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Archive for February, 2008

Munro does it again

Alice Munro has to be the best short story writer on the planet! (Well, William Trevor is also amazing and so, in a totally different way, is George Saunders).  Still, I’ve been reading Munro’s stories in The New Yorker for years and have also read some of her collected works, and she never ceases to startle, even shock, as well as amuse, amaze and entertain.  Her latest, “Free Radicals,” (The New Yorker, Feb. 11 & 18, 2008) draws you in in an understated way as you learn about the heroine, Nita, in her seventies, who is dealing with the sudden death of her husband, whose friends are worried about her, who is dealing with the liver cancer that was supposed to kill her first, thus doubling the surprise of her husband’s death.    We learn about her past, we sense that her future time will be short; we think, well, she’s old, her husband was older.  There was some drama between her and the first wife, but that is all ancient history.  There are many stories like this, some well-written, that take a slice of life and show it to us and then end, often inexplicably.  Sometimes a phrase or a character can stay with you, but the story as a whole doesn’t make much of an impact.  Munro’s story of Nita takes a turn that makes art out of what was simply a nice narrative.  Suddenly, there is drama, suspense and a profound truth  that takes your breath away — being old and sick, knowing you’re going to die soon doesn’t lessen the fear of death, the unwillingness to die now.  The end of the story leaves you with a tiny question, a wondering about the truth of what had happened between Nita and the first wife, and the story ends with the words:  “Never know.” 

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Life of Jane

So, I was also dreading Miss Austen Regrets, the most recent of the PBS series “The Complete Jane Austen.”  I was afraid it would be simplistic and reductive, overemphasizing early flirtations and making overt connections between her life and the novels, like the recent movie Becoming Jane.  However, it was nothing of the kind.  By dealing with her final three years, they showed her at the height of her creative powers (finishing Emma and working on Persuasion) and settled in the life of a spinster with her mother and sister.  Her relationship with Cassandra is beautifully done (although I never heard that Cassandra persauded Jane not to marry Harris Bigg-Withers).  I also like the allusions to doctors and seaside treatments that inform her unfinished work, Sanditon (would have been a masterpiece, I’m sure).   Alas, her career was perfect in being much too short!

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MP – I liked it!

I was dreading this version of Mansfield Park (aired on “Masterpiece” on Sunday, January 27), but it was good. What a relief.  I was thinking it was impossible to do a good job with MP because so many people (not me!) dislike Fanny Price.  In Patricia Rozema’s 1999 version, she conflates Fanny’s character with that of Jane Austen and departs radically from the themes of the book.  I didn’t hate it, but it wasn’t Mansfield Park.  The current version retains the bones of the story but cheats by making Fanny much more winning – she is athletic, spirited and lively while still remaining in the lightly-drawn, yet subservient role of Fanny.  Aunt Norris is so diminished as to make very little impression, while Lady Bertram’s part is kindly augmented to give her a modicum of sense and foresight.  Once I adjusted to Fanny’s vibrancy, the casting was pretty well done.  The Crawfords are especially good, and the scenes of them together give a sense of their relationship and their values.  I don’t remember much about the 1983 BBC version, but it would be fun to check it out and make comparisons; I get the feeling they were more true to Fanny’s character, which can seem sanctimonious and priggish, than the more recent versions.   In my years of reading and rereading of Austen’s books, MP, like Fanny Price’s standing at Mansfield Park, has risen steadily in my estimation.  

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