BRONTË’S THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL ON TV: WHY I WON’T SHOW IT IN CLASS

Among the myriad things we, teachers, do in July one is (re-)reading the set texts for the coming academic year and, in some cases, seeing the corresponding film adaptation (on DVD, self-financed) to check whether it might be of use to complement the book (also self-financed). I personally enjoy very much doing research on film adaptations and have frequently used film clips in class, teaching occasionally elective subjects on the adaptation of short fiction or drama.

Last year (2010-11), however, I didn’t use films at all in class for two reasons: a) students’ ability to understand the texts is fast diminishing and we have, therefore, less time for ‘extras;’ b) after reading an exam on High Fidelity in which Rob Fleming was called throughout Rob Gordon (as in the film) I must finally accept that too many students see adaptations instead of reading the books. Next semester we’ll be teaching Oliver Twist and I’m already bracing myself for getting songs from Carol Reed’s musical film instead of passages from Dickens quoted in student papers. Oh, well!

Actually, with Victorian novels the problem is the TV adaptation rather than the film version. The 1999 TV mini-series based on Oliver Twist, for instance, seems at 386 minutes complete enough to tempt students into not reading the text. And not only students. I’ve read somewhere that the TV version of Middlemarch (375 minutes, 900 pages) boosted enormously the sales of the book but not necessarily the size of its readership. For the other novel we’re teaching, Anne Brontë’s overlooked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the choice is between 400 pages or 159 minutes… This is why I doubt I’ll even mention the TV version in class, much less show clips from it.

It’ll be easy, in any case, to catch students who haven’t read the book (yes, we have introduced reading tests –isn’t it appalling that we need them?). Even though the main actors are perfect (see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115387/ -God bless the Brits for producing such great acting!) and so is the very English country house setting, Brontë’s secondary characters are mostly pared down to mere non-entities. More important, some key aspects have been rewritten in some cases to make up for apparent plot gaps (Helen’s odd ignorance of Gilbert’s brutal assault on Lawrence) or to dismiss uncomfortable gender issues –uncomfortable today, not for Brontë’s Victorian imagination: in the novel Gilbert hesitates to approach Helen again knowing she’s become a very rich woman; this is not even mentioned in the TV version. Also, the crucial religious subtext is sharply downplayed, possibly to make Helen less sanctimonious, which she is no doubt.

Poor Tara Fitzgerald, a real beauty and an inspired casting for Helen, was given a most unflattering Victorian hairstyle in the mini-series, corresponding to the decade the novel covers (1827-1837). I realise I could never have come up with that awful look as a reader. That ugly hairdo has certainly colonised my own visualisation of the novel… what an eyesore! In the end I might show just that –images to help students visualise the text, not necessarily from the mini-series but perhaps original Victorian fashion plates.

Deep breath. I just feel sad. Too much in our teaching Literature is becoming conditioned by students’ readiness to cheat on us rather than by our eagerness to teach them… Their loss as much as ours.

ISHIGURO & GARLAND: STRANGE BEDFELLOWS (ABOUT A VIDEO)

I’m writing a chapter for a collective book, edited by José Francisco Fernández Sánchez, on how contemporary British writers have progressed since the publication of Blincoe & Thorne’s anthology (and manifesto) All Hail the New Puritans (2000). I chose (I begged…) to write about Alex Garland, as I’m very much interested in how he’s straddling the world of literature and cinema.

In my search for bibliography I came across an interview by David Poland with Garland himself and Kazuo Ishiguro, filmed at the time of the release of Never Let me Go (Mark Romanek, Sept 2010), the adaptation scripted by Garland of Ishiguro’s SF novel. I’m fascinated by that 36-minute conversation (enjoy it at http://www.viddler.com/explore/mcnvideos/videos/219/). What’s so interesting about it? Everything –if you love books and cinema. The contrast between these British writers of two very different generations, who are, nonetheless friends and creative accomplices. Even the body language is significant. What they say about the profession of writing from very different perspectives on literary achievement and reputation. How well the interviewer manages to raise all the key issues regarding the difference between writing for the page and writing for the screen. The fascinating insights into the writing of Never Let me Go and the ensuing film adaptation…

Apparently, the pair met when Ishiguro contacted Garland after learning that he had modelled a piece of dialogue in The Beach after a similar exchange in Ishiguro’s own The Artist of the Floating World. You might say that Garland also borrowed from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day the gimmick of having an unreliable narrator who is exposed to the reader in his meanness as he himself remains unaware. Garland clearly admires Ishiguro for his novels and Ishiguro, for all his immense literary quality, has the elegance of admiring Garland for being a much better screen writer than he is.

Possibly this is the key issue of the interview. Ishiguro explains that when you’re regarded as a good novelist, your screenplays are welcome regardless of your actual qualifications to write them, an opinion he uses to justify why he’s not so satisfied with his own screenplays. Garland, who seems to be now a full time screen writer (his last novel, the brief The Coma was published in 2004) is asked, in contrast, how he’s coping with the acute loss of reputation that being a screen writer entails in comparison to being a novelist. He claims not to care at all, poor thing, as long as he can carry out the film projects he’s interested in. Ishiguro comes to his rescue, stressing it’s all a matter of convention –screen writers are just not granted the respect that their closest colleagues, playwrights, receive. But that might change.

I hope so! I also hope that Garland’s decision to adapt Never Let Me Go as his own very personal project (it took him five years…) starts a new fashion for literary adaptations in which the screenwriter’s name does matter –‘Garland reads Ishiguro’ could be the slogan I’m after. Add your own… This, of course, has been around for a long time, possibly from the beginnings of cinema: William Faulkner was co-author of the screen adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and to Have not, remember?. Yet, somehow the adapter’s work is always obscured and all merit stupidly awarded to directors. And the other way round: Garland insists that Ishiguro is also the author of the film adaptation of Never Let me Go, even though he had no hand in the screenplay nor was in touch with the director: the themes, characters and settings, Garland stresses, are all Ishiguro’s.

By all accounts, then, if Garland wins, let’s say, an Oscar for his adaptation, Ishiguro should win one as well. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Garland, knowing Ishiguro will be very happy for his friend…

(ACADEMIC) DIVA IN TOWN: ABOUT NOT PAYING HOMAGE

SHE is in town, the one who made all that possibly with the publication of that book back 20 years ago, invited once more to illuminate us (at great expense, with public money). I saw her years ago, one among a crowd of adoring admirers and I liked her very much because she deflated her hyperbolic introduction by claiming she had no idea who that ‘other’ woman, the one the presenter had described, was. Last time, when she was here talking about matters totally unrelated to that book, I didn’t attend, finding the announced lecture little enticing, too dependent on her fame. This time, I haven’t really paid attention to the seminar she’s teaching and, from anecdotes I’ve been told, I feel even less inclined to pay homage.

This is what we do, right?, pay homage –“rendir pleitesía” as we say in Spanish. I’m not so snobbish, or such a bad case of green envy, as to think that visiting scholars do not provide us with valuable occasions to fertilize our local wasteland. Yet, the higher the reputation, the less willingness I see to seriously engage with local scholars and students, which is what the visit should be about. I don’t know how or why but we, relative ignoramus, have created a circuit of academic divas (and divos, does the word exist in English?) that, somehow, takes us for granted here in the academic Third World. I wonder if they ever truly realise where they are in their travels around the world. Of course, notice that these travels tend to begin in the USA, occasionally in France, Britain or Germany, and that hardly ever lead to reciprocal invitations. Actually, how could they? We don’t have luminaries here –they all moved long ago to the States or dream of leaving the wasteland behind.

Of course, this is our fault, for admiration totally precludes real intellectual work. I see too much of that. Groupie admiration leads nowhere intellectually, though it might supply you with the odd orgasm (of the mind, I mean…). I’m all for debate, which only happens when people occupy similar positions, when the diva/o understands that now and then it’s quite healthy to stop acting as one, slum down and connect.

We should write papers, perhaps a PhD dissertation, about academic stardom in the same way we write about other kinds of stars, and place this diva alongside Madonna or Marylin Monroe. Maybe this way we’d discover how these mighty brains produce: on rich campuses, under the initial mentorship of well-connected names, networking with others like them, not having to carry out dirty admin work or teach undergrads. Do I sound bitter, maybe uglily jaundiced? Well, of course I do. In academia we are all aspiring divas and divos –don’t we all crave for admiration? Yet, above all, I am tired of not seeing Spanish names in international bibliographies and of the fact that so few nations produce ‘invitable’ guest speakers. Why don’t they have divas this big in Roumania? In Tanzania? In Colombia? How come the list of big names is so small in this big world?

Or, rather, how come some names are so big in this small world of ours that none cares for outside? Say Bauman, say Spivak in the streets and see what happens. Say Lady Gaga in class… Oh, no, she’s from that country. Say Shakira, then, and see who’s the real diva, whether you like her or not, and why some fields of knowledge should have none or just very modest ones.

As for myself, instead of attending her seminar I’ll attend that other seminar and see what my younger colleagues have to say.

WHEN IT’S BAD, IT’S WORSE: ARTHUR MILLER ALL MY SONS

I believe that when theatre disappoints it does do with the same intensity as when it pleases: very much. This is not quite the same in the case of cinema, I’m not sure why; somehow, bad films are soon forgotten, whereas bad plays, always harder to follow than films, remain stuck in our memories. I’m afraid this is what will happen to me in the case of Argentinean director Claudio Tolcachir’s version of Arthur Miller’s All my sons (1947), translated as Todos eran mis hijos and staged here in Barcelona’s Teatre Poliorama within this year’s Grec Festival.

I had been warned that the production was a complete disaster, which is why I took last night’s performance with a pinch of salt and even enjoyed now and then the ham acting of minor celebrities Manuela Velasco (of REC zombie fame) and Fran Perea (from TV series Los Serranos). The seniors, Gloria Muñoz and Carlos Hipólito, were not much better. And the others, oh my… Velasco ended calling her ‘brother’ Georgie, Jordi, which provided us, Catalans, with a truly hilarious moment, while Muñoz destroyed one of the fake plants on stage by stepping on it accidentally. I could hardly hear Hipólito well (from row four…); young Perea insisted on sweating profusely and running all over the stage instead of acting. I could go on…

I’m not sure whether this appallingly bad acting was all the directors’ fault or whether Miller’s text (condensed at some points, I’m afraid…) is so outdated as to be impossible to recycle. I found it predictable, contrived (yes, there was a letter concealed for years…), very middlebrow, if you know what I mean. Now, here’s what I really wanted to say: my friends and myself, quite bemused by what we had seen, found ourselves surrounded by a sea of enthusiastic members of the audience, clapping wildly and shouting bravo. That was funny. My friends attributed the unexpected reaction (we assumed everyone was as uncomfortable, bored, astounded as we were by what went on on stage) to the celebrity cult inspired by Hipólito (the voice of the grown up Carlos in Cuéntame), Perea and Velasco and they might have a point. The audience yesterday was not the usual one at our habitual haunts, Lliure or TNC, but the ‘others’ of commercial theatre. (I, besides, found the play very alien in terms of its following stage conventions that can only be seen in Madrid’s theatres.)

Anyway, the point is that I was one of the dozens spectators clapping like mad and shouting bravo at the top of my lungs after last Sunday’s performance of Octopus, the beautiful contemporary dance show by Philpe Decouflé’s company. A friend told me he’d enjoyed it but found it just pretty, immediately forgivable. Um. To him I am, therefore, what the ‘others’ were yesterday to me at Poliorama, which is making me think hard about theatre and taste. Each one of us is a stage snob, just like that, and there’s little we can do except avoid shows not intended for us. Actually, when I saw the poster for the play I saw yesterday, circulating all over Barcelona on the side panels of buses, it took me a while to connect it with the play I had tickets for. “This is a play,” I told myself then, contemplating the cast’s photo, “I’m not going to see.”

Too late, big mistake. I was lured by Miller’s name, I should have checked the other names. Or see, perhaps, the 1948 film version with Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster…

A FEMINIST DILEMMA: THAT MAN AT THE CONFERENCE…

I attended a few weeks ago a very interesting interdisciplinary conference on gender, development and textuality at a university near Barcelona. As usual whenever gender is discussed, there were very few men, which is why that particular man soon caught my attention.

Tall, wearing salwar kameez and cap, his face decorated with a longish beard and no moustache there was no way we could miss him. Particularly because he never smiled, which is a feat when you’re surrounded by dozens of chattering, laughing women (and a few equally nice men). As it turned out, he was the brother of a female Pakistani guest speaker with a cosmopolitan academic background –I won’t name her. I first supposed the siblings were joyfully reuniting after a while without seeing each other but soon it became clear to me that he was her ‘official’ chaperon, guardian or worse. To my dismay, although only the sister spoke at the round table to which she had been invited, she credited her brother as the co-author of her paper (“independent analyst,” his affiliation claimed). He didn’t even take part in the ensuing discussion.

When I told one of my colleagues how annoyed I was by the presence of this patriarchal eyesore at the conference, she answered that she herself had managed NOT to see him. I tried, but failed. Another colleague reminded me, much more charitably than I myself felt, that without this man’s surveillance our woman guest couldn’t have delivered her paper. Of course, without her accrediting him as co-author, he could have been prevented at least from entering the premises, but I was told I was beginning to sound really authoritarian. Well, deep breath. It was not MY feminist conference and I don’t know what I would have done in the place of the organizers but it HURT to see how weak our position is as women, so that we have to tolerate out of politeness (or female solidarity?) the imposition of this man’s unwelcome presence among us.

I do wish someone would embarrass me right now by telling me that I had grossly misread it all and he was just enjoying the company of his adored sister. I’ll withdraw this entry at once. Anyway, next time I find myself in a situation like this, I’ll rent (yes) a bulky, spectacular escort –bodyguard or toy boy, I haven’t decided yet– and will parade him all over the conference, stuck to my heels. Maybe he and the unsmiling man will make friends, go sightseeing together, leave us women alone…

READING ROGER CASEMENT AT LAST! (AND QUESTIONING LITERATURE)

I first mentioned Roger Casement here in relation to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (see entry for 12-XII) and, later, in my review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s El sueño del Celta (2-I), a novel based on his tragic life. In the meantime, I have spent 60 euros of public money to purchase for the UAB library a copy of The Eyes of Another Race: Roger Casement’s Congo Report and 1903 Diary (edited by S.Ó. Síocháin and Michael O’Sullivan, University College Dublin Press, 2003). Amazingly, nobody has uploaded the report onto the net, I can’t explain why as copyright laws no longer apply, although, tellingly, the available edition of this official British report is Irish (remember? Casement, himself Irish, was executed for helping the Irish to rebel). Anyway, I have finally read the report and I worry now that Heart of Darkness is for ever spoiled for me.
The report is a straightforward narrative of Casement’s own journey into the heart of darkness that King Leopold’s personal Congo was in 1903. Basically, Casement repeated the journey he’d already taken in 1887 (Conrad was in Congo in 1890) in order to better appreciate the contrast between Congo as it was before the arrival of the white man and Congo under the impact of his depredations. The results of this comparison are devastating, basically due to the imposition by private companies of harsh food and rubber quotas (for the budding bicycle and car tyre industries) on villages punished with unbelievable violence, and with the Government’s full consent, if these were not met. Ivory, which is central to Conrad’s story as we know, is hardly ever mentioned whereas, unlike what happens in Conrad’s text, the natives are indeed mentioned by name and so are the places they inhabit. We know through Casement of the atrocities they report to him and I remain personally haunted by the chief who breaks down and cries, as he tells Casement life is no longer worth living for him and his people.
I am well aware that Casement reports what he’s told and we don’t hear the actual voices of the terrorised native population for they are completely disempowered, having to resource to this committed, disgusted white man to vent their grievances. Yet, reading the report, one is also fully aware that the stance Casement took was a matter of human rights, as he, like many contemporary NGOs attacked, mainly, the illegality of what was being perpetrated in Congo as a way to free the native population from terror. At one point he recalls how in his first visit the Congolese natives would flock to meet any white person who happened to pass their village when in 1903 they often fled in terror at his own approach.
Suddenly, after reading the report, Conrad’s tale appears to be not only very silly (more in the line of King Solomon’s Mines than of anything else) but also irresponsible. No wonder Chinua Achebe was angry. Now I understand. I have always thought that, given the all-pervading racism of his time, Conrad’s Congo needed be the primitive, exotic place it is while his own racism appeared to be quite moderate. Reading now Casement I stand corrected, as his report shows that many white persons were then already capable of a degree of human sympathy that we are still struggling to achieve (think Iraq and Afghanistan). And it shows, above all, how easy it is to build empathy for the suffering of those who cannot speak for themselves if this is what the writer intends.
We get nothing at all like this from Conrad and I can only say that Literature, or at least Conrad, fails in this miserably. Next time I teach Heart of Darkness, I’ll make sure students also read Casement. If I ever teach it again…

GETTING READY FOR ACADEMIA: THE LONG ROAD

The bright student who visited me wanted to know what it takes to become a university teacher. Time, patience, luck, stamina, determination, pragmatism and the thickest possible skin. The other qualities –a teaching vocation, a passion for learning, good writing skills– are taken for granted to such as extent that I have never heard them mentioned, which speaks volumes about the upside down world in which we live.
This student is 20, still very young, but I found myself planning her life for the next 10-12 years. First you finish the degree (2 more years), then take an MA (1 year), then write a doctoral dissertation (3 years) and that’s just the barest beginning. Um, yes, as you do this try to combine working with teaching as an associate (which universities hate, I know…), publishing and attending conferences out of your own pocket. In our current accreditation system if you strike it very, very lucky, you get a first post-doctoral accreditation, which might just perhaps lead to teaching position for 4-5 years. By that time you’re already 30 –if you’re a woman the biological clock starts ticking, which means that you stop being competitive just at the time when the second, final accreditation for tenure comes up. If you get that by the age of 30 and are tenured by, say 32, that’s EXTREMELY lucky (the average age for tenured positions is now 40). I told you: my student is 20, 12 years later she might be tenured. Or not.
There was a time, 20 years ago, when one could become a tenured teacher still in their mid to late 20s, with just a PhD dissertation and one (minor) published article under their belt. Now this is impossible. I agree that the academic career was, if not exactly easy to access, easier than it should have been. Now it’s verging on mental torture and, faced with this very long road no wonder many young promises are giving up before they start. My crystal ball tells me we’ll soon have a shortage of doctors with a lectureship accreditation but, then, as this will coincide, or is already coinciding, with this monstrous crisis which is destroying tenured positions as teachers retire, I just don’t know whether to tell my student to feel optimistic or pessimistic…
I just hope the younger generations are not as naive as we, the ones born in the 1960s, were. Pragmatism rules… The best you can do is take the accreditation regulations, study them, and plan your career with foresight. What this has to do with the creativity of learning beats me.

TEACHERS IN JULY: DOING WHAT, EXACTLY?

One of our brightest students visits me (see why below) and asks me, casually, seeing that I’m still stressed out, what exactly do teachers in July. This is tactful in comparison to the habitual ‘so, you’re already on holiday?’ with which I’m greeted by family and non-academic friends every year at this point. I always wonder why there are not more people queuing to be teachers at any educational stage if everyone believes we have these loongggg holidays…
Between June and July, my dear student, we teachers mark tons of exercises, papers, exams, dissertations as we try to catch up with our reading and writing, perhaps attend a conference, perhaps organize it, and, yes, get ready for the next academic year –design the syllabus, choose the set texts and read them… What do students do, exactly?
This leads me back to a recurrent worry: why is our profession so deeply misunderstood? To begin with, everyone believes that our main job is teaching, when it should actually be doing research. I say it should because teaching and management tasks are taking up more and more of our time, as I’ve been complaining about here again and again. Yet, somehow, teaching hours are the only measurable part of our job and, therefore, the only part that is grasped by the general public, students included. This means that, except for the person who lives with me, and who sees me work at home practically every day, whether I go to UAB or not, everyone else believes I work half the week and only for a few hours.
Even so, the hours spent in front of the computer seem to count for more than the hours we spend working on our backs –I mean reading on the sofa. For my dad, who spent 8 hours everyday standing, operating a machine, the idea that one can work stretched out on a sofa reading a book is absurd. If I told him that after 8 hours of intellectual work of this kind I’m exhausted, particularly when I write (no, none can write for 8 hours…and not on the sofa), he would not understand at all. This generates a peculiar feeling of guilt –yes, guilt– that a) at this time of the year, I am free to choose my daily schedule (except on exam dates –last one 19 July…), 2) I use most of my time to read, which for other people is a pastime.
I wonder if this is why they hate us so much and why ‘they’ (the bureaucrats that oppress us) want to reduce university teaching down to the regimented horror that most jobs are.
See next…