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prd & prjdc

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One night while I was in Belgium, Matt, Leo and I went to see the most recent adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice at the Torsion d'Or (aka the Golden Fleece) in downtown Brussels. The novel is, of course, one of the greatest masterpieces ever composed in any language, and my favorite novel. I've read it at least a dozen times, taught it several times, hope to teach it again. (One of the best courses I ever taught was "All of Austen" at the U of Iowa--it was a blast.)

This adaptation is also titled Pride and Prejudice, but I think this is inappropriate. It should be called prd & prjdc, because it is an abbreviated, overly simplified affair, relying on the hard consonants of major plot points while forfeiting the vowel-like softness of nuance and complexity provided by character development, human growth and discovery.

There are reasons why Austen's novel remains a best seller almost 200 years after it was originally published, why it is read and understood easily even by modern high school students (I first read and loved it as a 15-year-old junior), why it is so often adapted into contemporary works. Bridget Jones's Diary, after all, is based on Pride and Prejudice, and BJD as novel, at least, does a good job of retaining major elements of the plot (not so much in the movie). Then there was Bride and Prejudice, a contemporary retelling set in India, LA and London. It includes a few great Bollywood dance numbers, and is loads of fun--as well as fairly loyal to the plot.

One reason for Jane's continued popularity is the fact that her language has aged very well. Austen's prose, while intellectually and syntactically complex, precise in vocabulary and laden with humor both understated and overt, is spare on similes and metaphors. S&M are, of course, evocative, and make for richness and beauty, but they only work if you understand both the literal and connotative meanings of the objects on each side of the comparison--otherwise, they inhibit rather than augment one's understanding of what's being evoked--"ox-eyed Athena" springs to mind.

But of course the main reason Austen remains popular is that she's a fabulous storyteller with keen insight into human psychology. And that keen insight is precisely what this new adaptation lacks.

I'm a Janeite

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I belong to all kinds of scholarly and professional associations (The Modern Language Association, the American Association of University Women, Academy of American Poets, etc) and I try to support charitable organizations whose work I value (Red Cross, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, etc) but there's one organization that I knew I'd want to support until I die, so a few years ago, after paying yearly membership dues for a decade, I just went ahead and bought a lifetime membership.

That organization is the Jane Austen Society of North America.

This morning when I got up and checked my email, there was a message from someone at the Jane Austen Society of Western Pennsylvania, inviting me to join the local branch. It's not so very local: The meetings are held an hour or two from where I live, but what the hell--I'll drive a few hours to talk to other Janeites.

For weeks now I've been working on a post about why I didn't like the new film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I'll finish and post it one of these days.... Jane's birthday is coming up--she was born December 16, 1775--and I considered posting about her that day, but there's something else I want to write about then. (Yeah, I actually do plan ahead some times.) But when I got that message this morning, I thought, OK, today it's time to say something about Jane.

She's fabulous, you know? I recently showed all six episodes of the 1995 BBC/A&E production of Pride and Prejudice to a friend, who was pleasantly surprised by how very much he liked it, that it was immediately accessible and very funny. He got a little upset when I turned the television off at the end of episode Four, when Darcy runs into Elizabeth at Pemberly, and couldn't believe how engrossed he was. If I hadn't said, "Sorry, it's time to go home," he would have kept watching because he needed to know exactly how it would all work out!

I admit I'm a little rushed for time today--I've got final papers to grade--so there's plenty to say that I'll wait and say later. Look forward to more on Jane in the next ten days! In the meantime, if you've never read it, check out this short story by Rudyard Kipling, called "The Janeites," about a guy who finds himself in the trenches of World War I in the midst of a secret society devoted to Austen--so devoted, in fact, that they name all their heavy artillery after the heavies in Austen novels--one of their biggest cannons is "Lady Catherine de Bugg."

I've read that during the worst of World War II, Winston Churchill had his daughter read Jane Austen to him every night so that he could relax--her novels managed to transport him in ways that nothing else could, so he might agree with what Humberstall concludes about Jane: "You take it from me, Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. Gawd bless ’er, whoever she was."

Hosts and Guests

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Sunday was my last full day in Brussels. I was sitting at Matt's computer doing my email when he walked in to say good morning. We began discussing what we'd do on my last day, and I felt compelled to ask him if I'd been an OK guest.

He frowned for a moment, then nodded. "You've been an OK guest," he said, emphasizing the "OK" while looking away. Then he looked right at me. "You're not the easiest person to live with."

I frowned and nodded myself. I already knew this. At this point in my life I generally find other people hard to live with, and I figure it must work both ways. I'm very habituated to living alone, to managing my money, my space, my stuff and my time as I see fit. I first did it when I was 23, after my mission (which involved as little privacy as possible--you're allowed to use the bathroom on your own, but the rest of your time is supposed to be spent in the presence of an assigned partner, so you have fewer opportunities to break the rules). The parents of one of my friends in Tucson had a studio apartment they offered to rent me, and it seemed like a good place to live while I finished my bachelor's degree. I was surprised at how much I liked living alone. Yes, I was often lonely, but there are many, many worse things in life than loneliness, and one of them is sharing a kitchen with someone who never does the dishes, either properly or at all.

The Artist Sleepover

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I would love to invite Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Frank O'Hara, Wallace Stevens and Oscar Wilde to my house for a sleepover. I rather suspect that Jane and Wallace might be disposed to decline the invitation, but I would wheedle and flatter, tell Jane how much I admire the navy and promise Wallace I'd buy all my insurance from him, until their resistence would deliquesce like a snowman and its mind of winter thrust suddenly into the orderly heat of Key West. Before my guests arrived, I would bake a batch of my special chocolate chocolate chip cookies, because those cookies always garner me praise, admiration and gratitude. I'd stock up on different flavors of Ben & Jerry's, because after all, the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream. I'd buy a case of Bass Pale Ale, as well of plenty of tequila, triple sec, limes, salt and ice, because who wouldn't like to see Emily Dickinson completely shitfaced? We'd lay our sleeping bags out on the living room floor and play Truth or Dare.

Actually we'd play Truth or Truth. Like I'm going to dare Frank O'Hara to make out with Oscar Wilde? I mean, yeah, I'd love to watch that, but I'd bet my entire poetry collection it would happen on its own. I'm far more interested in what they can tell me.

A Necessary Ingredient for Enjoying Art

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I love Grendel by John Gardner so much I wish I'd written it.

It is, of course, a retelling of the Beowulf saga from the point of view of the monster who wrecks Hrothgar's meadhall and feasts on his men.

I love it because it's a fiercely intellectual book, concerned with truth and ultimate meaning. I love it because it has so many fabulous lines. I love it because the dragon Grendel visits is one of the best characters ever created in all of literature.

I love it because plot is never the point: if you've read Beowulf, you know how Grendel ends: Beowulf rips Grendel's arm off, and Grendel goes off to bleed to death in the woods. So you don't read it for what happens, you read it for how it happens, and why what happens matters.

I get annoyed when people refuse to know anything beyond the initial set-up of a book they want to read or a movie they want to watch. "Don't tell me! Don't ruin the end for me!" they shout, covering their ears, as if ignorance is a necessary ingredient for enjoying art. If I feel I'm getting too caught up in wondering what will happen next to appreciate things in a text like musicality of language and construction of scene, I'll read the end so I can just dispense with the suspense and concentrate on enjoying the pages before the end, rather than racing through to the end.

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