Lucy and Todd

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“In vain have I struggled” – Pride and Prejudice

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on July 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm

‘“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent.’

That ‘doubted’ is so characteristic of Austen’s mind: rich, ironic and sensitive.  She’s like Bach in the way she screws the joints of a sentence together until the whole thing works.  Intricate things, pounded on to the page with succinctness and acute clarity, result in a paradoxical kind of beauty.

And so begins one of the angriest scenes in English literature – one of the sexiest too.  In spite of the cultured dialogue, what they’re saying to each other isn’t polite at all.

Elizabeth replies:

‘“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot–I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. …”

Mr Darcy…seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips till he believed himself to have attained it. …

“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.”

“I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my own feelings decided against you–had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?” …’

Darcy eventually gets a word in:

‘“And this…is your opinion of me!… Thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps…these offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. …But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?–to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said–

“You are mistaken, Mr Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner. …You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it. …From the very beginning–from the first moment, I may almost say–of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”’

The weariness conveyed by the term, ‘prevailed upon’, sums up the marriage market Elizabeth and her peers (and Jane Austen herself) were subjected to, a lottery in which their own qualities rarely took precedence over the extent of their dowries.  But the TONE of her fury is not subjugated but brave and free.  Elizabeth is ‘magnificent’ (as George Sanders says of Bette Davis during her meltdown at the party in All About Eve).  She really lets him have it!

This book, and this scene in particular, are the start of feminism in England.


The Big Fat Bitch Book 
- Kate Figes
; Achtung Schweinehund! A Boy’s Own Story of Imaginary Combat
 – Harry Pearson

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 28, 2012 at 8:05 am

The battle between these two books is won on the strength of warmth, literacy, compassion, erudition and wit … by the boys. Can this be right?

It’s upsetting to watch someone struggle with a task they have set themselves, struggle to the point of asphyxia. A book about bitches? Analyse savvy, scary women and at the same time help teenage girls set different goals in their frighteningly complex and dangerous world full of hurt? Sounds great. But from the start of The Big Fat Bitch Book, Kate Figes fails to figure out what a bitch is and what bitching is, and whether these are good or bad things, and she sinks rapidly into a tar-pit of self-contradiction. How are catty remarks by Jordan (a nonentity, not a wit) or Bette Davis (ancient history, frankly) going to help sort out the female self-image? While anyone who thinks Anne Robinson is a classic bitch instead of a myopic, confused-looking cardboard cutout really is a weak link.

This book would be better if it contained an admission on Figes’s part that we have failed to provide a worthwhile sexual and political map for the coming generation, and that it might be a good idea to look somewhere other than to the media culture for alternatives. But all she offers is empty Blair-style spin and cant, like the magazines and television programmes that bully women into the state they’re in. Or else she collapses into a heap of tired, motherly frustration, issuing torrents of rules and suggestions: “Smile and practise looking confident in front of a mirror.” The book reeks of deadline, sloppy editing and the internet. It’s also incredibly repetitious. We may have perpetuated a crumby society but we’re NOT DEAF. That this mis-whelped exercise comes from Virago is shocking: reading it is like being locked in the waiting room at the doctor’s overnight with a stack of Cosmopolitans, complete with the idiotic quizzes.

It’s impressive how much time men are willing – and able – to waste. Having mastered the arts of irrelevance, denial and displacement, they are the sovereigns of time off. There is an important book yet to be written on our species – a definitive history of the nerds. Until that comes along, Achtung Schweinehund! will do.

Harry Pearson is to be commended for coming clean and admitting how silly his lifelong military fixations have been. He reveals a weird world of war-buffs (or buffoons), miniature-battlefield reconstructors and civil war re-enactors. With much comic self-deprecation, he traces the rise of his own geekitude from childhood to being a sheepish, secretive collector of “the little men”. He has spent so much money on lead soldiers that one wargaming friend suggests Pearson put his wife on the street to replenish his “war chest”.

Despite going to a Quaker school, Pearson was always besotted with war. In his bedroom, which resembled an international arms fair, he read war comics. The Jerries said things like, “For you ze war is over”, and the Englischers, wonderfully, “Drat!” There’s a fumy romance to his reminiscences of hundreds of Saturday afternoons spent with adhesives, X-acto knives and tiny pots of paint.

Between mock battles in the back garden and his current pleasure in owning thousands of tiny Egyptian war chariots, there was Action Man (it’s important to Harry that we understand that Action Man was not a doll). “He was sold on his realism, but the only area in which he truly replicated the world of the modern soldier was that his life was in thrall to the machinations of the oil industry. Action Man was made of plastic.”

Men think if they get everything miniaturised, and to the correct scale, the world will be a better place. But get a load of these guys – depressing, even mad, dazed about adulthood to a man and without a clue about women. One of Pearson’s cohorts calls unexpectedly on a toy soldier manufacturer and, to his horror, sees him “absolutely starkers, chasing his equally plump and no less naked lady wife round the sofa attempting to tickle her with a big red feather duster. Five o’clock of a winter’s afternoon, can you imagine it?”

Yeah. It’s called having fun. One of the most amusing passages in Achtung Schweinehund! is the revelation of the contempt in which one cadre of the gaming world can hold another: Pearson erupts in fury towards JRR Tolkien and the slew of fantasy lands and games he geekily unleashed on a helpless public. This has needed saying for years, and Harry Pearson is just the man to do it.


Guardian, 10 February, 2007

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer
 – Jimmy McDonough

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 28, 2012 at 7:59 am

Ticket-sellers, love rockets, casabas, majungas, dreadnoughts, Winnetkas – any word said in the right way can be used to denote breasts, and a breast by any name aroused the interest of Russ Meyer. “If I wasn’t so into tits I probably could’ve been a great film-maker,” he once ruefully announced. But he was a great film-maker: “the rural Fellini”. The 23 anguished, contorted films he made, such as Mudhoney and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! are passionate, piss-taking and profound – “kicking the crap out of convention!” as one of his ear-splitting trailers put it. What’s more, he nobly believed that “you can never have too many women in a picture”.

In 1979’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens the sex is non-stop, breasts are everywhere, the calamities cartoonish. It’s full of joie de vivre. There’s Junkyard Sal, with her fecal cohorts; Eufaula Roop, who blasts the whole district with horny radio evangelism; and Lavonia, the cheerful housewife stuck with dumb-ass Lamar Shed, absorbed in his correspondence course and calculator. Lavonia flops around naked in bed, trying to lure him by dunking a vibrator in a big jar of petroleum jelly and rubbing it between her breasts. “I wanted a symphony of vibrator, calculator, and crickets,” said Meyer. The frenzied beeping of the calculator as Lamar struggles to ignore her and the bed’s castors making a groove in the carpet as she rocks to and fro are details worthy of Jacques Tati.

“I feel that it’s important to really give that husband a bad, bad time,” said Meyer. His movies are about the insistence of desire and the way sex is skewed in a male society. Men, according to Meyer, are “lunch-pail-carrying saps”, whose failure to meet the sexual demands of women is the root of all evil. “Get your ass out of my face!” yells Lavonia’s noontime squeeze, Mr Peterbuilt. “I don’t eat pussy! It’s un-American!” Meyer took it upon himself to illustrate that which has never been thought out in the male psyche: what the god-damned hell do you really want?

Some feel that the Meyer women lack personality. But perhaps that is because, as Jimmy McDonough points out, they’re “constantly in motion, running, dancing, jumping, fucking”. The result is a kind of omnipotent grace. Despite doing his best to exploit mammary glands, Meyer makes you see women and breasts with new respect. His movies make you like breasts and fear women. And why not? Seen humping from below, through the bedsprings, or on mountaintops, clutching flaming torches, Meyer’s women are behemoths: she who must be obeyed. Which brings us to Meyer’s mother, a bizarre, demanding, devout racist, who had six husbands and abhorred them all. Her solution to any childhood illness was an enema. “Whenever I was sick, she’d just put me on her lap, put that in me, and just hose me out.” But he was forever grateful to his mother for pawning her wedding ring (which one?) to buy him his first movie camera, an 8mm number that cost $9.95. Meyer used his first compass to draw huge breasts; as a teenager, a decisive moment involved a large-bosomed stripper: “The centrifugal force was enormous.”

During the second world war, Meyer served as a combat photographer. He filmed some heavy action in the battle of the Bulge, of all things, and was decorated. His war experiences were the most vivid of his life (one of his assistants described his film-making technique as “take the next hill”) and included the loss of his virginity, a seminal event involving Ernest Hemingway, a prostitute with large breasts, and the missionary position. Meyer would always like his sex straight, ruling out even foreplay. Again and again, both seriously and jestingly, he would proclaim the necessity of “normal” sex. He must have been shocked by Kinsey.

After the war, Meyer became one of the top glamour photographers for the pretty revolting-looking men’s magazines of the time, and made women look “fifty feet tall, flesh skyscrapers”, in tune with an era of rabid expansion. But industrial film work, along with tips from Art Lloyd (who shot many Laurel & Hardy pictures), grounded him technically, and gave him the ability to shoot a film in days with a crew of three. Meyer learned early how to get the “coverage” needed for a successful scene, and it is one reason why his freaky pictures have such energy and visual richness.

His first few erotic movies were made with colleagues in the “carny”-infested, nearly moribund netherworld of the burlesque circuit. As the 1950s wore on, the exploitation side of the movie business rose – sensational low-budget films shown in drive-ins and crummy cinemas. Meyer, with his insistence on comedy and plot, was in competition with striptease reels, “documentaries” about abortion and nudists with titles like She Shoulda Said No. Though Meyer would be briefly blown out of his own genre by crazy Hollywood money for his picture Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, he always insisted it was futile to differentiate between the good and the bad in Hollywood: “Every film is exploitation. We’re all in the same game.” He would later abjure the adult film industry he had in large part created, refusing to become involved in hardcore pornography: “I don’t think my mother would like it.”

McDonough, one is surprised and chagrined to learn, was denied access to the huge Meyer archive for the writing of this book. He attempted valiantly to make up for this by interviewing everyone he could who had been associated with Meyer, and in the main his efforts pay off. But he has a way with analogy that can grate – one woman’s lips are “like two overstuffed couches mating” – and women’s bodies are too often described as “impossible”, their breasts “giant, unbelievable, sometimes scary appendages”. He lusts for these women, and assumes the reader automatically lusts for them too.

The book is at its best in the accounts of what it was like to work on a Meyer movie. Meyer had a penchant for taking his actors into depopulated backwaters, the viler parts of the Mojave desert, the sickest-looking river-delta towns he could find. Actors were expected to carry equipment, camp out in sleeping bags, refrain from intimate contact with each other or anyone else during production, endure snakes, stage moms, violent shakings prior to shooting a scene, 110-degree heat, and perhaps toughest of all, never to blink.

This kind of punishment is mirrored in the pummelling Meyer puts the viewer through, and it works: one feels existentially drained after watching Common-Law Cabin, a riveting, dumber-than-shit story about two subnormal couples boating out to a frightening, cardboard-built cocktail bar on a gunked-up grey river. Constant attempts at seduction, theft and euphoria end in rape, betrayal and extreme nausea, and the feeling that it’s just possible this could happen to you. Why do there have to be people like this in the world?

Meyer died last year after spending his lonely, loveless last few years in a dirty house crammed with mammarabilia, his artistic estate in disarray, his once profitable business in the hands of what would seem to be shady outsiders. McDonough’s informed focus on the director’s premature disintegration through Alzheimer’s is tender. Perhaps the most pathetic scene of all, though, is Meyer a few years earlier, drunkenly rattling his old ma across the highway to eat dinner in a topless restaurant.

Although it has some pretensions to be so, this is not a book that achieves a high synthesis with its time and subject, as, for example, the best of Nick Tosches’s work. Nevertheless it is a very funny, brave book about an artist who deserves to be remembered and enjoyed, perhaps not only as a quirky, unselfconscious mind, but as someone who, as WC Fields said, tried to grasp the bull by the tail and face the situation. McDonough writes: “With a Meyer film, the script may be crap, the acting might have you howling at the moon, but in the middle of it all will be some preposterous, highly charged, not to mention boob-driven image of some chick watusiing away atop an oil rig, and it just takes your breath away.”


Saturday Guardian, 16 July, 2005

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Tête-à-Tête: The Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
 – Hazel Rowley

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 28, 2012 at 7:51 am

“I realised that even if we went on talking till Judgment Day, I would still find the time all too short,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir. When she met Jean-Paul Sartre in 1929, it seems as if officially the two smartest people in France, possibly the world, had decided to fall in love. Sartre proposed to her, not marriage, but a “two-year lease”, involving separations and many lovers. Soon they were notorious, and sometimes punished, for a very public relationship in which others supposedly came and went without interfering with the colossal intellectual concept of their pact, as they called it – Sartre and his beloved “Beaver” always to be spiritually true to each other and never jealous.

What you learn from Tête-à-Tête is that this experiment hardly got off the ground as a moral basis for living, or any kind of living at all. Sartre, renowned for a certain intellectual honesty, spent his entire life lying his head off to a fluctuating coterie of extremely unhappy “drowning women”. He wasn’t just attracted to pathetic, crazed, needy types, but made them so. De Beauvoir, more than once accused of being his pimp, alternately enthused and despaired over the situation, which was never to change. But both felt guilty towards their acolytes, Sartre so much so that he attended his messed-up mistresses like a doctor, setting out every day on his “medical round”.

They lied to each other, to everyone. In her memoirs, De Beauvoir omitted her affairs with women, and changed names to protect people. So where was the couple’s fine disdain for bourgeois feeling? The whole thing was bourgeois as hell. The irony is that Sartre knew what he was, a classic philanderer straight out of Molière, and De Beauvoir tolerated it, as many a good bourgeoise had before her. Their only innovation was that she was encouraged to seek her own “contingent loves” – though Sartre snatched many of her girlfriends. For a couple who claimed to have reinvented sexual politics, there was an awful lot of weeping going on: the founder of modern feminism suffered from crises which she attributed to a fear of mortality and “the void”, but which now sound more like panic attacks (often the result of living erroneously).

She had signed up to a lifetime of rejection, uncertainty and separation – all traditional strategies for quelling female sexuality. Sartre was “a warm, lively man everywhere, but not in bed”, De Beauvoir told her lover Nelson Algren, who later reviled her for the callousness of Sartrean love: “Anybody who can experience love contingently has a mind that has recently snapped.” Sartre didn’t like sex: his method of contraception was coitus interruptus and he always found his women too demanding. “I was more a masturbator of women than a copulator,” he admitted. Sartre was addicted from youth to trashy detective stories and cowboy stuff, and his sexuality was founded on the idea of men as protectors, and degraders, of women. He was sentimental and sought the melodrama of seduction: wind him up and he’d spout existential endearments.

The lack of authorial comment on these shenanigans makes Tête-à-Tête strangely uninvolving. But more alarmingly, Hazel Rowley has decided not to talk about Satre and De Beauvoir as writers. They worked like dogs all their lives, to a punishing schedule, bouncing ideas (and 20-year-olds) off each other. Their partnership and their love existed most vividly in their literary work. Without an acknowledgment of its meaning, and its place in their lives, this book descends into a litany of dreary hangers-on, telephone calls, appointments in cafés, plane trips and girls, girls, girls. The Second Sex comes across as just a book about women that De Beauvoir wrote by going to the Bibliothèque Nationale a lot. The three volumes of Sartre’s revelatory Roads to Freedom are mentioned more or less as dates in the couple’s hectic publishing calendar. Rowley’s readings of their novels are overly literal – there are more urgent things to say about them than which protégé was portrayed as which character. What is the point of such an approach? To treat Sartre and De Beauvoir this way is to deny them as artists.

Rowley can be prissy and unsympathetic – she is bothered by Sartre’s podginess, his smoking, drinking and use of amphetamines, and carps at his diet, which was rich when he could get it. This seems ungenerous in the light of the stringencies of the German occupation, and makes an ugly contrast with her gushing confession that she decided on the title of her book over lattes in Harvard Square. She complains that Sartre’s fingernails were filthy – but he cannot have been the only man with dirty fingernails in Paris in 1945. In old age he sometimes had mayonnaise on his face. Big deal.

No explanation is given of Sartre’s baffling legal adoption of one of his fans, Arlette Elkaïm, who now seems to squat over his literary estate with the obstinacy of the constipated on the only loo in the house. Clearly there have been archival impediments thrown in Rowley’s way, but that is no excuse for the absence of analysis or inventiveness in her telling of this tale. Nor does it help when she bends over backwards to avoid saying something plainly: when Sartre dies, De Beauvoir hurries back to the hospital to find him “looking much the same, except that he was no longer breathing”.

Sartre’s funeral procession through Montparnasse in 1980 is described in some detail, but we are told almost nothing of De Beauvoir’s final six years without him, or about Sylvie Le Bon, her last lover and companion, one of the few members of the Sartrean “family” with her head screwed on. Worst of all, in a book about a woman who had a terror of mortality, and who wrote feelingly about the deaths of her mother and Sartre, it is surprising to find De Beauvoir’s own death dealt with in a single dry paragraph. You begin to feel Sartre has exhausted poor Rowley as well.


Guardian, 14 January, 2006

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

 – Elfriede Jelinek (translated by Martin Chalmers )

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 28, 2012 at 7:48 am

Philip Roth says the novel is dead, but it would be more accurate to say the audience is dead – we’re all just too polite to mention it. What is killing the novel is people’s growing dependence on feel-good fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. With this comes an inability or unwillingness to tolerate any irregularities of form, a prissy quibbling over capital letters, punctiliousness about punctuation. They act like we’re still at school! Real writing is not about rules. It’s about electrifying prose, it’s about play.

For anyone who wants to write or read daredevil, risk-taking prose, therefore, it was tremendously encouraging that Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel prize for literature in 2004. But most British readers hadn’t heard of her, despite four novels being available from Serpent’s Tail (Lust, Wonderful, Wonderful Times, Women as Lovers, and The Piano Teacher), all of them full of her uniquely sneering tone and tireless fury with the human race. Jelinek seized the novel by its bootstraps and shook it upside down. Was she looking for coins or keys, or just trying to prevent fiction swallowing any more insincerity? Her dynamic writing gives a sense of civilisation surviving against the odds.

Jelinek’s work is brave, adventurous, witty, antagonistic and devastatingly right about the sorriness of human existence, and her contempt is expressed with surprising chirpiness: it’s a wild ride. She has also developed a form of cubism, whereby she can approach any subject from any angle, sometimes within the same sentence, homing in with sudden tenacity on some detail such as dirndls or murderers’ female pen-pals. Recreating the way the brain lurches along, spreads out, reels itself in or goes on strike, her metaphors and puns run amok, beauteousness sacrificed to a kaleidoscopic inventiveness. Wrongly accused here of writing porn, in America she has been criticised, absurdly, for living with her mother, having a website, and not going along with the war in Iraq. They treat her like some kind of moral philosopher. You can’t blame a novelist for being provocative and voicing dissent – that’s her job! Without novelists, who’s to guide us? Scientists? Priests? Politicians?

The innovation in Greed is that Jelinek intrudes more than ever before, rushing in and out of her own book like someone with tummy trouble. She likes to present herself as the bumbling author: “It’s a frequent reproach, that I stand around looking stupid and drop my characters, before I even have them, because to be honest I pretty quickly find them dull.” She admits to many mistakes: “Oh dear, that doesn’t work, and it’s also a repetition. Forgive me, I often can’t keep up with myself.” She hates naming her characters – “It sounds so silly.” She identifies a needy piano teacher as a portrait of herself, then proceeds to ridicule and finally destroy her.

What it amounts to is a dismantling of the novel before our eyes. Greed lacks the focus of Jelinek’s previous books, and is nearly incoherent at times. It is a cry of despair – despair about herself as a writer as much as about the characters she invents: “What is so wretched about me, that I can only be used for writing?” These are the exasperated outpourings of a great writer suffering from a lack of recognition (the book was written before Jelinek won the Nobel). There’s a bewildered, lonely quality to it, as well as a few too many references to current affairs, and some lazy passages that suggest she no longer believes she has any readers at all – and despite that, some wonderful, defiant mischief-making. She can’t go on, she will go on.

The plot, involving the semi-accidental murder of a teenage girl and the dumping of her body in an ominous lake, is minimal and haphazard, its main function to flesh out the divisions between men and women. They are on completely different wavelengths, the women in love with a “country policeman”, and he latently in love with men, and blatantly with property. There are other greeds, too, that of banks, naturally, and phone companies, “hot for our voices”, and the church. Describing a fancy crucifix, Jelinek writes: “the prominent victim is so full of pride at his stiff price that he’s almost bursting out of the screws with which he’s fastened to his instrument”.

But the country policeman’s greed surpasses all. He has prostituted himself to every woman in the vicinity and beyond, in the hope that they will hand over their houses to him, or at least leave him something in their wills. He thinks of female genitalia in the same way, all these doors permanently flung open for him. Jelinek circles round him, disgustedly observing that he “completely lacks a whole dimension, that is … that there are other people apart from himself”. “We should all hate corporeal life, but only this country policeman … really does hate it. One just doesn’t notice at first, because he sometimes jokes and laughs and sings songs to the accordion.”

She is equally scathing about women and their repellent eagerness to be loved. Sex is furtive, violent, base – “you give each other a good licking” – and love merely a common foible which, for women at least, always involves a dangerous loss of selfhood. Jelinek gives us a startling glimpse here of what women are, as well as answering Freud’s question, “What do women want?” It’s neither gentle nor sweet nor safe nor reasonable – just true.


Guardian, 28 October, 2006

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.