Contempt – Alberto Moravia (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #48)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  The posts have been a bit too occasional, the challenge is taking me forever! I’m hoping this post will see me starting to build momentum again. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books.

Contempt (Il disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia (1954 trans. Angus Davidson 1999) is a novel with a title that instructs the reader regarding the attitude to take to the narrator: Molteni is truly contemptible.

He is married to the gorgeous Emilia and at first they are very happy together, despite their poverty, as Molteni tries to make a living as a writer and earn enough to keep them in their modest home.

“Thus I never had so much to complain of as I did during the time when in truth – as I later came to realise – I was completely and profoundly happy.”

Gradually however, things start to unravel. They meet Battista, a crass, vulgar film producer. A seemingly innocuous event occurs but from this time Emilia starts to treat Molteni coolly. And so over the course of this short novel we see the disintegration of the marriage, the causes of which are entirely apparent to the reader but remain elusive to Molteni as he is so utterly self-absorbed.

He’s a terrible snob: he looks down on his wife for being less educated than him and has dreams of being a great writer. He feels his scriptwriting is beneath him yet he doesn’t really excel at that either, trying to write a film version of The Odyssey for co-producers with very different ideas. He’s so busy being intellectual that life is passing him by and he has no idea how incredibly stupid he is.

He has a degree of insight into abstract concepts, such as his decision to become a Communist, but is unable to translate it into meaningful action:

“Usually, in simpler, less cultivated people, this process occurs without their knowing it, in the dark depths of consciousness where, by a kind of mysterious alchemy, egoism is transmuted into altruism, hatred into love, fear into courage, but to me, accustomed as I was to observing and studying myself, the whole thing was clear and visible…yet I was aware the whole time I was being swayed by material, subjective factors, that I was transforming purely personal motives into universal reasons.”

The irony when he claims “I would never have become a Communist if I had not bought the lease of that over-expensive flat” completely passes him by.

And of course, he is completely blinded to the person he shares his life with. Emilia become progressively unhappier throughout the novel, which Molteni barely acknowledges, being so wrapped up in himself:

“Her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify.”

It’s a short novel so I can’t say too much about plot, except things come to a head when the couple holiday with Battista in Capri, changing their lives irrevocably. Contempt shows how intellectualism and artistry carry a danger of relentless self-focus; coupled with Molteni’s material concerns, he loses all sight of people and human feelings, only realising where true meaning lies when it is too late.

I couldn’t have spent too much longer with Molteni but as a short, sharp novel, Contempt works well and has plenty of food for thought.

To end, the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), which was inspired by Contempt:

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“Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

Trigger warning: This post mentions rape

Here’s my contribution to the 1977 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week, do join in!

Firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, which she published aged 60 (it’s never too late, budding writers!) This is a typically slim Fitzgerald novel, just 189 pages, and while I didn’t love it as much as the others by her which I’ve read (The Bookshop; At Freddies) there’s still a lot to enjoy.

The title refers to an exhibit that is on loan to a London museum. It is hugely popular with people queueing for hours on end to see the tiny dead Garamatian king covered in gold, and his ball of gold twine. The story concentrates on behind the scenes: the relationships and internal politics of the museum.

“At the sight of his tiresomely energetic subordinate, Hawthorne-Mannering felt his thin blood rise, like faint green sap, with distaste. He closed his eyes, so as not to see Waring Smith.”

It is from the energetic Waring Smith’s viewpoint that the story unfolds. He realises that certain deals have been done, certain backs have been scratched, in order for the museum to gain the exhibit.

“He had a glimpse for the first time of the murky origins of the great golden attraction: hostilities in the Middle East, North African politics, the ill-coordinated activities of the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company. Perhaps similar forces and similar shoddy undertakings controlled every area of his life. Was it his duty to think about the report more deeply and, in that case, do something about it?”

Things take a sinister turn when someone tries to strangle him with the golden twine, and two of his colleagues end up dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Waring Smith is sent on a farcical trip to the USSR (as it then was) to consult with an expert regarding the exhibit. On his return, he becomes embroiled with Special Branch, and has to decipher a code on a clay tablet which might hold a clue as to what on earth is going on.

“The Museum, slumberous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad of rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground!”

There’s a great deal to enjoy in The Golden Child but it doesn’t quite work as a mystery – some of the solving takes place ‘off-screen’ and Waring Smith is then told about it, so it doesn’t quite match what it sets itself up to be. Its strengths are Fitzgerald’s wit and her satire of politics big (The Cold War) and small (workplace); it’s a quick, fun read.

Image from here

Disclaimer, and a note for those of you who, like me, were born around the time of this Club: I’m aware that part of my enjoyment of this novel came about because of a very specific reason, which may have coloured my view somewhat. As a child one of my favourite TV programmes was The Baker Street Boys, which showed what the Baker Street Irregulars got up to when they weren’t helping out a certain world-famous detective. My favourite episode was The Adventure of the Winged Scarab, involving mystery, museums and mummies. Anyone else who remembers this series fondly can indulge in a nostalgia-fest because I’ve just discovered some kind soul has uploaded the whole lot to YouTube.

Image from here

Secondly, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge, which is set over the course of one evening. Edward has agreed that his mistress Binny can give a dinner party and he will invite his colleague Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel along.

“He gave her so little, he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.”

I loved that line which comes early in the novel and so I settled into what I fully expected to be full of the joys of Bainbridge: acerbic wit, idiosyncratic characters, acute social observation. For much of the novel, this is exactly what Injury Time provided. None of the characters seem to know exactly what they want and the changes taking place in 1970s Britain leave them all slightly baffled.

“It was astonishing how fashionable it was to be unfaithful. He often wondered if it had anything to do with going without a hat. No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.”

The dinner party never really takes place. Binny is an appalling housekeeper and her home is filthy (Bainbridge based Binny on herself and Edward on a lawyer she had an affair with). Before anyone arrives she’s thrown the hoover into the backyard and stuffed the pudding behind the fridge.

“Though most of her life she had rushed headlong into danger and excitement, she had travelled first-class, so to speak, with a carriage attendant within call. The world was less predictable now…in her day dreams, usually accompanied by a panic-stricken Edward, she was always being blown up in aeroplanes or going down in ships.”

The less predictable world erupts violently into the evening of Binny, Edward, Simpson, Muriel and Binny’s inebriated friend Alma. It’s here that I have a bit of trouble with Injury Time. A character is raped. For me, this jarred uncomfortably in what until that point had been a funny, sharp novel puncturing 1970s social mores and pretensions. The rape itself is dealt with oddly: it’s part of a section that verges on surreal and is filled with non-sequiturs; the character it happens to is weirdly detached, which may be shock but this is never made clear. Looking at reviews online, I was really surprised that so few reviewers even mentioned this event. For many Injury Time remains an unproblematic comic novel. So I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it; I adore Bainbridge and still do, but for me how the rape was portrayed and contextualised was a problem.

I don’t want to end on a downer when so much of Injury Time is funny, so I’ll end with this quote which is pure Bainbridge. I wonder how far Binny was based on her and whether she actually did this?

“There had been too that incident when he couldn’t see Binny because he wanted to prune his roses, and she’d threatened to come round in the night and set fire to his garden, Later, a small corner of the lawn had been found mysteriously singed, but nothing had been proved.”

To end, the UK number one from this week in 1977. AHA!

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Boll (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #64)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or, how violence develops and where it can lead by Heinrich Boll (1974, tr. Leila Vennewitz 1975) is a satire on anti-communist paranoia written in a reportage style. If that summary and the cumbersome title of the novel makes you feel like this:

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Stick with me. Boll manages to convey the story with a fast pace and a light touch which means that the narrative carries you along and you don’t feel bludgeoned with polemic. He also undercuts the objectivity that his narrator is proclaiming, questioning the facts that are presented, even when we know what has happened – that Katarina Blum has shot and killed Totges, a journalist for a (fictional) newspaper Die Zeitung.

“Let there not be too much talk about blood here, since only necessary differences in level are to regarded as inevitable; we would therefore direct the reader to television and movies and the appropriate musicals and gruesicals; if there is to be something fluid here, let it not be blood […] Totges was wearing  an improvised sheikh costume concocted from a rather worn sheet, and the effect of a lot of blood on a lot of white is well known; a pistol is then sure to act almost like  spray gun, and since in this instance the costume was made out of a large square of white cotton, modern painting or stage effects would seem to be more appropriate here than drainage. So be it. Those are the facts.”

How Katharina came to do such a thing is told from a variety of viewpoints, capturing the events of four days from when she meets Gotten, a bank robber and suspected radical at a party, to the time when she commits the murder. Die Zeitung spins its own story around events, outraged that one of their own has been killed. The newspaper reporting is comical:

“The pastor of Gemmelsbroich had the following to say: ‘I wouldn’t put anything past her. Her father was a Communist in disguise, and her mother, whom on compassionate grounds I employed for a time as a charwoman, stole the sacramental wine and carried on orgies in the sacristy with her lovers.’”

Yet at the same time this is the crux of satire. The newspaper is able to spin such tales, eagerly gobbled up by its readers, without censure. The print media both perpetuates and exacerbates the tragedy, as the lies spun around the ‘Red’ Gotten and Scarlet Woman Katharina cause the hard-working, honest Katharina to become so desperate as to take a life.

Of course, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was written over 40 years ago so the reality it portrays is barely recognisable now. An irresponsible sensationalist press, whipping up public feeling, vilifying marginalised groups, passing judgement on female sexuality…nope, can’t think of a single contemporary parallel.

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“Everything will be done to avoid further blockages and unnecessary buildups of tension. It will probably not be possible to avoid them entirely.”

Much as I enjoyed the novel and fancy admire the brilliant mind of Kris Kristofferson, I think I’ll be skipping this made-for-TV adaptation (cue 80s-tastic trailer):

“Decorate your home. It gives the illusion that your life is more interesting than it really is.” (Charles M. Schulz)

Harsh, Charles M Schulz!  But I chose this quote because I decided to write a post about home and I’m in a decade of my life where I’m supposed to get excited about viewing other people’s new kitchens, asking intelligent things about the organisation of the cutlery drawer/soft close cupboards/steam versus conventional oven for cooking fish, rather than say what’s really on my mind (I don’t care/is there any wine/where is the corkscrew kept?)

So, forgive my and Charles’ bitchiness.  The reason I decided to write a post about home is that I’m giving serious thought to moving, and leaving London.  I’m a Londoner born and bred so I’m wondering how I go about finding a new home. Home is an elusive thing, you can’t predict where it will be, should the feeling take you.  If only finding it was as easy as clicking your heels:

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There are lots of places I like, but the only place that’s not London where I’ve felt at home is a city bookended by meadows, which means I can never live there, or I would spend every waking moment of June with my face permanently like this:

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(Image from here: https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/01/holding-in-your-snot-rockets-could-blast-a-hole-in-your-throat-doctors-warn/ )

And so the search continues.  Now, it could easily be argued that many, many stories are about the search for home, so I’ve decided to pick two for this post that are also about houses.  Firstly, The Minaturist by Jessie Burton.  You couldn’t move for the hype about this book when it came out last year, so forgive me if I’m telling you what you already know.  In the late seventeenth century, country girl Nella Oortman moves to Amsterdam to begin a new life as a wife to wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt, a man she barely knows.  Johannes is often away travelling, and Nella finds herself trying to make a home with his terse, mysterious sister Marin, the manservant Otto, and giggling, nosy housekeeper Cornelia.

“Nella stands on the steps of Johannes’ house, the eve of new year passing with no ceremony.  She wants to be splintered by the cold, transfigured by light.  The canal path is empty, the ice a ribbon of white silk between the Herengacht houses. The moon above is larger than she has ever seen it, larger even than last night; an astonishing pale circle of power.  It looks as if she could reach out and touch it, that God has pushed it down from the heavens for her human hand to hold.”

Returning from one of his travels, Johannes presents Nella with a wedding gift, a huge cabinet replica of the house they live in:

“The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed.”

What slowly reveals itself to the new bride however, is not the construction of the house but the secrets and lies contained therein.  The process is assisted by the mysterious titular character, whose miniatures for the house enable Nella to understand more than she ever would alone.  Johannes’ success through the expanding Dutch trade company the VOC brings him more enemies than friends and their home will see its secrets opened and exposed with devastating consequences.

“Nella sees the hundreds of ships moored, their bodies spanning down the long, tapering jetties belonging to the VOC.  Fluyts and galliots, hookers , square-sterns, various shapes and purposes all for the republic’s good….Those ships that have sails look as if they are in bloom ready to catch the trade winds and take their sailors far away.”

The Minaturist is about how we set about creating our homes, how much we can ever know people, how powerfully destructive secrets can be, how our lives are rarely what we plan for them to be.  It’s about all that people can give to one another in such circumstances, despite – or maybe because of – all our flaws and imperfections.  The Minaturist was definitely over-hyped and I didn’t love it, but I did enjoy it and it is well-paced.  Jessie Burton used to be an actor and I’ll eat my (Dutch, felt) hat if this isn’t filmed.

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Secondly, Gaglow by Esther Freud.  This was Freud’s third novel, and I think it’s where she really starts to get into her stride as a novelist.

Sarah is a pregnant actor between jobs, sitting for her father, an artist. He tells her about Gaglow, their ancestral pile in Germany, and the narrative switches between first-person Sarah in the late twentieth century and the third-person describing the three Belgard sisters, living at Gaglow just before the First World War.

“Marianna sighed deeply as she walked towards the house. Empty, she loved Gaglow more than at any other time. Today, with its rooms so recently vacated, the spaciousness that filled it was still warm. Each window hummed with talk and music, and the garden had a fleeting look as if a crowd of people had simply moved inside.”

Sarah’s grandmother Eva is the youngest of Marianna’s daughters, the observer of all that goes on in Gaglow as her elder brother Emmanuel , much adored, returns home with stories of impending war. He is right of course, and rather than enjoying a privileged middle-class round of summer parties to find himself a wife, he signs up:

“Emmanuel was ragged with exhaustion. He threw himself don on the sofa then immediately sat upright, swearing that he wouldn’t waste a moment of his leave in sleep. His mother and sisters crowded round him, craning forward, sniffing and smiling and trying to distinguish the unfamiliar smell of him. The burnt smell of fresh air.”

Gaglow is a very different exploration of home to The Minaturist in that while Nella is alone and Johannes a self-made man, essentially both adrift, Freud is exploring connectivity across generations, where we come from and what endures.

“I tried to imagine my great-grandmother living here, alone with her companion […] They would walk the wide paths together, not always in their widow’s black, and in the early evening, drink coffee with cream out on the porch…I thought I caught their shadows, playing cards into the night.”

Freud returned to houses in 2003’s The Sea House and again in her novel published last year, Mr Mac and Me,  about Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Suffolk home. I think this demonstrates how houses are powerful symbols for us – repositories for those we love, significant events in our lives, our memories and mementoes.  Now I just have to find myself a new one!

To end a video which I dedicate to my brother, who basically wants to be Michael Buble, and my sister-in-law, who has to put up with these delusions. They move into their lovely new home next week – good luck T & Z!

“Babies don’t need a vacation, but I still see them at the beach…” (Steven Wright)

The rest of that title quote is: “It pisses me off! I’ll go over to a little baby and say ‘What are you doing here? You haven’t worked a day in your life!’” Unfortunately right now I’m working every day of my life and that pisses me off no end.  Being the eternal student means any spare spondoolicks go towards debt repayment, so no holiday for me for the foreseeable future. As a bibliophile, the obvious answer to this is a vicarious holiday via the printed word.  Here I am reading in my local park:

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Just kidding – I don’t like Walt Whitman.

Firstly, I’m having a staycation with The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude. I love golden age detective novels, and this is one of the wonderful re-issues under the British Library Crime Classics series.  Set in the coastal Cornish village of Boscawen, the Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr Pendrill are avid consumers of detective fiction, meeting every Monday for dinner and to divide the spoils of their library parcels:

“heaven forbid that the shadow of any crime should ever fall across the grey-stoned cottages, the gorse dotted commons and cliff-girdled seas of his beloved parish. He preferred to get his excitement second-hand and follow the abstruse machinations of purely imaginary criminals”

Reverend Dodd doesn’t get his wish however, as someone murders the dastardly Julius Tregarthen, bringing the pragmatic Inspector Bigswell to the village, in direct contrast to the Reverend’s more idiosyncratic detective style:

“it’s always struck me that the detective in fiction is inclined to underrate the value of intuition. Now, if I had to solve a problem like this, I should first dismiss all those people who, like Caesar’s wife, were above suspicion, merely because my intuition refused to let me think otherwise. Then I should set to work on what remained and hope for the best!”

This approach seems highly dubious to me, but then even the level-headed Inspector has his own prejudices, as he records in his notebook:

“Three shots entered the room at widely scattered points. The garden is fifteen feet in length. This argues a poor shot.  Probably a woman.”

Between the two of them however, they of course manage to find the villain.  The Cornish Coast Murder is not the greatest detective story ever written, but it is entertaining and well-paced, and has a surprising sympathy for the murderer – this is not a clear-cut case of right/wrong. Bude went on to write other cases set in picturesque tourist traps  – The Lake District Murder, The Sussex Downs Murder.  He didn’t change his pseudonym to a local town each time though, disappointingly (John Ambleside? John Bexhill-on-Sea?)  I may take another holiday later in the season to Bude’s other murderous locations…

Secondly, and in direct contrast to the cosy Cornish amateur detecting, The Shore by Sara Taylor. I can’t claim this as a relaxing vacation read, despite the beautiful cover:

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The Shore tells the lives of islanders off the coast of Virginia. The chapters are told from the viewpoints of different characters and move back and forth across time from the nineteenth century to the twenty-second, showing how people, bloodlines, events and actions are all interwoven. Taylor’s writing is breathtakingly beautiful but her gaze is unflinching:

“The Shore is flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow…We take the force out of hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say the government doesn’t remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the maps.”

Life on The Shore is not easy – the people are brutal and brutalised, violent and destructive – particularly towards women. At times the unrelenting harshness of the lives depicted made this a tough read, but Taylor’s writing is so original, so tight and accomplished, that I felt myself drawn onwards, like one of her characters unable to stop themselves:

“[I] have been easing back into the landscape like putting on a favourite coat. I hate this place and I love this place and I don’t know if I want to go as far away as possible or ever leave.”

The Shore is its own place, with its own rules.  There are ‘witches’ – women bearing the scars of domestic violence who medicate those in need with traditional remedies from the land – and storm bringers, young girls with gifts inherited from their grandfathers:

“She finds a breeze, gives it a twist, and pulls the particles across the bay like teasing knots out of her sister Lilly’s hair.  It is a gradual process, and her pace slows as she waits. The ambient moisture begins to bead and grow heavy , a million pregnant bellies.  Then, she brings it down.”

The Shore is truly astonishing. It’s definitely one to read only when you’re feeling robust enough to take it, but I wholeheartedly recommend it.

 “The stars are smeared across the sky, not the pretty scatter that most people imagine, but a crush of millions in the beautiful, pure darkness”

For me, this sentence sums up The Shore.  It is striking, unsettling, the imagery is unexpected and there is a hint of violence – all from the point of view of an individual who knows how powerless they are but still carries hope.

To end, the obvious choice of Madge (who appeared in Desperately Seeking Susan, as did Steven Wright who started the post – this was, of course, complete coincidence brilliant planning on my part) in a video where the budget appears to have been maxed-out on matching bangles for all concerned…these were simpler times, people.  All together now: “Holidaaay! Celebraaaate!” :

 

“Summer, summer, summertime.” (Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince)

On Monday this week the weather forecasters seemed fixated on the fact that it was the start of something they called ‘meteorological summer’.  If you live in the UK & looked out of the window at that point, there was only one sane reaction to such news:

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Because frankly, even by British standards, the weather’s been a total washout. (btw, this week’s GIFs are dedicated to fellow book blogger Lady Fancifull 🙂 )  However, it has brightened up considerably throughout the week and as I write this I can smell my neighbour’s barbeque, so it looks like maybe the weather forecasters’ optimism wasn’t so misplaced after all. I like to imagine the meteorologists are now running round the studio thusly:

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So here is a post to celebrate the start of the meteorological summer. Which in the UK should be good for at least, ooh, another 5 days or so 😉

Firstly, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972, my edition 2003 Sort Of books trans.Thomas Teal) which I won from a giveaway hosted by the lovely bookarino at Dawn of Books.  Apparently this was Jansson’s favourite of her novels for adults (she is best known for the Moomin series) and it’s a wonderful read.  The premise is simple: a series of vignettes detailing how a grandmother and her granddaughter Sophia spend a summer together on an island in the gulf of Finland.

“When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind.. ..They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy.  It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.”

Nothing hugely dramatic happens, but Jansson evokes real meaning through the layering of small moments to create fully realised portraits of two complex, stubborn, loving, life-embracing women.

““Listen,” Sophia said. “I don’t have time to stay here with you – I’ve only been swimming twice today.  You won’t be sad now, will you?”

“I want to go too,” Grandmother said.

…They helped each other climb out of the canyon, and then they circled around the hill…off to one side of the channel marker, there was a large, deep pool.

“Is this alright?” Sophia sked.

“It’s fine,” Grandmother said.  She bared her legs and stuck them in the pool.  The water was warm and pleasant.”

There is a wonderful gentle humour running through the book, and also sadness  – Sophia’s mother has died, the elderly grandmother is aware her time is short.

““What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered.  “That is to say,” she added angrily, “I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda.  “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother.  “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.”  They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk, Move over.””

Bookarino’s enthusiasm for Jansson is infectious, as is Kaggsy’s, and I definitely plan on reading all her books for adults (and maybe a Moomin or two too…)

If, like me, you live in a city, summer may not immediately bring to mind the heady waft of night blooming jasmine and the soothing chirp of crickets.  So I’m eschewing pastoral evocations of summer in favour of a short poem about London in summer, ‘August’ by Tobias Hill (from Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, 2007):

when pigeons like dei ex machina

descend improbably out of the air

 

wobble like airships skimming through the tops

of trees which sink under their tea-pink weights

 

until each grandee bungee-jumps or bellyflops

downwards in great soap-operatic terrifying swoops

 

into the sweet dark shining feather-bedness of the fruits

When the first sunny days appear, those of us used to greyer climes seem to behave with the mania of the pigeons in this poem.  It’s a glorious sight to behold, as city-dwellers sunbathe on patchy grass verges next to dual carriageways, pale blue skin gradually glowing vermilion; lager and sausage rolls sweating in plastic carrier bags beside them. Ah, the summer idyll….

I got my hair cut today (moulting in the warm weather) and the titular song from this post started to play on the radio.  My hairdresser pronounced it a classic but said her favourite summer song was this:

“My brother Bob doesn’t want to be in government – he promised Dad he’d go straight.” (John F. Kennedy)

Have sympathy for me reader, for it’s started and it won’t stop until 7 May. We are having a national election, which means turning on the news is to hear about how the various parties interpret the same statistics entirely differently, each claiming a victory for themselves; incessant party political broadcasts with production values only slightly above a year seven video project; smug campaigning by politicians desperately trying to disguise their smugness in a series of cringey set pieces to convince us they are in touch with something called ‘the ordinary man’…it goes on, and on, and on…

I’m going to cheer myself up with a picture of Rik Mayall (works every time)as Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman, a brilliant piece of satire about Thatcher’s government:

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Image from here

“We hear an awful lot of leftie whingeing about NHS waiting lists. Well the answer’s simple. Shut down the health service. Result? No more waiting lists. You see, in the good old days, you were poor, you got ill and you died. And yet these days people seem to think they’ve got some sort of God-given right to be cured. And what is the result of this sloppy socialist thinking? More poor people. In contrast, my policies would eradicate poor people, thereby eliminating poverty. And they say that we Conservatives have no heart.”

Resistance is futile, so I’m embracing it this week by looking at writing about politics. Drama seemed to be the way to go, as there is much discussion at the moment about political theatre. James Graham’s play The Vote, is being broadcast live on election night, a real time drama about a polling station, making the link between theatre and politics explicit. It also means there’ll be something to watch other than endless exit poll speculation, for which I am truly grateful (I will be voting by the way, I just hate all the politicking).

Firstly, Stuff Happens by David Hare, which premiered at the National Theatre in 2004.  A ‘recent history’ play, the title comes from Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s reaction on being told that there was looting in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s deposition.  Watching a recent history play is a strange business, presenting events that will have had an immediate impact on our lives.  The play considers the run-up to the Iraq War, and Hare does a great job of balancing factual information and dramatic action; public speeches and imagined private conversations.  He looks at the main government players in the US and UK, exploring the political manoeuvring that occurs when no-one’s too sure exactly what the fight is:

“Rumsfeld.  I liked what you said earlier, sir. A war on terror. That’s good. That’s vague.

Cheney.  It’s good.

Rumsfeld. That way we can do anything.”

This obfuscation through meaningless rhetoric seems to be part of the politics of our age.  In this instance, we know what it led to, and Stuff Happens could be a very bleak and cynical play.  However, I think Hare encourages scepticism rather than cynicism when it comes to politics, using our knowledge of how events played out to deepen our understanding of why stuff happens, presenting the person behind the politician. There is heightened dramatic irony running through imagined private dialogue like this:

“Blair. I’ve been thinking. I’ve had this idea. I need…I think it might help if we had some sort of dossier. A kind of dossier.”

The knowledge that this ‘sexed-up’ ‘dodgy dossier’ would haunt Blair’s remaining time in office means the audience/reader witnesses this tentative suggestion with a sense of dread.  It’s a tough job to make politics entertaining when you have a duty to those who have lived it to keep to the facts, but Hare balances it all beautifully, and creates an entertaining and thought-provoking piece that is responsible but not dogmatic.  There are even opportunities for some wry humour, in this instance from the mouth of Secretary of State Colin Powell:

“There’s an element of hypocrisy, George. We were trading with the guy!  Not long ago. People keep asking, how do we know he’s got weapons of mass destruction? How do we know? Because we’ve still got the receipts.”

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Image from here          

Secondly, another (less) recent history play, Democracy by Michael Frayn, which also premiered at the National, in 2003.  Set in West Berlin in 1969, it tells the story of Chancellor Willy Brandt, the first liberal-leaning Chancellor elected in Germany since before World War II, and his personal assistant Gunter Guillaume, who had begun life in East Germany, and was spying on the Chancellor for the Stasi.  The playtext describes the setting as:

“a complex of levels an spaces; of desks and chairs; of files and papers; also of characters, who mostly remain around the periphery of the action when not actually involved in it, listening or unobtrusively involved in their work”

This captures the bureaucracy and paranoia of Cold War government, the environment in which Willy Brandt tried to effect change whilst being a bit…ineffectual.

“Brandt. Let’s talk about it. See if we can’t find a solution that keeps everyone happy.

Schmidt. You can’t keep everyone happy, Willy! Not if you’re running a government!  We’ve got come to a decision!

Brandt. Thank you, Helmut.  What do the rest of us feel…?”

These days Germany is such a powerful world leader, it can be easy to forget the fragility of its post-war state.  Even in 1969 Brandt was faced with:

“Two Germanies, broken apart like the old shattered masonry. This is the material out of which we have to build the world we’re going to be living in tomorrow. This is the only material we possess – the two Germanies as they actually are. Riddled with doubts and suspicions on both sides.”

As the government tries to navigate a way forward, Brandt and Guillaume’s relationship adds to the complexity of the situation, as Guillaume’s Stasi handler observes:

“You and Willy. You’re like some old couple who’ve been married for forty years.  He goes down so you go down.  He comes up again and….”

Democracy is a subtle, intelligent study of people and politics in a time where nothing is straightforward.  Brandt and Willy distrust each other and rely on each other in a symbiotic relationship that defies easy definition.  It’s a play about politics but Democracy also succeeds on a very human level.

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Image from here

If the electioneering has left you feeling somewhat jaded about politics, let’s end by looking back to the politics of the past, noble statesmen concerning themselves with issues of great import…