Saturday, December 03, 2016

Movies about Writers

Michael Grandage, dir. Genius (2016)

There's a very funny scene in Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies (1930) where his usual cast of upper-class snots have decided to make a film. For some incomprehensible reason, they've chosen the life of Methodist firebrand John Wesley as their subject, but are then faced with the inevitable problem of how to make a writer writing seem even vaguely dramatic.

The scene they end up is supposed to show Wesley writing a sermon, and so he does - for five minutes or so - dipping his pen in the ink and scribbling away. Needless to say, the movie is not a great success.

No doubt this was the inspiration for the Monty Python segment showing Thomas Hardy writing his latest novel in front of a huge stadium of adoring fans: "He's written a sentence," gasps the announcer. "Now he's crossed it out!" Due consultation of the manuscript of Jude the Obscure does indeed show a certain amount of indecision over the ideal wording for his opening.

It is, in other words, extremely difficult to make a good movie about a writer. Most of their lives are spent sitting at a desk of some sort, scribbling words with pencils or pens, or banging them out on a typewriter or a computer. Some (such as Rider Haggard) were forced by their various aches and pains to work standing up at a lectern; others (such as Henry James) would walk up and down dictating to a secretary; still others (such as Barbara Cartland - or Patricia Highsmith, for that matter) never actually got out of bed, but instead wrote with a ridge of comforting bedclothes nestled around them.

Whatever they did, however they did it, it's just not very watchable. It's not like the life of a soldier or an athlete - or even a politician. Everything significant in a writer's life goes on behind the scenes.

Be that as it may, I thought I'd assemble a bunch of representative examples to show some of the solutions ingenious directors have come up with. These can be broken down roughly as follows -

Woman-behind-the-man films:

Ralph Fiennes, dir. The Invisible Woman (2013)

Charles Dickens did have the advantage of being almost absurdly energetic in his daily life (after his long stint writing each morning, that is). The Invisible Woman tells the tale of his young mistress Ellen Lawless Ternan who - according to the movie, at any rate - was more-or-less pimped out to him by her own mother, who was finding it a bit difficult to make ends meet as an itinerant actor, and had to face the fact that Ellen showed no great talent as a Thespian. It's quite a tragic tale, and certainly doesn't present the old dog Dickens in a particularly flattering light.

Michael Hoffman, dir. The Last Station (2009)

Lev Tolstoy was - if anything - even more of a bastard, if this movie is anything to go by. It's funny how being obsessed with social reform and general injustice has now become a kind of stigma, rather than an accolade. Tolstoy's politics may have been a bit naive (I don't know: were they? They sound pretty sensible to me), but the film gives the usual line that he was wasting time which could have been spent on writing more novels like War and Peace or Anna Karenina (rather than ones like Resurrection). I doubt his Countess Sonya was quite so winsome as Helen Mirren makes her, but certainly - if you consider the rights of aristocrats to keep on living in the style to which they're accustomed as the ultimate aim of humanity - she did get a bit of raw deal. I don't know. It's pretty easy to criticise a person like Tolstoy. It must have been rather harder to be him - given that he clearly possessed that awkward thing called a conscience, and therefore could not be content just to enjoy his own wealth and power. Lovely movie, but not really, in the final analysis, at all profound or up to its subject.

Jane Campion, dir. Bright Star (2009)

John Keats comes out a bit better in this surprisingly sensitive and even moving bio-pic by Jane Campion. Anyone who's read Fanny Brawne's letters to Keats's sister knows that she was never the heartless minx portrayed in early hagiographies of the poet. Campion even manages to get in some not-too-unconvincing "writing a poem" moments into her film - but the heart of it is, of course, the love story. You'd have to be pretty hard-hearted not to see the poignancy of that: Fanny staying up all night to embroider a pillow-slip for the head of Keats's dead brother to rest on in his coffin was particularly affecting, I thought.

John Madden, dir. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

William Shakespeare almost certainly bore no resemblance whatsoever to the impulsive protagonist of this film - but then Tom Stoppard never supposed he did, which is why his screenplay is so full of in-jokes about the absurdity of bardolatry (the "Present from Stratford" mug in one of the scenes is a very nice touch). Perhaps that tongue-in-cheek flavour is why this is such a wonderful film. Even Paltrow-phobes (and we are many, I fear) can tolerate her in this role - though any pretence she could pass for a boy for even a second is, of course, absurd. The great thing is that it's meant to be. None of the cross-dressing feats in the Bard's surviving plays are much more convincing, after all.

Dan Ireland, dir. The Whole Wide World (1996)

Robert E. Howard may seem a little out of place among such exalted company, but those of us brought up on his - still surprisingly readable and entertaining - "Conan" yarns would see him as every bit as influential a writer as his more high culture contemporaries. This is the interesting tale of a young schoolteacher who got to know him in his final years. I'd say it was at least as good as Genius, the more recent Thomas Wolfe bio-pic pictured at the top of this post.

Richard Attenborough, dir. Hemingway in Love and War (1996)

This doesn't quite work as a movie, I'm afraid. It's interesting to learn how closely Ernest Hemingway's classic A Farewell to Arms was based on his own experiences in the war, but unfortunately it leaves one with more of an appetite to reread the novel than to speculate on just how all this suffering "made" him into a writer. Sandra Bullock does her best, but it's hard to stop the story subsiding into banality, which A Farewell to Arms somehow miraculously avoids by the sheer beauty and precision of its writing.

Brian Gilbert, dir. Tom & Viv (1994)

T. S. Eliot was clearly quite a hard person to warm to, but the hatchet-job which is Tom and Viv still takes a bit of justification. Vivienne Eliot was barking mad - there's no serious doubt about that. Even a couple of minutes of her on-screen is pretty hard to take, but when you think of the years and years of her antics Eliot had to endure, The Waste Land suddenly turns into a realist text. It may have made him a great poet (doubtful: "Prufrock" preceded her influence), but it's hard to imagine the kind of mind prepared to stand back and sneer at his final anguished decision to have her committed. It does all add up to a pretty good story, I suppose, but one that's a bit hard to justify in the real world.

Philip Kaufman, dir. Henry & June (1990)

Henry Miller had a lot to say about his sex-life, late and early. And it seems that the reams Anais Nin wrote about her own included the above interesting take on the events that inspired Tropic of Cancer, as well as Miller's later Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Uma Thurman, as the "June" of the title, makes a rather unconvincing femme fatale, and all in all it might have been better to leave them all to the merciful shelter of the printed page. There are many laughs in the film, admittedly, but I fear the majority of them are unintentional. Richard E. Grant does his usual wide-eyed "which-movie-am-I-actually-in-this-week?" act. It's hard to say what the rest of them think they're doing, or what planet they're on.

Women-writers-getting-out-from-under films:

Tony Issac, dir. Iris (1984)

For a made-for-TV movie, this one isn't so bad. Helen Morse is very good as NZ writer Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde), though the whole thing could probably do with a more up-to-date remake sometime.

Michael Firth, dir. Sylvia (1985)

This, too, about NZ writer Sylvia Ashton-Warner is a valiant pioneering effort. It's a shame that (once again) an English person had to be imported to play a New Zealander, but Eleanor David certainly did a bang-up job.

Jane Campion, dir. An Angel at My Table (1990)

Jane Campion's Janet Frame film still holds up surprisingly well, 25 years on. The performances by the three leads are uniformly excellent - and the visual style of the thing reminds just why she is what she is: one of the greatest filmmakers (perhaps the greatest?) ever to come out of New Zealand.

Christine Jeffs, dir. Sylvia (2003)

This one, alas, is a bit of a mess. Daniel Craig makes a surprisingly good job of playing Ted Hughes, but Gwyneth Paltrow's Sylvia Plath has mercifully faded from the memory of all but the most dedicated movie-goers. It wasn't helped by the fact that the film-makers don't appear to have been allowed to quote any of Plath's actual poetry, so her character flaws are allowed free rein with little to offset them. I do recall some pretty scenery here and there - a nice boating scene off the coast of Cornwall (filmed here, I believe: near Dunedin), but the attempts to dramatise Sylvia's "breaking free" of her oppressive husband are, I fear, pretty unconvincing.

Byron-'n'-Shelley-'n'-Mary-Shelley films:

Ken Russell, dir. Gothic (1986)

This is an interesting sub-genre of the above. Clearly something happened that summer on Lake Geneva to inspire Mary Shelley's immortal Frankenstein - and it seems to have involved a lot of nightmares, thunderstorms, and prancing around naked on battlements (in Ken Russell's version, at least). Gothic isn't (as the title suggests) exactly a subtle film, but it's certainly very entertaining.

Ivan Passer, dir. The Haunted Summer (1988)

Which is more than can be said for this pallid effort. The "Frankenstein" effects mainly consist of an elaborate practical joke played on Lord Byron by his rather absurd "private physician" Dr. Polidori (or Polly-Dolly, as Byron called him). Given Polidori is played by Alex Winter, more familiar to most of us as Keanu Reeves' sidekick in the Bill & Ted films (complete with painfully overdone upper class accent), the whole thing falls rather flat.

Roger Corman, dir. Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

Unlike Roger Corman's splendidly weird version of Brian Aldiss's SF rewriting of the whole saga. Bridget Fonda plays the most spunky and spirited Mary Shelley to date, and Raul Julia's "Frankenstein" make-up has to be seen to be believed (though the poster above does give you a bit of an idea).

After that, I think the moguls of Hollywood must have thought better of following it up with a film of Liz Lochead's Dreaming Frankenstein or any of the many, many other versions of the story which continue to appear (my own personal favourite is Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard. Now that would make a pretty entertaining film, I reckon ...)

Anyway, that's my best attempt at an analysis of some of the more recent highlights of the genre. Feel free to point out any I've missed (I'm sure they must be legion).

Tim Powers: The Stress of Her Regard (1989)

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Poetry in Translation: Reading 14/12/16

When: Wednesday 14 December, 6.00-8.00pm
Where: St Paul St Gallery, 40 St Paul Street,
Auckland Central (behind AUT)

Poetry readings in and from Greek, Italian, Māori, Fijian, Norwegian, Sāmoan and French by Vana Manasiadis, Paula Green, Hemi Kelly, Glenn Colquhoun, Tulia Thompson, Siobhan Harvey, Doug Poole and Jack Ross.

All welcome.

Join us at this pre-Christmas reading, organised by Seraph Press to celebrate the launch of the first two chapbooks in their new Translation Series:

    Vana Manasiadis, ed. & trans.: Shipwrecks/Shelters (Wellington: Seraph Press, 2016)

  • Shipwrecks/Shelters: Six Contemporary Greek Poets / Ναυάγια/Καταφύγια: Έξι Σύγχρονοι Έλληνες Ποιητές, edited and translated by Vana Manasiadis

  • Claudio Pasi: Poems (Wellington: Seraph Press, 2016)

  • Observations: Poems / Osservazione: Poesie, by Claudio Pasi, translated by Tim Smith with Marco Sonzogni

St Paul St Gallery (AUT)

Friday, November 11, 2016

Two Versions of Shirley Jackson

When I heard there was a new biography of Shirley Jackson available - presumably published to coincide with the centenary of her birth - I ordered it pretty much straight away. True, the existing one did seem to cover most of the necessary bases in her unfortunately brief life - she died of a heart attack at the age of 48 - but there's always something new to be learned, and she is one of my favourite writers.

What was the justification for this new version of Jackson? Had a lot of fresh information come to light in the 28 years since Judy Oppenheimer's book appeared? Or was it just an attempt to supply some new emphases? I was a little irritated to find no discussion of the topic in Franklin's introduction. In fact, there was no mention there at all of the earlier book. So I went to her index instead. Nothing. Literally nothing. Nothing in the Acknowledgments, or the Permissions. In fact, so far as the text of Franklin's book is concerned, it's as if Oppenheimer's book had never existed.

This seemed quite strange to me. When I started to look through the source notes at the back of her book, though, the mystery was compounded. Oppenheimer's book was there, all right. It didn't have an abbreviation of its own, unlike virtually every other text used by Franklin, but it came up again and again, in note after note.

For the most parts, these notes were confined to page references to establish points of fact. It seemed as if a great many facts had been gleaned Judy Oppenheimer's pioneering work. But after a while I started to notice that every discussion of a particular point of detail from the previous book attempted to refute it - often quite savagely. Here are a few examples:
"I have always loved" ... This line comes from a document that Judy Oppenheimer, SJ's first biographer, identifies (I believe incorrectly) as an unsent letter from SJ to Howard Nemerov ... (p.506)

a thousand words a day: Oppenheimer, Private Demons, 45. This number has been repeated often by others, but I was unable to confirm it independently. (p.513)

"my rape" ... Judy Oppenheimer provides a conflicting account of SJ's loss of virginity based on interviews with SJ and SEH's friends, in which their first attempt to consummate their relationship was ruined by friends who barged in on them; on their second attempt, Hyman was supposedly too nervous to perform (Private Demons, 68-69). These stories are impossible to verify. Oppenheimer does not mention the letter or the journal entry. (524)

reenact the scene: Oppenheimer gives this as SJ's strategy for Hill House, but Sarah Hyman DeWitt confirms that the book in question was actually Castle ... (573)
Virtually everything else in these notes is "by gracious permission of" or "so-and-so kindly allowed me to see" - but not the details from Oppenheimer. She could be used when convenient, it seemed, but any chance to dispute her views or interpretations must be seized with both hands.

You'd have to read her book yourself to understand exactly how this works, but again and again some precious conjecture of Franklin's (such as that Shirley Jackson was "raped" during her first sexual encounter with her future husband Stanley - substantiated by such clues as a "seemingly half in jest" reference in a letter, the words "He forced me God help me" in an (undated) notebook entry - but mainly by analogy with a famously ambiguous rape / seduction scene in the novel Hangsaman (p.156)) must be defended against any other possible interpretation. Particularly (it is implied) against the biased evidence of "interviews" - even though one would have thought the equally ambiguous evidence of random "spiral notebooks" with scraps of scenes and personal reflections written in them at various times was at least equally fallible.

In short, if Oppenheimer thinks it, it must be wrong. These refutations - there are no positive references of any kind to her work in this immense body of notes - are substantiated by such strong indicators as "I believe" ... "I was unable to confirm it independently" ... or opposing accounts in further interviews conducted by Franklin herself.

This is not to say that Franklin is necessarily incorrect in suggesting these revisions to the biographical record established by Oppenheimer. True, they seem a little carping and nit-picky in context, but perhaps that's because Oppenheimer did a truly shocking job in the first place. Did she?

I was glad to see, in looking through some of the reviews of Franklin's book, that I was not the only one to have detected this curious strategy of rhetorical emphasis through exclusion. Here's a passage from Charles McGrath's - basically positive - write-up in the NY Times:
The story of Jackson’s sad and difficult career is told with more vividness and in some ways with more intimacy in an earlier biography, Judy Oppenheimer’s Private Demons, which came out in 1988, and which Franklin, though a careful researcher and fastidious about ­sources, never mentions in the text. But Oppenheimer is a journalist, not a critic, and her book, based largely on interviews with Jackson’s family and friends, is interested more in the life than the work. The value of Franklin’s book, which benefited from access to archives unavailable to Oppenheimer, is its thoroughness and the way she traces Jackson’s evolution as an artist, sensibly pointing out what’s autobiographical and what isn’t.
That seems like fair comment to me. It's a while since I read Oppenheimer's book - though I'd certainly be curious to reread it now, in the dubious light of Franklin's disdain. I do recall that it left me feeling far more depressed than Franklin's: the tragedy of SJ's life seemed more starkly outlined in it. McGrath goes on to define more closely the differences between the two books:
Franklin, more than Oppenheimer, wants to play down the chaos of Jackson’s life, and even suggests that the hurtling back and forth between cooking and cleaning and stolen sessions at her desk may have been as enabling as it was burdensome. Until it wasn’t. Always a heavy drinker and smoker, Jackson, while trying to lose weight, became dependent on pills of every sort, uppers and downers. Her mood swings became more extreme, and in 1963 she suffered a full-fledged breakdown, during which she was not only unable to write, she could barely leave her room. After seeking psychiatric help, she seemed to be recovering, and was happily working again, though also preoccupied with the idea of leaving Hyman and creating a new home somewhere. Then, on the sultry afternoon of Aug. 8, 1965, she had a heart attack and died in her sleep. She was only 48. At the time she was working in what she called “a new style,” on a novel that she hoped would be “a funny book. a happy book.” But her last published story, which came out four months later, was about a solitary New England woman who sent off nightly letters describing the terrible secrets of her neighbors.
That's a very sensible summation, I think. Certainly Franklin has a nice convenient villain in the drunken philanderer Stanley, and - I suspect largely imaginary - break for freedom and self-fulfilment on Jackson's part all ready to kick into action on the day that she died.

Her Shirley Jackson is a feminist heroine, not the bedraggled victim of Oppenheimer's narrative. At which point, I feel, the story begins to get stranger. How many Shirley Jackson stories and novels hinge on the relationship between two women: one of them (generally) somewhat fey and indecisive, the other more brusque and business-like?

House-bound Constance and roving Merricat, the two sisters in her last completed book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, are perhaps the most harmonious instance - but Theo and Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House also have a sexually charged relationship which ends in the former rejecting the latter, and the latter taking her life in response.

Then there's the young college student Natalie in Hangsaman (possibly traumatised by the repressed memory of a rape - we are never told for certain), haunted by her "daemon lover" Tony - who is clearly female, despite Jackson's attempts to evade the issue by claiming that a creation of the mind must be without clear sexual identity. Franklin sees this book as "unmistakably a document of Jackson's rage at her husband" (p.297). I'd say there was nothing "unmistakable" about it - except that Franklin's account of the book is clearly fuelled by her own rage at Jackson's uncaring husband.

On and on it goes: one might say, in fact, that this is Jackson's great subject: the various subtle and complex ways women can find to torment one another in the guise of friendship and support. One of the characters (Natalie, Eleanor - even Tessie Hutchinson in her most famous story, "The Lottery") is generally clearly identifiable with Jackson herself (or at least with some aspect of her). The other is some kind of aggressor. But which one is Franklin to Oppenheimer?

She'd like to see herself, clearly, as the Jackson figure: a sensitive critic capable of resurrecting the "true" inner meanings of her extensive oeuvre - as opposed to the more superficial and "journalistic" Oppenheimer. The unscrupulous way in which she has attempted literally to write Oppenheimer out of the record: refute each of her conjectures, pour scorn on her interview-based rather than archival methodology, begins to sound uncomfortably bullying after a while.

In the end, I'm afraid, it's Judy we see collapsing under the weight of all the stones that have been sent flying at her; Judy who saw "The Lottery" as a straightforward parable of anti-semitism - as Jackson herself had stated (quoted on p.234) - Ruth who wants to record that as simply one of many conjectures and possibilities.

"If you live in a glass house ..." would be my final comment on this rather unfortunate attempt by Franklin to "bury" her opponent. Her book is well researched and interesting to read. It also contains the normal errors which can hardly be avoided in an enterprise of this scope (despite the massive number of collaborators, fact-checkers and general well-wishers listed at the end of this book they've collectively edited so "impeccably" (p.583)).

Who, for instance, is this "Arthur L. Kroeber" identified on p.232 as the father of the "novelist Ursula K. Le Guin," who wrote in to question Jackson's "motivations" in composing "The Lottery." He couldn't be the colossally famous Anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, could he? A small slip, but there are many others. And - given his eminence in the field - it is almost the equivalent of identifying a certain famous physicist as Arthur Einstein.

I could list many more such slips, but the point I wish to make is really very simple. Scholarship is a collaborative enterprise. Trying to imply that your own work so completely supersedes the efforts of a previous researcher - particularly the author of a pioneering biography of so important a figure as Jackson - is childish in the extreme. There were people (many people, I would suggest) who were available to be talked to in 1988 who are no longer with us in 2016. Ruth Franklin's own source notes show how heavy her dependence on Judy Oppenheimer's work has had to be.

What strange maggot of pique (or hubris) led Franklin to try to exclude Oppenheimer from her text? Did the latter poison her dog? Speak slightingly of her in public? Refuse to meet her, or to lend her some research materials? I'll conclude with some of Franklin's own words, her eloquent description of Jackson's own sound recording of "The Lottery":
Like the pointed collar around the throat of the dog Lady in "The Renegade," the recording cuts off abruptly before her voice has a chance to die out, making the last line sound like a question: And then they were upon her? The irony is audible. they have been upon her all along (p.247)

Yan Nascimbene: The Lottery

Here's a list of my own Shirley Jackson collection. As you can see, I buy each new book as it comes out, hoping somehow to come closer to the figure in her carpet, to understand better this strangely fascinating - perhaps because so disturbing - genius of the post-Atomic era:
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

  1. Jackson, Shirley. The Road through the Wall. 1948. Foreword by Ruth Franklin. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2013.

  2. Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery: Adventures of the Daemon Lover. 1949. London: Robinson Publishing, 1988.

  3. Jackson, Shirley. Hangsaman. 1951. Foreword by Francine Prose. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2013.

  4. Jackson, Shirley. The Sundial. 1958. Foreword by Victor LaValle. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2014.

  5. Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. 1959. New York: Penguin, 1984.

  6. Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 1962. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

  7. Hyman, Stanley Edgar, ed. The Magic of Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest / Life among the Savages / Raising Demons &c. 1954, 1953, 1956. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.

  8. Jackson, Shirley. Come Along with Me. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. 1966. New York: Penguin, 1995.

  9. Jackson, Shirley. Just an Ordinary Day: Part of a Novel, Sixteen Stories, and Three Lectures. Ed. Laurence Jackson Hyman & Sarah Hyman Stewart. 1997. Bantam Books. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1998.

  10. Jackson, Shirley. Novels and Stories: The Lottery / The Haunting of Hill House / We Have Always Lived in the Castle / Other Stories and Sketches. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. The Library of America, 204. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2010.

  11. Jackson, Shirley. Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings. Introduction by Ruth Franklin. Ed. Laurence Jackson Hyman & Sarah Hyman DeWitt. New York: Random House, 2015.

  12. Oppenheimer, Judy. Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. 1988. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989.

  13. Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. liveright Publishing Corporation. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2016.