Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

2018 foursomes

December 31, 2018

If you are reading this, you have successfully staved off death again, as have I. Let’s raise a glass to keeping on doing that in 2019.

Top 4 books
It’s been a year of classics. I spent most of the first half of the year reading Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and an engrossing, exhilarating, boring experience it was too. Delighted to have done it, though. Emily Wilson’s vibrant new translation of Homer’s Odyssey brought Greek mythology to life in a way I have never experienced before. Joyce’s Ulysses was my single reading highlight of the year, the book that contains all of human life. I can’t omit these three masterpieces from a top four, but there are many contenders for the fourth place: Ann Quin? Nicholson Baker? Denis Mackail? Barbara Pym? (New discoveries all.) I think it has to be Doreen by Barbara Noble, an unheralded, Persephone-published classic about a girl evacuated from London during the Blitz. More books imminently: watch this space.

Top 4 new films
No surprises here, with three of my favourites nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and the other the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this summer. Best of all, I thought on first acquaintance, was Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, full of tenderness and delightfully light comedy. Saiorse Ronan’s one of those actresses you’d watch doing anything, isn’t she. Martin McDonagh’s gratuitous use of slurs rankles with me somewhat in both his plays and his films, and that was also the case with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but its stark brilliance was a compensatory factor. I drowsed through Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread at the cinema, but a second viewing over Christmas confirmed its quality. I can’t resist its elusive romanticism, or Vicky Krieps. And lastly Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda, a director with a hit rate so high it’s indecent. I’ve been warmed by his films before, but never so pained as I was by the final act of this one. Another paean to family life, and a fitting memorial to Kirin Kiki, whose radiance has illuminated many films I have loved in recent years.

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which I saw at the Cambridge Film Festival, is my tip for 2019.

Top 4 old films
Not that old, some of these. Anyway, the standout film of the year, the one that I think back on and marvel at, is Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross, which tells the story of a teenage girl in a fanatically religious family in fourteen static (or mostly static) tableaux. It’s beautifully bleak, the bleakness going so far that it almost verges into black comedy territory, and one of the most arresting films about religion and the perversion of religion that I’ve seen. Also sometimes bleak but mainly life-affirming was Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, a document of New York’s ball culture in the 1980s. Impossible not to be heartened by the warmth of the community created by its personnel, and by the brightness of the trails they blazed – in many cases all too brief. That it exists at all is a cause for rejoicing. Italian cinema tends to be a blind spot for me, but even I responded to La dolce vita – to its spectacle and its style and its episodic nature, to the glorious lightness of that café scene with Perez Prado on the jukebox, to the enigmatic conclusion. And lastly, let’s go for Tom Browne’s family drama Radiator, a film that slipped under the radar a few years ago. With beautiful performances from Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Johnson and Gemma Jones, it’s a resolutely unsentimental but achingly tender film, and very wise about the frustrations and joys of family life, and about our relationship with the past. I loved it. Missing out but also worthy of inclusion: Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, The Lost Weekend, Brooklyn, Boyz n the Hood, The Sessions, The Swimmer, and doubtless many others.

Top 4 student
Another good year for student theatre in Cambridge, with my highlights coming early on. The Marlowe Society’s Arts Theatre takeover in January is invariably excellent, and their Romeo and Juliet was the best production of the play I’ve seen, with Harry Redding and Matilda Wickham both excellent as the lovers (it occurred to me that a small bet on Wickham to win an acting Oscar by, say, 2030 would be a smart investment), and John Tothill a marvellously bland and placatory Capulet. I kept thinking of West Side Story – the sweetness of the central relationship, particularly in the balcony scene, the ‘America’ rhythm, even the Doc-like stressed-outness of Adam Mirsky’s chain-smoking Friar Laurence. Beautifully spoken throughout by the whole cast. The ADC Theatre closed for refurbishment in the spring, and I salute whoever came up with the masterstroke of putting on Hamlet in the Round Church. Some smashing performances in the candlelight, and Polonius nearly caught fire at one point. Some great musicals from CUMTS this year, my favourites being firstly a really exciting and imaginative Assassins, with James Daly’s Balladeer, Robin Franklin’s Booth and Tom Baarda’s manic Guiteau among the high points; and The Producers, with Meg Coslett and Conor Dumbrell a perfectly matched Bialystock and Bloom, and Leo Reich breathtakingly good as Roger De Bris, his every camp movement a joy. (Amaya Holman made a big impression as Bloom’s boss Mr Marks, as she did in everything I saw her in this year, most of all in the brilliant ADC/Footlights panto. She’ll be a star.)

Top 4 Edinburgh
I had intended to see Natalie Palamides’s Nate but chickened out at the prospect of being made to strip off against my will and went to see Gyles Brandreth instead. A middlebrow Fringe for me, then, but with some transcendent moments. Seeing Sheeps for the first time in several years in their new show Live and Loud Selfie Sex Harry Potter was an unexpectedly emotional experience for me. They’re as good as ever. Better than ever was Kieran Hodgson, his ’75 perhaps the pinnacle of his stand-up career so far, buzzing with ideas and impressions, and beyond exhilarating. The Lowry production of Nigel Slater’s Toast at the Traverse was a treat from start to finish. The mini lemon meringue pies and chocolate (not walnut) whips passed around the audience were appreciated, but the coup de théâtre was saved for the end. I don’t know if you’ve ever smelt onions being cooked in a theatre auditorium, but it is unspeakably exciting. And just before leaving I managed to catch John Tothill and Eve Delaney’s character sketch show Big Shop. What chemistry they have, and what impeccable performers they are individually. Love them.

Top 4 theatre
The year began with a very fine Sweeney Todd at the Arts Theatre by the Cambridge Operatic Society. Am-dram groups always seem to rise to the occasion for the more challenging shows in the repertoire, and this was no exception, with Matt Wilkinson as Todd and 13-year-old Ben Lewis as Toby the standouts. Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, at the Gielgud Theatre, turned out to be deserving of its critical superlatives, an overwhelming experience, gloriously busy and full of life. The gender-switched Company, also at the Gielgud, was great fun, primarily for the experience of seeing Patti LuPone up close, her every facial and vocal gesture witheringly hilarious. I also loved Gavin Spokes as Harry, and Daisy Maywood’s priestly cameo in a thrillingly staged ‘Getting Married Today’. Best of all was Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance at the Noël Coward Theatre. It’s not perfect, and the inevitable comparisons with Angels in America are mostly to its detriment, but its virtues are so many, and it made me so excited about … well, about life, I suppose. About being alive, about making a difference to things. You fall in love with its characters. Catch it while you can!

Top 4 classical
Bernstein’s MASS at the Royal Festival Hall in April was the highlight of the Bernstein centenary year, the most immersive and invigorating performance imaginable of this wacky and moving piece, not that you’d expect anything less from Marin Alsop. Paulo Szot was a super celebrant, and my brother (being in the choir) managed to sneak me into the after-show party where Bernstein’s daughter Nina addressed the performers. Special to have been there. The latest Barbican recital by Yuja Wang was another treat, especially in the suite of Rachmaninov pieces she’d assembled, and Prokofiev’s sublime 8th sonata. The encores were predictably incandescent. Would she – could she – play Bach or Schubert? I’d love to hear her do a proper Scarlatti recital. I saw her in more Prokofiev at the Proms in September with the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko, whose performance of the Franz Schmidt fourth symphony was transcendent, a piece I feared I might never get to hear in concert. I’m so pleased people are finally getting the point of Schmidt. And last but not least, Verdi’s Falstaff at the Royal Opera House in July. I bought a ticket in the stalls for the first time ever, an extravagance but worth every penny. An opera I am coming to love very dearly, and a vibrant cast including Bryn Terfel, Ana María Martínez and the divine Anna Prohaska. I’m thinking of returning there for Billy Budd next year.

Top 4 albums
Since you ask me for an eclectic selection of albums… I had a lovely bunch of CDs for Christmas last year, the pick of which was the Wiener Phil and Semyon Bychkov’s recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2, a delightful piece I’ve enjoyed getting to know. I can’t account for why I hadn’t noticed its existence until now, but Einar Steen-Nøkleberg’s recording of Grieg’s Slåtter interspersed with the original Hardanger fiddle tunes played by Knut Buen is a joy from start to finish. The best things Grieg wrote, perhaps. Two things have taken me back to my childhood: the BnF, qu’elle soit bénie, has digitised a number of recordings of Rondes (children’s songs) recorded by Jacques Jouineau and the Maîtrise de l’O.R.T.F. in (I guess) the 1960s, that I have been enjoying to an indecent extent. And I’ve rediscovered the original London cast recording of Godspell. Has Jeremy Irons done anything better in the past 45 years than the patter section of ‘All for the Best’? Probably not.

Top 4 comedy
Mixed media, as the artists would have it. I made a pilgrimage to Norwich to see Count Arthur Strong, and for sheer fun it couldn’t be beaten. What a virtuoso he is, a genius of the wrong-word school of comedy. I’ve come rather late to the party, and hope it won’t be the last time I see him live. The comedy podcast of the year, among stiff competition, is Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine’s gleefully obscene Dear Joan and Jericha, for a second series of which next year I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed. I never write about TV in these posts, but there were two series on Channel 4 that I fell in love with: Jamie Demetriou and Robert Popper’s Stath Lets Flats, a slow but sure burner, which I would love to see return; and the second series of Will Sharpe’s Flowers, desperately sad and beautiful. He does things with comedy I haven’t seen people do before.

See ya round.

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2017 foursomes

December 31, 2017

In which I celebrate another year of having successfully cheated death by looking back at my cultural highlights of the past twelve months.

Top 4 theatre
My two best shows of the year, towering above the rest, were Angels in America and Follies, both at the National Theatre, sublime and superlative achievements, thrillingly staged and acted. I’d like to list the entire casts of both, really, but the performances that have stayed most in my memory are those of Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough, Aidan McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Angels, and Tracie Bennett, Di Botcher, and the central quartet from Follies, perhaps especially Imelda Staunton, desperately vulnerable as Sally. I saw excellent productions of Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus at Stratford, but my Shakespeare highlight of the year was Twelfth Night, again at the National, with Tamsin Greig imperious as Malvolia, Tim McMullan swaggering all over the place as Belch, Daniel Rigby as good a communicator of Aguecheek’s damagedness as I’ve seen (the man bun clearly a cry for help), and Tamara Lawrance a touching Viola. (Also, anything with Oliver Chris in it ticks my box.) And She Loves Me at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which I saw in January as a post-Christmas treat, a twinkly production of the most chocolate-boxy of musicals. I’d gone expressly to see Mark Umbers as Georg, but in the event his understudy Peter Dukes proved excellent. The decision to use British accents worked a treat, with ‘A Trip to the Library’ in Katherine Kingsley’s broad Cockney the high point.

Top 4 student theatre
It’s been a very good year at the ADC in Cambridge, starting with my first García Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba, done by an extraordinarily strong cast of future stars (the performances of Xanthe Burdett, Daisy Jones and Emma Corrin among the standouts) in Jo Clifford’s translation. Alecky Blythe’s London Road received probably the finest student production I’ve seen of anything ever, an exacting musical done brilliant justice by a cast and band who clearly knew it inside out (Footlight Orlando Gibbs, playing one of the press photographers, even managed some improvised business when the lens fell off his camera). Its composer Adam Cork saw the production, and I can only imagine he was thrilled. Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce is a bit dated now, but still very amusing, and was fortunate to have some of the funniest people in Cambridge in its cast, most notably Colin Rothwell, having a ball as the perpetually whinging Nick, and John Tothill, who must surely be recognised before too long as one of the great character comedians of his generation. And recently, Gypsy, a show I begin to see the point of. Ashleigh Weir (Rose) is one to watch, but everyone in Cambridge knows that by now.

Top 4 Edinburgh
Although I didn’t have the energy to blog about it here at the time, I had a good few days at the Fringe this August, the highlights being as follows: Colin Hoult as Anna Mann (‘Oh, fuck off!’) in How We Stop the Fascists, fabulously warm and witty, the funniest part for me being the point at which Mann asked the audience what we thought a fascist looked like, then slyly produced a mirror for us to look at and pass around, concluding with ‘Anyway, you get the point – fascists look like mirrors!’ (Maybe you had to be there.) Joseph Morpurgo’s Hammerhead, the discussion following his nine-hour one-man performance of Frankenstein, was a tour de force. Then there was Ivo Graham’s fun and exciting Educated Guess, a stand-up show with a difference, the difference being a quiz in which Graham’s encyclopaedic knowledge of MPs and their constituencies was put to the test. The night I saw it he fell down tragically on Jeremy Wright (Con, Kenilworth and Southam), but the video at the end helped to soothe the pain. And lastly but mostly, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, the worthiest winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award, though as she says it’s not really comedy, it’s very dark and very important. She made me feel worthless, and somehow in a good way.

Top 4 live music
I’m surprised at how few concerts I’ve attended in 2017. Theatre seems to be usurping music in that respect. But it was special to see Joshua Bell and Dénes Várjon in Edinburgh playing, among other things, the Brahms G major violin sonata, which almost moved me to tears, an effect music almost never has on me. Brahms has not shifted from his place at the top of my personal pantheon, and seeing the Endellion Quartet and Barry Douglas play the G minor piano quartet in October was exciting, especially that furious Hungarian finale. I saw Mitsuko Uchida twice, playing two different Schubert programmes, the better of which was the one at Peterhouse in Cambridge, where the ‘Con moto’ movement of the D.850 sonata was particularly divine. And it was great to see Max Raabe and Christoph Israel at the Wigmore Hall, where Raabe sang a lot of unfamiliar songs by the likes of Walter Jurmann. Especially lovely was Jurmann’s ‘Tomorrow is Another Day’, complete with whistling duet.

Top 4 albums
Of this year’s releases, up with which I have very much not kept, Nelson Freire’s Brahms recital has been on repeat – I hadn’t known the third piano sonata, but it’s beautiful; the shorter pieces are exquisite, and exquisitely performed. My great discovery early in the year was the fourth symphony of Franz Schmidt, in the recording by the London Philharmonic and Franz Welser-Möst, a masterpiece whose organicism excites and entrances. I’m pacing myself, but want to get to know the other three (and got the Bychkov recording of the second for Christmas). The NT production sent me back to the 2011 Broadway recording of Follies, admirably exhaustive and addictive. And lastly, loads more Prefab Sprout. Why has it taken until my thirties for me to become properly obsessed with this band I have known from my teens? Maybe they’re too good for the young. I’ve listened to their 1985 album Steve McQueen constantly, as literate and elusive and romantic a collection of songs as anyone could wish to hear.

Top 4 old films
Don’t judge me, but I’d never seen Ninotchka before. Actually I’m not sure I’d ever seen a Greta Garbo film before. But I love Ernst Lubitsch, and it has his usual gemütlich charm and cosiness in spades, while at the same time, like his To Be or Not to Be, commenting smartly on the politics of its time. Garbo is fabulous, especially in her stone-faced incarnation, and Melvyn Douglas is a pleasing foil, but Felix Bressart steals every scene as usual. Is there any film actor pre-1950 I love more? Sidney Lumet’s bleak masterpiece Fail-Safe, a sort of Dr. Strangelove without jokes, left me deeply discomfited, a chilling film to watch at a time when the threat of nuclear war seems greater than ever before during my life. And two Japanese films: Juzo Itami’s ‘ramen western’ Tampopo, playful, erotic and hilarious from start to finish; and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, a straightforward drama of human relationships made with such delicacy and acuity that it’s exhilarating to watch. Kore-eda has an amazing hit rate in recent years, and this film is up there with I Wish and Still Walking. It’s been a very good year. Films that narrowly failed to make the cut: Ikiru, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Nobody Knows (more Kore-eda), Girlhood, Love is Strange, Holy Motors, In the House.

Top 4 new films
It’s been a great year at the cinema too. Most of all, Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous Call Me by Your Name, one of those films I felt might have been made just for me. Given the novel is a favourite book of mine, the film had a lot to live up to, but it succeeded in almost every particular, a sensual, slowly intoxicating adaptation, sensitively scored, gorgeously performed, delicately devastating. Earlier in the year, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight had a similar effect on me, brutal and tender, poetic and pulsating. (I know, I’m overdosing on adjectives again.) Toni Erdmann was an unexpected delight, a film about an eccentric man’s dysfunctional relationship with his daughter. Sandra Hüller is tremendous as the daughter Ines, but my favourite moments were those where I suddenly became aware of Peter Simonischek’s Toni in the background, half Clouseau hunchback, half Les Patterson, simply being funny. It has its melancholic side too, but there’s a lot to be said for fun and funniness. And of course, Paddington 2, supremely entertaining. Not only are Paddington and the Browns lovable (hardly a given, considering how few film families one would wish to spend time with), the supporting cast is stunning. Tom Conti and his various physical indignities, randy Simon Farnaby, forgetful Sanjeev Bhaskar, and Hugh Grant giving the performance of his career (and even starring in a ‘Prisoners-of-Love’-style rendition of a number from Follies that was the cherry on the cake). Irresistible. Honourable mentions for The Big Sick, The Florida Project, and My Life as a Courgette.

Top 4 books
In a pretty good reading year there are a handful of books that stand out above the rest, among them Andrew Hankinson’s gripping You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat], Maggie Nelson’s audacious The Argonauts, Peter De Vries’s heartbreaking The Blood of the Lamb, and Muriel Spark’s wicked Symposium. But if I had to pick four, I’d choose three of my Grand Tour reads – Erich Kästner’s The Flying Classroom, the perfect book to read this Christmas (though you may have left it a little late); Margarita Karapanou’s darkly beautiful Kassandra and the Wolf; and of course Tony Parker’s housing estate compendium The People of Providence – and for a fourth, probably Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow’s mesmeric tapestry of early 20th-century America. I also loved his The Book of Daniel.

More of this stuff in a year, if we all make it.

Grand Tour #21 – Poland. The Stranger / Maria Kuncewiczowa

September 27, 2017

I was very into Polish stuff in my teens, mostly because of Chopin’s piano music and Polański’s Knife in the Water and Kieślowski’s Dekalog (which I’m currently re/watching, as it happens), and the rousing Polish national anthem (which I still revere), as a result of which obsession I taught myself elementary Polish. Nowadays most of the vocab’s gone (‘I’d like some cheese’ is about my limit, though I put it into Google Translate and it came out as ‘She will ask the cheese’, so even that phrase I may be wrong about), but my pronunciation’s pretty solid, and my spelling too. In her own presence I once had to write out the name of someone called Drzazdzewska, and she was appropriately amazed and told me it was the first time anyone had ever done it.

The Stranger (Cudzoziemka) is a 1936 novel by Maria Kuncewiczowa (1895-1989), now out of print. I read the translation by B.W.A. Massey, which on account of his having given us a copy on its publication in 1945 was the only Polish novel in the library, or at any rate the only one I was interested in reading (take that, Stanisław Lem). The translation reads fluently, but has the familiar quirk of everyone’s name being Englishified, so that (for instance) the protagonist Róża is rendered as Rose. I can’t work out all of the characters’ authentic Polish names online, and the accents are a faff to paste in, so please forgive me for using their tidied-up names here.

One nice thing about reading obscure books that no one in the English-speaking world has ever heard of, let alone read, is that you don’t know what to expect. The Stranger turns out to be a psychological study. Rose is a stranger in several senses, most specifically a woman out of place: out of place in Russia because of her Polish ancestry, out of place in Poland (where she now lives) because of her Russian upbringing. Today she is a stranger in the home of her daughter Martie (Marta), but Martie isn’t there. Rose is irritated at Martie’s absence, and at the behaviour of Martie’s young son Zbyszek, and at Martie’s careless treatment of a table that is a family heirloom. There isn’t much that doesn’t irritate Rose. Her semi-estranged husband Adam turns up, then her highly-strung son Wladys (Ladislas), both of whom she treats with coldness, and finally Martie.

The narrative is divided between this one day and the past, perhaps the past as recalled by Rose. She remembers her own childhood, her youthful romances (‘the sufferings of men stimulated her like alcohol’) and her great lost love, Michael. Then, as they arrive in sequence at Martie’s house, each family member’s past relationship with Rose is rehearsed, Kuncewiczowa adeptly juggling past and present.

I came to think of the book as an exercise in the limits of sympathy. How far can the reader sympathise with Rose? Most of the time, not very far. The closest character to her I’ve encountered elsewhere is Arrested Development‘s booze-soaked matriarch Lucille Bluth. The two share an emotional coldness, and a brazen manipulative streak. You’d cast someone glacial to play her in a film, probably Gene Tierney. The villainy in The Stranger isn’t really played for laughs, but it could be.

At its darkest moments Rose’s behaviour verges on the murderous. While the infant Martie is seriously ill with diphtheria, she considers withholding the girl’s medication and letting her die, then on administering the life-saving digitalis she paints herself as Martie’s saviour. Is this sociopathy, or is it severe depression? The key to Rose’s erratic behaviour, to her fractious relationships with others, may be the death in childhood of her younger son Kazio (not a keyboard, it’s a diminutive of Casimir; he’s also called Kaziuczek). On the tenth anniversary of Kazio’s death, Rose and Adam visit his grave:

When she found herself at home, Rose soon forgot her husband. Wladys embraced her perfunctorily in memory of his dead brother. He had not been able to go to the cemetery, because of a problem in mathematics which he could not neglect, since it was the year before his leaving examination. With his whole heart he desired to pass this examination. The date of it seemed to him to be a gateway through which he would enter his own independent world. Rose felt this aloofness in the embrace of her adolescent son, and her longing for Kazio returned more bitterly than ever before.

You can see how little moments like this can poison a relationship, and you understand the motivations of each character, the tactless son desperate to emancipate himself from the controlling mother, the mother unable to entertain anything but grief, and resentful of those who fail to express it as deeply as she does (though you sense she’d resent them just as much either way).

Another of Rose’s many disappointments has to do with music, and music is central to the book, as it was to Kuncewiczowa, a music student herself and later a singer. Rose studies the violin, but her career never takes off, and for the rest of her life music is a source of equal pleasure and pain, her inability to play the Brahms violin concerto a particular torture to her. A comical episode has Rose singing Schumann’s ‘Ich grolle nicht’ at the piano, a song that climaxes on a high A she is unable to reach. ‘Why is Granny screaming like that, Mamma?’ ask the children. (She also sings ‘Er, der herrlichste von allen’, one of Schumann’s most passionate love songs, to Wladys. Way to fuck up your son, lady, I thought.)

The text of Heine’s poem ‘Ich grolle nicht’ is printed as an epigraph at the start of the novel. It’s a perverse poem for a perverse character. ‘I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking,’ claims the poet deludedly, and really there can’t be many people who bear grudges more readily than Rose; but today something has changed. A visit to a doctor who has advised Rose, among other things, ‘nicht immer so grollen’, has jogged memories of her lost love and prompted her to mend her ways. Though she remains bad-tempered, she seems sincere in this intention, and suddenly self-aware. Prompted by her self-castigation to praise her for having raised her children, Adam is met with the rebuke: ‘My good honest man, did I bring them up? Did I not rather hinder them from being human beings?’ There is a sense, particularly in a conversation with Martie, of Rose trying, however belatedly, to lay old ghosts to rest.

There are moments when the melo part prevails over the drama, but by and large I found the psychology convincing, and was moved by the portrait of this complicated and pitiable human being, and by Kuncewiczowa’s compassion generally. A book worth seeking out.

Grand Tour #14 – Croatia. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg / Dubravka Ugrešić

June 21, 2017

What do we, i.e. I, know of Baba Yaga? Well, this.

And only this. (The image on the video shows Viktor Hartmann’s illustration of Baba Yaga’s hut, which was Mussorgsky’s inspiration.) But not any more! Now I know all sorts of things about her, thanks to Dubravka Ugrešić’s book Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Baba Jaga je snijela jaje), translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Celia Hawkesworth and Mark Thompson.

The book is in three parts, the first of which is told by a woman looking after her elderly mother in Zagreb and amounts to a sort of comedy of obstinacy, and the second of which is a longer narrative about three women (of whom one, Pupa, may be the friend of the aged mother in the first story) descending on a spa hotel and getting up to various mischiefs. The third part is a commentary on the first two written by an Eastern European academic, Dr Aba Bagay (aha! tricks), looking at the Baba Yaga myth in some depth and its use in the two narratives specifically.

What happens is easy enough to follow, but the directionlessness of the plot, particularly in the first part, means it’s difficult to make sense of, and for that reason I found it a frustrating book to read. That’s in spite of its lively humour, which is abundant in the second part and translates excellently into English.

Example: Kukla, one of the trio of women, is taken golfing by an American gentleman, Mr Shaker, but inadvertently kills him by hitting him in the mouth with a golf ball.

‘Heart attack!’ announced Dr Topolanek.

And then, smoothing his hair, ruffled by an invisible fan, he turned to Kukla and added:

‘I do hope that this disagreeable incident will not have put you off golf forever. Golf is an exceptionally fine sport.’

The spa’s resident masseur is the sweet-natured Mevlo, a young man who as a result of an injury sustained in the Yugoslav Wars has a permanent erection. ‘Just look at it, it’s stuck and it won’t go down,’ he says to no one in particular. When, following several years of rigidity, he goes soft, you can sense it is the result of some kind of magic.

But just what kind of magic, and what it means, isn’t clear, and so I leapt on the commentary section with something approaching ardour. It begins excellently, and informatively.

Baba Yaga lives in a forest, or on the edge of a forest, in a cramped little hut that stands on hen’s legs and turns around on the spot. She has one skeleton-leg (‘Baba Yaga, bony leg!’), dangling breasts that she dumps on the stove or hangs over a pole, a long sharp nose that knocks against the ceiling (nos v potolok ros), and she flies around in a mortar, rowing herself through the air with a pestle, wiping away her traces with a broom.

Increasingly, though, I got tired of the folklore too. I felt like the first section’s narrator, who rails, ‘If there was something I could not abide, it was folklore and the people who studied folklore. Folklorists were inane, they were academic infants.’ Dr Bagay, summing up at the end of the book, writes, ‘In some places you sighed with boredom.’ You got that right, I thought.

To what extent, I wondered, is the reader meant to take the commentary at face value? I thought of my beloved Pale Fire, where the reader is constantly conscious that games are being played and that the commentary is unreliable. With the commentary here, even the far-fetched claims about world mythology, for instance that ‘The Empusa is a female demon with one leg of iron and the other made of donkey excrement’, check out. Does it clarify or illuminate the stories? Not really. At the end it turns suddenly into a feminist rallying cry, which is something I am always glad to get behind, but that doesn’t quite excuse the mixture of bafflement and boredom that has preceded it. Is it really credible that the book is a satire on the demonisation of women? I’ve probably missed the point as usual.

The weirdness sometimes saves it, the diversions provided by an impromptu disquisition on depictions of women and parrots in art, or Beba’s fevered dream in which she is besieged by eggs, ‘arrogant high-protein bastards’. Still, it’s not a book I can imagine wanting to read again.

14 countries down, 14 to go, and still on schedule. If you’ve been reading these write-ups, thank you for your indulgence. I tell myself I’m not writing them for an audience, but that’s just to console myself in the event of there not being one. And so far, so good. Germany and Austria especially successful, and there is some good-looking stuff coming up shortly. Grotesquerie, fairytales, sexy sex books. Something for everyone.