The Sisters Brothers (Movie) written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on the book
by Patrick DeWitt; directed by Jacques Audiard; starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca
Root, Carol Kane.
I wasn’t thrilled with the book (reviewed on DD page "Fall reading 2015") – although it had some good
points – but the movie features two actors who are always worth watching. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play siblings
who travel across the US working as hit men for anybody who can afford their price. It’s the mid 1850s and their assignment
in this case, following the orders of a mysterious Pooh-Bah known as "The Commodore," is to track down an elusive genius
(Riz Ahmed) who claims to have a special chemical formula that you pour into a river to make nuggets of gold shine, thus making
them easier to collect. Presumably, the brothers’ job is to torture the guy until he reveals his secret.
The chemist is also being pursued by Jake Gyllenhall but I found it a bit hard to figure out how he fit into the story.
That’s only one of the movie’s puzzling aspects. As far as plot goes, this isn’t an easy one to follow.
Never mind the mumbled dialogue. Many of the scenes are shot in the dark and we get just fragmentary glimpses of what’s
going on. But the main point of the movie isn’t the action so much as the fascinating relationship between the two brothers.
Charlie (Mr. Phoenix) is the more brash, aggressive one with a sardonic sense of humour; he also appears to be the brains
of the duo. His brother, Eli, is much nicer, as you might expect, given that Mr. Reilly has been called in to play the part.
From my reading of the book, I seem to remember that, yes, Eli was more sensitive and more thoughtful but there was still
something a bit squirrely and furtive about him. You don’t get those qualities with Mr. Reilly. He’s more of a
mainstream, unobjectionable guy. Mind you, he does get a few opportunities to show that he can be tough if necessary, but
you always get the impression that this is Mr. Reilly’s upstanding, decent man showing a bit of muscle, not somebody
who’s genuinely creepy.
Sometimes, I object to the way that some movies and novels put words into characters’ mouths that belong to our own
era, not to the historical period of the work. In this case, though, it’s done with a self-consciousness that adds a
bit of spice to the proceedings. For instance, one of the brothers talks about somebody being "victimized." The other brother
picks up that word and savours it like a morsel that has a strange but interesting taste. Clearly, they’re letting us
know that the word doesn’t belong in this setting and the discussion about it is a way of letting us in on an amusing
way that the brothers have of picking at each others’ characters.
Rough hewn as these brothers are, they’re the kind of guys who are forced to look after each other, even to show
what might pass for a bit of tenderness. We see them cutting each other’s hair, looking after each other when they’re
sick. In the portrayals of these two, the movie gives us a genuine sense of life as felt: the smell, the grit and the grime
of two real lives as they are actually lived. A lot of that comes from many scenes of them eating by a campfire and sleeping
on the ground with nothing but a blanket for warmth. Eli discovers the new-fangled product known as a toothbrush and he experiments
with it, using some tooth powder. When you see his stupefaction at the white foam pouring out of his mouth, you can’t
help feeling that this guy was meant for a much kinder lifestyle. The fact that he didn’t get it, might be attributable
to his hard-bitten mother, whom we finally see in a stunning cameo by Carol Cane, who made an indelible impression on my memory
in a vastly different role: the pathetic waif in Wedding in White from the 1970s.
Ashley With a Y (Theatre), starring Ashley Botting and Scott White; Bad Dog Theatre, Toronto;
Feb 14-16, 2019
En route to this event, it felt like I was heading for kamikaze theatre. Improv is one thing, but these two performers
were going to make up songs on the spot and perform them, based on suggestions from the audience. How could two people be
daring enough to do this? Yet, the show, by comic actor Ashley Botting and Scott White, her accompanist, was a huge hit at
this past summer’s Fringe and they were presenting it again for those of us who missed it then.
The way it works is that audience members are given a slip of paper on arrival. On the slip is a question like "What is
the best thing about the person you like best?" or "What is the best gift you ever gave anyone?" Your answer goes into a bowl
and Ashley picks several out, at random, and makes up songs about them, with Scott White improvising a tune at the keyboard.
Granted this is a fiendishly clever feat, requiring brilliant skill with words (and music) but what makes it work is Ashley’s
personality. Like some of the best female comics these days, she’s friendly but flippant, sarcastic but sincere. She
can be ballsy or vulnerable, as the moment requires. Outright silliness can be laced with social commentary. That makes for
lightning-swift changes of mood. The night I saw the show, a sweet lullaby about putting a baby to bed (with a few droll jibes)
was followed by a neurotic, hard-driving insistence on someone’s "Devotion" towards a loved one.
Ashley came up with about eight impromptu songs in the one-hour show. A couple of the suggestions came from chats with
audience members. Ashley has a personable way of reaching out to people with a deft comic touch. Her humorous rapport with
Scott White adds charm to the proceedings.
Running through the show is the spirit of a peppy number that Ashley uses as an opener. The theme of it is "Let’s
make it up as we go along." One section goes something like this: "Tonight’s the night to take a chance, if you always
walk in straight lines, you’ll never learn to dance." (Not an exact quote.) That helps to put audience members in a
jovial, free-wheeling mood. When Ashley reprises the theme song at the end of the show, you feel that it has truly been a
An unexpected pleasure for me was seeing a hoard of young people crowd a theatre (albeit a small one) on a cold winter
night and laugh their heads off. Apparently, everybody isn’t on their smart phones all the time.
Bodes well for our culture, I’d say.
[Disclosure: I have a friendly connection with someone involved in this show.]
The Spirituality of Gardening (Spirituality) by Donna Sinclair, 2005
For committed gardeners, the depths of winter is the time to dream about what’s to come a few months later. Donna
Sinclair’s beautiful book takes those daydreams to deeper and more nourishing levels than many gardeners have imagined.
Drawing on traditions from various religions and philosophies, Ms. Sinclair shows how gardening nourishes both the body and
the soul. Her profound meditations are inter-laced with narrative fragments about her experiences as a gardener: balancing
garden work with family life, struggling to keep gift plants from taking over, adapting to the limits of gardening on an inner-city
balcony after having free rein in a less urban setting. It gives a reader encouragement to realize that Ms. Sinclair isn’t
talking about the spectacular formal gardens such as might be viewed in some public settings; this book is about the gardens
that give us great pleasure in the more ordinary context of our daily lives.
The spirit sustaining the book is a sense that came to the author in childhood and has lasted since then: a feeling of
being at one with nature. "I believe gardeners yearn to reconnect with Eden," she says. "We are trying to discover a way back
to that physical unity with the land still experienced by a few indigenous people, a few monks, a few mystics." I’m
glad to say, though, that Ms. Sinclair’s treatise isn’t all sweetness and light. With sober wisdom, she touches
on the many factors that imperil our connection with the natural world: pollution, urbanization and climate change.
I think it was Marcel Proust who said something to the effect that what’s most important about a book isn’t
so much what it says as what thoughts it brings to mind. That proved to be abundantly true in my own reading of this book.
Treasured memories of garden experiences started flooding into my mind, practically from the first page of this book, making
me realize that my life has been rich in horticultural delights. The book’s format gives it the elegance of a coffee
table book but its content puts it in a more significant category. Still, in keeping with the standards of most coffee table
books, it must be said that the photos of flowers and gardens here are stunning.
I Let You Go (Mystery) by Clare Mackintosh, 2014
The New York Times review of another book by Clare Mackintosh said that I Let You Go, her first novel,
"won an enthusiastic reception." That response was hard for me to understand on my initial impression of the book.
The setting of the opening is Bristol, in south west England, and the mystery amounts to the search for a hit-and-run driver
who kills a five year old boy. (No need for a spoiler alert on that point because it’s the opening scene of the book.)
A writer friend of mine once said that you must not include the death of a child in your writing if you want to keep readers,
but I forged bravely onward.
The two chief investigators are a senior officer and a younger woman whom he’s tutoring in the art. The police procedures
strike a credible note, not surprisingly, given that the author’s previous career was in the police. When the cops are
not exchanging information about the case, though, the dialogue is excruciatingly dull. This is especially true in the case
of two people who aren’t cops. Their romance barely rises to the Harlequin level.
Like nearly every other detective in fiction these days, the senior guy has trouble at home. His wife resents his spending
so much time on his work and not enough time with his kids. That has led to trouble with one of the kids. In this case, though,
the wife is herself a former cop who longs to get back to work. That makes for a slight novelty, as compared to other detective
About half way through the book, I could begin to see why this one was greeted with that "enthusiastic reception." In the
kind of twist that is becoming popular in detective fiction, we suddenly discover that someone we’ve been following
isn’t who we thought we were following. The book soon develops into an excoriating depiction of spousal abuse, a subject
that Ms. Mackintosh appear to be an expert on. We get a full picture of the insane jealousy that can fuel the rage. Another
couple of starling revelations are lying in wait and a surprise ending may have the resonance of classic Greek tragedy for
some readers. Others may find it implausible and hokey.
Stan & Ollie (Movie) written by Jeff Pope; directed by Jon S. Baird; starring Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly,
Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston, Ella Kenion
It’s the 1950s and we’re getting a look at the lives of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the twilight of their
joint career. Having coasted downhill since the peak of their popularity in the late 1930s, they’re touring England
to drum up interest in a film they’re hoping to make. According to Stan Laurel’s vision of the film, it’s
going to be a spoof on Robin Hood, involving lots of their usual shenanigans.
At first, they’re finding it hard to excite the members of the public who think that the comic duo have long since
retired. Gradually attendance at their live show improves, which is not to say that they don’t run into some major disappointments.
Such downturns give us a hint of a venerable trope: the clown in tears. In a quiet, unconventional way, Stan & Ollie
thus turns out to be something other than the usual rah-rah showbiz biopic. Instead, it’s a poignant study of the personal
connection between two artists who can’t work separately even though they sometimes can’t stand working together.
Ultimately, it’s a touching story of male bonding.
As Oliver Hardy, John C. Reilly (with the help of loads of prosthetic fat) carries on with his custom of showing us really
nice men who express their inner hurt not by ranting and raving but by the slightest wincing on their kindly countenances.
Steve Coogan, in the role of Stan Laurel (who seems to be the brains behind the act), shows that he is a master at taking
bad news with politeness and composure that hide a devastation revealed only in the depth of his eyes.
In many ways, this is an old-fashioned movie that glories in the atmosphere of theatres, movie studios and ritzy hotels
as they once were. Another of the vintage apects of the movie is the loving attention to characterization in supporting roles
and cameos. Even a receptionist in a hotel or an office becomes a memorable character. One of the most appealing actors in
a supporting role is Rufus Jones as Bernard Delfont, who is managing Laurel and Hardy’s British tour. Handsome and charming,
he is the perfect example of the kind of promoter who is constantly on the verge of coming across as something of a con artist
but who just manages to maintain an air of cordiality and sincerity in the face of daunting prospects. Another unforgettable
character is Ida, Stan Laurel’s wife. As played by Nina Arianda, she is a domineering, vain, egotistical beauty (with
a strong Russian accent) and yet, in spite of all that, there is something delightfully intriguing and entertaining about
her. You want to see more of this woman.
Just a couple of caveats. One flaw in the movie, in artistic terms, is the laborious expository dialogue that’s sometimes
required to fill us in on past developments. The movie threatens to bog down at these points. My only other reservation about
the movie is the way it shows audiences responding to Laurel and Hardy’s schtick. When the tour gets rolling well, we
see full houses convulsed in laughter at the pair’s simple antics. Were people that easily amused back in the day? Having
not been there myself, I guess I’ll have to take the filmmakers’ word for it.
Shoplifters (Movie) written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda; starring Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Sakura Andô, Mayu Matsukota, Jyo Kaairi, Miyu Sasaki
If you haven’t read anything about this movie beforehand, it can be difficult to tell what city it’s taking
place in, even what country. That’s typical of the movie’s style of minimal exposition. Stuff just keeps happening,
with very little explanation. We get short snippets of everyday life. No scene has more than about ten lines of dialogue.
And the narrative style is eliptical. For instance, there’s a shot of people caught in a glaring light at night. Only
later, do we realize that they were being apprehended by the police.
Throughout the viewing, it may eventually come clear to a viewer – or maybe not – that we’re in Japan,
in a modern city with high rise buildings and all the usual amenities. But the people we’re watching aren’t living
in the lap of luxury, to put it mildly. Their abode could be described as a two-room garage or shed that’s built in
a sort of patio behind an apartment building. There are no chairs in the home; people sleep and eat on the floor. The place,
crammed with stuff – bottles, pots, food, clothing, cushions – is crying out for one of those de-cluttering experts.
But the conglomeration of objects, mostly photographed in warm, subdued colours, makes for wonderful still life pictures.
Another of the artistic merits of the movie is the almost total lack of music, with the result that it’s all the more
effective when we do hear some.
The people who inhabit this shed are an older woman (Kirin Kiki), a middle-aged man (Lily Franky) and woman (Sakura Andô), a somewhat younger woman (Mayu Matsuoka) and a boy about seven or eight years old (Jyo Kairi).
The story begins when the man notices a five-year-old girl (Miyu Sasaki) in the street who appears to be hurt and hungry;
there’s some suggestion that she may be fleeing an abusive home. The man brings her home for a meal, the older woman
becomes concerned about the child’s injuries, she ends up spending the night with them and, as things evolve, she appears
to be living with them.
After a bit, her new family discovers, via the tv news, that a search is on for the little girl but that spark of plot
flickers out before it catches on. The movie’s great merit, for the most part, is that it immerses us in a way of life
very different from the one most of us know in North America. These people we’re watching aren’t exactly destitute;
they’re living mostly off the older woman’s pension. The man sometimes gets work as a day labourer but he injures
his leg on a job; there’s some discussion about whether he would have been better off to break it so that he’d
get more compensation. The middle-aged woman who is his partner appears to work in a restaurant. The younger woman works in
what I’d call a sex shop, for lack of any better term (not being familiar with these establishments). It’s a place
where pretty young women cavort erotically in front of what appears to be a one-way mirror, while men watch from the other
Increasingly, odd incidents are casually dropped into the everyday-ness of these lives. The old woman pays a call on her
ex-husband’s new family. The employer of the forty-ish woman tells her and another employee that the two of them have
to decide which one will hang onto the job. A surprisingly tender encounter takes place between the sex shop worker and one
of her customers. And yes, the man has taught the kids to shoplift. Most of their grabs are small items like bags of candy
and bottles of shampoo but they do once make off with two fishing rods. Later, when asked why he taught them to shoplift,
he answers matter-of-factly that he didn’t have anything else to teach them.
While all of the characters in this ensemble are excellently acted, I found something particularly interesting about the
man. At first he comes across as a scrawny, somewhat scuzzy, not very likeable person, but gradually you discover a playful,
almost charismatic side to him. In some ways, you might say that one of the movie’s main points is the revelation of
the good human being in this not very honourable man.
The more prominent message of the move starts to emerge about half an hour before the ending. Suddenly, plot points start
poking up like mushrooms on a damp lawn. All kinds of complications come to light. Many things, we find, weren’t what
we took them to be. Authorities – police, social workers and such – turn out to be spiffy and fashionable, not
at all like the people we’ve been watching. It’s all very gripping but, by this time, I was finding the movie
– at two hours – too long. I’m left wondering if the movie might have been more effective if some of the
slice-of-life stuff had been cut so that we could get to the drama more quickly.
The Play That Goes Wrong (Theatre) by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields; starring Brandon J. Ellis,
Evan Alexander Smith, Yaegel T. Welch, Peyton Crim, Scott Cote, Jamie Ann Romero, Ned Noyes, Angela Grovey; Ed Mirvish Theatre,
Toronto, Jan 23/18
It certainly does go wrong.
The premise is that we’re seeing an amateur theatre company enacting one of those murder mystery chestnuts: everybody’s
stranded in a lodge during a fierce snowstorm and a body turns up in the library. Things start going south with an onstage
door that won’t open, a corpse that keeps moving, props that go missing. The chaos escalates to the point that: a swinging
door has knocked actors flat about ten times; the stage manager has to step in to replace the ingenue who has been knocked
out; two women are trying to play a part simultaneously; the sound technician (a guy) takes a brief stab at the role of the
ingenue; a woman is jumping one speech ahead of a man in a dialogue; several actors get stuck on one page of the script through
five repeats; people are trying to respond in a frightened way to a dog that isn’t there; the set is collapsing all
Supposedly, this British import has people dying laughing on both sides of the Atlantic. The production was almost
completely sold out for its run in Toronto. But are the patrons getting the laugh riot that they’re paying for. I’m
not sure. Granted, the show elicited some strong belly laughs from the whole house at the performance I attended. For much
of the show, though, the laughter that I was hearing was of the good-natured, tee-hee-hee indulgent kind, along
the lines of: we know we’re supposed to be having a good time, so let’s show that we are. And it was coming
mostly from the orchestra seats, not the balcony where I was sitting. Was it that the people in the higher-priced seats felt
that they had to enjoy themselves more? Or was it that those of us in the balcony weren’t close enough to the proceedings
to be drawn into the game fully?
Given the decidedly mild amusement that the show offered, I’m glad that I didn’t pay top price for it. For
me, the production was interesting mainly in terms of stagecraft. I kept wondering what kinds of gags – visual and verbal
– they were going to come up with next. The ingenuity amazed me but the proceedings didn’t strike me as all that
Maybe that’s because I find that comedy works best when played seriously. In this case, the acting style was so broad,
so farcical, that we knew we were watching talented professionals pretending to be inept and clumsy. If, however, we had been
able to believe that these actors really were amateurs doing their best to overcome horrendous mishaps – if we’d
seen them sweating a bit – the turmoil might have been more engaging.
On the other hand, my tepid response may have been due to the fact that I had trouble buying into the premise. Having had
some acting experience, I felt that no theatre company – amateur or professional – would have tried to carry on
with such a catastrophe. I kept wanting to call out: Enough already, people!
Or maybe it’s just that slapstick isn’t my thing.
Washington Black (Novel) by Esi Edugyan, 2018
When it was announced that Esi Edugyan had won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller prize for this novel, her shock and surprise
made it clear that she hadn’t expected to win (having already won the prize once). The videos of the event, showing
Ms. Edugyan’s ingenuous, modest response, won her a lot of fans. It follows, then, that any Canadian with an interest
in her or his country’s literature ought to give this book some close consideration.
It’s the story of Washington Black, starting with his status as an enslaved boy working on an estate in Barbados
in the 1830s. The plantation, owned by a British family, is administered by one of the sons of the family. When the man’s
younger brother, Christopher, who is something of an amateur scientist, arrives at the estate, he takes an interest in young
Washington. Discovering that Washington has a lot of talent, including a knack for beautiful drawing, Christopher (known as
"Titch") takes him under his wing and teaches Washington a bit of reading and writing. Titch then employs him as an assistant
in his attempt to build a flying machine along the lines of a hot air balloon. The resulting bond between the boy and the
British man provides the main narrative thrust of the book. Their exploits over the following decades take readers from Barbardos,
to Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, England, Holland and Morocco.
An itinerary like that helps to show that this is the kind of book that appeals to people who like a story that rolls on
and on, constantly turning up fascinating new developments and dramas. There’s a Dickensian quality to the tale about
a person’s struggle through difficult odds to establish himself eventually as a young man who can stand on his own.
Coincidences abound, as in the protagonist’s bumping into acquaintances unexpectedly, continents away from where they
might have been expected to be found. It’s the kind of book that gratifies readers who like a Scheherazade-type of yarn-spinning.
I, however, prefer a book that has a less fantastic slant. I like to feel that I’m reading about real life as described
by people who sound believable. This wasn’t easy for me in the case of Washington Black. Part of the problem
is his diction as a first person narrator. In an attempt to create a 19th century tone of voice for Washington,
Ms. Edugyan has chosen a style that is erudite and sophisticated. At one moment, Washington tells us "I felt a rope of fear
uncoil in my stomach." (He apparently is so enamoured of this metaphor that he uses it again, virtually word-for-word, some
200 pages later.) He’s the kind of narrator who’s inclined to say "I ventured" instead of "I said." Another example
of his arch style: "Less than an hour had passed, though it felt a lifetime, and we sat in the scree at the base of Corvus
Peak, the crickets already creaking in the darkening air."
Washington (or Ms. Edugyan) has a tendency to get carried away with what is apparently meant to be impressive perception.
Of one man, we are told: "He smelled of molasses and salted cod, and of the fine sweetness of mangoes in the hot season."
Really? Could you actually distinguish those three scents on someone? When a man has shot and killed himself, Washington says
of the fragments of the man’s clothing in the trees: "The rags were like the radiance of some terrible star, bright
and emanating from something already extinct." Rags radiating like stars? Come on, Washington!
Some readers, I gather, have lauded the book for what they consider to be its very fine writing. To my taste, this kind
of prose is more about an author’s showing off than about creating a believable character. By way of some explanation
for the prose style within the context of Washington’s character, I kept waiting to find that this former slave had
somehow ended up studying English literature at Oxford. That never happened; he did eventually tell us that he had read some
fine books on an ocean voyage, so maybe that was meant to account for his lofty literary tone, but it seems a bit of a stretch
What also interfered with my enjoyment of the book, in terms of its plausibility, was that 21st century sensibilities
kept creeping in. Washington expresses feelings that sound to me like the responses of an enlightened man of our own time.
For instance, when he is still enslaved in the Barbados, he notices that another slave, a girl of just eleven years old, has
become pregnant. Having thought of her as "beautiful and inviolate and God's own angel," he tells us that he "felt a wrenching
inside, a sadness so bracing I had to look away." Is it credible that a boy of about the same age as the girl would be capable
of expressing such acute tenderness in the face of her plight? Further on,Washington tells us that some "healing" seemed to
take place while the two British brothers were reminscing about their deceased father. I have no doubt that such a chat could
do the two men some good, but isn’t it only recently that we talk of "healing" in such circumstances? Looking back at
his time in slavery, Washington says: "We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of
everything our bodies and minds could accomplish." True, but the thought sounds like it’s being spoken by somebody who’s
well acquainted with 20th and 21st century self-help literature.
In Nova Scotia, Washington acquires a female friend who has some views that sound way ahead of her time. She claims that
Titch, Washington’s mentor, has been merely using him to nourish his sense of his own goodness. A startling insight,
to be sure, but it sounds like it comes from a 21st century author who’s acquainted with psychology rather
than a 19th century person who was, as far as I know, uneducated. This same woman, on hearing about an explorer
whose instruments were stolen in Tahiti, sympathizes with the Tahitians who had to "suffer the condescension of these strange
arrivals and their frightening tools." An admirable sentiment, to be sure, but isn’t this appreciation of the rights
of indigenous peoples more characteristic of our own time than of the 19th century?
Over time, Washington develops an interest in marine life, so the book includes a lot of detail about crustaceans and such.
I kept wondering how many readers would relish that kind of information. I didn’t find it engaging. But I did finish
reading the book out of sheer curiosity – I wanted to find out what happened to Washington – so that tells us
something about the author’s narrative skill. And it certainly is sobering to be reminded of the injustice and suffering
inflicted on enslaved peoples. Washington does come up with one insight that made me think. He tells a white abolitionist:
"You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black
men." I wanted to believe that someone like Washington might actually have said that but, for the most part, the way the story
was told made me feel that the writer was trying too hard to include ideas that would win the approval of readers who are
plugged into contemporary social issues.
The End (Novel) by Karl Ove Knausgaard, 2011 (English translation by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett, 2018)
As the title would suggest, this is the final installment in My Struggle, the series of six autobiographical novels
by Karl Ove Knausgaard that have made such a splash on the international literary scene. (I’ve enjoyed the other five
very much but haven’t yet had a chance to review them on Dilettante’s Diary.) Given that this volume doesn’t
appear to be in great demand at the Toronto libraries – there are only six holds on 41 copies in the system –
I’m guessing that some of Mr. Knausgaard’s most ardent fans have been intimidated by the book’s 1153 pages.
The New York Times review of the book, by Daniel Mendelsohn, allowed that it has some merit but the reviewer seemed
disgruntled about the volume of Mr. Knausgaard’s output. The tone of the review made you wonder if the reviewer might,
perhaps, have been a little ticked off at another writer’s getting so much attention for writing about himself. The
review seemed to ask: how could anybody’s life be worth that much print? I wanted to respond: but this work
is unique, no other writer gives you so much detail, so much intimate information, about what life is like for a human male
on this planet.
Another way of putting it would be that Mr. Knausgaard’s narrative voice is so compelling that he makes you want
to read all this stuff about his life. A key to his oeuvre can be found in this statement about the importance of all the
interactions that seem trivial at the time they occur:
....one day I would look back on my life and this would be what I would look back on. What then had been insignificant,
as weightless as air, a series of events dissolving in exactly the same way as the darkness dissolved into the mornings, would
twenty years on seem laden with destiny and fate.
But now, having read The End (with some judicious skipping), I am inclined to agree with Mr. Mendelsohn: this
is too much! A person’s interest cannot quite sustain the long trek. There are times when we get detailed accounts
of a morning with the kids: what everybody ate for breakfast, how Mr. Knausgaard made coffee, read the paper, then went out
on the balcony to smoke a cigarette. Do we really need all that? At times, we want to applaud a buddy who tells Mr. Knausgaard:
"You don’t have to say everything that comes into your mind, you know. Kids do that. Adults can put their utterances
through quality control first." (Is Mr. Knausgaard wryly acknowledging the point by reporting this comment to us?)
And yet, it’s not that the narrative flags. I still find Mr. Knausgaard’s descriptions of the world around
him, his accounts of his interactions with family and friends, engaging. How intimate does he get in his accounting of himself?
Well, he often mentions urinating, sometimes commenting on the colour of his output. Bowel movement – something not
many authors tell about themselves – is implied in a section where he talks about reading a magazine, having pulled
down his trousers and sat on the toilet. Although he describes lots of sex in the earlier books in the series, the closest
he gets in this book is where he talks about him and his wife going to bed, looking into each other’s eyes, feeling
"bare and defenceless." Given that the next sentence starts with "Afterwards..." I think we’re meant to assume that
Further in the department of self revelation, we get a few glimpses of Mr. Knausgaard’s attitude to his appearance:
"I looked like a has-been heavy-metal musician rapidly heading for his fiftieth birthday. Oh, the fleshy face, the chubby
cheeks, the deep furrows, and that wispy beard." He tells us about one moment where he felt happy, although happiness "wasn’t
in my nature." (Surprise! Surprise!) He wrestles with what seem to be true and false presentations of himself that he can
never reconcile satisfactorily.
All of that makes good reading. The trouble is that much of the book – possibly a third or more of it – is
given over to philosophizing about things like names, religion, literature, art and war. I do not find Mr. Knausgaard’s
writing in that vein so enjoyable. Granted, he does make fascinating observations about many things; the outpourings of his
intellectual brilliance can be astounding (if not easily assimilated). One arresting aperçu
of the less dazzling kind comes in the context of some reflections on the brutal upbringing that may have led to his father’s
dismal end. Mr. Knausgaard wonders, then, if it could be possible that "being a good person is the same as being a lucky person."
Valuable as those insights are, the long-winded sentences in the philosophical sections of the book can try your patience.
The world of the inner ‘it’ is that of biology, where thoughts are interactions between cells, emotions are
chemical and electric impulses shooting through the nerve fibres, existing alongside all other bodily processes, which lie
beyond their scope and cannot think or feel on their own, unless communications between the DNA spiral and the cell is a form
of thinking at the most fundamental level of life, the one’s duplication in the other, but no matter what it is or what
it is called, it takes place at such depths within us that we neither feel, sense, understand nor see it other than as a result,
which is to say that which is brought forth within us.
In the more accessible parts of the book, the more narrative ones, one of Mr. Knausgaard’s main themes is family
life: first the stresses and the joys of childcare, then the anguish consequent on his wife’s bipolar condition. On
the subject of raising kids, one quickly notes that in Mr. Knausgaard’s household, as in many around the world, kids
are mesmerized by tv; turning on the boob tube is guaranteed to calm them down when they’re getting obstreperous. One
of the most fascinating observations about parenting comes in a conversation between Mr. Knausgaard and a buddy: "We can’t
control life, only our thoughts about life. So everything that has to do with our kids is actually about us. It’s the
tyranny of good intent."
The other main subject matter of the narrative is Mr. Knausgaard’s rise to fame as a writer and how he deals with
it. In that context, he devotes considerable space to a discussion about how friends and family members have responded to
his portraying them as their real selves and identifying them by their real names. Accusations that he was lying about some
details of family history had him wondering if he was actually mis-remembering things. The problem with writing about real
people, as he sees it, is that the freedom to write the truth doesn’t sit well with consideration for others. He acknowledges
that this has caused difficulty for some of them. (In most cases, the publishers insisted that the people named read the work
before publication.) As a result of a legal challenge launched by an uncle, Mr. Knausgaard was not able to mention the name
of his father, the uncle’s brother, in the series.
As grounding for this issue, Mr. Knausgaard gives much thought to the question of how real life is used in fiction. It’s
a fascinating subject but I’m not sure that he resolves it satisfactorily. He says something to the effect that, with
so much media swirling around us, everything begins to seem like fiction, so "the job of the novelist can no longer be to
write more fictions." Hence, he says, that if he were to write a novel "it would have to be about the real world the way it
was, seen from the point of view of someone who was trapped inside it with his body...."
To the end, however, I was somewhat puzzled about whether we were to take this work as fiction or autobiography. The nearest
I can come to an answer is that the writer uses people he knows as his characters, he presents their circumstances and their
inter-actions as they are in real life, but there may be some creativity in chronology and in the reporting of scenes and
dialogues, since he obviously couldn’t be expected to remember exactly how everything happened and what was said. Also,
it is to be expected that there would be a certain artistic shaping of the material which wouldn’t correspond exactly
to historical events.
Another main subject of the book is the life of Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazism. As a prelude to this discussion, and
leaning on the work of the anthropologist René Girard, Mr. Knausgaard discusses, with
references to sources like the Old Testament, how violence is transmuted into sacrifice. Mr. Knausgaard goes some way back
in time to show that the political developments in Germany in the early part of the 20th century were somehow the
result of the Industrial Revolution’s undermining the importance of the individual life and focussing on the collective.
(I’m struggling to condense hundreds of pages of text into a brief synopsis.) Much of this discussion revolves in a
somewhat esoteric vein around distinctions between the ‘I’ the ‘We’ the ‘You’ the ‘They’
and the ‘It.’ In assessing Hitler’s mindset we come up against the absolute and the ideal versus the relative
and the unique; the undifferentiated one, the ideal utopia, versus the differentiating, multiple real.
The biographical material on Hitler makes for some of the best reading in the book. For a reader who doesn’t know
much about him, it’s intriguing to find out about Hitler’s love of his mother, his worship of women from a distance,
his failure as an artist, his domination over his friends, his love of the military and the gradual discovery of his charisma
as a public speaker. One of the most interesting points that Mr. Knausgaard makes – by contrasting different biographies
of the man – is that it’s intellectually shoddy to judge a man’s early life as completely despicable just
because we know that he turned out to be a monster in the end. In what amounts to a chilling caution about today’s political
scene, Mr. Knausgaard highlights Hitler’s emphasis on the emotional aspect of propaganda, since "what a person feels
always eclipses what they might think, an emotionally based opinion is felt to be exactly what it is, something one knows,
as opposed to a rationally based opinion, which is quite differently relative in nature, being open to objective, reasoned
argument and thereby capable of being changed by such argument."
And how does this long historical digression relate to Mr. Knausgaard’s life story? Perhaps it’s meant as a
way of explaining why Mr. Knausgaard gave his series of books the title My Struggle, an echo of Hitler’s Mein
Kempf. Occasionally, Mr. Knausgaard’s treatise on Hitler will touch on a related issue in his own life, as, for
example, the note that certain of his father’s characteristics were like some of Hitler’s traits, but this doesn’t
appear to be the main point. I think the point may be that, unlike the effort of totalitarian regimes to downplay the individual
life, Mr. Knausgaard’s work is meant to celebrate one individual life in all its messy glory. Mr. Knausgaard says that
we cannot view other people as a nameless mass, we cannot succumb to the depersonalization required of a movement like Nazism,
if "we listen attentively to the story of a day in the life of each and every one of them." That’s what he’s been
asking us to do: to listen to the story of a day – or a few thousand – in the life of Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Charles Richard-Hamelin (Piano), Koerner Hall, Toronto, February 3, 2019
Winner of the silver medal in the 2015 International Chopin Competition, Charles Richard-Hamelin opened his Sunday afternoon
recital with two Robert Schumann pieces: Arabesque in C Major, Opus 18, and Fantasy in C Major, Opus 17. Schumann not being
one of my favourite composers, I don’t feel qualified to say much about the playing. To me, Schumann’s music is
somewhat shapeless but Mr. Richard-Hamelin certainly produced some very beautiful passages. The second half of the program
consisted of four Fryderyk Chopin Ballades: No. 1 in G Major, opus 23, No. 2 in F Major, opus 38, No. 3 in B flat Major, opus
47 and No. 4 in F Minor, opus 52. The playing was technically flawless, absolutely crystal clear, pure and luminous. You could
sometimes hear different voices, which isn’t always the case in the playing of Chopin. However, I have heard the music
played with more passion and poetry.
As a brief encore, M. Richard-Hamelin played something that sounded like an excerpt from a J.S. Bach cantata. It had the
feel of "Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring" or "Sheep May Safely Graze." Exquisite, meticulous playing filled the hall with
a sweet, plaintive, singing voice.
The Frog King (Short Fiction) by Garth Greenwell, The New Yorker, Nov 26/18
As far as I know, this is the first time that The New Yorker has published a short story that contains explict gay
sex. But that’s not my reason for remarking on the story. It’s a beautiful, poignant story about the love between
an American man who was teaching in Sofia and a Portuguese student he met there. They decided to spend the Christmas holiday
in Italy. And what makes the story so touching? I don't think a spoiler alert is called for here because
nothing is stated specifically; it's just a hint I'm picking up, that things did not end well. And how does the author imply
that without saying so? I think he does it by building to a climactic point in the expression of the two men's love for each
other, then suddenly cutting back to a spectacular display that they had witnessed in a public square in Bologna on New Year’s
Eve. And what is the effect of that sudden flashback? To me, it feels as if the writer is saying: you don’t want
to hear how things ended, so let’s stop on the memory of that glorious celebration.
What Can You Do with a General (Short Fiction) by Emma Cline, The New Yorker, Feb 4/19
A middle-aged couple are welcoming their young adult offspring home for Christmas. We’re following the events through
the eyes and mind of the dad as he wanders through the days in a state of perpetual befuddlement about how things have turned
out. While dealing with all the prickly situations that keep coming up, he can’t stop mental flashbacks to simpler times,
when everybody seemed happy in each other’s company. I can’t think of any piece of fiction that conveys so vividly
– and yet in such an understated way – the odd combination of disaffection and fondness that plagues families
of adult children.
Wolf Lake (Mystery) by John Verdon, 2016
Once again, Dave Gurney’s old pal, the wise-cracking Jack Hardwick, has roped him into investigating a puzzling case.
A psychologist who practises therapeutic hypnotism has treated four patients who have subsequently committed suicide. Each
of them, before dying, reported having a particular nightmare, the details of it being exactly the same for each person. To
the cops, it looks like the psychologist somehow seeded the idea of suicide in the minds of these patients. It’s the
psychologist’s sister, a woman who looks after her brother’s affairs, who came to Hardwick looking for help, because
she’s sure her brother is innocent.
I’ve had reservations about some of John Verdon’s mysteries, one of my major complaints being the way Guerney’s
wife, Madeleine, is always so resistant to his putting himself in dangerous situations. Not that this sort of thing would
be unlikely to occur in a detective’s marriage. In fictional mysteries, however, it has become a tiresome cliché as a way of adding tension. In this book, though, Madeleine’s moodiness turns out to
stem from some trouble in her past. Her attempt to resolve the issue becomes a sub-plot of the book. It’s related to
the main plot only in a tangential way but it does make for legitimate "filler."
This book amplifies Gurney’s character in that we learn that "he would be the first to admit that he had a serious
deficiency in the empathy area, that the suffering of others often failed to touch him." And, as a nod to the kind of problem
that plagues his marriage in other books, he does acknowledge that there is always a certain conflict between his roles as
husband and as detective.
As intriguing as the main mystery is, and as clever as the solution turns out to be, this book is slightly encumbered by
one of the hoariest of mystery clichés: the winter storm that strands everybody in a remote
lodge where the electricity has a tendency to fail and evil is on the prowl. Nevertheless, we do encounter some fascinating
and well-researched information about dreams and curses and about the differences between beliefs and facts.
Bad Blood (Mystery) by John Sandford, 2010
This John Sandford mystery features Virgil Flowers, the younger detective who works for Lucas Davenport, the star of most
of Mr. Sandford’s books. I’m beginning to like Virgil more than on first encountering him. His characterization
is a bit thinner than Davenport’s, though. Flowers doesn’t have the family connections that round out Davenport’s
life, but he’s an amusing, attractive and smart guy. A female sheriff that he’s teamed up with here comments that
he doesn’t look like a cop. Virgil’s reply: just because a guy’s a cop, it doesn’t mean he can’t
be good looking. His knowledge of the bible (his father was a Lutheran minister) serves him well here. As a maverick investigator,
Virgil may be capable of bending the rules but he has his limits. "I’m up for an occasional breaking-and-entering, but
serious perjury...." No.
What the sheriff and Virgil are investigating here is a complicated case, starting with three murders that seem to be connected.
It soon becomes apparent that a fourth murder that happened a year ago in the same rural area of Minnesota is probably part
of the same dastardly scheme. We know early on who most of the murderers are – in fact, we’re following some of
them – but the book takes us through the steady plod of an investigation in the way that is so absorbing in
all of John Sandford’s books.
Among the various tactics used, one thing gave me pause. Virgil has a habit of settling down in the local café and letting the patrons in on a bit of news about the investigation. His intention is that this will motivate
them to provide some helpful information, but I found it odd that a cop would confide in civilians this way. Like so many
detectives in fiction, Virgil and his sheriff partner have an infallible knack for knowing when somebody’s lying. (Does
anybody have that skill in real life?) However, a set-up that’s meant to entrap one of the perpetrators is cleverly
staged. Towards the end, there’s a shootout that is, as usual, nearly impossible to follow play-by-play. But then there’s
a scene that strikes me as original: a victim has two abusers at gunpoint and she’s conducting a mini "trial" to see
whether she should shoot them. Virgil wants to get them into the hands of the law but she insists that he provide a defence
for them, if he can think of one.
As in the Davenport mysteries, Mr. Sandford keeps plugging for Diet Coke. However, he does have one character here saying
"I can’t stand that shit" and opting instead for Pepsi. Maybe that’s a bit of self-deprecating humour, wherein
the writer is acknowledging his Coke obsession? Another humorous touch that I enjoyed was one character’s saying about
another one: "If that boy were any dumber, he’d have to be watered twice a week."
There are times in the book when somebody makes a comment that distinguishes this kind of mystery from a fictional one.
For instance somebody says it’s not like the tv mysteries where one brilliant sleuth solves everything. No, in "real"
cases like this one, the solution is a matter of team work, everybody’s insights coming together. That sort of distinction
is almost becoming a cliché in mysteries nowadays, but I find it a useful reminder. In
a similar vein, there’s Virgil’s welcome observation at the end of the book that he can’t figure out how
to think about some of the stuff that went down, not everything is solved, justice isn’t done in every respect, but
"a lot of the things that happened in the world couldn’t be adequately or logically settled."