Book: A Light that Never Goes Out

From Coronation Street to court cases, Tony Fletcher’s biography is full of fantastic facts and incendiary quotes, but somehow lacks sparkle 

-Kathryn Bromwich

a light that never goes out

Remember when Morrissey was known for his ground-breaking music and lyrics, and not for being a massive racist cock? Firstly, I should admit that the Smiths are one of the few bands whose entire discography I could sing along to word-for-word. Deep down, I still believe that anyone who doesn’t feel this way must have skipped the Sulky Teenager phase altogether, which, surely, makes them incomplete human beings.

Yet, what with This Charming Man being played to death in every ‘indie room’ throughout university and Morrissey’s increasingly unpalatable views, it is easy to forget just how exhilarating a band they were. Throw your mind back to your teenage years, when the Smiths were the only ones who really understood your literary aspirations, staunch liberalism, loneliness, existential gloom, vegetarian leanings and pathetic love life. And then start reading this book.

Incredibly, this is their first comprehensive biography since Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance in 1992. And as such it is certainly thorough: music journalist and former Keith Moon and REM biographer Tony Fletcher has been meticulous in his research, procuring exclusive facts through interviews with all the key players (excluding Mike Joyce and, naturally, Morrissey). At 700 pages and over a kilo, even the most obsessive Smiths fan – vegan, brooding, and with a life-size cardboard cutout of a naked Morrissey in their bedroom – will be satisfied.

Early on, Fletcher promises not to focus unduly on Morrissey, but acknowledges that a Smiths biography centred mainly on Johnny Marr would miss out on much of the brio and flourish that made the Smiths what they were. The book makes a good job of covering both of them in detail, while not forgetting bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, giving ample space to the unfair royalties rates and subsequent court case.

Starting with a fawning intro and an unnecessary reference to 500 Days of Summer, the book finds its stride when it describes, in remarkable detail, the first meeting of Johnny Marr and Morrissey. The two bequiffed young Mancunians, with their shared Irish stock and working class credentials, bonded over their love of Sandie Shaw, songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller, and Patti Smith.

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‘Thought-tormented Music’: David Bowie’s Low and T.S. Eliot

Fragmented language, Nietzschean elitism, and disillusionment with art: could Bowie’s Thin White Duke era have been inspired by The Waste Land?

-Kathryn Bromwich

comparison2

Submitted for MA in English: Issues in Modern Culture, University College London, 2009. 

Shorter, snappier version here.

T.S. Eliot’s early work, particularly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), and David Bowie’s Low (1977), are considered to be ground-breaking in their respective genres of poetry and music. Both antagonise the reader or listener with fragmented language and obscure references, and are united by a similarity in tone: disillusionment with art and distrust of language. Through a discussion of the influence of Eliot on Bowie, this essay will examine the motivation behind the aesthetic choices in both artists, and the ways in which they strive to bring about ‘newness’. The trend in 1970′s rock towards experimentation and intellectualism is well exemplified by Bowie’s interest in literature in 1977; the link between him and Eliot appears to be considerable, and can be seen as a symptomatic example for a wider movement of innovation in music. The focus will be on Low, in relation to Eliot’s early poetry and the critical writings of Eliot and Ezra Pound, in order to illustrate the ways in which Modernist ideas, themselves incorporating musical aspects, function when applied to the field of music.

The disciples of Eliot are numerous, but one who is not often discussed is David Bowie. Passing through William Burroughs, it is possible to establish an indirect influence of Eliot on Bowie. Hugo Wilcken, in his extended analysis of Low, states that Bowie’s lyrics were often composed in a ‘cut-up writing style, derived from William S. Burroughs,’[1] who in turn referred to The Waste Land as ‘the first great cut-up collage’[2] and ‘terrifically important [...] I often find myself sort of quoting it or using it in my work in one way or other.’[3] However, there is also a more concrete link to Eliot. Three years before Low was released, Burroughs interviewed Bowie and remarked:

Burroughs: I read this ‘Eight Line Poem’ of yours and it is very reminiscent of T.S. Eliot.

Bowie: Never read him.

Burroughs: (Laughs) It is very reminiscent of ‘The Waste Land.’[4]

Given that Bowie considered Burroughs to be ‘the John the Baptist of postmodernism,’[5] it appears likely that this encounter would have encouraged Bowie to read Eliot.

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Film: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

‘Epic’ does not even begin to describe this masterpiece of blood, sand, and messianic delusions, majestically restored for its 50th anniversary

-Kathryn Bromwich

lawrence-of-arabia2

With the hair and ego of Bowie in the late ’70s and the fashion sense of an exotic prince, T.E. Lawrence is one of the few individuals in history worthy of a film as glorious as this. Re-released after a 4K digital restoration, the 7-Oscar winning Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen is a breath-taking experience.

Based on a true story, the film follows eccentric British officer Lawrence in his quest to single-handedly conduct the Arab Revolt of 1916-8 against the Ottoman Turk invasion and to create a unified Arab state. Starting with Lawrence’s death in 1935 in a motorcycle accident and then retracing his career, we follow him in his unlikely rise among military ranks.

Lawrence’s aristocratic origins come through in his calm confidence and classical accomplishments: he is educated in literature, languages and the arts, and is coolly self-composed at all times. However, he is unpunctual, insouciant (‘I may look as if I am being disrespectful, but it is just my face, I can assure you’) and generally a bit of a maverick. Yet, he is a frighteningly clever war strategist: he congregates an army out of nowhere and leads them to an unthought-of victory at Aqaba. His officials, though wary of his unconventional methods, recognise his achievements and grudgingly promote him to Major and then to Colonel.

Lawrence is fascinated by Arabic culture, winning over the admiration of the locals with his ability to ride camels through deserts with hardly any water, willingness to try local foods and customs, and the fetching way he wears his exotic robes. ‘Where are you from?,’ he is asked. ‘Oxfordshire. It is a place of fat people.’ ‘You are not fat?’ ‘No,’ he replies, ‘I am different.’

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Film: L’eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

Antonioni’s film about stockbrokers and urban alienation is like its protagonists: baffling, beautiful, and strangely clinical

-Kathryn Bromwich

l'eclisse

Apart for the admittedly problematic blackface scene, Antonioni’s L’eclisse has largely withstood the test of time. The BFI recently revisited some of the Italian director’s other films, including L’avventura (1960) and Red Desert (1964), yet L’eclisse would appear to be a more timely choice. This exploration of the stock market, juxtaposed with the characters’ ennui and solipsism, strikes a chord with the disillusionment rife in a post-Lehman Brothers economic climate.

Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti stars as literary translator Vittoria, who at the start of the film breaks off a relationship with her academic, socialist boyfriend. Vittoria is like a modern-day Madame Bovary: well educated, elegant, and hopelessly bored. She is certainly enigmatic. Her thoughts and motivations are never fully explained, but we are left to understand that she is full of restlessness and joie de vivre (she is flown about in a small private plane, recklessly demanding to be flown into a cloud), and that she is unhappy in a middle-class sort of way (she is fascinated by Africa, where she assumes life must be simple and easy).

Just before the film disappears into an insufferable cloud of narcissistic first-world problems, Vittoria makes an unexpected encounter. The film follows her as she visits her mother at the Rome Stock Exchange, effectively gambling away her money after the death of her husband. There, she meets an uncannily young-looking Alain Delon, playing the fast-living, no-nonsense City boy Piero.

Everything about him should make us, and Vittoria, recoil in horror. Piero is loud and rude, and shrugs off clients who have lost millions because of him with a breezy “the stocks go up, and they go down, what can I do about it?” He can’t sit still for a second, is an amateur philanderer, and has a penchant for blondes. The stock market is presented as being like a boxing ring, with the investors shouting, squabbling and cheating their way to affluence. Like gambling, it attracts lonely and vulnerable people, not least of which is Vittoria’s mother.

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Theatre: All that Fall, Arts Theatre

Dung and child murder are the key ingredients of this bawdy and rivetingly funny radio play by Samuel Beckett, performed on the stage here for the first time 

-Kathryn Bromwich

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in Samuel Beckett's All That FallWho would have thought that old age and child murder could be so amusing? In recent times, Beckett seems to have garnered a reputation for po-faced highbrow literature, yet the play’s sharp comedic wit and raunchy double entendres should come as no surprise (’Stiff! Well I like that! And me heaving all over back and front’). An optimist he is not, but Beckett is a master of both gallows humour and poo jokes. Here, the humour is amped up with cartoon-style sound effects and fast, sharp delivery worthy of a screwball comedy.

On the other hand, Beckett is not usually one to employ tropes as bourgeois as plot, character or setting. The Unnamable is more typical: 200 pages of unpunctuated ramblings from a limbless, perhaps bodiless entity in the middle of a darkened space, talking about the nature of language and existentialism. Or How It Is, a prose piece about two figures walking through mud, which rhythmically repeats a handful of key phrases with the occasional slight variation.

In All that Fall, conversely, you get all of these devices. The play is said to be Beckett’s most Irish and strongly autobiographical: the setting is the Irish town of Boghill, based on Beckett’s native Foxrock, near Dublin. The action is structured into three distinct sections: the trip towards the train station, the station itself, and the walk back home. The characters are fully fledged, with names and back stories rooted in real settings. There is foreshadowing, suspense, and finally a big reveal. Yet, one would be pushed to call the play ‘conventional’.

The story follows septuagenarian Maddy Rooney as she tries to get to the train station in time to meet her blind husband Dan after a Saturday morning’s work. As she walks there, she encounters a succession of male friends who offer her a lift in increasingly modern forms of transport, but her journey is beset by obstacles. When she finally arrives at the station, late, she finds that the train is delayed by a huge quarter of an hour, the reasons for which we find out later.

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Film: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

This momentarily-entertaining piece of fluff will leave you feeling dirty and ashamed. But then again, most fun things do…

-Kathryn Bromwich

If the Twilight saga were a pizza, it would be a Domino’s. Not any particular flavour: whether it is Pepperoni Passion, Mighty Meat or Vegetarian Supreme, it all tastes exactly the same. The Twilight films, similarly, display vestiges of an unnecessarily complicated plot, but true fans know what really matters.

And that is Edward Cullen. Dreamy, brooding Edward Cullen, who listens to Debussy and who the other girls at school find ‘totally gorgeous, obviously’. He is also really wealthy. Oh, and since girls like diamonds, his skin sparkles in the sunlight. Or, depending on your taste, what really matters is buff Jacob, whose aversion to wearing a shirt is matched only by his total lack of a personality.

The first film lured in the legions of fans, with its relatable high school plot about sulky teenagers seduced by dangerous men: it was stupid as hell, but hilariously so (Edward: “And so, the lion fell in love with the lamb”, Bella: “What a stupid lamb”, Edward: “What a sick, masochistic lion”). Director Catherine Hardwicke managed to give it some Thirteen-style gravitas, and it was even, incredibly, critically lauded by the Guardian.

And then the plot went totally bonkers. Highlights included a shot of Bella sulking in a chair for a full year following an apparent break-up with Edward; a tense scene in a tent in which the ‘plot’ demands that hot-blooded Jacob spoon Bella in front of her boyfriend; werewolves talking to each other in weird Batman voices; blood milkshakes; and the most disturbing Caesarean section ever to appear in a 12A.

The strangest thing is the weird insistence on marriage, babies, and opposition to non-marital sex. Nothing in the first film implies that jaded teenager Bella will turn into a married über-mum cooing at her baby within less than a year. A lot has been written about whether Bella is a good feminist role model or not, which perhaps imbues the saga with a significance it should not have. Yes, it is a film where the protagonist is a girl, but it is blatantly just a rather odd sexual fantasy of Stephenie Meyer’s, and as such should not be over-analysed. It also spectacularly fails the Bechdel Test.

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Events: Science versus philosophy

Spanning neuroscience, free will and ethics, Julian Baggini and Clio Bellenis explore the role of philosophy today — yet only one of them comes out of it with panache

-Kathryn Bromwich

It has been an ongoing battle since 1959, when C. P. Snow gave a lecture on The Two Cultures. He posited that the intellectual life of western society was split into two: the sciences and the humanities. This talk continues to be relevant today. While science is rightly perceived as one of the most valuable ways we have of obtaining information about the world around us, the humanities are, worryingly, often dismissed as a superseded luxury that deserves no further discussion, and certainly no funding from the taxpayer. Among the humanities, philosophy is often singled out with cries of irrelevance, conjuring up images of mildewed Oxbridge dons dusting off their tweeds.

In two separate East London talks, public intellectual Julian Baggini and child adolescent psychiatrist Clio Bellenis attempt to redress the relevance of philosophy in today’s world, with particular regard to the discipline’s relation to science. Both speakers tackle similar topics: truth, knowledge, neuroscience, the limitations of science when it comes to ethics, and philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. However, while both speakers cover an impressively wide range of topics, only one of them comes out of it well.

Julian Baggini, Why Philosophy Matters, 20 September 2012, Bishopsgate Institute

Having written eruditely about the thorny issue of Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life?, Baggini is well placed to defend philosophy against ever-increasing accusations of obsolescence. Rosy-cheeked, charming and eloquent, he remains objective, open-minded and interesting throughout his talk; challenging yet clear. He talks about many of the issues covered in his latest book, Philosophy: All that Matters. This spans a range of essential philosophical topics such as narrative, identity, animal minds and atheism, and eventually he even has a convincing go at defining the meaning of life.

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TV: Girls, HBO

Zeitgeisty and hipsterish as it may be, Girls is funny, self-deprecating and well-written

-Kathryn Bromwich

girls hbo

Is it a witty revision of Sex and the City seen through Woody Allen’s thick-rimmed spectacles, or the over-hyped creation of an over-privileged girl? Many viewers will predictably side with James Franco’s preachy and humourless take on it.

Sure, men don’t come out of it well: revolting venture capitalists, substandard thespians unwilling to ‘compromise on their art’, nice-but-dim small-town boys, bland indie musicians, or sleazy dads having a mid-life crisis. And yes, the girls are bitchy, self-obsessed, and prone to falling out with one another. But what makes this show bearable is the fact that writer/director/creator/protagonist Lena Dunham knows this. Unlike most television shows, the girls are not presented as perfect role models of achievement, virtue and beauty: they are realistic, flawed and, yes, goddamn irritating.

Franco also speciously argues that Lena Dunham is not well-placed to write about or act as a struggling writer, seeing as she is (now) so successful. Yet, following this circuitous logic (in which he has presumably misunderstood the concepts of both ‘writing’ and ‘acting’), surely world-famous actor, Yale grad student and self-satisfied Renaissance Man Franco is in no position to judge a show aimed at directionless young people who are struggling to find their place in the world and, more prosaically, a job.

In a nutshell, the story follows four female protagonists who live in New York and occasionally have sex with men. There are, of course, similarities to Sex and the City: the atavistic figures of Writer, Uptight, Sex Goddess and Career Woman transform slightly into Writer, Uptight, Sex Goddess and Virgin. But the difference is that here, they are not going on and on about Manolo Blahniks and Roberto Cavalli in the same lobotomised and consumeristic fashion of Carrie & co. Instead of presenting an unfeasibly successful lifestyle to aspire to, these girls struggle to pay the rent, have bad sex with inappropriate men, throw tantrums, depend on their parents, and have badly paid jobs in unglamorous offices. In Britain this kind of TV is hardly a novelty, but in the US it is being hailed as nothing short of revolution.

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Art: Edvard Munch, The Modern Eye

Modern inventiveness abounds, but can Munch escape his reputation for angsty introspection?

-James Piper

It has become impossible not to mention The Scream when talking about Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. This is precisely why an exhibition that relegates his most famous work to just a brief cameo is more than welcome. The key theme running through Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, is that there is much more to Munch than angsty introspection. True as that may be, there’s no escaping the deep sadness that permeates his work and this is the feeling that resonates long after leaving the gallery.

This exhibition seeks to recast Munch as an innovative, experimental artist of the 20th century, rather than the troubled and melancholic figure that often comes to mind, painting at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Showcasing his paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture and even film, The Modern Eye presents us with an artist caught up in the fresh, new and exciting ideas of the day.

Born in 1863, Munch was raised in Christiania, Norway’s capital city, later renamed Kristiania and then Oslo. After a rather bleak childhood, which saw him witness the deaths of both his mother and sister by tuberculosis, Munch spent his twenties mixing with a bohemian circle of writers and artists, sporadically taking off to Paris and Berlin in pursuit of creative enlightenment. However, a nervous breakdown in 1908 saw him return to Norway, by which point he had come to be seen as an important figure in the art world.

Munch’s paintings are the stuff of nightmares; gaunt and ghoulish faces glare at you from all sections of the canvas, expressions are obscured and exaggerated as they melt into the scenery, from which they seem almost inseparable. There is nothing to split subject and object. The surroundings in which Munch’s figures find themselves interminably trapped become merely an extension of their mood and, by association, the artist’s own emotional state. Munch’s paintings serve to signify himself.

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Book: Thomas Bernhard, Extinction


Benhard’s last novel is a spectacular and compelling prose piece that rails against Austria, the world, and three-ring binders

-Kathryn Bromwich

Between the first and the last page of this remarkable and singular novel, newcomers to Bernhard will be surprised to find only one paragraph break, neatly dividing the book into two exact halves: one of thought and stasis, and one of, er, very little action.

Left-wing academic Franz-Josef Murau lives in a self-imposed exile in Rome, where he consorts with the local bohemian arts intelligentsia. He lives in a sumptuous Renaissance palazzo overlooking the Pantheon, and sustains himself by ostensibly teaching German literature to his eager student Gambetti, while instead inculcating him, over leisurely strolls and coffees, with a deep-seated nihilism. The book starts with Murau receiving a telegram that tells him his parents and brother have been killed in an accident back in Austria. This unleashes a cantankerous, unsentimental internal monologue that shows Murau is keen not to romanticise his parents and brother after their death. For the following hundred pages, we are treated to a diatribe describing his hatred of his entire family (dead and alive, with the exception of academic Uncle Georg), his hatred of Austria, and specifically of Austria’s Catholic National Socialist mentality, of photography, diplomas, Goethe, and three ring binders.

The monologue quickly marks Murau out as an unreliable and not entirely likeable narrator, prone to exaggeration, repetition and petty grudges. His thoughts, however, presented in Bernard’s virtuoso prose, are compelling and full of vitriolic wit. His misanthropy is matched by a love of culture, a passion which his family does not share. The author plays with the ambiguous overlap between himself and the character. Both are criticised in their home country for being a ‘Nestbeschmutzer’ (one who dirties his own nest); there are some meta bits about Murau recommending Thomas Bernhard to Gambetti, and Murau talks at length of writing a work called Extinction.

Upon hearing news of the accident, Murau has to head back to his family’s luxurious estate in the Austrian mountains, magnificently named Wolfsegg, for the funeral. The staunch, efficient work ethic of Central Europe, symbolised by Wolfsegg’s agricultural lifestyle, is constantly pitted against the chaos and vibrancy of places like Rome or Cannes. The company he keeps in Rome – including an archbishop and the finest female poet of his generation – are deified, while his two sisters, who we are repeatedly assured are no beauties, and especially his dead mother, bear the brunt of Murau’s anger.

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Book: Alasdair Gray, Lanark

Dazzling, haunting and erudite, Gray’s four-volume monolith is a tour de force inside the mind of the most hilariously pathetic character in literature since Ignatius J. Reilly

-Kathryn Bromwich

About fifty pages into Lanark, the homonymous protagonist walks into a mouth at the side of a road, sliding down feet-first into a mysterious sanatorium where the doctors and nurses set about curing his dragonhide. This sets the tone for the rest of the story – or at least half of it. The monumental work is comprised of four books, starting with Book Three. The Epilogue, which appears a few chapters before the end of the book, provides a meta-deconstruction of the book itself, including references to all the authors Gray has plagiarised, such as Franz Kafka and Flann O’Brien.

Half of the book is set in a dystopian fantasy world where there is no sunlight, and where the inhabitants have to contend with a corrupt and impenetrable bureaucracy. Lanark is a mysterious outsider, a man of few words who is quickly befriended by the charismatic local debauchee Sludden and his group of fawning hangers-on. The other half of the book, more prosaic but just as riveting,  is set in mid-Century Glasgow, following the adventures of Duncan Thaw, art student and all-round catastrophe of a human being – ostensibly based on Gray himself.

It took Gray thirty years to write (and illustrate) this book, and this is apparent throughout. Linguistically, politically, poetically, it is magnificent and poignant, while always remaining eminently readable and full of humour. However, the funniest and most scathing aspect of the book is Duncan Thaw: a hilariously pretentious and revolting amalgam of Stephen Daedalus and Ignatius J. Reilly.


Music: Dirty Three, Cargo

Back with a new album going back to their old sound, the Dirty Three play a beautiful and vitriolic show at Cargo

-Kathryn Bromwich

warren ellisFrom their last album Cinder (2005), which got as close to 3-minute pop songs as the Dirty Three have ever been, with Toward the Low Sun the trio have returned to the more improvised and unstructured sound of their earlier work. Gentle and seemingly aimless strumming is interrupted by violin melodies and riffs, giving it a staccato quality that is sometimes almost jazz-like. The angrily buzzing feedback, however, gives the album a dark and disconcerting undertone. The tunes are less catchy than we’ve been used to in the last few records, and even upon repeated listens it’s a strangely amorphous kind of sound, interspersed with striking moments of beauty that are all the more rewarding for their unexpected appearance. On record, the full impact of the album is not immediately apparent, but in the flesh the Dirty Three bring it to life.

Cargo is an unusually trendy venue for the band. Their last appearance in London was at the Southbank, and they can often be found at festivals such as I’ll Be Your Mirror or All Tomorrow’s Parties. Tonight’s show is organised by ATP, and the small venue provides an intimate setting for the gig — so intimate it sold out in minutes. There is no support act, and Warren Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White waltz on to the stage with swagger. The trio play a number of songs from Toward the Low Sun, and a few well-chosen gems from their back catalogue. The two-hour gig averages out at a satisfying 11 minutes for each song or, rather, for each elemental soundscape. Ellis and White stare intently into each other’s eyes, while Turner strums along, Thurston Moore-esque.

Ellis is wearing a smart suit jacket, which he soon removes to reveal a silk purple shirt with pink polka dots, several buttons open and chains of gold bling adorning his chest (some great photos here). Thankfully, he is refusing to grow old gracefully, much like a certain friend of his, and this is great news. His repeated quips at Bono and usually-successful attempts at humour, coupled with high kicks, screams and manic dancing, make for a hilarious and energetic spectacle. Nevertheless, the music is taken seriously: the band’s scratchy elegance is on full display, and the sound is as shambolic and raw as ever.

Click here for the Setlist


Book: André Gide, L’Immoraliste

Based as it is on misanthropy, ennui and lewdness, it is tempting to describe The Immoralist as a pamphlet to Modernism

-Kathryn Bromwich

That The Immoralist (1902) was criminally ahead of its time is a given. In a pre-Chatterley, pre-Burroughs, pre-Henry Miller era, André Gide’s candid and unjudgemental depiction of an outwardly immoral and selfish man came as a bolt from the blue. Now the modern world has more or less caught up with it, and Gide’s work reads as freshly as if it were published today.

Brilliant Parisian scholar Michel, married to the delicate Marceline partly out of duty to his father, partly out of boredom, grows sick with tuberculosis. In his slow convalescence, he discovers a joie de vivre he had never known: in his own words, ‘daylight acquired an unhoped-for radiance.’ Once found, however, this feeling proves difficult to hang on to, and Michel finds that he can only recapture it in the company of young boys.

Like in Hesse’s Siddhartha, the protagonist first experiences the world of the intellect, and is later on in life awakened to the possibilities of bodily pleasures. While the former transcends the mind and body dichotomy to achieve a state of Nirvana, the latter unsuccessfully tries to balance the two, resulting in existential anguish and dissatisfaction. The conversations with his nihilistic acquaintance Ménalque express dialectically the difficulty of finding a balanced stance in relation to society. Yet he is not a figure altogether worthy of hatred: there are elements of Dostoyevsky’s innocent Prince Myshkin in Michel’s frank attitude to his feelings, and Gide’s unwillingness to condemn him makes the reader makes the reader question their own standpoint.

Highly innovative and pithily written, it proved to be a milestone for 20th century literature, influencing Camus and Sartre, among others. The novella encapsulates the spirit of the following decades, prefiguring the early 20th century interests in primitivism, sexual instincts, and repression.


Film: Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)

As Werner Herzog goes face-to-face with convicted murderers, his latest documentary explores the death penalty, the hearts of psychopaths, and squirrels

-Kathryn Bromwich

“Tell me about your encounter with the squirrel.” In the opening scene of Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog’s apparently light-hearted question immediately digs deep into the heart of the film. The pastor being interviewed, up to then cheerful and full of platitudes, gradually crumbles and starts to cry. Although he can brake his car for a squirrel, he says, there is nothing he can do to stop the execution of the young man he is about to administer last rites to.

This is the latest in Herzog’s string of recent documentaries, and explores the issue of the death penalty in the United States. The choice seems almost too straightforwardly political for Herzog, whose preoccupations are usually more metaphysical and, well, recherché. However, Herzog is not only preoccupied with the question of whether or not the death penalty is immoral: he establishes early on that he is firmly against it. The film goes further, focusing on the disturbing impact of the execution on the individuals who actually have to perform it, the effect the murder has on the families, and, most importantly, what the motivations or reasons behind the crime could have been.

Herzog chooses a single, gruesome case to address the wider topic. Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, who were teenagers at the time, are accused of murdering a woman, her teenage son, and his friend. The woman had been baking cookies when she opened the door to them. The object of the crime, horrifically, was a joyride in the woman’s new red convertible. Herzog does not shy away from the futile and brutal nature of the offence, showing in painful detail precisely what happened. There is no doubt that the defendants are guilty, although both accuse the other and plead total innocence. Burkett is sentenced to life, Perry is sentenced to death.

Herzog aficionados will be familiar with his ability to find the weird and the uncanny in even the most normal circumstances. With this group of characters, who range from the simply grieving to the deeply disturbed, he finds a new level of strangeness. Despite his limited interview time with the defendants, Herzog’s penetrating questioning brings to light their most disconcerting characteristics. Both Burkett and Perry demonstrate cold, psychopathic qualities and subtle signs of mental illness; however, it is never clear whether this is a result of the long incarceration or the cause of it.

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Art: Yayoi Kusama, Tate Modern

Mental problems, minimalism and psychedelic drugs: Yayoi Kusama explores our obsession with the self 

-Mirka Virtanen

Image

I really liked it. But I am easy to please, and the Tate rarely disappoints. Visually, I liked the show. And in terms of yet another lesson in history of art, I liked it. I feel like I learnt something: I thought that, as an artist, Yayoi Kusama was victimised. Victimised into being a woman and being crazy and obsessive – that is what I was taught at university – and every single review of this exhibit does use the words compulsive and obsessive either together or separately (always be cautious of those two words when used in any relation to a female or womanhood in general) – and, also, during my walk around the exhibition space, I did overhear someone saying ‘I know she has mental problems… that’s probably the biggest influence.’

But hey-ho. The lady who came up with that (and it does make it worse that it was said in a very matter-of-fact, almost indifferent, tone of voice), was clearly missing the obvious. I know not everyone in London can read but I do assume that the target audience of the show are all literate people, and thankfully, at the Tate, they are so generous with the information, it’s like wowza I need to write this down so that I remember and I can quote it to someone as I would have just thought of it myself when I went to see this exhibition, I just got it, what a great artist, I just got it by looking at her work.

Anyway, lady, you get a blurb per room. That is fourteen rooms. Fourteen chances to get it right. And then you get the artwork. The text is just there to acknowledge that no matter how upper middle class your social status is, your talent might not be abstract thinking. And that is where you missed your chance. Tate’s exhibition does not focus on Kusama as a bunny boiler crazy woman. It is a retrospective of the work of an artist, who constantly and continuously stages herself as a character in a fucked-up society that is also beautiful, and ever-changing, and challenging to live in.

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Art: David Hockney, A Bigger Picture

David Hockney’s infectious enthusiasm is abundantly on show in this exhibition, centred on colour, repetition, and sheer enormous scale

-James Piper

Winter Timber, 2009, oil on canvases (36 x 48″ each)

As an exiled northerner living down here in the big smoke, I feel an almost obligatory respect for Bradford born David Hockney. Fortunately his latest exhibition at the Royal Academy, A Bigger Picture, confirms that this respect is most certainly due.

There’s no denying Hockney’s infectious enthusiasm. Despite a long and remarkably prolific career stretching back to 60s, this is no retrospective. The older pieces on display serve to contextualize and inform an abundance of recent work produced over the last ten years. Indeed, if there is one word to describe this exhibition, it is abundant.

Having left Bradford in 1959 to study at the Royal College of Art, Hockney soon went on to leave the grey charcoal skies of England for the sunbaked highways and luminous swimming pools of Los Angeles. The second gallery sets the scene; two brilliantly dreary sketches of what could be any grim northern town are promptly left behind by the wild and surreal Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape, culminating in a huge depiction of The Grand Canyon spread across a jigsaw of canvases. The inadequacy of a single canvas is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition. In his insatiable quest for a ‘bigger picture’, Hockney is forever seeking new ways to do justice to the raw and unmediated experiencing of ‘seeing’.

After hearing of a close friend’s terminal illness, Hockney returned to Yorkshire in 1997. He began painting the Yorkshire countryside, taking as his subject the rolling hills and winding roads that lay between his mother’s house and his friend’s deathbed. These stylized, hyperreal landscapes somehow avoid sentimentality in their vibrant immediacy. Produced from memory, they don’t suggest the passing of a golden era so much as they reveal an active and lively imagination.

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Music: Gang Gang Dance, ULU

New York’s Gang Gang Dance offer avant-garde synth and live awesomeness, in a gig which you don’t want to end

-Véronique Ward

Gang Gang Dance is one of those bands whose CD sounds can never quite express the true awesomeness of their music. See them live, however, and you can guarantee to be blown away. Hailing from New York and largely described as an experimental music band, Gang Gang Dance make full use of their array of synthesizers, percussion, and more generic instruments to provide a musical experience that although not unique is certainly enthralling.

ULU is the perfect venue for this kind of band. Not unheard of but not of stadium-playing proportions either, Gang Gang Dance has the kind of loyal following that thrives in the square blandness that is characteristic of so many University-based venues. Somehow the surroundings provided by  this canteen/bar-cum-music hall work wonders on this kind of performance, where the band is all that’s needed to transport you somewhere a little more epic.

Add an entrancing video loop serving as a background to the performance and you’re in another world entirely. The neon, swirling, multiplying images fit their music so well that the audience barely notice themselves transfer from static to mobile state in their distraction.

A mellow start gives just a taste of the set to come as the band warm with a folkier sound of Adult Goth, which slowly builds before erupting into the burst of electro magnitude that characterises them so well. Truly happy to be playing to the capital’s finest, the energy and good nature between band members sweeps its way over the crowd and serves as a great accompaniment to the better-known MindKilla and Glass Jar amongst other favourites.

Popular choice of encore Thru and Thru wraps the set up leaving the audience pleased but wanting more. As one co-punter comments, very few are the gigs which you don’t want to end — and Gang Gang Dance definitely does this statement justice.


Art: Hajj, Journey to the Heart of Islam

Avoid Grayson Perry’s urns for a fresh experience of what the British Museum does best: a stunning and informative exploration of a religious practice

-George E Harris

Image

Until 15 April 2012

Grayson Perry’s reign of terror is dissipating.  The British Museum has offered an outstanding series of special exhibitions in recent years, but for several months there has only been a confusing “art exhibition” of his unremarkable sculptures.  Opening this week, Hajj – journey to the heart of Islam is one of the Museum’s trademark explorations of a religious practice, combining history and artwork to educate the visitor with a consistent theme.  You can now save the price of a ticket to Perry’s circus for a fresh experience of everything the Museum does best.

The new exhibition is set in centre of the museum, in the dome shaped Reading Room, and is split into ten loose partitions.  On the way into the room, the Muslim call to prayer can be heard faintly in the background.  Along with an introduction to the 5th pillar of Islam, there is a collection of quotations and images of those who have made the pilgrimage.  The Hajj is described as “a journey in space to the centre towards which one has always turned one’s face in prayers”, which sets the tone in the exhibition’s task of sharing with non-Muslims an idea of the experience and undertaking.

The exhibition is not merely a study of Islam.  Like recent exhibitions including Treasures of Heaven, the metaphysical origin of the pieces is described from a secular perspective.  The five different pilgrimage routes that took prominence throughout history are presented as glimpses into the lives of those who travelled them.  There are many of the books, pieces of navigational equipment and items of clothing that ancient and medieval travellers took with them. The most impressive of these items is a large palanquin used to transport the Sultans to Mecca as recently as the 1920s.  While the focus is on history at this point, it’s disappointing that the dates and claims of the Koran are related as fact.  This was probably a pre-requisite of King Abdullah’s support for the exhibition, but the blurring of the boundaries between legend and fact tarnishes the quality of the experience.

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Art: Nathalie Djurberg with Hans Berg, A World of Glass

Haunting and disturbing scenes at the Camden Arts Centre as Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg use music and claymation to create nightmarish films

-Véronique Ward

I often have trouble with contemporary art. Too much of the same old ideas bouncing off one another. However, some weeks ago I stumbled upon something which made me get down from my cynical high horse and actually enjoy my contemporary art experience: Nathalie Djurberg – aided by her collaborator Hans Berg – presents ‘A World of Glass’, a small but moving exhibition hosted by the Camden Arts Centre in Finchley Road.

The exhibition, like many of its predecessors, lends itself well to the space provided by the Camden Arts Centre and takes on a quite basic form. Two rooms – dark as dusk ebbing away – project two films each. Accompanying these is music composed by Hans Berg; a soundscape that is little more than glass tinkling and provides a background that only helps make the projected scenes all the more haunting and disturbing.

Made of rough plasticine and using the ‘claymation’ technique, each short film introduces characters in the midst of confrontation with rather unpleasant situations. The environments they are set in are dark and give little indication of their location, making them feel all the more nightmarish and thrusting the viewer into a zone of intense psychological discomfort.

This is perhaps unaided by the inclusion in the gallery space of life-sized props matching those that appear in the films. The viewer is made to feel like they are very much a part of the unpleasant reality of the characters’ fates, which unfold at an alarming rate. It is in this state of mind that we witness the protagonists’ disintegration, each in such a way that is uncomfortable to watch yet difficult to turn away from.

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Film: The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)

Visual storytelling is the key for Oscars favourite The Artist, a deeply affecting tale about the perils of pride and the redemptive power of love

-James Piper

Behind its obvious charm, The Artist is a deeply affecting tale about the perils of pride and the redemptive power of love – all said without a single word being spoken.

That a black and white silent film has won two Golden Globes and is expected to storm the Oscars is both remarkable and incredibly refreshing. Amidst the suffocating information overload of the modern world, it is immensely enjoyable to see a film celebrating the subtle and exquisite art of visual storytelling.

George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, is the hero of the piece; a dashing silent movie star whose palpable charisma (and penciled moustache) seems to transcend the need for dialogue. With a single look to the camera he can command his audience. However, as sound starts to creep into cinema in the form of ‘talkies’, Valentin’s silent magnetism fast becomes obsolete and his vain and stubborn refusal to adapt his act proves to be our hero’s tragic flaw.

At the height of his fame, Valentin encounters the impossibly pretty Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo. After being clumsily knocked past the police line outside a film premiere, Peppy falls into George’s path and lands him a cheeky peck on the cheek – the first spark in what unexpectedly grows into a very moving love story. As Peppy goes on to pursue a film career, happily embracing the advent of sound in cinema, the very man who facilitates her ascension collapses under uncharacteristic self-doubt. Yet for all his self-absorption, George’s apparent affection for Peppy ensures that we vouch for his cause throughout, hoping for the reconciliation that his love for her might bring.

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