Friday, December 30, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Television

John Everett Millais (Samuel Barnett), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Aidan Turner),
and William Holman Hunt (Rafe Spall) walk through an exploding art gallery
in the "Heroes" promo for Desperate Romantics

This was our Year of the BBC Series. We saw so many excellent series that it's hard to pick out just a few as standouts; the general standard for acting, writing, directing, and production design was amazingly high. So my apologies for a list that's a bit overstuffed; the series are given in the order in which they were viewed:

Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) in Cranford
Cranford (2007) and Return to Cranford (2009): As the titles might suggest, these Heidi Thomas-scripted Elizabeth Gaskell adaptations focus on the inhabitants of the fictional town of Cranford, and the challenges to their traditions posed by new social, political and economic changes. Dame Judi Dench heads an ensemble cast of excellent British actors such as Imelda Staunton, Barbara Flynn, Claudie Blakely, Lesley Manville, Jim Carter, Michael Gambon, and the serenely radiant Julia Sawalha (I could hardly believe that Lydia Bennett in 1995 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice was created by the same actress, so different are the characters). Julia Sawalha is the reason we began watching Lark Rise To Candleford (see below).

Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell) in Wives and Daughters
Wives and Daughters (1999) is another Elizabeth Gaskell adaptation, this time written by Andrew Davies (who also wrote the screenplay for the 1995 Pride & Prejudice). It's centered on Molly Gibson (the ethereal Justine Waddell), a young woman who must deal with her unpleasant new stepmother (Francesca Annis) and her beautiful but emotionally manipulative new stepsister (Keeley Hawes). Another excellent cast that also includes Michael Gambon, Barbara Flynn, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, and Rosamund Pike.

Mirah (Jodhi May) and Daniel (Hugh Dancy) in Daniel Deronda
Daniel Deronda (2002): I wrote about this George Eliot adaptation my earlier post "Why BBC literary adaptations are so delightful: Daniel Deronda edition." It features gorgeous locations, a wonderful Andrew Davies script, and another excellent cast (including Amanda Root, Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Dancy, and Jodhi May).

Dorcas
Dorcas Lane (Julia Sawalha) in Lark Rise To Candleford
Lark Rise To Candleford (2008-2011): I wrote about this series in my posts "Lark Rise To Candleford" and "The Victorians and Bollywood: Lark Rise to Lagaan." The high quality of the scripts is maintained to the end of Season Four.

Mr. Slope (Alan Rickman) in The Barchester Chronicles
The Barchester Chronicles (1982): For a more detailed appreciation of this series, please see the Update to my post "A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire." The young Alan Rickman is especially slimy as the sibilant snake-like sycophant Mr. Slope, a forerunner of Harry Potter's Snape.

Irene Heron Forsyte (Gina McKee) in The Forsyte Saga
The Forsyte Saga (2002): Strictly speaking a Granada Television, not BBC, series, but equally lavish and equally well-cast. At first I wondered whether the problems of the self-involved members of this rich family (and the unfortunate people who found themselves in their orbit) were going to hold my interest for ten episodes and 700 minutes; we started to call it the "Lack of Foresight Saga." Then came the episode in which the family's dying patriarch, Old Jolyon, discovers an intellectual companionship that blossoms into platonic love with the sensitive Irene, his nephew Soames's estranged wife. In this episode, too, Old Jolyon begins to understand and accept the choices made by his artist son Young Joylon when he followed the imperatives of love over those of duty. This touching episode was beautifully written by Stephen Mallatratt and acted by Corin Redgrave (Old Jolyon), Gina McKee (Irene), Rupert Graves (Young Jolyon) and the other members of the cast. From then on, we were hooked.

Lizzie Siddal (Amy Manson) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Aidan Turner)
in Desperate Romantics
Desperate Romantics (2009): If you're somewhat allergic to costume dramas you'll still enjoy Desperate Romantics. It follows the misadventures of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as they drink to excess, sleep with their models, and scandalize the Victorian art world. What makes the series take off is the larger-than-life performance of Aidan Turner as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an artist and poet who is determined to make up for his relative lack of talent (or, at least, his lack of application) through relentless self-promotion. From the neo-glam-rock theme song on, the series is given a deliberately anachronistic tone by writer Peter Bowker and directors Paul Gay and Diarmuid Lawrence. Ordinarily deliberate anachronisms annoy me, but they work brilliantly in this very modern tale of sex and art-world success. Great fun, and a surprising amount of bare flesh (male and female). Definitely not your typical BBC series.

More Favorites of 2011: Bollywood, Books, Movies, and Music

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Music

Favorite live music events:

Jill Tracy (photo credit: Neil Girling)

Jill Tracy and Daniel Handler: "The Ballad of Fantômas." City Lights Books, San Francisco, April 6; presented by Peter Maravelis' Fantômas-By-The-Bay centenary celebration

Jill Tracy is a gothic cabaret chanteuse who has composed soundtracks for silent films, including Murnau's 1922 horror classic Nosferatu. Handler, among other activities, is an accordionist who has played on projects with Stephin Merritt (Handler appears on The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs as well as albums by The 6ths and The Gothic Archies). Together they performed an unforgettable version of Kurt Weill and Robert Desnos' Ballad of Fantômas, which enumerates, in graphic detail, the many crimes of the title character. The performers were helped along on the gruesome choruses by an enthusiastic absinthe-soaked crowd (absinthe generously supplied by St. George Spirits). Dark cabaret, indeed.

For a taste of Jill Tracy's work, here is a short film of her song "The Fine Art of Poisoning," directed by Bill Domonkos:


Philippe Jaroussky & Apollo's Fire, "Handel and Vivaldi Fireworks," Hertz Hall, Berkeley, October 30; presented by Cal Performances

The countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is a truly amazing performer, and his appearance with the period instrument ensemble Apollo's Fire was far and away the most thrilling live music event we witnessed this past year. You can read more details about this electrifying concert in my earlier post.

Favorite classical music recording:

Philippe Jaroussky: Carestini — The Story of A Castrato. Le Concert d'Astrée; Emmanuelle Haïm, conductor
[Carestini] rendered everything he sang interesting by good taste, energy, and judicious embellishments. He manifested great agility in the execution of difficult divisions from the chest in a most articulate and admirable manner. It was the opinion of Hasse, as well as of many other eminent professors, that whoever had not heard Carestini was unacquainted with the most perfect style of singing.
—Charles Burney, A General History of Music v. 2, pp. 782 - 783
The countertenor Philippe Jaroussky has many excellent recordings, but Carestini perhaps best showcases the full range of his gifts. This recording of arias written for the castrato Carestini includes examples of both lightning-fast coloratura and affecting slow arias. The works performed include some less-familiar arias by well-known composers such as Gluck and Handel, as well as wonderful arias by such undeservedly neglected composers as Capelli, Graun, Hasse, Leo, and Porpora. Like Cecilia Bartoli, Jaroussky seeks out underexplored areas of the repertory and brings his most exciting discoveries to renewed life. This is a superb disc, and of his recordings perhaps comes closest to suggesting the excitement of his live performances.

Favorite opera performances (live):

Handel: Acis & Galatea. Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, June 18; presented by the Boston Early Music Festival

I wrote about this brilliantly staged and beautifully performed chamber opera in an earlier post. We were fortunate to see one of its stars, Aaron Sheehan, as Orpheus in our other favorite live opera experience of 2011:

Charpentier: La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers. Magnificat; Warren Stewart, director. St. Mark's Episcopalian Church, Berkeley, October 15

Another superb evening of music from Magnificat. Orphée retells the myth of Orpheus' liberation of his beloved Eurydice from the underworld realm of Pluto and Proserpine. Charpentier's chamber opera compresses a huge range of emotion into a compact package. Magnificat's principal singers—Aaron Sheehan (Orphée), Laura Heimes (Euridice), Jennifer Ellis Kampani (Daphné, Aréthuze, Proserpine), and Peter Becker (Pluton)—performed Charpentier's exquisite music beautifully. Another triumph for the singers, Magnificat's instrumental ensemble, and director Warren Stewart.

Favorite opera (broadcast):

Renée Fleming (Rodelinda)
and Andreas Scholl (Bertarido)
Handel: Rodelinda. Met Live in HD broadcast, December 3

For Rodelinda Handel wrote some of his greatest music and created one of his most affecting heroines. Renée Fleming, the title character in this production from the Met, has a voice that at this stage in her career seems to have lost some agility and is showing some wear. The countertenor Andreas Scholl, as Rodelinda's husband Bertarido, was also not in his best voice for this broadcast. However, all hesitations were swept away by their total commitment to their roles. Their farewell scene at the end of Act II was passionately convincing; during Rodelinda's Act III mourning aria "Se 'l mio duol non e si forte," real tears coursed down Fleming's cheeks; and the kiss Bertarido/Scholl planted on Rodelinda/Fleming at the conclusion of the opera was full of unfeigned affection.

San Francisco Opera might take note of how effective Stephen Wadsworth's thoughtfully detailed but straightforward production was; it required no updatings to fascist Europe, and refused to undermine Handel's drama with jokes or camp. The contrast with SF Opera's well-sung but emotionally inert production of Rodelinda from several seasons ago couldn't have been more stark.

Most clueless audience members:

Philip Glass: Satyagraha. Met Live in HD rebroadcast, Century Cinema 9, San Francisco, December 7

Satyagraha is about the young Gandhi's encounters with injustice in South Africa and the formation of his philosophy of compassion and non-violent resistance. In the final scene of the opera, Gandhi (Richard Croft) steps forward and sings an extended solo on an excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita which means in part "I come to earth...for the protection of good, holding back evil and upholding virtue." Suddenly the screen was illuminated by a flash—a woman sitting several rows in front of us had taken a flash picture of the screen. Not only is that incredibly rude, it's incredibly stupid: when you take a picture of a lighted screen, using a flash will both wash out the screen image and brightly illuminate anything directly in front of you (like the backs of the seats in the next row). Evidently this woman was indeed unhappy with the quality of her picture, because as the scene progressed she went on to take several more. After the third or fourth flash, a guy a couple of rows behind her screamed "IF YOU TAKE ONE MORE PICTURE I'M GOING TO COME DOWN THERE AND KILL YOU!" Meanwhile, Gandhi sang on about compassion and non-violence.

Websites:
Jill Tracy
City Lights Books
The Fantômas Website
St. George Absinthe Verte
Philippe Jaroussky (in French)
Apollo's Fire
Boston Early Music Festival
Aaron Sheehan
Magnificat
Metropolitan Opera Live in HD

More Favorites of 2011:
Bollywood, Books, Movies, and Television

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Movies

Brief Encounter (1945): I have a penchant for movies about doomed love; after all, among my ten favorite films of all time are Vertigo, Casablanca, La Jetée and Kal Ho Naa Ho. So I'm not sure why it took me so long to see this David Lean-directed classic. Perhaps I wasn't ready to see it until now; I do think that to fully appreciate this film it helps to be at least as old as its protagonists (who seem to be in their mid-30s). I'm just glad I didn't let any more time go by.

The story is taken from Noel Coward's play "Still Life": a man and a woman (Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson) meet in a railway station cafe every week at the same time. Their casual encounters for movie-watching and window shopping soon deepen into love—only, both of them are married and have children. If you're thinking, "This can't end well," you're right.

The film is filled with wonderful scenes. Probably the most excruciating is when on a rainy night the couple winds up together at the apartment of an absent friend, and seem to be on the verge of consummating their affair, only to have the friend return unexpectedly. And the couple's final parting, interrupted by an oblivious, chattering busybody, is agonizing.

Brief Encounter is beautifully photographed, and Robert Krasker's stunning black and white cinematography is gorgeously rendered in the Criterion Collection DVD transfer. Another striking element of the film is the score: Rachmaninoff's sweepingly romantic Piano Concerto No. 2 ebbs and swells through virtually every scene. (Cleverly, the music has a diegetic origin: the film is largely told in flashback, and a radio is playing the piece in the background of the frame story). Having a single piece of music so closely intertwined with the story was a technique later used by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo, with Bernard Herrmann's variations on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Curiously, the conductor of the Vertigo soundtrack, Muir Matheson, also conducted the Rachmaninoff score of Brief Encounter (Eileen Joyce was the soloist).

But what makes the film so memorable is the extraordinary performance of Celia Johnson as Laura, the suburban housewife who unexpectedly discovers in Howard's Alec a final chance at passionate love—only to find herself incapable of the necessary cruelty and selfishness to seize it. Johnson's face, which looks almost plain from some angles and classically beautiful from others, registers every nuance of her self-condemnation. A masterpiece of thwarted desire.

Mädchenjahre einer Königin/Victoria in Dover (aka The Story of Vickie, 1954): A young girl discovers that she's really a queen, meets her Prince Charming, and they live happily ever after. It's the stuff of fairy tales, but it really happened to Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, who at the age of 18 became Queen Victoria.

In Victoria in Dover the young queen is portrayed by the even younger Romy Schneider, who was only 16 when the film was made. Schneider is utterly delightful as a teenager who suddenly has to negotiate her way through the minefields of power. Amazingly (as I discovered after the film) pretty much all of the details of her early reign as portrayed in the film are historically based, in particular her mother's attempt, in league with her lover Sir John Conroy, to seize control and reign through her daughter.

Only the incident that gives the film its English title is fictional. Victoria is being pressured to marry, and has already seen (and rejected) two of the three suitors selected for her. The only one she hasn't yet met is Prince Albert. Sick of the intrigues at court, Victoria decides to flee in disguise to spend a few days in Paris. When she reaches Dover she stays overnight at an inn while waiting for the next boat to Calais. Staying at the same inn is a dashing young man who introduces her to waltzing and both literally and figuratively sweeps her off her feet.*

Of course, we can see where this is going, but director Ernst Marischka gets us there charmingly and with a deft comic touch. And Schneider is simply radiant. She went on to become famous in the Sissi trilogy, another real-life fairy tale directed by Marischka; if the Sissi trilogy is as delightful as Victoria in Dover it will be wonderful indeed.

More Favorites of 2011: Bollywood, Books, Music, and Television

--

* Historically, Victoria really was smitten with Albert; she wrote to her uncle Leopold, "He possesses every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy. He is so sensible, so kind, and so good, and so amiable too. He has besides the most pleasing and delightful exterior and appearance you can possibly see." In her diary, she confided that she found him "extremely handsome," with "a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful." They had a happy marriage by all accounts, and Victoria gave birth to nine children. She was devastated when Albert died of typhoid in 1861, nearly 22 years after their marriage.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Books

Fiction:

John Everett Millais: "Was it not a lie?"
The Chronicles of Barsetshire: My 15-month journey through the novels of Anthony Trollope is coming to a (perhaps temporary) end, although I haven't yet read even half of the novels he published in his lifetime.  Before I embarked on this voyage I thought of Trollope with a kind of condescension. How could someone so prolific be any good? I quickly discovered how misplaced that condescension was.

The six-novel series The Chronicles of Barsetshire (1855-1867) certainly ranks among this great novelist's greatest achievements. I wrote more extensively about the series in A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1. I wrote then, "If you think that a series of six novels about rural English clergy sounds boring, think again. Trollope's Barsetshire novels are filled with power struggles, class dynamics, financial disasters, and impossible loves. Fierce emotions seethe under the placid surfaces of the proper Victorian characters."

The first two novels were also made into an excellent BBC series, The Barchester Chronicles (1982), which will make an appearance in my list of favorite television shows seen in 2011.  And the fourth and fifth novels in the series, Framley Parsonage (1861) and The Small House At Allington (1864), were illustrated by John Everett Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and one of the subjects of the BBC series Desperate Romantics (2010)—which will also be on my list of favorites from the past year.

Henry O'Neil: Before Waterloo (1868)
Vanity Fair: In An Autobiography (1883) Trollope wrote, "I myself regard Esmond as the greatest novel in the English language." I confess that on reading this I had to look up the author of The History of Henry Esmond (1852), and discovered that it was written by Trollope's onetime editor William Thackeray. This made me curious to read Thackeray; instead of starting with Trollope's recommendation, though, I decided to begin with Thackeray's most famous novel, Vanity Fair (1847). Since as of this writing I'm only halfway through, perhaps it's a bit premature to put it on my list of favorites. But so far I'm thoroughly enjoying this "Novel Without a Hero" and its two heroines, the good-hearted Amelia Sedley and the delightfully unscrupulous Becky Sharp.

Just a year or two before he died, Trollope himself wrote an "answer novel" to Vanity Fair entitled Ayala's Angel (1881). Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp is the orphaned daughter of a disreputable artist, and—realizing that the game is rigged against those of her parentage, class and gender—uses all her wiles to make her way in society among the wealthy and socially connected. in Trollope's novel Ayala and her sister Lucy are also the orphaned daughters of an artist, and also find themselves having to make their way among their "betters." Perhaps Trollope had initially imagined the sincere Lucy and the beautiful but willful Ayala as his versions of Amelia and Becky. Only, in Trollope's world both young women are ultimately able to marry for love; in Thackeray, marrying for love is either an impossibility or a self-delusion.

After Vanity Fair, I'm looking forward to Henry Esmond and The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)—perhaps they'll appear on my list of favorites for 2012.

Nonfiction:

Predictably Irrational (2008): The sad news from behavioral economist Daniel Ariely's research over the past several decades is that not only are we not the utility-maximizing rational calculators portrayed in standard economic theory, we are extremely irrational, but in utterly predictable ways. This means that, even if we think we are aware of our irrational tendencies, those tendencies can be (and are) exploited by economic actors (advertisers, retailers, and bosses) for their own financial advantage.

For example, we judge prices, salaries, and romantic choices in comparison to what else is available, not by any absolute standard. So we insure our perpetual unhappiness, because there will always be someone earning more than we are, or dating someone better-looking than our partner. Perpetual dissatisfaction is music to the ears of those who want to sell us new things to replace those that are perfectly fine, but which we no longer desire.

This also means that we can be manipulated by the way goods are priced. So much for the equilibrium between price and demand; as Ariely writes, "it is market prices themselves that influence consumers' willingness to pay" (p. 45-46). What we perceive as our personal preferences are often simply the result of arbitrary choices made at some point in the past; those choices have become anchors in a process that Ariely calls "arbitrary coherence." We tend to procrastinate, try to keep our options open endlessly, unconsciously allow our expectations to determine our perceptions, and overvalue what we already own or things that are "free." All of these tendencies are used against us by those who stand to profit by them.

The only bright side is that public policy can be crafted to take account of our irrational impulses and behaviors. The dark side is that in a society that fetishizes freedom of choice, such attempts are usually portrayed as paternalistic (or as creeping socialism). Meanwhile corporations are free to ruthlessly exploit our irrational impulses. A fascinating and sobering book.

More Favorites of 2011: Bollywood, Movies, Music, and Television

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Bollywood

It's that retrospective time of year, and over the next week or so I hope to review my favorite music, books, movies and television from 2011. In my Favorites of 2010 my Bollywood choices dated from 1972, 1958 and 1960. But oddly enough, my two favorite Bollywood films seen in 2011 were actually released in the last twelve months. In alphabetical order:


 Band Baaja Baaraat (Bands, horns and revelry, 2010)

I wrote about Band Baaja Baaraat in an earlier post. Since then we've seen it a second time, and enjoyed it even more. I'm still disappointed by the final speech of Bittoo (Ranveer Singh), which, if the subtitles are reliable, seems too self-involved. But up until that moment the film offers the compelling story of two wedding planners, Bittoo and Shruti (the excellent Anushka Sharma), who don't recognize until it's almost too late how much better they are together than apart. Plus BBB has some good Salim-Sulaiman songs; click on the link to the earlier post to see the charming "Ainvayi Ainvayi."

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (You don't get a second chance at life, 2011)

In Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, three college friends who have grown apart over the years are drawn back together when one of them becomes engaged. The engagement pushes them to finally take a long-delayed road trip through Spain. On that trip each of them must face his greatest fears and make a life-altering choice.

Initially I thought that the friends-learn-life-lessons-on-road-trip plot seemed too well-worn. But an excellent script (by director Zoya Akhtar, actor Farhan Akhtar, and Reema Kagti) and strong performances, particularly from Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol and Hrithik Roshan as the three friends, made this one of the most memorable films I saw in the past year. And while Shankar-Eshaan-Loy's songs didn't impress me tremendously when I heard them before seeing the movie, they work beautifully in the context of the film. "Khaabon ke Parinday" is a good example of a low-key ZNMD song that's grown on me, in part due to the spectacular Spanish scenery:


I have to confess that another reason I was reluctant to see ZNMD at first was the presence of Katrina Kaif in the cast. The few times we've seen her we've found her acting to be self-conscious, her dancing to be graceless, and her collagen-enhanced lips to be distracting (and not in a good way). But here she does a wonderful job as a free-spirited scuba instructor who helps the stressed-out workaholic Arjun (Hrithik) re-examine his priorities. A lovely movie that I look forward to re-watching soon.

More Favorites of 2011: Books, Movies, Music, and Television

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Montserrat Figueras, 1942-2011

Once heard, Montserrat Figueras' voice could never be forgotten. It was rich and dark-hued, and at the same time could suggest fragility and suppressed tears.

Yesterday came the sad news that she had died after a year-long battle against an unnamed illness. Our thoughts are with her and with her husband of more than 40 years, Jordi Savall.

"Dolcissimo sospiro" from Giulio Caccini's Nuove Musiche (1601); Montserrat Figueras, soprano, with Jordi Savall, viola da gamba:




Update 2 Dec 2011: A number of Montserrat Figueras tributes have been posted on the web. Among the best of them are Mark MacNamara's "In Memoriam: Montserrat Figueras (1942-2011)" for the San Francisco Classical Voice, and Alex Ross's "For Montserrat Figueras" on The Rest Is Noise.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Philippe Jaroussky and Apollo's Fire

Astounding is the first word that comes to mind when encountering Philippe Jaroussky in live performance or on record. Here's a taste: "Alto Giove" from Nicola Porpora's opera Polifemo (1735):



His amazingly pure and agile voice is usually described as a countertenor (that is, as a falsetto), but it sounds to me like a natural soprano. Whatever its true classification, it is astonishing.

Jaroussky, though, doesn't just rely on his lovely sound for effect: he is an extremely musical singer who has the rare ability to improvise embellishments that enhance the music he's performing. You can read about our first electrifying encounter with him in an earlier post on this year's Boston Early Music Festival's centerpiece opera, Steffani's Niobe.

This fall Jaroussky toured North America with Apollo's Fire, the Cleveland-based period instrument ensemble led by Jeannette Sorrell, in a program of pieces both bravura and affetuoso by Handel and Vivaldi. They appeared in Berkeley as part of the Cal Performances Early Music concert series on October 30, 2011, and we were fortunate enough to have fifth-row seats in the intimate Hertz Hall.

For the program "Handel and Vivaldi Fireworks," Jaroussky chose some Handel rarities from the later period of his operatic career; and as far as Vivaldi goes, practically all of his vocal music qualifies as rarities. You can see a summary of the program at the Cal Performances website; the unfamiliarity of much of the music only added to our sense of discovery. And while there were plenty of opportunities for Jaroussky to exhibit flights of almost-inhuman virtuosity, there were also many tender and lyrical moments (as in the Porpora aria excerpted above).

Jaroussky evidently favors collaborations with conductors and ensembles that exhibit a performance flair that matches his own: he has worked with Jean-Christophe Spinosi, Emmanuelle Haïm, Gabriel Garrido, and Fabio Biondi, all conductors who favor what might be called an interventionist, rather than evidence-based, period performance practice. Sorrell definitely favors a highly theatrical musical approach. For example, she would frequently insert unwritten rests: stopping the ensemble abruptly on the next-to-last note of a piece, pausing for several beats, and then sounding the final chord. This is probably an anachronistic practice deriving from the later 18th or even 19th century. But if Apollo's Fire lacked something in historical accuracy or elegance, it more than made up for it in the spirited way that it attacked the demands of Handel's and Vivaldi's very difficult instrumental writing.

In spite of his self-effacing willingness to share the spotlight, Jaroussky was clearly the star of the show. The audience response to his performances was so rapturous I feared for the structural integrity of the concert hall. Jaroussky responded by performing three encores written for famous castrati, all of which brought the audience to their feet. The first was "Alto Giove," written by Porpora for Farinelli. The second was the showpiece "Venti, turbini" from Handel's Rinaldo (1711), written for Nicolini (Jaroussky charmingly announced it from the stage by saying that the aria "has many notes"). And the third encore was a profoundly moving "Ombra mai fu" from Handel's Serse (1738), written for Caffarelli (Jaroussky's comment: "This aria doesn't have many notes—just the right ones"). It sent us home floating on air:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why I Love Bollywood: The Playlist (Part 2)

A continuation of Why I Love Bollywood: The Playlist (Part 1):

  1. Song: "Choli Ke Peeche" (What's beneath your blouse?)
    Film: Khal Nayak (The Anti-Hero, 1993); dir. Subhash Ghai
    Stars: Ila Arun, Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Dutt
    Composers: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
    Singers: Ila Arun, Alka Yagnik

    I can't resist the playfully suggestive lyrics, propulsive music and Madhuri's outrageously flirtatious performance. What's beneath her choli? Her heart, of course:




  2. Song: "Dil Laga Liya" (I gave you my heart)
    Film: Dil Hai Tumhaara (My Heart Is Yours, 2002); dir. Kundan Shah
    Stars: Preity Zinta, Jimmy Shergill, Mahima Chaudhary, Rekha
    Composers: Nadeem-Shravan
    Singers: Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan

    Samir (Jimmy Shergill) loves Shalu (Preity Zinta), and Shalu loves Dev (Arjun Rampal), while Dev is betrothed to Shalu's sister Nimmi (Mahima Chaudhary). At Nimmi's engagement party Shalu performs a song that expresses her own hopeless love for Dev...




  3. Song: "Dil Cheez Kya Hai" (What is my heart?)
    Film: Umrao Jaan (1983); dir. Muzaffar Ali
    Star: Rekha
    Composers: Khayyam (music), Shahryar (lyrics).
    Singer: Asha Bhosle

    Another story of hopeless love; the tragic courtesan Umrao Jaan is Rekha's greatest role.




  4. Song: "Pyar Kiya" (When one has loved, why be afraid?)
    Film: Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal, 1960); dir. Muzaffar Ali
    Star: Madhubala
    Composers: Naushad (music), Shakeel Badayuni (lyrics)
    Singer: Lata Mangeshkar

    The dancer Anarkali (Madhubala) defiantly declares her love for Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) before the Emperor Akhbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) and his court. Sensing a theme?




  5. Song: "Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna" (Adorn yourself with henna)
    Film: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Take The Bride, 1995); dir. Aditya Chopra
    Stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol
    Composers: Jatin-Lalit (music), Anand Bakshi (lyrics)
    Singers: Udit Narayan, Lata Mangeshkar

    I love the interplay of secret glances and coded messages as Raj (Shah Rukh) performs this song for his lover Simran (Kajol) at the celebration of her engagement to another man.




  6. Song: "Kajra Re" (Dark eyes)
    Film: Bunty aur Babli (Bunty and Babli, 2005); dir. Shaad Ali
    Stars: Aishwarya Rai, Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan
    Composers: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (music), Gulzar (lyrics)
    Singers: Alisha Chinai, Shankar Mahadevan, Javed Ali

    An instant classic.




  7. Song: "Saakhiya Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahin Aayegi"
    Film: Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, Mistress and Servant, 2005); dir. Abrar Alvi
    Star: Minoo Mumtaz
    Composers: Hemant Kumar (music); Shakeel Badayuni (lyrics)
    Singer: Asha Bhosle

    The gorgeous black and white cinematography of this number (V. K. Murthy is the credited cinematographer, and this song was probably directed by Guru Dutt), with silhouetted backup dancers surrounding the brightly lit courtesan, shows what films lost when technicolor became the standard.




  8. Song: "Dhoom Taana"
    Film: Om Shanti Om (2007); dir. Farah Khan
    Stars: Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan
    Composers: Vishal Dadlani, Shekhar Ravjiani (music), Javed Akhtar (lyrics)
    Singers: Shreya Ghoshal, Abhijeet

    An homage to Bollywood heroes of the 1960s and 1970s, including Sunil Dutt, Rajesh Khanna, and Jeetendra, among others.




Why I Love Bollywood: The Playlist (Part 1)

In my second-ever post on this blog, "Why I Love Bollywood," I tried to explain why I find Indian cinema so powerfully appealing. But my halting attempts at explanation weren't nearly as eloquent as the movies themselves. After all, we had begun our journey of discovery not by reading about Bollywood, but by watching dance clips on local TV programs like Namaste America, Showbiz India, and India Waves.

So I began putting together "Why I Love Bollywood" compilations of some of my favorite Bollywood dance numbers for uncomprehending family and friends. The clips are not in chronological order; instead, I looked for connections of mood, imagery, or featured stars.* I focused on recent films because I thought that they would be more appealing to folks who had never encountered a Bollywood movie before, and also because I'm still woefully ignorant about Indian cinema's Golden Age. But (as you'll notice) I've slipped in an occasional classic or two. I clearly need some Helen, though.

This list is not in any way meant to be comprehensive or the "best" of anything. It is meant only to be entertaining.

  1. Song: "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte" (We'll meet again as time goes by)
    Film: Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made In Heaven, 2009), dir: Aditya Chopra
    Stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Bipasa Basu, Lara Dutta, Preity Zinta, Rani Mukherji
    Composers: Salim-Sulaiman
    Singer: Sonu Nigam

    Shah Rukh Khan's homage to great stars of the 1950s through the 1970s: Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, and Rishi Kapoor (not to mention their leading ladies Nargis, Nutan, Helen, Sharmila Tagore and Neetu Singh). The visual and lyrical allusions to classic films in this number are incredibly dense—see the Wikipedia article on the song for details—but you don't have to be familiar with the originals to enjoy it.





  2. Song: "Mohe Panghat Pe" (Krishna teased me at the well)
    Film: Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal, 1960); dir. K. Asif
    Star: Madhubala
    Composers: Naushad (music), Shakeel Badayuni (lyrics)
    Singer: Lata Mangeshkar

    The shot of the court dancer Anarkali (Madhubala) lifting her veil at the opening of this song is justly one of the most famous in Indian cinema. Neither she nor we yet realize that the forbidden love of Krishna and Radha will have parallels to her love for Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar).




  3. Song: "Kahe Chhed Mohe" (Krishna teased me at the well)
    Film: Devdas (2002); dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
    Stars: Madhuri Dixit, Jackie Shroff, Shah Rukh Khan
    Composers: Ismail Darbar, Nusrat Badr
    Singers: Pandit Birju Maharaj, Madhuri Dixit, Kavita Krishnamurthy

    Director Bhansali's gorgeous homage to the great courtesan films such as Mughal-e-Azam, Pakeezah (The pure one, 1972), and Umrao Jaan (1981). It's another telling of the Krishna-Radha story, again with parallels to the lives of the protagonists: Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan) has just forcibly seduced and abandoned his childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai); the courtesan Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) unwittingly reminds him of his guilt, while (like Anarkali) transgressing fiercely policed social boundaries by falling in love with him herself.




  4. Song: "Chaiyya Chaiyya" (Walk in the shadow of love)
    Film: Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998); dir. Mani Ratnam
    Stars: Malaika Arora, Shah Rukh Khan
    Composers: A. R. Rahman (music), Gulzar (lyrics)
    Singers: Sapna Awasti, Sukhwinder Singh

    The mind boggles as SRK and Malaika Arora dance on top of a moving train.




  5. Song: "Aisa Des Hai Mera" (Such is my country)
    Film: Veer-Zaara (2004); dir. Yash Chopra
    Stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta
    Composers: Madan Mohan, Sanjeev Kohli
    Singers: Gurdas Mann, Udit Narayan, Pritha Mazumder, Lata Mangeshkar

    SRK again, this time on top of a moving bus. The epitome of a Yash Chopra "scenic India" song.




  6. Song: "Lodi"
    Film: Veer-Zaara (2004); dir. Yash Chopra
    Stars: Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta
    Composers: Madan Mohan, Sanjeev Kohli
    Singers: Gurdas Mann, Udit Narayan, Lata Mangeshkar

    A delightful reunion between frequent 1970s co-stars Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini (Sholay (Fire, 1975), Trishul (1978), and many others), with Shah Rukh and Preity Zinta in attendance.




  7. Song: "Dola Re Dola" (Swinging and swaying)
    Film: Devdas (2002); dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
    Stars: Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai
    Composers: Ismail Darbar, Nusrat Badr
    Singers: Kavita Krishnamurthy, Shreya Ghoshal, Kay Kay

    Each time I watch this song featuring two of the greatest dancers in modern Bollywood, I'm amazed again by the swirling camerawork and lengthy continuous takes. A brilliant combination of form and content by director Bhansali.




More to follow in Parts 2, 3, and 4; I have also created a Why I Love Bollywood YouTube playlist.

-----

* A note to Yash Raj Films, Eros Entertainment, Shemaroo, Tips, and other Indian producers: I would be more enthusiastic about using your YouTube videos in my posts and playlists if they were complete, were posted at the proper aspect ratio (not stretched or squashed), and had an English closed caption option. Since those criteria are only rarely met, I also rely on the many YouTubing Bollywood fans out there who share their favorite songs as a labor of love. They are apparently more concerned about attracting new audiences to your films than you are.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Side 1, Track 1

A while ago I made a list of my favorite songs that opened the second side of an album (Side 2, Track 1)—only possible, of course, in the days when albums had sides. (Now, of course, the album itself is becoming a quaint artifact.)

At the time I decided against following up that post with the (perhaps more obvious) list of my favorite side one, track ones. Partly it was because side one, track ones are usually the hits, or the would-be hits, from a band's catalog; they feel pre-chosen, in a way. They can be great songs, but for me can somehow lack that sense of personal discovery and personal meaning that is easier to ascribe to less famous songs.

But the other night, hearing a fragment of the Pixies' "Into the White" being used as filler between segments on NPR (of all things) made me dig out my copy of Doolittle, their brilliantly demented album from 1989. When the first notes of "Debaser" came on, I remembered dancing with my loving partner in a sweaty basement club called Lipps Underground in SF's SOMA district. The DJ that night was Don Baird, the SF Bay Times' "Beat This" music columnist, and he was spinning some great punk and punk-influenced rock: Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Nirvana, Fugazi. Just when the dancing had reached a peak, he threw on "Debaser" and the place exploded.

"Debaser"—with Joey Santiago's punky guitar, Kim Deal's alternately deadpan and poppy backup vocals, and Black Francis' Surrealist lyrical allusions—started me thinking about my favorite side one, track ones. As Doolittle played on, I sat down and scribbled out most of the list that follows. I gave myself the same restrictions as with my first list: a dozen songs from albums I discovered on vinyl (so, ironically, "Debaser" was disqualified—see Frank O'Hara's "Why I Am Not A Painter"). Here, with only a few additions and subtractions, is what I came up with, in chronological order:

1. "All Tomorrow's Parties," The Velvet Underground & Nico, from The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)


2. "What's Going On?," Marvin Gaye, from What's Going On? (1971)


3. "Let's Stay Together," Al Green, from Let's Stay Together (1972)


4. "Concrete Jungle," Bob Marley & the Wailers, from Catch A Fire (1973)


5. "Gloria," Patti Smith Group, from Horses (1975)


6. "Holidays In The Sun," The Sex Pistols, from Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols (1977)


7. "Art-i-ficial," X-Ray Spex, from Germ-Free Adolescents (1978)


8. "She's Lost Control," Joy Division, from Unknown Pleasures (1979)


9. "London Calling," The Clash, from London Calling (1979)


10. "Paralysed," Gang of Four, from Solid Gold (1979)


11. "Shouting Out Loud," The Raincoats, from Odyshape (1980)


12. "Requiem," Killing Joke, from Killing Joke (1980)


Bands that appear on both my Side Two, Track One and Side One, Track One lists:

The Velvet Underground & Nico
Bob Marley & The Wailers
Patti Smith Group
Joy Division
The Clash
The Raincoats
Killing Joke

Albums that appear on both lists:

The Velvet Underground & Nico
Bob Marley & The Wailers: Catch A Fire
Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
Killing Joke

As ever, all comments positive, negative and alternative are welcomed.

Update 24 October 2011: I've created a Side 1, Track 1 YouTube playlist.

Update 1 Nov 2011: Two bonus tracks:

1. "She's Lost Control," Joy Division, live on BBC-TV's Something Else, September 1979


2. "To Hell With Poverty," Gang of Four, live on WDR's Rockpalast, 1983

Friday, October 7, 2011

A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 3

A continuation of A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire and Part 2: The Palliser novels.

The Way We Live Now (1875): One of Trollope's greatest and most entertaining novels, which is eerily prescient about the destructiveness of rampant greed and speculation. Augustus Melmotte, a financier of immense wealth and mysterious (and possibly Jewish) origins, sets up in London and soon has rich men clamoring to buy shares in a railroad investment scheme. Paul Montague, a young and near-penniless partner in the scheme, raises questions about what is happening with all the money, but is brushed off. Meanwhile Paul is falling in love with Henrietta Carbury, which causes a breach between him and his older cousin and patron Roger Carbury, who has long loved Henrietta. Henrietta is in turn heartbroken when she learns that Paul has been seen with Mrs. Hurtle, an American woman with whom Paul has had a long-term affair and to whom he may have promised marriage.

Then there is Henrietta's ne'er-do-well brother Sir Felix Carbury, who has quickly run through his inheritance. He sees in Melmotte's daughter Marie a way of disembarrassing himself from his present and future debts, while Marie sees in Sir Felix a way of escaping her stultifying family life. Finally, there is Georgiana Longestaffe, a sister of one of Sir Felix's cronies. In her desire to marry a rich man, she makes a series of blunders that lead instead to her social ostracism. Ultimately she engages herself to the considerably older Ezekiel Breghert, an upright and honorable Jewish banker; but then she learns that, thanks to Melmotte's fraudulent machinations, Breghert has lost a vast sum of money. The portraits of Melmotte, Sir Felix and Georgiana—people who measure their relationships with others solely on the basis of the monetary and social benefit to themselves—are devastating. For none of them is happiness truly possible.

Perhaps this is the place to address the anti-Jewish attitudes that are occasionally expressed in Trollope's novels. It is difficult to know whether these attitudes are Trollope's own, or whether they are simply the expression of the prejudices of (often not very admirable) characters. Certainly, anti-Jewish feeling was quite common in Victorian society; Trollope, in portraying that society, could not ignore those feelings, and it would be remarkable if he himself were completely immune from them. However, Mr. Breghert, who is the only unambiguously Jewish character in The Way We Live Now, is also unambiguously kind, respectable, and honest. He is also one of Melmotte's victims, and Georgiana's treatment of him is a reflection of her weak and shallow nature.

Similarly, Trollope seems to share some of the common Victorian attitudes about the proper sphere and deportment of women. In Can You Forgive Her? he is capable of writing about Alice Vavasor's acceptance of Mr. Grey, "Of course she had no choice but to yield. He, possessed of power and force infinitely greater than hers, had left her no alternative but to be happy." But at the same time, Trollope shows a keen awareness of how painful and unjust could be the duties of women in Victorian society. Alice Vavasor, Lady Laura in the Palliser novels and Mrs. Hurtle in The Way We Live Now chafe at the domesticity and subservience expected of women. They want to live in a way that has an impact on the larger world, and Trollope portrays their dilemmas with great sympathy.

Then there are the portraits of spirited, independent women—among them Lady Glencora and Isabel Boncassen in the Palliser novels—which are among his most delightful creations. So again, while Trollope doubtlessly shared some of the typical attitudes of his day, he could also examine them critically and offer examples, both good and bad, of characters who transcend the expectations and constraints placed on them.

In social life we hardly stop to consider how much of that daring spirit which gives mastery comes from hardness of heart rather than from high purpose, or true courage. The man who succumbs to his wife, the mother who succumbs to her daughter, the master who succumbs to his servant, is as often brought to servility by a continual aversion to the giving of pain, by a softness which causes the fretfulness of others to be an agony to himself,—as by any actual fear which the firmness of the imperious one may have produced. There is an inner softness, a thinness of the mind's skin, an incapability of seeing or even thinking of the troubles of others with equanimity, which produces a feeling akin to fear; but which is compatible not only with courage, but with absolute firmness of purpose, when the demand for firmness arises so strongly as to assert itself. With this man it was not really that he feared the woman;—or at least such fears did not prevail upon him to be silent; but he shrank from subjecting her to the blank misery of utter desertion. After what had passed between them he could hardly bring himself to tell her that he wanted her no further and to bid her go. But that was what he had to do. (The Way We Live Now, Ch. 47)

The Way We Live Now was made into an excellent BBC TV miniseries in 2001.

He Knew He Was Right (1869) is a portrait of the corrosive power of jealousy. The happily married Louis Trevelyan becomes at first uncomfortable with, and then bitterly suspicious of, the friendship of his wife Emily with one Colonel Osborne. Trevelyan orders Emily not to see or correspond with Osborne; her disobedience (and Osborne's) throws the marriage into crisis. By the standards of Victorian society Trevelyan is "right," but his rigid adherence to principle destroys his happiness and ultimately threatens his sanity.

Meanwhile, Emily's sister Nora is being wooed by the wealthy Mr. Glascock, while her heart belongs to the penniless journalist Hugh Stanbury. And in another subplot, Hugh's sister Dorothy is pursued both by the unctuous clergyman Mr. Gibson and by her charming cousin Brooke Burgess—but both Dorothy and Brooke are informed by Dorothy's wealthy aunt that she will disinherit Brooke if he marries Dorothy.

Nora, for the last ten minutes, had been thinking that this would come,—that it would come at once; and yet she was not at all prepared with an answer. It was now weeks since she had confessed to herself frankly that nothing else but this,—this one thing which was now happening, this one thing which had now happened,—that nothing else could make her happy, or could touch her happiness...But when she was asked to come and be his wife, now and at once, she felt that in spite of her love it was impossible that she could accede to a request so sudden, so violent, so monstrous. He stood over her as though expecting an instant answer; and then, when she had sat dumb before him for a minute, he repeated his demand. 'Tell me, Nora, can you love me? If you knew how thoroughly I have loved you, you would at least feel something for me.'

To tell him that she did not love him was impossible to her. But how was she to refuse him without telling him either a lie, or the truth? Some answer she must give him; and as to that matter of marrying him, the answer must be a negative. Her education had been of that nature which teaches girls to believe that it is a crime to marry a man without an assured income. Assured morality in a husband is a great thing. Assured good temper is very excellent. Assured talent, religion, amiability, truth, honesty, are all desirable. But an assured income is indispensable. Whereas, in truth, the income may come hereafter; but the other things, unless they be there already, will hardly be forthcoming. (He Knew He Was Right, Ch. 39)

He Knew He Was Right was made into another well-produced BBC TV miniseries in 2004.

Miss Mackenzie (1865): In An Autobiography (1883) Trollope wrote, "...at nineteen...I had already made up my mind that Pride and Prejudice was the best novel in the English language." Miss Mackenzie is Trollope's most Austen-like novel, and not just because much of it is set in "Littlebath," a fashionable coastal resort that strongly resembles Bath. Miss Mackenzie reads something like a sequel to Persuasion—but a sequel to a Persuasion in which Captain Wentworth's letter declaring his love for Anne Elliot goes undiscovered.

Miss Margaret Mackenzie is a woman "neither beautiful nor clever," who has reached the age of thirty-five after spending two decades of her life serving as a nurse for her sickly father and brother. Like Anne Elliot, Margaret Mackenzie possesses an endearing kindess together with a clear-sightedness about those around her, and about herself.

On her brother's death she suddenly finds herself in possession of a modest fortune, which enables her for the first time to begin to live by and for herself. Her newfound independence of means attracts four suitors: Harry Handcock, a longtime family friend; Samuel Rubb, Jr., the self-regarding son of her brother's business partner; Mr. Maguire, a charismatic but unscrupulous clergyman; and the widower John Ball, a middle-aged cousin, whose resentful, scheming mother believes that Miss Mackenzie's inheritance really belongs to her son.

Miss Mackenzie was voted a "Neglected Classic" by the listeners of BBC Radio 4, and has been dramatized with the superb Hattie Morahan (of BBC TV's excellent Sense & Sensibility (2008)) as Margaret.

But still, if she left all her chances to run from her, what other fate would she have but that of being friendless all her life? Of course she must risk much if she was ever minded to change her mode of life. She had said something to him as to the expediency of there being money on both sides, but as she said it she knew that she would willingly have given up her money could she only have been sure of her man. Was not her income enough for both? What she wanted was companionship, and love if it might be possible; but if not love, then friendship. This, had she known where she could purchase it with certainty, she would willingly have purchased with all her wealth. (Miss Mackenzie, Ch. 13)

An Old Man's Love (1884) is Trollope's heartbreaking final novel. Written just a few months before Trollope's death, much of the novel was dictated to his 27-year-old niece, Florence Nightingale Bland. Florence was the daughter of his wife Rose's sister, Isabella Heseltine Bland. Isabella and her husband Joseph Bland died when Florence was eight years old; Trollope and his wife took Florence into their house and raised her as their daughter.

Florence's life has suggestive parallels to the situation of the 25-year-old Mary Lawrie, the heroine of An Old Man's Love. When both of Mary's parents die, she is taken in by William Whittlestaff, a friend of her father. As time passes Whittlestaff, despite being twice Mary's age, begins to fall in love with her. Mary, however, has already given her heart to John Gordon, a young man who has gone to South Africa to make his fortune in the diamond mines. However, keenly aware of everything she owes to her guardian, and having heard nothing from John Gordon for three years, Mary agrees to marry Whittlestaff. Before she does so, though, she confesses to her future husband that she loves another man. Then Gordon unexpectedly returns, and all three are faced with painful choices.

What if he should give her up to one who did not deserve her,—to one whose future would not be stable enough to secure the happiness and welfare of such a woman as was Mary Lawrie! He had no knowledge to guide him, nor had she;—nor, for the matter of that, had John Gordon himself any knowledge of what his own future might be. Of his own future Mr Whittlestaff could speak and think with the greatest confidence. It would be safe, happy, and bright, should Mary Lawrie become his wife. Should she not do so, it must be altogether ruined and confounded. (An Old Man's Love, Ch. 15).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 2: The Palliser novels

This post continues my survey of Trollope's novels begun in Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire.

The Palliser Novels

In order to read and enjoy the Chronicles of Barsetshire you need to know very little about English religion in the 19th century. As long as you're aware that there were tensions between the ritualistic High Church and the evangelical Low Church, you know enough.

The six Palliser novels, though, feature the complex interplay of Parliamentary politics over fifteen years, from the mid-1860s to the late 1870s. To fully enjoy these, it really does help to understand something of the political parties, personalities and issues of the day. So I recommend that you choose a reading edition that features extensive textual notes, such as Oxford's World Classics or Penguin. You'll find those notes to be helpful in giving you a context for the attitudes and actions of many of the characters.

Can You Forgive Her? (1864) features three women who each face two radically different choices in their potential husbands. Alice Vavasor wants to live a life of excitement and political significance, but as a woman she is prevented even from voting. She must choose between her mercurial and unscrupulous cousin George Vavasor, who wants to run for Parliament using her money, and the uninspiring but steadfast John Grey.

The second dilemma belongs to Alice's wealthy, widowed aunt Arabella Greenow, who is comically besieged by two bungling rivals: the vain, impecunious ex-soldier Captain Bellfield, and the vain, coarse farmer Mr. Cheesacre.

But the most compelling love triangle in Can You Forgive Her? centers on Lady Glencora Palliser, wife of the emotionally reticent politician Plantagenet Palliser. Before her marriage Lady Glencora loved the unworthy but alluring Burgo Fitzgerald; her family intervened, however, and arranged her marriage with Palliser. Her attraction to Burgo Fitzgerald has persisted even after her marriage, fed by the certainty that she and her husband are unsuited to one another. Fitzgerald makes plans to run off with Lady Glencora on the night of a gala party. As Lady Glencora dances in Burgo's arms she finds herself faced with making her final, fateful choice.

'I am not such a fool as to mistake what I should be if I left my husband, and went to live with that man as his mistress...But why have I been brought to such a pass as this? And, as for female purity! Ah! What was their idea of female purity when they forced me, like ogres, to marry a man for whom they knew I never cared?' (Can You Forgive Her?, Ch. 47)

Glencora Palliser is one of Trollope's most compelling characters—headstrong, willful, with a delightfully witty tongue. She is not always wise, but somehow always manages to engage our sympathies.

Phineas Finn (1867) is a strikingly handsome young Irishman who has come to London to try to win a seat in Parliament. He is probably the fullest representation of a common type in Trollope: the young man of modest means who hopes to make both his fortune and his future by attracting the interest of the wealthy and powerful.

His own interest is particularly engaged in turn by three women of fortune: Lady Laura Standish, Violet Effingham, and the widowed Madame Max Goesler. Meanwhile, at home in Ireland he is betrothed to a simple country girl, Mary Flood Jones. Somehow we forgive Phineas his changeability, because he seems so fundamentally decent otherwise.

'I hate a stupid man who can't talk to me, and I hate a clever man who talks me down. I don't like a man who is too lazy to make any effort to shine, but I particularly dislike the man who is always striving for effect. I abominate a humble man, but yet I love to perceive that a man acknowledges the superiority of my sex, and youth, and all that kind of thing.'
'You want to be flattered without plain flattery.'
'Of course I do. A man who would tell me that I am pretty, unless he is over seventy, ought to be kicked out of the room. But a man who can't show me that he thinks me so without saying a word about it, is a lout.' (Violet Effingham talking with Lady Laura, Phineas Finn, Ch. 22)

The Eustace Diamonds (1871): Before the aged Sir Florian Eustace died, he bestowed on his beautiful young wife Lizzie a magnificent and hugely valuable diamond necklace. Lizzie now claims that necklace as her own. Sir Florian's family, however, demands that the diamonds be returned to the Eustace estate, and has the weight of legal opinion on their side.

Lizzie, worried that agents of the Eustace family will try to obtain the necklace by means fair or foul, takes it with her whenever she travels. One night the strongbox in which it kept is stolen. Everyone assumes that the necklace is gone forever. Lizzie, though, had slept with it under her pillow, and now thinks that it will work to her advantage if everyone thinks that the diamonds were stolen. In fact, it just creates more complications—especially when the necklace really disappears...

The Eustace Diamonds has, perhaps, the cleverest plot that Trollope ever created. He was evidently inspired by his friend Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), published just a few years earlier. The Eustace Diamonds is also unusual in that its heroine is unsympathetic: a compulsively dishonest woman who married for money and who is a spectacularly poor judge of men.

When she was alone she stood before her glass looking at herself, and then she burst into tears. Never before had she been thus polluted. The embrace had disgusted her. It made her odious to herself. And if this, the beginning of it, was so bad, how was she to drink the cup to the bitter dregs? Other girls, she knew, were fond of their lovers—some so fond of them that all moments of absence were moments, if not of pain, at any rate of regret. To her, as she stood there ready to tear herself because of the vileness of her own condition, it now seemed as though no such love as that were possible to her. For the sake of this man who was to be her husband, she hated all men. Was not everything around her base, and mean, and sordid?...How should she escape? And yet she knew that she meant to go on and bear it all. Perhaps by study and due practice she might become—as were some others—a beast of prey and nothing more. The feeling that had made these few minutes so inexpressibly loathsome to her might, perhaps, be driven from her heart. She washed the tears from her eyes with savage energy, and descended to her lover with a veil fastened closely under her hat. 'I hope I haven't kept you waiting,' she said. (The Eustace Diamonds, Ch. 42)

Phineas Redux (1873) continues the story of Phineas Finn, and his relationships with Lady Laura, Violet Effingham, and Madame Goesler amid Parliamentary political struggles. The central incident of the novel is Phineas being put on trial for the murder of a hated political rival, a murder that he insists he did not commit.

'People go on quarrelling and fancying this and that, and thinking that the world is full of romance and poetry. When they get married they know better.'

'I hope the romance and poetry do not all vanish.'

'Romance and poetry are for the most part lies, Mr. Maule, and are very apt to bring people into difficulty.' (Lady Glencora to Gerard Maule, Phineas Redux, Ch. 76)

The Prime Minister (1876): The reserved and apparently unemotional Plantagenet Palliser, now Duke of Omnium, is called on to lead a coalition government when the two major parties fail to reach a compromise. While he struggles to lead the country, his wife interests herself in the political and romantic career of the young, handsome financial speculator Ferdinand Lopez—a career that soon entangles the Duke and Duchess in scandal.

He did doubt his ability to fill that place which it would now be his duty to occupy. He more than doubted. He told himself again and again that there was wanting to him a certain noble capacity for commanding support and homage from other men. With things and facts he could deal, but human beings had not opened themselves to him. (The Prime Minister, Ch. 7)

The Duke's Children (1879): The Duke's children are Mary, who to the Duke's distress has fallen in love with a penniless friend of her brother's; Lord Silverbridge, who to the Duke's distress is pursuing the beautiful American heiress Isabel Boncassen; and Gerald, who to the Duke's distress has been expelled from Cambridge.

'I do not think that ever in your life you have constrained yourself to the civility of a lie.'

'I hope not.'

'To be civil and false is often better than to be harsh and true. I may be soothed by the courtesy and yet not deceived by the lie.' (Lady Mabel Grex to Lord Silverbridge, The Duke's Children, Ch. 77)

The Palliser novels were adapted by BBC Television in 1974 as a 26-episode series. Unfortunately, the series is poorly cast (most of the actors are far too old for their roles) and the script makes various attempts to "improve" on its source, with dire results.

Next time: The Way We Live Now (1875), He Knew He Was Right (1869), and some overlooked Trollope novels.

Update 11 October 2015: The Folio Society, in association with The Trollope Society, has published the "First Complete Edition" of The Duke's Children. Edited by Steven Amarnick, the new edition restores the extensive cuts made by Trollope when the novel was published in weekly installments in All The Year Round. The restored edition includes more than 150 pages of additional material, and has a different ending than the originally published version. In the New York Times, Charles McGrath calls the new edition "a fuller, richer book."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire

It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30 A.M.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. An old groom, whose business it was to call me, and to whom I paid £5 a year extra for the duty, allowed himself no mercy....By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast.

....This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year;...which must at any rate be felt to be quite as much as the novel-readers of the world can want from the hands of one man.
—Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, Ch. 15

This three hours of literary labor was accomplished before Trollope headed off to his full-time job at the Post Office. And since London is further north than Calgary, Canada, it must often have been pitch-dark when Trollope's servant brought his coffee (the servant, of course, having been awake a half-hour earlier to make it).

This work regime enabled Trollope to be incredibly productive. He wrote 47 novels, plus several volumes of short stories, a number of travel books, plays, sketches, essays and criticism, translations, and even a school textbook. In all he published something like five dozen books in his lifetime.

Beyond his work's sheer volume, which far exceeds that of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, or Elizabeth Gaskell, another source of amazement is how good most of it is. Trollope had real insight into the emotional dilemmas of everyday life and the subtle power dynamics encoded in ordinary conversation. He often portrays characters who, faced with difficult choices, are hesitating and uncertain (the ones who lack doubt, such as Mrs. Proudie in the Barsetshire novels, are generally unpleasant). And the author is uncertain as well, making occasional direct asides to the reader about his imperfect knowledge of his own characters: "It is indeed a matter of thankfulness that neither the historian nor the novelist hears all that is said by their heroes or heroines, or how would three volumes or twenty suffice! In the present case so little of this sort have I overheard, that I live in hopes of finishing my work within 300 pages, and of completing that pleasant task—a novel in one volume..." (The Warden, Ch. 6) Trollope portrays his characters in the main with warmth and gentle humor, though he can also be unsparing.

I've spent the last year or so pleasurably immersed in Trollope's fictional world. What will follow over the next several posts is a brief survey of the novels I've read so far, which include most of his best-known works plus an unjustly neglected gem or two.

The Chronicles of Barsetshire

If you think that a series of six novels about rural English clergy sounds boring, think again. Trollope's Barsetshire novels are filled with power struggles, class dynamics, financial disasters, and impossible loves. Fierce emotions seethe under the placid surfaces of the proper Victorian characters.

The Warden (1855): A story about just how badly awry good intentions can go. A trust—originally created to feed, clothe and house a dozen elderly Barchester men selected from the ranks of the working poor—has over the years grown exponentially in value. It now provides a very substantial income to the warden who oversees the men's care, the kindly and generous Septimus Harding. When reformer John Bold begins to agitate for the men to receive a greater share of the money from the trust, it creates havoc—especially for the warden's daughter Eleanor, who is in love with John but is deeply loyal to her father.

The Warden introduced a number of situations and themes that Trollope revisited in his later novels: a young man trying to make his way in the world, a young woman trying to negotiate love's hazards, and the hard choices forced on those who try to act in accord with their sense of duty and justice. It also introduced the fictional cathedral town of Barchester and its surroundings, which Trollope would explore over another five substantial books.

...in matters of love men do not see clearly in their own affairs. They say that faint heart never won fair lady; and it is amazing to me how fair ladies are won, so faint are often men's hearts! Were it not for the kindness of their nature, that seeing the weakness of our courage they will occasionally descend from their impregnable fortresses, and themselves aid us in effecting their own defeat, too often would they escape unconquered if not unscathed, and free of body if not of heart. (The Warden, Ch. 7)

Barchester Towers (1857): Probably Trollope's best-known work, and for good reason. The novel features many of the characters introduced in The Warden, including Septimus Harding, his daughter Eleanor, and his son-in-law Archdeacon Grantly (who married Harding's first daughter Susan).

The novel has two main (and intertwined) plots. The first concerns the low-intensity war fought between Archdeacon Grantly and the Proudies, Barchester's new bishop and his domineering wife. The second plot relates to Eleanor; and if it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, then it is equally true that a single woman of good fortune will never be in want of suitors.

Eleanor has three: Mr. Slope, an unreliable ally of the Proudies; Bertie Stanhope, the indolent and indebted son of the pleasure-loving prebendary Dr. Stanhope; and Mr. Arabin, a fortyish Oxford scholar summoned to Barchester to aid Archdeacon Grantly in his battle to oppose the Proudies. Overseeing and directing much of the action is Signora Madeline Neroni (née Stanhope), who scandalizes everyone with her feminine wiles and frank talk, and who quickly perceives how the lines of both sacred and secular battles have been drawn.

All the characters come together on the day of Miss Thorne's garden party. The garden party at Ullathorne, and its preparation and aftermath, is a remarkable (and very funny) set-piece that spans several chapters and over a hundred pages. Over the course of the party the ecclesiastical enemies plot and scheme against (and bow stiffly towards) one another, while Eleanor encounters each of her suitors alone and, to her and their discomfort, together. Overtures are rebuffed, hopes are crushed, and faces are slapped before the day is over. Mr. Arabin to Eleanor:

'We have had a very pleasant party,' said he, using the same tone he would have used had he declared that the sun was shining very brightly, or the rain falling very fast.
'Very,' said Eleanor, who never in her life had passed a more unpleasant day. (Barchester Towers, Ch. 41)

Doctor Thorne (1858): probably the weakest novel in the Barsetshire series because of its dependence on a somewhat contrived and drawn-out inheritance plot that seems like it was taken from Charles Dickens' reject pile. Still, the novel introduces us to the lovely Mary Thorne and the delightful Miss Martha Dunstable, a woman in early middle age whose immense wealth (derived from a dubious patent remedy) enables her to say what she thinks and do what she pleases.

Mary is the illegitimate daughter of Dr. Thorne's rakish brother Henry and Mary Scatcherd, a young bonnet-maker, and has been raised by Dr. Thorne, who is the only one who knows her true parentage. She becomes a close companion to the daughters of the local squire, Mr. Gresham, and catches the eye of the squire's son Frank.

As so often in Trollope, though, debt, financial problems and issues of propriety loom over the characters and constrain their choices. Frank is under immense pressure to disembarrass the family estate by marrying a woman with money and social standing; Mary has neither.

Though Frank was only a boy, it behoved Mary to be something more than a girl. Frank might be allowed, without laying himself open to much just reproach, to throw all of what he believed to be his heart into a protestation of what he believed to be love; but Mary was in duty bound to be more thoughtful, more reticent, more aware of the facts of their position, more careful of her own feelings, and more careful also of his. (Doctor Thorne, Ch. 6)

Framley Parsonage (1860): Lord Lufton, the heir to Framley Court, has fallen in love with Lucy Robarts, the sister of local clergyman Mark Robarts. Not only is there a social gulf between Lord Lufton and Lucy, but Mark owes his position to the patronage of Lady Lufton, Lord Lufton's mother. Lucy also finds herself engulfed by a scandal involving her brother, who unwisely agreed to sign a large bill of debt for a notoriously insolvent neighbor, and is now unable to repay it. All of these factors make Lucy keenly aware that Lady Lufton will strongly disapprove of her as a potential daughter-in-law, and that her disapproval may have disastrous consequences for her brother and his family.

'Look here, Mark;' and she walked over to her brother, and put both her hands upon his arm. 'I do love Lord Lufton. I had no such meaning or thought when I first knew him. But I do love him—I love him dearly;—almost as well as Fanny loves you, I suppose. You may tell him so if you think proper—nay, you must tell him so, or he will not understand me. But tell him this, as coming from me: that I will never marry him, unless his mother asks me.'
'She will not do that, I fear,' said Mark, sorrowfully. (Framley Parsonage, Ch. 31)

Framely Parsonage also introduces us to the strict, prideful, and impoverished clergyman Josiah Crawley, his long-suffering wife Mary, and their daughter Grace, who will feature prominently in The Last Chronicle of Barset.

The Small House At Allington (1864) centers on Lily Dale, one of Trollope's most appealing heroines. She has all the steadfast, honest virtues of a Lucy Robarts or Eleanor Harding, but in addition has a sparkling, playful wit. Lily is loved, silently but profoundly, by the boyish Johnny Eames, who grew up with Lily and her sister Bell and is now seeking to make his way in the world. Johnny is crushed when he discovers that after a whirlwind courtship Lily has accepted the marriage proposal of Adolphus Crosbie. He's then enraged to discover that Crosbie has jilted Lily in order to marry Lady Alexandrina De Courcy, and vows both to take his revenge and to win Lily's heart.

Sunday though it was, she had fully enjoyed the last hour of daylight, reading that exquisite new novel which had just completed itself, amidst the jarring criticisms of the youth and age of the reading public.

'I am quite sure she was right in accepting him, Bell,' she said, putting down the book as the light was fading, and beginning to praise the story.

'It was a matter of course," said Bell. "It always is right in the novels. That's why I don't like them. They are too sweet.'

'That's why I do like them, because they are so sweet. A sermon is not to tell you what you are, but what you ought to be, and a novel should tell you not what you are to get, but what you'd like to get.'

'If so, then, I'd go back to the old school, and have the heroine really a heroine, walking all the way up from Edinburgh to London, and falling among thieves; or else nursing a wounded hero, and describing the battle from the window. We've got tired of that; or else the people who write can't do it nowadays. But if we are to have real life, let it be real.'

'No, Bell, no,' said Lily. 'Real life sometimes is so painful.' Then her sister, in a moment, was down on the floor at her feet, kissing her hand and caressing her knees, and praying that the wound might be healed. (The Small House At Allington, Ch. 23)

Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) is the final novel in the Barsetshire series. It centers on the travails of the Reverend Josiah Crawley, who is accused of stealing a cheque for £20, and who, try as he might, cannot remember how it came into his hands. Crawley is a remarkable portrait: a largely unsympathetic character, he is still portrayed with an almost Tolstoyan richness and complexity.

Crawley is put on trial in both criminal and ecclesiastical courts, and his financial and legal struggles have a profound effect on everyone around him—especially his daughter Grace, who has received a declaration of love from Major Henry Grantly, the Archdeacon's widowed son. The Archdeacon finds out about his son's emotional entanglement with Grace, and—in a scene with echoes of the great Germont-Violetta confrontation in Verdi's La Traviata (see my earlier post)—goes to her to exact a pledge that she will separate herself from him:

'If you love him you will not wish to injure him.'

'I will not injure him. Sir, there is my promise.' And now as she spoke she rose from her chair, and standing close to the archdeacon, laid her hand very lightly on the sleeve of his coat. 'There is my promise. As long as people say that papa stole the money, I will never marry your son. There.'

The archdeacon was still looking down at her, and feeling the slight touch of her fingers, raised his arm a little as though to welcome the pressure. He looked into her eyes, which were turned eagerly towards his, and when doing so was quite sure that the promise would be kept. It would have been a sacrilege—he felt that it would have been a sacrilege—to doubt such a promise. He almost relented. His soft heart, which was never very well under his own control, gave way so far that he was nearly moved to tell her that, on his son's behalf, he acquitted her of the promise. What could any man's son do better than have such a woman for his wife? It would have been of no avail had he made her such offer. The pledge she had given had not been wrung from her by his influence, nor could his influence have availed aught with her towards the alteration of her purpose. It was not the archdeacon who had taught her that it would not be her duty to take disgrace into the house of the man she loved. As he looked down upon her face two tears formed themselves in his eyes, and gradually trickled down his old nose. 'My dear,' he said, 'if this cloud passes away from you, you shall come to us and be our daughter.' And thus he also pledged himself. There was a dash of generosity about the man, in spite of his selfishness, which always made him desirous of giving largely to those who gave largely to him. He would fain that his gifts should be bigger, if it were possible. He longed at this moment to tell her that the dirty cheque should go for nothing. He would have done it, I think, but that it was impossible for him to speak in her presence of that which moved her so greatly.

He had contrived that her hand should fall from his arm into his grasp, and now for a moment he held it. 'You are a good girl,' he said—'a dear, dear, good girl. When this cloud has passed away, you shall come to us and be our daughter.'

'But it will never pass away,' said Grace. (The Last Chronicle of Barset, Ch. 57)

In future posts I'll survey the Palliser novels, Trollope's other justly famous series, and some of his other novels.

Update 8 October 2011: The first two novels in the Chronicles of Barsetshire were adapted by BBC Television as The Barchester Chronicles (1982). The seven-episode series is superbly cast: especially fine are Donald Pleasance as the gentle Warden Harding, Alan Rickman as a sibilant and loathsomely snake-like Mr. Slope, Geraldine McEwan as the peremptory Mrs. Proudie, Clive Swift (later the hapless Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances) as the hapless Bishop Proudie, Susan Hampshire (miscast in The Pallisers but perfect here) as Signora Madeline Neroni, and Barbara Flynn (later of Wives and Daughters (1999), He Knew He Was Right (2004), and Cranford (2007)) as Mary Bold, while Nigel Hawthorne entertainingly chews the scenery as Archdeacon Grantly. The one minor bit of miscasting is Derek New as Mr. Arabin, who seems a bit too buttoned-up (especially when he's standing next to Nigel Hawthorne). Alan Plater's wonderful script is both dramatically compelling and a model of faithfulness to the source; perhaps the only disappointment is in the handling of the garden party scene in Episode 6, which doesn't quite express all of the emotional nuances and dark humor of the novel (the scene is only one of the most brilliant set-pieces in all of Trollope). Highly recommended.