Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Ghote guy

I've never been sure of the success of Penguin's accession of Georges Simenon into its Modern Classics field. Certainly it raised the Belgian author's profile for a new generation of crime fans, as well as providing us with some great covers, but the lack of reprints might lead you to conclude that the reissues were less popular than was envisaged. (It may have been a case of bad timing, I think Penguin changed over its old ordering system when the Simenons were reprinted.)

Let's hope a similar fate doesn't befall the upcoming canonisation of four of HRF Keating's Inspector Ghote mysteries. Created in the 1960s, the books conjure a Bombay the author, who died on Saturday aged 84, didn't visit until he wrote the tenth in the series (of 24). The language is especially atmospheric, from such words as 'dacoit' - still in use today - to the repetitive rhyming of character Arun Varde in the first work, The Perfect Murder.

In his new introduction to that book, Alexander McCall Smith states: 'Ghote himself is one of the great creations of detective fiction. Unlike many fictional detectives, who are often outsiders, possessed in many cases of personal demons, Ghote is utterly loveable.' The new editions are published next week, on 7 April, and there could hardly be a more fitting tribute.

Sacrilege in the cinema

As part of the cinema-going experience, I love trailers but I was surprised at the Odeon Covent Garden on the weekend that not a single one of the - many - previews was for a film. Instead they were for performances of classical music, ballet (Giselle, tonight) and opera (Carmen) - the first two in 3D (picture Sir Simon Rattle stabbing his baton at the camera, the first violin bowing frantically and just wait for the trombone to come stabbing out of the screen!).

I became aware of this trend with the HD simulcasts of performances from the New York Met, and it has come closer to home, in London, with screenings from the National Theatre, most recently of Danny Boyle's production of Frankenstein, for instance. The current Curzon cinemas programme features three pages of such events, with prices ranging from £12.50, for members, to £37.50, for the royal box at Curzon Mayfair.

Some of these productions are long - Richard Wagner's Die Walküre, with Deborah Voigt, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel, is 330 minutes with interval - and while we can't all afford to travel abroad for a night at the opera, many of these prices are comparable with booking the live theatre experience. If you include the exhorbitant fee the Odeon charges for refreshments, that ticket to New York doesn't seem so out of reach after all.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

after the wave

Alex Thomson's Channel 4 News report from north-east Japan last night conjured a dramatic image of the recent tsunami and reminded me of another short story by Haruki Murakami. The Seventh Man is based on an idea the writer had when surfing and included in excellent collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2005; it originally appeared in Granta).

In it, the narrator tells of a huge wave that sweeps away his best friend, K. This moment will come to everyone, the narrator says, but in his case it came 'in the shape of a giant wave'. The narrator, K and K's dog walk to the beach during a typhoon, when the rain has passed and the waves hushed. 'Then I heard a deep rumbling sound. It seemed to shake the earth. Actually, before I heard the rumble I heard another sound as though a lot of water was surging up through a hole in the ground.'

The effect is devastating: 'It just barely missed me, but in my place it swallowed everything that mattered most to me and swept it off to another world. I took years to find it again and to recover from the experience - precious years that can never be replaced.'

The British Red Cross has a Japanese tsunami appeal, and do check out the Authors for Japan auction, which runs until 20 March.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Hans Christian Andersen and the Pet Shop Boys: The Most Incredible Thing

Amid a slew of new ballets on London stages, The Most Incredible Thing opens at Sadler's Wells tomorrow, with a score by Pet Shop Boys and choreography by Javier De Frutos. It is based on a four-page story written by Hans Christian Andersen late in his life about a ruler's promise to give his daughter's hand and half his kingdom to 'whoever could present the most incredible thing'.

The story is emblematic of Andersen's brevity and wit; here he describes the efforts of subjects hoping to fulfil their king's challenge: 'Two of them ate themselves to death and one died of drink while trying to do the most incredible thing, each according to his inclination... Little street urchins practised spitting on their own backs; that's what they thought was the most incredible thing of all.'

A 'tenderhearted' young man creates a remarkable performing clock which the judges agree is 'the most incredible thing' until a 'tall, strong, bony fellow' comes forward and smashes it to pieces. '"Destroying a work of art like that," said the judges. "Yes, that is the most incredible thing!"'

Andersen doesn't finish there, though I will allow you to discover the end for yourself. In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Andersen's Fairy Tales (2004), editor Jackie Wullschlager notes: 'In his anxiety over the future of civilised values in a changing world, Anderson is one of us. To current readers, echoes of war and the terrorist attacks across Europe, the United States, Asia and the Middle East with which the twenty-first century opened, sound throughout the tale.

'The battle between culture and aggression, though, is timeless. The story was inspired by the Franco-Prussian conflicts of the 1860s and 1870s, but between 1940 and 1945, during the Second World War, it was widely circulated, with anti-Nazi illustrations, among the Danish Resistance to German Occupation.'

No wonder the tale appealed to Pet Shop Boys. The great Dane has had his stories adapted as ballets before, notably for the eponymous production in Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948), but this seems to have struck a chord for Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.

In an interview with the BBC, choreographer De Frutos says he heard 'Russian Constructivists, 1920s marches, militaristic stuff' in the score. Tennant is famously fascinated by Balkan politics and Russian history, a theme that pops up in Pet Shop Boys' first hit West End Girls (1984), with its reference to 'the Finland Station' (where Lenin arrived from Germany in 1917), through the choirs on the Bilingual album (1996) to their 2005 soundtrack for Battleship Potemkin (from 1925).

Then there is Andersen as a conflicted figure, apparently bisexual though some claim he remained a virgin his entire life (despite being a regular frequenter of prostitutes, in which case - as Michael Booth wonders in his 2005 travel biography of Andersen, Just as Well I'm Leaving - what was he doing with them?).

Andersen was self-obsessed and ambitious and must have cut a striking figure: tall and gangly, with giant hands and feet, he was also cursed with a protuberant proboscis and razor-like teeth, which prompted one friend to dub him the 'crane'. Despite being a highly strung hypochondriac prone to 'passport panic', he was remarkably well travelled, though he sounds like a tiresome companion.

In 1857, he stayed with Charles Dickens at the latter's home in Gad's Hill, Kent. Following Andersen's departure, Dickens posted the following note on his bedroom door: 'Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks - which seemed to the family AGES.'

Andersen was also terrified he might die in a fire so carried a nine-metre rope in his trunk on his travels to escape from any building. I was in Copenhagen in 2005 (to track down the main songwriter of Danish band Gangway), the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth, and was happy to see his travelling case displayed in the airport.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The devil's nipples: watching Sátántangó

An afternoon and evening spent watching Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s seven-hour eastern bloc-buster Sátántangó (1994):

For the first 15 minutes you don’t see another person, only cows. Writer Umberto Eco made the first 100 pages of his novel The Name of the Rose deliberately hard-going to ensure only the determined continued. This must be something like that but 15 minutes? I need to show more backbone. A doctor spies on his colleagues, a motley bunch of alcoholics and prostitutes - some both - desultory inhabitants of a collective farm abandoned after the collapse of Communism. It is beautifully shot and the cut-up chronology of the episodes creates a rhythm of its own. It’s getting dark outside; my notes are getting notably shorter for each chapter.

At the end of the first disc (of three) there’s an unexpected, but welcome, intertitle: Interval. Lovely. I don’t have any ice cream but a beer will do. I take two back to the sofa, to be on the safe side, but begin to regret this a couple of hours later. The doctor takes a piss and I decide to go and do the same. The end of disc two, chapter six - called ‘The Spider’s Function II - The Devil’s Nipples, Sátántangó’ - is where the trouble really starts. The mad villagers are having a miserable party and I think I’m going stir crazy; one character has a loaf of bread stuck to his forehead, another’s breasts are wobbling all over the place, but it’s the damned accordion music that gets to me.

One of the temptations when watching a very long film on DVD is always going to be pressing the fast forward button. Despite Tarr's glacial black-and-white shots I was only tempted twice: when a disturbed child plays with (read: 'terrorises') a cat, and when that bloody music goes on, and on, and on.

I need another drink: the characters keep ordering ‘rum and liqueur’ in the film and I decide I need something stronger but only have red wine. I go to fetch it, leaving the devilish accordionist to his satanic ways. I think I’m nearly there but realise I’ve duped myself: disc three contains half the film. What a fool I’ve been. I should at least have stocked up on some Hungarian snacks, like, erm, what? And this is where my mind wanders as one of the villagers - Irimiás, who the others thought was dead - lectures them on their iniquitous ways and proposes a way out of their hell. It may be the drink, but the film’s religious overtones are very striking, poised somewhere between apocalypse and revelation. Chapter nine, ‘Go to heaven? Have nightmares?’, foretells the weird dreams I have that night. The final title reads: ‘No way out.’

Monday, 14 March 2011

Danny Wallace column

I'm walking to the train station near my home when a man going in the same direction crosses the street and walks in front of me. There is no one else around but we are walking exactly in step with each other. He should slow down and let me pass, I think, this is so embarrassing. Maybe he thinks I'm gay. Oh god, maybe my wife thinks I'm gay.

Next week: I confront my wife about my homosexuality.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

after the quake

In January 1995, Japan's Kansai region was struck by an earthquake that killed nearly 6,500 people. The home of the parents of writer Haruki Murakami was destroyed; Murakami had grown up in the Osaka-Kobe area but was teaching in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time. On 20 March followers of the Aum cult released sarin gas on the Tokyo underground, killing 11 commuters and affecting 5,000 others.

As has been well documented, Murakami had left Japan following the monstrous success of his novel Norwegian Wood, which has just come out as a film in the UK. When his teaching in Cambridge was completed, he decided it was time to return to Japan and investigate these events that had struck the core of his countrymen.

'I spent my last year abroad in a sort of fog when two major catastrophes struck Japan: the Osaka-Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack,' he is quoted as saying in Jay Rubin's critical biography, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. '[These were] two of the gravest tragedies in Japan's post-war history. It is no exaggeration to say that there was a marked change in the Japanese consciousness 'before' and 'after' these events. These twin catastrophes will remain embedded in our psyche as two milestones in our life as people.'

His response was twofold: he spent 1996 interviewing survivors of the Tokyo gas attack, giving rise to the book of their testimonies, Underground. In the book's introduction, he tells of reading a letter in a magazine from a woman whose husband had lost his job because of the attack: 'A subway commuter, he had been unfortunate enough to be on his way to work in one of the carriages in which the sarin gas was released. He passed out and was taken to hospital. But even after several days' recuperation, the after-effects lingered on, and he couldn't get himself back into the working routine. At first he was tolerated, but as time went on his boss and colleagues began to make snide remarks. Unable to bear the icy atmosphere any longer, feeling almost forced out, he resigned...

'As far as I can recall there was nothing particularly plaintive about [the letter], nor was it an angry rant. If anything, it was barely audible, a grumble under the breath. "How on earth could this happen to us…?" she wonders, still unable to accept what had out of the blue befallen her family.'

That letter could also be seen as the starting point for Murakami's second action: a series of short stories serialised in August 1999 that came to be collected as after the quake. The six tales in the book are all set in February 1995, after the earthquake and before the gas attack. Many are naturalistic examinations of individual lives, which reach a pitch in Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, a comic monster tale of the type we may associate with kitsch Japanese Godzilla movies.

Both books are remarkable works from a contemporary author, which I recommend. I'm particularly touched that in September 1995 Murakami gave two public readings in the earthquake zone to benefit severely damaged libraries, 'in one of which,' Rubin writes, '[Murakami] had spent many days as a middle-school and high-school student and "dozing" in preparation for his entrance exams.'

UPDATE For its 28 March Japan issue, the New Yorker is reprinting one of the stories collected in after the quake, UFO in Kushiro. Shame they can't use The Seventh Man, which wasn't inspired by natural disaster but makes for an even more powerful take by Murakami that could be applied to the current tragedy and its aftermath.

In Britain, the Red Cross has launched an appeal to help Japan following the latest earthquake.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Paul Auster preview

An exclusive extract from American author Paul Auster's next novel, Hudson Script, due to be published spring 2012.

For almost a year now, Jack Spratt had sat at this same desk at this same hour. He sublet this room, no more than a storeroom, on the other side of the city where he was born and came here each morning at 8am, with the money workers going into their jobs. The space was brightly lit by overhead fluorescent tubes, and hot in winter. The only ventilation was a small window that could be reached by standing on his desk, even if he opened it he could not see out. At a certain time of day, in the late afternoon, by some chance the light would fall on it and, by now thoroughly drowsy and usually dispirited with his project, Jack would follow the square of sun that would trace its way across a small part of his boxroom.

Jack had left college without completing his studies intending to write a novel. He believed routine would allow the words to come, but each day he began again on the first page. He had 230 starts to more than 100 stories although often he returned to the same story, a reimagining of his relationships with his parents - now dead - and his step-sister, who he had last seen on his first day of college. He was no longer in contact with the one friend who could have passed on some news of Molly so he would imagine new lives for her, for them. How had they come to this, he wondered, when their childhood seemed full of colour and happiness. His father had set up a small independent publishing house, the Medici Press, in the late sixties, full of optimism following a trip to Paris as a student dropout himself. Paul's first wife, Jack's mother, died soon after the Medici Press was bought by a major publisher, the large payout he received meant Paul no longer needed to work.

Paul Spratt met his second wife, Mary, in the early seventies at an auction of rare books; she was an art dealer and they started talking about their shared love of seventeenth and eighteenth century French literature, which Paul specialised in publishing in translation. She impressed him with her knowledge of the poets of an even earlier era, François De Malherbe, one of his disciples, François Mainard, Malherbe's adversary Mathurin Régnier, Théophile de Viau and de Viau's friend Saint-Amant. When the couple moved in together, Molly immediately looked up to her new older brother. Cigar-smoking Paul would take them to baseball games together and Molly learned the players' averages so she could join in the men's conversation, as she thought of it. As they grew, she outpaced Jack, she invited him out with her friends, joined protest marches and rallies against the invasion of Iraq and the behaviour of bankers on Wall Street, and was the first to lose her virginity, an event after which she returned home immediately to tell Jack.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Trailer thrash

We're used to cinema trailers that go on so long there's no point seeing the film they aim to sell, or others that feature all the movie's best moments (usually jokes; this is especially true of Woody Allen's recent offerings). The latest trend seems to be restructuring scenes, as if the featured product can be improved upon.

The trailers for a few current films have been edited in such a way that dialogue has not only been moved to other scenes but appears to be directed to entirely different people: in the trailer for Howl, Mary-Louise Parker's character appears to be asked whether she understands the meaning of the word 'blow' in Ginsberg's poem, although this is directed at someone else in the film (the trailer pretty much includes her role's entire appearance, too); in True Grit, Mattie Ross's retort that she is only 14 is delivered to a different character between film and trailer; in David Michod's remarkable Animal Kingdom (pictured), Jacki Weaver's formidable matriarch is also addressing someone else by some sleight of the editor's hand when she warns, 'You've done bad things, sweetie'.

Less forgiveably, one scene in Animal Kingdom's trailer - presumably picked because of its cinematic qualities - reveals a crucial development to a film that plays like Brighton Rock transposed to 1980s Melbourne. However, unlike the use of ELO's Mr Blue Sky in the trail for Eternal Sunshine of the Endless Mind (2004), Air Supply fans will be happy to hear All Out of Love does feature in the movie.

UPDATE I'm puzzled by the re-use of Scala's choral version of Creep on the trailer for Love Like Poison, starring Lio, when it was used for The Social Network preview late last year. It's possible it was used on the original French trail before the ad for David Fincher's film, but when it's so memorably tied to the latter now, why not choose something else.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Three 'missing' albums worth rereleasing

1. Boomtown (1986), David & David
David Baerwald and David Ricketts were a sort of rock Climie Fisher: session musicians who came together to produce at least one memorable single. The Americans' Welcome to the Boomtown was a plangent warning on the attraction of excess: 'I say welcome to the boomtown/ Pick a habit, we got plenty to go around'. Other post-Springsteen tracks Swallowed by the Cracks and All Alone in the Big City conjured urban decay as viewed from the studios of LA.

2. A Dark Enchantment (1987), Secession
With a name like that, the result was never going to be anything other than slightly pretentious synth pop, accentuated by layered vocals. The Scottish fourpiece signed to Siren Records - home to other such art-pop mavericks as It's Immaterial - for this sole long-playing outing, which includes Where Love Lies Bleeding, The Magician (a single) and Sneakyville.

3. Food, Sex and Paranoia (1989), Furniture
The West London band's debut album The Wrong People saw the light again in 2010, so what chance for its Arista follow-up? On the back of successful single Brilliant Minds, the group toured with the British Council an area that reads like the setting of one of Alan Furst's excellent World War II thrillers: Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Romania, Yugoslavia... The band incorporated many of the instruments they'd heard on their travels in Food, Sex and Paranoia. (Band members Tim Whelan and Hamilton Lee went on to form world music standard bearers Transglobal Underground in 1992.) Single One Step Behind You was a link to its forebear, while other stand-outs include Slow Motion Kisses and Song for a Doberman.