Thursday, May 23, 2013

the last book I read

Hunger by Knut Hamsun.

So our un-named narrator is an aspiring writer in Oslo (during the 50-year period around the turn of the 20th century when it was called Kristiania). The old writing game is a hard one, though, and he's not making a lot of money out of it. Consequently affording the basics in life is tough - things like accommodation and food. Occasionally a kindly editor of some local newspaper or magazine will take pity on him and slip him ten kroner or so for an article, but outside those happy interludes it's all gnawing hunger and misery.

Now clearly our narrator could do what aspiring film actors have been doing in Hollywood for the last 50+ years and get a job doing something else - waiting tables, pole dancing, whatever - to supplement his meagre income. That would be to compromise his lofty ideals, though, so instead he wanders the streets lost in his increasingly strange thoughts and occasionally having outbursts of loud talking to himself and alarming passers-by. Meanwhile his physical and mental disintegration continues. Eventually he  makes a bid for freedom by enlisting, on a whim, on a merchant ship which will take him far away from Oslo and his troubles.

Our hero here suffers from some of the same problems as the protagonists of The Catcher In The Rye and Demian, the main one being that you want to reach in and give him a good slapping for his adolescent self-absorption and intellectual snobbery. Perhaps we fortysomethings forget, though, how much of an upheaval there is in realising that - unless you're particularly fortunate - you'll be required to give up a huge percentage of your time during your adult life in exchange for enough money to live on, and furthermore that you won't be permitted - unless you're exceptionally fortunate - just to spend that time doing what you most enjoy doing, but will instead have to do what other people tell you to do.

The other parallel that everyone seems to draw is between the narrator here and Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky's Crime And Punishment, and I can see that, although in fairness it must be said that our narrator here at no point murders anyone with an axe.

The most surprising thing about Hunger is how contemporary it feels given that it was written in 1890. I mean, there aren't any robots or digital watches or mobile telephones, but the focus on the internal mental anguish of the main character feels very modern. I understand that "late 19th century Norwegian fiction" might not be the most appetising fictional genre for everyone, myself included, but this is actually pretty readable, and it's only short (160 pages or so). Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 (other books by Nobel laureates on this list can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). His reputation took a bit of a knock after his flirtation with Nazism during the 1940s (when, some say, his physical and mental health had already started to fail), but well, you know, you live to 92 and the law of averages says you're going to spend at least some of that time being a bit of a Nazi. I know I have.

Hunger has also been filmed twice, in 1966 and then again in 2001. The later film seems to have relocated the plot to Hollywood and made the protagonist a frustrated screenwriter instead of a frustrated essayist and novelist. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that neither film is a barrel of laughs, though.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

when the music's over turn out the light

A couple of musical RIPs to catch up on. Firstly, Richie Havens, who died on April 22nd. I really only encountered Richie Havens and his music twice, firstly when I saw the film of the Woodstock concert - titled, imaginatively, Woodstock - and secondly when I saw him in the acoustic tent at Glastonbury in 2002, the last time I went to the festival. On both occasions the centrepieces of his set were the two heavily-strummed semi-improvised epics Handsome Johnny and Freedom, the latter being a variation of the old blues standard Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child that Havens basically made up off the cuff while he was asked to fill a gap in the Woodstock schedule while various of the higher-profile acts were stuck in traffic.

Two remarkable things about the Woodstock footage: firstly that Havens appears to have the world's biggest thumbs - most people can't use the thumb on their non-strumming hand to fret barre chords, but Havens seems to manage it. The other thing is that having been born in 1941, Havens would have been only 28 years old at the time of Woodstock; I think if you didn't know that you'd have put him at at least 40 from watching the footage. This is mostly because he's missing most of his teeth, something you'll be able to see quite easily from the footage, what with its close-up up-the-nose camera angles.

Secondly, Ray Manzarek, who died yesterday. Manzarek was the keyboard player with The Doors, and as such probably responsible for most of the distinctive aspects of their sound. As I said here, the fact that he was the keyboardist and the bass player (via a Fender Rhodes) and that the bass parts weren't played on a guitar gave them their unique sound. It was only when they employed the services of a proper bass guitarist for their last proper album LA Woman that they were able to produce something as rocky and sinuous as its title track. Which is not to write off their earlier stuff, particularly when it features in one of the greatest film openings in cinema history.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

it's not rocket science

I caught the second half of The Challenger on BBC2 last night. Interesting stuff, for all that the source material is pretty familiar to most. The Challenger disaster was one of the seminal events of my early teenage years, one of those Kennedy moments where I can remember, even 27 years later, exactly where I was when I heard about it - I was in a minibus on the way back from competing for my school quiz team in a local schools quiz organized by the RNIB. It was a particularly chastening moment since I also recall being allowed to skip some lessons five years earlier to witness the launch of the first shuttle Columbia, among great awe and optimism, and it was a sobering demonstration that the course of human endeavour is not a steady upward progression, things do go wrong, and actual people do die in what were presumably fairly horrible circumstances when they do.

The drama mainly focused on the involvement of legendary physicist Richard Feynman in the Rogers Commission set up to investigate the disaster, and his famous demonstration of the problems with the rubber O-rings at low temperatures. While the dictates of successful drama ensure that the lone-maverick-against-the-system angle was probably overplayed, there's no doubt that Feynman's independence and flair for clear and critical thinking was a key factor in determining the source of the disaster.

William Hurt did a pretty good impression of Feynman in terms of not looking completely unlike him and carrying off the mad scientist wig reasonably convincingly. He didn't really attempt to reproduce Feynman's chewy New York accent, though, and retained that distinctive slightly vague, slightly bemused air he has in most of his parts. I think the real-life Feynman would have been a slightly sharper and more abrasive customer. It took me a couple of goes to recognise Feynman's third wife Gweneth, but I got it in the end: Joanne Whalley, still very foxy even at 51.

There's plenty more Feynman available on YouTube, most of which is well worth a watch, including this BBC Horizon documentary from 1993.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

what if you were unable to wake from that dream

Don't even think about bothering phoning me or ringing the doorbell between 6:20pm and 6:50pm each weekday night, because I will ignore you: In The Night Garden is on. Nia is absolutely riveted by it, as you can see from the picture, and while as an adult the general inanity and repetitiveness can get a bit wearing, it's quite soothing in a slightly surreal sort of way. A few observations though:
  • It's the sort of programme you tend to drift into about halfway through, and it isn't until you watch it all the way through that you realise that the main sequence (i.e. the bit that takes place in the garden) is being dreamt by Iggle Piggle, who in turn is being dreamt by a small child. Honestly, it's like freakin' Inception.
  • An alternative theory vis-à-vis Iggle Piggle's involvement is that he's moored his little boat up somewhere and just has to set off back to it at the end of every episode. Given the apparent size of the garden, though, this seems a bit unlikely, as it would be a pretty long walk. My money's on the dream thing.
  • Another strong argument in favour of it all being Iggle Piggle's dream: Upsy Daisy's general behaviour. A carefree spirit, wandering around singing, all very keen on the kissing and the tactile handy-holdy stuff with Iggle Piggle, with a skirt that lifts up at the pull of a cord, and conveniently followed around by her mobile bed a lot of the time - she's clearly just some kind of sordid fantasy fuck-buddy dreamt up by Iggle Piggle's libido. A libido whose existence is all the more surprising since he appears to have no external genitalia.
  • What's going on with the teeny tiny Wottingers? They're rarely featured, unlike their next-door neighbours the teeny tiny Pontipines who are in just about every episode. Moreover, they are the only characters not to get a mention in the "go to sleep" segment at the end, by contrast with great big lumbering inflatable oafs the Hahoos, whose appearances in the main sequence are equally sparse but who do get a "go to sleep" moment at the end. 
  • Derek Jacobi is a trouper, isn't he? It's quite a trip from playing the lead role in I, Claudius or any of his other myriad thespian achievements to singing Makka Pakka, Akka Wakka, Mikka Makka moo! Makka Pakka, Appa yakka, Ikka akka, ooo. Hum dum, Akka pang, Ing, ang, ooo, Makka Pakka, Akka wakka, Mikka Makka moo! but he carries it off with some conviction. 

Monday, May 06, 2013

the last book I read

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell.

Meet Inspector Kurt Wallander: a tough, uncompromising Swedish cop. Han spelar inte i boken, men vid Gud att han får resultat.

Actually, Wallander is a bit of a mess. His wife Mona (I bet she was! eh? eh?) has just left him, and his daughter Linda isn't speaking to him. Throwing himself into his work, he's eating badly, drinking too much and generally not looking after himself very well. But, at the same time, dammit, results, etc. So when elderly couple Johannes and Maria Lövgren are found at their farmhouse, Johannes dead and savagely beaten and mutilated, and Maria similarly beaten but just about clinging to life, Wallander is called in to take on the case.

The only clues Wallander has to go on are the oddly-tied noose found around Maria Lövgren's neck and her last word before she croaks it at the hospital: "foreign". Naturally this sets Wallander to thinking about the nearby refugee camp and its inhabitants, and also about the local community's dangerously febrile attitude towards it.

But regardless of who was responsible, questions remain to be answered. What was the motive? The Lövgrens had no known enemies, nor anything that anyone would want to steal. And why did whoever carried out the murders feed the Lövgrens' horse before making good their escape? Well, it turns out that Johannes Lövgren wasn't quite the snowy-white pillar of the community he appeared to be: not only did he apparently keep a mistress on the go, but fathered a child with her back in the 1950s, and also had access to a secret stash of money made in nefarious circumstances during the Second World War.

So, cherchez la femme, and possibly her son, and the case will be solved - simple. Well, things get a bit less simple when word gets out via the press of Maria Lövgren's last words and someone takes it upon themselves to murder a Somalian refugee. Rounding up those responsible distracts Wallander and his colleagues from the original murder investigation for a bit, but when they get back to it they quickly locate Erik Magnusson, Johannes Lövgren's illegitimate son. Simmering resentment of Lövgren's treatment of his mother, concern about not inheriting his rightful share of the money - he'll be our guy, surely? Trouble is, Magnusson has an airtight alibi for the night of the murders, so it can't have been him.

So all looks lost; several months pass and the investigation has no new leads. It's only when Wallander has a moment of inspiration after a trip to the bank that he remembers the bank teller with the near-photographic memory that he questioned back in the early days of the investigation. A quick bit of questioning and a look at some CCTV footage later and Wallander's team have a couple of suspects - two men who followed Johannes Lövgren into the bank when he went to make a clandestine withdrawal of some of his secret stash - and it looks like Maria Lövgren was right after all, as they're foreigners. After a bit of trawling round the refugee camps Wallander has a couple of names, and the scene is set for the climax with the usual chasing around and fighting and tying up of loose ends.

Nordic noir is big business these days, and it's interesting to reflect on why that might be and why we Brits find it so fascinating. I think part of it is that we think that the Scandinavians, with their liberal governments and their relaxed attitudes to communal public nudity, are just generally more hip and groovy than us, and are almost certainly having more fun, particularly of the sexy variety, than we are. There's therefore also probably an element of envious glee at seeing their perfect society crumbling round the edges as they have to address the unpalatable truths of their recent eugenics scandal as well as some simmering racial tensions. Whatever the reasons, Mankell's books, as well as those of the late Stieg Larsson and many others, sell in large numbers, sufficiently so for several Wallander adaptations to have been made for TV, most recently starring our very own Kenneth Branagh, who you'll notice is the cover star of my TV tie-in version of the book.

Other than the Swedish setting, though, the Larsson and Mankell books don't have that much in common. The Larsson books are big, fat, lurid thrillers with lots of frankly unlikely chasing around and plot twists, while Faceless Killers is pretty grimy and low-key; Mankell even denies us the satisfaction of a neat thrilleresque plot resolution by having the Lövgrens just randomly tortured and killed by some random opportunists who happened to see Johannes pick up a load of cash in the bank.

Strip away the cultural unfamiliarity and this is a fairly bog-standard police/crime affair, though. The semi-alcoholic cop whose personal life is a shambles but is still capable of crazed intuitive leaps of crime-solving is a pretty well-worked one, as anyone who's read any of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels can tell you. And the dénouement here where Wallander and his team switch from chasing Erik Magnusson and start going after the right guys seems weirdly compressed, occupying as it does only the last 25 pages or so of the book.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, and it rocks along very entertainingly, but I'd be reluctant to say it's any better than a whole host of other crime fiction not set in Scandinavia, the Rebus books for example. If you want a genuinely weird Scandinavian crime thriller I would strongly recommend Peter Høeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow. If you just want crime fiction set in an unfamiliar (or at least non-British) location then I would even more strongly recommend Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series.