Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Costume dramas and sewing at home (spoiler alert)




Costume dramas (or period dramas) are my weakness. I love the clothes: corsets, lace, silk, and in the best productions, you also get authentic hand-stitched gowns to die for.  I also love the melodrama, I admit it, and the endless twists that are given to a cherished storyline.
Recently, I have discovered Russian costume drama. Before I go on to discuss the costumes of my latest binge-watch, Love in Chains (original title Krepostnaya, 2019) I should make a couple of more general observations. Adaptations of great classic novels made in Russia are usually quite spectacular - think of War and Peace by Sergei Bondarchuk. They tend to be in dialogue with the book upon which they are based and costumes and location are a strong focus.  A similar engagement with literature and history was also seen, in Western Europe, in masters such as the late  Luchino Visconti, who maniacally sought to recreate the period in which his stories, often inspired by cherished novels, were set, in the most authentic way (the legendary Piero Tosi was his costumier).


The Ukrainian/Russian production Love in Chains now available with English subtitles on a number of streaming services and acclaimed in Cannes for its lavishness, follows in that film-making tradition I have mentioned.  It is a melodrama but its reference point is the visual and narrative tradition of the  film masters of the 20th century, as well as the great novels of Europe. As Tara Prytsaetska, creative director of the production, said in an interview for Drama Quarterly:
 "we sought to create a layered, multi-character ‘novel,’ not just a telenovela. We wanted the viewer to be immersed in the story in the same way they used to be in novels by Alexandre Dumas, George Sand and Maurice Druon. We were not interested in a predictable tale of love. We wanted to create a real world where passions would rage. And like a novel, the story was supposed to engage completely different audiences".
Love in Chains is about a bondmaid brought up as a noblewoman, but still, legally, a serf and is set in the 1850s, in Ukraine, which at the time was part of Imperial Russia.  For the record, serfs were emancipated in 1861 by the tsar Alexander II but in practice, serfdom continued until the October Revolution of 1917, which, as we know, changed the course of history with the birth of the now-defunct USSR.
Ukraine is not Russia but the cultural bonds between them are extremely tight,  so forgive me if in this post I use the adjective 'Russian' also with reference to Ukraine.


Love in Chains runs for two seasons and the end of season two is so incredibly tragic, one feels somewhat cheated having watched forty-eight episodes in which the heroine is abused and tortured, every time in a novel way. The male lead is killed off in series one, three episodes before the final one, though his death will dominate the story for the whole of season two; his replacement is murdered in episode 48, kicking off a new tragedy just as the episode is about to end, thus leaving the viewer wondering when the next season will be broadcast, because there HAS to be a resolution! We all know that this is what sustains drama series, this hope that it will all be resolved, in a 'just' way, in the next episode and thus new seasons are added, viewing rates soar and everyone is happy (well, almost).
That of the bondmaid seems to be a well-loved subject in Russian TV series and movies. There have been quite a few stories in which the heroine is a highly educated, refined bondmaid, on appearance indistinguishable from a noblewoman (though noblewomen often reveal to be pretty crass in their speech and demeanour) but always only property, a thing with no rights, so she could be punished very harshly, depending on the master's whim. The landlord owned a serf's labour, not the soul, but sometimes this difference was not clear. The dynamics at play in such stories are very interesting and there is definitely a reflection on the contemporary ills of Russian society, where there are now no serfs, but authoritarian rule continues to be the norm and corruption is rampant, as it was in Old Russia.  Tara Prystaetska, reflecting on the global success of Love in Chains says :
"we achieved our goal of creating a story that captivates viewers in the same way the best novels captivate readers. Viewers were immersed in the story and rooting for their favourite characters. The values, traditions and rituals in the show form part of the cultural code of the Eastern European audience, while modern viewers can relate to the problems Love in Chains addresses, such as abuse, difficult family dynamics and post-traumatic stress disorder. The relevance and timelessness of our dramatic elements played a vital role in the success of our project".

Katerina on her wedding day (Drama Quarterly)

 I said my real interest was in the clothes, so let's discuss them. The costumes in Love in Chains are spectacular.  The visual style of the drama is inspired by old paintings and this principle is also applied to the clothing, its texture and colours. According to press releases, "it took kilometres of materials to make the costumes for the characters. More than 200 dresses were tailored, some of them were created in two or three copies. The heaviest dress weighed above 10 kg, and for the most luxurious one, it took over 12 metres of the material to create."
The nobles, both men and women, wear beautifully cut clothes and there is an abundance of crinolined gowns. Noblewomen wrap themselves in silk embroidered shawls over their morning housecoat when breakfasting, then changing into more elaborate stay-at-home dresses or riding clothes if they go horse-riding (most of the characters in this drama are excellent riders). Corsets are all the rage, so we have a few scenes in which the young ladies look like sylphs and are prone to fainting because they cannot breathe.
The serfs also wear, for church and for celebrations, such as their own weddings - they could marry but always only with their owner's permission -  beautifully embroidered skirts (women), pants (men) blouses and tunics, headcovers, ribbons, which are all part of the traditional country wear of Ukrainians.  There is an abundance of beautifully ribboned braids, as the latter symbolised honour in Old Russia;  the noblewomen, however, do wear their long hair in more fancy updos, some copied from magazines full of news about Paris, the capital of fashion since the days of Louis XIV.
Having watched both seasons of Love in Chains totally engrossed in the story, I am now watching select episodes again, going back and forth, just to look at the clothes and see whether I can possibly copy any of them.

The Chervinskys with two of their bondmaids, Katerina and Galya


 I love sewing and during lockdown I started being a bit more creative, joining a couple of Facebook groups about hand sewing and 19th-century sewing as well as one for fashion historians and lovers of fashion history.
I am only able to stitch simple things at the moment but I love looking at this splendid wear and who knows, I might, just might, be able to make myself a housecoat. For now, it's enough to dream of it!
(For those interested in sewing historical costumes as a hobby see these podcasts by Jennifer Rosbrugh)

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Friendships, boundaries and dealbreakers


Raffella and Elena (Lila and Lenu) from My Brilliant Friend . Photo: Eduardo Castaldo / Courtesy of HBO, Vogue

We all have an implicit friendship scale -  for our peace of mind, that is - even though we may not be fully aware of it.  Some friends are closer than others, inevitably so, but we do not reveal to our friends where we put them on that scale, out of politeness and to spare the hurt. No one likes being told 'Oh you are a friend, but on a scale of 1 to 10, you would be a 4'.  We just say 'we are friends'; the rest is implicit. I wonder, however, whether, in fact, we ought to be more explicit about this, to avoid misunderstandings.
Experience has taught me that excessive closeness and familiarity with anyone,  even family, breeds contempt, so I like some emotional distance when dealing with friends - and family too! -, no matter whether they live close by or at the other end of the globe. In any case, with modern technology, long-distance friendships are definitely possible, except that one has to remember time zones when communicating. During lockdown even friends living in the same city or village felt as physically distant as those who lived in another country, all communication was online.
The way we understand friendship evolves as we grow older, in other words, we think of friends in a newer way at different stages in our life.
Boundaries in all personal relationships are essential, with family, colleagues, neighbours, and, of course, friends. I used to be a passive-aggressive sort of person, I would tolerate transgressions and be furious inside until something happened which made me see red and then it was goodbye, but not in a nice way.
It happens less often these days, I try to be more careful, but there are still people who bulldoze themselves into one's life, with the expectation that everything they say or do should be of interest to you because you are "a friend and sharing is what friends do".  No. These 'friends' end up draining so much of my energy I have no choice but throw them out of my life.

Elena and Raffaella from "My brilliant friend" a novel about friendship by Elena Ferrante now a major TV drama series

Someone I know recently had a bad experience with a person whom I also happened to know, and whom they thought was a dear friend of theirs.  It was a messy story, which set me thinking.
It made me look long and hard at friendship, the need for boundaries and the ability to be clear about one's boundaries and somehow finding a way to articulate them. Those people who have been friends since kindergarten are also people who have clear boundaries and respect them, without feeling hurt by the existence of such boundaries. I firmly believe that boundaries actually strengthen a friendship.
Allow me to give you a few examples, drawn from my experience.
Like most of us, I have friends and also a large circle of acquaintances. I have 'friends' on social media but I regard them precisely that, social media friends - likes on their feed, the occasional birthday wish, some witty comment, the occasional share. That's all that is expected from me and I expect from them.
I have a friend whom I have known since my schooldays. We are no longer bosom pals as we used to be when we shared homework, studied together, bitched together about our teachers and passed comments on boys.  All that is irrelevant to our lives today, it is just a  pleasant memory. But we are in touch, we can talk to each other quite easily, though there are firm boundaries in place eg we don't discuss partners and we avoid all kind of gossip. We live in different countries but that is not in itself an obstacle to our friendship. We had a moment a few weeks ago that with someone else could have ended up in a massive row, but not with us. She sent me several videos about the COVID19 pandemic. I told her politely that perhaps she should just put them on social media rather than in private messages, I was not happy about receiving them. She did not take umbrage and my saying so did not signal the end of our friendship. She merely took heed of my preferences and I was not afraid to voice them. I have known her for so long, I knew she would react the right way. More recently,  we spoke on the phone, she is actively helping me to locate some documents I need. There were times in our lives when we did not speak at all, but it never made any difference, we are always able to take it where we left off. Respectfully.



I have friends with whom I share primarily work interests. I have the greatest regard for them professionally and am happy to talk with them, at length, about work-related issues.  With most of them, we are on the same page, we think of each other as a bit more than colleagues and as 'general' friends. However, if they begin to discuss very personal matters,  I begin to squirm - I do not wish to be involved, so I find ways to convey my disinclination to go into such details. Most of the time this is understood, when it is not, that's when problems may begin. And this is when one should clearly articulate one's boundaries,  to avoid major fall-outs.
Personally, I draw a line between friendship and professional counselling or friendship and the role of what, for Catholics, would be that of a confessor. Worse still are those 'friends' who expect legal advice ('oh hear me out, what if I do this or that'), even if you tell them that you are not qualified to dispense such advice - someone I knew, whom I otherwise thought highly of,  did that, incessantly, as she was involved in a lengthy legal battle with her employers and I stopped taking her calls, till she finally got the hint. I no longer hear from her. I miss her, in some ways,  but I do not miss her obsessive behaviour.
No. If a friend attempts to put me in one of those roles, that's the end of our friendship. For me, it is a dealbreaker.
 I also cut off those people who text incessantly, long messages that are more like essays, about the most trivial things. Or those who attempt to psychologise me - I hold a certificate in psychotherapy, only I chose never to set up a practice. Imagine how I relish an amateur doing a bit of armchair psychology on me. Out they go.


Lenu and Lila , My Brilliant Friend, HBO drama adaptation of Elena Ferrante's novel

Finally,  I avoid lending money to friends, knowing that in most cases I will never see it back. I never borrow from friends - I may do that with family but never, ever with friends, I did it once and until I returned the whole amount, a paltry sum, in fact,  I was in great turmoil. It's awkward to ask and would not put myself in that position ever again. Thus, I do not take kindly to those 'friends' who don't think twice about it and demand you should oblige  'because we are friends'. 
We are all different. Some people may think my tolerance threshold is rather low. Honestly, I do not care. These are my boundaries and dealbreakers, take it or leave it.
 I am also a firm believer that it is better to be alone than in bad company, as George Washington said.
And you, what are your dealbreakers? 
(I have chosen to illustrate this post with images from 'My brilliant friend' which is Ferrante's  interesting take on female friendship, to be discussed in another post)

Friday, 5 June 2020

Black Out Tuesday on Social Media



I did not post a blank black image on Instagram and  Facebook on June 2, 2020.
It is not because I was not outraged by the murder of George Floyd, I certainly thought his life and that of millions of black people DO matter.
But posting a black square seemed to be a trendy thing to do and many did it because they feared 'naming and shaming' - a bit like the NHS clapping, which soon after it was introduced became ridiculously perfunctory. 
Racism is a horrible disease that affects our society. I happen to be white; my son is not. I became aware of racism because as a mother of a mixed-race boy I had to confront it. However, I will never know what it is like to be discriminated against because of your skin colour, except by proxy.
But being white does not equate with being racist nor evil. Racism is a mindset which can be changed, through education,  


 (From Voice of America)
Let us also not forget that non-whites can be racist and violently so, to other ethnic groups. In Indonesia the #blacklivesmatter has turned into #papuanlivesmatter to encourage Indonesians to confront their own racism and violence towards the Papuans - the Jakarta Post reports of an incident that took place in 2016 in the city of Yogyakarta in which Obby Kogoya, a Papuan student, was stepped on by police in Yogyakarta. I do not remember anyone protesting against this, most people in the world would not even know where or what Papua is, even though the island is huge and extremely rich in oil - without Papua the Indonesian economy would collapse. Others who know about it happily turn a blind eye to the discriminatory practices of the Indonesian Government (if you wish to know more about Papua and its Indonesian occupation see here), regarding it 'an internal matter'.  And let's not mention the African genocides, which are still going on. 
There are many resources available for learning about ways to combat racism, just google 'how to educate yourself on black lives matter'. Celebrities such as Meghan Markle have also weighed in on the debates following the death of George Floyd, and it's worth listening to what they are saying. Hopefully, they will help people to become more aware of institutional racism and 'unconscious bias'. Prince Harry talked about it in an interview in the September issue of British Vogue 2019 - the issue guest-edited by his wife Meghan. Let us not forget that the Sussexes' exit from public life as royals was also fuelled by the veiled racism that accompanied Meghan at every step - even though many gossip columnists trivialised it as a competition between Kate and Meghan, totally missing the point. (or preferring to miss the point?). If prominent people like Meghan Markle, married into the British monarchy, can experience racism, imagine what it is like for people in a less exalted position. Actually, you need not imagine it. The fate of George Floyd exemplifies it. 



Thus we have seen a flurry of businesses, especially those operating in the creative industries, posting on social media on how they are taking racism seriously and how they are in the process of reviewing their procedures to hold "stakeholders accountable for discriminatory practices."  It's all very commendable, but why do I think that these are just words? Why do I think that next month, no, in two weeks time, these will simply be posts on social media superseded by a 'back to normal' reality? 
What really happened to sexism and sexual exploitation after the flurry of #metoo? That's something to reflect upon.  There is a convergence.
My ambivalence about the #blackouttuesday on social media was actually voiced, among others,  by anti-racism campaigner and footballer Kevin-Prince Boateng who plays for Tottenham. He said in an interview for Skysport that simply posting images of black squares is "too easy" and also a way of saying "I did it, I did my bit" and leave it at that.  Another (black) voice was even more critical. “Stop posting black squares under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Instagram,” Anthony James Williams wrote on Twitter. “It is intentionally and unintentionally hiding critical information we are using on the ground and online ... Tell me how this helps Black folk. It doesn’t, and in fact, makes things a lot worse. Tell your friends and fam to stop.” 

(From Kenya, VOA News)

Maybe I am cynical but posting black squares was also for many a way to obtain likes and increase following which is actually what businesses on social media are after.
So, without an ounce of shame, I admit that not only did I not post a black square, but I also did not frantically try to post images of me with black friends and colleagues as I saw many others do, to show that they mix with everyone and respect everyone - you could tell it was prompted by a desire to be seen on-trend because such images had never been posted before with the same eagerness, giving them so much prominence through the use of carefully selected hashtags. It does not mean that I don't like working with people of colour, I just don't think that posting such images was helpful to anyone.
What I did do was to go silent.  It may not have got me more followers, or singled me out as 'doing my bit' for combating racism' but at least I did not hinder access to helpful information and suppress images of protests through appropriating the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. Social media silence is not connivance, at least not on this occasion.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

#8 At home...with more books and my thoughts


Kew Gardens

I can't wait to end this enforced stay-at-home, like most of us. When I go out, I see that people tend to regard the lockdown as more or less over - masks have disappeared, social distancing is observed with much laxity, the weather is gorgeous so everyone tries to be in parks and outdoor spaces. The Dominic Cummings affair has also upset, rightly so, several people and many are deliberately breaking the lockdown rules, in the belief that 'if he did it, so can we'. 
I am waiting for my favourite park, Kew Gardens,  to reopen (on June 1st) and then I will venture out there, I will be renewing my membership soon. Entry to the  Gardens is not free and this means many people will not go; consequently, it will be far less crowded than other spaces.  
Being at home all the time has brought on some mild agoraphobia. I have never liked crowds, a contradiction, really, since I live in a metropolis, but now going out feels like a major undertaking, just walking to the supermarket makes me a little anxious.  
Overall, I don't mind being home, I have been able to fill my little balcony with plants and looking after them has taken up a lot of my time - when it was very windy, a few days ago,  I really feared for their safety (and that of my downstairs neighbours) and fiddled with pieces of string and superglue to make sure the pots would stay in place after one of them was smashed by the gale-force wind. 
Reading, of course, is still my favourite activity. The Don Quixote spell is over, and now I am reading -belatedly I know, I should have done it long ago - Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy set in the times of Henry VIII and following Thomas Cromwell's rise and fall. I did watch the TV adaptation a few years ago and relished it, the acting was excellent, I am moreover a great fan of Mark Rylands. (Thomas Cromwell), whom I met many years ago when he was not yet famous and led a William Shakespeare Walking Tour from Westminster Abbey to the Globe.
 I thought Anne Boleyn, beautifully played by Claire Foy who was able to bring out all her contradictions,  did not come across as particularly likeable as a character, nevertheless. Anne is portrayed as petulant and ungracious, constantly belittling 'bastard' Mary Tudor, also known as 'Bloody Mary' when she finally ascended to the throne, daughter of Catherine of Aragon. Anne  constantly mocked her diminutive stature,  repeatedly referring to her as 'the dwarf' and even has a little woman (as we say today)  in her retinue, whom she rechristened Mary as she proudly tells Cromwell.  One is almost tempted to say 'good riddance' when Anne  is finally beheaded, except that, obviously, the punishment was extremely violent and, frankly, excessive.  But then she would not go quietly! What else could Henry do to get rid of her?  Henry is...let's not discuss Henry, I positively dislike him,  even if I take into account that he was a 16th-century monarch. But the actor, Damian Lewis, makes an almost likeable and definitely very dashing Henry VIII. 


In fact, Hilary Mantel has penned a great portrait of Anne Boleyn, in the book,  but also in articles (see this one) though I would not go as far as calling Anne a feminist.  Anne Boleyn has always had supporters and detractors, I am neither. I see her as a woman of her time, ambitious and out for herself which is not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe she really did sleep with her brother to beget a son,  since Henry was not always obliging in the bedroom, having already taken up with Jane Seymour and Anne felt she was running out of time. Maybe she did not. She was condemned to die as she was found guilty of treason, however, not witchcraft, as many seem to think.
I do not believe that just because Anne was a woman I should like her, nor do I think it is useful to put feminist tags on women who lived in pre-modern times, feminism did not belong to the 16th century. The Tudor court was a very treacherous environment, it goes without saying, and Anne had to learn to navigate it as best as she could. Her daughter Elizabeth became the most revered English sovereign ever, but Anne was not around to see her triumph.
Anyway, the Trilogy will keep me going for a while. As soon as lockdown is over, I plan to visit Hampton Court again. There will be no summer holidays abroad this year, so I shall have to make the most of what is available here and turn myself into a tourist, as if visiting London for the first time. Let's hope the weather will not disappoint.

Hampton Court Palace; Clock Court, Anne Boleyn's Gatehouse and the Astronomical Clock 
Photo: David Dixon


I wrote  'my thoughts' in this post's title. The following remarks have nothing to do with my books which really are my best friends at the moment, but I need to mention these 'thoughts'. 
I don't know about you, but I am very tired of friends who keep on sending via WhatsApp videos which are meant to be uplifting or who send various bits of news, mostly fake news, as if I were unable to access news channels. And if I politely ask them not to, they launch into a long tirade about me putting my head in the sand like an ostrich. Then there are those who think they have to tell me about all their woes in long WhatsApp messages, which keep coming in, and those who simply have to send me pictures of the cakes and various types of bread they bake. These are things for Facebook and other social media, not for sharing among friends and acquaintances through WhatsApp, Messenger or even  Skype! 
I am too polite to block people, but fortunately, WhatsApp allows you to mute. When I get all these messages I just thank people with an emoji and don't bother to read their entire texts. What is this urge to share absolutely everything? Do people not believe in privacy anymore? Do basic rules of politeness no longer apply? Why should everyone be interested in absolutely everything you do?
Sure, there are very personal things I share with my sister (my sister, not a stranger and I am allowed to quarrel with her, that's what siblings do) or with my son and his family. I love getting pics of my granddaughter, for example,  but will think not twice but two hundred times before sending them to others, unless they specifically ask for one (and even then I am most careful, as my son and his partner are fiercely private people).  
Social media has turned all of us into narcissists and the lockdown has made it worse, with selfies taken in the shower or in bed,  Tik Tok galore, people posting pictures of deserted city streets taken on their morning or evening walks. However, I can scroll through a social media feed and then forget all about it,  and move on.  But the constant ping of inconsequential WhatsApp messages irritates me, this is why I have been making ample use of the 'muting' facility.  
Ghosh, I have written a very long post and about different topics too, there's two different posts squeezed into one.
Never mind, I shall do better next time!

Friday, 15 May 2020

#7 At home...with (still) Don Quixote




Google Images

Don Quixote is a guest that stays with you for quite some time,  not only in terms of how it shapes your thinking but, also, in a very tangible and physical sense, as the book cannot be read hastily.  Thus it will be with you, in your living room, your bedside table and wherever else you choose to rest it to pick up the narration.
 I am still at volume 1 (almost finished) but am also reading around it, which is slowing me down as well as giving me food for thought. I am also reading, simultaneously,  Quichotte by Salman Rushdie, which I earlier described as a novella, but which is, in fact, a two-volume novel, bringing Quixote to contemporary America, as a retired salesman in love with love who names himself Quichotte, à la français (more about Rushdie's version in another post). 
I have also read Lennox's The female Quixote, which I mentioned in my earlier post, and in which Quixote becomes Arabella, an 18th-century wealthy woman who sees herself as the heroine of one of those French romances set in the era of chivalry which was her staple reading, constantly reinterpreting reality in accordance with her imagined world.
And... I have finally been able to watch The man who killed Don Quixote in its entirety.  I enjoyed it and I totally disagree with those critics who have reviewed it negatively. It is not an adaptation of Cervantes' masterpiece, it is inspired by it and by a twenty-five-year long engagement with this extraordinary novel, retaining its magnificent chaos, flights of fancy and at times raucous humour but clearly changing the storyline to suit contemporary viewers.



Next on my list is Kathy Acker's Don Quixote which was a dream, in which the Don is again a woman who becomes a knight to defeat "the evil enchanters of modern America". I have ordered it, after reading Victoria Tomasulo's critical appraisal and am waiting for it to arrive in the post. Can't wait to get started!
As you can see,  I am quite taken with Don Quixote. And, in truth, who fails to fall under the spell of the Don? The more you read this book, the more it strikes you as relevant, so utterly contemporary - the speech made by Marcela, for example, who claims independence of action and thought and refuses to bow to men, choosing not to marry, is unexpected and very heartening, endorsed by Don Quixote, rather than being condemned.  (See the exhibition by Google Arts on the female world in Don Quixote)



I disagree with those who attempt to place a proto-feminist tag on Cervantes, but I concur with Edith Grossman who in 2004 translated Don Quixote into English, a new translation to mark the 400 years anniversary of the novel. The last in a long line of translators, whose work began as soon as the (great)work was published, Grossman who has clearly engaged with Cervantes in great depth, believes that to think of him as a proto-feminist is rather over the top but acknowledges that his female characters are often presented as strong women eg the above mentioned Marcela.
Personally, what intrigues me is how Don Quixote is a novel about books and reading, thus I am inclined to reflect on the transformative encounter one has with literature.
Don Quixote begins by asserting it is a book about other books (and their pernicious influence). I am reading it as a woman of my own time and obviously, I notice the values and conventions contained in a work of literature of this magnitude, and am overall aware of how these have, historically, been shaped by men. Cervantes is a 16th-century man, there is no doubt about it.  I cannot but be struck by the portrayal of the characters, both female and male, the complex language of the text, the attitude(s)  of the author and the relationship between the characters as also  the comments the author seems to be making about society as a whole.

Don Quixote by Salvador Dali

But most of all  I am fascinated by the role of fearless quester embodied by the DonI ask myself about women taking on that role as writers: through the evidence I have cited - there are many more examples, I can mention here the Italian author Elsa Morante, also discussed by Tomasulo -  women seem to have been in a quixotic pursuit of self-representation in an androcentric universe, in ways that invite a reflection on the relationship between life and literature, as noted by said Victoria Tomasulo.
However, I am still grappling with the real meaning of 'quixotic' and ways in which it can be applied to my (day-to-day) existence - is my quest to subvert warped perceptions of beauty and age quixotic? Am I tilting at windmills?  I am not, as yet, able to answer. It remains to be seen how Covid19 will change our priorities.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

#6 At home...with Don Quixote




Trailer of  the movie by Gilliam 'The man who killed Don Quixote'



(When I began this series of posts written during the lockdown, I chose the title 'Life in the Time of Coronavirus'. But after a while I found the title unmanageable, so now I am simply numbering the posts and using the tag #At home with...)

I recently took part in the '10at10' series of interviews on Instagram Live by designer Ira Iceberg, with whom I worked in 2019  (you can watch the interview here. and also below).  I mention this because, in the course of the interview, Ira asked me about my strategies to survive the lockdown. This post complements the interview.



By now we have all developed our own ways to cope with the lockdown. What am I doing? Apart from going out food shopping, which still remains one of the dullest tasks ever, despite the opportunity to walk through my local park, I am sleeking (doing sleek technique) regularly, even more so now than I ever did, though I was always a dedicated sleeker even in pre-coronavirus times.
I also alternate between repurposing old clothes and experimenting with knitting and crochet and obsessively, I look after my plants, having discovered that my tiny balcony can be put to some good use, after years of utter neglect - it needed some good cleaning. So I bought a dwarf wisteria, which was delivered on Friday (a day of deliveries, I also got my Vaara dancewear but I will tell you about it in a different post) and am encouraging my jasmine to cling onto the railings of said balcony, where I have also tied some large umbrellas to protect my plants from the rain, following the advice found in this post). I am dreaming of the luxuriant growth of both climbers, as in the picture below;  the reality is infinitely more modest.


Wisteria on a balcony in Crema, Italy. Photo: Nicky Deo (via Pinterest)


Time drags during the lockdown and I have found some solace in reading. I occasionally scribble but no, the real pleasure is in reading or re-reading the classics.  Why the classics? Because, as Calvino said in his Why read the classics? they are "books, which the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected and innovative we find them when we actually read them".
Thus I  read the entire Clarissa, the history of a young lady by Samuel Richardson (see the previous post) and really enjoyed it; it was a fortnight very well-spent. Then I read an article about Salman Rushdie's rewriting of Don Quixote (the novella Quichotte, which I plan to acquire soon).  It sent me straight to LibriVox for an audiobook of Cervantes' classic. I am now listening to it and rediscovering its power and intensity.  It is the John Ormsby translation  - I also have the Penguin Classic edition translated by John Rutherford, which I am consulting when the  LibriVox reading gets tedious - I have commented on the uneven quality of volunteer readers in connection with the Clarissa audiobook.
A favourite of my mother's who used to quote extensively from it, in earlier attempts at reading it I never went past the windmill episode and skimmed through the two volumes, finding it too taxing to follow in its entirety. Don Quixote, published in 1605, is a complex book, whose translation has always been a vexed issue because Spanish has a natural grandiloquence that is most difficult to render in other languages without sounding exceedingly pompous and affected. I will not elaborate on this; there are many learned papers one can read about translating El Quixote, as Cervantes' masterpiece is affectionately known by Spanish speaking people - and, incidentally, Cervantes too raises the issue of translation in volume one, when Don Quixote's books are being burnt by the hidalgo's well-meaning friends.
There are also a few movies around attempting to render the book cinematographically, the latest is the one by Terry Gilliam (2019), who took a good twenty years to make it (you can also watch the documentary he made in 2002 Lost in La Mancha, when it became clear that making the movie was going to be quite an undertaking, due to lack of funding.)


I was curious to know about novels inspired by Don Quixote. The list is long as Cervantes has been admired by many writers. Madame Bovary by Flaubert is but a female Don Quixote, evident in her quest for romantic love - Flaubert regarded Don Quixote as one of the most important works that helped him to develop as a writer.
But there is also The female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox, published in 1752 and appreciated by the literary establishment of the time, especially Samuel Johnson, and which was subsequently used by Jane Austen as an inspiration for her Northanger Abbey - in all this one can see how writers are constantly in dialogue with one another, across time and space. It also makes one aware that,  to be a good writer,  one really needs to read widely.
So thanks to LibriVox, I am also listening to The female Don Quixote, alternating between the original and Lennox. 
I recently told a friend  (in an email) that plan to emerge from the lockdown as a very well-read person, with a better knowledge of world literature and of the classics. I can't keep on checking the news and feel sorry for not being able to do this or that, I need to focus on something positive.
I have always enjoyed reading, but now, I have taken to it with a vengeance. 
Will I be a better person for it? Possibly not. One thing is certain, however: I am definitely not getting bored. And this is more than enough to justify the effort.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

#5 At home... with Clarissa Harlowe


Francis Hayman, Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlowe


I have spent the past couple of weeks in the company of Clarissa Harlowe and Robert Lovelace,  the heroine and anti-hero of  Clarissa, a history of a young lady, by Samuel Richardson, an epistolary novel published in 1748.  A forbidding work in nine volumes, roughly 970,000 words, Clarissa consists of letter upon letter beautifully written by a range of characters to one another in a surprisingly accessible language, despite being three centuries-old (though I had to get used to expressions and turns of phrase which are now obsolete;  and, of course, the style,  full of polite circumlocutions eg  "permit me, madam, to trouble you with a few lines, were it only to thank you for your reproofs" or "the maids who brought the flowers were ambitious to strew them about them").
Clarissa is part of the English literary canon but its influence on  European literature has been huge.  It is a novel about rape and abuse: emotional, physical and intellectual (no, this is not a spoiler; the rule about spoilers can be waived when dealing with works of this magnitude, which are known to almost everyone).  But it is also a novel about strength, determination and integrity. If the emphasis on female virtue is set aside, the subject matter of Clarissa becomes very relatable: a woman who is drugged and raped by a  controlling man infatuated with her,  but who refuses to be defeated. She seeks comfort in religion and chooses death rather than marry the man who abused her and would have continued to do so. She could have denounced his actions and chosen to undergo a trial (rape was punishable by death sentence in the 18th century, but proving it was most difficult); however that would have been, she believed, a lost cause, due to the rank of the man, his wealth and his connections. She does not commit suicide; instead, through gradual starvation and neglect of her health,  she wills herself to die.


Saskia Wickham as Clarissa, 1991, BBC

I was aware of Clarissa but had never read it.  I did read  Clarissa's  French 'counterpart' Les Liaisons Dangereuses, also an epistolary novel with a virtuous heroine seduced by a libertine, set among the aristocracy of the ancien regime.  But Clarissa and Les Liaisons are only superficially similar. For one thing,  Les Liasons reflects a corrupt and disintegrating aristocracy, whereas Clarissa's milieu is that of a rising, greedy middle class, represented by Clarissa's own family and her brother James in particular. Clarissa Harlowe is a very wealthy young woman, whose assets are coveted by her brother and sister; through their persecution, she ends up trusting Lovelace and is persuaded by him to elope. This will lead to her downfall and premature death, at the age of 19.

Sean Bean as Robert Lovelace, 1991, BBC

Reading Clarissa is not for the fainthearted, definitely not for everyone.  It requires commitment;  it is a full-time occupation and a test of endurance. The story unfolds at a maddeningly leisurely pace: Clarissa leaves her parental home only in volume II and Lovelace's elaborate rape takes place in Volume VI.  We have to wait till volume VIII for the beginning of the unmaking of Lovelace, while Clarissa is slowly dying. Volume IX concludes with their separate deaths, in very different circumstances: she is finally received once again by her grieving family, albeit in a coffin, Lovelace dies in a duel, killed by his nemesis, Colonel Morgan, one of Clarissa's cousins.
I was challenged to read Clarissa;  I do not know what possessed me to accept the challenge, I realised as soon as I picked up the book that it was not an easy read but I persevered and once I went past volume 1, I was hooked.
I started the book on Easter day and have now got to the end; naturally,  I feel a great sense of elation and a compulsion to share my observations,  though I realise the number of people who have actually read the book is rather small.  It's lamentable because  Clarissa is an extraordinary novel that has to be discussed, it is so compelling a read, how can one choose to ignore it?  In my view, it has to be read in one go,  a marathon read, there is no other way of doing it.  You have to allow yourself to be enveloped in Clarissa 's and Lovelace's conflict of will,  immerse yourself in 18th century England, make several concessions to Richardson's puritanical views (context, context !) and then you will really enjoy the novel, with its numerous theatrical twists and philosophical disquisitions on libertinism and virtue.
No film adaptation has (yet) done it full justice - I watched the 1991 BBC version with  Saskia Wickham and Sean Bean in the title roles and enjoyed it, Bean makes a wonderful, angst-ridden  Lovelace, though the series takes some liberties with the novel, in the hope of making it more interesting to a modern audience. eg there is no incestuous relationship between Clarissa's older sister Bella and brother James, as made out in the movie.
But reading Richardson is an experience not to be missed.



I have cheated my way through it, having chosen the audiobook version, so that I could listen to a narrator while still attending to mundane things. I have also ordered a print version, this is a book you need to have in your library, to go back to some of the most poignant passages whenever you feel the need to do so and re-read it, skipping chapters, as you see fit.
Now that I have finished it, I confess I feel a little lost. For the past fortnight, I began my day with Clarissa and Lovelace and ended it with them. No more.
I thought the Audible audiobook, though an excellent recording (I listened to a sample), was a bit pricey, so I listened to the free one available through Libri Vox.  Readers for Libri Vox are volunteers and whereas some of them do the job superbly, there are also very poor readers, especially those who fancy themselves being on stage. They kill the text through over-the-top, totally unnecessary, acting. Several times in the course of listening to the letters of volume 6, I had to turn off the audiobook and read the text myself (I downloaded the ebook from Project Gutenberg) as the voice of the reader and his style were awful - I totally disagreed with the way he read Lovelace's letters, turning him into a ridiculous, farcical character, whereas Lovelace, an archetypal rake, a handsome young man endowed with great charm, has a complexity, an inner turmoil that cannot be ridiculed, though he is quite despicable in his sense of entitlement. But this is an opinion readers must be allowed to form for themselves. In contemporary terms, Robert Lovelace is a narcissist. He is unquestionably a villain,  as twisted as can be, but I remain convinced that Richardson never intended to depict him as a vaudeville character - his letters bear me out.
  I doubt it I would have had the time and stamina to go through all the nine volumes in pre-Covid 19 times - but when I was a teenager I used to spend my school holidays in bed just reading, a luxury I was never again able to afford, until now.
 I found Clarissa a tour de force that played havoc with my emotions. So many times I caught myself being totally enraptured, and  'in the book'.  Occasionally, I had to remind myself I was reading (listening to) a novel, the world I had stepped into was Richardson's construct, Clarissa and Lovelace are not, never were, real people.
Clarissa is a bit too saintly for my liking though she makes her point with vehemence: she does not love Lovelace; despite a mild, cautious, initial attraction, she despises his ways and does not want him near her. And that's that.


Sean Dean as Robert Lovelace, 1991, BBC

Lovelace is totally infatuated with her, the more she refuses him, the more he wants her and he checks all her correspondence, stalks her, imprisons her in a brothel. It is inadmissible to him that she would turn him down. Even his eventual rape is not an ordinary rape, but an elaborate machination to own Clarissa, bend her will, get to her inner self in an attempt to force her to love him. That's what he really wants, her love and submission,  to the point of believing that raping her is the only way to obtain her complete surrender. I cannot condone this, no one can (and Richardson rages against it, rightly so); rape is rape and NEVER justified. But one can feel throughout the book Lovelace's frustration and anguish, his pathological need to control Clarissa going beyond what is morally acceptable.
He is, as a matter of principle, being a libertine, against marriage, and would like for Clarissa to accept cohabitation, which to her is unthinkable; after raping her, he insists on marrying her, because he knows that through marriage he will own her. Clarissa is adamant he should never go near her again.
 It seems odd that Clarissa should die but in the context of the novel, it is the only way for her to assert her total independence and her triumph over Lovelace's perversity and the callousness of her relatives.
As I said this is not a book for everyone. But if you wish to challenge yourself, do read it. It will stay with you for a very long time.


*** Samuel Richardson in his Conclusion II gives reasons for why he wrote this novel and why he chose such a tragic ending. He also justifies the length of the novel and his choice of the epistolary style ***







Tuesday, 14 April 2020

An intergenerational fashion

I originally wrote this piece soon after London Fashion Week  2020 for Goldie magazine. However, with the lockdown currently in place due to COVID19, for the time being, Goldie is not being printed. 
So I am posting the original article here, with only a couple of edits.




Year in, year out, we read articles about lack of diversity in fashion, especially in terms of age representation, urging designers to be more inclusive and to have more older models in their shows. Many designers do try their best to be inclusive, but they often prefer to play it safe and only have well known ‘older’ faces walk for them. Fashion week shows are expensive, designers pay good money for a slot and want everything to go smoothly. Relying on a known model or a celebrity, of any age, can enhance the popularity of a show and of the collection presented.
Diversity is a complex issue and within it, age and ageism are a minefield.
When I started modelling, in my late forties, there was almost nothing available for older models, not in fashion and beauty: it was all about commercial work, replete with stereotypical grannies. The trend continues - come Christmas, you will see more and more grannies in ads; ever since I turned 60, I have done quite well, appearing in several Christmas campaigns, as an honorary grandmother.
However,  over the past decade, slowly but steadily, older models have begun to be more visible, not just in magazines aimed at the forty/fifty plus section of the population, but also in fashion magazines whose readership ranges, age-wise, from 18 upwards.  Some brands seem to have gone out of their way to include older models, of both genders, in their look books – JD Williams, H&M, Lindex, Gucci, even Sweaty Betty and Athleta, which do fitness wear, come to mind. Some brands purport to have intergenerational clothes – and their look books reflect this attempt at inclusion. Rixo, for example, has had a policy of inclusivity from inception, often relying on older female customers to model alongside younger professionals, in an attempt to emphasize an intergenerational approach (why non-professionals? Well…  it is often a cheaper option).  The Bias-cut.com, an online boutique that celebrates all ages, also relies on non-professionals, who do it to gain greater experience and build up a portfolio. A few then go on to model professionally.

With my granddaughter Livia for Rixo, celebrating Mother's Day

I am a ‘glass-half-full’ person; you have to be if you are in my line of work or you would spend your days crying your eyes out. I firmly believe that there is a genuine effort among designers, and the fashion industry, on the whole, to serve a wider age range and not to unduly differentiate between young and old. I do believe we are witnessing major changes. Education has done its bit; young designers have been trained to develop an awareness of diversity and its attendant issues and have a better understanding of the body and its ageing process.
Ageist attitudes may continue to be rife, at an individual level - at a recent casting for a London Fashion Week show, a young designer rather than routinely accept my comp card and that of a fellow older model, felt the need to say she did not want older models in her show. It was quite unnecessary, she could have just taken the cards and not selected us, a standard behaviour, but she felt the need to articulate her disapproval, unwittingly coming across as biased.  Maybe it was a language problem and all she meant was that on this occasion her collection was really geared towards younger people. No matter. Her statement seemed very blunt and pointed to the fact that age-insensitive language is so common that people do not even realise they might be saying anything that could be construed as ageist.
Yet, at that same casting where my card was declined, a handful of older models turned up (why only a handful is a different issue) and they were all hired, including me (though I stepped in only when a first option was no longer available). Yes, models have to get used to being second-best!
Designers do have a vision when creating a collection and their vision for the clothes they make must be respected; on the other hand, they should be encouraged to broaden their horizons. Having a few pieces in a collection which can be worn, with adjustments, by older women (and men) does not mean the collection is going to be ruined; on the contrary, it would highlight a designer’s creativity and versatility.  That’s where styling comes in…
Much pressure is put on designers to tick boxes. But no model wants to be hired as a tick box.
Soon after images of the LFW shows went up, it was interesting to observe the reactions, especially on social media. Some felt the number of older models at LFW was still far too low; that the clothes were unsuitable to older women; and also, that there was a tendency to go for slimmer older models rather than curvy ones.
All this raises interesting questions on what it means to have an intergenerational approach.
But let's retrace our steps.
What is intergenerational fashion?
Intergenerationality refers to relationships between generations, which can often be strained and difficult; it does not have to be that way. An intergenerational fashion is one that does not discriminate between the young and the old. It is not a fashion that ignores the specificity of being old or of being young, on the contrary. The idea is to break down the barriers that exist between generations – I recently did a shoot for Conflict of Ego, a brand that makes intergenerational clothes. There was a pink suit that I wore and immediately afterwards,  it was worn by a much younger model. The same outfit, but different styling. It worked.
Older women, even more so than older men, often feel invisible and fashion can help them reacquire visibility, at the same time fostering a better relationship with women of a different generation than their own.

With Laura Shannon Harding

Many young designers are happy to make clothes to be worn by women and men of different generations.  Laura Shannon Harding, designer and also occasional model, at a recent fashion show, a charity fundraiser, asked me to model one of her very bold designs, a mini-skirt with matching jacket. At first, I was reluctant, feeling too old for it. I even asked whether by any chance I was a last-minute replacement, believing Laura had not thought it through.  “No way. I knew exactly that you were modelling for this event and knew what to give you. My clothes are for bold individuals, not afraid to stand out. I chose you as one of my models, please wear it”. I was persuaded and did, complete with colourful boots (but I asked I’d be allowed to wear nude tights). Later, I felt quite elated.  I, an older woman, had been asked to show off one of Laura’s bold designs! She did not hesitate, she felt her clothes could be worn by an older woman.
 I may not wear Laura’s minis every day,  but there might be occasions when her clothes will be just right – again let’s not forget that styling always gives you the option to adapt clothes.


For DB Berdan LFW2020
We want to see models of all ages, all body sizes and all ethnicities at fashion shows, proving that fashion is truly for all and can be enjoyed by all. We want designers to set aside their prejudices and any conventional wisdom they might have been taught as part of their training and believe that their clothes can be shown off by a range of body types and ages. Representation matters: we want to see models that reflect different demographics.
Ideally, we want to focus on the clothes, not on who wears them, though admittedly, it can, at times, be difficult to separate clothes and their wearers – but separation is the goal.
And here is my ‘glass-half-full’ take: we are getting there, so let’s celebrate this moment of intergenerationality in contemporary fashion.  

Soon after I wrote, the coronavirus required a complete lockdown. I wonder what it will be like when things 'go back to normal'. There will be other concerns, no doubt, which will have to be prioritised. I also feel that the emphasis will be on youth and renewal and fashion will reflect that. 
Anyway, I thought I should post this article as it gives a sense of where we were at in early March. What will happen next? We just have to wait and see... 



Wednesday, 1 April 2020

# 3 Life in the time of Coronavirus


London in coronavirus lockdown. Source: The Independent


Here I am with another post written in lockdown London.
I don't know about you, but I find that too many celebs and pseudo -celebs, keep posting images of themselves self-isolating in their fab homes, not to mention the very rich, all exhibiting 'mild symptoms' after being tested positive (while our frontline doctors and nurses do not enjoy the same privileged access to testing)  and at pains to tell us that we are all in this together. The profound inequality of our society has never been more evident than in present times - the incomparable Marina Hyde has written an opinion piece on this, which I strongly recommend you should read.
But no, I did not want to post a rant, it just came out.
Where was I? Oh, yes, lockdown. To relieve the boredom that is settling in (yes,  I am exercising; and no,  I am not slouching on my sofa in my pyjamas) I am reading a lot, making the most of my trial Scribd membership,
 I stumbled on The Austen Project of 2013, aimed at a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen's most famous novels.  Six prominent writers of our time were commissioned by HarperCollins to rework an up to date version of  Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Mansfield Park. Only four novels were published, Persuasion and Mansfield Park never saw the light of day. The Project flopped, in other words, even though the writers were all 'masters of their craft'. What went wrong?


Jane Austen is, well, Jane Austen, the doyenne of comedy and satire. Through her witty pen, and her revolutionary indirect libre style of writing, the foibles of Regency England are magnified.  Status, rank and class are the major concerns of her characters and the subservient position of women, for whom finding a good match is absolutely everything they can aspire to,  is put in sharp focus.
I am not a Janeite, but Austen has had me in her thrall ever since I discovered her work, back in my teens. Did it help in endearing her to me that I did not have to write A level English essays on Pride and Prejudice because my schooling was in a different country? Perhaps. (I wrote about Divina Commedia and I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) but whereas I have long made my peace with Dante, the very mention of Promessi Sposi still makes me slightly queasy).
Let's be clear. Reworkings are done all the time, much contemporary fiction is inspired by seminal literary works.  Margaret Atwood beautifully rewrote The Tempest in Hag-seed, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary is but a version of Pride and Prejudice set in the 1990s, Zadie Smith's On Beauty owes its inspiration to  Howard's End, fully acknowledged as its source by the author.
Therefore I  thought that Austen in contemporary dress would be fun to read.
Well, yes and no.

I do not know what the criteria given to the authors were, for this Austen Project. I have so far read Joanna Trollope's Sense & Sensibility (note the ampersand) and am now going through Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible. I then plan to move on to Emma as retold by Alexander McCall Smith, which I have already downloaded. Emma is my favourite Austen novel.
Trollope, queen of the Aga Saga,  clearly had great fun rewriting Sense and Sensibility and was utterly faithful to the original. She is a good writer, I will not dispute that. But Sense & Sensibility does not work, precisely because she felt she should not   - perhaps could not - deviate from the original. Yet, the main difference between women of today and women in Regency England is precisely that marriage is no longer the be-all-end-all of our lives. Thus the matchmaking and the various disinheritances no longer make sense, not even in the upper-middle-class milieu the characters of the novel inhabit. Yes, Elinor (sense) is studying for a degree in architecture, which she has to give up to help out the now impoverished family. Marianne (sensibility), a musician,  comes across as a very silly girl,  and though Trollope hints at a possible bipolar condition she does not develop this fully, dwelling instead on her asthma (not in the original).  Willoughby, though mixed up with drugs, is not dark enough for our contemporary times to warrant the mammoth breakdown of Marianne - it is all a bit over the top, whereas it makes perfect sense in the original. It is as if Trollope was so in awe of Jane Austen, she could not bring herself to make her characters believable when giving them a contemporary dress. Thus they fall flat on their face. (But I do like the reference to upperly-mobile Middletons).


I watched a small clip on YouTube in which Joanna Trollope explains what she has done with the book. Coming from the same upper-middle-class background as Jane Austen's characters, she is able to observe shrewdly and fill in details.  Hers is an admirable effort, I certainly acknowledge that. But it does not work. At some point, Trollope makes Marianne say to her mother Belle that she views life like those 19th-century heroines so obsessed with marriage, as indeed Belle Dashwood seems to be. It's a nice touch, but it does not rescue the retelling.
Curtis Sittenfeld has been more imaginative in Eligible and one can relate to it more easily. I have not finished the book,  so I will refrain from commenting.
I suppose all this makes it crystal clear that context matters. Austen transcends her time because she talks about love,  money and the human condition - this continues to be important even today.  But there are certain things that anchor her characters to her time and it is not enough to give them ipads and laptops to make them contemporary: their thinking has to reflect our contemporary condition.  Trollope's Sense &Sensibility is only just "a cut above chick-lit" as one reviewer comments. It could have been better than that.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

#2 Life in the time of Coronavirus


Albert Camus  (source Wikipedia)

It started with a friend posting on Facebook that she had found a battered copy of her French A level  text, La Peste (1947), or The Plague, by Nobel prize winner Albert Camus. Was it not uncanny and was this not the right book to read in our current predicament, she wrote?
On the same day (only a couple of hours later, I swear), my sister whatsapped me to say she had joined the Biblioteca Civica in Turin, now opening its virtual doors to everyone, and guess what, she had downloaded a copy of La Peste because she had never had a chance to read it. Now that I am home for an indefinite period,  it's the time to do it, she said. And so I thought, why not, I will also read it (again), then we can compare notes - I had read it many years ago, in my twenties. Or should I say I misread it many years ago?
 I searched for it among my books and found it,  then decided to download the audio-book version because I love listening to someone reading out to me.  And while googling the audiobook (you can get it from either Audible or Scrbd), I discovered that sales of  The Plague had been soaring.


It has always been a well-known and widely read book, a classic, a must-read text for students of French literature, ideally in the original French.  But it has now become a best-seller once again, as it seems that people who are self-isolating find some solace in reading it (or re-reading it).  As the Coronavirus sweeps through the planet, killing humans by the thousands, a tale about a sudden pestilence and a city in complete lockdown clearly resonates. At the end of this post, you'll find links to different articles/posts written, in recent weeks,  about The Plague and its relevance to  Coronavirus times - mine is definitely not the only post discussing this book, nor is it an attempt at engaging in serious literary criticism. I just want to bring a personal angle, as I too am reading the book at this point in time.
This being a re-reading (well, I am in fact listening to an actor reading it), not only do I know the plot but every time a new paragraph begins I get a déja vu feeling - I have not memorised the book, but every time the actor reads out a sentence, it sounds very familiar, the words echo in my head, my brain recognises them.



When I first encountered The Plague I could not relate to it, not really. I was more attuned to  Camus' other great book,  L'Etranger (The Outsider) which I also enjoyed in its 1967 film rendition by Luchino Visconti, with a listless Marcello Mastroianni, father of Chiara.
That The Plague was a meditation on man's existence and touched on fundamental philosophical questions was something I immediately grasped, even at my first reading. But the notion of pestilence was too fanciful for me,  the plague being something that has been consigned to history. I could only understand it as a metaphor, and indeed that's the way Camus' plague has tended to be interpreted, as an allegory of fascism, the plague that afflicted Europe in his lifetime.
 Writing in 2003, two years after 9/11, Marina Warner, who was also engaged in a re-reading of the book, declared it to be about terrorism and redemption, in a very nuanced critique. She also pointed out, as an aside, that women and native Algerians are oddly absent from Camus' narration.


Reading The Plague now, in Coronavirus times, feels totally different. It's suddenly very, very real. We are living in quarantine, we are living with this terrible threat to our lives; every day the death toll rises and we do feel numbed by the figures. Camus is able to convey the dread of contagion, giving a minute description of its mechanism and the way the plague moves from the dying rats that suddenly appear in the streets of Oran, the ordinarily rather sleepy town on the coast of Algeria where the narrative is set, to humans, detailing the effects on the human body, with buboes and inflamed ganglia vividly conjured up. He also outlines the different responses to the pestilence, from the authorities attempting to play down the threat (we have seen that with the Coronavirus in the UK and elsewhere) to people trying to resist it and getting themselves organised in volunteer groups ( only today over 405,000 people in the UK have responded to an NHS call for help), to people trying to profit from it (where shall I start? it began with loo rolls being sold on eBay for three times their regular price, now with face masks at £30 each, and we are only seeing the beginning of it) to the scientifically- minded keen to develop a vaccine (that too is happening now). As  Oran begins to be ravaged by the plague, Camus describes its people as doing their best to forget all about it, pretending to be living a normal life,  strolling around in their finery and wining and dining at the best restaurants, while the corpses multiply.
 Liesl Schillinger pointedly writes in the Literary Hub:
 "The townspeople of Oran did not have the recourse that today’s global citizens have, in whatever town: to seek community in virtual reality. As the present pandemic settles in and lingers in this digital age, it applies a vivid new filter to Camus’s acute vision of the emotional backdrop of contagion.  Today, the exile and isolation of Plague 2.0 are acquiring their own shadings, their own characteristics, recolouring Camus’s portrait".
But it is a filter that does not fundamentally change the original portrait. I know many people who would rather not hear about the Coronavirus anymore, it is something 'just out there'. They are trying to recreate the world-as-we-know it virtually, through whatever means.
I am not among them, not really. I am also not one of those who regard the pandemic as a way for our planet to cleanse itself, finding a messianic sense in it.
I am uncertain, lost perhaps; I need time to chew it over, absorb, digest. Camus' The Plague is giving me an opportunity to reflect, in my own time and in earnest. I welcome that.
As we all ponder on the enormous implications of our present-day pandemic,  Camus' book is a mandatory read.  It ends on a note of "complex" hope, as Warner calls it, with an epic caveat:
“there have been as many plagues as wars in history,” he writes. “Yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
 It is in our power that they should never happen again. We would like to believe so. But despite all good purposes, there is no guarantee they will not reoccur.

Links to articles about The Plague in Coronavirus times