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Ex Hollywood semper aliquid crap

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Out_of_Africa.jpgHaving read the book, I'd long wondered about the movie Out of Africa.  After all, Karen Blixen's memoir is overly-detailed about her relationships with her servants and maddeningly evasive about the topics that fascinate: her marriage, her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, and syphilis.  How could the non-chronological, evocative but not-plot-driven memoir be migrated to the screen?

Having just seen the movie, I can now answer that question: it wasn't.  Whether it could have been is an open question, but plainly Sydney Pollack & Co. did such violence to the book in transplanting Karen Blixen's story to the screen that - in a just world - the two would not share the same title.

Admitting at the outset that the memoir cannot be transposed to the Hollywood movie context without severe alteration, such alteration as was necessary must nonetheless aim to preserve the mysterious, elusive and attractive character of the memoir that remains its abiding power.  Instead, the movie systematically mangled that fragile essence. 

The movie's dialogue is the equivalent of taking a club to Blixen's authorial voice.  Bad in its own right - the dialogue in the movie caused me suffering - it was outright irresponsible as a representation of conversations that could have occurred between Blixen and others in Kenya in 1914.  As a historical matter, Karen and Bror most likely didn't openly discuss their shared syphilis or his philandering.  As a personal matter, straightforward expression like, "I want you to take a place in town" (after Bror seduces another woman) or "I like the way you're honest with me" (after Bror admits that he's dumping all the farm work on her), are absolutely contrary to Blixen's approach to conflict resolution, both in life and in her storytelling. 

But the dialogue is problematic, not because "it didn't happen that way," but because it misleads the audience about the way Karen Blixen related to the people around her and, in the process, kills the very quality of Karen Blixen's story that makes it worth telling.  In her relational approach to others, Meryl Streep's Blixen is a liberated, modern woman; in reality, Karen Blixen was not.  She was an atavistic romantic who idolized the aristocratic values of a century earlier - and she suffered for it, however much her wounds were self-inflicted.  The allure of Karen Blixen's storytelling is the way she refracts her realities through the distortion lens of her aristocratic ideals - and it's precisely that rich and strange distortion that the movie denies its audience.

Karen Blixen was - and is - the stuff of legends, so much so that she managed to preserve herself and Denys Finch-Hatton in a shroud of myth that has endured for seventy-five years and shows little sign of abating.  For this reason, she's a natural for the movie treatment.  That the movie had to refract her reality through the industrial distortion lens of Hollywood sadly diminishes Blixen's bizarre and enchanting legacy.

(Image courtesy of Britannica)

A proper answer to Marianne

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A philosopher fallen to betting is hardly distinguishable from a Philistine under the same circumstances: the difference will chiefly be found in his subsequent reflections . . . .
George Eliot, Middlemarch 644 (1871-2, 2006).

Reading this quote immediately put me in mind of a conversation I'd had with a Kenyan friend, Marianne, about my interest in Karen Blixen, Denys Finch-Hatton, and their social set.  "They weren't like the 'Happy Valley' crew that came in the decade after they arrived," I'd told her.  "The 'Happy Valley' group just got drunk and slept with each others' spouses."

"Which is what they [Blixen and friends] did, too," she replied, challenging my categorization criteria.  

"Well, yeah," I admitted, recalling Bror Blixen's alcoholism and philandering, Karen Blixen's affair with Denys while she was still married to Bror, Deny's affairs while he was with her, the wine-swilling, dope smoking and opium taking that went on in Karen Blixen's parlor . . . .

What could I say?  Yes, Blixen & Co's behavior paralleled that of the Happy Valley entourage, but Blixen et al. were . . . cultured?  Karen and Denys read poetry and listened to classical music?

The question needled me until I read that above-quoted passage from George Eliot, and then I understood my own reasoning.  The colonists of Blixen's generation - perhaps because of their proximity to the Victorian era and its endorsement of exploration and discovery, especially by amateurs - were remarkably reflective about their lives in Africa.  An astonishing number of them wrote books about their experiences: Bror (African Hunter), Karen (Out of Africa, Shadows on the Grass), Llewelyn Powys (Black Laughter), Beryl Markham (West with the Night), Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (My Reminiscences of East Africa), to name but a handful.

By contrast, the Happy Valley menagerie - Idina Sackville, Lord Errol, Diana Delamere, Alice de Janzé, Sir Jock Delves Broughton - bore a much closer resemblance in their conduct to Los Angelinos in the 1980s.  They were too busy being drunk, stoned and otherwise zonked out of their minds - and in-and-out of each others beds, trousers and every other locale and crevice - and shooting each other - to do much reflection, never mind writing.  Though a number of books have been written about them - White Mischief, The Bolter - reflection is not a characteristic attributable to their modus vivendi.

Yet reflection - that most distinctly human activity - is what interests me.  The critical mind that perceives, questions what it perceives, and experiments in the arrangement of those perceptions into coherent narratives - along with the benefits and limitations of such an approach - is what captures my attention.  

However much damage the colonists of Karen Blixen's era wrought - ecological destruction, biodiversity diminishment, discrimination, denial of human rights, theft of land - they were reflective about their actions.  Why those philosophers were unable to prevent themselves from being as harmful (to themselves, and to Kenya) as the Philistines that followed - and whether their reflectiveness made any difference - is a question worthy of reflection.

86 Chapters was enough

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George_Eliot.jpgActors - and I used to number myself among them - are taught to leave an audience wanting more, and I've found that maxim a valuable to guide to determining at what hour to exit a party: erring on the early side invariably saves grief to a greater extent than staying would have reaped pleasure.  (I've overstayed enough welcomes to feel confident in this conclusion.)

Middlemarch is a clear example that novelists, also, should take this lesson to heart.  After 86 chapters and 830 pages, Middlemarch could not accused of skimpiness in need of a "Finale" to bulk it up; nonetheless, a "Finale" has been provided, by what motive of George Eliot's (other than graphomania) I cannot guess.

The "Finale" gives rise to virtually the only criticism that can be leveled at Eliot's monumental achievement - namely, it deprives the reader of the satisfaction of imagining the lovers' futures.  Dorothea and Will's marriage is a happy ending . . . until I learn in the "Finale" that she subordinated her life to his career, stayed at home and raised kids.  Fred and Mary's impending life together at Stone Court is a happy ending . . . until the "Finale" reveals the provincial normality - utter boringness - of their lives together.  Tertius Lydgate's freedom from debt is a happy ending for his marriage with Rosamond . . . until the "Finale" kills him off from diphtheria in his middle age, and she marries an older, wealthier man.

Without the "Finale," I could have imagined Lydgate enjoying a scientifically-enriched middle-age when, free from the constraints of earning money, he was able to devote himself to his experiments.  I could have imagined Will deciding to leave politics and apply his management skills to running charitable endeavors that Dorothea dreamed up.  I could have imagined Fred becoming a prosperous businessman and finding an outlet for his "naughty" instincts by traveling - with Mary - around the world in a Victorian-era adventure.

Some deeply negative streak in Eliot animates that "Finale," subjugating the possibilities for the characters' futures to her overarching insistence that provincial society provided no outlet for the intrinsic greatness of her characters.  While I am sympathetic to her perspective - indeed, I think she is probably right that circumstances hamper potential in most cases - she has, as Mr. Brooke is fond of saying, "gone too far" with the "Finale" and should have "pulled up in time."

Leave it - as Gone with the Wind was left, with readers arguing whether Rhett will come back or stay away forever - with the readers wanting more, a desire they'll fulfill in imaginative dialogue with the characters' futures.

(Picture of George Eliot courtesy of BBC)

A pinched-faced provincial romance

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In the Introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition of Middlemarch, Rosemary Ashton writes:

Perhaps it is wrong to try to reconcile the opposing tendencies of Middlemarch, not only its passionate airing of the case for extending women's opportunities and its putting them back in their wifely place again, but also its expression of a general belief in progress, "the growing good of the world," simultaneously with its exhibiting of the individual failure of the two main characters to achieve their ideals.
(p. xix)

Despite Ashton's abdication of this reconciliation, I think these polarities are (already) reconciled in the text by Eliot's conservative perspective on romantic love.  Eliot appears to find romantic love a force that will not be denied; for which sacrifice is either worth it, or for which society encourage people - men and women - to sacrifice (a view that she might complicate, but doesn't condemn).

Will Ladislaw, for example, seems stricken with the most adolescent type of romantic love, a two-dimensional devotedness that probably goes far towards making him among the least-developed of the novel's characters.  Notwithstanding his insistence to the contrary, if he couldn't have Dorothea, I'm entirely confident that he'd find someone else in a couple of years time.

Dorothea Brooke, for her part, would no doubt have gotten over Will (whom she doesn't even realize she loves until 786 pages into the book) and realized her St. Theresa-potential if she'd stayed single and been a bit more persistent about finding an Albert Schweitzer (or Mother Theresa) outlet for her money.  

Still, Will and Dorothea's love will not be denied (by Eliot, or by Dorothea), and neither Eliot nor Dorothea think it error to give up property for this match, despite its most mediocre results.

Similarly, Mary Garth would have been much better off marrying Camden Farebrother; he's a richer, fuller person than Fred Vincy.  With Farebrother, Mary would have had a more interesting life and more possibility for realizing her potential in educational, charitable, humanistic and theological directions.  Still, both Mary and Eliot are satisfied that Mary should grow white-haired with the man who "always loved her" since she was a child - even if their marriage entails Fred wasting his education and Mary not bothering to educate their boys.

In the same vein of self-destructiveness, Tertius Lydgate squanders his potential as a medical scientist simply to avoid realizing that he no longer loves Rosamond.  ("In marriage, the certainty, 'She will never love me much,' is easier to bear than the fear, 'I shall love her no more.'" p. 652.)  He'd rather be without his career ambition than without his romantic love for an undeserving object.

This attitude about romantic love is the narrow conservatism that curbs Eliot's progressivism.  She cannot seem to imagine a liberating valence for romantic love, as would be the case if Dorothea married Tertius and the two of them joined forces to reform the health care system in Victorian England - a possibility at which the book hints, but dares not dwell.

Why Eliot couldn't imagine this outcome for her characters is an interesting question.  In her own life, her partner and common law husband, G.H. Lewes, was her agent.  Plainly, Eliot herself was familiar with partnerships that advanced the professional and economic - as well as sexual and emotional - well-being of both partners.  All the same, the men in Middlemarch - Casaubon, Will Ladislaw, Tertius Lydgate, and Fred Vincy - obviate this possibility with their pinched views of ideal womanhood - uncritical devotion, beauty, adoration, goddesses on pedestals.

Perhaps without intending to do so, Eliot has illustrated a dynamic more complicated than her stated belief that society suppresses opportunities for individual realization of potential; in Middlemarch she shows - more powerfully than what she says - that individual's compromises (or refusals to compromise) with their romantic inclinations are as powerful an obstacle as any society has constructed. 

Fiction thwarts facts in Karen Blixen's tales

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When reading fiction, the temptation to finger some fact or occurrence as "the truth" is strong, and those writing about Karen Blixen are apt to capitulate to it.  Judith Thurman, Sara Wheeler and Errol Trzebinski all do it, citing some snippet of her fiction for a clue about how she might have thought or felt or responded to x or y situation.

Reading Winter's Tales, I myself felt the pull of such interpretive methods.  "The Pearls," for example, dares you to understand the story as an account of her marriage.  The groom, Alexander, in "The Pearls," has a twin sister; Karen Blixen's husband, Bror, had a twin brother.  The bride, Jensine, is happy to honeymoon with her husband in the wilderness; Karen and Bror no sooner married than they were living in Africa.  "The gossips of Copenhagen would have it that [Alexander] had married for money, and [Jensine] for a name" (p. 108); and, indeed, such gossip circulated about Karen and Bror - he, who was always in debt, and she, who was in love with being called "Baroness."

These correspondences lead the reader (or at least, this reader) to draw similar parallels about other nuggets in the story.  "[V]ery soon after he marriage, Jensine realized - as she had perhaps dimly known from their first meeting - that he was a human being entirely devoid, and incapable, of fear."  (p. 110.)  Ah-hah, I thought, upon reading this passage: so that's what Bror was like.

"[Jensine] recalled the fairy tale of the boy is sent out in the world to learn to be afraid, and it seemed to her that for her own sake and his, in self-defense as well as in order to protect and save him, she must teach her husband to fear."  (p. 111.)  An insight into Karen Blixen's attitude towards her husband, no?

By the end of the story, when "[t]o her own deep surprise . . . . Alexander . . . had become a very small figure in the background of life; what he did or thought mattered not in the least.  That she herself had been made a fool of did not matter" (p. 123), I was inclined to believe that I was reading Karen Blixen's personal opinion about having been married to an adulturer who'd humiliated her in front of Nairobi society.

Had I read "The Pearls" in isolation, perhaps my opinion of Karen Blixen's marriage would have settled into that comfortable category of "stuff I know without needing to retain citations" that resides in a hazy corner of my memory.  But I kept reading.  And, annoyingly, characterizations resurfaced, but now in less comfortably identifiable situations.

For example, in "Alkmene," the title character is a gorgeous girl adopted by a childless couple.  "The first thing [Gertrud, Alkmene's adopted mother] told me about [Alkmene] was that she seemed to be altogether without fear. . . . So [Gertrud] made it her first duty as a mother to teach her child, as in the fairy-tales, to know fear."  (p. 200.)  Uh-oh.  Is Alkmene also supposed to be Bror?  Because later on in the story, Alkmene dresses up in a regal silk gown and parades around the woods - and dressing up, as well as theatrical behavior, were characteristics of the young Karen Blixen.

This coincidence of fearlessness in a character reminded me that extracting facile assumptions about the author's life based on her fiction is crap-quality literary criticism, a lesson I should've known so intimately from my own writing that I'd be in no need of reminding.  From my own creative methods, I know that facts are an input to a process - the inner workings of which are veiled even to me - the outcome of which is (hopefully) entertaining, (hopefully) linguistically acute and (hopefully) insightful into the human condition, but never reliably accurate a reflection of my own biography.  I don't "hide" my truth in the novels I write, but instead transform the raw factual material of reality into stories.

If Karen Blixen did anything similar, then the only conclusion to draw from her fiction is doubt about the possibility of extrapolating backwards from her fancy to the facts that formed its basis.
E.L._Doctorow.jpgThis week's New York Times online book review featured a video, in which Sam Tanenhaus interviewed E.L. Doctorow about his new book, Homer & Langley.  Doctorow - whose gentle, mellifluous voice matches his deft touch with political agendas - admits in the interview that the political dimension to Homer & Langley is about "entropy."  Now, in the aftermath of the reign of Bush and Cheney, Doctorow says, "I hope we're living a little better, trying to recover our identity or our illusions of our noble identity as a country.  The last best hope for mankind and so on."  (5:25-5:44)

Whether "recover[ing] . . . our illusions of our noble identity . . . . [as t]he last best hope for mankind" is "living better" is an interesting question.  While I'm inclined to think that Americans will probably be happier, living under the illusion that the United States is the last best hope for humanity, I don't believe that such deluded happiness is either advisable or sustainable.  (Simply based on our carbon emissions, America is not only not the last best hope for mankind, but unquestionably the chief agent of its demise.)

I am surprised to hear Doctorow advocating a return to illusions - however seemingly nurturing.  My own expectation of a novelist of Doctorow's stature (and with Doctorow's penchant for political activism - literary or otherwise) is that he'd recommend embracing a national identity based on reality: we can't go back again.  At a minimum, writing a novel about entropy seems wasted effort if retreat into illusion - an approach no less entropic than the Bush/Cheney administration - is the recommendation. 

I have no basis for speculating about the reasons for Doctorow's position, and - disappointingly - Tanenhaus didn't pursue that line of inquiry.  Perhaps I'm simply misunderstanding him; of course, in a 5-minute video, complex ideas will inevitably be oversimplified.  But, as a default, Doctorow dispelling my illusions is as unremarkable as is America undermining his. 

(Photo courtesy of Find Target Reference)  

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