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February 05, 2010

A Review of Rinne Groff's Compulsion, the Preview

Writing about web page http://www.yalerep.org/on_stage/2009-10/compulsion.html

Venue: Yale Repertory Theatre
Date: 2nd February 2010
[Contains spoilers]

Compulsion is a play about a play that plagiarises a play about a book. It is that complex! The idea for Compulsion apparently came from an article in a New York newspaper titled ‘An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and the Diary’ ( see interview in New Haven Register). The feature caught the eye of the writer Rinne Groff and she went on to create an entire play based on the life of the Jewish writer Meyer Levin , who was one of the first American journalists to become aware of the diary of Anne Frank . The title of the play is, of course, riffing on Levin’s 1956 book Compulsion about the Leopald and Loeb case . In this play, however, it refers not to a crime, but to Levin’s obsession with the Anne Frank diaries and his turmoil when his own adaptation of the play is rejected for a version that is ‘less Jewish’.

In Groff’s play, Levin becomes Sid Silver, a doppelganger that Levin created for himself in his own writing, and the play moves beyond the biographical. The play is divided into three parts:
*the discovery of Anne Frank’s diary and Sid Silver’s deal with Doubleday Publishing to write a play version;
*Silver losing the rights to the play and his legal battle with Doubleday and the “other play’s” producers;
*and his move to Israel where he tries to create a new production of his Anne Frank play.

Sid Silver is played by Mandy Patinkin who works hard to make us understand his character’s obsession. Hannah Cabell is excellent too in her two roles as the ambitious and amoral Miss Mermin who represents Doubleday publsihing; and the long-suffering wife of Sid Silver, one of the most sympathetic characters in the whole play. Sid Silver is attracted to both women and this doubleness seems to say something about Sid’s perception of womanhood itself. Stephen Baker Turner is also good playing a succession of anti-Jewish/anti-Sid businessmen and lawyers; he is also convincing in the more sympathetic role of Mr. Matzliach who sets up a production of Sid’s play with Israeli youth, only to find that Sid has signed an agreement never to produce the play.

One of the most spectacular actors in the play is Anne Frank herself who appears in a number of eerie scenes in puppet form (manipulated by puppeteers Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley and Eric Wright). In one especially memorable scene, Mrs Silver wakes in bed only to find the puppet there between her and her husband. They begin a conversation in which the wife begs Anne to leave her husband alone, and Anne Frank’s replies – ominously voiced by Patinkin himself – offer little hope that the girl will be forgotten.

So the eerie presence of the puppets and the precision of the actors makes this play worth watching, but there is something missing. It is, of course, difficult to make a book deal and its consequent legal wranglings into a proper subject for drama, and there is something lacking in the exchanges of dialogue. It is obvious where this play is going and I could have predicted what happened from beginning to end after the opening scene. There are not many surprises here, and while it could be said that this is down to the connection to the real-life story of Meyer Levin, we are told that the play departs from this biography so why not surprise us? The extracts of the “Anne Frank plays” acted out by the puppets only reflect badly on the dialogue in the actual play which seems to be lacking energy and originality.

There are a lot of jokes surrounding Jewishness, but most of these have been done to death. When a lawyer asks Sid Silver, ‘D’you’, and he replies, ‘Jew?’, you immediately think of Woody Allen in Annie Hall and wonder why a more original line wasn’t found for the exchange. Sid Silver’s quest to foreground the Jewish issue is sympathetic however, and the play does make you wonder about the extent of post-war anti-semitism in the US. When the play moves to Israel for its final scenes, Sid becomes less sympathetic in his views about neighbouring arab states, and his wife is set up as a foil, expressing more pacifist views about relations with others. The writer holds up an irony here: that Sid begins his quest fighting for the rights of a minority and the suffering of the Holocaust, but ends by celebrating the beginning of a new war because it gives his play a better chance of being produced. Some of the scenes in which he expresses his views about Palestine/Israeli relations are very uncomfortable.

One of the most successful parts of the play is the relationship between Sid Silver and his wife. Some of the most entertaining exchanges feature Sid in the stereotypical feminine role of non-logic and emotion and his wife as a voice of reason. This reversal works well and is one of the most entertaining aspects of the play.


July 14, 2008

The Weeping Woman: Review of Deborah Miranda and Pascale Petit

Book front cover
Title:
The Zen of La Llorona / The Huntress
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

Deborah Miranda. The Zen of La Llorona. Cambridge: Salt. £8.99
Pascale Petit. The Huntress. Bridgend: Seren. £7.99

The Mexican folktale of La Llorona, sometimes known as the ‘weeping woman’ tells a story of infanticide as a lineage of violence is passed down from the conquering Spanish conquistador to the oppressed Mexican woman who must father his child. The power of this story filters into two new poetry collections: Deborah Miranda’s The Zen of La Llorona and Pascale Petit’s The Huntress.

The Zen of La Llorona begins in the voice of La Llorona’s child. In ‘Three Months Without Electricity’, the daughter struggles to understand her mother’s coldness:

In the warm water, I am first a fish,
then a dark seal, then a turtle, peering out of my ocean
to see the wax well up, lucid, drench
the burning air of my mother’s silence.

The metrical and alliterative emphases of the first two lines fall on words describing water creatures. Like La Llorona’s drowned infant, the child is intimate with the river and water. The image of wax welling up is ambiguous: does ‘welling up’ evoke an outpouring of tears or does it refer to frozen and repressed feelings? The ambiguity of La Llorona is clear; in murdering her own children she must lack emotion, yet she is the weeping woman. The miscommunication between mother and daughter is clear in the image of blistering silence.

Later in the collection, Miranda’s view shifts and in ‘Driving Past Suicide for Three Novembers’, the voice is that of La Llorona herself:


When I arrive home tonight
my husband will reach for me in the dark–
his need, his comfort, his right.
Who will tell my children
marriage is more
than a glistening soul
served up on a silver platter?

The conversational tone of delivery is disarming as it builds to a final image of appetite and consumption. In a style dominated by monosyllabic words and avoiding regular meter, Miranda describes the horror of the marriage matter-of-factly. This angle views La Llorona from a different perspective. Miranda admits that a legacy of suffering can emerge in the relationship with one’s children, because pain is distancing and difficult to explain.

The Zen of La Llorona maps a journey through suffering towards understanding, yet it deals with not only women’s pain, but with the distress of all outsiders. In ‘After San Quentin’, Miranda discusses her family name and the Spanish language:


In Spain it used to mean looking.
Here, Miranda means you have the right
to remain silent…
it means
our own words can and will
be used against us; it means
a court of law is not surprised
to find my father, again and again, within its gates…

Miranda’s father wants to retain the difference, the specific name, that links him to his ancestors and roots, yet to have a Spanish-language name in North America is to be defined as a criminal. The irony is that such a pronouncement is self-fulfilling and brutal social judgements create a lineage of suffering to the father and his extended family.

The idea of lineage is also present in Petit’s The Huntress, which juxtaposes colonial violence and gender conflict. Some critics have made the mistake of thinking that Petit’s The Huntress is set amongst the flora and fauna of the Amazon, but, drawing on Aztec myths of blood sacrifice, The Huntress uses a Mexican setting—few realise that Mexico contains its own rainforest.

Reviewers can be forgiven for missing this point, since Petit’s earlier collection, The Zoo Father, was set in the Amazon. Like The Zoo Father, The Huntress represents confrontation with an abusive parent, but here it is the mother. The narrative of La Llorona is at the heart of the collection, as the daughter-narrator uses Aztec mythologies as a means to communicate and understand. The initial reception of Petit’s collection has been somewhat preoccupied by the intense anger directed at the mother. In ‘At the Gate of Secrets’, the narrator tells how she will only be reconciled with her mother in ‘the grave / where we will torment one another’. Yet in other poems, such as ‘The Rattlesnake Mother’, the daughter states, ‘I think now how hard it was for her / to be a rattlesnake’. Petit’s poetry is designed to subvert readers’ expectations about female relationships and there will never be a Hollywood ending with saccharine tears and reconciliation. Sometimes Petit’s subversiveness can seem inflammatory, such as in ‘Portrait of my Mother as Coatlicue’:


Like Cortes, I found her monstrous
and would have preferred
to bury her in the cathedral crypt.

Coatlicue is a monstrous mother-goddess who in Aztec mythology wore a Medusa-like skirt of snakes. The daughter views Coatlicue with anxiety reminiscent of male fears about the female body and sexual appetite. In mentioning Cortez, Petit makes the connection here between the female body and the Orientalist view of other cultures: the ‘exotic’ and ‘sinister’ Aztec temples become the foundations for Roman Catholic cathedrals, just as the female body is appropriated to create a patriarchal lineage. What is so unnerving about this poem is Petit’s positioning of her daughter-narrator as Cortes, the coloniser, and it is problematic to consider where this comparison leads. Yet the narrator relents, stating: ‘But she was my mother, / as much a victim as a devourer.’ As in The Zen of La Llorona, the narrator of The Huntress comes to recognise that her mother’s violence and cruelty are inherited from her own experiences of pain. One of the most powerful poems, ‘Lunettes,’ creates a chain of association that begins with her father’s ‘glasses in the moonlight’ working its way through image after imager, until Petit finds an explicit motif for men’s brutality and women’s pain: ‘a forked iron plate / into which the stock of a field-gun carriage is inserted’.

Kei Miller's The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies

Writing about web page http://www.readysteadybook.com/BookReview.aspx?isbn=0954881125

Book front cover
Title:
Kingdom of Empty Bellies
Author:
Kei Miller
ISBN:
0954881125
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

I was just long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize with Kei Miller, a poet that I have a high opinion of. Here is my review of one of his early collections (published by my friends at the Heaventree Press) which appeared on RSB:

The epigraphs of Kei Miller’s debut collection, The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies, come from the Bible (‘For out of your bellies shall flow rivers of living water’ John 7.38) and from the revolutionary Bob Marley song, ‘Them belly full (but we hungry)’. Throughout the collection, the characters struggle to reconcile the contradictions of church and rum-bar, of religion and suffering, of seeming respectability and revolutionary struggle.

The first section is entitled ‘Church Women’, a sequence reminiscent of Lorna Goodison’s Guinea Women. Like Goodison, Miller creates matriarchs of grand proportions, yet Miller’s poems are not quite so benevolent. ‘Hats’ describes ‘a Sunday museum of felt’ in which ‘a boy will be wedged / between fat women’. Miller describes the boy’s view of ‘stiff circles of mesh’ as being like ‘satellite antennas’. The women’s Sunday headgear, redolent of aspirations and the desire for respectability, orbits the boy’s viewpoint. Miller explains the boy’s distance from the women:


And child-logic being ‘crowns
are chiselled from blocks of gold,
tattooed with ivy vines,
stippled with blue diamonds’,
the boy will not see the majesty
in these women;
he will not understand
their purple claim:

We not God’s children!
We are his wives.


The compound phrase, ‘child-logic’, recalls the ‘child-eye’ of David Dabydeen’s ‘Catching Crabs’ and as in Dabydeen’s poem, a mature narrator looks back on a child’s view of family events and happenings. In Miller’s poem, the young boy cannot envision the grandeur that the women imagine for themselves or their queenly, ‘purple’ desire for the regal. Yet the regret of the narrator’s tone shows a viewpoint that is both critical and loving and Miller reaches towards a reconciliation between the young, critical male and the magnificent mothers.

These poems are always based in the heart of the community and family and Miller reiterates the flawed yet admirable characters that inhabit it. In ‘Aquaphobia’, the mother’s act of teaching her children to swim by throwing them into deep water may seem unkind, but the narrator is adamant that ‘all / these years we have floated on her faith’. These women are heroic and inspiring. For example, ‘Noctiphobia’ tells how Miller’s grandmother was cursed to suffer six miscarriages, but through the ‘curse breaking magic’ of the number seven gave birth to a son. Yet some of Miller’s poems are more acerbic such as ‘This is an apology’ which functions as half-retort, half-lament for a Trinidadian woman whose experience of sex is only the permission of ‘just a few thrusts – / always, always in the darkness’.

If these characters represent the inhabitants of Jamaica, the physical landscape itself is invoked in the surreal vision of ‘In Dream Country’, in which the speaker of the poem becomes an instrument to gauge the strange happenings of an imaginary country. Like the act of creation in Genesis, the poem’s structure describes the formation of a place day by day. On Monday, Miller envisions lions escaping from the zoo, stampeding cows and horses and ‘old West Indian / writers knelt / behind feeble latches’. While the animals are full of life, movement and violence, the writers seem to be strangely passive and vulnerable. Tuesday’s matriarchal cow rejects both its offspring and the virile stallion father, yet V.S. Naipaul appears riding a ‘black lion’ proclaiming the fires that burn for Marley, Selassie and Rastafari. Wednesday is omitted as if something is lacking at the centre of Miller’s act of creation, yet Thursday brings further delights as the animals burn tyres, lament on TV-J and baptise themselves. Friday itself is invoked as ‘an abandoned child’, whose missing parents light ‘a candle for Derek Walcott’, while predatory animals and duppies ‘dance a careless bacchanal’ singing the lack of this chaotic country. The presentation of bizarre, difficult images works as an antidote to poetry’s sometimes careless evocation of place and nation and for this reason it is the pinnacle of Miller’s achievement.

The final section, ‘Rum Bar Stories’ reaches towards more modern inhabitants of Jamaica and it is structured with recipes for cocktails and alcoholic drinks. Each poem offers another story and while the characters here seem to be less bound up with the myth of community, they still have a certain authenticity. ‘Reggae Sunsplash’ is striking as it describes the lament of a barmaid. Watching a jazz singer, she thinks how he creates ‘clean purple notes / out of cancers’ and she sees in him the key to escape:


[He] really knew a place
where ain’t nobody crying
and ain’t nobody worried
and ain’t no men
coming in crusted
with a day’s leftover cement,
calling her whichever name
they chose that day […]

Like the earlier stories of church women, the barmaid has aspirations for an unreachable goal. The initial refrains are musical as they express the place of refuge so desired by the young woman, yet the monosyllabic phrase, ‘no men’, creates a change and the prosaic style that follows reveals how her aspirations conflict with mundane reality: the cement, the men’s demands, her own humiliation.

Lack and emptiness are themes that dominate The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies, yet it is Miller’s self sacrifice, his devotion to the stories of others and his commitment to observing the happenings of the landscape that enable this collection. Referring back to his epigraph from John 7.38, Miller’s role is rather like that of the Holy Ghost creating a wealth of ‘living waters’ out of his own absence. Miller becomes the critical and loving deity of his own imagination, his own culture.


July 17, 2007

Memory and Mourning

Book front cover
Title:
Portrait in Sepia
Author:
Isabel Allende
ISBN:
0007123019
Rating:
Not rated

Portrait in Sepia picks up where Daughter of Fortune left off with Eliza Sommers accepting the apothecary, Tao Chi’en, as her husband after a long quest to find her childhood sweetheart who is lost forever. If Daughter of Fortune is all about the chances taken in youth, Portrait in Sepia is far more regretful manner even while it is told from the point of view of a youthful narrator: Eliza Sommer’s grand-daughter, Aurora del Valle. The narrative of the book revolves around loss, as it maps out Aurora’s mourning for her beautiful dead mother and her missing grandparents, Eliza and Tao, all lost when she was an infant. Similarly, her real father, Matias de Santa Cruz is missing and her adopted father Severo del Valle gives her name and an inheritance but no real relationship. Where as Daughter of Fortune is about the gifts in shrugging off family and belonging, Portrait in Sepia considers the terrible loss when family life is snatched away too soon.

The one anchoring force in Aurora’s life is Paulina de Valle, mother of her real father and aunt to her adopted father, who also appeared as the shrewd businesswoman of Daughter of Fortune. It is Paulina who must take up the task of bringing Aurora up, initially in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of nineteenth century California and later in Chile against a magnificent backdrop of political machinations and war. Cloistered from the world through her grandmother’s riches, Aurora tells the story of this period in history through her own interpretation of the events in the lives of others. For example the description of Severo del Valle’s experience of the War of the Pacific is grotesque, frenzied and gut-wrenching. This capturing of others and their stories encompasses the significance of the title, Portrait in Sepia, which also refers to Aurora’s interest in photography which acts for her as a way of remembering and preserving experience. Aurora is a memory keeper and an inheritor of the family history, which, as she states that she will never have children, stops with her. Where as Daughter of Fortune is about moving outwards to find new chances and new opportunities for life and freedom, Portrait in Sepia is a movement towards home, preservation and history. The novel is also an interesting companion to The House of the Spirits and some of the characters from that book, such as Nivea (Clara’s mother), appear as youthful versions of themselves to remind us of the next stage in Chile’s history. The heroine of The House of the Spirits, Alba, has much in common with Aurora, and they seem to exist as parallel versions of a particular heroine, since both of their names refer to the dawn. Aurora is almost a prototype for Alba, although Aurora has less freedom and Alba experiences more suffering.


June 11, 2007

In Praise of Love

Book front cover
Title:
By the Light of My Father's Smile
Author:
Alice Walker
ISBN:
070434646X
Rating:
Not rated

By The Light of my Father’s Smile is held together by a construct that at first seems artificial initially: a father is looking down on his daughter after his own death.

She was not even aware at the time of my death that she missed me. Poor child. She did not cry at my funeral. She was a stoic spectator. Her heart, she thought, was closed. (3)

As an atheist, I found the idea of an afterlife from which the father was speaking a little disappointing. However it becomes far more interesting when reading on, because we discover that the tradition drawn on is that of the Mexican “Mundo” tribe, the philosophy of which features prominently in this book. On the one hand, the journey of the book is towards the reconciliation of the father and his daughers, Susannah and Magdelena. However the title does not only refer to the relationship of children and parents. It is also about the sublime experience of love-making, since the “Mundo” tribe, describe the sickle moon as a father’s smile blessing the procreative cycles, which allow sexual intercourse to be fruitful. At the beginning of the book, it is clear that sex for the daughters is a transgression and the journey towards reconciliation with the father is also a path towards healing their view of love-making.

In Walker’s vision, a reconciliation of familial and sexual difficulties can only be allowed when the whole family has recounted its narrative and is at peace. For this reason, the narration moves between relatives, who all contribute to the telling of the family story. Flashing back to Susannah’s and Magdelena’s childhood, the family voices tell how the parents are denied funding to study the “Mundo” tribe, ‘a tiny band of mixed-race Blacks and Indians’ due to institutional racism (14). However as a family linked to the black church, the family can become missionaries, in order to live in Mexico and secretly study the “Mundo”. Walker’s novel is ultimately a passing narrative that depicts the hateful atmosphere emerging in an atheist family passing as Christians. The father, named only with the formal title Señor Robinson, describes how he is ‘sucked into the black cloth’ of the priest’s costume and his only relief is secret, transgressive sexual pleasure when making love to his wife Langley (156).

Yet in hiding his own sexual pleasure, Señor Robinson also enforces his rule on his daughters, the uncertain Susannah and the more wayward, Magdelena. From Magdelena to Maggie to Mad Dog to June, Magdelena’s names map her course: from the innocence of childhood; to the adoption of “Mundo” peoples’ values (including a belief in the crazy wisdom of the mad dog); to the repression and domestication of her natural sexual instinct. Magdelena’s story is the most touching, as Walker conjures regret and the acceptance of lost ideals vividly.

Yet the centre of the story is Susannah, who must learn to forgive her sister for inadvertently driving the family apart. In the process of this education, Susannah takes on many mentors: women who have had to fight in a society that frowns on difference. For example, Irene, the Greek dwarf, escapes the confinement of her place in society, while Susannah’s lover, Lily-Pauline, manages to build her own restaurant empire in spite of her experience of rape, a loveless marriage and poverty. In the case of each woman, she is saved by the redemptive qualities of friendship and physical love, which leaves the reader like Susannah ‘peering through the mist of the orgasm itself […] seeking what is essentially beyond it’ (190).


April 13, 2007

Towards a Minor Literature (Article for PN Review)

Book front cover
Title:
Chaotic Angels: Poems in English: Collected Poems
Author:
Gwyneth Lewis
ISBN:
1852247231
Rating:
Not rated

Gwyneth Lewis, Chaotic Angels: Poems in English (Bloodaxe, 2006). £9.95.


Creu gwir in these stones
Fel gwydr horizons
O ffwrnais awen sing.


This untitled poem is Gwyneth Lewis’ most prominent, as it appears in carved letters on the Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff. The poem is preoccupied with gwir or truth and the difficulty of communicating authentically. The problem of defining place is significant, since stones hold fragile horizons of gwydr (glass). The role of the poet is to melt the transparency of glass or truth in the ffwrnais awen, the furnace of the muse or poetic gift. These themes – communication, home, poetic inspiration – are present in Lewis’ Chaotic Angels: Poems in English, which brings together three collections to create a formidable body of work.

Chaotic Angels covers ten years of Lewis’ writing in English encompassing her early collection Parables and Faxes (1995), the playful Zero Gravity (1998) and the pinnacle of her achievement, Keeping Mum (2003). For the first time, the reader is able to map her journey towards the role that Lewis played as the National Poet of Wales. The book suggests the importance of Lewis’ English-language work, yet she is also a poet of Cymraeg (the Welsh language) who describes bilingualism as a feeling that ‘not everyone understands the whole of your personal speech’. One cannot help wondering why a volume mapping the trajectory of Lewis’ work does not include her poetry in Cymraeg, even if we admit the difficulties of co-operation between publishers. (Barddas publishes Lewis’ poetry in Cymraeg.) Yet this choice would seem to fit with Lewis’ poetics when she writes how remaining within one’s native tongue ‘will only take you so far along the route of your experiential journey’.

In their definition of a minor literature, Delueze and Guattari suggest that in order for a minor culture to represent itself it must subvert a major language by de-territorializing that language and making it their own. Lewis’ style is certainly idiosyncratic in its use of the English language, as she synthesises conversational banter and paradoxical sounding maxims. The form looks orderly on the page often in regular stanzas, yet the line breaks often disrupt a train of thought. The metre works to a tune of its own, part influenced by the rhythms of cynghanedd and part devoted to the colloquial dialects that dominate the South Wales Valleys.

The garrulous gossip of English speakers and the ancient rhythms of Cymraeg are often pitted against one another as in ‘Her End’ where Cymraeg is figured as a dying matriarch:


The end was dreadful. Inside a dam burst
and blood was everywhere. Out of her mouth
came torrents of words, da yw dant
i atal tafod, gogiannau’r Tad
in scarlet flower – yn Abercuawg
yd ganant gogau – the blood was black,
full of filth, a well that amazed
with its vivid idioms – bola’n holi ble mae ’ngheg?

The gossipy tone falls into a fairly regular rhythm, but the placing of ‘everywhere’ in the second line induces a pause to contemplate the profusion of the image, of the blood. The expectant line-break after ‘Out of her mouth’ propels us on to the inclusion of the expunged and bloodied language. The phrases in Cymraeg are emphatic (‘good are the teeth to stop the tongue’), avowed (‘the glories of the Father’) and nostalgic (‘in Abercuawg sing the cuckoos’). In contrast, the English-language is associated with examination, description and fascination and cannot build up a similar rhythm. The more cadenced monosyllabic words are broken up when the English speaker becomes self-conscious about language using the word ‘idioms’. The beat of Cymraeg continues even if the message is confused (‘the stomach asks where the mouth is?’). This juxtaposition sets two languages at odds. The English language maintains distance and detachment, while Welsh is inconsistent, confused and elliptic. It is not that Lewis prefers one language over the other, but she displays the extent to which language defines one’s thoughts and identity. The gwir or ‘truth’ desired by Lewis exists in the fragile relationship between minor and major languages.

Like many Welsh poets, Lewis has an ambivalent relationship to home. In ‘Hedge’, the speaker fails to escape her origins; rather she has only ‘pulled up a country’ which is ‘still round my shoulders, with its tell-tale scent’. Yet Lewis will not be bounded by nationality. To Lewis, ‘voracity is a sign of plenitude’ and Lewis is voracious. From the arid culture of the early sequence, ‘Illinois Idylls’ to the perambulatory poems of ‘Parables and Faxes’, Lewis demands new material for Welsh poetry and this desire propels her into the cosmos in ‘Zero Gravity’. Subtitling the sequence, ‘A Space Requiem’, Lewis confounds the journey of her astronaut cousin into space with the death of her sister-in-law: ‘Out of sight? Out of mind? / On her inward journey / she’s travelled beyond…’ Here Lewis is concerned with the invisible and the unseen. The line-break after ‘beyond’ teases and it is never clear what freedom the unknown will bring. Lewis synthesises the macrocosmic and microcosmic so that a journey into outer space becomes a voyage into inner space, yet the outcome of such an experience is nothingness and silence.

In the preface to Keeping Mum, Lewis writes how ‘wordlessness is usually a clue that something more truthful than our account of the world is being approached’. The summit of Keeping Mum and its poetics of silence is the sequence, ‘Chaotic Angels’, from which this new volume derives its name. Lewis creates a new order of divine beings concerned with the invisible, the minor, the silent. ‘Pagan Angel’ transforms the compact muscle of the heart into ‘a chamber whose broody dead / stage pagan rituals’ while the invisible breath of wind creates an Aeolian Harp from ‘stone lintels, making a tune / about absent bodies’. When the question is asked, ‘Where’s the angel acoustic?’, Lewis must answer enigmatically and elliptically: ‘My dear, the curlew. The quickening rain.’


November 11, 2006

Marijke van Warmerdam at the Ikon Gallery

Writing about web page http://www.ikon-gallery.co.uk/index.htm

Marijke van Warmersdam

Today I went to the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham where I saw an exhibition by Marijke van Warmerdam called First Drop. This artist works mainly in photography and film although there are also some conceptual art pieces, but in general the feeling generated by her work is strangely uncanny. In her art, van Warmerdam works with the strange and the familiar recasting them in new and innovative ways.

Marijke van Warmerdam - Take a long break I and II

One of the first pieces that you encounter on the first floor of the Ikon Gallery consists of two large photographs featuring a cup and saucer which are suspended from the ceiling and which are turned by a fan. The piece is titled Take a long break I and II and it gives an idea of how van Warmerdam wants to recast familiar objects in unfamiliar guises. The suspended photographs pirouette alongside one another and it is no coincidence that the teacup and saucer go round in a circle as tea does when stirred.

Marijke van Warmerdam -Pancake

Take a long break I and II is a rather whimsical piece yet sometimes van Warmerdam’s mingling of the familiar and strange can be revelatory and inspiring. Pancake is a photograph dominated by the great white circle of a pancake thrown from half glimpsed pan held by a hand in the corner of the frame. Yet the pancake appears in the photograph to be a round orb, pitted and rough, like the face of the moon and it seems that despite the background of shelves and kitchen condiments, the moon has suddenly transported itself to appear like an apparition in the everyday kitchen.

The tea-cup appears again in Stirring in the Distance , a film of intensity and beauty that considers binaries of inside and outside, the familiar and strange. In the film, a cup and saucer sit on the edge of a table in the right hand bottom corner of the frame and behind it is a closed window and beyond the window is a landscape obliterated by snow. The silent falling of snow is beautiful in itself, yet the black horizontal shape of the horizon can be made out in ominous detail through the white flakes. Something is ‘stirring in the distance’, but the link to the teacup in the motif of stirring may suggest that it the creature stirring emanates from or is already present in the familiar interior.

Marika van Warmerdam - Catch

Nature can be very ominous in van Warmerdam’s photographs even though it is unmoving and static. Catch features a pair of outstretched hands and a brightly coloured ball suspended mid-air. On the index finger of the right hand is a ring, which initially seems to be a sign of maturity and wealth, yet there is no stone in the ring, but instead a child-like ladybird motif. Behind the hands and ball are winter trees drooping in a ghostly mist and behind the trees is the white orb of the moon that echoes the ball’s shape. The childishness of the game seems out of place in the ominous landscape and a feeling of tension is created by the suspended moment.

Throw is a kind of companion piece to Catch which features a length of lead pipe suspended mid-air and behind it are autumnal trees, a red tiled roof and one can just make out stacked logs in the dark space under the roof. The title is Throw rather than ‘thrown’; the lead pipe is still in the process of arcing through space and one wonders where it will hit the ground and what damage it will cause.

Marijke van Warmerdan - Underwater

Underwater I and II presents a variation on the themes of Catch and Throw. The concept of the piece is like that of Take a long break I and II as it features two photographs again suspended the ceiling and turned by fans. The two photographs are not identical and unlike Take a long break I and II, there are different compositions on the front and back of the turning pictures. The photographs on one side of the turning pictures present different angled shots of a similar photograph. The composition is quite simple; a tree branches around one corner of the frame with a bird box on its trunk. At the bottom of the frame is bed of autumnal leaves, above it a green stream before fields stretch out and the eye moves to sparse trees on the horizon. In the second version of the pictures, water has been thrown in the air and it twists and bends across the frame like an apparition. The swoop and swirl of it suggests violent movement, interruption of the passive scene and an expression of powerful human emotion as it has been thrown by a human hand. As in Stirring in the Distance, sentinel trees look on from the horizon as an ominous presence almost like that of Birnam Wood in Shakespeare’s Macbeth .

The culmination of the installation is a film entitled Wake Up! which again features water being thrown across a landscape. This time the screen shows a bed of yellow flowers freckled by occasional red poppies and further away a bed of paler flowers before one comes to rolling mountains and the blue sky. Butterflies fly across the screen yet like the water that swoops across the camera’s view, the landscape is immutable, reactionary and emotionless. It does not wake up, but rather like Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native it is ‘like man, slighted and enduring’.

Above all in this exhibition, there is a sense of uncanniness as tea-cups, trees and mountains seem to become animated and alive. First Drop after which the exhibition is named, features a cotton-wool cloud with a transparent orb embedded in it like an eye. The orb suggests the emergence of water from the nebulous obscurity, yet it also the emergence of existence itself as the cloud takes on a life of its own.


July 18, 2006

Robbing the Bride (published in The New Welsh Review )

Writing about web page http://www.nomorepink.co.uk

Turn back, turn back, my pretty young bride,
in a house of murderers you’ve arrived.

Sue Williams - Wish U Were Here

The bride looks up. A bird is perched in a cage above her head. From its beak come the ominous words again: ‘Turn back, turn back, my pretty young bride’. The house is dark, the time for meeting has come, yet though she searches the house from top to bottom, the bride cannot find the bridegroom. Instead she comes upon an old crone who is weary of life in that house of thieves. ‘If they find you here they will kill you’, the crone tells her. ‘You must hide here amongst these barrels and in the morning run home’. The young woman hides and in the early hours, she hears voices. A group of men burst into the room carrying a struggling girl. They fill the victim’s mouth with red, white and yellow wine until her heart bursts. The bride watches the bridegroom sever the poor creature’s limbs, salt her wounds and eat her body. The victim’s severed finger still holding a ring is flung aside and falls beside the bride where she is hiding.

The story is Grimm brothers’ The Robber Bridegroom, a variation on the traditional Bluebeard fable, and the severed finger with ring represents the fate of the bride in heterosexual relationships. There are many versions of the Bluebeard story which tells how a bride discovers her husband’s murdered wife or wives. A precursor of the gothic and horror genres, the Bluebeard story prefigures what some critics call ‘paranoid woman’s stories’. From Bronte’s Jane Eyre to Du Maurier’s Rebecca, from Hitchcock’s Suspicion to Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath, the Bluebeard themes of doubt and anxiety concerning male intentions are prevalent. Bruno Bettelheim writes that Bluebeard stories realise a young woman’s ‘worst fears about sex’, since the betrayal reveals a fraught and violent world of relationships (306). A ghostly fear is heightened by the underbelly of heterosexual union as Bluebeards stalk women’s dreams capturing them physically or emotionally.

Women’s doubt and anxiety is a significant theme in the work of Sue Williams, an artist nominated for the Artes Mundi prize for 2006. The prize stipulates that the artists must explore ideas of the human condition and Williams’ interrogation of the underbelly of heterosexuality is illuminating in a very human way. Her compositions are disturbingly squalid – the muddled lines, uneven boundaries, graffiti–like text and rough spontaneous sketches. Williams’ art often expresses moments of doubt or betrayal where trust fails and in interview, Williams admits that such issues emerge out of her own personal concerns: ‘I trust on a level that worries people around me. I put myself into dangerous positions.’ Like the bride of the Grimm fairytale, the women of Williams’ lingering portraits seem to be in danger.

In one of a series of paintings entitled, Wish U Were Here, a woman veiled in white material poses with a wreath on her head and long–stemmed flowers that she holds at her side. She stands silently like a statue about to be unveiled. Williams admits that the veil is a significant symbol in her art and she links it to a personal moment of doubt. She describes her first experience of marriage in terms not unlike those of The Robber Bridegroom:

I stared at my shoes as I walked up the aisle. I kept wondering if I had left the price–tags on the soles with their huge red Xs. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something wrong. I was sure that I could not play the role of wife. I refused to wear a veil when I married, although I came from a very religious background. The veil to me represents the farce of the virgin, another role that women have to play.

The white sheet is a symbol of the hymen and virginity yet the wreath and flowers suggests that she is a kind of sacrificial offering. Hovering slightly above her head is a dark shape like a cloud, a hole or a rift. Behind the figure, a graffiti scrawl ‘Wish U were Here?’ is barely legible yet it compounds the rift, the hole, the doubt. The situation is unsettling and the suggested purity and hence immaturity of the subject seems to relate to Williams’ idea that ‘as children, women are taught to be the seductress yet we are ignorant of what to expect or how to deal with it’.

The white sheet then also represents a certain ignorance of heterosexual relations. An interesting comparison is Isak Dinesen’s story ‘The Blank Page’, which tells the story of an order of nuns who weave the royal linen. On the morning after the royal marriage, the linen is hung from the window with evidence of the bride’s virginity. In return for their linen, the nuns receive the central piece of the sheet which they frame in a gallery and hang like art, yet one sheet in the gallery is blank raising questions. Had the bride already lost her virginity? Did she escape marriage altogether with its brutal parading of female pain? We cannot know the story and similarly in Williams’ painting, the white sheet is a blank page, a paradoxical strategy. Jacques Derrida’s description of the hymen as the feminine veil, a site of power, is relevant here and Williams’ mysterious women recall Derrida’s suggestion that the veil both ‘hides and shows the truth of what is present’(418).

Women’s sexual potency or impotence is at stake in Williams’ work and some portraits reveal knowing and aggressive women. These heroines represent the Bluebeard heroine after her experience of male violence and brutality. Tania Modleski explores the gothic genre to which the Bluebeard fable belongs. Modleski writes how usually the heroine ‘feels a strong identification with a woman from the remote or very recent past, a woman who in almost every case has died a mysterious and perhaps violent or gruesome death’ (69). In the Bluebeard tale, the women who communicate with the heroine are her husband’s dead wives, those who have suffered the brutal consequences of marital relations.

Some of Williams’ works seem to empathise with the murdered victim of the Bluebeard rather than the heroine. Williams’ dirty linen on line series of sketches empathises with the women in Dinesen’s gallery who could not remain a blank page. The grubby paper is etched with images that tell what happens to women who trust and as a consequence are betrayed. One image features an explicit act of coitus with the woman’s legs splayed open. The sexual act is mechanical and forced and the faces of the lovers are smudged, blank. A scribbled caption reads ‘10 pounds work’ revealing the sordid nature of this pecuniary exchange. The fate of the gullible woman is to be leeched of identity and Williams’ subject is devoured emotionally and physically with a similar symbolism to the victim of the Robber Bridegroom.

Sue Williams - Wish U Were Here

Communication between the murdered wives and the struggling heroine is an important element of the Bluebeard fable. Williams sets up a similar dynamic with the woman who has suffered pain trying to warn an immature other. Another painting in the Wish U Were Here series portrays a battle between two women. Williams explains the aggression in some of her works in relation to the survival of artists in ‘a male world’: ‘Sometimes we rebel against this and try to behave like a man – we survive by taking on a male role in a male world’. The prominent subject in the battle here seems to be a mixture of stereotypical ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements; the agitator reveals a powerfully aggressive stance pulling the hair of the other woman, yet she retains her high–heeled shoes and feminine tutu. Williams explains that ‘there are ‘male’ attitudes within me, yet I also suffer acutely female pain: no man can understand this painful area’.

The symbol of the veil is developed here too as the aggressor of the battle is shrouded by her own hair. The veil of hair is a development of the blank sheet; hair represents burgeoning sexuality yet it is also reminiscent of vengeful women from the furies of Ancient Greece to Sadako in Nakata’s The Ring. The veiled woman is aggressively present, yet there is an uncanny sense of blankness. Williams describes how sometimes ‘the veil refers to the woman not quite knowing who she is – a certain lack of identity’. This explains the frustrated pose of the subject as she grips the hair of a blonde who gazes at some point beyond the frame. The blonde’s lack of awareness of the painful grip on her hair suggests preoccupation, ignorance and blindness. The active stance of the central figure is a stark contrast and there is a sense that two halves of a self are at war as the vengeful victim of betrayal reproaches the new victim for her blind trust.

Williams’ view of heterosexual relationships is not so bleak and she relates this to her own experience of bringing up a son: ‘I made sure that he was very aware of women and I taught him to never hurt another human being’. Williams has ensured that stories of heterosexual union will not always mean the death or betrayal of the bride. Women writers who use fable and folktales, such as Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Lorna Sage, have all emphasised the importance of using stories in which heroines win by using their own cunning. In these tales, we can see female playfulness, nonsense and laughter or perhaps what the feminist Luce Irigarary calls jouissance. Williams’ Mmmmm! seems to be an expression of defiant jouissance. The title’s unintelligible, onomatopoeic sound indicates the subversive feminine, while the mass of jumbled bodies, feminine objects and graffiti text aggrandise the female figure who leans forward at the centre of the chaos. The subject does not exist on a blank page, yet she is portrayed as sexually and physically powerful.

The Robber Bridegroom ends not with the heroine’s escape but with cunning manipulation of her Bluebeard through the art of storytelling. On the day of celebrations for the wedding, the guests sat around the table and told stories, yet the bride was silent until the groom asked her to join in. The bride tells of a ‘dream’ she has had, a dream of a dark house, a bird’s warnings, an old crone and a hiding place amongst barrels. She tells of the struggling maiden: of her burst heart, severed limbs and salted wounds. She tells of the ringed finger that was chopped from the maiden’s hand and with these words, she holds it up for all to see. The robber is seized at once to be executed with the rest of his gang, but the bride’s fate is a blank page.

Bibliography
Bruno Bettelheim: The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Knopf, 1977); Jacques Derrida: The Post Card, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987);
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ in The Classic Fairy Tales, ed. Maria Tatar (London: Norton, 1999); Tania Modleski: Loving with a Vengeance (Hamdon, Conneticut.: Archon Books, 1982).


June 15, 2006

Modern Nostagia (published in New Design Magazine No 41)

Writing about web page http://www.vam.ac.uk

Modernism was a movement with such power and intensity that even now it provokes nostalgia. In a new century, there is reminiscence for the potency of modernism. In the preface of Vanishing Point, an anthology of new modernist poets published last year, John Kinsella writes how the ‘avant–gardes that emerged out of modernities, have worked to challenge a status quo, or to assert their differences in perception. A more just way of expressing, or expression comes into play. It’s to do with “seeing”, and conveying the politics of that seeing.’

Art and design are always concerned with “seeing”, yet there is significance in Kinsella’s phrase the “politics of seeing”. Modernism championed design as a means of promoting political agendas and it was as much a statement of one’s ethos and ‘style of life’ as it was design.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A’s) new exhibition is entitled ‘Modernism: Designing a New World 1914 –1939’ and it focuses on the international rise of modernism in the designed world, yet modernism is a slippery term. As Vassiliki Kolocotroni writes, ‘modernism is not a movement’ but ‘a term that masks conflict and upheaval and any number of contradictory positions’. First used as a term to describe a movement in literary studies, modernism entered the language of design via Clement Greenberg who defined modernist art as that of the avant–garde. In design, however, it is only in hindsight that movements such as New Architecture and the Modern Movement are described as modernist. Christopher Wilk, the curator, seeks to define a precise era of modernism in the time period of this exhibition. ‘It tells the story of modernism from the end of world war one to the end of world war two’, explains Wilk.

This is an eclectic show including artefacts that stretch the boundaries of conventional definitions of design. Alongside the photograms of Man Ray are Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Beside the earliest modern fitted kitchen, designed by Margarete Schutte Lihotzky, is presented Dziga Vertov’s film, Man with a Movie Camera . Wilk’s choice of artefacts represents his view that ‘modernism was not conceived as a style, but was a loose collection of ideas’. The ideas selected by Wilk includes the idea of utopia, the relation of design to the machine, experimentation in representing the modern and expressions of freedom via the human body.

Much of the exhibition concentrates on the utopian desires of modernist designers. ‘Modernism began in the aftermath of the First World War’, states Wilk. ‘The outrage and horror set many designers on the path to reinventing the world.’ The exhibition begins by outlining Russian constructivism, a movement led by Alexsei Gan, who after the Russian Revolution, proclaimed that the artist should give up the bourgeois pursuit of painting and instead take up the position of industrial designer. In his 1922 polemic, Constructivism, Gan wrote: ‘The technological system of society, the structure of its tools, creates the structure of human relationships, as well’. He continued: ‘Art is finished! It has no place in the human labour apparatus. Labour, technology, organization!’

Leger -Still Life with Ball Bearing
The synthesis of art and the machine is an appropriate focus for this exhibition, since as Enrico Prampolini asked in 1922, ‘Is not the machine today the most exuberant symbol of the mystery of human creation?’ The work of Fernand Leger is highlighted in the exhibition including extracts from his short film Ballet Méchanique (Mechanical Ballet) finished in 1924 and his Still Life with Ball Bearing (1926). Both pieces are obsessed with the working parts of machines via different mediums. Ballet Méchanique uses rhythmic cutting from images of machines working to create one magnificent working machine. Still Life with Ball Bearing uses the utmost control in oil painting in order to create mechanical shapes on the canvas. The control is reminiscent of machine production and the implication is that the painter is comparable with an industrial designer.

Often the obsession with the machine and technology had a utopian design. ‘The machine became an agent to create a new world’, states Wilk. The German Bauhaus are one such movement outlined in this exhibition. The Bauhaus was a school of art and design founded in 1933 and influenced by such teachers as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and others. Once again there is a modernist overlapping of different art forms as the Bauhaus school thought that there was no fundamental difference between fine arts and design. Walter Gropius was the first to write of a Bahaus movement in 1919. ‘Schools must be absorbed by the workshop again’, stated Grobius. ‘The world of the pattern–designer and applied artist, consisting only of drawing and painting, must at last and again become a world in which things are built.’ The Bauhaus was both utilitarian, meeting the needs of society, and innovative.

Photographs of the Bauhaus achievement are part of this exhibition, including a picture of the Bauhaus Dessau building designed by Gropius himself. The Dessau building was a workshop for the Bauhaus and the technical college linked by a bridge and it demonstrates the asymmetrical design and the principle that different spaces should reflect their different functions. The Bauhaus workshop contains open spaces and a three storey glass wall, while the technical college has smaller windows and intimate rooms for teaching.

Much of this exhibition is concerned with the theoretical aspects of modernism: its manifestos, its values and its movements. Yet there is also a great deal of information on the practical process of designing and redesigning. The chair was one product that offered endless design possibilities as modernists struggled to make a chair from the least number of components possible. Pride of place is given to the various designs of the cantilever chair (inspired by Ledwid Mies van der Rohe’s prototype). This design takes the weight of the chair on two legs.

‘It’s difficult to imagine just how revolutionary this chair with two legs was at the time’, explains Wilk. ‘In fact it’s said that some people in 1927 were afraid to sit on such chairs because it would fall down. There were metal café chairs at the time and there had been metal furniture in the nineteenth century, but the idea of using shiny metal furniture in the home, in the domestic interior was a completely new idea. This chair is now more than eighty years old which is rather hard to believe when it still looks absolutely modern and up–to–date and is still used widely in both domestic and commercial settings.’ Chair design was an integral part of modernist innovation. As Marcel Breuer said in 1927, ‘In the end we will sit on a resilient column of air’.

In considering the practical uses of modernist design, Wilk also places an emphasis on fashion. Alexander Rodchenko’s Production Clothing (1922) relies on principles of functionality with the androgynous uniformity of its grey wool and leather. In contrast, Giacomo Balla’s Futurist Suit created in 1920 expresses the lively human spirit in its bright colours of orange, black and yellow. Balla’s irregular triangular patterning manifests a desire for the disorder inherent in being different, in being unique. Sonia Delauney’s Swimming Costume of 1928 reveals a liberated attitude to the human body and like Balla, Delauney uses the factor of simultaneity in which the complexity of modern life is conveyed by colour. Costumes for ballets and stage productions are also significant, one example being the Bauhaus costumes for Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet during the 1920s. These costumes recreated the dancers as puppets and abstractions of the human body.

A few British examples of modernist design exist amongst the proliferation of Continental artefacts. On display is Henry C. Beck’s 1931 Sketch for London Underground map , that iconic symbol of London which has been in contnous use since 1933. Beck took the factors of simplicity and functionality to create a map based on connections rather than geography. However, it seems that British modernism developed later than in other countries. Wilk describes how modernism came ‘late to Britain when émigrés from commonwealth nations began to arrive.’ Yet British design may have a great deal to learn from modernism and this massive exhibition provides much inspiration.

A comprehensive study of modernist design is now available as a companion to the current exhibition edited by Wilk. Covering all of the modernist movements, from De Stijl to Bauhaus, and making connections between design and the arts, Modernism: Designing a New World provides good source material for designers interested in modernism. Like the exhibition, it makes connections between modernist design and art, literature, dance and stage production and in doing so represents the eclectic spirit of modernism in all of its guises.

The V&A modernism exhibition runs until 23rd July. For more information, please see their website: www.vam.ac.uk


July 13, 2005

Imaginative Alchemy

Writing about web page http://www.readysteadybook.com/mrsfreeman.html

Book front cover
Title:
What Does Mrs Freeman Want?
Author:
Petros Abatzoglou
ISBN:
1564783901
Rating:
Not rated

‘And I really don’t see why we should leave Andros and go off to some island’, begins the prolific narration of Petros Abatzoglu’s What Does Mrs Freeman Want? This bastard copy of the author, ‘my dear Petros’, as he calls himself, launches himself on the reader with aplomb and such a narrator is an ideal tribute to the Greek author, who died last year at the age of 73. Born in 1931, Abatzoglu grew up in Greece during the Nazi occupation and went on to write journalism and fiction. He won the Greek National Book Award twice, in 1965 for Balance of Terror and in 1988 for What Does Mrs Freeman Want?

D.H. Lawrence famously stated, ‘never trust the teller, trust the tale’ and Abatzoglu’s playful presentation of a pseudo-self leaves the reader a little dazed. Petros’ tale is full of contradictions and this is reflected in a meta-narrative about language as characters try to measure the value and purpose of words. Initially, Mr. Freeman, a linguist, thinks that ‘words are lethal weapons’, yet he learns from his wife, Mrs Freeman, that ‘they are simply the answer to some need, a human need’. In his devotion to his wife, Mr Freeman tells his students ‘unless words express emotion indeed passion, they are nothing more than dead matter’, yet when his marriage loses its fire, he insists that words are ‘independent entities, practically existing on their own, unaffected by us humans’. Abatzoglu’s commentary suggests that fickle human nature taints any empirical ambitions to organise or understand language and it affirms that emotion cannot be eradicated from a human view of the world.

The narrator, Petros, is the filter or frame for Abatzoglu’s story. While liberally plying himself with booze – ‘I might as well have another ouzo’ crops up a number of times – Petros, tells the story of a fiercely independent English woman. The narrator’s location is gradually revealed as a Greek island and the subject to whom Petros addresses his meandering narrative is a scantily-clad, lithe young woman sunbathing on the beach. The storytelling often diverges into comic rants:

if a close friend called me Mr. Abatzoglu, and especially if he emphasized the Mister, I would waste no time answering back, “Don’t you Mister me, you slob. If that’s your idea of making fun of me”

Yet there is a deep self awareness and a playful sense of self mockery in these digressions. Abatzoglu creates an endearing aspect to the teller whose epicurean revelling contrasts with his more philosophical speeches.

Ultimately Petros’ telling of Mrs. Freeman’s story encourages our respect. The heroine of the book is the opposite of the passive blonde to whom the narrator addresses his monologue. Some of the most comic interludes in the book are created by the ironic or sarcastic comments that Petros aims at his companion:

Of course I see your point, it must be wonderful to feel the sun scorching you, burning you through and through, sucking all the moisture out of you. Yes, of course I understand my dear.

In contrast, Petros describes Mrs Freeman as ‘no ordinary woman; she wasn’t one of those silly suburban girls who enjoy reading cheap magazines like Donna’. Petros’ story is a kind of moral lecture given for the benefit of the listening companion in an effort to present a sublime model of the female spirit.

Mrs Freeman is an ideal of a romantic heroine with monumental passions and obsessive fervour. The story describes her courtship with Mr. Freeman, their subsequent marriage and the conclusion to her domestic life. At the beginning of the novel, Mrs Freeman is figured as a character burning with desire and desperate for an object worthy of her passion. Abatzoglu comically describes her courtship with her future husband as a military assault as she switches from ‘trench warfare’ to ‘blitzkrieg, with armoured vehicles and 18 and 22 mm guns reducing the chair of linguistics to cinders’. Abatzoglu often uses bathos for comic effect, deflating Mrs Freeman’s magnificent passion, which is restrained by the ordinariness of her husband and the mundane surroundings that she inhabits. She is described in pursuit of Mr Freeman ‘like a tigress stalking her victim, whiskers quivering in exquisite anticipation, lay in ambush behind some shrubs in the University grounds’. The predatory image is deflated by the mundane trappings of her environment and it is this kind of comparison which creates the wry humour of the book.

Although Mrs Freeman announces ‘I’m not interested in daydreams…I want proof, I want facts’, the tragic aspect to this novel is that life simply does not live up to her expectations. One episode describes Mrs Freeman’s first childhood encounter with death. The narrator describes her questioning adults about her dead grandmother, who reply, ‘she’s gone far away …but she’ll come back and bring us chocolate and ice-cream and pretty dolls’. The narrator confirms that ‘ever since then Mrs Freeman has been convinced that the dead simply go off on a journey’. Later in the novel when Mrs Freeman comes to the end of her life, her husband’s death is a terrible truth that must be faced. The imagination has an alchemistic power, yet ultimately the starkness of reality cannot be escaped.

The narrator confides that Mrs Freeman had told him that imagination ‘is like a cancerous growth in men’s minds, it only leads to disaster’. Mrs Freeman’s adamance does not ring true and ultimately, it is her burning imagination which creates the tragedy of her later life.

One role of the narrator, Petros, is to be the harbinger of cold truth. Petros’ view of harsh reality contrasts with Mrs Freeman’s optimism about death. Petros describes his own childish encounter with death remembering the grotesque image of a snake swallowing a mouse. However, even Petros has some imaginative verve and when the dead mouse disappears from the snake’s gullet, he questions whether it ever existed. To understand death involves the ultimate flight of the imagination.

Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564783901


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