Strophe/Antistrophe: Atwood's "Penelopiad"

I am not normally someone who achieves that most invoked of readerly cliches, the one-sitting reading. I must admit that I am not a very fast reader, and rarely have the stamina or attention span for the sort of prolonged immersion necessary to pull off this feat. Only Jane Austen, for some peculiar reason, regularly inspires these sorts of insomniac long-haul readathons. But this afternoon, my mind utterly fried from jetlag, I sat down with Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad," a slim volume from Canongate's new series "The Myths," and read it from beginning to end.

This is not necessarily praise, although it does speak to the straightforward readability of Atwood's lightly feminist refiguring of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" from the forgotten point of view of patient Penelope. I have enjoyed many of Atwood's other books, but I find them oddly ephemeral, eluding any attempt to fix what I admired in my memory. The problem with "The Penelopiad" is that its strategies are so familiar from other, more complex feminist and postmodern rethinkings of canonical works (like Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea" or John Barth's "Chimera") that they are altogether predictable. As many critics have noted, it is hard to read "The Odyssey" without wondering what is going on in Penelope's head, but Atwood seems to have given voice to the assumptions that we all make about what Odysseus's patient wife is thinking, rather than complicating these assumptions. The prose of Penelope's remembrances is straightforward to the point of clumsiness at times, which only underscores the banality of her reactions. The seams in her fictionalization show all too often in ways that are not so much wittily self-conscious as oddly wooden, as if this narrative were patched together too quickly and never fully completed its metamorphosis from research to fiction.

There is one aspect of the novel in which these criticisms are largely untrue. A chorus of interlocutors, made up of the lady's maids whom Odysseus and Telemachus bafflingly murder at the end of "The Odyssey," regularly interrupts Penelope's rather dreary memoir to form a sort of counterreading to her tale. These interludes draw delightfully on classical traditions of the theatre: the multifaceted use of the chorus is here (as a dissenting voice, as the force of objectivity, as the representative of the social group vs. Penelope's individualism), as is the idea of the satyr play which farcically reframes the issues of the preceding tragedy, refusing them their usual solemnity.

Theirs is a demand for justice, delivered in the folk forms of the malleable oral tradition which preceded the textualizing of "The Odyssey" (these forms begin as popular songs and ballads, and ultimately morph into the dissenting, unwritten protest at a modern trial). Atwood makes this all too explicitly clear, but the choric interruptions are also a revelation about the imprecision of both myth and history, the impossibility of providing a single coherent explanation for the inconsistencies in the stories we are told and tell ourselves. (As such they form the antistrophe to Penelope's strophe, redirecting the course of the narrative as Penelope has attempted to wrest it from Odysseus's sole control, just as the Greek Chorus would switch the direction of its stage movements regularly in its chanting.) This is not to say that there are no explanations for these gaps and contradictions, just that histories must be told in dialogues and conversations: the discord of many memories is infinitely more truthful than the assured account of one voice (even if it is an ignored voice like Penelope's).

"The Penelopiad"
Margaret Atwood

The Month my Film-watching Stood Still

My film consumption has drastically slowed during my time in London. While I am at home I would say that I average a time-guzzling rate of a film a day, thanks to the fatal cocktail of Netflix, TiVo and Turner Classic Movies. I stocked up on movies at an Amazon sale before I left for the summer, anticipating terrible withdrawal symptoms , but (in part because I have spent most evenings at the theatre) I have barely found any time to watch them. Apart from the much loved "Snake Pit," the only others I have watched in their entirety are "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947), the tale of a widow's love for a salty sailor's (excuse me - seaman's) ghost, and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), about a benevolent extraterrestrial diplomat who tries to convince the people of Earth to adopt the ways of peace (which will be enforced by all-powerful, difficult to control robots).

I find myself with almost nothing to say about poor old "Mrs. Muir" - it seemed so very slight. I have liked Gene Tierney in other things - most notedly as the magnetic and manipulated heroine of "Laura" - but here I found her hollow-cheeked and simpering. Rex Harrison provides a much more charismatic performance, largely because, as his admirers often note, he never seems to take himself or the film very seriously. The whole package, unfortunately, feels far too much like a play of a certain era, neither tragic nor comic nor even melodramatic, because it doesn't have enough substance to fill out any of these genres.

I approached "The Day the Earth Stood Still" with more hopefulness. I enjoy the films of Robert Wise, for the most part (my new favorite being his striking subtext-laden horror film, "The Haunting"), and I am keen on science fiction generally. On further reflection, however, I must admit that I almost always find cinematic sci fi less effective than literary sci fi, a reaction that I can only attribute to that old anti-cinematic feeling (some might say prejudice) that the visual effect of film leaves too little air for the imagination to breathe. Sci fi films are rarely successful in navigating the perilous line between unabashed fantasy and the realism of concrete detail.

Actually, the courting of realism amidst the unfolding of an utterly improbable premise was the major (perhaps the only) success of this movie for me. The plot of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a thinly veiled plea for international (ahem... interplanetary) solidarity even at the price of national sovereignty. Of the sci fi films of the 50s I have seen ("The Incredible Shrinking Man," "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers") this is perhaps the least metaphorical. It often openly speaks its message rather than filtering its anxieties through a surreal web of sci fi symbolism. As such, it is also my least favorite of a more or less hamfisted genre.

As a native Washingtonian, however, the principal pleasure of watching the film came from Wise's extensive interest in using both mundane and iconic images of D.C. to ground his bizarre plot in the familiar, which is simultaneously "universal" and highly specific to that time and place. Although Wise's stars never left California to shoot in the nation's capital, he planned and shot a carefully choreographed array of backdrops and secondary scenes there to situate the film. Seeing the police chase Klaatu the alien emissary though the street of Washington circa 1950, through locales which are well-known to me and yet alien, highlights the fact that I am seeing the product of a specific, ephemeral socio-political moment that was nonetheless acutely aware of the importance of its decisions and its own lasting historical significance.

"The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" - **
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" ***

Into "The Snake Pit"

I have come to the most surprisingly realization: I really like - even admire - Olivia de Havilland. For years the poor woman (and I'm sure this affected her deeply) languished at the peripheries of my awareness, forever identified with Melanie, Ashley Wilkes's insipid wife. I knew nothing about her - not about her famous feud with Joan Fontaine (or even that the two were sisters), nor about her pioneering role in lessening the actor's subservience to the will of the studio.

A few months ago I was surprised by how much I enjoyed "The Heiress" (1949), William Wyler's adaptation of Henry James's "Washington Square," in which the principle source of interest is de Havilland's plain and plaintive heroine, spurned by father and lover alike. Over the course of the film (which won her an Oscar), she moves from melancholy and the self-effacing acceptance of disappointment to an opportunity-snuffing firmness, a love-quashing self-sufficiency that is truly chilling. And we revel in it all - we think she is right.

Last week I faced a second surprise, when I found that I loved (absolutely loved) "The Snake Pit," Anatole Litvak's film of the previous year. I give de Havilland a great deal of credit for this. As in "The Heiress," de Havilland shows the remarkable ability to evoke our sympathy, or even empathy, for her weakness one moment (in a medium in which weak or unheroic characters so often provoke sadism, at worst, or wincing impatience, at best), and awe at her icy strength or ferocity the next. Seeing de Havilland perform Catherine Sloper in "The Heiress" is like watching the creation of Miss Havisham, and quietly cheering it on. (I am just now finishing "Great Expectations," and have been pondering the relationship between James and Dickens - more on this soon, I hope.)

"The Snake Pit" makes similar demands on our empathy. In it, de Havilland plays Virginia Cunningham, a woman confined to a state psychiatric hospital by her bewildered but adoring husband. She famously performed much of the film without makeup, a choice that enhances the haggard expressiveness of her face as well as underscoring our sense of her normalcy, her proximity to us and our experience. Here is a question for the film buffs among you: was de Havilland the first actress to be lauded (by the Academy, among others) for deliberately cultivating plainness onscreen? Should that title instead go to Bette Davis in "Now, Voyager," or does that film not have the proper social agenda of realism (a la Susan Sarandon in "Dead Man Walking" or Charlize Theron in "Monster") to really "count"? Maybe an earlier film yet, like "The Passion of Joan of Arc," deserves a nod here?

The film opens in medias res, our consciousness awakening with befuddled Virginia's: she finds herself in a garden, hearing voices (as we do) but unsure of where they come from, seeing people (as we do) but as of yet unclear on who they are, and most importantly, utterly confused (as we are, forced to trust only her assumptions) about where she is. The context comes to us very slowly. Her interaction with the voiceover, which may be the soothing presence of her perhaps too heroic therapist, Dr. Kik (played with a refusal to sink into blandness by Leo Genn), or may be the paranoid urgings of schizophrenia, is an utterly innovative blending of the psychiatric and the cinematic.

The story unfolds from there in an intriguingly nonlinear manner, weaving together a series of narratives provided by her husband, hypnosis, and the slow excavation of her subconscious in analysis. This is all ultimately in the service of equating psychoanalysis with the methods and narratives of detective thrillers, bound inevitably for the set of concrete clues that will solve the mystery and end the narrative.

As with Hitchcock's "Spellbound," this scheme makes for the least interesting aspect of the film - an unsatisfactory colonizing of the far more intriguing irrational world by the logical drive of the rational that represents neither the complexities of psychoanalysis nor of these story-tellers well. To me it rather recalls Coleridge's assessment of Iago's character as plagued by "the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity." This is motive-hunting that is far less interesting than the essential elusiveness of motive: an overdetermined drive to explain that points to the futility (and even absence) of real explanations. We don't believe in the end that confronting her fears and traumas has really cured Virginia, in part because her (and our) fears and traumas proliferate so rapidly upon examination, and in part because we have enjoyed the art of her insanity so immensely.

It has been some time (perhaps 9 months or a year) since I have seen "Spellbound," and I would like to compare the two films more closely sometime soon. From what I can remember, however (and I may be about to commit heresy here), I enjoyed "The Snake Pit" more and found it to be a more successful formal experiment with the implications of mental illness and psychotherapy. [Those of you who know me know that I am a sucker for tales of psychotherapy in film and theatre.] The weaving narrative is more innovative and complex, and makes wider and more bewildering use of cinematic conventions to convey the slippery feeling of being unable to rely on your own mind and senses. The therapeutic "solution," although still uncomfortably "pat" and paternalistic (I feel rather pleased with that pun -- I'll admit it), is both more multi-faceted and more self-consciously tentative than "Spellbound's"

Havilland's harrowing, unpredictable performance is another great feather in "The Snake Pit's" hat (what a bewildering array of images that phrase contained), but the film's strength does not solely reside in her contributions. Anatole Litvak and the screenwriters (Millen Brand, Arthur Laurents, and Frank Partos) also deserve a great deal of praise for their bold approach not only to the increasingly chic "mystery" of psychoanalysis, but also to the more difficult and plebian issue of state-funded psychiatric institutions, under constant pressure to churn out cures on the model of a factory. This is a film that draws heavily and meaningfully from its predecessors, lifting the oppressive masses from King Vidor's masterful "The Crowd" (particularly in one shot which recalls the famously vertiginous view of "The Crowd's" hero dwarfed in an endless line of desks) and a dizzying unreliability of narrative from "Caligari." It also speaks with remarkable prescience of films, theatre and novels to come, like "Cuckoo's Nest" (as yet, sadly, unseen and unread by me) and "Marat/Sade."

The ensemble work that is done here, both by the not entirely unsympathetic staff of the hospital, and by the vivid characters who populate the teeming wards, is extraordinary. Over the course of the film, we lean away from the model of sanity, the orderly portrait of the subconscious presented by the film's psychoanalytic resolution. Much more seductive is the chaos of the wards, surging with crowds made of absolutely unique individuals. This seduction lies in the rhythms of each patient's psychosis, often marked by an expert, prolific use of jargon; an obsessive, warped expertise that provides a refracted view of their former lives and selves, of the outside reality.

Highly recommended.

"The Snake Pit" ****1/2

Blog guilt

Another long hiatus, and a dismaying amount to catch up on. Since I have last written, I have seen several movies, been to a mind-boggling and possibly time-defying number of plays, been to Wales and back, and even finished one or two books. So this is my solemn promise to account for all of these events in some manner (however brief) in the next few days. Really. It's solemn.

An unpolished "Southwark Fair"

My Saturday evening theatregoing was not a total success, but it did lend a sort of organic unity to the day as a whole. After my wanderings round the Barbican, I headed south. Traveling was no simple matter this weekend, since about half of central London's Underground was down for scheduled track maintenance, 600,000 people were in town for EuroPride, the heat wave continued (even intensified), and England lost that very day in the World Cup.

At any rate, I returned to the National Theatre, this time to the tiny Cottesloe, to see "Southwark Fair," by Samuel Adamson. I had seen Adamson's adaptation of "Pillars of the Community" over the winter, and had qualifiedly enjoyed it (that play is marred by its final act, which is a precipitous charge through a series of false endings and near tragedies). This, on the other hand, was structurally ambitious (it follows several groups of people through the same day twice, each time from a different point of view), but the development of this structure is half-baked and the pacing of the scenes is off-kilter. The complex premise seems gimmicky rather than having that peculiar combination of inevitability and revelation that films like "Memento" and plays like Stoppard's time-benders possess. The script certainly needed a few more drafts and a few new actors - the principals are strong, but the peripheral characters are often surprisingly slapsticky. At one time or another, everyone seems to be pushing at the characters too too hard.

I saw the author before the show, in an odd turn, and this reminded me of a biographical connection that is worth noting: Adamson once taught at the well-worn nemesis of my beloved alma mater. Drawing on his experience in the States, Adamson has several of his characters visiting or returning to London from their home in Durham, North Carolina. It felt a bit like a nostalgic ambush to encounter NC (my home for several years) at this unexpected point in my travels.

The characters that populate the play are indeed an international gathering, featuring an Australian, a Canadian, and an American as well as Brits. I have to wonder what temptation continually leads British playwrights and directors into this folly of foreignness. I have no authoritative way of judging how accurate the details of American attempts on British accents are, but with very few exceptions (I'm looking at you, Hugh Laurie) British actors' attempts at American and Canadian accents are excruciating (Never, coincidentally, worse than when they attempt Arthur Miller, whose work settles out into "Aw shucks" sentimentality in the process). The more dialect coaching is done, the more the character is lost beneath a series of garish, cartoonish voice-masks. The poor actor who plays a Canadian in "Southwark Fair" is caught in this quicksand of accent, unable to make any line sound as if it were spoken by an actual human being.

If the author's ties to that iniquitous seat of Blue Devilry in Durham created a sort of symmetry in my summer travels (I have just returned from a lovely wedding in western NC), this play managed to surprise me with ties to all my Saturday activities. The driving point behind the plot of "Southwark Fair" was a possibly pedophiliac fumble backstage at a student performance of none other than "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The play was filled with a sort of weary post-Puckishness (and the inevitable puns about "being a great Puck") that was totally at odds with the endless exuberance of the matinee performance. The final puzzle piece dropped into place when the Clytemnestra of the play avenges herself on her inane, philandering husband by flinging all his belongings into the River. Ah, I thought, ... ritual offerings.

Grisly interlude

Brief visit between matinee and evening theatre on Saturday to the renovated Museum of London, which has substituted a bright accessibility for its former mild eccentricity in many of its exhibits. This has long been one of my favorites, often visited with my grandfather over the last 19 years, although our boundless enthusiasm for the early exhibits (anything up to and including the Tudors, that is) always leaves us too exhausted for the modern artifacts.

Today my particular focus was the renovated pre-Roman and Roman gallery, where hundreds of grisly artifacts are illuminated by a soothing, antiseptic blue glow. Which is not to say that the mystery has been completely drained from these spearheads, bones, iron collars, and horned helmets (I'll admit I thought these last were a bit of Wagnerian folly, but there they are, the gigantic horns representing, unsurprisingly, "ferocity and virility" and "enhancing aggression").

Why, we have to ask ourselves, are there so very many human skulls being dredged out of the Thames? Why am I relieved that these heads date from the Roman colony, as if historical distance made the deaths less gory? The exhibit notes that the heads were originally thought to have been the result of Boudica's massacres (about which I desperately want to learn more) but it also introduces the possibility (or even probability) that they were deliberate offerings to the river. Shudder. The river must be mightily disatisfied with its trashy diet of the last 100 years.

Midsummer Madness

I must admit that I have a minor passion for seeing Shakespeare staged in foreign languages (you have probably already guessed at this fixation from my review of "Throne of Blood" - however, my real infatuation is for theatrical foreign Bard, not filmic). It is not a passion I get to take up often, and I probably could pursue it with more consistency and zeal. So far my repetoire is limited to:

-a testosterone-saturated avant-garde Polish "Hamlet" seen in Amsterdam. I had the hubris to believe it would be easy to follow along, although the surtitles were in Dutch, because I knew the play like the back of my hand, but unfortunately the order of the scenes had been juggled, and somes scenes even commingled, in a disorientingly cinematic effect. As far as I could tell, Hamlet was driven to madness by a masochistic sexual passion for his dead father, which leads him to rape Ophelia and ensnare the love of Rosencrantz (but not Guildenstern, although it may have been the other way around. Both Ros and Guil, by the way, were women in this production).

-a Kabuki "Comedy of Errors" performed, in a truly dizzying collapse of historical frames, in the wooden "O" of the reconstructed Globe on London's South Bank.

-and, a Lithuanian "Romeo and Juliet" set in rival pizza parlors. Who could imagine from that description how brilliant this production was? Further description will probably make it sound even more absurd, but the effect is actually quite macabre - not at all cheesy (for God's sake, excuse that abysmal pun). The duels were conducted with outraged flingings of flour, which hung in the air with a strange persistence. This gave the stage an otherworldly air, as if the entire world of the play were saturated with grave dust. When a character died s/he was covered in flour, pale with dusty death, and these floury ghosts showed the same persistence as the powder that hung in the air, lurking onstage and watching the events that followed their deaths.

From this latter production I observed one of the many curiosities of seeing (as an English speaker) Shakespeare's work, the most ubiquitous part of our literary canon, performed in a foreign language -- the text, the poetry, goes from the highest place of importance to the lowest. Lines which would be indispensable in English are often found to be superfluous and cut in translation. The interest of these adaptations often rests in different approaches to characterization and innovations of plot interpretation.

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Barbican Theatre to see the Yohangza Theatre Company from Korea perform "A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by Jung-Ung Yang. How did Yohangza innovate "Midsummer"? Well, for the most part they didn't. The decentering of language in favor of a gestural, physicalized characterization was there, but it is so often evident in the comedy of the original "Midsummer" as to make it both the natural and the obvious choice; it fits very well, but doesn't open up a lot of new possibilities.

Yohangza did make one interesting change to Shakespeare's plot, however, which speaks to a puzzling aspect of the original: here it is the Titania figure (Dot, the chief of the puckish Dokkebi) who lures her Oberon (the unrepetently womanizing Gabi) into a frenzy of misguided lust for a (literally) pigheaded old woman. This of course set me thinking about the problems of the original play's structure: why is it that Titania has to be disciplined (sexually and with practical jokery)? What has she done besides claiming her right to withold her ward from Oberon? Why, furthermore, is the plotline of the human lovers (Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius) all about domesticating the men in some sense, bringing them in line with who they should REALLY love rather than who they want to love (with the standard set by stronger, more completely characterized women), while the other two love-plotlines are about the domestication and even humiliation of wives (Theseus and his conquered Amazonian wife, Hippolyta, as well as Oberon and the magically misguided Titania)? What is the purpose of this almost chiasmic structure? I am sure there are interesting answers in the text, and I would be glad to hear any ideas....

Galileo in Venice, Florence, Berlin, London

The London portion (also known as the active portion) of my summer has now begun. I arrived Thursday evening, and feel quite vindicated in my championing of daytime (vs. overnight) transatlantic flights; I have thus far made a fairly seamless transition to the different time zone. Of course, I say this on the evidence of only two nights' sleep, and I will now doubtless be punished for my arrogance with a series of sleepless nights and haggard days. I should also note that my internet access is quite erratic here, and my blog entries may come not only in fits and starts (as they have always done before) but also in odd little flurries, as I transfer them in groups from my notebooks to the web.

On my first full day here I had, in my desperate mania for the stage, scheduled a trip to the theatre, so I sleepily marched off to the South Bank with my grandparents in tow (as much as the world's most energetic octogenarians could ever be said to be in tow). We arrived to see the strip of the riverside between the London Eye and the National Theatre (and even beyond, I suspect, past the Millennium Bridge) looking more lively and welcoming than ever before. The restaurants and shops (now 1 year old) at the base of Royal Festival Hall have drawn chirpy young crowds, the skaters have not been displaced (nor the booksellers), and when we arrived at the National Theatre an enormous bicycle race was just beginning in front of it.

We saw a very serviceable production at the Olivier Theatre of Brecht's "Life of Galileo," in a comfortable adaptation by David Hare and directed by Howard Davies. I hadn't read "Galileo" since high school, and remember almost nothing about it, so I am afraid I can't really speak to the success of the translation or any differences between Hare's play and the original. Simon Russell Beale does a nuanced, sympathetic turn as the scientist, whom the plays follows from mid-career in the Venetian mercantile Republic through his decision to move to Florence and the protection of the Medici family to his eventual capitulation to the Inquisition. Unfortunately, several of the other principal actors (mostly, I am sad to say, the women) give uneven, mechanical performances, and the play relies to a lamentable degree on the inconsistent performances of child actors. Although these theatrical glitches disrupt the intellectual cohesion of the play in a not altogether Brechtian sort of way, they cannot outweigh the strength of Beale's performance, which is natural and seamlessly didactic.

The set, I should note, is quite brilliant, structured by an all-encompassing, skeletal globe. The Olivier's complex drum-revolve staging turns perpetually within this sphere, evoking both the rotation of the earth and metal models of the Copernican universe. At the same time, we are constantly reminded of the oasis of Galileo's thinking (the stage surrounded by this skeletal globe most often represents his study) contained within the constant pressure of the Church (dominating much of Italian and European thought surrounding him) to adhere to a Aristotelian crystal-spheres cosmology.

There is always the fear with Brecht's work that it will urge its case too earnestly and with too much reference to its own historical context. Does a materialist or historicist worldview (clearly at the root of this play, as Galileo's cry that "Truth is the child of Time!" makes more than clear) sow the seeds of its own undoing, a sort of literary planned obsolescence?

In fact, the play is very timely (such a wonderfully double-edged word), creating a palimpsest that allows us to see through Galileo's Venice, Florence and Rome to both Brecht's world and our own. This is, fundamentally, a narrative about the drive towards knowledge and that contentious idea of truth. Its conflict is the conflict of knowledge's relation to justice. What, the play asks, is the proper relationship between the proletariat and middle-class academics under pressure to produce profitable and ideologically acceptable discoveries? In Venice we see the insidious effects the free market has on research, and in Florence and Rome the even more pernicious effects of religion.

My grandmother wondered why Brecht made Galileo's daughter stupid (an excellent question, since Dava Sobel's "Galileo's Daughter" reveals that at least one of his daughters was a trusted intellectual interlocutor). The answer, I think, is that Brecht's Virginia Galilei (or at least Hare's) is less stupid than faithful, and her affectionate presence in the household places Galileo at the crux of the dichotomy between faith's emotional pull and his quest for a more empirical, verifiable truth. My grandmother also wondered what her mother, who adhered strictly to her church's teachings, would have made of this play's debates. I myself could only respond by questioning how present-day creationists would view them.

"The Life of Galileo" - ***1/2
by Bertolt Brecht
In a version by David Hare
Directed by Howard Davies
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
London, UK

Scottish Shame Allayed: "Kidnapped"

I am about to set my entire Scottish ancestry spinning with an admission, throwing whole Presbyterian graveyards into turmoil: until this very week, I had never read any of the great works of Highland (or even Lowland) adventure. Not "Lorna Doone" (although I have seen the atrocious television adaptation not once but TWICE, which speaks to the deeply felt affection which I hold for its star, Richard Coyle), nor a single work by Sir Walter or RLS. Worse yet (and I may have to drop my Scottish middle name after this confession), I have barely touched the poetry of Robbie Burns. I have eaten haggis on one occasion, but with a timidity and an insistence on demanding a list of ingredients that surely belied my Glaswegian heritage.

Well, all this ancestor-roiling ends now. I have finished (finished, I say!) "Kidnapped" by the illustrious Robert Louis Stevenson. How I escaped reading this as a child I will never know, and why it took me so long to finish remains a mystery, since it is, in fact, a simple and engaging tale.

In fact, the plot of "Kidnapped" is quite straightforward, as far as adventure stories go. Young David, recently orphaned, goes to seek protection from a nefarious uncle, who arranges for him to be kidnapped (aha!) by a hearty but none too ethical sea captain bound for the plantations of America. Before he can be sold into servitude in the New World, our hero joins forces with a Highland monarchist outlaw who has been imprisoned on the ship, and they brave exposure, illness, shipwreck, hunger, and hanging to return and claim David's inheritance.

It is a completely linear tale whose outcome is never in doubt, so the principal delight of the reading experience (and there are delights to be had) lies in the language, which is a wonderful hybrid between the baroquely archaic and the pragmatic Newspeak of "1984":

"'Well,' said he, at last, 'your tongue is bold, but I am no unfriend to plainness.'"

I wonder if "unfriend" is a word that can only be use in double negative constructions, as an Anglo-Saxon type of understatement: "I am no unfriend to the Democrat party." Does that imply a fanatic beneficence to the party, or a queasy tolerance of them? Could I say that people who were once beloved to me but have betrayed my trust are now "unfriends," or is that too strong a usage? Would the word be better applied to people with whom I have simply lost touch, unfriending implying the continual possibility for re(be)friending?

Here's one more: "'You and me must twine,' I said, 'I liked you very well, Alan, but your ways are not mine, and they're not God's; and the short and the long of it is just that we must twine.'"

Isn't it wonderful how the word 'twine' contains within it both the connotation of parting and that of twisting (or even tying) together?

Now that I have soothed one group of Celtic ancestors, it only remains to pacify the other, putting to rest my Welsh shame at having read so little Dylan Thomas and absolutely no ancient epics with unpronounceable five-syllable names. Maybe someday I will even be able to form a passable pronunciation of my double-L-riddled Welsh name (I have five names, for thems that's counting, making my diplomas crowded affairs.).

"Kidnapped" by Robert Louis Stevenson - ***1/2