A TEST CASE: LITERARY FICTION, MAINSTREAM FICTION (AND THE JEWISH GIRL WHO ESCAPED FROM VEL’ D’HIV)

You might be familiar with the French film Sarah’s Key (Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2010), originally titled Elle s’appelait Sarah, like the best-selling novel (2007) by Tatiana de Rosnay which it adapts. I saw the film, loving, as usual, Kristin Scott-Thomas’s fine performance. She plays Julia, a journalist who doggedly follows the clues leading her to discover the identity of the little Jewish girl who used to live in the Paris apartment she’s to move into, owned now by her husband’s family. I was not so keen on the suitability of the horrifying, sensational central anecdote that the English title refers to, but I was appalled enough to read the novel by the representation of the rounding up of thousands of Jews –many children– at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in July 1942 by the French police, of which I’d never heard (and I am interested in the Holocaust). The novel contained, as I expected, more information about brave Sarah and the ghastly conditions which Jews endured at Vel’ d’Hiv, but also even more melodrama, as the book really narrates the strange beginning of a second-chance romance between Julia and a man closest to Sarah (um… that’s half a spoiler).

To my surprise, I came across at my local library with a novel by Spanish writer Juana Salabert, Velódromo de Invierno (2001), about exactly the same topic. Little Jewish girl escapes the horrors of French collaborationism by sheer pluck and luck to be plagued by survivor’s guilt for ever; there’s also a little brother and a son, and parallel narrative strands contrasting past and present. I’m not claiming that De Rosnay plagiarised from Salabert and, at any rate, I haven’t come across comments on the internet about this. Salabert’s volume is now and then mentioned when De Rosnay’s or discussions of the Vel d’Hiv horrors crop up. That’s all.

Since one is Spanish and the other French, I’ll never teach these two books together but I wish I could do it because their contrasts illustrate to perfection the difference between highbrow or literary fiction (Salabert’s) and middlebrow or mainstream fiction (De Rosnay’s). I don’t think one could/should write formula lowbrow fiction about such a sensitive subject, but there might be some. I fondly remember a seminar on the Holocaust organised by my colleague Gonzalo Pontón at UAB in January 2005. We endlessly discussed what strategies of representation were more apt: high culture to keep the seriousness of the subject intact or popular culture to teach a moral lesson to the largest possible audience (yes, Shoah versus Spielberg’s Schindler’s List). I myself spoke about the 1970s TV series Holocaust, so you can see which thesis I defended. Today, with De Rosnay’s and Salabert’s books here before me I haven’t changed my mind.

Before you tell me I should read a history book if I’m so interested in Vel’ d’Hiv, let me say that fiction’s function is to represent the human emotions that essays cannot and need not reflect. Salabert’s high literary prose is certainly beautiful and far above anything De Rosnay can manage. Yet, half the time I kept thinking that ‘people don’t speak or think like that,’ the other half I struggled to follow who was saying what and to whom, as Salabert eschews the conventional presentation of dramatised scenes that De Rosnay uses, preferring, as it is fashionable in Spanish Literature, long passages with very few full stops and dialogue compressed into blocks of texts interspersed with stream of consciousness. Salabert’s Ilse could hardly come up to life in comparison with plucky Sarah and, although I admire the book very much for Salabert’s self-assured artistry, I wished she’d simply been more direct, for, to my mind, this is what her subject demands.

On the other hand, although the film does a much better job of this, in De Rosnay’s novel Julia’s love life weighs too heavily on Sarah’s story for my liking. It provides, actually, a totally unnecessary narrative framework, which is why many will consider this is not a serious Holocaust novel but (pure) melodrama. Fair enough. Yet, despite cringing now and then –which is what middlebrow fiction will do to you at its worst– I enjoyed De Rosnay’s novel far better than Salabert’s. One I could not drop, the other I forced myself to end.

Personal opinion, of course. 19th century novelists managed to be entertaining and literary at the same time. The Modernists then made these two values irreconcilable and now, in Post Post-Modernism (please, someone find a name soon), we’re stuck, with just very few writers managing to provide all kinds of pleasure. Name one, if you can…

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO FEMINIST CINEMA? (ON BIGELOW AND BIER)

I’m reading Teresa De Lauretis already ancient collection Technologies of Gender (1987!) and I stumble onto her post-Mulvey cry for a truly feminist cinema. By this she means, as it is well-known, not just a cinema by, about and for women, dealing with issues concerning women, but a cinema using specifically female narrative and aesthetic codes in opposition to the predominant male ones of (commercial) cinema. She enthuses about Yvonne Rainer, so I check IMDB and I find two spectator comments for her The Man Who Envied Women (1985): a man proclaims this is a “Very funny movie, if you like feminist deconstruction” and rates it 10/10; a woman (?) who saw this in her feminist class and claims to be an experimental film buff claims that feminist cinema died because “their mantra included removing pleasure from movies.” He was writing in 2010, she in 2005.

Barcelona hosts every year an international festival devoted to women’s films (http://www.mostrafilmsdones.cat/), soon to reach its 20th edition. I’ve never attended it, as I don’t feel comfortable with this kind of positive discrimination (see my previous post). I know I’m very wrong to be so prejudiced and I should be open to what women directors have to offer, flooded as we are by the painful trash spawned by male-oriented Hollywood films. Yet, again, in the style of what I wrote in my previous post: I look forward to either a film festival openly about (heterosexual) men, or more inclusive film festivals in which all identities are balanced. Keep on dreaming…

De Lauretis set me thinking about the ONLY TWO women directors who have won an Oscar: Kathryn Bigelow (in 2010 for the Iraq war film The Hurt Locker) and Susanne Bier (in 2011 for the film about school bullying In a Better World). Bigelow, currently making a film about Bin Laden that has been re-written to fit his assassination, was brutally criticized by some feminists (even though she won against ex-husband James Cameron, nominated for mega-hit Avatar!). The criticism had much to do with Bigelow’s being specialized in action films about male characters; also with the alleged criticism that she makes films not just like a man but as a man. After Bigelow’s win, some expected more nominations for women directors and there were complaints that, instead, there were none this year. Oddly enough, this complaint completely missed Susanne Bier’s success; her film, get this, won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. Had you noticed?

Surf the net and you’ll find that Bier, an ex-Lars Von Trier’s protégé and a former Dogme 95 member, has stirred no comments with her triumph, except in Denmark, where she is praised, logically, as a quality Danish director. I’m puzzled by this, very much. Could it be that Bier’s films (I love After the Wedding, Brothers and Things We Lost in the Fire) are too ‘feminine’ to threaten anyone? To me, both Bigelow and Bier make films as women, addressing everyone and contributing a female gaze on both men and women – now that I think about it, they’re particularly good at dealing with men. Why has one elicited so much controversy but not the other? It’s not just that Bigelow was attacked but that Bier’s triumph has not really been celebrated as a triumph for women directors all over the world… no idea why not.

Could it be that, almost 25 years after De Lauretis’s book, we’re still confused about the obligation for feminist cinema of being experimental or avant-garde? See a list of 50 best female film directors at IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/list/7YULN6kSrTo/) and judge for yourself.

AN ANTHOLOGY OF MALE WRITERS: HOW WOULD THIS SOUND?

In the process of preparing two very small selections of Victorian poems and essays for our second year students, I’ve gone through a number of the main anthologies in the field. To tell you the truth, I’m quite amused by what I’ve found. And also disappointed. I’ll name a few volumes. For poetry: Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology edited by Margaret Reynolds and Angela Leighton; Victorian Women Poets: An Annotated Anthology edited by Virginia Blain; and even Victorian Working-Class Women Poets: An Anthology by Florence S. Boos. For prose: Prose by Victorian Women: An Anthology by Andrea Broomfield and Sally Mitchell. For both: Women’s Writing of the Victorian Period, 1837-1901: An Anthology, by Harriet Devine. Sigh… So, clearly, the feminist project of bringing back women writers from unjust oblivion is not over, not by far. I see that more and more women writers are incorporated into general anthologies, which are getting bigger as no male names, no matter how minor, are dropped. But how can we be still stuck at this essentialist, gender-based type of anthologizing?

The debate is already too old. As women have been so blatantly discriminated against, we have the duty as feminists of making their ‘special case’ particularly visible. Fair enough. What worries me is that we’re not making the other ‘special case’ particularly visible because we’re not highlighting that the others are male writers. Just imagine the havoc an anthology called Victorian Men Poets would rise, for its patriarchal sexism… when actually it would help to clarify matters. To be precise, anthologies should identify even more clearly who they’re dealing with: The Victorian Anthology of Verse by White, Middle-class, Male writers… If the adjective ‘working-class’ appears in one of the anthologies of Victorian women poets, shouldn’t its counterpart also appear? (Other unnamed categories include ‘heterosexual’ and ‘right/left wing.’)

If you’re against being so specific, thinking that we’d end up with anthologies of, say, poems by Australian, right-wing, working-class, lesbian, disabled, white, transsexuals (might happen…) perhaps you have a point. My own is that by creating specific categories for some but not for all we’re not making headway into that utopian future in which full equality will reign and PEOPLE will be judged by the QUALITY of their writing and not by their identity. Having said that I’m looking forward to the further defusing of identity categories by more fun anthologies, such as: Victorian Prose by Blond Writers, Victorian Verse by Poets Who Enjoyed Drinking Laudanum Too Much, or Victorian Writing by Brits Who’d Never Been Abroad but Really Wanted To.

In the meantime, I’ll make do with what we have, hoping someone begins to change things by putting the word ‘male’ (or ‘men’) in titles.

WILL A SIMPLIFIED ROSE SMELL THE SAME?: ECO’S NEW EDITION OF THE NAME OF THE ROSE

Appalled? Amazed? Astonished? Dismayed? How does this piece of news make you feel?: Bompiani, Umberto Eco’s publishers, have just announced the publication on October 5 of a simplified version of his best-selling historical thriller The Name of the Rose (1980)… simplified by the author himself to make it more accessible to new readers. The article in El Mundo’s supplement El Cultural includes a variety of opinions by Spanish authors and publishers which gathers all possible reactions (http://www.elcultural.es/noticias/LETRAS/1961/Rebajas_en_la_novela_historica). My own is that this is a very serious mistake but, then, not so different from what we do in the Literature classes.

I myself read El nombre de la rosa in my pre-university (or COU) year and was, like everyone else, riveted by it. I was BY NO MEANS the only one in my course to read it, and I attended a public secondary education school… I remember discussing it with my brilliant Spanish Literature teacher, Sara Freijido and with some of my peers. I’m sure we missed more than 50% of Eco’s sophisticated intellectual scaffolding and just connected with his singular detective story but I’m also sure that we were stimulated by the challenge he posed rather than put off. What Eco is now formally acknowledging is that the pleasure in that challenge has been lost for the newer generations. To be honest, second and third readings of Rose may result in the scaffolding being quite irritating in its density, not always justified, but this should have solved in the first edition. Logically, authors have the right to do as they wish with their work and second editions may very well include substantial cuts. What is disarming in this case is that whatever Eco has done to his masterpiece has been done to pander to tastes downgraded by the book market and decaying educational standards rather than to improving The Name of the Rose for the sake of Literature.

If you’re a younger reader beginning to hate me for my smugness and that of my generation, I must point out that it is not my intention to look down on you. You’re not to blame, after all, for the serious flaws in your education, as you haven’t designed it. You should, however, reject this second, simplified Rose, as an insult to your intelligence –which is the same as that in any other generation– and demand the original book (and that we teach you to read it, if you have difficulties). If you’re in English Literature I’m sure you’ve gone through a number of those awful abridged versions of the classics and know now, when you’re reading the real thing, what a paltry thing they are. Just don’t let greedy publishers and authors convince you that you’re not good enough for anything else.

A CHEEKY FILM: BATTLE LOS ANGELES (2011)

Get Independence Day, Black Hawk Down, Cloverfield and a number of alien-slashing computer games and out of this heady cocktail comes Battle Los Angeles, one of the cheekiest pieces of US military propaganda you can ever imagine. The storyline, strikingly similar to that of Skyline, couldn’t be simpler: Los Angeles is invaded by an army of very aggressive aliens, apparently intent on robbing Earth of its water (yes, as in the 1980s V). Send in a platoon led by a rooky lieutenant to rescue a tiny group of civilians before Santa Monica is wiped out as the only way to stop the invaders, and see who survives. The Spanish title Invasión a la Tierra alludes to the fact that 20 other major cities are also infested by the aliens (Madrid and Barcelona are not mentioned…). Yet, don’t be mistaken about this: the film is truly provincial, straightforward marine recruiting propaganda and not at all about global threats.

Many things are striking in Battle Los Angeles that are also quickly becoming commonplace: the fast-paced editing style borrowed from action computer games; the high-quality special effects showing invasion in daylight at its most scariest; the facelessness of the relentless, repellent extraterrestrial enemy; the detailed, though often inaccurate, depiction of all kinds of weaponry and its tough, unquestioned, combat-proficient woman soldier. This Hollywood film, partly financed by the USMC (the marines) and the US military, leaves no margin for doubt: even though Iraq is never mentioned, we learn through the figure of the remorseful Staff Sergeant Nantz, accused of negligence by his men, that the loss of young lives in war is inevitable. The obvious military superiority of the alien invaders pre-empts any counterargument. I personally found the film very scary, as I tend to empathise easily with the terrified civilians and imagine their fear (I just think ‘family’ and ‘Spanish Civil War’). Yet I was even more deeply scared by the cheekiness of the film’s premise. Given the situation, who could declare him or herself a pacifist?

I’m simply amazed that, with the Iraq occupation still under way, Hollywood has the gall to spurt films in which America is invaded. The 1950s and 1980s invasion films, which were transparent allegories of Cold War fears, made, more or less, sense, in that two superpowers with similar military might faced each other. Independence Day (1996) was already something else: a defiant product of a smug America that celebrates the overcoming of the red scare for good. Bin Laden must have seen it and have a good laugh. But what is this post 9/11 new wave of invasion films? Terrorists are not invaders, that’s the whole point of their tactics. And it’s hard to imagine the Chinese armies invading American territory. The threat might come, rather, from madcap nuclear button pushers in North Korea or Iran. Military sf started back in late Victorian times as a warning about the unpreparedness of the British in the face of a possible German invasion, which seemed then to many a fantastic possibility. A little later, Wells had the elegance to point out that his Martians were actually inspired by the atrocities of the British in Tasmania. Yet it’s absolutely clear that Battle Los Angeles is not remotely thinking of comparing the ugly aliens with the US Marines in Iraq. It simply intends to scare kids into joining the marines just in case… non-human aliens invade???

If the US military have invested money on this film, this means they know it’ll work. What this says about US society is beyond me. I don’t understand, even though Battle for Los Angeles couldn’t be more transparent. Perhaps military intelligence is not an oxymoron after all.

‘A SLIGHTLY SUPERIOR SPAIN’: THE FATE OF POST-IMPERIAL NATIONS

In his excellent cultural history of sf, simply called Science Fiction (2005) Roger Luckhurst comments at one point on C.P. Snow’s The New Men (1954). This is a novel in which a dying nuclear physicist envisions a sad, decadent future for post-WWII Britain. Two things can happen, according to this Englishman: “the best is that we can fade out and become a slightly superior Spain, the worst is that we can get wiped out like a mob of Zulus” (156; 120 in Luckhurst). Puzzlingly, Luckhurst needs to further elaborate by noting that for this character “the English will become the equivalent of the barely modern peasantry of the Spanish, or the plucky zulus” (121), the second option being clearly far more heroic. I’m left wondering which Englishman thinks that Spain is a ‘barely modern’ peasant country: Snow or Luckhurst?

This hurts. Being called backward is never gratifying and the immediate temptation is to lash out. I’ll end up doing it, but let me try at least to do it moderately.

Yes, Spain was once an immense Empire, ‘where the sun never set,’ whereas we’re just now a corner of South-western Europe and one of the letters in the infamous financial acronym PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Foreigners interested in our culture are usually fascinated by the sense of decadence that pervades our history but I feel that we are not, on the whole; except for a very few recalcitrant Franco supporters I doubt many think of the faded glories of Empire. Good riddance to all that, actually. Mostly, we see ourselves as post-Franco survivors who’ve made a huge effort to leave that ‘barely modern peasantry’ behind to become (second-rate) Europeans. We were indeed a (hungry, post-Civil War) bunch of peasants, barely modern at all, in the 1950s when Snow wrote his novel but not now in the 21st century. Our sad record in the current economic crisis shows the struggle is far from over as we have carried over to post-modernity from that decadent past a tendency to overstretch our resources and think too highly of our possibilities. But, then, this seems to be the fate of all post-imperial nations. Even of the USA, now well on their way to becoming one.

These last days the TV images of angry bands of Afro-Caribbean British teens smashing up public and private property, and people, in their own urban neighbourhoods surely has shown the world that Britain is not managing all that well its post-imperial condition. To be honest, I’m not sure why rioting is not breaking up all over Spain, given the fantastic rates of unemployment among the young. Yet, it seems to me that Snow’s scientist neglected to imagine a future in which Britain would be ‘slightly’ if not ‘much’ inferior to others. I’m thinking of Germany, not Spain. To be totally bitchy about all this, part of the attraction of British culture for the Spanish is how it mirrors in our own lifetime what must have happened in Spain centuries ago. It’s like a huge living lab to test out how decadence grips a culture struggling to ignore the fading out of its prime.

Now imagine a US novel in which an American nuclear physicist would contemplate the post-imperial fate of his or her nation: “the best is that we can fade out and become a slightly superior Britain, the worst is that we can get wiped out like a mob of Native Americans.” Get it?

THAT SINKING FEELING: READING DAVID GILMORE’S MISOGYNY: THE MALE MALADY

David Gilmore is an American anthropologist who specialises in Spanish masculinism in recalcitrant local areas, which, I’m sure, is enough for several academic careers. Having puzzled over his volume Manhood in the Making (1991), which deals with the rites of passage devised by men around the world to access ‘proper’ masculinity, I embarked this summer on his book on Misogyny: The Male Malady (2009). You may read Jenny Diski’s thorough review at LRV online (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v23/n17/jenny-diski/oh-andrea-dworkin) and I’ll save thus myself the trouble of expressing in too much detail how annoyed I am with Gilmore. Let me quote a tongue-in-cheek bit from her review, and you’ll get the idea of how his main argument runs: “Of course, it’s not women’s fault that it’s all their fault (…) but men suffer from having been given birth to by women from whom they have to separate in order to become men; they suffer from having to desire people of the same gender as their mother (my, this is very awkward, Jocasta), and they suffer because they cannot perform the miracle of reproducing the species directly from their own bodies. Men suffer. No, they do. It’s awful.”

Gilmore piles up an impressive catalogue of misogynistic attitudes and institutions all over the world but remains unimpressively blind to what links them all: it’s patriarchy, stupid! Once more: yes, patriarchy, the masculinist, hierarchical, power-based social arrangement, which IS NOT THE SAME AS MASCULINITY (men needn’t be patriarchal at all). My sinking feeling has much to do with this selective blindness but also with his blanket dismissal of feminism and his deciding to ignore the worst consequences of misogyny for women (‘hard to spell, easy to practice’ reads the t-shirt slogan). This is like discussing racism without listening to its victims, just as a white problem. Quite unscholarly to begin with and implicitly, if not overly, racist. Cheeky, cheeky… My little voice remonstrated with me as I finished the book: ‘what did you expect, silly?’ Yes, you’re right. What did I expect? To be honest: I expected to learn about the patriarchal enemy’s camp but I simply got too much of that. Really not that much, if I think that Gilmore is a nice, highly educated, politically correct man and not at all the kind of bastard who calls 016 (the Spanish number for victims of male violence) to insult and demean –maybe he’d like to study these… But still…

What irks me most (and it’s amazing how often I use this phrase in this blog) is how easily Gilmore dismisses feminism, even calling a feminist author who is in favour of a more androgynous approach to gender ‘stupid’ (I have avenged her now a few lines above). This is still too frequent in the texts by male chauvinist authors who seem to believe that we feminists don’t have degrees but just a hazy, unspecified self-training in trashy, men-hating ideas not worth the name. I believe that feminism, which is a pro-equal civil-rights ideology, has this bad reputation because it’s got a misleading name: it should actually be called ‘anti-patriarchalism’ and be open to all genders. However, how can this change as long as patriarchy is, like Poe’s famous letter, hidden in view of all? Apart from this, please some man explain to me how you can bear your own portrayal as animals dominated by uncontrollable (sexual) urges, which is how Gilmore characterises you in his analysis of your psychogenetic (?) make-up. Here, in the feminist frontlines, we are fighting for the acknowledgment of women as much more than just bodies (to be controlled…). Men, fight your own fight!! I can’t believe you’re just bodies out of control. How can you?

A MATTER OF OPINION: ABOUT AMAZON READERS’ BOOK RANKINGS

(It feels very nice to return to this blog after a much necessary three-week summer break, which, like all Literature teachers, I have spent chain-reading… Shouldn’t this count as work time??)

Among my summer reading I have included Iain M. Banks’s last Culture novel Surface Detail (2010). He happens to be my favourite sf writer and I buy his sf novels (12 so far) as a matter of habit, not even checking first whether they’re worth reading. I know they are (same with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, or Terry Eagleton’s essays). However, at one point, 70 pages into Banks’s book, which stretches to 640, I thought I would fail this time to read the whole volume (mark this: I’m speaking of MY failure, not his). Too much information to digest, too many threads to follow. I decided to trust Banks, let him push me as usual to the farthest margins of my capacity to visualise bizarre creatures, spaces and gadgets and go on. My reward? One so big I have decided to re-read the novel as soon as possible to savour the, well, surface details, now I’ve got the story (I’m in the middle of the Narnia Chronicles, long overdue).

Do I recommend Banks’s book to you? No, not at all. Unless you love sf, particularly post-cyberpunk space opera, you won’t enjoy it. If you’re curious about Banks, you just can’t plunge, anyway, into the middle of this immense Culture saga. Take his sf first novel, Consider Phlebas, and enjoy!! I have promised myself not to spoil the fun by re-reading them all pencil in hand to write a paper, as I have done with Ian Rankin’s Rebus saga (essay forthcoming in Clues, this autumn), but I do feel so tempted…

As it is my habit every time I read a book, I checked what other readers have to say in (at?) Amazon, where else? Americans like Surface Detail better than the Brits (4 stars on average rather than 3,5, out of 5). I can’t tell whether the 67 opinions at Amazon.com and the 124 at Amazon.co.uk account for 1% or 10% of the total English-speaking readership, possibly more 0.01%, but what never fails to fascinate me is the statistical distribution of opinions. Most books I read or check out of curiosity rank between 3 and 4,5 stars and, inevitably, between 50% and 75% of the readers are enthusiastic or quite happy. Also inevitably, around 10% just hate the book. I tend to read the negative reviews on the grounds that pissed-off readers who bother to waste even more of their time usually have an interesting point to make. It never fails… (I just need to put up with the usual complains that a) the book is overhyped, b) the author is losing touch with his/her own talent and was miles better in previous books). The 191 sf connoisseurs who have bothered to leave an opinion tell you thus simultaneously that Surface Detail is perfect, not so perfect, passable, just passable, and an utter, complete failure. How can one recommend any book any more?

My personal experience, anyway, is that Amazon readers’ opinions work well to curb down my own enthusiasm and be more critical when I love a book (yes, yes, Surface Detail might not be that coherent). When I hate it, I just feel smugly confirmed in my own prejudices. And, no, I don’t want to become an Amazon reviewer and get emails from other readers telling me how wrong my opinion is…

Someone should study all this to see how literary canons, of whatever genre, are being formed in internet era, by the way.