Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Roman Polanski: Tess (1980)

I posted all those Thomas Hardy reviews so I could write this.

I've seen enough of Polanski's films now that I'm starting to feel justified in having an opinion of him. Trouble is, I can't formulate one. So far I'm wildly divided on him. It seems that for every Chinatown there's a Vampire Killers. For every Repulsion...a Tess.

I've read good reviews of this, but I don't see it. Or rather, I guess I see it: cinematography is this film's almost-saving grace. But it's a lousy drama.

The images. I truly love some of them. Okay, try to forget that this most England-focused of Hardy's novels is being filmed in France (and even if you're not aware of this, you guess it within about three frames). The countryside is shot with a luminous, luxurious style that makes you feel you're stepping into a Millet painting. Some (not all) of the interiors partake of this glow. There's a scene where the milkmaids are looking out at Angel Clare through a window in the early morning that's just golden.

But. As drama, this film doesn't do it for me. We never really get inside the characters; we're watching them, admiring their costumes and the framing, and their personal beauty. It's a surprisingly faithful, almost literal, adaptation, and yet almost all information about characters' motives is left out. Nastassja Kinski is a lot of the problem: beautiful, but so plainly not English, and so sexy, that you never for a moment buy her as Tess. Tess ends up looking life a waif in an erotic haze, rather than a flesh-and-blood girl in a well-thought-out social drama.

Sometimes an artist will live up to his stereotype, and it's annoying. Tess feels like it was made by a coked-up, oversexed European director who's confident no one reads Thomas Hardy anymore.

Thomas Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd

Last one:

The last of my projected Hardy readings, although I liked them all so much that I believe I’ll return to him someday.

The novel follows the fortunes of Bathsheba Everdene, who, after we first meet her as a poor relation of a well-to-do farmer, suddenly inherits the farm and vows to run it herself. For she’s single. When I say the novel follows her fortunes, I mean it essentially follows the course of her loves—it’s interested in her as a woman trying to make a go of independent farming, and Hardy is modern enough not to doubt that she’s smart enough and wilful enough to learn how to do it. What eventually breaks her from it is not the hardness of the task, but her romantic entanglements.

She has three suitors, who kind of move in and out of the story in a chiasmic fashion. First there’s Gabriel Oak, who’s a newly-established independent farmer when she meets him. Therefore he’s above her in station. She happens to save his life, though, one night in the sheep-pastures, and he falls in love with her. She won’t have him—doesn’t love him, and doesn’t intend to marry. Then she disappears—she was only in the town temporarily, visiting an aunt. Then he’s ruined through an accident that kills his flock. He’s forced to become an itinerant laborer.

Wandering the countryside on hiring-day, he eventually makes himself useful by putting out a fire in some haystacks, and is hired by the farmer—who turns out to be Bathsheba, newly come into her fortune. She hires him strictly as a shepherd, and treats him as one of the hired men only.

The second suitor is a neighboring farmer named Boldwood. He’s the only man of her station in the neighborhood who doesn’t gawk at her beauty, and in a moment of mischief she sends him a valentine. Anonymously, but he soon learns who sent it, and it explodes his world. He’s never before thought of marrying—never looked at a woman twice—and now all the pent-up passion of an entire lifetime (he’s considerably older than her) comes rushing out. She’s scared—she only meant it as a prank, and puts him off as long as she can. Finally he pressures her to consider marrying him, and to give him an answer by a certain date.

Unfortunately, in the meantime she meets Sergeant Troy, her third suitor. He’s a local boy of some education (meaning barely acceptable social station) who’s unfortunately kind of an adventurer. He made promises to one of Bathsheba’s servants, Fanny, then deserted her—something known only to Oak and Boldwood—and now he comes back to town and strikes up a whirlwind romance with Bathsheba. He’s a dashing soldier, she’s a beautiful heiress, and he sweeps her off her feet. (There’s a wonderfully sensual scene where he dazzles her with a display of swordsmanship, his blade always stopping just short of hitting her.)

Boldwood is driven nearly mad by his defeat at the hands of this well-known cad, and threatens to kill him. Bathsheba rushes off to Bath, where Troy has gone with his regiment, to warn him, and comes back married to him.

Unfortunately, she soon realizes what a cad Troy is, and the crisis comes when Fanny, who had disappeared, comes back—with a baby. She and the baby promptly die, and it’s only then that Troy realizes it was Fanny he truly loved, and that Bathsheba realizes that Troy had fathered a baby before meeting her, and never told her. Troy leaves, and goes swimming in the sea, and disappears. It’s thought he’s drowned, and soon Boldwood is after her again.

Again he pressures her to give her an answer by a certain time—Christmas Eve. He throws a party, but then Troy shows up at it, having decided that sponging off his legal wife, even if he doesn’t really love her, is better than living hand-to-mouth like he has been. Boldwood is driven over the edge by this, and shoots Troy. Boldwood then turns himself in, and is imprisoned for life.

This leaves Oak, who gets the girl in the end. All this time, he’s loved her hopelessly, and utterly selflessly—trying to get her to do right by Boldwood, and not get entangled with Troy, and meanwhile going far beyond his duties as shepherd to make sure her farm prospers. In the end, she realizes that his is true friendship and loyalty—he loves her in spite of having seen all her bad qualities, and has time and again put her own interests above his own. They marry.

What a difference a couple of decades seems to have made for Hardy’s outlook. While this, like the other books of his I’ve read, contains the same cynical asides about marriage, religion, and life in general, they’re fewer than in his later books, and balanced by a genuine optimism about the possibility of love and happiness—it’s rare, but real—that gets dimmer and dimmer as time goes by. The writing, too, seems younger—more passages of celebratory nature poetry, some quite transporting.

Oak is a picture of male constancy to go with Tess’s female constancy—and Hardy knows that because society is what it is, Oak doesn’t have to die a martyr. In that sense he sacrifices less, and maybe even suffers less, but he’s a touching figure nonetheless. Something of the mythical about him, I think, rather like the heroine of Persuasion—his constancy and selflessness are maybe too much to be believed, although they’re certainly not a problem for the enjoyment of the novel. But compare him to Jude, who’s just as constant to Sue, but only after a youthful indiscretion of his own. Oak is purer (as his allegorical name implies: he’s sturdiness itself).

Bathsheba, meanwhile, is an interesting character. I don’t think Hardy is punishing her for daring to be an independent woman farmer. In fact, her flaws show up before her fortune does: a little haughtiness, which money turns into that fatal moment of mischievousness. She’s awful slow in recognizing that Oak is the best man she knows, but throughout she’s quite insistent that she doesn’t want to marry for anything less than love. In that she’s like Eustacia in Return of the Native, but except for her one moment of youthful playfulness, she’s not fickle like Eustacia. She’s not really a romantic—or at least, if she is, she’s one without many illusions. She only wants to marry for love, but doesn’t think that’s liable to happen, and so is perfectly content to live without marriage, as much work as that may mean.

That her desire for love leads her to disaster—for she really does love Troy, in spite of his flaws—may simply be Hardy’s way of contrasting varieties of love. Bathsheba suffers for a blind, romantic love, but in the end she finds happiness, too, we’re told, in a love that, because it’s made of different stuff, will endure and satisfy much more than the other kind. So in the end she gets what she was holding out for—a marriage founded in love.

That’s the most optimistic ending I’ve seen in any of Hardy’s novels I’ve read.

Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Native

Again from the vault. Somehow I decided to read Hardy backward:

Working backward through Hardy’s five acknowledged classics we come to this.

It mainly involves Clym Yeobright and his cousin Thomasine. As the novel opens, Thomasine is returning to Egdon Heath, the setting of the novel, after a failed attempt to marry her sweetheart Wildeve at Budmouth. Wildeve, it turns out, has been toying with her—he actually loves Eustacia Vye, another resident of the Heath.

Wildeve, Eustacia (who lives with her grandfather, an ex-naval captain, supposedly), and the Yeobrights are the only gentlefolk on the Heath, and therefore the only fit society for each other. Eustacia is half Greek, and is presented as a sort of tempestuous goddesss, wildly beautiful, and ambitious to get out of Egdon and into the sort of glamorous, exciting life for which she feels she’s destined; she feels that a truly transporting love is the way it’ll happen. She sort of loves Wildeve, who’s a failed engineer now running an inn; but their love for each other is half play, half mutual dare—as soon as one proves devoted to the other, the other loses interest. They’re both, in short, jaded and insincere people. Hardy tries to give Eustacia tragic dignity and mythic resonance, however, while Wildeve is just a bounder.

Anyway, Thomasine and Wildeve were set to marry, but a misunderstanding about the license prevented it; this brings them back to Egdon unmarried, with Thomasine in a social disgrace that will only be taken away by Wildeve marrying her. But now that he’s back near Eustacia he’s not so sure he wants to. He keeps meeting Eustacia on the sly, and they talk about running away to America together; but now that Eustacia seemingly has Wildeve where she wants him, she again seems to lose interest in him, and puts him off.

Then Thomasine’s cousin Clym comes back to the Heath. He’s been away for years, working in Paris as the manager of a diamond merchant’s establishment. This gives him a suitably glamorous air in the eyes of Eustacia, who quickly maneuvers to get to know him. He protests that he has no plans to return to Paris, but rather wants to set up back on the Heath as a schoolmaster or some such thing—he has vague idealistic notions of educating the commoners in such a way as to lift them from their superstition.

He’s quite open and honest about this with Eustacia, but she persists in believing that if she marries him, he’ll whisk her off to Paris. They marry, and he whisks her off to a cottage on the other side of the Heath. In retaliation, sort of, Wildeve finally marries Thomasine. Both couples are thus set up for unhappiness, and it comes. Clym’s eyes go bad—not total blindness, but enough to prevent him from studying, which thwarts his plans to set up as an educator. To prevent himself from being idle, as well as to keep their capital somewhat intact, he starts working as a furze-cutter on the heath. He’s perfectly happy doing this, but Eustacia is mortified, and this drives her into thinking about Wildeve again.

The other complication involves Clym’s widowed mother, who was against Thomasine’s marriage to Wildeve (until it became necessary to save her from shame) and Clym’s to Eustacia; she and Clym are estranged because of it. At length, though, he wants to be reconciled, and so does she; Eustacia won’t speak to the old woman, though, because she’s annoyed that Mrs. Y never trusted her. One day Mrs Y comes to visit, to be reconciled; Clym’s asleep on the sofa, and Eustacia and Wildeve are there, sort of trysting. They run out the back door, nobody lets Mrs Y in, and she turns back to cross the heath. It’s a hot day, and she collapses from heat stroke, is bitten by an asp, and dies, muttering that her son has deserted her.

Eventually Clym learns that Eustacia intentionally didn’t let his mother in, and thus inadvertently caused her death, before they could be reconciled. They fight, and separate. Wildeve seizes on the chance to convince Eustacia to run away with him, but she’s so mortified by the bad name this will leave behind that, on the rainy night they’re about to depart, she drowns herself. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe—all we know is she falls in a pool; Wildeve jumps in to rescue her and drowns; Clym jumps in and is just saved.

Thus the wicked illicit almost-lovers (they didn’t actually do anything while married, only talked about it) die, and the cousins are left alive and grieving. Clym blames himself both for his mother’s death and Eustacia’s—he was on the verge of forgiving her, too, when she died, and he eventually becomes a solitary itinerant preacher, sadder but wiser.

Thomasine remarries, to the other major character I haven’t mentioned yet, Diggory Venn. He’s not quite a gentleman, but was the son of a local wealthy farmer—just one step below the Yeobrights on the social scale. He’s always loved her, and when she rejected him (before the novel begins) he took up the trade of a reddleman, a wandering peddler of red sheep-dip, carrying which turns him, his clothing, and his van a devilish shade of red. He appears at the very beginning of the novel, having run into Thomasine as she flees Budmouth in disgrace; he carries her home in his van, and then sticks around, coming and going mysteriously and always intervening for her protection. He frustrates Wildeve’s attempts to tryst with Eustacia after they’re both married, for example, and he helps pull Clym out when he’s about to drown. He’s a great character—sort of a Robin Hood vigilante type. He cares nothing for his social disgrace in becoming a reddleman (the redness makes the rest of society treat him like a pariah, and as an occupation it’s considered quite undesirable), and is quite willing to help Thomasine be happy with Wildeve, if she won’t have him. Supposedly Hardy was originally not planning to give Venn and Thomasine a happy ending together, but bowed to commercial pressures; I’m glad he did, though, as their happiness provides a nice contrast with Clym’s sorrow.

Thematically it’s trying to create in Eustacia a sort of classical mythical heroine, but she’s too dislikable to really admire in any mythical way. She’s just consistently selfish and small-minded. She and Wildeve really deserve each other. …There’s lots of myth stuff, though—as in Casterbridge the land itself, with all its Roman and pre-Roman ruins, its pagan nature-worship aptitudes, becomes a character, and colors all. The fact that Clym ends by becoming a preacher—a Christ-figure preaching on a mount—might be intended to suggest the end of the pre-Christian phase of this world, but that only serves to underscore how long its pagan rhythms survived, in Hardy’s mind.

Not quite as affecting as the others—I really think he got better as he went along—but quite good. And its prose is more poetic than the others—very flowery, but often quite striking for that.

Thomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge

Again from the vault:

I must have been a total loser to hate this novel so much when I was sixteen. Illiterate, really. I mean, I just wasn’t smart enough yet to understand the language he was writing in, much less care about the concerns he’s dealing with.

Michael Henchard, a hay-trusser, gets drunk and sells his wife and baby daughter to a sailor. He then sobers up and tries to find them, but fails. He takes a vow not to drink for as many years as he is old (21), and then moves on. Zip forward about twenty years, and he’s now a prosperous corn (grain) merchant and mayor in the town of Casterbridge. His sold wife, Susan, and her daughter Elizabeth-Jane come to town looking for him, because the sailor, Newson, is reported dead at sea, and they have no place else to turn. Henchard marries Susan, both of them pretending it’s their first marriage so as not to let the town or EJ know the truth of their pasts.

Meanwhile, at the same time they come to town, a young Scot named Farfrae comes to town. He’s smart and knows the corn business, and immediately impresses Henchard so much that he hires Farfrae as his manager. Farfrae is so modern and charming, however, that he soon outstrips his boss in popularity—everyone believes he knows what he’s doing more than Henchard. Henchard fires him, and Farfrae sets up on his own in the same business. Henchard tries to crush him, but goes bankrupt himself. He loses everything: Farfrae buys him out, buys his house, and becomes mayor.

Meanwhile, Susan has died, and Henchard has found out from a letter she wrote on her deathbed that EJ is not his child—his child died, and EJ’s father is Newson. This turns Henchard against EJ, but he still doesn’t tell her the truth—he’s only just convinced her to accept him as her true father. Meanwhile meanwhile, a woman named Lucetta comes to town. This is a woman who Henchard had an affair with a while back, and who he had promised to marry just before Susan came back. Susan’s return meant he had to jilt Lucetta, but Susan’s death means she can make him keep his promise, which is why she’s moved to town. In the meantime, she has inherited money, which makes her charming to the single Farfrae, who had previously hinted at an interest in EJ. EJ is so alienated by Henchard’s new coldness to her that she befriends Lucetta and moves in with her; Henchard now actually wants to marry Lucetta, but she’s putting him off now, because she’s falling in love with Farfrae. Lucetta and Farfrae marry, with Farfrae ignorant of the scandal in her past. EJ accepts her personal setback with philosophy.

Henchard does not—he feels everything has been taken from him. The years of his vow over, he takes to drinking; he also has to beg a job of Farfrae to support himself, but he can’t bear the shame long, and finally he tries to fight Farfrae to the death in an empty hay-barn. He beats Farfrae, but at the last minute can’t kill him. Meanwhile, the secret of Lucetta and Henchard’s past gets out (through Henchard’s doing, although he does not intend it). The townspeople stage a “skimmington ride,” in which effigies of the two illicit lovers are paraded through town. This is such a shock to Lucetta that she takes sick and dies.

Henchard is full of remorse for all he’s done, and tries to be supportive of both Lucetta and Farfrae through this, but all he succeeds in doing is drawing closer to EJ, who still thinks he’s her real father. She’s all he has left, and she moves in with him. He’s poor and humiliated, but happy to have someone who loves him. Then Newson comes back, looking for her. Henchard lies and says EJ died when Susan did, but he knows this lie won’t keep Newson away for long. So when he hears that Newson is coming back, he leaves town to become a wandering hay-trusser again.

Newson and EJ are reunited, and EJ and Farfrae marry. Henchard tries to come to the wedding, but EJ rebuffs him, and he wanders off to die of a broken heart. This is when EJ realizes how much he always blamed himself—he was never exactly a good man, but he never thought he was, either, and so when it all came crashing down he never even tried to salvage his position, feeling he deserved it.

It’s clear, as the intro notes, that Henchard and Farfrae are based on Saul and David, and there’s something touching and mythical about Henchard. He’s larger than life, with his towering moodiness and gargantuan inarticulateness. He’s doomed, clearly, and we know he deserves it—but he’s partially redeemed in our eyes because we know he knows he deserves it.

The intro also points out how shallow Farfrae is as a man—not a David himself by any means. This I find interesting because of how clearly Farfrae is meant to represent the coming of modernity to this backwater agricultural community. Henchard does business the old way, estimations and handshakes and divination; Farfrae, with his Scottish efficiency, brings in machinery and exact calculations and written contracts. It’s good for the town, and everybody knows it, but at the same time there’s a tremendous sense that the ancient pagan ritualistic communal aspect of life there is going to disappear with the arrival of the new ways. Henchard represents this. The old ways are crude, inexact, and not too nice—just like Henchard—but at least they have great depth of feeling, which Farfrae doesn’t have. This is what Hardy seems to be saying, on one level, and it’s a pretty interesting way of putting it.

Great book.

Thomas Hardy: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Tess was next:

So I decided to keep going with Thomas Hardy for a while. This seemed to be the obvious next step. It didn’t move me quite as deeply as Jude did, for some reason, but I’d have to say, objectively, that it’s just as fine a novel.

Tess is a peasant girl whose layabout father has just discovered that he is the last of the ancient noble line of the d’Urbervilles (corrupted by his time to Durbeyfield). This gives him airs, and when a sudden disaster puts them in economic difficulty, Tess finds it her responsibility to seek out a wealthier branch of the line and ask for assistance. Thus she meets Alec d’Urberville, whose father, a self-made man, had forged ties with the supposedly-defunct d’Urbervilles to give his family an air of respectability. Alec takes Tess into service, rapes her, and then she leaves him.

She goes home, where she has his baby and refuses his offer to marry her—she’s incensed at his cavalier treatment of her. The baby dies, and after about a year of seclusion, Tess realizes she’s a burden on the family and goes to work on a dairy. Here she meets Angel Clare, the third son of a very conservative parson. Angel is a freethinker who has elected to become a gentleman farmer instead of a clergyman like his father (his father won’t send him to the university since he won’t toe the line, doctrinally, so he really has no choice but to learn how to support himself); he’s at the dairy to learn that aspect of farming. Soon he falls in love with Tess (who he’s seen once before, briefly, at the beginning of the book—she remembers, but he doesn’t). He’s taken with her pure peasant virtue, and refuses to take no for an answer. She loves him, too, but knows that he’d reject her if he knew about her past, and resolves to reject him. But he prevails, finally, and then prevents her when she tries to tell him before the marriage.

Finally on the night after the wedding, they confess their past sins. He admits that he dallied with a woman in London right after he lost his faith. She forgives him frankly, and then tells of her past. He goes ballistic and leaves her, blind to his own hypocrisy.

For a year she scratches out a living, while he’s off experimenting with farming in Brazil. She becomes worse and worse off financially, while her pride prevents her from appealing to his parents, who never supported the match and to whom she’s never even been introduced. Finally Alec comes back into the picture—at first he’s a religious fanatic, having been converted by Angel’s father, but then his love (lust?) for Tess reasserts itself and he tries to get her to come with him. Finally, when she’s given up on Angel ever returning, and her father is dead and her mother and siblings made homeless, she gives in to Alec. This is when Angel chooses to come back and declare that he’s forgiven her. Too late. This drives her out of her mind, and she stabs Alec to death. She and Clare enjoy a week’s happiness on the run before the cops catch up with them at Stonehenge.

So, clearly it’s an indictment of traditional English Christian morals, which allow a man, be he a scoundrel like Alec or just a headstrong gentleman like Angel, to sin and get away with it while condemning a woman to a lifetime of shame for something she didn’t do willingly in the first place. As such, it’s a powerful book. It’s also a very perceptive look at Angel’s particular brand of hypocrisy—you can see it coming a mile away but it’s still effective when it gets there.

There are other aspects that I didn’t pick up on as readily—Hardy is allying Tess with the old pagan nature-spirit aspects of the English peasantry, those things that are prior to the Christian overlay. There are some mythological overtones that I didn’t quite get.

It’s also a detailed look at how the country ways were changing in one particular stage of the industrial revolution—he’s very detailed on farming techniques and how they affected social patterns. It’s here in particular that I could have used some notes—the Pan edition I read is a reprint of an annotated version, shorn of the actual notes—it leaves spaces where the asterisks were, and sometimes the telltale asterisks

Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure

A couple of summers ago, I went on a Thomas Hardy jag. (Can you use "Thomas Hardy" and "jag" in the same sentence? I guess you can if you make an appropriately meta and self-deprecating parenthetical remark immediately afterward. At least, I hope so.) This surprised me - that is, it surprised me that I got so into Thomas Hardy - because the summer before my senior year of high school I had to read The Mayor of Casterbridge for AP English, and it took me all summer and I hated it and I almost gave up on serious books for good and I spent the next fifteen years bellyaching about Thomas Hardy being the most boring writer in the world. But: as it turns out, I was an idiot, and Thomas Hardy is one of the greats. One of the stalwarts, fighting the good fight down there in the trenches with the words and the feelings and the ideas.

I started with Jude the Obscure (1896), and here's what I wrote about it then:

Another lunch-break library book [ed.: I was doing dissertation research in Japan at this time, and strayed into the school's small selection of English literature in English, and ended up spending a lot of lunch hours reading]. We watched the film version, with Kate Winslet, and the next day I saw this on the shelf and picked it up. I couldn’t believe I was reading a Thomas Hardy novel—reading The Mayor of Casterbridge the summer before my senior year of high school was one of the most annoying experiences I’ve ever had with a book. What’s even more unbelievable is how much I loved this one.

Jude Fawley is an orphan in a village in Wessex who dreams of going to study at Christminster (Oxford) and then entering the ministry. Of course, in his day this is impossible for anybody born poor like him, but he doesn’t realize it, and sets himself to studying on his own. When he become a man, he picks up a trade (stonemasonry), and is saving up to go to Christminster when sex intervenes. He’s seduced by a local girl, Arabella, and she tricks him into marrying her by saying she’s pregnant. It’s an unhappy marriage, and when he finds out he was tricked they argue, and she then leaves for Australia with her parents.

He goes to Christminster. Here he meets his long-lost cousin Sue Bridehead, also an orphan, and falls in love with her, although because he’s married and bound for the priesthood and her cousin and they both come from families cursed to miserable broken marriages, he treats her as a friend only. But of course they’re both falling in love. She’s independent-minded— skeptical about religion and social mores. Meanwhile, he finally realizes that the colleges won’t have anything to do with him because he’s a working man. Meanwhile, she starts teaching for Phillotson, Jude’s old schoolmaster. Then she goes away to a teacher’s training college.

Jude visits her, and they go on an outing from which she’s late returning. They’re clearly falling in love, everybody around them can see it, but they don’t do anything bad. However, the scandal gets her expelled from the college. Then he tells her he’s married, when he finds out she’s engaged to Phillotson, and she’s so upset that she goes and actually marries Phillotson. But she doesn’t love him: she loves Jude.

Thus far, about halfway through, the book has this wonderful sense of tragedy: their love is evoked quite intensely, and the fact that they’re both married to other people makes them nicely star-crossed lovers.

But then their respective spouses actually grant them divorces: Arabella so she can remarry, and Phillotson because he pities Sue. This is an interesting turning point in the book, because now they’re actually free to legally marry. But they don’t—Sue is too delicate on the matter of physical relations, and afraid of the legal responsibilities that marriage will entail. She doesn’t want the law to force her to love someone forever. Independent-minded.

But from this point the novel ceases to be a tragedy of star-crossed lovers, really: they could marry, and thus legitimize their relationship and go on with their lives. But they don’t. But they have kids anyway (including taking on one that Jude had unknowingly fathered with Arabella). And every town they go to eventually chases them away as a scandal. Then the kids die (Arabella and Jude’s is preternaturally doomy, and kills himself and the others), and Sue takes this as God’s judgment on her. She abruptly abandons all her modern ideas, even as Jude has abandoned his beliefs, feeling that they can’t be true if they so conflict with his natural human impulses.

In the end Sue goes back to Phillotson and forces herself to endure physical relations with him as a penance. Jude is once again tricked by Arabella into marrying her (she keeps him drunk for a week), but once he learns that Sue has truly given herself to Phillotson he basically wills himself to die, and does.

Well, put like that it kind of sounds silly in places, but he pulls it off nicely. As I say, halfway through it ceases to be a tragedy of mythic dimensions. Instead, it becomes this fascinating character study. Sue is a woman the likes of whom I’ve met, and probably all men secretly fear women are: at the root of her modern ideas of love and marriage is the wish that sex didn’t have to enter into it at all. She’s ethereal, mental, even spiritual, but not sexual. As a result, her treatment of Jude is what we would now call a cock-tease. But Jude understands that she’s not trying to torment him, and he’ll forgive her anything. Both of them do what they do out of choice, which makes it not so much a tragedy as an inquiry into their psychologies, and into the social forces that make them both so wary of marriage in the second place. Of course it’s also an indictment of a society that thinks it’s anybody’s business what two consenting adults do in private.

Anyway, I really loved it. It reminded me a little, in the intensity of its anatomization of their emotions, of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow—I was happy to read somewhere that Lawrence liked this book.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Robertson Davies's Salterton Trilogy

Tempest-Tost (1951)

An amateur theatrical company in the fictional city of Salterton, Ontario, has decided to put on an outdoor summer production of The Tempest.

The company (calling itself the Little Theatre, a nice touch of Davies’, perfectly highlighting the self-satisfaction that can lurk under the most determined self-deprecation) is run by a middle-aged woman named Nellie Forrester, but instead of directing the play herself she asks back an old acquaintance named Valentine Rich, who has since gone into the professional theater world in New York. Val, single, is back in Salterton to supervise the estate sale of her recently-deceased father (?), and consents to direct the play as a favor.

There’s a slight whiff of the predictable to what ensues: Davies’ satirical target in this, his first novel, is the familiar pretensions of amateur theater people. This has never seemed to me quite as rich a source of satire as many others think it is; I didn’t particularly like Waiting for Guffman, either. Too much like shooting fish in a barrel. Maybe the topic was fresher in 1951, however.

And of course Davies is a more dedicated humanist than that. He’s not really after amateur actors; he’s setting his sights on nothing less than a comic anatomy of mid-century provincial Canadian life. Unlike his later trilogies, this one is told through the eyes of a wide variety of characters – we shift around between the points of view of Val (occasionally), Griselda and Freddy Webster (daughters of the rich man on whose lawn the play will be performed), Hector Mackilwraith (a local math teacher who falls in love with Griselda), and a wide variety of other actors.

The larger plot is, of course, the preparations for the play, culminating in opening night. The real interest lies in the main subplot, which is Hector’s growing love for Griselda. Hector is over forty, and Griselda is eighteen; they’re mismatched in other ways, too, Griselda being a thoroughly modern, socially well-adjusted girl, and Hector being, well, a stuffy old math teacher whose sole experience with women was a not-very-near miss at a Normal School dance when he was Griselda’s age.

Hector has two rivals for Griselda’s affections: Solly Bridgetower, a Cambridge boy home from school, taking care of his decrepit and controlling mother, and Roger Tasset, a womanizing soldier.

I believe Davies’ truest milieux are the worlds of art and academia: the life of the mind is what he’s going to show you. His own learning is so broad and joyful, and so connected to a voracious and unbound love of life, that he’s at his best when he’s dealing with characters who can express themselves in conversations with the best that the best minds past and present have offered.

Here he hasn’t quite found that out yet. He’s concentrating mostly on people from other walks of life. As I say, his task here is to take apart provincial society. And he does this well: already he’s displaying his sharp eye for character, his sure hand with plot, and his sure, sharp tongue. But, and perhaps only because I know what he’d do in the future, I do get the feeling that here and there something a little wilder is trying to burst out. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is a very accomplished novel, thought-provoking and entertaining, but a little conventional compared to the sublime oddities he’d ascend to later. But there are hints, such as the chorister Humphrey Cobbler, a wild-eyed freethinker whose iconoclasm is drawn from a familiarity with the arts and thoughts of premodern Europe, rather than from any jejune bohemianism – which is, after all, a pretty good blueprint for the Davies hero.

Most of his female characters here are already strong, well-rounded, and lively, a mark of his later fiction. Various of his narrators and male characters speak in terms of an essentialist view of women, and do all through his fiction, but the sheer vitality, the intelligence and strength, of his women tends to mean more. And in Freddy, the precocious fourteen-year-old ciderist and book-collector, he’s created perhaps the most intriguing character in the book.

If the book has a main character, it’s Mackilwraith. I think his name is meaningful: his father was a depressed pastor who not only found no joy in life himself, but killed it in his wife and son. Son of Kill-Spirit: he’s spiritually dead himself. Hector’s a self-made man, of sorts: through the rigorous application of planning and common sense, as he formulates it, he’s worked himself up from a position of abject poverty to where he is now, which is not quite as abject poverty, and a position of authority over a classroom. For most of the book he’s a classic, almost cliché, figure: the rationalist whose plans are overthrown by the sudden intrusion of a disordering love. But Davies never sentimentalizes him: in fact, he reserves his harshest satire for Mackilwraith, who never stops being both comical and repulsive. It’s a shock, then, when at the end of the book (in the aftermath of Mackilwraith’s botched suicide attempt) we find ourselves pitying him. Not liking him, but able to pity him for the thing his life and soul have made him. It’s even more of a shock when Davies lets him hint at a capacity for redemption – which in his case simply means unclenching himself a little bit, and seeing himself for what he really is.

Leaven of Malice (1954)

Continues very much in the same vein as Tempest-Tost. Same strategy of shifting the point of view around between a number of different characters, aiming at a composite view of Salterton and its ways; same interest in exploring various levels and facets of Salterton society, this time even delving into the working class. It has in common with the middle installments of the later trilogies the notion of involving characters from the first book, but shifting the focus so that previously main characters are now minor, and vice versa, and both are supplemented by lots of new characters.

The milieu this time is the town newspaper, The Bellman. Someone places in it a notice that Solly Bridgetower and Pearl Vambrace, both of whom we know from the first book, are engaged. Not only does this turn out to be false, but it turns out that the Bridgetowers and the Vambraces are enemies from many years prior.

Of course in the end Solly and Pearl do get engaged – that you can see coming a mile away. But the fun is in how they get there, because it represents a triumph of common sense and goodness over the ingrown spitefulness of their parents.

That spitefulness seems to be the book's main target, if you believe its title. And inasmuch as the book is a condemnation of malice, it's in the end a rather small book. Like its predecessor with its warning against pride, if it all boils down to a satire on familiar human venalities, then it's pleasant, accomplished, full of delights, but not spirit-shaking. Later, he'd write spirit-shaking things, and not coincidentally his later books would take a much different view of pride, malice, and indeed sin.

What this book is really about, though, is the different ways in which Pearl’s father and Solly’s mother domineer over their progeny. Vambrace is an undisguised egoist, a large man who has cowed his family with his histrionic behavior as well as his physical strength. Mrs. Bridgetower, on the other hand, is an unfailingly genteel little woman, hiding her poison behind Old World pretensions to class and taste. Pearl is just plain scared of her father, while Solly is scared for his mother, who (to steal an idea from The Godfather) has been dying from the same heart condition for decades.

We meet Gloster Ridley, editor of the Bellman, and the occasion for much humor at the expense of small-town papers. This kind of humor is a bit dated: in an age when the news media, at least in this country, seems actively interested in torching our society, the kinds of foibles Davies points out (banality and a certain self-importance) just seem quaint. But I would imagine this aspect of the story is the most deeply-rooted, since Davies himself was a newspaperman for a while.

We also meet Dean Knapp of one of the city’s cathedrals; the first of a long line of Davies religionists. He’s a great comic figure, striving mightily toward an ideal of clerical urbaneness that nobody else in town has even heard of.

But it’s the image of filial children that makes this novel memorable. Children, that is, who are filial to parents who hardly deserve it. Children who are, therefore, self-sacrificing to an ideal that their parents have self-servingly taught them. I don’t know enough about Canadian history to really say, but I get a real sense from this trilogy of the ‘50s being a period of change in Canadian society. There are a lot of vestiges of Englishness everywhere, a class consciousness and a Toryism that seem to be under siege, but not giving ground gracefully. Solly’s battles with his mother seem to have sociopolitical overtones to them. His very meekness (not quite spinelessness, but close) in the face of his mother’s implacable disapproval seems to say something about relations with England…

A Mixture of Frailties (1958)

Mrs. Bridgetower dies and leaves her considerable fortune to her son Solly and his wife Pearl (Veronica, as she’s called here – she chooses to go by her other name when she marries Solly), on one condition: they must bear a son first. Until then the money is held in trust; Solly gets virtually nothing. He gets to live in her mansion, but only on sufferance – it belongs to her Trust – and in fact he goes broke trying to keep it up. The income from her trust goes, not to him, but to a young Salterton woman who is to be sent to Europe for an education to become an artist.

These impossible conditions are called by Solly and Veronica the Dead Hand of his mother. Of course they can’t admit it – one of the interesting motives of this book is the inability of people to admit that someone they love can be truly, unreservedly cruel toward them.

But most of the book is only peripherally concerned with Solly, Veronica, and the rest of the Saltertonians – although they make for some rich comic scenes. Instead, once they’ve chosen the lucky beneficiary of the trust, we focus on her for the rest of the book. (In this the concluding book of the trilogy breaks the pattern of the first two.)

This is Monica Gall, and she’s a fascinating creation, certainly Davies’ most vivid and intriguing character to date. Daughter of a family of fundamentalist Christians, she’s blessed with a wonderful natural singing voice that just might benefit from serious training. The Trust selects her to go to England to find out.

Most of the book concerns Monica’s education in England. It’s both an artistic and a sentimental education, as she moves through a succession of teachers who give her wisdom about her art and through one epic, disastrous love affair that gives her the emotional depth she’ll need to complete her art.

Her teachers are: Sir Benedict Domdaniel, a middle-aged singer; Murtagh Molloy, an Irish voice coach, poor and old-fashioned but full of the pith of art; and Giles Revelstoke, a young composer who is constantly at odds with Domdaniel, but who also has valuable insights to impart. It’s Giles who Monica falls in love with, too. All three of these men are sharply evoked: Domdaniel the slightly fulsome gentleman artist, hiding the essential disreputability of the artistic nature behind the cloak of his peerage; Molloy the eccentric whose incompatibility with the modern world, not to mention common propriety, signal a true alignment with the truths of the ages (he in particular is already a familiar figure in Davies, and will remain so; he’s almost a double of Humphrey Cobbler, and is echoed in just about every character in the Deptford Trilogy); Revelstoke the insufferably pretentious young artist, completely gorged on his own needy ego, able to use Monica horribly without a second thought.

It’s a bildungsroman, in a way. Monica is the ne plus ultra of Salterton provincialism, and thus of Canadian provincialism (in Davies’ eyes), and the book is the story of how in learning to master and honor her gift she also learns to navigate a wider world, and to find herself within it. She’s fiercely loyal to her upbringing at first, both because she believes in loyalty and because her proudly ignorant mother has conditioned her to resent anything that smacks of greater education and sophistication than she was born to. Of course Monica quickly realizes how limited that worldview was, and struggles to locate herself between authenticity to her familial and national roots and honesty toward the new things she’s learning.

Davies is wonderfully clear-eyed about this process. He doesn’t romanticize England; Monica’s culture shock upon arrival and her never-fading outsider status are brilliantly rendered. At the same time Davies doesn’t allow Monica to kid herself or the reader that the opportunities back home are anything like what she needs. There’s a rich tension here between a cultural-political pull toward Canada – or more precisely toward a wise and proper refusal to completely renounce one’s background – and an intellectual-artistic pull toward England – a place where Monica can fully develop her art, her heart and mind. This tension is never resolved, which is one of the strengths of the novel: how could it be resolved?

Her love affair with Giles is also left unresolved, in a way. The reader sees immediately what a cad Giles is, and that he’s no good for her; others around her see it, as well. He uses her body and her money – she’s madly in love with him, so she gives himself to her sexually, but he never reciprocates her love, and she diverts her trust to finance his first opera, but he only resents her for it. Monica never admits to herself how miserably he treats her, but the reader can sense that she knows it, just under the surface. But she chooses to stay with him anyway, and I think Davies convinces us that she does it, not because she lacks autonomy, but because she has autonomy – she believes in his talent, and is willing to abet it, and because in the process she’s also abetting her own talent she ends up coming across, not as stereotypical artist’s moll/muse, but as an artist in her own right who has to go through this for her own reasons.

The ending. After his opera is a smashing success in Venice, but he’s humiliated in his attempt to conduct it, Giles throws a huge temper tantrum and goes back to London. Because he’s finally dealt Monica too much emotional abuse, she writes him that she’s breaking up with him. He kills himself – turns on the gas. She finds him, finds her letter in his hand, and takes the letter away so as not to implicate herself, then doesn’t alert anyone until the following morning, when she pretends to find him in the company of his landlady. This is a wise move for her, in terms of her career; but the autopsy reveals that he was probably still alive when she first found him. She could have saved him, in other words, although she didn’t know it at the time.

The guilt almost destroys her, but doesn’t quite; we’re told through hints here and there that after the novel ends she’ll go on to fame and fortune. As the novel ends she’s gotten a proposal of marriage from Domdaniel, the only person she’s told about her role in Giles’s death. We don’t know how she answers him; most likely yes, since Domdaniel has been set up as a voice of reason and wisdom throughout the novel, and furthermore as a voice that Monica ends up listening to when she most needs to.

I find it really interesting, though, that Davies would load his heroine down with such a burden of guilt – guilt that she and we can only partially rationalize away – right at the end of the book, right when she’s about to be left truly independent by the disappearance of the trust and her entrance into professional singing. As I say, Davies is wise enough to set out a lot of conflicts that he leaves unresolved because they’re unresolvable, and in this book I think many of them come down to the idea that it’s wrong to be too ready to cut ties with parents, home, teachers, mentors, etc., but that at the same time it’s often necessary to leave them behind. If we want to grow, we leave home; but we shouldn’t be too happy about it. It’s right to feel conflicted – to feel guilty. Is this last guilt Monica feels the secret burden that lets her become an adult and a true artist?


I doubt this trilogy was conceived as such. It doesn’t have anything like the fine symmetry of the next two. Rather, it’s two novels in one style and one in another; they happen to share the same setting and a lot of the same characters, but the glaring fact is their disunity, not their unity. In fact A Mixture of Frailties is much closer in spirit to the Deptford and Cornish trilogies than it is to the two previous books in this series. I don’t know much about Davies’ biography, so I find it really curious that he took over ten years off from novels after this. Curious, because he so clearly hits his stride with this book.