Making your blood run cold Sunday, Oct 30 2005 

Capote

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Mark, 8:36

Most wretched men are cradled into poetry by wrong
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Julian and Maddalo’

There comes a point, I think, in every artist’s life, where he / she must ask the question: Would I rather be a better artist, or a better human being? This is the essence of the Faustian bargain, the idea that the creation of a truly great work of art may often require the opening of one’s heart to all sorts of daemons, all forms of evil and misery. Plath, Lowell, Van Gogh – the list of tortured geniuses, of men and women whose creations derive their unique and burning power from the heart’s blood of their creator’s misery, is virtually endless. Is the suffering worth it? That is a question no one, not even the artist, can ever truly hope to answer.

But what if the suffering is not one’s own? What if the artist were to use the suffering of others, were to exploit the misery he sees around him to create a touching and wonderful masterpiece? Is this exploitation? Or merely opportunism? Or perhaps even a sacrifice worth making? If we are willing to let millions of people die and suffer every year in the name of religion and politics and nationhood, surely a few additional sacrifices for the sake of art cannot be baulked at?

This is the ethical dilemma that lies at the heart of the new film, Capote. The movie opens in 1959 when Capote, having published Breakfast at Tiffany’s a year ago, was the darling of Manhattan’s social world, the ultimate literary insider. What follows is an intense and faithful [1] portrayal of the five years that followed, in which Capote wrote the book that made him a legend – In Cold Blood.

What has always puzzled me about the Capote legend is why he chose to do it. Why would a man like Capote, a New York socialite, a writer of delightful, twinkling prose about the Manhattan social scene, suddenly decide to write a ‘non-fiction’ novel about a bloody homicide that takes place in the middle of Kansas? How does Holly Golightly lead to Perry Smith?

This is a question the movie highlights, but never really answers. Watching Capote first arrive in Kansas, observing his obvious alienation from everything around him, you cannot help wonder about his motivation – but the closest the movie comes to providing a clue to his reasons is in a scene where he and Harper Lee are interviewing a young girl about the murder and Capote suddenly starts to talk about how all his life people have thought they’d got him figured out because of the way he is and the way he talks – and that they’ve always got him wrong. Is the writing of In Cold Blood a reassertion of independence for Capote, a refusal to be classified, to be taken for granted? Has Capote been so successful in making himself an insider to the Manhattan cocktail circuit that he now feels the need to set himself apart from it, become an outsider again, assert the difference between himself and everyone else? Or is it just the whim of a talented writer, who, bored with the track he has been following so far, now wants to branch out into something completely different?

The movie never really attempts to answer any of these questions. What it does do, admirably, is explore the ethical choices Capote made in writing In Cold Blood, and, to a lesser extent, the implications these had for his future life. What emerges most strongly from the movie is a portrait of a deeply flawed human being, a writer so completely engrossed in his art, so entirely self-obsessed, as to be almost inhuman. Subtly at first, and then explicitly, Capote is ruthless and self-serving, a master of emotional blackmail who uses the power of his words and his willingness to flaunt his own vulnerability to manipulate other people into giving him what he wants. There is something almost admirable about the way Capote does this – his instinct for the right levers, his impeccable timing, his bloodhound-like nose for a story – all these are what, in the final analysis make In Cold Blood possible (along, of course, with Capote’s undeniable talent as a writer). But the movie is quick to highlight that there is a darker side to his skill – in getting people to trust him, to think of him as their friend, their confidante, Capote is ultimately setting them up for betrayal. Throughout the movie, there is a sense of Capote’s sensitivity being mostly crocodile tears – the Capote who emerges is petty and almost completely devoid of sympathy, a man who can’t wait for two men to be executed so he can finally finish the book he’s been writing about them. In one particularly ironic scene, Perry Smith’s sister tells Capote not to trust her brother – he will show you his sensitive side, she says, but he would as soon kill you as shake your hand. The same words could be said of the Capote that the movie portrays.

It would be easy, given this, to turn Capote into a monster. A few facts must be kept in mind though. First, the men Capote is so callously using, are, in the end, convicted killers, sociopaths responsible for the cold-blooded murder of an innocent family of four. It is not, in the final analysis, Capote who sends them to their death, it is the justice system. Capote’s only crime, if it can be called that, is to first give them hope, and then use that hope to ingratiate himself with them so he can extract the secret stories that will help him become the most famous and admired writer of his generation. This is cold and ruthless, yes, but it is also, in the end, pragmatic (in one luminous scene, Capote, in a burst of sternness tells Smith: “I am working, Perry. This is my work.”).

The movie’s own justification for Capote’s ruthlessness seems to be more Faustian. By focussing on Capote’s increasing alcoholism towards the end of the five year period, and by pointing out that Capote never finished another novel, the movie seems to imply that Capote paid the cost of writing In Cold Blood by losing his powers as a writer, entering upon a long spiral of drunkenness and lethargy that ended with his death of alcoholic complications in 1984. Could it be that in writing In Cold Blood Capote pushed himself too far, that in trying to prove that he was more than just a Manhattan socialite, Capote truly destroyed himself? This is certainly a romantic notion; whether or not it is true, however, is a different question.

It is another question that the movie does not really attempt to answer. The movie’s true genius lies (and genius it is) in crafting a riveting and intense portrayal of one of the most fascinating literary figures of our time, at one of his most critical moments. Shot in stark, uncompromising colour (which adds to the sense of moral drama) Capote is one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen this year – a moral fable that refuses to moralise, a fascinating exploration of the artist’s psyche with all the subtlety and depth of a Greek tragedy. Perhaps its greatest achievement as a film is that it makes it impossible to take sides, so that you are left floating in a sort of ethical limbo, unwilling to judge Capote or any of the others too severely.

It is also, in a sense, one of the most chilling horror films I have ever seen – the tale of an effeminate, harmless seeming writer who turns out to be a creature of terrible and ruthless power. There are scenes in this movie where the ease with which Capote lies and manipulates, the seeming innocence of his darkest, most horrifying betrayals, will make your blood run cold.

That despite these moments you emerge from the movie with mixed feelings about Capote is due entirely to the brilliance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman delivers an acute and finely balanced performance of Capote – vividly showing you both Capote’s vulnerable charm and his self-serving calculativeness. It would have been easy to make Capote either a suffering martyr or a callous demon here, Hoffman does neither – his Capote is intensely human, with all the weaknesses and flaws that that entails. More importantly, it is a Capote who proves impossible to pin down, so that in his finer moments you are never sure how much of what you see is genuine and how much an act. This is a fine line to walk, and Hoffman does it wonderfully.

Bottomline: This is a must watch – an intense and chilling film, that draws you deep into its murky depths and leaves you, in the end with the same troubled queasiness, the same sense of unease, that makes In Cold Blood such a wonderful book.

Notes

[1] Not, of course, that I know enough about Capote’s life to judge. But an excellent review of the movie by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books seems to suggest that the movie is reasonably historically accurate.

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Sweet though in sadness Friday, Oct 28 2005 

J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

– T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

“My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

– Tennyson, ‘Mariana in the Moated Grange’

In his review of Coetzee’s new novel Slow Man in the New York Review of Books John Lanchester writes: “It is hard to find an admirer of J.M. Coetzee’s work who does not think that his best book is Disgrace“. He just found one. Not that I don’t think Disgrace is a truly fascinating novel. But the Coetzee novels I admire, no, the Coetzee novels I worship, came earlier – Waiting for the Barbarians, The Master of Petersburg, In the Heart of the Country, The Life and Times of Michael K. Not since Dostoyevsky and Conrad has the novel been so relentless, so unmercifully intense. There is a gravity to Coetzee – his writing mesmerises you, draws you in, swallows you whole like some slow, sleek python. In their density, his novels are as cosmic and universal as black holes, gulping down the self like light. There is no escaping them. Other writers overwhelm you, Coetzee leaves you empty.

As Coetzee has grown older, though, his novels have aged with him (some would say matured, but the distinction, as applied to Coetzee, is meaningless). Not that they have become lighter or less implosive – if anything, the years have caused Coetzee to turn more firmly inward, so that the glimpses of the external world you once saw in his work have more or less vanished and the hinterlands of the soul have become, increasingly, the territory of his exploration. It is more that his novels have grown more meditative, more brooding. Where once there was the sparse sharpness of nightmare, the clear, burning lines of image, there is now the more blurred quietness of recollection, of nostalgia. It’s as though, in turning more firmly inward, Coetzee has come to recognise the fundamental incoherence of the self. If we are unable to see ourselves in black and white, Coetzee seems to be saying (as doubtless we are) then why should he, the writer, presume to provide anything less ambigious in his novels.

It is this search for ambiguity that Disgrace is a prime example of. Lanchester calls it misdirection, but in my mind it is rather indirection, the realisation, so central to the human experience, that if one is trying to describe motion, it is unnecessary (and may in fact be misleading) to specify where the movement is headed. To he who writes of journeys, destinations must be irrelevant.

In taking on this challenge, and doing justice to it, Coetzee has become, I think, the greatest, most faithful chronicler of human inwardness. In Slow Man, the main protagonist, Paul Rayment, is accused of always speaking like a book. The truth (ironically) is the opposite – Coetzee writes the way we think, more, the way we are. To read his exact and finely polished prose (In Disgrace, in Youth) is to listen to a voice in your own head. It is difficult to engage with Coetzee because it would mean engaging with yourself. It is not possible to question the veracity of what he is saying because in your heart you know it is true almost before he has said it. Like the image of yourself in a mirror, Coetzee cannot, should not be judged, he simply is.

His new novel, Slow Man, starts off very much in this inward vein. An aging and childless bachelor is struck by a car, his leg is amputated, he finds himself crippled, helpless; as Coetzee puts it (beautifully invoking Homer) he is unstrung. This in itself is not unique or interesting, it is almost (Coetzee’s word) frivolous. Suddenly aware of his loneliness, of the unfillable emptiness of his life, the old man, Paul Rayment, then proceeds to fall impractically and indiscreetly in love with the nurse who comes to care for him, a married Croatian woman with three children, named Marijana. As he struggles to understand and define his own feelings for Marijana (and to make his way deeper into the affections of her children), Rayment’s story becomes an intense and brooding meditation on the meaning of love and the fine distinctions between love and desire, love and sex, love and caring.

It is also a thoughtful and searching meditation on how we deal with Time, or rather, of how Time deals with us. In reply to a question from Marijana’s son, Drago, asking him if he hates things that are new, Rayment says, “I’ll give you a straight answer, Drago, but not at the cost of being laughed at. I have been overtaken by time, by history. This flat, and everything in it, has been overtaken. There is nothing strange in that – in being overtaken by time. It will happen to you too, if you live long enough.” As the novel progresses, Rayment’s lost leg becomes a metaphor for a deeper, more fundamental handicap (Coetzee writes: “after a certain age we have all lost a leg, more or less”) – of being old and jaded, of no longer having the appetite or the energy to believe or hope; of being incapable, in the end, of any form of love that is more than a longing for a lost and impossible past. Slow Man is Coetzee at his most allegorical, it is in many ways the most poetic book he has written in a long while. Speaking of Rayment, he writes at one point: “He himself has never been at ease with mirrors. Long ago he draped a cloth over the mirror in the bathroom and taught himself to shave blind.” It is small delights like this that make Slow Man such an intensely rewarding read.

Coetzee’s key insight in his recent work (most notably perhaps, in Disgrace) is that to live in a world without God is not to live in a world without fate. For the ancient Greeks, fate was an equalising force, inevitability was derived from a sense of what could only be called, if not justice, than balance. In Coetzee’s world, fate is a sort of potential energy, a force at once comforting and smothering, a power that you cannot escape from. In Greek theatre, destiny was the string on which human puppets danced, obedient to the hands of whimsical gods, the eloquence with which they met their fate being the chief point of the whole enterprise. In Coetzee’s novels there is no god, but human beings are still puppets, still obedient, except that now the inertia of their destiny has taken the forefront and there is no air left to scream with. In Slow Man, Coetzee writes:

“How quaint, how positively antique, to believe one will be advised, when the time comes, to put one’s soul in order. What beings could possibly be left, in what corner of the universe, interested in checking all the deathbed accountings that ascend the skies, debits in the one column, credits in the other?”

In some sense, then, Coetzee’s is a gentler, more sombre meditation on the existential problem of Sartre, of Camus. In a world where the Gods (if they still exist at all) have ceased to interfere, it remains to man to not only make his own destiny, but also to pass judgement upon it, and it is this knowledge that paralyses us, leaves us to drift without direction. Yet not to have direction is not to be inert – we may no longer inherit or deserve our fates, but we end up entangled in them anyway. Marijana’s daughter calls Rayment the Slow Man (hence the title of the book) but what seems like his sluggishness is merely the slowing down of our perceptions in the instant before a great and terrible accident. Like travelers who know that nothing we can do will change what is bound to happen, we watch in slow horror (and almost clinical detachment) as the inevitable collision draws nearer. It is a testament to the power of Coetzee’s prose that he can slow time down this way, make it stand still. That, in the end, is all Slow Man is – 260 pages of held breath, of falling body.

All this by itself would be enough to make this a great book, but Coetzee is not finished yet. Just as you are settling down into the hypnotic embrace of his writing, comes a blow, a shock, that leaves you dizzy with wonder. For all the things that Coetzee has been he has never been the most experimental of novelists [2]. Yet here it is – a twist in the plot worthy of Calvino. Without wanting to give too much away (you HAVE to read this book) let me say that Coetzee resurrects Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist of his last novel (and what must be, in my opinion, the weakest book he has ever written) and introduces her into the story as a deus ex machina in reverse, a sort of demonic godmother. What follows is one of the most mind-altering and deeply thoughtful explorations into the nature of fiction, its conventions, and the implications of these for the way in which we live our lives [3]. As the line between fiction and reality blurs, so that it is no longer possible to tell what is ‘fact’ and what hallucination, one is left with the deep suspicion that in the end we are all little more than figments of each other’s imagination. It’s almost as though, Coetzee, no longer satisfied with being one of the greatest novelists of his generation had decided to both write his exceptional prose and simultaneously deconstruct it. The result is dizzying, like being plunged into the middle of a hectic whirlwind of a mystery story where the clues all lead back to yourself. Imagine a combination of Chekhov and Borges and you’ll get the picture.

In some ways, this detracts from the emotional power of Slow Man. There is a deep (and exceedingly dry) sense of playfulness here; at one level, Coetzee has made it much harder for you to take him seriously. Yet the fact that Coetzee can do this and still have Slow Man be an insightful and moving novel, is a tribute to how great a writer he truly is. To build up a plot the way Coetzee does, to leave the reader with the one single message, the one set of ideas, would be amazing enough. To constantly dismantle this structure and then put it back again, without ever letting the intensity of the plot flag – to reinvent a novel midway and open up a whole range of different, often opposed ideas – is beyond belief. If you are left with the impression of being toyed with, it is because that is exactly what has been done to you. You have been manipulated, with exquisite skill, by a man who is an undeniable master of his craft, and the most you can do (much as all Rayment can do is be manipulated by the fate he has become involved in) is see it through “to the bitter end”.

Except that the end is not bitter. Or is it? Coetzee’s sense of balance sustains him all the way through to the close of this novel – the ending is both wildly improbably, anticlimactically hilarious, deeply heartwarming and predictably hopeless. Coetzee is too ruthless, too grown up a writer to bother with happy endings. There are no illusions here, all the happy pipe dreams that you may want to sustain about how this novel ends are systematically destroyed. Things are almost sure to turn out badly – Coetzee will not, cannot, lie to you about this. But in sticking this closely to the truth, Coetzee is forced to acknowledge that in the end, life is neither tragic nor comic, and that there is a thin, sickly triumph in continuing to live, however pointlessly or poignantly. It is this recognition, this pale winter sunlight warming the bones of his aged protagonists, that makes this one of Coetzee’s most optimistic, most forgiving, most (his word again) humane books.

Coetzee writes: “What do we call it when someone knows the worst about us, the worst and most wounding, and does not come out with it but on the contrary suppresses it and continues to smile on us and make little jokes? We call it affection.”

Slow Man is a deeply affectionate book from an author who has come to recognise, after years of uncompromising sternness, that only in showing kindness to others can we hope to receive some ourselves.

Notes

[1] The title of this post, comes, of course, from Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind: “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is: / What if my leaves are falling like its own? / The tumult of thy mighty harmonies / Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone / Sweet though in sadness”

[2] This is not entirely true, of course. There’s the interesting experiment of Foe, plus the superb Nobel Prize Speech.

[3] In particular, don’t miss the scene where Rayment, urged by Costello and himself blindfolded, makes love to a young woman who is blind. A scene worthy of Plato.

The Verse part Friday, Oct 21 2005 

Harold Pinter’s poetry

I know the place.
It is true.
Everything we do
Corrects the space
Between death and me
And you.

– Harold Pinter.

Now that Pinter’s finally won the Nobel, I figured I may as well get around to reading his poetry. While I’ve read a fair amount of Pinter’s plays (most of them so long ago that the memory of them is fairly blurred, though) I’ve never really read much of his poetry – the little of it there seems to be. So I figured I’d get a book out of the library and start plugging away.

I was disappointed. I suppose it’s because I was extrapolating from his prose style, but I expected something dry and quiet and exact, like a cross between R.S. Thomas and Philip Larkin. One of the Pinter’s greatest gifts, in his plays, is his ability to use silence, to write lines that can be read between. It’s a gift that would serve him extremely well as a poet.

So it’s a pity that he doesn’t use that gift more. Oh, these are not bad poems, exactly – there is some fine wordplay here, an exquisite feel for language, phrases of polished obsidian (“So grows in stream of planetary tides / The sun abundant in hanging sands”; “Suggested lines my body / consume, in the day’s graph”) and the heady confidence of a writer who, unable to find the exact word he wants, is not afraid to make it up (eskimostars, tickshop). The problem is that there is little more to these poems than this fine parade of phrases, so that the final effect, when you step back, is of something unanchored, almost incoherent. The writing is brilliant, but it fails to become anything more than clever words on a page, so that unlike with his plays (which move the imagination to fill in what the author has not supplied) there is almost no emotional content to these poems – they feel like warm-up exercises, the shavings of a great writer sharpening his wit before putting it to use.

Nor does Pinter have a particularly keen ear for the sound of his poems. His poems, though technically competent enough, don’t always read well, and in the absence of any overarching image or idea, the sheer density of words (Pinter seems to delight in complex syllables) seems redundant, artificial. Overall, the poems sound and feel strained – as though they were unwieldy concentrations of larger prose pieces that didn’t quite work.

This is not true of all the poems though. In the three dozen or so poems I read, there were three or four where Pinter did manage to focus and discipline his muse – and the structure this provided gave rise to some truly exceptional poetry. The short piece on top is a good example of this, as is:

I have thrown a handful of petals on your breasts.
Scarred by this daylight you lie petalstruck.
So the skin imitates the flush, your head
Turning all ways, bearing a havoc of flowers over you.

Now I bring you from dark into daytime,
Laying petal on petal.

What makes this poem work, makes the use of petalstruck and havoc seem right and beautiful is the consistency of the overall image – by showing us the one single vision that underlies the poem, Pinter makes it come alive for us. Unfortunately, only a few of his poems are able to do this.

Bottomline – I think I’m going to stick to reading Pinter’s plays from now on.

Death be not proud Wednesday, Oct 19 2005 

Mozart’s Requiem

At the round earth’s imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall, overthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance, hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.

– John Donne

If there is a single reason to believe in God, it is Mozart. It’s not just that it’s hard to imagine that even an infinity of evolution could produce a single being so wondrous; it’s that Mozart’s music is so overpowering, so unimaginably beautiful that it demands an audience greater than the merely mortal. The human soul is too small and weak a container for the great flood of Mozart’s genius, to even attempt to hold on to the essence of his music is to try to contain the sea in a transparent flask. Humankind was not made to bear so much beauty.

The Requiem in D minor (K.626) is Mozart’s swan song, and one of the most glorious and heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. There are a few pieces, very few, that move me to tears each time I hear them – Mozart’s Requiem does more, it reduces me to a blubbering, bawling mass of pure emotion (if you don’t believe me, just read the rest of this post). If there is truly a music of the spheres, this is what it must sound like.

The Requiem opens quietly, drawing you slowly into a world of dark foreboding, the voices of the choir lingering like dark clouds on the horizon of the music. Then a soprano breaks through, pure as a sunbeam, and as the music soars you realise that this is no earthly endeavour, that the music you are about to hear belongs in some higher, more ethereal plane. There is a dark sense of peace here, a sort of fragile and restless stillness.

Into this calm the Kyrie arrives like a sudden quickening of the wind. This is an urgent and dramatic plea for God’s mercy, (so different, for instance, from the Kyrie in the C minor mass, K 427) but it is also a proud one. Mozart marries desperation to power here, laying open the beating heart of the life force, as if to say: Here is all our strength. Here is all our pride, all our youth, all that we are capable of. Take it, but grant us your mercy.

And then, just as you are beginning to feel the blood pounding in your veins, just as your body is beginning to throb with the music and you are starting to feel the exhileration pulsing through you, the gauntlet Mozart has thrown down is accepted and the Dies Irae comes crashing through the world. Here is an unleashing of all the savage power that Mozart can muster, an explosion of pure wrath (uncharacteristic for Mozart) that puts Beethoven to shame. As the great drums of Mozart’s anger blaze forth, you can literally feel the walls shattering around you, the chains breaking, the great engines of doom erupting in all their horrifying majesty. Forget Handel’s trumpets, forget odes to joy, if the day of judgement ever arrives, this is what it will sound like.

Who shall stand beside on this day? Who shall plead for us, and with what voice? In the resounding silence that the Dies Irae leaves in its wake, a lone trumpet swells in aching, lonely cadence, joined slowly by the frail, anxious voices of those who have survived the cataclysm. The Requiem is so beautiful that it is difficult to pick a favourite part of it, but if I had to pick one it would be this – the Tuba Mirum. This is the saddest, most lovely thing that Mozart ever wrote (well, okay, that’s an exaggeration, but not too much of one), a trembling paean, pregnant with memory and sorrow, that speaks forever for all our dead, all our injured, all our dispossessed and violated. All the world’s suffering is in those notes, all the helplessness of man faced with the indifference of nature and the cruelty of his fellow beings. The Tuba Mirum is the voice of eternal mourning, the immutable memory of those we have lost.

Safe in the knowledge of such prayer, the Rex Tremendae rises in glory again, but it is a softer, warmer glory, a sound made mellow by the absence of pride, a more humble rejoicing. That it should gently fade into a series of solo voices soaring in prayer seems natural – all is yearning and sweetness here, all is pleading and beautiful.

But mercy is not so easily gained. As the Confutatis arrives, the darker note of wrath returns, the strings are stern again, and the voices of the choir tumble into the darkness. But from the ashes of this sound a new note arises – cleaner, purer, paler – a quivering flame searching for the light. For a moment the confusion of the opening notes threatens to engulf it, but it gutters through, and as the music grows still again, begins to burn brighter.

It is now that we arrive, finally, at despair. As the Lachrimosa swells, I am reminded of Shakespeare – “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now”. Here is pain made liquid, here is a desolation that would make the heavens weep. Listening to the choir sing, I can feel something screaming inside me, and I have to hold on to the music, to the purity of its sound, to keep from giving in.

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”. As the Offertorium opens, you can feel the music, having been humbled and reduced to its lowest point, beginning to gather strength again. This builds slowly, lingering lovingly over the voices of the soloists bathed in sudden hope, climaxing in a mighty prayer, a Hostias of sublime power.

From here on, everything is praise. The Sanctus fills the room with new promise, the sweetly singing Benedictus celebrates this frail sense of hope and the Agnus Dei is a final, almost triumphant prayer for peace, made in the virtual surety of deliverance, of gentleness.

In the end, the thin sunbeam of the contralto’s voice returns, its quavering song still bathed in sorrow; only the choir is no longer a cloudbank, but a wall of shining mirrors, reflecting and celebrating the human soul.

It is here, in this triumphant finale, that Mozart finally pours out his heart’s blood, finally gives us the true fire that he and he alone is capable of. Here is Mozart’s own plea for immortality, the sound of genius standing up to be counted. This is who I am, Mozart seems to say, this is what I can do. Here I come towards you, riding on wings of angels. How could you deny me a place in heaven? How can you deny me a place in your heart?

Let me put it another way. When I die, I don’t want any elaborate rituals, any fancy prayers, any mournful eulogies. I don’t want ceremonies or speeches. All I ask is that someone play Mozart’s Requiem over my dead body. It will be enough. It will be more than I deserve.

Notes:

1. Post inspired by performance of Mozart’s Requiem I attended tonight. Not a very great performance, but with the Requiem even ordinary performances are immeasurably moving. It’s quite embarassing, sitting in the third row and trying not to let anyone know that you’re crying. My only consolation is that the soloists were crying too – it’s the first time I’ve seen someone cry through their own performance.

2. It’s interesting how Mozart’s incredible talent as an Opera composer serves him so well in the Requiem. The intertwining of the voices is flawless and fascinating here – the sheer unobtrusive richness of the multiple voices all joining into a single overwhelming sound. Brilliant.

Write on Thursday, Oct 13 2005 

"I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting; you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically seperated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor."

– Joan Didion, The White Album

A glowing article in the New York Review of Books about Joan Didion set me off on a spree of reading her early work – which has turned out to be the high point of my reading for the month. In the article, John Leonard writes: "I've been trying for four decades to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours…something about cadence. They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves." I couldn't agree more. Didion is one of those rare writers whose style feels so balanced, so clean, that you enjoy reading them even when they write about virtually nothing (remember Hemingway in A Moveable Feast?). There's something about her writing that escapes definition but is undeniable – her lines have a gravity all their own.

The White Album is a brilliant example of this. The title piece, with its flawless evocation of the paranoia and restlessness of the 60's (complete with college protests, Black Panthers and a dream-like evening with the Doors), is exciting enough, but the really stand-out piece for me was an essay on the feminist movement. Didion starts by celebrating the feminist movement as the ultimate class struggle, but soon falls to critiquing it on grounds that I've always strongly agreed with [1]. The problem with the way the feminist movement has evolved, Didion suggests, is that it has placed the Everywoman over every woman, so that rather than allowing women to be who they are, it has created this vision of who they need to be. This is not real freedom, it is merely a submission to a self-created icon – an exercise more in tribal religion that in socio-political ideology. Didion writes: "All one's actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it – that sense of living one's deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death – could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all."(italics in the original). Or elsewhere: "The astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real generative possibilities of adult sexual life, somehow touches beyond words….These are converts who want not a revolution but 'romance', who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life exactly in the mold of their old life. In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what the culture has done to them than the theorists ever did, and they also tell us, I suspect, that the movement is no longer a cause but a symptom." Simply brilliant.

There are many other interesting essays here, and the writing is uniformly excellent, so that reading The White Album is a real treat. Don't miss it.

To close, one last quote that I can't resist posting:

"I could not visit my mother-in-law without averting my eyes from a framed verse, a "house blessing' which hung in a hallway of her house in West Hartford, Connecticut.

God bless the corners of this house,
And be the lintel blest –
And bless the hearth and bless the board
And bless each place of rest –
And bless the crystal windowpane that lets the starlight in
And bless each door that opens wide, to stranger as to kin.

This verse had on me the effect of a physical chill, so insistently did it seem the kind of 'ironic' detail the reporters would seize upon, the morning the bodies were found."

Wow!

[1] In the interest of fending off indignant comments, let me say that I freely admit to not being an expert on the movement, and am aware that there are many ways in which Didion's critique is invalid in the 21st century. I still think, however, that for all the wealth of opportunities the movement has created for women, it has not managed to rid itself (and them) of the pressure to utilise and conform to these opportunities. The need to match up to some predefined ideal hasn't gone away; it's just that that image has changed and become harder to live up to.

Not so Good Thursday, Oct 13 2005 

Eve Ensler’s The Good Body

Question: What is the worst thing that can happen to an artist?
Answer: Celebrity Status.

If you don’t believe me, just go watch Eve Ensler’s new play, The Good Body. You’ll be treated to the fairly grotesque spectacle of a woman trying, and failing, to crawl out of her own artistic vagina.

Ensler, as everyone in the English speaking world knows by now, is the author of The Vagina Monologues, a hard-hitting and brilliant gem of a play about vaginas and the women that go with them. With its compelling and focussed exploration of an issue (and a part of the body) that no one ever talks about, The Vagina Monologues is one long, blustering statement of woman power, that has achieved that holiest of cultural epithets – Cult Status.

But where The Vagina Monologues is forceful and outspoken, The Good Body is predictable and trite (you can almost tell from the names, can’t you?). The truth is that even The Vagina Monologues isn’t a particularly well-written play – it succeeds by being constantly surprising, almost shocking, combining a witty risqueness with some deeply emotional content. Ensler’s writing is often shrill and a little forced, like the writing of someone trying too hard to impress, but the sheer impact of The Vagina Monologues means that you don’t notice this.

You do notice it in The Good Body. The Good Body is a play where Ensler tries to take on the issue of physical beauty, of the tortures women will endure in order to fit some conventional standard of good looks. This is a valid issue (though Ensler seems to assume that the only people who care about losing weight are women trying to look more beautiful; that men might want / need to look good, or that people might actually want to lose weight in order to be healthy, seems not to have occured to her) but it’s hardly uncharted territory. The Good Body is little more than a marginally clever amalgam of all the standard jokes / rants / discussions about the need to conform to some socially defined image of beauty, strung together by the whinings of a woman who (sadly) can no longer see beyond her own neuroses. The big message of the play (just to give you a sense of how banal it is) is that women don’t need to conform to some stereotypical image, that they must celebrate their own bodies and enjoy being who they are. For people who call themselves feminists, Ensler and her fans must be the last people on the planet to realise this.

And it’s not just the content of the play that seems formulaic. Ensler has clearly decided that the monologue form works for her, so that once again, the ‘play’ (if one can call a collection of haphazardly thrown together scenes that) consists of monologues by a dozen women from all across the world strung together by Ensler’s narration. Ensler (who performs the play herself) does a creditable job of reproducing the speech patterns of women from different parts of the world, but the very fact that she has to resort to so cheap a trick to keep her audience’s interest, tells you how little she has to say. Even where Ensler tries to be serious and touching the sentiment rings false, almost put on. It’s the sort of cheap ‘feminism’ one finds in low-brow chick flicks.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some wonderfully sharp and eminently quotable one-liners here [1]. It’s just that that’s all there is to the play – it’s just a lot of clever observations strung together, as though someone had decided to read out some of the better posts from their blog. The Good Body is entertaining enough – in a slap-dash, preppy sort of way – but it’s a play that says nothing new. When Vagina Monologues came out and made Ensler famous, one wondered how she was ever going to top it. Now we know she isn’t going to.

Notes:

[1] There are some glimpses of the old Ensler here, mostly in the parts where she manages to step out of herself and make ironic points about the ridiculousness of her own situation – one relates to the last few scenes because they express what one has been feeling all along, that this is a play about a silly American woman who should grow up and realise that there are bigger problems in the world than having the perfect stomach.

Not Henry James Monday, Oct 10 2005 

Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty

There’s a scene halfway through Alan Hollinghursts’s The Line of Beauty, where a young, talented pianist is giving a concert in the a private home, and keeps coming back for encore after encore, long after the people in the audience have got bored and are only applauding to be polite. That’s pretty much how I felt reading Hollinghurst’s novels – a vague sense of appreciation coupled with a strong anxiety for it to get over so I could move on to more interesting things.

It’s not that The Line of Beauty is a bad novel, exactly. It’s just whimsical and rambling – pleasant enough to skim through, but ultimately unengaging. Hollinghurst tries to channel James (the main protagonist, Nick Guest, is doing his doctoral thesis on the Master) but manages neither the great man’s psychological acuity, nor his facility with language, nor his deeply engrossing plot development. The end result is a novel that reads more like one of D. H. Lawrence’s lesser work (with sexual explicitness adjusted for our more permissive times) than like anything resembling the Golden Bowl.

The plot is classic James. A young man enters an alien world as a guest, a long-term visitor. Gradually, through a series of social interactions played out in loving detail, he makes a place for himself in this new culture, accepting and being accepted. Yet despite his success in this world he remains, at heart, an outsider, and as the novel approaches its denouement the delicate balance of his existence in this world is brought dramatically and violently to a close. Decisions are taken, conclusions reached, the world moves on a different place. Hollinghurst manages this surface similarity well – and the idea of using a Jamesian lens to explore class and sexuality differences in 80’s England is a fascinating one.

Where Hollinghurst fails is in reproducing the depth of the James experience. Too many of the scenes here seem repetitive, too much of the action seems contrived, and, ultimately, pointless(some of this, is true of James as well, of course, but the point of James’ genius is that he never lets you feel this the way Hollinghurst does; you’re never driven to question why you should even care what happens to the main characters in a J ames novel in the way I found myself doing here). Hollinghurst completely fails to explore any point of view except for his main protagonists, with the result that the other characters in the novel remain caricatures, ideal types playing out a role. Nor is his Hollinghurst’s writing particulary exceptional. His prose is adequate, but far from impressive.

Of course, The Line of Beauty is also a novel about being forthrightly, gloriously gay. Here Hollinghurst is on surer footing, I feel – he writes about being gay in a marvellously un-selfconscious manner, and his love scenes join beauty to energy in a superb way. The first section of this book, with its glorious depiction of a young man falling madly yet shyly in love with his first real boyfriend remains my favourite part of the book. As the novel progresses, however, the weight of the rest of the plot causes the love scenes to drag. What began as a zestful exploration of homosexuality becomes a case of special pleading – as if the fact that he was writing about being gay meant that Hollinghurst was interesting by default and deserved special latitude. None of the writing in the long second section matches that in the first, and while the third section manages a more authentic tone of sadness, it still makes too much of the main protagonist being gay. This is disingenuous because it achieves precisely what the first part of the novel was working against – the alienation of the reader from the protagonist’s plight. It’s hard to come away from this novel with the feeling that Nick Guest’s sexual preferences are irrelevant to the story [1] – and that, to me, makes it a weaker and less interesting novel.

Bottomline: The Line of Beauty is a pleasant but unexceptional read, a novel that has some wonderful scenes, but that could have greatly benefited from tighter editing and a greater sense of drive. Overall, another addition to my list of surprising choices that the Booker committee has made over the years.

Notes:

[1] One could argue, of course, that this is almost certainly not Hollinghurst’s point in the first place. This is valid, but it leaves me wondering, what, if anything Hollinghurst’s point is. Certainly as an exploration of being gay in England in the 80’s, the novel falls woefully short, and I can’t think of anything else that really stands out here.

The making of an orphan Monday, Oct 3 2005 

Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist

A question of the soul.
And the injured
losing their injury
in their innocence
–a cock, a cross,
an excellence of love.

– Allen Ginsberg ‘Wild Orphan

To say that Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist does justice to the Dickens’ novel it is based on would be an overstatement. It is inconceivable that any film should. For how could one possibly capture, on celluloid, the richness and balance of Dickens’ writing? How could one possibly be loyal to his gentleness, his wit, his precision? It is a task no director is equal to.

Given that limit, however, Polanski does a really good job. Oliver Twist is as faithful to the tone and spirit of Dickens’ book as anything could be. The start of the movie is weak – Polanski is not at his best with humour, and the delicious ironies of Oliver’s early existence are treated ham-handedly – there’s a sense of predictability, of cliche. The only redeeming thing about this part of the movie is the landscapes – these are done with a painter’s loving eye, so that to watch the movie is to be transported back to the land of Gainsborough and Constable.

Where the movie really picks up is when Oliver gets to London. Polanski’s achievement, through most of the film, is to deliver scene after scene that looks exactly as you would have imagined it when you read the book, so that you experience an eerie sense of deja vu, the feeling that you’ve seen this exact picture as an illustration in some book or the other. Unlike so many film makers who base their movies on great novels, Polanski is too smart to try to control or interpret Dickens. His entire endeavour seems to be to make sure that the film doesn’t come in the way of the book, so that the experience of watching the film is brought as close to the experience of reading the book as possible.

The end result is a movie that does a wonderful job of evoking memories of Dickens’ novel. Perhaps the most compelling character here is Sykes (played by Jamie Foreman). In the movie, Sykes is a brooding, palpable menace, perhaps more so than he ever was in the book. You can literally feel the atmosphere in the room change each time he enters it. It says a lot for the power of Foreman’s performance that he (ably assisted by Leanne Rowe as Nancy) rapidly becomes the emotional centre of the film, so that it almost feels as much a movie about Sykes as it is about Oliver.

And then, of course, there’s Ben Kingsley. This is not Kingsley’s greatest performance – his acting here is a little too theatrical for my taste – but there are glimpses of sheer genius in the way he plays the part of Fagin. For me, Oliver Twist has always been more about Fagin and the Artful Dodger than about Oliver (just as The Merchant of Venice has always been more about Shylock, than about Bassanio) – so it’s saying quite a lot to say that Kingsley does not disappoint me. His performance captures beautifully the ambiguity of Fagin, his tender and reluctant villainy. Fagin is the most human of Dickens’ creations here, because unlike most of the other characters he is neither good nor evil (and therefore not the embodiment of some idea of good and evil) – he is kind when he can be, heartless when he must. Fagin is generous to the point of sacrifice, but no further – he will help as much as he can, provided his own interests are not threatened in the slightest. In that sense, Fagin is the embodiment of Pareto optimality – he is happy to make someone better off, as long as it does not involve himself being made even slightly worse off. It is this struggle between kindness and cruelty that the movie brings out superbly – we are never quite sure how we feel about Fagin – whether we trust him or hate him, whether his eventual death is tragedy or justice.

At its human heart, Oliver Twist is a novel about leaving one’s parents behind. The fact that Oliver starts as an orphan is incidental (and sweetly ironic), the story of the novel is the story of how he struggles to become one. In that sense, Fagin is the ultimate abusive parent, loving and kindhearted one minute, brutal and self-serving the next; alternating between threats of physical violence and pleas for gratitude. What Oliver (and therefore the reader) must come to terms with is the fact that gratitude is not a claim, that those who are kind to us or love us, often demand to be repaid for their love and that we must have the courage to deny them this sacrifice. That it is the nature of the world that parents must be revolted against, even destroyed, if we are ever to be more than mere replicas in their image, if we are ever to be truly ourselves. Isaac must kill Abraham, not the other way around. While the movie may seem to obscure this, the real threat to Oliver is not Sykes, it is his bond to Fagin, to the other boys. How can Oliver turn against them, when they are the only real family he has ever had? How can he denounce them to the police, and thus escape from their persecution forever? It is the seductive call of this attachment that threatens to ruin Oliver, to keep him from the opportunities that lie waiting for him so near at hand.

In the end, Oliver’s choice is a cruel, even heartless one. It needs to be so. Oliver’s rescue, his glorious new life, is achieved at the cost of two deaths, two great sacrifices. That of Nancy, who in giving up her life to save Oliver, becomes the only mother he’ll ever really have; and that of Fagin, who Oliver destroys as surely as though he had pressed a gun to his head and pulled a trigger, but who Oliver, in a gesture of characteristic meaninglessness, cannot bring himself to abandon. That last scene where Oliver goes to meet Fagin in jail the night before his execution is the classic allegory of the rebellious son trying (and failing, except perhaps in his heart) to make peace with his father. Oliver, with a callousness characteristic of youth, is unapologetic but merciful, except Fagin does not seem to accept his compassion, and Oliver leaves in a flurry of panic, unable to stay another minute with this man he truly loves. In all of literature, there are few more touching and authentic scenes between a father and his son.

In Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie wrote “children are gay and innocent and heartless”. For me, Oliver Twist is a testament to that idea. To read its ending is to experience that same sense of injustice, of bitter and faux happiness that one encounters in the last chapter of Mansfield Park. Except where Mansfield Park is a surrender, Oliver Twist is a realisation. Dickens’ great insight here is that all happy endings are also tragedies, that to rejoice in the future is to be almost cruelly indifferent to the past that we once inhabited and swore to keep faith with. Whether such indifference is necessary or a cause for sorrow depends on how young you are at heart.

But to return to the movie. There is a lot that Polanski misses here. Much of Dickens’ larger involvement with questions of class and status are absent, with the result that the movie sorely lacks the irony and wit of the novel. In many ways, Dickens’ point is that Oliver’s story is shockingly unnatural, that for every one boy who is ‘saved’ the way Oliver is, there are thousands, perhaps millions, who suffer and die without ever having an opportunity to escape their lot. Oliver is exceptional only in his luck, not in his person. This never comes out in the film. Nor does the film quite manage to capture the deep sense of belonging, of family, that Fagin and his band of pickpockets give Oliver.

In the end, then, Polanski’s Oliver Twist is not a substitute for the book – it could never have been. There is a great deal missing here, a great deal that does not come across. What Polanski has managed to do is to make a movie that is a sincere and touching exploration of the personal side of Dickens’ great novel, of the terrors of growing up, of how the world mistreats us and how its cruelty goes largely unpunished, of how, in the end, we must always betray those who have been kind to us.

Family Values are for the Birds / Where’s Batman when you need him? Sunday, Oct 2 2005 

March of the Penguins

The first thing that hits you about March of the Penguins is how unimaginably beautiful a film it is. It starts with the landscapes – waters aquamarine and turquoise, ice caps neon white – breathtaking vistas of wind-swept barrenness. And in the midst of all this, the penguins – shot with infinite delicacy and trembling closeness, so that you can sense the very sleekness of their flesh, see the glittering reflection of their eye, admire the vividness of their colour, of their presence. Luc Jacquet’s camera follows the penguins everywhere: through sun and darkness, through wind and snow, on land and under water (the underwater shots are particularly beautiful – like watching an exquisite ballet). Watching the film, it is easy to forget that these are wild creatures – not human actors or trained stunt animals or (indeed) computer images – so perfect is the footage. I’m not a big fan of wildlife photography in general, but the footage that goes into the March of the Penguins has to be seen to be believed.

The second thing that hits you about the March of the Penguins is how it’s an unabashed and tedious exercise in the most frightful sentimentality and blatant anthropomorphism. Just because the penguins look vaguely human waddling about on their claws is no reason to attribute a whole range of human emotions, values and ideas to them. I mean, look, they’re birds, for god’s sake – they don’t reason and make decisions, they do what they do based on instinct – to measure their actions against the standards of human society, even to ascribe to them anything resembling rational choice is a gross trivialisation unworthy of intelligent cinema [1]. In spending all its time projecting human behaviour on to the penguins, the movie does them a grave disservice, by denying them their essential animal identity, and trying to make us all join in the pretense that they’re something more than functioning organisms designed to survive and procreate. If there is one value that does shine through in the movie, it’s the incredible resilience of Life itself – the way it survives in the harshest of all environments, using the bodies it inhabits as brutally as it needs to to survive. Everything else is just the overheated imagination of studio executives searching for the next Bambi. The entire narration of this film sounds like it was put together by someone whose sole objective was to revel in the kind of soppiness that makes people go “Awwww! So sweet!”.

I might as well say it – March of the Penguins is a movie for little children. It consistently either skips over the brutal facts of life (there are no shots of the penguins mating, for instance; and no discussion of what happens to penguins who die of the cold – do other penguins eat them? You’d think they would, given that they’re all starving, but the movie doesn’t tell us) or mentions them grudgingly, and then quickly moves on to something more positive. The result is eerily Disney-esque. For all the care, patience and skill that went into the making of this film, they might as well just have done it in animation.

You could argue, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with combining a wildlife documentary with a family potboiler – and certainly the movie does a good job of this. The trouble is that weepy family movies are precisely the kind of films that bore me and that I avoid, so personally I was annoyed that some perfectly good footage was being used in that way. More importantly though, I feel the narration is too obtrusive, too heavy-handed. Subtlety is not a strength of this film, the general idea seems to be to spell everything out in as much detail as possible, lest the viewer miss the slightest nuance of similarity between penguin and human. Had we been left to draw our own parallels, this may have been a far more touching film (remember Born Free?). As it is the entire film seems excessively stage managed, and all the really moving sequences have been narrated within an inch of their life. What makes this particularly irritating is that the footage is actually extraordinarily eloquent, and could easily speak for itself, without Morgan Freeman’s able assistance.

Bottomline: March of the Penguins could have been one of the most incredible and touching wildlife documentaries ever made if it had just been allowed the space to breathe. As it is, it’s a combination of spectacular camerawork and soppy writing. If you’re the kind of person who loves babies and teddy bears and enjoys watching Full House, you’ll probably love it. Otherwise just focus on the visuals and enjoy the film for the visual spectacle it is. And never mind the propaganda.

[1] In many ways Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is the perfect antidote to this movie – Herzog explicitly makes the point that the animals are simply animals, and one cannot ascribe human emotions to them. I wish he’d told the makers of this fil that.