My new piece in the Chronicle: Has imaginative literature become (again) a scandalous “guilty pleasure” to “read when nobody’s watching”?
My new piece “About Elly, About Jane,” about the Jane-Austenian subtext of Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly.
If About Elly reimagines Antonioni’s film, it also offers – somewhat like Amy Heckerling’s Clueless – a loose retelling of Jane Austen’s great novel Emma…
Forgot to link to this piece of mine in The Toast.
You are known as Queen of the Teasers. Even as a young girl, your wit is likened to a barbed hook hidden within the feathers of a fishing lure. You enjoy composing cruel poems to make your sisters cry. A favorite insult: “You look like the eldest and ugliest of the Bronte sisters today.”
Your closest companion is a pet lamb named Miranda that you bring with you to church and to bed. You write a poem about her that includes the rhyme “Me-ran-der/ Soon to the butcher I must hand her.”
After an emergency appendectomy, you sell your sister your appendix in a bottle, for one pound. It soon smells so much that Nanny must wash it down the loo.
You are legendarily beautiful. When your incredibly wealthy fiancé introduces you to his mother, he declares, “And she can cook, Mummy,” to which she replies faintly, “I’ve never heard of such a thing. It’s too clever.” But in reality, you can make nothing other than fried eggs.
FEW SOCIAL PRACTICES now seem more antiquated than the formal duel by swords or pistols. The so-called “judicial duel” became widely practiced in Europe in the early Middle Ages, influenced by Homeric and other Classical accounts of single combat, and survived more or less intact for centuries. Over the same span, duels appeared endlessly in stories, paintings, poems, and novels. Duels seem “particularly hospitable to literature,” John Leigh proposes in his lucid and thorough new study, because they are “self-contained dramas”; “the most deliberate, self-conscious of acts,” the “ritualized combat” of a duel stipulates a consistent pattern of word and deed….
We watched John Boorman’s wonderful 1987 Hope and Glory, which I somehow had never managed to see. Based on Boorman’s experiences as a kid during the Blitz in London, it’s about 8 y.o Bill Rowan and his family, mostly told from Bill’s POV. Dad goes off to war in 1939, leaving mom at home with Bill and his younger and older sister, dodging bombs & shrapnel, constantly having to wake up in the middle of the night to cower in the bomb shelter, but managing to have quite a lot of fun.
Pauline Kael commented of the film, “It’s hard to believe that a great comedy could be made of the Blitz but John Boorman has done it.” It’s filled with amazingly vivid, funny depictions of the young kids running riot amid the rubble of their neighborhood. A group of the younger boys, unsupervised, form a gang dedicated to smashing whatever has been left undestroyed. This scene shows Bill’s induction (he has to utter the phrase, “Bugger off you bloody sod”). At 3:10 in this clip the cherubic gang leader tells Bill, “OK, you’re in… Let’s smash things up!” Cut to joyful jazz music as they go nuts in the incredibly dangerous-looking ruins of a house they’ve adopted as headquarters. Talk about free-range kids. (Kael observes of the film, “the war has its horrors, but it also destroys much of what the genteel poor like Grace Rowan (Sarah Miles) have barely been able to acknowledge they wanted destroyed.”)
In its representation of anarchic kids’ exuberant destruction, this reminds me of the incredible Holloween scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Also of Deputy and the other rock-throwing “hideous small boys,” who “don’t have an object,” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood:
Durdles and Jasper …are also addressed by some half-dozen other hideous small boys—whether twopenny lodgers or followers or hangers-on of such, who knows!—who, as if attracted by some carrion-scent of Deputy in the air, start into the moonlight, as vultures might gather in the desert, and instantly fall to stoning him and one another.
‘Stop, you young brutes,’ cries Jasper angrily, ‘and let us go by!’
This remonstrance being received with yells and flying stones, according to a custom of late years comfortably established among the police regulations of our English communities, where Christians are stoned on all sides, as if the days of Saint Stephen were revived, Durdles remarks of the young savages, with some point, that ‘they haven’t got an object,’ and leads the way down the lane.
I’m enjoying Maggie Nelson’s smart, probing The Art of Cruelty. Here’s one passage:
[I]n my own life, I know I generally feel very alive and emancipated when I choose to walk out on something. After all, you walk out when you realize that whatever it is you’re watching, for whatever reason, simply isn’t working. Walking out reminds you that while submission can at times be a pleasure, a risk worth taking, you don’t have to manufacture consent whenever or wherever it is nominally in demand…. The fact that the exit door isn’t barred, the feel of the fresh air on your face when you open it — all this serves to remind you of how good it feels to angle the full force of your body and attention toward that which seems to you a good use of your short time on the planet, and to practice aversion towards that which does not. These are freedoms that life does not always grant…
This brings to mind a trip with friends years ago to see a play, a student production almost an hour out of town. I thought I might be the only one hating it, and certainly wasn’t going to ask anyone else to leave at intermission, but thought I owed it to myself at least to hint vaguely at the possibility of cutting our losses and leaving. Seconds later we were all on our way out. Yes, “the feel of the fresh air on your face” when you walk out of that theater– she really captures it.
This also reminds me why I found so silly the premise of this recent piece– here it is, “Finish That Book! You suffer when you quit a story midway through—and so does literature.” Nope, completely wrong, the freedom to toss a book aside — even if capriciously, even if for no good reason — is basic to the pleasure of reading.
We recently came across this almost-forgotten testament to my wife’s awesomely resourceful & creative parenting.
When our kids were approaching their fourth birthday, over seven years ago, one of them (I forget which) announced that what she most wanted for her birthday was a “robot unicorn.”
We puzzled over this for a while and I planned to move on to other, more possible gifts.
But Sarah got hold of this small plush unicorn, and sewed on green and red “Go” and “Stop” buttons. (She may have asked what would make a unicorn a “robot unicorn,” and gotten “buttons” as an answer.)
The gift was a hit and became a beloved object.
Sometimes kids can be easier to please than you expect…