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.