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The Gilmore Girls Companion (A.S. Berman, 2010)

2*

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Oh, man. As a long-time Gilmore Girls geek, I reaalllly wanted to like this. The idea was just so wonderful. A.S. Berman, along with his wife (the art director for this project), is certainly a steadfast fan, and while the book did uncover some interesting tidbits about the series (so the back of the set of Lorelei’s house is the front of Sookie’s house!), I thought it was pretty poorly put together.

It was all just a bit of a mess. The book focussed not on trivia, cast interviews, or behind-the-scenes gossip about the production of the show, but more on the author’s personal commentary on each episode. It was, in essence, an episode-by-episode regurgitation of scenes and quotes, with the odd sidebar containing some hastily written background on some of the cast and crew members. Whilst I did enjoy the fact that I could recap and relive each individual episode, I wasn’t given much new information surrounding the show’s making, which is what I was really interested in.

This isn’t to say that the episodic rundown wasn’t well-written. I shared quite a few of Berman’s opinions on the characters and on significant events that take place over the course of the series. He’s clearly watched it several times over, and thought painstakingly about each and every element. I liked his critical approach; Berman wasn’t afraid to point out some of the inconsistencies (the enigma of Mr. Kim, for example!), and his passion for Stars Hollow – and all its wonderfully idiosyncratic inhabitants – shone through at all times. It renewed my own love for the show, and reminded me of its uniqueness: its ability to appeal to multiple generations, its nuanced commentary on social class, its considered handling of all types of relationships, its fast-paced, witty (if sometimes maddening) dialogue, all the while remaining warm and fuzzy and leaving us in mirthful disbelief that a place like Stars Hollow could actually exist (perhaps that’s my big city bias, but seriously, the revolutionary war reenactments, the 24-hour dance-a-thons…?!).

Ultimately, however, I felt that the show deserved a more thorough, more well-researched, more complete Companion guide. Since coming off air, Gilmore Girls has consistently been cited as one of the greatest television shows of all time. This book simply didn’t do it justice, and didn’t allow fans to celebrate all that is great about the series.

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Help Me, I’m a Hypochondriac (Philip Martins, 2017)

3.5*

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If somebody described themselves or another person as a ‘hypochondriac’, we’d probably find it vaguely amusing. There is a certain comedic connotation to the word, which is likely why it’s been replaced by the simpler, more modern term ‘health anxiety’. And anybody who has ever experienced health anxiety will know that at its best, it can be greatly distressing, and at its worst, completely debilitating.

I decided to read this as a self-help measure, as a way to try to calm my own health anxiety. As a child, I remember having a somewhat morbid fascination with death and disease. At some point, this fascination evolved into sheer terror, and I became utterly obsessed with the myriad of illnesses and afflictions in existence, convinced by all means that it was only a matter of time until some serious, lifelong malady took hold of me. Working through this with an empathetic (if slightly bemused) therapist, I was able to identify some of the life events and experiences that may well have triggered this fear, which, if not an instant fix, at least allowed me to understand the reasons behind my perturbations. As a young person who has always been in relatively good health, the thought of having to continue living in such a state of disquiet ultimately became too much to bear. And so, alongside the therapy, I picked up this book (or my Kindle, rather), having read several favourable reviews online.

There aren’t a great many self-help books on health anxiety. There are many books on anxiety in general, of course, but health anxiety is a rather specific subset of anxiety disorders. This book provided me with a tailor-made toolkit to tackle some of my anxiety-induced symptoms, and to recognise that the majority of physical symptoms also have mental causes. Health anxiety is certainly a vicious circle of worry, and to an extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you convince yourself you are unwell, chances are, you will become unwell. If you incessantly check your pulse, forever Google your symptoms, and obsessively monitor every freckle on your skin, it’s more likely than not that you’ll be pointed towards something being fatefully wrong (even if there isn’t).

For me, the best thing about this book was that it’s written not by a medical professional, psychologist or self-help guru, but by a regular 33-year-old guy who himself suffered from health anxiety, and self-published this to help others. It was relatable, funny, and readable in the space of about an hour. Definitely one to come back to as and when it might be required.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez, 1967)

4*

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Finally finished this after stopping and starting a few times last year. Wasn’t initially sure I’d enjoy it after feeling rather ambivalent about both Love in the Time of Cholera (though flawlessly put together, I struggled a bit with the premise – the Great Gatsbyesque pining was waaay over the top) and Love and Other Demons (which was similarly grotesque for other reasons), but my familiarity with Márquez’s writing style compelled me to give it a go, with the novel being his magnum opus and all. And – I’m glad I did, as I found myself swimming pleasurably along in its depths for a good few months, a couple of pages a night, relishing the humour and delicacy of the prose.

There’s lots to say about this novel (including lots I probably missed!), and it’s definitely one I plan to revisit later down the line. Some of it is pretty weird, in a classic Marquez way (the sex, rape and inappropriate relationships make Humbert Humbert seem a total saint by comparison), but barring that (lol), it was absolutely astonishing, so rich and layered and lovingly written, even if every sentence averages around 2000 words and everyone in Macondo has the same two names (seriously, I thought Anna Karenina was bad, but this easily beats the Russians in its level of name-confusion). Honestly, I had to draw myself a little family tree once I met the fifth Arcadio. Once you get past that, though, it’s a sheer delight. Oh, and everyone in the book is completely insane, which makes it all the more fun.

Now, I’m still not convinced I fully get this novel, and it was certainly a challenging read, but the reason I’d rate it so highly is due, quite simply, to the way it made me feel while reading it. There are a great many books that are close to my heart, and a great many writers that inspire me (to read, to write, to think, to somehow just be better) but it’s quite a rare thing when the experience of reading a novel ignites that overwhelming, tingly sense of unbridled wonder that this one did. Macondo is a microcosm of the world; it is the world in miniature. Inside it, and inside the relations between the Buendía family, there exists quite possibly the entirety of human wisdom, feeling, madness, possibility, absurdity. Just everything. Really, read it – it’s mind-blowing. But perseverance is key! There were indeed several times that I was tempted to give up, and a few times that I almost did. How glad I am that I ultimately did not.

I always feel a little sad when I read a translated work. Despite the quality of the translation, I’m sure some nuance is lost. (Note to self: must read more in Hindi, must get back on the German, etc. etc….)

Anyway, this has been a lazy and mostly rambling review. Whoops. But there’s not much else I am able to say.

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A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara, 2015)

3*
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Who am I? Who am I?

You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs. You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen. You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way. You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it. You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again. You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.

Having finished this novel, having somehow ploughed through to its shattering conclusion, I cannot overstate the absolute heartache that re-reading the above passage evokes. The protagonist, Jude St. Francis, does not learn to believe these things about himself. He does not, cannotaccept the countless, distinctive attributes that comprise his personhood. He does not, despite being deeply endeared to those around him, manage to move beyond the profound trauma of his past. He is a character we love desperately, a character we want to see get better desperately, but a character that will not, ultimately, be saved from himself. This is something that we, as readers, know intuitively all along. It is an awareness present throughout A Little Life’s 800-odd pages, and it is possibly the most heartbreaking thing about this book.

I spent around two weeks on my commute to and fro work getting through A Little Life. I noticed a sort of lethargy that would set in after I’d stop reading, one that’d continue well into the latter half of the morning. It’s not only that the subject matter is dark. It’s the way that this darkness envelops Jude entirely, and invariably seeps its way into all the little kernels of happiness he has established for himself: his high-powered job (and his genuine enjoyment of it); his stylish New York apartment; his solid, loving group of friends. I found there to be something almost meritorious about the author’s refusal to let Jude ‘get better’, about her total commitment to ensuring that his trauma remains the epicentre of his existence, always. Perhaps because the generalised atmosphere of anxiety that permeates the book’s pages resonates particularly with a generation of ‘millennials’ raised with the conviction that life will be extraordinary, only to find that it is, in truth, bleak and underwhelming. Or, perhaps Yanagihara’s determination not to rescue Jude is admirable for its apt and honest acknowledgement of the lasting, damaging legacy that childhood rape and sexual abuse can have. Either way, the novel serves as a stark confirmation of something most of us eventually realise about life – that nothing is really guaranteed, ever.

Though it was a compulsive read, I’m not sure if I enjoyed A Little Life. Is it possible to really enjoy the deliberate, graphic chronicling of a person’s deep-seated anguish and suffering? I shared the same sentiment of outrage with many other of the book’s readers: how can so many bad things all happen to one person?! At times, the writing felt a little manipulative – as if I was being forced to feel sad, forced to fixate on the brutalities of Jude’s existence, like the book was sustaining itself on my misery and disgust. It seemed as though all the forces of life had conspired intently against Jude, in the most grotesque way imaginable – though this is precisely what Yanagihara says was intended:

One of the things my editor and I did fight about is the idea of how much a reader can take. To me you get nowhere second guessing how much can a reader stand and how much can she not. What a reader can always tell is when you are holding back for fear of offending them. I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places.

Indeed, this quality of exaggeration is wielded throughout the novel. The writing is certainly unabashed in its sentimentality; there are frequent and recurring declarations of love, guilt, regret. These occur mostly within the context of adult male friendships, the fundamental lens through which the story is told. I did love this aspect of it, and it dawned on me how little the theme of friendship seems to be traversed in literature and culture more generally. It is the romantic relationship that is usually at the centre of all things, the romantic relationship that is presented as the ultimate, most significant relationship, the one to which all other relationships are but subordinate. This is an idea that comes up repeatedly, and is echoed here in one of my favourite passages:

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.

I loved the first few chapters for the very reason that the friendship between Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem was examined with so much depth and humour.

And yet, in the end, friendship and love are unable to keep Jude from succumbing. There is no ultimate, conclusive fix, and in retrospect we are amazed that he has made it this far.

The book certainly made me think. All those that care about Jude – his friends, his adoptive parents, his colleagues, doctors, psychiatrists – despite their measures, are unable to save him. Through his multiple suicide attempts, his decades of self-harm, they insist, and keep on insisting, that he must carry on living. He must carry on living no matter what, in spite of himself and in spite of everything he feels. Of course, this is hardly callous. It is the most intuitive, most instinctual reaction that any one of us would have towards someone we care for. It is a wider precept, too – that people should strive to better their lives. Still, it is striking that nobody, not even for a moment, is willing to accept that Jude – to put it simply – may never get better. Yes – that would be defeatist, unduly pessimistic, perhaps. I am optimistic that most of us can recover, over time and with adequate support, from our traumas and anxieties, however severe they might be. And yet the passage below, though from Willem’s perspective, perfectly encapsulates one of the underlying motifs of the book:

But these were the days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

And so, whilst I am still unsure of my feelings towards the book on the whole, there was something undeniably powerful it had to say about modern life, and the attitudes and expectations of the world in which so many of us live.

 

 

 

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Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez, 1985)

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

3*

LiTtoCIt’s been a while since I’ve wanted to write about a book, probably since my feelings towards most of what I’ve recently read have been without doubt or ambivalence. Love in the Time of Cholera, however, was different. After I’d finished, I came away with this lingering sense of nothing much having really happened. In actual fact, in its 350 pages, the novel tells the tale of two people’s entire lifetimes.

My thoughts, however, remain unclear.

Undoubtedly, the story made an impression – the title alone is ladened with melodrama. Its aims and ideals are noble, aspirational – eternal devotion, the enduring power of love, the unique human capacity for unwavering faith, even when the odds are stacked against us. The prose is glorious, the writing technically excellent, the lyricism magnificent. Throughout the novel, Marquez weaves a complex but beguiling web; a web of rich, lovingly constructed characters, all with their own unique histories and idiosyncrasies and impulses. The structure and pacing are intricate, but flawless – the story circles back on itself time and time again, each time revealing new layers for us to get lost in, layers coated in charmingly vivid detail. All that is ordinarily mundane – about life and about love – is made magical by Marquez’ complete mastery of language. The novel is, in essence, a delight to read.

And yet – there are themes and references that are, to the modern reader, plainly problematic: the casual racism (reflective of the time, no doubt, but even so), the blasé portrayal of paedophilia, and the normalisation of rape. These are not adequately dealt with, or even presented as occurrences which warrant being dealt with. The chain of events stemming from them (a young girl committing suicide, for example, following an ‘affair’ with Florentino, a man who is three or four times her age) have no consequences for the perpetrator, who, at most, seems to perceive them as mere inconveniences disrupting the course of his ultimate quest for Fermina. We are not made to feel as though we should alter our opinion of Florentino following these incidences. He remains the ultimate hero, a symbol of a pure, profound, ‘higher’ love that, to my mind, appears to be excusing him from the monstrosities of his less noble exploits. It is his love for Fermina that alone defines Florentino, and defines the novel; his love for Fermina is all that matters, and all that can ever matter.

The problem with this so-called love, the force sustaining the story, is that it is simply not convincing. It is a love – if you can call it that – that is superficial, that is glib, that is grounded in nothing but shallow observances and juvenile fantasies. It is an all-consuming, obsessive, absurd kind of love. It is too senseless, too sentimentalised to be truly romantic, and, ultimately, too bizarre to be revered.

It is this, for me, that prevents the novel from having any real or potent impact or meaning. But for all his grand proclamations, Florentino is essentially a slimy, self-abasing, and decadent character. Perhaps if he wasn’t made to be glorified, perhaps then I would take a different view – but I found the fundamental premise of the novel, and indeed the nature of Florentino’s ‘love’, too grotesque to empathise with.

Having said that, there is a genuine love story in the novel. It is the love story between Fermina – a spunky, stubborn, headstrong woman whose characterisation I absolutely adored, save for her incomprehensible acceptance of Florentino at the end – and her husband, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. The passages detailing their complicated, decades-long marriage were amongst the most beautiful and moving in the entire book, their years of oscillating happiness, misunderstandings and compromises serving as a study of the realities of long-term love, in all its beauty and complexity:

It was the time they loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other mortal trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore.

It was as if they had leapt over the arduous cavalry of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.

I also especially enjoyed the passages describing Fermina’s newfound independence following her husband’s death, and her acceptance of her status as a widow. Often, upon remembering that Márquez was male, I was impressed by the remarkably acute and insightful depictions of Fermina’s psyche, and of Marquez’ intuitive sense of what she, as a woman, may be experiencing. The Fermina we meet at the beginning of novel, the teenage girl who writes her response to Florentino’s proposal on a scrap of toilet paper, has remained, but her character has been etched out so fully and completely that she is a joy to have followed through the story. The same cannot be said of Florentino, whose life of vice evokes, at most, a sense of pity, but a pity devoid of compassion, or of any real understanding of what he has become.

Despite this ambivalent review, Love in the Time of Cholera is a graceful, poetic read, and certainly a memorable one. The style trumps the substance, without a doubt, and it is precisely this – the magical, dreamlike quality of the writing – which has led me to immediately want to read more of Marquez’ work.

 

 

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Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

4.5*

Solaris was the first film that introduced me to cinema as a true art form. The late Roger Ebert, in his December 2014 review of the film, said:

The films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky are more like environments than entertainments.

Environments, not entertainments. This apt statement helped me realise what it was that I found so compelling about the two Tarkovsky films I’ve seen to date, the other being Stalker.

It lies in the atmosphere Tarkovsky forges – an atmosphere which lingers for long after the rolling credits end. Solaris left me feeling utterly perplexed, and yet, without sounding hyperbolic, after a few viewings and sufficient musing, it has become part of my psychological makeup, forming a piece of that complex, layered lens through which each of us, individually, see the world. 

What does it mean to really know another, to really love another? Is such a feat even possible?

These are some of the questions Solaris grapples with, despite its categorisation as a work of science fiction (a categorisation imposed solely by media outlets, and one that Tarkovsky himself vehemently opposed).

The film is adapted from a novella of the same name, by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, which concerns humanity’s attempts at uncovering the mysteries of the distant planet Solaris, the study of which has long eluded scholars and scientists. This field of study has come to be known as Solaristics. The planet is covered by an enormous, ‘conscious’ ocean, that keeps forming its surface into bizarre shapes. On the space station orbiting Solaris, the astronauts are exhibiting increasingly odd behaviour. Dr. Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, is sent up to the space station to investigate the goings-on and report on the astronauts’ mental states, in order for a decision to be made on whether the mission should be aborted or not.

Kris arrives on the space station to find one crew member dead, and the remaining two deeply disturbed by the events on the station. It transpires that when X-ray probes were used to investigate Solaris’ ocean, the planet replied with probes of its own, entering the minds of the astronauts and bringing to life some of their memories, in the form of ‘Guests’. It is the manifestation of Kris’ dead ex-wife, Hari, and their ensuing relationship on the space station, that is the central subject of Tarkovsky’s film.

The duplicate of Hari that appears is exact in every way, save for one thing – she lacks all of her memories. Her being also seems to be limited to what Kris remembers of her, a theme that plays out through the whole film. She wants to know more of herself – she questions Kris about her past, and upon learning that the real Hari committed suicide, attempts to also do so (only to regenerate immediately – it turns out that this duplicate Hari cannot be killed). Her presence begs the question – is she any less real than the original Hari? Or, to an extent, is she just as real? Sure, we know that her presence is only made possible through the ocean’s eerie capabilities, but the very nature of our relationships with others, particularly romantic partners, is examined here.

For aren’t our ideas about those we claim to know and love precisely those – ideas? And, more than ideas about them, are they not, in actual fact, ideas about ourselves? The new Hari is but a collection of the notions and memories Kris has of her. She is, essentially, a projection of his desire, a point made clear through her confusion and total lack of knowledge of who she is. 

Romantic love, for good or for bad, has long been regarded (in Western traditions, in any case) as something of a spiritual force, something in which there lies immense power for change, growth, and the realisation of goodness. But in this potential, there is also room for great failure. To a certain degree, the relationship between Kris and Hari can be interpreted as a series of recurrences on the failings of love. At one point, Kris dwells on whether he loves the new Hari more than the original Hari. Kris creates her as something he can love, as lovers often do, and as something that can love him. He also creates her as something through which he can absolve himself of his guilt at his role in the original Hari’s suicide on Earth. Though their ‘reunion’ on Solaris might initially seem magical, mystical, romantic, their love on the space station fails, over and over, with Hari eventually convincing the other astronauts to destroy her for good.

The irony being performed becomes apparent here. Humanity seeks other worlds to explore, to enhance its knowledge of the unknown and the unfamiliar, as in the case of the scientists studying Solaris. But Solaris hides its face, and instead projects back to the scientists their own memories and struggles, forcing them to look inward, as opposed to outward. Kris goes on the mission with the aim of investigating the effects of Solaris, but ends up spending his time on the space station introspectively confronting his past.

We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,

Gibarian, one of the astronauts, says at one point.

Solaris is no easy film to comprehend; indeed, certain scenes are doubtlessly bewildering and make us wonder what it is that Tarkovsky is trying to get across. Early on, we’re shown a continuous scene of a car driving over a highway. This scene lasts for eight minutes, and there’s zero dialogue. What are we being told? Tarkovsky actually addressed this in an interview, and whether or not it was said in jest, his explanation was certainly comical: he was using this scene to see which viewers would stick around, and which ones would leave the cinema theatre. It was included as a sort of test of patience, of commitment. Despite the cheekiness of this statement, if it’s true, it’s a testament to Tarkovsky’s utter devotion to his art, similar to his assertion of his view that in true cinematic art, music shouldn’t be necessary to convey feeling or emotion. Visual experience alone should dominate, and this conviction can be felt through the painstaking visual detail in the film, with everything right down to the paintings in the space station chosen to evoke the particular sensations of nostalgia, of reminiscence, of a bittersweet earthly yearning that is, rather than space or technology, the ultimate theme of the film.

Solaris is a film I’m certain I’ll watch for years to come, and hopefully uncover something new each time. Here’s a clip from the film, showing Kris and Hari levitating through the room in a brief period of zero gravity on the space station. For me, it’s one of the most hypnotic, enchanting scenes in all of cinema, and brilliantly sums up the phenomenal beauty and artistry of the film.

 

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Adelheid (František Vláčil, 1969)

4*

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Yesterday, a friend and I happened upon a tiny little Czech café in Hackney which, besides the excellent coffee, displayed a small collection of Czech films for sale. I picked up a copy of a film called Adelheid. The DVD was released by a company called Second Run, who restore eclectic and award-winning films from around the world. The cover looked vaguely intriguing; it was made by a director who, although well-known for the artistry of his films, has been largely overlooked. I’d never seen any Czech cinema before, and the DVD came with a little pamphlet with an essay by a Czech cinema expert talking about director František Vláčil’s emphasis on ‘film poetry’.

In a 1998 survey of Czech film critics, Vláčil’s film Marketa Lazarová was voted the best Czech film ever made. Vláčil even received a lifetime achievement award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival the same year. But the reason for Vláčil’s lack of presence in general histories of cinema is, according to Hames, because he was not a member of the famous Czech 1960s New Wave, nor a product of the Prague Film School. He was rather more concerned with making films focussed on visual imagery, and Adelheid is no doubt exemplary of this aim.

With Adelheid, it seems Vláčil broke away from his previous works in two different ways: firstly, the film is in colour, and secondly, it’s not a historical epic. Watching the film as someone in completely new territory, it seemed to me to be much more of a meditation on human nature – and all the complexities, dangers, and distortions that comprise it.

But the film has undeniable historical value, too. It caused quite a stir upon release, apparently, for being the first film to address the Czech treatment of Sudeten Germans during the expulsions of the mid-1940s. It’s set in the aftermath of World War II, and tells the story of Viktor, a Czech airman returned from service in the RAF, who is given the responsibility of managing a large estate on the Czech-German border, formerly owned by a Nazi. The daughter of the Nazi, the eponymous Adelheid, is assigned to him as a servant. Her grasp of Czech is limited (or perhaps she is pretending – we never truly know), as is Viktor’s command of German. Thus, the majority of the storytelling is done through the camera alone – through following the characters in their movements, and observing them in their stillness.

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The slowness ceases to be tedious, and soon becomes poetic. Shut away from the outside world and confined to the dark, vast house (whose vastness we never really get a sense of, as the shots tend to be close-up, almost claustrophobic in their framing), we too are trapped with Viktor and Adelheid. I found the cinematography compelling. The lack of verbal communication means that the growing (and mostly wordless) attraction and romance between the two characters is expressed through seeing, and through looking. The film is obsessed with observation. At first, it’s mostly Viktor who observes. He watches Adelheid as she washes the floor, her waist slightly exposed. He spies on her through binoculars, chopping wood. But she too, returns his gaze. It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking – is it defiance, or desire? She seems to enjoy cooking and caring for him, but at other times she recoils from him. When a German woman brings the news that her father, the Nazi to whom the estate belonged to, has died, she breaks down and rebuffs Viktor’s attempts to comfort her.

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It is these instances that remind us that outside of the internal, closed world of the huge estate, there are social and ideological forces at play. The faint hope that is conveyed through Viktor and Adelheid’s strange – yet somehow comforting – relationship, is shattered in these moments. Even the warm, languid scene where the two sit by the fire and Viktor talks of his childhood, seems comically simple now. We want for them to find solace in each other, but know that any affection that may subsist is doomed from the outset.

Indeed, when Adelheid’s brother returns, Viktor just about escapes death. But – despite Adelheid’s ‘betrayal’ (she was, undoubtedly, waiting for him), Viktor refuses to testify against her. “You’re all I have”, he tells her. Aided by a translator, he begs to know whether she ever truly cared for him or not. He asks: “Did you hate me all of the time?” She tells him no. She too, it turns out, was enamoured by little details she’d observed in him. He tells her she has no reason to worry, and that he’ll take care of her. This last display of hope, of vulnerability that Viktor exudes, makes the final act all the more heartbreaking. The darkness, remoteness, and relative safety of the mansion could not, ultimately, keep the wider context at bay.

It’s a complex film, no doubt. I’m not sure I’d quite use the term ‘love story’ to describe it. The romance aspect is never fully realised; it is quiet desperation, as opposed to burning desire, that for me, defined the relationship between the characters. They are both symbolic of the internal conflict between loyalty and the need for intimacy, and though the subtleties of their everyday interactions hint at the possibility for more, the characters are ultimately unable to move past their own walls and barriers. The score – music by Bach and Strauss – lends pathos to the caged, gloomy world of the mansion. The imagery, graceful and gentle, evokes a sense of longing, of silent despair; it is reflective of the minute, carefully observed instances that draw Viktor to Adelheid, the impulse to believe that amongst all the anguish and desolation of the war, there do, perhaps, exist small, modest moments of beauty and peace.

Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1978)

3.5*

A poetic, slice of life portrait of an African American family in ’70s Watts, Los Angeles. The film goes nowhere in particular, and lacks any semblance of a linear or structured narrative. Instead, we watch a loosely strung series of episodes, depicting the mundane, everyday existence of the family, interspersed with largely random events. A flat tyre. A stolen TV. Children playing war in a wasteland strewn with rubbish. There is a peaceful sort of stoicism, of resignation, to the poverty in front of us: this is, quite simply, the way things are.

Stan, the family’s patriarch, works in a slaughterhouse. His wife waits for him at home, refining her make-up. Does he notice? We don’t know. If he does, he doesn’t say. He suffers from sleep-deprivation, exhaustion, irritability. But he is good, he is honest, and, despite being prone to anger, he loves his children. He presses a warm mug to his face, telling his friend it reminds him of a feeling just after making love. He dances in the dark with his wife to a Dinah Washington song.

Nothing much happens in the life of Stan, yet these moments amount to everything. This is all there is, and for Stan and his family, it must be enough.

 

 

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy, 1877)

5*

So I’ve spent the past few weeks rapidly and greedily devouring Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and what an absolute revelation it has been. At 806 pages, it seemed a little intimidating at first, not least because I hadn’t read anything by Tolstoy before. Despite him being such a seminal and celebrated author, my preconceptions of his novels told me he was someone with whose writing I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, relate to. But how wrong I was, and how glad I am about it.

Facetious though it may sound, these last few weeks really have felt to me as if I’ve been embroiled in an earnest and passionate love affair. Nothing else in my recent reading has come even remotely close to matching the intensity, the excitement – in fact, just the whole spectrum of possible human emotion – that I’ve experienced while reading Anna Karenina. I’ve read and re-read (and listened to the audiobook version for times when holding a hard copy just hasn’t been possible) and read and re-read, and I’m positively certain that this novel consists of an entire (and highly necessary) education that up until now, I had no idea I’d been missing out on.

Tolstoy was clearly someone who was deeply in love with life. How could he not be, for such detail, for such in-depth examination of each and every meticulously constructed character, to comprise this novel?

When he went in to the sick man, his eyes and his attention were unconsciously dimmed, and he did not see and did not distinguish the details of his brother’s condition. He smelled the awful odour, saw the dirt, disorder, and miserable condition, and heard the groans, and felt that nothing could be done to help. It never entered his head to analyse the details of the sick man’s situation.

But Kitty thought, and felt, and acted quite differently. On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out the details of his condition, and to remedy them.

The basic plot – a love affair between two aristocratic elites in 19th century Russia’s high society – doesn’t necessarily lend itself to becoming regarded one of the greatest novels ever written. Not at first instance, anyway. But Tolstoy, among other things, was a philosopher, a psychologist, and in his world, nothing and nobody is mundane. Nothing and nobody is commonplace. Everyone and everything is delightfully and uncompromisingly complex – and thus, complete.

There are no archetypes, no caricatures. The writing reads timelessly; we are reminded, constantly, of the sheer, unparalleled uniqueness of the human experience. Characters don’t feel like characters; they are afforded the richness and fullness and complexity of actual people. They have their joys and sorrows and struggles, their conflicts and turmoils, their triumphs and their despair, all laid out with meticulous, artful analysis. The famous opening line – ‘[a]ll happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ – hints at this forthcoming examination of human nature: it is the ways in which we hurt and suffer that make such an examination so fascinating. It is our distinct, individual reasons for suffering that set us apart, making us – whatever else they may make us – so overwhelmingly, and uniquely, human.