Classics Club

Joining in with this for the first time, as I’m working my way through a pile of ad hoc classics as well as the 1001 books list.

My Book Spin List for the Classics Club

1 Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
2 Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary
3 The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair
4 A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
5 Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
6 Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
7 Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
8 The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
9 Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
10 Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
11 Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
12 Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta
13 The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen
14 Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley
15 On Writing by Stephen King
16 The Middle Ground by Margaret Drabble
17 The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas
18 The Annotated Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
19 Tales of the Arabian Nights
20 Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Artist Paula Rego (Portugal)

Just after the UK’s last COVID lockdown, and longing to visit galleries again, my mum and I did an online City Lit course on major artists whose work was to be exhibited in London over the summer of 2021.

One of those discussed was renowned Portuguese artist Paula Rego (1935-2022), an artist known for her feminist and political stance, along with skewed references to fairy tales, nursery rhymes and Portuguese fables, reminiscent of a painterly Angela Carter. Other interests and influences include traditionally female crafts such as embroidery and dollmaking (subtly subverted), Jungian psychology and surrealism.

I wasn’t particularly taken with Rego’s work when it was presented to me on screen, but when I went to see the large-scale retrospective of her work at Tate Britain that autumn I was converted. Mum and I saw more of her work on display at the Venice Biennale this year, when we escaped the UK for a whirlwind weekend (her work at the Biennale can be seen here).

Rego grew up in a wealthy family under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, and at 16 moved to the UK for boarding school, later studying at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she met her husband, Victor Willing.

Willing, who Rego outlived by many years, sounds to have been a difficult man to have a relationship with. He was still married when they became involved, and Rego had repeated abortions. Eventually, she returned to her parents in Portugal, where her first child was born. She and Willing eventually married, but he had several affairs, and his health began a fatal decline from his 30s.

The psychologically complex The Dance (1988), a vast canvas (2126 x 2740mm), which has a spectral feel, took months to paint, and was completed after the death of Willing, who is understood to be depicted in the painting, which has often been interpreted autobiographically.

A child dances with two women (her mother and grandmother?); Willing dances first with a woman (perhaps a depiction of Rego), and then, in the foreground, with a faceless, blonde woman (a lover?). Finally, the woman who may represent Rego stands alone, larger in scale than the other figures.

The Dance (of life? of love?) takes place in front of a still, fortified building on a Portuguese beach. Willing looks young and open as he dances with the Rego figure, but appearing again to the left of that image, his expression is harder to read. Rego stated that:  ‘It was to have been the picture that would tie everything together, hung over the top of everything else’ (Tate website, quoting Fiona Bradley, Paula Rego, London, 2002, p.42). 

Other imposing paintings have the feel of a twisted fairy tale:

Her paintings often suggest a surreal children’s book, although there is sometimes a subtext of power and/or sexuality that is less than child-friendly, as in her famed Girl and Dog (below) paintings, and especially her Dog Woman Series from 1994, in which women are contorted into canine positions, complete with bowls of food on the floor.

Rego’s death was announced this year, but as this Guardian article testifies, she had continued to work in her studio, with her longtime model and sometime alter ego Lila Nunes, pretty much until the end.

Body Kintsugi by Senka Marić (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Translated from Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth

Bosnian writer and editor Senka Maric’s 2018 novella Body Kintsugi (Kintsugi Tijela) has just been published in English by Peirene Press, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, who is well-known for her translations of work from the former Yugoslav republics.

I always keep an eye on what Pereine are publishing, as it’s such an interesting list. Autofiction is like catnip to me, so when I saw that this novel was upcoming I requested a review copy.

The novel, if you can call it that, follows the events that follow the breakdown of the protagonist’s marriage. We learn that her husband has left on the first page, leaving her with her two young children and a frozen shoulder (which I know from experience is very painful in itself!).

However, things are going to get worse. While manoeuvring awkwardly in bed to protect her painful shoulder she finds a lump, and is subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer, mirroring the author’s own diagnosis.

Kintsugi is a Japanese term referring to a method of repairing broken ceramics using liquid gold, which accentuates the fractures while arguably enhancing the aesthetic effect. It is an apt metaphor for this tale of resilience and recovery, which weaves together a narrative that intersperses the protagonist’s navigation of illness and single motherhood with traumatic childhood memories.

A visceral and angry book, it is not an easy read, despite its concise length and short chapters – although it ends on a more optimistic note.

Review: Music by Ali Farka Touré (Mali)

I know next to nothing about Malian music, although I do know that it has a rich heritage, and has inspired Western musicians such as Damon Albarn, who has played with Malian artists including Rokia Traoré (below) and Afel Bocoum (here: Efforts by Islamists in 2012 to suppress music in Mali had limited success.

I listened to Ali Farka Touré’s 2006 album Savane, apparently one of the “1001 albums you must hear before you die”, sung in a mixture of French and local dialects. I followed this up with his 1994 collaboration with eclectic US musician Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu.

Ali Farka Touré is probably the biggest name to come out of Mali. He died shortly after the release of Savane, which is regarded as his magnum opus, and led to worldwide recognition. He was posthumously awarded the Commandeur de l’Ordre National du Mali (the highest national honour), and given a state funeral.

Savane comprises 13 tracks, with a running time of just under an hour. The title song tells of a man who has left the savannah for urban Europe and longs to return. The performance below was one his last:

The music, with its foundations in Malian folk, reminded me of US country and blues music (which were influenced by African musical styles), with heavy use of strings and harmonica, and sometimes plaintive vocals. Interestingly, a key instrument is the ngoni, a sort of African lute that may have been an influence on the development of the banjo. Something a bit different for my weekend listening!

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (Germany)

Translated by David Luke

Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice fits in nicely with Novellas in November, as well as German literature month. It is a long short story really, less than 100 pages long in my Vintage Classics edition. I read this after my recent trip to the stunning Venice in late September (it genuinely felt like being transported into a painting by Canaletto).

The story – first published in 1912 – follows Gustave von Aschenbach, a successful writer who is past his prime, on his travels to Venice for a break. One day, at his hotel he notices a gorgeous boy, barely in his teens, with whom he becomes obsessed.

With astonishment Aschenbach noticed that the boy was entirely beautiful. His countenance, pale and gracefully reserved, was surrounded by ringlets of honey-coloured hair, and with its straight nose, its enchanting mouth, its expression of sweet and divine gravity, it recalled Greek sculpture of the noblest period...”

His holiday plans begin to revolve around coinciding with the boy, Tadzio, whenever possible, and he takes to following him along Venetian passages and around canals, and watching his horseplay with another boy, so distracted and, frankly, horny that he doesn’t fully acknowledge an encroaching pandemic, as dignity, self-control and reason fall by the wayside.

I bought the book during the first lockdown, when it was recommended as a good example of ‘pandemic lit’, but didn’t get to it until now, when the setting resonated with me. It also appears in Peter Boxall’s popular ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’, which I’m working my way through in a half-hearted, intermittent and ad hoc kind of way.

I must quibble with a line from the 1001 Books summary, however: it describes Death in Venice as “a vivid account of what it is like to fall in love”. Far from it, what the story provides is a vivid account of what it is like to develop a predatory sexual obsession with a minor.

From a modern-day perspective Von Aschenbach’s obsession is overtly paedophilic and incredibly disturbing. Would readers 100 years ago have interpreted events to be so clearly sexual, or Von Aschenbach to be so damn creepy? They could hardly have failed to pick on the homoeroticism.

Despite the psychologically compelling narrative, I found the story quite slow going at first, and had to go back and reread passages. I struggle more and more with the wordiness of non-contemporary novels! I’m not sure whether this is down to laziness, or if I’m just getting a bit more stupid as I get older. I found the last third of the book, though, as it progressed towards its denouement, to be stunning.

Film review: Hit the Road (Iran)

I went to see Iranian film Hit the Road in the summer, but things got in the way and I never wrote it up.

This is a critically acclaimed road movie, written and directed by Panah Panahi (the son of director and political prisoner Jafar Panahi), and released in 2021, which features a loving, eccentric family as they make their way across country. (Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian has interestingly noted that an entirely new genre has effectively evolved in Iranian cinema, comprising films “shot semi-covertly in a car”, as a tactic to avoid state interference.)

The family is made up of two parents, chain-smoking father Kosro (played by Hassan Madjooni, and nursing a broken leg), the mother (played by Pantea Panahiha), adult, taciturn son Farid (Amin Simiar), his mischievous, much younger brother (played by Rayan Sarlak) and their sick dog. The success of Sarlak’s naturalistic performance really stands out, given his young age.

The family tease each other and wind each other up, and although there are distinct moments of humour as the journey proceeds in its haphazard way, there is a huge amount of tenderness and barely contained sadness too. It isn’t until later that we realise the objective of the road trip: the family are engaged in a dangerous and heart-breaking mission to smuggle their eldest son out of Iran, via Turkey.

Along the way, there are amazing shots of the changing Iranian landscape: big skies, vast wheat fields, dramatic mountains, deep fog, and sand. This was a really powerful movie (and is available now on streaming services such as Amazon Prime).

The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan)

Pakistani-British author Mohsin Hamid was born and partly raised in Lahore, Pakistan, and has also been based in London and New York. I’ve read his earlier books The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West, which I liked, but I always felt (pre-blog) that I’d read them at surface level somehow, and failed to appreciate the sub-text or nuance.

The Last White Man, published this year, comes in at 180 pages so it fits nicely into this year’s annual Novellas in November challenge. The writing style, if not the content, reminded me somewhat of Rachel Cusk’s writing in novels like Transit, I think it’s because there are lots of sub-clauses and long sentences, though I don’t have one of her books to hand to check!

The book opens in an unnamed country with Anders (an uber-white name – I initially assumed the action was set in the UK, but given the name maybe it’s meant to be somewhere Nordic) waking in the morning to find he’s no longer white, but brown. In this Kafkaesque new reality:

Anders waited for an undoing, an undoing that did not come, and the hours passed, and he realized that he had been robbed, that he was the victim of a crime, the horror of which only grew, a crime that had taken everything from him, that had taken him from him…”

When he finally steals himself to leave the house, he finds the shop assistant in the grocery store is rude, or worse maybe, treats him as though he were more or less invisible, while Anders, still coming to terms with the death of his mother, has been generally unmoored.

Anders has a sometime yoga-teacher girlfriend, Oona, who is initially unsure how to respond to Anders’ transformation, and the reactions from other people in Anders’ life, including his father, are also often ambivalent at best.

Hamid says he wrote the novel partly into his own experiences post-9/11:

As a university educated person who had a well-paying job and lived in large cosmopolitan cities … I thought I had a kind of partial membership of this dominant group called whiteness. Then suddenly I became a member of this suspect class – being pulled out of lines in airports and stopped for hours at immigration, seeing people uncomfortable around me when I showed up on the subway or tube with my backpack. It was jarring, and initially I felt this profound sense of loss.

More and more people are affected by the strange phenomenon, and as more white people turn brown there is an effect on societal stability, there are violent incidents, and people regard each other with suspicion (is becoming brown catching? are the people around them ‘new’ brown people or existing members of ethnic minorities?). People stockpile groceries and lie low, in an obvious nod to the retrospectively weird behaviour that arose during COVID (I never did understand why people were hoarding all those toilet rolls).

The book is good in its reflections on identity:

Anders said that he was not sure he was the same person, he had begun by feeling that under the surface it was still him, who else could it be, but it was not that simple, and the way people act around you, it changes what you are, who you are, and Oona said she understood, that it was like learning a foreign language...”

Meanwhile Oona’s mother, still mourning the earlier deaths of her son and husband (which happened before the action begins in the book), becomes drawn into conspiracy sites online as she tries to come to terms with her shifting reality:

“ was not that we were better than them, although we were better than them, how could you deny it, but that we needed our own places, where we could take care of our own, because our people were in trouble, and the dark people could have their own places, and there they could do their own dark things, or whatever...”

I was about to describe the book as a dystopia, compelling me as a white reader to acknowledge those unconscious biases so clearly presented by Reni Eddo-Lodge in her polemic Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I felt discomfited by the title too, reading the book on the bus, and started worrying faintly that anyone glancing at the cover might think I was reading white supremacist literature, amid the general political narrative these days in relation to migrants, as well as the white nationalist concept of the ‘Great Replacement’.

As the – highly intelligent, but also highly accessible – story progresses, there is, indeed, a last white man, and then none at all. However, as Anders and Oona adjust to the new realities, it seems that there is definite room for optimism.

Passing by Nella Larsen (USA)

For the #1929club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy, I finally read the 1929 novella Passing, by Nella Larsen, which seems to be everywhere at the moment.

The book opens with the chance meeting of two light-skinned black women in a hotel bar in the 1920s. The woman are former friends, who have long since lost touch. Irene is a middle-class black woman, married to a doctor, with a busy Harlem life filled with children, friends and charity work; she is sometimes mistaken for “an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican…”.

Clare, meanwhile, described as a “blonde beauty out of [a] fairy tale”, is “passing” as a white woman, and is – disturbingly – married to a racist white man, with whom she has a daughter.

Passing as white in 1920s America has given Clare certain freedoms, but it also means that she is forever on edge, while denying herself a large chunk of both her personal history and her social connections. Irene’s uncloseted life is increasingly attractive to her, and she begins to spend more and more time with her, her family and her friends.

If Clare is ambivalent about her racial identity, Irene is ambivalent about Clare, and the novel unspools with a sense of grim inevitability to a devastating conclusion.

In the USA at the time of the novel’s writing, a person was considered black if they had at least one black ancestor: a definition so wide as to be fairly meaningless in, say, contemporary London. Larsen was herself half-Danish, while her father is thought to have been from the West Indies.

By the time of Larsen’s death in 1964 her work was out of print, and she couldn’t know that Passing would eventually be considered a late addition to the canon. I haven’t yet seen the recent Netflix film, but that is definitely on my list.

I’ve recently finished reading Brit Bennett’s 2020 bestselling novel The Vanishing Half, which was surely inspired by Passing. The premise is different, but resonant: two light-skinned black sisters grow up in Mallard, a US town solely inhabited by light-skinned black people (apparently based on historical fact), during the 1940s. They move away to New Orleans as rebellious teens, but their lives pan out very differently. While Desiree finds herself fleeing an abusive relationship and returning to Mallard as the single mother of her much darker skinned daughter, Jude, Stella “passes” as white, marrying her boss and living a life – and a lie – in middle-class comfort in a very white world. She is also, however, necessarily (she feels) estranged from her sister and mother and living in fear of discovery.

For me, Passing is by far the more assured novel, with its length ensuring tight plotting, and significantly more room for nuance. The Vanishing Half is much more sprawling, set over some 50 years, and bringing in other issues of identity, whether hidden, adopted or accepted.

As well as the focus on Desiree and Stella throughout their lives, it follows the trials and tribulations of Jude’s relationship with her trans partner Reese and Stella’s conflicted actress daughter Kennedy, but it all felt a bit baggy and formulaic. I’m sure it’s another candidate for a film adaptation, but I can’t really imagine that being anything but mediocre either.

Film Review: Le Havre (Finland)

The 2011 film Le Havre tells the beautiful tale of implacable ageing shoe-shiner Marcel Marx (the late André Wilms), who goes out of his way to help immigrant boy Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) evade the authorities to be reunited with his mother. With French dialogue, and set in the Normandy port town of Le Havre, the movie is nevertheless written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, widely considered to be Finland’s most prominent director. The dialogue is minimal and straightforward: I could understand most of it without subtitles.

When a container ship arrives in Le Havre from Gabon with refugees aboard, Idrissa, a young boy who had been aiming for London, is the only one to flee the immigration authorities. Marcel, who lives a modest, working-class life with his attentive wife and dog Laika (sharing a name with the famous Soviet space dog), comes across the boy by chance during a lunch break, and is immediately sympathetic. Marcel’s wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) becomes seriously ill around this time and is admitted to hospital, and Marcel allows the boy to live with him temporarily, while continuing to evade the Clouseau-esque Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin).

The local people – Jean-Paul the grocer, Yvette at the bakery, and the patrons at the local bar – are unreserved in welcoming Idrissa (although they haven’t always had time for the hard-up Marcel, who has a reputation for being late in settling bills). They donate food and help deflect the authorities, eventually clubbing together to arrange a charity concert to raise money for Idrissa to cross the channel to his mother.

There are serious themes, but the film is low-key, warm, and quietly witty, with the set tinged in blue throughout. With its goodies and baddies, and an optimistic storyline focused around the fates of Idrissa and Arletty, it has a sometimes childlike feel, a sort of humanist fairy tale.

Le Havre deals with African immigration, and questions of legal status and citizenship, big issues in contemporary Europe, but instead of pontificating, Kaurismäki explores them stylistically. Ultimately, Le Havre is heart-warming and Utopian, wearing its liberal politics lightly and, in defiance of logic and indeed medical science, things turn out positively all round.

Review: Art works by Maria Bartuszová (1936-96, Slovakia)

A new exhibition of biomorphic art works by Slovakian artist Maria Bartuszová opened at Tate Modern on 20 September, and will be there until mid-April 2023. I went to see it with my pal Jo. Ironically, Bartuszová is little known in Slovakia, and this, reportedly the first international solo exhibition of her work, comes more than 25 years after her death.

I like her ovoid white plaster sculptures, which often look like alien, blown-apart eggs, including a series that she described as ‘endless eggs’ (apparently influenced by the goddess Venus.)

Much of her work is resonant of the natural world, such as drops of water, seeds or dividing cells. You can sometimes see physical traces of her, where she pressed the plaster by hand.

She acknowledged the challenges of working while being a woman at that time:

Maybe because I had so little time besides working on commissions and childcare, maybe because of that I had the idea, while playing with inflatable balls, to blow liquid into a balloon.”

She first used gravity to shape balloons after filling them with poured plaster, and often submerged them in water (calling this process ‘gravistimulated shaping’).

Later she used her breath to inflate small rubber balloons (and condoms), as well as large meteorological balloons, calling this ‘pneumatic casting’, and making use of air pressure as well as gravity. After pouring plaster over balloons to make a cast she would allow them to burst, making disintegrated, delicate, hollow egg shapes and shells.

Later in life she moved to the mountain city of Košice in eastern Slovakia, living in a house with a studio and a large hillside garden where she could experiment on a larger scale, displaying work such as Tree in her garden.

Later work was more personal and meditative, and she made use of rope and string to constrict and restrain shapes and question human relationships, and to examine the contrast between hard and soft textures, and binding and pressure (perhaps reflecting difficulties in her marriage! – she divorced in 1984).

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Bartuszová did quite a lot of work with children. Much of her work seems potentially very adaptable to teaching in schools, fusing artistic imagination and a demonstration of scientific principles.

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