Archives for category: Melancholy

I just came across this sonnet by Britain’s current poet laureate, and instantly fell in love with it.

Prayer

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer

utters itself. So, a woman will lift

her head from the sieve of her hands and stare

at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth

enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;

then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth

in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales

console the lodger looking out across

a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls

a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer  —

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Carol Ann Duffy

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This book was an unexpected delight.

‘Delight’ may not be the best descriptor, as John William’s Stoner is a profoundly sad, at times even bleak read. Yet I felt enriched by the experience. It is truly one of those must-reads.

The title refers to the main protagonist, William Stoner, and the book chronicles his life. We are introduced to Stoner after his death, and from the outset we begin to have a sense of the man and of his life:

‘An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question…his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.’

An only child, Stoner’s parents were farmers. A solitary and mostly silent childhood was spent toiling the physical world of soil and land. Later, he left to study agriculture at university. A required element of the curriculum was English literature, which opened up a previously unknown world to him, one that filled him with wonder and awe. While studying, he dutifully returned home during the holidays to work on the farm. His relationship with his parents remained a largely unspoken one, and Stoner never shared his ‘other world’ with them.

‘He thought of his parents, and they were nearly as strange as the child they had borne; he felt a mixed pity for them and a distant love.’

Discovering a love for teaching, he remained at the university for the remainder of his life, although he struggled to successfully communicate the wonder he himself experienced within, with his students.

The solitary condition of his childhood persisted during his university years:

‘He had no friends, and for the first time in his life he became aware of loneliness.’

However, for a time he did have two friends, one of who commented:

‘You have the lean and hungry look, sure enough. You’re doomed.’

It was a prescient observation, as Stoner’s life proceeded to a succession of tragic episodes, and to a life defined by sadness, an inescapable sadness that he was born into. When his parents died, Stoner reflected:

‘He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been—a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.’

Any relief that Stoner did occasionally experience from the relentless doom that enveloped his life was short-lived. He married, but it was a failure on every level. They had one daughter, Grace, with whom he was initially very close, but this later evaporated. Having briefly found friendship, his closest friend was killed in the war. He had a lover with whom he had many moments of happiness, but this was poignantly relinquished.

As a result of his life experiences, Stoner mostly lived on the periphery, becoming increasingly detached, dislocated, and numb:

‘…at will, he seemed able to remove his consciousness from the body that contained it, and he observed himself as if he were an oddly familiar stranger…’

‘He felt at times that he was a kind of vegetable, and he longed for something—even pain—to pierce him, to bring him alive.’

The final section of the book, when Stoner is dying, is the most introspective and self-reflective:

‘Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be.’

Intensely self-critical, and by then utterly defeated by life, he answered his own question on why his life became what it ended up being:

‘What did you expect? he asked himself.’

He is as detached from the fact of his own dying as he has learnt to be about most things in his life:

‘He had no wish to die; but there were moments, after Grace left, when he looked forward impatiently, as one might look to the moment of a journey that one does not particularly want to take.’

The sadness that clings to Stoner’s life is almost palpable. Although unremitting – the reader is never left off the sadness hook – it is impossible to resist reading Stoner. Seduced by the prose and by William’s way of telling, the reader is willingly drawn into a life story that speaks to a universal sadness within all of us.

CQ

I have just seen this film by the acclaimed director Jem Cohen.

I loved it. I already have a strong sense that this film will linger and haunt me for some time.

It is not a happening film. A story of sorts is gently weaved, but this is not a narrative that feels plot driven.

Amazingly, the production of this Museum Hours involved only seven people, and mostly non-professional actors. Even more amazingly, no artificial light was used throughout, all of which help to explain the authenticity that the work emanates.

The story centres around Anne, who travels from her home in Montreal to visit a dying (and comatose) cousin in Vienna, and Johann, a guard in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, who Anne befriends during her frequent visits to view the art in the museum in between hospital visits. The film interweaves various narrative threads, including those of loneliness, aloneness, friendship, life, living, and death. There is much to interest any art lover, and I particularly loved how the camera shifted seamlessly from people to art. In terms of the latter, insights into works within the museum, for example Rembrandt and Brueghel, were fascinating and illuminating.

To some extent, not being plot-driven, the film goes nowhere, and yet everywhere. It is a life journey of sorts, and as such offers much to consider, especially the possibility of a new ‘way of seeing’, both in relation to art, and to its mirror image, life.

I was not surprised to see John Berger acknowledged in the credits.

I was uplifted by this film, moved by its optimism in terms of how we might see things anew, particularly if we choose to truly pay attention to what we are actually observing. Yet Museum Hours is also suffused by melancholy, of which it is aware but does not force, and in turn does not overwhelm. In the final moments, Johann reminds us of the transience of things, which may at first seem to contradict the lasting impact of the works of art we have seen throughout the film.

What is really transient is us, the ever-changing population of viewers.

All the more reason to ‘see’ what we can, and while we can…

CQ

I love happening upon something or someone in the world of art that I have never encountered before.
Living in London facilitates such creative discoveries…
Such was my experience today, when I visited The Jewish Museum, which I have visited on a number of occasions. This time, I set out specifically to explore the life and art of RB Kitaj.

The current exhibition, ‘The Art of Identity’, runs in parallel with ‘Analyst for Our Time’ at Pallant House Chichester, both together constituting the ‘R.B. Kitaj: Obsessions’ retrospective.

Kitaj’s work was last seen in London in 1994, when the Tate Gallery held a large retrospective of the artist’s work. The event was one that the artist believed would be the pinnacle of his career, his crowning glory, but instead, art critics almost universally slammed it, apparently with much vitriol at the time.

Kitaj was deeply hurt and incensed by the reaction the exhibition generated, but matters only got worse when his beloved wife Sandra Fisher died from a brain aneurysm two weeks after the Tate exhibition ended. The artist blamed the critics and the press for her death: ‘They were aiming for me, but they got her instead.’

As a result, Kitaj abandoned his adopted England in 1997, and settled in Los Angeles.

He never recovered from Fisher’s death. A photograph in the foyer of the exhibition area of Kitaj and Fisher is palpably tender and moving. Kitaj’s first wife committed suicide, leaving him with two children. With Fisher, he had a third child, Max, who was 10 when his mother died.

In LA, Kitaj surrounded himself with his sons and later grandsons, but otherwise became increasingly reclusive as he aged.

With age too, he became preoccupied by his deteriorating health. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease. and his frailty and consequent difficulty painting affected him profoundly. He was found dead in 2007, with suicide the presumed cause of death.

The current exhibition at The Jewish Museum looks at Kitaj’s obsession with his Jewish identity. He grew up in a left-wing intellectual home, with his mother Jeanne Brooks and stepfather Walter Kitaj. Neither practiced Judaism. Kitaj’s interest in his Jewish identity began in the 1970s, when he had read Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial.

Included in the current exhibition is Desk Murder (1970-1984), which appears to have been influenced by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, where the author coined the term ‘desk murderer’ for the SS officer Walther Rauff who was responsible for the development of mobile gas vans. In Kitaj’s painting, the outline takes the shape of a van, and features a tap with a cloud of gas streaming from it.

In 1989 Kitaj wrote his First Diasporist Manifesto, in which he laid out his theory of a Diasporic existence, ‘bound by neither national not religious constraints’ (from the accompanying exhibition notes). Also included in the exhibition is a quote from the manifesto:

‘After almost a

lifetime as a painter,

my painting thoughts

begin to dwell

on whether or not

the Jews are a nation,

or a state of mind.’

The Second Diasporist Manifesto was published a week after Kitaj’s death in 2007:

‘The Jewish Quest is my

limit-experience,

my romance, my neurosis,

my war, my pleasure-principle,

my death drive.’

The exhibition is small and contained, yet there is much to consider here, from The Listener, which metaphorically depicts the Diasporist Jew, to The Wedding, reminiscent of his marriage to Fisher in a Sephardic Synagogue. I particularly liked some of the portraits of the artist’s friends, for example A Jew in Love (Philip Roth), a charcoal drawing of Kitaj’s writer friend, and Isaiah Berlin.

I am not sure I understand much more about Kitaj and his work following my visit, but perhaps the point is not to explain, but to experience what is presented before one’s eyes, and to let the art speak for itself.

CQ

This film, by the documentary film maker Marc Isaacs, is an absolute gem, a must-see.

Perhaps I am biased, as someone originally from Ireland who has lived in London for many years. But I believe The Road is essential viewing for anyone living in London, and not only there. It is the story of belonging, of loneliness, of searching for meaning and identity, in essence a depiction of what humanness might be about.

The road Isaacs focuses on is the A5, as it enters London and continues north from Marble Arch, through Kilburn, Cricklewood, and further towards Edgware.

Isaacs focuses on a handful of immigrants, both recent and long-arrived, dotted along the route. Their stories vary, yet converge on a fundamental common issue – leaving one’s homeland (and loved ones) behind. At the outset, Isaacs reflects on the reflective in-between-space such leaving creates, and as we see throughout the film, this questioning never goes away.

Billy, the Irish labourer, who now has too much time to reflect since retirement, which can only be handled through time in the pub, has been in London for more than 40 years. Yet he still feels that he has not fitted in, isolation and loneliness at least partly contributing to his alcohol problem: ‘a day later and a pound shorter’.

This is a poignant, moving, and melancholic film. It is also at times very funny. Isaacs treats the individuals he films with much gentleness, and is always unobtrusive. This is their story, not his, and you get the sense that the film genuinely cares about those portrayed.

Being, belonging, making our mark, is a large part of how we define ourselves. The Road will encourage you to reflect on this, and more, and to perhaps go about your life with a little more generosity and humility.

CQ

I had been meaning to read this book for some time, and only just got round to it this week. Timely, as a BBC documentary on the author’s life will be screened over the Christmas period.

Jansson was already famous for her Moonintroll cartoon strips and children’s books before The Summer Book appeared in 1972.

The narrative focuses on the relationship between 6 year old Sophia and her grandmother, who live on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland. The child’s father is also there, but is very much a silent presence in the background. To some extent the book was a response to the death of Janssen’s beloved mother in 1971, and is based on ‘real’ people from the author’s life, her own mother represented by the grandmother, and Sophia the author’s niece. The location also reflects Jansson’s personal history, with the setting based on a house that she and her brother built on a remote island off Finland in 1947.

Although the (short) book predominantly follows the companions as they spend time together, exploring, talking, swimming and foraging, there are also other threads running through the narrative, particularly the grandmother’s musings on ageing and death. Deceptively straightforward sounding chapters such as ‘The Morning Swim’, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘The Magic Forest’ contain much more than is apparent at first glance. In the latter chapter, for example, the forest itself becomes a metaphor for living and dying:

‘This forest was called “the magic forest”. It had shaped itself with slow and laborious care, and the balance between survival and extinction was so delicate that even the smallest change was unthinkable.” (p.27)

The notion of death is introduced early, when Sophia asks her grandmother directly, with an endearing frankness and openness that only the very young can engender:

‘When are you going to die?’ (p.22)

Shortly afterwards, we learn that Sophia’s mother has died:

‘Sophia woke and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.’ (p.25)

The book is about imagination, in both the old and in the young, and it is also about wisdom that similarly transcends generations. What is particularly impressive, is Jansson’s ability to portray a dual perspective, the simultaneously believable voices of both a child and an elderly woman.

It is thus not only 6 year old Sophia who bubbles with imagination, but her grandmother also displays impressive imaginative ingenuity. When Sophia’s friend Berenice comes to stay, and is bored and tiresome, the grandmother suggests that she draws something:

‘”Draw a picture,” she said.

“I don’t know anything to draw,” the child said.

“Draw something awful,” Grandmother said, for she was really tired now. “Draw the awfullest thing you can think of, and take as much time as you possibly can.”‘ (p.45)

Death features again in Sophia’s questions about heaven, and in the grandmother’s internal reflections on the euphemisms for death:

‘It was too bad that you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.’ (p.135)

The grandmother struggles with the process of ageing, as she becomes aware that her memory for recent events is slipping (p.56), and how much she hates the chamberpot under her bed, a ‘symbol of helplessness’ (p.170). At times, she seems weighed down by sadness, and by an almost palpable sense of loss:

‘A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge.’ (p.90).

She also feels that she cannot describe things anymore, the words have somehow been lost to her, and so, it will all die with her death:

‘And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost.’ (p.90)

But, just as she is there for Sophia, listening and reassuring during her many tantrums, so too is the little girl there for her grandmother. She attends to the older woman’s outburst:

‘But now I have the feeling everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!’ (p.93)

And so, on a night when she was unable to sleep due to ‘thinking about sad things, the grandmother shared her anxieties with the attentive child, thereafter sleeping soundly…

The relationship between the older and the younger companion is very moving. Even when they quarrel, it is with love:

‘One evening, Sophia wrote a letter and stuck it under the door. It said, “I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.”‘

The prose is just delightful, for example the tree trunks ‘formed a tangled mass of stubborn resignation’ (p.27), and when the pair quarrelled, they ‘quarrelled the wrong way.’ (p.111).

The Summer Book has never been out of print in Scandinavia. I am not surprised. It is a truly magical work, which can tell us much about humanness, but perhaps especially about relationships, and how being there for the other can enhance, and even make sense of, the whole business of being.

CQ

I originally read this memoir (London: Harper Perennial, 2003) a few years ago, and re-read it last week having watched snippets of the recent BBC4 dramatisation (I did not particularly like the bits of the TV adaptation that I saw, mainly as my memory of the book was quite different, a memory I wanted to hang on to).

I loved the book when I first read it, and enjoyed it even more the second time round.

The format is seductive. Almost all chapters have a food heading, for example ‘Lemon Drops’, ‘Sherbet Fountain, ‘Bread-and-Butter Pudding, ‘Fried Eggs’. But one soon realises that the subtext is not that of the comforting aspect of food. Rather, the narrative focuses on childhood memories, which are indeed food-related, but are not particularly happy rememberings, often the opposite, and are rarely suffused with a Proustian-like nostalgia.

Slater’s childhood, or how he chooses to delineate it in this memoir, was one punctuated by food and by mealtimes, over which clouds of silence, secrets, loneliness, and confusion hover in an adult world.

At the outset we are introduced to the author’s mother, and she features prominently in the first half of the book. In the chapter ‘Toast’, Slater speaks fondly of her:

‘It’s impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.’ (p.1)

We share Slater’s sense of exclusion, and his increasing unease as he senses that something is not right in their world:

‘Nobody tells me anything. They talk in whispers over my head…’ (p.45).

The foreboding persists, and culminates in the premature death of his mother. I was surprised how little we learn of how this affected Slater emotionally, but then this is a book where feelings are not expressed directly, but circuitously. One does get some sense of his distress, albeit obliquely:

‘When your mum dies you notice little things more, like your senses are all cranked up a notch’ (p.114)

In the second half of the book, Slater’s relationship with his father, which was never straightforward, comes to the fore:

‘For all his soft shirts and cuddles and trifles I was absolutely terrified of him.’

Much centres on mealtime battles, on food, and time spent (unhappily) at the table:

‘Every time my dad feeds me he goes quiet, thoughtful, distant even.’ (p.89)

When his father loses the battle over porridge, Slater comments:

‘My father’s disappointment in his youngest son is so obvious you could put it on a plate and eat it.’ (p.89)

The tension created by silence, by the unsaid, is almost palpably sad. Since ‘my mother had gone’:

‘Every meal was seasoned with guilt. His. Mine.’ (p.110)

Slater’s mother is replaced by Joan, who speaks about him in the third person in his presence, and expresses herself almost exclusively through homemaking, cleaning, baking and cooking. A domestic goddess of sorts, who Slater never warmed to, or even really appeared to like, he admits to admiring her lemon meringue pie:

‘Joan’s lemon meringue pie was one of the most glorious things I had ever put in my mouth…’ (p.154)

and also acknowledges another Joan, hidden behind the making and the baking:

‘She is aware, I know, that none of my dad’s friends like her. It suddenly occurs to me that she is probably as lonely as I am.’ (p.185)

For the relationship between father and son, communication takes place through food, occasionally exhibiting a kindness that cannot be otherwise expressed. When Slater’s mother dies, for example, his father places two marshmallows on his bedside table. This nightly routine continued for two years.

On the other hand, he also tried to control who his son was, or might be, through food:

‘He always winced when I asked for fairy drops. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have some Brazil nut toffees?’ he said, trying desperately to make a man of me.’ (p.117)

I have thought much about this book, both when I first read it, and since my re-read. Food is so central to our lives, essential, yet also used as a tool, to hide behind, to disguise what can otherwise be too painful to express. The physicality of food concretises emotions, and has the potential to further confuse issues:

‘Without a word he stabs his fork into a slice of ham and slaps it on my plate. A hot wave of hate goes through my body. Hate ham, hate him.’ (p.33)

It seems as if the power of food goes beyond what it is. Perhaps it is a useful tool, at times. Not all can be expressed with words, and we do need other vehicles to channel our feelings and to facilitate how we connect. Yet we also abuse it, and give it a status that can distract us from the real business of who we are and what we truly need.

Slater’s childhood experiences clearly have not destroyed his relationship with food. His current TV series testifies to someone who truly loves food, and who also treats it kindly.

CQ

I have always been drawn to empty buildings, particularly ruins, spaces that were once complete, populated, and now stand and fall, ghost-like and desolate.

In Cork this weekend, I chanced upon an intriguing exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery. It contains a single piece, an 8 minute film by Martin Healy, called Last Man.

Filmed in the now de-comissioned Cork Airport Terminal, the piece depicts the movements of a solitary janitor as he maintains the empty building. Initially, it feels as if we are watching a lone worker as he prepares the terminal for the busyness of tomorrow. But tomorrow never materialises, the building remains in a state of emptiness, a place of non-happening, that is ultimately and irreparably abandoned.

As I left Cork airport today, from the new inhabited and alive terminal, I glanced at its cast aside and melancholic predecessor. Yet disused buildings are not necessarily empty in the absolute sense. Memories remain, and the ruins continue to live as unique repositories for melancholy, and for the artistic imagination.

CQ

I am a great fan of the Bloodaxe poetry collections edited by Neil Astley, Staying Alive and Being Alive. Between them lies such a wealth of words and thoughts that it feels as if I can dip into them and find something that resonates with whatever mood or experience I am living. Being Human is a companion collection that I have not read, but this did not stop me from attending a performance of selected poems from the anthology at Kings Place this week.

Three performers dramatised the varied works, varied both in terms of content and also the diverse corners of the world the pieces originated from and have been translated for the collection.

The performers are talented and impressive actors, who with an innate skill and ease allowed the poetry to come alive, and to seduce.

Of more than 30 poems, which covered most life events from the banal to the sublime, I enjoyed the entirety, yet inevitably I have favourites.

Philip Larkin’s poignant The Mower is one:

‘The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed.’

‘Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.’

I love the essence of this poem, how the banality of mowing the lawn transmutes into something that resonates beyond the event. But only if you allow it to.

I was introduced to many poems and poets during the performance that I was less aware of, for example Doris Kareva, and her poem Shape of Time (translated from Estonian by Tiina Aleman):

‘You aren’t better than anyone.
You aren’t worse than anyone.
You have been given the world.
See what there is to see.’
The performance encompassed most life events, from birth (Upon Seeing an Ultrasound Photo of an Unborn Child, by Thomas Lux), to the departure of children from the parental home (To a Daughter Leaving Home by Linda Paston), to ageing (Getting Older by Elaine Feinstein) and death (Antidote to the Fear of Death by Rebecca Elson).
One of my favourites was Table, which proved to be a centre piece, as the text recurred throughout the performance. It is a multi-layed piece that epitomises the power of poetry to say little, and much…
From Table, by Edip Cansever, translated from Turkish by Julia Clare and Richard Tillinghurst:
‘A man filled with the gladness of living
Put his keys on the table,
Put flowers in a copper bowl there.’

‘On the table the man put
Things that happened in his mind.
What he wanted to do in life,
He put that there.’

‘He was next to the window next to the sky;
He reached out and placed on the table endlessness.’

‘He placed there his sleep and his wakefulness;
His hunger and his fullness he placed there.
Now that’s what I call a table!
It didn’t complain at all about the load.
It wobbled once or twice, then stood firm.
The man kept piling things on.’

Being Human, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, 2012.

http://www.bloodaxebooks.com

CQ

On the closing day of the festival, I caught this French film (director Stephane Brize) at Screen on the Green. I was drawn to it mainly due to its thematic content, but also by the fact that it featured Vincent Lindon in the lead role, an actor I rate, and who I last saw in the sublime Madomoiselle Chambon, which was also directed by Stephane Brize.

Lindon, as Alain Evrard in Quelques Heures de Printemps, plays a role that he excels at, the dour, melancholic, and often silent, loner. Recently released from prison having served 18 months for smuggling goods while a long-distance truck driver, Evrard finds himself jobless, homeless, and forced to live with his widowed mother. The relationship is fraught, fuelled by the tension of decades of the unsaid. It seems too late for reconciliation between mother and son, too much history exists and now, apart from jibes and shouting, they are unable to communicate with each other.

But then… the plot widens, to that of the widowed mother with a terminal illness, who has booked herself into a clinic in Switzerland for assisted suicide. Inevitably, this leads to a re-involvement with her son, who accompanies her to said clinic. At the end, there is a reconciliation of sorts.

I did like this film, and both mother (Helene Vincent) and son enact beautiful and often understated roles. They are believable, at least initially. The mother’s oncologist is also impressive, honest, empathic and supportive. But the plot felt contrived. Assisted suicide is a very tricky subject, and here it felt like a (tragic) tool to push other agendas forward, most especially that of the unresolved mother, and of her unexpressed feelings for her son. The superb film, The Sea, came to mind, where assisted suicide was the only agenda, and benefitted from this exclusivity.

And other little things irked, like the jigsaw the mother completed in the weeks before her death resembling the view from the Swiss clinic…

I am glad I saw it. It has made me consider the many issues it raised. But the film also suffers from a lack of focus on these issues, none of which were truly addressed.

Yet, perhaps this confusion most accurately reflects that which we call life…

CQ