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Tale of Genji: Week 21, Chapter 21 (The Maidens)

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The World Without You ~ Joshua Henkin

I tend not to read novels centered on “family”, dysfunctional or otherwise: family gatherings of one sort or another. These novels (and films for that matter) seem to have a limited scope, a sameness. After all, there is only so much to say about the social structure called family, despite the fact that each one is unique. There can be no great new revelations. So the burden of novels of this genre is to offer up an interesting group of people – a collection of character studies. This does not require any special lyricism from the author, any great insight into the way the world works. What it does require is a  talent for clear presentation, and the more characters the reader needs to understand, the clearer the presentation needs to be. Then the author should be an acute observer of human nature: the quirks, the motivations, the myriad possibilities of the human animal. The genre I’m referring to is not fantasy based. Characters must be believable. From what the author tells us, would that characters do this. A litmus test of sorts.

Joshua Henkin mostly succeeds on all counts.

It’s the July 4th weekend of 2005 and the far-flung family is gathering for a memorial service to remember the life of journalist Leo Frankel. Leo, the youngest of four children (three sisters) had been killed a year earlier in Iraq after having been kidnapped. First, a Prologue which sets up the gathering as we meet the parents. Then  we are introduced to the core perspectives of the three sisters and Leo’s widow in 15 well balanced chapters. These chapters provide very fine character studies of the four, and their relationship to each other over the years: the current state of their lives and the challenges facing each of them. Through the anchor of that core group, we also get different perspectives of each of them.  A secondary group (spouses, parents, grandparents, children) add to our understanding of these four. They don’t live in a vacuum, of course. Each of them are interesting in their own way and each of tem are dealing with those ‘life events’ and challenges which ultimately shape us all.

One of the techniques which, as a reader who sometimes has difficulty keeping names straight was how Henkin kept repeating the basic information as he initially moved the point of view from one character to the next. This may sound redundant, but it’s not, since the information is coming from a different source.

CLARISSA: Clarissa, the eldest daughter is 39 years old, lives in Brooklyn, and works for a non-profit International relief agency. Growing up she was something of a child prodigy on the cello, but eventually gave it up. Lately though, she has taken it up again. She’s happily married to Nathaniel, a successful neuroscientist at Columbia who is on a fast track to receive a Nobel prize in his field. But she had just never wanted kids. The burden of child rearing had fallen to her as a child, so she wanted her own life. Now though, both she and her husband have been trying to conceive since the death of Leo. She fears she may ironically, be infertile. Nathaniel doesn’t recognize this new Clarissa, which is putting a strain on their marriage.

LILY: A couple of years younger than Clarissa, Lily is my favorite sister. She’s a whip smart lawyer who clerked on the Supreme Court after law school for Scalia, an independent minded, clear-eyed realist who lives in DC with her chef husband, Malcolm. Malcolm is working to open his own DC restaurant, and is close to getting the backing. They have a long term relationship, a good one, but have never married, nor had a desire to have children.

NOELLE: Noelle presented some problems for me. She’s the third youngest sister (Leo was the baby) and it seems was quite a handful as a child. Provocative and sexually active at a young age, she’s now an Orthodox Jew living on the West Bank with her four young boys aged 8 to 5, and married to a real loser of a husband (Amram Glucksman) who just can’t seem to hold a job before his temper gets him fired. He’s an authoritarian asshole, who over compensates for his deep-seated inferiority complex by being an argumentative jerk. Whar she wonders, happened to the “sweet and anxious” boy she met at 27 and later married?

He’s immersed beneath layers, covered in the sediment of what he has become, the sweetness eclipsed by something else, the anxiety redirected into bullying.

In the same vein, Noelle can come across as disdainful – a result of the imaginary competition she holds with her mother. Noelle works part-time as a teacher’s aide. I just could never get fully invested in her. Character growth is demonstrating the getting from A to B, right? That is the weak kink here.

THISBE: The widow of Leo, she lives in northern California with her three-year old son by Leo, Calder. She’s a Berkley grad student in Anthropology who always felt herself the outsider in the Frankel family. There are hints that all may not have been well in their marriage, and she now has a new man (Wyeth) in her life that she just may be moving in with. This is a secret she has shared with no one except Lily.

The parents (Marilyn and David Frankel, both 69) have a secret of their own: After 42-years of marriage, Marilyn wants a trial separation (David does not). It’s never clear just why this has occurred, but presumably it’s because of their very different reactions to Leo’s death. Marilyn believes that

because he’s been trying to make the best of an unspeakable situation, she hasn’t been able to abide him. Is that why she’s leaving him?

Marilyn is a doctor and David is a retired High school English teacher. They live in a Manhattan apartment and own a summer homeouse in the Berkshires (Lenox) that all of the children have grown up in. Their situation, revealed, over the course of these three days, the other revelations as well as the high drama of the volatile Noelle-Amram marriage, gives the weekend an end of an era feel.

One other character I should mention, is the family matriarch, Gretchen. Thrice married and widowed by successively richer CEO’s, she’s the dispenser of large checks and imperial advice:

“I know something about integrity, and I know something about love. And I know something about loyalty, which is the most important quality of all.”

There’s a lot of drama packed into this three-day holiday weekend: a lot of confessionals and many revelations. Yet (for the most part) it never seems “too much”, never seems forced, always seems believable. After quickly getting a take on the big four, there are surprises, but we are never surprised.The characacters meet things the way we’d expect them to. In other words, Henkin’s characters are consistent unto themselves, which should be much appreciated. Will you recognize your own family members here? Maybe yes, and maybe no. There are no universal truths about families embedded here. All families have their own unique dynamic. But, in this novel at least, you can always recognize them as ‘real’ people. As a reader, you can’t ask for much more than that.

To be publisher June 19th by Knopf Doubleday

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Tale of Genji: Week Eight, Book 8


The autumn leaves give way to spring and the cherry trees blossom. [more]      

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Coriolanus ~ (UK, 2011) ~ In Theaters

This faithful yet radical reinterpretation of the William Shakespeare play Coriolanus was one of those films that had its North American Premiere at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. I opted to wait for general distribution, gambling that it would be released eventually, and it hit the art circuit in the Boston area this weekend.

An aside. Unlike decades ago, there really is no theater that shows other than mainstream films in Boston proper, and there hasn’t been for some time. Thankfully, a few venues are still available in Greater Boston. There are two first-run Landmark Cinemas: one in Cambridge and one in Waltham. There is also a retrospective relic house in West Newton that shows a mix of second run foreign films, retrospectives, and first run and indy features. There used to be several in Cambridge, and one of these days I want to blog about the late, great Orson Welles Theater. But that’s for another time.

Coriolanus features a stellar cast, as is typical with a UK production. Ralph Fiennes plays Caius Martius Coriolanus, looking much like a 20-year younger Ben Kingsley with a fiery, spittle laden high volume delivery, and a shaven skull. Gerard Butler plays Coriolanus’ arch-enemy, Tullus Aufidius with as sure a resolve as Coriolanus. But he’s more a man of the people. Coriolanus just cannot abide the great unwashed middle class, the rabble of democracy. The ubiquitous Jessica Chastain is Coriolanus’ wife. The mother of his child who keeps the home fires burning for her man of war. The war widow. Brian Cox is Menenius, an ally of Coriolanus who tries to keep him on the narrow political path of survival during a time of peace. Peace is not handled well by Coriolanus who is more comfortable in the heat of battle than he is in the in the heat of politics, where he is not the commander, not the final arbiter of the people’s needs. He’s not even a ‘let them east cake sort off guy. Coriolanus is more of let them starve for all I care guy. War and Peace are debated in Coriolanus in several places. This is from Act IV, Scene V:

 Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as
day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and
full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy;
mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more
bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.

Who is this? Rick Santorum?

Which brings me to Vanessa Redgrave.

Vanessa Redgrave is his mother, Volumnia. Redgrave is undoubtedly an almost pitch-perfect actor, and like so many UK actresses, has moved seamlessly from young romantic lead roles to elder mothers. She is as beautiful as ever too. Her face is now sublimely wrinkled, yet her beauty just cannot be hidden.. Looking at her IMBD profile (122 titles starting in 1956) yields a couple of previous Shakespeare roles: Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1956), Rosalind in As You Like It (1963). She has an impressive resume with roles in many adaptations of the world’s great literature to the screen: A Farewell to Arms, A Man for All Seasons (twice), Camelot, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Sea Gull, Howard’s End, The Bostonians, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Mrs. Dalloway, Crime and Punishment, and Atonement (yes, I’ll include this one in the classics category). I’m sure I’ve missed some. Thoughts cross my mind….when the 75-year old actress dies, it will be noted to be sure. How will her passing be noted, stacked up against the self-destroying life of Whitney Houston? Redgrave’s politics were held against her, but she was so great that she never lacked for work. She’s a courageous woman, and one of my role models in that she never shrank from her beliefs. Look at me. I’m talking about her like she’s already gone. She’s not. Finally, I should mention her major award-winning performances: Julia (1977 Oscar),  and at Cannes (Morgan!, 1966 and Isadora 1969). Many wins elsewhere and many, many more nominations. My odd choice is Blow-Up for complicated reasons: I’m twenty-one when the film came out and I saw it, a senior in high school….things are about to blow-up in my personal life. We have such complicated relationships with our culture. Sometimes it stands alone, but mostly it’s inextricably mixed up with our lives and times. There’s no getting around that. When the David Hemmings characters stumbles into a rock concert, it’s like there’s a roomful of zombies. The band is certainly energetic and rocking, but the audience stares ahead, barely moving and sits on their hands. This was a personal metaphor for what I thought of as my support system around this time. I thought that the great middle of the country was sitting on their hands. The only thing that stirred the crowd into a frenzy was when Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds) smashes his guitar. It captures a bit of how I felt at the time. The war was looming and the blue bus was calling me, us. Which brings me ’round to the ‘purpose’ of this post – if any posts here have a true purpose, which I mostly suspect they do not.

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was set in pre-Imperial Rome. Ralph Fiennes (who not only plays the title role, but directed as well) took this opportunity to move the context to what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Rome. The advantage is that the context and meaning of the war is virtually unchanged, though neatly time shifted. Whereas Shakespeare placed the time frame of his other Roman plays (Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar) in the first Century AD, he shifts Coriolanus back two centuries. Fiennes time shifts ahead to what may be later in the 21st Century.

The original play was primarily interested in the historical struggle of moving from a monarchy to a broad-based regime. So too the filmed version which is interested in the struggle of movements from military rule to a citizen based democracy. Mostly we’ve left the remnants of monarchy and imperial rule (aka imperialism) behind, but have replaced these with the rule of naked power (as opposed to ritualistic power) – military dictatorship. What they have in common is absolutism. Imperialism was loosely countenanced as caretaker rule – rule over a people who could not rule themselves, so the argument and rationale went. This is the same set of standards that military dictatorships invoke. From Burma at the top to Syria down a step to Egypt and Libya, we can see the play ‘played’ out today. The struggles and the themes of rule, the themes of leadership by caveat are the same in Coriolanus as they are today. We call it ‘nation-building.

Coriolanus is the protector and war hero of Rome. But he commits the sin of hubris and is brought down. Hello Quadaffi. He has such contempt for the people that he cannot even bring himself to acknowledge their presence. He is, as they say often of politicians these days, isolated from the common man. Besides this flaw, his Achilles heel turns out to be his mother, who has raised him to be a warrior and dominated his career. His friend and protector is Menenius, a gifted politician, a negotiator, a master manipulator, a man willing to compromise who tries to nudge Coriolanus in all the directions that he considers are his path for survival.

The film opens with a riotous mob at the gates of the granary. The people are starving. There is a debate taking place amongst them about the cause of their situation. From Act I, Scene I:

I say unto you, what he hath done famously, he did
it to that end: though soft-conscienced men can be
content to say it was for his country he did it to
please his mother and to be partly proud; which he
is, even till the altitude of his virtue.

After back room manipulation and political intrigue, and despite the best efforts of his friends, his family, and his allies, Coriolanus is exiled. In a speech  before he stomps out of the Senate, he shows the depths of his contempt for democratic rule. From Act III, Scene III:

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;

Coriolanus may well be one of the least popular of Shakespeare’s plays. There are not many characters to like and it is Shakespeare’s most ambiguous play. But it is, maybe more than most, a Shakespeare play for our times, and kudos to Ralph Fiennes for attempting to reinvigorate it for our world.

P.S. – Aftermath of War

After my ‘separation’ (an interesting use of the word) from service in the Vietnam War in August 1969 I made my way to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for post-graduate study of Milton and William Shakespeare. This lasted only one year, but I read Paradise Lost (indeed!) and all of Shakespeare’s plays that year. I had a set of the plays in those little green paperbacks (Viking I think they were), one of which was constantly in my back pocket. I had an audio recording checked out from the library that I attempted to return through a library return box as I was driving out of town. This was 1970 of course, and the format in those days was still vinyl. The multi-record set would not fit in the slot of course. It was a Sunday and the library was closed. I took it with me with every intention of returning it when I got to where I was going – home.

I never got home.

You can’t do that again they say.

I got sidetracked to Boston and never really left.

And I never did get that damned record returned.

A recording of Coriolanus.

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Tale of Gengi: Week Five, Chapter Five


The narrative is rejoined in the Spring. The Spring of Genji’s eighteenth year. We find him with a fever that he cannot seem to shake and is encouraged to pay a visit to an old ascetic who never leaves his cave these days. The ascetic seems to have helped others, and since nothing else has worked, Genji sets off. [more]

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This post at Kris Merino’s Intelligent Life blog had me remembering my very own operatic debut. This must have been about 1955 at the Miami Opera Company. Renata Tebaldi was the lead soprano and our school chorus (some of us at least, those whose voices had not yet changed) were selected to take the roles of the chorus boys that danced around – I had thought it was around Tebaldi – but this clip shows a male performer. We had several rehearsals, but I can recall only one performance. Could that be right?

The chorus was all boys and our costumes were white altar boy-like robes. We had to wear rouge and lipstick, which we boys were kind of embarrassed about. But the pay was good (what pay is not good to 10-year olds?) and Renata encouraged us by saying that if we worked hard and, she’d pay us double wages.

That was part of the chorus actually, which I still remember to this day. I didn’t realize I rehearsed so hard that it was ingrained into me. Doppia soldo became our mantra, and we got it too. That might have been my first pay day. The beginning and the end of my opera career.

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I’ve actually been away, but fed up several backlogged  posts on a scheduled basis. I had to get down to Columbus, Georgia by way of Atlanta to see my 100 year old Dad. You heard that right. Putting affairs in order, power of attorney and that. Hell, he’ll probably outlive me. Still sharp as a tack, but rather immobile is all. Not particularly enjoying life since his wife (my mother) of 67 years passed away last year.

As the resident musician, he sings Happy Birthday to the “in mates” (as he calls them – there is a medium security prison across the way) for those who are celebrating.

There you have it. I’ve got some clean-up to do and will be back in sync over the weekend.

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