Mister Pip

There are those people for each of us, acknowledged or not, whose influence runs so deeply and purely that we strive to become a bit of whom they are. That’s a bad sentence, but it’s late and I’m having trouble hammering out thoughts on this novel without getting too close to an emotional precipice that I don’t want to fall over. Mister Pip, a Booker shortlisted novel from 2007, reads easily and, at a cursory glance, simplistically. It is the story, told in hindsight, of thirteen year old Matilda and her magical teacher, Mr. Watts, who lights a fire of sympatico appreciation within her. The conduit for their connection is of course, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

And thus a literature lover is born. At its very heart, perhaps this is what I should take from Mister Pip. Stories- those lovers and tellers and enrapturers in all their shapes and sizes, tricks and guises- are the tie which binds Matilda and Mr. Watts, but for me, the real story is the unleashing of Matilda’s powers at the beckoning of Pip. Powers of empathy, thought, recall, identification, and assertion are new for Matilda, as they are for anyone who suddenly discovers that their ordinary world is replete with characters made known through fiction. For those who have their inner fires stirred and who are, each day, newly awash in means with which to navigate human interaction, the bringer of those passions is a genie who has allowed his lamp to be rubbed for an infinite number of wishes. I’ve been fortunate to have an experience of this sort, a connection with someone which found my plumb line, lit me, and sent me on a journey that won’t end until I do.

Matilda tells her tale in a voice that is removed and clear, in order to convey an experience that has formed her private core and has given her life its very definition. The essence of that experience lies within a time of chaos for Matilda, a resident of Bougainville Island during an armed conflict that surrounds her with tension and uncertainty. Into this setting rides Mr. Dickens’ masterpiece, and Pip’s clear cadence is honored by Lloyd Jones in the voice of Matilda. The setting and peripheral characters could be anyplace, but the story would be the same. Call it redemption through literature. Call it transformation. Call it anything but anodyne or simple for there are as many layers to be found in Mister Pip as there are in Great Expectations. And just as many within each of us who look. It all begins with a book.

Barren Fields

Oh, what disappointment! London Fields had me eagerly in its command until about two hundred pages in. Then, Amis’ brilliance scorched me and left me wanting a story. This is not to say that London Fields does not contain a story. It holds several, but stingily, it seems, and they aren’t allowed to progress due to the pages and pages of cleverness and dipsidoodicle writing. The writing, by itself, is staggeringly perfect and full, too full, of showy technique and allusion. With such a display in store for each reading session, I found myself more and more reluctant to open the novel, while at the same time becoming just as terribly curious about the resolution. It was exhausting.

On one hand, I felt small and insignificant in the face of such craft. On the other hand, I began to feel irritated at the circularity and repetition. A very unfriendly thought crossed my mind. Reading this novel is akin to making love and being held from climax by a passive-aggressive lover, someone who wants to show you all that he can do, while you suffer and wait. By the time things finally come to a close, the fun and warm fuzzies are gone and you are left thinking that you just may have wasted some serious time.

London Fields, walking towards

Only one hundred or so pages into this and I’m wondering how I ever managed without Martin Amis. His sentences contain so much coiled energy that I’m rereading several passages immediately after completing them, just to relish the wordcraft. Earlier in the year, I attempted Lolita, but was underwhelmed by the narrative tricksiness and overwhelmed by Humbert’s cruelty. Nabokov has, as they might say, not a patch on Martin.

Here’s the story so far, and it’s a tangled one. Three characters, Keith, Guy and Nicola, are converging upon one another in what may be the fulfillment of Nicola’s premonitory powers. It may also be a burgeoning love triangle, though Keith is a nasty and at this point wouldn’t recognize an emotion if it bit him raw. Guy and Nicola have established a connection, but is it profit taking? And, if so, whose? All are being birddogged and chronicled by the writer, Sam, whose distance at this point is confined to approximately the thirty paces back of Nicola’s swinging hips, though he really wants to go to their “homes”, inside each head. Nicola’s the one I’m watching as well, not her hips, but something in her characterization that’s stirring and very rich. Could that be rain I’m hoping for this weekend? Otherwise, I’ll be mowing, a large, unevenly sodded yard, when I’d rather be

…trying to ignore the world situation. I am hoping it will go away. Not the world. The situation. I want time to get on with this little piece of harmless escapism. I want time to go to London Fields.

Immigrant Song

Yesterday I met someone interesting, a person who came to this country many years ago, fleeing, with her family, the Yugoslavia of Josip Tito. We chatted. I mostly listened. At one point, I asked if she had ever read My Ántonia by Willa Cather. Her eyes lit and our conversation took off with a connection spanning years and continents. My Ántonia is indeed a favorite for us both, and the workaday was suddenly charmed and warmed. My new acquaintance spoke of returning to Ellis Island a few years ago to visit and how the wash of memory brought back her arrival to this country in sudden freshness. Listening, I looked up and found that she was unable to speak for crying. I quickly said, “There’s no other place on earth like it, is there?” She smiled and said “No, there isn’t”. There just isn’t.

Meanwhile, back in Siberia

     I’ve turned a corner within The People’s Act of Love and am finding it immensely enjoyable and full of sly humor.  Mutz is most intriguing, the Jewish, Czech army lieutenant who is in love with the beautiful Anna Petrovna and who is possibly freezing to death as he pursues a criminal who may be lurking in the village woods to harm Anna and others. Or not.

James Meek has written a novel that shifts and twists the reader’s allegiances and perceptions, not unlike many genre works focusing upon a murder and subsequent hunt for a killer. However, Meek’s light, mildly irreverent tone casts great readability upon a tale that could have become ponderous as a Siberian winter night. It’s almost enough to make me wonder if in some way The People’s Act of Love isn’t a subtle send-up of many overly plotted and contrived thrillers. Thankfully, I don’t know anything of them and can’t fully make the comparison. I can only guess how much finer this novel is.

     At this point in any book, I begin to anxiously search for my next read. It’s going to be London Fields by Martin Amis. I’ve heard so many good things about this and can’t wait. My eyes are also scanning the shelves for material to pack next month for travel to France and England. I have activities planned in both locales but am saving some time to loiter in the café, novel and wineglass to hand.

The People’s Act of Love

This novel started out so strongly and I read the first one hundred pages without effort, held fast by the dark, dark humor and progress. Now, many confusing characters have been suddenly introduced and I’m floundering. Amidst the confusion and clutter, I did find one paragraph last night with a sentence that caused me to laugh out loud. And I suppose if laughing is the last thing one does before hitting the pillow, the day (not to mention the novel) is saved:

Tolik Redhead, a recidivist chicken-thief from Kiev, said he hadn’t been to England but he knew a girl in Brovary whose underwear came from Manchester.

Reds (1981)

The man who is forever disturbed about the condition of humanity either has no problems of his own or has refused to face them. – Henry Miller

I’ve grown up with this film. I saw it first in December 1981 when two friends and I drove to Knoxville, Tennessee immediately upon its release. Sometime the following summer, I dragged another friend to a dog-eared outpost drive-in for a viewing, and I’ve made it a point to revisit John Reed and Louise Bryant in Croton-on-Hudson and Petrograd every few years, each time, of course, finding different things amongst the layers. The Reds and I have seen a lot together, you could say, and had been too long apart when I sat down last night to view the 25th anniversary DVD, complete with added clips and commentary. The timing was perfect. The newer features reveal that much of the film was shot in Rye, East Sussex, a locale recently introduced to me by way of Colm Tóibín’s The Master. Shades of Henry James, sprinklings of Henry Miller, and whisky with soda combined to create a night-in to remember.

Reds contains so many stories. There is the story of the 1917 Russian revolution and its careening into totalitarianism. There is the story of American liberalism and her elite in the years just prior to World War I. There is the story of a man and woman in love and in marriage. And there is the story of the lengths we each will endure in order to run to and from ourselves. This last story had eluded me until last night when it came forth, charging the evening with the same sense of fresh discovery that I felt so many years ago in that Knoxville theater.

You also may have seen this film more than once. Briefly, Reds is the story of John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), two American journalists who experience firsthand the Russian revolution of 1917. When they meet, he is a quasi-successful journalist who is raising money for his side venture, a magazine called The Masses in which he exhorts working class Americans to organize in labor unions. She is the unfulfilled wife of a Portland, Oregon dentist, a woman who maintains her own small studio apartment in an attempt to establish herself as a writer and artist. They begin an affair, and she soon flees Portland, arriving in New York’s Greenwich Village one Friday evening, landing on Reed’s doorstep as he returns from a day’s work with fellow organizers Max Eastman and Emma Goldman, superbly portrayed by Edward Hermann and Maureen Stapleton.

And here is where the running begins. Reed, unaccustomed to the confines of live-in companionship, undertakes more and more out of town trips to inspire laborers and to work within the Socialist party. Bryant, running after Reed emotionally and running from her own shrinking sense of worth, flails in the whirl of Greenwich Village society and threatens flight. The pair leave New York and establish an itinerant residence in Provincetown, Rhode Island, where they flit between jobs and affairs with others, Bryant most importantly with Eugene O’Neill, brilliantly rendered by Jack Nicholson. After a few seasons of emotional upheaval and growth within their relationship, Reed and Bryant marry and attempt to permanently reside in Croton-on-Hudson, NewYork. But it doesn’t take long before the pushing and pulling within the marriage results in another flight. Bryant leaves and runs to France, working as a free lance journalist. Reed follows her and convinces her to join him in Russia, where he hopes the rumblings of revolution there will excite, in fact incite, the liberal cause in America.

The central action of the film takes place as Reed and Bryant search for themselves and one another in Petrograd. The sharp dialogue reveals two strong individuals who find their calling in the words they craft and who become more than sexual partners. Reds’ scenery, dialogue, humor, intelligence and sense of history are in perfect proportion. Each scene builds depth and resonance to the story so that when Bryant tells O’Neill, “You’re a wounding son of a bitch,” it’s impossible to not know and feel all of the unspoken reasons beneath her fury.

Finally, the device which makes Reds unforgettable for so many is the use of ‘witnesses’, unnamed elderly persons whose reminiscences of Reed and Bryant are spritzed throughout the film in light amounts carrying vast impressions of another day and age. Memorably, Rebecca West and Adela Rogers St. Johns recall being pursued by ‘loonies’. Henry Miller waxes warmly and sparklingly about Reed’s need to run and the fact that, “to be honest, you know, there was just as much fucking going on then as now, only it meant something to us then.” The film is worth viewing if only to experience the recollections, and charming memory slips, of the witnesses.

In the end, Reed and Bryant meet in a Moscow train station after a long separation, not running, rather easing, sliding into each other’s arms for an embrace which epitomizes for this viewer that which is the melding of friendship, concern and longing. There is nothing sentimental about Reds; no character is spared a harsh look within, and the fine acting never stoops toward manipulation or control. Instead, the flawless cast and cinematography work to set the story loose where it can unfold within each viewer, whether running, standing still, or moving forward.