Monthly Archives: November 2011

New Heights

Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights has at least two things in common with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris: both films are fully achieved, highly original works of art, and both are magnificent examples of what a proper film adaptation of a novel should be. An adaptation that is really little more than an illustration of the original text might be an enjoyable way of idling away a Sunday afternoon but as art it is essentially pointless. I loved John Hilcoat’s 2005 movie The Proposition, and couldn’t wait to see his take on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In the event the film came as rather a disappointment. It was just like the book, only without McCarthy’s apocalyptic prose; the pictures without the text, if you like. All it did was make me long to read the novel again.

Tarkovsky’s Solaris sheds new light on Lem’s novel precisely because it is such a highly charged, idiosyncratic, wilfully inaccurate adaptation, a variation on the original theme, Tarkovsky’s convoluted riff on Lem’s simple twelve-bar blues. (For anyone who’s interested, AT’s Solaris jockeys constantly for position with Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock as my favourite film of all time.)

Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights was written in 1846. It is more than a hundred and fifty years old. It is intensely verbal, its phrases and expressed sentiments seem to rip and tear at the conventions of the English novel as they then existed, and nothing truly comparable with it would come out of these islands until Hardy’s Jude the Obscure fifty years later.  I love all the Brontes. In terms of role models they always held, and still hold, a treasured place in my heart. I loved Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Villette from the age of twelve.  But much though I tried I neither liked nor understood Wuthering Heights until I was in my late twenties. I was repelled by its cruelty, its stark pessimism, what I saw as its nastiness. As my mother put it recently (she was rereading the book while visiting my brother in Sydney, Australia) no one in it is very nice. All too true. But there is no denying that Wuthering Heights could honourably be described as the first modern English novel.

Andrea Arnold has taken Emily Bronte’s scorching verbal excesses and transformed them into a film so sparse on dialogue that you could almost watch the first hour of it with the sound muted and not miss a thing. Yet somehow, magically, she has caught and distilled the essence of the novel, illuminating it with her own unique vision and reminding us, in so doing, how very contemporary it is. I have never seen the Northern moors so completely understood by the camera as in Arnold’s movie. Here we have a landscape that is bitter, chillingly resplendent in a way that reminds us as so few films do of what the land is like when there are no toilets, running water, electricity or central heating. It is beautiful for a moment, but its people live upon it as precariously as the beasts they tend and kill. The Lintons’ mansion is a pretty dolls’ house that could be swept into ruin with one slight change in circumstance of its owners; Wuthering Heights itself seems just two steps from dereliction.

There’s plenty of politics in Wuthering Heights of course – you could even call it solidly Marxist. But essentially it’s the story of a personal feud that ends in the annihilation of both parties. The final frames of Arnold’s film are, in many ways, as bleakly corrosive as anything Hilcoat showed us in The Road. And yet, as with Arnold’s two previous features Red Road and Fish Tank, I came away exhilarated. In her recent interview for The Guardian, Arnold told of how the shoot took so much out of her that at one point it reduced her to tears. It is this level of personal commitment to her material that shines through in every frame. What Arnold has given us is not a period adaptation or even a romantic drama but a testament to the survival of the artist, a homage to Emily Bronte that both reminds us of her achievement as a novelist and confirms that Arnold herself is an artist of comparable stature.

Brahms and Liszt

Last night, Chris drew my attention to a wonderful article in the local paper that gave a brief survey, with photographs, of some of the ‘lost pubs’ of Hastings and St Leonards. To me, lost pubs are like the ghost stations of the London underground: fascinating, poignant, sealed time capsules of our recent past. I was shocked and saddened to see how many have gone, but as someone interested in the history of pub names I was amused to see that one of these now defunct was called the Brahms and Liszt.

Of course, where one pub is lost another might conceivably be found. The old West St Leonards Primary School on the Bulverhythe Road between St Leonards and Bexhill was demolished more than a decade ago to make way for a new out-of-town supermarket. The historic school buildings and a number of older private houses were levelled, only for Asda to discover that local people were not as enthusiastic about the project as they might have liked. Planning permission for the store was refused, the project was abandoned, and the site remains uselessly vacant till this day. But I am happy to report that it did eventually became the home of The White Dragon, the pub that features so centrally in Chris’s novel The Extremes….

Speaking of Brahms though, BBC4s current series charting the development of the classical symphony didn’t give me nearly enough of him. For all his Beethoven-envy, Brahms did every bit as much as his hero to develop the harmonic language of symphonic writing, yet the programme designers at the BBC chose to dispense with his achievement in a little under ten minutes. If Beethoven’s music has its architectural equivalent in the soaring spires of Koln cathedral, Brahms’s always sounds to me like a wet November afternoon on Hamburg docks, but that doesn’t mean I love it any the less. Brahms makes me ache. With my Karajan recordings of the Brahms symphonies still stuck in the bottom of a box somewhere, I’ve been listening to Marek Janowski conducting the RLPO in the fourth. My story ‘Chaconne’ (currently available to read at the Featured Story page of this website) was written partly as an appreciation of this symphony.

I’m finally getting around to reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction in 2008. Loving it so far, and especially in the light of the massive disappointment I suffered on Saturday night when I sat down to watch the first episodes of the much-anticipated second series of the Danish detective series The Killing. I’d heard nothing but good things about it. From what I understood, this was a crime series that put the emphasis firmly on character, and 9pm saw me all ready with cup of cocoa in hand and my mind-to-murder sensors fully engaged. As it turned out, I think I would have enjoyed the first series a lot more than this new one. Love Sarah Lund, love the woolly jumper. Love the muted colours and noirish Eurocrime cinematography. But who in God’s name passed the script?? A largely incompetent and totally unconvincing mish-mash of people running around in combat fatigues blathering on about possibly-non-existent terrorist cells, I found this attempt by the writers to make their story ‘current’ by foisting on it the trappings of contemporary news stories not only to be politically simplistic (an understatement) but also to be emotionally unaffecting. It’s all action, no talk, which from my reading and understanding would seem to be the diametric opposite of the first series. The crime writer – indeed any writer – has to make his characters either sympathetic or interesting (preferably both, and this includes murderers); apart from Lund herself the characters in these first two hours of The Killing 2 are neither.

I’m still undecided as to whether I’m going to brave another hour of it next Saturday (I do kind of want to know what Raben is going to do now that he’s escaped from the hospital) but I lament the misguided decisions taken by the scriptwriter and presumably by the programming team in steering the show away from the cerebral and towards the incoherent.

What a relief then to pick up Mr Whicher, and discover in the first two chapters all the fascinating personal minutiae I’d been hoping for in The Killing. Ordinary lives laid bare are always extraordinary (perhaps one of the central tenets of my own writing) and in the story of Constance Kent we have madness, violence, ambiguity, tragedy all within the walls of one family home. What we also have is the story of the birth of detective fiction. Jonathan Whicher, it transpires, was one of the first British detectives as we would today understand the word, and a figure of mystery and glamour. I was intrigued to learn from Kate Summerscale’s introduction to her book that no pictoral record of Whicher survives, that he was elusive to the end and even now.

That’s the kind of story I like. The kind you might chew over at leisure in the old Brahms and Liszt, and no combat gear required.

Runaway

For anyone fascinated by the art of the short story, or confused by the sheer multiplicity of short stories to be read and unsure of where to start, the Guardian website’s Brief Survey of the Short Story series is the place to go. The brilliant thing about the series is that it reaches beyond the usual suspects (Chekhov, Mansfield, Carver) towards the radical (Borowski, Davis, Ballard) and into the realms of the visionary (Schulz, Walser, Jones). The series’s author, Chris Power, writes with knowledge, passion and a proselytising zeal. I hope they turn his articles into a book, because they’re a truly valuable resource, the kind of pieces you want to reread and keep for reference.

This week the series reached Part 37 and the writer under discussion was Alice Munro. Munro has become fashionable recently, which is wonderful, because she deserves the publicity. But listening to the way she is sometimes talked about I often have the feeling she is misunderstood. People think she does social commentary, or that she’s a kind of latter day Katherine Mansfield, all exquisite workmanship and finely tuned nuance. In fact she’s wayward and not a little dangerous. Her stories – many of them novella length – are discursive and wild, novelistic in scope, even though she claims she cannot ‘do’ novels. The basis of their plots lies in the quotidian: love, aging, family relationships. Yet the direction they take – into madness, obsession, the territory of the spiritual outsider – always tends towards the metaphysical and the gothic.

From what I read about her before reading her, I thought I would enjoy Munro for her skill but find her too safe. Thank God these misconceptions didn’t put me off!

Carson McCullers’s ‘Wunderkind’ or ‘Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland’ could be Alice Munro stories.

One of the first stories I read by her, ‘Powers’, in her 2004 collection Runaway, turned out to be a little slipstream masterpiece. ‘Free Radicals’, in her most recent book Too Much Happiness, is downright frightening but at the same time one of the blackest pieces of humour you will ever read.

The unadorned brilliance of her writing is, quite simply, thrilling to encounter. She’s one of those writers you envy whilst knowing you don’t have a hope of emulating her.

She reminds you, when you need reminding, of what writing is.

This morning I finished the second draft of Spin. A novella inspired by a Greek myth, it’s one of the most personal pieces of fiction I’ve yet written.

And this evening I wrote the first, shuddering paragraph of something new.

Going Dutch

I think it was seeing Lars von Trier’s Tristan-infused masterpiece Melancholia (for anyone who’s interested, my full write-up will be posted on the Starburst website on the 14th of this month) that reminded me I was long overdue for a Wagner fix. By happy coincidence Der fliegende Hollaender had just opened at the Royal Opera House and I was lucky enough to snag a ticket for just £13. I see that some reviewers have been complaining about the lack of an interval in this production but I couldn’t disagree with them more. To my mind, there would have been nothing worse than to have the taut, emotional and thoroughly mesmerising performance I saw last night disturbed by the aimless chatter and shifting about that an interval seems to encourage. What’s the point of it? There’s not even enough time to get to the bar. The only complaint I would make about the timing is that the slightly late start meant that instead of luxuriating in that unique post-Wagner glow I had to leap out of my seat and dash like buggery up the Strand in order to avoid missing my train.

I’d say that Dutchman is undoubtedly the most readily approachable of Wagner’s operas, and the one I’d recommend to anyone wanting to have a stab at getting to grips with him. What’s less often said but that came home to me again and again last night is that the Dutchman is also the opera for fans of things gothic. The story is chilling enough to give you goose bumps, as insanely impassioned as a novel by one of the Bronte sisters. The opera contains drama, magic and monstrousness in such concentrated potency that the two hours of its duration seem compressed into a single bright ball of manic energy. It’s hard to pick a favourite moment when the whole thing was so sstisfying, but the ‘duelling chorus’ between Daland’s jolly sailor boys and the Hollaender’s ghost mariners was something that will rise to haunt me many times as I walk along the seafront this winter I am sure.

The greatest Dutchman of all time would have to be Hans Hotter, a singer I have loved so long I can still barely come to terms with the fact that he is no longer with us. But Egils Silins’s performance last night was delivered in that same spirit of natural musicality and utter commitment to the role. And Anja Kampe’s radiant Senta did much to remind me of her great near-namesake in the role, Anja Silja.

Travelling home on the train, I found myself wondering why ghost ships haven’t featured more in film. For a subject so rich in symbolism and mythology it’s sad that recent attempts to capture something of the Dutchman ambience – Ghost Ship, Triangle – haven’t done more than brushed at the surface.  It came to me then that the closest modern art  has to offer in replicating the terror and splendor of a voyage on the Wagnerian high seas may well be Wolfgang Petersen’s WW2 drama Das Boot, another German epic in which doomed sailors endlessly circle the ocean, imprisoned in a hell not easily imagined by others, fated never to land, never to truly rejoin the society they left when they signed on with their mad captain…..

Is The Flying Dutchman a story of war then, after all? The war of the self against the other, the heart against the mind?

Anyone who can should get a ticket.