Monday, January 12, 2015

Clothes, music, boys: Viv Albertine

The Slits, 1977: Viv Albertine, Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt, Palmolive

The full title of Viv Albertine's memoir is Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys—"that's all you think about," she says her mother used to tell her (p. ix). Albertine was the guitarist for The Slits, an all-women (at least in their first incarnation) punk band in 1970s London. When I picked up her book I assumed the title was ironic; unfortunately, it's descriptive, although a more accurate title would be Boys Boys Boys Clothes Clothes Clothes Music, since Albertine spends more time talking about her boyfriends and her look and than about performing with her band or the creation of their songs.

Side 1

The Slits—in addition to Albertine the original lineup included vocalist Ari Up (Arianna Forster), bassist Tessa Pollitt, and drummer Palmolive (Paloma Romero)—started out playing thrashy two- and three-minute songs about shoplifting and housing estates. Their first gigs were shambolic. Here's Albertine describing their first night opening for The Clash on the White Riot tour in 1977; at this point she didn't yet know how to tune her guitar, and she counts off "one two three four" at the start of a song like Dee Dee Ramone, but doesn't yet realize that her count is supposed to set the tempo:
We all play at different speeds. Ari screams as loud as she can, I thrash at my guitar, Palmolive smashes the drums—the stage is so big and Tessa's so far away, I can't hear what she's doing. I can't differentiate between the instruments....We all play the song separately, we know we should play together, but we can't. I hope that if I remember my part and the others remember theirs, with a bit of luck we'll all end at the same time. That doesn't happen. (p. 173)
But because they don't know how they're "supposed" to play their instruments, their music at this stage is strangely compelling: here's "Newtown" from their 1977 Peel sessions EP:

As they went on they absorbed influences from ska and reggae (their first album, Cut, was produced by Dennis Bovell, whose band backed the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson). My favorite Slits song from this era is "Typical Girls":

Some of the lyrics:
[Typical girls]
Can't decide
What clothes to wear
Are sensitive
Typical girls
Are emotional
Typical girls
Are cruel and bewitching
'She's a femme fatale' [1]
Typical girls
Stand by their man [2]
Typical girls
Are really swell
Typical girls
Learn how to act shocked
Typical girls
Don't rebel

Who invented the typical girl?
Who's bringing out the new improved model?
And there's another marketing ploy
Typical girl gets the typical boy
It's odd that the woman who wrote these lyrics, which describe how women are influenced to obsess about clothes and boys, has written a memoir largely about what clothes she wore and what boys she flirted with, hung out with, and slept with (sometimes chastely). Of course, Albertine didn't wear typical clothes and wasn't interested in typical boys, but the concern with wearing the right outfits and having the right boyfriends doesn't feel very subversive of mainstream values.

And while Albertine gets points for frankness—we hear about her first (and second) case of crabs, her first time shooting heroin, her first attempt at oral sex (with Johnny Rotten—it didn't go well), and her attraction to bad boys (including Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones, Sex Pistols' bassist Sid Vicious, Heartbreakers' guitarist Johnny Thunders, and, later in life, the actor Vincent Gallo)—the book has some odd elisions, too.

One of these comes when Albertine forces the other Slits to choose between her and Palmolive, who co-founded the group with Ari Up and was one of its main songwriters. Albertine writes that Palmolive had missed rehearsals and seemed interested in pursuing other possibilities (she later joined The Raincoats). But in Albertine's telling the decision to kick her out of the band was made in Palmolive's absence, and it feels like some of the story—even from Albertine's side—must be missing.

Also missing are mentions of many of the other women musicians in the punk scene: in the first part of the book ("Side 1"), which covers events up to the Slits' breakup in 1982, there's exactly one reference to The Raincoats, and none to Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), The Adverts, The Mo-dettes (formed by The Slits' first guitarist, Kate Korus, whom Albertine replaced), Delta 5, Au Pairs, or Kleenex/Liliput. Since Gina Birch of The Raincoats, for one, has mentioned how much she was inspired by The Slits, the absence of these bands from Albertine's recounting of this period feels like deliberate disregard.

There are mentions, though, of the places Albertine bought her clothes. One photo caption actually names the source of the polka-dot hair ribbon she's wearing. Style has long been crucially important to self-definition in British youth culture—Dick Hebdige's 1979 book Subculture is subtitled The Meaning of Style—and Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren's clothing shop Sex was both a sartorial and cultural center for punk. But in Albertine's memoir clothes and boys receive so much attention that other significant aspects of the cultural moment feel like they're given short shrift.

Albertine was somewhat older than many of the other participants in the punk scene: when she joined The Slits in 1977 she was 22—Ari Up was 15—and when they broke up she was 27. Perhaps because of this her sense of failure and the closing off of possibilities was especially devastating: "This feels like the death of a huge part of myself…I've got nowhere to go and nothing to do…I'm burnt out and my heart is broken." (p. 250)

Side 2

The second part of the book ("Side 2") recounts the long and painful process of reinventing herself and finding renewed purpose in the band's (and punk's) aftermath. It clearly wasn't an easy process: we hear about bad dates, mean bosses, life-threatening health crises, and her increasingly rocky marriage (surprisingly traditional, in that as in other ways). But again there's the sense that, despite all the self-revelation, key pieces of information are missing.

As an example, Albertine says that the decision to renovate their house in 2007 put a strain on her relationship with her husband from which it could never recover. But much earlier there are signs that all is not well between them. In 1999, after the birth of their daughter and her treatment for cervical cancer, Albertine is weak, exhausted and depressed, and experiences flashes of anger towards her husband:
Hubby does all her feeds and changes her nappies. She's started looking to him eagerly for cuddles, she feels safer with him because he's the the provider of comfort.

I watch as the intense bond I had with my daughter slips away. I'm losing the child I fought so hard to have in my life…

The next morning I say to Hubby, 'From now on I do all Baby's feeds and changes. No matter how tired I am.'

I don't have the energy to do it but it's that or lose my daughter… (p. 298)
That Albertine sees the care of their daughter as a zero-sum game—that every time her husband feeds their child or changes her diaper it means less affection for herself—suggests very strongly to this reader that their marriage already has some serious problems. (According to a Google Books search, the phrase "our daughter" occurs four times in the book; "my daughter" occurs 24 times.)

As her marriage disintegrates, Albertine returns to writing and performing music for the first time in 25 years. (After the end of The Slits, she writes, "I can't bear to listen to music. Every time I hear a song I feel physical pain, just to hear instruments is unbearable, it reminds me of what I've lost." (p. 250)) She begins to play open mics and small gigs, and with the support of friends like Mick Jones (The Clash), Jah Wobble (Public Image Limited, John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols band), Glenn Matlock (the Sex Pistols' first bass player), and Gina Birch (The Raincoats), records The Vermilion Border album, which was released in 2012. Here is "Confessions of a MILF," about the confinements and disillusionments of her marriage—sort of a "Typical Girls Part 2":

But confessions are not enough. In her memoir Albertine recounts plenty of appalling and/or mortifying incidents, but (as in the "losing my daughter" moment) her book is at times oddly tone-deaf. It reads a bit like worked-over diary entries, with occasional commentary by her present self added in italics. The present-tense approach gives a sense of immediacy, but at the cost of reflection and insight. To put it bluntly, if you weren't already a huge fan of The Slits or punk rock (and even if you were), why should you care where Albertine was buying her leggings and hair ribbons? Ultimately, C3M3B3 doesn't provide enough of an answer—or enough stories like this one:
...In a week's time the Slits are going on the White Riot tour with the Clash. I've got to learn all our songs, I can't even play guitar standing up yet. We haven't played a gig together either, so we go down to the Pindar of Wakefield pub in Islington to see if we can have a quick go on their stage. When we arrive we see that a bunch of boys are churning out some old rock music; we've got our guitars with us but we hold them behind our backs so no one suspects anything. In between songs I go up to the guitarist in the rock band and ask him if we can play a song. He says no, so I pull him off the stage and Ari, Tessa and Palmolive pull the other guys off, there's an uproar, a couple of cymbals get kicked over but Palmolive doesn't care, she doesn't use them anyway. We bash through "Let's Do the Split" before the manager and barmen pull us off. That's our warm-up gig done. (p. 172)

1. A reference to The Velvet Underground, "Femme Fatale," from The Velvet Underground & Nico, Verve, 1967
2. A reference to Tammy Wynette, "Stand By Your Man," Legacy, 1968 (released in the UK in 1975). The Clash's "Train in Vain" from the album London Calling (1979), with its refrain of "You didn't stand by me," was written by Mick Jones about his and Albertine's on-again, off-again relationship.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The other Brontë sister: Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë, like her sisters Charlotte and Emily, was a poet and novelist; like them, too, she died of consumption at a tragically young age. But while Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are now among the most widely read novels in English, Anne's two novels, Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), remain relatively neglected.

Neither of Anne's novels appear, for example, on any of the four lists of 100 recommended novels I discuss in the post "100 novels"; both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights appear on three out of the four. As of this writing the free e-book versions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights on the Project Gutenberg website have been downloaded as single titles 8474 and 6925 times, respectively; meanwhile, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been downloaded only 674 times, while Agnes Grey has been downloaded a mere 360 times.

Why this comparative neglect? It's true that Anne is not as polished a writer as either Charlotte or Emily. Anne's heroines are trapped in painful situations which they find difficult to escape; large sections of her novels are litanies of torment. Her heroines are also intensely pious in a way that may make readers in our more secular age uncomfortable. But her novels deserve to be read for the light they shed on the plight of women in Victorian society; and their autobiographical elements provide another perspective on the troubled situation of the Brontë family.

Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey is based on Anne's unhappy experiences as a governess in the homes of two families, the Inghams and the Robinsons. As the narrator states in the novel's first paragraph, "shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I…will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend." It's not necessary to take this assertion completely at face value to recognize that Agnes Grey must indeed draw significantly on autobiographical sources.

When her father is suddenly impoverished by a speculation gone wrong, Agnes decides to seek a position as a governess despite her youth (she's 19, the same age that Anne was when she took her first position with the Inghams). She is hired by Mrs. Bloomfield to supervise her unruly children Tom, age 7, and Mary, age 5. It soon becomes clear that one of Tom's chief pleasures—encouraged by his harsh father—is torturing small animals. Mary obstinately refuses to cooperate with Agnes, and the situation quickly becomes a physical power struggle:
Sometimes, exasperated to the utmost pitch, I would shake her violently by the shoulder, or pull her long hair, or put her in the corner; for which she punished me with loud, shrill, piercing screams, that went through my head like a knife. She knew I hated this, and when she had shrieked her utmost, would look into my face with an air of vindictive satisfaction, exclaiming,—

'Now, then! that's for you!'

And then shriek again and again, till I was forced to stop my ears. Often these dreadful cries would bring Mrs. Bloomfield up to inquire what was the matter?

'Mary Ann is a naughty girl, ma'am.'

'But what are these shocking screams?'

'She is screaming in a passion.'

'I never heard such a dreadful noise! You might be killing her. Why is she not out with her brother?'

'I cannot get her to finish her lessons.'

'But Mary Ann must be a good girl, and finish her lessons.' This was blandly spoken to the child. 'And I hope I shall never hear such terrible cries again!'

And fixing her cold, stony eyes upon me with a look that could not be mistaken, she would shut the door, and walk away. [Ch. III]
Of course it was an era in which corporal punishment of children was routine, but it's nonetheless dismaying when Agnes fervently expresses a desire for a "good birch rod" or to deliver "a few sound boxes in the ear." Still, it's clear that she is in an untenable position: she has responsibility for the children's behavior and educational progress, but is given no authority (she is continually being undermined by both parents). The parents also squabble openly in her presence, making her the unwilling witness of their bitter arguments. It's hard to know whether it's a greater relief to Agnes or to the reader when she is dismissed by the nightmarish Bloomfields and sent back to her family.

Agnes then finds a position with the Murrays. The Murray children are older but only slightly better behaved than the Bloomfields'. Charles Murray, 10, is "a pettish, cowardly, capricious, selfish little fellow, only active in doing mischief, and only clever in inventing falsehoods, not simply to hide his faults, but, in mere malicious wantonness, to bring odium upon others"; she calls him her "little tormentor." John, 11, is "rough as a young bear, boisterous, unruly, unprincipled, untaught, unteachable."  The two older sisters aren't much better: Mathilda, 14, is "a veritable hoyden" who has learned "to swear like a trooper," while Rosalie, 16, is "testy and capricious" and "shallow." [Ch. VII]

As in her previous situation as a governess, Agnes finds herself in a strange in-between position. She is not considered the social equal of her employers or their children; but as a clergyman's daughter, fraternizing with the servants is beneath her. She is socially and emotionally isolated, and unable to form true friendships with either Mrs. Murray or her daughters. And in any case, she feels no affinity with the Murrays, parents or children: Mrs. Murray is superficial, far more concerned with her daughters' social position than their happiness; and the Miss Murrays are selfish (Rosalie), coarse (Mathilde) and willful (both).

Over time Agnes does, though, develop an attachment to the evangelical curate of the local parish, Edward Weston. When the beautiful, coquettish Rosalie Murray comes to suspect Agnes' regard for Weston, she determines to win his admiration for herself. "Whether she intended to torment me, or merely to amuse herself, I could not tell." [Ch XV] Even as Rosalie turns the full power of her charm on Weston, though, she is already engaged to a rich local landowner, Sir Thomas Ashby. Rosalie's marriage to Ashby will make her miserably unhappy and leave her a virtual prisoner on his estate—so desperate that she reaches out to her former governess Agnes for friendship and support. Rosalie's essential nature is unchanged, though, and her gesture comes too late.

If the Bloomfields, the Murrays and the Ashbys are cautionary tales of marriage in which love has died or never existed, Anne Brontë's next novel offers an even more alarming portrait of marital incompatibility.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

A mysterious woman, Helen Graham, and her young son come to live on a long-abandoned estate in the wilds of Yorkshire. Gilbert Markham, a young man in the neighborhood, becomes intrigued by the woman and eventually declares his love. She tells him that love is impossible between them, but asks him to remain her friend. Markham becomes increasingly jealous of Helen's intimacy with another man, Frederick Lawrence, who he thinks is his romantic rival.

When Markham finally confronts her with his suspicions, Helen gives him her diary. It reveals that Helen is not a widow, but rather is still the wife of Arthur Huntingdon. She has fled her husband to protect her son from his influence: her husband frequently drinks to excess with his dissolute friends, and is amused by encouraging his son to drink and swear in their company. Huntingdon is also openly having an affair with Lady Annabella Lowborough, the wife of one of his drinking companions.

Huntingdon's drinking and extramarital affairs are modelled in part on Branwell Brontë, Anne's brother (Huntingdon also shares Branwell's red hair). Anne had recommended Branwell for a position as a tutor to the son of the Robinsons, the family where Anne was employed as a governess. Branwell soon embarked on an affair with Lydia Robinson, the wife of his employer. Anne probably learned of the affair, and resigned her position in June 1845. When the affair was discovered by the husband a month later, Branwell was summarily fired. According to Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, Lydia Robinson kept up a clandestine correspondence with Branwell, but on the death of her husband she distanced herself from him and eventually married another man. [1]

Over the next few years the rejected Branwell turned increasingly to drink and opium, dying of alcoholism and consumption (most probably) in September 1848. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Arthur Huntingdon, too, becomes seriously ill from drink and a resulting injury, and Helen returns to him in order to try to nurse him through his crisis.

This return to her emotionally abusive spouse out of a sense of wifely duty is one of the reasons this novel may present difficulties to the modern reader. Another is presented by the man Helen has come to love, the volatile and violent Gilbert Markham. At one point Markham assaults Frederick Lawrence without provocation, smashing him in the head with the heavy metal handle of his riding whip and leaving him stunned and bleeding by the side of the road.

Helen's choice to leave an abusive marriage, live alone and support herself is truly radical. This reader, at any rate, was not eager to see her either patch up her marriage with her deliberately cruel husband or unite herself with the mercurial Markham. But these unsatisfactory alternatives are stark illustrations of the difficulties of independence for 19th-century women.

After resigning her position with the Robinsons Anne never worked as a governess again. In conversation with Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë suggested why such a position had become abhorrent to Anne:
She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of 'respectable' human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. [2]
In May 1849, nearly a year after the first publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it became clear that Anne was dying. On May 24 she set out with her sister on a journey to the seaside town of Scarborough; she died there on May 28th at the age of 29.


1. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII
1. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Premarital sex and Shuddh Desi Romance

Raj (Rishi Kapoor) and Bobby (Dimple Kapadia) in Bobby

In Indian cinema premarital sex has often had severe, and sometimes fatal, consequences. What follows is a brief history of premarital sex in seven films from five decades (with mild spoilers):

Aradhana (Adoration, 1968): After a night of passion with local beauty Vandana (Sharmila Tagore), dashing Air Force pilot Arun (Rajesh Khanna) is killed in a plane crash. Vandana soon discovers that she's pregnant. Unmarried,* and rejected by Arun's family, Vandana must give her son Suraj up for adoption. To stay close to Suraj, she goes to work as a servant in the household of the wealthy couple that adopted him, but must keep her true identity a secret. Attempted rape, a killing, prison and years of separation follow…

Bobby (1973): Rich boy Raj (Rishi Kapoor) and poor girl Bobby (Dimple Kapadia) fall passionately in love. Raj's father, though, angrily rejects the proposed match and engages him to another bride. Raj and Bobby elope, but are pursued by their angry parents, kidnapped and beaten by goons, and plunge off a cliff into a raging river.

Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (From Doom to Doom, 1988): Raj (Aamir Khan) and Rashmi (Juhi Chawla) fall in love, but their feuding families won't agree to their marriage. So the lovers elope and live in blissful happiness together—until hired killers are sent by Rashmi's father to murder Raj.

Kya Kehna (What Is There to Say? 2000): Priya (Preity Zinta) falls hard for the daredevil charms of college hero Rahul (Saif Ali Khan). When she discovers that she's pregnant, she is spurned by Rahul, ostracized by her family and her community, and has to fight to keep her baby.

Salaam Namaste (Muslim-Hindu Greetings, 2005): Radio DJ Ambar (Preity Zinta) and aspiring restaurateur Nick (Saif Ali Khan) move in together, but when she becomes pregnant he tells her that he isn't ready for fatherhood, abandoning her to deal with the pregnancy on her own.

Love Aaj Kal (Love These Days, 2009): Meera (Deepika Padukone) and Jai (Saif Ali Khan), unwilling to let their 3-year-long live-in relationship interfere with their careers, separate to pursue their dream jobs. They both become involved with other people, but when Jai is badly beaten by muggers, he realizes that he truly loves Meera—who, in the meantime, has married another man.

Cocktail (2012): Party-girl Veronica (Deepika Padukone) and flirtatious Gautam (Saif Ali Khan yet again) sleep together, but think of themselves as free agents. Veronica comes to realize, though, that she is truly in love with Gautam—only, he has fallen for her new roommate, the demure Meera (Diana Penty). Stumbling down the street in a haze of alcohol and grief, Veronica is hit by a speeding car.

It's hard not to view these movies as cautionary tales about the dangers, emotional and physical, of premarital sex. Krishna and Radha may be held up as models of passionate love, but those who follow their example are regularly forced to endure Sita-like trials.

Which brings us to the latest entry in this series:

Shuddh Desi Romance (Pure Indian Romance, 2013)

Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) hustles tourists for a living; he's also a wedding guest for hire as part of the crew of wedding planner Goyal (Rishi Kapoor). On the overnight bus to his own arranged marriage, Raghu expresses his last-minute doubts to Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra). She's equally skeptical about arranged marriages:

That's India for you. No love. No romance, nothing.

She's been hired to play the role of Raghu's sister, and (she tells him) has had several boyfriends. This evidently makes her more attractive to Raghu, and they exchange a few tentative kisses.

At the wedding ceremony the next day Raghu panics just as he's about to be garlanded by his bride Tara (Vaani Kapoor), and runs away. He later explains to Gayatri that it was because of their brief encounter on the bus. Gayatri is wary, but also attracted to him. They start sleeping together, and eager Raghu is soon ready to move in.

What's wrong?

Of course, we wonder about Gayatri's judgment. But perhaps it's precisely Raghu's publicly demonstrated fear of commitment that attracts her. With him, she's safe from impulsive marriage proposals—or at least, she's free from having to take his impulsive proposals seriously. We learn that her last boyfriend dumped her after she became pregnant; she's understandably distrustful of Raghu's promises and leery of making her own commitments:

And love? Cooked it, tasted it, done with it.

Despite Gayatri's uncompromising talk, one drunken night she accepts Raghu's proposal of marriage. At the ceremony, though, both have second thoughts, and this time it's Gayatri that runs away (sensing, rightly, that Raghu was about to do the same).

As a hired guest at another wedding, Raghu bumps into his jilted bride Tara, who inexplicably slips him her phone number. When they meet later on at a cafe, she asks him a question that stuns him (and us):

Will you be my boyfriend?

This raises a question that the film is unable to answer:

What do women see in you? Why do they come back?

When Gayatri re-enters his life, Raghu is faced with a choice between the two women. But it is the women, of course, who really make the choice...

Shuddh Desi Romance is ultimately unsatisfying, though not because the right couple isn't united at the end (the aimless and evasive Raghu is lucky to be in a relationship with anybody), or because the characters are punished for having sex out of wedlock (unless you count Gayatri's pre-film pregnancy and abandonment). But Jaideep Sahni's script is so busy setting up clever parallelisms in the story that it doesn't allow the characters to grow, change, or achieve any insight into their own feelings. Perhaps the spectacular scenery of Rajasthan can allow us, and them, to overlook this—at least for a short time:

The music is by Sachin-Jigar with lyrics by Sahni; the playback singers are Jigar and Priya Saraiya.

By the end of the film, the characters' reflexive avoidance of marriage seems like a negative choice, not a positive one. While they claim to be rebelling against marriage as a corrupt and increasingly empty institution, it's clear that it's their anxieties and not their principles that are driving their decisions. Complementary emotional wounds—fear of commitment on his part, and fear of rejection on hers—don't seem like the healthiest basis for a sustained, or even temporary, relationship. In Shuddh Desi Romance, marriage may be in trouble, but life without commitment is hardly a viable alternative.


* In Aradhana and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, the couples perform their own private marriage ceremonies. They're "married in the eyes of God," but not in the eyes of their families or the larger society.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Favorites of 2014: Books


Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters and Cranford

Perhaps the books I've most enjoyed over the past twelve months are by a writer who bridges the disparate worlds and sensibilities of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell.

Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's greatest achievement: it follows the fortunes of Molly Gibson, a young woman whose widowed father makes a sudden decision to remarry and discovers the painful truth of the proverb about repenting at leisure. With its close observation of the social world of a small English village and its touching portrait of the shy, sensitive and steadfast Molly, Wives and Daughters bears comparison to the work of Austen, Brontë, and George Eliot—that is to say, to some of the greatest novels ever written.

Cranford is a warm and affectionate portrait of the kind of small town in which Gaskell herself grew up. The interconnected stories about the spinsters and widows who rule Cranford society are narrated by a younger woman, Mary Smith, and describe the varying responses of the Cranford ladies to the rapidly changing mores and modes of life of the Victorian era. If you have never read Gaskell it is the perfect place to start.

Read the full post: Bridging Austen and Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Based on Brontë's experiences during her two years spent at a boarding school in Belgium, Villette tells the story of the ill-fated loves of its quiet heroine, Lucy Snowe. Despite her name, Lucy is only outwardly cool; inwardly she is warmly passionate. But the constraints which forbid her to express her feelings openly, as men in her society are allowed to, lead to desperate unhappiness—which must, like her love, remain concealed.

Read the full post: "Hunger, rebellion, and rage": Charlotte Bronte's Villette

Fanny Burney, Cecilia

Cecilia is a young woman trying to make her way through the hypocrisies, trivialities and unwritten constraints of the social world. Burney's heroines, like those of her admirer Jane Austen, are not always unblemished paragons of virtue and good sense, but instead experience uncertainty and occasionally make mistakes. Burney's books also share the same kind of clear-eyed view of the allurements and perils of the marriage market that distinguishes Austen's novels. And if one of the pleasures of reading Burney is to be immersed in the social mores of the distant 18th century, another (as it is with Austen) is to discover just how contemporary her characters can seem.

Read the full posts: Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?" and Jane Austen's favorite novelist: Fanny Burney

Biggest Disappointment: David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell is brilliant at creating narrators with distinct and highly individual voices. That focus on character is what drove his best novel to date, Cloud Atlas (2004). The Bone Clocks (Random House, 2014) starts promisingly as the story of a convincingly-voiced teenaged girl, Holly Sykes, who is running away from home after a fight with her mother. But it quickly bogs down in a science fiction/fantasy plot in which its human characters are pawns in a supernatural war between two factions of immortal beings, the Anchorites (evil) and the Horologists (good). There's talk about "the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar" and "the Psychosoterica of the Shaded Way," but it's not meant as parody—at least, I don't think so. A big chunk of the novel is taken up with the final confrontation, in which the Horologist narrator says things like "I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants." The fantasy plot ultimately renders the actions and fates of the novel's mortal characters mere background. Not many novels can leave me indifferent to the fate of humanity, but The Bone Clocks managed it.

Second Biggest Disappointment: Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

I was an early fan of Haruki Murakami's, discovering him at the time A Wild Sheep Chase was first issued in the U.S. (1989), and then seeking out his earlier novels in their Japanese English-language editions. But lately I've begun to wonder whether I wasn't really a fan of his early translator, Alfred Birnbaum. Murakami's most recent novels have been translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, seemingly in haste, because they are full of stylistic awkwardnesses (one of the things that made his last novel, 1Q84, my Biggest disappointment of 2012).

But clunky translation could be forgiven if Colorless Tsukuru were otherwise compelling; unfortunately it revisits territory covered too often before by Murakami and other writers. An emotionally withdrawn protagonist approaching middle age renews his acquaintance with each of his former friends from college to try to understand why years ago he had been abruptly ostracized from the group. There are a half-hearted invocations of many Murakami tropes: a dreamlike alternate reality, Western music (classical and jazz), a central story that involves the unraveling of a mystery. But Colorless Tsukuru lacks the conviction, originality and imaginative energy of Murakami's better work.


Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë

Elizabeth Gaskell knew Charlotte Brontë personally, and her friendship with Charlotte gives this biography an intimacy that is rarely achieved between biographer and subject. And while it's fascinating to learn of the real-life people and events that were transmuted into Charlotte Brontë's fiction, the chief interest in Gaskell's biography, at least for me, is its liberal quotation from Charlotte's letters. In particular, Gaskell was given access to Charlotte's extensive correspondence with her former school friend Ellen Nussey. Charlotte's letters are frank, open, and sometimes painfully revealing, as when she wrote to Ellen, "Don't deceive yourself by imagining I have a bit of real goodness about me....I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up, and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I daresay despise me."

Read the full post: "I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch (Crown, 2014) is a record of the changing meanings that George Eliot's Middlemarch has held for Mead as she has reread it over the course of her life. It's also a concise and highly compelling biography of Eliot, a description of the creation and reception of Middlemarch, and a frank and moving account of Mead's life and experience as it has been reflected in and informed by the novel. My Life in Middlemarch is essential reading for lovers of Eliot's great novel, but also for those, like Mead (and myself), for whom books have been a crucial element of their "self-fashioning."

Read the full post: My Life in Middlemarch

Fanny Burney: Journals and Letters

On her 15th birthday, Fanny Burney, conscious of her father's (and her society's) disapproval of women authors, burned every scrap of her writing: poems, plays, stories, and a full-length novel. But nine months later she picked up her pen again and began writing a journal that she dedicated to Nobody:
…to whom dare I reveal…my own hopes, fears, reflections & dislikes?—Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved—to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life!
Burney indeed kept the journal until the end of her life as a record of her thoughts, feelings and sensations. It was also a record of her keen observations of the literary and aristocratic worlds into which she was unwillingly thrust by the success of her first novel, Evelina. Burney's fame brought her into intimate contact with figures such as Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale, and Queen Charlotte, in the service of whom the shy, sensitive Burney spent five miserable years as the Second Keeper of the Robes.

In the 19th century the posthumous publication of her journals eclipsed her novels. But it's not just the famous people she knew or the compelling story of her life (a late-blooming love, forced exile with her French husband during the Napoleonic Wars, her horrifying experience of a mastectomy without anaesthesia) that made her journal so popular; it is her forthright, perceptive and deeply appealing voice. In essence, the publication of the journals made Fanny Burney her own greatest character.

Biggest disappointment: Morrissey, Autobiography

Morrissey was the lead singer and lyricist for The Smiths, whose "Hatful of Hollow" album gave expression to certain inchoate feelings of loss, regret, and lack of direction in my post-collegiate 20s. Johnny Marr's crystalline guitar was the perfect accompaniment to Morrissey's arch, funny, and bitterly true lyrics: "I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour, but heaven knows I'm miserable now / I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now."

In the first half of Autobiography, Morrissey writes compellingly of his youthful feelings of loneliness and desperation, his struggles to escape the dead-end future planned for him by a routinized and soul-crushing school system, and his conviction that there must be a way to stop being an observer, a fan, and take an active part in the world of pop music that was his lifeline: "I am suddenly full of sweeping ideas that even I can barely grasp, and although penniless, I am choked by the belief that something must happen. It is not enough just to 'be'....I cannot continue as a member of the audience. If only I could forget myself I might achieve" (p. 116).

Shortly afterwards Morrissey met Marr, and The Smiths were born. But after five years and four albums (plus compilations like "Hatful of Hollow"), The Smiths broke up acrimoniously. Morrissey's substantial success as a solo artist over the past quarter century has not, apparently, healed those wounds, and the second half of Autobiography devolves into score-settling, l'esprit de l'escalier, name-dropping, lengthy passages that sound like excerpts from his tour diary, and a 40-page-long blow-by-blow recounting of a royalties lawsuit brought by The Smith's former drummer Mike Joyce.

Perhaps the last word should be left to Morrissey and Marr in better days:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Favorites of 2014: Opera, music and dance

Concert performances

For us 2014 was musically bookended by two brilliant countertenors. In February we saw the electrifying Philippe Jaroussky perform with the Venice Baroque Orchestra in Berkeley as part of the Cal Performances season. The concert was billed as a battle between the rival composers Handel and Nicola Porpora, featuring arias written for their star castrati Carestini and Farinelli. At the end of the concert I turned to my partner and said "Handel won." The real winners, of course, were all of us fortunate enough to be in the audience for Jaroussky's stunning performances of "Mi lusinga il dolce affetto" from Handel's Alcina, "Scherza infida" from Handel's Ariodante, and "Alto Giove" from Porpora's Polifemo:

Jaroussky has recorded excellent albums devoted to arias written for Carestini and Farinelli.

In November we saw Andreas Scholl appear with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus in a program of Handel and Bach. In the middle of the third decade of his international career, Scholl's tone has lost little of the beauty displayed in his early recordings. He sang "Va tacit e nascosto" and "Aure, deh, per pieta" from the title role of Giulio Cesare, and an exquisite "Dove sei" from Rodelinda (the Met Live in HD broadcast of the latter was one of my Favorites of 2011). In the second half, he performed the lovely Cantata No. 170, "Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust" (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul):


The most sheerly enjoyable dance we saw in 2014 was the Mark Morris Dance Group's production of Handel's Acis and Galatea, seen in Berkeley in April. (So far we're two for two with this Handel chamber opera: we also saw a great production of it at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2011.) Morris's version used Mozart's fuller reorchestration, performed brilliantly by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Nicholas McGegan. And just as he did in the BEMF production, bass-baritone Douglas Williams stole the show as the jealous cyclops Polifemo. Some of the other singers' costumes were unflattering, but that was the only flaw in a production that brought back fond memories of Morris's version of Handel's "L'Allegro."


A great cast and Christopher Alden's clever and visually striking production at San Francisco Opera could not quite disguise the middling level of Handel's musical inspiration in Partenope (seen October 24). But the Surrealist milieu and Man Ray visual references worked beautifully as an updated setting for this story of erotic intrigue and irresolution. As the title character, Danielle De Niese was costumed as a combination of Peggy Guggenheim and Nancy Cunard, and ruled over a salon of the yearning and the lost. I don't think I will ever forget the sight of tenor Alek Shrader singing an aria through the transom window of a water closet, and I mean that in the best possible way.


Marc-Antoine Charpentier:
Messe des morts/Litanies, Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, director: Naxos Records
Messe de Monsieur de Mauroy, Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, director: Glossa   
Miserere/Motets, La Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe, director: Harmonia Mundi
Actéon, Boston Early Music Festival Vocal and Chamber Ensembles, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, directors: CPO

This was the year we immersed ourselves in Charpentier's sacred music, thanks mainly to the serendipitous discovery of Messe des morts (Mass for the dead) in Amoeba Music San Francisco's bargain bin. While we had long been familiar with his operas—William Christies's recording of Medée with Lorraine Hunt in the title role was one of the first Baroque operas I ever purchased, Magnificat's performance of La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers was one of our Favorites of 2011, and Actéon was one of this year's highlights)—Charpentier was largely blocked from producing works for the stage by the hostility of rival composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. By necessity Charpentier devoted most of his energies to sacred music, and this year we discovered its many beauties.

Lalla-Roukh, Opera Lafayette, Ryan Brown, director: Naxos Records.

Based on an 1817 poem by Thomas Moore, and later turned into a Bollywood movie, Lalla Roukh's story is strange indeed. As I wrote in my post on the opera, "In reviving and recording this forgotten gem, Opera Lafayette has outshone opera companies with budgets many times as large. If you enjoy the sound-world of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, Bizet's Pearl Fishers or Delibes' Lakmé, you'll find Lalla-Roukh to be a fresh new discovery with some welcome familiarities."

The Complete Gesualdo Madrigals, Delitiae Musicae, Marco Longhini, director: Naxos Records.

The Italian Renaissance prince Carlo Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover when he found them in bed together, and later was accused of madness. At the same time he was one of the greatest composers of the madrigal, and the extremes of chromaticism and dissonance developed in his music were not approached again until the 20th Century. Many thanks to the dear friend who gave this to me; I've been playing it obsessively for weeks.

Finally, I can't help but notice that three of my favorite recordings of 2014—Messe des morts, Lalla-Roukh, and The Complete Gesualdo Madrigals—were issued on the Naxos budget label. If only all record labels were this adventurous.