What I Loved: Siri Hustvedt

I bought this book some years ago, despite what seemed to me to be a damning review on amazon. Though I don’t lend much weight to reviews generally (unless I know and trust the reviewer), it seems this review permeated my subconscious enough to put me off picking it up until recently. I’d like to think that whilst it has been sat on my bookshelf, it has been maturing, as I certainly found it an intense affair with depth and an addictive quality. The language that Hustvedt has mastery of is sumptuous but never gratuitous: it incarnates the characters to such an extent that you can imagine being in the same room as them; you can imagine meeting them. As the title suggests, the book is (ostensibly) about loss; about what has gone before. What I Loved is a tale, the telling of which has strength and vitality, but don’t expect a point or a moral: the story is life-like in its absence of conclusion. The book is laced with creativity and ‘art’: our characters are immersed in a world where art matters – one is an artist, another an art historian – the picture that Hustvedt paints of this world is detailed and thorough, a feat of unlimited imagination and creative sensibilities. Hustvedt brings to life numerous bodies of work that are conceived and created, that are critiqued and dissected, that are received and reviewed, that fester and mutate… and it strikes me that this as authentic and ‘real’ as art gets. There is so much work that can’t be touched or viewed ‘in the flesh’, that operates on a premise of concept: the legend of a piece is bound by language and permeates cultural society through media that often belie the fact that the work existed to the point that it is inconsequential whether it did. Through Bill, Hustvedt lives and creates an artist’s life work in a temporal space that both spans a lifetime and lasts the years of Hustvedt’s own life to the point at which the book became other. The works are not simply imagined – their exhibition and reception is also offered, giving Hustvedt a rare position as both artist and critic, both audience and curator. However, as with any piece of work, this position dwindles when the work (in theis case, the book) is given up for public consumption.

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Half-life: Julian Mitchell

This somewhat comical play has a serious undertone: that of a search for meaning and purpose in a life that is drawing to a close. Our academic protagonist realises, after his life’s work is proved false, that he does not know who he is. Inviting significant people from his life’s story to a party at his grand house at the equinox, Sir Noel Cunliffe tries to regain the life that seemed secondary to his work in order to discover himself: not the Oxford don, nor the academic, but the man. Though at first reluctant and anxious, Cunliffe’s guests inevitably provide an illuminating narrative, but one that he would perhaps rather not know. Interestingly, whether by Cunliffe’s design (a somewhat sadist and perhaps punishing inclination) or by default, the characters that help to tell the story of the man are not all enamoured with the character: each seems to have their own cross to bear. An enjoyable read, if only for the numerous arguments!

Three birds alighting in a field: Timberlake Wertenberger

I was hoping for something similar to what I have heard about Art, which I understand to be about the way in which people relate to each other, and how art (especially the purchase of) can change that. Unfortunately, Three birds alighting on a field focuses on the world of art commerce, something that I am not really interested in. The first character we are introduced to (through a monologue) is Biddy, wife of a wealthy Greek who desires to ‘be more English’, though the main character is purpotedly Richard, the artist that has fallen back into favour with a gallery that dropped him years before. Highlighting the fickle nature of commerce (there is an ridiculous scene in which a couple try to ‘return’ a painting they bought from a gallery some years before to get their money back, simply because the buyer’s new wife does not like the painting), Three birds alighting on a field also suggests the compromising position this puts the artist in, though we have no sympaty for the ascerbic character. Fortunately, through the course of the play, Richard’s attitude towards Biddy (now a collector) softens, indicating that maybe, just maybe, there is more to collecting art than trying to impress other people.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

It’s the first complete play I’ve read in many years. I was impressed with the detailed description of the stage at the beginning of Act One – it shows that Miller knew exactly what visual props he wanted to help him tell his story. The detail of the stage set description contrasts sharply with the ambiguity of the dialogue: more often than not, two dialogues are running concurrently as Willy Lomas repeatedly flashes back to the past in reflection on the present. Throughout the text, this duality lends a frenzied feel to the action – ones eyes flick back and forth to separate and understand the different conversations.

Ultimately, Willy’s consistent delusions provoke pity, despite the obvious damage it has caused on his family. The inevitable question centres on the balance between truth and fiction, between reality and fantasy, and on the ability to imagine – a central part of being human.

When you are too tired to do anything else, blog

Even though I can see the foolishness of writing a blog when my eyelids are drooping and my body is calling out for some rest, I can’t help but write. I’ve been on the go since 6.30am and I don’t seem quite able to admit defeat and get some sleep.

Still, I finished ‘The Full Cupboard of Life’ on the train from Birmingham today, and reading about Mma Ramotswe is almost as good as a rest (though my eyes would beg to differ). Precious thinks most problems can be solved or alleviated with a cup of bush tea, to which I must admit a certain partiality.

On Christmas Eve, as a child, I was always keen to get to bed, because that would mean Christmas day would come quicker. Tonight, I’m avoiding bed with a similar rationale – I have my annual review tomorrow and I’m not looking forward to it. Not going to bed is keeping the review at bay for the moment. It’s not the review of my performance that is worrying me, it’s the tough questions that I have to ask, even though I think I know the answers. I suppose what I’m really avoiding is the hard evidence that things will have to change, and that there are difficult times ahead.

Well, as I often say, things will seem better in the morning…

My three favourite films

I finally got around to buying Monty Python’s Life of Brian this month, which is a film I really enjoyed as a teenager but haven’t seen in about five years. Fortunately, it was as brilliant and funny as I remember (perhaps even more so), and I can say with confidence that it ranks in my top three favourite films of all time.

The other two films in my top three are Amelie and A history of violence. Amelie is simply refreshing – a film that delights in the little things that make our lives different and quirky. A history of violence was a surprise love – I almost refused to go and see it at the cinema. Happily, I went and was blown away by the rich portrayal of emotion felt by the characters, and by the visually stunning violence (!)

I wonder what an analyst would make of me given my favourite films are so different (slapstick and language-based comedy, lighthearted and endearing drama, and emotional drama coupled with uber-violence). What I find interesting is that I can’t do a similar thing with books – and the book I considered my favourite until recently did not bear up under repeated reading (Microserfs by Douglas Coupland). I wonder if this is because the last Coupland I read hit a nerve and Doug fell out of favour?

I sometimes think that I read to discover something, but what that is, I don’t know. I am always disappointed to finish a book (with the possible exception of the latest Adrian Mole book by Sue Townsend – Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction: the ending was wonderful and left me satisfied and happy). I don’t know if this tendency to continue searching is reflective of the deep (and possibly dependent) relationship I have with reading and books; perhaps it is easier to select favourites when one is less inclined or able to be critical. I am reminded of a Sharon Kivland quote published in Transmission: Speaking and Listening – volume 1, which I have used in an essay on more than one occasion:

“Loss is implicit in making a work of art because, as Louise Bourgeois once remarked, you wouldn’t make work if you were happy… loss is important… it’s what makes one make something because one doesn’t have it, and the thing one makes is never enough… there’s a next one and a next one.”

Substitute loss for lacking, and making a work of art for reading, and perhaps we come close to the mark. Maybe there is little distinction for me between making a work of art and reading, because reading forces me to create things – images, worlds, people… One thing is for certain – there is always the next read.

The Secret of Lost Things

This book appealed to me because of my memories of Hall’s, an antiquarian bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, once worked in by both my mother-in-law and a friend. The bookshop in the book is called the Arcade, and it is situated in New York, where our female protagonist arrives at the tender age of 18 and finds employment. Essentially a coming of age sort of novel, The Secret of Lost Things introduces Rosemary Savage around the time of the death of her mother. Inheriting debts and little else, Rosemary is saved by a fairy godmother of sorts, who buys her a ticket to New York, setting her loose in the grown-up world.

Written in the first person, one can quickly find Rosemary’s naivete endearing, and appreciate her sensibilities. As captivating as it is to see a 1970s New York through the eyes of a lonely and innocent Tasmanian, the plot becomes too blatant and too ‘Hollywood’ to maintain the romantic and sensitive perspective of the protagonist.

The mismatched plot and style notwithstanding, one thing I adored about the book was the way it described the appeal and purpose of the notebook. One of the bookshop employees consistently chronicles and records information and observations, almost to the exclusion of living – something that Rosemary attempts to imitate thinking she will become knowledgable and intelligent.

Though ultimately disappointing, the book evokes a pensive and exploratory tone and is suggestive of how open our eyes can be when faced with the new.