Saturday, July 30, 2005

Not Bad

Nick Hornby's How to be Good

Over the last three years, I've made an assidious attempt to avoid Nick Hornby's novels. I'm not entirely sure why this is - after all I rather enjoyed the movie version of High Fidelity (if you're a reader of this blog you can see why I relate to people who think in song titles and are obsessed with making top 5 / 10 lists) and for all my general snobbishness, I've never really been against popular fiction when it comes to books (witness my avid reading of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels). But something, some obscure instinct has always warned me to stay away from Hornby. Then a week back a friend insisted that I try him out, and because she's someone who's judgements on books I trust (usually), I did.

Sometimes I think I should learn to trust my instincts more.

Not that How to be Good is a bad novel, exactly - it certainly has its moments. The central conceit is intriguing - the book is the story of a woman who in unhappy with her marriage and wishes her husband could be less angry about everything; and then one day her wish is granted and her husband suddenly becomes the kind of person who's too good to be true - caring, soft-spoken, so committed to social causes that he won't just talk about them, he'll actually act - and she discovers that she hates that almost as much. This notion lends itself to some hilariously funny scenes, and some of the writing is truly brilliant - the observations acute, the pop culture references exactly right (there's this amazing section where Hornby lists all the people the husband and his friend think are losers / wankers - it's a stunning, laugh-out loud list).

Unfortunately, all these scattered nuggets of brilliance completely fail to come together into anything approximating an interesting novel. One reason for this is that Hornby is, quite simply, not funny enough. His idea of writing funny dialogue seems to be to take an inherently funny situation and to then keep prolonging it with meaningless banter until the audience finally gets tired of the joke. The result is that episodes that could leave you gasping for breath if they'd been condensed into a few lines or a single paragraph, now go on for pages and pages, leaving you feeling faintly annoyed. There are few surprises here - oh, there may be a few plot twists you didn't expect, but most of the jokes can be seen coming a mile off and the tone of the book changes so little that you could easily read, say page 85 to 150 of the book and get the general feel of all 300 pages. Worse, Hornby seems to feel the compulsion to be 'serious' and 'deep' every now and then, with the result that just when you feel he's starting to find his comic rhythm, he goes off into some vapid meditation on the nature of life.

And that's the second reason the book doesn't work - because as anything remotely approaching a serious meditation on the nature of goodness the book is a total failure. One gets the feeling, reading the book, that Hornby has some visionary idea of making this an insightful exploration of the perils of morality in the modern world. While the basic storyline certainly affords the opportunity for such an exploration, however, Hornby completely fails to take it. Instead of showing the reborn husband as a practical, serious minded individual looking for intelligent ways to make a difference to the world (and therefore exploring the wife's reaction when threatened by someone who is genuinely more 'good' than her) Hornby chooses to turn the husband into a clueless do-gooder, with the result that the whole book seems less like an honest exploration of the issues of right and wrong, and more like the diatribe of someone trying to push his own personal point of view on you. It seems to me that Hornby lacks the distance from his main character (the wife) to make this a truly compelling book. So anxious is he to protect her from being shown up, that he either turns everyone she meets into a caricature, or simply refuses to explore the identities of the more peripheral characters in the story (who are, quite frankly, the most interesting).

Bottomline: How to be Good is an amusing enough way to kill the time if there are no decent movies playing in your neighbourhood theatre and you're feeling too lazy to walk to the library. If it's the only book you're likely to read this month, though, you probably want to pick something, well, better.

Friday, July 29, 2005

More things in Heaven and Earth

Iris Murdoch's The Good Apprentice

Kaleidoscope, n. An optical instrument, consisting of from two to four reflecting surfaces placed in a tube, at one end of which is a small compartment containing pieces of coloured glass: on looking through the tube, numerous reflections of these are seen, producing brightly-coloured symmetrical figures, which may be constantly altered by rotation of the instrument.

Got that? Now imagine that the instead of coloured glass you have pieces of Hamlet, and the tube is not a tube but a 500 page novel. That's what Murdoch's Good Apprentice is like.

The Good Apprentice is a breathtakingly ambitious novel, a wonderful example of Murdoch's gift for deconstruction, for multiple perspectives, for a sort of literary cubism (for an earlier review of Murdoch's work in general see here). The story of two young men, two brothers - one of whom is an agony of guilt after accidentally causing the death of his closest friend and the other who has decided to give up his profession, sex and material concerns in order simply to be good (without any clear idea of how this is to be achieved), The Good Apprentice is a book of almost infinite variation, a series of fugal patterns based on familiar themes from Shakespeare's Hamlet. The plot seems almost irrelevant here - the real point of the story is simply to give Murdoch the space to play around with all the myriad different perspectives that Hamlet has to offer, serving up scene after scene with a baroque inventiveness that is both informed by Shakespeare's great tragedy and deepens our appreciation of it. Which is not to say that the plot is not imaginative itself - as always, Murdoch combines psychological acuity with outrageous invention, building a tightly controlled structure of intertwined lives. But it's the ghost of Hamlet that really lifts this book out of the ordinary.

The initial conceit is simple enough. In defining the two brothers, Murdoch has split the two halves of Hamlet's personality - his deeply personal grief and his more general philosophical angst - into two, allowing them to play off against each other in a way that they never do in the play. But if this seems simple, it is also deceptive. It is a central quality of Murdoch's writing that just when you think you've finally figured out what she's trying to say she goes and says something else. So just about the point when you've started putting the characters right in your head - classifying X as Polonious, Y as Ophelia - they will suddenly change on you, so that, for instance, the character you had pinned as Hamlet's father will die Ophelia's death, or the boy you thought was Horatio will turn out to be Hamlet. This sense of flux also allows Murdoch to explore some truly exciting variations on the play itself - what if it was Hamlet's father who was sleeping with his brother's wife? What if it were Hamlet who were to kill himself because Ophelia went away?

The end result is a book that reads like a hall full of mirrors, with endlessly repeated images of faithless wives, betrayed fathers, forbidden loves, false advisors and returning ghosts. This level of inventiveness can be dizzying, but it can also be laugh-out-loud intelligent. This is probably Murdoch's most explicit engagement of Shakespeare (or maybe it's just that I've started to pay more attention) - the book is filled with quotes from Hamlet (and from the sonnets) and scenes constructed to mirror images from the play (early on, there's a seance where "the man with two fathers" is told that his real father is calling him!).

There is of course, a more subtantive element to the book - an exploration of the nature of 'goodness' - of what it means to be good, to help others, and how this can be achieved. But as with many of her other books, Murdoch doesn't seem to have a clear overall message here (at least none that I can discover) and The Good Apprentice seems more like a series of restless meditations (though erudite and well-expressed meditations at that) that constantly skirt the truth but never really arrive at it.

It's this lack of forceful direction, this sense of the characters, for all their brilliant ideas and ephiphanies, ultimately muddling through somehow, that is also, IMHO, one of the biggest failings of the book. In the final analysis, the novel seems more concerned with playing around with the images from the play, without adopting its melancholic, tragic spirit. Part of what makes Hamlet a work of such astonishing power, is the way it descends inevitably into tragedy, the ruthlessness with which Shakespeare sacrifices the genius of his characters to the force of dramatic necessity. Murdoch chooses not to do that here - her characters are survivors, and for all the sound and fury that accompanies their passage through the book, they emerge from it relatively safe and unchanged, returned to the familiar round of their lives. This is a disappointment (at least to me), and I can't help but wonder if it wouldn't have been a much finer book if Murdoch had chosen to bring it to a more tragic conclusion.

Bottomline: The Good Apprentice is a an incredibly clever and innovative book, that will make you want to re-read Hamlet and will change your way of reading that play (and imagining / remembering it later) forever. If it has less to say for itself, if the power and poetry you sense in the book is little more than an intense reflection of Shakespeare's masterpiece, do you really have any cause to complain?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Crying Uncle

Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street

What does it take to make a good movie? Big stars, the studio-execs over at Miramax would say. Big budget sets. Lots of computer generated special effects. Preferably a mention of Spielberg somewhere in the credits so you can put it on the poster. Maybe a couple of hot nude scenes. Maybe a rocking soundtrack.

Louis Malle's answer is much simpler. All it takes to make a hypnotic and moving film in Malle's world is a camera, a good script and a bunch of intelligent and talented actors (not stars, mind you, actors). Nowhere is this more evident than in his brilliant, evocative rendition of Andre Gregory's stage adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.

Vanya on 42nd Street opens simply enough. It's a typical day in New York. A group of actors slowly assembles in a broken down off-broadway theatre to take part in a full rehearsal of Andre Gregory's new play - an adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. The actors mill about, chatting and gossiping, the camera closes in on one pair having a conversation by themselves at a table and suddenly, halfway through their talk, you realise that the play has begun and this quiet easy conversation is two actors playing out their parts.

What follows is two hours of pure Chekhov - except that Malle's deft, unobtrusive camera work considerably enhances the power of the performance, as he subtly alters perspectives or swoops in for close-ups that show you the characters in all their naked intensity. The film thus combines the unadorned rawness of a theatre performance, with the intimate, focussed feel of good cinema. As Malle moves back and forth between the characters and the overall setting you are constantly thrust in and out of the play - so that sometimes you're in 19th century Russia, watching the events of the play actually unfold before you and sometimes you're in a crumbling little theatre on 42nd street, watching a rehearsal of the play. There are no frills here - the actors wear everyday work clothes, the props consist of paper cups and some scattered broken down chairs - there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that comes between you and the actors.

And what actors they are. Wallace Shawn plays the disappointed, half-tragic, half-comic Vanya to perfection, and Larry Pine makes both the intensity and the humour of Dr. Astrov come alive for me as it never did in the play. George Gaynes puts on a good comic turn as the Professor, brilliantly highlighting the bitter irony of that character's presence with a style all his own, but one never quite feels the empathy with the good scholar that one did in the play. Gayne's professor is an entirely unsympathetic character - a bumbling self-centred demagogue - not the failed intellectual clinging desperately to life that I always saw in my reading of the play.

Julianne Moore (on the verge of breaking into the major league when this movie was made) plays Yelena and is almost shockingly good. I've never cared for Moore much - I think she has an intense and fragile beauty (that works much better in period settings than in modern ones; just compare her in An Ideal Husband to her in, say, The Lost World ) - but with the possible exception of The Hours (where she does a fairly competent job) I've never thought much of her acting. So it was a pleasant surprise to see how good she was as Yelena - the combination of that dazzling classical beauty and some superb if slightly overstated acting brilliantly bringing out Yelena's fragile, temperamental nature, her instability, her half unconscious charm. Watching Moore in the movie, you experience first hand the sense of ambiguity that the characters in the play feel towards her - a gnawing fascination that contrasts with a sense of outrage at her uselessness, at the priviliges she seems to enjoy.

Finally, there's Brooke Smith who plays Sonja. Smith's performance starts disappointingly - her distinctly american accent jars a bit (especially when she says 'Poppa') and she seems too diffident, too awkward an actress. It's only as the play progresses that you begin to suspect that this awkwardness, this sense of discomfort, is really just a disguise, and waiting behind it is an actress just waiting to burst out into a performance unmatched, even among so stellar a cast, for its quiet vulnerability.

The real star of Vanya on 42nd Street, though, is undoubtedly Chekhov. In the final analysis, what both the cast and Malle bring to the performance is precisely their ability to let this man shine through in all his bitter-sweet brilliance. Chekhov's great gift is for unflinching gentleness, a sense of almost tragic compassion, the ability to raise all the glory and pettiness of human existence to a higher, more luminous level, without blurring the slightest detail of its sad reality. There are no happy endings in Chekhov, there is often not even the hope of one, and yet his writing leaves you with a sense of calm understanding that you cannot find anywhere else.

The greatest tribute I can pay Vanya on 42nd Street is that it does justice to Chekhov's dramatic vision, both in letter* and in spirit. And you can't do any better than that.

* The changes to the script are minimal - I think a few lines may have been edited out, but overall (based on what I remember of the play at least) the performance itself is entirely loyal to the play; with only the dialogue of the actors outside the performance being added.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Kiss and Tell

A brilliant review of Chekhov's short story, The Kiss. Highly recommended (the story, not the review; though that too!)

Another interesting parallel (though a somewhat darker one) could be with Part II of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground where the narrator becomes totally obsessed with some small slight that an officer has done him (he brushed him aside without seeming to notice him), and spends years moping about it, planning his revenge - which consists finally of nothing more drastic than bumping into the officer on the street one day! There is the same sense of a trivial incident that no one else cares about or has even noticed, becoming inflated in the narrator's mind to become almost the purpose of his life.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Hard Boiled Wunderkind

The Novels of Haruki Murakami

In response to the post about Mishima's After the Banquet a reader wrote in to ask who or what Murakami was. This was two days ago. Now that I've finally got over the shock of realising that there are actually people out there who've never read Murakami (the poor souls!) I figured I would blog about his novels, just in case there were other such unfortunates out there.

What can I say about Murakami? That he's only the most exciting and inventive contemporary writer I've read (no, seriously, he makes Rushdie look tame)? That he combines an almost Kafka-esque vision of the world with the imagination of a Marquez, characters that could come straight out of Salinger, a fascination with pop-culture equalled only by Pynchon and writing that Bellow would have been proud of? That he manages, at once, to be both an incredibly intelligent and moving writer and the very essence of cool?

Murakami's novels are about the search for meaning in the modern world. His typical novel (or short story) takes slightly extra-ordinary young people (partly because of the way he writes and partly because they are always a little off-centre, his characters have a sort of anti-establishment coolness; they're either incredibly mature or just plain wierd and you can never figure out which; they're like the guy in school who you never talked to because he was always off in a corner listening to Dylan and smoking cigarettes on the sly who you thought was wierd then but are beginning to think it might have been interesting to get to know; think Holden Caulfield and you get the picture), puts them in the most madly fantastical situations (in one short story a woman finds that she is no longer able to sleep - she's not insomniac, she just doesn't need it any more; she spends her time catching up on her reading) and lets them react in their confused, deeply human ways. Murakami's great gift here is that he's too smart to believe in revelation - his novels don't conclude, they simply end, without anything really being resolved. You're left with a glimpse of an episode that may or may not mean anything (though you suspect it has some deep implication that you're probably missing).

What makes Murakami truly special, though, is that he is, quite simply, the most ambitious writer writing today. He is a virtuoso, who insists on pushing himself to greater, more complicated heights with every novel he writes - his appetite seems insatiable, his ability to imagine, innovate and just plain dazzle endless. Nowhere (except perhaps in Pynchon) does a storline have so much raw energy, so much free-wheeling improvisation. With almost infinite agility Murakami will pile twist upon twist on to his plot, constantly upping the stakes for the reader. Just when you think he can't go any further without having the whole thing come down around his head, he will add something new to the mix, leaving you breathless.

For all that, Murakami is not a flamboyant writer. His writing style is quiet and introspective, filled with loving detail. His prose tends to be understated and beautiful, rich with nuggets of descriptions and glimmers of polished phrases - the writing of someone who loves the language for itself*. At his best, Murakami is a deeply moving writer - his books can leave you with a deep, restless sadness; a sense of loss too undefined to cry about. It's this ability to appeal to both the heart and the head that makes him a great writer.

Books to read (well, pretty much everything I've ever read**, but figured I'd prioritise):

1. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Probably the best example of Murakami's unique and magical gift. A fundamentally schizophrenic novel, set partly in an allegorical country of the mind and partly in modern day Japan, Hard Boiled Wonderland is part Raymond Chandler and part Kafka. A unforgettable read.

2. Norwegian Wood

One of Murakami's early novels, this is not a particularly ambitious book - but it's an achingly beautiful love story, that showcases Murakami at his quietest, most moving best.

3. Dance Dance Dance

A restless roller-coaster ride of a novel, flat-out energy combined with some singing, poetic images.

4. Sputnik Sweetheart

This one could have been written by Winterson. Or Kundera. Again, an early (and therefore quieter) novel, which combines Murakami's first steps towards fantasy with an incredible sweetness of writing. A young at heart novel.

5. The Elephant Vanishes

A superb collection of short stories - The Elephant Vanishes is sheer class. The stories here have a dream-like quality to them - but they are crafted with precise, intelligent care.

6. Wind-up bird chronicles

An incredibly sweeping, ambitious novel. The first half of this book includes some of Murakami's most brilliant writing. I feel he meandered a little towards the end, and that the book overall could have used some editing, but still well worth a read.

7. After the Quake

Short stories again - some beautiful tales here, though overall a quieter book than The Elephant Vanishes. This is pure Murakami, but for that reason probably not the first Murakami book you should read - like fine white wine, he takes a little getting used to.

* At least that's the way it seems in the English translations. I obviously haven't read him in the original Japanese, so I wouldn't know.

** His new novel - Kafka on the Shore - is sitting in my bookshelf, waiting to be read. I read the first chapter, though, and that in itself is reason to buy the book.

Friday, July 22, 2005


Jeanette Winterson's Poetic New Novel

There was a time in my life when all writing fell into two neat categories - there was poetry, and then there was prose. Then one day I stumbled across a copy of Art and Lies and all of that changed forever. Jeanette Winterson is, quite simply, the most ravishing phrase maker in English letters today. Her novels explore the richness of the English language like no others, polishing it to the most shimmering it can be, overpowering you with the fine excess of the writing. You cannot read Winterson - you have to immerse yourself in her exquisite prose and keep reminding yourself to breathe.

Lighthousekeeping, her new novel is the logical next step in a growing trend in Winterson's writing. Over the years, as Winterson has come to trust the power of her words more (or, as her critics, would have it, she has slipped into the trap of relying on it too much), she has tended to leave the superfluities of plot and story behind, striving instead for an almost Proust like purity of writing for its own sake*. Her plots were never much to start with, but at least in her early novels (Written on the Body, Gut Symmetries, The Passion) there was the sense of someone trying to assemble a coherent storyline - the characters were imaginative, the plot had a consistent if somewhat magic realist feel to it. Lighthousekeeping has no such treasures to offer - the novel is ostensibly about the (vaguely) parallel stories of a mid-19th century small town preacher and a young orphan girl called Silver who has been taken on as an apprentice in a lighthouse by a blind man named Pew**. But there's no real life in these plots themselves - the reverend's story seems incredibly hackneyed and tame by Winterson's standards, and the story of Silver, while entertaining in episodes (there's a wonderful chapter about her frenzy to complete Death of Venice that ends in her stealing a copy of the book from the librarian) completely fails to come together into anything approaching a coherent whole. There are some attempts to tie the story together (references to lighthouses and storytelling abound and there is some interesting structural repetition) but these seem as if they haven't been clearly thought through (or even less thought through than Winterson's work usually is). The overall impression is of a novel that is more a collection of brilliant jazz improvisations than one solid, thought-out symphony. It's almost as if Winterson just wrote what she wanted, each chapter almost by itself, and then just randomly put it together.

(The novel, to be fair, does try to justify this by arguing that all stories exist continously at all times - that there is no such thing as an end or a beginning to a story and that what happens in the story depends on how you tell it and who you tell it to. This is an interesting - and possibly valid - point, but if you're looking for coherent plot development, this is DEFINITELY not the book for you)

Fortunately, Winterson more than compensates for this lack of coherence with some of the most exquisite writing she has ever done. Winterson's great gift is to write sentence after sentence, phrase after phrase of such burning clarity that you don't even notice that in the end she hasn't really said anything - and that gift is on full display here. Who but Winterson could describe the moon as "that pale tenant of the sun" or start a chapter with the line "This is not a love story, but love is in it. That is, love is just outside it, looking for a way to break in". Who but Winterson could write this:

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and Richard Wagner completed his opera Tristan and Isolde. Both are about the beginnings of the world.
Darwin - objective, scientific, empirical, quantifiable.
Wagner - subjective, poetic, intuitive, mysterious.

In Tristan the world shrinks to a boat, a bed, a lantern, a love-potion, a wound. The world is contained within a word - Isolde.
The Romantic solipsism that nothing exists but the two of us, could not be farther from the multiplicity and variety of Darwin's theory of the natural world. Here, the world and everything in it forms and is reformed, tirelessly and unceasingly. Nature's vitality is amoral and unsentimental; the weak die, the strong survive.
Tristan, weak and wounded, should have died. Love healed him. Love is not part of natural selection.
Where did Love begin? What human being looked at another and saw in their face the forests and the sea? Was there a day, exhausted and weary, dragging home food, arms cut and scarred, that you saw yellow flowers and, not knowing what you did, picked them because I love you?

In the fossil record of our existence, there is no trace of love. You cannot find it held in the earth's crust, waiting to be discovered. The long bones of our ancestors show nothing of their hearts. Their last meal is sometimes preserved in peat or in ice, but their thoughts and feelings are gone."

(this chapter is followed immediately by a re-telling of the Tristan and Isolde myth in first person, which is one of the most exquisite renditions of the story that I have ever read)

Bottomline: Lighthousekeeping is not so much a novel as a collection of breathtaking writing, of visionary descriptions and superb sentences. Read it as you would some other novel and you'll probably be disappointed; read it as a collection of prose-poems and it could prove one of the richest, most sensual experiences of your life.

* Not, of course, that I would compare Winterson to Proust - I really love her writing, but that would definitely be an over-statement

** The plot of the book reminded me strongly of a superb Graham Swift novel called Ever After - although in Swift's novel the plot really comes alive in a vivid, involving way that it certainly doesn't here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Off with his head

Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading

Imagine a novel that combines the intelligence of Kafka with the imagination of Marquez. Imagine a novel that blends a vision of helpless despair with some laugh-out-loud writing. Imagine a novel that is at once brilliantly intellectual and intensely human. Imagine a novel that manages to be both a savage satire of social mores and a meditation on the meaning of human existence.

Or, if your imagination won't take you that far, just read Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. A mindbending marvel of a book, Invitation to a Beheading is the story of one Cincinattus C., who has been condemned to be executed on the inexplicable charge of 'gnostic turpitude' but whose real crime is that he is an opaque person in a transparent world, a thinker in world where everything is appearances. The novel tracks C's last days in prison, from the time of his sentencing to the day of his execution. We share in the despair of these days, the many false hopes that rise in C's heart, the petty indignities, C's bewildered refusal to participate in the rituals of his own death (at one point, for instance, he is expected to join in a merry toast to his forthcoming death with his laughing executioner) and the disappointment of those around him with his 'uncooperative' attitude. It's almost as though someone had taken those last few pages of Camus' L'Etranger and made a novel out of them.

If all this sounds rather dark and gloomy, it's only because I'm not describing it well. Nabokov's great gift (as always) is to make this desolate scenario seem entertaining, even funny. The characters of the executioner and the prison director, for instance, are sketched with a sense of humour worthy of Gogol. There is a sense, throughout the novel, of living in a dream world (a sense one shares in fact, with C himself) - as though all these solid, unspeakable things were actually phantoms of one's own imagination. Whatever terror there is in C.'s situation comes entirely from within our own heads (in one brilliant paragraph that almost seems like a premonition of the Matrix, C. realises that the things around him are real only because his fear makes them so; if he cannot stop himself from believing in his executioners, they will destroy him). This dream like state is enhanced by the wealth of poetic detail that Nabokov heaps on the story. There are mirrors that hold on to their reflections no matter where they are taken, there is a night when the password is silence, so the guards let everyone pass without saying a word, C's cell comes equipped with an official pet spider. Nabokov is writing magic realism before magic realism really exists - every interaction that C has is at once deeply metaphorical, hilariously funny and vividly imagined (when his in-laws come to meet him in prison they bring all their furniture and luggage with them).

Invitation to a Beheading is also a stunning demonstration of just why Nabokov is one of the richest, most immaculate prose stylists of the last century. As a textbook example of good writing, this (like most of Nabokov's other novels - see the incredible Pale Fire) is hard to match. It combines some of the most brilliant use of dialogue with long soliloquies, breathtaking descriptions of people and situations, some wonderful imagery and a true poet's gift for conveying emotion. Nabokov literally takes your breath away and then gives it back to you to laugh with.

But there is also substance to this book - it's not all style. In fact, Invitation to a Beheading is a wonderful meditation on the nature of existence, with C.'s prison cell as a microcosm of human life. There is the same certainty of an end coupled with the uncertainty of its exact timing, the same cycle of hope and despair. Death looms over this cell, but in its shadow life goes on in all its petty silliness, its inadvertant comedy - social norms are foolish, and emotions are not really any better, yet logic alone can show us no hope of escape. The contrast between C.'s sensation of being the only substantial person in a world of surfaces and the vagueness and transparency of his dreams of escape is one that we can all relate to.

Bottomline: If you are (like me) a die-hard worshipper of Nabokov, then this is a book you cannot afford to miss. If, on the other hand, you've never got around to reading the great man, this might be a good reason to start.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

A Literary Feast

Yukio Mishima's After the Banquet

Mishima is one of those authors I've always intended to read but never quite got around to - all the time I was reading Kawabate and Oe and Murakami he was always there, a figure watching me rather dolefully from the fringes of the spotlight. But somehow I just never managed to make the effort to go buy one of his books / issue one out of the library.

Until now. After the Banquet is a sumptuous feast of a book, rich in subtle flavours and clever, tangy insights. The story revolves around a middle-aged restaurant owner called Kazu who gives up her thriving business to marry an old-fashioned aristocrat in the hope of ensuring for herself an honourable grave in his family plot. A passionate, emotional woman with an unstoppable drive for life, Kazu finds the role of quiet, subservient wife impossible, and throws herself with all the passion and energy at her command into a quixotic attempt to resurrect her husband's political career. The novel that emerges is a classic conflict between romanticism and classicism, between Kazu's restless, emotional energy and her husband's old-world, intellectual calm. Mishima pulls no punches here, and takes no sides - we see both sides of this fundamentally mismatched pair in both their finest glory and their most amusing haplessness. As the novel progresses, the conflict between the husband and wife (which evolves with all the quietness of a chess game - there are few outbursts here - this is not Albee) becomes a metaphor for the changing face of Japanese society, where the old stiff-upper-lip world of values and ideals is rapidly giving way to the more practical, sensuous reign of rich power-brokers.

Two things make this book special. The first is the incredible psychological acuity that Mishima brings to the novel - right through the book he barely takes a single mis-step. The characters he describes are hardly common people - rather they are archetypes - symbols of opposite paradigms, and yet they come across with such an easy naturalness, that you have the constant feeling that you know someone just like them, and will find yourself nodding your head as the book progresses, thinking, "Yes, that's exactly right. That's exactly what she would do."

The other achievement of the book is the character of Kazu. Mishima creates, in Kazu, one of the most incredible female characters I have ever read - a woman part Emma, part (Ibsen's) Nora, part Molly Bloom and part Roz from Atwood's Robber Bride. Sensual, driven, passionate, practical, emotional, poetic, uncomplicated, delusional - Kazu is like no one else. Just reading the way her character unfolds and grows in the course of the novel made me want to kick myself for not getting to Mishima sooner.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Ten Great Comics on the Web

Given how much time I spend at and on other web-sites checking out random web comics, I figured I might as well put a post with the ten top comics that brighten up my mornings every day.

1. Pearls before Swine*

Hands down my favourite comic strip - Stephan Pastis's quirky, irreverent cast of animal characters make for incredible humour, combining attitude with simplicity, far-fetched conceits with dead-pan matter of factness, inimitable silliness with stop-you-in-your-tracks insights into the world we live in. A winner.

2. Toothpaste for Dinner

One of my biggest discoveries on the Web - Toothpaste for Dinner combines really, really bad drawing with a mean, scathing, arbitrary and profoundly brilliant view of the world. Drew's cartoons have this raw, unpolished feel to them, they are rants against a world that Drew sees as fundamentally stupid and unworthy of any respect whatsoever (political correctness? What's that?). Toothpaste for Dinner is extremely inconsistent - it can go on for days without the slightest spark - but then suddenly out of nowhere there'll be this line that you'll never ever be able to get out of your head again - a line so mindblowingly brilliant, it'll make it worth checking out the site every single day. (E.g. "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate" and "Fun Fact: Did you know that the sound that most people call 'silence' is actually the sound that mountain lions make when they walk around outside your house?")

Available at

3. Ballard Street*

One of the subtlest, most stylish comic strips I've ever read - Ballard Street is practically a work of art all by itself. Jerry Van Amerongen is the Chekhov of comic artists - his unique talent is for imagining the most outlandish, quirky and plain wierd characters and then introducing them in the most mundane of settings, with an understated, matter of the fact punch-line added to the single frame comic. This means that every new comic is a character sketch all by itself, so that it feels almost like you read through a whole novel (or at least a short story) just to get to this one hilarious scene. Ballard Street may not be to everyone's taste (some people may find it too dull) but IMHO it's one of the funniest comics ever.

4. Dilbert*

Need I say more? If you're not already into Dilbert then you're either still recovering from your lobotomy or have pointy hair. The really amazing thing is that all these years and all the hype later, Scott Adams can still find things to say that stun you with their simple brilliance and leave you rolling about on the floor of your cubicle.

5. Reality Check / Rubes / Speed Bump*

Frankly, I've never been able to keep these three apart in my head. There's nothing really distinctive about them except that all three are among the finest of the many, many derivative efforts to continue the legacy of that greatest of all comics, ever [voice hushed in awe] The Far Side**. The humour here is trademark Gary Larson - alternate riffs on history, stock phrases, scenes from popular culture; everyday situations extrapolated to animals / objects. Again, the quality is fairly inconsistent here, but if you read all three every day, you're sure to find at least one that is really, really funny.

6. Doonesbury

Okay, so I'm a confirmed blue-stater. Doonesbury is a true classic - not really laugh out funny (or very rarely so) but just read it for a while and Trudeau's thoughtful, deeply human humour will ultimately get to you. Probably the most important reason to read the New York Times every single day (available at

7. Herman*

I can't complete a list of my top comics without including Jim Unger's trademark long-nosed, chinless men and women. Herman is a glorious read precisely because of this sort of comic baldness - reading it, you never get the sense that Unger is trying to impress / be clever - rather the comics have a flat, almost irritated feel to them, so that you're almost not sure whether he's trying to be funny and whether you should be laughing. But laugh you will, because behind his dour tone, Unger is sparkling wit - a genius at seeing the everyday through his own special lens. For sheer ingenuity, Herman doesn't really compare to the earlier three comics (see number 5 above), but it has a style like no other, and that's what makes it special.

8. Committed*

It's a major tribute to Michael Fry's talent that one of my favourite comics on the web is primarily an exploration of parenting and being married - two activities that I have nothing but disdain for. Part of the reason is that Fry often seems to share my disdain, staying away from any tendency to get sentimental about family life. The home is a battlefield here, a setting in which Fry can explore the arbitrariness of both parents and young children, showing them in all their weary misery (who else could come up with the suggestion that mothers should come with a warning label that says it is not safe to approach them until they have had their first cup of coffee). Any joy that the characters get in these comics comes from the small victories they achieve over each other, and yet the overall effect is strangely funny-sweet. The other thing I love about it is the double whammy of the comic itself and the little extra punch-line on top. Talk about fine excess.

9. Tom Toles

I'm not in general a big fan of political cartoons (it's probably because I'm not that interested in politics anyway) but I can't put up 10 comics without mentioning Tom Toles - who is the other major reason for checking out the New York Times every morning. Toles' take on current events is always bitterly scathing (he is NOT a Bush supporter) but also incredibly creative and effortlessly unique. Whatever the issue, Toles will always find the perfect way to express his point of view - he is easily my favourite political cartoonist. Oh, and as in Committed, don't miss the little mini-comic at the bottom, that smart-alec-y comment that's just sitting there waiting for you to finish laughing over the main page.

10. PhD comics

This one is strictly for PhD students only - though the flow of ideas seems to have dried up a little of late, PhD is at once the funniest and most scarily true depiction of PhD life ever. PhD is the Dilbert of academia - it would be funny if your life wasn't exactly like that!

* All available at
**Other wanna-bes on include Strange Brew, Off the Mark and Flight Deck - these are good, but they don't quite match the three above

Friday, July 15, 2005

Dealing with the Barbarians

Les Invasions Barbares

Okay, okay, I promise this is the last French film I'm reviewing on this blog. This week. Anyway, Les Invasions Barbares isn't really a French film - it's a Canadian film - it's just that the dialogue is in French.

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2003, Les Invasions Barbares is a stunning, bitter-sweet exploration of the nature of life, death, identity, culture and relationships (did I leave anything out?). Written and directed by Denys Arcand, the movie potrays the last days of a retired Political Science professor, creating an intimate portrait of the way he comes to term with his death, helped by an estranged but caring son, a motley collection of friends and ex-mistresses, a friend's drug-addict daughter and some caring hospital staff. This is an intensely dramatic and ultimately moving film, but it is also an incredibly funny one as it exposes the little idiosyncrasies of its characters, the things that make them touchingly, endearingly human.

In some sense, the movie is about two clashes. The first is the clash between life and death - sequences of despair and loss and pain alternate with jokes and sexual innuendos; concern for opportunities missed and a life left unfulfilled is off-set by laughing reminiscences about the good old days. In one brilliant scene, the young woman who comes every night to smoke heroin with him (he needs it for the pain) asks the professor what it is he loved most in life (his reply: Everything! Wine, books, food, women) and then points out that it's not really the present that he's clinging on to, it's the past he's already lost. It's precisely this combination of almost poetic nostalgia and clear-sighted insight that makes the movie so special.

The other clash in the movie is between the world of 'culture' as represented by the Professor and his arty, intellectual friends (at one point in the movie, the friends think back on all the -isms they've been; the list includes existentialism, socialism, marxism, leninism, collectivism, feminism, structuralism, deconstructionism and consumerism) and the modern, 'let's get things done' attitude exemplified by his I-Banker son (who, in the Professor's own words, has never read a single book, but manages, using money and sheer directness, to arrange every comfort for his father in his last days). This conflict between the modern and the classical, so reminscent of the movies of Godard (listen, they actually talk about him in the movie - it's not just that I'm obsessed with the man!), is what, IMHO, gives the movie its intellectual weight, grounding it in a deeper reflection on life and society and making it more than just another story of a man on his deathbed.

Overall, what makes the movie an amazing watch is the sheer quality of the script - the plot is simple enough, but the ideas implicit in it, the details of the specific scenes, the individual characters, are all imaged with a combination of intelligence and sensitivity, that make this an incredibly engaging and real film.

Which is not to say that the performances aren't superb in themselves - because they are. Remy Girard is wonderful as the old professor, and Stephane Rousseau (playing, incredibly, his first major dramatic part) is even better as the loving but inhibited son, who can find a way to make everything in the world work, except his relationship with his father. The real gem here, though, is the exquisite Marie-Josee Croze (who won the best actress honours at Cannes for her performance here) who, aside from being drop-dead beautiful, brings to her performance a sort of melancholic, dissonant intensity that makes her, effortlessly, the emotional centre of the film. Croze makes of her character a breathless vision, a young woman of such haunting and electric clarity that poems deserve to be written about her. That one character alone is worth watching the movie for.

P.S. The other interesting thing here is the pathetic state of healthcare in Canada that the film portrays - the over-crowding, the bureacracy. It's good to know that it's not just a third-world problem!

P.P.S The thing the movie reminded me of most was this Raymond Carver poem called My Death. You can read that on Minstrels - it's poem # 1633

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Right Now

A Tout de suite

Just in case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a major French Cinema enthusiast, so when a new French film opened in a local theatre (it won't last - there were all of ten people watching it in a theatre that could seat 180), I figured I had to go.

A tout de suite may not be a great movie, but it is certainly a good one. What it really is is a reminder of how low Hollywood has caused us to set our standards, so that anything with even the slightest attention to quality film-making feels like a revelation.

Shot entirely in grainy black and white (a nice touch btw - the black and white gives it a nostalgic feel, the graininess makes the world it describes seem imperfect, a little out of focus, the way memories often are) A tout de suite is the tale of a young girl's self-discovery. The main protagonist, Lili (played with a sort of ethereal intensity by Isild Le Bisco) falls in love with ayoung, good-looking bank robber; joins him in his flight from the law, enjoying a brief interlude of happiness in Spain and Morocco; ends up abandoned and alone in Athens and finally finds the courage to go back to Paris and start to make a life for herself. In some ways Lili's journey is a metaphor for the ending of innocence, the expense of youth. Lili and Bada (her boyfriend) have a brief season of happiness together, but they are living on stolen time, and when it runs out they (or at any rate she) must find a way to go on, clinging to the dreams from that interlude, but being, at the same time, a realist. Life may be over, but existence goes on.

Stylistically, the movie owes much to the French New Wave - Godard's influence is ever-present here - but while Jacquot manages to bring off the details of the style, the flair of Godard's work is sorely missing*. The movie has a flat, documentary like feel to it - at times it feels almost like watching a reality show. This makes for a sort of gritty realism, which works well in the start of the movie, where we are allowed to watch the two young people coming together with an almost refreshing matter of factness, as well as in the end, where Lili finally calms down and adjusts to the bland, normal world around her. What is missing, I think, is the tension in the middle - the excitement these two people feel in their 'vacation' together - the passion, the freedom, the frenzy. Without this, the core of the movie seems strangely hollow, making it harder to relate to Lili's obsession with Bada and making the eventual collapse of their relationship that much less affecting.

Overall, A tout de suite is a movie well worth watching - the plot is engaging, the performances are more than competent, the cinematography is excellent. If only there were a little more vision, a little more poetry (and perhaps, some sharper editing) this could have been a truly great film.

*The movie I was most reminded of was Godard's Prenom Carmen - not, frankly, one of his better works.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Better Together

The Ten Greatest Jazz collaborations of all Time

One of the things that's always fascinated me in music is the coming together of great solo musicians to make a joint recording. This is a common theme across many different genres of music, from the jugalbandis of Indian Classical to the All-Star Bands of Rock (remember the Traveling Wilburys? Or the Rolling Thunder Revue?) to Western Classical collaborations (Du Pre and Barenboim performing Beethoven's Cello Sonatas, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman playing Beethoven together) and even the occassional cross-genre collaboration (the Menuhin and Shankar recordings, for instance).

But it's jazz, perhaps, where these collaborations are most common. The reason for this, I think, is that jazz is at once a group effort and also extremely improvisational, so that there's a natural incentive to play with other talented people. As a consequence, jazz also lends itself more readily to an apprenticeship model - with established greats playing the role of mentor to young talent (of course, this is true of Indian classical music, but Indian classical is more about a solo voice accompanied by other instruments - it isn't quite as participatory as jazz). Whatever the reason, the history of Jazz is the history of great collaborations, with some of the most sublime artists in the business coming together to play some incredible music.

Here, then are ten of my favourite examples of such collaborations. Note that I'm only including collaborations that encompass all / part of an entire album / recording; one off songs, no matter how beautiful, are not included (though no one should go through life without hearing Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock collaborate to perform Gershwin's Summertime; or Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgeral get together to sing How High the Moon):

1. Bird and Diz

When I first stumbled across this 1950 recording of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing together, I couldn't believe my luck - I figured it just couldn't get better than this. Until, that is, I read carefully through the fine print and discovered that the pianist accompanying the two legends was an up and coming artist named Thelonious Monk!! This is the only recording of Parker playing with Monk, and one of a handful of him playing with Gillespie and the result is sheer exuberance from the word go. The music soars and leaps as only the Bird can make it, and Gillespie matches him note for note, trick for trick. Check out Bloomdido and Leapfrog and Relaxing with Lee and...hell, check out every single breathless second of this recording - jazz has never, ever been this incredibly hot and this immaculately cool again.

2. The Davis-Shorter-Hancock-Williams-Carter Quintet

More than any other artist in the history of Jazz, Miles Davis stands out as one of the greatest collaborators of all time (see the rest of this list). But of all of his many, many collaborations, none, IMHO matches the incredible quintet comprising Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter (you can stop holding your breath now)

This quintet has a number of recordings to their credit - including the amazing Nefertiti and the visionary E.S.P. (there's also an earlier Lincoln centre performance, dating back to 1964 which has George Coleman in Shorter's place and showcases Miles at the pinnacle of his song-writing ability) and each one is a miracle of achingly beautiful melody combined with some of the most brilliantly complex jazz work ever. By the time these recordings were made Miles was already pretty much in full form (if not a little past it) but it's a real treat to hear the others (Shorter, Hancock, Williams) coming into their own*.

3. The Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington Sessions

Recorded in 1961, this sublime recording showcases Jazz's two greatest legends at the height of their powers. Consisting entirely of Duke Ellington numbers, this set includes such treasures as the sound of Armstrong playing Mood Indigo (the slow, deep moan of that trumpet to beautiful to believe) or swinging to It Don't Mean a Thing; as well as one of the most heartbreaking performances of Solitude ever given. In some ways, this is not so great a collaboration: Ellington's role as a performer is fairly understated here; it's his genius as a songwriter that shines through most clearly in old Satchmo's inimitable playing.

4. Birdsong

What do you get when you combine Jazz's most energetic, wildly improvisational saxophone player with one of it's sweetest, most melancholy trumpet players? You get Birdsong - an incredible recording featuring the talents of the great Charlie Parker and a young Miles Davis struggling to keep up with him. In some ways Birdsong is a hilarious recording - you can feel the tension between the two artists, the way that each tries to force his own pace (with Parker, clearly the more experienced performer at this stage, more or less winning) but the resulting music is exciting and alive and touched with a slow, solemn sweetness mixed with a sense of great hollow power. This is an incredible recording, and one that is a must for any serious Jazz enthusiast.

5. Louis and Ella

If there was ever a duo that represented jazz at its most joyful, it would be Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. In many ways, the two have very similar styles - a combination of high-octane improvisation with some of the sweetest, most swinging tunes in the genre (Ella even does some incredible imitations of Louis - check out her versions of Basin Street Blues and Mack the Knife). So it's no real surprise that the two of them work incredibly well together, their two voices (or Ella's voice and Louis' trumpet) joining in perfect jubilant counterpoint as they literally sing their hearts out. To the best of my knowledge there's no one full recording that the two ever made together (though recording companies have subsequently put together a number of such compilations), but there are a number of tracks that have just never been the same again after they sung them. My personal favourite is Let's call the whole thing off with its wonderful sense of dialogue (check out Ella improvising of the line that ends in Vanilla, going "Chocolate! Strawberry!"). But there are other great numbers - a breathtaking version of Cheek to Cheek (with Ella's soaring, radiant voice in marvellous contrast to Louis's deep, muttered singing) and that quintessential recording of Dream a little dream of me the like of which we shall never hear again.

6. Miles Davis and John Coltrane

I did warn you, didn't I? Miles is back, this time in a collaboration that predates the Shorter-Hancock quintet; a collaboration with another up and coming sax player called John Coltrane. So stunning (and more or less well deserved) is Coltrane's reputation as a jazz artist today that it seems strange to think of him as a sort of understudy to anyone, even Miles. But the collaboration between these two works well, largely because they too have fairly similar musical ambitions. In some sense, Miles and Coltrane are the opposite end of the spectrum from Ella and Louis - they share a vision of Jazz as something slow and aching and melancholy (this is not to say that they can't speed it up when they want to, anymore than it is to imply that either Armstrong or Ella couldn't be as blue and sentimental as the next great performer). The Davis-Coltrane sessions are truly beautiful recordings, helped in large part by the fact that these are also the golden years of Davis's collaboration with Gil Evans, so that the recordings here include such masterpieces as 'Round about Midnight, Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess

All in all, though I'm less impressed by these recordings than I am by Davis' later collaboration with Shorter. In part this is because I've always preferred Shorter to Coltrane - I think he's a more exciting sax player overall; plus the Miles-Shorter-Hancock recordings give you the feeling that Miles is being pushed in new directions by the younger players in a way that Coltrane never quite manages to. That said, the Davis-Coltrane recordings are not to be missed.

7. Shakti

It took me a while to decide whether Shakti belonged in this set or not - you could argue that it isn't really jazz (specially, if like me, you think the presiding genius of the band is not so much John McLaughlin as L Shankar), but on the whole I'm inclined to include it in here, partly because it's hard to know how else to classify it, and partly because as collaborations go, this one is a whopper.

Listening to Shakti is an experience like no other. There's a point (usually somewhere around the 3rd or 4th minute of the track) when words simply give out and you're left with the sensation of being completely overwhelmed, of an entire world of music turned effortlessly on its head, of having escaped the gravity of everthing you knew (or thought you knew) about music. Pick any album you like - it doesn't really matter - all you can do in the face of such genius is to shut your eyes and listen. And listen. And then listen some more.

8. Django Reinhardt and Stefan Grappelli

When you think of Jazz, the combination of a guitar and a violin is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Not, that is, unless the guitarist is the inimitable Django Reinhardt and the violinist is the searing Stefan Grappelli. The collaboration between these two musicians (combined with a couple of other players and going by the name of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France) has to be one of the most unique sounds in the history of jazz. Django is, of course, an incredible musician - his smooth, insightful guitar work is one of the most electrifying sounds in Jazz - and Grappelli adds an energy and a sense of poignancy with this violin work.

9. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane

Playing at the Five Spot in New York in 1957, the Thelonious Monk Quartet was joined by an exciting young saxophonist called John Coltrane. The result is some of the sweetest, most incredible Jazz music ever performed. This album would be way higher on my listing, except that there are (to the best of my knowledge) only three completed tracks still available from these sessions, so that there really isn't enough her to justify a higher rating. The three songs that do exist, though, are essential listening.

10. Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins

To be honest, I've never been a big Sonny Rollins fan. I see what there is to admire in his playing - I just don't FEEL it. One of my biggest disappointments, for instance, was listening to Miles Davis' Dig - the album has Sonny, Miles and Art Blakey and it still doesn't, IMHO, really work.

The one exception though, is the recordings Rollins made with Thelonious Monk (with Art Blakey joining in for good measure and Tommy Potter on bass). This includes primarily the 1953 Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, but also their collaboration on Rollins' Movin' Out album. Monk, I think, is good for Rollins - he brings out a calmness and a depth in Rollins that, when combined with Sonny's more innovative talents, makes for some truly great jazz.

* Shorter and Hancock, of course, continue to collaborate almost to this day - they're a good team, and the number of records they play on together is probably too numerous to even mention.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


The Novels of Iris Murdoch

There's a scene in Iris Murdoch's Philosopher's Pupil where a little lapdog comes face to face with a fox. Realising that if he tries to run away the fox will easily outrun him, the plucky little dog chooses to stand absolutely still staring back at the fox until it finally turns and walks away. It's only then that the dog runs away shivering.

As a metaphor for Murdoch's own engagement of Shakespeare, I can't think of a better image. Murdoch is not Shakespeare - but in the four hundred years since Shakespeare's death she may be the only writer to have the courage to consistently take on the Bard, standing up to him wherever necessary, refusing to flinch even though she knows herself the weaker one, and coming away, eventually, relatively unscathed. No other writer in the last century could lay claim to so mighty an achievement.

It's always been a mystery to me why Murdoch does not enjoy more of a reputation among readers today - IMHO she is one of the greatest of the British writers from the last century, I would place her above Huxley, perhaps even above Forster. Yet I find that a surprisingly small number of people have actually read her, and this, I think is distressing. She is too great a talent to be forgotten. I believe that the trouble, ironically enough, may be that she wrote too many brilliant, beautiful books - so that the praise that could justly have been lavished on one or two seminal works was diluted and diffused in being spread among many. By churning out novel after incredible novel, Murdoch reduced the writing of a literary masterpiece into a mere party trick - the very ease with which she seemed to do it made the quality of the writing suspect.

What are Murdoch's novels about? About the same things as Shakespeare's plays - everything and nothing. They are about relationships and ideas and identity and feeling, about the small backward counties of emotion and panic that we all inhabit. Murdoch's greatest gift (which she shares with practically every great dramatist through the ages) is her ability to create worlds of exquisite self-containment, to imagine and describe a universe with a logic all its own where all the usual emotional laws cease to hold. These worlds are at once visionary and familiar - in much the way that say, Kafka's world is - when you think about the situations and the characters they often make no sense, but it's easy to relate to the emotions her characters feel and the plots, while you're reading them, seem rational, almost obvious, one thing following the other. It's only when you finish the novel and think about the plot that you realise how truly outrageous, even silly, it was (this again is part of her fascination with Shakespeare, where the same effect often holds) . This, in some sense, is the way that Murdoch explores the human spirit - by placing her characters in deeply unfamiliar situations, and then having them respond in frighteningly natural ways.

Murdoch's second great gift is for approaching life sideways. Her novels seem alive because they are filled with a sense of consequence, of something meaningful and deeply illuminating just outside one's grasp, of an epiphany lurking in the shadows. You come away from her books with a sensation of great clarity about the human race and the nature of our feelings and ideas, but there's often nothing tangible that you can articulate or hold on to. The mirror Murdoch's work holds up to the world is a slightly tilted one - you can see yourself in it easily enough, but the perspective seems a little strange, a little off centre.

But perhaps Murdoch's greatest contribution is in the organic quality of her novels - the way her characters often become seperated from their roles, so that rather than creating one or two memorable characters, Murdoch gives us a cast of lesser players, muddling their way through life, their loyalties constantly shifting, achieving sometimes greatness and sometimes mediocrity. In one way this detracts from Murdoch's novels (see Harold Bloom's essay on her in Genius on this point) making them harder to remember and leaving us with no peg of an unforgettable character to hang our mental hats on. I remain unconvinced, however, that this is a true failure of Murdoch's talent - it seems to me that Murdoch's entire endeavour is to break away from such stylisation, giving us instead the true flavour of life, where (in truth) everyone is equally knave and hero, philosopher and fool. It also enhances, in my opinion, the technical enjoyment of reading the book - that experience of watching the characters change and blend into each other (like people wearing each other's clothes), the idea of the plot as a single entity that lives itself out through it characters, feeding on them as it goes, which is more evident in Murdoch than it anywhere else.

Perhaps the most accurate description of Murdoch's work is that her novels are a sort of literary jazz - improvisations on old, familiar themes (mostly Shakespeare) that dazzle with their ingenuity, their control, showing us our favourite tunes in new perspectives. Like jazz, the music shifts from instrument to instrument (character to character) and is filled with tangential riffs, ecstatic visions of sound and harmony, coupled with a basic insistent beat that drives it inexorably forward. Like jazz, it's hard to hold on to the tune afterwards, hard to pin down exactly what made it beautiful - all that you have left is the feeling your heart that you've just experienced something truly eventful, something truly moving.

Bottomline: If you care at all about the novel in the 20th century, you simply HAVE to read Murdoch. Don't read them all at once. Just read about one, maybe two a year, and with 26 novels to get through it'll still take you some time. But believe me, it's worth it.

For what it's worth, I'm enclosing a list of my ten favourite Murdoch novels (in the interest of disclosure, let me say that I've only read 18 of them, so there are 8 which I can't comment on; in particular these include the later novels - The Book and the Brotherhood, Message to the Planet, the Green Knight and Jackson's Dilemma* which, if trends are anything to go by, should be superb). This is just a list to get started on, however, I can't think of a single Murdoch novel that I don't think is worth reading.

1. A Word Child (shades of Lear; one of Murdoch's darkest works, and perhaps her truest, most burning character portrait)

2. The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (classic Murdoch - superb passages on the nature of life, love and identity, a cast of unforgettable characters and a brilliant demonstration of Murdoch's gift for the dramatic interweaving of her characters into a single dramatic whole)

3. The Black Prince (Murdoch takes on Hamlet, who proves too much for her; yet the struggle is fascinating, the technique of the attack almost flawless and the dialogue as lucid as Murdoch ever gets - an achievement that Nabokov would have been proud of. This is probably Murdoch's most exciting novel, though not, in my opinion, her most accomplished)

4. The Sea, the Sea (Regarded by many as Murdoch's finest novel, this is her most yearning work, the one filled with the most longing, the most authentic pain. A fascinating read)

5. A fairly honourable defeat (Murdoch's unforgettable variation on Midsummer Night's Dream; a stunning portrait of both the frailty and strength that we all hold within us, a novel of infinite possibilities - a combination of Dostoyevsky and Lawrence)

6. The Philosopher's Pupil (Tempest this time; a mature, philosophical novel about the nature of human relationships and the impossibility, after all, of reconciling words and feelings. After you're read this, you'll never think of Caliban the same way again)

7. The Nice and The Good (Brilliant - a novel of fine distinctions, of exquisite subtleties; this is an almost Jamesian novel, except that Murdoch gives it a touch of passion, of emotional desperation, that James would not have allowed)

8. The Unicorn (A novel of gothic brilliance - Murdoch's version of Jane Eyre and Heathcliffe all rolled into one, with a touch of dramatic intensity that is closer to Becket or Osborne; the Bronte sisters would have wept)

9. The Time of the Angels (As in The Unicorn, what counts here is not so much the plot but the atmosphere that Murdoch is able to create, the way in which she sucks you into the claustrophobic logic of the story until it feels so real, so unescapable. This is one of Murdoch's plainest novels - she has not really learned to be clever yet - but for that reason one of her more heart-wrenching. It also features some incredible meditations on the nature of God, man and the angels)

10. A Severed Head (Imagine a novel with a Wodehouse plot, the sexual intensity of Jeanette Winterson and the Gogol's brooding despondency and you have this novel; a superb example of the way Murdoch can weave characters together, twisting and re-arranging their relationships in almost soap-operatic way, without making it seem awkward or forced)

* The other novels I haven't read: The Sandcastle, The Red and the Green, An Accidental Man, Henry and Cato.

Monday, July 04, 2005

My Top Ten War Movies of all Time (so far)

Got tired of doing reviews of individual movies, so figured I might as well go the whole hog and do a rundown of the ten best, IMHO, war movies of all time.

1. Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen); Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1963.

Godard's stunning movie about two fairly unintelligent young men who get lured into joining the army with promises of wealth, travel and women is hands down my favourite war movie. There are no special effects here, no climactic battle scenes showing war in all its hellish glory, no stories about young lives torn with torment and indecision, no angst. Instead there is the simple fact of two country lads, drunk on the power of their uniforms and guns, going about killing and stealing and commiting atrocities in the name of the King.

What's stunning about the movie is the innocence with which these acts are done - the blind obedience, the unquestioning, instinctive way in which these two young men become unfeeling killers, without losing their essential simplicity. Life is cheap here; Death is accidental and arbitrary and all causes are meaningless. There is only the alternation of terror and beauty, of evil made more terrifying because of its childishness. At one point in the movie, one of the protagonists is given orders to take a group of civilians out to the forest and execute them. Godard shows you the obvious pleasure this young man takes in being given so 'responsible' a task, his swagger at being in command, the way he takes them further than necessary just to show that he calls the shots (forgive the pun) and the self-important way in which he makes sure they are dead. This is the way a child would act if he / she were suddenly made class monitor, and Godard shows you how frightening it is that War puts the power of life and death into the hands of such uncouth children.

Not to be missed - there's a scene where a beautiful young woman who's about to be executed recites Mayakovsky while the rag-tag bunch of young men stand around pointing rifles at her, clearly entranced by her beauty and her spirit, trying to get over the awkwardness of being the one to fire the first shot. This would be hilarious if it weren't so terribly poignant. It's scenes like these that make Godard's move a true masterpiece.

2. Apocalypse Now; Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979. (recently re-released with additional footage as Apocalypse Now Redux)

Coppola's classic may be the greatest movie ever made about the Vietnam War. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (an interesting interpretation of the story, btw - intriguing watching, if, like me, you're into Conrad), Apocalypse Now is the story of one man's (Martin Sheen) descent into the hell of Vietnam to find an officer gone crazy (Marlon Brando, in a performance that completely underwhelmed me). But the plot of the movie is just an excuse that allows Coppola to pack in some incredibly telling scenes about the war. This is a movie of unforgettable vignettes - the helicopters playing the Ride of the Valkyries, the colonel who stands around in the battlefield doing a strategic discussion on whether the surfing of the coast where they've landed will be any good, the exploding napalm, the confusion and blankness of the fighting around the bridge (a vision of Hell straight out of Dante), the killing of innocents with gunfire, the showgirls at night - every scene, every image of this movie stays with you forever. This is a movie that manages to be heartstoppingly real but also kind of cool and visionary at the same time (the music helps - check out the opening sequence with the Doors playing The End*).

3. Full Metal Jacket; directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1987.

In some ways, Kubricks' Full Metal Jacket is almost a continuation of Apocalypse Now. The movie share many similarities - Full Metal Jacket is a lot less visionary, though, and not half as stunning visually; on the flip side, Kubrick has a clearer and more cynical point of view about the war, and doesn't feel the need to burden himself with some dramatic, outlandish ending.

Full Metal Jacket is essentially two movies - the first is the story of a Marine training camp, where a hard-nosed Drill Instructor turns a bunch of fairly normal young men into ruthless soldiers. Kubrick brings to this scenario the combination of pathos and irony that only he is capable of - there is some incredible humour here (see the speech about how Jesus has a hard-on for Marines because they're the ones who keep sending him fresh supplies for heaven; or the one where the Drill Instructor speaks with pride of how Lee Harvey Oswald got off three shots in under 6 seconds hitting a moving target at 250 feet, and one of those hits a head wound - this, the Drill Instructor feels, is a prime example of what a motivated marine with the proper training is capable of!) but there's a great sense of outrage behind the humour, an indignation that the world should be this way and a sadness for those who have to suffer for it. If you really want to see Kubrick tear into the logic of the war establishment, of course, you should watch Dr. Strangelove, but if you've already seen that, then this movie is a close second.

The second movie tracks the career of one of the marines at the boot camp - a sergeant Joker, who is now a reporter for Stars and Stripes. From here on the movie follows a path fairly similar to Apocalypse Now - Joker's journey into the heart of the war being a good setting to show vignettes of life in Vietnam. What makes this trip special is the incredible sense of balance Kubrick brings to the picture he's showing you - in some ways Joker (who wears a helmet with the legend "Born to Kill" but also has a peace sign pinned to his jacket) is an metaphor for this ambiguity (at one point in the movie, a colonel asks Joker what he means by this; Joker replies that he wanted to say something about the essential duality of man, in the Jungian sense - much to the discomfort of the colonel who then proceeds to lecture him on the importance of God and country). The duality that Kubrick brings to the movie is not simply between war and peace though, it is also between pathos and humour - the scene with the colonel comes right after a shot of an open mass grave and a voice over saying "The only thing the dead know is that is better to be alive."

Full Metal Jacket is a deceptively simple film - on the surface, it seems like a simple exploration of the war, but it's also a deeply metaphoric film. There's a scene in the film where a soldier on scout patrol gets shot by a sniper and lies screaming in the street. The platoon leader wants to pull back, fearing an ambush, but his men, horrified at the thought of leaving a comrade behind, make charge after quixotic charge to rescue him, ending up getting shot themselves. Ultimately the whole unit is forced to launch an offensive against the enemy position. As an allegory for the escalation of the Vietnam War, I can't think of a more brilliant sequence.

4. The Longest Day; directed by Ken Annakin and others, 1962.

For a movie that was made more than 40 years ago, this incredible war classic remains one of the most compelling and brilliant movies about war ever made. Based on the book by Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day is a true war epic - that shows you the invasion of Normandy from the perspective of a whole host of characters - German, French, American, British. Never before or since has a single day of war been portrayed in such richness.

Highlights of the movie: An incredible star cast including: John Wayne, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Kenneth More and many, many, others; a sweeping multi-dimensional quality that both keeps you engaged and gives you a sense of the incredible complexity of what's going on, thus blending the specific human details with the larger historical picture; an emphasis on realism and humour - this is not really an anti-war movie and there's some level of Allied heroics involved, but for its time, its reasonably unbiased and highlights the idiosyncracies of the war effort rather than its glory.

Most memorable scene: The scene right at the end where Richard Burton, playing a down English pilot, points to a dead German soldier and says to the American GI next to him: "He's dead. You're lost. I'm wounded. I wonder who won?" Brilliant.

5. Platoon; directed by Oliver Stone, 1986.

Another of the great Vietnam War epics, Platoon features an interesting cast (in particular it stars Willem Dafoe - one of my favourite actors) and has some of the most brilliantly shot battle scenes in the history of war film-making. This is Oliver Stone in his prime, and the intensity and clarity he brings to the movie, the atmosphere of tension and fear and stress he creates, has few equals. Unfortunately, Stone feels the need to burden the movie with a complicated story about conspiracy and betrayal - which, in my opinion only detracts from the film. The characters pre-occupation with their own interactions seems insular and self-centred given the grimness of the world around them.

That said, Platoon is still a must watch movie - some of the sequences here are truly spectacular (just watch the scenes of the GIs entering the Vietnamese villages) and Stone introduces a focus on personality and psychological interplay that is quite missing from both Apocalypse and (to a lesser extent) from Full Metal Jacket. In these movies the characters are observers, reacting to the war around them; in Platoon they are true participants, making and being made by the war.

6. Saving Private Ryan; directed by Steven Spielberg, 1998.

For my money, the last great movie Steven Spielberg made. Or half a great movie. That incredible opening sequence on the beach at Normandy may be the best half hour of war movie footage ever shot (if the rest of the movie were close to being that good it would easily be number one), but the film goes slowly downhill from there. The initial part, where they're still searching for Ryan isn't bad either - Spielberg has a stunning feel for visual effect, and some of the scenes (like the sniper in the rain in the ruined French town) are vivid and moving. But by the time Tom Hanks and company find Ryan and then settle down to make their heroic stand in some obscure town, the movie has degenerated into camp, and the last scenes could come out of any of hundreds of war movies showing a small band of allied heroes taking on the evil Nazi forces. You can almost see Spielberg's talent running out.

It says a lot for the first part of the movie, though, that despite the problems I have with the second part it still ranks high on my list of all-time great war movies. The fact is simply that the first hour, hour and a half of Saving Private Ryan is a must see; after that, it's really up to you

(Btw, that initial beach storming sequence makes interesting watching with the Longest Day, which also has similar sequences of the Normandy invasion. If nothing else, it shows you what thirty plus years of film technology can do)

7. Tora! Tora! Tora!; directed by Richard Fleischer and Kinji Fukasuku, 1970

Possibly the least well-known of the movies in this post, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a depiction of the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbour, ending in the attack itself, as told from both the US and Japanese perspectives. What makes this a spectacular film is the grainy, almost documentary like quality of the film. Like The Longest Day before it, Tora! Tora! Tora! is not so much a story of one person or a particular set of people (see for instance the execrable Pearl Harbour) but rather of an event in history itself, with the characters being incidental human figures in a larger historic dance. I don't know enough about the Pearl Harbour incident to comment on the historical accuracy of the script, but I understand that it is fairly accurate, and it certainly seems plausible - simply because it provides an amazingly balanced picture of the attack, so that you both share in the triumph of the Japanese at managing to pull off a surprise attack and in the anguish and bewilderment of the Americans caught in it. This is one of those rare war movies that refuses to take sides, and seems to have no agenda except the telling of the story the way it really happened, with comment or criticism.

The other spectacular thing about the movie is the depiction of the attack itself, which is done with incredible realism and effect, specially when you consider that the movie was made in 1970, when computer imaging didn't exist.

8. Patton; directed by Franklin J Schaffner, 1970.

The other big war movie released in the same year as Tora! Tora! Tora! was, of course, Patton. Patton is a hard to classify war movie - on the one hand, it seems realistic and cynical, cutting through the high speeches about patriotism and glory (don't miss the wonderful speech right at the start with the line about the important thing being "to get the other son of a bitch to die for his country"), showing you the petty rivalries and the politics behind the war effort, and depicting, in reasonably graphic detail, the savage reality of War. On the other hand, it's also a movie that lionises a man who is a pure warrior, making him seem so much larger than life that you can't help looking up to him, whether as a monster or a martyr (depending on your point of view).

This perhaps is the genius of the movie, and it's chief saving grace - the fact that it shows you the true warrior spirit in all its brutal majesty, and leaves it to you to decide whether such power should be allowed to run untrammelled in the interest of winning wars, or whether it is precisely this sort of brutality that we must guard against in seeking peace. If there is a message in the movie, it is that if we're going to fight wars anyway, we might as well go the whole hog and leave it to the real generals who will fight it well, rather than letting politicians make decisions that will effect the lives of thousands on the front.

Patton's other great achievement, of course, is the way it creates an incredible portrait of the general - making him a tragic figure worthy of some greek drama, a sort of modern-day Ajax. George C Scott puts in an incredible performance here, and the movie is worth watching just for the incredible power he brings to the screen.

The trouble with Patton is frankly just that it's too long. While the opening sequences are stirring and engaging, the movie loses its way by the end, becoming too protracted, too long drawn out. In some ways, this is the point of the movie - that sense of tiredness, of endless, hopeless trudging with the unacknowledged certainty at the back of your mind that things will not work out. But this also means that you leave the movie with a terrible feeling of weariness, which makes me rank it relatively low.

The other issue is that for all the war footage, this is not really a movie about War. This is a movie about a personality who just happens to be a general - the War is somewhat incidental here, and while you get a good sense of Patton the man, you never really understand what it is that makes him so great a general.

9. Skammen (Shame); directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1968.

You didn't really think I was going to get through a list of ten movies without including Bergman, did you? In some ways calling Skammen a war movie is a bit of a stretch - it's the story of a couple living on a remote island whose world is shattered by a civil war that breaks out on the island. There are no battle scenes here, no real war action of any sort. There are almost no soldiers. In some way, this is a movie about the effects of War (especially Civil War) on the civilian population. Bergman does not show you any actual fighting, just the aftermath - the burning houses, the bodies lying in the grass, the interrogations of the civilian population, the brutality of passing soldiers, the executions, the flight of innocents, the plight of refugees.

Yet for all that violence is a real presence here, in a way it is in no other film on this list. Frankly, if there had been a little more war action in the movie, Skammen would have been on the top of this list. As it is, it deserves honourable mention for the way in which Bergman create scene after scene that simply burns into your brain. This is film-making at its most visionary, its most poetic, its most intense. Bergman's great gift is his ability to show you the beautiful in the ordinary, to create mythic images out of realistic scenes. And Skammen shows him doing this at the peak of his powers - if there is one scene that depicts forever the incredible sense of loss that war brings, it can only be that scene towards the end where a boat of refugees runs into a group of drowned soldiers - the sight of those gaunt, suffering faces staring leaden-eyed at the sea of bodies they are slowly pushing their way through could come straight out of Durer.

10. The Thin Red Line; directed by Terrance Mallick, 1998.

In some ways, The Thin Red Line (based on a James Jones novel about the battle for Guadalcanal) does everything right. It has a cast that reads like a who's who of serious actors in the late 90's (Sean Penn, Adrian Brody, John Cusack, John C Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin; oh, and George Clooney, but some things you have to forgive!); it's a movie that combines some incredibly realistic action with touches of truly moving poetry; it manages to steer clear of being either too jingoistic or too bluntly anti-war; the dialogue is intelligent, the camera work exceptional, the action engrossing.

The trouble is that there's really nothing about the movie that you can hold on to - in some ways, the Thin Red Line is the best example out there of the standard 'realistic war film' - it lacks personality. I remember watching it with rapt attention when it came out, and remember being truly impressed and moved by it, but now that I think back I can't for the life of me remember any one particular scene (I have this hazy image of some underwater shots of people swimming in water, but that's about it) that simply blew me away.

Nevertheless, The Thin Red Line is an exceptional movie about the realities of war, and one well worth the watch.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Whose Line is it anyway

Antonia's Line
A few years ago (2000), there was a movie I had great hopes from. It was this thing called Chocolat and I thought it was going to be a really brilliant movie. To begin with, it had an awesome cast: not only did it feature Juliette Binoche (who IMHO is one of the most gorgeous women ever) and Johnny Depp (who IMHO is one of the most gorgeous men ever) but the cast included Dame Judi Dench, Leslie Caron and Alfred Molina (in case the names look unfamiliar, I've added a link to IMDB to the blog-site, just look them up). Plus the story seemed promising: woman moves into small French village with her daughter, shocks and ultimately breaks down the morality of the place - it felt like there was plenty of potential for subtle, good-hearted humour mixed with a sort of magic realist touch (like something out of a Marquez novel). Plus, of course, how could you not love a movie whose main theme was, well, chocolate (Juliette Binoche and dark cocoa - the two things that go to make heaven). So it was a bitter disappointment to me when the movie turned out to be merely a slightly above average love story, the force and brilliance of its opening losing its way rapidly in a sort of meaningless meandering more appropriate to Sue Kidd than to Isabelle Allende. I came away from it with a strong sense of wasted potential.
Then yesterday, I discovered the movie that Chocolat could have been, but wasn't. Antonia's Line is a Dutch film* that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1995. On the surface, the story is very similar to Chocolat (though of course, this movie was made earlier, so that it would be more accurate to say that Chocolat is similar to Antonia's Line rather than the other way around). In the aftermath of World War II a widow returns to the small Dutch village where she was born, along with her teenage daughter, and the movie traces the way the village adjusts to her presence, and how she comes to make a place for herself in the place.
And there the similarity ends. For everything that was muddled and sentimental in Chocolat is illuminated and light-hearted here. The genius of Antonia's Line is that it manages to be outrageous and daring without taking itself too seriously; that it manages to say some quite fundamental things about life and identity without being preachy but rather by laughing at itself; that it celebrates at once the simple pleasures of life, as well as its more complex excitements, making it a warm, wise and ultimately compassionate movie about life itself. The main message of the movie, if there is one, is that things can be beautiful and profound and silly at the same time, and that while there is joy to be had in ideas, we must not let them clutter our way to getting what we really want.
To begin with, the movie is a tribute to liberated and independent womanhood (ya, that line makes me cringe too, but I can't put it any other way). Feminism here is not about rebelling against some established order, but rather about simply recognising that it can be ignored or worked around, and that you can't let the mores of some outdated society keep you from getting what you really want. Early on in the movie, Antonia's daughter, Danielle, decides that she wants a baby but doesn't want a husband to go with it (not because she wants to make some major social point, just because she doesn't want the hassle). What follows is a delightful expedition where mother and daughter make their way to the city looking for some way to find a man who will get Danielle pregnant so that they can go back to their farm and have the baby in peace (there's this awesome scene where the daughter is having sex with this man in a hotel room, while her mother waits patiently outside, sipping wine and enjoying the sunlight). The point of the movie is that this isn't a big deal - it's not something that requires sleepless nights and soul-searching - if you just think about rationally, it really IS that simple.
Linked to this is the fact that the movie neither shies away from the harsh realities of life in mid-twentieth century rural Europe, nor glorifies the women who change that reality. Sexual abuse is a reality here, as is chauvinism, and Antonia is not above asking a male friend to get her to help her out when the need arises. Antonia's dominance in the movie comes not so much from her zeal or struggle but simply from the clear-sightedness and compassion that she (and by extension the movie) brings to everything in the village.
And what a village it is. The other thing that makes this such an enjoyable movie is the way it creates a whole host of subsidiary characters - all fascinating in their own right. So we have the intellectual hermit Crooked Finger, who lives in almost complete isolation surrounded by his books, quoting Schopenhauer (the world is a hell, made up of tormented souls and devils) and Nietszche; the Mad Madonna, who howls from her window at the full moon; The Priest, who gives up the church because his desire for life is at odds with the church's fascination with death (his words) and many, many other wonderful people. The point of these characters is not just that they are sharply etched and add both humour and interest to the story, it's also the sense they give you of the richness of life and the feeling you get, watching the movie, of being part of a community.
All in all, Antonia's Line is a fascinating watch: a light happy movie that you cannot so much watch as feel.
* Antonia's Line (just Antonia in the original); written and directed by Marleen Gorris; Dutch with English subtitles.