Friday, December 30, 2016

My Departure from the Consensus on Arrival

I’m not a big fan of science fiction although I did enjoy the high-kitsch of early Star Trek. I also loved 2001 a Space Odyssey and Blade Runner is one of my all time favourite films. Generally however I have problems suspending my disbelief and like my films to engage with a world I know. A failure of imagination I suppose although I do retain the belief that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. In lists of the best films of 2016 Arrival was much mentioned and the fairly reliable barometer of Rotten Tomatoes read 94%. So off I trotted to see what all the fuss was about. It has its positives but I exited the cinema feeling there was less to it than meets the eye. Firstly, Amy Adams was outstanding in the lead role. She must have one of the most subtly expressive faces in the modern cinema and she dominated the film. However, the rest of the cast were lumpen cliches played by stock types: Forrest Whittaker as a soldier again. The aliens were played by giant octopuses with finger-like tentacles. They sprayed an ink-like substance to communicate and lo and behold Adams as the linguistics expert was able to both understand them and empathise wth them. Parallel to her efforts to communicate with these aliens was her unresolved sorrow at the loss of her young daughter to cancer and the opening of possibilities of communicating with her also. This was more implicit than explicit but added an eerie and mysterious sub-text to the blatant nonsense on view: A space craft shaped like a giant rugby ball in a muted green landscape, helicopters flying around to no great purpose, troops massing aimlessly, much brute pragmatism from military etc. The ending was fairly risible: world peace ensued and Adams regained her lost paradise. I didn’t believe a word of it. Very disappointing.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Review of Teethmarks on My Tongue by Eileen Battersby

Nijinsky and Lester Piggot
  An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 11 December 2016. I've corrected an egregious misnaming of one of the characters.

Eileen Battersby is best known for her championing of fiction from outside the Anglophone world and for the bracing honesty of her literary criticism. She has been known to ruffle some well-groomed Irish reputations. Her first novel is quite the heavyweight at almost 400 pages but despite being replete with references to literature and high art it canters along in an entertaining way. It's a classic Bildungsroman. We follow the emotional education of the narrator Helen Stockton Defoe (a resonant surname for its solitary heroine). In the character of Helen, Battersby has created a memorably monstrous prig. While her classmates were listening to Dylan and Neil Young she was listening to Bach and Schubert. She sneers at their trite music essays which are applauded enthusiastically "While my celebration of Bach's pioneering use of counterpoint ...might not have been." Following a squalid sexual encounter in Paris our brave heroine bemoans her fate: "How easily he had fooled me, the girl voted by my school as most likely to win the Nobel Prize". Her redeeming feature is her occasional expression of rueful self-knowledge: "even a prig like me couldn't miss this".

 Helen grows up in a "fine residence", complete with stables, in Richmond, Virginia. Her austere and intellectual father is a distinguished vet who breeds horses. Her mother is a shallow, social-climber who, Helen tells us,  "Father regarded as a domestic pet". Helen has little affection for either of them. She is offended by her father's "sneering smirk, his pompous voice" and by her mother's persistent slights about her appearance. She was born with different coloured eyes and her mother once informed her that: "Those eyes, they absolutely ruin your face". The story opens with the mother being shot by a spurned lover. It doesn't seem to have much impact on the impregnably self-absorbed Helen, apart from her having to suffer the tedium of the funeral and watch the female mourners flirt with her father.

 Helen runs off to Paris after two traumatic events. Her father sells Galileo, her favourite horse (not the Galileo that is the corner stone of the Coolmore stud), and Billy Bob, her Man Friday at the stables, disappears. In Paris she spends most of her time at the Louvre giving us the benefit of her wide knowledge of European art. Then, following her sexual misadventure, when she is at her lowest ebb, she meets Hector: an old, half-blind, scruffy and incontinent dog. She is immediately smitten and touchingly indicates what's at the heart of her plight - the absence of any love in her life:  "Most of all he really liked me". From then on Hector is the centre of her universe. She can't return to the USA because of quarantine restrictions so she decides to make her life in France. An unlikely encounter at Longchamp leads her to a job at Monsieur Gallay's racehorse training establishment in the Loire Valley and to her first real romantic encounter (not counting Hector).

 Ms. Battersby knows her way around a tack room and is familiar with the routines and equipment associated with riding. But she clearly knows little about the world of horse racing and the book contains a number of howlers. A race horse can be a gelding or a colt but not both at the same time. Horses have prep races or trials but not practices. A jockey that rides at Longchamp (a flat racing course) is never going to ride in the King George VI (a steeplechase) at Kempton. Also, her heroine's throwaway comment about Nijinsky is just plain wrong. She claims he was "too high strung to settle in an atmosphere as carnival-like as that of Longchamp on Arc day". Nijinsky won the Derby at Epsom - a far more carnival-like milieu. He probably lost the Arc because of a very hard race in the St. Leger not long before. But these are quibbles about detail that will just bother racing buffs like me and leave most readers unmoved.

 Helen's rural idyll continues for a while before a series of tragedies sends her off on the road again - alone and bereft. She heads for Germany in pursuit of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and with thoughts of suicide swirling through her mind. She identifies with the character in Friedrich's famous painting "Wanderer over a Sea of Fog".  She even takes a risky journey into East Germany (it's set in the mid-80s) to find the artist's grave. Her downward spiral is arrested by an event which comes as a major surprise not only to our heroine but to every reader of the book. You can make up your own mind whether it's a wonderful coup de théâtre or a ludicrous non-sequitur.

 Dalkey Archive Press
 395 pp  

 John P. O'Sullivan

 P.S. I wonder if Ms. Battersby can drive. Her heroine can handle a stick shift but has trouble with the automatic she encounters in France. It's mostly the other way around for Americans who customarily grow up with automatics. Curious.    

Monday, December 12, 2016

Recent Reads - December 2016

At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Blackwell

If you don't know your Heidigger from your Husserl this is the place to go. It traces the roots of Existentialism from its beginnings in Phenomenology to its literary apotheosis in the writings of Sartre and Camus. It also introduces you to that unfailingly nice man Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  The core of existentialism is personal freedom and personal responsibility. You're on your own mate so get on with it. The concept of angst is the dread that can accompany that requirement to constantly make ourselves who we are. The essence of this book is that it makes the discussion around these concepts accessible and that it uses the lives of the protagonists to illustrate this philosophy in practice. And we get further detail on how that great feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir pimped for Sartre. He was apparently too pug ugly to look for himself.

One of Us by Anne Seierstad

 This tells the story of Anders Behring the right-wing crank who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011.  It's an absorbing read and tells us as much about Norwegian society and the essential decency of its people as it does about its sociopathic villain. At the end of the book when Behring has been captured and is being interviewed ("interrogated" would be too strong a word) you will be astonished at the forbearance of the police at his arrogant demands. After what's gone on before you are hoping for a bit of old-fashioned police brutality. The book takes us through Behring's unsettled childhood and over-protective mother and charts the various intercessions of the social services who certainly play a very proactive role in Norwegian life. Behring was at various stages a prominent tagger (graffiti artist), business man and political activist before settling in to a life playing violent computer games. Maybe that's why he found it so easy to embark on a deadly shooting spree - just adding another dimension to what he'd been doing online. The book also inserts us into the lives of a number of his victims so we can feel their loss more acutely. It's a engaging and disturbing book.

 Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

 This biography will not make you like Ted Hughes. And the occasional prurient details it provides of his sex life (it mentions twice how he "ruptured" Assia Weevil during sex) don't seem necessary. However, it is very good on the details of his background and on his inability to deal with Plath's suicide in his poetry until late in his life. A lot of his energies went in to maintaining a network of girl-friends and you end the book with a sense of a failed career. Between the highlight of Crow and the later confessional Birthday Letters (which dealt with Plath's suicide) there was much mediocrity.  He produced an inordinate number of small and very expensive limited editions of his existing poems. The best side of him was his love of nature and his passion for fishing. He spent many holidays in Ireland in the company of Barrie Cooke and of Richard Murphy and often spoke of settling here - away from the incestuous London literary world.

 Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson

 This biography will make you like Samuel Beckett even more. Is there a more self-effacing major writer in the history of literature? His rueful self-deprecation is so pronounced as to be a shtick. He is living his dictum 'I can't go on ... I'll go on." Knowlson was a friend of Beckett's and is very good on his European influences and his incredibly broad range of knowledge. He was a true intellectual. He seemed to court the company of artists more than writers and was a big fan of Jack Yeats. I hadn't realised how extreme his poverty was during the early years of the War - he and his long-suffering wife Suzanne literally lived on hand-outs. Suzanne was very important in the promotion of his career before he achieved fame but then gradually faded into the background of his life. Once he achieved financial comfort following Godot, he was extremely generous to all and sundry. For a man who asserted the meaninglessness of life and the futility of endeavour he was pretty punctilious in supervising the productions of his plays all over the world. He was notorious for making a pedantic nuisance of himself at rehearsals and was on occasions asked to absent himself. His love life was hardly attenuated either and in fine French fashion maintained a mistress right to the end.