Germs, Richard Wollheim
I can’t remember where I read about this book, but the review was so glowing immediately after doing so I bought it on my kindle. It was published in 2004, after the author’s death. And it has the tone of an old man looking back. The Introduction, which I didn’t read until after the book itself, (I never do as I don’t want to be influenced) describes it as sensuous and melancholic, which it is and I loved it. It’s full of long meandering sentences, sometimes a paragraph long (shades of Henry James) but they are beautiful and I wanted them to be longer! The language is wonderful. It isn’t just a linear narrative; he goes back and forth over aspects of his life, sometimes quite a long way into the future, to finish explaining why something was important to him. This works really well. He describes his feelings and emotions as small, sickly, anxious boy; going back over incidents in his childhood that have made him the adult he became. It’s as though he’s trying to explain to himself why these things mattered so much. I really savoured the writing; dense but beautiful, often poetic. I don’t usually notice actual writing – unless it’s very bad or very good. This was so good l went back and re-read bits. On the other hand some things are left uncertain especially the quotidian detail that you normally find in a book like this. For instance I knew nothing about the author and didn’t discover it in the book. He’s a British philosopher famous for his work on the mind and emotions and has written extensively about emotions and art. Nor do you get a complete picture of his parents and of their lives. He focusses more on other people in his family history, some of whom are great characters, but it’s a bit hard to follow. The traditional life story is more explicitly told in the Introduction and in this review. (It’s not the one that drew me to the book. And nor did I notice until I’d read it that way back in 2012 I’d loved the memoir by its author, Marco Roth, which I’ve talked about here. So I recommend that book too.) Wollheim’s was a singular life and this is a very singular memoir. The title is as nuanced as the book itself; germs can mutate into other things as well as being the source of sickness. I liked it a lot. Recommended.
Shakespearean, On Life & Language in Times of Disruption, Robert McCrum
They say never judge a book by its cover, but that’s what I did here. It’s a beautifully presented book. Actually it wasn’t just that, I’ve read Robert Mc Crum’s very moving and beautifully written memoir, My Year Off, written in 1998 about a stroke he suffered while only in his forties, and I’ve always enjoyed his articles about books in The Guardian. I was quite optimistic that this would be as good. I expected it to be something like Wagnerism by Alex Ross which I really enjoyed as I’ve written here. But, alas, it was not to be. The idea was good – to investigate why Shakespeare continues to speak to us, from day to day, almost as our contemporary … as a vibrant part of modern culture, as well as a touchstone of English, American, and even the world’s literature? As his better known contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe are mostly forgotten. It is a fascinating question and much has already been written trying to tease out the answer. Unfortunately this book doesn’t add much to that enormous body of work. I found it to be quite a jumble of disconnected facts and some pretty facile thoughts. Some facts that might be interesting; who knew Ulysses S. Grant once performed the role of Desdemona in a performance of Othello in 1846 to keep troop morale up after the annexation of Texas and before the war with Mexico? Who cares? It had a forced structure with parts and chapters that didn’t make much sense to me. And the writing was often repetitive and often completely opaque. The best bits were the quotations of Shakespeare’s own words. A great disappointment. During the course of reading it I saw the Verdi opera Macbeth following which I read the play right through. Glorious language – and ideas about ambition and power. Wonderful. ‘Tis a pity this wasn’t.
A Shooting at Chateau Rock, Martin Walker
Antony Beevor calls the protagonist the Maigret of the Dordogne; not that I knew that when I bought the book. The series was recommended by a friend as not really a police procedural (I am avoiding things that are grim and anything that involves dead women), but rather containing lovely evocations of life in provincial France. So I was tempted. This is the latest, the thirteenth, in what has obviously been a very successful lot of novels. But not for me unfortunately. I found the writing wooden, the hero (Bruno) completely unbelievable – a whiz with children and animals, great cook, loving friend and all round pillar of the small community in which he is local policeman. The very slight plot is unbelievable as well; British rock star retired to the Dordogne, a chateau for sale, his son’s Russian girlfriend, links to Russian oligarchs, tax laundering and what have you. Nothing like Maigret that’s for sure. As for local colour – Bruno doing the rounds of the market every week and local regulations governing the treatment of animals seemed to be the extent of it. As you can see from the sticker I took this with me when I got the Covid jab at the Exhibition Buildings and it helped pass the mandatory fifteen minute waiting time afterwards.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
One of my New Years Resolutions was to read books recommended to me by Eleanor. And she recommended this a long time ago. It was published in 1992 and swept the world by storm. I got hold of this much thumbed copy in the community library across the road. I agree with Eleanor that it very filmable and I was swept up wanting to know what happened, although you are told at the outset that some students have killed a person. The question is who and why. You also know from the outset that they are not convicted. But that’s not to say they don’t suffer for it. The writing is very good; you feel that you are in Vermont and in the various places where our group of five come together, mostly to drink. The narrator brought to mind Nick in The Great Gatsby; the tone was the same melancholic looking in from the outside to people who were more glamorous and interesting than himself. And therein lay my problem. I found the set up improbable. Our narrator is too oppressed to have believable have got himself into university in the first place let alone into the inner golden group to which he becomes attached. And the circumstances of the golden group themselves; a lecturer able to do what he likes (because he is a major donor), rich parents who let them do what they like, are also improbable. On top of which I didn’t like any of them. And it helps to have at least one sympathetic person in a novel! Still, I can see why it became an international best-seller.
We’ve been watching Dirk Bogarde films at Melbourne Cinémathèque. I was disappointed to miss the last week as I had a Covid test after being at a Tier 2 site at the wrong time. I have loved the others, except for Daddy Nostalgie which I didn’t like because he was playing a really awful character. I don’t know why that mattered as his other roles were not very nice people. But that’s how I felt. Maybe in Daddy Nostalgie he was almost playing himself and he was not very nice.
I’ve always loved him from his matinee idol days – including all the silly Doctor films and romcoms but especially Tale of Two Cities, Hunted, The Singer Not The Song, Ill Met By Moonlight and later Death In Venice. Seeing the films has taken me back to his books to re-read what he had to say about them. There are also quite good accounts in this, his biography, which is very good. The films are easily found in the index and once I’d started I continued re-reading bits for hours. It’s well written and quite illuminating about film-making processes and Dirk’s approach.
But his own accounts of working on them are even better. He started writing for publication after being approached by Chatto & Windus in 1974 after being seen talking about his life on a British television talk show where according to his biography, he spent forty minutes exhibiting his fair as a storyteller, with an eye and an ear for detail. He had always kept a diary and written copious letters. He didn’t want to write a film star book full of anecdotes and famous people. And he didn’t. All up he wrote eight books of autobiography/memoir and six novels and for a while he wrote book reviews and those have also been published. He’s a terrific writer; laconic, conversational, funny, sometimes poetic in his descriptions of things and often very moving. He had a close family and these two are basically about his childhood. Both are beautiful books, each one including little sketches by the author. A Postillion Struck by Lightning, his first book, and was published in 1978. Great Meadow in 1992.
These three take us through his adult life up to the end of the nineteen-eighties. He produced them quickly – Snakes & Ladders in 1978, An Orderly Man in 1983 and Backcloth in 1986 during which time he was continuing to make films. His final film was Daddy Nostalgie in 1990. These books sometimes refer back to his childhood, include descriptions of his war experiences in Europe, including being at the opening of Belsen, and in Indonesia at wars end. His living circumstances, first in a gloomy bedsit and then one of Englands grand houses in the country with the Rolls Royce and all, then in the South of France in a house that sounds perfect. He was part of a close family especially with his sister Elizabeth and family matters are always affectionate. And there’s quite a lot about the films he made; his distress at being consigned to being a romantic leading man, desire for more challenging roles, breaking with Rank and finally working with first class directors in serious films; Losey, Visconti, Cavani, Fassbinder, Resnais, Tavernier. Although as he points out they didn’t meet with much commercial success when they were released.
I took from them his description of how he builds his character; from the outside in, starting with the shoes. Which is how The Servant starts, with his feet striking the pavement as he walks towards the apartment at which he’s going to be a manservant. How he always regarded The Night Porter as a love story not Nazi porn, how powerful the uniform made him feel, an anecdote about his time at Belsen – stunned at the collection of rich evening wear from a round up of Dutch Jews at a ball, supporting Charlotte Rampling similarly stunned at the woman wearing a hat during the selection process (true to life as a photo proved) and being appalled by shouts of Seig Heil from the crowd watching filming of the final scene. How playing Hermann Hermann in Despair nearly sent him over the edge and his concern about the nihilism within Rainer Fassbinder – be positive not negative. A stunning description of finding at the last minute how to play Gustav von Aschenbach in Death In Venice. All these books are worth getting hold of and read cover to cover; or at the very least checking out his movies.