Lost Kingdom


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Lost Kingdom

By Serhii Plokhy

Allen Lane, 2017

ISBN: 9780241255575

Lost Kingdom

Though all nations are founded on fantasy and falsehood, you have to concede that Russia has had it bad.

Their foundational myth is of a great Russian nation torn asunder by marauding invaders (Genghis Khan and the Mongols), then put together again (though incompletely) by the Tsars. It is a myth with a grain of truth and it explains, perhaps, why Russians feel constantly under threat, beset on all sides by enemies. Why they have a suspicious stance towards the world that seems out of kilter with reality. Why their outward aggression is so often explained (excused?) as a prophylactic and pre-emptive response to outside enemies.

Serhii Plokhy’s fine book traces how the notion of Russia as a lost kingdom has played itself out over five centuries, from Ivan the Great to Catherine the Second, from the Romanovs to Lenin and Stalin, ending with the current President, a certain Vladimir Putin. His thesis is twofold:

  • The notion of a Great Russia, a lost kingdom in need of reunification and redemption, continues to exert a pull on those in power in Russia today; and on ordinary Russian citizens as well. It has shaped Russian identity and saturated Russian culture.
  • In part because of the corrosive power of this founding myth, Russia has itself become a bewildered and lost kingdom. You think of Keats’ knight-at-arms, ‘alone and palely loitering’, although Russia, a nuclear power still if no longer a superpower, and with a hankering for expansion (the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine was indicative of that), is more dragon than knight: the veneration of St George notwithstanding. And Russia’s newly minted capacity for waging cyber-war means it can make much mischief far beyond its borders, if it so wants.

As evidence of Plokhy’s second point, consider for a moment Putin’s notion of ‘the Russian World’, which he first introduced in a talk given to an audience of writers and artists. This sounded at first sight (and was originally meant to be, perhaps) something like the British Council: a projection of soft power, an encouragement to people to read Pushkin and see Swan Lake, to take an interest in Russian language and culture generally. So far, all sweet reason: who could possibly object? But then Putin used it (a pan-Russian, pan-Slavic orientation) as a pretext to invade Ukraine. There was, apparently, an urgent need to protect the ethnic Russian speakers there. The Russian world was not limited to the borders of the Russian Federation. Putin’s was a Nazi move. Hitler used the same sort of pretext to invade Czechoslovakia: a need to protect the Sudeten Germans. And it was a bit mad as well: as though Austria were to set out to recreate the Habsburg empire by invading its neighbours and so recovering a Golden Age…

There is a slogan that the current crop of Russian nationalists use to sum up their project: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus / There you have it: Holy Rus’. The problem with this is that Ukraine and Belarus and Poland too (some of the primordial Russian lands are in present-day Poland) are all sovereign states. Poland is, as well, a member of NATO. So to achieve Holy Rus’ will entail military conflict, probably with the West. Russian nationalism – beguiled by a vision of a lost kingdom – is a danger to its neighbours, to the world and to Russia itself.

The publisher’s description of the book is here.



The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America


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The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

By Timothy Snyder

Tim Duggan Books, 2018

ISBN: 9780525574460
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

Timothy Snyder’s book could hardly be more timely, what with the Skripals’ poisoning and the allied military strike in Syria, following the use of chemical weapons.

Fallout from that military strike remains extremely uncertain at the time of writing, but this book, as you may have guessed, is all about Russia. It dissects the autocratic, some might say fascist, kleptocracy it has become under Putin. It traces the malign encroachment on the integrity of the governments and institutions of Europe – cyber-attacks, interference in national elections and the like. It recounts the violent annexation of Crimea and the cruel invasion of Ukraine. And finally, there is Russia’s sly and sinister tampering in the American election that saw Donald trump emerge as victor.

In telling these and other histories, Snyder challenges two attitudes that many hold about the modern world: a belief that progress (or an imagined, ideal future) will happen all by itself: he calls this ‘the politics of inevitability’; and a fatalism that the same old shit will happen, whatever: ‘the politics of eternity’, that’s this one. I wonder, though, whether these two attitudes are not one and the same (indifference, passivity), depending on whether you’re one of life’s winners or one of life’s losers. Anyway, he wants to replace these attitudes with engagement and activism based on historical understanding and respect for facts. His heroes are reporters, those brave souls who get out there on the ground and place themselves in harm’s way. His villains are media columnists, opinion-formers like Seamus Milne who follow the Russia Today line. (In The Guardian, once, facts were sacred.) Truth, that’s the prime value.

There is a lot of meat in this substantial though wordy book, unlike his previous On Tyranny, which was basically a Facebook post with a little padding (at least it didn’t have an extreme excess of padding, like Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life book: as soon as this genre dies out, the better). Here, we are given vivid portraits of Alexander Dugin and Alexander Prokhanov and other members of the Izborsk Club (the Metaphysical Club it ain’t), a coterie of fruitcakes and nutcases and grotesque personages that have a shot-light bulb, Eurasian, pan-Russian ideology that belongs in another century. One originator of this ideology was Lev Gumilyov, the son of Anna Akhmatova and the subject of her great poem Requiem. Snyder calls all of these fellows fascists, sometimes ‘schizofascists’ (as I said, he’s a bit wordy), and he is not wrong. They come across like characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a James Ellroy novel, call it Russian Tabloid. But, unfortunately for us and for Russia, they have real influence on Putin and those around him.

One of the most compelling parts of the book describes the shooting down of the MH17, a reckless Russian military strike where 298 civilians, most of them European citizens, died. Snyder outlines the steps that the Russians took to obscure their guilt. He calls one stratagem ‘implausible deniability’: you lie and lie (‘It wasn’t me, Guv’), while at the same time putting out multiple versions (often contradictory) of the same event, even though you don’t really expect people to believe you. The purpose is to make the truth, the factual account of what actually happened, simply one version among many. To degrade truth, to divest the facts of their veridicality. Sound familiar? After recounting and placing side by side the diverse Russian explanations of the destruction of the MH17, Snyder concludes that ‘the fictional world thus constructed would be impossible , since its various elements could not coexist.’ It has come to this: in Putin’s Russia, Daniil Kharms is a realist.

What is the nature of Putin’s game? On my understanding, Snyder’s view is something like this: Russia cannot get better or stronger, or Putin cannot or doesn’t want to improve the lot of its people. (Think of Putin’s Russia as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: a kleptocracy.) Russia is unwilling to subordinate itself to the European Union, for example, like other Eastern European countries have done. So the policy then becomes to weaken other countries, because they have what it cannot have. By and large, these other countries are liberal democracies: the member states of the European Union and America. Hence Putin’s support for the Far Right in Germany, France and Italy. His support for Trump in the American election. It is not a grown-up strategy, and it is hardly sustainable without conflict of some sort.

There are thought-provoking insights scattered throughout the book. Snyder’s remark that hybrid war is ‘war plus’ not ,as many assume, ‘war minus’ hit the mark. Likewise, his statement that China is Russia’s real geopolitical rival (perhaps particularly on Russia’s Far East?) and that Russia’s Achilles’ Heel is the lack of a succession principle: who will follow Putin? And how will this happen, since Russia is not a democracy? These all made sense. From a British perspective, his diagnosis that the nation-state cannot survive long on its own is troubling, post-Brexit. We are used to thinking of Britain as a nation state – that is what our politicians tell us – but really we are a former Empire. Look at how ungainly Britain is – e.g., sovereign territories in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Gibraltar – these are the legacy of Empire.

Finally, and also from a British perspective, it is interesting to note that Seamus Milne, now Labour’s strategy and communications honcho, has links to Putin’s Russia. In this, he stands alongside Nick Griffin, former leader of the BNP: not the kind of fellow traveller you’d like to keep company with. These links have hardly been explored in the mainstream media, but they perhaps explain why his puppet (or should that be muppet?), that Jeremy Corbin fellow, was so lukewarm when came to holding Russia accountable for the Skripal poisonings. Syria, Russia’s ally, also got an easy ride despite the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Was Corbyn towing the party line as laid down by Milne and Moscow? You can read more about Seamus Milne, Nick Griffin and Putin’s other useful idiots in Britain in a Henry Jackson Society report here.

The Road to Unfreedom is a compelling work of contemporary history, though whether Putin is an actual danger to the West, or simply a pest and mischief-maker, remains to be seen. The publisher’s description of the book is here.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk


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The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

By Daniel Jamieson

Kneehigh Theatre and Bristol Old Vic

HOME, 4 April 2018


A splash of splenetic colour – go see!

In his autobiography My Life, recently reissued by Penguin, Marc Chagall describes his work as ‘a wild art, a blazing mercury, a blue soul leaping on my canvases’; and this show is as alive with colour as any of his paintings – it too could have been dreamt by an angel.

We are told the story of Marc’s life with his wife Bella in Vitebsk and beyond, up until her death in 1944. Many of his paintings show the couple flying above that town – like Renaissance angels looking protectively on the townsfolk below – and here the lovers sing and dance and (almost) fly. There is music throughout the show : klezmer, cossack, a touch elegiac. And Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood, the two principals, are superb dancers as well as actors. They give it all they’ve got.

You are shown Chagall’s world: cockatoos and cows (a green cow here – he has a brilliantly radiant blue cow in the Albertina in Vienna), samovars and menorahs, synagogues and farmyards. Now, that world is gone – it was vanishing as he painted it – and that gives his work (which can veer ever so slightly toward whimsy) a fragile beauty.

The play doesn’t quite capture the full grandeur of Chagall’s art. In his work in the 1940s (and even later) he would place post-Holocaust Christs – a very Jewish Jesus, crucified – within his world. And with good reason: more Jews died in mass murders in places like Vitebsk, towns and villages in Eastern Europe, than in either the death camps or concentration camps. We don’t realise this for various reasons, foremost because there were almost no survivors or witnesses (the so-called ‘Auschwitz paradox’). And because the national archives of Belarus (etc.) were inaccessible until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, by which time the history of the Holocaust (with its familiar tropes of mass deportations, the camps, the gas chambers, etc.) had already been written. Perhaps, also, because of a bias against Ostjuden.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is at HOME until 7 April. Details here.

Plot 35


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Plot 35

Directed by Eric Caravaca

France, 2017

HOME, 29 March 2018Plot 35

The film-maker digs deep into his family history, trying to uncover traces of a sister who died before he was born.

Scant documents bearing her name exist. There are no photographs of the small child, who may have died when three years or four months old.

During an interview, Caravaca’s elder brother is perplexed by his mother’s protean stories. The mother herself is evasive and trustworthy. While the father’s account contradicts hers. That the family, of Spanish and Moroccan origin, had come to France from Casablanca complicates matters somewhat.

At one point there is an attempt to conflate the lacunae in the family’s remembrance with the lacunae in French colonial history – blindspots with regard to violent oppression in Morocco and Algeria – but it falls a bit flat. Yet apart from that, it is a very moving film. A very personal and brave film as well.


A Skeleton Plays Violin


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A Skeleton Plays Violin

By Georg Trakl

Translated by James Reidel

Seagull Books, 2017

ISBN: 9780857424297

A Skeleton Plays Violin

Though sometimes described as a war poet, Georg Trakl (1887-1914) was only coincidentally so: that was where and when he died.

This book, the third and final volume of James Reidel’s rendering of Trakl’s poetry into English, is by far the most revealing of the three. For while volumes one and two gave us Trakl’s completed and published books – Gedichte (1913) and the posthumous Sebastian im Traum (1915) – this wide ranging, astutely chosen selection shows us where Trakl had been, what he was about, how he might have gone forward – or why an early death was not such an unlikely outcome. You get a rounded picture of the man and his work.

There are five sections to A Skeleton Plays Violin and, a big plus for a newcomer to the poet, a critical biographical essay by Reidel that spans the entire volume. The first section, ‘Published Prose and Poetry, 1906-1909’, contains Trakl’s earliest poetry, all of which appeared in various Salzburg newspapers, Salzburg being the city where he grew up and indulged his passion for drugs (notably opium and cocaine) and rambling and moseying about: he was an enthusiastic Spazierganger, we are told.

In 1908 Trakl left Salzburg to study pharmacy in Vienna, a fateful career choice. He took in the literary and artistic scene, getting to know such luminaries as Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos, and was soon joined by his sister Grete. This period of his life finds unified, thematic expression in the poems in ‘Collation of 1909’, which in Reidel’s view ‘can be read as an unpublished early book’. You find passion, eroticism and despair in these poems, many directed towards his sister: in one poem, ‘Blood Guilt’, the language is stark and confessional. His admissions are the red-raw bruises of a desperate tussle. However, it is unclear whether Georg and Grete had an actual, physical relationship. It may be that he, like the Symbolist and Decadent poets he’d been reading, was toying with transgression and sin. Parking his taboo desires in the poems, as it were, out of harm’s way.

As for ‘Poems, 1909-1912’, these were the bedrock out of which Trakl’s first book came. They were written, the last of them, when he was living in Innsbruck, where he worked at a military hospital. He apparently suffered from severe depression and panic attacks during this period. Indeed, ‘Poems, 1912-1914’, the seedbed of his second book burns with a curious intensity as well. The reader is exposed to a profusion of toxic, traumatic images that seem as intimate as memories. There is a compulsion to dwell on what is broken, abandoned and ephemeral. Riedel speaks somewhere of Trakl as a liminal being, a ghost perhaps, and it is in these poems in particular (take the poem beginning ‘O the leaf-stripped beeches, and the blackish snow’ as one instance) that you think of the peopleless landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, which Trakl may have seen in Vienna (a fair few are housed in the Belvedere now). Every scene is haunted, a source of nagging pain. There is no peace, no letting go.

When the Great War broke out, Trakl’s training as a pharmacist meant that he was assigned as a medical officer to an infantry unit. During fierce fighting in Galicia, many of his comrades were wounded and he could do little to alleviate their suffering. He was out of his depth. To function at all, he began to self-medicate. Reidel’s final section, ‘Published Prose and Poetry, 1913-1915’, includes two very fine war poems – ‘In the East’ and ‘Grodek’ – but they transcend the desperate circumstances of the war (or perhaps: they do full justice to it?). Certain of Isaac Rosenberg poems, for example ‘Returning, We Hear Larks’, have something of the transcendent quality of these ‘war poems’ too.

Georg Trakl died of a cocaine overdose on 2 November 1914, the day before he was due to meet his patron, Ludwig Wittgenstein. It was a suspected suicide to start with, but in fact probably an accident. Mind, Trakl’s whole way of life veered, if not toward self-destruction then toward an embrace of reckless risk. Let the final words go to Karl Kraus, who is quoted within the book:

He is surely no victim of war. It was always inconceivable to me that he could live. His madness wrestled with godly things.

The publisher’s description of A Skeleton Plays Violin can be read here.

The Third Murder


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The Third Murder

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda

Japan, 2017

HOME, 29 March 2018

The Third Murder

You cannot help but compare this intriguing crime drama with Rashomon, though it is not really in that league. (Then again, what film is?)

A brutal murder has been committed and the killer has confessed. Later, the motive for the murder is altered, because in Japanese law some motives carry a lighter sentence. Then the confession is withdrawn altogether. Further details come to light, complications proliferate.

In Rashomon, truth is uncertain, but even so it matters. Not so here; rather, truth is an irrelevance. How the accused can get the most lenient verdict, or best escape execution, that becomes the overriding objective. At stake is a man’s life. Self-preservation determines narrative, and then it is trumped by something more noble…

There is a lot to enjoy in this engrossing murder mystery.

RNCM Big Band and Chamber Orchestra with Markus Stockhausen


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RNCM Big Band and Chamber Orchestra with Markus Stockhausen

RNCM Theatre, 24 March 2018

RNCM Big Band and Chamber Orchestra with Markus Stockhausen

Markus Stockhausen joyfully flung open the floodgates.

That allowed a deluge of fine musical composition and freefall improvisation to engulf the stage, wave following upon viral wave.

We began with Miniatur einer Seelenreise, a stirring work foregrounding trumpet (which Stockhausen played) and strings (the Chamber Orchestra, primarily). This duly segued into a riot of avant-garde improvisation (‘intuitive music’, so-called) that intrigued and somehow kept your attention. ‘Well, you tell me,’ was the perplexed judgement of the man who sat behind me. Being momentarily speechless myself, I instead smiled and left for the interval where I chomped on some Ritter chocolate.

The second half saw Tanzendes Licht, apparently a homage to Paul Klee but, anyway, magnificent and flowing and (come to think of it) as elegant as the artist’s line. Altogether wonderful, a supremely graceful use of time: you didn’t want it to ever end, which is one (defining?) quality of beautiful music.

In the next work (alas, Tanzendes Licht did end), Felice, the jazz musicians got to really kick out and a roaring spate of solos occurred: we heard terrific flights of fancy on guitar, drums, trumpet and trombone, saxophone… you name it. Their playing was phenomenal and rightly garnered applause, not least from the man who was sat behind me. For an encore, the musicians played Felice again – well, not exactly: like all fine jazz players, they could not repeat themselves anymore than Heraclitus’ warrior could step into the same river twice. Anyway, the encore made the man behind me even happier.

I was happy too.

The Novel of the Century


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The Novel of the Century

The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables

By David Bellos

Penguin, 2018

ISBN: 9780241954478

The Novel of the Century

Best known as the biographer of Georges Perec and translator of his magnum opus Life a User’s Manual, in this book David Bellos writes about another great French novel, Les Misérables, and its creator Victor Hugo.

When Les Misérables came out in 1862, it was panned by the critics but became an instant (and enduring) bestseller nonetheless. Ordinary readers were captivated by the compelling drama of the lives of the poor and the downtrodden, played out against the backdrop of world historic events – and, above all, by the character of Jean Valjean. Valjean is, in the words of Skip James, ‘a poor man but a good man’ and he has a fierce will to live a noble life, whatever the cost and sacrifice.

Bellos puts it well when he says that this is a novel about how damn hard it is to lead a good life. Violence is easy, vice is all around, while virtue is discipline, something you must practice each and every day. You can never take for granted that the struggle has been won, you must always keep up your guard. Do that and maybe, just maybe, you will be OK. Rather than revenge, Valjean is motivated by reconciliation. His duty is to understand and make amends. That is what makes the novel such an unusual and such a mature, moral work; and your curiosity turns naturally towards the author, who also struggled to try to become a good man.

Hugo was undoubtedly that: a social reformer, he railed against the evils of slavery and argued for the abolition of the death penalty. He also lived through the revolutions of 1848 – raging throughout Europe, like the fires of populism in our own day – and his involvement in politics at that time meant that he had to flee France to preserve his liberty. So it transpired that he completed and arranged for the publication of Les Misérables (a book which, as was his habit, he wrote standing up, incidentally: Bellos is very good on the nuts and bolts of Hugo’s writing routine, as on much else) while he was living in exile in Guernsey.

You will find plenty about the novel to inform and entertain you. There are sections on the names given to the characters; the significance of colour (blue, for example, was used to denote what is rare and precious) ; the money used (coinage, denominations); the modes of transport available (this was a France without the railways which Flaubert railed against and the Impressionists loved to depict in paint); the rhetorical devices in evidence: Hugo had a fondness for a few; the sometimes weird and obscure vocabulary (among them, Bellos mentions ‘historical curiosities such as “miquelet”, meaning “a Catalan insurgent”…’ which may soon acquire a new topicality).

In his memoir The Orchard, the late Harry Mathews recalls:

I remember Georges Perec’s unqualified love of novels that embodied a far-reaching vision… He never questioned my reservations about them but only emphasised their scope once again, so eloquently that I wanted to reread them at once.

David Bellos’s book has the same effect on the (or at any rate, this) reader. Erudite and enjoyable, it is an ideal companion to Les Misérables. And it cannot do other than whet your appetite for making an acquaintance, or reacquaintance, with the book itself.

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

The Seventh Seal


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The Seventh Seal

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Sweden, 1957

HOME, 21 March 2018

The Seventh Seal

A knight plays chess with Death as a bird of prey circles overhead.

He has come back from the Crusades to a land ravaged by plague and in chaotic disarray. There is a troupe of travelling actors who perform carnival plays and sing bawdy songs. A procession of priests and penitents interrupt them, holding a pole with the crucified Christ aloft. Carrion souls steal from the dead. In a tavern, one of the actors is bullied and humiliated and mocked. It is a capricious, xenophobic world full of casual cruelty and enervating foreboding.

Yet it is solemn and mysterious too, where the best bet against oblivion is faith in the legend of the man who said he was the Son of God.

It is clear that Roger Corman took much from this film when he made The Masque of the Red Death. They are very different films, that is true, but there is the same medieval world. Why, even the main actors in each, Max von Sydow and Vincent Price, have a similar screen presence. Both are tall and imposing with wonderful voices.

Anyway, an undisputed masterpiece.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story


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Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Directed by Alexandra Dean

USA, 2017

HOME, 21 March 2018

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

The film, a documentary, looks at the life of Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian actress who, together with composer George Antheil, came up with the idea of frequency hopping.

They invented frequency hopping as a way of stopping U-boats from intercepting torpedos, so making them more vulnerable to attack. Nowadays, it can be found all over the place: for example, it has applications in telecommunications, where it helps to make the exchange of information more secure.

A Viennese, Hedy Lamarr was happiest in Austria, but being Jewish she fled her homeland when the Nazis entered and took over. Her glamour and attitude and smarts soon got her a Hollywood contract, but Mayer, her boss, saw her as cheesecake not talent. It is perhaps fair to say that, while extremely beautiful, she wasn’t the best actress in the world but, equally, it must be conceded that she didn’t get many opportunities to really show her worth. When given a hefty role, as in Samson and Delilah, she delivered. She made it an iconic one.

She had five marriages, but none lasted, and she ended her days alone.

An interesting watch.