Jan and Stevie

I was just thinking, we only get to read the published diaries of people who are already famous for their writing, and that’s too bad. It seems a shame that no one is interested enough in reading my half-baked yet poetical little trains of thought that they would publish them in a book. I know I personally would be interested in reading the personal diaries of damn near anybody.

The current issue of The Paris Review has excerpted the dairies of the Welsh writer Jan Morris, who they call a historian and essayist but who I have always thought of as a travel writer. She was an extremely intelligent writer, in any case, who packed tons of allusions into every thought and always made interesting connections. The Paris Review informed me that she began keeping a daily journal for the first time at the age of ninety—smiley face emoji—and those entries will be published as a book later this year. The excerpts are as charming as they are impressive. Morris writes about the first time she ever flew in an airplane, a de Havilland Rapide biplane she rode in from Cairo to Alexandria in the 30s, but also about her marmalade preferences and the books she keeps on the passenger side of her beat-up Honda, in case she gets bored at a stop light. (It’s two volumes of de Montaigne’s collected essays—actually, one big book that she tore in half to make them fit into the door pocket. When I read this I remembered that I ripped a book in half once, a paperback copy of A.M. Homes’ novel This Book Will Save Your Life that I was very close to finishing. I was about to leave my house for the airport but couldn’t wait until I returned from my trip to find out how the book ended, and since I didn’t want to have to lug one more thing on my trip with me I tore the big book at its spine and only brought the unread portion with me. After I finished reading that I threw it in a trashcan at the airport. Wonderful book.) 

In her diary, Morris also talks fondly about spending time with her partner, “my Elizabeth,” and the small house and gardens they shared in the Welsh countryside, and I guess what I’m saying is that this sort of accounting makes for very interesting reading. All on its own. I know that Morris had an unusual and colorful life, but do I need to know this to enjoy hearing her talk about drinking coffee at a cafe in the village, or what her shadow looks like when she takes a walk at dusk? I don’t know if I do. Big lives are fascinating but so are small lives. And anyway, even those rare people who get to live big lives are also living out the small details in parallel. Everyone has relationships, habits, preferences, private sorrows and little pleasures. These things are always interesting, provided the person finds the right way to share them with you.

I am reminded of the essays of the English poet Stevie Smith, some of which were collected in a volume I treasure called Me Again. This book also has many of her poems and the quirky, heart-breaking doodle-drawings she made to go with them. I love the book so much that I tend to hug it to my chest before I put it back on the shelf. This is because I love Stevie Smith’s writing, of course, but also because I love thinking about Stevie Smith. A good book is good company, the writer’s voice like a friend having a conversation with you, but some writers keep me company beyond the words they’ve written. They live in my imagination as if they’re people I know, or once knew. This is how I relate to Stevie Smith, maybe because her writing voice is so singular, clear, and true. The details of her life seem to fascinate other people too; the playwright Hugh Whitemore wrote a stage play about her and the household she shared with her elderly aunt, and in 1978 this was adapted into a haunting little film called Stevie that, once I got a copy of it on VHS, I devoured and incorporated into my essence like The Blob. 

One of the short pieces in that collection, “Simply Living,” reads a bit like a strange diary entry. In it, Smith talks about the small pleasures of her quiet life with her aunt, and she describes cutting vegetables in her kitchen while looking out the window, “a slim young parsnip under my knife.” She also talks about taking a break from her work mid-morning, every day, to share a glass of sherry with her aunt. Back when I found this book, I shared a similarly close relationship with my mother, who I lived with and then near, in an apartment around the corner from her house. I made a photocopy of this essay and gave it to her because I knew she would like that detail about the parsnip and the knife, and also because I expected her to recognize the similarity of our relationship to the one Smith had with her aunt. I never said as much—things like this are never explicitly said in my family—but I expected my meaning would come through in my gesture. (In my family we communicate like this, in code, via movie quotes, shared books and articles, and from the imagined perspectives of our pets. “Gracie says she misses you.”) I even went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of sherry for me and my mom to share in the mornings, but we both hated the way it tasted and couldn’t get used to feeling a little drunk so early in the day.

During her lifetime Stevie Smith published a few novels and lots of poetry, to much acclaim. She ran in London literary circles and may have dated George Orwell, and she was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. But alongside all this, for all of her adult life, she lived not in the city but in an unstylish suburb, in the same house from the age of three until her death. She worked as a secretary, never married, and lived for only three more years after the elderly aunt who had raised her died. Her life was big and small at the same time. But isn’t that true of us all?

stevie

Adaptation

It’s Memorial Day, and since the weather report called for rain Joe and I did our outdoor stuff yesterday. Grilling, gardening, sweating, the whole bit. It was really chill. Now I’m installed on the couch, doin’ nothin’, which is a little TOO chill. Since I feel like a lazy slug I gave myself an assignment: I looked up movies on Netflix that are adaptations from books, watched one, and reviewed it for you. You’re welcome!

(Incidentally, if you want to search Netflix for this category of movies, you can look for them by using the code number 4961, “dramas based on books.” All the Netflix category codes are compiled on this website here. You’re welcome!)

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Not Waving But Drowning

Since there’s a Stevie Smith poem by this name, I figured that’s what landed this movie in the adaptations from books category. But actually, the film is considered a companion piece to a shorter one by the same screenwriter and director, Devyn Waitt, called The Most Girl Part of You, which was adapted from a short story by Amy Hempel. That short film is included as a “prologue” to the main one, and it’s the one that should have been called Not Waving But Drowning, if you ask me. It’s about a teenage girl, Kate, and her best friend, a boy named Big Guy whose mother has just died by suicide. Big Guy copes with his pain by doing weird, self-destructive, kind of sexy things, such as chipping his front tooth on purpose and sewing Kate’s name into his hand, like a kind of tattoo.

The Most Girl Part of You is narrated by the main character, like many movies that are adapted from books. I tend to consider this a lazy choice, but it works well for this little film, in part because it’s only 15 minutes long so it feels more like a story than a movie, and in part because Hempel’s got some good first-person narrative lines that deserve to be preserved: “Big Guy’s hand catches on my dress. I don’t have to look to know that it’s the dry jagged skin from where he pulled my name out of the place where he had sewn it.”

In the feature-length film, the best friendship is between two teenage girls, Sara and Adele. They’re about to have their “revolutionary summer,” when they’ll leave their small town and move to New York City together. Between Adele’s Violent Femmes t-shirt and her parents’ “modern” kitchen with tall white cabinets and big fake plants, it seems to be set in the late 80s, but if that’s the case then there are a few anachronistic turns of phrase here and there, so it’s hard to say.

Sara has some trouble at home and decides to stay with her parents for a while, which leaves Adele, who’s a little wilder anyway, to try New York on her own. Sara starts her new job as an art teacher at an old folks’ home, which has a little more intrigue than you’d expect, thanks to the glamorous Sylvia, one of the only “half classy babes” in that joint. Sylvia wears silk robes and smokes cigarettes and used to be a painter, and is played by Lynn Cohen, who’s very good. (You might remember her as Miranda’s Ukrainian nanny from “Sex and the City.”) Meanwhile, Adele is in filthy New York, where dudes stalk her on subway platforms and her weird roommate won’t give her a key, so she has to sleep on the front step one night when he doesn’t come home. She makes a fun new friend too, but her friend, a beautiful young woman who lives in the building next door, hangs out with sketchy guys; not so good. Then she meets Adam Driver, and they have a lovely, if painfully awkward and totally realistic friend / love relationship that buoys the movie after it has started to drift.

The real love story though, of course, is between Adele and Sara, and by the movie’s end we’re left to wonder whether their friendship can survive the big changes in their lives. Throughout the movie, the plot-moving parts are intercut with beautiful sequences that have indie and electropop music swelling behind them—a bit like music videos—which makes the whole thing feel a little overcooked. But I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, especially when what’s being mined is the emotional lives of young women. The thing is, kids their age who have just grown up and are setting out on their own tend to romanticize their own lives as it is; a film that exaggerates this feeling doesn’t necessarily distort it, in my opinion, but highlights and enhances a lovely sort of melodrama that is already there.

The real strength of a small indie movie like this one, when all’s said and done, is that it has the same eye for detail that a good novel or short story does—like the way the girls’ eyes gleam, liquid, when they lie flat on the bed in the darkness and talk. In that sense, then, the film feels like a literary adaptation in the best way.

Here’s that Stevie Smith poem, for reference:

Not Waving but Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.