Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Grand Tour #16 – Cyprus. Immoral Tales / Andreas Karayan

July 7, 2017

To Cyprus. My choices were limited: either a book of short stories I had read an indifferent review of (£15) or an erotic memoir (£4). Naturally I went for the latter, thinking that if it wasn’t very good I might at least get an erection out of it. On that front, mission very much not accomplished. (Not that I’d tell you if it had been, my attitude being that I will take every opportunity to talk of erections in the abstract, but will decline to discuss my own under any circumstances.)

Where was I? Oh yes, I read a book. The ungainlily titled Immoral Tales: London – Alexandria: A Coming of Age Erotic Odyssey by Andreas Karayan, edited by Peter Archer and translated by Antoine Bohdjalian. Karayan writes in Greek, I believe, but is of Armenian extraction, as (judging by the name) might be his translator. The book, though, takes place in Greece and Cyprus and (mainly) London and Alexandria. A chronicle of a peripatetic existence.

From the title (and the cover, which I suspect is by Karayan himself, an artist by profession) you might expect a torrid, shameful trawl through illicit basement-room bonks I have known. Banish this image from your mind. It’s an altogether more circumspect and tender book than that.

The first part takes place mainly (to my delight) against the backdrop of cultural London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where young Andreas and his wife Eleonora, a promising pianist, are living. She is studying with Rose Inlander-Gover, a grande dame of London pianism, and they encounter people like the young Kiri Te Kanawa, David Hockney and the like. Andreas is studying art and spends a lot of time in museums, and his method of storytelling has perhaps a parallel with something like Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières’, one of the paintings he loves to contemplate in the National Gallery. The picture of his life is built up from pointillistic portraits of people, moments, disagreements, affairs. One friend, Martin:

I noticed him at the college – rather scruffy, slim and wiry. His chest showed beneath his unbuttoned shirt. With his dark blond hair, he looked like The Little Prince. We met one Friday and, after I found myself penniless and unable to get home, he immediately gave me all the change he had for his evening meals. He came from another world, the world of Public Schools, which we knew about only from television. His father was the Queen’s secretary and, as a boy, he went with his parents to tea parties at the Palace. Around him, people stood to attention in uniforms decorated with gold. Protocol dictated all.

Andreas and Eleonora grow gradually apart as he comes to accept his attraction to men. His witnessing of a kiss between James Laurenson and Ian McKellen as Gaveston and Edward in a BBC adaptation of Edward II is one of a number of significant moments in his ‘odyssey’ of self-discovery.

After a brief excursion into Germany and Cyprus, for part of which the author appears to assume the persona of his own lover, the second half of the book is devoted to Alexandria, a love letter to a changing city inspired partly by Karayan’s adoration of Lawrence Durrell and C.P. Cavafy (whose poems he has translated). This section reads as the work of a maturer writer than the first, the erotic episodes more assured, more taken for granted, though still full of wonder. I like the unfloridity of Karayan’s writing about sex. Not that sex is the point. Alexandria is the point, the place his life has been leading towards. Again, a picture of the place is built up through vignettes, some Karayan’s own, some the stories of his friend and/or lover Adham, told to Karayan and preserved here.

This book is a ragbag, incoherent and lacking structure. So far, so lifelike. There were a couple of things that impressed me particularly: one was the organic feeling of Karayan’s frequent allusions to art. Art is his passion, his obsession, and he sees it everywhere. Too often in other authors I see artistic, literary and musical allusions that feel tacked on, mere status symbols. (Michael Cunningham, I may be talking about you.) That’s not the case here. The other was the translation, which reads as naturally as if the book had been originally written in English. Antoine Bohdjalian, I salute you.

Literature as consolation

November 22, 2014

When I started the last post but one on this blog I’d meant to write about books.

All literature is consolation.

I believed for a moment that was an original thought of mine — after all, it’s about time — but in fact it’s something said by Dakin in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, as he makes the point that history is written after the fact. Even if it’s representative of euphoria, by the time it’s written the euphoria is over. By extension you might say it’s written by losers. If they were winners they’d be out there doing it, but they’re not so they’re in here writing about it.

When a couple of months ago a meme reached me on Facebook asking me to name ten books that had ‘stayed’ with me (retch), I listed ten favourite titles off the top of my head, the predictable Middlemarch, which I had just reread, Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice. If I had disregarded the accompanying instruction not to give the formulation of the list too much thought (thought, of course, being the enemy of the list), I might have ended up with something more interesting. What if I’d made a list of the books that had consoled me over the years?

Treehorn

As a little boy, I didn’t have much need of consolation. Mostly, I was happy. Children find comfort in familiarity, hence the bedtime plea to have Owl Babies for the ten thousandth time. There were fictional worlds I certainly did love and feel at home in: A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood; the unobtrusively Jewish milieu of Florence Parry Heide’s three offbeat books about the little boy Treehorn and his friend Moshie, with illustrations by Edward Gorey; the half real, half invented world of The BFG, which mixed places I knew couldn’t exist with places I knew did, though London felt as tantalisingly out of reach as Giant Country.

And yet still I worried about things. I worried about a fire breaking out on the landing in the middle of the night, which would have blocked my path downstairs to safety. I worried too about growing up and having to do National Service. (This was the time of the Gulf War.) If I’d known how to put my fears into words I could have been reassured about the abolition of conscription, but I didn’t, so I suffered in silence. Perhaps this explains my devotion to Peanuts, with its children (and animals) trying to cope with the challenges of a life they aren’t prepared for. I remember particularly Linus having to prepare a Bible reading for the Christmas pageant, something I empathised with. For recitation at school I had to learn

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—

I didn’t understand all the words, and I still can’t parse ‘As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky’.

I think I also had a crush on Woodstock.

Woodstock

When I was a teenager I turned to books for some kind of validation of my sexuality. Not that I ever agonised about being other — I always thought it was perfectly natural to feel as I felt — but I wanted to explore authors who might turn out to be kindred spirits. I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice when I was fourteen, which I loved. (Had I seen Visconti’s film first? Possibly.) I think Edmund White may have been next, though the chronology is confused in my mind. White bemoans the fact that Death in Venice was the only ‘gay’ book he had access to. He thought it painted a grim picture of homosexuality, whereas I fell in love with the idea of the contemplation of beauty. Meanwhile, White’s writing pointed to a life of empty promiscuity, which didn’t appeal to me then and still doesn’t. (A neat demonstration of the fundamental difference between me and White: when he read Death in Venice at the same age as I did, he imagined himself as Tadzio, a boy with a power over older men; I automatically identified with Aschenbach, a man in the thrall of beauty, the pursuer but not the pursued. White was an instigator, I a mere observer.) James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was another important book to me at that time, especially the episode early on describing the narrator’s intense affair with another boy. I wish now that my reading had been less earnest. If I’d known about Armistead Maupin or David Sedaris, maybe I’d have had more fun.

Giovanni's Room

When I was fifteen I did a week’s work experience at a local independent bookshop. I suspected my boss of harbouring unpleasant right-wing views — he was a Rotarian and looked like General Pinochet — but at the end of a week of making window displays and drinking repulsive cups of tea made with Coffee-Mate he said I could choose £20 worth of books to take home, a generous gesture. One of the books I chose was Stephen Fry’s memoir Moab is My Washpot, just out in paperback. Ron made some quip about Fry being an ex-offender, but acquiesced to my selection.

More than any other book, Moab broadened the scope of my reading. The books Fry read became the books I read. He turned me on to forgotten men like T.C. Worsley and Angus Stewart and Michael Campbell (whose Lord Dismiss Us became a favourite novel of mine). I graduated much later to Henry de Montherlant. But more vital than the bibliography he provided was the story he told of his own adolescence, which mirrored my own in ways that made me feel I’d found not merely a friend but a confidant, odd though that sounds. I didn’t need to talk to him or write to him, as I knew innately that he understood me. I’m not as devout a Fryphile as I once was, but I will be eternally grateful to him for having written that book.

Nowadays when I turn to books for consolation it is invariably because of some emotional turmoil. My friend the Argumentative Old Git occasionally writes of his resistance to the idea of books as escapism, and I feel similarly, that the best literature is not a refuge from life but an exploration of it, that may help us to understand the world and ourselves more deeply. Nonetheless, when I want to escape something that’s plaguing me there are writers I turn to. Increasingly P.G. Wodehouse is the first I think of. I sometimes wish I knew what the alchemy was that makes his books so magical to me, but I imagine that to understand it would be to dissolve it. There’s something very comforting about reading a writer whose very presence is benevolent. That’s the case with Wodehouse and Maupin and Sedaris, and Anthony Trollope and Alexander McCall Smith and Jan Morris. The pianist and music writer Susan Tomes is another. A digression sideways to end with, the opening of an essay from her latest book, Sleeping in Temples:

A few years ago I became intrigued by the number of people coming up to me after concerts and telling me that listening to the music had helped them to feel better. Sometimes they were quite specific. They mentioned having felt unwell at work, feeling unsure if they ought to go to the concert or just go straight home instead and rest. They said that they took their seats in a pessimistic frame of mind, were drawn in by the music, caught up by the interaction between the musicians, somehow soothed by the effect of the music and gradually realised that the horrible headache had gone, the fatigue had lifted, that they were no longer feeling so down about whatever it was that had been on their minds.

Funny thing, art. Certain government ministers may wish to take note.

Liebster Award – part 4 of 4

December 9, 2013

I hope you’re following this. Mel set me some questions and now I’m answering them.

1) Why did you start blogging?

Hubris. I’ve used message boards for ten years, and found myself thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice to have a corner of the internet to call my own. What fanciful schemes I entertained in those days, imagining a new audience hanging on my every word. Sheer folly. If this blog hasn’t been a failure in every respect, I can’t pretend it’s not stagnating, this sudden spurt of daily posts notwithstanding. Of course, now I have other creative outlets. Look at World of Brine, still crawling along after a year and a bit. Really, look at it; nobody else does.

2) You’re going on an once-in-a-lifetime expedition to a far flung part of the planet. Where would you go? And what would be the one luxury item you would pack in your rucksack?

My own Wanderlust, such as it is, is vaguely approximate to that of a snail. Sometimes I feel daring enough to venture as far as the bottom of the garden, but all things considered I’d rather stay in my shell, and have you considered the likelihood of dog attack? But if there is a far-flung place I would like to visit, it is probably Japan. I’ve fallen in love with aspects of Japanese culture from watching the films of people like Yasujiro Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, and I like drinking sake. I’d have to bring something appropriately Japanese with me. A book by Mishima? Too depressing. A shamisen? No, I can pick one up when I’m there. But it occurs to me that my generic MP3 player was probably assembled there, or at least made from Japanese components, and it would certainly keep me company during the journey.

3) If you lived in the same parallel universe as Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, what animal would your daemon be? Or, put another way, what settled form would you hope it would adopt, and why?

I think I’m as close to a hedgehog as one can get without actually being one. That said, I was born in the Chinese Year of the Pig – the Water Pig, to be precise. Wikipedia:

Being its natural element, those born in the year of the Water Pig are said to show the extremes of being a Pig. They can be very emotional, deep, nurturing, sympathetic, empathetic, imaginative and intuitive; however, they can also be cold, moody, jealous, sentimental, sensitive, escapistic and irrational.

So everything, then.

4) If you had the chance to step into a painting, and to spend a magical hour wandering its world, which painting would you choose? Maybe it would be Constable’s Hay Wain? Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Or, perhaps you’d like to join in with Edvard Munch’s Scream?? Or – much more light-heartedly – maybe you’d prefer to go trip-trapping over Monet’s bridge? The possibilities are endless. It’s your choice…

I haven’t thought about it in depth, but the first thing that springs to mind is Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’. I hope that’s not too much of a cliché, but I’m sure it must be. I don’t even like snow that much, so don’t ask me to rationalise my choice.

Hunters in the Snow

5) The Doctor has invited you to time travel with him on board the Tardis. Which period in history would you most like to visit and why?

I think turn-of-the-century London. I’d hang out around Baker Street hoping for a glimpse of the great man.

6) If Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Will Shakespeare were alive today and were regular tweeters, I’d definitely be persuaded to join Twitter! Is there anyone from pre-internet days who, if they were alive today, you would love to see dazzle us daily with tweets of sheer brilliance and delight? Or are you glad they never had to suffer the tyranny of 140 characters?

I love Twitter, for what it is, but for anyone with an ambition to write proper sentences it’s hard not to see it as a corset. I suppose Hemingway would cope OK, but I doubt I’d follow him.

7) Which three books and three pieces of music would you take with you to a desert island?

Books – Middlemarch, Bleak House and Pale Fire. A good mix there. Do I get the Bible and Shakespeare too? I’d like them there. As for music, I’ve assembled annual Desert Island Discs lists meticulously for the past five years, incorrigibly pathetic specimen of humanity that I am, and the choice is impossibly difficult. But let’s choose three incontrovertible masterpieces: Purcell’s Fantasia, Z731 (I’d have the version by the David Munrow Recorder Consort), Brahms’ 3rd Symphony, and, in case I wanted to jump about a bit, this pair of jigs from James Morrison and John McKenna, recorded in New York in February 1929:

8) Out of all the species of wild animals or birds you have yet to see, which one would you most like to encounter?

A bittern (not a stuffed one).

Little Bittern

9) Which of the following would most closely correspond to your natural habitat?

a) Out on the moors with Heathcliff.

b) In the Forest with Robin Hood.

c) Out at sea with Long John Silver.

d) Cosy by the fireside with a Pickwickian gathering of genial folk, sharing a bottle of your favourite tipple.

e) The bookish calm of a country house study – in mutual retreat with Mr Bennet.

f) Striding across the meadows with Elizabeth Bennet, a healthy glow in your cheeks and mud caking your boots.

g) In the Attic with Jo from Little Women, scribbling stories and dreaming of adventure.

h) Absorbed in the life of the city streets – in the company of a fictional detective of your choice.

i) Roaming Manderley – and the windswept Cornish cliffs – with the second Mrs de Winter.

j) Wandering alongside William and Dorothy Wordsworth, pacing out poetical rhythms on the Cumbrian fells, and waxing lyrical about wild daffodils.

k) In a cave with Gollum.

l) Hey, Mel – I’m an incredibly complicated human being – a mix of all the above holds true. It depends on my mood…

m) I wouldn’t be seen dead with any of them – Bah! Humbug!

Of that lot I’d fit in best with Mr Bennet, if he could bear my company. I’d quite like the clothes too.

10) Where would you rather live and why:

Toad Hall

Bag End

Green Knowe

Little House on the Prairie

Green Gables

Kirrin Island

221B Baker Street

Well, Toad Hall excepted, the only one I really know anything about is Baker Street. Throw in the Hundred Acre Wood and we’d be in business.

11) If you had to go on a long journey with a fictional character, who would you choose? And what form of transport would you take – ship, hot air balloon, train, canal boat, motorbike, bicycle, gondola, skateboard, horse drawn gypsy caravan? Space ship?

Always the train. I’m not a trainspotter, but I love travelling by train. So a long train journey taking in lots of rural stations off the beaten track in all corners of the UK, in the company of, well, whom? There are lots of literary characters I love – Hanno Buddenbrook, Sergeant George, Charlie Brown, Piglet, Bertie Wooster – but I don’t know if they’d be good travelling companions. Racking my brains for people who are like me, I’m afraid the closest I have come is Adrian Mole. Perhaps that’s just because we both inhabit modern Britain. I desperately hope so.

Brine

May 26, 2012

I have a new website, World of Brine.

It started as a joke, to be honest, the genesis of which may be too tedious to relate. But it’s turning out to be a revelation.

My criterion for inclusion is simple: the involvement of brine. For this blog, I generally wait for something to take my interest, and then write about it. For World of Brine, I need to actively seek out things to post. After all, what does anyone know about brine? (Nobody knows anything about brine.) My knowledge of the subject is certainly lacking (though not, I trust, for long). So I trawl the internet (unintentional fishing metaphor) for videos, literary quotations, pictures, websites, that make reference to brine (or people or things called Brine).

And how rewarding it has been. Brine crops up in the greatest of literary works (Shakespeare, Byron, predictably Melville), there are many videos on YouTube of brine preservation techniques, brine shrimp and the like, and I have found this likable portrait of Augustus Brine (1769-1840), who enlisted in the British Navy as a Midshipman at the age of thirteen aboard HMS Belliqueux under the command of his father. The painting, by John Singleton Copley, dates from 1782 and hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I don’t know if World of Brine will take off, but so far it’s been a pleasing experiment.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.