Wednesday, November 23, 2011

2011.11.12 — The Dock Brief & Other Plays by John Mortimer & Two Tiny Fushigi* — finished 2011.10.29

Started 2011.10.22
Finished 2011.11.12

John Mortimer.
The Dock Brief & Other Plays.
New York: Grove Press Inc., 1962.

The two other plays are I Spy and What Shall we Tell Caroline? With Caroline I experienced two tiny but distinct *fushigi. The first one began with a conversation with my used bookseller of our both having extensively read Hardy Boys. (Click Caroline to go to an extract of the play. Click fushigi #1 to go to fushigi #1. Click fushigi #2 to go to fushigi #2. Click Dockbrief to go to an extract from Dockbrief.)

I stumbled into this book of three plays while looking for something else. I was both excited and surprised to learn that the author of the excellent Rumpole of the Bailey series and books had also written plays.

I came to these comedies with very high expectations, and so it is unlikely anything would have met them. However, these plays were far less than I thought they'd be. I have given them three stars instead of the two I was tempted to confer in order to compensate for dishonourably possessing those unrealistic expectations. Sadly the best writing came in the introduction Mortimer wrote:
"Comedy is, to my mind," writes John Mortimer, "the only thing worth writing in this despairing age, providing it is comedy which is truly on the side of the lonely, the neglected and unsuccessful.... In all plays, as in any sort of writing, what seems to me important is the moment of recognition: the small time when you realize, sitting in a theatre, with a shock of excitement and unease, that you are watching yourself."
I've been wrestling with what it was about the plays that didn't engage me and it comes down to believability and sympathy.

I didn't believe the situations, especially for The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? And I found the writing within the prescribed situations to have humour but lacked what ever it is in writing that takes completely unbelievable characters and makes them believably human. I was unable to empathize with them.

Finally it struck me that the characters, male and female, all had a very similar voice. At least that was I how I interpreted my reaction/feeling about what I'd read. But when I re-read that, that wasn't really the case. What gave me that impression was a common feeling of flippant irreverence in the characters language. I suspect that seeing a production with competent actors would largely eliminate this 'problem,' but as I read it came across monotone.

In 1961 Lewis Funke in his New York Times review of What Shall We Tell Caroline? and The Dock Brief closed his mostly negative review with "The Dock Brief has been done with reported success in other cities abroad. It would be interesting to know how that was accomplished."

Perhaps my reaction is simply a measure of my getting older. I have become jaded because in my real life experience I have certainly seen incompetent boob-heads successfully rise into positions of real authority and power. And since truth is stranger than fiction, and with my now living this kind of boob-head truth, its written portrayal is stuck competing against that unbelievable truth.

Anyway, a very easy and marginally fun read. I did see flashes here and there of what was to come from Mortimer with Rumpole of the Bailey, and 'she who must be obeyed.'

I've included three extracts, one from The Dockbrief and two from What Shall We Tell Caroline?
The Dockbrief

MORGENHALL: [barrister] Now. Let's get our minds in order.

FOWLE: [accused of murder] Sort things out.

MORGENHALL: Exactly. Now, this wife of yours.

FOWLE: Doris?

MORGENHALL: Doris. A bitter, unsympathetic woman?

FOWLE: She was always cheerful. She loved jokes.

MORGENHALL: Oh, Fowle. Do be very careful.

FOWLE: I will, sir. But if you'd known Doris. . . . She laughed harder than she worked. "Thank God," she'd say, "for my old English sense of fun."

MORGENHALL: What sort of jokes, Fowle, did this Doris appreciate?

FOWLE: All sorts. Pictures in the paper. Jokes on the wireless set. Laughs out of crackers, she'd keep them from Christmas to Christmas and trot them out in August.

MORGENHALL: You couldn't share it?

FOWLE: Not to that extent. I often missed the funny point.

MORGENHALL: Then you'd quarrel?

FOWLE: "Don't look so miserable, it may never happen." She said that every night when I came home. "Where'd you get that miserable expression from?"

MORGENHALL: I can see it now. There is a kind of Sunday evening appearance to you.

FOWLE: I was quite happy. But it was always "Cat got your tongue?" "Where's the funeral?" "Play us a tune on that old fiddle face of yours. Lucky there's one of us here that can see the funny side." Then we had to have our tea with the wireless on, so that she'd pick up the phrases.

MORGENHALL: You're not a wireless lover?

FOWLE: I couldn't always laugh. And she'd be doubled up across the table, gasping as if her lungs were full of water. "Laugh," she'd call, "Laugh, damn you. What've you got to be so miserable about?" Then she'd go under, bubbling like a drowning woman.

MORGENHALL: Made meals difficult?

FOWLE: Indigestible. I would have laughed, but the jokes never tickled me.

MORGENHALL: They tickled her?

FOWLE: Anything did. Anything a little comic. Our names were misfortunate.

MORGENHALL: Your names?

FOWLE: Going down the aisle she said: "Now we're cock and hen, aren't we, old bird?" Coming away, it was "Now I'm Mrs. Fowle, you'll have to play fair with me." She laughed so hard we couldn't get her straightened up for the photograph.

MORGENHALL: Fond of puns, I gather you're trying to say.

FOWLE: Of any sort of joke. I had a little aviary at the bottom of my garden. As she got funnier so I spent more time with my birds. Budgerigars are small parrots. Circles round their eyes give them a sad, tired look.

MORGENHALL: You found them sympathetic?

FOWLE: Restful. Until one of them spoke out at me.

MORGENHALL: Spoke—what words?

FOWLE: "Don't look so miserable, it may never happen."

MORGENHALL: The bird said that?

FOWLE: She taught it during the day when I was out at work. It didn't mean to irritate.

MORGENHALL: It was wrong of her of course. To lead on your bird like that.

FOWLE: But it wasn't him that brought me to it. It was Bateson, the lodger.

MORGENHALL: Another man?

FOWLE: At long last.

MORGENHALL: I can see it now. A crime of passion. An unfaithful wife. In flagrant. ... Of course, you don't know what that means. We'll reduce it to manslaughter right away. A wronged husband and there's never a dry eye in the jury-box. You came in and caught them.

FOWLE: Always laughing together.

MORGENHALL: Maddening.

FOWLE: He knew more jokes than she did.

MORGENHALL: Stealing her before your eyes?

FOWLE: That's what I thought. He was a big man. Ex-police. Said he'd been the scream of the station. I picked him for her specially. In the chitty I put up in the local sweet shop, I wrote: "Humorous type of lodger wanted."

MORGENHALL: But wasn't that a risk?

FOWLE: Slight, perhaps. But it went all right. Two days after he came he poised a bag of flour to fall on her in the kitchen. Then she sewed up the legs of his pyjamas. They had to hold on to each other so as not to fall over laughing. "Look at old misery standing there," she said. "He can never see anything subtle."

MORGENHALL: Galling for you. Terribly galling.

FOWLE: I thought all was well. I spent more time with the birds. I'd come home late and always be careful to scrunch the gravel at the front door. I went to bed early and left them with the Light Programme. On Sunday mornings I fed the budgies and suggested he took her tea in bed. "Laughter," she read out from her horoscope, "leads to love, even for those born under the sign of the Virgin."

MORGENHALL: You trusted them. They deceived you.

FOWLE: They deceived me all right. And I trusted them. Especially after I'd seen her on his knee and them both looking at the cartoons from one wrapping of chips.

MORGENHALL: Mr. Fowle I'm not quite getting the drift of your evidence. My hope is—your thought may not prove a shade too involved for our literal- minded judge. Old Tommy Banter was a Rugger blue in '98. He never rose to chess and his draughts had a brutal, unintelligent quality.

FOWLE: When he'd first put his knee under her I thought he'd do the decent thing. I thought I'd have peace in my little house at last. The wireless set dead silent. The end of all that happy laughter. No sound but the twitter from the end of the garden and the squeak of my own foot on the linoleum.

MORGENHALL: You wanted. . . .

FOWLE: I heard them whispering together and my hopes raised high. Then I came back and he was gone.

MORGENHALL: She'd. . . .

FOWLE: Turned him out. Because he was getting over familiar. " I couldn't have that. " she said. " I may like my laugh, but thank God, I'm still respectable. No thank you, there's safety in marriage. So I'm stuck with you, fiddle face. Let's play a tune on it, shall we?" She'd sent him away, my last hope.

MORGENHALL: So you . . . .

FOWLE: I realise I did wrong.

MORGENHALL: You could have left.

FOWLE: Who'd have fed the birds? That thought was uppermost.

MORGENHALL: So it's not a crime of passion? (28-31)
Now, an extract from What Shall We Tell Caroline? And, oddly enough, it includes a tiny fushigi. To go directly to the fushigi click here, otherwise, carry on reading.
What Shall We Tell Caroline?

TONY: Many, many, happies, Caroline dear. (He stoops to kiss the top of her head. Caroline lifts her face and kisses him on the mouth. She is still expressionless. He sits down, disconcerted, patting his lips with his handkerchief.)

LILY: Caroline, my baby. Don't grow up any more. (Lily hugs Caroline like a child and then sits down.)

ARTHUR: She didn't like you saying that.

TONY: She didn't mind. (Pause while Lily begins to cry.)

ARTHUR: (suddenly loses his temper) Will you provoke me, Bin, with these bloody waterworks?

TONY: Look. She hasn't noticed her presents yet.

ARTHUR: She was upset.

TONY: No she wasn't. (Caroline looks down at her place and lifts her hands in amazement. Her face is still without expression.)

LILY: (recovering) She's seen them now.

ARTHUR: (eagerly) She may open mine first.

TONY: Well, of all the selfish....

ARTHUR: She's going to. I hope you didn't notice me buying it, Caroline, in the High Street yesterday. Creeping out ofW. H. Smith's.

TONY: Now you've given the game away.

ARTHUR: What are you hinting?

TONY: The mention of W. H. Smith. Now she can rule out stockings or underwear or any nice toilet water. (Caroline shakes the parcel.)

TONY: Now she's guessed what it is.

ARTHUR: I don't believe she has. (Caroline shakes her head.)

ARTHUR: No, she hasn't. (Caroline opens the parcel, it contains a Halma set and three boy's adventure books.) [Here's the fushigi, which began October 22, Saturday, with my talking to my local used bookseller about our childhood reads. The conversation turned specifically to the boys adventure series, The Hardy Boys. And I read this on Monday, October 24th.)

TONY: Same old things. She's bored with Halma.

ARTHUR: No she's not.

TONY: Yes she is.

ARTHUR: Anyway it's a wholesome game, Peters, unlike the indoor sports you're addicted to.

TONY: And these books. You only buy them to read them yourself. Three midshipmen stranded on a desert island. (Picks up one and starts to read.) "Give over tickling. Harry, giggled his chum, little guessing it was the hairy baboon that had crept up behind the unsuspecting youngsters...."

ARTHUR: She appreciates it.

LILY: (soothingly) Of course she does, don't let's quarrel. Not on the birthday.

TONY: (putting down the book) I suppose it takes all tastes.

LILY: Perhaps now she'll open mine. (Caroline picks up a parcel.)

LILY: I made it for you, dear. It took so long. It seem to have been making it all my life.( Caroline opens the parcel. A long sweater, white and endless with the school colours at the neck. She holds it in front of herself. It's far too long.)

LILY: Oh Caroline. There's too much of it. I had far too much spare time.

TONY: (putting his hand on Lily's shoulder) She likes it. She thinks it'll keep her warm.

ARTHUR: Warm? Keep her warm did you say? I tell you it's perfectly warm here, all the year round.

TONY: There now. Headmaster. Lily's right. We shouldn't quarrel on the birthday. And look. She's knitted in the school colours. That'll cheer you up, you know. When you see those colours always round your daughter.

ARTHUR: At least it shows some sense of loyalty.

TONY: Of course, not being, strictly speaking, a parent my present, gets opened last.

ARTHUR: (resentfully) A treat saved up for you. (Caroline picks up Tony's present. Holds it against her cheek. Listens to it.)

TONY: I believe.... Yes. I think I am right in saying (radio commentator's voice). "The ceremony is just about to begin. It's a wonderful spectacle here to-day. The Lady Mayoress has released the pigeons. The massed bands are striking up. The Boy Scouts are fainting in unprecedented numbers and...." (Caroline undoes the parcel, produces a gilt powder compact).

ARTHUR: What can it be? (Caroline opens the compact and sprinkles powder on her nose.) (81-3)

And now, for fushigi #2. Again, small, but directly on point. On October 26th, Wednesday, I did something I haven't done in more than 3 years. I had lunch with SJ. We were talking about various things, catching up. The conversation turned to personal growth and the interpersonal challenges of living with spouses. I suggested that a book I found very helpful, perhaps the most helpful because of its absolute basic approach to living, was Thirsty Swimming in the Lake by David K. Reynolds. There are two basic components to his approach: do what needs to be done and acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of others, including parents no matter how flawed, for contributing tangibly and realistically to your being alive. This was a quite extensive conversation.

Well, that night I resumed reading What Shall We Tell Caroline? and within a few minutes of opening the book I read the following:

ARTHUR: But you don't know why she didn't speak? I told you, Peters, all the terms of endearment start shouting and screaming when I utter them. When I love someone all my love turns to irritation. I lost my temper with Caroline! I hit her! I actually hit her!

LILY (crossing towards him): No dear. You didn't.

ARTHUR: How do you know?

TONY: We were here in the room. You didn't hit her, Headmaster.

ARTHUR (deflated): I did. I wanted to hit her. After that, I thought she didn't speak. The nervous shock. Was it the nervous shock do you think, either of you?

LILY: Perhaps she didn't want to.

TONY: Or she had nothing to say to us. Although we had enough to say to her ….

LILY: Who shall we talk to now?

TONY: Each other. Lily. Always to each other.

LILY: Caroline! Why should she have to go. Tony?

TONY: She has to go sometime.

ARTHUR: I made her go. I hit her. I must have hit her. There's no other explanation.

TONY (sits down in the basket-chair and picks up his ukulele): How shall we ever know?

ARTHUR: What do you mean. For God's sake explain what you mean?

TONY: Was it your temper or her temper that
stopped her speaking? Was it just the complete lack of interest that overcomes all children at the thought of the parents who gave them birth?

ARTHUR: I wasn't responsible?

TONY: What's responsible for Caroline as she is? What you told her? What you didn't tell her? The fact we told her a lie? The fact we told her the truth? Look back, Arthur. Look back. Lily do. What made us what we are? Anything our fathers and mothers said? More likely something that happened when we were all alone. Something we thought of for ourselves, looking for a passable disguise in a dusty attic, or for a path that didn't exist in the hot summer in the middle of a wood that smelt of nettles.

ARTHUR: Is that how you found things out?

TONY: My dear old headmaster. I've never found out anything. I'm not a parent, but in my weak moments, like this afternoon, I've wanted to tell things to the young. Why do we do it? Not to give them information, but to make them repeat our lives. That's all. It's finished with us and we don't want it to be finished. We'd like them to do it for us—all over again. It'll be better for Caroline to work in the bank. If only her adding weren't quite so shaky. Let's hope she errs. Headmaster, on the side of generosity. (Lily gets up and begins to put things on a tray.)

ARTHUR: What are you doing. Bin?

LILY: Clearing away the tea. (She goes out with the tray.)

TONY (looking at his watch): Just ten minutes and the boys have to stop their so called " free time " and be hoarded into prep. I shall sit with them in silence (113-114).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

2011.10.23 — The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje — finished 2011.10.17

Began 2011.09.27.
Michael Ondaatje.
The Cat's Table.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7710-6864-5.

Michael Ondaatje is one of the true masters of English poetry in prose. But when I learned that The Cat's Table was in the style of a memoir, I was slightly disappointed because, with some exceptions, I have not been fond of memoirs as such. However I felt curious and expectant that he would convert me. He did. He exceeded expectation because he managed, again, to convince me while reading his latest book that the one in my hands is my new Ondaatje favourite.


And to describe it as a memoir is an accurate description, but only in the same way that to say the sky is blue is accurate: it misses the complexity of the experience. The arc of the story is a memoir of a pre-pubescent boy sent to England on a ship with scant adult supervision. Some critics I've read found that to be a stumbling point, but my childhood spent with scant adult supervision for extended periods of time is eerily echoed in how Michael interacts with the adult social marginals he and his new found friends are assigned to sit with at the cat's table, which is, I learned in this book, that one table in a public space that no one wants to be seated at. Thus he is lumped in with the ship's other dining room undesirables and comes to learn that what does not glitter may very well yield gold and beyond that the even more valuable stuff of a lived life.

In the Q&A portion of the reading I attended, Ondaatje insisted that the book is not a memoir. He claims that, even though he did take a ship from Columbo to England as a child the age of the protagonist, Michael, he has little if even any memory of it. Ondaatje avers that his unremembered childhood trip sparked an idea for a story, that evolved as it was written, to include unexpected characters moving downstage into significance that
he had not imagined.

Regardless memoir or fiction, Ondaatje's writing here is as beautiful as anything he has written:
A peculiarity of Miss Lasqueti was that she was a sleeper. Someone who at certain hours during the day could barely stay awake. You saw her fighting it. This struggle made her endearing, as if she were forever warding off an unjustified punishment. You'd walk past her in a deck chair, her head falling slowly towards the book she was attempting to read. She was in many ways our table's ghost, for it was also revealed that she sleepwalked, a dangerous habit on a ship. A sliver of white, I see her always, against the dark rolling sea.

What was her future? What had been her past? She was the only one from the Cat's Table who was able to force us out of ourselves in order to imagine another's life. I admit it was mostly Ramadhin who coaxed this empathy from Cassius and me. Ramadhin was always the most generous of the three of us. But for the first time in our lives we began to sense there was an unlairness in someone else's life. Miss Lasqueti had, I remember, "gunpowder tea," which she mixed with a cup of hot water at our table, then poured into a thermos before she left us for the afternoon. You could actually see the flush enter her face as the drink knocked her awake (p74).
Sleep is a prison* for a boy who has friends to meet. We were impatient with the night, up before sunrise surrounded the ship. We could not wait to continue exploring this universe. Lying in my bunk I would hear Ramadhin's gentle knock on the door, in code. A pointless code, really—who else could it have been at that hour? Two taps, a long pause, another tap. If I did not climb down and open the door I would hear his theatrical cough. And if I still did not respond, I would hear him whisper "Mynah," which had become my nickname (p24).
*I read the evocative phrase Sleep is a prison the day after I finished reading the play A Sleep of Prisoners. The uniqueness of both phrases — I hadn't read either one anywhere that I remember — has prompted me to include this as a fushigi. Or at least close enough for me to blog it as such. [Addendum: The Cat's Table is also loosely entangled in another, 'future' fushigi, involving cats. See The Cat & the Camel blog.]

Beyond the sheer beauty of the writing Ondaatje seamlessly moves through the story using various voices. He has captured with perfection what I remember as the feelings of childhood wonder and acceptance of the process of being alive through Michael's eyes. Things simply are: the trip, the people, the intense life changing friendship that lasted for only 21 days. But Ondaatje also brings to the telling the reflectiveness of an adult considering a particular childhood passage. And he does this with a grace and lightness of touch that manages to keep the child's feeling of life's magic fully alive. And then he plays the omniscient writer's role to elaborate the background of two of the characters.

And Ondaatje brings to fruition a mystery that is introduced, invisibly, quite early, that becomes a mystery well into the book, and closes with human simplicity and gentle, quiet satisfaction.

All seamlessly. A breathtakingly beautiful and fulfilling read.