Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Carry On Christmas

Film4 has recently been screening the early Carry On films. In all, some 30 films were made in the innuendo-laden series, which is a staple of the TV schedules. A core cast of Kenneth Williams, Charlie Hawtry, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Connor was immediately in place for opener Carry On Sergeant (1958), and director Gerald Thomas was at the helm all the way through to a misguided revival in 1992 for Carry On Columbus, starring Julian Clary.

Sophomore outing Carry On Nurse (1959) saw the introduction of Leslie Phillips, who returned for Columbus after a run in the first films, and Joan Sim, while hospitals remained a popular setting for the series - think Barbara Windsor in her pasties. Given the films' appropriation of seaside postcard humour and the aspirational times, the vacation seam was mined to its full in Carry On Cruising (1962),Carry On Camping (1962) and Carry On Abroad (1972).

Shirley Eaton - of Goldfinger fame - was another early regular and the movies also afforded roles to Bob Monkhouse (... Sergeant) and Richard O'Sullivan, in Carry On Teacher (1959). The theme of these early ventures was routinely of a hapless group - conscripts or other initiates - pulling together and overcoming their own shortfalls to support authority.

Sid James joined in 1960 for Carry On Constable and it's his introduction that arguably cemented the reputation for single entendres and hopeless mugging that would characterise the series, which reached its pinnacle in 1968's Carry On... Up the Kyber, with Roy Castle in the role of the young male ingenue.

The films are no better than the St Trinian's movies (resurrected even more recently with Gemma Arterton, Lena Heady, Rupert Everett, Russell Brand and Colin Firth), but it's warming to see Williams, in particular, displaying finesse in the early, black-and-white outings. This charming portrait of the actor, taken just before the series began in 1957, is currently on show at London's National Portrait Gallery.

Merry Christmas and all the very best for 2012!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Silents are golden

Following wonderful presentations of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (attended by Rowan Atkinson) and Le grand amour, with director Pierre Etaix, the team from Fondation Groupama Gan was back at London's Ciné lumière this week with A Trip to the Moon (1902, pictured). Georges Méliès's classic - just think of that image of the rocket embedded in the moon's eye - has been restored to its original colour, with a soundtrack by Air.

The French pop duo, who previously scored The Virgin Suicides (1999), had only a month to create the soundtrack and say they left the mix deliberately raw to match the filmmaker's methods. It channels their own fascination with the moon and psychedelia, though the use of sound effects - including farmyard animal noises - doesn't do it for me.

Pop is increasingly used to soundtrack old silent films, most notably Pet Shop Boys' work on Battleship Potemkin (1925). At the time of their Trafalgar Square concert screening, Neil Tennant spoke of director Sergei Eisenstein's wish that the film be rescored every decade. Pioneering music producer Giorgio Moroder famously pursued clips of Metropolis (1924) to every corner of the planet before releasing a colourised version of Fritz Lang's sci-fi classic in 1984 with a soundtrack including Pat Benatar and Freddie Mercury (on Love Kills, covered by Little Boots).

A Trip to the Moon's 14,000 frames were originally hand-tinted by 200 artists and it's a rediscovered print of this version that formed the basis for this restoration. Air also had the luxury of not having to compete with any existing soundtrack but, like Moroder's labour of love, it's hoped the soundtrack will attract a new audience to a classic that was well-known if little seen.

Scissor Sisters' John Garden (son of Graeme!) plays live accompaniment to a series of Méliès films at Ciné lumière tonight (NB Wednesday 14 December). Highlights of Air's Q&A following the screening of A Trip to the Moon will appear here

Thursday, 8 December 2011

What would Father Ted do?

The BBC website today has an article about the prevalence of slogan 'What would Jesus do?', most noticeably at St Paul's Occupy protest. The Archbishop of Canterbury tackled that question this week, but its growing prominence reminded me of Chris Marker's film The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chats perchés, 2004), which charts the presence of a piece of graffiti art at demonstrations around the world almost a decade ago.

The iconography of the image of a Cheshire-like cat seems way more interesting than the rhetorical, rather glib use of WWJD by many who may not believe in Christ. Jesus is global but the grinning cat lends itself to greater interpretation, and can be co-opted more easily by the broad spectrum of issues demonstrators now regularly join under together, though in the period Marker charts it largely appeared at marches against war in Iraq.

In his film, Marker first tracks the cats in Paris in a period following 9/11 and they can still be spotted there above the rooftops - and elsewhere, pictured. I would love it if the cat's rise continued unabated perhaps alongside the best slogan of all, which author Graham Linehan still spots at various very British protests: 'Down with this sort of thing', coupled with its partner from TV series Father Ted, 'Careful now'.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Pop music in novels

Pop music is a staple in contemporary cinema. It's used as a marketing tool by mainstream moviemakers and emotional signposting by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (cf Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and College's A Real Hero track). But it's less commonly found in novels, particularly compared to classical or opera.

Other than novels directly about bands and music-making, such as Toby Litt's I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay (2008), pop is rarely referenced in literary fiction. There are notable exceptions, however: Douglas Coupland has written novels called Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) and Eleanor Rigby (2004); the record shop-owner who narrates Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (1995) regularly makes mix tapes and has Top Fives to cover most of the important things in his life.

Amid the misogynistic horror, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991) has some very funny chapters on 1980s music including Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News, and Genesis ('I've been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I didn't really understand any of their work...').

The eponymous heroine of Alan Warner's Morvern Callar (1995) soundtracks her life to her Walkman while the music of Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) ranges from Otis Redding to 'the tuneless: King Crimson, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Wild Man Fisher.' Character Shahid has the bootleg CD - bought from Camden market - of The Black Album in his Prince collection in the book of that name, and Prince is back for Arthur Phillips' pop-stalker novel The Song Is You (2009), which cunningly namechecks any number of particularly UK-centric pop sources.

We're back hunting for CDs in Camden and the West End in Malvern Hills, one of five stories in Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes (2009). The narrator goes to stay with his sister and help out in her café, where he meets a Swiss couple - 'We perform many hits. Beatles, the Carpenters... we do some Abba. Dancing Queen. That one always goes down well.'

Robin, one of the characters in Alan Hollinghurst's 1998 novel, The Spell, has 'old vinyls, in bumped, coffee-ringed sleeves... The Beatles and the Stones, the Doors, the Incredible String Band' though he has 'the small accidental CD collection of someone uninterested in music.' Through Robin's son, staid civil servant Alex is turned onto dance; 'Alex switched on the radio, and it was one of Haydn's opus 76 string quartets that he had sometimes listened to with Hugh. It held him for a moment... but he couldn't resist a feeling that it would always be there, and found himself reaching into the glove-box for his latest purchase from Harlot Records, Monster House Party Five, a three-CD compilation of 40 pounding dance tracks mixed by DJs Sparkx, Joe Puma and Queen Marie.'

Set in a parallel 1984, Japanese author Haruki Murakami's latest, 1Q84, could feature any amount of trendy 1980s tunes but instead anachronistically references It's Only a Paper Moon by EY Harburg and Harold Arlen ('It's a Barnum and Bailey world/ Just as phony as it can be'), alongside Janácek's Sinfonietta. While classical music may seem less gauche on the page, there are some great pop references in one of my favourite novels: F Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon (1940).

Driving with Wylie, the alcoholic writer who is in love with her, Celia dreams instead of the producer Stahr. 'I turned the dial and got either Gone or Lost - there were good songs that year... [but they] were the wrong mood, so I turned again and got, Lovely to Look At, which was my kind of poetry... "They asked me how I knew,' sang the radio, "- my true love was true." My heart was fire, and smoke was in my eyes and everything...'

Please do add your favourite pop moments in novels in the comments field below - thank you!

Friday, 2 December 2011

Raise high the roof beam, Salinger

In a contemporary review of JD Salinger's Franny and Zooey, John Updike almost finds a forebear for David Foster Wallace in the famously reclusive author. Updike confesses to being a fan, conceding that the 'Glass saga, as he has sketched it out, potentially contains great fiction' though he is troubled by 'the extravagant self-consciousness of Salinger's later prose, wherein most of the objections one might raise are already raised.'

Updike quotes a particularly telling phrase of Salinger's from the book's jacket flap in which the creator of Holden Caulfield seems to presage the silence that was to ensue: '... there is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I'll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I'm very hopeful.'

Salinger's final books - Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction - were published in the early 1960s from pieces that had appeared in The New Yorker in the late 1950s. His last published work, Hapworth 16, 1924, appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965. JD Salinger died in 2010, aged 91, without publishing another word.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Killing time again - Forbrydelsen II

In much the way author Howard Norman revisited the same story in three books from 1994 to 2002, the writer of The Killing, Søren Sveistrup, has been tipping his hat to familiar themes in the second series of the Danish crime drama. The original series (Forbrydelsen in Danish) stood out in part because of its focus on the family and friends of various central characters, especially those related to murder victim Nanna Birk Larsen.

Four episodes into the noticeably tighter Forbrydelsen II, the action is less immediately personal, though there are hints we may learn a little more about enigmatic heroine, detective inspector Sarah Lund. Her son has settled permanently with his grandmother, whose impending wedding gives Lund another family occasion to muck up or miss altogether, to put alongside her attempt to move in with Swedish ex-boyfriend Bengt.

Sofie Gråbøl is as outstanding as ever as Lund, whose powers of detection continue to outweigh the character's ability to play things by the book, coupled with an innate talent to be in the right place at the wrong time. As Gråbøl told me of her character in a recent interview for Time Out, 'She makes connections, that's her talent, her gift. Of course she has a strong gut feeling but there's nothing supernatural [about her intuition].'

Lund is one of only two recurring characters in the series - the other being her boss, Lennart Brix (Morten Suurballe). The political background is played out at a national level on this occasion, albeit with the state's civil servants still proving obstructive. Senior figures throughout seem to know more about the deaths of several people attached to a military unit in Afghanistan than they're letting on.

There are echoes of the excellent Danish film Armadillo (2010), which BBC4 would do well to screen during The Killing II's current run; the character Søgaard is notably familiar from Janus Metz Pedersen's Afghan documentary. Lund's case also has political as well as personal repercussions, not least for the women who are forced out of their jobs after having affairs. (There's even a replacement for luscious Rie Skovgaard in Ruth Hedeby.) Nor has the Danish weather improved.

There is, too, the initial frisson with Lund's new colleague, the brilliantly named Ulrik Strange (Mikael Birkkjaer), who has already succeeded where her previous (romantic) partner failed - by taking her to Sweden, as if that's some sort of strange Danish euphemism. Birkkjaer and Gråbøl previously appeared together in a film about a couple dealing with their daughter's death, Aftermath (2004). It's out on DVD on Monday.

Søren Sveistrup has injected warmth and dark humour in their relationship, worthy of the Swedish TV version of Wallander. (Gråbøl told The Guardian that Lund would beat Wallander in a fight - 'no contest'.) The writer is also playing with viewers' knowledge of what happened to Lund's previous police partner, and has just placed Strange in jeopardy. We'll have to tune in on Saturday to find out how that goes.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

In the swim - pools in movies, part three

A swimming pool is the centre of confusion for Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955) but pools are so central to two intertwined French films that they are named after the bathing spots - the setting for murders in both, by different means. In La Piscine (1969), which is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, and Swimming Pool (2003), the camera lingers longingly on the pneumatic bodies of respective stars Romy Schneider and Ludivine Sagnier (pictured).

In the former film, Schneider is paired with her ex-lover Alain Delon, not looking bad nearly a decade after Plein Soleil, here distracted by Lolita-esque Jane Birkin. In François Ozon's Swimming Pool, libidinous Sagnier disrupts writer Charlotte Rampling's dreams of a peaceful holiday.

In Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También (2001), bored teenager Gael García Bernal is seen wanking into a pool with his friend, played by Diego Luna. When the randy duo embark on a road trip with Maribel Verdú, they stop at a dilapidated, out-of-season motel, where the pool is cloaked in fallen leaves. Christina Ricci meets boyfriend Elijah Wood in an equally leaf-strewn scene in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997), but this time the pool is empty, and they are in their winter coats.

The passing of a way of life, and a country, is marked in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's A Screaming Man (2010) as a proud lifeguard must give way to his son, and then must try and rescue his offspring when the civil war reaches them. Youssouf 'Champion' Djaoro's cross-country journey is leant a surreal air by the swimming goggles he sports to keep the sand from his eyes.

This journey is marked nowhere better than the 1968 film adaptation of John Cheever's beautiful short story The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster, later reworked as a Levi's jeans ad (set to Dinah Washington's Mad About the Boy). In it character Ned Merrill decides to swim across an endless stream of home pools - as he does so, the season changes from summer to autumn, accompanied by his fortunes.

And then there's Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), which opens on scriptwriter William Holden's body floating in a pool, two shots in the back and one in the stomach, we're told. 'The poor dope, he always wanted a pool.'

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In the swim - pools in movies, part two

The sense of danger increases in The Page Turner (2009), which stars Déborah François as a vengeful young woman who infiltrates a happy family. The fear is multiplied for Jacques Tourneur's classic 1942 chiller Cat People as Simone Simon stalks terrified Jane Randolph in a pool (pictured).

Jonathan Glazer satirises the classic poolside beauty with Sexy Beast's (2000) opening sequence of a sweaty, overweight Ray Winstone - in Speedos - but menace lurks beneath this Costa pool (there's a swimming pool-set robbery thrown in for good measure, too). For downright horror, however, look no further than 2008's Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson's remarkable take on John Ajvide Lindqvist's script from his own novel.

Any number of stars have risen seductively from pools - from Esther Williams (Bathing Beauty, 1944), through Phoebe Cates in 1980s teen fantasy Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) to Gael García Bernal in Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education (2004).

Then there are Denise Richards and Neve Campbell's lesbian antics in Wild Things (1998), intended to seduce police detective Kevin Bacon. This can be placed alongside the frolics of Just Jaeckin's classic soft-porn film, Emmanuelle (1974), which throws in an underwater show.

Part three - murder, death and decay - is here

Monday, 28 November 2011

In the swim - pools in movies, part one

'Where's the swimming pool? You must have a swimming pool.'

So says Veronica Lake to Joel McCrea in Preston Sturges' Hollywood satire, Sullivan's Travels (1941), inspiration for the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? Swimming pools appear in a variety of movies: private pools denote glamour, if not decadence - witness Billy Crudup perched on a rooftop above a pool in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (2000). 'I am a golden god!' he shouts to his fans before they urge him to jump. 'My last words... I'm on drugs!'

It doesn't take much to reduce that ultimate status symbol, the hidden swimming pool, however - a flick of the switch pitching James Stewart and Donna Reed into the water in It's a WonderfulLife (1946), while Peter Sellers floods the festivities in foam at The Party (1968). In the 1980s, swimming pools were also life-giving - to aliens in Cocoon (1985) and to gremlins in, erm, Gremlins (1984).

To mark the release of Jacques Deray's La Piscine (pictured) today on DVD and Blu-ray, over the next three days I'm going to examine more themes familiar to swimming pool films, starting with seduction and humiliation - dive in!

In George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940), the swimming pool is the setting for Katharine Hepburn's night-time swim - in the musical version of Philip Barry's play, High Society (1956), Grace Kelly is the bathing beauty. The character, Tracy Lord, remembers the yacht she shared with her ex husband as 'yar' - an execrable word in both women's mouths.

For Juliette Binoche in Philip Kaufman's Kundera adaptation, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), public baths are a place of humiliation - much as they are for the young teenage heroine in French director Céline Sciamma's 2007 feature debut, Water Lilies, an unforgettable portrayal of the tensions within a team of pubescent swimmers.

In the same way Binoche rarely seems to escape Paris's Métro, so she is often shown in swimming pools; it's a place of isolation for her widowed character in Three Colours: Blue (1993), set to Zbigniew Preisner's magnificent score. Michael Haneke, however, makes it a setting for, by turns, menace and threat in Code Unknown (pictured, 2000) and Hidden (2005)...

Part two, featuring lust and terror, follows here

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Outdoor art 2012

Theatre and music names garnered the headlines at the recent launch of the London 2012 Festival, which will loosely coincide with next year's Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Games will be rung in with a new piece from Martin Creed, Work No.1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and as Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes.

Participatory art makes up a large part of the programme and some outdoor events across the UK have already caught my imagination, starting with Forest Pitch. Craig Coulthard intends to create a full-size football pitch in the middle of a Scottish forest - goalposts and shelters will be made from the cleared trees. Two matches will then be played on the site (the artist slightly overeggs his project by choosing his teams from amateurs who have taken on British citizenship), before the spot is left to return to nature, rather like the scenes in my favourite Asterix book, The Mansions of the Gods.

Another artist interacting with nature and the elements is German Hans Peter Kuhn, who intends to pitch a series of Flags - red on one side, yellow the other - along the Giant's Causeway coastline in Northern Ireland. According to the pitch: 'Depending on the strength and direction of the wind the viewer will see a flickering pattern of red and yellow against the backdrop of this spectacular landscape, generating a strange form of binary code transmitting nature's message.'

More genteel is The English Flower Garden, 'a series of six installations with a total of 15,000 individually hand-thrown ceramic blooms mounted on metal rods'. I'm increasingly interested in ceramics and can't wait for Paul Cumming's beautiful-sounding event, part of which blossoms at London's South Bank early September 2012.

If you want to catch a preview of what's to come, check out Alex Hartley's show, which opened last night at Victoria Miro (where he will live in an outdoor installation, pictured, for the duration). Next summer, the artist will float his Arctic island nation around south-west England but, until 21 January at the gallery, you can visit his adapted photographs, many of which feature architectural additions reminiscent of James Bond baddies' lairs.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Mysterious killings

In the last week, Germany has been gripped by the revelation that a group of neo-Nazis responsible for killing at least 10 people, a string of bank robberies and two nail-bomb attacks was able to act with apparent impunity for 13 years. Among the most striking details to emerge is that a member of the country's own intelligence service was present when two members of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) shot dead a 21-year-old Turkish man in an internet café.

The story has uncomfortable echoes of a mysterious series of fatal crimes committed in Belgium in the early 1980s. Between 1982 and 1985, 28 people were killed in at least 16 armed robberies on supermarkets, restaurants and, in one case, a jeweller's; the perpetrators rarely stole all the money available to them and only in an attack on an arms dealer seem to have focused on the outcome of their acts. No one has ever been convicted of the crimes.

Any number of theories exist to explain this bizarre outbreak of violence, including Mafia gun-running and neo-Nazi terror cells. Many argue that the gang - variously named the Nijvel or Brabant killers, after the area in which most of the offences took place - intended to destabilise the Belgian government, while others have suggested they were a 'stay behind' Gladio-style operation intended to act against the rise of communism in western Europe. Given Belgium's notorious recent history of underage-sex crime, still others link the killings to paedophile gangs.

As with the NSU in Germany, the fact that nobody has been tried for the offences has lead many to speculate on high-ranking government, military or police connivance. The Nijvel gang's final act was also their most violent: on 9 November 1985 they killed eight people and injured several others in a raid on a supermarket. They were never heard of again.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Haruki Murakami and 1Q84, part three - 'detective spelunking'

Haruki Murakami's new book features a character, Tengo, who wants to be a writer and reviewers have naturally picked up on this aspect of 1Q84. Some of the novel's thoughts on writing, editing and publishing replicate the author's views on translation, expressed in a piece by Murakami called 'To Translate and to be Translated' (2006) collected in a book to commemorate a symposium held by the Japan Foundation five years ago.

The three-part celebration - in Tokyo, Kobe and Hokkaido - was primarily aimed at international translators of Murakami's work and called A Wild Haruki Chase: How the World is Reading and Translating Murakami. Kobe, of course, is where the Japanese author grew up, while Hokkaido is one of the settings in the first of his books to appear in Britain, A Wild Sheep Chase (1990).

'If a translation can be read smoothly and effortlessly, and thus enjoyably,' Murakami writes, 'then it does its job as a translation perfectly well - that is my basic stance as the original author. For that is what the stories that I conjure and lay out are really about.'

Elsewhere, one of the leading lights behind the symposium, Professor Inuhiko Yomota, claims: 'The international "Haruki boom" gained momentum in the 1990s, around the same time as anime (Japanese animation) and Japanese-made computer games pushed into global markets. Unlike the works of his Japanese predecessors, such as Jun'ichiro Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata, Murakami's works are not being translated and consumed overseas as those of an author who represents Japanese culture.'

Though Murakami may not represent Japanese culture I disagree with Yomota's idea that international readers do not think of the author and his work as Japanese. The chief protagonist of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru Okada, may cook spaghetti and listen to Rossini, for instance, but his outlook and experiences are distinctly 'other'. While readers' 'political disillusionment, romantic impulses, loneliness and emptiness' may be assuaged by Murakami's texts, as Yomota has it, it is the books' alien setting that allows many non-Japanese readers to accept their unusual goings-on. To contradict Yomota's thesis, we 'fully realise that the author was born in Japan and that the books are actually translations.'

More compelling is the writer Richard Powers on how Murakami's work anticipated developments in neuroscience in the 1990s, specifically Italian researcher Giacomo Rizzolatti's discovery of mirror neurons. Working with monkeys in the lab, his team unexpectedly found that a macaque signalled from a part of its prefrontal cortex not only when moving its own arm but in reaction to the experimenters' movements. 'Now, in the looping, shared circuitry of mirror neurons, science has hit upon an even richer description of our communal, subterranean truths,' says Powers, 'the truths that Murakami's mirrorscape of symbols brings into existence with him.'

Kafka on the Shore (2005) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991, pictured top) are just two examples of novels containing such parallel narrative worlds. According to Powers: 'Murakami's characters, set loose between these intersecting worlds, are forced to embark on detective spelunking. They venture downwards into walled enclaves, climb into deep wells, or drop below the surface of seismically shaken cities, searching for the rules that connect the banal and the fantastic, the material and the mental.'

The formula is repeated in 1Q84 where an unrequited couple - Tengo and old schoolmate Aomame - find themselves in a parallel 1984. Much of the narrative is naturalistic: perhaps back in 1984 the same two characters are moving between the same points in their lives (rewriting a book, hiding out in an apartment, visiting a dying parent) without being aware of the supernatural elements that link these events in the world of 1Q84, with its two moons. Politically disillusioned, lonely, romantic and empty we may be but somewhere, Murakami insists, something magical and mysterious is happening if only in our minds.

The book's 1984/1Q84 nonetheless feels close to our own time; despite lacking mobile phones and the internet, Murakami is not interested in piling on the period detail so loved by others. And what does his hero, Tengo, eat this time out? Grilled dried mackerel with daikon radish, a miso soup with littlenecks and green onions to have with tofu, cucumber slices and wakame seaweed doused with vinegar, plus rice and nappa pickles; elsewhere he makes stir-fried shrimp and vegetables with boiled edamame in a procedure Murakami itemises like a recipe - you could follow this and make it at home.

'Tengo chopped a lot of ginger to a fine consistency. Then he sliced some celery and mushrooms into nice-sized pieces. The Chinese parsley, too, he chopped up finely... Next he warmed a large frying pan and dribbled in some sesame oil... When the vegetables were just beginning to cook, he tossed the drained shrimp into the pan... After adding another dose of salt and pepper to the whole thing, he poured in a small glass of sake. Then a dash of soy sauce and finally a scattering of Chinese parsley.'

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Haruki Murakami and 1Q84, part two - cuts

I'm rather jealous of the stylish US edition of Haruki Murakami's new work, 1Q84, not least because all three Japanese books are published in one, 900-page volume. In order to speed the novel's release in English, Murakami's regular translators Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel split the work between them. Rubin took on the first two books while Gabriel tackled the last, although some particularly pernickety reviewers have complained about variances of tone between the sections.

Timing is important to Murakami: in his critical biography, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (2002), Rubin explains how Murakami asked him to begin translating book one of what is probably the Japanese author's chef d'oeuvre, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, while it was being serialised. 'Of course, as a scholar, it would have made sense for me to have waited to see how the book turned out...' Rubin concedes.

Like 1Q84, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was originally published in Japan in three parts: the first two books were released simultaneously in April 1994 with book three following almost a year later in August 1995, a time lag roughly replicated by the third part of Murakami's latest. Where the books differ is that a decision was made to edit Wind-Up Bird - that task was given to the book's translator, Rubin.

'The cuts occur primarily at the end of book two and the beginning of book three,' Rubin writes. But his work went beyond that: 'I did a lot of rearranging at the beginning of book three because I found several chronological inconsistencies which were not deliberately placed there by the author... To further complicate the textual picture, Murakami contributed many minor cuts that have since been incorporated into the Japanese paperback edition of the novel (mostly in book one).'

According to Rubin: 'There are many versions of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: the serialised version of book one; the published hardback editions of books one, two and three; my unpublished complete translation of that edition (with likely inconsistencies since I may have missed something in revising the version based on the serialised chapters); the American version; the British version from Harvill; and finally the paperback (bunkoben) version in Japanese, which incorporates some - but not all - of the cuts recommended for the American translation and possibly others decided upon afterwards.'

The decision to abridge the work in the first place was justified by Murakami's US editor, Gary Fisketjon, on publisher Knopf's website in 1997: 'My reaction was that it couldn't be published successfully at such length, which indeed would do harm to Haruki's cause in this country.' In nearly 15 years, things have moved on enough for 1Q84 to be published unexpurgated but it seems unlikely we will see a special edition of Rubin's complete version.

In his introduction to collection A Wild Haruki Chase: Reading Murakami Around the World (2008) - more of which in my next post - the translator writes: 'I have occasionally suggested to Knopf that the time might be ripe for an uncut edition, but they have shown no interest in the idea.' I wonder, too, if we'll see Portrait in Jazz, which Murakami's Russian translator Ivan Sergeevich Logatchov describes as a 'masterpiece' and sounds like it might be a counterpiece to Geoff Dyer's brilliant jazz book But Beautiful (1991).

Monday, 14 November 2011


London's V&A celebrates craftsmanship in an exhibition that runs until 2 January 2012. Power of Making is great fun and includes a cake in the shape of a baby, a shark sculpture made from recycled tyres and a 'crochetdermy' bear.

Produced with the Crafts Council, the show highlights the skills of gunsmiths or the beauty of ceramics, often creating contrasts by updating traditional vocations. For example, when the market for ecclesiastical wear began to dry up, Poland's Koniakow Cooperative turned its talents instead to making lingerie, including the handmade lace G-string on display (pictured).

There's a strand where these developments achieve the absurd: take Dave Bradbury's Bill Bailey book, which is carved from stone. Australian artist Patricia Piccinini imagines safety wear for genetically engineered creatures - her double-headed 'hornet' crash helmet could be a wholly impractical device for an adult and child to cram into together, for instance.

Jeremy Hutchison took this approach to everyday objects to its extreme in the recent Saatchi New Sensations exhibition. The artist contacted factories around the world and asked them to provide him with an example of their work that was altered in such a way as to make it unusable. (It's important to state he was not after a product rejected because it was faulty.)

As part of the project, he presents the pieces with the correspondence built up over the process (pictured), which shows many factories were understandably puzzled by his intentions - endearingly, some were unwilling to compromise their hard-won reputations by making something that didn't work. (An example of this approach in the news around the same time as the show is the story of the man who ordered two differently sized slippers but, when they arrived, one was a size 1,450 rather than 14.5, though this may have been a PR stunt.) Other responses reference the joy people experienced at giving their creative input while being relieved of routine constraints.

One of my favourite pieces is a pair of sunglasses with multiple bridges, making it unwearable; elsewhere pencils lack lead or a hat is sealed so it cannot be worn. The results are suitably surrealistic - there is a solid pipe, after Magritte, which cannot be smoked. The master of the found object is referenced, too: Duchamp's snow shovel became art by being displayed in a gallery but could still function in the manner for which it was designed; Hutchison, or his craftsmen, render it unusable by inverting the shovel on the handle.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Hidden London: The Poppy Factory

Amid the continuing hooha over wearing poppies you might be surprised to learn that the British Legion's annual symbol of remembrance is made in London. The Poppy Factory (pictured below) on the Thames in Richmond makes up to 45 million poppies every year and 100,000 wreaths, as well as organising the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey.

Poppies were first sold to raise money to help support ex-servicemen and women in the early 1920s and the Richmond site was established in 1925. The factory employs more than 40 disabled staff with links to the services, as well as supporting others who work from home or in other companies.

They run daily tours where you can see the work and memorabilia associated with the factory, including a 1922 letter from Major George Howson in which he describes his feelings about the project. 'I have been given a cheque for £2,000 to make poppies with. It is a large responsibility and will be very difficult... I consider the attempt ought to be made if only to give the disabled their chance.'

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The first Oyster card

Renovation work at Richmond station has revealed a handful of posters dating from the mid-1980s (see date top right, above), including one explaining how to use train-door buttons (bottom).

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

One-track mind

'I dreamt I married Micke Larsson. He plays guitar and sings in Black Devils. It was so nice.'

The highlight of Swedish director Roy Andersson's 2007 film You, the Living must be a dream sequence, in which lonely fan Anna dreams of marrying Micke. The musician - played by Eric Bäckmann, who was found through a famous Stockholm music store - serenades her as their marital home moves off through the countryside, before pulling into a station (pictured). In the film's only cut, the camera joins a crowd wishing the couple well. According to Andersson it is a happy scene, full of the generosity missing from modern life.

'This was an old idea I'd had for many, many years,' he reminisces in the DVD extras. 'Originally the idea was to have a house move on a motorway, rolling from Skåne to Stockholm, on logs. My inspiration was from childhood when they built Skarvik, the refinery, in Gothenburg.

'They wanted the best harbour, and this was found in Skarvik, but there were a hundred houses there. It was so important they had this place they moved the houses, on logs. I saw this as a child and found it fascinating that they were so well-built they could move a couple of miles. I like doing scenes like this, that are complicated but turn out so well... It's a great feeling seeing this train move out.'

It reminds me of one of my favourite sequences in all cinema, when 'young buck' Moraldo finally decides to leave his spoilt, spineless friends in I Vitelloni (1953, pictured). Fellini narrated his partly autobiographical film, saying: 'I've always talked of leaving but only one of us, one morning, without saying a word to anyone, really did leave.'

At an empty station, reminiscent of that in Cinema Paradiso, Moraldo is asked by a boy, Guido, where is he going and what will he do? 'I have to leave, get away,' he replies. The response - 'Don't you like it here?' - goes unanswered. As the train pulls away, the camera passes through the bedrooms - the sleeping lives - of the group he's left behind.

I've written elsewhere about great train films, and recently Nile Rodgers posted about train songs on his wonderful blog. There are any number, of course, but I would like to add a couple of tracks (sorry!) by The Divine Comedy to his list. On the band's most recent album, Bang Goes the Knighthood, Neil Hannon returned to a theme he explored on album Liberation (1993), in Europe by Train (echoing Rodgers' fascination with Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express). The form of building, looped samples is the same on new song Beside the Railway Tracks, the effect 17 years on even more poignant.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Sofie Gråbøl and the fear of being found out

I had some great feedback for my post in which The Killing star Sofie Gråbøl speaks about her admiration for the series' writer, Søren Sveistrup, so here are her thoughts about acting. She fell into acting while working in a Copenhagen hotel aged 17 and feels, for a time, it was something she pursued despite never having made a conscious decision to become an actor. She obviously did well but it was only when she freed herself from other people's expectations that she could call herself an actor...

'It wasn’t something I had felt or wished for and then tried to achieve, I just hopped on a train that passed me. Everyone said to me you should go to theatre school, you should be an actor shouldn’t you, and then suddenly I started feeling this pressure somehow. I lost myself in that and I got this great fear of applying for theatre school because what if I didn’t get in, then it was all bluff.

'I think a lot of artists have this feeling of bluffing - [that] somebody is going to come and reveal us and say, you’re not allowed to be here, you’re not good enough. Finally I applied for the school and I didn’t get in, and it was somehow a big relief. It was like people's expectations -what I had dreaded the most - happened, and I felt so relieved I was able to feel my own needs and wishes, and I really wanted to be an actor. I just worked, I started doing theatre as well.'

After a considerable wait, The Killing II begins on BBC4 Saturday 19 November.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Haruki Murakami and 1Q84, part one - entering a parallel world

Haruki Murakami's new novel, 1Q84, has its problems but it's such a pleasure to enter his fictional universe and distract yourself, especially when commuting. A couple of things seem pertinent from when I interviewed the hugely popular Japanese author several years ago, prior to the publication of another of his big books, Kafka on the Shore (2005).

'I'm interested in ordinary people,' Murakami told me of his main protagonist, Kafka Tamura. 'I guess the people he's going to meet aren't ordinary in most cases, they're kind of weird, unrealistic characters. He himself is kind of ordinary and that is very important to me because I sympathise with those kind of people, I like to see the world through the eyes of ordinary people.

'The protagonists in my stories are basically alone but kind of positive. He's not pessimistic or negative, he's positive to life or to the world, and he's looking for the clue to solve the problem and for somebody he can communicate with. His attitude is important to me and I suppose readers will feel the same way - positiveness.'

After the massive success of Norwegian Wood ('It was war'), which has since been turned into a film, Murakami wanted to settle for more modest expectations, though the global furore over 1Q84 may have unsettled his ambition. 'I publish a novel every three years or so and my readers are waiting. That is good. They are very loyal to me, or addicted, so they are waiting for the publication of my next one. It's a very idealistic cycle: I write a book and they are waiting.' Here's to the next one!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Deserted villages

On one of the hottest days Turkey had experienced in 60 years, I visited one of the country's literally deserted places. Kaya Köyü is reached via the Mediterranean resort town of Fethiye and is described in my Rough Guide book as 'the largest late-medieval ghost town in Asia Minor'.

In 1923, following three years of war, Kaya Köyü's Greek Christian residents were exiled and the village has been uninhabited ever since. The Muslims who were supposed to replace them apparently found the land far inferior to what they were used to and refused to move in.

The roofs of the village's 400 homes have long caved in, exposing the interiors to the elements. Kaya Köyü's three churches are in a similar state: the Panayia Pyrgiotissa basilica dates from 1888 and is notable for its mosaic floor, as well as a charnel house full of human bones (the departing Greeks are said to have taken the skulls with them).

While other villages have been turned into holiday homes and short-let accommodation - this is a particularly beautiful part of the coast, boasting one of the world's most stunning beaches nearby - Kaya Köyü has been left untouched. There was hardly anyone else in sight and, with the sun beating down, it made a particularly desolate scene.

In France, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane has been left as a monument ever since 10 June 1944 when the SS killed more than 640 residents and refugees either as a form of reprisal or warning. The men were separated into five groups and killed with machine-gun fire, while women and children were corralled in the church, which was set ablaze.

In 1994, Geoff Dyer visited the site for an article in Esquire, collected in Anglo-English Attitudes (1999). 'The sign at the gate admonishes SOUVIENS-TOI: REMEMBER. Beyond the gate you see the ruined walls of a few houses,' he writes. 'Propped against one of these, a large sign admonishes SILENCE... One kind of time stopped here on an afternoon in 1944 but a different, slower kind - that sculpts hills and silts rivers - has taken over.'

You can create deserted villages, too, as Anselm Kiefer did in Barjac, southern France, where, for more than 15 years, he established a studio and outdoor exhibition space for his work, a sort of city of art. Director Sophie Fiennes captured the climax of his project, before the German artist struck camp and moved to Paris. The title of her 2010 film came from the Book of Isaiah, echoing Dyer: Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

George Sanders: a proposal for a film season

April 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the death of George Sanders. The actor featured in more than 100 movies and would make the ideal subject of a commemorative season, I think.

He's famous for his caddish attitude and acerbic tongue - he won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as theatre critic Addison DeWitt opposite Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950). He had further supporting roles in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent and Rebecca (both 1940), and joined Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney for The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947).

Sanders starred in Douglas Sirk's A Scandal in Paris (1946); Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), with Edward G Robinson; a 1945 adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, as well as a couple of other favourites to which I hope to return. He took the Gauguin-inspired lead in The Moon and Sixpence (1942), from the novel by Somerset Maugham, and featured in a few films directed by Fritz Lang: Man Hunt (1941), Moonfleet (1955) and While the City Sleeps (1956).

Any tribute would have something for children: in an age when actors were cast in cartoons for their characterful voices, his insouciant drawl is inextricably linked with the tiger Shere Khan in Disney's musical version of The Jungle Book (1967). He also played Simon Templar in a couple of films in 1939 based on Leslie Charteris's character, the Saint, as well as three films as the Falcon (he was replaced in the role by his brother, Tom Conway).

Born in St Petersburg in 1906, Sanders was dismissive of the acting world and as caddish in real life as in many of his roles - he was married four times, including to Zsa Zsa Gabor and one of her sisters, Magda. He married the woman who was apparently the love of his life, actress Benita Hume, soon after the death of her first husband, Ronald Colman.

Sanders is famously said to have told David Niven that he intended to kill himself, supposedly at the age of 65. Sure enough, in 1972, he checked into a hotel near Barcelona and took an overdose of sleeping pills. He left behind a note: 'Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.'

Monday, 24 October 2011

Tintin on the deathbed


It’s stupid. I was at the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s Tintin at Sea exhibition when there he was, in front of me: Tintin. Of course, it was a man dressed as the redoubtable boy reporter, suitably bequiffed in regulation plus-fours, clutching a fluffy toy Snowy dog under his arm. And I was nervous, as in the presence of one of my heroes. For a moment I cursed myself that I hadn’t thought to bring a book for him to sign. Which makes no sense on any level - this was a man dressed as a cartoon character.

Even though I have some trepidation about Steven Spielberg's adaptation, The Adventures of Tintin - particularly in terms of the 'dead eyes' - I feel a similar excitement about the film (pictured). The last week has seen a glut of online reviews, many of which reference the author Hergé's respect for Spielberg - as did an interview I did for October's Gulf Life magazine with expert Raphaël Taylor.

Spielberg first proposed to film Tintin in 1982, when the director was riding high on the success of Jaws and E.T. Hergé was keen for the project to move ahead but when, at the last moment, a clause was inserted in the deal whereby someone other than Spielberg could direct the movie, Hergé demurred. Nevertheless, Spielberg continued to renew an option on the material for the next two decades.

According to Pierre Assouline's biography of the writer (out now in paperback from OUP), Hergé was preoccupied with the matter on his deathbed: 'He said that he had been ready to give [Spielberg] the freedom to create even if he what created was no longer recognisably Tintin. He considered Spielberg a genius.'

Previews of The Adventures of Tintin begin today.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Autumn's done come

'Autumn had arrived, that lovely cool time of year when everything changes colour and dies.' It would be an opening line to rival Camus' 'Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.' But Knut Hamsun is so good he can save it for the second page of his groundbreaking debut novel, Hunger.

The ramblings of a starving Norwegian writer, Hunger was written in 1890. Canongate's latest print - part of the Scottish publisher's series, The Canons (pictured) - features an introduction by dreary Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, with an afterword (from 1970) by Paul Auster.

According to Auster, who wrote of his own early struggles as a writer in a book called Hand to Mouth (like this translation, from 1996), Hamsun manages to accommodate the mess (pace Beckett) of the twentieth century in Hunger. 'But it is in Kafka's story, A Hunger Artist, that the aesthetics of hunger receives its most meticulous elaboration... In Kafka's story, the hunger artist dies, but only because he forsakes his art, abandoning the restrictions that had been imposed on him by his manager. The hunger artist goes too far.'

Having written elsewhere in this blog about London on the page, Hunger's opening line marks this as a book about a city, too: 'It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him...' It is a point underlined by the novel's translator, Sverre Lyngstad, who takes issue with an earlier translation: 'Hunger is an urban novel, whose action takes place within a distinctive setting of streets, squares and residential areas familiar to Kristiania (now Oslo) residents.'

And, of course, it is about the changing season: 'At this moment my mind was lucid: I was going to die. It was autumn now and everything had gone to sleep. I had tried every way out, made the most of every resource I knew of. I indulged myself sentimentally with this thought, and every time I still cherished hopes of a possible rescue I whispered dismissively, "You fool. you've started to die already!"'

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

For whom Anthea Bell toils

The Adventures of Tintin comes to the cinema next week, so I thought I'd write about the cartoon character people who don't like Tintin are said to prefer: Asterix. The series' co-creator, Albert Uderzo, announced last month he was retiring from the comic-book frame, 52 years after the plucky Gaulish hero's debut, alongside special chum Obelix, pet Dogmatix and chief Vitalstatistix.

Recently I had the chance to hear the books' English translator, Anthea Bell, talk as part of the Institut français' excellent, inaugural BD & Comics Passion festival. The translator of several works by Stefan Zweig and WG Sebald's Austerlitz, Bell was especially concerned with the problems of conveying the puns and cultural references that populate the Asterix books thanks to wordsmith René Goscinny, who died in 1977 - since when Uderzo worked alone.

Bell sees the books as a comic version of Odysseus - with its journey, quest and homecoming - and was keen to play up the historic accuracy of Uderzo's artwork, something Tintinologists tend to emphasise in the work of the boy reporter's creator, Hergé. One slip, however, was drawing the villagers' houses with chimneys, as they would have only had smoke holes.

There is controversy, too: in the same way Hergé is pilloried for his depiction (visually, dramatically and linguistically) of any number of non-European characters, the Asterix albums have a black pirate who speaks a sort of patois, something Bell would have no truck with in the English editions.

She pondered Asterix's lack of success in the USA. Accepting these were huge generalisations, Bell suggested that irony doesn't work on the other side of the Atlantic, and that Americans don't have enough history to be anachronistic about. The translator transposed the Gauls for William the Conquerer (our comedy equivalent being 1066 and All That), Byron for Victor Hugo, and Hamlet for Cyrano de Bergerac...

Bell claimed to have been accused of corrupting youth in her naming of the druid Getafix, though she justified this as druids 'get a fix' on the stars. Observing that people often say 'asterix' instead of asterisk, and the same for 'obelix' she said, 'I think I've done violence to to the English language.' As to the future of Asterix, following Uderzo's announcement: 'What is going to happen to the series now, one doesn't quite know.'

Tintin fans may be interested in a lecture, 'Tintin - Ace Reporter', by Michael Farr at the Wigmore Hall this Saturday afternoon, click here for details.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Three great Flemish writers


I tend to concentrate on French-language writer Georges Simenon (this blog is named after one of his books) so for this post I thought I'd look at three Belgian authors who write in Dutch. The titles mentioned are all available in English and dates are for original, Belgian publication.

Hugo Claus was a larger-than-life figure, a poet, playwright, novelist, director and artist. Known for his earthy language, he received a suspended sentence for offending public morals in the late 1960s, had a long relationship with Emmanuelle star Sylvia Kristel - who was 23 years younger than him - and opted for euthanasia in 2008 after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

His large, largely biographical work, The Sorrow of Belgium (1983), was canonised in Penguin's Twentieth-Century Classics series some 20 years ago (with a cover by another famous Belgian, James Ensor). Its tale of a family who collaborate through various activities in World War II is comparable to Louis Malle's film Lacombe, Lucien (1974), primarily in its viewpoint of a younger protagonist, and stirred similar controversy.

Nearly 10 years ago Granta made the perhaps foolhardy decision to publish a couple of books by Willem Ellschot, the pseudonym of Alfons de Ridder, who ran an advertising agency in his hometown Antwerp in the 1930s. His debut, Villa des Roses (1913), is the unremitting portrait of the inhabitants of a boarding house in Paris but Ellschot is celebrated for a tragi-comic masterpiece, Cheese (1933).

Cheese is one of a succession of books to feature Ellschot's 'little man' character Frans Laarmans, who finds himself lumbered with 20 tonnes of cheese much as the author is said to have been surrounded by unsold copies of Soft Soap (1923), the first of his novels to feature Laarmans. There were two more, including a final plea for tolerance in Will-o'-the-Wisp (1946), which couples Laarmans with a trio of Afghan sailors on the prowl for a prostitute named Maria in Antwerp.

Around the same time Harvill, that excellent publisher of translated fiction, put out a couple of contemporary works by journalist Erwin Mortier (the flyleaf adds intriguingly: 'He works in Ghent at the Museum of the History of Psychiatry'). The books - Marcel (1999) and My Fellow Skin (2000) - can't have been an easy task to convey in English as they're particularly impressionistic views of childhood but are highly recommended, especially the former.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The London Fiction Series

Ten years ago, publisher Harvill launched the London Fiction Series of 'lost' classic novels set in the city. The first four books included Henry Green's Caught and Capital by Maureen Duffy but sales were disappointing and I don't think any other titles were added.

Each of the books featured a wonderful new introduction - I particularly recommend writer Iain Sinclair's excellent opener to The Lowlife (1963) by Alexander Baron, even if you are weary of Sinclair's Hackney shtick. (Baron's elderly widow was at the series launch, held in Brick Lane's then derelict Old Truman Brewery.) The book is great on the East End: 'Hackney isn't the East End - that's the mark of the outsider, when you hear someone call Hackney the East End. The East End starts two miles down the road, across the border of Bethnal Green.'

The lowlife is Baron's narrator, gambler Harryboy Boas, whose apparently guilt-free lifestyle hides a central secret. Harry is also notable for his literary tastes: early on, he treats himself to a set of the translated works of Emile Zola in Charing Cross Road ('This Zola is a terrific writer. He can be tougher than Mickey Spillane, and when he gets on to sex he's red hot').

At the library one afternoon, Harry goes 'in to look for some thrillers. I like these books, the way they scratch on the nerves as I lie in bed. Chandler and Hammett are my favourites. You don't get writing like theirs nowadays.' In the end: 'I picked up a couple of Simenons.' Good man.

The other Jewish writer in the series was Gerald Kersh, whose large family lived on Teddington High Street. The writer's profile states: 'At seven he wrote his first novel and published it privately bound in his father's brocade waistcoat.' His first novel proper, Jews without Jehovah (1934), was inspired by his family and had to be withdrawn on the day of publication when he was sued by four uncles and a cousin.

In the introduction to the London Fiction Series' 2001 reprint of Fowlers End (originally 1957), Michael Moorcock writes: 'Twickenham was never the hottest crucible of the city. But Kersh did what all suburban young men of spirit and lust did. He got the bus into Soho.' Moorcock continues: 'As a later Fleet Street prodigy drinking in Soho, I staggered in and out of the same pubs and clubs and... discovered the pleasures of Old Compton Street, Dean Street and Meard Street.' He concludes: 'Nobody has told more or better Soho tales or described the place and its people so well.'

Kersh was hugely prolific as a journalist and novelist - he's best known for Night and the City (1938), which was filmed with Richard Widmark (pictured). Lately there has been something of a market for London-based novels, old and new. (Peter Watts writes about Baron's reissued 1969 novel King Dido here and here.) Some 30 years after the deaths of Kersh and Green, the writers in the London Fiction Series managed to be ahead of the times.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Six degrees of current Belgian cinema


Benoît Poelvoorde, star of last year's Nothing to Declare (pictured left, with Dany Boon) and Romantics Anonymous, featured alongside another Belgian actor, Yolande Moreau (Séraphine, 2008), in Mammuth (also 2010) and Louise-Michel (2008). He emerged as the serial-killer lead and co-director of 1992's Man Bites Dog;

Another of Man Bites Dog's directors was Rémy Belvaux, brother of the extraordinarily talented Lucas, writer-director of Trilogy: One, Two and Three (2002) and Rapt (2009), who played sidekick Danglard in a 2007 adaptation of Fred Vargas's Have Mercy on Us All;

All three were born in Namur, as was Cécile De France who is currently one of the biggest stars of French cinema, having appeared in the two Mesrine films (2008), Orchestra Seats (2006), Clint Eastwood's Hereafter (2010), with Matt Damon, and The Kid with a Bike (2011), which receives a Gala screening as part of the London Film Festival on 21 October;

The Kid with a Bike is directed by brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who gave screen debuts to Emilie Dequenne (in Rosetta, 1999), Jérémie Renier (La Promesse, 1996) and Déborah François (The Child, 2005), and feature Olivier Gourmet in all their major films, including The Son (2002);

Gourmet's first film role was a bit part in The Eighth Day (1996), the second film of Jaco Van Dormael, who has included Belgian actor Pascal Duquenne in all three of his feature films, the other two being Mr Nobody (2009) and Toto the Hero (1991);

Gourmet also featured in the Mesrine films (with Cécile De France) and French hit Nothing to Declare, with Benoît Poelvoorde...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Hidden London: gone for a Burton

This mausoleum designed to look like an Arab tent (pictured above) at St Mary Magdalene, Mortlake, is the burial place of traveller and linguist Sir Richard Burton (1821-90) and his wife Isabel. Sir Richard translated the One Thousand and One Nights into English, and commissioned translations of the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden; on his death, Isabel burned other documents she deemed unfit for publication, presumably because they were a bit rude.

She commissioned this final resting place, and a stained-glass window in his memory in the church. Another stained-glass window at the back of the mausoleum has been destroyed by vandals - a ladder now leads to a glass window in the carefully restored tomb's roof. The picture below shows Isabel's mahogany coffin on the left (she died in 1895), while Sir Richard's steel coffin is just visible to the right.

Fans of 19th-century Orientalism may also be interested in the Kilmorey Mausoleum, which is hidden behind a wall on St Margaret's Road, Isleworth. The monument was built by Francis Jack Needham, Second Earl of Kilmorey, for his mistress Priscilla, who was around 36 years his junior and had become his ward at the age of five. When she died in 1854, Lord Kilmorey had architect Henry Kendall create an Egyptian-style memorial, which was originally built in Brompton Cemetary.

The tomb, which was moved twice and also contains Kilmorey's remains (though not those of his two wives), was carved from pink Scottish granite to resemble Egyptian stone from Aswan. There is a theory that Kilmorey hoped to be able to communicate with Priscilla after her death; the Earl is said to have dressed in white and had his servants push him in his coffin through an underground tunnel to the tomb 'for practice', according to Egyptologist Dr Jasmine Day. The tunnel was rediscovered in 1966 .

By the by, if you go to St Mary Magdalene, do visit the very welcoming St Mary the Virgin nearby. This lovely church may hold the final resting place of Elizabethan necromancer Dr John Dee, who lived for some 30 years in Mortlake.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Simenon through the eyes of others


I've written before about film adaptations of Georges Simenon's books, the Belgian author's photographs and the Paris of his most famous character, Maigret. Simenon's oeuvre was hugely admired by André Gide and François Mauriac among others, and for this post I thought I'd round up the thoughts of some other writers from different generations and backgrounds on his prolific talent.

Julian Barnes's essay on Simenon, The Pouncer, included in the British novelist's Francophile collection Something to Declare, starts predictably enough, with a numerical rundown: 'The 400-plus books he wrote; the 55 cinema and 279 television films made from them; the 500 million copies sold in 55 languages...' - intriguing Barnes contemplates the adaptations ahead of sales and the translations - and, of course, Simenon's 'famous estimate of having bedded 10,000 women.'

This is a critique of Patrick Marnham's biography of Simenon for the Literary Review and only in passing do we get a sense of what Barnes admires in the subject: 'One of the distinctions of the fiction, especially of the romans durs, is to show sympathetic understanding for driven, obsessed, morally affectless characters who inflict and sustain often terrible damage. The refusal to moralize makes them less distant, less safely other.'

For sheer enthusiasm, we turn to Simenon's contemporary, Anais Nin, who writes in the summer of 1955: 'I study the style of Simenon because he is a master in the physical world... Simenon has always selected the characters who submitted to destiny, a destiny formed by their character...' She is great at summing up his work in The Journals of Anais Nin, Volume Five 1947-1955: 'The tone is always fatalistic, joyless, and the characters are victims of their own suicidal destructiveness. He has described all possible variations on destruction and self-destruction.'

In the winter of 1948, Nin writes: 'Simenon. The pattern is the same in every book. It is the fall of man. Simenon is aware that this fall is caused by the fatality of an impulse of self-destruction more often than by external fatality.'

If this all sounds depressing, a few months later she states: 'He is my favourite storyteller. He has a good story to tell, and he works subtly at charaterisation. His characters are beautifully wrought, his details significant... People do not appreciate his novels as they should because he made his reputation writing detective novels.'

Writer John Raymond tackles this last point in his critical biography from 1968, Simenon in Court: 'If [the study] helps to serve public notice of an achievement far greater than Simenon's average readers have realised or perhaps supposed even, it will have achieved its purpose...' Its clunky title notwithstanding, the book falters on Raymond's judgement of the works. (I'm thinking particularly of his contradictory dismissal of Inquest on Bouvet, towards which I've always been partial.)

Raymond is at his most poetic on the criminal protagonist of 1941's Justice (Cours d'Assises), Petit-Louis: 'Of all Simenon's unfortunates, he is perhaps the most human because he is the weakest and most alone.' I'll leave the final tribute to Nin, however: 'He is perhaps our best psychologist in the novel.'

Georges Simenon is the subject of the inaugural exhibition at Brussels' new Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, until 24 February 2012.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Men, women, war - and books

Two very different books from the middle of the last century with similar concerns. German author Hans Fallada's Little Man, What Now? (1932) presages the rise of the Nazis in much the same way as Michael Haneke's film The White Ribbon (2009) posthumously chronicled their coming: indirectly. Fallada's grimly comic tale of an impoverished, none-too-bright everyman was made into a popular film in 1934, which in part sealed the author's fate with the incoming fascists.

Cinema plays a central role in Fallada's book, too, when the little man Pinneberg and his wife, Lämmchen, go out to enjoy a movie, which is described in some detail. The main actor, so sympathetic on screen, brings about Pinneberg's downfall. As the character struggles to cope with unemployment, the one-time communist Fallada finds hope in his heroine, much as he did in his own wife: 'Lämmchen is my answer, I know no better one.'

Just over a decade later, Alexander Baron pitches the British soldiers of There's No Home (1950; cover detail, pictured) into a form of leave in Catania, Sicily, following the island's bloody invasion. The men retreat into domesticity around the street where they're billeted, many of them moving in with local (married) women. (This is the Via dei Martiri; in Baron's 1963 book The Lowlife, the central player finds pre-war domestic bliss in Paris on the Rue des Martyrs.)

Baron was inspired by his own experience in the Eighth Army as a scene, again in a cinema, attests: 'Once, in some back-street hall, I sat squeezed on a bench among an audience of women who were all weeping loudly. The cause of their grief was the film we were watching, Wuthering Heights. They rocked in sympathy with Cathy Earnshaw. From all parts of the hall they cried, "Ah, la poverina, la poverina!"' It plays pretty much identically in the book.

In his afterword, John L Williams examines the roles of the different sexes in the book: 'The men… feel the imperative of narrative, the need to move forwards. The women, on the other hand, want life to stand still. They have all lost men to the war: husbands and lovers, fathers, brothers and sons.'

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Exclude, excise, erase: the paintings of Mark I'Anson

I think Kensington's Thackeray Gallery is hosting a couple of paintings by Mark I'Anson for the next two weeks, between exhibitions. The Scottish artist is probably best known for the distinctive paintings of ships central to his 2006 exhibition Drifter, which was supported by the Scottish Fisheries Museum and the Highland Council.

In acrylic on pencil he concentrates on the boats, to the literal exclusion of all else. The harbourside in a painting of a ship in port is ignored to create a sharp excision through the hull (Drifter XVI); elsewhere, Drifter XV sits on the bottom of the frame. I'Anson doesn't paint the thrashing waves in a picture of a storm-tossed boat at sea (Drifter XVII), so it looks as if the ship has been torn out of page or a giant rubber has deleted all else: a violent erasure.

These are big paintings, too - some are 2m by 1m - so the images are as much about the fine detail as the enormous silent space that makes up the rest. For an exhibition at the Thackeray Gallery three years later, Dividing Lines, the artist included smaller portraits, using the same techniques. North Berwick's Greens and Blues has a nice little gallery of some recent work, including a beautiful portrait inspired by the character in a book (Wee heid).

I was reminded of I'Anson's work by the Vintage book cover to Vasily Grossman's seemingly ubiquitous Life and Fate (detail, pictured). The image is by Dmitri Baltermants and is strikingly similar to the Russian photographer's classic Attack (1941), though I can't work out if has been manipulated somehow or is another from the same sequence. Snow in another picture from the same year, Behind Enemy Lines, First Guards Cavalry Corps creates a similar effect as in I'Anson's paintings, as if the horsemen emerge from the print - unsettling and beautiful.