(photo by Jorge Royan)

(by Michel Houellebecq) (2015) (translated by Lorin Stein)

Submission is a good idea for a novel, which terminates just when it seems to be building a head of steam. A ‘Lower’ Sorbonne Professor of Literature, specialising in J. K. Huysmans and an unenthusiastic promoter of ‘A’s for lays,’ finds himself on the academic outer when a version of the Muslim Brotherhood wins the French general elections. The professor skips town, ultimately decides to return and collect his redundancy payment and pension, only to be seduced by the new paradigm into converting to Islam and returning to academe, now deloused and free of those dead-weighted trappings of western enlightenment. The anticipated, or dreaded, new theocratic age is thus heralded, but hardly explained.

There’s lots of gratuitous depictions of sex and fine dining. There are some asides on the fin-de-siècle Parisian novelists, to no really great effect. I’d not heard a character call Mitterrand ‘crafty’ before – he was about as crafty as Theresa May.  Lesley will say that Houellebecq’s violently-praised The Map and the Territory was a poor book, but in this one, some valuable things peep through the otherwise prosaic prose:

Once I was made a professor, my reduced course load meant I could get all my teaching done on Wednesdays.”

Over the next few weeks a strange, oppressive mood settled over France, a kind of suffocating despair, all-encompassing but shot through with glints of insurrection.”

She’d been working all day and was exhausted, plus she’d been watching too many reruns of Come Dine With Me on channel M6 and had planned a menu that was much too ambitious.

Here was a normal – almost cartoonishly normal – woman, and yet she’d seen something in my father, something my mother and I never saw. And I don’t think it was only, or even mainly, a question of money. She made plenty herself; that much was clear from her clothes, her hair, the way she talked. In that ordinary old man she, and she alone, had found something to love.”

Submission is very readable, curiously static, slightly irritating and, like a French Indo-Chinese meal, vaguely lacking some vital ingredient. It’s fun – it might lead to a meatier sequel – but better to read Huysman’s À Rebours or Là-Bas instead.

(photo by Mariusz Kubik)

(photo by Mariusz Kubik)


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Lady Macbeth

June 26, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Dir. William Oldroyd) (2017)

Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1865) is the template here, a pastoral of straitened femininity, boredom and murder that owes a bit more to Flaubert than Shakespeare or Turgenev. But not a lot – animal lust is the key here and this painterly, pretty, frankly quick little psychodrama is not a lot more than the slightly-higher trash, albeit well executed, beautifully photographed and guiltily pleasurable.

We’re somewhere near the moors, in an England (Mtsensk is nowhere to be seen) wedged between Jane Austen and George Eliot, with the lovely, creaking, chilly old manor house as a major character, having watchful windows, watchful, wary servants, and a refreshing paucity of dialogue. In fact the action moves rapidly through what is virtually a 90 minute montage. Katherine (an impressive Florence Pugh) is bored. She’s married to creepy, morose, misogynist pervert Alexander (Paul Hilton), whined-at by his nasty Pa, Boris (Christopher Fairbank, in a wonderfully rotten, mean and dried-up performance); she’s house-bound and tipsy. But there’s trouble at mill and Katherine is left alone with scared-of-her-shadow servant, Anna (Naomi Ackie).


There’s a nice aura of repression dominance present, plus a touch of D. H. Lawrence (and Hammer horror) when smelly stable-boy Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) appears on the scene. Soon Katherine and Seb are at it like knives, which bodes ill for everyone. Dad is suspicious, and flays Sebastian, but he is successfully stifled by some bad mushrooms.  Katherine sweetly invites Anna to join her at table, while Boris chokes to death in an adjacent locked room – the first vivid demonstration of psychopathy behind her bland exterior.

Sonny finally manages to return home, where his welcome is equally lukewarm. And just when mistress and houseboy are settling into a quaint and specious pattern of domestic life, a boy who has legal claim as heir turns-up. It won’t be long before he turns blue! But conscience has gripped someone and there will be punishment for these crimes – some more subtle than others.

There is no real connection to Shakespeare’s Lady M – there are murders done in collaboration with a man, a “king” is killed, a young heir is killed; Katherine is the instigator and the strong one. This disconnect is really a product of the film’s faithfulness to the Leskov novel, which even features a somewhat ghostly cat. The Varnished Culture viewing staff did not mind this – these characters are not, after all, Shakespearean.


The film’s object is to objectify Katherine and show what the sentient object is capable of, under the right or wrong conditions. In this it succeeds very well (boredom is imposed on Katherine as a process – corsets, bonnets, domestic violence, long languorous sessions filled with ennui) but in the final analysis, the work is too slight to get more than a respectable pass.

What would Ellen Terry make of it...?

What would Ellen Terry make of it…?

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The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

No, you can't go back in time and kill baby Hitler.  It's complicated.  (Yes, this is Adolf as a tot).

by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (June 2017)

Neal Stephenson, you promised me time travel, magic, and Ancient Greek – all in the first few pages. You quoted Peter Gabriel! I was so there!  Oh goody, I thought, gentle reader, Mr S is back to  pre-Reamde/Anathem/Seveneves form. Nearly 750 pages later  >sigh<  I can tell you that I was wrong. Mr S misled me. Read our review of Seveneves for a more detailed exegesis of what ails Mr Stephenson’s writing now. Sadly, D.O.D.O lacks even the beauty and science that leavened Seveneves.  There’s no magic or Ancient Greek to be seen, either.

Dr Melisande Stokes, Harvard lecturer in ancient language, is writing a record for the future (dear reader) in London in 1851, where she is stuck, having been sent there from the twentieth-first-century. Stephenson/Galland’s quantum theory explanation for what magic was and why it ceased to exist in 1850 is ingenious and quite charming. Intriguingly, it has a connection to an incident of importance in Brian Catling’s The Vorrh.  Melisande has been recruited by US Army officer, Tristan Lyons, to start-up the ancient languages department of an organisation that ultimately becomes “D.O.D.O”, a ‘shadowy government entity’, whose purpose is to revitalise magic, to be practised by witches.

The full name for which “D.O.D.O’ is an acronym is not explained for some time, and is just one of many such names which are thought-up to provide amusing or appropriate nicknames. The ridiculousness of bureaucracy is well-captured in the increasingly hysterical emails from D.O.D.O.’s HR department:  “As you choose your costumes, please try to keep in mind everything our Diversity Policy has to say about stereotypes surrounding witches. Most of you who work here don’t need to be told this, but every year it seems we have some children who show up in costumes that are offensive to certain members of our staff. Remember, the following costume elements are expressly forbidden:

Pointy hats

Green skin

Warts on nose


(Shades of a Yale ‘witch hunt’).

The D.O.D.O. boffins (your standard Japanese genius and a bunch of nerds) build a machine (an “ODEC”) in which witches can practise magic, otherwise impossible in this time. How Melisande has ended-up in Victorian London, and how D.O.D.O. recruits a witch, will all be revealed, although there is no real suspense in either. Melisande’s supposed linguistic ability is never properly illustrated – all conversations are given in English. There is the occasional mention of ‘declensions’, ‘conversational Sumerian’ or the plastering on of a foreign phrase, but that’s it.

There is a  theory that everything was different once, but we can’t remember that, because our memories changed too. It’s the idea behind Crowley’s Aegypt cycle and Ursula le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. [Redolent of lymphocytes also? – Ed.] A sign that there has been such a change is foreshadowed in the book, but disappointingly, that theme is never taken anywhere. The magic which is revitalised by D.O.D.O. is used for time travel which is utilised only to change the world in ways which the US financial-industrial complex would find helpful.  The other, surely vast, uses of magic are virtually ignored. The spells are all conducted off-stage (in the sealed ODEC).  Were Stephenson and Galland again not interested enough to fully develop this idea, or did they agree that they simply couldn’t make magic spells sound convincing? Anyone who goes into an ODEC with a witch comes out the other side with convenient confusion and amnesia. Just how it is done is glossed-over by the witches themselves, who simply can’t explain it to muggles when they ask.  “‘What an idiot question,'” I said. ‘How does writing work?  Can you tell me now it is I scratch thrice-ten marks on a piece of vellum and you can look at it and learn every piece of knowledge in the world?'”

For a book which needs a tight and complex plot, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is sloppy, as is D.O.D.O., the top-secret organisation itself. One would expect a ‘shadowy government entity’ dealing with metaphysical matters of the greatest profundity and importance to mankind, to think a bit about security; D.O.D.O.’s security is the type that a truck can be driven through (like the time travel plot). The officials of D.O.D.O are all astoundingly unobservant and stupid, whereas the visitors from other times and places, who could rightly be expected to be out of their depth, are wily and resourceful to a degree that over-stretches credulity.  A family of financiers, the Fuggers, are suspiciously ubiquitous across time, but their involvement is ultimately wishy-washy and underdeveloped. The concept of an  implosion of all things physics, occurring  when  time travellers change history too quickly,  is here called ‘diachronic shear’, ‘lomadh’ or ‘diakrónikus nyírías’.  In John Wyndham’s time it was called a “chronoclasm”.  Whatever it is called, it remains a get-out-of-gaol-free card for an embattled author and is used to this end by the authors of D.O.D.O.   Sub-plots concerning the involvement of the Irish witch, Graínne, with a 17th century historical figure and her role as a spy for a never-seen correspondent, seem tacked on. The style of diary entries, letters and emails is lazy.  Stephenson’s readers are entitled to expect a more synthesised and complicated narrative along the lines of The Baroque Cycle.)

The novel is clearly written with screen rights in mind – the plot requires several characters to be nude frequently, although for once, sometimes it is men.  While our feisty (but dull) heroine is not a beauty, her cheerful, arm-punching male co-worker is (although also dull), and the main witch, Erszebet (a very annoying character) is as well.

There are amusing moments. Melisande, writing with dip pen and ink, crossing out slang and profanities: “Only in the last few weeks have I gained an inkling of their true motives. I shall say what I know of these as quickly as I can, because my hand is cramping up like a motherfucker most pitiably’. The Viking raid is worth its weight in plundered axes. There’s a funny, developing google search list and a very funny Norse epic. If you haven’t yet given up on Mr S, suspend disbelief, stop asking yourself “why?”, “but wouldn’t…?” and “that can’t be so because….”, and D.O.D.O. will entertain well enough.

The book ends on much the same note as does Seveneves – after a lot of confusing wrapping-up action and rushing about, a motley band of questing types from Central Casting sit around a table planning their next move – to be described in the sequel which we at TVC are unlikely to read.  We want to go back to the time when Neal Stephenson wrote wittily and with depth and intricacy, for grownups. This’ll make a ho-hum Netflix series.


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Night’s Lies by Gesualdo Bufalino



The place of confinement is an island fortress, “It is known as an island but ought to be called a rock.  For it is nothing more than a stack of volcanic tufa heaped up into the form of an enormous snout, wearisomely steep in some places, but for the most part bare, sheer crag.  The strip of sea between it and the mainland is no wider than a keen eye can traverse.  None the less to cross it, be it through the malice of the winds or of the currents, is a hazardous business for vessels, and totally beyond the power of any swimmer.  No one is ever known to have escaped but their remains have been recovered, glaired with seaweed and mauled by fish on the rocks of the Black Foreland”.

The Governor is Consalvo De Ritis, (nicknamed  ‘Sparafucile’ after the great bass opera role for his fondness for gunfire), who rages against the weakness brought on by his illness, depicted as a rat which has crawled in through the Governor’s ear and taken up residence in his brain.

The four condemned prisoners are Ingafu, a baron, “hardened malefactor and assassin”; Saglimbeni, self-styled poet, “an imposing adventurer if ever there was one”; Agesilaos, soldier,“of a circuitous cast of mind, delighting in every kind of cavilling argument” and Narcissus, student, seething “with mutinous feelings towards any authority whatever.”  These are the Four Evangelists to the Cabal, members of the Republican Directory or ‘the Holy Office’, which acts as an intermediary between their obscure leader known as ‘God the Father’ and his more lowly disciples. Apprehended after exploding a bomb in an attempt to kill the King, the four are lodged together with another doomed criminal, Brother Cirillo, “A God-fearing, sanguinary brigand…of vast intelligence…and by no means ignoble birth”. The five are sentenced to die at dawn by guillotine.  However, the revolutionaries are offered a chance to save their lives – will they betray God the Father? Brother Cirillo suggests that the four spend the hours before dawn, while they are deciding, by telling instructive moral stories from their lives, in the time-honoured fashion.


In his story, “Narcissus saved from the waves”, the student recalls cross-dressers and disguises;  the second-guessing baron takes on the identity of his dead brother; the soldier/priest corrupts his fellow orphans and kills his creator, while the poet sees the reflection of a bearded cannibal bandit next to his own in a pond. Each is a tale of deception, double-dealing and masks.

The literary and philosophical allusions are all apposite – the Decameron, Byron, Pascal, George Sand, are called upon.  The tales themselves are reminiscent of Calvino’s “The Cloven Viscount” and “The Baron in the Trees”, but even more so of the illusory and ghastly and remarkable “Moravagaine.”

At the conclusion, Cirillo expresses his disgust – rather than a confession or philosophical truth, each man has paraded his weaknesses in a petty, self-serving story, false and facile…”you have all revealed yourselves in my eyes as either evil, or weak, or foolish – tiny souls a-shiver in a tinsel splendour”. And that is Bufalino’s point.  Cirillo rants against the existential ‘injustice’ “of neither you nor I nor any one of us having a solid, imperturbably responsible ‘I’ of his own. For my own life, no less than yours, my brethren and antagonists, has been naught but a steady flow of multiple perceptions within a multiple self…My fate has been the selfsame fate as yours, for I have been listening to you, some more some less, falling in the same shiftings and shadow-play, and exchanges of personality and blindman’s-bluff, which has been the warp and the weft of my own life.  We resemble, all of us together, the rotting shreds of dismembered cartulary.  Small-part actors, you and I are, in an endless sham,  Mummers in a weird and an odious misunderstanding.”

Given these themes, the twist is not a totally unexpected surprise, but the intriguing after-twist makes the reader think again about ambiguous details here and there, which seemed out of place on a first reading.

Bufalino is not well-known now, although ‘Night’s Lies’ won the Strega Prize in 1988 (other winners include Pavese, Moravia, Morante, di Lampedusa, Landolfi, Levi and Eco) and a library is named for him in his home town of Cosimo, Sicily. Bufalino’s prose, via Patrick Creagh’s excellent translation, is picaresque, rollicking, rich and amusing, although the stories do lag at times.  Read this while working-up to Moravagaine.  But a warning.  Neither is a work for the prudish or faint of heart.

Portrait of the Author as an old man

Portrait of the Author as an old man

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June 13, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Classic Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
The famous post-Oscar photo of the lovely Faye, by (husband-to-be, Terry O'Neill)

The famous post-Oscar photo of the lovely Faye, (by husband-to-be, Terry O’Neill)

(Dir. Sidney Lumet) (1976)

It has been suggested that TV doesn’t create the rage that Network evokes. With profound respect, bull-crap!  Network is a perfect film for the mid 70s and beyond, a great tribute to anyone who has found himself shouting at Mr. Television (at the odd pundit, politician, referee, insurance salesman) from time to time.

Lumet had a wonderful directorial career, but he suffered (if lack of gongs counts) from being first and foremost a director for actors and writers. Network is a grand homage to both: Paddy Chayefsky mines a bit from his script for The Hospital but here, it plays as a dream, the most literate (and verbose) treatment ever in a Yankee film (‘auspicatory’, ‘adamantine’ etc., – extracts below). The text is that which is anathema to the American Dream – the demise of the individual.

And the performances are pure gold (of which, see below). But the feel of the thing, so utterly cynical, is like no other mainstream American film made till then. It paves the way for the nihilism to follow. In that context, Network is genuinely revolutionary.  It is so over-the-top, as to be beautiful – ridiculous, of course, but still beautiful. And in essence, it has virtually come true.


This film has a bunch of very nice performances:

Robert Duvall is sensational as the full-bore corporate hatchet-man. Faye Dunaway is terrific as the ratings-hungry programmer, with an omnivorous appetite for sex, food, the corporate ladder, but mostly ratings. William Holden is wonderful as the old news-hand who tries to hold back the wall of insanity flooding in; he was never better, as mister integrity, in his best role since Sunset Blvd). Beatrice Straight gives one of the best performances in any film, ever, as his loyal but betrayed wife, who bites back eloquently and in a devastating fashion. That performance is very special.

Which brings us to Peter Finch. A cautious, yet charismatic actor, god-knows what casting director saw him as apt for this role, the mad seer – he had the shaggy gravitas, maybe, but he nailed this role as we imagine no-one else could. His combination of middle-aged, dignified, Cassandra-like authority is awesome and inspired. He seems so sane and tranquil one moment; the next, he is authentically barking Mad, which is no mean feat, especially in a film where everyone is mad.

It has a priceless motherlode of lines:

Max Schumacher to Howard Beale: “I said: Take me to the middle of the George Washington Bridge…and the cabbie turns around and says ‘don’t do it buddy…’ did I ever tell you that one before?

Max visualises a new hit: “The Death Hour – great Sunday night show for the whole family – wipe f***king Disney right off the air.”

Howard announces his forthcoming on-air suicide: “So tune in next Tuesday, that should give the public relations people a week to promote the show. It ought to get a hell of a rating out of that. A 50 share – easy.”

Programme Executive Diana Christensen explains: “The American People are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression, they’ve turned-off, shot-up, and they **cked themselves limp and nothing helps…the American people want someone to articulate their rage for them.”

Howard serenely winds-up his regular news-wrap: “So I don’t have any bullshit left…I just ran out of it, you see?

Frank Hackett: “For God’s sake, Diana, we’re talking about putting a manifestly, irresponsible man on national television.”  (Diana nods vigorously).

Howard: “Yeah, I think I’d like to be an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.”

Howard has the call: “You’re on television, dummy…[then explaining away his psychotic episode] “…This is not a psychotic episode, this is a cleansing moment of clarity…I’m imbued with some special spirit…what I think the Hindus call Prahna…”

Hackett confronts Schumacher: “It’s a big, fat, big-titted hit, and I don’t have to waffle around with Ruddy anymore!”

Howard’s peroration: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

Board Report: Hackett: “The fat…had to be flitched-off…this network… may be the towering and most profitable in the entire CCA Empire…” Mr. Jensen: “Very good, Frank, exemplary. Keep it up.

Max’s wife Louise is told the bad news and retorts: “This is…your last roar of passion before you settle into your emeritus years…is that’s what left for me? She gets the winter passion and I get the dotage?  I hurt, don’t you understand, I hurt badly.” [That prick needed telling!]

Mr. Jensen: “Valhalla, Mr. Beale, please, sit downYou have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it!

Howard’s final appeal: “It’s the individual that’s finished…”



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The Castle

June 7, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Comedy Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Dir. Rob Sitch) (1997)

Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) has lived with his family at 3 Highview Crescent Cooloroo from time immemorial (15 years). It’s so handy being next to the airport, in case they ever have to fly anywhere. So when the Barlow Group seeks to compulsorily acquire all homes in the street for an airport expansion, Daryl takes them on.

This delightful Australian comedy is not perfect (i.e., it’s not Love Serenade) and is rough-and-ready at times, but it works due to a winning cast and a robustly funny script. Some of our favourite moments:


  • The hilariously awful submission to the Federal Court by Darryl’s local solicitor, Dennis Denuto (Tiriel Mora): “It’s just the vibe…of the thing…” (we also like it when Dennis, looking tired after a long day, dictates a letter to the solicitors for Barlow Group, and then swivels in his chair to start audio-typing himself – the secretary only comes in on certain days).
  • Darryl’s son-in-law, Con Petropoulous (Eric Bana) says with deadly seriousness: “May I say how disenchanted I am with our legal system.”
  • Dale (Stephen Curry) incessantly quizzes sister Tracey (Sophie Lee) on trivia, e.g.,what films they saw on the plane (Twister, of course!).
  • At a strategy meeting of householders, Darryl asks everyone to stump up to pay Mr Denuto’s modest fee. Farouk (Costas Kilias, who, incidentally, is a barrister in real life!) immediately produces his wallet, drawing forth an admonition from Darryl to “Hold your horses – what is it about wogs and cash?!?“)
  • Lawrence Hammill QC (Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell) rides to the Kerrigan’s rescue, explaining to Darryl and wife Sal (Anne Tenney) that he is a Queen’s Counsel. “Oh,” she exclaims, “You counsel the Queen!”
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Spaghetti Western

June 1, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FOOD, Restaurants, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

111 King William Street, May 2017

Another Italian restaurant in Adelaide? Give us a break! But Spaghetti Western is an attempt at something different, positioning itself neatly between the haute Mediterranean cuisine of, say, an Il Bacaro in Melbourne, and the ho-hum, red-and-white-checked pasta houses that line the streets like weeds. It is also cleverly situated, being near the various laneway bars and watering-holes popping-up on Waymouth Street, just around the corner.

Modelled on a fusion of the mock 19thC horse operas such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (where, incidentally, the best grub the gunslingers usually get is a smear of stinking beans) and Hollywood saloons, this establishment has been fitted out and decorated with real wit. For example, Canaletto prints (see below) and bucolic Italian scenes are pocked with (we assume, fake) bullet holes. Someone has done a Driller Jet Armstrong and daubed a Venetian gondolier onto the dusty Australian street of Russell Drysdale’s “Sofala” – and it works! Sheer genius.


The Varnished Culture dined in the top room where we had good, and enthusiastic service – to our jaundiced world-view, almost a little too enthusiastic (but then the place is still in the first fresh flush of its opening on the 16th May). The menu ranges from retro classics to funky new offerings, which we washed down with some tasty wines, served (appropriately Godfather style), in glass tumblers.


We started with some lovely large pork and veal meatballs, in a rich herbed dressing, and a generous helping of zucchini fries, which were crispy on the outside and moist within but not slimy, nicely accompanied by a tomato-based sauce, As a bonus we enjoyed fried and puffed ravioli with a hint of zesty cheese (P could graze on these for hours), and truth be told, we had had an elegant sufficiency by then. The top room is perfect for functions and we were further sated by the sight of colourful, sumptuous plates whizzing by to a large group on the other side of the room.

But the wintry conditions outside convinced us to forge ahead, and main courses did not disappoint: a superb, herb-and-parmesan-crusted chicken piccata, golden and perched on aromatically-dressed spaghetti of lovely texture, and L liked her slim but rich vegetarian lasagne.  We couldn’t finish but just had to ferry away a divine, creamy slice of Tiramisu, spooned out by the wait staff as though they were tempting the devil himself.


After dinner (and having gone up and down various stairs to spy-out the interesting nooks and crannys, including a cramped but new, clean, state-of-the-art kitchen), The Varnished Culture, adopting more food/wine wobble than John Wayne swagger, sauntered down to the saloon for a ‘phlegm-cutter.’

P had a delicious, flowery, boutique beer brewed at a micro-brewery linked to the restaurant, and L savoured a fine, dry white. We only had three small quibbles: 1) there’s a mini shooting-gallery featuring ducks in a line (our trigger fingers itched, but it was not in operation); 2) we hoped for a dry champagne on offer at bar as an apt drink Après le dîner, and 3) the bar was chilly as a commercial freezer – they need some heat, maybe a friendly-looking fire, down there. 

But these are minor matters and will doubtless be addressed in due course. In any case, we will be back for more, next time we’re in the heart of town. It’s trendy and different, and has good food and service – as Clint Eastwood might say: “You dig?”

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House of Names by Colm Toibin

"I don't know why everyone is SHOUTING..." (Orestes pursued by the Furies - William Adolphe Bouguereau,1862)

Irish novelist Colm Tóibín’s 2016 re-imagining of the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father, Agamemnon,  his return from Troy and the bloody aftermath, starts well. The longest, first part is narrated by Agamemnon’s enraged wife, Clytemnestra, and her ghost narrates the shortest, part five. Clytemnestra’s voice is the best, capturing something of the remote, wild affect of the ancient Greek verse we know:-

“We are all hungry now.  Food merely whets our appetite, it sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us more ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction”.

"Yes son, I am getting a taste for this..." (Clytemnestra after the fact, by John Collier, 1882)

“Yes son, I am getting a taste for this…” (Clytemnestra after the fact, by John Collier, 1882)

Oreste’s story is told in the third person in the second, fourth and final, sixth part. His sister Electra narrates part three. Unlike Clytemnestra’s story, those of her children, Orestes and Electra, are dull and thin. The reason for Orestes’ famous absence from the palace in Argos for some years is ingenious, but the telling of the story of those years is difficult to believe in,  and dull, like Tóibín’s Orestes himself. Upon his return, Orestes sulks about the palace, without even the philosophical musings of a Hamlet to evoke our interest. When we learn how Orestes has been manipulated (although we wonder to what effect), like Orestes, we shrug and move on. Electra, the tragic daughter of myth, has no presence here. Her possible madness is suggested in one good passage set at a feast and then dropped, just as what could have been a chilling and ethereal account of the meeting of Orestes and his mother’s ghost fails because there is no depth to Orestes; no message his mother can give.  No Furies will pursue him. Clytemnestra’s paramour, accomplice and bane, Aegisthus is a smooth, grinning magician. It is of course Tóibín’s prerogative to make pallid weaklings of these towering figures of myth, if he so chooses, but to tell of their lives as they perceive  them is leave the reader outside of the story. The more minor characters are no more effectively realised. Leander, the rebel leader, is a paper hero. His sister Ianthe exists as scenery.

After that first chapter all momentum and tension are dropped, as is any real attempt at ‘Greekness’. Apart from some nice invocations of dawn, we have little feeling of being in an ancient Greek palace or its surrounds. We are reading a flat tale which could have been set anywhere.  Indeed, there are moments reminiscent of scenes set in a Scottish castle. Here Clytemnestra has persuaded Aegisthus to creep past two guards into the room where four of Agamemnon’s men sleep:-

“On one of those nights, having fallen into the deepest sleep, I was woken by the sound of an owl screaming at my window and then by some other sound. I lay listening, hearing footsteps from outside my door and voices and shouts to the guards that they must protect me with their lives. …Then Orestes was rushed into my room by two men.

‘What has happened?’ I asked.

‘The four men who came with you were found in their own blood, murdered by their guards.’ one of the men said.

‘Their guards?’

‘Do not worry.  The guards have been dispatched.’

I looked out and saw the bodies being carried along the corridor outside and then I returned to the room and spoke softly to Orestes to distract him. When Electra came…..she whispered to me that she had spoken to the elders, who assured her that this had been a feud over cards or dice between the guards and the four men. They had been drinking.

‘The guards’ faces were all badged with blood,’ she said, ‘and so were their daggers. They must have been drunk, they will do no more drinking now, no more killing either.”

Back to Denmark. Orestes is debating whether or not to act:-

“His father, it struck him would never have done nothing. He remembered his father’s strong voice and tone of command. If his father were here, he might move warily, but he would never stay in his room out of fear. He would take action.” 

And note, that is Tóibín’s Orestes telling us that Agamemnon was a man of action. “His father, it struck him would never have done nothing.”  Here is Aeschylus’s Chorus (Robert Fagles’ translation) telling us the same thing –

“And once he slipped his neck in the strap of Fate,

his spirit veering black, impure, unholy,

once he turned he stopped at nothing,

seized with the frenzy

blinding driving to outrage-

wretched fury, cause of all our grief?”

Perhaps this is unfair. Tóibín’s Orestes is simple-minded and his Agamemnon insipid. But at no time do we feel this Greek terror and fury, the pathos and pity that Tóibín must have aspired to invoke.

Scotland, Denmark Ireland; We’re anywhere but mythical Greece. The marching about of Leander and his men and Orestes’s intermittent, useless involvement could all be set in Wallace’s Scotland, Hamlet’s  Denmark, Ireland during the Troubles or Greece during the second world war.  But this fiction does not have the gravitas to make the reader pause to think, “Ah! this is universal”. The gods are gone. Nothing replaces them. Zest and vigour and pathos and pity and terror seem to have died at Troy, far, far from this Argos.

Not around here (image by Panagiotis Botsis)

Not around here (image by Panagiotis Botsis)

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May 29, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, MUSIC, Opera, OPERA, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WAGNER |

At the Met (2013) (DVD 2014)

Laughter, cries of fury and howls of anguish rang out intertwined and tangled, blood flowed everywhere, nails dug bloodily into fat flesh. With a feeling of sorrow and depression Klingsor awoke for a few minutes. His eyes, wide open, stared at the bright gap in the wall. The faces of the embattled women still lingered, and he recognized and named many of them…in a hoarse voice, still caught up in the dream, he said: “Children, stop it! You’re lying you know, you’re deceiving me, you know; it’s not each other you should be tearing to pieces but me, me!”” Hermann Hesse, Klingsor’s Last Summer (1920).

To celebrate the Maestro’s 204th birthday, and in anticipation of a concertised version of his last great work (in Sydney in August featuring Jonas Kaufmann), the Richard Wagner Society of SA screened the Met’s beautifully photographed 2013 production, as designed by François Girard, conducted (from his memory!) by Daniele Gatti, with a dream lead cast, plus a fine choral support.

'Oops, I didn't know it was the closed season...'

‘Oops, I didn’t know it was the closed season…’

The Varnished Culture thinks of Parsifal as Wagner’s weirdest work, a scourged, suppurating wound from which the plasma of his life, his work, his various characters and characteristics, his cosmic, symbolic and mythological luggage, and his tendency to self-deification, spill and combine in a mighty torrent of feeling (if not meaning). We seem to have a Siegfried-Lohengrin figure in Parsifal (the pure and incorruptible dummy, who learns his name and eventually, all about empathy and compassion), an Alberich in Klingsor (a mad magician with a gift for appropriation the magnitude of his creator’s, the former stocking-up on relics, the Maestro on religious mythical symbols), and a sort-of Tristan-Tannhäuser in Amfortas, who falls from love and gains absolution in the last reel (though, in his case, not as a tree). And this divinely insane concoction plays out to some of Wagner’s most gorgeous, economical, and apposite music.

That music started at a somewhat stately pace, with such delicacy that one expected Gatti to be wielding sugar tongs rather than a baton, but the slow tempo suited Act I’s static and expository mood. The sets and choreography (by, respectively, Michael Levine and Carolyn Choa) were, to our mind, perfect: a ravaged, parched, treeless landscape with a huge backdrop of weather and neat, fragile figures adjacent a small, clear stream, the crowds choreographed in an aesthetic, even moving manner.

Act I belongs to Gurnemanz (René Pape), Kundry (Katarina Dalayman) and Amfortas (Peter Mattei): their vocals were superb, virtually flawless (and the men were terrific players as well, Pape magisterial as the old knight and Mattei tormenting us with an astounding portrayal of genuine torment, a man wracked with guilt and incurable by men.)  Kundry has a somewhat thankless role, particularly in Act 1, but her eye-rolling needed some palliative balsam after a while. Parsifal is very passive, almost an onlooker at this stage, apart from his kill-crazy swan rampage, and with everything sans wings (Gurnemanz’s sorry tale of the fall of the Knights of Monsalvat, the theft of the spear of Longinus, the revolting, weeping wound to Amfortas, and the imperilment to the Grail and its sangue réale) going straight over his head.

Then comes the volcanic activity of Act II, where blood and bleeding co-star as a turgid jet, a bottomless lake, an unholy bed; when our lad storms Klingsor’s castle (much like Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Our novice carves his way through errant knights and resists the prost…sorry, ‘flower maidens‘ (whose blood-stained slips recall, in an icky way, Malcolm McLaren’s “Madame Butterfly”), eventually confronting Klingsor, and depriving him of the holy spear. Evgeny Nikiitin as the necromancer is very nasty (and very good), his grounds and his form drenched in blood and guarded by pikes. Before this climactic showdown, however, Kundry comes into her own, and her exchange with Parsifal is earth-shattering.

'Garden, Castle, Bordello...'

‘Garden, Castle, Bordello…’

This exchange could be the ne plus ultra of Wagner’s preternatural art. Despite some impatience with Parsifal here (Dennis Forman, in his funny, wise and irreverent Good Opera Guide, refers in this context to the hero’s “impenetrable stupidity”), his resistance of Kundry’s brilliant tactics, encompassing tropes from Venus to Freud, is simply astonishing – arguably divine, in fact. (Wagner outdoes himself here, his invention flirting with taste and decency so as almost to blaspheme.)  Parsifal reacts to her wiles by singing of the temptation and anguish of Amfortas (and Kaufmann uncorks the bottle and reveals his vocal power and acting charisma – he is an opera ‘rock star’, and we look forward to hearing him live – our Society’s President assures us that he really is the goods) – see an extract below.

Despite some (these days, inevitable) directorial flourishes that would have the Maestro spinning in his crypt, by the end of Act III, when Wagner closes the circle on a remarkable drama (and of course, his life’s work), one feels completely drained, bled white, yet relieved at something approaching a kind, even happy, ending, and filled with admiration for participating. As his great line portends (our banner for this site’s Wagner pieces): “Be whole, unsullied and absolved!”

The Fool on the Hill

The Fool on the Hill


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The Man on a Donkey

Christ Walking on the Waters by Sergius von Klever

By H. F. M. Prescott (1952)

David Foster Wallace started his speech “This is Water” with that old but salutary saw,“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?'”

In 16th century Britain and Europe, the Christian religion was like water to fish. To doubt the existence of God would be equivalent to doubting gravity today. And that religiosity is the medium of Prescott’s 1952 novel, The Man on a Donkey, now reprinted in a handsome Apollo paperback.  Although faith was as air in Henry VIII’s England, belief in niceties of dogma were disputed unto death, as so they are in this 716 page epic which mixes fact with fiction and historical figures with imagined, at the time of Henry’s break with Rome and dissolution of the monasteries.

The fictional heretic priest Gib Dawe swings restlessly between dark consciousness of his own mortal sin and righteous indignation at the doctrinal errors of others which are, to him, as damning. He moves restlessly back and forth across England, preaching his version of the new faith to the unsaved and fleeing the consequence of his fall from grace – his afflicted son, Wat. He has spirituality but he lacks faith. “For now he knew that though God might save every other man, Gib Dawe He could not save. Once he had seen his sin as a thing that clung close as his shadow clung to his heels; now he knew that it was the very stuff of his soul. Never could he, a leaking bucket not to be mended, retain God’s saving Grace, however freely outpoured. Never could he, that heavy lump of sin, do any other than sink, and sink again, however often Christ, walking on the waves, should stretch His hand to lift and bring him safe. He did not know that though the bucket be leaky it matters not at all when it is deep in the deep sea, and the water both without it and within.”

Robert Aske, Leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace, an uprising against Henry’s ecclesiastical reforms, swings too in the end, dying a hideous death, suspended in chains high above the ground. This is not a spoiler – Aske was a historical figure. Having one eye he was half-blind, but Prescott’s fictional Julian Savage is totally blind when it comes to her love for Robert Aske. Her childish adoration of him is charmingly captured –

“‘Do they call you Robert?’

‘Sundays and Saints Days,’ he told her, ‘but working days it’s Robin’.

”Silly!’ she cried delightedly, loving him very much, and having quite forgotten her awe of him.  She began to laugh and dabbed her nose against his, and put her arms round his neck meaning to kiss him.”

– and never relents. It’s a blind reverence in the face of the one thing Julian knows – that the worst will happen someday, a belief which she quite reasonably holds in light of her early years and her position as the younger sister of the nasty Margaret (Margaret was a real  person, but perhaps not really the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Buckingham). The one almost happy period of Julian’s life is spent at Marrick Priory, but of course, that has to end. Prescott has fictionalised the life of the real Christabel Cowper, the Prioress of Marrick Priory (it will be helpful to the reader to look at the plan at the back of the book) which Henry ultimately dissolved. Christabel is another shrewd, ambitious woman with an eye for luxury. Under her stewardship, the Priory thrives and the nuns live much more comfortably, they are sure, than  the White Nuns, St Bernard’s Ladies, of the inferior priory across the River Swale.

Prescott’s Henry is a sadistic liar, gross and golden. “Inside the Privy Chamber the King stood before the fire; he wore velvet the colour of flame, his feet were set wide apart, his head was bent and his chin sank into roll upon roll of bristled fat above the gold-stitched collar. His bulk, blocking out the firelight on that darkly overcast forenoon seemed enormous”. He outlives three of this wives in the timespan of this tale, each of them dying off stage, two leaving daughters whom he treats with scant regard. Cromwell is the real villain of the piece, but seen as an eminence grise, distant, glimpsed occasionally and all the scarier for it.

The Man on a Donkey is an excellent historical novel, imbued with the sense of the time and of our predecessors’ earthier lives. It is psychologically adept, although the motives of some historical characters – notably Lords Darcy, Suffolk and Norfolk – remain unclear to us. The second half of the story can be perplexing to those not already familiar with the history of Henry’s reign. The various factional uprisings, the religious schisms and fickle treacheries are not easy to follow. It does not help that it seems that every man is called Robert, Ned, Will or Wat and every woman Julian, Nan, Anne,  Meg or Bess. But Prescott’s prose is lucid as the water of the Swale, and captures the enigmatic quality of these events which are now so strange to us. The mundaneity of life is there – and the mystic – the latter often via the agency of the mad serving-woman Malle, whose gnomic utterances shadow Aske’s fortunes against the light of her visons of Jesus and his presence. “He that though winds, waters and stars, had made of Himself a dying man.  But at last, as if it were a great head of water that had poured itself with noise, and splashing, and white foam leaping into a pool, and now; rising higher, covered its own inflow, and so ran silent, tough no less strong – now they were lifted up and borne lightly as a fisherman’s floats, and as stilly.”

(Image by Niko Pirosmani)

(Image by Niko Pirosmani)

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