Friday, 22 November 2013

Sickert at Tate Britain

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 November 2013

Tout Maigret

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 July 2013

Pet Shop Boys' Electric revival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Winter of Discontent and Tahrir Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 April 2013

Five things to watch out for at Eurovision

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 April 2013

Old pop stars don't retire, they go digital

The first generation to have grown up listening to pop music is getting on now, so it's no surprise pop stars are also entering old age. On 8 January, his 66th birthday, David Bowie announced his first album for more than a decade, The Next Day - released last month. Its first single, Where Are We Now?, sounds deliberately frail, which many critics linked to Bowie's heart surgery in 2004, and references to Berlin sites from the Low heydays add to its poignancy.

If anything, the rest of the album bristles with the vigour of late-'80s outing Tin Machine, and a similar vitality can be found on Delta Machine - the 13th studio album in 33 years from Depeche Mode, whose band members' average age is 51. Pet Shop Boys - Neil Tennant (58) and Chris Lowe (53) - have revealed they'll be releasing their 12th studio album, Electric, in June. And French pop icon Etienne Daho, 57, has just announced new work and a series of concerts in Paris for next February.

Unlike the visual arts or writing, pop music is not known for creative longevity - it is traditionally a youngster's game, though pop musicians may go onto innovate in other fields: David Byrne has worked in film and theatre for more than 30 years; Pet Shop Boys premiered ballet The Most Incredible Thing in 2011 and scored Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin back in 2004; Patti Smith is noted as a writer and photographer, now.

While older artists may sound stupid aping new genres (Paul McCartney's the Fireman, anyone?), musicians like Bowie and Radiohead have been quick to grasp the opportunities afforded by new technologies - notably digital release - which may go some way to explaining their current, prolific output. Secure of their fan base, Pet Shop Boys will release Electric through Kobalt Label Services - which released Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Push the Sky Away in February - barely nine months after their last, Elysium.

In the concert arena, however, women lead the way, as evidenced by Blondie, Joan Jett and Laurie Anderson - or take this year's Meltdown on the South Bank (14-23 June), tickets for which go on sale this week. The 80-year-old Yoko Ono has selected Siouxsie, Marianne Faithfull and Patti Smith among her line-up. Who said girl power's dead?

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Going to the dogs: literary satire after the crash

Thanks to the great Caustic Cover Critic's recommendation, I've just enjoyed what has become one of my favourite reads ever: Going to the Dogs (1931), by Erich Kästner. Subtitled 'The Story of a Moralist', this adult novel by the author of Emil and the Detectives tells the story of 32-year-old copywriter Jakob Fabian who's struggling to make his way in Berlin following the crash of 1929.

Stories set in the time of the Weimar Republic are perennially popular, but this is a real humdinger, featuring unsatisfied wives - including a nymphomaniac brothel keeper - and a cabaret of the insane. There's pathos, too, in Fabian's relationships with his mother, his aspiring-actress girlfriend Cornelia, and his talented and generous best friend Labude.

I was reminded of Belgian author Willem Elsschot's Cheese, published by Granta, in which the author's perennial everyman Frans Laarmans fills his home with 22 tonnes of Edam he's unable to sell on. Roughly contemporaneous, the two books depict a world tipping over into desperation, while their authors never lose faith in the warmth of the human heart.

It also brought to mind William Gerhardie's wonderful satires, such as Doom (Prion), which predates these works by only a few years. Last year the novelist William Boyd invoked Gerhardie as a sort of morality tale: initially fêted, Gerhardie wrote no books for the last four decades of his life and is now little known. 'He's an awful warning of how easy it is to stop writing,' Boyd told Metro.

And then there's the marvellous Albert Cossery, who, like Kästner, has been championed by New York Review Books. Though he died aged 94 (in 2008), Cossery produced less than one, slim, book for each decade of his life. Cynical they may be, but that doesn't make them any less true; alongside the other works mentioned here, they're truly appropriate for our times.

PS I note Cossery's Laziness in the Fertile Valley (1948) - with a foreword by Henry Miller - is due to be published in November by New Directions, who already publish his A Splendid Conspiracy (1975) and The Colors of Infamy (1999). Can someone remind me nearer the time, please? Thanks.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The long films' Good Friday

Easter weekend's here, so what better time for me to rework this piece I did for Little White Lies (Feb/Mar 2007) ahead of a lengthy visit to the cinema...

During my university finals I stayed in every Saturday night, but not because I was swotting for my exams. For 13 weeks, in a quietened house, I sat in front of the television for the second part of Edgar Reitz's Heimat chronicle - all 25-and-a-half hours of it. On its Munich premiere, in 1992, it broke the record for the longest film ever screened commercially. And that’s after the first Heimat (pictured), which was also broadcast on BBC2, came in over 15 hours long.

You’ll have guessed that for me, length does matter. Some films are long because of the tradition they come from - Bollywood in the case of popular crossover film, Lagaan (2001), which is nearly as long as the cricket match at its centre - or their source, although in the case of Sergei Bondarchuk's eight-hour War and Peace (1967), reading the book might be quicker. Lost in Hollywood history is Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) - reputed to run up to 10 hours but cut by the studio to something nearer two and never seen in its intended glory again.

The master of the extended film is French director Jacques Rivette. His 1961 début, Paris Nous Appartient (1961), a tale of paranoia among avant-garde types that plays like a zombie flick for intellectuals, is 140 minutes long. By 1971 he hit the big time, literally: Out One runs to 12 hours, cut to a relatively prolix three-and-a-quarter hours in 1974. The same year's Céline and Julie Go Boating positively fizzes along and is the unlikely inspiration for Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse (pictured, 1991) is a ravishing portrait of the relationship between the artist and his muse. For pretty much four hours you get to stare at a naked Emmanuelle Béart. It's certainly one of her best roles, as it makes the most of her incredible beauty and a steely, defensive, character beneath. Michel Piccoli is the artist with whom she shares this watchful dance; the passions may be muted but what emerges on screen is absolutely devastating. And this is the glory of long films: to get as much under the skin of something as you ever can; this is cinema where viewers are afforded space to think.

In Beyond the Hills, currently showing in cinemas, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu builds up a claustrophobic picture of life at an isolated, orthodox monastery using repetition and long takes. Hungarian director Béla Tarr is celebrated for his long takes: for the first 17 minutes of his seven-hour magnum opus, Sátántangó (1994), you don't see a human face - only a group of cows in a farmyard. It's an opening that could be said to be reflected in Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' wonderful Post Tenebras Lux - 25 scenes over two hours, and a dog called Bela, coincidentally.

None of these directors expects you to watch without a break, as attested by screenings of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - late last year at the BFI Southbank - or four and a half hours of Rauol Ruiz' The Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) - at the Curzon Soho. I watched Beyond the Hills and Post Tenebras Lux at London's Renoir cinema, in the Brunswick Centre, the same place I saw a revival of Jean Eustache's three-and-a-half hour The Mother and the Whore (1973) a generation ago. The Renoir also hosted the final part - thus far - of Edgar Reitz’ Heimat trilogy.

Heimat (1984) is a tightly controlled family drama spanning Germany's 20th-century experience set in the north-Rhein region of Germany: the Hunsrück. Eight years later, Reitz turned to the youngest son of the clan’s university years in 1960s Munich; the memories of friendships and adventures are so strong that I’m sure they’ve even replaced some of my own student time.

Like Wolfgang Petersen's five-hour - in its uncut version - Das Boot (pictured, 1981) and contemporary Italian family drama The Best of Youth (six hours), which won the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes in 2003, Heimat was made for TV - as was Lars von Trier's brilliant, lengthy hospital-set spooker, The Kingdom (1994) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15-and-a-half Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), adapted from the book by Alfred Döblin.

In 2004, Reitz felt there was enough left to explore in his overarching theme of belonging to make the whole a trilogy. Heimat 3 - six full-length features - begins with the fall of the Wall but is strangely depressing, perhaps mirroring the writer-director's difficulties in getting it made. 'It took five years of fighting for the funding,' he told me at the time, 'and now it probably wouldn’t work at all.'

Despite this pessimism, Reitz is said to be working on a fourth instalment in the Hunsrück, but what he has already achieved has left an indelible mark: these places, faces, even accents will stay with you forever. It is already over 52 hours long - or an hour a week for a year. That’s as much as I do yoga. Mind you, I could do with a stretch now.

Related post: diving into submarine movies

Monday, 25 March 2013

Anatomy of a film: En cas de malheur

Always astute over financial matters and his reputation, Belgian writer Georges Simenon was acutely aware of the lucrativeness of cinema and its power in extending his readership. His novels were often adapted for cinema soon after publication - for instance, the years 1932 and 1933 saw the release of three films based on Maigret novels, all from 1931, the year of his big, 'bal anthropométrique' launch: La nuit du carrefour (directed by Jean Renoir), Le chien jaune and La tête d'un homme.

By the time Simenon's 1956 novel En cas de malheur was filmed, in 1958, 30 of the author's books had been adapted for cinema (only about a third of them Maigrets). Starring Jean Gabin opposite Brigitte Bardot, the film - whose title was translated as Love is My Profession - caused a stir for its nude scenes (pictured below), and is a good deal racier than another version 40 years later with Gérard Lanvin and Virginie Ledoyen, En plain coeur (In All Innocence), directed by Pierre Jolivet - Luc Besson's collaborator on Le dernier combat (1983).

Typically for one of Simenon's romans durs, En cas de malheur (In Case of Emergency) is written in the first person, as a married lawyer, maître Gobillot/Farnese, reflects on his affair with a young criminal; both films begin with the bungled jewellery store robbery that throws Yvette/Cecile (the names are updated for the more recent film) in his path. Aware she's about to be arrested for the crime, in both films Yvette pulls up her skirt to try to entice the lawyer to take her case (Bardot and Gabin, pictured top), though the scene is much more explicit in the book: 'She wore no pants. That was the first time I saw her thin thighs, her rounded childish belly, the dark triangle below it, and for no precise reason the blood rushed to my head.'

From then on, the 1958 film is surprisingly explicit: the first time he visits her, he comes too soon; once established in lodgings by Gobillot, Yvette institutes a ménage with her maid - a situation familiar from Simenon's own domestic life, where one maid is said to have asked another, 'On passe toutes à la casserole?' - both scenes are dropped in the 1998 version. (The maid in Claude Autant-Lara's original film is played by Nicole Berger, a beguiling presence who starred in an early Eric Rohmer short but died in a car crash aged only 32.) Yvette may be doing her best to keep Gobillot's interest alive, but there's surely also a hint of a lesbian aspect to her relationships with female accomplices and flatmates.

Jolivet's version is much less sophisticated than its predecessor: Gobillot's childlessness is highlighted in an awkward scene where his wife (Carole Bouquet) receives some adoption documents; and while Bouquet's role is more conventional, in the 1958 version, Edwige Feuillère portrays the same character as her husband's equal, who humours - even encourages - his affairs until they get out of hand. There's a lovely scene where Feuillère nevertheless hides her glasses quickly from her husband; one of that film's best images sees her flinging a giant bouquet of flowers meant for the mistress all over her husband's desk in the apartment that also serves as his office, a detail taken straight from the book. (The set up of their bedrooms, connected by a shared bathroom, is also pure Simenon.)

Where the 1998 film struggles most is in the portrayal of the lawyer: he is not supposed to be jealous when Yvette reignites an affair with someone of her own age - only Gabin can carry off Gobillot's knowing, stubborn insouciance. He's helped by some great lines and the 1958 film has some other nice touches, including the Middle Eastern music that blares in the miserable hotel where Yvette's young lover lives. The two films have completely opposing finales and yet, being Simenon, the outcome is the same - but only one ends with a haunting shot worthy of Casablanca's close.

Related: the lure of Psycho's opening scene

Monday, 18 March 2013

Dive! Dive! Dive! Sub movies

Film4 seems to have its submarine-movie jones on at the moment, so I thought I'd dig up and rework an old piece on the genre I did for Little White Lies' Marie Antoinette issue (Oct/Nov 2006).

'Dive! Dive! Dive!' Is there any more evocative word in cinema, especially when repeated three times? We all know what comes next: periscope down, the sonar's ping, red light reminiscent of a photographer's dark room. The submariner's life is one of numbers, too: distance to target, torpedo tube one, distance from the ocean surface, ever-rising pressure levels.

If you think about it, depth charges and silent routine have been imprinted on our minds through only a handful of films. One of the best is The Enemy Below, starring Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens - all the regulation words and images are present and correct.

There's the man who cracks amid it all - who can't take it any more - he even tries to climb up the conning tower and open the hatch when they're under water. He's talked down by captain Jurgens: 'It is part of our work to die; we are not going to die. Do you believe me? Do - you - believe - me?' He does.

There's a great shot just before this point in the movie: the crews are absolutely still in the middle of the Atlantic waiting for the tiny noise that gives the other away. One US soldier is shown playing noughts and crosses while another is fishing over the side of the boat. Audaciously, the camera travels all the way down his line to focus on the sub, paralysed on the seabed. Here, the German crew is playing chess.

Incidentally, it's no coincidence sci-fi movies share much with submarine movies - that slim metal tube floats precariously in an alien environment. In the same way a U-boat's hull might give way - fatally - at any moment, so, 'The engines cannae take it, Cap'n.'

Geoff Dyer, whose Zona, about Tarkovsky's Stalker, is out now in paperback, itemises the distinctive tropes of the submarine movies in his memorable 1998 e-novel Paris Trance ('e', in those days, for ecstasy). Characters Luke and Alex pore through the pages of listings mag Pariscope for the best way to experience the city of (flickering) light, only to discover they're surrounded by Cassavetes films.

So these movie buffs escape instead in a love of submarine films. Their list of themes fills a page of the book (p33 in the Abacus paperback edition, if you happen to have one to hand), and they come to one vital conclusion: 'Essentially you're a Second World War man?' 'Through and through.' No Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October for them.

Made in 1957, The Enemy Below exemplifies what makes this genre so special: it's not the rakish fashions, the thrill of the chase or the heightened sense of claustrophobia - no, it's because these films consistently humanise the enemy. Like no other, the WWII sub flick is as interested in the other side as the heroes we're ostensibly backing. Could this be because the two sides are at different levels? This literally isn't a level playing field.

As captain Jack Hawkins tells his deputy after a gruelling chase in The Cruel Sea (1953) : 'Number One, this is quite a moment: we've never seen the enemy before... They don't look very different from us.'

Director Wolfgang Peterson extended the form for his groundbreaking 1981 TV series, Das Boot. Here we see the war entirely from the point of view of the German crew; as in The Enemy Below, a young Nazi ideologue onboard is humoured like a wilful child: wrongheaded, but what can you do? Here again is the captain portrayed as mythical seer, a man whose experience and guile will see his men home alive.

This is the best bit: the Second World War submarine film is visceral Battleships, a bloody mind game played out, usually by two mutually admiring leaders. As Jurgen Prochnow's captain declares at a crucial moment in Das Boot: 'Jetzt wird es psychologisch, meine Herren' - 'This is where it gets psychological, gentlemen.'

Submarine movies Operation Petticoat and The Bedford Incident screen on Film4 in the UK this afternoon from 1.20pm. Painting 'Torpedo... Los!' by Roy Lichtenstein can be seen in Tate Modern's retrospective of the US pop artist, which runs until 27 May.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Soho Crime around the world

I'm a huge fan of New York publisher Soho Crime's output - particularly the translated fiction. Their catalogue covers detective thrillers from Japan to Norway. Here are some of the picks - dates are for original (foreign-language, where appropriate) publication:

Cara Black - PARIS
American author Cara Black is as impressively prolific as Janwillem van de Wetering (below) - her Aimée Leduc is a half-French, half-American private detective who throws herself into her cases, alongside dwarf, computer expert sidekick René Friant. The novels travel the arrondissements of Paris, imbuing each book with the atmosphere of the individual districts. 
WHAT THEY SAY 'Murder in the Marais provides a richly textured journey into the dark side of the City of Light.' - Linda Grant
CHECK OUT Murder in the Marais (1999)

Akimitsu Takagi - TOKYO
Another excellent translation - by Deborah Boehm - which brings Akimitsu Takagi's traumatic The Tattoo Murder Case (1948) up to date. Set in the aftermath of Japan's loss in the WWII and the destruction of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a trio of detectives try to crack a case of tattoo theft. Do also try Seichi Matsumoto's excellent Inspector Imanishi Investigates (1961)
WHAT THEY SAY 'Clever, kinky, highly entertaining...' Washington Post on The Tattoo Murder Case
CHECK OUT The Tattoo Murder Case

Helene Tursten - GÖTEBORG
Helene Tursten's Inspector Irene Huss is a judo-practising cop to rival Sarah Lund in a series of procedurals that marches in the steps of Swedish innovators Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
WHAT THEY SAY 'Huss is quickly becoming one of the most satisfying lead characters in the thriving world of Swedish crime fiction.' - Booklist
CHECK OUT Detective Inspector Huss (1998)

Janwillem van de Wetering - AMSTERDAM and beyond
Dutch Zen-adherent Janwillem van de Wetering's many mysteries feature police duo Grijpstra and De Gier, as well as their boss, the Commisaris. The books present a thoughtful view of Dutch policing and venture further afield - to New York, Japan and one-time Dutch colonies, including Aruba and Curaçao. Questioning and even mystical.
WHAT THEY SAY 'He is doing what Simenon might have done if Albert Camus had sublet his skull.' - John Leonard
CHECK OUT Outsider in Amsterdam (1975), The Japanese Corpse (1977) and The Streetbird (1983)

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Happy 110th birthday, Georges!

This year marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of one of Liège's most famous sons, author Georges Simenon. What better way to pay homage than a short walk around the major sites of his young life in the southern Belgian city.

Start at 24 (formerly 26) rue Léopold, where Georges was born on a rainy night. He is famously said to have been born on Friday the 13th, 1903, but his superstitious mother insisted that his father register the date of birth as the 12th.

On the wall in front of the nearby Hôtel de Ville, on the Place du Marché, check out the memorial plaque to Commissaire Arnold Maigret, whose surname may have been appropriated for Simenon's greatest creation: Chief Inspector Jules... Simenon will no doubt have been aware of the real Maigret when he started work as a young reporter on the Gazette de Liège newspaper.

From here cross over to quirky Outremeuse, over the Pont des Arches - the title of Simenon's first novel - via the Eglise St-Pholien, which became the inspiration for another early book when his friend Kleine was found hanged from the front door.

Behind the St-Pholien church, on Impasse de la Houpe, the infamous group La Caque ('the keg') - named for its cramped circumstances - hung out, indulging in drink, drugs and sex. I'm tickled by the pride the town takes in Simenon's experience on rue Capitaine, where the man who later claimed to have bedded 10,000 women handed over a watch he had been given by his father to sleep with a prostitute.

The island of Outremeuse has a strange, otherworldly reputation in Liège's folklore and the family moved here a year after Georges was born. The atmosphere of the house in the rue de la Loi, next door to Georges's school, permeates much of Simenon's work, from the autobiographical Pedigree to one of the most famous romans dursStain in the Snow.

If you continue to the place du Congrès, you'll spot a bust of Simenon, not far from the Chapelle de Bavière, where young Georges served as an altar boy. He would have to leave home at 5.45am, arriving out of breath as he ran, frightened, all the way in the dark.

Running away is the a central theme of all Simenon's work and he, too, left the city, following the deaths of his father and Joseph Kleine. On 10 December 1922 he took the night train to Paris, the city where he would plot his fame and fortune.

You can hire an audioguide to Simenon's Liège for €4.50 at the local tourist office, which also provides a map of the route.

Related post: Simenon's Paris

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Milady at the National Portrait Gallery

Last summer, London's National Portrait Gallery bought its first painting of a man in women's clothes. The painting shows Chevalier d'Eon, Louis XV's secret envoy to Russia and England, dressed as a woman. Accused by his enemies of being a hermaphrodite, he may have served as inspiration for the character of Lady de Winter in The Three Musketeers.

In his coy introduction to his translation of Alexandre Dumas' classic, Lord Sudley tackles the mystery of Milady, "who is referred to by all the men as 'the vampire', the 'creature from Hell', the 'monster', the 'woman who is not a woman'..." It is perhaps this last nomenclature that is the most telling.

"All men who come her way are first fascinated and then repelled by her, and in the end the terror she inspires in them is, as it were, the terror of the supernatural." Branded with the fleur-de-lis for a youthful crime, "Only her husbands (she had two) and her lovers find out her 'secret', and for that, she declares they must die... Might not Dumas, in creating such a character, have intended to convey that Milady had that particular form of physical malformation which was regarded even in the 16th and 17th centuries as a terrifying token of divine displeasure, punishable by death - a malformation of which the fleur-de-lis was merely a symbol?"