Archive for the ‘film’ Category

The Group

November 25, 2013
  • The Group by Mary McCarthy
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.

When I went to hear Margaret Drabble give a talk a little while ago, she cited these three books, all published in the sixties, which helped her to know how to live her life. She talked about how she trusted the reports of life written in these novels, and how invaluable they’d been.

I’m ashamed to say that while I knew these novels by reputation to be brilliant and important, I’d not read any of them. So I resolved to read them right away, but of course you know what life is like, other books surface and then you decide to read The Luminaries and lo and behold several months have passed and you’re no closer to having read whatever it was you intended.

Hannah Arendt film posterI was given another prompt a few weeks ago when I went to see the completely amazing, thought-provoking, brilliant film Hannah Arendt, which focuses on the German philosopher’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in 1961. When Arendt published her report in the New Yorker, in which she wrote that what was so shocking was that Eichmann was really just another bureaucrat, and the horrific things he’d done showed the very ‘banality of evil’, she came under fierce attack. Throughout the film, she has a close and supportive friendship with a certain American novelist called Mary. Hummm… I wondered, could it be Mary McCarthy? Indeed, I later gathered that they did indeed have a very close friendship and their correspondence, published in the nineties but now out of print (might some clever publisher like to reprint it?), is apparently wonderful.

This film, coupled with the sad news of Doris Lessing’s death, made me feel beyond any shadow of a procrastinating doubt that now is the time to read these three novels, no excuses, and so, as soon as I put down the colossal weight of The Luminaries, I picked up The Group.

The GroupThe Group begins in 1933, when a set of young women, newly graduated from Vassar, gather together for one of their member’s rather unorthodox New York wedding. We follow their different trajectories over the coming years, until the novel comes to a close in the early years of the Second World War. The structure of the novel, with the long time lags between chapters, reminded me a little of One Day. Similarly, I loved watching how this group of friends, who all burst out of college more-or-less on the same footing, drift apart, their lives carrying them in different directions, and then chance to come together again.

Published in 1963, The Group caused a great furore over McCarthy’s frank observations and descriptions of sex, contraception and breastfeeding. There’s a brilliant bit in the second chapter when Dottie loses her virginity:

But the group would never believe, never in a million years, that Dottie Renfrew would come here, to this attic room that smelled of cooking fat, with a man she hardly knew, who made no secret of his intentions, who had been drinking heavily, and who was evidently not in love with her. When she put it that way, crudely, she could scarcely believe it herself, and the side of her that wanted to talk was still hoping, probably, to gain a little time, the way, she had noticed, she always started a discussion of current events with the dentist to keep him from turning on the drill. Dottie’s dimple twinkled. What an odd comparison! If the group could hear that!

So far, so conventional, albeit rather endearing and funny too. But then, just a couple of pages later we get it all in very graphic detail:

Then she felt it the thing she feared … surprisingly warm and smooth, but it hurt terribly, pushing and stabbing.

Until:

Then, all of a sudden, she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups, the moment they were over…

!!

The next chapter begins with her lover telling her to:

‘Get yourself a pessary.’

Dottie goes off and gets herself fitted out with some contraception, only to find herself stranded in the park, waiting to meet him:

In the dark, she began quietly to cry and decided to count to a hundred before going. She had reached a hundred for the fifth time when she recognized that it was no use; even if he got her message, he would never come tonight. There seemed to be only one thing left to do. Hoping that she was unobserved, she slipped the contraceptive equipment under the bench she was sitting on and began to walk as swiftly as she could, without attracting attention, to Fifth Avenue.

Poor Dottie!

These two chapters encapsulate exactly what is so brilliant about the novel. Mary McCarthy manages to get inside the heads of each of her characters, telling us what is happening, as focalised through their point of view. So we learn that Dottie is about to go to bed with a man, and that his flat smells of ‘cooking fat’ – what a thing to notice! – and then we are also taken off on her own funny tangent of thought about going to the dentist, and imagining what on earth would the group think. Her orgasm reminds her of having the hiccups! We see the scene as Dottie sees it and swiftly empathise with her, so that when she is left deserted on the bench, it is hard not to share her despondency.

So, firstly, we identify with the characters. Secondly, McCarthy does not shy away from the gory details. Everything is written about with a certain clinical detachment. Here it is sex, then it is getting her diaphragm fitted, later it is the ins and outs of breast-feeding and potty training. If, in the sixties, you were a young woman new to the adult world without a clue what to do and not knowing who to ask, The Group would be a very useful instruction manual. I can see why Margaret Drabble found it so invaluable.

Thirdly, McCarthy makes the – I think – feminist point of how, in spite of the education of these women, their talents, intelligence, money and energy, they are still utterly subject to men. Dottie thinks she knows what she is getting into, having no qualms about losing her virginity to a drunk man who doesn’t love her. She is efficient and organised, going to get herself fitted with contraception so quickly. Then, alas, all this independence crumbles to nothing as she sits on the bench in the park, waiting in vain for her man, and feeling utterly wretched.

It would be too simple to write a novel set in the thirties about a young woman who takes the world by storm.  McCarthy’s point in The Group, emphasised by having so many protagonists, is that in spite of these women having every asset, it is a man’s world and no woman can succeed in it.

Dottie, heartbroken by this rejection, ends up marrying someone else, in spite of knowing that she doesn’t really love him. Marriage is the only thing to which these women can really aspire.

Another protagonist, Polly, has a long affair with a married man. When he eventually leaves her to return to his wife, it coincides with her parents divorcing and her father coming to stay. Her father is financially dependent on her and rather profligate with money. Polly soon gets into debt and worries about how they can stay afloat, casting about for a means of supplementing her pay:

She thought of needlework or of marketing her herbal jellies and pomander balls through the Woman’s Exchange. She and her father could make plum puddings of fruit cakes. But when she figured out one day at lunch the profit on a jar of rosemary jelly that would retail, say, at twenty cents a jar, she saw that with the cost of the jars, the sugar, the labels and the shipping, she would have to make five hundred jars to earn $25, and this on the assumption that the fruit and herbs and cooking gas were free … It would be the same with needlework. For the first time she understood the charms of mass production. Her conclusion was that it was idle to think that a person could make money by using her hands in her spare time: you would have to be an invalid or blind to show a profit.

Her father, a manic-depressive, sees the solution and tells her:

‘I intend to find you a husband. For purely selfish reasons. I need a son-in-law to support me in my old age.’

In spite of all Polly’s lateral thinking, this is, in the end of course what happens.

Marriage is not, however, shown to be a bed of roses.

Kay, whose wedding opens the novel, is soon seen to be in a dreadful plight. She gets a job at Macy’s but her marriage is dreadfully unhappy as her husband is a smug, drunk philanderer, who ends up beating her. Grim already, it takes a very sinister turn towards the end when Kay’s husband has her committed to a mental asylum, and she, faced with the choice of going home with him or staying there, decides to stay.

Another character marries a man who sleeps with their baby’s nurse and then blames the wife for letting it happen. Another marries a pediatrician, and is bullied into letting their baby be little more than a case for his career.

Time and again, these enterprising women come up against an obstacle which highlights their dependence on men and the severe limitations of marriage being the only solution. (There is one other solution which is posited, but I don’t want to give a plot spoiler here as it is revealed right at the end. Let it be said, however, that one character manages to sidestep the marriage problem rather neatly, and even gets the better of Kay’s horrible philandering husband.)

Having said all this, The Group doesn’t read like an angry feminist book. McCarthy makes her point, but does so through a very enjoyable narrative, peppered with humour and wry observations. It is not just the plight of women that is portrayed, but New York in the thirties – its literary scene with book-review editors ‘like kings … holding levees, surrounded by their courtiers, while petitioners waited eagerly in the anteroom and footmen trotted back and forth’, its political idealists, its enthusiasm for psychoanalysis, its children of the Depression, and the worries of the impending war in Europe.

The Group manages to be both enjoyable and political, plot-driven and ideologically persuasive. One wonders how Mary McCarthy achieved such a feat. Moreover, one wonders why its publishers today so diminish it by marketing it as little more than the inspiration for Sex and the City.

Mary McCarthy

Now on to The Bell Jar

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The Real Mrs Miniver

March 25, 2013

I must confess to not having heard of Mrs Miniver – real or otherwise – before reading this biography by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. I suspect you are rather better informed than I am, but in case you’re similarly ignorant, Mrs Miniver was a fictional character made famous by a very successful wartime film. She first appeared in a column in the Court Page of The Times in the late 1930s, and these articles were collected and published as a book, on which the film was based. Mrs Miniver was a terribly English upper-middle class lady, happily married with three darling children. Her bravery in the face of adversary tugged at the heartstrings of the Americans to such an extent that apparently Winston Churchill said she did more than a flotilla of battleships for the Allied Cause, encouraging America to abandon her Isolationist policy.

Jan StrutherThe creator of Mrs Miniver was Jan Struther – the penname of Joyce Maxtone Graham. Many readers equated Joyce with her creation, Mrs Miniver:

For Easter 1938 Mrs Miniver and Clem [her husband] went off to Cornwall. The following week a friend rang Joyce and said, ‘Oh, you’re back, are you? Cornwall must have been heavenly. I wish I’d been there.’ ‘So do I,’ said Joyce.

Joyce grew quite fed up with it. She said:

I felt rather like a ventriloquist whose doll has suddenly struck up an independent conversation with the audience.

It is easy to see how such a conflation of identity could occur – Joyce, like Mrs Miniver, was married with three children, lived in Chelsea, had a weekend cottage in Kent and holidayed at the family pile in Scotland. But, as Joyce’s granddaughter Ysenda Maxtone Graham shows in her compelling, minutely observed biography, the real Mrs Miniver was far more complex, intriguing and flawed than her literary creation.

What made Joyce’s Mrs Miniver column such a success was her talent for observing the universal in the minutiae of everyday life. For instance, here she is on a father and child walking together:

Toby trotted off to the pond with Clem, his feet beating crotchets against his father’s minims.

Or on rear-view mirrors:

She wondered why it had never occurred to her before that you cannot successfully navigate the future unless you keep always framed beside it a small, clear image of the past.

You can see why, with the horrific feeling of impending doom in Europe, the British public might want to cling to someone with such a domestic, nice life, and who finds such pleasure in its mundanities. You can also see why some critics, like E.M. Forster, were driven a bit mad by this woman, who was, in his words, ‘so amusing, clever, observant, broadminded, shrewd, demure, Bohemian, happily-married, triply-childrened, public-spirited and at all times such a lady.’

Mrs Miniver was not, however, Joyce Maxtone Graham. Joyce, for one thing, was no longer happily married. Indeed, as Ysenda puts it, Joyce ‘decided to write about a woman who was as happy as she had once been.’

This implies that Joyce was aware of her current unhappiness and chose to seek refuge in her past, rather than looking towards a brighter future. I suppose it’s a form of nostalgia, of basking in rose-tinted memories.

But, in a fascinating twist, as Joyce wrote about these halcyon days, her view of them altered. She realised that ‘she didn’t want to be that type of person ever again’. As Ysenda writes:

It was almost as if the creation of ‘Mrs Miniver’ was a way of writing the exquisiteness out of herself … Joyce, privately, was beginning to see it as a cage to which she was ready to say good riddance.

So writing is at first a means for Joyce to recapture the past, then it becomes a means of surgery – of cauterising this side of herself, separating her present self from her past self and enabling her to move on to the future. Evidently, in her capable hands, the pen is powerful tool.

It was largely thanks to Mrs Miniver that Joyce embarked on the next stage of her life, living quite independently in America. Her American publishers wanted Joyce to come over for publicity for the publication of Mrs Miniver, the book. The government, suggests Ysenda, thought this might be rather good propaganda for the British cause. Added to which, Joyce’s sister-in-law lived in New York and urged Joyce’s husband to send over the children, with or without Joyce, to take refuge from the bombing. Moreover, Joyce’s lover – Dolf, an Austrian Jewish refugee – had gone to New York, leaving them both heartbroken. This was her chance to be reunited with him, to enjoy some success as a writer, and for freedom and independence, rather than enduring her stale marriage and the endless round of ‘country house visits and golfing weekends’ which she had grown to despise.

While Churchill saw how vital Joyce’s Mrs Miniver tour of the States was for the war effort, others, including Joyce herself, were less sure of her clean conscience. Her friend Sheridan Russell wrote to her:

I am disappointed in you, that you should be running to your lover at this terrible moment for your country.

On the way to Liverpool, she bumped into Vera Brittain and asked, relieved, ‘Are you going to America with your children?’

‘No,’ Vera Brittain answered.  ‘I’m only seeing them off.’

Joyce’s heart sank, again, with feelings of pity and guilt.

Mrs Miniver film posterOnce in America she dropped the name ‘Joyce’ altogether and became known by her penname Jan. She continued her affair with Dolf and went on a series of Mrs Miniver lecture tours which were wildly successful, drawing thousands of attendees. She appeared on the radio. She started to correspond with Eleanor Roosevelt. The film came out and was a roaring success. Life was good, thanks to the success of Mrs Miniver. And yet at this stage of her life, Jan could not be less like her creation. She was a freewheeling tomboy, travelling on her own, sleeping with her lover, not at all the upper-middle-class English housewife.

Eventually, exhausted from the long high of success, depression struck, and Jan suffered terribly. It became clear that the war was coming to an end, and she knew she’d have to decide what to do: would she stay in America with her lover, or would she return to England to be with her husband, who had spent the last years suffering as a prisoner-of-war? This horrible impending decision was one cause of what she called ‘the Jungles’. There was also her worry of losing her skill as a writer, stepping down from fame, and missing her eldest son who had remained in England. The Jungles come back to haunt Jan throughout these pages of the book, an awful time which reaches its peak when she is sent to a ‘psychiatric sanatorium’.

It is these pages about depression that struck me as particularly powerful – the unrelenting dark side to what begins as such a light, enjoyable book. The early pages of The Real Mrs Miniver are filled with warmth and ring with laughter, as newly-wed Joyce invents jokes and limericks with her husband, and delights in the eccentricities of her family:

After nursery breakfast the children were allowed into the grown-ups’ dining-room to watch their grandpapa’s daily breakfast ceremony. First he ate his porridge standing up with his back to the wall – a tradition dating from the days when lairds used to stab one another in the back. Then he sliced the top off his soft-boiled egg and drank its liquid contents in one gulp, making a loud noise. Last, he threw his apple up into the air and caught it on the blade of his sgian-dubh.

At the end of the book this skill for picking out the revealing detail – a skill shared by Joyce/Jan and her granddaughter Ysenda – becomes very upsetting. Here Ysenda renders what Jan called the ‘loony-bin’:

It was like a boarding-school in that the corridors smelled of polish, the food was institutional (mushy spaghetti, and meatballs hard enough to play billiards with), friends tended to stick together in groups in the common rooms, there was a carpentry workshop in the grounds and a shop to buy snacks, and the tables were laid for breakfast immediately after the supper had been cleared … The evening sight of the laid breakfast tables was a torment for the residents: it signalled the changelessness of their mental states. The stage was set for another pointless day, just like the one which had nearly ended.

That detail of ‘the evening sight of the laid breakfast tables’ and what that meant to the patients is so awful. It is as though their whole endless, unchanging depression can be summed up in the inevitability of preparing for breakfast the night before. All the previous pages of seeing Jan filled with zest, high with success, busy and shining, act as a bright foil for this rock-bottom misery:

The first thing you did here, on waking up, was to take half a Seconal sleeping-pill, or ‘goof-ball’ and try to postpone consciousness. Then, when the Beethoven’s-Fifth-Symphony ‘ta-ta-ta-tum’ knock came to wake you up, you lit a cigarette in bed and smoked it, holding it between shaking fingers. Appetiteless, and with knees wobbling, you went to the dining-room and forced down cereal before going straight out to the corridor to smoke. Then, if your appointment on the couch was not till 11.30, there was a two-hour gap to fill.

Sleeping pills are ‘goof-balls’ and the knock is Beethoven’s Fifth. Ysenda cleverly embeds Joyce’s witty phrases in this awful scene, so that her keen humour echoes through her depression, reminding us of how far she has fallen.

Once again, it is writing which enables Jan’s progression. After various sessions on the couch where all she can do is cry, the doctor suggested that it might help to ‘unblock’ her if she tried to write down some of her thoughts. She sat down, beginning ‘This is an experiment’, and went on to write fifteen pages. When she read it out to the doctor, he said ‘I find that very moving’. She wrote:

I left his office and walked back to the Shop in a state of definite and recognizable euphoria – that state which in my experience you only get into (no, not only, but most often) when you are either in love or have just written something which you feel is good and genuine, especially if it has just ‘moved’ somebody else whose opinion you value, whether to tears or laugher. I found myself walking springily, and I thought of the rightness of all the old clichés, such as ‘walking on air’, ‘being in high spirits’, and ‘having a light heart’. I felt walking was far too prosaic a means of progression, and that it would have been more appropriate to my mood to go all the way from Wheelis’s office to the Shop turning cartwheels.

It’s thrilling to read this, the first sign of Jan’s depression beginning to lift. How telling that one of the first things she does is engage with language again – her curiosity is reawakened as she examines ‘the old clichés’, and literally wants to walk on air.

It ties in with what Margaret Drabble said about writing your future (see this post on The Millstone). Whereas Drabble said fiction could be a tool to shape the ‘frontiers and future of female experience’, here in The Real Mrs Miniver, we see writing shaping the future of the writer herself. Ironic, given that Joyce started off writing about her lost happy past, and that her future was so wildly different from the sensible life of Mrs Miniver.

This is a wonderful book, a beautiful synthesis of a grandmother and granddaughter’s prose, which picks out the telling details of a life, revelling in delightful moments of humour and squaring up to the tragic dark counterpart which follows. First published by John Murray ten years ago, The Real Mrs Miniver has just been brought out in a pleasing brightly-coloured pocket hardback by Slightly Foxed. Turning the crisp cream pages and marking my place with its smooth yellow ribbon greatly enhanced the pleasure of reading such perfectly chosen words.

The Real Mrs Miniver

The Accidental

May 29, 2012

I like nothing better than a coincidence, especially when one of the coinciding things is in the book I’m reading.

Last week I wrote about a first-class coincidence which ended up in a trip to Venice. It’s hard to top that one. You might find this week’s coincidence a little more humble, although, for me, just as satisfying.

It was Saturday night. That morning, we had accidentally bought an enormous fish. (Long story. Here is probably not the place for it.) Some friends were coming round to eat it with us, but they weren’t here yet. The husband was cooking the big fish. I had been hovering over him saying annoying things like, oh I wouldn’t cut the lemons like that. Maybe you should put some almonds in too. No don’t bother about doing that with the leeks. It wasn’t long before I was told to shut up and banished from the kitchen.

So I concentrated on finishing my book – Ali Smith’s marvellous The Accidental.

I love Ali Smith. This sounds like the sort of fluff that people churn out to go on the back covers of books but I really do find her writing dizzying and exciting. There’s so much energy to it, so much pizzazz. I was struck by how similar The Accidental is to her most recent book There but for the (which I wrote about here). Both books involve a stranger turning up in a very middle-class set-up and acting as a catalyst for some big changes. Both books also feature, among others, the brilliantly imagined voice of a young girl. In The Accidental we have twelve-year-old Astrid Smart, whose geeky delight in things like the way her hand leaves a mark on her face after she’s slept on it, or how her name is only two vowels away from asteroid is completely enchanting.

So I was very happy to get out of the kitchen and return to the dysfunctional world of The Smarts. But just three and a half minutes later:

‘Oh my god!’ I shrieked, jumping up, striding back to the kitchen, where the husband was busy chopping. ‘Oh my god, oh my god, guess what?’

‘What?’ He used the kind of voice that a grown-up might use to a tiresome child.

‘You know I’m reading this book?’

‘Which book is it again?’

‘You know, the Ali Smith book. The Accidental.’

‘Which one’s that again?’

‘Oh never mind. But guess what?’

‘What?’

‘Well they all watch a film. And the film they watch is The Lady Vanishes!’

No reaction.

‘Listen to this:

It said it was filmed in Islington, Astrid said. Did you see? Did you see? It said at the end, when it said The End, that it was filmed here.

By the canal, Michael said. There was a film studio there.

No way, Astrid said.

No, there was, Michael said. Really. They did costume dramas, things like that. That’s definitely where they made that film.

No way, Astrid said again.’

‘Well there you go,’ said the husband.

I realise that at times of excitement I sound quite similar to Astrid, the twelve-year-old girl. Poor husband.

But I’m not just excited about the fact that Hitchcock’s brilliant film The Lady Vanishes was shot at the Gainsborough Studios, the site of which happens to be about a five-minute walk from my flat. I’m excited because right now, that is exactly what I’m writing about in my novel.

Good coincidence!

I’ve already told you about my novel, but in case you’ve forgotten, it is about a derelict house. Two very different young women make friends and then explore this derelict house, which is right next to The Rosemary Branch pub (where one of them works), which happens to be very close to where the Gainsborough Studios used to be. The interesting thing about the book (let’s hope) is that the house then tells stories of who used to live there through various traces, such as the layers of wallpaper, the coal hole, and – as you might remember from a couple of weeks ago – a forgotten piece of a 1930s toy.

I decided on one of these old train set mini advertisements – just the right size to slip between the floorboards and lie forgotten for the best part of a century, waiting to be discovered by someone looking for something else that had rolled off into a corner.

So the boy who used to have this train set – this very elaborate train set, with all these extra bits – who lived in the house in the 1930s … well, funnily enough, he loved trains. And, for those of you who haven’t seen it, The Lady Vanishes is set almost entirely on a train. It was filmed in 1938 in the Gainsborough Studios, round the corner from the house where this boy lived. According to the (real-life) lady who works in the pub (who’s lived round here forever, who I interviewed as another fun bit of research for the book), people who lived round here used to hang around the studios to try and get work as extras.

Now, if you were a ten-year-old boy who was obsessed with trains, who knew that a film all about a train was being made round the corner and that if he were to play truant and skip school for a day, he might be picked to actually be in the film – recorded forever on celluloid, on show to thousands of people in the cinema, him, there, next to a train… well you’d do it, wouldn’t you?

So you can see him in the film. Near the end, Michael Redgrave says to Margaret Lockwood. ‘Well, this is where we say goodbye.’ There he is, under the sign for platform 7, in his shorts and pulled-up socks, looking curiously at the camera and at this pair of famous actors, just before they hop into a cab. That’s him – the boy in my book.

This scenario had been whirling around my brain for the whole week. How feasible was it? What would the inside of the studio have looked like? What were the names of all the bits of equipment they would have used? Was that scene definitely shot in the studios, or could it have been done at the real Victoria Station? How would they choose the extras? Would he have got away with skipping school? Would he have made any friends while he was waiting for them to shoot that scene? Would they have given him something for lunch, while he waited? So many questions, spiralling around as I perused books in the British Library, listened to Margaret Lockwood on an old Desert Island Discs, watched and re-watched The Lady Vanishes … so you can imagine my surprise when in this completely unrelated book there was a mention of the very thing that had been so on my mind. And not just the film itself, but that it was filmed in that studio, in Islington. (Incidentally, should you be able to shed some light on any of these questions, I’d welcome your knowledge with open arms and a big thank you.)

It’s hard to describe the feeling. Shock, surprise, amazement. A sharp intake of breath. A feeling of wonder. Confusion. It really was completely extraordinary. And, of course, I began to doubt the very nature of coincidence; I couldn’t help but wonder whether this wasn’t merely accidental, but something bigger and more profound.

Thinking about it a little more logically and unexcitably, I shouldn’t be surprised at coming across some connection in The Accidental because it is a book rich in references. There’s a long, very funny description of Love Actually, for instance, passing comments on masses of authors – from Roth to Larkin to Austen to Shakespeare, plenty of songs from the seventies, and much much more. Ali Smith characterises the various members of the Smart family in part by giving them their own cultural references, things that they cling on to as their individual ways of understanding the world, their points of identity. Really it would be odd if I hadn’t found something amongst all of them that was occupying some other part of my brain.

As for The Accidental, aside from its accidental chime with my book … I found it a wonderful, inspiring read. Perhaps it’s not for everyone. Some people, inevitably, will find the stream-of-consciousness style of writing irritating. Some will find the scenario of a stranger just inserting herself into a family’s holiday home too unlikely.

But if you can put these quibbles aside, if you can appreciate the experimentalism and see that Ali Smith is thinking about ideas like representation and the importance of the different points of view (I suppose a bit like Hitchcock), then really it is an astonishing feat. I love the way that the same moment is replayed in each of the characters’ minds utterly differently, each obsessing over a different aspect and missing the rest. It shows quite how hideously dysfunctional the family is, how much it is hiding behind convention and appearance. Smith also captures how terrifying teenagerhood and that awkward moment just before teenagerhood can be, and the cruelty of other children. And she shows how much everyone wants to believe in something, how much people want to be rescued, how much people will invest and imagine in a stranger.

Like There but for the, The Accidental reminded me a little of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, in which all the characters have their own voices and revolve around the empty centre of Percival, who never speaks. Here it’s the same set-up but the empty centre – the character whose head we scarcely enter is Amber, or Alhambra. I suppose The Accidental shows just how much we are capable of projecting onto emptiness.

So I really shouldn’t project too much meaning and significance onto this empty accidental coincidence of The Lady Vanishes. And yet, it’s so hard to resist feeling like it’s a sign from the universe that I am on the right track.

Hurrah!

The Wind in the Willows

April 18, 2012

Last week, I reread The Wind in the Willows, a childhood classic brought back to my attention by Olivia Laing’s mentioning it a few times in her beautiful book To the River (which I wrote about here). It is very much a book about life on ‘River Bank’, a happy idyllic life, full of boating expeditions and picnics.

In honour of the book, some friends and I set out at the weekend to walk around Cookham and Maidenhead, along the stretch of the Thames which is said to have inspired The Wind and the Willows. We even brought a picnic including some of Ratty’s favourite things:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidges

pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

We omitted the coldtongue. And added in cheese. And cake.

The stretch along the Thames was certainly beautiful, even if the river was in its current somewhat depleted state. It was easy to imagine animals larking around here, content in their pretty, secluded spot. We also walked through some beautiful woods, which at this time of year, with the leaves just pushing their way out, felt particularly lovely.

Although these beautiful woods, filled with greenish light and elegant lines of trees, weren’t the inspiration for Grahame’s ‘Wild Wood’. That wood, we passed to our left. It was fenced off, and looked a bit too scary to risk going in. Indeed, in the book, the Wild Wood is terrifying:

He penetrated to where the light was less, and the trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side. Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water. Then the faces began. It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face: a little evil wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing has vanished … He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then – yes! – no! – yes! certainly a little narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone … Then suddenly, as if it had been so all the time, every hold, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.

This is one of the bits that Olivia Laing notices in To the River. She remembers it gave her ‘a creeping sense that the world was not always as pleasant as it seemed’.

The Wild Wood is somewhere one shouldn’t venture, Rat instructs Mole at the beginning, and as for the Wide World, beyond that – that is something never to be referred to again, it ‘doesn’t matter … I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.’ The idyll of River Bank, with its sunshine and picnics, is dependent on being separate from these dark, unknowable places, protected from the outside world.

Woods are places where strange things happen. Often things that can only happen in the dark. Think of Hansel and Gretel. Shakespeare used the idea in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sending the lovers into the woods, where the magical mishaps can take place. Last night I watched Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, where the nail-biting climax takes place once the train has been decoupled and then sent down a branch line deep into the woods.

Surely the most unnerving thing about the Wild Wood are the little narrow faces with their ‘hard eyes’. Their disembodiment is alien and threatening. Reading this, I was reminded of a deeply unnerving moment in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring. There’s a night walk far out into the woods, and then:

Dolly began to see on each side of her, among the thronging stems of the birch trees, what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness.

There’s the same horror and strangeness from only being able to see bits of things – hands, or faces, or eyes. It is as though the darkness and the woods have completely undone the wholeness of things, undermined the very foundation of reality.

Woods might be terrifying places, but they are also essential. The River Bank wouldn’t be such a paradise if there were no opposite force casting shade against its sunlight. People need a place for which they must summon every ounce of bravery in order to get through. When Rat goes off to rescue Mole, he:

strapped a belt round his waist, shoved a brace of pistols into it, took up a stout cudgel that stood in a corner of the hall and set off for the Wild Wood at a smart pace … Here and there wicked little faces popped out of holes, but vanished immediately at sight of the valorous animal, his pistols and the great ugly cudgel in his grasp.

Rat is called upon to be ‘valorous’, and Mole, although terrified, in some ways needs to go through the Wild Wood in order to prove himself. Later, when the weasels and stoats of the Wild Wood rise up and take over Toad Hall, the other animals bravely band together to throw them out.

In The Lady Vanishes, the two Englishmen Charters and Caldicott, only emerge from their cricket-obsessed bubble when they are in the woods and forced to confront the world outside. And, in The Beginning of Spring, it is only in the woods, in this strange unnerving scene, that we get an inkling of who the mysterious Lisa Ivanovna might be.

Woods force one to confront one’s fears, and be faced with the truth. No wonder they can engender such an ominous, threatening feeling. But yet, people normally get out the other side, and do so stronger and wiser. For us, happily, we got through the woods, sat on a meadow by the river bank and then feasted on our picnic. Until it began to rain.

More Harry Potter

July 26, 2011

Last night I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two. Or ‘HP 7.2’ as a particularly obsessed friend of mine terms it.

Although many people like to criticise HP – What’s the point in something that’s not real? – is one of the more common taunts, I really do love it. For me, the point of HP is as simple as pure enjoyment. Critics point out that the books are badly written and the films are badly acted and I suppose that might lead the cynically-minded to ask, what’s enjoyable about that? Well, it’s the perfect escapism of the stories. HP is another world, linked to the one that we know, but where everything is a bit different – and a bit better.

As a friend pointed out, after we watched the film, the photographs in HP move. It’s the perfect example of something that’s similar enough to feel familiar, to be understandable and not totally alien, yet it’s different enough to be just a bit better and more than a bit desirable.

Other than those naysayers who refuse to get involved with HP (and, honestly, I do understand – it does require a terrifyingly huge investment of time), those who are HP fans, are HUGE fans. I’ve yet to meet someone who says, ‘Harry Potter, I can take it or leave it.’ It’s like Marmite. Fansites are extensive, offering all sorts of content ranging from secret facts (such as Ron and Hermione’s birthdays – 1st March and 19th September, respectively) to ‘death clues’, essay topics and recipes.

What’s particularly enticing and appealing about the books is how thoroughly they’ve been imagined. We don’t read about some half-baked world in which Hogwarts is hard to visualise and the meanings of spells change. J.K. has said that she set herself several rules and stuck to them. She planned out the books before writing them. For her forthcoming Pottermore website, which, as well as being the sole platform for the HP ebooks, will also offer a great deal of extra content, she said she ‘had more than half of the new material already written or in note form. I literally dug some out of boxes’. Apparently there’s going to be 18,000 words of new content up there. To have an extra 10,000 words of Potter notes just floating around, unused, is indeed impressively thorough.

I suppose it’s Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory all over again:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

J.K. has done this with great aplomb. I suppose the tension with the iceberg of HP is that several readers desperately want to see more of the iceberg than the tantalising tip. Hence the proliferation of fan sites and not-in-the-books-but-leaked-in-interviews trivia and the excitement about all the new content that will go up on Pottermore.

The ebooks sound as though they will be spectacularly interactive – with gaming elements added to each chapter. The reader/player gets to try on the Sorting Hat, choose a wand, get galleons from Gringrots, mix potions for their house and visit friends who are making their own journey through the book. This sounds fun and I feel more than a bit excited. (I might have just signed up to Pottermore, but not sure I should admit to it.)

But, and here’s the rub, Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory works on the premise of seeing that top eighth and that top eighth only. If we are given all this new content, isn’t there a risk of it all somehow imploding? At what point does all the HP geeky trivia become too much and risk overwhelming the actual story? Perhaps when it’s inserted into that text.

J.K. says the following about trying on the Sorting Hat:

If you are not sorted into Gryffindor, if you go into one of the other three houses, you will effectively get an extra quarter of a chapter. You will go off into your own common room, meet your own prefect, and find out what the true nature of the house is.

Just supposing I get sorted into Ravenclaw. Do I really want to go and meet the prefect? Do I want to find out more about Ravenclaw? Well no, not really. Surely the important house for HP in terms of the plot, pace and excitement is Griffindor? If you can’t read the books without being given lots of new information – which isn’t strictly relevant to the plot – then one can’t help but wonder if the books might paradoxically lose something in pace and interest by gaining something in content.

Just look at the existing books and how they’ve grown from the slim 223 pages of the first one to the massive tomes of the latter volumes – 607 pages for the Deathly Hallows. Did anyone, honestly, read the last one and not feel bored by all that guff about the wedding at the beginning? (And this from someone who is actually planning a wedding.)

The detail in Harry Potter is incredible, imaginative, brilliantly realised, but perhaps enough is enough. Extra content can happily exist outside of the books, and the fansites show how popular this bonus material is. The danger lies in inserting this extra content into the already-written stories and bloating them. It risks changing the existing stories into fatter, slower book-game hybrids. And no, I’m not sure of the spell for that.

Thor 3D

May 9, 2011

‘What are you doing for the rest of your evening?’ asked the waiter in Byron, as we were paying the bill.

‘Going to see Thor 3D,’ I replied, excited, in spite of the meat slump that inevitably descends after a good burger.

‘Oh,’ he said.

‘Have you seen it?’ I ask.

‘Yes.’

‘And? Was it good?’

‘Well I read the comics you see, so I was bound to be a bit disappointed. But it was enjoyable, I guess, just not absolutely brilliant.’

So my expectations, as we went into the cinema, were somewhat lower than they had been pre-burger. But there’s something about going to the cinema that I find irresistibly exciting. First there’s the bigness – the huge multiplex screen, the vast seats, the gigantic drinks and popcorn; then there’s the thrill of the trailers – all those short, sharp clips, reducing films to their most exciting essence; and then that hush of anticipation as the film begins, the shuffling back in the seat, knowing you’ll be absorbed in entertainment for the following ninety minutes. And when it’s in 3D, there’s the added comedy of looking at each other wearing eighties shades in a darkened room, and the added wow of all those special effects dancing out in front of you.

So, by the time Thor 3D was beginning, I’d forgotten all about the burger boy’s scepticism and was once again somewhat childishly over-excited.

Now, unlike the burger boy, I haven’t read the comics, but I wasn’t coming to Thor devoid of any cultural references. From the age of around six to twelve, I was quite obsessed with ancient myths. I had this brilliant book called Gods Men and Monsters, which related stories from the Greek myths, with fantastic, epic illustrations After a year or so my parents discovered there were other books in the series, and, over time, I collected several, including Druids Gods and Heroes, from Celtic mythology; Gods and Pharaohs, from Egyptian mythology; and, yes, you’ve guessed, Gods and Heroes, from Viking mythology. (Sadly these books are all now out of print.) So I had dim memories of Thor and his hammer Mjölnir, the mischievous Loki, and the beautiful rainbow bridge Bifröst.

And, of course, my humble childish imaginings were nothing like the high-tech mythological world which floated out of the cinema screen. The latter was far more impressive. Bifröst looked magical and beautiful, and both Asgard – the realm of the gods – and Jotenheim – the realm of the frost giants – were imaginatively and convincingly rendered.

So I saw the film with a tiny bit of half-baked childhood knowledge of the Norse myths, but I also saw it with a tiny bit of knowledge of Shakespeare. And director Kenneth Brannagh, one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors, has brought a great deal of the Bard’s influence to the film.

The epic register in which the Gods speak goes almost unnoticed until it is contrasted with usual speech when Thor is ‘cast out’ to Earth to comic effect:

‘You dare threaten me, Thor, with so puny a weapon?’

This leads to him being tazered by the (quite annoying) Darcy, ‘What? He was freaking me out.’

‘This drink, I like it. Another!’ says Thor, before smashing his coffee cup on the floor of the diner.

Again, Darcy responds, ‘This is going on Facebook. Smile,’ snapping him with her mobile phone.

Let me fill you in a bit of plot – Odin is King of Asgard, and Thor, his son, is successor to the throne. On the day of Thor’s succession, frost giants from the enemy realm of Jotenheim mysteriously breach Asgard’s defences and disrupt the ceremony. Thor, arrogant and keen for battle, decides to go to Jotenheim, with his brother Loki and The Warriors Three, to cause trouble, and ends up starting a war between Asgard and Jotenheim after a long-held peace. Odin rescues them, but is so furious with Thor for his arrogance that he strips him of his strength and his hammer, and banishes him to Earth.

Coming back to the contrasting registers of the language of the Gods and the humans, we can see the language of Earth-dwellers makes Thor’s language sound ridiculously bombastic and elevated. Thor must lose his pride, grow humble, see himself as a man, before he can be a true, worthy God, and this is reflected in his speech. But just as the register of mortals makes Thor’s language seem silly, the register of the gods makes that of mortals seem weak, thin, pathetic, sarcastic. I’d much rather talk like Thor than Darcy. There’s far more beauty in the epic language of Shakespeare than the feeble language of Facebook.

There were a few phrases that struck me as particularly influenced by Shakespeare. When Odin is about to banish Thor to Earth, Thor tells him, ‘You are an old man and a fool.’ This is not a million miles away from ‘Old fools are babes again,’ or ‘I am a very foolish fond old man,’ from King Lear.

In both Lear and Thor, the King is old and weary and seeks to pass on his Kingdom. And, in both, he is disappointed by the actions of his children. Lear banishes Cordelia and Odin banishes Thor. As soon as Cordelia has lost favour with her father, her two sisters, Goneril and Regan, turn against her: ‘Prescribe us not our duty,’ says Regan, sharply. And Loki, Thor’s brother, wastes no time in turning against him, visiting him on Earth to tell him painful lies about their father Odin. This is also similar to the subplot in Lear, in which Edmund tells his brother Edward that he has enraged their father.

But, when it comes to Loki, another Shakespeare play comes to mind. Othello. A play in which Brannagh has played the antihero. Thor has the same nobility as Othello, the same phenomenal success in battles, the same ‘true and open nature’. And Loki shares many traits with Iago. Loki could say of Thor, just as Iago does of Othello, ‘In following him, I follow but myself.’ They are both cleverer, craftier than their heroic counterparts, spinning their complicated webs of deceit to bring the others down. Coleridge famously described Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’, and, similarly, it is hard to see what it is, beyond jealousy and a plot twist about his birth, that is truly behind Loki’s malignity.

Iago has fascinated audiences, readers and critics alike for hundreds of years. I’m not sure Brannagh has pulled off quite the same feat with Loki, but he has definitely created an ambiguous, complicated character – played with quiet magnificence by Tom Hiddleston – that gives this blockbuster far more subtle depths than most.

Chalet Girl

April 11, 2011

Some of you might deem this rather a questionable post.

The respected opinion to hold about Chalet Girl is that it’s absolutely rubbish – see this rather acerbic review in the Spectator, for instance. And, in any case, this is EmilyBooks, not EmilyFilms, so who am I to write about films? And trashy ones, at that. And, if that wasn’t enough already, this post is already outdated – Chalet Girl has been out now for several weeks (I saw it almost a month ago), this is far too late for a review.

But I seem to have had so many conversations that end up with a friend saying words to the effect of, ‘You’ve actually seen Chalet Girl? You’re joking. You can’t have enjoyed it! It’s supposed to be terrible.’

And, while I was defending my point of view the other day, a friend was so incredulous at my holding the film in such high esteem that she asked if I’d written a blog about it. So I thought perhaps I should.

Let it be known that I loved Chalet Girl.

I went into the cinema wanting to see a trashy British Rom-Com, and that was exactly what I got. Within about fifteen minutes of screen time, it was obvious exactly what was going to happen:

  1. Felicity Jones and Ed Westwick would fall in love
  2. Felicity Jones and Tamsin Egerton (the really posh one) would make friends
  3. Felicity Jones would turn out to be unbelievably good at snowboarding, thanks to her past as a champion child skateboarder, and would probably win the big snowboarding competition

There are a few little twists, little glitches that prevent the curve of the plot from being perfectly smooth, but it is never pushed too far off course. And this doesn’t matter at all, it just makes for a blissfully comforting experience. Each time Felicity and Ed have a little flirt with each other, it conjures a little warm glow in one’s tummy.

And it is marvellously funny. What could be funnier than seeing Bill Bailey, unable to work the microwave, lick frozen lasagne as a giant lolly? Or Felicity Jones pouring tea on the crotch of a lecherous older man? Granted, it’s at the slapstick end of the comedy scale, but what’s wrong with that? The film never pretends to aspire to something intellectual.

Perhaps the reason it’s met with a rather adverse critical reception is down to no more than intellectual snobbery, which is a revolting habit. I often slip into the evil clutches of intellectual snobbery when at work in the bookshop. Someone asks for a recommendation, I suggest a brilliant book, they say they want something more ‘superficial’, or ‘more like chick lit’ or ‘easier’. It’s hard to not feel slight despair, as the book that you have adored is rejected in favour of Katie Fforde or Daisy Goodwin or Marian Keyes. Urgh…

But it really is unattractive to be such a snob. Why shouldn’t someone prefer to read chick lit? Why should they feel pressured to read a classic, or modern literature or something more highbrow? And, ever since reading One Day, I realised that a book can be trashy and very funny and very good too.

So long as there are no pretences about it, I can’t see that there’s really anything wrong with lowbrow entertainment. Sometimes one wants to engage one’s brain on a slightly higher plane, sometimes one wants to be taken along for an easy, enjoyable ride. The first isn’t automatically better than the second. Being able to deliver an easy, enjoyable ride must be just as difficult as a writer, or director, as being able to deliver an intellectual challenge.

So yes, I thought Chalet Girl was ninety minutes of entertainment bliss. I laughed and I cried, and I came out feeling wonderful. I would put it up there in the canon with Four Weddings and A Funeral and Clueless. In fact, I think I’m going to go and see it again.

Books on film

November 22, 2010

I have never understood why someone would watch the film of a book and then buy the book.

Any Human Heart jumped up into Amazon’s Top 100 books today, after the first part of the TV adaptation screened last night. The Guardian’s TV reviewer was just one of many who was so impressed with the film that he instantly went online to order the book.

The book is, by all accounts, absolutely superb. It’s been on my list of things to get round to reading, ever since I started working in the bookshop and noticed that several copies were piled up on the favourites table. Whenever I talk to colleagues about their best ever books, Any Human Heart is almost always up there.

I should have just bought a copy and read it straight away, but instead I read Ordinary Thunderstorms, by the same author, which had just come out. And I found it, well, somewhat ordinary. I definitely wasn’t in the mood to read another William Boyd afterwards, even if Any Human Heart is, apparently, a different, far superior, kettle of fish.

If only I had read it back then, instead of the wretched Thunderstorms book, I wouldn’t be in the quandary that I’m in today about the TV adaptation. You see, as I mentioned, I don’t understand the whole watching the film and then buying the book phenomenon. If I were to watch the film of Any Human Heart, I don’t think I’d ever get round to reading the book.

Unlike the Guardian reviewer and the other thousands of people who leapt on to Amazon to order their copy this morning, I would be holding out, waiting for the series to finish rather than reading the book as well. If the story is being told in one particular medium (on screen), then why look for the same story in another medium (on the page) too? It’s the same story, more-or-less, and it’s not especially fun playing spot the difference between the two different versions.

I don’t mind doing it the other way round. If I’ve read the book, then I’m perfectly happy to watch the film. Indeed, I  tend to try and hunt down the film, once I’ve read a particularly good book, keen to see how a director, screenwriter, or actor has interpreted it, how their ideas might differ from mine. I was positively peeved on discovering that the film of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which is apparently every bit as good as the absolutely marvellous book, is almost impossible to get hold of on DVD. (See this post for more on the book.)

The thing is, when reading a book, although the words enter one’s head through one’s eyes, it is the mind’s eye which is really active, imagining the described events, characters, situations. In my head, they may not have the sharp, high-definition outlines that they would be given on screen, but they’re still there.

Right now, I’m reading Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, and while I’m not precisely certain of exactly what Mr Biswas looks like, I can definitely picture the Tulsi store, with its flaking, faded signs on the walls, and his little shop in the Chase, with its mud walls, its counter, the old tins up on the top shelf. I can imagine him on his bicycle with his daughter, precariously peddling along the track in the dark, when he is stopped by a policeman. If a novel is good, if it is well-told, then I can picture it.

Of course, films work differently. The film pictures everything for you. And so your interpretation of the story is coloured not just by the author, but by the director and the actors too. It is no longer your own imagination that has free reign with what is written, but all these other people are busy telling you exactly how to see everything.

How tragic, for instance, to equate Harry Potter with drippy Daniel Radcliffe! How sad to think of the brilliantly geeky Hermione as home counties posh kid Emma Watson! Acting skills aside, they spend the latest film looking like they’re modelling Gap’s 1996 collection. J.K.’s original creations were so much cooler, so much more interesting, so much more different, so much more real than the film’s insipid characters.

Having said that, I loved the latest Harry Potter film. I don’t really mind about Daniel and Emma because I read the books first, so my own versions of Harry and Hermione can stand tall alongside the film equivalents. Thank god I hadn’t seen the film first and then went through the ordeal of spending 600 pages hearing Daniel Radcliffe’s voice every time Harry Potter speaks, perpetually imagining him in Harry Potter’s wizarding shoes.

Dare I even whisper it, but, despite my reservations about the lead actors, I think the Harry Potter film is better than the book. All the endless guff about the Weasley wedding preparations is thankfully condensed into a marquee being erected by co-ordinated flicks of wands. The hundreds of dreary pages devoted to Harry, Hermione and Ron hiding out in a tent in the middle of nowhere is transformed into stunning views of British countryside, and, admittedly, a rather grim cheesy dance between the two Hs, in the style of a dodgy uncle dancing with a five-year-old at a wedding. But it is worth putting up with a few rather more flawed characters in order to whizz through the boring bits of the book in a few minutes instead of painfully protracted hours.

Perhaps it was because my imagination went into overdrive while contemplating J.K.’s wonderful wizarding world, that when I was reading the books I used to have incredible Harry Potter dreams. Rather than the usual tedious anxiety ones about being late for something, or not being able to find my clothes, or being stung by wasps, or teeth falling out, my dreamscape suddenly had epic proportions. I was saving the world from evil. And I could do really brilliant magic.

It was a relief and delight that after seeing the film the other day, I once again had some first class Harry Potter dreams. And the dreams were blissfully free of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and the rest of the film gang. Otherwise they might have been a rather nasty surprise. Instead I went to work the following day feeling pleased, quite satisfied that I’d just saved the world.

I’m not sure what Any Human Heart dreams would be like. But I shall endeavour to resist the billboards, supplements and endless reviews of the TV series, and read the book first. Otherwise, without my own images of William Boyd’s story, I might find Jim Broadbent frowning at me in my sleep, and I’m not sure that would be entirely pleasant.

The dark magic of Nadeem Aslam’s Pakistan

September 20, 2010

Last week, a friend took me to the launch of the new Granta at Asia House. This colourful new edition is on Pakistan, and she was particularly excited about seeing Daniyal Mueenuddin, the writer of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. I told her that Nadeem Aslam was supposed to be pretty brilliant too – ‘I’ve heard she’s really something.’

When Nadeem Aslam turned out to be a man, I felt somewhat undermined. But I was totally unprepared for what happened next.

Nadeem Aslam (the man) read an extract from his novella Leila in the Wilderness, published in this issue of Granta. It was breathtakingly amazing. I say breathtaking, because the passage – each phrase building on the last, cumulatively forming a gargantuan sentence stretching over three pages, as magnificently beautiful and architecturally impressive as a mosque – was such that Nadeem barely drew breath while reading.

He then explained that he wrote it after going for a run, sitting down to write when still out of breath, and it all poured out in one go, remaining in this raw, unedited form in the final version.

After such a performance, I couldn’t wait to read the full piece. And the novella is even better. (You can read an extract published in the Guardian here.)

Nadeem Aslam’s rural Pakistan combines mythical, fairy-tale beauty with horrific violent realism. His style of magical realism reminds me of Pan’s Labyrinth, the Guillermo del Toro film.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the main character – eleven-year-old Ofelia – has an imagination that runs wild. She imagines that Pan, a magical faun, gives her tasks that she has to undertake in order to help her pregnant mother and brother-to-be survive illness and the cruelty of her stepfather, Fascist Captain Vidal. The magic of Pan’s Labyrinth is dark – Ofelia has to get a key by getting an enormous toad to vomit it up; she only just escapes from a monster with eyeballs slotted into the palms of his hands, who kills her fairy companions. But this magical world is Ofelia’s only escape from a reality which is even darker – a tyrannous step-father, a dying mother, Spanish rebels tortured and killed just downstairs.

And so, in Leila in the Wilderness, Nadeem Aslam’s magical realism is dark both in its magic and in its reality.

One striking image is that of Leila’s mother growing wings. Taken out of context, the idea of a woman sprouting wings and flying off into the sky is a bit daft. It’s a bit Paulo Coelho, a bit soft, a bit hippy.

But the context is this. When Leila’s father died, he left behind a debt of 1000 rupees. ‘The council of the wise and the powerful argued late into the night and decided that, to make up for the loss, the men of the moneylender’s family could possess the debtor’s widow one hundred times.’

The men got into boats and went down to the lake, where Leila’s mother was collecting lotus leaves, only to return to say that she grew wings and flew away – something that nobody accepted as true, preferring to believe that they drowned her.

But as she grew older, Leila imagined her mother, a quarter of a mile from the lake’s edge, the mist roaming the water like a soft supple fire around her. The seven boats that converged on her bore a total of thirty men, silhouetted in the fine-grained vapour. Some of them leaped over the water like panthers even before the boats connected. She fought them, surrounded, numbed by shock but with her eyes screaming the outrage of her solitude. The only escape was upwards and that was what she had chosen, willing the wings into existence upon her body, the emptiness of mist closing behind her as she rose.

But this isn’t a happy ending. The same council of ‘the wise and the powerful’ decided that the moneylenders must wait for Leila to grow up in order for them to be compensated. And, when Leila was thirteen, they chased after her – using mobile phones to connect with each other – and she managed to escape only to be married into a loveless marriage with a violent tyrant.

Later on, Leila has recourse to grow her own pair of wings, to escape a similar group sexual assault. But she is not so lucky as her mother and is discovered where she landed in the desert and is recaptured, her wings brutally amputated, lacerating her back in a bloody criss-cross of wounds.

Aslam uses weighted poetic language, appropriate for a fable or fairy-tale – ‘the council of the wise and the powerful’, arguing ‘late into the night’. It reads like a timeless myth and yet the modern accessories – mobile phones and (later) Kalashnikovs – bring it right into the present moment. The violence is so great that it pushes at the boundaries of reality – one can scarcely believe it happens. And when one is questioning what can happen and what can’t … well then perhaps Leila’s mother really did grow wings, because surely that’s almost as believable, or no less unbelievable, than thirty men being authorised to collectively rape one woman a hundred times.

Throughout the novella, fairy-tale magic is mixed with modern-day violence, miracles are undermined by corruption, and beauty is betrayed by brutality. It’s unnerving to read – one settles into the fairy-tale prose only to be shocked out of it by an episode of violence or abuse. And it is unforgettable, unmissable and, literally, unbelievable.

8 1/2 – Fellini’s fantastical philandering

September 13, 2010

After a game of doubles on Saturday afternoon on Highbury’s leafy green tennis courts, the fiancé, a couple of friends and I headed back to the friends’ house to zonk out with biscuits and cups of tea in front of a film.

It was rather decadent to be watching a film, snuggled up inside, curtains drawn, on a beautiful late summer evening and so we picked a suitably decadent film to watch – Fellini’s .

It’s a wonderful film – beautiful, lush, mad, and … well soporific. We all briefly drifted off at various points. Perhaps it was the shock of an hour’s exercise followed by a post-chocolate-digestive-binge sugar low. Perhaps it was also the black-and-whiteness and the long periods of the film where the only music is the sing-song intonation of Italian voices.

But falling asleep seems like an appropriate reaction to a film which begins with a dream, and through which fantasies and memories are seamlessly intermingled with reality, giving everything a dreamlike, surreal air.

The following evening, the fiancé asked me what it had been like to watch , ‘as a woman’. Point being that the main character – Guido – is a suave film director who has several affairs as well as a wife. At the film’s climax, he fantasises about a harem of all his lover who shower him with adoration; when he needs to control his women, he does so with a whip.

‘Dream on,’ I felt like saying to the fiancé.

But although Guido comes across as a bit of a schmuck, there is something so beautiful, so opulent, so fantastical about all his infidelity that I found myself not outraged by his actions, but actually rather impressed.

It brought to mind a book I read a little while ago called In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey. This funny and poignant faux-autobiography takes the form of a middle-aged man recounting the love affairs of his youth. And, in case you haven’t guessed, he finds older women better – kinder, sexier, more fun, less oppressively serious – than younger ones.

But most of these older women of his are married. So he essentially goes through life having a series of illicit, often overlapping, affairs. And now all these women are contained within the pages of a single book – perhaps this is Vizinczey’s own version of Fellini’s harem of lovers. The women prance, preen, sprawl, splay through the pages, controlled entirely by the male narrative voice – just as Fellini’s Guido whips them into shape, or – as a director – tells them what to do.

In Praise of Older Women’s protagonist – András – grows up in Hungary, and most of his descriptions of unfaithful, thrilling liaisons take place there and (nice coincidence) in Italy, land of Fellini. But when András goes to Canada, people’s frigidity makes him lose his ‘cherished faith’ in older women. Vizinczey describes a particular episode when András goes to a residential university conference and tries to sleep with a flirtatious married woman. When they head off into the bushes, she begins to umm and ah about it; they finally get going only to hear her husband nearby, causing the woman to jump up and run off to him. The following day she is wracked with guilt until András tells her that she shouldn’t feel bad as they didn’t really do anything – they stopped before they even really started.

But instead of feeling pleased at this display of fidelity – or near fidelity – the reader’s sympathies lie with András. What a tease! What an outrage! What an idiotic housewife! There is definitely not even an inkling of good for her for returning to her husband.

Both In Praise of Older Women and are told from the philandering male’s perspective, and perhaps it is simply a mark of Vizinczey and Fellini’s achievements in constructing such persuasive protagonists that the reader/viewer sides with the man rather than the women. I think adultery is awful, vile, horrendous. But somehow, in these fictional worlds, it is transformed to something beautiful, sensuous and, well, human.

Guido’s chic and elegant wife in comes across as cold, harsh and petty when they argue about his affairs. Played by Anouk Aimée, she is certainly beautiful and stylish. But she is so cold compared to Guido, almost robotic, inhuman, unreal. Yes some of her coldness must be a protective reserve against his philandering, but take, for instance, this scene where she comes and visits him at the spa.

Her clothes are elegant but not feminine, she has short boyish hair, sensible glasses, a fragile boniness – she might break when he kisses her softly hello. She smiles when she sees him but it seems to be an involuntary reaction, quickly stifled. Perhaps this comes into relief best a few scenes later when she catches sight of one of his mistresses – an overdressed, voluptuous tart – and the two of them are portrayed side by side. One can see why Guido might want to have his tart and eat her.

I suppose the thing with is that it pronounces itself from the start as definitely not real life. Events are collaged together with dreams and fantasies. There is flattering soft focus and bleaching over-exposure; this is the world of shimmering silvery black-and-white cinema. And the cover of In Praise of Older Women is also in black-and-white. (Is it ironic that it makes adultery no longer seem such a black-and-white situation of bad philandering versus good fidelity?)

But life is in full colour, and there is no way of choosing flattering camera angles, doing clever cuts, bringing romantic music to a scene. And adultery, in real daylight, or in seedy lamplight, isn’t a beautiful thing at all. Blind eyes aren’t turned by ever-forgiving wives, and mistresses aren’t always at the man’s beck and call. Marriages are spliced in two and children are ferried from one half to the other.

So what did I think of the film, ‘as a woman’? Well, I thought it was beautiful and I thought it was bloody dangerous. It was seductive enough to make one feel that one could gracefully step into that shimmering world, cast off conventional morals, and twirl and swirl and fool around so lightly, so easily.

But, I suppose, even if one were to enter that world, there’s always the dreadful risk of ending up in a harem, being whipped around by a man wearing a bit of a daft hat.