As anger sparks at the recent actions of the Hungarian far right Jobbik party, whose members have erected a statue of the Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy at a church in Budapest, it is worth remembering the voice of one of those many Hungarians persecuted under Horthy’s rule. Antal Szerb, author of the stunning Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág) was one of around half a million Hungarian Jews to be deported to concentration camps, such as Balf, where he died aged forty-three. Unsurprisingly for a writer of the time and the place in which Szerb found himself, much of Journey by Moonlight revolves around death. What makes it extraordinary is the curiosity, sensuality and generosity with which it considers life.
Roughly speaking, Journey concerns the adventures of one couple separated on their honeymoon: disparate Mihaly, tormented by nostalgia for the astonishment of youth and wracked with guilt at his inability to mature into bourgeois adulthood; and sheltered Erszi, longing to flirt with the passions of the bohemian lifestyle, but held back by her own straightjacketing respectability. Their quests of self-discovery lead them on separate flights across Italy and throughout Paris, negotiating on their way their understanding of love, sex, art and the precarious nature of civilization.
Szerb’s writing is preoccupied with that elusive sense of wonder – of what it means to really be alive and aware of it. His story unfurls itself in a haunting world of moonlit gardens over whose walls rise the voices of monks, in the back-alleys of Venice, in an attic of clockwork toys just dimly remembered from childhood. What all his images share is an ability to de-familiarize a world which the demands of civilized, adult life so often renders banal and bureaucratic. Journey by Moonlight reminds us what a strange and marvellous place that world can be.
This fascination with the world also comes across in Szerb’s connoisseur’s appreciation of the good life. The novel abounds in good wine, good sex and sumptuous settings. Lest this makes it sound dangerously like a forerunner of Eat, Pray, Love, however, Journey always retains too sharp an eye for reality to stray into the realms of guru-ish self-help. Szerb acknowledges the seedy side of bohemia as much as the allure; acknowledges too the futility and exhaustion of trying to feel alive all of the time. Most penetratingly, though, he sees that the converse of the desire for a meaningful life is the desire for a meaningful death – that moments of destruction can also be moments of ecstasy. This dark realization is one of the book’s central themes – and one that Julia Roberts might find harder to sell.
Journey by Moonlight invites us to remember life’s moments of rapture, while never letting us forget that they are only moments; temporary and fleeting. Affirmative but not sentimental, it treads the fine line of relishing in culture and material pleasures without becoming pretentious. When one considers the circumstances in which Szerb died this becomes a triumph – pleasure and an appreciation of the complex experience of being human is everything the Nazis tried to deny their victims. Hungarians aghast at the bold statement of the Horthy statue might take comfort in Journey’s subtler articulacy.
The chamber reeled, applauded, cheered, rose. The aftershock of Kate Tempest’s eighty-minute epic needed a momentary eternity to absorb. This was not poetry for pages; instead verses cascaded Homerically from this fresh-faced East Londoner in a torrent of seamy plot and urban commentary. Within minutes, something both very old and very new was felt to be brewing.
Kate delivered a soiled, almost soap-operatic tale of modern life, but sewn in was sublimity. “Look again | and you will see the Gods rise | in the most human and unassuming of eyes.” The everyday was deified, and each flawed human being among us was as heroic as if having just emerged from the mythical realm. Postponing the performance for a genial tribute to our gathering together for the experience, this rhapsodic witch-doctor insisted that listeners were primary in any story-telling episode. Unqualified though I may be to distinguish it, a very possible touch of genius seemed to flicker even in Kate’s opening address. Heart and mind in unison, she was the evening’s epicentre of humanity.
Her ambling prelude gave way to a thunderous opening score from the four-piece band: tuba, drums, and strings collided for a high-octane introduction to Kate’s dramatic poem, and the stunning synthesis of poetry, music, and lighting crackled the atmosphere right up until the standing ovation. Her spoken-word sketch of the cityscape soon focused in on two next-door neighbouring families – a palette of adultery, domestic violence, parental neglect… But what these life-players lacked in the way of home comforts was countered by Kate’s beautifully-sculpted blending of frank, human fragility and a golden aura of divinity.
The flux of the performance never ceased, and Kate had no reservations about splintering the suspension of disbelief at times. As the first kiss between Tommy and Gloria was played out in music, she shrugged and gestured towards her band: “they say it better than I could in words”. Self-deprecation unwarranted, belying her innate lyricism and its oft-poignant potential. A wry smile on my part was prompted by the line “she couldn’t make out the grain of their wood through the layers of varnish” in its evocation of Oxford hacks. Beware, Kate Tempest is onto your polished personae.
Her magnetism rendered this performance inimitable, and while Kate’s small-world superheroes were far from moral role models, they were given a worthwhile ‘ordinary made extraordinary’ rostra through her intoxicating incantations. As she observed, “in all our fury and foulness and friction, | everyday odysseys, dreams and decision… | The stories are there if you listen.” But for these eighty minutes, there is no if - Kate compels us to hear and respond to every syllable, and I defy anyone to resent it.
Kate Tempest and Battersea Arts Centre are touring Brand New Ancients until April 2014, landing in Oxford’s North Wall from 25-6 February. Book now!
‘Morrissey’s autobiography is a classic’. Or not. Either way, this reviewer argues that the be-quiffed behemoth of blue-collar blues has played a masterstroke in selecting the Penguin Classics imprint to publish his deliciously moody volume. This is not the act of incomprehensible egotism or marketing nous that the literary world seems to have unanimously accepted it as, but a subtle and brilliantly self-referential act of intra-textual design – although the novelty value can’t have hurt the sales figures either…
Look at your bookshelf. Even your highest-of-the highbrowed top-shelf hardbacks are likely to conform to the basic publishing principle of ‘put an appropriate picture and maybe some nice font on it’. Some of these covers are indisputably exquisitely designed, with oh-so clever depictions of ‘stuff’ in the book, but they still essentially function merely as elaborate packaging for the real deal – the words inside.
Morrissey’s Autobiography, however, is different. By selecting an imprint with a rigid and fixed ‘house style’ that totally dictates the design, the book’s appearance becomes intrinsic to its very physical existence. The design is no longer just ‘packaging’, it is the very fabric of the object in your hands. So why is this important to the writing, you ask? Think about The Penguin Classic: the raggedy, spinally ravaged, bookbag-rattling memento of every single English lesson since time began. So what could be a more appropriate printed manifestation for a memoir that persistently lingers on the brutality and hypocrisy of the Mancunian education system of the seventies? For a memoir that also finds its protagonist seeking solace in Auden, Wilde and Betjamen from the concrete and school dinner dystopia of moving mince?
Thus as a physical object, Autobiography is united as a wittily coherent artistic whole. In an age when printed books are facing tougher and tougher questions as to their futurity and practicality in the wake of eBook ascendancy, The Smiths star’s eponymous volume makes a compelling argument for the extra dimension offered by reading for real. When reading Autobiography, the complete connection between the intangible words in your head and the physical object in your hands is a real source of pleasure. People often talk about ‘the pleasure’ of reading printed books, which amounts to an appreciation for their sensual and aesthetic value as objects, but this is something more.
However, the hallowed ‘Classics’ badge on the cover isn’t merely a vituperative ironic swipe at the intellectual establishment. The polysemic associations of canonical literature in Morrissey’s life story (as a tool of intellectual belittlement as much as a liberating breath of poetry) allow the book to strike a tone of semi-playful, dialectical belligerence entirely commensurate with the lyrical pinnacles of The Smiths’ oeuvre. Morrissey’s blue tinted face, bizarrely offset by the famous black box, white band and minimal orange typography is the subtler, quintessentially Smiths-y equivalent of the artwork for The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’.
Furthermore, the book, in its jarring juxtaposition and subversion of expectations, continues the legacy of the legendary Smiths album covers. The reduction of movie stills, famous faces and photographs to vague and subversive suggestion is echoed in and by Autobiography. Finally, in high contrast cerulean wash, Morrissey himself joins the illustrious cast (Candy Darling, Elvis Presley and Truman Capote among others) who feature on the famous colourised album covers and posters.
So, maybe you don’t think that the Pope of Mope’s Autobiography is a suitable addition to the Penguin Classics marque. But as an addition to Autobiography, the Penguin Classics marque fits Hand in Glove.
Tuesday saw the opening night of The Material, an exhibition hosted by the Edgar Wind Society at Freud. As President Tori McKenna explained, this was the first exhibition hosted by the Edgar Wind Society – I only hope they have many more to come, as the evening was an unequivocal success. Five artists presented work which ranged from thought-provoking and insightful videos from Irina Iordache (Christ Church) and Lili Pickett-Palmer, evocative sculptures and installations by Sonia Bernaciak (New) and Louisa Siem (St Catz) and an electrifying performance by Mateo Revillo (Christ Church) and Juluan Mignot, who came all the way from Paris to take part.
All five artists are studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, and whilst many of the audience were fellow pupils there, the exhibition also drew in a wide variety of other students, academics, and members of the public. One Somerville student described the exhibition as “so much fun”. “We just came out for a pint, and ended up amongst all this culture”, another explained to me. The Edgar Wind Society has certainly continued its work to make art accessible to everyone in this exhibition, with the artists on hand to talk the less art-literate amongst us (including myself) through their pieces. Sonia Bernaciak’s incisive explanation of her works ‘On the Revolution of Things’ which incorporated her fascination with the scientific, and what she referred to as her “naïve approach” to science, revealed the fundamental concepts behind her art. I was particularly taken with her installation of helium balloons and concrete/plaster sculptures (and accompanying video), which explored the tension between the possible and the impossible with gentle humour, as well as opening up the question of ‘materials’ suggested in the title of the exhibition. Louisa Siem also explored the idea of ‘materials’ with her pieces – for the full effect you have to go and see them, so I’m giving you no clues here!
The highlight of the evening was perhaps Mateo Revillo and Juluan Mignot’s performance, with sound also provided by Mignot. Right at the beginning of the evening, one Ruskin student expressed her excitement about the performance, and she was certainly not disappointed. As a masked performer (Revillo) crept around the stage, bringing the various sculptures to life, the powerful music broke over the crowd to create a beautiful and at times disorientating effect, which perfectly suited the vast space of Freud.
Tori McKenna’s obvious passion for creating a platform for artists from Ruskin has translated into a slick and well-curated exhibition which makes full use of the beautiful venue. Although Freud can be at times a large, cold, water hole, this exhibition brought an essence of warmth to the venue – the use of mirrors in many of the exhibits meant that although they were placed on the floor, they incorporated the whole height of the old church, which was a really effective use of the space. The warmth of members of the society, including Evie Hicklin (Treasurer) and Joshua Hill (Secretary), in welcoming visitors to the exhibition ensured a pervasive attitude of openness, and discussions of the art ranged around me which highlighted how impressed most of the people I spoke to were with the evening. Praise should certainly go to McKenna for such an enjoyable and interesting opening night.
The exhibition is open for the next three weeks, don’t miss it!
Flesh and Bone, the Ashmolean’s landmark and much heralded exhibition of the work of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, is a long overdue look at two of the most important twentieth century British artists, whose differences have often been emphasised at the expense of what really united them: a deep interest and engagement with the human form and condition.
And at first glance the differences can seem almost irreconcilable; the painter versus the sculptor. One working in a medium of movement and fluidity, the other in a monumental and static form. A contrast that is deepened by the personalities of both artists: the homosexual bohemian is miles away from the pillar of the establishment, happily settled in rural Hertfordshire.
The genius of the exhibition is therefore in teasing out the strange unity of purpose and expression that united these wildly different men.
The curators have chosen to begin with a look at the early influences to both artists, showing the inspiration both men drew from Rodin and Michelangelo and the motion of the human form. As such Bacon’s Painting (1950) echoes the classical and muscular forms of sculpture much like Moore’s Falling Warrior (1956-7).
Moreover, both Moore and Bacon’s technical genius are brought to the fore by contrasting their works. Bacon’s thick brushstrokes, whose violence mirrors his subject matter, are highlighted by Moore’s drawings which are rough and expressive. Many of Moore’s drawings date from the war period and both artists were in some sense shaped by the brutality of the twentieth century. Moore had seen active service in the First World War and both were to experience the Blitz firsthand.
Bacon’s interest in the violence of life is well documented. He spent his career attempting to tap into the core of human sensibility and revealing the violence that he believed characterised life. He portrayed humans tormented and twisted, and drew attention to the flesh. Two Figures in a Room (1959) has one figure eerily reminiscent of a carcass and when we see Bacon’s depiction of the death mask of William Blake we are literally staring death in the face.
However, the exhibition also pushes the darker side of Moore’s work, including pieces such as Maquette for Mother and Child (1952) or his series of mixed media drawings of heads from the 1950s which challenge many of his other depictions of the human and maternal figure.
Interestingly many of Moore’s less smooth forms are on show, Warrior’s Head (1953) being just one example, and we are led to compare both artists who were keenly aware of the mediums they worked in. Bacon often talked of his paintings as in some aspects accidental or subconsciously affected by his attempts to paint as close to his instinct as possible. Moore’s forays into the lost wax process, bronze and plaster also suggest an artist probing the potentials of objects themselves.
One fascinating element highlighted by the display is the way in which both artists, although separated by the mediums in which they worked, were both keenly aware of the setting and arrangement their artwork was to take. Bacon’s famous Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988) and Moore’s Three Upright Motives from the period 1955-6 are an obvious example of the overlap in the artist’s work.
But Flesh and Bone is superb in its awareness of both artist’s desire to isolate the human form within a larger surrounding. Bacon’s work often uses the clean and simple interiors to contrast his distorted figures or uses straight lines and rampant grass to blend the figure into its setting. By contrast Moore often isolates individual parts of the human body from each other. In his sculpture Woman (1957-8) the female head is made much smaller to emphasise the massiveness of the body.
The documentaries at the end help to drive home these similarities but also place both artists in their wider context, charting their development over time. With the exhibition being largely confined to the 40s, 50s and 60s they also offer the chance of a wider view than the scope of the display itself.
Flesh and Bone tells us something important about two of Britain’s most pivotal and compelling artists. Using two very different men its shines a light on their obsession with the human form and their attempt to grapple with its depiction in a world flooded with images and reeling from violence. No doubt Moore would be happy among the curiosities of the Ashmolean itself whilst Bacon would be longing to return to London. For the time being though, they are together under one roof.
How fleeting forty minutes can seem when spent with the self-labelled “sociable loner” Louis de Bernières. Churning out a laugh a minute, our conversation was frankly bizarre. Spanning from blackbird transsexuality to a vicar’s ghost stories, charity-function cougars to Colombian machete fights, this Cheltenham chat was one for the record books.
Fresh from Louis’ poetry reading, I bounced over to the Writers’ Lounge to discuss his newly-published (and immensely enjoyable) Imagining Alexandria over a coffee. As I tinkered with my paranoid recording-combo of phone plus dictaphone, he told me of an interviewer who, having forgotten to turn on her dictaphone, had to repeat the whole thing with him the next day: “we’ve been friends ever since!”. His happy-go-lovely manner leaves me without a shred of doubt over this.
The inspiration behind this already-acclaimed novelist’s debut poetry collection was the Greek poet Kavafy, whose book is a full-time dweller in Louis’ pocket. Louis’ first trip to Greece might have founded a bit of an off relationship with the country: a week with a girlfriend in Corfu culminated in her dumping him. Promising? Louis didn’t let it put him off, and a few years later he returned solo. Round II was infinitely more successful, introducing him to Kavafy’s poetry set to music in a bar. While the first trip marked a romance’s end, the second struck up a lifelong love affair with Kavafy’s work.
Travel is something of a muse for Louis, whose “altered state of mind” from jetlag stirs up artistic currents. (Here I cannot relate: my jetlag is hellishly unconducive to productivity of any kind). He adds that the business class wine might have something to do with it. Aha. Admitting that “poems are things that occur to me when I’m doing something else”, Louis tells me of a recent one that he dashed down during a poetry-reading interval. Considering his novelistic success, it comes as a surprise that his poetry obsession preceded novel-writing; Imagining Alexandria has been decades in the making.
With Louis’ enthusiasm for history imprinted upon almost every page, I ask how this interest came about. Uni studies? Guess again. Louis’ curiosity for the big questions spurred on a philosophy degree, but the enthusiasm of his history schoolteacher Major Nelson was contagious, with each lesson commencing “When I was out in India…” (cue Louis’ brilliant reenactment of the booming decibels). Finding history a wonderful source of narratives, Louis gets a kick out of imagining people caught up in the historical process, “just ordinary people” – à la Thomas Hardy.
During the poetry reading, Louis was asked whether Donald Sammut’s illustrations in Imagining Alexandria meant that the poems can’t speak for themselves. After an aside on the “catty way of putting it”, Louis replied that the line drawings were one of the best things about the book in their way of complimenting the poetry. Louis had met Sammut, a hand surgeon, for an operation during which the latter did a quick sketch of Louis’ hand to much admiration. Louis commissioned him on the spot to illustrate his upcoming poetry collection. Check out page 75 for an especially beautiful drawing of a home inside a suitcase.
For Louis, agile penmanship seems in the genes: his father’s army officer occupation masked the poet-historian that he would have been, had he not been diverted by WWII. At first Louis followed his footsteps by joining the forces: a four-month stint packed up after it became “blindingly obvious” to all that he simply wasn’t officer material. Louis blames his resentment of being told what to do, which emerges again as the conversation turns to the role of Poet Laureate. Louis says he couldn’t hack it, point-blank, and mentions his irritation at how we didn’t have “our real poet laureate” while Seamus Heaney lived.
Louis’ professed enjoyment of visiting poets’ graves to “think morbid thoughts” paved the way for a little more nonchalant thinking-aloud: “I think it’s such a shame that talented people have to die. I don’t care much about the others.” As Louis and I flicked through his book afterwards, I pointed out the abundance of religious elements – stemming from personal beliefs? Not quite; he recounts his loss of Anglican faith at the age of eighteen after witnessing a young girl die in a railway accident. Comparing it to St Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Louis describes his “blinding light of un-conversion” as he lost hope of any moral order. He blithely admits his melancholy habits: “the moment hormones flooded my body I was utterly miserable for decades.”
Joking aside, conversation turns pensive when he brings up the custody battle that followed his divorce. Louis’ poem ‘Every Other Weekend’ about divorced fathers losing their children was printed in the media, and his vociferousness led to him now having more than half custody. He describes the fear that they had been abducted from him in the divorce’s aftermath, and comments “love and sex are nature’s way of conning us into having children. Until you’ve had children you really don’t understand human love.
Imagining Alexandria gives leg-room to this wealth of feeling, voicing the heights of both happiness and sadness often on a single page: “I walk unharmed in the flames of joy and even the clang of silence stays unheard” gives way a few lines later: “You’ll remember it fondly”. It’s hard to give a nutshell of Louis de B, but his joie de vivre is certainly distinctive – a snippet of his own verse, “to taste life’s sugar on his tongue”, seems an apt concluding line to take. And of course, for the details on our weird and wonderful conversational topics mentioned at the top, email email@example.com as ever.
Imagining Alexandria, published by Harvill Secker, is available to buy on Amazon and bookstores now.
Photo//ITEF- İstanbul Tanpınar Edebiyat Festivali 2013
The Institute of Contemporary Art have gone slightly rogue this September and
October; they are currently exhibiting thirty years worth of London subculture at
the Old Selfridges Hotel.
The Old Selfridges Hotel is actually in the same building as the Selfridges we all
know and love (you enter through a staircase adjacent to the food hall entrance).
The abandoned part of the building is open-plan, unfurnished, and its ceiling
is strewn with pipes. This derelict interior, contrasted with the posh, pristine
exterior of Selfridges, makes the perfect transgressive setting for an exploration
The various artists commissioned by the ICA to produce an insight into London’s
underground world in the last thirty years have used different mediums for their
contribution. Most artists filled a vitrine with memorabilia from the subversive
worlds of fashion, clubbing, music, and art. Some of my personal favourites focused
on the crazy clubbing of the eighties, including photos and posters of people
with giant hair, colourful clothes, and insane make-up. Why wasn’t I alive in the
Other artists had opted to make videos, which I have to admit went right over my
head (this art was slightly too contemporary for me…) – it was just a lot of noise
that seemed to make no sense whatsoever in relation to what was on the screen.
I spent a pretty long time in that abandoned room somewhere in the labyrinth
that is Selfridges. I would recommend it to anyone in that area of London; it’s
free and interesting, though prepare yourself to be completely jealous of how fun life
was in the eighties, especially for the cool subversive hipsters.
Don’t be fooled: it may revolve around a game, but this eerie novel is lightyears away from flippant frivolity. An intense read, it grips with an iron claw and took over my life for an entire slothful September day. Immediate warnings of a “cautionary tale”, a “confession” put me on red alert from page one. The story is scribed by a drug-pumped hermit in his thirties, who is still suffering the repercussions of a game played with fellow Oxonians during their time in ‘Pitt College’. But this was no casual game of croquet, instead a series of psychological dares designed to humiliate, and it’s not over yet.
In all honesty, the bare plot outline didn’t hook me. The tables turned after sixty seconds of reading into the novel: Christopher J. Yates can write, seriously. Deal clinched; afternoon’s plans aborted. The bent for writing came less from essaying for his law degree at Wadham, more from his admiration of Greene, Updike, Roth, Nabokov, Amis. “I love good sentence writers. Plot is all well and good but you can get good plot from movies, TV, etc. Only books can make your heart leap at the sight of a beautifully composed sentence.”
Stylistically, Black Chalk struck me as a slick creation. Let’s face it, bold Roman numerals slipped into paragraph indents as chapter markers were bound to appeal to this classicist reviewer. The flips back and forth from present to past were compelling, and the narrator’s colander-like memory ironically amplified believability: his shaky vulnerability seemed to earn trust. I asked Yates what he struggled with most while writing: “treading the line between sensationalism and reality. I wanted everything in the book to feel possible, plausible”. Scarily, he succeeded.
Perhaps the uni-happenings might seem too fast-paced, faintly ridiculous, with situations escalating more quickly than supposable. Then again, voilà Oxford: life at breakneck speed. Yates pencils a credible sketch of life here, even if some characters are shaded somewhat darkly. For a few, the game is just that: a game. But for others, victory is everything. Yes, at Oxford we’re driven to be success stories – a mindset inflated by Yates to the point of life and death. He commented “that compulsion to win that I describe in the story is absolutely something I observed all around me in my time at Oxford. Even an innocent game of cards could turn into a shouting match”. Observations were not inked until much later on, however. Yate’s first book deal came at the age of forty; he described his lack of creative writing at Oxford as “a great shame”.
The novel is not all glacial hardheartedness though; love does find its way in, and I even found myself laughing aloud at the caustic character Jack’s one-liners. Of him Yates said: “he’s vulgar and funny and utterly unabashed. Probably I enjoyed escaping from my own sense of politeness and decorum.” Self-indulgent it may be, but the humour comes as a welcome diversion from the more sinister goings-on.
It is an understatement to say that guesswork isn’t really a viable option to predict the book’s conclusions; by no means could its twists be foretold. “I found it a very difficult story for which to write a final page. Perhaps I didn’t want to let go of the story. It’s a very bittersweet moment when you finish a novel.” Sweetly bitter too is reading the ending of an immersive novel (though I can hardly claim the same extent as penning the finishing touches). Here’s to hoping that no such game ever actually arises amidst the dreaming spires. Black Chalk will be released on September 19, 2013. Available to pre-order on Amazon now.