I am in the happy position of not being likely to be forgotten never having been known

July 30, 2013 § Leave a comment


After the deaths of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman on the same day in July 2007, I turned on BBC2’s Newsnight to see what sort of coverage the demise of two giants of cinema merited. By the end of the item, I’d learned a couple of useful lessons.

First, it’s much less fun kicking in a flat-screen TV than one of the old cathode-ray tubes…

Given its formal beauty and timeless mystery, Antonioni’s work would not be out of place in an art gallery. But putting it on stage: how might that work? This was the challenge that the Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove set his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam in their Antonioni Project, which was staged at the Barbican in February. It was an ambitious, flawed but worthwhile experiment in adapting the director’s 1960s ‘trilogy’ of L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961) and L’eclisse to the stage.

Or rather, not the films, but the screenplays. In interviews, Van Hove was keen to stress that he hadn’t actually seen L’avventura, but I’m not sure I believe this.

I spent the first half of the two-hours-plus production checking off scenes I recognised – the minute’s silence in the Rome stock exchange from L’eclisse; the extended party sequence from La notte; the search for the missing girl on the deserted island in L’avventura: all were present and correct.

After a while, I gave up, as scenes and characters from the films mingled on stage amidst the complex multi-media choreography of a live jazz band, cameramen filming the action, and real-time projections on huge screens. Paradoxically, van Hove managed to transform Antonioni’s stark, abstract mise en scène into a teeming, baroque circus reminiscent of Fellini.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Jaume Navarro

they invited me months ago, and I thought by the time it came round I’d be dead

April 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

National Statistic XIV

The material needed another outlet. That outlet turned out to be a form of writing for which there is no exact English term: fait divers. This is a French expression, in common use for centuries, for a certain kind of newspaper piece: a compressed report of an unusual happening. What fait divers means literally is “incidents,” or “various things.” The nearest English equivalent is “news briefs” or, more recently, “news of the weird.” The fait divers has a long and important history in French literature. Sensationalistic though it is, it has influenced the writing of Flaubert, Gide, Camus, Le Clézio and Barthes. In Francophone literature, it crossed the line from low to high culture. But though a version of it was present in American newspapers, it never quite caught on in the English language as a literary form.

This is what a fait divers looks like:

Raoul G., of Ivry, an untactful husband, came home unexpectedly and stuck his blade in his wife, who was frolicking in the arms of a friend.

Here is another:

A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frérotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.

These examples show what the fait divers is about: an event, usually of a grim nature, animated sometimes, but not always, by a certain irony. A fait divers is not simply bad news. It is bad news of a certain kind, written in a certain way. The two examples above were written around 1906 by the French journalist Félix Fénéon, for Le Matin.

Fénéon, who wrote his pieces anonymously, was probably the greatest practitioner of the form. He gave it more wit and bite, more emotional unease and formal perfection, than it had had before. In his hands, it became a modernist form. His collected fait divers, published in English as Novels in Three Lines (a beautiful translation and introduction by Luc Sante on the NYRB Classics imprint), inspired me to try to do the same for the current news from Nigeria. I felt the form would migrate well from one language to another, and from one social context to another. In order to acquire an audience for this daily practice, I began to post the pieces on my Twitter account.

In Ikotun, Mrs Ojo, who was terrified of armed robbers, died in her barricaded home, of smoke inhalation.  read more

ART: Jocelyn Allen

My turn. Put the contraption on me, use the pump to blow it up, and get out. If you do anything else, or if you come back, I’ll never forgive you

February 26, 2013 § 1 Comment


Most or many of his thirty or forty books (no one seems to know exactly how many there are) are out of print. Only his 1971 travelogue, The Inland Sea, and some of his film criticism, are read except by those with a specialist interest in Japan. ‘I wish I had an agent – I could just send it off to him or her,’ he writes in his journal in 1996, with another unpublished novel on his desk. ‘But I can’t. No agent has ever accepted me.’ A hundred pages, and seven years, later he is taking an ‘orphan manuscript’ of short stories to a vanity publisher. Both The Japan Journals and the earlier Donald Richie Reader (2001) transmit a resentment, on the part of the younger fans who have edited them, that he is not more famous and better regarded. In a self-defeating introduction to the Reader, Arturo Silva indignantly sets out the neglect suffered by his hero: ignored by ‘editors and bureaucrats’, unrecognised by the academic establishment, forced five times to rewrite a profile of Kurosawa for the New York Times magazine, only to have it spiked. ‘For all the work and decades spent on it, Richie’s view of Japan seems still to belong only to the “happy few”,’ he observes unhappily. ‘One difficulty of “placing” him is that Richie is neither an academic nor a popular writer . . . Indeed, Richie is doubly other: caught between two facing mirrors that no one bothers to look into.’ Wounded partisanship of this type leads one to suspect a straightforward explanation for his unsuccess: that Richie simply isn’t much of a writer. But is there more to it than this: a reflection of the times he has lived through; something inhospitable in the intellectual atmosphere of Tokyo itself?

No one has written with more concentration about the peculiar quality of exile enjoyed by the gaijin, the foreigner in Japan. Densely hierarchical, structured by invisible networks of deference, obligation and taboo, conventional Japanese society offers no formal place to the ‘outside person’. But this alienation is so absolute that it is experienced as something close to liberation, a stimulus to observation and analysis. ‘Japan has afforded him’ – the author – ‘a situation of writing,’ Roland Barthes wrote in Empire of Signs. This situation is ‘one in which a certain disturbance of the person occurs, a subversion of earlier readings, a shock of meaning lacerated, extenuated to the point of its irreplaceable void.’ Japan, to put it in drastically un-French terms, puts you on your mettle. It is an observation that Richie returns to again and again. ‘In Japan,’ he recorded in 1992, ‘I interpret, assess an action, infer a meaning.’

Every day, every hour, every minute. Life here means never taking life for granted, never not noticing. For me alone I wonder? I do not see how a foreigner can live here and construct that shroud of inattention, which in the land from whence he came is his natural right and his natural tomb . . . it is with this live connection that the alert foreigner here lives. The electric current is turned on during all the waking hours: he or she is always occupied in noticing, evaluating, discovering and concluding . . . It is the difference between just going to a movie and living it for a few hours, and going to the same film as a reviewer, taking notes, standing apart, criticising, knowing that I must make an accounting of it. The former is more comfortable; the latter is better.

This is indeed the excitement of life in Japan at its best, and it provides obvious opportunities for the writer. From a journal entry in 1998:

Smilingly excluded here in Japan, politely stigmatised, I can from my angle attempt only objectivity, since my subjective self will not fit the space I am allotted . . . how fortunate I am to occupy this niche with its lateral view. In America I would be denied this place. I would live on the flat surface of a plain. In Japan, from where I am sitting, the light falls just right – I can see the peaks and valleys, the crags and crevasses.

There is another lucky side effect for many expatriates: personal alienation, the inescapable sense of being different from everyone else, is cancelled out, or at least rendered invisible, by the larger, universal alienation of being a gaijin. This is the partial explanation for something else remarked on several times by Richie: as he shyly puts it, ‘the strange prevalence of people of like preferences among foreign Japanese specialists’.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Lukas Wierzbowski

Now the midload was a middle flabe which was not too oversalt and a sugar flabe on her saliva glam and it wasn’t course quite satisfactual

October 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

… by making of the narrator not he who has seen and felt nor even he who is writing, but he who is going to write (the young man in the novel – but, in fact; how old is he and who is he? – wants to write but cannot; the novel ends when writing at last becomes possible), Proust gave modern writing its epic. By a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model…

the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely  read more


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