Wednesday, 2 December 2020

The Soul of Kindness

Elizabeth Taylor, born in 1912, was one of the most accomplished English novelists of the Twentieth Century. She can be thought of continuing in the way pioneered by Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf of depicting people’s inner lives but extending this to include several characters’ thoughts in relating and conversing with a set of other people who include relatives, friends, and lovers. She published twelve novels, a children’s book, and many short stories, which she conceived and thought about while bringing up two children. She was outraged by the fact that most male writers have not needed to divide their time in this way. So here, from her
 A View of the Harbour (1947) is Beth, a novelist on her way up to London on a train to see her publisher. "A man, she thought suddenly, would consider this a business outing. But, then, a man would not have to cook the meals for the day overnight, nor consign his child to a friend, not leave half-done the ironing, nor forget the grocery order as I have now forgotten it" (p. 186). 

 

Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness (1964) can be regarded as a variation on Jane Austen’s Emma, in which the protagonist encourages others to marry. Elizabeth Taylor's novel starts with the wedding of Flora Secretan to Richard, a businessman. In the early part of the book Flora influences her best friend Meg to yearn for a sexual relationship with Patrick, a novelist, without seeming to know that, although he is willing to take Meg out for an occasional meal, it won’t go much further because he is gay. She also influences Richard’s father to marry his mistress, Ba; they do so and both find their lives much more boring than they had previously been. Meg’s brother, Kit, adores Flora and thinks of her as a goddess. He has been to drama school and has had one or two tiny walk-on parts. Although no one else thinks he has the slightest chance, Flora encourages him to believe that he will triumph and become a great actor. In Chapter 2, (p. 14 in the Kindle version) we read this: “she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to tolerate.” Then here, at the end of Chapter 2, are Flora and her new husband, Richard, in bed.

She was glad that there was a way of coaxing him out of his black humour. She turned him to face her, her silky arms around his shoulders. An end to the sulks. Benignly, she made a present of herself.

Flora … the soul of kindness.

 

Flora’s friend, Meg, works in an office in the middle of London but cannot afford to live in Kensington. So, with a small amount of money inherited from her father and some encouragement from Patrick, she moves into a little house that allows an occasional distant glimpse of the funnel of a ship passing on the river in an area that seems to be somewhere between Greenwich and Woolwich. Near this house lives Liz whose studio is upstairs from a deserted shop that is scheduled for demolition. Liz lives in the most awful mess: dead flowers, cow parsley, some feathers, dinner plates, sea-shells, all over the floor. But she paints pictures:

The rubbish on the floor and about the room had been re-created, reassembled over and over again, into delicate and intricate patterns … there were also some pale girl children, with staring eyes (p. 39).

 

The artistic arrangements are beautiful. It doesn’t seem to be an accident that the painter is called “Liz,” because here is a quote from the end of the Wikipedia article on Elizabeth:

The whole point is that writing has a pattern and life hasn't. Life is so untidy. Art is so short and life so long. It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.

 

I don’t think The Soul of Kindness is quite perfect, but it seems to me that aspects of it are. It does have a plot, but that’s not really what it’s about. It is a book that one needs to read slowly; it’s unlikely to work if you skip or speed-read. It depicts characters’ thoughts, then thoughts of what they might or might not say, maybe could say or should say … but instead they say something else which is sometimes a cliché, which isn’t quite what they meant to say but, because it’s been heard before, could possibly be alright. People’s beliefs and ideas about each other and about themselves also get passed around. At this book’s centre is the issue that although we human beings are completely dependent on our relationships, we often don’t quite know, and some of us seem unable to know, what effects we might have by saying certain things to others.

 

In this novel, too, are observations: as characters look at gardens and shops and houses. What they see, mingled with their thoughts of what they might say, is a multitude of English peculiarities. The result for the reader (at least this one) was quite a bit of giggling out-loud as I proceeded. In this book as well—rather touchingly depicted—there’s loneliness, particularly for Flora’s mother and for Flora’s friend, Meg.

 

The book’s principal focus is on self-absorption. Although, in Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971), there’s affection, there’s not much of it in The Soul of Kindness. Instead there’s reflection … prompted by the question of what we human beings are up to in our lives, and on how we search for meaning within ourselves and with each other.

 

Jane Austen (1816). Emma. Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 2003).

 

Elizabeth Taylor (1947). A view of the harbour. New York: New York Review Books (current edition 2015). 

 

Elizabeth Taylor (1964). The soul of kindness. London: Virago (current edition 2010).

 

Elizabeth Taylor (1971). Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. London: Virago (current edition 1982).

 

 

 

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Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Reflection

 

Mollie Panter-Downes became well known for her column in the New Yorker on life in London during World War II (republished as London War Notes). Her fifth novel, One Fine Day, came out in 1947. Its title might have been One Day, because that’s what it is: a day in the life of a family who live in an aging house, somewhere south-west of London, one year after the end of the War. 

 

Here's the plot. Eight o’clock in the morning, the sun is shining. Laura and Stephen Marshall at breakfast. Stephen leaves the house, drives to the station to go up on the train to London, where he works. Their twelve-year old daughter Victoria goes to school. Laura, age 38, the main protagonist, goes on a bus to do some shopping in a nearby town. Provisions in short supply, coupons needed. She returns; does some stuff around the house, and in the garden, then in the afternoon rides on her bicycle to collect the family dog who has wandered off. Having collected him from where he sometimes goes, to a gypsy who lives with several dogs in an abandoned railway carriage, she climbs a small hill, and looks out over the countryside. She lies on the grass, falls asleep, with the dog on a lead beside her. It’s early evening when Victoria returns, having had tea with her friend Mouse Watson. Her mother isn’t home. Later, Stephen comes back from work. Laura still not home. Victoria finds some fish and cooks it. She and her father eat it for dinner. Both of them worried. Where can she be? Laura is woken by a noise. It’s a hiker whom she’d seen on the bus that morning. She sees how late it is; thinks of something she was going to tell her husband but can’t remember what. Thinks she’d better hurry home. That’s it. 

 

The middle of the novel is taken up with episodes, Laura’s meetings with people such as a working class family one of whom, George, is extraordinarily handsome, and might be able to do a bit of gardening but can’t because he’s going off elsewhere, and the Vicar, “a saint who had the misfortune to sound like a bore.” Incidents occur. And memories: Laura remembers a man she might have married but feels relieved that she did not. She sees huts that Canadian soldiers had lived in, sees holes in a wall where army trucks had bashed through. She has thoughts about this house and that one. It’s hard to imagine anything more redolent—I think that’s the word—of South-of-England upper-middle-class life in the aftermath of World War II. One could re-arrange some of the episodes and meetings without making much difference, because the sequence—morning, afternoon, evening—is not what this novel is about. At a deeper level it’s reflection: by Mollie, by Laura (with smaller pieces by Victoria and Stephen), and by us readers, on what it is to be human, on what our relationships within ourselves and with each other are all about.

 

For me the novel succeeded in prompting reflection, but with some parts that didn’t quite work. And it is so very, very, English. But the inwardness did work, somewhat like Virginia Woolf, but warmer, more interpersonal.

 

In his obituary of Mollie Panter-Downes, in the third of February 1997 issue of The Independent, Anthony Bailey reported her as saying, "I'm a reporter. I can't invent." What she was doing however was something that poets of the Tang Era in China did. Not invention, but perception of episodes in the world that are reflected in inner consciousness and writing (see OnFiction: “Patterns in the World and in the Mind,’ 9 January 2012; you can reach it by doing a search for “Tang” on the OnFiction home page). In Mollie Panter-Downes’s case, although some of her world is to do with nature, predominately it’s people.

 

Panter-Downes, M. (1947). One fine day. Current edition: London: Virago, 1985).

Panter-Downes, M. (2004). London war notes. London: Persephone.

 

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Monday, 21 September 2020

Eleanor Oliphant

Gail Honeyman said that the idea for her first novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, came from two sources. One was reading an article about a woman in her twenties who lived alone in a big city. She would leave work on Friday and would often not speak to anyone until she returned to work on Monday. The other was how someone might manage if they were conversationally awkward. Eleanor Oliphant’s work and home life are similar to those of the woman in her twenties. And she is not just conversationally awkward but often inappropriate, sometimes rude. 

 

Eleanor was hired by Bob to work in the accounts office of a graphic design company in Glasgow. She has been there for nine years. She is clever and did a degree in classics. She gets the Daily Telegraph, not because she likes the newspaper but to do its cryptic crossword. She thinks she isn’t liked by the others who work in her office, which is probably right, because she can’t do small talk. At weekends she drinks vodka, so that Saturday and Sunday pass in a bit of a haze. 

 

On television one evening, she sees Johnnie, a musician. Immediately, she falls in love with him, because she can see from the three-piece suit that he wears and the way that he leaves undone the bottom button of his waistcoat, that he is a gentleman. He’s the one for her. He’s a musician and she knows that the moment they meet he will fall in love with her. She starts to make preparations to make herself look more beautiful. 

 

Every Wednesday evening, Mummy gets in touch. In Chapter 4, Eleanor thinks that it was hardly surprising that her mother had been institutionalized, given the nature of her crime. During these conversations, Mummy is scathing and horrible but Eleanor tells her about this chap she is thinking of, and Mummy is encouraging. 

 

In her office, Eleanor’s computer malfunctions. She gets in touch with Raymond, a new bloke who has come to work in IT. He fixes the computer. Eleanor observes that he has scruffy hair, and a bit of a paunch. He wears running shoes, and silly t-shirts. He shaves infrequently and looks unkempt. Not only that but he smokes cigarettes. 

 

“How disgusting,” says Eleanor. “The chemical constitution of cigarettes includes cyanide and ammonia. Do you really want to willingly ingest such toxic substances?”

 

Eleanor receives a visit from a social worker. This occurs every six months. She was in foster care from the age of ten. She lived with several families and didn’t get along with any of them. Because of her background she has been housed in a low-rent flat. This time the social worker is new; during her visit, as she flicks through her file on Eleanor, a look of shock comes over her. 

 

One day, although they have only just met, Eleanor and Raymond find themselves leaving work at the same time. As they walk along, they see an elderly man staggering, then falling down in the street. Raymond goes to help him and gets Eleanor to do so as well. Although reluctant, she does. They call an ambulance, and the man is taken to hospital. They find themselves making visits to the old man in hospital. His name is Sammy. He tells them they saved his life. Just before they leave, one day, he takes Eleanor’s hands in his. This feels to her very warm and cozy.

 

Although love is the most popular topic in stories from all round the world—love of the sexual kind—this story is not about that. It’s not a love story, it’s a friend story. 

 

In Chapter 10, Raymond has invited Eleanor to go with him to visit his Mum, which he does nearly every Sunday. It involves Raymond going around his Mum’s house and doing everything that needs doing. She has terrible arthritis, but she keeps everything clean and neat, and is able to look after the vegetable garden in the backyard. Eleanor is asked to stay for tea, which she does. It’s soup with stock and vegetables from the garden. Lovely. Afterwards Raymond says he’ll do the washing up. Noticing Eleanor’s hands have eczema, he says that he would wash and she could dry. At one point, conversation among Raymond, his Mum, and Eleanor, turns towards Raymond’s dad, and how he lived long enough to see his daughter get married. Eleanor wonders why Raymond had not mentioned that he has a sister.  His Mum asks her if she has any brothers or sisters. She says she hasn’t. She says that this is a source of sadness for her, and bursts into tears. Apologies all round. She says she never knew her father, and that she talks to her Mummy once a week. It all seems perfectly ordinary … it IS perfectly ordinary, except this is the first time that Eleanor has ever talked about herself to anybody.

 

The novel also has an aspect of mystery. We wonder what happened to Eleanor, what had shocked the social worker, what the Wednesday evening conversations with Mummy are really about. We ask ourselves why Eleanor burst into tears when asked about a sibling. 

 

Towards the end of the novel, Raymond says this: “I remember when I first met you … I thought you were a right nutter.”

 

“I am a right nutter,” she says.

 

Then Raymond says: “Aye, sure you’re a bit bonkers—but in a nice way.” 

 

And maybe that’s a bit like some of the rest of us.


Gail Honeyman (2017). Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. Toronto: Viking. 

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Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Clarice Lispector

The novella, The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector, is unlike anything else I have read. This review can be thought of as following on from my previous post about authors hearing the voices of their characters, and characters having independent agency. It’s about the lives of someone called Rodrigo, an author-narrator who starts by thinking of writing a book (the one you would have in your hands as you read The Hour of the Star) and the book’s protagonist, Macabéa, a nineteen-year-old woman, who is thin and not good-looking, who grew up a very poor area in the north-east of Brazil, who had only three years at school, then moved to Rio de Janeiro to be employed as a typist.

Clarise Lispector was born in 1920, in the Ukraine, and her family moved to this same area in the north-east of Brazil, before moving to Rio de Janeiro.

In the story Macabéa meets the arrogant Olímpico, with whom she falls in love. On page 38, the author-narrator says of him: “He had, I just discovered, inside of him, the hard seed of evil.” Later we read that he had killed someone in the north-east of Brazil, and that he was also a thief. A few pages later we read that when walking along with Macabéa, Olímpico says he is strong, so he lifts her into the air. She is euphoric: “what it’s like to fly in an aeroplane” she thinks. Then he dumps her in the mud. Then, another few pages on, Olímpico says to her: “are you just pretending to be an idiot or are you actually an idiot?” Macobéa: “I’m not sure what I am, I think I’m a little … what? … “I mean I’m not quite sure what I am.”

Then Olímpico goes off with Glória, a blond chubby girl who works in the same office as Macabéa. Feeling guilty, Glória recommends that Macabéa should visit a fortune teller, Madame Carlota, who sees in Macabéa’s cards that her life has been and continues to be horrible. Then she relents and tells her client that her life will be wonderful, that she will be courted and marry someone called Hans. Macabéa is enchanted. As she leaves the fortune teller’s place, and steps off the pavement, she is run over and killed by a large and expensive Mercedes.

As Colm Tóibín wrote in a very engaging review: 
In October 1977, shortly before her death, she [Lispector] published the novella The Hour of the Star in which all her talents and eccentricities merged and folded in a densely self-conscious narrative dealing with the difficulty and odd pleasures of storytelling and then proceeding, when it could, to tell the story of Macabéa, a woman who, Lispector told an interviewer, "was so poor that all she ate were hot dogs". But she made clear that this was "not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery." [Then], Lispector told a TV interviewer: "I went to a fortune-teller who told me about all kinds of good things that were about to happen to me, and on the way home in the taxi I thought it'd be really funny if a taxi hit me and ran me over and I died after hearing all those good things.”

But this novella isn’t about the plot. It’s about how Lispector the writer, created Rodrigo, the author-narrator, who created Macabéa as a character, and how this character in turn seems to take part in the process of creating not just author-narrator Rodrigo but also, perhaps, in a certain kind of way, Lispector. 

If we knew that that someone had decided to enter the police, or to be shop assistant or office worker, we might think that she or he had taken a decision, to become a person of a certain kind and that, in turn, the role she or he has taken on would shape something in that person. But an original idea of this novella, is that a somewhat similar process can occur with a writer and the story and characters that the writer decides to create. As we read on page 13 the author-narrator says: 
I have a fidgety character on my hands who escapes me at every turn expecting me to retrieve her … I see that north-eastern girl looking in the mirror and—a ruffle of the drum—in the mirror appears my weary and unshaven face. We’re that interchangeable.

Then on page 61 the author-narrator says to his readers:
As for me I’m tired. Maybe of the company of Macabéa, Glória, Olímpico… I have to interrupt this story for about three days … For the last three days, alone, without characters, I depersonalize myself … as if taking off my clothes … and now I emerge and miss Macabéa. Let’s continue.

But this novella is not just about this fascinating conversation among the writer, the author-narrator, the characters, and ourselves as readers. It’s a meditation on the nature of human life. It’s about how much we understand about others or understand about ourselves.

Clarice Lispector (2011). The hour of the star (second edition, with introduction by Colm Tóibín) (B. Moser, Trans.). New York: New Directions.

Colm Tóibín (2014) Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star is as bewildering as it is brilliant. The Guardian, 18 January.



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Monday, 1 June 2020

Lives of Characters

In a recent article, John Foxwell, Ben Alderson-Day, Charles Fernyhough and Angela Woods (2020) report on a survey of writers’ experiences—as they are writing—of the characters they depict. In their first paragraph the researchers say:
A large number of writers report vivid experiences of “hearing” their characters talking to them, talking back to them, and exhibiting an atypical degree of independence and autonomy.

They follow this paragraph with quotations from well-known writers. This is the first: from Alice Walker.
one or more of my characters … would    come for a visit … They were very obliging, engaging, and jolly. They were, of course, at the end of their story but were telling it to me from the beginning. Things that made me sad, often made them laugh. Oh, we got through that; don’t pull such a long face, they’d say.

And this from Michael Frayn. 
It does seem—and I realise this is a psychological trick and it sounds very coy— but it is as if they are speaking and leading those lives. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. You do seem to be with people who have minds of their own, thoughts of their own, but at the same time you’re very much involved in leading their lives with them.

Influenced by ideas of this kind, Foxwell and colleagues surveyed 181 professional writers who attended the 2014 and 2018 Edinburgh International Book Festivals: 81% were from the UK, 61% were women, and 66% wrote fiction. The researchers asked them to answer a series of questions, which included the following. “How do you experience your characters?” “Do you ever hear your characters’ voices?” 

Here are some the things writers replied about their characters speaking or relating to them. (Each number in parentheses indicates a writer in the survey.)
I hear them [my characters] in my mind. They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’. (R 33) 

I sense their presence as you sense somebody in a dream. They are very much known to me but only in peripheral vision and as an atmosphere or a force exerting itself. I wouldn’t be able to sit opposite a character, so to speak, and see them, talk to them etc. They aren’t something that can be interrogated or pinned down. (R 51)

If the character feels something I feel it, whether emotional or sensory. (R 40)

The researchers found that, while they were writing, 63% of writers surveyed could hear their characters speak.

A further aspect of this survey followed up on a study by Marjorie Taylor and colleagues, reviewed in OnFiction, on 12 August 2008. Here’s part of what I then wrote:
In fiction, readers engage with the characters, and wonder what they are up to … It turns out that writers have some of the same experience as readers, of finding that their characters do things that seem appropriate, but without the writer having—as it were—to pull the strings. Marjorie Taylor, Sara Hodges & Adèle Kohányi (2002-2003) published a study based on interviews with 50 fiction writers to explore this question … All but four of them reported some experience of characters exhibiting apparently autonomous agency. 

Here some things writers in Foxwell and colleagues’ survey said about their characters’ independent agency, in response to the question: “Do you feel that your characters always do what you tell them to do, or do they act of their own accord?”
I LOVE it when my characters go off script. It’s one of my favourite parts of being a writer, and often these unexpected plot twists are the best of all. (R 37)

It’s the characters who make the thing happen. I can’t make them do what they don’t want to. (R 17)

Foxwell and colleagues found that 61% of their writers said their characters could act independently.

Overall, Foxwell and colleagues discuss their study in terms of all of us—humans—being able to understand something of what takes place in the minds of others: empathy and theory-of-mind. They conclude their article by saying:
… the present study is, to our knowledge, the only survey of writers’ experiences of their characters which attempts to address the phenomenological complexity of these experiences within a large professional sample.

Foxwell, J., Alderson-Day, B., Fernyhough, C., & Woods, A. (2020). “I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people”: Varieties of agency and interaction in writers’ experiences of their characters’ voices. Consciousness and Cognition, 79, Article 102901.

Frayn, M. (2011). Quoted in “On writing: Authors reveal the secrets of their craft.” The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/26/authors-secretswriting.
Taylor, M., Hodges, S., & Kohányi, A. (2002-2003). The illusion of independent agency: Do adult fiction writers experience their characters as having minds of their own? Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 22, 361-380.
Walker, A. (1983). In search of our mother’s garden. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich.

Image: Alice Walker (2007) Wikipedia.
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Wednesday, 6 May 2020

The Wire

In OnFiction’s series of television series, we ought perhaps to have started with the series that really started it all: “The Wire.” It was conceived by David Simon, began in 2002, and ran for five seasons. Simon had worked for several years as a journalist on the newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, researching and writing about Baltimore’s police. Although he pitched “The Wire” to Home Box Office (HBO) as a cop show, as Margaret Talbot explains in her New Yorker article, “Stealing Life,” Simon said he thought about it as like a novel, in which each episode would be a chapter. A season would involve the development of character, an overall plot, perhaps with some digressions. 

One focus of “The Wire,” set in Baltimore, is on organizations in which not only do misunderstandings occur, but mistakes are made. Here the police are mirrored by a local drug gang. In both, higher-ups administer and sometimes take advantage of their positions. But, in these organizations, comradeship occurs. In this way, as police detectives, there are Bunk and his friend McNulty (seen in this image). Then one step up, Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, who gains a growing respect. Then further steps up, people with more power and less respect. In the drug gang’s organization, there’s a comparable hierarchy. The first season’s plot is the contest between these two organizations. 

Near the beginning of the first episode of the first season we are in a courtroom, where a man at the gang’s mid-level, D’Angelo, is accused of having shot and killed someone (an underling drug-dealer in the gang). A witness changes testimony and D’Angelo is acquitted. Because getting him off had cost the gang time and money, he is demoted. The person who administers this is Stringer Bell, the gang’s organization person. Above him is the leader, Avon Barksdale (a companion of sorts to Bell). Both of them are very careful to avoid being seen or known by anyone in the police. (Although the gang’s business is of selling drugs, neither of these two, of course, ever indulges.) 

The title of the series refers to the police’s wire-tapping into telephone conversations among members of the drug-dealing gang. As Margaret Talbot points out, there’s also the implication that, as we watch, we are also tapping into the lives of these two groups of people. One effect, for viewers, is a growing understanding and empathy for some of the principal characters in both the police and the gang.

Most of the people on the show are black. This is another focus, with the issue of how problematic it can be to live in working-class American cities: one of the preoccupations of the principal author, David Simon. 

Several groups of immigrants—Irish, Italian, Jewish—included people who, finding life in the New World at first very difficult, took part in illegal activities. They aspired to make enough money so that their children could go to college and lead middle-class lives. Because of institutionalized prejudice, this kind of issue has been far more problematic for black people, whose ancestors did not immigrate: they were transported. (How’s that for illegality?) In this show, in Episode 8, of the first season, entitled “The Lesson,” we see Stringer Bell taking a class in economics.

 “The Wire” enabled television series-watching to be taken seriously, in the way that reading novels and watching certain kinds of films have become. And, as I wrote in OnFiction’s first review of television series (24 March 2020): “As Jessica Black and Jennifer Barnes (2015) have shown … a prize-winning television series can have the same kinds of effects as reading fiction in enabling people to increase their empathy and understanding of others.”

Jessica Black & Jennifer Barnes (2015). Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory of mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9, 423-429.

Margaret Talbot “Stealing Life,” The New Yorker, 15 October 2007.

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Friday, 17 April 2020

Prime Suspect

To follow up from posts on 24 March and 1 April, here’s another one about a television series: Prime Suspect. Its protagonist, Jane Tennison, is one of the first women to reach the rank of Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) in the London Metropolitan Police. 

A frequent idea of detective stories, especially police procedurals, is to follow a trail of clues, eventually to discover whodunnit, and have them put away, or as a judge might say, “sent down.” More deeply, however, as happens here, this kind of story is really about character and relationship.

In character Jane Tennison, has intelligence, thoughtfulness, determination ... These have contributed to her ability to have risen in the hierarchy of the police. For eighteen months, since she achieved her present rank, she has been going into the police station each work-day, mainly to attend to paperwork, and waiting, waiting. 

The first episode of Season One of Prime Suspect starts with a bunch of police cars arriving, summoned to a flat, to see the dead body of a woman, thought to be Della Mornay. A pathologist attends, and amongst his findings is a spot of blood believed to be that of the perp (perpetrator). At the time of this series, before the days of DNA analyses, there were, however, blood groups. This spot of blood is of a very rare type. A man with this blood group is found on the police computer system, so Detective Chief Inspector John Shefford, an amiable man with a round face, goes with his men to visit him: the suspect, who immediately becomes prime, and is arrested. At the station Shefford questions this man who admits to having picked up Della, in order to have sex with her. In Shefford’s team, everyone’s pleased with themselves for having solved the case so quickly. Then as DCI Shefford begins to give his report on the case to his superior, Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Hernan, he suffers a terrible pain in his left arm, is taken off in an ambulance, and dies of a heart attack. 

Jane Tennison asks DCS Kernan if she can take over the case and head up the enquiry. He says he’ll think about it. She tells him she’s been waiting a long time for an opportunity of this kind but has always been sidelined. Kernan goes another step up the hierarchy, to talk to his boss, Commander Traynor, who tells him he’s had a word with Tennison’s previous chief, in the Flying Squad. Traynor then tells Kernan that the Flying Squad chief reckons Tennison needs a break. Because of where this series was made (England), there need to be jokes; otherwise one cannot have any kind of proper relationship with anybody. So here’s the next bit.

“Female murder squad officer. Are you prepared to take the risk?” asks Commander Traynor.

“Ball’s in my court, is it?” says DCS Kernan.

“Flying Squad reckons she’s got ‘em.”

“What?” 

“Balls.”

So Tennison is appointed to head up the investigation into the murder of Della Mornay, much to the annoyance of almost everyone in the murder team. Then comes a video shot of about a dozen police in the incident room, all of them blokes. One of them, Detective Sergeant Ottly, starts plotting against Tennison, to try and sabotage her, because she’s a woman. Then as Tennison gets quickly onto the case, she turns up new evidence that the team had previously missed. Then, to members of the male-team’s chagrin, she orders the suspect to be released.

So not just character, relationships: Tennison’s with her boss, her boss with the boss above him. Tennison with all the members of the murder squad, Ottly’s with Tennison. Tennison’s with her live-in boyfriend (under the stress of her new and often perplexing work-life). 

Another thing, not always mentioned in discussions of detective stories, is the nature of the enquiries into what this person and that person (suspects, witnesses) were doing at this time and that time. People are interviewed in ways that rely on certain kinds of relationship—sometimes sympathetic, sometimes threatening—between detective and interviewee, which offer further insights, which we may not always be able to obtain in everyday conversation, into the character of different kinds of people who live in our societies.

Prime Suspect (1991-2006, seven seasons) Written by Lynda La Plante.  (Available on BritBox.)


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Thursday, 9 April 2020

Ross Day: The Book of Delights

I’ll postpone reviewing another television series until next week, in favour of a book of essays by Ross Day. Alright, these are not fiction, but they have many of its elements: character, emotional insight, inward thoughts, relationships. The author is someone who has published three books of poetry. One can think of poetry as the founding mode of fiction.

There are 102 essays in this book, most of them a couple of pages long. Essay number 10, called “Writing by Hand,” (pp. 31-33), starts with the poet Derek Walcott giving a class on the writing of poetry. He asked people in the class who wrote by hand and who wrote by computer. Some people raised their hands to indicate that they wrote by computer, and Walcott said in his voice which Ross Gay describes as “mellifluous and curt,” that they should leave the workshop. So they gathered their things and started off down the hall. But before they got too far, Wallcott called them back: “C’mon, c’mon, I’m just making a point.” Ross Gay then reflects on what this point might have been. He says he writes his poetry and most of his essays by hand, but he also writes prose by computer. He says that computer writing can make words disappearable by use of the delete button, which may be best for “a good deal of florid detritus,” that can occur.  But maybe these preliminaries shouldn’t just disappear because they have occurred on “the weird path towards what you have come to know, which is called thinking, which is what writing is” (pp. 31-33).

Another lovely essay is number 47, “The Sanctity of Trains” (pp. 134-135). Here Ross Gay reflects that when they are on trains, people often leave their bags and other stuff unattended for longish intervals, maybe to go to the washroom, or to the café several carriages away. On one train journey he noticed his neighbour, “across the aisle and one row up,” disappear “for a good twenty minutes, her bag wide open, a computer peeking out.” He calls the phenomenon “trust.”  He writes that all through our social lives we are “in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking: “letting someone else go first. Helping with the heavy bags. Reaching what’s too high, or what’s been dropped.” He finishes his essay like this. “This caretaking is our default mode and its always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise. Always.”
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Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Borgen

Borgen (which means “The Castle,” nickname for the building in Copenhagen that contains the Parliament, Prime Minister’s office, and Supreme Court) is a Danish series that is rather different from the usual kind aired on television. It has two kinds of focus. One is on gender and its implications in democratic political systems. The second is on how a job that is important, that demands unremitting involvement, can affect a person inwardly, and can affect that person’s relationships not just with others at work, but also with family and friends. So, as in many of the better kinds of novel, the central issue is character. 

The protagonist in the series is Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Aged about 40, she is leader of a centrist party, the Moderates. A second protagonist is an ambitious television journalist, Katrine Fønsmark, played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen. Although the series is about women, the writing team, Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, and Tobias Lindholm, is all male. In an interview, Adam Price, the series originator, said that women in public life are not as unusual in Denmark as in some other places, and also that he thought the series would never travel beyond its home country. But it has; it’s been enthusiastically reviewed and widely appreciated.

Episode One of the first season starts with the approach of an election, with the Liberal Party currently in power and the main opposition, Labour Party, with similar prospects of winning. The Moderates seem out of the race. Then it turns out that Katrine Fønsmark has been having an affair with the current Prime Minister’s chief of staff, who dies during one of their meetings. On clearing up the chief of staff’s belongings, a receipt is found which reveals the Prime Minister’s financial wrongdoing. The receipt is given to Nyborg who refuses to have anything to do with it. Then it’s given to the Labour leader who very much likes showing off and presents it in a televised debate. Liberal and Labour support plummet.  Suddenly, it seems Nyborg might become the new Prime Minister.

In a world in which so many national leaders are older men it may be appealing that political decisions might be made by principled women, of whom there are some such as Angela Merkel. In this series, Knudsen plays Nyborg as someone who is thoughtful, who sometimes gets cross, but in personality is kind and considerate. As Knudsen acts this part we, in the audience, often see, in a smile at someone, or in a moment of hesitation, a depiction of a person whom we would very much appreciate as a political leader. And beneath this, as a principle of fiction, we are invited to think what this might mean for our understandings of political democracies, and of other people more generally, and of our selves. 

Borgen (2010-2013, three-season television series). Written by Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, and Tobias Lindholm. Denmark. (Available on services such as Apple TV.)



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Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Offspring

In these weeks of self isolation and social distancing with the corona virus pandemic what one may like, in the late evening, is a television series to watch before one goes to bed. Dating from 2002, when HBO (Home Box Office) an American television network started to broadcast The Wire, such series started, it seems, to have moved from soap operas to dramas that are more like novels, some with artistic features. Perhaps, indeed now, the television series released in episodes, in something like the way that novels used to be published in the nineteenth century, has become the print-novel’s newly embodied follow-up. As Jessica Black and Jennifer Barnes (2015) have shown, moreover, watching a prize-winning television series, can have the same kinds of effects as reading fiction in enabling people to increase their empathy and understanding of others (theory of mind). 

So this week, and for some weeks to follow, I’ll offer suggestions with mini-reviews of some series that seem to me as good and worthwhile as many kinds of modern novel.

For this first week, I suggest Offspring, an Australian television show conceived and written by Debra Oswald with two collaborators, which started in 2010 and runs through seven seasons, with 85 episodes, available on Netflix. The main protagonist in the series is Dr Nina Proudman (played by Asher Keddie, centre-left in this picture). At the beginning she is in her early thirties, an obstetrician whose professional skills range from super-competent to absolutely brilliant. And there are lots of engaging scenes of babies being born (so much better than the frequent televisual fare of men with guns). The second protagonist is her older sister, Billie Proudman (played by Kat Stewart, top right-hand corner in the picture); very out-there, sexy, sometimes aggressive, sometimes affectionate. 

Along with her professional activities, Nina, sometimes known as Nins, is usually in a bit of muddle personally. She has problems with her family (her sister Billie, her brother Jimmy, her mum, and her dad). She has friendly, and often very funny, interactions with other doctors, and with nurses, in her workplace, a hospital in Melbourne. And she falls love with people in ways that don’t quite work out.

What is special, however, about this series, is its focus is on two aspects that had not quite emerged in the Nineteenth-Century novel. One of these—the main one—is Nina’s inner thoughts, edited into the action in a perfect way, so that although they are visualized and often spoken out-loud by the actress (Asher Keddie), as an audience member one knows instantly that they are Nina’s thoughts, memories, scenes of imagination, fantasies, and not aspects of her ongoing interactions with others. If we had been able to overhear Virginia Woolf, as she time-travelled from 1925 when she published Mrs Dalloway, to the first episode of Offspring, in 2010, we might have heard her whisper: “Yes.” The second aspect is the focus, not on events, not on what goes well or badly (although good and bad events happen), but on the relationships among the characters, which emerge and evolve. Lovely.   

Jessica Black & Jennifer Barnes (2015). Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory of mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9, 423-429.

Debra Oswald, John Edwards, & Imogen Banks (2010-2017). Offspring. Network 10. 

David Simon (2002). The wire. HBO Television Network.

Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.
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Monday, 16 March 2020

Research Bulletin: Is marathon TV viewing problematic? An overview of personality variables and viewer engagement in binge-watching


The trend of marathon television viewing, or "binging", refers to watching 2-6 episodes in one sitting (Netflix, 2013), and this has become a popular phenomenon among youth and adults alike. Although there is limited research on this area, binge-watching has often been associated with loneliness, depression, and social anxiety (Brechan & Kvalem, 2015). A recent study by Tukachinsky and Eyal (2018) sought to explore whether certain personality traits would be associated with binging, and whether binging predicts how viewers engage with the characters and story in a TV show. Depression, loneliness, attachment style, and lack of self-regulation were assessed in a group of undergraduate communications students. In addition, story engagement, character identification, enjoyment, and parasocial relationships with characters were measured as aspects of how viewers interact with the content. In a second study, these personality and viewer involvement variables were compared based on either a marathon viewing experience or a traditional viewing experience (one episode per week).

Overall, these studies found that the relationship between depression and binge-watching was partly explained by a lack of self-control, confirming previous research on this topic (La Rose, Lin & Eastin, 2003). In addition, people without a  secure attachment style were more likely to binge-watch than those who were securely attached. Surprisingly, loneliness was not linked to increased binge-watching, although it has been previously shown that binge-watching can foster social connections and a sense of community (Perks, 2015). This study also found that binging viewers often engage with the content in meaningful, reflective ways, and also develop parasocial relationships with their favourite TV characters, perhaps more so than during a traditional viewing experience. This research may help to alleviate some concerns that binge-watching TV is a dysfunctional and problematic behaviour.

Post by Sarah Skelding

Photo by JESHOOTS.com from Pexels


* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

References: 


Brechan, I., & Kvalem, I. L. (2015). Relationship between body dissatisfaction and disordered eating: Mediating role of self-esteem and depression. Eating Behaviors, 17, 49–58. doi:10.1016/j.Eatbeh.2014.12.008

LaRose, R., Lin, C. A., & Eastin, M. S. (2003). Unregulated Internet usage: Addiction, habit, or deficient self-regulation? Media Psychology, 5, 225–253.  doi:10.1207/S1532785XMEP0503_01

Netflix. (2013, December 13). Netflix declares binge watching is the new normal.
Retrieved from https://pr.netflix.com/WebClient/getNewsSummary.do?newsId=496

Perks, L. G. (2015). Media marathoning: Immersions in morality. New York, NY: Lexington Books.

Tukachinsky, R. & Eyal, K. (2018). The Psychology of Marathon Television Viewing: Antecedents and Viewer Involvement. Mass Communication and Society21, 275-295. doi: 10.1080 /15205436. 2017.1422765




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Monday, 9 March 2020

Andrea Levy's Short Stories

As with sonnets, some short stories have turning points. Andrea Levy’s “Deborah” has three. This story begins with a depiction of childhood play as good or better, on this, than anything I have read. Deborah is a friend of the narrator, Fern, whose mum, we infer, is an immigrant from Jamaica. Both girls are nine years old. They live a little way from each other on the ground floor of a block of council flats in Highbury, just north of Islington, in London. Deborah is one of a large family of twelve or so. She “has pale blue eyes” and “pink cheeks.” She sleeps with siblings in a room that has lots of beds. She is naughty, but also endearing, can always get a ball back when it is lost, hops over fences, can jump down ten stairs at a time. She loves to play with Fern. (What follow here are spoilers; if you don’t like these, please don’t read on.)

Kenny, a much younger boy, lives on the third floor of the flats; “he was ginger and cried if you called him carrot.” He follows Deborah and Fern when he can. They sometimes let him come along, because—being scruffy and unattractive—he doesn’t have anyone else to play with. The three of them go into the flat where Deborah lives, into the room with lots of beds. It’s untidy: “Shoes, knickers and socks where pillows should be.” Instead of a light bulb, in the middle of the ceiling there’s a bundle of electric wires and flex, with leads going everywhere. The three kids play a game of showing each other their bums. Kenny is totally overexcited. He jumps up and down on a bed, waving his arms. By mistake, he knocks down the bundle of flex, and bits of the ceiling fall down, too.
“Kenny, look what you’ve done,” shouts Fern.
“I never did anything … I never touched nothing,” says Kenny.

Then comes the first turning point. Deborah burrows under a bed, on the floor, against the wall, sucks her thumb like a baby. Fern asks her to come out, but she won’t. Kenny calls her “scaredy cat” and “cry baby.” Fern then leaves “the room with the plaster and the dust and the black electric leads like spiders’ legs.”

At a second turning point, later that day, Fern sees Kenny naked. “His mouth … open as if screaming but with no sound coming out.” He has gashes and cuts all over his body, some of them oozing blood. Then she sees Deborah, walking after him, grinning, carrying a piece of flex with spikey metal ends. 

Deborah is then no longer to be seen. Adults appear. They want to know where she’s gone. Deborah’s dad shouts, “when I get hold of her I’ll kill her.”

The police are called. Kenny is taken off in an ambulance.

In the story’s last paragraph comes the third turning point. It’s how Fern finds Deborah in a secret hiding place the two of them have, with her cardigan “pulled up over her head … in front of her face. She was sucking her thumb and rocking gently backwards and forwards. And coming out from between her legs was a small trickle of piss.”  

Although in the early part of the story it’s clear that Deborah does things she shouldn’t, we find that she has also learned what it is to be a bully. Beaten up perhaps by her father, or mother, perhaps by others, she beats up Kenny. 

Another story in this collection is “That Polite Way that English People Have,” about a woman who emigrates to England from Jamaica. She has saved up to travel first class on a ship. She isn’t (quite) picked up by a posh-looking Englishman. He asks her if she would like a night cap. She says she doesn’t sleep with anything on her head. But Petal, another Jamaican woman, allows herself to be picked up. Now a turning point: in the boat’s first-class dining room, the posh man takes his meals with Petal, offers her cigarettes from a silver case. She whispers in his ear, and giggles. The narrator saw “the other English people looking at her [Petal] from the corner of their eyes. They were not used to someone as low class as she sitting right next to them … like she was as good as them.” 

A sense of humanity emanates from the essay and stories in this book by Andrea Levy who died about a year ago. In her stories, I think, she is wondering how we humans often seem unable sometimes to get on with each other. In the story “Deborah,” the turning points enable us to enter the mind of a child who has been abused. In other stories, turning points are based on shocks about how people do things, say things, or fail to say things, which indicate that they think it inappropriate for another person to receive the kind of consideration they would like for themselves. Most frequently this is based on social class or culture. But does that make it any better?

Andrea Levy (2014) Six Stories and an Essay. London: Headline.
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