littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

THE DINNER PARTY

A man, hunched up, balding, presumes his way through the beveled glass doors of the Windsor Hotel Grand Dining Room and, flourishing his walking cane, strides towards my table – jaw set. It must be Charles.

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‘Jessica, my dear. How are you? It’s lovely to see you … after all this time. Your invitation was such a nice surprise. I brought you these. Don’t eat them all at once!’

The little box feels like chocolates. ‘At our age, it wouldn’t really matter if I did! Thank you Charles.’

‘When did I last see you, my dear? That chapel dedication?’

‘At least ten years …’

‘This is all very grand, Jessica. February … might it be your birthday?’

The freckle just below his bottom lip is still there.

‘And two other places set. The old St Margaret’s crowd?’

‘No. I don’t think you’ll know them.’

‘Oh! Well, let’s have a drink.  Shall I consult the wine list?’

He looks frail as he squints at the menu. It must be sixty years since we snuck up to his college room on Wednesday afternoons and made delicious fumbling love on his narrow student bed as tennis balls thwacked on the courts below.  But now I’m eighty.  Maybe I’ll never again make love?

The rest of the dining room gets on with its dinner – a low hum of conversation and the gentle clink of Sheffield plate cutlery.

 

Now this must be Guy, on a walking frame. Poor old dear. And he’s still wearing that tweed jacket. To think, he was once my husband! To think that I once trembled at the creak of the floorboard outside my college door when he came to court me with Vivaldi and sandalwood incense. Later, things were so bitter, when he ‘coped’ with turning fifty by having an affair with his twenty-something personal assistant leaving me silently fuming at home. Yet now we can be quite civil – even friendly – having Christmas together on the Murray with our grandchildren.

I introduce him to Charles.

Milton’s late. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t invite Cecilia. We’d better start ordering, even though he hasn’t arrived yet. I signal to the waiter.

I’m glad that Charles has taken over the wine list. He cups his ear a couple of times, then agrees to the waiter’s suggestion of a shiraz that will go well with my organic chicken and should do nicely with the chateaubriand that he and Guy have chosen.

It was rude of me not to invite Cecilia, I suppose. But, with her impossible dementia, I don’t think she could cope. Milton said in his last Christmas card that they’re living on frozen meals and have Council help. I’m sure it’s very hard for him. But I never did like her. She lured him away from me when we were teaching at Brighton High. She waltzed into the staffroom and within months they were engaged – a huge square cut diamond ring. I couldn’t help feeling that it should have been mine.

 

Here he comes now, guided by the waiter. Ugg boots! Bad feet – or did he just forget to change his shoes? His shirt is un-ironed, and that thin tie is a left-over from the seventies.

‘Sorry I’m late, Jessica. It’s hard to get away …’

 

The waiters are hovering discreetly in the background, moving cutlery and retrieving frequently-dropped serviettes. Everyone seems to be getting on all right, placing their orders, trying to figure out why I’ve invited them. It’s not long before they get onto football, and then, so as to include me, that pervasive topic of the elderly; how they’d hate to be young today with a future of climate change and depleted resources.

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Charles raises his glass.

‘I’d like to propose a toast to Jessica. It’s her birthday, and she looks as beautiful as she did way back at university.’

They totter to their feet. Such an effort. These, the three men in my life with whom I’ve made love.

Tears are burning behind my eyes. I must remain composed. ‘Thank you Charles. Thank you for coming. I wanted to see you all together – silly, I suppose, but my mother once told me that life is down-hill after eighty, so I’m making the most of these few remaining hours before I lurch over the precipice.’

They titter into their wine, then, taking the lead from Charles, raise their glasses, ‘To Jessica.’  It’s as though it were my twenty-first birthday. False jollity? A little, but the well-known ritual at this very moment is consoling. Don’t look ahead.

 

Now we’ve finished our crème brȗlée and Guy and Milton are shuffling out, chatting together – getting on quite well, they can share a cab home. Charles and I stay in our places, sipping espressos from little demi tasses – who cares about losing a few hours’ sleep when you’re eighty? I think I can hear strains of Hoagy Carmichael coming from the piano bar – Stardust.

Charles leans towards me. A waft of musk aftershave.

‘I’ve so enjoyed seeing you, my dear. I hear that the production of Blithe Spirit at the Playhouse is very good.  Would you care to come?’

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Michael Ondaatje: Warlight

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‘Warlight’ was the dim light that helped emergency traffic navigate London’s streets during the blackouts of World War II. Most of this book seems to be dimly lit. It is on the longlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize (the shortlist will be announced on 20th September).

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With the book’s opening sentence, the reader is thrust into post World War II sinister murkiness: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.’ The two children, 14 year-old Nathaniel (the main narrator of the story) and his 16 year-old sister Rachel, understand that their parents are travelling to Singapore for a year for the father’s work. He boards a plane … and they never see him again. The mother will follow shortly – she makes a show of packing her steamer trunk.

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The children are left in the care of a rather scruffy man and his associates. They nick-name their main minder ‘the Moth’ – I assumed that he must hover around, but Nathaniel says he was ‘moth-like in his shy movements’. An ex-boxer, ‘the Darter’ becomes a significant second father figure for Nathaniel, indulging in clandestine activities such as late night smugglings of racing grey-hounds down shadowy waterways in a mussel boat. Rachel is taken along on many of these activities, but she is bereft and never forgives her mother for abandoning her.

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a disused Anderson Shelter, sometimes used by ‘the Darter’ to hide greyhounds

Then the children discover their mother’s steamer trunk. She didn’t take it. She didn’t go. But where is she? Some things are gradually revealed. The mother’s code name, associated with espionage, is Viola. We follow Nathaniel through his teenage life – abandoning school, falling in love, working in a restaurant, and then working for ‘the Darter’.  But pulsing away beneath all of this, like the murky canals and back lanes he traverses, are questions about his mother.

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There is an attempted kidnapping. A turning-point. Nathaniel is sent abroad to school. Then suddenly Nathaniel is in his late 20s and working in intelligence – mainly so that he can find out more about his mother. And suddenly there is light when we find ourselves at the mother’s country house called White Paint – there are bees, there is thatching, it is all seemingly wholesome and English. But no. The mother, the spy, is shot in her summerhouse. There is a funeral. Nathaniel sees a lone man there, with the evocative name of Marsh Felon. He loved her. More about the mother’s background is unearthed. When Nathaniel ultimately catches up with ‘the Darter’ (they were separated at the time of the attempted kidnapping) he discovers something that brings a heart-wrenching twist to the end of the story.

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Michael Ondaatje

This book was a page-turner for me – and yet I left it slightly dissatisfied. I was an observer. I couldn’t get inside or even feel some small degree of empathy for any of the characters – not even the poor abandoned Rachel. Nathaniel (as narrator) takes us into his past, but he is armed with his adult knowledge and experience – we do not feel anything quite as the 14 year-old did. As one reviewer comments: ‘You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a re-witnessing.’ https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/05/24/michael-ondaatje-warlight-mists-of-time/

Maybe we can be no more than witnesses to that distant, dimly-lit time. In many ways, reading the book was rather like watching a movie of the 1940s – it was definitely in black and white.

There is a lot to commend in this book and it will be interesting to see what happens on 20th September.

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THE OUTSIDER AND THE MEURSAULT INVESTIGATION

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In Camus’s The Outsider, a nameless Arab is killed on a beach in Algeria. He is killed by Meursault, a man who seems to be totally lacking emotion. The first words of the novel, narrated by Meursault are: ‘Mother (or Maman – translated from French) died today.’ Stark and devoid of grief. Much later in the book, Meursault happens to be walking on a hot beach, holding a gun.

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He sees the Arab man and kills him. My sense was that it was just because the man happened to be there and Meursault happened to be holding a gun – some say it was because the sun was in his eyes. There is no apparent motive. Callous indifference to Arab life? It was 1942, a time of resistance to the French rule that would continue until 1962.

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Algerian money, 1942

It seemed to me that the killing was utterly cold-blooded, and in this way, Meursault is absolutely true to himself. He is put on trial and the significant evidence is that he is different – much is made of the fact that he showed no grief at his mother’s funeral. Camus said: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death. I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.’ The Outsider was first published in 1942.

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Albert Camus

Some 70 years later, Kamel Daoud wrote The Meursault Investigation. It is from the viewpoint of Harun, the younger brother of the Arab who was killed on the beach in Camus’s novel. The Arab, who is nameless in Camus’s book is given a name: Musa. And the opening sentence is: ‘Mama is still alive today’: a kind of helix, echoing Camus’s opening. Indeed, much of the book describes the mother’s desire to seek revenge even 20 years after her oldest son has been killed.

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Kamel Daoud

Harun was only seven when his brother was killed. The body was washed away, so there could be no funeral. Over 20 years (the book is set in 1962), the killing has dominated Harun’s life. He is now a drunk – his story is narrated from a bar, he is lost and a stranger in his own country – indeed, the implication is that Algeria has lost itself: Harun wants to ‘bellow’ his ‘impieties’. For him, God is a question not an answer. The choices of nationalism or religion are meaningless.

Harun ultimately enacts his revenge by killing a French settler just after the cease-fire in the War of Independence. Had he killed the man before the cease-fire, he would have been a hero. He certainly doesn’t seek notoriety. After murdering the Frenchman, Harun is taken by soldiers and questioned, but he isn’t questioned about the murder. Instead, he is interrogated as to why he never joined the fighting for the resistance. Harun feels cheated when he is set free with no punishment for the murder.

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According to Wikipedia: On December 16, 2014, a death threat against Daoud was issued from a Facebook page that is now locked. Daoud was labelled an apostate, ‘an enemy of religion’. There was a call for Daoud’s execution, on the grounds that he is leading a ‘war against God and the prophet’. Daoud filed a complaint for incitement with the ministry of religious affairs. Various individuals and groups also signed petitions and published open letters in support of Daoud. Defending himself against the charge of blasphemy in a TV interview, Daoud said: ‘It was a fictional character in the novel who said these things, not me. If we judge people on the basis of characters in their books, we will be facing dark times in Algeria.’

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It’s time to post some more favourite metaphors and phrases I’ve found in my reading:

Description of W.H. Auden: He suddenly looked terribly old and frail but as nobly formal as a Gothic cathedral Oliver Sacks: On the Move, p.199
The leaching of her own identity by dementia Oliver Sacks: On the Move, p.301
Precisely buttoned blouse Maggie O’Farrell: I am, I am, I am, p. 4
Her scarves skewered to sweaters with a silver pin Maggie O’Farrell: I am, I am, I am, p.13
The drawl and snap of the upper classes Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair, p. 88
A smile across the glooming mahogany of the table Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair, p.438
The sergeant, a tall sinewy machine, had been trained to such a pitch of frightfulness that at a moment’s warning he could divest himself of all semblance of humanity Siegfried Sassoon: Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, p.289
The clogging monotony of life in the line Siegfried Sassoon: Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, p.309
Leake and I meandered along the empty street, accompanied by our tipsy shadows Siegfried Sassoon: Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, p.415
The limitless prairies of my ignorance Siegfried Sassoon: Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, p.489
The creeping glacier of worry Richard Flanagan: First Person, p. 67
The solicitor’s dank dun-coloured room, grimed with greed Richard Flanagan: First Person, p. 169
Fondness seems a rather pastel version of love Virginia Lloyd: Girls at the Piano, p. 26
The rhythmic collapse of the waves Amy Witting: A Change in the Lighting, p.80
The harsh, virtuous smell of cleaning powder Amy Witting: A Change in the Lighting, p.137
Her mother’s quick foreboding tread Amy Witting: I for Isobel, p.12
Boredom roosting on their shoulders Amy Witting: I for Isobel, p.93

THE ONLY STORY

This latest novel by Julian Barnes was a slight disappointment compared to the grippingly compelling The Sense of an Ending (winner of the 2011 Man Booker) which, at the time, I described as an account of ‘lurching regret’. Like The Sense of an Ending, The Only Story is concerned with things that can’t be undone and consequences of decisions made in one’s youth. In this case it is the consequence of the person Paul fell in love with at nineteen – that first love that one will never forget. The book examines love. Can one analyse love? Probably not. Paul, the protagonist whom we first meet as a surprisingly confident 19-year-old, keeps a collection of other people’s definitions of love. But his first love (not his first sexual experience) is so overwhelming that it takes over every aspect of his life (as it can). One weakness, I thought, perhaps the only one, was that 19-year-old Paul in 1960s middle class England has an extraordinary amount of assurance for a callow youth. He falls in love with a 48-year-old married woman, and this is what takes over the rest of his life.

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Paul walks jauntily into Susan (his lover’s) home, through the front entrance. One time, for fun, he scales the front wall up to her bedroom window. He and, sometimes, his friends, eat and even stay overnight at Susan’s home, which she shares with her husband. There seems to be an element of immature pride in Paul’s conquest of a middle-aged woman: look what I’ve done! But his love for Susan is genuine and he knows that she will always be a part of his life. They do ultimately run away together (from ‘the Village’ to London) but it is not a case of unassailable bliss.

Susan becomes an alcoholic and Barnes has depicted superbly the frustrating stonewall of alcoholism where the addicted person cannot be torn away from the constant need to imbibe more and more, and the hellish spectre of how they are changed. One time, before they had run away together, Paul and Susan are sitting on a floral covered settee, Susan wearing a floral dress that blends with the fabric of the settee covering as though she has partly faded into it. She jokes about it at the time, but that’s what seems to happen: she becomes consumed. There are questions of love and duty. Paul remains living with Susan for as long as he can, but ultimately escapes physically, if not mentally from the woman he loves . . .  has loved? ‘He couldn’t save her, and so he had to save himself.’

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People might say that Paul’s life is ruined by his years of devotion to Susan. He has a number of relationships but never marries or has children and his work is never central to his life.  He does not seem to resent this, or regret the considerable amount of his life devoted to Susan.   There was anger,  not directed at Susan, but at ‘whatever it was that had obliterated her’. In many ways he seems contented with his ordinary middle class single man’s life, to that extent he did ‘save himself’. As I neared the end of the book, I predicted that it would end with Susan’s death, and it almost does. The last pages describe Susan very close to death, when Paul visits her in an institution for the insane. He sits by her side, but she is too far gone to acknowledge that he is there. Paul considers the actions that one might expect in this situation: say good bye, kiss her … But no. It is back to the ordinary world: ‘On my way out I stopped at reception and asked where the nearest petrol station might be. The man was very helpful.’ We are saved from any predictable cliche.

Yet, Susan is a presence throughout what we see of Paul’s life. After Susan has succumbed to alcohol and then a form of dementia and when Paul is leading a kind of average, uneventful life, thoughts of Susan are interspersed – it’s not just that things sometimes remind Paul of Susan, she seems to be a presence, hovering over his entire life. And in this way, Love is the only story.

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Brilliant writing.  Barnes deftly changes from first, to second to third person, gradually distancing the reader from the immediate youthful experience of love (first person) to the reflective stance of the older Paul (third person).

Whereas A Sense of an Ending ends with a kind of searing regret,  one feels that Paul never regrets his love for Susan.

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INVENTI ENSEMBLE AT THE MELBOURNE RECITAL CENTRE

This concert was a part of the ‘Local Heroes’ series. The Inventi Ensemble is certainly locally bred. Ben Opie, oboist and Melissa Doecke, flute, met when they studied together in Canberra. But their experience extends well outside Australia, as they have performed an extraordinary array of different kinds of music (Bach from a three-tonne truck, BBC Proms, London’s Southbank) in places such as Bahrain, Prague and San Francisco.

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The concert featured 20th and 21st century music. It was entitled ‘Jonathan Harvey and his Contemporaries’.  Jonathan Harvey (1939 – 2012) was a British composer who took up an invitation of Pierre Boulez to work at the Institute for Research and Co-ordination in Acoustics/ Music (IRCAM), linked to the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, where, among other things, Harvey became involved in speech analysis – applying this knowledge to some of his music, including a symphony.

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IRCAM, Paris

This concert featured smaller scale works and it opened with Harvey’s Ricercare una Melodia (1984), which can be played by various solo instruments and tape delay system. On this occasion it was performed masterfully by oboist Ben Opie, with Melissa Doeke operating the tape delay. The piece explores the literal meaning of ‘ricercare’ – to seek, and the music builds up with two 5-part canons, one frenetic and highly energetic, the other, contemplative.

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Jonathan Harvey

This was followed by Oliver Knussen’s solo flute work, Masks (1969), performed by Melissa Doecke, and described as ‘on the one hand an attempt at exploring differentiated musical characters within a single-line medium, and on the other had a dramatic miniature enacted by the flautist’. http://www.fabermusic.com/repertoire/masks-1172

We then had an amazingly dexterous and jazzy piece for solo oboe by English composer Michael Finnissy, Runnin’ Wild (1978). Once again this displayed the agility of Ben Opie, in this case, technical agility and an ability to play across different genres.

Inventi Ensemble is essentially Ben and Melissa – they nearly always invite guests to work with them and on this occasion the guest was pianist Peter de Jager who, like Ben and Melissa, can play brilliantly across a wide range of genres. Peter played Jonathan Harvey’s Vers, composed to celebrate Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday.

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Peter de Jager

The next piece was by Edwin Roxburgh and I expected it to be for oboe, as I had heard of Roxburgh as an oboist (indeed he held various positions such as principal oboe for Sadlers Wells), but this was for flute and piano – and the piano was particularly described as ‘accompaniment’.

Ben played an oboe solo, First Grace of Light, (1991) by Peter Maxwell Davies, composed in memory of English oboist Janet Craxton and inspired by a poem, Daffodils, by George Mackay Brown:

Sprindthrifting blossoms
from the gray comber of March
thundering on the world
splash our rooms coldly with
first grace of light

The final item in the concert, Run Before Lightning, by Jonathan Harvey, was performed by Melissa Doecke, who had worked with Harvey when he was composing the piece.

Aelita, Queen of Mars

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Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) is billed as being the first Russian science fiction film. It was directed by Yakov Protazanov. A silent film, it was screened in Melbourne recently, thanks to the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, with a new musical score presented live by The Spheres, who are an experimental AV ensemble who explore the conflux of sound art, post rock and silent cinematics. Apparently early screenings in Russia were accompanied by Shostakovich playing his own score on piano. I would have preferred the whole 1920s deal as, on this occasion, I didn’t find the music of the Spheres helpful or memorable.

What I found most interesting was the 1924 fantasy of life on Mars and the relationship that this had to Leninist Russia, seven years after the Revolution. There is a useful, more detailed analysis of these aspects of the film at Senses of Cinema:  http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/cteq/aelita-queen-of-mars/

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The Martian sets and costumes are breath-taking (incidentally, they didn’t bother too much about a lack of oxygen on Mars), the sets designed by Isaac Rabinovich and Victor Simov, the costumes by Aleksandra Ekster. My view of a 1920s Russia full of peasants burdened with heavy manual work trudging through snow in inadequate shoes was moderated by this – and it didn’t just happen in fantasy-land; in Moscow, there was a ball scene and women abandoned their heavy coats and gumboots to reveal sumptuous gowns, chic hairdos and elegant footwear to be swirled around a glittering dance floor. . . Or was this really more of the fantasy?

The film is about a young man, Los, an engineer who dreams of travelling to Mars. In 1921, a mysterious wireless message is received at various stations. The text of the message is: Anta Odeli Uta and a colleague teases Los by suggesting that the message has come from Mars. This sends Los into a spin where he daydreams about Mars. Aelita, the queen of Mars has a telescope powerful enough to view earth – she sees him and falls in love with him.

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In his dream, Los shoots his wife and builds a rocket ship in which he escapes to Mars with a friend and a stow-away. It doesn’t seem to take much time to get there. When they arrive, Tuskub, the king, orders them killed, ignoring Aelita’s pleas for their safety. On Mars aristocrats rule and slaves are confined underground and frozen and kept in cold storage when not required.

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Los’s friend tells the slaves of his own country’s revolution and inspires a revolt. Tuskub is overthrown and Aelita takes command. But she instructs her soldiers to fire on the workers. Los is horrified and kills Aelita (who takes on the guise of his wife as he does so). Suddenly we are back on earth. There is a poster on a wall, it reads: The only tyres worth your money are… Anta Odeli Uta, so the provocative wireless message had been an advertisement! Los’s wife is alive and well. He promises to stop daydreaming about Mars and to go about working towards a good communist society. The film has been described as ‘a revealing embodiment of the aspiration and uncertainty that characterised Soviet life in the early 1920s’.

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It was also influential on later futuristic movies such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and possibly even Flash Gordon.

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LOVELESS

Apparently the title of this Russian film comes closer to ‘Non Love’ than ‘Loveless’. There is absolutely not one speck of love. The beginning is arrestingly bleak: slow shots of a snow-covered river bank with piercingly clashing splinters of music. When will we see some life? I wondered.

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After quite some time we see a brief shot of some ducks on the river with their young, then the camera dwells on an unwelcoming concrete building with a flag over the door. We wait – and at last, people – it is a school and the children burst out of the doors at the end of a school day. One of these children is 12 year-old Alyosha.

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This portentous opening immediately reminded me of another Russian movie I saw in 2012: Elena. At the time I described the opening: ‘slow-paced and tense, with wonderful use of sounds – to start with, the early morning sounds as we watch a well-to-do apartment in Moscow gradually coming to life: bird sounds, then traffic sounds, an electric razor. … Phillip Glass’s third symphony pounds through the film, helping to create an atmosphere of tense desperation’. Both films were directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev.

Alyosha’s parents are separating. Each has a lover. They must stay in the apartment – Alyosha’s home – until they can sell it. They argue about what to do with Alyosha – he is an inconvenient piece of property – his mother doesn’t want him. She never wanted him in the first place.

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The father thinks that a child is the mother’s responsibility. Alyosha overhears this argument. We see him hiding behind a door, contorted with anguish.

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Later, the mother confides to her hairdresser that the pregnancy was an accident – a kind of trap: she was scared to have an abortion and scared to give birth. She tells her lover that she couldn’t stand the sight of Alyosha when he was brought to her after the birth and she didn’t have any milk. I wondered whether it is possible for parents to have absolutely no feelings for their child. I also wondered whether the lover could continue to love this woman who, towards her child, is so stonily unloving. He tells her she is a beautiful monster.The mother comes back to the apartment late one night after an evening with her lover. She doesn’t even check that Alyosha is okay. She learns that he is missing when the school reports his absence. And when the father hears of this (he was also spending the evening with his pregnant girl-friend), he doesn’t show any signs of guilt.

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As we watch the bitter exchanges between Alyosha’s parents and then, when he has been reported missing, the prolonged searching by volunteers (the police department is  useless), there is a counterpoint that draws attention to the hollowness of present-day affluent Russia society: plenty of wine, selfies, sex happening everywhere – amazingly (to me) Alyosha’s father is worried that he will be fired from his comfortable job if it is known that he is divorcing. In that workplace the boss instils a kind of Sharia Christianity – one must be married, one must have children, the façade must be preserved at all costs.  A news broadcast refers to a Mayan prediction of the apocalypse due on 21st December and there are other bulletins describing how the world is in turmoil.

The search for Alyosha is thorough, thanks to the volunteers. He is never found. I had been worried that we might find he had hanged himself from one of the bleak trees by the river as early on there are a couple of references that suggest hanging: on his way home from school, walking along the riverbank, Alyosha throws some leftover construction tape over a high branch of a tree. In his room there are some small rings hanging from ropes. But the film is too subtle for such revelation. At the very end we see the construction tape still in the tree, blown by the wind.

Some years after Alyosha’s disappearance, we observe that the removal of their son from their lives has been no assistance to the parents, who are now living with their respective lovers. The father is obviously repeating the ‘mistake’ he made with Alyosha. He and his lover now have a blond-haired toddler, who looks like a young version of Alyosha, but the father, who seems to be unemployed, is irritated by the young child and treats him roughly. And the mother, living with her lover, spends her time on a gym treadmill – boring, repetitive, on the sleety balcony. Her tracksuit top suggests that, with this dull routine, she represents Russia.

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And, years later, there are still signs pasted around a severe, dismally cold city advertising that a 12 year-old boy is missing.

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RICHARD FLANAGAN: FIRST PERSON

Some years ago I read Virginia Duigan’s novel The Biographer, which raises issues about the extent to which it is ethical to reveal personal details in a biography – the tantalising problem that these are often the most fascinating aspects of a person’s life: how far can you go? Richard Flanagan’s First Person demonstrates another, not unrelated, matter: if you ghost-write someone’s autobiography, to what extent might you be taken over by the essence of that person?

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First Person is partly memoir, partly autobiography. Some years ago Flanagan did ghost-write the autobiography of conman John Friedrich – and at the time his wife was expecting twins. In the book, a young as yet unsuccessful writer desperately needs money. He has little choice but to accept a job ghost-writing the autobiography of conman Siegfried Heidl, who is about to be jailed for his crimes. Heidl also needs the money he will get from the book but he won’t open up to the young writer, Kif Kehlmann – not one bit. Early on Heidl says, ‘I have been missing since I was born’. For much of the story, Kehlmann and Heidl are confined together in an office of a publishing house in Port Melbourne. Part of the contract is that they must go to work there every day. Kehlmann is utterly frustrated by his inability to get anything of Heidl’s story and Heidl spends most of the time in avoidance behaviour or going out to what are probably fake meetings and lunches. At weekends Kehlmann goes home to his heavily pregnant wife and 3 year-old daughter in Tasmania and is confronted by the pressing need for money.

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John Friedrich

One of the things that Flanagan does well in this book is to set the brutality of men’s relationships against the harshness of the Australian bush. There is a friend, Ray, who might have provided support to Kif but he is really just a means of demonstrating the bleakness of an alcohol-fuelled mateship. To me, Ray was a rather shallow almost unbelievable character. In backstory we learn that once Kif and Ray tried to cross Bass Strait in a dinghy with the not surprising outcome that they were both almost killed.

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Richard Flanagan

The family in Tasmania is probably intended to be a kind of back-drop – the reason for the desperate need for money. Yet, that’s what kept me reading. Again, not surprisingly, the marriage fails, but Kef has a warmth, tenderness and respect for Suzy: ‘later in the night [he] spooned into Suzy’s back’. For me, the drama was: she’s 8 months pregnant with twins, with threatening pre-eclampsia, they’ve been given a tour of the neonatal intensive care nursery – oh, hell, he’s not going to be there when she goes into labour! And he’s not. He’s not in Melbourne, but home in Tasmania, out drinking after an argument with Suzy. She goes through an horrific labour. Everyone survives. Suzy seems too tolerant, too earth-motherish.

This is all a part of Kef’s transformation into the subject of the autobiography. He becomes more and more like Heidl – lacking principles and morality, rather than the impoverished but genuine writer he might have been. Much later — after Heidl’s death — Kef becomes director of Zero Box Entertainment – far away from ‘shitty’ Tasmania. He travels overseas, has lots of women … There is no going back to the simple home-spun life of a Tasmanian writer.

Heidl dies. It would spoil the story for those who haven’t read it to say how and by whose hand. This is the drama of the book and this is where there is some superb writing; Kef is infused with the harsh bleakness of the bush. Kef and Heidl are both in the bush, near Heidl’s home:

‘And then I was standing above him … Small black ants crisscrossed the red-flecked gruel near his ear… Overhead a black jay was circling.

‘And that’s the worst part.

‘His eyes were moving, following the bird above.

‘He was alive.’

FLANAGAN 5

Another stunning piece of drama takes place after Heidl’s death. He has sent the editor some photographs – slides to illustrate the book. Kef and the editor look through the slides together – they are unexceptional – we hear the click of the slide projector. There is blankness, the ‘show’ must have finished, but no, the slide screen ‘seemed to exist only to have shown us this one image’: a flayed human corpse hanging from a tree.

SIEGFRIED SASSOON: COMPLETE MEMOIRS OF GEORGE SHERSTON

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot

Attack

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)

sassoon 6

Siegfriend Sassoon’s ‘Sherston Triology’ takes us into the trenches of World War I – particularly France, and a brief experience as an officer in Egypt. It is ‘fictionalised autobiography’ – a three volume account of the life of George Sherston over the war years. These volumes are: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (the time leading up to the war when Sassoon was a well-to-do young man, fond of fox-hunting, golf and cricket), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Sassoon’s experiences as an officer in the trench warfare of France, his wounding and convalescence, during which time he comes to question the continuation of the war), and Sherston’s Progress (the outcomes of his fortuitous meeting with neurologist and psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers – described elsewhere in reviews of Pat Barker’s books and the effect of this influence).https://jenniferbryce.net/2016/12/15/pat-barker-on-world-war-i/

Sassoon with David Cuthbert Thomas great friend who was killed

Sassoon with his great friend Robert Hanmer

It is believed that the Complete Memoirs of George Sherston accurately outlines the life of Siegfried Sassoon, who was decorated (MC) for bravery on the Western Front. Sassoon said that his alter-ego, George Sherston, personified only about one-fifth of his personality. One large part that is omitted is Sassoon’s homosexuality – understandable as it was illegal in Britain at the time the volumes were published. George Sherston certainly doesn’t make passes at any young ladies and when he is on leave he indulges in sports or solitary pursuits. Sassoon did marry after the war (1933) but the marriage broke down in 1945. There was one son, George, whom Sassoon adored.

sassoon 7

Through George Sherston we confront the realities of ‘The Great War’ with the eyes of an officer and a gentleman. There are descriptions of the mud, the long marches and aching feet, the horror of dead bodies – particularly those with whom one was joking a matter of hours earlier. But there is a lot from the officers’ mess; golfing and imbibing vast quantities of the best whisky, leave and rehabilitation on the estate of Lord and Lady Asterisk. And like all good officers, Sherston has a servant.

Sassoon 4

Sherston is injured and convalesces in England. He comes to see the rift between political machinations and the on-going persistence of insisting that the military continue to fight until there is a victor. In a tremendous act of bravery, Sherston / Sassoon wrote a Statement, which was read to the British House of Commons on July 30th 1917 and published in the London Times the next day:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.


I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.


On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

He was saved from court-martial by the actions of his friend Robert Graves who convinced authorities that Sassoon was suffering from ‘shell-shock’. He was hospitalised at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh and there was a patient of W.H.R. Rivers who seemed to understand his position and indeed helped young Sherston to see his situation from a broader perspective. Sherston willingly returned to active service realising the ironic twist that one could only escape from the war by being in it, thus attempting to avoid his Statement being dismissed as the rantings of a ‘shell-shock victim’. The final words of the book are: ‘it is only from the inmost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us’.

sassoon 5.jpg

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