Dunbar – King Lear As Media Mogul

51xZlUBbLOL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_ Greed, betrayal, lust, murder, sibling rivalry, and jealousy – St. Aubyn’s Dunbar shows how Shakespeare is still relevant. Edward St. Aubyn’s Hogarth Shakespeare update of King Lear channels today’s headlines, with the wealthy children salivating at their chance to control the money of their paternal media mogul.  If you remember your Shakespeare, one good soul tries to rise above the fray, but Florence has no more luck reining in her two sisters than Cordelia had with Regan and Goneril in King Lear.

This is a tragedy with the expectation of dead bodies littering the stage at the end, but St. Aubyn manages to create hope that the billionaire mogul who had been imprisoned in an isolated sanitarium while his two daughters conspire in a company takeover, will prevail.  The eighty year old’s escape into the snowy hills has traces of the St. Aubyn witty banter, sustaining the delusion, and when Florence comes to the rescue in a helicopter and later in her Gulfstream jet, it seems all will be well.   If you don’t remember your reading of Lear, I won’t spoil your anticipation, but St. Aubyn manages to make the ending realistic in today’s terms.

Of all the Hogarth translations into contemporary settings, this is my favorite.  St. Aubyn has chronicled the life of privilege in his Patrick Melrose novels across five novels, one a Man Booker finalist, and I can think of no one better to expose the painful flaws of  the wealthy, including frustrated power and familial resentment.  Rupert Murdoch – beware.

It would be fun to dissect St. Aubyn’s version of an old, powerful man losing everything and match it to Shakespeare’s play, but, if you only read the novel as is, St. Aubyn makes a sad tale enjoyable.

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In Honor of Poldark’s Aunt Agatha

Unknown-1   Spoiler Alert:  If you have not yet seen the final episode of Poldark, the eighteenth century saga set in Cornwall, you probably want to stop reading now.

Despite the rugged terrain with wild rides along the sea and rivalries among the families, one steady character, reportedly about to celebrate her 100th birthday, challenges the evil doers and maintains her upright moral code despite the corruption around her.  Sadly, Aunt Agatha finally has her heart broken when the cold calculating George Warleggan cancels her birthday party.  Of course, the stalwart Aunt Agatha has her revenge before she takes her last breath.

In the Masterpiece Studio Podcast interview of Catherine Blakiston, the actress playing Aunt Agatha, she mentions she was gifted the tarot cards she often shuffled on scene as she predicted dire consequences for others, and the book Aunt Agatha continually read around the fire – Tristram Shandy.

Hepburn7_logLaurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, with its first of nine volumes published in 1759, begins with its hero about to be born and becomes so sidetracked by digressions that the story ends shortly after his birth, but not before introducing a vivid group of eccentric and farcical characters in a comic tour de force.  Tristram Shandy was a bestseller of its time and Sterne is recognized as one of the forerunners of psychological fiction.

I’ve never read it, so in honor of Aunt Agatha, I’ve downloaded the classic for free from Project Gutenberg – all 760 pages.

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Dipping into Proust

51W1RQKCT9L._AC_US218_After laughing at Lisa Brown’s graphic cartoon on How to Read Proust in the Original in the New York Times Book Review, and then receiving a box of Sur la Table’s French Petite Madeleine Mix in the mail, I decided to have a “madeleine moment” reading Lydia Davis’ acclaimed translation of Swann’s Way.  

Proust is not easy to read, and Davis, a MacArthur Fellow, suggests a slow methodical pace in her introduction, letting the long sentences and heady phrases offer connections to one’s own experiences.  I remember reading the famous passage in my fourth year of high school French class, explaining the narrator’s fond recollections of his childhood days as he dips the madeleine in his teacup, but reading the entire book seemed too daunting; reading the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past would be unthinkable.  Better to learn the translations of Proust’s more famous phrases.

From Swann’s Way, the first book in the series, Lydia Davis offers easily understandable phrases to note – and remember:

“To get through their days, nervous natures such as mine have various “speeds” as do automobiles. There are uphill and difficult day which take an eternity to climb, and downhill days which can be quickly descended.”

Reading Proust cannot be rushed or taken in one sitting.  It could take years, if ever, but I like Davis’ easy translation, and the methodical rhythm of the prose –  better digested while eating a madeleine soaked in coffee.

 

Edna Ferber’s So Big

510bo6vlmhl-_sx330_bo1204203200_   Needing an old classic to soothe my brow from the news of political appointments, I found Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, So Big.  Although written in 1924, the story addresses the disparity still felt today as we juggle the meaning and price of success in the world.

The adaptations of Edna Ferber’ work into movies and plays are as famous as her books: among them, Giant, Showboat, Stage Door, Dinner at Eight.  The 1932 version of So Big, starring Barbara Stanwyck motivated me to find the book in the library. So Big is the story of Selina, the schoolmarm turned farmer who never lost her view of nature’s beauty from the moment she saw the plains outside of Chicago.   I may have read it in school years ago, but this time, So Big brought its message and comfort to me with the reminder of what is really important in life.  For those who would disregard music, art, and literature, and see them as inferior to hard science or practical engineering, Ferber’s story is a lesson in integrity.

Although So Big focused on the spiritual and financial struggles of a farm wife, similarities to the author’s life lay the foundation.  Ferber’s parents were Jewish shopkeepers who ran a general store in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her mother took over the family business when her father began to go blind, just as Selina takes over and improves the farm after her husband Pervus dies.  Within 283 pages, Ferber spans Selina’s life, aging her from a young girl who travels from place to place with her gambling father to a young schoolteacher and then wife of a farmer, then widow, and finally an old wrinkled woman on her farm.

As she raises her son, Dirk – fondly called So Big – she tries to model the value of hard work and the appreciation of beauty, giving him education and opportunities she never had (remember this is the turn of the twentieth century).  Ideas and being able to create are important – even if it takes years of work and pain. Sadly her reward is not a bright son curious and inventive, but a money-grubbing bond salesman who wears bespoke suits.

Roelfe, the young boy she mentored when she was a schoolteacher, returns years later as a middle-aged artist still struggling but content with his work and his life –  representing the strong contrast with her son who never has enough and never is happy, and, as a result, cannot get the one thing he really wants.   Because despite what  we hear lately, real life isn’t about who can yell the loudest or make the most money, but the satisfaction of a life well led.

“I want you to realize this whole thing called life is just a grand adventure. The trick is to act in it and look out at the same time. And remember: no matter what happens – good or bad – it’s just so much velvet.”

 

 

 

Prequel to Jane Eyre – The Wide Sargasso Sea

214fjjbbskl-_ac_ul160_  In her prelude to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, The Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys offers the backstory of the first Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman in the attic who destroys Thornfield Hall and herself by fire.  Although the book was published fifty years ago, Rhys’s story is a good reminder the classics have hidden secrets: critical analysts sometimes refer to Bertha as Jane’s alter ego.  After seeing the book on a list of favorites by a fellow reader, I decided to reread this short book and found myself quickly caught up in its fervor.

 In Part One, set in Jamaica, Antoinette, the Creole daughter of a white slave owner, later called Bertha by her English husband, tells the story of her sad childhood. Lonely and rejected by her mother, and running wild after her father dies, she lives in poverty until her mother remarries.   She survives the fire set by an angry mob of locals, destroying her childhood plantation home and driving her mother to madness, and is sent off to a convent. When she is seventeen, her fortune attracts a tall, second son of an Englishman, with no inheritance of his own. Antoinette has a sense of foreboding and imagines she cannot escape her fate.

Part Two begins with Antoinette’s husband narrating the honeymoon, soon to be interrupted by a strange letter revealing the horrors of Antoinette’s background.  Never feeling comfortable in the tropical surroundings of his wife’s home,  Rochester now becomes cold and distant. In a sad and pathetic moment, Rhys has Antoinette enlisting  the voodoo magic of her childhood caregiver to remedy her situation. But her fortune now belongs to her husband, who wants to return to England.

In Part Three, Antoinette’s perspective returns, though she is now living as the quarantined Bertha in Thornfield’s drafty attic.  This section is the shortest, cleverly connecting to Bronte’s book.  Nowhere in the text of her novel does Rhys mention Rochester by name, but she clearly connects to him in the end, as Bertha dreams of setting fire to Thornfield and ending her miserable life.

In Jane Eyre, Bertha raves and screams, but in The Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gives her a voice.   In Rhys’s novel, she is the victim of oppression, treated as if she were a ‘white cockroach’ by her family’s black servants, and rejected by Rochester.  Like Jane, she had her own dreams.

The Wide Sargasso Sea won the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006.  The Cheltenham Prize, created as a companion to the Man Booker, identifies who might have won the Prize if it had existed a century earlier. For a list of the winning books, click on Book Awards: Cheltenham Booker Prize.  You might find another old book worth a second read.