On the Rope

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On the Rope: A Hero’s Story

By Erich Hackl

Translated by Stephen Brown

Haus Publishing, 2020

ISBN: 9781912208845

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A true story that reads like a novel.

It is the story of a good man or, as the title has it, a hero. But it is about other people as well, mind, and their collective, intertwined stories – dependent as always on human memory – are told in a way that is true to experience. Memories are, as we know, fragmentary and often uncertain.

In the Spring of 1938 the Nazis ambled into Austria and were welcomed into Vienna. Famously. Hitler gave a speech in the Heldenplatz, attended by a large crowd, where he was greeted with cheers and Nazi salutes; not much resistance there. Life in the city quickly became difficult for all Jews, including Regina Steinig and her daughter Lucia. Regina loses her job and her flat (which was on Berggasse, incidentally, the same street where Freud lived); mother and daughter are made destitute. Then, to avoid arrest and internment, Regina reaches out to Reinhold Duschka, a close friend of Lucia’s absent father. He is the hero here.

Reinhold takes Regina and her daughter in, keeping both safe for the duration of the war. At first they stay in his workshop, close to the Linke Wienzeile, and when that is bombed in the Autumn of 1944 they move to a shop in Gumpendorfer Strasse, a short distance away.

In large part the story is made up of Lucia’s memories of her childhood (she was 9 in 1938). We learn much about her life and feelings, and about how Reinhold bought her books during her confinement, how he gave her things to do to help out in his work (he was a craftsman who worked with metal, making bowls and vases, etc.), how he was kind and patient with her. Regina features prominently as well. There is a striking moment after the collapse of the Nazi regime when Regina goes with a Soviet soldier to get her flat back. But on seeing that the couple who live there have a child with Down’s syndrome, she decides that she cannot do it: compassion trumps justice.

Towards the end of the book, though, the focus shifts more towards Reinhold, who was later honoured at Yad Vashem as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in 1991, not long before his death. We learn that he had studied under the great Josef Hoffmann and we get the perspectives of his daughter and grandson and a work colleague who also went mountain climbing with him. Some of Reinhold’s character traits are highlighted – there is his self discipline and discretion, for example – but note that they can be put at the service of ill as well good. He was a good man, that is clear, but what was it that set him apart from the crowds cheering Hitler in the Heldenplatz and along the Ringstrasse? Well, we don’t know. Virtue is, and remains, a mystery.

I was struck by a passage where the author says (and this is clearly true) that there are masses of books about the Nazis and to a lesser extent their victims, but few works about the rescuers. I am aware of a chapter in Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth that deals with this topic (‘The Righteous Few’), but surely it is deserving of a book-length study?

On the Rope recounts a fascinating true story and I found it wholly engrossing. The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind

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How Shostakovich Changed My Mind

By Stephen Johnson

Notting Hill Editions, 2020

ISBN: 9781912559206

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind

A personal appreciation of the great composer.

This extraordinary book is in part a memoir, in part an appreciation of the music of the great Dmitri Shostakovich (and a meditation on the composer’s life), and in large part also a heartfelt affirmation of the power of music to heal.

Stephen Johnson begins with Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony and he describes the circumstances surrounding its first performance, at Leningrad in 1942. How the Germans had laid siege to the city and how Leonid Govorov, commander of the Soviet troops, broadcast the concert so that the enemy would hear it: to let the Germans know the kind of people they were fighting against. He writes of its rousing effect in the concert hall, that hour-long standing ovation at the music’s end, all the rest.

Then Johnson goes on to reflect on why this particular symphony holds such power still, even with listeners today, now far removed from that time and place. One reason, apparently paradoxical, is that Shostakovich’s music is the very opposite of escapism; he is not at all interested in sweetening the pill of existence. He is instead aiming to be true to experience, to convey authentic emotion; and if that means acknowledging horror and grief, trauma and travail, then so be it.

There is another factor, too, bought out by something that the late Roger Scruton said to Johnson in an interview: ‘Where some composers say “I” in their music, Shostakovich says “We”.’ It is a quite brilliant remark, so typical of Scruton, and demonstrably true. Communal expression to be found often in Shostakovich’s music, not always of course, but it is present at certain key moments. The music, we are led to understand, belongs to all of us and the emotion in it is ours too, it can become our own. As someone with bipolar disorder, Johnson writes that he found in Shostakovich’s music a source of solace and strength, and a stairway to emotions that he could not reach otherwise.

Throughout the book, there are extended discussions of Shostakovich’s music, liberally peppered with insights relating to key works, and plenty of anecdotes about the man himself (we learn, for example, that he filled his apartment with clocks and would listen to them ticking away well into the night). Johnson’s personal journey is affecting – it is an important part of the book, but doesn’t overwhelm it – and his interviewees, such as Viktor Kozlov, the clarinettist in the orchestra that first performed the Seventh Symphony in the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic on 9 August 1942, tell their stories too. I was enthralled by this marvellous book and it led me, inexorably, back to the music.

The publisher’s description of How Shostakovich Changed My Mind can be read here.

Fat City

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Fat City

By Leonard Gardner

NYRB Classics, 2015

ISBN: 9781590178928

Fat City

It is a wonderful ride, this one, a novel about a couple of boxers in Stockton, California at the tail-end of the 1950s.

We take off when Billy Tully, an ex-pro, meets and spars with a kid called Ernie Munger, and doesn’t do too well. He is out of shape, that is true enough, but it is true also that the kid is good. So Tully sends him along to Ruben Luna, his once trainer and manager, at the Lido Gym. In doing so, he sets Munger on the same path that he has trod. Will it turn out to be a curse or a blessing? Maybe things will turn out better for the younger man.

In beautiful prose Leonard Gardner (John Huston made a fine film out of Fat City, by the way, and Gardner wrote the screenplay for that as well) shows us the lives of these two fighters, the blows they have taken and are about to take.

There is Tully, now far from home. He is living in cheap hotels, his suitcase always packed, just in case he needs to scarper sharpish. Working out in the fields, taking the bus each morning if he is lucky enough to be chosen by the gangmaster. Pining for his ex-wife and hankering for a return to the ring. In rare moments of clarity – which he does not welcome – Tully realises that his life is lost, that it ended long ago. At last he returns to fight, but that makes the chaos of his life outside of the ring even more stark and he hits the booze. He is not so different from a caged animal – all he is good for is violence – his existence desolate.

Then there is Munger, whose life, on the surface at least, seems happier and brighter. They get married, Ernie and his girl Faye, but it is not the serene union both of them hoped for; Munger has sudden bouts of jealousy and rage. Some fights he loses – not surprising, all fighters lose at times – but on one occasion he gets knocked out badly. And he, too, has difficulty in keeping down a regular job; he has a temper. Munger and Tully meet up again when they are bussed out to a field to pick fruit and vegetables. Are the men’s fates converging? When Munger returns home, mind (we are at the close of the novel now), after winning his fight alone – Luna had ducked out of accompanying him, just as he had with Tully – you do feel sort of hopeful that his life will turn out differently.

What I loved about this novel was the glittering beauty of the prose and the author’s will to bear witness to this world and the precarious lives of the men and women who try to survive in it. You fear for everyone; though resilient, these people are all at risk of prison or being thrown out onto the street. There is a scene where Tully wakes up in an incinerator – I kid you not – that he had stumbled into for warmth after losing the room at his hotel. That such a bleak, dismal world can be rendered so lovingly is some kind of miracle in art. But Gardner pulls it off. Here is one single sentence, where we have Munger on a bus approaching Stockton, returning home:

Ernie went the last forty-five miles by Greyhound, riding through the night coolness of low delta fields, past dark vineyards, orchards and walnut groves, isolated lights of farm houses, irrigation ditches full of moonlit water, then on the outskirts a gigantic technicolor face speaking silently on the screen of a drive-in movie.

The publisher’s description of Fat City, a novel that originally came out in 1969, can be read here.

The Book of Franza & Requiem for Fanny Goldmann

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The Book of Franza & Requiem for Fanny Goldmann

By Ingeborg Bachmann

Translated by Peter Filkins

Northwestern University Press, 2010

ISBN: 9780810127548

The Book of Franza & Requiem for Fanny Goldmann

Two unfinished novels from Ingeborg Bachmann’s Todesarten cycle.

When someone eventually gets around to writing a survey of the pantheon of unrealised or incomplete literary and artistic projects (the masters might be Musil, Gaudi, any others?) Ingeborg Bachmann’s Todesarten cycle is certain to occupy a special place. Only one novel – Malina, an acknowledged masterpiece – was actually written and published in her lifetime, whereas she planned for at least four. Each novel was intended to explore, through the life of one woman, a different way of dying or a certain kind of death (or death-in-life). But more than that, they were informed by an underlying tragic vision encapsulated in the question: What happens to the violence engendered by war, once war ends?

We have the second and third novels of the cycle here, both of them unfinished and fragmentary. They were published in German only in 1995, some twenty two years after Bachmann’s own unfortunate death.

The Book of Franza, written in the mid-1960s, is the more substantial text. Indeed, it is twice the length of the other novel here. Franza is a woman who is in a bad way. She is going for a divorce after having suffered years of horrific emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, who is a celebrated psychiatrist. When she reaches out to Martin, her brother, he helps her but he is also pressed for time. A geologist, he has planned a field trip to Egypt. Should he cancel the trip? Well no, that is not necessary, for Franza, despite her distress, quite fancies a trip abroad. Maybe it will bring solace or ease her mind. So they go to Egypt together.

There is some travelogue here, together with some Westerners’ culture shock shtick which makes you think of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky: we have oppressive deserts, shoddy hotels, poor plumbing, potent hashish… But pretty soon we bore down on Franza’s state of mind. It turns out that she is hurt grievous bad. At one point she imagines herself as a beast in a cage (perhaps an allusion on Bachmann’s part to Rilke’s poem about a panther), smashing into the bars, fatally wounding itself in a bid to break free. In one unsettling scene she goes to a doctor and asks him to enable her suicide. Eventually there is a collapse, her brother left desolate. Despite a few light moments, such as Martin’s reflections on why ‘the secrecy of a Viennese apartment is almost impenetrable, even by one’s best friends’, this is an intense, haunting novel.

As for Requiem for Fanny Goldmann, here we have a woman who, following a divorce, has an affair with Anton, a younger man. When the affair ends, which it does and very messily, Anton writes a novel where Fanny is savagely depicted. The portrait shows cruelty and betrayal of a high order. She feels violated and in time deteriorates, becomes a wreck. Fanny is a beautiful woman who grows old, whose beauty fades, then men betray her. That is what love is for her. As always with Bachmann, there are some strange and wonderful, not to say unsettling notions here. For example, we have hate as a kind of cancer or virus, as something that can infect a person, unexpectedly, from the outside (it arises without warning in a person). And we have alcohol as self-medication against a hate unasked for and unwanted, but present.

Looking at Fanny’s husband here, incidentally, one can discern the figure of Jack Hamesh, the British soldier that Bachmann once loved. See my review of her War Diary here.

In an introduction the translator Peter Filkins shares some of the difficult choices he faced when confronted by unfinished texts with sometimes divergent narratives, alternate continuations, etc. I have to say, though, that he has succeeded admirably. Filkins’s translations are pellucid and highly readable and they keep faith with Bachmann’s uncompromising and penetrating, unflinchingly honest and ultimately tragic vision.  It is a vision that aims to bring to light those crimes ‘so subtle that we can hardly perceive or comprehend them’, especially as they occur between men and women.

Though unfinished, the novels here feel coherent, and I very much enjoyed spending time with them. The publisher’s description of The Book of Franza & Requiem for Fanny Goldmann can be read here.

Plender

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Plender

By Ted Lewis

No Exit Press, 2020

ISBN: 9780857302816

Plender

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

L.P. Hartley’s famous line occurred to me more than once as I read this very welcome reissue of Ted Lewis’s enjoyably nasty Plender, a novel that originally came out in 1971. The year 1971, so that’s about 50 years ago. Half a century. That is pre-internet, pre-EU, pre-pandemic, all of that. A foreign country indeed.

It is an unusual novel, not least because instead of having just the one protagonist, this one has two; and they circle around each other, vying for control. There is the title character, Plender, a detective, or at any rate a private investigator. You might think he is the good guy, but no: there are none of that ilk here. Plender is, in actual fact, a seedy blackmailer, who gets his victims through a sex contacts magazine that he runs: it is a magnet for deviants. He also does some work for a clandestine far-right organisation called the Movement. We are in a grimy English town where the weeds and wild flowers of repression grow rife.

As for Knott, he is someone that Plender recognises as an old school mate (or rather, as we soon learn, a bully) when he sees him with a teenage girl in a pub run by a transvestite called Peggy. On a whim, Plender decides to follow Knott and the girl when they leave, and it works out well for him. There is a liaison at an old warehouse, Knott’s hidey hole at the top of a steep staircase. Afterwards, the girl falls and dies. It is an accident, kind of (Knott has plied the girl with drink), but foolishly Knott tries to cover up the killing. And Plender is there to see him try to get rid of the body. He has now got something on the bully who had tormented him through all his schooldays. Time to play cat and mouse. Revenge is on the menu.

What I liked about Plender was the power play between the two men. It is a fascinating dynamic, something that you find quite a lot in Patricia Highsmith’s novels, but not often elsewhere. Knott is a pitiable figure (a sex addict, an alcoholic, a closet homosexual) but Plender, trapped in the past, having been bullied and looked down upon and tormented as a kid, isn’t in much better shape either. He dwells on the crippling humiliations of his schooldays. When you are hurt as a kid, it affects you all your life. There is also here the very English, very 1970s (though it is with us still) way in which the violence inflicted on both men is underpinned by snobbery and class.

The novel has an interesting structure, which is well worth describing. It is written in the first person, with Plender and Knott having alternate chapters (so, as I said, two protagonists). This lets us glean events through the eyes of each man. An unusual device which I have seen used only a few times before (The Big Clock and Ada Dallas are two novels that come immediately to mind), and it is very effective here.

And the ending of the novel, when Plender and Knott become silent and their words cease, is very deftly done. Lewis brilliantly solves the problem of how to end a novel written in the first person when the narrator dies. It is the best ending to a crime novel that I have read since finishing Susanna Moore’s In the Cut some years back.

The publisher’s description of Plender can be read here.

The Coldest Warrior

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The Coldest Warrior

By Paul Vidich

No Exit Press, 2020

ISBN: 9780857303332

The Coldest Warrior

A precarious ride all the way.

This tense thriller, which is based on an actual case – in fact the death of the author’s uncle in 1953 – grips right from the very first page.

A government scientist, a man by the name of Wilson, dies one night at a Washington hotel. The death is unexplained; motive and circumstances are unclear. He falls, or jumps, or maybe he is even pushed from a great height.

Some twenty-two years later (it is 1975) this hitherto obscure death comes under the spotlight. There is a redacted report, a few names, little more. The head of the CIA, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), sets up an investigation to get to the bottom of what happened that night, almost a quarter of a century ago. Jack Gabriel, an agent nearing retirement, is tasked to lead it. He soon finds that others are trying to thwart his mission. Witnesses keep dying on him, that is one sign. And then the danger moves closer to home as Gabriel finds not only his own life, but the life of his wife and daughter, put in peril.

It is a precarious ride all the way. What gives the thriller that extra jolt, mind, is the way the author shows how Wilson’s death in 1953, an unresolved injustice, affects the lives of his widow and their children through the intervening decades. It hits the family hard, ravaging through the generations, creating at once terrible conflict and crippling trauma.

A top-notch thriller, The Coldest Warrior, belongs firmly in the Charles McCarry class.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

At the Edge of the Night

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At the Edge of the Night

By Friedo Lampe

Translated by Simon Beattie

Hesperus Press, 2019

ISBN: 9781843916543

At the Edge of the Night

An exhilarating translation of a forgotten classic.

This is the first English translation of Friedo Lampe’s Am Rande der Nacht, a novel that was banned by the Nazis on its original publication in 1933. Moreover, it is a translation of the unexpurgated (that is to say, the original) version of the novel for, curious to relate, when it was published in Germany after the war (in 1949 and in subsequent editions up until 1999) it was in a version with certain ‘obscene’ or ‘offensive’ passages removed. The censors did the Nazi’s dirty work.

So you will want to know: What is it like, was it worth the wait? Well, it is a fascinating novel on many fronts, though somewhat difficult to get a handle on at first. The action takes place over the course of one long Autumn night, in a port city not unlike Bremen (which is where Lampe grew up, a city he knew well). The arrival and departure of a ship, the Adelaide, frames the action. This dramatic compression and framing gives the novel structure, which is much needed because it ranges freely, following not one character but several.

You can see what the Nazis (and later censors) likely focused on as degenerate, so let’s get that out of the road. There is a wrestling match that turns into a full-on sexual assault and battery (man on man);they probably looked aghast at that. Rape caused by rage at rejection is never nice. Then there is a dalliance between a black man and a white woman; racial mixing, a big no-no for the party that introduced the Nuremberg Laws. Finally, there is a hint (well, a little more than that, to be honest) of a sadomasochistic relationship between the Captain of the Adelaide and Bauer, a young steward.

Elsewhere, you suspect that a child may be being abused; there is a stage hypnotist’s son who tries to run away from home. And there is a horrific moment where rats attack swans, unless that is a dream (and a coda). Though the whole novel – which is vividly atmospheric, swift moving, wonderfully panoramic – has something of the quality of a dream. There is, as you read, an acceleration of events, a swift switch of scene, a surfeit of time. It is overwhelming. Sometimes you are in a large park (Bremen’s Tiergehege, it seems like) with a lake and streams and gardens, next you are in a dance hall, then you are in a theatre looking up at a stage, where the wrestlers are going at it hammer and tongs like in that famous Francis Bacon painting.

At the close, when the Adelaide abandons anchor and prepares to cast off, Bauer has decided to go with it. So it is not just any old night, but one where at least one young man has made a weighty, fateful decision. Bauer tells Anton, his friend and a former fellow student, as he takes his leave: ‘I’m past saving.’ We don’t know whether he says it with despair, or acceptance, or even a sort of Nietzschean amor fati. It seems as though he knows what his life is about, whereas Anton, the eternal student, may never reach that point.

Of all the people here, Bauer reveals himself most so you tend to gravitate towards him. However, the novel is about the enmeshed lives of all of these people, and not only Bauer: the destinies on display on one night in one city. In the introduction Simon Beattie, the translator, describes the novel as cinematic, and I get what he means. And I do wonder whether Christopher Isherwood (he of ‘I am a camera’ fame) ever read it and what Fassbinder or Almodovar would have made of it. However, I found the novel as much Verfilzung as Verfilmung, in that it shows us a plaiding, an entanglement of human lives, that is in the end exhilarating.

The answer is that this translation was well worth the wait, especially since Simon Beattie’s text is vivid and captivating and true. What’s the novel about, ultimately? Well, I suppose we are back with the rats and the swans. It is a brutal world, but one that may, just may, be capable of being transformed into a beautiful one.

The publisher’s description of At the Edge of the Night can be read here.

Sarah Jane

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Sarah Jane

By James Sallis

No Exit Press, 2019

ISBN: 9780857303240

Sarah Jane

The question is not ‘Who done it?’ but rather ‘Who are we?’

And this supremely accomplished novel, Yep another one, by the great James Sallis gets up close and personal with that mystery. He gets inside the head of a woman this time (seasoned readers will know one of his protagonists is an African-American PI called Lew Griffin), the first person narrative at once Sarah Jane’s testament – an uneasy reckoning with the forces that formed her and continue to drive her – and confession. As she says early on: ‘I didn’t do all those things they say I did. Well, not all of them anyway.’

Over the course of the narrative we learn something of her early life – you can pick out a bleak childhood, a forced spell in the army, an anger-ravaged relationship – but mostly we see Sarah Jane as a sheriff in a small town called Farr (two r’s). She gets the job when Cal, the guy who hired her, her erstwhile boss goes missing. A kind of revenant, he turns up later.

There is a lot going down here – there’re a swarm of alarums to be had – but events are mostly kept off-stage, in the background. Instead, the complications of Sarah Jane’s character, not least her possible culpability in crimes unsaid, are centre stage. Paradoxically, or maybe not (for are not all good sheriffs former outlaws?), it is they that make her such an effective guardian. She has an empathy for sinners, an infernal antennae for detecting the strange currents that drive the human heart. Prying open its knotty mysteries. In Sarah Jane, as in all Sallis’s mysteries, the question is not really ‘Who done it?’ but rather ‘Who are we?’

And there are resonances for now. At one point, Sarah Jane drives around, looking at Farr’s desolate landscape, and reflects: ‘Sometimes it seems like everything is shutting down, the whole world going gray at the edges.’ (Ain’t that the truth?) Later, suspended from her job while she is placed under investigation, Sarah Jane is effectively in lockdown:

The more time I spent at home free of cluttered days, the larger the space, my world, grew, not smaller as one might expect. That space began to edge towards boundless, in fact. The question as ever being, Did I grow with it, or shrink in proportion?

Sarah Jane shows that James Sallis, the master of existential noir, retains his unique touch. It is perfect lockdown literature. The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

Wandering Jew

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Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth

By Dennis Marks

Notting Hill Editions, 2011

ISBN: 9781907903045

Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth

A prophetic voice that has much to teach us today.

Wandering Jew is concerned with the writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939), a novelist and journalist whose works, for a long while direly neglected, have begun to receive great attention in recent years. He was someone who lived through the horror of the First World War and its aftermath; who saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; who lived in the Weimar Republic and witnessed the rise of Nazism. He wrote about the effects of these events on himself and his contemporaries with acute intelligence and feeling and there is little wonder, to my mind, that interest in his work has revived. In The Spider’s Web, his first novel and one which curiously he attempted to disown, Roth writes of his protagonist that ‘his way led over precipices and into chasms’. That was true of Roth as well. His trek was a treacherous one. Undoubtedly, he has much to teach us today.

In the first chapter here Dennis Marks looks at where Roth came from. Even that simple question is by no means easyily answered, because he apparently fabricated facts in order to disguise his origins. About Roth’s family we know very little still, but it seems certain that he was born on the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what is now Ukraine (where exactly, we don’t know). Marks describes a visit to a small Joseph Roth Museum in the Rudolf Gymnasium in Brody, which was where Roth had attended school. He found no further clues about Roth’s origin, mind, and few actual traces of Jewish life in the city itself. Pogroms and the Holocaust had seen to that.

The next two chapters look at Roth’s response to the chaotic aftermath of World War One, not least the brutal fragmentation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It should be said here that Roth had little interest in the broad historical forces at play or the politicians and demagogues (least of all nationalists) who were vying for power. Rather, his concern lay with the people at the margins. Those displaced by war, wounded and traumatised, struggling to survive in an age of massive geopolitical disruption. Those who had make a new life for themselves, often in a different country. These people were not always Jews, though Jews were especially vulnerable because, in an age that saw a proliferation of nation states, they (like the Roma, then and in our own day) had no territory or land of their own.

Marks has more to say about Roth’s Jewish identity in the next chapter. So, for example, there is a discussion of the use of Talmudic paradox in his writings and an examination of his hostile attitude to Zionism. He was firmly against Zionism, viewing it as simply another form of nationalism, and he regarded nation states, with their laws and borders, as being little more than a prison. Being a Jew for Roth meant (as an ideal) being a cosmopolitan, part of a diaspora, free to roam the world. Though it should be noted here that he wrote before the Holocaust and the actual creation of the state of Israel. There is even here a little something about Klezmer music, which Roth apparently loved, as do many. (I would say that Itzhak Perlman’s In the Fiddler’s House is as good an introduction to Klezmer as any).

I disagree somewhat with Marks’s statement somewhere here that ‘the primary role of Jews in his fiction is to suffer’. Lenz in The Spider’s Web, for example, is a capable, resourceful operator, destined to survive and prosper, certainly not a victim. Also in this novel there is a sentence, ‘Jews from the East needed no explanations,’ wherein one can detect a pride in resilience in the face of authority. And even Mendel in Job knows joy as well as pain. For instance when he sees that his youngest son Menuchim, once a sickly infant, has taken on the world and won, become a composer and musician in the Gershwin mould.

The final chapter is a rifling through imagined human lives in the face of global upheaval. Fittingly, it leads us back to the novels.

Wandering Jew is an engaging study of an important writer who, working often in the margins, became a perceptive, unflinchingly honest chronicler of his times: Europe in the early and mid-twentieth century. And perhaps he will prove to be a prophetic voice for our own age too.

An obituary of the late Dennis Marks is here.

The publisher’s description of Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth can be read here.

Color Out of Space

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Color Out of Space

Directed by Richard Stanley

USA, 2019

HOME, 12 March 2020

Color Out of Space

Nature is Alien.

H.P. Lovecraft’s vision – that nature is alien, that there exist primordial, malignant, cosmic forces (including probably dear old Gaia) and they are hostile to (or, to be exact: supremely indifferent to) humankind – is one for our age. Yet while this film captures something of the great writers’ atmospheric prose at the start and the end – the film is framed by Lovecraft’s words, if you will – in between it struggles to rise above the level of standard horror fare.

There is a family, they are slightly dysfunctional but getting by all the same, rumbling along. But then some strange object, a meteor perhaps, lands in their back garden from outer space (it misses the washing hanging on the line, thank goodness) and, all of a sudden, myriad family tensions come bubbling to the surface. Behaviour becomes manic, panic is the order of the day. Old stalwart Nicolas Cage, in full on deranged mode, appears to channel Donald Trump ever so slightly (a nice satirical touch this). As a father he turns narcissistic, infantile and bossy. It is all too much, the world (and not least his children) is against him…

It is a fun film if you like horror. Rest assured that people die in strange, disconcerting, viscerally disgusting ways. There is blood and gore and bodily fluids aplenty (think: sticky spit, saliva and slime).There is a Siamese Twin mutation: two people are bound together. But you do not come away with an abiding sense of cosmic dread as you do after reading the story. As an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft, the film fails.

Dark Waters

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Dark Waters

Directed by Todd Haynes

USA, 2019

HOME, 6 March 2020

Dark Waters

One to warm the cockles of an eco-warrior’s heart.

Here Mark Ruffalo is a lawyer representing a farmer whose cows, very many of them, are mysteriously dying. The farmer blames the deaths on mass dumping by a major chemical company. The company is poisoning the water, or so the farmer believes.

The film charts an epic legal battle waged over many years (it is based on an actual case) with Ruffalo’s lawyer landing a fair few blows, yet absorbing some too. There is the raw stress of the arduous, exacting case that he has to cope with. There is the damage to his marriage – so many years lost that cannot be regained – the open, perilous wounds suffered by his wife and children.

I enjoyed the film, found it completely absorbing throughout (incidentally, Anne Hathaway is a class act here as Ruffalo’s wife: then again, isn’t she always?), though I kind of knew where it was going. And it reminded me of a very similar earlier film (perhaps a John Grisham adaptation with Robert Duvall in there somewhere?). Anyway, it is a very decent issues-driven film.

It might even have made Grumpy Greta happy. For a bit anyway.

Halle Orchestra: Beethoven 250 – Beethoven Symphony No.8 and Fidelio Act II

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Halle Orchestra: Beethoven 250 – Beethoven Symphony No.8 and Fidelio Act II

The Bridgewater Hall, 27 February 2020

Halle Orchestra: Beethoven 250 – Beethoven Symphony No.8 and Fidelio Act II

You can never have too much Beethoven.

Here the Halle orchestra, choir and colleagues gave us a hat trick of hits:

  • Tremate, Empi, Tremate: Trio for soprano, tenor and bass with orchestra
  • Symphony No.8
  • Fidelio: Act II

Tremate, Empi, Tremate was a fairly short work, which Beethoven apparently wrote as an exercise, a way of exploring Italian opera and song. Still, it was a genuine work of music and didn’t feel at all academic. It had an elegant, filigree quality and was an aperitif for what was to come.

And what came next was the magnificent eighth symphony, with the Halle being conducted by Ben Gernon. What to say about this work, that has not already been said before and better by Sir Donald Tovey? Well it was prodigious, monstrous (recalling that monsters dwell always on the border of becoming), wondrous, fabulist – and over far too soon.

After the interval Sir Mark Elder conducted the Halle orchestra and choir and diverse singers (notably Rachel Nicholls as Leonore) in Act Two of Fidelio. Maybe Jeff Bezos was thinking of this opera when he said that what he valued in a wife was will and resourcefulness. He wanted someone who could, if needs must, get him out of prison. That is what happens here, anyway: Leonore in disguise goes into prison to get her husband Florestan (the excellent Simon O’Neill) out. It was like the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, only with the roles reversed and a happy ending. A series of dramatic scenes, each studded with a brilliant aria or two.

Too much Beethoven is not nearly enough.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

Halle Orchestra: Mozart! Immortal Mozart!

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Halle Orchestra: Mozart! Immortal Mozart!

The Bridgewater Hall, 13 February 2020

Halle Orchestra: Mozart! Immortal Mozart!

Mozart and much, much more.

For this evening’s concert the conductor was Jonathan Nott, who showed himself to be vigorous and lively and altogether excellent. The Halle orchestra went full pelt and they played:

  • Schubert – Symphony No.5
  • R. Strauss – Oboe Concerto
  • Mozart – Symphony No.39

Schubert ‘s symphony made use of a sparse range of instruments, but here less was more. The first movement laid down the law and the rest of the movements enforced it. You heard bright and bold laughter though you could imagine (with a stretch) stray shadows before the darkness came. This symphony was first performed in 1816, when Schubert was about 20. Just over a decade later he would be dead.

Directly after the Second World War, Richard Strauss composed his Oboe Concerto, on the suggestion of an American soldier, an oboe player in civilian life. There are a few elegiac tones, which is understandable. For, after all, in 1946 Germany had been bombed to smithereens. Listening to it now, mind, you are struck by an enigmatic beauty. Disturbing, indissoluble. You are listening to a question not easily understood, a bell tolling once, the broken call (and the uncertain perambulations) of a wounded bird. Well worth a second spin, this tune. Stéphane Rancourt was brilliant on oboe.

As for the Mozart symphony, well it explains and justifies the title of concert,for a start. Also. it should be mentioned that the thirty ninth, premiered in 1788, was the first of a final trilogy of great symphonies that Mozart produced toward the end of his life. It is a masterpiece, a mix of solemnity and sunlight. The Trio toward the end features a Landler. If you were to personify this symphony, you would be looking upon a young and handsome Lord, a citizen of Heaven. Yes, an Immortal.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

 

Parasite

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Parasite

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Korea, 2019

HOME, 12 February 2020

Parasite

Parasite made history earlier this week by becoming the first non-English language film to win the best picture award at this year’s Oscars.

Despite this, I can report that it is an excellent film.

Much of its appeal lies in the sly way that a poor family latches onto a rich one, and how their scheme for advancement steadily goes awry.

Kim (Woo-sik Choi) takes a job as an English tutor to a teenage girl, and soon he is recommending his sister as an art teacher to her small brother. And pretty soon after that Kim’s father (Song Kang-ho) becomes the family chauffeur and his mother their housekeeper. You suspect that Kim’s passion for his pupil may throw a spanner in the works, but as it happens things go to pot way before then.

Meanwhile you cannot help but notice the myriad differences between how rich and poor live. In particular, there is the question of who exactly are the parasites in this society? So you have the rich businessman and his elegant wife in their spacious, salubrious house. There are, by contrast, the magpie interlocutors who come along with their ever so slightly smelly clothes, one of the consequences of living in a basement that is often flooded with sewerage when the rains come.

One quality the film has is a kind of fairy-tale intrigue, which is all to do with concealment, evading capture, not being found out. So the poor have to lie, to present an acceptable front, in order to get on. However, they cannot disguise their smell (described here as being a bit like ‘rags that have been boiled’).

The juxtaposition of luxury and squalor means that it is a strangely beautiful film to look at, admirably crafted by the director Bong Joon-ho. The salient themes of class, social exclusion and inequality give the film also a resonance in the West, you would almost say a well-nigh universal appeal. This means (let us hope anyway) that it will likely be as big a hit at the box office as at the Oscars.

Halle Orchestra: Rachmaninov’s Romantic Lyricism

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Halle Orchestra: Rachmaninov’s Romantic Lyricism

The Bridgewater Hall, 16 January 2020

Halle Orchestra: Rachmaninov’s Romantic Lyricism

A concert of contrasting moods.

The conductor was Kazuki Yamada and the Halle played:

  • John Adams – Saxophone Concerto
  • Rachmaninov – Symphony No.2

First off we heard John Adams’s Saxophone Concerto, Jess Gillam’s bright and breezy performance making it sound freshly minted. The subdued jazz tones had something of the twinkle of distant stars. It was upbeat, had swing but was pretty laid back. It didn’t set out to impress, because it didn’t need to.

Then, after an interval where I fought off the temptation to down a tub of ginger ice-cream (I had had a caramel sponge cake just before the concert, so it would have been a bit too much), there came Rachmaninov’s second symphony. Now, surely, it did mean to impress – and it succeeded.  It was immense, rearing its towering torso like a colossus that had just stepped in front of the sun. Like it had been around for a thousand years and would outlive you too: not so much classical as immortal. A beast of raw lyricism, an irresistible force.

Somehow the music swept all before it. You looked not just into the mirror of one man’s mind, but out of a window that showed the landscape of the human soul. A power ballad of a symphony, it radiated force and fury.

And it sent me.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

1917

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1917

Directed by Sam Mendes

UK, 2019

HOME, 16 January 2020

Long Day’s Journey into Night

An involving, exciting dramatic film though not entirely realistic.

We are in the First World War and two soldiers, Schofield (Andrew Scott) and Blake (Richard Madden), are sent on a mission that has little hope of success. They have to warn that a planned imminent offensive is, in fact, a trap and should be called off. To do this they must trek through a ravaged, desolate landscape of putrid mud and barbed wire, ruined buildings and rotting corpses. Some of the cinematography here (and the whole setting, actually) reminded me very strongly of Stalker, Tarkovsky’s great film. In other respects the story was familiar enough – a tale of derring-do, but undeniably well done.

There are fantastic performances from cast, especially Andrew Scott. The Germans here are wholly without honour, which is surprising: I thought the film would be more even handed. The common British soldiers are thooroughly decent and some of the officers, though not all, are decent chaps too. It was good to see some black faces and a turbaned fellow as well. Certain EU-funded films, above all Frantz, present the First World War as a European war which shows the dangers of nationalism. This way lies the suicide of Europe, all that. Whilst in fact it was a world war and, moreover, a war of empires, not nation states.

A terrific war film, with the odd mythic allusion (to the Lethe, etc.) thrown in.

RNCM Strings Festival 2020: RNCM String Orchestra

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RNCM Strings Festival 2020: RNCM String Orchestra

RNCM Concert Hall

12 January 2020

La Dolce Vita

This was the closing concert of a full programme of scrumptious events at this year’s RNCM Strings Festival

We heard the following fine works:

  • Vivaldi – Cello Concerto in E minor (arr for double bass and strings)
  • Haydn – Cello Concerto in C major
  • Henning Kraggerud – Solens Datter
  • Tchaikovsky – Serenade for Strings in C major

Catherine Yates conducted the Vivaldi, with Božo Paradžik playing double bass. Chris Hoyle did the honours with respect to the Haydn, where we had the great Miklós Perényi playing cello. And, after the interval, Henning Kraggerud introduced his own composition Solens Datter, where he uses Norse myth to address anxieties over climate change, and played on both it and the Tchaikovsky.

Kraggerud told a story about an atom bomb test and Tchaikovsky’s work that I was a little bit uncertain about, though it may well be correct. My understanding, anyway, is that Wernher von Braun invented the countdown protocol after seeing it in Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond (1929). Rocket science imitates cinematic art.

An exhilarating concert all around.

Uncut Gems

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Uncut Gems

Directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie

USA, 2019

HOME, 10 January 2020

Uncut Gems

A ferocious film, featuring a pile-driving performance by Adam Sandler.

Not something I thought I would ever say, but there you go. Anyway, Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a free-wheeling jeweller who also happens to be a compulsive gambler. He is in debt, and a couple of bruisers are chasing him for money. There is one way out, just one: if the rock of opals that he has arranged to smuggle out of Africa gets to him and if it is as good as they say.

What you have is a close-to, wonderfully detailed and intricately textured crime drama, and it is well-nigh perfect how it is done. It reminded me of a George V Higgins novel or a David Mamet play, the dialogue (and everything else about it) is that good. Everything, for example: Sandler’s conversation with his daughter – a self lacerating ordeal for him – is pure cinematic gold; and it lasts, what, less than I minute? I would watch the whole movie just to see that again.

As well, the film taps into that vein of Gnosticism or Jewish mysticism (associated, I think, with Isaac Luria amongst others) that sees life as a crooked path, the world as essentially an error, God looking elsewhere. Everything fucked up. This is immaculate post-Holocaust noir.

A bit early to be saying it, I admit, but it is likely to be the best film of the year.

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories

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The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories

By Arthur Machen

Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Aaron Worth

Oxford World’s Classics, 2019

ISBN: 9780198805106

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories

I had a lot of fun with this one.

I have looked around and found that this is the best, the most comprehensive collection of Arthur Machen’s fiction available in one volume. The editor, Aaron Worth, has included a large swathe of the key works written during the 1890s, and most of them appear here in their original form. In particular, The Three Imposters is given whole and complete, without the constituent stories being dissected and presented out of context. Something which, alas, often happens. Machen’s Novel of the White Powder is not (and was never intended to be) a work in its own right; it is part of The Three Imposters. I should add that, besides the seminal works, there is as well a goodly selection of the later fiction.

In his introduction, Worth makes a spirited attempt to align Machen with the world of English Decadence (The Yellow Book, Wilde, Beardsley, Swinburne all of that), something I had never really considered. He also points out Machen’s idiosyncratic approach to horror. For one thing, his stories have a lot of lacunae, the horrors being usually implicit or unsaid (though there are certain notable exceptions to this: the closing pages of The Three Imposters make for grisly reading, even for modern readers). I take Worth’s point, but isn’t it true also that, say, The Turn of the Screw has this same quality of horrors left unsaid? So it is not an approach that was unique to Machen. He is in good company, mind, and I note that Henry James was published in The Yellow book and all.

London features in pretty much every story, which may come as a surprise to some readers. Strange and terrible events occur within sight of the city’s green parks and grimy streets, its wide promenades and squalid slums. Machen, a bucolic arrival who lived there for many years, took great pride in his knowledge of London, an archetypal modern city that in his day was the capital of the world. London boasted great libraries and museums, formidable universities and places of learning; miraculous institutions and associations of diverse kinds. Yet this pinnacle of civilization was nonetheless a dangerous place, full of perils and predators. It was not unlike a treacherous forest in which innocent wanderers might lose their way, and their souls too. The Idealist (London-set, naturally) is probably the most unpleasant story (in a good way: it is wholly compelling) here. It is about a professional man whose recreation when alone involves the creation of what are described as ‘incongruous monstrous things’ and what they are, well, who knows? The story is vaguely filthy and it makes you think of Thomas Ligotti’s fiction. It has that kind of vibe.

Elsewhere Machen has a series character (as we would call him now) by name of Dyson, who is a bit like Sherlock Holmes (not least because the two men share a liking for shag tobacco), though he investigates not so much crimes as wonders and mysteries. His calm, rational vantage is under constant attack from the forces of chaos and disorder. And one of the pleasures to be had here is to see the world of science and rationalism challenged by strange occurrences, perplexing events and (on occasion) eruptions of horrific violence. It is similar to the pleasures to be found in Conan Doyle’s stories and it occurred to me that Machen might have influenced the creation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (as far as I know the only Holmes outing where the great detective investigates what purports to be a supernatural creature).

The best sentence or utterance in the book occurs in The Three Imposters, when Wilkins (an Englishmen, naturally) enquires, ‘Is there such a thing as an Englishman here, or any one with a little civilisation?’ It doesn’t go down too well with the yokels in Colorado, to whom it was addressed. But it did give me a chuckle. It is the sort of sentence you might come across in a Kyril Bonfiglioli novel.

As I say, I had a lot of fun with this one.

The publisher’s description of The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories can be read here.

La Dolce Vita

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La Dolce Vita

Directed by Federico Fellini

Italy, 1960

HOME, 9 January 2020

La Dolce Vita

Fellini’s masterpiece still screeches and sings.

It remains an edgy film about life, love and art.

We follow Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a man who works as a showbiz journalist, a colleague to paparazzi and a confidante to movie stars as and when necessary. Yet he is drawn toward literature and art as well, even as he sees pretension in that path.

Marcello lives with a woman, an over-anxious, neurotic woman who loves him, or says she does. Though perhaps she is just possessive and needy. But he has a mistress and myriad affairs. Love is not what he wants; or, at any rate, he is not satisfied with what he has.

It is a film where there is no solace anywhere. Where is the good life that Marcello might aim for? It is not to be found amongst the chitter chatter of artists and poets, that is for sure. He is trapped, with no means of escape.

And the scene where we see the suicide of Steiner, his murdered children, still has the power to shock.

Amanda

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Amanda

Directed by Mikhaël Hers

France, 2018

HOME, 9 January 2020

Amanda

I did not hold out much hope for this film after viewing the opening credits.

That is because I saw that it was funded by Creative Europe, an agency of the EU tasked with promoting European Identity and promoting Europe as a place of prestige and culture. Creative Europe has funded all those Woody Allen films with European cities in the title (Paris, Rome, Barcelona, etc.), though it is curious that Allen has not made a film set in Berlin and Vienna.

In the event, though, it turned out to be quite a moving film about how a brother and daughter cope with the death of a sister and mother. Amanda is the young niece (7 years old) and Vincent Lacoste plays her uncle David.

Mind, what do we get when Amanda and David visit London? Well, let me recount: a shot of the picturesque St Pancras station, lots of red London buses, shots of uncle and niece cycling along the Thames, spacious London parks with lots of greenery and a tennis match at Wimbledon. Cinematic postcards aplenty, which detract from the film rather than add to it. Still, it is good that – even as the UK exits stage left – at least one EU agency is doing its bit to promote London as a prestigious European destination.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Directed by Jacques Demy

France, 1964

HOME, 22 December 2019

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

This a a banal, bourgeois story yet a magical film.

The bourgeois story sees Catherine Deneuve’s shop girl in love with Nino Castelnuovo’s car mechanic. They are parted when he is called up into the army, but she promises to wait for him. Pregnant with his child, Deneuve decides eventually to marry a rich diamond merchant. He offers her a life and a way out of the small town. On his return, the car mechanic is torn up, naturally, but eventually he too marries and settles down.

At the close Deneuve and Castelnuovo meet when she stops to fill up her car at the garage that he now owns. Her daughter, their child, is in the car but he expresses no curiosity about her. He has another child, a boy, with the woman he has married. The two lovers talk but not for long. For now they have separate lives, their once grand passion – and any residual bitterness – has burnt out. They are strangers.

As for the film – a languid musical full of bold colours – it is wonderful to look at and full of strange moments, such as when Deneuve wears a crown and is compared to a Madonna in Antwerp. Or when she wears a dress with the pins still in it, perhaps as an anti-groping device. It is curious too that both lovers wear Burberry raincoats (in Normandy in 1964, really?).

Sons of Denmark

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Sons of Denmark

Directed by Ulaa Salim

Denmark, 2019

HOME, 19 December 2019

Sons of Denmark

A very effective thriller set in contemporary Denmark.

It portrays Denmark as a Wild West where Islamist and far-right nationalist groups fight against each other. Street violence, acid attacks. Bombings and assassinations. Terrorism, each and every day.

We follow Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed) and his descent into radicalisation. From an awareness of racism to resentment and anger, to a determination to act. He is tasked to kill a politician who specialises in anti-immigrant rhetoric. Then we follow his com padre, Ali (Zaki Youssef), who has a very different life to what we had been led to believe. And we become of far-right terrorism.

The film is not entirely realistic in that it asks you to believe that a far-right politician would be elected as prime minister in Denmark. Whereas what is happening now is that mainstream parties have co-opted the popular anti-immigrant sentiment sentiment and put forward policies to create (or coerce) greater integration. See the LSE blog post here.

Anyway, a compelling film. It kept my attention throughout.

Her Smell

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Her Smell

Directed by Alex Ross Perry

USA, 2018

HOME, 19 December 2019

Her Smell

Nasty, but kind of fun.

It is a film about a three girl rock group coming to the end of their sell by date. We see the group, particularly their lead singer Becky (Elisabeth Moss), imploding. They cannot get up on stage, they are unable to complete an album. The band members have lost patience with each other, their manager is monstrously exasperated. Each moment is a car-crash.

What is fun (and fantastic) about the film is Elisabeth Moss’s performance. Becky is an obnoxious monster, an unstoppable invective machine. She offends everyone, including her mother. Her ranting and raving has an awful power, a fabulist magnificence. You think of one Tennessee Williams’s Southern belles (but on steroids).

The film has an episodic structure (the concert that went wrong, the recording session that went to ruin…) with the final episode showing Becky rehabilitated, on the mend, saved. While this is not the final word (you still wonder: will she relapse?), it is a bit of an evasion. The film doesn’t explain how Becky saved herself, how she got from being this monster of a rock star to a loving mother, a reformed soul seemingly serene and at peace with the world.

This film is certainly not for everyone, but on the whole I enjoyed the ride.

Citizen K

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Citizen K

Directed by Alex Gibney

USA, 2019

HOME, 19 December 2019

Citizen K

A curious footnote to the rise of Putin.

It is difficult to know what to make of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He got filthy rich in Russia in the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin’s government was selling off state assets. Then, like a fair few oligarchs, he fell foul of Putin and spent a decade or so in prison. Now he lives in London, where he is still very rich (here it is estimated that his fortune is in the hundreds of millions), and where he is campaigning for human rights and greater democracy in Russia.

Are there any prospects of his efforts bringing about real change in Russia? Probably not, but it does add to the political theatre of the place.

Kharms couldn’t make it up.

Roots @ HOME

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Roots

Directed and Written by Suzanne Andrade

1927

HOME, 12 December 2019

Roots

Photo by 1927 / HOME

This suite of strange stories was both unsettling and satisfying.

The first story, about a fat cat with an insatiable attitude, set the tone. It was gruesome, quirky and darkly absurd. Later there was a story about a king who sets out to test his queen’s character – a rather head-in-his-arse king who clearly had a deficient moral sense himself. There was a Western about a bad hombre by name of The Ogre, set on terrorising a small town. Someone had to take him out, and they did. Perhaps my favourite story, though, was the one called ‘Two Fishes’, which was perfect and profound. It reminded me of some of the Hasidic tales that Martin Buber collected together. That cruel, just quality was present in spades.

What I have felt with one or two 1927 shows In the past is that while the animation and stylised acting has been highly effective at evoking atmosphere, the story and substance has not really measured up. Here the stories, for the most part (there is a little padding present), deliver a solid punch.

You can see a trailer of Roots at 1927’s website here.

Roots is showing at HOME until 30 December, further details can be found here.

Dialogues des Carmélites

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Dialogues des Carmélites

By Francis Poulenc

RNCM Theatre, 11 December 2019

RNCM Session Orchestra

This was a stunning production of the opera that held a special place in Poulenc’s heart, written as it was after his return to the Catholic Church.

Poulenc was gay, as we know, and the church, as ever, opposed same-sex relationships; but he no doubt had reconciled himself to this contradiction. The opera, which Poulenc completed in 1956 – and he had a hand in the libretto as well as the music (though much of Georges Bernanos’s text is retained), which tells you how much it meant to him – also has some of the fractious atmosphere of post-war France: the fall-out from the collaboration with Nazi Germany, the deportations to Auschwitz, all of that.

The music is both hymnal and harrowing, especially toward the end when the full cost of the nun’s moral choices has to be paid. Though, in one sense, they had only one moral choice to make, whether to accept God’s Grace and become instruments of His Will, or not. And as nuns they had already made that choice. Throughout, the song is very natural when it comes to the nuns’ everyday life; yet very moving at the close with the profound Salve Regina. As a story, curiously, it reminded me of Xavier Beauvois’s film Of Gods and Men. No doubt Beauvois was influenced by Poulenc’s opera.

All in all. the musical performances were wonderful. And with splendid costumes, gorgeous sets and lambent lighting, it was a visual delight as well.

So Long, My Son

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So Long, My Son

Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai

China, 2019

HOME, 11 December 2019

Knives Out

A family drama that is also an epic of modern China.

It is about a couple who live through the Cultural Revolution and who also have to deal with the death of their son. Because of China’s one child per family policy they have no other children and are left alone. We end at the present day, in an affluent China of conspicuous consumption. The couple are aged and reconciled to their fate, travelling in the backseat of a car, looking around at their home city, a city changed beyond recognition.

There are wonderful performances from the likes of Wang Jingchun, Yong Mei and Wang Yuan.

Altogether a very moving, beautiful film.

Halle Orchestra: Copland’s Jazz Concerto

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Halle Orchestra: Copland’s Jazz Concerto

The Bridgewater Hall, 5 December 2019

Halle Orchestra: Copland’s Jazz Concerto

A mosaic of marvellous American music.

In this concert we got four American compositions, each work an amalgam of jazz and classical elements. This was the programme:

  • Jake Heggie: Moby-Dick Suite
  • Copland: Clarinet Concerto
  • Bernstein: West Side Story: Symphonic Dances
  • Gershwin: Porgy and Bess: Symphonic Picture

The ‘Moby-Dick Suite’ was as epic as the novel, the music coming from Jake Heggie’s eponymous opera, which premiered in 2010. The Suite, arranged by tonight’s conductor Cristian Macelaru, was first performed in 2017.

Copland’s ‘Clarinet Concerto’, written for Benny Goodman (he paid ‘real money’ to employ the services of the great American composer), was first performed in 1950. Goodman played it on radio, not in the concert hall. Here Sergio Castelló López took it on stage and approached it in a spirit of playful dynamism. In his and the Halle’s hands it swung.

As for Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story: Symphonic Dances’, well, it had been astutely labelled. For these were dances, the music full often of violent, visceral movements. Cool yet restless, contradictory and explosive, never sitting still. True, some of the music was built on Beethoven. But alongside that there were shouts (‘Rumble!’) and finger-clicking and a feeling of frenetic action.

We ended with Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess: Symphonic Picture’, Robert Russell Bennett’s arrangement of music taken from the great opera, first performed in 1935 with an all-black cast. Bennett’s arrangement was completed some seven years later. If you have ever once seen Porgy and Bess, this suite will bring will bring back to you a treasury of dazzling moments.

So an all-American concert, then, with much of the music originating from operas and musicals. The music not purely jazz or classical but a vivid oscillation between the two. For want of a better word, the end result could be called ‘American’.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

Knives Out

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Knives Out

Directed by Rian Johnson

USA, 2019

HOME, 29 November 2019

Knives Out

A completely compelling film, this one, a classic whodunnit with echoes of Nero Wolfe and The Big Clock.

There is a mystery writer dead, he is an apparent suicide, but the police want to be certain of no foul play and so interview each member of the dead man’s family in turn. And alongside the police sits a certain Mr Blanc (Daniel Craig), the famous detective, who has been engaged by an anonymous client to get to the bottom of things. An anonymous client, though clearly someone with an interest in the outcome of the investigation.

It is a film with a lot of satisfying twists and turns (which I won’t divulge, naturally) and in the course of a honeyed procession it reveals much about human motive, mostly to the detriment of the species, alas, but also – outstandingly, in a single exception – to its benefit. There is one good person here.

At the heart of the film is Craig, who is wonderfully watchable as the the stylishly dressed, eccentric Southern detective – ‘CSI KFC?’ is how one suspect greets him – a man who is both compassionate and just, if not always right about everything. He is wrong about Gravity’s Rainbow, for one. I have read it (and have read V and The Crying of Lot 49 and even the stories in Slow Learner. Mind, I have not yet managed to make it through Vineland. Pynchon lost me sometime around then.

Anyway, back to Knives Out. Not profound or deep, this escapade, but you do come away royally entertained and with the confidence. maybe misplaced, that a good heart will always carry the day. Sweet Virginia. Precious cinema.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Directed by Joe Talbot

USA, 2019

HOME, 21 November 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

A richly layered film full of tender laughter.

I saw it on a cold, damp, windy evening in Manchester, a chill in my bones, and even so it brought, fairly often, a smile to my face. Though the effect in the end was as bleak as the weather outside.

Jimmie dreams of regaining the house his grandfather built (and his father let go) in San Francisco and, together with his friend Mont, they scheme ways to ensure its return. All forlorn. The two friends feel like outsiders in their own city, for it no longer has need of them: gentrification is a kind of genocide.

On one level the film is about the fruits and sins of the father, on another it is about two Somewhere guys in an Anywhere city. They want to find a place where they can belong and their home city is not it. On still another, it is a story of an unlikely friendship (it actually put me in mind of a Robert Deane Phaar novel: does anyone read this guy anymore?). And it is about survival in a precarious world, keeping on keeping on, all of that.

An astonishing film.

Meeting Gorbachev

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Meeting Gorbachev

Directed by Werner Herzog and André Singer

Germany, 2019

HOME, 20 November 2019

Meeting Gorbachev

Herzog does Gorbachev is a bit like Durer does Erasmus.

It feels already as though this is the definitive portrait. Anyway, it is a congenial documentary and a rounded picture of the great man. When Herzog interviews Gorbachev he, and on more than one occasion, addresses him by name and patronymic: Mikhail Sergeyevich. A courteous touch.

The film covers a wide berth, the full caboodle. His early life, where his father was away fighting the Germans. At one point his father was reported as dead, then he returned. His rise in Soviet society. Perestroika and glasnost and the fall out from Chernobyl. The nuclear disarmament talks with Reagan. His later arrest and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

You come away with an impression of a good, intelligent man who yet lacked the steel, the glint of ruthlessness, to steer the Soviet Union into his envisioned future. In this he was not helped by his fellow citizens, who preferred the likes of Yeltsin, or those politicians in the West who trumpeted that the Soviets had lost the cold War.

A tragic figure indeed but he achieved much.

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929)

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Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929)

RNCM Theatre, 3 November 2018

Eric Marienthal

Perfect or near-perfect cinema.

It was an extremely well crafted film, especially considering its vintage (released in 1929, so almost a century old), but on reflection that is hardly surprising when you cast a glance at who the director was: the great Alfred Hitchcock. The film was shown at the RNCM with live organ accompaniment, dazzling in its own right, by Darius Battiwalla.

So a silent film and set in London – the archetypal big city – and you are struck first and foremost by certain scenes’ similarities to the great masterpieces of Hitchcock’s heyday. When the police officers burst into Tracey’s tenement flat and we see him reading a newspaper on the bed it is like the boarding room occupied by Joseph Cotton’s killer at the start of Shadow of a Doubt. And when Tracey escapes through the window and over the rooftops and we see police officers following it is like the prologue to Vertigo.One of those police officers could be James Stewart’s Scottie. And the film evokes The 39 Steps in myriad ways.

Anny Ondra, a very beautiful Czech actress with expressive eyes, plays the damsel in distress. In one scene we see her walking down the Strand, a desolate Trafalgar square in the distance. There is a fleeting glimpse of Piccadilly Circus in another scene. Elsewhere we are at a Lyon’s Coffee House, a bustling form of life. People dining after a day at work. And then we are at a police station, with its tenebrous interiors and murky corridors. Finally, there is the British Museum, with the villain Tracey scarpering over the tombs of Egyptian mummies and statues Assyrian nobles. A frantic pursuit that has echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

It is wonderful how Hitchcock switches from verisimilitude – we are in a real city with real people – to showing us the anxious point of view of various different characters, saying in effect: this is the world that this person lives in. To be precise: not all of the characters are anxious. Some aware of their peril, others are oblivious to what is happening around them (as in life). There is a great, extended shot when Alice and the guy she has met walk up the staircase of his apartment building. It is a single tracking shot and we follow them floor by floor. How did Hitchcock manage to do that in 1929?

The concise and economical storytelling has a spellbinding elegance. There is artistry yet it never interferes with the momentum of the narrative, which is forever going forward.

Manchester Collective: Sirocco

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Manchester Collective: Sirocco

RNCM Concert Hall, 15 October 2019

Eric Marienthal

Abel is able.

And that goes not only for Abel Selaocoe, the frontman of Manchester Collective (who here played cello and sang), mind, but for the whole group, which for the most part is made up of RNCM alumni. They showed the versatile pizzazz and the can-do quality of the city that gave them their name.

Manchester Collective were open for business, that was for sure, as they played Haydn and Purcell one moment and traditional African song the next. There was plenty of  magnificent, bombastic drumming courtesy of Sidiki Dembele and a choir of angelic, baroque melodies from the Singh sisters (Rakhi Singh and Simmy Singh) and company on strings.

It was a collision of worlds, you could call it Alex Park and the Bridgewater Hall and all points in between. A cityscape of sound, and all good.

For further details of Manchester Collective, visit their website here.

Joker

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Joker

Directed by Todd Phillips

USA, 2019

HOME, 4 October 2019

Joker

You would call it a bleak film, but it is undoubtedly a beautiful one too.

Joaquin Phoenix’s sad bastard is the joker in the pack, a harbinger of aleatory anarchy, everyone’s favourite sociopath.

Although Todd Phillips makes use of DC characters, it is not a conventional comic book film by any means. Mind, you could think of it as an ‘origins’ film for the Joker. (Or an uber-Joker, for this character seems to predate the emergence of the actual Joker in the Batman series. But I confess that I am not up to speed with the cosmology of the DC Universe – all that Infinite Crisis stuff that they have put out in recent years, which clarifies very little and to my mind simply adds to the confusion- so maybe this guy is the Joker. Anyway, an issue for the fans to talk about.)

Here the Joker is recast as Batman’s older brother, the illegitimate son that Bruce Wayne’s father disowned. Cain and Abel were brothers…  and so too these ancient protagonists. The laughter is dark and sad and involuntary. Emetic. Aural vomit. Unpleasant to listen to. The jokes (touching on cruelty and chaos, human nature and everyday folly) are on all of us. At the end, Bruce’s parents are gunned down by a clown-masked destroyer – and we all know what happens next.

There is an electric moment where the Joker dances on a stairway leading down to an alley, glam rock playing in the background (I think a few riffs from Gary Glitter’s Leader of the Band: I have not heard his music in a while) as he goes off on a killing spree. Out to paint the town red – or is that luminescent purple?

I found the first twenty minutes of Joker a bit of a grind (what the hell is going on here?) but after that it soared and took flight. From then on, pure cinematic heaven.

 

The Last Tree

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The Last Tree

Directed by Shola Amoo

UK, 2019

HOME, 2 October 2019

The Last Tree

A raw, emotionally edgy, violent and tender film.

It tells the story of Femi, who moves from foster care in middle England to inner city London, where he lives in a high-rise flat together with his mother.

It is a culture shock and at first the bond with his mother is weak. Femi gets into trouble at school, becomes involved with a gang and soon his life is under threat. But somehow he never quite loses his soul, and an ability to empathize with people. It is wonderful to see how, in time, he turns to the people in his life. The ones who have showed up and managed to stick around. His mother above all.

Sam Adewumni is terrific as Femi, in a convincing film studded with fine performances.

 

 

The Laundromat

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The Laundromat

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

USA, 2019

HOME, 2 October 2019

The Laundromat

It is a well-meaning film, but a bit too moralistic and simplistic for my taste.

There is a cleverness to it,  Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as a pair of financiers, giving an account of their own dastardly careers, making you think of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, the camp villains in Diamonds are Forever. Meryl Streep is a widow (her husband dies in a boating accident and she has a bit of a nightmare trying to get fair compensation for his death), a character in one of the stories, but even she turns preachy at the end.

The problem is that the director would rather explain and complain about financial capitalism, and preach about it, rather than tell an immersive story with convincing characters, while touching on various themes raised by said capitslism. The explanations are simple and light, the preaching comes across as virtue-signalling (especially when mouthed by Streep) and the story is, naturally enough, unconvincing (it comes across as mere illustrative reconstruction than story, to be honest). It is just not enjoyable to watch.

Were there any memorable moments in the film? Well, I cannot remember any.

Stroszek

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Stroszek

Directed by Werner Herzog

West Germany, 1977

HOME, 27 September 2019

Stroszek

Werner Herzog’s America.

In Stroszek he shows us a forlorn Elsewhere of desolate lives subsisting on limpid dreams, a flatland where his queer pioneer scrabbles to survive. Stroszek is a misfit who believes, at the start of his journey anyway, that changing his immediate surroundings will save him. So he leaves a grimy, gritty Berlin for Wisconsin’s wide vistas. But changing his very own self, his habits, peccadilloes and predilections, that is something he cannot do. Needless to say, his sojourn is not a happy one. Misery is his cruel lot in Germany, undeniably, but in America it is worse.

The performing chickens and other small animals at the end, a characteristic touch of genius by Herzog, put me in mind of Kleist’s famous essay on puppet theatre. These sentient creatures, aglow with dancing and music and song, have the febrile glitter of cheap magic. They are animate automata, mechanical toys, and their antics mock Stroszek’s inability to radically change his life. He fails, yet so do we all. (People cannot ever really change their lives, can they?) Anyway, I love the denouement to the film, it is as though Herzog had stumbled upon a New World Cabinet of Curiosities.

And in the end, we realise, it has all turned to shit for Stroszek. His golden-hearted girl goes back to her old profession. He dreams up a plan to rob a bank, but it is closed so he goes to a barber’s shop instead. Even that goes awry. And self-dissolution, getting banged out of your head on booze, is never entirely successful. It didn’t work in Berlin and it doesn’t work here. For there is always a little light of awareness, of consciousness, peeking through the blurry clouds of oblivion. And what does consciousness mean, in a Werner Herzog film? Yes, consciousness means suffering, the capacity to experience pain. We know that art may console the soul, but the problem is that dire entertainment and zany amusement is all that is on offer in the Flatlands. Can that do the job as well? Well, why don’t you watch the film and see.

Stroszek was showing as part of the David Lynch’s True Favourites film season. Further details here.

 

Honeyland

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Honeyland

Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov

Macedonia, 2019

HOME, 25 September 2019

Honeyland

It looks like a documentary, this film, and at first you are not certain that it is a feature. It is a feature (I think…).

A story is told, anyway, so it is a documentary that has been shaped and sculptured in some way. Hatidze lives with her aged mother in an isolated village. They are the only ones there. She keeps bees. Her practice is to take half of their honey to leave the bees half. It is sustainable, and works for them both.

Then into the village, some newcomers arrive. A family with livestock, intending to farm and keep bees too. At first Hatidze welcomes them, helps them, gives them advice as to how to tend their bees. But the family is under pressure from their landlord. They need to maximise the output from their livestock and bees, get the most out them. It doesn’t work, that is the first thing to say: the bees sting them, for starters. But their approach impacts on Hatidze’s life and livelihood. How could it not

It is a beautiful film, superb cinematography capturing the landscape, which is stunning. In one wonderful scene we see Hatidze walking in the mountains towards a bee enclave as a plane flies by, high in the sky. A faraway plane, yet an imminent threat to her way of life. All in all, a tender portrait of Hatidze, a remarkable woman. I especially liked the moments with mother and daughter alone in their dark home (a cave or catacomb almost) with a candle lit between them. It is like looking at a Caravaggio.

Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response

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Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response

The Bridgewater Hall, 19 September 2019

Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response. Conductor Klaus Makela, photo by Heikki Tuuli

Beethoven and Shostakovich: ferociously intelligent music.

Klaus Makela (pictured) conducted the Halle this evening, and they played these three wonderful works:

  • Beethoven: Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus
  • Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1
  • Shostakovich: Symphony No.5

Beethoven’s ‘Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus’, the great composer’s only ballet score, was full of vivid images and versatile invention. Being something of a Promethean figure himself, it is hardly surprising that Beethoven was atttracted to the subject. It is a ballet where Prometheus plays God, bringing a male and female statue to life. Time for a revival?

As for his ‘Piano Concerto No.1’, well it is a masterpiece, clearly. I loved the Largo, the second movement, though in truth it was all good. Some passages are playful, others possess a raw power, an ineluctable rhythm and irresistible force. Víkingur Ólafsson played piano with consummate skill; and his encore, a Bach adagio for a friend who had just died, was plenty moving too. Both Beethoven works, incidentally, were first performed n Vienna.

Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony No.5’ was a complex, ambivalent epic, a tussle between authenticity and irony. The first movement, incorporating a quote from Carmen, was slushy and romantic. While the second featured a Landler, a slow waltz. In the third, a Largo, you were drenched in longing. Which led you to ask, Where was the composer going to take us next? Well the fourth and final movement was a military march, all that torment and anguish directed outward. Violence in service of the revolution. The question to be asked, though it can never be answered, is whether the symphony should be taken at face value. Was Shostakovich for real? Or was he being ironic? Was this music – spectacular as it often was – simply a show to avoid as show trial?

The Halle will be performing the same concert program on future dates, further details here.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

For Sama

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For Sama

Directed by Edward Watts and Waad Al-Kateab

UK, 2019

HOME, 19 September 2019

For Sama

Harrowing dispatches from a city under seige.

Waad al-Kateab’s film, dedicated to her daughter Sama, charts life in Aleppo as it comes under bombardment from Syrian and Russian forces. Five long years, and counting. Waad is the wife of a doctor, Hamza, and she and her camera witness many moments of death and grief. You see blood on the floor, corpses abandoned in a white-tiled room. Inconsolable suffering everywhere. This is a film where children die, where brothers and mothers grieve. It is not an easy watch.

Mind, there are sometimes moments of black humour (say, a mother recounting how her child would piss down her back whenever the shelling starts) and even miracle (a baby, seemingly dead, cries into life).

You realise that these people feel (correctly) that they are alone in the world. Yes, they must daily face the hostility of Assad and Putin’s henchmen. Yet they must also accept each day the West’s indifference their plight. Western leaders may have called, following the Arab Spring, for Assad to go. But after Iraq, no Western nation was ever going to act to make that happen. So the carnage goes on.

Sunset Boulevard

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Sunset Boulevard

Directed by Billy Wilder

USA, 1950

HOME, 17 September 2019

Sunset Boulevard

An American film, although with Austrian elements too.

There is, to start with, Erich von Stroheim’s presence and Billy Wilder’s script and direction. And the story, the way that William Holden’s protagonist Joe Gillis is drawn into Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) clutches puts you in mind of both Stefan Zweig’s great novel Beware of Pity (because Joe does feel pity for Norma, her depression and suicide attempts and general mental instability) and various Austrian artists’ attraction to the figure of the femme fatale. You think of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, the role that tempts Norma out of retirement. And the related figure of Judith, painted by Klimt and Cranach (Cranach’s painting of Judith is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Were these images swirling about in Wilder’s mind when he came to write the story?

Nonetheless Sunset Boulevard owes much to film noir and to hard-boiled crime novels with their penchant for first person narration.

Hollywood is a poisonous presence in the film. It is a locus and portal of dreams, not always healthy ones. It peddles fantasies, which can transmute into obsession and perversion. Unrealities. When Joe meets Norma he is drawn into the past (a vanished Europe?) away from America and the future of an open road. Hope, the sanity of a social world – he leaves that all behind.

It shows a nostalgia for silent films, the sacred power inherent in the pure theatrical gesture, when stars possessed a kind of royal mystery. A mystery now lost in an age of vulgar speech, slick banter (at which Joe is adept) and shallow celebrity.

Sunset Boulevard, an undoubted masterpiece, was showing as part of the David Lynch’s True Favourites film season. Further details here.

Red Dust Road @ HOME

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Red Dust Road

Written by Jackie Kay and adapted by Tanika Gupta

HOME and the National Theatre of Scotland

HOME, 12 September 2019

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden, and Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Photograph by Richard Davenport.

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden, and Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Photograph by Richard Davenport.

A portrait of a poet who is always on pilgrimage.

This play is a heartwarming, sometimes humorous adaptation of Jackie Kay’s fine memoir. At the close, you come away happy, though you feel that Kay’s life wasn’t always like that. She has had a lot to contend with. There was the racism of ’70s Scotland and, as a black child adopted by white parents, her identity was always going to be conflicted. Mind, it is clear here that she could always depend on the love of her parents. Later, at university, she came out as a lesbian (cue disco music).

There are strong performances throughout the play. From Sasha Frost as Kay herself, even though she isn’t quite able to capture the full-throated warmth of Kay’s own voice, and from Elaine C. Smith and Lewis Howden as Kay’s parents. Irene Allan plays Elizabeth, Kay’s birth mother, and there is a moment where she sings a harrowing, heartfelt Scots ballad (during a sequence where the play quotes from The Adoption Papers, and we hear the voices of the two mothers). It is the still, standout moment in the play.

If Red Dust Road has a flaw it is that there is a slightly precious, over-reverential attitude to Africa and Kay’s Ibo identity. As though this might offer a final answer, a true key to unlocking what makes her who she is. An authentic end to all her searching. Yet even this notion is undercut. In modern Nigeria, on the journey to her ‘ancestral village’, Kay is pestered by policemen demanding kickbacks.

Red Dust Road is a multi-layered play about a woman with a multi-layered identity. It is showing at HOME until 21 September, details here.

Rojo

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Rojo

Directed by Benjamín Naishtat

Argentina, 2018

HOME, 7 September 2019

Rojo

This disconcerting, disquieting film is set in Argentina prior to mid-’70s coup.

The protagonist is Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), a successful lawyer who is at the edge of violence. He is a moral agent who chooses not to act. Is it complicit in murder? Well, not if he can be later implicated. Does he stand up to injustice and profiteering? There would be a danger in that, wouldn’t there, so no. He is reluctant, yet willing to turn a blind eye.

The import of the film seems to be that state acts – and here one thinks of Latin America’s ‘Disappeared’ – are preceded by individual acts of violence, theft, jealousy, a desire to profit from others’ misfortune. We see the shadows – an eclipse even – before the darkness falls. At the film’s end, anyway, darkness does fall.

In one scene a mother goes into a church because her son is missing. He has not returned home, has disappeared. A priest is nowhere to be seen. The response of man in prayer, an avowed Christian (Alfredo Castro, who plays a private detective, brilliantly), is along the lines of: ‘I am not your son’s keeper.’

A very impressive accomplishment.

 

Pain and Glory

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Pain and Glory

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Spain, 2019

HOME, 8 September 2019

Pain and Glory

It is an autobiographical film, but an artful one too.

There is an elegance and a restraint to it all, a tenderness even, not least Antonio Banderas’s central performance as Salvador, a film director suffering from a prolonged creative block. He is frail and vulnerable and I like the authenticity of his small movements. The reluctance to bend his back (perhaps he cannot) when putting on his clothes. The way he walks, cautious and slow. The way he gets up after sitting down. He is a man who knows what pain is, who manages it as he can.

The story is captivating and humorous, uplifting at the end, yet throughout it is studded with moments of poignancy and pain. There is one great line, so desperately sad and honest that it must be true. That is when Salvador says that, while his mother and the people in their village made him who he is, he failed his mother as a son ‘by being who I am’.

I like also the allusions to Spain and its hinterlands. Argentina, Cuba and Mexico are places of significance. Salvador reads Roberto Bolano, underlines passages in one of his novels. And his drama samples a song by the tumultuous Chavela Vargas, a trans/gay pioneer long admired by Almodóvar.

A late masterpiece.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts @ Jewish Museum Vienna

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Arik Brauer: All of My Arts

Curated by Danielle Spera and Daniela Pscheiden

3 April 2019 – 20 October 2019

Jewish Museum Vienna

Arik Brauer, um 1965 (c) Brigitte Lüttge-Dauth.jpg

Arik Brauer, um 1965 (c) Brigitte Lüttge-Dauth

At the Jewish Museum Vienna there are two exhibitions, each very different from the other, each in its own unique way compelling.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts is a survey of the great Austrian artist’s life and work. His paintings are much in evidence. Yes, the Fantastic Realism masterpieces but also, as well, a Bosch pastiche that he completed whilst a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna (unlike Hitler, he got in) and a number of coloured drawings he did  even earlier, when a child: beautiful, prodigiously accomplished drawings.

You get to hear as well many of his most famous songs. For those unfamiliar with Brauer’s music, imagine Dylan writing not in an American idiom a la Woody Guthrie but in a contemporary update of Johann Nestroy’s Viennese Deutsch. You will have a pretty good sense of why Brauer is admired  as a singer-songwriter.

Also in the exhibition there is a chess set , I think though set up wrong (on the board, the white square is not on the right hand side, unless I have read it wrong); a clip from a French film, Les distractions (English title: Trapped by Fear), with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Parisian cool playing off against Brauer’s passionate song. Another section of the exhibition explores Brauer’s buildings: architecture became an interest for him in his mid-late career. And much else besides.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts is an exhibition that does full justice to the great artist’s’s fecund creativity.

As it happens, the other exhibition, Café As. The Survival of Simon Wiesenthal, is also about architecture. It is curated by Michaela Vocelka and runs until January 2020.

When Simon Wiesenthal was at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, he made friends with a fellow prisoner named Edmund Staniszewski. Staniszewski had an ambition to start a café after the war (if he survived, that is) and Wiesenthal, who had trained as an architect, designed some plans for him. He made sketches and drawings of the premises, its outside and interior, and even thought about staff uniforms. Here is Wiesenthal’s design of a chess room within the cafe. Note the chequered floor and seat coverings, the rook depicted as a tank turret in the painting on the wall, where we see as well a pawn being carried away on a stretcher. No doubt it has been sacrificed for the greater good…

Schachzimmer des Café As (c) Jüdisches Museum Wien

Schachzimmer des Café As (c) Jüdisches Museum Wien

This project was a hinterland for both men, you sense, a shared dream that likely helped them to survive the dire situation that they found themselves in. In planning the future of the Cafe As, they projected themselves into the future and reaffirmed their resolve to survive.

You see a slue of Wiesenthal’s designs in this exhibition, along with letters and photos and other archival materials. It is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this fierce warrior for justice.

Further details of Arik Brauer: All of My Arts can be found here.

Further details of Café As. The Survival of Simon Wiesenthal can be found here.

The Pointe Dances @ Theatremuseum Wien

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The Pointe Dances: 150 Years of Ballet at the Wiener Staatsoper

Curated by Andrea Amort

16 May 2019 – 13 January 2020

Theatremuseum Wien

VIEW OF THE SIDE STAGE AT THE WIENER STAATSOPER, REHEARSAL OF "SWAN LAKE" (2.3 MB) © Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

Side-stage view at the Wiener Staatsoper, during a rehearsal of Swan Lake.
© Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

At the minute, at the Theatermuseum in Vienna, you can see two dance-related exhibitions: The Pointe Dances and Everybody Dances, both curated by Andrea Amort.

The Pointe Dances looks at the history of ballet in Vienna, from the early seventeenth century to the present day, with the focus firmly on ballet at (what is now) the Wiener Staatsoper. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Ringstrasse was built, and in 1869 Vienna’s main ballet company moved into (what was then) the Hofoper am Ring building. Ballet performances have been taking place there (and elsewhere too, mind: I saw a wonderful production of Coppelia earlier this year at the Volksoper out past the Wahringer Strasse) virtually ever since.

Notable historical highlights include Richard Strauss’s reign, from the end of World War One to the early ‘20s, so right at the birth of Austria as a republic, and Rudolf Nureyev’s tenure in the 1960s, where he famously devised a new way of doing Swan Lake. His version is still in production at the Wiener Staatsoper, incidentally; I saw one such performance in February. In this exhibition there are myriad photographs of dancers and productions, together with related films and video clips and diverse archival materials such as posters, postcards and letters. A treasure trove for fans of ballet.

With Everybody Dances, also curated by Andrea Amort, you get something different: a history of modern dance in Vienna (and Greater Vienna and, to some extent, Austria itself) from about 1900 to now. And it is still very much a vital tradition, what with the flagship ImPulsTanz festival taking place in Vienna each Summer. Bestriding this exhibition you have the gigantic presence of Rosalia Chladek (1905-1995) – charismatic dancer, inventive choreographer and influential dance theorist – although, as the title implies, it covers popular dance as well as the avant-garde. In Vienna, especially Rote Wien, dance was not an exclusively elitist pursuit.

I was surprised to learn that Isadora Duncan had once danced in Vienna, at the Secession no less, in 1902, and that Klimt (amongst other artists) was in the audience on that occasion. And here is a weird and wonderful photograph of an avant-garde dance troupe, captured in mid-1930s Vienna:

TÄNZERINNEN DES ENSEMBLES GERTRUD BODENWIESER IN "DÄMON MASCHINE", 1936, FOTO: DʼORA-BENDA Theatermuseum © KHM-Museumsverband

TÄNZERINNEN DES ENSEMBLES GERTRUD BODENWIESER IN “DÄMON MASCHINE”, 1936, FOTO: DʼORA-BENDA
Theatermuseum © KHM-Museumsverband

Also at the Theatremuseum, for the last couple of years and for a few years more one hopes, you can see masterpieces by Bosch, Cranach, Titian, Rubens and others. The Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, much of it anyway, has been installed at the Theatremuseum while the Academy of Fine Arts building is being refurbished. You can also see Lifelines, an exhibition of drawings by Rembrandt, there at the moment until 22 September 2019.

The Theatermuseum has always been one of Vienna’s hidden gems, and just now there is an awful lot worth seeing. So check it out.

Further details of The Pointe Dances: 150 Years of Ballet at the Wiener Staatsoper can be found here.

Further details of Everybody Dances: The Cosmos of Viennese Dance Modernism can be found here.

Further details of the Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, including the Lifelines exhibition, can be found here.

Details of current and forthcoming exhibitions at the Theatremuseum Wien can be found here.

The Last Day @ Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

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The Last Day

Photographs by Helmut Wimmer

2 March 2018 – 15 August 2019

Bassano Saal, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Fotoserie „The Last Day“ © Foto: Helmut Wimmer

Fotoserie „The Last Day“
© Foto: Helmut Wimmer

In the Bassano Saal at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, there was an exhibition of a dozen photographs by Helmut Wimmer, going by the collective title of The Last Day.

Now ended, alas, it was an exhibition with an apocalyptic, revenge of nature flavour, but we can certainly expect to see more work like this as the reality, the overwhelming presence of climate change, hits home. Here we have the grand staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum – a Greek warrior raising his sword, the scene of myriad selfies – exposed to the elements, looking for all the world as though it is overgrown with earth and twigs and moss. We see, in one photograph, cranes – at least, I think they are cranes: they are birds with a stately, distinguished plumage at any rate – wandering through a room adorned with one of Velasquez’s portraits of an infant Hapsburg prince. A courtly scene that would not look out of place in a Werner Herzog movie.

In the Bruegel room (see below), the artist’s painting of a winter journey (or of a return from a hunt, I forget which) is visible on one wall – and you can spy others, the peasant not looking where he is going, say – snow is encroaching. Winter is coming.

Fotoserie „The Last Day“ © Foto: Helmut Wimmer

Fotoserie „The Last Day“
© Foto: Helmut Wimmer

In other photographs there are rooms that contain rocky cliffs, petrified trees, a lake reflecting (Monet-like) Renaissance masterpieces. And a few rooms are flooded with water, the waves crashing and swirling. There are a typical museum-goers in many of these photographs too, doing the usual museum-goer things. Such as looking at paintings intently, consulting catalogs and explanatory text, fiddling with their phones. Being alternately hyper-attentive and impervious to their surroundings. All of which, perfectly captured by Helmut Wimmer, seems about right. For wouldn’t that be what you would expect to happen?

For about the end of the world, they were never wrong, the Old Masters. How well they understood that the end of civilization (like Christ carrying the cross to Calvary in Bruegel’s great painting) would take place while people were doing ordinary, everyday things. Like, in a modern museum setting, looking at a picture or taking a selfie or – in the cafe on the first floor – mashing whipped cream into a Sachertorte.

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien is a wonderful museum which is not unlike the National Gallery in London. In that it has ramshackle charm and is organised in quite an hackneyed way, but you can forgive all that – and even the cafe located slap-bang in the middle of it, which the National Gallery has not yet thought of, thank God – because it is piled to the rafters with masterpieces. A treasure trove of great art, in fact.

Further details of The Last Day can be found here.

Helmut Wimmer’s website is here.

Details of current and forthcoming exhibitions at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien can be found here.

MELTDOWN @ Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

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MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure

Curated by Lina Aastrup

5 June 2019 – 8 September 2019

Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure

Certainly this was the most challenging and topical exhibition in Vienna this summer, and it is at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien for only a fortnight more.

MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure aims to visually represent the effect of climate change, at times by showing glaciers before (using historic photos taken from various archives, etc.) and after: that is to say now, today. And the change, the loss of a precious planetary resource (and natural beauty as well, of course) was often startling.

Curiously, one effect of the loss of glaciers – as one clump within the exhibition explained – is that borders between countries will need to be re-calibrated and (maybe) redrawn. A process whereby the rightful ownership of assets is called into question and can become, perhaps, a matter of controversy and conflict. So Austria and Italy had a bit of a kerfuffle recently over the discovery of a well preserved prehistoric man. He was found in what was not so long ago Austria, but is now Italy. This case was settled amicably, by all accounts, but we can expect these sort of disputes to multiply in the future.

Another issue is that the loss of glaciers, the dissolution of snow, will make it easier to access natural gas and precious metals and minerals. Already countries are making robust claims over areas of the Arctic, pushing these more seriously than they have done hitherto. And Trump’s supposed offer to buy Greenland, which I read about after visiting this exhibition, belongs in this playbook too. Here is a vision of our future: countries squabbling over the planet’s dwindling resources, rather than trying to stem their loss, with leaders of the most vociferous countries even denying that climate change is taking place at all.

There is another exhibition at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien that is well worth your time as well. FLORA PHOTOGRAPHICA: The Time Between, an exhibition of photographs by Petra Lutnyk, runs until 6 October 2019. These are wonderful photographs, mainly of flowers, with a few English roses thrown in the mix. She has  an extraordinary eye for nature’s fragility; with each ethereal image you see blossom and decay.

Further details of MELTDOWN can be found here.

Further details of FLORA PHOTOGRAPHICA can be found here.

GBH

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GBH

By Ted Lewis

No Exit Press, 2020

ISBN: 9780857302939

GBH

George Fowler is the protagonist here, and his surname is surely deliberate.

There is a foul stench about him, a tenebrous whiff of damnation, which gradually comes to permeate the whole novel.

Fowler is the head of a criminal enterprise and he makes his money from pornography and worse, snuff movies, footage of torture (the real thing, he brags, because that is what he and his clients demand). He has legit businesses too.

When Fowler discovers that someone is stealing from him, doctoring the books, he – or rather they, for his wife Jean takes an intimate interest in the business – begins to target possible culprits. At the start, it seems, violence is used merely as a tool; a weapon to be wielded dispassionately, an effective way to get things done. They interrogate and beat up on people to get answers: are you stealing from us? But in a short while – perhaps because Jean corrupts Fowler, though in truth it is not so difficult to do – it becomes a recreation as well. Violence for fun. Sadism.

We see Fowler at two stages in his life. So in what you could call ‘The Sea’ chapters he is alone, hiding out (why?), mourning his wife Jean, lying low, living in a kind of purgatory. While in ‘The Smoke’ chapters we see him in his prime, Jean at his side, a powerful man taking care of business; and a stench of seething corruption everywhere. In the end, Fowler’s past catches up with him, and it is almost as though he wills his own execution.

It is a powerful novel still, this one, even though it came out originally in 1980 (so slam-bang 40 years ago) and name-checks Mary Whitehouse at one point (page 57, in case you are interested), the original conservative woman. You sense that he knew, did Ted Lewis, what people were like, the evil that they were capable of, and the novel has an unshowy authenticity about it, which somehow makes it all the more convincing.

The structure of the novel is formally interesting as well. In ‘The Sea’ chapters we have Fowler alone in what looks like a seaside town in the off-season, at times looking back but above all waiting, waiting, waiting. While in ‘The Smoke’ chapters we have Fowler in the bustle of the city, unaware of what is to come. The two types of chapter alternate throughout the novel, until they converge at the close.

Curiously, I thought of Faust (Marlowe’s play above all) not a few times while reading GBH. Like Faust, Fowler is damaged and damned. He is a monster, that is dead cert, but he has his torments and paranoia. He is cursed and he suffers. And he becomes a victim at the end.

A final thought: I didn’t like any of the people here really. But if you were to ask: do I believe that they could, or did, exist? My answer would be Yes.

The publisher’s description of GBH can be read here.

Bent

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Bent

By Joe Thomas

Arcadia Books, 2020

ISBN: 9781911350736

Bent

A portrait of a rogue cop working the beat in 1960s Soho.

It is a stylishly written novel, this one, and it is remarkable also for the way in which Joe Thomas gets inside the head of his cop, one Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor. Tanky had been in the SAS during World War Two, running raids behind enemy lines in Italy and France, yet now – here in London at the start of the Swinging Sixties – he finds himself curiously out of place. He fought the good fight against fascism, so that others could have their freedom, and is disconcerted when those others – some of them anyway, wrong ‘uns, feral brats whose childhoods were likely spent playing in the ruins of the Blitz – make the most of it. As a cop he uses the same dirty tricks that he learnt in the SAS (though there has been a role-reversal: he is now the man in authority, the interrogator), and he is well willing to bend the rules in order to grab a delinquent’s collar, yet he has also been bent out of shape by his wartime experiences.

The story concerns a young mob running a protection racket, or trying to get one off the ground at any rate, by muscling in on the enterprises of an older, more established villain. There are also the beginnings of political protest and terrorism. Of equal importance to the story, mind, is the feel of place: a grimy, post-war (for the ‘60s were still post-war, in many respects) London. And rearing over the landscape of that great city, bestriding its streets yet somehow alienated by all that is going on around him, is Tanky. Thomas’s heroic, venal and, yes, staunch portrait is absolutely compelling, and he gives his cop an epic stature. If you want to bring Tanky to mind, try to imagine Richard III as painted by Francis Bacon. You won’t be far wrong.

The publisher’s description of Bent, a novel of often visionary intensity, can be read here.