The Joke – Milan Kundera (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #47)

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 Joke (1967; trans. Michael Henry Heim 1982*)  is the first Milan Kundera I’ve read, as I found his massive intellectual-philosopher reputation intimidating to my tiny brain.  However, I found this, his first novel, very readable so who knows, maybe I will tackle the cumbersomely-titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being at some point?

Ludvik lives in 1950s communist Czechoslovakia (as it then was) and is sulking when he sends his girlfriend, Marketa a facetious postcard:

“Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!”

Unfortunately, as we who live in the age of twitter know, irony is not always apparent in the written word and the authorities do not appreciate his sentiments. He is thrown out of the Party and sent to a labour camp with other political dissidents.  The story is told from the viewpoint of Ludvik, his friend Jaroslav who is interested in Moravian culture, lecturer Kostka who is Christian in the face of Ludvik’s atheism, and journalist Helena who is used cruelly to facilitate a revenge act.

As Ludvik looks back on his interrupted career and the injustice he has suffered, Kundera offers an incisive commentary on the effect of repressive regimes, but also questions how far all of us can lose sight of ourselves in the face of societal pressures:

“When the Comrades branded my conduct and my smile as intellectual (another notorious pejorative of the times) I actually believed them. I couldn’t imagine (I wasn’t bold enough to imagine) that everyone else might be wrong, and that the Revolution itself, the spirit of the times, might be wrong, and I, an individual, might be right. I began keeping tabs on my smiles, and soon I felt a tiny crack opening up between the person I’d been and the person I should be (according to the spirit of the times) and tried to be.”

Ludvik attempts to enact a revenge for his treatment, but it does not go as planned. He realises that the man who has become the focus of his anger is only a man, and that the issues are larger than a single person.

“How would I explain I used my hatred to balance out the weight of evil I bore as a youth? How would I explain I considered him the embodiment of all the evil I had ever known? How would I explain I needed to hate him?”

Overall, the sense is of an almost Beckettian absurdity. There isn’t the surrealism of Beckett, but certainly the sense of futility and powerlessness of the individual in the face of an indifferent world. Kundera evokes this lightly, so The Joke is not a heavy read, although it considers huge themes. While the politics are particularly relevant to Europe in the last century, the story moves beyond the specific to challenge the role of the individual within structures in which we live, how much agency we have, and what responsibility that brings with it.

“what if history plays jokes? And all at once I realise how powerless I was to revoke my own joke: I myself and my life as a whole had been involved in a joke much more vast (all-embracing) and absolutely irrevocable.”

Kundera has been exiled in France since 1975 after criticising the repressive nature of the then Czech government. The Joke is not self-righteous or overly polemical: it portrays, Kundera writes in the introduction, a man “condemned to triviality”.  While this ironical awareness distanced me from Ludvik somewhat and stopped me totally loving this novel, it also prevents The Joke being pompous, and instead funny, sad, tragic and wise.

To end, an apt song which I hope a book blogger who likes singers called Barry will enjoy even though it’snot Barry singing, and a video that is most definitely of a certain era (it wasn’t all repressive politics in the 1960s kids, there were psychotropic drugs too!):

*It’s worth seeking out a later translation of the novel, as Kundera was unhappy with the first English translations but has authorised the later ones

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“It is the gift of all poets to find the commonplace astonishing, and the astonishing quite natural.” (Margery Sharp)

This is my contribution to today’s celebration of Margery Sharp Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Happy Birthday Margery!

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First, Cluny Brown (1944) which portrays one of the most original, idiosyncratic and appealing fictional heroines I’ve encountered:

“She looked like no one on earth but Cluny Brown, and at the same time, stepping in with the milk, she looked as though she belonged intimately to her surroundings.”

Cluny is a young woman, living with her plumber uncle as both her parents have died. She resolutely goes her own way and harms no-one, and can’t understand why people find her habits – such as the decision to stay in bed all day eating oranges – so objectionable.

“She had got to the Ritz. She had got as far as Chelsea – put her nose, so to speak, to a couple of doors – and each time been pulled back by Uncle Arn or Aunt Addie, people who knew what was best for her, only their idea of the best was being shut up in a box – in a series of smaller and smaller boxes until you were safe at last in the smallest box of all, with a nice tombstone on top.”

After a misunderstanding which sees Cluny fix the blocked sink of an amorous older man in Chelsea, Uncle Arn sends her away to service in Devon.

“She wasn’t resigned, for she was never that, but she felt a certain expectancy. At least something was happening to her and all her life that was the one thing Cluny Brown consistently desired.”

At the country house, Cluny encounters certain types: an upright colonel, a horticulturally obsessed matriarch, the feckless heir, a young society lady leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake… yet in Sharp’s hands these portraits are wholly believable rather than clumsy stereotypes. A tentative love affair begins, and Cluny Brown is nothing if not contrary…

I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers. This novel is an unmitigated joy.  Comic and affectionate, Cluny Brown would be easy to dismiss as lacking depth. But it is so superbly written, with such verve and understanding of human beings, that to do so would be mistake. Invite Cluny into your life, she’ll charm you, I promise…

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Secondly, The Eye of Love (1957), the middle-aged love story of Harry Gibson and Dolores Diver.

“For ten years they’d given each other what each most wanted from life: romance. Now both were middle-aged, and if they looked and sounded ridiculous, it was the fault less of themselves than of time.

To be fair to Time, each had been pretty ridiculous even at the Chelsea Ball.”

To outsiders they appear ordinary, and laughable.  But to one another, viewed through the eye of love, they are brave, noble and glamorous:

“ ‘My Big Harry! My King Hal!’ cried Miss Diver.

‘My Spanish rose!’ cried Mr Gibson.

They clung together in ridiculous grief, collapsed together on the Rexine settee.”

The grief is due to Harry needing to marry the daughter of a business rival, in order to amalgamate the businesses and save his shop.

“He wanted her to want to be married, as he himself wanted not to be made a bankrupt; he had an idea that as between man and woman it came to much the same thing.”

And so it is a novel with lovers parted. We follow Harry’s attempts to integrate into a new family, and Miss Diver’s attempts to earn money without his support by taking in a lodger (Mr Phillips, who finds the house – which he believes his landlady owns – very attractive). Meanwhile, around the edge of all this trauma, is Miss Diver’s niece, Martha. A self-contained child who Sharp frequently describes as “stolid” Martha does as she pleases. She doesn’t attend school – Miss Diver didn’t arrange it and Martha has no inclination to go – and instead walks around town, sees her shopkeeper friends, and soon discovers an all-consuming passion for drawing.

“To say she didn’t like the new lodger would have been an over-simplification: and the true root of her malaise lay so deeply entwined with her innermost feelings, she couldn’t bring it to light. Put briefly, while Martha didn’t mind carrying up Mr Phillips tray, to have to look at him and say Good morning represented an imposition of alien will.”

I adored Martha. Stubborn, self-possessed, strong-willed and lacking any sentimentality, she was just wonderful. Sharp wrote two sequels about this unforthcoming heroine,  Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George, which I will hunt down forthwith.

Back to the adults. The Eye of Love is quite a feat, because while Sharp does not expect her readers to view Harry and Miss Diver as they view each other, at the same time she does not present them as harshly as the other characters judge them (particularly Miss Diver’s pretensions of Spanishness (real name Dorothy Hogg)). Her writing is acutely observed, with dry humour, but it is also kind.  The foibles of the characters are funny but oh-so-human.

 “At least once a day he took out Dolores’ comb, and warmed it back to life between his hands. He had to hang on hard to his Britishness, not to press it to his lips. A sad and ridiculous sight was Harry Gibson – large, stout, fifty years old – holding himself back from mumbling a wafer of tortoiseshell, as a child hangs back from sucking a forbidden sweet.”

Poor Harry. Poor Dolores.  Will they find their way back to one another? All I’ll say is, as with Cluny Brown, I thought the ending of The Eye of Love was perfect.

Well, it’s early days in 2017 but already things are looking up. I’ve met a new love in my life and I make no apologies for the gushing superlatives she inspires in me. Margery: where have you been all my life?

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If you’d like to know more about this wonderful author, do check out The Margery Sharp blog as well as all the other posts today 🙂

To end, I was going to go for a song from the period, but ultimately I chose this, as I think Cluny and Martha would approve of the sentiment:

 

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):

“He that loves reading has everything within his reach.” (William Godwin)

Let’s ignore the sexism of the title quote and focus on the sentiment (especially as Godwin was married to Mary Wollstonecraft who I like to think told him off for any gender assumptions) 🙂  I was prompted to think along these lines a few weeks ago when I watched the moving and joyous BBC4 documentary B is for Book.

I don’t generally write about children’s or YA fiction, but I felt quite inspired by the documentary showing the jubilant discovery and magic of the written word.  My Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century Reading Challenge has some kids books on it, so this week I’m channelling my inner child (not that difficult, tbh)

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Firstly, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943), ranked number 4 on Le Monde’s list; it is the most translated French book and the fourth most translated book worldwide. And how is this for a CV: Wiki describes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  as “writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist, and pioneering aviator”. I feel so inadequate.

The Little Prince is narrated by an aviator who crashes in the desert, where he meets a visiting alien prince. The prince is from a planet where he lives alone, and which is so small that the sun is always setting:

“For as everyone knows, when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France. If you could get to France in a twinkling, you could watch the sunset right now. Unfortunately France is rather too far away. But on your tiny planet, little prince, you only had to move your chair a few steps. You could watch night fall whenever you liked.

‘One day,’ you said, ‘I watched the sunset forty-three times!’

And a little later you added:

‘You know, when one is that sad, one can get to love the sunset.’

‘Were you that sad, then, on the day of forty-three sunsets?’

But the prince made no answer.”

This melancholy tinge continues throughout the tale. The prince is a sad character and remains mysterious to the aviator.  It is a children’s book though, and has some lovely touches to stir the imagination:

“On the morning of his departure he set his planet in good order. He carefully swept out his active volcanoes. He had two active volcanoes – which were very useful for heating up breakfast in the morning.”

The prince describes his travels, in which he has met six adults, also living alone on isolated tiny planets: a king (who rules over no-one), a vain man, an alcoholic, a businessman (who wants to own the stars), a lamplighter (who constantly lights a lamp for no purpose) and a cartographer (who has never been anywhere). Thus the story is a critique of adults placing meaning in acquisition and status rather than in emotional connection and adventure. The aviator is an adult himself but does not hold adults in high regard:

“Grownups love figures. When you describe a new friend to them, they never ask about important things. They never say: ‘What’s his voice like? What are his favourite games? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much does his father earn?’ Only then do they feel he know him.”

The Little Prince is a sweet, sad tale, one which will appeal to children for the  adventure and imaginative leaps, but also has a great deal to offer adults, as a fable regarding a search for meaning in the world.

“You can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

It is also illustrated with gorgeous watercolours by the author (yet another string to his bow):

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Secondly, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf (1906–1907), number 68 on Le Monde’s list. This classic of Swedish literature has been immortalised on stamps, on currency, and Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Nils is a self-centred, lazy, cruel ungrateful boy. Bunking off church to stay at home, he gets on the wrong side of an elf. Everyone knows you don’t mess with elves, Nils.  Of course the elf wreaks his revenge:

“For in the glass he saw plainly a little, little creature who was dressed in a hood and leather breeches.

“Why, that one is dressed exactly like me!” said the boy, clasping his hands in astonishment. And then he saw that the thing in the mirror did the same thing. Thereupon he began to pull his hair and pinch his arms and swing round; and instantly he did the same thing after him; he, who was seen in the mirror.

The boy ran around the glass several times, to see if there wasn’t a little man hidden behind it, but he found no one there, and then he began to shake with terror. For now he understood that the elf had bewitched him, and that the creature whose image he saw in the glass was – himself.”

Nils’ family goose, who has the excellent appellation of Morten Goosey-Gander, decides to follow a flock of wild geese on their migration to Lapland and Nils tags along, riding on Goosey-Gander’s back. As an elf, Nils finds he can understand animals’ speech, and learns to be kind rather than torture them.

“The wild geese challenged the white goosey-gander to take part in all kinds of sports. They had swimming races, running races, and flying races with him. The big tame one did his level best to hold his own, but the clever wild geese beat him every time. All the while, the boy sat on the goosey-gander’s back and encouraged him, and he had as much fun as the rest.”

Lagerlöf was commissioned to write this by the National Teachers Association, so in the course of reading about Nils’ journey, you learn about wildlife and Swedish geography: win/win.

“Just as the first spring showers pattered against the ground, there arose such shouts of joy from all the small birds in groves and pastures that the whole air rang with them, and the boy leaped high where he sat. ‘Now we’ll have rain. Rain gives us spring; spring gives us flowers and green leaves; green leaves and flowers give us worms and insects; worms and insects give us food; and plentiful, and good food is the best thing there is,’ sang the birds.”

He didn’t know exactly where on earth he was: if he was in Skåne, in Småland, or in Blekinge. But just before reaching the swamp, he had glimpsed a large village, and thither he directed his steps. Nor was it long before he discovered a road. Soon he was in the village street, which was long, and had trees on both sides, and was bordered with garden after garden. The boy had come to one of the big cathedral towns, which are so common on the uplands, but can hardly be seen at all down in the plain.”

Nils’ wonderful adventures also include seeing off his arch-nemesis Smirre Fox and learning to think of others rather than being such a deeply unpleasant person.  For a book with such a didactic purpose, it really doesn’t read as instructive and moralistic. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils is written with a real lightness of touch and is great fun.

To end, a taster of my favourite book from when I was a child:

The Tendrils of the Vine – Colette (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #59)

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.

When I first started this challenge, I thought it would never be complete as I have commitment issues Wikipedia told me that Tendrils of the Vine had never been translated.  Yesterday in my favourite charity bookshop (handily located across the road from my flat, so I don’t have to stagger far with my heavy loads/nightmarishly located across the road from my flat – if you had a problem with drug addiction you wouldn’t live opposite a crack den) I picked up a huge volume of The Collected Stories of Colette for £3.50, and was very excited to see Tendrils of the Vine translated within it (by Herma Briffault – and I see Wiki no longer makes its fallacious claim).

In fact , Tendrils of the Vine, proclaimed A Fable in the title, is only 1000 words long and I may have been able to struggle through with my appalling French.  The difficulty is, being only 1000 words long, I really can’t say too much about it without spoilers, so this will be an uncharacteristically short post from me 🙂

The story begins in typical fable fashion, describing how the nightingale got his song:

“While he slept, the vine’s gimlet feelers – those imperious and clinging tendrils whose sharp taste, like that of fresh sorrel, acts a stimulant and slakes the thirst, began to grow  so thickly during the night that the bird woke up to find himself bound fast, his feet hobbled in strong withes, his wings powerless…”

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The nightingale escapes, and sings relentlessly to keep himself awake through the Spring,  thereby avoiding the terrors of the vine.  I can’t say much more, except Colette then expands this into a truly creepy and oppressive tale. The fact that she does this in 1000 words within a pastoral fabulistic setting makes it like a short, sharp punch to the sternum. What a writer – I’m looking forward to reading the rest of my newly-acquired tome.

Colette, who when she wasn't writing, sat around being awesome

Colette, who when she wasn’t writing, sat around being awesome

“I wanna be anarchy” (The Sex Pistols)

Do you ever get the feeling you want to kick over the traces and run away?  I’m really fed up with my job and while I daydream about jacking it all in through some dramatic gesture before setting off to backpack round the Greek islands, it’s not going to happen. Not if I want a home to return to – the pesky mortgage will insist on being paid.

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Fundamentally I’m not an anarchist, however much I might like to think I’m a free-wheeling, free-thinking rebel.

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So I’ll just have to compensate by watching Marlon Brando films (any excuse) and reading about anarchy.  The novel and play I’ve chosen suggest anarchy may not be the best way to go anyway.

Firstly, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907). I studied this for ‘A’ level and it’s no exaggeration to say it was the bane of my life.  I hated it.  I found it so unbearable I never actually finished reading it and wrote my exam essay based on the chapter summary at the back of the edition we used (not an exam technique I recommend, kids).  Events conspired against me and about ten years later I had to read it again for a course I was doing.  Much to my surprise, I didn’t mind it so much this time and found it quite readable.  A lesson there that I should return things I’ve previously written off – at the very least I can confirm my prejudices, which is always fun.

The Secret Agent was inspired by an actual event in 1894, where a French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, accidently blew himself up in Greenwich Park.  Conrad sets his story two years later, and the opening of the novels sets everything up expertly:

Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law.  It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening.  Mr Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business.  And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.

The shop was small, and so was the house.  It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London.  The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes.  In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar.

The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines; closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink, and rubber stamps; a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like The TorchThe Gong—rousing titles.  And the two gas jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy’s sake or for the sake of the customers.

This basically tells you all you need to know: the grimy sordidness of Verloc’s existence, the fact that he is involved in some sort of subterfuge, and the involvement of his family at the edges, with his wife, Winnie, devoted to her brother Stevie.

Verloc is utterly unlikeable – lazy and self-serving, he is not an anarchist dedicated to a higher cause.  His ‘comrades’ are equally despicable and pathetic, except for The Professor, who is altogether more sinister:

The Professor’s indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin of turning to destruction as the agent of his ambition.  To destroy public faith in legality was the imperfect formula of his pedantic fanaticism; but the subconscious conviction that the framework of an established social order cannot be effectually shattered except by some form of collective or individual violence was precise and correct.  He was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind.  By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige.  That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness.”

Conrad is highly sceptical of the motivation of those proclaiming themselves agents of societal change.  The group of would-be anarchists plot a violent act, and unfortunately, skirting around them is Verloc’s brother-in-law:

“There was no young man of his age in London more willing and docile than Stephen, she affirmed; none more affectionate and ready to please, and even useful, as long as people did not upset his poor head.”

Stevie is an obvious choice, for those who would not want to risk their own lives in carrying out terrorist acts, to manipulate and control.  The Secret Agent is fairly predictable, but the flash-forward/flash-back structure works well at sustaining plot tension, and its utter bleakness, while unrelenting, is effectively ironic in evoking politics where the principle is self-preservation above all else.

The Secret Agent was made into a film in 1996 starring Bob Hoskins as Verloc ,Patricia Arquette as Winnie, and Batman Christian Bale as Stevie:

Secondly, Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Italian theatre legend Dario Fo (1970), which you can read here. Like The Secret Agent,  it is based on actual events. Giuseppe Pinelli was an anarchist accused of bombing a bank who fell (?) to his death from a police station window in Milan in 1969. In Fo’s play version, events become farcical, beginning with the Maniac being interrogated at the police station by Inspector Bertozzo. The Maniac denies being a con artist and impersonator, insisting he is mentally ill:

“I have a thing about dreaming up characters and then acting them out. It’s called ‘histrionomania’ – comes from the Latin histriones, meaning ‘actor’. I’m a sort of amateur performance artist. With the difference that I go for ‘Théatre Verité’ – my fellow performers need to be real people, but people who don’t realise that they’re in my plays. Which is just as well, ‘cos I’ve got no money and couldn’t pay them anyway…”

 This metatheatrical theme runs throughout the play, with Fo using the dramatic form to demonstrate how public life can often involve playing a role.  The Maniac poses as a judge to interrogate the officials on the fourth floor and explore the events that led to the fall of the anarchist:

“MANIAC: We’ll stick with the ‘right at the start’ for the moment… One step at a time. So, at about midnight, the anarchist was ‘seized by a raptus’ – these are still your words – he was seized by a ‘raptus’ and went and threw himself to his death from the window. Now, what is a ‘raptus’? Bandieu says that a ‘raptus’ is a heightened form of suicidal anxiety which can seize even people who are psychologically perfectly normal, if something provokes them to extremes of angst, in other words, to utter desperation. Correct?

 SUPERINTENDENT AND SPORTS JACKET: Correct.

 MANIAC: So we need to find out who or what it was provoked this anxiety, this desperation. I suspect that the best way would be if we do a reconstruction. Superintendent, the stage is yours.

 SUPERINTENDENT: Me?

 MANIAC: Yes, go ahead: would you mind re-enacting your famous entrance?

 SUPERINTENDENT: I’m sorry, what famous…?

 MANIAC: The one that brought about the ‘raptus’.

 SUPERINTENDENT: Your honour, there must be a misunderstanding here. It wasn’t me who did the entrance, it was one of my officers…”

 As the role playing intensifies, so does the satire:

MANIAC: It’s true, I’m afraid: your careers are in tatters! Blame it on politics, friends! At the start you served a useful function: something had to be done to stop all the strikes… So they decided to start a witch-hunt against the Left. But now things have gone a bit too far… People have got very upset about the death of our defenestrated anarchist… they want someone’s head on the block, and the government’s going to give them – yours!

 […]

  SUPERINTENDENT: Your Honour, you’re going to have to advise us. What do we do now?

 MANIAC: How should I know?

 SPORTS JACKET: Yes – what would you advise?

 MANIAC: If I were in your shoes…

 SUPERINTENDENT: Yes?

 MANIAC: I’d throw myself out of the window!

In the second act a journalist turns up, the physical comedy intensifies and it all degenerates into total…well, you know.  Accidental Death of an Anarchist is very silly, but don’t let that fool you. The satire is sharp and the theatricality informed and accomplished. It’s a play with plenty to say and it does it with great energy and verve.

There’s really only one way to finish this post:

“Remember, remember the 5th of November: Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!” (Traditional, British)

OK, so I’m a day late, but that’s practically on time compared to how late some of my other posts have been.  I’ve met my own low standards. 5 November is Guy Fawke’s Night in Britain, where we commemorate the foiling of an attempt to blow up the House of Lords and kill the king in 1605 by, er, setting fires and letting off fireworks. We used to burn effigy of the plotter Guy Fawkes (who was discovered with all the gunpowder) but that and kids asking you for “a penny for the guy” doesn’t seem to happen anymore – which is fine with me, it was a bit gruesome for my delicate sensibilities.

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Anyway, the plotters were Catholic and wanted to kill the Protestant James I to put a Catholic monarch on the throne, so I thought this week I’d commemorate the plot through books rather than pyromania and look at work by Catholic writers.

Firstly, Ben Jonson, frenemy of Shakespeare, who actually had dinner with the plotters but somehow managed to duck suspicion and went on to become a writer for the court of James I. Jonson converted to Catholicism in 1598, while imprisoned for killing fellow playwright Gabriel Spencer in a duel (he’d previously been imprisoned for suspected sedition – he had quite the life). Jonson converted back to Anglicism in 1610, but the poem I’m going to look at sees him wrestling with his faith while still a Catholic.  Much of Jonson’s writing doesn’t carry well across the ages – he was heavily satirical and our knowledge of early seventeenth century politics and theatre-life has waned somewhat. However, this poem, written when his first son Benjamin died of plague aged just seven, captures such grief and pain as to be recogniseable today:

On My First Son (1603)

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.

Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

O, could I lose all father now! For why

Will man lament the state he should envy?

To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,

And if no other misery, yet age?

Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie

Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”

For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,

As what he loves may never like too much.

There’s a theory sometimes advanced that parents in this period were so used to losing their children that they met their deaths with equanimity.  Jonson’s poem shows how totally misguided this is.  He writes in heroic couplets, showing how deeply felt this is for him; the poem is epic in style, if not in length (the short length thereby reflecting his son’s short life).  Jonson finds himself tormented in faith rather than soothed by it; he knows he should be glad his son has “scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage” but can’t help feeling he has to pay for the sin of loving his son too much, and grieving the loss; he is left with the questions that form the middle of the poem, rather than answers.  The answer Jonson finds for himself means this is a poem that captures two tragedies – the death of the seven year old, and a father so consumed by pain that he wishes he had never known parenthood: “O, could I lose all father now!” determining to close off his feelings in future: “As what he loves may never like too much.” Jonson was egomaniacal about his work, so when he says “Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”” There is no higher acclaim he can give the seven year old. Truly heart-breaking.

Secondly, The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Sparks (1963, Penguin, my edition 2013).  Like the titular girls, this novel is one of slender means, only 142 pages in my edition.  But although it is a short novel and very funny, it is not fluffy or disposable.  It tells the story of a group of women living in the boarding house the May of Teck Club, when “long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor”.  Thus, the slender means, but they also have other slender means; the girls are obsessed with calories and being thin enough to attract a husband.  I would normally find this sort of behaviour intensely irritating, but it is testament to Spark’s writing that I didn’t – it’s 1945, options are limited for women, and they are using the means at their disposal to improve their lot.  They are pragmatic rather than vain and foolish.

“And they realized themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means.”

Selena is beautiful and promiscuous, trying to decide which of her lovers to marry; Joanna has abandoned romantic love for reciting poetry and giving elocution lessons, Jane is fat (which she hates) and intellectual, and writes to famous authors in an attempt to get autographs for her strange employer.  I was quite fond of Dorothy:

“Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of debutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of those phrase-ripples of hers: ‘Filthy lunch.’ ‘The most gorgeous wedding.’ ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed.’ ‘Ghastly film.’ ‘I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?’[…] It was some months before she was to put her head round Jane’s door and announce ‘Filthy luck. I’m preggers.  Come to the wedding.’”

As this passage shows, Sparks humour is acute, incisive, and packs a punch.  She captures dark circumstances and behaviour with such a light touch that is ultimately a lot more shocking than from within an unrelentingly bleak novel. We know that Nicholas Farringdon, drawn into the May of Teck circle, became a missionary and subsequently died in Haiti, but we don’t know what prompted the conversion.  As The Girls of Slender Means builds towards its denouement, Sparks doesn’t spell out the totality of the impact of the events in 1945.  The novel is more powerful for this; the women and Nicholas remain partly unknown: to themselves, to each other, and to the reader.

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