Monthly Archives: February 2014

Heart of Darkness – this will need a second look

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is one of the books I am studying in English this year, so I have looked into it in more detail than I might have done if just reading it recreationally. Nevertheless, I get the impression that it is impossible to fully appreciate this novel through just one reading: it’s only 100 hundred pages, but every word counts. This is an art I admire hugely: good historians have wasted their intelligence in writing by following the principle of “why use one word when you could use fifteen?” I greatly admire any writer, particularly one of fiction, conveying such a wealth of detail in such a short length of text, making every word count. It makes me wonder how much shorter War and Peace might have been had Conrad written it.

Told from the perspective of the raconteur sailor Marlow, Heart of Darkness is the story of a journey up the Congo river, into the depths of the unknown, into the impenetrable wilderness, as Marlow calls it. Along the way, the terrible consequences of the greed of a Belgian ivory corporation are revealed in quietly shocking detail. Marlow cannot find refuge in his surroundings or in his fellow Europeans, such is the strangeness of the former and the despicable nature of the latter, and as he ploughs on he begins to lose his grip on reality; all becomes shady and ghostly.

A horrifying and tragic truth awaits Marlow on the completion of his mission, but the horrors of the story are spread fairly evenly throughout it. It is not excessive, it is tolerable but meaningful; the prose is engaging and understandable, yet with so many layers of depth. Conrad reminds me of Orwell, elegantly soaking an incredible volume of ideas almost invisibly into a small space of prose, without making them unintelligible. The quality of Conrad’s ideas matches Orwell’s, and some are even strikingly similar. Marlow’s view on the extraordinary demonic power of hunger forms an eerie forerunner to Winston Smith’s experience and analysis of pain in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

On the surface, and as I can best describe it, this book does not seem like much, but reading it is a perpetually thought-provoking and stimulating experience, and I look forward to revisiting this book in more depth.

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The Hunger Games – everything Brazil was trying so hard to be

In The Hunger Games I see not only an exciting plotline, but a genuine statement about humanity. Suzanne Collins’ basic idea may not have been new, but her books have yielded a film that connects to its audience and explains its point, unlike a certain film I think it necessary to mention.

To be honest, I don’t think Brazil is even worth an entire review. It’s a strong candidate for the worst movie I have ever seen. It had an idea, taking the authoritarianism of 1984 and putting it in a counterfactually mechanical dystopia resembling a bizarre duality of modern Las Vegas and 1920s Berlin. It could never make up its mind what kind of film it was trying to be, juxtaposing a couple of cheap gags with supposedly grim and gritty scenes, followed by fantastical dream sequences. The gags were dull, the grit unnecessarily discomforting, the most memorable dream sequence only slightly shorter than the extended edition of Return of the King, and completely failing to get across whatever message it was trying to convey. Yet somewhere in there was a message, and I think it was most forcefully and revoltingly brought out in the use of colour. Against the general grey background, the rich of society were draped in lurid colours that would have had Picasso spinning like a blender in his grave. This stuck with me, I remembered it, and I knew what it meant. It was a prediction of an apocalyptically heightened future fashion culture. However, I’m unlikely to pay much attention to a piece of visual so sickening I spend half my time trying to blank it out.

This is where The Hunger Games comes in. That same hedonistic, extreme fashion culture is there, present and unmissable, yet it isn’t so in my face as to make me shudder. It isn’t even all bad, some of it is almost aesthetically pleasing. But the message is still there, in a subtle way, that sticks in the mind without superglueing itself to the discomfort centre of the brain. Authoritarianism is also explored in a less lurid way, though not without its drama. The main character, Katniss, has to go through sufferings and dilemmas that move and shock, all on account of a thoroughly authoritarian system. But each tragedy is presented in the tragic style, rather than the revoltingly gritty style that focuses on the unpleasant details rather than the bigger picture (cross reference James McAvoy vomiting into a filthy toilet in the recent post-apocalyptic modernisation of Macbeth). I defy the viewer’s heart to remain intact.

There are things wrong with The Hunger Games, there’s no denying, and you could argue its moral is an old one: it’s not a progressive piece of political thought. But it’s not just another dystopian movie either, and it isn’t just for kids. And as for the practicalities, the actors are brilliant, the visuals strong, the plotline elegant. Spick and span, and awesome.

Sweeney Todd – the best movie musical I have ever seen

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was a film I expected to hate. While Gerard Butler’s acting makes the last twenty minutes of Phantom of the Opera an incredible emotional journey, it depresses me enormously that only the odd singer such as Samantha Barks or Catherine Zeta-Jones manages to get a good role in a movie musical. The priority is on fine-tuned acting ability, and directors tend to completely ignore slight complications like Hugh Jackman’s incredibly nasal vibrato and Russell Crowe’s complete inability to sing. Nevertheless, I gave Sweeney a try, and was pleasantly surprised.

Don’t get me wrong, Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Mrs Lovett is dreadful, lacking any emotion in her singing voice, and completely devoid of comic timing. Nevertheless, persevering through the bizarre CGI opening credit sequence is well worth the wait. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Sweeney is bang on what it should be. He can switch instantaneously from light-hearted and comical to the dark and self-destructive soul that Sweeney is. This is a role that requires an actor to portray killing another human being with a whole spectrum of emotions, from casual carelessness through desperate swiftness to apocalyptic anger. Depp executes each with ease or gusto as required. In his portrayal Sweeney’s paradoxical and deeply tragic combination of defeatism and grim determination comes across beautifully and heart-wrenchingly: the consummate murderer, his soul so crushed by the events of his past that he lacks the willpower to save his daughter from his nemesis’ clutches, yet gripped by an insatiable bloodlust.

It is true that Michael Ball sang the part better, but Depp does a good job for a man who doesn’t normally sing, and had the camera focussed on him and his expressions throughout the entire film, it would hardly have been less engaging. A shame that the same cannot be said for Bonham Carter, but this film is worth her inadequacy to see Depp at his best.

The Grapes of Wrath –

The Grapes of Wrath is a well-known modern classic of American literature, an angry portrayal of the sufferings in America during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl crisis. It mingles two kinds of chapters: one kind telling typical stories and describing broad summations of the crisis as a whole from a God-like omniscient viewpoint, in a somewhat Biblical style; the other focussing on one particular family of “Okies”, the Joads, migrants fleeing the crisis in their home-state of Oklahoma for a utopian vision of California, only to find poverty and suffering awaiting them.

I would be the first to say that this book is not all it’s cracked up to be. While it gives an extremely vivid impression of the horrors of the time throughout, thus realising Steinbeck’s purpose in writing it, the misery, dreariness and hopelessness of the time it describes is perfectly mirrored in its writing style: it is completely unreadable. Every page is a chore, every chapter a task, not a stimulating piece of reading. It seems to me that Steinbeck was attempting some stylistic point by this, trying to give the reader a taste of the dull, repetitive misery of the time. Individual sentences contain awkward repetitions of words so crude they give the impression that Steinbeck did not read one sentence over after writing the novel. Long passages of description give monotonous, dull images in unnecessary gruelling detail.

Steinbeck populates his novel with a cast of entirely unlikable characters. The Joad family are a dull, tiresome lot, with the possible exception of Tom, who at least has his head screwed on. But Ma Joad in particular is a thoroughly loathsome entity. She is a hypocritical idealist: she believes absolutely in the traditional, conservative family model, and remains convinced to the end that her American Dream will be realised, despite the evidence all around her to the contrary, yet she bullies her husband in his moments of insecurity until he cannot remain a confident head of the family, and forces her pregnant daughter to do half her work for her. It is hard to hope for the best for such a thoroughly hopeless and despicable family.

If Steinbeck intended to make his readers suffer, a master craftsman was at work. But when I open a book I put the author in a position of trust to intrigue me or at least to shock me. This book was so long that the mild shock that I received at the beginning had grown old long before the end.

It was only the last few chapters of this book that were really worth reading. The final tragedy of the novel is paralysing, the last terrible rush for survival the only truly emotional one for the reader in a long line. The very last image of the novel alone is really sufficient to speak for the entire work, a concise portrayal of utter hopelessness and atrocity that, alone of any moment in the novel, really conveys Steinbeck’s point.

A Song of Ice and Fire – an epic that just keeps getting better

By my reckoning, the most important preoccupation in modern literature is the balance between gritty, hardcore hyper-realism and romanticism. There is a temptation among modern writers and modern producers of plays to lean extremely towards the former. The recent production in London of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, featuring James McAvoy in the eponymous role, was set in a post-apocalyptic modern world full of grime, where men drink copious amounts of alcohol from plastic milk bottles and eat from rusty tin plates. While Macbeth is a gruesome play, with perhaps its key motif being blood, it is still possible to enjoy and appreciate the tragedy without going to these extremes. Roman Polanski’s 1971 film adaptation managed to be both realistic and watchable, without making the viewer want to vomit. At the other end of the scale, it is hard nowadays to get away with idealistic levels of romanticism. All characters must, quite rightly, be flawed. Heroes and heroines cannot get away with being personfications of virtue. I would argue that neither of these extremes should really be acceptable. The fact is that tragedy can be emotional and thought-provoking without being gruesome, and most of us get by in the ebb and flow of life without focussing on the most revolting details, but we are not content with unrealistic characters who perpetually refuse to make mistakes.

A Song of Ice and Fire is a series that comes close to being the perfect balance between these two extremes. While it may be a fantasy series, it is realistic within the context of its own universe. Though supernatural elements crop up time and again, the psychologies, politics and interactions of the characters are as believable as any historical fiction set in the real world. While a couple of the central characters are heavily idealistic, their ideas are repeatedly proved wrong; Martin more or less constantly populates his story with such a vast cast of characters of so many moralities, corruptions and dispositions, so many of them abusing their supposedly honourable titles, even reminding us once or twice that any knight can make another knight, that what might have been a story of chivalry and virtue rivalling the Arthurian legend becomes instead an exploration of humanity as in depth and striking as modern “realistic” fiction.

The books are not devoid of grit and grime. Sex and murder are described in detail and with great frequency. But the focus of the sex is on the physicality, emotions and motivations of the scene and its characters, not on the unpleasant details of bodily fluids, and murders are explored through their psychology and political implications.

George Martin’s ability to write is phenomenal. His narratives are engaging and rarely dull. Description of landscapes does not go on for pages on end, and events are unpredictable. The entire course of the narrative is sometimes literally be altered in the space of one sentence. The third-person Point of View telling of the narrative makes sure the reader can understand why characters make decisions, the reasons for their mistakes. In fact, the exclusion of certain characters’ points of view from the first few books leads the reader to question their original judgements later on, when the characters in question are finally allowed to speak. The downside of this narrative structure is that disliking one of the point of view characters results in anything from boredom to frustration when it is their turn to be the window into Martin’s story.

In general, however, these books are not only expertly balanced between hyper-realism and hyper-romanticism, they are also gripping, unpredictable, believable, and highly emotional. It is my personal experience that, excepting one, each successive book is better than the last. I remember being enormously impressed by A Clash of Kings for breaking the sequels-are-never-as-good rule, only to find that the third instalment, A Storm of Swords, was better still.

Believe what you read on the covers: A Song of Ice and Fire is an epic fantasy in a way that Lord of the Rings never was, a staggering story told by a master craftsman.