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Extra Treats: Jean Rhys: “A Voice for the Voiceless”

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Dear Common Readers,

Several of you have mentioned that you haven’t read anything by Jean Rhys yet. If you are curious, you can find a brief introduction to Ms. Rhys’ life and writings in a short video from the Open University’s “Women Writers: Voices in Transition” series. (You can find the Jean Rhys video here.)

Steve Padley, the narrator, starts by discussing the success of Ms. Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea, then places the novel in context with Ms. Rhys’ earlier works. He discusses Ms. Rhys’ writing style, especially in connection with other modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. Then he focuses on the major recurring themes of loneliness, alienation, and feelings of being an outsider in Ms. Rhys’ writings with well-chosen quotations.

The video is also visually beautiful. I highly recommend it.

Special thanks to Blogging Woolf who posted a link to the series’ video about Virginia Woolf several months ago. I was so impressed by that video that I watched the other four, too. I hope you do the same, dear Common Readers.

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Extra Treats: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Maria Luisa Bemberg

Dear Common Readers,

Yo, La Peor de Todas, the 1990 film about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, is available online — with English subtitles! I just watched it and I definitely recommend it for fans of Sor Juana and her writing.

The film is directed and co-written by Maria Luisa Bemberg of Argentina. Ms. Bemberg’s career is also inspiring. She began her screenwriting career at the age of 48. A decade later, Ms. Bemberg directed her first feature film in 1981 at the age of 59. She wrote nine screenplays, directed six film, and won several awards over a period of 24 years before her death from cancer in 1995 at the age of 73. Yo, La Peor de Todas (I, the Worst of All) was Argentina’s selection in the Foreign Language Film category for the 1990 Academy Awards.

The screenplay was based on Sor Juana or, The Traps of Faith, Octavio Paz’s biography of Sor Juana. I haven’t read the book yet so I cannot comment on the film’s fidelity to the book. What I can say is that Ms. Bemberg made a feminist film that positions Sor Juana as a feminist heroine.

The best part is the liberal use of Sor Juana’s work throughout the film. Viewers get to see a bit of a scene from one of Sor Juana’s plays near the beginning of the film. Characters recite her poems from memory and read them aloud. Lines of her poetry are read in voiceovers as Sor Juana writes onscreen. Sor Juana reads aloud from her challenge to Father António Vieira’s sermon and later reads from her famous Respuesta.

There are several scenes in which characters discuss Sor Juana’s work. Interestingly, one scene has a group of clergymen discussing Sor Juana’s passionate love poetry. Like many readers, the men debate whether Sor Juana was merely following poetic convention or if she was writing about her own feelings of erotic love for another woman. Ms. Bemberg does take a position on the question in her depiction of the relationship between Sor Juana and the Vicereine, but I won’t reveal it here.

Admittedly, the movie has a stage-set look and dialogue-heavy scenes that sometimes make it feel more like a recording of a stage play than a film. That’s not necessarily a drawback, though. In fact, I think it works particularly well for the scenes of political maneuvering between the Viceroy and the Archbishop and the scenes of political intrigue among other clergymen.

Ms. Bemberg uses simple sets to create a strong visual contrast between the stark, shadowy world of male power plays and political intrigue on one hand and the bright, warm, joyful world of female camaraderie and purpose in the convent scenes. Even the scenes with the Vicereine and her family are light and warm. The sole exception is the convent scene in which Sister Ursula conspires with the Archbishop of Mexico in a shadowy underground hallway.

This visual contrast is put to good use later in the film. After Sor Juana is forced to dismantle her library and give away her books and laboratory equipment, the convent scenes become darker and shadowy. And when the nuns fall ill with the plague, the scenes become increasingly stark but never cold. The joy is gone, but the affection remains as the healthy nuns tenderly care for their stricken sisters.

Ms. Bemberg, who lived through the repressive regime of the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s and the 1980s, depicts in this film the ripple effect of oppression. In silencing Sor Juana, the Archbishop and the Inquisition extinguished the light and joy of her entire community of women and by extension made the world a colder, darker place. Foolish men indeed.

Check it out and let me know what you think of it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

 

P.S.  A simple internet search will turn up not only this film but also recitations of Sor Juana’s poetry in the original Spanish like these videos of Redondilla 92 and “Primero Sueño” (“First Dream”). Enjoy!

Extra Treats: Sappho, H.D., and Erica Jong

Dear Common Readers,

Do yourself a favor and read “The Wise Sappho” by poet H.D. This essay begins as a meditation on Meleager of Gadara’s description of his anthology selection of Sappho’s songs as “little, but all roses” but evolves into much more. H.D. explores the impact of Sappho’s work with vivid imagery and a poet’s gift for metaphor. Even if (like me) one has not read H.D.’s poetry yet, one can tell from this essay that H.D. feels a profound connection with Sappho’s songs. This essay is intimidatingly good. It makes one wish to throw away one’s pen and never attempt to write about poetry again.

For example, H.D. writes,

Yet not all roses —not roses at all, not orange blossoms even, but reading deeper we are inclined to visualize these broken sentences and unfinished rhythms as rocks — perfect rock shelves and layers of rock between which flowers by some chance may grow but which endure when the staunch blossoms have perished.

This is how one should write about Sappho.

For a fictional take on Sappho’s life, I recommend Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong. Ms. Jong puts her own spin on each of the legends and bits of gossip about Sappho’s life. Best of all is Ms. Jong’s take on the infamous legend that Sappho threw herself off a cliff over unrequited love for a younger man. I won’t spoil it for you. It’s that good.

This book is a near-perfect fit between writer and subject matter. Ms. Jong is a natural heiress to Sappho. Sappho’s themes have always been Ms. Jong’s themes, too: romantic love, sexuality, creativity, motherhood. However, Ms. Jong brings to those themes a Baby Boomer’s conflicted anxiety about combining creative work and motherhood that is never apparent in Sappho’s fragments.

I first read this novel during a period in which I had just read Homer, Aeschylus, and Sappho (for the first time). I could tell that Ms. Jong had been reading and absorbing these same works as she wrote. Something in her prose echoed the rhythms of these Ancient Greek works (or at least those of the English translations).

The real treats, though, are the original poems by Ms. Jong in a section called “Talking to Aphrodite” that follows the afterword. Ms. Jong is first and foremost a poet at heart and it shows in these provocative poems. Take these lines from “Sappho: A Footnote” for example:

Sappho burned
& Christians burned
her words.

The poems are written in the voices of Sappho, Aphrodite, and the poet herself. One can hear in them echoes of Sappho, of course, but also of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and even of Ms. Jong’s earlier work. There are many passages I could quote, but I’ll close with my favorite stanza of “Conjuring Her.”

Before I curl
Like incense to the sky
Before I study how to die,
Drizzle the honey
Of my wishes
On my waiting tongue…
teach me how to fly

 

I hope you enjoy these works as much as I do.

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne