Tuesday, 26 October 2010


The London Film Festival comes to a close this week and, as ever, it's been a mixed bag. I'm terrible at choosing films to see from the voluminous programme; luckily a very lovely friend does, and we seem to have a 50-50 hit rate, which is perhaps representative for the LFF. I'm amazed excellent Italian horror-thriller The Double Hour (La doppia ora), one of the films we caught last year, hasn't found a distributor here, while I wouldn't rush to the latest Kristin Scott Thomas flick, In Your Hands (Contre toi), a very odd take on kidnapping we saw the other night.

You don't want to choose something that's going to be on general release a week later nor do you want to be stuck in a 125-minute piece of anti-cinema from Egypt - ie The Traveller (Al Mosafer). Worst, for me, are those interminable waits at cinemas unfamiliar with customer courtesy - Odeon and Vue West Ends - and are more interested in shovelling viewers in and out of routinely delayed screenings.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Freedom: what's in a word

I'm slightly surprised that nobody so far has got some poor intern to go through the two versions of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom looking for the 50 or so changes that he's supposed to have made between them. I don't have the time to do that, but I am intrigued by the occasions the title crops up in the text. The book begins with a 24-page form of prologue that's breathtaking in its breadth and splendour, describing the marital life of the Berglunds, Walter and Patty.

The next section, however, an 'Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at her Therapist's Suggestion)', smacks of a disappointing version of David Foster Wallace. In it, 'freedom' is used for the first time: 'She [Patty] had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.' Visiting her daughter at college a few pages later, Patty notices 'a stone graven with words of wisdom from the Class of 1920: USE WELL THY FREEDOM.'

The F-word appears again in the book's second section, 'Mountaintop Removal', but this time applied to major corporations and the way they can act in respect of environmental/wildlife concerns: 'The coal companies had reason to fear that the warbler would soon be listed under the Endangered Species Act, with potentially deleterious effects on their freedom to cut down forests and blow up mountains.'

Though I'm not convinced by all of the writing in Freedom, Franzen, like Douglas Coupland, is a very good reader of his own work and, at the point you're wondering what happened to the Berglunds' enigmatic son Joey, there he is. And he is accorded the fourth mention of the title when, despite his differences with the parents from whom he is essentially divorced, he suddenly recognises the consequences of his personal choices: 'He'd asked for his freedom, they'd granted it, and he couldn't go back now.'

Post 9/11, this freedom thing is a double-edged sword; as the Iraq invasion looms, the neocons are pictured 'waving their hands and acting as if it didn't even matter if any WMDs came to light; as if the freedom of the Iraqi people were the main issue.' Drawn into an argument about Iraq and the Middle East with a roommate's politico father, Joey says: 'Isn't that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it's a pain in the ass sometimes.'

Joey's conflicted father, Walter, progresses the argument 100 pages on: 'People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don't have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can't afford to feed your own kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want.'

Among those who came to the States for money or freedom is Walter's irascible Swedish grandfather, Einar. We're told: 'America, for Einar, was the land of unSwedish freedom, the place of wide-open spaces where a son could still imagine he was special.' And here, with reference to Einar's aggressive road manners, comes the authorial voice (in brackets): 'The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.' Einar is representative of Walter's immigrant prejudice: 'He hated the blacks, the Indians, the well-educated, the hoity-toity, and, especially, the federal government, and he loved his freedoms (to drink, to smoke, to hole up with his buddies in an ice-fishing hut) the more intensely for being so modest.'

(Spoiler warning! You may want to skip this paragraph if you haven't finished Freedom.) Walter is increasingly the book's central figure and he is the subject when his best friend, Richard, a musician, tries to woo Walter's wife, Patty, the long-time object of a mutual passion. '"Come with me,"' Richard tells her. '"We'll go somewhere and Walter can have his freedom."' Granted his liberation, Walter embarks on an affair with his young coworker on an angry environmental project: 'Like a cold spring at the bottom of a warmer lake, old Swedish-gened depression was seeping up inside him: a feeling of not deserving a partner like Lalitha; of not being made for a life of freedom and outlaw heroics; of needing a more dully and enduringly discontented situation to struggle against and fashion an existence within.'

I've no doubt missed other mentions of freedom; without wanting to give any more away, the book's ending, for Walter, could be seen as a form of surrender. Franzen seems unsure of himself when he goes beyond the world of Patty and Walter (don't get me started on his portrayal of 'dark-skinned' Lalitha, as he likes to draw her; there are some odd, scatological, comic set-pieces here, too). The lack of confidence may have been underlined by the unfortunate kerfuffle over 'the corrections' but it is to the book of that title I'd go if you want to investigate Franzen for the first time. If you're determined for a taste of Freedom, do consider waiting for the paperback: at this heft, the hardback's not the most convenient tube read. (Like those books that come with their own reading stand, this should have its own shoulder bag, marketing folk?)

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Being boring: a criticism

As well as childhood being the best days of your life, another adage that gives me the creeps is you're only bored if you're being boring (there's a version of the line in the Pet Shop Boys' song). It's always struck me as fatuous philosophy and I was pleased to see the artist Anselm Kiefer quoting Heidegger on the subject approvingly in Sophie Fiennes' new film, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow. Kiefer suggests these are our true moments, when we can experience ourselves, and by extension perhaps, new thoughts; a very contemporary - maybe German - form of Zen.

Since childhood I've contended that boredom is a perfectly valid criticism ('I'm bored!'). Peter Bradshaw, in his review of Enter the Void, rounds on those who brand French director Gaspar Noé's latest provocation boring: 'Some may find Enter the Void detestable and objectionable, though if they affect to find it "boring" I will not believe them.' Odd that he should specify the exact word I would use to describe the film but also that he, in effect, places it as a stronger criticism than 'detestable' or 'objectionable'. Some may find the determinedly arty Over Your Cities... boring, with its long and very beautiful tracking shots of concrete structures and tunnels among the French landscape. Either way, I'm pleased to see the word claimed as a worthwhile form of criticism and not a facile taunt.

Sunday, 17 October 2010


The David Cameron fave's latest. Down with this sort of thing!

Friday, 15 October 2010

Author! Author!

There's something very strange going on with John Lanchester's latest book, beyond the presumably American-influenced swapping between titles, from I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay to Whoops!: Why Everyone etc. What I find odder is the erasure of the redoubtable author's entire back catalogue in its Penguin edition: The Debt to Pleasure (1996), Mr Phillips (2000), Fragrant Harbour (2002)... all gone. OK, his other books are published by Faber - and reality may be no more mundane than that - but it's as if his fiction-writing background is a dirty secret, which might put buyers off.

Now, Lanchester is a splendid non-fiction writer too, as we know from his extremely fine journalism - I hesitate to call him an essayist - and 2007's memoir Family Romance. All of this, it seems to me, would serve as a splendid advertisement for his ability to write a knowledgeable and incisive treatise on the global economic crisis. Instead, there's a painfully staged photograph of the author, presumably sitting in his Battersea back garden, Anglepoise and MacBook by his side, the very picture of confused efficiency. There's also an awkward attempt to claim Lanchester predicted the financial collapse in 2008, though I hardly think this phrase is definitive: 'You would be forgiven for thinking that some sort of crash is imminent.'

There is some autobiographical material in Whoops!, including references to Lanchester's childhood in Hong Kong with a banker father, which fired his interest in finance and, presumably, went some way to inspiring him to write Fragrant Harbour, a captivating portrait of the dependency in the 20th-century that comes after Timothy Mo's brilliant An Insular Possession (1986). (I'm surprised both books aren't more often mentioned in connection with the work of David Mitchell, with which they share many themes and interests.)

In Whoops! there's also some background about a flat Lanchester bought in King's Cross, which informed American writer Madison Smart Bell and, perhaps, Lanchester's lovely Mr Phillips. Phillips is an accountant who continues to commute into central London after he loses his job, and finds a number of comic distractions to fill his days, including meeting a porn publisher, who explains the joy of his business thus: 'Dual streams of revenue, that's the beauty… People buy the magazine to have a wank, and people advertise in the magazine to get in touch with people who wank, and it's all the best business in the world, since everybody wanks.' What marks the book, and all Lanchester's work, is his humanity, and that, you might think, would be eminently important for this latest. Especially when Whoops! is largely about wankers.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Photography with a bang: Muybridge and Sambourne's model behaviour

'Good evening major, my name is Muybridge and here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife.'

London is good to its perverts and, in the case of Eadweard Muybridge, its cuckolded murderers, too. Muybridge (1830- 1904) is celebrated at Tate Britain until 16 January 2011 with an excellent exhibition which has only one flaw: the fêted photographer is more showman than artist. If anything, with his frame-by-frame photographs of a (clothed) woman leaping over a stool, a cockatoo on the wing or the famous flying horse, he's a pioneering filmmaker.

Amid the equine flights of fancy there are pictures of semi-clad men running, wrestling and performing acrobatics but the exhibition is shy about Muybridge's women models, including Catherine Aimer, Kate Larrigan and Blanche Epler, a particular favourite. They're pictured - naked - stepping across wet stones, walking downstairs (apparently an inspiration for Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2), acting coy ('Ashamed'), getting into bed or putting their feet up for a smoke (it probably was a tiring day in the studio).

As you leave, a final caption is desperate to make a case for Muybridge's fascination with capturing falling water: in this case being tipped over one nude woman by another. There has to be a feeling that, salesman that he was, Muybridge knew his market, even if it was only him.

Beyond Tate Britain, Muybridge is currently being celebrated in his birthplace, Kingston upon Thames. It reminds me of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's meticulous commemoration of another 19th-century photographer at the lovely Leighton House almost a decade ago.

Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910) was Punch's chief cartoonist who, under the pretence of needing images upon which to base his drawings - perhaps like those claiming to advance science and photography - accumulated an impressive portfolio of naked women in all sorts of mundane poses. His many models included 16-year-old Kate Manning, sisters Hetty and Lily Pettigrew, Ethel Warwick, Kate Derben, her Kennington neighbour Mrs Madge King, 'M Reid' - another favourite - and Maud Easton, of whom the most erotically charged photos were taken.

Sambourne's photo Maid sleeping in the top room at 18 Stafford Terrace (detail, pictured) would not have gone amiss in Tate Modern's recent mishit, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera, and may have been a better fit than most of the more well-known images crowbarred into that exhibition's flimsy theses. By 1905, Sambourne eschewed models for covert snaps of local schoolgirls - taken with a camera which took pictures at a right angle to the direction in which it was pointed.

- The quote at the top is said to have been spoken by Muybridge moments before he shot his young wife's lover, Major Harry Larkins. Muybridge was acquitted of murder.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Paris syndrome

Right, this should be the last post inspired by Paris for a time. While I was there, I got to thinking about Paris syndrome, the sickness that affects mainly Japanese visitors to the French capital. Officials at the Japanese embassy say they have to help up to 20 tourists a year when their experience of a dream destination is destroyed by elevated expectations, the language barrier, cultural clashes, crime or plain rudeness.

This is not to be confused with Stendhal syndrome, whose symptoms of fainting, rapid heartbeat and so on are much the same, but is provoked by a particular sensitivity to overwhelming beauty - perhaps much like Henry Miller, 'wandering and wandering' along the Seine, below, though most usually inspired by art. Also named Florence syndrome, the 19th century writer Henri-Marie Beyle (Stendhal) was overcome in the city: on the porch of Santa Croce he was 'seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.'

The full-on breakdown abroad is a common outcome in the work of writer Geoff Dyer, whether on the beach in Mexico (Out of Sheer Rage), in Detroit (Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It) or at a pilgrimage site in India (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi). I feel a sense of liberation somewhere no one knows me, surrounded by another language, but perhaps for some people this can prove too much.

My own relationship with Paris is different: I've been going there since childhood and, while the city hasn't changed that much, I wonder about myself reflected against it: the different, or maybe-not-so-different, mes that have visited, and stood in the same places (pictured, a bar I first visited more than half a lifetime ago). Those moments don't come in the full-time bustle of London, in the same way parents, because they are all the time with their children, don't see them growing up.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Everything you always wanted to know about specs...

Poor Jonathan Franzen. First the wrong version of his book is published, then some idiot goes and steals his glasses. I would find that an unforgiveable personal invasion - I've worn glasses since I was a child and can't imagine what I would look or feel like without them, but that's the joy of specs.

His glasses would, however, make a great contribution to the British Optical Association Museum, which was established in 1901 and is now housed in a basement on the same London street as Benjamin Franklin House. Fellow American Herman Melville and German poet Heinrich Heine lived down the road in the 19th century.

What its website styles the 'musEYEum' is said to be 'the oldest and one of the best optical museums in the world'. It has a collection of some 16,ooo objects, only a fraction of which can be exhibited at any time, ranging from an intricate 17th-century model of an eye made from ivory to the latest blister-packed contact lenses. (They don't, however, have T-shirts boasting the legend: 'I went to the Optical Museum and made a spectacle of myself.')

A selection of frames - including a pair with automated wipers - is a great resource for current designers, says the museum's enthusiastic curator (the picture, above, is taken with his kind permission). The collection includes eyewear belonging to Dr Johnson, CP Snow and Ronnie Corbett - yep, they're kept in glasses cases - as well as the arms of spectacles belonging to Dr Crippen. An optician, I'm told, he smashed the lenses in an attempt to kill himself.

I wouldn't have minded seeing more famous frames: I particularly favour those iconic, round-rimmed Windsors, I believe they're called, sported by as various a crowd as Gandhi, Groucho Marx, John Lennon and Harry Potter, but would love to see Woody Allen's classic set - he's said to have given Penelope Cruz a pair after filming Vicky Christina Barcelona - or even those belonging to Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Soku. (Does anyone pass down frames to their children?)

Wandering up Charing Cross Road afterwards I'm struck by the huge variety of spectacles on show worn by passersby. At a time when gene treatment, advances in laser surgery and the like could mean glasses become an idiosyncratic throwback, we should try and compile some form of specs files. With Franzen's pair at the centre of the crime of the hour, where better to start? It could be called You've Been Framed.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

An unflinching eye: Georges Simenon's photography

While I was in Paris I was lucky enough to stumble across the catalogue for an exhibition of photographs by writer Georges Simenon. It's beautifully reproduced so, as with many photography shows, I don't feel too badly to have missed the original event, which was held at the Jeu de Paume back in the spring of 2004.

The prurient side of you might like to see pictures of some of the 10,000 women he claimed to have slept with - and the book's cover sneakily alludes to that (pictured) - but this is a rather splendid collection of travel photos, held by the University of Liège's centre for Simenon studies. The pictures are taken over only a few years (1931-5) but cover a wealth of locations, from north and eastern Europe to Africa and north America.

Some are unavoidably snapshots - they can be of dubious quality - but many are very beautiful; as exacting as Simenon was with words, he seems to have had quite an eye. Pictures from Sudan and the Congo are reminiscent of old National Geographic spreads (bare-breasted women with young children tied to their backs, or bathing), and predate Leni Riefenstahl's similar ethnographic work, but his images of people in Poland and Russia match those of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii for their humanity.

Simenon's pictures of Turkey and Tunisia are especially eye-catching, while those of Tahiti capture the expat world he depicted in such novels as Banana Tourist. It makes for a bleaker take than that of painter Paul Gauguin, currently on show at Tate Modern. (There is one topless beauty, sitting like Ady Fidelin in Lee Miller's photo of Roland Penrose, Man Ray and Co picnicking in Mougins.)

With his love of boating, there are many (shaky) images of harbours: Honfleur, Ouistreham, Concarneau, Boulogne, Marseille… (For the curious, Simenon's wife Tigy and her maid Boule are pictured onboard - he slept with both of them.) Best of all, though, are his pictures of the homeland he left, Belgium, many of customers or staff in bars in Charleroi (almost in the style of August Sander, also exhibited at Tate Modern at the moment), eerily quiet streets in the Flanders, even a haunting torn poster of a skull wearing a gas mask in Brussels. Simply stunning.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Miller time: Paris in Tropic of Cancer

'An eternal city, Paris! More eternal than Rome, more splendrous than Ninevah. The very navel of the world to which, like a blind and faltering idiot, one crawls back on hands and knees.' - Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Before my little post on Maigret's Paris, a friend suggested I do something on Henry Miller and pointed me in the direction of Walking Paris with Henry Miller. I could never match that excellent site so instead thought simply to concentrate on Tropic of Cancer (1934), the best novel on the French capital I've read.

I was always under the impression that it's a dirty book, but it's not at all; it's joyful, exacting and very funny. The only possible danger to your health comes from its sturdy language; always one to enjoy dropping the c-bomb, a work that features the c-word at least once a page is an open invitation to me.

Inscribed by a C Branchini, I have a 1949 edition from the Obelisk Press - 'Must not be imported into England or USA' - busy with typographical errors, faded print and other faults that sometimes make it difficult to follow, but nonetheless. Full of knowledge and criticism, Tropic of Cancer builds into a philosophical diatribe which may outstay its welcome nowadays, but Miller quickly atones with two whirlwind tales to whisk you to the end.

All of Paris is here, from the bars of Montparnasse - the Café Select, the Dôme, La Coupole - through the Place St Sulpice, to the neighbourhood of the Folies Bergère in the 9th. Nearby is the Faubourg Montmartre, 'a devil's street… with its brass plates and rubber goods, the lights twinkling all night and sex running through the street like a sewer.'

The Café de l'Eléphant on the boulevard Beaumarchais, which runs north from Bastille, is where he picks up the lusty Germaine. It is an area ripe with whores: 'The Rue Pasteur-Wagner is one I recall in particular, corner of the Rue Amelot which hides behind the boulevard like a slumbering lizard. Here… there was always a cluster of vultures who croaked and flapped their dirty wings, who reached out with sharp talons and plucked you into a doorway. Jolly, rapacious devils who didn't even give you time to button your pants when it was over.'

On the Left Bank, 'the Rue de Buci [pictured] is alive, crawling. The bars wide open and the curbs lined with bicycles.' Otherwise he is 'wandering along the Seine at night, wandering and wandering, and going mad with the beauty of it.'

But Paris is not so easy to distill into one experience. His wife has returned to America and, walking down the Rue Lhomond one night, he recalls her plea to show her the Paris he has written about. Suddenly he realises 'the impossibility of ever revealing to her that Paris whose arrondissements are undefined, a Paris that has never existed except by virtue of my loneliness, my hunger for her. Such a huge Paris! It would take a lifetime to explore it again. This Paris, to which I alone had the key, hardly lends itself to a tour, even with the best of intentions; it is a Paris that has to be lived, that has to be experienced each day in a thousand different forms of torture, a Paris that grows inside you like a cancer, and grows and grows until you are eaten away by it.'