Sunday, May 20, 2018

In memoriam: Glenn Branca

Glenn Branca

In the early 1980s I was anxiously awaiting the moment I could to move to New York City. (I hadn't figured out what I would do there or how I would possibly afford it, but never mind.) I haunted newsstands (remember those?) for the latest issues of the Village Voice and the New York Rocker, poring over their blurry print for scraps of information about a downtown music, art and performance scene that I could only experience vicariously.

In the the March 1982 New York Rocker I read this review from Michael Shore about a new album called The Ascension:
Ever wish the Clash would just shut up and keep playing the guitar intro to "Bored with the USA" over and over again? Ever tried to turn down the channel with Joey Ramone's voice so you could just hear a wall of loud, wild guitars. . .?
Say hello to Glenn Branca.
Shore went on to describe Branca's music as "a grinding, thrashing, distorted electric semi-raga that builds and builds toward a deliberately delayed orgasm." But he also noted that "the standard—and accurate—critical line has been that, good as Branca's music is, it's just not the same on record as it is live, where it becomes a true physical presence, and where one gets the added visual kick of Branca's emphatic conducting style."

Conducting? Yes, Branca fronted "orchestras" of eight or ten or twelve retuned guitars, and soon he was writing album-long pieces that he called "symphonies." I thought calling an hour of clashing guitars and pounding drums a symphony was either the most hilarious thing I'd ever heard, or the most pretentious. Was Branca seeking legitimacy from a system that the punk and No Wave movements he emerged from had tried to overthrow?

When Branca came to Chicago to perform in the New Music America festival I convinced a good friend to go with me to Navy Pier, the unlikely venue for the show. I recall being vaguely disappointed at this first encounter with Branca's music: the promised wall of sound seemed to be dissipated by the cavernous hall, and the guitars were strummed rather than (as I hoped) thrashed, scraped with broken glass or set on fire. It was not the overwhelming experience I'd been expecting.*

(I've been trying to determine what piece I heard that night. The festival schedule says that Branca "will perform an adaptation of his Symphony No. 2: The Peak of the Sacred," but that symphony is for "mallet guitars," which Branca describes in a 2010 Village Voice interview as being "built with screws, and two-by-fours." I seem to remember musicians playing what looked like conventional guitars. In an interview from 2012 posted on New Music Box Branca says that John Cage attended the Navy Pier concert and the next day launched into a diatribe against his music. Branca says that the piece Cage hated was Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses (1981). A photograph of Branca's group performing Indeterminate Activity in 1983 which accompanies the New Music Box post looks like the group I saw in Chicago, and this recording sounds something like what I remember hearing.)

A few years later I started listening to Sonic Youth. Often beginning in atmospheric dissonance, their songs built to squalling, clangorous peaks. I soon learned that Sonic Youth's guitarists, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, had played in Branca's groups (and I think both had been on stage with him in Chicago; I seem to remember Ranaldo's wide-eyed stare). I sought out Sonic Youth's earlier recordings, and the very strong Branca influence that was apparent in them—their first records were even released on Neutral, Branca's label—led me to listen again to Branca's music.

I found that his Symphony No. 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven (1989) sounded more like what I'd hoped to hear that night in Chicago. Branca has called Symphony No. 6 "a straight on, straight out guitar piece" (in the Village Voice interview); the recording was even co-released on Sonic Youth's label at the time, Blast First:

Another band that can be heard in Branca's music is Joy Division, especially in those moments when Branca achieves an almost ethereal stasis. His Symphony No. 3: Gloria for modified harpsichords (1983) has a feeling that's somewhat similar to the opening of Joy Division's "Atmosphere" (1980):

Sadly, Glenn Branca died last week at age 69, of throat cancer. Perhaps devil choirs greeted him at the gates of heaven. 

* The festival was an informal 70th birthday celebration for John Cage. In addition to Cage, among the many other performers appearing in the week-long festival were Muhal Richard Abrams, Ruth Anderson, Robert Ashley, Alvin Curran, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Joan LaBarbara, Annea Lockwood, Alvin Lucier, Roscoe Mitchell, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Frederick Rzewski, and Christian Wolff. Each concert cost $3, or you could see all six Navy Pier concerts for $10 (serious money for me in those days!).

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Two recent books on Jane Austen: Paula Byrne and Helena Kelly

Books discussed in this post:
Paula Byrne: The Genius of Jane Austen (updated edition), Collins, 2017
Helena Kelly: Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, Vintage, 2016
Jane Austen's novels have been in print continuously since the early 1830s, but there are periodic surges of interest in her work. The months approaching the 200th anniversary of her death in 2017 saw the publication of a number of new and reissued books examining her life, work and legacy.

Paula Byrne's The Genius of Jane Austen is one such reissue. It was originally published in 2002 as Jane Austen and the Theatre, a title which is more descriptive (but perhaps less marketable). When theatre is mentioned in connection with Jane Austen, many readers are likely to think of Mansfield Park. A key sequence in that novel features the planning and rehearsals for a private performance of Elizabeth Inchbald's Lover's Vows, an adaptation of the scandalous Das Kind der Liebe (The Love-Child) by the German playwright August Kotzebue. Some readers have assumed that Austen shares her heroine Fanny Price's objections to the play, and to the theatre in general.

Byrne convincingly shows that this isn't the case. As a young woman Austen regularly performed with family members in private theatricals. Even as late as 1809, two years before beginning work on Mansfield Park, she acted the part of the gossipy Mrs. Candour in Sheridan's The School for Scandal during a Twelfth Day party held by the Biggs-Wither family. She was a lifelong theatre- and opera-goer, and had favorite actors whom she tried to see as often as she could. One actor she admired, Robert Elliston, appeared in performances of Lover's Vows in Bath during the time that the Austen family was living there.

The influence of the theatre is most directly apparent in Mansfield Park, of course, but Byrne traces it throughout Austen's early works and her first four published novels:
  • in Sense and Sensibility, the contrasting personalities of the reserved, thoughtful Elinor and the unguarded, impetuous Marianne echo the characters of Julia Melville and Lydia Languish from Sheridan's The Rivals.
  • in Pride and Prejudice, the lively Elizabeth Bennet and her more serious sister Jane parallel Shakespearean pairings such as Rosalind and her cousin Celia in As You Like It. Elizabeth's preference for a man who, rather than matching her sparkling, irreverent wit, "boasts only worth, spirit, honour and love," echoes the romantic choice of the vivacious Lady Bell Bloomer in Hannah Cowley's Which is the Man? (p. 148). And the eloping Lydia Bennet shares her name and her preference for impoverished soldiers with Lydia Languish.
  • in Mansfield Park, the roles that the family members and neighbors take on in Lover's Vows parallel and comment on their romantic attractions outside the rehearsals.
  • in Emma, the heroine discovers that "Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken. . ." (Vol. III, Ch. XIII). Austen's recognition of the "strong element of role-playing" in social interaction is, Byrne writes, "the great lesson she took from the drama" (p. 232).
It's a bit odd that Byrne doesn't devote chapters to Northanger Abbey or Persuasion, both of which are set partially in Bath and both of which feature attendance at the theatre. In fact, the theatre is the setting for an important scene in Northanger Abbey in which General Tilney is told that Catherine Morland is an heiress—misinformation that motivates him to invite her to the family estate, setting the rest of the plot in motion. And in Persuasion, a discussion over whether to attend a play or a party with Lady Dalrymple gives Anne the opportunity, while responding to Mrs. Musgrove, to signal her own preference to the listening Captain Wentworth—a very theatrical device:
"If it depended only on my inclination, ma'am, the party at home (excepting on Mary's account) would not be the smallest impediment.  I have no pleasure in the sort of meeting, and should be too happy to change it for a play, and with you.  But, it had better not be attempted, perhaps."  She had spoken it; but she trembled when it was done, conscious that her words were listened to, and daring not even to try to observe their effect. . .

Captain Wentworth left his seat, and walked to the fire-place; probably for the sake of walking away from it soon afterwards, and taking a station, with less bare-faced design, by Anne. 
"You have not been long enough in Bath," said he, "to enjoy the evening parties of the place." 
"Oh! no.  The usual character of them has nothing for me.  I am no card-player." 
"You were not formerly, I know.  You did not use to like cards; but time makes many changes." 
"I am not yet so much changed," cried Anne, and stopped, fearing she hardly knew what misconstruction.  (Vol. II, Ch. X)
Austen drew on novels as well as plays in creating her characters and plots, and sometimes those connections are even more direct than the ones Byrne makes with the theatre (see the previous posts in the series "Jane Austen's predecessors"). But her book brings out a less-familiar dimension of Austen's work and will enrich any reader's experience of the novels.

For the updated edition Byrne has added a new concluding chapter, "Why She Is a Hit in Hollywood," focusing on film and television adaptations. Byrne writes,
If Jane Austen were alive today, she'd probably be appalled by the movie adaptations of her books. She would be baffled by the fact that the majority of films emphasise the romantic aspect of her novels, when her intention was to subvert and undermine the romantic. Perhaps she would be vexed that her comic genius, and precise social satire, have been subsumed by Regency frocks, beautiful houses and impeccably landscaped gardens. (p. 274)
She writes that "the best adaptations of Austen are those that. . .remain true to the spirit of the novels and the essence of the characters. They assume no special knowledge" (p. 262). She cites in particular Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park (1999), Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995, an adaptation of Emma), Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1990, an adaptation of Mansfield Park) and his Love and Friendship (2016, an adaptation of Lady Susan).

I've written briefly about some of these films in "Six months with Jane Austen: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts." Byrne notes the "deployment of feminist, gender and post-colonial themes" in Rozema's Mansfield Park (p. 262), but I felt that the subtexts of Austen's novel had been made too explicit, and the character of Fanny Price changed into a version of her creator. Clueless, with its thinly disguised Beverly Hills High School setting and contemporary slang, brilliantly obscured its origins in Austen. As I wrote about Alicia Silverstone's Cher/Emma, however, "the updating places a key issue in stark relief: why should we care about this superficial and super-privileged character?" Updatings of Austen can work well: the delightful Kandukondain Kandukondain (I have found it, 2000), a Tamil-language version of Sense and Sensibility, is situated in a place that is geographically, culturally, and temporally remote from Regency England.

I don't share Byrne's antipathy to adaptations set in Austen's time that try to remain true to the letter as well as the spirit of the novels. In particular, the Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion adaptations from 1995 make fully apparent the economically and socially subordinate position of women and the injustices of class in Regency society; both films are subtle, many-layered, and emotionally engaging. The highly enjoyable 2007 adaptation of Northanger Abbey even, as Byrne says of Rozema's film, "nods to academic literary criticism"—in particular, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl"—without being too, well, academic about it. Of course, I agree with Byrne that the great hope with even the best Austen adaptations is "that they introduced new readers to the novels, and sent those who had already read Austen back to the pleasures and rewards of re-reading her" (p. 275).

Helena Kelly's Jane Austen, the Secret Radical poses the question, which Austen character "has married a man who doesn't love her, who is a fool and a hypocrite"? (p. 196). A few names might spring to mind: in Sense and Sensibility, perhaps Miss Grey, the heiress who marries the unscrupulous Willoughby; in Pride and Prejudice, perhaps Charlotte Lucas, who marries the fawning Mr. Collins, or Lydia Bennet, who elopes with the cad Wickham; in Persuasion, perhaps the ill-fated first wife of Anne's fortune-hunting cousin William Elliot.

For Kelly the answer to this question is Mansfield Park's Fanny Price. Never mind that the narrator describes her union with Edmund Bertram as possessing "true merit and true love," that we are told that "the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be," and that "their home was the home of affection and comfort" (Vol. III, Ch. XVII). Kelly reads these statements as ironic—a reflection of Fanny's own willful and willing blindness to her situation—and Mansfield Park as a tragedy.*

This is hardly the only misreading in Kelly's book, which is a curious mixture of genuine insight together with overstatement, error and hubris. For example, she characterizes Northanger Abbey and Persuasion as "two novels, neither of which Jane herself had seen fit to have published" (p.22). Well, not quite. Northanger Abbey, then entitled Susan, was the first novel Austen herself tried to have published, in 1803, and through her brother Henry she successfully sold it to publisher Richard Crosby. In 1816 the novel had still not been printed, and Henry was able to buy the manuscript back for the original £10 the publisher had paid. Austen revised the novel, in the process changing the heroine's name from Susan to Catherine, and wrote a short preface:
This little work was finished in the year 1803, and intended for immediate publication. It was disposed of to a bookseller, it was even advertised, and why the business proceeded no farther, the author has never been able to learn. . .The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes. ("Advertisement, by the authoress, to Northanger Abbey")
Why would Austen write a preface addressed to the public if she was not planning to publish Northanger Abbey? As for Persuasion, in March 1816 Austen wrote in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, "I have a something ready for publication, which may, perhaps, appear about a twelvemonth hence." Again, "I have something ready for publication" does not sound as though she does not see fit to publish. It's not hard to find an explanation for why she might not have submitted it to a publisher herself in 1816 or 1817: she was experiencing increasingly severe symptoms of illness, and died in July 1817.

Kelly casts doubt on documents related to Austen, even when their provenance would seem to be unimpeachable. For example, she writes of the letters in which Austen discusses her flirtation with Tom Lefroy (see "Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?"),
All three letters are missing. We have no idea where they currently are. [Indeed, that would seem to be the definition of "missing"—P.] Two of them—the first and last—have never been seen by anyone outside the Austen family. Our only authority for what they say—or indeed, for the fact that they existed at all—is the volume of letters published in 1884 by Lord Brabourne (Edward Austen's grandson, and so Jane's great-nephew). (p. 29)**
She also has something to say about the chronology of Jane's novels:
We do have a list of composition dates for Jane's novels, but it was written by Cassandra, not Jane, and we have no idea when it was drawn up. [The Morgan Library, where this list currently resides, has dated the list "ca. July 1817"]. Writers on Jane have tended to treat this document as if it were completely reliable; they really shouldn't. (p. 18)***
While I don't share Kelly's uncertainty about the veracity of Austen letters published in the 19th century in a volume edited by a family member, or of a document written by Austen's older sister, who lived intimately with her for her entire life, she is right to call attention to areas where evidence is lacking. Kelly notes correctly that "there are so many gaps, so many silences, so much that has been left vague, or imprecise, or reported at second or third hand" (p. 20).

One of Kelly's responses to this paucity of information is to occasionally exercise (in my view, often undue) caution in what is asserted as fact, as in the above examples. Elsewhere, though, she has a tendency to overstate the implications of the evidence. And she also uses gaps in our knowledge as a license to fantasize. Each chapter of the book begins with a short fictional introduction written from Austen's point of view, often using free indirect speech. You may feel differently, but I found these fictional interludes to be so annoying that I quickly began to skip them entirely. In my view fan fiction about Jane Austen does not get us any closer to understanding details about her life that remain unclear from the documentary record. Instead we should have the humility to accept that there are many aspects of her life and work that we may never be able to know fully.

But the fictional interludes are easily skimmable. Less ignorable is that Kelly's book draws extensively on the work of other Austen scholars who generally go uncredited. Paula Byrne's book has 35 pages of notes and an 11-page bibliography of Austen sources and scholarship, while Kelly offers a smattering of footnotes, only a paltry three pages of endnotes, and one page of "Further Reading" which contains nothing published after the 19th century.

Two examples will stand for many others. In Northanger Abbey, Austen wrote the following passages (heavily edited by me), which Kelly describes as "probably the sexiest thing you'll read in Jane's novels":
She applied herself to the key, and after moving it in every possible way. . .Catherine's heart beat quick. . .with a cheek flushed. . .straining. . .her fingers grasped. . .The place in the middle alone remained now unexplored. . .back into the further part of the cavity. . .her feelings at that moment were indescribable. Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her cheeks grew pale. . . (Vol II, Ch. VI)
Kelly writes, "Let's not mince words here. With all those folds [actually folding doors] and cavities, the key, the fingers, the fluttering and trembling, this looks a lot like a thinly veiled description of female masturbation" (pp. 64-65).

Or vulgar Freudianism. It's clear that Catherine is excited by the exploration of the cabinet in her room, but does Austen want us to see that excitement as specifically sexual? For someone who is skeptical of the concrete documentary evidence of Austen's letters and Cassandra's chronology, this seems like a bit of a leap. But if you're going to make that leap you should credit Eve Sedgwick's article, which was the first (to my knowledge) to raise the issue of female self-pleasuring in the context of Austen's work. (Sedgwick wrote mainly about Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, but still.) And you might also reference the 2007 Andrew Davies/Jon Jones adaptation of the novel, which makes an, er, explicit connection between Catherine's explorations and sexual excitement.

In her discussion of Mansfield Park Kelly mentions that Austen's own family had connections to the slave plantations of Antigua: "Her eldest brother, James, had a slave-owning godfather: James Nibbs, an Oxford acquaintance of the Rev. George Austen's [Jane's father]" (pp. 168-169). That connection was first discovered by Brian Southam, and published in an article in the Times Literary Supplement in 1995; in fact, Southam found that George Austen had been named as a trustee of Nibbs' Antiguan sugar plantation. Kelly dismissively footnotes Claire Tomalin's 1999 biography of Jane Austen, but does not mention Southam's original painstaking detective work. (For more details, see "Mansfield Park and slavery III: An estate built on 'the ruin and labour of others.'")

Kelly's elision of her sources, in my view, calls her whole enterprise into question. Which is a shame, because her book does occasionally offer intriguing insights into Austen's novels:
  • Sense and Sensibility seems to be a fictional exploration of a passage from Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792): ". . .when the brother marries, a probable circumstance, from being considered as the mistress of the family, [his sister] is viewed with averted looks as an intruder, an unnecessary burden. . .The wife, a cold-hearted, narrow-minded woman. . .is jealous of the little kindness which her husband shows to his relations; and her sensibility not rising to humanity, she is displeased at seeing the property of her children lavished on an helpless sister" (pp. 83-84). This, in outline, is the plot of the first two chapters of Austen's novel.
  • "Mansfield Park," Kelly tells us, "is about slavery" (p. 180). Readers of this blog, whose posts were written before Kelly's book was published, have no reason to doubt it. In one of my posts on the novel I pointed out, following Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen (2014), that the pro-slavery propagandist Robert Norris was a probable inspiration for the name and character of the odious Mrs. Norris in Austen's novel. Kelly suggests another Norris who may also have been in Austen's thoughts: Henry Hadley Norris, a member of the slave-owning Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
  • Emma's hero is Mr. Knightley, and Kelly points to evidence in the novel that he is in the process of enclosing the common lands around Highbury. Enclosure restricted for the use of a particular landowner lands formerly grazed or cultivated in common, and the practice impoverished local herders and farmers. If Mr. Knightley is enclosing the lands around the village it certainly complicates his character.
  • Persuasion is read by Kelly as a representation of the Stuart-Hanoverian succession: "The Elliots are obliged to rent out their estate as a means of economizing. Their removal from Kellynch, and the arrival of the Crofts, as tenants, and of Sophia Croft's brother, Frederick Wentworth, replay the dynastic break, the replacement of the Stuarts with the Hanoverians" (p. 256). She quotes a suggestive passage from Austen's novel (a quote I've expanded slightly here): ". . .however sorry and ashamed for the necessity of the removal, [Anne] could not but in conscience feel that they were gone who deserved not to stay, and that Kellynch Hall had passed into better hands than its owners'." (Vol II, Ch. I)
But without proper attribution, there is no immediate way to know whether these insights are Kelly's or someone else's. The absence of a complete set of notes and bibliography is a damaging omission that, along with its other idiosyncrasies, makes Kelly's book impossible for me to recommend without major reservations.

For more on Austen's novels, please see "Six months with Jane Austen":

* Part of Fanny's blindness, according to Kelly, is that "she forgets that she is her husband's second choice" (p. 196). I might point out that in Sense and Sensibility Elinor Dashwood is Edward Ferrar's second choice (after Lucy Steele) and Colonel Brandon, Marianne's (after Willoughby); in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is Elizabeth's third choice (depending on how seriously we take her flirtations with Wickham and Colonel Fitzwilliam); in Emma, Robert Martin is Harriet Smith's first and fourth choice (after Mr. Elton and Mr. Knightley). Are we to understand that all of these marriages are blighted as a result?

** In addition to the letters, though, we also have the testimony of members of Austen's family, of Tom Lefroy himself as reported by his nephew to Austen's nephew James Austen-Leigh, and the suggestive name of Lefroy's daughter, see "Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?" for more details. Is Kelly suggesting that this evidence should be disregarded?

*** Strangely, Kelly later writes that "We can't be sure how much she reworked Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, but there are enough indications remaining in the text to suggest that the family tradition [it's not a "family tradition," but a contemporary document] that they were originally written in the 1790s isn't wide of the mark" (p. 160). So is Cassandra's document unreliable, or close to the mark?

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Jab Harry met Sejal

Helpless Shah Rukh Khan fans that we are, we'll watch him in anything—even an Imtiaz Ali movie. The title of Jab Harry Met Sejal (When Harry met Sejal, 2017) tries to evoke both When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Jab We Met (When we met, 2007), Imtiaz's first hit. And indeed JHMS draws on the central story of both films: we follow a couple who initially irritate each other, gradually become friends and ultimately realize that they are meant for each other.

Another point of similarity with the previous films is that the friendship slowly grows over the course of a road trip. In JHMS, the trip is occasioned by a search for an engagement ring lost on a European tour. While her fiancé returns to India, Sejal (Anushka Sharma) stays behind to find the ring, and demands the help of her tour guide, Harry (SRK). Sejal will return to India and her fiancé only after the ring is found; retracing the stops on the tour, Sejal and Harry's quest takes them from Amsterdam to Prague, Budapest and Lisbon. (No prizes for guessing where the ring finally turns up—we predicted it 10 minutes into the movie.) It's the thinnest possible pretext for a European travelogue.

A fiancé is waiting at the end of the journey as well in Jab We Met, which itself liberally borrowed from other "falling in love on the road" films. In JHMS there are also echoes of such films as Chalte Chalte (Journeying, 2003) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The brave heart wins the bride, 1995), not to mention It Happened One Night (1934), Remember the Night (1940) and Sullivan's Travels (1941).

On the road, Harry and Sejal spend the night together (fully clothed) in Jab Harry Met Sejal

On the road, The Girl (Veronica Lake) and John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) spend the night together (fully clothed) in Sullivan's Travels.

I would mind Imtiaz's blatant borrowings from himself and others much less if those borrowings were clever, knowing, or added an unexpected twist or two. Instead they simply underline the film's utter predictability. Imtiaz isn't being playful; he's relying on formula.  And the elements that Imtiaz doesn't borrow from romantic comedies contemporary or classic are ones his films could desperately use: witty repartee and credible women characters.

In film after film Imtiaz's heroines have been fantasy Manic Pixie Dream Girls (see Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal (2009), Cocktail (2012), and Tamasha (2015) for starters). Sejal is a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl: overbearing, self-involved and self-dramatizing, alternately flirty and rejecting, she's just a (slightly) different stereotype. And Sejal is given lines that no real person would ever utter, I hope.

In another example, in a Prague club Sejal throws her drink in a thug's face. The thug and his henchman chase Sejal and Harry through the streets. As they hide from the men, Sejal has a question for Harry:

Practically speaking? By asking his actors to deliver a "joke" involving a potential rape victim's anxiety about her sexual inexperience, Imtiaz is willfully making light of the horrors of real-world violence against women.

Sure, when they're not being asked to utter offensive inanities the actors are appealing, and the locations are picturesque. But JHMS is so contrived, inept and objectionable I think it marks the point where I part ways with Imtiaz Ali, forever.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Jane West: A Gossip's Story

Cover of Jane West's A Gossip's Story, edited by Devoney Looser, Melinda O'Connell and Caitlin Kelly, Valancourt Books, 2016

Some readers of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811) imagine a different ending, in which the romantic Marianne marries the dashing Willoughby after all, and the reserved Colonel Brandon finds solace by marrying her sister Elinor.

If you're one of those readers who think such an ending would best match the inclinations of each sister and suitor, you may have to think again. Jane West anticipated your feelings in A Gossip's Story (1796), and the results are not all that happy.

West's novel also features two sisters: a younger one named Marianne (perhaps Austen's Marianne is an homage), who is full of impassioned sensibility, and her more circumspect elder sister Louisa. Marianne is courted by Henry Pelham, who possesses "an open, ingenuous countenance, manly sense, and easy accommodating manners" (Ch. V). However, she is not looking for a husband who exhibits such amiable virtues. She rejects him in favor of the more impetuous and ardent Mr. Clermont, who better fits her idea of a lover. Meanwhile, Louisa feels drawn to Mr. Pelham, but cannot make her feelings known—at first because he is the declared suitor of her sister, and later because her father's unwise investments reduce the family to relative poverty.

Marianne, though, is independently wealthy thanks to a legacy from her grandmother, and can marry whom she pleases. But the marriage of Marianne and Mr. Clermont is not a success. He inevitably plays the ardent, indulgent lover less and less, and hangs out with his drinking buddies more and more. Meanwhile, Marianne confides her disappointments to her best friend, Eliza Milton, who commiserates with her friend and has no hesitation in abusing her husband's character. A deep rift grows between husband and wife, fomented by Mr. Clermont's malevolent mother, who feels that Marianne isn't sufficiently high-born for her son.

The narrator of A Gossip's Story describes herself as an "old maid" who belongs to a meddlesome group of busybodies in a nearby town. So perhaps we shouldn't read her advice as being completely congruent with the feelings of the author. Nonetheless, that advice is likely to make modern readers wince. When a group of Mr. Clermont's friends visit him in his country retreat and propose a shooting party, Marianne objects to "the cruel nature of these sports." Mr. Clermont doesn't really enjoy killing animals either, and after first promising to go, stays behind at the urging of his wife. But he dreads becoming the object of his friends' derision:
A jest upon the subject of female usurpation is dreadfully grating to lordly man, and it is peculiarly so when (as in the present instance) it happens to apply. Mr. Clermont declined his lady's invitation to breakfast, and as soon as his friends had set off, retired to his library, and there continued to pace the room with desultory steps; frequently imagining he had caught a glimpse of the chains which Hymen is suspected to wear under his long saffron mantle.

Respecting the real existence of these said chains, I, as an old maid, must not be allowed to give any decided opinion; but as the very apprehension of them has been known to drive many of the "Lords of the creation" frantick, I constantly advise my newly-married friends to endeavour as much as possible to divert their husbands' attention from this terrible bugbear. I intreat them to hold the reins of government (if by great chance committed to their hands) with circumspect propriety, and to surrender them the moment that the possession of them becomes disputed. (Ch. XXVIII)
The couple argue, particularly after Mr. Clermont learns that his wife has been sharing feelings with Eliza Milton that she has not expressed to him, and allowing Eliza to criticize him severely. He demands that Marianne break with her; tears and anger ensue. The breach between husband and wife is only healed at the urging of Marianne's father. Clermont asks for Marianne's forgiveness sincerely, if a bit reluctantly; and while Marianne acquiesces, she is still bitter at the demand that she repudiate her friend.
Undoubtedly he was too arrogant in expecting his recent provocations could be immediately forgotten, and himself received with a complacent smile. I am, however, afraid that the generality of husbands, from the high idea they entertain of their own superiority, would be apt to think a wife very capricious who should retain her resentment after they have made the slightest concession. Men are remarkably tenacious of their opinions, and since protracting a domestick quarrel must always be at the hazard of future happiness, I must advise my sex to be "easily entreated." (Ch. XXX)
This advocacy of calculating submission in wives is objectionable not only for modern readers. A Gossip's Story was published just four years after Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which urged men to "be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience." But if, as West's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has it, "where Wollstonecraft advocates 'Rights', West insists on 'Duties'," the two writers actually share some common ground: both are suspicious of the cultivation of excessive feeling in women, which undermines their claims to equal rationality with men. In the dedication of her novel West, who introduces it under the pseudonym Prudentia Homespun, wrote that the work was "intended to illustrate the Advantages of Consistency, Fortitude, and the Domestick Virtues; and to expose to ridicule, Caprice, affected Sensibility, and an IDLE censorious Humour." While these animadversions are aimed primarily at her women readers, as West's ironic comments about "the 'Lords of the creation'" indicate, she was deeply skeptical of men's claims to inherent superiority.

A Gossip's Story would be of great interest as one of the sources that inspired Sense and Sensibility (along with Charlotte Smith's Celestina, which features a character named Willoughby), and also as a response to Wollstonecraft's Vindication. But it deserves to be read in its own right for West's keen observations on human foibles as well as her frequently ironic narrative voice, which (despite the deferential advice for women) can feel very modern.
To do justice to his Lordship's benevolence he really felt an inclination to stand forth as an active friend; a wish which like many of the desires human nature is apt to entertain, seemed to increase with the improbability of its completion. (Ch. XXII)
As the editors have rightly described it, A Gossip's Story is "by turns thoughtful, moving, and dryly witty." You can read more of their thoughts about editing the novel on Aphra Behn Online's Bluestocking Salon.

For more on the writers who inspired Austen, see Jane Austen's predecessors.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Nayak: The Hero

In his films from the 1950s and early 60s such as the Apu Trilogy (1955-59) and Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), writer/director Satyajit Ray depicted the lives of ordinary people struggling to make their way in the world. Nayak (The Hero, 1966) at first seems as though it is going to be a radical departure.

Instead of the impoverished villages and cramped apartments of Ray's earlier films, Nayak opens in the spacious bungalow of Bengali matinée idol Arindam Mukherjee (played by Bengali matinée idol Uttam Kumar), as he makes last-minute preparations for a trip to Dehli to receive an official prize. The sudden trip is occasioned by an erupting newspaper scandal about a drunken punch thrown by Arindam in a club two nights previously, as well as the unwelcome news that his latest movie is tanking at the box office. The time seems propitious to get out of town for a few days.

However, instead of providing distance from his problems, his trip will bring him face-to-face with the increasingly cynical and opportunistic choices that have brought him to this crisis.

Because his travel plans have been made at short notice Arindam winds up on the train, and in a shared compartment. As he boards the train for the overnight trip, women stare in surprise and awe. In film studies it has become conventional to speak of the "male gaze," after Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay "Visual pleasure and narrative cinema." But in Nayak the female gaze is central: almost every woman he encounters stares at Arindam with near-adulation:

From the top: Molly Sarkar (Susmita Mukherjee) and her husband (Kamu Mukherjee), Sefalika Ajoy (Jamuna Sinha) and her husband (Subrata Sensharma), Manorama Bose (Bharati Devi), her teen daughter Bubul (Lali Chowdury), and a young girl (uncredited).

As one character says, Arindam is a modern-day Krishna, and his female fans are his secret devotees. There's just one exception:

Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore) is the writer, editor and publisher of a magazine for women, and she is distinctly disapproving of the unreality of popular movies.

Nonetheless, the opportunity to interview Arindam for her magazine is too good to pass up.

Perhaps to challenge her moralistic certainties, or perhaps to disarm her with candor, Arindam tells Aditi some unusually frank stories about his rise to stardom. He tells her that he feels that by becoming a film actor he has betrayed the devotion to artistic truth of his theatrical mentor, Shankar (Somen Bose).

He tells her of his feelings of inadequacy during his first film shoot when an older star, Mukunda (Bireswar Sen), sabotaged his performance by insisting that Arindam adapt to Mukunda's more melodramatic acting style in their scenes together.

And he tells her of distancing himself from his former best friend, the political activist Biresh (Premangshu Bose), because he fears that to be drawn into controversy would risk alienating his audience.

His reflections on the past give him nightmares; the nightmares drive him to drink; drinking sends him into a downward spiral of doubt and despair.

In his dark night of the soul, Arindam recognizes how empty and unprincipled he has become. And he realizes that he's given Aditi Sengupta enough compromising material to destroy him. And yet he's unable to stop the flow of his confessions; he has to unburden himself, and there's no one else he can talk to.

But his stories have affected Aditi as well. She's come to know the struggles he's experienced, the difficult choices he's faced, and the constant pressure he is under. She gets a small taste of the relentless public scrutiny he must deal with every day when the train is mobbed by his fans during a brief station stop.

So now she faces her own difficult choice: she can publish her interview and ensure the success of her magazine at the expense of Arindam's career, or pass up a chance that will never come again.

Many of the characters, not just the hero, are struggling with the question of how much to compromise themselves in order to achieve what they want in a corrupt and pitiless world. And in Nayak, as in his many other masterpieces, Ray offers no easy answers.

An out-of-work Mukunda begs Arindam for a role in his new film

Nayak has been restored and reissued on a Criterion Collection DVD which does full justice to Ray's complex vision of his characters and Subrata Mitra's glowing black-and-white cinematography.

Other posts on films of Satyajit Ray: