Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tom McCarthy

This first novelist is unique among the writers I found for not having published during the 20th century. Tom McCarthy is a good introduction to fiction of the 21st century. There are three novels of his, and I've read C and Remainder. C, I thought, was the better book, and it led me on to Remainder, which I enjoyed less. He was also co-writer, along with director Johan Grimonprez, of the intriguing film Double Take. Check it out if reading's not your thing but still have some curiosity about McCarthy.

In Remainder, a young man has been involved in some sort of accident for which he is compensated with a very large cash settlement. We never learn the nature of the accident; his silence on the subject is part of the settlement. The trauma from the accident causes the hero to feel he has lost his sense of authenticity. He discovers that this authenticity can be recaptured and his sense of reality regained for a few moments in elaborately staged re-creations of otherwise trivial events and sensations from his memories. As the story progresses, he turns to increasingly violent re-creations from the stories in the news

C is the story of another young man, born to a land owner and radio wave tinkerer at the close of the 19th century. We follow the boy as he's educated and sent off to war in France to serve as an observer in the air corps. He develops a taste for cocaine and heroin and these determine his subsequent wanderings through the theatrical floating world of London in the 1920s. He kicks his habits finally and is recruited as spy to keep an eye on the installation of radio transmitting towers in Egypt.

I have to confess I've only given each of these books a single read, but they were strange and enthralling and I will get around to, sooner or later, giving at least C a second read. I've made a mental note to pick up his other novel, Men in Space, if I can my hands on it. Some of the first books I remember loving were those of Kurt Vonnegut. Tom McCarthy reminded me of those times, updated to a new century with a more acutely philosophical focus.

His work is rather challenging and is often puzzling. Here's a short excerpt from near the beginning of C.

Inside the garden are chrysanthemums, irises, tulips and anemones, all stacked and tumbling over one another on both sides of a path of uneven mosaic paving stones. Learmont follows the path towards a passageway formed by hedges and a roof of trellis strung with poisonberries and some kind of wiry, light-brown vine whose strands lead off to what look like stables. As he nears the passageway, he can hear a buzzing sound. He stops and listens. It seems to be coming from the stables: an intermittent, mechanical buzz. Learmont thinks of going in and asking the people operating the machinery for more directions, but, reasoning that it might be running on its own, decides instead to continue following the path. This forks to the right and, after passing through a doorway in another wall, splits into a maze-pattern that unfolds across a lawn on whose far side stands another wall containing yet another doorway. Learmont strides across the lawn and steps through this third doorway, which deposits him onto the edge of the orchard he saw as he first arrived. The large, lightly sloping gravel path he descended with Mr. Dean is now on the orchard's far side, half-hidden by the conifers; a smaller footpath, on which he's now standing, lies perpendicular to this, between the garden's outer wall and the orchard's lower edge. The children are still there, wrapped up in their mute pantomime. Learmont runs his eye beyond them: the rows of small, white-fruited trees give over to an unkempt lawn that, after sixty yards or so, turns into a field on which the odd sheep grazes. The field rises to a ridge; a telegraph line runs across this, then falls down the far side, away from view.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Fiction in the 21st Century

I remember following a discussion on the internet some time last year about the greatest works of fiction. There were no real surprises in the discussion until I realized that all the novels that were mentioned were written during the 20th century. It seemed as though a dozen years had passed since the millennium without producing any work worthy of attention.

How does this compare against the last century? Looking at some of my favourites, one hundred years ago, Joseph Conrad was doing some of his strongest work. Jack London, Thomas Mann, Arthur Conan Doyle and even Leo Tolstoy were publishing. In 1913, Sons and Lovers and Swann's Way both appeared. I suppose the next dozen or so years of that century are better remembered today, but this is not a bad collection of novels. It struck me that we ought to have something written by now, in this century, that warrants a mention in a discussion of great novels; something that will be remembered a hundred years hence.

Trouble was, I couldn't think of anything I'd put forward as a candidate. A lot of my favourites from the 20th century were still publishing worthy novels, such as Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood. Some, like Don DeLillo, were running out of steam. Others, like David Foster Wallace, were running on empty. I wanted to find someone new, to me at least, or if possible, several new authors. I started reading, almost exclusively, new novels by authors unknown to me. Some fifty or sixty novels later, I'm almost ready to report.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


I'll finish the series I've been writing on East European films of the 1960s with another selection from the USSR. though again, not a European film, but one made in Kyrgyzstan, again far to the east of Europe, in the mountainous republic bordering on China. The actors and writer/narrator are Kyrgyz but the directors are Russians. There are interesting Russian films made during the period that I could have chosen to write about, but these are relatively well known and have their audience. I wanted to write about Dzhamiliya because it's still obscure and worth watching.

It's also a war movie, set at the time of the second world war, and it's notable for treating the war so lightly. Granted, the front is a very long way off, but the difference between it and other war films of the period is startling. There's none of the grim horror that typifies other Russian war films. "Come and See", "The Ascent", and "Ivan's Childhood" are typically harrowing, and by the way are all available for downloading via bittorrent. Even compared with other war-time romance films such as "Ballad of a Soldier", Dzhamiliya stands out. We're told, for example, in the first minutes of The Ballad of a Soldier that Alyosha doesn't make it through the war and dies while liberating Europe. Obviously this casts a pall of doom over the film. In Dzhamiliya, we don't get any taste of the horror and sacrifice of the war. Many of the young male characters in the film are wounded and disabled, but Dzhamiliya, played by Natalya Arinbasarova, mocks their disability and questions their manhood.

The story of Dzhamiliya is told by Seit, the young brother of her husband, charged by his family to keep an eye on her and protect her from suitors while he is at the front. He's just at the age when becoming sexually aware and she inspires his first artistic endeavors. Seit's character, much older and now a successful artist, is also the film's narrator, played by Chingiz Aitmatov, the writer of the screenplay and author of the original novel. Incidentally, later Aitmatov would become a diplomat representing the post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan in Europe.

It's not an artistically innovative or politically daring film. It borrows liberally techniques used in Western films like, rarely seen these days, freeze frames and solarization. It borrows liberally from Soviet tractor operas as well. There are some very nice montages of Kyrgyz poetry, song and landscape that in themselves should make the film worthwhile. The story is conventional, but the narrator, giving an adult voice to a child who struggles to understand the confusing and sad world of adults, adds a dimension of lost innocence, and his discovery of his place in a world of wonder raises the film a notch or two above the conventional love story.

Dzhamiliya is available at the Pirate Bay for downloading.