Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Journey of Anders Sparrman by Per Wästberg

To say that The Journey of Anders Sparrman, by Per Wästberg is a tale of two halves would transcend cliché. Rarely will one encounter such an apparently complete transformation of a character mid-way through a story, and even more rarely will one encounter such a thoroughly credible transformation.

This is a story about a scientist, a botanist explorer of the eighteenth century. Anders Sparrman was Swedish and was raised in a straight-laced society. He studied with Linnaeus at a time when a thoroughly new notion of biological species was emerging from beneath the stone laid by the creationism of Christian doctrine. A sense of discovering empiricism pervades this story of a real historical figure. The result is neither biography nor fiction, whilst simultaneously combining elements of both. Events are drawn directly from Sparrman’s life, as recorded in his own journals, but dialogue and encounters between characters are created to embroider the backcloth of fact. This may sound like conventional historical fiction, but the sense of biography in this work is always strong enough to dominate.

Anders Sparrman’s story is told chronologically, a device that only magnifies the eventual transformation of his life. We follow him to sea as a young man. We accompany him on board Captain James Cooke’s voyages of so-called discovery. One feels that Sparrman’s work in natural history is where the real discoveries are taking place, whilst Cooke’s more grandiose and historically more consequential claims might just be a tad overstated. Throughout, Anders Sparrman comes across as a dedicated, perhaps rather staid, sober and conventional documenter of experience. His quest for truth seems nothing less than single-minded, perhaps myopic, and his thirst for detail sometimes seems to exclude any view of a bigger picture.

Back at home in Sweden, he moves from one apparently well done but unappreciated job to another. He takes over the management of an institution and attempts reform, and thus makes enemies and friends, as might be expected. As the years pass, his memories of and achievements within his years of seafaring and travel begin to fade.

But then he discovers sex. She is not particularly young, beautiful or desirable, apparently. Lotta and Anders, we are told, choose one another not because of their merits, their appearance or anything else we might usually associate with breeding partners. Rather, in their case, it was a mutual sense of desperation that brought them together. It is as if both of them clutched at and grasped an opportunity life had resolved to deny them. And then, without qualification, they took a firm grip on their opportunity and went for it.

Anders Sparrman seems suddenly reincarnated. At least his relation to biology is redrawn, since he suddenly transformed from observer to participant, from the narrow end of the microscope onto the slide, so to speak. A bland and probably predictable life suddenly blossoms by virtue of involvement, and simultaneously the empiricism that discovered becomes personal experience that feels and creates.

The Journey of Anders Sparrman, by Per Wästberg thus becomes a difficult kind of reading experience. Lulled into a sense of predictable safety by the devotion and dedication to its subject, we spend most of the book taking risks at sea and in far-off lands without sensing danger. And then, in the comfort of our own home, we are suddenly propelled into a vivid universe of emotional and sexual fulfilment that is as threatening as a warm hearth, but literally takes the breath away. The Journey of Anders Sparrman, by Per Wästberg is a remarkable experience, both as a book and a life.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Stalin by Edvard Radzinski

Edvard Radzinski’s Stalin is literally and figuratively an enormous work. But perhaps a quarter of a million words is still insufficient to do justice to a subject as monstrously bloodthirsty as Jozef Stalin. Even a list of names of those he ordered killed might not be longer than this tome.

Published in 1996, the book claims to be the first in-depth study of Stalin since the release of documents that happened at the demise of the Soviet Union. Exactly what role this material played is still unclear, but what it did not do was change the author’s opinion of his subject. In hindsight, it is perhaps not possible to hold a different view. Today, even the most diehard supporter of Bolshevism would acknowledge the utter perversity of Stalin’s crimes, but what always seems to be lacking in studies such as Edvard Radzinski’s is a fair description of the context in which the excesses unfolded.

What is clear about Stalin is that he was a survivor, despite, or perhaps because of the fact that many who became associated with him were not. From the very start, however, as a local activist in Georgia, he was a ruthless operator. In the name of collective action, he displayed a single-minded devotion to self-promotion. Like a stereotypical gangland streetfighter, he survived by standing on the bodies of those he could knock down. Thus, in a state that claimed its authority came from “the people”, Stalin became, effectively, the archetypal absolute monarch. Like in medieval kingdoms, where so many people at court seemed to end their lives on a chopping block having offended the all-powerful ruler, there was apparently no shortage of those who were willing to be admitted to the dangerous inner circle. Perhaps the rewards were worth the risk. Perhaps refusal, especially in the case of Stalin, guaranteed an even faster promotion to the butcher’s axe.

Overall, the book is rather predictable and even reads like polemic in places. Perhaps worth reading… I finished it two years ago and thought it not worth reviewing…

Overstory by Richard Powers





Ecosystems promote diversity: markets do the opposite. A single line worth reading was worth the sheer boredom of the rest.

What a failed idea, which was to write a novel about environmental issues from the point of view of campaigners, forests and their roots... Just does not work. 


Sunday, September 27, 2020

Amores percussion, Maria Maica, Elia Casanova in Alicante and International Chamber Orchestra in Alfas del Pi


Three concerts in four days…

Despite Spain’s rising number of coronavirus cases, concert halls are open. The audiences wear masks, seat suitably distanced, regularly disinfect their hands, have their temperatures checked and wait in an orderly fashion to be dismissed at the end. 

In one of the more memorable musical evenings, part of ADDA Alicante’s contemporary music festival, percussion group Amores with sopranos María Maciá, and Èlia Casanova presented a programme of Stockhausen and Hildegard of Bingen. Its not often that works separated by 800 years are programmed side by side. And it is even less likely they will connect with the narrative. Three plain song pieces by Hildegard von Bingen were performed by Èlia Casanova and these were interposed with ten of the Tierkreis, twelve zodiac pieces by Stockhausen. This constituted thirteen pieces and so the concert was called Thirteen, Dreizehn.

Now this number, with its connotations of bad luck, the devil and betrayal, seemed to be significant in the concert’s narrative. As the evening progressed, a transformation took place which, eventually, was seen not as a transformation at all, merely a nuance of interpretation.

Assisted occasionally by a synthesizer Èlia Casanova began by singing Hildegards plainsong on Christian texts. She wore white, though with a thin black veil, and apparently sang from an open book of light. She also, just once, used a musical box, which also served to remind the audience that the Stockhausen pieces were originally written for that medium.

At the end of Èlia Casanova’s first piece, María Maciá, dressed all in black, appeared. It was clear from the very moment of her entry that that this is a very different version of womanhood from the contemplative nun that was Hildegard of Bingen. María Maciá then sang, alongside the percussion trio, four of the ten chosen zodiac pieces. There followed another Hildgard plainchant, three more Zodiac pieces, another plainchant and then the final three Zodiac signs, the last one featuring both sopranos, united in their mutual transformation.

The sung part of Stockhausens music consisted of vocalized seductive syllables and sounds associated with each astrological sign, including in Pisces singing underwater! What you can probably see coming is these two different versions of womanhood seemed to influence one another, transforming the purity of Hildegard into something more earthy and earthly. This also happened musically, as the last of the plainchant developed an accidental here or there, adopted a rhythmic character and was thus transformed into a pop song, jazz singing or even blues.

The transformation was complete, both personal and musical, but the musical changes had been minimal, reminding us of the fundamentally modal character of popular music to this day. And so an unlikely juxtaposition made perfect narrative sense.

The two concerts of La Socieded de Conciertos de la Musica Clasica were structured more conventionally. Violinist Joaquin Palomares led the International Chamber Group in both concerts, but in different formats, a quartet which never actually played as a quartet and an octet that behaved at times like an orchestra.

In the quartet concert, we had the Sonata opus 3 no.4 for two violins of Leclair, Beethoven’s Sonatensatz duo for viola and cello, the Madrigals of Martinu for violin and viola and finally the Mozart Divertimento No1 K39b for string trio.

And then on the Saturday we heard the octet in Elgar’s Serenade, Tchaikovskys Nocturne for cello and orchestra, Ernest Bloch’s Prayer for the same grouping and Piazzolla’s Tango Ballet.

The evening was completed by a performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet which, as ever, created its own space and time. Four days, three concerts and almost every work in a different musical style.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Like Life – the catalogue by Luke Syson, Sheena Wagstaff, Emerson Bowyer, and Brinda Kumar

Like Life was a 2018 sculpture exhibition at New York's Met Breuer Museum. Its catalogue of the same name not only illustrates many of the exhibits but also presents several analytical essays of a substantial and challenging nature. The catalogue is worthy of recognition in its own right and can be appreciated by anyone interested in art, even those who have not seen the exhibition. It presents a significant contribution to our appreciation of the three-dimensional art which we tend to label “sculpture” and its insights go significantly beyond what may be described as art criticism. The convoluted nature of this description will be understood by anyone who reads this book, because its approach is always to question the received values through which we interpret our experience of art. Indeed, these essays might even challenge our understanding of anything we might see through the lens of prejudice, assumption or merely interpretation. In short, everything. Like Life, the catalogue, thus becomes almost a disturbing experience. We know much more by the end, but only by realizing how little of ourselves and our perception that we actually understand.

Like Life is obviously a pun on life-like. It may also be read as a command, associated with liking life, which would be ironic, since the still life that these forms present is translated in many languages not as still, but dead. One of the threads that binds the discussion is that when sculpture becomes literally like life, it has generally been dismissed by critics as artefact, thus relegated and denied the label art. And at the heart of the discussion is the use of colour.

Modelled on a misplaced assumption that classical sculpture was expressed via a visual language derived from the unblemished whiteness of marble, the story of sculpture unfolded via this misunderstood desire to reproduce classical values through both purity of whiteness and fineness of finish. Like Life not only reminds us that these classical works were originally polychrome, it also asserts that this false set of values conveniently coincided with the European view that whiteness was always superior, and that anything coloured was, by inspection, inferior. Anything polychrome was thus firmly relegated to the ambit of the artisan, not the artist. And it was this assumption that for centuries effectively separated the worlds of sculpture and painting.

The original Met Breuer exhibition displayed sculpture from the later medieval era up to the present day, but non-chronologically. It juxtaposed items to illustrate themes, contrasts and contradictions in a thoroughly stimulating way. The catalogue of Like Life also does this, but the intellectual arguments within its texts are perhaps even more arresting than the visual punches the exhibition delivered.

Why is it that in painting, an attempt to render flesh flesh-coloured is normal even laudable,, whereas in sculpture it has for centuries been seen as devaluing the object? Why is it that we expect a sculptor to start with stone, wood or wax and work it into an image of their choice, rather than mould directly from the human form? Why do we still reject realism, when that realism depicts the everyday objects we normally do not associate with art? Why do expect idealised human forms, rather than real people, defects, foibles and all? Why is it that the sculpted naked human form still generally does not depict genitals? Why do we devalue sculpture that is modelled directly from life? What becomes clear quite early on in this journey through a history of sculpture is that the process it illustrates could be applied to any artistic form upon which we are willing to offer opinions. It could be painting, music, theatre, literature, poetry, etc. Upon what basis do we describe value or worth, upon what set of rules do we ascribe artistic value? And what controlling role do our presumptions play in editing what we see, or at least our interpretation of what we see? And, perhaps most important of all, if we are slaves to our presumptions, who or what generated them?

Functionality has always been a consideration. If an object is wholly divorced from use, then it has always been more likely, in our Western mode of thinking, that is, to be regarded as art. Mannequins in shopfronts, just like polychrome inflated cherubs decorating altarpieces, have always been seen as functional rather than artistic. A sculptor who chisels at a block of jasper to model a bust produces art, sometimes, whereas an undertaker who plaster-casts a death mask does not. But then, a death mask is not representing life, is it? It shows a form incapable of movement, after all. But then how can we see a still life as art, because that cannot move, can it?

Viewing the exhibition itself and certainly reading the catalogue can literally change the way a person looks at the world. A flea market that used to offer repeated tables of junk, now presents objects that have a reason to exist. What the observer must try to glean is why the maker of the object decided to represent that thing, in that way, in that material and in that colour. Like Life thus leads to complication. What previously was seen, and perhaps largely ignored, becomes objectified, separate, worthy of being looked at actively, rather than received in a passive, even dismissive way. Not many books have this kind of effect on their readers.

Like Life is as much a challenge as it is a presentation. Yes, we are presented with images of sculpture and asked to react. But the commentary often offers such a radically different approach from that which we may assume that it really does challenge us to reinterpret and re-evaluate our presumptions. It is what art is supposed to do, isn’t it?

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Prisuelo-Sanford and Ars Musicandum in Alicante


Like most places on the planet, the pandemic has denied us the opportunity of hearing live music in a hall with volume for several months. Our last concerts in Alfas del Pi were in the first week of March, so imagine the elation created by the granting of free tickets by ballot to two restricted-access contemporary music events in ADDA, Alacante! And imagine the elation produced by the quality of the experience generated!

In one of the most original musical evenings of some sixty years of concert-going, Mario Prisuelo and Maximiliano Sanford offered an evening entitled Oceánica - Un océano no siempre tranquilo.  It was billed as a dance event, but the program suggested a piano recital. Intrigued, we awaited the start with the Steinway up against the left edge of the stage. The dancer entered from within the audience, to a refrain of four notes, slapped with his palms against a bare chest. He continued as his pianist also took the stage and loosened his formal tie. And then the concert began with the Opus 34 Preludes of Shostakovich. The four slaps, clearly, were a toneless version of DSCH, Shostakovich’s musical signature, indicating the presence of a vulnerable individual, no more, no less.

Mario Prisuelo’s playing of the Preludes was breathtakingly beautiful. Maximiliano Sanford danced an interpretation of the music, his ability to leap headfirst and land silently was beautiful as well as both evocative and unintrusive. The combination could have failed, could have been overtly pretentious, but in fact it worked supremely well, the movement complementing and interpreting the musical shapes. The contrasting allegro and adagio, major and minor being seen via this inventive choreography as deeply felt emotion, a Romanticism that many might not associate with the music of Shostakovich.

A short speech located the whole experience as a voyage to Ithaca, a perfect destination where an individual can obtain self-realization, despite threats along the way. Projected text floated across the stage and at no point did it intrude into the musical space.

At the end of the piece, the performers advanced the piano across the stage, probably to signify progress on the journey. Then we heard El Amor y La Muerte, Love and Death by Granados with a change in choreographic style. The late Romanticism of Granados might have jarred after the Shostakovich, but in fact the music sounded almost more contemporary then what went before. It was as if the progress on the ideal journey generated joy and enthusiasm in the quest, and this despite the strange foreboding that characterizes this piece, which perhaps signified some of the dangers that had to be overcome on the way.

Another piano progress took the instrument to just right of center stage. Our dancer was probably exhausted by now and spent much of the next piece lying motionless on the floor. It was apposite because the piece was Shadow by Rebecca Saunders. We were perhaps at the point in the journey where the endpoint seems to have receded and all experience seems to oppress, to oppose, to turn to nothing. The music repeatedly pounded our potential hero into the ground, and he was left alone.

The piano progressed again to the right edge of the stage. And the final piece was a neoclassical-cum-minimalist celebration of rhythm, David del Puerto’s Danza. It was the achievement of the goal, the end of the journey, but unreflective in its elation, its apparent rhythmic progress leading eventually to precisely nowhere. Nowhere, that is, except a return to the realization that whatever goal we set ourselves, we begin as an individual and complete our task as that same individual, still vulnerable, still putting out those four tones on our bare chest, DSCH, me, just me. Nothing more. What a superbly thought out and presented experience this was.

That was Saturday evening and, at lunchtime on Sunday, we were two rows back in the same hall at ADDA in Alicante for a performance by Ars Musicandum, a saxophone quartet. What was intriguing about this concert was its presentation of a programme of music by composers who were all from the same small town, Rafal, population 4500, south of Alicante.

We began with a Romantic Quartet by Agustin Bertomeu, born 1928. Written in a pre-dominantly neo-classical style, it mixed rhythmic exploration and clear lines with occasional harmonic clashes.

Next was Subreptos by Sixto Herrero, who is the soprano player and spokesperson for the band. This was a piece written in neo-primitive style, where line and harmony were not the goals. The four saxophones visited the droning horns of Tibetan temple music, the sung-through mumbling of Australian didgeridoos, the sounds and occasionally timeless meandering of the Japanese flute. I am sure there were more influences as well. Overall, the primitivism reminded us of how foreign and utterly strange this imagined, but still utterly human sound world now seems to ears trained to expect tonality, rhythm and form.

The third piece was AL-LA by Jesus Mula, another composer from Rafal and the final piece by Sixto Herrero was Aonides del Viento. There was cultural deconstruction, popular themes and Bach-like chorales, even a fugue of sorts, becoming fractured and jagged.

Overall Ars Musicandum presented a sophisticated, complex musical argument that was communicated lucidly and expertly by the quartet. There were two encores, both arrangements by Sixto Herrero and the group received rapturous applause for the brilliant performance.

It’s been a long time. But what a comeback!


Thursday, September 17, 2020

Crown of Blood, The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey by Nicola Tallis

When they advance, pawns become queens. But to advance, they usually need support from a bishop or a knight from behind the walls of a castle, assuming, of course, that the king, as usual, remains capable of relatively little, but also assuming that he, himself, survives. Without that living male, promotion to queen cannot happen. But by what rules and in which game does a pawn become advanced by such castles, knights and bishops to find herself still a pawn, a queen in name only, and only for long enough to arrange her own decapitation? The King, of course, had not survived, and a queen without a King breaks the rules. Young women called Jane Grey seem to have been particularly vulnerable to this fate.

Crown of Blood by Nicola Tallis is, effectively, a political biography of Queen Jane, the first woman to be named as the occupant of the English throne and the only occupant never to have been crowned. Born of the Tudor line, Jane's claim to the English throne was significant. Her grandmother had been Mary Tudor, youngest daughter of Henry VII and she was thus a full cousin to the King, Edward VI.

In the mid-16th century, England was riven by political difference driven by religious and ideological conflict and was further plunged into confusion by the untimely death of Edward VI, the only son of Henry VIII. But Henry's two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, had by some, including at one stage their own father, been branded as illegitimate, and therefore ineligible to inherit the throne. Confusion still surrounds exactly what Henry VIII, himself, thought of their individual succession rights. After the birth of a son, Edward, the matter was irrelevant, in any case.

Edward, a staunch Protestant, above all else wanted his own version of the Christian faith to prevail. He was a teenager when he started to ail, and his thoughts were turned reluctantly towards his succession and the continuance of the religious revolution he had furthered was uppermost in his prioritied. Thus he nominated Jane Grey as his successor, the move calculated both to promote his Protestantism and to discredit his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, one because she was a Catholic and the other because her mother had, it was alleged, humiliated his father through acts of infidelity. In his eyes neither was worthy of the crown. Lady Jane Grey, on the other hand, was a pious Protestant, from a good family, of Royal Blood and of serious, even learned disposition. Ostensibly, she even had the support of several nights and even a bishop, plus that of her ambitious family in their castle. These could have been the perfect circumstances to promote her advancement to queen. Amongst her backers, however, it was ambition and self-interest that unfortunately underpinned support for the teenage Lady Jane and, as a woman, she was powerless either to influence or counteract that scheming.

Thus, she was married to one Guildford to make a friendly alliance between powerful families, declared queen and admitted to the tower of London for her own safety. Mary, however, had popular support by virtue of her having been King Henry's first daughter and a military skirmish confirmed her greater and now pragmatic claim to the throne. Jane Grey’s protection in the tower thus became imprisonment under the influence of a victorious Mary. Jane’s supporters largely disowned her, while those who didn't lost their heads and their innards. Jane herself was tried, found guilty of treason and beheaded. Mary showed clemency in deciding not to burn her cousin.

What is so upsetting about this story is its apparent inevitability. Jane's major problem, it seemed, was that she was a woman. She had no rights. She was a mere pawn, moved at will by others and advanced for their own gain. Her story is this is not a tragedy, but a conspiracy. She was party to that conspiracy, but she was also trapped and probably could not have extricated herself from its vice, even if she had tried harder to do so. Like women of her age, she was chattel, so much meat to be haggled over by a bunch of property-owning, self-promoting barrow-boys looking for a profit.

The raw and calculated callousness exhibited by anyone in the position of power or influence over the life or status of Lady Jane Grey is more than merely shocking. Its consequences are genuinely upsetting. Here was a young woman used and then discarded when her attributes did not profit those who backed her. The example this presents reminds us that there were many others, who were not royal, who suffered similar but unrecorded fates.

Crown of Blood by Nicola Tallis examines this history in fine and accurate detail. This is a serious study of the political and legal dimensions of the case. But is also a biography, and the delves as deeply as sources allow into the background, development and character of Lady Jane Grey. The author offers a truly historical account, researching sources and judging their veracity or otherwise. Even in history, it is always easier to make it up, to deliver what current values assume. But that is fiction, not history, and Nicola Tallis’s book always inhabits what can be justified.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that Lady Jane Grey was also known as Jane Dudley, because that would remind us of the family’s status just a few years later when Robert Dudley became the favourite of Elizabeth I. Indeed, part of the case that was eventually levelled against Robert Dudley referred back to the treasonous activities of the family in relation to Lady Jane’s advancement to queen.

As is often the case in history, the rich and powerful can bathe their hands in blood, knowing that the consequences will never come their way. Reading details of the callous intrigue, the self-promotion and sheer selfishness that surrounded the elevation and then decapitation of this young woman reminds us of how much, or indeed how little, has changed since the sixteenth century.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

History of Modern Art by H H Arnason


H H Arnason’s History of Modern Art is certainly worth reading. Even if you have no interest in art, you will at least benefit from the weightlifting. This is not a tome: it's almost a library in paperback. And it needs to be extensive, since the term “modern” can mean anything to anyone, even when the significance of the perhaps more problematic term “art” is pre-agreed.

The book is true to its title in that it not only catalogues the movements, the individuals and the concepts that have created what we called modern art, it's also traces the origins of the concept of modernism, itself. Each “ism” of the artistic philosophy and history is listed, its essential characteristics are described and its principal protagonists introduced. There is usually one illustration per artist, always with an associated and insightful mini critique from the author. Occasionally, there are two or three illustrations per artist, and sometimes artists appear in more than one chapter, indicating they underwent stylistic transformations during the modern era. It should be noted that there are very few such artists, indicating how rare such stylistic flexibility has been manifest.

Most readers of this History of Modern Art by H H Arnason will surely want to use it like an encyclopedia that catalogues individual artists. And, of course, the work will function perfectly well as a reference book, since it is explicitly indexed and provides an extensive bibliography. But the quality of the author’s narrative style renders it both a coherent and rewarding read, cover to distant cover.

The material deals with painting, sculpture, architecture and photography. It focuses on the 20th century, which is surely more than enough for one volume. It does tend to concentrate on the United States, but Europe does figure large alongside it. There are examples from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Australasia as well. Since the book concentrates on styles and movements, there is just a chapter or two devoted continents other than Europe or North America. The coverage, however, is undeniably extensive.

What is the History of Modern Art demonstrates, however, is how this modern era has increasingly enshrined the status of the individual and his or her personal experience. Thus, as the 20th century progresses from broader movements such as Impressionism or Expressionism towards the perhaps the quintessential personal statement of Performance, we feel that the artistic expression becomes progressively a more private, internal reality publicly displayed. Art, arguably, has always been like this, but it seems that as the 20th century progressed, not only the content but also the language of the expression became ever more personalized and individual. Individual artists and even individual works thus confront the observer with the dual challenge of relating to an object via its own language. The viewer cannot assume anything, cannot expect to take familiar routes or arrive at envisaged destinations. And it is here the H H Arnason's work excels, because the author provides carefully constructed, succinct descriptions of style, motivation and form, alongside potted critiques of each illustrated work.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how the author juxtaposes is the apparently increasing tendency for art to present protest within the context of having to market a product. The inter-relationships between individual, community, capitalism, mass production, consumerism and objectification recur throughout the text, and the comments are always enlightening. So, anyone who is interested to say, “I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like”, should read this History of Modern Art from beginning to end and then the void of the first part of the quote might at least be partially filled. And for those who already know something, the book will pleasurably lead to more.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

When reading history, it's always instructive and insightful to step back and consider the “big picture”. Detail, though essential, indeed the very stuff of any understanding of history, can sometimes weave a web of obscurity and confusion around the obvious. The big picture, then, allows a reader to prioritize, to contextualize and to rationalize. What, then, might we make of a book which presents hardly any detail, but just a swift sketch of a big picture? Indeed, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari presents a picture of history so big it purports to be nothing less than a birth to death biography of homo sapiens, the current and dominant human species, in case you have yet to meet one.

From evolutionary beginnings through the establishment of our genetic identity, Yuval Noah Harari charts of the human tendency to form social groups, use tools and language, while sustaining ourselves by hunting and gathering. We exit Africa – somehow, probably thanks to assistance from contemporary climate change - and eventually become established across the planet. Via our Cognitive Revolution we developed our early skills and became rather good at most things we tried to do. Perhaps two good.

Success, perhaps, led to an Agricultural Revolution, where suddenly property became a concept. We domesticated animals, selectively bred yield into crops and docility into beasts of burden. We also succumbed to other new concepts such as epidemics. Note here that an unknown number of millennia intervened between stage one, the Cognitive, and stage two, the Agricultural. Writing also intervened at some point, but probably only after we invented property, for only then did we start to train accountants.

Agriculture, this new mode of production, effectively unified the human race, however. It was so successful that it spread to wherever humans ventured, and progressively this had become the entire planet. But this relatively sedentary lifestyles and the emerging possibility of control of economic resources led to the establishment of towns and villages, empires, armies, castles and probably soft furnishings.

And then there was Science and human kind’s increased ability to predict or control the physical world beyond the lifecycles of plants or docile servant beasts. Beginning barely 300 years ago, this latest, current and possibly last human revolution is still with us. It led to the invention of countless previously non-existent concepts, such as capitalism and socialism, mass consumption and ideological veganism, exponentially increased energy consumption, a Green Revolution that perhaps laid waste, genetic engineering, the internet, artificial intelligence and breakfast cereals.

Throughout, Yuval Noah Harari identifies identifies the human need to create myth. And this has real purpose in our race’s modus vivendi. Without myths called religion, human beings would never have been able to conquer the genetic necessity of individual competition. We would not have become urbanized or cooperated to solve the complex tasks that exploiting our planet requires. Harari’s grouping together of all such mythical motivation – and thereby his dismissal of its representing anything approaching the concept of truth – might have led to the book and the author falling foul of certain authorities across the globe, if past experience is anything to trust. Perhaps this also tells us something about what kinds of book the committed religious don’t read.

Thus through the 400 pages or so of Sapiens we can relive the entire history of the human race and travel centuries into its speculated future. Though it is easy to sound flippant about a book that presents itself almost as a biography of homo sapiens, there is hardly a page of the work that is not stimulating, informative or even surprising, all at the same time. Such broad pictures are perhaps easy to write, especially if they are in accurate or polemical. But that when they are well researched, lucidly written, accurate, insightful and thought-provoking, their construction of a big picture really does help us to understand and contextualize the details of history which otherwise may not constitute joined-up thinking. Sapiens is a thought-provoking and challenging work, claiming to be A Brief History of Mankind. By the end we are eager for more, but also not convinced there will be much more to write.

Monday, September 7, 2020

All Too Human - Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life edited by Elena Crippa

All Too Human - Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life edited by Elena Crippa is a catalogue for a 2018 exhibition in London’s Tate Gallery. It's a present works by the titled painters, plus several others who comprise what the compilers describe as a London Group. A weakness in the presentation is the labelling of these artists as a Group simply by virtue of their having lived in London and largely studied at a small number of the capital’s schools. Styles here are often divergent. Paula Rego, one of the featured artists, is Portuguese but trained and for a while lived in London. Kitaj also was not British, but London seems for him to have been home.

But perhaps this divergent list of artists represents a particular strength of London, being its cosmopolitan sophistication. Lucian Freud was from an immigrant family as a result of his eminent grandfather's flight from Nazism. John Singer Sergeant was American. Francis Newton Souza, also featured throughout the book, was from Goa. Celia Paul is British, but was born in India. Chaime Soutine, elements of whose style were either adopted or at least appreciated by some of the featured artists, was Russian. Just to complicate things further, he was Jewish, trained in France, was born in what is now Belarus and influenced artists working in London. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born to a family of Ghanaian immigrants to Britain. David Bomberg also studied, lived and worked in London, but he was Birmingham-born to a family of Polish immigrants. Again, this is London’s strength and, indeed, its very identity. It is big, cosmopolitan and sophisticated - big in ideas as well as in size, cosmopolitan in outlook as well as by population and sophisticated enough to welcome diversity and not be threatened by people’s freedom of movement or, for that matter, freedom of expression. London is thus different from the rest of the United Kingdom. It is even different from the rest of the United Kingdom’s cities, and so the catalogue’s claim of “London Group” for these diverse artists goes beyond merely artistic considerations. It also, arguably, undermines its own intention by creating a label that is shared only because those included in its sphere are so diverse as to share, arguably, little in common.

The contributors offer insights rather than analyses. And this is a strength of the narrative, since analysis is in the eye of the viewer of these works. Their comments are often descriptive but, with the exception of Andrew Brighton’s essay, always apposite. Again, with one exception, they clarify and inform our ability to observe these works, all of which, in some way or other, concentrate on the human form. Where the body is not immediately apparent, its presence is at least implied, even essential to our interpretation of a response to these paintings.

Bacon’s tormented forms, Freud's brutally interpretive brush strokes, Yiadom-Boakye’s often frozen dancers, Kitaj’s suffering hedonists, Paul's apparently apologetic presence, Newton Sousa’s Byzantine saints, Rego’s stocky surfaces, all of these and more are presented to illustrate how we inhabit the images of our bodies through different eyes. Neither the exhibition nor its catalogue aims at anything like coherence or completeness and does not approach either. But that would miss the real point, which is that we imagine ourselves, image ourselves and represent ourselves. We do not control how others see see us or interpret what they see. But what these artists via this exhibition and catalogue do communicate without ambiguity is that there exist as many ways of seeing the world and as many ways of interpreting human presence within it as there are eyes that see it. And note: many of us also have more than one eye.

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Long Take by Robin Robertson

The Long Take by Robin Robertson is a novel. As its title implies, it owes much to film and is conceived as a series of cinematic scenes set in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They alternate between New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and follow the progress of Walker, who is trying to earn a living, survive and become a journalist. The scenes are arranged chronologically, but there is no attempt by the author to link them as a narrative. They thus present the reader almost with glanced insights to a life which is largely lived elsewhere, within the principal character’s experience, which we only ever fee we partially share.

On the face of it, Walker appears to be a rather conventional young man. He does not seem to be particularly ambitious. He is not assertive, and rarely takes the lead. He is not driven by urges to succeed, dominate or enrich himself. But he does not seem to form relationships easily, though neither does he obviously shun them. There always seems to be something in the way.

He does become interested in the personal histories of down-and-outs who sleep rough on the streets of the cities he inhabits. He is interested in them as individuals, concerned to know where they come from, and how they managed to finish up poor and destitute. He does find some common threads, and these form an essential element of the book’s plot.

Walker himself is a veteran of the final battles of World War II. He participated in the D-day landings and suffers regular flashbacks to the experience of being on a Normandy beach without cover and being shot at. He lost many comrades in battle and seems constantly to ask what gave him the right to survive. Perhaps this enduring trauma of war is what repeatedly denies him the self-confidence, self-awareness or perhaps ambition to participate in life, except as an almost detached observer. It is also the aspect of life that denies him a means to share the lives of those around him. He seems cocooned in a past that haunts him and controls the way he relates to others.

I have deliberately chosen not to mention The Long Take’s most obvious characteristic before describing its content, because questions of form can often dominate when they do not deserve to take pride of place. But now it is time to state that Robin Robertson’s novel, The Long Take, is written in verse, and this makes it rather unusual. Now as with all verse, the act of reading it is a rather different experience from reading prose. There is a necessary and inevitable need to pause, to absorb words, to observe lines and to identify the flow of rhythm. And it is via this use of verse that the author also more finally tunes the reader’s moments of complete concentration on and dedication to the text. What works extremely well in this scenario is the focus on the details of Walker’s experience, both in his current life and on those beaches during wartime, whose memories endure. The Long Take often tingles with a reality that can also sting. Walker’s regular flashbacks are also indicated typographically, appearing in italics to give them the stress that the reader thereafter subconsciously assumes.

What does not work well is the characterization associated with the books protagonists. If this were a film, then most characters other than Walker would probably appear rather as no more than cameos. But this is a small criticism, because the enhanced emotion offered by the verse more than compensates for any lack of descriptive context. The Long Take cannot be read quickly. It's a verse form demands the reader’s concentration and commitment. It is, however, a rewarding experience and eventually an intensely moving book, describing lives destroyed by the continued experience, as well as the historical reality and unseen consequences of war.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman is a novel by Anna Burns. It won the Booker. It is a book. It's a book about a place, a place which is not named, but we know where it is because its divisions, borders, red lines, call them what you may, are currency in its social divide and international renown. It's a place that's part of somewhere else, or isn't, depending on your view of history, even though it's the present, its present that is the only relevant place to inhabit. There is another place over the border, and, yes, another one over the water, but in the past those from over there have often been this side of the ditch to leave their marks and then go home again, or not, which is at the root of the problems of this place with its border, its division, its divides, this side of the water. Like anywhere, there are people throughout to this place, but, unlike almost everywhere, they very rarely have names, or if they have them, they don’t want to use them, believing, clearly, that the name would incriminate, accuse, label, even identify in this situation where to be known always carries risks. If you are Milkman, or even a milkman, you can live with the label, possibly because it strikes fear into those who hear it, fear of association, or of reprisal, or of identification, or even of not getting your pinta. That's what the capital letter can do, or undo, if you don't have one, just one, at the start, making one a name and the other, well, a name, but not a name to identify, only a name to label. But then there are lots of labels this side of the water. There are labels above all others, which might determine where you live, might reveal what you believe, might dictate where you might walk, and where you might not, where you might drink, or buy chips, where the rest of the shop snubs you and you might even forget to pay, for your chips, of course, for you are always likely to pay, eventually, in other ways. It's these labels that make you walk faster through the ten-minute zone that divides the divisions, the road where you are being watched, counted, logged, photographed, recorded, identified as identifiable, in the future as well as in the present, which itself will become a permanent past if your name, still unspoken, receives the celebrity of appearing on someone’s file. Unless, of course, you are that Somebody McSomebody who is already known, already logged, already identified, probably already filed, in which case that Somebody McSomebody would probably not want to be seen, not want to venture into that ten-minute no-somebody's land, not anybody's land, that works like the border between over there and over here or the ditch between over here and over the water, keeping apart, keeping division. Unless, of course you are family, in which case you are known as brother or sister and by number, first, second, third etc., or you are known intergenerationally, like mama or papa or granddad, who might even still have a name, like one of your brothers, which is better not said in any case, being that it would be recognized, labelled, identified or merely chiseled into a headstone. That's always the risk, especially when your family is known to be sympathetic to causes unspoken in private but inevitably adopted in public, because the photographs, the records, the files prove you still live over there, on that side of the ten-minute zone that marks the division. And, when you have decided who you are or who you might become, should you agree to continue to see a milkman or other for the purpose of something other than acquiring milk, then you need to watch your back to make sure your maybe-boyfriend is not watching you while you are at your deception, which is not deception, because you're not trying to deceive. And then, in the end, you are at the end of the book, which is not really a book, but a train of thoughts, events, thoughts about events, and analyses, rationalizations of the irrational, all inside the head of an eighteen-year-old woman, who happens to come from one side or other of the divide, in the divided land, that's one side of the border and another side of the water ditch that separates it from over there. You have travelled the roads, lived the short lives, felt the threats, been taken to all the places the eighteen-year-old has deemed you will see, felt the confusion life has brought to her life, and experienced the lack of ending that inevitably applies to things that have no end. The only certainty, and this at least is certain, that this book, that actually might not be a book, but thought, experience and imagination, is a worthy Booker and arguably one of the greatest achievements in the history of things that generally are called books.