Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

After a slightly uninspiring start, Harry Gruyaert's covers for Penguin's continuing Maigret reissues are getting really good. The Flemish House (number 14) is out now, followed by The Madman of Bergerac in January (Liberty Bar is out in March). And there's a hardback edition of the first four books in an edition originally designed by author Georges Simenon.

Happy Christmas and all the very best for 2015!

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Maigret Circle

A rare post to pull together a few developments in the Simenon universe, which seems to be expanding as Penguin floods bookstores with its new Maigret translations: number eight in the series, The Grand Banks Café (previously The Sailor's Rendez-Vous) is due out 5 June. It's a shame no bookshops have had any offers on these new imprints to tempt me to augment my complete, if ramshackle, Maigret collection, but Penguin will get me out for the English-language debut of The Mahé Circle (1944), translated by Siân Reynolds and released simultaneously with The Grand Banks

One of the prolific author's non-Maigret, romans dursThe Mahé Circle (cover image above) is an intriguing addition to Simenon's translated catalogue, in which the good Dr Mahé is trapped in a bleak infatuation on his recurring family holiday in Porquerolles - the island off the Côte d'Azur and the setting for My Friend Maigret (1949), one of the dozen or so books featured in Penguin's previous, apparently ill-fated Simenon revival back in 2003. A little down the coast, the Cannes Film Festival has hosted the premiere of Mathieu Amalric's intriguing adaptation of The Blue Room (1955), starring the actor-director alongside Stéphanie Cléau and Léa Drucker (here's the poster).

No doubt all this and more will be mulled over by biographers Pierre Assouline and Patrick Marnham when they share the stage at the Institut Français on 1 June. Their discussion follows a screening of one of my favourite Simenon adaptations, M Hire, as part of the Institut's all too short Noir is the Colour season.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Sickert at Tate Britain

'Taste is the death of a painter' - Walter Richard Sickert, 1908

This week Tate Britain officially reopened its doors after a two-year renovation; it celebrates this weekend with a 'house-warming party'. The new rehang, sponsored by BP, arranges 500 years of British art chronologically, throwing up a number of juxtapositions and surprises.

If you want to trace the work of one artist through the BP Walk through British Art, you could do worse than follow the career of Walter Sickert. The German-born artist first appears halfway round Tate Britain's west wing in the room dedicated to the 1840s - Café des Tribunaux, Dieppe (c1890) - and continues to the front of the east wing: Miss Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Isabella of France (1932).

The theatre crops up in early, Impressionistic, Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford (1892), though his fascination is given an unsettling, haunting twist in Brighton Pierrots (1915). In between, La Hollandaise (c1906) perhaps represents the peak of his Camden Town nudes.

Unfortunately, there's no room for Ennui (c1914), and I'd love to see his 1935 portraits of the Martin family, but on the way are Sickert's contemporaries: the Camden Town and Bloomsbury groups, Augustus John and his associates, and the Vorticists. Following Dulwich Picture Gallery's recent exhibition, 'A Crisis of Brilliance', the work of a group of Slade artists from a century ago shines especially brightly: David Bomberg (The Mud Bath, 1914), Stanley Spencer (Swan Upping at Cookham, 1915-19), CRW Nevinson (La Mitrailleuse, 1915), Paul Nash (Dead Sea, 1940-1) and Mark Gertler's wonderful Merry-Go-Round (1916).

Monday, 4 November 2013

Tout Maigret

In perhaps a belated tribute to the 110th anniversary of writer Georges Simenon's birth, Penguin is reprinting the full catalogue of his Inspector Maigret novels in new translations. The first of 75 books, Pietr the Latvian, is out this week, translated by David Bellos, and the rest will follow at one a month. The current calendar runs to The Saint-Fiacre Affair (number 13), which is due December 2014.

Penguin has tried remarketing Simenon twice in the past decade, with limited success. In 2003, on his centenary, a series of Maigrets was published in Penguin Classics, with covers by Keenan, alongside a handful of the author's notorious romans durs (as Modern Classics). Problems with Penguin's move to a new warehouse may have been to blame at the time, and three years later some of the Maigrets were repackaged once again, this time as pocketbooks.

This is an audacious move for what may have become an acquired taste for crime connoisseurs, and Pietr the Latvian (Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett in Daphne Woodward's 1963 translation, pictured) is no bad place to start; 10 Maigrets were published in 1931 and Simenon always said this was the first to be completed. The template is established here, alongside the introduction of other favourite characters including Madame Maigret, while Simenon can investigate one of his favourite themes: identity.

The current crop is branded "Inspector Maigret" and returns to the stock cover images of the Modern Classics*; the books are more faithful to the original titles and some of the goodies that await include The Night at the Crossroads (due April 2014) and The Bar on the Seine (October 2014). The problem for many fans is whether to invest once more in these new imprints, but what a happy problem!

*UPDATE I note from the estimable Caustic Cover Critic that the cover images have been specially commissioned from Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert. I'm not convinced by them but fair play to Penguin for their commitment and, darn it, this makes these new editions all the more collectable.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Pet Shop Boys' Electric revival

'I believe in ecstasy/ The times we've had, you and me/ Friends we've met along the way/ Partied every night and day/ And I know we'll meet again' - Postscript, Pet Shop Boys

At the end of their 1993 album, Very, Pet Shop Boys paid homage to the rave era in a secret track, Postscript. It's a cliché, but it'd be great to hear an echo of final track Vocal at the end of new album Electric. Instead, we get a hint of it at the start of techno opener, Axis. (Rather brilliantly, the nine songs on Electric were recorded, and are sequenced, in alphabetical order.)

Axis could almost be the song vocalist Neil Tennant is singing about in dance paean Vocal, which is the new single, out 28 July: 'I like the singer/ He's lonely and strange/ Every track has a vocal/ And that makes a change.' There's something of revisiting Being Boring here - 'Everyone I hoped would be around has come along... And the feeling of the ones around us all is strong'; very much of the moment, this is also an album of echoes.

The songs bookend the Boys' most dance-influenced album since Very's limited-edition companion, Relentless, abetted by producer Stuart Price. While Price had Madonna sampling Abba (Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!) for Hung Up (2005), however, here the Boys pick up Henry Purcell (via Michael Nyman's 1982 soundtrack for The Draughtsman's Contract?) for Love is a Bourgeois Contract.

One of the album's stand-outs, Love is... opens with Coldplay-style synth strings, which give way to rave chords as if to say, 'The kings are dead, long live the Boys.' (There's a lot of fading in and out on this album and, perhaps my only criticism, some slightly shonky key changes.)

There's lots of Englishness, though: Love is... has Tennant 'taking my time for a long time/ Putting my feet up a lot... I've been thinking how I can't be bothered/ To wash the dishes or remake the bed'. Instead, in an echo of I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing's 'dancing to the Rite of Spring', he finds he 'could dance instead.' In another echo, you could sing the chorus of PSB's first hit from 1985, West End Girls, over the start of Thursday, which features Example and deserves to be a giant summer hit.

Elsewhere Bolshy is boosted by Italo-house piano stabs, the Boys follow the anti-war message of After All (from their 2005 soundtrack to Battleship Potemkin) with a cover of Bruce Springsteen's The Last to Die and - my favourite - they go delightfully bonkers Shouting in the Evening. The revival follows hard on the heels of the best tracks from their last album, Elysium, which was released only 10 months ago, Invisible and Breathing Space.

Remarkably, Electric is Pet Shop Boys' 12th studio album in a 27-year career, now - exactly 20 years on, is it their best since their fifth, Very? Yes, actually.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Winter of Discontent and Tahrir Square

Cairo’s Tahrir Square is the focus of protest in Egypt just as it was over two years ago. On 10 February 2011 a film crew led by director Ibrahim El Batout and featuring Egyptian actors Amr Waked (pictured) and Farah Youssef began filming among the protestors. The scene they shot imagined the fall of Mubarak – the next day the president resigned.

The material became the climax of Winter of Discontent, which screens at the Ciné Lumière on Wednesday 3 July as part of the Shubbak Festival. It screened at the same venue in the London Film Festival 2012, when I met Waked. Known internationally for roles in Syriana and Salmon Fishing in Yemen, he told me about filming Winter of Discontent amid the protests…

'I got involved from the very first day of the pitch. It was a very spontaneous reaction, the director, Ibrahim El Batout, called me and asked me if I wanted to do something about what was happening in Egypt.

'I had been on the square every day. You felt that whatever function we played as people who are known to encourage people to take to the streets and not fear was already done, and if I leave the square and start doing something I think the square will stay alive. I thought it was time to do something we know best, which is make a film.

'I went and met him the same day with cameras and sound, and I called a DOP friend of mine who filmed the film. We all met in the square thinking the guy wants to do a documentary about what’s happening, and we find an actress with him and then he pitches the story. It was very vague, it wasn’t as developed as the film is.

'The director sat with the writers, and they came out with a brief structure on how the film would develop and how the dramatic progression would go. It was almost 12 pages, which we didn’t want to develop further because what we had shot before was purely improvised so we wanted to keep that sense of improvisation in the whole film and we did.

'The performances in the film – I’m not talking about mine, of course, I’m talking about everybody else – the smallest shot of an actor saying the tiniest thing is so powerful and so real. That’s a very different quality in Arabic films of today to find this guy who comes in and out of the scene for a few seconds. They’re usually not very well rooted and you feel somehow they choose them like that so the star would shine but we don’t have that in our film, everybody shines.

'That was very powerful and it’s very difficult to think how we can do that again because we had so much energy from the square and what was happening, which was enormous. I hope we can find that energy in other topics.'

Monday, 15 April 2013

Five things to watch out for at Eurovision

1. Old is gold
Alongside host Sweden, only big spenders France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK are guaranteed a place in the Eurovision Song Contest final on 18 May - Germany won in 2010 (for Lena’s Satellite), but none of the so-called 'big five' had previously won since Katrina and the Waves in 1997 (Love Shine a Light); the UK is trying to reproduce her success by having Bonnie Tyler fly the flag this year with Believe in Me. Semi-finals to decide which countries join them in the final take place on 14 and 16 May.

2. Nul points?
Expect much joshing at the expense of Norway, as the country has come bottom on 10 occasions, though they have won three times - in 1985, 1995 and 2009. I'd love Margaret Berger (pictured) to win with the stonking I Feed You My Love but suspect it's one of those that's too good to come out top.

3. Irish-ise
Ireland have won a record seven times and their entry this year, Ryan Dolan’s Only Love Survives, is fine radio pop, but their position as European favourites has been undermined by the explosion of former Soviet states on the scene. 

4. All tied up
Iceland has had some of the most unusual entries over the years - including former drag queen Paul Oscar, who instituted a perennial taste for bondage outfits in the competition in 1997 - and is one of the better-performing countries over time who have never won. I don't think they'll make it this year with long-haired Eythor Ingi’s ballad Ég Á Líf (I Am Alive), though - but look out for fellow nearly rans Malta, represented this year by Gianluca’s enjoyable, TV-friendly Tomorrow.

5. Hebrew times
Songs performed in English have won 24 times over the past 54 years – Hebrew has dominated three times and Israel tends to perform strongly, but can Moran Mazor (Rak Bishvilo) match their last winner back in 1998: transsexual Dana International and Diva?