Where the rainbow shone Friday, Sep 30 2005 

Kusangala in concert

"Where the years have gone where the years have flown
Where the rainbow shone
We vanish, and we make no moan."

– Allen Ginsberg

Attended a concert by this local jazz ensemble called Kusangala (which means 'rejoice' I'm told) – which turned out to be way more brilliant than I'd expected.

The great thing about the ensemble is that it brings together a range of very disparate talents. For starters there's Tyrone Brown – a hypnotic bass player and the composer of much of the group's music. His bass solo was easily the highlight of the concert for me – a dark, driven piece, magically overlaying the most delicate of melodies on a full-throated and proud rhythm beat, the sheer throb of the music in the small auditorium making the cymbals rattle as if the ghosts of the ancients were keeping time on the drums.

The other highlight for me was Gloria Galante who plays (hold your breath) the harp. I must confess I've never thought of the harp as a jazz instrument (though apparently it's not that uncommon), even though it's an instrument I really love (remember Mozart's incredible flute and harp concerto). Now that I come to think of it though, it's a really good sound for jazz – part piano, part guitar – a marvellously clean, glistening sound, and a beautiful instrument to meditate and improvise on. The combination of Brown's bass rhythm and Galante's crystal clear melodies was perfection itself. Galante also played a couple of pieces with tenor saxophonist Odean Pope and again the combination was impressive, if only for being such an unusual sound – elegaic, almost classical (one of the pieces they were doing was originally scored for piano and cello). Pope (who I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard before – I really must get more into the Philly jazz scene) has a nice throaty sound and his slow movements have that dreamy midnight quality that one (or at least I) associates with classic jazz.

The rest of the ensemble brought their own talents to bear on the music as well. Duke Wilson's percussion had this earthy, almost tribal feel, and some of the effects he pulled off were truly mind-blowing. You could just shut your eyes and swing along to the music. And Rosella Washington sang very movingly. Overall, I thought the combination worked very nicely, producing a sound that was refreshing and authentic, if not excessively brilliant. One of my favourite pieces – this thing called the Somewhere over the Rainbow Samba – exemplifies this perfectly. It's a rendition of Somewhere over the rainbow played with superb delicacy on the harp, accompanied by a rich bass line and a catchy samba beat.

Not all was sweetness and light at the concert. There was also this annoying woman (I didn't get her name) who was brought onto stage to read her 'poetry' along with the music. This would have been an interesting improvisation if the woman could write, but as it was her clunky uninspired verses left me cringing in my chair and wishing she would shut up so I could listen to the music (she was the sort of poet who believes the fact that 'soaring' rhymes with 'roaring' is so important a discovery that she simply must include it in her poem at least four times. Aarrghh!).

Trashy doggerel aside, this was a really beautiful concert.

P.S. Plus, with my usual look, I ended up sitting next to this really dumb woman whose idea of enjoying the music was to take photographs of it. So every time one of the artists would branch off into an intense solo or improvisation, she would eagerly pull out her camera, spend two minutes squirming about in her chair trying to find the perfect angle and then take a picture (which meant that there would be a bright flash exploding in your face and blinding you). Someone should have explained to her that you can't actually hear the music in the photographs. And this was inspite of clear announcements at the start of the program informing us that photography was not permitted. How annoying can people be? Sometimes you wonder whether it wouldn't be a better world if you could go around slapping people.

Difficult Love Thursday, Sep 29 2005 

E M Forster’s Maurice

“IN paths untrodden,
In the growth by margins of pond-waters,
Escaped from the life that exhibits itself,
From all the standards hitherto publish’d—from the pleasures, profits, eruditions, conformities,
Which too long I was offering to feed my soul;
Clear to me, now, standards not yet publish’d—clear to me that my soul,
That the soul of the man I speak for, feeds, rejoices most in comrades;
Here, by myself, away from the clank of the world,
Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,
No longer abash’d—for in this secluded spot I can respond as I would not dare elsewhere,
Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself, yet contains all the rest,
Resolv’d to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment,
Projecting them along that substantial life,
Bequeathing, hence, types of athletic love,
Afternoon, this delicious Ninth-month, in my forty-first year,
I proceed, for all who are, or have been, young men,
To tell the secret of my nights and days,
To celebrate the need of comrades.”

– Walt Whitman

It’s banned book week, so I thought I would do my bit by finally reading E M Forster’s Maurice. Not that Maurice was ever technically banned. It was merely suppressed for some 60 years by the author himself (he wrote it in 1914, it was published in 1972) who chose not to publish it during his lifetime because of the nature of its content.

Maurice is a book about homosexuality. Or rather, it is the story of a young man (named Maurice) falling in love and coming to acknowledge and accept his own desires and wants the way any young man has to – except that this young man is homosexual. There are serious moral questions here, and a great deal of social satire, but Forster’s ultimate point is, I think, an aesthetic one. Forster is not arguing that homosexuality is right – that for him is besides the point – he is trying to make you see how love just is: is true because it is beautiful, is beautiful because it is true. All through his life, Forster’s great endeavour was to use the tact and intelligence of his writing to take us past the polite categories of social interaction into the trembling realities of the soul, to make us see, connect and feel what it meant to be both human and spirit.

If Maurice remains an enchanting read, it is for that reason. Unlike Gide, Forster is not making a philosophical argument for homosexuality[1] . Unlike Lawrence, Forster is not celebrating the physical. Forster sings of instinct, yes, but it is the instinct of the soul, in which the call of sex is but a distant flute [2] – his message, to the extent he has one, is simply that what is deeply felt cannot be ignoble and must be celebrated. Nothing else should matter – for who are we, after all, to legislate a young man’s heart.

At one level, Maurice is a string of exquisitely written cliches (though it is difficult, of course, to tell what is cliche when one is reading something written a hundred years ago). All the standard elements of the romance novel are here. The uncertain and shy young man, the stranger he first admires then falls in love with, that clumsy first courtship, that overwhelming joy of first discovery, the gradual fading of the light, heartbreak, loss, despair, renewal – right down to the final scene where our hero rushes to the docks (airport) to bid his beloved a tearful farewell. This is plebian fare, you might think – except that by introducing the element of homosexuality in it, Forster both raises it above cliche and makes the point that it really is that essentially human. Just given the sheer skill that Forster brings to his prose – the delicate crispness of the writing, the psychological acuity, the detailed precision of his visual imagination, his sense of quiet drama – this would be a brilliant book even if it was about two heterosexual lovers. By framing it as homosexual love Forster forces us to abandon cliche entirely. Maurice’s central difficulty in the book is also Forster’s (and by extension, the readers) – it is the problem of forging a new idiom, of going beyond the conventional of finding new ways to express, in action, in word, in thought, a love that does not conform to all the usual stereotypes. There’s a palpable sense of something fresh and raw and very beautiful being created in this book, the feeling of having put together something very fragile and of having to hold your breath so as not to break it.

This is part of the reason that Maurice is one of the most moving love stories of our time. As a celebration of love – not homosexual love, mind, but love generally – it is an intense and exquisite sonata, a paean of attic beauty. Early on in the novel, there is talk of the love of the Greeks, and that is precisely the sort of Platonic ideal that Forster is true to here.

Whether or not the book is an accurate description of the thoughts and emotions of a young man coming to terms with his own homosexuality in early 20th century England (or indeed at any other time) I am, of course, not competent to judge. But to think of Maurice as a book about homosexuality is to miss the point entirely. There is much here that seems outdated (though it is a sad reflection on the world we live in that too much of the prejudice levelled against Maurice, too much of the incomprehension, too many of the trials seem real enough even today), but Forster’s novel is not about the mores or conventions of his time. If Forster waited 60 years to publish Maurice it was only because he trusted the power of his writing, and understood that what he had to say was universal enough to resonate with audiences a hundred years from now. Because what he was writing about was not England or 1914 but about things far more fundamental to the human condition: youth, desire, lust, despair, hope, beauty and yes, Love.

It is a testament to how right he was that this is still a beautiful book to read.


[1] See Corydon
[2] Of course, any half-decent Freudian would argue that all this spirituality is ultimately driven by sex – but there are times when it’s better to just let a cigar be a cigar.

The terrible doubt of appearances Sunday, Sep 25 2005 

John Banville’s The Shroud

Someone lives in my house

At night he opens the refrigerator
inhaling the summer’s coriander

On Radio Kashmir he hears announced
all search has been abandoned
for last year’s climbers
on Nanga Parbat

My house breaks
with the sympathy of neighbours

This is his moment

In my room
he sits at the table
practices my signature answers my mail

He wears the cardigan
my mother knit for my return

The mirror gives up
my face to him

He calls to my mother in my voice

She turns

He is breathless to tell her tales
in which I was never found.

– Agha Shahid Ali, ‘Survivor’

What do we mean when we say I? When we speak so glibly of the self, of identity, what exactly is it that we are referring to? How do we tell where our ‘self’ ends and someone else, a stranger who we are trying to be (a la Sartre), takes over?

These are the questions that John Banville’s 2002 novel, The Shroud, is founded on. The Shroud is the story of Alex Vander, an aging scholar of great repute, a native of Belgium who escaped from that country during the persecutions of the Second World War. Or so the world believes. At the heart of Vander’s identity is a terrible secret, one that effectively makes his whole life a lie. Or does it? Who is the real Alex Vander? Or, rather who, is this person who serves us as a narrator and calls himself that? And if Vander is not his real name, what is it then, and why has he assumed the identity of another? Or is it that he has given his own identity to another’s name? As doppelganger novel goes, this is a fascinating example of the genre, a novel of powerful and ironic subtleties, of deep and incisive questions about the nature of the self. A sample:

“I think of an actor in the ancient world. He is a veratan of the Attic drama, a spear-carrier, an old trouper. The crowd knows him but cannot remember his name. He is never Oedipus, but once he has played Creon. He has his mask, he has had it for years; it is his talisman. The white clay from which it is fashioned has turned to the shade and texture of bone. The rough felt lining has been softened by years of sweat and friction so that it fits smoothly upon the contours of his face. Increasingly, indeed, he thinks the mask is more like his face than his face is. At the end of a performance when he takes it off he wonders if the other actors can see him at all, or if he is just a head with a blank front, like the old statue of Silenus in the marketplace the features of which the weather has entirely worn away. He takes to wearing the mask at home, when no one is there. It is a comfort, it sustains him; he finds it wonderfully restful, it is like being asleep and yet conscious. The one day he comes to the table wearing it. His wife makes no remark, his children stare for a moment, then shrug and go back to their accustomed bickering. He has achieved his apotheosis. Man and mask are one.” [1]

If the entire novel had been an exploration of this sort, this would have been a great book. But there is more – Vander’s secret has now been found out by a young woman who comes to Turin to confront him with what she has learnt. What follows is a fascinating portrait of the relationship that evolves between two people – a dangerously ill and troubled young woman and an arrogant and merciless old man, struggling desperately to come to terms with his own death.

The writing is superb throughout the book – Banville’s prose is sharp and clean and a little tart, almost sour in places, like the taste of a plum that is not fully ripened. The character sketches are excellent, the evocation of scenes outstanding. In many ways, Banville seems to have been influenced by Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The Shroud explores many of the same themes: an aging and cynical academic, shown disappointed and suffocating at home, travels to a romantic Italian city, falls in love with a beautiful and doomed young creature, who becomes for him a way of coming to terms with his own mortality; of finding a lasting, if not untroubled, peace.

The difficulty I had with the book was its lack of drive. What little actual plot / action there is in the book seems involuntary and unconvincing, the connections between the different parts of the book are flimsy, the story seems contrived and inconclusive – a way of bringing the characters together so they can interact and show themselves to us. Banville is like a reluctant swimmer who stands on the edge of the water, feeling it tentatively with his feet, before jumping far too quickly (and somewhat ungraciously) into the deep end. For the first half of the novel, the plot of his story almost doesn’t take off, which would be fine, except once it does, it proceeds with reckless abandon and goes overboard very quickly. The individual sections and characters of this novel are well written, but the story itself seems hastily tacked on, and doesn’t really work.

Bottomline: The Shroud is an interesting read – an engagingly written book that won’t sweep you off your feet, but may impress you in parts with the spareness and beauty of its prose. If you like Banville this is definitely worth reading. If you don’t, this book probably won’t change your mind.

[1] This passage reminds me strongly of the chapter in Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, where he speaks of how people wear faces the way they wear gloves or some other article of clothing.

All these albums that you mention Saturday, Sep 24 2005 

My Top Ten Dylan Albums

A link from Jabberwock to an article by Roger Ebert (kind of) talking about Bob Dylan’s life and work prompted an evening of obsessive listening to Dylan songs, so figured I might as well top it off by posting a list of my ten favourite Dylan albums. This proved to be a harder task than I’d imagined, but here goes:

1. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

I know, I know, pretty much every Dylan fan out there is going to scream blue murder about this one – but Highway 61 Revisited is, without doubt, my favourite Dylan album. Admittedly, it’s far from being the most musical of his albums, but for my money it’s the one that best showcases his talents as a songwriter. There’s more genuine poetry in this one than there is in pretty much anything else that Dylan put together. Starting with the incredible Like a Rolling Stone, the album goes on to include such classics as the Ballad of a Thin Man (” You’ve been with the professors / And they’ve all liked your looks / With great lawyers you have / discussed lepers and crooks / You’ve been through all of / F Scott Fitzgerald’s books / You’re very well read / It’s well known // But something is happening here / And you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr Jones?”), Tombstone Blues, Highway 61 Revisited and that greatest of all epic Dylan songs – Desolation Row. Just the names of the songs on this album are magic: It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry, Queen Jane Approximately, Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues. A truly amazing album.

2. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

In the beginning, there was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In many ways, this is Dylan’s first real album – the 1962 Bob Dylan album is mostly covers of other people’s songs. This is Dylan in full acoustic / folk mode, and the album includes some of his finest songs within that genre. The result is a collection of songs from a young new artist that would put to shame the ‘Best of” collections of most musicians. The album starts with my favourite Dylan song of all time – Blowin’ in the wind – and then goes through such wonders as Girl of the North Country, A Hard Rain’s a-gonna fall and Don’t think twice it’s all right; as well as the delightfully whimsical Talking World War III blues and Dylan’s rendition of Corrina, Corrina. Free-wheeling is the word.

3. The Times they are a-changin’ (1964)

You knew this was coming, didn’t you? If I had to pick one album that said why Dylan was so important to 60’s music, this would be it. But the songs I really love here are not the overtly political ones (with the exception of With God on our side which has to be the most stunning, most whimsical and most ironic history lesson ever sung) – Only a pawn in their game, The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll – these are songs I like well enough. But the songs I really love here are the incredibly gentle One too many mornings, the sparkling When the ship comes in and the achingly sad Restless Farewell. Plus, of course, there’s the title track, which is too magical a song for me to even start to speak of. The Times they are a-changin’ may well be Dylan’s most important album, and the one he’ll be the most remembered for.

4. Blood on the tracks (1975)

The early 1970’s were not the best time for Dylan. While he continued to release an album every year, his output from this period is, frankly, better measured out in songs than in albums. So we have New Morning (If Not for you), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Knockin’ on heaven’s door) and Planet Waves (Forever Young). With the exception of these songs, though, it feels like Dylan has slipped into auto pilot, either feeding off himself (as in the 1971 Greatest Hits or the 1974 Before the Flood) or just going through the motions.

Blood on the Tracks represents an incredible return to form. Some of my favourite songs from the 70’s are here, including Tangled up in Blue, Simple Twist of Fate, Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, Shelter from the Storm and (the highly underrated) You’re going to make me lonesome when you go. Blood on the Tracks is easily Dylan’s finest album from the 70’s (though some parts of the Basement Tapes are spectacular, and the live performance At Budokan has to be heard to be believed) and marked an upsurge of talent that saw him through Desire (1976), Street Legal (1978) and Slow Train Coming (1979) before he petered out into the idiocy that was Dylan in the 80’s.

5. Blonde on Blonde (1966)

If Blood on the Tracks was a start of a new era for Dylan, Blonde on Blonde was the end of one. Blonde on Blonde is, in many ways, the culmination of the Dylan’s best years; it is the last of his great albums. There are those who would argue that as such it deserves to be ranked higher in this list, and I don’t necessarily disagree – it’s just that for me Blonde on Blonde is an unbelievable album with no (or few) outstanding songs. My favourite songs here are Rainy Day Woman, Visions of Johannah and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, but the real point of this album, I think, is that every song on it is memorable (the list includes Stuck inside of Mobile, I want you, Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine, Temporary like Achilles, Absolutely Sweet Marie and One of must know) – if anything, I suspect it’s the fact that every song is so wonderful that keeps the brilliance of any one song from shining out.

There’s a scene in the movie version of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, where Barry, the music store attendant (played by Jack Black) discovers that a customer has never heard Blonde on Blonde. In a sudden panic, Barry rushes over to a stack of records, pulls out the album and hands it over to the customer saying “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay now.” I know exactly how he feels.

6. Bringing it all back home (1965)

Another of the great albums from the early to mid 60’s. Dylan breaks away from the politics of his earlier songs here, recording three of my all time Dylan favourites: Tambourine Man, Love minus Zero and It’s all over now, Baby Blue. The album also includes one of the few Dylan songs I can’t stand – Maggie’s farm – plus the wonderful It’s all right, Ma, I’m only bleeding and the glorious She belongs to me. The reason it’s not higher up in this list is only that the other songs are far less impressive than in the earlier albums. In Blood on the Tracks, in Blonde on Blonde, in Highway 61 Revisited it’s hard to pick a song that you don’t care for, but all the other songs here (with the possible exception of Subterranean Homesick Blues) are, frankly, eminently forgettable.

7. Another side of Bob Dylan (1964)

It’s pure whim that Another Side of Bob Dylan turns out to be the last of Dylan’s great albums on this list. This is a gentle, poetic and startlingly quiet album – including such often overlooked beauties as Ramona, I don’t believe you and All I really want to do. There’s also My Back Pages (which isn’t that great a song, frankly, it’s just that that one line – “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” is inescapable) and what must be my favourite Dylan love song – It ain’t me, babe. Oh, and then there’s the hilarious Motorpsycho Nightmare and I shall be free No. 10. This is a wonderful album, and has a quaint, simple quality to it that is hard to find in much of Dylan (at least in so concentrated a form).

8. Desire (1976)

Desire is a difficult Dylan album to pin down. In many ways it represents a very different sound for Dylan – songs like Mozambique, Joey and Oh, Sister, with the chorus backing up Dylan’s voice seem strangely un-Dylanesque (if there’s such a word). The echo of the chorus is irritating, and it obscures that flat, matter-of-fact voice that is so quintessentially Dylan.

Despite that, Desire is a marvellous album. Dylan returns to politics for a moment, giving us Hurricane, then branches off through Isis and Mozambique to the glorious One more cup of coffee, before making his way through Oh, Sister and Romance in Durango to the soaring sentimentality of Sara. This is not a great album for Dylan qua Dylan – it’s place in his overall canon is problematic, I think – but if you manage to keep the Dylan of the 60’s out of your head for a little while, this is a glorious album.

9. John Wesley Harding

No listing of Dylan’s best albums would be complete without this gem. There is a lot in John Wesley Harding that is mediocre, but hold it at the right angle and you can see the full lustre of Dylan’s music shining through. By far the best song here is All along the Watchtower (one of my all time favourites), but there’s also the Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest and I’ll be your baby tonight, and all the other songs are eminently worth a listen (Dear Landlord, John Wesley Harding, Drifter’s Escape) even if they do fall short of being outstanding.

10. Slow Train Coming

This was a tough one. Because putting Slow Train Coming at number 10 means I had to leave out Nashville Skyline (Lay Lady Lay, Tonight I’ll be staying here with you), Time out of Mind (Not dark yet, Standing in the doorway) and Street Legal (Changing of the Guards, Is your love in vain). But Slow Train Coming deserves it. Starting with Gotta Serve Somebody and making its way through Precious Angel, Slow Train and When you gonna wake up? this is a kinder, more inward looking album than much of Dylan’s other work. But what makes it special for me is I believe in you – a song that highlights, more than anything else I can think of, the haunting, vulnerable quality of Dylan’s voice.

Note: I should mention that I’m not including some of the live performances here – notable among them being Dylan at Budokan (an absolute miracle of an album, all your favourite Dylan songs as you’ve never heard them sung before), The Rolling Thunder Revue tapes and the Live 1966 album (which features, as a friend once pointed out to me – a wonderful exchange between Dylan and irate fans denouncing him for switching to his more big band avatar – if you listen very carefully you can make out the f word).

The Power and the Glory Thursday, Sep 22 2005 

Beethoven’s Fifth

“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”

– John Donne

“Energy is Eternal Delight”

– William Blake

What is Genius? It is the ability to bring an audience of two thousand people leaping to their feet in spontaneous applause, their hearts aflame with your music, two hundred years after it was written.

Yes, the conductor and the orchestra will take the bows (and deservedly so) but in their heart of hearts who are the people really applauding? For whom will they cheer till their palms ache and their voices go hoarse? Only for the one, the glorious, Ludwig van.

There has never been, and never will be, another piece of music like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In writing the Fifth, Beethoven has written a song of Miltonian defiance, has gathered demons from every corner of the human soul into a maelstrom of rebellion, a whirlwind of furious energy joined to exquisite control. He has taken a sledgehammer to the world, smashing everything in sight. No force on earth could hope to withstand such an onslaught, the gods themselves would shatter like mirrors. The Fifth is the anthem of the Titans, the battlecry of Prometheus, the marching song of the Apocalypse. Beethoven has punched a hole through the ceiling of our silence and shown us, for one instant, the terrible blue of the sky that waits beyond.

No. Words are not enough to describe it. You could use every hyperbole that you could think of, and it would still be an understatement. From the cage-rattling manifesto of the opening to that unbelievable quickening of tempo right at the end, this symphony is a celebration of everything manic and triumphant. The Sixth may be a beautiful meditation on the purity of nature, the Ninth may be the most joyous celebration ever set to music, but the Fifth is the battle that must be fought before that victory and that peace can be enjoyed.

The eventual victory, of course, will be Beethoven’s. There is too much muscle here – the sheer sound of that fourth movement as it breaks through the scattered ranks of the third is an army that brooks no indifference. But all is not anarchy. Lurking in the pounding heart of Beethoven’s mutiny is the vision of a true poet, his sense of trembling wonder. It is easy to overlook, in the rapture of those bold allegros, the sweeter, more exalted sound of the slow movement, or the lilting moments where Beethoven shuts down the fury of his orchestra to allow a single instrument to sing like a timid bird in the heart of battle. The fact that they are not as grand or as insistent as the rest of Beethoven’s artillery does not make these parts of the symphony less heroic – it makes them more so.

The truth is that the Fifth is a baptism by fire. Beethoven’s great insight is the same as Blake’s – that to be free to create is to be on the side of the demons, that it is our indignation, not our forgiveness, that makes us human. In turning rage into a form of transcendence, Beethoven has given us the right to be proud of our anguish, even as we struggle against it. Written some seven years after Beethoven first publicly admitted to his deafness, the Fifth is a statement of pure opposition, setting the adverse power of music against the utmost power of Destiny.

Most of us, if we are lucky, will cheat Fate for a while. Beethoven was the only one who dared challenge her to a fair fight. And won.

Note: Post inspired by a performance of the Fifth I saw today – Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra – the first subscription performance of the new season. Not a notably brilliant performance, just the usual high quality one expects from the Philadelphia Orchestra, but this is the first time I’ve heard the Fifth performed live (I’ve heard it a million times on recordings of course). I’m not ashamed to say there was a point in that first movement where I was almost in tears.

The Quiet Englishman Wednesday, Sep 21 2005 

Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener

There is a great deal of death, there are funeral events
in my helpless passion and desolate kisses,
there is the water that falls in my head,
while my hair grows,
a water like time, a black unchained water,
with a nocturnal voice, with the cry
of a bird in the rain, with an unending
shadow, a shadow of a wet wing which protects my bones:
while I dress myself, while
endlessly I stare at myself in the mirrors and window-panes,
I hear someone following me, calling me, sobbing,
with a sad voice rotted by time.

– Pablo Neruda (trans. by W.S Merwin)

One of the key challenges of being an artist (and more so now, perhaps, than ever) is the daunting task of balancing the private against the universal, the individual against the world. To focus too much on the intimate is to risk ignoring the larger picture for the sake of some trivial detail, and to end up losing your audience by being unable to connect to their realities . To focus too much on the universal is to risk drowning in generalities, without the point, the edge of human contact that great art requires. There is a line between the conquest of nations and the sparrow’s fall that every true artist must learn to walk.

It is a line that the film The Constant Gardner doesn’t quite manage to walk, even though, in a sense, that line is what the movie is about. The Constant Gardner is many things – a tender love story of passion and loss, a brooding meditation on Africa’s woes, a paranoid spy thriller teeming with conspiracies and intrigue, an archetypal fable of the individual who takes on the might of Big Brother and makes a difference. Yet at its heart, Le Carre’s story is an allegorical meditation on the important question of how we react to and deal with the constant suffering and injustice that we see in the world around us. In debating the correct response to this, Le Carre sets up a marriage between two opposing points of view – Justin, the quintessential diplomat, who spends his time tending his garden and minding his own business, worried about his own family and content to leave the relief efforts to the agencies, since the task of saving the world, is, after all, too big for one individual to take on. And Tessa, who believes that we must make a difference where and when we can, and who will stop at nothing to make her point – even if it will do no good. It is one of the sweeter ironies of the film (and one characteristic of Le Carre) that it is Tessa who is brought to grief by her attempts to be discrete and Justin, in the end, who suffers for taking on powers too great for him.

Given so intelligent a conceit to work with, it is a pity that The Constant Gardener is not a stronger, more compelling film. The problem, I think, is that Meirelles tries to say / do too much through the movie. The result is a movie that seems disjoint, unfocussed – like a collage of Mission Impossible, Nowhere in Africa, Erin Brockovich, Remains of the Day and Love Actually all rolled into one. The trouble with this is that Meirelles never seems to stay with anything long enough for you to get truly involved – in his haste to just get on with it, he runs through the entire story without letting us engage with the characters and / or meditate on the emotional depth that the plot makes possible. The Constant Gardener is like the view of a beautiful landscape seen from a very bumpy car – you’re going too fast to really enjoy it.

If the movie remains engaging, it is at least in part because of Le Carre. This is classic Le Carre – the same balance of intrigue and feeling, the same sense of ordinary people trapped in a web of extraordinary circumstances, the same discrete precision. At his best, Le Carre is a writer of such genuine quietness, such deeply human genius, that to call him a writer of spy stories is to entirely miss the point. Of all the British Secret Agents ever imagined, Le Carre’s Smiley has to be the most emotionally compelling – and while Justin Quayle isn’t quite in that league, he is nevertheless a character of Chekhovian proportions, so that for all the choppiness of the movie, his presence in it cannot be ignored.

The real saviour of the film, though, is Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes, is, single-handedly, the emotional heart of the film, its centre of gravity. It is his performance that rescues the film from being pure camp – his presence that lends it its grave, distinguished aura. Understated yet passionate, Fiennes is the proper gentleman made translucent, a character poised on the trembling edge of great emotion, clinging to dignity itself as a sort of rebellion. Ezekiel writes “The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more”. Quietly matter of fact till the end, Fiennes is the burning embodiment of that idea – just to see the silenced longing in his eyes is to be overwhelmed by the tide of his sorrow.

Nothing else in the movie comes close to Fiennes’ performance. Rachel Weisz manages to look vaguely pretty, but never really comes together as a character – seeming more immature and adolescent than quixotic. Hubert Kounde seems uncomfortably aware of being on camera. Bill Nighy sleepwalks through his part as a two-faced politician. Richard McCabe goes around being as British as ever. The truth is there is much in this movie that is trite and contrived – if the film still manages to move you, it is because of Fiennes’ hauntingly authentic, vulnerable presence, which survives even the increasingly bizarre twists of the plot, turning what is ostensibly the unmasking of a political conspiracy into a deeply personal quest for closure. It’s like hearing Chopin played in a crowded bar. Go watch this movie just to see it.

P.S. Marcia Angell has an interesting piece building off the movie in the New York Review of Books. Ostensibly a review of the film, the piece quickly veers off to talk about the reality of drug testing in Africa, laying out the details of the shocking and questionable practises that drug companies use to take advantage of the appalling health conditions in third world countries – details that she claims were an integral part of the book but get left out in the movie. The piece says little, if anything, about the movie, but makes for informative reading otherwise.

P.P.S. The title of this post is, of course, a reference to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American – which I was strongly reminded of watching this film.

Everything you ever dreamed Sunday, Sep 18 2005 

Ali Smith‘s The Accidental

“Ready must thou be to burn thyself in thine own flame; how couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes?”

– Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Chapter 17 – The Way of the Creating One.

There’s a scene in Ali Smith’s The Accidental where Eve Smart stands on the edge of the Grand Canyon and tries to tell her children about it on the phone. “I’m trying to think how to describe it. Actually it makes me think that every level pavement or road I’ve ever stood on was a kind of nonsense. I think I may feel vertiginious for the rest of my life”.

That’s as good a description of the book as any I can come up with. The Accidental is a tour de force of ecstatic writing, of prose that is light-footed, quick-witted and completely over the top. It combines the verbal appetite of early Rushdie with the engaging, urban imagination and wit of Smith’s namesake (and Booker competitor) Zadie Smith. It is a masterly performance, a conjuror’s trick of epic proportions, a laughing, juggling outrageous swindle of a book that leaves you both elated and bewildered, not quite sure whether you’re supposed to take it seriously. There is a great deal of suffering in the book, the obligatory dark messages about the times we live in (“The sky is red, a storm is coming and all the cute chipmunks in the world are potential firebombs”) – yet the book is a singing paean to the strength of the human imagination, the incredible resilience of the human spirit, and the astonishing, almost frightening power that dreams can wield.

The Accidental is the story of a family of four – 12 year old daughter, adolescent son, stepfather, mother – each one of them marooned in the middle of a family that is more archipelago than peninsula, each one wrestling with desires and demons that no one else in the family knows of. Into their frustrated lives comes Amber, a mysterious young girl, who appears out of nowhere and immediately comes to mean something special to each one of them. It is central to Amber’s charm (and her inclusion in the family) that she has the power to be whatever it is that each of them most desires – friend, sister, confidante, love object, surrogate mother, confessor, rival, alter-ego. Amber’s presence makes this fractured family come together, helps them to make sense of their lives.

Yet Amber’s presence is not entirely benign. As the novel progresses the characters (and the reader) begin to realise that they don’t really know anything about Amber, and that they have unwittingly handed over the keys to their heart to a total stranger. Who is Amber? Where does she come from and why? Will she do them harm or good? It’s the momentum of these questions that carries the novel at breakneck speed to its breathtaking finale, and beyond.

Without giving too much away, the point of the story is that Amber is a force of nature, the embodiment of the repressed desires that we all harbour in our hearts. By shocking each member of the Smart family out of their wretched complacency, she forces them to question and reevaluate the very basis of their existence. This does not always lead to happiness, but it makes it possible for them to come truly alive as individuals, in a way they never were before. (“Say I saw an animal that looks dead, Astrid said. Why would I want to poke it with a stick? To see if it’s alive”) Whether this is a good or a bad thing is one of the subjective questions that the book leaves open.

What makes this an engaging and exciting book, however, is not so much the story (which is fine by itself, but not dramatically unique) as the sheer unabashed exuberance of the writing. Smith writes like a talented twenty-five year old seeking to push herself to new limits, seeking desperately to impress. This would be cloying were it not for the sheer verbal horsepower that Smith is able to put behind it. There are four voices in the novel (five, counting the narrator) and each is distinct and pitch-perfect in itself. Smith does a wonderful, if somewhat whimsical, job of capturing patterns of thought, using the essential skittishness of the human mind as a device that permits her to add puns, witticisms, observations, stray thoughts, verbal habits, etc. to the main narrative. Added to which there’s the joy of multiple perspectives, which Smith exploits in masterly fashion, showing us how the same actions are interpreted so differently by different people.

There is a good deal of experimentation here – most notably in one stunning chapter where Smith (completely out of the blue) decides to switch her narrative to a sonnet sequence, only to have it slowly devolve into a free verse (in a laugh-out loud parody of cummings) before finally settling into the more measured abababcc cadences of Byron’s Don Juan (a peerless literary joke, given the context). There is another chapter that uses a question and answer format, part interview, part catechism.

But above all this, there is the carefree, free-wheeling quality of the prose itself; the pure, singing thrill of words for the sake of words, that Smith is able to pass on effortlessly to the reader. An example from the middle of the book will suffice (a long quote, but I can’t bring myself to stop – film buffs, enjoy):

“I opened my eyes. It was all in colour. It didn’t look like Kansas any more. The students were on the barricades, the mode was maxi, the Beatles were transcedental, they opened a shop. It was Britian. It was great. My mother was a nun who could no longer stand the convent. She married my father, the captain; he was very strict. She taught us all to sing and made us new clothes out of curtains. We ran across the bridges and jumped up and down the steps. We climbed the trees and fell out of the boat into the lake. We came first in the singing contest and narrowly escaped the Nazis.

I was formed and made in the Saigon days, the Rhodesian days, the days of the rivers of blood. DISEMBOWEL ENOCH POWELL. Apollo 7 splashdowned. Tunbridge Wells was flooded. A crowd flowed over London Bridge, and thirty-six Americans made bids to buy it. They shot the king in Memphis, which delayed the Academy Awards telecast for two whole days. He had a dream, he held these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal and would one day sit down together at the table of brotherhood. They shot the other brother at the Ambassador Hotel. RIGHTEOUS BROS it said in lights, above the hotel car park. Meanwhile my father was the matchmaker and my mother could fly using only her umbrella. When I was a child I ran the Grand National on my horse. They didn’t know I was a girl until I fainted and they unbuttoned my jockey shirt. But anything was possible. We had a flying floating car. We stopped the rail disaster by waving our petticoats at the train; my father was innocent in prison, my mother made ends meet. I sold flowers in Covent Garden. A posh geezer taught me how to speak proper and took me to the races, designed by Cecil Beaton, though they dubbed my voice in the end because the singing wasn’t good enough.

But my father was Alfie, my mother was Isadora. I was unnaturally psychic in my teens, I made a boy fall off his bike and I burned down a whole school. My mother was crazy; she was in love with God. There I was at the altar about to marry someone else when my boyfriend hammered on the church glass at the back and we eloped together on a bus. My mother was furious. She’d slept with him too. The devil got me pregnant and a satanic sect made me go through with it. Then I fell in love with a couple of outlaws and did me some talking to the sun. I said I didn’t like the way he got things done. I had sex in the back of the old closing cinema. I used butter in Paris. I had a farm in Africa. I took off my clothes in the window of an apartment building and distracted the two police inspectors from watching for the madman on the roof who was trying to shoot the priest. I fell for an Italian. It was his moves on the dance floor that did it. I knew what love meant. It meant never having to say you’re sorry. It meant the man who drove the taxi would kill the presidential candidate, or the pimp. It was soft as an easy chair. It happened so fast. I had my legs bitten off by the shark. I stabbed the kidnapper, but so did everybody else, it wasn’t just me, on the Orient Express.”

Bottomline: The Accidental is a fascinating joyride of a book, a novel with enormous verbal appetite and a simple, unflinching, yet somehow deeply satisfying point to make. It may not be the most beautiful book I’ve read this year, or the best written, but it’s almost certainly the most outright enjoyable.

Does it deserve the Booker? I would certainly vote for it over the Ishiguro and the Banville. I’m ambivalent about how it compares to the Barry – it’s like comparing chalk and cheese. On the whole, I still think Barry’s is the finer book – but that’s mostly just sentiment talking. Smith is far more entertaining, far less predictable, far more interesting. She’s also, it has to be said, far less moving.

That’s no reason not to read the book, though. In fact, I cannot recommend this book enough. Read it. And if Smith’s other novels are even half as good (I, for one, plan to find out), read them too. You won’t have a dull moment.

Grin and bear it Wednesday, Sep 14 2005 

Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man

How do we deal with genuine delusion? What do we say to someone who fervently believes in something that we know (or think we know) to be false? Do we force our own version of the truth on that person (and is that even possible)? Do we dismiss that person as a madman, laugh at him for the silliness of what he believes? Do we try and see things from his point of view and consider that he might actually be right? Or do we respect him, not for his beliefs, but for the genuineness of emotion that goes with them, for the joy and peace he radiates, envying him his illusions since all truth is relative anyway?

Timothy Treadwell was a young American who spent 13 summers in the Alaskan wilds living with grizzly bears. In the course of these summers he came to be greatly attached to the bears, believing them to be his friends, believing that with enough courage, love and understanding he could live among them, becoming increasingly disillusioned with the human world. Then, in 2003, he and his girlfriend were killed in an attack by a hungry grizzly. Treadwell left behind many, many hours of footage from these expeditions of his – film that looks both at the bears in their natural habitat and at Treadwell’s own life among them.

In Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog puts together a documentary on Treadwell’s life, interspersing the footage that Treadwell himself shot with Herzog’s own exploration of his life and death. The result is a mesmerising portrait of a deeply disturbed and delusional young man who nevertheless manages to find a way of life so ecstatic, so pure, as to be almost inspirational. There is a Peter Pan like quality to Treadwell’s life – he exists in a dream world, a world that is in denial of the harsh realities of life in the wild and that you cannot help laughing at sometime, but it is also a wonderful, magical world, and watching him drift through it you are filled with an unspeakable nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent way of life, and a deep emotional connection to so laughably genuine a character. None of us would do what Treadwell did because it is too illogical, too ridiculous; but there is a child within us that understands him better than we are willing to admit, and that wishes that things were really that simple.

Treadwell’s own footage is fascinating for two reasons. First, because it includes some of the most incredible wildlife footage this side of Animal Planet – Herzog himself acknowledges this. It’s not just that Treadwell manages to get miraculously close to the animals (both bears and foxes) so that there are scenes of him actually swimming in the water with a ten foot high grizzly, or shots of him stroking wild foxes; it’s also that for someone with no real cinematic experience, he shows a deep natural flare for camera work, some of it accidental (Herzog highlights one glorious scene where the camera is rolling and Treadwell is out of the frame and he captures this wonderful shot of just the wildness of the spot without even realising it), some of it just marvellously executed (there’s one incredible sequence of two bears fighting). But more importantly, the footage is fascinating because it shows us (as Herzog emphasises throughout) a portrait of the very real person Treadwell was. Treadwell is amazingly unguarded in these films [1] – there are scenes of him speaking into the camera while addressing god, of him breaking into tears as he talks about his beloved animals, of him talking about his love life, even a long clip of him cursing the National Park service in no uncertain terms! This is genuine reality television – it’s a no holds barred encounter with an incredibly genuine and sensitive young man – an opportunity to get under someone else’s skin in a way that you very rarely get to experience.

The other thing that makes this film interesting though, is the skill with which Herzog both imposes his presence on the film and manages to remain hidden. Herzog is unobtrusive in that he tries to provide a balanced picture of Treadwell – his own footage includes comments from people who both loved and admired Timothy as well as people who disapproved of what he was doing. What emerges is the picture of someone who is neither a hero nor a freak, but rather a genuine human being with all the ambiguity and ambivalance that implies. This may seem like indecision on Herzog’s part, but to make a feature length documentary about someone without judging them is no mean feat.

At the same time, Herzog is not reticent about his own point of view. He clearly puts forward his belief that Treadwell crossed a line that he should not have, and that his idea that the bears were his friends was pure delusion – they saw him with little but indifference, and then only as food. Herzog also meditates (skilfully for the most part, though there is one ham-handed analogy between a glacier and Treadwell’s soul) on questions of identity, and what it really means to be human. There is a hint here (and only a hint) of a deeper musing on the more complex, almost mythological questions of metamorphosis and self-realisation, as well as some questions about the nature of religion (for what is Treadwell but the ultimate fanatic – albeit of his own religion). By the end of the documentary, Herzog manages to make Treadwell into a Kurtz like figure – part heroic myth, part troubled misfit.

What’s refreshing here (in an age when privacy is so much at a premium) is the way that Herzog chooses to be dignified and reticent about Treadwell’s story – sensitive to the pain that some revelations could cause. Thus we are not shown the photographs of Treadwell’s gruesome death, nor are we allowed to hear a tape of the actual killing (the camera was running when the bear attacked, but the lens cap was on so there was no visual, just the sound of that fatal struggle). Nor are we told much about Treadwell’s personal life, outside of some historical background and the things that he himself chooses to show us in the tapes. There are many subtle hints and implications here, but coming from Herzog, it seems like an extremely subdued film [2].

If there is one flaw in the film, it is the fact that Herzog focuses too much on Treadwell’s death. The day of his death is described in excruciating detail, and Herzog spends entirely too much time (in my opinion) on leading slowly up to the death at the end of the film. My own point of view is that Treadwell’s death was inevitable (a point Herzog seems to agree with) and that therefore the exact details of it are irrelevant – if it hadn’t happened this way it would have happened some other. Herzog, however, feels the need to dwell on the tragedy, even going so far as to suggest (implicitly) that Treadwell had some kind of premonition of his fate. Again, I disagree with this. Certainly Treadwell recognised that what he did was dangerous (but like the boy who never grows up, he seemed to counter this danger with his own self-assured arrogance, so that it never seemed to become real for him) but everything else that Herzog focuses on is probably just ordinary coincidence taken out of context because of what we know subsequently happened. This preoccupation with Treadwell’s death seems overly maudlin, and I think Herzog’s time would have been better spent focussing on the man’s life. The end of the movie is beautiful though – Herzog finds the perfect song, the perfect shot, the perfect message.

Overall, Grizzly Man is a fascinating watch – a skilled exploration of the life and personality of a magical human being, with the added benefit of seeing some stunning wildlife footage.


[1] Assuming, of course, that Treadwell is not acting in these scenes. Herzog never really seems to question the genuineness of most of the footage, but given that Treadwell had a history of trying to create a new persona for himself by lying about his origins, etc. – plus the fact that he had some acting talent – one must at least entertain the possibility that what we are watching on the tapes is an entirely fictional Treadwell. This is not a serious problem (unless you’re devoted to Treadwell or something) – it just means that you’re seeing a stunning portrayal of a troubled, anxious and sentimental young man as opposed to the real thing. It’s still just as interesting, though.

[2] For more on Herzog, see Jabberwock’s excellent post.

Dulce et decorum est Sunday, Sep 11 2005 

Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way

“Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”

– W. B. Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’

There’s a point in Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way where the main protagonist, Willie Dunne, stands up to sing Schubert’s Ave Maria among his fellow soldiers. Describing the song, Barry writes: “He sang like an angel might sing if an angel were ever so foolish as to sing for mortal men. His voice was strange and high, but not a counter-tenor. It just seemed to put a knife into the air, the notes were so clear and strong. Like a true singer, he could sing soft with strength, and sing loud without hurting the ears….It seemed to be about their courage, and their solitariness, and the effort they made in desperation to form a bridge from one soul to another. And that these bridges were bridges of air.”

That’s as good a description as I can give of the book itself. A Long Long Way is a lilting and lyrical song of a book, a novel of sublime and heartbreaking power, a hauntingly perfect solo performed in a voice like a finely tuned uillean pipe. This is not a clever or sophisticated book – there are no dark allegories or complicated metaphors here – it is a simple story, unabashedly sentimental, that serves as a reaffirmation of how effective, how deeply moving, beautiful writing can be all by itself.

The novel opens at the turn of the last century with the birth of young Willie Dunne (“He was born in the dying days.”). The first chapter sketches, in prose as exquisitely breathless as an Irish jig this young man’s coming to early manhood, creating a picture of a simple, average young man, devoted to his family, in love with his adolescent sweetheart, who, swept away by the pride of his youth and the heroic urgency of the times, enlists with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers to go fight in World War I (Siegfried Sassoon writes: “I knew a simple soldier boy / Who grinned at life in empty joy / Slept soundly through the lonesome dark, / And whistled early with the lark.” – that is the perfect descripton of Willie).

The rest of the novel follows Willie through his war experiences – his life in the trenches, the confused battles, the hellish conditions, his friendships and loyalties, the death of his friends and his own lucky escapes, his brief trips home, the daily privation and suffering, the easy cameraderie, the small, simple joys. There is nothing really new here; we have all seen / read this stuff before (most notably perhaps in Pat Barker’s award winning Ghost Road; but also in the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and all the other great poets of the Great War). But Barry, with his easy, singing prose – his ear for conversation, his eye for detail – makes it all come vividly alive. As year follows year and his friends and comrades die out around him, Willie gives up the high-spirited optimism of his youth for a more contingent, manly pride; an acceptance of the horrors of the war that is as simple as it is great-hearted. Willie and his mates are heroes, not thinkers – their courage is the courage of a trusting good nature (mixed with laughing pessimism) that the war can never quite blight.

As the war progresses, important political changes are sweeping Ireland. At the point when Willie signs up, Ireland is heartily for the war – won over by promises from the British of the establishment of Home Rule once the war is won. Eighteen months later, the mood has turned darker, and civil war breaks out in Ireland, with a group of rebels fighting against the British army and preferring to side with the Germans as being the enemy of their enemy. Willie is on hand to witness part of the fighting in Dublin, and the experience leaves him troubled and unsure. By the time the war draws to an end, hope of Home Rule has been extinguished, and support for the war effort has died with it. Misfits at home and actively bad-mouthed by the British, Willie and his mates come to realise that the war is the only place they fit in anymore, that the world has moved on and forgotten about them, that if and when they return home they shall “come like ghosts to trouble joy” (Tennyson). Barry writes: “Those that went out for a dozen reasons, both foolish and wise and all between, from a world they loved or feared, but that equally vanished behind them. How could a fella go out and fight for his country when his country would dissolve behind him like sugar in the rain?”.

But these betrayals – the betrayal of Ireland by the British, the betrayal of Ireland’s sons by Ireland herself, are merely stepping stones in Willie’s long path to disillusionment. There is a more fundamental betrayal here – the betrayal of youth. More than anything else, A Long Long Way is an indictment of the senseless slaughter of young men that World War I was. Barry writes: “A soul in the upshot must be a little thing, since so many were expended freely, and as if weightless. For a king, an empire and a promised country. It must be that that country was in itself a worthless spot, for all the dreams and the convictions of that place were discounted. There was nothing of it that did not quickly pass away. Nothing of worth to keep. Some thirty thousand souls of that fell country did not register in the scales of God”. How poignant the petty things that Willie feels guilt for (a captain ‘betrayed’, a night with a prostitute) seem when placed against so infinite a culpability (Eliot writes: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”). This is the central betrayal of the novel, its real crime. Vachel Lindsay writes:

"Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world's one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.

Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly;
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap;
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve;
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep."

Barry could not agree more. As the novel progresses this destruction of innocence is mirrored in a slow darkening of the tone of the book – the writing shifting by slow degress from sunny cheerfulness, to troubled grief, until the last pages practically cry out with indignation. It is a mesmerising performance to watch.

Yet for all that perhaps Barry’s greatest achievement here is that even as he portrays the reality of war in all its horror, he never really loses his sense of beauty, that lyrical touch that informs all his writing. Because of this, A Long Long Way manages to both insist on showing the war in all its sordid reality and affirm the essential poetry of the souls of the young men who fought it. Barry is both against war and for the soldiers. It’s not just that he manages to find the beauty in all this terror, it’s that he manages to show you how the soldiers themselves, simple lads thrust into a war they do not understand, manage to hold on to the sense of hope and wonder that keeps them human, that keeps them sane. A Long Long Way is the story of how the spirit can walk through the shadow of the valley of death and still emerge uncorrupted on the other side.

Bottomline: A Long Long Way is a heartbreakingly beautiful novel. As a story, it speaks eloquently against the unforgivable crime of sending young men off to war. As a novel, it is a stunning testament to the power of superbly written prose. I still have three of the six novels on the Booker shortlist to go, but for now A Long Long Way is the one I’m rooting for.


[1] The title for this post comes, of course, from the famous poem of the same name by Wilfred Owen, which reads like it could be a description of what happens in A Long Long Way.

[2] It’s interesting that the cover of A Long Long Way seems to be a reversal of the picture that was on the cover of Pat Barker’s Ghost Road (follow the links to Amazon above).

Shore enough Saturday, Sep 10 2005 

John Banville’s The Sea

“Tenants of the house
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season”

– T. S. Eliot, ‘Gerontion’

Imagine that you’re sitting at home with the window open and someone next door is trying to tune an old transistor set – the kind without presets where you had to turn the dial to find the station every time you wanted to change. The sounds of old, vaguely familiar tunes waft in on the twilight air, interrupted by bursts of static. Whoever is tuning this thing does not seem to be content with a single station – he switches restlessly between one and the other. You sit there, unable to tear yourself away, your heart filling with sweet nostalgia, the constant switching between stations seeming sometimes magical, sometimes plain irritating.

That’s what reading John Banville’s novel The Sea is like. The Sea is a long, beautiful ramble, a celebration of nostalgia, a lyrical exploration of the thoughts of an old man who has nothing left but his memories. It is a melancholy sonata of two alternating themes, both in minor key, their grief as genteel and stifling as a room rented for the summer.

The narrator of the book is one Max Morden, a sometime art critic and self-confessed dilettante, who has returned to the seaside scene of his childhood summers in a vain attempt to escape the grief of his wife’s recent death. Safely installed in a guesthouse in an out of the way resort, Max spends his time drinking Napoleon brandy and brooding on the past. In particular, his memories focus on two seperate episodes – events leading up to and away from the recent death of his wife; and his friendship with the Grace children (whose house, Cedars, he now lives in) when he was about ten years old. These two events (both sources of sorrow) thus become the parantheses between which Max’s entire life stands isolated. Free associating between them in the anchorless, sometimes incoherent way that old men have, Max is brought face to face with his own insecurities – with the unavoidable question of what his life has meant and whether (coming from a poor background) his entire life has not been merely a feeble attempt to play out a role that he always thought beyond him. At an intellectual level, Max rejects the whole idea of having regrets over one’s life. Banville writes: “Could I have lived differently? Fruitless interrogation. Of course I could, but I did not, and therein lies the absurdity of even asking. Anyway, where are the paragons of authenticity against whom my concocted self might be measured?”. But the voice of the novel is the voice of a man telling himself the old stories over and over again in the hope that he’ll come to believe that it could not have happened any other way.

The Sea is an extremely well written book. Banville’s tone is at once erudite and finicky (see my post about the vocabulary he effortlessly commands) and eloquently direct. It is the voice of some dignified schoolmaster, picking his words carefully, so that each one will carry weight. There is a great deal of genuine poetry in this book (consider for example: “In those endless October nights, lying side by side in the darkness, toppled statues of ourselves, we sought escape from an intolerable present in the only tense possible, the past, that is, the faraway past. We went back over our earliest days together, reminding, correcting, helping each other, like two ancients tottering arm-in-arm along the ramparts of a town where they had once lived, long ago”) and the scenes are often well imagined. There are also, specially towards the end, moments when Banville, writing the thoughts scudding through Max’s head, switches naturally and effortlessly between one narrative and another, confounding past and present, recent past and faraway past. This is a neat trick, and Banville does it more impressively than most.

If there is a problem I had with the novel, it was that Banville’s dry, precise tone seemed to insulate the novel from any real passion. The dominant note of the novel is not so much grief, but tiredness, so that it is hard (at least for me) to connect the narrator of the novel with a widower so grief-stricken that he must get drunk every night just to keep himself going. This may, of course, be part of Banville’s point, that passion, beyond a certain age, gives way to a sort of tired bitterness, a sense of defeat that must be fought against but cannot be overcome. But it robs the novel of much of the emotional impact it could have had, so that you come away from the novel more impressed than moved.

One reason for this might be that Banville, in choosing to write with the kind of exacting detail he does, ends up sacrificing many of the grander themes of the book. The main points of the plot are barely sketched in – we are told a little (though not much) about his wife’s death, but almost nothing about their life together; the metaphor of the sea, which skirts the novel throughout as a distant presence, returns strongly only in the final pages, like a tide swirling into shore. It is both one of the greatest achievements of this book and one of its acutest disappointments that Banville, like a good miniaturist, progresses from scene to scene, painting each in exquisite detail but paying little attention to the broader sweeps of his brush that the landscape makes possible. In this he is trying, perhaps, to be more true to the nature of human memory, as well as hoping that the subtle nuances of these specific memories, these minutiae of the past, will serve as microcosms of the larger story (a hope that is, in my opinion, only partly realised).

The Sea is also an exacting book, requiring patience and concentration if one is to discover it’s pleasures. For much of the book, the two narratives (Max as a boy playing with the Grace children, and Max in the present and recent past) seem to have almost nothing to do with each other, so that the overall effect is as if Banville had written two short stories and mixed them together at random (could it be that that is what Max is trying to do – deliberately picking a memory so remote that by thinking about it he can cauterize himself from any thought of his wife?) – it is only when you get to the end that you see the connection. There is also a strong sense of deja vu in the novel – the book, while beautifully written, has very little by way of plot that is startlingly original – so that reading it you have the constant impression of having read something very similar someplace before. There is a strong sense here of the kind of exaggeration that memory is capable of – the description of the Graces seems overblown, almost caricature-ish, but for all that it is truer to the way an aging man would remember the memories of his childhood.

Bottomline: The Sea is an interesting read, a superb exploration of the nature of memory and a wonderful evocation of the thoughts of an old man trying to deal with both the ghosts of his past and his more recent sorrows. It was a book I enjoyed, though was not particularly moved by.

Should it win the Booker (I say should and not will – I have no interest in speculating politics)? It’s difficult to say. I would probably pick it over the Ishiguro (though I worry that that might just be because I’ve never read Banville before) but not having read the other novels (yet) I can’t speak for those. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be shocked if it didn’t win.

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