Saturday, June 29, 2013

To fly, to dream,...or to stop dreaming? (Books - The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud)

Nora Eldridge, the narrator of Claire Messud's new novel The Woman Upstairs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), is a school teacher and a dutiful daughter caring for an infirm parent.  She is 42,
...which is a lot more like middle age than forty or even forty-one.  Neither old nor young, I'm neither fat nor thin, tall nor short, blond nor brunette, neither pretty nor plain.  Quite nice looking in some moments, I think is the consensus, rather like the heroines of Harlequin romances, read in quantity in my youth.  I'm neither married nor divorced, but single.  What they used to call a spinster, but don't anymore, because it implies that you're dried up, and none of us wants to be that. 
Nora sits in between the roles fashioned for her by others, templates she's very dependent on (as are many of us), and the role she imagines for herself in some foggy, unspecific view of the future - a future in which she will gain courage and take over herself, a future, in which she will make great art and light the world on fire - well, that, or just accept that she's not the type, that she's just an average Jane, and to like it.
All these years, I was wrong, you see.  Most people around me, too.  And especially now that I've learned that I really am invisible, I need to stop wanting to fly.  I want to stop needing to fly.  I want it all to do over again; but also I don't.  I want to make my nothingness count.  Don't think it's impossible.
The trouble is that Nora needs others to tell her who she is.  She is not willing to reject their formulas, and that makes her angry as hell.  She's believed all this time that she's been mildly disappointed, but it takes meeting the Shahid family, particularly Sirena - a visual artist - someone seemingly free of these demands, to find out she's actually furious.

What I found so wonderful about this shout of a novel is the way it lays bare the duality of human nature through its narrator and protagonist: Nora and Sirena.  Nora is a tight, a New Englander, and Sirena a free-spirited Italian married to a Lebanese.  Nora is a single, a school teacher, Sirena a mother with a unwieldy family life.  Nora a pragmatist, who takes obligation seriously, a ruminator.  Sirena passionate, serving her own needs, alive in the present.  They end up sharing studio space and while Serena makes a sprawling, mythic construction that uses Alice in Wonderland as a jumping-off point.  Her audience can walk through this work.  It features a heart at is center, pumping rose water instead of blood - a playground of the sensual with smells, sounds - one where its heart is literally visible and the interaction between audience and art becomes a kind of improvisation. Nora makes tiny boxes - realistic depictions of great artists - who made art despite the roles their time prescribed for them - Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel - but her audience stands outside and looks in - just like Nora.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

We are the actors in history (Books - The File by Timothy Garton Ash)

The 1989 civil overthrow of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe was one of the most influential revolutions of recent history, and feels somehow quickly forgotten.  Following it, each of the USSR's dominions had to find a way suitable to its culture to transition away from totalitarian communism, and paranoia induced spying. While under Soviet rule,the East German State Security Service or STASI recruited an incredible number of its own populace as informers
According to internal records, in 1988 - the last "normal" year of the GDR - the Ministry for State Security had more than 170,000 "unofficial collaborators."  Of these, some 110,000 were regular informers, while the others were involved in "conspiratorial" services such as lending their flats for secret meetings or were simply listed as reliable contacts.  The ministry itself had over 90,000 full-time employees, of whom less than 5,000 were in the HVA foreign intelligence wing.  Setting the total figure against the adult population in the same year, this means that about one out of every fifty adult East Germans had a direct connection with the secret police. 
It was not unusual  for people to be informed on by co-workers, neighbors, friends, lovers, spouses or children. The East Germans had quite a bit of work to do to reeducate its citizens about history, economics, law, and and the role of the state.  Most of the adult population in 1989 had known only Soviet rule or, if they were old enough, the Nazis.  So following the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany made the contents of STASI files available to anyone who had one, allowing them to know who informed on them, and what they believed was known about them.  This effort at transparency often became an exercise in counter-recrimination.  In some cases, mostly for higher-ups, justice was pursued legally.  In others, the discovery of betrayal by friends and family was life-altering and devastating.

For Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford student in the 1970s writing his thesis on Berlin under Hitler, it was an opportunity to think about the interaction of the political with the personal on two levels.  On the one hand he sought to understand the impact of the state on these individuals - what motivated his informers (he's now a respected political journalist and author of many books on the revolutions of 1989 - here's a link to my thoughts on his The Magic Lantern ).  On the other, he could examine his own experience as a young man present at a key event in history, considering how subjective memory informs the telling of history.  As he puts it

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Film - Hannah Arendt (2012)

Director, Margarethe von Trotta and actress Barbara Sukowa made Rosa Luxemburg, a film about the life and politics of the provocative socialist.  Though it came out in 1986, I still remember it.  So when I heard they had teemed up again to make a film about philosopher Hannah Arendt, I didn't want to miss it.  Arendt's coverage of the Adolph Eichmann trials in Jerusalem in 1961 in The New Yorker was, to say the least, controversial and provoked incendiary reactions.  Her goal, though, according to this film, was to use thought to understand the man rather than to judge him.  This appears, too, to be von Trotta's mantra.  She makes intimate films about the interior lives of women who profoundly influenced the politics of their era to explore their motives and the consequences of living as they did for a cause.  It is a relief to see a film about the value of thought in the context of politics - especially politics that provokes strong feelings.  We could do with a little of that.  And if that weren't reason enough to see it, Janet McTeer plays writer Mary McCarthy in it.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Holding pain at arm's length (Books - Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy)

Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy is a love story, or more than that, a connection story.  The story of a connection between two men and a woman, each incomplete, in their way.  Rebecca, an artist who searches for her mother, George, a drunk, a lover of ancient languages, and Henry, an archeologist who escapes to the past.  They all end up in Athens and, in a nutshell, try to become whole again.

Van Booy looks to Athens for a sort of seedy grandeur and tries to make of the connection between his characters something of (appropriately enough) mythic proportion, only it doesn't quite work.  He uses language to try to grace each character with a sort of specialness.

Her father is out calling the name she's been given.

But her real name is known only by the change in light that comes without sound, and by the worms pushing up through the soaked crust of soil...

His chronic drinking began when he was fourteen, and inspired long walks through Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he attended boarding school.  It was a stark gray town, with lingering fog at the windows of houses...

Like her, he was from a small cottage, but in Wales, on a hillside.

"It was like camping every day," he confessed.  "The house smelled of wet magazines and I shared my bed with a dozen animals."  
 But I found a manic desperation in his attempt to make them all so pleasantly quirky.  Trying to give the intersection of their stories a sense of magical coincidence - like the film The Double Life of Veronique - in the end it just came off twee.

At that moment, a French girl living in Paris called Natalie fainted in the supermarket.

These characters all really hurt and I was truly interested in their stories, but I felt like Van Booy's writing was a lot like George's drinking.
Booze washed all that nonsense away.  It shallowed his perception.  As a drunk, he was free to explore the earth without having to digest every moment, as if it were his last.
What he really wanted to write was an opera. Van Booy tries with the lyricism of his language to dull the pain or to encase it in a warm beauty, but what was most interesting about these people was their pain, and in the end, I didn't want to be held at arm's length from it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Film - The Great Gatsby (2013)

There have been three film adaptations of The Great Gatsby that I know about: The 1949 film starring Alan Ladd, The 1974 film with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and the most recent incarnation with Leonardo DiCaprio directed by Baz Luhrmann.  None of them have worked.  I can't remember why that was my impression of the earlier versions, but the new 3-D blockbuster is mostly a disaster. There are some nice touches melding 1920s and contemporary choreography and music into an interesting hybrid.  And I loved the billboard advertisement for spectacles that gazed down on the fictional wasteland between glitzy Long Island and New York City, but it seems as though Baz Luhrmann has forgotten he's no longer making Moulin Rouge.  The film is all surface with no insides.  It's as though Luhrmann were Nick at the film's beginning - completely dazzled.  It's a shame considering that the whole story is that Nick grows up and becomes disillusioned by superficiality.  Luhrmann used the text of the novel as narration rather than having Nick inhabit the action of the film. That may have worked had he chosen someone other than Tobey Maguire.  Unfortunately Maguire can't play text and has no gravitas. Nick grows old beyond his years and tries to teach Gatsby not to live in the past, Maguire still seems to be trying to act the ingenue, even though he's almost 40.  Had he felt his age, it might have been interesting.  Luhrmann's idea of justifying the narration by having Nick talk to a psychiatrist was a misguided anachronism and having lines of type fly across the screen had no point other than to telegraph how self-conscious Luhrmann was about adapting a great novel.  I loved Luhrmann's work when he had no money to waste.  Strictly Ballroom and his wonderful La Boheme were all heart. I hope he finds some creative moxie again instead of hiding behind production values that communicate nothing but sheer hysteria.