Friday 27 November 2009

'in the country of the blind...'

Day Of The Triffids
by John Wyndham

You know you've communicated the fact that you like reading when someone buys you a great wodge of Penguin modern classics for your birthday. They were a varied selection ranging from Bond to Bagheera but my first pick was made for a couple of reasons. I was six when the BBC adapted Wyndham's novel into a TV series so I'm sure it wasn't something I was allowed to watch and yet I have a very clear memory of John Duttine running about, those bright exotic flower heads and their whip like sting (leaving its signature red dots on the face of its victims), and an all pervading sense of genuine terror. Drunk on the success of other TV revivals (Dr Who, etc) the BBC announced that The Day of The Triffids would be getting a remake too, although it seems to have missed its initial scheduled release of, well, about now actually. Before it hits the screens I wanted to sample the source material and see whether it still stood up as a classic of its genre.

What I didn't expect was that it might be able to stand on its own two feet (much like the titular cannibals) regardless of genre. Sure, there are some bits that date it, and the dialogue is pretty wooden on the whole but reading it you stumble into example after example of films or books that it has influenced. When Bill Masen wakes in an empty hospital, removing the bandages from his face to find he might just be the only man left who can see in a world where the human race seems to have been blinded by a meteor shower, he walks out into a deserted London, just like Cillian Murphy did in the stunning opening of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. The sheer strangeness of such a populous city being emptied is well realised and when Masen enters Westminster later in the book, 'The deadness, the finish of it all, was italicized there.' For anyone who has lived in London there is something very effective about the naming of specific places and the detailing of the devestation that occurs simply from a lack of human upkeep. The only drawback with this localisation is the occasionallly earnest statement such as, 'That's why we're going to Clerkenwell. There's a place there that makes the best triffid-guns and masks in the world', which cannot help but raise a slight smile.

As he struggles to survive in the chaotic fallout of what may well have been an accidental attack from man-made satellite weaponry rather than an act of god, Masen realises the importance of sight, not only to his survival but to the dominance of the human species.

Man's supremacy is not primarily due to his brain...it is due to the brain's capacity to make use of the information conveyed to it by a narrow band of visible light rays. His civilization, all that he has achieved or might achieve hangs on his ability to perceive that range of vibrations from red to violet. Without that, he is lost. I saw for a moment the true tenuousness of his hold on his power, the miracles that he had wrought with such a fragile instrument...

Once this is taken away of course there is scope for a shift in the food chain, a moment the triffids are well positioned to exploit. Flesh-eating plants are a tough sell on the face of it but Wyndham's totally logical plotting makes perfect sense and has a certain frisson for the modern reader with GM crops in mind. A plant developed and bred for its vegetable oil has one major drawback it seems; easy enough for humans to control and manage until their own major advantage is taken away. Even more successful is the tension created by what isn't known about them: the curious stick-like protuberances that they beat against their stamens begin to seem something like language or communication and how is it that they manage to work together and know where and when to strike with most impact?

The post-apocalyptic world created by Wyndham is no less terrifying than that found in Cormac McCarthy's extraordinary The Road. Both men tap into the barbarism that comes with a breakdown of civilization and what helps Day Of The Triffids to retain its relevance today are those passages which make you question ho much we've really learnt in spite of our efforts to get connected to the real world around us.

When getting on for half a lifetime has been spent in one conception of order, reorientation is no five-minute business. Looking back at the shape of things then, the amount we did not know and did not care to know about our daily lives is not only astonishing, but somehow a bit shocking. I knew practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how my food reached me, where the fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy. Our life had become a complexity of specialists all attending to their own jobs with more or less efficiency, and expecting others to do the same.

The post-apocalyptic world is always sparsely populated and Wyndham knows that the other crippling factor for such a 'gregarious' species is loneliness. For Masen in particular, loneliness is as large a foe as the threat of violence from other survivor communities or the triffids themselves, and he learns to his surprise how important companionship and love really are to him.

Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative - an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary...I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary, and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed as one atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly - that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do...


Wednesday 25 November 2009

Star Trek

I am no Trekkie but the tone of surprise with which people told me that this re-invigoration of the franchise from man of the moment JJ Abrams was really rather good had me intrigued enough to take a look. My plan to watch it at the IMAX in Birmingham when I was working up there for a couple of days was scotched when my employers had the temerity to take me out for dinner that evening. Babies and work have meant that I've had to wait for the DVD release, no substitute I know for the big-screen experience but it's still an enjoyable ride in your own living room. The previous film incarnations had done enough to bury any integrity in the series years ago but somehow they've managed to begin at the beginning, include enough references for the fans and enough character and bangs for the neutral to give the USS Enterprise a chance of a few more years of bold going.

The casting is excellent for a start (although they could be accused of simply applying the simple 'younger, prettier' rule), Chris Pine as Kirk starting out off the rails and building steadily into the captain he will become , settling into that famous chair (with an uncannily familar posture) only at the very end of the film. It is Zachary Quinto's Spock who seems to be the natural leader and the duelling that goes on between these two very different men is the backbone of the film. Each has their own conflict with themselves and their ancestry and it is that which they battle against as much as Eric Bana's snarling Nero. Oh and the new look Uhura has both of them and probably most of the male audience turning their heads too. I particularly enjoyed Karl Urban's grouchy 'Bones' and was steeling myself against what could have been a cringe-worthy turn as Scotty from Simon Pegg only to find myself chuckling away.

As the first film there was always bound to be a fair bit of exposition and the time-travelling plot wasn't nearly as ingenious or puzzling as I believe the storylines can be but it was nice to see a film that made space feel like a genuinely dangerous place, the vacuum that it is, rather than just threatening the tilting camera on the wobbling sets of old. The battle scenes and space travel are genuinely thrilling, which is just as well in a film which felt a tad long to me. The big bangs and SFX won't be enough on their own though to keep this re-animated corpse going. If the franchise can maintain the human-(and alien)-interest storylines and keep the brain-teaser factor high then they might just get away with it. Don't worry about that for the moment though, just watch it and have some fun, everyone in the cast seems to be.


Monday 23 November 2009

'No, no ascension, no ether, no big to-do.'

by Jean Echenoz

After completing Echenoz' short novel Ravel I said I would leave it a bit before reading anything else by him, following the advice of Kevin From Canada who suffers from impatience as much as I do. What has followed in musical terms is more of a tacit than a true break but I had a plan to link the reading of his previous novel Piano, which seemed to be about a concert pianist suffering from anxiety, and Philip Roth's latest The Humbling which has an actor suffering stage-fright as its central character. Finding new authors and delving into their back catalogue can also be a risky business in terms of finding the same satisfaction as that initial experience, and knowing that Ravel was quite different from his previous work meant that I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Piano.

My plan didn't really work out for starters, the recent postal strike has kept me separated from Roth for the moment and having read Piano I'm not sure the two books will share much at all. The concert pianist Maz Delemarc may be suffering from a kind of performance anxiety but that isn't really what the novel is about. When we first meet him however his life is dominated by that fright, alcoholism and the spectre of a never consummated relationship. His companion is Bernie, a man whose basic function is to try and keep Max away from the booze and push him on stage if necessary when the time comes to perform. In the same way that Echenoz announced at the end of the first chapter that Ravel has only 10 years left to live he lets us know as early as the second paragraph here that Max will suffer a violent death in just 22 days. But he is blissfully unaware of this as the days count down and we follow his weaving progress through the streets of Paris, one moment of excitement coming when he thinks he has spotted his lost love Rose on the subway after which a chase ensues.

After the event which has been flagged up from the beginning Max finds himself in a kind of hotel, which feels more like a hospital, but a surreal one which seems to count Dean Martin and Peggy Lee amongst its staff. In this version of limbo Max must wait whilst it is decided whether he will go to 'the urban zone' or 'the park'. I think we all know which one of those is more desirable and I bet you can guess which one Max ends up in although he has great optimism in 'the balance sheet of his life'.

For it seemed to him that he had always behaved rather well. Taking a survey of his existence, he came to the conclusion that he hadn't seriously lapsed in any domain whatsoever. naturally, he had suffered from doubt, alcoholism, and acedia; naturally, ha had occasionally succumbed to laziness, allowed himself a few minor tantrums, or indulged in bouts of pride, but what else could he have done?

One of the conditions for his life after the centre is a total rejection of his previous existence. No more music, no more piano. it isn't until he comes across a locked piano at the Centre that he realises how little he has thought of music, a feeling utterly changed by the appearance of the object itself.

Max had to be content with circling for a moment, not more than two or three times, around the closed piano. Without much conviction, he also tried to lift the instrument's lid, if only to examine its sounding board and wrest plank, caress the strings and run his fingernail over them like a harp, but in vain: locked shut like the rest. During these two or three turns around the piano, the little idea grew in the back of Max's mind.
Despite the very different style of Ravel both books share a similar authorial charm in the way that the writer breaks in every now and then to speed things along to their essence, or sometimes the opposite, to take a moment to digress. These interruptions are often funny and charming, adding to the quirkier feel of this book. There is a distinct oddness certainly once Max reaches the Centre, but looking back I realised that the whole book is infused with that slightly off-kilter feeling. This makes for an enjoyable read, although I'll admit to being more satisfied by the far more accomplished Ravel. I hope that his recently published Running, based on the real life of Czech athlete Emil Zátopek, follows more in that vein.


Friday 20 November 2009


Why do I find myself having to watch 'children's' films in order to see innovative design, witty scripts and feel moved in some way? We can discuss that together below (although the yawning silence that greeted my request for feedback on Synecdoche, New York was not encouraging - unless you were all playing some kind of sick joke on me and providing me with the only appropriate response to a film like that), let's get on with Coraline. Any fans of Henry Selick's previous stop-frame animation features, James And The Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas will definitely want to see this as it continues that vein of work, looking slicker and more adventurous than ever without losing any of the charm that comes from using genuine puppets rather than CGI.

Based on Neil Gaiman's book of the same name, the film begins as Coraline moves with her parents to an apartment in a slightly dilapidated house in the country. Basically ignored by her parents she goes exploring finding first a deep well, then a neighbouring boy, Wybie, and then within the house a small door that she later discovers leads to a parallel world, similar to her own but better in every way. Here she meets her 'other' mother and father, again similar but improved and chillingly sporting buttons in place of their eyes. As they try to convince her to stay there rather than return and Wybie tells Coraline more and more about the disappearance of his grandmother's sister she realises the danger she is in and will have to fight hard, with a little help from a feral cat, to get back the family she wants.

Make no mistake, this film is dark. The first half an hour or so is harmless enough but once the plot darkens there are some pretty 'scary images', as the official parental guidance puts it. Which is great of course, I'm all for scaring the pants off kids, but I'd keep the younger ones on some safer fare for the moment. The performances work well , the visuals are striking, the design really beautiful in places, it's easy to see why the critics were so enthusiastic about it. Just get past the slow opening and you'll be rewarded by some stunning work, and a quick glance at the making-of documentary will give you an idea of the deliberation and attention to detail that helps make it that way.


Monday 16 November 2009

'tell me about the kings'

You Are Not A Stranger Here
by Adam Haslett

A short article in the Guardian drew my attention to Adam Haslett, his first novel Union Pacific apparently wowing many at the Frankfurt Book Fair (and snapped up by Atlantic Books in the UK). A quick search located this stunning review of his short story collection by none other than Just William's Luck favourite John Burnside. It really is a stunning review and all the prompting I needed to read a collection which had apparently been lauded, earning nominations for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, but passed me by completely. The stories are incredibly varied but a unifying theme might be people who are disconnected from life in some way, finding a moment of connection that alters their, and our, perception. It would be fair I think to say that the prevalence of mental unstability and violence means that the overall tone is dark but the opening story, Notes To My Biographer begins with a paragraph containing humour and a character that leaps off the page.

Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life. At seventy-three, I'm not about to change. The mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age. I have shot Germans in the fields of Normandy, filed twenty-six patents, married three women, survived them all, and am currently the subject of an investigation by the IRS, which has about as much chance of collecting from me as Shylock did of getting his pound of fleash. Bereaucracies have trouble thinking clearly. I, on the other hand, am perfectly lucid.

Franklin Caldwell Singer gets the collection off to a cracking start, the epitome of unreliable narration, puffed up with his own importance, his delusions slowly stripped away during a visit to his estranged son. What he would think of as invention and eccentricity has clearly had a devastating effect on his family, now scattered to the winds, and Haslett judges perfectly the pace at which to turn humour into pathos, retaining throughout one of those utterly irresistable narrative voices. It shares many of its strengths with a famous story by Cheever called Reunion (a title Haslett uses himself later in the book) which you can hear being read by Richard Ford in a New Yorker podcast here.

In a complete change of gear Haslett matches the gifts of another master of the short form, Chekhov, with The Good Doctor. A young rural doctor is thinking of leaving his practice, after the National Health Service Corps scheme which placed him there with the promise of repaying his medical school loans has its funding cut, leaving him shouldering the debt. When he makes a routine visit to a patient who has suffered depression for many years and subsisted on a constant prescription of sedatives his faith in the talking cure will be put to the test. He is a man crippled by his compassion, well-meaning to that level attained by Simon of Cyrene, and as he learnt from Mrs Buckholdt the shocking story behind her present state I literally found myself exclaiming out loud. The skill comes in the clarity, unencumbered by emotion or melodrama, which adds to rather than taking away from the impact. The woman who is cast as patient, victim and burden is in fact strong, intelligent and independent. She sees the doctor for exactly who he is , knowing that the help he can offer isn't the help she needs.

In The Beginnings of Grief (which you can read online here) we meet a boy struggling to deal with his mother's suicide. By provoking the class bully he is able to find some kind of comfort in pain and violence. At the same time as these encounters, which also mark some kind of sexual awakening, we see him constructing in woodwork class a wooden chest which resembles a child's coffin, its symbolism clear as he heads towards the story's cathartic ending. It's barely over 4000 words long but has the kind of power that makes it feel more substantial.

I have simply mentioned the first three stories there, I could have picked any in this collection which contains no filler. In fact I'd be happy to tell you about them all but I'll give a final mention to the final story, The Volunteer, because it epitomises so much of what struck me in this book. An awkward teenager makes volunteer visits to an elderly woman, visits which have given her hope. As the story evolves and we follow the boy's stumbling progress towards losing his virginity we also witness the unravelling of Elizabeth's fragile mental state and are hit in the solar plexus by a revelation from her past. How a story manages to be gentle and brutal at the same time I have no idea but it is a trick he accomplishes several times. In his review Burnside wished we could apply 'the clear lens of hindsight' to sort the real thing from all the PR hype. As that Guardian piece illustrates Haslett is far from free of hype seven years after these stories were published but the act of reading them goes some way to blowing that aside and leaving it for you to decide whether he's the real deal.

For those who suspect he might be and who suffer from impatience you can read the opening of his forthcoming novel Union Atlantic here.


Friday 13 November 2009

District 9

A little like the alien spacecraft that adorns the poster this film seems to have arrived out of nowhere. Who would have thought that South Africa would be the breeding ground for a top-notch alien-politico-docu-buddy-flick (catchy, eh)? As one of the narrating voices says at the beginning, people would have expected first contact to happen in a city like New York rather than Johannesburg but it is here that an alien ship came to a halt almost 30 years ago bringing not laser beams and alien invasion but close to a million alien refugees in need of help. Referred to perjoratively as 'prawns' they now live in the titular shanty-town, looked upon by many of Johannesburg's human residents as a burden they would rather see jet off back home or shipped off elsewhere.

The private company in charge of policing them are MNU (Multi National United) who are looking to exploit the potential of the alien weaponry which so far is useless, the alien's DNA being integral to its functioning. The film begins as MNU are preparing to serve the aliens with eviction notices before moving them forcibly to District 10, a purpose-built camp 240 miles away from the city. We follow Wikus Van De Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley in what is his first major acting role (it won't be his last - not just because I think he's marvellous but because I see he will be playing Capt. 'Howling Mad' Murdoch in the feature film of The A Team), as he heads the operation but intercut with that documentary and news footage we hear from various people involved, talking about it all as a past event, and we know from what they say that something goes very wrong.

When he is sprayed by some kind of fluid during a search Wikus begins a transformation. Anyone familiar with The Fly will understand what I mean and also have a good idea of the kind of special effects, not to mention the feeling of unease. What works so well here is that Wikus goes from a tank-top-wearing company man who regards prawns as a bureaucratic nuisance, to someone reliant on them for their help and protection. Given what his assimilation of alien DNA could mean to MNU he becomes a fugitive and the pace is frenetic, perhaps running away with itself towards the end where it becomes just like any other action thriller. It's most interesting moments come with the clever intercutting of different film stocks and perspectives, the distinctly weird way that man and alien have to work together, and the obvious significance of themes like segregation, dehumanisation and violence in a post-apartheid South Africa. All of this ignores the humour and the few tender moments that also dot the film; this is a man after all who wants nothing more than to be back with his wife again and that is the motivation behind all of the film's action.

In the age of identikit thrillers and action movies the set-up of this one is sufficiently interesting, and its execution in the first hour-and-a-bit original enough to warrant attention. It certainly heralds a promising future for its lead actor and director Neill Blomkamp


Wednesday 11 November 2009

'sometimes you have to believe before you can see'

The Blasphemer
by Nigel Farndale

Richard Dawkins raises the hackles of plenty of people with his manner as much as his standpoint (I was going to say beliefs then, but I know he would get angry with me for using a word like that for what he would consider nothing less than FACTS) and those who have belief and faith might even have found themselves in a darker moment placing him at the mercy of a life-threatening situation to see whether it might provoke if not a change of heart at least a little humility. In his ambitious debut novel Farndale does just that by placing Daniel Kennedy, nematologist, a kind of Dawkins b-team (literally at one point when he is bumped off a TV panel when the man himself becomes available), and aerophobe into a plane crash on his way to the Galapagos Islands with long term partner Nancy. The man of reason and science is forced to confront the basis of what he holds to be true when he is helped on his way to swimming over 20 miles of open sea, against the odds, to get help for the floating survivors. What is he helped by? A vision? A hallucination? An angel?

Daniel's adherence to atheism and science finds its root in his rejection of God at the age of five when his mother died of cancer. Since then he has made sensible decision after sensible decision, based on the evidence, making steady progress within Trinity college as he heads towards professorship, building a family unit without the validation of marriage and yet, and yet. The trip to the Galapagos is a surprise for Nancy on their 10th anniversary and he has plans to finally place a ring on that finger and make it all official until fate intervenes and sends them plummeting into the Carribbean.

Farndale has the tension ramped up pretty high for the whole flight, Daniel's fear of flying being put to the test by withdrawing the medication he would usually take to tranquillise himself. With the accident itself and the aftermath he shows himself to be adept at conveying a real sense of crisis and also cleverly creates the personal event that will come between Daniel and Nancy. The power of evolutionary concepts like 'fight or flight' and 'survival of the fittest' is laid bare when Daniel climbs over Nancy to escape the sinking plane.

With a scrum-half's hand-off that flattened her nose and dragged her lips sideways, he pushed her cheek and jaw into the headrest. It was a reflex, visceral action slowed down by the water; and adrenal moment they would both replay time and again, always with he same damning frame frozen in time.

Despite coming back, oxygen replenished, to rescue her and then making the swim of his life to raise the alarm for the rest of the survivors, this single moment comes down like a barrier between them and the shockwaves on their relationship are nicely realised. That marathon swim contains one of several moments of fragile reality.

Then he saw him. A young man with a lapidary smile and protrudent wide-set eyes was treading water no more than ten yards away, gently beckoning with his hand. Delicate boned, olive-skinned and with contour, quiddity and mass, the man was completely present, yet could not be. Only his head and shoulders were visible - he wasn't wearing a life vest - and in the trough that followed a cresting wave he disappeared.

The fact that this vision occurs at a time when Daniel was trying to remove his own life-vest is what gives it its sense of protectiveness. When he continues to see that face afterwards he cannot help but examine what might be possible, even within the realms of science. As one of his colleagues puts it:

The mind of the scientist is open to all possibilities. Take the uncertainty of the subatomic world. It is supposedly full of fluctuations that apply to space-time as well. So up and down, left and right, even past, present and future are no longer as predictable at the subatomic level. The past could walk into the present. Your great grandfather Daniel, or yours Wetherby, could walk into this room right now.

There is something rather convenient about alighting on Daniel's great-grandfather as the other major storyline that runs through the book, which I haven't even begun to touch on yet concerns that very man, Andrew Kennedy, and his experience fighting at Ypres and beyond. The description of fear before going over the top has echoes in that fear of flying mentioned earlier and Farndale develops his themes of heroism and cowardice in both strands and indeed in their sub-plots. In fact if I have a criticism of the book it is that it seeks to do too much. There is a storyline involving a possible alternate opening to Mahler's ninth symphony, a Machiavellian vice-provost within the university whose deep religious faith is matched by his extraordinary, vindictive wickedness towards those he seems to hold closest to him, a clumsy post-9/11 terrorist thread that threatens to turn the ending of the book into an airport thriller and plenty more besides. I mention all of these not to spoil any plot but to show the sheer prevalence of it. I personally would have enjoyed just following the trajectories of Daniel and his great grandfather as they struggle to deal with their most human instincts in times of crisis, as it is here that Farndale writes best and takes some bold creative steps in uniting his themes and images. It is brave to attempt a book of this scale as a first novel and it would be unfair of me to pick holes in it, there is enough here to show that Farndale can write, you just have to pick your way through some treacherous terrain to see it.


Monday 9 November 2009

'a duet with absence'

Madame Verona Comes Down The Hill
by Dimitri Verhulst

After a childhood spent in foster care and institutes Verhulst wrote stories and novels that dealt with his youth, finally breaking through with a novel called Problemski Hotel which focused on the lives of residents in an asylum-seeker's centre in Belgium. Changing tack completely with this novella he has written something that reads like a fable of old, a paean to love and loneliness, a book which seems to have a random structure but which slowly and successfully assembles itself into a portrait of an isolated community.

The Madame Verona of the title has lived with her husband, Mr Potter, in a house that sits on a hill overlooking the village of Oucwegne, 'a gutter in the earth's crust'. Brought together by music, he a conductor, she a pianist, they have lived in an artistic isolation which many in the village expected to end when Mr Potter hung himself from a tree in the forest, unwilling to allow his fatal illness to run its course. But his final act beforehand had been to cut and collect as much firewood as he could, allowing his wife to perform one last act in his memory. The novella starts almost at its ending.

It had seemed like an inexhaustible supply, but that morning in February Madame Verona had laid the last log on the fire. The last piece of firewood that he too had held in his splinter-pierced hands. There had been less and less to hold that he too had held, because if things don't rot, they break, and when she pushed that last log deeper into the fire with the poker, she decided to go down the hill. As a symbol, a meaningless act set opposite a meaningless fact, but more beautiful.

Her descent towards the village is an important event, especially for the men. Not only is she an uncommonly beautiful woman but Oucwegne is a village beset by a kind of curse; all the children born, bar one, have been male. The men have had to content themselves with trips to the nearest town and its whorehouses to satisfy their yearning for coupling but for many men the return of Madame Verona heralds the chance to capture the highest prize. When it is known that Madame has had the tree from which her husband hanged himself cut down it seems that she has finished her mourning and will return to the village soon.

Silence is often more intense after its return. When a tree accepts its defeat. creaks and capsizes, all life flies up and off. There's crowing and cawing, branches crack, it rains feather and down, rabbits flee to their underground shelters. All things considered the titan's contact with the actual ground is quiet, people generally expect it to be louder. It's mainly the rest of the forest that kicks up a fuss and makes a racket. And once the creatures have assessed the damage, silence comes back. Eyes and leaves turn to the light that has never shone so brightly here. A place has come free, the struggle can begin, because the space will be occupied by something or someone. It's like that for trees, it's like that for people.

But she has plans for the tree. She instructs a luthier to fashion her husband's beloved instrument, the cello, from the wood. The tree having been freshly cut, it will take time for the wood to dry and season but Madame has not only patience but enough firewood to last her the twenty year wait.

That sense of community I mentioned is created in several ways. There is the social aspect, the village united in its love of drink and table football, social standing and grievances worked out on that enclosed green surface. There are the professional/personal relationships, for example the nearest doctor being a journey away the village have tended to rely on the vet for their medical needs. The fact that many of the older men of the village knew her as the little daughter of the sweet-shop owner adding to their embarrassment when it comes to examination. There is also a great section that explains the time when a cow was made mayor, an episode that typifies that feel of fable and the skill with which Verhulst is able to say so much about village life with so little. At only 145 generously-spaced pages this book does what all good fables should: keeps its strong themes running throughout and fills your mind with images and character. After such a volte-face it is intriguing to think what Verhulst might write next. I see that he has also written poetry and one other standout moment for me was a verse written by Mr Potter for Madame. All of which makes Verhulst seem like a Belgian Adam Foulds. I wonder what he'd make of that.


Friday 6 November 2009

'what happened to our dreams?'

by Pietro Grossi

Pushkin Press don't only bring neglected European writers from the past back into print or into English translation they also publish the works of current European writers so that we can sample what is current on the continent. Grossi's collection of three extended stories is described on the cover as 'a perfect book' by Il Sole 24 Ore, which is one of those quotes that sounds fantastic the first time you read it and then less and less like the all encompassing compliment it seemed with each successive glance. No matter, especially as the cover itself was so pleasant to glance at and more than appropriate given my current involvement in a show which is all about horses. Inside we learn that Grossi has been writing since the age of 8 and admires writers like Hemingway, Salinger and Faulkner. Those influences are felt pretty heavily and I hope I sound fair if I say that Grossi doesn't always emerge from under them. I don't want to be too damning on what is after all only his second book. We have become so drunk on the heavily publicised 'stunning debut' that new writers must find it hard to find the space to learn, to make mistakes and to grow.

The first story, Boxing, is as you might expect the one which brings Hemingway to mind. As you might hope from any story about pugilists we are introduced to two distinctive fighters, with very different back stories who then come together on that square of canvas to fight it out. I won't tell you the result of course but you only need to have watched Rocky to know that victory is relative. Our narrator is known amongst his peers as The Dancer, his fancy footwork and speed around the ring having marked him out as the best in his class despite never having fought competitively at all due to his mother's insistence that he train only (Grossi is in no hurry to disabuse us of our stereotyped ideas about Italian boys and their mothers). Having never been put to the test he has the confidence of a superhero, impervious to the fists of mere mortals. All that will be put to the test when he meets The Goat, a fighter who has earned his name in the ring by always 'moving forwards with his head down', is a deaf mute who learns the name of The Dancer by reading it on the lips of every other kid in the gym.

And this legend has been started by people who had all their five senses...think now about about a deaf person, think about someone who, in order to put together the same picture is forced to gather bits an pieces here and there, wherever he finds them. What are you left with then? You're left with that bloody name that jumps from mouth to mouth and bounces around your head like a stone; always preceded and followed by knowing and admiring looks, until you're going out of your mind.

When the showdown occurs Grossi does a good job of keeping the action engrossing but also of making it a story about more than just the big fight. If there is something that links all three stories in the collection (apart from them all having two male protagonists) it is the coming of age theme. For The Dancer especially it is about putting his reputation and comfortable life aside to stand on his own two feet, to test himself as much as his opponent.

I realised suddenly that we were the same breed: both outcasts, both uncool, two boys who were fighting for their lives, for that dirty square fragment of reality where things happened the way they were supposed to and everything fell into place. And suddenly part of me understood that neither of us could win, that both of us could only lose.

It is two brothers whom we follow in Horses, both gifted a mare by their father out of the blue one day and both following wildly differing trajectories as a result. Nathan and Daniel have to have them tamed first and their penury forces them into a Karate Kid style work-for-knowledge arrangement with a neighbour. When this is accomplished Nathan uses his as a means to get to the city and away from his family home. Daniel however becomes settled by his horse and finds his interest in them growing, acquiring another and looking to breed them both. Perhaps surprisingly it is the boy who remains at home who runs into conflict and an act of violence with life-long repercussions. It is difficult to know whether it is Grossi or his translator Howard Curtis who is to blame but it was during this story that I began to feel that I was reading the work of a writer still finding their feet. Cliched metaphors such as the 'white-hot dagger' of pain are bad enough but seem even clumsier when they become a 'red-hot dagger' over the page. However the story does successfully continue similar themes from Boxing and use a single event to show two very different characters learning something about themselves.

Finally The Monkey diverges from its two predecessors and sets up the scenario of Nico discovering that his friend Piero has begun acting like a monkey. It is the weakest story in the book mainly because it replays the same conversation a few times, as Nico explains to various people what his friend is doing, which is met each time with a fairly non-plussed and unenlightening response. It is an interesting idea which never approaches its potential.

I may not have been knocked out by Grossi on this one but I hope that he continues to be nurtured as a talent. He shows on more than one occasion the kind of insight and understanding into the relationships between boys as they grow into men that marked the work of William Maxwell in his own boxing related novel,The Folded Leaf.


Wednesday 4 November 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.

(By which I mean it's been a couple of weeks since I saw this and I'm still not sure what I can usefully say without discussing it with a few others first, so I'd like to open up the comments box to you and see if we can sort this out. At the moment all I have are a few words to get us started: performance, reality, wordplay, Beckett, meaning, self-indulgence, simulacrum, depression...)


Monday 2 November 2009

'I haven't said anything of what I wanted to say.'

by Jean Echenoz

When he reviewed this book as part of his overview of the Impac Award shortlist earlier this year Kevin From Canada mentioned that it was a book that demanded to be read more than once and also how further readings had thrown up entirely new ways of approaching the work. Its small size and a hiatus in my new book acquisitions gave me an opportunity to read it again, something I'm not in the habit of doing, and Kevin is absolutely right - Ravel's nine short chapters over a little more than a hundred pages are more than satisfying on a first read and capable of providing new nuances and even further themes on a second and beyond. I'll focus on a couple of aspects here; the first suggested by Kevin himself - the act of creation by the artist and I'll also look at how the distinctive style of Echenoz' writing is used to create empathy and character without really attempting to enlist or describe either.

Echenoz employs a purely descriptive prose style, obsessing over details, often making lists, focusing our attention on the surface of things. After the first couple of chapters we may feel that we know more about the wardrobe, bathing habits and modes of transport employed by our central character than the man himself. But the cumulative effect of this style is to stealthily communicate everything you need for a fully realised portrait (of a 'real' character of course) so that by the final chapter those lists and details are far less detatched and clinical than they seemed at first. Those final chapters allow you to see and to feel the deteriorating health of Ravel's mind and body, something that has been flagged up as early as the first chapter where Echenoz announces that the man has 'ten years, on the nose, left to live'. Just taking one of the constants in Ravel's life, his ever present Gauloise cigarettes will allow me to demonstrate.

On his way towards an exhausting tour of America (whose route is 'as disconcerting as a fly's through the air') we see him on the deck of the ocean-liner France (which has already been described in luxurious detail)

The wind has come up suddenly, clamping his clothes against his skin, denying their existence and function, attacking the surface of his body head-on, so that the man feels naked and must try repeatedly to light a cigarette, since the matches haven't time to catch fire. He finally succeeds but then it's the Gauloise, which, as in the mountains (brief memory of the sanatorium), no longer tastes right: the wind is taking advantage of the smoke to slip alongside it into Ravel's lungs, now chilling his body from the inside, assailing him from all directions, taking his breath away, mussing his hair, sending cigarette ash into his eyes and onto his clothes -- he's over-matched, best beat a retreat.

Simple descriptive writing that manages to create a character whose mortality couldn't be more evident. Those cigarettes are a crutch for Ravel in some of his more stressed moments, including his encounter with the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein who has commissioned a piece from him. When Wittgenstein makes no attempt to hide his disappointment with the finished piece Ravel attempts to conceal his own by 'fiddling with a Gauloise, rolling it between his fingers quite a while before placing it between his lips, smoking it silently for as long as that takes. Wittgenstein then coldly slips the score into his left pocket before taking his leave'. Agonising. Nearer the end of the book those cigarettes again are used as one illustration of his decline and Echenoz once again uses a list, but this time it is charged with the emotional involvement of the reader.

Although he no longer recognizes many people, he notices everything. He can see that his movements miss their targets, that he grasps the knife by its blade, that he raises the lighted end of his cigarette to his lips only to correct himself immediately every time. No, he then murmurs to himself, not like that. He's well aware that one doesn't cut one's nails that way, or put on glasses like that, and although he gets them on anyway to try to read Le Populaire, the muscles of his eyes won't even let him follow the print anymore. He observes all that clearly, the subject of his collapse as well as its attentive spectator, buried alive in a body that no longer responds to his intelligence, watching a stranger live inside him.

That breakdown of mind has a huge bearing on creativity of course. Where does the music come from? That's far too big and general a question to even begin to answer here but for Ravel the process actually requires a long period of thought before beginning on a piece. 'Inspiration does not exist...composition takes place only at the keys' and the work featured in the book has often been commissioned keeping the idea of untrammelled creative expression a further step away. Bolero, which is one piece that is focused on, is one such commission, from the dancer Ida Rubinstein. It begins casually enough, 'Ravel lingers a moment at the piano, playing a phrase over and over on the keyboard with one finger. Don't you think this theme has something insistent about it? he asks Samazeuilh. Then off he goes to swim.' Pressure grows from the publisher to provide rehearsal dates for the as yet unfinished work, 'All right, they want to rehearse, they're really anxious to rehearse, well then fine, they'll rehearse. Rehearse: Middle French rehercier, to repeat. They'll get their fill and more, de la répétition.' As he thinks of automatons and machinery, a factory he likes to look at nearby, his own false teeth clacking like castanets, the piece comes together 'something based on the assembly line.' Anyone who has heard it will know that insistent theme that is repeated without change throughout the piece, the different instruments of the orchestra managing to make the same tune sound somehow different each time, the volume and intensity increasing as it builds to a climax which is almost like exhaustive collapse. A piece of music born first from a request, hustled into a structure by impatience and made by machinery; a piece Ravel thinks contains no music and will have no success becomes his masterpiece, something that troubles him from then on. Where does he go from there? His creativity seems to stall in the face of such popular acclaim and it is shortly after this that Ravel begins to lose contact with his own gift, his own music.

It is the most touching aspect of the book, this slow process of negation, which his long suffering companion Hélène notices first, Ravel 'revealing, from time to time a kind of absence before his own music.' That process of thought which would precede any of his writing becomes frozen and when pressed to describe the sensation he can only suggest that 'it's as if his ideas, whatever they are, always remain trapped in his brain.' It is some kind of magic trick to write a book which is so short but that reveals something new each time you read it and which employs a prose style devoid of authorial emotion that somehow manages to create emotion on the page and in the heart of the reader.Thank you to Kevin for pointing it out and as a mark of respect I shall follow his advice and not go diving straight into Echenoz' previous novel Piano until I have had the time to fully appreciate what I so enjoyed about Ravel. A little like listening to a piece of favourite music there is something about the silence which follows the final note which isn't like silence at all.


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