Thinking out loud with your body: Theatre, film, tragedy, Carson, Binoche, Antigone

antigone

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

I was at the Barbican at the weekend to see Ivo van Hove’s production of Antigone, in Anne Carson’s new translation of Sophocles.

No, that’s a lie. I was at the Barbican to see Juliette Binoche playing Antigone. What I saw was Van Hove’s production.

Binoche – she looked at me once, I swear! And at one point was sat on the edge of the stage, not twelve feet from our Row B seats! – was great, but really she wasn’t there as an actress; she was there as a star. The performance she gave came filtered through my preconceived sense of her as a ‘personality’, itself partly made up of all the characters I have seen her play on screen till now, each of those characters only ever iterations or manifestations of her presence – that mixture of watchableness, knowableness and unknowableness that go to make a star.

(I don’t mean this facetiously. An actor is someone who is good at pretending to be other people. A star is someone who is good at pretending to be themselves, or themselves as others see them. In the cinema a film is projected onto a screen. When that film features a film star, there are a hundred, two hundred, a thousand additional projectors. Each audience member is a projector.)

That Juliette Binoche is as good an actress as she is means that this situation didn’t devolve to her simply standing on stage being Juliette Binoche. At most, she was stood on stage being Juliette Binoche being Antigone. But she was never being Antigone.

This suspicion, that the production was a vehicle for its star, wasn’t helped by Van Hove’s attitude towards her. You got a strong sense that he would rather have been directing her in a film.

(You can see a staged reading of Anne Carson’s Antigonick here, which is largely identical to the script of this production. There is minimal additional movement in Van Hove’s production, minimal set. What there is, in addition, is the cinema.)

The stage, in Jan Versweyveld’s design, was set out in letterbox format, with a wide, flat backdrop that was often used for film projections, and a raised stage that put certain scenes very much at screen level, while other scenes took place on a slightly lower transverse strip across the front of the stage – the difference in height between them being roughly the same as that in a cinema between floor and screen.

In the opening scene the backdrop showed a desert landscape. Binoche entered from the left and walked slowly across stage, her hair and clothes tousled by wind coming from the wind machines off-stage to the right. It was like a scene from Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, with Juliette Binoche recast as Count Almásy staggering across the Libyan desert.

Faced with an auditorium full of people wanting to see a film star in the flesh, in the four dimensions of theatre time and space, Van Hove starts by giving us Binoche as if on film. Continue reading

Today’s sermon: What is art for? A response, in part, to Raymond Tallis’s Summers of Discontent

 

arts discontent

To Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday night to hear and join a debate on ‘the purpose of the arts today’, based on Raymond Tallis’s book Summers of Discontent - essentially a careful selection of his previous writings by writer and gallerist Julian Spalding. This isn’t one of those socio-political treatises that tries to explain why we should go on pouring so many millions a year into the Royal Opera House, or why the Arts Council budget should be slashed or increased, but rather a philosophical discussion of what the art encounter, whether it be literature, music or theatre, can give us, as existential, post-religious human beings.

Tallis’s premise is that we as humans suffer a ‘wound’ in the present tense of our consciousness, such that we can never be fully present in our lives, but are always late to our own experiences. Art, he says, can help with this by showing how disparate formal elements can be integrated into one unified work; it offers both a model for how to do the same with our own scattered and disparate memories, thoughts, impulses and anticipations, and also a hypothetical space in which to do that work. It gives us a here and a now to be present in.

I was asked, along with philosopher Roger Scruton and classicist Stephen Johnson, to respond to Tallis and Spalding’s remarks, before the debate was opened to the floor – my ‘role’ being that of novelist, and of novelist about ‘the arts’. My no doubt disjointed comments amounted to some of what follows:

that I fully approved of the notion of the wound in the present tense, and of art’s ability to – partially, temporarily – heal or alleviate it, and of doing so by modelling and facilitating formal integration (where, as Tallis points out, ‘form’ is taken to mean the inside, rather than outside shape of things), but that this is surely an ideal, rather than a usual occurrence.

Tallis was starting from a position where he talked about “art when it is at its best and we are at our most connected” – when, to my mind, most of the time neither of those things is true. (In fact there’s a lovely description in his book of listening to a Haydn Mass “while the squeaky windscreen wipers are battling with rain adding its own percussion on the car roof” – and that is think is how we experience most art.)

As a novelist, I want my writing to be at its best, and my readership at its most connected, always, but as a novelist who writes particularly about the arts (the contemporary art world, in Randall, and the world of pop music in my new book), what I’m interested in is the ordinary failings of poorly connected people responding to less than great art – but who, crucially, are no less committed to that project of arriving at a place of integration and connectedness.

I gave the example of seeing Fleetwood Mac at the 02, a pretty good gig in a dismal setting by a band of which I’m not particularly a fan. (I love the album Tusk to bits, but can do without the rest of their stuff.) I responded variously to the music, leaping up at the songs I liked, nodding along to the rest, but what really got me was the response of the other audience members. There were men in the 60s, podgy and balding, as I’ll doubtless be at that age, standing there agog on the concrete steps, hundreds of metres away from their idols, faces slack and eyes streaming with tears. Continue reading

Why do you write? The impulse inwards and the impulse outwards

why do you write

Today I took a Creative Writing workshop at the LSE Space For Thought Literary Festival, which I’d titled Why Do You Write? And Can Knowing That Even Help? It will soon be available as a podcast. It was good fun to run – and I tried out a couple of new writing exercises, but one thing I did that is quite standard fare is I asked the students to jot down, for themselves, their personal reasons for writing.

Now, if you’re a writer, and you feel like exploring this question, perhaps you’d take two minutes to jot down a few possible answers before reading on. That’s what I asked students to do in the workshop, and I think it’s worth doing blind, as it were, for reasons that will become clear.

So, before reading on, grab a pen and jot down six reasons why you write.

Or, you know, ignore that, roll your eyes, and read on.

One thing I’d noticed, in making my own personal list in preparation for the session, was the reasons divided reasonably easily into two categories: inward-oriented impulses, and those that turned outwards.

So, when I asked students to share their reasons with the room at large, and I wrote them up on the whiteboard, I divided them into two columns as I went. Here’s what they came up with – some of it compressed and paraphrased by me, for which I apologise.

  • Because I can
  • Communicate
  • Create
  • Entertain
Enjoyment
  • Reciprocate  – give back something for all the reading pleasure I’ve had
  • To make sense of things
  • Share
  • To keep my head from exploding
  • Protest
  • Compulsion
  • Reach an audience
  • Reflect on things
  • Money!
  • Explore myself and my self-identity
  • Make people laugh and cry
  • Explore my imagination
  • Capture moments
  • Overcome the fear of writing
  • Therapeutic reasons

 

And this was the list I then showed, that I’d come up with. (Some of it tongue-in-cheek)

  • Replicate the joy and intensity of reading
  • Get rich and famous
  • Understand something about yourself
  • Express or share something about yourself
  • Understand something about the world
  • Express or share something about the world
  • Emulate your favourite writer
  • Impose your ideas on others
  • The sheer thrill of creation
  • Contribute to the culture, or the conversation, as you see it
  • Entertain yourself
  • Impress others / make yourself seem more interesting / get laid

As you can see, many of the terms and reasons pop up in both lists, in some form or other. I’d pretty much decided on giving an equal balance between the two impulses, once I’d decided on that perhaps overly simplistic division, but I was interested to see that the students’ list was significantly longer than the outward one, while mine, if anything, erred towards the outward or external.

I say ‘simplistic’, but I do think there is a fundamental split here. We all of us write both for ourselves and for others, to some extent, but if you made a personal list perhaps you’d look at it now and ask yourself: which column do most of your reasons sit in? Are you a ‘for yourself’ writer, or a ‘for others’?

Someone whose answers sat squarely in the right hand column might be at risk of producing meretricious, programmatic, target-oriented, basically uninteresting writing, because they’re so fixated on the effect of their writing that they are blind to the workings of their own writing personality. But someone whose answers stick to the left-hand column might be producing work which doesn’t take that crucial step of reaching out and engaging with the world, which lacks the ambition and ego needed to make writing truly crucial to the reader.

Reading as scree-running, reading as sex – Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past

zweig

Walking and reading; walking and writing: the two binaries are trotted out with predictable regularity. Whether it’s the alert passivity of the flâneur, or the active self-absorption of the rambler, the act of self-propulsion seems deeply linked to the verbal. Both possess an obvious linearity and velocity, that nevertheless allow for a wider and more various perception. You and your feet go forward, and that forward momentum frees your eyes and your mind to wander off on either side, or elsewhere altogether. I wrote about this myself in an old post: Cars, trains and feet: talking, reading, thinking.

But I’ve been wondering, just recently, if walking is the most appropriate analogy to reading we can find. The thought occurred, and an alternative, while reading Stefan Zweig’s novella Journey into the Past, which I’ve had in its lovely new Pushkin Press edition for a while, but not cracked open until this weekend. I read it in a gap in reading my latest Melville House novella, Christopher Morley’s charming Parnassus on Wheels - for the simple reason that I had too few pages left of that book to last a train journey, and wanted something else shortish to while it away.

After its enigmatic opening section, in which a man and a woman share a train journey, themselves, in freighted silence – they are reunited after a long time apart, but are prevented from expressing themselves to each other, and to the reader, by the busyness of the train carriage… after the uncertainties of this opening section, I read it quickly, slipping down the pages with eager ease. Or even – slipping the pages down, as if they were gulps from a tall glass of water on a cold day. I was reading it quickly – too quickly perhaps? Continue reading

The pleasure of the text, and the pleasure beyond the text – thoughts on a part-read Peter Stamm novel

all days are nights

The walk to the station, the sunlight aslant on the pavement, the thought slides back to the book in the bedroom, pen stuck between the pages as a fat marker. The morning, spent reading in bed. The new book reached for on the bedside cabinet, I’d read maybe half of the first paragraph of the first page, the day before. Now, after working a night shift last night: half an hour reading a new book, alone, in bed. What could be sweeter?

Then, two hours later, on the walk to the station, comes the thought. The book in my hand, and the book in my head. The pleasure of the text…

The pleasure of the text, as opposed to what? The after-effects of reading, its manifold, multi-faceted, confused and conflated gifts-that-keep-giving, to sink into cliche.

More and more I feel like I’m less concerned with whether a particular book is ‘good’, as with the question of what is reading? What is it for? What do we get out of it?

The book in question is All Days Are Night, by Peter Stamm, a new novel I had requested from the publisher (Granta, thank you) in the hope of reviewing it. I have another book by the author on my shelves, bought with my own money, unread. He is someone I’ve been wanting to read for a while (I remember a recommendation from a bookseller at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, his favourite author); the covers themselves recommend the contents, delicate and forceful, oblique, like that sunlight, mildly erotic, like the sunlight; I’m in the mood for some of that clarity I suppose I think I can best get from contemporary European translated fiction – something about being close to, but at a remove, filtered but not diluted.

I’m in bed, I pick up the book, and after two stabs, two starts at the opening paragraph, I am in – like in water. The book starts in water:

Half wake up then drift away, alternately surfacing and lapsing back into weightlessness. Gillian is lying in water with a blue luminescence. Within it her body looks yellowish, but wherever it breaks the surface, it disappears into darkness. The only light comes from the warm water lapping her belly and breasts. It feels oily, beading on her skin.

Continue reading

Hollande on Houellebecq: a politician says he’ll read a book

I was brought up short by this remark by the French President, François Hollande, on Michel Houellebecq’s controversial new novel, Soumission, which imagines a near-future France under an Islamic government.

“I’ll read the novel,” he said, talking in a special interview on the French radio station France Inter, “because it is part of a debate.” (I’m translating this from a transcription on the Lesinrocks website, and it’s a tricky line to translate. “Parce qu’il fait débat”: because it’s making debate, forming debate, is worth debating.

Firstly, I was pretty stunned to hear a national leader saying they were going to read a novel, and this in the same week as Mark Zuckerberg’s book-a-fortnight resolution (which I’m not at all sniffy about: I think a book a fortnight for someone in his position is an admirable and, more importantly, achievable aim).

Well done, Hollande, I thought. Could you imagine David Cameron saying the same?

But then, in fact, Hollande goes on to talk further (this was in a two-hour special interview in which he took questions from the host, journalists and listeners):

What one tends to think of as a literary provocation (audace) is only ever a repetition. For centuries there has been this allure of the decadent, of the sense of decline, of addictive pessimism, of this need to question oneself. [Houellebecq] is part of this beguiling tradition. I don’t know if you want it, or fear it, but you certainly enjoy it. But this is literature, and I leave it to authors to express themselves as they see fit, it’s not my job to label a text good or bad.

Apologies again for my inept, rushed translation, but irrespective of what I think about Houellebecq’s book (I’m a fan, but I’m scared), I think that’s a wonderful thing to hear a politician talk like this about literature. I think it’s indicative of the difference between the French cultural climate and ours here. We’re the poorer for it.

A year in reading: 2014

year in reading 2014
I haven’t been keeping a strict list of books read during 2014 so this won’t be a strict list of best books, but rather a recollection of the most memorable reading experiences. Which itself leads to an interesting question. How much does a book have to stay with you after finishing it for it to be a good book? I ended my TLS review of Mary Costello’s remarkable Academy Street with the observation that I wasn’t sure if Tess was “the kind of character to stay with the reader long after the book is closed, but during the reading of it she is an extraordinary companion.”

I was discussing the book with David Hayden of Reaktion Books, and the name Deirdre Madden sprung up, whose latest novel Time Present and Time Past I’d just read. I said that I’d hugely enjoyed her earlier book Molly Fox’s Birthday, and that although that judgment stood – that it was a good book – I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything that happened in it at all.

What books have stayed with me, then? For new novels, Zoe Pilger’s helter-skelter semi-satire Eat My Heart Out and Emma Jane Unsworth’s more groundedly rambunctious Animals both offered up visions of contemporary Britain that I found winning and accurate, or appropriately overdone. Unsworth’s had the thing I thought Pilger’s lacked (though there was more at stake in Pilger) – a sense of where the character might be heading at the end of the dark trip of the narrative. Thinking back on Pilger’s book now, it occurs to me – and I wonder if it’s occurred to her– that Anne-Marie would make a superb recurring character. She’s great at showing where London is, a decade or so into the century. She’d be a useful guide to future moments, too.

The characters I spent the most time with over the year were Lila and Elena from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, aka My Brilliant Friend. I read the first volume early in the year, having been previously blown away by the gut punch/throat grab/face slap of The Days of Abandonment. I read the second and third Neapolitan volumes on holiday in the summer. I was reviewing it, so my proof copy is full of scribbles, but the scribble on the final page of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay says just: ‘Wow’. As has been said before, these books do so many things – European political history, female friendship, anatomisation of Italian society, child to adult growth and adult to child memory – but it does two things that I found particularly powerful. Continue reading

News round up: Dyer, Adultery and a riddle solution

A few things that have happened, recently, that I’m keen to point people towards:

  • Having been published in both Lighthouse and Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2014, I’m very pleased to say that my short story ‘The Faber Book of Adultery‘ is now online as part of Issue 83 of The Barcelona Review. Read it here. (And there’s a lovely reading of it by Lee Upton here.)
  • A paper I gave at Birkbeck’s conference on Geoff Dyer earlier in the year appears in the Winter 2015 issue of The Threepenny Review, and again you can find it online. Read ‘But Funny: Geoff Dyer and Comic Writing‘ here.
  • I’ve added a page to this site for anyone who’s read ‘Randall‘ and either doesn’t know the answer to the riddle it ends on, or wants to check if they guessed it right. Click here to do so. (And if you’ve read ‘Randall’, why not review or rate it at Goodreads?)
  • Finally, if you’ve not heard about my current blogging side-project to read all 52 of Melville House’s ‘The Art of the Novella‘ novellas in a year, then you can find out about it here.

A fresh vision of hell, the old dead scanning the new

First, read this:

Euston. All the way down the train doors burst open while the inky ribbon of platform still slipped by. Nobody could wait for the train to stop; everybody was hurling themselves on London as though they, too, must act upon some inhuman resolution before it died down. She, now it came to the point, was to be the last to leave the carriage; she stopped to stare at herself, as thought for the last time, in the mirror panel over the seat. Picking up her suitcase, stepping out onto the platform, she looked from left to right, then began to walk along the flank of the train. The few blued lights of the station just showed the vaultings up into gloom; toppling trolleys cut through the people heaving, thrusting, tripping, peering. Recognition of anybody by anybody else seemed hopeless – those hoping to be met, hoping to be claimed, thrust hats back and turned up faces drowningly. Arrival of shades in Hades, the new dead scanned dubiously by the older, she thought she could have thought; but she felt nothing – till her heart missed a beat, her being filled like an empty lock: with a shock of love she saw Robert’s tall turning head.

It is from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, the first book of hers I’ve read, and one that I wrote about here. A struggle at times, I’ll admit, in its density – aptly exemplified by the paragraph above – but shot through with writing of such luxurious intelligence that it made scanning your average contemporary novel feel like drinking dishwater.

Let me pull the line out for you, that in particular struck me:

Arrival of shades in Hades, the new dead scanned dubiously by the older

Now, firstly, this may be an idea, or an image, that has appeared elsewhere before this. (I haven’t read Dante through even to the end of Hell, for example.) But certainly it is a pointedly modern twist on traditional conceptions of damnation.

Hell here is not the flame-grilling of old time religion, nor the more existential crisis of definitive knowledge of one’s banishment from God; no, here it is simply the boredom of transit, become torment through extension ad infinitum.

Bowen’s novel is set during the Second World War, when air travel was not yet common, but still it’s easy enough to transpose the scene from railway station to airport. Easy enough, but still there is some elucidation needed. The damned, here, are in Arrivals, whereas we all know that it’s the Departures Lounge that most equates to our contemporary idea of purgatory: an unliveable public/private space that is merely the physical manifestation of dead time; designed only to keep us from the Paradise of our holiday destination; comprehensively fitted out with worthless and useless distractions; and peopled with hordes of people just like us whom we hate by virtue of their showing, objectively and unanswerably, quite how bored and badly behaved we, too, are.

So we’ve got to somehow merge those two places, Destinations and Arrivals. The boredom of Departures, plus the disappointment of Arrivals. The moment of arriving in Hell is one in which the passage from the plane, via Customs and Immigration, and leading to that first glimpse of the Arrivals lounge, with people leaning on the angled metal barriers, some of them holding up cardboard signs or clipboards with names on… but the realisation that we are not about to be released and set loose into the free but dirty post-plane world of holiday or home, but that we will never leave, that our arrival is into another Departure Lounge, but one from which we will never depart for anywhere…

…and in which the only entertainment is watching the newcomers arrive – perhaps we make the trip especially to meet those we loved, back on earth – and to see their expressions drop from anticipation, through realisation, to despair.

Thank you, Elizabeth Bowen.