There is a Romanian expression: ‘Să luăm o pauză și să ne reculegem.’ Translation: ‘Let’s take a break and gather our thoughts or our forces or our strength.’ There is a similar word in French: ‘recueillir’, and we could potentially say it’s equivalent to ‘recollect’ in English. But it means a lot more than just remembering: it has nuances of ‘meditation’, ‘keeping a minute’s silence’, ‘recovering your equilibrium after an emotional upset’ and so much more.
So why am I launching into this lengthy etymological explanation? I suppose it’s my way of saying that I need a break as my personal life gets more complicated and unpleasant. Previously, I was able to find refuge in reading and writing when things got tough (summer of 2014 – bet you didn’t even notice at the time that things had gone awry). But as things drag on and on even longer than the Brexit negotiations, and with an equally impossible outcome, I need all my strength to cope with the turmoil. I’m finding it very difficult to write reviews or poetry or anything that is not an angry rant.
In other words, it’s time to press the ‘Pause’ button.
I’ve only just done a quick summary of recently read books, so this time my round-up for February will involve not only books, but also films and theatre.
Another month of reading aimlessly (and freely). 11 books, of which 2 books about poets and poetry (Charles Simic and Louise Glück), 3 that qualify for #EU27Project (Menasse for Austria – and Belgium?, Sebastian for Romania and Georgi Tenev for Bulgaria). Then there were some easy reads (perhaps slightly too many): Emil, John Boyne, Penelope Lively and Horowitz. There was one disappointment: The Farm had such an interesting premise (surrogate mothers being ‘farmed’ for rich clients) but took far too long to get started and ended rather too abruptly. And there was one that really stood out: Milkman.
Two quite political plays this month. The first was The War of the Worlds performed by the Rhum and Clay company at the New Diorama Theatre – a retelling of the H.G. Wells’ novel and the infamous Orson Welles’ radio adaptiation set in the present-day, when a podcaster decides to explore just why people believe all sorts of fake news. Funny, thoughtful and with a bewildering array of accents and characters from a very talented cast.
The second was a National Theatre Live showing at my local arts centre of the new David Hare play I’m Not Running – about political infighting, spin doctors, male sense of entitlement and single-issue campaigning. Sian Brooke as the main character Pauline was vulnerable and touching but a bit shrill at times, while Alex Hassell as her former lover and now political rival Jack was very well cast, appearing at times to be plausible and handsome, and at other times downright ugly and evil.
In preparation for the Oscars night, I caught up on some films, not all of them nominated, and made the most of my Mubi subscription. I saw Roma, which was moving, but a bit too long and self-indulgent (or do I mean self-exculpatory, sentimental?). I reminded myself of the greatness of Spike Lee and his film Do the Right Thing. I was bemused by the arty-fartiness of Livia Ungur’s Hotel Dallas (great concept, poor execution). I was irritated by Vincent Cassel in Black Tide and amused by Hong Sang-Soo’s send-up of the Cannes world in Claire’s Camera. I had a happy reunion with Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities and a troubled encounter with Beautiful Boy, which makes me worry about parenting with just the right amount of support, love and kick in the back. A film that seems to focus more on the beautiful surroundings and house, oddly enough (perhaps in order to show nobody is immune to addiction?), than on the heartbreak, although Timothee Chalamet is absolutely riveting.
So a busy month of cultural events, which somewhat reduced the pain of migraines and ex-spousal bullying. With spring now in the air, perhaps March will prove kinder in all regards.
Not all of the books I read warrant a full review, so here are some short ‘also ran’ mentions. Good comfort reading for a rather stressful month.
Erich Kästner: Emil and the Three Twins, transl. Cyrus Brooks
To be honest, I cannot remember if I read this in my childhood or if I saw a film or TV series, but I do clearly remember certain aspects of it, especially the little island with a palm tree in the North Sea. Sadly, the rest was not quite as fun or good as I thought I remembered: a barely there suspense story and criminal deed, a desperate attempt to bring back the charm and quirky characters of the original Emil stories and a bit too much preachiness (for instance, regarding the relationship between Emil and his mother). If you loved Emil and the Detectives, then I’d recommend The Flying Classroom or Double Lottchen (the original book behind the film The Parent Trap) instead.
Anthony Horowitz: The Word is Murder
What one might call an ‘amuse bouche’ if we were dining at a French restaurant – something to tickle your palate and while away the time while you wait for the main course. Not quite as experimental and ground-breaking as Magpie Murders, but a bit tongue-in-cheek about the author himself, his profession and his bumbling abilities as an amateur detective.
Penelope Lively: Treasures of Time
A TV crew descends on the house of the distinguished (now deceased) archaeologist Hugh Paxton and the Neolitich barrow which made him famous. His widow Laura is delighted, his daughter Kate is dismayed and Kate’s boyfriend Tom is bemused, baffled and rather too pleased with himself. Lively is, as always, such a skilled and detached observer of human nature, although the book has aged a little – it had a very 1970s feel to it.
John Boyne: A Ladder to the Sky
Another book that was great fun and easy to read: psychopaths and narcissists always make for good subject matter, all the more so when it’s set in the literary world. Boyne is clearly playing around with that far too frequently uttered question at literary events: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ The handsome, self-centred Maurice Swift, who wants to become a prize-winning, famous writer, has got a problem: he has no ideas of his own. So he steals other people’s ideas and stories, breaking hearts, destroying reputations and lives along the way. Maurice is shallow but not too one-dimensional (especially when seen by other people) – however, he is no Ripley. Never once was I tempted to wish him to succeed.
Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Bruce Weigl.
Charles Simic is a Puliter Prize winning American poet of Serbian origin, and one of the few modern poets in the US who doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any ‘school’ or style. Yet he is always recognisably himself: pared down, short poems polished to perfection like small gems, no fancy diction or ‘swallowing a thesaurus’ type of vocabulary, but containing big ideas.
I like the conciseness of the lyric and I like to tell stories – an impossible situation! Brevity has always impressed me! A few striking images and goodbye… How to say everything with the minimum of words is my ideal.
Born in Belgrade and witnessing the indiscriminate bombing of the city as a small child, he is deeply distrustful of absolutist statements or those who claim moral authority. Partly surrealist, deceptively simple but never simplistic, he remains preoccupied with history and truth, the search of meaning in a world that seems determined to destroy all innocence.
I continue to believe that poetry says more about the psychic life of an age than any other art. Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.
Where does he get all his inspiration from? Simic has no qualms about admitting that it’s from his personal experience.
Form is the extension of content, so it’s not an invention – something out of nothing, but a discovery of what is already there… Poetry is the archeology of the self. The bits and pieces one keeps digging up belong to the world – everybody’s world. It’s a paradox that has always amused me. Just when you think you’re most subjective, you meet everybody else.
But if poetry is about universal experience, then why is it so little appreciated and read? Simic has quite trenchant views on that and I can’t help wondering what he feels about the current popularity of Instagram poetry.
… why more people don’t read poetry? I suppose for the same reasons more people don’t read philosophy. Philosophy is important, was alayws important, but very few people in any age have read it. No point kidding ourselves! The human animal is lazy. Thinking is work and so is poetry… You notice how all those imported Eastern phiosophies, when they come to the West, reduce their theologies to the simplest possible terms? A two-word mantra and off you go! That’s all you need, kid! Imagine if someone actually tried to make them study the great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers and poets?
War The trembling finger of a woman Goes down the list of casualties On the evening of the first snow
The house is cold and the list is long.
All our names are included.
The tragic in Simic’s verse is always tempered with something uttered so baldly, it almost becomes comic. As he describes it, the world is a mix of the sacred and the profane, the serious and the absurd: ‘dopiness is at the heart of much human activity.’ I love the juxtaposition of abstract and very concrete indeed, of high-minded, high-falutin’ ideals and the boring old everyday.
Mother Tongue Sold by a butcher Wrapped in a newspaper It travels in a bag Of the stooped widow Next to some onions and potatoes
Toward a dark house Where a cat will Leap off the stove Purring At its entrance
For a boy who learnt English only after he emigrated to the States at the age of 16, to then go on to become the Poet Laureate… Not a bad accomplishment, right? Oh, and the title of this post? It’s from a quote of his: ‘Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.’