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Archive for April, 2012

The following is a little nugget unearthed from the constantly surprising bowels of Billy Budd (chapter 12):

Now envy and antipathy, passions irreconcilable in reason, nevertheless in fact may spring conjoined like Chang and Eng in one birth. Is Envy then such a monster? Well, though many an arraigned mortal has in hopes of mitigated penalty pleaded guilty to horrible actions, did ever anybody seriously confess to envy? Something there is in it universally felt to be more shameful than even felonius crime. And not only does everybody disown it, but the better sort are inclined to incredulity when it is in earnest imputed to an intelligent man. But since its lodgment is in the heart not the brain, no degree of intellect supplies a guarantee against it.

This section exposed my own silent failings and sense of shame. Why does this revelation cut so deeply?

Well, the feeling of disgust over my envy is made doubly worse by an obvious proof: my jealousy demonstrates I am not the top dog. Ah, pride, you spiteful little monster. Thanks Herman – you got me.

 

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The story surrounding the publication of Billy Budd is almost as interesting as the novella itself.

Herman Melville died in 1891 without too much mourning or fanfare; his due would come much later. During the twentieth century, largely on the strength of Moby Dick, he would be considered the finest author America had offered up, though he would still have some nice surprises awaiting the reading world – a small treasure for literary nerds, Billy Budd, Sailor (An inside narrative), a final unfinished work – was neatly tucked away by his widow sometime subsequent to his death.

Billy Budd is classic Melville – a seafaring narrative which hinges on the complex mysteries of human nature and decision. Stylistically, it has a poetic momentum, loaded with allusions to history, mythology and biblical literature. Yet surprisingly, it still makes for a ripping yarn. This is largely because the metaphors are never laboured; they feel completely apt.

The novella is named after the main character – an original creation of true genius. Billy Budd is your 19th century version of Ryan Gosling, your pretty-boy man’s man. Everybody loves Billy. But when he unintentionally kills wicked John Claggart, his naval senior, everything gets messy. And therein lies the narrative juice.

Melville’s parting fictional gift to the world is a picture of life itself (another metaphor). In the face of the complexities of our world – wars, laws, mutinies, unexplained evil – sometimes men are forced to make impossible decisions. And whether to hang innocent, much-loved Billy Budd is one of those teeth-grinding choices.

I loved Billy Budd, but then, the externals of the narrative (sailor blokes, naval battles and unsolvable mysteries) were the fodder of my childhood dreams. And yet, Melville doesn’t let us stay moored to immature understandings. He moves through history, and joins his story with our own everyday one, reminding us of this complex beast called life, full of certainties to be sure, but not a small variety of grey also. Billy Budd: a complex, mature and literate story for those still needing to appease the boy dwelling within. And a final encouragement – it’s a fifth of the length of Moby Dick!

 

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In the midst of personal turmoil over her own desires, it is easy as the reader to judge the heroine of A Room with a View with more than a small amount of frustration. Caught between the man she is to marry, snobbish Cecil, and the natural alternative, dour and romantic George Emerson, Lucy denies the sincerity of her true feelings for the latter. And in turn we think her ridiculous. Knowing this, Forster pre-empts our less than charitable opinion of the girl (Chapter XIV, How Lucy Faced the External Situation Bravely):

 

It is is obvious for the reader to conclude, ‘She loves young Emerson.’ A reader in Lucy’s place would not find it obvious. Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practise, and we welcome ‘nerves’ or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire. She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases should have been reversed?

But the external situation – she will face that bravely.

The meeting at the rectory had passed off well enough. Standing between Mr Beebe and Cecil, she made a few temperate allusions to Italy, and George had replied. She was anxious to show that she was not shy, and was glad that he did not seem shy either.

 

Thinking her loaded encounter with strapping George went off without a hitch, Lucy is momentarily pleased with the outcome. But this is merely just the first round of the second match.

 

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A Room with a View is a sane romantic comedy; Forster always lets it stay grounded. In its own little way it is full of minor miracles.

E. M. Forster is far from the finest author the literary world has to offer. He has a tendency to labour metaphors, often to cumbersome effect (in Room they are largely Grecian). Worse still, some of his prose is difficult to follow, without any stylistic or poetic paydirt to justify the lack of clarity.

Room with a View is the populist, lite, abridged edition of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady – both feature a flawed heroine wandering blindly in Italy. However, the latter masterpiece is far less idealistic about romance in continental Europe (and more subtle); the overarching narrative of Room ultimately fails to resonate like other giants.

Nevertheless, Forster develops some great scenes which make for compulsive reading. Natural wit frequently bubbles up among the cast – Forster has a great feel for dialogue. His sense of his characters’ personal history together, and their situation, is potent.  He knows the way members of a family innocently squabble and grate against one another. Familiarity breeds good humour. Additionally, Forster’s ability to craft an extremely accessible Victorian novel without resorting to cariacture is one of Room‘s small successes.

A number of scenes stick wonderfully, largely owing to its readability and eye for detail; a rarity in good literature. The initial intimacy between Lucy and George by the river pre-empts the romance that is to come – it is the clumsy dream-like beginning of something real; further, the two ‘love’ scenes are so subtly envisaged by Forster, they have a way of expanding memorably in the mind. Elsewhere, it is a treat to experience the author’s work which simultaneously traverses comedy and drama in the same instant, best exemplified in the marvellous chestnut where he humanises poor, spurned Cecil; sympathy arises for the newly enlightened cad, just as the irony of his ignorance begins to dawn. However, it is the familial in Room which rings truest – the interactions between the Honeychurch family is frequently hilarious and so everyday, one feels a part of their world, even while we remain so removed.

Forster has some added glue which brings the narrative some nice meta-ness. The muddles without and within the human game of love develop unexpected richness. The character and purpose of Miss  Bartlett remains a mystery – her prudish and stuffy nature is  given veiled intent by the narrative kicker of the final chapter. Lastly, the “view” motif remains elusive, even while it persists throughout – is it a metaphor? a cipher? or merely a visual reminder of the importance of Italy in this whole game of romance? These unresolved devices are not essential in making Room a success. But like those little quirks in Seinfeld (Kramer’s excessive honesty, George’s abominable lack of generosity, Jerry’s superficiality), they all work to enable Room to create a memorable and realistic little world of its own.

 

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Without attempting to denigrate or diminish the rest, Shoah makes all other documentaries seem frivolous. It is both a horrifying and a humanising work of art. Claude Lanzmann has accomplished something extraordinary – a epic about the holocaust which is neither sentimental nor morbid.

Shoah is nine hours of eye-witness testimony, a majority of which comes from Jewish survivors of the ‘Final Solution’. Though Lanzmann largely relies on talking-heads, he intercuts interviews with recent footage of the green lushness of the concentration camps and countryside; the effect of his combination of image and spoken word is both beautiful and sadly unsettling.

One man tells of the pervasive attempts by the Nazis to dehumanise the Jews – bodies were never to be referred to as “corpses” or “victims” – rather, they were always only “rags”. Another explains the process of getting Jews onto trains; thousands upon thousands, including the elderly, women and children were herded onto the cattle cars like animals. Those Jews who died in the trains on route to the death camps would become seats and footstools for the living. Another man tells of the “death struggle” within the gas chambers; when the soon to be exterminated knew their fate, a mad scramble for air and position would pit Jew against fellow Jew.

Several passages of this massive film are truly heart-breaking and difficult to forget. Despite the whiff of exploitation which hovers over some of Lanzmann’s probing, his record manages to testify to the horror of evil and the humanising power of suffering.

Personally, it was the simple moments which I will find hard to put aside. These accounts are told with an off-handness which never becomes flippant; however, the tragedy and pain of the experiences bubbles over, evidenced in these hardened Jewish men weeping uncontrollably before the camera. One man works in a barber’s shop while sharing a story – back during the war he met an old hair dressing acquaintance in the gas chamber, moments before she was gassed; suffice to say he breaks down in the middle of his reminiscence. Another, a Polish politician, tells of his experience with a Jewish noble in the horror of the Warsaw ghetto; his memory of that week decades earlier remained untold till his interview with Lanzmann, and it shows.

However, in all this, the pursuits of the Nazi regime to deny humanity to the Jews could only fail. Shoah implicitly reveals, by the measures enforced upon this ancient race, what it is to be human; these victimised men, women and children were not mere beasts. Further, in their suffering, these Jewish victims point, most importantly, to a God who has experienced everything we have, and more. In the cross, Jesus Christ faced the horror of human evil and triumphed.

 

 

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Fifty years ago Federico Fellini created a sensation with a work unlike anything else in cinema. After crafting eight and a half films, many of which were classics in their own right (I Vitelloni, La Strada, La Dolce Vita), it would be his next self-indulgence for which he would principally be remembered.

The self-consciously and ironically titled 8½ is the Adaptation of its day – a film totally enamoured by the neuroses and ecstasy of the creative process. In both substance and form the audience are taken into the mind of a director on the cusp of meltdown; we experience all the beautiful chaos. The main role of Guido is inhabited by Marcello Mastroianni, in effect playing an exagerrated monster version of Fellini, just as Nic Cage did for Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation.

The imagination on evidence in is almost unparalleled. It is difficult to fathom how such a self-consciously original work came into being back in the sixties. Though the demand on the viewer is high, there are many rewards – the way in which Fellini blurs reality, fantasy and  dreamlife are more than enough to get me hot with excitement.

Several scenes demonstrate a true mastery of the craft. The opening five minutes alone are enough to blow one’s mind. The completely loose nature of the narrative can make it difficult to sustain the attention and patience for the full two hours plus, but there’s gold in them hills. So many good reasons why this title is listed in the top ten greatest films of all time.

 

 

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I’ve recently been labouring over Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s much celebrated One Hundred Years of Solitude;  it is such a strange style to grapple with. So today I borrowed E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View from the library as an insurance plan.

Reading this early, celebrated novel of Forster without prejudice is a major hurdle. Back in my late teens I watched the enjoyable and (as far as I know) faithful film adaptation by Merchant-Ivory. It points to a great, light work of literature, in the midst of a century filled with pessimism and plenty of oblique writing.

The difficulty is this: how does one read a novel without importing the visual language developed by the film-maker. I can think of only a handful of novels in my time of reading which have freshly impressed even after watching the film. This is largely owing to either the genius of their writing (James’ Washington Square), or the success of the ideologies undergirding the narrative (Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Dickey’s Deliverance).

The difficulty will be made more pronounced with Forster; the style and the narrative are, respectively, somewhat conventional and unsurprising. As a consequence, the writing and story must fight with tenacity for new tenancy in the imagination. Harder still given the beauty of the performances Merchant-Ivory obtained in their production.

Thankfully the first chapter has already revealed something missed, either a deficient memory on my part or a rich well left untapped by the directors – an opening scene so well crafted it is a small masterpiece on manners. Here is exposed the games we play with new acquaintances, especially when our conversation partners are found wanting in sophistication and tact. I look forward to the rest of Forster’s style and wit.

 

 

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