Category Archives: Reviews

A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion, the biopic of Emily Dickenson by Terence Davies, reproduces the boredom, disappointments and suffering of its subject’s life in such remorseless detail that it inflicts those same ordeals on the audience. Her fatal illness having been revealed, I found myself willing the poor woman to die so that I, too, might be spared further torment. Others did not wait so long and left before the end, the dull clatter of seats like sarcastic applause. Yet the house felt divided, it is fair to say. Dickenson inspires great reverence among fans, groups of whom took their places just before the film started, like militants packing a meeting. As with Sylvia Plath, it is less the poetry that excites their devotion than her treatment by men, the result being a shrill traumatology, a cult of the martyr’s wounds. With that in mind, the passion of the film’s title, which could refer to the poet’s thwarted love or immersion in her work, more closely resembles the Christian meaning of the word, a mixture of sacrifice and mortification. Her pious kinfolk would be dismayed.

But it is not just the length of the film that palls – a little editing would have sorted that out. In places the dialogue consists almost entirely of aphorisms, recalling Monty Python’s Oscar Wilde sketch. Were people really so persistently droll in the nineteenth century? The transition from younger to older versions of the characters is addressed by means of some clunky photoshopping, except in the case of Dickenson’s father, played throughout by Keith Carradine with the help of the make-up department and a bit of acting. We are treated to some of the most obvious hairpieces ever worn on screen, and the accents of the largely British cast make one curious about what lies beneath – like wigs, in fact. Finally, the images we are shown of battlefields with death tolls overlaid are stylistically at odds with the rest of the film. Nor is it clear what point they are trying to make. The Civil War must have impacted even on lives so cloistered and self-obsessed. But after Emily’s brother, Austin, is forbidden to enlist the subject very quickly drops out of sight. That said, the photographs of Gettysburg are transfixing, the images of Lincoln like seeing a mythological figure brought to life. But which side the Dickensons were on is never specified, apart from some waspish comments about slavery.

The film’s redeeming feature is a committed, immersive performance by Cynthia Nixon. She inhabits the part with an almost occult intensity, giving us an individual with all her contradictions laid bare: brilliant, loyal, cantankerous – and, it must be said, increasingly difficult to like. The climax is an extraordinary enactment of the poet’s agonies and death throes, so convincing they become almost unbearable to watch. Of course, the trouble with such magnetism is that it drains the life from other characters. Her sister Vinny, played by Jennifer Ehle, is too selfless to be credible, and their brother Austin (Scotland’s Duncan Duff) blurts out his lines as if the chance might not come again. Only in their mother does such effacement make sense, a woman’s place thought natural by that generation, her daughters’ independence of mind hard to explain.

But what about the poems? Nixon recites them as a running commentary which keeps our interest afloat even when the dourness and disappointments of Emily’s life threaten to overwhelm. I freely admit to being ignorant about the work, but what I hear sounds uneven in quality, some lines penetrating, even profound, others as trite as greeting cards. Every writer needs advice, the editorial function almost as vital as creativity itself. Sequestered among her family, it may be that Dickenson missed the blue pencil of someone appreciative but better qualified to judge. Or, as her advocates might insist, she transcends such concerns with originality and directness of expression, a female kind of genius too easily scoffed at by men. For all its faults, Terence Davies’ film sends the audience back to their bookshelves with an age-old question in mind: must literature stand or fall on its merits, or is knowing about the author essential to understanding their work?


Two films in this year’s Borderlines festival illustrate contrasting approaches to the dramatization of real events. Denial (also reviewed here) plays it straight with a narrative which keeps close to the facts, gives us a few twists and turns along the way and then delivers the climax, the resolution we all knew was coming. It might be argued that the subject matter precludes anything more playful or ambiguous; but given that the story revolves around notions of truth and admissibility, contested concepts in the modern world, a chance may have been missed to reflect those concerns in the style of the film-making itself.

Contrast that literal mindset with Pablo Larrain’s anti-biopic Neruda. This uses an episode in the poet’s life – his outlawing as a member of the Communist Party and subsequent escape from Chile – to investigate a number of relationships: art and politics, an author and his creations, one’s personal life and commitment to a cause. As a result one both learns about Neruda himself and questions the reliability of that knowledge, a more complex and satisfactory bill of fare than Denial’s meat and two veg.

Neruda – the wonderfully lugubrious Luis Gnecco – goes underground after a clampdown on leftists by his former ally in the presidential palace. From safe house to dockside to mountain hideaway he is pursued by Peluchonneau, a detective played by Gael Garcia Bernal. But all is not as it seems. Neruda, among many other things, wrote crime novels which often turn on or culminate in a chase. Copies of these books are left behind for his pursuer to read, and it dawns on the hapless policeman that he is not a real person after all but has been created. Deftly, the film uses this conceit to reference the creative process itself. The increasingly desperate, even farcical nature of Peluchonneau’s pursuit reflects the desire of a character to change what has been planned for him, a claim to free will that is familiar to any writer of fiction. But it can also be seen in terms of his creator’s attempt to keep control of the plot – another battle between the artist and his material. The former finally prevails, in that Peluchonneau meets his end (albeit a generously scenic one), enabling the author-hero to go on his way. But the film has not finished with their relationship. The dead man rises from his coffin to marvel at the independent existence  he has been granted in our minds, exactly the kind of afterlife accorded to characters who ‘stay with us’. As for Neruda, he returns against the advice of his bodyguards to collect the detective’s body and give it a proper burial. This is an elegant enacting of the author’s concern for his characters, experienced as the kind of attachment we might feel in real life, and of Neruda’s other preoccupation, his love for the people, from among whose suffering lower ranks the figure of Peluchonneau has been drawn.

Visually the film is a treat, with scenes changing rapidly from the grandeur of a parliamentary urinal to the snowfields of the Andes, from a cross between a tea dance and a brothel to the classic cars in which the poet, granting himself a stylish exit, makes good his escape. Gnecco prowls, recites, carouses, whores, schmoozes and orates with a compelling interplay of conscience and libido; Michael Silva brings both adulation and reserve to his role as a Party minder; and Francisco Reyes is magnetic as the singer Bianchi. Less compellingly, Mercedes Moran finds it hard to convince as the poet’s long-suffering wife while Bernal’s performance makes me wonder if he has a gift for comedy.

One puzzle remains. Was the manhunt for Neruda on which the film, however loosely, is based any more than a charade? There are grounds for wondering if the poet wants, or wanted, to escape: he takes risks, considers being protected a form of captivity, and debates the dangers and merits of being found, tactically in terms of the movement’s interests and as a moral or artistic gesture. On the other side, it is not clear how seriously the government seeks, or sought, his arrest. Perhaps his stature brings a kind of immunity – that happens to artists sometimes. When pressed to detain Sartre in 1968 De Gaulle is said to have replied: one does not arrest Voltaire. But the film glances forward to a less nuanced view of dissent – and a much harsher fate for dissenters. We are shown the desert camp in which less celebrated communists were interned, I suspect for the sole purpose of revealing its commandant, a young Augustin Pinochet. Fast forward twenty-five years and the military coup which he mounted against Salvadore Allende included among its victims Neruda himself. Already sick, perhaps mortally so, he fled hospital after being given an injection but succumbed within hours, subsequent investigations concluding that he had been poisoned. This was Lorca in Spain all over again. Kill your country’s poet and you murder its soul.


The Founder

From the first frame of The Founder, John Lee Hancock’s film about the origins of McDonald’s, Michael Keaton dominates the screen. There are two kinds of actor with that level of magnetism: one seeks to disappear into the role, like Daniel Day Lewis; the other finds in every part they play a plausible version of themselves. Keaton belongs to this second, less immersive tradition, each character, however fully incarnated, a distant cousin of others in his resumé: the newsman in The Paper, for example, or the action hero attempting a comeback in Birdman. That trademark wince of disappointment, the eyebrows raised to encourage assent, something incorrigible about the eyes:  we like him and feel at home, his films rewarding our sympathy by making it feel justified.

This time, however, we are suckered by that familiar pitch. When we meet Ray Kroc he is middle-aged and strictly small-time, lugging milkshake dispensers round food joints across the Midwest. No one believes in him: blinkered customers, fatuous friends, stay-at-home wife. So convincing is Keaton even we have our doubts, despite knowing what happens next. A visit to the McDonald brothers’ diner in San Bernardino is the turning point. They have perfected the concept of fast food, and Kroc talks his way into their confidence, promising to franchise the operation without sacrificing quality. The story of this relationship lies at the heart of the film. The McDonalds are true innovators but commit the cardinal sin of thinking small. Once Kroc gets investors involved the return on their dollar drives everything, with inevitable results.

This story is Death of a Salesman turned on its head. As the Willy Loman character, Kroc’s wildest fantasies really do materialise: untold wealth; personal recognition; the ear of Presidents. And the film presents this outcome without comment or irony, even tacking real footage on the end to drive the point home. What, then, is it saying? Hurrah for the American Dream of rags (or at least off-the-peg suits) to riches? Lots of other people make money, after all. Even the McDonalds get cheques. Yet his treatment of them is surely meant to leave a nasty taste in one’s mouth, like a stale bun or burnt French fry. Is that the intention, a cautionary tale about the downside of success? But somehow the critique seems wider and more compelling. The homespun values of the original McDonald’s are trampled on by corporate ruthlessness and greed. And those values are central to America’s sense of itself: family, community, looking out for the little guy. The things that countries believe about themselves are usually untrue.

The Founder says it all in the title. Having taken everything else from the brothers, Kroc cannot bear to leave them with the credit for beginning it all. The victor gets to rewrite history – in this case on his business card. Nor is there is any hint of comeuppance, of pride coming before a fall. In Greek tragedy hubris is a fatal character flaw, but billionaires get to rewrite that moral as well. Perhaps this is what the film is offering, a story for our times. A golf-playing mansion-dweller, upgrading wives as if they were cars: if this man resembles anyone it is the deal-making narcissist in the White House. Such people don’t get to lose – and if they did, it would be tax deductible.

Lady Macbeth

A theme may be developing in this year’s Borderline Festival: that of pregnant woman on killing sprees. After Alice Lowe’s murderous primigravida in Prevenge we have William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth taking out the men in her life, albeit by less gruesome means. However uneasily at times, Lowe’s fable is played for laughs; Oldroyd’s, an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, makes no attempt to lighten the mood. A more considered, if not self-conscious, piece of film-making, it cuts off every avenue of escape – into humour, sub-plots or consolation – and leaves the viewer, like the female protagonist, with nowhere to hide.

Several transpositions are involved: from page to screen, from Tsarist Russia to Victorian England, and from Shakespeare’s villain to a teenage bride. Katherine, a young woman whose background is not explained, has been married off to an older man whom she may never have seen before. Alexander is the son of a mine-owner, Boris – the latter’s name a nod towards Leskov’s original, but the single false note in an otherwise convincing recreation of time and place. Boris makes no bones about it: she has been ‘sold’ to his family along with a field, her status as property underlined; and Alexander, unmanned by his father’s lowering presence, is incapable of love or even, it seems, desire. As her frustration and unhappiness grows, Katherine turns to a groom in her father-in-law’s service. Their liaison is discovered but, rather than return to domestic slavery, Katherine embarks on a murderous bid for what we might now think of as liberation. Except that it isn’t, of course, this being tragedy.

Birch has described the film as an ‘anti-bonnet’ view of the period and to an audience raised on Jane Austen serials the revisionism is unsparing. Costume, so often a scene-stealer in period drama, is brutally deconstructed. To watch Katherine being squeezed and laced into her clothes is to witness a violent assault as well as a form of imprisonment, the gradual reduction in what she wears a signifier of resistance and escape. And the absence of music, the steroid of screen nostalgia, brings us closer to the action, sometimes uncomfortably so. Wind is heard scouring the moor, its bleakness immediate and untempered. We hear the small, queasy sounds of Alexander’s self-pleasuring. Above all the house, like an extra character, speaks to us in creaks, chimes and crushing silences, any comfort it provides merely physical. As for the human protagonists, Florence Pugh as Katherine, faced with the boredom and frustration of such a life, makes a mesmerising transition from girlish petulance to full-blown monstrosity. No duty or demure submission here. And Naomi Ackie endows Anna, the maid, with a bewildered passivity, her colour adding depth to the film’s indictment of servitude.

It is the idea of Lady Macbeth to which one keeps returning, however, and the uses to which such an archetype can be put. Shakespeare’s original had lost her children and our present-day understanding of grief reads much into that circumstance. But it was omitted from the first folio and most subsequent editions so that a less nuanced conception of the part, focusing on thwarted ambition, usually prevails. Leskov’s updating of the plot has a more domestic setting, with sexual need and rebellion against patriarchy providing motivation, and Lowe’s script is faithful to this reading of the story in most respects. Disappointingly, Katherine’s male tormentors, Boris in particular, are little more than cartoons of oppressive men – revenge, perhaps, for centuries of cardboard cut-out women but one-dimensional all the same and sparing us the emotional exercise of divided sympathies.

Oldfield’s film passes the test of any adaptation, adding its own layer of meaning through which previous versions of the story can be viewed. Take the fate of his Lady Macbeth, which substitutes a form of triumph for the usual comeuppance. This might be seen as a feminist reworking except that it comes at a terrible price. A  child and an innocent woman die and Katherine becomes everything she hates, our final sight of her loveless and stone-hearted, the prison of her clothes re-entered without irony. It is not who rules this world that has to change, the film appears to be saying, but the world itself.


Comic violence is difficult to define, let alone do well. Is it a genre in its own right, a sub-set of other categories or simply a style that needs to be anchored, not to say justified, by something worthier of our attention? Ben Wheatley’s Sightseeing, in which Alice Lowe co-starred, got its laughs by associating gore with the caravan, that symbol of mobile domesticity, and by taking to extremes the petty resentments and irritation we all feel but normally keep hidden. Lowe’s debut as director, Prevenge, written, filmed and performed when she was heavily pregnant, treads and sometimes crosses a much finer line, managing to get one emotionally involved then finally losing its nerve.

Lowe’s character, Ruth, murders people gruesomely, the contrast between this and her third-trimester bulge funny but unsettling. Then it becomes clear that she is driven to these acts by the voice of her unborn child. Pregnancy, I am told, involves feeling that one’s body has been taken over, a loss of control exploited by Prevenge for macabre and humorous effect. But even the unborn have motives, and a reason for this prenatal killing spree emerges, retribution as a bloodthirsty form of grief.

Audiences like to be kept off-balance, and Lowe keeps inviting our empathy with her knife-wielding mum-to-be before jolting us out of it with moments of horror and farce. As the film nears its conclusion one begins to wonder which mood will prevail. Might the killing turn out to have been imagined, the tables turned on our laughter and unease? I do not mind being proved wrong, liking a film less for seeming predictable. But the final frames of Prevenge are a missed opportunity, neither thought-provoking nor genuinely shocking, as if Lowe was unsure how to finish what she had so ably started.


Donald Trump’s response to inconvenient news is to tweet that it never happened. Creationists insist on equal billing for their ideas. Climate change sceptics dismiss the evidence marshalled against them. We live in an age when proof has become optional and simply to hold an opinion, however flaky and unsupported, is to merit a slot on Fox News. But the daddy of counter-reality is holocaust denial and its loudest voice belongs to David Irving, which makes the release of a film based on his libel case against Penguin Books and their author, Deborah Lipstadt, almost eerily well timed.

Lipstadt had denounced Irving in print and refused to debate him in public, even when he gate-crashed one of her lectures. You are entitled to believe anything, she argued, but not to expect a platform for views motivated by prejudice and based on falsification of the facts. That standpoint, as much as the Final Solution itself, went on trial at the Old Bailey. The case was brought in London because British libel laws laid the burden of proof on the defence – one of several quirks in our legal system with which Lipstadt struggles at first. Needless to say, she comes to love, or at least understand, us in the end, contributing to a whiff of smugness in Denial. A view from the other side of the Atlantic might have let us off less lightly. And while we are on the subject, Rachel Weisz is credible enough as Lipstadt and achieves the feat, difficult for her, of not looking improbably gorgeous; but were no American actresses available to play the part? This preference for ‘one of us’ adds to the undertow of self-satisfaction, even complacency. Perhaps if the film was being shot now a sense of ongoing struggle might have replaced the back-slapping finale. A battle won, not the war.

Still, this is a case where the subject matter is more important than (I almost said trumps) minor quibbles about the film. On such occasions cinema acts like a newspaper of record, placing information in the public domain. If it is done well, the audience emerges talking less about the direction or performances than about the events depicted in the film. The question remains, however: how do you inject narrative tension when the outcome is known and one side in the contest is beyond the pale? David Hare’s script appears scrupulously fair, giving Irving his moments in court. Mick Jackson generates as much tension among the home team as with their opponent at times. And Timothy Spall nearly makes one sympathise with his character, particularly at the end of the trial when his handshake is spurned by opposing counsel. David versus Goliath was how he saw the engagement and one’s instinct is to side with the little guy. This was the establishment ranged against him, after all, on the right side for once but still arousing one’s instinct to rebel.


The Headless Woman

What influence does the time have on our response to cinema? I ask because the strangeness of A Headless Woman was compounded by seeing it at midday, when the mind feels at its most woken and conventional. A later viewing might have helped me to feel less prosaic. Darkness outside. The subconscious clocking in for its shift. These conditions are better suited to Lucrecia Martel’s artful, involving yet ultimately elusive film.

Set in Salta, her native province of Argentina, it concerns a middle-aged woman, Veronica, who hits something while driving along a deserted road. In stopping suddenly she bumps her head and enters a curiously disassociated state, cut adrift from memory, attachments, even sense of self. Or at least she thinks she has hit something. And the bump may be responsible for those symptoms, which anyway are increasingly open to doubt. Veronica, played by Maria Onetto with a dignified kind of bewilderment, struggles to cope with these uncertainties; has personal, professional and sexual contact with people without appearing to know why; then slips back into the stream of life, as if what had briefly felt strange were in fact normal. Which perhaps it is.

There are two mysteries here: (a) what happened on the road and (b) the film-maker’s intentions, both puzzles being illustrated by one particular image, emotive and teasingly deployed. After the incident a dog is shown lying in the road, although it is not clear if Veronica has noticed. Previously seen in the company of some boys, the dog appears to confirm and explain the collision, for our benefit at least. But as Veronica sits behind the wheel, dazed and unsure of what to do, one notices a child’s handprint on the glass beside her. Was it there before or is this the first time have we been shown the window from that angle? Not for the last time I doubted my powers of observation. Then, as Veronica sets off again, the first handprint is joined by a second. Is the director playing games with us or has some change in the light taken place, developing the prints like a photograph? Either way, there is an innocent explanation, given that she has just said goodbye to friends and their children outside a swimming pool, the little crowd milling round her car. Except that one of the boys seen playing with the dog is later found to be missing, in which case the prints might be his, a poignant trace of the impact, a different order of culpability. But would such perfect contact have been made by a glancing blow, palms pressed flat against the glass? And why does Veronica, and everyone else who examines the car, fail to notice them?

That is not a plot spoiler – there is little in the way of plot to spoil.  And nothing is really clarified or resolved. Seizing on this, the critics, largely enthusiastic about the film, have had fun trying to work out what it signifies. Being dentists, Veronica and her husband are well off by local standards, part of a middle class set with comfortable lives. As a result, her apparent ability to shrug off the accident has been interpreted as bourgeois indifference, even callousness, towards the poor, the boy having been an urchin, we understand, foul-mouthed and streetwise. In support of this view, her apparent recovery is triggered or signalled by the simple expedient of dying her hair, one’s conscience cosmetic like a facial or perm. ‘Is that your natural colour?’ someone asks, one of those throw-away remarks freighted with subtext, with connotation. What is more, the absence of a corpse, together with a police contact’s ignorance of the missing boy, takes us back to The Disappeared, who perished in their thousands under the former military regime, a reign of terror colluded in by ‘the haves’. From this angle, Martel is pursuing a political agenda, one that is coded to make it hard for us, or in fear of reprisals.

But this is a work of art, not propaganda, and a single reading of its complexities feels reductive, one-dimensional. Veronica’s dilemma following the accident might be anyone’s, irrespective of class. Guilt, wishful thinking, a willingness to be reassured: these are human attributes that comment on our shared condition. Likewise her disassociated state after the accident, which says something about identity. It is striking, almost comical, how her loss of memory goes unnoticed by the people she knows. They finish her sentences; anticipate what she is going to do; explain relationships by acting them out. Being close to others is to be created by them. We are what they take us to be, the self socially construed.

Coincidentally, or by a cute piece of programming, the Borderline Festival is also screening Blow Up, Antonioni’s head-scratcher from 1966 which features a body, and by implication a murder, that might or might not have been. The parallels are obvious, but not to be overdone. The context for that earlier exercise in bemusement was the vogue, new to popular culture, for taking drugs which questioned the nature of perception. The Headless Woman, a more oblique if less ground-breaking film, confronts a deeper unease and ambiguity. Sober or high, how do we know that what we experience is real? Through a chance event Veronica is gifted a vision of her life shorn of its surface meaning so that nothing about the world and one’s place in it seems straightforward or secure. In token of this, the diminutive by which everyone knows her is Vero. Nearly two thirds of Argentinians have some degree of Italian descent and ‘vero’ can be translated from that language as ‘true’. The name, once affirming the fact of herself, becomes ironic, in other words, the nature of who we are revealed to be fluid, contingent, unknowable. Yet Martel’s female protagonist, like some everywoman suffering on our behalf, reverts to being a mannequin or avatar, the role created for her by the world. Class loyalty or existential bind, what else can she do? When hair has been dyed so often, who knows what is natural.


My Life as a Courgette

The first great age of animation was associated with comic violence, talking animals and other effects that were impossible to achieve with actors, however feudal their contracts. In front of a camera is where the dramas that reflected our lives took place, whether epic or small scale. Latterly, however, cinema has fallen under the spell of computer games and developments in CGI are blurring the dividing line between what is real and what is digital. Sensing an opportunity, animators are moving onto ground vacated by the mainstream to bring us visions of ourselves that are no less playful and visually inventive than before but deal with subjects that are more directly and intensely human.

These thoughts are inspired by My Life as a Courgette, an honest, poignant, funny exploration of childhood under pressure in the modern age. The film centres around Icare, a nine-year-old boy who goes by the pet name of the film’s title. The only child of a one-parent family, he accidentally causes the death of his alcoholic mother and is taken by Raymond, the policeman in charge of his case, to a children’s home in the country. There he encounters bullying at first, but stands up for himself and before long is accepted into this dysfunctional but quaintly idyllic society. A new girl arrives, Camille, with whom Courgette falls sweetly, abjectly in love. Her aunt (the only villain in the piece, a chavvy update of Cruella De Vil) wants to foster her for the money, and a battle of wits ensues between the children and this two-faced trollop. The ending is happy, of course, but far from rose-tinted. Not everyone gets a new home. And when the lucky ones find they have rooms of their own any pleasure on their behalf is tinged with regret. The dormitory they have left behind was a little commune, what it lacked in privacy being made up for in closeness and common cause. The good fortune we seek for ourselves always seems to involve separation. It was also a place where girls and boys had less need to be kept apart. In entering their single rooms, the two friends rehearse the great schism of puberty, with no guarantee their attachment will survive.

Swiss director Claude Barras uses the technique known as stop-motion to animate his little people, each only ten inches tall. The buildings and scenery resemble a picture book, while Raymond’s car is a box you can imagine his feet propelling. This is a child’s view of the world that connects with our innocence – not entirely lost, whatever we may feel. The horrors that have been experienced by Courgette and his friends and the behavioural issues they suffer from are sensitively dealt with, the film celebrating the group’s resilience, concern for each other and ability to adjust. Their rib-digging worldliness as well, sex a comic and subversive fascination. As for the adults, Camille’s aunt aside, their characters are sympathetic without being idealised – Raymond in particular, whose sorrow is visible in his resin face before, tenderly, we learn of its cause.

One experiences any work of art in a context which influences the view that is taken. In the current climate, I am given to wonder about the world unfolding in front of my eyes. An orphanage with fewer than ten kids; authority figures who can be trusted; outcomes that promise happiness for some, if not all: this version of life is hard to recognise. Perhaps such places exist in France, its public provision more resilient than ours, albeit at issue in the current election. In austerity Britain, with children’s services in crisis and abuse scandals mounting, such institutional kindness stretches belief. Is the film true-to-life, then, a heart-warming report from a gentler jurisdiction; is it intended to make us feel good about something most people find difficult to contemplate; or should it be seen as a political message, a call to cherish our humanity, embattled as it is on every side?

As a postscript, not unconnected with these musings, I wonder about the title. This suggests a cutesy tale of anthropomorphic vegetables, which inclined me to give the film a miss at first. It might help if the original, Ma Vie de Courgette, was translated into English without the ‘a’. Perhaps then the version issued in the United States would have been spared being called My Life as a Zucchini. But I doubt it, given that the voices have also been dubbed. Why do that? The French children bring their characters to life and sound loyal to the setting of the story, subtitles being a small price to pay for access to a different take on the world. But American audiences are assumed to want only what is familiar and easily digestible. As Donald Trump, the spokesman for that insularity, would say, or rather tweet: How sad!





A bas le petit mort

The trouble with Michel Houellebecq, apart from his transfer to Arsenal, is never knowing whether to play him out wide or centrally as a striker. No, wait a minute, that’s Danny Wellbeck. Forgive me, I’ll start again.

The trouble with Michel Houellebecq is summed up by the cover of Atomised, the English translation of his second novel Les Particules élémentaires. It features a young woman wearing only a pair of briefs, the book’s title acting as a bikini top. One imagines the designer fiddling with the letters until any trace of nipple is obscured, a perfect example of the mismatch between hardware and software, of technology wasted on culture. Compare this with the cover of the French edition which depicts two half-seen men sitting on either side of a lit but empty space. Very philosophical. Perhaps the trouble lies not with the author but with us, the British, and our Page Three approach to novels of ideas.

However, that does not get Houellebecq entirely off the hook. Atomised is full of the most explicit, if clinical sex and although all that fucking and sucking serves a purpose it seems to have more than one eye on titillation for its own sake, on notoriety – and who knows, on sales. It is one reason why the book is likely to alienate women, reading at times like the seamiest of male fantasies with lovers improbably compliant while apologising for their inadequacies. True, the couplings are joyless and unerotic like most pornography and this supports Houellebecq’s more serious design, to nail the libido as humanity’s big distraction, the cause of our discontent, a literally fatal flaw. And yes, I do mean literally. He is the most mordant of moralists, filled with loathing for his species and civilization. But still the rutting continues, long after any point about its aridity has been proved; and I cannot help but feel he is trying to have it both ways, like a tabloid editor printing filth in order to appear scandalised.

The structure of the novel also rankles. We get a detailed insight into its protagonists’ lives, including a blow job by blow job account of their dealings with women, while the final section has more in common with Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. Yet the narrative voice is undifferentiated even though the types of knowledge and perspective required in each case are poles apart. At this point the escape clause of post-modernism will no doubt be invoked. Rule-breaking and playfulness make anything permissible and who cares about point of view any more? Sadly, perhaps, I do – less on any technical or stylistic grounds than because a lack of attendance to such things undermines the other claims a writer might have to seriousness.

And Houellebecq has plenty. He is angry, uncompromising, original and most creditably of all ambitious. Taking as one’s subject the final crisis of mankind and the next stage in our evolution puts most modern fiction to shame not only with how far it is prepared to reach but also with its claims for the form. There is almost as much science as sex, my ignorance so profound I do not know if it is genuine or made up. And for all my quibbles about its narrator, that final section changes entirely one’s reading of what came before . I do not need to share the author’s apparent misanthropy. I might question or even pity his state of mind. But the fact remains I have rarely finished a book so invigorated by the novel’s capacity to reflect – no, remake the world.

Amiss Family Robinson

People read, not only in real life but in novels too. What does their choice of reading tell us about a character and about the writer who put that book in their hands?

This question occurred to me as I made my way through Of the Farm, an early and lesser known work by John Updike. Discovered in a second-hand shop, my copy is from an American paperback edition whose trashy cover mis-sells – or debunks – the urbane prose within. Updike’s narrator is Joey Robinson, a divorced, thirty-something advertising executive visiting his widowed mother on the family farm. His purpose is partly to see how she is managing on her own and partly to introduce her to his new wife, Peggy, and stepson Richard. Over the weekend of their stay a number of tensions reveal themselves: the mutual resentment between the two women; Joey’s guilt regarding his own children and doubts concerning his change of spouse; the burden to him and his father of the farm, whose purchase was Mrs Robinson’s idea; the old lady’s ill-health and what will happen to the property when she dies; Joey’s attempts to bond with Richard: the list is not exhaustive, but indicates the complexity of the psychological landscape which Updike unfolds.

As is often the case, however, these figures struggle to escape from their creator’s wordy and encyclopaedic shadow. Scribblers beware: that is the risk of a first-person narrative. Joey is as a know-all, a one-man factory of metaphor and so comically pompous about sex we are inclined to deride or disbelieve his character. But the same is true of the supporting cast. Joey’s mother cites Plato and knows her theology. Even the minister at their local church sermonises like a Harvard professor. And Richard is a kind of mini-me, improbably knowing and mature. Only Peggy stays close to, if not precisely within, the borders of the role allotted to her, which given the over-endowment of the others is hardly a compliment. At one point Joey and his mother discuss whether she is stupid. I have seen, and often been, stupid and believe me when I say Peggy does not even come close. But then Updike’s women tend to be defined less by their temperament or intellect than by their biology. The eyes through which we see them being male, her physical attributes (including, in this case, bleeding and cramps) are pored over with an attention to detail intended to suggest fascination but bordering on prurience.

How odd, then that into this over-powered ménage with its New World geography and neuroses should stumble the unlikely figure of P. G. Wodehouse. Well, not Plum himself but one of his novels. Joey, looking on Richard’s behalf for the science fiction of his youth, finds some old Thorne Smiths and Wodehouses. This moment stands out as one of the most truthful in the book, the incident, allowed to speak for itself, allowing us to imagine an entire history for the Robinsons in their ill-chosen retreat. The library composed of two authors suggests limited resources and tastes, the consolations of literature needing the extra spice of a collecting bug to justify the house room and expense. Perhaps, like an encyclopaedia paid for in instalments, they were bought from a travelling salesman pandering to the cultural shame of the poorly-read. As objects the books exude a kind of radium, taking Joey back to the long, uneventful summers of his youth before a driving licence provided the means of escape. And the fact that as many of them are lying down as standing up alludes to the passing of that dutiful interest in the written word and to a decline in standards of an old woman growing old alone. This depth-from-simplicity contributes more to our understanding than all of Joey’s Updikean musings. As William Carlos Williams said: no ideas but in things.

Adding layers to our engagement with the text, the question of how the Robinsons came by their modest library is matched by quizzing Updike’s own acquaintance with the books. Thorne Smith was an American who wrote comical ghost stories. He died in 1934, two years after our author was born. Things had a longer shelf-life in those days and Topper or The Jovial Ghosts may have been all the rage in the Updike family home. My father owned some so they must have crossed the Atlantic – as Wodehouse certainly did in the other direction. Were they next to the Smiths and devoured in the same precociously bookish childhood, a memory drawn on for Of the Farm; or did Updike encounter them while he studied in Oxford? And which book is it that Joey picks up and starts reading? Allusion is made to the stealing of a pig and this suggests one of the Blandings stories, in which the Earl’s beloved Empress is always being coveted by some felonious bounder. To his surprise Joey finds himself laughing, another moment of insight in which, their choices and mannerisms having always been derided, some merit is glimpsed in a parent’s tastes. Later Richard picks up the Wodehouse and starts reading, the whole cycle beginning again, his adoption of Joey as a father deftly implied.

Physical description. Intensity of feeling. The world-shattering importance of ordinary lives. Updike could be so good at these things that when the intellectuallism intrudes it feels like an insult to his subject and his audience, like an operatic voice drowning a popular song. In this case, however, a certain amount of redemption is at hand. The prose of the last few pages, as the visit nears its end and the tensions that separate the protagonists come to a head, is more in scale with their humanity and achieves what all great fiction is able to do, establish a connection with people far removed from the reader’s own experience. He had that gift, Updike, to which his other talents were not always conducive or kind.