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.