Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Between the covers: reading in 2010

Source: wpclipart.com

By Bob Hicks

Just a year ago, in this post about his reading adventures in 2009, Mr. Scatter confessed that he is a lousy keeper of lists, and therefore couldn’t report with any certainty on what he’d read in the previous twelve months. Some books, he was sure, had simply slipped in and out of his mind without leaving much of an impression. Others might have left a deep impression, but by the end of the year he couldn’t recall whether they’d made that impression in the previous calendar year or in, say, 1994.

If this seems odd, bear in mind that most of Mr. Scatter’s reading tends to be not from publishers’ current lists but from that great deep river of bookmaking that extends back through the centuries, constantly refreshing itself when anyone dips in. Books are like that. At some point they’re new, but after a certain point the good ones are simply current — or in the current. If someone reads, for instance, The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini for the first time in the year 2011, the experience throws that person into parallel universes: It is both 450 years old and current events. With that sort of time-traveling, no wonder Mr. Scatter gets a little scattered.

Continue reading Between the covers: reading in 2010

Where there’s a wit, there’s a way

By Bob Hicks

Mr. Scatter has been thinking about wit lately, partly because he’s been rereading Jane Austen‘s novel Emma and partly because, as regular Scatterers know, he attended the opera last Friday evening to see and hear Rossini‘s splendidly whimsical opera buffa The Barber of Seville.

Portrait of Jane Austen, Evert A. Duyckinick. Wikimedia CommonsBoth works, as the globe-trotting Mrs. Scatter has pointed out, made their debuts in 1816, which was technically part of the 19th century. But both feel more like products of the 18th century (as the Edwardian years seem an extension of the 19th century, which could be said to have ended in 1914).

Certainly Rossini’s opera, with its libretto by Cesare Sterbini adapted from a 1775 comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, is fully in the spirit of the Age of Reason, embellished by a happy nod back to the 17th century theatrical glories of English Restoration comedy and the French satires of Moliere. And Austen’s class comedies seem slung somewhere between classic Enlightenment intellectual balance (Haydn, Swift, Mozart, Gibbon, Pope) and the surge of Romanticism that would engulf the 19th century (Beethoven, Byron, Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, on down to Wagner).

emmaAusten’s comedies may be the most precise and practical romances ever written. Obsessed with the often foolishly claustrophobic concerns of a narrow slice of self-satisfied society, they’re also worldly. Within the confines of that small society she discovers a measured universe of human possibility, from the perfidious to the noble. And she does it with one of the slyest, keenest raised eyebrows in all of literature.

Entering Austen’s world takes a certain amount of patience (it spins at the speed of a barouche carriage, not a supersonic transport; you must make peace with its rhythm) and some very smart people simply never make the transition. “Why do you like Miss Austen so very much?” Charlotte Bronte queried the philosopher and critic (and George Eliot’s live-in lover) G.H. Lewes in a letter from 1848. “I am puzzled on that point … I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses … Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant.”

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Escaping to reality: Chick flicks and the comic spirit

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner. Wikimedia Commons.

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in “The Shop Around the Corner”: heart-to-heart, but not eye-to-eye. MGM, 1940/Wikimedia Commons


In a world of reality television and cheesy stadium-pop music, finding good, intelligent escapist entertainment is a lot harder than it ought to be. The idea is to tickle your brain, not insult it, and tickling takes a certain deftness with the feather that far too many entertainers lack.

I turn to certain writers. Jasper Fforde and the outrageous wordplay of his Thursday Next and Nursery Crime novels. John Mortimer and his Rumpole stories. Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries. Thurber and Wodehouse and Christopher Buckley, whose Little Green Men and Thank You for Smoking so audaciously straddle the line between cynicism and glee. I listen to good musicians performing Cole Porter. I watch Gene Kelly or Ann Miller or Gregory Hines dance. I revisit the raw brilliance of John Belushi in Blues Brothers or Animal House, or his comic soulmate Jack Black in School of Rock.

shopcoverAnd I watch chick flicks. Not just any chick flick, but the well-written, well-performed ones that tend to fall into the folds of screwball or romantic comedy. Yes, I like the movies of Nora Ephron, and if that drums me out of the league of tough-guy arts observers, so be it.

What exactly is a chick flick? The term’s a mild put-down that means something like, “inconsequential fluff that panders to womanly emotions,” but that’s a short-sighted way of looking at things. Isn’t the supposedly feminine point of view — that pursuing happiness is better than winning through intimidation — the crux of the civilizing process? Better Katharine Hepburn leading Cary Grant on a wild goose chase than Dirty Harry making his day with a gun in your face, although Harry has his lower-cortex satisfactions, too.

inthegoodoldsummertimevhscoverThe best chick flicks exude optimism, which of course makes them immediately suspect in intellectual circles. (Then again, a lot of intellectuals miss the point that Waiting for Godot is as much a vaudeville comedy as it is an existential outcry: Even Beckett enjoyed a good giggle.)

But in a good chick flick, the optimism isn’t blind. It’s based on a belief that personal fulfillment is a matter of finding the right fit in life. That fit most likely involves finding the right romantic mate (although it could also be the right profession or cause or community), which in a larger sense means discovering the truth about yourself and putting yourself in a position where you don’t have to pretend.

And while the consummation might be a juicy kiss or an “I do” and is certainly about sexual attraction, it is more deeply about finding the person whose quirks and foibles you can put up with for a lifetime, because the underlying connection is profound.

youve_got_mailIt’s a coupling of equals built on compromise and respect, and it typically involves wriggling out of a bad potential match and shedding several layers of self-delusion so you can see the simple beauty of what ought to be. That often requires eating a few slices of humble pie and taking some practical steps. In that sense, Jane Austen is the mother of all chick flicks. And Shakespeare, with his comic creations of Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, might be their grandpa.

In a good chick flick, you know the ending right off the bat. That bugs a lot of critics, who complain that the show is predictable and formulaic. So it is. But so what? Sure, you know where the story’s taking you, but how you get there is most of the fun. The ride can be as raunchy as Bull Durham or as raucous as Working Girl or as delicate as 84 Charing Cross Road. The variety that lives inside familiarity is astonishing, and becoming comfortable with the little surprises of the familiar is one of the pleasures of life.

If the critical challenge of the chick-flick hero and heroine is to bring a split personality into harmony — the “false” personality of social striving and mistaken assumptions giving way to the “true” personality of inner self-awareness, even as it steels romantic idealism in the crucible of practicality — then Miklos Laszlo‘s 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie is an almost perfect example of the form. Set in Budapest, it’s about a pair of shop clerks who bicker through their everyday lives but who also indulge in an idealized, platonic affair with an unknown pen pal, eagerly awaiting the next heartfelt letter of devotion. Continue reading Escaping to reality: Chick flicks and the comic spirit

O mystery divine: when Wall Street was our friend

51wzmdon2ylToday I plucked Emma Lathen‘s Death Shall Overcome from my recently reconstituted bookshelves. It was published in 1966, and it’s one of a series of mysteries featuring the improbable but highly likable and, in the clinches, deeply honorable amateur sleuth John Putnam Thatcher, who in his day job is senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, a staid and sober Wall Street institution that would never, or at least not in 1966, find itself in the untoward position of requiring a financial bailout from these reluctantly wallet-emptying United States of America. The Sloan Guaranty found ways to act justly and properly and still pile up princely profits, which perhaps is a tipoff that this is a work of fiction.

Death Shall Overcome hinges on the impending appointment to a seat on the New York Stock Exchange of its first black member, a man of impeccably conservative fiduciary credentials and precisely the pigmentation to drive certain portions of The Club straight up the wall. Not John Putnam Thatcher, of course, who knows a good man — and a proper course of action — when he sees one.

Mystery monger Jim Huang considers Lathen’s skills as a sly and pointed observer of the social customs of the actual and would-be cultural elite to be Jane Austen-like. That may be taking things a little far, and yet three-fourths of the pleasure in reading these witty mysteries comes from Lathen’s wry observations of the peculiar culture that is her milieu. So, borrowing a page once again from Rose City Reader (I know, I said I’d do this only once — I lied) here’s the beginning of the book:

Above all, Wall Street is power. The talk is of stocks and bonds, of contracts and bills of lading, of gold certificates and wheat futures, but it is talk that sends fleets steaming to distant oceans, that determines the fate of new African governments, that closes mining camps in the Chibougamou. In the world’s great money market, power has forged massive canyons through which thousands of men and women daily hurry to work, hurry to lunch, hurry, hurry, hurry in the shadows of towers tall enough to defy the heavens. Depending upon your point of view, Wall Street is either awesomely impressive or appalling.

No one has ever called it beautiful.

If I thought the John Thatcher Putnams were in charge,
I’d vote for “awesomely impressive.” Lacking that assurance … well, there’s always fiction. And Emma Lathen is really very good at it.

Beach scatter: J. Austen, E. Jelinek, M. Mouse

The miracle (or the curse, depending on your point of view) of the Internet tubes is that they extend to the Oregon coast, and so, it is possible to share one’s vacation slides with the universe almost in real time. Not only that, it is possible to post from there/here, too. One suspects that it will be an excellent place from which to Scatter widely, if not consecutively, on such subjects as Jane Austen, Elfriede Jelinek and Mickey Mouse. So, having already 1) dipped nether digits into the briney Pacific, 2) ruminated on the pleasures the world offers while eating a smoked oyster from Karla’s Smokehouse (Karla is a genius of the delicate art of smoking), and 3) fought off the assaults of sand bugs attracted to smell of fresh meat from the city, we settle in to the broadcast booth to enter our code.
Continue reading Beach scatter: J. Austen, E. Jelinek, M. Mouse

Battle royal: Books v. movies

Should we allow movies to pulverize the soft images in our brains of the books we’ve read, poor defenseless images that they are? A Guardian blogger thinks it’s time to fight back, and Scatter rummages around for a few thoughts.

So, for the past few weeks we’ve talked about movies and we’ve talked about books, specifically books we were embarrassed to admit that we hadn’t read and then a little later movies that moved us to the max. Reading David Barnett’s book blog in the Guardian yesterday, I realized that some of the books I hadn’t read, books I might feel I should read under ordinary circumstances, didn’t occur to me. I’d seen the movie. This would involve the collected works of Jane Austen, for example. I just love those movies; never picked up a copy of Pride and Prejudice and probably never will. Though never is a long time. Strangely.

Barnett argues that ANY film version of a book, perhaps even including brilliant film versions, is an affront to the reader of the book, who has invested many hours of imaginative time over days or weeks or (gulp) months recreating the text in her/his head. Barnett’s key sentence:

Can there be anything worse than lovingly engaging with a couple of hundred thousand words of prose over perhaps two or three weeks, drinking in the author’s dialogue and descriptions, creating your own vision of the work in the privacy of your head, only to have every man and his dog (special offer on Tuesdays at your local Odeon) blast your intellectual ownership of the book out of the water after spending 90 minutes slobbing out in front of a cinema screen?

Here at Art Scatter we don’t believe in this sort of “intellectual ownership,” but we do think reading is a pretty sweet thing. And in comparing the way I approach movies to the way I approach books, I find that I am far more casual, generally, about the movie. I didn’t spend nearly as much time with Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, to cite a very recent example as I did with Peter Nadas’s essays, but felt no reservation about plunking a post down about it for your reading enjoyment. I’d read and re-read those three Nadas essays many times, assembled notes, thought and thought, before I ventured to the keyboard. Would that movie withstand that sort of scrutiny? That’s another question. But some movies do.
Continue reading Battle royal: Books v. movies