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Last evening Jan and I watched Les Misérables.
First time for either of us. I’d seen many dramatizations of the Hugo novel: several movies, over decades, but had no experience with the series of musicals: stage or film. Jan didn’t remember exposure to any. But I filled her in on the conflict between Javert, the saint of state brutality, and Valjean, the sinning saint of grace and compassion.
But realize: the evening before Jan and I had watched Oliver!
Oliver Reed’s deliciously wicked Bill Sykes
There I knew the novel well, quoted it regularly (Beedle Bumble’s curse on the law), had seen the great David Lean film version as a child, and since (possibly Jan and I saw it together, we see so many things together, keeping track can get shadowy).
So: I’ve known the Hugo story all my adult life, the Dickens’ story all my whole life. But, when I heard there were musical versions, I kept my own skeptical council: till now. Jan knew, loved, sang along with the musical Oliver! I kept the bulk of my revulsion to myself (you can’t love and be utterly candid both at the same time).
What I now love and will comment on at leisure is seeing such popular miseries set to music. And what do I think of such commercial popular poor-ploitation?
Hugh Jackman’s state-brutalized Jean Valjean
A side-word first: “musical” to my generation has mostly meant musical comedy: light music. My parents were raised on Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, I was raised on Guys and Dolls, Singing in the Rain (while raising myself of jazz, then blues too). But parents of our parents were raised on music as subservient hymn, then also as tragic opera: Medea, Otello … La Bohème: everybody dies, everybody is diseased, miserable, etc.
In Dickens we witness the ironies of English Christian charity: the orphan called Oliver is sent to a work house. There the white Christians (the only kind Dickens knew or knew of), the governors of the work house, sit and are served their fat-fill while the orphans are starved on display, on too little gruel. Oliver asks for “more”: they all go apoplectic.
(I’m reminded of Mother Theresa: she sacrificed herself for the children not for the sake of the children but so she! could be saved.)
Torturing children was Dickens’ stock in trade, Oliver Twist was one of his warm-ups. Another characteristic of Christian charity as satirized (tragically) by Dickens is the authorities drilling the charity cases in the Christian charity of the governors, in stark contrast to the utter unworthiness of the recipients of the charity: orphans, the old, the incapacitated.
Take Jesus’ robe, then take his loincloth too (then fault him for public indecency).
One thing, always to remember, never to forget for one second: the English had charity of a sort, however mean; ask what would have happened to Oliver were he orphaned in Italy of the same period? or Poland? Lima, Chechnya, or China? Well, with an individual, you can’t be sure, Moses was found by Pharaoh’s daughter; but in general, if you were poor, without the protection of an established family in a socially and economically privileged sector, kleptocracies only counting, you were fucked.
Anyway, the movie opens with the boys revolted by the institution’s gruel, then gobbling it down and wanting more. Beadle Bumble takes Oliver into the streets and tries auctioning him off. The boy’s price drops without takers. Christian England in word, action, song is portrayed as a sorry place. But Oliver absconds to London! London is a wonder of joyous vitality compared to Christian workhouse charity. So, it didn’t take long for the movie to make me despise it. Good. That got that out of the way: then I could concentrate of loving it anyway. We saw Oliver trapped without opportunity except as a slave, a victim; London bristled with opportunity.
Unfortunately Oliver is swiftly recruited by thieves: the fence, Fagin, the whores Nancy and Bet, the pimps, Fagin and Bill, the burglars, Bill, all of them.
A rewrite may improve the order here. One thing I loved once Oliver was in London were the song and dance portraits of commercial and domestic street life: we’ll see plenty of slums, now we see nice row houses, a variety of vendors offering their wares in verisimilar song: they actually did sing their wares, not just on the stage. A wonderful singer / dancer offers roses, two for a penny. There are knife-grinders, milkmen … Just the other week at the dance hall bunch of oldsters were remembering rag-pickers, tinkers, knife-grinders … playing their wares, their skills in the suburbs. on foot, horse drawn, an internal combustion buggy here and there. The milkman came horse-drawn, so did the ice man, the rag man. The tinker walked, pushing his work bench, ditto the grinder. How absolutely that life had evaporated by 1950! how wonderful it was to remember it, what camaraderie it established among the few who knew what we were talking about. Ages at our table ranged from my 74 to people a week from 90: a bunch in their 80s. (We are old, but some of us look great, and dance like dervishes.)
There’s so much to say about these two great novelists, these two potboiler masterpieces, these two weird movies.
2013 07 29 Clearly, I, like many another, despise this dreck, hold it in contempt, and simultaneously love it. Notice though, take my word, I never saw any of these pop films till this week! I’ve seldom had the money to go to the movies, could never afford the time: least of all when I went the most! Ah, inconsistency, ah contradiction.
I hold spectator sports in contempt (except for tennis); but there I seldom to never go to a stadium. I’ve never seen a pro football game.
Partly that’s for my convenience: I never developed a habit of planning trips to the theater: the movies you can just walk in to, spur of the moment. College games I went to: but Columbia football, though I never missed a single game, I never saw a single play: I was working: and the university worked for me: I ran the hot dog monopoly, me and Dave.
In the cases of the films referenced here I may not have seen the current potboilers till this past week, but the precursors I was randomly familiar with: Phantoms with Lon Chaney, with Claude Reins … Other Oliver Twists, other Dickens, other Miserables. Just remembering Jean Gabin’s Valjean!
Oliver Reed note:
Above I use Reed’s great visage to illustrate Oliver! rather than pix of the kid or of Fagin. Now I gotta add stuff about Reed himself: and something about Dickens and Fagin.
We’ve all loved Reed all along, I’ve come to admire him enormously, something that shows character going beyond character:
He died of a heart attack in a bar after downing three bottles of Captain Morgan’s Jamaica rum, eight bottles of German beer, numerous doubles of Famous Grouse whiskey and Hennessy cognac, and beating five much younger Royal Navy sailors at arm-wrestling. His bar bill for that final lunch time totaled 270 Maltese lira, almost £450.
Memory hooks and hooks. Now I’m reminded of Dolokhov, the daredevil in War & Peace. And Dolokhov reminds me of Lermontov, Hero For Our Times, where I first encountered Russian fatalism. So I surf around wiki and find Lermontov as an artist!
OK, now Fagin: and Dickens’ antiSemitism:
Dickens has been accused of following anti-Semitic stereotypes because of his portrayal of the Jewish character Fagin in Oliver Twist. Paul Vallely writes that Fagin is widely seen as one of the most grotesque Jews in English literature, and the most vivid of Dickens’s 989 characters.  Nadia Valdman, who writes about the portrayal of Jews in literature, argues that Fagin’s representation was drawn from the image of the Jew as inherently evil, that the imagery associated him with the Devil, and with beasts. 
The novel refers to Fagin 257 times in the first 38 chapters as “the Jew”, while the ethnicity or religion of the other characters is rarely mentioned.  In 1854, the Jewish Chronicle asked why “Jews alone should be excluded from the ‘sympathizing heart’ of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed.” Dickens (who had extensive knowledge of London street life and child exploitation) explained that he had made Fagin Jewish because “it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew”.  Dickens commented that by calling Fagin a Jew he had meant no imputation against the Jewish faith, saying in a letter, “I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them…”  Eliza Davis, whose husband had purchased Dickens’s home in 1860 when he had put it up for sale, wrote to Dickens in protest at his portrayal of Fagin, arguing that he had “encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew”, and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. While Dickens first reacted defensively upon receiving Davis’s letter, he then halted the printing of Oliver Twist, and changed the text for the parts of the book that had not been set, which is why Fagin is called “the Jew” 257 times in the first 38 chapters, but barely at all in the next 179 references to him. 
I must add: certainly Dickens exploited antiSemitism: he lived in an antiSemitic culture. Should we expect Chaucer not to be antiSemitic? Shakespeare? (Shakespeare rose above all that despite his culture by portraying Shylock as human: that trumps any prejudice.) Dickens made another string of great and vivid characters, that ought to be enough.
How dare a racist society, a culture carved by genocide and slavery, pretend to be appalled by Twain writing “n-.” Twain could hardly have been less racist: it’s like believing that Swift was for cannibalizing Irish children. People just don’t know how to read, shouldn’t pretend to know.