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A Mother

Miss Devlin had become Mrs. Kearney out of spite. She had been educated in a high-class convent, where she had learned French and music. As she was naturally pale and unbending in manner she made few friends at school. When she came to the age of marriage she was sent out to many houses where her playing and ivory manners were much admired. She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life. But the young men whom she met were ordinary and she gave them no encouragement, trying to console her romantic desires by eating a great deal of Turkish Delight in secret. However, when she drew near the limit and her friends began to loosen their tongues about her, she silenced them by marrying Mr. Kearney, who was a bootmaker on Ormond Quay.

We forget sometimes that our most fundamental relationships – parent, child, sibling – are the bases for all other relationships, romantic or office, temporary or everlasting. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy a happy, stable childhood – and happiness and stability are the foundations of life, all life – can only wonder at the broken promises that others have endured. Having children is no easy task, and one that to some should never be assigned; but when children are present, when a couple has created a perfect little mammal or welcomed such a being previously bereft of such caretakers, all thoughts should be geared towards the benefit of the children. No longer are we husbands and wives and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters: we are simply parents, mothers and fathers. And while not everyone, for a variety of reasons, may have a father, every single being on earth may claim the title character of this story.

It may seem strange that we are concerned with a mother, when the focal point of our tale is the performance of a certain Kathleen Kearney, the elder of two daughters of Mrs. Kearney, née Devlin. Kathleen Kearney has the type of name that can "be heard often on people's lips," because some names lend themselves to savoring. By dint of her very marketable appellation, her mother's own insistence, and some veritable musical talent, Kathleen Kearney becomes "the accompanist at a series of four grand concerts." These concerts, to be held in Dublin, are sponsored by the Éire Abú Society, which  I am afraid means something rather dull in Irish (and only appears to exist in Joyce's fictional realm). As the concert days approach, all consecutive, with the fourth on the very fateful evening of Saturday, Mrs. Kearney, who should not be mistaken for a person of culture, has high hopes for her daughter's performance. That first night she meets the secretary of the Society, who will represent everything she is hoping to overcome:

In the dressing-room behind the stage she was introduced to the secretary of the Society, Mr. Fitzpatrick. She smiled and shook his hand. He was a little man, with a white, vacant face. She noticed that he wore his soft brown hat carelessly on the side of his head and that his accent was flat. He held a programme in his hand, and, while he was talking to her, he chewed one end of it into a moist pulp. He seemed to bear disappointments lightly. 

Mrs. Kearney, it should be noted, does not bear disappointments lightly; in fact, she does not expect to have to bear them at all. Disappointments, for a snobbish social climber like Mrs. Kearney, are the lives of those without grace, without ambition, and, most importantly perhaps, without the proper connections to put that grace and ambition to best use.  

Things, of course, get worse for our eponymous matriarch. The Wednesday concert provokes the blasphemous suggestion that perhaps the Society "had made a mistake in arranging for four concerts: four was too many"; on Thursday, "the audience behaved indecorously as if the concert were an informal dress rehearsal"; and by Friday morning, someone has seen enough of the first concerts to use "special puffs in all the evening papers reminding the music-loving public" that Kathleen Kearney will be accompanying some impressive artistes the following night. The following night? After the apathy of the Wednesday and Thursday audiences, it was decided by the Society that Friday's would be even less attentive, a logic that would bankrupt the sturdiest of entertainment enterprises, but that is not ours to ponder. And so, a day before their daughter's third and final appearance on the Dublin stage, Mrs. Kearney reveals her suspicions to that "bootmaker on Ormand Quay" who bestowed his surname upon her:

He listened carefully and said that perhaps it would be better if he went with her on Saturday night. She agreed. She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure, and fixed; and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male. She was glad that he had suggested coming with her. 

The phrase "she appreciated his abstract value as a male" in a modern work would seem, and would very likely be, wholly disingenuous; but in Joyce's context there can be no more accurate a description. What ensues that rainy Saturday night will not surprise readers accustomed to those vicissitudes of human nature that may be loosely termed "aesthetic sensibilities" (we will leave the matter at that). We will likewise not address the role of Mr. O'Madden Burke, whose ridiculous name swathes a most ridiculous figure, one which, of course, is "widely respected" by simple-minded people who think spruce, pompous frauds are something to which to aspire. What we should examine, however, is one of the artistes whom Mrs. Kearney surely cannot appreciate:

The bass, Mr. Duggan, was a slender young man with a scattered black moustache. He was the son of a hall porter in an office in the city and, as a boy, he had sung prolonged bass notes in the resounding hall. From this humble state he had raised himself until he had become a first-rate artiste. He had appeared in grand opera. One night, when an operatic artiste had fallen ill, he had undertaken the part of the king in the opera of Maritana at the Queen's Theatre. He sang his music with great feeling and volume and was warmly welcomed by the gallery; but, unfortunately, he marred the good impression by wiping his nose in his gloved hand once or twice out of thoughtlessness. He was unassuming and spoke little. He said yous so softly that it passed unnoticed and he never drank anything stronger than milk for his voice's sake.

Mr. Duggan, you see, is precisely what a mother would want in a child, because he has fulfilled his potential to a sensational level, all the more impressive an accomplishment given the banal hurdles of poverty. And yet, among the innumerable Philistines of grand society, an imaginary community staffed almost entirely by such vulgarians, all that will be remembered of him will be his nose and his gloved hand. The same gloved hand that will one day inherit the earth, the air, and the sea.  


Akhmatova, "Ждала его напрасно много лет"

A work ("For him I waited years in vain") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

For him I waited years in vain,     
This time now seems like drowsiness. 
Yet light invincible did reign 
Three years ago, on Lazarus.  
My voice would break, then words entomb: 
Before me stood my smiling groom. 

Behind the pane, the candles strolled
In unfast crowds. O pious eve!  
So easy will iced April cleave,
Above these crowds the church bells tolled, 
The wisest comfort will pain slake. 
And blackest wind the flames then shake.

White narcissus the table smote,   
Red wine cups waiting to be sipped,
My sight akin to dawn's red mist;
My hand, entrapped in wax's coat, 
It trembled with this kiss my choice, 
And my blood sang: blessed one, rejoice!


Youth Without Youth

There is a notion that people are not intimidated by great intelligence, but by great ideas presented intelligently. If you tell someone that religion can be boiled down to ten irrefragable commandments, or loving the one you're with, or the eternal return, or something that can fit on a business card or fortune cookie roll, they will smile because they have been initiated into one of the astounding mysteries of our world. It would be sad yet dutifully accurate to inform them, however, that the average person, even if somewhat well-read, would need at least ten years of intense study, incredible enthusiasm, and some cerebral propitiousness to be able to produce a first-rate book on religion or on literature. Of course, political correctness proclaims that all opinions are worth hearing and all viewpoints, regardless of education or perspective, are worth understanding. This I do not deny; these voices all have the same dignity, the dignity of human thought and feeling. But they do not have the same value. For value, you need minds who know their subject backwards, forwards and, in the case of this lush and beautiful film, also upside-down.  

Our hero is Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a seventy-year-old Romanian scholar who wakes up one evening in the spring of 1938 and realizes that he "will never complete [his] life's work," that work being the chronicling of the origins of language. He decides, quite logically perhaps, to hasten this eventuality. As he potters around a meek Bucharest that already seems to hear the crunch of Fascist boots, Dominic is lifted off the ground, scorched by lightning, then dropped unceremoniously to wither and die. So violent and unexpected is this scene that it sets the tenor for the rest of Youth Without Youth: what has just happened is a miracle of miracles, thus disbelief is necessarily suspended. He winds up mummified in an intensive care station where he signals his name and age by squeezing the hand of Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), yet the nurses who wash his crisped body giggle in his presence and only half-jokingly claim that this man is still very young. In short order we learn the truth: right before Dominic awakes, his image in a nearby looking-glass opens its eyes, soon to be met by those of the original Dominic, now young, handsome and completely unscarred from his encounter with a million heavenly volts. If we weren't already convinced by the fulminous scene outside this train station, we now know that what we are watching is science fiction.

And yet perhaps this is still not the right term. The old Dominic inhabits many flashbacks: he loved a young woman named Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara) who essentially leaves him because he has not fulfilled his potential; he is also a diligent student of Chinese who is dismissed by a French-speaking professor (likely patterned after this Swiss linguist) because without a mastery of Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Japanese, he would not take him on as a student. "To master Chinese," says the smug old fellow, twirling his moustaches, "you must have the memory of a mandarin" – which is precisely what the new Dominic acquires. Soon he is able to know the contents of any book simply by willing himself to know them; he can predict the final destination of a roulette ball, move objects by telekinesis, and absorb information at a capacity that can only be called unearthly. He also keeps himself company, literally and figuratively, by discussing his agenda and feelings with a psychic double of himself. If this sounds ridiculous, you may consider that while he has now exceeded all men in pure intellect, he has not lost the human need for conversation with a peer. Stanciulescu publishes a series of incredible reports in a medical journal that garners the attention of scientists around the world. One of these observers has a notebook marked with a wicked symbol that will be mirrored (in perhaps an overlong shot) on the garters of "the woman in room six who was placed there by the secret police." That symbol has now become the most important in Europe, much more vital than all those Chinese characters and all the mathematical equations and all the plethoric knowledge with which Dominic has stuffed his rejuvenated brain. In other words, if that symbol survives, Europe perishes. 

As the war rages on in favor of that symbol, Dominic flees to Switzerland, but he cannot exist as anonymously as he would have hoped. At a professorial gathering of leading Swiss scholars ("I knew more than each of them; I knew things that they didn't even dream existed") he is again accosted by that lovely young lady from room six who just so happens to worship that repulsive, all-important symbol and who tells him of a Doctor Monroe ("He's Swiss. Like me. Like you"). When she adds, "you know, I do have a name," he refuses this feeble stab at humanity because the knowledge of her body was no different than the countless books he absorbed, pure information. Monroe, for his part, is interested in running a million volts through some test subjects for the sake of science – and I think you might guess who foots his laboratory bills. To the film's credit, once Dominic extricates himself from this situation, there is a drastic shift in both time and tone, with the second half of the film outyelling its predecessor and continuing Dominic's spiritual journey in ways he could not possibly have imagined. And since they are beyond his own horizon, at least initially, we too will struggle to grasp why Laura seems to have been reincarnated in a young student by the name of Veronica, and why this may not be the only exemplar of metempsychosis that Dominic will witness.

While I am galled by the chocolate box of accents in English among the cast members, however realistic that has now become in the world (I invariably prefer unanimity of dialect), I should add a few words on the negativity of many of the film's reviewers. Youth without youth was a critical failure, particularly in America, for one very good reason: it holds almost no universal appeal. That some reviewers even stooped to labeling the film kitsch reveals a fundamental ignorance of aesthetic theory. Kitsch (and the closely related Russian term poshlost') tugs at the emotions by reducing them to the solution to all plot developments and all questions of character. A Hollywood film that pumps soft music against a still softer sunset and the embrace of two extremely good-looking young people who have only exchanged platitudes for two hours as bombs and bones detonated around them is the epitome of kitsch. Kitsch expects you the viewer to relate to the on-screen happenings because these emotions and lives and loves and hopes are common to all people at all times, and therein lie its eternal sadness and purported – and utterly fraudulent – artistic credentials. All this has absolutely nothing to do with the plight of Dominic Matei. The youth regained embodies the cerebral life Dominic always wanted, and it is his and his alone. He is granted by some Almighty force the time necessary to finish his life's work (a plot device probably borrowed from this famous tale), but then realizes that while he may conclude his intellectual existence satisfactorily, he will never again be a happy, love-struck youth, whereas precisely the opposite predicament would feature in a film devoted to cheap schmaltz. What is legitimately and artistically tragic in Youth Without Youth is that the wisdom and memories Dominic accumulated in the years before the lightning do not permit him to enjoy things with the same sense of invincibility that usually accompanies our early adulthood. He may be young in body but within him shudders the tortured soul of an immortal who has outlived every love and passion. And what can we say about those three roses? Only that Laura may not be one of them.


A Suspension of Mercy

Most mystery novels published today follow recipes so tried and true that one cannot but marvel that people still savor them and lick their lips. The mystery is the most elemental of plots, a natural sentiment demonstrated by our own ignorance of the universe and its secrets, yet the novel is startlingly young. Taking (as is often agreed upon) this famous story as its inception, we have only had mysteries for somewhat less than two centuries. Now I am no fan of the plain whodunits that I devoured as a fourteen-year-old because the writing is generally ignored for the sake of momentum, the characters are all stock agents selected for their ability to facilitate that momentum, and the ending is always a bow tied far too prettily to reflect life's incongruities. So even if your neighborhood bookstores disagree in their filing, one should never really call the author of this novel a mystery writer.

Our protagonist is Sydney Bartleby, a twenty-nine-year-old American writer married to Alicia, a somewhat younger British woman who understands her husband because she paints. At least this is the basic assumption made of a couple who devote themselves to the liberal pursuit of creativity. America in the 1950s was apparently not sufficiently inspirational for the fine arts, so although the two meet in the States they quickly take up residence in Suffolk, England for the peace and quiet that can be so detrimental to the young who normally thrive on agitation. This basic premise – two (as we find out, quite immature) young people choosing a rustic retreat over the thrills of London – does not count among the most likely of situations, especially since Sydney has modest talent and Alicia far less. At one dinner they are observed by their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Lilybanks:   

Sydney was a nervous type, perhaps better fitted to be an actor than a writer. His face could show great changes of feeling, and when he laughed, it was a real laugh, as if he enjoyed it to his toes. He had black hair and blue eyes, like some Irish. But he was not a happy man, that she could see. Financial worries, perhaps. Alicia was far more easygoing, a bit of a spoiled child, but probably just the kind of wife he needed in the long run. But the Polk-Faradays were still better matched, looked as if they sang each other's praises constantly, and now were gazing into each other's eyes as if they had just met and were falling in love. And the Polk-Faradays were raising three small children, children raising children, Mrs. Lilybanks felt, and yet she and Clive had been no older when their two had been born.

The Polk-Faradays, Alex and Hittie, are a nice, plump couple (Hittie the wife is repeatedly referred to as something akin to "a blond Chinese") who seem as content and well-fed as Sydney and Alicia have grown loathsome to one another in their two years of acrimony. Sydney and Alex have been collaborating on a series of failed television scripts – those days, there was nothing newer than television – and Alicia hardly conceals her Schadenfreude for her husband's disappointment. A fact not lost on Sydney, who then does what any budding writer might try: he plans his wife's murder.

In a normal detective novel, such plotting would be a lurid, hairy affair mired with unnecessary obstacles and paranoid reasoning. But for all his temper – Sydney, by his own admission, had struck Alicia "once or twice" and early on there is a violent scene over a cup – we note that Sydney is a cool customer, calmer than his nervousness would suggest, and possessor of a very clear, methodical brain. We also learn that he has been considering all his bloody options for quite a while:

Sometimes he plotted the murders, the robbery, the blackmail of people he and Alicia knew, though the people themselves knew nothing about it. Alex had died five times at least in Sydney's imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn't come back. The police wouldn't be able to find her. Sydney would admit to the police, to everyone, that their marriage hadn't been perfect lately, and that perhaps Alicia had wanted to run away from him and change her name, maybe even go to France on a false passport but the last was sort of wild, France involving complications not in character with Alicia.

Later it is revealed that Alicia suffers from a fear of flying, making her absconding to France all the less likely. What happens next, however, is one of the more remarkable experiments in fiction of any kind because it is so undeniably clever. The spouses have another bitter squabble and Alicia does indeed leave without specifying the destination; the departure is captioned as a move to benefit both partners, who really have no business being together. One is always a tad surprised that any woman could stay with an abusive lout, especially as Alicia is the only child of a very well-off couple who naturally disapprove of Sydney and his travails.  But Alicia does not think much of herself, perhaps because she does not really think much of her parents and their dapper and prim ways. She leaves to Brighton, or somewhere near Brighton, and does not report back. Sydney, adhering to their alleged bargain, refuses to try to contact her. Even when Alicia's influential parents get the police to interrogate Sydney and inquire about a rug he recently purchased – and buried.

Sydney's tale could have been made up from whole cloth, but we never quite know until the end and even then a few inconsistencies might point to an alternative interpretation. With virtuoso pacing the novel shuttles between Sydney, alone and highly productive with both his third novel, The Planners (the first two were not reprinted), and a macabre spy serial called The Whip, and Alicia's peregrinations. Apart from a lengthy synopsis of a Whip episode, Highsmith does not give us much of these texts, but they can be readily imagined. Sydney has particular trouble with The Planners although he is an experienced novelist, thanks in no small part to a belief antithetic to those of the mystery writer: 

He had never had much respect for plot, mainly because he thought in real life people were more separate than connected, and the connection of three or more people in a novel was an artifice of the author, who ruled out the rest of the world because it did not contribute.

Since I have never read a review of A Suspension of Mercy, I cannot say whether this is the novel's most-quoted passage, but it is certainly the most relevant. Sydney regards real life as a series of tasks that may or may not provide him with enough material to become a successful writer. Even lovemaking with Alicia is construed as laborious, and we never get a hint that he might utilize some of those experiences in his work, a sign of the prudishness of the times or, of course, something else. Perhaps that month off will do Alicia some good after all.  



At almost precisely the halfway point of this film, the crew of the Molly Aida espies a small black object floating down the Pachitea (an Amazon tributary) towards their large white vessel. It is revealed to be an umbrella, the only remnant of an extremely ill–fated mission to the Jivaros tribe, and, one would think, a logical appurtenance to take into a rain forest. The first mate of the ship, knowing the ways of these "bare-asses" (as they are referred to the entire film), selects for his carry-on luggage a much more appropriate invention from that most civilized of Europeans. Perhaps because he understands that, ultimately, mother nature will be the least of the expedition's obstacles.
Although the titular character (Klaus Kinski) insists that his name is a lazy indigenization of "Fitzgerald," the story is remotely based on that of a real rubber baron, a ship, waves of overtaxed natives, and a mountain (even Cortés himself is said to have tried such a stunt). His predecessor had the good sense, however, to dismantle the craft before obliging the local tribesmen to do his dirty work. But Fitzcarraldo has no such sense, nor is he really a rubber baron at heart. His passion is and always will be opera, specifically Verdi and more specifically Caruso (whom he travels hours to hear in the opening scene). By becoming rich off the last unclaimed rubber parcel in the region, Fitzcarraldo hopes to build an opera house that will attract the greatest voices from around the world. Yet there are, one might imagine, some very good reasons why that parcel has remained unclaimed. One reason are the Jivaros, plague-ridden for over a decade and insular since the dawn of time. We are told with the opening credits that they await the advent of an alleged messiah, a "great white God." A second is the parcel's location, between two rivers and rapids such as those that actually swallowed up Fitzcarraldo's namesake. The only way around is, well, over a mountain.
The allegorical Ahabian elements are certainly present, Herzog does recycle some stock characters (the brooding and mysterious first mate, the drunk and carefree cook, the captain constantly warning Fitzcarraldo of his impetuous folly), and the Molly Aida (Molly is Mrs. Fitzgerald, and thankfully for her, not along for the ride) is a "great white vessel," a bit bigger than a whale, but still comparable. Yet for all his monomania, Fitzcarraldo's quest is the benevolent pursuit of an aesthete. The only things whiter than his ship and his suit are his teeth. When the cook, who is also the interpreter, tells him that, "they know we are not gods," Fitzcarraldo is more worried about his opera house than his own stature. His hubris has a good end in mind, and maybe that will entice the gods to spare him the disasterous fate that should rightly befall such a ridiculous venture.  
Much has been made of the difficulty of filming Fitzcarraldo, and, like it or not, both Herzog and Kinski are shackled together in eternal infamy for their parts. That the two Germans overcame their differences and the easy critique of colonialism to make it into, at times, an amazing artistic achievement, speaks volumes about the film's vision, inevitably ratcheted down into the movie poster of Fitzcarraldo pointing at the ship as it heads uphill. But scenes such as the natives' first contact with ice (for which, the cook says, they have no word) really make the film: after holding then sniffing this fantastic object for a while, the puzzled chieftain turns to his people triumphantly. He is on a deck three stories above them and that much closer to these gifts from heaven.    

Verlaine, "J'allais par des chemins perfides"

A work ("Unfaithful paths led me astray")  by this French poet.  You can read the original here.

Unfaithful paths led me astray,           
So sad and so uncertain, they;              
And your dear hands became my guide.  

Upon horizon's distant wane,            
Dawn's faintest hope began to gain,          
And your dear eyes were morning come. 

No noise, not even footfall's crack,               
Could foil the traveler turning back,                             
And your dear voice said, "Keep your stride!"         

Sweet love has conquered whole and part –         
And frightened was my somber heart,                 
That cried alone on its sad rhumb –                  

Sweet joy will join two paths as one.



The Thing on the Doorstep

You may have never considered reading this author's work because, as it were, horror or fantasy or some hybrid of these two genres with particularly impassioned readerships has never appealed to your aesthetic enjoyment. And while such a prejudice may be accurate for the vast majority of such writers, missing out on Lovecraft would be criminal. His style is utterly and invariably impeccable; he may often employ old and arcane words, but his subjects are often old and arcane. And while he aims at horror, he does not aim at gore or hideous violence: his achievement, even more remarkable for someone who always insisted that he had no faith whatsoever in the supernatural, was to dissect in all seriousness the wicked portals of eternal evil and their occasional manifestations in our realm. That type of Herculean task is so easily butchered by the melodramatic hack and shunned by writers of true genius as beneath their artistic ambition, which makes Lovecraft an even rarer bird, as his absolutely first-rate prose gleams with precision and beauty at every indentation. And among the many masterpieces he composed, this tale is certainly one of the finest.

We begin with a confession that will turn out to be more of a McGuffin – and I give nothing away with such a disclosure. A man in his fifties, but twelve years older than his victim and best friend Edward Derby, has killed Derby with a full revolver round to the head. The murderer, Daniel Upton, also happens to be our narrator. The motive for such a slaying is poorly secreted from first to last paragraph, as the person Upton murders is not Edward Derby at all – and perhaps, in the strict physiological sense, not quite a person, either. We are eventually led to believe that the being inside of Derby may be the bizarre creature he chooses as his wife; I should say, it is the wife who chooses Derby: 

Edward was thirty-eight when he met Asenath Waite. She was, I judge, about twenty-three at the time .... She was dark, smallish, and very good-looking except for overprotuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people .... Asenath, it seemed, had posed as a kind of magician at school; and had really seemed able to accomplish some highly baffling marvels. She professed to be able to raise thunderstorms, though her seeming success was generally laid to some uncanny knack at prediction. All animals markedly disliked her, and she could make any dog howl by certain motions of her right hand. There were times when she displayed snatches of knowledge and language very singular and very shocking for a young girl; when she would frighten her schoolmates with leers and winks of an inexplicable kind, and would seem to extract an obscene and zestful irony from her present situation. Most unusual, though, were the well-attested cases of her influence over other persons. She was, beyond question, a genuine hypnotist. By gazing peculiarly at a fellow-student she would often give the latter a distinct feeling of exchanged personality as if the subject were placed momentarily in the magician’s body and able to stare half across the room at her real body, whose eyes blazed and protruded with an alien expression.   

There are many other unsettling facts about Asenath, not the least of which is her provenance. She hails from Innsmouth, a "run-down fishing port" around which rumors have swirled about the cause of its depopulation – something involving the breeding of human residents with some inhuman marine visitors, but I digress. That Asenath is a demon, or at least of demon stock, is never doubted by Upton or the reader; perhaps it is not even doubted by Derby himself, although he seems inexorably drawn to Asenath as a great mind can be lured by commensurate evil. As in many formidable Gothic tales, we the readers know that a certain acquaintance is bad news and the end of hope in one package. Yet we sadistically flip the pages forth in wonderment over what precisely will befall him who has chosen so unwisely. 

What becomes of Edward Derby is already revealed on the opening page, and still the suspense of how he achieves his wicked fate is as tremendous as in any whodunit or thriller. Along the way, those who admire the sublimity of the English language sweeping dust off old tomes and vile images will surely be engaged by Upton's report. There are myriad examples of this perfection: "I perceived," says a worried Upton about this new, horrible couple, "that their intimacy was beyond untangling"; "Occasionally the Derbys would go on long trips – ostensibly to Europe, though Edward sometimes hinted at obscurer destinations"; "He repeated names which I recognized from bygone browsings in forbidden volumes, and at times made me shudder with a certain thread of mythological consistency – of convincing coherence – which ran through his maundering." But I have been omitting the meat dish from our courses. Asenath comes from a long line of Waites, nefarious the whole lot of them, with the primary malefactor having been none other than her father Ephraim, a wizard of some significance. Father, like daughter, was a student of magic with some alleged command over the elements and willpower that exceeded all known human exertions:

The old man was known to have been a prodigious magical student in his day, and legend averred that he could raise or quell storms at sea according to his whim. I had seen him once or twice in my youth as he came to Arkham to consult forbidden tomes at the college library, and had hated his wolfish, saturnine face with its tangle of iron-grey beard. He had died insane under rather queer circumstances just before his daughter (by his will made a nominal ward of the principal) entered the Hall School, but she had been his morbidly avid pupil and looked fiendishly like him at times.    

I suppose it is natural enough to abhor someone whose soul you somehow sense has long since been blackened by ambition and pacts; but Upton's reaction may be a mild case of twenty-twenty hindsight. After all, don't daughter and father resemble each other, at times more than just physically, and wasn't Asenath "very good-looking"? And we haven't even mentioned Edward's long, fast drives down Innsmouth road.  


The Grotesque

About seventy-two years ago Europe reached what may be called its nadir but which, in reality, was a lack of faith in itself. The reasons for such disappointment are obvious and need not concern us; what should gain our attention, however, is how art reacted to proclamations of the death of human feeling. If you bother to read this poet you may understand the fears that hastened his end, although for his defamation of the German language we will never forgive him. Other writers, who shall be thankful for anonymity on these pages, produced opportunistic treatises on mankind and its failings. And a certain segment, centered in France and headed by this writer, decided a return to the most basic of literary plots was the thrust that might restore our faith in art's grandeur (that they termed their movement the "new novel" is not devoid of irony). What is the most basic of literary plots? The mystery, of course. And how are we to take mysteries if not as a guilty pleasure? As perfectly serious works of art, that's how. In this setting, albeit written with forty years of wise hindsight, emerges this superb novel.     

Our year in 1949, our narrator is the fiendish Sir Hugo Coal, and our location is Coal's ancestral home, Crook Manor. Coal is a simple snob, an aspiring scientist, and an unabashed alcoholic. Although the family motto may be nil desperandum, Coal twists all his perceptions to do just that, boasting and fretting to no end about his career, his household, and his sanity. How does he find the time to unearth such concerns? Owing to a hideous accident, Sir Hugo has for some months now been vegetating and motionless in a wheelchair, and the accident involves (he assures us) his newly hired butler Fledge. Fledge is targeted early on, not only as the perpetrator of Coal's paraplegia but also as the usurper of his entire existence. Coal's self-imposed task is to compose a memoir on his healthy days as an indictment of his manservant. His first entry into Crook accompanied by his skinny, equally alcoholic wife, and fellow servant sets the tone for the confrontation:

Fledge himself is difficult to describe. Indeterminacy clings to the man like a mist. He has for so long concealed his true feelings that whatever core of real self yet glows within him, it is invisible to the naked eye. He is neat, of course, in fact he is impeccable, as befits a butler. Slim, slightly over medium height, with reddish-brown hair oiled back at a sleek angle from a peak dead in the middle of his forehead, he could be anything; but the presence at his side of Mrs. Fledge Doris situates and defines the man. For Doris is unmistakably a servant. As tall as her husband (and thus a clear head taller than me), thin as a rake, with a sharp, pinched face and black hair scraped back off her forehead and threaded with iron-gray wires, her being is indelibly stamped with the mark of domestic toil. Her nose is prominent and beaky, and her eyes are very dark, iris and pupil both so black they seem fused in a single orb with the merest pinprick of light dead in the center. Those black eyes lend her face a rather opaque, birdlike quality, and though the simplicity of the woman's nature very soon becomes apparent, at first sight she gives the appearance of a large crow, an unblinking alien to human affairs, a corvine transmigrated into woman's form. Only the tip of her nose, enlivened by a network of tiny broken blood vessels, lends color and humanity to her face. And thus they presented themselves, the ghoul and the crow, and then they were over the threshold and under my roof.

Our modern sensibilities dictate that most if not all of a story's loose ends be tied; in other words, we need to know what a work thinks of itself. Something will occur with the Fledges – indeed, in a way, this is the novel's primary event – that is never clarified in full, in as much as clarification could not be derived from languid hinting. Coal thinks the taciturn butler his enemy and is greatly suspicious of the Fledges' having arrived from Africa without any letters of recommendation from their prior employer. An employer who also happened to have been crushed to death by an ox – but here we drift into fruitless speculation.

Apart from whisky, Coal's other abiding interest lies, literally and figuratively, in the bones he keeps in his estate's barn. These compose the reassembled skeleton of a dinosaur that he, an amateur paleontologist, plans on presenting as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. As his ideas, first put forth by this evolutionary theorist (also an autodidact), could not be any more radical given the conservative nature of his field, he foresees the rest of his life – he is no believer in much else – basking in eternal glory:

I paced up and down, reciting my revolutionary thesis on the taxonomic classification of the dinosaur and reveling, I admit, in my imagination, in the storm of applause and controversy I expected to arouse. I expected, frankly, soon to be dominating the discourse of natural history or at least its paleontological strand I, the gentleman naturalist, the amateur!

That the beast in question has been christened Phlegmosaurus carbonensis is all you need to know. Alas, his expected watershed panel discussion in London is only attended by four people including his elder daughter and grandson. This predictable pratfall acts as the clothesline for sidelights and anecdotes about fornicating Fledge and dipsomaniac Doris, including a wet dream that arouses long lost lusts in the lord of the manor, who has not slept in the same manor wing as the lady for almost twenty-five years. Yet plump and quite unstately Lady Harriet has a daughter of eighteen, Cleo, whom Coal proudly identifies as a "true Coal" – which means that she might be well-nigh deranged. There is also the small matter of Cleo's impecunious fiancé Sidney, who goes wandering off towards the moor one dark and stormy night – never, of course, to return.

It is perhaps ironic that the real restorer of the bird-dinosaur link died of dementia since Sir Hugo, deemed "ontologically dead" by the majority of London neurologists, betrays hints of incipient, well, something or other. What could be troubling Hugo? His African adventures with a very shady fellow named George who just so happens to resemble a soldier of fortune? The prods and pokes of Sidney's surprisingly old mother who does not believe that his disappearance will yield good tidings? Perhaps the best summation of Coal's conscience is a dreadful shock he incurs on the moor:

So one afternoon I set off with a flask of whisky and a stout stick, and after tramping down a soggy cart track between thick growths of birch and alder I found myself beneath a vast gray sky with miles of flat, boggy fen before me and a lake in the distance .... It was when I had settled myself on a hummock of dry bracken close to the edge of the lake, and was casting my eye idly over the gray, wind-furrowed water, that I noticed a bulky horned object half-submerged in a bed of reeds close by. I splashed forward through the shallows to investigate, and discovered to my astonishment that it was a dead cow. I poked at it with my walking stick, then with the crook of my stick I hooked its horn and dragged it further into the shallows, and as I did so I caused the head to rise and water poured from its empty eye sockets as through from a fountain. Then the great body began to turn, began to go belly-up, and suddenly a foul, nauseating stench was released into the air and a pike, a big one, four feet long, slid out of the cow's belly and gazed at me for an instant, its gills quietly lapping, before gliding away into the depths of the lake. 

There is always such a scene in McGrath, and the scene invariably suggests that evil's undercurrent enjoys a whirlpool's endless reflections. Doris has some affinities with that old dinosaur that bears Coal's name – as does, in a way, the lanky and rapturous Fledge – although no one could possibly believe Coal's theories about their dispositions. And after all, isn't the test of a scientist whether he has any followers?         



Happy families, begins a famous Russian novel, are all alike in their felicity; unhappy families, however, are all unhappy in their own way. The sad nonsense of such a generalization notwithstanding, one notices a grain of truth: we are fascinated by what is not right probably because most of the world is more or less right, and good and evil prove to be no exceptions. Throughout man's history what has been deemed good has simultaneously been deemed boring – much sadder nonsense than Tolstoy's gimmicky opening – because it is always difficult to live among people who are your superiors in piety, righteousness, or goodness. No one, you will hear ironically, wants to marry a saint. For that reason as well as from our inherent attraction to people and ideas which seem to offer us radical change, freedom, and a break from the commonness of the everyday, we tend to trust rebels, firebrands, and revolutionaries. True enough, they are often exciting and charming demagogues who will lie without compunction until they gain what they want. Yet what is remarkable about evil and the despots who espouse it is their uniformity. They all want absolute trust, absolute power, absolute obedience, absolute credit, and no responsibility; they all want to exploit others to fulfil the dreams they are too weak to realize themselves; they all want others to die so that they can live on in glory. Whenever one order is not obeyed, they claim they have been betrayed from the very beginning, that everyone has failed them, that they alone were able to accomplish the goals that took the lives of millions, that they alone deserve their honor and power. Such rantings may incur the label of asylum chants, but it is always too easy to impute evil to insanity (a favorite tactic of modern jurisprudence). Real reptilian evil is cold, calculating, and inexorably vengeful, quite the opposite of the madman who will often inflict his punishment on random people without cause or concern. And if you have always pictured the main character of this fine film as a lunatic, you may soon change your mind.

We begin with the real Traudl Junge, née Humps, shortly before her death a decade and a half ago, and we can say without fear of perjury that she does not rank among the earth's brightest mammals. Her tediously hackneyed comments might trick an ingenuous listener into thinking that she is both contrite and profound, but these are words that should never be used in conjunction with Traudl Junge. Junge belongs to that group of people who are easily impressed with the world (and, consequently, with the faces whose fame wreathes every newsstand) because they have nothing to contribute to it. So after we hear the real Junge, we meet her fictional understudy (Alexandra Maria Lara) trudging through the woods behind German soldiers in 1942 Munich. She is one of five young women who have volunteered to serve as the secretary to the Reich's chancellor (Bruno Ganz, in a role that guarantees his immortality), and you can see this obsession on their soft white faces as they lean over in unison to peer into his office. This is a matter of being a superstar, not a mass murderer the likes of which history has rarely seen. Ganz, like the historical figure he plays, is not a tall man, stooping, grizzled, his left hand fluttering behind him like wounded, dying game. He interviews the secretaries and picks Humps because she is from Munich and also probably because she is not too hard on the eyes. Despite her miserable failure in her first dictation she is awarded the job, yet another example of the typical impulsive and non-competitive methods of a totalitarian regime – which is where we realize this regime has much in common with a spoiled child who requires that his petty demands be met immediately. And at the peak of National Socialism's dominion another young person has been converted into a willing accomplice, if a rather clueless one. 

This brief introduction takes no more than ten minutes of a film that approaches one hundred and fifty. The rest will bring us to Berlin at the end of April 1945, starting from April 20, the leader's fifty-sixth birthday. The war has long since become an exercise in futility, the German population has been massacred, and even the mastermind behind the chaos wallows in self-doubt and, to a lesser degree, self-pity. Our film will cover his last ten days, from a celebration of his birth that involves no celebrating to his marriage that lasts barely a day, to his death by his own wicked hand. In a way, this is a biography of all he has wrought, from the destruction of his forces to his own, because all he left us with was destruction. He will walk, hunched over in imminent defeat, among his child soldiers and praise them for having greater fortitude than his generals; he will claim that the German people should be exterminated because this was their choice and they failed in their endeavor; he will scream at anyone who dares disobey the mildest of his whims, although he apparently has no idea about the debilitation of the German forces and their looming surrender. What you will never hear, however, is any self-rebuke. Not a word, not a phrase, not the hint of regret. When he confesses to an officer that he and his longtime companion Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) will be committing suicide, his main preoccupation is preventing the Russians from "displaying his body in a museum" like a stuffed beast plucked from the wilderness. That he is ignorant or blind or stupid about Germany's actual military might during his last inglorious days makes for an easy conclusion that he is mad. But he is not mad; not in the least. He is still the child that wants his will imposed above all else. When he orders the court martial and execution of his brother-in-law Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann) and Braun pleads for the life of her sister's husband, he bristles at any resistance "to his will." His "will" – the same "will" in this film – suffices as an explanation because and only because he is their Leader. A fact that Braun accepts as she has accepted so much the last fifteen years without "actually knowing anything about him."

And it is here that all his propaganda, every last sentence dripping with hatred, intolerance, and misanthropy on the behalf of the Germanic peoples, is revealed to be nothing more than a prism for his own shortcomings and neuroses. He is not embodying the resentment of Versailles for the Germans; a whole nation is embodying his own resentment towards his own failures. A whole nation must fight his battles for him because he is a coward, a bully and, ultimately, a wretched excuse for a human being. He screams in histrionic tones about destiny, loyalty, and courage, but what of these noble characteristics has he ever shown Germany? In his "political testament" (which he dictates to Junge, who floats in and out of the film as scared and stupid as she was at the beginning) he announces that he has committed more than thirty years to the good of the German people, the same people he claims deserve their doom. Now it is true that he volunteered as a foreigner to fight in their ranks. But he fought for a sense of belonging, and out of despair, loneliness, and desire to join a violent cause to express his violent intentions. Germany and their allies served his purposes as much he served theirs. That equilibrium would soon be shattered by his insufferable arrogance and loathing of everyone and everything, and his debt to humanity may be greater than that of any other human being. This makes him a monster; but not in any way a madman.

On that point about human beings. Much positive and negative criticism of Downfall has focused on the humanization of the dictator who permanently ruined Germany's reputation (importantly, this was the first time in German cinema that he was featured as a protagonist), but such commentary misses the mark. The film's aim is not to humanize at all – their dictator was a human being, of course, albeit as close to devilry as man can come – but to depict events and interpretations of events without one key character missing, the centripetal force of the maelstrom that engulfed the center of European culture and ingenuity and turned it into one of history's most hideous regimes (making the title also an allusion to this famous work). Ganz's mannerisms and ticks are breathtakingly polished, and his voice has been said to be a near-perfect mimic of the original. When Braun gazes at a picture of him on a table, we have to blink a few times before deciding whether or not it is Ganz, since his performance in conviction and fluidity easily surpasses all other portrayals of the dictator ever made. Why Downfall is so perfect in its tones and colors is because it could be the template for the twilight of any despotic regime, any governance by force and hatred which attempted to take full control and no responsibility for an endless thirst for power, wealth, and honor. It is always the people's fault for voting for a megalomaniac, never the megalomaniac's fault for devising a plan to take over the world; it is always those who empower, often in very dire circumstances, rather than the empowered, who are to blame. And so why does he end up, as Braun laments, talking about nothing more than "dogs and vegetarian food"? Because one represents his distance from men and the other his distance from conventional habits and mores; one supposes that his vegetarianism also has to do with his love for animals and contempt for men. Yet both are individual urges that guide him, habits that interest no one else and which, in truth, have nothing to do with human interaction. That is why there might be nothing more evil than an abominably spoiled child who thinks he can do anything with impunity. And those initially deprived of such privileges often spend the rest of their lives trying to catch up.


Akhmatova, "Как люблю, как любила глядеть я" 

A work ("How I so love and loved to look") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

How I so love and loved to look           
Upon the chiseled twilit shores,                               
The balconies that time adores,                  
Those centuries they would not brook.     

My capital, my city, You,                        
Our haven true, we bright and mad;         
Above the Neva, blue and sad,                 
That dusky hour, so special, pure,    

Brings gusts of May that will careen  
Off columns by the watery lea; 
Then, sinner heaven-bound, You'll see,    
Before Your death the sweetest dream.



This film will be always be known for its final scene, one of the most magnificent in late memory. But it is all that comes before it – the simple chamber drama of diffidence and greed, the apocalypse that nearly ended all chambers, all dramas, all greeds – that seems underwhelming until the viewer apprehends the coda. Indeed, he hears the coda before it is actually played, much as one might anticipate the final movement in a symphony because all prior movements must disembogue into a solitary note.

We begin with a most unusual scene: a female driver navigates a recently – from all indications, very recently – demilitarized zone. Now all is quiet and bright, like the future of this once-great country, but the scars remain. Scars in the literal sense when a sort of mummy appears in the passenger seat. The car is halted by a brash English-speaking soldier, whom the driver insists has not stumbled upon “Eva Braun,” which settles our time and place. The soldier nevertheless demands a closer inspection and, in short order, solemnly withdraws and apologizes. The women proceed – a reference to one of history’s most notorious concubines was not necessary to establish the figure’s gender – and arrive at a clinic for most desperate clients. There the surgeon identifies Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) as a member of a massacred minority, and yet the camera lingers on the woman still cloaked in plaster. Some options are confronted (“One cannot look exactly the way one was before”), and some decisions made. While overnighting in the hospital, our mummy wanders into the hallway only to spot a parallel shape and ambition a few doors down. They both end up in a room neither should have entered, a cabinet of memories, and who we think is our invisible woman cradles a photograph pinned to the wall. The picture may or may not contain her former self, but it is certainly outshined by the loutish smile of Johnny Lenz (Ronald Zehrfeld).

The lady who slowly unravels herself – literally and figuratively – is Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss). Nelly has just survived an unspeakable evil, one so incredible and all-encompassing that its mere endurance is considered a death of sorts; in fact, Nelly is presumed dead by her loutish husband and everyone else. Black-eyed and dented, she is driven by Lene to a pile of ghastly rubble only to be informed that what remains of her home is roughly akin to what remains of her immediate family, prompting Lene to propose a special ascent. Yet Nelly hesitates, and she hesitates because of a certain loutish smile. Nelly will seek out Johnny, because she believes only Johnny will be able to look past the internal and external wounds that have reduced her into a shadow, a grey pile of ash just like her namesake. She will find him as she left him, in a bar also named after a mythical bird, a bar once filled with the stiff, merciless soldiers who sought the annihilation of a people and a continent, now a venue of the vulgar filled with servicemen who obliterated those annihilators. But somehow he does not recognize her. She only resembles his wife, who cannot be anything except dead – and here I will permit myself an aside. We should not find it absurd that a woman could wish to remain in a country that tried to destroy her, especially if that country echoes with her language and her entire history. We should likewise eschew the temptation to judge survivors who simply wish the past to vanish during the day and resign themselves to hellish reminders each night. But what we can and should find absurd is that a woman like Nelly Lenz, once a well-known cabaret singer, could overlook a loutish smile and barrel of a gut, the only two features the viewer will ever remember about Johnny Lenz, once her accompanying pianist.  So when Johnny is arrested one terrible October afternoon when the war has already assumed its final turn, it will only take two days for his wife to be detained as well.  The trouble with this whole story, according to Lene, is that the accompanying pianist does not accompany his wife on what will likely be her final march, having been released the very same day of her arrest – and we should stop our revelations right there.

Some implausibilities surface in Phoenix that will distract the inexperienced viewer, until we realize that we are not being asked to measure plausibility. Instead, our task involves the will to live on the part of someone who has been subjected to atrocities no human should imagine much less sustain. Is the desire to regain what has been lost in whatever form possible, even if that form possesses but a loutish smile and a claim on an inheritance? Or is it the desire to recreate what once was yet in a different form, much like the holy land that Lene assures Nelly will provide them both with peace of body and soul? The question is never quite answered, because this is a Petzold production, and because Nelly has already ingested far too many questions. What she really wants is to become again the cabaret singer who, by dint of stealth, her husband's ingenuity, and a handful of friends, remained untainted by the evil around her for the vast majority of these wicked years. So when Lene shows her a picture of former acquaintances, she safely presumes that the crosses above their heads indicate their current non-existence on earth. "And what about the ones with circled heads?" she asks innocently, and is informed that those were the very opposite of innocent. Those familiar with German cinema and literature will detect a cynicism and slenderness of character development much more typical of their Gallic counterparts, which is unsurprising given the original story. They will also detect echoes of a French tale about a drowned woman in the Seine and a deranged surgeon, and yet another French tale that in time became one of the greatest of all cinematic accomplishments.  Unlike those two unusual productions, Petzold's work relies on its actors, especially on Hoss's superhuman talents, to render a very simple tale with steadily rising power. The film, grey and unsubstantial at its onset, resolves itself into concrete and glorious hues. And, as a certain cabaret singer might whisper, my ashes like the Phoenix may bring forth a bird that will revenge it on you all.


Montaigne, "Du parler prompt ou tardif"

An essay ("On speaking promptly or tardily") by this French man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Never yet have all the graces been given to a single soul. 

Thus we see with regard to the gift of eloquence that some possess facility and promptitude and such, as they say, ease of expression, that they are ready at every instance. Those more tardy never say anything that is not elaborate and premeditated. Similar to how we provide ladies with rules for them to take part in games and physical exercise, in other words, those things in which they most excel, so then if I had to advise this same bunch in these two diverse advantages of eloquence – of which, at least in our century, it seems that preachers and lawyers make the most use professionally – the tardy would be better off as a preacher, it seems to me; the other skill is better for a lawyer. For the former gives the preacher as much leisure as he would like in order to prepare himself; what is more, his career passes uninterruptedly in one thread and towards one consequence. On the other hand, the commodities of a lawyer force him at all times to be in court. And the responses refuted by his opponents simply jostle him and oblige him to take up a new argument.       

At the meeting between Pope Clement and King François in Marseille quite the opposite appeared to happen.  Mr. Poyet, a man of great reputation whose entire life had been nourished on the bail-dock, had been tasked with addressing the Pope. Having a mature and experienced touch, Poyet, it is truly claimed, arrived from Paris with the very speech ready made with which he was to address His Holiness. The very day it was to be pronounced, the Pope, fearing that Poyet could say something that might offend the emissaries of the other Princes who would be present, sent a proposal to the King which seemed to be the most correct at that time and place, but, as luck would have it, very different from that which Mr. Poyet had been working on.  The result was that his argument proved to be useless and he had to come up with another very promptly. As Poyet did not feel capable of doing so, the Cardinal of Bellay was obliged to assume the task. 

The part of the lawyer is more difficult than that of the preacher. Nevertheless, we find a greater number of passable lawyers than of passable preachers, at least in France.

It seems that it is more natural or right for the mind to engage in prompt and sudden operation and more natural or right for judgment to undertake slow and well-considered acts. With someone who remains silent because he does not have the luxury of preparing himself and someone else for whom this luxury would not allow him to improve his words, there persists the same degree of estrangement. One often hears of Cassius Severus, who always spoke best when he never reflected at all upon the subject matter. Such skill he owed less to diligence than to luck. Yet it served him well when his words happened to meet with disagreement because his adversaries did not dare nettle him for fear of redoubling his eloquence. Through my own experience I recognize that condition in nature which cannot sustain vehement and laborious premeditation: if it doesn't proceed happily and freely, it doesn't proceed at all. Of certain works we say that they reek of oil and lamp owing to a certain asperity or roughness which the labor roundly imprints upon them. But apart from this, the concern about doing well – and the struggle of that soul too bound to and too stretched by its enterprise – shall break and impede itself like water, which, owing to its being pressed by violence and abundance could not exit from an open bottleneck.

Within that condition of nature of which I speak there is, at the same time, also that sentiment which should not be agitated by strong passions, like Cassius's anger (because this movement would be too harsh); it asks not to be shaken but to be sought after; it asks to be heated and roused by strange, in-the-moment and fortuitous occasions. If it ventures out by itself, it will do nothing more than drag its heels and languish; agitation is its life and its grace.   

I do not consistently adhere to my self-possession and disposition; here chance has right of way – the moment, the company, the very timbre of my voice – it affects my mind much more. And I find myself testing and using chance. 

In this way spoken words are worth more than their written counterparts, provided they may be chosen without cost or price.

It also occurs to me that I do not find myself where I look for myself: I find myself more often by chance encounter than by the inquisition of my judgment. And in so writing I will have launched some subtlety of thought and I understand full well, as dull as it may seem to another, so sharp may it appear to me. Let us leave behind all these honesties.  These will be pronounced by each of us according to his ability. I have lost my ability so utterly that I do not know what I wanted to say and a stranger often discovers the truth before I do. If I were to erase all that happened to me, I would remove the sheen and ore from everything. Chance encounter sooner or later will give me a day more apparent than noontime; and will surprise me with my hesitation.  

Onc ne furent à tous toutes graces données.