Monday, 19 November 2012

swimming home [deborah levy]

There's a corner of a foreign field that will be forever England. According to Levy, this corner is constructed out of petty deceit, matrimonial disquiet and suicidal urges. Whilst there are echoes of McEwan's Atonement in the conceit, the work of art this most resembles is Joanna Hogg's Unrelated. The British idyll abroad upset by the appearance of a rogue element, in this case the unpredictable and clearly unhinged Kitty Finch, who is swimming in the pool of the French holiday villa hired by two bourgeois London families. Kitty Finch spells trouble and sure enough she brings it to the party, unhinging one and all.

Whilst this is a potent cocktail of a premise, the truth is that the book skates over the dramatic depths. Like an iced-over pool, we gain glimpses of things the novel might have explored but chose not to. Instead the writer favours a poeticised imagistic approach, full of metaphor and simile, one which lathers the cold, cruel eye of the poet over the novel's crust. If you get my drift. Cruel, the book certainly is: with the exception of a 14 year old girl, Nina (more shades of Atonement) all the various characters are people you'd rather not hang out with. It does feel slightly pretensious of the author to give them such portentous jobs, (a holocaust-escapee poet; a TV war correspondent; etc), the significance of which are never really investigated. Instead the book hinges on Kitty, the bastard daughter of Fitzgerald's Nicole, waiting for the nuthouse to claim her.

The book has been a success and has earned an introduction from Tom McCarthy, no small praise. In some ways it also reminiscent of Lerner's Atocha Station, but it lacks the humour of Lerner's anti-heroic text, forever taking itself as seriously as it possibly can, overloading its 150 pages with an implication of a depth it never gets round to revealing.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

russia in 1919 [arthur ransome]

Arthur Ransome became famous for his books about kids larking about on boats, books which I read as a child, as did generations of British children. The vividness of the childhood adventures these book captured are what made them work and perhaps it comes as no surprise to learn that Ransome’s own life was not short of an adventure or two.

This book recounts a visit to Moscow in the early Spring of 1919, following on from another visit he’d made in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. The book, which the author describes in his own introduction as “quite dull”, paints an insiders portrait of the way in which the Bolsheviks consolidated power as Moscow itself gradually got back to its feet. Russia is still hamstrung by the aggression of the allies. Somewhat frustratingly, Ransome manages to arrange a meeting with some British POWs, but never writes it up. Instead he goes into detail about the political scene at the time. In pre-Stalinist days, there was still considerable scope for independent political parties, albeit from the left. Before the purges all kinds of groups sought to shape the revolution in their own image, even if Ransome makes it clear that the Bolsheviks are likely to remain the dominant force. His accounts of his conversations with Lenin, a ‘happy’ revolutionary leader, are fascinating and insightful, revealing Lenin as a gnomic figure well aware of his position in history.

Elsewhere there are insights into life in that brave new dawn. One figure comments on the shortage of spoons as evidence that things are not getting any better. But the theatres of Moscow are full and Ransome creates a portrait of an impoverished but vibrant city, full of restless political activity, even though it is distressingly cold. He talks to people who have accepted their change in status with a surprising degree of equanimity, as people’s homes are co-opted and redistributed. The world has changed and people change with it.

Ransomse does all he can to remain even-handed. His scepticism regarding Lenin’s belief that the British revolution is imminent will prove astute. However, there appears to be a quiet admiration for the scale of the revolutionary project. As though the writer is conscious of his luck in being able to witness one of the most remarkable experiments in human political history.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

when father was away on business (d emir kusturica, w abdulah sidran)

Kusturica's second film is not well known in the UK, although most people I've met here seem to have seen it. I'd never heard of it. The director's reputation might be on the wane, but there was a point at the end of the 20th century when he felt like the freshest, most important new voice in cinema. A trio of films, Black Cat, White Cat; Time of the Gypsies and Underground were feted for their irreverence and flair. When Father Was Away on Business was his second film, using many of the same actors who appear in the later films and is a bravura piece of work which stands up beside the director's more celebrated offerings.

The film belongs to a strong Eastern European satirical tradition (going back to Schweyk, Brecht etc). Tito's Communist rule is pervasive and one misplaced remark can lead to exile. This is what happens to Malik's father Mehmet after his lover denounces him to his brother-in-law. Mehmet "goes away on business" and later the family will follow him. The satire is gentle but affecting, most of all because it presents events through the eyes of the child, for whom football and girls are just as important as politics. 

However, above and beyond its politics, this is a great film in so far as it captures a complete social environment. As well as being a satire, it's also like a work of 19th C realism. Here is Communist Sarajevo captured with all of its energy, beauty and flaws. The film runs at 2 hours and 15 minutes, with an array of storylines and twists in the plot, but it never feels over-elaborated or rambling. The director's hand is firmly on the tiller, guiding the screenplay through its various episodes, whilst revelling in this world which has gone and will never return. The frequent use of significant football matches, usually against the Russians, provides a framework based in history, a history which must seem all the more distant now in Bosnia, when the nation participating in the football matches no longer exists. In addition, the affectionate relations shared across the religious divide seem remarkable given the imminence of what was to come at the time this small masterpiece was made.