El Greco, The Burial of Count Orgaz
Ten years ago, Hollywood produced a film adaptation of Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle with the new title Talk of Angels. The film starred British actress Polly Walker in the title role, and in smaller roles featured Frances McDormand and an unknown actress named Penelope Cruz. As is the way with media marketing, the book was simultaneously reissued under the title Talk of Angels. The new title comes from a scene early in the novel. Mary Lavelle, a beautiful and innocent Irish Catholic girl, has come to Spain to work as a governess for the three daughters of a wealthy Spaniard. At the Café Alemán, Mary meets the other members of a large group of Irish expatriate governesses. Missing from the group is Conlon (they all call each other by their last names), the Frances McDormand character. She is described to Mary, who says, "She sounds queer." To which one of the other governesses replies, "Talk of angels." That is to say, "Out of the mouths of babes." Because Conlon is "queer." She develops an awkward crush on Mary—and this, as well as a theme of adultery and a graphic (for 1936) scene of extramarital sex, caused the novel to be censored by the Irish authorities.
The lesbian subplot is such a small part of the book, but Hollywood elevated it to the titillating titular theme in the film. What provoked censorship in the Ireland of 1936 became the main attraction for the Hollywood of 1998. A better new title, if one were needed, might have been "Moment of Truth," from la hora de verdad, the moment of the kill in a bullfight. The bullfight is a controlling metaphor in the novel: it fascinates Mary Lavelle (and Kate O'Brien) because of its combination of brutality and raw artistic beauty. The novel is about the dangerous dance of beauty and pain, played out against the alluring backdrop of "the good Basque country" in a Spain drifting toward Fascism and civil war. It's about sex and death. It's no coincidence that "the moment of truth" for both the bull and the virgin involves a bloody thrust. Also no coincidence that El Greco's painting The Burial of Count Orgaz, aptly named, hovers emblematically over the novel.
Standing symbolically in the wings, too, is O'Brien's favorite saint, the Spanish Teresa of Ávila, for whom there was a thin line between spiritual and physical ecstasy, who sometimes saw angels in the flesh—who, like a bull in the ring, felt the pain of a lance piercing her heart. In the novel, Mary resists making a pilgrimage to Ávila. She can't make the leap from physical to spiritual ecstasy.
Kate O'Brien is a marvelous writer, but in my opinion she's better at deep explorations of character than she is at writing the dialogue of passionate lovemaking. There's a kind of cinematic melodrama in some of the lovers' talk: "What am I to do?" "Ah, love!" "This isn't good-bye..." O'Brien is at her best, I think, in her delineation of the character of Don Pablo, the father of the girls for whom Mary serves as governess. He is idealistic, faithful, disappointed, at once stirred and defeated by the beauty of life. A marvelous character, and very true.
There is a crucial scene early in the novel—more crucial than the "talk of angels" scene—in which Mary first meets Juanito, her employer's son. They are in the entry hall of the house; as Mary climbs the stairs to her room, she looks back and sees Juanito looking up at her. "The evening sun," O'Brien writes, "lighted each very sweetly for the other, as with a fatal halo." The scene of a woman on the stairs echoes the famous scene in James Joyce's "The Dead," in which Gabriel glances up and sees his wife Gretta on the stairs, listening to distant music: "There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something." Gretta is looking back, in memory, to a tragic lost love. Mary is seen in a moment of innocence, unaware of the love and pain that lie ahead of her. The staircase is itself a potent symbol. It can be a symbol of a spiritual ascent or descent: for Teresa of Ávila, an ascent to mystical union with God; for her colleague John of the Cross, a descent into the dark night of the soul. For Kate O'Brien, echoing Joyce, it is both: that fatally haloed moment on the stairs is a moment of truth, a moment of turning toward the pain and pleasure of life, the beginning of a loss of innocence and the gaining of knowledge.
My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .
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