The soul selects her own society Wednesday, Nov 30 2005 

Raymond Carver’s Call if you need me

“Nobody can write so simply about ordinary things as you can.”

– Gorky (in a letter to Chekhov)

Maybe not, but they can come pretty damn close. And that’s exactly what Raymond Carver’s short stories (collected in What we talk about when we talk about love, Cathedral and Where I’m calling from) manage to do. These are short stories of breathtaking simplicity, narratives stripped to so bare an essence that they seem to exist in an atmosphere all their own, a thinner, clearer light that magnifies the most human of gestures into something stark and universal. There is little drama in these stories – they seem unplanned, almost candid – yet it is precisely this lack of frenzy that makes them deeply meaningful, as though Carver had succeeded in capturing the fundamental Ordnariness of our lives. It’s as if someone had picked up a camera and just filmed a few random scenes from your everyday existence, only it turned out that the scenes he picked were scenes from everyone else’s existence as well as your own. Comparisons to Hemingway are inevitable I suppose (and personally, I’ve always thought Hemingway’s shorter work his best) but for me Carver is the finer writer, because his prose is less posturing and more amenable to emotion than Hemingway’s.

Call if you need me is a collection of five posthumous short stories coupled with a body of Carver’s unpublished work including essays, introductions and some early stories. While the other stuff is interesting enough (and some of the early stories are fascinating – particularly one called Hair where a hair stuck between the protagonist’s teeth becomes a metaphor for doubt and the nagging sense of a life gone wrong) the highlight of the book is undoubtably the five unpublished stories. These showcase Carver at his finest. There is that same sense of calm suspense, a dull yearning ache of supressed anguish that informs the narrative like a cloud soundlessly gathering; and then the ending breaks through the inertia to shed the trembling light of its understanding on all that has passed before.

There is nothing particularly exceptional about the plots of these stories. Rather, they are, in strict adherence to a creed laid down by Chekhov and cited by Carver at the start of the book, ordinary stories about ordinary people. A homeless and recovering alcoholic spends a few days as a paying guest in a new city, trying to discover some meaning to his life; a couple enjoy a final meal with their landlords before going their seperate ways for the winter; a husband and wife watch as their neighbour is struck by tragedy, and wonder what they can do for her; a man meets his wife’s old friends and silently confronts the ghosts of his and his wife’s past; a middle-aged couple try, and fail, to keep their marriage together. These are sad, lonely stories – portraits of quiet desperation, of lives made fragile by time and emotion. Yet Carver, with his simple, straightforward prose manages to discover in them a timeless beauty, manages to find, with clinical accuracy, the pulse of the poetry that they beat with.

One of Carver’s key insights is that the heart’s fences are not easily patrolled, that the landscape of emotion gives way reluctantly, if at all, to boundaries of action. We are who we are, Carver seems to say, and while a combination of personality and circumstance may make it inevitable that we make certain decisions, act in certain ways, these cannot change what we feel for each other. The habits of the heart die hard.

It is this recognition that lends Carver’s characters a certain tenderness, a reluctant grace. When the couple in the story that gives the book its title finally decide that their marriage is over they do not separate with bitter curses or barely repressed anger. Instead, the decision to part becomes, for them, a kind of release – so that they linger in the dying twilight of their togetherness, sharing the small intimacies of being together for the last time. Carver’s great gift is that he understands that there is no contradiction here – that it is possible to both deeply care for someone without actually wanting to be with them. This is not duplicity, it is the reality of human desire. We do what we must, but we feel what we can. [1]

My own introduction to Carver came primarily through his poems, which share with his fiction both a simplicity of wording and the ability to leave you breathless with insight. Since then I have come to read and re-read his writing, until my admiration for his work has come to express itself in attempts (both conscious and unconscious) to emulate his style. Call if you need me is a small yet important step in that journey, a loose clutch of scattered little gems that is a must read for Carver fans everywhere.

Links:

a. Talk about coincidences – I sit down to write this and discover that Karthik has a post on Carver’s Where I’m calling from. Go read.

b. For more on Carver’s poetry, see Minstrels – particularly this submission, that says everything I wanted to say about Carver’s poems better than I could myself.

Notes:

[1] In one of Carver’s early stories (included in this collection) a young man who is to be publicly sacrificed and the woman who is to be his executioner fall in love. Carver describes beautifully how they spend their last day together, ending up on an altar in the stadium where they lovingly bid farewell to each other before she cuts his heart out.

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With malice towards none, with charity for all Sunday, Nov 20 2005 

Carson McCuller’s Clock Without Hands

There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous

– Eccl. 8:14

Before there was Marilynne Robinson, before there was Harper Lee, there was Carson McCullers. McCullers is one of the great unsung geniuses of American Literature – a writer who combines exquisite prose with a quick eye and a lyrical sensibility. Graham Greene once compared her, favourably, to Faulkner; Tennessee Williams applauds her work for possessing “an understanding beyond knowledge, a compassion beyond sentiment”. McCullers’ literary output is not large – three novels, a handful of luminous short stories, a play – but every piece is a miracle of aching precision, of gentle and heartbreaking beauty.

Clock without Hands, McCuller’s last novel, is no exception. Set in the town of Milan, Georgia, the novel is an exploration of the American South on the brink of desegregation – a book about the difficult and lonely ways that the Old South comes to deal (and not deal) with its ghosts. The story is told from the perspective of four characters: Malone, a storekeeper who has been diagnosed with leukemia and is trying to make sense of the “tedious labyrinth of his life” in the last summer that is left to him; Judge Clane, a bigoted ex-congressmen, a senile and powerless man trying to fill the lonely days of his dotage with the memories of past glory; Jester Clane, his grandson, a sensitive young adolescent trying to find an identity for himself in the cross-fire of ideas that his world has become; and Sherman Pew, an angry, aggressive black man, seeking desperately for acknowledgement from the world around him. Together, these characters make up a powerful allegory of the South in the days when the civil rights movement was still nascent; in the microcosm of their Georgian hometown they are like stage hands, setting the scene for the greater drama that is inevitably to follow. The novel does not actually take us into this drama – the book ends at the point when the Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools is announced, but the certainty of that revolution is a living presence in the story, making this McCullers most overtly political novel.

And yet a political novel is precisely what Clock Without Hands is not. McCullers greatest gift as a writer is her almost boundless capacity for empathy – her ability to not only see things from the point of view of each one of her characters, but to show these points of view directly and simply to the reader, so that you are able to find understanding in your heart for every one of her many players. McCullers’ insight is that it is possible to be kind without being partial, to judge without condemning, to be sympathetic without being forgiving. There is no false sentiment here – not for a moment does McCullers waver in her vision of right and wrong – there is only the recognition that to disagree with someone does not mean that you cannot feel sorry for them, cannot see where they are coming from. In a sense, this is what makes McCullers the most American of writers – the spirit of her books is the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address – “let us judge not, that we be not judged”, Lincoln said, and that is, I think, McCullers’ greatest, most generous recognition.

And it is in that recognition that McCullers true genius is born. More than any other writer since Chekhov, McCullers understands that the idea of ‘character’ is a myth. Very few of us are truly good or evil, very few of us have any real talent for either heroism or villainy. These are things that are thrust upon us, not things we are born with. Behind the masks of champion and bigot, of saint and murderer, lie the same tired and intensely human faces, the same confused, tentative and inconsistent souls. There is no reason, in McCullers’ book, that a bigoted and corrupt judge cannot also be a senile and laughable old fool who quotes Shakespeare and believes he could have written Gone with the Wind (only better); and no reason why both these people cannot also be an estranged and dying old man struggling to come to terms with the deaths of his beloved wife and son, desperate for love, for admiration. Acts of great horror and acts of great nobility are not committed by men of exceptional parts, but by people like you and me – the Nanny is also Tybalt, Caliban is also Ferdinand. For any other writer managing this duality would be a challenging, even impossible task – McCullers not only manages it effortlessly, she makes these different parts of the character’s personality feed upon each other, so that they combine to form a incredibly life-like whole. Her characters are created from the inside, sketched out for us with such crystal clear precision that recognition is immediate and unavoidable. Moreover, McCullers has Shakespeare’s facility for combining the tragic and the comic – even at their most tortured her characters are ridiculous, even at their most joking there are serious emotions at play. Laughter and tears are deeply intertwined in McCullers, they are the two sides that make up the coin of every situation.

Add to this the sheer thrill of McCullers sublime prose [1]. Consider the following: “Looking downward from an altitude of two thousand feet, the earth assumes order. A town, even Milan, is symmetrical, exact as a small grey honeycomb, complete. The surrounding terrain seems designed by a law more just and mathematical than the laws of property and bigotry: a dark parallelogram of pine woods, square fields, rectangles of sward. One this cloudless day the sky on all sides and above the plane is a blind monotone of blue, impenetrable to the eye and the imagination. But down below the earth is round. The earth is finite. From this height you do not see man and the details of his humiliation. The earth from a great distance is perfect and whole.”

Bottomline: Clock without Hands is a powerful and sublime book – a novel of delicious humour and tender irony, a book that combines searing, passionate outrage with a deep well-spring of compassion. If sympathy is a virtue, McCullers seems to say, then it is inevitable that the good will suffer unkindness while the evil will seem to prosper; but to deny the enemy his humanity will make us the very thing we oppose. Our only hope is to find a way to love our opponents without agreeing with them, to forgive the lapses of others without losing our own integrity. This is a hard road, and it is the ease with which McCullers helps us to travel it that makes her one of the purest, most moving writers in the language.

[1] The title of the book is a reference to a passage where Malone examines the “alien emotions that had veered so violently in his once mild heart.” Faced with the certainty of his own death, but uncertain as to its exact timing, Malone is gripped by a feeling of dread and despair that he cannot quite understand or explain. He feels like a man watching a clock without hands. Soch a glorious line, and such a telling allegory for the larger political climate.

The Fondest Heart Tuesday, Nov 15 2005 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores

I can give not what men call love
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heavens reject not:
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.

– P.B. Shelley

We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies

– William Shakespeare, ‘King Lear’ V.3

There was a time, not so long ago, when a new Marquez novel was as exciting as an exotic stranger, a woman so full-bodied, so wholly carnal, that just to glance at her was to become her slave forever, just to be shown that tantalising first line was to be irrevocably seduced. All you had to do was catch one whiff of the book’s rich, animal language and you were lost, surrendered to an overwhelming passion, given utterly and hopelessly to the chapters of her caresses, to the sheer lustiness of her characters, to the baroque and endless pleasures of her prose; the sheer energy of her engagement would keep you up through the night, leaving you spent and dizzy until the dawn found you, a broken figure staggering slowly back to the world, sinking into a dream from which you would only emerge in the evening when you went to a bar and drank tequila and bragged to your friends about what you had just experienced. To read Marquez was to know the madness of a love affair, that breathless, headlong rush into a world whose beauty was not meant to be so much admired as embraced.

Memories of my melancholy whores, Marquez’s new novel, is not that kind of book. Thinner, less voluptuous; this is a delicate waif of a novel, a story of fragile bones and almost pre-pubescent beauty, a book so supremely unconscious that to even touch it seems like sacrilege.

Not that Marquez stints on local colour here – there is the same tropical sense of place, the raw jungle smell of the writing, and every now and then we get flashes of the old Marquez (“In the afternoons of my final old age no one remembered the immortal Castorina, dead for who knows how long, who had risen from the miserable corners of the river docks to the sacred throne of elder madam, wearing a pirate’s patch over the eye she lost in a tavern brawl. Her last steady stud, a fortunate black from Camaguey called Jonas the Galley Slave, had been one of the great trumpet players in Havana until he lost his entire smile in a catastrophic train collision”), but it seems to me that this one of Marquez’s quietest, most poetic works, a tender-hearted meditation on the power of love and the perils of old age.

The narrator of Memories of my melancholy whores is a ninety year old man who finds himself strangely drawn to a teenage virgin whom he watches sleeping night after night, never managing to bring himself to consummate with her the night of passion he has paid for. As the book progresses, the narrator finds himself finally experiencing, so late in the course of a life filled with meaningless sexual triumphs, the sublime joy of falling in love – and the glow of that emotion becomes the light by which he defines a new life for himself. The teenage girl (who he names Delgadina, not knowing her real name) and he exchange no words – she is almost always asleep when they are together – but his imagination conjures her into a presence, a ghostly spirit who teaches him how to see the world in an entirely different way. “Love is not a condition of the spirit”, Marquez writes, “it is a sign of the zodiac.” It is these constellations of feeling that the narrator is learning to read for the first time, and in them he begins to see, dimly, a future he could never before have imagined. The story of Memories of my melancholy whores is the story of the slow, prickly flowering of an old man’s passion, a story as gentle and bitter-sweet and reluctant as the love it seeks to describe.

Not that the idea of an old man’s lust for a young girl is a new theme for Marquez. Updike, in his review of the book in the New Yorker details the many different avatars of young girls sold into prostitution in Marquez’s novels, a list to which I can only add the insistent memory of an episode in Autumn of the Patriarch (my favourite Marquez, btw) where the Patriarch develops a fondness for young schoolgirls, watching them walk by his palace – an appetite that his courtiers sate by arranging for whores dressed in school uniforms. That the new novel is a sadder, more melancholy exploration of this idea is undeniable, though, and Marquez adds an intriguing twist to the plot by ensuring that the girl is always asleep when the narrator is with her, so that her very unconsciousness becomes at once a form of innocence and a metaphor for disdain.

Given the story of the book, the comparison with Lolita is inevitable, but also, I think, misleading. It’s not just that Marquez’s style and sensibility are very unlike Nabokov’s, it’s also that his whole endeavour is entirely different. Memories of my melancholy whores is only tangentially a novel about an old man’s fascination for a teenage girl, it is more a story of an old man’s reflection on his own life and the reality of his old age. The right comparison for Delgadina is not Lolita, but Dulcinea – like Quixote, the narrator of Marquez’s novel is a man driven by an impossible quest, and despite her undeniable physical presence in the bed next to him, the object of his affections is more fiction than fact.

All in all, Memories of my melancholy whores is a calm yet lyrical portrait of the grandeur and pettiness of old age that is pure Marquez for its genuiness, its richness of observation and detail. Reading the book, the writer I was most reminded of (perhaps because of the quotation from his work at the front of the novel) was Kawabata. There are points in this novel where Marquez achieves the calm, translucent humanity of the great Japanese master, points where the silences are as aching, as relentlessly sincere, and the minimalism of detail creates a scene that is both timeless and universal in its message.

But if Memories of my melancholy whores is a deeply realist book it is also bravely, magically allegorical. In a sense, Delgadina is life, and the narrator’s discovery of her is nothing more than an old man’s realisation of an entire existence spent too busy living to ever be truly alive. As the narrator descends slowly into make-believe, drawing consolation from the small re-arrangements of a room that can only be thought of as memory, we find ourselves asking the question – is it too late? Should the narrator embrace life even now, at this late hour? Or must he content himself with a brittle and tearful contemplation of a life that he can never really share in, a life that pays him no attention and that he dare not disturb? Even the messages that the narrator finds scribbled on the mirror are symbolic (“The tiger does not eat far away”). If the metaphors here are more direct, more blatant, they are also more passionate – it is as though Marquez, tired of his own skill as artificer extraordinaire had chosen to write more directly from the heart, so that the book feels rawer, more fragmented, but also, perhaps, more true.

If there is one problem I had with the book, it was with the way it concludes. The end, when it comes, is both a surprise and a disappointment. (As a madwoman says to the narrator at some point in his lovesick wanderings “I’m the one you’re not looking for”). Marquez, speaking through his narrator, writes “I became aware that the invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love.”. It is an observation that he would have done well to keep sight of.

Nevertheless, Memories of my melancholy whores is a beautiful, evocative and deeply satisfying read. And if Marquez, having brought us so far, allows himself to be optimistic, allows his concern for his characters to get the better of his judgement, this is only an old man’s fooling, the harmless little joke of a world weary writer that we can only smile at sadly, because we bear him too much affection to scorn him something so small. There’s a point in Memories of my melancholy whores where the narrator’s old maid, tired of his ceaseless importuning says “Have you thought about what you’ll do if I say yes?”. It’s this generosity of spirit, this sort of genial and kindly magic, that makes Marquez a writer you can’t help being touched by.

Human, all too human Monday, Nov 14 2005 

The Squid and the Whale

Okay, for starters, whoever came up with the title for this movie deserves to be shot. Why in god’s name would they give a perfectly articulate, intelligent movie about family and relationships a name that comes straight off the menu in a Japanese seafood place? What were they thinking?

Just to set the record straight then – The Squid and the Whale is an articulate and engaging film that gives new life to the Tolstoy saw about all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way. Jeff Daniels plays Bernard Berkman, an author and a teacher of creative writing in the midst of a full-blown mid-life crisis. Bernard is a Narcissus in denial, a petulant and self-obsessed man who is slowly being forced to face his own failures. As the chasms of his own inadequacy open under Bernard’s feet, he reacts by turning his family into his own personal fiefdom, the world according to Bernard, a land where his judgements and opinions are unquestioned, his authority absolute. As a father and husband, Bernard is a pitiful and troubled tyrant, a mass of overblown ego, a man who can find no way to connect to those whose love he desperately seeks, except through bombast.

What makes Bernard’s insecurities worse is the fact that his wife, Joan, (played to perfection by Laura Linney) is blossoming into her own – while Bernard collects rejection after rejection, his wife has a new book deal and is being published in the New Yorker. Not that Joan is a paragon of any kind – she too is a troubled person, a woman struggling to find the right line between independence and love, between caring and self-assertion. Unlike Bernard, for whom the family is merely a prop for his own ego, Joan is considerate and caring about her family, but as her marriage falls apart (and it is a slow, steady decline – an erosion, rather than a collapse) she cannot resist throwing herself into affair after affair in search of happiness. If Bernard is the embodiment of wounded pride, Joan is a character trembling to be her own person.

Given these differences, a separation between these two seems inevitable, yet the fall-out of that separation is felt most keenly by the couple’s two sons – Walt and Frank. These two are the emotional centre of the film – indeed, what the film is about (to the extent that it is ‘about’ anything) is the way Walt and Frank chart the difficult terrain of their parents separation to become adults in their own right. Adolescence, the movie seems to suggest, is a difficult time at best, but to try to grow into an adult in a divided house is an adventure more than usually fraught with peril. The children emphatically do not cope with this (no one in this film does) – Frank retreats into a murky exploration of his own pubescent sexuality, Walt starts by emulating the glibness of his father, only to discover that facile sophistication is no substitute for good old fashioned genuineness. That the children take sides in the battle between their parents (Walt his father’s, Frank his mother’s) is incidental – the real challenge here is for them to renounce both so as to have some real chance of accepting either. The Whale and the Squid is a fascinating look at how that liberation is achieved.

As such, The Whale and The Squid is a classic example of that now familiar genre – the ‘intelligent’ independent film, where serious performances by skilled actors struggle to both depict life as it actually is and say something coherent about it in the process. It is also, a wry and subtle comedy – a film that makes you laugh at the idiocy of its characters while feeling a great deal of sympathy for them. Featuring superb performances by both Daniels and Linney, the movie’s chief virtue is the exactness of its characters – the confused and uncertainness humanness of their predicament that makes them so easy to relate to. If Bernard outrages us with his opinions (Tender is the Night, it seems, is minor Fitzgerald) it is only because we understand better than we would want to where his pomposity comes from, because we are aware that in our worst moments we too are as petty, as mean spirited.

Bottomline: The Whale and The Squid is a rewarding enough movie to watch – not a great movie, but a clever, thoughtful film that manages to be tender without being sentimental, that manages to be funny without being laughable.

A Dream Betrayed Sunday, Nov 6 2005 

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

“There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.”

– George Orwell

In every generation, in every age, there are a handful of writers, a few only, whose voices are the voices of moral authority. Whose writing, authentic and exact as the needle of a compass, helps us to decipher the murkiest of our ethical questions. We may not always agree with their positions, but we cannot help respecting them for their stand, and in either supporting or attacking them we find ourself forced to clarify not only our own thoughts but also, and more importantly, our own feelings. We may disagree with their politics, but we cannot dismiss the people.

It would be hard to find an English writer of the last century who better exemplifies this type (I hesitate to say ideal, though some would argue the word is apt) than George Orwell. Orwell’s unadorned and unassuming prose has the honesty of a spotlight, it has only to be focussed on a subject for all the dross of obfuscation and propaganda to be shorn away, and the cold, hard logic of the argument to show through in all its dire, unflinching majesty. In an age when capitalist democracy would seem to have won an overwhelming victory over both fascist dictatorships and communist authoritarianism, Orwell’s writings may seem to have little but historical interest, but even so the uncompromising authority of his vision has to be read to be believed. Taken as a whole Orwell’s books may mark the most complete and compelling attack ever mounted against the forces of propaganda, of ideological misdirection via the media. Orwell’s disdain for journalists in general is profound and (probably) excessive, but the key message of his writing – that history falls to easily into the hands of those who wish to reshape it, and that in an age of propaganda the chief duty of the intelligent man is to establish and defend the truth at all costs – is arguably more relevant today than it has been at any point since the close of the Vietnam War.

Homage to Catalonia is a proud and important affirmation of that message. Lionel Trilling, in his 1950 introduction to the book, calls it quite simply “one of the important documents of our time.” That claim is, if possible, an understatement. Homage to Catalonia is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read, an indignant and heartfelt book that manages, at the same time, to be deeply insightful. The book is an account of a period of roughly half a year that Orwell spent in Spain, fighting with the Spanish militia (or, more specifically, with the militia organised by the Marxist P.O.U.M party) against the forces of General Franco. This is an interesting time, not only because it is 1937 and the forces of Fascism and Communism are preparing themselves for what will eventually become World War II, but also because it is both an exciting and somewhat confused period in Spanish history – a period on which Orwell’s book casts important light. Orwell’s status as a participant in the action – he fought for four months on the front, receiving a bullet wound to the throat that left him literally speechless and led to his eventual discharge – is one of the key sources of his authority here. It is hard to argue with someone who can offer a compelling eye-witness account of events, who can describe, in such exquisite detail, both the inglorious realities of life at the front and the charged political atmosphere prevailing in Barcelona. George Packer, in a recent New Yorker article about the relationship between Hemingway and Dos Passos at the same time, writes: “Almost seventy years after its publication, his “Homage to Catalonia” holds up against all the recent revelations and controversies about the Spanish Civil War”. To see how deep and important a book it is, you have only to compare it to the romantic monstrosity that Hemingway produced about essentially the same conflict.

At the heart of Orwell’s book is the vision of a revolution betrayed. The story of Homage to Catalonia is the story of a true working-class revolution, an uprising, in 1936, of the common people of Spain against not only the Fascist forces of Franco, but also against the bourgeois democratic institutions that had held them so long in their neo-feudal grip. Thus, in the aftermath of the people’s uprising, farms and factories are collectivised, shadow local governments of workers put in place and the army that marches out to fight Franco is an army of comrades, of equals – there are no formal ranks, no pay differentials. A socialistic ideal has been established. It is Orwell’s contention in the book that this revolution was systematically undermined and then destroyed by the Communist Party itself, whose interest (or rather Stalin’s interest – which at this point was the same thing) lay simply in protecting the USSR. This meant that the capitalist republics that were Russia’s key strategic allies had to be appeased, and made the success of a worker’s revolution in Spain a political inconvenience. So important was this political objective for the Communist Party, Orwell argues, that they were willing to not only betray the Spanish working class, but even to indulge in petty infighting and reprisals against loyal anti-fascists, even at the cost of weakening the offensive against Franco. As the book progresses, we see the factions that Orwell supports, and who have been waging a long, hard battle against the Fascist forces, being accused first of jeopardising the defense against the Fascists, and later of outright treason. Orwell presents, in the second half of his book, a fairly detailed account of how this terrible betrayal was accomplished, along with a scathing indictment of the way that journalists, particularly the foreign press, played along with the Communist Party line, without any respect for truth, reason or fairness.

At this point one cannot help but question Orwell’s objectivity – he questions it himself. That Orwell’s sympathies are clearly with the P.O.U.M. (which was branded as a Trotsky-ite organ of the Fascists themselves and brutally suppressed in mid 1937) is both evident and admitted, and certainly much of his anger against the Communist betrayal derives from his personal loyalties. Despite this, Orwell is hard to disbelieve. In part this is because he is, after all, Orwell. In part, it is because his writing is a model of clear organisation and detached, clinical prose (it is hard to accuse a man who can write “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail” of not being dispassionate). But mostly it’s because, despite his partisan perspective, he brings a great deal of logic and factual accuracy to bear on his conclusions. Leaving all his wonderful analysis of the inconsistencies in the Communist (and popular) interpretation of the events of that time aside (though these are extremely sharp and to the point) Orwell’s main argument is a simple one: If the militia was truly pro-Fascist how does one explain the fact that thousands of militia fighters held critical fronts against Franco’s forces through a long, hard winter with pitiful weapons and supplies, while Communist aid was slow to come and more regular government forces were yet to make their presence felt? To the extent that it is true that in late 1936 and late 1937 Anarchist forces were the key reason that the Spanish government was able to hold out against the Fascists, it hardly seems logical to claim that these forces were the very ones that were planning to betray the Spanish government after it was better prepared to take on Franco. There are many other impressive arguments that Orwell makes, describing in detail the things he saw and experienced, many of which seem inexplicable except as proof of Communist treachery – and too many of his facts are too easily refutable for him to be lying – but this, to me, seemed the most positive and convincing of his arguments.

Why is this interesting? First, because it sheds a new light, not only on the Spanish history of that period (and it is hard to argue with Orwell’s version of it) but also on the implications this has for the period immediately to follow. All through the book there is the idea, sometimes stated, sometimes implied, that the infighting between the various political interest groups in Europe severely hampered these early efforts by Spanish fighters to defeat the fascist powers. This is interesting because it makes the rapid advances of Fascist forces in Europe that much more explicable – it’s not just that the Axis powers were formidably well-organised, it’s also that their opponents were too caught up in their own petty power struggles to successfully oppose their common foe. At one point, writing about the British destroyers that were sent to help the Spanish Government quell an ‘uprising’ by the Anarchists in Barcelona (a historical event which Orwell examines in great detail) Orwell writes that “the British Government, which had not raised a finger to save the Spanish Government from Franco, would quickly intervene to save it from its own working class“. In another part of the book he argues that the Communist Party did immeasurable harm to the anti-fascist struggle by not allowing the war in Spain to be seen as a battle of the working class against the fascists. Had they acknowledged the reality of the revolution in Spain, he argues, international support for the Spanish fighters would have been much greater. This sense of disillusionment, of outrage, is ever present in the Homage to Catalonia – Orwell, tries to maintain a balanced and impartial (if unobjective) point of view, but the depth of his indigation comes through clearly. Strangely, this does not hurt the credibility of the book, rather it lends it a sort of moral force, so that what could easily have been a sterile exploration of civil war politics becomes an emotional and personal journey.

The larger reason I think Homage to Catalonia is important, though, is that in a world grown too dismissive of Socialist ideals, it offers an insightful view of two very different faces of the Socialist vision. In what remains, for me, the most important passage of the book, Orwell writes:

“However much one cursed at the time, one realised afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all.”

In our own time, this alternate vision of Socialism has long died out. The verdict of history is against Socialism now, or rather against the kind of communism that Stalin and Mao developed, which was, if truth be told, a travesty of every socialist ideal, a cruel despotism masquerading as historic inevitability. It may no longer be possible to think of Socialism, as a practical political force, with anything but nostalgia. That Socialism is dead is more or less unquestionable – but there are those of us who continue to believe that its death represents a great and grievous failure, the betrayal of the greatest dream that mankind ever had the courage to dream, however difficult and improbable it may have been. Orwell, in writing about the P.O.U.M militia is not simply paying homage to Catalonia, or to the terrible fate of those brave men who fought against the forces of fascism with everything they had only to be denounced as traitors by their own country. He is composing an important and touching elegy to an idyll of human brotherhood that was never to be.

The last line of Homage to Catalonia reads “… the deep deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.” It is this sort of clarity, this level of insight, this incredible and prescient understanding, that makes Orwell one of the truest and most important voices of his time.

A brush with death Saturday, Nov 5 2005 

Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position;

– W. H. Auden

There is a scene in Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red, where the Sultan orders the three great miniaturists of his court to each paint a horse. As they compete, one master says that when he paints a horse he becomes a horse; a second says that when he paints a horse he becomes one of the Great Masters painting a horse, the third affirms that when he paints a horse he remains himself.

It is this multiplicity of perspectives, of approaches to art, that My Name is Red is a celebration of. The setting is Istanbul, the world of the Turkish miniaturists, who sit in their workshops decorating great and holy books for the pleasure and prestige of their rulers. Faithful imitation is the creed of these painters, their greatest joy is to render each image in a way that makes it indistinguishable from all other similar illustrations, so that the image itself becomes absolute, timeless. For these painters, individuality, or ‘style’, is error.

Into the rigidity of this world comes a vision of painting, imported from the West, where the great Italian painters are discovering depth and light and perspective, and are beginning to paint portraits of shocking and lifelike glory. Such a technique is not simply antithetical to the art of the Turks, it is also potentially blasphemous, since the creation of idols or portraits is forbidden by Islam. Nevertheless, the Sultan orders the creation of a secret and glorious book that endeavours to adopt this new form of painting – a project that causes grave rifts in the fraternity of the miniaturists and ultimately ends in a series of gruesome murders.

Pamuk uses this setting to indulge in a long and insightful meditation on the nature of art and through it, the deeper meaning of existence. At the heart of the questions that the book raises is the debate between the universal and the particular, and their respective places in the creative arts. If Art is not to be universal, the old Masters ask, if it is to celebrate nothing more magical than the ordinary and the human, if it is not to improve on reality in any way, then what is the point of it? But what does Art mean if it is completely divorced from the real world, the supporters of the new style respond, how can a man who has never seen a battle paint one? As a discussion about realism vs idealism in art this is an interesting discussion by itself, but in Pamuk’s hand it becomes an allegory for an even deeper question – what is the meaning of the self? Does virtue lie in celebrating the self or effacing it? Does greatness consist of losing oneself in the infinite, or in setting one’s self apart from it? This is not simply a clash of two artistic traditions, it is the fundamental battle of generations, the eternal conflict between new ideas and the old traditions.

Pamuk’s answer to this debate, which he places, subtly and ironically, in the mouth of the Master of the Miniaturists himself, is that both sides of the debate are right. Virtue and greatness consist not in stagnating in the name of the old but in drawing on what one can learn from the old masters to create a new tradition of one’s own. This is the true challenge for the artist. It is, moreover, a difficult challenge – one that can easily destroy even the most talented of creative spirits, one that must not be undertaken lightly.

But there is much more to My Name is Red than this. As these ideas play themselves out in the background, the foreground is taken up by one of the more exciting murder mysteries I have read this year. As the novel opens, a miniaturist has been murdered, done in by one of his brethren, and the plot of the novel is essentially a breathless race to find and apprehend this murderer. At the centre of this investigation is Black, a young man who returns to Istanbul after an exile of 12 years, only to find himself plunged into a world of art and intrigue. As a character, Black in the quintessential Hitchcock hero – a well-meaning but unimpressive young man, who finds himself trapped in a ruthless endgame where he must solve a terrible mystery while also somehow managing to secure the hand of his beloved. Blending suspense and romance, the plot of My Name is Red is as engaging as it is dramatic, filled with colourful characters, humorous asides and some truly enchanting story-telling. As the novel builds towards its climax, the tension is almost nerve-wrenching and you can feel yourself almost screaming at Pamuk to get on with it.

This is both one of the glories of the book and one of its deepest failures. On the one hand, by interspersing long, sombre meditations on art with some fast-paced action, Pamuk brilliantly counterpoints the universal with the human, embellishing the point of his book, and considerably enriching it as a novel. On the other hand, large parts of the novel seem to go on for too long, with Pamuk making the same point again and again, long after one has already understood what he is trying to say. I suspect the repetition is part of Pamuk’s design – his attempt to demonstrate why the slower, more meandering ways of the old ones would be difficult to accept for those of us who live in this more impatient, urgent age, but it gets to the point where it’s almost wearying, so that you’re tempted to simply skip ahead a few pages and get on with the action. It may well be the fault of the translation that Pamuk is unable to maintain the pace of the book, but it is undeniable that there are points where this book flags.

That said, this is still a wickedly intelligent book. It’s not just that the plot sets up the universal debate about art versus the deeply human concerns of Black and his beloved, it’s also the way Pamuk uses the central idea of miniaturist art, the denial of personal style, as the key to his murder mystery. Even though all three suspects take on the role of narrator at different points in the novel, their identities remain distinguished in only the most subtle ways – given how Pamuk portrays them, they are hard to tell apart. It is this that makes it difficult to identify the murderer among them, not only for Black but for the reader as well. Thus Pamuk manages to use a way of looking at art as the tool by which he creates suspense in his novel – a truly brilliant achievement.

My Name is Red is a fascinating read – not least because of Pamuk’s clever, innovative style. Pamuk reads like a combination of Rushdie and Mahfouz – a restless inventor joined to a writer of melancholy and thoughtful prose. The novel shifts perspective endlessly – it is told through the eyes of each one of the key characters, as well as from the perspectives of various paintings and objects, and a few corpses along the way. Fables, legends and myths adorn the writing at every turn, there are numerous short stories sprinkled through the book that would do Borges proud. In the final analysis, if you come away less stunned by the brilliance of the writing than you should be, it could only be because of the baroque nature of Pamuk’s ornamentation, the sheer denseness of his work that sits heavy on the mind, like a rich halva.

Bottomline: My Name is Red is that rare thing: a novel that manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, a deeply allegorical murder mystery. If it feels a trifle long and stifling at times, it is only because our palates are not used to prose that is so densely, richly beautiful.

P.S. The two paintings in the middle: the one on the left is a painting of a musician by the great Persian miniaturist Behzad, the one on the right is a painting of Orpheus (modelled on one of the Medicis) by Bronzino. You can see the difference.

Rabbit, Rabbit, Were-fore art thou Rabid? Thursday, Nov 3 2005 


Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were Rabbit

Back when I was six years old, someone presented me with a plasticine set – you know, the kind where you get this whole bunch of dough and an assortment of strange hats and pipes and shoes, and you’re supposed to put together vaguely potato-head type creatures. I had an amazing amount of fun with that set, coming up with a varied assortment of vague figures that won, at the time, considerable acclaim from my mother and other such doting, if somewhat unobjective critics.

Nothing I came up with in those days, however, could even begin to approach the (literally) phenomenal work of two-time Oscar winner Nick Park, whose incredible cast of plasticine models make him perhaps the most engaging, most creative and most down-right entertaining animator in the world today. Wallace and Gromit may be the most ingenious comic pairing to come out of the UK since Wooster and Jeeves (forgive me, I swore I wouldn’t make this comparison, but it’s just too obvious not to be made).

They aren’t much to look at, of course. Just two pasty-faced characters, a middle-aged balding man with a paunch and his long-suffering dog, inhabiting a world that is almost deliberately ersatz. Park’s world is very far from the breezy sophistication of Pixar – there are no dazzling visuals here, no stunning visual effects. Like a true puppet master, Park knows that what the audience really connects to, what the audience really craves, is a story – get them involved in the action and they won’t even notice the fine artwork. How many people watched Finding Nemo for the glorious visuals of underwater life, how many people (viewers, not critics) even noticed them? Right, exactly. Not that there isn’t a great deal of painstaking animation here – it took five years to make this movie – it’s just that Park is not trying to make his animation look as though it could have been shot in the real world with a camera, he’s trying to make it look as cartoon like as possible. The visual clunkiness of Wallace and Gromit is entirely deliberate.

And it’s not just the visuals where Park is not trying to be unique. The real genius of Park is that he understands the fundamental creed of good light-hearted comedy – don’t show them something they haven’t seen before. Good comedy doesn’t need to be unpredictable or profound, on the contrary, it’s precisely the silliness, the total obviousness of the plot that allows the audience to relax and thoroughly enjoy themselves. To watch Wallace and Gromit is to be bathed in a glow of happy and warm nostalgia, to be allowed to laugh yourself silly at all its corny jokes, to be permitted to admire the sly wit (both verbal and visual) that Park brings to the movie, safe in the knowledge that what will eventually happen is entirely inevitable. Anthony Lane, in his review of the movie in the New Yorker (a review that I entirely endorse and urge you to read, if only for the cracks about Jessica Alba) compares Park to Chaplin and Keaton – the comparison is entirely apt.

This movie, the duo’s full length feature, opens in the sleepy village of Tottington, where a plague of rabbits threatens the beloved veg of the local populace. As the annual Tottington vegetable fair (with its coveted prize of the Golden Carrot) nears, Wallace and Gromit (who run a ‘humane’ pest control agency called, inevitably, Anti-pesto) are entrusted with the important responsibility of keeping the village produce safe from these pests. This leaves them however, with a problem of surplus rabbits (they can’t kill them, you see, that would be too cruel a bunny-shment) which Wallace, with an inspiration unequalled since Frankenstein, proposes to dispose off through proper rehabilitation of the rabbits using a machine (of his invention, naturally) to brainwash their impressionable bunny minds. In the time-honoured tradition of all experiments conducted under a ghostly moon and involving electricity and brains in the same sentence, things go horribly wrong, and soon a fabled monster from the depths of Hell, a were-rabbit, is terrorising the local population, crunching away at their cabbage, destroying whole swathes of pumpkins, leaving the shattered bodies of young carrots in its ravaging wake. How will our heroes deal with so hare-raising a calamity? Will they be able to save the village, or is the entire situation completely hop-less?

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a hilarious, action-packed romp of a comedy, at once a lovable modern fairy tale and a wickedly clever spoof of a whole range of cinematic genres. The snide spoofs of horror movies I was expecting, but King Kong? Batman? Jaws? It says a lot for the cleverness and subtlely of the movie that the movie I feel it spoofs the most is that World War II classic – Mrs. Minniver. Park’s attention to detail is simply mind-blowing – just check out the sequence of framed pictures that make up the opening scene of the film – that alone tells you you’re in the presence of genius. Plus there’s the endless supply of atrocious puns (a sample: How do you kill a were-rabbit? With a golden bullet, of course, it’s 24 carrots you see) and the tireless little visual jokes. Don’t get me wrong, much of the humour here is distinctly, well, cheesy (heh), but it’s cheesiness done exceptionally well, and that’s what makes it so delightful. For sheer gags – puns, clever little asides, manic retakes of famous scenes – The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is fully the equal of Shrek. Only faster.

It’s also a warmer, more insistently real film. Part of what makes Wallace and Gromit so lovable, is that their ingenuity is the ingenuity of children. Who but a child would rig up a complicated alarm system that would end in a massive finger poking you in bed. Who but a child would imagine putting in an automated system that dropped you into your chair for breakfast, and then dressed you while you were sitting there? Wallace and Gromit aren’t just funny – they’re also lovable and that’s a rare combination.

Bottomline: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is one of the most deliciously, inspiredly silly films I’ve seen in a long time. Watch it. It’ll remind you of just how much fun true silliness can be.