Monday, October 17, 2016

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

I could count on one hand the number of excellent novels that have been made into excellent, or even very good movies. The primary exception to this rule is Marlynne Robinson’s superb novel, Housekeeping which was made into an excellent movie of the same name and starred the incomparable Christine Lahti.

Given that view, it may come as a surprise that today I’m going to review a novel that I first experienced as a movie, and was so moved that I decided to read the book. The Light Between Oceans,  by M.L. Stedman is a wonderfully written and moving novel, and surprise of surprises to this reader, I thought the reading of the novel was enhanced by having already seen the movie, and, likewise, the movie version enlivened and enhanced the novel.

I’m not going to give away much of the storyline here since that is what is so central to the book; instead I hope you will read the book for yourself and see the movie. The title refers to a lighthouse between two oceans, built on the tip of an island that is the top of a peak in an undersea mountain range.

From this side of the island, there was only vastness, all the way to Africa. Here, the Indian Ocean washed into the Great Southern Ocean and together they stretched like an edgeless carpet below the cliffs.

The bare bones of the story is that a man, Thomas, home from horrible times in World War I, and seeking solitude and refuge, is assigned the job of lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock—a half day’s journey from the small seaside village from which the lighthouse receives its provisions every six months. After an initial six-month temporary assignment, he is given the full-time position. Much to his surprise, he meets a young woman, Isabel, only child of a headmaster in the small village, who falls in love with the older man and essentially begs him to marry her and take her with him to live on the remote island. Although his initial reaction is to dissuade her, he cannot deny his growing love for this bright and brave young woman.

Tom is an exceptionally honorable and rule-bound man, he feels blessed by Isabel’s love, and he does marry her and take her with him to live on Janus Rock. Totally in love with each other, and both loving the solitary life of the island, they set up house and she tends to the chickens and goats and the sparse garden while Thomas mans the lighthouse. Both want children, but after three miscarriages, grief threatens to unravel the marriage.

And then, miraculously (or so it seems to Isabel), a boat washes up on the island carrying a dead man and an infant. “He hoisted out a woolen bundle: a woman’s soft lavender cardigan wrapped around a tiny, screaming infant.” Isabel immediately takes the baby to be a gift from God, perhaps in exchange for her miscarriages. Thomas, on the other hand, is a rigorously moral and rule-bound man who has survived the carnage of the War only by adhering strictly to his moral code. Now he is torn between his love for Isabel and what he perceives as his duty.

And so the scene is set. Tom, too, soon becomes entranced by the baby. When he reminds Isabel that the baby’s mother may be alive, and that they should turn the baby over to the authorities, her reaction is swift and adamant.
What if the mother’s not dead, and he’s got a wife fretting, waiting for them both?
What woman would let her baby out of her sight: Face it, Tom: she must have drowned. 
She clasped his hands again. ‘I know how much your rules mean to you, and I know this is technically breaking them. But what are those rules for? They’re to save lives! That’s all I’m saying we should do, sweetheart: save this life. She’s here and she needs us and we can help her. Please.
Izzy, I can’t. This isn’t up to me. Don’t you understand?
Her face darkened. “How can you be so hard-hearted? All you care about is your rules and your ships and your bloody light.
What follows, of course, is how they handle this perhaps miracle, and how it affects their love. Besides the wonderfully portrayed love between these two for each other and their charge, there is so much of interest in this story about lighthouses, about the rugged coast of Australia. The beauty of the written description is brought to full light and color by the film version. It is hard for me to believe this is a debut novel for Ms. Stedman; I’m confident it will not  be her last.

The movie does justice to the novel both by its incredible cinematography and the superb casting. The love Tom and Isabel have for each other and for the baby is masterfully portrayed in both written and movie versions.

The moral dilemmas the book and movie have left me continue to employ both my mind and my heart. I think you will also be left pondering what you would have done in this situation, and also what would have been the right thing to do. I would like to have presented it as a question for my ethics classes; I still find myself wondering, even agonizing along with Tom and Izzy.

If you are like me in tending to avoid movie versions of books you have loved, I challenge you to see this movie and read the book and ask yourself if both are made better by the combination.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Edith Wharton & Elizabet Bowen

As an obsessive reader always worried about finding new books, on my way to breakfast one morning I took a ten minute stroll through the smallish Powell’s outlet on Hawthorne, and quickly found two treasures: an Edith Wharton I had never read, Twilight Sleep, and an Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart. I thought I had read everything by these two giants of 20th century writers, but the Wharton was out of print for several decades, one of those decades occurring during my fevered reading of Wharton and other women novelists ignored by the literary canon of the time. The Bowen I somehow simply overlooked. I want to talk briefly of each of these, and urge you readers to pick them up. After many weeks of reading only contemporary fiction, it was delightful to take up with these wise old friends.

Twilight Sleep is a title very carefully chosen by Wharton to describe what she saw as blindness and amnesia in the wealthy class of which she and her family were members. In obstetrics, the term applied to a form of anesthesia administered to women so that they could have nearly painless childbirth and then forget the traumatic event. “An amnesic condition characterized by insensitivity to pain without loss of consciousness, induced by an injection of morphine and scopolamine, especially to relieve the pain of childbirth. This combination induces a semi-narcotic condition which produces the experience of childbirth without pain, or without the memory of pain.” Just so, her lead characters attempt through drugs, alcohol, occult therapies and a whirl of social activity to live life painlessly and without conscience, without memory of the real consequences of their lifestyles.

Mrs. Manford, Pauline, the matriarch of the clan finds no contradiction in being a spokeswoman for both contraception and for getting women out of the workplace and restoring them to hearth and home. Her daughter-in-law Lita, who has had a twilight sleep birth, complains of the boredom of life as a mother and of existence in general. Nona, her sister-in-law scolds Lita, “You’d be bored anywhere. I wish [someone] would come along and tell you what an old cliché being bored is.”
An old cliché? Why shouldn’t it be? When life itself is such a bore. You can’t redecorate life! And if you could, what would you begin by throwing into the street? The baby?
And so it goes with this almost wickedly satirical novel—Wharton’s most sustained critical commentary on the rich. When Lita’s husband is told by his doctor that he is overworking and needs a nerve tonic and a change of scene, his Dr. counsels, “Cruise to the West Indies, or something of the sort. Couldn’t you get away for three or four weeks? No? Well, more golf then, anyhow.

Wharton as narrator continues: “Getting away from things; the perpetual evasion, moral mental, physical, which he heard preached, and saw practiced, everywhere about him, except where money-making was concerned."

While Mrs. Manford seeks relief via spiritual advisors, moving from one to another with ease, despite their utter incompatibility, her daughter and daughter-in-law seek surcease from boredom via dancing and drinking the nights away. 

While there is humor on almost every page of this novel, and Wharton’s beautiful prose delights the reader, the social commentary is dead serious. I have to wonder if this book, hugely successful at the time of its publication in the so-called jazz age, went out of print for so long precisely because of its precision commentary on the shallow lives of the upper crust.

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart is a far more somber story of a young girl who, when her mother dies, having been shunned by her wealthy family, and forced to move from shabby hotel to hotel with her daughter, the girl, Portia, is sent to live with an older step-brother and his young wife. She is not invited to stay with them out of any sort of good will on their part; instead, the girl’s dead father (also father to her half-brother) has requested in a document accompanying his will that Portia be taken care of for a year or until she comes of age.

The household sixteen-year-old Portia finds herself in is an absolutely loveless one. Her step-brother’s wife, Anna, is extraordinarily shallow; she openly courts a number of young and not so young men, apparently with the knowledge and acquiescence of her husband. Portia is seen by Anna as at best an annoyance. She sneaks into Portia’s room to read her diary, and then is enraged to discover how Portia portrays her in the private diary. Some of the older men callers remark on what a beautiful ‘child’ Portia is, and Anna manages not to notice the lecherous leer in their eyes and remarks.

Not surprisingly, Portia becomes infatuated with one of the young men who calls on Anna, since he at least takes notice of her, and he unscrupulously invites her infatuation, managing even to visit Portia when she is sent to Anna’s old governess who lives by the sea. The governess, too, turns a blind eye to the inappropriate behavior of the young man, leaving Portia to discover his total lack of regard for her.

The novel is divided into three sections, The World, The Flesh, and The Devil. And while the death of Portia’s heart is due to the callous seduction of her by the young man, it is in fact a slow death brought on by the icy disregard shown her by her step-brother and the incredibly shallow lives of the London gallery of friends he and his wife entertain. No wonder that finally, realizing that her love for the young man is not returned, and unable to make herself return again to the emotionally frigid London home, she runs to one of the older suitors of her sister-in-law, Major Brutt, begging him to let her live with him. Ironically, it is Major Brutt, alone among the many heartless people in the circle of friends, who takes pity on Portia and refuses to take advantage of the helpless girl’s desperate situation. But his refusal does nothing to alleviate her loneliness and despair. She is left finally with nowhere to turn; the death of the heart brought about by the same sort of blindness and selfishness that Wharton describes in her novel.

These are two wonderfully written novels exploring the heartlessness of the rich and the destruction wrought by their actions and omissions. Humorous and satirical, but displaying the wonderful hearts of the two authors as they describe lives they know well but have rejected.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Two novels by Graham Greene

On this day of celebrating American workers. I want to talk to you about two fairly short Graham Greene novels, a very serious one, The Quiet American, and a very intentionally comedic one, Our Man in Havana.

To speak just briefly of the second, which was made famous in a film version of the same name starring Alec Guinness in one of his dry and excellent comedies. Greene likes to make fun of spies and especially spies who are spying on spies. His primary target in this novel is the British intelligence network, but he is equally contemptuous of American and Russian intelligence gathering institutions. Guinness plays the role of James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner retailer in Cuba, where the electrical power is so unreliable that selling vacuums is a very questionable enterprise. Wormold’s wife has left him, and he is doing his best to keep up with the rather extravagant tastes of his devoutly Catholic 16 year-old daughter. Almost by accident, he is recruited into the British M16 (into which Greene, himself, was recruited in 1941.) He is paid extra for each new recruit he brings into the fold, and soon is making up names of agents to pad his income. When he senses that his fictitious reports are losing steam with his bosses in London, he hand-draws parts of the atomic vacuum cleaner he sells in his shop, and sends them to his superiors claiming they are drawings of very secret Cuban missile installations going up in the hills outside Havana, though this novel was published in 1958, it may seem prescient given the events of just a few years later. While his network of fictitious recruits continues to grow larger and larger, he is pressed to get actual photographs of the installations. As the comedic elements of the story roll out making Greene’s point that the spy-networks will believe most anything their local sources claim, the reader is treated to more and more of Greene’s skepticism about so-called intelligence gathering.

This is a quick and interesting read, and I would suggest that you read the book before seeing the film version, though both are funny and highly entertaining.

The Quiet American is a much more serious work published in 1955. As is pointed out by almost all commentators, the title itself is a joke. Among the press and diplomatic personnel in Viet Nam during the last days of the French occupation, the claim was that the only quiet American is a dead American. Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in Saigon; he is a heavy drinker and an opium smoker living with a Vietnamese mistress, but in most ways his voice is the moral voice, the voice of sanity in this sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes deadly serious novel. The anti-hero of the novel, Alden Pyle, announces his intention to vie for the affections of Phuong, Fowler’s beautiful but shallow mistress. Greene mentions over and over the innocence of the Americans, especially Pyle. But the meaning of innocence for Greene (and Fowler) is a peculiar one. As Robert Stone says in his introduction to the novel, “To be innocent is to be bumptious and stupid, rude, provincial, inconsiderate: well-intentioned but at the same time conscienceless and murderous.” Pyle is an American CIA agent, who has learned all he knows about foreign countries and foreign policy from books he studied at Harvard. Fowler says that his first instinct was to protect Pyle. “It never occurred to me there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm…He [Pyle] was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance….What’s the good? He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.”

In another section of the book, Fowler says of Pyle, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

Fowler, like Greene, is old and cynical with at best a tenuous grip on life. When he loses his beloved Phuong to Pyle, he gives into the most nihilistic of existential rants, and the bitterness he expresses seems to disclose an equal bitterness in Greene. While the love-triangle in the novel, and the senseless exploits of Pyle are meant to be humorous, there is a dark seriousness that broods over this novel. Rather than telling you more of the story or quoting more passages, let me end by again quoting Stone in the introduction.
…The Quite American’s metaphorical power is undeniable; it carries a weight of truth that America and American readers will have to live with. Greene witnessed the beginning of a terrible mistake, a deadly mistake, the mistake of a great power armed to the teeth attempting to inflict its will in a part of the world to whose language and gestures it was tone deaf.
Graham Greene is one of the finest writers of the 20th century, and these two little novels are excellent examples of the many forms his literature took.