Dilettante's Diary

Aug 10/05

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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MOVIES
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Reviewed here: White Gold (A book about the white slave trade in North Africa); Love Is The Devil (DVD); Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women (Biographies); The Good Priest's Son (Novel); and Have Mercy On Us All (Mystery)

White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa's One Million European Slaves (History) by Giles Milton, 2004

Say you're a kid living in a Cornish fishing village, innocently doing your kid thing. One day you're at church with all the other villagers. A bunch of pirates from North Africa swoops down with swords drawn, clamps all of you in chains and drags you off to their waiting ships. This being the 1700s, you can't bell Tony Blair on your cell to ask him to send in the helicopters. Off you go to North Africa to spend the rest of your (probably short) life as a slave.

Sounds a bit fantastical, doesn't it? Apparently, this kind of thing was going on all the time from the mid 16th to the mid 18th century. It's estimated that a million or more Europeans were enslaved by the Barbary corsairs. (Guess I was  away the day they covered this in history class.) Not only were villagers all along the coast of Europe at risk, but European vessels were often overpowered and their entire crews enslaved. Of course, all Europe was pretty pissed-off about the situation but meanwhile the brisk trade in black slaves  (15 million, all told) from Guinea was doing very nicely for lots of white profiteers. The irony seemed lost on most Europeans.

This book concentrates on the Europeans who ended up in the clutches of Sultan Moulay Ismail who held sway over Morocco. Talk about a despot, he makes Idi Amin look like St. Nicholas. When he wasn't personally slaughtering anybody who looked the wrong way at him (he was a real DIY kind of guy), Moulay was supervising the construction (by slaves) of his vast network of palaces stretching so many miles and with such grandiosity that it put Versailles in the low end of the real estate market in terms of royal digs.

For most of the book, we're following the story of Thomas Pellow, a bright lad who shipped off to sea in 1715 at age 11 with his uncle. Their ship was captured on the return voyage from Genoa. Captain and crew were presented to Sultan Moulay as the latest additions to his slave population.  Luckily, the sultan noticed the boy's potential and he was rapidly promoted, becoming a trusted slave with special privileges. To me, his story sounds suspiciously like the biblical account of Joseph and his brothers (sans brothers). In fact, when The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Bellow was  published in England in 1740, many thought the tale as much imaginary as real. Mr. Milton insists, however, that the purported facts of young Pellow's story match all the research on the experience of the white slaves in North Africa.

The focus on the boy's fate kept me reading but there wasn't a lot of pleasure in literary terms. Mr. Milton's  journalistic boiler-plate bristles with the likes of, "Such and such was the usual case, and this was no exception." A corpse unearthed must needs be a "ghastly"  discovery. The information is well organized but, after a while, one day of slavery sounds pretty much like another; the details of the lavish palaces blur with repetition.

Of course, the whole point of reading such a book is to figure out how you would fare in similar circs. I'm not sure how I would have born up under the torture and the 15-hour work days in the hot sun. The trick, see, was to get yourself promoted out of the rank-and-file slave status. Munitions expert? Not me. Skilled horseman? Not very likely. I'd have been willing to volunteer for stud duty when the sultan wanted white slaves to produce half-breeds with his African women. But even that might have strained my stamina after a while.

My best bet would have been translator. If you could act as go-between for the various European diplomats who were negotiating hopelessly with the wily sultan in their attempt to free the slaves, you found yourself in a powerful position. So now I know how to get ready just in case. Everybody says I have a knack for languages.  I'm heading down to Coles right now to get a bunch of foreign language grammars. Let's see, what ones should I get? Any suggestions?

 

Love Is The Devil (DVD)

The story is now legendary in art circles. A burglar, trying to break into a flat, fell through the skylight and landed in a heap below. Francis Bacon, the flat's owner, greeted him with the words, "Take off your clothes and get into bed and you can have whatever you want."

So begins this movie about the tortured relationship between Francis Bacon, the celebrated artist, and George Dyer, the hoodlum who became his lover. Having seen this movie when it was first released in theatres, I wanted another look to see if it was as good as it first seemed. It's better.

Derek Jacobi does a wonderfully campy turn as Bacon and David Craig is very believable as the tormented younger man. Not that you ever get to feel that you understand their bizarre relationship. That may be because the younger man is virtually inarticulate and the older one never opens his mouth without spouting sarcasm. Bacon's thoughts, however, delivered in voice-over poems, do provide some depth and emotional context.

For me, the main virtue of the movie is the superb, somewhat surrealist style. When we first see the denizens of the club where Bacon consorts with his friends/enemies, we get their faces mostly as distorted reflections on the polished surfaces around the bar, and the sound is wonky. Amazing how well this conveys the bitchy, vituperative world of Bacon and his cronies. Among other neat effects, Dyer's nightmare image of a bleeding naked body keeps intruding on everyday proceedings.

It's all quite hellish, not the look at culture that you want your art appreciation class exposed to. Nor is it recommended for viewers who would be put off by grungy homosexuality. But it can't be beat if you’re looking for a movie that’s both stylish and thought-provoking. Left me wondering whether the world of the artist egomaniac can ever lead to anything but hell.

Rating: B

 

Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Biography) by Stephen Greenblatt, 2004

Here's the latest attempt at a biography of one of the most intriguing human beings who ever lived. I say "attempt" because there is so little to go on. The biographical details that we know for certain about Shakespeare would fill two pages at most. So the would-be biographer has to fill out the picture with a lot of conjecture and surmise based on what we know about the era and the hints we can glean from the plays.

Stephen Greenblatt does an especially good job of making the times and the circumstances of Shakespeare's life and his writing come alive. It strikes me that probably not much of the information here is published here for the first time (although I don't have the expertise to say for sure) but the range and the quantity of it, the way it's all massed together to create a compelling picture, is impressive.

Take the vignette of little Will standing between his dad's knees to watch the morality plays that came to Stratford. Mr. Greenblatt reasonably assumes that the boy would have had such experience because his dad, John Shakespeare, was the town official who granted licences to the strolling players. The description of how young Will would have enjoyed the rustic celebrations, the harvest festivals and so on, and how these would have influenced his playwriting is also very convincing. And the rough-and-tumble, cut-throat world of London theatre is vividly conveyed. (Shades of  the movie Shakespeare In Love, a project on which Mr. Greenblatt was a consultant in the early stages.)

Unexpectedly -- but not surprisingly in retrospect -- this book gave me a new appreciation of Shakespeare's writing. When you see that so many of his best barbs are directed at his rivals or at certain political trends, the writing suddenly becomes as fresh as if we're reading the Steve Martin of his day. I think Mr. Greenblatt also does a good job of probing the mystery of the Sonnet collection. Many scholars have insisted that the passionate language of the first 126 sonnets, obviously addressed to a young man, was an expression of purely platonic, courtly flattery. While Mr. Greenblatt warns us of the impossibility of trying to build a biography on the poems -- no answers to the questions of who? when? where? how often? -- he does argue quite convincingly that Shakespeare quite clearly knew sexual attraction to a beautiful young male (or males). There are simply too many very explicit sexual references (often puns not immediately noticed) to pass these sonnets off as high-flown praise. Granted, the sublime erotic fulfillment imagined in these poems contrasts starkly with the self-loathing lust for the dark lady of the final 27 sonnets.

One of the strangest (to me) claims that Mr. Greenblatt makes for the later plays is that Shakespeare's great leap forward was to add opacity to the main characters' motives. In the original plays whose plots Shakespeare lifted almost holus-bolus, the motives of Hamlet, Lear and Iago, for example, are explained clearly and unambiguously. Shakespeare clouded the issue considerably. Just what is Hamlet's madness all about? Why does Lear put his loving daughter to such a stupid test? What's with Iago? In Mr. Greenblatt's view, apparently, these ambiguities make the characters richer, more imaginatively human, more touching.

Much has been made in reviews of Mr. Greenblatt's re-construction of Shakespeare's presumed Catholic connections. About 100 years after his father's death, a document hidden in the rafters of John Shakespeare's home was found to be a Catholic last will and testament. The document professed that the signatory, regardless of all outward appearances, truly believed the Catholic faith and wished to be prayed for in the Catholic manner after death. Mr. Greenblatt argues that, assuming the signature of John Shakespeare on the document is authentic, this would mean that the playwright's father remained a devout Catholic in spite of the outward Protestantism required by his official position in Stratford.

Mr. Greenblatt suggest that the great creative revolution in Hamlet was the result of Shakespeare's religious crisis over the death of his son Hamnet and the impending death of his father. In the new regime, it was forbidden to pray for the dead in the Catholic style with masses, rosaries and so on. Funeral rites were much curtailed. None of the supports of the old religion were available to console the bereaved. Mr. Greenblatt proposed that Shakespeare, like many of the populace caught in this transition period, may have had great misgivings about his duties to his dead son and his dying father. Thus the obsession in Hamlet with the reappearance of the dead as ghosts and the question of one's responsibility towards them.

In the end, though, it is that enigmatic personality behind the famous mask-like face that looms largest over this biography. I've always felt that, given the choice of meeting one of the two greatest creative geniuses the world has ever produced -- Shakespeare or Mozart -- I'd choose Shakespeare. Much as I love the divine Mozart's music, I feel he would be too skittish to have a nice chat with. Given that I wouldn't be able to engage him in musical discussion that would be erudite enough for him, he'd be wanting to get back to his card game, his gambling, his partying. Shakespeare, I've always assumed, would be more thoughtful, more willing to enter into discussion on almost any topic, given his wide reading and his knowledge of almost every subject.

But now I'm not so sure. Mr. Greenblatt paints him as a character who was very cagey. He didn't let himself be sucked into the riotous lifestyle of his rival playwrights. Which, of course, is why he survived all of them. And there's the point. Shakespeare was essentially a survivor, a man who watched his step very carefully, who managed his money with canny skill, steadily building up the small fortune that would enable him to retire and live the life of the small town gentleman. As far as we can tell from the scant documentation, he spent his retirement years in banal real estate deals and financial affairs, in the end drawing up a calculating and shrewd will. While he could express the most passionate human longing in the most beautiful language,  he wanted the life of a secure, dull bourgeois. If I came knocking on his door in Stratford and asked to see the king of English literature, the response might very well be, "Sorry, the king is in his counting house, counting out his money."

 

Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women (Biography) by Lydia Flem, translated by Catherine Temerson, 1997

Can't remember how this book found its way onto my list. It may have appeared in one of the Globe and Mail's round-ups of books on some topical subject. Perhaps the hook in this case was Bill Clinton's memoirs. As I've never known much about the original Casanova, it seemed a good idea to take a look at this book. Not that the curiosity was purely intellectual. What guy can't help wondering: what was it really like?

Turns out Giacomo Casanova (1725 - 1798) was accomplished in more ways than one (you know the one I mean). He was a philosopher, mathematician, musician, physician, writer, cabalist and an expert linguist, self-taught in most of these areas. Several of his play translations got big productions. There are strong indications that he had a hand in writing at least one scene of the libretto of Mozart's Don Giovanni. He could converse with monarchs and scientists on any subject as readily as he could charm a chambermaid.

Clearly, his brain was a  match for any other part of his anatomy. Some of his observations strike a remarkably fresh and contemporary note: "Some things become real that previously existed only in the imagination, and therefore some effects attributed to faith may not always be miraculous. They are miraculous for people who attribute limitless power to faith." On being a tourist, he notes the inevitable disappointment when one finally sees a famous site one has read about. He acknowledges that women become irritable in connection with their monthly cycles, but to say "that this influences the source of their faculty for thought is no more credible than that sperm influences the nature of the soul." As a child, he suggested to his mother and some of her arty friends that perhaps it is not the sun that moves, but the earth that moves around the sun. They blew him off.

As for his main claim to fame, Ms. Flem presents him as a feminist 250 years ahead of his time. He wanted women to be his equals in love-making. There was never any hint of coercion on his part. He hoped his women would enjoy unbridled pleasure as much as he did. Although he could pursue a women indefatigably, when it came to the actual deed, there was something almost passive about him. He considered women omnipotent godesses; men were, in his world view, mostly ineffectual and inconsequential. He usually parted with his lovers on the best of terms, trying to help them financially and socially, and remaining friends with them for life.

This man begins to look like the patron saint for any decent guy who wants to make the most of himself and his opportunities. But the writing of this book is so muddled that I can never get a clear picture of the man. Here's one particularly vexing example of the self-contradictory aspect of the work. We're told that, to avoid giving women the fatal "plumpness", he scrupulously made use of a certain eight-inch [sic!] sheath tied with a pink ribbon. Then how come he was always running into his illegitimate sons and daughters in his travels?

Ms. Flem bases her writing almost entirely on Casanova's published memoirs. Not once is there any questioning of whether he's telling the truth. Never is there any adequate explanation of circumstances and context. Take that business of his torrid affair with the nun who admired him in church and sent him a come-hither letter. Their trysts took place in a sumptuous apartment provided by the nun's regular lover, a wealthy nobleman. Excuse me for being naive, but how does that work?

And then there's the time when he has finally decided to marry a very beautiful young woman. Just before the wedding, in a great coup de theatre, he finds that her her mother is one of his former lovers. So his proposed bride is actually his daughter. Years later, when the young woman's elderly husband can't impregnate her, our Casanova is perfectly willing to oblige. Thus he becomes both the father and the grandfather of the baby produced. Are we to believe this story? Is any of this credible?

Not for Ms. Flem to raise such questions. She has written a book that is not so much a biography as an effusive riff on various themes in Casanova's life. The book circles repetitively around various events, with no regard for chronolgy. It's not for Ms. Flem to question anything or to attempt coherence or clarity. It's all about showing how cleverly she writes, what amazing theories she can spin about the great man, regardless of facts. Dealing with his last years, when he was writing his memoirs in seclusion, Ms. Flem quotes a passage where Casanova remembers how bummed he felt about his physical decline at the age of 47. "If such were my reflections twenty-six years ago, it is easy to imagine the ones that obsess me today when I am alone," he writes. Ms. Flem says, "When he formulates this sentence, he is a man of seventy-three with only a few months to live, yet he feels young in spirit and writing diverts him from boredom and melancholy. At the end of his life, Casanova remains free and happy." Really???? Either written words don't mean to Ms. Flem what they mean to me or she just doesn't give a damn. (To give her some benefit of doubt, it's possible that the English translation hasn't done her justice. Several sentences don't feel quite right. In one instance, someone is described as having done something "melancholically".)

The aspiring young man who wants to emulate the great one will have to look elsewhere for instruction. Wasn't there a Fellini movie years ago? Didn't it star Donald Sutherland?

 

The Good Priest's Son (Novel) by Reynolds Price, 2005

What a pleasure, after a couple of crappy mysteries, to sink into a book where nothing is contrived, where the people are real, where their problems are interesting, and the characters'  ways of expressing themselves are intelligent and unique. The writing is so quietly understated that I was well into the book before noticing the amazing number of narrative hooks that had been planted in the first few pages.

Mabry Kincaid, a middle-aged art restorer, is returning from Paris on Sepetmber 11, 2001. His home in Manhattan may or may not have been destroyed in the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Symptoms he has been experiencing may signal the onset of a fatal disease. He is bringing back a painting from Paris that may or may not have an important connection to Vincent Van Gogh. He has just spent five months looking after his estranged wife as she died of cancer. His daughter doesn't seem to have much use for him. A strange woman appears to be living with his father in North Carolina.

Sorry to say, this book didn't turn out to be the satisfying read that I was expecting. Some of the above-mentioned issued get resolved, more or less; some are left open-ended. That's life, I suppose, but you hope for a little more closure from a novel. Anger flares up occasionally in a character and we don't know why. There is apparently some hostility between the father and the son but it never feels quite real in terms of its causes or its manifestations. Mabry keeps falling asleep unexpectedly. Those unplanned naps are about the most spontaneous aspect of the novel.

The main problem is the crawling pace. People are always stopping several seconds before replying to someone. While the courtly, lyrical speech of the North Carolinian characters has a certain charm, it begins to grate after a while. Their lines feel as if they're written primarily for their rhythm -- which would be ok except that they're sometimes impenetrable in terms of meaning.

Mr. Price's books have given me enormous pleasure over the years. He is only in his early 70s, but this one feels like his Tempest: a wistful reflection on human folly from the vantage point of autumnal wisdom. The message seems to be forgiveness and reconciliation. No argument there. But, like the ruminations of some elderly people, it's meandering, soft and lacking in narrative drive. Viagra anyone?

By the way if you're thinking the title hints at some salacious secrets about the life of the Catholic clergy, sorry to disappoint. We're dealing with Episcopolians here.

 

Have Mercy On Us All (Mystery) By Fred Vargas, English translation by David Bellos, 2003

This is the first book I've read by one of France's hot new crime writers. The premise works well: somebody is trying to create the impression that the bubonic plague has returned to Paris. The public is beginning to panic. Lots of interesting historical information and good detail about current life in Paris and its intriguing neighbourhoods.

It irks me when I’ve read all the way through a mystery and the explanation turns out to be some complicated business buried in events of years ago. It strikes me as too easy for a writer to come up with some such falderol. Guess I prefer the closed-set Agatha Chrisie type of mystery.

But that’s just a minor cavil about this book. My main problems with it stem from matters of translation -- in the literal sense and possibly in the broader sense. First and most importantly, the dialogue sounds awful, especially among the low-lifes. They come off like some corney attempt at 1950s cockney criminals. Could Ms. Vargas' original dialogue be that bad or has the translator not found a suitable contemporary idiom?

Then there are the flaws that may have to do with a transition from one culture to another. A central aspect of the story features a town-crier who shouts announcements people have paid him to proclaim. This never sounds quite credible to me. Maybe it's just that I don't know Paris well enough. And what's with this psychiatrist who clears up all the detective's doubts about a case in one easy session? Are psychiatrists in France credited with magical powers? And then a simple matter of wardrobe: our detective, a rather unkempt fellow at the best of times, shows up one day in sandals, having lost his shoes while rescuing a drowning man. The way everybody goes on about this slight sartorial slip, you'd think we're talking about the the fashion capital of the world or something.

I hate to be picky about little things but when the implausibilities begin to pile up, my suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.

You can respond to patrick@dilettantesdiary.com