Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Inside Llewyn Davis

I don't get to watch as many films as I used to, and I rarely write about them on this blog. However, I'd wanted to see the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" since it came out in 2013, because of my interest in its source material, the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, the febrile ground on which Bob Dylan's iconic career was founded. I generally think there are good Coen Brothers films and bad ones, though its been a while since I've seen one, and "Inside Llewyn Davis" actually has aspects of both their strengths and weaknesses.

Ostensibly a tale of a folk singer playing the Gas Light and other folk clubs in New York, Davis is portrayed as a hangdog loser, at first likeable, but as his bad life choices pile up, increasingly a bit of a douche bag. This complexity of character is one of the film's strengths. I'm reminded of Knut Hamsun's hero in "Hunger", albeit somewhat reversed, for Hamsun's author is an optimist whilst Davis is a pessimist. His misanthropy sees even the girl he's accidentally got pregnant berate him for being a disaster. For Davis is that worst kind of artist, one who is striving for integrity in his life as well as his music.

In some ways, folk music is the perfect idiom for such a character. On the one hand a music that began as peasant music is being listened to by a slumming intelligentsia in the New York of the early 1960s, and on the other hand, a bowlderised version of it, with sweet harmonies and All-American good looks is being played on the radio. Davis is a doyenne of this scene, yet his moment appears to have gone. He was once in a duo, but his partner in that act threw himself off a bridge. He bums money off friends, sleeps on couches, and is now trying to promote the album of the film's title, which his exploitative manager/record label owner hasn't even tried to sell. Basically Davis's integrity has got him nowhere. He does a last minute session for a novelty song about JFK and chooses a session fee rather than royalties as he needs some cash in hand - later in the film we hear that the song will be a smash hit.

Yet it is not Davis's music so much as his attitude that sees his life going down the tube. He had been in the merchant navy, like his father, and the music is an escape from that destiny - yet its true what the pregnant Jean says of him, everything he touches does turn bad. The film begins with him playing a song at the Gas Light and then beaten up outside - we only find out at the end why. This framing device - a bit groundhog day, works well to show how an artist has to plug away almost to the point of despair; for having virtually given up when a Chicago promoter says "I don't hear much money here", we hear, at the end of the film, an act playing on the stage after Davis; its Bob Dylan. The future is just there around the corner, giving the film a brilliant poignancy.

For folk music - and then folk rock - was a baby boomer music, appealing to that middle class audience that was becoming both politically and financially active during the 1960s; yet its early advocates were hardly that - esoteric professors who liked slumming it now and then in the village, or misanthropic outsiders like Davis, based, to some extent on Dave Van Ronk, the contemporary who most inspired Dylan.

Like Woody Allen, the Coens have a propensity for a certain quirky nostalgia, fashioning new stories out of old half-remembered millieu - like the silent movie pastiche of the deathly the Hudsucker Proxy. And also like Allen, they tend to originate their own source material. So as accurate in so many ways as the "feel" of "Inside Llewyn Davis" is, it both is and isn't a historical story. Davis is an invention, and in some ways, the truly interesting story of Greenwich village before Dylan, Joan Baez and others appeared, is subsumed into something smaller and less compelling. The telling of the story in Dylan's "Chronicles" is the most fascinating bit of that intrigueing memoir, and compared with that, the Coen's version seems in part just a number of gestures, despite an authentic sounding soundtrack. More puzzling is an interlude halfway through the film where, in typical Coen style, Davis goes on a road trip, with a heroin-addled John Goodman as a comic turn jazz musician. It seems a generic Coen episode rather than adding anything to the film, and when Davis finally gets to Chicago it is only to get another rejection and a bit of a wake-up call that his life isn't working.
Yet for all that, there is some method to their madness, as the comic side of Davis's predicament is shown through his accidentally losing, then finding, then dreaming about a ginger cat. For all the pleasure of a Goodman set piece, it hardly adds to the film.

Yet I think why I finally really liked the movie, and why I've been thinking about it all week, is that it does say something quite profound about the nature of the artist. For Davis is clearly a sideman to history, a John the Baptist, holding the fort till the Messiah arrives - and yet in that precursor nature, he becomes a very un-American hero; for America loves its winners, and Davis is almost collateral damage - yet there's something highly poignant about this. For we are less interested as viewers in seeing success  - the big stadium tour, the bestselling novel - rather, seeing the struggle to get to that point; yet by focusing on a Van Ronk figure rather than a Dylan, the Coens are giving us the poignancy of the creative artist who doesn't quite stack up to brilliance; the man who has a dream and follows it, however far down the river it takes him. There aren't that many films that seem to be do more than gloss over the art of creativity, but in its concentration on a particular moment, and on a particular lesser artist, the Coen's have created a lovely picture of the artistic underdog, which in some ways, is more truthful than the rags-to-riches biopic. Well worth a watch.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

New Translated Fiction

There are many reasons to applaud the Man Booker International Prize going to the Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai. I'll confess I'd only heard about him in passing, through George Szirtes, who has been one of his two English translators, this is not so strange. English letters is a parochial world these days where mediocre works by late career novelists on the wane, or underformed debuts by sassy twentysomethings get a fizz of acclaim before being found (and found out ) in Oxfam a few months down the line. The sense that fiction has to be accessible is English fiction's great stupidity - leading to endless articles about why this or that popular author hasn't received critical acclaim, or bemoaning middlebrow literary fiction (often the dullest examples) for being too difficult.

Yet readers of books are able to delve deeper. Its why we talk about Kafka and Borges and Gogol and Dostoevsky, after all; and yet, popular fiction survives where it hasn't become an anachronism, just look at Agatha Christie's sales. Reading about Krasznahorkai I've found out two things already - his books are dark, comedic fables; and he writes in long, dense sentences. He's also been very successful in his native Hungary, yet his debut - one of the Szirtes translations - is only recently in English. I'm sure I'm not alone, having read the Booker citation, in thinking this is a writer I want to read. Where the writer is good enough, we're happy enough to put up with any difficulty.

And here is where the translator has such a role. Szirtes, interestingly, is primarily a poet, but he has always written very lucidly, and besides he is Hungarian by birth. He's not the only poet to have been a success as a translator. Yet would a leading poet have been interested in translating a less complex, less worthwhile writer? For translated fiction is such a small part of what we see in the shops that mostly it exists on tiny imprints, in small runs, by dedicated presses; either that or European bestsellers, crime fiction for instance, where its less about the style than the plot and setting.

The Man Booker International Prize was set up partly to internationalise the brand, and partly as a rival, however relatively small, to the Nobel. It has done a good job, but with three of its first winner American/Canadian there was a sense that it was rewarding those that the Nobel's blindspot for American writing had overlooked. With this latest award its brought into focus an obscure (to us) writer of international standing from a venerable country and language, reminding us, at the very moment that Britain contemplates leaving the European Union, how the shared culture and values of our art have so often been more important than the boundaries of language and nationality. Few English Literature graduates would not have read Kafka for instance - Krasznahorkai's avowed hero - and its a reminder, if we need reminding,  that some of the best, strangest and most vital writing of the 20th century was not written in English.

Some Nobel winners have remained pretty unknown, rarely read or translated, yet there's a feeling that here's a living writer whom we can get to know better. As ever, there were other writers on the list who might equally deserve our attention, but our culture can only benefit from reading outside of itself. Where, I wonder are the English equivalents? But you might as well say where are the English equivalents of Foster Wallace or Lydia Davis, for if we've not quite given up publishing serious literature, we've certainly not encouraged it.

I might end up hating Krasnahorkai of course, but at least, I'm now aware of him, and enticed a little by the sound of his books.  The judges, chaired by Marina Warner, have had a good day at the office.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Our New Jerusalem

I grew up in Tory Britain, and it wasn't pleasant. Mainly, it was the lack of hope. The sense that whatever you did or aspired to the rug would be pulled from under you at some point. I went to sixth form in 1983, when all my classmates went straight onto the dole, into youth training schemes (which would seen be pulled) or joined the army. By the time I came out of University in 1988, the brief London-centric boom had petered out, and I found myself unemployed and stuck back with my parents. The "new world" that some Tory apologists talk about, of coffee shops, and immaculate high streets and whatever else had yet to be born, yet if you'd have gone anywhere else in Europe you'd have found a more civilised civic centre. It was only that summer that the restrictions on pub opening hours - a legacy from World War One - were relaxed. I got a job, but not the one I wanted, but it was a well paid one, and I was encouraged to buy a house, with a 5% deposit. When I moved, the economy had come crashing down for a third time in my brief adult life, this time with negative equity and interests rates in double figures. That was Tory Britain....

...but I was young, and in retrospect I'd have been better dropping out more than I did. Trying to get on proved difficult - they were always meddling. I though about teaching in F.E. but that was the year that the Tories had made colleges private entities, and as a result there was hardly a job to be found, so the course I'd got a place on I dropped out of. I stuck in jobs I didn't enjoy, because the fear of finding anything else was still there. It was only after Labour came into power in 1997 that I felt suitably confident about the future to change tack. It wasn't necessarily easy. I'd grown up with "inflation" being seen as the enemy (in much the same way as "the deficit" is the tale they tell us now) above all enemies, but both Labour and Tories colluded in "house price inflation" being somehow okay. I'd never planned to join the public sector - under the Tories it seemed a masochistic game - but I then worked in Universities, the voluntary sector, and finally for the council. Working hard, contributing to other people's well-being - helping the economy (I worked partially in business support) - yet come 2010 and the coalition, the good was undone with a frightening speed.

Labour had diverted funds to the most in need parts of the country but rather than embed it by looking at how local authorities were funded had connived a technocratic solution (New Labour's technocrats have a lot to answer for) which meant that come 2010 this extra money could be wiped out with a swipe of a pen, alongside the Regional Development Agencies and a load of quangos. My "quango" was part of a local authority so it survied a little longer, but then Eric Pickles came along with his over-enthusiastic axe. The last five years I've hardly had a six month period of stability even though my job has continued to be funded, as one cut after another has come down from the centre. Labour had also invested in buildings - schools, arts centres, health centres - after the massive neglect that we'd seen up to 1997, but what use is a building without things going on inside it? Yet after the disastrous flatlining in the economy in the first years of the coalition, more money for infrastructure and business support starting coming through again. The same people who'd gone freelance after being let go by the quangos probably got jobs back in the new quangos. In the name of "efficiency" central government red tape seems to have got more, rather than less, both in work and home life, as inefficient electronic systems replace inefficient people based ones. But just as Tesco's share price has fallen off a cliff as people fall out of love with its soulless offerings, British productivity and investment has gone pear shaped as the tightening of both private and public sector means that we all have to self-service everything these days.

For the Tories are the management class spoofed by John Cleese, and I've yet to see an example where anything actually works better under the Tories; whether run by the private sector or the public sector. So its both the death of hope, and their sheer meddling day-to-day incompetence that makes me shudder at the next five years. In a modern, connected sophisticated country, 90% of activity goes on without government intervention - they have power over the big things (macroeconomics, financial regulations) and the small things (sanctions or benefits that can ruin or improve an individual's life). The rest is up to us - and in the eighties when it seemed that Thatcher and her kind were in power for ever, there was at least the understanding that having made us unemployed she'd not want to see us starving (unlike her followers), and that we could do good for each other; by living our lives, by making art, and when the opportunity came (poll tax riots) making it very difficult for the powers-that-be who had long ago lost any right over our citizenship.

And so, having not stayed up much past the exit poll, as I'd an eye hospital appointment the next day (thought I'd better go before I was told to bring my cheque book), I woke to the worst-case scenario, of  Conservative majority in a divided country. I can't say I was entirely surprised, not because of any lack of decency on Milliband's part (though the technocratic nature of the campaign and the Whitehall-bubble nature of the leader can't have helped), because its the world I grew up in - of fear, not hope. I was younger then and I could sublimate my hope into other places: art, love, music, travel; now I'm wary to embrace a decade or more of anti-Tory action, even though I'll be watching to see if the demonisation of public sector workers continues, but I don't see a contradiction in looking after myself, whilst looking out for others. Labour needs to focus on the makers, the creators, the future builders, and find new ways to deliver on that hope. After all, Tory Britain is one of contradiction. Their obsession with home ownership has led to a massive decline in a property owning democracy; their talk about rebalancing the economy is merely shoving money into London-based investors' pockets.

So I've had my little wobble of woe, following Thursday's debacle.Someone needs to make the case for Europe - surely the thing which will split the Tory party asunder either this time or next - and the Union. A Flemish friend in Belgian, a country with deeper rifts between two regions (who don't even speak the same language), said that there are two things that keep the country together: Brussels and the Royal Family. Scotland hardly needs London when it has Edinburgh, and the Commonwealth example means there's no real barrier to keeping the Queen even if they ditch her constitution. Elsewhere in Europe, Catalan and Basque areas of Spain are autonomous in so many ways, yet like Scotland would be fearful of being adrift from Europe, even if they want some kind of break from Spain itself. The anti-European fear is of a federal Europe - yet it looks increasingly likely that they will need to find some way of making a federal UK possible.

Read the Tory manifesto and its full of uncosted promises (oh, the irony!) from millions of new apprenticeships, to discounts to buy Housing Association homes, to 7-day doctors' surgeries (when they couldn't even manage Andy Burnham's modest plan to allow you to register with any surgery of your choice - they only had 5 years after all!), without mentioning where they will get 12 billion cuts from. Yet I've already heard on social media that the things they are immediately trying to slip through are cuts to support for disabled people to get into work and the possibility of repealing the fox hunt ban. Such red meat to right wingers will probably be the price they have to pay to get through a deal with Scotland that is palatable to both sides.

In my own little world, hand-wringing at the incompetence and cruelties of Tory Britain is commonplace, and its our default position up North, without a Tory councillor to be seen for miles. Because they offered nothing more than repeats from the Thatcher playbook, because they never want to get their hands dirty enough to actually run anything properly, and because they still only represent 37% of the voters, never mind the population, we are better than them, we are more than them, we will outlive them, we will outthink. In the gaps that they leave through their cruelty, neglect and most of all their insouciance and incompetence we build our new cities, our new communities, our new Jerusalem.