Novels by David Grossman build layer upon layer until all becomes clear. It takes time for the fog to clear and to see the essential point of one of his novels and this latest story is no exception. ‘Fog’ is not the right metaphor, though, because Grossman writes with great clarity. In this case, a comedian takes the stage to perform his act and a special guest in the audience watches and comments on what can be seen.
The comedian, Dovaleh Greenstein, is telling jokes and stringing the audience along with a story from his youth. The story is more tragic than funny and the audience has its patience stretched at times. This is where the insights of the invited guest come in. We see how other audience members react.
There are jokes here, some of them effective but the main point is to watch the stand-up comedian use the forum for a confessional about an event that proved pivotal in his life. The book must be read to gain the experience and it is for readers to assess how far this story is also the story of a nation.
David Grossman’s novels are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I have long been a fan of David Wynne’s work as a sculptor. There are so many London landmarks improved by the siting of one of his sculptures. Other places, too, have benefited from his talent, including Newcastle, but it is London I know best and it was here that I first put the name of the artist to the work I most admired: Boy with a Dolphin.
This book, which takes its title from his most famous work, is actually a review of his career. Published before his death in 2014, the book includes photographs of him working as well as of the final pieces in situ. There are still places I need to go to see his sculpture and some are in the hands of private collectors or private companies so will possibly be beyond sight unless there is a retrospective at a major gallery.
The best aspect of the book is the insight into the creative process. There are quotes from interviews with Wynne himself as well as excerpts from newspapers and magazines. David Wynne was friends with people in high places and many of his commissions came from someone who knew someone. As an essentially self- taught artist, though, the fact that so many pieces are on public display is the best outcome for me.
This book with its extensive illustrations is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This play by Rajiv Joseph was a thought- provoking exploration of the themes of beauty, power and class. Two guards take the dawn shift at the site where the Taj Mahal is being built. They cannot look at the building as it is not their place to do so and neither can they turn their backs to take a look. The building is beautiful, some say the most beautiful building in the world. It was built with the hands of 20,000 men. These hands become important as the play moves towards its end. We do not see these other men, or indeed any other characters other than Babur, played by Darren Kuppan , and Humayun, played by Danny Ashok. Babur is the curious one, ready to dream of a different life, while Hamayun is the guard who knows his place and who follows orders… any order that is given to him. This too becomes important as the play moves on.
The play uses a legend that the workers who built the Taj Mahal had their hands cut off so that they could not build anything as beautiful again. The two characters carry out this gruesome task but struggle with the idea that beauty can be protected in this way or that anyone could want the quest for beauty to end.
There is one flashback, included to throw the ending into sharper relief. Otherwise the play progresses from an ordinary dawn on one day to a tragic ending. Both actors were terrific with their own British accents used in part to remind us that the themes and circumstances are with us still. The poorest of the world are still used as labour in big building projects around the world and rulers still wield power in unexpected ways.
This 1998 Canadian film tells the lives of people in five countries over four centuries who come into contact with the red violin of the title. The instrument was made in Italy in the seventeenth century. In this segment, the story is told in Italian of the violin maker and his wife and child. We find out why the violin is red, a particularly sad part of the film, before moving on a century to Vienna where we meet a young boy who is a musical prodigy. He is given the violin by the monks of the orphanage where he lives. He has a bright future and his music master sees a great future for them both. Another tragedy strikes, though, and the violin moves on to Oxford in Britain.
From Oxford in the late nineteenth century to Shanghai, China in the grip of the cultural revolution and on to Montreal, Canada in the late 90s, or what would have been the present at the time of the film’s release, we follow the violin as it passes from one owner to another.
What the film does, rather cleverly, is to show the importance of music in the lives of all sorts of people. Over the centuries, the violin becomes more valuable, especially as stories about its provenance emerge. The owners throughout its history see the instrument not as a valuable item in itself but essential because of what they create on it. In the final scenes in the auction house it seems as if this important message has been lost.
Episodic films can be problematic; if one segment is much weaker than the rest, the whole film is affected. In ‘The Red Violin’, though, each part of the story serves the greater narrative. It was directed by Francois Girard with a screenplay by Don McKellar. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I saw this movie one late night in an Oxford cinema back in the early 80s. The film. itself, was released in 1971 but I saw it when I was a student, having first read the novel by Thomas Mann. I was always keen to see a performance by Dirk Bogarde and I was fascinated by the fact that he turned his back on a career in popular films, he chose an art house route, one that involved him in great work like this picture.
It was directed by Visconti so the visuals are amazing. The subject matter of the novella translates well to film since dialogue is at a minimum and the interior monologue becomes slow moments of focus on expressions. Bogarde’s face is the most important ‘tool’ in the film. The central conceit is that the main character, a composer in Venice to recuperate, observes a pretty boy with his family of older sisters and mother and becomes fixated with him since he is a thing of beauty.
The difficulty of translating this to film is that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder and the final version has to reflect one person’s vision. Yet Bjorn Andreson, chosen for his looks, does a good job of looking like a pretty young man might in the early years of the twentieth century. What is convincing about the film is the notion that an artist can be transfixed by beauty.
The ending is tragic but as the whole film has a melancholic feel, somewhat at odds with the theme of artistic beauty. ‘Death in Venice’, directed by Luchino Visconti is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1989 film from Canada is a charming exploration of the creative process. It follows a group of actors who put on a passion play in Montreal. The church authorities take against the main actor, playing Jesus, and, as he and his group deal with the hostility, his life starts to mirror that of Jesus himself.
It is a French- Canadian film from director Denys Arcand with Lothaire Bluteau in the main role of Daniel. At the start of the film Daniel is encouraged to modernise the passion play to bring a new sense of purpose to a tired format. It is the hope of the priest that there will be renewed interest in the play as a result. This mission inspires Daniel who throws himself into research only to come up with an interpretation that offends the catholic church. As the play continues, the church resorts to stronger tactics to stop it.
The film works well when it mirrors the gospel story. Daniel collects his troupe of actors from among the less desirable of society, he is accepted and then rejected by the authorities, he has an outburst when he thinks others have desecrated his craft. The ending is the most problematic because of the obvious links with the bible but it is a satisfactory way of drawing the film to an end.
‘Jesus of Montreal’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Thinking about the Kingsley Amis novel, ‘The Alteration’, reminded me of how I found out about it back in the time before the internet and access to large book shops. I was a keen reader as a boy. School provided most of my reading material but, as I grew older, I came to see school books as school work and I wanted reading material from elsewhere. This is where a television programme called ‘Read All About It’ came in. I discovered it by myself on a black and white television set we had left over when the family colour one came in.
On my own in a room, I watched it every other Sunday night. (As I recall, it was alternated with the BBC’s film programme hosted by Barry Norman, which I also enjoyed.) Each week Melvyn Bragg presented a show with three guests. Each guest recommended a book and everyone discussed each other’s choices. That was the simplicity and the strength of the programme. The gift to me was that these were all paperbacks so affordable. Also, the books were not always new to bookshops so I could find old copies or even locate them in the local library. This was not the marketing machine at work but a celebration of books and readers- it worked.
Melvyn Bragg went to ITV to present the major arts programme in 1978 and I don’t remember ‘Read All About It’ surviving his departure. Instead, it remains as a happy memory of a time when I was eager to find books for myself and not rely on school any more.