Tag Archives: France

A Room with a View

I have loved Italy since I was about 13.  A friend of my grandmother had just come back from Florence. I remember she had bought this immensely large map, and the back of the map was an image of the incredible rooftops and the gorgeous Duomo. Something like this:

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I thought to myself (despite the fact that no one from my family had ever gone abroad, excepting military service), that I needed to go to Florence one day.  My life’s new mission! As is usually my luck, my high school did not teach Italian.  I had to take Spanish instead.  But I took Italian at university, and finally visited Italy in April 2009. A place that had (like England) become synonymous, to me, with personal success, cultural awareness, and being some semblance of a complete person.  I am including these details because they closely resemble the way society viewed similar trips in the 19th and early 20th century.  The ‘Grand Tour‘, as it was known, was generally a trip through France and Italy, taken by wealthy young men, or by wealthy couples on their honeymoon. Occasionally there were forays into other ‘refined’ European societies such as Switzerland, Belgium, maybe a wander through Austria on the way back.  But Florence was the destination for the Grand Tour.  Because it was the birthplace of the Renaissance, which dictated art, literature, scholarship, for centuries to come.  One’s Oxbridge education wasn’t complete until one had taken the Grand Tour. Only then could you understand true art and music–a gentle reminder that (lacking even a basic ipod shuffle or smartphone) these wealthy young men & women would only ever get this one chance to see certain art, or hear certain music that wasn’t on exhibit in Britain.

So that brings us to the book.

Room with a View

A Room with a View is E.M. Forster’s account of the Grand Tour of Lucy Honeychurch, a teenage girl.  It is 1908, and less uncommon at that time for a woman to go on the tour before marriage. She is accompanied by her matronly cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett.  She is meant to follow her Baedecker guidebook, see proper museums and listen to lectures about the masters.  She is there to hear the opinions that she will parrot back for the rest of her life. That’s how the tour goes. You see the art, you listen to someone tell you what to think about it, and then you’re in the know. People back in the UK will be able to tell that you’re of proper stock if you know the right answers. Like a password.

It doesn’t work out that way for Lucy Honeychurch.  She meets several people at the ‘pensione’ (inn) where she and Charlotte stay, and they challenge her in different ways.  Though promised a view of the Duomo and the Arno, Charlotte and Lucy are given rooms with no view.  Two gentleman, father and son, offer to switch rooms.  Charlotte declines, thoroughly scandalized by the suggestion from two strangers.  If you’re reading this 100 years later, that seems ludicrous. If they want to switch, and it will make everyone happier, why on earth wouldn’t they switch? That’s precisely what the father, Mr. Emerson, says. Rather than look at things from the perspective of stifling, repressive social conventions, he looks at the thing logically. But Charlotte, who represents those social conventions completely, thinks it inappropriate because then the two ladies would have some obligation to the two men.  That’s the sort of ludicrous rule that governed society for most of the 19th and the start of the 20th century–in high society at any rate.

The Emersons and the two ladies continue to be thrown together, and Lucy is thrust into several situations where she is forced to examine the de facto logic of life that she has learned from society, and is forced to look at the reality of life. She sees a man stabbed in the street. She is kissed in a field of violets. Charlotte, sensing something inappropriate developing, hastens her out of Florence and off to finish her tour. A girl was meant to learn painting and art from the Italians, but not their violence or their passion.

Later on, back in England, Lucy is engaged to the biggest fop that ever fopped. His name is Cecil, I mean really.  He believes and engages in the social conventions of the age. He follows propriety perfectly, and is scandalized by those who don’t.  He is pretty much intolerable.  Lucy, meanwhile, finds the people she met in Florence are continuing to interfere in her life. The Emersons end up in the same town, and Lucy is confronted with George Emerson repeatedly, though she wishes she might be free of him.

A Room with a View is really about all of society breaking free from the crushing constraints of Victorian society, but it is so perfectly wrapped up in the story of this one girl choosing a-to examine the world, b-to make up her own mind, and c-to choose what she likes regardless of social conventions.  Forster manages to make all of his characters simultaneously slightly ludicrous and very likeable. Their foibles are on display, but they are also treated with affection in the text.  I was reminded of Austen, and the way she treats characters like Mr. Bennett. I really enjoyed the book as entertainment, but it was also thought-provoking. Don’t we engage in the same struggles now? We (especially women) have to decide if we’re going to pretend really hard to be someone we’re not.  Am I going to spend an hour drying and curling my hair today? Am I going to get laser treatments to remove all the hair on my body? Am I going to whiten my teeth or get my tummy tucked? And am I going to pretend it’s all natural, and say I just drink a lot of water and love eating Kale? We can devote a lot of energy to that facade. It’s a harder choice to go the other way. To spend time on being worthwhile, whether that means being a caregiver, a scholar, a writer, a musician…whatever. The world rewards you more and more quickly for the superficial. It takes strength and a bit of ego to proceed to work on our depth. In that way, life hasn’t much changed. There are still people out there that say ‘don’t marry X, he doesn’t have a college degree’. There are still people who think the best women can do is marry before everything starts to sag, and the best men can do is make enough money so that you can get a young wife. It’s harder to walk away from all of those social conventions and live a life that’s genuine, and do what you actually think is important. Different century, different rules, same struggle.

Another great thing about this book is the movie! It came out in 1985 (nearly 30 years ago!) and has an amazing cast.  Helena Bonham Carter, looking ludicrously young, plays Lucy:

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Also rather young in these pictures, though not exactly in their teens…Maggie Smith and Judy Dench as Charlotte Bartlett and Miss Lavish. I forgot to mention Miss Lavish above. She’s not in much of the book, but her character is really important. She’s a radical, a woman intellectual, a writer.  But!  Despite these things, she is still as insipid and disingenuous as those who follow blindly in the wake of propriety. She does have courage, but she doesn’t demonstrate any kind of value or wisdom as a person. It’s a big distinction Forster is making between those who complain about the world to seem intelligent, and those who act according to their morality, regardless of how they may be perceived.

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And Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse, foppiest fop that ever fopped. Since he’s a method actor, I assume he acted like an intolerable ass for the entirety of filming.

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The Edwardian era was not kind to men or women in terms of fashion. How much starch did they put into those weird paper collars? Yikes. No wonder they were so ready to go for the roaring ’20s.

I think I’ve had enough of the Edwardian era for a bit.  Back to the indecent, thoroughly scandalous middle ages with me! But I do recommend the book and the movie!

 

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity US coverI have spent a good portion of my life avoiding all literature and movies that take place during World War II. I’m an emotional and empathetic person, and I just can’t deal with it!  I was forced to read Night in middle school, and to watch Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan before I was out of school.  I can’t take it! It’s too much abject and terrible misery happening all at once, all over the world. So I’ve actively avoided anything set in the period. Until recently. I realized as I began this novel that it was the 4th WWII era novel I’ve read in as many years.  It seems I can tolerate the time period if the war is in the periphery rather than the main event.  First, there was Atonement, which pretty much ruined my life while I was reading it.  Fuck You, Ian McEwan.  You kill me every time you cruel, heartless bastard.

In the last two years, I’ve read The Book Thief (amazing, amazing book.  READ IT!) and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (also very good), and now this.  These books were about women, which might be why the bulk of the violence is on the outskirts of the story.

Code Name Verity is the story of two girls.  Maddie and Julie.  Maddie is from the North of England, and she starts the war working in her grandfather’s motorcycle shop.  But she gets the itch to be a pilot, and as war efforts continue to require more and more people, she gets her chance.  She ferries broken planes and healthy pilots around the airbases of England in the Air Transport Auxiliary.  Her friend Julie is Scottish, well-bred, and is involved in Secret Ops.  Forgive me if I get some of these military names wrong; I have no capacity for remembering the difference between Special Forces and Secret Operations, etc.

The girls encounter each other several times throughout their work on airfields.  Their first meeting is when Julie and Maddie help an injured German pilot land his plane on their runway–by pretending he’s safely made it back to France.  Two things are really striking about these characters, given their time and place. 1-They are girls who are capable, skilled, and efficient at jobs almost exclusively reserved for men.  Maddie is a mechanic and a pilot; Julie becomes a spy.  2-They are incredibly close and good friends.  There are a lot of female friendships represented in literature as catty and jealous.  I know a lot of women who feel more comfortable with men than with other women.  Consider a character like Bella Swan from Twilight. She has almost zero female friends, and 99% of her life is caught up between two dudes.  Of course, there are a lot of problems with Twilight; I won’t go into all that.  The point is, seeing a strong and loyal female friendship is rarer than you might think.

This book is a little bit of a ‘mind game’, as the NYT blurb on the cover indicates.  The first 1/3 of the book is Julie’s narrative.  She is writing on borrowed scraps of paper after being caught in occupied France. She has been tortured by the Gestapo, and she is writing her story to delay her upcoming transfer to a concentration camp.  It’s bleak and manic, describing in detail her ill-treatment and her guilt over giving up information to the Nazi’s.  She tells the whole story of her relationship with Maddie, from its inception.  From Maddie’s point of view.  Maddie is on her mind constantly, because the Gestapo have showed her pictures of Maddie’s crashed plane and the charred body in the cockpit. The UK cover shows a more accurate depiction of the book, but I wonder if I would have read the book if it had had this cover?

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But there are twists and turns once we reach the middle of the book.  Both girls are so capable and so honest with their written accounts, that you start to believe that things might work out.  But this is Nazi-occupied France, and I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that it doesn’t all work out.  As much as I was hoping for a miracle at the end, there wasn’t one.  But the bittersweet ending makes you appreciate even more the truly bad-ass nature of these two girls, and of everyone just fighting for survival at that time.  People surviving the Blitz, the French resistance living in constant fear, the beleaguered and eternally-ruined souls of everyone who took part in the Nazi party and in the Gestapo.  Everyone was just…surviving, if they were lucky.  I really am not someone capable of dealing with this level of misery! If I think about it too much, I can’t get out of bed in the morning.

Before you have me committed for manic depression, I’ll snap myself out of it.  I had mixed feelings about the end, because the girls were so honorable and so easy to look up to, but anyone born in that time was just going to experience their fair share of misery.  Now that I’ve calmed down about the ending, I can look back and say that I really enjoyed the book. It was worth dealing with the pain to see such capable, smart, emotional, and brave women as main characters in a story.  No man to save the day; they rely on themselves.  The book also makes sure to make every character–even the Gestapo interrogator– a real human, with flaws and doubts and pleasures and pains.  Books that portray Nazi’s as superhuman monsters aren’t helping us avoid making the same mistakes in future. I think this book was really successful at taking a totally inhuman, alien concept like being a P.o.W. in a Nazi stronghold, or like hiding with a family in the French Resistance, and makes it seem real and comprehensible.  It gives life to an era I (fortunately) didn’t see.  I really enjoyed it, even though it required a lot of chocolate to recover from.

Spies of Warsaw

Spies of WarsawBBC America aired this 2-part miniseries in April, though it aired in the UK in January.  The miniseries was based on a spy novel by Alan Furst, and takes place in Poland (obviously) and throughout central Europe in the late ’30s. David Tennant plays Colonel Mercier, a French aristocrat and spy. Janet Montgomery plays Anna Skarbek, an official with the League of Nations and Mercier’s love interest.

I can’t say I loved it, to be honest.  I think there are a number of reasons for this –some my own preferences and some general problems with the miniseries–and I’ll run down them briefly.

First, I’m not crazy about the subject matter.  Almost all thoughts of World War II make me so upset as to be nauseous. The only thing that terrifies me more than Nazi uniforms are Hitler Youth uniforms.  But this is my own personal preference, and doesn’t reflect on the quality of the series.

Second, the format left something to be desired.  This was two 2-hour episodes; 2 full movies in other words.  I think there could have been a lot more tension built around the characters’ fates if it was split into maybe 4 parts.  I wasn’t entertained enough by it to focus solely on it for two entire hours.  And this isn’t just my attention span that is the problem–each episode of Sherlock is 90 minutes long, and I’m riveted for most every second.  I couldn’t fathom picking up my iPhone and doing solitaire while watching that.  I spent good chunks of my viewing time for Spies of Warsaw playing a geography game on my phone.  Hey, anyone need to know where Guinea-Bissau is? Because I’m hoping that knowledge will bring me the big bucks in life.  The point is, it was too long and moved too slowly for 2 hour blocks at a time.

I think that the miniseries has something in common with Parade’s Endwhich was on HBO a few months ago.  Each dealt with the lead-up to war.  Each featured a smart, strong male lead convinced that war was coming.  Both protagonists struggled to make their compatriots understand the catastrophe Germany was about to unleash upon Europe.  Stylistically, both featured long (long for a modern film audience) shots of not much action, interspersed with more tense and action-filled scenes.  Each had good acting and good writing, and yet each suffered from the problem of not quite connecting emotionally with the audience.  And I’m not enough of a film student to comprehend what about each fails to really move me.  I liked Parade’s End a lot at times, but with Spies of Warsaw, I found it difficult to care much about what was happening.  I think my apathy came partially from not having a vulnerable or relate-able main character.  Mercier sees what his coworkers do not, he’s a great spy, he cares about people, he is too good and too capable.  It takes away from the tension of what might happen to him, because even in moments of distress and danger it seems impossible that he won’t come out of it just fine.

I will say that these two miniseries (plus Casablanca) have utterly convinced me that love affairs are really difficult in situations of World War.  Note to self.

David Tennant’s acting is great. I’ve seen him play serious before (Hamlet, for example) and he’s really good.  The female character, Anna, has almost no personality in it, so they didn’t give Janet Montgomery much to work with. In response to finding out her new boyfriend is a spy, she…doesn’t say anything, really.  I would have liked both characters to be far more flawed, unsure, stumbling along through ridiculous times.  It does an audience no good to think of anyone existing at that time as a paragon.

I remember watching a great but horribly violent movie, fittingly titled A History of Violence.  Viggo Mortenson plays some sort of ex-mafia criminal who starts a new life in a small town and is completely reformed.  When someone tries to rob his restaurant, instinct kicks in and Mortenson’s character kills the robbers in self-defense.  From that moment, his past starts to come back to haunt him. His wife (Maria Bello) finds out who and what he was, and she has an incredible reaction.  Vomiting, shouting, running out of the room, and then they have this crazy, scary, exciting sex scene.  It’s a real and varied and unnerving response to finding out your beloved is not who or what they said they were.  When I think about Anna Skarbek’s character, I don’t expect the same reaction, but it almost seemed like there wasn’t one.  She finds out her new beau is a spy and she….just kind of accepts it and moves on.  I suppose you could argue that everyone in the series is someone other than who they pretend to be.  After all, if you were inclined to disagree with Germany (or Russia, for that matter), you wouldn’t be inclined to advertise it.  Perhaps Anna is used to it, but I found it off-putting that she had such a monotonous emotional landscape.

To her credit, she does get properly angry with Mercier later when she thinks he ordered the French to turn her defector ex-boyfriend over to Stalin.

Confession: I am not a spy novel aficionado.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a spy novel. Maybe that’s part of the problem–I don’t speak the lingo.  On the other hand, I’ve seen Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and at least one other Bogart movie.  And I followed those just fine.  I think they were just better.  Also, I really liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which falls right in there with great spy films.   Spies of Warsaw has the music of a great spy film, and some of the quintessential visuals, but none of the tension.  And tension is everything.  Have you seen Strangers on a Train?  Hitchcock can make a tennis game the most tense and suspenseful thing in the world.  This was no Hitchcock, unfortunately.

They did a great job recreating a bleak and terrifying Central European landscape for this miniseries.  Security checks and random searches, the Poles sandwiched unhappily between the Gestapo on the west and the Russian NKVD (later, the KGB) on the east.  France being still (at this point) a relaxing place nicely separated from all the riff raff on the other side of the Black Forest.  Parties in Paris…but still a feeling of the doors closing in, for the Jews particularly.  The costuming, the set design, and the cinematography all made the world really believable.

I think the fault must lie in the pacing and the writing (two things that I imagine are closely intertwined when writing a movie/mini-series).  There’s not enough tension or enough direction in the plot.  It feels disconnected at times, and the ending is thoroughly confusing.  It tries to make you feel uplifted that they’ve escaped Poland (which is good, obviously) with a bunch of Polish gold to keep it from the Germans (also good).  But they’re headed to France, so the modern audience knows that this isn’t the end; this isn’t a happy ending, even though they almost literally walk off into the sunset.

Also, it is a bit confusing for an American audience to have two Brits with British accents playing a Frenchman and a Polish woman.  I kept forgetting Mercier was French.  Maybe this wouldn’t bother me if the actors were American, because I wouldn’t register their accents as something already foreign.  I doubt it bothered Brits.  Still, when you have David Tennant playing a French man with a British accent meeting an English aristocrat with an English accent, it’s difficult to remember they are supposed to be from different countries.  Others, like the Russian ex-boyfriend has a proper Russian accent.   Tennant explained the action choices in this Joycean quote:

There is actually an internal logic to the concept. Since the main character is French, but the audience is English-speaking, we hear him speak with a sort of a neutral English accent, and anyone else speaking English is actually speaking French, and the other nationalities speak English but with their natural accents, and the Germans speak German with English subtitles – which I suppose makes [the subtitles] French. I can see your eyes glazing over.

I think my brain just glazed over.  Sorry David, I love you and I don’t blame you, but this just wasn’t very good.