WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys (First published by André Duetsch, 1966)
If you’re as geographically challenged as I am, you probably need to be told exactly where The Sargasso Sea is. A Google search will throw up maps locating the stretch of water in the North Atlantic near the West Indies. Further research identifies it as a kind of oceanic black hole into which many an unsuspecting voyager has disappeared.
Written late in life, Wide Sargasso Sea is widely viewed as Rhys’ masterpiece and it’s certainly her most famous work. Rhys chose the title as a metaphor for a great divide between the island of the West Indies and mainland Europe. Various forms of physical, emotional, cultural, racial and psychological separation make up the content of this rich yet challenging novel.
Jean Rhys’ father was a Welsh doctor and her mother was a white Creole. She was born in Domenica in 1890 and came to England when she was 16. She married twice and her relationships with men never ran smoothly. Her unusual background and resistance to bourgeois convention gave her an affinity for the exile and an innate sympathy for women who, in search of protection, are open to exploitation. Continue reading
CENSORED – The Story of Film Censorship in Britain by Tom Dewe Mathews (Chatto & Windus, first published 1994)
In a recent essay topic for my advanced English language students, I asked whether the amount of violence in movies and on TV has a negative impact on young people and society as a whole. Almost to a man (and woman!) they responded in the affirmative, going on to advocate strict parental supervision and recommend greater censorship.
I found the tone of their answers quite depressing. They were unanimous in the view that rigorous controls had to be in place to protect impressionable citizens from disturbing images. They seemed oblivious to the fact that this would also severely restrict what adults would be able to watch.
It is one thing to argue that impressionable adolescents need to be shielded from extreme violence or explicit sex but why should consenting adults be subject to the same safeguards?
Tom Dewe Mathews’ thorough, if at times dry, account of what he calls “the murky processes and opaque aims of Britain’s film censorship” is peppered with such ethical dilemmas.
Mathews states in the introduction that he is opposed to censorship on the grounds that “films should find their audience in the market-place without intervention, and subject only to the laws of the land. While these laws may not be to everyone’s liking, at least they are open to public debate”.
I would go further and say that it is one of the duties of cinema (and any art form for that matter) to challenge values rather than merely sustain them. The fact that murder is illegal doesn’t mean that acts of homicide cannot be shown. Paedophilia, rape and torture are all deplorable but ignoring such heinous crimes won’t make them go away. Continue reading
THIS BOY’S LIFE by Tobias Wolff (Picador 1990, first published 1989)
I picked this book up by chance in a second-hand store in Rimini. There was a copy of Wolff’s collected short stories too but I was more drawn to this autobiography or ‘memoir’ as he prefers to call it.
The cover promises something of the mythical America I know mainly from movies. The illustration by Irish painter Kenny McKendry shows a station wagon being filled up at a remote gas station and a young male figure standing apart in a cap and dungarees. It’s like an open air version of an Edward Hopper painting.
I also liked the author’s choice of epigraphs; one by Saul Alinsky (“He who fears corruption fears life”) and the other by Oscar Wilde: “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered”. Both these quotations suggest an unconventional, yet worldly wisdom and humor.
I knew nothing of the writer nor that the book had been made into a movie starring Robert De Niro and a very young Leonardo DiCaprio. If you Google the book title, you get an image of these two A-list actors in Boy Scout uniforms.
I decided not to watch any trailers or clips so as not to be distracted or influenced by someone else’s views of the story. I habitually avoid synopses and reviews for the same reason; something that’s getting harder and harder to do in the age of information overload. I like coming to things with as blank a slate as possible so I can make my own mind up.
This Boy’s Life is a slight variant on Boy’s Life, the official scout magazine. Scouting is, fortunately, only one strand of the story which takes up the formative years of Wolff’s life from 1955, when he was 10, to the time when he has to choose between university or other options, I guess in his late teens. Continue reading
LE MERAVIGLIE (The Wonders) directed by Alice Rohrwacher (Italy, 2014)
Le Meraviglie is an unconventional drama set in a contemporary Tuscan landscape which is a far cry from the picturesque scenery you find in travel brochures.
It’s the kind of modest, low-budget independent movie that could easily disappear without trace yet should gain wider recognition after winning the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The somewhat contrived, plot revolves around the working life of a bee farmer of German origin and his family. This man (Sam Louwyk) clings to the anachronistic and primitive lifestyle placing a high value in self-sufficiency. His bark is worse than his bite but he is still not a man to get on the wrong side of.
His paternal role is a fragile one and he cannot fail to be cognizant of the fact that the world around him is changing fast. The lack of separation between life and work in this female dominated household is a difficult discipline to maintain.
This harsh and humorless world is seen mainly through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the eldest of his four daughters who help, and sometimes hinder, in producing honey.
The director’s older sister Alba plays the role of the mother who is increasingly frustrated by her dour and stubborn husband.
Modernity intrudes in the form of a TV reality show which, unbeknownst to the father, the young girls sign up to participate in. In a non too convincing cameo, Monica Bellucci plays a glamorous presenter of the show (Il Paese delle meraviglie – the land of wonders) which, in the name of light entertainment, turns real lives into a kitsch parody of tradition. Continue reading
THE CASUAL VACANCY by J.K. Rowling
Drug addiction, sex, rape, power, corruption and lies. This ‘adult’ novel seems a long way from the world of Hogwarts.
On the surface Pagford is a safe and sedate town; a place where buses “trundle” and where the delicatessen is “run with the ritual and regularity of a temple”.
However, beneath this veneer of respectability lies a festering, dog eat dog world of spiteful social climbers. Rowling revels in her mockery of the airs and graces, petty rivalries and back-stabbing. At the same time she shows a compassion for underdogs and contempt for bullies and braggarts.
As a biting satire of middle class aspirations it is often reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s 1977 stage play ‘Abigail’s Party‘.
This fictional West Country town symbolises a Daily Mail culture of smug NIMBY conservatism. Its self-centred “moral radiance” contrasts with the nearby town of Yarvil where the children are portrayed as “sinister, hooded, spray-painting offspring”. Continue reading