Posts Tagged ‘Carlos Saura’

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, occasionally 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.


2015 foursomes

December 30, 2015

Following the example of previous years, a trawl through what I’ve been up to. It’s felt rather a mean year, but looking back there have been a handful of very high points.

Top 4 live music
The best classical concert I went to was a piano recital by Richard Goode at Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall. His Brahms op. 76 Klavierstücke were a thing of wonder. Later in the year, Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr playing the Bach viola da gamba sonatas at the Wigmore Hall, fabulous. Though it’s been a Sondheim-light year I saw a couple of productions of Sweeney Todd. The all-star ENO version with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel was all well and good, but better was the CUMTS one at Cambridge’s ADC Theatre. Among some spectacular performances, Aoife Kennan’s Mrs Lovett stood out. A star of the future. And, as chronicled elsewhere on this blog, Šimon Voseček’s Biedermann and the Arsonists at Sadler’s Wells, an excellent production of a very fine opera.

Top 4 theatre
The best theatre piece I saw all year, probably the best thing of all, was Trans Scripts at the Edinburgh Fringe, which I wrote about in detail here. The performances (I was going to write the performance of Rebecca Root, but in fact all of them) are still vivid in my memory. More recently, I’ve got back into the habit of attending the ADC regularly. I’d forgotten how exhilarating student theatre can be when it’s done well. The pick of the bunch were Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Nina Raine’s Tribes, and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy. Let’s keep doing this next year.

Top 4 comedy
The best things I saw, I saw at Edinburgh in an intensely concentrated couple of days towards the end of August. Three shows I liked so much I saw them again in London post-Festival, Mae Martin’s entirely lovable Us, Kieran Hodgson’s virtuosic Lance, and Sheeps Skewer the News, messy in Edinburgh, more refined and brilliant in London (David Cameron to Ed Sheeran: ‘Samantha and I love to listen to your music when we’re spooning in our isolation tank’). And fourth, Alex Horne’s madcap Monsieur Butterfly, the hit of 2014’s Fringe, which I caught on its return. I’d go and see it again in a second if it hadn’t finished forever.

Sheeps Festive Bash

Top 4 albums
I haven’t really been listening to albums recently – I’ve been on shuffle all year – but one that has been on repeat is Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s The Rascal and the Sparrow, which mingles transcriptions of Edith Piaf songs with original piano pieces and assorted song transcriptions of Francis Poulenc. It’s an irresistible concoction, beautifully played. Listening last month to John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir’s recording of Beethoven’s Mass in C on a train, I heard it as though through new ears. It’s a piece I’d forgotten I liked, but as I get better acquainted with this performance I know I will grow to love it. A late purchase has been the first volume of Fats Waller’s Complete Recorded Works on CD, which contains a lot of his smashing organ recordings, including many underappreciated gems. You can tell from his playing what a warm person he must have been. Lastly, Peter Pears’ A Treasury of English Song continues to prove itself a treasure trove. Pears, it becomes increasingly apparent to me, is more than a mere appendage to Britten, and a piece like Alan Bush’s cantata Voices of the Prophets is a genuinely exciting discovery.

Top 4 new films
I wish I could recommend something obscure, but the films I loved most at the cinema this year were all critical successes. Firstly, right at the start of January, Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s darkly comic film about a washed-up former action star staging his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story on Broadway as a last stab at success. Whiplash was a rollercoaster ride, perhaps a bit questionable psychologically but enormously exciting, with a bravura final sequence that stays in the mind for a long time. The film adaptation of London Road, one of my favourite theatrical experiences of recent years, was mightily impressive, and achieved (I thought) a profound sadness that the stage version missed. And just this month, Todd Haynes’ latest, Carol, emotionally involving precisely because of the restraint of its use of emotion – the look, the quiet declaration. I left the cinema thinking the most beautiful three words in the English language are ‘I miss you’.

Top 4 old films
My film watching is down on last year, but I’ve seen some goodies. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, for instance, exciting and weird. Or Héctor Babenco’s hard-hitting Pixote: a lei do mais fraco, a portrait of Brazilian street life that is grimly unsentimental and disarmingly poignant. There were two films that blew me away, though. Firstly, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. I don’t know what Bogdanovich was on in the early ’70s, but this and my beloved Paper Moon are two almost flawless films. A portrait of small-town life full of atmosphere and music on radios, and somehow more black and white than the black and white films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I think it made me cry. Film of the year, though, was Carlos Saura’s Cria cuervos, which automatically became one of my favourites. It’s an allegory of Fascist Spain, but I didn’t appreciate that on first viewing, I just saw a portrait of loss in childhood, a meditation on the nature of memory. It’s a film full of beauty, full of tender observations about the connection between memory and music, the lack of sentimentality there is in childhood, children at play, grief and guilt and coping, the blurring of dreams and reality.

Cria Cuervos

Top 4 books
In the most reading-heavy year of my life (more on that anon) a small number of books have stood out. Firstly, Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, which I loved. I saw so much of myself in her, particularly in our obsessions and compulsions, our childhood diaries, our solipsism. The best non-fiction book I read was Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, angry and incisive and eloquent and eye-opening and (perhaps most crucially) readable. Required reading. I’ve not read as many novels this year as previously, but one that immediately struck me as a masterpiece was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, dense and demanding but undeniably beautiful, and enormously witty (in places raucously so). The handful of Tom Stoppard plays I read late in the year left me reeling at their inventiveness, none more so than Arcadia, a work of almost mathematical perfection. Joy and sadness abound, and though the poignancy of the final scene stays long in the memory, so too do the jokes.

LADY CROOM: What hermits do you have?
NOAKES: I have no hermits, my lady.
LADY CROOM: Not one? I am speechless.
NOAKES: I am sure a hermit can be found. One could advertise.
LADY CROOM: Advertise?
NOAKES: In the newspapers.
LADY CROOM: But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.

See you next year.

Fun Home