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This is not the sweeping spectacle of a movie that one would expect and at the end, when I saw that the screenplay was by Tom Stoppard, I understood the more theatrical, fanciful choices (the surreal waltzing, the use of props and behind the scenes staging). With a revered classic that has already been adapted many times, it is fine to try something different, something that unbalances the viewer, and, most importantly, the essence of the story was not lost. Of course, if this movie is your first exposure to this work, you might be less impressed. In any case, I liked it. Perhaps this was in part due to the excellent casting, with Kiera Knightly a spirited and tragic Anna.  Vronsky was a self-centered, rather more foppish than dashing, shallow yet not unsympathetic clod, Karenin a rigid, dogmatic, yet decent fellow. Lenin and Kitty were excellent and, my favorite character, Stiva, was perfect. I will always remember my first Anna and Vronsky, but I’m not even sure which version I saw (1935 with Greta Garbo? 1948 with Vivian Leigh, 1961 with Claire Bloom? Or was it the 1977 BBC version with Nicola Pagett). In any case, I am wondering if Keira Knightley actually showed something new in her portrayal, with Anna less a victim of Vronsky’s persistence (and Karenin’s coldness) and something of her own reckless nature partly to blame. I sometimes like to blame Stiva for his part in triggering the events that lead to Anna’s doom, but for the first time I found myself thinking she is Stiva’s sister after all, and something of  his grasshopper nature may be in her. Too bad, she did not also get his careless insouciance, his conviction, that “things will come right in the end.”

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The particular hell-on-earth that was Nazi Germany is the topic of a book by Hans Fallada, called Every Man Dies Alone, written in 1947, but only recently translated and available in English. Coincidentally, I also just saw the Tarrantino film, Inglorious Basterds, which  takes a look at the same period in a radically different way, part Hogan’s Heroes, part bloody horror movie. One interesting overlap was Fallada’s episode about an actor who became Goebbel’s pet for awhile; in the movie, Goebbels the film buff takes over a theater in Paris to show a Nazi propaganda film- leading to the bizarre, revenge-fantasy climax of the movie. It was interesting to read in the book about the ordinary Germans who supported Hitler in 1932, lost a son in the war, and came to despise the regime and its policies.  Based on an actual working-class couple who developed their own brave and pathetic anit-Nazi propaganda scheme – depositing laboriously produced hand-written postcards around Berlin in the hopes of tapping into a groundswell of rebellion- the book depicts the suffocating oppression and atmosphere of fear and mistrust, and the sense that only the worst of humanity could survive and thrive, like cockroaches after a nuclear holocaust.  (Nearly every one of the postcards was promptly turned into the authorities.)  The very ordinariness of the heroic couple, the inner journey of the official assigned to their case, the ebb and flow of the fortunes of those living in a nightmarish world build to an agonizing climax. The book is slow to get going, and at times awkwardly written (or translated), but the end is gripping and suspenseful.  Currently, I’m listening to a Teaching Company Course on Hitler’s Empire.  I am just getting to the part in 1932 when Hitler wins the election, and I think of Fallada’s couple, saying of Hitler: “He sure pulled our chestnuts out of the fire in 1933.”  The book includes an appendix with pictures of the actual couple and the chillingly efficient Nazi documentation of their case.  In addition, there is a fascinating biography of the author, as the New York Times book review describes him: “a troubled man in troubled times.”

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A movie tie-in

Recently wrote about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and then came across a BBC series called Island at War which is about a fictional channel island during the German occupation (the islands actually were taken over by the Germans as a first step to invading England).  This intense drama begins in the wake of Dunkirk and follows certain island families as the British decamp and the Germans take over.  Many of the events in the book are also portrayed here, such as the evacuation of the children and the clever sharing of dead pigs (the Germans kept track of how many pigs each farmer had) so that the island folk can sneak a pork dinner.  There are also those who collaborate with the enemy, spies in hiding, a Jewish girl being pursued by a creepy Nazi and many other subplots.  The German characters are fully realized as well, especially the Commandant who strives for a “model occupation,” but also needs an execution to keep the islanders in check.  It is chilling to see the Nazi flags and goose-stepping soldiers in the village streets, but equally chilling is how “civilized” the enemy is.  These are not aliens, not really that foreign.  Many of them have English relatives, most speak English, they’ve probably all read the same books, including the Bible.  It makes one realize that the enemy is our own natures, the capacity of each of us to do the wrong thing, to choose evil or expediency, or just follow orders. I’ve sited this passage before, from the  5/22/06 New Yorker.  Anthony Lane was profiling an Englishman named Patrick Leigh Fermor (“An Englishman Abroad”) and relayed the following anecdote:

Fermor recounts a time in 1944, when he and his men are in flight from German patrols towing a German general. As they are climbing Mt. Ida (in Crete?) the General watches the dawn break and murmers from Horace, “Vides ut alte stet nive candidum.” Leigh Fermor also knew Horace and continued the quotation, “nec jam sustineant onus, Silvae laborantes, gulque, Flumina constiterint acuto”, and so on to the end. Fermor adds, “for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Anthony Lane adds that “it feels like the end of something: the last, companionable gasp of a civilization– grounded in the knowledge of earlier civilizations, Roman and Greek– that had not just held sway in Europe for over a thousand years but had done more than any political truce or chicanery to bind Europe together. Both Leigh Fermor and the general had been raised to recognize Horace odes 1.9, to get it by heart, and to realize that the poem itself is a crystallization of our common feelings.” (p. 64).

The ending is inconclusive, leaving one wondering if there are more episodes to come, but no. It ends in medias res, with the fates of many of the characters left up in the air. Yes, we know the eventual outcome, we know that Germany loses, but what about Zelda, hiding in the attic, and the fate of those sent to prison camps in France? On the other hand, I don’t know that I could take the suspense if they continued the series through the long years of occupation; things were obviously going to get much worse before getting better.   But the uncertainty of the ending is part of the lesson:  that’s war and war is hell, for both the occupier and the occupied – and the viewer.

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I happened to pick up The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (another bad book title involving pie; how weird is that?) on a 1 week loan from the library and easily finished it in a day and a half.  This debut novel by Alan Bradley has garnered attention by winning a crime writing award, and, I think, for the winning character of his 11-year old sleuth, Flavia de Luce.  The plain green binding of the book, without a glossy plastic cover, adds to a certain timeless feel of the writing and helps bring you back to the setting of 1950’s Britain. It felt to me like a library book from my childhood (in the fifties as it happens), and I was surprised to find that this is not a reissue of a forgotten classic, but has a 2009 copyright. I was also surprised to find that Bradley is not British at all, but Canadian.  He certainly infuses his book with a striking sense of time and place – a small village in postwar Britain – and describes childhood as it used to be in the days of benign neglect, before the over involved, slightly-crazed parents of our generation (self included).  Flavia’s dysfunctional family is half the fun of the book: the distant father; the disparaging older sisters; the missing, apparently deceased, mother.  It reminds one a bit of Dodie Smith’s 1948 classic (also an entertaining film), I Capture the Castle. I was also reminded me not a little of Oliver Sach’s memoir of his childhood, Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.  In this engaging story, Sach’s shows us his own childhood, mostly during the war years, interwoven with the history of science and imbued throughout with his love of science, metals and chemistry.  He, like Flavia, had his own lab and experimented freely, sometimes causing explosions which, I seem to recall, caused very little disruption in the family routine (both of his parents were doctors).  They both make heroes of eminent chemists from the past; when in a tight spot, Flavia often asks herself what Madame Lavoisier would do in her place.  In short, Bradley captures that passion that was so moving in Sach’s memoir (I always loathed chemistry in school – the smells, the dry lectures, the incomprehensible symbols and stupid experiments – but Sach’s chapter on the Periodic Table is sheer poetry).  Flavia is always figuring out what chemical compounds lie behind smells, foods, causes of death – poison is, after all, her speciality. Speciality fascinates the generalist—those who dabble, who wander wide but shallow, envy the ones who dig deep – Glory be …to all trades, their gear, tackle and trim.  There is the genius of this book, not in the plot, which is clunky at best; even the characters are a little too, too; even the setting too quaint, but the love of chemistry elevates it all to a different level.  I certainly wouldn’t say as the book blurb declares, that “it is an enthralling mystery, a piercing depiction of class and society.”  No, not that, but something better, in its way, something true.  And, there is alos just an old fashioned enjoyment of telling a story replete with details of rooms, weather, towns, faces, all the stuff of a story that must be there.  I could wish for Bradley an editor to help with the plot – little things niggle such as Mary’s odd about-face in leading Flavia up to the room at the inn where she finds important clues, why did it take Flavia so long to remember the steps when at the bottom of the pit, etc. – however, the father, Flavia, the Inspector, Dogger are all wonderful characters, and I will be following Flavia’s further adventures with gusto.

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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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Thankfully the new adaptation of Northanger Abbey was done by Andrew Davies who hits all the right notes.  Admittedly, this book has not been adapted as much as the others, so there is nothing stellar to compare against, but he makes excellent use of Austen’s own dialogue (not every director is able to do this), adroitly showing the humor in the characters and situations, and the casting is great – Felicity Jones is perfect as Catherine, pretty, innocent and lively with a bit of spirit.  J.J. Feild does justice to Henry Tilney (one of the best of Austen’s heroes!).  Just looking at the previews for Mansfield Park has me filled with dread – that blonde, pouty girl to play Fanny Price! 

To see more about the PBS productions of all of Austen’s works, visit http://www.wgbh.org/article?item_id=3792119.  You can also take the Austen Quiz – I got 100%! (Nitpicking:  they have Sir John Middleton as Sir John Littleton in the quiz ).

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