Milan Kundera for the Nobel Prize

I was reading one of the chapters towards the end of Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting yesterday.

It’s a dream-type sequence, or an imagination of a kind of afterlife, maybe a limbo, where you go before you really die.

Tamina, this woman, just ups and leaves her job in a café, hightails it with an angel in a sports car. He leaves her at a shore. She’s rowed to an island by a child, and then stranded there. She’s shown to her bed in a dorm, where all the other kids sleep. She’s the only adult. She searches for an escape. There is none and she settles down to living there.

The kids are fascinated by her.

There are teams of children, named after animals. The Squirrels sit shitting and pissing on toilets in the bathroom, while across from them, the Cats wash themselves at wash basins. Then they change over.

After a while, the kids want to wash her. She lets them, and it becomes sensual, sexual. They basically rape her. It’s written beautifully, strangely. You wonder if someone could write this today. You read the lines half-visualizing what’s going on, half trying not to visualize it, because it’s like one of those dreams that you’re not supposed to have.

He just says she’s rocked in a sensual way and gives in to it.

In between these scenes there are musings on music – his Dad’s love of it – Beethoven’s concentration on Variations at the end of his life – the inane music of today (“the monotonous rhythm of the soulless cry” which we all need, from time to time)…the usual Milan stuff:

  • “Sex is not love but merely a territory love takes over.”
  • “Children have no past, and that is the whole secret of the magical innocence of their smiles.”
  • “Humans do not revolt against the killing of calves in slaughterhouses.”

Milan will be 86 this April Fool’s Day. Why hasn’t he won the Nobel Prize?

Can we start a petition?

Favourite Irish poem about potatoes

The Irish equivalent of the BBC conducted a poll to find the most loved Irish poem of the twentieth century – and a ballad to peeling potatoes, which involves love for one’s mammy, made the top slot.

This is not a joke.

The poem, inevitably, was written by “Famous” Seamus, Seamus Heaney.

The poem has been described as “only lovely”.

When all the others were away at Mass

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall one by one

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

Cold comforts set between us, things to share

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside

Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying

And some were responding and some crying

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.


From New Selected Poems 1966-1987, Faber and Faber Ltd.


An eighteens movie

We watched Basic Instinct last week.

The first thing that struck me was: this is an eighteens movie. I can’t think of a movie made in the last few years – a popular, mainstream kind of movie – where you’d say it was an eighteens movie. But Basic Instinct is. Jesus, the first scene. It’s not only sex – it’s sex where a woman is on top. That was probably prohibited in American until 1992. And then it’s violent as hell all of a sudden. A short while later, the Michael Douglas character rapes his ex-girlfriend (but it’s 1992, so I suppose the audience was supposed to think he was just coming on too strong).

The next thing that strikes you is: this is a shit movie.

And then half an hour after that, when you’re surprised you’re still watching it, you think: this isn’t a shit movie. And you start wondering if it’s just you or is the screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, referencing Vertigo all the time: those car rides around San Francisco, the shots of the city’s streets, the platinum blonde, the uncertainty about two of the women – which is the real one (in this case, the real killer)?

The Philadelphia Story

I ducked off work to see The Philadelphia Story yesterday. In the last two weeks I’ve really started doing this. It’s not normal, I know, and I’m doing it because everyone keeps saying “go to the cinema while you still can”.

The baby’s due in two weeks.

So it was an early afternoon showing. 1.45. You know what that means. 1.45 on a week day in an art house, membership-based cinema. I was the only one there under sixty-five.

And I realised it was a blessing. The film was released in 1940, about five to ten years before most of the audience I watched it with was born. But there must be some rule about comedy: that your taste is shaped by the comedy that was popular not just in your childhood but in the years before you were born.

Because they loved it. I saw the film years ago and I didn’t like it, but seeing it with these over-65s…I’m telling you…In the opening scene Katharine Hepburn kicks Cary Grant out of the house. She breaks one of his golf clubs, smashing it across her thigh. And his reaction? He marches up to her – and face palms her to the ground. Yeah. A move that you rarely even see in rugby – a pure face palm. Next shot is her on the ground, with that “why you pesky little…” look on her face. And the over-65s – more than 2/3s of them women – they loved it.

So please, if you’re going to watch this film at home – go out and round up the oldsters.

He had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook


Over the last week I read Friedrich Reck’s Diary of a Man in Despair. I had to read it alone, because if I ever read it when my wife was in the room I had to keep stopping to tell her something he’d just said.

You feel, during it, that you could have been friends. You feel, after it, that a kindred spirit has been snuffed out.

I’d never heard of him before. I just picked the book up last week. It doesn’t even have a promising cover. But this is the story. This guy, Reck, wrote diary entries from May 1936 to October 1944 which describe life in Nazi Germany. You’ll never read anything like them.

There are 39 entries. Nothing like a normal diary. He’ll just write four pages from time to time about events around him, things he’s heard, gossip, impressions of Munich (“Prussian-occupied Munich”, he calls it in 1936), and so on. He said that these notes he was writing were his “contribution to the cultural history of the Nazi period. Night after night, I hide this record deep in the woods on my land.”

I just want to give you an idea of the way he writes, and what he writes about.

He sees Hitler passing in a car, “a jellylike, slag-gray face, a moonface into which two melancholy jet-black eyes had been set like raisins”. He recalls, years before, seeing Hitler ranting in a café, “with his oily hair falling into his face…he had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook.” He calls him “a raw vegetable Genghis Khan, a teetotalling Alexander, a womanless Napoleon, an effigy of Bismarck who would certainly have had to go to bed for four weeks if he had ever tried to eat just one of Bismarck’s breakfasts.” (11 August 1936).

He sees Berlin in 1937, “like an immense machine, all sound and fury and producing nothing…I do not believe there is any substance to the idea that people in Berlin work harder than elsewhere. They have a hysterical drive to keep moving, probably an indication of a flight from the knowledge of their own inner emptiness.” (May 1937).

When Austria is invaded he says: “The bordering countries watched this miserable rape of a little nation, and shrugged their shoulders. Nobody is moving to stop this before it is too late. It almost seems that they prefer to stand back and wait until the cobra breaks out.” (20 March 1938).

Berlin in April 1939 “smells of war, and strikes me as looking the way a parvenu never should: shabby, wan, ridiculous. The menus offer little, the wine is even more questionable than usual, the linen is of doubtful cleanliness. The coffee is miserable, there is no petrol for taxis, and since repairman have been drafted for work on fortifications, the hotels are in a sorry state.” I could believe this – six months before the war broke out!

And so on it goes – vignette after vignette – Ludendorff’s phone call to the Balkan front in 1917, when his only question is whether strawberries grow there; the brief re-introduction of dueling under the Nazis; digressions on pastoral versus industrial Germany; the observation that in 1500 there was no nationalism but there was a German nation, while in the 1930s it was the opposite…

I read and read, not knowing what would happen to him, whether they would get him in the end. All I knew, from the brief biography at the start of the book, were his dates, 1884 – 1945. Did they get him in the end? Did he live to see the end of the war, and then die? Compelling, and moving.

American Beauty, 15 years on

We watched American Beauty again. I couldn’t take it this time. It felt cynical – everything was smooth – the acting, the direction, everything. But I kept wondering: What is it saying?

There’s the old man with a mid-life crisis story (quit your “soul-destroying” job, tell your dickhead boss what you really think of him, and buy a car you always dreamed of – a 1970 Pontiac Firebird in this case).

And there’s the feel-good twist on this: maybe throwing your life into chaos (reconnecting with your twenty-one year old self and perving on your daughter’s friend) is a liberating thing (“today can be the first day of the rest of your life”).

You have the well-worn ideas that form the backdrop to this: Suburbia is stifling – lives of quiet desperation – the American dream might be hollow on the inside – most people don’t live, they merely exist – and so on.

And then there’s the beauty stuff. The famous plastic bag scene. “I need to remember…Sometimes there’s so much…beauty in the world. I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

What I’d like to know is, can you still take this? I swallowed it when I was 17. The line is delivered perfectly, and it’s backed by that Thomas Newman piano – the same kind of Brooks Was Here piece that he used in the Shawshank. I love that piano. I wonder how many “meaningful” lines in movies couldn’t be delivered to that backing music.

But the message – “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world” – it seems like no one believes that but everyone likes to be seduced by it, from time to time.

Pouring Chocolate over Babette’s Feast

We started watching Babette’s Feast this afternoon. Danish film. Won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987.

We gave it twenty-five minutes. Couldn’t stick it. It’s adapted from an Isak Dinesen story – transposed might be a better word. A lot of telling, not a lot of showing. That was annoying, but worse was the look of it. I’d love to see if you could stick it for half an hour. It’s a period piece made in the late Eighties and it looks it from head to toe.

[I think John Huston was well aware of this problem and that’s why he shot most of The Dead indoors; it’s more forgiving that way]

So we stopped it before we found out anything about Babette and why she was throwing a feast.

And then I looked at the back of the DVD case – and this is what I wanted to ask you about. Does this ring a bell?

A woman comes into a small, conservative rural community. She’s “mysterious”. Soon she convinces some locals to try something “truly outrageous – a gourmet French meal!”…Her feast “scandalizes the local elders…Just who is this strangely talented Babette, who has terrified this pious town with the prospect of losing their souls for enjoying too much earthly pleasure.”

Is this not the plot of Chocolat (the book was published in 1999, film released in 2000)?

Mysterious French woman – local elders (replace Lutherans with Catholics) – small, conservative rural community (replace Jutland with Gers, France) – reduce the gourmet meal to chocolate…


Exhaustive but not inventive

Karl Ove Beowulf Sheehan PEN American Center

I want to warn you about this guy called Karl Ove Knausgaard, just in case you make the same mistake as me.

I picked up this book of his, A Man in Love (My Struggle: 2). I read the back. It was about a guy in his thirties – he goes to “humiliating” antenatal classes, he has fights with quarrelsome neighbours, he becomes a father. I thought: I can identify with some of this stuff. It promised bits about “the emotional strain of children’s birthday parties and pushing a pram around Stockholm when all you really want to do it write.” I thought: could be good, could even be touches of humour (I mean, the guy has called a book about himself My Struggle – Min Kamp in Norwegian – so he must have a sense of humour? He must at least think he’s being ironic?)

And then there was a quote on the front from my old pal, James Wood. A critic I’ve liked ever since I read The Art of Fiction. The quote said: “Intense and vital…ceaselessly compelling…superb.”

Well, later on I went and read the full Wood review, in which he also says “even when I was bored I was interested.” That would be a fairer quote to put on the cover.

To cut to the chase, the problem with the writing is that it’s exhaustive but not inventive.

Karl Ove has written six volumes about his life (he’s now 46) – and if you write six volumes based on your life and the people you know it’s pretty inevitable that comparisons will be drawn with Proust.

So Karl Ove has been referred to as “the Norwegian Proust”.

But Proust rarely feels exhaustive, and he often feels inventive.

Listen to this, from page 29. He’s at a child’s birthday party with his wife and kids and he’s being directed into the kitchen:

“The others are in the kitchen,” Erik said. “There’s some wine in there, if you fancy a glass.”

Heidi had already entered the room, she was standing in front of a shelf with a wooden snail in her hand. It had wheels and a string you could pull.

I nodded to the two parents down the hall.

“Hi,” they said.

What was his name, now? Johan? Or Jacob? And hers? Was it Mia. Oh hell. Of course. Robin, that was it.

“Hi”, I said.

“You alright?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “What about you two?”

“Everything’s fine, thank you.”

I smiled at them. They smiled back.

Now, you might say: that’s not so bad. And maybe it’s not, taken in isolation. But the book goes on and on like this. There are nice parts – like when he talks about the distinct feeling each of his children radiates – but these observations are swamped.

Maybe the series is a testament to the age we live in, where so much information can be, and is, recorded, that is it difficult to cut the information down and shape it into a clear narrative.

(I know it sounds lame to say “the age we live in” – and all I mean is the world as it has been altered by the internet and the omnipresence of the laptop and the smart phone).

Maybe Karl Ove recognises this even in the title. A Man in Love is the second instalment in the series, but it’s not the title he gave it himself. It’s just the title Book 2 got in translation. The same decision was taken with Fallada’s Alone in Berlin – I suppose that was a little cuter, a little more inviting, and little more mysterious and maybe romantic, than the title he gave his book, which was Everyone Dies Alone. Karl Ove’s original title is perfect: Min Kamp Andre Bok: My Struggle (Another Book). It’s a more honest declaration: I wrote 400 pages first time around; now here’s another 664.

It’s like what Stanley Kaufmann said about The Godfather Part II: that it wasn’t a sequel, it was just more.

Photo by Beowulf Sheean/American PEN Centre