I just saw the news that Madeleine L’Engle has died, of natural causes, at age 89. First Lloyd Alexander, now Madeleine L’Engle. Why this year?
Of course, I haven’t really lost them, because they’re still on my bookshelves. And, even if my books all burned, they’d still be ingrained in my story-lovin’ soul.
September 7th, 2007
David Tennant is going to play Hamlet! With the Royal Shakespeare Company! In Stratford-upon-Avon!
So this other guy named Patrick Stewart is in it, too. I have my priorities.
Unfortunately, this will mean a break in the Doctor Who schedule. All the more reason that Porpoise and I need to pack our bags next summer and head to England. Hamlet will be playing July-November 2008, as will Love’s Labours Lost, in which Tennant will play Berowne. Meh. There’s a reason the Shakespeare episode of this season’s Doctor Who toyed with the idea of a Love’s Labours Lost sequel: the play as it is kind of stinks (for Shakespeare, anyway). Even Kenneth Branagh couldn’t make it accessible. But, hey, if I just happened to be in England and there just happened to be a reasonably priced ticket available, I wouldn’t say nay.
Have I mentioned that I once dreamed in iambic pentameter about the events of Hamlet occurring in a swimming pool? Now I can throw David Tennant into that bizarre subconscious mix.
September 5th, 2007
I think it may be time for me to accept that P.D. James and I are just never going to have a good relationship. I’ve written previously about feeling I ought to like her because she’s a Christian, and other Christians I respect have recommended her highly. I tried two of her mysteries—an Adam Dalgliesh and a Cordelia Gray, one early in her career and one late—while waiting for my turn with the public library’s copy of The Children of Men. Not impressed. This weekend I finished The Children of Men, which was my real goal all along. Still not impressed. In fact, rather appalled. Being appalled is of course one of the reactions a post-apocalyptic novel like The Children of Men should elicit—but it should be at the world portrayed, not at the writer.
Baroness James and I were actually on fairly good terms for most of the novel—fairly good terms for us, anyway. Her terrifying vision was indeed compelling, or whatever the back-of-book blurbs say. Her introduction and description of characters seemed less, well, amateurish than it did in her mystery novels. But then the novel’s last few pages undid all the fragile rapport she had established with me.
Call me crazy, but I like post-apocalyptic fiction that ends on a hopeful note. In the novel Children of Men, as in the movie, we have the hope by the end that humanity’s curse of infertility may be lifted. Neither the book nor the movie offers the unrealistic hope that humanity will become better as a result of this. However, the film shows a growth in Theo, the middle-aged loner who becomes a kind of Joseph leading a new Mary to (at least temporary) safety. The novel includes no such safe goal towards which to aim. Cuarón and his screenwriters apparently invented the Human Project, the non-governmental research group that Kee wants to reach, as a narrative device. In the book, Theo and Julian (there’s no Kee character here) meander aimlessly through a limited stretch of rural Britain, with no destination. Now, in real life, journeys may not always have the hope of a goal—but goals sure make for more satisfying stories.
Without a goal for her characters, James sort of writes herself into a corner, where there’s no escape for Theo and Julian unless they (or he, really, since she is primarily passive) adopt evil means for “good” ends. And that’s what Theo does.
Throughout the novel, we’ve been told repeatedly that Theo’s problem is that he doesn’t want anyone else to depend on him; he doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone’s welfare. This is why he resigned from his position as adviser to his cousin, the Warden/Dictator of England. This is why his marriage failed. So, by the end of the book, we expect to see some change in him. We do, but . . . he goes almost straight from loner to budding fascist. Not the kind of character development we want to see in this type of novel.
Because James has left them no Human Project, no apparent alternative, in the final confrontation with the Warden (outside the shack where Julian has just given birth), Theo kills his cousin and dons his ring of power (not magical, just symbolic), thereby becoming the new leader of the nation. He tells himself it’s just temporary, that he’ll be able to take it off and renounce power once he’s made sure Julian and her baby are safe. We readers don’t trust his self-reassurances—nor does James mean us to, so at least she’s not condoning his choice. At least I don’t think she is. But it’s still a tremendously unsatisfying ending. It’s like if Tolkien ended The Lord of the Rings before Gollum bit off Frodo’s finger. Or, even worse, if Tolkien had ended the book by having Frodo push Gollum over the edge, keep the Ring on, and then sing a beautiful Elven song. Yes, indeed. After Theo has killed the Warden and put on the ring, Julian asks him to christen her baby, which he does with a mixture of blood and water. I felt like James was trying to patch things up at the last minute with a nice baptism. And, yeah, the blood-water mix probably stands for the messiness of human nature, and, yeah, ex opere operato (the validity of the sacrament does not depend on the virtue of the person administering it) and all that. It still felt like a narrative trick.
The novel has a lot to say about means and ends and about martyrdom; Theo earlier comments that martyrs accomplish little. Other characters imply that Theo has stayed away from responsibility because he wants to keep his “hands clean.” And who, we might think, are martyrs but those who keep their hands immaculate, those who refuse to capitulate to unjust means for noble ends? Is this desire to stay morally untainted selfish? Maybe—if it’s just squeamishness or self-regard, rather than a desire to obey God. And maybe even martyrs’ motives aren’t unmixed. Julian at least seems to believe that self-regard is the mark of a utilitarian, not of a martyr or Holy Fool. She says to Theo, “The world is changed not by the self-regarding, but by men and women prepared to make fools of themselves.”
I like that sentence. If only Julian’s voice had more weight towards the end of the novel. Instead, as Mary-figures so often are, she is reduced to a cow-like passivity. I much prefer the film’s Kee, who, during labor, has a profanity-laced shouting match with Theo. That’s a woman I’d rather see as the first of a new generation of humans. But I’ve never liked how P.D. James portrays women. And now I accept that I probably never will.
September 3rd, 2007