Gotham Diary:
Madeleine Montpellier
July 2017 (III)

17, 18 and 21 July

Monday 17th

On Thursday afternoon, I finally got round to the ironing. It had piled up for a few weeks. I could make the usual excuses, but they’re never usual, they’re always unique, except that they all mask the blend of laziness and fatigue that makes the prospect of ironing extremely uninviting. The ironing is not especially tedious; I don’t do shirts or anything complicated, just flat pieces like napkins and handkerchiefs. It’s more the getting things out and putting them away that’s the nuisance. I have enough napkings to go about three weeks without ironing, which is what often happens. Last Thursday, there were three weeks’ worth of laundry to iron and hardly any napkins on the pantry shelf.

So I set up the board and plugged in the iron and picked a movie to watch. Having nothing in mind, I pulled out the first drawer of DVDs and grabbed a bunch of about ten discs. Atonement was the first, followed by L’auberge espagnole. I flipped through the rest, but couldn’t settle on one. Then I went through the bunch again. This time, I made a selection: Away From Her. Perhaps it would be better to say that Away From Her was selected. An odd choice, I thought. A movie about a long-married couple faced with the wife’s dementia would make pretty penitential entertainment for the ironing. On top of that — and this is no small thing — Away From Her is not only Canadian but set in Canada, based on a celebrated short story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” by Canada’s best-known writer, Alice Munro. (Writer/director Sarah Polley is also Canadian.) Here is the Canadian predicament as I see it: all the gloom of Scandinavia is drained of its glamour by the proximity of and general resemblance to the American Midwest. I am bewildered that anyone lives in Ontario.  (Then I shrug my shoulders; after all, I remember, people live everywhere.)

On the plus side: Julie Christie.

As I was waking up this morning, something about the movie came to mind, and I thought that I would write about it. But first, it might be a good idea to read Munro’s story again. I had to get out the ladder (which is kept right next to the ironing board), because I’ve gathered all the Everyman’s Library titles on the top shelf of a book case in the living room, and although I can reach them, I can’t read their spines, which are far enough away so that reading glasses are no help. There might be a copy of the story in one of the collections in the bookroom, but I remembered that the Everyman’s Library collection included it — even that it is the last story in the volume.

Sarah Polley’s adaptation is about as faithful as one could wish, so far as tone and detail go, but it is a movie, and necessarily more diffuse than the story. The story is all about Grant, the husband, a retired professor of Norse literature. The sheer fact of Gordon Pinsent, whether or not he gives a wonderful performance (he does), diverts the flow of attention out into the world that Grant has to live in; this is always the case with movies. Grant’s infidelity — “philandering” in the story — is alluded to by Polley as delicately as possibly, just to explain his extremely conceited idea that Fiona, the beautiful wife whom he has brought to an assisted-living facility and who seems to have forgotten who he is after the first month’s probationary absence, might be working her revenge. Of course, if such a mad retribution were conceivable anywhere, it would be in a story by Alice Munro.

Perhaps because Polley’s movie is not so much about Grant but about the upheaval that Alzheimer’s wreaks in people’s lives, it is not nearly as concerned about Grant or Fiona in the past as it is about where they go from here. And yet Polley takes Grant’s jealous suspicion more seriously than Munro herself. Grant actually voices the idea to a nurse. It does give Julie Christie something to do besides looking sad and amazingly beautiful for her age (and also, oddly, more than a little like Ginger Rogers). The story’s Fiona doesn’t have much to say, but Away From Her is about doing just that, warding Grant away from her. She is desperately polite to him: “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, I s’pose” is a refrain. At one sharper moment, she flutters her hand even more desperately and beseeches her husband, “Don’t…” Don’t what? Don’t remind her of the life that she has lost? That would mean that she hasn’t quite lost it, that she still remembers life with him.

It’s the sort of scene that won Christie an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for Best Actress. There is nothing like it in the story.

Elided in the film is the difference between the couple’s backgrounds. Fiona’s is upper-middle-class: her father was an eminent cardiologist. Grant’s is plain. He is the kind of man who is vastly overrepresented in literature, because his intellectual gifts have set him apart from his origins, saddling him with lifelong doubt and alienation. Portrait of the artist! (You might say that Munro’s artistic secret sauce has been the experience on which she has drawn to show what this looks like when it’s a young woman, for a change, who goes off to university and a life of sophistication.) I can see that including this element of the narrative might clutter the film, but it provides a cinching bond in the story.

In the facility, Fiona doesn’t just forget who Grant is, she takes up with another man, Aubrey. She is bereft when Aubrey is removed by his wife. It turns out that the wife, Marian, had parked him there for a few months while she took a break; she cannot afford to keep him in the home full time without losing her house. Grant finds this out when he visits Marian, and asks her to let him take Aubrey to visit the disconsolate Fiona. The movie expatiates with grace and humor on the relationship between Grant and Marian, and while Munro’s ironies are not altogether blunted, her bleakness is greatly relieved by a shot of romance. In the story, Grant realizes that the only way to make Fiona happy is to take up his philandering again, but it heart won’t be in it.

And yet in some depressing way the conversation had not been unfamiliar to him. That was because it reminded him of conversations he’d had with people in his own family. His uncles, his relatives, probably even his mother, had thought the way Marian thought. They had believed that when other people did not think that way it was because they were kidding themselves — they had got too airy-fairy, or stupid, on account of their easy and protected lives of their education. They had lost touch with reality. Educated people, literary people, some rich people like Grant’s socialist in-laws had lost touch with reality. Due to an unmerited good fortune or an innate silliness. In Grant’s case, he suspected, they pretty well believed it was both.

That was how Marian would see him, certainly. A silly person, full of boring knowledge and protected by some fluke from the truth about the life. A person who didn’t have to worry about holding on to his house and could go around thinking his complicated thoughts. Free to dream up the fine, generous schemes that he believed would make another person happy.

What a jerk, she would be thinking now.

“What a jerk,” says the movie’s Marian, the breathtaking Olympia Dukakis, as she closes the door on Grant. But if she’s thinking what Munro says she’s probably thinking, we don’t know it, and we certainly don’t know that Grant imagines it’s what she’s thinking.


Tuesday 18th

What I was thinking about as I woke up yesterday morning was the role of Madeleine Montpellier, in Away From Her. In Alice Munro’s story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” there is no character with that name, but only an unnamed supervisor, a woman who has two conversations with Grant, both about the rules at the assisted-living facility into whose care he has put his demented wife, Fiona. It would be going to far to say that Munro’s supervisor has no personality, only an official persona, but she is certainly a pale presence in comparison to the movie’s Madeleine. The transformation of the supervisor into Madeleine almost perfectly overlaps the transformation of a story about a man into a movie about a couple. In the process, and quite incidentally to the story of Grant and Fiona (and Aubrey and Marian, to complete our quartet of intimates), Madeleine embodies what, as I woke up in a mist of forgotten dreams, struck me as a difficulty of liberal society.

One of the differences between reading fiction and watching movies, for me anyway, is that consciousness of the writer’s craft, moments in which an apt turn of phrase stands out from the flow of the narrative, intensify the satisfaction of the fiction. There are two passages in Mansfield Park (so it struck me when I read the novel a few months ago) where Jane Austen’s imitations of Samuel Johnson’s Augustan, authoritative, but ever-so-slightly paradoxical manner raise the entire novel’s pitch of truth. Here is one of them.

I believe there is scarcely a young lady in the United Kingdoms who would not rather put up with the misfortune of being sought by a clever, agreeable man, than to have him driven away by the vulgarity of her nearest relations. (Chapter 41)

It isn’t just the phrasing, of course; Austen’s decision to make this pronouncement when and where she does is also part of its excellence. Taken out of context, “the misfortune of being sought by a clever, agreeable man” loses some of its punch; I have to note that it refers to Fanny Price’s feeling that she is being persecuted by the unwanted attentions of Henry Crawford. Although superficially severe, the passage is actually rather comical — but the point is that, no matter how long I dawdle over it, I am not distracted from the power of Mansfield Park as an essentially true story. Language such as Austen’s provides incessant confirmation of that truth. Nobody else could have told the story of Fanny Price nearly so well.

So it is with the passage from the end of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” that I quoted yesterday. The contempt for people like Grant expressed by the sentence fragment, “A person who didn’t have to worry about holding on to his house and could go around thinking his complicated thoughts,” not only diminishes, in his own sight, the life that Grant has tried to lead but connects seamlessly to the fact that, like Grant, I have also had occasion to imagine the people around me feeling similar scorn for my complicated thoughts. The language swallows me up in an act of sympathy.

Watching movies, in contrast, is a social event. Other people are other people. Instead of characters on the page whom I must flesh out, I see actors pretending to be people that they’re not. If the actors and director are skilled, this does not get in the way of the movie’s narrative, but I remain conscious of a doubling that is additive: the character is there on the screen before me, and so is the actor impersonating him. This makes movie-watching a very complex pleasure. When I watch Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs Smith, part of my mind is remembering the other Carole Lombard movies that I know. (It is also remembering the work of Hitchcock himself.) Sometimes, these recollections obtrude upon my consciousness, but they manage somehow not to interrupt the movie.

I found Wendy Crewson’s Madeleine Montpellier to be a gripping, almost terrifying character. She is everything that a board of directors would look for in a hospital supervisor. She is cheerful, resourceful, attentive, and politely firm. She remembers everyone’s name — and everything else as well. But as Crewson plays her, Madeleine’s self-control is not quite complete. How could such a paragon of capability not be pestered by moments of impatience? And it is this potential for impatience that gives Madeleine her immense authority. You do not want to tempt it. You might wind up on the facility’s second floor.

A close reading of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” might reveal the precise extent to which Munro borrows horror-movie techniques to invest “the second floor” with the nightmare of dementia. When the movie takes us to the second floor, it doesn’t look so bad; the furniture is almost as nice. That almost all the patients are slumped in their bathrobes, frowning but not appearing to see anything, and that so many of these patients are women, seems to correspond with expectations of what terminal illness might look like. There is no suggestion of mistreatment. But the story never visits the second floor; it is an unseen menace, rather like our experience of hell. When the supervisor informs Grant that Fiona may have to be taken up to the second floor, because, in Aubrey’s absence, she seems to have given up, Grant redoubles his efforts to reunite his wife with Marian’s husband.

In the movie, Fiona is transferred to the second floor. It is not itself a descent into hell, but in the movie, the story’s note of hellishness is translated, like a demon, into the person of Madeleine Montpellier. Like the supervisor in the story, she has the authority to send patients to the second floor, but in Crewson’s body this authority flashes like lightning, as if everything that she beholds, visitors included, is potential second-floor material. It is not that Madeleine is a sadist, eager to push helpless victims into a terminal ward. It’s rather that she is determined to maintain a certain level of mental hygiene on the ground floor. No matter how twinkling Madeleine’s smile might be, her eye is on a constant lookout for lapses from well-being. In her spotless domain, the only problem is the population of people who are losing their minds. That’s all right, but only so long as they don’t spoil the spotlessness.

In the story, there is a nurse, and the nurse has a name, Kristy. In the movie, Kristy is very well played by Kristen Thomson, and her role is nicely filled out, especially in connection with Grant’s suspicion that Fiona might be faking, if not her incipient dementia, then at least her affection for Aubrey. Interestingly, however, two of Kristy’s lines in the story are handed over to the movie’s Madeleine. The first one concerns the flowers that Grant brings on his first visit to Fiona. “They must have cost a fortune” sounds much more judgmental coming from Madeleine than it does (in the story) coming from Kristy. But the second switched line is actually seismic. It occurs while Fiona and Aubrey are weeping over their farewells.

“I just wish his wife would hurry up and get here,” Kristy said. “I wish she’d get him out of here and cut the agony short.”

From Kristy, this is only human. From Madeleine, it is a frightening slip of character, a dreadful outburst of impatience.


Friday 21st

In the past few weeks, I have been thinking about the history of liberalism. I haven’t made a study of the matter; I’ve simply tried to organize what I already know.

Liberalism is a bit more than three hundred years old. It arose in England, and came into focus during the short reign of James II. James hoped to replicate in Britain the centralized, authoritarian régime of his cousin, Louis XIV of France. Louis’s approach, which is often called “absolutist,” was one solution to the problem of state power that all but defined the sovereignties of Western Europe as they emerged from medieval precariousness. Liberalism was another. The roots of absolutism and liberalism in their respective countries can be traced back to the Thirteenth Century and beyond, but it was at the end of the Seventeenth that they clicked into focus.

The problem of state power is this: what is the role of the “great men” — the males of the royal family, the leading aristocrats, the higher clergy, and, with the passage of time, the plainly rich — in the exercise of power? Is the monarch or other ruler truly supreme, or is he obliged to defer to his council? From Charlemagne’s time on (and Charlemagne died in 814), every reign of meaningful duration arrived, ad hoc, at some answer to this question, only to have the arrangement put at risk by the following coronation. Rocky as medieval disagreements might be, the Protestant Reformation introduced incendiary violence; by this I mean to point out that Europeans did not make steady progress over centuries of grappling with the issue. In 1688, however, the fires in Great Britain were put out once and for all (as it turned out) with the institution of limited monarchy. The ruler alone was not supreme; indeed, when acting alone, the ruler had no power at all. It was only when acting in concert with the council that the monarch exercised authority. Over time, the council in England had evolved from a posse of hotheaded horsemen into the robustly articulated institution of Parliament. Great Britain to this day is ruled by something called “the Crown in Parliament.”

English liberalism was based on the wisdom of experience that held that men of substance are the best judges of their own affairs, and this kernel of thought is the one constant in liberal thinking throughout its history. Although hailed as “democratic” by later, mostly Victorian writers, the first English liberals were plainly oligarchic.

The sole object of society and civil government in their view was to preserve rights and to ignore almost entirely the functions or duties of citizens. By this theory all the stress was laid on the privileges of property-owners until it became doubtful if the really poor had any rights at all theoretically. (Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy. Oxford, 1939, p. 6)

Setting aside the “really poor,” the middling classes enjoyed a steady growth throughout the Eighteenth Century, and then an explosion of wealth with the Industrial Revolution. The power of the oligarchs was correspondingly reduced, and eventually — with the reformation of the House of Lords twenty years ago — reformed out of existence. But the liberal idea remained; there were simply many more “men of substance.” Women, too. Two commonplaces have fueled liberal legitimacy throughout the overtly democratic Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. A rising tide manifestly lifted all boats (even if, regrettably, not everybody was sitting in one), and the best way to acquire and maintain a boat was to get an education. These commonplaces were taken to be universal truths, but in fact they were time-bound functions of the great transition launched by the harnessing of steam power. I believe that this transition is complete; the widespread employment that constituted the rising tide has ebbed, and promises to ebb further, as the Industrial Revolution completes its inexorable search for an automated, robotic workforce.

The absolutist view held that divinely inspired kings, working with a divinely-established church, could establish the rules of right living, self-evident to the intelligent and justifiably imposed upon the dim. The liberal view was expressed by Adam Smith, who pointed out that while the butcher and the baker don’t care very much about our welfare, they do care about their dinner. He was only making respectable the thought of Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch physician who settled in London and learned English well enough to write a poem called “The Grumbling Hive.” This brief and sparkly satire brought no end of opprobrium upon its author (who later bulked it out with essays and “remarks,” under the title The Fable of the Bees) not because of the acuity of his acerbic couplets about worldly and impious London but because of his insistence that its prosperity depended on its viciousness: almost half of the poem describes the downfall of the hive when Jove actually listens to the bees’ prayers and puts a stop to fraud. This was too bald, and although Mandeville is probably the first penetrating thinker on the subject of liberal economics, you will not find The Fable of the Bees on many canonizing reading lists.

It is not difficult to see why a political outlook that, come what may, always favors oligarchies and thrives in commercial opulence is not altogether popular today.

It is also easy to see why liberalism’s horror of coercion is a problem. At least since the palmy days of Gladstone, liberals have been split on the merits of social engineering — whether it is possible, or even desirable, to enact social changes. This may have something to do with doubts about the ability of statesmen to conceive of viable alterations to the body politic, but it has much more to do with distaste for obliging that body to accept alterations. As time passes, it becomes more obvious that the passage of Civil Rights acts in the 1960s and thereafter was not enough to end racism in America, not by a long shot. The alternatives to those laws, however, were even less attractive. Doing nothing, waiting for the country to outgrow its bigotry over time, was morally repugnant to many. Doing too much more, however, would have required the strongman tactics that we deplore in Turkey’s Erdoğan and the Philippines’ Duterte; forcibly integrating schools was as far as the nation’s liberal establishment could go. Throughout its history, liberalism has scrambled for compromise positions that excite little passion. Which is fine with liberals, who by and large dislike and distrust passion, especially in public life.


What has this to do with Madeleine Montpellier, you may well ask. Well, there I was, half-asleep last Monday morning, and it suddenly struck me that Madeleine Montpellier could be the face of liberal democracy. She encourages us to behave well enough to remain on the ground floor. And when I say “us,” I mean us, members of the liberal élite, educated as in no other subject in reading the implications of her smiles and frowns. Imagine how blandly impenetrable she must look to people who haven’t had that education, who need more than a wink or a nudge to keep themselves in order. It is very easy to hear Madeleine Montpellier dismiss such people as “deplorables.” People like Marian. I just wish…

Bon week-end à tous!