Plague is the new black
“Oh my goodness,” the dean said, looking stricken. Her office shelves were filled mostly with books about the Black Death, her walls decorated with old looking-illustrations of people suffering from boils or lesions or being piled into wheelbarrows, dead. Laura had not thought any wall art was more insufferable.
The Nix by Nathan Hill
I guess the plague is in vogue this summer. The above mentioned dean in Nathan Hill’s The Nix rose to her position by “knowing everything there was to know about…literature written during the plague, about the plague.”
And Jeff Baena’s new film, The Little Hours, is based on Boccaccio’s Decamaron, a series of one hundred tales written in the early 1300s and told by ten characters who have left Florence to try to escape the Black Death that is ravaging the city.
Actually, Baena’s film is an amalgamation of just three of Boccaccio’s hundred tales.
On the third day of the Decamaron, the first story is about a man who feigns to be a mute and is hired as a gardener for a convent of nuns, many of whom rush “to lie with him.” The second story of the day is about a servant who sleeps with the wife of a king. When the king discovers the affair, he cuts the servant’s hair when he sleeps so he’ll recognize him in the light of day. The servant foils the king’s plans by cutting the hair of all his fellow servants.
These two tales are combined and make up the main plot of The Little Hours, with Dave Franco as the shorn servant who then becomes the “mute” gardener to escape from the angry nobleman. And the convent he lands in is a roiling and randy world populated by Sister Alessandra, Sister Ginerva , and Sister Fernanda (Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, and Aubrey Plaza respectively) and led by Father Tommasseo (John C. Reiley) and Sister Marea (Molly Shannon).
Towards the end of the Decameron, on the ninth day, there is a tale of an abbess who is roused from her bed, with the intention of catching a nun in bed with her lover. In the dark, however, instead of her veil, she puts on the pants of her own lover, which deflates much of her authority.
This scene is nodded at towards the end of the film, and when Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) comes out of her cell to find out what is going on, she is indeed wearing her lover’s pants on her head. But there is whole lot more going on than merely a lovers’ tryst.
The Little Hours is broad in its comedy–much as Boccaccio and, later, Chaucer had presented. Primarily the presence of nuns who incongruously swear more lustily than Anthony Scaramucci and who are riddled with all kinds of lusts and desires provides the major thrust of the humor. But it seems slight and repetitive.
John C. Reilly as the priest who serves the convent is marvelous, and Fred Armisen’s turn as Bishop Bartolemeo towards the end of the film who must try to corral these wild colts into order is full of incredulous, eye-popping, double-takes. There are also amusing minor roles filled in by by Paul Reiser, Nick Offerman, Jemima Kirke and Lauren Weedman.
But the entire piece feels thin–almost like an extended SNL skit. And to be fair, after all, its intent is to capture only about 23% of Boccaccio’s masterpiece.
But–to its credit–The Little Hours has caused me to pull the Decameron off my shelf again.
I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a book as much as Caitriona Lally’s Eggshells.
Nor can I remember a character who amused, entertained and wrenched my heart as much as Vivian, the eccentric young woman who gives us a tour of Dublin and of her unique wit and creative mind.
Vivian is unusual. So much so that when she was young her parents told her that she was not of this world and had been left by the fairies. And to be sure, Vivian has never much felt that she fits in, that she belongs to this world. So now, as a young woman, she spends her time searching Dublin for portals that will take her to that other world. She searches in the small vents built into the shelves of Trinity College Library, into the electric panel in front of the Gate Theater, in the ivy covered house on D’Olier Stree, through the small door in a department store on Grafton Street. But of course to no avail.
And her wanderings around Dublin City–with more than a jaunty nod to that other writer of peripatetic Dubliners, James Joyce–are a playful, magical tour of the city filled with word lists and wit, double entendres and non sequitors.
However, Vivian is very much alone in this world. Her parents are dead, her sister, who is also named Vivian, is repulsed and confused by her eccentricity, and she is living in the house that her dead great-aunt bequeathed to her, bordered on either side by neighbors who question her mental state.
Being lonely, she advertises for a friend, a friend named Penelope. Her reasoning is she wants to ask this Penelope why her name doesn’t rhyme with “antelope.” Plus she feels good about anyone who has three “Es” in her name.
Here is her advert that she tapes onto a tree:
WANTED: Friend Called Penelope
Must Enjoy Talking Because I Don’t Have Much to Say.
Good Sense of Humor Not Required
Because My Laugh Is a Work in Progress.
Must Answer to Penelope: Pennies Need Not Apply.
And such a friend appears: A middle-aged Penelope who paints cats in different costumes and who has her own satchel of issues. On their second visit together–a visit filled with tea and a large amount of cookies–Vivian learns that Penelope is forty-nine years old. (In her innocence, she had guessed she was sixty.) Penelope’s age worries her since one of the reasons she would like to have a friend is so that someone would go to her funeral. And in Vivian’s mind, Penelope might die before her…so she suggests a carrot rather than a biscuit improve her new friend’s health.
A sign of how much I am enjoying a book is often measured by how many times I read out passages to the people I am around. (It is an annoying habit, I am sure.) And I have read out so many passages of Eggshells to other people that some of them probably feel they don’t need to read it. Usually it happens when I have also been laughing out loud. And laughter happened throughout.
Vivian’s wonderful mind is filled with a logic that is both skewered and sound. Of course, a corn kernel might feel lonely off the cob, lemons might feel better scattered over Lemon Street, and the taxi at Ferryman’s Crossing (with a wife named Sharon which reminds her of Charon) might be able to take her across the river to Hades.
And it is this confluence of slanted logic and the real world on which the humor is built. To a large man, whom she believes might be a leprechaun, she asks if he takes “growth hormones.” For the social-services agent who comes to see if she is actively hunting for a job, she wears a hunter’s outfit. (And startles him mightily when she surprises him with a toy gun.) To the pest on the bus who badgers her for twenty euros, she offers him all that she has with her: lemons.
But my examples hardly capture the humor, for they are missing Vivian’s voice which is filled with innocence and faith and hope.
With Eggshells, Caitriona Lally has written a wondrous first novel filled with boisterous word play, hilarious oddities, charming narrative and an unforgettable protagonist. It is
a magical romp through Dublin, guided by a lonely but hopeful and inventive young woman.
Eggshells is the work of an important new voice in fiction, a voice that I am greatly looking forward to hearing again soon.
It was pure coincidence that I read two books in a row that were populated with ghosts. (Not my “genre” of choice.) And odder still that the second one (Artful by Ali Smith) was a book of non-fiction, literary criticism in the form of four lectures.
But Himself by Jess Kidd is an out and out ghost story. Or maybe it’s a murder mystery that justhappens to have many ghosts milling about and assisting the solution. Or perhaps it’s simply that the two “detectives” have the ability to see dead people all over the place.
Your main man, Mahony–an outsider who is drop-dead handsome with bedeviling eyes and a “bad-boy” aura–walks through the woods and sees the dead everywhere. A suicide twists in a tree. A little girl with bashed-in skull befriends and walks with him. The residents of the local churchyard visit him en masse as he sits there sneaking a smoke.
And his partner, the nonagenarian, Mrs. Cauley, who describes herself as “Miss Marple with balls,” also is accompanied by various persons from the other side, including a loyal ex-lover, Johnny, and a good priest, Father Jack, who can offer some insight into the murder.
When he was an infant, Mahony’s mother was murdered brutally in the first pages of the novel. As the murderer was preparing a grave for her, the infant was whisked away and ended up across the country in a Dublin orphanage. Some two-and-a-half decades later and spurred on by a newly discovered letter from the orphanage, Mahony returns to the insulated and isolated Mayo village from where his mother disappeared. He–and Mrs. Cauley–believe she was murdered, while the village insists that she caught a train and left town with her illegitimate child.
Set against a small-town background of fear and secrets and guilt and prejudice, the novel is the story of Mahony and Cauley’s investigation and the truth of his mother’s disappearances. And yet, there is so much more going on.Jess Kidd has created a cast of colorful and oddball characters to populate the little village of Mulderrig. And she has added more than a bit of humor. For instance here is the Widow Farelly consoling the mean-spirited priest who took Father Jack’s place:
“Did he ever regret his stance on this matter?”
“I believe he did in the end, Father.”
“But yet the town loved him?”
“Ah the town will be in your pocket soon enough, Father. It’s just a case of them getting used to you. How long have you been with us now?”
“Twenty -six years.”
But her strong point is the lush, beautiful writing. Whether it is the landscape of County Mayo or the towering stacks of books in Miss Cauley’s bedroom. Here is a sample:
And the trees still hold strong. Their canopies drinking every soft grey sky and their roots spreading down deep in the dark, nuzzling clutches of old bones and fingering lost coins. They throw their branches up in wild dances whenever a storm comes in off the bay. And the wind howls right through them, to where the forest ends and the open land begins and the mountains rise up.
Some might criticize certain stereotypes–the intolerant priest, the acidly old widow, the mysterious earth mother–but Kidd gets away with them; they are comforting and necessary in this insulated village mystery. And rather than distracting, the allusions to J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World are entertaining. Both deal with an outsider appearing in an isolated Mayo town who beguiles most of the populace, and the similarities of characters names are amusing. But it doesn’t weaken the story or the writing.
Himself is a wonderful read. But is more than that–it is the announcement of a new writer with a marvelous imagination and a brilliant talent with words.
It is someone I will keep looking for.
“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”
Autumn by Ali Smith
It’s been nearly six months since I last wrote a blog post. 2017 has not been fun. Keeping up with scandals and nominations, violence and presidential tweets, breaking news and old skeletons, incriminations and analyses, insults, retractions and lies has felt like a full time job.
And it’s exhausting.
Though it hasn’t been that I have not been busy–I have read more already this year than in a long time. It’s just that sitting down and putting down my thoughts on this blog seemed so pointless, so self-centered. And god knows the times call for less self-involvement and a lot more outward action.
But here I am again. Because I know that that too is important.
In Issue 221 of The Paris Review (Summer 2017), I read a interview with the Scottish writer, Ali Smith. The conversation was intelligent, thoughtful and enticing.
So, I went out immediately and bought two books: Artful (2013) and Autumn (2016). (I had read her novel Accidental several years back, was floored by its creativity and beauty, but for some reason never followed up on more.)
Artful, on the surface, is made up of the four lectures on literary criticism that Smith was ask to deliver at Oxford. It is also, at the same time, a ghost story, a love story, and a novel–a combination that only Ali Smith would attempt and could pull-off. It is an extraordinary feat–the criticism is sparkling (I have underlined passages and dog-eared pages) and the narrative is engrossing and engaging.
The novel Autumn, however, is the more current, and is what I so much needed to read, in these “interesting days.” And again, it is magical.
Daniel Gluck is an old man and he is dying. He is 101 years old. Housed in the
Maltings Care Providers institution, he is visited often by Elisabeth Demand, the young woman who has been his friend since she was thirteen, some twenty years ago. She is now an adjunct instructor of Art History–a subject he inspired in her as he taught her, as a young girl, how to see beyond surfaces and think and question all that she witnesses.
The remembered scenes of their past, innocent relationship are wonderful and inspiring and hopeful. Daniel is a wonderful and creative teacher and a fine companion for the young Elisabeth. He introduces her to Chaplin, to Keats, and to Plath.
More importantly, he introduces her to the British POP ART artist, Pauline Boty. It is she, a forgotten artist of the 1960s whose work captured the zeitgeist of the day–from Bob Dylan to Christine Keeler–whom Elisabeth writes her doctoral thesis on.
(And the scandal of Christine Keeler and the machinations of the two governments involved with her, sorely reflect the tenor of our own times. It is capturing this scandal that Boty is perhaps best remembered for.)
But now Daniel is dying and it is the summer of 2016, after the Brexit vote, and the UK is in turmoil. Elisabeth’s mother puts in best when she says:
I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.
Autumn (page 56-57)
Ali Smith is writing in 2016 England but it very much could be here, now.
And that is what makes it so hopeful. For Daniel’s lessons and Elisabeth’s understanding of them underscore the importance and ultimate permanence of ART in turbulent times. For we learn that governments explode and implode, that pendulums swing one way and then the other, that movements and hatreds and despots come and go. But ART remains.
Daniel and Elisabeth’s relationship–a relationship with a 68 year age difference–is one that is based on love and trust and hope and acceptance.
And that, at least, is a bright light in these dark times.
“On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.”
Epigraph to The Little Red Chairs
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien came out in March of 2016, her 23rd book of fiction. Late to pick it up, I finished it only this weekend, January 28, 2017. While I was reading it, the United States put a ban on refugees entering the country. I wish those who had signed the papers ordering the ban had read O’Brien’s work beforehand. The unforgettable stories of refugees–which make up a very small part of the novel–put a face and a family and a humanity on these very people trying to escape the most unimaginable horrors. And the horrors themselves become real on the page.
However, I am sure that those in power have little time or inclination for reading.
In the 1990s my extended family–a few of my sisters, my mother, my auntie–as well as a good number of friends had begun watching a BBC series called Ballykissangel. (Run on various Public Television stations.) It was really no more than an Irish soap opera in a little town in the southeast of Ireland, yet the characters were memorable and well-drawn, their village ways often intruded on by the outside world and their own insular in-fighting propeled the story.
It was this show that I was reminded of at the beginning of The Little Red Chairs: A lovely, charming Irish village with likeable characters visited by a elegant and charismatic stranger from the outside. But in this case, the stranger is the incarnation of evil.
One night, the simple village of Cloonoila in the west of Ireland is visited by a strange man. Dressed in a long black coat and with a flowing white beard, he stops at the local pub to inquire about finding lodgings. The barman who is idle, as it is early yet for the normal crowd, chats the stranger up and finds him “an out and out gentleman.” What surprises him, however, is his business card: Dr. Vladimir Dragan, Healer and Sex Therapist.
As soon as the visitor leaves, the pub fills with a crowd asking for information about the strange and elegant visitor, and it is a crowd out of central casting: the policeman, the ex-schoolteacher, the widow, the town punk, etc. You can imagine how the fact that he advertised himself as a “sex therapist” sets this town atwitter.
But nevertheless, they are enchanted by this wonder that has stumbled into their lives.
And the doctor is truly magnetic. Everyone, particular the women, is soon charmed and fascinated by him. He wins over the local priest and his landlady, sets up shop in an out-of-business dress shop, and offers the town his services. His first customer is a relatively liberal nun, Sister Bonaventure, who has come for a “medicinal massage.” (She is too embarassed to tell her fellow sisters how electrically alive she felt afterwards.)
His most important patient, however, is Fidelma, a 40-something women, married to a much older man, who longs for a child having miscarried twice, but sees that her chances are dwindling. The two become lovers, and soon Fidelma finds herself pregnant.
But before she can tell him, however, he is discovered, arrested and brought to an international tribune in the Hague. The stranger is the notorious war criminal known as the Beast of Bosnia. (O’Brien’s fictional Vladimir Dragan is largely based on Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, and the retelling of his atrocities are a stark reminder of the bestial, sadistic violence that humans can visit on one another.)
Immediately after his arrest, Fidelma is assaulted and left for dead by three of his compatriots. When she is found, after she has recovered, she is discarded by her husband and shunned by her town. And she understandably falls apart, not so much from love lost, but because she has been touched by such unimaginable evil.
The second half of the novel follows a lost and disgraced Fidelma in London. She walks among the refugees, the homeless, the downtrodden. She hears their stories, but she cannot share her own. She has not been brutalized like they; she has slept with the devil. And she cannot feel clean.
Until she faces her tormentor.
Edna O’Brien has been writing for more than fifty years and has garnered most of the awards that a writer can hope for. From her first novel The Country Girl to this last she has written mesmerizing tales that look at modern life cleanly and honestly–with it all its indelicacies and horrors on full display.
On my shelf, I noticed that I have five titles by O’Brien, ranging through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. I have not read much of her in the last two decades, but I have read her a lot. It is rare for a writer to hit his/her peak at the latter end of one’s career, but this is what O’Brien has done. I can honestly say that The Little Red Chairs is a masterpiece: blending Irish charm with human depravities, human grotesqueness with the capacity for great love, the private stage and the public arena.
The Little Red Chairs is an important book, a wonderful book, a highly readable book.
Please Note: I decided on this book after reading the Christmas NYTimes Book Review where it interviewed various writers, artists, thinkers etc. on what books they had read in 2016. The writer Maxine Hong Kingston was one of several who had read this book. However, she noted that she had to skip over the torture parts. There are two of them, and they are difficult, but are probably not the worse you have read or seen.
“Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)