Saturday, 26 February 2011

Caught in a Bad Romance

Hate, A Romance, by the emergent French novelist Tristan Garcia, is a difficult book to read. It is difficult - not because of the writing, or the language, or even the complex socio-political themes - but because, at the heart of the book, is the idea that the human condition is an inherently lonely, isolated state.

Revolving around a close-knit group of friends and lovers (Willie, Dominique, Jean-Michel and Liz), the novel explores the theory that all human relationships are fluid and impermanent. It is unsettling for the reader to consider the possibility that, despite being part of a complex social structure, eventually all human bonds break down. Whether this happens as a result of disloyalty, envy, hate or death is irrelevant – the point is: it happens.

The novel spans the period from the early seventies to the late noughties, with much of the action set against the backdrop of the explosive homosexual revolution of the early eighties. Willie and Dominique are in an apparently loving gay relationship, while Liz and Jean-Michel (Leibo) embark on a decades-long affair. Willie is introduced to Paris’s gay scene by the older and more experienced Dominique, and together they explore and enjoy the burgeoning sexual liberation afforded to homosexuals during that period.

But, nothing lasts forever. Everything changes. A newcomer arrives on the scene intent on spoiling the party; the arrival of AIDS causes the euphoria of the period to give way to fear and suspicion.
Dominique is HIV positive and eventually Willie contracts the virus as well. Not content with eating away their weakening bodies, the disease also consumes all that is good in their relationship. (It remains unclear whether Dominique infected Willie – certainly accusations are bandied about, but the reader remains unsure.) In this insidious atmosphere, we witness the breakdown of friendships and love affairs. Connections that once seemed inextricably linked become disentangled. The bonds between all four protagonists eventually come undone: love turns to hate, loyalty to betrayal, friends become enemies, life gives way to death. Ultimately, as the title suggests, familiarity will always breed contempt in the end.

This novel is not for the faint-hearted. It is complex, multi-layered and challenging, dealing with a wide range of philosophical and political themes. A story of life, love and loss, the novel forces the reader to confront issues that we generally prefer to ignore. The author’s remarkable philosophical insight and brilliant command of narrative makes this a highly readable, if somewhat harrowing, piece of work.

This debut offering has thrust Tristan Garcia to the forefront of the French literary scene. He is undoubtedly the most exciting novelist to come out of France since Michel Houellebecq. One to watch.

Hate, A Romance is published by Faber and Faber.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Enid Blyton - A Forgotten Treasure Unearthed

Enid Blyton, the celebrated children’s author, was nothing if not prolific. The creator of such revered characters as Noddy and The Famous Five published approximately 800 books during a career spanning 45 years - a figure which equates to an astonishing average of 18 books a year, or one-and-a-half books a month!

So prodigious was her output that many refused to believe that Blyton herself wrote every book that bore her name. Her response to this accusation was predictably indignant. Vigorously denying any association with the controversial business of ghost-writing, she insisted that, at the height of her career, she would often punch out 10,000 words a day. A word-count such as this would be beyond the reach of most authors, but in Blyton’s case, it is likely to be an accurate estimate; no ghost-writer has ever come forward to claim authorship of any of Blyton’s books, despite the fact that Blyton herself died in 1968.

The seemingly inexhaustible productivity of Ms Blyton’s pen is all the more remarkable when one considers the effect each and every one of her books had on her legions of fans.
Her books were, and still are, loved by millions. She was constantly in demand; in fact, one could hazard a guess that her boundless productivity was fed by the unrelenting adoration afforded to her by her followers. The immense output of the author was matched only by the voracious appetite of the readers. Take a look at the statistics: Blyton’s books have sold in excess of 600 million copies, over a million Famous Five books continue to be sold each year, and her books have been translated into 90 languages. The numbers speak for themselves, and point to one inarguable fact - Enid Blyton was one of the world’s best-loved and most successful children’s authors.

Despite this success, Enid Blyton was not without her critics. There have been some who have questioned the quality of her writing – for a period of almost thirty years, the BBC steadfastly refused to dramatise her books for radio, declaring her work to be “long-winded and stilted … and really not very good".
Blyton also came under fire for her views on corporal punishment and the vaguely xenophobic themes in her work. (The latter criticism stemmed from her habit of depicting suspicious characters as ‘foreign’.) Indeed, many of her books have undergone some vigorous editing to make them more palatable to new generations of readers; most notably, golliwogs have been replaced by altogether more inoffensive characters like teddy-bears. However, when considering the criticism levelled at Blyton, it is important to bear in mind that her books were very much a product of their time. The quintessentially English world she depicts, of the countryside, picnics and “lashings of ginger beer”, are as outdated as the Golliwogs and the close-minded suspicion of foreigners.

Undeniably, Enid Blyton was a polarizing figure, but love her or hate her, most agree that she was a force to be reckoned with. It is hardly surprising, then, that news of the discovery of a previously unpublished Blyton manuscript has made the headlines in recent days. The document, thought to date from early in her career, was unearthed by a cataloguer
who has been examining a cache of the author’s papers which were sold at auction by her daughter in 2007. The title of the manuscript, “Mr Tumpy’s Caravan” was originally thought to be an illustrated version of a published story, the similarly titled “Mr Tumpy and his Caravan”. Closer inspection by the archivist revealed that the two are very different – the new story, which stretched to 180 pages, is a fantastical tale about a magical caravan which sprouts feet and has a mind of its own. It is believed that the story may have been originally rejected by a publisher. This may or may not be the case, but for whatever the reason, the manuscript has lain forgotten, in ignominious anonymity for over 70 years. No doubt the controllers of Blyton’s estate will waste no time in getting this story into print. After all, a late publication is better than no publication at all …

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Chopin's Visions

These days, ‘visionary’ is an overused word. In a world characterised by an ever-decreasing vocabulary, it is a platitude universally adopted to describe any artistic work of merit. From musicians to artists, to writers and film-makers, anybody deemed to make the grade is thought to be ‘visionary’. Along with ‘genius’, another grossly overused word, ‘visionary’ is a term that has seen its currency greatly devalued of late; it has been reduced to a tired cliché, a banal inanity with little meaning.

However, when taken in the pure and unadulterated sense of the word, there have been some groundbreaking artists who merit the description. Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Beethoven, Mozart can all be accurately described as visionary: they are artists and musicians who have produced far-sighted, innovative pieces of work, which have immeasurably impacted the way we perceive music, art and the world in general.

Frederick Chopin, despite being one of the aforementioned pioneering musicians, has been called ‘visionary’ for entirely different reasons. During his short life, the Polish composer, famous for his piano sonatas,
became notorious for habitually lapsing in and out of consciousness while composing or playing a piece of music. During these episodes, he experienced vivid visual hallucinations, many of them very frightening. In her memoirs, Chopin's lover, George Sand, told how the hallucinations suffered by the composer were “full of terror and ghosts for him”. In fact, Chopin himself described the nature of his visions in numerous letters to family and friends. In one such letter to George Sand’s daughter, Chopin describes how, when performing a piano sonata in London, he was obliged to abruptly leave the room because he could clearly see creatures crawling out of the piano while he played.

It was widely believed at the time that these episodes were a by-product of the composer’s immense musical ability. This was a conviction perpetuated by Sand, who wrote that the visions were “manifestations of a genius full of sentiment and expression.” During the early 19th century, very little was known about what we now refer to as neuroscience, so it is hardly surprising such a conclusion was reached, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to the modern observer.

So, with the benefit of hindsight and the advance of medical science, can we discover the cause of Chopin’s terrifying hallucinations? A recent study by a team of Spanish doctors has come up with a convincing theory – it seems very likely that the composer suffered from a form of epilepsy, temporal lobe epilepsy to be exact. The reasons for this diagnosis are numerous: the type of hallucinations described by Chopin are common with this form of epilepsy; the composer suffered bouts of severe melancholy, which is also a symptom of this condition; and perhaps most significantly, Chopin did not hear voices, which rules out schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and most other forms of psychosis.

Unfortunately, Chopin’s medical problems were not confined to hallucinations – his short life was marked by ill-health. From an early age, he suffered from a variety of respiratory problems which were to plague him all his life. He died in 1849, at the age of 39, from some form of pulmonary disease, or possibly from cystic fibrosis. It was, nevertheless, his infamous visions which still ignite the interest of medical experts today. We may have discovered the reasons behind his legendary hallucinations, but we will never know if they in any way impacted the nature of, or the development of, his astounding musical ability.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Watercolour as an Art Form

Tate Britain is about to embark on a major new exhibition of watercolours, with an express aim to push an often overlooked creative medium to the forefront of artistic debate. Judging by the lively discussion which has already erupted in the art world, it would appear that Tate is well on the way to succeeding in this ambition.

The debate centres on the merits of watercolours as an art form, or indeed their lack thereof. It is fair to say that, up to now at least, conventional thinking has often dismissed watercolour as the poor anaemic cousin of oil painting. This is mainly due to the pale, translucent quality of watercolours which are sometimes regarded as insipid, bland, even feeble when compared to the vibrancy of oils. Indeed, the dream-like, ephemeral nature of watercolours promotes an image of transient impermanence, while the opposite is true of the stronger, energetic oil paintings. In short, the general consensus seems to be that while oils pack a punch, watercolours whimper softly in the background.

The Tate exhibition challenges this status quo. Featuring a wide array of works which date from the 13th century to the present day, including early maps by a Benedictine monk to miniature portraits of Henry VIII, the show highlights how watercolours have played an important part in witnessing and recording our long and varied history. This broad collection of subjects also deftly contradicts the notion that watercolour is merely a medium favoured by novice painters who like to dabble in nature scenes. The perception that watercolours depict a limp representation of real life is also challenged. Eric Taylor’s 1945 painting, Human Wreckage at Belsen, proves that watercolour can portray disturbing and harrowing scenes every bit as effectively as oils.

So, will watercolour shake off the shackles of a long-standing dubious reputation to emerge as a respected medium in its own right? Why not go along to the exhibition and decide for yourself?

Linbury Galleries, Tate Britain
16 February – 21 August 2011
Entry Fee £12.50 (Concessions £10.50)
Free to Tate Members and Tate Patrons

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Evelyn Waugh's 'Scoop' - A Review

By the time Evelyn Waugh published Scoop in 1938, he had already gained quite a reputation as a biting social satirist. His previous novels, Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall, had mercilessly lampooned various aspects of British society in the 1920s. With Scoop, Waugh had another target in his sights – the journalism industry, or more precisely, the tabloid newspapers which habitually engaged in sensationalist reporting.

The novel revolves around William Boot, a bumbling, unassuming nature writer who, through a case of mistaken identity, finds himself plucked from the obscurity of his country home and shipped off to the fictional African country of Ishmaelia by the editor of The Daily Beast. As the Beast’s man in Ishmaelia, Boot is charged with the task of reporting on the impending civil war, which is expected to erupt at any moment. A raucous comedy of errors ensues, which ultimately sees Boot, despite his breathtaking incompetence, eventually land the scoop of the decade.

Loosely based on Waugh’s own experiences as a special correspondent reporting on Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, the novel deftly paints a vivid portrait of Fleet Street as an ineffectual, bloated, egotistical monster, more concerned with newspaper sales than reporting the truth. (Sound familiar?) It becomes apparent that journalism, with its pervasive expenses-claiming culture, was the poster-boy of excess long before today’s bankers and politicians took over this dubious mantle.

The novel’s cast of characters is a thinly disguised who’s who of Britain’s newspaper industry during the interwar years. The Daily Beast and its rival The Daily Brute are parodies of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Lord Copper and Lord Zinc are both recognizable as the real-life newspaper magnates, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Northcliffe (owners of the Express and Mail respectively). The obsequious and inept foreign editor, Mr Salter, can, one imagines, be taken to symbolise any number of Fleet Street editors of the time. Even Mussolini gets a mention, in the guise of Dr Benito, the would-be dictator of Ishmaelia.

A quick glance at today’s tabloid headlines is enough to convince the reader that not much has changed in the intervening years since Waugh wrote his illuminating, if cynical, parody of tabloid reporting. As such, it is essential reading for anybody interested in a career in journalism. In fact, why not avoid extortionate university fees altogether; invest in Scoop instead– it’s the only textbook an aspiring journalist will need!