Archives for the month of: September, 2014

One of my absolute favourite poets.

And thus, in the aftermath of watching Night Will Fall, I looked to Szymborska for a redemption of sorts, a rekindling of my faith in humanity and in life.

This is what I found.

 

The Ball

 

As long as nothing can be known for sure

(no signals have been picked up yet),

 

as long as Earth is still unlike

the nearer and more distant planets,

 

as long as there’s neither hide nor hair

of other grasses graced by other winds,

of other treetops bearing other crowns,

other animals as well-grounded as our own,

 

as long as only the local echo

has been known to speak in syllables,

 

as long as we still haven’t heard word

of better or worse mozarts,

platos, edisons somewhere,

 

as long as our inhuman crimes

are still committed only between humans,

 

as long as our kindness

is still comparable,

peerless even in its imperfection,

 

as long as our heads packed with illusions

still pass for the only heads so packed,

 

as long as the roofs of our mouths alone

still raise voices to high heaven –

 

let’s act like very special guests of honor

at the district-firemen’s ball,

dance to the beat of the local oompah band

and pretend that it’s the ball

to end all balls.

 

I can’t speak for others –

for me this is

misery and happiness enough.

 

just this sleepy backwater

where even the stars have time to burn

while winking at us

unintentionally.’

This film will haunt me forever.

Although I had a pretty clear idea what the content contained before the screening, I was totally unprepared for the reality of its images.

Night Will Fall is a documentary that traces the story of film footage that soldiers/cameramen of the Allied Forces created when they arrived to liberate German concentration camps – including Breslau, Dachau, Aushwitz – in April 1945. A full length film was planned, produced by Sydney Bernstein and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but for political reasons in the sensitive and charged political post war atmosphere, and with the Cold War already threatening, its release was vetoed. The Imperial War Museum has now completed and restored the original film, called German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, which will be screened at The London Film Festival this October.

Night Will Fall contextualises the original footage and also includes interviews with those who were involved in its creation – soldiers who saw first hand the horror of the camps – as well as with those who survived the camps. The film also includes images from German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. I see them these images again now as I write, almost unbelievable in terms of the scale of the horror and human devastation that they reveal. But undeniably believable too, as authentic archives of the reality that they depict, speaking of a truth that remains so difficult to countenance.

The archival footage shows vast numbers – thousands upon thousands – of dead bodies, cast aside and decaying in mounds amongst the living when the Allies arrived. We see bodies thrown like slaughtered animal carcasses (by SS officers who were still in the camps at the time of liberation) into mass graves. The sheer quantity of human loss and suffering defies words.

Bernstein’s aim was to create something that made the fact of what happened in those camps undeniable. To this end, he also filmed local German dignitaries visiting the camps post liberation, forcing them to witness the mass burials, to see what had been happening short distances from where they themselves had lived throughout the war. For some it was all too much, and they had to be carried away as they fainted, faced with a horror they had either been totally unaware of, or had chosen to ignore.

If we learn nothing from such human devastation, the prophecy of the film’s title – night will fall – will be realised. And have we learned? I am not sure.

I wondered afterwards why I endured a screening of such relentless horror (I wanted to turn away from many of the images). I am glad that I experienced Night Will Fall. As I watched so many of the concentration camp dead being thrown without dignity or compassion into mass graves, creating layer upon layer of death and annihilation, it felt like it mattered, at the very least, to witness and to acknowledge the suffering of the unknown and the now long dead, but who remain today, fellow human beings.

 

CQ

I have previously spoken about Clive James’s poetry here (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/poem-for-today-by-clive-james/).

I am a fan.

In recent years, his compositions focus largely on death and dying – he has leukaemia and emphysema – and he has chosen to speak openly about his own personal experience (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/18/clive-james-japanese-maple-dying-valedictory-farewell).

From Leçons De Ténèbres:

‘But are they lessons, all these things I learn

Through being so far gone in my decline?’

‘…I should have been more kind. It is my fate

To find this out, but find it out too late.’

‘… But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air

As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs

That have been taught to me by vanished time…’

 

The New Yorker recently published James’s poem Japanese Maple, which continues the now established theme in his current work:

‘Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact…’

 

It ends:

‘My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that. That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:

 

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colors will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.’

 

Yet, although James so consciously and explicitly speaks of his own increasingly imminent death, I do not find his words maudlin or despondent. Sad, yes, but also hopeful. He does not bemoan his fate. On the contrary:

“Even with my health, things could have been worse. It could have hurt, for example, and it didn’t. So I haven’t got all that much to be miserable about.

“I like to think I have a sunny nature, but a sunny nature doesn’t last long if you’re in real pain. I’ve just been lucky.”

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-27587898)

 

CQ

 

 

 

The first instalment of Jenny Diski’s reflections on her recent cancer diagnosis has appeared in The London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n17/jenny-diski/a-diagnosis).

It is essential reading.

I have always loved Diski’s writing (Skating to Antartica particularly). I read the current article – ‘A Diagnosis’ – with sadness, but also with joy. It is vitally Diski – funny, brave and real – and I am grateful that when faced with the challenge of dealing with her recent cancer diagnosis, she decided to share her experience.

She asks the question:

‘A fucking cancer diary? Another fucking cancer diary… Can there possibly be anything new to add?’

Yes. Diaries afford the possibility of witnessing the experiences of others, and although experiences may overlap and share some similarities, each individual one is unique and invaluable as a direct result of its very subjectivity. Thus, each personal experience is by definition original and irreproducible. The value of reporting such experiences is that, although we cannot truly share them, as invited readers we can listen, witness and hopefully affirm the living of another. Michael Palin speaks of diaries as the antidote of hindsight. Which they are, and as the nearest expression we can get to the possibility of understanding what it might be to exist in someone else’s shoes, they can be the most invaluable and authentic of literary forms.

Especially from Jenny Diski’s pen.

‘The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future.’

The ‘Onc Doc’ slipped in at the outset that the goal was ‘to treat, not to cure’. It is salutary to consider both what is often said and what is mostly unspoken during this most critical of person-to-person interactions. Raymond Carver’s poem on the same topic of cancer diagnosis comes to mind:

What The Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them…

… and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not  wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

 

Diski also reflects on the doctor/patient relationship:

‘It’s quite hard to rapidly absorb the notion that someone forecasting your fairly imminent death might not be your enemy.’

‘Sullen rudeness is a possible option handed to us cancerees.’

She considers the language used. When given a prognosis of ‘two-to-three-years’, what is actually being said? Is ‘Onc Doc’ favouring 2, or 3, with the extra year tagged on as a hopeful gesture? What does this timeframe meaningfully equate to in terms of how we normally live our lives:

‘Will the battery on the TV remote run out first?’

Suddenly thrown into another sphere, that of the ‘Cancer World’, Diski contemplates the role she may now be forced to play:

‘I am and have always been embarrassed by all social rituals that require me to participate in a predetermined script’.

‘Now I was faced with the prospect of a rather lengthy (in one view) public/private performance by which to be excruciated.’

She rejects metaphors of attack, and refuses to personify the cancer cells in her body:

‘Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.’

In the face of her diagnosis and all its inherent challenges, Diski answers her own question ‘why another cancer diary’. She is a writer. It is what she does.

‘So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing.’

 

CQ

 

Tartt

I am going through a Tartt phase, non-chronologically.

I wasn’t sure about the most recent The Goldfinch (my first read, it just didn’t grab me), loved The Secret History (it surprised and seduced), and tonight have embarked upon The Little Friend.

Which brings me to openers. I am obsessed by first sentences and paragraphs. Think Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart:

“My father still lives back in the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down.”

Storytelling magic.

In Tartt’s The Little Friend, the opener is good, very good:

“For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son’s death because she had decided to have Mother’s Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it.”

Loaded.

Tantalising.

Irresistible.

 

CQ