2020 in Facts and Figures

I already posted my main 2020 in Review and Looking Ahead to 2021 posts a while ago — only on my new blog (separate post to come) –, but I held back on my 2020 reading statistics until the year was well and truly over.  And for all my good intentions when posting my mid-year summary back in early July 2020, the second half of the year continued pretty much in the same vein as the first half had begun; i.e., my statistics for the whole year are still a variation on the theme of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, or, 17 charts showing that 2020 was a year of reading Golden Age mysteries written by women (and following other Anglo-/ UK-centric reading proclivities); i.e. comfort reading galore … it was just that kind of year, I guess.

As a result, my Golden Age Mysteries / Detection Club reading project progressed very nicely.  Luckily, as I said in my main 2020 in Review post, I also managed to add a number of new countries to my Around the World challenge, and the gender balance is solidly in favor of women authors: I read almost 2 1/2 books by women for every book written by a man — in fact, I even reread more books by women than the total number of books by men.  So there was at least some progress in other areas, too.  And I liked or even loved most of the books I read in 2020 — including most of the new-to-me books –, which of course was another huge plus; in a year where reading was my go-to source of comfort, at that: most of my ratings were 4 stars or higher and thus, above the rating that marks “average” in my personal scale (3.5 stars).

Still, in 2021 I’m going to make a fresh attempt to refocus on my Around the World reading project, in furtherance of which I’ve also created a Diversity Bingo that I’ll try to get through in the space of this one year (though if it takes longer, it takes longer); and I’ll also try to include more books from my Freedom and Future Library in my yearly reading again.

And now, without any further ado:

Greatest New Author Discoveries of 2020

Classics and LitFic
Bernardine Evaristo
Olivia Manning

Historical Fiction
Dorothy Dunnett
Jean-François Parot
Paul Doherty

Golden and Silver Age Mysteries
Josephine Bell
Moray Dalton
Molly Thynne
Christianna Brand
Anthony Gilbert
Raymond Postgate
Patricia Moyes

My Life in Book Titles

This is a meme I’ve seen on quite a few blogs towards the end of 2020; it was created by Annabel at Annabookbel.  You’re to answer the prompts, using only books you have read in 2020; without, if possible, repeating a book title.  I thought I’d include it in my yearly roundup — and to up the ante a little bit further, I decided to use only books I read for the first time in 2020.

In high school I was Unspeakable (John Bercow)

People might be surprised by (my incarnation as) Lioness Rampant (Tamora Pierce)

I will never be The Horse You Came in On (Martha Grimes), nor Resorting to Murder (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

My life in lockdown was like (a) Tour de Force (Christianna Brand) and (a) Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

My fantasy job is The Thinking Machine at Work (Jacques Futrelle)

At the end of a long day I need to be Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) (to my) Pilgrim’s Rest (Patricia Wentworth)

I hate being (around) Serpents in Eden (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

Wish I had The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)

My family reunions are (often with) Thirteen Guests (J. Jefferson Farjeon)

At a party you’d find me with My Friend Mr. Campion (Margery Allingham), Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Emmuska Orczy), and other Bodies from the Library (Tony Medawar, ed.; Various Authors)

I’ve never been to Goodwood (Holly Throsby), Cherringham (Matthew Costello, Neil Richards), or At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason)

A happy day includes A Small Place (Jamaica Kincaid) (of my own): My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor)

Motto(s) I live by: To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey); and We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

On my bucket list is Shakespeare’s Local (Pete Brown)

In my next life, I want to have The Grand Tour (Matthew Pritchard, ed.; Agatha Christie)

The Stats

Number of books started: 273
Number of books finished: 271
DNF: 2
Average Rating (overall): 3.9
Average Rating w/o Favorite Annual Xmas Rereads: 3.8

Note: The above chart includes my 6 annual Christmas rereads, which have a habit of slightly skewing my overall rating figures upwards; without these books, the number of 5-star books is reduced by 5 and the number of 4.5-star books is reduced by 1.

Note: “F / M (mixed)” refers to anthologies with contributions by both male and female authors, as well as to books jointly written by male and female authors. — “N / A” in the protagonist gender chart refers to Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who is deliberately created as gender-neutral.

Note: “Multi-ethnic” either refers to several persons (authors / protagonists) of different genders, or to one person of mixed ethnicity.

 

Dorothy L. Sayers: Love All (aka Cat’s Cradle)

Sayers Does Drawing Room Comedy

When I bought the joint edition of Busman’s Honeymoon and Love All (published in 1980), the obvious pièce de résistance, for me, and the reason why I spent some time hunting down an affordable copy at all, was the stage version of Busman’s Honeymoon – the final full-length outing of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (later transformed into a novel of the same name) and just about the last published bit from Dorothy L. Sayers’s own pen still lacking in my collection, at least as far as Lord Peter and Harriet are concerned. Love All, in comparison, looked like an also-ran – interesting, certainly, but surely no dice on the star turn of Sayers’s recently-married supersleuths?

Oh, ye of little faith.

Ostensibly, Love All (which Sayers co-wrote with her Somerville College friend Marjorie Barber, and which in an unpublished manuscript version bears the alternative title Cat’s Cradle) is a drawing room comedy, set first in Venice and later in London – but Sayers wouldn’t be Sayers if a drawing room comedy was all she had given us here. In fact, this is the theatrical expression of the thoughts also expressed in the two addresses jointly reproduced under the title Are Women Human? – that it is women’s given right as human beings to live a fully realized life, which most definitely includes the right to choose their own professional path, and the freedom not to have to place a man’s needs and demands over their own (as, however, so many of her female contemporaries had to do). — I’d call the play feminist if Sayers hadn’t hated that term, but whatever label you want to stick on it, its message comes through loud and clear and with plenty of laughs.

Love All was never published in printing during Sayers’s lifetime and only had a limited stage exposure outside of London (and none at all in London itself); possibly as a result of clashing – as Sayers herself put it – on its opening night “with Mr. Hitler’s gala performance in Norway and Denmark” (i.e., the Nazis’ 1940 invasion of Norway). Another reason may have been the strictures imposed by Sayers’s son Anthony Fleming, who – jealously protective of his mother’s standing as a writer – even in the play’s 1980s’ “resurrection” prohibited any editorial reference to Sayers’s private life or to himself, even though the play features a young boy brought up by relatives in the country while his mother is pursuing a literary career in London. And according to the play itself, he definitely had a point; the boy’s mother, a successful dramatist, is observed rebutting a journalist (on the phone): “Oh, no, Mr. Mackenzie – Not the personal angle, please. No, really, what has one’s private life to do with one’s work? Well, I daresay that is the question, but I don’t want to discuss it.”

Whatever the reasons for the play’s having been allowed to slip into oblivion, it is a pity that this should have happened, as Love All compares more than favorably with other plays in a similar vein that actually have survived until today. – As the alternative title suggests, to even try and sum up the plot would be giving away major plot points, so I’m just going to end with a few of my favorite quotes:

   “LYDIA: I thought it would be nice to marry Godfrey […] his books were so thrilling. They made me go all soppy, only he isn’t really a bit like his books.
   JANET: Authors never are. They write themselves out into their books, and the real person is just the odds-and-ends left over.”

   “LYDIA: And after dinner he’d read me what he’d done.
   JANET: Just so. And ask for your opinion and advice.
   […]
   LYDIA: Sometimes I tried disagreeing with something for a change.
   JANET: How did that work?
   LYDIA: Then he explained why he was right. I found that took rather too long.
   JANET: It does, rather. Has he done much scrapping and rewriting?
   LYDIA: He’s always scrapping and rewriting bits. Except the bits I disagreed with. He always kept those.”

   “LYDIA: Every great man has had a woman behind him.
   JANET: And every great woman has had some man or other in front of her, tripping her up.”

   “LYDIA: Is the next book going to be about a devoted woman who sacrificed her career for her lover?
   JANET: No, darling; that was the one he wrote just before he met you.”

 

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Patricia Moyes: Dead Men Don’t Ski


A huge shout-out to Moonlight Reader for favorably reviewing this book earlier this year and thus bringing it to my attention.  Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy are a joy to be with, and like MR and Tigus (who has also read the book in the interim), I’ll definitely be spending more time in their company in the future.  What I particularly appreciated in addition to the delightful characters created by Ms. Moyes (and the rather cleverly-constructed locked-room mystery at the heart of this book) was the understanding she brought to the book’s setting in the German-speaking part of the Italian Alps, which is not only one of the most naturally stunning parts of the entire Alps but also a region fraught with a complicated history, which might have caused a lesser writer to glide off into easy cliché, but which Moyes uses rather skillfully in crafting her story’s background.

Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/02 (Day 2): Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies or Other?

Witches.

One of my very first literary heroine was a little witch who manages to get the better of all the bigger, older witches after having been put down by them — the heroine of Otfried Preußler’s Little Witch.  (In fact, I loved that book enough to write my very first fan letter to the author about it … and I still love it enough to have put it on MR’s “1001” list.)

Ever since, I’ve come to be interested in them because women are almost always maligned as “witches” when people are afraid of them because they — the women in question — happen to be better at something (or are merely perceived as being better at something) than others.  That’s true for the poor ladies of centuries past who just happened to know their herbs a bit better than their neighbors, potentially even better than the local monastery’s herbalist, and who, after having helped countless community members with every ailment from headaches to abortion, were duly burned at the stake for their troubles the second they even inadvertently stepped on someone’s toes.   And it’s still true for women who happen to be better at their jobs nowadays than their (mostly, but not necessarily male) colleagues.  Other slurs plainly denigrate — “witch” (and to a certain extent also “bitch”) implies an irrational element of fear.  In light of that, the transformation of witches — or their perception — from the worst of evil bogey(wo)men conceivable to a positive identification with the “women’s power” movement is a thing to behold; not least in literature.

Which, incidentally, is just one more reason why I love Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.   And along the same lines, who wouldn’t love Mr. Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax and her coven?

Though, speaking of Pratchett, he has also created just about the only werewolf I can get behind (and for similar reasons) — Angua of the Night Watch.

And, well, yeah, in terms of stories that were films before they were books, Ladyhawke of course … which isn’t so much a horror as a “doomed lovers” story, obviously.

Vampires, though?  Hmm.  I mean, on the one hand, give me Dracula rather than Edward Cullen any day of the week (and I’m saying that as a confirmed non-horror reader).  On the other hand, I read Anne Rice’s vampire novels — until she turned BBA, that is — for just about everything but the horror aspect; in fact, if she’d ramped up that one I’d have been gone in a flash.  (Incidentally, Rice once revealed in an interview that Lestat’s character was inspired by Rutger Hauer’s portrayal of Etienne de Navarre in Ladyhawke.  Go figure.)

 

And zombies?  Leave me alone and get the hell out of here.  They creep me out so badly I won’t even go anywhere near them in a supposedly humorous context (like the “white trash zombie” novels that are currently all the rage).

 

 

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Bristol academic cracks Voynich code, solving century-old mystery of medieval text | EurekAlert! Science News

News Release 
IMAGE
IMAGE: Vignette A illustrates the erupting volcano that prompted the rescue mission and the drawing of the map. It rose from the seabed to create a new island given the name… view more 
Credit: Voynich manuscript

A University of Bristol academic has succeeded where countless cryptographers, linguistics scholars and computer programs have failed – by cracking the code of the ‘world’s most mysterious text’, the Voynich manuscript.

Although the purpose and meaning of the manuscript had eluded scholars for over a century, it took Research Associate Dr. Gerard Cheshire two weeks, using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity, to identify the language and writing system of the famously inscrutable document.

In his peer-reviewed paper, The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained, published in the journal Romance Studies, Cheshire describes how he successfully deciphered the manuscript’s codex and, at the same time, revealed the only known example of proto-Romance language.

“I experienced a series of ‘eureka’ moments whilst deciphering the code, followed by a sense of disbelief and excitement when I realised the magnitude of the achievement, both in terms of its linguistic importance and the revelations about the origin and content of the manuscript.

“What it reveals is even more amazing than the myths and fantasies it has generated. For example, the manuscript was compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, who happens to have been great aunt to Catherine of Aragon.

“It is also no exaggeration to say this work represents one of the most important developments to date in Romance linguistics. The manuscript is written in proto-Romance – ancestral to today’s Romance languages including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician. The language used was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean during the Medieval period, but it was seldom written in official or important documents because Latin was the language of royalty, church and government. As a result, proto-Romance was lost from the record, until now.”

Cheshire explains in linguistic terms what makes the manuscript so unusual:

“It uses an extinct language. Its alphabet is a combination of unfamiliar and more familiar symbols. It includes no dedicated punctuation marks, although some letters have symbol variants to indicate punctuation or phonetic accents. All of the letters are in lower case and there are no double consonants. It includes diphthong, triphthongs, quadriphthongs and even quintiphthongs for the abbreviation of phonetic components. It also includes some words and abbreviations in Latin.”

The next step is to use this knowledge to translate the entire manuscript and compile a lexicon, which Cheshire acknowledges will take some time and funding, as it comprises more than 200 pages.

“Now the language and writing system have been explained, the pages of the manuscript have been laid open for scholars to explore and reveal, for the first time, its true linguistic and informative content.”

###

Further information:

We kindly request that reporters hold off publishing anything until 7pm on Wednesday 15th May EDT/ Thursday 16th May 00:00 GMT. Happy to provide information and images in the meantime.

Paper:

The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained
Author: Gerard Cheshire
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02639904.2019.1599566

The Voynich manuscript is a medieval, handwritten and illustrated text, which has been carbon-dated to the mid-fifteenth century. It is named after Wilfrid M. Voynich (1865-1930), a Polish book dealer and antiquarian, who purchased the manuscript in 1912. This happens to be the same year that its place of origin, Castello Aragonese, Ischia, fell into private ownership, so it seems likely that the manuscript was part of the ‘house clearance’ prior to the property sale. It is currently housed at Yale University, where it is filed as item MS408 in the Beinecke Library of rare books and manuscripts. Given its cultural importance, there would seem to be legitimate call for its safe return to the Italian people in due course.

The manuscript was first revealed to the public in 1915 and its intriguing illustrations and unknown script immediately captured the imaginations of scholars the world over. Among those who have famously attempted to crack the code are Alan Turing and colleagues at Bletchley Park. The FBI also had a go during the Cold War, apparently thinking it may have been Communist propaganda!

Translations so far have revealed the manuscript is a compendium of herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological readings concerning matters of the female mind and body, of reproduction and parenting, and the heart, in accordance with the Catholic and Roman pagan religious beliefs of Mediterranean Europeans during the late Medieval period.

There is a fascinating pictorial map within the manuscript. It tells the remarkable tale of a rescue mission by ship, led by Queen Maria, to save the survivors of a volcanic eruption close to the island of Vulcano, which began 4th February 1444. The map, which shows Ischia, Castello Aragonese, Lipari, Vulcano and Vulcanello, enabled the manuscript’s exact location and date of origin to be ascertained.

There is some irony in realising that the manuscript was not written in code at all, but a contemporaneous language and writing system that fell out of use. The writing system is more singular and less intuitive than modern systems, which may be why it ultimately became obsolete. However, a significant vestige of the language has survived, with its lexicon sequestered into the many modern languages of Mediterranean Europe.

via EurekAlert! Science News

16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 12 – Saturnalia

 

Tasks for Saturnalia: Wear a mask, take a picture and post it. Leave a small gift for someone you know anonymously – a small bit of chocolate or apple, a funny poem or joke. Tell us about it in a post. –OR– Tell us: If you could time-travel back to ancient Rome, where would you want to go and whom (both fictional and / or nonfictional persons) would you like to meet?

BrokenTune has already mentioned two people I really rather would have liked to meet as well, Cicero and Ovid.  In addition to the reasons she mentions, I probably also would have liked to pick Cicero’s brain on some of his trial strategies (in addition to being Rome’s most famous orator, he was also a first class lawyer, who scored some of the most celebrated victories in all of legal history) — and I’d have liked to ask Ovid how he ever came up with the madcap idea for his Metamorphoses.

In addition to these two, I’d have liked to:

Chat history, historical sources and research, and veracity and authentication, with Livy, Vergil, and Suetonius;


Find out what Plutarch would have thought about the fact that some of his writings provided the source material for the plays of a famous English playwright named William Shakespeare a millennium and a half after he himself had put quill to parchment (or to scroll, or whatever), and how, proud Greek that he was, he really felt about living under Roman rule;


 Ask Seneca about the experience of advising a lunatic like Nero (other than: scary as hell, that is), how many times he was close to committing suicide out of sheer desperation before Nero actually made him do so, what kept him going nevertheless — and how in the world he managed to write plays, and pretty impressive ones at that, in addition to what would seem to have been a full time political day job (also, whether he really was the author of the Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii, and how he came up with that one in the first place);


and find out from Marcus Aurelius how he implemented his philosophical maxims in his day to day duties as an emperor, particular in making unpleasant (or even harsh) decision in warfare and in the administration of justice.


As for fictional characters from that time, though not actually living in Rome, whom I’d like to meet — well, you know, there came a time in 50 A.D. when Gaul was entirely occupied by the Romans. Umm, entirely?  Well, no, not entirely … One small village of indomitable Gauls still held out against the invaders. And life was not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrisoned the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium …

 

Original post:
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Horrace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto



The grandfather of all gothic literature, madly dashed out in the space of a mere eight days. Intended as a (semi-)satirical response to the “Frenchification” of the 18th century English stage, where – under the influence of Voltaire’s criticism of Shakespeare – scenes considered unduly “rough” and “uncultured” (like the gravediggers scene in Hamlet) were often cut entirely, while at the same time actors highly emphasized emotions considered “natural,” Walpole’s Castle of Otranto simultaneously created the gothic genre and acted as its very first spoof.  This one has got all the ingredients that would come to characterize gothic writing from the novels of Ann Radcliffe, C.R. Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu, and E.T.A. Hoffmann, to the late 19th century and 20th century “penny dreadfuls” and A-, B- and C-horror movies of classic Hollywood: An Italian setting, a haunted castle imprisoning rather than protecting its inhabitants, a walking / shape-shifting painting, ghosts and other preternatural phenomena galore, virtuous virgins (and wives) ruthlessly persecuted by a furious fiend, secret underground passages, abandoned orphans, lost princes, a clergyman with a colorful and sad personal history, dueling noblemen, and a young hero appearing in innocuous disguise but ultimately revealed as a white knight in shining armor.  To top it off, Walpole, in the book’s first preface also presented the tale as the alleged 16th century (geddit? Shakespearean-age!) translation of a medieval southern Italian legend (a sleight of hand technique that, inter alia, Umberto Eco also uses in The Name of the Rose, which bears many other, though not all elements of a gothic novel as well) … engendering a veritable shit storm – not least on the part of critical reviewers – when he revealed his bluff and stated his true purpose in the preface to the second edition.

Garrick as Hamlet 

18th century star actor David Garrick as Hamlet, depicted in the (in)famous pose upon seeing his father’s ghost (left: etching from Dramatic Characters, or Different Portraits of the English Stage, 1773; right, mezzotint after a painting by Benjamin Wilson, 1756): probably the single most prominent example of what was considered “natural” acting on the 18th century stage.  The “hair raising” effect was produced by a hydraulic wig.

TA’s Halloween Book Bingo Reading List

 

 

  • Read by Candlelight or Flashlight – E.T.A. Hoffmann: Das Fräulein von Scuderi (Mademoiselle de Scuderi) (novella)
  • Magical Realism – Isabel Allende: La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits) (novel)
  • Witches – Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters (or possibly Terry Pratchett / Neil Gaiman: Good Omens) (novel)
  • Genre: Horror – Edgar Allan Poe: The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather (short story); alternately E.A. Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart or The Masque of the Red Death (also short stories)
  • Black Cat – Ngaio Marsh: Black as He’s Painted (novel) (black cat central to the story and therefore also black cat on the cover of the stand-alone paperback edition)
  • Diverse Authors Can Be Spooky Fun – Possibly Edwidge Danticat (ed.): Haiti Noir (short story anthology); otherwise TBD
  • Ghost Stories and Haunted Houses – Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (novella)
  • Young adult horror – Oscar Wilde: The Canterville Ghost (novella)
  • Scary Women (Authors) – Daphne Du Maurier: Jamaica Inn (novel)
  • Reads with BookLikes Friends – Arthur Conan Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles (novel)
  • Grave or Graveyard – Edgar Allan Poe: The Cask of Amontillado (short story); alternately Ngaio Marsh: Grave Mistake (novel) or Umberto Eco: The Prague Cemetery
  • Genre: Mystery – Peter May: The Blackhouse (novel)
  • Free Space – Dashiell Hammett: The Dain Curse (novel)
  • Gothic – Horrace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto (novel)
  • Creepy Crawlies – Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventure of the Speckled Band (short story)
  • “Fall” into a Good Book – Edgar Allan Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher (short story)
  • Locked Room Mystery – Gaston Leroux: Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room) (novel)
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night – Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None (novel)
  • Set in New England – Shirley Jackson: The Lottery (short story); alternately: Dennis Lehane: Moonlight Mile (novel)
  • Full Moon – James D. Doss: White Shell Woman (novel) (full moon on the cover, and the protagonist / investigator is called Charlie Moon); alternately Dennis Lehane: Moonlight Mile
  • Vampires vs. Werewolves – Terry Pratchett: Feet of Clay (Night Watch novel; female werewolf one of the main characters & running gag involving a vampire)
  • Supernatural – Arthur Conan Doyle: The Sussex Vampire (short story); alternately Agatha Christie: The Pale Horse (novel)
  • Classic Horror – E.T.A. Hoffmann: Der Sandmann (The Sandman) (short story)
  • Pumpkin – Washington Irving: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (short story)
  • Set on Halloween – Agatha Christie: Hallowe’en Party (novel)

There are some short stories and novellas and also some rereads in this; I can typically only take straight-up horror in small doses, and given that I’ll have very little spare time in the next couple of months, I’m only going to have a reasonable shot at blacking out my card at all if I include a few faster reads.  That said, I’ve tried to include as many novels and as many new-to-me books as seemed feasible under the circumstances.  So … let the games begin!

 

 

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THE RED VIOLIN

A feast for the Senses … and the Everlasting Magic of Music

“Cinque carte” – five tarot cards servant Cesca (Anita Laurenzi) makes her mistress Anna Busotti (Irene Grazioli) draw in 17th century Cremona when Anna, wife of the legendary violin maker Niccolò Busotti (Carlo Cecchi), asks her servant to tell her and her unborn child’s future. And those five cards, along with an auction in 20th century Montreal, provide the framework for the tale that is about to unfold: The Moon – a long life, full and rich, and a long voyage. But there is a curse over her, Cesca tells her mistress as she turns the second card; there is danger to all who are under her thrall, and there will be many … indeed, the Hanged Man is a powerful card! Then there will be a time of lust and energy, her Lazarus soul will travel across mountains, oceans and time, and she will meet a handsome and intelligent man who will seduce her with his talents “and worse” – in short, the Devil. The fourth card Anna has drawn is Justice: There will be a big trial before a powerful magistrate, Cesca tells her; she will be found guilty … “beware the heat of the fire!” And indeed, the last card that Anna turns, much to her alarm, is Death – but the card is upside down and Cesca tells her not to worry because at this point this might be good news: She will be carried by the air and furious wind, but then her voyage will come to an end, “one way or another.” There is “trouble” in this, Cesca says, “but you are strong now, like a tree in a forest.” She will also not be alone; the servant sees a crowd of faces … friends, family, enemies, lovers and a lot of admirers fighting to win her hand (lots of money, too) – and ultimately, a rebirth.

Each card symbolizes one of the stories told about the travels through time and space made by the Red Violin, Niccolò Busotti’s last masterpiece, over the course of the centuries. And each of the violin’s owners we meet symbolizes a stage of life: birth, childhood, coming of age, political awakening and maturity. In that, it is not so much the violin’s voyage that links the five vignettes dealing with its owners’ lives, such as Glenn Gould’s life provided the links between the individual parts of writer-director Francois Girard’s first film, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. Rather, the humans’ stories provide snapshots of various stages of the instrument’s existence, brought to life by John Corigliano’s magnificent and Oscar-winning score and Joshua Bell’s virtuoso performance – and of course, it is also obvious throughout that a link exists between Anna Busotti and the violin created by her husband.

The Red Violin is feast for the eyes and ears – luscious and true to detail in its costume design and cinematography, it not only faithfully uses the original languages of its various locations but also actors who are native speakers; to the point of having Suisse-born actor Jean Luc Bideau portray the French teacher of Austrian wunderkind Kaspar Weiss (Christopher Koncz), thus choosing an actor who is on the one hand fluent in German but on the other hand speaks it with a “genuine” French accent … and although I don’t speak any Chinese/Mandarin, I wouldn’t be surprised if the scenes taking place in China were linguistically as faithful to their location as those set in Vienna and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the movie’s plot lines fall somewhat short of its visual and acoustic splendor. Granted, there was only limited possibility to develop meaningful stories for each of the vignettes. But given the highly symbolic nature of the movie’s five parts, too many gaping holes remain. Although we know the violin’s story doesn’t end with Kaspar, for example, we can only guess as to how it falls into the hands of gypsies. And the following sequence, involving British composer and virtuoso Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng) and his mistress Victoria Byrd, has rightfully been criticized for the shallow waters it treads: Even if you don’t have a whole movie to develop the relationship between a sensual, gifted and somewhat eccentric composer and his novelist lover (such as 1991’s magnificent and in the U.S. sadly overlooked Impromptu), and even if Greta Scacchi’s Victoria is far from being another George Sand, her talent seems … well, maybe not wasted, but reduced to another “blonde bombshell” role, and not one with as many layers and shades as those of classic Hollywood, but a fairly clichéd one and, thus, unworthy of her Old Vic training. And don’t even get me started on the final scene in Montreal and the “conflict” faced by violin appraiser Charles Morritz … (although Samuel L. Jackson, at least, gives a finely tuned and sensitive performance which almost manages to smooth out the edges of the script’s sometimes scratchy composition.)

But this movie’s real star and ultimately, its saving grace, is the Red Violin itself – not the six models physically representing the instrument throughout the film of course, but the personality it gains through Corigliano’s score and its uniquely beautiful interpretation by Bell, and the idea the violin stands for; that of the everlasting magic of music. For bringing this idea to life alone, the movie is well worth seeing.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: New Line International (1998)
  • Director: François Girard
  • Producer: Niv Fichman
  • Co-Producers: Daniel Iron & Giannandrea Pecorelli
  • Screenplay: François Girard & Don McKellar
  • Music: John Corigliano (score & orchestration) / Joshua Bell (solo violin) / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) / Todd Kasow & Guy Pelletier (music editors)
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Alain Dostie
  • Editing: Gaétan Huot
  • Production Design: François Séguin
  • Costume Design: Renée April
  • Sound: Claude La Haye / Jocelyn Caron / Bernard Gariépy-Strobl / Hans Peter Strobl / Guy Pelletier
Cast
  • Carlo Cecchi: Nicolo Bussotti (Cremona)
  • Irene Grazioli: Anna Bussotti (Cremona)
  • Anita Laurenzi: Cesca (Cremona)
  • Jean-Luc Bideau: Georges Poussin (Vienna)
  • Christoph Koncz: Kaspar Weiss (Vienna)
  • Clotilde Mollet: Antoinette Pussin (Vienna)
  • Florentín Groll: Anton von Spielmann (Vienna)
  • Johannes Silberschneider: Father Richter (Vienna)
  • Rainer Egger: Brother Christophe (Vienna)
  • Paul Koeker: Brother Gustav (Vienna)
  • Wolfgang Böck: Brother Michael (Vienna)
  • Josef Mairginter: Brother Franz (Vienna)
  • Arthur Denberg: Prince Mansfeld (Vienna)
  • Geza Hosszu-Legocky: Gypsy Violonist (Vienna)
  • David Alberman: Gypsy Violonist (Vienna)
  • Andrzej Matuszewiski: Gypsy Violonist (Vienna)
  • Jason Flemyng: Frederick Pope (Oxford)
  • Greta Scacchi: Victoria Byrd (Oxford)
  • Eva Marie Bryer: Sara (Oxford)
  • Sylvia Chang: Xiang Pei (Shanghai)
  • Zifeng Liu: Chou Yuan (Shanghai)
  • Hong Tao: Comrade Chan Gong (Shanghai)
  • Xio Fei Han: Young Ming (Shanghai)
  • Rui Yang: Young Xian Pei (Shanghai)
  • Samuel L. Jackson: Charles Morritz (Montréal)
  • Colm Feore: Auctioneer (Montréal)
  • Ireneusz Bogajewicz: Mr. Ruselsky (Montréal)
  • Monique Mercure: Mme. Leroux (Montréal)
  • Don McKellar: Evan Williams (Montréal)
  • Julian Richings: Nicolas Olsberg (Montréal)
  • Paula de Vasconcelos: Suzanne (Montréal)
  • Russell Yuen: Older Ming (Montréal)
  • Sandra Oh: Madame Ming (Montréal)

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (2000)
  • Best Music, Original Score: John Corigliano
Genie Awards (Canada) (1999)
  • Best Motion Picture: Niv Fichman
  • Best Achievement in Direction: François Girard
  • Best Screenplay: Don McKellar and François Girard
  • Best Achievement in Cinematography: Alain Dostie
  • Best Achievement in Art Direction/Production Design: François Séguin
  • Best Achievement in Costume Design: Renée April
  • Best Music Score: John Corigliano
  • Best Overall Sound: Claude La Haye, Jocelyn Caron, Bernard Gariépy-Strobl and Hans Peter Strobl
Jutra Awards (Canada) (1999)
  • Best Film (Meilleur Film): Niv Fichman and Daniel Iron
  • Best Director (Meilleure Réalisation): François Girard
  • Best Screenplay (Meilleur Scénario): François Girard and Don McKellar
  • Best Supporting Actor (Meilleur Acteur de Soutien) Colm Feore
  • Best Cinematography (Meilleure Photographie): Alain Dostie
  • Best Editing (Meilleur Montage Image): Gaétan Huot
  • Best Art Direction (Meilleure Direction Artistique): François Séguin and Renée April
  • Best Original Score (Meilleure Musique Originale): John Corigliano
  • Best Sound (Meilleur Son):Claude La Haye, Marcel Pothier, Hans Peter Strobl and Guy Pelletier
Golden Reel Awards (Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA) (2000)
  • Best Sound Editing – Music – Musical Feature (Foreign & Domestic): Todd Kasow & Claude La Haye
Tokyo International Film Festival (Japan) (1998)
  • Best Artistic Contribution Award: François Girard
    – Tied with Smoke Signals.

 

Links

THE ENGLISH PATIENT

Ownership, Belonging, and an Earth Without Maps

After the publication of Michael Ondaatje‘s Booker-Prize-winning English Patient, conventional wisdom soon held that the novel, while a masterpiece of fiction, was entirely untransferable to any other medium: too intricately layered seemed its narrative structure; too significant its protagonists’ inner life; too rich its symbolism. Then along came Anthony Minghella, who reportedly read it in a single sitting and was so disoriented afterwards that he didn’t even remember where he was – but who called associate producer Paul Zaentz the very next morning and talked him into bringing the novel to the screen. Two major studios and several fights over the casting of key roles later, the result were an astonishing nine Oscars (Best Picture, Director – Anthony Minghella –, Supporting Actress – Juliette Binoche –, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Score and Sound), as well as scores of other awards.

The English Patient is an epic tale of love and loss; of ownership, belonging and the bars erected thereto. It unites the stories of five people: Hungarian count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), mistaken as English by a British Army medical unit in Italy after professing to have forgotten his identity; Hana (Juliette Binoche), Almásy’s Canadian nurse; Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), his erstwhile lover; Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh sapper, and Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), an ex-spy and thief. All outsiders, they are struggling to come to terms with their lives: Almásy, on his deathbed, reflects back to his life as a North African explorer and his affair with Katherine; Hana believes herself cursed because everybody she cares for dies (in the movie her fiancé and her best friend; in the novel her fiancé, her father and her unborn baby), Katherine is taken to an all-male company of explorers in Cairo by her husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth), Kip, like Hana, is far away from home (the only Indian in an otherwise British and Italian environment), and Caravaggio lost his livelihood after his thumbs were cut off in captivity by the Germans, on a sadistic officer (Jürgen Prochnow)’s orders.

Like the novel, the movie’s story largely unfolds in flashbacks: After Hana convinces her superiors to let her stay and nurse Almásy in an abandoned Tuscan villa, she and new arrival Caravaggio, who holds Almásy responsible for his fate, extract the details of his life in Africa and the truth about Katherine, Geoffrey and the events uniting him with the Cliftons and Caravaggio from Almásy in a series of conversations. But at the same time, the story is anchored in the present by Hana’s growing attachment to Kip, which shines a different light on the themes also driving Almásy and his relationship with Katherine. The film’s outstanding cast, which in key roles also includes Julian Wadham as Almásy’s friend Madox and Kevin Whately as Kip’s sergeant Hardy carries the story marvelously: Probably their biggest award loss (besides Fiennes’s and Scott Thomas’s Oscar and other “best lead” nominations and Minghella’s screenplay Oscar nomination) was the 1997 SAG ensemble award, which instead went to The Birdcage.

In his screenplay Minghella made several changes vis-à-vis the novel; the biggest of these doubtlessly a shift in focus from Hana, Caravaggio and Kip to Almásy and Katherine, and the fact that the film is much more explicit about Almásy’s identity than the novel. Both were wise choices: Hana’s inner demons in the novel are largely exactly that – inner demons, moreover, substantially grounded in the past and thus even more difficult to portray than Almásy’s and Katherine’s. Similarly, once the focus had moved to the latter couple, Kip’s back story would have extended the movie without significantly advancing it; and the same is true for the intersections between Caravaggio’s path and that of Hana’s father. Secondly, mistaken national identity is overall more central to Almásy’s character than identity as such; so the novel’s intricate mystery about his persona might well have proven unnecessarily distracting in the movie’s context. Indeed, once Almásy had become the story’s greatest focus, much of its symbolism virtually even required that there be no real doubt about his identity.

But in all core respects, Minghella remained faithful to Ondaatje’s novel; particularly regarding its profoundly impressionistic imagery, as shown, for example, in the curves formed by the Northern African desert’s endless sand dunes, which in John Seale’s magnificent and justly awardwinning cinematography resemble those of a woman’s body as much as they do in Ondaatje’s language, thus uniting Almasy’s two greatest loves in a single symbol.

Doubtlessly the most important image is that of maps: Guides to unknown places like those drawn by Almásy and his friends during their explorations, but also tools of ownership like the cartography of Northern Africa made possible by Geoffrey Clifton’s photos, and ultimately symbols of betrayal, as Almásy surrenders his maps to the Germans in exchange for a plane after he feels deserted by the British. And while Kip, who spends all day searching for bombs but wants to be found at night, guides Hana to himself by a series of tiny signposts in the form of oil lamps – but still never tries to expect her, in order not to get too much attached to her – Almásy, the perpetual loner who declares that he hates ownership more than anything else, gets so attached to Katherine that he claims her suprasternal notch as his exclusive property and later refers to her as his wife, which due to her marriage to Geoffrey she couldn’t truly be in life and could only symbolically become in death. – The final word on maps, belonging and ownership, however, is part of Katherine’s legacy to Almásy; and I still prefer the novel’s language here:

“I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. … All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.”

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Miramax (1996)
  • Director: Anthony Minghella
  • Executive Producers: Bob Weinstein / Harvey Weinstein / Scott Greenstein
  • Producer: Saul Zaentz
  • Associate Producer: Paul Zaentz
  • Screenplay: Anthony Minghella
  • Based on a novel by: Michael Ondaatje
  • Music: Gabriel Yared
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: John Seale
  • Editing: Walter Murch
  • Sound: Walter Murch / Mark Berger / David Parker / Christopher Newman
  • Production Design: Stuart Craig
  • Art Direction: Aurelio Crugnola
  • Set Decoration: Aurelio Crugnola & Stephenie McMillan
  • Costume Design: Ann Roth
Cast
  • Ralph Fiennes: Count Laszlo de Almásy
  • Kristin Scott Thomas: Katharine Clifton
  • Juliette Binoche: Hana
  • Willem Dafoe: David Caravaggio
  • Naveen Andrews: Kip
  • Colin Firth: Geoffrey Clifton
  • Julian Wadham: Madox
  • Kevin Whately: Sgt. Hardy
  • Jürgen Prochnow: Major Müller
  • Clive Merrison: Fenelon-Barnes
  • Hichem Rostom: Fouad

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1997)
  • Best Picture: Saul Zaentz
  • Best Director: Anthony Minghella
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Juliette Binoche
  • Best Cinematography: John Seale
  • Best Film Editing: Walter Murch
  • Best Art Direction – Set Decoration: Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan
  • Best Costume Design: Ann Roth
  • Best Music, Original Dramatic Score: Gabriel Yared
  • Best Sound: Walter Murch, Mark Berger, David Parker and Christopher Newman
American Film Institute:
  • Top 100 Love Stories – No. 56
Golden Globes (1997)
  • Best Motion Picture – Drama
  • Best Original Score – Motion Picture: Gabriel Yared
National Board of Review Awards (1996)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche (tied)
Directors’ Guild of America Awards (1997)
  • Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures: Anthony Minghella, Franco Ballati (unit production manager) (plaque), Lynn Kamera (unit production manager) (plaque), Steve E. Andrews (first assistant director) (plaque), Emma Schofield (second assistant director) (plaque)
Grammy Awards (1998)
  • Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television: Gabriel Yared
BAFTA Awards (1997)
  • Best Film: Saul Zaentz and Anthony Minghella
  • David Lean Award for Direction: Anthony Minghella
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Juliette Binoche
  • Best Screenplay – Adapted: Anthony Minghella
  • Best Cinematography: John Seale
  • Best Editing: Walter Murch
  • Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music: Gabriel Yared
British Film Institute:
  • Top 100 British Films – No. 55
European Film Awards (Felix) (1997)
  • Best Actress: Juliette Binoche
  • Best Cinematographer: John Seale
Goldene Leinwand (Golden Screen) (Germany) (1997)
  • Winner of the Golden Screen
Berlin International Film Festival (1997)
  • Silver Berlin Bear – Best Actress: Juliette Binoche

 

Links

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