Saturday, August 29, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Sex on the Beach – sculptures by Antoni Miró in Altea

Two years ago, artist Antoni Miró exhibited a series of sculptures around Valencia’s old port district. Opinion at the time was divided about his work, with some convinced that these images in bronze outline were just too risqué for public view. Further south, on the Costa Blanca, almost all seafront bars offer a cocktail called Sex On The Beach, so surely these works can find a home among Altea’s beach promenade!

Antoni Miró is a prolific artist. He is based in a small town near Alcoi, inland from Alicante in Spain’s Communidad Valenciana. He works mainly at night and incessantly. He paints. He sculpts. He works on canvas, in ceramic, metal and with found objects. He works with computer graphics, and often mixes techniques and media in a single work. He produces images which often include contemporary themes, political ideas, social issues, images from film, history, conflict, popular culture, daily life and anything else that catches his eye. But these images are often transformed by colour, choice of media or context, often by simple juxtaposition, so the message is transformed, amplified and thus communicated in an intellectually challenging way, and always visually arresting.

These particular works on display in Altea are bronze sculptures. In some ways they are a set of positive and negative images because of the way they have been conceived and created. A simple way to visualize this idea is to imagine a sheet of paper having an image cut out. Then imagine working at the cut-out to add more detail. Next display the cut-out next to the original sheet which, of course, has a space the same shape as the image. Now repeat with a large bronze plate. Good luck.

And so for each positive cut-out shape, there is also a negative, rectangular sheet outlining the shaped space. The effect is doubly interesting. The positive images have detail incised, so they reveal something of their setting through themselves. The negatives, obviously, provide an image-shaped experience of their setting, an image-shaped window opening onto the environment that contains them. The results are captivating.

But what caused the divided opinions in Valencia was the works’ subject matter. For this Antoni Miró turned to images he found illustrated on ancient Greek pottery, and some of these are highly erotic. Hence my title, Sex on the Beach. The artist, meanwhile, likes to remind everyone that these images are based on originals that are 2,500 years old. In many respects, human beings possibly have not changed much in that time, and that may be the point. Indeed, some of the sculptures have been damaged by vandals. It seems that some people in Altea objected to the content of these images, an opinion that automatically endowed a few of those same individuals with the right to mangle some of the work. Lists of cocktails were not attacked, apparently. 

But there is much more to Antoni Miró’s work than mere controversy.  Works in other locations throughout the town illustrate the breadth of this artist’s vision. In the space in front of the Palau Altea, the town’s impressive concert venue, there are other positive-negative bronzes inspired by the paintings of Magritte, that might equally be Stan Laurel. There is an immovable bicycle parked on a plinth, its handlebars transformed into a single wing-like shape that suggests flight, while nearby its negative outline pierces its bronze plate, affording a bicycle-shaped view of the University of Alicante’s Fine Arts Faculty behind, an image that in itself does not normally provoke violent reaction.

Antoni Miró’s art sits firmly in the melting pot of contemporary Spanish art, though he himself might prefer the label Catalan, or Valencian. It approaches photorealism at times, but is suffused with surrealism, the comment of Goya and the almost explosive still-life of the baroque. But it is also intellectually rigorous, thought-provoking and vivid, often so much so that it provokes reaction. And this reaction is not about the art’s abstraction, it is a rejection of its realism. Now there is something novel.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan won the Booker prize for 2014, an award that was probably deserved. Much has been made of the author’s a relationship with his father, who was a prisoner of war in southeast Asia when the Japanese were building their railroad to the north using forced labor. Approaching the book as a tale of this war time experience would be a mistake, however. The personal experience of the 1940s is most certainly there, but it is by no means the totality of the book.

On the contrary, The Narrow Road to the Deep North presents several lives in all their contemporary complexity. The style is varied, sometimes disturbingly disconnected.  Often there are short sentences delivered like punches, and then long passages that seem to meditate around the perimeters of their interest, perhaps without seeming to engage in content. But don't take any of this as criticism (except, of course, in the literary sense): it's merely an attempt at observation and description. When a reader approaches a book, it's often useful to know what not to expect.

A character who remain central to the novel is an individual called Dorrigo Evans. We follow his life, his loves and, to some extent, his profession. Married to Ella, he loves Amy. And, for Dorrigo Evans, it seems that however fleeting the thought, however inconsequential the encounter, it is destined to be remembered, to be recorded and then recalled when least considered, if, and only if, Dorrigo Evans chooses to do so. Thus, life seems to aggregate around these characters to create a shell of allusion, association and chance, mixed with a fixer of self.

The wartime experiences are indeed central, however. They are not a blow-by-blow account of conflict, nor of the confinement which ensues after capture. There is something of the day-to-day suffering via forced labor and deprivation that these men suffered, some in the extreme, but more important is the continual challenge of survival, the daily challenge of reaching tomorrow. How these men cope with their privatization is central to Richard Flanagan's approach. And by the end of their captivity, everyone involved remains forever changed, forever scarred by the experience. Except for the legion who died, of course, for perhaps they were by then beyond suffering.

It's not a one-sided account, by the way. Richard Flanagan attempts to enter the minds of the captors, the Japanese soldiers who are responsible for creating the conditions that impose suffering on the captives. The attempt is not totally convincing, but the story of the Korean guard, conscripted to do Japan's dirty work, with the same level of choice as the captives he helps to torture and who is eventually tried for war crimes, is one of the most successful, powerful and memorable aspects of her book. And then there is the amputation episode… Realism rears its features here, and they are vivid.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not a novel that can be reviewed easily. It is complex, involved, subtle and involving. These are characters – particularly Dorrigo Evans – who seem utterly credible. We are interested in their lives, because they make mistakes, imagine themselves in the wrong while doing something right. This makes them as vulnerable as the real people they never quite become. But they get do on with it. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is a beautiful book.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Self-promotion or self-demotion? An emotional observation.

I read qu
ite a lot. I also try to review each book I read. Sometimes it’s a cursory mention of themes, settings and plot, just enough just to keep the memory alive. I find it helps, because with the help of these little clues I often find that some time after finishing a book I suddenly understand it better after re-reading the review and thereby appreciate more completely what it was trying to say. If, of course, the book had anything to say! 
Usually, my reviews of 500 to 1000 words, sometimes longer if I decide to include grab-quotes. I keep the reviews in a commonplace book that I started in August 1973, immediately after some of the most interesting years of my life when I was an undergraduate in London. These years are condemned to remain no more than memories, it seems, but the memories remain strong.

My reviews are rarely judgmental. I am not keen on star ratings, though some places where I share my reviews demand them. It seems to me the height of self-delusion to use a single, five-value scale to quantify eternal opinion on work that might be as diverse as a haiku or Ulysses. Equally facetious is the banal “I liked it” which, like all clichés, should be avoided like the plague.

What I try to do, sometimes, is to mimic the style of the book. This means that reviews of nineteenth century fiction are longer than those for books from the 20th century. The draft of a recent review of Middlemarch had so many subordinate clauses, asides and God‘s-eye-view observations that the first sentence reached 200 words. I remember it made the point I intended, but I ditched it.

So, with the decades of summary reviewing behind me, one would have thought that completing an author interview would be a trivial exercise. But no. I was just ten questions into the process when I realized I had spent over an hour at the task, and I had written very little indeed. The process suddenly took on an importance I had not envisaged developing when I started.

In the final analysis, the book that formed the basis of the interview, Eileen McHugh, a life remade, must speak for itself. The review is merely an aide memoire. The book must speak for itself. It will have to, because trying to express where it came from was a disturbingly cathartic experience which probably only skirted clarity. The interview is online at

Friday, August 21, 2020

Scott-King's Modern Europe by Evelyn Waugh

Scott-King's Modern Europe is a short, perhaps over-short novella by Evelyn Waugh. Written in 1946, it visits a fictitious part of Europe largely unknown to its determinedly English protagonist. In 1946 Scott-King had been classical master at Grantchester for twenty-five years, we are told in the tale's first sentence. This locks the book's principal character firmly in his place within the English class system, sketches his likely character, with its staid dedication to what has always been and remains "right", and posits him without doubt in the apolitical conservatism of an ultimately submissive establishment. It's the kind of England that used to believe that fog at Dover meant that Europe was cut off. Thus Waugh presents him to his undoubtedly sympathetic readers.

Out of a non-political blue comes a request from the little-known and less understood and now independent state of Neutralia that Scott-King attend a national celebration of a long-forgotten national poet called Bellorius. The writer died in 1646 and left a fifteen-hundred-line tract, written in Latin hexameters, of unrelenting tedium. It described a journey to an unknown new world island, where there subsisted a virtuous, chaste and reasonable community, Waugh tells us. This utopia was left forgotten and unread, until it appeared in a German edition in the twentieth century, a copy of which Scott-King picked up while on holiday some years ago. Thus the teacher of classics began a relationship with this European obscurity that led to this invitation to visit his homeland.

Scott-King's Modern Europe is so short that any more detail of its plot would undermine its reading. Suffice it to say that the international delegation is not what it seems. Things do not go to plan, or perhaps do, depending on your perspective on Neutralian politics, whose internecine struggles could not be further from anything associated with aloof Britishness, let alone it's higher class relative, Englishness. Life becomes unbearably complicated for the scrupulously fair Scott-King. He may, perish the possibility, suffer such ignominy as not having enough traveller's cheques left to cover his hotel bill!

As the farce develops, the celebration of Bellorius morphs into something decidedly more contemporary, whose limits become ever more blurred. Most of those involved are revealed, in some form or another, as frauds, except of course for the stolid and enduring Englishman of the title, who throughout remains the epitome of the innocent victim. If there is fault in the world, then it's all the fault of foreigners, those who live over there, those who speak the unintelligible languages that aren't English and live in those unbearable climates that have sunshine. They do not play fair in politics, and confuse responsibility with gain, All unthinkable at home, of course...

It all works out in the end, after a fashion. Let it be recorded here only that, true to the values of the English Public School where Scott-King has taught, it is a former pupil, ever loyal, that eventually extracts his former teacher from his troubles. But what is enduringly interesting about this little book is the depth of the metaphor that classical education presents. It is a culture in decline. Its vales are destined not to endure. Inevitably, the values enshrined in the assumption of this enduringly educated state are set themselves to disappear. The English surely are going to become like the untrustworthy, squabbling, divided Neutralians, and all the other foreigners with their unacceptable strange ways, who previously had only ever lived "over there".

Written at the end of the second world war, when perhaps mythically the British had stood alone, the book is perhaps the author's reflection on events that saw the division of Europe into opposing camps. The territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, and essentially England within it, had been maintained. But those "over there" we're still foreign and thankfully they weren’t “over here”. Their values weren't our values, and yet their influence was all-pervading, or at least potentially so. Britain, and the English on the throne within it, we're still alone, still threatened. This is the culture that is suffused throughout Evelyn Waugh's little book and it is the assumption that makes its reading now at least poignant. It might even have been written a week ago, based on anyone's list of presumptions that surrounded the Brexit referendum. Everything that was not an English value is manifest in this non-culture of Neutralia, a nation that needs to invent heroes raised from within the mediocrity of its unrecognized and - even more reprehensible - unrecorded past. How non-English can one get?

Waugh's humour enlivens the story and his unapologetic Englishness almost renders himself as the principal character. It's is short enough to be read in an hour, but it's sentiment and message will resonate very strongly with contemporary readers. In Britain's current political context, Scott-King's Modern Europe is a little book with a big message.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Children's Book by AS Byatt

The Children's Book by AS Byatt is a vast, almost rambling novel about several families and multiple lives. It is the kind of novel where a review must concentrate on the context and setting and leave out any detail, for there is far too much of that to do any of it justice. The detail is so extensive that to include anything in particular would elevate it above its relevance in the overall scenario. In the end it all hangs together beautifully and the contrasting, yet similar lives of its characters serve to illustrate the social mores and concerns of its setting. Multiple characters live through more than twenty years of their lives and descriptions of specific events happen on every page. No review could do justice to any part of this veritable tangle of history and stories. And, more than that, it is the detail of these events and interrelationships that form the very currency of this work. What happens, and to whom is happens is important and should not be revealed.

But the setting and the context are important and, since these are part of a history we all share, then there is no reason not to set them out in some detail. It is the context, both cultural and political, that this shared history inhabits that informs what we understand when we read a novel as complex and profound as this.

We begin in the mid-eighteen-nineties. We are generally among the professional upper middle classes and bi-locate between London and Kent, with much more happening out of the city. But it is the then modern Victoria and Albert Museum where the tale begins with the discovery of a lad called Philip camping out in the already dusty cellars, where the already massive collection of objects that cannot be displayed are in storage. Philip seems to have talent, but then he is a working-class lad from the Potteries, so whatever his abilities he is unlikely to be taken seriously. He has run away from a poor home and the bowels of the museum have become a rough home. Until he is discovered. Luckily, he is embraced by people who would like to help.

Many families inhabit this tale, but crucially it is a woman called Olive who repeatedly takes centre stage. She is a writer and regularly invents stories for her children. Ostensibly, these are the children's stories of the title but, as the book progresses, we realise that the meat of the novel is the real-life stories that the young people in this assemblage of families enact. As ever, reality proves to be far more immediate and unpredictable than imagination, which tends to resort to received worlds that can only exist in an abstract or ideal form or reconstruct the real thing via fantasy. And it is fantasy that is so often used to obscure the raw and often inadmissible truth of real lives.

When Olive writes these stories, her imagined worlds fit the fashions of the time. And in the 1890s there is much of human life that is only ever discussed euphemistically, despite its being lived in the flesh. Consequences are all around but admitting their existence in any explicit way is rarely possible. They exist only in allusion, even when reality pokes its nose into the bubble. This particular late Victorian world is that of a liberal middle class, gently socialist of the Fabian variety, but also imbued with the conservatism of their social class and their upbringing. One really does not want to maltreat the lower classes, but really one does get such little opportunity to demonstrate one's true values. One is conscious, of course, of the obvious difference in standards of dress, with our polite society ever conscious of material, colour, accessory, decoration and ensemble. And, of course, it's never dirty... but one must not judge. One must reform.

But this is also a world where women have become hungry for emancipation. At the start of this shared history that spans over twenty years, there are murmurings of desired independence, imaginings of opportunity, dreams of fulfillment outside the home, the bed and the cradle. The link between the latter two would only be made in the imagination, of course. Except in reality, which only rarely obtrudes into discourse, there are skeletons in cupboards, past excesses that have been denied, encounters that perhaps have been intimated only in the imagination. But these people are not prepared for the emotions they feel, nor the natural drives that overtake them. They succumb, knowing they should not, and then invent fiction and euphemism to explain away the reality that just occasionally arrests them.

A greater reality is about to absorb them all, however. By the end of The Children's Story, there have been suffragettes and suffragists, protest, sabotage, imprisonment and death, all in furtherance of a cause soon to be won. Ironically, it was perhaps World War One, which also grinds to its grim conclusion before the end the novel, that brings so much death to the generation of the children at the start of the book, that guarantees these women will receive their emancipation, if only to fill a labor shortage.

The majority of The Children's Book describes what might be termed a family saga involving multiple families either side of an Anglo-German relationship. The book concerns itself with identity, gender politics and roles, denied sexuality and eventually passionate reality. There are helpings of Fabian socialism, arts and crafts and little touches of class difference. There is always sexual repression married to moments of excess, with its physical consequences, both social and personal. These are characters who really do populate the story, and thus make the story in their own terms. None of these people act out events just so that they can be listed in the book's experience.

But at the same time, these people remain distant. They never really let out their feelings, except when they overstate them. Thus, they are of the era that made them. and we become convinced of their reality, their credibility and their dilemmas.

The Children's Book is perhaps a little difficult to start. It introduces many characters and settings in its early chapters. But we do get to know these people and the process is both gradual and convincing. By the end of the work, beyond the end of World War One, their lives have been transformed, though probably not in any way that their safe attitudes at the start might have imagined. The Children's Book is not a historical novel. It is not a family saga. It is not a love story or a tragedy. It aspires to no genre. Neither, it must be stressed, is it general fiction, whatever that might be. It is a novel that takes its reader into a different time, a different environment and a different set of social values. And a truly great novel, because, by the end, we not only feel we have visited different places, but also we have lived in them.  

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Naples Riviera by Herbert M Vaughan

The Naples Riviera by Herbert M Vaughan is a travel book published in 1908. I read it recently during a trip to Naples, itself. When using old guide books in contemporary trips, it can happen that the traveler finds a must-see site has been demolished in the intervening years, but nowadays a cursory check via a search engine can avoid such embarrassment. But what can be gleaned from reading what are now historical accounts of travel is a sense of perspective that is almost always missing from much tourist literature. Yes, the historical fact is always available, but its interpretation is always a variable, and it is this variability that immediately enriches an experience of travel.
Vaughan describes Naples, Amalfi, Sorrento, Capri, Ischia and the nearby bays as seen at the start of the twentieth century. His account indicates that these descriptions were contemporary, but also that they not being experienced for the first time. This is clearly an experienced traveler. It is interesting to note that he regularly advises that certain areas have become overpopulated with foreigners, or regularly crowded with tourists, or more likely to serve an English Sunday lunch than any local speciality. Gone, perhaps, are the barefoot luggage carriers who are generally women and who apparently queue up near the ferry hoping to earn a living by carrying tourists’ suitcases up the hill on their heads. Gone also, perhaps, are the traditional dances, such as the tarantella, that Vaughan claims the locals strike up spontaneously at any time of day and in almost any place.
A surprising observation comes early in the text, when the author refers to the city of Naples, itself, as having been largely rebuilt, and thus containing predominantly modern buildings. The author immediately reveals his preference for a particular period of the city’s history, a preference that looks down on the baroque modernization of Gothic spaces, perhaps questioning even that the Renaissance should ever have descended into mannerism.
There is mild surprise when the author lists the number of places in the Campania region where malaria is either still endemic or was endemic until just before the account was written. Vaughan then discusses the possible causes of the disease. A modern reader, when confronted with the apparent contradictions of contemporary mores, is perhaps gently surprised. When confronted with the author’s incredulity at the idea of malaria being spread by mosquitoes, one approaches the state of being flabbergasted. But the modern search engine can again come into its own to remind the contemporary traveler that it was less than a decade before the writing of Vaughan’s book that the causational link had been confirmed. One lives and one learns.
Sitting in the narrow and sometimes hectic overcrowding of the matrix of the Spanish quarter near Via Toledo, the contemporary traveler is often confronted with the rasping noise and the odour of unburnt two-stroke as motorbikes speed past on what seemed to be collision courses, both with one another and pedestrians alike. The largely unhelmeted riders remind one of the fact that Naples was a lucrative market for diagonally striped T-shirts when the wearing of seat belts in cars became compulsory. One is also minded to speculate what the experience of Vaughan in the streets might have been without the noise of the internal combustion engine and the smell of unburnt fuel. Vaughan of course reminds us that before two wheels there were four legs and that these modes of transport used to leave different evidence of their passing, which also had effects on the nose.
When Vaughan visits Pompeii and Herculaneum, his descriptions are lyrical and vivid. But again the contemporary traveler realizes that it that the experience of these places in the early twentieth century was significantly much less than it is now, since much of the excavation and archaeological work has been done in the intervening century. Anyone who, like Vaughan, wants to contemplate what life might have been like in these ancient Roman towns with their single room shops and narrow streets need only pause for a while in Naples old town or in the Spanish quarter, where, apart from the motorbikes, life probably looks pretty similar to what might have been transacted along those ancient streets. From a distance the city even looks red and yellow, the same colors the decorated most of the dwellings in the two ruined cities.
Vaughan’s description of Naples Riviera comes across as surprisingly modern. It confirms that whenever and wherever we travel it is the experience that matters, the here and now, and crucially how that changes us, rather than confirms what we expected or anticipated when we decided to go there. And so it is both refreshing and enlightening to share another visitor’s insight from a different time as we explore a new any new experience of travel.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson seems to explore the identity conferred on an individual via family. "Seems to" is important here, because what exactly might constitute family for Gretel, the novel's principal character, is always a negotiable point. For many of us, the concept of family can be clearly defined. Its reality is often identifiable, possibly supportive, even dependable. But for others a family can be a site of struggle, a source of conflict, an indefinable and disquieting lack of trust. In either of these extremes, or indeed anywhere else on the spectrum that links them, a child is his or her own individual, an individual that can react against or absorb into whatever form a family might take. Equally, that individual can adopt the family norms, be they for eventual good or ill. Everything Under examines some of these possibilities from Gretel's point of view, Gretel the daughter of a mother she increasingly seems not to know and has not met for many years.
Gretel seems to live a simple, dedicated and ordered life, with perhaps more than an element of self-imposed isolation. She is a lexicographer, examining the accuracy and scope of dictionary entries. Words thus matter to her. They are her bread and butter. Though she has not seen her mother since she was sixteen, she still has vivid memories of words they shared, words her mother invented to label things otherwise indescribable. As an adult, Gretel finds her world turned upside down by the reappearance of a woman she probably only ever partially knew, but whose own identity has now been transformed by age. Communication is hit and miss, sometimes lucid, sometimes mythical, sometimes disconnected. Gretel, however, decides to relive her past via the family life she can either remember or reconstruct, reliably or otherwise via conversation and reflection with her mother.
And that life was indeed somewhat unconventional. She and her mother lived on a boat that was moored on a river. The waters were, it seems, always murky. Gretel never really knew her father, and one of the areas she tries to uncover via her partial engagement with her mother is nothing less than the truth about her own beginnings. The water on which the family boat floated stayed murky throughout Gretel's childhood, and, it seems, has not cleared since then.
Complicating the scene is the fact that she and her mother used to communicate via code words, sounds they themselves invented to describe the unknowns, the lurking dangers or merely the otherwise unspeakable things that can surface to threaten these lives lived in a microcosm of their own invention. There is apparently much to uncover, and not all of it is accessible. And when this private language, these codes for the unmentionable, invade either a mother's or a daughter's memory, they are used to hide something difficult, to obfuscate, as if to ensure their meaning remains unknown, unacknowledged.
Characters alternate between the present and memories of a limited family life on their moored boat. There are demons to confront and assumptions to deconstruct. The water, if anything, becomes murkier when stirred. And if there is a criticism of this forensic reconstruction of a shared but only partially remembered past, then it lies in its tendency to over-complicate. It is perhaps minor point, but one might have expected Gretel, with her professional desire for accuracy in everything to do with words, not to tolerate such obfuscation.
Mother and daughter's invented vocabulary seems, however, to extend to only a few words. This is hardly the "language" we are told they shared. The words reappear in different contexts to indicate apparently different things. Unpicking how these labels have been applied to their shared experience forms a significant element of plot. But again, though much is made of these few words, they hardly constitute the "invented language" of the book's preamble.
Everything Under thus evolves into a complex, complicated and inevitably confused uncovering of this relationship between mother and daughter. Truths are revealed and unconsciously absorbed detail is newly remembered to add context. Throughout, however, we feel that, in essence, things were probably a little simpler than each character's desire to speculate might allow. In some ways this is the book's strength, since Everything Under is a tangle of memories, a tangle of relationships and possibly an undergrowth of old stems that even the participants have neglected to prune.
Everything Under is a challenging read around what is essentially a simple idea. But, when reality finally knocks on the door and these characters find they must own up to the detail of their family life, there are revelations and surprises which, paradoxically, change nothing. Perhaps many families are like that.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Reviewing books that one has not enjoyed is a pointless activity. Better just to put them on the shelf and forget them. Perhaps a second exposure, some years hence, might reveal what first impressions missed. Likes and dislikes, in any case, are wholly subjective, usually identifying something internal to the reviewer: only rarely do they relate to anything of substance in the object of the review. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry thus presents a problem. The book came with the strongest of recommendations alongside published reviews that heaped praise. And the book has many positive qualities. It is set in Victorian England and in several ways, it is highly evocative. There is a formality of style, a definite floridity in his language. These people exude politeness and decorum. They even write letters to one another, letters that are reproduced in full between the chapters that bi-locate between London and the Essex coast.
The scenario involves Cora, a recently widowed Londoner, her companion Martha and a child Francis, who, we are told, has significant problems with behaviour. The loss of a husband is felt deeply, and a sojourn by the sea, the Blackwater estuary in Essex being the place chosen, is prescribed. In this small town there are people who live from the sea, people who do rural things, and a vicar, plus his wife and some surviving children. The place also has a secret, though apparently not so secret, myth of a great sea creature, a sea serpent or winged dragon that appears irregularly to wreak havoc on its victims. And it is evidence of this beast that forms the prelude to the tale, evidence that is quietly forgotten for several chapters.
The Essex Serpent also presents aspects of Victorian life as substance in its story. There is disease, with early death, infant mortality and consumption, their combination making a point about the fragility of life. There is the barbarity, by today's standards, of medical treatment. There is violence on the streets of London and severe punishment for those who transgress the law. There is destitution and homelessness, though perhaps not in the direct experience of these characters, but manifest in their enlightened attitudes towards charity. And, within these horizons, relationships develop, characters ail, people disappear in mysterious circumstances and, throughout, there is the expectant foreboding that the Essex serpent casts over anything that cannot be fully explained. One is never in any doubt, however, that everything will eventually be explained.
So where, given the start of this review, are the problems? Let's start at the beginning. Before we meet any of the characters, we are presented with an episode that suggests the book will be primarily concerned with the monster the locals believe inhabits the waters of their Essex estuary. But, given that the power of the serpent's presence is used throughout the text more to signify a threat and create tension than make actual appearance, then this introduction is misplaced.
Secondly, too often the characters appear only when they are needed to drive a plot. The much-discussed behavior problems of the boy Francis hardly seem to figure in his mother's consciousness until the plot requires his action. Then, having exhibited no particular unpredictability thus far, he conveniently delivers when required.
Thirdly, the letters that these characters write to one another seem to be included as plot devices rather than as intended communication. They do not appear, despite the different signatures, to be written in different styles. They contain little small talk and thus do not seem to be letters at all.
Fourth, it appears that these characters are in fact modern people with modern sensibilities, cast in an era where they can highlight cultural and attitudinal differences that might surprise the reader. But the characters, themselves, hardly reflect the assumptions they would be expected to espouse.   No-one is racist, there is no antisemitism and the poor tend to be judged deservingly. These people remark on things about the society that, if they had contemporary Victorian sympathies, they would hardly notice
Fifth, and possibly I am wrong here, there seem to be some factual errors in the book. On a couple of occasions, these people, who give such obvious import to flowers, trees, vegetation and wildlife, make clear errors about what they have seen. At one point a character muses on something they simply cannot have experienced, though the fault here lies in technology, not nature. I could back up these assertions with the detail, but I have no desire to undermine the experience of potential readers of a book with details that some other reader might not notice or choose to ignore. For me, personally, these obvious errors undermined the solidity of the scenario and rendered the characters less than credible.
So for me, this was a very, very difficult read. I did finish the book. It had some things to offer. Please read it and make up your own mind.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Spanish Brass and Zélia Rocha

There has not been much opportunity to review arts events of late. I am sure I don’t have to explain why. But over the last few weeks there have been attempts to ease the restrictions of earlier in the year and a number of venues have offered events, albeit with audiences wearing masks and seated according to ongoing rules of social distancing. This restricted the recent annual film festival in L’Alfas del Pi to exclude usual venues such as the wonderfully independent Cinema Roma. The festival did happen however, using the spaces provided by Casa Cultura and outside paved areas.

One venue where social distancing is rarely an issue is the Klein-Schreuder sculpture garden. The current exhibition features works by Zélia Rocha, assemblies of iron and steel, largely reimagined engine components and re-created scrap. The forms represented are largely literal, but the construction is utterly abstract. Part of the joy is pausing before each work to identify what each component used to do during its working life and then reflect on how this contrasts with its current setting. The garden’s opening times are on its website.

And then last night, Altea hosted the second of its series of concerts Música a Boqueta Nit, in the outdoor auditorium at la Plaça de l’Aigua, a venue that again is easily to socially distance. New rules, new ages, need new compound verbs, it seems.

The group Spanish Brass, a brass quintet described by no less than Christian Lindburg as one of the best in the world, presented its program and they played in all for about ninety minutes without an interval. In the open air, even a brass quintet needs to be amplified, but a group such as Spanish Brass are used to the challenge and the sound proved more than acceptable to even the most discriminating ear. Amplified, of course, it lacked the character of reverberation, but outdoors there is none of that anyway.

The program was varied and, for this outdoor summer evening, largely light, but expertly delivered. It included part of an orchestral suite by Johan Sebastian Bach, Oblivion and Libertango by Astor Piazzolla, and a medley of songs made famous by Edith Piaf. The last work was apt, since on the way to the concert, it seemed that about half of the cars in Altea had arrived from France.

Introductions to the music hereabouts are almost always delivered in a mixture of languages, and last night Spanish Brass chose three, English, Castellano and Valenciano, so though the French missed out on the words, they made up lost ground in the music.

Personally, the high point of the evening was the concerto for wind quintet by Salvador Brotons. The composer is a teacher of brass instruments in Barcelona’s conservatory and this piece was commissioned from him by Spanish Brass for the 2014 Alzira festival. It may not be common knowledge outside Spain that this eastern part of the country is known for the extent and quality of its bands. These are not the brass bands that used to be so prevalent in the north of England before the community and culture that spawned them was excised. These have the character of a symphonic band, with a mix of brass and woodwinds, mouthpieces and reeds that often march through towns accompanied by a set of timpani on wheels. The overall standard of musicality in these groups, at least one in every town, no matter what size, is so high that they can and often do play rich and varied material.
As a result, there exists a corpus of composers for band throughout Catalunya and Valencia who attempt far more than pop cliché. And so to the Brass Quintet Concerto of Salvador Brotons. The first movement is rhythmically challenging, with its complex and broken, but always punchy lines, a second movement that reminds of Miles Davis and Gil Evans, and the finale that impresses via its neoclassicism and Hindemith-like astringency.

It is refreshing to hear real music performed again. It’s ability to surprise via the new and genuinely original is unique, and the rootedness of this new experience in everything that has gone before has to be heard to be understood, or appreciated, in that essential order.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Red Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

Simplicity is a very complex concept. ‘Keep it simple’ is good advice, but not if its result is a dumbing down of content or a dilution of ideas towards the patronizingly inane. Simplicity, when it indicates an elegant and succinct portrayal of otherwise complex material, is what writers often seek, but rarely achieve. For some truly great artists the quality is achieved apparently without effort. This is the quality and the power of illusion.
An impressive example of this complexity of the apparently simple can be found in The Red Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk. So much fiction takes the form of a biography that examples need not be listed. These life stories take many forms, from chronological sequence to end-of-life recollection, from jumbled memories to self-analysis. Very few would follow the highly original form of Orhan Pamuk’s novel and, crucially, the reader of this book will not be aware of its experimental originality until the end, perhaps even some time after finishing the book.

The Red Haired Woman is in the three distinct parts. The novel’s principal character is called Cem, though the narrative is well developed before we are aware of any name. In the first part, Cem is still at school. His impoverished family cannot raise the cash to enable the lad to attend a crammer to assist his studies, so he takes a holiday job labouring for a well digger. We are aware, though never explicitly, that there are complexities in these familial relationships. We are in Istanbul, where we habitually find Orhan Pamuk, but thirty years ago when the city had not sprawled to its current extent and perhaps where certain things were not discussed openly.

Mahmut, master of his trade, is the well digger. He and his two helpers begin to work on sloping ground in Őngőren which, at the time, is a sleepy little place beyond the city limits, where everyone knows everyone else's business and where modernization is just on the horizon. The well diggers go about their task during the day and retire to a bar in town most evenings. There is a theatre group in the town, and one of its members is a thirty-something woman with red hair. Cem becomes obsessed with her beauty and, as often is the case in Orhan Pamuk’s fiction, the sensation becomes all-consuming for this young and impressionable man. Stubbornly, the well excavation does not yield its goal and Cem extends his stay in Őngőren. Perhaps predictably, encounters with the red-haired woman do much to educate the young man. Eventually the labourer leaves the project in strange circumstances before it is finished to return home to Istanbul, leaving behind in Őngőren things that will continue to haunt him.
In part two of The Red Head Woman, we meet Cem again, but now he is an adult, university trained - so the crammer the labouring paid for did at least some good - and on the way to becoming a rich property developer, a significant but perhaps not major force in Istanbul’s modernisation. He is aware of much that he left behind in Őngőren, since the summer of well digging has left many indelible memories. These are brought into sharp focus when a contract to redevelop parts of the area comes across his desk and Cem decides to pursue the project. He thus needs to re-visit to the area and re-tread the only partially recognizable paths he trod during that personally influential summer some three decades previously. Some of the characters he knew those years ago are still around. Some of the issues that motivated dissent are still in focus.

Part three of the book is written after Cem's involvement with Őngőren has concluded. It is in this section that we hear a different perspective on Cem’s life and to reveal its detail in a review would devalue the impact of the book. Suffice it to say that from this different perspective, Cem's actions and memories take on a wholly different character. We knew all along that there was potential for consequences, but Cem never thought to find out what might have happened. But reality catches up, and resentment grows when it is ignored. All experience is particular, and we must all be aware that individual perspectives are nothing more than that, individual. It is the consequences that are shared.
But Orhan Pamuk’s The Red Haired Woman is much more than an individual fictional life. The well diggers, visiting the bar in Őngőren, chat about many things. Repeatedly, two stories are examined from different viewpoints. Oedipus, a man condemned to murder his father and marry his mother, is one. A perspective the well diggers explore is that Oedipus is not aware of the curse that directs his life, and that even when he consciously tries to avoid it shackles, the power of fate further condemns him to its confines. The second story, from the Shahmaneh, features Sohrab and Rostam. Almost counterbalancing Oedipus, this story has a father kill his son. And it is these themes, predetermination, fate, the paternal, maternal and filial, and then eventually powerlessness that form an intellectual backbone in the work. Cem the property developer is set to modernize the place that did so much to influence his personality, his outlook on life and his future. But the place will reassert itself in his life in a different, wholly unpredicted way that Cem, himself, created, but can neither influence nor control. The patricide and the filicide of the stories that obsessed Cem in his youth eventually fight it out in this brilliant book.

The Red Haired Woman, this short, accessible and apparently simple novel thus develops intellectual and philosophical dimensions, blended with its constant undercurrent of political identity and economic change. Only at the end does the reader become fully aware of the complexity of its themes, and how expertly Orhan Pamuk blends these apparently disparate ideas into a biographical whole called Cem, the principal character through which we experience an entire view of the world. And yet the reading of this book, start to finish, is always simple. The style is transparent and the reality is almost tangible. It is both personal and general, mundane and ontological, reassuringly simple and yet emotionally tangled and challenging. It is a perfect example of how simplicity is it the heart of the complex. Or was that the other way around?