31 January 2012

Blandine Le Callet: Une pièce montée ('A Wedding Cake') (2006)

The translation of the title Une pièce montée is 'A Wedding Cake', although it could also refer to a play being put on, and indeed Vincent's fiancée Bérangère had originally wanted their wedding to be just that: 'une pièce de théâtre', an 'unforgettable performance', which is so very appropriate a description of the main players in this novel. Bérangère wants to keep to the three unities, but although as far as the book is concerned the main action takes place in a day, there are many digressions and a number of sub-plots that take us to a number of places at various times. And from the moment the director Bérangère has revealed her intentions, Vincent begins to feel that he is co-starring in a performance to which he hasn't even been invited.

The cover of the Poche edition is also very appropriate, with its photo of the top of a tiered wedding cake showing a very stiff and artificial-looking bride and groom tilted at an angle that almost indicates that they are falling over. The bourgeoisie are mercilessly attacked here for their callousness, their artificiality, and the fact that their bien-pensant veneer conceals astonishing hypocrisies.

At the end of the novel, near the end of the wedding reception, Bérangère learns something from her dying grandmother Madeleine that no one else knows: that her grandfather was not her biological grandfather, and that her grandparents' marriage was a loveless pretence to conceal the fact that Bérangère's mother was conceived out of wedlock. Suddenly Bérangère's certainties disappear and she seeks reassurance that her marriage will last. And Bérangère is concerned with things lasting, concerned that she should have the best material goods in her marriage, ones that will be passed on to her unborn children as heirlooms. Material goods are vital to her, going hand in hand with appearances that sometimes hide an unpleasant reality.

Une pièce montée is in nine sections, each narrated in the third person and corresponding to a character attending the wedding or wedding reception. From the beginning, we learn the importance of appearances from the eight-year-old Pauline, who has witnessed Lucie being removed from view of the camera by Bérangère and her sister Laurence; a little later we learn from the (disturbed but definitely not crazy) priest Bertrand that Lucie has Down's syndrome; near the end of the book (in a pre-wedding sequence) we learn that Lucie is Vincent's niece, and that Bérangère is horrified that she is to be a bridesmaid, even horrified by Lucie's existence in the family – which is a source of some friction between the engaged couple.

The wedding uncovers the jealousies, arguments, anger, neuroses, but most of all intolerance (especially of difference) lurking beneath the apparently smooth, well-heeled surface of these people, and the message seems to be that convention is deadly. Rebellion, on the other hand, is a very healthy thing, and (along with Bertrand's rebellion by speeding through a wedding ceremony in which no one is interested) is manifested by Pauline's refusal to smile in the photos Lucie is excluded from, and by Marie and Agnès's coming out ceremony, when they walk onto the dance floor for a slow, and passionately kiss.

Many actions and many people are crammed into this 250-page book, and although it's not always easy to work out the relationships, it's well worth the effort.

(But from what I've seen and heard of the film version La Pièce montée (note the change of article), it seems to take far too many liberties with the original material. I'll probably give it a miss.)

30 January 2012

Tahar Ben Jelloun: La Nuit sacrée |The Sacred Night (1987)

Ben Jelloun's La Nuit sacrée won the prix Goncourt in its year of publication, and is the sequel to L'Enfant du sable (The Sand Child) (1985). Both books take place in Morocco, and in the earlier novel the businessman father of the family seeks a family heir, which in this patriarchal society means that it must be a son. However, his wife gives birth to an eighth daughter. Deprived of a maculine descendant and facing humiliation and the future disinheritance of his immediate family in favor of that of his obnoxious elder brother, the father decides effectively to deprive his daughter Zahra of her female identity by concealing her gender from everyone and bringing her up as a son – Ahmed.

La Nuit sacrée continues the story on the father's deathbed, when he reveals Zahra's true sexual identity to her, the night before her twentieth birthday.* As one life ends, so one begins, and her father's death is not one of mourning for Zahra but 'A Very Beautiful Day', as she goes into the world to discover her identity as a woman.

Throughout the novel it is not always entirely clear what is real and what not, as some narrative sequences mix with dream elements, stories, and magic, although the feminist message is always clear.

When she begins her journey she taken by a cavalier to a perfumed garden peopled by children, and later continues through a wood where she undergoes a slightly ambiguous rape, and from there she goes to a hammam (Moorish or Turkish baths) whose attendant L'Assise (or The Seated One) has her stay at her home for some months, where she looks after her blind brother, the Consul.

Eventually Zahra begins a sexual relationship with the Consul, which is a revelation to her, and she comes to love the blind man. She realizes this can't last, and soon L'Assise (jealous and bitter) seeks out Zahar's uncle, who is furious at her deceit and accuses her of stealing his family's inheritance. Zahra thinks nothing of shooting him dead, but she is imprisoned. While in prison, her resentful sisters find her and subject her to clitoridectomy and infibulation.

Among other things, La Nuit sacrée is a dreamlike, poetic coming-of-age novel that is also a love story, a horror story, and feminist tract. And like L'Enfant du sable, it's been translated into English.

*This takes place on the 27th night of the month of Ramadan, or Lailatul Qadr', 'The Night of Destiny' ('La Nuit du destin') as the chapter is entitled, in fact it's the sacred night of the book's title.

26 January 2012

Richard Ayodade's Submarine (2010), Joe Dunthorne, and an Oulipian digression

Submarine is a coming-of-age story set in 1980s Swansea, Wales, and the socially inept 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) wants to lose his virginity to his girlfriend Jordana (Yasmin Paige), although he's also very concerned that the marriage of his parents – the extremely constipated Lloyd (Noah Taylor) and Jill (a slightly exaggerating Sally Hawkins) – is threatened by Jill's relationship with her old flame Graham (Paddy Considine), a new age performer.

With parents like these, Oliver can perhaps be excused the problems he has communicating, excused his self-absorption, and even excused his hopelessly misguided attempts to solve problems.

The obvious references have been made by critics – Nouvelle Vague cinema influence, Catcher in the Rye, Woody Allen, Roeg's evil dwarf in Don't Look Now, Adrian Mole, etc. The film works because it's (sometimes rather blackly) funny, because it's well acted (especially by Roberts and Paige), because Ayodade is so assured (occasionally too much so), and because Alex Turner's music is wistful and in keeping with the period.

Now, who's Joe Dunthorne? He wrote the novel (his first) on which this movie is based, which was published in 2008, and as far as I can tell (not having read it) the movie seems to be faithful to it. Dunthorne was a contributor to a collection of poems published under the title Generation txt, and he now has a new novel, Wild Abandon, which is set in the early 1990s, and apparently also has two suberb young people. I'll look out for that.

Interestingly, Dunthorne is also an admirer of Georges Perec, and his short article in the Guardian on three Perec translations is here. However – and coming a little later is one of my grouses that I may have made before but if so it bears repeating – Dunthorne calls Gilbert Adair's A Void (an attempted translation of Perec's La Disparition) a 'virtuoso translation'. I assume that Dunthorne has read both the original and the translation, otherwise his statement wouldn't make sense. One of the other translations he mentions is Ian Monk's The Exeter Text, which Monk translates from Perec's Les Revenentes. Monk, like Perec, belongs to Oulipo (which Perec still does, even though he's dead), but his verdict on Adair's translation is very different: he says that he 'found it an amusing work in its own right but, as a translation, frankly disappointing'. And he goes on to state his reasons for this, which are very interesting, particularly (for me) the fact that Adair missed the French pangram, and his 'translation' of it renders the sentence meaningless as such. You'll have to scroll a little, but any reader of Adair's book should read this. Rant over, and yes, I know I've highjacked my own post.

Leslie Marmon Silko: Ceremony (1977)

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in 1948 in Albuquerque, New Mexico and is of Native American, Mexican American, and white blood. She grew up in the Laguna Pueblo reservation and has written the novels Almanac of the Dead (1991) and Gardens of the Dunes (2001) as well as several books of poetry.

Ceremony, her first novel, is a very powerful book. After six years fighting in the Philippines and surviving the Bataan Death March as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, the young Native American Tayo returns to the States. Suffering from battle fatigue, he is initially sent to the mental ward of the veterans' hospital in California. He then moves to Laguna Pueblo, where he has been living with his aunt, who is the sister of the mother who has deserted him, and is the mother of his cousin and friend Rocky with whom he left to join the war, but who has not survived. Tayo lives with ghosts, and is still ill.

In war, he and his Native American friends experienced a slim but not insignificant (although sometimes morbidly ironic) kind of equality: although white people weren't cheering them as much as the uniform they wore, they nevertheless 'got the same medals for bravery, the same flag over the coffin'. But there is a return to alienation when the uniform has gone, and at stores Tayo has to wait to be served after the whites, and the 'white lady at the bus depot' is very careful to slide his change over the counter to avoid touching him.*

His friends attempt to medicate themselves with drink and degenerate into alcoholism and violence, but Tayo finds this unsatisfactory, and anyway he is still the victim of a double alienation: from both white and Native American society because he is of mixed blood.

His grandmother tries to get the medicine man Ku'oosh to cure him, but Ku'oosh is too steeped in Indian culture, and is unable to cure contemporary ills that have their roots in white society. So Tayo visits another medicine man – Betonie – who lives on the edge of another reservation, near the white town of Gallup, and who is familiar with both white and Native American cultures.

The ceremony now begins, and although there is no quick fix, what Betonie has taught him will lead him away from his false friends in the 'cold Coors hospital' identifying with the destruction that the whites have brought to Native American civilization. It will lead Tayo towards a greater understanding of his past, of what he is. Towards health.

Ceremony isn't structured in a linear fashion and passages from the past, in the manner of Tayo's thoughts, are juxtaposed to the present. Poems – stories of Native American culture – both frame the novel and punctuate it, serving as ceremonies, weapons against illness, death, evil: the wherewithal for life itself.

*cf. Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable.

23 January 2012

Ellen Glasgow: The Sheltered Life (1932)

In Pioneers & Caretakers: A study of 9 American Women Novelists (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1965]), Louis Auchincloss sees Ellen Glasgow as 'the necessary bridge between the world of Thomas Nelson Page and the world of William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams.' The Sheltered Life is generally considered to be one of – if not the – best of Glasgow's novels.

This is the final novel of Glasgow's Queenborough Trilogy, following The Romantic Comedians (1929) and They Stooped to Folly (1929), and Queenborough is a model for the city of Richmond in Virginia where Glasgow spent most of her life.

The novel begins in the early years of the 20th century and (after a gap of eight years) ends shortly after the beginning of World War I, when the South was still very slowly adjusting to the changes after the Civil War (1861–65) and Reconstruction (1865–77). Washington Street only houses two remaining stalwart Old South families, the Birdsongs (of whom Eva and her husband George are of central importance) and the Archbalds (of whom Jenny Blair (aged nine and 17–18) and her grandfather the General (aged 84 at the end) are of central importance).

Eva represents the Southern belle (or the older Southern lady) who strives to maintain her dignity while her husband strives to conceal his philandering activities, although both fail miserably.

The pervasive stench from the chemical works is a constant reminder of the hegemony of the industrial New South to this redoubt of the aristocratic agrarian Old South, whose principal defensive strategy is maintaining appearances. For Eva, 'Keeping up an appearance is more than a habit [...]. It is a second nature.' However, it's obvious that things around them are falling apart, and the image of the mother of Jenny's friend Bena as 'a Confederate flag in the rain' is very appropriate. Eva can't keep up the pretence, and breaks down: 'I'm worn out with being somebody else – with being somebody's ideal'. And then when she leaves hospital and finds George in the arms of the 18-year-old Jenny Blair she shoots him dead, but appearances have to be kept up: he shot himself, didn't he?

Ellen Glasgow's The Sheltered Life is a powerful attack on the cult of domesticity, the ideal of womanhood, the exclusion of women from public life, the mental suicide that Old Southern patriarchal society imposed on women. In some respects, I'm not so sure that's it's a wholly historical story: surely certain ingrained attitudes remain today?

The house where Glasgow lived in Richmond is still there, although it is now a business concern. Shots I took of the exterior in 2009 are here.

In addition, there's an thesis online by Emma Domínguez i Rué entitled 'Ellen Through the Looking-Glass: Female Invalidism as Metaphor in the Fiction of Ellen Glasgow', which is split into three sections, and the links are here: Section One, Section Two, and Section Three.

18 January 2012

Éric Fottorino: Baisers de cinéma (2007)

On the first page of Éric Fottorino's Baisers de cinéma ('Cinema Kisses') there is a mention of the fire that occurs at the end, and fire is a prefigurative image in a number of various guises: for instance, Gilles Hector remembers, as a child, his father Jean playfully saying 'You're red hot!' ('Tu brûles!') when he was very close to objects he'd hidden; and the narrator Gilles admits that he's playing with fire by becoming the love slave of the capricious Mayliss de Carlo. But there's twist at the end.

Baisers de cinéma is an unconventional love story, but also a detective story reminiscent of Patrick Modiano's work, where the narrator liberally punctuates the novel with references to locations in central Paris. Gilles owes his existence to a 'cinema kiss' between his cinema photographer father and his unknown mother and tries to cast light on who she was, watching numerous movies as part of this search – the nouvelle vague cinema plays an important part in the narrative. It's during one such movie visit that he meets the married Mayliss, and they become lovers, consumed by a very powerful passion.

And guess what? Yes, there are no English translations of Éric Fottorino's novels.

17 January 2012

Belinda Cannone

Until this morning, when I read a review in this month's Magazine littéraire of novelist and essayist Belinda Cannone's La Chair du temps (literally 'The Flesh of Time'), I wasn't aware of her existence. Last March she arrived at her house in the country to find that two trunks, containing many years of her diaries, notebooks, photos and correspondence, had been stolen. Her shock was immense, and she wrote frantically to try to fill the void, to right the wrong, and this book is an attempt to render the intimate 'extimate'. Obviously, I had to find out more about Barbara Cannone.

Cannone – a university lecturer in Comparative Literature at Caen – wrote and published her thesis about writers and music in France in the second half of the 18th century, and music is a preoccupation in her work.

So too is desire. The novel Lent Delta (1998) – literally 'Slow Delta' – is an exploration of the desire to live seen through the eyes of a woman on her final day of 104 years of life; and the novel L'Homme qui jeûne (2006)  – literally 'The Fasting Man' – is the negative image of desire. L’Écriture du désir (2001) – literally 'The Writing of Desire' – is an essay which examines desire in general and its relationship to literary practice.

Last year she published Le Baiser peut-être – literally 'The Kiss Perhaps' –which was the first of a series of books to be written by different people on universal subjects. For Cannone, the kiss represents the most beautiful gesture of desire, a fusion, when self joins other, and there is a brief talk for Mollat on YouTube in which she also extends the word: when she writes, she leans toward the reader in desire, in a kind of kiss, and hopes that the reader will make a similar gesture toward her. The fascinating eight-minute interview, in French – and in which, for instance, she covers the prostitute (who doesn't kiss because she can sell her body but not her desire), Diderot (Cannone's 'dance master'), and Dante (Paulo and Francesca) – is here.

Last year I noted that Laurent Mauvignier – a startling and original French writer – has been barely translated into English. Consulting the Library of Congress and the British Library websites, the indication is that no work of Cannone's has been translated into English. Perhaps, once again, this is a case of a writer's work just being too French for an English readership, in spite of the universal themes.

16 January 2012

The Greensboro sit-ins, North Carolina, 1960

I covered O. Henry in Greensboro some time back, but I forgot to add this one. On 1 February 1960 four African American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat down at F. W. Woolworth's lunch counter on 132 South Elm Street. Following the store's segregation policy, they were asked to leave. They remained in the store and encouraged others to make a peaceful protest there over some days. By the fourth day 300 joined in the demonstration and shortly it spread to other stores and other cities. When the protesters started boycotting segregated stores, Woolworth's profits fell sharply, and on 26 July the chain dropped its segregation policy.

The effect of the demonstrations was far-reaching, and it is evident that they played a part in leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which illegalized racial segregation.

The International Civil Rights Center & Museum is now inside the former Woolworth store.

The sculpture Cup of Freedom, by Charles Jenkins, was installed outside the museum in January 2010. Below it is a quotation:

'I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold thes truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.'

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The plaque entitled 'Birth of the Civil Rights Movement' is also outside the museum, and is a representation of the 'Greensboro Four': Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (who became Jibreel Khazan), Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond.

15 January 2012

Dun Karm in Msida, Malta

Dun Karm (1871-1961), or Carmelo Psaila, was born in Żebbuġ, Malta, and I previously made a post about him nearly two years ago. I've now discovered a photo I took some years ago in Msida, which shows a bust of him with a verse at the side. My original post is here.

14 January 2012

The Old General in Nottingham General Cemetery

Well, there's a commemorative plaque at least, which I omitted to include in a blog post last September about Benjamin Mayo (aka The Old General), one of Nottingham's most noted eccentrics.

But the slate is no longer in its place: it has been propped against the wall below the framework that held it. It reads:

See HONES' "EVERY DAY BOOK Vol. 2nd Page 1570.'

My previous blog post is here: The Old General.

12 January 2012

Éric Faye: Nagasaki (2010)

Éric Faye borrowed the basic outline of a story that appeared in several Japanese newspapers in 2008 in order to construct this short novel set in Nagasaki.

Shimura is a 56-year-old meteorology worker with regular, sober habits who can't understand how food and drink can be disappearing from his fridge. He becomes preoccupied with it and installs a webcam in his kitchen to spy on the intruder from the office. Eventually he sees a woman, and on one occasion when he spots her making a cup of tea he phones the police. The police break in and find a 58-year-old woman hiding in the house in a small room – in fact more of a futon cupboard.

Shimura is in for a shock when the police inform him that the unemployed woman has made a duplicate key and been living in the house for nearly a year. There follows a court case as a result of which the woman is imprisoned for five months, and in which Shimura, who finds it very difficult to live in the house any more, nevertheless behaves without malice towards her.

There are three narrators in the book – Shimura, the woman, and a third person who has access to the woman's thoughts. The last two take over the narrative towards the end, when the woman gives an account of the difficulties and the joys she received living in clandestinity, and when the third person narrator describes her leaving prison, seeing with distress that the now empty house is for sale, and visiting it with the estate agent.

The woman – who, like Shimura, has no romantic interest in the other – had intended to see Shimura after release, and is even surprised that he didn't visit her in prison. The estate agent allows her to write to him through the agency, but the long, intelligent – even philosophical – letter of explanation is a little different from her police statement. A very interesting story.

11 January 2012

Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)

For a time now I've realized that for some reason – or more likely for no reason at all – I've been neglecting to read Tennessee Williams's work, but after reading A Streetcar Named Desire I'm beginning to see what I've been missing. Blanche Dubois represents the decaying Old South, Stanley Kowalski the new aggressive spirit, and essentially Streetcar is a playoff between the two principal characters.

But almost everything in the play seems to take on a symbolic significance: the name of the streetcar and its ironic destination (Elysian Fields, which is replacing Belle Rêve) is perhaps all too obvious, but Stella's and Blanche's lives too are a compromise between old and new – although the new wins hands down, totally dominating both women. Stella has left the beautiful dream, although sexually she's still starry-eyed. But the aptly named Blanche, the ghost of Belle Rêve – and the language of the name prefigures the French atmosphere of the urban New Orleans, while the grammatically incorrect feminine adjective (it should of course be the masculine 'Beau') evokes the two faded Southern belles – Blanche has had to resort to prostitution as the dream crumbled: the Old South is screwed, gone with the wind, and Stella has succumbed, although Blanche still clings to the dream to the point of insanity. In the end she refuses to wake up and smell the testosterone of the poker (poke her?) players who know the geography, and the play's final word is 'stud': the stallion energy (personified above all by Stanley, the phallocratic Pole) has won the game.

Williams's frequent correspondent Donald Windham calls Williams's work 'repressed self-knowledge', and certainly this play seems to contain autobiographical elements, disguised though they may be. Certainly the mental illness of Williams's beloved sister Rose seemed to be in some way subsumed into Blanche's character. And then there's all the gender play, Blanche's homosexual husband, her mixture of fragility and drink-bolstered defiance, the poker and the heavy drinking (as seen Williams's father), etc.

In her introductory commentary to the edition shown above, Patricia Hern mentions that Williams was influenced by D. H. Lawrence, but her quotation from Lady Chatterley's Lover, spoken by the eponymous aristocrat's sister Hilda about Connie's lover Mellors, seems to reveal a little more than the suggested threat and alienation: 'And men like you [...] ought to be segregated: justifying their own vulgarity and selfish lust.' The analogy is clear: Lady Chatterley is dominated, destroyed even, by the working-class sexuality of Mellors in a similar way that the Southern belles Stella and Blanche are destroyed by the working-class sexuality of Kowalski: the aristocracies of both England and the American South are dying. But doesn't what Hilda says seem remarkably appropriate to the South? 'Segregated'? Like the Southern blacks under Jim Crow, whose sexuality had been so feared by the whites, and whose Southern Lady stood as such a bulwark against that power? Is the sentence pure coincidence, or was Lawrence (maybe just subconsciously) thinking of the South?

10 January 2012

Women Writers of Nottingham

Last March the Nottingham Women's History Group published the booklet 'Women of Nottingham: A Walk around the City Centre'. As several of the women featured were writers, I decided to follow this part, although my route is not the same as in booklet. A few of the associated sites are pretty tenuous, but that in no way detracted from my interest in the exercise.

This medieval structure at the corner of Castle Road and Castle Gate was once known as 'Severns', and was moved here in 1970 from Middle Pavement several hundred yards away. It became the Lace Centre after some years, illustrating an industry in which largely women were employed.

Grass and wild flowers hang over the guttering, and the building is now for sale.

The booklet notes that Hilda Lewis (1896–1974) wrote historical fiction, and that the novel Penny Lace is about the local industry.

I reproduce this from a previous post I made on the busts of writers displayed outside the entrance to Nottingham Castle Museum, which shows Mary Howitt (1799–1888), who was mainly noted for her poetry, with her husband William.

Ann Gilbert (1782–1866), who was born Taylor and a children's poet like her younger sister Jane (who is best remembered for 'Twinkle Little Star'), lived here at 51 Castle Gate from 1830. Ann was also a literary critic and established the Nottingham Ladies' Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves. Her son Josiah wrote Cadore: or, Titian's Country, and also edited Autobiography and Other Memorials of Mrs Gilbert.

Abigail Gawthern (1757–1822) spent most of her mature life at 26 Low Pavement. A rich property owner, she left a diary recording in great detail the events of her life.

The artist Laura Knight (1917–70) was born in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, went to Nottingham School of Art, and was once a member of the Nottingham School of Artists. I include her here because she wrote two autobiographies: Oil Paint and Grease Paint (1936) and The Magic of a Line (1965).

Charles I raised his standard on a mound behind this slightly vandalized plaque. The Governor of Nottingham Castle was one of the signatories of Charles's death warrant, and his wife – the translator and poet Lucy Hutchinson (1620–81) – wrote Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson.
Lord Byron lived here at 76 St James's Street in 1798 when he was attending hospital, although of course he was not here when his wife Annabella Milbanke gave birth to their daughter Augusta Ada. Ada Lovelace (1815–51) is noted for her work with Charles Babbage's on his analytical engine.
For good measure and because I find it attractive, I include a building not – as far as I'm aware – associated with any writer, but which is also included in the walk. The Rotunda, which was the Jubilee Ward section of the General Hospital, was built in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's jubilee, and the booklet seems to include it because earlier this century it was 'the venue for the Lesbian club, Eternity'.

This is an interesting booklet that brings attention to several writers who are not exactly widely known – not even to that many people in Nottingham, I suspect – so it is most welcome.

One woman not mentioned, though, is the indefatigable Constance Penswick Smith, who campaigned for the revival of Mothering Sunday in the first half of the 20th century, and who wrote a number of books and plays on the subject. A link to information on her, which includes a mention of her 'headquarters' at 15 Regent Street, Nottingham, is here.

One major complaint – not about the booklet, but about a comment in the Nottingham Women's History Group website, where it mentions a talk on Nottingham women in sport as being 'In celebration of the Olympics'. What? 'Women of Nottingham' has drawn attention to minority groups and mentions not just women but homosexual women, working-class women, etc, and yet the group publishing this booklet appears to applaud one of the most obscene actions perpetrated in this country in many years: the Olympic Games, which has caused the destruction of a huge area of London, and one that was significantly peopled and enjoyed by those far less fortunate than many from other parts of London. Please read this link for a small indication of the horrors performed in the siting of the Olympic Games, which has been studied in great depth by our tireless national treasure Iain Sinclair.

5 January 2012

Prejudice, and Harper Lee's and Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird

Over the holidays I chanced upon the DVD of To Kill a Mockingbird, and although I'd seen the movie before and read the book two or three times, as it's always been a favorite of mine I decided to buy it. At the time I didn't realize that the main theme of the narrative – the obscenity of prejudice – would prove to be so topical this week, when two Englishmen were finally found guilty of a horrific racially motivated murder commited almost two decades previously.

We have fictional, smalltown Maycomb (loosely modeled on Monroeville), Alabama in the Jim Crow era of the early 1930s, and real Eltham, suburb of bigtown London, UK, in the early 1990s. Ostensibly, there are huge differences in time, general culture, etc, and yet I don't see much difference between the poison of Bob Ewell and the poison of Gary Dobson and David Norris.

Disturbingly, Norris, who lived in a £300,000 mansion and whose family had never been short of money in his sixteen years, had rarely left south-east London, and had never been north of the River Thames. Insularity breeds contempt.

To return to Mockingbird, there is of course a parallel narrative that feeds into that of Tom Robinson's toward the end, and just as Robinson is the outsider in the powerful white world of the South, Boo Radley with, to quote Sheriff Heck Tate, 'his shy ways' is very much the white outsider in a more extroverted world he can't fit into.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the great novels of 20th century American literature, and the movie – strongly endorsed by Lee – also has a power which, as director Robert Mulligan suggests, it would not have been possible to display in a world fed on MTV, in which many people would be easily bored by the long scenes.

Mulligan made that remark during the Director's Commentary, a special feature on the DVD where he and producer Alan J. Pakula discuss the actors and the events in the film. What I hadn't considered before is that the movie (which in spite of a number of small differences is largely very faithful to the book) is a real oddity as the book is essentially uncinematic, and apart from the courtroom scene the major events take place offstage and we learn of them (the killing of the black Tom Robinson, the killing of of the crazed racist Ewell) secondhand.

Pakula would go on to direct his own films, and a preoccupation with technology is apparent in virtually all of them. This is particularly so with his characters' use of the phone, which is frequently employed as a dramatic device to increase tension, often being the harbinger of important news. But perhaps the Pakula movie that springs to mind most is All the President's Men, with the Watergate tapes which proved so damning to Nixon. Significantly, of course, it was technology in the form of the police bugging of Dobson's flat that helped in bringing (as yet just two of) the murderers of Stephen Lawrence to justice. Technology was a little too primitive in the days when Mockingbird is set, although the insane primitiveness of racial prejudice is still with us.

4 January 2012

Norman Rockwell in Stockbridge, The Berkshires, Massachusetts

The painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) – most remembered for his Saturday Evening Post covers, and perhaps especially among those his Willie Gillis series – moved from Arlington, Vermont to Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1953. The Norman Rockwell Museum, designed by Robert A. M. Stern, holds the largest original collection of Rockwell's work, and has been at 9 Route 183, on a thirty-six acre site, since 1993. One large room houses all 322 of his Saturday Evening Post covers. Other rooms give some insight into his more socially concerned paintings, of his frustration with the restrictions caused by the demands for whimsical cutesiness: the racial issue in 'The Problem We All Live With' (1964) is of course the most famous example of this maturity. No photography allowed, as might be expected.


Norman Rockwell wanted his studio to be preserved for museum visitors to learn about his working process. In 1976, he placed his studio and all of its furnishings and equipment in trust to The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. In 1986, the contents were carefully packed, and the studio building was moved from South Street to its new site. As in its original location, the studio's large windows face north and the building continues to overlook the Housatonic River.

The relocation and restoration of Norman Rockwell's studio was made possible by the generosity of Kraft General Foods.'

The studio does not reflect the state it was in at the time the museum came into possession of it, but an earlier, more productive time.

And that time was October 1960, when Rockwell was finishing Golden Rule, which was published on the Saturday Evening Post cover of 1 April 1961.

Another part of the studio.

Also on the museum site is Linwood House, built by New York attorney Charles Butler in 1859 as his family's summer retreat and named after the novel The Linwoods (1835), which was written by relative and Stockbridge resident Catharine Maria Sedgwick. This and similar summer houses were known as 'Berkshire cottages'. The setting is beautifully picturesque, and Rockwell used to cycle here every day from the center of Stockbridge, at the same time getting to know the Musgrave family who had inherited the property. Structurally this house is the same as in Charles Butler's day, and it now forms the museum's administrative nucleus.

Around the museum are a number of sculptures. This one is a representation of children by Peter Rockwell, Norman's son.

This is by John Catalano, and is titled The Shaman.

On the way back to the parking lot by the entrance, visitors are requested to ring a large bell if they enjoyed themselves. We both clanged it vigorously: it had been a great way to spend a wet day.

2 January 2012

The Oxford American: Thirteenth Annual Southern Music Issue (2011)

Although now published in Conway, Arkansas, The Oxford American takes its name from its original place of publication: Oxford, Mississippi. This quarter is the magazine's thirteenth annual Southern music issue, which this year includes a CD compilation of music from Mississippi.

A few of the tracks are by well-known musicians such as Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley, but most of them are less famous.

Jimmy Donley (1929–63) from Jonestown near Gulfport sings 'Radio, Jukebox, and T.V.', and Ben Ehrenreich's article on Donley begins with the sentence 'Take a tour of loneliness.', which is as much an introduction to Donley's life than the song itself. Donley was married several times in his short – often poverty-burdened, often drink-sodden – 33 years. He had psychiatric problems, was violent, and was no stranger to the inside of a prison cell. Collectively, the mere titles many of his songs appear to scream his despair: 'I'm Alone', 'You're Why I'm So Lonely', 'I Really Got the Blues', 'Oh How It Hurts', and the very telling 'Born to Be a Loser' – which became the title of a 1992 biography by Johnnie Allan and Bernice Larson Webb – seems to sum up his sorry life. But it would be difficult to find a more appropriate title than 'Stop the Clock': Donley succeeded in asphyxiating himself to death with the exhaust fumes of his car.

Megan Mayhew Bergman gives a fascinating account of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Originally called The Swinging Rays of Rhythm, the Sweethearts came out of Dr Laurence C. Jones's (African American) Piney Woods School a little more than twenty miles south of Jackson. In fact, the girls escaped from it: initially serving as fund raisers for the school, they decided to go their own way and earn more money. Recruiting more musicians of different races, they became the first racially integrated all-girl band, and in a time of war when their male big band counterparts were being called up, they very adequately filled the gap. With difficulty they lasted until 1949, through the boys' return, the intolerance of Jim Crow, internal difficulties, and changing musical fashions.

Words certainly can be off-putting, as Nikil Saval noted on first hearing of Milton Babbitt because automatically the surname triggered off associations with the eponymous central character of Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt. He thought of 'American philistinism' in relation to the novel, although I think 'American conformity' is more apt. No matter, as neither expression can be applied to Milton Babbitt's music. Quite the reverse, and Babbitt's experimental 'Post Partitions' is an amazing piano composition. Babbitt wrote a thesis on Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone system (or twelve-tone composition), but it was not published until many years later in 1992, when he was also awarded a PhD for it by Princeton University.

As usual, though, I'm drawn as if by magnetic force to the obscurities here:

––– Mattie Delaney, the blues singer who appears to have only ever recorded two tracks, in 1930, at the famous Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, and who has been covered by Rory Block and Lucinda Williams.

––– John Stirratt is well known as Wilco's bassist, but his early days in Oxford, MS with The Hilltops are far less so. I must listen to more on Oxford American's website as 'Sidewalk' is wondrous stuff.

––– And I must also take up OA's offer in the magazine to 'experience more Henry Green' by checking out that website some more. 'Storm thru Mississippi', inspired by the 1936 tornados, is scary, wrathful, Old Testament preaching. Nicholas Rombes's article doesn't seem to give any indication who the man was, although his very common name is a big setback to finding out.

––– The Riviaires were two kids smitten by The Beatles' music in their early teens, and Ralph 'Wattsy' Watts's very youthful voice emphasizes the fact. Wattsy and the drummer Bill Latham released this themselves (with a brief instrumental on the B-side), and their parents footed the bill. But there were no more records from The Rivieres, as they were just having fun.

––– Finally, from Jackson come The Germans, a punk band with lead vocalist Carla Wescott making wonderful noises, ditto the startling guitar playing of Sherry Cothren.

This is the list of the tracks on the CD:

1. Harold Dorman: 'Uncle Jonah’s Place' (1961)

2. Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: 'What Can You Bring Me' (1971)

3. Ernie Chaffin: 'I'm Lonesome' (1957)

4. Bo Diddley: 'Heart-O-Matic Love' (1955)

5. Mattie Delaney: 'Tallahatchie River Blues' (1930)

6. Fern Kinney: 'I'm Ready for Your Love' (1982)

7. Leon Bass & the Keystones: 'Love-A-Rama' (c. 1956)

8. Joe Henderson: 'Snap Your Fingers' (1962)

9. Hayden Thompson: 'Blues, Blues, Blues' (1956)

10. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm: 'Jump Children' (1946)

11. Howlin' Wolf: 'Howlin' for My Darling' (1959)

12. Dusty Brooks: '(My Baby Loves) Chili Dogs' (1951)

13. Ruby Andrews: 'Tit for Tat' (1969)

14. The Hilltops: 'Sidewalk' (1991)

15. Carter Brothers & Son: 'Old Joe Bone' (1928)

16. Syl Johnson: 'I've Got the Real Thing' (1968)

17. Guitar Slim: 'Guitar Slim' (195418. Jimmy Donley: 'Radio, Jukebox, and T.V.' (1958)

19. The Golden Nugget: 'Gospel Train' (1973)

20. Travis Wammack: 'Rock & Roll Blues' (1958)

21. Henry Green: 'Storm Thru Mississippi' (1951)

22. Wadada Leo Smith and Ed Blackwell: 'Uprising'' (1986)

23. Jim Jackson: 'Old Dog Blue' (1928)

24. The Riviaires: 'Bad Girl' (c. 1965)

25. The Germans: 'Love Sick' (1981)

26. Milton Babbitt' (played by Robert Miller): 'Post-Partitions' (1977)

27. Ted Hawkins: 'Biloxi' (1994)

It's just occurred to me: I suppose Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode to Billie Joe' was too obvious to include? Pity, though, as it's one of my all-time favorites. I note it's contributor Yusef Komunyakaa's favorite Mississippi song. Good man.