Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Recent Shocking Deaths

Warning. Spoilers ahead for Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky and the first season of the BBC/HBO series Rome.

The book club I'm in discussed Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky at the last meeting. I was still reading, so hadn't yet happened upon this scene towards the end of the first part 'Storm in June'.

Father Phillipe Pericand is a young Catholic Priest charged with escorting a group of orphans out of Paris to the countryside on the eve of the German occupation of France in WWII. They have stopped for the night to camp in a field. Nearby is a grand looking house, about which some of the older boys avaricely express some curiosity. Phillipe tries to dissuade them from breaking in, but during the night they take matters into their own hands.

The moon lit up the front of the house. One of the boys was pushing the shutter, forcing it open. Before Philippe could shout at them to stop, a stone shattered inside the window and there was a rain of glass. The boys as lithe as cats, leapt inside.

...

'What are you doing here?' said the priest.
He heard a noise behind him and turned round; another boy was in the room, standing right behind him; he too was about seventeen or eighteen. He had thin, contemptuous lips and his yellowish face looked wild, as if he were possessed.

...

Philippe would have proven the stronger in spite of everything but they hit him on the head with a pedestal table with bronze legs; he fell down and as he fell he heard one of the boys run to the window and whistle. He saw nothing else: not the twenty-eight teenagers suddenly waking up, running across the lawn, climbing through the window; not the rush towards the delicate furniture that was being ripped apart and thrown out on to the grass.

...

They felt a terrifying kind of joy. Dragging Philippe by the feet, they threw him out of the window, so he fell heavily onto the lawn. At the edge of the lake, they swung him like a bundle.

...

Finally he raised both arms, put them in front of his face, and the boys saw him sink straight down, in his black cassock. He hadn't drowned: he'd got trapped in the mud. And that was how he died, in water up to his waist, head thrown back, one eye gouged out by a stone.

It's probably not too much of a spoiler to report on the death of Julius Caesar in Rome:



What distinguishes this particular depiction of Julius Caesar's murder by the senate, however is the way that in the BBC/HBO production it's intercut with the death of a Roman woman, Niobe. Niobe is the wife of Vorenus, formerly a soldier in Caesar's army and whom Caesar has since appointed a senator.

The importance of this distinction is commented upon in another YouTube video that takes issue with the editing of the above scene of Caesar's murder:


Watching these scenes as they were originally juxtaposed, I thought about some comments made in a paper delivered by Georgina Born in response to Frederic Jameson's charge that historical dramas were little more than an exercise in nostalgia. Born countered that in fact contemporary interpretations of historical texts offer insights into contemporary issues and values. I forget which particular BBC adaptation Born referred to, but I do recall she showed a particularly dark scene of what was effectively domestic violence. It may well not have been construed in those terms when the original novel was published, however, it is that interpretation which was invited by the BBC adaptation.

In Rome then, the witnessing of Caesar's death alongside that of Niobe, is a contemporary questioning of the prominence that has been historically afforded the lives and deaths of Great Men to the detriment of those of women in the same societies. I think it's important too that Vorenus is a character whom we are invited to admire: we think of him as an extraordinarily ethical man, who has struggled with his conscience on many occasions as he has risen through the ranks of society. On this occasion, Niobe's death is a tragedy much greater than Caesar's because it is an indirect and unintended consequence of a questionable war.

Contemporary resonances indeed.

2 comments:

Elizabeth Sinnreich said...

I recently read your post about Irène Némirovsky and wanted to let you know about an exciting new exhibition about her life, work, and legacy that will open on September 24, 2008 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage —A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, which will run through the middle of March, will include powerful rare artifacts — the actual handwritten manuscript for Suite Française, the valise in which it was found, and many personal papers and family photos. The majority of these documents and artifacts have never been outside of France. For fans of her work, this exhibition is an opportunity to really “get to know” Irene. And for those who can’t visit, there will be a special website that will live on the Museum’s site www.mjhnyc.org.
The Museum will host several public programs over the course of the exhibition’s run that will put Némirovsky’s work and life into historical and literary context. Book clubs and groups are invited to the Museum for tours and discussions in the exhibition’s adjacent Salon (by appointment). It is the Museum’s hope that the exhibit will engage visitors and promote dialogue about this extraordinary writer and the complex time in which she lived and died. Please visit our website at www.mjhnyc.org for up-to-date information about upcoming public programs or to join our e-bulletin list.

Thanks for sharing this info with your readers. Let me know if you need any more.

-Elizabeth Sinnreich (executiveintern@mjhnyc.org)

Kirsty said...

Hmm, well I think this is spam, but it's terribly interesting spam, so I will leave it. If I was in New York in September, I would certainly go. I'll have to content myself with looking at the website. I'll let the other book club folk know.