Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Barcelona experience - Antoni Gaudí by Rainer Zerbst

Rainer Zerbst’s book, Antoni Gaudí – The Complete Architectural Works, is just what it says, the complete works. Treated chronologically and in turn, each of the architect’s major projects is reviewed, described and analysed. Copious illustrations allow the reader to appreciate the often fascinating –and usually fantastic – detail that Gaudí used. The text, elaborate, itself florid in its description, conveys not only the colour and the shape of Gaudí’s work, but also its intent and derivation. Though it concentrates on the buildings, their features, their detail and their innovations, Rainer Zerbst’s book does deal quite adequately with Gaudí’s background and inspiration, though it does not attempt to be a biography.

It may come as a surprise to many readers that it was England and English art that provided the young architect with his model. The theories of Ruskin advised a return to direct contact with nature. The Pre-Raphaelites resurrected both the Gothic and colour, and also employed minute detail throughout a work rather than invite total concentration on a single, artificially-lit central subject. And then William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement provided the social and industrial model that aspired to put art at the centre of everyday life. Finally, and not least, it was the English tradition of the ornamental garden that inspired Gaudí’s treatment of broader settings. All of these influenced the young Gaudí. And at the time he was seen as a something of a radical.

Later, when, if anything, the architect’s style became more fluid and less self-conscious, he had already shaved off his beard and cut his hair in order to aspire to membership of the local establishment. In England, the once revolutionary Pre-Raphs had largely done the same. In presenting Gaudí’s woks chronologically, Rainer Zerbst is able to chart the development of the artist’s style, both personal and professional. The reader can follow the development of a style, see how ideas came to maturity and then were re-used and re-applied. The reader can also clearly understand how Gaudí’s work anticipates both Dalí and Miró, both in its content and its use of colour.

Placing minor works together in a final chapter, however, has the feel of afterthought and does detract from the overall experience. For anyone who has visited Barcelona and has seen some of these buildings close up, this book is a must. It really does fill in the detail that a casual observation would surely miss. And for anyone who has not yet visited the Catalan capital, Rainer Zerbst’s book, Antoni Gaudí, could conceivably provide the stimulus to make that visit at the first available opportunity. Gaudí’s work is something that is thoroughly worth real-life experience. Only in the rather scant treatment of Sagrada Familia is the book rather wanting, but then an adequate description of such a project would be a book in itself. Sagrada Familia, like the man who conceived it, is unique.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale

The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale is an extremely well written love story. It is so well written that at times the gentle gradients of its landscape remind one of being driven through Holland. An occasional abyss or ravine would be welcome. Laura used to be Lara. She inserted the ‘u’ because of the regular ribbings at school over Doctor Zhivago. It was clearly that sort of school. Mummy and daddy were pretty accomplished people, mum eventually a professor of virology. Daddy, poor daddy, never made it above a lectureship in social sciences – or something - in a poly. 

These are now all called universities, but we all know that the class labels still attach. They were a naturist family and took their clothes off at every opportunity. Daddy died. Daddies do. Mummy is now in need of assistance, even when naked in the garden, which these days is well walled. Laura did not manage maths at Oxford, poor thing. She blew it. But being able to add up led her to a pretty good career as a freelance accountant. Ability to work at distance allowed her to spend a good deal of her time in Paris. There were relationships. None endured.

Well, they all did, and then didn’t. She is now back with mummy. Ben was one of Laura’s old flames. He too was into viruses and once met Laura’s mom in a professional capacity. He now works with sexually transmitted diseases. He moved on from Laura and married Chloë, who has a funny thing on the end of her name. Things have not gone well of late. The marriage is suffering something of a lull. So, after many a year Ben and Laura’s paths cross again. Their encounter lasts a day and promises to endure.

But Ben has his own responsibilities. Bobby is his disabled brother and he needs support. He seems able to look after himself on the gay pick-up scene, however, and manages to put himself about quite a bit. Treatments are available in-house, after all. Between them, these characters build up understandings and misunderstandings, but there is very little to surprise. At least non-one seems to have a food fad. The book is an easy and enjoyable read, but somehow the people never really come alive. Patrick Gale tells us about their pasts, their families, their relationships, occasionally their fears or achievements, but somehow the sensation is reminiscent of pieces being pushed around a draughts board. It is certainly not as sophisticated as chess, and the moves seem, well, predictable. And that is the problem. These people ooze an under-stated middle class confidence, but they come across as smug, uninteresting and rather self-satisfied. Endearing they are not. They do elegantly populate a story, but their passions are so terribly English. We might pass time of day, but do not expect any part of the experience to offer anything memorable. Perhaps that’s the point.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Mad World, My Masters by John Simpson

In A Mad World, My Masters John Simpson presents a set of observations and anecdotes drawn from a near lifetime of reporting for television news. Over a career spanning decades, John Simpson has worked on many of the major stories of recent history. He has covered conflicts, such as the Gulf War and the Balkans, general interest stories, such as Hong Kong’s transfer and the new millennium, and more general issues such as such as the drugs and arms trades. But it is John Simpson’s contact with political leaders and heads of state that adds real spice to these memoirs, some of his contacts proving decidedly surreal, all of them offering unusual insight. The book is organised around themes, such as journeys, villains, spies, bombing and absurdities. This allows the presentation of similar kinds of experience derived from different trips. It does also facilitate the reading of the book via casual dips. A consequence is that the whole experience becomes rather episodic. 

Apart from the sometimes tenuous theme, there is little attempt to create a consistent, general narrative. Again this facilitates the casual read, but it might antagonise a reader who wants a tad more reflection from the author. The thematic arrangement also means that on several occasions the reader re-visits a trip, leading to some inevitable repetition of material. This, however, is kept to a minimum and does not detract from the overall experience if an occasional feeling of impatience is ignored.

Thus far this review has sounded like a lukewarm reception, but this would be far from the truth of the experience. The book’s subject matter alone is thought-provoking, stimulating and enlightening. In addition, John Simpson’s own observations are quite wonderful. And this mix is persuasive. The reader feels that the book “takes you there” rather than “tells us what it’s like”. It is the vividness of John Simpson’s recollections and related experience that brings so much of the subject matter completely to life that we feel we might have smelled Gaddafi’s flatulence, sensed a Peruvian mayor’s danger or felt an Iraqi Kurd’s bitterness. Anyone familiar with John Simpson’s exemplary reporting for the BBC will expect these anecdotes to contain more than trivia or merely personal experience, and, thus, will not be disappointed. But it is when the author deals with the mechanics and technicalities of news gathering that some of the more vivid experiences appear. We often forget that the process is dangerous, tiring and relentless if the product is to contain even a grain of interest. Throughout, John Simpson acknowledges the difficulties, but he also always recognises the contributions of others to the teamwork that is clearly essential to the process.

This book has much to offer to anyone interested in recent history or current affairs. Even those who are unfamiliar with the author’s broadcasting work will discover engaging and arresting perspectives on many issues and, in some cases, there will be analyses that will question some generally accepted positions. The book may be a little too long, but its consistent high quality ensures that this is barely an issue.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Arte Español Para Extranjeros by Ricardo Abrantes, Araceli Fernández, Santiago Manzarbeitia

Arte Español Para Extranjeros by Ricardo Abrantes, Araceli Fernández, Santiago Manzarbeitia is a superb idea, an excellent read and a perfect way of practising the language. The book charts chronologically the eras and styles of Spanish art. It starts with the pre-historical and archaeological, travels via the Iberian period, the Romans and the Visigoths, to the centuries of Islamic art and the Romanesque. By the time we have reached Gothic art, we almost feel we have come up to date. The Renaissance was not as big an issue in Spain as elsewhere in Europe, but the Baroque flowered and led into what the authors call the modern era. Goya is presented quite convincingly almost as a Beethoven of painting, in other words a figure from whose work almost two hundred years of future development can be traced. Picasso, Dali and Miró bring us into the contemporary era and the book’s final pages present abstract expressionism and works of Chillada.

The Spanish text is immediately accessible. The descriptions are succinct and clearly written. Technical terms are included in a useful glossary whose definitions could not be more accessible or better written. Though there are copious illustrations, this is no mere picture book. The examples have been included to illustrate the text and they carry out the task admirably, thus offering quite remarkable clarity to the excellent descriptions of style, technique and content.

What is so intriguing about Spanish art, the fact that separates it from the rest of Europe, is the Islamic period. Artistic and literary achievements in particular during those centuries have continued to influence both Spain’s cultural life and its language. No other European country has this complexity. Too often, however, the Islamic period is presented as something separate, something overcome and wholly in the past. This is not so in Arte Español Para Extranjeros. Not only via references to mozarabe and mudejar, but also by noting how stylistic elements were adopted by Islamic, Christian and Jewish artists and architects, the authors manage to present a portrait of Spanish art that represents a real synthesis. A visit to the National Museum of Catalan Art (MNAC) in Barcelona would point out how the resplendent Gothic period of religious painting in Spain owes much to contact with northern Europe, Flanders in particular, and little to Italian influence.

In Arte Español Para Extranjeros the text presents this relationship with great clarity and also adequately describes the political and trading context that led to these influences prevailing above those from the geographically closer Mediterranean areas. Non-native Spanish speakers who have even the remotest interest in the arts will find this book captivating and useful in two ways. First its very accessibility makes it a perfect vehicle for the language learner to improve reading skills and vocabulary. But on another level, the book’s ambitious project really does deliver clear, interesting and enlightening observations on style and influence. Arte Español Para Extranjeros was a very ambitious project that could so easily have failed to deliver. In the hands of its three authors, however, it has delivered an almost faultless success.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Girl At The Lion D’Or by Sebastian Faulks

The Girl At The Lion D’Or, a novel by Sebastian Faulks, presents a love story which is both engaging and poignant. But because of the book’s setting in 1930s France, there is also much historical and political colour that significantly broadens the novel’s scope. Anne is a poor, but attractive girl. Her family life was disrupted by the First World War. In this she is not alone. But, as the narrative progresses, we learn that her story is rather more complex than the common, but still tragic one, of family members killed in action.

In Anne’s case there was also something to hide. Thus she was orphaned, and perhaps never really had a home she could call her own. 

At the start of The Girl At The Lion D’Or, Anne is about to make a change in her life – and not for the first time – by leaving Paris to find a job elsewhere. That elsewhere is Janvilliers, a provincial town, where she is reluctantly accepted as a waitress in the small hotel of the book’s title. Anne is a beautiful woman, perhaps more arresting even than that, and it is not long before some of the restaurant’s clientele are taking note of her charms.

One such client is a middle class businessman called Hartmann. He is married and lives in a large, rangy mansion whose rooms perhaps have their own stories to tell. There develops a liaison that forms the novel’s primary plot. Along the way we learn much about Anne’s background and the Hartmann’s modus vivendi. There are other characters, of course, and these are convincingly portrayed to create a picture of French inter-war provincial life. There’s the owner of the hotel, for instance, who seems reluctant to leave his flat. There’s the domineering – perhaps threatening – manageress who aspires to higher moral ground. There’s a builder who builds none too well and there are others whose attentions, lecherous and otherwise, are arrested by Anne’s beauty.

But also this is France just prior to the outbreak of World War two. There are rumblings about Jews, about ultra-nationalism, about political leaders in disarray who sway this way and that. There are many stories of loss still vivid from the previous war, stories whose pain has not yet dissipated and whose memory will soon be obliterated by new conflict. Sebastain Faulks’s novel is not a spectacular read. It does not try to be so. It is, however, a sensitive, informed and often beautiful portrayal of love set against a backdrop full of quite real humanity.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera

If only Milan Kundera’s short story collection Laughable Loves had been simply an enjoyable read… Several other adjectives come to mind: arresting, compelling, strange, detached, sometimes disappointing. None of these get to the core of the work, a core that, on finishing the book, might seem more elusive than at any time during the progress of the text.

In Laughable Loves we are presented with characters that often seem to behave like cut-outs being pushed across a stage whose set is alien to them. They often seem only partially engaged with their own lives, even lost in their surroundings, no matter how familiar they are claimed to be. They are apparently controlled by others, perhaps by forces not only beyond their control, but also beyond their influence, even beyond their experience.

On the surface, however, this is not a book about totalitarianism or overt control. There are hardly any overtly political themes or references. As a background, as might be expected, this seems to be taken as given. There are references to a faceless system here and there, but this in no Kafka-esque construction of an all-embracing and constraining reality.

In Laughable Loves Milan Kundera seems to imprison people primarily within the demands of their own humanity. They seem to be enslaved by their own, inevitable, controllable but not controlled urges. This is fundamental behaviour that they think they can control, but the fact that they cannot confirms that it controls them. And, of course, the urge of sex, the reality of sex, the realisation of sex, the promise of sex, the deferment of sex, the doing of sex, all of these vie for the forefront of consciousness, their common factor apparently both the motive and the end of all intent. We may play with gods, careers, influence or power, but our ultimate and single-minded motive is the achievement of the momentary majesty of sexual communion. In his film, Casanova may have been likened to an erectile clockwork toy, pre-ordained by virtue of inevitable, hard-wired mechanism to perform whenever wound up.

And in this book, Kundera presents people who mimic such automata, except that occasionally a spring gives, or a cog slips. “Ah, ladies and gentlemen,” he writes, “a man lives a sad life when he cannot take anyone or anything seriously.” But almost no-one in these stories is eventually serious about anything, except the sex drive that controls them and whose realisation so often results in no more than sensations of the ephemeral. Immediately it is the next time that is yearned. They are thus all sad, quite absurdly sad, even as the invisible hand that manipulates their cut-out play in an alien theatre makes them move and perform. Even sadder is the human cut-out who doesn’t even believe that such a controlling hand might exist.