And so we start the celebrations, commemorations, what have you, for the 100th anniversary of the First World War. We have already had a host of books and television programmes, even though we still have a few months to go before the exact anniversary of the point at which Gavrilo Princip fired at Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, and after that we have four more years of this. And we’ve already had the first controversies. Continue reading
In the conclusion to his immense tome, The Culture of the Europeans, Donald Sassoon has one of those brief apercus that seems blatantly obvious when you think about. It’s just that we usually don’t think about it.
In reality the home was always the centre of cultural consumption. Of all the cultural forms surveyed in this book, only the cinema succeeded, for a historically brief period, in getting a majority of people to consume culture outside the home. Continue reading
Shortly before Christmas, Maureen and I saw the two versions of the National Theatre production of Frankenstein. In the first we saw, Benedict Cumberbatch played the Creature, and Jonny Lee Miller played Victor Frankenstein; three days later we saw the other version, in which Miller played the Creature and Cumberbatch played Frankenstein. Since New Year I’ve seen the three episodes of the latest series of Sherlock in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays an updated Sherlock Holmes, and six episodes from the first series of Elementary in which Jonny Lee Miller plays an updated Sherlock Holmes.
This doubling of roles casts an almost eerie highlight on the various productions. The different Frankensteins, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the different Creatures, are revealing of the differences between the two Sherlocks. Continue reading
There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other. With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of transit, a thin red circle in the water.
It’s from The Great Gatsby, of course, the moment when Gatsby’s body is discovered. I’ve just re-read the novel for the first time in too many years, and what I realised was how often I would read a paragraph and then stop, overwhelmed by how gorgeous the writing is. The way Jordan and Daisy’s clothes billow in the breeze from the window as Nick enters, the memory of a snow-bound mid-West, Fitzgerald has a way of making the ordinary feel magical. It is the tiny detail that just catches the breath: the way that swirling autumnal leaves echo the blood we imagine flowing from Gatsby’s wound. Between readings of the novel I have a vague memory that it is a great book, but it is only when I read it again and re-encounter the glory of the language that I remember why it is so great. It is a book to immerse yourself in, to read aloud slowly. The words touch our senses gently, trigger faint, fleeting sensations of colour and taste and sound and feel that are so subtle you forget the detail the moment you close the novel. But as you turn the pages once more, it is all so immediate and fresh and vivid again. Remind me to re-read this book more often.
According to Freud, one of the key characteristics of the Uncanny is the doppelganger. In which case, Eleanor Catton’s marvellous debut novel, The Rehearsal, is one of the most uncanny books I have read, because it is crammed with doubles. So much so, indeed, that in many instances we do not see the original, only the doppelganger; and some of the doubles are themselves doubled. Continue reading
And so the journey is finally over. Begun in the snowy December of 1933 by a young man not yet turned 19, and completed now, two years after his death at the age of 96. Or not quite completed; the main narrative ends half way through a sentence, to be followed by a handful of diary entries, and then by pages from a much longer, much more discursive journal. But it is an ending of a sort, and after so long, so frustrating a wait, it is more than welcome. Continue reading
I know nothing about the technical side of film. On the (very) few occasions that I actually write about film I do so purely from the point of view of the consumer, what comes across to me. I can say nothing about filters used or angles chosen or whether that piece of music would have been better than this, because I don’t have the technical knowledge to analyse a film that way. So I was intrigued to come across something called ASL (average shot length) as a way of explaining the success of American cinema over European in the early days of the medium. [And yes, I am still reading Donald Sassoon's The Culture of the Europeans, why do you ask?]
Anyway, ASL is the length of the film in feet divided by the number of shots. Sassoon cites the film historian Barry Salt who ‘found no film in Europe with an ASL shorter than eleven before 1917, while he found no American films with an ASL longer than ten’.
In other words, American films won out because of editing. European films came across as ponderous, American films as tight and dramatic. (Okay, there are many other reasons why American films achieved dominance, ranging from the economics of distribution to the nature of the star system, but this is the one that caught my eye.)
I assume that there are still ways of measuring ASL even in our digital age, so I began to wonder if this distinction still holds. I know European films (and films from a lot of other origins outside the Hollywood machine) can seem slow; is this why? Is there a difference in the ASL between what we consider serious drama and popular drama? Does it affect the way we read film? I know, brought up in Britain, I have throughout my life been fed a fairly indiscriminate mix of American and British TV and film, but there are many American shows, ranging from ‘The A-Team’ in my youth to various episodes of ‘CSI’ that I have caught, that irritate me because of their restlessness, while I like the patience of many British shows. Can you imagine what an American TV company would have made of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, which needs to unravel at a very leisurely pace.
And does this mean that whenever I am watching a film from now on I’m going to be more concerned with how rapidly it cuts from one scene to the next rather than with what is actually going on?
In 1859, the Paris Salon allowed photographs into its exhibition. This brought a howl of outrage from Baudelaire, who claimed that it would destroy painting, while the great unwashed would flock to the exhibition just to see themselves.
He was partly right, but more interestingly wrong. Continue reading
My slow, steady progress through Donald Sassoon’s monumental but unfailingly fascinating The Culture of the Europeans continues to throw up extraordinary snippets of information.
Today, for instance, I learned that at the beginning of the 20th century Tolstoy was published by a Socialist press in Italy, and so was generally regarded as a socialist by Italians. In France, on the other hand, his work had primarily been taken up by conservative Catholic commentators, and so he was generally regarded as conservative and, if not Catholic, at least Christian.
It makes you wonder how much of our view of particular books and authors is guided by things that are extraneous to the text. To take a banal but perhaps instructive example: the program I use for databasing my library pulls down information from a wide variety of sources ranging from the British Library and the Library of Congress to Amazon. More often than not, this can produce some very strange results. I have, for instance, seen novels by Iain Banks categorized as ‘Food and Health’, and novels by Ursula K. Le Guin categorized as ‘Business’. In all probability, these are just slips by somebody bored, though you do wonder what it was about the books per se that led to such curious mistakes.
How much are our own views shaped by things that are nothing to do with the work we’re supposedly thinking about?
We like to think of ourselves as living in the digital age. It’s a title that makes us feel more than modern, futuristic in fact. We’ve got all of this, this immediacy, this reach, all by touching a finger to a tiny screen. It’s a time of innovation, of advance, of technological magic and wish fulfilment. Boy it feels thrusting and exciting! Where were you when the world changed? Continue reading
I have always been fascinated by the 17th century. I suppose initially I was entranced by the glamour of the Civil War (I remember as a child reading books like The Children of the New Forest), but later it was the complex politics of Charles I’s reign, or the social and scientific changes of Charles II’s reign that drew me in. Now I have, by coincidence I suppose, read two novels set in that turbulent century, two novels whose periods almost overlap, but whose pictures of the time could not be more different. Continue reading
This is something I wrote after visiting the exhibition of George Catlin’s American Indian Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. Continue reading
Why did nobody introduce me to Frank O’Hara
back then, when I was a poet,
or thought I was,
or wanted to be? Continue reading
In the pedestrian precinct outside Debenhams there is a small white hat, the sort of thing that might be made for a tiny baby or possibly a doll. It is rumpled and slightly discoloured, you imagine the child who lost it, or the distracted parent who put it down and forgot to pick it up again.
The hat, of course, is made of brass and is part of an installation called ‘Baby Things’ by Tracey Emin. When the piece was installed, for the first Folkestone Triennial in 2008, it was at the side of a bench, just the sort of place where a hat like that might be discarded. (There are other baby things in similar locations around the town, a teddy bear underneath a bench on the railway station platform, a glove on the spike of a fence.) But the bench outside Debenhams has gone now, though it is not immediately clear whether it was deliberately removed or the result of vandalism. So the hat now lies there on its own, contextless, abandoned, mostly unnoticed by the shoppers pushing by. It’s a small thing, all of the items that make up ‘Baby Things’ are small, deliberately so, the sorts of things that are easily lost. This is public art that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but is rather meant to surprise when you chance to notice it. But with the context removed, that chance is less likely to happen. Continue reading
I’m not a great cinema-goer, but in the last few weeks I’ve been twice. Both times I saw a film with a one-word title, and that name was the surname of the central character. Both films were based on real people, real events, drawn from non-fiction books rather than fiction.
The first was Lincoln, of course. The second was Hitchcock. It is hard to think of two figures who were less alike. One was tall, thin, American and generally revered as something of a secular saint; the other was short, fat, British and generally known for bringing out the worst in people. And yet there is something iconic about both of them, something signified by the fact that they are instantly known by their surnames alone. Lincoln, of course, has been at the centre of many films over the years. Hitchcock, curiously, has been central to two films that have appeared in the last few months. The Girl, which starred Toby Jones as Hitchcock, was a TV movie about the making of The Birds; Hitchcock, in which Anthony Hopkins played Hitchcock, was about the making of his previous film, Psycho. Continue reading
The more literary and cultural history I read, the more I find exactly the same patterns recurring. One such pattern is the way that exponents of what is perceived to be high art look down on what is perceived to be low. But those identifications, high and low, are constantly changing, what is low one day is high the next; and yet the pattern never changes.
Donald Sassoon, in his The Culture of the Europeans, notes that in the 18th century the “avalanche of novels upset the intelligentsia”, because novels attracted an inferior audience, they were read by women and the impressionable and the lower class. Serious, elevated people read non-fiction. As Sassoon puts it:
Novels had ‘feminine’ characteristics: they were subjective, emotional and passive, while high culture was ‘masculine’, that is objective, ironic and ‘in control’.
In other words, the high culture is marked by cleverness, the low culture is for consumers.
Here, the divide is between the novel and non-fiction, but you encounter exactly the same arguments, often couched in the same ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, consumer and clever, terms about fantastic literature v realist literature; realist literature v modernist (and later post-modernist) literature; genre fiction v mainstream fiction; television (and later computer games) v reading; computer games v television; and so on and so on and so on.
In every case the new kid on the block is characterised as ‘feminine’ and consumerist; while the established form is unquestioned because it is ‘masculine’ and clever. Even today, long after its tide might be said to have receded, I am still seeing essays that praise post-modern fiction for its ‘cleverness’. And we never learn that we are running along exactly the same track in exactly the same way for the umpteenth time.
On 31 January 2013 I went to see Lincoln, exactly 148 years after the events depicted in the climax of the film. Rather a neat symmetry there, I felt. As for the rest of it … Continue reading
I have started reading Donald Sassoon’s monumental The Culture of the Europeans (1,400 pages not counting notes, I may be some time). It is (I gather from the opening few pages) a very interesting look at the business and machinery of culture over the last two hundred years. That is, rather than concentrating on books he concentrates on publishing and bookselling, rather than talk about music he covers the staging of concerts and the development of radio and recorded music, and so on. It is a perspective that is always on the sidelines of the cultural histories I’ve read before, so this change in starting point could be fascinating and revealing. (I’ll probably report back later, but don’t hold your breath.)
There was, however, one statement in his introduction that gave me pause: Continue reading
John Banville writes about the deception of surfaces, about the fragility of knowledge. His characters are, invariably, people who pretend, people whose life is a sort of performance. (At one point, in Ancient Light, his narrator quotes the old saw: to live is to act; then realises that it contains a pun.) That’s why his characters are so frequently criminals (The Book of Evidence), traitors (The Untouchable), frauds (Shroud), or actors (Eclipse, The Infinities). They are also people who turn again and again to the unreliability of memory, where the past shifts so much that we can never be quite sure what has led the characters to the point at which we read their story. Continue reading
The other night I went to see the National Theatre production of Timon of Athens. But I did not go to the National Theatre in London to see it, nor did the National Theatre come to me. Rather, I saw it on film in a lecture theatre that doubles as a cinema (or perhaps nowadays it would be more accurate to say, a cinema that occasionally doubles as a lecture theatre) at the University of Kent at Canterbury. The play was being staged in the National Theatre on the South Bank in London (it was the last night of the run), but it was being filmed, and the film transmitted to Canterbury and other screens around the country.
So I was watching a live play as it was being performed. But it was not live. And I was watching a film. But it was not a film.
This contradiction, this disconnect, is part (though only part) of what made the whole event such a peculiar experience. Continue reading