Thursday, 28 January 2010

'This is the edge of darkness.'

The Emigrants

by W G Sebald

One of the joys of starting this blog has been the book recommendations that have come from those of you who have commented below in the past, which may in turn have led me to your own blog and further ideas for reading. I have been introduced to authors and works that I would never normally have encountered or had the necessary nudge to read. As long as I make the effort to make good on those hints that is. Sometimes there's no substitute for having a book placed in your hand by someone. That's what was required to get me to finally read some Sebald, an author who has lurked menacingly in my peripheral vision for a while but has remained a daunting prospect for some reason. After I had made a gift of Simon Mawer's The Glass Room to someone they returned the favour by giving me a copy of what I believe is Sebald's first novel. I'll be honest straight away and say that I'm not sure I fully connected with it or got as much from it at the time of reading as could be hoped. Knowing that his later works The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz are considered to be better pieces of work makes such an admission easier to make of course but I'm prepared to admit that I might have failed to appreciate the strengths of this book until the time came to write up my thoughts. A bit more thought has revealed the subtleties and detail which have made him such a revered author.

The book is divided into four sections, each purporting to be a portrait of a real person's life, augmented by photographs that pepper the text. First is Dr. Henry Selwyn, the husband of our narrator's new landlady who talks frankly about his emigration from Lithuania to London (a city he arrived in, mistakenly thinking it was New York, but staying anyway) and how the revealed secret of his heritage has opened up some distance between him and his wife. As that distance grows he feels his memories of the past growing ever closer and reminisces about his friend Naegeli who disappeared on a trip into the mountains. It is only after our narrator hears of Selwyn's suicide that he comes across a newspaper article detailing the discovery of Naegeli's body, released by a glacier 72 years after his disappearance, a symbol of remembrance and proof that 'they are ever returning to us, the dead.'

It is news of suicide again that introduces us to a former teacher of Sebald's (sorry, the narrator) Paul Bereyter, an inspirational and brave teacher betrayed by his being 'one quarter Jewish', a figure who carries that burden with him almost physically, a sadness creeping through when memory takes over.

Paul, who was standing by the window as usual, far from being able to hide the emotion that young Brandeis's playing produced in him, had to remove his glasses because his eyes had filled with tears, As I remember it, he even had to turn away in order to conceal from us the sob that rose in him. It was not only music, though, that affected Paul in this way; indeed at any time - in the middle of a lesson, at break, or on one of our outings - he might stop or sit down somewhere, alone and apart from us, as if he, who was always in good spirits and seemed so cheerful, was in fact desolation itself.

The third and fourth portraits provide more narrative for a first time reader like me. Ambros Adelwarth, is the narrator's great uncle who for many years was the travelling companion of Cosmo, a rich airman with a gambling streak and fragile mental health. There is a hint of homosexuality when Uncle Kasimir mentions that Ambros was 'of the other persuasion' and this alters slightly, perhaps even explains, the nature of their bond whilst travelling, the impact on Ambros of Cosmo's internment in a mental hospital and the hollowing out as he grows older that leaves him looking as though 'his clothes were holding him together'. At this stage the darker side of memory is exposed for when Ambros commits himself to a clinic and undergoes large bouts of voluntary shock therapy his doctor slowly realises that this may be a 'longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember.' Ambros's journal, with its minute and almost indecipherable text becomes a cause for study, another document that makes up memory, commenting on that very phenomena.

Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.

It's important to mention I think that there is lightness too amongst these shattered pieces and even humour. For example, another relative, Aunt Theres, provides some comic relief with her visits from America back to the fatherland.

Three weeks after she arrived on every visit, she would still be weeping with the joy of reunion, and three weeks before she left she would again be weeping with the pain of separation. If her stay with us was longer than six weeks, there would be a becalmed period in the middle... but if her stay was shorter there were times when one really did not know whether she was in tears because she was at home at long last or because she dreaded having to leave again.

The last and longest section is about Max Ferber, an artist living now in Manchester, inspired by the real Frank Auerbach who similarly escaped Germany on the Kindertransport whilst his parents remained, were deported to the east and died in a concentration camp. As our narrator spends time with him in his studio he observes the artistic process, the constant application and removal of paint, the scratching out of faces that leaves their ghosts on the canvas, a haunting image of those left behind or lost.

Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure.

When Ferber passes on the diary of his mother Luisa Lanzberg, where she describes her childhood, Sebald's fiction convinces you that it is quite the opposite, you feel as though you are reading a real document. Her simple remembrance of the daily rites of a Jewish upbringing read as a testament, a preservation of culture, especially at the time of her writing, the country at war and her culture under threat of extinction.

A final mention for a recurring figure that runs through the separate narratives, the Nabokovian man with a butterfly net. He could serve as a symbol for so many things, the pursuit of something that remains out of reach for example; but for the moment it is a role I shall assume for myself. I didn't quite catch it this time, but I can see the allure and I shall keep trying.


Tuesday, 26 January 2010

hair of the dog

Walking The Dog
by David Hughes

The artist David Hughes, approaching the big five-oh was told in no uncertain terms that he was drinking too much and lacked exercise, which in combination with his sedentary profession made him a high risk for what I believe the professionals call premature death. Enter Dexter, a wire-haired fox terrier, a birthday present quite literally for life rather than just the day itself. Hughes graphic novel, if that is the right term for it, begins with the daily walks undertaken by both. There is light humour at first with each meeting with fellow dog owners or pedestrians: confusion over the name, the breed, every other person mentioning that 'you don't see them anymore -my dad had one' or 'I used to have a toy one of those, on red wheels'. Bag of poop in hand Hughes grumpily fulfils his duty railing against the world and his lot.

Hughes style is close to that of Gerald Scarfe (but you'd do well to avoid comparing them as Hughes makes clear in one panel) but in each panel on the page his representation of himself looks at least slightly different and sometimes completely so. There is something disconcerting about this changing physiognomy, especially in the way that it is often linked to emotion, often anger. Hughes has a defined alter ego, a character wearing a long trench coat who seems to be tooling up and planning some kind of murder. I'd be hard pressed to lay out a narrative of the book, from those repetitive dog walks Hughes digresses into flights of fancy; some are mundane, connected with his career as an artist, others delve back into memory and family history where a darker tone develops. There is sex, there is violence, there is even talking poo. The ambiguity that covers the whole book makes for an unsettling read and even the use of pen and ink, with its black spatters and droplets, adds to that effect.

A single reading of it has left me impressed by parts, baffled by others and deficient in an understanding of the whole. I'm sure that further readings will continue to yield more and more as like a confusing text such as Finnegans Wake, to which this book has been compared, it will surely reward proper study. Hughes is without doubt an absurdly talented artist (or 'a genius' as Marco Pierre White calls him in a late cameo appearance) exhibiting several different artistic styles throughout the book and sometimes on the same page. My difficulty in showing off some of the art work here is that the book's pages are a bit large for my scanner. What I have managed to show is just a taster. More examples can be found on his website.

The quality of production on this book is extraordinary. A large square hardback with patterned boards and endpapers it feels more like a coffee table art book than a comic. That effort shows off Hughes multi-media approach well; the combination of drawing, photography, text and collage makes each and every page a feast for the eyes, even if the size of the handwritten text and the detail of the work sometimes makes it a strain on the eyes as well. It's a book I'll look forward to perusing again in the future, the effort and artistic skill evident on every page.


Friday, 22 January 2010

'we paid the price in full'

The World Of Yesterday
by Stefan Zweig

translated by Anthea Bell

Whilst the whole Christmas and New Year thing was happening I could justifiably give myself a break from blogging and simply settle down with a substantial book. This is what I chose. Another well-produced volume from Pushkin Press, whose focus on Zweig's oeuvre has helped to bring his work to a wider readership, there is a pleasing feel to the book in your hand and its 500 pages give it a satisfying heft entirely in keeping with the importance of what is between its covers. Living in an era where memoir has been hijacked by celebrities with nothing real to say or sports stars who have barely begun to live at all it is important to be reminded what real memoir can achieve. It may be crass but just thinking in terms of Who, What, Where, When and How you can get a quick idea of why David Hare called it 'one of the most important memoirs of the twentieth century'. Living in Vienna during a period that saw the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the 'golden age of security', two World Wars and the rise of Nazism, Zweig's position in society and his viewpoint as a writer and a Jew put him in a unique place as a witness to the shifting political tides of the beginning of the century. But before we anticipate the darkening days of what would become the end of his life (Zweig's suicide occurred shortly after the publication of this book - although there is no hint of it in what we read) there is so much uplifting material about Viennese culture, art and artists, including Zweig's encounters with people ranging from Rilke to Rodin.

It is generally assumed that getting rich is a Jew's true and typical aim in life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Getting rich, to a Jew, is only an interim stage, a means to his real end, by no means his aim in itself. The true desire of a Jew, his inbuilt ideal, is to rise to a higher social plane by becoming an intellectual.

I can't say that I had ever considered Zweig as a child when reading his fiction so there is something joyous about reading about his childhood and schooling. His intelligence means that school becomes a 'constant surfeit of tedium', where the rigid curriculum means that pupils end up outstripping their teachers knowledge, adding to the their precociousness. Boys of that age have their minds on other things too of course, even in a rigid society at the turn of the century, in fact the lack of flesh on display and of an opportunity to even converse with the opposite sex creates something closer to a surfeit of passion. 'Forbidden fruit excites a craving, only what is forbidden stimulates desire, and the less the eyes saw and the ears heard the more minds dreamt.' A certain level of privilege means that schooling for Zweig is merely a stepping stone towards the life he wants to lead. He is quite honest with himself, drawing up a plan of attack:

For three years I would not bother with my university studies at all. Then, in my final year, I would put on a strenuous spurt, master the academic material and dash off some kind of dissertation. The university would thus have given me all I really wanted of it: a couple of years of freedom to lead my own life and concentrate on my artistic endeavours - universitas vitae, the university of life.

The importance of art to Viennese society is made very clear, this is a time and place where the general public are more likely to recognise an actor from the state theatre in the street than one of the country's leading politicians. But rather than this being similar to our current cult of celebrity it is a veneration of the status of art, and theatre in particular, in providing the culture and conscience of the nation. I can't help but be envious when I read of a society that considers theatre to be 'a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm, a bright mirror in which society could study itself, the one true cartigiano of good taste...a spoken three dimensional manual of good conduct and correct pronunciation, and an aura of esteem, rather like a saints's halo, surrounded all who had even the faintest connection with the court theatre.' Vienna also provides of course a level of society below that of the state. The cover illustrates what we might term cafe society and it is here that Zweig begins to get a fuller understanding of human character and motivation, a dose of reality that shows up the 'whiff of scented notepaper' about his early novellas.

What I had hardly credited in realist novels was present here, teeming with life, in the little bars and cafes that I frequented, and the worse someone's reputation was the more I wanted to know him personally...Perhaps the very very fact that I came from a solidly established background, and felt to some extent that this 'security' complex weighed me down, made me more likely to be fascinated by those who almost recklessly squandered their lives, their time, their money, their health and reputation - passionate monomaniacs obsessed with aimless existence for its own sake - and perhaps readers may notice this preference of mine for intense, intemperate characters in my novels and novellas.

In mentioning our current predilection for celebrity and fame by association there can't be many who wouldn't get a thrill from reading the casual way with which Zweig is able to drop the names of his contemporaries, friends and colleagues. The man was connected. But he is also humble and he takes pains to explain that with any mention of his own success, 'I am not speaking of something that is really mine, but something that once was mine, like my house, my native land, my self confidence, my freedom, my lack of inhibition. I cannot illustrate the depths to which I...sank...without mentioning, first, the height from which we fell.' Even so there is something thrilling about the ease with which his throwaway admiration for Rodin leads to a meeting with the man himself and later a trip to his studio. It is here that Zweig witnesses the master at work, furiously altering a painting in progress and learns what for him is 'the eternal secret of all great art'.

His movements became more and more decisive, almost irate; a kind of wildness or intoxication had come over him, he was working faster and faster. Then his hands slowed down. They seemed to have understood that there was no more for them to do...He took a deep breath, released from tension. His figure seemed to grow heavier again. The fire had gone out.

Rodin had entirely forgotten that Zweig was even in the room, actually reacting angrily when he eventually spotted him waiting, as if he were an intruder. That total absorption in the process is one of many observations made by Zweig of his fellow artists. The deliberation of Rilke...

This golden age of creativity is also one of security as the opening chapter heading tells us. Turn of the century Europe saw nations brimming with confidence and the development of commercial flight made borders and frontiers seem almost pointless. Travel was possible without passports and Zweig as a prodigious traveller was able to sample and be connected to the wider cultural experience, something that must have in part contributed to the upsurge in feelings of international fraternity. However, those last years of European confidence hid the danger that was growing, the fact that all countries were filed with that same confidence and had ambitions that could not be contained by the land mass itself. The sequence of events that lead to what would become the Great War are noted by Zweig together with his own incomprehension at the manner in which friends and colleagues became transformed by the growing hostilities.

Gradually; in those first weeks of war in 1914, it became impossible to have a reasonable conversation with anyone. The kindest and most friendly acquaintances seemed to be drunk on the smell of blood.

In our current financial crisis there are even words of comfort, particularly for creative types, from the time of depression and hyperinflation that followed the end of war.

I myself do not think I ever lived and worked with more intensity and concentration than I did in those years. What had been important to us before mattered even more now. Art was never more popular in Austria than at that time of chaos. Money had let us down; we sensed that what was eternal in us was all that would last.

I'm just quoting great chunks now because the book is filled with observations that you'll want to note down or earmark. To have such a humble, enlightened, important voice like this in print is to have a direct link to one of the most fascinating periods of history. Anthea Bell doesn't need my praise after being awarded and OBE and recently winning the TLS translation prize (and also in the running for the same prize from Three Percent), but I shall praise her anyway. He translation makes light work of this 450+ page memoir. There are notes at the end of each chapter (and a pleasingly small number of them too), usually there to explain the few idiomatic words or phrases that she leaves in the original language or some background information (Zweig never really mentions his personal relationships). A book, as I said, that reminds you what memoirs should contain, a fascinating insight into an artist and a time, and a testament to a life that we now know had very little left to run. As his travels become more like flight into exile you cannot help but be saddened by such an ending.

And as the train crossed the border I knew, like the patriarch Lot in the Bible, that all behind me was dust and ashes, the past transformed into a pillar of bitter salt.


Wednesday, 20 January 2010

'They planted hatred in our hearts.'

Footnotes In Gaza
by Joe Sacco

Before my recent forays into graphic fiction I had been a keen reader of graphic non-fiction. Joe Sacco is the pioneer of war-reportage comics and his work in Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde provide an accessible format for an overview of the history in those troubled regions as well as providing the immediacy of personal testimony. Sacco's own persona in those accounts was that of bemused foreigner, his reflective glasses adding to the blankness of his expression. By his own admission it would have been disingenuous to maintain that persona after becoming a much more seasoned traveller and interviewer and so his latest book, which sees him return to Palestine, is a far more sombre affair; purposeful, powerful and important.

The book has weight behind it, in its subject matter naturally, but also in the literal sense as a 400+ page large format hardback, its matt, stone-grey dust jacket making the tome feel something like a headstone. You are very aware as a reader that you are carrying around something that contains the lives (and deaths) of many people. In this book Sacco focuses on two events from 1956, both of which had been consigned to obscurity, mere footnotes in the history books, and yet which seem to have sown the seeds of much of the hatred and resentment that still plays itself out on the streets of Israel and Palestine every day. The number of alleged deaths alone in Khan Younis and Rafa makes it astonishing that the events should be virtually expunged from the record, let alone the brutality of what happened. Through interviews (many with people who were lucky to survive or young enough to have evaded the slaughter) and research Sacco and journalist Chris Hedges slowly piece together the sequence of events, a sequence of course which begins much further back than the day itself.

The comic format makes it very easy for Sacco to give potted histories, or allow his witnesses testimony to provide the voice over for his pictures. For me as someone whose knowledge of the regions political history is less than sketchy these refreshers are incredibly useful. To learn that the creation of the Fedayeen (one of those words that I hear in coverage, gather means something along the lines of freedom fighters, and think little more about) came in response to a single act is a shock. To learn how implicated nations like Britain, France and America are in events is not. From the Suez crisis onwards there are many nations with vested interests and blood on their hands. There is a beautiful fluidity to the manner in which Sacco leads from one witness to the next or dips back into the archive to provide detail or reference material for what is being said. He has become more artistically adventurous too, particularly in developing full pages made up of many facets, some pages becoming consumed by the fire and brimstone of conflict.

Quite often he takes a face-on perspective, especially when it comes to interviews but there several places where he allows the perspective to rise above the streets of Rafa for example or to drop down to where the bodies begin to pile up as the women of the town make maltamah (a demonstrative form of grief).

It is in the depiction of the incident in Rafa that Sacco really excels. By conducting his interviews and gathering his evidence fifty years after the event he knows that he is fighting a battle against fading memory and the small differences in remembered detail become compelling and in many ways the proof of what really occurred. Sacco's frustration at not finding a consistent version of events leads him to understand, in the final frames of the book, why such a watertight version would be impossible. However it is fair to say that in providing what could be seen as a one-sided perspective on events, and an incomplete one at that, this isn't going to succeed as a full stop on what happened. By capturing that oral history in print it can only be hoped that what is does make possible is for further generations to ask what, why and how this was allowed to happen.

Whilst conducting all of his research of course there is the unfolding story of what happens in the Gaza Strip today, the bulldozing of houses, the daily wait at checkpoints, the slow strangulation of any sense of a real life. The different people and attitudes that Sacco encounters in modern Gaza lead on to the further question of how to appease such varying degrees of intractability, what possible shape a solution might take. Questions to which there isn't even a resemblance of an answer just yet. We have watched the tentative steps towards peace and bilateralism in a conflict just across the Irish Sea, moves that would have seemed unthinkable a generation ago. It's possible that that same hope might find a home in Palestine but Sacco reminds of the weight of history and the power of memory, his own work an important part of both.


Monday, 18 January 2010


A quick review here of a film that manages to pilfer from just about every sci-fi classic but gets away with it by employing a charm that makes it feel like homage rather than blatant rip-off. Duncan Jones' (formally Zowie Bowie - there's one in the eye for celebrity baby naming) directorial debut is assured, well-paced and has a brilliant central performance from Sam Rockwell who's one of those actor's actors - brilliant in everything he does and yet hardly well known to the general movie-going public.

The moon has become the site of a mining operation that returns clean energy back to earth, solving the energy crisis. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the lone crew member nearing the end of his 3 year-contract, longing to return to Earth and his wife and young daughter. Live communications are down and so he subsists on intermittent recorded transmissions but 3 years is a long time and with only GERTY, a support robot voiced by Kevin Spacey, for company he is in desperate need of that trip back to earth. I won't say any more about the plot as that would spoil it. Along the way you may be reminded of Alien, Silent Running, Outland or 2001 but Moon deserves its place amongst them thanks to the fine work from Jones, Rockwell and Spacey (is there another actor who can sound both menacing and empathetic at the same time?). Rockwell deserves particular praise for a performance in isolation of great range. It isn't easy when you haven't got someone else to act off, and he manages to not only hold your attention but arouse your sympathy too.


Friday, 15 January 2010

'There is plenty of blame to go around'

by Simon Lelic

The school shooting is a worryingly familiar social phenomenon and has already inspired films like Gus Van Sant's Elephant and countless novels including Booker winner Vernon God Little and bestseller We Need To Talk About Kevin. With his first novel Lelic looks at a shooting in a school from a different angle, the perpetrator here not a pupil but a member of staff, an idea inspired by a real life shooting in the US where a college professor shot a colleague. With a police detective as a central character it would be tempting to put this in the crime-fiction box but it doesn't really read like that, focusing instead on the spectre of bullying in all its forms amongst pupils, staff and the police force itself. The novel begins breathlessly as a truant recounts her version of events, hers the only voice, the interviewing detective's own utterances left out. Much of the book is presented in this way, like evidence, with just the words of the interviewee, leaving it for us to fill in any blanks and slowly, piece by piece, get a clearer understanding of the events leading up to the shooting. When it reverts to third-person narration following DI Lucia May we witness the systematic bullying and harassment she receives in her male-dominated workplace, part of the reason of course why she is compelled to find out more about the real motive involved in the shooting (not even her case by the way), convinced always that this was more complicated than just a lone nut with a gun.

Lucia May begins with the aftermath, walking the route taken by the gunman, trying to imagine what had been going through his mind, but before long she is caught up in the story of panic told by the scene of devastation left behind.

From the rear wall to the podium, chairs lay on their backs, on their sides, any way but the right way up. Many were still laced together so that where one chair had fallen the rest had fallen too, transforming the row into a barrier, the legs of the chairs into barbs. Lucia was reminded of an image of Verdun, of the land and the barricades between the trenches. She imagined children, their eyes bleeding fear, tripping and becoming entangled and then trampled by those behind. She imagined the impact of one of the upended chair legs against a stomach, a cheek, a temple.

In order to really understand what had been going through his mind of course she needs to know the full story, to pursue her hunch that this apparently random shooting was an almost logical conclusion to what came before it. Samuel Szajkowski (shy-kov-skee) was just an ordinary, if reserved, teacher but from the moment he first entered the classroom and told the class his name he was never given a chance to keep his head above water. That name is all that class bully Donovan Stanley needs to begin a campaign of sustained and eventually devastating abuse. 'Shitewhatsir?..Shitecoughski?', and that cough in the middle is the one we all know that really means 'fuck off'. Despite his attempts to calmly explain his Polish ancestry and engage with the mounting unrest in the class room it isn't long before he finds it impossible to control and leaves the room. That it turns out is a big mistake.

Through the direct address of those many voices of evidence Lelic is able to drop the relevant pieces of information at just the right points of the book, much like the clues in a conventional crime novel. His ear for character voices is impressive in the early stages, only later does he occasionally fall for the writerly pitfall of putting something far too clever into someone's mouth. That phrase 'institutional' springs to mind when describing the culture of bullying within a school. Only through the complicity of other staff members could a teacher like Szajkovski be subjected to such consistent and damaging abuse and May's task in the book is to see whether it's possible to hold the school itself accountable for the actions of the gunman. Another case of bullying in the school has lead to one boy being hospitalised, with no witnesses forthcoming, yet another example of the culture of fear and reprisal.

This also recalls Alan Moore's assertion, when creating his graphic novel From Hell, that the murders of Jack the Ripper weren't simply the work of one man (or even of many if it was more than one responsible) but created and made possible by the society around them. The introspection that accompanied the cases of Mary Bell or Jamie Bulger, the question asked by those communities as to how this had been allowed to happen are all relevant here.

That institutional element is also present in May's workplace of course, the traditionally male dominated world of policing. Here she is forced to deal with the kind of sexual harassment which is leading to court cases and compensation today. Jokes, emails, close physical contact, a suggestive word here, a blatant insult there; her position as a detective and her approach to her work is also questioned by her superiors who like the simplicity of the seemingly open-and-shut case and see the emotional response to it by their female colleague as a weakness and a nuisance. Lelic is skillful in creating the everyday threat for May, an atmosphere that heightens the senses especially when the situation becomes genuinely dangerous.

She could smell him. She could smell his hair, like hotel pillows beneath their cases; his breath, sour and needing water. She could smell oranges. His fingers across her mouth, they smelt of oranges, as though he had been peeling one while he had been waiting.

May's journey towards a closer understanding of events within the school mirrors her own personal journey. It is the bandaged body of the boy in hospital that forces her to look at her own life.

She tried to decide what she would have done in his place. She tried to decide but she realised that in fact she had already decided. Like Elliot, she had chosen to trust in denial, to confide only in herself, to try to cope with what others inflicted upon her without help of any kind.

There are plenty of adults out there who are frightened of other adults. There seem increasingly to be adults scared of the children that live around them or are in their care. Lelic's book does nothing to dispel any of that, it is terrifying in places, especially when you consider the damage we are all capable of, and just one of its many achievements is to create sympathy and understanding for the man wielding the smoking gun.


Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More

The Americana music scene has rather dominated the folk/rock end of the musical spectrum so it has been pleasing to see acts like Noah And The Whale reclaim something for the Brits and to develop our folk traditions away from the kind of bearded, folksy strumming that certainly turns me off from the more traditional folk sound. Mumford & Sons are fronted by Marcus Mumford and completed by Winston Marshall, Ben Lovett and Ted Dwane (needless to say, they are not his sons!). Their robust sound and Mumford's gravelly tones mean that if you found Fleet Foxes lacked cojones or NATW a bit fey then this album might be far more to your taste.

The opening title track has all the harmonised voices you might expect from Fleet Foxes but is soon bolstered by a heavy sounding drum, organ and even a banjo. The first line, 'Serve God love me and mend,' is a quotation from Much Ado About Nothing and it isn't the last time that the lyrics have a slightly portentous air. In fact I only have a couple of tiny quibbles about this album so lets get those out of the way. Those lyrics can sometimes be highlighted by the rigid way that Mumford often sticks to rhyme and meter. What this means is that sometimes that places the stress on the wrong parts of words which can sound a little clumsy. You could also say that a few of tracks on the album follow a similar structure so that despite the varied tunes and arrangements there is something a bit samey about it. These really are tiny things though; the lyrical journey on the album is bold and poetic and the music ranges from the rousing to the reflective.

The festive period and current cold snap make Winter Winds an apposite track and its joyful combination of ukelele and brass section make it one of the standouts. There are foot stompers like Roll Away Your Stone (one of many religious references amongst the lyrics) and Little Lion Man, quieter moments like the male harmony driven Timshel and album closer After The Storm, and some tracks that do both like I Gave You All or personal favourite Thistle And Weeds. Musically the band's love of country, folk and bluegrass provides the dominant sounds with just enough edge to keep folk-sceptics interested. Any album that manages to make a banjo sound cool must be doing something right. The live performance below will give you the idea as well as hinting at the power that the band have in the flesh.


Monday, 11 January 2010

Vampire Weekend - Contra

It was at a similarly chilly time of year back in 2008 that Vampire Weekend released their eponymous debut album. Unseasonably warm, afro-infused pop had my toes tapping for the rest of the year and it remains an album to get all hips wriggling chez nous. The naysayers accused the Ivy League graduates of being too clever with their lyrics about obscure punctuation and architectural features and even of cultural tourism with the African musical influences (let's be honest - if you removed the African musical influences from pop music you'd be left with...well, Chas 'n' Dave. And they've just split up). Personally, I grew up listening to Paul Simon's Graceland so I have no problem bouncing about the room to that kind of thing and I have been looking forward to the release of their sophomore effort.

Opening track Horchata will be grist to the mill of the doubters with its subject (a Mexican rice drink) and rhyming - balaclava and aranciata to name but two. For the converted, along with tracks like White Sky, Holiday and the guitar driven Cousins, it is a track that could have come from their previous album, providing more of the same if that's what you're after. Where they depart there are some huge hits and perhaps the odd miss. Some of the tracks that had me worried on my first listen have already become amongst my favourites. One still remains at the risk of being skipped each time though. One day some kind of judicial process will bring Auto-tune to trial for crimes against music but until that time we will have to endure more experiments with it like California English. It is followed however by the beautiful Taxi Cab in which frontman Koenig employs those beautiful, effortless, Paul Simon tones, backed by strings and later harpsichord. How's that for Ivy League! The electronic experimentation is far more successful on Run, a tale of escape that bursts with energy and light. It is an example of a track where the Afro influences are absorbed rather dominant, a good indication of where Vampire Weekend will continue to triumph. Giving Up The Gun is a good example of a track that has really grown on me, sounding first like something from an 80's brat-pack-flick-soundtrack but revealing something lovely with each new listen. The only drawback at the moment is that if M79 had a whiff of Ski-Sunday about it, then the repeated refrain of 'Go on, go on, go on' on this track might just remind you of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted. Sorry, I shouldn't have said that because it certainly will now (if you know what I'm talking about that is). Diplomat's Son is the longest track on a short album, almost two in one, its reggae like rhythm breaking down in places so that piano and strings can plonk and twirl away. There is something haunting and disorienting about closer I Think Ur A Contra which I'm loving. It's often the quieter moments that herald something exciting on this album, although I can't stop jumping around to Cousins either. In spite of those accusations from those against you can't help but admire the ways in which Vampire Weekend are clever and make the most of those influences, combining them with genuine creativity to make something entirely their own. It's early days but this already the first must-have album of the year. What better way to beat the cold-snap than put this on, mix up some horchata, and enjoy.


Thursday, 7 January 2010

'learning how to vanish'

Waking Up In Toytown

by John Burnside

In his first memoir, A Lie About My Father, Burnside focused on his foundling father, a hard-drinking, tough-love kind of man, but also charted his own drink and drug fuelled descent into the abyss and the painful realisation that he couldn't help but see that man he hated so much at times staring back at him when he looked in the mirror. His second memoir puts himself at the centre of the picture but once again he chooses to filter his revelations through portraits of those around him, in this case the many misfits and failed relationships that peppered the past that was 'Not so long ago when I was still mad'. This is no misery-memoir though, fear not, Burnside not only has little sympathy for himself but is able to employ the dark humour of his fiction and an unflinching honesty to illuminate what he admits is a fairly tawdry and shameful period in his life. The madness in this case is the result of a condition called apophenia, described by the schizophrenia specialist Klaus Conrad as 'the unmotivated seeing of connections' coupled with the 'specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness.' Or as Burnside more pithily puts it 'seeing things that weren't there.' But let's not go too deep, too soon.

Readers of the LRB may have come across one chapter of this book already, entitled Losing Helen (If you're a subscriber and missed it you can view it here, if you're not a subscriber you can buy it!) . Burnside uses the sudden death of a work colleague to achieve many things simultaneously. Firstly a vivid portrait of a working community, but most importantly he provides an honest account of losing somebody he wasn't really that close to, a death that still looms large in his memory, assuming its own importance. It teaches him something about memory which is crucial to the book.

She is a story, nothing more - but then maybe this is why we tell ourselves stories, in order to work out why we remember some things more than others, why some events live on in the mind, why some faces and voices persist for decades, to be resurrected in the dark by an insomniac who wakes knowing he has certainly lost something on the way, but has no idea what it is. Which means, of course, that the story I am telling is not about this dead girl after all: it isn't about her, it's about me. It's not about her life or her death: it's about what I lost and how, whatever that lost thing might be, it resembles her in some way.

In a way the book as a whole is an attempt to piece together or reclaim what was lost. As in his first memoir he examines the veracity of memory and experience, the fictionalisation of remembrance, describing it at one point thus:

My memory of that time is more than a little confused, and I can't fully account for how I got clear. What I do recall is a room that I can picture so precisely, it doesn't feel like a memory at all. It's more like the film I saw last night, or a photograph from a magazine where the central figure is strangely familiar, even if he isn't quite the person whose name first comes to mind. This central character - the one vague spot in a memory that is otherwise extremely vivid - is familiar in the way that an actor in an old black-and-white film noir would be familiar if I saw him out of context, crossing the road in my home town, maybe, or paying his bill at the cafe on the high street...Now that this is a story I am telling - and it's me telling it, not him - I can accept that the central figure in this scene is a version of myself, or at least someone I used to be; but when I say as much, it seems wrong, because what I recall is so obviously an actor or an impostor playing a role, and even that role, even the character he is pretending to be, is not the person I think of now when I try to summon up the image of myself then.

He is on his bed surrounded by bottles filled with a sweet smelling dark gold liquid, 'a mixture of blood, honey, alcohol, olive oil and urine'. On the top of each open bottle is a feather 'balanced precariously...If one feather falls, then the spell fails.' The spell is to protect the naked man on the bed, pinned there for two days after witnessing a terrifying incident (in all probability only in his mind) that he cannot begin to recall today.

This is the nadir from which he is lifted, seeking solace and making an attempt towards normality by moving to his version of Surbiton - 'Shorthand for a place that almost existed' - in his case, the suburbs outside Guildford. Anyone who has lived in suburbia will know that the veil of normality can hide some pretty strange goings on and Burnside finds many other routes to dysfunction. As he says, 'all craziness is kin.' It isn't just the intake of alcohol and drugs that drives that journey but the faltering connections between people.

Friendship, or at least drinking companionship, is soured when his buddy attempts to enlist him in the murder of his wife, inspired by Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train. A relationship turns out to be based on love for the woman's children rather than her herself (Burnside describes brilliantly the way that the daughter 'chooses' him, her love and attention impossible to resist). When love really does come along it is in a form that makes it unacceptable. Each chapter describes another instance in which he attempted to be normal, to disappear into the everyday world and was found wanting. I always wondered where he got the ability to make the mundane into something beautiful in his fiction. Now having read more about his own battles to silence voices and find rest, his search for what the Japanese call 'wabi-sabi: the state of quotidian grace in which everyday objects and events become sacraments', I've come a little closer to understanding.


Monday, 4 January 2010

'We're already us'

by Richard Powers

Powers has featured on this blog a couple of times and is a writer I am always interested in as his background in physics means that his novels are always likely to test the grey cells. The flip side to a combination of literature and science is that he can sometimes test your patience too, the literature sometimes suffers at the expense of the science, but when it works (most notably for me in The Gold Bug Variations), there is something genuinely invigorating about being pulled in lots of directions at the same time. His last novel The Echo Maker may have won him the National Book Award but I found that examination of identity through Oliver Sacks-like neuroscience a slightly slow and depressing read. His latest seems a far cheerier proposition: What if there was a gene for happiness?

In America his latest novel is not subtitled as such but instead ": An Enhancement" which relates I think not only to the contents but also the style in which they are presented. The authorial voice is hard to pin down at first, breaking directly through the text to address us and speaking of the central character, Russel Stone, as if he were not the very person writing the book, which he is.

'I can't see him well, at first. But that's my fault, not his. I'm years away, in another country...'

Stone becomes a teacher in Chicago, tutoring in creative non-fiction and it is amongst his class that he encounters Thassa Amzwar a Berber refugee from Algeria, who seems to radiate a happiness not in keeping with her troubled family history and flight from death and danger.

She's shorter than Stone thought. She's wearing a kind of needle-work, coral-colored shift. She could be from southern Italy. But her round face shines with precisely the light he remembers, the flushed look announcing that the most remarkable thing has happened to her, just now, down this hall, outside this building, on the streets of this improbable city. A thing that redeems everyone, for years to come.

Could there be some genetic cause to this seemingly unbreakable optimism? At first Stone assumes that she is on some kind of new medication (the world we are in is one where mood enhancers come in pill-form, where it is assumed everything will one day be treatable) or perhaps giddy from her trauma. The first hurdle for Powers is how to create a believable character from such a set-up but he does well, not only in describing her attitude but in showing the impact on it from what happens when others discover her gift. In such a society she could be a seriously valuable commodity and one man looking for just such a person is Thomas Kurton, a geneticist who has been working on the genetic basis of happiness and only needs the perfect subject to prove his hypothesis. This develops effectively into a struggle between the two men for what Thassa offers, although of course this isn't something that she actively offers, aware of its value, just simply who she is and that she chooses not to withhold.

Powers does a brilliant job of commenting on his society, a slightly enhanced version you might say of our own. For Stone, who has learnt to his cost the power of his own words once they're in the public domain, the current fascination for transparent social lives and a total loss of privacy leaves him feeling protective.

But even as he shrinks from it, the world graduates to runaway first person. Blogs, mashups, reality programming, court TV, chat shows, chat rooms, chat cafes, capital campaigns, catalog copy, even warzone journalism all turn confessional. Feelings are the new facts. Memoir is the new history. Tell-alls are the new news.

In such a society you can imagine the media circus that kicks into action once they get a hold of Thassa. A medical marvel, a living prophecy, a foreign danger; there are many ways she can be interpreted and her appearance on America's largest talk show, Oona (think of an Irish-American Oprah and you have the idea), provides the moment that creates her myth and allows Powers again to critique the speed of modern communication. Her moment of near meltdown and recovery becomes a much copied and parodied YouTube sensation.

"Oona, listen," a pretty Vancouver Eurasian lip-synchs, in her own shot-perfect recreation of the segment. "I promise you: This is easy. Nothing is more obvious."
A stocky blond high school junior wearing a Berber blouse in her Orlando bedroom recites for the lens, "People think they need to be healed, but the truth is much more beautiful."
Atlanta: "Even a minute is more than we deserve." Spokane, Allentown: "No one should be anything but dead." San Diego, Concord, Moline: "Instead, we get honey out of rocks. Miracles from nothing."
"It's easy," all the Thass Amzwars across the globe swear to anyone who'll listen. "We don't need to get better. We're already us. And everything that is, is ours."

Getting back to style, that strange authorial voice is the result of Stone's rehabilitation as a writer. His romantic relationship with a counsellor encourages him to put pen to paper again and we are ostensibly reading his own creative non-fiction, his rendering of events. Some sections begin 'So there's this scene...' for example and at other times the interjections are more blatant, stressing all the time his failure to make the most of his material.

I'm caught like Buridan's ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction. I see now exactly who these people are and where they came from. But I can't quite make out what I'm to do with them.

Quite a frank admission from an author and one that the uncharitable might use against Powers rather than Stone at times (Buridan's ass if you didn't already know (I have my own hand in the air here) is an illustration of a paradox in philosophy in the conception of free will. So now you know). There are also still those moments where scientific language is used to describe the scientific thinking of his scientific characters and you wonder whether scientists really think like that (Goose bumps run up Kurton's neck - piloerection, puffing up against danger - archaic reflex pirated by that spin-off of no known survival value: awe). As I've said before, Powers isn't to all tastes, but there's no doubting his willingness to tackle not only big science but also the big themes that spin off from that. The dryness of facts and reason are often counter-balanced by the very human mistakes people make trying to find love or companionship. Order runs alongside disorder and with Generosity he has written a book which dares to take a look at some of the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human and even where that very idea comes from.


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