Monthly Archives: February 2014

The perils and pleasures of binge reading

I think I’m a bit of a completist on the quiet. Over the past few years I’ve had seasonal obsessions with Arnold Bennett, Rosamond Lehmann, Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, H.G. Wells, Philip Roth, Patrick Hamilton, James Ellroy, Iain M. Banks and George Pelecanos. Looking back at my diary, I see that 2003 was my Dickens year, 2005 was Hardy and 2006 was Zola.  (Every year is a Trollope year.) The summer of 2013 was the entire Game of Thrones series.


Right now, I can feel a Barbara Pym phase coming on. It started with Some Tame Gazelle at Christmas. Then one of my oldest friends gave me Excellent Women for my birthday, I’ve just polished off Jane and Prudence, and now I’m staring at a pile of Pyms I’ve picked up for a penny each on Amazon.

There’s a problem with this binge reading though. Sure, it’s intensely pleasurable, and you really end up inhabiting the author’s world – in Barbara Pym’s case the ebbs and flows of parish life and the vanities of the clergy, or in Anne Tyler’s the subterranean tensions and longings in middle-aged relationships – but after a while I start not to be able to distinguish the novels from one another. All that remains of my minor Tyler obsession a decade ago is a tangled sense of blended families in Baltimore. At this distance, only Breathing Lessons now stands out as something distinctive.

So I ought to do the sensible thing and take a break between Barbara Pym novels. This punch-drunk feeling is not helped by the fact that all the jacket covers look so damn similar and frankly a bit chick-lit-y, which rather does her writing a disservice (see picture). I think I might be more reliant on visual triggers than I thought; certainly, it’s much harder to recall what I’ve read if I’ve consumed it on the Kindle, which is one of the reasons I’ve returned to the enjoyment of print again. Thank God for Penguin Classics covers. I have strong physical recollections of where I was when I read Ann Veronica and the War of the Worlds, to take a random example, and that in turn allows me to call to mind both plot and texture.  Reading on a screen flattens out the fading memory.



Filed under Books, Fiction

1984, Almeida Theatre

1984-1  Headlong’s splendid production of 1984 at the Almeida is inspired by the little-read appendix to Orwell’s book in which the development of Newspeak is discussed as if from a vantage point in the future. In formal terms, Winston Smith’s doomed rebellion against the Party relies on realist novel conventions where the story unfolds before us in real time, but the appendix reframes the novel as a historical and potentially unreliable document. Accordingly, the co-creators of this production, Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke, use a framing device where a book group of the future discuss the text – but as the play will make clear, no text is reliable. History is not to be trusted. The individual has nothing to hold on to.

In the first scene, a camera records Winston Smith (Mark Arends) nervily beginning his diary. That moment of rebellion is made intimate for us through close-up on the screen, but at the same time we’re aware that the act of recording is being recorded. This is not a production that majors overtly on Newspeak and the impossibility of thought through the destruction of language, but the staging pounds away at the question of what is reality and whether it can it be externally verified. Winston deletes historical details of people who have been unpersoned, Party announcements are replayed as an endless loop and Parsons (Gavin Spokes) tells variations on the story of his daughter denouncing people to the Thought Police. It is only when Winston meets Julia (Hara Yannas) that he stops doubting his own sanity. Their short-lived refuge in Charrington’s  flat (Stephen Fewell) is played offstage on a screen, foreshadowing their eventual arrest. They lovers are being watched after all.

The moment of arrest is a fantastic bit of theatre that leads to the final harrowing scenes of Winston’s interrogation and torture by O’Brien (Tim Dutton), whom Winston had believed to be a co-conspirator against the Party. The heretic must be converted before being unpersoned. (Those scenes are not for those of a nervous disposition.)

It ends with the frame, as the book group of the future return onstage – but any sense that they there to represent comfortable posterity and external reality is shattered when these readers for whom Winston is eventually writing dismiss his existence as a fabrication. The happy ending we would really have wanted is for Winston’s existence to be verified, but the truth is not available, even in posterity. Chilling.


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Happy Days, Young Vic

Happy Days begins with a klaxon that makes the entire audience jump. On stage, buried up to her waist in sand, Winnie (Juliet Stevenson) awakes with a start. For the next two hours she tries to engage her partially visible husband Willie (David Beames) in conversation and gives a running commentary on her physical state, the contents of her bag (parasol, spectacles, revolver, music box, comb, toothbrush) and memories of her past, her optimism sounding increasingly misplaced. The second act is shorter and darker. Winnie is now buried up to her neck, and her fear and panic come to the surface.


Juliet Stevenson as Winnie

It’s a mountain of a part for an actress and as you’d expect, Stevenson turns in a fabulously nuanced performance. She never lapses into histrionics, but the suppressed hysteria behind the stiff upper lip is extraordinarily affecting.

Being buried in sand evokes memories of children’s games on the beach, but also a presage of death. It’s an arresting poetic image that in the theatre could seem heavily allegorical but as is classic Beckett, meaning is free-floating. There is no night and day, time is parcelled out between sleep and waking and punctuated by the earsplitting klaxons. This is not the lux aeterna longed for in Christian liturgy; the harsh sun beats down on Winnie and Willie and offers no respite.

We don’t know who Winnie is, or her husband. We have no idea how she got there. There is no causality at all. Context tunes in and out like a faltering radio; Winnie tells us of her past but those memories remain fragments.

After the play our party spent some time trying to figure out the different layers in the text. Is it about a dying marriage? Is it a post-apocalyptic world? Is Winnie’s attachment to her comb, toothbrush and music box a comment on the human desire for ritual in the face of a hostile universe? Is it one of Dante’s circles of hell? Is it about the futility of language to make sense of experience? Is it a music hall routine gone wrong?

The skill of this production (directed by Natalie Abrahami) and of Stevenson’s performance was that all those potential meanings co-exist. It would be a mistake to plump for one unitary reading, since it’s a play that resists all closure. This makes it sound like it could be a terrible couple of hours spent in the theatre, but Beckett done well is mesmerising. Though you might need a glass of wine afterwards.

Beckett wrote in both French and English: Happy Days was staged in New York in 1961 and in Paris in 1963 as Oh Les Beaux Jours. Apparently Beckett got the idea for that exact title from a Verlaine poem, Colloque Sentimental (1869). You can see why he was drawn to it. It’s a short, melancholy piece, where the narrating voice overhears the fragments of conversation of two unnamed figures in a park. One is constantly asking the other to recall their past, but the other’s terse replies are a refusal of love or a refusal of memory itself. They eventually fade out of earshot. (There’s an English translation here

Colloque Sentimental

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé

Deux formes ont tout à l’heure passé.

Leurs yeux sont morts et leurs lèvres sont molles,

Et l’on entend à peine leurs paroles.

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé

Deux spectres ont évoqué le passé.

-Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne?

– Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu’il m’en souvienne?

Ton coeur bat-il toujours à mon seul nom?

Toujours vois-tu mon âme en rêve? – Non.

Ah ! les beaux jours de bonheur indicible

Où nous joignions nos bouches ! – C’est possible.

– Qu’il était bleu, le ciel, et grand, l’espoir !

– L’espoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir.

Tels ils marchaient dans les avoines folles,

Et la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles.

– Paul Verlaine

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