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Editor-in-Chief
Alex Carnevale
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Features Editor
Mia Nguyen
(e-mail)

Reviews Editor
Ethan Peterson

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in alex carnevale (238)

Tuesday
Nov082016

In Which Dorothy Thompson Wonders If It Was Ever There

The Potent Man

by ALEX CARNEVALE

They say it's dead, but for me better the corpse of Vienna than any other place.

The sight of Sinclair Lewis sober was extremely rare. His wife, the writer Dorothy Thompson, had to rely on Vienna's key strength to resurrect her husband from his hangovers: coffee. "Coffee in Vienna is more than a national drink," she wrote. "It is a national cult. Palaces have been built for it: palaces where there are satin-brocaded walls, deep divans, onyx-topped tables, great windows curtained in gold-colored silk. These palaces are center of Vienna's most perfected cultures." Every cafe in town was an institution in itself, "sometimes a club, sometimes an office, sometimes just restaurant, but always full of life, atmosphere, and - smoke."

Vienna's black marketers gravitated towards the Cafe Atlantis, across from the Imperial Hotel. The Lewis' apartment was not far from there. Christmas in Vienna in 1933 might have been a sedate affair had it not been for Dorothy's parties. It was there she felt a final distance in her marriage and realized she was in love with one of her guests: a German artist and writer named Christa Winsloe.

It was Dorothy's third lesbian infatuation. She wrote in her journal, "It has happened to me again, after all these years. It has only, really, happened to me once before." There were aspects of women that she missed in her messier relationships with men, and probably ones she never wrote down. What she would say was that women had softer mouths, and that sex was like, "being made love to by an impotent man."

Dorothy saw the relationship that Christa had with her ex-husband. As she saw, what they shared was as close to loving as a lesbian woman could have with a man. "For two divorced people," Thompson would say later, "they are the most married couple I have ever seen."

Christa Winsloe

It was a fight between the two ex-marrieds that precipated Dorothy's entrance into Christa's life. Christa and her ex had fought on New Year's Eve, driving her into Dorothy's arms. They talked for hours. "We kissed each other and she called me 'liebling' and said 'I will write to you and telephone, and you will not get rid of me.' And I felt full of beatitude." Dorothy checked her enthusiasm for the young relationship at the door, trying to convince herself she would be happy to have simple friendship with Christa.

Her own marriage was getting worse at the same time. Lewis' drinking had worsened, and although his wife was pregnant, he did not treat her any more sensitively. She practiced ice skating in order to prevent weight gain from the pregnancy. One night she came home to find Lewis had wrecked the apartment in a drunken rage, destroying all the rented furniture. He hit her for the first time in their entire marriage when she objected.

posing for a bust

For her, this was the last straw, although Lewis still tried to reunite with his wife, writing, "You seem to me in my mad life my one refuge and security. You see, I don't care a damn - not anymore at least - for fame and all those amiable experiences, but only (and this is a not-too-easy contradiction) for you and Mickey on the one hand, and Freedom (whatever that empty thing may be) on the other." A geographical separation made the two feel a deeper alienation, constituting a second violence. (Lewis had relocated to London while Dorothy wrapped up their affairs at their summer home in Vienna.) Just before leaving Vienna, she also lost her pregnancy.

with her son Michael

She pretended to forgive Lewis, but instead of returning to London, she took the train to Berlin to report on the rise of Nazism. Fleeing that damned place, she moved to Portofino with Christa and a gay butler named Giovanni. She kept her husband apprised of her living situation, informing him that the Italian manservant "does everything but our hair." She also told him how "terribly funny it is sharing a house with another woman."

Much later he would call her to tell her the news: this tendentious alcoholic was the recipient of the Nobel Prize. "Oh have you!" Dorothy responded. "Well, I have the Order of the Garter!"

The initial attraction between Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson had always been a bit of a longshot. Lewis' friends called him Red; he was losing that hair, and precancerous lesions from acne dotted his visage. According to her, he looked like he had "survived a battle with flamethrowers." The day her divorce became final she invited him over for dinner.

As soon as they were married and things started to go sour, Thompson began looking outside of her marriage for what the man inside it could not provide. She entertained her guests at the Austrian villa where she and Lewis spent their weekends. She kept meticulous, anonymous notebooks on the activities of her and her lovers. One reads

I went for a walk with E. and in the woods he turned suddenly and put both hands on my cheeks and we clung together. His mouth tasted deliciously of love, like the smell of semen, and I could have lain down with him right there in the woods then and there as I could have done for five years, except that we agreed that we wouldn't.

As she got older, the affairs turned into even more questioning events. Lewis would come home drunk and strike their son, only inspiring a new round of "What does it all mean?" Household staff could only watch in shock as the couple's bitter arguments went from room to room.

Their son Michael's nurse observed to Dorothy that "he worshipped the ground you walked on. When he heard you were coming home from a trip he would send for the barber to shave him, insist that all his clothes should be in apple-pie order, dress as though he were going to court. And then, often you'd hardly be in the house, when he'd start a quarrel, and then, as likely as not, he'd call the car and leave the next morning."

Dorothy's affair with Christa Winsloe ended when Christa fell in love with a man, an Italian basso named Ezio Pinza who she had seen perform in Salzburg. She tried to reassure Dorothy that this was only a passing infatuation, but Thompson realized Christa had become another person who no longer knew how to return her feelings. She wrote,

Like all love I wonder now if it was ever there. Oh, yes, it was there, but didn't all the threads run from me to you, and none really run back? You will not answer me, not help me, perhaps only because you do not want to hurt me. I write with my eyes full of tears, and my heart full of tears, and I wish they flowed because of someone else, because then perhaps you would comfort me. Or would you? Why is it that one's own love can sustain one for so long without any reciprocity, and then, suddenly, it can't anymore?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

Friday
Nov042016

In Which Whit Stillman Remakes Metropolitan For Some Reason

Lady Susan

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Love & Friendship
dir. Whit Stillman
93 minutes

Whit Stillman is always saying things he half means. "In terms of almost everything, I think it’s a superior time, for music, architecture, manners, thought," he told an interviewer about the 18th century. What he actually is trying to say is this: "Now is terrible. Why now? Why is this now?"

During one scene in Love & Friendship, a character named Frederica (Morfydd Clark) sits in a parlor and reads a book, a collection by the English poet Cowper. Her suitor approaches and can't believe his eyes. "You read both verse and poetry," he gawps. This is not a superior moment. In 1990, which was also not the best year, Whit Stillman made Metropolitan, and for the next quarter century he has tried to remake it five times, with less and less fidelity.

You see, Stillman had a set of satirical observations about the world and the society in which he grew up (prep school, Harvard, etc). It is to his credit that these were not positive impressions, but it is to his detriment that he never developed any other observations. Now in his 60s, he continues to set the basic story of Metropolitan in a variety of settings: once he even wanted to do Metropolitan in Jamaica! The general undercurrent is usually the same; it is no accident that Stillman mentions the superior manners of the late 18th century, because he has always been obsessed with bad manners.

Jane Austen shared this passion, but unlike Stillman, she felt the need to explain what good ones were. Lady Susan Vernon (a weirdly tan Kate Beckinsale) is one of Austen's great characters – a woman so intrisically diabolical that when she walks into a room the inhabitants shudder. At the beginning of Love & Friendship she has no money, she has one friend and her daughter has no husband or future. By the end, this situation is completely corrected.

Austen found Lady Susan as detestable as some of the other characters in the milieu, but to Stillman's great credit, he sees her as the heroine. She takes an interest in the younger brother of her sister-in-law Catherine (rising star Emma Greenwell), but abandons her plan when the family objects to the merger. She is deeply in love with a married man, a certain Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin, who does not have a single line), who has an obstreperous wife. After they separate, she keeps him around even though he has no money, and marries a man who can get along with them both.

Beginning in 1998's The Last Days of Disco, Stillman saw something in Kate Beckinsale that other directors have struggled to extract from her performances. She projects an aura of genuine feeling at all times that allows us to relate to her despite her varying behavior, even as her availability vacillates between unlikely and impossible. Her sexuality has altered slightly as she enters middle age. Whereas before there was the sense that she might have been preserved in amber, now we verifiably know she has been in the shit. I believe she dated Michael Sheen for quite some time.

Stillman's favorite actress remains Chloe Sevigny, who probably has a good thirty years of playing Ellen Burstyn-esque roles ahead of her. Both actresses excel at the Stillman banter, which is best described in this fashion: one woman makes an observation, the other woman agrees, the first woman demurs, the second woman demurs, accommodation is reached. At times the patter goes a bit quickly, but the writing is so much better than Stillman's brief, insanely boring Amazon pilot that we are just glad he is having fun again.

Hidden behind the incredibly amusing dialogue is a more meaningful story, one that expresses the kind of feeling a mother has for her daughter. Metropolitan itself became quite moving at times, and these are the moments where Stillman himself seems surprised at the depth of his creations: that they almost have their own agency. It is just as inevitable, however, that he becomes appalled by their transparency, as in his 2011's Damsels in Distress, so it is probably for the best that Love & Friendship ends after 90 minutes.

The problem with Austen, and to be honest the 18th century in general, is that it was a real dead end. To see men and women relating to each other in such a dishonest fashion is actually a bit jarring. Stillman draws particular attention to the misogyny of the period, and it is this view which persuades us that he believes the 18th century is no better than any other. He is forced to conclude there is really no special time and place to be a part of, unless you were gay and in Berlin before the war. That was not to be missed.

Allowing for his critical observations of the time period, Stillman finally seems to be enjoying himself at all times. Love & Friendship, besides being completely hysterical and the best comedy this year, unfolds its enthusiasms over even the simplest scenes. Stillman is a fantastic editor of Austen, a fact he openly admits, since he rewrote the epistolary version of Lady Susan into his own novel. If only he were this excited about tomorrow.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

Tuesday
Oct112016

In Which He Was Iris Murdoch's First And Last Jewish Boy

Falling In Love With I

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Like Socrates, perhaps love is the only subject on which I am really expert?

Iris Murdoch, July 1976

She was an only child. She thought of her little family as "a perfect trinity of love."

The first sentence she ever copied down was, "The snowdrop hangs its head down. Why?"

She wrote, "Jesus: my first (and last?) Jewish boy." She was the best student in her class; a mother of a friend called her a Botticelli angel. After she died, Harold Bloom wrote that there were no more first rate writers left in Britain. A variation of this escaped his mouth whenever anyone died, so that someone else might say it of him.

1927

Hitler invaded the Rhineland; her Jewish and Indian classmates would go on hikes together, four at a time. Iris' closest friend was the school's headmistress. Auden came to visit her boarding school. According to her, he was "young and beautiful, with his golden hair."

Her first boyfriend was in training to be a dentist; they bonded over Virgil. She had her first drink at seventeen. She said, "the experience comes back to me surrounded by a halo of the purest and most intense joy."

Her first real boyfriend was David Hicks, three years her elder. He sent her C.S. Lewis' Allegory of Love, even now known as a strong move. As she grew into a charming young woman, many desired Iris, women as well as men. All the boys she knew at Oxford left to die in the war.

There she was the pet pupil of Eduard Fraenkel, who recognized her talent immediately and would spend countless hours talking to her. He would later call her the only truly educated person of her generation. Others were forced to agree. A classmate described her as having "a lioness' face — very square, very strong, very gentle."

Her first real love was a guy named Frank Thompson. Even as she dated someone closer to home, she believed she would marry Frank. A self-described "left intellectual," he was captured and executed by Bulgarians, with a volume of poetry by Catullus in his front pocket.

In 1980, she had a dream that she, Frank and her husband John Bayley were living together happily. She wrote, "A dream about Frank. I was with Frank and he told me he loved me. (As he did on that day in autumn 1938 in New College.) I was very moved but not sure what I felt (as then). He went away and then I realised I loved him. (As I really did come to love him later.) In the dream, realising I loved him I felt great joy at the thought that I could tell him now, and I sent for him. He appeared at the top of a steep slope, dressed as a soldier, with a black cap on. As I climbed up the slope towards him I felt sudden dismay, thinking I cannot marry him, I am married already. Then I thought, it is all right, I can be married to both him and John. We met and were all somehow very happy and yet awkward too."

Iris was a prolific letter writer: "When I was younger, I remember I loved writing long letters to all sorts of people — a kind of exhibitionism I daresay." She often wanted her boyfriends to send her pictures of themselves, under the guise that "I hate to not know what my friends look like."

She visited Paris and met Sartre. He signed a copy of Being and Nothingness over to her. She was starting to feel like a philosopher again.

She became engaged to a man who showed little to no interest in her work, and confessed "doubts & terrors" towards the prospect of their marriage. In Prague, he left her for a girl named Molly. Even after they dissolved their arrangement by postal mail, Iris still gave him money.

She spoke only French to Raymond Queneau. They went on hikes together. He told her about his analysis. He introduced her to the work of William Faulkner. He never liked to talk about his work, except with her. Queneau described Iris as "Irishwoman. Big. Blonde. Common-sensical. A little bun. A perked cap. A decided walk, somewhat heavy, military. Beautiful eyes. Charming smile. She loves Kierkegaard. Is interested in the problems of blacks. Likes Colossus of Maroussi. She is weary. Her work interests her sufficiently. She skis."

She thought he "had a very beautiful head."

When she returned to England, she took up with Donald MacKinnon, in almost full view of his suffering wife. She became more and more depressed. She went to visit the widowed mother of Frank Thompson, which did not help matters. The old woman gave Iris the volume of Catullus that had been returned to her.

She came to Cambridge, where she met Wittgenstein. She thought of him as a handsome but disturbing figure, with "a trampish sort of appearance." They never connected, but Cambridge was full of romantic possibilities. She took up with a number of men, but none of them for very long. Later she would write, "that business of falling in love with A, then with B, then with C (all madly) seems a bit sickening."

To break the pattern, she considered a relationship with Wittgenstein's protege, a woman named Elizabeth Anscombe. The relationship was never consummated, but Iris fantasized about kissing the back of her neck, and the emotional side was very real.

She took a post teaching at St. Ann's College, where she became the resident expert on moral and political philosophy. Her circle of friends, largely the ethnic misfits of the school, grew and grew. (In The Black Prince she wrote that "most friendship exists in a state of frozen and undeveloping hostility.") Her skill involved paying her friends exactly the amount of attention they required, but not so much that they lost their desire for being with her. Once, she offhandedly remarked to one of her students that didn't she agree "that any worthwhile person ought to have at least some Jewish blood?"

Iris became engaged to another man, but cheated on him with the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. A friend described them both as "addicted to love at first sight." She did not like to ask things of her boyfriends, and she generally hated if they made any demands on her. She contrived an exception to this rule by taking up with a frail Jewish philosopher whose debilitating heart ailment was aggravated by sex. He died.

As a consequence, her next relationship was with the writer Elias Canetti. He was very different from her other boyfriends. Their three year affair was kept secret from all close to them; she was neither the first nor the last of his mistresses. Canetti was the king of flattery, an expert manipulator. He would often read a writer's entire oeuvre before meeting them so he would know what to say. Behind their backs, he could be extremely cruel. Iris' friends suspected that Elias was the sort of literary intellectual monster she feared becoming.

Among other things, Iris found him to be the best sexual partner she had ever had. She wrote, "He holds me savagely between his knees & grasps my hair and forces my head back. His power. He subjugates me completely. Only a complete intellectual and moral ascendancy could hold me." She compared him to Zeus. "He takes me quickly, suddenly... When we are satisfied, we do not lie together, but contemplate each other with a sort of amused hostility." Her next boyfriend did not like Canetti, and was nothing like him.

Even though I never knew her, I still miss her.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

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