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?