"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 24, 2015

The Best Films of the Year 1950

The 1950s

The 1950s are an interesting decade for a survey of world cinema. It was a "golden decade" for artistic, auteurist films and a period in which many national cinemas succeeded in making an international breakthrough. Moreover, in the larger national cinemas such as the U.S. and Japan, such individualistic directors could rely on the rich resources of the studio system.

A good example is Japan, which had its first international hit with Rashomon (much to the surprise of the Japanese themselves at that time), which was followed  by a long series of masterworks as Tokyo Story, Ugetsu Monogatari, etc., by directors as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Another such country is India, thanks to the masterful Apu Trilogy (1955-59) of Satyajit Ray (it were the years of "Parallel Cinema" from the State of Bengal that challenged the purely money-making ventures of the Hindi cinema of Bollywood).

In Scandinavia, Bergman made his first films, while also Sjöberg and Dreyer attracted attention. Italian film had already made a comeback in the 1940s with the Neo-realist works of De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini; in the fifties, the next generation of Antonioni and Fellini would start making their personal and imaginative films; and Visconti would start making his great nostalgic costume dramas.

France continued being a strong film country, with minimalist works of directors as Bresson and Melville, the surrealist fantasies of Cocteau, and the Hitchcock-like thrillers of Clouzot, while established directors like Ophuls and Renoir returned from exile in the U.S. and were again hitting their stride. And at the end of the fifties the fabulous period of the New Wave would start.

Conversely, Britain was rather in the doldrums after a string of artistic films in the 1940s - there was little innovation in the 1950s, although Powell and Pressburger continued making their color spectacles. And Germany was licking its wounds with fluffy Heimat-films - it would take until the 1970s before artistic cinema did take-off.

In Hollywood, the English-born director Hitchcock and Austrian-born Billy Wilder made their greatest films. Popular genres were noir films, musicals, the Western, science-fiction and the new genre of films about rebellious youth which came up in the middle of the decade. But Hollywood started feeling the competition from television earlier than in other countries (leading to the introduction of various scope formats). The investigation of Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War hysteria of the early 1950s and the rampant anticommunist witch hunt of McCarthyism led to the departure of many talents; at the same time, free expression was curtailed by self-censorship, leading to conformism and mediocrity.

Best film of 1950: 

Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa (Japan)
Four characters provide self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident, a man's murder and the rape of his wife, showing that the objective truth is unknowable. These different accounts are presented in a non-linear way, through an ingenious use of flashbacks and striking images. 
The unconventional Rashomon not only marked the entrance of Japanese film onto the world stage (winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951), it is also widely considered as one of the greatest films ever made. It revolutionized film language with its long silent takes of movement and its varied symbolism, and was a source of inspiration for many directors in the West. In Rashomon, style and content have been perfectly blended. It not only brought fame to its director Kurosawa, as one of the world's great authorial film makers, but also made a star of Toshiro Mifune, who plays the robber Tajomaru in the film with boisterous relish. "Rashomon," the name of the medieval city gate of Kyoto (in the film falling to pieces and thus a symbol of the chaotic times in which the story is set), even found its way into the English language, for the situation where witnesses give conflicting testimonies which cannot be reconciled with each other, is now called a "Rashomon-effect." But Rashomon is not just a film about a trial, it is before anything else a deeply philosophical film that reveals the darkness in the human heart, the selfishness and false pride with which many of us prefer to face the world. To put it in the symbolic terms of Rashomon, which is set in a labyrinthine forest, filmed in an almost hypnotic way, "the characters in the film go astray in the thicket of their hearts." Or as Kurosawa himself put it, "Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem."
Read my detailed review at Japan Navigator.

Other Top Five of the Year: 

La Ronde by Max Ophüls (France)
A Master of Ceremonies operating an old-fashioned merry-go-round, shows us ten vignettes about love in which each new character has an affair with the protagonist from the previous scene, so forming a round dance of sex.
This enchanting, poetic film is my personal favorite. It is a nostalgic film about the fickleness of the human heart and the transitoriness of love, shown in ten short vignettes playing in the Vienna of 1900 (based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler). The film is experimental in that it breaks the "fourth wall:" the stories are presented by a sort of master of ceremonies (Anton Walbrook), who addresses us, the audience, but also the actors, and who on top of that appears in various guises throughout the film. He also operates the merry-go-round of the title, a symbol of the round dance of love: every lover has two partners (showing two sides of each character) and the last lover in the film links with the first one, making the circle round. This dance is made concrete through the beautiful waltz music, composed by Oscar Strauss, a scion of the famous family, that returns after each episode. The acting in the film is perfect, smooth and natural (Danielle Darrieux, Simone Signoret, Gérard Philipe, etc.); the sets and dresses are opulent. La Ronde exposes human foibles with a wink, it shows compassion rather than satirizing, - but it is also a film with overtly sexual themes (though without nudity or profanity), which in the 1950s was forbidden in many cities in the U.S. In one scene Anton Walbrook cuts up a strip of film because it has been "censored," pointing both at Ophüls' own experiences in Hollywood, and at the fate - at least initially - of the present film. (When compared with the vulgar physical way in which sexual themes are treated today also in Hollywood, what strikes on the contrary is the poetic and high-minded way in which Ophüls addressed this matter, without hiding anything, but also without becoming coarse or tasteless).
Read my detailed review at Splendid Labyrinths.

All About Eve by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (United States)
An ambitious young woman (Anne Baxter, the "Eve" of the title), who hides her real intentions, insinuates herself cunningly into the company of an established but aging stage actress (Bette Davis as Margo Channing) and her circle of theater professionals.
This consciously literary film was showered with prizes, both at the Academy Awards and at Cannes. When I first saw it, years ago, I was surprised at the talkiness - more like a play than a film, although it is not based on a theater piece: the script was written expressly for the film by Mankiewicz himself. My appreciation for All About Eve has since steadily risen - and the somewhat unrealistic, theatrical dialogues (which are, on the other hand, brimming full of sparkling wit) can be explained from the fact that this is in fact a film about the theater, bringing not only an actress on stage, but also a playwright, a producer, a director and a theater critic - the theater is shown as theater. I now see those brilliant dialogues as one of the main attractions of the film, besides the wonderful acting of Bette Davis. All About Eve is often compared to Sunset Blvd. (see below) with which it has the theme of the "aging actress" in common, and among critics that last film now seems to score slightly higher, but I prefer the humaneness and realism of Mankiewicz to the sarcasm and Gothic fantasy of Wilder. While Norma, the actress in Wilder's film, is clearly a sad case of madness, Margo Channing in All About Eve gracefully accepts that she is getting too old at forty to continue playing young women in love, and realizes that she has to let go and move to other roles - and make place for a new generation. Note that there is a small role for a real beginning actress in this film: Marilyn Monroe. A witty and intelligent film, showing us the realities of life (generational change) in a humorous way.
Read my detailed review at Splendid Labyrinths.

Los Olvidados by Luis Buñuel (Mexico)
The morals of young Pedro are gradually corrupted by his membership of a group of juvenile delinquents, in the slums of Mexico City, led by "El Jaibo" - when this leader becomes a murderer, Pedro is also implicated
This film won Best Director at Cannes, putting Buñuel - who was slaving away making trite films in Mexico, after being chased out of Spain by the fascists and out of the U.S. by the anti-leftist climate - on the map again after his 1930 film L'Age d'or. After a popular success with one the fluffy films made out of economic necessity, Buñuel finally could get funding to make a film he wanted to make himself. It is a story about poor kids who have become juvenile delinquents in the slums of Mexico City. Although made with passion, this film is a tough, unsentimental and even cynical statement. Then and now it is a fact that poverty, combined with broken families and lack of education, leads to crime. Of course, people also have a choice, although many are so deep in the mud that they have no opportunity to realize that. But even if they do, like Pedro, and try to better their life against all odds, the environment can cynically block those chances. Pedro tries to extricate himself from the influence of escaped teen prisoner "El Jaibo," but that is impossible as he has seen the older boy murder a friend who gave him away to the police. "El Jaibo" blackmails Pedro to make sure he keeps his mouth shut. He also twice steals from Pedro's employers when  Pedro is trying to reform his life, shifting the blame on Pedro. Nobody is "good" in this film. At the start of the film, the boys beat up a blind musician and destroy his instruments, so the viewer feels sympathy for the man, but that same musician then forces a lost boy to work for him, and he shows what a pervert he is by groping a young girl. Pedro's mother - who hates her son and refuses him food - seems to have no husband, but she has a whole lot of small children and babies, and is inspired to make more after she meets "El Jaibo" - the fact that his nemesis becomes the lover of his mother makes his own home unsafe for Pedro. Although the film superficially resembles the at that time popular Italian Neorealist films, Buñuel has included his characteristic surrealist sequences, for example in the form of a dream (in which the boy killed by El Jaibo comes to haunt Pedro), as well as other weird elements, for example a girl bathing her legs in milk (a beauty recipe, ensuring that in the future she will go the same way as Pedro's mother), or a rooster staring down a blind man. And in typical Buñuel-like fetishist fashion "El Jaibo" is turned on when he sees Pedro's mother wash her feet. Unnecessary to say that it all ends in disaster: Pedro is murdered by "El Jaibo" and his body ends up rather symbolically on a garbage dump; but also "El Jaibo" will not survive his crime for long. Los Olvidados was a major influence on Truffaut's The 400 Blows and many other films, and although less known than his later work, is one of the masterworks of Luis Buñuel.

Orphée by Jean Cocteau (France)
Orphée is a poet who becomes obsessed with Death in the form of a femme fatale. Although they become dangerously entangled, Death finally sends Orphée back out of the Underworld, to carry on his life with Eurydice.
This is the fifth and best film of poet, playwright and film maker Jean Cocteau, made when he was sixty. The movie transposes the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (the poet and musician Orpheus went to the Underworld to retrieve his deceased wife Eurydice and softened the hearts of the gods with his music so that they let Orpheus have his wife back on condition that he never look at her on their way to the upper world, but in his anxiety he disobeyed this command and she vanished forever) to contemporary Paris. Jean Marais plays Opheus as an established poet who is starting to feel the push of the younger generation, like Cocteau did. By chance he meets the Princess of Death, played by Maria Casares (known from Les dames du Bois de Boulogne) as a sort of femme fatale.  She is driven in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce (the chauffeur, Heurtebise, played by François Périer, also is an important character in the film) with motorcycle outriders in fetishistic costumes. Or perhaps these motor riders are meant to evoke Nazis, as the war was just over - the tribunal of Hades, later in the film, reminds one of an improvised war court judging collaborators. Orphée falls in love with the Princess of Death and at the same time hopes to revitalize his poetry with the help of the cryptic messages (like lines from poems) he hears on the radio of her Rolls. This means he neglects his beautiful wife, Eurydice, played by the Marie Déa. The effects in this film are sublime in their simplicity. To enter the Underworld, the characters pass through a mirror; the Underworld is a deserted building with long, dilapidated corridors; when somebody returns to life, the film is simply wound back. One shudders to think what CGI-obsessed Hollywood today would have made of that. In short, this is a film probing the mystery of artistic inspiration, with a powerfully realized dream atmosphere. Not everything that happens is rationally explicable, but it is fun just to let the images seduce you.

Sunset Blvd. by Billy Wilder (United States)
Norma, a now forgotten silent-screen goddess believing in her own indestructibility has turned into a demented recluse, living with her butler (and former director and former husband) Max in a crumbling Sunset Boulevard mansion. Dreaming of a comeback to the pictures, she hires Joe Gillis, a small-time screenwriter, who, seduced by her money, becomes her lover and kept man. 
It is wonderful how Billy Wilder pulls off the feat to have a dead man tell his own story (voice-over at the beginning) and still keep the illusion of a perfectly realistic film intact. As viewer you already know how the film ends, so you focus on the why: how did Joe Gillis end up bullet-riddled in the swimming pool of silent-screen goddess and faded diva Norma? The answer is, of course, greed, and in that sense the film can be seen as a critique of money-paradise Hollywood. Joe Gillis ends up living as a kept man with Norma, not because he loves her or even feels compassion for her (she lives in the delusion that she still is a popular star), but because she is rich and spends freely for him, buying him rich suits, good food and enabling him to spend his time leisurely at her pool side. That is what he confesses to Betty, an aspiring screen writer who is in love with him - he cannot give up his wealthy life and start a new existence with her as two poor, hardworking screenwriters. Joe throws away love for money. Ironically, only moments after he sells his soul in this way, he is fatally shot by the jealous Norma. In the person of Norma the film transcends criticism of Hollywood or greed. Norma is the sad personification of someone who has lost high status or position and since spends all the time regretfully longing for the good old days, in the illusion that one is still "important" or "popular." Such a mistake is of course not limited to the theater, but occurs in all walks of life. A drop of Buddhist non-attachment would do wonders here... position and status are only external things, unconnected to our essential self. Norma in Sunset Blvd. is not laughable, but a sad and pitiable case. In the end, her illusions take wholly possession of her: when after murdering Joe, she descends the big staircase in her house in front of the cameras and flashlights of the newsmen, she imagines she starring in a film again...

Roundup for 1950: 
  • In Japan, Yasujiro Ozu made The Munekata Sisters, about the conflict between a traditional older sister and a modern younger sister, who are both in love with the same man. It is perhaps a minor film in his total oeuvre, but still valuable as it is, after all, by Ozu. Also Kurosawa made one more film, Scandal, a critique of sensationalist journalism (like Billy Wilder in Ace in the Hole one year later) with a tense courtroom scene. 
  • Jean Cocteau not only made the poetical Orphee, but was also involved in the filming of his 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles by Jean-Pierre Melville, the claustrophobic and incestuous story of a brother and sister who refuse to grow up. Great acting by Nicole Stéphane as the sister, Elizabeth - she in fact carries the whole film.
  • In Italy, two new directors made interesting debuts: Michelangelo Antonioni made Chronicle of a Love Affair, a minimalistically filmed existentialist drama, filled with empty compositions, unpredictable camera movements, and self-obsessed characters; and Federico Fellini made Variety Lights (in cooperation with experienced director Alberto Lattuarda), like All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. a film set in the entertainment world, although what we have here is the low world of third-rate vaudeville. And neorealist director Roberto Rossellini started his five-film collaboration with Ingrid Bergman with Stromboli, about a woman from a Baltic country who, married to an Italian to escape prisoner camp, cannot get used to life on the barren volcanic island with its ultra-conservative community. It also meant a rather fruitful cooperation in the personal field between director and star, which scandalized Hollywood (and even the U.S. Senate) because they were both already married.
  • In the U.S., several good noir films were made. I mention here All in a Lonely Place by Nicholas Ray, where Humphrey Bogart plays a screen writer who suffers from attacks of violent behavior (yes, again a film set in Hollywood); he becomes a murder suspect, but his lovely neighbor provides an alibi. Even more impact has Night and the City by Jules Dassin, about the downfall and hounding to death of a small-time hustler in nightly London. Interesting is that Dassin was chased out of the U.S. by anticommunist hysteria around the time he worked on this film and seems to have put his own anxieties in this frenetic picture.

[Films are listed under the year of their first release, based on information from IMDB. That I have excluded genre films is not out of snobbishness, but because here I want to concentrate on artistic, "auteur" films. Elsewhere I have written extensively on genre film: noir film, neo-noir film, pre-code film, screwball comedies, musical film, S.F. film, classic cult film, cult film, Japanese cult film, samurai movies, yakuza movies, and Japanese horror movies. Also see my post on Silent Film.]

[Film posters from Wikipedia]

March 9, 2015

"All About Eve" (1950) by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Film review)

All About Eve is an award-studded film, with an excellent script and superb performances, especially by Bette Davis and George Sanders, but it is also a wordy film with lots of snob-appeal where everyone talks in perfect lines. It is a film that celebrates the theater, but that ends up looking like a theatrical play itself, although it was based on an original script by its director, Mankiewicz (1909-1993), and is not the film version of a pre-existing play. Mankiewicz seems not to have been very interested in camera movement, composition or cutting - but he wrote such sparkling, memorable lines that you would like to frame them and hang them on the wall, and when these lines are spoken by a set of fine actors as here, the result is a great film, period. And the story, about the battle between the generations, that is always lost by the older one, possesses universal relevance.

It goes as follows. Out of admiration for actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) a young woman (the "Eve" of the title, played by Anne Baxter)  every night watches the same play. Afterwards she hangs around in front of the theater. One night, she is accosted by Karen (Celeste Holm), the wife of the writer of the play in question and friend of Margo Channing, and taken to the star's dressing room. The admiring and self-effacing fan tells a sad life story. Nobody (except Birdie, played by Thelma Ritter, Margo's dour assistant) notices she is only acting the breathless fan, her eyes brimming with phony sincerity and fake humility. She is warmly welcomed into the circle of Margo Channing, which consists of her boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill), playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen, and sarcastic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). She starts living with Margo and helps her as a secretary. But it soon becomes clear that this seemingly so innocent young woman is a sharp character: she copies everything Margo Channing does, eats or wears, and then slowly but surely insinuates her way into the theater as her understudy, and finally her rival...

She is helped on the way to success by Addison DeWitt, an extreme cynic who likes to play puppet-master behind the scenes, and whose authoritative newspaper reviews help Eve to fame when as understudy she has to step in for the absent Margo (kept away on purpose by Karen and Lloyd, to help the seemingly so helpless Eve). But when Eve wants to go further and further, even trying to steal Karen's playwright husband (after an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to steal Margo's fiancé, Bill), Addison steps in and makes it very clear to Eve that she is his creature.

From her side, being forty, Margo understands she is too old to continue playing starry-eyed young women who are half her age, and gracefully relinquishes such roles to Eve. The film ends with a joke: when Eve, now famous - we have seen her receive an important theater award -, returns to her hotel she finds a sweet girl in her room who admires her acting and would love to be her assistant... History repeats itself over and over again.

In real life, Bette Davis didn't need to worry about being replaced by Anne Baxter. Her Margo Manning is a real character, despite her sizable ego and sharp tongue (she can be deliciously bitchy) in love with her work. She is a professional, the real thing. Even her excesses are realistic, but she also has her softer moments when she can be quite touching. Anne Baxter only succeeds in playing a type, that of the outwardly docile, inwardly scheming ingenue. When her role changes to that of established actress, she is less convincing.

While all actors are fine, there is one more outstanding performance besides that of Bette Davis: George Sanders as the powerful critic Addison DeWitt, who is full of manipulative charm and sardonic humor. Together with Margo Channing's character, he has the best and sharpest lines. He also fulfills another useful function: at a party that Margo gives, he brings along a real beginning actress, whom he introduces humorously as "a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art:" Marilyn Monroe in one of her first small roles. Even for the brief periods she is on screen, her shining figure already attracts all eyes.

[This is a wholly new version of a previous post, as my appreciation and understanding of this film have deepened]

January 1, 2015

"Morpho Eugenia" by A.S. Byatt (from Angels and Insects)

Morpho Eugenia, written in 1992 by A.S. Byatt, and named after a beautiful Neotropical butterfly from French Guiana, tells the story of a Victorian naturalist, William Adamson, who in the early 1860s has returned from the Amazon to his native England where he is cast upon the mercy of a wealthy sponsor, Sir Harald Alabaster. He has lost all his possessions and most of his insect specimens in a shipwreck, but Sir Harald kindly hires him to classify his chaotic natural history collection and gives him refuge at Bredely Hall. William also falls with the speed of a man who has spent ten long years in the jungle in love with the eldest of the three Alabaster daughters, Eugenia. He is of a different (=lower) class than the aristocratic Alabasters, who form a tightly knit family, but – also to his own surprise – he is welcomed into their fold and into the arms of the coldly beautiful, very blond and very white-skinned (indeed “alabaster”) Eugenia. This despite the vehement opposition of one of her half-brothers, the brutish Edward.

The day he wins Eugenia, William fulfills a promise: he sets a cloud of colorful butterflies free so that they swarm around his beloved in the conservatory, which is a wonderful sight, beautifully described by Byatt and very apt in the story for when he – as lepidopterologist – first saw her, she danced with her sisters like a trio of butterflies.

Thus William becomes an awkwardly grafted adjunct of the wealthy family. Of course, things are not what they seem and just as in original Victorian fiction a hasty marriage is never a good idea, as there usual are some skeletons rattling in the closet. Although playing a witty game with Victorian forms and ideas, this novella is decidedly very different from the 19th century “happy ever after” tradition – as is real life.

An at first sight not so disagreeable surprise is that the cold-looking Eugenia proves to be a fountain of passion in bed, but the less pleasant result for William who is not a fan of a large family is that she bears children like a veritable Ant Queen, producing one twin after another, making it impossible for him to leave on a new Amazon expedition. And being bombarded with five babies in three years also means the married couple has little time to get to know each other better: William feels that he is used like a breeder ant, a disposable drone, fertilizing the Queen and nothing more. Strangely enough, their kids, too, all look like Alabaster clones, none has the face of William.

The only person at Bredely Hall with whom William gradually develops a real friendship and has meaningful discussions, is another hanger-on, the assistant governess Matty Crompton, a mysterious dark fairy. William begins a study about ants with her and they even write a book together, a treatise on the social system of the local ant colonies. It is also from her that William finally learns the shocking incestuous secret of the Alabaster family – and realizes his own sore lack of insight and perception.

This novella is an ingenious postmodern work, with a generous admixture of mock Victorian texts, as well as philosophy and science – philosophy in the discussions where Sir Harald uses William as a sounding board to test out his creationist arguments on the Darwinian William (very much to the disgust of the latter), and science in the generous ant and butterfly lore sprinkled throughout the text, which is both interesting and true for its time; in both cases, writings by Sir Harald and by William are quoted extensively, as is the habit of Byatt. In the final analysis, the book is also a sustained analogy between the two communities of humans and insects; and on a micro level, William has become like certain captive ants, who imitate their captors in their behavior and may even imagine they are free, while in reality being nothing but slaves. It is a great accomplishment of Byatt that people are made to resemble insects and behave like them, and still sound perfectly human.

A. S. Byatt (real name Antonia Susan Drabble; she is the sister of the novelist Margaret Drabble) was born in 1936 and educated at Cambridge and Oxford, before teaching at various London universities until she left academia to become a full-time writer. She has written more than 10 novels and 5 short story collections. In 1990 she won the Man Booker Prize for her novel Possession: A Romance. It parallels the emerging relationship between two contemporary academics with the lives of two (fictional) nineteenth century poets whom they are researching. Byatt was a friend and admirer of Iris Murdoch and was influenced by Henry James and George Eliot. She often plays with Victorian modes of fiction in her own work, extensively “quoting” 19th century poetry and prose that she has composed in style (although ultimately her novels are squarely postmodern). She is also strongly interested in Darwinism, zoology, entomology and geology.

Available edition: Vintage International, coupled with a second novella, The Conjugial Angel, and published under the joint title Angels and Insects, Two Novellas.

December 24, 2014

"A Heart So White" by Javier Marías (Book review)

One of the greatest contemporary Spanish novels is A Heart So White by Javier Marías, a celebrated literary bestseller about honesty and memory and the weight of personal history, and at the same time a very funny and sexy book.

But first the title, "A Heart So White," which is a quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth:
"My hands are of your colour; but I shame / To wear a heart so white." 
These words are spoken by Lady Macbeth to her husband, who on her instigation has just murdered Duncan, the King of Scotland, by stabbing him in his bed. She helps Macbeth - who is bemoaning his crime - by putting the dagger next to the guards of the king, so that they will be blamed for the murder. She is just as guilty as her husband, she says, she also has blood on her hands, but at least she is not a coward like he "with his white heart" - she is continually questioning his courage and manhood to drive him on in his (or rather, her) criminal ambitions.

Such a title promises a book full of drama and that is what we get, at least for starters. The book opens with a dramatic suicide, where the narrator's aunt (to whom his father was married before marrying his mother, her sister) shoots herself in the chest, just after returning from her honeymoon. This has happened forty years before the present, and is a mystery the narrator's father never is willing to talk about. The next chapter jumps to the honeymoon of the narrator, Juan, a translator/interpreter working for the United Nations, who overhears a conversation in the neighboring hotel room where a woman is pushing her lover to murder his wife. This setup almost seems like a thriller, but don't worry, it is a serious book that mixes apprehension with reflection. We could say that elements of the thriller serve as a catalyst for existential observations. Against that background it is gradually revealed how the narrator learns the secret behind his father's three marriages - his father is an art expert who has become rich by defrauding his clients, and also something of a womanizer. In fact, as Juan will learn, discovering the truth does not solve anything, it only serves to make life more complicated.

Marías writes in the tradition of James and Proust, of Borges and Nabokov. His long, meandering sentences even reminded me of that other great Iberian author, Saramago, who also may start with the description of an event, to continue in the same sentence with a discursive observation. Marías has also been highly praised by W.G. Sebald, and indeed, he exhibits a Sebaldian obsession with history and memory (and even uses black-and-white photos in some of his books - though not in this one -, which was Sebald's trademark). His basic theme is the transience of human life, how everything belongs to the past as soon as it has happened - which means that everything is constantly in the process of being lost. A second theme is the ambiguity of language - not for nothing is his protagonist a translator / interpreter, someone who is well aware of the pitfalls of language.

But different from Sebald, Marías' books are also very sexy and full of humor. A good example is the scene in A Heart So White where Juan for the first time meets Luisa, the woman who later will become his wife. Juan is acting as interpreter at a private discussion between the premiers of Spain and Great Britain (the British PM is clearly Margaret Thatcher). As is usual at such high level meetings, a second interpreter is present to check on the first - for mistakes can have far-reaching consequences. This is Luisa and she is sitting diagonally behind Juan, watching the back of his neck, so he only sees her long crossed legs and Prada shoes out of the corner of his eye. Translating for these two heads of state, Juan intentionally misinterprets what they say (in fact, they don't have much to say, this is a very ironical act), just to see what happens. He watches Luisa's legs to get a cue as to how she will react: startled, she uncrosses them, but does not intervene. And as he goes on changing more and more parts of the conversation, leaving out certain remarks and adding others of his own fabrication, he notices that Luisa's "gleaming legs" don't move anymore, they remain crossed and only sway a little, a sure sign she isn't going to ruin Juan's career by speaking up - and for him also the sign "that she would allow him anything for the rest of his life." This is one the most beautiful and funny seduction scenes from all literature.

The book contains several scenes that echo other events in the narrative. The above mentioned, overheard conversation in the hotel foreshadows what Juan will discover about his father, although his father acted on his own initiative and his second wife, Juan's aunt, far from spurring him on like Lady Macbeth, was so shocked by his crime that she killed herself. And Juan learns this through another overheard conversation, between his father and Luisa, where Luisa persuades her father-in-law (who has a weakness for her) to tell her the truth about his first two wives.

Another example of such parallelism is "the person standing below in the street, looking up at the balcony." This is how Juan first sees the woman who comes for a tryst with the man occupying the next-door hotel room during his honeymoon (this happens in Havana, while Luisa is ill in bed with a slight form of food poisoning): the woman, a fierce, local type, stands in the street and he notices her "strong legs that seemed to dig into the pavement with their thin, high, stiletto heels." She then shouts at Juan sitting on the balcony and waves angrily with a swift flourish of her fingers, mistaking him for the man with whom she has a date - something which is only resolved when the man next door also appears on his balcony. Later, in Madrid, Juan notices a somewhat sinister friend of his father, who seems strangely interested in his marital relation with Luisa, standing motionless in the street, watching his balcony. And when Juan is on a business trip to New York, he stays with an old flame, a woman who is searching for romance by placing contact advertisements and sending out kinky videos of herself. She has had a traffic accident and now one of her legs is shorter than the other. She has hooked a man (also a somewhat sinister type, so here, too, is the suggestion that she could end up being murdered) and Juan has to leave the apartment and stand in the street during her lovemaking, so this time he becomes the one looking up at the balcony, waiting for a sign that the coast is free.

On another note, even certain reflections of the narrator are repeated, to demonstrate that our thought processes are often repetitious. An interesting thought of Juan that is repeated in the novel is:
"What takes place is identical to what doesn't take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told."
In short, Marías mixes philosophy and kinkiness, suspense and contemplation, wading through the swamp of ambiguous language, to tell a tale where people never seem to learn anything about their true selves. But A Heart So White is also a highly engrossing novel full of human passion that is difficult to put down.

[Javier Marías - photo from Wikipedia]

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951. His father was the philosopher Julián Marías who was banned from teaching as he opposed the France regime. As his father therefore moved for a time to the U.S., Marías was partly educated at Yale and Wellesley College. He became a translator of English literature into Spanish, and is known for his renditions of Shakespeare, James, Nabokov, Updike, Faulkner and Sterne, to name a few. In the mid-1980s, he lectured for a few years in Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford. Critical acclaim for his own novels came with The Man of Feeling (1986) and All Souls (1988), which was set at Oxford University, while his breakthrough to commercial success came with A Heart So White in 1992. Fourteen of his sixteen books have been translated into English, the last one The Infatuations from 2011. The protagonists of Marías' novels are often interpreters or translators, like Marías himself, "people who are renouncing their own voices."

Here is the answer Marías gave when during an interview he was asked what was the purpose of writing:
"I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness, it is not in order to see anything better lighted but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to “answer” things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore – often blindly – the huge areas of darkness and show them better."
Javier Marías, A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco). Translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Penguin Books). With this book, Marías and Costa became joint winners of the 1997 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 

December 10, 2014

"The Radetzky March" by Joseph Roth (Book review)

Who doesn't know the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss Sr., played annually as the last piece at the New Year's Concert from Vienna? This famous piece of music is dedicated to a war-horse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bohemian-born Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, who during a 70-year long career first fought against Napoleon and finally ended up trying to suppress the First Italian War of Independence. He was a ruthless disciplinarian, but also idolized by his soldiers as "Vater Radetzky." Joseph Roth used "Radetzkymarsch" as the title for his greatest novel, written in 1932, because the march symbolizes the greatness of the perished Empire, while the protagonists actually also hear it played at important moments.

[Joseph Radetzky von Radetz,
the type of Austro-Hungarian "war horse"
that also figures in the novel - photo Wikipedia]

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trotta family, concentrating on the youngest and last member, Carl Joseph, and this is paralleled by the glory and subsequent disintegration of the empire in which they live and serve - in other words, the passing of the Old Europe into the modern world. The Trottas are professional Austro-Hungarian soldiers and career bureaucrats of Slovenian origin. Joseph Trotta, the patriarch, happened to famously save the life of the blundering Emperor, Franz Joseph I, by toppling him from his horse during the Battle of Solferino (1859), and was ennobled for his service, although his parents had been Slovenian farmers. After his promotion and ennoblement, Baron Joseph von Trotta degrades into rural obscurity, except for one anecdote where he demonstrates that he has always remained a naive peasant: he remonstrates (even to the level of the Emperor) against a textbook for use at schools where his deed is made more heroic than it was by changing some facts. As a result, the war hero stubbornly opposes his son Franz' aspirations to a military career, having him become a government official (district administrator in a Moravian town) instead - the second most respected career in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Like the first Baron, also the second Baron Trotta is a square and conservative man, a pillar of the nation, but also a rather nondescript government functionary. The grandson, Carl Joseph, has a character that is very different from his forefathers, but at the urging of his father joins the army - with consistently disastrous results. It is his fate to die in WWI, just before the destruction of the empire.

The life of Carl Joseph is not a happy one. He stands for the frivolous generation that lost the empire, addicted to the pleasures of the flesh, to drink and gambling. He has a relation with the wife of the police commander in the town where he has grown up and is shattered when she dies in child birth, especially when the husband openly returns a stack of his love letters. At his next post, he has an affair with the wife of his best friend, the Jewish military doctor; as a result, the doctor dies fighting a senseless duel. It seems as if everything Carl Joseph does falls apart under his hands. He sinks into despondency, becoming old before his time, and seeks forgetfulness in drinking and gambling. For the third time, he takes a married lover, and piles up gambling debts, living in an alcoholic daze in a remote military outpost near the border with Russia (the local drink is a sort of extremely strong vodka called "Ninety Degrees"). Just as he is about to permanently damage the family's honor and good name, the Emperor's son Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo and the Great War breaks out, to devour Carl Joseph's life and those of unnumbered others.

The Austrio-Hungarian Empire was a very authoritarian and hierarchical society. It was a world with a clear order, with clear rules and regulations. People knew who they were and what their place in the greater scheme of things was. This is especially clear in the early chapters where we see that Carl Joseph has been disciplined so by his father, the district administrator, that to any question his father poses he answers obediently "Yes, Pappa." The relation between father and son is so formal that the son doesn't talk when he is not invited to do so. When his father picks up some official documents, the son may read the paper, but he is careful to put this immediately away when his father looks up from his reading. Life has been regulated strictly, everything, such as meals, takes place at fixed times. Somehow, this strict and disciplined society reminded me of the Japan of the Meiji-period (1868-1912). And we also know this world from the descriptions in Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday (see my post about this book). It is of course not a very warm society and you can see the gulf that gapes between father and son - especially since for the son the old order ceases to have any meaning. For his father, being the district administrator and a pillar of the empire is his identity - he defines his life in terms of the social order and not in terms of his own being. But the times have changed and Carl Joseph is unable to do that. He is an individualist who simply floats through life, and unfortunately he has chosen the wrong occupation for the army doesn't suit him at all and the boredom even brings out the worst in him. His greatest problem is his lack of reflection, as a more thoughtful life might have brought him to new values.

[Emperor Franz Joseph I - from Wikipedia]

A fourth important character in the novel is the Emperor, Franz Joseph I, who is everywhere present in the form of his official portraits and who with his own unchangeability (he is over eighty years old) symbolizes the state of the realm. But he also meets all three Trottas in person and the fate of the barons seems inextricably linked to that of the Empire, tottering towards its destruction as the Emperor totters towards his grave.

Roth uses historical persons and events in a most imaginative way, that is, they only appear when they are important for the story and not the other way round. He relates the story in a supple style, somewhat understated and matter-of-fact, keeping a fast pace, and his voice is always full of compassion - he treats the death of a small thing like a canary with as much feeling as he does the death-throes of the great Empire.

This superb novel remained long in obscurity. In the Germanic countries, the 1930s were a time that another terrible war was brewing and people didn't have time to read about a previous one. The Nazis next forbade Roth's work because he was of Jewish ancestry. It is only in the last decades that Joseph Roth has been fully rehabilitated - Radetzkymarsch, for example, was in 2003 included in the canon of the most important German-language literary novels by the influential German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. The first English translation appeared in 1995 and as a result, the novel was widely acclaimed. The last twenty years have seen a great flow of Roth translations, especially by Michael Hofmann, who also made a second translation of Radetzkymarsch. For more about Joseph Roth, see my post about his last novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker.  

The German original, Radetzkymarsch, is available from DTV (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag). It is also freely available as ebook from various internet sites, as the German Gutenberg site or the Internet Archive. 
The first English translation was made in 1995 by Joachim Neugroschel and is available from The Overlook Press as well as from Everyman's Library. A second translation was made in 2003 by Michael Hofmann (who has translated many works by Roth and is a great Roth advocate) and is available from Granta Books. I have read the novel in German, but a quick comparison of both translations with the original, shows that the translation by Hofmann is closest to Roth's style.

December 6, 2014

Three Great Nostalgic Novels from Hungary

Hungarian novels can be beautifully melancholic and romantic, but strangely enough, they are very little known outside their country of origin. Here are three great novels and story collections from the first half of the 20th century:

1. The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy. Translated by George Szirtes (New York Review Books).
Twenty-four fantastic and nostalgic tales, originally published between 1911 and 1917, about a sort of Hungarian Casanova called (why not?) "Sindbad." Sindbad haunts both Hungary's capital and the obscure corners of its provinces, looking for love - or rather, revisiting past lovers. For in most of the stories Sindbad is already dead, he is like that other, more famous count from Transsylania (a region that used to be part of the Hungarian lands in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) "undead" - but although this lovesick suicide keeps coming back to revisit past loves, there is nothing horrible about him, on the contrary, these stories are all filled with romantic nostalgia. Each story is the evocation of a past love affair, from which not only Sindbad is unable to free himself, also the women he has loved still need him to gratify their fantasies. But it is love with the grave hanging over it, passion that is unavoidable but futile, and the memories are sweet but also painful. These stories are like La Valse by Ravel, a dirge for a lost world, for the year Krúdy finished writing about Sindbad, the empire collapsed. Krúdy's prose is enchanting and evocative (thanks to the excellent translation by the poet George Szirtes), a repetition of sighing sentences building up the dream of Sindbad's life - and ours. For Krúdy, love never dies, but it keeps coming back all the time to haunt us.

[Gyula Krúdy - photo from Wikipedia]

The Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) worked as a newspaper editor and writer of short stories, much against the wishes of his father, who disinherited him. Krúdy had to support his wife and children with his writings, and therefore the success of Sindbad, of which the first stories were published in 1911, was very welcome. Krúdy also wrote novels about Budapest and the Hungarian revolution. His popularity started to fade in the 1920s and 1930s, when his health also failed due to his excessive lifestyle. He was in fact forgotten until the writer Sándor Márai published a novel about Krúdy's last day - this succesful book also again generated interest in Krúdy's own writings and today he is considered as one of the most original Hungarian writers of the 20th century.

2. Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Translated by Len Rix (New York Review Books).
This beloved classical novel, written in 1937, follows Mihály, and his new bride, Erzsi, on their honeymoon in Italy. Mihály possesses a romantic and poetic nature and has lived a wild youth with his four friends János Szepetneki (a sort of conman), Ervin (who wanted to devote his life to religion), Tamás (a friend who suffered from life and has committed suicide) and Éva Ulpius (the type of the femme fatale, who was involved with the suicide). To please his conservative father, Mihály has now resigned himself to a bourgeois existence: he has taken a position in the family company and married Erzsi, a practical woman (although with one complicating factor; Erzsi is using Mihály as a tool for her own liberation, she wanted to get out of her first marriage that was suffocating to her). But Mihály is unable to shake off the nostalgia for his bohemian youth, and his romantic feelings are aroused by the towns and countryside of Italy, a country he visits for the first time. Unfortunately, Italy also calls up the death-haunted and erotic elements of Mihály's past. Not surprisingly, Mihály manages to "loose" his bride by missing the train at a small provincial station and then starts a hallucinatory and bizarre journey through Italy that will eventually make him rejoin the three surviving friends from his youth - and also face something hidden deeply in his psyche, an erotic death-wish connected with the friend with whom he is secretly in love, Éva Ulpius. At the same time, the novel also follows his wife Erszi on her own journey to Paris. Finally, both Mihály and Erszi will have to make the choice what to do with their lives. A beautiful, poetic novel about vacillation between the expectations of society and their incompatibility with our youthful ideals.

Antal Szerb (1901-1945) had a Jewish background, although he was baptized as a Catholic. He was a great scholar, who studied Hungarian, German and English and established a formidable reputation with his studies on Blake and Ibsen. He also lived for five years in France and Italy, and one year in England. In 1933 he was elected as president of the Hungarian Literary Academy and later became professor of literature at the university of Szeged. In 1941, he published his magnum opus, a huge history of world literature, which remains authoritative even today. He also wrote about the history of Hungarian literature and the theory of the novel. His own first novel was published in 1934, The Pendragon Legend, followed in 1937 by his best-known work, Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág). Despite antisemitic persecution, Szerb choose to remain in Hungary, although his third novel, Oliver VII, had to passed off as a translation from the English. In 1944, Szerb was incarcerated in a concentration camp, where in early 1945 he was beaten to death, at age 43.

3. Embers by Sándor Márai. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway from the German translation (Vintage International)
This novel written in 1942 is another La Valse, an expression of profound nostalgia for the destroyed multi-ethnic and multicultural society of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. There is a clear link with the work of Joseph Roth such Radetzky March. The Hungarian title (A gyertyák csonkig égnek) means "The Candles Burn Down to the Stump" and that is what literally happens in the novel, during the night-long conversation between an seventy-five year-old general (Henrik) and the man who used to be his closest friend (Konrad), whom he now meets after the passage of forty-one years. The mournful glamour of the lost empire is called up in the secluded woodland castle of the general, where time seems to have stopped. The novel is a duel in words and silences between host and guest, where the general gives a long monologue, a sort of rant, accusing the guest, who mostly answers by acknowledging silences. The back story is only gradually revealed. Henrik and Konrad were close friends from their school days on, despite their difference in status and wealth. They were inseparable as brothers and it was Konrad who introduced Krisztina, who became Henrik's wife. The three often meet together and the reader will already guess what happened - something the general also realizes when at a hunting party he sees Konrad point his gun at him (without being able to pull the trigger), before leaving without saying goodbye for a far-away, foreign destination. Searching for Konrad, the general visits his apartment where to his shock he meets his wife Krisztina, who only speaks one word, referring to Konrad: "Coward." After that, the life of the general falls to pieces. He never speaks another word to his wife until she dies eight years later, living apart in the hunting lodge. Now, so many years later, Konrad who has made his fortune in the colonies, has briefly returned to Hungary and takes the opportunity to meet his old friend. The general wants Konrad to confess not only his own guilt, but also that of Krisztina, whom he suspects of having enticed Konrad to kill him. But Konrad meets his long accusations with silence, because, after all, Henrik already knows perfectly well what happened on that day, forty-one years ago, when something was lost forever. During their conversation, the candles have burned down, just as the candles of their lives have almost burned down to the stump, and just as only embers are left of the glory of the empire they once served. An exquisite structured novel about the disillusion that life inevitably brings, told with melancholy grandeur.

[Sándor Márai - photo from Wikipedia]

Sándor Márai (1900-1989) was born to an old Hungarian family in a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that is now Slovakia. He travelled in his youth and lived in Frankfurt, Berlin and Paris, and even considered writing in German. But in 1928 he settled in Budapest and chose his mother language. He was active as a journalist, critic and author, and became known for his clear realist style. Márai wrote more than 40 novels and was one of the most influential representatives of Hungarian literature during the interbellum. Although Márai was highly critical of the Nazis and known as antifascist, he remained in Hungary during the war, but was driven away by the Communist regime that seized power after WWII. He left Hungary in 1948 and after a brief stint in Italy, settled in San Diego in California. Cut off from his own culture, he sank in depression and finally died by his own hand in 1989. He was only discovered as a great European author in the 1990s, when the first translations of his work appeared in French, and then in many other languages as well.

P.S. In Hungarian, family name comes before personal name, just as in Japanese or Chinese. However, in this post, I have followed the English custom.

November 30, 2014

"Rue des Boutiques Obscures" ("Missing Person," 1978) by Patrick Modiano

The Nobel Committee in Sweden doesn't always get it right - and they have their own agenda which is narrower than the total range of literature - but their choices are usually well worth checking out. It were Nobel Prizes that initially attracted my attention to José Saramago and J. M. Coetzee, who are now among my favorite authors. And this year's choice, Patrick Modiano, is a highly interesting author as well. Here I discuss one of his best novels, Prix de Goncourt winner Rue des Boutiques Obscures from 1978.

The novel tells the story of a man suffering from amnesia who searches for his identity, a tale of memory and repression. Guy Roland has lost his memory ten years ago; since then, he has worked in a detective agency. Now, in the mid-1960s, on the retirement of his boss and closure of the office, he finds the time has come to use his sleuthing technique to recover what he can of his tenuous past.

The pieces do not fit easily together. Guy Roland goes around talking to various persons, but is himself  a so-called "empty narrator," a first-person narrator devoid of self or identity, who only listens to others but never talks about himself. He tries to reconstruct his old self using unreliable, fragmentary evidence he receives from those he interrogates, such as old photographs, letters, a magazine, a book. These bring back flashes of memory, but it is not certain whether these recollections are authentic, or just dreams, the result of his imagination. Perhaps he is just creating his past with the memories and the past of others.

First Guy thinks he might have lived in a milieu of Russian émigrés; then he imagines he lived once in Hollywood, serving as the companion of the actor John Gilbert. Next it seems he worked as a diplomat for a Latin-American embassy under the assumed name Pedro McEvoy - a false identity to evade arrest - but in reality he may have been a Greek Jew, a broker who lived in Rome and Paris, called Jimmy Stern, who consorted with the idle rich, including exiled Russian aristocrats. Jimmy Stern was married to a French model called Denise, and was friends with Freddie Howard de Luz of Mauritius (a youth friend whom he met at an exclusive private school) and his wife Gay Orlov, an American dancer of Russian origin. To avoid the Nazi occupation (dangerous if Guy/Jimmy was indeed a Jew) the four friends, together with an English jockey, seem to have moved to the winter sports village of Megève in the French Alps. From there, Guy and Denise tried to flee to Switzerland but they were cheated by their guides and became separated. Guy was abandoned in the snow and Denise disappeared forever. This was in 1943.

Here the memories break off again, and it seemingly follows that Guy lost his memory in 1943. But elsewhere it is stated unambiguously that this happened in 1955 - so what has occurred in the twelve years between those dates? Was this twelve year gap a case of conscious forgetting, just like the French after the war tried to forget their history of cooperation with the Nazis and the Holocaust? This is one of the many questions that is never answered in the book.

The novel has a playful relation to the conventions of detective fiction, by raising the reader's expectations according to the rules of the genre, but always failing to fulfill them. Guy Roland's quest is a never-ending search for identity in a world where "the sand holds the traces of our footsteps but a few moments."

By the way, in English this book has been renamed "Missing Person," which is not only wrong (it is not what the book is about), but which also destroys the rich references of the original title "Street of Dark Shops." This is the name of an actual street in Rome (which also appears in Modiano's previous novel, Livret de famille), and it also points at small clothes shops owned by Jews and therefore hints at the (implied) Jewish identity of the protagonist, Guy Roland, while the "shops" suggest his "shopping around" for an identity, and that he never seems satisfied with what he finds. Guy Roland remains an empty self, trying to fill the void in him with various narratives. The title also embodies "obscurity," connected to the fact that Guy Roland never finds clear proof of his past self, which remains shrouded in darkness. And, finally, a reference to the actual street Rue des Boutiques Obscures in Rome stands at the end of the book suggesting "lack of closure" - the search for identity goes on and will never end. So you see how much is lost when a too commercially-minded publisher changes a title the author has given deep thought to, into a simplistic phrase suggesting a cheap genre novel!

Patrick Modiano was born in Paris in 1945 as the son of an Italian Jewish father and a Belgian mother. His father hid his Jewish identity and evaded arrest, but spent the war doing questionable business on the black market. Modiano always had a difficult relation with his father, who was often absent. Instead, he was emotionally close to his brother Rudy, who died from an illness when only ten years old. After high school, Modiano did not continue to university, but started writing. The famous author Raymond Queneau, a friend of his mother, acted as his mentor and played a decisive role in Modiano's development. His first novel, La Place de l'étoile, was published in 1968 and attracted much attention.

Since then, Modiano has published a new novel every year or every other year. He has also written children's books and film scripts - the most important of these is Lacombe Lucien, a film set under the German occupation, filmed by Louis Malle in 1974. Modiano's books center on themes as memory, oblivion, identity and guilt - there is a decided similarity to the work of German author W.G. Sebald here. Paris also plays an important role in his work, it is evoked by using real addresses and Modiano follows the evolution of its streets. Modiano uses many autobiographical elements in his work. He is also obsessed with what happened during the Nazi occupation. Some of his novels have a documentary character, being built on newspaper articles. Modiano's many novels not only share the same topics, but also hang together because the same persons may return in different novels, and earlier, concise episodes may be extended in later books. Modiano writes in a bare and unemotional - indeed documentary - style.

Some important novels, also translated into English, are: Villa Triste (1975); Voyage des noces (1990, translated as Honeymoon) and especially Dora Bruder (1997, again a title severely mistranslated as "The Search Warrant"). This last novel documents the true history of a fifteen-year old girl (called Dora Bruder) in Paris who ran away from the convent that had sheltered her during the Nazi Occupation and who subsequently became victim of the Holocaust. It shows, again, how little remains of a human life.

November 27, 2014

"The Emigrants" ("Die Ausgewanderten") by W.G. Sebald

The Emigrants, a work of fiction written in 1992 by W.G. Sebald, consists of four short biographical narratives. The original German title, Die Ausgewanderten, has a nuance that is impossible to convey in the same way in English: it means people who have already emigrated, and who are now living away from their original homeland, not "emigrants" still on the move, which would be "Auswanderer." "Displaced persons" or "exiles" would be a better description for the four persons described in these tales, as they have not only emigrated in a spacial sense, but also in a social and above all psychological sense. The Emigrants is the record of the narrator's research into the memories, traumas and feelings of foreignness of four such displaced persons, and it is at the same time a post-modern fictional investigation into the relationship between memory and history. Unavoidably, that history is the impact of WWII and the Holocaust on Germans, especially those of Jewish heritage. It is a sign of Sebalds' mastery that the word "Holocaust" is never mentioned in the book, but that we feel its ominous present on almost every page.

They four "displaced persons" are:
Dr. Henry Selwyn, the estranged and unworldly husband of the English landlady of the narrator. The narrator and his wife first meet him when they come to look at a house for rent in Norwich and in fact find him face down on the lawn, talking to the grass. When Dr. Selwyn was only seven, in 1899, his family emigrated from a village in Lithuania to England. It was their intention to go to New York, but the boat dumped all emigrants in London, where they unknowingly for a long time kept searching for the Statue of Liberty. In this way, the originally Jewish Dr Selwyn, who had a distinguished career as a medical doctor, could remain untouched by the horrors of Nazism. However, it is clear that psychologically he increasingly suffers under the shadow of the (never mentioned) Holocaust - that is the reason he gradually dissolves most relations with other humans and only feels close to plants and animals. At the same time, Dr Selwyn doesn't like to speak about the past and it is only via chance meetings that the narrator hears part of his life story. Dr Selwyn finally commits suicide by shooting himself.
Paul Bereyter, the primary school teacher of the narrator in a town called "S" in southern Germany. The story is triggered when the narrator reads a small notice of the death by suicide of his old teacher. Although partly Jewish, and therefore having trouble finding work in Germany in the 1930s, Paul Bereyter has served in the Wehrmacht because at that time he felt his identity was "German." After the war he leads a quiet life as an inspirational school teacher, who takes his pupils often out of the classroom. But after his pension he moves to France, not feeling at home in Germany anymore - as his grandfather was Jewish, he gradually realizes he belongs to the "exiles." He finally commits suicide by lying down on the railroad.
Ambros Adelwarth, a long-dead great uncle of the narrator. During a visit to relatives living in New Jersey, the narrator hears the story of this great uncle. In his youth, in the early 20th century, Uncle Adelwarth has emigrated from Germany to the U.S. where he became the traveling companion (both valet and lover) of a young man from a wealthy Jewish family who wandered around the world (the narrator paraphrases his diaries to tell about this period). They visit casinos and famous hotels were the pre-WWI jetset used to seek its enjoyment. When his companion has become mentally ill, Uncle Adelwarth continues serving the same family as a butler on their estate on Long Island. After his pension, he suffers from depression and undergoes an electroshock treatment whereby his memories seem to be dissolved. He finally dies in a mental institution.
Max Aurach (in the English version: Feber), an expatriate German-Jewish painter. He scratches his paintings as much as 40 times away, until they become veritable "images of the lost." The young narrator (who has come to the U.K. to study) meets him in the dilapidated city of Manchester. Years later, the painter gives the narrator the diary of his mother, which describes her idyllic life as a girl in a Bavarian village in the early 20th c. It was written as she and her husband awaited deportation to the Nazi death camps. In this way, the narrator gradually discovers the effects of the Holocaust on Aurach/Ferber and his family.

In the above, I have on purpose spoken about "the narrator" and not "Sebald." I wanted to make clear that we should distinguish between the two - although the narrator shares many autobiographical elements with Sebald, The Emigrants is a work of fiction. That same fictionality is true for the four narratives: these "biographies" ring very true, but we know that Sebald included fictional elements, making them rather "mock biographies." For example, the painter in the fourth story is a composite, fictional figure, partly based on the real Frank Auerbach, a German-born painter with a Jewish background working in London, who indeed paints in the style described by Sebald. But Sebald has said in an interview that he has never met Auerbach and in order to protect Auerbach's privacy, he changed the name of the painter in the English translation from "Aurach" into "Feber." This of course means that the diary of the mother of the painter is also fictional, or that Sebald used another diary here. And so there are more instances revealing the ultimate fictionality of the biographies - which does not alter the fact that the book as a whole points at a higher truth.

There is one more fictional element that all four stories have in common: In all of them suddenly a man (in the last story, a boy) with a net catching butterflies appears - this obviously is the famous author Vladimir Nabokov, who was a great butterfly fan and spent all his holidays hunting butterflies, either in the U.S. or Europe. The inclusion of Nabokov is more than just a post-modern joke - after all, also Nabokov was an "emigrant," exiled from Russia by the Revolution, and his autobiography is significantly called "Speak, Memory."

Sebald illustrates his mix of fact and fiction with small blurry black-and-white photographs which are another form of "memories," but here, too, we can never be sure we have to do with real documents - teasingly, they may, or may not, be photographs of the places and people in the narrative.

What Sebald shows in a masterly fashion is how our lives are constituted by chance, how they rather randomly consist of both realized and unrealized possibilities. On top of that, for Sebald the major elements of life are not the great themes of love, truth or friendship - but rather unremitting loneliness and permanent disquiet.

No life develops as originally scripted, "life stories" only exist in Hollywood films. In fact, life can be stranger than fiction, as in the story about Dr Selwyn, who tells the narrator about his friendship with a Swiss mountain guide - until that guide suddenly disappeared. Long after the death of Dr Selwyn, the narrator reads in a paper that the body of exactly this guide has been found in a retreating glacier, many decades after his death. "And so they are ever returning to us, the dead," he concludes.

A very profound work of fiction, that gains from repeated readings.

P.S. Sebald, who since 1970 lived permanently in England where he taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, was himself an emigrant as well.

English translation by Michael Hulse, published by New Directions.
See my review of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald for more information about the author.

November 18, 2014

"The Following Story" by Cees Nooteboom (Book review)

The novella The Following Story by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom is - at less than 100 pages - a little gem. It is also a strange and uncanny story, although told with the necessary humor. A man who as usual went to bed in his apartment in Amsterdam, to his surprise wakes up in a hotel room in a different country. What has happened to him? What kind of metaphysical mystery has him in its grip? Is he still alive?

[Socrates in the Vatican Museum - Wikipedia (German)]

The man called Hermann Mussert (a surname with a notorious connotation as this is also the name of the leader of the National Socialist Movement in Holland before and during WWII, who was executed for high treason) is in his fifties; he used to be a teacher of Greek and Latin, until he lost his job, after which he became a writer of popular travel guides. He is not an attractive man - not for nothing was his nickname as a teacher "Socrates" (the Greek philosopher was reputedly one of the ugliest men in history) - and a typical intellectual who only lives for his books and study - of course he is unmarried and lives alone. He is obsessed by Greek and Roman literature, and especially by the mythology as described in the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

But twenty years ago he was harshly pulled into ordinary life (the life of other mortals) when a rather forceful and outspoken female colleague started an affair with him - to take revenge on her husband who was having his own affair with one of his pupils. The affair with the female colleague, a biology teacher called Maria Zeinstra, started in the same hotel room in Lisbon where he now finds himself, and the next day he spends his time walking through Lisbon, bringing back memories of his life and especially of what happened twenty years ago. The pangs and pleasures of memory bring him to the fundamental question of his identity, and what he has done with his life. They are also filled with an inexpressible melancholy.

[Torre Belem in Lisbon - Wikipedia (German)]

And then, in the second half of the novella, the scene suddenly changes, as the man takes passage on a mysterious ship that sails west, and finally will reach South-America where it enters the mouth of the Amazon. There is only a handful of other passengers, who seem to be in the same circumstances, plus a woman, a sort of guide. They are from different walks of life and only thrown together by accident, as travelers usually are. Gradually we understand that they are all dead, shades as in classical mythology, on their way to Hades. When the ship enters the mouth of the Amazon, the passengers one by one are invited to tell their life story, after which they have to follow the guide and disappear. They all tell how they died. The teacher is the last one to tell his story and he starts with the words that he will tell "the following story" - at which point the novella ends, for this is the story we have just been reading.

As the author has indicated, the two parts of the story represent the first few moments during and after dying: at first, one sees the most important scenes of one's life flashing before one's eyes; next, one leaves the earth. Nooteboom is not religious in the traditional sense, so he doesn't conjure up a heaven or paradise - he uses images from classical Greek and Roman mythology, as that is the specialty of the teacher - and mixes these with the contemporary insight that death is the end: in life we are a collection of a particular set of atoms, after death these atoms will be scattered and their function will change so that even they will have no memory of the body they once formed.

[The Rio Negro at sunset - from Wikipedia (German)]

The scenes that appear before his eyes the moment the teacher in the story dies, have been the crucial ones in his life, because this was a time that he was untrue to himself. This truth is buried deep in the story and never stated in so many words. For the relation with the biology teacher was not a tale of love: Maria was an overbearing, assertive and - as Dutch can be - aggressively outspoken person and just swept the shy classical language teacher, who had no experience in love or life, from his feet. She didn't love him, and the way she spoke to him shows that she in fact looked down on him. She only used him for taking revenge on her philandering husband. That husband is a teacher at the same school and has an affair with a beautiful pupil, Lisa d'India. She is the best pupil also in Latin and Greek, and much admired by our protagonist. He is even secretly in love with her, perhaps without being wholly aware of that.

As events develop, Lisa sends him a letter, and he receives it while the biology teacher is standing next to him. Maria Zeinstra demands that he throws the letter away, unseen, or else she will stop loving him. The meek classical teacher obeys, and so throws away his own chance of happiness - this was the crucial moment in which he failed Lisa d'India and himself, something which he only now realizes as it had been buried deeply in his consciousness. That same day, he gets involved in a fist fight with Maria's husband, after which both teachers are sacked; and Lisa d'India dies in a car accident.

Finally Hermann Mussert discovers who he is, and the answer is not a pleasant one.

First published in Dutch with the title Het volgende verhaal in 1991. The English translation was made by Ina Rilke and published in 1994. A Vintage paperback edition has followed in 2014 (with a foreword by David Mitchell). The German edition was translated by Helga van Beuningen and published by Suhrkamp in 1991; this led to a breakthrough for Nooteboom in Germany, where Die folgende Geschichte was not only highly praised by critics (as Marcel Reich-Ranicki of Das Literarische Quartett) but also led to highly successful sales (seven printings in only the first three months). 

October 21, 2014

More Best Films Based on Classical Novels (2)

For a general introduction about literature and film, see my previous post Best Films Based on Classical Novels.

1. Octave Mirbeau: Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, 1900), filmed in 1964 by Luis Bunuel. With Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli & Georges Géret.
The outspoken diary of Célestine R., a chambermaid, who exposes the hypocrisy and perversions of bourgeois society, before herself becoming "one of them." 
Although a political context is certainly not lacking in Mirbeau's fin-de-siecle, satirical novel (in the form of the Dreyfus affair), Bunuel changed the story into a strong anti-fascist statement, by updating the setting from the late 19th century to the 1930s. In the novel, Célestine comes to work for the Lanlaires (in the film called Monteils), an estranged couple living on a large estate in Normandy, while telling tales about her previous employers in flashbacks. The book was shocking because a chambermaid was given voice here via her so-called diary, and what a voice! She exuberantly hangs out all the dirty washes of her hypocritical bourgeois employers. (By the way, in Anglophone countries this French novel is often presented as "naughty" or "obscene," but that is absurd: it is a serious novel with nothing in the least "titillating.") In both film and book, the lecherous head of the household not only hunts game but also women (he has impregnated the previous chambermaid), and his miserly frigid wife indulges her pent-up frustrations by tormenting her chambermaids. Bunuel leaves out the loose stories the chambermaid includes in her diary about her past employers, but includes the first one by making the "shoe-fetishist employer" with whom the novel starts into the father living with the Monteils. In both cases, the man dies of excitement while embracing one of Célestine's boots. Like in the novel, there is the mystery of the murder of a young girl and the suspicion which falls on the brutish gamekeeper and handyman of the family, Joseph, who is also a fervent rightist. In the book, Célestine finally marries Joseph, because she is sexually attracted to his "animalistic spirit," and they start a successful cafe business together; in the film, she does even better by marrying a rich (though very old) neighbor and becoming a grand lady herself - lording it over her husband. Bunuel sets Joseph down as an outright Fascist - as a joke, at the end of the film the director has him join a rally where people shout the name of a Fascist leader... who is none other than the police chief who in 1930 had censored Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. Nouvelle Vague icon Jeanne Moreau as Célestine gives a great performance: she is impeccably stylish and composedly serene even when facing off with the elderly shoe-fetishist, and above all, wholly inscrutable - her face is a true enigma. Although more straightforward and lacking the surrealistic teases of Bunuel's films made after Diary of a Chambermaid, the director takes care to include his usual pokes at erotic repression and religious oppression, and satirize the strange ways of the bourgeoisie who live behind a facade of respectability while secretly indulging their lower instincts. Although less well known, this a perfect film that deserves to be viewed more often and should take its place beside Bunuel's other great films, as Tristana and Belle de Jour.

2. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902), filmed in 1997 by Iain Softley and with Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache and Alison Elliott.
An American heiress, who is seriously ill, is befriended by an impoverished English woman who lives with her wealthy aunt, and her journalist lover, for less than honorable motives: they need money to be able to marry, and hope the heiress will fall in love with the journalist, and leave her fortune to him... of course, things turn out rather differently.
I have included this film only because it is an excellent example of how NOT to film a classical novel. This cheap and sentimental film is an insult to the artistry of Henry James, who in The Wings of the Dove wrote a sensitive, ambiguous and multi-layered psychological novel, one of his best achievements. The film keeps the period dresses (although changing the time from late Victorian to Edwardian) but infuses the characters with late 20th century egotism and lack of principles ("I want it now!"). It includes various sex scenes which are not in the novel, starting with a bout of groping in an elevator, a scene of lovemaking on the cold stones of Venice, and a final sequence where the important discussion between Kate and Merton which changes their fate, has been made to take place during a soft-core sex scene. Can it get more silly? This is like drawing feet on a snake - cheap and commercialized, and totally foreign to the rather inhibited character of James' protagonists. The great psychological novel has been reduced to a sugary Harlequin romance. Despite the period dresses, the images are never impressive, not even in the scenes set in Venice, and neither are the performances of most of the "stars." This is all the more a shame as Helena Bonham Carter, as Kate, alone gives the performance of a lifetime.

3. E.M. Forster, Howards End (1910), filmed in 1992 by James Ivory and with Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins.
The story of the hunt for a house called Howards End. Depicts three different classes in Edwardian England: the capitalistic and businesslike Wilcoxes, the cultured and humanistic Schlegels and the working-class Basts. Will they finally connect?
In contrast to the previous entry, this is a film adaptation that fully lives up to the great classical novel on which it is based. It is a first class and tasteful achievement, as is usually the case with director James Ivory, with superb acting from Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter as the cultured Schlegel sisters, and Anthony Hopkins as the hard businessman Wilcox. Vanessa Redgrave is also great as the mystic - and dying - Mrs Wilcox. The screenplay by Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala does fully justice to the novel and accurately renders all the critical scenes. The unavoidable changes, such as removing the German family from the film, or having Helen visit the concert where she meets Leonard Bast alone instead of with her family, are all logical. In fact, there are few film adaptations which manage to be so faithful to the original, while at the same time enhancing it by great acting and beautiful visuals. The locations and period details are accurate as well. A most impressive film that I highly recommend.

4. Virginia Woolf: Orlando: A Biography (1928), filmed in 1992 by Sally Potter as "Orlando." With Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane & Quentin Crisp.
Mock biography of a perpetually youthful, charming hero/ine, who starts out as a nobleman living in Elizabethan times before traversing three centuries and both genders. 
A fairy tale, already in Woolf's novel and even more so in independent film maker Sally Potter's version. Potter remains true to the spirit of the book but has simplified the storyline and removed any events not significantly advancing Orlando's story. As Potter wrote in her Notes on the Adaptation, elements that can be abstract or arbitrary in the novel, had to be explained in the film. Orlando's long life (he has lived for many centuries and may still be around today) is never explained in the book, but in the film Queen Elizabeth bestows Orlando's long life upon him with the words "Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old . . ." In the same way, Orlando's sex change is explained in the film as the result of his having reached a crisis of masculine identity when looking death and destruction in the face on the battlefield. The "moral" of both book and film is that gender is just a convention prescribed by society - it is the inner essence of people which matters. Thus, Potter's Orlando, on discovering (s)he is now a woman, declares, "Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex." Like the book, the film follows its character through four centuries of sexual politics, by taking 50-year steps. In the 18th c. clad in an impossible dress, Orlando experiences society's disdain for women, and in the 19th century she looses her vast country house as women were not allowed to own property. The film ends at the present day, when unmarried mother Orlando rides on a motorcycle with her little daughter in the sidecar. The androgynous title character is played delicately and marvelously by Tilda Swinton. True to the gender-bending theme, Quentin Crisp has a great act as the aged Queen Elizabeth I. Despite the feminist message, the film is not at all preachy but rather deliciously playful. It also makes its modest budget go a long way - a most memorable scene is a skating waltz by courtiers on ice.

5. Vladimir Nabokov: The Defense (1930), filmed in 2000 by Marleen Gorris as "The Luzhin Defence." With John Turturro, Emily Watson, & Geraldine James.
A novel about a brilliant but socially awkward chess master who connects to life only through the language and conventions of chess and finally descends into madness.
Nabokov is truly impossible to film, although both Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne had a go at Lolita. In my view, perhaps the best results have been achieved by Marleen Gorris' adaptation of an early novel written in Russian, when Nabokov lived in exile in Berlin: The Luzhin Defense. Gorris is a Dutch feminist film maker known for Antonia, who also made a wonderful film based on Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. In The Luzhin Defence she doesn't stick to the main details of the book but rather sets out to capture its spirit. The movie looks at things from a decidedly feminine point of view. Gorris has greatly enhanced the role of the woman Luzhin marries, and even made Natalia the heroine - while in the novel her name is not even mentioned! The novel ends with Luzhin's supposed suicide, but in the film Natalia finds Luzhin's notes (the "Luzhin defense") for the championship match he is then playing and decides to finish the game for his posthumous honor - and she wins (see this chess site for an evaluation of the realistic chess scenes in the film). Despite the dramatic ending, the film is filled with light humor as well. Luzhin is a near-autistic genius, dwelling only in the chambers of the mind, and wearing filthy suits while chain-smoking. He is unable to make small talk, so when Natalia asks him how long he has been playing chess, he answers, after calculating: "9,263 days, 4 hours and 5 minutes." Gorris sees him with great empathy and John Turturro gives a magnificent performance. Also Emily Watson is touching and convincing as Natalia, who has the inner strength to stand up against her aristocratic mother who wants her to marry an eligible count. A great and delicate film about the vulnerability of genius in our cruelly ordinary world.

6. Georges Simenon: The Engagement (Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, 1933), filmed in 1989 by Patrick Leconte as "Monsieur Hire." With Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire.
An introverted, middle-aged man who has no contact with his neighbors, and who is considered as "strange," is wrongly suspected of murder by police and neighborhood when a young woman is found killed in the vicinity. But M. Hire has his own secret...
The Engagement is one of the earliest "Romans durs," serious psychological novels with often an element of crime (and different from the Maigret-series) written by Simenon (see my post about this author). It is a small book, almost a novella, in which the tragic tale is told with the utmost economy. Leconte has updated the film from the 1930s to the late 80s - his detective with long hair and rough clothes is a far cry from the neatly uniformed police officers in the original. But Michel Blanc as Monsieur Hire is perfect - just as I imagined him when reading the novel, with a white face, balding head but always overdressed in suit and tie. Monsieur Hire's secret is that he peeps into the room of a young woman living in a wing of the same building, just opposite a small courtyard (almost Rear Window-style). She never closes her curtains, and Monsieur Hire every evening switches off his lights and stands watching her, also when she undresses... When Alice finally notices his voyeuristic behavior, she approaches him, first by spilling a bag with tomatoes in front of his door (a great idea, only found in the film). Later they become friends, more so in the film than in the book where Alice works in a dairy shop; in the film she is more intellectual, admirably played by Sandrine Bonnaire. But in both book and film she has a boyfriend who is a small criminal, and who may be the real murderer, something which also means disaster for Monsieur Hire. His plan that she ditches her boyfriend and run off with him comes to nothing and then his own existence hangs suddenly - literally - in the balance... What remains a mystery is what Alice really thinks of Monsieur Hire - does she after all love him although she plants false evidence in his room and then informs the detective? Is she sorry for him? And what does that last look mean, when she stands behind her window, and Monsieur Hire sees her in an extraordinary final shot? It are the two main actors who make this a great film and worthy comment on the original novel.

7. Julio Cortazar: "Blow-Up" (original title in Spanish "Las babas del diablo,” “The Drool of the Devil,” 1959), filmed in 1966 by Michelangelo Antonioni. With David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles.
A photographer believes he has seen something intriguing through his camera, which when he blows up the picture, turns out to be possibly tragic.
In Cortazar's experimental story an amateur photographer living in Paris happens to snap a shot of a woman and a boy, wondering whether he has captured the seduction of an adolescent boy by an older woman. When the woman notices her picture is being taken, she starts shouting angrily at the photographer about the invasion of her privacy and the boy sees his chance to run away. After enlarging the photo and studying it again, the photographer realizes to his horror that the woman was in fact "pimping" the boy for an older man waiting nearby in a parked car. Then the story moves into the surreal: the photographer is drawn into the enlarged photo, he becomes the camera and also becomes the seduced boy, and is murdered by the man who has come out of the car, and finally  lies dead in the photograph staring immobilized as a camera at the sky, where the clouds pass by and now a then a pigeon flies past - the world has become a photograph. Antonioni uses the idea of the Cortazar story, but unavoidably greatly changes it. The most visible aspect is that he changes the scene to the swinging London of the 1960s, and his protagonist becomes a popular fashion photographer, Thomas, who leads an empty life of "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll." He is bored by all the gratuitous sex, the brainless models, the groupies and the languid pot parties, and goes soulless through the motions of his work. He happens to take pictures of a couple in park, a woman and an older man; the woman remonstrates with him and even follows him to his studio. She even takes off her shirt, wanting to seduce him and steal the film. Thomas sends her away with the wrong roll, but is intrigued by this woman, so different from the superficial girls around him. Then out of curiosity Thomas enlarges the photos and in a beautiful sequence, hanging ever larger and larger prints on his wall, discovers that he has photographed a murder - in the grainy image he sees is a man with a gun hiding in the bushes behind the couple and the elderly man who was with the woman later lies prostrate on the grass. Thomas checks again in the park, now by night. The mystery deepens and proves at the same time unsolvable as the mysterious woman has also disappeared... but for a short while, the mystery has woken him from his lethargy. Antonioni has filmed in a great style, with little dialogue, almost telling the whole film with the camera. In its day Blow-Up was notorious for an orgy scene with groupies and some nudity; today, the sex is tame, but what shocks is the cruelty and contempt for women of the protagonist as shown in the way he treats his models and girlfriends, an aspect of the 60s we seem to have forgotten. The film ends with a nice symbolic scene where a group of students with white faces mimic playing tennis in the park - Thomas pretends he can see the ball and we hear it on the soundtrack, but it isn't there, just like the core mystery of the film.