“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” (Groucho Marx)

I’ve decided to give into the inevitable and make the theme of this week’s post politics. *sigh* But unfortunately it is what dominates just about everything at the moment. I went to a lecture last week which was supposed to be about The Merchant of Venice, but turned out to be about tolerance, accessibility of the arts and the power of the humanities to understand nuance, subtlety and multiple viewpoints and how this is needed now more than ever. The speaker was genius American academic Stephen Greenblatt who I’ve seen before but he’s never made me blub like a baby (my friend was also a total mess, I’m hoping he’s short-sighted and didn’t notice). The previous week I went to a talk about nineteenth-century European theatre, which included a determined assertion from a British playwright that he too was a European writer (cue cheers from the audience, I’m guessing there weren’t many Brexiteers present). Unfortunately at the moment, all roads seem to lead back to the horror show we’ve found ourselves in. In the words of Cher:

(Note to my brother: Cher is AWESOME. Accept that I am right on this.)

So, two novels about politics. Firstly, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (2012, trans. Jamie Bulloch 2014), a satiricial novel which looks at what would happen if Hitler woke up in 2011 Berlin. Naturally there is fun to be had at his misunderstanding over modern life:

“ ‘But I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere, Have you a card? Any flyers?’

‘Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe,’ I said sadly. ‘In the end they were a complete failure.’”

And there is also poking fun at the self-aggrandizing former Fuhrer:

“Now my razor-sharp gaze pierced the darkness between a jar of bulls-eyes and one of sugar drops, where the bright light of the moon soberly illuminated my brainwave like an icy torch.”

But the bulk of Vermes’ satire is reserved for modern society, for this Hitler becomes a star. He appears on an alternative comedy programme and his rants become huge hits on YouTube. People think he is satirising Hitler and yet this means Hitler’s rhetoric is once again endorsed by the masses. Vermes challenges what we laugh at and why, and the unquestioning nature of modern media. As Hitler becomes more popular, it is so easy to see how he, or someone like him, could rise again, and also that some of what happened has never gone away.

“It still remains a mystery to me why that relationship never worked. How many more bombs would we have to drop on their cities before they realised that they were our friend?”

Satire is a demanding form and Vermes is not entirely successful. Look Who’s Back is a bit overlong and flags in places. Considering it’s about a fascist despot it all feels a bit too restrained at times and the plot doesn’t really develop beyond the original premise. But still a worthwhile read, and – in terms of showing how easily an insane media personality can achieve real power *cough* – a little bit terrifying too.

Secondly, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which won the Booker in 2004. Set in 1983, 1986 and 1987, Maggie Thatcher’s government is systematically destroying Britain to extent from which it will never fully recover  elected by overwhelming majorities and Nick Guest is down from Oxford to stay with his friend Toby’s family, headed by an ambitious Conservative MP, Gerald Fedden.

 “Gerald was a knowing, self-confident speaker, trained at the Oxford Union, polished at innumerable board meetings, and his tone combined candour and insincerity to oddly charming effect.”

The ruling class, ladies and gentleman.

Nick is from an ordinary family and grew up in an ordinary town. He has a strong aesthetic sensibility and is carried away by the glamour of the Fedden’s money and power, and ability to surround themselves with beautiful things.

“Nick felt he had been swept to the brink of some new promise, a scented vista of the night, and then held there.”

Nick is also gay, and the story is about his sexual development within a backdrop of thinly disguised homophobia and fear of AIDS, which cut a swathe through the gay community during the decade.

 “It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know – Nick couldn’t tell them things, and so everything he said and did took on the nature of a surprise, big or little but somehow never benign, since they were the aftershocks of the original surprise, that he was, as his mother said, a whatsit.”

Despite being a fairly long novel (501 pages in my edition), The Line of Beauty is not overly plot-heavy. Nick stays with the Feddens and struggles for a sense of purpose beyond pursuit of various lovers, Gerald gets elected MP and enjoys his life of extraordinary privilege, and the 80s rumble on with cocaine fuelling a deregulated City. The novel is a mix of pithy attacks on political elites and the shallowness of relentless acquisition, whether of power, money or the next high:

“Gerald had still not received the accolade of a Spitting image puppet in his likeness, but it was one of his main hopes for the new Parliament.”

And a broader, more melancholy consideration of love and loss. The descriptions of the characters who succumb to AIDS are truly moving, and unexpected in this novel populated by self-interested self-promoters.

“He commanded attention now by pity and respect as he once had by beauty and charm.”

Like Look Who’s Back, I felt The Line of Beauty was overlong, and not the strongest Booker winner there’s been, but at the same time the characters were recognisable and fully realised, the 80s were brilliantly evoked in all their horror, and Hollinghurst is capable of writing truly stunning passages:

“He caught the beautiful rawness of those days again, the life of instinct opening in front of him, the pleasure of the streets and London itself unfolding in the autumn chill; everything tingling with newness and risk, glitter and frost and glow of body heat, the shock of finding and holding what he wanted among millions of strangers.”

To end, despite the horrific politics of the time, I’m finding 80s YouTube videos a good respite from all the madness of the world at the moment (as you may have gathered from the one at the start where Cher wears a costume made of black dental floss and sits astride a giant canon – what’s not to love?)  Here is another one I employ to great effect, but a word of warning: I am a hardened user of 80s pop-culture. If this is one of your first forays, you might want to ease yourself in by watching Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go Go video first, or else your eyes might start crying deely-boppers and mismatched fluorescent socks, or something. I’m not kidding – there’s a blouson leather dinner jacket at one point…

Advertisements

“Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.”(Dorothy Canfield Fisher)

Last week I saw The Dresser with Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith.

the-dresser-9573

Reece Shearsmith in particular gave a really moving performance. The cast were universally good and it was an interesting exploration of love in various guises amongst a group of people who are no longer young. For this reason,  I thought I’d look at novels exploring love later in life.

Firstly, Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013), which is a simple novel in some ways, the coming-out tale of 74 year-old Barrington Jedidiah Walker, and I loved it. Firstly there is the cover, which absolutely captures how I saw the main character:

mr-loverman-cover-with-quote

“Still spruced up and sharp-suited with rather manly swagger. Still six foot something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely  clipped moustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly older) Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on, Barry. Bring it on…”

Then there is the character of Barry himself: intelligent, witty, kind, selfish, self-centred, sexist. A mass of compelling and endearing contradictions. A sexist who uses the word “mentalate” rather than menstruate, yet who supports a lesbian he barely knows through a degree in Woman’s Studies. A flamboyant, confident, outgoing man who cannot come out through fear of judgement; unapologetic of his sexuality yet resistant to certain labels “I ain’t no homosexual, I am a ….Barrysexual!”, despite the love he feels for his partner of 60 years, Morris.

“He is my Morris and he always been my Morris. He’s a good-hearted man, a special man, a sexy man, a history-loving-man, a loyal man, a man who appreciates a good joke, a man of many moods, a drinking man and a man with whom I can be myself, completely.”

Barry has been married to Carmel for the majority of their lives, a woman with whom he has little in common:

“Carmel still don’t get arty-fartiness, and the only culture that interests her is the one she decimates with bleach.”

Yet Evaristo shows Carmel’s side of the story brilliantly, and cruelty of Barry’s lies and deception. The impact on Carmel, though she remains oblivious and thinks him a womaniser, is considerable and destructive. While we root for Barry, we are also aware of his disregard for other’s feelings, including his two daughters, especially the eldest with whom he has a strained relationship. And yet just at the points where I would be close to losing all sympathy for Barry, Evaristo would remind me of all he had to contend with:

“All of my life I’ve watched couples holding hands, kissing in the street, on the bus, in pubs. I’ve watched couples walking arm in arm, ruffling each other’s hair, sitting on each other’s laps, dancing closely…

And never, not once, have I ever felt able even to link arms with the man I love.

Me and Morris exchange sidelong glances, and flicker.

He grabs my hand and squeezes it for a few seconds.

It is our first public display of physical affection in sixty years.”

Mr Loverman is also a story of identity, colonialism, immigration first and second-generation, and prejudice in many forms.

“And so what if me and my people choose to mash up the h-english linguish whenever we feel like it, drop prepositions with our panties, piss in the pot of correct syntax and spelling, mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our post-modern, post-colonial prerogative?”

Barry is an intelligent, well-educated ( devoted to his various night school classes), well-read and funny guide through these issues, who provides plenty of food for thought whilst suggesting love always wins out, and there’s plenty to go round.  A brilliant character study which engages with huge themes in a compelling but never didactic way, Mr Loverman, like Barry himself, is an absolute gem.

Now would be an opportunity for the song from which the novel takes its title, but I am less forgiving than Barry regarding Mr Shabba Ranks’ homophobia. So instead here is a pop video interested in addressing the issue:

Secondly, Our Souls at Night, the last novel by Kent Haruf (2015). Unlike Barry and Morris, Addie and Louis become lovers later in life, although they have known each other for years. The novel begins with Addie visiting Louis to make a proposition: that he visit her at night so they sleep together. It is not a request for sex, but for companionship, conversation, and comfort. They live in small town and know from the outset that their arrangement will not go unnoticed:

“It’s some kind of decision to be free. Even at our ages.

You’re acting like a teenager.

I never acted like this as a teenager.  I never dared anything. I did what I was supposed to.”

The short novel (179 pages in my edition) follows the tender, tentative relationship that builds between Louis and Addie. Haruf’s writing is sparse and he hammers nothing home.  Instead he presents moments in unadorned prose, leaving the reader to recognise the meaning.

“Addie turned off the light. Where’s your hand?

Right here beside you where it always is.”

The moments layer into a narrative which presents a touching, believable relationship between two strong, independent individuals who also recognise their need for intimate human contact. Haruf is interested in what human beings can give to each other in the simplest, most fundamental terms. This is further explored through their relationship with Addie’s grandson, a boy traumatised by his parents acrimonious split, who is healed through humble activities with Louis (ball games, camping) and adopting a rescue dog.

“The boy was asleep. The dog lifted her head from the pillow, looked up at Louis and lay back again.

In Addie’s bedroom Louis put his hand out the window and caught the rain dripping off the eaves and came to bed and touched his wet hand on Addie’s soft cheek.”

Haruf is a wonderful writer, presenting moments of extraordinary delicacy and complexity distilled to their essence. Beautiful.

To end, a Ruth Gordon gallery (I don’t know why I don’t do this every week). Because her face is amazing, and one of her most famous roles was in Harold and Maude, a controversial older person romance. In real life she was married to the same person for 43 years and he was with her when she died. Also, completely unconnected to theme but just because I think it’s awesome, when she died aged 88 she was planning the next play she was going to write.

“One fine day.” (Carole King)

Last week I mentioned that 2016 has been a terrible year so far. I don’t follow sport in any shape or form, but even I know Andy Murray has done his best to cheer up a post-Brexit UK by winning the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. Congratulations to all the winners!

5472

Obviously these wins are the result of years of dedicated training, but we all experience things that culminate in one day now and again. So to celebrate I’ve picked two novels that deal with the events of one day.

Firstly, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey (1932), who was one of the Bloomsbury group; this novel was originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, she was a niece of Lytton Strachey and was painted by Dora Carrington:

ARTstracheyJ2

This novella details the morning of a wedding: the preparations, the arrival of guests, the bustling of servants. The bride doesn’t make an entrance for a while, instead we are treated to her mother, Mrs Thatcham, giving contradictory instructions to all and not seeing that this why things are not organised as she expects:

“with a look of sharp anxiety on her face as usual – as though she had inadvertently swallowed a packet of live bumble-bees and was now beginning to feel them stirring about inside her. She stopped and looked at the clock.

‘I simply fail to understand it!’ burst from her lips.

She trotted briskly out of the drawing-room in the direction of the kitchen.”

Apparently this woman, who veers between being frustratingly tedious and a downright bully, was based on Strachey’s mother-in-law…

Meanwhile, the guests start to arrive. There are some lovely character sketches of family members and assorted hangers-on, told with gentle – in the main – humour.

“a tall, grey-haired man, in black clerical clothes, with a gaunt white face reminiscent of a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Dante. It was Canon Dakin, or Cousin Bob of Hadley Hill as the family called him.”

There is a hilarious description of a lampshade wedding gift and Aunt Katie’s verdurous wedding hat. My favourite little scene was between deluded Aunt Bella, who is busy boring her nephew Lob with tales of how her servants “simply cherish me”, and is met with the following non-sequitur:

“‘My dear lady,’ replied the cheerful Lob, speaking unexpectedly loudly, and holding his glass of wine up to the light for a moment, “I don’t care two pins about all that! No! The question, as I see it, is quite a different one. The whole thing is simply this: Is it possible to be a Reckless Libertine without spending a great deal of money?’”

When we finally meet the bride, Dolly, it is clear all is not well. For starters, she has put away most of a bottle of rum to enable her to stagger down the aisle:

“At this moment Dolly was trailing slowly down the back staircase (which was nearer to her part of the house than the main one), her lace train wound round and round her arm. From out of the voluminous folds of this there peeped a cork and the top of the neck of the bottle. In her other hand was her large bunch of carnations and lillies.” 

As Dolly is unsure of what she is doing and why, simultaneously there is an admirer of hers, Joseph, who may at any minute stop the wedding, though he is not sure of his motivations for doing so. Apparently Strachey was a fan of Chekov, and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding shows this influence in domestic subject matter and conflicted characters unable to take action. The humour is bittersweet: while the preparations and family members are portrayed with a light irreverence, the drunk bride and her inert friend? lover? – we are never told – bring a genuine sadness to proceedings. I couldn’t help feeling they were both on the brink of disaster.

“Dolly knew, as she looked around at the long wedding-veil stretching away forever, and at the women too, so busy all around her, that something remarkable and upsetting in her life was going steadily forward.”

Virginia Woolf’s opinion of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was high: ‘I think it astonishingly good – complete and sharp and individual.’ Strachey doesn’t explain everything and leaves many questions in the reader’s mind as to what is going unsaid and undone on this nuptial morning (looking at the trailer for the 2012 film it looks as if everything is spelled out, so I will not be watching the film version – why? WHY??)  While it is short, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is not slight – witty, sardonic, sad and wise – it is a fully realised portrait of everyday tragedy.

400x400_1335564193597-drunkbride

Image from here

Secondly, A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964) tells a day in the life of George Falconer, an ex-pat English professor living alone in California just after the Cuban missile crisis, and grieving the loss of his partner Jim, killed suddenly in road traffic collision.

“And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge – as though the track had disappeared down a landslide. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.”

In the midst of this enormous pain, George carries on with his life: teaching a class, shopping, going to the gym, getting drunk with a friend.

“In ten minutes, George will have to be George; the George they have named and will recognise. So now he consciously applies himself to thinking their thoughts, getting into their mood. With the skill of a veteran, he rapidly puts on the psychological makeup for this role he must play.”

A Single Man is perfectly paced, capturing George’s numb putting-on-foot-in-front-of-the-other coping without losing narrative drive. The tone is gentle, treating George kindly, but without sentimentality – he is not always kind himself, and his views on those he encounters are unblinking. However, as we spend the day with George, we start to get glimmers of his desire to keep living, a sense that he will find meaning in carrying on. But then his grief completely side-swipes him:

“He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home…only after a few instants does George notice the omission which makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of the other’s presence.”

There is sadness in A Single Man but it is not depressing. Rather it shows how life goes on in all its messy imperfection, and that can be OK, even when you are feeling far from fine.

 A Single Man was made into a film in 2009, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford. It certainly looked amazing and had some wonderful performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, but the screenplay made some significant changes and unsurprisingly, I prefer the book for its subtlety and nuance. Kudos to Ford though, for filming a book that takes place almost entirely within one man’s head.

I hope you all have a great day ahead 🙂

“If you were gay, I’d shout hooray” (Avenue Q)

London Pride, the LGBT+ festival which runs for 3 weeks in June, culminated with a parade this weekend. The Orlando shootings had already given this year’s festival an added poignancy, and after the week we’ve had in Britain, a joyful parade celebrating diversity warmed my battered heart. My favourite thing at this year’s festival is undoubtedly this – we should keep it all year round.

download (1)

Image from here

In this post I’m going to look at two classic novels which explore an experience of being gay at the start of the twentieth century. They are both set in Britain, where at the time being a gay man was illegal (repealed in 1967). Lesbians weren’t acknowledged in law, but being gay of gender was broadly speaking, socially taboo.

Firstly, Maurice by EM Forster, which was written in 1914 but not published until after Forster’s death in 1970. Maurice grows up in an England where sex education involves conversations like this:

“To love a noble woman, to protect and serve her – this, he told the little boy, was the crown of life. ‘You can’t understand now, you will some day, and when you do understand it, remember the poor old pedagogue who put you on the track. It all hang together – all – and God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world. Male and female! Ah wonderful!”

Good grief. Maurice blindly follows the path laid out for him: prep school, public school, Cambridge. Forster is rather scathing towards his protagonist, emphasising his lack of intellect and inability to question his life in any way. Events force him out of this spiritual somnambulism when his best friend makes a confession:

“Durham could not wait. People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue, he whispered ‘I love you.’

Maurice was scandalized, horrified. He was shocked to the bottom of his suburban soul, and exclaimed, ‘Oh, rot!’”

Gradually however, Maurice realises what the reader already knows, that he is sexually attracted to men and loves his friend. This is the start of him living consciously and becoming generally more pleasant:

“After this crisis, Maurice became a man. Hitherto – if human beings can be estimated – he had not been worth anyone’s affection, but conventional, petty, treacherous to others, because to himself. Now he had the highest gift to offer.”

Maurice isn’t totally redeemed: he can still be selfish and a terrible snob. This is one of the novel’s strengths – he isn’t idealised, he isn’t better or worse than most people, he is just an ordinary person with the need to love and be loved, but because “England will always be disinclined to accept human nature” Maurice suffers greatly, because he is forced to try and supress such basic human needs.

“He lived on, miserable and misunderstood, as before, and increasingly lonely. One cannot write these words too often: Maurice’s loneliness: it increased.”

Meanwhile, heterosexual couples are welcomed and celebrated, able to live openly.

“They loved each other tenderly. Beautiful conventions received them – while beyond the barrier Maurice wandered, the wrong words on his lips and the wrong desires in his heart, and his arms full of air.”

However, this isn’t a sad novel – apparently Forster was determined it would not be so as he didn’t want a gay protagonist to appear to be punished. It is about how accepting who we are enables us to live better lives not only for ourselves but for those around us, and it is about the damage that can be done when society attempts to force a predetermined conventional ‘norm’ upon people. Maurice is also beautifully written and highly readable; never preachy and emotionally affecting.

There was a Merchant Ivory adaptation of Maurice in 1987, which I’ve never seen, but looks like a faithful adaptation, starring many of the Merchant Ivory regulars:

Secondly, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928). Unlike Forster, she published at the time, but given the novel was subject to an indecency trial, it seems Forster judged correctly that Maurice would cause outrage. The Well of Loneliness tells the story of Stephen Gordon, a daughter to landed gentry who were so convinced she’d be a boy that they give her a masculine name. As Stephen grows up, she struggles against the gender expectations placed on her.

“And Stephen must slink upstairs thoroughly deflated, strangely unhappy and exceedingly humble, and must tear off the clothes she so clearly loved donning, to replace them with the garments she hated. How she hated soft dresses and sashes, and ribbons, and small coral beads, and openwork stockings! Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets, too, and these were forbidden”

The novel follows Stephen through her young life, isolated from her peers, distanced from her mother who is revolted by a difference in her daughter she cannot name. Stephen’s solace is her kind father and her horses. She gradually realises that she is attracted to women, and that this is unacceptable to the society in which she lives.

“What remained? Loneliness, or worse still, far worse because it so deeply degraded the spirit, a life of perpetual subterfuge, of guarded opinions and guarded actions, of lies of omission if not of speech, of becoming an accomplice in the world’s injustice by maintaining at all times a judicious silence”

The wiki page about this novel tells me it’s been criticised by people who see the difficulties experienced by Stephen as encouraging shame, but I think this is a bit unfair. Written in 1928, I suspect living in a society where you had to hide a fundamental part of who you are, where “Love is only permissible to those who are cut in every respect to life’s pattern” could be a bit bloody at times. Stephen is never portrayed as needing to be anything other than she is: the fault is society’s not hers, and she remains defiant to the end.

“She must show that being the thing she was, she could climb to success over all opposition, could climb to success in spite of a world that was trying its best to get her under…Yes, it was trying to get her under, this world with its smug rules of conduct, all made to be broken by those who strutted and preened themselves on being what they considered normal.”

The Well of Loneliness could do with being about 100 pages shorter (Sarah Waters judges The Unlit Lamp as a much stronger novel) but I still found it very readable and whizzed through it. It’s somewhat depressing stance may mean it’s controversial amongst critics, but love it or hate it, it remains a highly significant novel of the time.

To end, a chance to indulge my slightly baffling but most enduring Danny Dyer obsession. Often cast as the stereotypical uber-straight macho man, here he is getting an opportunity to perform gender in a much broader way:

“Trains, like time and tide, stop for no one” (Jules Verne)

Despite not thinking of myself as a remotely patriotic person, there was a 3 part programme on TV recently that was probably the most British thing ever, and I am so sorry it’s ended. Paul Merton travelling around the island by train (is it me or is he turning into Ian Hislop?), only getting off at request stops and chatting to those he meets. That’s it. Result: pure brilliance.

I share Mr Merton’s love of trains, and so this week I thought I would look at novels where they feature heavily.  This also enables me to fulfil the requirement of the Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit, to include a book about travel.

Firstly, Compartment No.6 by Rosa Liksom (2011, tr. Lola Rogers) which I was alerted to by Sarah’s review at Hard Book Habit and also by bookarino, where I was sure I had read a review but now I can’t find it on her blog – bookarino, if you reviewed please leave a link below!

The novel details the journey on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Mongolia undertaken by the two inhabitants of the titular compartment. Liksom describes the landscapes they pass through simply but evocatively, and succeeds in capturing a sense of place and of travel:

“An unknown Russia frozen in ice opens up ahead, the train speeds onward, shining stars etched against a tired sky, the train plunging into nature, into oppressive darkness lit by a cloudy, starless sky. Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts. The train throbs across the snowy land.”

The atmosphere in the compartment is intimate and oppressive:

“All of Siberia slowly brightened. The man in his blue tracksuit bottoms and white shirt did push-ups between the bunks, sleep in his eyes, his mouth dry and smelly, the mucousy smell of sleep in the compartment, no breath from the window, tea glasses quietly on the table, crumbs silent on the floor.”

The man Vadim is repugnant: misogynistic, violent, anti-semitic, anti anyone who isn’t him. His attitudes and behaviour are repellent. Yet as they are forced together, a comradeship builds between him and the female traveller. She is presented a step removed: we never know her name, her direct speech is given only once and then she is quoting. Yet this works brilliantly at evoking the girl’s slightly numb, detached state as she runs away from her troubles and works her way back to facing them, with the help of the dreadful Vadim.

 “The girl looked out of the window at an entirely new landscape…she thought of that July day when she came back from her summer vacation in Finland and Mitka was at the station to meet her. She thought about how they had gone to the boarding house, run up the nine flights of stairs hand in hand, how the hallway had been filled knee-high with the fluffy heads of dandelions, how they’d run up and down the hallway like children, the dandelion fluff drifting in and out of the windows.”

Compartment No.6 is a short but haunting novel which will undoubtedly linger long in my memory.

Secondly, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950), which was adapted only a year later into the famous Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, albeit with several changes.

Sadly my commuter train doesn't look like this, despite being full of people hatching murderous plots

Sadly my commuter train doesn’t look like this, despite being full of people hatching murderous plots

Successful architect Guy Haines meets bored, spoilt alcoholic Charley Bruno on a long haul train journey. He is reluctant to engage in chat, but Bruno is insistent, and Guy ends up telling him that he is travelling to meet his wife to ask for a divorce. Bruno meanwhile, hates his father and wants his inheritance.

“Bruno could be violent. He could be insane, too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy…it tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.”

It is Bruno who comes up with the idea that they swop murders, Bruno killing Guy’s estranged wife for Guy killing his father. Guy doesn’t agree, but Bruno goes ahead anyway. Needless to say, he is a sociopath:

“whether Guy came through with his part of the deal or not, if he was successful with Miriam he would have proved a point. A perfect murder.”

“So long had he been frustrated in his hunger for a meaning of his life, and in his amorphous desire to perform an act that would give it meaning, that he had come to prefer frustration, like some habitually unrequited lovers.”

Bruno ends up stalking Guy, entirely obsessed with him, and it is this, rather than the murders or closing net of the investigation that provides the thriller element of the novel. Bruno is completely unstable and there is no telling what he might do as he exerts increasing pressure on Guy. Yet Bruno is vulnerable too, childlike and confused, and never admitting that it is sexual desire which draws him to Guy.

“Guy! Guy and himself! Who else was like them? Who else was their equal? He longed for Guy to be with him now. He would clasp Guy’s hand and to hell with the rest of the world! Their feats were unparalleled! Like a sweep across the sky! Like two streaks of red fire that came and disappeared so fast, everybody stood wondering if they had really seen them.”

There are definite overlaps with Tom Ripley, the sociopathic protagonist of several Highsmith novels. Bruno is a much less attractive character than Ripley, but there is the desperation and loneliness of the sociopath, the thwarted gay desire, and the doubling between characters, which Guy realises, much as he is reluctant to admit it:

“And Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.”

Strangers on a Train worked well for me as a thriller, but without any glorification of murder or murderers.  Like The Talented Mr Ripley, what I was mainly left with was a sense of sadness at the destruction that desperate human beings can wreak on one another.

To end, a quick clip to shamelessly indulge my love of Buster Keaton:

“I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!” (Agatha Christie, The Murder on the Links)

You might be able to tell from my gravatar that my hair was worn in a very short pixie crop. I decided to grow it into a bob, and it’s taking approximately eleventy billion years to get there. The result of this is that despite my love of all things art deco, and indiscriminate detective show watching, I cannot watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries due to serious hair envy.

phryne

Thank goodness Poirot is bald. And I don’t mind the fact that his moustache is (marginally) better than mine. So for now my experience of a fictionalised 1920s needs to be limited to novels where I can pretend that all the women have crew cuts.

Firstly, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I don’t read many thriller-type novels, and Waters wouldn’t wholly fall into this category, but she can certainly write a page-turner and I find myself reading compulsively to reach the end as soon as possible. Set in 1922, The Paying Guests is set amongst the hardships and fallout of World War I.  Frances Wray and her mother live in the mildly oppressive south London suburbs, grieving the loss of Frances’ brother in the trenches and the subsequent death of her father, which has resulted in the need for them to take in paying guests (Mrs Wray’s suburban sensibilities baulk at the term ‘lodgers’). Frances had been a suffragette and in a loving relationship with another woman before the war, but had given up both to support her mother, and live a kind of half-life:

“She was young, fit, healthy. She had – what did she have? Little pleasures like this. Little successes in the kitchen. The cigarette at the end of the day. Cinema with her mother on a Wednesday. Regular trips into Town. There were spells of restlessness now and again; but any life had those. There were longings, there were desires…”

The paying guests arrive in the form of Mr and Mrs Barber, and Frances is drawn towards the colourful and artistic Lilian:

“And that was all it took. They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening – Frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that.”

Frances and Lilian begin an affair, and the brilliance of Waters’ writing means this is set within meticulous – but never overwhelming – period detail, and is simultaneously erotic and yet with a sense of foreboding that draws you onwards:

“Only when Frances’s lips began to travel to her knuckles did she draw one of her hands free – the left hand, the one with the rings on it. She set it down to steady herself against Frances’s embrace and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.”

I won’t say much more for fear of spoilers, except that The Paying Guests is Waters at the height of her powers, achieving a compulsive plot-driven story that is also humane and moving:

“Making her way back to the yard, looking again at the rosily lighted windows of her own and her neighbours’ houses, she had the stifling sensation that she was putting herself beyond the reach of those warm, ordinary rooms, cutting herself off forever from all that was decent and calm.”

One of my favourite things from the 1920s

One of my favourite things from the 1920s

Secondly, Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. A fictional biography of Charles Carter, golden-age stage magician, Gold’s first novel follows Carter from his childhood discovery of his vocation, through his apprenticeship in seedy sideshows, to his zenith performing the titular spectacle.

“The rarest need in life is the one met suddenly and completely. This is how it was with Charles Carter and the art of magic.”

For much of the novel, Carter is in existential crisis (not as tedious at it sounds) having lost the love of his life. There’s also the small matter of being pursued by the Secret Service who suspect him of having killed President Harding and having an arch nemesis lurking in the background, waiting to strike. The 1920s setting is perfect, perched as it is on the cusp of a new world – technology is growing apace and the old theatre traditions are dying out, while the aftermath of the war adds an extra dimension to the audiences’ need for magic:

“Six nights a week, sometimes twice a night, Carter gave the illusion of cheating death. The great irony, in his eyes, was that he did not wish to cheat it. He spent the occasional hour imagining himself facedown in eternity. Since the war, he had learned how to recognise a whole class of comrades, men who had seen too much: even at parties, they had a certain hollowing around the eyes, as if a glance in the mirror would show them only a fool having a good time. The most telling trait was the attempted smile, a smile aware of being borrowed.”

As with magicians, Gold’s art is visual, he creates such vivid scenes that this was one of those novels that I could clearly see being filmed. Although a chunky novel, it doesn’t flag and, like Carter’s show, builds to a satisfying denouement.

Carter Beats the Devil is about the illusions we accept, those we refute, the role of marvel in our lives, and when to take the leap and abandon the need to know how it all works.

“Faith was a choice. So, it followed was wonder.”

To end, the most tickety-boo, spiffingest flapper of them all, the divine Josephine Baker, who truly is the cat’s meow:

“There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies” (Jeanette Winterson) or “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” (G. K. Chesterton)

Recently I fell subject to one of those viruses that seems never ending.  Basically for about two and half weeks I was behaving like this:

200

(Only with much less impressive cheekbones). I wouldn’t bother mentioning it, stoic that I am, except it meant I had to turn down a last-minute ticket to see Zoe Wanamaker in Stevie, Hugh Whitemore’s play about the life of the poet Stevie Smith.  I love Zoe Wanamaker and I’m sure she’d be great as the idiosyncratic Smith, so I did not take this in my stride:

200 (1)

(Only with much less impressive cheekbones). So to compensate for my loss, I’m going to look at two other instances where the lives of poets have been imagined, in a novel and in a play.

Firstly, John Clare (and to a lesser extend Alfred Lord Tennyson) as imagined by Adam Foulds in The Quickening Maze (Vintage, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009.

NPG 1469; John Clare by William Hilton  300_tennyson

John Clare suffered with poor mental health for most of his adult life, and for a time was an inpatient at High Beach Asylum in Essex.  The Tennyson brothers move nearby as Septimus is being treated for depression, but thankfully this isn’t an excuse for Foulds to create conversations on the nature of poetry between the two versifiers (can you imagine? ‘What think you Clare, of this long poem of mine?’ ‘Will you permit me Alfred, to suggest In Memoriam is better name than My Friend Hallam What Died?’ Ugh.  OK, so Foulds would never be that bad, but sometimes these things can be so clumsy as to become comical).

Instead Foulds looks at the lives contained within and without the asylum, and the nature of their various freedoms and restraints.  Alongside the patients live the profligate Dr Allen, who has progressive ideas on treatment but lacks the focus to truly push things forward; his daughter Hannah, desperate for freedom but unsure how to get it other than by marrying; the grieving Tennyson yearning for his dead friend and for critical approval; and of course Clare, the ‘peasant poet’, determined to leave the built environment of the asylum for the forest beyond:

“As he worked in the admiral’s garden…being there, given time, the world revealed itself again in silence, coming to him. Gently it breathed around him its atmosphere: vulnerable, benign, full of secrets, his.  A lost thing returning. How it waited for him in eternity and almost knew him. He’d known and sung it all his life.”

Things begin to unravel: Clare becomes progressively more deluded, the doctor veers towards bankruptcy again, Hannah harbours fantasies regarding Tennyson which amount to nothing. But The Quickening Maze is a novel of quiet, closely observed drama of domestic life (despite the asylum and famous poets), rather than enormous, declamatory moments:

“From her window, Hannah could see Charles Seymour prowling outside the grounds, swishing his stick from side to side. Boredom, a sane frustration, a continuous mild anger: Hannah thought he looked like a friend, someone whose life was as empty and miserable as her own…he raised a hand to lift his hat and found he wasn’t wearing one.  He smiled and mimed instead. Hannah gazed for a moment down at his shoes and smiled also.”

Foulds is an accomplished poet himself, and this shows itself in tightly constructed prose full of startling images:

“She liked the pinch of absence, the hollow air, reminiscent of the real absence. She wanted to stay out there, to hang on her branch in the world until the cold had burned down to her bones. She could leave her scattered bones on the snow and depart like light.”

The result is a tightly plotted novel that maintains a contemplative, elegiac quality: perfect for the poets it captures.

Secondly, Oscar Wilde, as imagined by David Hare in The Judas Kiss, which premiered at the Almeida in 1998.

oscar

The story of Oscar Wilde is so well-known, it can be difficult to imagine what more there is to be said on it.  What Hare gives his audience is an Oscar past his prime, bruised and sad, the architect of his own downfall.  The first act sees Wilde staying in London to face the court over allegations he is gay (which was illegal at the time) while his friends urge him to leave:

“Ross. Oscar, I’m afraid it’s out of the question. You simply do not have time.

Wilde. Do I not?

Ross. You are here to say your goodbyes to Bosie.

Wilde. Yes of course.  But a small drink, please, Robbie, you must not deny me.

Ross. Why, no.

Wilde. And then, of course I shall get going. I shall go on the instant.

Arthur. Do you want to taste, sir?

Wilde. Pour away. Hock tastes like hock, and seltzer like seltzer. Taste is not in the bottle. It resides in one’s mood. So today no doubt hock will taste like burnt ashes. Today I will drink to my own death.”

The knowledge we have of the outcome, rather than resigning us to Wilde’s fate, actually adds to the dramatic urgency.  I found myself desperately rooting for Ross, wishing Oscar would listen, that somehow the outcome would be different and he wouldn’t stay long enough to allow the courts to give him a two year sentence. But Wilde is stubborn, proud, defiant, and wonderful, as his selfish, weak lover Bosie testifies:

“You have wanted this thing. In some awful part your being, you love the idea of surrender.  You think there’s some hideous glamour in letting Fate propel you down from the heights!”

But Bosie doesn’t want Wilde to leave, rather stay and fight his battles for him with his father, the Marquess of Queensbury, who is  challenging Wide in court.  Between his own wilfulness and Bosie’s self-interest, Wilde agrees to stay…

In the second act we are in Italy with a Wilde after he has left prison and moved abroad “grown slack and fat and his face is ravaged by deprivation and alcohol”.  Bosie is enjoying himself with the local beauties, while Wilde is isolated and contemplative:

“I am shunned by you all, and my work goes unperformed, not because  of the sin – never because of the sin – but because I refuse to accept the lesson of the sin.”

The Judas Kiss is a tragic play, but not in the usual sense.  No-one dies, there is no physical violence, and yet we witness betrayal, destruction and loss.  It’s heart-breaking, and at the centre of it all is the great genius of Oscar Wilde, who we witness fading away.

121839p1

To end, the words of a poet rather than words written about them. Wilde responded to this trauma through his art, and created The Ballad of Reading Gaol: