In 2008, Ann Mah, food writer and Francophile wife of an American diplomat, had her deepest desire realized when her husband Calvin was appointed a post in Paris. Having moved to three different cities in the previous five years: New York, Beijing, Washington, D.C., a three-year sojourn in Paris was beyond her wildest dream.
Then came the rub. Soon after they arrived in the City of Light, Calvin was called away to another diplomatic mission: in Baghdad, Iraq, by himself for one year. Just months arriving in Paris, Ann had a taste of fate in the most ironic form: to live in her dream City, alone. She knew that would probably be the hardest year of her life.
To fight off the loneliness and isolation she was experiencing, Mah began to look to another diplomat’s wife in Paris sixty years earlier for inspiration and channel her pioneering gusto: Julia Child.
The title is a giveaway. Mastering the Art of French Eating––instead of ‘Cooking’ as Child’s book––is a humble homage to the food journalist’s heroine. While she didn’t follow Child to the prestigious culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, in her year of living in France all by herself, Mah charted her own culinary journey to various regions in the country to taste and research on the cuisine of the land. The subtitle is also enticingly delicious: Lessons in food and love from a year in Paris.
In ten chapters, Mah presents the ten places she had visited, from Paris bistros to farmhouse kitchen, haute cuisine to communal cooking, she records her experience in the specific locales and their signature dish along with historical perspective. And at the end of each chapter, the recipe:
From her last name, you might also be curious about her own background. Yes, within this little food memoir are sprinkled with stories of Mah growing up Chinese American in California. While her love of France brewed very early in her life following her family tour there as a child, she wasn’t given the chance to learn the language that she loved, French, but had to go to Chinese school on Saturdays as stipulated by some sort of a ‘tiger mom’. Within these chapters, then, embeds the quest for identity and personhood. Here’s a quote that more or less sums it up:
“Diplomacy has been called the world’s second-oldest profession, and ever since the sixteenth century––and maybe even before––other wives of diplomats have endured similar existential crises, fading into obscurity while their husbands’ achievements were recorded in history. Perhaps, then, that is why I turned to Julia [Child] for inspiration… not just because she loved food, and had also lived in China, and was also a trailing spouse, just like me––but because I was looking for proof that professional success and marriage to a diplomat were not mutually exclusive.” –– P. 218
A delightful read for Paris in July and actually, anytime.
I listened to the audiobook first then read the hardcopy: Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love by Ann Mah, Viking Penguin Books, 2013. 273 pages. The audiobook is narrated bythe actress Mozhan Marnò (The Blacklist, House of Cards), ideal for learning the pronunciation of the French words. Hardcopy is good for getting the recipes, and makes the narratives and anecdotes more memorable.
December 2021 was a hectic month, thus the delay of this year-end wrap up. 2021 was another unusual year. No in-person at a theatre to watch movies, but there were several excellent titles. Glad I could watch them online. As for books, I surprised myself as I counted over 50 books from my list on Goodreads, albeit I admit, many of them are audiobooks.
Here are the Top Ripples of my 2021. Links are to my reviews.
The Dig – I’d left this one out on my last list by (a huge) mistake, now corrected. This is one of the best movies I’ve watched during the pandemic. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in their unusual roles based on a true, historic event. Beautifully shot.
Passing – Both book and movie adaptation are very well done.
Nomadland – Oscar 2021 Best Picture, Director and Actress. Both book and film are inspiring.
Minari – Autobiographical pic of Korean American director Lee Isaac Chung. Yuh-Jung Youn won the Oscar Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing the eccentric grandma.
The Father – Anthony Hopkins nails it as the father afflicted with dementia and deservedly won his second Oscar at 84, the oldest Acting Oscar winner.
Promising Young Woman – Excellent Oscar winning screenplay by debut director Emerald Fennell. But it’s Carey Mulligan’s performance that speaks most poignantly for promising young women.
Drive My Car – Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has created a play within a play while adapting a short story by Haruki Murakami. How ingenious is that? Japan’s official entry to the coming 94th Academy Awards. (Link to my review on Asian American Press)
What to read and watch in this new year? Here’s a list of movie adaptations, some just announced, some in development and some filming. If Omicron doesn’t have its way and productions can continue, we’ll likely see them come out this year. Of course, things are as fluid as ever, but the books are always there for us to explore.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
To be directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, 2017) with a star-studded cast including Andrew Garfield, Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes, Joe Alwyn and Rooney Mara. Although the 2008 rendition is a fine one, I welcome a fresh take. Andrew Garfield has proven to be highly versatile, would make an effective Charles Ryder. I’m eager to see Cate Blanchett as Lady Marchmain, and Ralph Fiennes would likely deliver lots of drama, especially under the helm of Guadagnino.
The Cactus by Sarah Haywood
Published in Jan 2018, selected as Reese’s Book Club pick in June 2019, the adaptation will likely star Reese Witherspoon as the protagonist Susan Green, who is unexpectedly pregnant at 45. Currently a feature film in development by Netflix. The short phrases on the cover make an effective blurb: ‘It’s never too late to bloom,’ and this one: ‘Even the prickliest cactus has its flower.’
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
With every book she published, Irish author Rooney is shot to a higher plane. Conversations with Friends is her debut novel, followed by the acclaimed Normal People, which already has an impressive screen adaptation. Beautiful World, Where Are You is her notable latest whose film rights will likely be snatched up soon I presume. Conversations with Friends is a simpler and more quiet novel, not less entangled with human relationships, with two young people grappling with love and life. Coming out this year as a series on Hulu.
Crying in H Martby Michelle Zauner
The film rights of this wildly popular, food-rich memoir of Zauner growing up Korean American has been sold to MGM’s Orion Pictures. Zauner will be adapting her book to the screen, chronicling her growing up as a mixed race gal in Oregon, and how her relationship with her cancer stricken mother has led her to discover her Asian root. Zauner will also provide the soundtrack for the feature with her own indie music band Japanese Breakfast.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
Several of Paul Gallico’s stories had been adapted onto screen, on top of his own screenwriting work. This one sounds cheery, just right for an uncertain new year. Mrs. Harris, a London charlady, discovers Dior when tidying the fancy wardrobe of one of her clients, Lady Dant. Paris becomes her dream and goal. When finally she has saved enough to head over to the House of Dior in Paris, she finds a new world and adventure awaits her. Delightful, isn’t it? What’s more enticing is the cast, two ladies, Leslie Manville and Isabel Huppert.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
This will be the second adaptation of Ferrante’s works, after The Lost Daughter (my Ripple review coming soon.) Another Netflix development, The Lying Life will be a series to be shot in Naples. Giovanna is a young woman growing up in Neapolitan society struggling to navigate the adult world and seeking for what’s real. The series will be in Italian, but just like Ferrante’s books, the appeal and relevance will be international.
She Said by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey
Subtitled: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. NYT journalists Kantor and Twohey were winners of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for their work in exposing the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s longtime sexual misconduct, incendiary journalism that led to the #MeToo Movement. Screen adaptation directed by Maria Schrader; Carey Mulligan plays Twohey, Zoe Kazan as Kantor, Patricia Clarkson, editor Rebecca Corbett. Mulligan is an ideal cast on the heels of her impressive Oscar nominated role in Promising Young Woman.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A. J. Fikry is a bookseller whose personal life is just as disappointing as the sales of his books. While there are people around him who are steadfast in their support for him, it’s an unexpected package, a baby, outside his door one fateful day that turns his life around and gives him a new view of things. A booklovers’ story. Screenplay written by the author Zevin, directed by Hans Canosa.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Reviewed on the NYT as a Mennonite #MeToo novel, this time the Mennonite community Canadian author Toews writes about is fictional, and the horrors the girls and women experience therein make this a crime thriller. But Toews apparently intends more than just to shock. Deeper issues such as collective guilt, the existence of evil, and forgiveness are explored. Movie adaptation directed by the acclaimed Sarah Polley (Oscar nom Adapted Screenplay for Away From Her), great cast with Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara.
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans by Agatha Christie
This Christie mystery without Hercule Poirot but featuring two amateur sleuths was a beloved novel of British actor Hugh Laurie (Dr. House) back in his youth. He’ll write and direct the 3-part adaptation. Christie’s book, published in 1934, tells the story of two friends while looking for a golf ball discover a dying man whose last words––the eponymous title of the book––lead them to the investigation of the mystery. Laurie fans would be glad to actually see him in a role as Dr. Nicholson.
A lesser known novella by Edith Wharton, included in her book Xingu and Other Stories published in 1916. Two sisters operate a millinery shop, the eponymous Bunner Sisters, designing ladies hat in a run-down district of New York City.
A ladies hat shop in a shabby neighbourhood sounds incompatible and that’s the reality the Bunner sisters are dealing with, business barely sustaining their living with only a little left for a surprise birthday gift. Ann Eliza uses her savings to buy a new clock for younger sister Evelina’s birthday. Thus begins the turn in their lives.
Ann Eliza and Evelina remind me of Elinor and Marianne in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The older is almost resigned to her fate but the younger constantly suppresses a bubbling, fleeing spirit yearning for fancier and more adventurous experiences. And that’s Ann Eliza’s wish for her sister as well. As the older sibling, she’s willing to give up her own bliss for Evelina’s happiness.
Well, that’s until lately, when Ann Eliza notices Mr. Herman Ramy, the clock maker who owns a dustier shop than theirs in the neighbourhood. Here’s how Wharton describe Ann Eliza’s change:
All the small daily happenings which had once sufficed to fill the hours now appeared to her in their deadly insignificance; and for the first time in her long years of drudgery she rebelled at the dullness of her life. With Evelina such fits of discontent were habitual and openly proclaimed, and Ann Eliza still excused them as one of the prerogatives of youth.
Anne Eliza finds opportunities to go to the clock shop to meet Mr. Ramy or in other places such as the market, but often comes to disappointments. There’s humour in these circumstances, her best laid plans often go awry, crashed by Evelina unknowingly. Ann Eliza always being the patient and self-sacrificing one, sees her chances slip away. As days go by, fate does seem to smile upon Evelina and leaves Ann Eliza behind.
Any more hints I’ll be spilling out spoilers, and that will crash your enjoyment. There are twists and turns. Looks like Wharton is influenced more by Henry James than Austen in leading her readers into the stark reality of being a woman at that time, and her astute revealing of her characters’ psychological states.
I’m always interested in why a filmmaker thinks a certain literary work is good movie material. Bunner Sisters is now a TV movie in development. Edith Wharton’s most well known, both book and adaptation, is probably The Age of Innocence. Bunner Sisters will be a much smaller project for sure, but still piques my curiosity. The Custom of the Country is also on the drawing board. Hope it will take off soon.
Here’s a piece of fond memory from my road trip to New England a few years ago when I visited Edith Wharton’s home The Mount. Relating to #NovNov event, I’m sharing a photo I took, Wharton’s home library:
Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929), a novella about a Black woman passing as white in an acutely discriminatory society, setting up the stage for some suspenseful and intense storytelling.
Irene Redfield is a wife and mother of two sons, maintaining an orderly home in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor, herself well connected and tightly engaged in the social life of her community. While visiting Chicago one time, she encounters an old school friend, Clare Kendry, whom she doesn’t recognize at first. It’s Clare who has spotted Irene in the rooftop restaurant and comes over to identify herself. That fateful reunion changes Irene’s life.
Twelve years have passed since Irene last saw Clare from school. Now standing in front of her is “an attractive-looking woman… with dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin.” (16)
That these two Black women can pass for whites and enter the Drayton Hotel’s rooftop restaurant is due to their light skin colour. This fact in itself implies the fluidity of racial definitions. Clare and Irene are biracial, and that term doesn’t even necessarily refer to half and half. Clare’s father is himself the son of a white father and a black mother. Her fair skin doesn’t betray her racial composition.
The character foil between Irene and Clare forms the crux and conflict in the story. Clare is bold and adventurous, a risk taker who is bound by no loyalty save for her own gratification. By marrying a white husband who is a banker, Jack Bellew, she has been living a privileged, white woman’s life. Curiously, she asks Irene “haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’?”
Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?” And so disdainful was her voice and manner that Clare’s face flushed and her eyes glinted. Irene hastened to add: “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little more money.” (29)
To Irene, what Clare has done is dangerous and disloyal to her race. Well, she passes too sometimes but only when it’s necessary, like getting into Drayton’s rooftop restaurant to escape from the fainting spell due to the sweltering heat. But to Clare, it’s her life. She tells Irene, “all things considered… it’s even worth the price.” That is, despite the fact that she is living with a man who hates Blacks but is unaware of her racial heritage.
The search for identity is not so much the issue Clare is struggling with but loneliness. She has not been discovered for twelve years and now reuniting with Irene, she wants to re-connect with the people in her past life. Alluring and assertive, Clare gradually moves into Irene’s familial and social life.
Larsen’s 111 page novella is more than just about race. It is an intricately layered story that touches on multiple issues. While race is the most obvious one, more for Irene, but for Clare passing is for personal gain and socio-economic benefits, and the breakout of social boundaries. The book is also about female friendship, and the ambivalence that involves. Further, unexpected for all of them, as Clare enters Irene’s home, she begins to unhinge the equilibrium in relationships. She charms everyone, from the help to the two boys, and the most abhorrent suspicion Irene harbours, her husband Brian as well. Herein lies the turning point in the story.
Larsen tells her story with spare and concise narratives, her revealing of her character’s thoughts is precise and clear, that is, until we reach the ending. Like a suspense writer, Larsen has dropped hints as to where she’s leading the reader towards the end. And yet, it is as open-ended as how a reader is prepared to see. Herein lies Larsen’s ingenuity.
The film adaptation (2021) is the directorial debut of British actor Rebecca Hall who also wrote the screenplay. It is a project that she had attempted to launch for some years. The book aligns with a family history as her maternal grandfather was a Black man who had passed as white for most of his life in Detroit, Michigan.
What Larsen has written, Hall has materialized on screen with parallel, meticulous mastery. That the film is shot in black and white is a brilliant idea, for viewers can see quite readily, in between the black and the white is a spectrum of greys, clearly showing Larsen’s concept of the fluidity of socially-constructed racial definitions. The 4:3 Academy ratio works to lead us into a glimpse of a specific past where Clare could well fit the image of a flapper in 1920’s NYC.
Hall has simplified the locations and mainly focused on Harlem. She has effectively selected the essential passages and lines and transposed them on screen. Out of Larsen’s spare novella the writer-director has created a thought provoking visual narrative with stylish aesthetics and implications that still resonate in our times.
I’ve always been intrigued by the image on the Penguin edition of the book cover. At the beginning of the film, Hall shows us the significance of it. Irene wears a translucent hat that’s half covering her face, an aid to shield her features as she goes shopping in Manhattan, just in case, and in the hotel room where she meets Clare’s racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), a necessary means of defence.
The interplay between Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare is immaculate and well-directed, nuances revealed in the slightest changes in facial expressions and gestures. The reunion of old friends is not all celebratory, an ambivalence is clearly conveyed by Irene. Andr´é Holland (Moonlight, 2016; Selma, 2014) plays Brian, loving husband and father who is acutely aware of the racial atrocities in the country. Like Clare, he wants to breakout and be free.
Another major asset is cinematography. Edu Grau (Suffragette, 2015; A Single Man, 2009) has crafted a stylish work with depth. His camera is spot-on when it’s needed to capture the expressions of the characters, especially between the two women as often their faces are the visual dialogues when none is spoken. And throughout the film, the jazz motif sets the mood that weaves through scenes.
What’s explicitly written in a book can only be shown with images on screen. Hall is effective in adding sequences that are illustrative in revealing Irene’s fears as she sees Brian and Clare becoming closer. And with the visual comes the sound. In the tea party at their home to honor the writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), Irene’s heavy breathing we hear as the camera follows her around the house lets us feel her restrained anger and unsettling spirit. The breaking of the tea pot and the conversations she has with Hugh who helps her pick up the pieces is most telling. These are apt additions as a gradual revealing leading to the end.
Like Larsen’s novella, the ending is open to interpretation. However, what Hall implies seems to be different from the author’s. Read the novella, watch the film. This is an intriguing pairing of two exceptional storytelling in both art forms.
Passing is a nominee of the 2021 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. It has been screening in the festival circuit and is a new release on Netflix starting November 10.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Passing by Nella Larsen, Penguin Books, NY., 2018, With an insightful Introduction and Suggestions for Further Reading by Emily Bernard, 128 pages. (Story from p. 10-120)
Novellas in November, click here and here to see what others are reading.
Florence Green is a middle-aged widow living in the coastal town of Hardborough, in Suffolk, England, 1959. She has been a resident there for some years but stays close to herself. While not being an outsider per se, her life in Hardborough has been unnoticeable, that is, until her plan of opening a bookshop begins to materialize.
Florence acquires and moves into a dilapidated building called The Old House. The front operates as a bookshop while she lives in the back. Innocuous enough, until she is confronted by the rich and powerful Mrs. Violet Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough.” Mrs. Gamart makes it clear that she’d always wanted to turn the Old House into an arts centre. For seven years it has remained empty and now that Florence has purchased it to open her bookshop does Mrs. Gamart want to replace it with her own plan.
Mrs. Gamart’s wilful obstruction of Florence’s bookshop draws out the infirm recluse Mr. Brundish, a book lover and whose family has roots in Hardborough for generations. In nothing short of an heroic act, he ventures out to confront the powerful socialite.
The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978, only one year after Fitzgerald’s debut novel, and in 1979, she won the prize with Offshore. Hermione Lee in her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald writes in the intro:
She was first published at sixty and became famous at eighty. This is a story of lateness, patience and persistence: a private form of heroism.
In just 118 pages, Fitzgerald tells a story that’s as calm as the surface of this inert fishing town, while underneath the quiet facade are bubbling currents of emotions and wilful malice. Not that Mrs. Gamart doesn’t like books, she wants an arts centre with speakers giving talks and live music playing. What’s brewing inside her could well be the urge for power play, to control, or just plain malice.
Fitzgerald is an astute observer of human foibles. Take Milo, a writer (or merely aspiring?) who seems to be helpful to Florence, Fitzgerald has these words for him:
Gentleness is not kindness. His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.
Even in such a small community, there’s acute disparity, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the grammar school and the Technical, and consequently, success and failure. Take Christine, the eleven year-old who helps Florence in her shop. As her mother says, failing to enter grammar school and heading to the Technical would mean the difference between rising above her lot or ‘pegging laundry all her life’.
But this is also a comedy of manners. Fitzgerald reveals her characters with refreshing and amusing ways. At the beginning of the book, Florence encounters Mr. Raven, who needs help with his horse’s teeth. Here’s the excerpt:
‘Now, Mrs. Green, if you’d catch hold of the tongue. I wouldn’t ask everybody, but I know you don’t frighten.’
‘How do you know?’ she asked.
‘They’re saying that you’re about to open a bookshop. That shows you’re ready to chance some unlikely things.’
So, how does a relatively uneventful story about a small-town widow opening a bookshop transpose onto the screen? Spanish director Isabel Coixet wrote the screenplay and took the liberty to create some dramatic moments for the visual medium.
First off, she lets a narrator tell the story in the form of voiceover. The immediate effect is a more intimate storytelling, but the most crucial effect comes at the end. I’m withholding any revealing, for I don’t want to spill out spoilers; I can say that is quite effective.
Coixet has an experienced cast on her hands. Emily Mortimer plays Florences Green with a respectful loyalty to the book protagonist. And the added scene by the sea with old Mr. Brundish offers a moving moment. Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Brundish is poignant. Unfortunately, he’s not given much screen time. Neither is Patricia Clarkson, who aptly delivers Mrs. Gamart’s snobbery with chilling resolves.
The single plot line focuses more on Florence and her young helper Christine (Honor Kneafsey) rather than having Florence establish deeper relational interplay with the adult characters. While the aesthetics are appealing, the overall story needs some spicing up. The twist at the end is effective but the spark comes just a little too late. However, if you’re a fan of period dramas, or anyone in the cast, check this out as it can offer two calm and relaxing hours.
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, first edition published in the UK by Gerald Duckworth, 1978, 118 pages. I read the ebook via OverDrive.
Check out what others are reading in this Novellas in November 2021 event at Rebecca’s and Cathy’s blogs.
Thanks to Rebecca of Bookish Beck and Cathy of 746 Books for hosting this event for a few years now, albeit this is the first time I join in. Looking at the stacks of book suggestions and reading their lists prompted me to jump on the bandwagon.
Keeping with Ripple Effects’ focus, I’ve selected four novellas for each week of November, books that have a movie adaptation or one in development. I’ll discuss both versions when I post. Here’s my list.
English writer Penelope Fitzgerald started her literary career as a biographer. Then in 1977, at the age of 60, she published her first novel. Over the next five years, she published four more. The Bookshop (1978) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and in the following year, she won the prize with Offshore (1979).
The Bookshop is adapted into a movie in 2017 by Spanish director Isabel Coixet. Cast includes Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson. Filming location is Northern Ireland. Now streaming on Kanopy.com
Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929) about blacks passed as white in an acutely discriminatory society.
The movie adaptation is the directorial debut of English actress Rebecca Hall. Now, why would she be interested, or ‘qualified’ to appropriate this topic, write the screenplay and direct the film?
During interviews, Hall had revealed her own mixed race ancestry: her maternal grandfather was a light-skinned black man who had ‘passed’ as white. Learning about this hidden past of her family has realigned her own identity and prompted her to appreciate her ancestral roots.
Passing is currently released in select theatres for a limited time, and will be on Netflix beginning November 10, 2021.
A lesser known novella by Wharton. Two sisters run a milliner shop decorating bonnets in a rundown neighbourhood of NYC. Leave them in Pulitzer winning Wharton’s hands, their story must be worth telling. I’m always intrigued by what sparks a filmmaker to take up the adaptation of a particular literary work. This will be another opportunity to find out.
Wharton’s most well-known film adaptation is perhaps The Age of Innocent. Bunner Sisters is a much smaller project and hopefully not less poignant. The TV movie is currently filming.
Capote’s 1958 novella has long become a contemporary classic with an equally renown adaptation that ignited the stardom of Audrey Hepburn. She has turned Holly Golightly from just a character to a symbol, just like Cat, the stray she finds in the alley.
The movie won two Oscars, both for the score and the song. The song? ‘Moon River’ by Henry Mancini of course. I still remember clearly the scene where Holly sits on the open window sill strumming a guitar and singing the song longingly. Thanks to Novella in November, I’ll take this time to reread and rewatch.
Intrigued by the title? I was, and that prompted me to investigate further. The subtitle pushed me out of indecision: an autobiography in essays. I’ve read two of Messud’s novels, The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, both I couldn’t embrace wholeheartedly. However, the title of this non-fiction jumped out at me.
I’ve appreciated Claire Messud the memoirist and critic much more than Messud the fiction writer, albeit I admit I’ve read only two of her seven novels. The first part of this autobiography in essays reveals her multicultural roots and the various geographical locales that had made up who she is as a writer. A French father born in colonial Algeria and a Canadian mother, what an interesting fusion of culture.
Messud has left footprints and therefore collected memories in many parts of the world. She writes about her growing up years moving from Connecticut to Australia then to Canada and back to the United States, and later her travel to Beirut, an emotionally torn, love trip both for her dying father who had spent his childhood there with fond memories, and for herself.
In the eponymous essay, ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, she writes:
“I can echo Walt Whitman in asserting that ‘I contain multitudes.’ I am who I am because I was where I was, when I was; and almost all of it is invisible to the world. This is true, of course, for each of us” (80).
Messud is generous in sharing the intimacies of her family relationships, especially those of her parents’ and grandparents’. I’ve found too that certain parts of her novels are based on real life experiences and encounters, e.g. the character Cassie in The Burning Girl.
The second part is both taxing and satisfying as she critiques on various international writers and artists, making up a good list for me to explore. Even though I haven’t read some of them or seen their artwork, I find the essays informative, insightful, and exemplary in critique writing. Her prose is elegant and inspiring, and at times, exhilarating.
The Camus essays are captivating for me in terms of the historical backdrop and political situations of Algiers and the tough handling by the then French government. Camus the pacifist had to confront issues of violence, colonization and post-colonial dilemmas.
Her essay on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go elicits more poignancy from the already devastating fate of the characters Kathy and Tommy. In particular, she sheds new light into the moving scene where Kathy embraces the pop song Never Let Me Go longingly.
The essay on the photographer Sally Mann is mesmerizing. In an interview, Mann had said, “unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art… it’s always been my philosophy to make art out of the everyday, the ordinary” (290).
Herein lies the dilemma of privacy and art making as Mann had candidly photographed her children growing up and her husband who is afflicted by muscular dystrophy, thus making her a highly controversial artist. Anyway, herein lies the dilemma of a memoirist, I suppose, like Messud’s book, there has to be the revealing of relational intimacy and private lives in order to imbue authenticity and truths in an autobiography.
Back to the essay ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, Messud has, in her ingenious way, explains to her readers how she gets the title from. I’ll leave it with you to explore instead of me clumsily paraphrase. However, I’d like to conclude by quoting this moving episode of Messud and her mother who was afflicted with dementia:
“In the last two years of her life, she was often quiet––she who had been so vitally social––and once, as she sat in silence, I asked her what she was thinking. With a wry and wistful smile, she answered, “Shards of memory, and new worlds discovered”(82).
To store up and share fragments gleaned from the ruins of the past is just one of the reasons for Messud to write, as well, for her readers to collect and keep in our own trove containing our own shards of memory, as we all share the magic of these lived experiences through the literary and the arts.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write: an autobiography in essays by Claire Messud, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 2020. 306 pages.
Enjoying your summer reading by the lake? Here are some upcoming adaptations to be released this year or in 2022, books you might have read or to lengthen your TBR list:
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
This is the first of the eight published novels by Toews to be adapted into film. Her Mennonite background growing up in Steinbach, Manitoba, informs her writing. A story of two sisters as the elder, an accomplished concert pianist, struggles with severe depression. To premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this September.
Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Coming out as a British mini TV series in the fall of 2021. Marital relationship, or extra, the issue of consent, and courtroom drama. Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley of Downton) is a good choice for a prosecutor with a baggage, and Rupert Friend looks just right as a cunning politician. The audiobook is a good summer listen by the pool.
The Last Duel by Eric Jager
Historical thriller based on a true story (so says the trailer) during the Hundred Years’ War, a knight came home from combat to hear his wife accuse the squire of rape. Indecision in the court of law leads to decision by a duel. A stellar cast with Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck. To premiere at the Venice Film Festival this September.
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
After the underwhelming 2011 movie that starred Matthew McConaughey, a remake as a Netflix TV series developed by David E. Kelly sounds exciting. Kelly is a writer/producer who has eleven Primetime Emmys under his belt, his latest for Big Little Lies. Good to hear Christopher Gorham the CIA super tech in Covert Affairs (2010-2014) also on board.
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s full feature directorial debut. Enticing cast: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jessie Buckley, Paul Mescal, Ed Harris. A woman enjoying some alone time at the beach helps a mother to find her lost daughter, an experience that triggers her memory of lost and found.
The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Not till I started reading Horowitz did I find out several TV series are based on his works, e.g. Alex Rider and Foyle’s War, or with some of his screenplays like Midsomer Murders, just to name a few. The Magpie Murders is now a mini-series on PBS Masterpiece. I’m eager to see Lesley Manville play Susan Ryeland, the publisher turned amateur sleuth in the book.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Since its publication in 2017, buzz of the adaptation of this National Book Award finalist has been sounding and now, finally, Lee’s fan of the Korean family saga will be pleased to know it’s coming out as an Apple TV series this year. K-drama aficionados will appreciate the star-studded cast. What more, the newest Oscar best actress winner Youn Yuh-jung, the eccentric grandma in Minari, will be on board.
The Silent Patient / The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
After working as a relatively unknown screenwriter, Michaelides hit the mark with his psychological thriller The Silent Patient and catapulted to the bestsellers lists. His debut novel has since been optioned by Brad Pitt’s Plan B production. The Maidens is in development as a TV series. Looks like a screenwriter has the insider knowhow to write a novel that’s screen-ready, big or small.
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter
There’s no shortage of crime mystery and thrillers to feed the streaming platforms and production co’s. Another Netflix series adapting another prolific crime writer. This is the first of Slaughter’s 18 novels to be adapted for the screen. A violent incident at the mall exposes a secret past of a mother whose daughter suddenly realizes she doesn’t know her mother at all. Toni Collette stars.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
A cast to remake the 200+ year-old novel for a new era. This is British theatre director Carrie Cracknell’s (National Theatre Live) film debut, helming a production with Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot and Henry Golding, of Crazy Rich Asians fame, as Mr. Elliot, obviously not the gout-ridden old man but Anne’s cousin. I’d like to see him as Captain Frederick Wentworth though.
Three Pines by Louise Penny
Left Bank Pictures is producing a series based on the acclaimed Canadian crime writer Louise Penny’s novels for Amazon. French Canadian Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from the fictional community of Three Pines in Quebec will have a life on the streaming platform. Left Bank is the producer of The Crown on Netflix.
The main thrust and climax of the novel is in Part IV with the courtroom drama of Dmitri on trial for killing his father Fyodor Karamazov. Worthy of any writer of legal thriller to emulate, both the prosecutor Ippolit Kirrillovich’s and the defence attorney from Moscow Fetyukovich’s closing speeches are epic in their scope.
The trial is a spectacle not only locally but the case has ‘resounded throughout Russia.” It would have been a viral streaming in today’s online media. Interesting to note that the opinion of Dmitri’s guilt is divided along gender lines: “many ladies quarrelled hotly with their husbands” as they like to see an acquittal while men want Dmitri locked up and sent to Siberia. Now, such polarized views within a family is another phenom we’re familiar with nowadays.
Prosecutor Kirrillovich knows how to pull the strings of the jury made up of twelve men. They all have preconceived ideas of what the name Karamazov stands for: sensual, unprincipled, depraved. They’ve come to take revenge on a reckless murderer who has committed parricide. The Brothers Karamazov could well have inspired Sidney Lumet’s classic film 12 Angry Men.
Kirrillovich’s beginning remark is notable. While the case has caught raving interests across the country, the alleged cudgelling of a father by his son with a pestle is no longer a surprise, and that’s his commentary on society at large:
“We’re so used to all that! And here is the real horror, that such dark affairs have almost ceased to horrify us! It is this, and not the isolated crime of one individual or another, that should horrify us: that we are so used to it… our lukewarm attitude towards such affairs, such signs of the times, which prophesy for us an enviable future?”
Signs of the times? In 1880? Just wonder what Dostoevsky would think if he were around today.
Defence attorney Fetyukovich draws the twelve men of the jury from their emotions back to rationale, for the evidences presented by the prosecutors are circumstantial as no one has actually seen Dimitri commit the murder. ‘Since he was in the garden that night, he must have killed him’ just wouldn’t stand as an argument, the same with since he had money with him that night, he must have stolen from his father for the sum after killing him. Above all, that Dmitri is ‘stormy and unbridled’ and has offended many in town doesn’t lead to the conclusion that he is the murderer.
That is precisely the war waging inside Dmitri, while he may be reckless and unscrupulous, and admittedly a scoundrel, he’s also a passionate human being, honest with his feelings and thoughts, and earnestly seeks spiritual redemption for his sins. But the murder of his father he vehemently denies.
Who killed Foydor Karamazov? Before he hangs himself, the lackey Smerdyakov has confessed everything to Ivan, including the premeditated faking of a debilitating fall as an alibi, the detailed sequence of events, the actual weapon used, and how he hid the money stolen from the old man. So, it’s unfortunate he didn’t live to confess in court. Did he kill himself to frame Dmitri? I’m inclined to think so, a scheming fool such as he. Smerdyakov reminds me of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield.
While leading the jurors to use their rationale in the first part of his speech, the orator Fetyukovich appeals to their pathos later to conclude. Alluding to Christ and other Biblical references, he calls for the salvation and regeneration of a soul. Dostoevsky has presented a foil between the prosecutor and the defence attorney: one calls for judgement, the other, mercy.
In the forward of the novel, the author has stated that his hero is the youngest son Alyosha, the one who comes out of the monastery and goes into the world. But in the courtroom chapters, Alyosha plays a minimal role. In the wrapping up of the whole book, the last chapter of the Epilogue, Dostoevsky lets Alyosha have the final words. In the school boy Ilyushechka’s funeral, Alyosha rouses up Ilyushechka’s school mates––the next generation of Russian youth––to a pledge of love and goodness:
“… let us all be as generous and brave as Ilyushechka… dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and rightful!”
“Yes, yes,” the boys repeated ecstatically.
“Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, which seemed to be Kartashov’s exclaimed irrepressibly.
“We love you, we love you,” everyone joined in. Many had tears shining in their eyes.
“Karamazov!” cried Kolya, “can it really be true as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?”
“Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.
“Ah, how good that will be!” burst from Kolya.
“And eternally so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya cried once more ecstatically, and once more all the boys joined in his exclamation.
Ah… the redemption of the name Karamazov.
Hope you have enjoyed this Read Along. Here are the links to the previous sections on Ripple Effects:
In Part III, Alyosha leaves the monastery, following Zosima’s bidding to ‘sojourn the world’. Why, there are more important matters for him to deal with, right in his own family. He has wanted to talk with Dmitri, but hasn’t the chance. Apparently a little too late, for Part III tells the major incident of the book: the patriarch of the Karamazov family, Fyodor Pavlovich, is murdered.
Compared to Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s description of the sequence of events leading to the crime and the psychological aftermath here is not as dark and even enlivened with a dash of comedic effects. Previously in TBK, he has gone into intense debates on the existence of God, or discourse on faith and the Church, Part III offers a different style of storytelling, an intriguing murder mystery, an absorbing who dunnit.
Having said that, it must be noted that the internal conflicts of the characters, the complex emotions of passion and jealousy, guilt and the search for redemption can all be found in this mixed bag of a novel.
Here are the events leading to the crime. Dmitri, or Mitya, is totally obsessed with Grushenka, and wants desperately to find three thousand roubles which he owes Kakterina, his former fiancé, to pay her back so to redeem himself, then, he can go chase after Grushenka blamelessly and not as a scoundrel. Umm…
After trying other means to no avail, he heads to Madame Khokhlakov to urge her to lend him the three thousand, knowing that she doesn’t like him all along and doesn’t want her good friend Katerina to marry him anyway. So, she’d likely be willing to lend him three thousand to be rid of him. Here’s his rationale:
“If she is so much against my marrying Katerina Ivanovna, then why should she deny my three thousand now, when this money would precisely enable me to leave Katya and clear out of here forever?’ (383) Umm… kind of far-fetched, but Dostoevsky is like telling his reader to just humour him and read on, as this is probably the funniest chapter in the book.
Here it is: Book Eight, Chapter 3. Madame Khokhlakov (MK) is surprisingly agreeable when Dmitri (DF) goes to her home to plead for a loan of three thousand.
MK: You need three thousand, but I will give you more, infinitely more, I will save you, Dmitri Fyodorovich, but you must do as I say!
DF: Madame, can you possibly be so kind! Oh, Lord, you’ve saved me… You are saving a man from a violent death, madame, from a bullet… My eternal gratitude…
MK: Enough, Dmitri Fyodorovich, it’s said and done… I’ve promised to save you, and I will save you. What do you think about gold mines, Dmitri Fyodorovich?
DF: Gold mines, madame! I’ve never thought anything about them.
MK: But I have thought for you! I’ve thought and thought about it! I’ve been watching you for a whole month with that in mind. I’ve looked at you a hundred times as you walked by, saying to myself: here is an energetic man who must go to the mines. I even studied your gait and decided: this man will find many mines.
Why, the title of the Chapter is, precisely, ‘Gold Mines’.
So, Dmitri leaves Madame Khokhlakov’s place empty-handed and in a fury. He goes to Grushenka’s home and is told that she has left. Seeing Dmitri, Grushenka’s maid Fenya ‘screamed to high heaven.’
Then the thought comes to him. Driven by jealousy and passion, he dashes to Fyodor Pavlovich’s house. The old man is probably hiding Grushenka there, and he could get that three thousand from Fyodor, the money after all is his sooner or later as inheritance. In an impulsive action, he snatches a brass pestle from the mortar and shoves it into his side pocket as he runs out of Grushenka’s home.
In the dark of night, on the fence of his father’s garden, Dmitri commits a crime. The old servant Grigory is hit on the head by the pestle, lying there on the ground unconscious and bleeding profusely.
Soon, Dostoevsky the mystery writer reveals to us another crime has also been committed around that time. Foydor Pavlovich Karamazov is found ‘lying on his back, on the floor of his study, with his head smashed in.’ (461)
That night, Dmitri finds Grushenka in another town. She has gone to an inn to reunite with her former fiancé but finds him not the same man she used to know. She decides to reunite with Dmitri instead. Just as the two reignite the flame and bask in a renewed relationship, the police commissioner, the prosecutor, and the district attorney show up to arrest Dmitri for the murder of his father.
“They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.”
Nope, not a quote from Marie Kondo, although she’d totally agree. Fyodor Dostoevsky got that way back in 1880.
As the story unfolds, it looks like joy is what all the characters are searching for whether they know it or not, in their own way and circumstance, through the choices they make.
As rivals for the same woman Grushenka, the old man Fyodor is no match for his son Dmitri. Part I ends with his ex-military son storming into his house to look for Grushenka, thinking Fyodor has hidden her there. In a frantic scene, Dmitri ‘seized the old man by the two surviving wisps of hair on his temples, pulled, and smashed him against the floor. He even had time to kick the fallen man in the face two or three times with his heel.’ (139)
In Part II, Dostoevsky continues with the morning after, painting a comical Fyodor with purple bruises on his forehead which was wrapped in a red handkerchief, and his swollen, notable nose:
“Meanwhile he got up worriedly and looked in the mirror (perhaps already for the fortieth time that morning) at his nose. He also began to arrange the red handkerchief on his forehead in a more becoming way.” (172)
The comic relief could well be to set up for an intense chapter to come later. As he plans to leave for Moscow the next day and never return to this mess of a family, Ivan the intellectual and aspiring writer shares with his younger brother Alyosha his poem, which he relays in prose in the famous chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’
Referring to the Inquisition instigated by the Roman Catholic Church spanning several centuries in the Middle Ages, where a papal tribunal would judge and send those who were deemed heretic to be burned at the stake, this chapter could well be Dostoevsky’s critique of the Church. He uses acerbic sarcasm to drive his point home.
In this chapter, the ‘heretic’ the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor puts on trial inside a prison cell is none other than Christ Himself. The Inquisitor’s fierce accusation is that Christ is obstructing what the Church is doing – a scornful irony:
“… on your departure, you handed the work over to us… you gave us the right to bind and loose, and surely you cannot even think of taking this right away from us now. Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?”
Christ’s grave error, according to The Grand Inquisitor, is that He had ‘overestimated’ man in thinking they would pursue freedom and the transcendent, misdirecting them to false gratification such as the spiritual, raising the bar too high. When tempted by Satan He should have turned stone into bread, for man does live on bread alone and would gladly exchange their free will for it, all because ‘man is created weaker and baser than you thought him!’ (256)
“Better that you enslave us, but feed us… give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread.” (253-4)
While Christ aims at pointing man to the spiritual, man seeks physical solutions and an end to their poverty. They would rather have the authority take over so they can be rid of the burden that comes with the freedom of choice, and that is exactly what The Grand Inquisitor says he, i.e. the Church, has done.
Another accusation: Christ did not come down from the cross when taunted ‘because, again, [He] did not want to enslave man by a miracle but honoured faith that is out of free will.’ A misjudgement, the Grand Inquisitor mocked; this too is heresy.
To counteract such intense and harsh criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, in the rest of Part II Dostoevsky presents another perspective. It could well be the different sides of struggles in the author’s mind, issues that are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but which only reflect the complexity and often co-existence of faith and doubt, idealism and reality.
One man who has understood what it’s like to seek what Christ has intended and found transcendent joy is Father Zosima. Part II wraps up with Alyosha’s tribute to his mentor upon the Elder’s death.
In contrast to The Grand Inquisitor, and as if to answer his own critical judgment on the Church, Dostoevsky furnishes his readers with Elder Zosima’s biography and teachings compiled by Alyosha. Despite a childhood devoted to God influenced by the conversion of his brother shortly before his death, Zosima entered the military Cadet Corps in Petersburg and turned into a ‘wild, cruel, and absurd creature’, pulling him into ‘a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail.’ (296)
A sudden spiritual epiphany opens his eyes resulting in a conversion that changes his whole being. He asks forgiveness of his servant whom he’d beaten the night before, as well as the adversary with whom he is supposed to have a duel that day.
These ending chapters of Part II are a joy to read, for they are fresh and positive, a huge contrast to The Grand Inquisitor’s accusations of the failure of man. It is here that leads to the quote in the beginning of this post… Zosima’s gentle critique of his fellowmen:
“The idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world… They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.” (314)
From the powerful but fallible religious institution represented by The Grand Inquisitor to the loving and seemingly powerless Zosima who finds joy and meaning in Christ, Dostoevsky has presented a foil in characterization. The last portrait of Zosima is one of peace and serenity:
“he––suffering, but still looking at them with a smile––silently lowered himself from his armchair to the floor and knelt, then bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms, and, as if in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying, quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God.” (324)
Have you written a post on TBK Part II? Let me know so I can link you here. Hope you’re enjoying your read.