Thursday, 28 April 2016

fateless [imre kertész]

The brilliance of Kertész’ terrible novel is bound up with the tone of its narrator, Gyuri, a laconic boy who is incapable of seeing the worst in life, even when it’s placed in front of his nose. This boy happens to have been born Jewish and living in Budapest during the 2nd world war. He approaches life as would any other teenage boy, curious about girls, trying to work out why his parents separated, phlegmatic, reluctant to fall into the trap of self-pity when there’s so much to live for. This same boy is then sent via Auschwitz, to the Zeiss concentration camp. At no point could it exactly be said he was an innocent, because the writer is wise enough to know that children are no more innocent than anyone else; but equally, no more than anyone else, this is not a fate which he has in any way merited. The way in which the narrator struggles to maintain his dispassionate attitude towards life, something which it seems helps him to stay alive, whilst coming to terms with the cruelty of his destiny, is told masterfullly.

I know nothing about Kertész, but one imagines that this book is autobiographical. The author’s capacity to resist cliché, to not necessarily say those things we as readers want to hear, suggests a degree of honesty which is frequently present in the writings of Holocaust survivors, although rarely present in the writings of those who choose to visit the holocaust as fiction writers (or filmmakers). The last sentence of chapter seven in the book is worth quoting in full to demonstrate Kertész’ remarkable, ambiguous take on his plight: “Despite all the deliberation, sense, insight and sober reason, I could not fail to recognise within myself the furtive and yet - ashamed as it might be, so to say, of its irrationality - increasingly insistent voice of some muffled craving of sorts: I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp.” 

The camp in question is Buchenwald, which Gyuri survives. It’s only when he gets back to Budapest that the real weight of his suffering seems to catch up with him. All too often, writers are accused of not showing enough “heart” or “emotional truth” if their characters fail to emote sufficiently, to talk about their pain or their suffering. Kertész’s novel, would appear to suggest that the privileged world’s need for emotional catharsis is a self-indulgence. The character who is genuinely immersed in a world of terror requires their energy, their cynicism and a certain dispassionate sang-froid to resist. It’s more important to find reasons to live than seek reasons to lament. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

liv and ingmar (w&d. dheeraj akolkar; w. ragnhild lund)

Any memoir which comes straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, should come with a sucrose warning. Similar to the one that ought to be put on the side of coca cola cans. Retrospectively, we all want to hang on to the good and partition the bad off into some unopenable drive. It’s logical. Yet, this doesn’t do much for the process of capturing the truth of what really occurred. Pinter, in both Betrayal and Old Times, is wonderful at dissecting the small deceits we make in order to make the past more palatable. He retains a truth-seeking gaze that others might term cynical; I’d like to think this is a British attribute but I’m sure we British can soft-soap it with the best of them when we want to. 

Liv and Ingmar is essentially a long filmed interview with Liv Ullman as she talks about the four years she and Bergman spent living together on a small island off the coast of Sweden. It was an idyll that turned into something out of the Shining. Bergman controlled the hours that his wife was allowed to stay out of the house and waited for her in the road, tapping his watch if she was late. He built a wall around the house to keep the world out. They argued with a vengeance. Ullman narrates a funny anecdote about him putting his foot through a door. Finally, after only four years, she couldn’t take it anymore and left with their daughter. But not before Bergman had recycled much of their domestic trauma for use in his films.

Forty years later, Ullman reflects wistfully. She and Bergman made up and became friends. They continued to make films together. As colleagues, their lives would appear to have been considerably more harmonious. He called her his Stradivarius, a monicker she appears to value. Of course, it’s for the best for everyone that Ullman now harbours positive memories of her time with Bergman and is able to laugh at the director’s various moments of sadism when he exploited her discomfort as an actress. However, the anger and the pain, two of the film’s subtitled sections, never really communicate themselves. For that, we have to watch the films. If anything, Liv and Ingmar reminds us of the dangers of being informed about the lives of artists, who all too often appear to possess a degree of self-obsession which is less appealing in the actuality than in the fictions they concoct in order to mask it. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

splinternet [scott malcolmson]

Once upon a time there wasn’t an internet. Or at least not one we knew about. Malcolmson’s book is an introduction to the process whereby something whose non-existence now seems unimaginable came to be. It’s a book which is split into three sections. The first part outlines the rise of the notion and development of the computer. The book touches anecdotally on a number of themes; the origins of IBM; the original computers, humans who made mathematical calculations for a living, many of them employed by the US military; the role of the US navy in making the advances necessary for the beast to become what it has. The second section of the book examines the way in which the private sector began to take a more active involvement, a path that leads to California, Jobs, Wozniack, Gates and Allen. It’s here that the internet comes into existence, although it’s fascinating to see how little interest there was in it for so long, even from the likes of Microsoft. Finally the book looks at the future of the internet, analysing its capacity to survive in spite of those that would prefer to see its scope diminished. (Principally national governments.) 

Splinternet is a handy introductory guide, filled with plenty of nuggets. It feels as though there’s probably a more detailed book waiting to be written; more often than not Malcolmson touches on historical moments which leave you wanting more, such as the maverick world of the military-hippy crossover which was a key axis in the development process: idealism bumper to bumper with military pragmatism. This section reads like something out of a novel Pynchon should have written. (Maybe he’s in the process of writing it right now.) There’s something about the posthorn from The Crying of Lot 49 underneath all this: the need to communicate across frontiers, an extension of the frontier spirit, which is recycled by zeitgeist fringe visionaries or lunatics who somehow or other end up changing the world, for better or for worse. Sketchy though the book might be, it’s nevertheless fascinating to gain a glimpse into the process which created the internet. It is astonishing to contemplate how the material world is capable of being transformed by forces of which democracy, governments, experts, know nothing; who knows which processes are being developed even now which, in 30 years or so, will feel so integral to daily life that we shall scarcely be able to imagine this world without them.