Sunday, December 31, 2006

Gertrude Stein – ‘Three Lives’

Somehow Christmas took me over, as it does many people, and all I read this month were a play, half a book on Israel, and Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. The last book I gave up before the Israel one was a history book, Post War, not because it was bad but because it was long and after a while I noticed that most of it was lists concluding in a clause beginning ‘above all’. The Israel one – a novel – just had too many stories piled in there, and was the wrong place to go for someone who didn’t understand the historical foundation. Maybe I just don’t like serious books. Maybe language is what I’m after, more than content. Language that sends me. And who better to go to for that than Gertrude Stein?

In tender hearted natures, those that mostly never feel strong passion, suffering often comes to make them harder. When these do not know in themselves what it is to suffer, suffering is then very awful to them and they badly want to help everyone who ever has to suffer, and they have a deep reverence for anybody who knows really how to always suffer, they soon begin to lose their fear and tenderness and wonder. Why it isn’t so very much to suffer, when even I can bear to do it. It isn’t very pleasant to be having all the time, to stand it, but they are not so much wiser after all, all the others just because they know how to bear it. (p. 320)
The chances are you can work out from this extract alone whether or not you like Gertrude Stein, because she is all about language like this. Language which discusses in the simplest terms the reasons why people behave as they do, and feel as they do. There is a lot of repetition, because the behaviours and the people described are not consistent, so many fractionally differing truths need to be simply recorded, before the more complex amalgam can emerge. This way, complex language never needs to be used in order to describe it.

Three Lives, like Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, is based on an earlier book, in this case Flaubert’s Three Tales. This time I didn’t read the earlier book first, so I may have missed something, even most things, about the adaptation (if that’s the word for the book of the book). It takes the form of three separate stories, all set in Bridgepoint (based on Baltimore, the introductory essay tells us), and all concerning poor women. The structure is symmetrical, down to the stories’ titles: The Good Anna, Melanctha and The Gentle Lena. Good and gentle Anna and Lena work as maids (which gives them a satisfaction approaching happiness), and their stories are relatively short. Melanctha doesn’t work, or if she does it is not mentioned, and her story is longer than the other two combined. Anna and Lena are German immigrants, Melanctha is black. All three women are unfortunate to some degree. Two are fiercely independent; Lena barely has a mind of her own.

The strongest and also the most frustrating story is ‘Melanctha’. The majority of it consists of conversations between Melanctha and Jeff Campbell, as they to and fro in their love, always trying to ascertain what the other is feeling and why. Since the speech Stein writes is even more babyish than the surrounding prose, this gets wearing in places (I didn’t find that this was a problem in the shorter stories). Here’s Melanctha:
When you want to be seeing how the way a woman is really made of, Jeff, you shouldn’t never be so cruel, never to be thinking how much she can stand, the strong way you always do it, Jeff. (p. 250)
She makes a fair point, and you can hear the panic in her voice. It is scarcely realistic: no-one would speak like that, no matter how sloppy their grammar. Rather, it is another expression of the possibilities present in this situation, the love between Melanctha the spontaneous woman, and Jeff the cautious man. Take the fragment ‘how the way a woman is really made of’. This offers in it three possible statements: ‘how a woman is made’, ‘the way a woman is made’, and ‘what a woman is really made of’. There are only two senses here – the first two mean the same thing. It’s difficult not to think, given Stein’s interest in Cubism and her appearance in Picasso’s famous 1906 portrait (Three Lives came out in 1909), that she is attempting the verbal equivalent: to show many sides of the same situation simultaneously – or as simultaneously as a time-based art form like fiction will allow. She doesn’t do this to show off, but because love is like that: when Jeff gets on his high horse, threatens to leave, puts his arms around her, says he still means all he said, it is inconsistent, but realistic. People have reactions to their own actions, and what they see as the likely consequences. They react based upon one set of circumstances, and change them in doing so, giving them something new to react to. Melanctha and Jeff tie themselves up in knots of loving, doubt, suspicion, understanding, misunderstanding, and ultimately it is all too much: by stages their love comes apart.

(Quotations from the Green Integer edition, 2004)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Eugene O’Neill – ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’

Plays, eh? The last time I went to theatre was to see Sweet Bird of Youth, a month or two ago, and I would have written about it here, but oh man, it was depressing. Suspicious and malicious, characters tearing themselves apart, and nowhere for the audience to invest any sympathy. The thing that gets me is the assumption that bad circumstances and an emotional (or just shouty) rendition of them will produce something of interest. I’ve a friend who, when he first went to University, couldn’t move for people wanting to confide that they were on Prozac: ‘Look at me! I’m fucked up!’ It’s a way of forcing civility, I suppose, and even encouraging a return performance of circumstantial affection. A lot of plays do the same thing. Unlike a novel, which can take its time and wind its way into your heart over the course of a few weeks, a play has two, three hours, so it has to up the histrionics. That’s the negative way of putting it, and when these mundane kind of tensions are apparent from the audience, something has gone wrong. When they are not, the directness of the medium is all in its favour.

Long Day’s Journey into Night reads like it would work. Presumably it has a track record of doing so, but I don’t know anything about that (I picked it up because Kevin Spacey made his new A Moon for the Misbegotten sound tantalising on the radio the other week, and because Kevin Rowland lists Eugene O’Neill in ‘Burn it Down’ in a righteous way). In it, nothing good happens. The lives of the family it dramatises are in what would seem to be a steep and permanent decline. They grumble about each other, they drink to excess, one of them (youngest son Edmund) is dying of TB but drinks large quantities of whiskey regardless (conjuring an anatomically incorrect image of alcohol eating into brittle lungs), and the mother Mary (ha ha) is a morphine addict. The father is disliked by all for being rich but miserly, a fact which is blamed upon his own father’s abandonment of his mother when he was still a small boy, and the poverty which ensued. His children and his wife blame all their ills on this miserliness, which is unnecessary as James Tyrone has become rich as a popular if unfulfilled actor. He flinches when someone leaves a light on unnecessarily, keeps tabs on the level of the whiskey in the bottle, and tries to get Edmund treated as cheaply as possible. He’s as tight as they come, but he’s not entirely a monster.

All the ‘Woe is me’ buttons are pressed, in other words. It should be depressing as hell, but it isn’t. Reading the play, the first thing that strikes you is the length of the stage directions at the beginning of Act One. They are incredibly detailed, not only regarding the layout of the room, but even the layout of the actors’ faces:

Mary is fifty-four, about medium height. She still has a young, graceful figure, a trifle plump, but showing little evidence of middle-aged waist and hips, although she is not tightly corseted. Her face is distinctly Irish in type. It must once have been extremely pretty, and is still striking. It does not match her healthy figure but is thin and pale with the bone structure prominent. Her nose is long and straight, her mouth wide with full, sensitive lips. She uses no rouge or any sort of make-up. Her high forehead is framed by thick, pure white hair. Accentuated by her pallor and white hair, her dark brown eyes appear black. They are unusually large and beautiful, with black brows and long curling lashes. (p. 10)

Are we really to take this as a set of instructions for the producer? It’s as though O’Neill is having a pre-emptive tussle: no corset, no make-up, a face which doesn’t match the body. See if you can stage that. Stage directions are similarly specific throughout, often explaining how dialogue is to be played and leaving little leeway for interpretation. The lack of action in the play is another indicator that what is being attempted here is pure description, and it’s this which gives it its remarkable strength. We see a family which has fucked up. It’s nobody’s fault and everybody’s. James has an excuse for his miserliness, and this miserliness is the catch-all excuse for everyone else’s problems: Mary wouldn’t have ever taken morphine if it hadn’t been for the quack doctor James got in for her after Edmund’s birth; Edmund would stand a better chance of surviving TB if sent to a more expensive clinic; Jamie... well, Jamie’s a drunk and would probably be worse off without his father’s limited patronage, but this doesn’t stop him complaining about it. And complaining about it one minute doesn’t stop him from becoming lucid and affectionate the next. The characters do all care deeply for one another, but they just don’t do each other any good. This is the hook, and I was skewered.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Zadie Smith – ‘On Beauty’

You’ve got to be careful, modelling a new work on an old one. Who liked Gus Van Sant’s Psycho? Who liked Brian Wilson’s re-made Smile? There’s Ulysses, of course, but surely Greek myths are a special case (so old, so well known)? And perhaps that only proves the point: to compete with something which has already endured, you’ve got to create something on a par with the original. You put yourself at an immediate disadvantage attempting it: the first cubist still life was nothing to the first still life (think Brian Sewell said that). As I remarked the other week, Zadie Smith was always going to have a hell of a job keeping step with E. M. Forster’s Howards End. Which is far and away the best book I’ve read since starting this blog, so it’s really no surprise that she doesn’t manage it. What she does manage is a lively, insightful account of the life of academic Howard Belsey and his family. The life, and how it falls apart. The way his wife and kids’ lives intermingle with (or stray from) his own; the way academia prolongs adolescence in its worst sense as well as its best; the way it fails to really connect with anyone outside its own scope (and by scope I mean payroll).

The main problem here is: academia doesn’t equal an artistic sensibility, even if you’re a professor of Art. On Beauty (which shares with Howards End a narrator whose presence is perceptible but who rarely intervenes) is quite aware of this. Again and again Howard is accused of being anti-everything, of having argued himself into a position wherein he can’t like any art (anything representational is right out, yet his research area is Rembrandt). Victoria, the daughter of his rival Monty Kipps (the transplanted Henry Wilcox), characterises the classes at Wellington:

It’s our shorthand for when we say, like, Professor Simeon’s class is ‘the tomato’s nature versus the tomato’s nurture’, and Jane Colman’s class is ‘To properly understand the tomato you must first uncover the tomato’s suppressed Herstory’ – she’s such a silly bitch that woman – [...] But your class – your class is a cult classic. I love your class. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato. (p. 312)

This may be a valid point about academia, but it has little to do with the kind of sensibility needed to appreciate art. Which is what Howards End is all about, and any book which picks up this dialogue really has to take it on: how do life and art work together? And, what does money have to do with this? This tension is what makes it great: the contrast between the Schlegels (who have money and sensibility), the Wilcoxes (money only) and Leonard Bast (sensibility crippled by poverty). The question, so rarely asked, ‘What does it mean to have art in one’s life?’ On Beauty is good on life, but largely forgets about art. It mentions enough of it (an author’s note at the end lists all the paintings and poems mentioned in the text), but never really engages, substituting a soap opera involving academics, which isn’t quite the same thing. Howards End mentions almost no art by name (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony being the exception), and never goes near a university, but captures exactly the importance of an inquisitiveness about art, and the disconnect this can bring about with more practical minds (or just other minds – it can be an isolating thing).

The two actual artists featured in On Beauty – Carl Thomas (the Leonard Bast character), a rapper, and Claire Thomas, a poet who also teaches creative writing at Wellington – are both given a short opportunity to strut their stuff, on stage and on the page respectively, but again this skirts around the issue: how did they get to the point of performing / writing? How did they live their lives and bring about the song and the poem? We get a little background on Claire, given as she rushes to a lecture, and learn that her early poems (the ones which brought her recognition) were raunchy, and that, now in her 50s, she prefers to write about nature. Carl’s background is murky to say the least, and he lacks Leonard’s crucial lacks: there is no culturally unsympathetic woman holding him back, and although he is poor, this is not a disadvantage for a rapper in the same way that it is for someone who sees culture as something inextricably tied to upper class money. On the contrary, it gives him something to write about: his Mrs Bast appears only in his lyrics, from which we gather that (without Carl’s consent) she had an abortion, and moved on. Up in literary purgatory, Leonard must be kicking himself.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Evelyn Waugh - 'The Loved One'

My idea of Evelyn Waugh (and this is probably typical) is of a '30s dandy: cynical, frivolous, with perfect manners and atrocious behaviour. His early books define him (Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Scoop), and lead to that engaging anomaly Brideshead Revisited, which strips the business of declining and falling of its laughs, and binds it to a misunderstood Catholicism. My idea of E. M. Forster is similar: a clutch of brilliant books written while young, which tripped from the tongue and fly from the page; then a gap, when middle age approaches and writing quickly and brilliantly is no longer automatic (nor, therefore, possible); finally a more serious return to the fray, lengthier, more considered, with A Passage to India and Brideshead Revisited.

This is my idea, but I find myself mistaken when it comes to Waugh. With him, there is no big gap between the two styles: Scoop was written as late as 1938 and, if my 1977 Penguin edition of The Loved One is to be believed, Put Out More Flags (1942) is in the same, earlier vein. Of course WWII goes a long way towards explaining the serious and regretful tones of Brideshead (1945). There's still plenty of fun to be had in that book, but I've long assumed that it was the tail end: that the Sword of Honour trilogy (1952 - 61) marked the end of the fun in Waugh. Not having read it, I can't say for sure, but The Loved One (1948) throws a few spanners in the works of this theory.

A novella set in Los Angeles on the periphery of the film industry, The Loved One shares its action between the Happier Hunting Ground (a pet crematorium) and the Whispering Glades (a preposterously over-wrought human one). Which is enough to tell you that this is a satire on America. In itself this is interesting: all Waugh's previous books are about England and the colonies (very much as colonies), so why this shift of scene? Post war, of course, the British Empire began to crumble, and it had been proved that Britain was no longer in the first rank of international powers, and so for the first time Waugh was writing in a world in which America must be acknowledged (which is not the same thing as taking it seriously). He was also no longer young (again for the first time - Scoop came out when he was 35; The Loved One ten years later. Brideshead has a foot in each camp).

And so, the scene shifted from London to Hollywood, the new capital of the world. But where '30s London was evoked in earlier books through character (characters at parties, characters shut out from parties), '40s Los Angeles comes to the reader via the medium of institutions. This is beautifully done: the Whispering Glades are vividly realised as a theme park of remembrance, with lavish and hideous gardens, numerous stone carvings, imported churches, and various suites in the main building in which embalmed, made-up Loved Ones can entertain one last time. The Happier Hunting Ground, meanwhile, can only dream of such grandeur: most of its customers won't even buy a casket for their departed pets. The characters which inhabit these institutions are weak in comparison. The strongest is Mr Joyboy (a supporting character at best), the embalmer who communicates his affection for cosmetician Aimee through the facial expressions of the corpses he sends in to her.

What, though, is all this grotesqueness for? Much of it smells of sour grapes: America is young and bustling, as England appeared to be when the author was himself young. In Waugh's America, all the young women look the same, all the young men struggle for money and money alone, and middle aged men end up alcoholic. Phoney respectability is big business, which is surely the main point of the Whispering Glades. The signs of respectability all come from Britain: the churches in its grounds, the lovers' seat with the Burns poem inscribed. Ambrose Abercrombie (Waugh hasn't lost his knack for comic names, at least) spends most of his energy attempting to prevent Hollywood's ex-pats from going native, not from any moral sense, but because it will devalue Englishness in the estimation of the studio bosses. Literally devalue: they won't pay so much for English writers or actors if they become too common, or if they fail to set themselves sufficiently apart from Americans. This isn't in itself too radical a vision of Hollywood: as frivolous, constituted of surfaces and borrowed effects. Who doesn't think this? From Evelyn Waugh though, who championed these qualities in the lives of his bright young things, it is a bit rich.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

E. M. Forster – ‘Howards End’

Howards End is about the artistic temperament, and how it fits into a society of practical but unimaginative men. It’s about the conflict between art and society, and between art and life. It’s about personal morality and personal relations, and the difference between alert, alive relations and tired, inhibited ones. It says: some people are better than others. It says: practicality has some value, having built us our civilisation; impracticality more, because it knows (or can sense) how to live. It’s about the way people speak, and the things they unconsciously give away as they do so. It’s at once insubstantial, because it turns on events and situations which the outer world would not even recognise as such, and the stuff of life itself: its principal characters, the sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are sustained through the buffeting of the life’s events (romantic entanglements, death, illness, the loss of their home) by the kind of inner life familiar to anyone who ever got past arguing with their siblings.

Anyone? Perhaps not. Howard’s End is nothing if not particular. It may generalise, and suggest extrapolations from its own depictions (Leonard Bast especially is more sign than character, with his poverty and aspirations, standing ‘at the extreme verge of gentility’ (p.31)), but it creates its own types to generalise about. It takes on what might be termed the morality of art, or of imagination, or of spirituality. A morality which does not say, it is wrong to smack a child and right to give to charity, but rather: it is wrong to grow up entirely, and right to contemplate. Margaret, for instance, feels the importance of houses (the book is named after the one she has the most affinity for), the space they give and the permanence. At a crisis point near the end of the book, Margaret and Helen, at Howards End, surrounded by furniture which has been moved from their old house at Wickham Place, and not knowing when they will see one another again nor how things exactly stand between them, silently decide to rearrange the chairs, and a healing process begins. The action signals a shared past and a shared sensibility. A similar but broader view is expressed in this passage:

The feudal ownership of land did bring dignity, whereas the modern ownership of movables is reducing us again to a nomadic horde. We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty. (p. 107)

Howards End stands at the threshold of a new age, remarkably similar to the one at which we find ourselves 96 years on. Margaret’s – and the narrator’s – concerns about the loss of what makes life worthwhile (but which is impossible to tie down to a formula) chime perfectly with the internet age. One of them (I can’t find the exact quote) complains that London can stimulate but not sustain. Elsewhere the narrator says of her:

It is impossible to see modern life steadily and see it whole, and she had chosen to see it whole. (p. 115)

What has changed? The internet promotes content, the idea that all of human creation is at our fingertips. A click and a jiffy bag away. And so it is, but this at once precludes the possibility of seeing anything steadily, unless one is either extremely blinkered or has an iron will. How to find a calm island when all is flux? How to get to your own two individual feet when the ground won’t stay still? There’s no place like home anymore.

The Leonard Bast portion of the story felt at times like a slap in the face to this blog. Leonard is poor, and tries to educate himself by reading, and going to classical concerts. Only, he is too tired out by his work as an insurance clerk to give art the attention it needs – unlike the independently wealthy set with which most of the narrative is concerned. What am I doing here, if not ploughing through books in order to ward off the ill effects of a drudge job? It’s frustrating when tiredness gets the upper hand, but what are you going to do? Watch TV, go to the cinema, get your fiction compressed, is the 20th Century’s answer. Hopefully I don’t make Leonard’s mistake of thinking books are the be-all and end-all. In another passage I can’t find he is criticised for missing the point that books are intended to illuminate life, they’re not, by and large, stone tablets to be taken seriously, unquestioningly, swallowed whole after meals.

I don’t know if I’ve got across how much I love this book. It was a surprise. I’m not new to Forster, but seem to have come to him the wrong way about: first with A Passage to India and Where Angels Fear to Tread, then after a gap of some years The Longest Journey and A Room with a View, after Zadie Smith wrote about him in The Guardian while she was writing On Beauty. It’s because that book’s on my shelf that I read this one now. Where the others were (increasingly in the order I read them) immaculate, pained, English, Howards End was, within about 30 pages, one of my favourite books. That slightly farcical opening reminded me of Wodehouse, more so than any of the daft situations people get into in the other books (e.g. Miss Quested’s cave escapade in A Passage to India). About all of them it could be said: great backgrounds, silly story. This is not a flaw, as Forster’s subject is the minutiae of English manners (especially with regard to flirting), and the terrible personal consequences which can spring from politeness and propriety. Howards End plays the silliness for laughs much more successfully than Forster manages elsewhere. His authorial voice is stronger, it makes sense for On Beauty (which is going to have a tough time measuring up to this) to be titled as though an essay, because Forster is arguing a point here. He is arguing for what he believes, about modern life, about inner life, about friendship, family, class, commerce, property. And it is an argument which, whilst beautifully made, is not going to win anybody over who was not already of a similar mind. It’s too individual, too unquantifiable. But if you want to know how to be happy, there are worse places to go for advice than Howards End.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Julian Barnes – ‘Arthur & George’

The appeal of Arthur & George is obvious, to anyone who likes Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur acts the sleuth! Barmy Sir Arthur, an engaging fellow who believed in fairies but managed to keep them out of the Holmes books, thankfully. Because they wouldn’t have fitted? Don’t be so sure: one aside here tells of the brief disappearance of Agatha Christie, during which our hero was called in to work his magic. Instead of applying pure deductive reasoning as one would usually understand it, he obtained a glove of Christie’s, and took it to a psychic, using the latter as a spiritual bloodhound. Arthur himself would, a little stubbornly perhaps, have failed to see the distinction. His point about Spiritualism was that it is just another science: why have advances in every other area of understanding, but leave spiritual knowledge at the level which was set 2000 years ago? Let’s get to the bottom of it! The objective truth!

It’s a queer argument, but one which fits perfectly with his character as set down here and elsewhere. Arthur is deeply respectful of society’s rules (especially English society’s rules) as he understands them, but – ironically – he understands the letter better than the spirit. Because the age says ‘progress!’ and because it is unquestionable that there is something to this religion business, he draws the skewed conclusion that religion should be turned into a science. He has a blind spot where it comes to the Church’s own rules, because they don’t fit in with his pet theory. A less respectful man (or a more modern one) would look at these rules and, disliking them, would turn to atheism and that would be that. Why is it unquestionable that there is something to this religion business? Because it’s traditional, it’s the rules.

Arthur has a similar approach to marriage: when his first wife Touie becomes an invalid through her tuberculosis, he eventually falls in love with the woman who is to be his second, Jean. They go on country walks together, they go arm in arm to the cricket, they arrange secretive meetings. This Arthur deems consistent with his idea of honour because the relationship is never consummated until Touie dies and they do eventually marry. It is put to him that this is just as bad as adultery because people will assume that she is his mistress on account of their public behaviour, but he can’t see it. Once again, two forces have collided within him, and rather than let one win, he makes things immensely more difficult for himself and everyone involved by letting both have their way: religion and science, marriage and love, Touie and Jean. He is a big man, he can encompass all.

George Edalji is not a big man, but he is a sensible one, and one also in thrall to rules. He is after all a solicitor, and the author of Railway Law for the “Man in the Train”. He serves two purposes here: as a foil to the more expansive Arthur, and as someone to whom occurs a series of unfortunate but interesting events. You’ll know the plot: some vicious anonymous notes are received, some horses are slashed, George takes the rap for wholly circumstantial reasons, and, out of gaol but robbed of his livelihood, Arthur steps in to shake things up a bit. Based on a true story, and pretty damn closely. George’s spell in gaol is comparable to Arthur and Jean’s interminable wait for legitimacy (and, not to put too fine a point on it, sex), but his equanimity is far greater. George, too, hopes to be married ‘in general’, which Arthur laughs at, recommending ‘in particular’ as the preferable state. Of course, he never is, and therefore has a much longer wait than Arthur in this regard (though equally, it’s harder to pine for a generality). The prosecution at his trial make much of George’s undoubted virginity, claiming the horse maimings to be the result of unfulfilled sexual longing. Here’s George musing on a different kind of abstention:

Abstention could be taken as proof either of moderation or extremity. It might be a sign of a fellow able to control his human urges; or equally of someone who resisted vice in order to concentrate his mind on other, more essential things – someone a touch inhuman, even fanatical. (p. 417)

The word ‘fanatical’ made me sit up – could Arthur & George, for all its painstaking Victorian / Edwardian-ness, be an allegory for our times? In part. While never less than fond of its protagonists, it mocks their reliance on rules, and shows how ludicrous things can follow from them, how government judgements can be fallible and political. The Home Office Report of the Gladstone Committee which fudges George’s eventual pardon can’t fail to bring to mind the more recent Hutton Report, and the Edalji case reminded people at the time of Drayfus. Justice the province of the press when official procedures prove unsatisfactory, and a popular patron can be found. And that can’t be right.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Julie Myerson - ‘Something Might Happen’

The day after I finished reading Something Might Happen, I walked past a Daily Record newspaper board which included the phrase ‘Murdered student’s sister opens her heart.’ Having been involved for the previous week in a story which revolves around a woman who is murdered in a car park and has her heart removed, my immediate thought was ‘Oh, they must have got it back then.’ Why would you open a heart, especially one belonging to your own dead sister? Then I got it, and felt a bit stupid. But it says something for the chilly, anti-normal atmosphere of the book that I considered this alternative interpretation of the headline for even a few seconds.

On TV, Julie Myerson is great. She’s my second favourite Newsnight Review pundit after Tom Paulin, but where he’s contrary, she filters bullshit. Other panellists attempt varying degrees objectivity; Julie is proudly subjective. If a book / film / whatever doesn’t say something to her about her life, it’s out. ‘But I just wasn’t interested’ is how she’ll begin the tirades which pop pretension and masculine drum banging alike. For her, art should be small scale, closely observed. I was curious how this aesthetic would come across in her own novels.

The answer is, pretty well. Something Might Happen is set in a quiet seaside town, and looks at the greater and lesser dalliances of narrator Tess, from within the confines of what seems a happy family life. The happiness is only implied, because all the action takes place against the recent murder of Tess’ best friend Lennie. Within the time frame of the book there is almost no happiness at all. Husband Alex (an ex of Tess’, and he still has a bit of a thing for her) is distraught, can barely function. The action concentrates almost exclusively on people who loved the murdered woman (Alex, Tess, Tess’ husband Mick, the children of both couples), and is correspondingly bleak. The bereavement is so recent and so horrific none of them can think straight. Factor in Alex’s continued interest in Tess, and Tess’ obsession with one of the murder investigation team, and you have one dark sticky death sex mess. Myerson’s aim seems to be to heap as much shit as she can on to her characters, to see if they’ll break. Or perhaps her point is that people don’t break, under the most awful of circumstances. They can’t be relied on not to fuck things up further, but most can get through this stuff.

My problem was, I kept wanting the book to lighten up. Given the above constraints, this is the last thing it was ever going to do, but I felt let down that Myerson resorted to the ‘Oh my God! A body!’ opening gambit. The whole Tess / Alex / Lennie / Lacey (the policeman Tess likes) thing would have been plenty for, say, Woody Allen to work on, without killing anybody. It’s perfectly possible to fall in love whilst already married without being pushed into it by a horrific murder. Why bring grief into the mix? Because grief is messy, I suppose, and people don’t stop inappropriately fancying each other when they’re afflicted by it. Or at least that’s the message here. I would have thought that they do, but anyway. I have two objections to the grief. Firstly, it smacks of ITV police dramas. Yer joyless Crackers and Prime Suspects, so unaccountably popular. As, in less fraught ways, are Casualty and even East Enders. I hate all these programmes. The police dramas, disgustingly forensic, have a story arc which takes the viewer from a) as bad as things could possibly be, pictures, to b) a bit better, but still worse than before whatever caused a) happened. I prefer story arcs which come out of the red occasionally. Bit of light, bit of shade.

Secondly, I’d like to bring in another terrible TV show, Dawson’s Creek. It tried to mask its considerable shallowness by adding the words ‘right now’ to the end of every self pitying teenage sentence, to max out the moment, make the characters’ pain vital by dragging it into the ultra present tense. In Something Might Happen, the phrase of choice is ‘I mean it.’ Every bloody conversation, the whole book long, somebody means it, and says so. It doesn’t do any good, they all lie to each other anyway.

Apart from that, I liked it.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Graham Rawle - ‘Woman’s World’

As is so often the case with hardback books, it’s taken me until the paperback came out to get around to reading Woman’s World. It’s been sitting prettily on my bookshelf preening itself in the mirror on the opposite wall since last Christmas. As well it might: this is a beautiful book. Composed entirely of cut-out fragments from early ’60s women’s magazines, stuck to the page in a single central column width, sprawling outwards on occasion, it’s more like a comic then a novel in its attention the minutiae of presentation. A Chris Ware comic, perhaps (there are doubtless better comparisons to be made, but I don’t read enough comics). Larger words from headlines signal moments of drama, the word ‘colour’ rarely appears without cross-hatching filling each letter, denoting - in black and white - an array of colours. Entire sentences are lifted from advertising copy, or romance stories, with more often than not a word transplanted near the end which elevates the sentiment to ludicrousness. An example:

Some secrets | should be shared, while those that may be harmful to a loved one | are best kept wrapped in | airtight parcels, using either plastic bags or thick brown paper sealed with plastic tape, with | a handful of mothballs | sprinkled between the layers of | deceit. (p. 377)

Rawle takes advantage of the magazines’ two dominant tones: mawkish (the romance stories) and sprightly, practical (the ads and the tips on how to run a household). Put them together and you’re going to get jokes, but not only jokes: the violent swings from one voice to the other produce a sense of instability which is appropriate for the mixed up narrator Norma. She’s so steeped in the woman’s world they offer that she can’t think in any other terms, but her regurgitated version of their content is peculiar. She takes them too seriously, yet doesn’t get them quite right.

Why are the cuttings all from the early ’60s? It gives a consistency of tone, of course: this is when the novel is set, they practically guarantee that there will be no anachronisms. It is a very readable tone, the language firmly entrenched in ’50s family values but from a time when the give-’em-what-they-want approach to media had started to kick in. Later magazines, you’d imagine, would have contained references to rock ’n’ roll and sexual liberation. The rigidity of what it meant to be a woman would have started to crumble, and it’s the rigidity on which Norma relies. There is a nostalgia for this lost age of domesticity, as an aspiration if not as a reality, and, simultaneously, a demonstration of how dangerous this kind of boxing-in is for those who submit to it. Of the small set of characters in the book, only Roy’s girlfriend Eve comes close to living up to the version of womanhood set out in Norma’s beloved magazines. She is accordingly quite bland, but unusually her character isn’t weakened by this, as it gives Rawle carte blanche to plunder romance stories for sparkling eyes and tremulous hearts (nothing so crude as a heaving bosom). It’s also true that Norma is so loopy that there is room for a stock character elsewhere in the story, and so Eve fulfils the function more usually taken by the narrator, of standing by and watching whilst extraordinary things happen.

The triumph of Woman’s World (rather like a Jeeves novel) is in its use of narration by a character who is not so much unreliable as completely out of control. The excitement and glamour in Norma’s life come exclusively from the fashion pages of her magazines, and she lives largely as a recluse, changing outfits three times a day but rarely taking them beyond the confines of the house she shares with her mother. When the door bell rings she’ll dash off to her room in a panic whilst her mother answers it. Once there, she’ll change outfits again. I’m aware that this makes her sound about as 3D as a Little Britain character, but the reasons this isn’t so are so bound up in things you ought to find out from reading the book. There is history, tragedy, all sorts. But best not spilled in advance.

Weird coincidental similarities with other books I’ve written about recently: Norma is rather like Kinué in The Decay of the Angel, in her self delusion relating to her own beauty. She also adds an uncertain ‘possibly’ to the occasional sentence, as unsure of her grip on reality as Alan Bennett’s lady in the van.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Alan Bennett - 'Writing Home'

Why read Writing Home? It is intended, I suppose, for people who already know Alan Bennett through his plays and TV scripts, through the various formats of his 'The Lady in the Van' story. I almost feel I know the latter, though I've never read it before. Bennett defines a classic book as something one feels one has read, and for anyone who listens to Radio 4 for even the odd half hour, it is hard not to absorb the story of Miss Shepherd, the woman who lived in a van in his garden for almost the whole of the seventies and eighties. Or maybe you're a fan of Beyond the Fringe, the names Bennett and Miller all tied in with the iconic Cook and Moore. Perhaps you just like national institutions. But why is Bennett so loved? What has he done, exactly? It's a question you wouldn't ask of a novelist (look, there it is, X's achievement: half a shelf, and a near-posthumous KBE), but plays evaporate after they close, early BBC footage is notoriously slippery, and what we have here, in Writing Home, is the stuff that's left over, the husk. The kernel, what Bennett thinks of as his proper writing, is all elsewhere.

Except that he doesn't seem to think of himself as 'proper' at all. On the first page of the introduction he claims that book reviewing isn't really his thing, demanding 'a breadth of reading and reference that I generally do not have and which writing plays seldom requires' (p. ix) - i.e. perhaps his playwriting's a bit slipshod too. On location with the crew making his TV plays, he comments that the shoot itself gets him out into the places he has been writing about, and he finds out how little he knew of his subject. Self deprecation is almost as common here as the deprecation of others. This in its turn is not particularly mean, or at least there's no sense that Bennett wishes things were other than they are. To Miss Shepherd he's never unreservedly kind (nor unreservedly nasty), he just accepts her continued presence as something that has happened, and with which he has to get along. By the end of the 'Diaries' section I was sure no word summed up Bennett better than 'curmudgeon'. Happy being disgruntled, adopting the morals and aesthetics of a generation earlier than his own in order to have a position to take up against the present. But surely such a man wouldn't choose to live in Camden? Nor take frequent trips to New York.

By and by it occurs to the reader that something worthwhile has been accumulating. Bennett's very amateurishness, of course, is essential to his art: what could be worse than a writer (especially a playwrite) who knew in advance what he was going to write? What would be the point, then, in writing it? You might as well be a politician. But when the opposite is true, when everything you see comes as a slightly absurd surprise, and every written expression of it takes you in unexpected directions, then you are getting somewhere. Where this 'somewhere' might be came across most strongly in the 'Books and Writers' section (despite the earlier protest at not being much of a book reviewer). The long review of Andrew Motion's Larkin biography gets lost in its subject in a way that few other pieces here do, and it is apparent that in contrast to the ambivalence its author shows for decisiveness in real life, here are the rock solid values upon which he rests. The names which people this and other sections - Auden, Proust, Kafka, Larkin himself - are what Alan Bennett stands for. His defence of the Book of Common Prayer is based upon the importance of good writing, and of a shared frame of reference. In other words, it is not good enough for quality to remain the preserve of the elite, and Christianity, whatever its flaws, at least provided powerful words to the masses. This is the kind of argument which can get circular very quickly (i.e. do the public get Big Brother because it's what they want, or do they want it because they can't avoid it?), but as long as it hasn't been lost, there is room for a popular voice like Bennett's, sticking up for seriousness.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Yukio Mishima - ‘The Decay of the Angel’

from ending’s a puzzle. Look away if you don’t want to read about it. The set-up is this: at the end of Spring Snow, Kiyoake Matsugae walks with the last of his strength to ‘the Gesshūji’, a nunnery situated on a mountain near Obitoké. His love Satoko is inside, and has taken orders. He wants her back, but she refuses to see him. Kiyoaki’s friend Honda accompanies him on this journey, which he makes several times, exacerbating the pneumonia which he knows will kill him. Sixty years and three novels later, Honda, his own death approaching, goes back to visit Satoko, by now abbess at the Gesshūji. She recognises him, but claims never to have heard of Kiyoaki.

How to interpret this? It’s part ‘and then I woke up’, but let’s ignore that. The denial in the final pages isn’t enough to completely overturn the preceding four novels (besides, Satoko may be lying, or making a point, or have lost her marbles), but it does make it unavoidable to ask: just what is going on here? A question I’d have been quite happy to contemplate at the end of Runaway Horses, but which The Temple of Dawn made me lose interest in almost entirely. The Decay of the Angel is a big improvement on its predecessor, but it doesn’t make up all the lost ground.

In my entry on The Temple of Dawn, I wondered what it was that its protagonist Ying Chan added to the series. The Decay of the Angel has an answer, of sorts. Here’s Keiko talking to Tōru, whom Honda supposes is Ying Chan reincarnated:

Kiyoake Matsugae was caught by unpredictable love, Isao Ilumina by destiny, Ying Chan by the flesh. And you? By a baseless sense of being different, perhaps? (p. 206)

She is making the same complaint about Tōru that I made about Ying Chan: what are you here for? Of his predecessors he most closely resembles Isao, for his extraordinarily confident sense of self, but he entirely lacks the other’s purpose. He is frequently described as ‘evil’ (Keiko’s contemptuous phrase is ‘a legal sort of evil’ (p. 205)), but it is a very localised evil. Adopted by Honda, who spots his three moles on a chance visit to the shipping look-out post where he works in almost total isolation, Tōru at first plays along with the plans for his education. He learns from Honda how to eat soup, how to speak in polite society. His first exercise of power is to have his tutor Furusawa dismissed for being a political radical, his second (a deliberate upping of the stakes) to pull a similar trick on fiancée Momoko. Finally he takes over Honda’s house, beating the old man and filling all the servants’ positions with women he can sleep with. There is even a rota.

Tōru is a nasty piece of work, but there is an unreality about him which is worth considering. Over the course of The Sea of Fertility, Honda has become corrupted, not in his professional life as a lawyer, but in his personal life as a peeping tom. Tōru becomes the portrait to Honda’s Dorian Gray, his worst phase coming as a result of Honda’s manipulations (which are hardly benign: he wants power over his protégé, wants to crush his spirit, and to watch him die). Could the reincarnated protagonists all be reflections of the stages Honda goes through? Kiyoake, pure and innocent; Isao, pure and political; Ying Chan, lustful after sex; Tōru, lustful after souls. A gradual and a total degradation.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Simon Reynolds - 'Blissed Out'

Compare The Smiths with Throwing Muses. Both Morrissey and Kristin Hersh work within the flux of adolescence - the vacillation between agoraphobia and claustrophobia, possibility and constraint; the feeling that one’s body, and the cultural meanings attached to it, are a cage.

Morrissey represents that flux, turns it into couplets, quips, aphorisms, insights, a wisdom we can draw comfort from. Hersh reproduces that flux, her voice is flux. [...] The difference is between commentary and embodying. It’s the reason why The Smiths are more powerful as a pop institution, and why Throwing Muses are more powerful as art. (p. 32)

Flicking through Blissed Out, this is the passage which stood out, which sold it for me. It’s at once exactly right, and not the kind of thing you expect to read, given the commercial disproportion between Throwing Muses and The Smiths. The latter are fixed in the pop canon, will be available 100 years hence in a ‘20th Century Classics’ series of mp3s, or aacs, or whichever new and unimaginable format rules the day. The Muses have their place in the American alt. rock canon, of course, and are fondly remembered by many. But it’s a different order of magnitude. Money was the reason they called it quits in 1997, a sobering thought for those who loved them.

Blissed Out isn’t your average book of rock criticism. It isn’t interested in saying simply: ‘These records are brilliant, listen to them’, nor even ‘These records grew out of such and such a historical tradition’. Instead it tries to apply to rock arguments of cultural theory more commonly associated with literature. I never had much time for cultural theory: it always seemed so obsessed with undermining its objects that it forgot to mine the objects themselves. So you could say that Blissed Out isn’t my sort of book, though it does deal with the music which more or less formed me (the Muses, The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine), and its author wrote for Melody Maker, my Bible for the first half of the 1990s. A few days after finishing it, I tried to work out what it is that Simon actually says. I boiled it down to the following.

  • That noise annoys.
  • That rock feeds on this transgression, absorbing it back into itself. Aside from the odd moment of genuine danger, mostly the transgression is aesthetic, unreal. Rock and roll hasn’t been the taboo-busting wild man for decades. If it makes horrible noises now, they will only be heard by the few who seek it out.
  • That noise is beyond language, which makes it ideal for breaking down the boundaries in our own heads. This is its primary function, now that it can no longer break down cultural boundaries.
  • That the whole shebang is dependent upon the loosening up of society in the 1960s.
  • That ’80s pop is retrogressive, overly reverent towards ’60s soul.
  • That this doesn’t include Prince, because he doesn’t know what a boundary is, and splurges across dikes like a sticky purple tidal wave.
  • That the desired state of being, boundaries gone, colours ultra-vivid, is like a temporary excursion into the hyper-reality of schizophrenia. This ‘temporary’ part is important, because obviously actual schizophrenia is unbearable.
  • That chaos always emerges from and always returns to order: this is the only way it can make sense. Society provides cultural boundaries, bound up in language, and rock / noise’s function is to allow people to escape these for a while, but not to bring them down.
Here’s Simon on noise:

If music is like a language, if it communicates some kind of emotional or spiritual message, then noise is best defined as interference, something which blocks transmission, jams the code, prevents sense being made. [...] Noise [...] occurs when language breaks down. Noise is a wordless state in which the very constitution of ourselves is in jeopardy. The pleasure of noise lies in the fact that the obliteration of meaning and identity is ecstasy (literally, being out-of-oneself). [...] The problem is that, to speak of noise, to give it attributes, to claim things for it, is immediately to shackle it with meaning again, to make it part of culture. (pp. 57-8)
I have several problems with this, though the idea is seductive (and flattering for anyone who listens to anything a bit noisy). Isn’t noise in rock ‘shackled with meaning’ just by being created? It’s deliberate, it’s there to express something. Why separate ‘music’ and ‘noise’? Music can incorporate noise perfectly well. If one were to accept the separation, then it’s still a bit odd that, having established that writing about noise harms our enjoyment of it, Reynolds persists in doing so. But again, I think this is doing the music itself a disservice: it becomes part of culture when people listen to it, not when critics pin it down (reviews have an impact of course, but an imprecise one).

Written in 1990, Blissed Out grapples with the state of contemporary indie rock, seeing it as a reaction to the horrid slick soul of mainstream ’80s pop. He doesn’t mention the concurrent C86 bands, from which the burgeoning of 1987 - 90 grew, probably because he doesn’t much like them (nonetheless, the mature MBV are recognisable in their earlier, twee-er records, which are C86 to a ‘t’). The slick soul is lambasted, again quite rightly, as being a bloodless throwback to the ’60s, Aretha and Stax, a short cut to authenticity. Given that no-one in the world listens to The Christians today, and that music itself has changed to the detriment of the monolithic (Stock, Aitken and Waterman couldn’t happen now, because the singles chart no longer means anything), this seems quaint and overcooked. How could anything bad have occupied his attention so much? Why didn’t he go and listen to something else? Are the 21st century responses to this.

The reasons Blissed Out irritates me are the same reasons Melody Maker enthralled me when I came in as a reader at the tail end of this, in about 1991. It was so righteous. Far from the death of the author, its own authors told you what to think, in no uncertain terms. My Bloody Valentine, The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Throwing Muses, Thin White Rope, Sebadoh, Loop, A. R. Kane, Mary Margaret O’Hara. And on and on. It was a great time for music, and MM wrote about it with a passion and a scrappy seriousness which I loved, and which I still miss. In isolation though, the prose of Blissed Out simply isn’t very readable, however interesting the whole may be as a time capsule. By the time of Rip it up and Start Again, 15 years later, Reynolds had left the dryness of theory behind, and had the sense to write his post punk history from the deep wells of his own enthusiasm, forming a fractured narrative far more involving than the discussion of rock’s fractured narrative found here. Stories win in the end. This is the storm before the harvest.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Edmund White - 'My Lives'

I'm stumbling over writing this one, and have now left both the book and the quotations I noted down at my other home (cumulatively, my girlfriend and I have a house, it's just that some of the rooms are five miles away from the others), which doesn't help. And look, in this blog which I'm trying to keep reasonably free of references to myself, how quick I am to mention my girlfriend when discussing an account of a gay life. As if to draw attention to my generous indulgence of this way of living which deviates so far from my own experience. And to reinforce the position from which the indulgence is granted: that of the heterosexual, monogamous male. All powerful, all dull, in the patriachal model of society no-one believes in anymore. Yet as I get older I find myself, hedged in by circumstances which haven't quite gone my way (neither are they completely awful), falling back on this flimsy defence. Because I am English and can construct a sentence. But I don't really want to revert to type, and that's why I need books like 'My Lives' to shake me from complacency.

Edmund's father is rather like that, though he remains unshaken. In another 'Blind Assassin' coincidence, he made a fortune in manufacturing during World War II, only to lose it all afterwards, ending up broken by the inconsistency of the world's favours. Just like Laura and Iris's father. He belives in the practices which have made him successful, to the exclusion of almost everything else (the only real exception is sex). Because he knows how to balance the books and wear a respectable suit, he doesn't bother about people: he has no friends, is devoid of curiosity. His task is to get the things he knows done, not to find out about new ones.

Edmund's mother is the opposite: the tragedy of her life is that she lacks her husband's (later her ex-husband's) certainty. When there's a man around, she doesn't need to supply this herself, and is OK. Studying and working in Psychology also gives her a framework to cling to (as well as supplying Edmund with in-house analysis of his homosexuality, which he sees as a curable disorder all through adolescence). She is curious, to a point - enough to study Psychology, enough to feel a sometimes desperate need for a male companion, but Edmund, whilst clearly very close to her, is scornful of her intellect. It's hard to tell what motivated him to put the following story in his book: once, as a fat alcoholic, she fell in her house and was unable to get up again. She was also unable to empty her colostomy bag and, realising after 48 hours that her own faeces were starting to back up and would poison her if the bag didn't burst, she prayed, promising God that she'd give up drink if he would burst it and save her life. The bag did burst, and she became a teetotaler.

My knee-jerk reaction to this: how disgusting! Demeaning! Why say that about your own mother? Well, partly because it's true, but that hardly covers it. It tells as few other anecdotes could (here's hoping, at least) what kind of a state she was in: it's an effective crux in the 'My Mother' chapter. Mostly though, it's an example of Edmund's rejection of his father's values of order and tidiness. He refuses to tidy up his life, because his life is all about the fascinating mess which occurs when people freely interact. Not when he was (as he still is, of course) living it, and not now that he's come to tell it.

He is equally blunt about his own life, usually in relation to sex. The chapter 'My Master' is a painful account of an affair which began and ended only a few years ago (concurrently with his 'real' long term relationship, and with the full knowledge of his partner). Edmund's account of his retreat to the internet after the break-up, dividing his time between incessantly checking his email (for the 'I'm sorry. I've made a terrible mistake' message which inevitably never comes) and crusing gay message boards, is completely without gloss or glorification. If this seems a little less pungent than the colostomy story, there are details of sex acts with T. (the only un-named person in 'My Lives') which make up the shortfall. Rarely can an elderly man's affair have been so filled with youthful excitement and pain, and Edmund begins the chapter castigating himself for this, as though he hasn't progressed at all since he was 16. But when he was 16 he would have been incapable of writing something as vital as 'My Master'.

There is another side to this abjection. T. is the master, Edmund the slave, the role he has preferred all his life. In giving us so much in his autobiography which might have remained private, he is being both generous and selfish, since what turns him on is to give up power, make himself vulnerable. It's a neat paradox but not, perhaps, an uncommon one. It's also an impulse which, in inviting reaction, draws people in and makes possible a life full of interest and friends.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Mario Vargas Llosa - 'The Feast of the Goat'

There are certain things linking 'The Feast of the Goat' and 'The Blind Assassin'. Both use alternating narratives: one from a very specific strand of the past, the other in the present, reminiscing more generally, filling in the gaps and gradually revealing where the past has led. In both narratives there is an obvious crux: 'The Blind Assassin' opens with Laura Chase's suicide, as she drives dramatically off a bridge, and the rest of the novel is dedicated to explaining this event. Chapter two of 'The Feast of the Goat' introduces the four assassins of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 - 1961, waiting in a car for Trujillo's Chevrolet Bel Air to drive past, so they can pump it full of bullet holes. Roughly half of the novel is dedicated to explaining this event; the remainder deals with the fall-out.

Another point of comparison is the sexual preference of the dominant male presence in each book, for too-young women. In each case the girl concerned is pimped by her own father (in desperate straits) to a more powerful man for financial or political gain. Repression and machismo are constant themes, and the sad conclusion to draw from both is that, though order can be restored, brute force (or its financial equivalent) will often hold sway for so long that it is impossible to entirely recover from its effects. This is particularly true of 'The Feast of the Goat', in which the tyrant's domination affects not just a family, but a nation. The culture it describes is one of reasonable affluence (fast disappearing because of sanctions), but absolute repression. Political murders are common, the media is state-controlled. Trujillo has elevated himself to a God-like status: he owns 40% of the country's industry, and buys more for nominal sums people are too frightened to refuse; he sleeps with whoever he likes, including the wives and daughters of most of his ministers; his personal whorehouse is 'a kitsch monument' (p. 390), putting one in mind of Saddam's gold taps.

And yet, he is hard-working: the country doesn't run itself. This is not a mitigating circumstance, but it does explain a lot. The fear, the devotion. The rest of his family - his sons, brothers and wife - hang on his coat tails, without an ounce of his decisiveness or initiative. They just like being rich, and putting on generals' outfits. Trujillo's undoubted capacity for office is reflected twice through the actions of others: firstly, by contrast with the badly organised assassination (one of the assassins happens to know a trustworthy doctor, for instance, which he mentions after the event, when they are all riddled with cuts and a few bullet wounds - how can they not have thought of this in advance?), and most especially General Pupo's pathetic reaction to it, which shows the power of long habit; secondly President Balaguer's masterful improvisations, by which he manoeuvres himself from puppet president to the real thing. Far more of a politician than Trujillo, he proves adept at keeping enough people happy enough for the country to not break down in to civil war, or be invaded by America.

The most powerful section of 'The Feast of the Goat' comes after the assassination. This is where the structure differs from 'The Blind Assassin': now there is nowhere to go, the plot is no longer inevitable, and messy real life emerges from the clockwork. The remaining chapters each follow the fate of an involved party, truths emerging at their intersections. The quick deaths of Antonio de la Maza and Amandito are the least painful: they come out fighting, and face the inevitable. Amongst the pestilence of black Beetles which descends upon Ciudad Trujillo (Santo Domingo) after the assassination, each containing secret service agents and machine guns hungry for assassins and relatives of assassins. Horrible scenes of torture fill some of the later chapters, and Urania's rape by Trujillo (the novel's second crux) rounds things off, but surprisingly the ending does manage to be hopeful, though it can't be fulfilled. Things have changed. The Goat is dead. It's up to the people now.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Margaret Atwood - 'The Blind Assassin'

This is the first Margaret Atwood book I've read, having been aware of her for years (of course - she doesn't exactly have a low profile). My sister 'did' 'The Handmaid's Tale' at school a decade and a half ago, and it must have been one of those books, as is the way with secondary schools, that are dwelt on at leisure over the course of a term, in acknowledgement that the children aren't likely to read them any quicker than that. She watched the film at home, which I dimly remember, and my impression was that it was one of those 'Brave New World' type Sci-Fi dystopia books which are so appealing as a child. The collision of the immortality of youth with the prospect of near-Armageddon, I expect: how exciting danger is when you feel it can't harm you.

'The Blind Assassin' is concerned with the deterioration from that point: from youth to age, from love to hate, betrayal, cold revenge and then doomed reparation. Told from the point of view of an old lady with a weak heart (near death, wanting to set the record straight), it draws a thread through the fabrics of present and past, pulling the two gradually together. Feebly, with an old woman's strength, so that it takes 600 pages and a year of writing (she describes the seasons as they pass) for them to meet. The narrative is gentle in its revelations: it signals them in advance, but makes no apology for the things it has kept hidden. Yet it's hardly unreliable: the whole point is to get at the truth of what happened, to unpick the lies of others. The conceit is maintained that this is not a novel but a collection of papers left for Iris Griffen's estranged grand-daughter Sabrina. To explain the estrangement. To explain that it isn't Iris' fault, and to give Sabrina back her history. That it takes such a novel-like form is itself one of several clues-which-don't-seem-to-be which cause the narrative to turn itself inside out along the way.

Sci-Fi finds its way in too. Half the novel (by sections if not numbers of pages) is given over to extracts from Laura Chase's 'The Blind Assassin'. Laura is Iris' sister, an other-wordly, free-spirited sort with an engaging habit of taking grown-ups too literally. Her death at the age of 25 is the event which kicks off the novel, and which it spends most of its length working back towards. She drives off a bridge, deliberately, in Iris' car. Her only legacy is her novel which, published posthumously, scandalises the local community of Port Ticonderoga, and precipitates a second suicide. In it, a couple meet for sex and stories at a variety of run-down locations. Both of them have severe constraints: he is on the run from the police (which is why he keeps moving), she is married. The reader is left to assume that the only highlight in either life is this series of meetings, which constitute the whole action of this novel-within-a-novel. Nothing is said of why the man is a fugitive, and very little of the woman's husband. The only time that matters is the time they spend together, and this is typical of Laura: her instinctive grasp of what's important leads her to ignore all the in-between stuff (money, propriety) which occupies her sister and most of the rest of us to a greater or lesser degree. Iris comments on this: that she is practical whilst Laura is not, and yet it was Laura who drove her car off a bridge, the ultimate practical action. She thinks she - Iris - would not have had it in her.

To begin with, most of these meetings - at least the parts we're told about - are taken up with the man's Sci-Fi stories. He makes them up on the spot, and she interjects when he makes a mistake, or is unwarrantably harsh to his characters. This is what he does for a living too: from his hide-outs, he types up reports from foreign worlds and submits them to magazines, who accept them from time to time and send out a cheque payable to one of his roster of pseudonyms. In this way he scrapes by. The stories he tells are violent and cynical. There is war, pillaging and destruction. The city of Sakiel-Norn is burned to the ground by the Lizard Men of Xenor. But before this happened Sakiel-Norn was plenty brutal on its own account. The main story (a monologue within the novel-within-a-novel) centres around a cruel custom the city has of sacrificing maidens, and a plot which is hatched to attack the regime responsible. The blind assassin of the title is to kill one of the maidens on the night before the sacrificial ceremony, and take her place. During the ceremony he will kill the High Priest and trigger a military coup.

Not surprisingly, this assassin is important. His blindness is literal: he knows exactly what he is doing, has been so worn down by the way society has treated him that any sense of moral responsibility has been lost. The blind assassins are a caste: used as slaves to weave beautiful rugs while young (while their fingers are small and nimble enough), they are tossed aside once this activity has destroyed their sight, and many drift - why not? - into contract killing. Iris, too, has her youth taken advantage of, worn away, and she too becomes a silent, unsuspected, deadly adversary. As an attractive young woman she is a member of an unacknowledged caste, to be used, by rich men in search of wives. A wife serving a double purpose: she will confer respectability, the appearance of social success; she'll also be something to fuck. Her equivalent of the killer's blindness is her inability to make decisions, at least at surface level (Richard and Iris' marriage is all about perception from the outside). The marriage is run by him, and his sinister sister Winifred. Iris has to resort to subterfuge if she's to exist at all. This she does and, whilst she does end up damaged, she is able to regard past events with remarkable equanimity. She outlives everyone who beset her, but also everyone she loved.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Anthony Buckeridge - 'Just Like Jennings'

I used to love Jennings books. The ones I had were '80s paperbacks with photos on the covers which made me wonder if there was a TV series I'd missed. If there wasn't, then why did they go to the expense of getting actors to pose? If there was, why didn't it say 'Now a major BBC TV series' on the front? And why was it never on TV? This copy of 'Just Like Jennings' looks nothing like the ones I remember. A hardback from 1961, a first edition even, which cost all of £6 from an Oxfam book shop. Its line drawn illustrations aren't something I remember, and I'm fairly sure they didn't appear in my paperbacks, perhaps because they didn't fit the almost-a-TV-series image. They have a freshness and an innocence which say '50s rather than '60s. They don't smack of franchise.

This isn't the first Jennings book I've read lately, and for this reason I can't get too excited about it. It's enjoyable enough, and does have in it some of the wonderful convolutions which make Jennings so great - such as the episode in which (deep breath) Jennings becomes convinced he's on the trail of a criminal mastermind because he's seen a man out birdwatching with some sophisticated equipment. Lacking a magnifying glass, he borrows the lens from a slide projector and smothers large areas of the school in chalk dust - not in a direct attempt to catch his man, but more because he's caught the detective bug and likes the attention. He and Darbishire do make an attempt to get the suspect's finger prints (by covering a pop bottle in chalk dust and pretending they can't open it - at least this is the plan until they notice, with relief, that he's wearing gloves). This makes them late for roll call, and some teachers amble along in search of them . They come across the bird watcher too, realise he's rather a distinguished fellow, and invite him to give a talk to the boys. The talk requires a projector, the projector requires its lens back... there's plenty of confusion to be had here, and Buckeridge uses it to good comic effect.

The problem is that this is only one of four stories which occupy the term, and the two which follow don't quite measure up. They certainly don't measure up to 'Jennings Goes To School', the other one of the series I read recently, which was hilarious all the way through: as funny, it seemed to me at the time (perhaps affected a little by nostalgia - but not too much) as any Wodehouse novel, and in much the same vein, but with school masters instead of aunts. This one sort of peters out, which is a shame.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

'Out of the Past' (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

The dark, the light. The night time drive during which gas station manager Jeff Bailey brings his small town love Ann up to speed with his past life as a PI; the sunlit scenes by lakes and rivers, and in the dusty town itself. Out in Mexico, the dark of the bars, the light of the hotel at breakfast. Perhaps it's not so surprising: there are twenty four hours in a day, and Robert Mitchum seems to suit all of them. Whit Sterling, a big bad 'businessman', has Jeff hunt down his girl Kathie, who's run out on him taking $40,000 with her for company. 'What'll you do when I find her?' 'I won't touch her' - this is the lip service they pay to propriety, but it's clear from Whit's aggressive manner that he's not to be believed. Whit also says he's hiring Jeff because he trusts him, a claim he repeats several times in the film, and each time it's more ludicrous. Jeff's not to be trusted, and Whit knows it. He's a law unto himself, neither on the side of good nor evil, but nonetheless with an unpredictable integrity all his own. So he finds Kathie, falls in love, takes her for himself. Or is it she who takes him? And would that be because she wants to stay out of Whit's reach, or because she falls in love back?

Kathie doesn't have a program, is just as unpredictable as Jeff, but entirely lacks his integrity. As the film progresses she kills nearly every major character in an attempt to a) ward off the authorities and b) get Jeff back (and b) often seems like a convenient way to consolidate a).) She's ruthless, but without direction. She draws Jeff back to her when Whit brings him back into the fray (he'll be useful as a fall guy), and clings on to him until she's destroyed them both. Ann, the good woman who loves him, doesn't stand a chance, and the first time we see them together (romantic, lakeside, carefree) is the last time we see them together and happy. He eventually dies trying to hand Kathie over to the police, and afterwards we see Ann talking to Jimmy, Jeff's deaf mute garage assistant, who tells her that Jeff was running away with Kathie. It's not true, but it releases Ann from the clutches of his memory, clutches which are Kathie's by proxy.

By proxy is how femme fatales operate, of course: they can do nothing without the adoration of men who should know better, or men (like Jeff) who do know better and get sucked in anyway. I saw the film not as a crime caper (though there are plenty of dirty deeds) but as almost an allegory, about the dangers of falling in love with someone you shouldn't have. 'Almost' because this actually does happen to Jeff in the film, but for most of us this kind of bad choice doesn't result in intrigue, murder, fleeing the law. The mood it conjures up by its noir devices (of tension, despair, fleeting hope dashed, nerves frayed but alive) is equivalent to the kind of thing one might go through, being besotted in the wrong direction, with a tender object who is just interested enough to keep one dangling.

This is what the film does so well: it shows the power of a woman's beauty, and the incapacity of either the woman herself or the entranced man to deal with it. It shows the moral choices which emerge under such circumstances. For her: how far to exploit her power, how far can she even see past her reflected glory to judge the extent of any real reciprocated feeling? For him: how far to let himself be exploited, how far to let his love eclipse the world? Such choices are so contingent on circumstances beyond the control of the (dis-)interested parties (like Whit's calling in of Jeff after ten years, itself dependent on the large sign over Jeff's gas station which bears his name and gets spotted by one of Whit's henchmen) that they barely amount to choices at all. All they can do is wipe themselves out.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Oxford Stage Company - 'Paradise Lost' (Dundee Rep, 10th June)

Jesus in a hoody, shaking. At the centre of a stage kitted out like a back alley: litter, an 'EXIT' light over a door, a few classroom chairs lying discarded. Getting up, slowly approaching a red apple on the floor to the front of the stage, suspicious, hood up. Lit entirely from above, the hood casts his face into an impenetrable shadow the shape of a cobra's head, and the snake is at once within him, a parasite, and looking out, confronting the audience, daring him and us to partake of the forbidden fruit. Picking it up, the apple seems to contain an elemental and atomic force, carrying Jesus' hands in great arcs up into the air, plunging them almost to the ground, behind his back, but always returning to the space just before his mouth. Rejecting temptation, he thrusts the apple into the pouch of his top, and speaks the first lines of the play.

(Jesus in a hoody, shaking. This whole first scene is something which could have gone either way. At the interval I overheard someone saying his hand movements annoyed her, and I could see why: highly mannered, and surrounded by imagery - the hoody, the slum - which seemed a forced attempt to bed down with the zeitgeist. There was real tension and suppressed energy in those first few minutes, though.)

From the slum we were pitched into a Hell of red neon, with Satan, Beelzebub and three cronies lying stretched over imaginary racks, sizzling and writhing in the black flames which swallow light. Managing to escape, they made their way to a dank cave (can Hell be dank?) and held a council of war against the backdrop of a moth eaten theatre curtain, its lower edge trimming uneven and descending from right to left, suggesting the uneven stone roof. The fallen angels wore white, but a white smeared with mud and blood, carried over into gloriously messy eye make-up. Appealing to a mass of lesser fallen angels, these five declaimed as from a platform, fighting over the microphone, presided over by a Satan pitched somewhere between Malcolm McLaren and Gene Wilder. After hearing the arguments for outright war on heaven and cowering in Hell, the assembly decided upon a third way: they would take on idiot mankind in place of God, and tempt him from his thoughtless purity.

Strange, in this age of ours when purity so often equates to fanaticism, to find Satan tempting Adam and Eve away from it. He encourages them to give up their single minded devotion, their unquestioning obedience, and to think for themselves. Therein, of course, lies the Fall. He doesn't ask that they follow him (other than in the act of eating from the tree of knowledge). Once they have eaten, they become disillusioned, but a great deal more sensible. Covering their nakedness with some fairly bog standard business dress, they make their way from Eden to a world in which they will have to work, and in which they will eventually die. Though their former rapture is lost, they seem to have gained rather than lost by the transaction: instead of wandering from tree to tree in a blinkered ecstasy, they are now going to have to face up to their surroundings, and live.

The staging which got them to this point was frequently spectacular. Satan in mid-air, plunging and ascending through the infinite reaches of limbo, an illusion assisted by projections of rapidly moving lines on to the back wall of the stage. Satan on the Sun, assuming the guise and demeanour of a timid chaplain, and tricking the angel Raphael into directing him to Earth - an Earth represented by a glowing green ball, carried around Satan in an orbit by Jesus / the narrator, and manipulated by him in the same way that the apple was earlier on (the Earth = the apple / knowledge, it seems). Planets and stars in the background emphasised the beyond-cosmic scale of operations, and the uncertain physical construction of the Hell / Earth / Heaven setup: Satan's journey from Hell, after his millions of miles travelled, found him not clambering out of a manhole on our planet, but spat out into space, still far from his destination.

Before the interval all on stage was black, red or a tarnished white. Afterwards it was lit up with the green of Eden. The curtain rose on Adam and Eve: naked, sleeping, then waking, dancing slowly but rapturously, he lifting her around him, the two moving in innocent delight (lust had to wait until after the apple). The mood of the actors caught on surprisingly quickly, and their nakedness - though attractive - didn't titillate. Their flesh seemed just another costume, though one uniquely flattered in its curves and shadows by the gentle lighting. By contrast Gabriel, in his robe and tangibly feathery wings, seemed rather overdressed. A final delight from Satan was the temptation scene: putting on a snakeskin jacket, he held out an arm as though it were a glove puppet of a snake, and revelled and prolonged every subsequent 's' the script brought his way. An immensely vivid production.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Italo Calvino - 'Mr Palomar'

There's a sleight of hand going on with Mr Palomar. As a character, he's barely there in his own story, being merely present at the events it encompasses, often playing no part at all. On the occasions when he does, it's usually to be sneered at by passers by. He's a watcher, a thinker, an insignificant ponderer. His creator appears to have no more regard for his character's social significance than do George and Weedon Grossmith for Mr Pooter's, but there is a further point being made, that solitary observations can themselves be more significant than social success, and by many orders of magnitude. To be lost in contemplation of a wave, a cheese counter, or an albino gorilla; giving up TV to watch a gecko illuminated on a window. The gecko's elaborate form inspires the thought: begin to wonder if all that perfection is not squandered, in view of the limited operations it performs. Or is this perhaps the secret: content to be, does he reduce his doing to the minimum? Can this be the lesson, the opposite of the morality that, in his youth, Mr Palomar wanted to make his: to strive always to do something a bit beyond one's means? (p.54)
Mr Palomar does strive to act, or at least to understand, beyond his means, but he does it slowly, steadily, always making sure of his footing. In the opening chapter he gazes out at the ocean but tries to isolate a single wave - because how can he understand the ocean without a firm grasp of its constituent parts? This is typically his approach, and the only time he reverses it he comes unstuck: in 'The Universe as a Mirror', deciding that he's insufficiently at ease with people, this happens:
All his efforts, from now on, will be directed towards achieving a harmony both with the human race, his neighbor, and with the most distant spiral of the system of the galaxies. To begin with, since his neighbor has too many problems, Palomar will try to improve his relations with the universe. (p.105)
He fetches his telescope. His logic is wonderfully warped here, past breaking point. There is clearly no connection between astronomy and always having the right thing to say. Elsewhere, Palomar's leaps are equally abrupt but less nonsensical. Watching Copito de Nieve the albino gorilla playing with a tire, Palomar glimpses the root of language, culture, civilisation:
For 'Copito de Nieve' [...] the contact with the tire seems to be something affective, possessive, and somehow symbolic. From it he can have a glimpse of what for man is the search for an escape from the dismay of living: investing oneself in things, recognising oneself in signs, transforming the world into a collection of symbols; a first daybreak of culture in the long biological night. (p. 74)
There's a balance between Palomar's ridiculousness and his wisdom, but the most important thing, it seems, is taking an interest, and really seriously looking at the things around you - because if you look hard enough, there nearly always is interest to be found, extrapolations to be made. This is why it makes sense for Momus to be recommending Palomar, and that's where I heard about him.

(Quotations from William Weaver's translation, Vintage 1999)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Yukio Mishima - 'The Temple of Dawn'

I had trouble getting through this. Why, it's hard to say. It could be a bad book; I might just have taken too long to read it (I started it not long after finishing its predecessor 'Runaway Horses', a month ago); it might be the translation. Whatever the cause, from the moment I went back to it after the John Peel book I just wanted it to be over, to get on to the next thing.

'Runaway Horses' contained a text-within-a-text, 'The League of the Divine Wind' ('divine wind' being the translation of 'kamikaze'), which gave Isao the inspiration to form his little group of terrorists. It told of a doomed attack by a previous generation's idealists upon the Imperial forces, armed only with swords (the use of guns was something they were protesting against). The survivors all committed seppuku, a form of ritual suicide whereby the stomach is slashed open and a dagger thrust into the throat. After the first few suicides, this got pretty tedious to read about, like an 'a begat b begat c begat d' passage from the Bible. All very interesting to someone looking for a cause, doubtless, but it made for poor literature. It was over soon enough, though, and the rest of the book was bloody great (see below).

'The Temple of Dawn' spends quite a lot of its time investigating the theology / 'history' of reincarnation, or samsara. This is just as boring as the list of suicides, a good deal less comprehensible, and takes up a far larger portion of the novel. I got so fed up with this strand of the 'story' (it's really outside the story, research for a novel rather than something which should be inserted into it whole) that the rest of it lost much of its interest. From what I can remember though, it goes something like this.

It's 1940, eight years after Isao's death. Honda has become a prosperous lawyer, and on a business trip to Thailand visits Princess Chantrapa (or 'Moonlight'), the eight year old daughter of Prince Pattanadid, named after 'a fiancée who died long ago' (p. 33). This last is recounted in 'Spring Snow': Pattanadid receives the news whilst staying with Kiyoake Matsugae. He also loses an emerald ring on this trip which turns up again here. Princess Moonlight is, appropriately, a loon, who constantly babbles nonsense to her elderly carers. To Honda, she babbles:

Mr Honda! Mr Honda! How I've missed you! You were so kind, and yet I killed myself without telling you anything. I have been waiting for this meeting to apologise to you for more than seven years. (p. 40)
Honda, once the commotion has died down, puts two questions to the Princess, one relating to Isao, the other to Kiyoake: she gets both right without stopping to think. Peculiarly, for one so easily convinced that Isao was Kiyoake reborn, Honda (in the face of such incontrovertible evidence) spends most of the rest of the book trying to work out whether the Princess (later Ying Chan) is really the reincarnated Isao. The proof of this rests on the presence or otherwise of the three moles which appeared identically on the sides of Kiyoake and Isao. So he spends his time trying to see her nude, and even goes to the extent of building a swimming pool in his garden for the purpose.

This interest in Ying Chan's body is far from innocent. Meeting her again when she's nineteen, Honda becomes besotted, and rather hopes she isn't Isao so that he can... sleep with her? It's never really clear that this is what he wants. Indeed, in a reversal of the usual dictum that one most wants what one can't have, he actively wants her to be unattainable in order that he can remain besotted. This is the youthful infatuation he never had as a youth, unlike his more headstrong, more glamorous friend Kiyoake. He is remarkably self aware about this:

Falling in love was a special privilege given to someone whose external, sensuous charm and internal ignorance, disorganisation, and lack of cognizance permitted him to form a kind of fantasy about others. (p. 261)
And so Honda (though he knows he is doing it) cultivates disorganisation, forgets respectability. He becomes a peeping tom, sneaking off to a wood at night where young lovers kiss against trees and get it on amongst the pine needles. He has his villa built with single thickness walls (even though this means there can be no proper heating) in order that he can use peep holes to spy on guests at night. Unforgivably, he gets the nephew of his neighbour, the pretentious and spoiled Katsumi, to attempt to seduce (rape?) Ying Chan while he looks on from the next room, but he botches it, being not nearly so experienced as he pretends, and she sends him packing with a cut cheek from the emerald ring which Honda has tracked down and given to her.

Ying Chan herself is never a character in the way that Kiyoake and Isao were: she is the mere object of Honda's interest, and only appears infrequently and unpredictably. She has no mission, as Isao did, and as for Kiyoake's passion and contrariness... perhaps she does share these, but we see them at far more of a distance, and by the end of the book we have learned more about the shape of her body than the bent of her mind. After that outburst as an eight year old, she barely speaks (at least, her speech is barely recorded).

By the end, it is unclear what has been achieved, what the story arc has been driving at. In 'Spring Snow', Kiyoake achieves a surrender to his passion, at the cost of his life, preserving the infatuation of youth in aspic. Similarly in 'Runaway Horses' Isao demonstrates his purity and ensures that it can never be sullied by killing himself (though 'The Temple of Dawn' suggests that his penultimate act and his supposed crowning glory was, like Katsumi's cack handed conquest, botched). Shortly before the fire that ends the book, Honda sits with his wife Rié, who has caught him peeking at Ying Chan and Keiko going at it hammer and tongs in the spare room, and they both feel peace for the first time in a long time. Rié because she no longer has to worry about an affair between Honda and Ying Chan, and Honda because he has at last spotted the three moles on Ying Chan's side. This proves that she is Isao reborn, that Honda is still part of a narrative beyond his control and that he doesn't, after all, have to enter into history on his own behalf.

(Quotations from E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Segawa Seigle's 1973 translation, Vintage International 1990)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft - 'Margrave of the Marshes'

The day John Peel died, I was sitting in a small office in Duncan of Jordanstone art college, temporarily given over to the demonstration of my M.Sc. project. A slow trickle of students and lecturers came to see this and other students' work (my favourite was an exercise bike hooked up to video clips filmed in Paris, on a genuine cycling trip and in a lift, in which the playback speed altered as you pedalled faster and slower, and the scene changed if you pedalled backwards), and in the time between demos I looked hopefully at job websites, eventually ending up on The Guardian's site, to be confronted with the news. 'John Peel dies'. Oh my God. Earlier this week, discussing Grant McLennan's untimely death, a friend said he was 'not as upset as when Joey Ramone died. That's my benchmark.' I think perhaps John Peel may be mine. Not, shamefully, from a dedication to his Radio 1 show, but from a more nebulous sense that he loved music and was fighting the good fight, a national treasure, an institution as permanent as the BBC, or The Fall. (Who I've also neglected to listen to for long periods, but a recent re-awakening of interest was stirred by the 'Complete Peel Sessions' box, which is more or less the most exciting record in rock). I did listen to 'Home Truths' though (don't any more - how dare they continue it?), and he was the warmest, most down to earth of broadcasters. You felt as though you knew him, that his silliness was the wisest possible position to take. His death felt more akin to losing a family member (an uncle, obviously) than that of any other celebrity I can think of. He was loved, I suppose, is what it amounts to.

Peel's half-finished autobiography (completed by Sheila), is a rather wonderful memorial. There can't be many people reading it who aren't intimately familiar with his latter day persona, the all round good bloke who kept his finger on the pulse of pop music practically from the time it was invented. And how strange an achievement this is: to be identified with era after era (they come around quickly in pop), when most get stuck in the first which brings them recognition. Little of this is recounted by John himself: though the narrative isn't strictly linear, by and large it's true to say that he stops at some stage in his seven year American sojourn of the '60s (Shelia notes wryly that he stops just outside a brothel - a proper cliff hanger). Sheila gets to tell of the years at Radio 1, the home life, the unpromising beginnings to their relationship (he picked her up at 5 PM for their first date, swung by the doctor's on the way, got diagnosed with jaundice, and insisted she accompany him home to play nursemaid). There are great friendships with the Bolans (which T-Rex's massive success did for), the Walters and The Faces, of which the dinner parties with the Walters are particularly amusing: they'd have themed evenings on a Saturday, the theme depending upon the film shown that evening on TV. E.g. cranking up the heating and turning off the water the night 'Ice Cold in Alex' was on, to simulate a desert. 'For "The Three Musketeers", an assortment of vegetables and baked potatoes were skewered on to a fencing rapier' (p. 250), and so on. Sheila's half of the book is less event-packed than the first - understandably, as they settle down to raise a family, and John gets on with playing records, records and yet more records. It struck me how much more endearing this was than a biography I read last year, Robert McCrum's 'Wodehouse', in which the subject, similarly, is of a shy temperament and simply gets on with his job for the bulk of the time. Always another radio show, always another novel. Peel, despite the shyness, was far more about real-life contentedness than Wodehouse, and although Sheila points out how unrealistic his expectations were of what fatherhood would actually be like (he could get terribly upset if a child wasn't affectionate enough), his life in the country with her was a manifestation of strongly held beliefs in the value of family, company, home, people, being nice. Simple things.

Peel's own reminiscences cover far more ground, though fewer years. He does badly at school, sees the threat of not going to university if he doesn't raise his game as more of an opportunity than a reason to apply himself. He defines his trajectory in terms of failure: to go to university; to become an officer whilst on national service (almost unheard of for a public school boy, he maintains); to adequately deflect his father's intent to deport him to America to get ahead in the cotton trade; to disabuse 'geographically challenged' Americans of the idea that because he came from Liverpool he must therefore know The Beatles. Of course this is disingenuous, but it makes sense too. Once he'd fallen through the first three safety nets, he was free to pursue his love for records, and the radio stations were there (thanks in part to the records he had, and in part to the Beatles thing) to pick him up. If he'd been a competent scholar, soldier or cotton trader this couldn't have happened. My favourite instance of Peel being a crap soldier is when he marches a troop through a flower bed - he thought it was this which marked him out as not being officer material. Once out of the army, it's off to Dallas and cotton, and a JFK drive-by in 1960 in which the presidential candidate chats at surprising length to Peel and poses for some pictures. He discovers sex, and has lots of it with Beatlemaniacs before making a disastrous choice of wife, but now I'm skipping ahead again to Sheila's section. By the end of John's, he's ready to hit the world: young, single, sexually liberated and with a burning passion for Elvis and Gene Vincent. The rest was, it's hard not to believe, inevitable.

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