Molly Keane: Two Days in Aragon (1941)

Grania and Sylvia Fox live in the Georgian house of Aragon, with their mother, their Aunt Pidgie and Nan O’Neill, the family nurse. Attending Aragon’s strawberry teas, the British Army Officers can almost forget the reason for their presence in Ireland. But the days of dignified calm at Aragon are numbered.

I first read about Molly Keane’s Two Days in Aragon on Danielle’s blog. Molly Keane or M.J. Farrell, the pseudonym under which she published her books,  is one of Danielle’s reading projects and after having read Two Days in Aragon I can understand why. I’m trying to put into words what type of book this was but nothing I come up with seems to do it justice. Molly Keane captured beautifully the end of an area, portrayed a social system, drew complex character portraits and incorporated such a wide variety of topics that I’m full of admiration.

I love descriptions of big old houses. They seem to have a life of their own and their majestic presence can be felt so strongly, they are almost characters in their own right. Aragon is exactly such a house. The family home of the Fox’s is grand, old and full of history. There are hidden rooms and the ghosts of the ancestors seem to be hovering around. But Aragon is also a symbol. A symbol for a way of life about to end. Aragon also symbolizes oppression as it is the house of an Anglo-Irish family and as such represents everything that the Irish have come to hate and against which they are fighting in 1920, the year in which the novel takes place.

The end of an era can be brought by many things but war, rebellion, change of government are among the most frequent. All over the world when the colonized stand up against the colonists this signifies the end of a life in beauty and ease for the formerly advantaged. Molly Keane knew very well what she wrote about as she came from such a rich Anglo-Irish family who lived in privilege and never had to work. They loved their horses and hunting and eating well. All this was incorporated into the novel. The descriptions of these two days make one long to have been there, to have experienced the rituals, seen the beauty.

Molly Keane offers more than the description of a house and a way of life about to end. One thing I liked a lot in the novel were the characters. None of them likable, maybe with one exception (Sylvia), but all of them are drawn so vividly and in all their complexity that I was glued to the page.

Grania and Sylvia Fox live in the grand old house together with their mother and Aunt Pidgie. Their father has died after a hunting accident. Grania and Sylvia are very different which is also shown in their choice of men. Grania has an affair with Foley O’Neill, a socially unacceptable choice, while Sylvia is secretly in love with a British officer. One girl is described as a slutty, fat, blond and the other as a neat, groomed and very poised young lady. The mother has a bit of both of them but seems to like her passionate, wilder and slutty daughter far more.

Aunt Pidgie and Nan O’Neill, the house nurse, form a duo. Aunt Pidgie is an unwelcome elderly relative that is kept, far away, in the nursery. This reminded me of the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre. The unwanted, especially women, were often locked away. Aunt Pidgie is a bit crazy but inoffensive. In the beginning we know nothing of her sufferings but when we learn more about Nan O’Neill and her well-hidden side of aggression and cruelty we start to pity this poor bird-like little woman. Nan O’Neill is the most complex and fascinating character. She loves Aragon and everything in it with a fierceness and as if it did belong to her. This has a reason. She is an impressive woman, commanding, extremely good-looking and adept at everything. She is especially good at hiding her true nature. Disappointment and lack of love have made her cruel and pitiless. In her role as nurse she is one of the most powerful characters in the novel. She knows about unwanted pregnancies and how to end them, about subtle ways how to torture someone in keeping them alive but constantly uncomfortable. A very chilling character.

I have read a lot of novels about the end of an era, many have houses in their center. I loved Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited as much as E.M.Forster’s Howard’s End and of course,  Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi Contini. They are often nostalgic and melancholic books. This isn’t the case here, Two Days in Aragon is completely different in tone and although tragedy strikes all of them I wasn’t sad after reading it but rather full of admiration for Molly Keane and her very unique voice and fascinating approach to tell her story.  And I felt exhausted. She is such a vivid storyteller, I lived in those pages, I almost felt as if I had experienced two very intense days.

Dennis Gansel’s Die Welle aka The Wave (2008)

Gansel’s movie Die Welle or The Wave is based on a true event that took place in Cubberley Senior High School in Palo Alto, CA, in March/April 1967. The movie is set in present-day Germany which makes it much more powerful. It’s not a flawless movie but it is highly watchable for many reasons notably a outstandig performance of one of the very best German actors, Jürgen Vogel. I simply love this guy. I have never seen him in anything bad but I am afraid he is not widely known outside of Germany, unlike the internationally acclaimed Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong), Till Schweiger (King Arthur, Inglorious Basterds)  and the latest addition of German actors to the Hollywood pantheon, Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) who is  going to star as Mr. Rochester in the upcoming Jane Eyre.

Gansel has already done an outstanding movie on the Nazi elite training camps, NaPolA aka Before the Fall, so I was pretty sure this couldn’t be bad.

The Wave was an experiment conducted by a teacher  in the US that went very wrong. He wanted to prove to his pupils, who were saying that something like the Third Reich couldn’t happen anymore nowadays, that they were wrong. As said before, to take the same premise and set it in present-day Germany was a great idea. It’s a creepy movie.

Rainer Wenger (Jürgen Vogel), a much liked  teacher (he is anti-authoritarian, young, cool) must lead a project week on autocracy although he wanted to teach anarchy. He is pretty bored by his assignment but he understands soon that the kids in front of him think that totalitarianism, dictatorship and despotism couldn’t exist anymore, that the 3rd Reich wouldn’t be possible in our time. This gets him thinking and he decides to show them that they are mistaken. It is extremely subtle how he proves the contrary and that is why it is so creepy. Watching this movie you think it would not only work in the movie but could really be achieved in real life. The methods Wenger applies are not much different from those used by sects. He first shows them their weaknesses, then strengthens them, tells them how important it is to stick together, that it is only as a group that they are strong… Soon they follow his every word, wear a uniform, want to greet each other a special way… It is not long before they will ostracize those who do not comply. And then it gets out of hand. The kids forget that this is a school project and that they might be taking part in an experiment. They end up taking  it far too seriously and so does the teacher after a certain point.

I really liked the topic of the movie, the way it was done is entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. And the acting is great. Die Welle encourages you to question assumptions about freedom, individuality, independence, and responsibility. The end is exaggerated, I think, I haven’t read the book or done much research. Die Welle also explores how much power teachers and other authoritative figures have over their charges who admire them and how easily they might be tempted to abuse it.

I would say, this movie is another example of the fact that Germany offers some of the best filmmaking there is.