Captains Courageous # 3 : Paul Feval – “Captain Phantom”

ABOVE: Ghost Rider

Another French historical romance marked by heroic captaineering (just like Michel Zevaco’s “The Captain” and Theophile Gautier’s “Captain Fracasse”) Paul Feval’s “Captain Phantom” is set largely in Spain and chronicles a colorful multinational conflict: Napoleon’s Peninsular War of the early 1800s, in which Spain, England, Scotland, Portugal and France all got to unfurl flags as they wrestled for control of Iberia.

The prolific Paul Feval is a great French romancier who staked out a little piece of my adventure-loving heart growing up, (with seeming perennials like “Le Bossu” and “Les Habits Noirs”), but who has practically no claim to fame in the U.S. (Although Feval is just now being reconsidered as an unlikely early branch in the fantasy and horror family tree, thanks to novels like “The Vampire Countess,” and “The Village of the Vampires” – which were written decades before Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”)


Heavy Traffic : Georges Simenon – “Night at the Crossroads”

ABOVE: Don’t cross Maigret

In 1932, the great Jean Renoir made a movie out of George Simenon’s “La Nuit du Carrefour” (“Night at the Crossroads”), which I believe is the very first of many Maigret adaptations to come. It’s not one of Renoir’s grander films, (the pace is glacial, although the camera still moves in clever ways to establish our complicity in the events). Still, the “Cahiers du Cinema” crowd loved it as a precursor of films noir to come, and the femme fatale Else has much to do with it.

ABOVE: Inspector Maigret inspects. You can see why French movies of the 1930s were a little ahead of American movies of the 1930s.

Else, when we meet her, is a vampish Danish immigrant living in near-captivity with Carl, her possessive, aristocratic brother. Carl is suspected in a murder after a corpse is found on his garage, and so Maigret visits the secluded, ill-lit house Else and Carl share. The house is at the crossroads of a highways, and neighbors include an ex-boxer who runs a garage and an appallingly bourgeois insurance salesman. Are any of them involved? Or was the murderer the driver of one of hundreds of vehicles crossing by?

As usual, Simenon is so brisk that you have no time to be bothered by how simple the case is. This one has something that few other Maigret novels have: a heightened sense of humor. Maigret is not exactly Inspector Closeau when it comes to the yucks and giggles, but the final resolution scene here borders on the farcically funny.

Less funny are Simenon’s lazy, eye-brow-raising ethnic references: the instigating corpse belongs to a certain Isaac Goldberg, dubious Jewish jeweler; the Italian character is called Guido Ferrari, etc. Can’t wait for an American named John Smith to show up in the series.



A taste of the Renoir:

The House of Dolls

For “man-hating” feminists Meghan and Vicky ;-) 

Words matter. Let’s talk about Henrik Ibsen’s “Et dukkehjem”.

Not “A Doll House”.

And definitely NOT “A Doll’s House”.

“Et dukkehjem”.


The dramatic essence of the play: Nora realizes her husband Torvald is not who she was happy to believe he was- and  that she also doesn’t know who she is HERSELF! She lives in  a system that has never let her figure out her identity. The system has done all the figuring out for her already, and she must break out of the system  to stop being a doll, a puppet, a toy. To become a human who understands herself on her own terms.

Calling the play “A Doll House” in English connotes right away that this is a play about Nora, the doll. Because isn’t that what you think of when I say the word “doll”? A doll is representation of a woman. Women of certain looks get called “dolls.” This is the house in which there is a woman who is a doll.

That’s not quite what Ibsen was going for. What Ibsen is thinking of as a “doll” is an artificial object that represents a human being. A Doll House is a popular children’s toy that replicates a traditional household, and that contains within its architecture a variety of dolls. Dad dolls, mom dolls, baby dolls, teenager dolls (the concept of teenagers emerged long after Ibsen, obviously, but there they were all along!) There’s aunt and uncle dolls. Maybe there’s a visitor doll in the guest room; maybe there’s a doctor doll that stops by, or a banker doll that lives down the street. There’s even DOG dolls.

If you saw anything feminine in the title “A Doll House”, and most people would, you’re misunderstanding Ibsen’s title- and therefore you’re misunderstanding Ibsen’s play.

It is definitely NOT “A Doll’s House.”


“A Doll’s House” is about a doll who owns a house. But Nora does NOT own a house. Nora owns NOTHING. She doesn’t own herself, which is why she must step outside of the house. Guess what? Torvald doesn’t own the house either. Torvald is CONTAINED within the house.

This is important, because no one OWNS this doll house. The dollhouse contains and imprisons the dolls within it.

The best English title I can think of is “The House of Dolls,” but I still feel it infuses the title with a femininity that is not supposed to be there. “The House of Toys” is too playful, “The House of Puppets” gives away the game.

You get the point. What the title is trying to convey is ARTIFICE. Fake. This is a house where people are being fake, and not allowed to be human beings.

Ibsen was a little confused when the women’s rights movement took up his play as political inspiration. In a speech given to the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights in 1898, a flattered Ibsen insisted on the point that he wasn’t strictly a women’s rights campaigners, a feminist. He said he “must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement,” since he wrote “without any conscious thought of making propaganda,” his task having been “the description of humanity.”

He meant that. He didn’t write a play about one woman. He wrote a play about a variety of characters, male and female. When one reads the play ONLY as a feminist play, one is missing out on many  of the points that Ibsen was making. It is easy to see why Ibsen would be bothered by this; he constructed a very meticulous, dollhouse-y play to say something very specific and profound, and his point was being ignored because the feminists who loved the play only saw it as a feminist play about a woman who wakes up to the truth of her oppression. This is what an -ism does. It FORCES a limited perspective. One sees things clearly along one narrow path, which feels powerful and gives a sense of clarity, but it is actually a BLINDING force. An -ism BLINDS you to the rest of the spectrum, and it makes you misunderstand reality.

By embracin an -ism, the feminists were misunderstanding the play entirely. It is NOT about a woman. It’s about a SOCIETY. It’s about a DOLLHOUSE, not a specific doll within it. Ibsen wasn’t AGAINST the women who loved the play. He wasn’t OFFENDED that he would be called a feminist. He wasn’t DISMISSING the feminists, whose efforts he supported, he was inviting the feminists to see MORE of the world, and understand the play he actually wrote, which they weren’t doing. They misunderstood it. He was MORE than a feminist. By labeling him a feminist, they were taking AWAY from him.  He wanted the women to understand the play BETTER and SEE THE ENTIRETY of the play; not just one forced perspective, one particular angle. Because the play Ibsen wrote is ALSO about a man who has to fulfill an impossible role, a good man who is trapped and reduced into hypocrisy and shame by a system that never gave him a chance, because it forced him to pretend that he was always chivalrous and powerful and capable of providing for his wife and endlessly satisfying her needs and whims. The system asked him to be a doll, and never allowed him to be a real human being.

If you are a feminist, you’re seeing LESS of the play, you’re understanding LESS of the play than what Ibsen wanted you to understand. He wanted to show you the world. You refused. You’re being willfully ignorant.

If a parallel “meninist” came along and, accurately, told you that this play is actually the story of a good man who gets abandoned by a wife the moment he exhibits a sign of humanity and steps out of the role the system forces him to play, you would be confused at best, upset at worst. But the meninist isn’t wrong, it’s just that he’s also BLINDED by his -ism, by his forced perspective. He would be misunderstanding the play too.

And if a misogynist watches the play, he could accurately say that it’s a play about a gold-digging, cheating bitch who runs out on her husband and her kids, because that’s what women do, just run out of difficult situations with their tail between their legs.

And if a Marxist watches the play, they could accurately say that it’s about how the bourgeois obsession with money and materialistic possession makes people turn on each other, while the bankers capitalize on their little domestic drama.

And if a Southern Baptist watches the play, they could accurately say that it’s about how a couple that doesn’t truly have Jesus in their lives and doesn’t pray together a single time for the duration of the play is obviously destined for ruin.

And if a positive critic watches the play, they could say that it’s a powerful depiction of the falsehood of social constructs. And Ibsen would be very happy.

And if a negative critic watches the play, they could say that it is pretty contrived and obvious in its intentions, and it is about as childish as the dollhouse it’s trying to represent. And Ibsen would be sad.

And if a racist saw it, the racist might say: “WELL, at least all the characters are of pure Nordic stock.”

And if another kind of racist saw it, the racist might say: “How come there are no black people in this house at all? Where is the diversity?”

And a pragmatist would reply: “What? It’s set on Norway in the 1800s, why WOULD there be any black people in the house?”

The list goes on forever.

One can easily see why ALL the other -isms that aren’t OURS are off the mark, or missing the point, or incomplete, or wrong. One can easily see that ALL the other people who adopt -isms are blinding themselves to the truth.

Except our -ism, of course. The -ism we chose is the one that let’s us actually see the truth, right?


Our -isms are exactly as false as the next -isms, and for exactly the same reason. They are a deliberate, narrow-minded choice to not see MORE of life. To see LESS. To UNDERSTAND less.

We are all limited in perspective. Always. But when we OURSELVES willingly limit our perspectives by focusing on a borrowed dogma, we are blinding ourselves not only to most of reality, but to our own internal possibilities to create new rules by which we can live our lives and take control of our lives instead of being powerless. By going into a system, we are being dolls. The best thing we can do as human beings is to be as appreciative of our reality as possible, and to open our eyes as much as possible, and see as much of our dollhouse as possible. But to see our dollhouse, we have to step OUT of our dollhouse, out of our belief systems. And only THEN we can actually start figuring out who we are.

At that point, we will stop worrying about what someone else thinks we should be, and what kind of doll we should be, and we will be rid of all our fears, because we will have learned to love ourselves.

When you love yourself, you automatically start loving others.

When you love others, you don’t hate them and you don’t fear them.


Damn. I’m a love-ist.

But you know what? Love is a much better form of blindness than hate :-) Thanks for listening.


It’s the Only Way I Know How to Do It! : David Lapham – “Murder Me Dead”

ABOVE: Hangin’ around

After  “Stray Bullets”, I became obsessed with David Lapham. It was a  dark, deep obsession, the kind that takes you down rain-swept alleys in search of that crazy broad you always turn to, a dame who’s never held a good intention, but can hold a gun like it ain’t nobody’s business, and she doesn’t mind using it on your sorry carcass. Nothing good comes of your obsession, but you weren’t looking for a good thing anyway. You were looking for trouble, the way you’ve always liked it.

Or something like that.

“Murder Me Dead” is Lapham’s noir miniseries, black-and-white like the good Lord intended noir to be. Steven Russell finds his quasi-ex-wife hanging from one of those ceiling fans that exist solely to throw the right  shadows on the wrong rooms. He’s the benefactor in the apparent suicide’s will, but the wife’s family has suspicions, and the bereaved Steven takes refuge from the insanity in the quest for a long lost high school crush. From there on out, things unfold with the kind of surprising inevitability made famous by James M. Cain. Loved it, works great as an extended “Stray Bullets” outtake.


A Very Long Engagement : Alessandro Manzoni – “The Betrothed”

ABOVE: Betrothed, Bewildered, Bebothered Part 2.

Completely unrelated to Walter Scott’s “The Betrothed”.

Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed” for quite a while trailed only Bocaccio’s “The Decameron” and Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” as one of Italy’s most beloved and significant works of literature. Written in the 1820’s and fixed up in the 1840’s, “I Promessi Sposi” is a historical novel set in 1628, (or, as I invariably think of it when Cardinal Richelieu gets referenced, “Musketeer Times.”) Does it deserve its fame as the greatest Italian novel? Pope Francis apparently loves it and recommends it to young couples about to marry.

Pope Francis ain’t the most reliable of literary judges, but it’s easy to see why he likes it. A novel best understood in Catholic contexts, the thick of it is dedicated to the activities of clergy of varying ethical fiber, and Manzoni does a decent job of portraying both religious leaders of actual morals, and the, shall we say, more dubious ones. I’m sure the Pope has met both kind frequently, and I can quite understand why he gets a chuckle out of this. The problem with Pope Francis’ admiration is that “The Betrothed” masquerades as a primer on how to be a good faithful Catholic, but it is actually an accidental satire on the so-called sanctity of marriage, and on the absurdity of taking abstinence to the verge of stupidity, (to the benefit of operatic drama).

Renzo and Lucia love each other and are about to be happily wed, but of course they mustn’t have fun with each other, not before marriage. It’s pretty clear that Renzo has been unsuccessfully begging for some pre-marital affection:

“For pity’s sake, do not talk thus; do not talk so fiercely!” said Lucia imploringly.
“You to implore me!” said he, somewhat appeased. “You! who will do nothing for me! What proof do you give me of your affection? Have I not supplicated in vain? Have I been able to obtain——”
“Yes, yes,” replied Lucia, hastily.

Lucia’s prudish ways catch the eye of a dastardly, mustache-twirling local proto-Mafioso, who intimidates a corrupt local priest into refusing to officiate the ceremony. The villain, the Spaniard Don Rodrigo, wants to “seduce” (rape, we call it now) the girl but, good religious person that he is, he’s only interested in raping her if she’s still an unmarried virgin. (Is Lucia a symbol of chaste Italy? Rodrigo of foreign occupation? Perhaps.) Much unnecessary pain and drama happens for a couple of years, all of which would have easily been averted if Renzo and Lucia had done what was natural and holy and sexy in the first place. Also, they should have told the pervy villain and the worthless priest to, pardon my Italian, “Vaffanculo!”

ABOVE: Manzoni, man!

Renzo is as generic a “handsome young man” as they come, and all I can say about the damsel in distress here is that Lucia is a pretty name. Their chemistry is unimportant since they’re separated throughout, (“The Betrothed” has mockingly been called a romance without romance.) The novel’s literary merits lie in the characterizations of the many peripheral characters: the cowardly Don Abbondio who’ll do anything to avoid his priestly duties; the saintly Fra Cristoforo who might as well come with a tacked-on halo. The thing is, while Don Abbondio is a great comic creation that would have done fine in a Dickens novel, the admirable priests are a little too admirable for their own good, and seem to have been thrown there to distract the more devout readers from Manzoni’s real marks: the questionable mores of a place where the good, poor people are bound into misery by Catholic strictures, while the bad, rich people do as they please because they’re in control of how the Church functions in the first place. (Shhh, don’t tell the Pope that this a perfectly accurate reading of the novel.)

“Thus goes the world, or rather, thus it went in the seventeenth century.

“The Betrothed” is very enjoyable throughout; in particular, its depiction of the plague in Milan in 1630 stands out as a vivid, chilling journalistic detour. It would sit decently alongside Walter Scott and mid-tier Dumas, but in translation it has neither the verbal authority of the former nor the suspenseful plotting of the latter. This is all different in the Italian original, where the novel is a seminal unifying work: what Italian literary language should sound like was still in dispute until Manzoni came along. While the novel earns its reputation, this is less a comment on its quality or popularity, than it is a comment on the state of Italian literature in the 19th century. (I would suggest that Carlo Collodi’s “Pinochio” is actually the best-KNOWN Italian novel worldwide, but obviously we can blame that on a Mr. Disney.)

RATING : MASTERPIECE in Italiano, but really COOL in English.


Just found a hilarious review by Edgar Allan Poe of “The Betrothed”, in which he also evokes Scott and manages to tear a dark and stormy hole on Bulwer Lytton. Poor Bulwer Lytton. (Is there a collected edition of Poe’s criticism out there? I want it now.)