Review: Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen)

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The last Austen novel I read was Emma; it had a high standard to live up to, because the BBC’s recent(ish) adaptation with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller is one of my favourite four hours of television. Yet all that I loved about the TV series was to be found in the novel. Another favourite piece of costume drama is ITV’s Northanger Abbey, with Felicity Jones and JJ Feild (it was this that got me excited early on for Jones’ part in Rogue One). It’s light and knowing, fond of its characters, and beautifully presented.

I’m also usually quite happy to read the source material for TV series or movies after having seen the derivative product; on the other hand, I can be more picky when it’s a book I’ve loved, and I’m not certain the adaptation will live up to expectations. But generally, being a fan of medieval texts, I am quite accustomed to variation between versions, to the storyteller’s right to their own preferences, and to the idea that even changes that I might not much like can happen for a good reason. With this stated, I’ll admit early on that I still prefer the ITV adaptation’s script to the young Austen’s first novel; I think that those behind its adaptation are a little more fond of the characters than Austen herself appears to be.(1)

What struck me most in reading Northanger Abbey was that the positioning of Catherine as the heroine was about the character’s perception of the world, rather than about Austen’s decision to make her a protagonist. Perhaps that’s the most blindingly obvious thing one could say, but I’ve been familiar with the opening about Catherine’s potential for heroic stature for some time, although had no context in which to fit it until now. Eleanor Tilney is surely the novel’s real tragic, suffering ‘heroine’; but Catherine takes all the information she gets from Eleanor about Mrs Tilney’s death and Catherine never thinks of what this might have been like for Eleanor as the heroine of her own story. Instead it is all refracted through Catherine’s own perception of the world, in which she is the heroine. Similarly, when we learn of Eleanor’s own romantic troubles at the close of the novel, satisfactorily resolved with the surprise acquisition of a fortune and a title, it fits the pattern of the stories that Austen is gently mocking in a better way than Catherine and Henry’s swift, dutiful professions of love.

Apologies if that reads more like an undergraduate essay than normal; I realise that Austen is parodying the genre of the Gothic novel, but have never read one myself, so my own observations must be fairly shallow…

It’s funny, as you’d expect. And Austen’s acute powers of observation are already on full show in what is, at its core, the earliest novel she submitted for publication. But in comparison to the adaptation, I found its happy couple had dated poorly, even in comparison to Emma and Knightley (that’s an essay for a whole other day). Tilney is said to want to marry Catherine for no reason other than that she likes him and he’s flattered, and by the time his father sends her away in disgrace, Tilney feels obliged to make good on what has essentially been promised to her in all but word. Austen flings this information in the reader’s face right at the close of the story, when up until then, I had been quite happy to believe, as naïvly as Catherine, that he was naturally just as infatuated with her as she was with him. Now, I’ve no doubt that such honest gallantry was much to be valued in Austen’s time, and the point of the story is rather that, next to Eleanor’s quietly dramatic life, Catherine is a very ordinary girl, with very ordinary prospects, but it’s not an ending I relished! ITV’s adaptation sticks in its equivalent of Colin Firth in a pond — Catherine and Henry’s ride through the rain; her artfully muddied cheek(2) — plus all of Catherine’s fevered, novel-addled dreams, reminding us that the appeal of all those ‘horrid’ things Catherine loves reading is a good deal less sterile than Austen’s proper manners are able to let on.

The TV adaptation also allows for more of the melodrama that Austen resolutely keeps separate from her heroine’s life: though Austen’s Tilney guesses that Catherine suspected his father of murder, or something like it, he shrugs it off, and goes above and beyond to help her get over her embarrassment at having been discovered in such imaginings. Honestly, TV Tilney’s reaction is somewhat more plausible; he’s not exactly pleased to hear that she’s imagined his father to be a murderer, and his disappointment is that of one who enjoys her company as someone more equal to him than Austen’s Tilney finds Austen’s Catherine. In the novel, Tilney is able to overlook her wild assumptions apparently because he sees her as something so ignorant and unformed, that it seems he does not expect any better from her.

The patronising attempts of those around her to ‘improve’ her aside, Catherine is still a character I’m very fond of. She’s guileless and artless, as we are repeatedly told, but I recognise the simple hopefulness with which she imagines that everyone says precisely what they mean; the frustration and exhaustion she feels when around people like John Thorpe and General Tilney, and ultimately Isabella, who all exaggerate without thought, lying and contradicting themselves at every opportunity. Catherine’s worldview is stuck between the innocence of her loving, rural upbringing, and the wildness of the worlds she reads about in novels. She needs to learn about the middle ground, but without becoming jaded. I’m not sure that she’s ever allowed to reach that point fully in the novel, but then perhaps it’s just my cynical half-eye on the relationships in Eliot’s Middlemarch that makes me fear for the future of Catherine Morland that Austen never describes. When her mother mutters about what a learning experience running a household will be for her, I want to protect Catherine from all her future embarrassments. But perhaps that’s this reader’s defect rather than the novel’s.


(1) Ok, General Tilney is a fairly obvious exception. But the TV version’s interpretation of his attitude towards Mrs Tilney — a ‘kind of vampirism’ after all — allows Henry and Eleanor to both escape the unpleasantness of his household (which Austen herself shows), sidestepping what Austen sees as a beneficial waiting period for Henry and Catherine, but compensating for it by showing them to be mutually in love in a way that Austen holds back from. And what is the propriety of the Morlands to a modern audience that is quite happy for General Tilney to remain a villain?

Total aside here, but this reminds me of how perplexed I was at the end of watching the recent movie version of Vanity Fair. I got the impression, again never having read it, that as a satire the point was not to like the characters, but to amuse oneself at their expense, but that the movie felt rather sad and mean because it made much of its cast too likeable in their fallibility. On the other hand, reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, I railed against the stupidity of the characters and how much they annoyed me, not appreciating that it was meant to be a parody in its own right. Perhaps this is where I find myself confused in Northanger Abbery too: are characters in a satire or parody meant to be liked and likeable? No one reads Candide so they can empathise with Pangloss and Candide, right?

(2) Put this scene, Colin Firth in a pond, and the grain store scene from ITV’s Mayor of Casterbridge in all your ‘best depictions of unspoken sexual tension in a period drama’ lists…

Review: Santa Evita (Tomás Eloy Martínez)

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(Photo by Robin Minchum, at Perón Perón [x])

I accumulated floods of file cards and stories so as to be able to fill in all the unexpected blank spaces of what, later on, was going to be my novel. But I left them where they were, leaving the story, because I am fond of unexplained blank spaces.

In this, I am of one mind with the author. And it is more for the ‘unexplained blank spaces’ and for the swampy, indefinable territory between history and fiction that I came to Santa Evita, than out of any knowledge or particular interest in Argentine history.

It’s a long, meandering novel, and it feels appropriate to begin by discussing the ending, not least as the ending concerns the work’s beginning. By its close, I felt more than anything the strength of its similarities with Javier Cercas’ far more compact Soldiers of Salamis (2001; Santa Evita was first published in 1995). Whether there was direct influence I won’t speculate, but the same slightly neurotic, ambivalent narrator is pulled inexorably, reluctantly into both stories. Both are stories mired in a violent, vivid memory of history, and both thus encourage ambivalence: the accidental moment where a leading fascist was spared death, and the strange indignities to which the body of Eva Perón was subjected after her husband’s first deposition in 1952. Soldiers of Salamis discovers an ending full of internationalism and hope, however, where Santa Evita finds the author finally able to return to Argentina after years of exile, unable, or unwilling, to fully describe the hold that Evita’s story has on him — and on the other subjects of his story — though perhaps it is indescribable, recognised and understood only by the Argentines who lived through the politics of the twentieth century.

It is an interesting story, though not, perhaps a satisfying one. Santa Evita weaves an imagined account of Evita’s last days with the author’s interpretations of newsreel footage and his interviews with figures such as her hairdresser. It also wanders into her past, via the recollections of her mother and fellow actresses, and the lascivious speculations of her political enemies, but its focus is largely on the reception of her corpse by Perónists and by the military following Juan Perón’s flight from Argentina later in the year that she died.

The author retains a sympathy for all the characters who appear in his text, though he describes himself as a distant, unemotive and on occasions cruel researcher, as in the encounter with ‘Irene’. He is perhaps keen to emphasise the journalistic intent that originally prompted his investigations; or perhaps mired in the depression that he claims lifted miraculously upon his decision to write the story down. The sympathetic approach to all the individuals involved, from his depiction of Eva Perón’s last days, to the struggles of the man initially tasked with concealing the embalmed corpse, means that this is not a novel with a particularly strident political message. It explores madnesses and insecurities on all sides, teasing out the human doubts of its subjects, and the inappropriateness of their equally human lack of doubt. Some of Martínez’s ‘revelations’ are shocking — such as all that is inflicted upon the corpse — and others are less so — the proposed reason for the young actress Evita’s mysterious absence from the historical record for a period of eleven months or so will probably surprise no female reader, at least.

A sense of personal dislocation and unease permeates the novel, where description is at its finest in instances such as when a source’s brief flashes of emotion are accompanied by his need to look away from the author, who describes this expression as one in which the subject’s experienced emotion is thought to be the mislaid emotion of some other person, whom he then looks for. The involuntary nature of our feelings and the actions that they induce us to take is a constant here: never investigated directly, nor questioned, but implicitly underlying the inexorable descent into obsession that so many characters in the novel experience.

The story is also one of male possession. Evita’s voice opens its narrative, her dreamy self-reflections as she lies weakening, dying of cancer, but after her death her wishes are denied, she is talked of and talked over and constantly redefined as an object of want by so many others. The way in which her requests are ignored upon her death; the way that her mother gradually loses influence over what is to happen to her daughter’s remains; the fearful helplessness of Colonel Koenig’s wife; of Arancibia’s sister-in-law; the unaffected horror of Irene when informed that she had not had a doll as her childhood companion, but a real, human body; all cry out pitifully from the margins of the novel. As Perón claimed to have made her, so each man who encounters her body after death remakes her in his own imagination, turning the hatred of slurs — Mare — and attempts at distance — Person — into a fierce struggle to ‘tame’ bones and formaldehyde, and the dangerous ideas that live on with her preserved corpse.

Eva Perón died at 33, the same age that Christ was supposed to have died, the same age that medieval representations of the dead aimed to show their subjects. Like all good saints, she must have a martyrdom, only in Santa Evita the deprivations and misunderstandings that martyrs are subjected to occur after her death, to her impassive body. Flowers and candles apparently planted by her supporters, and the scent of lavender from the embalmer’s ointments, are the standard attributes of a saintly corpse. But the removal of a finger, a nick of her ear, a star-shaped incision, and the endless longing hands of a stream of fascinated men are Evita’s trials after death; she is as passive in her ‘sufferings’ as the tortured women of medieval saints’ lives.

The novel offers neither historical fact, nor closure to the reader. Like Soldiers of Salamis, I am most fond of it when the author’s voice is clearest, musing on the nature of truth and fiction and watching, listening to his sources, drawing sad and lonely people with an effective line or two of description, or by recounting a night of conversation between them and the author. Martínez somehow needed to tell this story, but he does not offer a full explanation of why. Prompted to ‘join the cult’ by Rodolfo Walsh, who stayed, and died, for his publications, he does not say whether following the story that he found himself investigating to its end(s) brought him any closure for himself. But he doesn’t really need to say; the loose ends, the blank spaces, are true to both life and to the form of the novel. They leave us space to think in, and they leave the story space to just be, without imposing any trite, moralising conclusions or explanations for the events within it.


I read the translation by Helen Lane from 1996.

Review: Maxïmo Park (The Junction, Cambridge)

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“If you could just … just suspend your belief in the Power of ROCK. Just for now …”

Not likely, Paul. It’s been ten years since Maxïmo Park played in Cambridge — I know, I was there — and boy, did Cambridge miss you.

Last time they played Cambridge it was at the Corn Exchange, the venue bands are said to play once on their way up, and once more on their way back down. Well, I like a band that don’t do things by the rules. This audience seemed to be split in even halves: those who were long-time fans, and those who were enjoying their first Maxïmo Park gig. This was only clear because the band asked, though; everyone sang their hearts out to every song, old or new, regardless of how many gigs they’d been to before.

The set list was skewed heavily towards material from the new album, Risk to Exist, and this went down particularly well. The response to songs that have only been available for a little under a month was huge, and the combination of leftwing, compassionate politics, great tunes and sing-along hooks suited Cambridge down to a tee. The singer Paul Smith, introducing ‘Make What You Can’, wondered ‘how deep’ he should go in his explanation of the song. He floundered between disclaimers that he wanted people to interpret it how they wanted, emphasising that this was a rock gig and not a political speech, and yet clearly appreciating Cambridge’s support for the reason the song was written: the valid question — why is our Prime Minister taking support away from those who need it most? It’s okay though, he also talked about how his dancing sometimes got a little bit Axl Rose, so it wasn’t quite a Corbyn rally (Cambridge likes those too, anyway).

The customary energy of their live shows took a few tracks to build, but with the crowd-pleasing ‘Books from Boxes’ behind them momentum grew quickly. I think it was noticeable that the more the crowd responded, the more the band enjoyed themselves, being clearly both exhausted and affected by the cheering at the end of the encore. Their long touring experience showed in the rapport with the crowd and in the determination with which they pushed through a somewhat confused version of the new track ‘Alchemy’, laughing off the ‘variations’ afterwards and soon regaining confidence with another old fan favourite, By the Monument. Honestly, we were eating out of their hands by that point anyway: the response to the band’s gestures, waving for more noise, was vast; there was a lot of clapping along, sometimes band-led, sometimes audience-led; and you could see the pockets of old-timers in the audience by who jabbed the air with a finger on the right lines in ‘Going Missing’ (‘forget it, forget it’, ‘regret it, regret it’) and pressed their palms skyward to apply some pressure…

Although it was a set list that seemed to have been chosen in a hurry (Paul had to check his notes quite a lot at the start), it fitted together really well. The segues from old tracks to new worked well; for anyone who felt a bit leery about the overt politics of ‘Make What You Can’, it was followed by the soothing, needs-no-introduction classic, ‘I Want You to Stay’. ‘Our Velocity’, with the line ‘are you willing to resist / for people you’ve never met?’ also chimed surprisingly well with ‘The Hero’ and other new tracks.

I’ve been so pleasantly surprised each time I’ve been to a Maxïmo gig since I ended a six-year hiatus on seeing them live at the final Split Festival in 2014. The fans that have stuck around, and the new fans that have accumulated long after the heyday of the 2000s takeover of the charts by indie bands, are a devoted and happy bunch; there’s dancing, not shoving (well, not much, anyway…and it depends where in the crowd you are), people take a few pictures and videos, but not so many that you can’t sing and dance around them, and the audience is always a diverse one. The band themselves, sadly now permanently without Archis, always put on a great show, and the dorky excuses Paul makes are as much a part of that as the dancing — like Axl Rose or otherwise…

The set list was an epic twenty tracks, drawn largely from their new album, but including material from their whole back catalogue. It went something like the following, though I may have the order mixed up here and there:

  1. What Did We Do To You To Deserve This? (RTE)
  2. Risk to Exist (RTE)
  3. The National Health (TNH)
  4. Books from Boxes (OEP)
  5. Leave This Island (TMI)
  6. Make What You Can (RTE)
  7. I Want You To Stay (ACT)
  8. Questing, Not Coasting (QTH)
  9. The Undercurrents (TNH)
  10. Work Then Wait (RTE)
  11. The Hero (RTE)
  12. Our Velocity (OEP)
  13. Alchemy (RTE)
  14. By the Monument (OEP)
  15. Going Missing (ACT)
  16. What Equals Love (RTE)
  17. Girls Who Play Guitar (OEP)

Encore

  1. Nosebleed (OEP)
  2. Apply Some Pressure (ACT)
  3. Get High (No I Don’t) (RTE)

Key: ACT=A Certain Trigger (2005), OEP=Our Earthly Pleasures (2007), QTH=Quicken the Heart (2009), TNH=The National Health (2012), TMI=Too Much Information (2014), RTE=Risk to Exist (2017).

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (cinema)

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Sometimes I find it hard to remember how much I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It’s one of those things (aka a part of the MCU) that, although I am glad people are critical of it, was fairly effectively ruined for me last time I had a tumblr. Yes, Drax has one dumb line. Yes, Rocket’s an asshole about that guy’s leg. These aren’t enough to make me want to write off the movie. One might even argue that they’re in-keeping with both these guys’ characters. Do so if you want; I don’t really care enough. I’m here for: pretty pretty space, the AMAZING supporting cast, the music, and the family themes/character development. And in those respects, volume 2 delivered, even more than volume 1.

I was dubious about the additions to the ensemble going in, and about the tiny cutsey Baby Groot, worrying that characterisation would get swamped and the movie would be aiming to appeal to a much younger average viewer. Although it took a few minutes to properly hit its stride — the opening’s fun, but was Trying Quite Hard — I needn’t have worried. Mantis and Nebula are incorporated successfully into the emotional arcs of the rest of the team, and much to my delight, my surprise favourite from vol. 1, Yondu, got a really great journey.

As usual, the theme is one of found family; all of the Guardians have family issues of one sort or another, and although this movie is centred around the story of Peter’s father, the other characters’ stories are never fully eclipsed by this. Gamora and Nebula finally have a chance to work things out — to an extent — Rocket finds a kindred spirit in Yondu, Drax’s continued mourning is exposed through particularly effective scenes with Mantis. This time, despite the gaping absence of several fridged women — Peter’s mother, Drax’s wife and daughter — the movie works hard to let those who are onscreen — Gamora, Nebula and Mantis in particular, but even the Priestess Ayesha — have their own stories. Splitting the team for part of the movie actually makes this development for effective too, rather than resulting in a focus on one group as opposed to the other.

It’s also a movie I’d love to see on the course list for a ‘psychoanalysis and literature’ module I took a few years ago. We watched Jurassic Park, but Guardians of the Galaxy volume 2 isn’t even subtle about its Freudian influences. Peter’s father is called Ego, for one, and Peter’s struggle to come to terms with his identity, via opposing father figures, manages to be both entertaining and affecting, if oh-so-familiar. Spoilers: (I think there’s something particularly interesting going on in the inversion of Peter’s fantasy view of space, as played out by Ego. The movie has an early reference to Peter’s womanising, reminding us that he’s part of the old fantasy where human males go off travelling in space to make out with all the hot alien chicks. Then we find out his father did that too, in a concerted effort to spread his kind, going on to kill his own offspring when they didn’t live up to his ideals. Peter’s not just participating in the classic sci-fi fantasy, he’s a product of it, and enjoys some of the benefits of being that special human in space still.) End spoilers.

Other things I really appreciated about the movie were: Tommy Two-Lines Flanagan! Living up to the nickname I gave him over ten years ago again… (and providing symmetry with his Gladiator colleague Djimon Hounsou’s role in GotG vol. 1). Did I mention that I love Yondu? Coz I love Yondu. And particularly how the movie doesn’t really excuse his behaviour; he broke the code and he knows it and he doesn’t apologise because he messed up. Similarly, Ego’s moral code isn’t really judged as ‘evil’, just too destructive to be tolerated. Villains are normally the most boring part of a movie for me — and I like it like that, I’m not interested in identifying with them most of the time — but this is a setting that successfully avoids ‘villains’, leaving just enough nuance (or absurdity) in to make it about more than inherent good vs inherent evil.

Also, there’s a satisfying level of meta going on between the seventies/eighties soundtrack and the presence of David Hasselhoff, Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone.

Some scene changes felt rushed, and some dialogue was trying too hard for my tastes, particularly Peter’s references to Cheers. But these were minor points in what was a fun, funny addition to the MCU. Not only did it remind me how excited I am for Thor: Ragnarok, it also put me in the mood to watch some Farscape. Can you imagine the crews meeting? Crichton and Peter’s conflicting cultural reference points, Gamora and Aeryn eye-rolling so hard, Drax and Drogo probably completely misunderstanding each other, and Rocket stealing Rigel’s chair to modify it/for shits and giggles. I hope there’s fic of that somewhere out there. If not: internet, you know what to do.

Review: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (Chris Packham)

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Behold, one of my earliest TV memories: Chris Packham, Terry Nutkins and Michaela Strachan, and a very ’90s introduction to the animal world. It began broadcasting about 11 months before I was born, and despite the fact that Wikipedia claims no crossover between Terry and Michaela on the show, this is the only line-up I remember watching. Combined with a very rural childhood, it had me nose-deep in Collins Gem guides, tramping the woods on dawn-chorus walks with my Dad, and picking through owl pellets and feather collections. None of that’s really comparable with Chris Packham’s animal-entrenched life, but that’s why he’s one of the best naturalists, nature presenters and wildlife activists around and I’m not (also because I can’t hold onto my obsessions for that long, they dissipate and form anew too quickly).

Also, you should know that because of this being such a long-standing connection, and because he worked an insane number of Smiths song-titles into his Springwatch presenting, and because Tory twats who hate the BBC like to pick on him at any opportunity, I will judge you on your attitude to Chris Packham. If you don’t like Chris Packham, I don’t much like you. That’s even more true having finally got my hands on the paperback of his sensuous, often brutally frank childhood memoir.

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The memoir never once uses the term ‘Asperger’s syndrome’, which the author was only diagnosed with relatively recently. It just asks you to come along, to see things through his eyes, and to feel what he felt through some of the defining moments of his childhood: moments of intense emotion, of loss, fear, puzzlement, and most of all, of love. His love for animals is as absolute, as unconditional as he sees their love being in return. He knows that others will think it’s strange that he can celebrate this love by taking, piercing and blowing bird’s eggs, by shooting sparrows to feed his pet Kestrel, by collecting dead things to dissect their wings and workings, but he makes no apology for it; he just presents you with his single-minded fascination and with the way he revels in discovery and experience. Words flow across the page, synaesthetic and winding sentences that describe the light and the English countryside in a way that puts you right there. No matter whose perspective he writes from, they all see the countryside as he does: they all experience the living world in the same way, though they may not be able to recognise it.

The narrative swoops from perspective to perspective, first introducing us to the reticent little boy collecting insects through the eyes of the ice-cream seller. It’s such a self-conscious technique, inserting himself into others, imagining how others imagined him, fleshing out their moments in the narrative limelight with details to fit their lives, their position in space and time. But it’s done sensitively, with a careful regard for each person; although most of those whose heads he imagines peering out from are people who showed him sympathy or empathy themselves. The only exception I can think of currently is the school bully, Bazza, and in that instance, Packham’s not so much seeing himself through Barry’s eyes, as imagining Barry hoping to cop a feel of the same pair of tits young Chris himself was interested in. When Barry comes to beat him up, he views Chris from a distance, sees only the lack of reaction. The rawness of feeling that Packham admits to his therapist in between chapters — no, he doesn’t forgive people like Barry. He can’t — is revealed more subtly through the use of these other perspectives. Outsiders like the shell-shocked ‘Tramp’ and the divorcé next-door see the introspective little boy far more clearly than other, equally well-meaning strangers.

The memoir flits back and forth between the sixties and seventies, tied largely together by the story of his time as the trainer of a young Kestrel and by interludes based on the therapy he sought after an attempted suicide. He’s unflinchingly honest throughout, letting the reader in on the necessity of everything he does, whether it’s the absolute, impossible-to-deny-it need he has to take a Kestrel chick, legal permit or not, best interests of the bird or not, or the incident with the fox in the snare, that turns from foolhardy, shockingly brave rescue, to a reluctant, miserable euthanasia.  He’s never knowingly or deliberately cruel, and he’s pragmatic about nature, but humans often are cruel, and when confronted with the preventable cruelty of the two boys smashing tadpoles with a hammer, he’s furious, white-hot with anger and sadness, and it’s palpable in the prose that even the memory stirs echoes of that strength of feeling.

Packham also turns a critical eye on the War generation’s buttoned-up attitudes to emotions, to pain and to sex. Much is not explained; much more is not discussed; and the things that go untalked about weigh heavy throughout his childhood. The disastrous response (lack of response) to the death of his Kestrel (a far more prosaic, lingering death than that suffered by Kes‘ bird) actually sends the boy into a spell of muteness: post-traumatic stress disorder repeatedly ignored by his parents. But again, his empathy wins through, self-taught though it may be; despite this, and despite their blazing rows and eventual separation, he’s in awe of both of his parents and all they did for him. But the childish bewilderment, the search for guidance through the most deeply-felt hurt he’d ever experienced, remains heartbreaking.

The more recent loss, the one that drove him to take far too many pills — and, thankfully, not enough pills — is never named. His eloquent rebuttal to his therapist’s question (“what about your family?”) is magnificent, and I hope that those inclined to ask questions like that of suicide survivors (and of those who don’t survive) read this passage and take a long hard look at themselves:

Everyone says that suicide is selfish. How fucking stupid. Selfishness would only be apparent if you could be conscious of your actions’ effect on others. But there are no fucking others, they are not there. There is nothing there … but you and a fucking, great, hopeless vacuum.

If that resonates please get in touch with the Samaritans.

Just as the loss of an animal affects him greatly, so he then describes the impossibility of contemplating the same thing when his other animals are in the house: the devoted, uncomplicated love of his dogs means that he can’t make a second attempt.

For all the fact that ‘if not fully constructed his ability to empathise has been learned’, it’s Packham who displays the most empathy in this memoir. He notes that

Back then I thought they were too cowardly to think deeply about themselves, that they chose to protect themselves by loving themselves and their world, but now I know they had no more choice than I did, we’re just wired differently, different parts of our brain are a bit more developed than the others. They’re out, I’m in … it’s the way it is.

But by constantly looking inwards, pouring the depth of his feelings onto the page, he reveals a desire to understand others that lingers, and that is rooted in the curiosity and observation that drives his engagement with nature. It’s often more wry, aloof, but it’s a knowing take on humankind nonetheless. Shades of that Munch quote here again.

Despite his fears (‘pure love, immaculate, perfect love, is the thing that is there waiting to destroy you. Because it becomes all of you and when it’s gone there is absolutely nothing left…’), there is so much love, and so much of his vivid, poetic view of the world in this book, that all I can think of at the end is Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb:

Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Review: Soldados de Salamina (2003)

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“I was about to tell her that Miralles hadn’t fought in one war, but many, but I couldn’t, because I suddenly saw Miralles walking across the Libyan desert towards the Murzuk oasis — young, ragged, dusty and annonymous, carrying the tricolour flag of a country not his own, of a country that is all countries and also the country of liberty and which only exists because he and four Moors and a black guy are raising that flag as they keep walking onwards, onwards, ever onwards.”

I love this book. I only read it relatively recently, at the nagging reminders of He Judges (ta love) and adored its introspective, meandering blend of history, fiction, biography and autobiography. I found the movie by accident, on what must be about the 50th trip to Diego Luna’s imdb page. My repeated ignoring of it must have been down to the slightly different place-name (I read it in translation as Soldiers of Salamis), and to the fact that the author, Javier Cercas, becomes Lola Cercas in this movie adaptation. And it’s also quite expensive still on Amazon; lucky, then, that I work in a city with more world-class libraries than you can shake a stick at.

It’s a strange story to adapt: it’s the story of how a journalistic investigation hits a dead-end and slides into wishful thinking and unanswerable questions, told through the self-doubting lens of the author, a one-time novelist who’s been bereft of inspiration for years. But the movie does an amazing job of adapting its source, contriving situations that allow for all the historical exposition in the book, and retaining a good deal of its humour, not least that which comes at Cercas’ expense.

In the first half of the movie, Lola thinks she’s conducting a serious investigation into facts from the Spanish Civil War — tracing the steps that led to the fascist writer, Sánchez Mazas, surviving a mass execution on the Spanish/French border, and returning to serve Franco with the help of his ‘Forest Friends’ and some Catalan farmers. The movie uses documentary footage, real and expertly mimicked, plus flashbacks featuring Ramon Fontserè as Sánchez Mazas, to show the narrative in all its detail. Most effective of all is the way in which Lola’s discussions with the old survivors are filmed: the camera focuses on the men’s faces, and the outside light washes the colours thin, giving the impression of documentary filming, whilst Lola quietly prompts them from the edge of the shot. There is far less of this on show in the second half of the movie, where Lola looks for a hero, a heart for the story of the cold fascist’s survival, trying instead to identify the man who spared him in a clearing in the forest just outside Collel. In this part, it is just one or two flashbacks that are returned to again and again: the vivid, romantic image of the soldier dancing his paso doble in the rain, and his dark-eyed, enigmatic, happy expression as he decides to spare Sánchez Mazas.

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Joaquín Notario does not look anything like how I imagined the soldier in the forest. But he’s perfect. The movie lingers and returns to his wondering, open expression again and again and rightly so; if you don’t get that shot right you lose so much of the story’s beating, intangible heart. Similarly, Joan Dalmau looks not a jot like my imagined Miralles, but he’s wonderful nonetheless. He Judges and I were alternately cackling loudly and sitting in stunned silence as he slipped between observations on the present and on the past. Although a lot of detail had to be culled from Miralles’ memories, the effect was still profound, even without that closing narrative meander that I love in the book, where Cercas imagines dancing the paso doble ‘Sighing for Spain’ with Sister Françoise on Miralles’ grave, watched by Conchi and Bolaño.

The latter doesn’t make it into the movie at all, but oh boy, Conchi sure does. She gradually comes into her own in the book; Cercas’ first relationship since his divorce, someone who seems strange and unrelatable to him, even as he takes solace in the physical side of their partnership, yet whose feedback and pushy support keep Cercas on track to complete the novel. She’s a blend of brash overconfidence and brittle fears, and she bursts to life in the movie in María Botto’s hands, the character barely altered despite the fact that Javier has become Lola. The scenes between Lola and Conchi are easily the best of the scenes set in contemporary Spain (barring Miralles’ interview perhaps), but rather than have them in an established relationship, here it’s about Conchi’s unrequited lust/love for Lola. It does a good job of allowing the movie to show Lola’s emotional distance, but feels like a bit of a cop-out in some ways, too; not least because it then shoehorns in a quick snog between Lola and young Gastón, the Mexican exchange student, to prove that Lola likes men, no, honest guv, she does! I wonder if Diego Luna felt he was being typecast after Y tú mamá también? Can’t imagine he’d mind much, if so…

Ariadna Gil holds the whole movie together, despite the historical male figures threatening to make it only about them. She’s a delightful klutz, constantly dropping things, fixing a hole in her pocket with a stapler, falling asleep at the keyboard with her glasses on, and it’s always great to see a female character who’s this clumsy, and who gets to remain emotionally aloof rather than becoming some sort of cutesy ditz who just needs a sexy guy to carry her stuff for her (not for lack of Gastón’s trying). She’s as frustrating as she should be, single-minded about her search for the man who spared Sánchez Mazas, even when Miralles is telling her far more interesting stories from his own life and those of his long-dead friends.

More so than the book, the movie shows how prickly mentioning the Civil War still was (is!) in Spain. Cercas struggles to identify the precise nature of the humanity he’s looking for at the heart of his story: the mass execution is wrong, regardless of its victims’ repellent political beliefs, so it’s good that Sánchez Mazas doesn’t become just another body in the mud in that clearing. But what does he go on to do? We know he remains loyal enough to his Forest Friends to order the release of a son of one of them from jail, but he’s still an influential part of the fascist dictatorship. The soldier who spared him is a naïf, a romantic child caught dancing in the rain rather than guarding his prisoners, and Miralles is a hardened fighter, troubled by the loss of so many friends, and no longer at home in Spain at all. It’s up to Cercas, listening to figures from all sides, drawing out the individual, human stories, and telling Miralles that he will not be forgotten, to blend this awkward cocktail of all-too-recent memories into a story of both hopelessness and hope.


And then I’d take Sister Françoise by the hand and ask her to dance with me besides Miralles’ grave, I’d insist that she dance to a music she didn’t know how to dance to on Miralles’ fresh grave, in secret, so no one would see us – so no one in Dijon or in France or in Spain or in all of Europe would know that a good-looking, clever nun (with whom Miralles always wanted to dance a paso doble and whose bum he never dared touch) and a provincial journalist were dancing in an anonymous cemetery of a melancholy city beside the grave of an old Catalan Communist, no one would know except a non-believing and maternal fortune-teller and a Chilean lost in Europe who would be smoking, his eyes clouded, standing back a little and very serious, watching us dance a paso doble beside Miralles’ grave just as one night years before he’d seen Miralles and Luz dance to another paso doble under the awning of a trailer in the Estrella de Mar campsite, seeing it and wondering if maybe that paso doble and this one were in fact the same, wondering without expecting an answer, because he already knew that the only answer is that there is no answer, the only answer is a sort of secret or unfathomable joy, something verging on cruelty, something that resists reason, but nor is it instinct: something that remains there with the same blind stubbornness with which blood persists in its course and the earth in its immovable orbit and all beings in their obstinate condition of being, something that eludes words the way the water in the stream eludes stone, because words are only made for saying to each other, for saying the sayable, when the sayable is everything except what rules us or makes us live or matters or what we are or what that nun is and that journalist who is me dancing beside Miralles’ grave as if their lives depended on that absurd dance or like someone asking for help for themselves and their family in this time of darkness.

Review: Swimming with Seals (Victoria Whitworth)

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Julia Sorrell – Stones of Stenness (via)

I really want to compare reading Victoria Whitworth’s immersive, liquid prose to an exhilarating swim in the North Atlantic. Each wave is heralded by a tiny, crested Pictish beast — the essence of cetacean, as the author beautifully describes it — no, a pair of the beasts, flanking a dreamy paragraph of description, each wave begun with a morning on a shivery, light-infused stretch of sand. There are no chapters, no chronology in particular, just expertly interwoven memories and descriptions, separated by the short accounts she’s been writing of her morning swims on a remote Orkney beach. Some waves are bigger than others; some go deeper, and are consequently more frightening. But I’ve never been a good swimmer, whereas I felt quite at home in Whitworth’s confident, personal narrative.

Swimming with Seals is a memoir, a narrative of nature and the seasons, and a circling, cautious stalking of the abyss; of our fear of death. Whitworth swims to find herself again, driven from the land by excruciating plantar fasciitis — Ariel in reverse — re-learning to be herself, in herself, through sensuous, sometimes fearful encounters with the sea and its inhabitants. Orcas haunt the edges of her writing, as they haunt the edges of her vision in the sea, representing the unknowable end that we all must come to terms with. There is a lot that Whitworth thinks is best seen through peripheral vision; indirectly. She works through her own mother’s death in the book, scrutinising her response to it, picking inevitably away at recurrences and patterns in her life — like Charcot island, named by the son of the man who discovered the disease that caused her mother’s death, which finally became an island instead of an archipelago in the years after her mother’s death. Whitworth is aware of our tendency to seek out patterns; it’s with a wry, knowing smirk that you imagine her leading you through the patterns she nonetheless cannot help but discern.

Medieval themes and a frustrated attempt to get to know God run through the book too. She is frank about her approaches to both, like the scholar that she is, but she also shares her vivid novelist’s imagination with us; again, clear-eyed pragmatism runs hand-in-hand with the thoughtful, longing possibility of knowing something, or someone, that is utterly inaccessible. Yet Whitworth succeeds in making it seem, momentarily, eminently accessible. What a treat.