For much of the past three months I have been in Europe (London and Stockholm) where I have particularly tried to take advantage of some of the glorious opportunities for theatre going. But I have managed to fit in some great reading and viewing (both cinema and TV) as well….
I have read 8 works of fiction over the past three months and they (predictably) have been variable. Some have really engaged me; others not so much. In order of what I’ve read:
Grand Hotel Europa by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer. This epic comedy of manners is set across the whole of Europe (but mainly Italy) and based mainly in the Grand Hotel Europa. It is auto-fiction in that the protagonist (an author named Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer) tries to make sense of his life by talking and writing about it amidst the faded grandeur of the hotel. Amongst other things, his life involves an erratic love affair and an ongoing art heist. But it is also a novel of ideas – mainly on the past and future of Europe and the impact of tourism on the European way of life. In fact, an unexpected funeral at the end (attended by many camera-clicking Chinese tourists) appears to maybe be a funeral for ‘old Europe’. Luckily, the protagonist’s ideas (explained in depth from time to time) are interesting enough to have kept me (mainly) engaged throughout.
Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova. This slim and highly-entertaining novel is a movie-buff’s dream. Narrated by Holly (Golightly?), it tells of a disparate young woman taking a job at a crumbling but exotic art-house cinema (‘The Paradise’) and her interactions with her co-workers (all colourful but rather desperate in their own ways) and sometimes her customers whose extreme messes she has to clean up. Because of their poor work conditions and low pay, Holly and her co-workers are compelled to spend all their work and non-work time together, watching old movies over and over, eating rubbish that only movie theatres can provide, drinking and drug-taking anything they find in the movie house and of course taking their sexual pleasure with each other, not always to a good end. The novel is like a glitzy funfair ride gone horribly wrong. The feeling is not so much ‘paradise’ but ‘paradise lost’. But it is still fun, and part of that fun is working out the connection between the title of each chapter (all are named after movies) and the content of the chapter – from Midnight Cowboy (just as Joe Buck arrives in New York envisaging glamour but knowing no one, so Holly arrives at ‘The Paradise’ and spots the sign ‘We’re hiring’) to Death in Venice (when all falls apart).
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty. Although not a long novel (at 330 pages) it is substantial in many ways and I understand why it won America’s prestigious National Book Award for 2022. Set in a fictional neglected rust-belt town and more specifically in a neglected housing complex (referred to as the ‘rabbit hutch’), it explores the lives of some key residents of the housing complex and how they deal with the complexities of the economic, social and environmental mess that surrounds them. We know what happens to the central character from the first sentence (“On a hot night in Apartment C4, Blondine Watkins exits her body”) and the book leads us – through the inter-connected stories of the residents and various other characters – to how that “exit” happened. It is also a novel of Big Ideas about contemporary American society, and sometimes these Big Ideas (along with Blondine’s spiritual musings) get in the way of the taut and beautiful story-telling. But only sometimes… Overall, I recommend this novel.
The New Life by Tom Crewe. Not only is The New Life the title of this debut novel, but it is also the name of the utopian society that its central characters pursue. It is a society in which one’s personal freedoms and sexual preferences become one’s own concern, rather than the concern of a political and social world that has just committed Oscar Wilde to two year’s hard labour. Naively, two writers of the period (both based on real characters and with complicated personal lives) think that a book they co-authored on ‘sexual inverts’ will help society move toward this new life. It of course has the opposite effect. On the whole beautifully written in an elegant fin-de-siecle manner, this extraordinary novel brings the underworld of 1890s London wonderfully to life. It possibly becomes just a little too melodramatic toward the end, but I do look forward to Tom Crewe’s next novel. Could he be the Alan Hollinghurst of the 21st century?
The End of Nightwork by Aidan Cottrell-Boyce. This is a strange novel but by the end I liked it very much. On the surface, it is a about a man’s largely domestic life (set between London and Ireland) who suffers from a rare hormonal disorder that means his body ages in rapid spurts rather than gradually like most of us. But his obsession with a fictional seventeenth-century soothsayer (Bartholomew Playfere) moves it into a novel exploring ecological disaster and the end of the world. He also develops an obsession with a political movement that pits the young against the old and this moves the novel rapidly forward in its final third. It is largely a novel of ideas and I admit that I struggled to make connections between some of them. But the main character’s life fascinated me immensely and I suspect that this book will linger in my mind. I read it because the author has been nominated as a ‘best new novelist’ by Granta magazine – I look forward to his next novel.
The Kingdom of Sand by Andrew Holleran. Although beautifully written, this novel rather depressed me and I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, especially to people of a certain age. As an exploration of an older gay man experiencing some of the indignities of growing old (both his fun times and his friends are slowly disappearing), it is arguably ‘too close to home’ for me. Some critics have described Holleran’s reflections on loneliness, illness and death as ‘funny and heartbreaking’; I didn’t find this so. I finished the novel, but only in recognition of an author who wrote one of the true classics of American gay literature (Dancer From the Dance) 45 years ago.
Lessons by Ian McEwan. I really enjoyed and admired McEwan’s latest novel. Having enjoyed and admired his work for many years, this novel is as good as any of his that I have read. The life-story of a mid-20th century/early-21st century everyman Roland Baines, it also covers the political and social events that sit behind this life – from the end of World War 2 to the third UK Covid lockdown, with events such as the Falklands War, Chernobyl and the fall of the Berlin Wall coming in between. But it also explores key lessons that Roland learns from life, mainly from strong female characters – from his piano teacher who sexually abused him as a young teenager but taught him the power of forgiveness; from his first wife who deserted him and their baby son to find herself as a literary phenomenon but teaches him the power of acceptance; and from his second wife who shows him how to die gracefully. I highly recommend this beautifully written novel.
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. This is an excellent novel and I enjoyed reading it very much. The reviews have been mixed but I sit on the positive side. On the surface, it is a political thriller (set in the South Island back country in 2017) and un-put-downable in its final third. Featuring a ‘cast’ of New Zealand and American characters – from a group of rather hapless hippies intent on pursuing sustainable ideals, to a baddie billionaire determined to triple his wealth no matter what the cost to others – it involves the various interactions between these characters and others as they strive to get what they want. Very few characters are as they appear – even the would-be journalist Tony, who looks as if he is going to become the hero and the saviour, admits at one point that he ‘just wants to become famous’. But, underneath it, the novel is about the ethics of greed in today’s technological world. The baddie believes that he will be ‘untouchable’ because, he suggests, everyone ultimately wants what he wants – and it looks as if he might be right…. Yes, it does have rather a slow start, but Catton writes both beautifully and powerfully and if you stick with the novel, I believe that you too will ultimately like it as much as I did.
Upon arriving in London, I moved straight into booking tickets for some of the hottest shows in town – well, shows that I wanted to see anyway.
Noises Off. I first saw this classic play (by Michael Frayn) in Wellington in the 1980s. it made me laugh so much then and it still does, 40 years on. A group of actors and backstage crew (all with their own stories to tell) putting on a stage farce in which everything goes wrong, we see all their shenanigans both from backstage and from frontstage. And who wouldn’t want to see a show that starred the delightful Felicity Kendall (now aged 80+) and she was as delightful as ever. This is the sort of play that has to be revived every 10 years or so. There will always be an audience for it
Oklahoma. I don’t think I have ever seen a stage production of this classic Rogers & Hammerstein musical from the 1940s, and what an introduction to it. It was anything but a traditional production but I loved it for that. It was pared right back to its basics. A bunch of diverse actors ambled on to the stage and just sat around tables and benches and a small orchestra was brightly lit in front of us. But a feeling of menace soon pervaded as one took in the dozens of rifles displayed around the walls. This feeling of menace was further excluded as the top notch actors and singers (many from the Broadway production) got into their stride – even The Surrey With the Fringe on Top wasn’t safe. Everything came alive and it was utterly fascinating and engrossing.
Guys and Dolls. This glorious American musical from the 1940s was a much more traditional production but was equally engrossing. The Bridge Theatre has been totally renovated for it and we sat in-the-round with audience members in the ‘cheap’ seats actually able to mingle amongst the actors and singers and almost become part of the show. It worked, largely because a crew of ‘New York cops’ very cleverly moved the crowds around. Rostrums emerged from nowhere as crowds were shunted backwards and forwards. And, of course, the singing and dancing (of such fabulous numbers as Luck Be a Lady Tonight and Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat) were amazing. It had just opened but already is the hottest number in London.
Phaedra. I had never seen a production of this Greek tragedy (about a woman falling in love with her step-son) and am so grateful that I got a chance to see this up-dated version of it (set in today’s London) at the National Theatre. Starring the wonderful Janet McTeer (who gave a bravura performance as the title character), it was set inside a series of glass cages (one was the inside of an upmarket restaurant where the rest of the customers tried to subtly ignore champagne being thrown in the main characters’ faces!!) and had me totally engaged as it moved inevitably toward its tragic finale. It was probably the best show I saw in London on this visit.
Medea. I also had the opportunity to see another Greek tragedy (this time about a woman reduced to slaughtering her nearest and dearest) and, again, I’m so pleased that I took the opportunity. Starring the equally wonderful Sophie Okenedo (giving an equally bravura performance), this production particularly intrigued me with its staging. Set in-the-round and playing at the brand-new Sohoplace Theatre (the first West End theatre to be built in the past 50 years), a large part of the performance was set in the rain!! This certainly added to the drama of the piece. When I wondered afterwards why Phaedra engaged me just that little bit more than Medea did, it was probably the magic of the National Theatre that did it for me.
Trouble in Butetown. I love the Donmar Warehouse as a production house and will always see a show there if I can. But this new play (set in multicultural Cardiff toward the end of WWII and about a family sheltering a black American GI from the military authorities) slightly disappointed me. The story rang true; it looked great; and some of the performances (especially Sarah Parish as the mother) were fabulous, but others were less convincing, meaning that sometimes the emotions got lost or muddled. Well, for me anyway.
Hair. I saw this new and updated version (the war in Ukraine was going on almost next door!!) of the classic American hippy musical soon after we arrived in Sweden. Yes, it was acted and sung in Swedish but I decided to go because I know the words of every song in it and felt that I would be able to follow what was going on. And by and large I could, just as I could when I saw it in Norwegian in Oslo 5 years ago!! By the end of this exuberant, very slick and very colourful production (with its dark anti-war edges), I wanted to leap on stage and see Let the Sunshine In, just as I have wanted to at the conclusion of every production of the show I have seen. I resisted the temptation.
Tar. I finally caught up with this award-winning movie that I had missed in New Zealand. Unlike some of my friends, I loved it. yes, it’s largely plotless and it’s very long, but it’s a tale of obsession and once I clicked on that it was largely happening in the main character’s head, I went along with it. I personally was incredibly moved by the main character’s downfall (an internationally-renowned conductor played by the wonderful Cate Blanchett) and admired the film-making very much.
Babylon. This was another movie that I had missed in New Zealand and was pleased to have caught up with it. Starring Brad Pitt (cast fabulously against type) and Margot Robbie, this (again very long) movie about the exuberances of early Hollywood and the arrival of the talkies, Its hugeness and over-indulgence intrigued me and it reminded me very much of one of my favourite movies from 2021, Nightmare Alley. It also has the feel of the best of Quentin Tarantino about it.
Aftersun. This is another movie that I really liked once I got inside the main characters’ heads, for much of it happens there. A young dad (played by the Irish actor Paul Mascal using a Scottish accent) takes his young daughter to Turkey for a holiday and although nothing much happens there (well, nothing terribly dramatic anyway), you realise that the young girl’s subsequent life has been heavily influenced by that holiday. Did her dad end up taking his own life? Slow and occasionally ponderous, I was very moved by this movie.
Close. This beautiful Belgian movie (which I saw in London between theatre trips) is the story of an intense adolescent friendship (largely set in the country-side) that leads to tragedy. Two young lads are devoted to each other but things change when one boy over-reacts to the (rather harmless) taunts of others and the other boy cannot understand what is happening. This was another movie that moved me very much indeed.
Air. This American movie, ostensibly about Michael Jordan’s relationship with Nike, is actually about American commercialism and its (ultimately positive) impact on two Nike bosses, played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. But the star of the movie as far as I’m concerned is Viola Davis as Jordan’s incredibly strong but laid-back mother. She gives a fabulous supporting performance. Like many of Affleck’s films (he directed it as well as starred in it), it has ‘something to say’ and is very engaging. But ultimately I felt that I could have seen it as a made-for-TV movie. Not a criticism; just an observation.
P.S Have just noticed that all of the movies I have seen have had single-word titles!!
As we cannot watch local TV in Sweden (because of obvious language barriers), we watch far more Netflix series here than we might back home. But this has given me the chance to not only watch some fabulous new series but also catch up with older series that I have been meaning to watch.
Delhi Crime. This is a series, based on real-life stories and filmed in the streets of Delhi and surrounding villages, that friends recommended to me about a year ago. Two crimes are explored in the first 10 episodes – a young woman being gang raped on a moving bus, and a gang robbing and murdering elderly rich people – and the intrigue is not so much about the solving of the cases but the politics that surrounds them. You know early on ‘who-dunnit’ but it is how they are apprehended that is fascinating and the impact this has on the police offers’ lives, especially the chief detective and her family. Indian police tactics and their work conditions also fascinated me as a non-Indian viewer. I highly recommend this series.
Transatlantic. This series, about a group of fascinating (mainly) Americans using intriguing means to help Jewish immigrants flee to safety from Marseilles near the beginning of WWII, is another very entertaining series. But this is more than a tale of adventure for it is based on a true story and some of the evacuees include the artists Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp and the philosopher Hannah Arendt. It walks however between comedy, drama and almost farce and surrealism from time to time, and sometimes – as entertaining as it is – the balance does not quite work. For me, anyway.
The Diplomat. This is another American political series but one that is more successful in my view. A career diplomat is suddenly posted to the United Kingdom as Ambassador and it soon comes clear that this is a not an accidental posting. Some huge international events are blowing up around her and she and her husband (who one learns is itching to become Secretary of State) are left the defuse the mess created by others. Again, I highly recommend this series, especially if you are as fascinated by American (and British) politics as I am. Is it really about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris?
Women at War. This was playing in New Zealand when I left and I am so pleased that I have caught up with it. Set in France near the beginning of WWI, it intersperses the stories of four French women (one of whom is played by the wonderful Audrey Fleurot) who have to show both bravery and devotion to keep themselves and others around them safe from not only the German army but also less scrupulous French citizens. This series fascinated me and moved me a lot.
The Night Agent. As highly entertaining as this series is, about underhand shenanigans in the White House, I would not rate it terribly highly. I would agree with an IMDB reviewer who headlined their review, ‘Entertaining watch, but you have to suspend logic and intelligence’. I would agree. Full of goodies and baddies and I think I knew who the baddies were right from episode 1. Still, as I say, highly entertaining.
And finally Succession. While on a little excursion to Aland (a Finnish island between Sweden and Finland) we stayed with friends who subscribe to HBO. So we were able to see the first 3 episodes of the latest series of Succession. Spectacularly good. Episode 3 in particular had me on the edge of my seat. Can’t wait to get back to New Zealand to see where it all goes.