Monday, 27 February 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 2 - "The Pickwick Papers"

Dickens (aged 27) - portrait by Daniel Maclise

Charles Dickens’ first book, Sketches by Boz, was published as a two-volume collection by John Macrone on February 8th, 1836. Two days later, the up-and-coming author received a visit at his Furnival’s Inn lodgings by William Hall, one-half of the London publishing house of Chapman & Hall. He had a book proposal to make to Dickens. Chapman & Hall were planning to publish a book of “cockney sporting plates”, featuring illustrations by Robert Seymour.

They needed a writer to provide a group of sporting stories to accompany Seymour’s sketches. Their concept for the book was an account of a group of like-minded sporting fellows called the “Nimrod Club”, traveling around the country, fishing and hunting, and sharing misadventures in the hinterland outside the capital. The book would be a sort of picture novel, with Dickens providing “letterpress” - extended captions for Seymour’s plates. Seymour was the experienced one; Dickens would definitely be the junior partner in the team. Although he wasn’t too excited by the idea – it was a familiar and rather tired concept – Dickens nevertheless seized the chance to participate in another book.

Chapman & Hall proposed monthly issues consisting of four illustrations by Seymour and one-and-a-half sheets of text. Dickens would be paid 9 guineas per sheet. A sheet was cut into 16 pages; so he would be writing 24 pages for each month’s instalment (12,000 words) – longer pieces than he’d ever tackled before. He began writing on the 18th of February. The writing came easily. The first instalment was published on March 31st - the full title being: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club - Containing a Faithful Record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Members. Just 400 copies. It had green end papers - "wrappers". Each month’s issue was priced at one shilling. Dickens’ name still did not appear on the title page. “Edited by ‘Boz’”, read the credit. He was 24 years old.

First issue's title page - green wrappers
But the early days of this new enterprise were thrown into confusion by the sudden death of the artist, Seymour - who shot himself after the second issue. Robert Buss was brought in to take over as illustrator for the third instalment. Dickens persuaded the publishers to reduce the number of pictures from four to two, and to increase the text by half a sheet – from 24 pages to 32. He was now in full control: the artist was now illustrating the text, rather than the writer captioning the pictures. Buss didn’t work out, so Chapman & Hall hired Hablot Knight Browne, who took over for the fourth issue, and did the engravings for the rest of the book. He took on the pseudonym “Phiz” to match Dickens’ “Boz”. They worked well together, and Phiz would illustrate for Dickens over the next 23 years.

The original title of the work - The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club - gives a sense of the intended tone. Dickens’ narrator was to adopt a kind of lofty, supercilious tone as he described the silly antics of this motley crew of middle-aged bachelors. It took a while for the book to take off; the early sections seem to wander aimlessly as the author struggles to find a settled tone, and a unifying theme (once he had abandoned the publisher’s initial premise for the book). In its own way, the novel is a nineteenth-century ‘road novel’. The Pickwick Club ambles around the countryside by coach – engaged in the sort of amusing exploits of a typical picaresque novel. In this regard, Dickens was paying homage to some of the favourite books of his youth – Smollett’s Roderick Random and Humphrey Clinker, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. And, ultimately, it looks back to that early, seminal, picaresque masterpiece, Cervantes’ Don Quixote – especially in the relationship it draws between the innocent Pickwick and his practical valet, Sam Weller, who, by contrast, and despite his age, is wiser in the ways of the world. They parallel, of course, the friendship between the Don and his sidekick, Sancho Panza.

Sam Weller (right) and his father, Tony Weller
In fact, it was with the introduction of Pickwick’s cockney servant, Sam Weller- in the book’s fourth instalment (Chapter 10) - that the work really began to seize the imagination of the reading public. And this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Dickens’ first novel – the way in which it was delivered to the public, and how that helped contribute to its success. Writing and publishing the book in monthly instalments had several beneficial effects: Dickens could respond almost immediately to the success or failure of individual plot lines, or characters, and adjust the narrative accordingly; he could add incidents and conversation that would hold topical interest; and he could generate future sales by adding elements of suspense to the conclusion of each monthly instalment. And the audience for these monthly issues was growing steadily. Literacy was expanding rapidly – especially amongst the middle-class. Working-class people, who were fascinated by an author who seemed to understand their lives and their concerns - and who loved characters like Sam Weller - could combine resources and share a monthly issue. They would sit around in extended family groups, as one of them read the latest issue to the rest. And advances in technology and transportation meant that these sorts of weekly and monthly publications from London could be dispersed rapidly across the country to an eager audience. The first instalment of The Pickwick Papers was a run of some 400 copies; by the time they got to the fifteenth, Chapman and Hall were printing 40,000 copies per month. And if you really want to know whether the book was successful, check the advertising; just like a modern magazine, these periodicals included paid advertising. By the ninth instalment, there were more pages of ads (39) than there were of text (31)! Dickens and his publishers had a phenomenon on their hands.

It’s evident fairly soon into the work, that The Pickwick Papers is a shapeless mess. He throws stuff into the book quite wantonly – whatever seems to suit his fancy and interest. The style and demeanour of the opening chapter (reflecting the publishers’ original idea for the book) is quickly abandoned. He jumps precipitously into the melodrama of a duel in only the second chapter. And he begins to insert now and then, quite artificially, melodramatic tales which interrupt the story and bear no relation at all to theme or plot-line. It’s like he’s not quite sure how to move away from the familiar world of his Sketches (and their Tales) and into the reasonably well-structured plot of a novel. And, really, this continues through the book, but it comes to matter much less as he proceeds - as he gains better control of the material and creates a deep human sympathy for his two central characters, Pickwick and Weller.

Mr. Samuel Pickwick addresses the Pickwick Club
Samuel Pickwick - names were always important to Dickens – is based loosely on a coaching proprietor from Bath, called Moses Pickwick. The central character of the book – the esteemed leader of his eponymous club – is merely humorous in the early sections. He is a retired businessman, with plenty of money to fund his adventures and to support the activities and travels of his club – it’s really just three others who stick with him as they venture out into the English countryside. As the book progresses, it takes on a more serious tone; and by the end, Pickwick morphs from a rather silly buffoon into the embodiment of benevolence. He suffers tribulations: the landlady at his digs in London, Mrs. Bardell, is under the mistaken impression that he has proposed marriage; and when the marriage fails to happen, she sues him for breach of contract – egged on by the unscrupulous London law firm of Dodson & Fogg. There is a marvellously satirical set-piece describing the ensuing court-case. Pickwick loses and he is ordered to pay costs and provide damages of £1,500 to Mrs. Bardell. He is incensed by the behaviour of the conniving lawyers and refuses to pay a penny – even though he is then incarcerated at Fleet Prison for three months. The seven chapters that tell the story of Pickwick’s experiences in Fleet (about three-quarters of the way through the book) shift the focus from humour and picaresque adventure to social realism. Dickens here is remembering the experiences of his own father, who was consigned to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in 1824, when Charles was just 12 years old. He brings to bare here some biting satire about the legal system of the day – many elements of which he had a deep knowledge about. The whole episode adds some gravitas to the tone of the book as it winds towards its close.

Coach travel in the Regency era
The Pickwick Papers is set in the 1820s – the last decade before the arrival of the railways. The Pickwick Club moves around the country by coach; and the novel is of particular interest for its detailed portrait of the hospitality on offer by the coaching inns dotted around the country. Their days were numbered. They were there to provide fresh teams of horses for coaches making long-distance journeys, and to provide food and lodging for those breaking those long trips with overnight stays. As the Club moves from London to Rochester, to Bath, to Bristol, to Birmingham – we learn all manner of things about coach travel in this Regency era – before Victorian railways swept it all away. And every pause along the way of these coach journeys seemed to require a hearty meal and several rounds of potations.

The book provides a lot of colour and incident about the social activities of the day. We get an idyllic account of a snow-bound Christmas celebration at the Wardles’ Manor Farm in Dingley Dell. We read of a military tattoo at a bivouac. We are taken to Bath and learn how the gentry imbibe the health-restoring waters of the spa, and how they socialise of an evening at dinners and dancing Balls. We join picnics and shooting parties and hear of duels and card parties. And the book is full of merriment (a hallmark of Dickens) - lots of eating and drinking: parties, pub-visits, picnics, dinners, feasts, and toasts.

Mr. Samuel Pickwick, Esq.
This is a comic novel, with lots of funny set-pieces, What stays with you as you reach the end of your time with the Pickwick Club is a sense of well-being - that all is right with the world. Dickens throws up a contrast between the seamier side of life in his day (the Fleet Prison) and the idyllic world he longed to see. Many familiar themes are present here - themes that would appear again and again in the books to come: the struggle between law and justice (seen sometimes as comedy, sometimes as farce, sometimes, even, as tragedy), the essential value of family life, and the need to reform the legal system and social institutions. But the sunny side wins out; good feelings triumph; different social classes (represented by the middle-class Pickwick and the working-class Sam) live in mutual harmony and respect; fathers and sons become reconciled. Old-fashioned virtues of kindliness, friendship, honour and conviviality win out. The image of Mr. Pickwick remains: a middle-aged man full of youthful enthusiasm; a middle-class businessman outraged by social injustice; a generous patriarch bestowing his kind attention and concern on all those he loves and cares for. This was Dickens first novel and, despite some weaknesses in the structure and some flabbiness in the content, it remains a defining masterpiece. For many decades after its release, it was one of the most popular and best-loved books in the English language.

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Charles Dickens was to start again, read through all 14 of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. I'll give it a try, anyway! So this is the second of a series.]

Next: Oliver Twist

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Photo Essay: Hemingway in Cuba - Ambos Mundos & Finca Vigia

I've been to a fair number of author's homes over the years, but none has had quite the impact on me as Ernest Hemingway's house in Cuba. Perhaps it's because the place is so much more contemporary in style and fittings than the likes of Charles Dickens' and Jane Austen's nineteenth-century homes. Even though the house is clean and tidy - everything in its place - it really has a lived-in feel. It's easy to imagine Papa Hemingway emerging from a back room to greet you at the front door.

Here are some of the photographs I took in Cuba back in March, 2010: pictures of the Ambos Mundos Hotel in the old part of Havana; and pictures of Hemingway's house - Finca Vigia - on the south-east outskirts of the city.

The view looking north from the Ambos Mundos Hotel in the old section of Havana

Ernest Hemingway’s first extended visit to Cuba happened in April, 1932. At that time he was living in a large house on Whitehead Street in Key West, Florida with his second wife Pauline. It was in Key West that Hemingway discovered the joys of deep-sea sport fishing, thanks to his friend Charles Thompson. He began fishing around the Keys with Thompson and several other like-minded friends, and they made trips over to Bimini Island in the east, and the Dry Tortugas to the west.  

View from Room 511 - Hemingway's room in the Ambos Mundos Hotel

Hemingway made the trip over to Havana in Cuba with his friend Joe Russell, who owned Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West. Russell also owned a 32-foot cabin cruiser called Anita. He charged Hemingway $10 a day to help defray the costs of their marine trip - spent fishing in the Gulf Stream off the northern coast of Cuba. It was originally planned as a two-week holiday, but once they discovered the thrill of fishing for giant marlin, the trip went on for 65 days!

Room 511 of the Ambos Mundos - Hemingway wrote some of For Whom The Bell Tolls here

Room 511 is now a Hemingway shrine 

When his wife Pauline came over to visit from Florida a couple of times, they stayed at the Ambos Mundos Hotel in central Havana. And when Pauline wasn’t around, Hemingway spent a lot of time here with Jane Mason, the young wife of the head of Pan American Airways in Cuba. The Ambos Mundos became a regular haunt of Hemingway’s. He always stayed in Room 511; it was cooler five storeys up, and the room was on the corner of the building, so he got views from his windows in two directions. It was $2 a night there. Even after he had his own house on the island, Hemingway would come into town and stay for a few days at the hotel – sometimes he needed to get away to concentrate on a spell of writing; sometimes he would engage in discreet liaisons with Jane Mason. Cost to get into Room 511 now in order to view the Hemingway memorabilia is $2!

Looking through the front door of Finca Vigia: dining room in the back; magazine stand to the right

By 1939, Hemingway’s relationship with Pauline was almost over.  That spring he crossed over to Cuba in his own boat, the Pilar, which he had had built to his own specifications back in 1934. He took up residence, as usual, at the Ambos Mundos  Hotel. He was joined in Cuba by the new woman in his life, the journalist Martha Gellhorn, who would soon become his third wife. Gellhorn didn't like living in the cramped quarters of the hotel; she was keen to find a house for them on the island, so she began a diligent search. Eventually she found a listing in a local newspaper of a house for sale

An avenue of trees borders a path on the Finca Vigia property.

It was a large, Spanish-style, one-storey farmhouse located 24 kilometres south-east of Havana in a small village called San Francesco de Paula. The house was called Finca Vigia – Spanish for “Lookout Farm” – and it sat on a hill surrounded by a fifteen-acre property. Finca Vigia had been built in 1886 by the Catalan architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer. Martha arranged to rent the place for the bargain rent of $100 a month. When Hemingway first saw the place, he was not impressed; he thought it was a hopeless mess and needed more work done to it than he deemed worth their consideration. Gellhorn disagreed and set about cleaning up and renovating the place: the furniture was slowly replaced; the rooms fixed up and re-painted; and the pool was drained and cleaned out. Once the place became more presentable, and more comfortable to live in, Hemingway revised his opinion and came to realise that they had found a good home close to the capital.

 The huge living room at Finca Vigia - hunting trophy and bullfight poster on the wall

The following year - in December 1940 - Hemingway bought Finca Vigia for $12,500. He paid for it with part of the royalties accrued for his recent best-selling novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. The marriage with Gellhorn did not last long. And then Hemingway took up with Mary Welsh, who became the fourth, and final, Mrs. Hemingway. They lived in the Cuban house until 1960. So it would serve as home for Hemingway from 1939-1960, one-third of his life. He would write half-a-dozen, or so, books there – For Whom the Bell Tolls, Across the River and Into the Trees, The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, and Islands in the Stream (the last two published after his death). His sons spent extended summer holidays at the house. Many of Hemingway’s friends were invited to stay – most of them encouraged to participate in his pet pursuits: fishing for large fish in the Gulf Stream, shooting gamebirds at a nearby gun-club, and drinking daiquiris at the Floridita, his favourite watering-hole in Havana.

Hemingway's record collection at Finca Vigia
With the political complications that emerged after the Cuban revolution, and the physical and mental decline that hit Hemingway in the late-fifties, he and his wife abandoned the house in July, 1960 and moved to Ketchum, Idaho. After Ernest’s suicide in 1961, Mary Welsh Hemingway negotiated with the Cuban government about the Finca Vigia property. They had been threatening expropriation, anyway, but Mary gave the house and land to the Cuban people, with the understanding that it would be set up as a museum devoted to her husband. She was allowed to remove a certain amount of personal property – paintings, books and jewelry from the house, and a substantial horde of manuscripts which had been deposited over the years in a vault in Havana. Most of those documents are now housed in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston.

This walk-in closet at the back of the house holds mostly clothing Hemingway used when he covered WWII as a 1944.

When I was in Cuba for the first time in 2010, I thought it appropriate to acquaint myself with the work and life of this great American writer. I read A Moveable Feast, his fascinating account of the time in Paris from 1921-1926 [see my previous blog post], and The Old Man and the Sea, the novella which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. And I decided to visit Finca Vigia – now called the Museo Hemingway, the Hemingway Museum. To get there you take a taxi from Havana. It’s about a forty-minute drive along the Carretera Central to the village of San Francisco de Paula. In Hemingway’s time, the place was quite a distance from the outskirts of the city, but now the former village has been swallowed up by the expanding shanty-town development of the large city. Now it’s just an outlying “suburb” of the capital.

Books and bookcases everywhere - this is a library/den with a writing desk Hemingway seldom used


His typewriter set up for work - not on a desk, on a bookcase!
This picture to the left shows the spot where Hemingway usually did his writing. He preferred to write at his typewriter standing up. His back would start to bother him, if he sat at a desk too long. He would pace around the room for a while, looking out the windows - there were two sets in this room - and then pound away at the typewriter on top of the bookcase. Hemingway tried to put a minimum of 500 words to paper each day, although he did not usually write quickly. He was careful and weighed each word and sentence. He would begin mid-morning (around 9:00 or 10:00), and write until early afternoon. He always stopped in the middle of a paragraph, or half-way through an incident in the plot. He thought it better that he was able to come back the next day and start straight into something he already had on the go, rather than starting a brand new section. Hemingway was a heavy drinker, but he never drank before or during his writing work. Once his work was done - then, the bottles came out.

Dogs, now - not cats!

Hemingway loved cats. He had lots of them at his house in Key West, some of them  had six toes! Within a few years of setting up in his Cuban home, he had another menagerie of felines ruling the roost. He would let his favourites flop on his desk or bookcases. Or sit in his lap. When we were at Finca Vigia the cats were gone, but there was a small pack of feral dogs roaming the property. My wife and kids got quickly bored with the Hemingway thing; as I continued to tour around the house and grounds, they turned their attention to playing with the canines.

a museum guide shows a Hemingway typewriter in the tower

After Mary Welsh became the fourth Mrs. Hemingway, and moved into Finca Vigia, she decided to have constructed for Ernest a three-story tower just off the back-left corner of the house. It was going to allow a better view of the far-off city to the north, and provide a quiet retreat for her husband to do his daily writing.The tower was built, but Hemingway didn't take to it as a writing location. He preferred to be in the heart of the house - in familiar surroundings. He felt too isolated at the top of the tower. And it just seemed too out of the way to make him comfortable. The tower became a play-room for many of Hemingway's large menagerie of cats. The museum has set up the room in the middle section of the tower as a repository of some of his fishing paraphernalia - rods, lures, and so on. And copies of some of the books and stories which were focused on fishing, like The Old Man and the Sea. And the room on the top level has a  reading chair, a bookcase crammed with even more of his, a telescope and one of Hemingway's typewriters.

The dining room - the one room which Hemingway insisted should have no bookshelves

One thing that surprises and, even, disappoints some visitors when they get to the Finca Vigia museum is that you are not allowed into the house. All the doors and windows are open, but ropes are set in place across the threshold of the doors to bar entry. It makes sense. The temptation to walk off with a Hemingway memento - a rare first edition of one of his earliest works, for example - would be too strong. And there would inevitably be damage from the large number of visitors going through the place. Funnily enough, though, as the photos here show, if you have a decent camera, you can still get really good photographs of the house interiors just by leaning through the doors and windows. Of course, I would have liked to stand inside the house, but I didn't come away thinking I'd missed anything important.

The main bedroom - note the slide-projector

 In 2002 a small group of concerned Americans established the Finca Vigia Foundation, a non-profit organisation devoted to saving the house from the ravages of time. This bi-national project involves Cubans and Americans in a long-term effort to save the house  and its contents from continuing damage from heat, humidity and pests. Engineering work has been planned to stabilise the house itself; and preservation work has been undertaken to preserve and protect the vast collection (3000+) of photographs, artwork, scrapbooks, travel maps and books. The book collection alone is priceless - 9,000 volumes, many of them rare 1st. editions. Here is a link to the Finca Vigia Foundation.

The library/den at the back of the house - the front door is open at the back of this photo

So, if you have any interest in Ernest Hemingway, and find yourself on holiday in Cuba, I highly recommend a trip to Finca Vigia. Granted, it is a bit out of the way, and takes some time and effort to get to. But I am very glad I visited - it really did inspire me to learn more about Hemingway and, of course, to read more of his work.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Film Review: Woody gets Ernest in "Midnight in Paris"

Owen Wilson channels Woody Allen in Allen's most recent film.

I got interested in Ernest Hemingway in a big way back in 2010, after reading A Moveable Feast in Cuba. The book - published posthumously in 1964 - is Hemingway’s episodic memoir of his life in Paris in the early 1920s – focused especially on his relationships with fellow-American writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. He acknowledges the debt he owes to both writers, as friends and critics, but in his final - very difficult - years, when he was writing this memoir (late '50s), his memories are tainted by a considerable amount of bitterness and envy. It’s a fascinating read.

When I heard Woody Allen was making a romantic comedy/fantasy about time-travel back to Paris in the 1920s - Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, I knew it was a film for me. Woody Allen’s interest in Ernest Hemingway and the literary scene of 1920s Paris goes much further back than mine! There was a comedy sketch called “The Lost Generation” he used to do back in the mid-60s, when he worked as a stand-up comedian. You can find it on his album Standup Comic. The phrase “lost generation” comes from Gertrude Stein; she applied it to the young artists and writers living in Paris in that manic decade - "the roaring twenties" - which followed World War I. “You are all a lost generation,” Hemingway remembered her saying, and he used it as an epigram at the beginning of his first novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), which is set in that milieu.

“I was in Europe many years ago with Ernest Hemingway,” Allen says in the sketch. “Hemingway had just written his first novel, and Gertrude Stein and I read it, and we said that is was a good novel, but not a great one, and that it needed some work, but it could be a fine book. And we laughed over it. Hemingway punched me in the mouth.” Right, Hemingway the boxer.

Ernest Hemingway in Paris in 1924
Ernest Hemingway arrived in Paris with his wife Hadley in late December, 1921. He first met Stein the following February at her amazing apartment on Rue de Fleurus. This small apartment was more like a miniature art gallery - the walls were covered floor-to-ceiling with paintings by the likes of Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Delacroix and Braque. Stein was not only an avid art-collector (along with her brother Leo), but also an avant-garde literary writer. She soon became a mentor and sponsor for the twenty-two year-old Hemingway (Stein was then in her late-forties).

Hemingway was still working as a journalist for The Toronto Star during those Paris years (1921-1926) - he wrote, on average, two articles a week for the paper* - but he had set out to become a serious writer of fiction. He had a burning ambition and in those early days was willing to listen to, to read, and to learn from the many literary greats of that generation who had gravitated to Paris: Ezra Pound, James Joyce, John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc. He read like a fiend. He started writing short stories and poems, but eventually turned his attention to novel-writing in 1924 – that first novel, The Sun Also Rises, a barely-disguised account of the life of some of the friends and acquaintances he had been hanging out with in Paris and Spain, established his reputation.

Stein (right) and Alice B. Toklas at 27 Rue de Fleurus
His most important critics and writing coaches in those early Paris years were Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Stein, in particular, endorsed the straight-forward, declarative style he had learned from newspaper writing - but she urged him to give up journalism and to concentrate on fiction. She stressed the importance of rhythm in prose, and the power that comes from repeating words and phrases. She favoured simple, colloquial language and advised him to avoid too much description - to shun writing that is full of florid adjectives and unnecessary adverbs. And he got his famous iceberg notion from her - the idea that meaning and emotion can be conveyed in prose more by what is left out, than by what is included.

Hemingway went to Paris to become a writer - and he succeeded. Our protagonist in Woody Allen's recent film, Midnight in Paris, is also an aspiring writer enamoured with the city. Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson - he does an uncanny job channelling Woody Allen) has come to Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams) - they are tagging along with Inez's parents. Her father is on a business trip. Gil is a successful Hollywood scriptwriter, but he has aspirations of becoming a serious novelist - he is 400 pages into a novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. Inez thinks it's a romantic delusion and wants him to get back to the writing that has brought him some real success. She's a shallow materialist. He dreams of moving to Paris and re-living the 1920s experiences of his heroes Hemingway and Fitzgerald; she wants to move to Malibu.

The themes of his infatuation with Paris and their essential incompatibility are set up economically in the very first lines of the film:

Gil: "This is unbelievable! Look at this! There's no city like this in the world. There never was."
Inez: "You act like you've never been here before."
Gil: "I don't get here often enough, that's the problem. Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the '20s. Paris in the '20s, in the rain. The artists and writers."
Inez: "Why does every city have to be in the rain? What's wonderful about getting wet?"

Gil carousing with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter
One evening, she goes off dancing with friends; he decides to stroll through the city streets on his way back to their hotel. He's rather inebriated and, after staggering around for a while, finds himself lost. He sits down on some steps to ponder his situation, when a nearby clock tolls midnight. A 1920s vintage car pulls up. A reveller opens a car door and invites him in for a ride. Gil hesitates, but then joins them. They're crammed into the back of the car, guzzling champagne and on their way to midnight adventures. They stop at a party. Everyone's in period dress. A pianist is singing a Cole Porter song. A couple of suavely-dressed Americans make his acquaintance and, before you can say Great Gatsby, Gil comes to the astonishing realisation that he's gone back in time. He's talking with the Fitzgeralds - Scott and Zelda - and the pianist singing the Cole Porter song is actually Cole Porter himself. They're in a party at Jean Cocteau's place!

But soon they move on to a nightclub, where Josephine Baker is singing and dancing. And there in a corner booth by himself, guzzling red wine, is none other than Ernest Hemingway (played brilliantly by Corey Stoll). Fitzgerald introduces Pinder to his friend. "Hemingway!" gasps Gil - Wilson sounding just like Woody Allen. Hemingway, the inveterate competitor, asks Gil how he liked his new book. Gil gushes that he loves it - he loves all his work, in fact. And then we get this hilarious monologue - truly more earnest than even Ernest could be:

"Yes, it was a good book, because it was an honest book. And that's what war does to men. And there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud, unless you die gracefully, and then it's not only noble, but brave."

I laughed out loud when I heard this. We're back in Woody's 1960s stand-up sketch - an over-the-top lampoon of a writer he obviously knows well and loves. My friend, Jerrod – who, like me, is a huge Hemingway fan - disliked the portrait of the great man in this film. He thought it was full of cliche and exaggeration. Me? I thought it was hilarious. If you know Hemingway’s work, you’ll have fun picking up a lot of Woody's sly touches. In this first meeting between Gil and Hemingway, for example, our protagonist quotes Hemingway back at him. “You like Mark Twain?” says Ernest of Gil, clearly sizing up his status as a writer:

“I’m actually a huge Mark Twain fan,” he replies; “and think you can even make the case that all modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn”.

Amusing, if you’re aware, as Gil is, of course, that this was Hemingway’s own opinion, expressed in print later in his book Green Hills of Africa (1935): “There has been nothing as good since.”

Corey Stoll as Hemingway - intense and earnest
When I saw the film in my local cinema there were several other viewers who laughed out loud with me whenever Stoll delivered one of these typical gems. Laughing in recognition, I hope - not derision. But I know what my friend means. I guess it depends what you want the film to do. I saw the Hemingway portrait as the presentation of a stock figure (although Stoll still manages to give it human warmth and depth) and a foil for Gil Pender; allows Allen to ruminate on the nature and art of writing.

In an interview, Corey Stoll said this about the way he approached playing Hemingway:

"I think what Woody Allen wanted was not for me to be Hemingway the person. He told me not to listen to recordings of him, or even read biographies. He really wanted me to be the Hemingway that you get when you read him. You know, he wanted me to be the writerly voice of Hemingway. And so I just stuck to his words".

On the next night of Gil Pender’s midnight trips back to the 1920s, he brings the manuscript of his novel; Hemingway had promised to show it to his friend and critic Gertrude Stein. We meet Stein and her long-time partner Alice B. Toklas in their apartment on Rue de Fleurus. Also present is Pablo Picasso and Adriana, played by the lovely Marion Cotillard - whom you may have seen previously in her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose. Adriana is a “fictional” figure. She is not an historical figure being parodied or imitated. In the plot she plays the serial muse and lover for a string of famous artists – she has had affairs with Modigliani and Braque, among others, before meeting up with Picasso. Hemingway has his eyes on her, too. Well, she is alluring. But she falls for Gil, the sensitive, neurotic type - not Hem, the virile braggart.

In future nighttime visits to 1920s Paris, Gil Pinder meets Louis Bunuel, Man Ray, T.S. Eliot, and Salvador Dali. Allen has fun riffing on things known to Gil and us informed film-goers. Gil makes a pitch to film-maker Bunuel, for example, about the subject for a film that wouldn’t be made until forty years later (The Exterminating Angel)!

Top-to-Bottom and Left-to-Right: Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Toulouse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), the Fitzgeralds (Alison Pill & Tom Hiddleston), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo)

Eventually, though, the focus shifts from these meetings with famous figures from the visual and literary arts to the growing romance between Gil and Adriana. Concern for the cleverness of the fantasy fades as we follow Gil’s deepening attachment to her. And by the end of the film, we realise that it’s lessons about life and love that matter, not the chance to meet and hang out with one’s idols from the past. Gil goes back in time to discover how to live in the present.

Graham Greene used to divide his books into two types: novels and entertainments. They were all novels, of course, but he considered some of them done more for fun and amusement (Our Man in Havana, for example), than as serious, literary works (The Heart of the Matter). Allen is like that, too. He has more serious work (Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours); and then there are the entertainments. This is one of these clever entertainments.

Does it succeed, then? Wonderfully so. First, it looks great. It’s shot in warm colours (yellows, oranges and reds), with the look of Kodachrome slides. The opening sequence is lovely; just like his film Manhattan (1979), which begins with a long portrait of New York City in three movements - day, night, and fireworks - accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Midnight in Paris begins with a similar sequence of familiar vistas of central Paris in three movements - day, daytime-rain, and rain at night - accompanied by the wonderfully atmospheric “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” by Sidney Bechet (one of the great early jazz musicians from New Orleans, who moved to Paris in the mid-1920s). The mood is set appropriately for sentiment and nostalgia.

Allen, as always has written and directed the film. The script is brilliant – mixing romance, comedy, and fantasy time-travel. This is the sort of stuff Allen can write in his sleep. It’s just so light and amusing and clever. Is anyone as good as he with romantic comedy? – think Annie Hall. He knows how to dramatize comically the tensions and neuroses between couples. And here he sets up a clever contrast between Gil-in-the-present and Inez, and between Gil-in-the-past and Adriana. And, ultimately, it’s the romantic relationship between Gil and Adriana that matters most, not the authorial friendship between him and Hemingway.

Marion Cotillard as Adriana and Owen Wilson as Gil Pender
Allen is also good at fantasy. He knows how to play it for laughs. But he can also be very clever and innovative with it. Think of The Purple Rose of Cairo, where characters and situations interact with each other into, and out of, a movie screen. Midnight in Paris is more conventional than that as a fantasy, time-travel plot. The fun here is mostly with watching the parodies of known figures from the past, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Salvador Dali. But he does come up with a brilliant idea near the end that gives the fantasy a clever twist. The criticism that the pompous English character Paul (played by Michael Sheen), gives of Gil’s fruitless search for a “golden age” is played out in the relationship between Pinder and Adriana. Gil is so mesmerised by her that he doesn’t see it. But, then, Gil is sucked back even further in time to Paris in the Belle Epoque (dinner at Maxim's, meeting with Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Degas, and Paul Gaugin) - Adriana’s own “golden age”. And here’s the kicker. Not only does she experience a trip back in time, but she decides to stay there – abandoning Gil to the 1920s, or is that the 2010s? It’s this event that finally prompts Gil to see the folly of his backwards-yearning, “golden-age” thinking.

Midnight in Paris has been Woody Allen’s most successful film in many years. And it’s easy to see why: shot in Paris; focused on a fascinating period of twentieth-century arts and culture; with a clever plot; and witty dialogue; and good performances. This is Woody at the top of his game. If you like his breezy, intelligent, funny style, this is one film you should not miss.

*footnote: Hemingway's complete Toronto Star Dispatches from 1920-1924 have been published in a volume called Dateline: Toronto (1985)

Monday, 13 February 2012

CD Review: Leonard Cohen - "Old Ideas"

The cover for the new CD, Old Ideas

Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen’s latest studio album – his twelfth – was released in Canada and the U.S. on January 31. I bought it on the first day of issue and have been listening to it regularly since. I started playing it in the car, commuting to and from work. Some of the arrangements, though, are quiet and subtle - often lost in the noises and distractions of the road. So last week I put it on regular rotation in the CD player in my den. A few days ago I began listening closely to it on the headphones. Frankly, there are very few albums these days that grab my attention like this. Ten new songs here – and each one a gem.

Leonard Cohen is on an amazing roll. Back in 2005, he announced that his former manager had misappropriated about five million dollars from his personal savings. He began a long campaign to recoup the money - for himself and his family. Book of Longing – a collection of poems and drawings – was published in May, 2006. And then, in January 2008, Cohen announced he was going back out on the road with a band - for an extended World Tour. It would be his first touring for fifteen years - beginning in Fredericton, New Brunswick on May 11, 2008, and finishing two-and-a-half years later on December 11, 2010 in Las Vegas. Incredibly, Cohen did 247 shows - in North America, Europe, the Middle East, New Zealand and Australia. Every show lasted at least three hours. Amazing for a man in his mid-70s!

Cohen was writing new material during this tour – a few new songs were added to the set-list. Once the tour was over, Cohen began thinking of putting together a new album, when he met Patrick Leonard - a record producer who had worked previously with his son Adam. They began collaborating: Cohen providing the lyrics, of course, and Leonard writing the music. They worked in the back yard at Cohen’s house – he has a small recording studio set up above the garage. They used Pro Tools, a computer audio software program. Patrick Leonard programmed, produced, arranged, engineered, and performed on four tracks.

Cohen then worked with sound engineer Ed Sanders, who had a small home studio of his own. Sanders worked as producer and engineer of another four tracks, all written solely by Cohen. And then Anjani Thomas and Dino Soldo produced one track each. Finally, Cohen’s touring band, directed by Roscoe Beck, play on one track (“Darkness”). But despite the diversity of these collaborations, Cohen has maintained a unity of sound and feeling. It’s a seamless vision, an artistic whole.

The master showman, in his now-trademark fedora, gives it his all during the recent World Tour

This is Leonard Cohen’s first studio album since Dear Heather in 2004. He’s a notoriously slow songwriter – often working on songs for years. In a BBC Radio interview I heard recently, he joked about it. He mentioned that he had been talking about the song-writing process once with Bob Dylan. They were in Paris, meeting for coffee the day after Dylan had done a show. Dylan asked him about his song “Hallelujah”, which he'd been performing in some of his concerts: 

“How long did that one take you, Lenny?”

“Oh, about two years, I guess,” he lied. It had actually taken him considerably longer.

“How about you, Bob? What about “I and I” (from Infidels).

“Oh, that one took me about fifteen minutes.” Cohen laughed.

So what are these “old ideas”, anyway? In an interview given in New York City, when Cohen was introducing the disc to the media, he said that this notion of old ideas refers to those “old, unresolved ideas, old moral questions … ideas that have been rattling around in the mind of the culture for a long time.” Of course, what he didn’t address directly, but which is also implied, is that Leonard Cohen is now 77 years old. Old being the operative word. The songs here are shot through with thoughts of death. It may not be his last album – but it might be. Here’s a man, one can’t help thinking, who is coming to grips with mortality. Pondering eternity. Writing his own eloquent epitaphs:

“I got no future; I know my days are few;
The present’s not that pleasant; Just a lot of things to do;
I thought the past would last me, but the darkness got that too.”  (“Darkness”)

But that’s not to say that the songs are morbid and depressing: there’s a lot of humour and self-deprecation. He’s serious, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously:

“I love to speak to Leonard,” the album begins – is it God speaking? – “he’s a sportsman and a shepherd” [sportsman?!]; “he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” How’s that for setting a tone!

He sings about love and desire - of course - even at 77, although he lets it slip in a humorous aside that he's just as happy "to leave it alone". He sings about faith and obedience, pain and depression, suffering and redemption.  Familiar ground. The lyrics are simple and direst - no elaborate metaphors, or poetic pretensions. And he hits some real zingers:

"Dreamed about you baby, you were wearing half your dress;
I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?" ("Anyhow")

Some of the songs are hymnic in style and attitude. Biblical language and religious images abound (mostly Christian, curiously – but that’s typical for Cohen, despite being a Zen-practising observant Jew!).

The sixteen-page booklet features lyrics, sketches and notebook entries by Cohen 

Musically, the album is wonderful. It’s a major improvement over his last album, Dear Heather (2004), which sounded under-produced – and dominated by computer-generated synth keyboards. Many of the songs here may have started in a similar fashion, but the keyboards are often mixed way back. There are a lot of interesting acoustic sounds in the arrangements: acoustic guitar - which Cohen plays on three tracks - slide guitar, cornet, trumpet, violin, and banjo. The bass lines are often provided by synthesizer, but the drumming  is mostly done with brushes . The arrangements are open and spacious; you can hear each element in the arrangement.

The vocals are what one has come to expect from a Leonard Cohen album. There's that familiar deep baritone - limited in its range, but certainly not limited in its expressiveness. The voice is even deeper now. Cohen gave up smoking a while ago (he mentions the fact in "Darkness"), and expected his voice to go up a bit - strangely, it dropped a little lower. Some of the vocals are closer to speech than song - an intimate whisper, almost. But that matches the music. And, as usual, there are the familiar female backing vocals used as lush underpinning to Cohen's singing. Cohen calls them his singing angels: on this album it's Sharon Robinson, Anjani Thomas and Jennifer Warnes; and the Webb Sisters (Hattie and Charley Webb) - part of his touring band. Angelic, indeed - offering gorgeous counterpoint to the gruff tones of Cohen's singing.

The music moves with a slow groove - there's some blues and a waltz, a shuffle and a lullaby. Cohen has always been thought of primarily as a poet putting verses to music. But he's always been very musical, and there's a loping swing that drives this stuff forward. He knows how to write a good melody. And he has impeccable taste in musical collaborators. You listen to Cohen for the words, for the insight, for the vision. But it always comes packaged in good music - a great blend. And this album is a perfect example. It will have you quickly hooked.

So, if you're a Leonard Cohen fan, this is one to get. An excellent album - good to listen to, thoughtful, and quite moving. Old ideas? Good ideas - delivered impeccably.  

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Book Review: "Foxy Lady" by David Kattenburg

[Full disclosure: the author, David Kattenburg, is a friend of mine. But I'm still happy to criticise the guy! Well, not him - the book.]

Foxy Lady - the twenty-five foot 'double-ender' anchored off Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand

On an early August evening in 1978 a small yacht named Foxy Lady – a twenty-five foot, Malaysian-built “double-ender” – was plying the waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Three young men were aboard – laid-back western adventurers in their late twenties. Two of them owned the boat, the third was along for the ride. They had left Kuala Terengganu on the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsula six days previously, and were making their way north about 900 kilometres across the Gulf to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand - perhaps, on a "Thai stick" run.

For some never-to-be-known reason, the boat was now a long way off course, close to the coast of Cambodia – or Democratic Kampuchea, as it was then called – a country which had been in the vicious grip of the Khmer Rouge for three devastating years. The three men may have made the fateful decision to get in close to land in order to grab some photographs of the coastline (one of them fancied himself a bit of a photo-journalist); or they may have been blown off course by a storm. Or, perhaps, it was merely a matter of some rather sloppy navigating. Whatever the cause may have been, it brought severe and fatal consequences.

They were on the south side of Koh Tang, an island lying about 45 kilometres off the coast, south-west of Kampong Saom and the Ream Naval Base. The men were probably unaware of the fact that the Khmer Rouge had recently declared a 200-mile exclusion zone off the Cambodian coast. Any vessel in that area would be considered an enemy, manned presumably by spies. Seemingly out of nowhere, a Khmer Rouge gunboat appeared, and immediately opened fire. One of the westerners was standing exposed on the deck of Foxy Lady. At six-foot-six he was an easy target. He was killed instantly by the hail of machine-gun bullets that raked the yacht. The other two men slipped over the side of their vessel and tried to hide. But they were quickly found. 

The young Cambodian sailors, Khmer Rouge zealots, transferred them to the gunboat and raced back to base. Foxy Lady, apparently, was abandoned – left to drift on the waves. A day or two later, the captives were moved by truck to the capital, Phnom Penh. They didn’t realise it at the time, but their dead friend had been the lucky one. His had been a quick death. They faced two months of imprisonment in the city’s infamous Security Office 21 (S-21). “Security Office” was a euphemistic misnomer. This was a death-camp. In just three short years, about 17,000 people were exterminated ruthlessly within its precincts: men, women and children - mostly Cambodians, but also foreigners, like the two young men from the Foxy Lady. They would live in squalid conditions in tiny cells, tortured until they fabricated for their captors tales of C.I.A. spying, and eventually executed by order of the Khmer Rouge leadership (the Standing Committee - about 10 key people - led by Pol Pot).

Almost thirty years later, in the fall of 2007, Canadian freelance journalist and broadcaster Dave Kattenburg was in S-21 - now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. He was looking through the museum’s photos archive, when he came across a picture of a westerner, an Australian – a “long-nose”, as a politically-incorrect Cambodian might put it. Kattenburg was intrigued. How did a westerner end up in S-21? And had there been others?

Stuart Robert Glass - murdered by the Khmer Rouge Navy
 Back home in Winnipeg that winter, Kattenburg did a google-search, using the terms “Tuol Sleng” and “foreigner”. As he read through the web pages that emerged - link by link - he discovered that there were nine western yachtsmen – four Americans, two Australians, a New Zealander, an Englishman and a Canadian – who had been seized from boats off the coast of Cambodia in four separate incidents. A Canadian? He had never heard before that a Canadian had died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The name of that man, he discovered, was Stuart Robert Glass, from Richmond in British Columbia. He was the six-foot-six man shot on the deck of the Foxy Lady. Kattenburg wanted to know more about this unknown figure; he decided to investigate. 

About eight months later he reported the results of his preliminary research in a feature article for The Globe and Mail in Toronto (August 16, 2008). But he knew he had the subject here for a book - his first book. The result of his long, four-year investigation is the book under review here: Foxy Lady: Truth, Memory and the Death of Western Yachtsmen in Democratic Kampuchea (The Key Publishing House, 2011).

This is an ambitious work. Focused primarily on the life and times of Stuart Glass, one of the co-owners of Foxy Lady (the other was New Zealander Kerry Hamill), it also gives you the history of Cambodia, charting the rise of the communist tyranny that was the Khmer Rouge - a small band of paranoid, psychopathic killers who laid waste to their own country. They were responsible for about 1.5 - 2 million deaths of their own people through execution, disease or starvation. About 17,000 people went through S-21. Virtually all of them were tortured and killed - then dumped outside the city in the “killing fields”. 

Kerry Hamill - tortured and executed in S-21
The Khmer Rouge tortured and killed anyone suspected of being an enemy: members of the previous regime, intellectuals, professional people, teachers, merchants, Vietnamese, Thais, Chinese – even, apparently, young, care-free western sailors who strayed into Cambodian waters by mistake.

Democratic Kampuchea was forced into a radical revolution.  Year Zero was announced - the beginning of a new age. A classless society was declared. Schools and hospitals were closed. The financial sector was eliminated – no banks, no currency, no finance. Private property was abolished. Everything was collectivised – mostly agricultural communes. People were forced – marched – out of the cities into the countryside. Collective farms were run with forced labour by people who knew nothing about agriculture. Crops failed. People were driven to exhaustion and then died easily of disease or starvation. And thousands and thousands were tortured and killed at S-21, including Stuart Glass’s two friends from Foxy Lady, New Zealander Kerry Hamill and Englishman John Dewhirst.

But the first part of the book is focused on the early life of Stuart, growing up in British Columbia. Kattenburg interviewed his mother and members of the extended family. He paints a picture of an affable adventurer – a “gentle giant” who liked to take risks and was uncomfortable with the confines of a middle-class upbringing. So he started to travel. He went to England, met a young woman who was also attracted to a life of travel and adventure – Susan Everard. They married. Stuart made visits down to Morocco, and started smuggling hashish back to England. On one of these runs he got caught and was sentenced in February, 1974 to six months in jail - inside HM Prison Wormword Scrubs in West London. Eventually Stuart and Susan decided to travel to Australia, taking the overland “hippie trail” across Europe, through the Middle east and into Asia. The details of these adventures would fascinate anyone like me, who grew up in the 60s and 70s and did some backpacking through Europe on “$5 a Day” or Asia on even less!

John Dewhirst - tortured and executed in S-21
Once the trajectory of Stuart Glass’s life of travel and adventure has been established, Kattenburg begins to alternate these biographical sections with chapters devoted to Cambodian history. And here’s where the book starts to falter. The amount of historical detail is far out of proportion with the amount that the average reader, even an interested and well-informed one, could reasonably be expected to deal with. And the material itself is based on secondary sources. The plethora of unfamiliar Cambodian place-names, political and military figures, for which we can only guess the correct pronunciations, makes this stuff hard to remember and hard to relate to.  If Kattenburg had had an editor, this material surely would have been cut dramatically.

Eventually, though, the historical account zeroes in on the particulars of the S-21 death camp and its commandant, Kaing Guek Eav – alias ‘Duch’. Again, the detail is immense; and coming at this stuff for the first time, it is difficult to follow the author's endless descriptions of the machinations amongst the various groups of Khmer Rouge leadership, at the local, regional and national levels.

Kaing Guek Eav - alias "Duch" (pronounced doik)
So the book veers uncomfortably between breezy sections of biography - full of human interest and incident, based on first-hand accounts - and difficult-to-digest exposition that wants to tell you everything, apparently, that the author has learned. One can see the strategy at work here: by alternating between biography and history, a sense of suspense and momentum is created – Stuart Glass’s life moving inexorably towards its fateful collision with Khmer Rouge forces. It also breaks up the dry stuff into more manageable chunks. But as Kattenburg starts to rely more and more on the testimony that Duch gave to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a judicial body convened eventually to investigate the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge leadership, one starts to worry about the reliability of the evidence. No wonder the author ponders issues of Truth and Memory in the book's closing pages. In some ways the book becomes as much about Duch as it is about Stuart Glass and the other yachtsmen.

Kattenburg’s book is well-written. The prose is clean and taut, and the style is good – although the author might want to check out the proper use of the semi-colon! There are some compelling sections in the book - the account of Glass's and Hamill's stay on Phuket Island is particularly interesting. And the closing sections, where Kattenburg seeks out former S-21 guards, is gripping - although ultimately inconclusive. He has shaped the story 'architecturally' to present it to its best advantage. Despite my reservations about the historical sections, the book is well organised and well thought-out. But the structure can't get away from the fact that the book's main protagonist, Stuart Glass, disappears from the stage two-thirds of the way through the book. And of this main character, one is left with the sense that the story here is more about an average Joe, notable not for anything remarkable that he did or achieved during his life, but simply that he and his friends were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They died a senseless, cruel death at the hands of an insane, murderous regime. But Kattenburg has certainly memorialised them in a sympathetic and admirable fashion.

Dave Kattenburg
 So, yes, for a first book, this is a tremendous achievement. I think with judicious and critical editing it could be even better. Regardless, it's a book I recommend. If you're interested in the history of Cambodia, you'll be captivated. If you can imagine yourself as a late-twenties hippy adventurer coming into a calamitous collision with an evil political despotism, this is an exciting story worth checking out.

To order:

Foxy Lady: Truth, Memory and the Death of Western Yachtsmen in Democratic Kampuchea 

Click on this and then follow the links: