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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The unbearable moral dilemma in Endo's Silence

Continuing to read S Endo's Silence, which Scorsese adapted into a film that is, as least so far (about half-way through Endo's novel), faithful to the source. The novel is great in its own right, but reading through makes me even more impressed with Scorsese's adaptation; it's almost impossible not to read the novel w/out thinking of the strong cast Scorsese brought together and his great facility to creating a range of environments - the desolate Japanese landscape, the mountainous coastline, the charcoal hut where the 2 priests live in hiding, the fishing villages, and most of all the period setting and the pervasive sense of loneliness and dread that these 2 priests, believing themselves to be the only priests in all of Japan, trying to bring solace to the few remaining Catholic enclaves, in a time of brutal, almost sadistic repression. The book, as noted yesterday, gives a real sense of verismilitude by conveying the narrative through a series of letters from Father Rodrigues; Endo stops using this narrative device about halfway through (doing this allows him to increase our sense of dread because we don't know if Fa R. actually survives - his communication just stops, like a space mission that has gone beyond the range) and adopts a close 3rd-person narrative, which means the narrator knows not only the action seen and dialog heard but also what's going on in Fa. R's mind. This device is especially important as a great part of the drama in the novel - less so in the film, which by its nature is more about action and dialog - is his questioning of his faith. The pervasive question, and one that people ask to this day of course, is how can a loving god be silent while his faithful adherents are made to suffer? If he's all-powerful, why can't he provide a sign to the faithful? These thoughts torment Father R., as he faces an almost unbearable moral dilemma: Once he is captured by the Inquisitor (another great casting by Scorsese, btw) he is told that they won't torture him but they will torture his Xtian followers until he renounces his faith.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Scorcese's excellent adaptation of Endo's novel Silence

As long as we're into comparing movies with the source material - yesterday I began reading Endo's novel Silence, which is the source for the recent excellent film of same name by Martin Scorcese. I haven't read too deeply yet into the novel, though I did read the translator's lengthy intro., which provided useful background (both film and the faithfully adapted novel are about Portuguese missionary Jesuit priests in Japan in the early 17th century, in search of info about the vanished priest and mentor, Father Ferreira, and in hopes of helping maintain the persecuted Xtian minority on the Japanese islands) and made it clear that both book and film are based on real events and to a degree on actual priests - at least Father Ferreira is historically accurate, though the translator notes that we know little about his life in Japan after his apparent apostasy (Scorcese has quite a bit about Ferreira's later life; will see whether that's drawn from the novel), largely because records of his later life were destroyed in the bombing of Nagasaki. It strikes me that Silence is a particularly difficult book to adapt for screen; it's obvious to any reader that it's an exciting adventure story that touches on a lot of deep and important issues of culture, assimilation, hegemony, faith, history. But the novel is written as a series of letters home from Father Rodrigues (one of the 2 Jesuits in search of their mentor, Fa Ferreira), so Scorcese didn't have the advantage of working w/ a dialog-rich document, such as a Graham Greene or Elmore Leonard novel. Additionally, every scene involves re-creating the look of the 17th century in a remote and isolate setting - another challenge, to which Scorcese rose, as it happens. In one way, the cinema version is always going to be more engaging: We are drawn in visually and musically and we get the full arc of the story within ab out 2 3/4 hours (long, but held my attention throughout); in other ways, the novel is more engaging in that it's told via letters from Fa R., and we can feel that we are reading actual documents from the era, as if we're the historians or perhaps the contemporary Jesuits following the story as it unfolds over time.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Comparing Almodovar's film Julieta with the source stories in Munro's Runaway

After watching Almodovar's excellent film, Julieta (2016), I went back a re-read the 3 Alice Munro stories that A used as the source for his screenplay - three single-word-titled stories in her 2004 collection, Runaway (can only remember the title of the 3rd, Silence, which oddly is the title of Scorcese's excellent most-recent film; titles have been Munro's single flaw as a writer). A # of things strike me: First of all, I'm surprised at A's fidelity to the source material, picking up virtually all of the scenes in the 3 stories for his film. Of course he transposed the film into a setting in contemporary Spain, but he even goes so far as to make the fishing village where the eponymous Julieta (Juliet, in Munro's stories) settles and has her child (Penelope, in the stories) a remote location in NW Spain (parallel to the NW American setting of the stories). There are differences between the 2 treatments, however. A devotes a lot more attention the Julieta's contemporary life in Madrid, and in fact begins the movie with J as a 50ish, stylish, intellectual woman in Madrid and with the encounter w/ her daughter's childhood friend, which is near the end of Munro's mostly linear narration. Second, Munro emphasizes that Juliet is a sort of dorky, sexually inexperienced young woman; A keeps the info that she's a classics teacher in a h.s., and even shows her teaching a class (quite effectively), but his young Julieta is a cool teacher and very pretty, not dorky at all. Third, J's visit with young daughter in tow to her parents' rural home is a much bigger part of Munro's stories - in fact, it's the entire 2nd story - and in the Munro stories the parents, or at least the mother, as devout and are disturbed by the fact that her daughter has never married the father of her child; that's not a factor at all in A's film - his whole metier is more hip, multicultural, vibrant contemporary Spain, whereas Munro's stories seem to be set in the 50s or so, in a much more provincial Canada (though published in the early 21st century, they clearly draw on the world of Munro's youth, as so much of her fiction does). 4th, the disappearance of the daughter - though it strains credibility somewhat in both versions - is a little more grounded and explicable in Munro's, as we can almost accept that the daughter is seeking a spiritual dimension to her life that is absent in her birth family. In the A film her disappearance seems even more odd, perhaps driven only by anger at her mother for - perhaps - driving her father to his death (in both versions, they had an argument about his infidelity just before his fatal fishing expedition). Finally, a bit of a spoiler here, A's version, tho by no means a "Hollywood ending" and still leaving much uncertain, ends with J receiving from her daughter the daughter's address (unclear what her daughter's life has been like, though there are hints perhaps of a cult or a ascetic sect) and embarking on a visit to her, whereas Munro's ending is darker - J learns a bit about her daughter's fate (it seems she is living a prosperous life, w/ husband and 5 children, in a remote part of Canada) thru her chance encounter w/ the childhood friend, but J never gets any word from her daughter at all.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Excellent Danticat story in current NYer about family dynamics and elderly dementia

Excellent story, Sunrise, Sunset, in the current New Yorker ,by the Haitian-born American author Edwidge Danticat (a Soho discovery!) - one of the best depictions I've ever read of the early onset of Alzheimer's disease or at least of some form of dementia in the elderly. The story is tightly encapsulated, keeping well the principle of unity of action, really about a gathering for the christening of a newborn, largely from the POV of the grandmother, who is distressed by her daughter's apparent indifference to the child, with some told from the POV of the mother, suffering from some form of post-partum depression. Part of the effect of the story is to see almost from the inside how the grandmother fades in and out of consciousness; another strength is that, though the story in some ways is universal, it's also a nice depiction of a tightly knit Haitian-American family in Miami. The story builds toward a dramatic, climactic action, as the grandmother enters one of her episodes and grabs the baby and holds him out over the railing in the third-floor condo, putting everyone into a state of panic - and of course part of the beauty of this horrific scenario is how it spurs the indifferent mother into action, perhaps beginning a new phase of her motherhood. Danticat's narrative is swift and eloquent without being overladen, despite the dramatic action with fevered writing. My only quibble: the characters all have short, rather indistinct names (and no surnames) including the names of the mother, father, and baby all beginning w/ J - this allows Danticat to get a nice quip about the "triple-J's," but it makes it hard for readers to sort the characters out in our minds as we're reading (one of the fundamentals of a screenplay, for ex., is to make sure that no two major characters have a name beginning w/ the same letter).

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

The characters in A Way Through the Wood: Careless People

Yesterday I referred to The Great Gatsby in discussing narrative voice in Nigel Balchin's A Way Through the Wood (1951), by way of contrast - Nick Carraway's first-person narration is a rare example of a first-person narrator - not the author - with a deep and complex literary style whereas Balchin's first-person narrator - not the author - is a more straightforward style, sometimes with the arch, cynical tone of an American noir detective. It's probably not by chance that I thought of Gatsby when reading Way Through the Wood: the narrative styles may differ but the characters themselves, w/ their moral obtuseness, narcissism, and bigotry are much like Fitzgerald's characters in Gatsby. This novel centers on a fatal car accident - the driver kills a man and takes off and much of the "moral" issue of the novel concerns how to protect her identity. Throughout the long passages of the novel as the narrator, Jim Manning, tries to repair his marriage there's hardly a thought about the accident, the guilt one might or should feel, the obligation to report the crime, and so forth. As Carroway ways about the Buchanans: They're careless people. Though I can recognize the nearly untenable position of Jim - should he encourage his estranged wife to report the crime? - it's hard to feel an iota of sympathy for him or for any of his set, including wife (Jill) and her lover (Bill). Much of their hatefulness derives from their extreme class prejudice. They pretty much think their guilt over the death can be assuaged by a payment of 2 pounds a month to the widow (who is a housekeeper for the Mannings). Stop and ask: How do you think they'd act and react if a working-class man ran down a "upper class" man and killed him? Their condescension to workers and servants, thinking themselves to be great benefactors and thinking they're beloved by those whom they employ is astonishing, and one can only hope that there's at least a touch of irony in Balchin's depiction of class relationships. In fact the only truly noble action in the entire novel is the widow's refusal to press charges and to seek revenge or even redress. As a final note, we learn at the end that the entire narration is a record Jim is preparing to submit to the court in his application for divorce; if he actually does submit it, he's telling the court that his wife was the driver in the fatal hit and run (and in fact that both he and Bill withheld evidence) - though the latter two are safely out of reach in Switzerland. Nice peopl. 

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Social class and issues of first-person narrators in Balchin's A Way Through the Wood

It's probably unfair to expect a first-person narrator such as Jim Manning in Nigel Balchin's 1951 novel, A Way Through the Wood, to create a rich sense of place; that's one of the main differences between first- and third-person narrations. First-person narrators can only rarely develop mood and atmosphere, or they will risk losing credibility as they will sound, inevitably, like the author and not the character (exceptions: Proust's narrator, who obviously is the author; Nick Carroway, just the exception that proves the rule). First-person narrators are, however, a way for the author to establish character and voice; the danger, which I see here in Way Through the Woods, is that they will slip into type. Oddly, Balchin's narrator changes "type," chameleon-like: for the first 100 pp. or so he seems like an uptight, upper-caste Brit, snobbish and bitterly reserved. This tone holds through the first stages of the investigation of the car crash and culminates in his cool acquiescence when his wife, Jill, says she needs to go away to Spain for a few weeks to work things out with her lover, Bill Bule. Wouldn't any normal guy say something like: If you go, don't come back. But JM is fine and understanding and not even angry with the insidious Bule. Go figure. He in fact enters into a little conspiracy with Bule. JM is willing to play along with Bule's subterfuge in order to protect his wife from a charge of hit-and-run fatality; Bule's chauffeur indicates he can provide testimony that will undo Bule's fake alibi, and Bule get JM to go along with him in putting the squeeze on the chauffeur: Bule accuses the chauffeur to theft (rightly so) and tells him to get lost or they'll report it to the police. Well, actually, the chuaffeur should have the upper hand; he should have told Bule you do that and I'll nail you w/ my testimony (additionally, Bule asked him to repaint the scratches on the car!) - but what we see is class politics coming into play: the chauffeur figures, maybe correctly, that no judge would accept his word over the word of an landowner like Bule. Why, however, does Manning sink so low? Then the novel takes a strange turn, as Manning goes off for a visit to Venice w/ an American couple, old friends - and he begins to sound (and act) increasingly like an American noir detective, as he prowls the night haunts of Venice, always with a holier-than-thou attitude (refusing the advances of a friendly, alcoholic, high-class prostitute). The novel is veering off course - as we more or less have forgotten about the fatal hit-and-run and Manning's only concern is his disintegrating marriage and his personal malaise. That said, something about the clean writing and the focus on action keeps me engaged, and I'm eager to see how - or if - the strands come together and who (which social class) will come out on top. I'm betting the wealthy walk away from all responsibility and consequences.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

An entertaining novel of social class in England by a writer long forgotten

Nigel Balchin is a British author so obscure that (to my knowledge) not a single R.I. library has a copy of any of his (dozen of so) books, but a blurb on the English edition pb of A Way Through the Wood (1951) that friend DC recommended and kindly sent to me notes that in his time he was among the most popular English literary novelists, so go figure - sic tempus gloria, or some such phrase. Judging from this novel - the title is a reference to the opening lines of the Inferno - Balchin is a skilled writers with a fine sense of plotting and it's no surprise to also read in the blurb that he wrote several screenplays and several of his books including this one were made into films. That said, he falls a bit short of the standard that his contemporary Graham Greene set, in that this novel, intriguing as the plot may be, doesn't go beyond the plot, at least in the first 100 pp. or so; the characters, a 40-something prosperous Sussex couple, Jim and Jill Manning (Jim is the narrator) don't seem especially complex characters and aside from the social milieu - upper crust - he isn't that interested in establishing a sense of time and place: compare this w/ say The Quiet American or The Heart of the Matter (or even Brighton Rock, a mere "entertainment" acc GG). That said, Way Through the Wood does grab our attention and hold it. Narrator Jim begins by telling us his world fell apart in one year and he will tell us the story (he references Dante; another possible model could be Job). Some spoilers here, but any attentive reader will pick this up in the first 20 pp or so: a working-class man who lives nearby is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver; Jim quickly determines that the driver is a friend, who had just attended a party at their house. He pursues this information and over time learns that the man - Bill Bule - wasn't driving his own car. Anyone who's read The Great Gatsby has by this point in the novel figured out who the driver is. This fact raises certain moral and ethical issues, which the novel will play out - all against a background of British upper-crust snobbery and repression. When Jill tells Jim what is obvious to all readers, that she's been having an affair, his reaction is so calm and blase - Oh, dear, were you terribly bored in our marriage? I suppose we shall have to tell him that it's all off from here on - and so forth - as to be a form of dark comedy. Socail class is a huge theme of this novel, made paramount when the Mannings visit the decrepit cottage of the man who was killed: this is one in a long history of scenes of the benevolent aristocrats visiting the peasants and offering a few drops of charity - see Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, even H James (The Princess Cassimassima) - I wish I could summon all the examples from memory, but a see a potential doctoral dissertation in this. 

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