‘An Artist of the Floating World’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

ArtistOfTheFloatingWorldSeemingly slight (a mere 206 pages), Ishiguro’s second novel (published in 1986) is elegant, measured and unexpectedly seductive.

Set in immediate post-war Japan, successful artist Masuji Ono reflects on his life as his youngest child prepares for her maia and the marriage investigations undertaken by both families prior to consent of any wedding. In her mid-twenties, it is Noriko’s second such undertaking and there’s a tacit concern that it may be her last opportunity to find a husband.

It is the return to the family home for a short visit by the married Setsuko, the elder daughter, which sets in motion Ono’s reflections on his past. It is she who implies that it is her father’s pre-war successes and political associations that may hinder negotiations with the Saito family and Noriko’s future.

At an early age, Ono entered into the apprenticeship schools of great masters before he rejected their traditions of an aesthetic ideal and, becoming involved in far-right politics, helped spearhead imperialist propaganda in the arts and, ultimately, the declaration of war in 1940. But, with Japan’s defeat, the younger generation blame the imperialists for leading the country to disaster: Ono and his peers are discredited.

An Artist of the Floating World, like many of Ishiguro’s early novels, is written as a first-person narrative, thus allowing Ishiguro to reveal his central characters’ flaws and their perspectives on given situations and events. Such a style builds a level of sympathy and pathos with the reader. Ono’s pre-war political associations are only gradually revealed – initially he simply appears to be a successful, somewhat pompous old man with a firm view of tradition, status and protocol. But, as the book evolves and the old man narrates the actions and beliefs of the younger self, it appears that he begins to understand the errors of his ways. The war, afterall, accounted for the death of his son and his wife.

Yet the issues he confronts are buried in the past and remain unresolved: the old man will continue to believe the collapse of Noriko’s first marriage negotiations was the simple result of the groom’s family realising their social standing was not equal to that of the Ono family. As an unreliable narrator, the artist has presented his perspective and has at least seemingly come to terms, on his level, with the errors of his ways.

Exploring changing cultural behaviour and values (the floating world), An Artist of the Floating World is a beautifully nuanced novel, sparely written yet each word contains depth and is full of meaning. The novel was shortlisted for the 1986 Man Booker Prize (losing out to Kingsley Amis and The Old Devils).

‘The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’

Marigold2Mildly entertaining and innocuously charming – as to be expected, very much a ‘more of the same’ as the first film, which was a global box-office hit in 2012. If it works, why fix it?.

A returning dream cast (including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy) that’s hardly challenged but who still seem to be enjoying themselves. The introduction of Richard Gere adds an extra American appeal to the comedy of manners and ageing.

Rating: 50%

‘Regeneration’ Trilogy by Pat Barker

img_00802Comprising of Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road and published over a four-year period, Pat Barker’s trilogy is a deeply humane, complex exploration of the horrors of the First World War, its impact on the English class system, a closely observed commentary on the loss of personal identity and the relationships between men in military and moral conflict.

Based on her own grandfather’s experiences of the war, Barker mixes fact and fiction. She introduces fictional characters (most memorably, Billy Prior) alongside real-life people, including pioneering psychologist W.H.R. Rivers and poets Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen. And, taking an undeniably anti-war stance, Barker inserts Prior (and others) into known places, encounters, situations (Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, the Ministry of Munitions London, Amiens, the trenches of France and Belgium) and spins fictional conversations and events.

Regeneration

Arguably the strongest of the three novels – and certainly the most literary – Regeneration is the scene-setter for what is to follow and is set almost exclusively at Craiglockhart in 1917. The hospital is an institution exploring the psychological effects of war and associated traumas, with Rivers an advocate, like Freud, of compassionate talk and dream therapy.

Central to the book is the evolving relationship between Rivers and his patient, Sassoon. A highly decorated young officer, the poet is deeply conflicted between his duty to king, country and men under his charge and his belief (voiced loudly and publicly) that the war is being unnecessarily prolonged in the interests of a few. The costs, counted in the lives of men, are too great. As an army doctor, Rivers’ duty is to persuade Sassoon out of his ‘temporary aberration’ and for him to return to the trenches silenced.

It is this concept of duty, sense of associated nationalism and masculinity along with resulting moral and ethical conflict that forms the core of the trilogy.

Sassoon’s opinions impact on Rivers, enforced by the experiences of other patients, including Billy Prior, a working class bisexual officer suffering from mutism and debilitating asthma attacks. Over a period of approximately three months, Rivers’ values and beliefs are seriously questioned as he becomes exposed to the views of conscientious objectors (‘conchies’) and pacifists who have ‘adopted’ Sassoon (although he himself distances himself from such views) and veterans’ tales of the horrors of trench warfare (interestingly, many of the patients want to return to France, anxious of being labelled as cowards or skivers).

The Eye in the Door

The weakest of the three novels, The Eye in the Door shifts its focus from Craiglockhart to London and Billy Prior, where, due to Rivers’ recommendation, he is temporarily posted to the Ministry of Munitions. Rivers himself has also left Edinburgh and is now based in a London hospital.

Barker continues to explore the chilling impact of the war on the minds of men, and Prior in particular. But, less successfully, The Eye in the Door also follows a weak plotline whereby Prior tracks down a former school friend and, now, militant conscientious objector.

Billy still sees Rivers and the novel is at its best when exploring trauma psychology along with the political issues of the day – Prior’s indiscriminate bisexuality is contrasted with Sassoon’s sexuality and the (real) campaign against homosexuals (labelled as German spies and sympathisers) being waged by right-wing MP, Noel Pemberton Billing. It’s Prior’s occasional sexual tryst with the married Capt Manning (also a patient of Rivers) that  explores the breakdown of class divisions and British social order – a fellow-officer, Prior is a working class boy from the streets of Salford, Manning a privately-educated member of the upper-classes.

The Ghost Road

Sassoon is relegated to a minor character in the third book in the trilogy. Yet, as Billy Prior prepares to return to France, having been passed fit for duty, so he plans engagement and marriage to munitions worker, Sarah. But it is the ever-present Rivers who emerges as the central character.

Interestingly, as the war moves towards its end and the inevitable horrors of the final push on the Western Front, so Rivers find himself remembering more and more of his past – most significantly his pre-war anthropological expedition to Melanesia. Parallels of war, identity, civilisation and friendship between men abound as the doctor reminisces, alone in his lodging or office.

The Ghost Road was awarded the 1995 Man Booker Prize.

‘Rosewater’

rosewater_xlgPedestrian adaptation of a true story that had all the hallmarks of suspense, thrills and a few spills. Instead, Rosewater provides no empathy, no sympathy – it’s simply uninvolving and at times deeply tedious.

Such a story deserved better and it made me wonder what it would have been in the hands of a more experienced writer/ director than John Stewart. Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel, Amores Perros) tries hard but acting honours belong to the quiet dignity of Shoreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand & Fog).

Rating: 46%

‘Selma’

selma_xlgIt’s powerful stuff – an important film that quietly and simply tells its story. And what a story – a shocking tale of injustice and political prejudice that leaves the viewer deeply moved, shocked and angry. But it also records a significant moment in the American civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Understated performances rule, with Martin Luther King’s advisors quietly present, providing a word here, an opinion there. But it is the (quietly) towering performance by David Oyelowo that is the centre of this deeply humane drama.

Rating: 88%

‘Jack Maggs’ by Peter Carey

JackMaggsEssentially a reworking of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and set in the middle of 19th century London, Peter Carey was surprisingly awarded the 1998 Miles Franklin Literary Prize for Jack Maggs.

Not that there is anything wrong with the novel – many critics believe it is the author’s finest hour.

It is simply the fact that the Miles Franklin, at the time, was awarded to novels that promote Australian literature and Australian sensibilities. Jack Maggs is wholly set in London (although Maggs himself has travelled from Sydney) and Carey was, at the time, living in New York.

But regardless of the decision, Jack Maggs not only collected the Miles Franklin (Carey’s third), but also went on to pick up the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and The Age Book of the Year Award.

A compulsive tale of a society on the cusp of change, Jack Maggs returns to London in utmost secret and in the gravest of danger should he be found to be walking the very soil of his home city. Deported for life at a young age to New South Wales, he has made an about turn in his fortunes and is a wealthy man from the honest craft of brickmaking.

Arriving in London with particular interest in a young gentleman, Henry Phipps, Maggs becomes involved in the household of a Great Queen Street residence, initially taking service as a disguised footman. It is the very next door to Phipps, who is living in the house Maggs himself purchased years previously. Only the young man has done a bolt, likely to be in connection with Maggs’ arrival.

Attempting to discover his whereabouts is the basis of Jack Maggs and, as a result, Maggs finds himself embroiled in affairs of the heart, illicit love, dangerous double-dealings, the occasional murder and mesmerism as emerging novelist Tobias Oates strikes a bargain with the former convict.

Looking for material for new bestseller, Oates has tricked Maggs into agreeing to be hypnotised, ostensibly to help cure a terrible facial tic. The reality is something very different as Oates plunders the unsuspecting mind for a vast wealth of material for his next book – desperately needed as the writer’s fortunes dwindle and his love for his young sister-in-law results in a socially awkward pregnancy.

This Faustian pact is at the heart of the novel as the two men battle for supremacy over each other – the battle of Goliath and David where both men play the part of David and Goliath. Wit, repartee, social standing and new science are all at hand for Oates, whereas brute strength and cunning are at the service of the colonial as Maggs discovers the games the novelist has been playing. Instead of crushing him, Maggs forces Oates to help him find Phipps.

The twentieth century ‘reply’ by Carey to Dickens’ novel is gripping, totally engaging and something of a page-turner as, in parts, Maggs’ history is revealed alongside the determination of the man to achieve his objectives.

Maggs is very obviously the Magwitch of the original, whilst Pip becomes Phipps. But there are considerable differences. The story of the young orphan boy made into a gentleman by a returned convict as a result of a kindness long ago remains. But where Pip is central in Great Expectations, the cowardly Phipps is noticeable by his absence. Unlike Magwitch, Maggs does not die a tragic death – instead he returns to his own family and grows ever wealthier no longer able to help the foolish and vain young man.

But Jack Maggs is not simply a pastiche of Dickens. It is its own story, its own novel.

Oates is loosely based on Dickens himself – in 1837 the novelist had gained a small degree of fame with the publication a year earlier of The Pickwick Papers and Dickens is known to have been attracted to his sister-in-law (although the sexual liaison and pregnancy is a myth on Carey’s part).

And twentieth century sensibilities allow more revelation and social commentary than the England of Dickens and Queen Victoria. Abortion, homosexuality, child rape, sexual passions, descriptive murders and ill-treatment of prisoners all feature in detail.

The result is a powerful novel about the displaced and the dispossessed and a tale of murder, mayhem, lust and painful lives.

‘The Theory of Everything’

the-theory-of-everything-poster-2A beautiful, beautiful film – first hour or so deeply effecting and incredibly sad but peppered with some very funny moments.

The Theory of Everything does slip into something of an episodic domestic drama as too much is crammed into the last 40 minutes (based as it is on the book by Stephen Hawking’s wife, Jane). But with a lush orchestration of a soundtrack and an absolutely stunning, Oscar-worthy performance by Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything is a stirring and bittersweet love story.

Rating: 84%