Tuesday, 24 February 2009

'Poor Hofmiller!'

Beware of Pity
by Stefan Zweig

Billed not only as a great novel but one of the greatest ever by no less a man than my father, there was quite a lot riding on this, my first experience of Zweig, whose reputation in the English speaking world is enjoying a bit of a renaissance thanks to the efforts of Pushkin Press and NYRB Classics. My Dad thankfully knows his stuff (he's 'phone-a-friend' clever) and Beware of Pityis a brilliant novel on many levels. That warning contained in the title is a hugely relevant corrective to anyone who finds themselves in the habit of looking after those they feel sorry for, a dubious motivation as Zweig quickly points out when he describes the two kinds of pity.

'One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart's impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another's unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one's own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.'

In an introduction it is explained that this story was related in person by its protagonist, Captain Hofmiller of the Commissariat, in the years leading up to the Second World War. Irked at the way others regard him as a decorated soldier he determines to 'compel you to hear from my own lips by what torturous paths I attained the status of hero.' In 1913 as a 25-year old second lieutenant with the Imperial Uhlans he commits what the French call a 'gaffe', a social faux-pas which sets in motion a series of events from which it is difficult, even after the passage of many years, 'to decide exactly where my sheer gaucherie ended and my guilt began.' Keen to use what he can to advance his status Hofmiller gratefully accepts the opportunity to attend a dinner at the imposing schloss of Kekesfalva. The evening doesn't begin well when he is late (before such a thing became fashionable) but it isn't long before he is enjoying his surroundings and when the evening develops into a night dancing he gets caught up in the atmosphere, remembering as a matter of protocol, not to mention a possibility of further increasing his positive image, to ask the daughter of the house to dance. He is baffled by her extreme and emotional reaction, horrified to see the head-turning and music silencing effect it has on the evening. Edith, it turns out is lame and Hofmiller makes what apologies he can during the confusion, beating a hasty retreat from his evening amongst the higher echelons.

First with flowers and then personal visits, Hofmiller attempts to right this wrong and Zweig is brilliant at showing the consequences of this single event on Hofmiller, the Kekesfalvas and the characters that surround them. Beyond that he is able to develop his theme of pity so that it extends backwards into the past and, as we have already seen from the novel's opening, forwards into the future. Such is the novel's scope that it can also be seen, especially through the depiction of the military and its strict structure, as a memorial to the decline of Austro-Hungarian power framed by two World Wars.

In one fantastic section Hofmiller describes his passion for riding, the pride of being 'lord and creator of this exhilaration' as he gallops ahead of his troops as they ride to the parade ground. but when they pass the schloss, aware subconsciously of Edith's physical proximity he slows his troops to a trot, guilty of having enjoyed his physical freedom so much. It is only once they are entirely clear of its line of sight that he shakes of this sentimentality and gives the order once more to gallop. Within the military unit he is a fairly anonymous component but his burgeoning status within the Kekesfalva household encourages him to continue his visits, especially given his 'conviction that I was an utterly superfluous individual, uninteresting to other people and at most an object of indifference'.

What he is unable to see until it is too late is that for Edith the visits have become vitally important, she feels that she has someone to get well for and each time he walks through the door he is giving her something that she has been lacking since she was first struck down by her disability: hope. In fact through his pity he cannot stop giving false hope to both Edith and her father. The theme of pity is totally dominant throughout the book, particularly after Hofmiller has spent an evening with Dr Condor, the man charged with helping Edith. Condor himself is not exempt; the story runs that he married his wife after failing to cure her of the blindness which had brought her to him as a patient and which he had promised to rid her of. But as Hofmiller becomes more aware of the domestic side of Condor's life he begins to realise the complexities that lie behind local legends. Condor relates to him the history of Herr von Kekesfalva, the local aristocrat who is neither local nor aristocratic. A man who has bought his title and the grand schloss which carries it, but not only that; bought it cheaply. The story of how he swindles the heir of the Kekesfalva estate is chillingly executed with a denouement that brilliantly unites it with the plight of Hofmiller. Condor advises him not to disappoint this man, now clearly weakened by his life, symbolised by Zweig in the black coat which has been ever present throughout his story but which is now 'shabby and shiny... at the elbows.' Hofmiller infact finds himself incapable of not offering him some hope.
'I could feel the old man's confidence increasing as I spoke, and for the first and last time in my life I had some inkling of the elation that accompanies all creative activity.
What I said to Kekesfalva on that paupers bench I no longer know, and never shall know. For just as my words intoxicated my avid listener, so did his blissful hanging on my words rouse in me a lust to promise him more and yet more.'

Within the strict constraints of Austrian society of the period and also of course Hofmiller's military discipline there are some shockingly frank exchanges between characters. Edith especially, after the constant diet of 'trumped-up stories' she is fed about her physical progress, wants to be honest, despite her emotional immaturity making such honesty impossible. When she throws herself at Hofmiller, stealing a desperate hungry kiss he reels from the room and confronts us with the shockingly brutal and offensive honesty of his realisation that he
'had never even thought of Edith as a member of the opposite sex; it had never even so much as crossed my mind that her crippled body was possessed of the same organs, that her soul harboured the same urgent desires, as those of other women. It was only from this moment that I began to have an inkling of the fact (suppressed by most writers) that the outcasts, the branded, the ugly, the withered, the deformed, the despised and rejected, desire with a more passionate, far more dangerous avidity than the happy; that they love with a fanatical, a baleful, a black love, and that no passion on earth rears its head so greedily, so desperately, as the forlorn and hopeless passion of these step-children of God, who feel that they can can only justify their earthly existence by loving and being loved.'

Zweig is unafraid of presenting a cast of characters with massive flaws, with far from altruistic motivations. Even Edith, who could have been an innocent, is far from that. Whilst she remains physically confined to her chair or her bed she is able to reach much further, an emotional tyrant within the house, her petulance indulged and her threats of drastic action thrown around cheaply for effect. She even has the power, as we saw earlier to bring a galloping horse to a respectful trot. The skill with which he charts the emotional landscape means that by the novel's close you too may be subject to your own pity and all too aware of the dangers.


Saturday, 21 February 2009

Sebastian Beaumont Interview

Just before I started writing this blog I read a brilliant book called Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont, a dark and surreal tale about a late night taxi-driver which was brought to my attention by Scott Pack. His review of that book is here. On the publication of his second novel, The Juggler, I got the chance to ask him some questions about his work. Many thanks once again to him and editor Anne Westgarth at Myrmidon Books.

Your first novel Thirteen drew on your experiences as a late night taxi driver in Brighton. What was the strangest thing that happened during that time?
Well, the scene in Thirteen where an immediately post-operative transsexual asked me to de-flower her was absolutely true, so I guess that was pretty strange – and there really was a fire when I got her home, although whether they were rabbit hutches that were burning is another matter.

What was the inspiration for writing The Juggler?
Thirteen is very much a book about personal ‘stuff’ and the process of dealing with it.I became aware quite quickly, though, whilst writing it that we all carry stuff that can be seen as impersonal – what we have to face because we are human beings, regardless of our biographies. In Buddhist philosophy these are often referred to as ‘the five hindrances’ – Sense desire, Ill Will, Restlessness & Anxiety, Sloth & Torpor and Doubt & Indecision. These are the titles of 5 of the chapters of The Juggler.

Does that mean that you hope people reading The Juggler will find relevance in Mark’s story regardless of their own personal biography and indeed his, that there will be a universal appeal to this impersonal enquiry?
Yes, as far as the relevance of it goes. I would also say that what I value most in the literature that I read is a sense of psychological truth. No matter how weird a story becomes, does it hold to its own truth? I pondered this a lot whilst writing The Juggler.

Reading your books I was reminded of writers like Kafka and Auster. What writers have influenced you?
Hermann Hesse, Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre.

You highlighted the top 10 books about psychological journeys in an article for The Guardian. What attracts you to this kind of writing and is it a style you’ll continue to use?
I don’t really think of it as a style, but more as a subject matter. I am more and more interested in what psychological authenticity is, and how we can achieve it. Most people (myself included) spend a lot of the time being flotsam before a whole set of habits and ego-dominated drives towards judgement, gratification and status. This can be pretty dark stuff if you look at the internal tyranny involved, and getting to grips with it has to be a journey of some kind, I guess…

You work as a psychotherapeutic counsellor. Can you explain a bit more about what that is?
My counselling training was framed within psychoanalytical theory, although my practice is very much about building a relationship with my clients (rather than being the ‘blank screen’ of the psychiatrist). Perhaps this was where a lot of my interest in authenticity comes from. People in the West tend to be addicted to ego things – stimulation and arousal (intellectual as well as sensual), inflated self-worth, competitiveness. We often seek peace, but when offered the time to genuinely sit peacefully with our own experience, we distract ourselves with busy-ness, chasing our tails and yet yearning for that which we are denying ourselves. I try to help people sit with themselves for long enough to see what’s beneath all that ego chatter.

Do you see your fiction as an extension of that work, vice versa, or are the two separate?
My fiction is a product of my own therapeutic enquiry. A question such as ‘Who am I?’ can never be answered, but the journey of trying to understand it as a question has limitless possibilities, and can lead to very counter-intuitive realisations.

In that search for psychological authenticity is there a danger of not liking the person that you find?
In the apparently paradoxical way of these things, the answer seems to be both yes and no. What often happens is that when people really sit with their experience for the first time, they will inevitably come across stuff about themselves that they dislike. However, what they’re really seeing are the parts of themselves that are not authentic. Getting through that to the genuinely authentic in ourselves will always be a journey towards happiness.

How do you go about the process of writing? What is your writing environment like?
I have no specific environment, and work at any computer at any desk. What I need is head-space, and time to think. The environment is secondary.

There is a malign presence in your work, a real sense of danger. Where does that sense come from?
Ha ha! Well, ‘malign presence’ is quite a way of describing it! If you think of what I have said above about ego-domination, then I think that every one of us who has not yet mastered their ego (i.e. 99% of us) has a part of themselves that is a ‘malign presence’. How many times have you done something even though you know you ‘shouldn’t’ or in the knowledge that you’ll end up regretting it? I am just being true to human-being-ness…I would add that I think the world provides plenty of opportunities for humour and that, really, the other side of ‘malign presence’ is a humour at the absurdity of the world, and at ourselves.

You may have noticed that this is question 13. Are you a superstitious man?
Most people are superstitious, even though they try not to be. I wanted to say ‘no’ to this question, but then I remembered crossing my fingers about something only this morning, so there we go!

Without spoiling anything of course, can you explain a bit more about what the character of the juggler represents?
The Juggler is one of the most powerfully symbolic of the Tarot cards. He can taunt, tease, infuriate and challenge but is ultimately wise. He is the teller of uncomfortable truths.

I seem to have read quite a few books recently featuring men of about 30 being forced to evaluate their lives. Is the mid-life crisis happening earlier?
Mid-life crises usually happen when a person realizes that the drive for money, status influence and respect is not really going to come true in the way that was imagined. Usually, people are happier after they’ve had their crises and dealt with some of that unhelpful yearning, and so I guess earlier is better.

It’s interesting that many people use that moment of crisis and conflict as the starting point for a creative work. Out of the ashes…
Yes, I am certain that is true, although I am also rather wary of it as a concept. I have known a number of writers who have felt that you can only write from a position of personal angst, and although it does seem to be true that angst can cause a sort of gush of creative energy, other more benign states of mind work just as well (in my opinion). I think using a moment of crisis as you describe can be very cathartic and helpful, but perpetuating it for the sake of creativity as many people do is very harmful.

Are you working on anything right now?
Yes, a dark, optimistic novel called The Conjuror, about a counsellor…

Could you recommend an undervalued book that readers of this blog should rush out and buy?
Hermann Hesse’s Journey To The East, which is back in print, thankfully. Hesse is brilliant at the mythic, but also at the ephemeral nature of our own desire to know ourselves.


Thursday, 19 February 2009

'Make your Mark'

The Juggler
by Sebastian Beaumont

In his first novel, Thirteen, Sebastian Beaumont drew on his own experience as a late night taxi driver in Brighton to create an atmospheric piece about depression in which he played with notions of reality, keeping the reader one step behind all the time. As well as having elements of a psychological thriller he also managed to inject humour into what could have been a downbeat book by including some classic quotes overheard in the back of his cab. It made for a distinctive début so I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of The Juggler, a book he has described as a companion piece. Whilst the first book is 'an internal psychological journey of a particular individual' The Juggler 'deals with the archetypal psychological landscape that anyone (and everyone) might expect to encounter if they search within'.

At the age of 29 Mark seems to have everything he ever wanted. Married with a good job and 7-month old child, one only has to look just beneath this thin veneer to find the imperfections. Infidelity, debt, medication; Mark feels alone and uncomfortable, that his life is 'teetering' on the brink of something, and an evening out to a comedy club provides the catalyst to send him off on a train, leaving that life behind, armed with only a flyer for a club and a bag containing £40,000 in cash.

The moment in the comedy club is the first of many where complete strangers seem to address his inner thoughts and worries, as if they could read his mind. The comedian singles him out for a tirade of abuse, citing his biggest fears about his relationship, much to the hilarity of the audience. A flyer on his table urges him to 'Make his Mark', the capitalisation of that last word making it seem like a message intended for him. When he leaves the club and is handed a bag by a purposeful man outside with the message 'Make sure Jonathan gets this', opening it to find thousands of £20 notes, he finds himself drawn inexorably to flight, seeking out the address scrawled on the back of the flyer.

Mark's haven is a coastal town, famous for its caves, and he finds refuge first from a familiar face, the stand-up comic. Don heads a household of disparate characters, each with their own reasons for being there and Mark is welcomed into this group which is encouraged not to ask about each other's pasts.
'There is a process going on here,' Don told him. 'It's not to do with conversation. It's to do with being aware of yourself. Everything that you do needs to facilitate that.'
As Mark pondered this, Don leaned towards him and whispered with a sense of urgency that made the hair on Mark's scalp prickle.
'You will either make a success of this or you will fail, but, either way, the only way you can achieve something worthwhile is to give up any expectations and let what is happening to you happen.'
But there are consequences for a man who has run off from his life, especially with £40,000 of someone else's money, and Beaumont weaves in the elements of a thriller once again as things develop. There is an underlying menace to this seemingly perfect resort, perhaps best encapsulated in the titular street-performer whom Mark questions after having his charity returned to him.
'What's wrong with my money?' he asked.
'I don't want it,' the man said. 'We don't want your sort here. Locals and tourists are welcome, but we don't want runaways, renegades or parasites...'

He goes on to suggest that he should return home to his family, Mark again baffled by this stranger's knowledge, and we will see him again and again as Mark's situation continues to deteriorate. Beaumont creates a clear psychological landscape; the caves are the setting for a moment of choral singing during which Mark feels accepted by the group and he returns to them later when he is in need of safety and shelter. A house he works to repair is the place in which he confronts his difficult relationship with his father, who had forced him to be a part of his renovations. In fact if I have a criticism it is that these things are sometimes made too clear; with his confusion about his surroundings Mark has a tendency to make clear what is already obvious to the reader, with constant questions. Where Thirteen created an atmosphere of confusion lending its 'meaningful' statements significance, The Juggler seems to be more explicit. The book may not suit all tastes, with the language in places, especially some of the dialogue, closer to what you might expect to hear in therapy rather than real life but Beaumont is careful to balance that with the incredulity of Mark in the face of some of these exchanges. This actually raises some great moments of humour as when Don tries to pacify Mark after his bag of cash goes missing.

'Mark,' he said,'perhaps you have to lose everything, to lose it willingly, I mean, before something else can really start to take its place.'
'That must be the worst excuse for stealing money that I've ever heard.'

I have to admit that I was much clearer about the book as a whole once I had had the chance to interview the author, which leads me seamlessly onto announcing that you will be able to read those thoughts in a couple of days. The Innaugural Just William's Luck Author Interview.

How exciting.


Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Man on Wire

When a documentary beats Slumdog Millionaire, Hunger, Mama Mia and In Bruges to the Outstanding British Film BAFTA you become very happy when it's just dropped through the letterbox. Simon Chinn and James Marsh's film tells the story (of which I was completely unaware) of Phillipe Petit's daring and illegal high-wire walk between the World Trade Centre's twin towers in New York in 1974. The mixture of interview, reconstruction and archive footage immediately brings to mind the superb Touching The Void (itself a BAFTA winner) and this film succeeds in much the same way; building tension, slowly revealing character and showing the devastating impact of a singular event on the lives of those involved.

The film drops you straight into the middle of the action as the various players make their way to the twin towers. Some have criminal sounding names like 'The Australian' or AKA's but we know that this is 'the artistic crime of the century', one with no victims, only leaving those who witnessed it touched by something special. At the centre, Petit is a clownish figure, unsurprising given his street-performer background, looking as a young man a little like Malcolm McDowell but his face now is softened and comical as he takes obvious pleasure from telling the story. This is contrasted with the obvious distress caused to those nearest and dearest to him. His girlfriend talks with great honesty about how this singular man completely dominated her life and conveys even today the sheer magic of being a spectator to his stunts. His closest friend Jean Louis Blondeau is touchingly emotional, conveying more than anyone else the culpability his accomplices felt in an event that could very well of course ended in death.

The element that luck plays in this plan's fulfilment is staggering and when you combine this with the fact that Petit had first come up with the idea on seeing a picture of the towers before construction had even begun (his simple hand-drawn line between the two buildings a perfect illustration of his joyous naivete) you begin to feel that this event had to happen. The effect on those who saw it is palpable, in one great piece of footage the arresting officer is clearly in thrall to this 'tight-rope dancer'. This is what makes the event and its remembrance in this superlative documentary such a fitting way to reclaim the towers from the event which removed them, the event which isn't mentioned once, but which casts such a long shadow that simply seeing a photograph of Petit on the wire, a plane flying past in the background, is enough to remind us of the singularity of his achievement, never to be repeated.

Even if you have a mild touch of vertigo like me Man on Wire is a must-see.


Sunday, 15 February 2009

laugh it up, fuzzball

Popmash is a website from which you can purchase T-Shirts and prints of, well, here's the blurb:

The Planet is in crisis.

A crisis worse than global warming, nuclear war and terrorism combined.
Then multiplied by ten.

Fame and pop culture are rapidly growing out of control.
Experts predict that at the current rate, by the year 2020 everybody on the planet will be famous.
Economies will collapse. Society will be in disarray. Television will be really, really awful.

We need a solution to this problem before it is too late.

Popmash is that solution.

Popmash scientists reckon that by genetically combining two famous things, we can reduce pop culture by 50% and save the planet for another 100 years.

After that we'll all be dead so it won't really matter.
I mention all of this only because I sent an email suggesting a possible splicing a while ago and he's only gone and done it! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Chewbaracka...


Friday, 13 February 2009

'that much closer to me'

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
by Ron Hansen

When recommendations come as strong as this, and the film-of-the-book is the next one you're expecting from a certain DVD delivery service, then it's time to get a move on (difficult when you're currently reading a 900 page wrist-sprainer) . I also hate westerns so I see this book as a further challenge to that prejudice after reading Cormac McCarthy's extraordinary Blood Meridian around this time last year.

Right from the first sentence you realise that this is not going to be the received tale of gunslingers and hold-ups and that whatever you think you might know about Jesse James, this is going to be a far more closely felt portrait of a real man in a real time.

He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. Green weeds split the porch steps, a wasp nest clung to an attic gable, a rope swing looped down from a dying elm tree and the ground beneath it was scuffed soft as flour.

That last simile is just one example of Hansen's talent for delicious phrasing. On the same page he describes the family bible once owned by his Reverend father - 'the cover was cool to his cheek as a shovel', and later there are plenty more: the front of a slowing train touching the rocks that block its path 'with the chunk of a closed ice-box door', and the 'green suede of mold' covering discarded dinner plates which say so much about the mental state of the man who lives in that particular room. The first two thirds of this novel, whilst recounting the robberies and shoot-outs of the James gang, find their real strength in the the soul searching of the two principals, the familial connections between the characters and downright domesticity of those moments in between the action. Hansen's ability to get inside the heads of his characters brings the story to life in a way which lifts it not only above the realms of a simple non-fictional account, but above the possibilities of most writers of fiction resulting in some Hamlet-like moments of psychological enquiry. It even manages to remind one of those very modern themes of celebrity, notoriety and fixation so that far from being a historical artifact it is an incredibly relevant book.

Whilst Jesse is depicted as a man entering middle-age, his body scarred and deformed by his encounters, Bob is very much a youth; the youngest in his family, teased by his brothers for his fascination with Jesse. Under his bed is a shoebox filled with pictures, articles and mementos like a discarded cigar stub; Bob is like a teenage fan but with that unhealthy streak of obsession so that he is able to recite facts and figures, answering any question put to him like a child at a spelling bee. At one point he even reads a description of Jesse to the man himself, prompting him to point out that he 'ain't Jesus'. But the relationship between these two deepens. In a world where it seems no man can really trust another nor be seen without a gun by side Bob has rare access inside Jesse's armature. Even as Jesse has these moments where the defenses are lowered we know that Bob is the last person he should be trusting.

In one memorable scene the cat and mouse game begins in earnest, Bob steals upon Jesse as he bathes, unaware of being watched. Not only naked but stripped of his guns as well he is wracked by coughs and Bob smiles as he thinks 'You are old Jess. You are dying even now'. After Bob teases him for being caught unawares Jesse muses, 'I can't figure it out: do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?' This taps into that almost Shakespearean theme of supplanting those in power. Bob sees Jesse as the means of attaining the life he deserves whether by allying himself to him or destroying him.

I've been a nobody all my life. I was the baby; I was the one people picked on, the one they made promises to that they never kept. And ever since I can recall it, Jesse James has been big as a tree. I'm prepared for this Jim And I'm going to accomplish it. I know I won't get but this one opportunity and you can bet your life I'm not going to spoil it.

Guns, unfortunately, have a huge significance in American culture and identity even today. Hansen has the skill to tap right into this and represent the violence in a way that makes it feel genuinely violent rather than glorious; by describing the course a bullet takes, the devastating damage it can cause to many parts of the body it makes you realise the capricious accident of death by the gun rather than making it seeming like the skillful killer shot. This makes the soul searching that bit more convincing; are these men haunted by the lives they have so easily taken away with the click of a hammer? By following the many members of the gang to the grave you are left with the conclusion that they must be, even Jesse who claims to sleep just fine.

I go on journeys out of my body and look at my red hands and my mean face and I get real quizzical. Who is that man who's gone so wrong? Why all that killing and evil behaviour? I've been becoming a problem to myself. I figure if I can get you right I'll be just that much closer to me.

The final third of the book has a much more non-fiction feel, almost like those bits of text at the end of a film that tell what happened next to the principal players. Whilst Hansen does this well, particularly the final few pages, it is a shame that he isn't able to sustain the quality and breathing space accorded to the earlier sections. But this is a small quibble with an otherwise excellent book. Combining the best aspects of non-fiction (exhaustive research lightly worn) and fiction (convincing and detailed characterisation that takes you inside the minds of these men and women) I'm glad I had the time to read it before approaching what I hope will be an equally impressive film.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009

'the world is a strange and fascinating place'

by Roberto Bolaño

Near the end of The Savage Detectives we are told of an encounter with the poet Cesárea Tinajero, holed up in Santa Teresa, armed with a knife, in fear of her life and with a detailed, hand-drawn plan of a factory on the wall,

Cesárea spoke of times to come, and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn't help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could barely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.

It is a doom laden close to the novel and a prophetic date which has appeared elsewhere in Bolaño's fiction. The book which carries this date like a brand on the front cover is weighted down with expectation, not only as a potential master-work but its very real position as his final work. It is laden with so many different characters, styles, symbols, portents, images, thoughts, and ambitions driven by a fierce wave of creativity and fear that it's little wonder that your feeling on finishing it might be similar to mine and indeed his presumably when he finished writing it. Relief.

I felt like I might need a few days to marshal my thoughts together but after a few days I realised that in order to really do a book like this justice I would probably have to read it again, go to university to study Classics, history of art, South American political history, literary criticism, then probably read it once more, think for a few more weeks about it and then, perhaps I might feel better equipped to be a bit more definitive. And I don't really have time for all that. Or any of it. So I shall try to make some kind of an impression on a book which readers will no doubt be unravelling for years to come.

Just before that, it's worth mentioning that I found writing my thoughts down after each section incredibly valuable. You can access those here or by finding '2666' in the labels list on the right, you'll find they contain more specific thoughts and quotes (although be warned that they will display in reverse chronological order).

The picture above is Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau, French Symbolist painter, details of which make up the cover of both the UK and US editions of this book (For the record I prefer the US one, the horrible digital font on the UK version makes everyone think you're reading sci-fi). According to the myth the mortal Semele, lover of Jupiter, asked him to appear to her in all his divine splendour (after having been given some bad advice by Juno, Jupiter's wife!), thus bringing about her own violent death in the face of his divine thunder. It is a brilliant painting to have chosen, encompassing some key themes from the book: sex, death, regeneration, fear and adoration of women, and what it means to be human (it also neatly symbolises my experience of reading the book - a bit overwhelming). Moreau himself commented on the painting:

"In the midst of colossal aerial buildings, with neither foundations nor roof-tops, covered with teeming, quivering vegetation, this sacred flora standing out against the dark blues of the starry vaults and the deserts of the sky, the God so often invoked appears in his still veiled splendour…At the foot of the throne, Death and Sorrow form the tragic basis of Human Life, and not far from them, under the aegis of the eagle of Jupiter, the great Pan, symbol of Earth, bows his sorrowful brow, mourning his slavery and exile, while at his feet is piled the sombre phalanx of the monsters of Erebus and Night…"

One particular sentence stands out there: 'Death and sorrow form the basis of human life.' This book is steeped in both of those; from the serial murders of women in Santa Teresa, to the battlefields of the second world war, mortality and the characters awareness of it seems to drive so much of what they do. Oscar Fate is still clearly reeling from the death of his mother and even a character like Morini, ill and confined to his wheelchair, acts like a living reminder of our fate and yet becomes the man that Norton allies herself with at the end of part one. All four of the critics use sex as the means to connect with one another, above and beyond the dry academia that initially brings them together, filling the void left in their lives by the mystery of Archimboldi's whereabouts. Archimboldi himself, in his fevered couplings with Ingeborg, shows their defiance at her illness and the slaughter that has surrounded them - sex as regeneration in the face of death.

The strengths of the work are closely related to its weaknesses. The epic structure of the book is bookended by the two sections dealing with Archimboldi, the first a neat novella, the second a sprawling personal history with plenty of dead ends. In between we have a portrait of mental degradation, sports reportage combined with creeping paranoia and a mind-numbing macabre litany. Each section differs stylistically recalling the work of Haruki Murakami, Denis Johson, Herman Melville, Don DeLillo and David Lynch. And those are just the styles I can give name to. There are startling images, piercing moments of perception, long runs of page turning prose, humour, insight and learning. But, and it's a big but, with all this variety there is confusion, inconsistency and spirit-sapping pages of tedium. The editors feel that this is as close to being a final text as could be hoped for. It means that there are times when the writing flows with the energy of a man driven to get his final thoughts down, but also moments where a red pen and a firmer editing hand were clearly needed. That said there is one person who deserves unqualified praise and that is Natasha Wimmer for her brilliant translation. I don't say this from having any experience of reading the Spanish language version (ha ha ha) but from the clear skills employed to bring out the different styles, character voices and idioms. Bolaño couldn't have asked for a better interpreter of his final words.

Flawed masterpiece. It's a phrase you hear a lot (just recently poor Sebastain Barry had his moment of glory punctured slightly by Costa judge Matthew Parris using the dreaded f-word at the same time as awarding him the top prize for The Secret Scripture) and I used it myself to describe Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson's Vietnam era opus, which was one of my top novels for 2007. I guess what it means is that you forgive those authors whose books dare to reach that little bit further, whose ambition has them attempting to name the unnameable, forgive them those moments when they don't quite pull it off, or do so in an ungainly fashion. It is often books like these which seem to endure through time; nobody would describe War and Peace or Moby Dick as flawless (or short - and some wouldn't describe them as masterpieces either), the question only remains does it accomplish enough? 2666 didn't quite come together enough for me and whilst it remains a book that I admire, and am still slightly in awe of, it isn't a book which is easy to recommend.

If you want to read some in depth reviews then you could try Sam Sacks' piece in Open Letters which has the most brilliant opening to a review I've read in a long time (and which also picks up on my own observation of the negating aspect to Bolaño's work) or Scott Esposito's in The Quarterly Conversation.


Saturday, 7 February 2009

2666 - The Part About Archimboldi

So we finally get to hear the story of the mysterious writer we began searching for over 600 pages ago. Hans Reiter, as he is born in 1920 to a blind mother and a one-legged father, is a boy first obsessed with the sea. A book on 'Animals and Plants of the European Coastal Region' is his constant companion and he is twice rescued from drowning. After dropping out of school he begins work at the house of Baron von Zumpe where his mother is a servant, forming a friendship with Hugo Halder, the Baron's nephew, and becoming an accomplice to his gradual looting of the silverware. This early section sees a welcome return to many of things which made The Savage Detectives such an entertaining read. A colourful cast of characters, rich and evocative language and most importantly perhaps (especially after the last section), humour.

"The Welsh are swine," said the one-legged man in reply to a question from his son. "Absolute swine. The English are swine, too, but not as bad as the Welsh. Though really they're the same, but they make an effort not to seem it, and since they know how to pretend, they succeed. The Scots are bigger swine than the English and only a little better than the Welsh. The French are as bad as the Scots".

Reiter's father then works his way through the rest of Europe before declaring of course that 'The only people who aren't swine are the Prussians'. That Reiter comes from a country that no longer exists is only the beginning of the rootlessness that sees him drift from place to place in the theatre of Europe's second World War with very little control of his direction. He becomes just one of many men who change or alter their history as Germany suffers defeat and the reprisals and trials begin.

Before that we have the first of many digressions. Bolaño has a habit of allowing a character to act like a portal, taking our attention away from the narrative we are following, giving us a fully formed chunk of something else entirely, before dropping us back where we were before. Whilst holed up in an occupied house, recovering from a gunshot wound which has rendered him speechless, Reiter finds some papers in a secret hiding spot at the back of the fireplace. These belong to Ansky, a Russian soldier whose story we then follow and which in turn will allow us to meet other characters like Ivanov, a science fiction writer. Ansky begins to figure in Reiter's dreams and in one, which plays on his fear that he may have been the very man that felled this Russian soldier, he finds a corpse which bears his own face. Waking with relief, his voice returns - 'Thank God it wasn't me.'

Chance or fate are themes which return again and again. When on the Eatern Front Reiter meets again the Baroness von Zumpe, daughter of the house he onced worked in, ('wonderful, wonderful, yet again the sword of fate severs the head from the hydra of chance') and along with some of his fellow soldiers watches a night of brutal sex she endures with a prodigiously endowed Romanian general. From her he hears about what happened to his childhood friend Halder, his work as a painter, and symbolically his pictures of dead women. Death's hand is all over this section with warfare, slaughter, disease and poverty and yet from this chaos comes Reiter's impulse to create, to write and indeed to reinvent himself.

Reiter becomes Archimboldi after two events. When in a camp at the end of the war he meets a man calling himself Zeller, a civil servant of the Third Reich, who relates his tale of Jewish liquidation as bureaucratic inconvenience. Reiter kills him and after meeting a former fortune teller who impresses upon him the importance of breaking the chain his new identity is born. He will be reunited with the Baroness again through his publisher, and she is not the only figure from his past to return again. This sense of return and unification continues right until the end where Bolaño manages to pull off a loose-thread-tying finish which he just about gets away with. I'll be honest and say that I was grateful for some resolution after such a dizzying and digressive ride (and that's just in this section).

I finished it. That I feel a sense of achievement is what worries me. There are some books that you read and on finishing them feel not so much joy, or inspiration, or even the simple need to talk to someone about it, but just exhaustion. I feel a bit like that. It'll take a while to sort through my thoughts but I'm not sure this is a book I'll be recommending to people. I'm not sure yet how or why I would. Plenty of people have asked what it is I'm reading and I've opened my mouth to try and explain to them what it's all about and found myself struck dumb for a few seconds, struggling to think where even to begin. As Archimboldi says himself near the very end, 'I don't know what to think.'


Thursday, 5 February 2009

The Wrestler

A few years ago I went up for a part in a show which would have meant a couple of scenes in the buff. I confidently told the director that that was fine but I'll be honest now in saying that the nearer it got to a decision being made the more I began to worry that actually, it might not be as fine as I thought. However, if I had spent the entire length of the show without a stitch on, taking a few minutes to introduce myself to each member of the audience personally it wouldn't have been as brave as the body and soul baring Mickey Rourke undergoes in Darren Aronofsky's gritty and brilliant new film.

It makes for uncomfortable viewing, not only because of the sometimes gruesome nature of the action, but because anyone who knows anything of the personal life and history of Rourke will find the line between fiction and reality very difficult to discern, if it exists at all. Aranofsky apparently refused to make the film with anyone but Rourke in the title role (but not before berating him and raking over the coals of his wasted career) and it is difficult to imagine the film being as powerful with anyone else at its centre. From the opening scenes we are looking at a man who later describes himself as 'a broken-down piece of meat'. His face is a mess, his hair dyed and brittle, a cheap hearing aid is obviously visible and every inch of his skin is marked by scars or tattoos, the marks of his history. It is distressing to see this man, for whom physicality is everything, so destroyed by his vocation. Just when he reaches for his glasses in order to read you feel the fall from grace. Add to this the mess of his life; locked out of his trailer home for non-payment of rent, only able to buy intimacy as a customer in a lap dancing club, estranged from his daughter about whom he knows nothing, and you could dismiss this film as two hours of misery. But that would be a mistake.

I complained recently about the black and white morality of Slumdog Millionaire (not to be confused with the primary coloured palette of the film itself - but I know you can keep up with my confused metaphors), well, The Wrestler is rendered in shades of grey, and it makes it a far more interesting film. To present such a flawed hero and set him on a course which could end in either the smallest salvation or his demise is brave. To make your audience care for him nonetheless is a remarkable achievement and a testament to the strength of Rourke's brutally honest performance.

The seemingly mundane task of working at the deli counter is brilliantly used to illustrate both his need to perform but also his shame and embarrassment at finding himself there. The enforced reunion with his daughter doesn't offer any schmaltzy forgetting of his abandoning her, rather he is forced by her to confront how little he knows his own daughter. The other fascinating relationship is with lap-dancer Cassidy (an equally brave performance from Marisa Tomei). She, like Randy, has used her body to make a living and is forced by the cruel taunts from a group of young men in the private VIP room to admit that she is past her prime. She has her own issues of pride which prevent her from forming a closer bond with Randy. These two characters illustrate in very different ways that moment when a person is forced to decide what defines them, or how they want to define themselves.

This isn't a film for the squeamish. Randy's tour of the extreme wrestling circuit provides some scenes of gut-churning violence, but what's actually distressing is just seeing him out of breath, struggling on the brink of what's safe for his exhausted body. It is also the simple scenes that hit home; in one where Randy plays an ancient computer game (in which he is a character) with a local boy, he looks crestfallen when the boy, clearly bored and used to far more impressive fare, leaves him in his trailer. The possibly redemptive ending is skillfully ambiguous and the credits roll with another excellent film song from Bruce Springsteen (how does he do that?).

To lay your life out for all to see is what actors are usually avoiding by pretending to be somebody else. In another strong year if Rourke doesn't win an Oscar, it won't have been for a lack of effort. So whilst some of the other contenders can be seen acting their socks off, you won't see anything like that in this film. He just is The Wrestler.


Tuesday, 3 February 2009

2666 - The Part About The Crimes

Ow. It's starting to hurt now. The fourth part of the journey is almost as long as the three before it put together and from the first sentence it is clear things aren't going to be pleasant (well, the title is another clue, obviously)

The girl's body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonia Las Flores. She was dressed in a white long-sleeved T-shirt and a yellow knee-length skirt, a size too big.

In Santa Teresa (standing in for the real-life town of Ciudad Juarez) the bodies of women and young girls are found with alarming frequency, broken and abandoned in the desert. Is it the work of a serial killer or killers? What we have here is a police procedural. With forensic detail and over almost 300 pages we 'meet' the many victims, with the repetitive, monotonous prose of police bureaucracy. The clinical delivery of these macabre findings has a numbing effect, much like the boring detail contained within American Psycho, so that they soon become less and less shocking and, worryingly, more and more acceptable. There are many characters to get a handle on (but with Bolaño you never know on meeting someone whether they will be significant or never heard from again) including one of the detectives assigned first to a case involving a man they call 'the Penitent', wanted after desecrating a church and then murdering a priest. The diagnosis of Elvira Campos, director of the asylum, is sacrophobia ('fear or hatred of the sacred, of sacred objects, especially from your own religion') which links back to the discussion about the end of the sacred from part three. Whilst she reels off a list of phobias she alights on one which is significant I think to the novel as a whole.

...Or gynophobia, which is fear of women, and naturally afflicts only men. Very widespread in Mexico, although it manifests itself in different ways. Isn't that a slight exaggeration? Not a bit: almost all Mexican men are afraid of women. I don't know what to say to that, said Juan de Dios Martinez.

He will go on to show his own fear when a relationship develops between the two of them but always on her terms (much like the ménage in part one)

The list of phobias isn't the only time I found my eyes wanting to skim a little. The back story of a TV seer, La Santa, doesn't add much to a character who raves on TV about the killings without furthering our knowledge of them. Similarly, the lineage of a young boy who becomes a cop was a bit like trawling through the 'and so-and-so begat so-and-so' pages of the Old Testament. Bolaño is known for subverting convention and it is a strange experience to read a crime thriller which isn't thrilling and which leaves you no clearer as to who the killer(s) might be. This refusal to play by the rules is fine as long as you intend to replace what should be there with something else. It's just that at the moment I'm not quite sure what that thing is. This 'undercutting' which I have mentioned before happens again when a female Governor whose friend has gone missing in Santa Teresa finally brings some passion to the proceedings, only to have them negated by the private detective she has hired.

Do you mean you think Kelly is dead? I shouted. More or less, he said without losing his composure in the slightest. What do you mean, more or less? I shouted. For fuck's sake, you're either dead or you're not! In Mexico a person can be more or less dead, he answered very seriously. I stared at him, wanting to hit him. What a cold detached man he was. No, I said, almost hissing, no one can be more or less dead, in Mexico or anywhere else in the world. Stop talking like a tour guide. Either my friend is alive, which means I want you to find her, or my friend is dead, which means I want the people who killed her. Loya smiled. What are you laughing at? I asked him. The tour guide part was funny, he said.

I'm not sure what I'm searching for in this book, but I'm beginning to worry that despite still having over 250 pages to go I may never find it.


Sunday, 1 February 2009

...but I'm all woman!

Just in case you missed it the Gender Analyzer purports to be able to guess, or rather work out using 'artificial intelligence', the sex of the author of any blog. Near the end of last year Just William's Luck was 79% female. Oh dear. So, have I been able to convince it of my manly attributes since then?




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