"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 23, 2012

"Lionel Asbo: State of England" by Martin Amis (Book Review)

Educational levels are dropping in the Western world like a thermometer on a winter night and therefore the terrible ASBOs are among us: "Anti-Social Behavior Order," as they are called in the U.K. ("soccer hooligans" would be another name). And the mirror image of having a large underclass of people, is the flourishing of an underclass of the media, tabloids ("presstitutes") and sitcoms, to keep the ASBOs occupied during the long daytime, for work is foreign to them.

What do you do when something is too terrible to be true? You exorcise it by comedy and satire and that is what Martin Amis has done with both ASBOs and junk media. Lionel Asbo: State of England, Martin Amis' latest novel, is a hyperbolic farce about an underclass thug who revels in his ignorance, in violence and petty crime, and who feeds his pit-bulls steaks with Tabasco sauce to make them as mean as himself. He is a 21-year-old brute, always "one size bigger than expected" when he appears, full of excesses and explosions, working at "the very hairiest end of debt collection.” At a local wedding, Lionel's vulgar toast inflames the 90 guests into £650,000 of damages. Lionel regularly goes to prison on charges of “Extortion With Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property,” but doesn't mind: "When you in prison, you have you peace of mind. Because you not worried about getting arrested." These are not typing errors - the dialect and jargon in this novel are fantastic and real, as is the satire - it is not even a sub-culture that is addressed here, but sadly enough English culture of today as such - and on a wider note, the deplorable state of Western culture.

This novel’s plot concerns Lionel’s relationship with his orphaned nephew Desmond Pepperdine, a bright teen who enjoys school, the total opposite of Lionel, who lives in fear of his "brutally generic" uncle. Des wisely neglects his ward's advice to always carry a knife or watch Internet porn for his development, and the pit-bulls even become the meekest of dogs in his hands. But he has made one mistake: at age 15, he has slept with his grandmother, the mother of Lionel, which will be the death of him if Lionel finds out ("And if you f**k my mum, there's going to be consequences"). "Granny," by the way, is only 39, as she had her first of five kids by different fathers to whom she was of course not married at age 12. But Des soon leaves this patch of incest behind him. He is interested in study and books and after attending university, joins a large paper as crime reporter. He also meets the girl of his dreams, Dawn, whom he marries. They have a wonderful baby girl, Cilla, who is always smiling. His life is like a fairy tale, like a lotus flower rising from the mud to the sun.

But the path to happiness is not without bumps. The "family secret" with granny (who starts suffering from Alzheimer, but has dangerous patches of lucidity) hangs as an ax above his head. Then, while in prison, uncle Lionel wins £140 million in the national lottery (he in fact stole the ticket and Des filled it in for him) and becomes a tabloid celebrity ("Lottery Tout"). He starts a life of conspicuous consumption and discovers an entirely new form of power: money. He also delights in taunting grasping friends and family with his money, never giving them a cent (of course Des is the only one who wants nothing as he is proud to earn his own bread). Lionel buys the world's most obnoxious SUV, an ugly million-dollar wardrobe, a country home that he calls "Wormwood Scrubs" after the prison he was in when he won the lottery and slobbers champagne like water. He also acquires a trophy girlfriend, a plastic glamour model calling herself "Threnody." (And indeed, this novel is a threnody on the loss of culture). Their celebrity life together as the high priest and priestess of Chav plays out in the tabloids that turn the lout Lionel into a star (as they continually do in the real world). But Lionel has also a loyal streak and despite his savagery retains some sense of humanity in the midst of the media madhouse. He is even strangely likable...

Of course, becoming a superstar has not transformed Lionel into a cultivated person. He has an epic battle with a lobster in a refined restaurant and on a hot day he cools himself by pouring fine champagne down his pants. And when he orders filet mignon: "Cooked? Just take the horns off, wipe its arse, and sling it on the plate. And bring all your jams and pickles and mustards..." And so on.

But disaster lies in wait - we have been warned by the unrelenting questions at the start of each volume of "Who let the dogs in?" The dogs are two new pitbulls Lionel has parked on Des' balcony, while baby Cilla sleeps nearby... But in a wonderful twist, she escapes disaster to offer hope for a "new dawn" and this brutal story ends on an uplifting note.

A hilariously savage and highly enjoyable satire, in wonderfully electric prose.

Bach Cantatas (45): Trinity XII

The twelfth Sunday after Trinity treats the theme of God constantly doing good for man (taking its cue from the story of the healing of a deaf mute man in the readings for this day). The Twelfth Sunday after the Trinity also was the day when town elections were celebrated, which meant this was a festive occasion on which trumpets and drums were at Bach's disposal.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

2 Corinthians 3:4–11, "the Ministration of the Spirit"
Mark 7:31–37, "the healing of a deaf mute man"


  • Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69a, 15 August 1723

     Chorus: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele
    Recitativo (soprano): Ach, daß ich tausend Zungen hätte!
    Aria (tenor, oboe da caccia, recorder, bassoon): Meine Seele, auf, erzähle
    Recitativo (alto): Gedenk ich nur zurück
    Aria (bass, oboe d'amore): Mein Erlöser und Erhalter
    Chorale: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, darbei will ich verbleiben

    ("Praise the Lord, my soul") The text refers to the gospel reading for this day, but also presents "the healing of a deaf mute man" in a more general light, of God constantly doing good for man. The cantata therefore has a festive character. The opening chorus (a double fugue) starts with "Praise the Lord, my soul, and do not forget the good He has done for you". This is one of the grandest of Bach's trumpet choruses, introduced by an orchestral ritornello. But the gospel story is not forgotten, either, as the text in the rest of the cantata often refers to "telling" and "tongues," as in the first recitative for soprano. The first aria (tenor), which continues proclaiming God's grace, is a delicate pastoral song with recorder and English horn, a nice contrast to the chorus. The bass aria contrasts suffering and joy by the use of chromatic coloraturas. It has a graver and deeper character than anything else in this cantata, being a solemn prayer for protection and help during suffering. After that follows a warm harmonization of "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan" to conclude the work. (***)

  • Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren, BWV 137, 19 August 1725

     Coro: Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren
    Aria (alto): Lobe den Herren, der alles so herrlich regieret,
    Aria (soprano, bass): Lobe den Herren, der künstlich und fein dich bereitet
    Aria (tenor): Lobe den Herren, der deinen Stand sichtbar gesegnet
    Chorale: Lobe den Herren, was in mir ist, lobe den Namen!

    ("Praise the Lord, the mighty King of Honor") Chorale cantata based on "Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren" (1680) by Joachim Neander. As Bach left the chorale text unchanged, there is no reference to the readings. It is a perfect piece of occasional, even popular music, and like other the cantatas for this Sunday, with festive trumpets and drums. Musically, it is a set of variations on the chorale tune. After the "jazzy" fugal chorus with its exuberant introduction (the orchestra plays a concerto here), we have an alto aria with obbligato violin. The third part is for soprano and bass with two oboes and is the deepest movement of the cantata, the fourth for tenor with organ and trumpet. The concluding chorale is in grand style with again a triumphant trumpet. The cantata may also have been performed to celebrate the inauguration of the new town council of that year, 1725. (***)

  • Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV 35, 8 September 1726

    Part I
    1. Sinfonia
    2. Aria: Geist und Seele wird verwirret
    3. Recitativo: Ich wundre mich
    4. Aria: Gott hat alles wohlgemacht
    Part 2
    5. Sinfonia
    6. Recitativo: Ach, starker Gott
    7. Aria: Ich wünsche nur bei Gott zu leben

    ("Spirit and soul become confused") Cantata with only an alto as soloist, and without chorus, set to a poem by Lehms, first published in 1711. It is possible that parts of this work were earlier than the first recorded Leipzig performance of 1726. The work includes two large concerto movements for organ and orchestra (the two sinfonias), presumably from a lost (oboe?) concerto, and also other parts may go back to other music - so for many this cantata is in the first place a treasury of lost music! The cantata is of a more serious character than the other two works for this Sunday; trumpets and drums are absent. The first aria is a lilting siciliana, and the third one a minuet. During the first performance, Bach himself probably played the virtuoso organ part. (****)

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

September 19, 2012

"Bel Ami" (1885) by Guy de Maupassant (Book Review)

Bel Ami is a fun novel about cold-blooded social climbing, with a generous admixture of sex and seduction as ladders to success. I was reminded of Balzac's earlier novel Le Père Goriot (1835), where the student Rastignac uses similar methods for advancement in Parisian society, only Guy de Maupassant is much more radically cynical than Balzac. Bel Ami has not for nothing been called one of the nastiest pieces of French literature - never have liaisons been more ruthless, even Les Liaisons Dangereuses stands in the shadow of this cruel book.  But it is also one of the most delicious books imaginable.

"Bel Ami" ("Beautiful Boy") is the nickname of Georges Duroy, a penniless soldier just returned from French Algeria who comes to Paris to make his fortune in journalism, in a corrupt society where the press are in league with the politicians (they are involved in secret preparations for a North-African invasion that will enrich them all). Georges has the luck to be introduced into society by an old friend from the army, Charles Forestier, now editor at the powerful newspaper "La Vie Française." It is Charles' beautiful and intelligent wife Madeleine who helps Georges write his first article, for he has no real journalistic talent. She also teaches him that the most important part of the Parisian population are the women, not the men.

Georges starts on the lowest sport of the ladder with a prostitute, Rachel, but soon climbs up to his first liaison by seducing Madeleine's married friend Clotilde, with whom he sets up a veritable love nest. All the same, he is on friendly terms with her elderly husband, who suspects nothing. When Charles dies, Georges presses his suit on Madeleine and marries her for further social advancement, but he also seduces Mme Walter, the wife of the super-rich owner of "La Vie Française," and while visiting her house, to put the icing on the cake, her daughter Suzanne falls hopelessly in love with him.

Via an intrigue Georges gets rid of Madeleine, and he also pushes the besotted, clinging Mme Walters away with a hard hand. As the husband of millionaire's daughter Suzanne the world will lie open for him, perhaps he will even become a minister... Georges has cunningly built his success on the hypocrisy, decadence and corruption of society, but his rise to power has above all been made possible by the powerful and wealthy women around him. At the party of his marriage to Suzanne, he presses the hand of Clotilde - they should soon have one of their intimate meetings again!

And with the description of Georges' wedding to Suzanne the satirical novel ends - we have glimpsed the future and there is nothing more to say. Moreover, this marriage in a fashionable church is the apex of the hypocrisy the novel castigates: the triumphant rascal, adorned with the Order of the Legion of Honor marries the young daughter of a mother he has seduced and a father he has trapped into acquiescing with the marriage, and this marriage is blessed by the Church and recognized as something good and proper by all high society present! Readers who would like to see Georges punished for his unscrupulousness might be dissatisfied, but happily Maupassant is too much of a realist to fall into such a trap. The world is cruel, and that is what he wanted to show us. Wealth and glory are often for the unworthy.
Read it for free at Gutenberg, but pick the right translation: Bel Ami, Or, the History of a Scoundrel is more a paraphrase than a faithful translation, so please avoid it and read Bel Ami (A Ladies' Man). There is of course also an even better translation available as a Penguin Classic. The French version of this novel can be found here. There is also an audiobook in French.
Bel Ami was filmed several times, but no version can be recommended. The latest, made in 2012 by directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod and acted by Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas, is visually beautiful, but the casting is all wrong (especially the young actor who plays Bel Ami with a terrible squint) and it crams so much of the plot in just 100 minutes that it becomes a superficial story racing along without any depth.

September 18, 2012

"Sweet Tooth" by Ian McEwan (Book Review)

Ian McEwan is one of the best contemporary (living) writers and a new book is therefore a feast. Sweet Tooth is the title and this novel gives us McEwan at his classical best. At first glance, it is the story of a young woman, Serena Frome, her love affairs and her entrance into MI5, the British security service; but there is a postmodern twist in the tail which turns this seemingly middlebrow story completely on its head. Sweet Tooth is also the story of Britain (and Europe) in 1972 with its sad malfunctioning of public services, terrorism threats, and of course the Cold War still very hot. And the novel pries into the problems of fictionality and literature, even giving us the young Ian McEwan and his literary world in the figure of his "invented self" Tom Haley. "Sweet Tooth," by the way, refers to an MI5 program to stealthily sponsor the arts, in order to promote some democratic ideals in that leftist environment. Selena Frome ("rather gorgeous" and "rhymes with plume") is selected to bring Tom Haley into the program, and of course she falls terribly in love with him...

Here are the main points:
  1. The story told by Serena Frome. a rather gauche young woman who is addicted to "middlebrow" novels which she "speed-reads," reads itself like just such a middlebrow novel, until McEwan turns the tables on his readers with a highbrow, postmodern trick. The sweet story is about Serena's loves (Jeremy who turns out to be homosexual, the much older professorial Tony who dumps her to protect his marriage, and finally the young author Tom), her entrance into MI5 and her task to recruit the writer Tom Haley. She offers him a stipend "enough to keep a chap from having to do a day job for a year or two, even three." As happens in all novels she reads, she finally "gets" the right guy, although she fails miserably in her spy job.
  2. The story of Britain (and wider, Europe) in the early 1970s: malfunctioning of the state (like a rotten tooth), terrorism threats, a war in the Middle East and the First Oil Crisis, the Cold War and rampant leftism among the young.
  3. A tongue in cheek "Tinker Tailor" story of MI5 - the misogynist culture, the complicated secrecy about nothing, the silliness of the Sweet Tooth project.
  4. The world of literature when McEwan himself was writing his first short stories - his colleagues as Martin Amis, his publisher, etc. Several of McEwan's early stories are paraphrased, the dystopian novel Tom Haley produces as part of the MI5 program (so not at all what they wanted!) is also based on such a story.
The construction of this novel, which has been called a "Russian doll" with its stories in stories and its mirroring images, is immaculate. But it is above all a comic novel, and McEwan clearly had lots of fun writing it - and at least this reader had as much fun reading it.