Tuesday, December 26, 2017

7 Novels for Jane Austen Fans

Jane Austen remains one of the single most beloved and oft-read novelists in the English language, her novels the subject of countless adaptations, her characters familiar even to those without the patience to read of them, but her six novels, handful of unfinished novellas, and juvenilia don't hold out long. Though Austen's appeal is rather unique, intimately tied to a subtle, sardonic sense of dry humor and a perfect grasp of the follies of even the most sensible people, I offer to the forlorn Austenite seven novels that might procure her some little consolation:

Evelina - Fanny Burney
Burney's work was hugely significant to Austen - her second novel, Cecilia, supplied the title of Pride and Prejudice - and her first novel is a monumental achievement, both for its wit and charm and for the fact that its success proved that women, too, could write masterful fiction. Evelina is an epistolary novel and bears the stamp of Samuel Richardson's influence. It follows the fortunes of its titular heroine, a young naïve whose mother's scandalous elopement and grandmother's even more disreputable liaisons threaten her social standing and her marital prospects. Though Burney had an infallible nose for the idiocies of fashionable society and an ironic sense of humor to mock them, today one is struck by the frustration and yearning expressed in her descriptions of the indignities, fear, misunderstandings, and perils that attended even the most privileged of young ladies in the eighteenth century.

Tom Jones - Henry Fielding
A delightfully convoluted romp through the bedrooms, alcoves, and haystacks where the roguish Tom takes his pleasures, Henry Fielding's magnum opus follows the titular rascal as he discovers the true nature of his parentage. Since he is illegitimate, he cannot inherit his foster father's estate nor marry the lovely young Sophia Western, a paragon of virtue fond of the latest music, Handel, though her father begs her to leave off such modern noise. Though a veritable gold mine of historical commentary that ranges across British politics, religion, morality, and sexual politics, the novel is worth reading, more importantly, because it is pure fun. 

Letters from a Peruvian Woman - Françoise de Graffigny
This novel first published in 1747 is often credited as the first feminist novel: and it does, indeed, venture a scathing critique of misogyny, racism, social hypocrisy, and the evils of enslavement to fashion and reputation. It is narrated by a Peruvian princess, kidnapped by Spanish colonialists and subsequently captured by the French. To make her separation from her homeland, her people, and her fiancé Aza more bearable, Zilia keeps a diary of sorts, recording her impressions of the strange and bizarre customs of this new land, France. Brilliant, acidly sarcastic, but also heartbreaking and wistful, Letters from a Peruvian Woman is a singular work of genius. 

Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Though sex is just as dangerous a pastime in Austen's universe, it is carefully veiled in removed narration; after their elopement, Lydia and Wickham are not seen again until they are married, while poor Colonel Brandon's ward never appears at all. Laclos, far from clinging to propriety, crooks a nastily satirical eyebrow at morality and proceeds to expose the seamiest, most scandalous sex games of dissipated aristocratic life. Desperately bored and with no occupations but gambling, balls, court appearances, and operas, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont amuse themselves by challenging each other to ever crueler feats of treachery, seduction, and social ruination. If Austen is like a cup of perfectly brewed tea, Laclos is like a glass of delicately poisoned cognac.

The Mysteries of Udolpho - Ann Radcliffe
This is the novel that so fired the delirious imagination of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, the ur-novel of the Gothic realm and a must-read for the Austen devotee. The orphaned Emily, shut up in the forbidding and possibly haunted castle of Udolpho, lives through a series of chilling horrors as she fends off the advances of the Count Morano, favored by her aunt and her sinister Italian aristocrat husband, and pines for the dashing Valancourt. Though meandering and often anticlimactic, The Mysteries of Udolpho may yet undergo a rise in popularity since it offers many of the terrifying, titillating delights of films like Crimson Peak and television series like The Tudors.

Indiana - George Sand
Indiana is barely more than a child when she is married to the elderly Colonel Delmare; the consequences of this socially sanctioned, but otherwise wildly unsuitable mismatch propel the tragic events of this 1832 novel. Politically cogent, righteously fiery, and yet exquisitely, almost daintily written, Indiana is an extraordinary first novel. George Sand sets part of her book in the French colony oÎle Bourbon; Indiana's foster sister, Noun, is of mixed racial descent and her sympathetic portrayal is highly unusual for a work of this period.

Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman - Mary Wollstonecraft
Left unfinished after her death from complications after childbirth, Wollstonecraft's radical feminist novel demolishes in systematic fashion nearly every argument one could make in favor of the institution of marriage. The heroine has been shut up in an insane asylum, modeled on Bedlam, and deprived of her child, the result of an attempt to leave her husband, who gambles, frequents prostitutes, brings them to destitution, and repeatedly rapes her. By illustrating the extent to which the extension of male power over women could be abused, Wollstonecraft both made an unanswerable case and rendered herself quite unpopular in her own time. Though Austen herself was no radical feminist, the creator of Wickham, Willoughby, and Crawford might likely have felt sympathy with poor Maria.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Metropolitan Opera Should Not Be Another Casualty of Sexual Abuse Allegations

Something unexpected is occurring in the world right now. Abusers are being named and shamed and people are actually giving a damn. In politics, business, sports, journalism, entertainment, the arts, and many other fields, powerful men are being accused of sexual assault and the victims are being given some credence, their allegations taken seriously, and in a few cases, criminal investigations have been opened. This isn't the first time this has happened, but never before have so many people come forward and demanded justice. Unfortunately, we haven't figured out what that justice should look like. In the case of those who hold political office, the loss of that office seems like an obvious step, though, in the political realm, abusers are not being taken down as easily in other areas. In the arts and entertainment industries (though hardly all areas - the gaming industry has been suspiciously absent from the headlines), abusers are losing their jobs, being stripped of awards and honorary degrees, being ejected from professional organizations, and having their projects suppressed, censored, or canceled. Few are actually being brought up on charges and the very real power that significant wealth and connections wield has not been stripped from the majority. But, good work has been started: a policy of total non-tolerance for sexual harassment, abuse, and assault is being brought to bear.

That doesn't mean that justice is actually being served. So what if these hugely privileged men lose a few privileges? There has been a general attitude that these men are 'finished' professionally, but that remains to be seen. The charges against Roman Polanski, merely to cite the most notorious case in Hollywood, have been proven in court, but he not only remains at large: he's continued to make films which critics have embraced, films that have earned profits and awards. A new attitude is emerging, at least for the present, that demands that abusers' work be shunned, ignored, or even destroyed. The point of this is to punish the abuser, to deny him access to the cultural conversation. But, punishment is one thing, redress another and reform yet another.

The question really does arise: who benefits from the repression, destruction, or cancellation of projects associated with these vile men, who have abused their positions of power in many cases for decades? It would be one thing if the projects that were being taken down were clearly vanity projects (like, at this point, every tiresome, repetitive film that flat-footedly quotes Bergman Woody Allen makes), but the projects that are endangered are not, generally speaking, vanity projects, with the possible exception of I Love You, Daddy, the creepy secret film Louis C.K. premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.

Killing television series, films, production companies, periodicals, and arts organizations of all stripes doesn't solve any problems. Is punishing one (horrible, unacceptably abusive) person worth the simultaneous punishment of everyone who, for whatever reason, is involved in those projects? That seems to give these powerful abusers even greater power, since it treats their very image as so toxic, and so powerfully toxic, that it cannot be borne, rather than diminishing their power by refusing to grant it to them anymore. It's true that some creative situations have been found: Kevin Spacey's scenes in All the Money in the World has simply been excised and replaced with new scenes, with Spacey's character played by Christopher Plummer. But that kind of solution can't be applied when the project in question is an institution. And that is the case for the Metropolitan Opera.

Already speculation swirls on the fate of the Met, following allegations of pedophiliac abuse supposed to have been perpetrated by music director emeritus James Levine. These allegations have been the stuff of the rumor mill in the classical music world for decades. Everyone I know and knew in classical music, not to mention I myself, had heard gossip about Levine. It was common knowledge - this is the refrain we are hearing again and again as more and more allegations are lodged. It's true that Levine had a special relationship with the Met, a particularly intimate one, since he was not only its music director, and a popular one with donors, for decades: he became its representative face, almost its ideogram.

Levine is retired, so removing him from his position is impossible, though his formal title of music director emeritus could be redacted. An attempt at erasure, which has been the approach taken by NBC with Matt Lauer, could be made, though it would require erasing the Met's whole history from 1976 on, and with it all the contributions made by all the great conductors, musicians, composers, librettists, and production designers that have worked at the Met. Any real punishment, beyond the merely symbolic sort of retracting awards and so on, will have to come in a court of law in the form of charges. Whether that will happen depends on many factors. Changes to the Met are inevitable anyway, as the new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, takes up the reins.

If the allegations against Levine are true - and I follow a policy of believing the victims rather than the alleged perpetrator in such cases - then he should be held accountable, to the full extent of the law. But, the loss of the Met would be incalculable, an annihilation of a crucial foundation stone of culture in the United States. The Met is one of the last employers of musicians, dancers, choristers, and those who work on sets, costumes, and backdrops that provides regular work, with good salaries. It is the only opera house to operate on a full season, scheduling more than twenty operas and two hundred performances a year. Its broadcasts on radio and in cinemas permit access to world-class opera to the entire country. American culture cannot bear that loss.

It is tempting, in the midst of so many horrifying, heart-breaking stories of suffering, to zealously silence, censor, destroy. We have to approach each case with delicacy, not for the sake of these men, but because we risk harming others in our eagerness to punish abusers who fully deserve punishment. Those men don't deserve the power to take down people innocent of wrong-doing, artworks that were the fruit of collaboration, or institutions that produce and support the vitality of culture.