Archive for the ‘ Classics ’ Category

REVIEW: “Maurice” (film)

Maurice

Directed by James Ivory
1987

CHALLENGE(S): Read the Movie Challenge

Let me begin this review with a frank and potentially hypocritical remark that summarises my initial reaction to certain parts of the film: HOLY GRATUITOUS NEKKID MEN, BATMAN. No, really. If you thought Brokeback Mountain was pushing boundaries, you have obviously not seen this movie.

This is not, I hasten to add, a prurient response (or at least, not merely), so much as one of complete surprise. It was not something I was expecting, in spite of the M rating (you know they’d have put that there just because the main character was gay, even if there had been no naked men involved whatsoever). To be honest, one tends to forget that men exist below the waist in movies generally, and after I got over my initial double-take I immediately found myself faced with the question of why it should be so surprising. I was under the impression that I had outgrown the prudish part of my nature some time ago, yet here I was, recoiling as if it were so completely shocking that oh my god, men were actually showing their naughty bits on-screen. Had either, or even both of them been a woman I probably wouldn’t even have thought twice about it. But in this case, it was like some kind of invisible line had been crossed and suddenly I was sitting back going, what am I watching?!

Talk about walking smack into your own subliminated prejudices. If there ever was a clearer demonstration of how the gendered gaze in cinema can structure your expectations…

In point of fact, though, I wouldn’t have brought it up except that it struck me as closely related to the main theme of the story itself. As I mentioned in my review of the novel on which it is based, Maurice is very much about the conflict between conventionality and personal liberation, and (perhaps because this is inextricably intertwined) about the gulf between words and actions, both of which I think played a significant part in the director’s choices when it came to creating the film. Most specifically, the story deals implicitly with ideas of masculinity and gender conformity as the titular Maurice grapples with society’s (and his own) disgust at his sexuality and the love that ultimately defines him, until he is forced to embrace exile and transcend that disgust to find happiness. Somewhat similarly, the director seems to have necessarily taken a step outside of the traditional, (heterosexual, white, middle-class, privileged, masculine…?) viewpoint in so much of mainstream cinema in order to shake up the viewer’s expectations and underscore this point.

Of course, James Ivory also directed A Room With a View which, if I recall correctly, had a brief scene in it which also shocked me at the time, so perhaps this is just his particular style of unvarnished, unalloyed filmmaking: in which case, more power to him. On the other hand, there were instances in the first half (during Maurice’s relationship with Clive) that there were opportunities to do this if that was his sole intention, and he chose to refrain. It was because most of the nekkid men scenes came in in the second half (after the split with Clive, and particularly during his relationship with Alec) that I made the connection between the two aspects in the first place.

However. Setting my personal reactions and speculations aside for the moment, I will say that it wasn’t exactly what I’d call a good film. I blame Hugh Grant, although not so much because of his acting (or lack thereof) as by virtue of the fact that he was Hugh Grant, causing me to realise holy crap that’s what Hugh Grant looked like the year I was born, which was followed by the charmingly self-centered holy crap people really did exist before I was born, that is so weird and thus so distracted me to the point where I completely failed to be able to see him as anyone else, let alone the intellectual and weak-natured Clive Durham. His “romance” with Maurice (played by James Wilby) was wooden at best, and downright embarrassing at worst, which made it quite difficult for me to sit through the first half of the story. This unsatisfactory beginning was made up for, however, by the fact that viewing the movie helped me to fully process my thoughts about the novel and come to a place where I felt I actually understood it for the first time. Connections were made. Relationships dawned. I began to realise just how deviously, deliciously subtle good old straight-forward Forster could be.

And that, I think, was the chief delight of this film. It brought the novel to life for me, not least because it quoted virtually every other page. Wilby was perfectly cast, even if Grant was not, and a great deal of the symbolism was included or embellished upon, giving a person who has read the book a number of those in-jokes and moments of “Oh, I know what he’s doing there…” which so greatly flatter the intellect. The direction is perhaps a little too self-conscious and heavy-handed in parts – one might even call it overwrought: it is obvious when he wishes to make a point, for instance, or to impress upon the audience that this particular moment is poignant, and emotional, but the highlights of the novel were handled adequately (and the ending, where Maurice rubs Clive’s nose in the fact that he is over him now, thanks, is perfectly done) and as an adaptation it was not too shoddy – though I would love to see it remade and shiny for a new and perhaps more appreciative audience.

Definitely recommended. But read the book first, and, ahem, beware unexpected!naked!men…

RATING:

REVIEW: “Maurice” by E. M. Forster

Maurice

E. M. Forster
Penguin Books, UK, 1995

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

Finished 27 Jun 2010

I only really picked this book up because I got the movie out and thought it would make a good addition to the “Read the Movie” Challenge. The premise sounded interesting, but so much like Brideshead Revisited that I was sure it would suffer by comparison, and in some respects it did. However, as I should probably have expected by now, Maurice proved to be utterly different than I anticipated, and ultimately the better for it.

Set in Edwardian England, the novel follows the life of Maurice Hall, every inch an “average” English gentleman, who is being relentlessly groomed to take the place of his dead father as an average stockbroker with an average and thoroughly respectable life. Were it not for a chance meeting with Clive Durham at Cambridge, he would likely have taken his place in society without a qualm. But his love affair with Clive begins to break through the stultifying normality of his everyday life, introducing Maurice to feelings of joy he had never imagined, and spurring him to dream that two men together might just be able to defy the world.

I have conflicting feelings about this novel. E. M. Forster is an old favourite of mine; A Room With a View blew me away when I first read it several years ago, so I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since. I love the way he approaches things. His prose is direct, objective, and the detached detail with which he analyses his characters, their actions and interactions, the decisions they make and the way their lives plan out makes for curiously compelling reading. He is also extremely empathetic and skilled at dissembling psychological impulses and complexities.

At the same time, I felt somewhat distanced from the characters – at times I even actively disliked them. There were passages of prose which were fantastic (in particular, the brief scene in which Clive admits he loves Maurice was extremely moving) but others which were so obfuscating as to bewilder me completely. It is definitely a book which will require re-reading several times before it sinks in, and fortunately it is of a type which I would not mind picking up and perusing for new meaning from time to time.

There were some things I did pick up on, however, which enhanced the reading experience considerably. When I first closed the covers, the ending bewildered me: I had been lead to expect a (spoiler!) happy reunion between Maurice and Clive, and had no idea why Alec was even involved. Clive’s attitude confused me, too, since he was the first to be so open about his homosexuality. It wasn’t until I referred back to an earlier passage in the book that some comprehension dawned:

“Everything I say is serious.” And somehow Maurice knew this to be true. It had struck him at once that Risley was serious. “And are you serious?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“Then talk until you become so.”
“Rubbish,” growled the Dean.
Chapman laughed tempestuously.
“Rubbish?” He questioned Maurice, who, when he grasped the point, was understood to reply that deeds are more important than words.
“What’s the difference? Words are deeds. Do you mean to say that these five minutes in Cornwallis’s rooms have done nothing for you? Will you ever forget you have met me, for instance?”
Chapman grunted.
“But he will not, nor will you. And then I am told we ought to be doing something.”
The Dean came to the rescue of the two Sunningtonians. He said to his young cousin, “You’re unsound about memory. You confuse what’s important with what’s impressive. No doubt Chapman and Hall always will remember they’ve met you – ”
“And forget this is a cutlet. Quite so.”
“But the cutlet does some good them, and you none.”
“Obscurantist!”
“This is just like a book,” said Chapman. “Eh, Hall?”
“I mean,” said Risley, “oh how clearly I mean that the cutlet influences your subconscious lives, and I your conscious, and so I am not only more impressive than the cutlet but more important.”

— pp. 32-33

The way I see it, Clive is all about words: he insists that their relationship may only be “excused” if it remains platonic – that is, unconsummated, in the realm of words and emotions only. Maurice accepts this because not only does Clive seem to know far more about it than he does but he is, as Forster puts it, “at this stage…humble and inexperienced and adoring, he is the soul released from prison, and if asked by his deliverer to remain chaste he obeys” (p.314). But the major difference between them, and that which ultimately destroys their relationship, is that Maurice is as much about deeds as he is about words, as evidenced by the excerpt above. He is not content to remain as a “friend” in name but not in action. As he repeatedly complains after their separation, Clive is willing to do anything for him except be with him, and he is incapable of reconciling the inherent contradictions this entails. He breaks away; acts, in this case by sleeping with Alec, and in doing so finally comes to accept himself and his true position in society, rather than that which he has been pretending to for so long.

As you can probably see, Maurice is a complicated novel that makes you work for comprehension, and is not what I would call a comfortable read. However, it is definitely worth it and ultimately I think one which should be recommended, if only for its unusual insight into a world seldom expressed in the prose of this era.

RATING:

CymLowell

REVIEW: “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

The Color Purple

[WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD (among others), 1983]

Alice Walker
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007

CHALLENGE(S): Banned Books Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, GLBT Challenge (mini), Read the Movie Challenge, Social Justice Challenge, Women Unbound Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 16 April 2010

I got an amazing amount of mileage out of this book. It won an Award (Book Awards Challenge), it is frequently banned (Banned Books Challenge), it features a lesbian relationship (GLBT Challenge) and domestic violence (Social Justice Challenge), was made into a movie (Books and Movies Challenge), it is deeply feminist (Women Unbound Challenge) and it’s set in the early 20th century (Year of the Historical Challenge). Whew!

On top of that, it is also a wonderful book that I highly recommend.

The story is told in epistolary style, as a series of letters from the main character – Celie – to God. When the book begins, Celie is being abused by her father, by whom she eventually has two children. Her mother is dead and the only person she can really rely on is her younger sister, Nettie, who is cleverer and prettier and her best friend in the world. When a man she refers to only as Mister ——- proposes to Nettie, however, Celie’s life takes a turn for the worse. Her father refuses to allow Nettie to leave, and offers Celie in her place; to their horror, Mister ——- agrees. Separated from her sister, Celie’s only consolation is her developing relationship with Shug Avery, a beautiful singer who is the mother of Mister’s children.

The storyline gets more complicated as the novel goes on, but I don’t want to spoil it for you so I’ll leave the synopsis there. I will say, however, that there is a lot of musing about God and the nature of love throughout the novel, which I very much enjoyed. It did tend to get a little philosophical towards the end of the book, which kind of jolted you out of the story a bit, and I agree with many other reviewers that the ending was just a little too neat for me to believe completely. However, these flaws aside, some of my favourite parts of the novel were when the characters started discussing the nature of God. For example:

God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.

God don’t think it dirty? I ast.

Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You saying God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

Oh, make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

Yeah? I say.

Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

— pp.176-177.

I really enjoyed the way the characters’ shifting affections and developing natures were used as a sounding board to illustrate the fluidity of love and its connection to God. I may not believe in God, but I did appreciate the warmth and strength with which Walker imbued the narrative, and her fantastic ability to give her characters a unique voice. Celie came across strongly throughout, as did her sister Nettie when we read some of her letters to her sister later in the novel. Even the secondary characters, from whom we do not hear directly, have a vibrant inner life that makes them leap off the page and into your imagination.

The book is also profoundly feminist. Its main theme is essentially humanity, both human beings and the quality of benevolence they show so infrequently towards one another, but it focuses particularly on the strength and resilience of the female characters, how they face the obstacles life places before them and deal with abuse from the men around them. That is not to say it is intrinsically “anti-male”, however; one of the most moving parts of the book, for me, is how Mister ——- and his son change and are changed by the strong women in their lives, eventually coming to see their true worth and nature beyond sex and domestic slavery. It is an optimistic book, at heart: it postulates that both sexes can, given time, come to a place of equality and respect, and love each other for who they are rather than who the world would have them be.

A deserving classic, and nowhere near as intimidating as I had originally imagined. If you haven’t read it yet, then I highly recommend that you do!

RATING:

REVIEW: “In Love and Trouble” by Alice Walker

In Love and Trouble

Alice Walker
Harcourt Inc., 2001

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge (mini)

Finished 27 Feb 2010.

Because this is a book of short stories rather than a novel itself, I thought I’d take notes as I read and give a little mini-review of each story. While there were a few I disliked or was confused by, for the most part I really enjoyed Walker’s writing and will look forward to reading some more books by her in the future.

Roselily

I love the way Walker inter-spliced the wedding vows with the narrative on this one; it added an interesting level of meaning to the story. However, I found it a little confusing at first, as it doesn’t seem to take place in a present, as such; it’s more like an internal monologue, which I wasn’t expecting. 3/5

Really, Doesn’t Crime Pay?

Okay, while Roselily may not have struck me with any force, this story definitely did. Perhaps, because the main character is also a writer, I felt for her as I didn’t for Roselily – I don’t know. I loved the way this was set out, with the time being measured both in years and in page count, and I loved the voice of the narrator. In particular, these sections particularly moved me (note: not safe for work):

“After that, a miracle happened. Under Mordecai’s fingers my body opened like a flower and carefully bloomed. And it was stange as well as wonderful. For I don’t think love had anything to do with this at all.” (p.17)

“Last night while Ruel snored on his side of the bed I washed the prints of his hands off my body. Then I plugged in one of his chain saws and tried to slice off his head. This failed because of the noise. Ruel woke up right in the nick of time.” (p.21)

What strikes me is the gentle rhythm of the writing style, and the way each character has a clear, distinct voice; it is both vivid and lyrical. Plus that second quote is a wonderful mixture of humour and tragedy that’s really tricky to pull off. Great stuff. 5/5

Her Sweet Jerome

Oh my. This one was dark; I both hated and felt sorry for the protagonist at the same time. I’m not sure that I can exactly say I enjoyed it, but it certainly caught at my emotions. 3/5

The Child Who Favoured Daughter

Another dark one. I didn’t fully understand it; the writing seemed to slip back and forth without quite saying anything. There were some interesting similes and metaphors, but it was the first one I actually didn’t like. 2/5

Everyday Use

This was a very powerful story; at first glance it doesn’t seem like much, but it draws you into a world on the edge of things, a point where new and old conflict with each other in subtle ways. 5/5

The Welcome Table

I love this one – the use of the quote at the beginning is very apt and the story itself well-written. 4/5

Strong Horse Tea

Very sad story. I really liked the way Walker told the story from two contrasting points of view, and was horrified by the attitude of the mailman even as I understood the reasons for it. I did think the woman’s change of heart was a little too quick though. 3/5

Entertaining God

I found this one disturbing, I’m not entirely sure why. It was whimsical and strange and sad, and frequently a bit confusing, but I loved the part about the gorilla at the beginning. 4/5

The Diary of an African Nun

Absolutely loved this one; the evocative descriptions of the landscape, the nun’s view of sex and sexuality, the way it was all tied in together around dancing was very well done. I also loved the way that Walker built the character without ever really referring to her personally. A powerful story. 5/5

The Flowers

Very short, so there’s not that much to say about it, except that it was extremely eerie, the transition from beautiful summer day to tragedy. Effective ending, lovely descriptions. 4/5

We Drink the Wine in France

Oh. That was very sweet, and again, sad. I want to know more about the characters and find myself wishing for a happy ending for them. I think what I love best about Walker’s prose is the richness of her descriptions. For example:

“She is down low. Her neck strains backward, bringing her face up to his. She is a small, round-bosomed girl with tumbly hair pulled severely back except for bangs. Her eyes are like the lens of a camera. Now they click shut. Now they open and drink in the light. Something, a kind of light, comes from them and shines on the professor of French.” (p.121)

Lovely. 5/5

To Hell With Dying

The perfect end to the book, I have to say. I could vividly see Mr. Sweet and loved the idea of the kids bringing him back to life. A beautiful story. 5/5

OVERALL RATING:

REVIEW: “The Painted Veil” by W. Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil

W. Somerset Maugham
Heron Books, London 1967

CHALLENGE(S): To Be Read Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

Finished 31 Jan 2010

This one has been on my “To Be Read” list for quite a while, hence its inclusion in the TBR Challenge. I also happen to own a copy of the recent movie adaptation, which I watched directly afterwards (although, of course, I’d already seen it twice). Actually, the movie came out around the time of my birthday, and I wanted to see it but was eventually coerced into seeing something else instead. I knew from the moment that I saw the movie poster (the same as the book cover shown on the left) that this was going to be a story I’d enjoy, and I was right.

Essentially, Painted Veil is the story of Kitty and Walter Fane. Having married the besotted Walter in an attempt to escape her overbearing mother, Kitty feels trapped and unhappy with her lot in life. It seems inevitable, then, that when handsome and charming (and married!) Charles Townsend comes into the picture, Kitty is easily swept off her feet into a scandalous extra-marital affair. As the book begins, Walter has just discovered her infidelity. To get revenge, he volunteers to go and act as a physician in a cholera-stricken village and insists that Kitty either secure Townsend’s promise to marry her or accompany him into the heart of the epidemic. Kitty is horrified to find that Charles has no intention of divorcing his wife for her, and is forced to travel with her estranged husband into a foreign and terrifying world.

The most interesting aspect of this story for me was Kitty’s development as a character. To begin with, she’s spoiled, selfish and lacking in compassion. She doesn’t see why she shouldn’t get exactly what she wants, and doesn’t mind using other people to do it. By the end of the novel, she has grown a great deal as a person; she hasn’t exactly reformed, but she’s aware of what she’s doing and is making an active effort to be considerate and compassionate to others. This is more clearly emphasized in the movie ending, which differs from the book insofar as it has (spoilers!) Kitty and Walter actually falling in love and, when she returns to Hong Kong after Walter’s death of cholera, Kitty ignores Townsend completely when she meets him again. The novel is less clear cut about it – Walter still dies, but while Kitty comes to respect him and regard him as a worthy object of affection, she does not in fact love him, and she quickly falls back under Townsend’s spell when she returns (albeit to her own self-disgust). Her transition from shallow socialite to a more well-rounded, compassionate human being is shown in the way she reacts to her mother’s death and her plans to make a new life with her widowed father back in England.

I have to confess that I liked the movie ending better; so much more emotionally satisfying to see Kitty resist Charles at the last! However, the book has its merits as well, so I think that both can be appreciated on their own terms.

I was intrigued most especially by the discussion of religion that was intermingled with the narrative. Kitty’s lack of faith was explored without judgment, and I enjoyed some of Maugham’s pontifications on philosophy and life after death. I did find some of the author’s assumptions about women and the treatment of the Chinese a little bit offensive – acceptable as a representation of attitudes in their time, perhaps, but a trifle irritating nevertheless. “Wounded vanity can make a woman more vindictive than a lioness robbed of her cubs” indeed!

Nonetheless, these small faults aside The Painted Veil is a charming read and a book which I will undoubtedly return to several times with great enjoyment, and the movie is really quite beautiful; the cinematography alone makes it worth a watch. A true classic!

RATING:

REVIEW: “Pat of Silver Bush” by L. M. Montgomery

Pat of Silver Bush

L. M. Montgomery
Seal, 1988 (first published 1933)

CHALLENGE(S): L. M. Montgomery Challenge

Finished 30 Jan 2010

I have to admit, I was both excited and apprehensive to begin reading Montgomery again, which is why it took me so long to get around to reading this. I used to love her books as a child – I’ve read a number of the Anne series, wept over the movies, and the Emily series was my absolute favourite for quite a long period of my youth. I also seem to vaguely recall my mother, in an attempt to make me read more “classical” literature, bribing me with money to read the Road to Avonlea series which, for some reason, I always despised. Hm. My childhood rebellions notwithstanding, I have in the past enjoyed Montgomery as an author (Kilmeny of the Orchard still makes me smile), but I was rather hesitant to retrace old paths for fear of disillusionment.

I need not have worried. Pat, like Anne and Emily, is a story about the exploits of a little girl, in this case Patricia Gardiner of Silver Bush, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Beginning when Pat is “almost seven” it chronicles her loves and losses, along with those of the wonderful supporting cast, until she reaches the age of eighteen and goes away to Queens College, where she is to study to be a teacher.

I have to admit, there are things about Pat’s story which could have been lifted directly from any of Montgomery’s other novels (that I have read) – her “queerness”, her love of nature, the passions she throws herself into, and so on. It also took me a while to sink into the flowery prose sufficiently to begin to connect with Pat and her fellows (I was particularly thrown off by Judy’s dialect – it was rather difficult to make sense of at times). However, once I’d gotten used to it, it was like coming home. I read most of the book on a sunny afternoon and it was a rather nostalgic experience, as I have posted elsewhere. Quite apart from the atmosphere, the prose quickly came alive for me and I came to sympathise greatly with Patricia and her friends. I am quite looking forward to tracking down the rest of the Pat saga and finding out what happens to her and Silver Bush!

Somehow, I get the feeling that Montgomery and I would have gotten along well; her characters seem to see the world the same way I do. Perhaps its a result of reading so many of her novels while I was growing up. I particularly empathized with Pat’s dislike of change, and her obvious love for her home which made this book a real pleasure to read. I’ll always have a soft spot for Montgomery’s novels, if only for the beauty she so rapturously describes.

RATING: