Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Rare Thing: Vicente Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara

Who was the most popular opera composer in Mozart's Vienna? It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that it wasn't Mozart (see "The Chastity Tree"). By the measure of the number of performances per opera the most popular composer by far in Vienna during Mozart's time there was Vicente Martín y Soler. Two of the three operas Martín wrote for the Burgtheater were smash hits, between them racking up 120 performances over six seasons (1786-1792). By contrast, Mozart's two most successful operas over those same six seasons, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) and Don Giovanni (Don Juan, 1787), were performed a total of 53 times. [1]

The opera that made Martín's reputation was Una cosa rara, ossia Bellezza ed onestà (A rare thing, or Beauty and faithfulness, 1786). The libretto was adapted by Lorenzo Da Ponte from Luis Vélez de Guevara's play La Luna de la Sierra. Da Ponte was a busy man: he also wrote the libretti for Figaro and Don Giovanni as well as for Martín's other hit, L'arbore di Diana (The Tree of Diana, 1787), among many others. In his memoirs Da Ponte describes the impact of the first performance of Cosa rara on 17 November 1786:
The evening of the première arrived. The theatre was full, most of the audience being composed of enemies ready to hiss. However, right from the beginning of the performance they found such grace, sweetness and melody in the music, and such novelty and interest in the words, that they seemed be overcome by an ecstasy of pleasure. A silence, a degree of attention never before accorded to an Italian opera, was followed by a storm of applause and exclamations of delight and pleasure. . .In particular one of the duets seemed to electrify the audience and fill them with a kind of heavenly fire. [2]
"One of the duets" probably refers to the Act II reconciliation duet between the faithful village girl Lilla (sung by Nancy Storace, who had sung Susanna in Mozart's Figaro a few months earlier) and her jealous beau, the shepherd Lubino (sung by Stefano Mandini, who had been Count Almaviva in Figaro). Da Ponte reports that the Emperor Joseph himself led the calls for the duet to be encored, despite his own decree forbidding encores of ensembles. [3]

Da Ponte's memoirs are not always testimony of the highest reliability, but in this case his account of how rapturously the duet was received is corroborated by the diary of Count Karl von Zinzendorf, a court official. After the second performance of Cosa rara on 20 November he wrote that "The duo between Mandini and Lilla in the second act is charming." On 1 December, possibly referring to the third performance on 24 November, he wrote, "The pretty duo between Mandini and Storace was repeated; it is very voluptuous. I left disturbed." In early January he wrote, "I find the duo between Mandini and Storace so tender and so expressive that it poses a danger to the young members of the audience. One needs to have had some experience in order to see it with a cool head." [4]

Here is the duet, sung by Montserrat Figueras (Lilla) and Iñaki Fresán (Lubino), from the live recording with Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall:

LILLA. Pace caro mio sposo.
LUBINO. Pace mio dolce amore.
LILLA. Non sarai più geloso?
LUBINO. No, non sarò, mio core.

LILLA. Mi vorrai sempre?
LILLA. Mi sarai sempre?
LUBINO. Amante.
LILLA. Son la tua sola?
LUBINO. Speme.
LILLA. Ti serberai?
LUBINO. Costante.

LILLA e LUBINO. Vieni, tra i bracci miei,
stringi, o mio caro ben,
l'anima mia tu sei,
ti vo' morir nel sen.

LUBINO. Dammi quella manina.
LILLA. Sì, sì, mio bel diletto.
LUBINO. Toccami il cor, carina.
LILLA. Come ti balza in petto.

LUBINO. Mi vorrai sempre?
LILLA. Bene.
LUBINO. Mi sarai sempre?
LILLA. Amante.
LUBINO. Son la tua sola?
LILLA. Speme.
LUBINO. Ti serberai?
LILLA. Costante.

LILLA e LUBINO. Vieni, tra i bracci miei,
stringi, o mio caro ben,
l'anima mia tu sei,
ti vo' morir nel sen.
LILLA. Peace, my beloved husband.
LUBINO. Peace, my sweet love.
LILLA. You won't be jealous anymore?
LUBINO. No, never, my love.

LILLA. You'll always love me...?
LUBINO. With all my heart.
LILLA. You'll always be my...?
LUBINO. Lover.
LILLA. Am I your only...?
LILLA. Will you remain...?
LUBINO. Faithful.

LILLA and LUBINO. Come to my arms,
Embrace me, my dear one,
You are my soul,
I want to die in your arms.

LUBINO. Give me your little hand.
LILLA. Yes, yes, my beautiful beloved.
LUBINO. Touch my heart, dearest.
LILLA. How it throbs in your chest.

LUBINO. You'll always love me...?
LILLA. With all my heart.
LUBINO. You'll always be my...?
LILLA. Lover.
LUBINO. Am I your only...?
LILLA. Hope.
LUBINO. Will you remain...?
LILLA. Faithful.

LILLA and LUBINO. Come to my arms,
Embrace me, my dear one,
You are my soul,
I want to die in your arms.

The setting is a small village, where as the opera begins Queen Isabella and her entourage have arrived after a day's perilous hunting. Suddenly Lilla runs in and throws herself at the Queen's feet, begging her protection: she and Lubino are in love, but her brother Tita is trying to force her to marry the village governor (Podestà). The Queen's son Prince Giovanni is immediately struck by Lilla's beauty and determines to seduce her. The Queen appoints the elderly courtier Corrado as Lilla's guardian, but Corrado is himself smitten with her. Beset by importunate suitors on all sides, Lilla thinks of her absent Lubino and the idyllic days of their love in "Dolce mi parve un di" (Love once seemed sweet to me):

Echoing Figaro, the Prince unsuccessfully attempts to bribe Lilla for her sexual favors. There are disguises and mistaken identities in the night, Lubino's unjust suspicions of Lilla's unfaithfulness, and a scene where Lilla hides in a closet and emerges to the surprise of the other characters. Cosa rara, though, lacks Figaro's subversive political bite. It is the Queen who sets everything to rights (though Corrado unfairly takes the fall for the Prince's behavior), and Lubino is generally subservient—at least to the Prince, if not to the Podestà. But perhaps it was that validation of beneficent nobility, along with Martín's gift for "grace, sweetness and melody in the music," that helped ensure the popularity of the opera. Da Ponte reported that ". . .The ladies in particular. . .wanted to see only Cosa rara and to dress only in the fashion of Cosa rara." [5]

Mozart himself acknowledged the opera's popularity. In the banquet scene in the last act of Don Giovanni, an onstage band plays excerpts from well-known operas of the day, starting with the first act finale of Cosa rara. In that finale Lilla's faithfulness is proved after her emergence from the closet, and the Queen (Maria Angeles Peters) unites the village couples—Lubino with Lilla, and Lilla's brother Tita (Fernando Belaza-Leoz) with his sweetheart Ghita (Gloria Fabuel)—to general rejoicing:

And here is Mozart's quotation of this music in Don Giovanni's banquet scene. Don Giovanni, who has spent much of the opera trying to seduce the village girl Zerlina, asks his servant Leporello, "What do you think of this fine concert?" Leporello replies, "It's worthy of you." Mozart and Da Ponte are here relying on their audience's recognition of the parallels between Don Giovanni and the character of Prince Giovanni in Cosa rara: (quotation ends at 2:42:15)

Don Giovanni is sung by Rodney Gilfry and Leporello by László Polgár, with the Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zurich conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Cosa rara held the stage for nearly four decades. But by the mid-1820s it had fallen out of the repertory and was no longer performed. Meanwhile, Mozart's operas (especially Don Giovanni) had been recognized as masterpieces and were becoming ever more firmly established. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries Cosa rara was known only by Mozart's musical quote, and Leporello's comment referring to the Prince must have been mystifying to most operagoers. Martín was considered a minor footnote to the story of Mozart.

But as the Savall recording shows, Cosa rara is full of excellent music. In fact Martín does some surprising things. After the overture the music flows directly into the first scene without pausing, driving the drama forward; Mozart would later adopt the same technique in Don Giovanni. Another surprise is how many ensembles Martín employs throughout the opera (not just in the act finales), a development Mozart would take even further in Cosi fan tutte (That's the way they all are, 1790). The conventional narrative of Don Giovanni's banquet scene was Mozart's genius condescending to Martín's mere talent; Savall's recording complicates that story by revealing that Mozart borrowed significant compositional ideas from Martín.

The live Savall recording of Cosa rara with the period-instrument Concert des Nations is highly enjoyable. There is occasionally some stage noise, audience applause marks the end of the acts (and occurs after at least one aria), and as the Queen, Maria Angeles Peters sings consistently flat. But these minor flaws don't detract significantly from the pleasure the performance affords. There is another live recording from 1999 featuring Giancarlo Andretta conducting the modern-instrument Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice (available for streaming for free through Opera Today), but the Queen on that recording is not much of an improvement over Peters, and overall I prefer Savall's singers and well-judged tempi. (Andretta's speeds seem alternately rushed and sluggish by comparison.) Good as Savall's version is, though, it was issued in 1991, more than 25 years ago; it's surprising that no other early-music specialist has recorded this opera since. Perhaps it's time for new recordings and new stagings of the all-too-rare Cosa rara.

Update 22 December 2018: Una cosa rara was selected for my Favorites of 2018: Recordings.

  1. John Platoff, "Mozart and his Rivals: Opera in Vienna," Current Musicology, Vol. 51, No. 1, 1993, p. 105-111.
  2. Lorenzo Da Ponte, Memoirs, quoted in Sheila Hodges, Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist, University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, pp. 76-77.
  3. The ban was instituted not "a few days earlier" as Da Ponte has it but on 9 May 1786, in response to the enthusiastic reception of Figaro, already a lengthy opera even without encores.
  4. John Platoff, "A New History for Martín's 'Una cosa rara,'" The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1994, pp. 85-115. Curiously, except for the first one Zinzendorf's comments do not correspond to the performance dates of Cosa rara as compiled by Otto Michtner in Das Alte Burgtheater als Opernbühne (Böhlhaus, 1970), pp. 488-489. Zinzendorf's remark of 7 January 1787 comes more than a month after the most recent performance of the opera on 4 December 1786. (It was performed again on 12 January.) The duet must have been "disturbing" indeed for him to remember it so vividly five weeks later. Zinzendorf was not so impressed by Figaro; after the first performance on 1 May 1786 he wrote "The opera bored me" (quoted in Michael Rose, The Birth of an Opera, Norton 2013, p. 100).
  5. Da Ponte, quoted in Hodges, p. 77.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Eca de Queiroz: The Maias

There's a technique used repeatedly by the 19th-century Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queiroz (modern spelling Queirós) in his great novel The Maias (1888), but it's so effective it never gets old. A character will become effusively idealistic, or romantic, or philosophical, and then reality will inevitably (and comically) assert itself:
  • At a tribute dinner the guest of honor is feted, lofty and noble sentiments are expressed, and "toasts were exchanged, ardent and eloquent." Then we are given a view of the table: "The dessert lay strewn about in disorder on the tablecloth, and on Alencar's plate cigarette butts were mixed with bits of chewed pineapple." (Book 1, Chapter 6). And unbeknownst to the guest of honor, one of the men offering toasts of undying friendship is sleeping with his wife.
  • Carlos Eduardo da Maia, the novel's protagonist, contemplates an affair with a married woman who seems to be sending him unmistakable signals. But their first passionate kiss ends in slapstick:
"The Countess selected a bud with two leaves and came up herself to pin it on his frock-coat. The warm scent of verbena rising from her heaving breast assailed Carlos's senses. She took a long time pinning the flower; her fingers were tremulous and slow, and seemed to linger and sleep on the cloth of his coat. . .
"Without knowing how it happened, irresistibly, Carlos found himself with his lips on hers. The silk of her dress rasped against his suit with a soft rustle as he held her in his arms. White as wax, she threw back her head and tenderly closed her eyes. And, clasping her as though she were dead, he took a step; his knee encountered a low sofa, that slid away escaping him. Carlos followed the wide sofa as it rolled off, and he stumbled as he did so, for her silk train had got wrapped round his feet. Then he bumped against the pedestal upon which the [bust of the] Count elevated his inspired forehead. A long sigh died amidst the sound of crushed skirts. . .Suddenly, in the hall, the voice of the Count sounded." (Book 1, Chapter 9)
  • In the closing pages of the novel, a middle-aged Carlos and his friend Ega are exchanging their hard-won philosophies of life—when suddenly they realize that they are about to miss a streetcar:
"It was not worth taking one step to reach anything on this earth—because everything resolved itself, as the wise man in Ecclesiastes had already taught, in dust and disillusion.
'If I was told that a Rothschild's fortune or the imperial crown of Charles V awaited me down the road here if I ran, I wouldn't quicken my pace. No! I wouldn't change this slow, prudent, safe and steady step which is the only one you should have in life.'
'Nor I!' agreed Carlos, with conviction. . .
'Wait!' cried Ega. 'Here's a tram coming. We'll catch it if we hurry!'
'We'll make it!'
"The two friends set off at a brisker pace. And Carlos, who had flung aside his cigar, was saying in the keen cold breeze which stung their faces: '. . .As you say, it's not worth making any effort, or chasing anxiously after anything whatsoever. . .'
"And to catch the tram the two friends had to run desperately down the hill and along the Aterro under the light of the rising moon." (Book 2, Chapter 8) [1]

The Maias is about the decadence of a family, a society and a nation, but at the same time Eça undermines grandiose narratives about progress and renewal by constantly intruding the comedy of human incompetence and vanity. We follow the adventures of Carlos, the sole male heir of the Maias, who dissipates his modest ambitions in an endless social round of dinners, theater, horse races, love affairs, and duels threatened but somehow never fought.

In a letter to a friend Eça called The Maias "that vast machine of a fresco done in sombre colours, in boringly monumental proportions, pompous and frivolous, which may well earn me the name of the Michelangelo of the insipid. Oh well. . ." Of course it's not Eça's novel but the world it depicts that is pompous and frivolous. At the same time that world enforces rigid social mores that destroy happiness and lead inexorably to tragedy. The obvious comparison (and possibly a source of Eça's technique of ironic undercutting) is Flaubert.

Eça had both an insider's and an outsider's perspective on the society he depicts so scathingly. Born out of wedlock, he was only acknowledged by his mother after he'd turned 40. (His parents married when he was four; despite being unacknowledged, Eça took his mother's maiden name.) In his late 20s, after earning a law degree, he was appointed to the consular service and thereafter largely lived outside of Portugal. He was sent on official missions to Cuba, the United States, England (where most of The Maias was written), and France, where he died in 1900 at age 54.

If Flaubert is one source for The Maias, another might be Schopenhauer, who observed that a "wish fulfilled at once makes way for a new one. . .No attained object of willing can give a satisfaction that lasts and no longer declines; but it is always like the alms thrown to a beggar, which reprieves him today so that his misery may be prolonged till tomorrow." [2] When Carlos finally experiences a great passion his idyll is ultimately shattered by the revelation of a secret relating to his lover's background. But perhaps a greater horror is his recognition that, despite their blissful love, he has begun to grow tired of her:
. . .that night as he lay beside Maria who was asleep, tired out, he felt, like the first cold breath of death, a presentiment of what might come.

He could feel emerging from the depths of his being a satiety, only tenuous now, yet nevertheless already perceptible. . .his mind wandered to another life he could lead, far from here, in a simple house all open to the sun, with a legitimate wife, a domestic angel, petite and shy and modest, a woman who did not cry out lasciviously nor use such a warm, heavy perfume! And unfortunately he no longer doubted it—if he went away with her, he would very soon be beset by the indescribable horror of physical nausea. . .Henceforth existence could only offer him intolerable bitterness. (Book 2, Ch. 7)
Carlos lacks the moral courage either to seize the happiness that has been offered him or to directly face the consequences of the transgression he and his lover have unwittingly committed. His punishment is to be exiled forever from deep feeling. He turns once again to fleeting pleasures, and remains only fitfully aware that, as Pascal has written, "The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries." [3]

Update 22 December 2018: The Maias was selected for my Favorites of 2018: Books.

  1. José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, Os Maias (The Maias, 1888), translated by Patricia McGowan Pinheiro and Ann Stevens, J.M. Dent, 1986; translation originally published by The Bodley Head, 1965. There is another translation by Margaret Jull Costa published by New Directions in 2007.
  2. Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation, 1818-59), Vol. 1, translated by E.F.J. Payne, Dover, 1966, p. 196.
  3. Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Thoughts, 1670), translated by W.F. Trotter, E.P. Dutton, 1958, 171: Misery.

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.