Archives for posts with tag: Tragedy

Although long aware of the Irish author Niall Williams, I had never read any of his novels. The arrival of his current book History of the Rain prompted me to explore his earlier work.

I started with Only Say the Word, and loved it, finishing it in less that 24 hours. It feels as if every book this year reminds of another author’s work, coincidentally also Williams, John, and his novel Stoner, which I have previously spoken about here [https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/stoner/]. Only Say the Word and Stoner are very different, but they do share a common theme of following one man’s life, and the influences and events that impacted on the life in question. In addition, both John Williams and Niall Williams are masters of a style of prose that seduces the reader willingly and complicitly into the life of the protagonist.

Niall William’s narrative tells the story of Jim, opening with the words:

‘I do not know what to write. There have been so many words written already. So many endings and beginnings. I have lost my faith.’

We are immediately introduced to the acute cause of Jim’s sadness, which is the loss of his wife Kate, mother of his young children:

‘And so I sit here, and feel your absence and wonder how to begin to live without you.’

As Jim commits his story to the blank page, his life up to now is revealed. We learn of his childhood in Ireland, with his devout mother who seemed to exist in a haze of sadness, his kind but distant father, his genius and troubled brother, and his baby sister Louise. It is a relatively calm and untroubled childhood, until:

‘And in that same passing of time, the same even measurement in which one moment seems identical to the next but is not, our life is struck and falls apart.’

Tragedy happens, from which nobody truly recovers. Jim partly blamed himself, as children tend to do, and it was not a family where such feelings were expressed or acknowledged:

‘In our family we are each like boats slipped from the moorings, out in deep water, and utterly separate or tangled in our own nets of grief and loss. We live together in the house but are each alone.’

Jim copes by escaping, initially through books and reading, and later physically, when he leaves school.

We follow Jim’s life, and his attempt to make sense of it as he commits the telling of it to the page. Jim is a more accessible character than John William’s Stoner, yet that is not the point. Liking someone is not critical for empathy, which only demands an authentic emotional connection with the suffering of another. Jim (and in essence Niall Williams) goes a step further. By sharing his story, and in particular the redemptive possibilities of caring and of love, hope is ultimately acknowledged and embraced.

 

CQ

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I have seen such great theatre in London of late, tonight absolutely included.

I rarely go to large venues these days, instead loving the intimacy that smaller theatres offer and so often deliver.

This is probably my third or fourth time at The Print Room, and as a space to visit I love it more each time. Within the building I have been entertained in different ‘rooms’ on different occasions. Tonight, we were treated to a glass of wine in a little candlelit ante room (with piano), before moving up (narrow) stairs to the performance.

The play was performed within a relatively narrow rectangular space. There are three performers, Catherine, Joshua and Simon, all of whom are present for the 90 minute or so duration of the piece. The actors were uniformly really impressive.

Simon is a psychiatrist – of the ‘old’ school, a ‘pedantic piece of shit’ as named by Joshua – who is simultaneously seeing/treating both Catherine and Joshua.

Catherine has amnesia. Simon, who has become ‘bored by suffering’, is nonetheless interested in Catherine and her psychiatric state. His goal is to ‘remove the plaster’, thereby liberating her memory. The amygdala of the play’s title is the part of the brain that has come to be viewed as the centre of emotional memory.

The story that predated Catherine’s amnesia gradually unfolds. Catherine is a middle class lawyer who lives in Hampstead with her French lawyer husband, who seems to spend more time in Paris than in London, and their two young children. Joshua’s life rests at the other end of the spectrum, as a musician (saxophone) who takes the bus rather than black cabs, and who lives a life devoid of books. Yet, a series of (seemingly) chance encounters brings Catherine and Joshua together.

As Simon works on removing Catherine’s ‘plaster’, the traumatic and tragic story behind her memory loss is revealed. Many themes and threads pervade this short work of art, all of which weave together to create a story of humanness with all its inherent and inevitable flaws, frailties and vulnerabilities.

All three characters, most especially Simon and Catherine, are alone, lonely and vulnerable. Inside, but most especially outside the courtroom, truth is questioned and sought. Amygdala is a story of need and of desire, and of the reality and consequences of love, and the living of it, that is both beautiful and tragic.

CQ

I really enjoyed Barry’s earlier novel The Secret Scripture, although I was a little taken aback by the final denouement, which felt a little contrived, and unnecessary. The book had been magical up to that point.

Nonetheless, I eagerly began On Canaan’s Side this week, and finished it within very few days. Barry’s prose is seductive and addictive, creating a narrative that you do not want to leave.

Similar to The Secret Scripture, On Canaan’s Side has an elderly Irish woman as the main protagonist. In both, she looks back and tells her story. There the similarities pretty much end, and I did not feel that Barry was regurgitating a trope.

Like Colm Toibin (particularly in Brooklyn), Barry writes so sympathetically and impressively from a female perspective.

On Canaan’s Side opens with:

‘What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.’

Lilly’s story is that of a life beset and consumed by tragedy, and there is little in terms of redemption or relief from sadness throughout. As such, it is very much an ‘Irish book’. We are good at tragedy, and On Canaan’s Side does feel authentic, from this, but not only this, perspective.

Barry writes beautifully, and there are very many sentences and phrases throughout that make you stop, and consider:

‘Tears have a better character cried alone.’

Tragedy begins early for Lilly, as she remembers events from almost 80 years earlier, when growing up in Ireland:

‘The grief at first sat in us, and then leaked out into the chairs, and at last into the very walls and sat in the mortar.’

The memories of those times, the almost palpable grief, never leave Lilly, shadowing her life throughout:

‘We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken-pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.’

I was intrigued by Lilly’s assessment of her doctor, Dr Earnshaw. This is a discussion for another day, perhaps:

‘But he is very austere, and depressed-looking, and he never smiles. You can have confidence in a man like that, though, in the manner of doctoring.’

Lilly leaves Ireland, settling in America, where she initially spends much time lost and alone ‘a prisoner in the open asylum of the world.’ Her best possession at that point, she reflects, was her youth, ‘but that of course was invisible to me.’

Despite the tragedy and sorrow that follow Lilly throughout her long life, this is not a book of sadness. Uplifting perhaps not, but very real and believable, and in its own way life affirming. Similar to The Secret Scripture, I was unsure about the denouement. But I had already loved the book, and Lilly, at that point, and there was no going back. It is more of a mild niggle…

Life, loss, love, grief, tragedy, remembering and memory are all the stuff of life, and so it seems of Barry’s fiction-yet-real novels:

‘To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness.’

CQ

Amazing.

This is superb cinematography, and tragic poetry on the screen.

The acting is also truly impressive, but what I loved most about this gem, was the fact that it refused to offer redemption as feel-good closure. It is a disturbing film that very successfully highlights what it means to be human, and thus vulnerable, uncertain, alone, suffering, lost, and struggling with the confusion that is life, and how we negotiate relationships, loss, grief, and love…

CQ

Lasting just over an hour, this three man play by Colin Teevan leaves much to consider. I am still considering, and although I am not altogether sure that I grasped all the various meanings and layers, I gained enough to make it a thought-provoking experience.

The three men – Young Man (Anthony Delaney),  Man (Owen O’Neill) and Old Man (Gary Lilburn) – are together on stage throughout, digging, and talking, and telling stories, the secrets of their lives gradually exposed and shared as the shovels do their work:

‘Let the shaft glide through your hand – ‘

The play feels rooted in an Ireland of a certain time (The ‘Kingdom of Ireland’ ceased as such in 1801), when young men headed off, ‘making something of yourself”:

‘I take the road eastwards towards the sea,

And England.’

England here equates with London, Kilburn and the Galtee More in Cricklewood specifically, and perhaps predictably.

‘Pints are drunk that night,

And the talk is mighty.’

Also unsurprisingly, the Ireland left behind, we learn as the stories unfold, is one rife with incest, rape and murder. It is also the land of tinkers, of shrines, and, somewhat ironically, Our Lady of Succour…

The Old Man teases us with a riddle at the outset:

‘My mother is my father’s child,

And my mother’s son my father,

If I believe this is no lie,

Tell me stranger who am I?’

The correct answer is ‘a good Christian’…

Violence, blows, suicide, self-inflicted blindness…tragedy suffuses the narrative, with more than a hint of a Greek tragedy prevailing.

In the end, there is no sense of redemption, no sense that truth makes a positive difference. An ambivalence towards the very notion of stories appears in the opening scene, as the talking begins:

‘Go on believing, if it helps,

Telling yourself stories,

If it helps put down the day.’

Leaving Ireland has solved little, the past in the end remains inescapable:

‘I look around at them,

Their battered boots and breeches, worn out braces,

I look into their hungry, cowed faces;

These are not the pride of Hackney, Haringey or Hull,

But the lost sons of Kerry, Cork and Donegal.’

The Old Man’s comment that:

‘One road’s the same as another, when you’re digging it.’

made me think of Seamus Heaney’s poem, Digging (Death of a Naturalist, 1969). Here, Heaney initially describes the tradition of digging in his father’s and grandfather’s time, before concluding:

‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

the squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.’

We dig, in our own individual and unique ways, to get at a truth, which feels intuitively worthwhile and valid. What we unearth, about ourselves and others, may not however be what we expected or hoped to find.

CQ

I was lucky enough to catch this play recently during its second run.

At the centre of Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s musical at the National Theatre are the real-life and tragic murders of six prostitutes in Ipswich a few years ago. However, to some extent the actual murders are peripheral, as the play focuses on the community of London Road, neighbours of the convicted murderer, and the effect of the notorious and gruesome events on their lives, both individually and collectively. The play is based on interviews with the real inhabitants of the street, and the 11 actors who represent the community feel spell-bindingly real and authentic.

It may seem strange to present such a topic as a musical, but it works, and even enhances the impact, the emotional content and pathos, and the humanness of it all.

There are no lessons to be learnt here, but perhaps a reminder that the knock-on effects of human tragedy reach far and wide, and may pass unnoticed unless we seek them out.

 

CQ

I first saw the French actress Sandrine Kiberlain in Mademoiselle Chambon (2009), and was much impressed by her understated and nuanced performance.

Thus, I looked forward to seeing Yves Caumon’s current release The Bird, in which Kiberlain plays the central role.

Kiberlain’s character is that of a single woman, who lives alone and appears detached from her co-workers and from society in general. A melancholic film, Kiberlain again delivers an understated and moving performance, a finely tuned balance between depersonalisation and almost palpable sadness. We gradually learn of the loss that has transported her to this so very alone and solitary place.

A bird befriends her, both a distraction and a projection of her loss.

But, beautiful as the movie is, there is at times a sense of melancholy and sadness overdone, and even contrived…the pathetic fallacy of rain, the reenactment of Virginia Woolf and stones in the river, the heavy symbolism of the bird, and ashes, and scattering. And the difficult to believe ending…

Perhaps plausibility is not the point here. Kiberlain is an amazing actress and adds so much depth to the role, and the cinematography is wonderful.

I remain glad that I experienced it.

CQ