Saturday, 27 February 2010

Shopping and space

I bribed myself to go shopping. If I forced myself into clothes shops, tried on jeans and actually purchased a pair, I would allow myself to revisit Nottingham Contemporary's current exhibition, Star City: The Future under Communism.

Even with the bribe, it was difficult. However I suddenly found two pairs of trousers that would do. My mood lightened as I climbed the short hill to the gallery.

It wasn't my first visit to Star City. I popped in on Light Night, the very first day it was opening, but didn't stay long. I wanted a range of Light Night experiences - and found them in the jitterbugging skeletons, a candlelit church, a free Schumann recital, giant insects in the castle grounds and fencers in the Long Gallery of the castle itself. Most of the Light Night events were for one night only. I knew I could return to Nottingham Contemporary.

The exhibition itself is a puzzle. Perhaps this is as it should be since many people of my generation and older are puzzled by their own reaction to the loss of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall. We knew a great deal was wrong with the Soviet Union - I grew up aware of the show trials, the events in Hungary and saw the first black-and-white footage of Soviet tanks arriving in Prague. I haven't forgotten the name of Jan Palach.

Yet while the the smart-suited bureaucrats and party officials made speeches that betrayed their followers' ideals and their own lack of conviction, there seemed to be another Soviet Union composed of the dreams of many who wanted a different, better life. Those dreams - of comradeship, freedom from want, real involvement in the government of a country, hope for the future - still seem worth preserving. I don't believe that I live in the best system there will ever be, nor that freedom to shop is a major test of liberty.

A couple of the more recent works at the gallery seemed to equate consumerism with democracy. I wasn't sure what point Diango Hernandez was making by using elderly kitchen appliances to vibrate to a speech by Castro in morse code. I had a slight suspicion that my reaction - "I like the look of that blender" - wasn't quite what the artist hoped. But other exhibits let me remember and reflect.

The Soviet posters of the space age recalled the excitement I felt on hearing that Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space and the thrill in learning just two years later that a woman, Valentina Tereshkova, had also become an astronaut. I didn't particularly want to travel in space when I grew up but I liked the sense that it was possible. The posters had the bright excitement of Janet and John books or Sunday school displays, infused with the glamour of space and Cyrillic script.

It was disappointing, therefore, to find that the Light Night opening featured two pretend Soviet astronauts at the entrance to the gallery. They played at space walks, called everyone "comrade" with exaggerated accents and treated the whole thing as a grand joke, as though going into space was nothing and seeking comradeship an absurd archaism. I wasn't angry but something inside me was hurt. Perhaps I still cherish a lost dream after all.

Elsewhere the exhibition was more complex and harder to put in words. I was reminded of Leon Rosselson's song "Wo sind die Elefanten?" which can convey its sense of loss only through an absurd sentence from a German language course. The gallery had several huge exhibits but I spent most time with a series of small illustrations by Ilya Kabakov, produced in the late Soviet era and called "The Flying Komarov." These pictures, which started in a cupboard and moved on to a world in which most people flew, seem to speak of hope for liberty and the importance of dreams. They allow space for the viewer too - not outer space but inner space to interpret and question.

I haven't given Star City all the time it needs. I'll be there again, wondering what to make of it all. I can drop in again and again - that's the benefit of a free gallery.

I'll go on thinking of the dreams we build about other countries and our own. It's not the dreams that are wrong. But across the world there are leaders and would-be leaders who twist those dreams to a hateful shape for the sake of riches and power.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The limits of language

I once heard Harold Pinter read. It must have been in the early 1980s. The occasion was a CND benefit and it took place, I think, in Kensington Town Hall. Numerous poets were reading and Harold Pinter's name came some way down the list. However, as soon as I entered the hall I realised that the Longford clan was out in support. I wasn't sure whether they were backing CND or their new son-in-law but they were very noticeable, perhaps because of the aristocratic confidence with which they took possession of their area of the hall. I watched with curiosity. I didn't recognize Pinter himself. I rather expected him to look and sound like a character in one of his plays - perhaps Aston in The Caretaker.

Plenty of poets read before Pinter. It was a difficult audience - more interested in nuclear disarmament than in poetry - and the hall itself made it hard to achieve intimate effects, though Ivor Cutler drew the audience together with his surreal wit. By the time Pinter's turn came, about half the audience were sneaking glances at their watches.

I hadn't realised Pinter had been an actor but he knew how to command an audience. His voice surprised me with its richness and I was startled by his choice of reading. After a number of poets reading their own work, Pinter chose to introduce and read John Donne's "Nocturnal upon St. Lucie's Day." I think it may be the best reading of a poem I have ever heard. It also changed my view of Harold Pinter. I realised that this playwright, most famous for his pauses, had a deep love and understanding of the music and meaning of language.

I haven't seen many Pinter plays so when the opportunity came, through this blog, to see A Pair of Pinters at the Guildhall in Derby, I couldn't resist the opportunity. I had two worries: were my expectations too high? and would my back injury prevent me from concentrating? I chose a matinée perfomance as the discomfort worsens in the evening.

I knew I was right to attend before a word was spoken. I was not just comfortable in my seat - and that's become an important consideration in the past five weeks. I felt the kind of comfort that comes from seeing actors who are secure in their roles, the production and with one another - and who communnicate that security to the audience. I sat back in my chair and prepared to be unsettled.

Two men talked, joked, and argued while waiting for a message from a third, who did not appear. The echoes of Waiting for Godot were unmissable at first - The Dumb Waiter was written two years after the London premiere of Beckett's play - but Pinter's characters have less freedom than Beckett's. Ben and Gus are enclosed in a windowless room. They may be disturbed by the series of jobs they are required to perform but they never question the obedience required. At most Gus (James Holmes) complains and Ben (Joe Tucker) betrays his anxiety by threatening Gus. It would be possible to suggest that the play means more than it says or shows but I think the best way of enjoying it is to enter the world of the play, laugh at the jokes and to let the memory of it resonate later.

After the interval comes the much later play, A Kind of Alaska, set in another enclosed room. There are no mirrors and presumably, once again, no windows since Deborah, the central character, cannot see her reflection. But while the characters in The Dumb Waiter inhabit a violent world, kindness and love cause pain in the later play. Deborah has woken after a 29-year sleep - she suffers from Encephalitis. In her mind she hovers between childhood and adolescence but and cannot quite understand that her younger sister is suddenly middle-aged. Julia Tarnoky is luminous and heart-breaking as Deborah, stretching out urgent, awkward hands and evoking the lost promise of her teenage years. Simon Molloy and Eunice Roberts as Hornby and Pauline are gently self-controlled as they try to work out how much reality the newly-woken Deborah can bear.

I was struck in these plays by the small range of language with which Pinter does so much. Every word counts and repeated words and phrases add depth and complexity. But both plays also reach through language to areas for which there are no words, for which the immediate human response may be a prickle on the spine or the ache behind the eyes when tears are unshed.

Thank you, Esther Richardson, for posting on my blog to offer tickets - and for directing these plays.

Monday, 15 February 2010

The purpose of the Pantheon

For six weeks I've been too busy to blog. I've a number of excuses: work took over my life, my computer keyboard started playing tricks on me, and I slipped on black ice causing painful damage to my back.

Perhaps these are merely excuses. I may not have blogged but I found time - even when I should have slept - to keep reading Les Misérables. It gripped me in the way books caught and held me in my teens. As I neared the end of the final volume, I wasn't merely reading it on trains and buses, and in bed at night. I was reading while cooking and even while walking down the road. On one occasion I was so caught up in the story that I left a suitcase on a train. (Fortunately the helpful station staff ensured that the suitcase and I were reunited.)

I'm not sure what was so gripping about Les Misérables. A few years ago I tried to re-read it in the old translation I'd read in my early teens and was soon bogged down in the heavy prose. Reading in French should have been harder but I followed the advice to stay away from dictionaries and the story came to life through Hugo's words. Of course, every so often I would check a tricky word or phrase - but how bland the English seemed next to the French, and how untranslateable. A neatly-turned phrase loses so much in translation. There's no equivalent for "amourette pour lui, passion pour elle" or "Parfois insurrection, c'est résurrection" that echoes and dances as the original does.

Of course, reading in French demanded an unfamiliar level of concentration. My French O-level of many years ago didn't demand so high a level of expertise, although we were expected to read Camus's L'Etranger and easy extracts from older works. But the language alone wouldn't have held me for through three volumes and more than 1500 pages. And I already knew the story from that first reading and various film and TV versions. But I had missed so much.

In French, Hugo is sometimes funny, sometimes angry, and frequently moves me to tears. There was much I'd missed on that early reading: the chapter in praise of "le mot de Cambronne", for instance. The word attributed to Cambronne, spoken as he was taken prisoner at the end of the gruelling battle of Waterloo, is "merde". (The nearest English equivalent would be "shit.") Hugo dedicates a whole chapter to fulsome praise of the acuity and rhetorical brilliance of this word. My Victorian translation was too delicate to tell me what the word was, offering a myserious dash instead. Moreover, as a teenager I was insufficiently used to 19th century novels to realise how different French and British attitudes were. Hugo thinks it necessary to explain - at length - just why Cosette and Marius (aged 16 and 21) haven't had sex, even though they have met one another every evening for a whole six weeks without a chaperone.

Cosette and Marius are young, silly and more conventional than they realise. Hugo knows that and at times he invites the reader to laugh at them. I never found them as interesting as the wilder characters, Eponine and Gavroche, nor as sympathetic as the numerous elderly characters who are frequently at the centre of the story. Perhaps my age is showing.

What startled me most was Hugo the revolutionary. I remembered the depiction of the failed rising of 5th- 6th June, 1832 from film versions. It was exciting but not particularly important - part of the lead-up to the journey through the Paris sewers. But Hugo takes the rising seriously and asks the readers to consider both why it was necessary and why it failed.

Hugo believed in revolutions - not all revolutions but those on the side of progress. He discusses when revolutions are necessary. His characters tear up paving stones, seize vehicles, grab weapons and barricades the streets of Paris. Hugo may like individual kings and royalists - as human beings - but he believes a republic is necessary and that the royalist cause must, for the sake of freedom and justice, end in defeat. He is furious - far angrier than Dickens - at the ill-treatment of children who are left to roam the streets and starve. He sees that the poor are suffering. He's appalled by inhumanity. He wants a better world and understands why sometimes people might decide to die or kill so that the future can be happier and more just.

Les Misérables is also a love letter to the lost streets of Paris. Hugo wrote most of Les Misérables from exile. He knew that the dangerous, dirty and loveable Paris he described was being ripped apart by Napoléon III and his architect Haussmann. In place of the familiar mediaeval mazes, whose squalor Hugo condemned, they constructed new, broad boulevards that welcomed shoppers and armies and were harder to barricade.

Hugo wrote most of his novel during his 19-year exile from France. He didn't return until six years after the first (Belgian) publication of Les Misérables. His return was greeted by celebrations in the streets. He was now a Parisien. He died in Paris at the age of 83. His will set out his wishes for his funeral. His body was to be carried to Pere Lachaise on a pauper's hearse and buried in the part of the cemetery reserved for paupers. The government decided otherwise. The church of Saint Genevieve, otherwise known as the Panthéon, was restored to its revolutionary secular state so that Hugo could be buried there. Hugo's body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and the pauper's hearse was escorted down the new, broad streets by senators, academicians and a military procession. Most of Paris seems to have turned out to watch. There were no riots - the spectacle of Hugo's funeral was carefully ordered.

The account of Hugo's funeral, which I discovered in Colin Jones' biography of Paris, has made me reconsider the Panthéon - a place that has puzzled me since my second visit last year. There's something odd about this commemoration of greatness. Even revolution is solidified into marble. The Panthéon seems to offer the rulers of France a means in which they can attempt to curb dissent. The belated reburial of the elder Alexandre Dumas, like the recent memorial to Toussaint l'Ouverture, insists that France has recovered from the racism and cruelties of its colonial past - but I'm not sure that all French citizens would agree.

Recently President Sarkozy has attempted to move the remains of
Camus to the Panthéon. The account of Hugo's funeral has set me wondering what Sarkozy's agenda is - and why the demand to own the bones of the great persists. I can show my love of Victor Hugo by reading his books (Quatre-Vingt Treize and L'Homme Qui Rit) come next. And perhaps, if I'm lucky, I'll go back to Paris soon to explore what is left of the Paris of Les Misérables: not that cold monument the Panthéon but the lively warmth of the nearby rue Mouffetard.

But before I start on another Hugo volume, I'm back to blogging. And, in an attempt to improve my inadequate Italian, I've started on Pinocchio, that cruel and painful book for children which is quite unlike the cute neatness of the Disney film.