Sunday, April 13, 2014

Shakespeare Uncovered: Macbeth

In a unique series of six films, Shakespeare Uncovered combines history, biography, iconic performances, new analysis, and the personal passions of its celebrated hosts — Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn, Joely Richardson, and David Tennant — to tell the stories behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Produced by Blakeway Productions, 116 Films and THIRTEEN in association with Shakespeare’s Globe, each episode explores and reveals the extraordinary world and works of William Shakespeare and the still-potent impact they have today. The films combine interviews with actors, directors and scholars, along with visits to key locations, clips from some of the most celebrated film and television adaptations, and illustrative excerpts from the plays staged specially for the series at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
(From the PBS "About" page)

The series is currently available at and for instant viewing on Netflix.

I watched the first episode of Shakespeare Uncovered and quite enjoyed it. Ethan Hawke explores the play with an eye toward understanding the title role in order to play the part. He begins by watching various versions to see how others have played the role. Hawke watches a 1958 interview with Orson Welles talk about his experience with the play: “It isn’t often one gets a chance to do these plays. I’ve done this one. Through my long career, I’ve played it on both sides of the Atlantic, I’ve done a textbook on it. I don’t know what I haven’t done about this play except do it as well as I’d like to. It’s a great feeling to be dealing with material which is better than yourself, that you know that you can never live up to.” Hawke lightheartedly comments, “It’s weird to see such ego and such humility at the same time.”

A lot of this episode is spent evaluating the weird sisters’ trigger of Macbeth’s ambition and how much of the eventual darkness was present at their initial greeting to him. There are many other topics, including the political implications of writing about witchcraft at the time, differences with the historical figure, and Lady Macbeth’s role as a partner in crime.

Hawke walks through the dagger scene (before the murder of King Duncan) with actor Richard Easton. I find it interesting to hear actors who have played Macbeth walk through scenes and relate what they did to prepare or what they thought during the scene. There were two extremely moving sections of the episode for me. The first was an excerpt from Sleep No More, an adaptation of parts of Macbeth using dance, movement, and mime to tell the story. Staging and body language powerfully conveyed the short piece they showed. The second moving section was when Hawke gets to handle and read from a First Folio at New York’s Morgan Library. His excitement about and reverence for the book is palpable.

All of my quibbles with some points raised in this episode are minor, such as my understanding that Macbeth’s “heat-oppressed brain” (and other mentions of fever) go beyond the literal fever or feverish imagination and were meant to provide then-current medical clues to demonstrate Macbeth’s state of mind as frenzy instead of madness.

People weighing in on aspects of Macbeth include
Prof. Justin Champion,
Prof. Gail Kern Paster,
Prof. Marjorie Garber,
Prof. Stephen Greenblatt,
Prof. Justin Champion,
Tanya Pollard (a performance historian; she looks at the different portrayals of Lady Macbeth),
Dr. Gwen Adshead (a forensic psychiatrist who has worked with murderers), and
From the RSC 2001 production: director Greg Doran and actors Antony Sher and Harriet Walter.

Many of Hawke’s points can seem painfully obvious but it doesn’t hurt to say them. As he points out to close this episode, the power of the play comes from not holding Macbeth at arm’s length—what is inside him might be inside us. Reviews of Hawke as Macbeth called his performance underwhelming but as I mentioned above I found his exploration of the play very enjoyable. I’m looking forward to watching other episodes of this series and may post on a few of them.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Movie: St. Ives (1998)

I stumbled across this film on Netflix's instant viewing and decided to watch it since I was familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson's book, although it's been quite a while since I've read it. I not sure why I wasn't expecting much, especially since I thought it would be a solid cast, but I think I enjoyed the movie more than the book on which it's based. The original UK broadcast title was All for Love. The movie's plot: Jacques de Keroual de Saint-Yves (Jean-Marc Barr) fights as a captain in Napoleon's army and, given his reputation in love, duels against many fellow soldiers. After being demoted to an infantry private he is captured by the British and sent to a POW camp in Scotland. The camp's commanding officer, Major Farquhar Chevening (Richard E. Grant), asks Jacques to help him learn the art of wooing Flora (Anna Friel), who lives with her worldly aunt (Miranda Richardson). Jacques and Flora become smitten with each other while the aunt lusts after the major. It turns out Jacques' grandfather fled France at the start of the Revolution and has an estate not too far from the castle used as the POW camp. Jacques escapes from the camp, making his way to his grandfather's estate and finds his brother Alain. Jacques thought his brother had been murdered during the Revolution. Alain, angry and violent, harbors a corrosive secret and tries to murder Jacques. The remainder of the movie follows improbable twists and turns on its way to a happy ending for the love rectangle.

Robert Louis Stevenson did not finish St. Ives: Being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England before he died. Stevenson's stepdaughter knew the outline of the story and engaged Arthur Quiller-Couch to write the last chapters (if you're interested in the novel, find a copy that has all 41 chapters). It's a fun story, well told, that any reader that likes Stevenson will enjoy. The differences between the movie and the book are too numerous to list—let's just say the movie and the novel share a loose framework. The movie emphasizes swashbuckling aspects of the novel and adds a few of its own. It's as if writer Allan Cubitt and director Harry Hook used Richard Lester's version of The Three Musketeers as an inspiration and made changes to the story to fit that mold. It's a fun romp, even if some of the variations defy logic or possibility. The political overtones in Stevenson's story are mostly dropped, which makes the changes to Jacques' family and their situation feel forced and incomplete. The movie is only 90 minutes, which dictates how much is in and how much out of the story.

What the story and consistency lacks at times the four actors I've listed above more than make up for it. Richard E. Grant threatens to steal the show. Where the novel's major was perceptive, Grant perfectly portrays a soldier competent in the ways of warfare but clueless when it comes to other people (especially women). Overall I thought it a fun, well done romp. Enjoy!

Monday, April 07, 2014

My Side of the Mountain

Pardon the interruption…my wife's book proposal was close to the deadline so that has been about our only focus for the past week. I have had to continually deal with my arch-nemisis 'that/which' too many times for me to care right now. Anyway, back to reading books.

My oldest son went to a LitWits Workshop on Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain last week and had a blast. Both boys enjoyed the story of Sam Gribley running away to live off the land. I had mixed thoughts on it, but since it has a good message I was happy the boys enjoyed it. There was part of one paragraph we talked about, wondering if it was as true today as it was over 50 years ago. The English professor (Bando) who stumbled across Sam's home in a tree explains to Sam (who he calls Thoreau) why people are so interested in the boy's story:

"Let's face it, Thoreau; you can't live in America today and be quietly different. If you are going to be different, you are going to stand out, and people are going to hear about you; and in your case, if they hear about you, they will remove you to the city or move to you and you won't be different anymore."

With so many people striving to be different, how far out there do you have to be in order to truly be different? Or maybe not standing out is the new different? In any case, we had fun reading it together.

Scout Field Book (1944)
One of the books the fictional Sam Gribley would have used to live off the land

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Hyperion Volume VIII, No. 1: an excerpt from Miklós Szentkuthy's Prae

The cover of the first edition of Prae (1934)
Picture source

Continuing on with articles from the current Hyperion issue (mentioned here, there is a lengthy excerpt of the third chapter of Contra Mundum Press' upcoming release of Miklós Szentkuthy's Prae, translated by Tim Willkinson. In a post last fall I highlighted another Hyperion article by Filip Sikorski titled “Introductory Remarks on Miklós Szentkuthy’s Prae. Sikorski provides a synopsis of the novel, looks at its main themes, investigates how it can be read non-linearly, and explores Szentkuthy’s narrative technique. Here is Sikorski's summary of Volume 1's third chapter:

In chapter 3, Touqué continues the monologue but abandons the analysis of desire and looks back into his childhood. In a series of flashbacks, he reminisces about his parents, his mother’s boutique in Cannes, his mental illness and a stay in a clinic, a morning in Cannes when he was sent to fetch a dress from the boutique to the seamstress, and another morning when he observed the Riviera landscape from the window of his bathroom. Touqué’s memories are interrupted by one more italicized passage, the Third Non-Prae-diagonal, in which a woman named Yvonne calls her lover to cancel their rendezvous because she is going to confession.

Leville-Touqué is "a French philosopher, writer, and editor-in-chief of a periodical called Antipsyché." Not all of the summary makes it into the excerpt but most does and it provides fun, challenging reading. The Non-Prae-diagonals mentioned are italicized passages expressing inner experiences. Even though this is the third chapter, Sikorski argues "that the novel is composed out of loosely connected segments and therefore it can be read in a non-linear way." WIth the little bit of introduction in this post the reader should be able to follow along through most of the excerpt.

Additional reading of Sikorski's summary of the novel will help fill in a few gaps but I don't believe it's necessary for the full enjoyment of Szentkuthy's style, his inventive comparisons, and his encyclopedic references. If you have never read anything by Szentkuthy this would be a good introduction. Here's just one sentence, an aside, in case you need prodding to read it (or proof that you don't want to touch his work):

(Because clumsiness is just as important a factor as the Protean bogeyman of instinct or the contrary extreme of stylization: that ought to insert between a Parca-visaged automatism of sincerity and a goddess grown into a permanent mask a bit of ersatz mythology from the Guardian Spirit of Stupidity, who plays a role as a positive inspirer and stylistic creator in life, reaching such concrete boundaries that it is all but impossible to treat it merely as an internal mental property.)

If you are interested in Prae, be sure to read an excerpt from the 1983 interview Szentkuthy gave to literary historian Lóránt Kabdebó at Hungarian Literature Online. (These series of interviews were later published in book form.) The excerpt from the interview addresses some of Szentkuthy's sources and inspirations for the novel. Several snippets I wanted to share:

  • During my university years, I read the German existentialist philosophers whom I… caricatured! let’s say. Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, and what have you. So I had a good chuckle at those who supposed (still suppose) that I am rooted in German philosophy of that kind. Quite the reverse: I was parodying real-life existentialist philosophers (and some I made up). For instance, I invented the title of one of those philosophical works: Einleitung in die reine Undheit (‘An Introduction to Pure And-ness’).
  • He [Proust] had demonstrable influence here and there. I am a hypersuperultraimpressionist, and instead of writing short stories, essays, small-scale and grand drama, aphorisms, fragments of memoirs, short novels, etc., out of my fantasies: I had always wanted to weave the fantastic thoughts and thousand impressions of my ‘Proust trauma’ of 1926 into the composition of a single giant work.
  • I read Joyce in 1931; I’ve already related the circumstances in which I did, so here let me just note that the essence of the Joyce connection was his most minute observation of the most mundane reality and, at the same time, the most pyrotechnical mythological games — that duality is flesh and blood to my own psyche and nature: hypernaturalism and simultaneously a luxuriance of fantasy.
  • With regard to the style and stock of similes in Prae, the strongest influence was not Proust or even Joyce, but — my mathematical studies.
  • Back then the Einsteinian view of the world and quantum mechanics were novelties for me and for others. Atomic physics was not so much in fashion as it became. I therefore did read through and study the works of authors who concerned themselves with it, and they had an extraordinary influence on Prae. Its stock of metaphors and logical progression would have been inconceivable without reading and experiencing the writings of those distinguished physicists and mathematicians.
  • Continuing with the spurs for Prae. At the time I read a lot of the works of Paracelsus, particularly because the medicine of antiquity — to the great disdain of many practitioners nowadays — had a strong influence on my own thinking about natural science. The whole universe and living human organisms form a material entity: to me that is extraordinarily exciting. De facto, of course, it does not hold water: the kidneys correspond to some chemical element, and that corresponds to some star — or what do I know? What it expresses globally, though, is the idea that somewhere there is a link between each of my organs, a chemical element, and the remotest nebulae — somewhere they are related. It can be established spectroscopically that the same materials are present as in this or that organ. What I like about Paracelsus, let me repeat, is that somehow he knew how to put over that the cosmic unity of the world. The idea of the material unity of the world also went into Prae!
  • One of the leitmotifs in Prae, partly on the basis of my travels, party gleaned from my readings, is Anglo-French rivalry. The difference between the two countries greatly exercised me. One of the protagonists is French: Leville-Touqué, the other an Englishman: Halbert. After the existentialist, sometimes nihilist, Latin-impish world of Leville-Touqué and Leatrice, etc., comes a humane, profoundly human meditation of Halbert’s father, an elderly English vicar. Prae’s lyricism is made perceptible through these two extremes.

"Witches Sabbath" (1510) by Hans Baldung Grien
Woodcut with tone block
Picture source at Web Gallery of Art
Used on the back cover of the second addition of Arc és álarc (Face and Mask), 1982

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hyperion Volume VIII, No. 1: small prose by Robert Musil

Cover of Hyperion Volume VIII, No. 1 (spring 2014)

Contra Mundum Press' online magazine, Hyperion, has a new issue available! I'll post on a few of the articles over the next week.

The first article I want to mention is three short pieces by Robert Musil, all translated by Genese Grill. The first piece is "The Inn on the Outskirts," which comes with the following footnote:
This story appears in Musil's Nachlass in a shorter altered version under the title "The Redeemer" (an early title for the novel; c. 1924-5) and prefaced with the subtitle "A Dreadful Chapter: The Dream" (translated by Burton Pike in the Nachlass section of The Man Without Qualities, (Knopf, 1995) 1703-1706. It is followed by the notation: "It is probably necessary to say that this is not a true experience but a dream, for no decent person would think such a thing in a waking state" (1706). There are traces in this "dream" of Musil's sex murderer, Moosbrugger, and of Bonadea, the married nymphomaniac. — Trans.

It is a troubling piece, taking place late at night at the mentioned inn where a couple (not married to each other) have checked in for a tryst. They waver back and forth between desire and regret. The woman feels that the man wants "to extinguish her with his words" in the beginning while a later "storm of great deed" may literally accomplish that.

The second story, "Small Trip Around the World," is a simple tale of two boys taking a joy ride with a pony and small wagon. Their jaunt and inevitable capture provides the narrator with a chance to provide morals as well as listing the conflicting possible messages the parents and juvenile welfare officers might provide. "They probably will just give the stupidest answer that one can give, they will smile benevolently and say: you did something stupid." Been there. Done that. On both sides.

The third story takes place on the German island of Sylt in 1923 when Musil vacationed there. The strong storm he describes, along with the resulting tidal surge, provides a sobering look at nature's forces.

These are very short pieces but they gave the reader an opportunity to enjoy Musil's finesse and reflections.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Upcoming Galdós translation: Tristana


Thanks to Mookse for the heads up on the upcoming Margaret Jull Costa translation of Galdós' Tristana (see his picture for more details). I have several posts on the novel and one on the movie…see the summary post for a starting point. It's a troubling novel, full of the usual ambiguity and irony of Galdós. I'm really looking forward to the new translation!

Monday, March 24, 2014

André Prah, Walter Murch, and the frozen horses of Lake Ladoga

André Prah and some of his artwork from "The Ice Horses of Ladoga"
Picture source

A couple of things related to Curzio Malaparte's chapter in Kaputt related to the ice horses of Ladoga…

André Prah "started to make his own visual representation of the tragedy. In wood from the shores of the Baltic Sea." The quote is from a Facebook page showing examples of his artwork (also see the photo album on the Facebook page. My favorite post from the page:

After photographing the horses on Lake Ladoga's ice, it was time for the three of us, Heimerson the reporter, Lundgren the photographer, and myself to leave Russia. At the border a stern-looking customs officer pointed at the horses in the trunk and required an explanation. The photographer then pointed at me and said: "The artist is mentally disturbed. Cuckoo." With an embarrassed smile, the customs officer politely replied: "Please proceed."

Radiolab recently had a podcast that includes discussion on Malaparte's story: the link can be found here. The guys at Radiolab focus on the story of the frozen horses of Lake Ladoga and the science behind it—could it have possibly happened? The results are interesting, even if they have no bearing on whether it actually happened. Walter Murch, last seen on this blog for his translation of selected works of Malaparte (The Bird that Swallowed its Cage: The Selected Writings of Curzio Malaparte), discusses how he came to discover Malaparte's writing. To his credit, Murch emphasizes that Malaparte mixed fact and fiction, implying that just because he wrote a chapter on this incident it doesn't mean it happened. There's a reason Kaputt is in the fiction section, after all. But the science behind the possibility of it happening is still interesting.

Update: Thanks to Øystein for the following YouTube link to a scene from My Winnipeg (The Cold Winter of 1926) and more ice horses. It definitely looks like Malaparte inspired this scene.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Angel Guerra, part 5: the monster in a box and more footnotes

Continuing with discussion of Angel Guerra by Benito Pérez Galdós, done mostly through footnotes so far. I’ll continue the trend in this post, but first a note about the story…

In the previous post on the book I ended with the death of Angel’s daughter, Ción. By the end of Part One of the novel Angel has had three major losses: the death of his mother Doña Sales, the death of his daughter, and the loss of his daughter’s governess, Leré. It is interesting to watch Galdós take Angel through stages of grief for two of these losses. The only grief he has on his mother’s death was his guilt at precipitating the fatal medical attack. With Ción Angel showed an initial denial anything was wrong followed by anger, mostly aimed at the family doctor Miquis. The previous post went into detail on Angel’s bargaining with God, asking the Almighty to take his mistress Dulce instead of his daughter. After Ción’s death, Angel withdraws from his mistress, friends, and previous activities.

Compounding his depression was Leré’s announcement that she was leaving the house to join an order of nuns in Toledo. The grief cycle starts again as Angel figures out how much Leré means to him, a strange attachment that has little definable basis. She’s saintly while he plays at being a revolutionary. There is a little bit of their joint attachment to Ción in the attraction, but that isn’t a major component. Angel can’t figure out why he is so smitten with Leré—he doesn’t necessarily want a normal relationship as a couple. He seems happy to have just as a friend and confidant, at least for now. The depression he feels after she leaves causes him to drop everything and follow her to Toledo.

One of the strangest parts of the novel so far is Leré’s brother Juan. She described him to Angel as a monster:
”You’ve never seen him, if you had you’d be horrified. From the waist down he’s all skinny and soft, like he didn’t have any bones; he’s got the head of a man and the body of a child, and his arms and legs are like empty pillowcases. He’s twenty-five, he can’t even crawl, and if you could see him at the table where they’ve got him, with his arms and legs all jumbled up and his head in the middle, you wouldn’t even think he’s human. He eats like there’s no tomorrow, and he can’t talk—all he can do is grunt and growl like some animal, though he can repeat any piece of music he hears and get it right on key. Once in a great while you can see a little glimmer of intelligence but it’s so small it’s not even what you might expect to see in a cat or a dog.” (130)
Early in Part Two Angel sees the monster for himself and the animal imagery/comparisons continue:
On a not very tall little table were to be seen two coiled-up legs forming a circle, looking more like the tentacles of an octopus than the limbs of a person, and in the center a human head the size of an adult’s, with features to match. The gaze, albeit idiotic, was not lacking in sweetness, and was fixed in a stare on the unknown person comtemplating it. Limp hair covered parts of its skull, and long coarse hairs—so sparse they could be counted—grew on its face. After looking hard at Guerra the head straightened up, revealing a rachitic neck and sickly bust from which hung flaccid, seemingly boneless arms, like the legs. (255)
The comparison continues as Leré feeds and treats "the monster" just as she would a dog. But on to the footnotes. While there is plenty of humor in Galdós’ novel (as well as strangeness), there’s even a joke about the writing of it. After Galdós mentions that Angel figures out that he might see Leré, who is at a retreat with nuns from the order she wishes to join, by hanging out along Santa Isabel street, we get the following footnote on page 257:
It was on Santa Isabel that Galdós supposedly lived while writing Angel Guerra, and there is a commemorative plaque to this effect at the street entrance, though no one currently living around the interior courtyard seems have the slightest notion as to which rooms he actually occupied; recent biographical studies, moreover, suggest that he may not even have been in Toledo at the time in question.
I’m not sure why I find that so funny, but I do. The “recent” part would have been in the late 1980s since this translation was published in 1990. Anyone who read (or even started) Fortunata and Jacinta will remember that Galdós had some fun with chapter titles. After starting off slowly on the irony, in Volume III he uses the chapter titles to tie the fortunes of the Juanito Santa Cruz household to that of the changes in Spanish government, with "The Victorious Restoration," "The Revolution Fails," and "Another Restoration."

The second chapter in Part Two is titled “Uncle Providence,” after Leré’s uncle, Father Mancebo. But what does it mean exactly? Is it referring to Mancebo stepping in to help his family when Leré’s Uncle Roque suffered a debilitating fall (which didn’t stop the annual arrival of a new child)? Is it his belief in winning the lottery? Is it his dreams of Leré marrying well so he can take it easy, a fantasy that includes her marrying Angel so he can administer property that had been taken away from the church? A combination of these things?

The third chapter of Angel Guerra is titled “Toledan Days,” providing this footnote on page 295 to spell out the ambiguity and possible irony in the title:
This is a remarkably good instance of the way Galdós plays around with his chapter titles. Una noche Toledana (a Toledan night) signifies a bad omen, due to an event which  supposedly took place in 803 a.d., when the Arab Governor took revenge for the murder of his son by inviting 400 Toledan nobles to dine one night. Each was decapitated as he entered the palace grounds. Galdós’ title is thus very ambiguous: a Toledan day could be just the opposite of a Toledan night, and thus a good omen; or it could be merely the precursor of that night.
As usual with Galdós, you never can tell.

All references are to A Translation of "Angel Guerra" by Benito Pérez Galdós. Lewiston (N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1990. translated by Karen O. Austin). Previous posts:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Herodotus Salon - With Professors Paul Cartledge and James Romm

I'm happy to pass along the following information from Reading Odyssey, Inc:

Herodotus Salon - With Professors Paul Cartledge and James Romm 
Wednesday, May 14
7pm (New York time) via toll-free conference call. 
Reading Odyssey is proud to host a conversation with two top classicists discussing two new translations of the wonderful Herodotus.

We will be discussing these two new translations:

Translated by Tom Holland, with Introduction by Paul Cartledge
Penguin Classics, 2013

Translated by Pamela Mensch, Edited with Introduction and Notes by James Romm 
Hackett Publishing Company, Forthcoming in March 2014 
Join this call if you'd like to hear two of the great classicists talking about this wonderful historian.
Having participated in several events and programs with Reading Odyssey, Inc., I can highly recommends what they do. Information on signing up can be found here. The event is free, or you can donate $10 toward funding their programs. I hope to "see" you there!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

I've posted before on the LitWits Workshops my oldest son has attended and it looks like I'll do so again. We read Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell and he attended the workshop on it. For anyone not familiar with the story it's a Robinson Crusoe-like tale based on the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. Both boys enjoyed the story. The oldest son enjoyed the activities they did and got even more out of the book. He has asked to go to more workshops, which we have signed up for!

Whether you homeschool or not, I'll also recommend Teacher Created Resources literature guides, all titled A Guide for Using (Book Title) in the Classroom. We have used a couple of these to help round out the books we read together and they do a good job of providing plenty of activities for the student.

That's it for today since we need to start school…

Photo courtesy of LitWits Workshops