I missed the birthday of one of my favorite writers: Michael Ondaatje (September 12, 1943). One of my best friends from the museum, Becky Anthony, introduced me to Ondaatje and his masterful novel, The English Patient, which was adapted into an equally beautiful movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas. The Poetry Foundation has a nice bio of the author.
For today’s Two for Tuesday, I thought that I’d share some of my favorite quotes from the novel, a few more than two, I suppose. I’m also including a video with some of the movie’s soundtrack. I love movie soundtracks, and this is one that I listen to when I’m feeling very out of sorts. It is as hauntingly beautiful as the movie and novel. Enjoy.
“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.”
In the desert the most loved waters, like a lover’s name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence.
A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water. There is a plant he knows of near El Taj, whose heart, if one cuts it out, is replaced with a fluid containing herbal goodness. Every morning one can drink the liquid the amount of a missing heart.
He walks with her through the indigo markets that lie between South Cairo and her home. The beautiful songs of faith enter the air like arrows, one minaret answering another, as if passing on a rumor of the two of them as they walk through the cold morning air, the smell of charcoal and hemp already making the air profound. Sinners in a holy city.
And all the names of the tribes, the nomads of faith who walked in the monotone of the desert and saw brightness and faith and colour. The way a stone or found metal box or bone can become loved and turn eternal in a prayer. Such glory of this country she enters now and becomes a part of. We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all of this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.
I would ride your bed
And leave the yellow bark dust
On your pillow.
Your breasts and shoulders would reek
You could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.
Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbour to you hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.
I could hardly glance at you
never touch you
–your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…
When we swam once
I touched you in the water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
you climbed the bank and said
this is how you touch other women
the grass cutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume
what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
Peeler’s wife. Smell me.
“Let the darkness transform into rock across the wilderness of my memory” ~ Liu Xiaobo, from “Fifteen Years of Darkness” (trans. Jeffrey Yang)
Monday night. Stuffy outside, humidity. Seems like storms are looming but not actually becoming.
Memory is a tricky thing, as I’m sure I have said before. The same memory can at times be nostalgic, conjuring a bittersweet longing for a return to the moment of conception. And then later, that same memory can be so fraught with emotion that tears are the only possible response.
For example: Last night I was flipping through the channels rather aimlessly. I happened upon a showing of The English Patient, a movie that has held the number 2 spot in my all-time favorite movies for well over a decade. (It was formerly in the number 1 spot, that is until the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and well, there is no surpassing that). As I noted the listing, I paused on the channel, thought that I would probably move on to something else, but never changed the channel.
This was a mistake.
I know that I have to be in the right frame of mind to watch The English Patient, and I wasn’t in that frame of mind. But by the time the credits rolled, I was in full emotional meltdown. I pulled my soundtrack off the rack, popped it into the computer, and waited for morning.
“The rapturous notes of an unendurable grief, of isolation and terror, the nearly impossible to sustain slow phrases of the ascending figures— they drifted out over the dark water like an ecstasy.” ~ Louise Glück, from “The Balcony”
I first saw that movie upon its release in 1996, which was a very, very bad year for me. A friend of mine at the museum had recommended the Michael Ondaatje book to me the previous spring, but I had promptly forgotten about it. Immediately after watching the Anthony Minghella-directed movie, I did two things: I bought the soundtrack, and I bought the book. I didn’t look for the best price, or a sale, I just bought them, which, if you know how I shop, is very uncharacteristic.
In 1996, my marriage to my ex was quickly declining, for a multitude of reasons. I had been laid off from the Museum because of the massive deficit, and I was in a very dark, lonely place. My relationship with Mari, one of the bedrocks of my life, was also in rapid decline, for reasons of which I am still not fully aware. But I went to see this movie with her, and, as it turns out, with her young amour, the person who would be responsible for completely changing her.
But I digress.
We went to the Naro, an old renovated theater in the heart of downtown’s Ghent section. The sound in this particular theater is incredible, and from the opening notes of the first song I was totally enthralled.
“We have understood nothing of life until we have understood that it is one vast confusion.” ~ Henry de Montherlant, from The Bachelors
If you are unfamiliar with the movie (which holds very closely to Ondaatje’s book), I will briefly recap chronologically what is shown in two different timelines: Count Almásy (played by a then rather gorgeous golden Ralph Fiennes) is part of of a Royal Geographical Society archeological expedition in the deserts of Egypt and Libya in the 1930s. Katherine (played by a blond Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband (Colin Firth) join the group. An affair ensues, hearts are broken, promises are broken, WWII breaks out, Almásy trades important maps of the desert with the Germans in exchange for a plane and fuel so that he can keep his promise to return to Katherine, a plane crash follows, the Count is burned beyond recognition, loses his identity and simply becomes the English patient, Juliette Binoche, Naveen Andrews, and Willem Dafoe enter the picture, hearts are broken, betrayals occur, the war ends.
It all sounds so clinical when spelled out like that. It is anything but.
The cinematography is breathtaking. The music is heart-wrenching. The acting is impeccable. So how could something that I consider to be so good hurt me so bad(ly)? To provide a true answer to that would take a lot more time and space than this little forum.
“Once I conjugated every animal to sorrow . . . Even now it seems like every version of melancholy rescues a nocturne for the pallid sky. A type of permanent dusk. Fold down the bedsheet. The room has earned its sadness. Nondescript despite how we have rearranged ourselves inside it, undressing with cold hands. Us with our pilgrim hearts. Stationed fast to parentheses of sleep and winter.” ~ Allison Titus, from Sum of Every Lost Ship
Le me try a slightly sifted explanation in which the chaff has been mostly eradicated:
The love affair between Katherine and Almásy is epic. It is destiny. It is the kind of love between two people that those of us who are romantics firmly believe is possible, what we hope for but what we know we will never have. Even as she lays dying, Katherine offers her love a quiet peace within the last words she writes, and she writes these words even as the lamplight is dying, the air is chilling, and any hope of rescue is firmly quenched.
Later, as he lies in a foreign bed in a deserted house, Almásy spends his time daydreaming about the hours they shared. His copy of Herodotus is filled with love notes and personal commentaries on love and betrayal, overwriting the historian’s account of Greco-Roman history.
After watching the movie and then reading the book, I found a kind of running thread of words and phrases from both in the back of my mind at any given time during the day or night. I underlined passages. I wrote marginalia, the most telling of which was “I wish that I could find someone to love me like this.”
“Now and then, I remember you in times Unbelievable. And in places not made for memory But for the transient, the passing that does not remain.” ~ Yehuda Amichai, from “Little Ruth” (trans. by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav)
At that time in my life, I did not feel loved, or rather, I felt loved in the wrong way, if that makes any sense. Any sense of belonging that I felt came from outside my home. I felt stretched too thin, underappreciated, overworked, and mostly, mostly I felt hollow. So when I see this movie, all of those feelings come back to the surface. I remember exactly where I was sitting in the theater. I remember trying to tell my ex about the beauty of the movie, asking him to go see it with me (which never happened).
(Later that year, the owner of the Naro gave me the movie poster as he knew how much I coveted it. I still have it and am still waiting for that room of my own in which to hang it.)
The English Patient does for me exactly what Aristotle’s Poetics declared great drama would do to an audience: allow an empathy with the story so profound as to cause a purging of pity and fear. The mythos (plot) and ethos (character) of the movie combine to reopen old scars, leaving me stinging as if the scab has only recently been scratched, and then, a few days later, I am purged. But the reopening of the portal to that era in my life is not without consequences.
Or, to put it more simply, it’s an elevated version of The Way We Were, the Streisand/Redford collaboration of the 70’s that depicted two ill-fated lovers who loved too much, whose love was all-consuming, and consequently, couldn’t withstand time and circumstance. Of course, The English Patient won nine Academy Awards, and The Way We Were none. But the real point is this: Why is such passionate love always doomed?
But that’s a completely different entry.
More later. Peace.
Music from The English Patient, closing theme, composed by Gabriel Yared
Light By Which I Read
One does not turn to the rose for shade, nor the charred song of the
redwing for solace.
This past I patch with words is a flaw in the silvering,
There I find the shallow autumn waters, the three stolen pears,
The horizon edged with chalk, loose where the fabric frayed.
Each yesterday glacier-scored, each a dark passage illumined by a
I begin to fathom the brittle intricacy of the window’s scrim of ice.
For years, I managed without memory—stalled, unnumbered,
No more alive than a dismembered saint enthroned in two hundred
Now, it is hard not to say I remember,
hard, in fact, not to remember.
Now, I hear the filament’s quiver, its annoying high frequency, light
by which I read.
River mist, mudbanks, and rushes mediate the dark matter
Between two tomorrows:
one an archive of chance effects,
The other a necropolis of momentary appearances and sensations.
One, a stain of green, where a second wash bleeds into the first.
The other time-bound, fecund, slick with early rain.
As if to impose a final hermeneutic, all at once the cicadas wind down.
The gooseberry bush looms like a moon: each berry taut, sour, aglow.
The creek runs tar in the cloud-light, mercury at dusk.
Then the frogs start up.
Clay-cold at the marrow. A hollow pulse-tick.
And it seems, at last, I’ve shed my scorched and papery husk.
~ Eric Pankey
(To see poem with original indents, click on link.)
“I’m not frightened. I’m not frightened of anything. The more I suffer, the more I love. Danger will only increase my love. It will sharpen it, forgive its vice. I will be the only angel you need. You will leave life even more beautiful than you entered it. Heaven will take you back and look at you and say: Only one thing can make a soul complete and that thing is love.” ~ Intrigue and Love by Friedrich Von Schiller
I finally had a chance to watch The Reader. If I had seen this movie before I made my favorite movies list, then The Reader, based on the 1995 novel by Bernhard Schlink, would have definitely been in the top 10, maybe even the top 5.
It’s a forceful movie, and Kate Winslet’s performance as Hanna Schmitz is academy-award worthy. I ached for her character and then wondered if I should. The movie raises some incredible questions about love, secrets, regret, blame, and the past; it delves into the arena of being able to reconcile an individual’s actions in the past with the actions of that person in the present. Very tough issues.
Can a person change? Is forgiveness for incredibly heinous actions possible? How much are we responsible for those we love? Those who changed us? If a person will not save herself, do we have the obligation to save her if we can?
Corey and I finished watching the movie, and I realized that I had been holding my breath during certain parts. The actor who plays Winslet’s young lover, David Kross, is remarkable. His emotions were palpable and believable. Ralph Fiennes, one of my favorite actors, plays the elder Michael Berg. Fiennes, a master at evoking lost love, is restrained in his characterization of the older Berg, but his restraint reflects the character’s inability to connect with people, even his daughter.
Some have called the movie a Holocaust movie because of Hanna’s past actions, but I strongly disagree. The movie is not about the Holocaust; rather, it is a movie about the German generation after the Holocaust and how betrayed they felt by their parents’ actions or inactions. This generation is trying to come to terms with a period in its country that will never be explained easily or without pain. Cross, as Michael the law student, embodies this generation.
The character of Hanna Schmitz is both sympathetic and villified. Michael as law student realizes the motivation behind Hanna’s decision to become a prison guard, as well as her decision to accept the blame for all of those involved: Hanna is illiterate and so ashamed by her illiteracy that she allows it to define her life.
Does her illiteracy excuse her actions as a prison guard? No. Does Hanna deserve our sympathy? Yes but no. It’s a complicated paradox, and I realize that some people will not sympathize with her character at all. But this movie and the characters that it embodies, are multi-layered. The characters’ motivations are not simple, and dissecting their motivations should not be approached single-mindedly.
That being said, the movie itself is beautiful. The cinematography is stylish. The sex scenes between Winslet and Cross (which were not filmed until the actor had turned 18) are tasteful and in my mind, reflect the way a teenage boy would look upon his older lover: somewhat idealized. Whereas the scenes with the elder cross as depicted by Fiennes are more sterile, reflecting the internalized pain the older Berg carries with him at all times.
Some critics did not like the back and forth between past and present; however, I did not find the flashbacks problematic. In fact, I found the non-linear time to be one of the best aspects of the movie, much better than a voiced-over recollection of past events.
The scenes in which the teenage Michael reads to Hanna come full circle when Fiennes’ Michael makes audio tapes of the same books and sends them to Hanna in prison. Without the flashbacks, this connection would not have been as effective.
That being said, criticism of the movie in general ran the gamut. Although Winslet received several awards for her performance, some critics were exceedingly sharp in their reactions. One critic called the relationship between Hanna and Michael “abusive” (Huffington Post). Some have said that the movie is an excuse for soft-porn. Several could not move beyond Hanna’s role as a guard in the concentration camps and how she sent prisoners to their deaths. Some praised the movie and put it on their best lists for 2008.
I think the fact that Winslet won SAG, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy awards for her performance speaks for itself.
Granted, it is not an easy movie; it was never intended to be easy. The questions that The Reader raises are complicated and Daedelean, just as the characters are. Some people will be put off by the sex scenes depicting a teenage boy and a grown woman who is 17 years his elder. Others will be repelled by Hanna’s seeming obliviousness to the effect of her words during the concentration camp trials.
I am not attempting to downplay Hanna’s role as a camp guard. But I will admit that I am more focused upon the psychology of the characters: their actions and reactions and how those affect each character’s life as it unfolds.
The Reader is not a movie to be watched lightly. Personally, I found it to be a provocative story, one that presents the audience with complex issues worthy of consideration. In its own way, it is a quiet movie about issues that are not usually associated with stillness. The inclusion of selections from beautiful literature such as the Odyssey, Lady With a Pet Dog, and Intrigue and Love contribute to this sense of stillness amidst the social unrest of post-war Germany.
If you enjoy marvelous movies with wonderful actors and a meaningful plot, then The Reader, which is now available on DVD, may be for you.