Friday, 26 July 2013

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis - is literature always pretentious?

In an attempt to be a more organised student for next year (they do exist, I believe), I'm keeping on top of my reading by reading the set texts before we actually start studying them. I'm that bad at keeping on the ball. As such, any reading for pleasure is slightly restricted to short stories, plays and, to a lesser extent, poetry (although I do enjoy most of the set texts, after all that's why I picked the modules in the first place).

But personally, I enjoy these various forms of literature* because of their brevity. While they may be quick to read, that they are also capable of profound and emotive power as Lydia Davis clearly recognises in four of her short story collections, which are also available in:
madness: a mad person not helped out of his trouble by anything real begins to trust what is not real because it helps him out and he needs it because real things continue not to help him- 'Liminal: The Little Man'

Recently announced the winner of the International Man Booker Prize, Lydia Davis has been recommended to me before for being a unique American writer and so, I found a copy in my local library to see what Davis had to offer. What I found reading these stories was a peculiar experience. In fact, I think it's inaccurate to describe them as stories; what Davis has written here are experiences, at one alienating and familiar snapshots of the lives of humans. Almost none of the characters of her stories are given names and nearly all are written in the first person, and so remarkably creates a version of the world purely through the viewpoint of one character. As such, there is a great variety within the collection. She clearly has a good sense of humour ('Television', 'Idea for a Short Documentary Film'), well-read and intelligent enough to pull off numerous pastiches ('Kafka Cooks Dinner' is just wonderful in every way and is probably my favourite of her short stories), and capable of deconstructions on the acts of writing and reading ('We Miss You', 'Grammar Questions', 'French Lesson I: Le Meurtre', 'The Centre of the Story').

She is clearly playing and experimenting with the short story form, with some of them being the shortest ever written. At times this leads to some incredibly poignant passages such as the following:
it occurs to me that I must not know altogether what I am, [...] and that others know certain things about me better than I do, though I think I ought to know all there is to know and I proceed as if I do. Even once I see this, however, I have no choice but to continue to proceed as if I know altogether what I am, though I may also try to guess, from time to time, just what it is that others know that I do not know.
                 - 'A Friend of Mine'
But while she creates incredibly emotional pieces, at times her experimentations appear to exist to solely show off her cleverness and technical skill. These pieces seem to have something missing and cause frustration - is she being deliberately alienating or is annoying pretentiousness part of her writing style? This latter problem is best seen in the shortest stories and are often bewildering rather than resonating emotionally ('The Senses' is the only example that springs to mind as really working).

As such, I had an odd feeling about this collection when reading it and after I finished it. I wasn't sure if I liked it although, like Wolf Hall, I admire the ambition of the writing and using the consistent present tense to perfect effect - really capturing the essence of human life. But did I enjoy reading it? In a way, but Davis cannot escape the problem that every short story writer faces: not every short story is going to work or be as equally good as each other. But that's not my problem with it. Even those I enjoyed seemed to be because I was willing to deal with the pretentiousness of it all; that she's playing with technique and manipulation.

This is not a problem in itself though, and actually made me consider the question that sort of titles this post - is literature always pretentious? It's interesting that with The Great Gatsby film recently come out, people constantly discuss the original book as an accepted classic, no questions asked. While I agree that it is a wonderful book that is absolutely a 'classic' book that everyone should read, I'm not beyond accepting that to a degree it is pretentious. Discussion of the book is always about the symbolism, and Fitzgerald's use of language and imagery and dismiss the criticism that the characters are all thoroughly unlikeable (I do think this is the point, just as it is in The Catcher in the Rye).

While it is the technique that is most highly praised, it doesn't mean it is not a fantastic book. Just because it is often discussed in a pretentious manner or appears to be a pretentious book in itself, that does not mean it is a bad book. But of course, you can choose to dislike or simply not like a book that is very well written. And I think that's the case with Lydia Davis' short stories. I enjoyed some of them, but on the whole her writing is just a bit too artful for my tasted. But that's fine and I wouldn't put anyone off reading them for themselves. This collection is long at 600 pages, so I would recommend taking it one collection at a time. There's only four at the moment but my favourite story, 'Kafka Cooks Dinner' is in her latest collection, Varieties of Disturbance, although I did like her earlier stuff a bit more. Either way, you'll probably find out fairly quickly whether she is to your taste or not.

*My argument for why plays count as literature is for another blog post, but for now, consider that arguably one of, if not the, greatest writer is generally agreed to be a writer who wrote no novels and only poetry and, most famously, plays.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Returned (Channel 4, Sunday, 9PM)

The popularity of foreign television dramas like The Killing and slow-burn mysteries like Broadchurch suggests that Channel 4's broadcasting of French drama The Returned is an attempt to cash in on these trends. However, The Returned is a truly unique piece that provides the perfect example for why more foreign television should be made aware to the general British public.

A plot synopsis alone demonstrates the peculiarity of the show: the drama follows a number of individuals who return to their hometown, only to find out that they have been dead for years. Many summaries and discussions of the show describe these individuals as zombies, which to me is inaccurate. Zombies are mentioned twice in the first six episodes, while ghost is a much more common term although the eeriness of the drama lies in the lack of explanation of who/what the Returned are. If we look at the untranslated title - Les Revenants - it is clear that they are meant to be considered for the most part as ghosts, particularly as this is what the word 'revenant' alludes to.

But the supernatural element is not the main focus of the show. Much like Broadchurch, The Returned presents its genre through the perspective of an ordinary community and uses to explore the relationships of the characters. While there are some dream-like imagery (such as the butterfly coming to life in the first episode), the show makes the supernatural ordinary and rather than asking what caused the return, it presents how the characters try to incorporate it into their lives. Rather than mystifying or frustrating, the plot gradually unravels with ease as it draws you in with its atmosphere and characters. The one misstep is the ongoing plotline at a plantation which doesn't tie into any of the plot lines. It is either a red herring or an important part of the story, but at the moment it's the one jarring aspect to the production.

The performances are fantastic across the board. The potential for confusion and forgetting who is who is reduced by the memorable performances and extraordinary writing. The child actors are particularly impressive. Yara Pilartz as Camille is arguably the lead character (although the show is generally based on an ensemble cast) as her story begins the series but she also lends some comic relief when she's not pushing the drama forward. Swann Nambotin as "Victor" is also strikingly memorable, saying very little but really has a lingering presence on screen that is at once charming and unnerving.

This effect is generated by the superb direction throughout the series. There is real confidence behind the camera which isn't afraid to linger on uncomfortable moments. The murders that occur are suitably horrifying and disturbing in their violence. Yet there is also a distanced perspective, letting the characters tell the story and grounding the show rather than overstylising it. The moments of surrealism and bizarre imagery are striking but feed into the drama and emphasise the peculiarities of the world it depicts. Considering how alienating the material could be, it is impressive that it remains gripping throughout, with endings that leave you longing for more.

I intend to post on the final episodes once they have aired, but safe to say this is one of the best dramas I've seen this year and is well worth catching up on as we approach the finale of this first series. As I'm now aware there is going to be a second series, I'm curious to see how much will be resolved by the end of this series. As long as its not a massive cliffhanger that I'll then have to wait months for a resolution to - I don't think my nerves could take it.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Panorama on Hillsborough - "How They Buried the Truth"

I have now caught up with the Panorama documentary about the cover up of the Hillsborough disaster. It was broadcast back in May but is still available for another 10 months on iPlayer. I would highly recommend watching it. As you would expect, it is an emotional and horrifying piece but it is an important one. We can all recognise that the cover up was an atrocious tragedy but the documentary explores it thoroughly, revealing how its horror is complex and not as clear cut as we would like it to be. It is not enough, I feel, to call something evil and have done with it. Panorama prove that if we are to use this label we must understand why it deserves it. And in my mind there is absolutely no doubt that the cover up was evil. 
What I found particularly interesting is the relationship between the events as perceived at the time and as perceive now. A word that continually crops up in the discussions with those involved with the events is 'hindsight', and is most commonly used as a form of defence for what they did - without hindsight they had no idea of how devastating the tragedy was.

This is not a poor excuse in and of itself, and one I'm sure most of us have used in our own personal experiences. However, it is a poor excuse for the institutionalised discrimination that the police displayed here. Many of the people that headed the institutions that investigated the events excuse themselves or their superiors because of the huge demands expected of them and their role. Lord Dear, who helped lead the initial investigation, excuses Lord Justice Taylor for allowing South Yorkshire Police to take responsibility of the officers' statements, which included censorship and editing of these statements, by claiming that because he was Lord Justice  "It is not for you or I to query that [decision] I [would] suggest".
On the other hand, Dear is not presented as entirely unsympathetic although he seems to care more about his reputation rather than actual justice. Nevertheless, he and Taylor agreed that the tragedy was caused by overcrowding and poor organisation by the police responsible for the game.
And yet, the police still avoided total responsibility for the disaster and the documentary tracks the eventual reversal of this stance and was eventually made 'officialy' true.

As I was swept up in the incredible footage and moving statements, I noticed that at the heart of the documentary was a story that seems to appear in almost every fiction I've come across: that of the individual fighting against a society ruled by a collection of powerful, single-minded individuals. It seems that the reason it crops up in so much fiction is because it is a reality that many face. While it is easy to criticise and attack institutions, when we see the destruction they can cause, such as Hillsborough, it is not difficult to see why it is so easy to do so. In the end, the tragedy is not only in the exploitation individuals suffered (as devastating as it is). It is in the inability for major institutions (in this case, the police and the government) to accept the immorality of their actions unless it is made official by other institutions. They are trapped in bureaucracy that removes emotion and any sense of justice to the event. And so of course we ask "How could this happen?", because there's nothing else left to say.

That the institutions allow themselves to be so callous in their procedures is monstrous but at least it has come to light. At least the Hillsborough Inquest Panel refused to give up and let themselves be "worn down". This is democracy and free speech at its strongest. This is why we shouldn't suffer the bullshit institutions feel the need to provide in order to cover their backs. That is not to say they are entirely evil, but the documentary stresses something that apparently institutions seem to forget - they are there to help others, not their own interests. It's far more difficult to help individuals and so it is understandable when they make mistakes or are placed under stress. But that is only because without them, many people will be helpless to the actions of evil, selfish people. As soon as institutions refuse to aid those who need help and start to behave like selfish individuals, then those victims have nowhere to turn for help.

Now, looking objectively at the programme, the documentary is clearly biased in its argument. It opposes the arguments of the police by using the perspective of the fans and the families of the fans involved in the tragedy to tell the story of the coverup. But bias isn't automatically a bad thing unless it is overwhelmingly so. As I referred to in my review of London's Burning, the drama about the London riots, the lack of input from the police limited any argument the drama wanted to put forward. Here, there is balance with the police allowed to speak alongside the victims, which is a huge improvement to how Hillsborough had been discussed at the time. The argument had been short and clear cut - the fans were to blame and the police were in the right in all of their actions. There was no opposing voice that was considered of any value i.e. any opposing argument that at all implied the police were in the wrong.

As I said at the start, this documentary absolutely proves that the cover up of Hillsborough was an atrocity which nobody involved denies. The few attempts at justifications are non-retrospective and only considered in light of the circumstances of the events. It may end with an apology by David Cameron but it is clear that Hillsborough will never be over. This is not something to swept away as history. This is a tragedy that must be remembered for the horror that it is. This is an event that must never happen again.

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Village (BBC)

Since this series is coming out on DVD soon, I thought I'd let you know why this is worth your time.

In brief, The Village focuses on, well, a villag,e during the 1910s with a specific focus on the Middleton family and the youngest boy Burt Middleton, who is being interviewed as he is now the oldest man in the world. This framing device is unconvincing and acts only as a forced prelude to the episodes, which do not benefit from it at all. Nevertheless, as the popularity of Broadchurch proved, great drama can be found in exploring relations within a close community and taking its time to explore the nuances within them.

The series begins with the arrival of the first bus to the village which to most people's surprise actually has someone on it. Change seems to be what drives the drama throughout this series as events beyond the characters control affect their way of life, notably the First World War. Writer Peter Moffatt avoids patronising or sentimentalising rural life and the class differences within it. In fact, it avoids cliche and stereotype altogether by remaining true to its characters and settings - even the seemingly angelic and perfect Caro Allingham is revealed to be a far more complex character than either we or the other characters expect her to be. She suffers as much as Burt's father, Jon, does as his traditional working life begins to be challenged. However, while the character development is convincing and engrossing, it often appears sudden such as the conversion of Jon Middleton. Perhaps if the show was longer, such transitions would be smoother. Indeed, that I would like it to be longer shows how entranced I was by the community on screen, despite the downbeat tone of the production.

As critics of the show complained, there is a lot of suffering in The Village providing a tragic inevitability for much of the drama. But rather than predictable, it allows the tragedies to really pack a punch and bring the best out of the actors who fully embody their characters. Matt Stokoe as phenomenal as Gerard Eyre, a friendly teacher at Burt's school. It is predominately his performance that makes Episode 3 a standout as it examines the initial impact of the First World War and deals with Eyre struggling to cope with being condemned for being a conscientious objector. Indeed its treatment of the War is admirable, resisting portraying life at the front and presenting it only through its relationship to the village and its inhabitants, such as in the harrowing fifth episode where Nico Mirallegro as Joe Middleton gives a very unsettling and sympathetic portrayal of shell shock.

The Middleton family as a whole are incredibly fascinating with John Simm and Maxine Peake heading the family and manage to communicate the characters years of hard endurance through looks and posture. The child actors here also show great talent with Bill Jones as Young Burt Middleton making a fantastic lead character demonstrating as much complexities as the experienced actors around him.

The actors that I've picked may be personal favourites but the cast as a whole are phenomenal. They are very much an ensemble which helps to establish the community of the village. While it would be easy to try and reduce the characters to stereotypes, the characters defy these stereotypes and demonstrate much complexities. It is this degree of complexity that I believe has caused people to call the show uncomfortable and unpleasant. By no means is the show for everyone but if you're looking for complex drama which resists going for easy resolutions and safe straightforward plotlines, then this should be right up your street.

From what I've heard, the follow-up to this series will each deal with subsequent decades, so the next series will explore the 1920s. If they can create as much fantastic drama from that period as they have here, then I can't wait.