me at any time, but it is an especially good book for those on or just coming off death vigils.

 

©2003,2018, Steohen O. Murray

OI’ll get back to northern Slavs soon!)

Rating violin concerti

I am puzzled that the composers of the two great Romantic era cello concerti (Dvorak and Elgar) wrote such mediocre violin concerti. Having to move all of my (many!) CDs, I listened to all the recordings I have of violin concerti. I am not going to explain my tastes or rationalize them, just provide my ranking:

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Top tier (in order of my favor)

Sibelius

Prokofiev 1, 2

Beethoven

Brahms

Tchaikovsky

Mendelsohn E minor

Bach double concerto, A minor, E

Barber

 

Second tier (alphabetical order)

Bartók 2

Bernstein Serenade

Bloch – Baal Shem

Bruch 1, Scottish Fantasy

Lalo- 2 – Symphonie Espagnole

Mozart 3

Paganini 1

Shostakovich 1

Stravinsky

Szymanowski 1

 

Third tier

Berg

Bruch 2, 3

Britten

Bartók 1

Corigliano – Red Violin Suite

Philip Glass

Glazunov

Goldmark

Haydn C, A, G

Hindemith

Janacek

Khataturian

Korngold

Lutoslawski partita

Mozart 1-2, 4-5

Ryu

Shostakovich 2

Szymanowski 2

Vaughan Williams – Lark Ascending

 

Fourth tier

John Adams

Dvorak

Elgar

Ligeti

Lutoslawski Chain 2

Mendelsohn D minoe

Nielsen

Penderecki 2

Piston 1,2

Schoenberg

William Schuman

Shostakovich 2

Spohr 8

Martinú 1,2

 

Fifth tier

Penderecki 1

Reger

 

 

Writers most important to me, then and now

Then

Long, long ago, when I was finishing high school the (then-) living writers who were important to me, whose new work I’d seek out were

 

John Cheever (Falconer)

Vladimir Nabokov (Invitation to a Beheading)

Katherine Anne Porter (Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Noon Wine)

Philip Roth (Goodbye Columbus)

Jean-Paul Sartre (The Flies)

Mishima Yukio (After the Banquet)

Gore Vidal (Burrr)

Pär Lagerkvist (The Death of Ahasuerus)

Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange)

John O’Hara (Pal Joey)

Walker Percy (The Moviegoer)

 

The last three are mostly forgotten (by others) now, but not IMO reprehensible choices. Only one of those on this list  is still living, and he is retired.

 

I made another list in 2000 with the now-dead Penelope Fitzgerald, Michel Tournier, Muriel Spark, Mary Lee Settle, plus the still living (in 2018) Matthew Stadler, Hanif Kureishi,   Alan Hollinghurst, and Mark Salzman, and some writers who are also on my current list.

Now

Michael Ondatjee (Coming Through Slaughter)

Edmund White (Nocturnes for the King of Naples)

Andrew Sean Greer (Less)

Peter Cameron (The City of Your Final Destination)

Josip Novakovich (April Fool’s Day)

Louise Erdrich (The Master Butcher’s Singing Club)

Joan Silber (Fools)

Elizabeth Spencer (The Salt Line)

Chang-Rae Lee (Native Speaker)

Alan Gurganus (Adult Art)

Rabih Almeddine (KoolAIDS)

André Aciman (Call Me by Your Name)

“Venus in Furs,” the movie

The 2010 play by David Ives, “Venus in Furs,” set in New York City, is about auditioning an actress for an adaptation of the 1870 Austrian novella Venus im Pelz (Venus in Furs) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to “masochism.” I think of “masochjism” (and “sadomasochism”) being about pain, but pain is less central than submission/abjection, at least in the 2013 movie in French and set in Paris based on the play that was made by 80-year-old Roman Polanski and starring the film-maker’s wife Emmanuelle Sweigner (The Ninth Gate) as the actress who says her name is Wanda, like the woman (Wanda von Dunayev) recruited by Masoch’s stand-in character, Severin von Kusiemski, to dominate him.

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The actress probes how autobiographical adapting the novella was for the writer who is directing his play, Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric). After getting him to read the part of Severin von Kusiemski with her after auditions are supposed to be over, she unleashes the fetishist and would-be slave in him, and eventually, when the play’s Wanda wants to be dominated, gets him into high heels and ties him up.

Throughout the reading, Wanda (the actress) criticizes the sexism of the conception and writing, while Thomas sometimes faults her renditions of his lines, though generally marveling at her understanding of the character and the dynamic of Mascoch’s story.

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When Polanski announced he would film Ives’s play, the part of the director was supposed to be played by Louis Garrel. IMHO Garrel is too kinky for the part. I though Amalric was superb (as he often is, e.g., in “A Christmas Tale” from 2008), and he has a great voice. Plus he looks more than a little like a younger Roman Polanski (say around the time he starred in “The Tenant”[1976]) while playing a narcissistic director.

The early comedy with the seemingly needy actress gives way to the uncomic needy male, and the end seems rushed to me. None of the other characters, who include three African women and a Greek aristocrat, appear in the movie, which has only the two characters onscreen. I thought Polanslki’s immediately preceding movie, “Carnage” (2011), was funnier, and another adaptation of a play, “Death and the Maiden” (1994), more consequential. Power dynamics and paranoia are certainly Polanlski hallmarks (Cul de Sac, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown, The Tenant, The Ghost Writer, etc.)

 

©2014, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

A well-crafted, conventional paranoid thriller from Roman Polanski

“Ghost Writer” (2010) does not have the resonances with l’affaire Polanski that “Tess” (or “The Pianist”) did, beyond having a man on the run (as Polanski was as a child whom the Nazis would have exterminated had they caught him, and fleeing the imminent reneging of a plea bargain in LA).

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It is awhile into the movie that the titular ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) turns into a sort of action hero evading spooks following him after he starts more than suspecting that his predecessor was murdered. That is only the tip of the iceberg. Pretty much every “paranoid thriller” shows that the seeming paranoia is justified, that is, that there is a real conspiracy. (The only sort-of exception to the rule I can think of is Coppola’s “The Conversation” in which Gene Hackman seems to have gone from suspicious to paranoid.)

The Ghost is taken to a high-security High Modernist beach house on or just off Cape Cod. A lengthy manuscript exists, both the flash drive and the printout are secured in a safe tied to alarms that shut down the house. The Ghost thinks the manuscript too dry and sets out to make it more interesting.

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Initially, he meets the chief of staff, played with restraint by Kim Catrall, but soon the ex-Prime Minister, Andrew Lang (Pierce Brosnan) shows up. The tension between his executive assistant and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), who seems the brains of the family with the keenest political instincts, is soon supplemented by moves to indict him for war crimes (authorizing torture) in the international tribunal at the Hague. Being on American soil, he is safe from extradition, since the US only urges prosecution of crimes against humanity and conducted ones after the defeat of Germany and Japan, but maintains impunity because American intentions are always good (by definition).

The Tony Blair figure also needs to be on American soil so that the ghost can drive to the house of a senior Harvard professor of foreign relations (Tom Wilkinson), and so that the British ambassador to the UN, appointed by Lang and a long-time associate of Lang’s, can get to him. There are some red herrings and —what is the opposite, a green herring? And the obligatory Ewan McGregor nude scene (not full-frontal this time) and bedding one or more of Lang’s women (the suspense is which one or whether he will bed them both). And a corporate jet from a company called Hatherton (clearly meant to resonate with a company headed by Dick Cheney of which he did not divest his holdings until long into the war in Iraq he urged and Tony Blair joined).

There is no discussion between Lang and his ghostwriter of the decision to invade Iraq. For that matter, I don’t recall the ghost asking the ex-PM if he authorized torture.

The ghost does have a very ominous, Hitchcockian conversation with an old man down the beach (played by nanagenerian Eli Wallach).

The three very interesting DVD bonus features each give away practically everything about the plot and at least two of them remark that the ending was not scripted.

Having begun (more or less) with the subject of craftsmanship, I will end by lauding the craft of the movie: not just the direction and the acting by a superb cast, but the cinematography of Pawel Edelman (Ray, The Pianist, Katyn), and the incongruous music provided by Alexandre Desplat (Julie & Julia, Fantastic Mr. Fox). The adaptation by Robert Harris (Enigma, Archangel) of his own novel or the novel itself is the weakest link.

©2010, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Polanski invades late-19th-century Wessex

I have not read a single Thomas Hardy novel. I probably read a few of his poems in my senior year of high school. If so, they left no lasting impression on me. Hardy’s 1892 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented was his biggest financial success during his lifetime and is his bestselling title on Amazon (both Kindle and paper), ahead of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

My reading of 19th-century fiction is generally spotty, but it’s a bit surprising to me that I did not see Roman Polanski’s 1979 film adaptation, titled simply “Tess” (having been born in Paris and living there then and now, I’d guess that Polanski balked at the redundancy of “of the d’”). I remember being puzzled but not dismayed by his previous film “The Tenant” (in which he played the title role) and I loved John Schleisinger’s 1967 adaptation of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd with a luminous Julie Christie and a dashing cad played in scarlet uniform by Terrence Stamp.

Though I try not to watch movies through the lens of the biographies of their makers, this is as difficult in the case of “Tess” as it was in the case of “The Pianist.” If there is anyone who does not know: Polanski survived as a fugitive from Nazi extermination, as his mother did not, and pled guilty to statutory rape in California and fled the country on the eve of a judge (who had been guilty of multiple instances of misconduct in the case—according to the prosecutor, not just the defense lawyer) reneging on the plea bargain. Polanski remains a fugitive from justice (and/or the California judicial system).

The history of being a fugitive is not lacking with echoes in Tess fleeing calumny, but the aspect that was impossible to wall off while I was watching the movie was that the naïve young title character, Tess Durbeyfield, (played by a 17- or 18-year-old Nastassja Kinski, who was sexually involved with Polanski before that) is raped by and impregnated by her “cousin” Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson). This disgrace leads her future husband (Peter Firth) to abandon her when he learns of it (on the wedding night), blocks the love of the lives of both Tess and her husband, and leads to murder and hanging.

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Polanski was telling the tragic story of a young woman, The rapist (“statutory” and more, just like Polanski himself) is worldly and more than a little arrogant in taking his pleasure. Can Polanski have failed to see parallels and been attempting to make amends of sorts through his art?

Real-life interference is even stronger in that Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, had recommended he consider directing her in the title role of an adaptation of the book shortly before she was murdered (pregnant with Polanski’s child) in the Manson massacre. The movie is dedicated “To Sharon,” and its star (daughter of German mandman actor Klaus Kinski) had taken her place both in the director’s bed and in playing Tess, “a victim of her own provocative beauty,” to borrow from advertising copy, which also included the provocative “She was born into a world where they called it seduction, not rape.” Whew! And there is the class difference (the rich preying on the young if not invariably innocent less well-off) not only in Tess and Alec, Roman and the 13-year-old, and in the movie in which Polanski directed Tate, “The Fearless Vampire Killer”

Swinging back to the very beginning of the movie and explaining the “scare quotes” around “cousin” above, Tess’s drunkard father John Durbeyfield (John Collin) learns in the first scene that he is descended from the Norman lords d’Urberville, some of whom are entombed in the local church. The local historian remarks on how the might have fallen, but his telling John about his research gives John and his wife (Rosemary Martin) delusions of grandeur. (I’m pretty sure that, like Zola, Hardy himself was influenced by widespread ideas of that era about degeneration. Both portrayed inexorable grinding down of the innocent by the rich and the sociocultural system of condemning female sexuality that often involves blaming the victim.)

Having learned that “Durbeyfield” is a corruption (Anglicization?) of “d’Urberville,” the suddenly haughty parents send Tess off to call on the resident d’Urberville. Alec is not, in fact, kin, having bought the coat of arms and name.

Though having intimated a lot about the plot, I will not discuss the romances and degradations that follow the rape/seduction. I think that the leads (Kinski, Firth, Lawson) are all impressive and look their Victorian parts.

Not having read the novel, I don’t know what was pruned, but from my limited experience with novels from that era, I have no doubt that there was much that could have been. From the movie, some of the lingering beautiful countryside shots could have been excised with no loss. The story does not need 172 minutes to tell!

The story is quite clear, and the locations, mostly in Brittany plus some in Normandy, look right. (In a bonus feature someone explains that they could not find locations in Somerset that looked like late-19th-century Somerset, but could in Brittany.) I found the vintage farm machinery (from the dawn of mechanized agriculture) fascinating to watch, too.

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The movie won Oscars for costume design, art direction/set decoration, and cinematography (Ghislain Cloquet [Au hasard Balthazar] shot most of the movie after Geoffrey Unsworth [Becket, Cabaret, 2001] died). It was nominated for its music score, direction, and as best picture, as well. It also received Cesars for picture, direction, and cinematography, but lost to the quite superb production design of Ariane Mnouchkine’s “Molière”).

The DVD bonus features raise my 3.5 (of 5) rating of the movie to 4 stars. The tripartite “making of” feature runs a total of 70 minutes and includes insightful discussions from Kinski, Polanski, dialogue-writer John Brownjohn (who lived only a few yards from the pub that John Durbeyfied frequented, though that is not why he was hired), and Claude Berri, who produced “Tess” and directed an even better movie about rural grinding down of an innocent “Jean de Florette” (and its sequel in which “Manon of the Springs” prevails, which is very un-Hardy-like).

©2010, 2018, Stephen O. Murray