Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Grand Tour #19 – Hungary. Journey by Moonlight / Antal Szerb

August 11, 2017

Most of my Grand Tour books I’ve been finding off my own bat, but Antal Szerb’s 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág) was a recommendation from a friend. When I spotted it was in the library (the only Hungarian novel in translation we have, apart from Imre Kertész’s brilliant but harrowing Fatelessness, which I read last year), I was convinced it was meant to be. I read the Pushkin translation by Len Rix.

I normally know what I’m going to write about a book before I start, but this time I’m stumped. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I did. But I found it a hard book to get a handle on. Perhaps writing a basic synopsis will help. It opens with newlyweds Mihály and Erzsi honeymooning in Italy. One night, looking for a bar where he can have a glass of wine, Mihály gets lost in the back alleys of Venice and doesn’t find his way back until the following day. This is a sign of things to come: later in their journey he gets off a train to buy a cup of coffee and boards a different train by mistake, ending up in Perugia. Erzsi and Mihály’s separation is bound up with his quest for his lost … not love, exactly, but a ghost of his childhood. A lengthy but engrossing early chapter is devoted to a description of Mihály’s teenage friendship with two theatrical siblings, Tamás and Éva. Tamás is long dead and Éva long vanished, and the appearance in Ravenna of another friend, the weaselly János Szepetneki, awakes in Mihály memories of these halcyon days.

One of the ways I understand books is to establish connections between them and other books and films – presumably there’s a knotty network somewhere in my head with strong and weak bonds between everything I’ve ever seen and read – and at moments reading this book I thought, aha! Death in Venice, or, more often, aha! Don’t Look Now. Italy, the insatiable desire to pursue the unreachable, even at the expense of your personal safety. Le Grand Meaulnes also came to mind, with its themes of nostalgia, of the folly or at any rate the impossibility of recapturing what is inescapably past. Nostalgia is a powerful pull in this book too. But none of them stayed in my mind for long: Journey by Moonlight is very much its own beast.

I wrote – well, I didn’t write it, but I thought it – that the plot is unpredictable. How is it unpredictable, you ask. Well, one thing is that its characters behave in unexpected ways that are nevertheless utterly credible. The touchingly unconventional relationship of Mihály and Erzsi is a case in point. Ninety-eight percent of the time, let’s say, a husband and wife separated accidentally on their honeymoon would make great efforts to be reunited. Here, neither does: Mihály, one of the more passive of men, has cold feet about his marriage already, feet coldened further by his having received a letter from Erzsi’s ex-husband advising him that because she is accustomed to the finer things in life he had better stop being such a cheapskate, and moreover he wants to spend time chasing his past; for her part, the pragmatic Erzsi not only loves Mihály but appears to understand him, and believes that leaving him alone for a while may optimise her chances of getting him back. She goes to Paris to visit her friend Sári.

‘Well of course you must divorce Mihály.’

‘It’s not quite so “of course”.’

‘What, after all he’s done?’

‘Yes. But Mihály isn’t like other people. That’s why I chose him.’

‘And that was a fine move. I really dislike the sort of people who aren’t like other people. It’s true other people are so boring. But so are the ones who aren’t like them.’

Separated, the unexpected (but nevertheless utterly credible) happens: Erzsi learns to embrace thrift, and Mihály has a fling with a dim American art student, Millicent Ingram (‘She knew of Luca della Robbia that it was a city on the Arno, and claimed that she had been with Watteau in his Paris studio’). There’s a freewheeling fun to the Millicent episode, with Mihály apparently liberated for the first time from his staid adult existence, but it doesn’t last, and once more he sets off in search of Éva. This is followed by further adventures with an old acquaintance, Ervin, now become a monk, and a university friend, Waldheim, now a philosopher of death (a marvellous comic creation, a man who eats only cold meat but welcomes Mihály to his house saying he’s ‘arranged for a bit of variety’ and proudly produces a banana). These characters assume a symbolic importance that was generally lost on me, but might be less so on a second reading. I sensed a spirituality to the book that was tantalisingly out of reach.

In the end Mihály’s life is redeemed by several acts of kindness, and he returns to a semblance of normality. The conclusion is beautiful in its way, though sad, a hymn to a small life. Many people whose opinions I respect not only adore this book but acclaim it as one of the great masterpieces of modern fiction. Nicholas Lezard writes that on finishing it he went right back to the beginning and read it again. I almost feel I should do the same: it’s a book that has grown in stature through my contemplation of it.

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Grand Tour #15 – Greece. Kassandra and the Wolf / Margarita Karapanou

June 28, 2017

‘I’ll tell you the one about the Birdman,’ I said. ‘The Birdman lived on a high mountain and loved the Fishwoman very much. But they could never manage to meet each other, you see, because he couldn’t get in the water and she couldn’t fly. That’s why the Bird always flew over the sea, and the Fish always followed in the waves, until, finally, the Bird covered it and became its Shadow. Before that none of us had a Shadow. We walked about quite plain and we were cold too. But from that time on, the Shadow was born, and now we all have one to keep us company.’

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t been looking forward especially to this stretch of the journey. Just because modern Greek writers aren’t widely read down my way, I’d probably assumed the place had been a cultural wasteland for the past two and a half millennia. It turns out I was wrong: there is at least one book written in Greece during that period that is worth reading, and it is Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra and the Wolf (Η Κασσάνδρα και ο Λύκος), which I read in the translation by N.C. Germanacos. I fell head over heels in love with it.

Karapanou’s book dates from 1974, when she was 28. It consists of a series of 56 short chapters, vignettes in the life of a six-year-old girl, Kassandra. A picture is built up of Kassandra’s life, which mainly takes place in Greece where she is cared for by her grandparents, her mother being in Paris and her father absent. It feels in some ways like a privileged childhood. ‘Grandmother strolls around the parlor, showing me the ancestors,’ says Kassandra. The servants and visiting grandees put me in mind of a favourite film of mine, Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos, also about a young girl’s interior life.

From a chapter about Christmas:

On Saturday nights, Miss Benbridge tells me the miracles in order. Last night it was the turn of the bread rolls and fish. Which is why I am now swallowing the bread and melting with sweetness. I make little girls and seat them around the table to keep me company. I put myself among them too, and we look at each other. I make compliments to them so that they’ll love me. We all stare at the snow together, our hair is freshly brushed and drawn back, we’re wearing pink ribbons, and we smell of soap.

Although the tone is always that of a child, the chapters vary widely in subject matter, ranging from the quotidian (a trip to the cinema to watch The Red Shoes, an elocution lesson to cure Kassandra’s silence) to the fantastical. A game of hide-and-seek with a boy, Zakoúlis, ends after three days when Zakoúlis is belatedly discovered, having shrunk to the size of an olive. Later, after being read The Turn of the Screw as a bedtime story, Kassandra is visited by its characters.

At night, Flora and Miles come to my room. Bending over, the Governess covers me with her wet hair. I’ve made friends with them.

It’s impossible to write about the book without at some point confronting its great darkness (Karapanou herself called it ‘a scary monster of a book’), and The Turn of the Screw may be a useful reference point, as another book with a menace whose precise nature is obscure. The main antagonist of Kassandra and the Wolf (as with The Turn of the Screw) is a Peter, in this case Kassandra’s grandmother’s servant. Peter is an unpindownable presence, at times a playmate of Kassandra, his gender fluidity the conduit for a game in which she plays at being a lady, at others a sexual threat. Sex is a frequent theme, occasional as innocent sex play or as childish misunderstanding of sex (Kassandra finds Peter having sex with the maid Faní but doesn’t comprehend what she sees), but more often as something that can only be read as sexual abuse. As Miles identifies Peter Quint as the devil, so Kassandra identifies Peter to her uncle as the son of the Devil.

It is at the times she talks about sex that Kassandra relies most heavily on the language of metaphor and fantasy. That’s the way it has to be, perhaps: children’s ignorance of sex means they do not have the words to describe it. I remembered Claude Barras’s marvellous animated film My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette), which I saw a few weeks ago, in which the children’s incomplete concept of sex is manifested in their talk of exploding willies: ‘Tu t’es fait exploser le zizi!’

What is the wolf of the title? There are wolves in the book, but the wolf might just as easily be a metaphorical one, like the opoponax in Monique Wittig’s book of that name. Perhaps the wolf is a personification of sexuality. Although Kassandra is not so traumatised by her abuse that she cannot talk about it (however obliquely), it may be the root of her disturbing behaviour elsewhere. There is a chapter in which she looks after with great care a kitten she has been lent but, confronted with the prospect of losing it at the end of the week, she begins to torture it systematically, and finally kills it. I felt quite desolate on reading it. Could it be just another fantasy?

This morning I woke up in bed and ran off to Grandmother to tell her the nice dream I’d had, but then I remembered that Grandmother had forbidden me to dream the dreams I like, so I’m keeping it secret.

A disturbing book, then, but one whose blurring of fantasy and reality felt to me as accurate a representation of the non-representational nature of memory as anything I’ve read. It really blew my mind.

For those who have read and loved it, or for those whose interest is piqued by what I’ve written, I must recommend this fascinating round-table discussion of the book and of Karapanou’s work more widely. One of the panel is Nick Germanacos, the translator of this volume.

Seeing stupid people happy

March 30, 2017

What makes you depressed?

Seeing stupid people happy.

This from an amusingly oddball Q&A with Slavoj Žižek. Whether or not we subscribe to Žižek’s personal brand of Eeyoreish misanthropy (and I confess I don’t, though the thought of Žižek being miserable is certainly a pleasing one), I expect most of us have felt depressed at seeing stupid people happy, whether we realise it or not.

It’s often a symptom of their not sharing our tastes. How, we ask ourselves, can they find joy in something so self-evidently wrong? ‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other,’ says Jane Austen’s Emma. I don’t know precisely what Emma is getting at here, but as an Austen heroine she may be alluding to the harpsichord vs fortepiano question. A debate as old as time.

Horses for courses, I suppose. We all know people who spend their time collecting figurines of cats sleeping on pianos, say, or pursuing a career in recruitment, and we don’t call them out on it because it’s not worth ruining the friendship for. They may have had similar thoughts about our increasing dependence on alcohol. But there comes a time when one has to put one’s foot down, and putting one’s foot down usually involves Disney (as it does now).

I happened some time ago upon a quotation of more than usually revolting sentimentality. It was this:

If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together … there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart … I’ll always be with you.

I’m very sorry for having made you vomit, as you will find you just did. I left the ellipses in place because the dramatic pauses they imply are particularly emetic, but even without them this paragraph would constitute probably the most loathsome violation of the Roman alphabet in the history of recorded time.

But enough vituperation. There is a time to spout invective and a time to take action and kill someone, and this is obviously the latter. Who has perpetrated this monstrosity? Step forward, A.A. Milne! Or at least that’s what the internet says.

Look at this. It’s a catalogue of saccharine platitudes, but I’m going to keep quoting it, so if you read further you have only yourself to blame.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.

Promise me you’ll never forget me because if I thought you would, I’d never leave.

Ready for this?

Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.

I mean, Milne’s not exactly Raymond Chandler, but the Pooh books are a fuck of a lot more hard-nosed than this steaming pile of horseshit. Anyway, it’s not Milne, as anyone with half a brain can tell. It’s Disney, or Disney-lite. I can’t trace the source of every spurious Pooh quotation on the internet, but it’s clear enough where the rot started. Milne himself isn’t blameless, but he couldn’t have anticipated the full horror of what would follow when in 1930 he sold merchandising rights to the USA.

The problem is that as the originator of the character in print, every Pooh emission is attributed by default to Milne, and not to whatever faceless corporation reckons (wrongly) that the Hundred Acre Wood’s bee-botherer-in-chief would even think anything as sappy as ‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart’, let alone say it out loud; and because of the way the internet works, one error being duplicated in a second and endlessly reduplicated thereafter, the fake A.A. Milne quotation is now ubiquitous. I manage to avoid them most of the time, but sometimes an otherwise benign website posts you a bookmark like this one, as happened a few days ago, and the black heffalump descends.

(This is a perverted rewrite of a comment made by Christopher Robin at the end of The House at Pooh Corner, the episode in which he and Pooh say goodbye. It’s one of the most moving scenes in English literature. It loses something here.)

Pooh Bear has been despoiled by the Disnetic infantilisation of the senses, and the common perception of him now is of an emotionally incontinent brainstormer of fridge magnet slogans. It gives credence to Dorothy Parker’s disingenuous broadside on the books (‘And it is that word “hummy”, my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up’). I hate that Dorothy Parker piece, but it now seems prophetic.

Comrades, we can fight back! Every time someone wrongly attributes a quotation to A.A. Milne on Twitter, inform them politely that they’re an idiot and then block them so they can’t reply. Reread the books, or listen to Alan Bennett reading them. And if you’ve never seen them before, make time for these brilliant Russian cartoons, respectful of the source material in a way that I can only imagine Disney never is.

Grand Tour #1 – Portugal. The Crime of Father Amaro / Eça de Queiróz

January 14, 2017

My literary tour of the EU begins with a novel from Portugal, The Crime of Father Amaro: Scenes from the Religious Life (O Crime do Padre Amaro) by Eça de Queiróz, in its final edition from 1880, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. The author’s name is nowadays more commonly spelled de Queirós, but in her introduction Costa calls him simply Eça (as one would Leonardo), so that avoids any orthographic heartache.

I’m letting this project be dictated, where possible, by the availability of books in the library, and this happened to be the only Portuguese book we have in translation (titles from e.g. Brazil and Mozambique excepted). It wasn’t a wholly unknown quantity to me, though. I haven’t seen it, but I was at least aware of the 2003 film adaptation, sexed up (not that the book needs much sexing up) and moved to modern-day Mexico and starring my not very secret crush Gael García Bernal.

A bit about Eça (1845-1900). One of the great Portuguese realist writers. Lived in the UK for much of his adult life, working for the Portuguese consular service in Newcastle and then Bristol. A fan of Dickens, the introduction notes, though I thought this book was closer in spirit to Zola or Flaubert, with its simmering sexuality. Zola, quoted on the back cover: ‘Queiróz is far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert.’ I raised an eyebrow.

The book opens explosively with the death from apoplexy of the priest José Miguéis. (He’s in good company – there are three deaths from apoplexy in the first 100 pages; clearly the way to go in nineteenth-century Portugal.) The fat, bloated carcass of José Miguéis seems symbolic of the Catholic Church in Portugal – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Drafted into his place is young Amaro Vieira, not long out of the seminary.

The corruption and hypocrisy rooted deep within the church in the town of Leiria, where the book is set, are evident from the start. Canon Dias arranges for Amaro to lodge in the household of his own mistress, São Joaneira, so that she can have some extra money from his rent. This forces Amaro together with São Joaneira’s daughter Amélia, and after a bit of pussy-footing (not a euphemism) they embark on their own illicit affair. Ah! you think, this is the crime of Father Amaro. Well, it’s one of them, but really there are so many to choose from.

This thing about Dickens. The introduction plays up the similarity between the two writers, and Eça’s book is undoubtedly full of characters who, while not in most cases as vividly drawn and described as Dickens’ finest comic creations, are larger than life. For a book full of anger and bitterness (Amaro is aptly named), it has its fair share of comedy. The scene where the ladies of Leiria inspect Amaro’s room while he’s out and admire his underwear is memorable, as is this forensic pencil sketch:

Dona Maria da Assunção had dressed in her Sunday black silk; she was wearing a reddish-blonde wig covered in ornamental black lace; her bony, mittened hands, which lay solemnly on her lap, glittered with rings; a thick gold chain made of filigree hung from the brooch at her neck down to her waist. She was sitting very stiff and erect, her head slightly tilted, her gold-rimmed spectacles perched on her rather equine nose; she had a large, hairy mole on her chin, and whenever she spoke of religious feelings or of miracles she would make an odd movement with her neck and then open her mouth in a silent smile that revealed enormous, greenish teeth, like wedges hammered into her gums. She was a wealthy widow and suffered from chronic catarrh.

(Dona Maria da Assunção lives surrounded by religious tat, the crowning glory of which is a reliquary containing a piece of Christ’s nappy.)

Eça, writes Costa, disliked Dickens’ sentimentality. I think I’d have worked that out by myself: he’s brutal. Dickens gets most maudlin when he’s engaged in social commentary, perhaps. (To take the first example that came to mind, that of Dick, one of the workhouse boys in Oliver Twist: ‘I heard the doctor tell them I was dying … I know the doctor must be right, Oliver, because I dream so much of Heaven, and Angels, and kind faces that I never see when I am awake.’) Eça’s way of approaching the problems of society is blunter. With the honourable exception of Father Ferrão, who becomes Amélia’s confessor – though even his motives can sometimes be read as sinister – the priests are boorish, self-satisfied and corrupt, wedded to the bed and the bottle.

The sacristan stood behind him, arms folded, slowly stroking his thick, neatly trimmed beard and casting sideways glances at Casimira França, the cathedral carpenter’s devout wife, whom he had had his eye on since Easter.

One of the political points Eça makes, rather well, is the folly whereby men (boys, really) enter the priesthood at an age when they have no vocation and little self-knowledge, as is the case with Amaro. Surrounded by fornicating priests, it’s hardly a surprise that the temptation to follow their example is too strong for him, or that, when faced with the prospect of a love rival, he spins out of control.

Then he tried to get a grip on himself and all his faculties and to apply them to finding the best way to have his revenge. And then the old despair returned that he was not living in the times of the Inquisition and could not therefore pack them off to prison on some accusation of irreligion or black magic. Ah, a priest could have enjoyed himself then. But now, with the liberals in power, he was forced to watch as that wretched clerk earning six vinténs a day made off with the girl, whilst he, an educated priest, who might become a bishop or even Pope, had to bow his shoulders and ponder his grief alone. If God’s curses had any value, then let them be cursed. He hoped to see them overrun with children, with no bread in the cupboard, their last blanket pawned, gaunt with hunger, cursing each other – then he would laugh, oh, how he would laugh!

Such bitterness, such self-pity. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel, for me, was the emotional immaturity of Amaro and Amélia, each so quick to think the worst of the other when (as happens occasionally) one ceases communication with the other, both of them so unversed in human psychology. When, halfway through the book, Amaro finally gets what he wants, i.e. Amélia, he becomes not more level-headed, but a tyrant, forbidding her from reading novels and poetry, suspecting her of infidelity at the least provocation. It invites the question, can we forgive Amaro? Can we pity him, even? To what extent is his cruelty a product of the repressiveness of his situation? What is the point at which we have to assume responsibility for our actions? By the end, I found myself wishing he had suffered more, if anything.

At Chapter 22, the unexpected happens: a shopping list between pages 390 and 391.

shopping-list

I don’t suppose I will ever know what happened to this student’s nails.

The story of Amaro and Amélia, though, is resolved. It’s a resolution that feels right, though dully predictable. I don’t think predictability is necessarily a bad thing, but goodness Eça likes his signposting. When, in an earlyish episode, Amélia’s childhood friend Joaninha is publicly dishonoured, having fallen from grace following an affair with a priest, it doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to read it as a prefiguration of what is to come. With all the evidence that destruction is on the way, why does neither Amélia nor Amaro come clean? That’s another symptom of society’s corruption, I suppose, that it compels you to conceal the truth.

Anyway, if you like a mix of self-righteous satire and torrid melodrama, this is your book. I liked it. It’s a page-turner.