Let me begin with a rather embarrassing confession: no person has given me greater pleasure throughout my life than David Bowie. Of course, maybe this says a lot about the quality of my life. Don’t get me wrong. There have been nice moments, some even involving other people. But in terms of constant, sustained joy over the decades, nothing comes close to the pleasure Bowie has given me.
How could I resist this opening paragraph? Here was someone who understood me perfectly, who felt the same way I did. This slim volume of essays (although that seems too pretentious a word, perhaps ‘meditations’, as they call them on the blurb, or ‘riffs’ would be more suitable) is perfect for Bowie fans to dip in and out of.
Each chapter is quick and easy to read, but provokes you to think deeper, with references to Roland Barthes (bane of my student days), Nietzche, Georg Buchner, Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett. This is a philosophy professor with a passion for music, after all. Yet he keeps it all very down-to-earth and accessible, simply talking about his own personal emotions and thoughts while listening to and watching Bowie. In describing these, however, he touches upon the universal:
What’s striking is that I don’t think I am alone in this view. There is a world of people for whom Bowie was the being who permitted a powerful emotional connection and freed them to become some other kind of self… Bowie was not some rock star or a series of flat media cliches about bisexuality and bars in Berlin. He was someone who made life a little less ordinary for an awfully long time.
This was a library loan, but I think I will buy a copy for myself.
Smile Please is Jean Rhys’ autobiography, or rather a collection of vignettes about her life in Dominica, London and Paris, left unfinished at the time of her death. She revisits much of the same ground that she has already addressed in her fiction, although it is dangerous to assume that her fiction is confessional. However, it is close in subject matter and style to her short story collection Sleep It Off, Lady, so this is the comparison I shall make.
Where Jean Rhys succeeds so well, to my mind, is how she takes a certain experience from her own life (her husband’s jail sentence, an abortion, being educated by Catholic nuns, being abandoned) and heightens it, polishing it until it catches all the light of universality.
The first tales in both books are remarkable for their vivid evocation of the Caribbean smells, sounds, heat and colours. But what is remarkable is how there is always something sinister under the lovely trappings. In Smile Please the author does allow herself some wallowing in nostalgia when describing her aunt’s estate in Geneva or carnival or riding or musical evenings, although she also mentions her terrifying nurse Meta, the Englishman who superciliously declared her ‘not a pretty little girl’, the racial tensions. But in the fictional accounts of her childhood the danger is much more apparent, the disillusionment all the more acute. In ‘Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose’ a twelve-year-old girl is inappropriately fondled by an old Englishman, a war hero, on holiday in Jamaica. In ‘Fishy Waters’ white privilege, sense of entitlement and child molestation all come together to create an unpalatable truth which is never explicitly stated, only hinted.
What we do get to see in Smile Please is Jean’s family: her opinionated, generous and charismatic father, her withdrawn, cold mother, early separation from her older brothers and sister, a slight resentment but also protectiveness towards her younger sister who ‘was now the baby, the spoilt and cherished one’, and her great sense of loneliness. She found companionship and consolation in books.
When she goes to England however (where the dominant first impression is of a grey, cold, unwelcoming place), she loses her love of books for many years. Scenes from her first encounters with London, falling asleep in the Wallace Collection, her mediocre acting career, dirty bedsits and suspicious landladies are very similar in both books and have indeed been described in other books. This is the landscape and state of mind we associate with Jean Rhys. The narrative voice so often echoes the author’s thoughts that it’s no wonder we confuse the two, yet it’s worth remembering that she liked shape and said, ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’
You can detect some of this ‘shapelessness’, a meandering through memories (where one memory gives rise to another), in her autobiography, and not just in the unfinished second part of it. There is a rawness and immediacy to her work in Smile Please. The words are perhaps less carefully measured out than in her fiction, but we feel we are participating in the author’s thought processes.
Is the following truth or fiction? And does it matter? It certainly explains the self-destructive and passive tendencies of the female characters in Rhys’ novels and stories.
I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.
Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. There remains something untamed about the narrator. Her language is simple, eloquent, almost child-like in its simplicity. The narrators come across as pathetically naive at times, cynical and world-weary at other times, but they often surprise the men in their lives or the reader (and even, occasionally, themselves).
Inevitably, you’ll find the fictional account (because it was finished) far more lucid about the fear of illness and old age, the inevitable decline and raging against it, and finally some kind of troubled acceptance of death. But there is a lot more self-deprecating humour in her autobiography. Take for instance, her delightful anecdote about being a governess to a small, solemn little boy and getting lost on the way back from the park. So typical of the well-meaning but accident-prone and muddled heroines of Rhys’ novels.
Sometimes now I smile when I think there is a middle-aged, or even elderly, man in Paris with an unnecessary hatred of everything English, and vague memories of a thin Englishwoman in black who tried to kidnap him.
In today’s world, when everyone bares their soul and the kitchen sink on their blogs and in personal memoirs, does Jean Rhys’ brutal honesty still have the power to shock? Perhaps not, but it’s not about the subject matter, the relentless drabness and numbing one’s senses in alcohol. It is about transcending greyness, about turning it into luminous prose. Thank you to Eric and Jacqui for initiating #ReadingRhys week and thereby reminding us once more just what a consummate artist she is.
Becky, Harry, and Leon are leaving London in a fourth-hand Ford with a suitcase full of stolen money, in a mess of tangled loyalties and impulses. But can they truly leave the city that’s in their bones?
That’s the blurb. And the story takes us back to nearly a year before this significant moment, to see what led them to desperate measures. I have a hard time making up my mind about this book. There were aspects of it I really liked: the nuanced observation of life in South London, the ability to squeeze so much in a single sentence or description, the ear for dialogue. Plenty of raw emotion too, helping everyone to understand the younger generation better. Yet overall, the structure and the interplay between characters did not quite hold together for me. Too many coincidences, although I could relate with the characters’ struggle to find jobs and meaning in an urban life full of compromises and rejection.
However, Kate Tempest is a very talented and innovative poet and performer, and also a playwright, so I will always read anything she has to offer. She even has rapped with a band and brought out an album. Here is one song which seems to fit well with the novel: ‘The Beigeness’.
David Peace: Tokyo Year Zero
David Peace is another performance poet. This became clear to me when I saw him reading from his books in Lyon. He has a sensitive ear, so highly tuned to oral storytelling and any kind of sound effect. So many will find the excessive use of onomatopoeia exasperating (even I did at times, no matter how kindly disposed I am towards the author), but I can discern a purpose to all this. It’s the soundtrack of a postwar Japan which has hit rock-bottom, has lost its soul, is being humiliated and punished (but also rebuilt). This is most certainly not going to appeal to everyone. The almost unbearably graphic portrayal of the Victors and Losers, the city teeming in bad smells, lice, prostitution, hammering. Peace describes the hunger and despair, the daily suicides and train delays, the overcrowding, with all the juxtapositions and repetitions of a rapper.
A very brief summary of the plot: A serial killer seems to be preying on vulnerable young women in 1946 Tokyo but the police are too frightened for their own jobs, too shaken by the trauma of war and the daily crime and horrors they encounter. The unreliable, frenzied, unlikable main character Detective Minami seems to be the only one stubbornly pursuing leads.
As usual in a David Peace novel, there is little comfort or fluffiness or redemption to be expected. An admirable experiment, but one that will divide readers like Marmite.
I’m a latecomer to the charms of Australian writer Liane Moriarty’s slick, compelling novels. Winner of the 2015 Davitt Award for Australian crime fiction for adults, Big Little Lies was originally published as just Little Lies in the UK, just to confuse matters further. I saw it being highly praised by bloggers I trust, like Cleo, That’s What She Read , TripFiction, Elena and on the Shiny New Books site. Margot even featured Big Little Lies in her ‘In the Spotlight’ series, which gave me the final push to pick it up at the local library.
It is perfect for parents everywhere, although the Australian setting gives it an extra twist. [No hedge fund manager parent in Britain would have sent their child to the local state school.] Anyone who’s taken a child to school in recent years will laugh or wince in recognition: the author packs in so many cringeworthy moments – the yummy mummies and their gossip, the PTA power, the party invitations being handed out in the playground, the petitions going round the school, the overwhelmed teachers and principals. It’s perfect book club fodder: there’s even a book club featured in its pages! And I love the expression: ‘Oh, calamity!’
Yet underneath the humour and instantly recognisable ‘types of parents’, there is real drama, tragedy and moments of subtle psychological insight. I detected a certain similarity in style with fellow Australian Helen Fitzgerald: fearless, candid, humorous but underlying seriousness. In this book it’s all about bullying and lying (to one’s self and to others), about maintaining a façade when your heart is breaking, about the everyday worries so many of us experience and yet we have to carry on. The characterisation is pitch-perfect. I could perhaps relate to the warm-hearted but sometimes terribly interfering and loud Madeline slightly more than to her two friends, shy Jane and inexplicably vague golden girl Celeste, but I enjoyed reading from each character’s point of view and even secondary characters revealed unexpected depths.
The most memorable recent books I’ve read which fit into this category are: Claire Mackintosh’s I See You, Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, Tammy Cohen’s When She Was Bad. They rely not so much on plot twists and gradual reveal (although they all have them), but on the ‘chattiness factor’. I have a theory about why books such as these are so popular. I call them ‘chat crime’ (to coin a new phrase) and they straddle comfortably genres such as chick lit and psychological thriller. They are the comfort food of crime fiction: enough suspense and mystery to keep you turning the pages, but also recognisable situations galore, characters in predicaments which you can relate to. Easy, smooth style, slides down the reading throat a treat, and very moreish. You feel you could read another one like it in quick succession. I also wonder what percentage of readers of psychological thrillers are women between the ages of 26 and 46 of a certain level of education and affluence, who will recognise themselves very easily in these pages. It feels like the stories we all tell each other when we get together on a ‘Mums’ night out’.
I am by no means belittling this kind of crime fiction. I enjoyed it immensely (and cried a little at the tales of Madeline’s woes with Abigail, her teenage daughter from her previous marriage) and read it in just one day. And we all know that the prose which feels most ‘natural’ and ‘unworked upon’ is the hardest to write! I’m just aware that I need to alternate this kind of reading with other, more challenging literature (written from points of view which are less familiar to me). Otherwise it’s just too easy to get trapped in your protected little bubble, like the parents of Pirriwee Public School.
I hear the book is being filmed as a TV mini-series, featuring Nicole Kidman as the statuesque Celeste, Shailene Woodley as fearful Jane and Reese Witherspoon as feisty Madeline.
Nearly forgot to do the monthly round-up of my reading, until I saw Tony’s meticulous accounting of his time. I cannot compete with that, of course. August has been haphazard and I’m frankly surprised I got any reading or reviewing done at all.
I participated (loosely, very loosely speaking) in two challenges this summer.
Women in Translation Month – failed
Although I tried to sneak in two books I read in July for this category (they also fit in the next category, so it is double cheating), I only truly read one book by a woman writer translated into English this month. And it was a reread.
I’ve just finished rereading The Moonstone, that famed ‘first ever detective novel’ and will be featuring it in Classics in September, together with another feature on ‘literary crime’ (I have my own list of obvious suspects there, but any suggestions you might have would be gratefully received).
Catching up with my long-inaccessible and neglected Netgalley shelves. I’ll be working in pairs of ‘recent/older’ titles. First up: Pascal Garnier’s The Eskimo Solution and Essential Poems by 10 American poets.
Just got time to squeeze in one more author for Women in Translation Month and it’s the effervescent, smart, charming and loyal Emilie du Chatelet, who deserves to be far better known as a scientist in her own right rather than merely as Voltaire’s great love. Her slender volume Discours sur le bonheur (Essay on Happiness) has not been translated in its entirety in English yet, but there are extracts to be found in the biography by Esther Ehrman in Berg Women’s Series.
It was a bit of a fashion to write about happiness and how to acquire it in the 18th century. However, Mme du Chatelet’s essay stands out for its fearsome honesty. It was not written for publication and so is remarkably clear-eyed and candid, at a time when the author had laid to rest the sadness over ending her relationship with Voltaire (or at least the physical part of their love affair, for they remained good friends until the end of her life). She had not yet met the playboy Saint-Lambert, who was to upset the last couple of years of her life and (indirectly) cause her death. She was apparently serene and content at the time, and certainly had not lost any of her idealism. [All the quotes below are my translations, so apologies for any inaccuracies.]
In order to be happy, you need to strip yourself of any prejudice, be virtuous and healthy, have your tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions, because we owe a great part of our pleasures to illusions, so woe the person who loses them! Far be it from us to kill off our illusions through the torch of reason and remove the varnish they put on most things…
She distinguishes between male and female happiness, subtly pointing out how women’s subordinate position limits their capacity for attaining full satisfaction and happiness.
Love of learning is less essential for the happiness of men than for that of women. Men have endless other resources for happiness, which women lack. They have other means to attain glory, and it’s almost certain that the satisfactions of rendering service to one’s country through one’s talents, or serving one’s fellow citizens through the art of war or government or negotiations are vastly superior to the satisfactions of learning alone… but chasing after glory is nothing but an illusion…
Women are often encouraged, of course, to find their solace in love rather than glory, and Emilie admits that there is no greater joy if you are lucky enough to find that twin soul, that marriage of true minds, which she admits she did find with Voltaire, but such loves are rare, she warns, perhaps one a century. However, the careful reader (or one prone to melancholia) will detect certain notes of regret and wistfulness. All was not perfect even in this most envy-inducing of relationships:
I don’t know if love has ever featured two people so much made for each other that they never experienced boredom or the coolness that comes from security, nor the indolence and tepidness that seems conjoined with ease of access and continuity of passion, in both good and bad times… For ten years I was happy, in the love of the man who subjugated my soul and I passed those ten years, alone with him, without a moment of doubt or boredom… I have now lost that happy state, and it cost me endless tears. It takes an earthquake to break such ties and the wound in my heart bled for a long time. I felt sorry for myself but I have forgiven everything now. I think I now understand that my heart alone has got that constancy which defies time…
The official version of their break-up was that Voltaire (who was far more advanced in age) was no longer able to satisfy his mistress physically, but his dalliances with actresses and particularly with his widowed niece, who later went to live with him as his housekeeper and mistress in Ferney, would demonstrate that this was not quite the case. For a fascinating insight into this complicated relationship, I would recommend David Bodanis’ book Passionate Minds, although it left me feeling that poor Emilie was forever being let down by her male companions (although her father and her husband were surprisingly enlightened and understanding for their time).
This is more a personal memoir than a self-help manual, but there are echoes of the latter in the way Emilie muses about the importance of setting goals or, as she calls it, deciding the path you want to take in life, ‘what you want to be and what you want to do’, otherwise you are perpetually swimming in a sea of uncertainty and vagueness, full of regrets.
This feeling of regret is one of the most useless and disagreeable that a human soul is capable of.
So… echoes of the famous Piaf chanson, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Perhaps this is the greatest wisdom I can learn from this admirable woman: I need not feel sorry for her, she led a good life and enjoyed it to the full. And, in the end, she made her mark in the world without the help of any famous male companions. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and her theoretical work on the nature of light paved the way to the great discoveries in physics in the next two centuries.
I leave you with this touching scene described by Voltaire’s secretary Longchamp (and quoted in the Bodanis book). It’s February 1749 (Emilie was to die in on September 8th of that year). Emilie has found out that she is pregnant at what was then a dangerous age of 42. She becomes convinced that this will be her death knell and she fears not being able to finish her scientific work. She sets off for Paris (where her scientific papers are) with Voltaire in a carriage, but the rear axle breaks and they have to wait for hours in the cold and snow for help to arrive. Covered in furs and blankets, instead of despairing, the remarkable couple lay back beneath the stars and enjoy their last truly peaceful moment together.
Despite the extreme froideur, Madame and Monsieur admired the beauty of the sky. It was serene, and stars were burning with a most vivid brightness… Ravished by this magnificent spectacle spread above and around them, they discoursed – while shivering, I should point out – on the nature and paths of the stars, and on the destiny of so many immense globes spread in space.
For a modern-day interpretation of Mme du Chatelet and her proto-feminism, see the notes for this play. For a review of her scientific work, see Stanford University’s biographical entry. For a French take on it (and a much better translation than mine), here is Emma’s review.
Earlier this month, as a reward for all of the hard relocation work, I treated myself to a play at the National Theatre. It was an old favourite of mine, Brecht and Weill’s ‘Threepenny Opera’, in a new translation by Simon Stephens, directed by Rufus Norris, with Rory Kinnear as Macheath. It was a canny blend of cabaret, jazz, dissonance and va-va-voom to infuriate and entertain. Not quite the escapism one might wish for in a play, but then Brecht was never about making the audience feel good.
Of course, the play is made for London and its inhabitants. The original story by John Gay (1728), was set among the whores, pimps and criminals of Newgate, full of allusions to the streets of the East End, satirizing politics, injustice and corruption at all levels of society. Much of it still sounds familiar today. Of course, Brecht took it a step further: from Gay’s romantic comedy, laced with social commentary, he turned his Threepenny Opera (and let’s not forget that Elisabeth Hauptmann was practically a co-author for this, but has since been denied credit) into an acerbic social critique, with elements of romantic comedy.Well, if by ‘romantic’ you mean a quick fumble and a slap… But there certainly was plenty of social commentary to make in Berlin in 1928, when it premiered. It was performed continuously until 1933, when Brecht had to go into exile, but had already become an international success by that point.
With the world increasingly resembling the 1930s, this play is more topical than ever, and this energetic production points out parallels to futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, anything-but-meritocracy promotion systems, inward-looking little England patriotism and flagrant social inequality without ramming the messages down your throat.
The two elderly ladies sitting next to me were muttering under their breath: ‘Really, is all this bad language necessary?’ but to my mind, yes, it is. Brecht’s original exuberance and desire to shock are all intact, even if some of the texts and storyline have been altered . This is all about over-the-top characters and situations (I particularly liked the red wool pouring out of wounds when a character was knifed). It’s all about filth and squalor, nasty characters chock-full with self-interest. The production even stuck to the original orchestra of just 7 musicians, which gave the musical interludes and singing a dissonance and drama that fitted so well with the on-stage action.
Confession time: although I’ve never seen the Threepenny Opera performed live on stage before, I’ve been obsessed with it since 1990. I read the libretto and the later novel by Brecht based on it (in which he does go on and on, rather, to explain his intentions). I watched most of the film adaptations but it was when I found one of the best recordings of it in German, with the legendary Lotte Lenya singing, and started singing it with all my German friends in Cambridge, that it became something very special to me. (I texted one of those friends at the interval of the show with a lyric, and he replied straightaway with the next part of it, such is the power of that connection between us). The reason why it resonated so much with me is that it perfectly described the confusion and materialism of broken post-Communist society, where not only every person but the whole country seemed to be up for sale.
Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral – First comes the feeding, then the ethics.
Natürlich hab ich leider recht/ Die Welt ist arm, der Mensch ist schlecht./Wir wären gut – anstatt so roh/Doch die Verhältnisse, sie sind nicht so. – Of course, you see that I am right/Life’s a bitch and man is shite./We could be good instead of hell,/But circumstances don’t bode well. [my own translation, as I couldn’t find this new script online anywhere.]
In the end, Brecht’s cynicism was justified. Germany was engulfed by even darker shadows in the 1930s. By the mid 1990s, I’d lost all hope of leading a decent life in a country so hell-bent on its own destruction and that of its younger generation. I just hope that this time, for present-day London, he proves more entertaining than prophetic.
If you do want to see this inventive production for yourself, it will be broadcast live on the 22nd of September in many cinemas across the UK via the National Theatre Live programme.