“Merry Christmas, Everyone” (Shakin’ Stevens)

After last week’s moany post, I have survived both work dos and I am in the Christmas spirit – joyeux noel!

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I even gifted to myself, in the shape of Karl Ove Knausgaard (if only) by going to see him interviewed for World Book Club, in the rather formal surrounds of the council chamber at the BBC (free wine! and crisps! so that’s where my licence fee goes – I approve). He was every bit as good-looking charming and erudite as I’d hoped so if you get a chance to listen to the show at some point (on in early January) I recommend it. And it warmed my post-Brexit heart to be part of such an international audience, so thank you BBC 🙂

Back to Christmas. At this time of seasonal over-indulgence, I’ve decided to exercise uncharacteristic restraint. Two Christmas stories, but both of them short stories, wee amuse-bouches that can easily be consumed by a brain threatening to slip into a vegetative state from the over-consumption of, well, everything really…

OK, I can probably manage one more Ferrero Rocher...

OK, I can probably manage one more Ferrero Rocher…

Firstly, the titular story from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a selection of entrees by Agatha Christie (1960). Things begin in fine Golden Age form: Poirot is asked by a mysterious government-type to find a missing ruby that a foreign prince has mislaid on Blightly’s shores, in order to avoid an international incident. Poirot is hard to persuade and the government-type is close to losing his cool:

“Mr Jesmond made a peculiar noise rather like a hen who has decided to lay an egg and then thought better of it.”

Poirot decides to leave his lovely art deco flat (I want it! I want it!) once he knows his accommodation for Christmas has oil-fired central heating:

“Again Poirot shivered. The thought of a fourteenth-century English manor house filled him with apprehension. He had suffered too often in the historic country houses of England.”

I did enjoy that little swipe at the trope of country house mysteries.  Christie’s clearly having a great time writing this, evoking a traditional country house Christmas and then throwing everything at it, from faked murders to mysterious strangers to anonymous notes left for Poirot:

“Don’t eat none of the plum pudding. One as wishes you well.”

I think I’ve eaten that plum pudding. Of course, Poirot is on top of everything and speedily resolves murder, mystery, missing jewels and that most pressing of seasonal considerations: is the plum pudding safe?

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Secondly, again the titular story of a collection, this time Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1940), set in the time before her famous comic novel, and so the Starkadder family are in full disarray.

“The Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm had never got the hang of Christmas, somehow, and on Boxing Day there was always a run on Howling pharmacy for lint, bandages, and boracic powder.”

In this short story we are treated to a portrait of Christmas at the farm, a Christmas no-one in their right mind would want. Nothing particularly happens, it is more a series of events over the course of the day to display the Starkadders in all their colourful, brutal, hilarious glory.  If you’re not familiar with the family from Cold Comfort Farm, well, firstly, away with you and read the comic treat! But if you decide to read the Christmas story first, all you need to know about the family can be gleaned from the idiosyncratic and truly disgusting charms which grace the Christmas pudding:

“Him as gets the sticking plaster’ll break a limb; the menthol cone means as you’ll be blind wi’ headache, the bad coins means as you’ll lose all yer mony, and him as gets the coffin-nail will die afore the New Year. The mirror’s seven years’ bad luck for someone, Aie! In ye go, curse ye!”

Gibbon’s driest humour is saved not for the family but for those around them, such as the vicar who has been guided to pay a Christmas Eve visit by the crate of British Port-type wine he saw being delivered to the farm (surely there’s not enough port wine in the world to get you through a festive visit with the Starkadders?) If you enjoyed Cold Comfort Farm there’s much to relish in this brief visit to the family.  A treat.

Another treat - Rufus Sewell as Seth Starkadder in the 1996 BBC adaptation. Apparently Kate Beckinsale and a bull are in this photo too - I can't see them anywhere...

Another treat – Rufus Sewell as Seth Starkadder in the 1996 BBC adaptation. Apparently Kate Beckinsale and a bull are in this photo too – I can’t see them anywhere…

To end, proof if proof were needed, that my ‘taste’ in Christmas tunes is very much of an era.  The post began with the double-denim Welsh Elvis that is Shaky, and now ends with the greatest Christmas video ever (non-debateable, as is the greatest Christmas song, Fairytale of New York). There will never come a day when I’ve seen this too many times, I love everything about it. The snow, the ski lodge, the mullets, the meaningful looks over the tinsel, the death stare down the dining table… enjoy 😀

UPDATE: It was announced on Christmas Day that George Michael had died. Rest in Peace George, and thank you for all the tunes xx

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“At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” (W. Somerset Maugham)

‘Tis the season of the works Christmas do, and this week I’ll be stuffing my face at not one but two dinners, as I’m going to both my old job and new job’s yuletide outing. I hate works outings, so I’d be tempted to proclaim that there is no God, but that’s not really in keeping with the season. So I’ll just say I’m not happy about the week’s forthcoming events.

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This week I’m looking at two stories that will help me stop being so ungrateful, as they feature horrific dinners with despicable people. Buon Natale!

Firstly, The Dinner by Herman Koch (2009, tr. 2012 Sam Garrett) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Paul and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge and his wife Babette at a swish Amsterdam restaurant. Fairly quickly, it is apparent that Paul harbours a great deal of resentment towards his brother:

“Through and through, Serge remained a yokel, a boorish lout: the same boorish lout who used to get sent from the table for farting”

The dinner begins to unravel from the beginning. Babette arrives visibly upset:

 “Yet there was something else, something different about her this time, like a room where someone has thrown out all the flowers while you were gone: a change in the interior you don’t even notice at first, not until you see the stems sticking out of the garbage.”

As they work their way through the dinner (the different sections of the book are split into the consecutive sections of a menu), Paul reflects on why they are actually all meeting – to discuss a horrific crime which has taken place – and recent events in his life. The further we get into the novel, the more of Paul’s personality begins to emerge, from a slightly controversial take on memorial stones…

 “The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims. That their names are also chiselled onto the war memorials.”

…escalating to an increasingly apparent violent nature and fascistic attitude to people.  A worrying combination:

“The little hairs on the back of my neck and my tingling fingers had not betrayed me: when the lower intelligences are about to lose an argument, they grasp at other straws in order to justify themselves.”

I won’t say too much more for fear spoilers, but The Dinner is a quick read, its light touch belying its serious concerns: should personal interest ever outweigh societal responsibility and what are the ramifications if it does?

Safe to say you’ll finish the novel mightily relieved that you never have to sit down to a meal with a single character portrayed within. And this is Koch’s master stroke. I desperately wanted the whole family to implode, for justice to be done. In doing so, I realised I wasn’t so very different to these repugnant people and their feeling of moral superiority towards others. It was not a comfortable place to be. The Dinner leaves a bad taste in the mouth, exactly as its creator intended.

Secondly, Festen (2004), the stage play by David Eldridge of the 1998 film by Thomas Vinterberg (trigger warning: mentions incest). I was a huge fan of the Dogme 95 films and I saw the play in 2004 where it translated well to the stage. It’s a simple plot but powerful: Christian’s twin sister Linda has killed herself and as the family meet to celebrate their father’s 60th birthday, Christian makes a speech about why Linda would do such thing – the sexual abuse she and Christian endured as children at the hands of their father.

“Christian: I apologise for interrupting again.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten the most important thing. We’re here today because it is my father’s birthday. We’re not here for any other reason.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry if I led you all up the garden path before. I am sorry. I’d like to make it all up to you all now by asking you to charge your glasses. To my father.

Helmut: Well done Christian.

Poul: Yes, well done.

Christian: If you would all like to stand with me. And raise your glasses.

Everyone stands.

To the man who killed my sister. To a murderer.”

Unsurprisingly, all hell breaks loose. Unlike The Dinner, there are people to care about and root for. Despite the horrific subject matter, there are moments of levity and the play is warm towards the majority of the characters.  Reading plays can be an odd business, because it’s not the primary form for the story. I found the playtext of Festen very readable and affecting, but if you don’t fancy it, do give the film a go, as the story is a moving one and brilliantly directed (contains swearing):

What a depressing post this has turned into! ‘Tis the season of being grumpy about enforced joviality 😉 I promise I’ve a much lighter-hearted Crimbo post planned for next week. For this week, I wish you all a lovely load of Christmas parties, may they be as adorable as this dinner:

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“Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” (Steven Wright)

I’m a month into my new job and the main effect it’s having is that my memory is shot to pieces. Trying to cram #allthefacts about one particular health condition into my head means all other knowledge has dribbled out of my ears. In fairness, my short and long-term memory has always been appalling and I used to claim I operated in a constantly shifting 3 hour window. This is currently down to about 30 minutes. Plus I got lost at Bank the other day, when I’ve lived in London MY WHOLE LIFE. And there’s a bloomin’ great building at Bank (guess which one) to help you orient yourself.

Where am I again? Oh, yeah...

Where am I again? Oh, yeah…

So to console myself this week I’m looking at novels which explore memory. Its inherently unreliable nature means memory is a gift to novelists who want to consider how we construct reality and decide who we are. (At the moment I’m happy if I manage to construct a sentence, never mind reality and coherent sense of self).

Firstly, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2003, tr. Stephen Snyder 2008).I’m a huge admirer of Ogawa and her spare, stunning writing. In this short novel she details the relationship between a young housekeeper, her son, and the Professor she works for, who since a car accident in 1975 has a memory which lasts 80 minutes, though his memory from before the accident is intact.

“At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. ‘The new housekeeper,’ it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the work of a small child…but I knew instantly it was portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.”

These notes cover the Professor’s suit and give him an eccentric experience which belies his brilliant mind. He is talented mathematician who sees numbers everywhere. His housekeeper became pregnant at 18 and needed to work to support her child; she is intelligent but not highly educated. Gradually though, he is able to convey the magic of numbers to her and her mind relishes the new challenge:

“With my finger I traced the trail of numbers from the ones the Professor had written to the ones I’d added, and they all seemed to flow together, as if we’d been connecting up the constellations in the night sky.”

Meanwhile Ogawa is able to convey the magic of numbers to the reader. There is no-one more resistant to mathematics than me – I won’t even play soduku. Yet the Housekeeper’s response to the discoveries the Professor opens up for her is so creative and joyful that I found myself carried along:

“I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers. Amicable numbers or twin primes had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem. In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line.”

The titular characters and the Housekeeper’s son – nicknamed Root as his flat head reminds the Professor of the square root sign – form a tender alliance. The Professor cannot remember them from one day to the next, and yet he changes their lives forever, through his love of numbers and how he uses these to reach out to people.  The novel is a love story, but not a romance.  It is about the love of friends, of family, of vocation. It contains tragedy but also endurance beyond such, with Ogawa’s sparse style bringing the story a great delicacy. I adored it.

“I thought of the Professor whenever I saw a prime number – which, as it turned out, was almost everywhere I looked: price tags at the supermarket, house numbers above doors, on bus schedules or the expiration date on a package of ham, Root’s score on a test. On the face of it, these numbers faithfully played their official roles, but in secret they were primes and I knew that was what gave them their true meaning.”

Secondly, The Sea by John Banville, which won the Booker Prize in 2005. I’m still a bit conflicted about how I feel about this one, but it’s given me food for thought and is undoubtedly well-written, so I decided to add it to this blog where I only write about books I like. The Sea is narrated by Max Morden, coming to terms with the recent death of his wife. He returns to the holiday cottage which in his childhood was rented by a family, the Graces’, while Max and his family had a nearby chalet.

“I approached the Cedars circumspectly. How is it in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known, returning in a different form, a revenant?”

The Sea is an effective exploration of memory as Max’s memories of the childhood holiday are jumbled alongside those of his marriage and especially his wife’s final illness. Chloe and Myles Grace are twins who never quite reveal themselves to Max, although he begins a tentative romance with Chloe.

“Her hands. Her eyes. Her bitten fingernails. All this I remember, intensely remember, yet it is all disparate, I cannot assemble it into a unity.”

As Max remembers the events of that summer he is forced to reflect on his wider choices and the man he is, particularly as he is now single again.

“Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit, it, for cosiness.”

So… my reservations about this novel are weirdly some of its strengths. It is written in considered, careful prose, expertly structured overall to build to a conclusion that reconciles past and present. But for me it almost felt too considered, too artful. Then I wondered if Max, insecure about his social background, was supposed to be a slightly ponderous man out to prove his own cleverness? I’m not sure, I would have to read another of Banville’s novels to know. There are certainly moments of wry humour to lift the narrative at moments:

“these days I must take the world in small and carefully measured doses, it is a sort of homeopathic cure I am undergoing”

I’m undecided about Banville at present but I’ll certainly give him another try. If you’ve read him I’d really appreciate enlightenment as to his style and other novels that would be worth a read? The reason The Sea made it onto this determinedly positive blog was the final line of the novel, the final image. It was so powerful, such a perfect end, so moving and insightful: a moment of pure brilliance.

To end, it had to be either this or Elaine Paige dressed as a giant feline. Ultimately I decided to have my memories misty-water-coloured rather than alone in the moonlight. Take it away, Babs: