Posts Tagged ‘Brecht’

Tibor Fischer: Under the Frog

March 13, 2020

51WPGWJEK9L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I’m not sure what made me return to this novel again – the fourth reading in thirty years – but it may have been part of my urge to clear out some books. It was Fischer’s first novel, set in post-war Hungary, in communist times. The author’s roots are Hungarian, so he’s obviously very familiar with places and history.

There was a lengthy phase in my reading, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern Europe’s attempts at socialism, when I read very widely in the literature of that region, in an attempt fully to understand the complexities, bizarreness and suffering of daily life there. Fiction set in those places and times always had a completely different premise from anything written in the West: Brechtian alienation sets in from the first page. You are in a world where freedom of movement is curtailed, there are shortages of all kinds of basic necessities, you need to be careful to whom you talk and what you say to them, and truth is in short supply…

Fischer, born and raised in England and writing in the early ‘90s, did not have to be careful, unlike those who wrote earlier and from behind the Iron Curtain. His characters living in the late 1940s and early 1950s – peak Stalinism – are therefore quite openly mocking of the system and its intentions among themselves. Other writers had to be much more cautious and coded.

It’s a black comedy based around the members of a young men’s basketball team. Nominally they have jobs but aren’t expected to actually work, so their lives centre around beating the system, chasing females, training and playing the game. The attitudes of the characters, and their antics, remind me a good deal of the persona of Danny Smiricky adopted by Josef Skvorecky in a number of his novels: it’s largely about how to be human, and have a decent life and some fun under totalitarianism…

There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the novel, and I’d forgotten just how inventive Eastern European languages are in their obscenities and profanities, and general ability to abuse. If pushed, I’d be clear it’s a boys’ book, especially in terms of how the sexual escapades are viewed and presented, but that’s not the reason I like such novels: it is the local colour, the presentation of life in such a weird and surreal universe that hooks me. Having visited Eastern Europe a number of times in that era, everything rings true.

Although it’s a very funny novel, there are many sad and poignant moments of realisation about the meaning of life and what it presents you with, as well as the choices you have to make. The lightness of the novel disappears as we reach the key year of 1956 and the Hungarian uprising against the Stalinist regime. The action is far darker and more serious, tragic at times, although Fischer still works in that edgy and black Eastern European humour that I’m quite familiar with myself. I thought I’d re-read and part with this novel, but it was far better than I remembered it, and I think it will be staying on my shelves.

Macbeth at the RSC

May 20, 2018

I taught the Scottish play more times than I care to remember at school, and had to take school parties to see a number of mediocre performances usually specifically produced for school audiences. Certainly none of these was memorable, and I had come to not really like the play; I’d never had any feeling of its end being tragic. And so when it appeared on the programme to my Shakespeare week this year I was in two minds: a play I wasn’t really enamoured of, but also the possibility that a performance at Stratford by the RSC would be a good and memorable one and therefore perhaps bring about a change in my response…

Re-reading the play before the performance, for the first time in a number of years, I was struck particularly by the density of the language, and its stunning poetry. Yes, I’d been aware of it, but it’s not possible to make too much of it teaching to teenagers, and so I suppose I had backgrounded it.

The performance was stunning and I was gripped from the start and throughout. Christopher Ecclestone played Macbeth brilliantly, and there was a real sense of rapport between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which there absolutely must be for the play to hold you, since it lacks any other strong characters, and the degeneration of the relationship over time was evident, as was the sense of Macbeth gradually losing interest in life and everything he had won through association with the powers of evil.

It was a modern dress production, and this did not intrude on my appreciation. The weird sisters were played by children, young girls in pyjamas holding dolls, and this was a very effective approach. I’ve always felt that the witches are very difficult to do convincingly for a modern audience, and the over-playing of wizened hags with daft voices dancing around cauldrons has always left me cold. Here, there was simply mist, a slight edginess to the girls’ voices through some technical trick, and a spookiness through the use of dolls: the whole trope of children and childlessness that permeates the play was thus foregrounded.

Another enhancement, or directorial decision, if you like, involved the development of the role of the porter, who was dressed like a school caretaker, and who, after his speech – another that is difficult to pull of well – lurked sinisterly at the side of the stage for the rest of the play, almost a chorus figure, doing various small things that commented or reinforced the action of the drama, at times appearing almost Brechtian.

The banquet scene worked well, the long table used effectively for a number of scenes, and even the dreary scene between Malcolm and Macduff in England was given a pace and focus that made it work. Macduff receiving the news of the deaths of his family was a very powerful tragic moment.

Macbeth is a relatively short play, and the pace and coherence of the production made it powerful and effective, and I left the theatre glad that I had finally seen a performance worth seeing and that had done justice to the play.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage

October 19, 2017

So, horrid weather allowed me to feel far less guilty about taking a sofa day and reading this book – which I’ve been waiting for, for ages – cover to cover. It was brilliant. Obviously this first read was plot-driven, so I’ll be coming back to it for a re-read pretty soon. Meanwhile, I’ll try not to drop too many spoilers in what follows, but I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying that this volume is set ten years before the events of His Dark Materials, and tells us how Lyra ends up in Jordan College, and the second volume – whenever that appears, although apparently Pullman has finished writing it – will take us ten years beyond the ending of the original trilogy. So, in some ways these two novels may perhaps be seen as ‘add-ons’ but they are full stories in their own right…

We are into well-crafted plot fairly rapidly, and I was amazed to realise how quickly and easily I slipped back into the parallel universe that is the one of the original trilogy: it seems quite ‘normal’, if that makes sense. I’ve always liked the way that Pullman ‘makes it strange’ in a Brechtian sense so that we notice the differences sufficiently, not to be oblivious to them, and yet we are not in so strange a world that we cannot easily connect it with our own. Although the plot is instantly gripping, I was aware that Pullman is piggy-backing his new story onto our memories of what went before (strictly, after, I suppose…). Characters re-appear, different because younger, and in different roles and this, of course, fired up my desire to go back again to HDM. And, most interesting of all, we are back with real philosophical questions, about the nature of consciousness itself, and how it developed in humans, and how far it extends down the chain of being and matter: we are back with Dust, and original sin, and innocence and experience. Pullman is an ace story-teller on one level, and on another, he really makes his readers work: if you only get an easy read out of this, you have missed so much.

As with HDM, there is the shock for adults of realising that children can sometimes know and understand more than we do, precisely because of their innocence. And Pullman does not pass up an opportunity to emphasise the liberating power of reading and libraries to children either, a note which always resonates with this particular reader.

I found myself thinking at one point, ‘well, it’s just more of the same old formula’ and then told myself that that was exactly what I wanted: more of that world, those people, those questions… Pullman has said that this novel is darker than the trilogy, and it is – there is more evil, and yet I was also struck by a strong sense of a network of good people with good intentions, doing their best in a difficult world, a feeling that I think is reinforced by the links with characters we met in different situations previously; it’s also a valuable message for us in our own benighted real world: there are a lot of people striving to do good, succeeding, and making real, small differences.

The second half of the book is set against the backdrop of a calamitous flood affecting all of southern Brytain, perhaps an acknowledgement of climate change most obviously, but one which reminded me very strongly, in terms of Pullman’s descriptive powers, of some of the more hallucinatory sections of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I shall have to look more closely into this one.

In short, an excellent read which gave me a very happy and satisfying sofa day, and briefly sated my desire for more of the world of His Dark Materials. I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you: get on and enjoy it yourself!

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