‘Headlong’ by Michael Frayn

headlongMichael Frayn is a successful novelist and playwright equally at home with farces, comedies and profoundly serious dramas. Throughout, he explores the extreme lunacies of life and the thin dividing-line between order and chaos.

Headlong is a ‘classic’ Frayn, incorporating a farcical narrative where a young academic and wannabe art historian believes he has stumbled across a missing Bruegel masterpiece with scholarly investigation and art history. And like so many farces of wrong doors, missed opportunities, inappropriate clinches, dropped trousers and general absurdity (Frayn wrote Noises Off after all), Headlong is a frustrating, bumbling, infuriating novel.

Martin and Kate Clay, with baby Tilda in tow, head for their country home (a damp, slightly squalid cottage some three hours drive from London) for a year’s sojourn of research and writing (both are university lecturers). On arrival, they discover their neighbour, Tony Churt awaiting them. Never having spoken to any of the local residents, the part-time country folk are surprised by an invitation to dinner at Upwood, the very dreary, run-down Churt manor house. Evidently looking for quick cash, Churt introduces Martin in particular to the family Giordano in the hope of advice on an under-the-counter, avoiding-inheritance-tax deal. But among many other paintings in the freezing house, Martin is convinced he has spotted a Bruegel.

Cue initially fascinating research into the (little known) life of Pieter Bruegel and the politics of life in 16th century Protestant Netherlands under Spanish Catholic rule. Theory and counter theory abounds along with the following of historical lines that may prove the authenticity of a missing (or several) Bruegels from the series of works in The Seasons. Martin’s research also explores the ideology that, like so many paintings of the time, the works were iconographic in their messages – symbols of oppression by the ruling Spaniards. More and more convinced of his discovery, Clay looks to defraud the Churts.

But a convoluted plot evolves where Martin looks to find a ‘mysterious buyer’ for the Giordano (to the Curts, the centrepiece of their collection) and who will throw-in a few thousand pounds for three or four other works (including, of course, the Bruegel).

In the course of looking to validate his discovery and secure purchase (including hightailing it out of the mud-splattered valley to London driving an ancient Land Rover towing the Giordano wedged into a horse box before parking it illegally outside a Mayfair art gallery), Clay comes close to destroying his marriage, bankrupting the family, having an affair with Laura Churt, the glamorous wife of Tony, killing himself in a road accident and defrauding Sotheby’s.

Headlong is a story of prejudice (city culture and rustic ignorance) and miscommunication, a so-called comedy of misattribution (misunderstanding motives, whether in the English countryside or the oppressive imaginary landscapes of the 16th century) and missed opportunities (Clay constantly forgetting to check known recent auction prices for Giordano is the equivalent of the farce dramatist’s ‘wrong door’). It’s infuriating – and, after a while, a little too academic for its own good.

Favourite to win the 1999 Booker Prize, Michael Frayn lost out to J.M.Coetzee and Disgrace.

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‘The Garden Book’ by Brian Castro

The-Garden-Book_Brian-Castro-510x799Literary and obscurely poetic, Brian Castro’s meditation on loneliness, addiction, abuse and racism is a perverse and unappealing narrative.

Broken into four sections with events seen from the perspective of four people, The Garden Book is the story of poet Shuang He (Swan Hay) and her sad, isolated life in the shadows of the Dandenong Hills on the outskirts of Melbourne between the wars.

Darcy Damon (section one), her husband, is a good-looking opium addict: Swan Hay herself is a third generation Chinese-Australian and university graduate: Jasper Zhalin (section three) an American architect/pilot and lover of Swan: and finally Shih, their son, looking back at events and attempting to piece together the story some 50 years later.

It’s a frustrating read. Castro has created several captivating characters, allowing him to touch upon fascinating themes that are as relevant today as they were then. The often hidden history of the Chinese in Australia and the racism simmering below the surface of everyday life is exposed – not just towards Swan and her father, but also her Jewish friend, Ruth Black. But Castro’s language, whilst rich and archly beautiful, is impenetrable and exacting in its telling of a narrative.

A progressively angry and violent Damon, former chauffeur to the notorious local gangster, Squizzy Taylor, becomes increasingly remote as he builds a large house to cater for the burgeoning tourism of the local area. Swan, writing poetry on gum leaves, slips between sanity, depression and addiction (opium and/or alcohol), made worse by the cot death of their daughter. As war inches closer and Damon spends more and more time absent from the property as a reservist, into the narrative walks Jasper Zenlin. Charming, wealthy and sophisticated, he loves Swan and her poetry, eventually having the work published by an obscure printing house in Paris on the eve of the war. Swan is a sensation – but never knows it until post-war.

Victim of malicious gossip and accusations, Swan lives intensely and painfully in her mordant solitude. She loses all – Damon, her father, Jasper, her children, even, ultimately, herself.

As a précis, with more verve and action (plane crashes, opium-fuelled orgies, bigamy, spies), The Garden Book sounds like a regular literary thriller. But it falls into an academic exercise, an emotionless gymkhana of poetic verbosity. By the end, I hated it.

The Garden Book was shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Roger McDonald and The Ballad of Desmond Kale.

 

‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

miseducationA modest, low-key Christian gay conversion therapy drama as Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In) is caught in the clutches of Bible Study classmate Coley at the School Prom.

Writer/director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behaviour) elicits sensitive, nuanced performances from a cast of predominantly young adults as Moretz develops a close relationship with the dope-growing, resigned-to-their-fate Jane (Sasha Lane – American Honey, Hearts Beat Loud) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck – The Revenant, Indian Horse).

Whilst avoiding overt grandstanding, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, through its lightness of touch and wry humouris a damning indictment of institutional Christianity. It collected the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Rating: 68%

‘Empire of the Sun’ by J.G. Ballard

empiresunBased on his own childhood experiences, J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun is a compelling war torn story of deprivation and starvation as teenager Jim Graham looks to survive the Japanese Lunghao Airfield internment camp south of Shanghai.

A life of chauffeur-driven privilege in the International Settlement of the Chinese city is permanently changed by the Japanese entering the Second World War with the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour. That same morning, two Japanese warships scuttle American and British gunboats in dock and seize control of the Yangtze River. Confusion reigns: Jim loses contact with his parents and is left to fend for himself.

Roaming free for several months, Jim survives by breaking into the homes of wealthy Europeans, living off water from the soda syphons and cocktail biscuits. But a sense of exhaustion and fear sets in, resulting in his surrender to the Japanese.

Interned in Lunghao, Jim is exposed to the deprivation and cruelty of the Japanese guards. In his three years at the camp, he faces hunger, disease and death. But in his determination to survive, Jim ingratiates himself with prisoners and guards alike to gain food and gifts to later barter for food.

It’s in the detail that Ballard shines. The evocation of the teenage boy’s inner thoughts and confusion, his desperation to avoid slipping into a sense of uselessness along with a sexual awakening in his attraction to Mrs Jenkins: we see Jim grow. He admires the American prisoners and, strangely, identifies (in part) with the Japanese – the pilots in particular. It’s this dislocation of ‘loyalty’ (he has little respect for fellow Brits and the homeland he has never been too) and Jim’s dawning awareness that, as the end of the war approaches, it is likely safer in the camp. Resourceful and wily, having attached himself to other ‘survivors’ (Basie, Dr Ransome), Jim sees the danger that comes with the confusion of the end of the war – starving peasants, rogue Japanese, Chinese communists, bandit camp-survivors. An extraordinary number die after the final days of the war – so many that Jim wanders if World War Three has begun. The dead piled up by the side of roads, bloated corpses floating in the nearby irrigation canals, the sounds of Chinese peasants strangled by soldiers.

A new order is already beginning and the last vestiges of the Empire of the Sun, of the European Empires, of the Chinese Nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek are slowly dying out. Survivors battle survivors for food, booty, a passage to somewhere.

Ballard’s novel is an extraordinary achievement – a semi-fictionalisation of his own personal experiences (a teenage Ballard was interned in Lunghao with his parents and sister). From the pool parties of the International Settlement to deprivation and starvation, from the disregard of local Chinese workers to imprisonment and abuse, Ballard has created a haunting sense of time and place.

The Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but, much to the dismay of the literary world, lost out to Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.

‘McQueen’

mcqueenA great documentary for the togs and sheer spectacle of Alexander McQueen’s visionary presentation but as an insight into the man himself, Ian Bonhote & Peter Ettedgui’s documentary is sadly lacking.

Undoubtedly a tortured genius, Lee Alexander McQueen, the London chav, son of a taxi driver, took the fashion-world by storm prior to his suicide in 2010. Candid interviews with colleagues, friends and family provide a certain insight into the man, but there’s a great deal more left out or merely touched upon (cocaine abuse, HIV, child abuse). And it’s this imbalance that leaves the rags to riches tale as a lost opportunity.

Rating: 59%

‘You Were Never Really Here’

you wereA taught, nervous, noir thriller as traumatised veteran Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Inherent Vice) tracks down missing persons – with liberal use of violence when necessary. With the disappearance of a senator’s daughter, Phoenix finds himself in a tight-knit paedophile ring.

Winner of both best screenplay and best actor at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, director Lynne Ramsey (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ratcatcher) has adapted the novel by Johnathan Ames into a moodily stylish ellipsis of flashbacks, suggestion and suppression. It’s a pity that You Were Never Really Here occasionally lapses into incoherence.

Rating: 63%

‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner

hoteldulacFollowing an initially undisclosed indiscretion, Edith Hope, writer of romantic novels, is packed off for an out-of-season sojourn on the shores of a Swiss lake. In the solicitous yet stolid hotel of the title, she is shown into her room, the colour of over-cooked veal. Nothing describes Anita Brookner’s somewhat turgid, thankfully short, novel better!

Brookner, through Edith Hope, delights in cruel portrayals of the few other hotel guests – particularly the wealthy yet vulgar Mrs Pusey and her attentive spinster daughter – and it is at these times, through gently acerbic prose, that Hotel du Lac is at its descriptive best. Regarded merely as the listener to the older woman’s tedious observations, Edith is soon bored by the self-indulgences of the Puseys. And, equally quickly, so are we.

Yet a lonely, isolated Edith continues to find comfort/solace/company with the two women as they drink their after-dinner coffee in melancholy surrounds. But that all changes (in temperament if not pace) with the arrival of Mr Neville, post Geneva conference.

It’s at this point that Hotel du Lac becomes overtly contrived in its narrative. Small talk between guests evolves into a level of unexpected absurdity (no spoilers here) that upsets the balance of what had been a well-written but mundane literary short story.

Somewhat controversially, Hotel du Lac was awarded the 1984 Booker Prize over the critically acclaimed Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard.

‘The Insult’

The_Insult_(film)Proving that nothing in the Middle East is straightforward, writer/director Ziad Doueiri (The Attack, Lila Says) has produced a powerful feature where a Lebanese Christian (an angry Adel Karam – Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) takes a Palestinian refugee (a quietly nuanced Kamel el Basha – Love, Theft and Other Entanglements) to court for assault.

It’s highly political as what starts as a seemingly minor issue escalates as memories of events from the civil war come to the fore. It may lack subtly in its telling and is a tad overlong but The Insult remains an enthralling insight into conflict and potential reconciliation.

The Insult was nominated for the 2017 Best Film in a Foreign Language Oscar (it lost out to Chile’s A Fantastic Woman).

Rating: 76%

‘4 3 2 1’ by Paul Auster

austerEpic in every way – a thousand plus pages, a grand sweep of American post-World War II history, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is a celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century.

It’s a glorious telling of the life of Archie Ferguson, the only child born to Stanley and Rose Ferguson in New Jersey on 3 March 1947. But it’s not told through one single narrative … the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, travelling toward an altogether different place. Auster thus choses four separate roads and four different lives.

And those four lives are not told simply as separate entities. Instead, they are intertwined geographically and chronologically. The illusion of a single storyline is jettisoned when we become aware of Aunt Mildred having never married. A few pages earlier, in the preceding chapter, we are introduced to her new husband. And so it begins, a miasma of confusion and an introduction to a whole series of friends and family members who bear different relationships to Archie dependent on the narrative of a given chapter.

His parents are the only characters that remain constant and retain their professions – she a photographer, Stanley a businessman. Yet they too have four lives with financial success, career acclaim, divorce, early death, remarriage, near bankruptcy. Throughout, Archie is close to Rose but his relationship(s) with the father(s) varies wildly. The other single most important person to Archie is Amy Schneiderman – cousin/stepsister/lover/ friend/mentor/ confidant. She is, throughout, Ferguson’s soul mate and (mostly) ideal sexual partner, the indispensable other who dwelled inside his skin.

Together and separately, the two travel through the second half of an American twentieth century, each reacting differently according to circumstance. The Kennedy Brothers and Martin Luther King assassinations, Vietnam, the Rosenburg executions, Civil Rights and the Black Panther movement, student uprisings at Columbia University. But we must also deal with the disorienting family scenarios where Amy is Ferguson’s cousin (Rose has married her uncle) or his stepsister (a divorced Rose has married Amy’s widowed father).

Political activist, journalist, sportsman, novelist, translator of French poets: gay, straight, uncertain: living in New York, Rochester (New York State), Paris, Princeton. Take your pick – all are facets of the four Archibald Isaak Fergusons – the passionate lover of French new wave films of Godard and Truffaut, the adoring fan of the slapstick adventures of Laurel and Hardy, an excellent baseball player, a promising basketball student. The militant Amy in one anti-Vietnam narrative balances a disinterested or marginalised Archie whilst Archie 2 (or is it Archie 3?) is equally vocal in a second narrative whilst a third is living in Paris.

No question, 4 3 2 1 is a gargantuan novel (it can be argued it’s actually four books in one). It can also be very confusing in the attempt to recollect the history of the particular Archie of the section/chapter focus. And, like most books of a particular size, it does lose steam towards the end (whilst finding the 1968 Columbia University sit-ins informative, there’s an overzealous text-book feel to the detail – a positioning by Auster himself to his perspective and opinions to the situation). But those are minor caveats.

Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is a success because he chooses to place the four Archies together in a chronological state of relative sameness. Thus, all the early lives are essentially centred round the same/similar Jewish suburbs in Newark/New Jersey. Manhattan is writ large – as is Paris and the French language. Auster has not (thankfully) created four wholly different Archies but essentially four identical but different people with the same name Ferguson. As a result, we see the Fergusons grow up alongside each other and how events around them affect (or not) the pathway they choose to take.

It’s a remarkable yet challenging book with an extraordinary sense of detail determined by its importance to Archie (pages devoted the films of Laurel and Hardy, comparisons of contemporary French poets and Manhattan Beat literature, baseball averages, the speeches of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement). And, whilst Auster does occasionally slip into academic pontificating (do we really need whole paragraphs of the names of Ancient Greek writers and philosophers on the Princeton syllabus?) and political jockeying that leaves no doubt as to where Auster himself stands on events of the 1960s and 70s, 4 3 2 1 is a multitudinous, wholly engrossing narrative.

One of three Americans shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize (Emily Fridlund and George Saunders being the other two), Paul Auster lost out to Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.