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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 5, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Time Traveler, Father's Den, Major Pettigrew

It's an odd thing about listening to audiobooks -- especially books downloaded from Audible.com. Each time I read, I clip on my iPod Nano, hook the phones over my ears, and then pick up right where I left off. I don't see the title, I don't see the cover, and I don't see the author's name.

That's why, in listening to Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife and Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I didn't remember the authors' names -- or their gender. The bulk of Time Traveler's Wife is told from the point of view of a man, and all of Major Pettigrew is. There was never a speck of a hint of getting the male point of view wrong -- nothing that made me think, "Oh, that was not written by a man."

However, oddly enough, there were moments where I thought the writer of Time Traveler's Wife had to be a man, because the main female character is such a cliche -- a feminine icon of womanly perfection. No woman writer would make the main female character so exactly like what men wish women were.

Well, Bozo was wrong on that one, wasn't he! It's as if Niffenegger, who wrote Time Traveler's Wife, had spent so much effort on creating the time traveler that she gave not a thought to the wife, and pulled her right out of volume 1 of her cliche collection.

Fortunately, the iconized heroine, Clare, still serves the story well enough, for the story's moral journey is really that of the time traveler, Henry De Tamble. (Another drawback to audiobooks is that you never know how the characters' names are spelled -- I had to look this up online!)

The story is the most twisted, convoluted love story ever created. Henry is a "chronologically displaced person." He has a genetic ailment that pops him out of his own time and into some other, usually in the past, and often places that mean something to him -- but often not. He can't control where and when he goes. He arrives and returns stark naked, since he can take absolutely nothing with him, and so he also leaves behind a pile of clothing whenever he jumps.

His mother died in a tragic car accident when Henry was very young. He was in the car and should have died, too -- except that he reflexively jumped, leaving behind only his clothes. Plagued by guilt, his life is also deformed by his father's grief at his wife's death. But Henry grows up to be a librarian and a bit of a roue, going from one meaningless love affair to another. Until he meets a marvelous young woman who seems to already know him.

Why? Because she has grown up having magical visits from none other than Henry de Tamble! From time to time she goes out to a clearing in the woods near her family's mansion in the Wisconsin woods, and meets with an older version of Henry. He arrives naked, but she learns to keep clothes for him in a waterproof box. He helps her with her homework (nothing sexual happens until she is of age), reads poetry to her, and so on.

Naturally, she falls in love with him -- what woman wouldn't? Creepy older man arrives naked, has a weird story to tell, then >poof< he's gone; it's a romantic dream of most young girls, apparently.

So ... she already knew him when he met her for the first time, but he already knew her -- was already married to her! -- when she met him for the first time.

This makes the story logically circular and, by some views, impossible. Issues of free will come up constantly, mostly because no matter what he knows about the future, he can't do anything to change it. He has no choice but to adopt a stoic, fatalistic worldview -- this is how it happens, I can't change it, I can only make the best of it.

There's plenty of comedy in it, and also genuine love and pathos and tenderness. Niffenegger has created a whole life for Henry, and even if Clare is too perfect, she's usually at least interesting. The philosophy grows naturally out of the rules of the story, and even if it's not profound, it's fun.

The result is a "whole life" book -- the sense that we have experienced a strange and wonderful life at first hand. Despite a few missteps, this book belongs in the company of other tours-de-force like The 13th Tale by Diane Setterfield and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

The missteps? It's simply inexplicable that Niffenegger, who gets so many things right, would have such a leaden ear for obscenity. It's not that people don't talk the way she has her characters talk, it's that characters we like don't usually talk that way.

Near the end, after we've already shed tears for unavoidable and wholly predicted tragedy, we suddenly get a completely unbelievable sex scene in which Clare uses a grossly obscene term that is so out of character and so out of the mood of the story at that point that I can't help but think it was only included because Niffenegger was embarrassed at the sentimentality of the story, and wanted to "redeem" herself in the eyes of her literary friends.

For a handful of words and a couple of needlessly explicit sex scenes, Niffenegger made it impossible for me to recommend her book to many friends who would have enjoyed everything else about it.

Why do writers do this? They needlessly shrink the audience for a wonderful story; they also make it instantly dated, for such ineptness in word choice and sexual explicitness are only a temporary aberration and will soon pass out of fashion (indeed, already are passing out of fashion, giving this book a decidedly '70s air).

Enough about Time Traveler's Wife; if you're able to overlook needless sex scenes and pointless words that start with f and c, this book is wonderful (especially as read by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow in the unabridged audiobook from Audible.com).

Because there's another book that deals with a borderline creepy relationship between a middle-aged man and a young girl. Maurice Gee's In My Father's Den, a gorgeous whole-life novel that is shaped like a mystery, has at its heart a friendship between a teacher and a student, who happens to be the daughter of his high school best friend and the fiancee his "friend" stole from him.

Just as Niffenegger was careful to keep her older man/young girl story from stepping over the line until the girl came of age, Gee also is careful to cope with hero Paul Prior's occasional sexual attraction to Celia Inverarity. Unlike Niffenegger, who has Clare constantly eager to have sex with Henry, Gee makes it clear that Celia is not at all interested in romance with her teacher -- to my great relief.

The story is a dark one, and is marred by Gee's fashionable university atheism, for which he proselytizes throughout the novel. It's odd how nonintrospective these authors are who make their characters "grow out of" or simply reject religion; the authors (and therefore the characters) seem blind to how religious their atheism is, and how bigoted they are in their confidence that their belief system is "true" and all others are as evil as witchcraft or as debilitating as insanity.

However, this is so common in fiction today that it's almost like the air we breathe, and fortunately the story surrounding the author's constant praise of his own faith is a powerful and moving one. The story is framed by the murder of Celia Inverarity at precisely the moment she is about to embark on a very promising life. The murder is brutal, and since the last thing she did was visit Paul Prior in his home, he is naturally the first suspect the police look for.

I expected a novel about a frantic attempt to prove his own innocence, but now -- Gee has something much more interesting in mind. The police do like Prior for the murder -- but then they quickly clear him. The town is not so quick to do so, and neither is the girl's father, whose lifelong competition with Prior makes the reader believe that the murder might be the culmination -- murder as a bitter "victory" in a male rivalry, though which of them did it is in serious doubt.

The possibility that it is Paul Prior himself is raised by his account of a bitten-into apple on a teacher's desk in grade school, for in Prior's memory of it, he "can't recall" whether he was guilty or not. This inability to not remember (or unwillingness to confess) the crucial matter of his own guilt leaves wide open the door that Prior is evading his guilt in the matter of Celia's death.

The largest deception is that this is a murder mystery, for it is not. It is a Life -- Paul's life -- and it is more about him and his family than about Celia and hers, or even about the murder. In fact, the actual revelation of and confrontation with the murderer are almost an afterthought. By the time we got to it, I felt that I had already received a complete and moving story of a fascinating and painful life.

Humphrey Bower's narration of the Audible.com edition is flawless, his New Zealand accent both musical and clear.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is not a whole-life book. We meet Pettigrew in late middle-age, as he has settled into a quiet retirement in his childhood home. The book centers around his growing involvement with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the widow who keeps a grocery in their small English town.

At first glance, we can be forgiven for assuming that this is going to be a politically correct case study of overcoming racism. This would be a mistake, for Simonson -- probably the best writer of the three I'm reviewing today -- takes no easy roads. Yes, there are bits about anti-Pakistani feeling in England, but the barriers between them are just as much about social class, religion, and family obligation.

Both of them are tied up in family conflicts that, in Pettigrew's case, can seem trivial but loom rather large in the characters' lives. Pettigrew is from old, if small, fortune, and is part of the established upper class in his village. Modernization threatens the town in several ways, some of which he opposes (development of a tract of land behind his house) and some of which he embraces (the presence of an erudite grocer's widow who is caught up in the expectations of her culture).

Something that all three of these novels have in common is a devotion to literature. I understand it -- writers almost invariably come from the culture of book-lovers, and so do readers, so you can get away with it, and even with making book-lovers something like martyrs in the way that "common" people just don't understand them.

It becomes a bit circular, though: This inbred book-loving culture embraces books that explain how book-lovers are always better and deeper and finer and truer than other people -- an assertion which I know to be patently false, since book-lovers are exactly as prone to moral perfidy and foolishness as anyone else. Self-flattery does not lead anyone to a truer understanding of the world.

Helen Simonson, whose first novel this is, seems a bit more aware of the self-delusion in this, and so while it is a love of books that first brings Major Pettigrew and Jasmina Ali together, this is not a central issue in the story. Both of them are shown to come from comically absurd -- but also ancient and gracious -- social groups. Pretension of every kind is skewered; even Pettigrew's own fondest grudges and self-delusions are revealed as shams to him and to the reader.

And yet with all her skewering of this and that, Simonson has written a book that is about love and respect. The most absurd characters are presented with compassion, understanding, and respect, from the evil old Muslim woman who pretends to be deaf to the drunken, lonely society lady who is exactly the sort that everyone expects Major Pettigrew to end up with in his widowhood. And Pettigrew's son, whom he finds absurd, turns out to be rather a better person than his father (or the readers) thought him to be.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is that rare and wonderful thing: A book written with exquisite taste and with a deep understanding of human nature, loving and admiring people even as it exposes and, yes, ridicules them. I loved every minute of Peter Altschuler's narration (again from Audible.com).

*

What a happy coincidence that Major Pettigrew's Last Stand shares a titular surname with the brilliant comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I thought was the best movie of 2008. I don't know that Major Pettigrew will ever be a movie, though it certainly could be; but in looking up spellings and character names on Amazon, I ran across the recording of the novel on which Miss Pettigrew was based. More reading! I hope it's as good as the film.

*

Hold next Friday or Saturday night open for a free performance of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. I adapted the script for modern understanding a few years ago, because so many of the funniest lines have become nearly unintelligible to audiences today. I directed this version first at Southern Virginia University, where it ran for two weeks to packed houses.

Now I've brought it to Greensboro, with a new cast, mostly of high-school-age actors, but with a leavening of adults, including a cameo performance by Keith Taylor, the head of the drama program at Weaver.

In adapting the script, I was responding to John McWhorter's challenge that English-speakers are the only people who can never see or hear Shakespeare performed in their native language. Germans, Japanese, Poles, and Spaniards can all see Shakespearean plays translated into the language they speak today.

But our misplaced respect for Shakespeare's plays leads us to leave his language exactly as it was published after his death -- even though his puns and other wordplays are no longer funny, and many of the nuances of his characters are simply lost.

And yet ... the elegance and grace of Shakespeare's writing are untranslatable. When we see Shakespeare, we do want to hear the language of the Elizabethan era (which is why many of us will never accept any Bible translation but the King James version, despite its many flaws).

So what I do is not a translation. Rather, I look for places where crucial meanings have been lost -- which happens most commonly in the jokes, especially the deliberately lame ones -- and instead of translating, I find substitutes, still in Elizabethan-sounding language, that are instantly intelligible to modern audiences.

The result is a play that is mostly Shakespeare's original, and sounds entirely Shakespearean. The play is not shorter by a single line; unlike most directors today, I cut nothing from Shakespeare's plays. But because audiences understand everything, the plays can move as quickly as they did in Shakespeare's time.

Most Shakespearean plays today are cut to ribbons so they don't take four hours or more. Directors leave out many minutes -- and sometimes more than an hour! -- of the play. This is ironic -- they can't change his language, but they can remove it willy-nilly!

Why? Shakespeare's plays didn't last four hours when he produced them.

The plays only last four hours when you have to change sets between scenes; and when actors slow down and declaim their speeches with elaborate precision, so that some portion of the audience will have some hope of understanding the unfamiliar language. Shakespeare is usually overacted, too -- often grossly so -- meaning that vast pauses are left between the lines while the actors emote. The plays move as if through thick mud.

This is the opposite of how the Elizabethan theatre companies performed. A rollicking play like Shrew needs to move lickety-split, joke piling on joke. There are no breaks between the scenes, because there's no scenery to move; when there's a tricky costume change, they didn't make the audience wait -- Shakespeare wrote a "filler" scene to hold the stage while the actors changed backstage.

So ... at full length, including the "inexplicable" Christopher Sly scenes that open the script, our production runs about two hours and fifteen minutes -- and it never stops being funny. This is far closer to what Shakespeare's audiences experienced in his lifetime than any of the ponderous, over-scholarly and over-acted versions you're likely to see anywhere else. (One of the worst is Zefferelli's interminable film version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.)

Our Katharina (the "shrew" of the title) is more than the usual screamer -- she's smart and witty and funny and snide, the way Shakespeare wrote her. And our Christopher Sly -- the drunken lout for whom the play is ostensibly performed as a vast prank -- is used throughout the play in the way that Shakespeare certainly used him: as a hilarious parody of rude audience members, both lordly and common.

Admission is free, as always with our productions at the LDS meetinghouse at 3719 Pinetop Road in Greensboro (across the street from Claxton Elementary). It will be performed on Friday and Saturday, September 17th and 18th, starting at seven o'clock p.m. (We ask you not to bring children under six; but from six on up, children are very likely to enjoy the play.)


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