I read Zoe Heller's novel when it first came out and admired it very much. Somehow, though, I managed not to see the film, which I think was released early this year. I've just got around to watching it on DVD and was completely blown away by it. It does, of course, have the advantage of featuring two of the very best actors working today, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, both of whom are not only hugely talented but also extraordinarily versatile. Bill Nighy, too, is always great, and so, here, is the terrifically talented Andrew Simpson, all of 16 years old (playing 15 in the film). It's a troubling and thought-provoking story -- a teacher having a sexual relationship with an underage boy twenty years younger than she is -- and I found it fascinating to see the changes that Patrick Marber's screenplay had made to the original version. For one thing, Blanchett's husband, played by Bill Nighy, was an attractive, likeable man and a good husband and father, while in the book he is rather a dull and unattractive aging nerd. This meant, I think, that in the film Sheba's reasons for beginning the affair were more complicated, not at all a bad thing. In fact, though Blanchett herself has said she cannot understand a woman wanting an affair with someone so much younger, many people -- myself included -- can see exactly how such a thing could happen, and the film does not exactly condemn her, or at least she seems not to lose our sympathy. That is probably something to do with Blanchett's superb performance -- so delicate, almost damaged, confused, breathtakingly beautiful. As for Judi Dench, playing entirely against type here, she is remarkable as the very scary, disturbed, bitter, angry older woman -- though I can't say I found anything to like in this character, she manages to make one understand exactly why she is this way and to feel enormous pity for her despite her appalling behaviour. See it, if you haven't already.
I've read this adorably attractive Hesperus edition of Balzac's story twice now -- not a great feat as it is only 45 pages long. I read it twice because the first time I was not quite sure what I thought of it. Published in 1830, it is described in the introduction as "a tale of gothic glamour, depicting European culture at its most corrupt". Well, yes, I suppose it is that. But it is also a story that teases the reader with questions about gender, about art, about sexuality, about old age. There's an awful lot in these 45 pages! The story begins at a party in a grand mansion, stuffed with gorgeous, wealthy, fashionable people. In their midst appears a terrifying figure, an ancient and mysterious man who, "without being precisely a vampire, a ghoul, an artificial man...shared something" with all of these. The narrator's guest, a beautiful young woman, is appalled by this vision and begs him to tell her the story of his background, and, the next day, so he does. At first the story that he tells, about an artist who falls in love with a beautiful young singer who refuses his advances, seems irrelevant to what his mistress wants to hear about. But the extraordinary secret that the artist finally discovers proves to reveal unexpected depths to this strange, sad, ghostly figure. One thing that impressed me the second time through was the way Balzac makes use of what we in the trade :) call binary oppositions. From the very beginning we are in a world of contrasts: the story begins with the narrator sitting in a window seat, watching the party, one side of his body chilled by the freezing air outside and the other warmed by the heat of the room. How symbolic can you get? Then later we encounter age and youth (the old man and the young daughter of the house, who seems to have a special relationship with him), ugliness and beauty (the old man again, sitting next to the narrator's beautiful mistress), later still art and life, male and female.... Don't read it as a textbook, though! It's much more than that.
I so wanted to read this book after dovegreyreader's comments and Elaine's on random jottings made it sound so amazing. But then when I got my copy from Snowbooks I started to feel quite apprehensive. Could I possibly like it as much as they did? And even if I did, what on earth could I say to follow their eloquent reviews? Well, I finished it yesterday, all 575pp of it and it is indeed an amazing achievement. I know nothing of Sarah Bower -- someone somewhere referred to "her other history books" but what these are I don't know as Amazon doesn't seem to list them. Anyway, her historical research is stunning. I have never been, personally, much of a fan of this period of history -- I didn't take to the Cadfael series, though that was I think set rather later. But I was completely convinced by way this remote time -- it starts in 1066 of course -- is brought to life. As for the details about the making of the Bayeux "tapestry" (actually an embroidery, made entirely by women), this is absolutely fascinating and like others who have read this I now am desperate to read more about this. Now, I have a house on the border of Normandy and Brittany and have driven past Bayeux many many times but amazingly I have never been there or seen this wonderful artifact, something I shall remedy straight away next time I am over there. Knowing that area was exciting when I was reading the part of the book that was set there -- many ancient churches and castles still remain, of course, and I shall never look at them with quite the same eyes again. In fact in the next village to my house is the last remaining tower of a chateau that once belonged to William the Conqueror's father, and William himself had one in the nearby market town, though all that remains there now is a hideous modern-ish statue. William himself of course figures in the book, but the chief male character is his brother Odo, the charismatic, brilliant, passionate bishop. The central plot centres on his love affair with Gytha, who as the book starts is mourning the death of King Harold, to whose mistress Edith she was the handmaiden. Her once desire at this stage is to meet and murder Odo, who she holds responsible for Harold's undignified death (no, he didn't die from an arrow in the eye...). But of course things take a very different turn and the two fall passionately in love, something which proves to be a huge problem in this new Norman/English society where jealousy, plotting and spies are rife, and where ancient superstition still lives side by side with Christianity. The book shows with great skill the massive contrasts between the lives of the poor, scraping a living in a frequently harsh and unyielding countryside, and those of the rich, with their silks, and furs, and jewels, their servants and their feasts. I see that there is to be a TV adaptation of this, and hope it will manage to do it some kind of justice. But please do not wait for this -- plunge in and wallow as soon as possible!
I've had a really busy and very stressful week so have not done all that much reading or blogging. I'm just finishing The Needle in the Blood and will write about that very soon. But one thing I have done is discover and sign up for this -- Bookmooch. Basically this is a website on which you can advertise books you want to give away, earn points for doing so, and get people to send books to you. If someone 'mooches' one of your books, you pay for postage. I've put about 30 books on there so far, and ordered one. It seems that by far the largest number of people who subscribe to this are in the US and of course mailing books internationally is expensive. So I found one book I wanted and the owner was not prepared to send it to me in the UK. But there are members all over the world and hopefully the good news will spread.
In the last few months I've read quite a few books in translation though I haven't blogged about all of them. Every time I have, though, I've mentioned the fact that I have always had a resistence to reading books not in their original language. I've been thinking more about this rather vague statement lately as I've been quite troubled by what I have perceived as really poor translations of some of the books I've read (no names to be mentioned of course). But when I say poor, I don't mean that they are not true to the original text -- far from it, probably. What I mean is that they read so clunkily (can't think of an acceptable academic way of saying this). I've looked into this and realised that in fact it is not just poor translation, or at least that there is a reason why it has been done like this. The buzz word seems to be "foreignisation": "foreignisation ensures that a text is self-consciously other", apparently. In other words, readers know they are reading something which originated in another language. This is the way, apparently, much translation is done these days, as opposed to the old-fashioned (??) method described by one commentator as follows: "In order to render impact into other languages, translators must first decide what gives literature its "impact" in its native language, and then find some analagous way to translate that into the intended language". Well, call me old fashioned, but I know which I'd rather read. Perhaps I've been influenced by my theatre background here -- ever since I can remember, if a theatre wanted to do a play by, say, Chekhov (that's him in the top picture) or Ibsen (below), they would ask a living British dramatist to do a version of it. That person might not know the original language, though perhaps they might work with someone who did. But the aim always was to produce something which sounded right to a contemporary audience. Thus, for example, in the past twelve months there have been two productions of Chekhov's The Seagull, one version by Christopher Hampton (Royal Court) and one by Martin Crimp (National Theatre), both distinguished dramatists in their own right. But maybe we are talking about something different here -- a "version" as opposed to a translation? What does anyone else think?
No sooner had I got home and written the blog last night than I was struck down with a bug, of the stomach variety, and have been in bed ever since but am now feeling a bit better. I had been feeling terribly deprived since I finished Harm Done and remembered I had bought an old Rendell in a charity shop a while back which I thought I had never read. I managed to find it, and this was it, and to my great joy I had not read it before. It dates from 1993 and initially I thought this must be before she started publishing as Barbara Vine, as it is much more in that mode than the Rendell/whodunnit one -- but I see Dark Adapted Eye came out in 1986 so I was wrong. Anyway it is not at all a conventional whodunnit -- there are several murders in the book but never any doubt who did them. There is a certain amount of mystery but that surrounds the background to the extraordinary upbringing of Liza, who is the central character in the book. Aged sixteen, she has been brought up by Eve, her beautiful, if rather strange, mother, with whom she lives in an isolated gatehouse belonging to a huge stately home in a remote valley. The novel begins with Eve telling Liza she must leave home -- the police have been interviewing her and will return for her tomorrow, and Liza must go to London and stay with her mother's friend Heather. She presses £100 into her hand and sends her off. Liza is terrified. She has never been to London, hardly ever even to the next town, has never been on a bus or a train, never been to school or even met anyone of her own age. But, unknown to her mother, she has for the past few months been caught up in a passionate love affair with the beautiful Sean, who was briefly employed as a gardener at the house. She manages to find him and his battered car and caravan, and he happily takes her in. A new life begins, in which they get temporary fruit picking jobs, eat takeaways, and make love a great deal. And Liza begins to tell Sean the story of her life, much of which shocks and amazes him beyond belief. She tells him about Scheherazade and the thousand and one nights of stories, and spins her own story out night after night in much the same way. As she learns about the world she has never known, she finds much to shock and distress her but also much to excite and encourage, and increasingly develops an ambition to develop her own extraordinary intelligence and encyclopedic, if rather limited knowledge. For Liza has read an amazing number of books from the house library, though nothing published since about 1900, can speak perfect French, translate Latin, recognise the works of the great composers and artists, but she cannot do sums and knows nothing of science, let alone how the world actually works. I thought the ending was brilliant, too -- a moment comes when one is almost certain to predict the way things are going to go and the heart sinks.... But this is Ruth Rendell, so you may be in for a surprise. I really loved this book. It is full of allusions -- to Eve and the garden of Eden, to The Tempest, to Romeo and Juliet (to which Liza turns to try to understand the feelings she develops for Sean). But it is also pure Rendell. What always amazes me about her is the absolute simplicity of her prose, and the way in which she manages to suggest so much with it. There is never any hyperbole, everything is understated, yet she can suggest threat, or evil, more successfully than any writer I have ever read, without ever spelling it out. There are writers out there -- alas, including hugely successful ones -- who would do well to take a leaf from that particular book.
I've been working away for a week and not able to get on the blog. I haven't done much reading -- did read a rather fascinating though ultimately rather annoying book about Mary Magdalene but I'm not going to blog about that -- and also a short story by Balzac which I will say more about soon. But today on the train home I finished this, which I had picked off the shelves where I was staying. Turned out I'd read it before but once I started I couldn't stop. In fact I couldn't remember who had done it, though I thought I could and was surprised to find I was mistaken. But even if I had remembered I would not have minded as this is a book you can re-read without being too much bothered by the outcome, or that is how it struck me. This is an Inspector Wexford novel, and these are always, I find, oddly
comforting in some way. Partly that may be because of the familiarity
of the characters -- Reg himself, a head full of literary quotations,
given to inspired but sometimes incorrect intuitions, Dora Wexford,
domestic and pragmatic, their two daughters, one of whom Reg guiltily
loves far the best. In this novel, though, it is his older daughter
Sheila who has an important role to play, as she has taken a voluntary
job answering the phone in a refuge for women suffering from domestic
violence, and through the various twists and turns of the plot, this
brings her closer to her father. Then there is Burden, with his love of
fine clothes and his membership of Mensa. As you would expect from Rendell, there are many stories told here, which appear at first to be separate but of course turn out to be intertwined in various complex ways -- or in some cases not to be related even though they had appeared to be. The main strand of the plot concerns domestic violence, and very chilling it is -- both the victim and the perpetrator are frighteningly believeable. So, too, are the various secondary characters, many of them residents on the local housing estate. Rather a scary and depressing world is depicted here, and Reg is put into a very difficult situation which taxes his moral and ethical values to the limit.
"Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again". No -- that's Rebecca. "Last November I had a nightmare. It was 1924 and I was at Riverton again". That's it -- the opening of Kate Morton's novel. Intertextuality, I hear you say. Yes, probably. But this book does not, after the opening sentence, allude in any noticeable way to Daphne Du Maurier's novel. Of course it is set, like Rebecca, in a large country house, but there, I think, the similarity ends, although Du Maurier is one of the authors Morton says inspired her: other sources of inspiration,perhaps more noticeable, include The Remains of the Day, Gosford Park, and Upstairs Downstairs. But this should not detract from Kate Morton's achievement, or from our enjoyment of this skilfully constructed novel. Grace, the narrator, is in her late 90s and, aware that her time is running out, decides to make a series of tapes for her grandson Marcus. This young man, a writer himself, should, she believes, have the opportunity of finding out about her life, but also about the lives of the family with whom she has been intimately connected for a large part of her life. For Grace, aged fourteen, was sent to work as a housemaid for the wealthy Hartford family at Riverton House, just as her own mother had done before her. As she grows up, she becomes increasingly close to Hannah, the older of the two young girls who live at the house, who is more or less her own contemporary, and eventually, when Hannah marries, Grace becomes her lady's maid. But many secrets lie beneath the apparently placid surface of both their lives, some of which are hinted at in places throughout the novel, others of which are revealed with quite startling effect towards the end. The double time-frame -- Grace in her 90s and Grace as a young girl --makes for quite a complex structure which Kate Morton handles well. I had a few quibbles -- I'd like to have seen a bit more development of Grace's discovery of her parentage, which certainly has repurcussions, though these are not really touched on here. But for a first novel, which I take this to be, it is extremely impressive.
Last night Film Four showed the 1994 film of Little Women which, amazingly, I had never seen. It was a book that I loved so much when I was a child that I must have read it half a dozen times. I was curious to see what they had made of it, and was pleased to see that though obviously some changes had been made it was, for me, absolutely true to the spirit of this fine book. In fact the film also covers the sequel, Good Wives, which I managed to find afterwards on the bookshelves though I don't seem to have a copy of Little Women. I raced through Good Wives this morning, marvelling rather as I did so at the thought that I must have read this aged no more than 10, and wondering what I had made then of some of the quite complex and archaic language, not to mention the literary allusions, which must have gone right over my head. What struck and impressed me most, both in the book and in the film, was the fact that, though the books are undoubtedly rather moralistic by today's standards, they are also extremely honest, and the characters seem as real as they must have done in the 1860s. There's an interesting chapter in Good Wives, for instance, in which Meg gets so caught up with her babies that she neglects her husband John, who takes to going to his friends' house for a bit of light relief. The marriage, which has got off to such a good start, is under threat for a while, until Meg's mother advises her to take a bit more trouble to make John feel loved again. Many people will recognise that syndrome. Of course it is Jo who is central to both books -- how I loved her when I was a child and how I still love her now, having seen three children of my own struggle with some of the issues she has to face. It's her temper, above all, the she has to learn to control, but of course she is an extraordinary feminist icon and many of her problems arise from the fact that she is denied the possibility of living the kind of life she craves for, essentially a man's life. It is interesting that though Alcott married Jo off very happily to the adorable Professor Bhaer (played in the film by the gorgeous Gabriel Byrne), she herself never married and once told an interviewer that this was because " I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man." I have to admit that, sentimental fool as I am, I sat there with tears pouring down my face not once but several times during the course of this movie, a very satisfying result.