Friday, December 18, 2009

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

In The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry tells a story set in Ireland. As is often the case, this story set in Ireland is very much a story of Ireland, as much describing a nation and a setting as a personal history. But it seems that at least one aspect of the country’s painful relationship with its competing churches has changed in Sacred Scriptures. Gone is the assumption of grace applied unthinkingly by Catholics to their side of the divide. And reason for its removal is the church’s attitude towards women, marriage and motherhood.

In Secret Scriptures these axes of divide intersect to create a story that is effectively a modern virgin birth. It thus creates and presents a Madonna who, in her own way, must be kept above and apart from other women, other people. Late in the book Dr Grene, whose journal forms a large part of the narrative, asks this question: “Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity?” Recollection thus remains sincere, but its waywardness perhaps lies in its selectivity, its particularity. History, after all, is an interpretation of events, not merely a listing, and interpretation always has a point of view. When, however, one’s knowledge of the past is at best patchy and at worst inaccurate, it becomes a new world to be discovered, revealed perhaps by chance, perhaps by design. Dr Grene also writes, “The one thing that is fatal in the reading of an impromptu history is wrongful desire for accuracy.” In the end, it is Dr Grene’s pursuit of such an impromptu history that reveals a stunning truth, a truth that can only be uncovered precisely because of the accuracy, the diligence that others invested in one person’s history. The impromptu history that Dr Grene reads is that of Secret Scripture’s central character, Roseanne McNulty, née Clear.

She is a hundred years old and has, for most of her adult life, been confined within the walls of a mental hospital. Her place of repose is to close and be demolished. Dr Grene is to oversee its demise. Roseanne has decided to write her life story. If Te Secret Scripture has a weakness, then it has a double weakness. Overall, the plot might come too close to the sentimental for some readers. For others, it will be the book’s saving grace. Secondly, Roseanne Clear, frail at a hundred years of age, might be an unlikely figure to write such a succinct, coherent and vivid account of events that happened almost eighty years before. Again we must suspend some belief here, but that is easily done because her recollections are both engaging and credible. They would have been more so if, as impromptu history, they were less concerned with improbable detail. It’s not the events that might be questionable, merely the accuracy of their recollection. But after all, that detail might just be illusory. There was a history in the family, we are told, a history of illness and instability and, perhaps, a history of another, less mentionable, affliction of women.

But in the end none of these are rare. It’s their public acknowledgement or admission that’s unusual. Life and its institutions treat Roseanne Clear badly, but no differently from others identified as afflicted with her condition. She is effectively branded insane by a socially-constructed righteousness that now seems to have lost all of its previously unquestioned authority. She seems to have few regrets, however, except, of course, for a life that may not have been lived. The life in question did, in fact, live, and it became something that reinterpreted Roseanne’s entire existence. Sacred Scripture is a beautiful book. It has its flaws, but the immediacy of its subject and the poignancy of its dénouement make it both enthralling and surprising.

View the book on amazon The Secret Scripture

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Book Of Illusions by Paul Auster

Paul Auster’s The Book Of Illusions offers the reader pretty much what the title promises. It’s a book and there are illusions! By the time we arrive at the end of the tale, however, we perhaps see the two terms as synonyms. Throughout, reality changes to fiction, fantasy becomes fact. An academic’s study of an actor’s comedy leads to an intimate involvement with the subject’s life. That life has itself become a fiction, lived with a declared aim of producing films that no-one will see. In the films, fantasies are enacted which later become real, and by design, thus rendering the original merely rehearsal. Meanwhile, the academic translates a biography so long it seems a lifetime’s work is needed to recreate it afresh.

But who knows what in that memoir might be invention, mere illusion? Hector Mann is a silent movie star. He has an enigmatic style that was never fully exploited in the industry because of interpersonal relationship problems with others in his studio. He would never have made it in talkies anyway because of a thick immigrant’s accent. I have just used a relative term as if it were an absolute. I meant, of course, that Hector Mann was an immigrant to the United States. Hector Mann, incidentally, is also Hector Spelling, amongst others.

Professor Zimmer, a recent victim of family loss via the indisputable finality of an air crash has spent much effort researching the life and career of Hector Mann. He has written a book on the star’s silent movies. The comedy, it seems, is all in the slight movement of the hairline moustache, the actor’s trademark. But there was much more, such as innovation, poetry and inner meaning within Hector Mann’s characters and plots. One day, Professor Zimmer’s wife and kids are no more and, decades earlier, Hector’s tenuous working relationships dissolve to nil via conflict. The learned professor descends into booze and an apparently interminable translation of Chateaubriand’s history. Hector leaves film and wanders elsewhere, soon to make a living out of live pornography. It’s a role he was born for, but his true identity, at least the one he has publicly shared, once discovered, becomes his downfall. He runs away from the revelation of his self.

In the middle of a mid-West backwater, a place out of which Hector created a fiction only later to render it real, an act of heroism brings a couple together. They gel. But the resulting arrangement is complex. An inheritance facilitates a totally private exploration of personal interest and thus imprisoned talent. New films are made, but they are never aired. They are different, even revolutionary, but no-one ever sees them because Hector and his new partner have opted for remote obscurity. Professor Zimmer, having assumed that Hector had died, finds out that he is still alive. There’s a chance that his book is incomplete. Another relationship gels when Alma, the daughter of one of Hector’s collaborators, visits the professor to share a project. Together they travel to New Mexico, where Hector lies close to death. 

There they discover a life’s work that might change the history of cinema, but it’s a life’s work that was created for purely private purposes and carrying its own death warrant. In The Book Of Illusions, Paul Auster seems to juxtapose a reality that seems less than real with fiction that feels immediate. It’s a blurring of experience and invention, with only one reality, itself unreal, definitive. It’s a superb book, brilliantly constructed, utterly credible, but constantly surprising. The characters’ lives turn in circles. They seem only in part control and yet they always retain the option of decision. Their creativity produces a string of illusion, much of it quite real or destined to become so. And be under no illusion, the amount of destiny that we control could depend on how ruthlessly we pursue it.

View the book on amazon The Book of Illusions

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Cleft by Doris Lessing

I often wait a day or two before writing a review. I find that my appreciation of a work often changes on reflection, sometimes magnifying the experience, sometimes diminishing it. In the case of Doris Lessing’s The Cleft, a little distance has considerably enhanced the initial impression, which was less than favourable. 

The Cleft is quite a short novel. It just seems long. The language isn’t difficult, likewise neither are setting or plot. Not that there’s much of either. We begin with a society that’s entirely female and where procreation just happens. When “monsters” appear, babies with ugly extra bits on the front, they are either killed or mutilated. Killing involves leaving the tiny bundles of flesh on a rock for eagles to take. But the cunning birds aren’t always hungry.

A community of squirts - grown-up monsters – begins to thrive and the women find they have to interact. New activities are mutually invented and suddenly all is change. A new race or perhaps merely a new society develops via proto-parents, develops at least twice, in fact. Journeys are made. Promised lands reveal promise. New orders establish themselves.

Meanwhile, we realise that this creation myth is being related by a Roman gentleman who has his own domestic battle of the sexes. At first sight this extra layer of narrative seems redundant. Eventually an elemental force binds the myth to the narrator’s present. The link is tenuous and as a plot device, its impact fails. It does, however, conceptually link the narrator with the related myth. After all, Romans were themselves created, they believed, out of a myth where a pair of lads were nurtured by an animal. 

The military tradition (equals male) by which Rome prospered was founded on the social control of Sparta, not the demos of Athens. Sparta was probably the ultimate macho male society, where the old were revered and women were chattel, though they could own property. Doris Lessing at one point refers to Spartan youth being separated from their families at the age of seven to hone military and combat skills via camaraderie. Such an exile the monsters of The Cleft invent for themselves.

Galling at first reading and later informative were the repeated gender stereotypes that dominate Doris Lessing’s narrative. The repeated use of these bludgeoning concepts had more than an air of artifice. Looking back, I now see that this actually enhanced what emerged as the book’s overarching idea, which is our need for myth and the necessity of reducing it to the level of populist fairy tale. The eagles who nurtured the monsters play god. The way we organise our society demands certain role models, while ceremony, often barbaric, such as genital mutilation, allies us to ideals and ideas we prefer not to question. In the end we have to explain elemental forces beyond our control and myth is our refuge. Stick with The Cleft. It’s a tortuous journey, but it is worth it in the end, an end whose only solace may only be found in myth. 

View this book on amazon The Cleft

Monday, November 16, 2009

Reflecting on a review of A Glance Away by John Edgar Wideman

When reviewing a book I try to keep myself out of the argument. The purpose is to reflect upon the work, to enter its world in its own style. It’s a process that often clarifies issues and prioritises arguments for the reviewer as much as it helps inform the review’s reader. Whether I liked or disliked the book in question is an opinion that’s perhaps less than irrelevant, because it adds a double confusion. You, the reader, don’t know the book, but then you know even less about me, so what price my humble, unexplained, unjustified recommendation?

I used to work on a market stall. Alongside household cleaners and soap powder, the stall also offered kitchenware and fancy goods, items to be considered considerably less often than weekly. Running up to Christmas, we also carried large, high cost toys, such as board games, construction kits and the like. The stall’s owner handled that end of the business, leaving the dealings in shoe polish, soap, bleach and toilet paper to his minions at the other end. The minions, incidentally, were his daughter and me. If a potential customer dithered over a purchase, the vendor’s shock tactic was to offer the reassurance of solidarity. “We’ve used it” or “We have one at home” were the phrases he used. “And we are happy with it” then followed in judgment. Often – more often than not – the punter smiled, purchased and so profit was pocketed. But there was nothing cynical about this process.

The stall-owner came weekly to each pitch. He would take things back if they were broken – but usually not if they were merely disliked. People didn’t bring things back if that was the case, except, of course, to exchange. And, given his household’s general pursuit of novelty, he probably had tried out the products in question, at least for a while. He had, personally, what twenty-first century capitalism calls a brand. He was a trusted face – not a name, because none of his customers knew anything other than his first name – and his recommendations carried the authority of that trust. He did good business and made a good living, his punters’ trust being well-placed.

But as an internet reviewer, what might my opinion be worth to a browsing punter? If a reader regularly follows my opinion, of course, then a pattern might emerge and some conclusion might be drawn. The chances are, however, that you are not that reader, that you have stumbled almost randomly upon my thoughts and thus what I say is potentially worthless. I present a double unknown, an unread book and an untried, untrusted opinion. I am prompted to reflect on the nature of the internet book review because I have just finished A Glance Away by John Edgar Wideman. 

It’s a short book but far from succinct. The style is often sparse, its words deliberated over, even missing for effect, unsaid on behalf of communication. On the fly-sheet it’s a novel at the front and, in a quoted review at the back, an autobiography. I too was confused. But not by the style… There’s a family. There are brothers. With apparent prescience of some stylistic devices used later by Toni Morrison to both define and characterise a specifically black culture that is both part of but also separated from the general, John Edgar Wideman allows the reader into a family’s passion, conflicts and confusion. The brothers live different lives, meet different people and aspire to different ideals. There may be reasons, explanations, but what people think is largely hidden by a profound opacity. Perhaps the characters themselves are confused. Perhaps that’s also the point.

As an experience, A Glance Away is a powerful, sometimes provocative novel. But its detail often reads as obfuscation, demanded by its lack of continuous thread. Perhaps it’s a book to read again, its challenge not met by a punter who was unfamiliar with its brand.

View this book on amazon A Glance Away

Saturday, November 7, 2009

New York Days, New York Nights by Stephen Brook

I have just done another tour of New York. It’s a city whose streets I have walked, whose life I have encountered, whose people I have known. But I have never been there. New York, Like Paris and London, is a city where writers switch on their professional noticing and recording. A good proportion of novelists seem to want to live there. It’s a city where journalists apparently never have to travel far for a story and where social commentators uncover endless lines of interest.

And in the early 1980s Stephen Brook, an English visitor, took his turn at plodding the streets, buttonholing the affluent and dabbling with low life in order to generate his book, New York Days, New York Nights. It was a task he took seriously. His mission covered the city’s politics, food, shopping, sexuality, power, social structure, ethnic relations, commerce, crime and apparently every other aspect of its existence, but with only scant regard for its history.

We learn how on Manhattan air space can be traded, how the city’s craving for constant change means that there is little sense of permanence. We visit late night bars and clubs, experience the gay-scene low-life at first hand, then at second hand and eventually at the level of the mutual anonymous grope. We visit jails, courts, police beats and other arresting areas. We talk to mayors, ex-mayors and would-be mayors. We feel debt and wealth in unequal measure. Stephen Brook appears not to want to leave any concrete block unturned.

But though Stephen Brook’s journey through New York’s unique experience is nothing less than encyclopedic, his experience seems to remain that of the outsider, the committed but still detached tourist. As each of the book’s many chapters runs to its close and another opens, we can almost hear the writer begin with, “And here’s another thing…” Well before the end we feel that the author is on a mission to collect in order to exhibit. In the end, we feel we have been on a city tour bus and listened to the commentary, but that we still have to walk the streets to begin the real experience.

But like all impressionistic descriptions of contemporary life, it becomes both less relevant and more interesting as it ages. It becomes irrelevant because its original concept is superseded, rendered mere whimsy by the passing of time. Its intention is to be contemporary, after all, and that quality is soon lost. But twenty-five years on, having been reminded that the city remains eager for constant change, it becomes fascinating to reflect on what has or might have changed.

In 2009, we have a financial crisis, rich man’s crime, an economy laden with unemployment and debt, recession and portent of doom and gloom. We also have celebrity, overt riches and conspicuous consumption alongside poverty, near-destitution, drug addiction and poor man’s crime. So what’s new? One major change is that during Stephen Brook’s journey, the existence of AIDS deserves mention, but little more. During visits to bath houses, the author experiences at first hand the workings, insertions, thrusts and suspended machinations of gay promiscuity – sorry, there is no other word – and the scenes he describes seem better fitted to a fantasy porn movie than any reality. A dimension we don’t feel in all of this is the contrast with attitudes that one would expect to be prevalent in middle America. Surely it is that contrast that illustrates the difference between New York and the rest of the country?

But New York Days, New York nights remains a rich and rewarding trip. (The city’s drug scene, but the way, is such an aspect of daily life that it deserves frequent but only passing comment.) Though the reader may occasionally tire of Stephen Brook’s lengthy trek through the city, it is an account that has endured and that still interests, perhaps because the place itself and its people remain interesting. View this book on amazon New York Days, New York Nights (Picador Books)

Monday, November 2, 2009

My new life as a ghost - 50 of the best by Martin Offiah

Becoming a ghost usually involves major change in one’s life. It doesn’t happen every day. For me the call came in May 2009. A name I recognised appeared in the subject line of an email from a friend. I thought it might be a joke. The more momentous the event, it seems, the more one is tempted to see it lightly, to discount it as unlikely. It’s a form of self-preservation, I suppose. So when I opened the message to find it contained a serious suggestion, I was surprised, to say the least. 

The name in question was that of Martin Offiah. He’s a former rugby league player who has become a bit of a celeb. Actually, describing Martin Offiah as a former rugby league player is about as apposite as saying that Ringo Starr used to be a drummer in a rock band. When he retired, Martin had scored 501 tries in the game, making him the third most prolific scorer in the game’s history. The two above him, Brian Bevan and Billy Boston, played in a different era, that of the 1950s and 1960s.

The game has changed since then. I know because I saw both of them play when I was kid in the West Riding of Yorkshire and a near-permanent feature of Wakefeild Trinity’s Belle Vue home. I am even in the greatest ever film about rugby league. The film, of course, was Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life. It was nominated for two Oscars and provided Richard Harris with his first starring role. Now if you look really carefully, I am the lad in short trousers behind the sticks at the Belle Vue end in one of the crowd sequences. I, along with more than 28000 others, witnessed as extras the filming of some of the play sequences as a curtain raiser to the 1962 third round Rugby League Challenge Cup tie between Wakefield and Wigan. Wakefield won 5-4. Fred Smith scored the game’s only try, diving in at the corner on the Trinity right. Neil Fox missed the conversion, but kicked a penalty in the game. Wigan’s fullback, Griffiths, kicked two penalties. Tries were only three points in those days, by the way.

To be asked to write a book with Martin Offiah was for me the stuff of dreams, even at the age of 57! I have not kept up my passion for rugby league because in 1970 I moved to London and in 1992 I left Britain altogether. Rugby league is hard to connect with from afar. It’s easier now that the internet brings the far to just a click away. The suggestion was that Martin, the consummate try-scorer, should select and describe fifty of the greatest tries ever scored in the game. It was a project at appealed to me, both because of my lifetime interest in the game and because here was a chance to become a ghost and perhaps, just perhaps, invent a new me. Martin and I communicated by phone. I live in Spain and he’s in London. We talked on Skype and I recorded our conversations using shareware that creates mp3 files that can be played a replayed through Realplayer. The 66000 word book appeared from this ether by the end of August and, a few weeks later, there was a website with videos of all the action Martin chose to describe. Have a look at and do please read his 50 Of The Best. Imagine the process that produced it. And now, officially, I can call myself a ghost.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Restoration by Rose Tremain

If I finish a book and declare it to be one of the best I have ever read, I normally wait a few days before writing a review. If my opinion hasn’t changed by the time I take up my pen, I restate the opinion. It doesn’t happen often. Rose Tremain’s Restoration remains one of the best books I have ever read.

It’s a book with everything a good novel should have. There’s a thoroughly endearing, involving and interesting central character. There’s a wonderful backdrop in mid-seventeenth century England. There’s intellectual pursuit, carnal knowledge, earthy lifestyle, religious revelation and a good deal of excellent cooking. There are complicated relationships, both unrequited and requited love, commissions from royalty, the proximity of madness and, to keep everything in perspective, a keen sense of the absurd. And, alongside all of that, we live through some great historical events in the restoration of the monarchy, the plague and a Great Fire.

But central to everything is the remarkable Robert Merivel. He’s a talented individual who threatens to achieve but rarely does. He’s never a success but manages to stumble upon a succession of remarkable achievements. He drops out of his studies as a physician, but practices as a doctor. He gets a special job from the king, but fluffs it. He lands a job that’s a meal ticket for life and gets kicked out. Through Merivel’s eyes we experience the sounds, smells and lifestyle of London, the opulence of high society, courtesy of royal patronage and then the frugality of religious commitment. We also appreciate how knowledge and thus assumptions can change.

We enter a world where Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood is still novel. When, as medical students, Merivel and his colleague Pearce discover a man with an open wound on the chest that allows his beating heart to be touched, the pair marvel at how the organ that is supposed to be the centre of all emotion has itself no feeling. In our rational age, of course, no-one refers to heart as having anything whatsoever to do with emotion… One wonders which of our currently unquestioned assumptions will be as quaintly absurd three hundred years from now. 

Celia is one of the king’s mistresses. As a cover for his continued liaisons with her, he suggests Merivel marry her in name only. It all goes wrong, of course, when our rather shaggy and unattractive hero, seen as something of a joke by his contemporaries, falls for her. He spins a yarn or two and is found out, but along the way we feel we have experienced what it is like to seek and receive patronage. We also feel the subsequent fall from favour.

When Merivel’s life changes, we too are drawn into his new world, a world in which his unfinished and thus unconsummated study of medicine can be usefully employed. He becomes involved with his work, eventually too involved, and there is yet another fall from grace back into the company of the hoi polloi. But in this era, everyone’s life experience seems close to some edge or other. There’s plague about, and disease of all kinds. Poverty both threatens and beckons, and yet daily the needs of flesh must be satisfied. And in this respect Merivel is both a success and a survivor.

Despite being a figure of fun and an incompetent, he lives life to the full. Through him we taste, smell and sense his age and, in the end, we also understand it a little more than we did. Restoration is strong on plot. What happens to Robert Merivel is as important as how it happens, so my review reveals little of the detail of the character’s progress through life. But it is always an endearing and enlightening journey, and reveals aspects of humanity that are surely universal and eternal, as eternal perhaps as Merivel’s own room at the top of his tower. Restoration remains one of the best books I have ever read.

View this book on amazon Restoration

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sacred Country by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country is a novel set in Swaithey, a small place in Suffolk in the rural east of England. It’s a long way to a big city – in British terms that is, an hour perhaps or two to London at most! Local industries are small and livelihoods have traditionally arisen largely from the land. In some ways Swaithey might represent nothing less than the countryside idyll, the epitome of the perfect place to be at one with nature and oneself, the kind of place where day trippers from the smoke might imagine a life with fewer complications.

But as we get to know Swaithey’s inhabitants one by one, we discover a village of strangely isolated individuals. They seem to be constantly searching for an identity their isolation denies them and, though they are forever conscious of their place in space and time, they seem to seek only internalised goals. And, of course, these goals keep changing and it seems that few involved would recognise what they were seeking even if they found it. Central to Sacred Country is the story of Mary Ward.

We meet her first in 1952, telling off her younger brother Timmy. She is already old enough to be convinced she is a boy. The last we hear of him is in 1980. He is called Martin and is living in America. Now almost everyone in Swaithey seems to be, in one way or another, hung up on sex. There’s plenty of births and general fecundity, but Mary, for instance, wants to deny her breasts. Her mother Estelle wakes up one morning having an orgasm, in which she rejoices. She can hardly remember the last one, and the feeling appears apparently without mechanical assistance. Meanwhile Timmy wants to become a vicar but can’t cope with Latin or Hebrew, shame him, and thus is the perfect partner for Pearl who just wants a child, nothing more. Walter needs dental treatment and, in seeking out the required probing, comes across Gilbert who fixes his mouth and then explores other avenues.

Mary, meanwhile, has left home and has gone to live with a family friend. She thus comes to know a local eccentric who caresses cricket bats and smells of linseed oil. But the point is he allows, even encourages Mary to find his identity as Martin. There is a confusion for Mary, but surely nothing greater than for most, who stumble into and over what life throws at them with copious second thoughts until old age finds them merely lonely. Thus Swaithey’s folk interact, assist and hinder, both harm and care for one another. By the time we have lived with them for 28 years, perhaps we might expect at least some of them to have come closer to realising the realisable. But no, none of us has that privilege. 

A day is a day is a new day. Change is perhaps an illusion, a product of imagination, but certainly there is no going back. We may, as one character does, develop a passion for Country music so strong that we not only wear the clothes but also migrate to Nashville, but we would be no nearer to locating a core of identity within the self that everyone in this book seems to seek. Mary-Martin, meanwhile, moves to London. The separation from his-her family seems permanent until a late suggestion of reconciliation. Shotguns have gone off in the meantime. Wars have been fought. He-she seeks out what she wants while doing bit jobs, and then a longer-term relationship with a poetry magazine offers stability. Cooperation is thin. She-he lies and is rejected. Other see through her reconstructions and withdraw cooperation. Eventually, he-she finds someone who asks fewer questions, but the internalised questions remain. They are no closer to answer than he or she.

As ever with Rose Tremain, the emotional landscape is rich, despite its East Anglian lack of feature. Interactions are many and varied, and families are depicted as organic, almost having their own unstoppable life generated from within their own existence. But in the end there is always a distance between people and themselves. It is as if they are strangers unto themselves, with each step along the path towards self-knowledge both painful and taken blind. Sacred Country is clearly worth reading several times.

View this book on amazon Sacred Country

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Pianist Daniel del Pino plays in La Nucia

A few days ago I wrote a piece about a Russian pianist who successfully mixed so-called ‘classical’ music with jazz on the same programme. In her case, it was one half of each, half great Romantics and half jazz standards plus her own compositions. I could not have predicted that soon I would be reviewing a work by a Russian composer who does much the same thing, but at the same time! 

Daniel del Pino is a fine, even great pianist, known throughout Spain and in concert halls across the world. I have heard recitals by him at least once a year for the last six years or so. Certainly one thing he always delivers is hard work, his own, that is, because his performances are nothing less than a complete delight from beginning to end. 

But there’s no opening Haydn Sonata followed by Mozartian gentility for Daniel del Pino. His programmes are never less than demanding and his most recent recital in La Nucia’s Auditori de la Mediterrània, organised by Los Amigos de la Musica de la Marina Baixa, was no exception. On reading the list of works in prospect on this occasion, however, something immediately stood out. There was a composer I had never heard of – and that’s quite a rare occurrence these days! Daniel began with a finger loosener. In his case this meant six of Rachmaninov’s Opus 39 Etudes Tableaux! If he had played nothing else all night, I would have gone home in bliss. Opus 39 number 5 in E flat minor is a personal favourite and in Daniel del Pino’s hands the exquisite shape of the music, a complex interaction between three musical arguments, was close to sublime. In all, Opus 39 numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9 might, for many pianists, have formed a grand finale. For Daniel del Pino, they were openers. 

He followed this with two pieces by Granados, both Goyescas, El Pelele and Quejas, o Maja y el Ruiseñor. In many ways I find the idioms of Rachmaninov and Granados similar, in that they were both late Romantics, celebrants of the luscious, the personal, the individual and the national. In Rachmaninov’s case, it’s usually the pathos that dominates. In Granados, it’s the sunshine, dance and display, but mingled with some absurdity. Daniel del Pino was able to switch his interpretive landscape effortlessly to bring out the more impressionistic subtleties of Granados. This is music for which he clearly has more than mere feeling. 

His final piece was a rousing finale in the form of Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. Alongside memories of the Granados, this was musical tourism, but cultural tourism at worst! Showpiece it may be, but it is harmonically and structurally inventive, so it is musically satisfying as well as being a pyrotechnic display. As an encore he chose a simple – not so simple! – study by Mendelssohn. I have, of course, missed something out! 

Between the Granados and the Liszt, Daniel del Pino presented the eight Concert Studies Opus 40 of Nikolai Kapustin. Now I can hear the concert goers of western Europe saying, “Who?” in concert. In over forty years of listening to music, I have never encountered the name … I think … I have vague recollections of a piece for Jazz Big Band being played on the BBC Third Programme’s Music In Our Time in the mid-1960s. I missed the name of the composer, but now I think I know it. Daniel del Pino introduced the music to his audience before playing it. He told us that Kapustin was Russian, born in 1937, and composed in a pianistic tradition he inherited from Rachmaninov, but placed his thematic and rhythmic material firmly in the idiom of jazz. I have expressed my opinion of ‘crossover’ music before. Usually the result is puerile from the point of view of expression and often mundane in terms excitement and performance. Via the scored and highly pianistic music of Kapustin, we heard something that was definitely not crossover. The music was precisely scored and perhaps there was an arpeggio too far here and there. But while it was clearly rooted in the harmonic language of Rachmaninov and even Scriabin, the material and its treatment were pure bee-bop. Though it may have lacked an improvisatory edge – it seems that Kapustin himself does not claim that he scores improvisations – the music still had the feeling of jazz, but was presented in a structure that revealed itself and engaged. These eight pieces proved to be a major work and technically at least were perhaps the most demanding part of a thoroughly demanding programme. Daniel del Pino’s recital was the work of a complete artist. He can surprise as well as deliver amazing technique alongside superb interpretation and musical sensibility. Hear him play. You will not be disappointed.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Piano recital by Elena Lasco, classical artist meets jazz virtuoso

During a recital some years ago, a pianist introduced a Chopin Impromptu by describing its improvisatory essence, likening it to a snapshot of perhaps transient musical ideas, a significant but mere facet of genius. After the concert, a regular at our private gatherings took issue with the pianist. “How could we, the listeners, possibly know that such a piece was largely improvisatory unless you told us? Isn’t it all just written down, composed music?” The pianist politely declined to engage, since the customer is always right. “Just listen!” ought to have been her response. Contrary to much popular belief, improvisation has played a large part in the development of so-called “classical” music. 

Not only Chopin was noted for a brilliance of passing invention. Beethoven improvised. Listen to the Sonata Opus 111 – especially under the fingers of Rudolf Buchbinder – with an expectation of jazz. There’s a whole sequence somewhere between boogie-woogie and ragtime – from a hundred years before anyone else thought of either! Bach improvised. After all, there’s a whole raft of his compositions called “inventions”. 

An improvisatory quality introduces a sense of genuine surprise into the musical flow of a piece, a tangent to the argument that can conjure the unexpected. Many pianists also include improvisatory elements in performance. It’s nothing more than an element of what we generally refer to as interpretation. A hint of rubato for some might be a lack of accuracy, whereas for others it’s interpretive genius. Similarly, new improvisatory approaches to the Baroque ground bass are perhaps closer to how it would have been played originally than the mechanically ground-out pluck of more recent past decades. 

There are times, of course, when an improvisatory approach, however minimal, would be inappropriate. I cannot imagine Webern played in any other way than indicated in his micro-managed scoring. And for all its jazz-like elements, minimalism works because of its obsession with the detail of infinitesimal change, detail that would be lost if either over-worked or over-stated. Now despite these close bonds between so-called “classical” music and improvisation, I usually avoid anything that purports to link the approaches. The experience of “classical” celebrities “crossing over” generally generates muzak. When popular artists join “classical” friends, the artistic, if not financial, result is usually embarrassment for both. Carla Bley, Frank Zappa and Keith Jarrett might exemplify a counter-argument. But then where would you site such talents in the first place? Menuhin and Grappelli collaborated successfully, despite Menuhin describing the experience as vamping while an improvisatory genius played for ever without once repeating himself. No doubt the awe would have flowed in the opposite direction if the material had been Elgar. 

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Elena Lasco’s recital in May 2009 in L’Alfas del Pi. Forming part of the unique Spain-Norway Festival hosted by this little Norwegian town on Spain’s Costa Blanca, Elena Lasco’s concert advertised a classical and jazz programme, but thankfully no cross-over, which would only have made me over-cross. In the first half, Elena Lasco played a set of Schumann Variations, Grieg’s Norwegian Dances and Cordoba and Seguidillas by Albeniz. Make no mistake, however. Elena Lasco is no part-time classical pianist. She studied for ten years in Moscow’s Tchaikowsky Academy and was already something of a prodigy as well. Her pianistic and interpretive skills are from the top drawer. When one adds to that five years of master classes in the famous Jazz Academy of Moscow’s Gnesin Academy the mix is not just virtuosic and persuasive – it’s totally convincing. 

The rhythmic fluidity matched with complete control that she brings to pieces like the deceptively demanding Norwegian Dances of Edvard Grieg render them nothing less than a revelation. Albeniz always does benefit from rhythmic fluidity, in my opinion. It adds a commentary to the angularity and occasional abruptness of his style. And even in the Schumann the suggestion of an improvisatory edge merely added to both the drama and virtuosity. 

The second half of Elena Lasco’s Alfas recital was devoted to jazz standards and her own compositions. Appropriately we heard a homage to Errol Garner alongside some standards from the golden years of jazz. Elena Lasco’s improvisations are impressively inventive and always swing. We are transported to the world of Garner or Peterson, not Cecil Taylor or even McCoy Tyner. It’s a jazz Romanticism, infused with the personal, the memorable and occasionally the spectacular, but only for its melodic or rhythmic impact, never merely to impress. It’s a style that does not aim to confuse or obfuscate. This is musical story-telling at its most communicative. On 15 October 2009, Elena Lasco will make her London debut in the Conway Hall. She will present a jazz programme and entry to the concert will be free. Again she will feature jazz standards alongside her own compositions. Londoners will thus have the chance to experience what the privileged full house at the Spain-Norway Festival in L’Alfas del Pi lapped up in May, or indeed what Elena Lasco’s 200 million Russian television audience could not get enough of. Elena Lasco’s is a unique mix of talent and style.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

In her novel The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith takes a comic tour of several aspects of twenty-first century life. Her foci are celebrity-worship, consumerism, identity, ethnicity, globalisation and religion – quite a mix! It is an entertaining and, in places, slick tour of contemporary issues. But in the end the whole is perhaps something less than the sum of its parts. Throughout it’s a farce that threatens to become a drama, but its threat is eventually empty.

Alex-Li is an autograph man. He is half Chinese, lives in London and is Jewish. He is introduced to the joys of autograph collecting on a childhood visit to the Royal Albert Hall to see an all-in wrestling match featuring Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. These characters, faking both their identity and their activity for a television audience, are themselves symbols for the territory the book inhabits. In their own ways, all the people in the book are trying to become a projected image, an image that might, on occasions, have something to do with who they are, but the relationship, it seems, cannot be assumed.

At the beginning, Alex-Li is a child whose father is ill. Later we meet him as an adult. By then he has graduated from autograph collector to autograph trader. He has raised his passion to the status of a religion, replacing traditional symbols of devotion with a hierarchy of celebrities, their elevation related in part to the tradability of their name.

One by one, Alex-Li adopts them into the assumptions of his faith. Unfortunately, this potentially powerful image doesn’t come off. The parallels are too crude and obvious to rise above the trite, and yet at the same time too hyperbolic to be effective. His ultimate icon is Kitty Alexander, a Hollywood actress of Eastern European origin to whom Alex-Li is drawn at the level of obsession. He has sought her autograph for years via his fan mail and now wants to pursue other channels. A drug-dealing millionaire, a couple of old friends and Esther, a girlfriend complete with a pacemaker, all complicate the plot.

Alex-Li does travel to New York where the real Kitty Alexander may be found. He meets many people, some of whom help and some of whom hinder. A famous prostitute called Honey becomes a companion and does eventually secure contact with his object of worship, Ms Alexander who, of course, proves to be somewhat different from the celebrity projection. The Autograph Man harbours a multiplicity of references to popular culture. The book hints at this consumption of manufactured experience as enslavement. It also suggests that ordinary people’s release from traditions that offer no inclusion might be liberation. It dabbles in drug culture where anything may be traded, especially the worthless. Individual and community identity, both fundamentally confused by globalisation, can themselves be commoditised and thus blended like a favourite coffee or cocktail. As such, they become nothing more than transitory, relying more on a mix of nostalgia and aspiration than commitment.

So why not throw in a portion of Buddhism, a pinch of Zen into the mix? Why not? Why? Ultimately this last question is the word that undermines The Autograph Man. It is too coherent to be absurd, too falsely constructed to convince, too disparate to inform. Random juxtapositions are capable of producing wonderful witticism and occasional insight, but when this is done with a conceptual framework for a novel, the result is sometimes enjoyable and occasionally interestingly constructed, but eventually unrecognisable and probably meaningless. View this book on amazon The Autograph Man

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pop culture: popular or populist? An unpopular view.

In a recent interview Fergal Sharkey, erstwhile Northern Ireland pop singer, lamented the fact that most recording artists receive only very low royalty incomes. Now the intention behind the production and release of a pop song, one might have thought, is to achieve sales. No doubt fans and mere observers alike can trot out lists of millions sold by The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Britney Spears or Michael Jackson. 
To quote a figure would be to use spurious accuracy, but it is certainly true that the majority of pop music releases do not in fact create profit for either the performer or the record company. In the world of books, Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, Sidney Sheldon and John Grisham might both spring to mind and also crowd out bookshop shelves. But, according to a recent assessment, amazon’s bookstore was offering several million titles, while the average bookshop stocks less than five thousand. My own two novels, Mission and A Fool’s Knot, briefly made the shelves of one retail chain but, like most books that achieve publication, my novels sell only in ones and twos, despite many hours spent promoting and marketing them via the internet. It is disappointing, but this fact neither belittles the books’ significance nor reduces my commitment to them. My motivation to write them stemmed from a desire to communicate, to examine relationships between certain social and political issues. I thus deal with subjects that would never appeal to a mass market and so I never expected sales to be high. The fact that they started low and stayed there, however, says much about what the books are not.

It was in a discussion about music that a friend asserted, without apparent doubt or question, that pop was merely an abbreviation for ‘popular’. Thus pop music is short for popular music. Pop culture similarly equates to popular culture. But this apparent platitude represents a position which, on inspection, is neither theoretically true nor even accurate. If most pop music doesn’t sell, isn’t played, certainly isn’t listened to, then the genre cannot be described as ‘popular’. If well over ninety per cent of published books never even make it into a bookshop, then again the pop culture to which they might aspire is not itself popular. Some pop music becomes popular, but very little, and most published material seems to lose money, rather than make it. 

Popularity is thus revealed to be an aspiration, not a reality or a property of so-called popular culture. This leads directly to a conclusion that using the term ‘popular’ to imply ‘widely experienced’ is a misnomer. The correct term, linguistically, would be ‘populist’. The only sense in which ‘popular’ might be accurate is to imply that popular culture is easily comprehended, suitable for common people, thus suggesting a commodity that seeks a lowest common denominator, thus eschewing both passion and commitment, a position that would surely be rejected by those who produce or consume pop culture.

If we label it populist, however, to indicate that as a commodity it is produced with an aspiration to popularity, then it adopts a position along an axis between pure commerce on the one hand and political posturing on the other. Richard Dawkins’s concept of the meme, a social virus spread by promotion, publicity and conformity then comes into play, revealing populist culture’s ability to create, assert and perpetuate normative behaviour.

A consequence of this analysis is to give the lie to any notion that equates quality or worth with popularity, or, vice-versa, uses the latter as an indicator of the former. ‘It has sold this many copies, therefore it must be good’ only holds if the song behind a Coca Cola advertisement is the best pop music ever created, Ronald MacDonald is the highest acclaimed dramatic character or a yellow scallop Shell represents mankind’s highest artistic achievement. Attempts to locate quality via achievement in the marketplace are thus undermined by their own validity. ‘I think therefore I am’ may be reinterpreted for a new age as ‘I sell therefore I excel’. Even a post-modernist who might eschew all consideration of critical worth would balk at the endpoint to which this false logic leads. 

The phenomenal recent success of Susan Boyle on the ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ television show leads to another question. Irrespective of the quality of her voice, the improbability of her television appearance and, especially, the apparent surprise at her failure to win the competition, it seems fair to ask whether, via the potential of the internet, a social virus, a Dawkins meme, can be initiated and then successfully promulgated by design. Note here that this is not in itself an artistic endeavour, a piece of music, a book, a film or indeed anything that even approaches any concept of creativity, despite advertisers’ frequently claimed self-hype about the profusion of the talent within their profession. The question thus is whether it is possible to create an advertisement that is designed to propagate like a virus via the internet.

Why did Susan Boyle, a competitor on a light entertainment talent show, generate tens of millions of internet hits, feature worldwide on television news broadcasts and occupy the front pages of countless newspapers, thus dislodging minor stories such as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, elections in Iran, nuclear ambitions in Iran and North Korea, scandals over British MPs’ expenses or even elections to the European parliament? The interesting point here is not the phenomenon itself, but how it arose. Like other fodder fed to all-consuming pop culture, Susan Boyle will have her moment, minute or hour if she is lucky, be digested and, again if she has the good fortune, for this happens only rarely, will reappear via some future orifice to be granted nostalgia status, her achievements forgotten, her existence beatified, a state that can last only as long as the consumers of nostalgia – those who had the original experience – maintain their capacity to consume. The suggestion, obviously, is that pop culture dies with its audience.

And this is no mere side issue, no mere detail. Pop culture, because of its overtly economic and political role is, despite its apparently global presence, remarkably constrained in its penetration. It remains highly targeted, both geographically and demographically, and always wholly ephemeral. It’s the music that counts, we are often told, alongside a claim for quality on the grounds of popularity as indicated by sales. But ask an English speaker who is their favourite Russian band or what performer in Arabic comes to mind and one tends to be presented with an expression of complete incomprehension, as if the question were somehow invalid. This leads, unfortunately, to the conclusion that in fact the music is almost irrelevant, with the verses of songs, especially those relating to an inability to express personal feelings, being the most important element. 

It is thus revealed as a genre that trades in self-identification and empathy, and can thus only operate in the consumer’s own language. When, for example, was the last time that a fully instrumental piece was an international commercial success? Can today’s pop culture generate another Tornado’s Telstar, a tune on an electric organ to celebrate a communications satellite launch? When might a song about death, having no drumbeat and accompanied by string quartet, top the charts? Would Franz Schubert be a hit today? Yes, if he, like Paul McCartney, had written Eleanor Rigby, a song whose quality might undermine my entire argument, if it were not for the existence, in the same era, of successes called Remember You’re A Womble and The Birdie Song. 

This line of argument takes us into interesting territory. On the face of things, pop culture claims popularity. But most of the offerings in its genre are largely not popular, so it may only be described as populist, in that it aspires to the achievement of popularity. This renders a commodity that is already expressly designed to be commercial to adopt also an essentially political role, in that it can be a means of canalizing taste and opinion in an attempt to keep its market predictable. It also therefore must canalize its own means of expression, both in form and content. It claims universality, but all but a tiny fraction of its products are both language and culture confined. It constantly claims originality but, in both form and content, styles and themes remain narrowly defined. Exceptions, such as Eleanor Rigby, Telstar, or even Stranger On The Shore, merely confirm the general rule. Like novelty acts in a variety show, they provide variety, but they can usually happen only once, their novelty hardly outliving the show. 

Meanwhile, within the necessary repetition of both form and content, elements usually not directly related to the artistic endeavour orbit the fringes to both create and endow identity, alternative personas to which consumers voluntarily adhere. Titles come and go, such as rock’n’roll, soul, dance, techno, disco, hip hop, indie, punk, heavy metal, rap, new age, urban, R&B, blues, country even jazz. There is even something absurdly called ‘world music’, apparently to define music that is not in English, but implying that pop in English must arise on Mars, or at least not in this world. Each year or two a new label is added, apparently to allow each new subset of consumers to experience an illusory ownership of a culture they are effectively being force-fed. Then the names will disappear, perhaps to reappear briefly as nostalgia when their original consumers are old enough to lament their lost youth. 

I have concentrated my examples in the genre of pop music, but writing, drama, television and film would have worked equally well, but only if consideration is limited to those aspects which appeal to mass consumption. The consequent canalization of both form and content thus breeds a sense of social and cultural conformity which might be the exact opposite of originality, experience or artistic expression. 

A couple of years ago I was prompted to write an article on the internet’s potential to democratise access to expression. I argued specifically that the internet might democratise publishing, but the point could also be made in relation to any endeavour aiming to communicate. I, like others fired by the enthusiasm of publication, and in my case in traditional book form, not via the internet, attempted to publicise my work in cyberspace and, indeed, achieved some of my goals. 

But two years on, and even with a second book published, the project can hardly be described as a success, unlike the books themselves, of course, which remain as they began, excellent. I was never so naïve to believe that books about personal and community identity being challenged by social change and economic development in rural Africa would be overnight best sellers. Quite the contrary: I was always aware of their specialism. But I did write them hoping that they would be read, however. Now, in the light of my own failure in the very shadow of viral marketing’s obvious potential for success, I find myself questioning whether the internet might be fast degenerating into a tool to promote normative populism. 

This question is rendered more significant by recent search engine developments, where algorithms that weight connectivity and popularity claim to deliver more relevant search results. Surely this can only mean more normative and populist pressure and thus question further the internet’s claim to openness and freedom of expression. I must state here, to avoid any possible confusion, that I have no problem with democracy, no difficulty whatsoever with the idea that people should have what they want. It is force-feeding that is wrong, not the content of the feed. 

Equally, just as ‘might’ cannot automatically be right, ‘majority’ must never equate to dictatorship or domination, and ‘popularity’ must impose no norm. But perhaps this tendency has been there from the start. The internet may have grown out of an expression of academic freedom, but its origins, as ARPANET, lay in a desire to improve the efficiency of the defence and weapons research in the United States, and, at the height of the Cold War, that was a fairly normative area. So maybe there is still hope for freedom of expression as long as we retain the right to go beyond page three of our query results. Be wary of the day, however, that sees a restriction of search engine hits being justified by an increase in relevance. There may be more at stake than unread books, or unpopular pop.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Master by Colm Toibin

In The Master, Colm Toibin offers the reader a style and content quite different from his other novels. In a sense, the book is an act of homage to Henry James, a recognition of a creative debt, perhaps, owed by Colm Toibin to the great American writer. On another level, like Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, it is an attempt to enter an iconic writer’s own creativity to highlight its insecurity and doubt. Current writers know full well that their offerings are rightly subject to critical analysis and comparison, with some critics apparently taking delight in automatically belittling contemporary efforts. But when we read a book that has achieved ‘classic’ status, we often forget that in its own time it was treated no more reverently than current new issues.

In The Master Colm Toibin manages to penetrate the creativity of Henry James, bringing his character to life via the creative process that seems to be at his very core. Thus The Master is part biography, part family history, part observation of late nineteenth century society in England, America and in expatriate enclaves in Europe. It remains a novel, however, and its main character a fiction, despite the historical reality of both the setting and the achievement.

And this becomes one of the book’s strengths. The story is a series of reflections from the past married with often apparently mundane family or personal events. Chapters are dated, beginning in 1895 and ending in 1899, but there is no linearity of plot, no story, as such, apart from the development of the writer as he responds to reflections on his family, life and relationships. At the start, a play of his has just failed. Oscar Wilde’s trial is in the news, commented upon alongside reports of London society and its opinions. It is here that Henry James laments the death of his sister, before soon describing his brother’s participation in the American Civil War, a war that he, himself, declined to fight.

A suicide, that of a fellow writer, Constance Fennimore Woolson, has a profound effect on him. She was in Venice, a city that James then visits to assist her relatives with the necessary details. As ever, he is less than effective. In a later encounter with a sculptor called Andersen, James again comes close to standing idly by as events run past him. The author is always on the outside, it seems, an apparently uninvolved, disinterested observer, always apart from experience he could potentially share. He prefers to retain this role, the observer, the listener, making as few comments as possible. He sees life as a mystery, with only sentences capable of beauty. Ultimately, Henry James is cast as a selfish absorber of other’s experience, the raw material he stores to regurgitate later as plot and content. He lives his own rather self-centered life through the recording and later embroidery of other’s experience, others’ emotion. His psyche is a writer’s notebook, with human contacts neatly entered and filed for later literary use, his own emotions not revealed, or perhaps suppressed, his presence predatory. The Master is a remarkable achievement, a book whose writing mimics Henry James’s own literal but complex style, itself a discipline. View this book on amazon The Master

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

In his Booker Prize winning novel, The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga has achieved success where other illustrious writers have fallen short in recent years. Kiran Desai, Monica Ali and Salman Rushdie have all entered the fray and achieved considerable success of their own around themes rooted in the ramshackle, disorganised, free-for-all, cost-cutter basement of globalisation. Characters in their novels might live in New York or London, but their thoughts continue to live in rural south Asia. They might, through their labour, service the desires of the First World rich, but their personal priorities might remain rooted in the concerns of Third World poor. I accept that the grouping of these authors is unfair, since Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown is an overtly political book, whereas Monica Ali’s is largely domestic and Kiran Desai’s is familiar. But they do all share an overt interest in characters who have left their humble, Third World origins for a First World status that is less than desirable, though their motives might be diverse.

In The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga tries a different tack, and achieves much. The scenario is unlikely, deliberately comic. The book presents a narrative – apparently constructed in just seven evenings at a personal computer – by one Belram, a man with origins in a poor area of an Indian countryside he calls Darkness. Essentially, there are seven blogs or emails addressed to Wen Jiabao via the Premier’s Office, Beijing, China in which the first person narrator tells his story. Belram, presumably, believes that the Chinese people, via their leader, need advice on how to succeed in the globalised twenty-first century. Since Belram has indeed succeeded, he wants to share his experience as potential assistance to the most populous nation on earth. Belram’s rise can be listed without jeopardising the potential reader’s interest or involvement with the book. He was of utterly poor rural origin, but luckily – and also perhaps rather deviously – secured a job as a driver for the middle-class, urban Mr Ashok.

By the end of the tale Belram has his own business in Bangalore, a place as far from his own origins as any international destination. He now owns a taxi fleet that services the anti-social working hours of the growing city’s relocated call centres, whose First World cost-cutter owners provide the financial umbrella-shade in which budding entrepreneurs like Belram may shelter and prosper. Thus he eases himself a rung or two up the social and economic ladder. If only the elevation might have happened without treading on others… The White Tiger is a delightful and engaging book. The narrator’s humour and world-outlook are both entertaining and stimulating. The book’s improbable structure presents no problem whatsoever once Belram’s engaging style is established. His story is simple, devious, credible and incredible in one, and perhaps as close to a truth as one might ever approach. Literature is full of schemers and opportunists. Anti-heroes, however, rarely convince. Belram, on the other hand, almost demands we share his success via emulation, and I encourage all readers to enter his world on his terms. View this book on amazon The White Tiger

The Last Testament Of Oscar Wilde by Peter Ackroyd

A journal is being written by a lonely man in a Paris hotel room. It starts, for its sins, on 9 August 1900. There was nothing auspicious about the date, no connection to former grandeur or glory. But there has been a chance encounter, on a rare excursion outdoors, with three young Englishmen. They recognise the journal’s author, one Oscar Wilde, and they refer to him as “she”. It is an event worth recording, an event that prompts recollection and reflection on a life. Oscar Wilde’s life was lived in public. Through exploration, then success and fame, and finally via notoriety and disgrace the author occupied a public mind.

His talent was immense, his desire to exploit it almost single-minded and his success phenomenal. In an era when stardom in the modern sense was being invented, Oscar Wilde played the stage, published, courted society and self-promoted. He pushed at boundaries, sometimes not for reasons of art, but merely because they existed. He was, after all, an outsider, an Irishman of questionable parentage, but dressed elegantly in a frock coat and mingling with the highest. He thus became a star for a while, a centre of attention, a media figure.

This was nothing less than celebrity in the modern sense, except, of course, that in his case there actually was some talent and ability in the equation. He was famous primarily for what he did, not for whom he became. But then there was a change. The fame was rendered infamy by publicity he could no longer control. And that downfall killed him. A final journal entry on 30 November 1900, recorded from the author’s mumblings by a friend, Maurice Gilbert, records the event. Oscar Wilde had fallen while in prison, and had sustained an injury to an ear, an injury that festered. Early on in his recollections, Oscar Wilde recalls George Bernard Shaw saying that, “An Englishman will do whatever in the name of principle.”

Wilde’s qualification was that the principle was inevitably self-interest. It is a beautiful metaphor, because as a talented – even gifted – young Irish writer, Wilde was promoted and enjoyed success while ever he bolstered others’ positions. The moment he sought an assertion of his own right, however, he was disowned. Celebrity can thus rub shoulders with the rich and powerful, but only on their terms. And it was their terms that eventually killed him. The sybaritic Bosie encountered, the desire for things Greek aroused, Wilde found himself drawn into a society he could not resist.

But he remained a self-confessed voyeur, and never became a participant. He thus remained forever the outsider, on the periphery of even his own vices. But he was eventually pilloried for what he became in the public eye to stand for. It remained only a state to which he aspired, if, that is, we believe him. The Last Testament Of Oscar Wilde thus hops repeatedly across the boundary that separates a public and a private life. Eventually the two distinct existences become blurred. Because one is always trying to be the other, with neither predominating. Peter Ackroyd’s book is a masterpiece with much to say about thoroughly modern concepts such as populism, celebrity, fame and identity. View this book on amazon The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Book Of Evidence by John Banville

Freddie Montgomery, the central character of John Banville’s The Book Of Evidence, is an apparently complex man. The word ‘apparently’ is important because he has a tendency to cloak really quite simple actions in complex, sometimes convoluted narrative.

The Book Of Evidence has a strong plot, but one that is revealed only piecemeal in the form of what seem at first sight to be the random recollections of an imprisoned man. A potential reader would not want a listing of these details here, since the manner of their revelation is one of the most absorbing aspects of this beautifully crafted book.

As Freddie reveals his story, just a little at a time, we learn his motives and discover precisely what he has done to warrant his incarceration and trial. This jigsaw of history eventually fits together to reveal a series of events and relationships that were perhaps always confused. That’s life. Suffice it to say that there is a family history, an art collection, the theft of a painting and a murder, nothing less than the smashing of a woman’s head with a hammer. Piece that together with a gay bar, snippets of Ireland, police and prison and there is the basic framework of John Banville’s novel. 

t is the author’s use of language, however, that creates most of this book’s effect. Though never aspiring to difficulty for its own sake, the style is often complex, often employs convoluted sentences that meander their way to places their openings seem unable even to conceive. Their colour and effect make The Book Of Evidence a delight to read from beginning to end. But some time before the end, their effect may also be likened to the surface of a busy canvas whose almost fanatical attention to detail eventually drags attention away from the overall design. For some, the style might begin to grate.

Thus, by the end of the book, I felt that the stylistic invention had begun to dominate, to confuse, even obfuscate. There were powerful points to make about the character of Freddie, but the parts that adhered – sometimes randomly – to his outline rather confused the impression he made. There again, that might just have been the point, since he also eventually managed to convey a peculiarly individual, a strangely distant and detached relationship with his own actions and motives. In the end, we know just as much about Freddie as he wanted us to know.
View this book on amazon The Book of Evidence

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Line Of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

It can be no coincidence that Nick, the Oxford graduate who comes to stay, has the surname Guest. The Feddes invite him into their London home, Kensington Park Gardens, no less, because he has been a pal of their son, Toby, at university. Head of household, Gerald, is a Tory MP, elected by the good people of Barwick in Northamptonshire to represent their interests. It’s a county that always elects Tories, even when they close down the local steelworks, even when they candidates might appear unelectable.

Gerald, like everyone else in The Line Of Beauty, however, seems to be interested only in representing himself, a pursuit he achieves, again like everyone else, with partial competence. And then there’s Catherine, the Feddens’ unstable daughter who is on lithium, consistently referred to as librium within the family. Wani Ouradi, Antoine to officialdom, is the son of a Lord of Lebanese origin. The family owns a chain of supermarkets. Wani eventually has sufficient resources to buy up a piece of central London so that it can be redeveloped into premises to house a magazine venture destined from the start to sell no more than a copy or two. But then it will be something for Nick Guest to do with his spare time.

The characters in Nick Hollinghust’s book never really seem to be required to worry about the consequences of their actions. Leo is something different. He’s a council worker, and black, and not rich. An odd man out? He plays a significant role in the early part of the book, and later reappears when his family report he has dies of AIDS. The core of the book, it seems, is its sexuality. Nick Guest, along with several other characters, is gay. These people are not just homosexuals, however. They project an air of public display, men who wear their sexuality like a school tie. Perhaps they are not alone in that. So Nick has his fling with Leo. He has clearly flung with Toby and flings far and wide with Wani. The image of these rich young men having it off in smelly, locked lavs will live on after the book, but not for long. Nick regularly refers to Henry James, the quotations appearing like commentaries to the action.

Personally, the setting and characters reminded me more of Anthony Powell, who often inhabited similar social echelons. Powell’s characters can be every bit as devious, selfish, self-obsessed, fickle and ignorant as anyone in The Line Of Beauty. The difference, however, is that Powell’s upper crust speaks of misdemeanours in hushed tones. His is still an era of closets and his characters at least try to lock their skeletons therein. Alan Hollinghurst’s desirables, however, apparently want their skeletons in the shop window, mobile and, apparently, bent double before them.

And it’s not just the gay sex that’s traded, since cocaine and dope figure large as well, for the book inhabits the 1980s, the era when, we were told, wealth and riches flowed in the direction of merit, thus auto-confirming its sense of superiority and right. Eventually each of the intellectually muscled, self-seeking morons that populate The Line Of Beauty comes up against limitations. Some of these are personal, others beyond control. Scandal emerges and AIDS takes its toll of gay abandon. Nick’s guest status is questioned. He seems to take the blame for everyone else’s shortcomings. He seems to walk away saying, “Good while it lasted”, a motto that might have applied to the book, but it didn’t. The characters and their rarefied lives were eventually interesting, finally engaging.

Those things that Anthony Powell’s characters would have hidden are not only in the open but are flouted. And then, when comeuppance comes up, it seems that nothing will stick, nothing will damage any of them. And so this particular reader felt that their contribution to humanity might not reach the positive. Thus the story leaves a question. Is it voyeuristic, satirical, or merely horribly descriptive?
 View this book on amazon The Line of Beauty

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Love, etc by Julian Barnes

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of form and content than Love, etc, in which Julian Barnes continues the story of characters that came to life in Talking It Over. If, however, this marriage is fine, then equally the marriage of Gillian and Oliver is not. And neither, for that matter, was the previous one that temporarily joined Gillian and Stuart.  
Julian Barnes tells the story of this love triangle entirely in the first person. Gillian, Oliver and Stuart appear like talking heads on a screen to relate their own side of things. Since we left them at the end of Talking It Over, Stuart has moved to the States, where he has become a successful businessman and has found a new partner. Oliver, meanwhile, having won the hand of fair Gillian, has started his family but has fallen on hard times, an experience he seems to regard merely as a passing phase, except that it’s clearly not a phase and neither does it pass.

Re-enter Stuart, and thus the situation progresses. Occasionally, especially when the principal actors mention them, minor characters appear to have their often substantial say. There is an ex, a new girlfriend, an occasional mother. Also, the children have their say, their naiveté as confused as it is innocent, their vagueness inherited, perhaps, from their personal environment.

And so a story unfolds. Oliver is as full of theatre and bravura as he was throughout Talking It Over, but now it rings more of a bluff, a screen erected for self-protection rather than an extrovert’s sheen. Unemployment and illness seem to have exhausted him. Stuart, having made his fortune, is on an up and begins to reassert his desire to occupy the position he has always coveted, the space by Gillian’s side.

There are surprises in store, surprises for the characters and for the reader. But what Julian Barnes communicates with such subtlety, skill and ease are the inconsistencies of human character, the incongruities of events, the contradictions and deceptions of behaviour, and the illusions these confusions create. These people all act primarily out of self-interest. But then who doesn’t? That’s the point. And thus the process takes all of us to places we have all been, but have often failed to notice or acknowledge, even if we have admitted and recognised our motives, which most of us have not.

Love, etc is a brilliant book, brilliantly conceived and brilliantly executed with a lightness of touch that leaves us wholly surprised when we encounter a fundamentally serious point. The plot? Who cares?
 View this book on amazon Love, etc

Friday, April 17, 2009

Istanbul: Memories And The City by Orhan Pamuk

Near the opening of Istanbul: Memories And The City, Orhan Pamuk suggests that “at least once in a lifetime, self-reflection leads us to an examine the circumstances of our birth”, to examine family, identity and origins, perhaps to find if we might have deserved better. Thus this master prose applies his art, his skill to weave an intricate and detailed tapestry of a city with its history, customs, architecture and feel embroidered around the story of the writer’s early years, spent in a domesticity somehow short of bliss. 

The book, no doubt, is an instalment, since it ends with the young Orhan Pamuk out of college declaring he wants to be a writer. There remains, therefore, a lot of story yet to be told. There is a crucial concept, Pamuk tells us, needed to inform our experience of this place. It provides a clarifying lens that not only magnifies and intensifies, but also interprets. In Turkish it’s called hüzün, which roughly translates as melancholy. But it is not the melancholy of melancholia. It is not unhappiness, and is far removed from depression or anything else clinical. Orhan Pamuk returns to this word and its meaning throughout the text, but usually to skirt around its core, to illustrate rather than define. 

As I read Istanbul, the more I was convinced I was dealing with an idea that spanned both humanity and humility along one axis, married with reflection and mortality along another. The concept explains why this city, when seen through foreigner’s eyes, has been either a comment on history, a judgment on squalor, or a romance on the exotic. Whether it’s the engravings of Melling or the words of Flaubert, Western visitors have tended to exaggerate, to concentrate on things the locals take for granted, whilst ignoring those that fire them. Compared to local writers whose views are no less partial, it seems, the visitors tend to concentrate more on the picturesque, what can be observed and recorded rather than what can be felt or interpreted. Those born or living in the city are in contrast part of its fabric, conscious of its design, more able to follow a thread of meaning. Pamuk follows such a political thread through his book. 

The country’s modernisation under Ataturk is a constant theme. It was an ideology, Pamuk declares, that convinced his family that, as Westernised, positivist property-owners, they had the right to govern over semi-literates, and a mission to prevent them becoming too attached to their superstitions. Such acute and astute observation, laden with irony, is also revealed as having penetrated his own psyche. Elsewhere, he tells us that while he might remain uneasy about religious devotion, he, like the secular bourgeoisie in general, feared not God, but the potential fury of those who believed in Her too much. He also, quite early on, introduces the reader to his suspicion, nay fear, that he himself has a duplicate existence in another place elsewhere in the city, perhaps in the same form, but with a separate, independent identity.

Readers of Pamuk will notice here a theme that seems to pervade his work. The city itself has had at least three separate identities, all played out by different occupants, their origins in a multiplicity of cultures and places. And so it may be with the individual. He did not choose to be born into this identity, this skin, this psyche. By chance he might have a religious fanatic, a merchant, a Sultan, a boatman or a moderniser as a father, and any of the same – less Sultan – plus more as a mother. He might have changed direction in his own life, have become the architect he aimed for, have been a painter, or might have even married the first love who modelled for his portraits.

Throughout, he might have been someone else, or indeed have merely represented a type, a class, a privilege, a poverty. Are we discussing the individual, an individual, the writer, a writer or, as a generality, anyone who might or might have once lived in this place and thus adopted its identity? Thus lives, like places, are to be interpreted, reinvented by the eyes that view them. A writer, perhaps, invents nothing in his fiction, the production of which becomes merely a search for the self who, by accident of history, becomes fixed in an individual that remains, inevitably, in a state of change.

This beautiful, moving book, one hopes, is just the start of an autobiographical project. Like life itself, I anticipate a future whose attainment I possibly might live to regret. Hüzün. 

 View this book on amazon Istanbul: Memories of a City

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

In When We Were Orphans Kazuo Ishiguro constructs the life of Christopher Banks via a series of episodes, ostensibly written by the character himself, between 1930 and 1958. We first meet Christopher as a young Cambridge graduate through his own recollections, recorded from a perspective of several years past. We discover how he was introduced to London’s elite society. It appears that he always hovers on the edge of this group, having neither the birthright nor the connections to penetrate its layers. He does have a pedigree, however. We find ourselves convinced of that from the start. He has already become a success in his chosen career. 

It was a Japanese boyhood friend who bought him a magnifying glass when he announced his ambition to be a private investigator, a detective whose individual effort would unearth truths the combined wisdom and talent of armies of police had overlooked. Thankfully, for it could never have succeeded, Kazuo Ishiguro resists the temptation to offer any forensic evidence to support Christopher’s claim of talent in the area. The character’s skill, achievement and eventual fame are therefore taken as read. This, I emphasise, is a strength of the book, not a weakness. 

 Christopher’s background provides the crucial setting for the book’s plot. He was born in the international settlement of Shanghai, his father an employee of one of the grand colonial era corporations. It is an era when fortunes are still being made from the opium trade, a trade Christopher’s mother vehemently and publicly opposes. The unconventional uncle Philip is an influence on the young boy, as is a Japanese friend, Akira, with whom Christopher seems to spend many hours in limited, rather competitive relationship. When Christopher’s father disappears, decisions are made about the boy’s future. 

One day Uncle Philip takes him out and leaves his in the care of strangers, orphaned. He is eventually well catered for, however, is brought up in England and goes to Cambridge. There have been worse fates. Many years later, Christopher Banks returns to a war-torn Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, which he does with unconvincing ease. But throughout, Christopher seems removed from, even above any reality that admits him. 

He seems to find precisely and only what he wants to find. He demonstrates a separateness that seems so aloof it even allows him to cross lines of conflict whilst apparently remaining above them. On more than one occasion, Ishiguro suggests that this might be naiveté. An interesting point… When We Were Orphans describes a life that began in an expatriate enclave. Christopher is thus perhaps a cultural orphan as well. He uses his detachment to advantage, but even he cannot fully comprehend the nature of his separation from his parents. When he has discovered all the facts, he realises that he was never less than central in other’s plans, despite remaining ignorant of their motives.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s book is engaging, but ultimately disappointing in that it does not seem able to sustain the momentum or the logic of its own plot. It is beautifully written, but well before the end Christopher Banks seems to retreat into a world of his own, far away from his reader.

View this book on amazon When We Were Orphans