Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Path Through the Snow

            My feet can't find their footing
            The snow gives way, then holds, gives way again
            according to some code it has learned
            from sky and wind, frost and white fall
            too ancient to express in human terms
            Earth wears its old white bandage like a habit
            even when it dirties on the edges,
            or melts to mud in the in the sun-soft patches
            of a trail I can walk each day
            finding only the prints of the someone else
            who asked these questions of earth, sky, wind
            and turning earth and found answers
            always the same, always different.  

So last weekend we had the kind of snowstorm that when it's over leaves you with less snow than when it started.
         I go to the marsh on the Quincy Wollaston Beach shoreline to walk my usual path, but it's in that stage where some of the snow has melted and refrozen so many times that from step to step you can't tell whether you are going to plunge through the crust or not. After falling through a few dozen times, I give up, struggle uphill a few feet, will myself under a few pointy branches and find a path where a line of yellow grass is already free of snow. Mini eco-systems everywhere around here.
         From some stretches of the irregular loop trail that wanders like a careless necklace or chain thrown on a bed, irregular, looped one way and the other so the perspective is constantly changing, some of the marsh is completely open. It's all yellow spartina marsh grass, most of it flattened down by the succession of storms. In a few shaded places the snow still bunches up. In some of snow-free patches, snow-fed mud is exposed in the channels, especially at low tide, where it looks like old sodden weather in need of something in its stomach and strong cup of coffee. At other times when the tide is high, the channels fill with clean salt water shining with reflected blue from the skies.
       Where the snow is thin among a long flat stretch of marsh, I found Canada geese in their multitudes today. Another fleet of them hunkers around shore side, closer to the beach. Squadrons leave each of these with great honking declarations and end up landing close to one of the other formations.
       More bird life is visible and audible in this, the last month of winter. I heard a blue jay squawking today and a woodpecker worked steadily nearby when I was forced out of a crunchy snow stone into the cover of trees where the snow is mostly melted. The woodpecker did not seem to mind when I stopped to watch him work, producing a clatter a boy banging a tree trunk with a stick. Probably louder.
       Birds are the tongues of the trees. Sunsets are fire in the winter sky. The trees hold everything in place. It's there when we need it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Cultivating the Heart

            "Fire in the Blood" by the French (though Russian born) author Irene Nemirovsky, author of the masterpiece Suite Francaise, is a short novel that we can't be sure she was finished with. The ending is abrupt, and devastating. But that of course may be just the effect she intended. It's a book that has more impact, on me at least, than many much longer ones.
            It certainly challenges any complacencies we may have about growing old, an experience denied to the author, since (as her readers probably know) she was murdered by the Nazis during World War II at the age of 39. I would love to know whether her opinions would have changed had she been permitted more time.
            The novel grows from a modest beginning to a deeper and bleaker story leading to its profound ending that arrives like a slap in the face. An unreliable narrator of the "keeping secrets, information withheld" sort, Cousin Silvio has returned to the rural region in France where he grew up after burning through his inherited lands to support an adventurer's life abroad, seeing the world, cohabiting with different women on different continents. Now he lives in an old house on a last tiny bit of property and does nothing and apparently needs nothing.
            I am old he tells a favorite cousin; the fire in the blood has cooled. I want only peace. "It's as if I no longer exist," he says late in the book. For company he has his wine; it's almost, he says, "like having a woman."
            Though few readers would approve of his choices, Silvio appears content. At least he's not complaining.
            He attends the wedding of a young cousin, Colette, who has "fire in the blood." And there sees another young woman (Brigitte), whom he interested in seeing for unstated "information withheld" reasons. She too has that fire, but she has married an old man for his money. Waiting for him to die, she has an affair with a young man who reminds Silvio of his younger self.
            Coincidence, or some tongue-in-fate brings Silvio to Colette's house one evening when she is alone, supposedly waiting for her husband to come home, but worldly Silvio can tell she is waiting for a lover. Later that night the husband disappears and his body is discovered in the morning in the canal below the house's mill. Eventually rumors of foul play emerge.
            The lover Colette was waiting for turns out to be the same young man who is the lover of Brigitte, whose husband is taking too long to die. This fellow -- more fire in the blood -- reminds Silvio of his younger self. He would have thrown a husband in the drink too if he got in the way of his passions. 
            All this takes place in one of those hermetically sealed landed peasant districts in France, where the farmers are well off, sometimes even in wealthy, hard-working, generally prudent -- but also miserly, suspicious, and given to the dreariness that infects a mind that cares about money ("mean" is narrator's word) but has no education, culture or interest beyond getting and keeping. One misstep in this world and evil tongues may drive you out.
            The hints are there, but nothing prepares me for the sudden "turn" in the story near the end.
        As Colette's life unravels over the growing scandal, her mother's apparently kind, but disappointed and "respectable" response to her daughter's infidelity re-ignites the flame, or rather uncovers the memory of the flame, in Silvio's heart-deadened existence.
            Recalling his own own fiery youth, and his women, he recalls also "his Helene" -- Colette's mother. Helene and her husband, Francois, are the ideal couple. They do everything together. They take walks in the country. They are nothing but kindness and generosity to each other and to everyone. When Francois is late coming home one stormy evening from a visit to one of his farms, Helene grows frantic with worry. She knows in her heart that something has happened. She marches off in the rain to find him and Silvio (who always seems nearby when things go wrong) is forced to go with her; and sure enough they find Francois has been in a car accident.
            They are "old love." That's their role in the novel. Colette, Brigitte, and their fiery young lover represent "young love."
            But in response to Helene's disappointment over Colette, suddenly Silvio remembers his own "young love." Recalling his own fiery youth makes him, one, despise what he's become -- "So you need warmth, old man with a withered heart, you need a little fire." And, two, accuse Helene of living a sham life, a pale imitation of real love, with her old, faithful, kindly, entirely predictable husband.
            He contrasts this Helene with the young woman he loved, "the real woman inside her, the passionate, happy , daring wowan who delighted in pleasure --I'm the only one who really knew her, no one else. Francois owns only a pale, cold imitation of that woman, ... I possessed what is now dead and gone, I possessed her youth."
            I'll spare you the final turn in the screw of this line of thinking; this view of life; this challenge to all those of us who see growing old in a faithful, loving, companionable connection with another human being as a source not only of contentment, but of deeper humanity.
            The novel seems to be presenting a crueler view of life; unsentimental, vitalistic, strictly amoral. That's why I say I would love to see where Nemirovsky ended up on this question. She was a wife and a parent herself and had what we might be tempted to call a lifetime of experience. But the monsters of history and hate, of other and worse passions than the ones she wrote about, took her life before she was forty.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Deep and Reproachful Patience of the Cat

Once in a great while I am left alone in the house.
            Or almost alone. We have the place to ourselves, the cat and I.
            With a day to myself, the first thing I do is look up what movies are playing. I have not gone to the movies by myself in -- well, who can count the years? Who would want to?
            The next thing I do is buy a frozen pizza. My wife does not eat pizza because of a dietary restriction. By an informal count, I am about one thousand, seven hundred and twenty pizzas behind schedule. I am owed a lot of pizzas.
            It is hard to make much of a dent in that backlog in one weekend, but I am worried that one of these days I may try. Ordinarily, for the record, I cook a lot of vegetables. Already I have a squash soup recipe picked out for supper the day my wife returns, but on these rare occasions of solitude, I seem to lack the moral fiber to eat fiber.
            I sigh.
            The cat sleeps.
            The next thing I do is look up the name of the recently published nine hundred page fantasy novel that ends a thirteen-book series I have been following for -- this also passes belief -- twice as many years as I have fingers. Nine hundred pages at a clip is a little unusual, but not out of line for the tomes in this series. Remember that the word "fan" is derived from "fanatic." We faithful readers need to know what happens to our favorite characters. I would make a list of them to while away the solitude, but I am informed by a reliable source that the series's characters now number over two thousand. To be an author of a book series this long is perhaps to play God more convincingly than any comparison I can think of.
            I check the price of the latest hard-bound volume in this series. It is the cost of several movie tickets.
            The cat licks her paw.
            I check the weather. I can do this by looking out the window, since it is snowing. Will snow make it impossible for me to go to the movies? Have I mentioned that I do not have a working DVD player.
            Have I mentioned that solitude can be oppressive?
            In the abstract I look forward to occasional solitary stretches because "I have a lot of work to do." Is there an ambulatory American adult who cannot say the same? But faced with long periods of incarceration -- I mean solitude: a sort of unrelieved diet of self, with no appetizers or dessert -- the human mind seems to grow increasingly frantic in its search for diversion. Well, the TV works, doesn't it? How's that supply of pizza? beer? books?
            What would the Sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson, author of that quintessential assertion of American individuality "Self Reliance," think of a man who is desperate to drive to the movies in the snow after spending one, count 'em one, day by himself?
            I get up from my desk to discuss this point with the cat. The cat is unimpressed.
            While I pace the house, extrapolating on the paradoxes of the human condition, Kitty has not changed her position in, what, fourteen hours? Time does not faze her. She greets the prospect of twelve-hour stretches of lying on the bed, our bed, between meals with a yawn. Some days she forgets to leave this station to look for breakfast when the humans begin rattling around in the kitchen, and so the first meal of her day gets served up from the can around dinner time.
            She is patient. Enlightenment is a speed bump in her rear-view mirror. She is the past master of other lives. What was Cleopatra really like? Is it really worth the bother of remembering?... Who? What?
            She arches her back slightly;lies back down in exactly the same spot. The warm spot.
            I stick my nose out the door, while I gathering the necessary garments and hand-held appliances for a road trip at night, in winter, to an entertainment option in order to divert my thoughts from too much time alone with moi. The first flakes fall on my head.
            I am halfway to the car when the final truth of my situation makes itself known to me: Don't forget to feed the cat.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Garden of Tears

            I seldom miss an opportunity to see the sung-through stage adaptation of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." New York? Boston? I'm there. When my son took a semester abroad in London, we saw it there. I've seen it in high schools.
            I seldom miss an opportunity to write about it either.
            I'm aware some people are -- I will not say emotionally stunted -- left us say, rather, deaf to the show's appeal.To those I can only point to the health benefits alone. It's important to take your heart out every once in a while and give it a good cry.
            The film version of "Les Miserables" (directed by Tom Hooper, starring Oscar nominated actors Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway; also Russell Crowe, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, among others), is a good opportunity to do just that.
            The film scores some hits and suffers some misses. The quality that makes it worth seeing it on film is the same thing that carries the stage production -- it's an incredible story, a transcendental fable of injustice, crime, god, love, revolution and death. All the big questions. It's a workout for your heart and your brain.
            America has never had a national writer like Victor Hugo, a world figure who published "Les Miserables," a novel the size of an encyclopedia filled with both French history and the ordinary life of his country, especially in Paris, where the feats of daring criminals -- a sidetrack that doesn't make it into the stage version -- were lovingly recorded as if they were superheroes. The universal themes are there as well -- rich and poor, honor, morality, faith and suffering. In Hugo's novel young men vie for the honor of dying on the barricade for a cause. And yet its home truths are, well, close to home. On his death bed hero Jean Valjean reminds us "that to love another person/ is to see the face of God."
            The novel is set in a France that's both post-revolutionary and pre-revolutionary. The 1789 Revolution in which the poor stormed the Bastille and liberals of the middle and upper classes threw out the king is 40 years past; but France has once more fallen on hard times. It has a king, plenty of decadent aristocrats, and hordes of suffering poor -- for whom the term "les miserables" was invented. As the heroic street kid Gavroche explains: we had an old king, now we have a new king; they're the same. Paris is a smoldering caldron of tension, waiting for a spark.
            Meanwhile, we have crime and punishment, but no justice. Rural peasant Valjean has been sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister's child from starving. It's hardly an isolated case. There's a whole underclass of prisoner-slaves. The movie opens, appallingly, with hundreds of these wretches hauling on ropes to tug a gigantic man-of-war into dry dock while guards look down on them. They're all part of what today would be called "the system."
            The landscapes are different but the questions are still with us. In what country is the gap growing alarmingly between rich and poor? What nation has guards on its borders to keep out the poor? What country imprisons the largest percentage of its poulation?
            Valjean is patrolled from prison, but hounded as an "offender" and driven off from town to town.  He is saved by the intervention of the "true Christian" bishop who invests some surplus ecclesiastical silver in his reformation. Valjean turns to God and uses the bishop's silver to open a factory, becoming both a great success and the mayor of his town -- dressed to the nines, fawned over by the class of people who once despised him, and living a lie: it's one of the tale's great ironies.   
            However, he fails to intervene and save one of his factory workers (Fantine) from the same kind of devastating injustice that almost destroyed his life, because he's frightened and distracted by the arrival in his town of the prison guard, Javert, who may recognize him as the prisoner who jumped parole. He encounters her a couple of great songs later (she sings "I dreamed a dream": "...I dreamed that life would be so different/ from this hell I'm living now") as she's practically at death's door and about to be dragged off to jail by Javert for rejecting the abuse of a wealthy man. Abandoned by a lover "who took my childhood in his stride," Fantine is supporting an out-of-wedlock child. If she goes to prison, the child will die.
            Javert, the doctrinaire servant of the state, shrugs his shoulders. Valjean intervenes, takes her in, promises to send for her child. In the show's first-act emotional climax a dying Fantine is told by Valjean her daughter Cosette "will live in my protection/ Your child will want for nothing."
            "Monsieur," she replies in a final cri de couer as her soul shuffles off its mortal coil, "you're heaven sent!"
            We weep. I know I do. (Though, frankly, this comes off better on live stage than on screen). All children should have "protection." In making this vow, Valjean embraces the meaning of his life and becomes the man that his successful "monsieur le maire" could never be. 
            Valjean cannot save all his country's suffering children, but he goes off to save Cosette.          You know Cosette needs help her innkeeper/criminal guardian is portrayed in the film by Sasha Baron Cohen.
            Circumstances have caused Valjean to reveal himself. He and Javert have an explosive face-off in which Javert reveals his origins, "I am from the gutter too," and Valjean begs for time to help "a suffering child," but is rejected ("You must think me mad!/I've hunted you across the years/A man such as you"), before overpowering the policeman and making his escape.
            On stage this entire sequence is overpowering. The film dances around the characters, rather than pulling back and letting them stand as the archetypes -- they could be wearing ceremonial masks in the Japanese theater -- they are: Compassion versus Duty.
            After rescuing Cosette, Valjean flees to Paris to "go to ground," as the criminal/innkeeper puts it, hiding his identity to give the child a loving but closeted upbringing. Hugo's plot puts Valjean on ice until his role in the third-act climax, a narrative weakness that only the story's lavish and deeply stirring political story, with its new cast characters, succeeds in overcoming.   
            The action moves to the street of Paris, where we confronts the rags and haunted faces of les miserables, the student revolutionaries, the now-urbanized criminal gang of the former innkeeper, the inevitable Javert now backed up by ranks of uniformed "national guard." Taking center stage, young revolutionary Marius, estranged from his bourgeois family, falls in love with Cosette. The gang betrays Valjean's hiding place to Javert.
            And just as the rebel students take to the barricades to rouse the city's poor to a new revolution, all the strands of the story come to a head in a musical collision song (for which I'm unable to of a forma term; perhaps a sextet) called "One Day More."
            The many-sided "One Day More" tops any "Broadway" musical number I've ever seen. Playing the cast recording in the car while bellowing out as many "sung-over" lines as I could fit in, I used to have to pull off the road to keep from killing myself. The number climaxes, at least for me in Marius's decision: "My cause is here/ I'll fight with you!"
            Valjean plans to escape to London, dragging along the unwilling Cosette. Both young lovers are pulled apart by competing demands. The gangster's urban chic daughter (Eponine) declares her own hopeless love for Marius, for whom she sacrifices herself "when the bullets start to fly." Believing they "will see the people rise," the revolutionaries defend the barricade against the soldiers of the state. Javert spies on the rebels, is caught, and is saved from execution by Valjean, who has snuck into the barricade to save Marius for Cosette.
           The student leaders has warned, "Have you asked yourself what price you might pay?" Wounded when the barricade is overrun, Marius is about to pay it when Valjean drags him from the killing ground by some underworld heroics -- dragging the wounded man through the Paris sewers. This leads inevitably to another confrontation with Javert. But since Valjan has already spared Javert's life, Javert faces what proves to be a fatal crisis of faith. An insight: Javert, a believer, was on the wrong side. He should have stuck with his roots. I peg him as an anarchist in his next life.
            "Lez Mis" is a romantic tale, but not an easy one. The deaths of the young revolutionaries raise one of history's persistent questions: Is it worth giving up your life for a cause? Miraculously preserved, Marius sings: "oh my friends don't ask me/what your sacrifice was for..."
            There's more. When Valjean crawls off to a convent to die and not shadow the young people with the "scandal" of his criminal past, the newly married young people find him: all his secrets come out -- and all is forgiven.
            The reprise of the revolutionary anthem finishes the show as all its characters (both living and dead) sing about the better world to come. But does that "next world" mean "with God?" Or a new world after the revolutionary cause of justice -- "liberte, egalite, fraternite" -- has been achieved. That's the way the film, making spectacular use of its resources -- long barricades, flags waving, triumphantly smiling people -- plays it.
            "Beyond the barricades," this anthem asks, "is there a world you long to see?"
            You better believe it. Absolutely.
            We long for it, but we just don't see it.