Monday, 23 February 2009

Simple trumps subtle

From Philippe Sands' review of The Liberal Defence of Murder in the Guardian Review section, Saturday:
Who can say, after all, the real reason that President Bush decided to go to war in Iraq, or what truly motivated a particular individual to lend support.
From Generation Kill, p. 241:
[US Marine Sgt. Antonio] Espera believes the whole war is being fought for the same reason all others have for the past several hundred years. "White man's gotta rule the world," he says.
Gee, Philippe, how hard can it be?

Friday, 13 February 2009

Imagination leads, reality follows

On page 119 of Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, we learn that according to Stanford archaeologist William Rathje's Garbage Project, contrary to what we might think, plastic accounts for less than 20% of buried waste by volume. The bulk of what is in landfills is construction debris and paper products. Newpapers, for example, don't biodegrade when hidden away from air and water. Researchers pull perfectly readable newspapers out of 1930s landfills. "They'll be down there for the next 10,000 years" says Rathje.

Now hear this:
Story-telling has its own kind of law and order, which can be in conflict with the emotional order of the storyteller. The tragedy of compulsive writers and bad authors is that they often put everything they have into their work but the work itself bears no trace of this. Writing was, after all, rather more complicated than it first seemed to me. This is fortunate. If it were not so, the world would have many more writers than it does today, and would drown in an avalanche of printed paper. Which may well be one of the ends that awaits it.
From 'How I Began', in the collection The Spirit of Prague by Ivan Klima.

The Spirit of Prague is rather mournful in tone - hardly surprising considering its author's life and times - and has a touch of "I told you so" towards its end, but it contains an awful lot which is inspiring, instructive and elegantly argued - and at 6.99 it's positively a steal.

However, the phrase "compulsive writers" strikes me as either ill-chosen or ill-translated. It's clear what Klima means, but anyone who writes does so out of compulsion - or delusion - be their output mean or profound.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Shakespeare Satori

The most intensive period of study in my life - so far - was for my A-Levels. For English Literature I suppose we studied about 6-8 key texts, one of which was Hamlet, so the damn thing is in there for good. From time to time I find myself thinking about it or drawing on it, and today it came to me that Hamlet's very last line, "The rest is silence", which can be taken to mean that Hamlet is saying, 'here is the end of my life and there is nothing more to be said - everything has been acted out - make of it what you will', can be heard as "Th' arrest is silence"; in other words, death is the end of speech.

This obviously resonates with the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, and it struck me that although Hamlet is a play very much taken up with and informed by ideas of death, most of what Hamlet does is talk, an activity solely the preserve of the living. At the end of the play, when he's confronted with the actuality of what he's so far considered exclusively in theory, he finds, ironically, there is nothing to say.

I've always had a problem, as I suppose many people have, with Hamlet's inactivity. Four or four-and-a-half acts of doing bugger-all, and then he finally gets it together. Laertes, by contrast, learns of his father's death and immediately sets out with sword in hand. But the whole revenge and retribution thing is really only what George Saunders calls the Apparent Narrative Device, and what he calls the dirt, the thing the writer loves to do and which the reader only gradually realises is the thing that s/he actually came for, is this exploration of Hamlet's character; this growing-to-awareness is actually what the play's about.

If this seems obvious to the point of scarcely worth mentioning, I can only apologise and cop to being a bear of little brain, but it did solve for me a problem I've had for twenty years. I may have been able to articulate the above argument before now, and for all I know I have done, but I think this is the first time I've had a solid gut feeling about it.

I doubt if I'd have come to it if it hadn't been for reading Sara Paretsky's Writing in an Age of Silence, wherein she says something along the lines of, we write because not to do so is to give in to death, and to those who would control our lives through our silence. (I paraphrase greatly.)

Incidently, if you haven't read Saunder's essay on Huckleberry Finn in The Brain-Dead Megaphone, I commend it highly. I admit to not having read any of the rest of the book, so can't say what it's like overall.


Having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man last year, and holding firmly onto Uncle Anthony's hand, I have begun Ulysses. On the advice of Marvin Exobrain, I started at Chapter 4, the Calypso episode, and have so far managed two and a half chapters. So far, it doesn't strike me as being beyond the capacity of the average reader, but by God you have to apply yourself to it, with full attention; also, I am gently tending toward the opinion of those who believe that Dubliners marked the high point of Joyce's achievement, with each subsequent book being more self-regarding and reader-unfriendly. I don't, so far, see anything which Joyce didn't tell us about ordinary lives in Dubliners, the advance (if one can call it that) being in technique. But I admit this is very early days and I am perfectly willing to be convinced otherwise.


I first came across Joyce in a conversation being held (appropriately enough) in the toilets of the student theatre during my first year at university: I remember the name Stephen Daedalus being knocked back and forth, and someone saying that Joyce believed (or possibly that Joyce demonstrated) there was no such thing as a boring person, someone whose life wasn't worth examining. It was a pocket-sized idea which I carried away, though most of the discussion was completely lost on me, and eighteen years later, reading Dubliners, it seemed to me to be entirely justified.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Female Agents/Carve Her Name With Pride

[This is a review I wrote back in August for Unfortunately there was a delay in the latest online issue being published (it's just out now) and due to time constraints Laura decided to drop some of the film material.]

Female Agents
is inspired - mark you - by a Times obituary spotted by director Jean-Paul Salomé in 2004. It celebrated the life and achievements of Lise Villameur, one of the few women Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents to have been honoured after the end of the war. “I wanted to pay them homage,” Salomé is quoted as saying. Now this counts as fair warning, twice over.

In the film Villameur is characterised as Louise Desfontaines, played by Sophie Marceau. With her brother, also an SOE agent, she is charged with assembling a crack team for a special mission. It is 1944: an English spy, a geologist who was gathering material vital to the success of D-Day, has been wounded and captured. The Germans holding him don’t know who he is or understand his importance – yet. He must be sprung. Desfontaines recruits two more servicewomen and a prostitute under a death-sentence for murder, none of whom has operational experience.

Cut to France: a rather dashing SS Intelligence Colonel believes, alone among his comrades, that the forthcoming Allied invasion will not be made at Calais but in Normandy. He needs proof, and knows the English geologist is there, somewhere...a report comes in of an unidentified man in a military hospital speaking English in his sleep, and the Colonel sets off to interrogate him. We should pause to note that one of the women in Desfontaines’ team left the Colonel standing at the altar two years ago in Paris.

Though the set-up is as ludicrous as the summary above suggests, there’s no reason to suppose, at this point, that Female Agents won’t at least entertain. Most of the film is taken up with the female agents’ increasingly frantic attempts to prevent Colonel Heindrich (yes) from reaching Rommel with the information he is gradually piecing together about D-Day, but the progression from one set-piece to another seldom generates any real tension or gives a clear sense of where, beyond resolving this McGuffin, the focus of the film lies. It looks, frankly, superb, but what appears on the screen far outweighs anything that happens there.

The incidental failings are numerous: a note which was begging to be burned, eaten or simply flung out of a window the moment it was written is left intact; the Gestapo torturers are surprisingly ineffective apart from the one time when the plot requires them not to be; four times a drawn pistol serves to remind backsliders of where their patriotic duty lies (none attempts to run at the next opportunity); the runaway bride, who freaks out at the suggestion of even seeing Colonel Heindrich again, is shortly afterwards attempting to date and kill him. When and how was she talked round? We don’t know.

Though the content is adult, the emotions are adolescent, save for those generated in a very few scenes by Marceau. Her character is determined to the point of being icy, and when her control breaks in moments of terror, fatigue or rage, she suggests what Female Agents could and should have provided: an understanding of what it must have been like to be squeezed between terrible necessities, and of the sacrifices people were prepared to make, voluntarily, without coercion and in full understanding of the circumstances and the stakes. Individual moral compromise is splashed all over, but that is not the same thing.

No such problem with Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), and no loop-holes of “inspiration”: we are told at the beginning that this is the story of Violette Szabo, and story – as opposed to spectacle - is what we get. London girl seeks French boy for the 14th July celebrations to appease her French mother; girl finds boy, a charming officer of the Foreign Legion. Will they...? Of course. This is straightforward, but pleasantly and effectively done, and provides the emotional background for what follows: recruitment by SOE, training and active service. It is clear that Szabo is fighting for home, liberty, honour, memory.

Curiously, while Carve Her Name is strong in all the areas where Female Agents is deficient (namely, character motivation, background and development; emotional involvement; a strong story arc) the film is so concerned to tell us who Szabo was that it doesn’t tell us much about what she did. Whatever else is said about them, the Female Agents do get up to a lot, though most of it closer to the A-Team than the reality of creating and organising networks, acting as couriers and collecting intelligence. Carve Her Name suggests all of this but never really explores it. More information, or simply screen time, would have been welcome. For instance, Szabo was in France for three months before her famous engagement with the Germans; in the film she has barely parachuted in. Similarly, we see her receiving codes and cyphers training, but she never actually sends a message. Barring its end, it seems an oddly inactive service and makes the story thin where it should be meaty.

Nevertheless, it is certainly a finished film in a way Female Agents isn’t. Virginia McKenna is proper and winning, with the early hints of strength shown to harden as her training progresses; the acting from the other leads, who include Paul Scofield, is good and often very good; the supporting characters support without need of formal introduction; the lighting is wonderful, especially in the interrogation sequence, craftily and movingly handled by image, suggestion and reaction; and the king-and-country coda is genuinely touching. The script does its job without really taking flight, which makes it overall a solid three- or four-star film, worth seeing without being essential.

On the other hand, if someone suggests watching Female Agents on DVD, resist.


Female Agents wasn’t helped by its English title, which in French was Les Femmes de l’Ombre (Women of the Shadows). This is clearly playing off L’Armée des Ombres (1969) by Jean-Pierre Melville, a flat, unglamorous portrayal of the French Resistance, much closer to the reality, filmed with a genuine artistic sensibility and now available on DVD.

Books: Carve Her Name With Pride by R.J. Minney continues to be in print; the latest (2006) edition is from Pen and Sword, price £8.99. A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE by Sarah Helm is published in paperback by Abacus (2006), price £8.99; Atkins ran the women agents of 'F' Section in SOE and appears frequently in Carve Her Name With Pride. Leo Marks, who also appears unnamed in the film, eventually had his memoir Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War 1941-45 approved for publication by the UK government in 1998 (latest edition Sutton, 2007, £8.99). He was the actual author of the poem “The Life That I Have”, which features in the film.