Saturday 29 August 2009

'Two spectres walk, still searching for the past.'

Journey Into The Past
by Stefan Zweig

After the triumph of Zweig's novel Beware Of Pity it was high time for me to enjoy some of his shorter fiction, the form that he is most feted for. John Self seems to have already reviewed most of it but he must have been distracted recently (those babies are rather dependent) allowing me to pounce quickly on this novella begun in the 1920's, published in German in the 1970's and only now published in English for the first time (after the discovery of the manuscript) with Anthea Bell's translation from Pushkin Press.

Paul Bailey provides the foreword and Anthea Bell a fascinating Translator's Afterword. Both of them place the work in its context, a book that may only be coming to us now but which was begun very close to the period in which it is set. Beginning just before The Great War the story covers a period of nine years; however it is not only time but also distance that has separated the two protagonists and the power of the book comes from the emotional force of such a reunion.

Perhaps influenced by the last book I read, I found great significance in the way that Zweig indicates the changing emotional states of his characters by their reaction to or perception of the space around them. At the beginning, chronologically, Ludwig moves into the home of his ailing employer, the Privy Councillor. Having come from such a low social status he is hugely intimidated by the opulent surroundings he finds himself in.

'All he had brought with him, even he himself in his own clothes, shrank to miserable proportions in this spacious, well-lit room. His one coat, ridiculously occupying the big, wide wardrobe, looked like a hanged man: his few washing things and his shabby shaving kit lay on the roomy, marble-tiled wash-stand like something he had coughed up or a tool carelessly left there by a workman...'

What changes his perception almost immediately is his meeting with the Councillor's wife. Her warmth and sympathy strike right at the heart of his insecurity.

'...how was it that her first words went straight to the festering, scarred, sensitive part of his nature, straight to the seat of his nervous terror of losing his independence...How had she managed to brush all such thoughts of his aside with that first gesture of her hand? Instinctively he looked up at her, and only now was he aware of a warm sympathetic glance confidently waiting for him to return it.'

From that first meeting he is in love with her, his passion of course contained because of his situation and also because he doesn't even consider the chance of it being reciprocated. Again, like The Glass Room this is a book filled with passion, and it is finally released when it is announced that Ludwig will leave to develop the business in Mexico, keeping him away from Germany, and from her, for two years. Her shock at this news is like the release of a cork and Zweig doesn't hold back when describing their lust for one another ('wild ecstatic frenzy', 'like animals, hot and greedy'). The ten days before his departure are a mixture of public reserve and private moments of stolen passion.

This is a story about memory though and the real strength of it is not the description and immediacy of the affair (which is being recalled for us during a literal journey) but the transformation of these feelings by separation. Whilst in Mexico and only a short time from his return to Germany (and to her) war breaks out and he has to remain where he is. It isn't until three years after it ends that he returns and Zweig shows so effectively the many and varied changes. That house for example, once so foreboding and humiliating, is now a space filled with memories of love and lust.

'Everything stood out in a significant way, speaking urgently of some memory. Here was the wardrobe that her attentive hand had always secretly kept in order for him, there were the bookshelves to which an addition was made when he had uttered a fleeting wish, there - speaking in yet sultrier tones - was the bed, where countless dreams of her, he knew, lay hidden under the bedspread.'

Zweig's undoubted skill is in the complex and nuanced emotional and psychological landscape that they have to negotiate with their reunion.

Germany too has changed and Zweig's pacifism shows itself again. Not only has war been the cause of their separation but the country when he returns seems to be gearing up already for its next conflict. Brownshirts and goose-stepping are a striking image, all the more so in a story started over a decade before the Nazis came to actual power. A homeland that had been a forward moving industrialised nation is depicted as one already running towards the logical consequences of nationalism. The consequences of this for Zweig are all too well known.


Thursday 27 August 2009

'I'll always forgive your mistakes'

The Glass Room
by Simon Mawer

A while ago I worked in a photographic studio. Amongst one of the more mundane tasks was making flat copies of art works for print. As we all know a flat copy of an art work is no substitute for seeing the work itself. In a similar way a bad scan of a book jacket is no substitute for the pure oracular and tactile pleasure of this volume from Little Brown. I should thank them for sending me a review copy at a time when the book had become almost impossible to find, the first printing having sold out after a Booker longlisting and a second printing still on its way (now thankfully available). Thanks also to Kevin From Canada, whose fine review drew my attention to the novel and also made it possible for me to say that the cover image is a detail from Roger de La Fresnaye’s The Seated Man, or The Architect. It is an architect that provides the centre of this novel in the form of The Landauer House, a building which Mawer acknowledges is far from fictional (the UNESCO World Heritage Centre Villa Tugendhat in Brno in the Czech Republic). Mawer cleverly uses this fixed point to show the shifting political tides in continental Europe from the 1930's through the Second World War and beyond. I say clever because not only does the fixed point show most effectively the movement of people characteristic of this period of turmoil but this particular building, so daring in its modernism, so political in its very construction and in spite of being a solid and immovable thing is shown to be as malleable as the politics and the people who live and pass through it, each different person finding some new quality in it.

The house is constructed by Viktor and Liesel Landauer whom we meet on their honeymoon at the beginning of the book. Whilst in Venice they meet the architect Rainer von Abt, although he considers himself rather 'a poet of space and form. Of light...Architects are people who build walls and floors and roofs. I capture and enclose the space within.' He is attracted to the couple partly because of Liesel herself but also because this wealthy family will provide him with the backing and opportunity to create his greatest domestic project. At the centre of his vision is The Glass Room:

For the moment it was without form or substance, yet it existed, diffuse, diverse, in their minds and in the mind of Rainer von Abt. It existed in the manner that ideas and ideals, shifting and insubstantial, may exist. Space, light, glass; some spare furniture; windows looking out on a garden; a sweep of shining floor, travertine, perhaps; white and ivory and the gleam of chrome. The elements moved, evolved, transformed, metamorphosed in the way that they do in dreams, changing shape and form and yet, to the dreamer, remaining what they always were: der Glausraum, der Glastraum, a single letter change metamorphosing one into the other, the Glass Space becoming the Glass Dream, a dream that went with the spirit of the brand new country in which they found themselves, a state in which being Czech or German or Jew would not matter, in which democracy would prevail and art and science would combine to bring happiness to all people.

But this is the Czechoslovakia of the 1930's and the storm that is so often hinted at will force Viktor, as a Jew, to leave the building that he helps to create and make a life for himself and his family elsewhere. When Nazi troops have invaded, this same building of hope and democracy will find its perfect dimensions and logic perverted by that political ideology, recast as a centre for eugenic study in an attempt to classify and separate humans into Herrenvolk and Untermenschen. But before we get there Mawer first has to breathe life into the bricks and mortar (or rather the concrete and plate-glass), which he does in two ways. Firstly through an infectious enthusiasm for the architecture. The straight lines, the precision, the vision, the light; all of these are used to great effect in using the building as a metaphor for many of the books themes. As Viktor muses at one point: 'The possibilities of metaphor are almost limitless.' To make a building live in and of itself is quite an achievement. One of house's standout features is the wall constructed of onyx. A happy accident means that at certain times of year in the evening the setting sun fills the room with light that seems to make the stone glow from inside, to burn with an elemental fire that is deeply symbolic of the passions that surround it. Mawer gets great mileage from contrasting the desire for perfection expressed by the precision of the house with the deeply flawed human characters who strive with no less energy but cannot possibly succeed because they are, of course, human.

Mawer's second device to bring life into the house are the increasingly complicated human relationships. The glass allows us to observe what we aren't supposed to see, the building's neutrality somehow giving those within it the confidence to speak honestly to one another and act on their impulses. It is difficult to say too much about this without spoiling the book but perhaps if I just introduce some of the characters. Liesel's 'intimate friend' Hana is possibly the book's most memorable character. Her bisexuality and progressive views make her quite a force as the book progresses. Mawer could be accused of using her sexuality to rather too neatly connect some of the book's points but what he is careful to do is make sure that there is a psychological justification for her actions. In fact the female characters are far more rounded in this book than their male counterparts. Viktor is a man of his time and his class so his wife isn't the only woman in his life. With the same efficiency he brings to his dealings in business as the head of Landauer Motors he marshalls his assignations. His belief in 'reason' being the very essence of the Glass Room is shaken at its very foundations when that space is invaded.

Kevin pointed out in his review the danger of how these relationships are pitched, coming close to melodrama in places, which is a fair point. It will always be down to personal taste. I personally was relishing some out and out passion, was in fact surprised by it in a novel which had begun with such reserve and order. However when the various plots begin to come together at the close I began to feel as Kevin did that coincidence was being taken to its furthest reaches. I also couldn't help but feel that the detail and space given to the first two thirds of the book wasn't matched by the slightly sketchier and episodic final third. But all of these criticisms only come about because of being allowed that indulgence by a novel which is so good in so many ways it only highlights its small imperfections. Remember that it is the flaws in the onyx that allow it to burn with sunlight; generosity from the reader is more than rewarded. It is a book so filled with thought and imagery, complexity and heart that it would be hard for me to begin to replicate that in a 'flat-copy' of a review. It is the kind of book that will surely deliver when read again and again (something that may help it with the Booker judges), and not only deliver but show something new each time like any piece of art worthy of the name. When Hana asks her friend Liesel to play on the piano that sits in the glass room she hesitates, fearing mistakes. Love is what allows Hana to reply 'I'll forgive your mistakes. I'll always forgive your mistakes.'


Tuesday 25 August 2009

Animal Kingdom - Signs & Wonders

I was sent this album as part of the Amazon Vine programme and the reason why I decided to take a punt on a band I had never heard of was because their blurb loosely compared them to Mercury Rev, The Cure, The Flaming Lips, Smashing Pumpkins and Grandaddy (with an eclectic selection like that it would have to be a loose comparison). Almost more enticing was the mention of their support slots with Band of Horses, Vampire Weekend and Camera Obscura. My first listen through and I was a bit dismissive, the second and I was beginning to hear bits that reminded me of bands I like, and further listens revealed a band who if they're given a chance could develop into something interesting.

The first couple of tracks aren't terribly exciting but previous single Tin Man has something of Radiohead about it, the guitar work and melody in particular. (The lyrics are a bit cutesy though -"Tell me if it's love/'Cause baby I'm a tin man/Since you took my heart/I've got a missing part"). Richard Sauberlich's vocals have a high, clear tone to them recalling Cast's John Power on Silence Summons You but his voice lacks depth and variety on this album, perhaps there's more there when performing live. It all sounds a bit Coldplay on Into The Sea and the next couple of tracks pass by without causing any offence but the second half of the album is far more interesting musically and vocally. Walls Of Jericho has some real bite, Mephistopheles creates an eerie atmosphere as Sauberlich sings with a yearning that extends the lines so that he's almost breathless at the end of each phrase. The Radiohead similarities continue on Yes Sir, Yes Sir (in fact they come dangerously close to plaigarism!) but there's skill in the playing, so one wonders what they might conjure up once they have the confidence to stop imitating and really start creating. Dollar Signs gives Sauberlich the chance to really let his voice soar, wich it hs been itching to do throughout the album. The album closes with Chalk Stars, a suitably grandiose finish which starts quietly but builds into the kind of piano-led, repeating chord instrumental that Sigur Ros have made their trademark.

This abum was recorded in six weeks apparently as the band lived together. It has strengths and weaknesses, and there are a few too many tracks that sound 'like' somebody else, but there's enough there to make them a real prospect for the future. A string of bands have been releasing second albums that give the lie to 'difficult second abum' syndrome (The Horrors, The Maccabees etc) and I hope that on the back of live performances and a confidence boost from this debut Animal Kingdom do the same and make a second album that tells us more about who they are.


Saturday 22 August 2009

Let The Right One In

So, time for my pick in the Rycroft-vampire-film-cultural-exchange (I think we need a better title than that) and it's almost the mundanity of the setting that sets this film apart from others in the genre. Tomas Alfredson's film (released as Låt den rätte komma in in Sweden) is set in Blackeburg, a concrete suburb of Stockholm, in 1982. Thick snow blankets the urban landscape, deadening the sound, the first few minutes of the film close to silent. Twelve year old Oskar lives with his mother in an anonymous block of flats. He is lonely, bullied and seems to suffer with a constantly streaming nose. He dreams of revenge, playing with a knife and reciting, in true Travis Bickle style, what he would say to his attackers if he only had the courage. But we sense that he never will. He then meets Eli.

Eli is a curious creature, appearing almost spectrally as the camera pans across the estate play area. In the tradition of vampire films it will be a while before she is unveiled as one but the signs are all there. She can only come out at night, she doesn't eat, cat's seem to have a problem with her. . . oh, and she has a companion who knocks out strangers, hangs them upside down and then taps their blood for her. The film's title plays on one aspect of vampire lore: that vampire's cannot enter a dwelling unless invited in; and the film is dotted with other examples which look all the more extraordinary given the very ordinary setting of the film.

What the film is really about though is the relationship between Oskar and Eli, why they both need each other, what they can give each other, the boundaries beyond which love can be pushed. The darkness in the atmosphere comes from the banality of the strains and stresses in the human world. Oskar comes from a broken family, is a victim of bullying, other characters seem to be leading fairly drab lives fuelled by alcohol. Even when bodies are found there is very little alarm until one of the block's residents spots something from his balcony. I had to sell this film as a fairly non-gory thriller in order to get my wife to watch it at all and I think I was just about right. The film manages to build tension and release it without the standard horror tropes and it is very far from a gore-fest. The subtlety of the set-up combined with the sudden moments of attack make it a very adult thrill, whilst saying something genuinely interesting about children entering their teens. Film of the year so far for me. My wife? She still prefers The Lost Boys.


Thursday 20 August 2009

'The world, as the man says, is a very small place'

by Colm Tóibín

After picking up an air of 'disappointing, after The Master' from the few reviews I perused I wasn't going to read this until a bookseller friend handed on a proof. After reading it I wasn't sure whether to bother posting a review as I wasn't sure I had anything new to say about it but I couldn't have a review of Twilight up there for any longer so I thought I should make the effort. Tóibín is an author I hadn't read previously and whose name I had only just mastered the pronunciation of frankly (it's roughly Toe-been if you're wondering) but he's been shortlisted twice for the Booker and may well find himself there a third time on 8th September. I have to say that it took a few attempts to get started, perhaps I was finding it hard to concentrate, but I found the opening pages to be a litany a character names with very little character behind them leading me to flick back a few pages again and again. Once I finally hit my stride however I soon felt myself relaxing into the assured and unshowy storytelling which may well account for Tóibín's popularity.

In south-east Ireland, in the Enniscorthy of the 1950's we meet Eilis Lacey. Living with her mother and sister Rose she leads a drab existence, lacking the beauty and flair of her golf-playing sister. An unrewarding job with an unpopular employer provides at least the prospect of going out to the local dance without having to scrounge off her sister or friends until the intervention of various agents and the guiding figure of Father Flood provide her with a genuine opportunity.

Eilis felt like a child when the doctor would come to the house, her mother listening with cowed respect. It was Rose's silence that was new to her, wanting her sister to ask a question or make a comment, but Rose appeared to be in a sort of dream. As Eilis watched he, it struck her that she had never seen Rose look so beautiful. And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance. In the silence that had lingered, she realized, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America.

The trip across the Atlantic provides the novel with one of its few moments of high energy: a well realised set-piece that manages to incorporate comedy into its stomach-churning description of the journey. The rest of the book contains little of that virtuosity, settling for a more reserved and unobtrusive style, no doubt in part dictated by the character of its heroine. As has been pointed out by other reviewers, and as indicated in the extract above, Eilis is an incredibly passive central character. Her move to Brooklyn, her employment and her lodgings are all organised by Father Flood. Beyond the basics it seems that almost every aspect of her life is dominated or decided by somebody else: her experience on ship, her job and future prospects, even the very room she occupies in the house of Mrs Kehoe. As the plot swings into motion and Eilis finds herself on several occasions with a choice to make, she achieves almost Hamlet-like levels of indecision (but without the complex psychological philosophising).

Now, a passive central character has certain advantages such as allowing the smooth development of plot and, in a story which involves the meeting and juxtaposition of cultures, the wide-eyed openness that helps the reader see the new world through those same eyes. With this level of passivity however there is the frustration of wondering if they will ever actually make a choice, a frustration which never passed for this reader. That is my only major gripe really, apart from the general lack of impact. Tóibín shows great skill by cramming an awful lot into just 250 odd pages without it ever feeling like he's rushing or skipping through things and, despite the low key-style, the dramatic nature of some of the plot cannot help but involve the emotions. Where he really excels is in describing the conflicting emotions of someone away from home, away from what feels safe, nostalgic and yet in Eilis's case beginning to awaken to her own possibilities, to who she could be.

Later, during the week, as she was making her way home from Bartocci's to Brooklyn College, she forgot what she was looking forward to; sometimes she actually believed that she was looking forward to thinking about home, letting images of home roam freely in her mind, before it came to her with a jolt that,no, the feeling she had was only about Friday night and being collected from a house by a man she had met and going to dance with him in the hall, knowing that he would be walking her back to Mrs Kehoe's afterwards. She had been keeping the thought of home out of her mind, letting it come to her only when she wrote or received letters or when she woke from a dream in which her mother or father or Rose or the rooms of the house on Friary Street or the streets of the town had appeared. She thought it was strange that the mere sensation of savouring the prospect of something could make her think that it must be the prospect of home.


Friday 14 August 2009


My wife and I are having a kind of vampire-film cultural exchange: Twilight from her, Let The Right One In from me. Ladies first obviously and let's keep this brief. This film really wasn't made with me in mind. I'm not a teenager (and I'm certainly not a teenage girl), I don't fancy Robert Pattinson (although I understand many do), I haven't read the books by Stephenie Meyer, I'm not very impressed by constant floating, rotating and tracking camera shots, I hate Linkin Park and if I'm watching a film with vampires in it I expect it to be at least a little bit scary.

That said, there's a certain amount to enjoy. Some of it intentional like he other-wordly performance from leading man Pattinson (who was apparently the last actor to audition for the role and caused a collective thank-god-you're-here moment when he walked into the room), or the rare pleasure of watching a film with faces entirely new to you. Some of it not so intentional like the heightened importance of teenage emotion (generally shown by lots of huffing and inability to make eye contact) and the stand-out obviousness of the vampires and their pale and pasty make-up in the school scenes. The fact that there isn't a fang in sight nor any real fear along the way is a bit of a disappointment but then if you want your film to be seen by its intended audience you need to get the right rating ("Rated PG-13 for some violence and a scene of sensuality." - thats a 12 in the UK).

Films that involve fanatastical elements like vampirism or lycanism are really only interesting if the fantastical element is there to highlight something real, what the film is really about. Here I guess, it's all about wanting someone you can't have, which is terribly important when it comes to prom time at high school presumably but not given much greater relevance than that. Now, a film that took vampirism and subverted just about every stereotype about it and used it to explore themes like bullying, friendship and the darker side of humanity. . . that would be interesting.


Tuesday 11 August 2009

'there is a season for every love'

Three Novellas
by Leo Tolstoy

After a couple of books which didn't quite hit the mark I needed a little corrective and for some reason I always feel safe in Russia. Having tackled Tolstoy's biggies (War and Peace and Anna Karenina) Oneworld Classics provided me with an opportunity for something a little more manageable. The three stories in this collection cover a period of over 5o years (the first written in 1852, the last in 1909 shortly before his death) and their grouping together illuminates on several fronts, not only as reflections of the social and political mores of the time but also of the character of the author himself and his own narrative.

A Landowner's Morning and The Devil present very different views of peasants, whose emancipation came in 1861 between the writing of the two stories. In the former an idealistic young landowner tours his estate, visiting his peasants in an attempt to remedy their problems. With such honourable intentions he is surprised to find his overtures met with mistrust and suspicion and he comes to represent Tolstoy's own, and even then, outmoded view that education of the peasants would do nothing to improve their lot in life.

It is a very different view he presents in The Devil written in less than two weeks but a closely guarded secret for much of his life due to the subject matter. He feared that a story about a man not dissimilar to himself ('not a debauchee, as he was fond of saying, but neither was he a monk.') who struggles to control his sexual feelings towards the peasant woman who had been his lover before marriage might well upset his wife. And given that his own life had followed such a close trajectory to that of his central character he was probably absolutely right. There is something hot and urgent, particularly in the cold and often outdoor setting that marks his depiction of passion and guilt as genuine.

'He felt that he was losing all self-control, that he was becoming almost insane...he knew that that he only had to run into her somewhere, to touch her in the dark, if possible, and he would abandon himself to his feeling. He knew he was only held back by his sense of shame - shame of other people, of her, and of himself. And he knew that he was seeking circumstances in which this shame would not be apparent - either the dark, or some contact which would smother shame with animal passion. And therefore he knew he was a loathsome criminal, and despised and hated himself with all his soul.'

Marriage is one of the strongest themes in Tolstoy's major works and one finds its genesis in a story like Family Happiness. That it was written so early (around 1858) is a surprise because of the gulf that separates it from A Landowner's Morning not only in content but also in style and accomplishment. Narrated convincingly by a woman, Masha, who almost grows up before us, it charts her awakening to love, marriage and life thereafter with a thrillingly ambiguous ending. After the death of her mother leaves her and her sisters effectively orphaned the figure of Sergey Mikhailovich, guardian to them all looms larger in Masha's life. Even a story which doesn't concern itself with the peasantry is able to raise the issue as Masha has her eyes opened.

Even this story which doesn't concern peasants provides an opportunity to see them from a new perspective 'He taught me, too, to look at the people who worked for us - at the peasants, at the servants and girls - in quite a different way. Ridiculous as it may seem, I had lived amongst these people for seventeen years, and yet had remained more alien to them than I was to people whom I never saw; I never once realized that they had loves and desires and regrets, as I had. Our garden, our woods, our fields which I had known for so long, suddenly became new and beautiful to me. He was right when he said that there was only one undoubted happiness in life - to live for others.'

The greatest challenge for Masha is going to be far more intimate, in keeping control of her burgeoning emotional landscape within which she is a stranger. The path to marriage is fraught and no sooner is she married than she finds herself beset by fear.

"You're frightened of me, my dear?" he said, taking my hand and bending his head over it.
My hand lay lifeless in his, and the cold made my heart ache.
"Yes," I whispered.
But at that very moment my heart suddenly began to beat faster, my hand trembled and pressed his hand, I began to feel hot, my eyes sought his in the dusk, and suddenly I felt that I was not afraid of him - that this fear was love, a new kind of love, a tenderer and stronger love than before. I felt that I was entirely his, and that I rejoiced in his power over me.

It will be of no great surprise that the rejoicing is short lived and the challenge of married life, and the special concerns of a significant age gap, begin to exert pressure. Tolstoy's expression of Masha's emotional development seems to me to be acutely observed.

'...my love stood still and ceased to grow and, apart form love, some new restlessness began to creep into my heart. Once I had experienced the happiness of falling in love with him I could not rest content with affection. I wanted movement, not the calm flow of life. I wanted emotion, danger, and self-sacrifice for the sake of feeling.'

Her naivety is replaced by self-awareness and finally honesty and confidence. This I think is what makes the closing paragraph so interesting. This edition also makes clear that the final sentence had previously been amended by translators to include a conclusion which changed the entire character of the narrator. Whilst Tolstoy wasn't responsible for that he did write an alternative ending for The Devil, both of which are printed in this edition, which further illuminates the character of the man who managed to find in his writing the complicated emotions and psychology of women whom he singularly failed in his personal life.


Monday 10 August 2009


I think my idea of the perfect Saturday night movie could be summed up as: smart, funny, sexy. Let's say a heist-type movie with plenty of twists, two smouldering stars with some chemistry and a script crackling with wit and intelligence. I so wish that that was an accurate description of Duplicity. It isn't a million miles away. A story about a couple of ex-intelligence officers working in the corporate world, two rival corporations, plot twists, intrigue, sex and money, some laughs and, well, at least one smouldering star, this is a film which is close to hitting the mark but lacking the bite to really bring it home.

Director Tony Gilroy has worked primarily as a screenwriter and adapter (credits range from State of Play to the Bourne franchise and Armageddon) making his directorial debut with Michael Clayton. I didn't see that but it did at least look interesting and a quick glance at the tomatometer looks encouraging. Tom Wilkinson gets another nod in Duplicity playing the fastidious boss Walter Tully with Paul Giamatti as his nemesis and rival Richard Garsik. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen complete the classy cast as the corporate spies with a history. Only half of that quartet are really firing; Giamatti grimacing to full effect with those unique teeth and Roberts. . . I'm fighting hard to resist a quip here. . . actually the thing about Julia Roberts is that the more I watch her the more I'm genuinely impressed by her. She knows exactly how to give a look that's loaded, knows how to wring the most out of a script and most important of all pulls of the hardest trick of all (especially in a film like this): making it all look spontaneous.

The plot isn't quite as clever as it thinks it is and the script certainly has its moments but doesn't sustain over the course of the film. The really crucial missing ingredient is the chemistry between the two leads. I've never been wholly convinced by Clive Owen but the idea that he could be a future Bond should be well and truly put to bed after this outing. I'm beginning to sound harsher than I mean to, it's an enjoyable film, but not one I'd be thrilled to see repeated on some rainy Saturday night.


Saturday 8 August 2009

'Reader, beware this book'

by James Palumbo

If you've been anywhere near the London underground recently you may well have seen a poster which looks similar to the book cover above. What with quotations made to look as if from the bible, celebrity blurb from figures as diverse as Stephen Fry and Noel Fielding, and the increasingly obligatory website, it's fair to say I think that this book is being given a fair old push. This will partly be to do with the target audience given that the author James Palumbo, son of Lord Palumbo, is the man behind the Ministry Of Sound 'brand' (which includes record label and branded products as well as the nightclub itself). That will also explain why my copy of the book came in a rather sleek, stiff black envelope inside of which there were also some postcards of the books illustrations, a poster and a DVD of some animated illustrations. As I said, quite a push. Which had me a bit suspicious. After reading the two page WARNING which prefaces the book I was out and out worried.

'A vision of the world that will alarm the majority, revolt the sensitive and obliterate the prudish', we will apparently be 'shocked, disgusted, horrified that such ideas are allowed in print' in a book which 'makes fun of our society in a way that will delight teenagers while disturbing everybody else'. Right; where to begin. Firstly, I hate being told how I am going to feel. Whilst the book is being pitched, or rather flogged, as a satire of modern times and therefore I am sure I'm supposed to take the warning with a pinch of salt, it strikes a rather bum note to start off with. Palumbo's targets are perilously close I suspect to the very people who have made him a wealthy man (well, wealthier) which seems a very strange perspective to be writing satire from. Women with surgically enhanced breasts so large they have to be carried on zimmer-like frames are a relatively funny image for a second but the rest of the procession of grotesques barely raised a smile. The problem with satirising our media culture of celebrity, sex, footballers and reality-TV nonsense, is that they have all come dangerously close to self-parody already. In order to try and invent a new reality TV format that will shock, disgust and horrify us, Palumbo has to lump the ones we know together and resort (as he often does in this book) to the scatalogical.

Underneath the story of Tomas, a reality TV star sent mad and murderous, and his journey to become a new Messiah battling against the Great Bear of Russia is the serious message of course and the only problem with the sections of the book that present it are that after all the gunfire, sadism and hallucinatory imagery they're frankly a bit dull. I didn't really like it, can you tell? I shouldn't be surprised though, I had been warned and I'm not a teenager so was never going to be delighted. My real worry is the distinct lack of genuine satire in recent times. The long tail of the modern culture combined with the increasing banality of mainstream entertainment means that the targets are satirising themselves. As the poster on the tube asks: 'What do morons eating live bugs in the jungle create? Other morons.' If you didn't know that already then prepare to be shocked, disgusted and...oh, you get the idea.


Thursday 6 August 2009

John Burnside Interview

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have often championed the work of John Burnside. His last novel Glister was one of my favourite books of last year and his memoir A Lie About My Father remains one of the best memoirs I've read. Like many of my favourite writers he excels in several areas including poetry and journalism. All of which means that I was as pleased as punch when he found time amongst his full-time teaching at St Andrew's and the rigours of being a father to two boys (something I will share with him come October) to answer a few questions for me. If you haven't read any of his work already then I sincerely hope you will do after reading this.

You worked as a computer programmer at the same time as writing your first poems. Did any of your colleagues have a clue that there was a poet amongst them?

Not to begin with. I soon got caught out, though – and much leg-pulling ensued, though mostly about my author photo. When I finally came to leave the job and walked into the Technical Director’s office and handed him my company car key, announcing that I was quitting, he smiled and asked if I was off to write a novel. I think the general feeling was that I was having one of those midlife crisis deals and would be back, somewhat chastened, in six months. I think I did too, to begin with.

That said, many of my colleagues were interested and supportive of my writing. I think they thought I was crazy to think of it as anything other than a hobby – though I did receive some kind messages after The Dumb House came out.

I read The Dumb House shortly after seeing a production of Marivaux's The Dispute in which four children, two of each sex are raised in isolation and then placed together to see which sex will be unfaithful first. It is a comedy whereas your novel, which shares the premise of children raised in isolation, is about as far from comedy as I can imagine. Can you say a bit about where that novel came from?

The original ‘hero’ of The Dumb house was language. I was interested in language and I wanted to dwell for a while on some stories about language acquisition and the relationship between language and the soul. I especially liked that story about Akbar’s keeping children in a silent palace, outside the city, to see whether they would speak if they didn’t hear language used. That would have been a horrifying thing to those of his court who believed that language and the soul are closely related – to think that they – the court – had doomed so many to a soulless existence, which would have been confirmed by the silence of the children in the ‘dumb house’.

Of course, that wasn’t enough of a starting point for a first novel – not enough narrative. That was when Luke arrived – one day, he just appeared, and became the central character (though not, of course, the ‘hero’). In many ways, he was a version of me, though he was a negative image, as it were, of my concerns and interests.

As a writer of poetry, memoir, fiction, and journalism, what are main differences for you personally between those disciplines, and when you have an idea do you know immediately what it will become?

I do know, now, what an idea wants to be (as it were) though there have been times, in the past, when I didn’t. A poem always knows it’s going to be a poem, of course, but there have been occasions when I thought a nascent short story was on the way to novel-hood – maybe because the short story is a very difficult form, (and much undervalued in commercial terms, too). It takes a while to get a strong sense of that.

There are also grey areas that are interesting – between memoir and fiction, essay and memoir, travel piece and memoir, etc. Maybe that’s why I like the memoir as a genre (if you can call it that). It’s very flexible – you can close in and become intimate, then open out and talk about ideas.

Do you have a preferred medium?

They all have their attractions, (I suppose that is to state the obvious, since I keep going back to them all). I’ve just finished a second memoir – it’s called Waking Up in Toytown, and it’s due early next year. It differs from its predecessor (A Lie about my Father) to a fair extent – but the next one, which is already suggesting itself to me, will be different again – using the essay form as a way in, to reflect on time and memory. For me, everything is about time. How we see time determines everything: how happy we are, how directed, how we think of such things as ‘success’ and failure’, how decent we manage to be as people. It all depends on an understanding of time.

I guess, to begin with, I would have said poetry was my first love – because I mostly wrote poetry then. I still do write poetry, but I have an equal fondness for the short story and the essay. I love the essay. It offers so many possibilities to a writer. As for the novel – well that’s love, too, but it’s more like unrequited love. You give it your all and then you can’t bear to think how badly you failed that gorgeous initial idea. Because it was as perfect as jewel to begin with but – not surprisingly, given that it is worked on over years during short breaks from the everyday demands of work and domestic life – it ends up being a piece of knitting, with plains where there should be purls, and vice versa. I carry around a lingering fondness for a couple of my books – the Dumb House, The Devil’s Footprints, Glister, say - but now they make me think of children who looked so wonderful and clean in their christening shawls, but quickly turned delinquent.

Going back to what you were saying about time and how we view it, what do you mean about the differing ways of seeing time?

The time question presents itself in two ways. First, a commonplace piece of mystic thinking – put briefly, the idea that the now is eternal. Which is the case, but hardly new – as a thought. As an experience, however, it is astonishing. This moment is everything – though if you try to stop and think about what ‘this moment’ I, it’s gone, and another, equally fleeting moment is there, or there and gone, in its place. So the only way to live in this eternal now is to forget about it, and let it roll, so to speak.

The other way the time question presents itself is when we thinking of it on the larger scale. Time passes, or we pass in it – and pass on too, as the cliché goes. The now is eternal, but we, as we are in it, are not. We pass away. The odd thing is that, when experiments were done on how to help people become happier, one of the steps was to spend a little time each day in a cemetery – and it did help people, the awareness of death made them feel more aware of, and so value, the present. It drew them back into the now.

On a larger scale, there is the matter of dialectic (one name for a universal idea), viz the idea that the wheel turns, yin and yang seek balance, etc. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, new thesis, forever and ever amen. Seeing that this is a universal principle – that things are always in flux – helps us to overcome our local attachments – by which I don’t mean that we lose interest in, or passion for, anything, but we do see that things pass, and this moment’s pleasure or pain is clarified by the knowledge that it will pass.

There’s a tradition in Spanish poetry that I like – where the poet is in his garden, looking around, listening to the birds, enjoying the warmth and the scents, when it comes to him that one day this garden will still be there, but he will be gone, and someone else will be experiencing these things. Someone he doesn’t even know. This is a cause for celebration, though, not elegy or regret. The game continues. James P. Carse talks about this as ‘infinite play’ – there are times when we cease to play the game of being for finite ends, and play for the sake of the game itself, a game that will go on without us.

I know, I know. New age-y mysticism and such have made all these ideas into clichés. I was a sub-hippie myself once. But as experiences, these things remain true, and cannot be diminished. Except, perhaps, in rambling on about them – which I’ve just done!

Can you give an idea of your writing process? Do you start by planning a story out or begin with a character and see where they go?

It varies, depending on what I am doing. The essential thing is to have an origin, a core if you like, of the non-directed, spontaneous, organic. It’s important to wait the right length of time before pen is applied to paper – this can be a matter of hours, or years. For the novel I am working on now, it has been almost a decade – I started in 2000, but had to stop and wait because something was missing. I didn’t know what, so I had to wait.

In a few of your novels the main character seems to be a man living in ‘self-imposed exile’. Why do you think this type of character keeps recurring?

I suppose, if I’m honest, I have to admit that this character is a variant of me. I don’t mean that any of my characters resemble me at all (though one person did say I was John the Librarian from Glister…) but I do stand at an angle to the world. I just start from a different premise than the society I find myself in – though I don’t think I’m unique in that. On the contrary, we all know – ‘in ourselves’ as they say (which is an interesting phrase) – that public events, i.e. everything from what politicians talk about to who gets the prizes at the Oscars and the Brit Awards is a giant lie. We all know that politicians are put in place by commercial concerns and have to pay the piper in all kinds of ways (from GM crops to buying vast quantities of antiviral drugs that probably won’t even work when needed to building warships nobody will ever need) just as we know that there are all kinds of musicians, writers, film-makers, artists, etc who are doing imaginative, interesting and moving work that, for whatever reason, has to stay outside the mainstream.

Why do you think society has become so divorced from the reality of most people’s inner lives?

Oh, God, don’t invite me to take out the soap box. Seriously, though, the problem has been well analysed and we pretty much know what has gone wrong – we lost organic connection with the world around us, everything was commoditised, our politicians and business folk became hopelessly self-serving (as they have often done, through history, but recently it’s been so blatant it saps the spirit just to watch them get away with it), we have a neo-medieval culture of celebrity, excellence became embarrassing, we began to think in soundbites, we published more and more books about ‘complexity’ but schooled ourselves to think in simpler and simpler terms. I could go on. The central thing, maybe, is that we were the first society to know – actually to see and hear – the misery that was being endured in faraway places, by people our appetites had impoverished, while we enjoyed our bland and joyless feasts at home. What a burden of guilt that is – and along with that guilt comes a feeling of helplessness, a sense that there is nothing we can do about it.

In the industrial landscapes of Living Nowhere and Glister there doesn’t seem to be much hope or optimism, does that reflect something that you feel personally about industry and urban living?

Yes and no. I think cities could be wonderful places, if the planners, commercial interests and politicos put people first. And the only real problem I saw when I worked in factories and (briefly) British Steel was a lack of respect for the men and women who did the work. Most of the people I encountered took pride in doing what they did, or if not, wanted to do so. The problem was that this pride was eroded by daily insults of the most basic kind – a lack of participation, a sense that someone else made all the decisions, even the most basic ones.

I thought of both Living Nowhere and Glister with the recent 'toxic soup' liability case in Corby. How did you react to that victory?

I think it's great that the families won - though of course it's the Council who pick up the liability and not the companies who created the problem in the first place. So I can't help thinking that it's a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul, while the guys in the good suits just walk away. The Council are culpable - but the list doesn't end there as anyone who knows Corby (and many other industrial towns) can testify. (As it happens, the initial 'inspiration' - in part, at least - for the toxic landscape in Glister was Weston, near Runcorn, and the land in that area poisoned by ICI).

You asked for A Lie About My Father to be treated as a work of fiction, is there something essentially unreliable about personal history?

There is, inevitably. I tried to be as accurate, in purely actual terms, as I could in that book. But I was – am – partisan. Did I do my father justice? Did I do myself justice? I hope so. But I was telling a story, and the governing factor in making that book was the wish to tell that story – which is not documentary, but narrative. Every story is as much about what is not told as what is told – say I leave something out because I don’t think it is essential to the story but somebody else reads the book and thinks that what I left out was the most important detail of all?

The other thing I would say here may sound merely contentious, but I feel it is a valid point and that is that fiction is more ‘true’ than fact. You can take ten thousand photographs of a bamboo plant, say, from every possible angle and it still will not capture the essence of bamboo as a drawing by Hokusai does. I think that is what fiction is after, that essence. Not fact. Truth.

After reading A Lie About My Father I felt that I could see some of the crossover from fact into your fiction (the stunning description of an LSD trip for example). Do you find it easier when writing from personal experience?

I’m not sure. I have to reimagine everything that is drawn from personal experience anyhow, because it has to be the experience of this character, rather than my own. I did acid on a very regular basis for a number of years, but the trip that opens Living Nowhere, though it is informed by my memories, is not my trip. It’s Alina’s (I hope).

The writer Paul Abbot has said that a good character is often a composite of three people you know, would you agree with that?

It’s an interesting notion. I wonder if Melville would have said as much about Ahab? I used to think that there’s a little piece of the author’s father in the villain of any story – now that I’m a father myself, though, I’m not so sure.

Speaking of that, would you say that fatherhood has altered anything in your writing? When I compare the objectivity of the children in The Dumb House with the concern for them in Glister I wonder if there is an element of care coming through subconsciously. I know that I see the world differently since becoming a father.

Fatherhood has altered my entire life – in many more ways than I expected. I don’t think, though, it changed my writing in a moral sense. The Dumb House was an angry book – a very angry book – to begin with. The coolness was necessary to keep that anger from undermining the argument. Cruelty appalled me, then, when I wrote that book, as much as it does now – but I had to write from Luke’s point of view in that book because I didn’t want to be shouting from the rooftops, I wanted to insinuate. How different, say, is much of the animal experimentation that goes on, from the crude ‘science’ that Luke engages in with the twins? That was a question for me, but I didn’t want to ask it in those words – as I say, it had to be insinuation.

There is often a moment of catharsis in your fiction. Do you find the process of writing cathartic in itself?

I’m not altogether sure about catharsis. The etymology bothers me. Purification, cleansing, etc. I’d prefer to think in terms of revelation. I like to work with alienated male characters who have become denatured for some reason. Hopefully, something happens which reveals to them that they have been wrapped in a lie, or self-deceit, or social conditioning – that they have been blinded to their true natures. Writing is also a process of this kind of revelation. I renew my sense of the world as I write. Maybe that is a cleansing. If it is, though, it’s not a one-off thing – it’s an iterative process. Catharsis can sound a bit final.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve returned to that novel I mentioned earlier, begun in 2000. It’s called A Summer of Drowning, it’s set in the Arctic circle in an island in north Norway. It’s about belief, superstition and storytelling. That’s all I dare say right at the moment.

Could you recommend an under-appreciated book to readers of this blog?

Hundreds, I fear. How about Lancelot by Walker Percy, for starters? Or Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful novel, Wise Blood, (she’s not just a story writer…)?

One thing that bothers me is how little we translate in this country. We’re missing some great French novelists, for example: Jean Echenoz, Regis Jauffret and Stéphane Audeguy to pick just three favourites of mine. We need good translations of these and so many others.

I always ask my interviewees if they would do a Hemingway and compose a story in six words. Would you give it a go too?

Afterwards, we had coffee and pie.

John Burnside's latest poetry collection, The Hunt in the Forest, is published today
His other works can be found here.


Tuesday 4 August 2009

'a tainted wether of the flock'

This Is How
by M J Hyland

Three weeks ago my fiancée Sarah was standing at the top of the stairs when she said, 'I can't marry you, it's over,' and when she was halfway down, I called out her name, but she didn't stop, didn't so much as look at me, just said, 'Please don't follow me.'
I wanted to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression I didn't know how to make with words. But I didn't, and when she'd closed the door I said, 'Okay, then,' and, 'Goodbye, then.'
After wards I played the scene over and over, imagined how I planted my hands in the middle of her back and pushed her hard enough to send her flying.
And I got this sentence in my head, over and over, 'You broke my heart and now I've broken your spine.' It was something I'd never say, not like anything I've ever said. I've never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much.

Meet Patrick Oxtoby, the latest central figure from M J Hyland, who won plaudits for her last novel, the Booker shortlisted Carry Me Down. At the center of that novel was a young boy (John Egan) in a man's body who learned to his cost the true consequences of his actions. A similar theme prevails in her latest where Patrick is propelled to a seaside boarding house after the end of his relationship, and struggles to find an outlet for his emotions until the pressure builds to a point of release. Written in a similarly pared back style Hyland's approach seems to be to build a convincing psychological portrait by slowly revealing details unencumbered by florid description or emotion. Both John and Patrick seem to be living at one remove from the world they live in. Patrick is well aware that the reason his fiancee has left him is because he doesn't know how to express his emotions but his honest reaction to that - 'The thing is I didn't have that many', gives you an idea of his stunted emotional development.

What he does seem to build up to are vents of emotion. As a student he is reduced to tears whilst watching The Merchant of Venice, totally unprepared for the sobs that wrack his body as an actor recites.

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me.

It is only later that he learns that a wether is a castrated male sheep, a piece of symbolism which needs little elaboration.

What this leads up to is a single moment of violence which will have the direst consequences for Patrick.

I did the thing regarded by the law as the worst of things and what I did adds up to no more than the act of raising and lowering a hand. My mind played hardly any part, but my body acted and, as far as the law's concerned, my body might as well be all I am.

Patrick's constant defence that he didn't mean to kill is no real defence at all and just as a courtroom might struggle to understand his actions I found myself as a reader failing to get much further into his mind. After enjoying Carry Me Down I failed to finish Hyland' first novel How the Light Gets In but I can detect in her progression, a stripping away of the extraneous, an aim to provide the barest of essentials so that the reader can slowly discover the complexity underneath. Unfortunately for me this time it seemed to take a long time to reveal not much more than a boy in need of a hug.


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