Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: review

Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy
There have been plenty of books about the heroes of The Iliad; films, too, as we watched Brad Pitt buffing up for his role as the best fighter of the Greeks in Troy. Two recent books have made excellent stabs at retellings of various myths to do with the war: my favourite was Barry Unsworth's The Songs of the Kings, which, if I had time, I would definitely be re-reading. David Malouf's Ransom was also eerie and brilliant. Madeline Miller's thrown her helmet into the ring with The Song of Achilles, her debut novel.

Miller tells the tale from the point of view of Patroclus, whom she very much views as Achilles' lover (rather than as a beloved heroic companion. The debate is on.) I've reviewed it for The Sunday Telegraph - check out what I thought about it here.

I'm currently reading a new translation of The Iliad to review it for the same paper, so hold on to your horse-hair helmets for that one...

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Drive!: Better than snail porridge? Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan star

Gosling: expressive nostrils
If Drive were a nest and critical praise was a bower bird, it would be the sort of nest that any self-respecting bower bird lady would love to hang out in, so becrusted with baubles would it be. Ryan Gosling, they say, is a knightly, existential warrior whose feline beauty is belied by his ability to kick people's heads in. Carey Mulligan, they say, can make eloquent gestures like Heston Blumenthal can make snail porridge. And it has cars in it!

So being the sort of person that I am (somewhere in the Womack vaults there lies a videotape of my, I think, fifth birthday, shouting ecstatically: "Cars! Just what I wanted! Cars!", although of course they were not real cars, only models, but still), I thought I'd go and see it for myself.

Gosling (I just can't help thinking about little baby geese) plays a man with no name and a really snazzy jacket with a golden scorpion on the back [warning: this scorpion is symbolic]  that he never cleans, even when he's eventually covered in blood and oil and presumably lots of other fluids I have no wish to know about. At the beginning we see him in his moonlighting role as a getaway driver. The scenes are enjoyably tense, with Gosling remaining as serene as a Greek statue as he evades police - not by zipping really fast around Los Angeles, but by cleverly anticipating their moves and sliding into hiding places just when he has to. His final move - he has rules, and he sticks very close to them - in the getaway is breathtaking in its simplicity and audacity. There's a nice, bassy soundtrack too.

He has two day jobs ("You look tired," says his boss at one point), one as a stuntman and one as a mechanic, and lives in a flat where he likes to tinker (no, that's not a euphemism), and has quite large, expressive nostrils.  He's doing all right, as far as nameless beautiful stuntmen go, he's pretty much got the nameless beautiful stuntman biscuit. If only he didn't find a love interest in the comely shape of Carey Mulligan, his neighbour, who he helps out with a car problem and carries home her shopping, which is how we know he is a good person; we also know that he is tender and sweet because he carries her son to bed TWICE. Wow! That's sensitivity for you. Their relationship is almost wordless - in fact I'd be interested to know how many words Gosling speaks in the film – and whilst it was all very suavely shot, I did feel that the character setups were overlong, as there are only so many shots of people looking longingly at each other whilst the sun comes through a window and a child looks adorable that one can take, otherwise you think you're in a Boden catalogue, which will not do.

Trouble comes - of course - when Mulligan's imprisoned husband comes home; he owes money to some rather nasty chaps, so Gosling the crusader offers to help him out. And it goes wrong - horribly wrong. (So the moral of the story, kids, is don't help anyone, ever, or you'll end up in very big trouble.) There is finely-wrought tension through the entire film, contrasted with the few moments of light, which reminded me of the adage in Homer - that the gods have two jars, one full of good things and one of bad; to some they dole out only bad, but to others a mixture. Not just good things, you see. There are some great, A History of Violence style scenes of inventive killings, too.

The film is slick, sleek, like a dolphin's wet back in the sea. Gosling is indeed preternaturally good, seeming almost divine, a sort of compromised Galahad. His closest living relative might be Philip Marlowe. Mulligan is lovely too, all achey and trembly and yearningy. The ending, with its lack of respect for teleology, may annoy some and please others: for me it was rather good, since it expressed the rough edges of life. So all in all, whilst I can't quite bring myself to rave about it in the vein of most critics, I would say that this is certainly more fun than eating snail porridge, even when cooked by Heston Blumenthal.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly: Love, lesbians and a parrot called Birdle

Connolly: rippling
Cressida Connolly's long-awaited debut novel (she has written short stories and non-fiction before) is a charming dream, a study of lives, loves  (and lesbians). It follows three generations of women, all sprightly, intelligent and unconventional. Connolly has a great gift for the subtle nuances of character: all her women are powerfully individual and real. There are moments of extreme tension (as when a snooty sister-in-law hides a letter), dashes of comedy, and flashes of tenderness and poignancy: hidden relationships, broken loves. Living as long as any of them is the psychopathic Birdle, a grumpy parrot whose wilfulness and strange charm mirrors the lives of the women themselves. Her sense of place is acute, and her appreciation of the power of nature is paramount. There is a deep understanding of humanity here, and a calm wiseness (is that a word?) and sparky wit that illuminates everything. It's one of my novels of the year so far.

I was present when Connolly finished her novel: 'it's far too long,' she said. 'Shall I cut half of it?' Thank goodness she didn't - we'd be much worse off without this lilting, limpid and rippling work of fiction.
Read about Cressida Connolly's launch party here.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Jasper Conran at Somerset House: Champagne and Misfits

Richard E Grant as Withnail: fashion icon
For some reason I associate Somerset House with the phrase "public records"; I'm sure that they used to keep wills and suchlike there. It always resonated rather dully in my mind. Not any more, it seems. On Saturday I was present at the beginning of London Fashion Week for the Jasper Conran show. It was probably the first fashion show that I have been to, ever, (apart from one, at University, which consisted of my better-looking friends waltzing up and down a stage looking faintly embarrassed whilst the rest of us cheered and threw things from below). I have not had a career change; I will not be eschewing dusty books for the glamour of the catwalk (well, not yet anyway, unless Burberry want to make me their new face); I was a guest of the Lewis sisters (actress Daisy and artist Lily), and we had front row seats, putting me next to Kirsty Allsop, the Princess of Property. I promise you that none of us said "location, location, location" at any point in the day. Also in the Lewis party was Nathan Stewart-Jarret, who plays Curtis in the, erm, feisty programme Misfits, which is like Heroes but with ASBOs. Literally. Oh, and Richard E Grant (you know, the actor chap) was in the front row on the other side, as was Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman and lots of fashiony people (including someone wearing a gold necklace that looked like it came from the tomb of Tutankhamun.) I however looked more like Withnail, and certainly felt like him.

Since I don't know very much about clothes, or fashion, I can tell you that the models looked as if they had been assembled from a Meccano kit, their arms hanging in deathly stillness by their sides whilst their shoulder blades jutted out backwards as if they were supercilious swans about to take flight. None of them looked very happy, although I refrained from shouting "Cheer up love!" (although the photographers seemed to take great delight in shouting things at the models – what they were shouting I could never work out.)  I would still quite happily have gone for a drink with most of them – should any of them have been capable of going for a drink. The clothes were swishly ravishing, flowing behind and around the models in sleek and stylish folds. Some kind of weirdly posturing version of Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams pounded out. I wonder what relevance it had to the show? It was quite a slowed-down version, and as far as I remember (though my memory is not that reliable on the point) it was a man's voice.

Everything was so elegant and clean and, well, gracious that I almost didn't stuff myself with a bagel and champagne afterwards – at least there was nobody else eating in the vicinity – but thirst and hunger won the day. I didn't meet a single model, alas; though perhaps that was a good thing.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Meg Rosoff Interview in The Daily Telegraph

I've interviewed the excellent author Meg Rosoff for The Daily Telegraph. The piece is up on the interweb HERE.

Friday, 9 September 2011

A S Byatt's Ragnarok: Review in The New Humanist

Odin: A big reader
It's always a pleasure to read something by the magnificent A S Byatt, and her Canongate retelling of the Norse myth Ragnarok certainly would suit Odin himself (pictured) for reading matter, although Thor, as played in the recent film, might probably be a little puzzled by it. Read my review of it in The New Humanist, here.

Return of the Party Season: Cressida Connolly and Global Party

Cressida Connolly: prams in hall make good novels
August has mooched past in its far-from-augustan way, in its now customary widow's weeds. But now September approaches, and brings with it a bumper harvest of parties, starting with the launch of Cressida Connolly's first novel, My Former Heart. It's a lovely book (I'm currently only halfway through, but a review will poke its nose out soon) and has already been receiving lots of acclaim. Her husband Charles mentioned Cyril Connolly's famous maxim about prams in the hall being enemies of art, and said that this was a book which couldn't have happened without prams in the hall - three, in fact (and all three pram-products were visible: the lovely Hudson sisters Violet and Nell, and their brother Gabriel, although none of them spent very much time in the hall.) Plenty of literary people thronged the Chelsea confines, including Wyatt biographer Nicola Shulman, Literary Review's beloved editor-at-large Jeremy Lewis, (who has himself written a biography of Cyril Connolly, and was sporting this season's must-have green trousers, as noted before), and much-loved Literary Review Contributing Editor, explorer Sara Wheeler. I was wearing black tie, and was luckily not mistaken for a waiter (very much).

Lee from Blue
The reason I was penguined up was that it was then off to the Natural History Museum for the launch of Global Party, which will see 80 parties around the world celebrated on the same day in aid of several charities. The beginning was a little like the sort of psychedelic Sixties dream that you see in The Avengers sometimes, where there are lots of flashing lights and you're not really sure who you are or where you're going or indeed what you are doing in the Natural History Museum being corralled up an escalator into a womb-like structure whilst a man (in top hat and tails) shouts at you: "This is going to change your life!" I suppose we must have experienced some sort of rebirth as we came out of the escalator, for there waiting for us were a Glee tribute band who yelled "you all look wonderful!" as we went past. Herded, like well-dressed cattle, we were pressed with drinks and led past lots and lots of thin Russian girls waiting demurely in a line to have their photographs taken – they all turned out to be models. I wonder if you can rent them by the foot? How much is a foot of models? There was about ten foot worth there, and they were all about as tall as two John Bercows, or if it helps you to imagine it better, about a third of the length of Brutus the monster crocodile, with whom they certainly shared a smile.

Somehow, a little disorientated but much refreshed by champagne, we came out of the miles and miles of corridors (where I did see a dodo, which was possibly the best thing that ever happened to me, although of course it was dead. I feel that there ought to be some serious consideration of redirection of funds into reviving the dodo, because I feel that the world would be a much better place if only we had them wandering around. They could become quite a feature – "have you seen the Psmiths recently? Their new dodo's just laid, they'll save you an egg if you like." And then we could all discuss the problems of dodo training, and how difficult it is to find dodo sitters, and so on. Anyway. So there we all were, minding our own business, in an enormous hall underneath a dinosaur. There was some confusion over where we were meeting, as some of our party thought that the head of the dinosaur was in fact its tail, but nevertheless we managed to find each other. There was plenty of food, although it was very difficult to see, as the light was red; therefore one had to be very careful when eating as if you weren't lucky you might find yourself chomping down on sashimi when you were convinced you'd picked up a plate of lamb. There was a cocktail that tasted like alcoholic lemonade. Several proud-looking Indian women wandered absently through the throng; the crocodile of models wound its way around; I think Bryan Ferry played at some point although it was difficult to hear. Also there was a dinosaur in the way, and I don't know if you've ever tried to watch a concert through a dinosaur, but – well. It was all thoroughly enjoyable, and we were even given a goody bag, which contained not cake and marbles, but a compact disc and a short film about a hotel. Possibly the highlight of the evening (apart from the dodo, of course) was when we spotted Duncan - no, sorry, Lee, from dodo-like boyband Blue – or are they still together? – who looked rather sweet, and much smaller in real life, naturally, which, if you think about how small he looks on TV, is actually quite small. Also I thought I saw Naomi Campbell but it turned out it wasn't, although apparently Katie Melua was there too, although since I don't know who she is, I wouldn't have recognised her if I had poured my alcoholic lemonade all over her. Right, I must go, the dodo needs feeding.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Booker Prize Shortlist: Are the judges out to get me?

Sophocles: Should be a Booker Judge
I think the Booker Prize judges are out to get me. Some of you may remember that I threatened to leave the country if A D Miller's Snowdrops got on the short list. I have no beef with A D Miller. I am sure that he is a very nice man, and I am sure that his novel will be enjoyed by many who like that sort of thing. But whether it deserves to be on the shortlist of what is meant to be the best novels of the year is another matter entirely. I have long since ceased to feel angry about the list. What's the point, after all? Perhaps it all comes down to taste, in the end, and who can argue about taste?

But the problem is, it isn't just about taste. There are objective criteria which can be applied to books to judge their quality. And it doesn't seem as if the judges have applied any criteria at all to this list, other than their own taste. In the Athenian festivals of tragedy, you wouldn't put up a satyr play on the same level as Sophocles. But that is effectively what these judges are doing. One can bang on and on about who the judges are – but I don't think that necessarily matters. It just seems as if they are trying to make some sort of statement about the state of books. But whatever it is, it's rather confused.

It makes the Booker (sorry, the Man Booker, as we are bound to call it) look silly. How can it be taken seriously as an internationally renowned literary prize when it allows a paper-thin thriller on? Where is the richness, the nuance? Giles Coren has written a piece about Julian Barnes in The Times, suggesting that Barnes is too good to win the Booker Prize. And sadly, it looks like he's right.

Perhaps the only way to succeed now is to write dross. Perhaps we are entering a world where 'content' is all, where style, substance and meaning come second to immediacy and thrills. Perhaps the Booker Prize next year will see "Shit My Dad Says 2" and the Beano Annual on it. After all, they're both entertaining, aren't they? And that's all that matters, to be entertained.

So I shall be leaving the country. I'll be going back to the past. If you need me I'll be with Sophocles.

An edited version of this piece appears on The Periscope Post
Read my review of A D Miller's Snowdrops for The Daily Telegraph here