Monday, November 06, 2006

Private lives

Patty here…

A week ago I saw director Stephen Frears’s (My Beautiful Launderette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things) film “The Queen,” starring Helen Mirren. The movie explores the dark days following the death of Princess Diana in a car accident in Paris in August of 1997 and the clash of wills between the newly elected and politically savvy Prime Minister Tony Blair and the old-fashioned and stoically engineered Queen of England, Elizabeth II, over how to respond to Diana’s death.

I vividly remember the day Diana died. I stayed up all night, watching the coverage on television, waiting for good news that never came. I also remember the swelling crowd of mourners fighting back tears and the growing perception, fueled by the press, that the royal family was dishonoring the memory of the “people’s princess” by refusing to acknowledge their shared grief.

Although the film is fiction (nobody but the royal family knows what really went on behind palace doors), Frears, along with screenwriter Peter Morgan and a superb ensemble cast have succeeded in creating a movie with complex, conflicted, and—yes—sympathetic human beings. Helen Mirren’s performance as Queen Elizabeth II is nuanced and moving as she soldiers-on through the tragedy, seemingly perplexed as to why the British people have turned against her.

In a scene from the film, she says:

“Ever since Diana, people want glamour and tears—the grand performance. And I’m not very good at that. I prefer to keep my feelings to myself. Foolishly, I believed that’s what people wanted from their queen. Not to make a fuss nor wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Duty first, self second.”

In a Los Angeles Times article on Tuesday, October 31, 2006, Patrick Goldstein explores the fine line between self-expression and self-promotion, which is the theme of “The Queen” and another current film, Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of our Fathers.” Goldstein says:

“Everywhere we look, we live in a confessional age. The novel has been replaced by the memoir as our most talked-about literary genre. The sitcom, for years TV’s water-cooler conversation starter, has been superseded by reality TV and talk shows, forms that thrive on exhibitionism.”

I don’t watch reality TV. For one reason, the idea of it doesn’t interest me. A steady diet of histrionic and often counterfeit emotional outbursts and angry recriminations isn’t very interesting to watch. Conflict is good but it can’t replace complexity. It’s the man or woman who struggles valiantly to hold back his or her emotions out of duty, pride, or fear that captures my imagination.

After watching “The Queen” and reading Goldstein’s article, I began to think about memorable characters in novels I had read. The first one that popped into my mind was Stevens, the dutiful English butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Remains of the Day. Years after finishing the book I still remember weeping as I read the scene in which Stevens stoically goes about his household duties as his father lays dying in the next room.

There is an often-quoted passage from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech given in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10, 1950:

“…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

So what draws you to certain fictional characters and why do you remember them long after the book is finished or the movie is yesterday's news?

Happy Monday and Happy Birthday to me!


  1. Hi Patty,
    We saw 'The Queen' Sunday night. Took Bob's mum, an aging London lass with much the same values as the real QE2 but without the restraints. I spent most of my own life not airing one's dirty laundry either. Swallowed it and kept the proverbial stiff upper lip and all that. As it was, some stupid woman behind us kept muttering all through the film about what a cold unfeeling bitch the Queen was - she just didn't get it - until the old gentleman in front of her told her to shut up or leave. The rest of the audience was invariably silent or weeping. Mirren's performance was the most nuanced I've seen for years.
    Where was I that night? On my first trip to America (San Antonio)exiting an awards ceremony where my accompanying beau (and future husband)had just won yet another major award. We were completely stunned by the news when we rang home afterwards to share ours. Two things I also remember from that trip was telling off a mugger in Boston in strident Aussie. The second was in a Starbucks in Newport RI: I was paying for our coffees (my turn) and told Bob to grab a newspaper in case there was anything more about Diana. Well, as I was handing over my money, the young male twit behind the counter who misheard my accent for an English one started spouting to his friend about how worthless and stuck up Princess Di was. I listened politely while getting my change and gathering up coffees and stuff, then turned to Bob and said quite loudly that 'Well I didn't give a f**k when Elvis died', and walked out with my head held high. Bob burst out onto the pavement behind me, laughing his head off. Apparently the twit behind the counter had a gobsmacked and shocked look on his face. So yes, I left an impression on the locals on my first trip.
    There are a number of fictional characters who've stayed with me over the years: I just can't think of any just now...except maybe Maisie Dobbs, Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, NOrah, Jim and Wally... The last three are from my childhood, from Australian/English books by Mary Grant Bruce circa 1904. If I name any more, I'll be here all day...

  2. Happy birthday!!!

    I hope you have a wonderful day, and I so want to see this movie!

    Many happy returns.

  3. Happiest of birthdays, Patty!!
    Have a wonderful day!

  4. Marianne, sorry for all the unpleasant twit experiences you had, but you handled them just right. I actually kept in touch by telephone all throught "that night" with an Aussie friend of mine in L.A. So sad.

    And thanks to both of you for the Bday wishes. I think I'll do something wild and crazy. Hmmm. What could that be...

  5. Happy birthday, Patty! Go do something involving chocolate today.

    One fictional character I met recently will stay with me a long, long time: Paddy Meehan from Denise Mina's THE DEAD HOUR. The plotting was wonderful, but it was Meehan's vulnerabilities and angst that will stay with me forever.

  6. Happy Birthday, Patty.

    I'm drawn to vivid characters with honest emotions in conflict. I'd describe this further, but your Faulkner quote does it better than I could.


  7. I have that book on my TBR pile, Louise. Looks like it's up next.
    And Paul, your words are equally as elegant as Faulkners.

  8. Happy Birthday, Patty!

    What draws me to certain fictional characters is their humanity, that set of qualities that sets them apart from run-of-the-mill, cardboard characterizations. It all starts, of course, with the writing, but I think about things like back-story, relationships with other characters, flaws, voice, dialog (nothing drives me crazier than clunky dialog ;-), context - all of which are equally important, in my view.

    One of my favorite fictional characters, Elvis Cole, is often described as 'walking right off the page'. That's the quality that draws me in - the quality that has me half believing I could run into this guy at the local Starbucks.

  9. Saw "The Queen". Funny what sticks in my mind. The dogs free off leash. The Blairs eating fish fingers and using a tray from IKEA while at Balmoral Spode Sheffield china makes two appearances. All those "small" details help make the drama between Tony Blair and the royals come alive.
    Memorable characters? Creations of present company excepted, Cliff Buxton of the Aussie movie "The Dish". I'll never forget his face when he speaks his line about what "...makes the spirit soar..."

  10. I watch The Dish every so often: it makes me homesick for my childhood and that golden light that I remember so well.
    Characters will always make or break a novel or story for me. If the characterization jars me out of the story too much, either by improbable speech or behaviour then I invariably don't finish the novel.


  11. "Happy, happy birthday, Baby, although you're with somebody new...." "Sixteen candles, make a lovely...."
    Wonderful blog, Patty, and it's evoking such great comments.
    Congratulations, marianne! What a splendid parting shot that was. I can only think of the perfect comeback about 15 minutes after it's too late to use it. Way to go!
    Too bad so many of these twits aren't getting an education,else they might have meditated with Donne, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were...: any man's death diminishes me..., and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls...."

    Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Romeo, Sherlock, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Sam Spade, The Lone Ranger, the Phantom, Hester Prynne, Huck, Ishmael, Harry Bosch, Odysseus, Aeneas, Cicero, Capt. Queeg, Kurtz, the Old Man, Moses--just a few who stay with me.

    Tom, T.O.

  12. Doc Savage? As in 'Mona, you're a brick!' fame?


  13. Marianne, you're a brick..., and I was young and impressionable.

    Tom, T.O.

  14. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your pithy comments. I hardly feel a year older.

  15. Three days late and more than a few dollars short (however, with plenty of fever and complementary disturbing symptoms)...

    Happy (Belated) Birthday, Patty!

    So--what did "wild and crazy" turn out to be? And did it involve chocolate?

    Too many characters to count, including many that Marianne named...and I won't even start with King Lear. Oh wait...I just did, didn't I? What the heck, how about guys named Darcy and Bunter as well? Now that's just the fever talking...

    -Not exactly the Man of Bronze, of trilling thought--though once I devoured the books as well.

  16. Alas, nothing chocolate, but I did have a piece of coconut cake that wasn't too bad. Thanks for the good wishes!