30 December 2010

Régis Jauffret's Sévère: The Fight for Free Expression

I've not yet read any of Régis Jauffret's books, although from what reviews and extracts I've so far read they are both very powerful and very disturbing, although they are far from being the purely sensational read that their subjects might suggest: for one thing, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust are among Jauffret's biggest inspirations. This post is prompted by a wish to support a wildly inappropriate reaction.

Regis's novel Sévère is inspired by the murder of the very wealthy banker Édouard Stern by his lover Cécile Brossard. The trial uncovered Stern's world of ruthless business dealings and his voracious appetite for sex with both men and women. It is of course very common for writers of fiction to be inspired by real-life events, and Jauffret clearly states at the beginning of Sévère that this is a work of fiction: the characters have no more reality than the paper they're written on: close the covers and they cease to exist. Seven months after publication in March 2010, Stern's relatives demanded that the book be banned, which of course strikes at the root of any of the freedoms that authors hold dear. By extension, surely any freedoms any of us hold dear?

Many noted French authors have signed a petition against the family's actions, and these are just a sample: Virginie Despentes, Christine Angot, Pierre Guyotat, Philippe Djian, Jonathan Littell, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Philippe Sollers, Michel Houellebecq, Sophie Calle, Eric Reinhardt, Marie Darrieussecq, Emmanuel Carrère, Atiq Rahimi, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Catherine Millet, Matthias Enard, Annette Messager, Claude Lévêque, Nicolas Fargues, Yannick Haenel, Elisabeth Roudinesco, Frédéric Beigbeder.

The full list is here, and can now be signed by any member of the public: 'Pour signer la pétition, envoyez vos prénom, nom et ville de résidence par email à l'adresse courrier[at]inrocks.com avec "Jauffret" en objet du mail': To sign the petition, send your first name, surname and town of residence by email to courrier[at]inrocks.com with 'Jauffret' as the subject of the email.

Unfortunately, it appears that none of Jauffret's many books has been translated into English, although there may well be some translations in other languages.

26 December 2010

Jez Lewis's Shed Your Tears and Walk Away (2010) and Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, England: 'A Drug Town with a Tourist Problem'

While out of the country this year, I evidently missed an important documentary movie on the plight of one of England's most beautiful spots, and one I visited briefly in 2009, when I also visited Ted Hughes's town of birth 1.5 miles away: Mytholmroyd. Shed your tears and Walk Away is about the present state of former mill town Hebden Bridge, which was severely affected by Thatcher's cuts in the 1980s, and which has continued to be affected by similar - indeed probably in many ways worse - abuse by succeeding governments. It has serious unemployment, drug, and alcohol problems. Jez Lewis took 18 months to make the film, during which 11 young people died in the small town.

We are talking about a beautiful tourist town, but one which one of the young residents in the documentary calls 'a drug town with a tourist problem'. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lewis had many problems while attempting to make the film: the M.P. for the area and the mayor (although co-operative) refused to acknowledge that the situation existed, as did people in the street, while others, such as the local school, refused to talk to him, the police pestered him, and people threatened to call a public meeting if he began filming: it appears that many people were (and no doubt still are) just in denial.

Suicide figures in Hebden Bridge, according to Jez Lewis, are included in Halifax suicide figures - that is, of a much larger area, so the high rate of suicide in Hebden Bridge gets lost.

I can't yet comment on the film itself, as I have to wait for the release of the DVD on 17 January 2011. I wonder if I'm correct in thinking that the Hebden Bridge Visitor and Canal Centre won't be selling it, though?

22 December 2010

Amélie Nothomb: Les combustibles (1994)

Les combustibles (1994) – which is entitled Human Rites in the English translation – is a play set in a freezing besieged town in an unnamed country, although we know that Nothomb partly had the siege of Sarajevo in mind when writing it. All of the action takes place in the room of an unnamed university professor aged about 50, and the only other two characters are the doctoral student Daniel – who is also the Professor's assistant – and Daniel's girlfriend-of-the-year Marina.

Les combustibles intentionally evokes Sartre's Huis Clos, which also has three characters in a claustrophobic atmosphere, and was published in occupied France in 1944. Nothomb strongly alludes to this when Marina mentions Georges Bernanos, and quotes from his Monsieur Ouine (1943): 'L'enfer, c'est le froid' – 'Hell is the cold', which immediately brings to mind Sartre's 'L'enfer, c'est les autres' – 'Hell is other people.' So far, so Nothombian.

The central issue is that the cold is so intense that the characters risk literally freezing to death unless heat is generated in some way: they have already burned the furniture apart from three chairs, and it is obvious that the Professor will have to burn his books in order to survive. But which books should be burned first: in other words, which are of the least literary value?

Apart from Bernanos, Marivaux is the only other non-invented author mentioned, and they are only mentioned in passing anyway, and the only non-invented books, also merely mentioned in passing, are The Iliad, The Odyssey, and – surprise, surprise – Fahrenheit 451 (which of course is the temperature at which paper burns).

This obviously means that the reader can have no views that conflict or interfere with the literary views expressed in Les combustibles, although it is clear that the Professor is an enormous hypocrite, but much more significantly – Nothomb is challenging the whole idea of a literary canon invented by a university élite.

Also, Les combustibles is as much a feminist statement as a literary one:

Marina, like Nina in Hygiène de l'assassin, is a spunky woman who shows herself an intellectual match for the Professor. Nothomb is ever eager to flex her feminist muscles. The Professor, of course, is yet another monster. I'm not certain if  Nothomb would have been aware of David Mamet's Oleanna – a play concerning the sexual harrassment of an undergraduate by her professor – before writing Les combustibles because the time frame between the two is quite narrow, but there are strong similarities between Oleanna and the second (that is, the middle) part of Les combustibles, albeit in a very different way.

Amélie Nothomb has been publishing books for 18 years. Where have I been?

20 December 2010

Amélie Nothomb: Cosmétique de l'ennemi (2001)

Cosmétique de l'ennemi begins in a flight departure lounge where a delay is announced, and Jérôme Angust settles down to read a book, but is pestered by a man - Textor Texel - who refuses to stop talking to him even though Angust has made it quite clear that he's annoying him.

There are some similarities between this novel and Hygiène de l'assassin, one obviously being Prétextat Tach's name, and there is also the mention of revolting eating habits: when younger, Texel enjoyed eating mashed cat food - or rather, he hated it, but an enemy inside him forced him to eat it - and Tach enjoys such food as sardine oil, throwing the sardines away. Like Tach, Texel is a monster, a kind of torturer who insists that he will not leave Angust alone. Both Tach and Texel were orphans from a young age (also like Adèle in Mercure, and even Blanche in Antéchrista calls herself an orphan because her parents ignore her): rootlessness is significant in the Nothombian world.

Cosmétique de l'ennemi also has similarities to Les catilinaires, where Berdardin tortures Emile and Juliette by holding them prisoner every day when he visits them, only Texel's method is the opposite: Bernardin conveys his existential torment by silence, whereas Texel conveys his to Angust by logorrhea. Angust even uses the same words of Texel as Emil does of Bernardin: 'emmerdeur' ('ball breaker') and 'tortionnaire' ('torturer').

But Texel is much more than a ball breaker, and even more than a torturer: twenty years earlier, he held Angust's wife overnight in a mausoleum in Montparnasse Cemetery and raped her, and stabbed her to death ten years later, exactly ten years before the book is set. He demands that Angust kill him, but the horrified Angust screams for the police to arrest Texel. When the police arrive, they think Angust has had too much to drink during the flight delay, and ignore Texel.

That's just where things begin to get really weird. Texel tells Angust that the police ignored him because he doesn't exist as such: in fact, he's no more than a very different part of Angust himself. He proceeds to tell Angust all he knows about him, which is a great deal: so is Texel trying to send Angust mad, or is he already mad?

Many things in this book will remind the reader of Nothomb's familiar concerns - rape, confinement (the departure lounge, the mausoleum, and above all the prison of one's own mind), psychological torture and freedom, ugliness and beauty, murder, eating disorders, suicide, the hell of other people, orphanhood, the influence of the theater, intertextual references, the monster within and without, etc - but I've not read a book of hers that is as gripping or as terrifying as this.

Whether the reader sees it as a straightforward battle of madness versus sanity, Kierkegaardian asthetics versus ethics, Freudian id versus the superego, Jansenism versus free will, or anything else, this is a very powerful psychological novel.

And it's even been translated in English - as The Enemy's Cosmetic.

19 December 2010

Sofia Coppola's Somewhere (2010)

Sofia Coppola has an interest in hotels, it seems, and perhaps this is not so surprising coming from the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola. Anyway, it seems to work for her, as her latest - Somewhere - is very successful.

The film has deliberately slow moments in which the tripod-fixed camera either does nothing or moves very slowly in or out - there's nothing tricksy here. The opening shot shows a very quiet road where a single car just goes round in circles several times, and there's no obvious reason for it.

Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) is the driver of the car, and is a movie star living at the Chateau Marmont hotel, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, and is alienated, unable to relate to anyone or anything. He's obviously undergoing an existential crisis, and when asked 'Who is Johnny Marco?' at a press conference, merely says 'Er...', and can't reply because he doesn't know who he is. Two pole dancers perform while he looks on in bed, falling asleep the first time, and applauding and smiling in a perfunctory manner the second. His isolation is highlighted when a clay mould is put on his head by members of the make-up department, and he is left alone with the camera slowly, embarrassingly, moving in on his isolation, his emptiness. Attractive girls throw themselves at him, but there is no meaning, he is numb.

Watching his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (played by Elle Fanning) ice-skating holds his attention, and his enthusiam for her performance is very different from his reaction to the pole dancers: it is genuine. And when his estranged partner leaves Cleo with him at Chateau Marmont for a time before he has to send her to summer camp, his life becomes a little different: he starts avoiding some of the girls, and Cleo - in a marvelous performance by Elle Fanning - begins to teach him about togetherness, even what a home is like, and she takes great efforts over cooking in the hotel room.

Johnny takes her to Milan, Italy, where he collects an acting award at a rather overstated ceremony, and Cleo seems to love it, as she loves swimming in the private indoor hotel pool. But it is the return to Chateau Marmont that seems more like home, where there are familiar people, and they can behave like a regular father and daughter, as in the scenes where - against a beautiful musical backdrop of The Strokes' 'I'll Try Anything Once' - they play table tennis, dip into the pool (the first time Johnny genuinely smiles?), and sunbathe.

And then Johnny has to take Cleo to Camp Belmont, and she cries on the Interstate to Las Vegas, where they spend a final night, and where Johnny teaches Cleo a few basics at the craps table (some of Sofia Coppola's own memories showing through), before Cleo leaves, and Johnny breaks down at Chateau Marmont, when he is again left to his emptiness.

18 December 2010

Amélie Nothomb: Le fait du prince (2008)

On the back cover of Le fait du prince is a quotation from it: 'Il y a un instant, entre la quinzième et la seizième gorgée de champagne, où tout homme est un aristocrate': 'There is a moment, between the fifteenth and the sixteenth mouthful of champagne, when everyone is an aristocrat.' Nothomb should know, as she adores champagne. As do the odd couple in this novel, which is a kind of eccentric spy story set mainly in a villa in Versailles (where Nothomb has never been), and toward the end in Sweden (where she has never been either).

Baptiste Bordave receives a visit from an unknown man who says his car has broken down and, without a cell phone, he's been unable to make contact with anyone, so can he use Baptiste's phone? No problem there, but the stranger dies while making the call, and Baptiste doesn't know what to do. Nothomb – who by the way refuses to have an internet connection – is preoccupied by identity, and Baptiste decides to assume the identity of the dead man.

Baptiste takes the dead man's 1000 euros along with his wallet,  and decides to exchange lives with the dead Swedish Olaf Sildur, who lives in Versailles. This is made easier by the fact that the car – which is worth ten times more than Baptiste's – hasn't broken down at all, so he drives to the Versailles address where Olaf used to live. Letting himself in with Olaf's key, and not knowing if the Swede is married of whatever, Baptiste – after parking some distance away from the villa – just makes himself at home.

When Olaf's wife arrives she accepts him as part of the family and lavishes food and abundant champagne on him: she thinks he's a business colleague of Olaf's, and rather likes Baptiste (who calls himself (another) Olaf).

Olaf's wife is French, although she refuses to give her real name, preferring to accept Baptiste's chosen Sigrid. For a few days, Baptiste refuses to go outside while Sigrid shops expensively with Olaf's credit card, visits museums, and occasionally wonders where Olaf is. Through all this, Baptiste is treated as an important guest, although he learns that Olaf was a kind of secret agent, so identity is a normal center of confusion in the household. But Baptiste, who took down the number Olaf dialed in his flat, finds out that the dialee's name is George Sheneve, phones him as Olaf Sildur, then is told that that is impossible as Olaf Sildur is dead, and that he will not get away with it.

So. So Sigrid provides vintage champagne in increasing abundance, gets Baptiste impossibly drunk but continues to care for him and indeed appears to love him more than her missing husband. 

At the same time, both Baptiste and Sigrid seem to live according to Kierkegaard's first basic (aesthetic) state, in which the following question seems very pertinent: 'Et si l'ivresse était le moyen de retrouver le monde d'avant la chute?': 'And if intoxication were the means to recapture the world before the Fall?' Adulthood takes us further and further away from the truth of childhood, and puberty is the essential mark of the descent.

As husband and wife, Baptiste (OK, Olaf) and his wife Sigrid flee to Sweden in Olaf's car, live for a short time on a huge amount of money taken from a bank in Versailles, spend crazily until they are in vast debt, but the bank will continue to lend them vast sums of money because, as ex-wealthy people, they will surely get up there again, won't they? Nothomb called this an extremely serious book.

16 December 2010

Amélie Nothomb: Mercure (1998)

Mercure takes place in 1923, and is almost wholly set on the tiny imaginary island of Mortes-Frontières, just off the Cherbourg peninsula in France, which is inhabited by 23-year-old Hazel Englert and 73-year-old Captain Loncours, along with several servants. Loncours saved Hazel's life in a World War I coastal bombardment five years before, and, telling her that her face is hideously disfigured, in effect has held her prisoner on the island ever since. She is in fact very beautiful, but as Loncours has banned any mirrors or other objects that could reflect that beauty, she believes him about her appearance and thinks that a reclusive life is better than a public freak show. And as Loncours has saved her life, she sees him as a kind of father figure, and although she dreads it when he comes into her bed, she feels forced to allow him regular sexual favors.

This is obviously another of Amélie Nothomb's prison situations, and Loncours is another of her monsters. When Loncours believes that Hazel is a little sick, he calls in nurse Françoise from the mainland, who has to undergo a search for mirrors or pens on her person, etc, but as Loncours is extremely rich and pays the people he employs very handsomely indeed, he hopes that he can buy the silence of  Françoise, who is not allowed to ask Hazel any questions that have no bearing on any immediate health concerns she may have. But Françoise not only has a conscience, but is also very astute, and when she pretends that Hazel still has non-existent health problems, she is not concerned about the extra money her daily boat trips to the island will bring her, but about how she can convey the truth to Hazel, perhaps especially because a friendship is developing between the two young women.

One day when Loncours is away on the mainland - shortly after Françoise has transgressed gender norms of the day by having a cognac in a bar, where she learns of the suicide of another woman of Loncours's twenty years before - Françoise raids one of his drawers and finds a photo of the woman, Adèle, who looks remarkably similar to Hazel. And on his visit to the mainland, Loncours learns that Françoise has been buying a thermometer every day and hiding the mercury (for its reflective qualities) in Hazel's room. Mercury is also the messenger of the gods in Roman mythology, and the ancient symbol of messengers is the caduceus, which is very similar to the Rod of Asclepius, associated with medicine: Françoise, of course, is a kind of heavenly messenger from the world of health.

So Françoise becomes the second prisoner on Mortes-Frontières, and must devise a plan to escape from the island with Hazel. But although it's obvious that Loncours is immensely self-deceived, Hazel's self-deception might also cause a brief problem. And Nothomb was so indecisive about closure that she provided two endings.

Mercure wheels out the familiar Nothombisms - entrapment, Kierkegaardian religious obedience, Sartrean mauvaise foi, the hell of other people, angels and monsters, youth and age, beauty and ugliness, lost innocence, intense female friendships, etc - but every one of her books is very different from the other, and I see this as one of her best, in spite of a few oddities: why can't Hazel feel her non-existent deformity, and why is it so easy for the 'angels' to escape from the human bulldogs in the first ending? Very minor niggles, to be sure.

As yet, there is no English translation of Mercure.

14 December 2010

Amélie Nothomb: Antichrista (2003)

The work of Georges Bernanos - and his conception of evil in particular - is a very strong influence on Amélie Nothomb: in Antéchrista (translated into English as Antichrista) she quotes Bernanos from L'imposture (1927): 'La médiocrité, c'est l'indifférence au bien et au mal.' The book of Nothomb's that is most thematically similar to this novel, perhaps, is Les catilinaires (The Stranger Next Door in the English translation). Nothomb has called herself an outsider, and believes that the popularity of her work is the result of other outsiders reading her. As an adolescent, she read books about concentration camps - which should not surprise readers of Acide sulphurique, or even Le sabotage amoureux, which relates her childhood memories of San Li Tun, a diplomatic ghetto in Mao's China. But Nothomb also portrays social situations - even the mind itself - as concentration camps.

The list of authors Nothomb is influenced by is far too numerous to mention, but Sartre is certainly one, and although not by any means the most important, there is a strong message of 'Hell is other people' is her work, with main characters isolated and apparently impotent as others walk all over them and try to destroy their lives. In Les catalinaires, the monstrous Palamède Bernardin - essentially a mass of flesh with ludicrously little intellectual life - becomes Émile Hazel's tortionnaire (or torturer). But Christa - a 16-year-old the social misfit Blanche meets at university in Belgium - is very different from Bernardin, as she is young, attractive, very successful socially, and becomes Blanche's friend... Well, for a few moments, before becoming her torturer, and well before it's discovered that she's, er, an imposter.

It is stated many times that Christa comes from an impoverished background, and the friendless Blanche - after being made aware that Christa has to get up so early in the morning and travel so many hours just to reach her place of education - is elated when her parents (both teachers) take her in on weekdays without charge: what more could parents do for the financially poor best (and only) friend of their daughter?

Rapidly, Blanche's parents are won over by Christa to such an extent that she not only dominates their daughter's life, but also their own, and they don't realize how manipulative she's becoming. Blanche of course does, and realizes that she not only never had a friend, but that this person is now her torturer.

It takes a visit to Malmedy, the home town of Antichrista (as she is now silently called by Blanche), to discover that Antichrista's David Bowie look-alike boyfriend is in reality fat and ugly, but - much more condemning - Antichrista's parents live in a big house, her father owns a chain of companies, and Antichrista has told so many malicious lies, and...

And Blanche doesn't take Émile's way out, so there's a progression from Nothomb's earlier book, but what anyway is the non-violent equivalent of dealing with guys like Bernadin - as you certainly can't kiss them!

11 December 2010

Clio Barnard's The Arbor, and Andrea Dunbar, from the Buttershaw Estate, Bradford, West Yorkshire

The Arbor (2010) is a documentary about the life of the playwright Andrea Dunbar, with the state of Thatcherite northern England in the 1980s as a backcloth. Or is it more about the aftermath, the heritage of Dunbar, both artistic and personal? Certainly it's one of the best films of the year, although don't expect it to win any Oscars: this is definitely arthouse only.

Andrea Dunbar was born in Bradford in 1961, and died there in 1990 at the age of 29. She wrote just three plays: The Arbor (1980), Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1982), and Shirley (1985), the first being performed at the Royal Court Theatre when she was 19, and had never even been to a theatre before. She initially sent director Max Stafford-Clark her first manuscript, written in green biro in a school exercise book, and the theatre commissioned the second play, on which a film of the same name was based and released to great success in 1986. Rita, Sue and Bob Too concerns a married man who has simultaneous relationships with babysitters Rita and Sue from the (then) sink estate Buttershaw, Bradford, Yorkshire, who are half his age, and who take turns to have sex with him in his car. His wife finds out and leaves him, Rita moves in with him and gets pregnant, Sue unsuccessfully moves in with a Pakistani, but in the end they become a threesome again.

The problem is that this is not the play that Dunbar wrote, and she was unhappy with the scriptwriters who were brought in to make this a much more upbeat version of her original play. Another problem is that some members of the Buttershaw estate were unhappy about how it had been depicted, although Dunbar herself claimed that only a few locals had complained to her.

If Dunbar had been aware of many of the locals' hatred of the depiction of some of the people in D. H. Lawrence's Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, or of Thomas Wolfe's depiction of the people in his home in Asheville, North Carolina, she'd perhaps have known that, in Wolfe's words: You Can't Go Home Again. But Dunbar didn't move from home, she stayed in Buttershaw, and, more or less enslaved to drink, collapsed in the Beacon pub on the Buttershaw estate.

Clio Barnard's film is experimental, taking the words of survivors - above all Dunbar's two daughters Lorraine and Lisa - with actors lip-synching them. One of the things that slightly disappoints me about this film is the absence of what Max Stafford-Clark said about a conversation he had with Dunbar, asking him about the limits of drama - and Stafford-Clark specifically stating that she clearly wasn't talking about Brecht (of whom she'd almost certainly never heard) - of how far she could go with sex in the theatre. But it's Brecht who is at the forefront of The Arbor: the lip-synching creates a distancing effect, a disjuncture between the real and the artificial, which of course is the effect that Clio Barnard wants to create anyway. So why avoid mentioning Brecht? He's definitely there.

What is the Arbor to which The Arbor refers? It's Brafferton Arbor, which is the council area where Dunbar lived, and where she played out most of her life. It's prominent in the film, which is a mélange of the lip-synched episodes, documentary television footage, and scenes from The Arbor performed on the grassy area of Brafferton Arbor.

Most of all, it's Lorraine's story that counts. Lisa doesn't have any real problems with her mother, but Lorraine is the product of her mother's relationship with a Pakistani, and at a time when the estate was racist, that was important.

Lorraine was raped at 14, became a prostitute to support her drug habit, and was imprisoned for the manslaughter (by gross negligence) of her two-year-old baby Harris. It seems to be a cycle of deprivation, and as Lorraine graduated from crack to heroin, her baby (born addicted, according to Lorraine), died of an overdose of Lorraine's methodone.

But this is a wonderful movie that I don't recommend to anyone expecting thrills galore. The lip-synching, and the various stories told in hindsight, tell us how impossible the truth is to find, or rather, perhaps, that truth is plural. Brilliant is a word that comes to mind for this engrossing film.

9 December 2010

Morrissey (Vegetarian), Johnny Marr (Vegan), David Cameron (Hunt Supporter), Animal Slaughter, and the Concept of Cool

It had to happen sooner or later, and it was sooner, but why are British politicians so stupid in their attempt to be cool? Blur didn't even want to go to Downing Street, Oasis just, you know, had to go, Prescott was just asking for a bucket of water from people like Chumbawamba, and Gordon Brown asking to be ridiculed for naming Arctic Monkeys as a favorite band he couldn't name a record of, but David Cameron and The Smiths? Come on, a Thatcher worshipper liking a band whose singer wrote a song called 'Margaret on the Guillotine'? And oh yes,  Mozzer really meant it! You'd have thought Cameron's PR team would have done a little research into this, wouldn't you? Or are they too busy doing the same New Labour Penelope spinning act? Or worried that WikiLeaks will spread this side of the Atlantic?

Meanwhile, Morrissey supports Johnny Marr, and reminds the huntin, shootin, animal killin, Royals-supporting Cameron that he didn't write Meat Is Murder and The Queen Is Dead for nothing, and he certainly doesn't want him as a vote-grabbing 'fan': Morrissey's Message. Here's a link to my post, with a number of images of iconic Smiths places, on Morrissey's Manchester.

Four Autobiographical Novels by Amélie Nothomb

Métaphysique des tubes (2000) is a reconstruction of the first three years of Amélie Nothomb's life, and I have said a few words about this in the Hygiène de l'assassin post below. To repeat, Nothomb's was a breech birth: her buttocks came into the world first, her head at first refused to leave her mother, and her umbilical cord was strangling her. She did not cry, and the first two and a half years of her life were spent in silence and without movement.

The sixth word that Nothomb spoke was 'death', and this is significant for someone who had effectively spent two years and a half years apparently dead: her parents referred to her as 'la Plante'. Nothomb claims that she remembers her early words, although the early silent period of her life is obviously a fictionalization here - and is the most interesting part of the book -  but occupies less than 30 pages of it. Nothomb, who refused her mother's breast, is in a sense a nothing, a tube to feed, but at the same time a kind of god in a pre-verbal universe of her own. There is no 'I'.

This early childhood is evidently far from usual, and in fact there are elements of autism and anorexia in it. She refuses her mother's milk, and even when deprived of food, she doesn't cry out for it: 'To eat or not to eat, to drink or not to drink, that was all the same to it: to be or not to be was not its question.'

When Amélie finally makes a noise, it is colossal, her father calls his mother in Brussels to fly immediately to Japan as the Plant has come alive, but it is only when the grandmother Claude comes that Amélie really comes alive. Weaned on milk from a feeding bottle, purée with bits of meat in it, crushed banana, grated apple and orange juice, Claude surreptitiously gives Amélie a bar of white chocolate, the Plant tastes the forbidden fruit, and 'it' becomes 'I'.  The bodily pleasure is overwhelming, almost of a religious order, and here we find an echo of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, one of the key texts of Nothomb's philosophical studies. There are many philosophical ruminations in Métaphysique de tubes.

The young Amélie develops a huge appetite for learning too, and will become gifted, speaking Japanese (picked up from the family help Nishio-san) almost as well as she speaks French. She learns that words give reality to things.

But no words shouted to save her life are heeded by the holidaying Japanese when Amélie is drowning in the sea: the debt owed for the action of saving a life is too great in this oriental society. But the theme of water recurs. To her parents, Amélie seems fascinated by fish, and carp in particular, so they buy her three for her third birthday, and she must feed them every day. In reality carp horrify her,  reminding her of the days when she was a silent tube, and of course there's a French expression 'muet comme une carpe', or 'silent as a carp'. Death and water come together again, and Amélie tries to drown herself in the fishpond.

This is far removed from your average autobiography.
Le sabotage amoreux (1993) covers the period from 1972 to 1975, beginning when Nothomb was aged just aged five. The family moved there from Japan, and Amélie's mother Danièle was struck by the ugliness of the place.

This was the closed, secretive China of the Gang of Four era, and a kind of double alienation was enforced on expatriates: it wasn't just the strange, rather forbidding country that was China, but non-Chinese people had to live in the San Li Tun ghetto, and were allowed no contact with the Chinese. Consequently, although this is Amélie's Chinese novel, China is in effect absent from it. Reading Le sabotage amoureux, Amélie's father Patrick was stunned by the level of understanding that his five-year-old daughter had of Chinese politics.

In Hygiène de l'assassin, puberty is seen by Tach - and Nothomb has emphatically stated 'Prétextat Tach, c'est moi' - as a kind of fall ('le pire des maux': 'the worst of evils'). She saw age in Hegelian terms, with childhood the thesis, puberty the antithesis, and adulthood the synthesis. In Le sabotage amoureux, the Amélie character says: 'J'ai toujours su que l'âge adulte ne comptait pas : dès la puberté, l'existence n'est plus qu'un épilogue': 'I've always known that adulthood didn't count: as soon as puberty comes, existence is no more than an epilogue.' Only in 2002, with Robert des noms propres, does she state that happiness is possible in adulthood. For the moment, though, adulthood is lived in parentheses, and is not real living at all. Adults are fallen children.

In China, Amélie is free in the ghetto, where the children play at war with weapons of urine and vomit, those from East Germany against the rest. It is a rather bleak vision, but tempered by Nothombian humor.
Ni d'Ève ni d'Adam (2007)

Stupeur et tremblements (1999) is Nothomb's third Japanese novel, and describes the misadventures at work she underwent during the second part of her stay when she returned to Japan to refind the country of her birth. The title Stupeur et tremblements is close to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, the title chosen for the English translation, and alludes to Kierkegaard's third stage of human existence. This is the religious one, but outside of conventional religion, beyond reason, a world of fear and trembling.

Nothomb has stated that it wasn't her intention in this book to criticize Japan, but the horror of a modern system that crushes the individual. She had a contract for a year with a huge import-export business, and in spite of the humiliating and insulting nature of her time there - particularly in the last seven months - she chose to honor her contract, as any Japanese person would have done. She fictionalizes the names involved, apart of course from herself, whom her fellow workers call Amélie-san.

Normally, even a one-year work contract in Japan is - paradoxically - for life. There is a Japanese word - madogiwazoku, or 'window-seat tribe' - used to describe employees that companies no longer have any use for, but don't sack them or make them redundant - they just shun them, make them feel dishonored, and give them a seat by the window with nothing to do but stare out of it. This situation doesn't normally occur until years have elapsed, of course, but Amélie-san, in a period of just five months, is reduced to cleaning the toilets.

Saito, Amélie-san's superior in the pecking order, initially gives her a letter to write, then rips it up, ripping up many other attempts without looking at them, and he later throws away many other thousand-sheeted photocopying attempts again without looking at them. But before this, she becomes the tea woman, making a grave error by suggesting to businessmen she serves at a meeting that she can speak fluent Japanese. She is passed on to Fubuki Muri, who - exceptionally - is a woman who has risen in the work ranks, but who is unmarried at the age of 30, which is shameful, and who lives her own hell of psychological torture as a result of it. Inevitably, perhaps, Amélie-san receives the brunt of Fubuki's frustrations. Committing error after error, and insulted by Fubuki constantly, Amélie-san's descent to the office lavatory attendent - on the 44th floor, the same one where the elevator 'spat' her out at the beginning - is rapid.  And all this because the 'stupid' Amélie-san has been astute enough to see the chinks in Fubuki's armor.


3 December 2010

A Rare Sighting of Karl Wood in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, England

This photo, on the surface, seems quite ordinary, although in fact it gives us a rare study of a very unusual man. The photo comes by kind permission of Andrew Birkitt – Exhibitions Officer of the Gainsborough Heritage Society – who owns the original glass plate.

The photo shows the staff of the old Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Cox's Hill, Gainsborough, but the principal point of interest is the man standing on the back row second from the left. He is the artist Karl Salsbury Wood (1888-1958), who taught Art at irregular intervals between the 1930s and 1940s, and who finally left in 1948.

And many thanks to John Buckley for emailing me and not only dating the photo far more accurately but also putting names to almost all the other teachers. John was taught by Wood and was later a friend of his. He tells me that A. J. Hewetson – the headteacher who appears in the photo – retired in 1940, so it's some years earlier than I originally thought. John informs me:

'From memory:

'Back row left to right: Fred Ridley, Karl Wood, H. Priestly, Frank Tolman, ?, ?, H.J. Lane.

'Front Row: E.G.Tarbert, C.E.Pearson, A.J. Hewetson, G.H.Savage, J.T. Hedge.'

Wood was born in Kings Newton, Derbyshire, spent most of his teenage years in Nottingham, and most of his mature years in Gainsborough, where he set up a studio. There, he was noted for his eccentricity, and his bicycle was his hallmark, being the main means by which he traveled the length and breadth of the country obsessively painting about 2000 windmills and windmill remains. For this he is most noted, and his paintings serve as an excellent record to molinologists of the state of these buildings during their 'twilight', as Wood put it.

Wood also painted thousands of other architectural features, and the town of Gainsborough is particularly proud of his record of its lost buildings. Many people still remember him for his kindness and his cultural knowledge as well as his irrepressible eccentricity.

It is a sad reflection on the intolerance of the times that he should have been imprisoned for homosexuality, and subsequently he took flight to join a community of monks at Pluscarden, near Elgin, in Scotland, where he died several years later. For anyone interested in my biography of him – as well as seeing a number of examples of Karl Wood's work – they can find it here.


M. H. Pearson helpfully comments:

'I am the son of C.E.Pearson and I think that the 3rd from the right on the back row of the photograph MAY be my old biology teacher Oscar Gartside Bagnall.* Fred Ridley was my much revered English teacher and most of the other names are familiar to me having either heard of them from my father or been taught by them. When I atended Queen Elizabeth's Grammar school ,Gainsborough, as a pupil it had moved from the Cox's hill site to new buildings on Morton Terrace. These buildings were subsequently incorporated with the Technical College and part of the Girls Grammar School (where I had previously taught myself for 5 years) into the present co-educational grammar school. I was once taken by my mother to meet Karl Wood in his studio and saw him working on some beautiful illuminations for a book. My father made a model theatre and he told me that the scenery backdrops and wings etc. were painted by Karl Wood for him. I believe I still have this theatre somewhere as well as one or two rather insignificant pieces also by Karl Wood.'


* I'm grateful once more to John Buckley for emailing me to inform me that this pre-1940 photo can't show Reginald Oscar Gartside Bagnall (1893–1978) as he came to the school in – perhaps – 1945 or 1946 and taught Physics and Chemistry (Biology not at the time being on the curriculum). This 'delightful eccentric' is fascinating in his own right. Bagnall was particularly interested in human radiations and wrote an important work in its field: The Origin and Properties of the Human Aura (1937). John Buckley tells me that he claimed to be able to tell if a woman was pregnant from the size and shape of her aura.

Humphrey Carpenter's W. H. Auden: A Biography (1981) has a section on Auden's stay at St Edmund's School, Hindhead, Surrey, which Auden entered in 1915 at the age of eight and remained there for several years. There were some strange assistant masters in the war years, and Bagnall was the strangest. He'd written a play titled 'The Waves', which was probably never published and was a copy of Leopold Davis Lewis's The Bells (1871), made famous by Henry Irving, whose voice Bagnall used to imitate. Morally, Auden thought Bagnall 'all at sea', whatever that might mean, although he remembered him very positively.

29 November 2010

Les Catilinaires: Amélie Nothomb

Now that Émile Hazel has retired from teaching Classics at the lycée, his dream of living in seclusion in the countryside with his lifelong lover, his wife Juliette, is about to be fulfilled. But shortly after they settle into the house in the woods, their paradise begins to turn into hell. The local (and virtually unemployed, but certainly unemployable) doctor, the hulking monster Palamède Bernardin, who lives in the only nearby house, invites himself in to welcome them. But he's not at all welcoming, seems to have a vocabulary scarcely more extensive than 'Yes' and 'No', and exhausts the unfortunate Hazels by remaining there for two hours, from 16:00 to 18:00 exactly.

Furthermore, he returns at the same time the next day, with the same conversation, and stays the same length of time. And the next day. Bernardin's presence is beginning to weigh increasingly heavily on the couple's happiness, so the following day they decide to go for a walk to avoid him. It's obvious he paid a visit when they were gone, and sure enough the next day he returns and seems angry that they went for a walk: clearly, the Hazels' lives are no longer their own.

They try hiding upstairs but he almost knocks the door down, knowing they're there. They invite his wife to dinner, but she turns out to be an obnoxious lump of fat with appalling table manners, and they secretly call her 'le kyste' ('the cist'). The turning point comes when Bernardin permanently frightens a friend of theirs away, after which the usually ultra-polite and long-suffering Émile finally snaps and tells his 'emmerdeur' ('ball breaker') to 'piss off' and not return, and pushes him away from the doorway. A few days later, Bernardin tries to kill himself, but Émile saves him. And regrets it.

It is then that the couple see inside the Bernardin house, which is a vile-smelling tip with 25 clocks. Émile begins to realize that Bernardin - who doesn't read, has no television and no interests at all, and who only ever shows negative emotions - has been numb to feelings all his life: the clocks exist as reminders of his pointless existence ticking away, his visits have been a way of sharing that existence, and death really is the only logical way out for him.

There is something of the monsters Prétextat (L'hygiène de l'assassin), Urbain (Journal d'Hirondelle), and Celsius (Péplum) in Bernardin. But then there is also something of the eternal love between Prétextat and Lépoldine - or Urbain and and the young virgin, or Celsius and the city of Pompei - in Émile and Juliette.
Amélie Nothomb continues to fascinate.

25 November 2010

William Booth in Sneinton, Nottingham, England

We always forget the most obvious things, as I discovered recently when I was walking(!) into the center of Nottingham, and remembered, immediately after the William Booth Community Centre and old people's home on Sneinton Road, the three preserved terraced houses at the back in Notintone Place, number 12 being Booth's birthplace.

The prominent statue shows the founder of the Salvation Army in preaching pose. Booth (1829-1912) left school at 13 because of his father's bankrupcy, and began work at a pawnbroker's.

But Booth's conversion to Methodism came a few years later.

There are two plaques on the house, the older being a Holbrook Bequest, which reads:

ON 10TH APRIL 1829

The wording on the newer plaque is identical, although at the top it says: 'RESTORED 1971'. The museum is only open occasionally, but it's still slightly odd that I've not gotten round to visiting it.

There is another plaque - this time a profile of Booth's head and shoulders, about half a mile away in Broad Street, Nottingham, on one of the pillars at the entrance to what is now the Broadway movie theater. It reads:


Who knows, I may even take photos of the windmill once owned by George Green, the reluctant miller but very important mathematician - it's (literally) only a stone's throw from Booth's birthplace.

A link to my post on the graves of William and his son Bramwell is below, plus a later one mainly inside the birthplace museum: 

William Booth in Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington

William Booth Birthplace Museum, Sneinton, Nottingham

24 November 2010

Jean Becker's La tête en friche (2010)

Back in June, on my way back from Champagne-Vigny to the Arvert peninsula in south-west France, I accidentally took a wrong turning and found myself entering the town of Pons in Charente-Maritime. As I'd never heard of Pons, I stupidly imagined it to be of no interest, and turned round toward Royan. What I'd missed seeing was what seems to be a lovely place, and it also happens to be the main settting for Jean Becker's La tête en friche, which goes under the ugly and inapproprate English title of My Afternoons with Margueritte (sic) , which Philip French in The Observer accurately notes sounds like an Eric Rohmer movie title. A literal translation would be something like 'The Unplowed Brain', which is clearly unsuitable, but surely a little thought along those lines would have produced a better name.

To the film itself. It's an adaptation of Marie-Sabine Roger's novel of the same name, and centers around the relationship between the sixtysomething Germain Chazes (Gérard Depardieu) and the 95-year-old Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus).  Germain is an amiable, fat, scarcely literate small-time vegetable gardener and handyman who works in the Chez Francine bistrot,  and Margueritte (whose father was semi-literate, hence the unconventional spelling) a charming, lonely, bookish ex-school teacher. This odd couple begin a friendship. As a child, Germain  was bullied at school by his English teacher, and at home by his slightly aggressive and self-destructive mother (played by Claire Maurier); he is even the present butt of jokes about his lack of learning by his drinking partners: he's never really stood a chance in the intellectual stakes. But as Germain and Margueritte's friendship develops, she teaches him some literature, and Germain is extremely eager to make up for lost time.

The film has been called sugar-coated, and The Daily Telegraph - very oddly - called its ending 'unforgivable'. The translated title isn't forgivable, a few of the sub-titles strike an odd chord ('Holy shit!' for 'Putain!', etc), but surely the weirdest thing is to cast the very bright, confidently literate Annette (the striking 33-year-old Sophie Guillemin) as the adoring girlfriend of Germain (the 63-year-old man mountain Depardieu). Anyway, isn't the Telegraph itself guilty of many more unforgivable things than this harmless, delightful - and gloriously French - film?

22 November 2010

Hygiène de l'assassin (1992): Amélie Nothomb's 'Manifesto'

Amélie Nothomb has spoken of being her mother Danièle's third child, and her longest and most painful delivery: hers was a breech birth, her buttocks emerging first and her head refusing to come out. Her umbilical cord was strangling her, she didn't cry and remained silent for two years, provoking her mother to seek professional advice for what she called her daughter's 'vegetative' state. Amélie's experiences are novelized in Métaphysique des tubes (2000), and to some extent all her works have autobiographical elements. Her first novel is what she terms her 'manifesto'.

In Hygiène de l'assassin (1992), Prétextat Tach shares some of the characteristics of Celsius in Péplum in that he is an arrogant, sexually impotent genius who loves intellectual dueling, but he's also a racist, sexist, gluttonous monster, and a winner of the Nobel prize for literature. Very little is known of this recluse who has no family or friends, but as he has only two months to live, he has deigned to give interviews to journalists. To his delight, his intellectual bullying and general verbal violence send four journalists from his room on separate occasions, although the final journalist is very different.

Nina is the only woman, and Prétextat immediately attempts to make intellectual mincemeat of her, although he is due for a great shock: not only does this journalist stand her ground absolutely, but from the beginning she even has Prétextat begging her to stay. And not only does she know more about the author's books than the author himself - even to the point of listing the exact number of men and women in each of his 22 novels - but she has carried out original research into Prétextat's background, in spite of his zealous striving to keep it a secret.

On the face of it, it should seem truly bizarre that Nothomb has, in an obvious wink to Flaubert, said on several occasions: 'Prétextat, c'est moi'.

Prétextat is 83, and has not published a novel since he was 59. Even his last one, Hygiène de l'assassin, was published unfinished, but only Nina knows - or at least is almost certain she knows - the reason why. But Prétextat has nothing to lose any more, and there is no reason why he shouldn't confess to the murder he committed at the age of 17.

Puberty, like virginity, is an important theme in Nothomb's work. References to religion abound, and Hygiène de l'assassin presents childhood as a paradise, and puberty as a fall, or a kind of death, or neither life nor death but between two states. And Nothomb herself believes this. Like Plectrude in Robert des noms propres (2002) and the beautiful young lovers Prétextat and Léopoldine in her book Hygiène de l'assassin, Nothomb tried to prolong childhood. In Péplum, A. N. in the 26th century is another disguised representation of puberty: she is between two states, and has no fear of physical death. Prétextat strangles Léopoldine when she begins menstruating, which is on her birthday: 13 August, a date which is mentioned 15 times, as if it were of some great significance. Yes, Nothomb's birthday is 13 August - the day she was nearly strangled.

Loss of childhood innocence is a relatively common theme in literature, but Nothomb takes it to a completely different level.

19 November 2010

Amélie Nothomb: Journal d'Hirondelle (2006)

This is the story of a madman. For the unnamed narrator of Journal d'Hirondelle - or rather, for the man whose real name is never revealed - the craziness begins after a love affair, when he decides to force upon himself a 'suicide sensoriel', or suicide of the senses: he becomes impotent in many respects, his world reduced to nothingness.

But it is Radiohead's experimental track 'Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors' from their album Amnesiac (2001), and the continuous playing of it, that opens up a breach in one of his deadened senses. He notes that he can't compare it to the Decadents' search for a deregulation of all the senses, but 'We're never happier than when we've found a way of losing ourselves.' He loses his job too, becomes a hired killer working under the name Urbain, and something unfamiliar occurs on his first assignment: on arriving home after the murder, he has his first orgasm in several months (by 'la veuve poignet', or masturbation), but the sensation is weak compared with the thrill the shooting itself gives him. What he had needed all these months was 'the new, the unnamed, the unnameable'. What he experiences is a kind of intoxication, something of great importance in Nothomb's work in general. And Radiohead seem to complement his new profession in their music's lack of nostalgia, making him feel 'indifferent to the poisonous sentimentality of memories'. He has a theory that the feelings experienced by the assassin - in the moment of assassination - are in accordance with the music which that person listens to: Alex's murders in Burgess's (or Kubrick's) A Clockwork Orange are inextricably linked to the ecstasy of Beethoven's Ninth, whereas Urbain's are inextricably linked to 'the hypnotic efficacity' of Radiohead. And like the drug of music, killing too becomes his drug, and on contract-free days he must go into the streets and kill a stranger.

Urbain's last authentic assignment - which is shortly followed by his bizarre redemption - involves killing a politician, along with his wife and three children, although the contract is invalid without bringing back the man's briefcase. Urbain performs his grizzly duty, and on returning home finds in the briefcase the diary of the politician's 18-year-old daughter, which the man has for some unknown reason confiscated. Urbain opens it, and then quickly closes it as he feels ashamed. This is when he thinks he's found the difference between good and bad: killing the girl is nothing, but reading her diary is an unforgivable crime. Perhaps.

From this moment everything changes, and the diary becomes both MacGuffin and sacrament. And Nothomb must have had great fun in choosing this name for the girl. Very short, but really riveting stuff.

17 November 2010

Péplum (1996): Amélie Nothomb in the 26th Century

Amélie Nothomb - the two final letters aren't pronounced - is a Belgian writer born in Japan who has written a book a year since 1992. Almost all of her works are short, and although she considers herself an outsider, she has gained great popularity worldwide, and in French-speaking countries in particular. Unlike many writers whose works often rehash the same ground, Nothomb's are all very different, although all display her quirkiness. Some of Nothomb's books contain strong autobiographical elements, but although the first person narrator in Péplum is called A. N. and is a writer, there can't be much Nothomb in the events of this book.

Péplum could have been a play, as it almost entirely consists of dialogue. At the beginning, shortly before entering hospital for a routine operation, A. N. is talking to an unidentified person, and remarks that  Pompei - buried under the volcanic ashes of Vesuvius in the year 79 - is the most wonderful gift to archaeologists,  and suggests that the eruption was not a natural occurrence, but performed by future time travelers to preserve the most beautiful example of an ancient city.

This conceit provides an excellent excuse for A. N. to have a long conversation about the future and the past, as she awakens from the hospital anesthetic to discover that she has been kidnapped, and is now in the year 2580: her captors are responsible for the very idea she has had, and are worried that there might be a disturbance if her thoughts are believed.

Most of the book is an intellectual sparring match between A. N. and Celsius, a very major scientist of his time, and whose one true love is Pompei. This is not a book that takes its central conceit seriously, and there is much humor in the verbal interchanges, but the main interest is in what the future looks like.  The book gets its title from the garment - a kind of apron - that A. N. must wear because clothing is outmoded: people wear holograms because they are relatively cheap, last a lifetime, and they don't interfere with any activities at all.  There are no longer any countries, just two 'orientations', the Levant and the Ponant - which correspond to east and west - and the whole population of the south has been annihilated. Surprisingly, perhaps, there is almost no mention of computers, although they have replaced all administrative jobs.

A. N., who sees Celsius as a mass murderer, repeatedly asks to be taken back to 1995, arguing that he can't kill her as she's already dead. And eventually, Celsius - a man of colossal pride and arrogance - loads her into the 'transplanter', fully aware that she will write a book about him.

But then, who will believe her?

13 November 2010

Mike Leigh's Another Year

I posted my reaction to Mike Leigh's last movie, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), not that long ago, and now Leigh's Another Year (2010), which must be one of his best films to date, quietly explodes on the screen.

I watched it at Broadway in Nottingham, England. Almost forty years before, at the same movie theater that was then called Nottingham Film Theatre, I saw Bleak Moments (1971), the first movie by the then unknown Mike Leigh. The added bonus at the time I went there (a Saturday evening, I believe) was that Leigh himself appeared on stage to answer questions that the audience asked him about the movie they'd just watched. I found his answers fascinating, but the film itself much more so: Leigh's improvisational techniques - essentially beginning with a skeletal script and having the cast struggle their way through the dialog within those vague parameters - seemed to come from another, experimental world.

But Bleak Moments is basically just about two people, two shy people, incapable of expressing themselves, of transcending their own psychological constraints. Once more, we're in the same world as Jacques Brel's 'Les Timides' (who blush, tremble, and want to do so much more but dare not), or Morrissey's 'Ask' (where 'Shyness can stop you/From doing all the things in life/You'd like to'). The world where the shy dwell is perhaps the last territory that political correctness hasn't breached. But it is a kind of social illness, and social illness remains an area that Mike Leigh is still investigating.

But Another Year ('closer to death', to continue the unfinished phrase) isn't about shyness as such. It's about the ageing process, or perhaps more exactly the effects of the ageing process. It's about the need for love, and is otherwise Houellebecqian in depicting the sex-contented and the sex-discontented. Or, er, whatever.

Tom (a geological engineer) and Gerri (an NHS counselor), both perhaps in their early sixties, are happily married both emotionally and (it is once suggested) sexually, and they entertain a few friends, one of whom is Mary, a secretary who works at the same place as Gerri, and they've known one another for twenty years. Mary has had relationships, but they have failed, and she is now reduced to sponging off the sympathy of Tom and Gerri, testing it to its limits as she paradoxically camouflages her desperation in alcohol abuse. She longs for a kind of relationship with Tom and Gerri's son Joe - who is twenty years younger - and then she feels great jealousy when he finds a girlfriend. Hungover after buying champagne with the paltry sum of money she's received for the scrap metal value of a car she's just written off, she invites herself into Tom and Gerri's home, and asks a stranger - Tom's bereaving brother Ronnie - if he wants a cuddle. The desperate lives Leigh's characters lead aren't always quiet, and anyway Leigh's silences often deafen.

Toward the end, Tom and Gerri's future daughter-in-law Katie - a little like the optimist Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky - exchanges necessary but essentially meaningless introductory pleasantries with Ronnie, but the camera doesn't show the faces of those speaking - only the dark clothes of the lower part of their bodies as the focus remains firmly on the hopeless expression of Mary. Just as the final scene shows the family in animated conversation as the camera pans from the insiders, through to the silent Ronnie, then rests on Mary's face. The talking is silenced as the camera, for a painful number of seconds, forces the viewer to dwell on the vacancy.

Mike Leigh continues to explore the world of outsiders. Whether they be young and shy - or ageing and angst-ridden.

8 November 2010

Michel Houellebecq's La carte et le territoire: Winner of the Prix Goncourt 2010

No surprise then. After three misses - with Les particules élémentaires (1998), Plateforme (2001) and La possibilité d’une île (2005) - Michel Houellebecq wins the prix Goncourt with La carte et le territoire: Maylis de Kerangal's Naissance d'un pont winning the prix Médicis meant it was highly unlikely that she'd get another biggie; the Académie Goncourt is far too strait-laced for the majority of the panel to choose Virginie Despentes's Apocalypse bébé, although let's note that it has just won the Renaudot; and hasn't Mathias Enard - whose Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphants is generally considered by critics to lack the power of Zone - got a long way to go yet? All in all, it had to be Houellebecq.

6 November 2010

Raymond Andrews and Madison, Georgia

The Fall 2010 edition of The Georgia Review is almost exclusively devoted to the African American novelist Raymond Andrews (1934-91) from near Madison, Georgia, who is a neglected writer for no reason that I can understand: he's very readable, and very interesting, and is most noted for his trilogy Appalachee Red (1978), Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee (1980), and Baby Sweet's (1983).

This link to The New Georgia Encyclopedia  gives an introduction to Andrews's work, and is written by Philip Lee Williams, whose more detailed article on his friend is in The Georgia Review Fall 2010.

3 November 2010

The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, Staffordshire, and a Letter Opener

After reading my blog post on Dr Samuel Johnson, Deanna from Australia sends me these two fascinating images of a brass letter opener (or letter knife) that she has, the head of which is a representation of Dr Johnson's birthplace - now a museum remembering his life and work - in Lichfield, south-east Staffordshire, England.

Deanna has tried the obvious places for information regarding the date it was made, etc, but no one seems to know anything about it. She writes that 'the inscriptions "DR JOHNSON'S HOUSE LICHFIELD" [are] on the front, and on the back, "R[egistered] D[esign] APPLIED FOR 15757."'

Can anyone help?

24 October 2010

Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Off | I'm Gone (1999)

The French publisher Les Éditions de Minuit is strongly associated with the nouveau roman, and has, for example, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Michel Butor, and Marguerite Duras in its portfolio. Its post-nouveau roman generation of writers include Marie NDiaye, Éric Chevillard, Jean-Philippe Toussaint...and Jean Echenoz.

At the beginning of Echenoz's Un an (1997), Victoire leaves Paris as soon as she awakens to find her boyfriend dead: she has no recollection of the previous evening, and, fearing that she may have killed Félix, draws all her money out of the bank and boards a train at Montparnasse station. With no apparent future intentions, she arrives at St-Jean-de-Luz in the extreme south-west of France, stays in hotels and rents a place until she gets robbed of nearly all her money, buys a bicycle until someone steals it, sleeps in the open air, occasionally hitches lifts (on one occasion receiving one from a Fiat driver), and lives the life of a tramp drifting around south-west France. From time to time, a mysterious Louis-Philippe, who knows about her situation and seems to know where she is all the time, finally tells her that it is safe to return to Paris; so she returns to Paris after a year of aimless traveling, only to find that Félix wasn't dead at all, but that Louis-Philippe, on the other hand, has been dead for over a year. Welcome to the world of Jean Echenoz, where things are by no means always quite as they seem.

Echenoz likes to play games. Movement is one of his preoccupations, and just as movement is vital to Un an, it is an important factor in Je m'en vais (1999), which is translated in the English edition as I'm Off, and in the American as I'm Gone, an expression which, in the manner of, say, Finnegan's Wake, begins and ends the novel. And like Un an, Je m'en vais takes place in a year, and as the earlier book begins with the protagonist's leaving of Paris and ends with her return to it, so the later novel begins with the protagonist leaving his home and then (briefly) returning to his now former home. And the name of the protagonist is Ferrer. Félix Ferrer.

Ferrer is a failing art dealer and his assistant Delahaye tells him of a ship that was wrecked at the North Pole forty years earlier, in which there are still a number of Inuit art treasures. The fiftysomething Ferrer decides, against medical advice due to a bad heart that should not be subjected to extremes of temperature, that he will go to the North Pole and retrieve the treasure. Before he leaves, though, Delahaye dies, and it is at his funeral that we learn that his forename was Louis-Philippe.

Ferrer succeeds in finding the art treasures, and during the journey has one of a number of sexual encounters he has throughout the book, another of which will be with a girl named Victoire.

One of the features of the two novels is that the narrator very rarely reveals what the characters are thinking, that things are almost always seen from an external point of view - what things or people look like, and what they do. Another slightly disorienting thing is that the short chapters often alternate between one person's actions and another, between what Ferrer is doing and what Baumgartner - another mysterious character whose actions are first seen in Paris while Ferrer is at the North Pole - is doing.

It's probably obvious to most readers that Baumgartner intends to steal Ferrer's Inuit treasure, which the jetlagged Ferrer has had valued, and is worth two medium-sized chateaux, although he just locks it in a cupboard in his gallery instead of immediately insuring it and putting it in a bank safe, which of course means that it is stolen by Baumgartner.

And Baumgartner - having frozen to death his junky dogsbody who is responsible for the robbery itself - tries to cover his traces and drives aimlessly around south-west France and Basque Spain in his Fiat, sleeping in hotels and spending all his money. At one stage of his travels he gives a hitch-hiker a lift: he recognises her, but doesn't want her to recognise him, so drives carefully and avoids potholes while she sleeps through the whole journey. Although her name isn't mentioned, she's bedraggled and smelly, and the reader of Un an will have little difficulty associating her with Victoire.

Ferrer learns that Baumgartner is in Biarritz, and tracks him down in a bar, although he's, er, not Baumgartner. Yeah, it's Echenoz playing games again.

My other Jean Echenoz posts:
Jeaan Echenoz: Jérôme Lindon
Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Off | I'm Gone (revisited)
Jean Echenoz: Lac | Chopin's Move
Jean Echenoz: Ravel
Jean Echenoz: Courir | Running
Jean Echenoz: 14

22 October 2010

Rugby, Tennessee, and Thomas Hughes of Uffington, Oxfordshire, England: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #1

Rugby is a tiny village on the Cumberland Plateau to the north-east of Tennessee. The settlement there was begun in 1880 by Thomas Hughes, better known for his book Tom Brown's Schooldays, which is set in the English town of Rugby in Warwickshire, where Hughes went to the private school of the same name.

Hughes's idea was to build a kind of utopia. In Victorian England, the practice of primogeniture meant that the first born son inherited his father's whole estate, leaving upper middle-class sons born after this with very few respectable professional opportunities. Therefore, Hughes conceived this agricultural community based on the principles of Muscular Christianity, in which much importance was given to sport.

The colony was beset by many difficulties - typhoid, land title disputes, maladminisration, and poor soil among them - and by 1887, following the deaths of several prominent members, most of the colony's original members had left. Hughes himself had spent very little time in Rugby, although his mother Margaret lived there.

Inside the school is a brief history, of which this is the relevant part:

'The first building on this site was a three-storey community building erected by Rugby's Board of Aid to Land Ownership [from whom Hughes bought the land and retained the name] in 1880. The first floor functioned as a school, the second floor housed a multi-denominational room, and the third floor was used as a meeting space for clubs like the Masonic Lodge and the Odd Fellows. This community building burned in 1906.

A number of Hughes's books on display in the school.

As the sign on the door says, this library was built on 5 October 1882.

It contains 7000 books .

Kingstone Lisle was designed for Thomas Hughes to live in, although he used it very little.

Christ Church Episcopal, 1887.

The chancel windows, the left one of which is dedicated to Margaret E. Hughes (1797-1887).

And finally, Rugby Printing Works.

We had originally planned to spend the night at historic Newbury House in the village, but unfortunately had to press on further with our tour.
In 1907, the Morgan County School Board built the current building on the same foundation. Classes were held for all grades on the first floor, and the second floor held a cafeteria.'