Friday, February 26, 2016

Oh, God that time of year again...

It's my birthday next week, an ominous rather than a momentous one, as I'll be forty-nine. How did that happen? Maybe adulthood will kick in soon, maybe not...

But before then there's still time for a bit of culture. I'm hoping to get along to the Anthony Burgess Foundation on Monday for Japan Now: Takasha Hiraide and Kyoko Yoshida. It always surprises me how little foreign literature we know these days, so this is a rare opportunity to find out about two contemporary Japanese writers. We all know the Japanese are obsessed with cats and Hiraide's "The Guest Cat" was a bestseller, whilst Yoshida is a dystopian short story writer. What's not to like?

My own chequered reading career continues next Thursday at Speakeasy at Sip Club, the new Stretford-based literary night that I'm going to for the first time and have signed up to the open mic. Its the day before my birthday (and my birthday clashes with a friend's 40th) so this is my unofficial birthday/literary drink if anyone wants to join me in the 'burbs. Earlier in the evening and just next to the tram stop (so no excuses for not doing both) is the new exhibition at Castlefield Gallery, an exciting exhibition of international so-called "outsider artists".

Out in the wider world, its been a funny couple of weeks, with the EU referendum negotiations completing and various arms of the Conservative Party manning the barricades, Dad's Army style to "leave Europe." It would be an absurdity and I wonder how it has come to this, but unfortunately it has, and depressingly there is a real risk that we could "Brexit", the least attractive neologism for some time. Any club with Boris Johnson, George Galloway, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage as members, I don't want to be part of.

In the entertainment world, we're still mourning David Bowie, and his albums still hover near the top of the charts, whilst "tributes" from Lady Gaga at the Grammys and Lorde at the Brits, seem to indicate that none of our contemporary male "stars" have anything of his panache. I liked the Lorde tribute though "Life on Mars" feels overdone these days -  weirdly I think her song "Royals" from a year or so ago, was like a synthetic teen version of "Heroes" in some ways, with its sense of hope and longing. Only Rihanna (who I should really write a blog post about at some point) was equally uplifting at the Brits, though I do find that I like Adele's "When we were young" much more than the ubiquitous "Hello" - basically I like one song an album with Adele it seems, so this is her "Rolling in the Deep" or "Chasing Pavements" this time round; its got a bit of "Born to Run" to it, I think. Interestingly, as a connoisseur of past Brits' fiascos, I get the feeling that everyone these year was swamped by the pyrotechnics (literally so in Justin Beiber's case) of it all. Not for the first time, I think a lot of modern music suffers from only being a soundtrack to its own stage show. The "stars" are merely ciphers in this new spectacle, necessary but disposable. More to discuss later!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Dreamers by Gilbert Adair

The late Gilbert Adair is perhaps unique amongst British writers of his generation in being so much of a European writer. He lived in Paris for many years, and "The Dreamers", a rewrite of his first novel "The Holy Innocents", is set around the events of May 1968 in that city. The story was made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci, and the rewritten novel, as he says in his afterward, takes on both a new name and something of that film's nature.

The story itself is a simple one. Three young cinephiles meet up every day after their school and college to watch every film they can. Matthew is an American studying abroad, whilst Theo and Isabelle are the twin children of a famous minimalist poet. For a long time they are those accidental friends who have become acquaintances because of a shared interest, but when Henry Langlois, curator and founder of Cinémathèque Française is removed from his post by the culture ministry, the cinema goes dark for days, causing uncertainty and protests. Matthew, a quiet American, who goes to confession every week,  and whose life till this point has been lost in the dreamy otherworld of the hardened cinephile, tentatively calls Theo and suggests they meet for a drink given that they are not going to be going to a film. It's the start of a new phase to their friendship.

Matthew gets invited back to their large flat, and meets the formidable poet and his devoted wife. The poet suggest Matthew stays the night, and in fact, he never leaves, as the next day the poet and his wife are going to their cottage in Normandy leaving their children on their own. Matthew is already in love with both the twins, but they filter their emotions through the films they see. Looking for the bathroom on his first night there he catches sight of Theo and Isabelle sharing a bed, entwined. Shocked and at the same time excited by their intimate incestuous secret, Matthew spends the day times holding this to himself. They begin playing a game of "Home Movies" where they get each other to guess the film reference in something they have done or said.

At a certain point, the small monetary forfeits aren't enough for Isabelle, who tells Theo to undress and masturbate. This he does, then puts his clothes back on. For two days there is nothing more happens then Theo has his revenge, and he makes Isabelle and Matthew forfeit by having sex with each other. Matthew is suddenly thrown into a confusion but of course, this has been the plan all along. With the parents away, and forging letters to each school explaining they are off sick, they begin an other worldly life in the flat - making love, running around naked, reading, talking about films. Their only sojourns out are to get food, and here they steal it from the supermarket, champagne and lobster and other expensive items until they are under such suspicion that they can't do it anymore.

In the isolation of the apartment their bacchanalia becomes more extreme - they are hallucinatory through starvation and even become ill from a poorly-judged eating of cat food. Yet they are happy in their world, except the closeness of the sister and brother is becoming ruptured by Matthew as the third part. This is the bit that I vividly remember from the film - this strange, unwholesome threesome, that moves from "innocence" to something much darker.  As Theo eventually physically takes Matthew, the circle of their desires and lusts and fears is closed. The world outside is of no interest to them until a brick comes through the window and Theo taking the lead, they go out onto the streets of Paris and realise a revolution has been taking place around them without them realising it. They bump into an old friend of Theo's and in the final part of the book become embroiled in the battle for the Latin Quarter, the protest turning nasty, and eventually deadly.

It's a sharp, short novel, with a clean, luminous prose style, that perfectly fits both this world of sexual innocence and depravity that they are exploring, but also seems right for this sense of a new world coming into being - a world, of course, that never quite happened. By seeing the Paris riots not close up, but accidentally, after we've been closeted with the private world of Matthew, Theo and Isabelle, the effect for the reader is like it is for them, coming out onto the Paris streets and the accompanying violence, after the blissful sojourn - the teenager paradise they've been living.

A vivid, graphic novel, its one I've wanted to read for a while. Its style reminds me a little of Duras's "The Lover". Though the book is a tragedy, its not written in that way, for the majority of the book is with the three young people, and though the incest at the heart of it is complex, its seen as a matter of fact, rather than anything more sordid. The brief scene with the twins' parents shows us some self-absorbed adults blissfully unaware of what's happening in their children's life. Left to their own devices - like the siblings in "The Cement Garden" - they look after each other.

What I liked about the book was that it doesn't have a moral tone at all - like Fowles in "The Ebony Tower" for instance - we are meant to take these characters as they are. Perhaps a sexually daring book even for 1988, I think reading the 2003 rewrite its more morally daring - so many of our contemporary novels have a moral framework to them, whereas this seems amoral. Adair, who was gay, but whose first novel was only published in his forties, maybe wanted to write something that was allegorical about desire - or in a world where nothing is really shocking anymore, this incestuous menage a trois still manages to be, yet the book is written with a great deal of subtlety that means the reader accepts the unworldly scenario without concern - being drawn into the private world of the three teenagers.

In one scene Isabelle is reading a novel by Queneau, and of course Adair is most well known for his translation of "A Void", the George Perec OuLiPo masterpiece which doesn't include the letter e. In an afterward Adair speaks of changing "The Holy Innocents" substantially for this version, though one assumes that the fact that it had already appealed to film makers, means that the essence of the book remains the same. Certainly, the intellectual nature of the characters - their love of movies explored in detail throughout the book - is an added pleasure. When we finally slip onto the streets of a Paris in revolt its like a newsreel coming to the life, with Isabelle, Theo and Matthew suddenly thrust from their privacy blinking into an even more dangerous world. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

The February Blues

February is often the cruellest month, take note T.S. Eliot, as the delayed worst of winter often hits at this time. We've had few weather warnings, and, my, has it rained, but its actually been the mildest of winters. The post-Xmas January blues  - all those people giving up alcohol, going to the gym, and taking back unwanted Xmas presents - not to mention the endless colds and lurgies, mean that I've tried to keep busy since the new year. Mid-February I'm now having a bit of February blues, as the weeks skip by and the best-laid-plans, resolutions and ideas fail to come to pass, or at least happen quickly.

That said, I've been nothing if not active: went to see the BBC Philharmonic perform Shostakovich's "Leningrad" symphony on Saturday, which was fun, rousing and inspiring in equal measures. Can't be many seventy plus minute pieces of music that seem, if anything, too short. The time whizzed by. I'm not much of a classical music buff, and growing up, despite a few exceptions, I associated classical music with all the wrong kind of things: po-faced concert halls, middle class and middle aged people who didn't like anything with spirit, the BBC establishment... this world existed (and exists) so far away from the rock and roll world that became my obsession that its no wonder I didn't investigate much. Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise" book a few years back, as well as a longstanding interest in modernism in all its forms, shook me out of my indifference and I began to not just listen to the odd few favourite pieces, but also to read about the composers, understand a little of the history. It's one of the best books I've ever read for being a potted education and chimes with my own tastes - for 20th century work, rather than earlier epochs. That was the other thing I learnt - the "classical" badge was a broad one, and I needed to find my own favourites, just as I did in pop and rock. The avant garde leanings of bands I like, such as Sonic Youth, has always helped with a crossover, and its still the case that the repetoire is too loaded towards the pre-20th century canon that doesn't do a lot for me. (Yet I'm wary of dismissing it: a piano recital a few years ago at Salford University paired John Cage's early piano works, which I love, with the Mozart that had inspired him.)

There are quite a few gallery openings at the moment - HOME, Castlefield, and Manchester Art Gallery in the last fortnight - and I need to revisit them all. There are a couple of literary highlights coming up as well: The Other Room on Wednesday should be really special, featuring sound based work from Mark Leahy and others, and I'll hopefully be doing my first reading of the year at the open mic at Verbose next Monday, alongside some non-fiction from "the Real Story" readers. I'm planning on roadtesting a couple of new poems, as I've some longer "sets" coming up.

Ah, poetry... however much I try and spurn you, you keep fluttering your eyelashes at me. I guess when I'm concentrating on fiction it takes a necessary back seat, but some gets written nonetheless. Though I'm finding it harder to read poetry at the moment - though I've been to three or four poetry readings this year already so certainly still getting my fill. My 6-year old "Playing Solitaire for Money" collection had a couple of people asking after it recently, and being complimentary which was nice, though it does seem a long time ago now.

I think my real February blues are because I've not had enough time to do anything in detail - just snatching a few hours here and there - its after all six months since I had a week off without any commitments (Christmas being a bit all consuming.) I need a holiday - not in terms of place so much as getting away from my everyday routine.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Some inevitable spoilers below if you haven't read the book or seen the film!

I had somehow never got on much with John le Carré, though I'd certainly started a couple of his novels over the years. However, this was the first time I'd tried to read his breakthrough 3rd novel "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and it lived up to its reputation. The ultimate cold war thriller, it begins with an ending, the attempt of a contact in East Germany to get West after his cover is blown. Using the pre-arranged cover documents he gets as far as the No Mans Land at Checkpoint Charlie, with his agent waiting anxiously at the other side. He is killed just yards from safety, and with it the ring of informers that  Alec Leamas has been cultivating is finally no more, having been wiped out in a number of weeks. Called back to London, he expects this to be the moment when the secret service lets him go, the inability to infiltrate East Germany after the wall has gone up, highlighting the impotency of his own side in "The Circus." Yet, they still have a use for Leamas, one last job. There are lose ends to tie up, and a plan to take down the German who has been destroying their network, the notorious Mundt. 

The book changes gear, as without letting the reader on to the detail, we follow Leamas in his cover, as a down on his heels and resentful ex-spy, kicked to a desk job then out of the service, drinking too much, with no money. He finally hits rock bottom when he hits a man and ends up in prison. On coming out of prison he is approached, a series of Soviet agents take him on and he agrees to turn for a price. The road leads not to redemption and escape but to beyond the wall, as its an East German Jew Fiedler who is the man paying for his information. In isolation in East Germany he spills the beans, and the information he gives - including the minor apparently inconsequential information is enough to ensnare Mundt who is their shared target. Fiedler suspects Mundt of being a British spy. Leamas's information, a back story built up to ensnare Mundt is a clever construction that confirms what Fiedler already thinks. At one point the operation is blown as Mundt's men come to them and both Fiedler and Leamas get badly beaten up, though the latter has killed one of his assailants. Taken to the Polish border for a secret court, the true surprise of the novel is revelaed to Leamas at the same time as the reader. For Leamas had a brief affair whilst in his down and out phase with Liz, a young idealistic communist in the library he started doing some temporary work at. Though he had kept her out of his former life, he had told her that he would have to leave to do some other work, and that it would be goodbye - and to protect her, she should not try and follow him. This turns out to be the corroboration that is needed to prove that its a set up job - for after Leamas has gone to prison, his old "friends" at The Circus, including George Smiley, John le Carré's supreme creation, come to visit her, and more importantly pay off her debts. Mundt knows all this and has engineered the dupe that is Liz to visit East Germany, where she is now brought into court. Knowing the game is up, Leamas tries to take on the blame, but admits it all, knowing that both of them plus Fiedler could die. 

For Mundt actually is the prime asset of "Control" - the East German network that Leamas was working was one step down, but only Mundt could provide that level of access. Having a spy at the top of the German secret services was worth any kind of collateral damage, and once the diligent and ideological Fiedler began suspecting his own boss, it became a necessity to protect Mundt. Leamas, in an echo of his author's dislike of the service he was working for, is already of the view that the world they work in is dirty and corrupt, but this proves to him that his own side is worse or no better than the other side. Yet he has undertaken his side of the bargain - he wants to be the spy who comes in from the cold. Liz, who has given him reason to try, to live, is also the necessarry bait for the double cross. Yet Mundt and his own side are able to give them a last chance, if only they can get back over the wall in a short interval when the lights will be looking elsewhere. 

All of the above is plot, but the novel's power - now as then, I imagine - is partly due to what
le Carré had noticed as the wall went up - this was more than a physical wall, but a metaphorical one, a psychic one, separating out one side from the other, with a cruel brutality at its crossing point, which offered a brilliant structure for any novel about spies. Almost contemporaneous with its erection, in this book he virtually invented the cold war thriller. Whereas Fleming's Bond was amoral but on the side of the angels, here, the ambiguity and the double-crossing is built into the game. Black is white, white is black. Yet though there's this dark European sensibility at play, the book is successful as a thriller, a taut, concise series of vignettes - there is the Orwell-styled fall into dissolution, the cat and mouse game as Leamas gets picked up and prepared to betray his side, the tense one-to-one of the interviews with Fiedler, and the final set piece of the court scene with Mundt; in between there are brief flashes of violence, and a few scenes where the complexities of the operation on the British side are fleshed out. 

The book was a bestseller and from being a spy who wrote in his spare time, now le Carré was and would continue to be one of the most anticipated novelsits in the world. The mentions of "Control", "The Circus" and Smiley in this book read like familiar cues to even someone like myself who has hardly read him, so popular have the tropes been - alongside the cinematic versions - yet Smiley's books would be later. Leamas is a useful fool, a man without past, and without future, and the final scenes at the Wall, bleak, without redemption, are a powerful end to the book. It is hard to imagine a modern editor letting such an ending through - yet its critical, I think. 

What I enjoyed was how contemporary it read, despite its world now being pure history, albeit one in the memory. I suspect one of the reasons the author is always held in such respect is the modernity of his prose. Certainly the cod-cold war of Ian McEwan's "The Innocent" and even the more comic "Sweet Tooth" exist in the world that le Carré describes here. That said, there's the tautness of the good thriller, the popular bestseller. The convolutions of plot don't quite all tie up, but that's okay as well, as the double bluff of the spy world means that nothing is quite as it is. The logic is tight enough, and the unravelling at a particular time - that slow release of secrets is deftly employed.