Not Bad Saturday, Jul 30 2005 

Nick Hornby’s How to be Good

Over the last three years, I’ve made an assidious attempt to avoid Nick Hornby’s novels. I’m not entirely sure why this is – after all I rather enjoyed the movie version of High Fidelity (if you’re a reader of this blog you can see why I relate to people who think in song titles and are obsessed with making top 5 / 10 lists) and for all my general snobbishness, I’ve never really been against popular fiction when it comes to books (witness my avid reading of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels). But something, some obscure instinct has always warned me to stay away from Hornby. Then a week back a friend insisted that I try him out, and because she’s someone who’s judgements on books I trust (usually), I did.

Sometimes I think I should learn to trust my instincts more.

Not that How to be Good is a bad novel, exactly – it certainly has its moments. The central conceit is intriguing – the book is the story of a woman who in unhappy with her marriage and wishes her husband could be less angry about everything; and then one day her wish is granted and her husband suddenly becomes the kind of person who’s too good to be true – caring, soft-spoken, so committed to social causes that he won’t just talk about them, he’ll actually act – and she discovers that she hates that almost as much. This notion lends itself to some hilariously funny scenes, and some of the writing is truly brilliant – the observations acute, the pop culture references exactly right (there’s this amazing section where Hornby lists all the people the husband and his friend think are losers / wankers – it’s a stunning, laugh-out loud list).

Unfortunately, all these scattered nuggets of brilliance completely fail to come together into anything approximating an interesting novel. One reason for this is that Hornby is, quite simply, not funny enough. His idea of writing funny dialogue seems to be to take an inherently funny situation and to then keep prolonging it with meaningless banter until the audience finally gets tired of the joke. The result is that episodes that could leave you gasping for breath if they’d been condensed into a few lines or a single paragraph, now go on for pages and pages, leaving you feeling faintly annoyed. There are few surprises here – oh, there may be a few plot twists you didn’t expect, but most of the jokes can be seen coming a mile off and the tone of the book changes so little that you could easily read, say page 85 to 150 of the book and get the general feel of all 300 pages. Worse, Hornby seems to feel the compulsion to be ‘serious’ and ‘deep’ every now and then, with the result that just when you feel he’s starting to find his comic rhythm, he goes off into some vapid meditation on the nature of life.

And that’s the second reason the book doesn’t work – because as anything remotely approaching a serious meditation on the nature of goodness the book is a total failure. One gets the feeling, reading the book, that Hornby has some visionary idea of making this an insightful exploration of the perils of morality in the modern world. While the basic storyline certainly affords the opportunity for such an exploration, however, Hornby completely fails to take it. Instead of showing the reborn husband as a practical, serious minded individual looking for intelligent ways to make a difference to the world (and therefore exploring the wife’s reaction when threatened by someone who is genuinely more ‘good’ than her) Hornby chooses to turn the husband into a clueless do-gooder, with the result that the whole book seems less like an honest exploration of the issues of right and wrong, and more like the diatribe of someone trying to push his own personal point of view on you. It seems to me that Hornby lacks the distance from his main character (the wife) to make this a truly compelling book. So anxious is he to protect her from being shown up, that he either turns everyone she meets into a caricature, or simply refuses to explore the identities of the more peripheral characters in the story (who are, quite frankly, the most interesting).

Bottomline: How to be Good is an amusing enough way to kill the time if there are no decent movies playing in your neighbourhood theatre and you’re feeling too lazy to walk to the library. If it’s the only book you’re likely to read this month, though, you probably want to pick something, well, better.

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More things in Heaven and Earth Friday, Jul 29 2005 

Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice

Kaleidoscope, n. An optical instrument, consisting of from two to four reflecting surfaces placed in a tube, at one end of which is a small compartment containing pieces of coloured glass: on looking through the tube, numerous reflections of these are seen, producing brightly-coloured symmetrical figures, which may be constantly altered by rotation of the instrument.

Got that? Now imagine that the instead of coloured glass you have pieces of Hamlet, and the tube is not a tube but a 500 page novel. That’s what Murdoch’s Good Apprentice is like.

The Good Apprentice is a breathtakingly ambitious novel, a wonderful example of Murdoch’s gift for deconstruction, for multiple perspectives, for a sort of literary cubism (for an earlier review of Murdoch’s work in general see here). The story of two young men, two brothers – one of whom is an agony of guilt after accidentally causing the death of his closest friend and the other who has decided to give up his profession, sex and material concerns in order simply to be good (without any clear idea of how this is to be achieved), The Good Apprentice is a book of almost infinite variation, a series of fugal patterns based on familiar themes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The plot seems almost irrelevant here – the real point of the story is simply to give Murdoch the space to play around with all the myriad different perspectives that Hamlet has to offer, serving up scene after scene with a baroque inventiveness that is both informed by Shakespeare’s great tragedy and deepens our appreciation of it. Which is not to say that the plot is not imaginative itself – as always, Murdoch combines psychological acuity with outrageous invention, building a tightly controlled structure of intertwined lives. But it’s the ghost of Hamlet that really lifts this book out of the ordinary.

The initial conceit is simple enough. In defining the two brothers, Murdoch has split the two halves of Hamlet’s personality – his deeply personal grief and his more general philosophical angst – into two, allowing them to play off against each other in a way that they never do in the play. But if this seems simple, it is also deceptive. It is a central quality of Murdoch’s writing that just when you think you’ve finally figured out what she’s trying to say she goes and says something else. So just about the point when you’ve started putting the characters right in your head – classifying X as Polonious, Y as Ophelia – they will suddenly change on you, so that, for instance, the character you had pinned as Hamlet’s father will die Ophelia’s death, or the boy you thought was Horatio will turn out to be Hamlet. This sense of flux also allows Murdoch to explore some truly exciting variations on the play itself – what if it was Hamlet’s father who was sleeping with his brother’s wife? What if it were Hamlet who were to kill himself because Ophelia went away?

The end result is a book that reads like a hall full of mirrors, with endlessly repeated images of faithless wives, betrayed fathers, forbidden loves, false advisors and returning ghosts. This level of inventiveness can be dizzying, but it can also be laugh-out-loud intelligent. This is probably Murdoch’s most explicit engagement of Shakespeare (or maybe it’s just that I’ve started to pay more attention) – the book is filled with quotes from Hamlet (and from the sonnets) and scenes constructed to mirror images from the play (early on, there’s a seance where “the man with two fathers” is told that his real father is calling him!).

There is of course, a more subtantive element to the book – an exploration of the nature of ‘goodness’ – of what it means to be good, to help others, and how this can be achieved. But as with many of her other books, Murdoch doesn’t seem to have a clear overall message here (at least none that I can discover) and The Good Apprentice seems more like a series of restless meditations (though erudite and well-expressed meditations at that) that constantly skirt the truth but never really arrive at it.

It’s this lack of forceful direction, this sense of the characters, for all their brilliant ideas and ephiphanies, ultimately muddling through somehow, that is also, IMHO, one of the biggest failings of the book. In the final analysis, the novel seems more concerned with playing around with the images from the play, without adopting its melancholic, tragic spirit. Part of what makes Hamlet a work of such astonishing power, is the way it descends inevitably into tragedy, the ruthlessness with which Shakespeare sacrifices the genius of his characters to the force of dramatic necessity. Murdoch chooses not to do that here – her characters are survivors, and for all the sound and fury that accompanies their passage through the book, they emerge from it relatively safe and unchanged, returned to the familiar round of their lives. This is a disappointment (at least to me), and I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been a much finer book if Murdoch had chosen to bring it to a more tragic conclusion.

Bottomline: The Good Apprentice is a an incredibly clever and innovative book, that will make you want to re-read Hamlet and will change your way of reading that play (and imagining / remembering it later) forever. If it has less to say for itself, if the power and poetry you sense in the book is little more than an intense reflection of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, do you really have any cause to complain?

Crying Uncle Tuesday, Jul 26 2005 

Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street

What does it take to make a good movie? Big stars, the studio-execs over at Miramax would say. Big budget sets. Lots of computer generated special effects. Preferably a mention of Spielberg somewhere in the credits so you can put it on the poster. Maybe a couple of hot nude scenes. Maybe a rocking soundtrack.

Louis Malle’s answer is much simpler. All it takes to make a hypnotic and moving film in Malle’s world is a camera, a good script and a bunch of intelligent and talented actors (not stars, mind you, actors). Nowhere is this more evident than in his brilliant, evocative rendition of Andre Gregory’s stage adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Vanya on 42nd Street opens simply enough. It’s a typical day in New York. A group of actors slowly assembles in a broken down off-broadway theatre to take part in a full rehearsal of Andre Gregory’s new play – an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The actors mill about, chatting and gossiping, the camera closes in on one pair having a conversation by themselves at a table and suddenly, halfway through their talk, you realise that the play has begun and this quiet easy conversation is two actors playing out their parts.

What follows is two hours of pure Chekhov – except that Malle’s deft, unobtrusive camera work considerably enhances the power of the performance, as he subtly alters perspectives or swoops in for close-ups that show you the characters in all their naked intensity. The film thus combines the unadorned rawness of a theatre performance, with the intimate, focussed feel of good cinema. As Malle moves back and forth between the characters and the overall setting you are constantly thrust in and out of the play – so that sometimes you’re in 19th century Russia, watching the events of the play actually unfold before you and sometimes you’re in a crumbling little theatre on 42nd street, watching a rehearsal of the play. There are no frills here – the actors wear everyday work clothes, the props consist of paper cups and some scattered broken down chairs – there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that comes between you and the actors.

And what actors they are. Wallace Shawn plays the disappointed, half-tragic, half-comic Vanya to perfection, and Larry Pine makes both the intensity and the humour of Dr. Astrov come alive for me as it never did in the play. George Gaynes puts on a good comic turn as the Professor, brilliantly highlighting the bitter irony of that character’s presence with a style all his own, but one never quite feels the empathy with the good scholar that one did in the play. Gayne’s professor is an entirely unsympathetic character – a bumbling self-centred demagogue – not the failed intellectual clinging desperately to life that I always saw in my reading of the play.

Julianne Moore (on the verge of breaking into the major league when this movie was made) plays Yelena and is almost shockingly good. I’ve never cared for Moore much – I think she has an intense and fragile beauty (that works much better in period settings than in modern ones; just compare her in An Ideal Husband to her in, say, The Lost World ) – but with the possible exception of The Hours (where she does a fairly competent job) I’ve never thought much of her acting. So it was a pleasant surprise to see how good she was as Yelena – the combination of that dazzling classical beauty and some superb if slightly overstated acting brilliantly bringing out Yelena’s fragile, temperamental nature, her instability, her half unconscious charm. Watching Moore in the movie, you experience first hand the sense of ambiguity that the characters in the play feel towards her – a gnawing fascination that contrasts with a sense of outrage at her uselessness, at the priviliges she seems to enjoy.

Finally, there’s Brooke Smith who plays Sonja. Smith’s performance starts disappointingly – her distinctly american accent jars a bit (especially when she says ‘Poppa’) and she seems too diffident, too awkward an actress. It’s only as the play progresses that you begin to suspect that this awkwardness, this sense of discomfort, is really just a disguise, and waiting behind it is an actress just waiting to burst out into a performance unmatched, even among so stellar a cast, for its quiet vulnerability.

The real star of Vanya on 42nd Street, though, is undoubtedly Chekhov. In the final analysis, what both the cast and Malle bring to the performance is precisely their ability to let this man shine through in all his bitter-sweet brilliance. Chekhov’s great gift is for unflinching gentleness, a sense of almost tragic compassion, the ability to raise all the glory and pettiness of human existence to a higher, more luminous level, without blurring the slightest detail of its sad reality. There are no happy endings in Chekhov, there is often not even the hope of one, and yet his writing leaves you with a sense of calm understanding that you cannot find anywhere else.

The greatest tribute I can pay Vanya on 42nd Street is that it does justice to Chekhov’s dramatic vision, both in letter* and in spirit. And you can’t do any better than that.

* The changes to the script are minimal – I think a few lines may have been edited out, but overall (based on what I remember of the play at least) the performance itself is entirely loyal to the play; with only the dialogue of the actors outside the performance being added.

Kiss and Tell Sunday, Jul 24 2005 

A brilliant review of Chekhov's short story, The Kiss. Highly recommended (the story, not the review; though that too!)

Another interesting parallel (though a somewhat darker one) could be with Part II of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground where the narrator becomes totally obsessed with some small slight that an officer has done him (he brushed him aside without seeming to notice him), and spends years moping about it, planning his revenge – which consists finally of nothing more drastic than bumping into the officer on the street one day! There is the same sense of a trivial incident that no one else cares about or has even noticed, becoming inflated in the narrator's mind to become almost the purpose of his life.

Hard Boiled Wunderkind Saturday, Jul 23 2005 

The Novels of Haruki Murakami

In response to the post about Mishima’s After the Banquet a reader wrote in to ask who or what Murakami was. This was two days ago. Now that I’ve finally got over the shock of realising that there are actually people out there who’ve never read Murakami (the poor souls!) I figured I would blog about his novels, just in case there were other such unfortunates out there.

What can I say about Murakami? That he’s only the most exciting and inventive contemporary writer I’ve read (no, seriously, he makes Rushdie look tame)? That he combines an almost Kafka-esque vision of the world with the imagination of a Marquez, characters that could come straight out of Salinger, a fascination with pop-culture equalled only by Pynchon and writing that Bellow would have been proud of? That he manages, at once, to be both an incredibly intelligent and moving writer and the very essence of cool?

Murakami’s novels are about the search for meaning in the modern world. His typical novel (or short story) takes slightly extra-ordinary young people (partly because of the way he writes and partly because they are always a little off-centre, his characters have a sort of anti-establishment coolness; they’re either incredibly mature or just plain wierd and you can never figure out which; they’re like the guy in school who you never talked to because he was always off in a corner listening to Dylan and smoking cigarettes on the sly who you thought was wierd then but are beginning to think it might have been interesting to get to know; think Holden Caulfield and you get the picture), puts them in the most madly fantastical situations (in one short story a woman finds that she is no longer able to sleep – she’s not insomniac, she just doesn’t need it any more; she spends her time catching up on her reading) and lets them react in their confused, deeply human ways. Murakami’s great gift here is that he’s too smart to believe in revelation – his novels don’t conclude, they simply end, without anything really being resolved. You’re left with a glimpse of an episode that may or may not mean anything (though you suspect it has some deep implication that you’re probably missing).

What makes Murakami truly special, though, is that he is, quite simply, the most ambitious writer writing today. He is a virtuoso, who insists on pushing himself to greater, more complicated heights with every novel he writes – his appetite seems insatiable, his ability to imagine, innovate and just plain dazzle endless. Nowhere (except perhaps in Pynchon) does a storline have so much raw energy, so much free-wheeling improvisation. With almost infinite agility Murakami will pile twist upon twist on to his plot, constantly upping the stakes for the reader. Just when you think he can’t go any further without having the whole thing come down around his head, he will add something new to the mix, leaving you breathless.

For all that, Murakami is not a flamboyant writer. His writing style is quiet and introspective, filled with loving detail. His prose tends to be understated and beautiful, rich with nuggets of descriptions and glimmers of polished phrases – the writing of someone who loves the language for itself*. At his best, Murakami is a deeply moving writer – his books can leave you with a deep, restless sadness; a sense of loss too undefined to cry about. It’s this ability to appeal to both the heart and the head that makes him a great writer.

Books to read (well, pretty much everything I’ve ever read**, but figured I’d prioritise):

1. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Probably the best example of Murakami’s unique and magical gift. A fundamentally schizophrenic novel, set partly in an allegorical country of the mind and partly in modern day Japan, Hard Boiled Wonderland is part Raymond Chandler and part Kafka. A unforgettable read.

2. Norwegian Wood

One of Murakami’s early novels, this is not a particularly ambitious book – but it’s an achingly beautiful love story, that showcases Murakami at his quietest, most moving best.

3. Dance Dance Dance

A restless roller-coaster ride of a novel, flat-out energy combined with some singing, poetic images.

4. Sputnik Sweetheart

This one could have been written by Winterson. Or Kundera. Again, an early (and therefore quieter) novel, which combines Murakami’s first steps towards fantasy with an incredible sweetness of writing. A young at heart novel.

5. The Elephant Vanishes

A superb collection of short stories – The Elephant Vanishes is sheer class. The stories here have a dream-like quality to them – but they are crafted with precise, intelligent care.

6. Wind-up bird chronicles

An incredibly sweeping, ambitious novel. The first half of this book includes some of Murakami’s most brilliant writing. I feel he meandered a little towards the end, and that the book overall could have used some editing, but still well worth a read.

7. After the Quake

Short stories again – some beautiful tales here, though overall a quieter book than The Elephant Vanishes. This is pure Murakami, but for that reason probably not the first Murakami book you should read – like fine white wine, he takes a little getting used to.

Notes:
* At least that’s the way it seems in the English translations. I obviously haven’t read him in the original Japanese, so I wouldn’t know.

** His new novel – Kafka on the Shore – is sitting in my bookshelf, waiting to be read. I read the first chapter, though, and that in itself is reason to buy the book.

Lighthousekeeping Friday, Jul 22 2005 

Jeanette Winterson’s Poetic New Novel

There was a time in my life when all writing fell into two neat categories – there was poetry, and then there was prose. Then one day I stumbled across a copy of Art and Lies and all of that changed forever. Jeanette Winterson is, quite simply, the most ravishing phrase maker in English letters today. Her novels explore the richness of the English language like no others, polishing it to the most shimmering it can be, overpowering you with the fine excess of the writing. You cannot read Winterson – you have to immerse yourself in her exquisite prose and keep reminding yourself to breathe.

Lighthousekeeping, her new novel is the logical next step in a growing trend in Winterson’s writing. Over the years, as Winterson has come to trust the power of her words more (or, as her critics, would have it, she has slipped into the trap of relying on it too much), she has tended to leave the superfluities of plot and story behind, striving instead for an almost Proust like purity of writing for its own sake*. Her plots were never much to start with, but at least in her early novels (Written on the Body, Gut Symmetries, The Passion) there was the sense of someone trying to assemble a coherent storyline – the characters were imaginative, the plot had a consistent if somewhat magic realist feel to it. Lighthousekeeping has no such treasures to offer – the novel is ostensibly about the (vaguely) parallel stories of a mid-19th century small town preacher and a young orphan girl called Silver who has been taken on as an apprentice in a lighthouse by a blind man named Pew**. But there’s no real life in these plots themselves – the reverend’s story seems incredibly hackneyed and tame by Winterson’s standards, and the story of Silver, while entertaining in episodes (there’s a wonderful chapter about her frenzy to complete Death of Venice that ends in her stealing a copy of the book from the librarian) completely fails to come together into anything approaching a coherent whole. There are some attempts to tie the story together (references to lighthouses and storytelling abound and there is some interesting structural repetition) but these seem as if they haven’t been clearly thought through (or even less thought through than Winterson’s work usually is). The overall impression is of a novel that is more a collection of brilliant jazz improvisations than one solid, thought-out symphony. It’s almost as if Winterson just wrote what she wanted, each chapter almost by itself, and then just randomly put it together.

(The novel, to be fair, does try to justify this by arguing that all stories exist continously at all times – that there is no such thing as an end or a beginning to a story and that what happens in the story depends on how you tell it and who you tell it to. This is an interesting – and possibly valid – point, but if you’re looking for coherent plot development, this is DEFINITELY not the book for you)

Fortunately, Winterson more than compensates for this lack of coherence with some of the most exquisite writing she has ever done. Winterson’s great gift is to write sentence after sentence, phrase after phrase of such burning clarity that you don’t even notice that in the end she hasn’t really said anything – and that gift is on full display here. Who but Winterson could describe the moon as “that pale tenant of the sun” or start a chapter with the line “This is not a love story, but love is in it. That is, love is just outside it, looking for a way to break in”. Who but Winterson could write this:

“1859.
Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and Richard Wagner completed his opera Tristan and Isolde. Both are about the beginnings of the world.
Darwin – objective, scientific, empirical, quantifiable.
Wagner – subjective, poetic, intuitive, mysterious.

In Tristan the world shrinks to a boat, a bed, a lantern, a love-potion, a wound. The world is contained within a word – Isolde.
The Romantic solipsism that nothing exists but the two of us, could not be farther from the multiplicity and variety of Darwin’s theory of the natural world. Here, the world and everything in it forms and is reformed, tirelessly and unceasingly. Nature’s vitality is amoral and unsentimental; the weak die, the strong survive.
Tristan, weak and wounded, should have died. Love healed him. Love is not part of natural selection.
Where did Love begin? What human being looked at another and saw in their face the forests and the sea? Was there a day, exhausted and weary, dragging home food, arms cut and scarred, that you saw yellow flowers and, not knowing what you did, picked them because I love you?

In the fossil record of our existence, there is no trace of love. You cannot find it held in the earth’s crust, waiting to be discovered. The long bones of our ancestors show nothing of their hearts. Their last meal is sometimes preserved in peat or in ice, but their thoughts and feelings are gone.”

(this chapter is followed immediately by a re-telling of the Tristan and Isolde myth in first person, which is one of the most exquisite renditions of the story that I have ever read)

Bottomline: Lighthousekeeping is not so much a novel as a collection of breathtaking writing, of visionary descriptions and superb sentences. Read it as you would some other novel and you’ll probably be disappointed; read it as a collection of prose-poems and it could prove one of the richest, most sensual experiences of your life.

* Not, of course, that I would compare Winterson to Proust – I really love her writing, but that would definitely be an over-statement

** The plot of the book reminded me strongly of a superb Graham Swift novel called Ever After – although in Swift’s novel the plot really comes alive in a vivid, involving way that it certainly doesn’t here.

Off with his head Wednesday, Jul 20 2005 

Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading

Imagine a novel that combines the intelligence of Kafka with the imagination of Marquez. Imagine a novel that blends a vision of helpless despair with some laugh-out-loud writing. Imagine a novel that is at once brilliantly intellectual and intensely human. Imagine a novel that manages to be both a savage satire of social mores and a meditation on the meaning of human existence.

Or, if your imagination won’t take you that far, just read Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. A mindbending marvel of a book, Invitation to a Beheading is the story of one Cincinattus C., who has been condemned to be executed on the inexplicable charge of ‘gnostic turpitude’ but whose real crime is that he is an opaque person in a transparent world, a thinker in world where everything is appearances. The novel tracks C’s last days in prison, from the time of his sentencing to the day of his execution. We share in the despair of these days, the many false hopes that rise in C’s heart, the petty indignities, C’s bewildered refusal to participate in the rituals of his own death (at one point, for instance, he is expected to join in a merry toast to his forthcoming death with his laughing executioner) and the disappointment of those around him with his ‘uncooperative’ attitude. It’s almost as though someone had taken those last few pages of Camus’ L’Etranger and made a novel out of them.

If all this sounds rather dark and gloomy, it’s only because I’m not describing it well. Nabokov’s great gift (as always) is to make this desolate scenario seem entertaining, even funny. The characters of the executioner and the prison director, for instance, are sketched with a sense of humour worthy of Gogol. There is a sense, throughout the novel, of living in a dream world (a sense one shares in fact, with C himself) – as though all these solid, unspeakable things were actually phantoms of one’s own imagination. Whatever terror there is in C.’s situation comes entirely from within our own heads (in one brilliant paragraph that almost seems like a premonition of the Matrix, C. realises that the things around him are real only because his fear makes them so; if he cannot stop himself from believing in his executioners, they will destroy him). This dream like state is enhanced by the wealth of poetic detail that Nabokov heaps on the story. There are mirrors that hold on to their reflections no matter where they are taken, there is a night when the password is silence, so the guards let everyone pass without saying a word, C’s cell comes equipped with an official pet spider. Nabokov is writing magic realism before magic realism really exists – every interaction that C has is at once deeply metaphorical, hilariously funny and vividly imagined (when his in-laws come to meet him in prison they bring all their furniture and luggage with them).

Invitation to a Beheading is also a stunning demonstration of just why Nabokov is one of the richest, most immaculate prose stylists of the last century. As a textbook example of good writing, this (like most of Nabokov’s other novels – see the incredible Pale Fire) is hard to match. It combines some of the most brilliant use of dialogue with long soliloquies, breathtaking descriptions of people and situations, some wonderful imagery and a true poet’s gift for conveying emotion. Nabokov literally takes your breath away and then gives it back to you to laugh with.

But there is also substance to this book – it’s not all style. In fact, Invitation to a Beheading is a wonderful meditation on the nature of existence, with C.’s prison cell as a microcosm of human life. There is the same certainty of an end coupled with the uncertainty of its exact timing, the same cycle of hope and despair. Death looms over this cell, but in its shadow life goes on in all its petty silliness, its inadvertant comedy – social norms are foolish, and emotions are not really any better, yet logic alone can show us no hope of escape. The contrast between C.’s sensation of being the only substantial person in a world of surfaces and the vagueness and transparency of his dreams of escape is one that we can all relate to.

Bottomline: If you are (like me) a die-hard worshipper of Nabokov, then this is a book you cannot afford to miss. If, on the other hand, you’ve never got around to reading the great man, this might be a good reason to start.

A Literary Feast Sunday, Jul 17 2005 

Yukio Mishima’s After the Banquet

Mishima is one of those authors I’ve always intended to read but never quite got around to – all the time I was reading Kawabate and Oe and Murakami he was always there, a figure watching me rather dolefully from the fringes of the spotlight. But somehow I just never managed to make the effort to go buy one of his books / issue one out of the library.

Until now. After the Banquet is a sumptuous feast of a book, rich in subtle flavours and clever, tangy insights. The story revolves around a middle-aged restaurant owner called Kazu who gives up her thriving business to marry an old-fashioned aristocrat in the hope of ensuring for herself an honourable grave in his family plot. A passionate, emotional woman with an unstoppable drive for life, Kazu finds the role of quiet, subservient wife impossible, and throws herself with all the passion and energy at her command into a quixotic attempt to resurrect her husband’s political career. The novel that emerges is a classic conflict between romanticism and classicism, between Kazu’s restless, emotional energy and her husband’s old-world, intellectual calm. Mishima pulls no punches here, and takes no sides – we see both sides of this fundamentally mismatched pair in both their finest glory and their most amusing haplessness. As the novel progresses, the conflict between the husband and wife (which evolves with all the quietness of a chess game – there are few outbursts here – this is not Albee) becomes a metaphor for the changing face of Japanese society, where the old stiff-upper-lip world of values and ideals is rapidly giving way to the more practical, sensuous reign of rich power-brokers.

Two things make this book special. The first is the incredible psychological acuity that Mishima brings to the novel – right through the book he barely takes a single mis-step. The characters he describes are hardly common people – rather they are archetypes – symbols of opposite paradigms, and yet they come across with such an easy naturalness, that you have the constant feeling that you know someone just like them, and will find yourself nodding your head as the book progresses, thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly what she would do.”

The other achievement of the book is the character of Kazu. Mishima creates, in Kazu, one of the most incredible female characters I have ever read – a woman part Emma, part (Ibsen’s) Nora, part Molly Bloom and part Roz from Atwood’s Robber Bride. Sensual, driven, passionate, practical, emotional, poetic, uncomplicated, delusional – Kazu is like no one else. Just reading the way her character unfolds and grows in the course of the novel made me want to kick myself for not getting to Mishima sooner.

Ten Great Comics on the Web Saturday, Jul 16 2005 

Given how much time I spend at Comics.com and on other web-sites checking out random web comics, I figured I might as well put a post with the ten top comics that brighten up my mornings every day.

1. Pearls before Swine*

Hands down my favourite comic strip – Stephan Pastis’s quirky, irreverent cast of animal characters make for incredible humour, combining attitude with simplicity, far-fetched conceits with dead-pan matter of factness, inimitable silliness with stop-you-in-your-tracks insights into the world we live in. A winner.

2. Toothpaste for Dinner

One of my biggest discoveries on the Web – Toothpaste for Dinner combines really, really bad drawing with a mean, scathing, arbitrary and profoundly brilliant view of the world. Drew’s cartoons have this raw, unpolished feel to them, they are rants against a world that Drew sees as fundamentally stupid and unworthy of any respect whatsoever (political correctness? What’s that?). Toothpaste for Dinner is extremely inconsistent – it can go on for days without the slightest spark – but then suddenly out of nowhere there’ll be this line that you’ll never ever be able to get out of your head again – a line so mindblowingly brilliant, it’ll make it worth checking out the site every single day. (E.g. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate” and “Fun Fact: Did you know that the sound that most people call ‘silence’ is actually the sound that mountain lions make when they walk around outside your house?”)

Available at www.toothpastefordinner.com

3. Ballard Street*

One of the subtlest, most stylish comic strips I’ve ever read – Ballard Street is practically a work of art all by itself. Jerry Van Amerongen is the Chekhov of comic artists – his unique talent is for imagining the most outlandish, quirky and plain wierd characters and then introducing them in the most mundane of settings, with an understated, matter of the fact punch-line added to the single frame comic. This means that every new comic is a character sketch all by itself, so that it feels almost like you read through a whole novel (or at least a short story) just to get to this one hilarious scene. Ballard Street may not be to everyone’s taste (some people may find it too dull) but IMHO it’s one of the funniest comics ever.

4. Dilbert*

Need I say more? If you’re not already into Dilbert then you’re either still recovering from your lobotomy or have pointy hair. The really amazing thing is that all these years and all the hype later, Scott Adams can still find things to say that stun you with their simple brilliance and leave you rolling about on the floor of your cubicle.

5. Reality Check / Rubes / Speed Bump*

Frankly, I’ve never been able to keep these three apart in my head. There’s nothing really distinctive about them except that all three are among the finest of the many, many derivative efforts to continue the legacy of that greatest of all comics, ever [voice hushed in awe] The Far Side**. The humour here is trademark Gary Larson – alternate riffs on history, stock phrases, scenes from popular culture; everyday situations extrapolated to animals / objects. Again, the quality is fairly inconsistent here, but if you read all three every day, you’re sure to find at least one that is really, really funny.

6. Doonesbury

Okay, so I’m a confirmed blue-stater. Doonesbury is a true classic – not really laugh out funny (or very rarely so) but just read it for a while and Trudeau’s thoughtful, deeply human humour will ultimately get to you. Probably the most important reason to read the New York Times every single day (available at www.nytimes.com)

7. Herman*

I can’t complete a list of my top comics without including Jim Unger’s trademark long-nosed, chinless men and women. Herman is a glorious read precisely because of this sort of comic baldness – reading it, you never get the sense that Unger is trying to impress / be clever – rather the comics have a flat, almost irritated feel to them, so that you’re almost not sure whether he’s trying to be funny and whether you should be laughing. But laugh you will, because behind his dour tone, Unger is sparkling wit – a genius at seeing the everyday through his own special lens. For sheer ingenuity, Herman doesn’t really compare to the earlier three comics (see number 5 above), but it has a style like no other, and that’s what makes it special.

8. Committed*

It’s a major tribute to Michael Fry’s talent that one of my favourite comics on the web is primarily an exploration of parenting and being married – two activities that I have nothing but disdain for. Part of the reason is that Fry often seems to share my disdain, staying away from any tendency to get sentimental about family life. The home is a battlefield here, a setting in which Fry can explore the arbitrariness of both parents and young children, showing them in all their weary misery (who else could come up with the suggestion that mothers should come with a warning label that says it is not safe to approach them until they have had their first cup of coffee). Any joy that the characters get in these comics comes from the small victories they achieve over each other, and yet the overall effect is strangely funny-sweet. The other thing I love about it is the double whammy of the comic itself and the little extra punch-line on top. Talk about fine excess.

9. Tom Toles

I’m not in general a big fan of political cartoons (it’s probably because I’m not that interested in politics anyway) but I can’t put up 10 comics without mentioning Tom Toles – who is the other major reason for checking out the New York Times every morning. Toles’ take on current events is always bitterly scathing (he is NOT a Bush supporter) but also incredibly creative and effortlessly unique. Whatever the issue, Toles will always find the perfect way to express his point of view – he is easily my favourite political cartoonist. Oh, and as in Committed, don’t miss the little mini-comic at the bottom, that smart-alec-y comment that’s just sitting there waiting for you to finish laughing over the main page.

10. PhD comics

This one is strictly for PhD students only – though the flow of ideas seems to have dried up a little of late, PhD is at once the funniest and most scarily true depiction of PhD life ever. PhD is the Dilbert of academia – it would be funny if your life wasn’t exactly like that!

* All available at www.comics.com
**Other wanna-bes on Comics.com include Strange Brew, Off the Mark and Flight Deck – these are good, but they don’t quite match the three above

Dealing with the Barbarians Friday, Jul 15 2005 

Les Invasions Barbares

Okay, okay, I promise this is the last French film I’m reviewing on this blog. This week. Anyway, Les Invasions Barbares isn’t really a French film – it’s a Canadian film – it’s just that the dialogue is in French.

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2003, Les Invasions Barbares is a stunning, bitter-sweet exploration of the nature of life, death, identity, culture and relationships (did I leave anything out?). Written and directed by Denys Arcand, the movie potrays the last days of a retired Political Science professor, creating an intimate portrait of the way he comes to term with his death, helped by an estranged but caring son, a motley collection of friends and ex-mistresses, a friend’s drug-addict daughter and some caring hospital staff. This is an intensely dramatic and ultimately moving film, but it is also an incredibly funny one as it exposes the little idiosyncrasies of its characters, the things that make them touchingly, endearingly human.

In some sense, the movie is about two clashes. The first is the clash between life and death – sequences of despair and loss and pain alternate with jokes and sexual innuendos; concern for opportunities missed and a life left unfulfilled is off-set by laughing reminiscences about the good old days. In one brilliant scene, the young woman who comes every night to smoke heroin with him (he needs it for the pain) asks the professor what it is he loved most in life (his reply: Everything! Wine, books, food, women) and then points out that it’s not really the present that he’s clinging on to, it’s the past he’s already lost. It’s precisely this combination of almost poetic nostalgia and clear-sighted insight that makes the movie so special.

The other clash in the movie is between the world of ‘culture’ as represented by the Professor and his arty, intellectual friends (at one point in the movie, the friends think back on all the -isms they’ve been; the list includes existentialism, socialism, marxism, leninism, collectivism, feminism, structuralism, deconstructionism and consumerism) and the modern, ‘let’s get things done’ attitude exemplified by his I-Banker son (who, in the Professor’s own words, has never read a single book, but manages, using money and sheer directness, to arrange every comfort for his father in his last days). This conflict between the modern and the classical, so reminscent of the movies of Godard (listen, they actually talk about him in the movie – it’s not just that I’m obsessed with the man!), is what, IMHO, gives the movie its intellectual weight, grounding it in a deeper reflection on life and society and making it more than just another story of a man on his deathbed.

Overall, what makes the movie an amazing watch is the sheer quality of the script – the plot is simple enough, but the ideas implicit in it, the details of the specific scenes, the individual characters, are all imaged with a combination of intelligence and sensitivity, that make this an incredibly engaging and real film.

Which is not to say that the performances aren’t superb in themselves – because they are. Remy Girard is wonderful as the old professor, and Stephane Rousseau (playing, incredibly, his first major dramatic part) is even better as the loving but inhibited son, who can find a way to make everything in the world work, except his relationship with his father. The real gem here, though, is the exquisite Marie-Josee Croze (who won the best actress honours at Cannes for her performance here) who, aside from being drop-dead beautiful, brings to her performance a sort of melancholic, dissonant intensity that makes her, effortlessly, the emotional centre of the film. Croze makes of her character a breathless vision, a young woman of such haunting and electric clarity that poems deserve to be written about her. That one character alone is worth watching the movie for.

P.S. The other interesting thing here is the pathetic state of healthcare in Canada that the film portrays – the over-crowding, the bureacracy. It’s good to know that it’s not just a third-world problem!

P.P.S The thing the movie reminded me of most was this Raymond Carver poem called My Death. You can read that on Minstrels – it’s poem # 1633

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