Tag Archives: first person

Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.

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Creative Writing: The Handmaid’s Tale and Alice in Wonderland Transformation Mash-up: Part 1


This afternoon I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland and thus a piece of creative writing I did for my English A-Level. It sticks in my mind because unlike most of my work, which I look back on with distaste after thinking it was ok at the time, I still think this piece is rather good. You know, for me. The A-Level Coursework assignment was to transform a text from one genre to another. For one piece I adapted parts of Hamlet into the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes-esque tale. For this one, which I am considerably more fond of, I took Margaret Atwood’s first person dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and adapted it in the style of Lewis Carroll’s fantastical nonsense. I truly embrace the random and baffling nature of Carroll’s tale, so I will post the explanatory commentary seperately to aid understanding. I really enjoyed writing this and I think I acheived what I wanted to do, echoing the themes of one book with the style of another. I was also aesthetically influenced by Nathaniel West’s Hollywood novel The Day of the Locust. As if it wasn’t strange enough already. So here we go then, I shall add it to my blog for my own pleasure at least:

The Chauffeur’s Tale

  1. 1.    Down the elevator shaft

Nick was starting to get rather bored sitting in the waiting room with nothing to do; once or twice he had plucked magazines from the table only to toss them back. It was a hot day and the bulky fans only stirred and swirled the air. His eyes felt heavy and tired.

He decided to head for the bathroom, splash some water, pull himself together. On the way he passed a potted plant, the usual sort of framed picture, an incompetent receptionist, a uniformed chicken and a brown leather sofa. Nick was already washing his hands when it occurred to him that chickens rarely adopted such an assured posture or wore uniforms. Neither did they often stalk the corridors of powerful corporations or wait impatiently for elevators.

“Hey! Hold the doors!” shouted Nick as he dashed out into the hall, just in time to see the elevator ease shut. For a moment he pondered returning to his seat, but curiosity, fuelled by prolonged boredom and a further glimpse of what was surely a bird of some sort, compelled Nick to wait for the next descent. He would fall further than he could ever imagine.

*

You’re late.”
Nick could not think what on earth he was late for. He had an appointment to keep certainly, but there had been no time arranged and some bimbo would no doubt fetch him. It hardly seemed to matter whether Nick concluded the business now in any case. Except Nick wasn’t in the waiting room and couldn’t recall what it was he did, had done or was doing.
“I said you’re damn late. And you can’t address the meeting looking like that, you’re a mess. I know you’re all a bad bunch, but they’re all under the impression you’re different and the best of ‘em.”
You? They?” Nick could stand now, if he dipped his head. All his clothes were caked in dust.
“Men, terrible, the lot of you. Hardly time to go into that though. They’re waiting.”
“Who are they?” coughed Nick as light returned to his eyes revealing “the chicken! Of course the elevator cable snapped, and, and…”
“Chicken indeed,” hissed the bird, proudly smoothing its uniform, “I am a hen.”
Nick suddenly felt terribly awkward as the bird was deeply offended by his rash remark. He groped around in his mind for the sort of diplomatic language he had not utilised since the playground standoffs of his youth, to no avail.
“Sorry, I’m not myself. I think I’ve had a fall. You must have a name?”
“Well of course you have, after a shock like that. No time for names. Out you go.”

Nick found himself looking out over something resembling the lobby of the building he thought he had entered an hour or so ago. And yet it was surely not that building. There were no guards, no staff, no doors, and no roof. A great crowd buzzed noisily below in anticipation of some great event. The gleaming, textured marble was grey and lifeless; neglected and battered by the scorn of a frowning black sky. Only stars studded the horizon where skyscrapers had bunched. Trash was strewn about with joyful abandon as if a festival had taken place. There was a draining absence of colour, except in the varied faces and heads of the crowd; dogs, cats, chickens (probably hens), dwarves, monkeys, children, rats, women and bears. All of them gazed at the cracked far wall, faces illuminated by a jumpy black and white projection. The film was no more than thirty seconds long and of appalling quality, but Nick recognised himself, holding the door for the Chief Executive of Masterton’s International and his mistress.

“Things must be clearer now.”
“Not really.”
The footage continued to play on a loop and the faces remained transfixed by it. Nick gawped at the sight of himself amplified to such a height. He touched his chest and compared the reality of it to the six foot wave of white light that was his torso for the people in this odd audience. He cringed at the flashing imperfections of his face, the thick creases around his forced smile. She had told him he had a French face.

“The activists know you are coming. They wish to hear from you firsthand what Offred is like. You will inspire them to freedom with your tale. It is written.”
Nick prayed that no one in the crowd would turn around and see him. If they did, they might become a mob. What did this fat hen want from him? How ridiculous she looked in her mismatched military garments, bursting at the seams, with her dangling beard flapping as she spoke.
“I’m sorry you’ve got the wrong man. I’m not important and I don’t belong here.”
The hen blocked Nick’s path as he turned to leave.
“That is you is it not? That is you and your Commander and your lover the sacred Offred. She was brave and came to you out of passion and a desire for freedom in defiance of the wicked White Queen. You love each other.”
Nick almost laughed. How strange the way events could be seen. Stranger still how they could still be meaningful; in fact have more importance, when viewed completely incorrectly.
“I don’t know who Offred is or the Commander or a White Queen! But yes that’s me…”

And he was holding the door for them, for her, as he had done so many times. Her elegant legs towered for all to see; the image was inescapable, a taunting reminder for Nick that the thought of her, of Laura, had once utterly consumed him. How could he possibly explain the sordid, uncertain reality of it all to this deluded bird? He could not be sure how he had felt, let alone decipher her true feelings. He was certainly angry now, looking back at how he had allowed himself to be toyed with and used as bait by the Chief Executive’s wife in a pathetic attempt to save her sham of a marriage. Even if he had lured Laura away the old man would have found someone else. Most of all it had been unprofessional to indulge his emotions whilst on business. His paymasters at Coppletons were relying on him for accurate inside information of Masterton’s International’s dealings, not for him to become entangled in some meaningless office soap opera. Nick had been lucky to get what he needed.

Nick tried to explain that Laura was just a girl. Yes they’d been lovers, but she would never have given up her lifestyle for him. In the end business came first for both of them.
The hen went quiet for a moment, then swallowing her rage, spoke again calmly.
“I don’t believe you are being honest with me or you do not truly know all the facts. Offred, our Red Princess, could never have been happy or content with any aspect of her slavery. In any case you work for the resistance and will eventually free Offred, heralding a new age. The Book says so.”
This time Nick did laugh.
“I must be dreaming! I was a spy but I didn’t resist anything. Hell why would I change the way things are when the money’s so good? Whoever wrote this Book of yours has a taste for romance and grand ideas instead of the truth.”

Nick was wondering if he should pinch himself to wake up and whether there was ever such a thing as a true story, or if they were all reconstructions at best, when the hen blew a whistle and shouted..“BLASPHEME!” The sound of marching feet approached.

Adapting good and successful novels: One Day, A Very Private Gentleman (The American) and Room


I’ve discussed the business of adapting books into films before on this blog, and indeed the increasing phenomenon of the adaptation as opposed to original screenplays. I’ve bemoaned the lack of creativity in the film industry, leading to such a focus on both true stories and transformations of already existing fiction dominating this year’s Oscars, for example. But for all my ranting and raving there’s something irresistible about a good adaptation, because if your source material’s good there’s a good chance your interpretation of it will be. It’s like a kind of quality guarantee.

Then again it’s a treacherous tightrope to walk, especially when you’re bringing not only a good novel but a commercially successful one to the screen. Films based on novels with a huge and devoted following will benefit from the diversity and commitment of that fan base at the box office, but perhaps also suffer critically if they don’t capture the brilliance of the book.

After mingling the words in your mind and arranging them on the page, watching their finely tuned order blossom into a bestseller and basking in the praise and revenue, it must be hard for an author to relinquish control of his characters, no matter what the financial compensations. This is presumably why many decide to remain attached to the cinematic versions of their creations as writer or producer or something, even with the risk of their original being tarnished and overshadowed.

David Nicholls did just this for the adaptation of his immensely successful One Day, choosing to write the screenplay himself. There is now a trailer online for the film, which can be seen over at Empire Magazine via this link: http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=30843

I was absolutely absorbed in One Day when I read it and funnily enough I think I read it in roughly one day. It’s one of those books that you have to try really hard not to call a “page turner” because of how limp and cliché that sounds. It really is difficult to put down though. It became an ever present feature of the landscape of bookshops for a long, long time and still lurks prominently in the shadows. No doubt it will enjoy a revival with the release of the film. It was not the usual sort of addictive trash either. There was an organic originality to the concept, a humour and truth to the writing. The two main characters, Dexter and Emma, were fabulously realised. It was at once epic and emotional, experimental and accessible.

It did divide critical opinion, but the overwhelming consensus was that it was a cracking read, a verdict echoed at tills across the country. It’s the story of Dexter and Emma, who meet and sleep together one day at the end of their time at Edinburgh University. In bed they discuss the future, their hopes, fears and dreams for it. The novel follows them on the same date of the year, whatever they’re doing, for every year that follows their meeting. It mostly focuses on their relationship as friends but also charts their development as people, journeying through alternative aspects of British history like dodgy 90s TV along the way.

It was quite a few months ago now that I read One Day but I am still excited about seeing its rebirth in cinemas. It will be difficult to bottle up the simultaneously intimate and epic feel of the book for the audience, but as I’ve said before what really matters is capturing the spirit, the essence and sentiment of a story. The trailer certainly seems to strike some of the right emotional chords, as One Day really was enormously touching and moving as well as gripping. It may simply be that my age, one of transition between worlds, allowed me to inhabit Dexter and Emma’s shoes perfectly and marvel at the rollercoaster of their lives, grounded in those student beginnings. But then again, One Day shows snapshots of its key characters at a variety of ages, so anyone should be able to jump right in and live their human journeys. Perhaps that is part of the secret to its appeal.

Three Cs are very important for a good adaptation: cutting, casting and creativity. Nicholls would certainly have had to ruthlessly cut chunks of his already lovingly crafted and edited novel for the screen, as well as find the right leads. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess are the chosen ones, and they seem to fit the bill in the trailer, in spite of wavering accents on occasion, as Empire point out in their commentary on the footage. I’ve also recently seen and reviewed The American, starring George Clooney, which was based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. Screenwriter Rowan Joffe changed aspects of the story rather dramatically, including its conclusion, for a modern and cinematic update to the book. Despite my gripes about the increasing frequency of adaptations, it is possible to be really creative and bold with them, with the added benefit of a proven base material to work with. Joffe was certainly creative, as was Clooney, who needed to exhibit the right physical mannerisms to convey the book’s character in miniscule brush strokes, compared to Booth’s first person narration.

Having now both read the book and watched the film, Joffe appears to have done a good job in creating The American. And as I’ve said, perhaps what is most admirable is that he has created something, not merely transplanted the book to the screen, which can be the worst mistake when adapting something that’s already celebrated art. The original novel, written in the first person about a gun maker nearing retirement, was impossible to adapt as it was. It needed more drama and would lack the charismatic voice of the page. It needed new sources of charisma.

The film does drop key themes of the novel. Interestingly as a student of history, Booth’s recluse (known as Signor Farfalla or Mr Butterfly, as his cover is painting them) is outwardly repulsed by the idea of history and progress, unless it is the history of ordinary men. And yet his narration repeatedly comes back to the idea through imagery, symbolism and anecdotes. Mr Butterfly claims that he is truly influencing history by providing the weapons for assassination with deft craftsmanship behind the scenes. But what the novel hints at, which a film couldn’t do in the same way, is that the narrator is struggling with the idea that after his retirement no one will remember his life’s work. If he has altered history it is unnoticeably so. He never says as much but the light implications are there and extremely fascinating.

Booth was also a constant traveller, as well as a writer of history, which might explain Mr Butterfly’s anecdotes of the world and some of his eye for detail, along with his warped fascination with the past. One of the ways the film captures the incredibly vivid and visual style of the book is through director Anton Corbijn’s direction. Corbijn used to be a photographer, and in the film this becomes Clooney’s character’s cover and he never gains the nickname Signor Farfalla, only The American. This somewhat spoils Booth’s unassuming character blending into any background, but the essence of him remains the same and the parallels with the striking visuals of the film and the descriptions of the book are appropriate.

The American is a very minimalist and restrained production. You get more from the book in terms of the character, but still not a great deal, so Joffe reflects this with the dialogue. This is still a man in isolation with a unique existence, who forms meagre relationships that are still too much for a man of his profession. He is growing too susceptible to these ties with age. What I liked particularly about The American is that it stands alone from the book and one can be enjoyed without the other, just as well as the two together. They are distinctive and different but enjoyable entities of subtlety.

Of course some books should simply never be adapted. Something about them cannot be replicated and without this something any adaptation becomes a pointless exercise. A bad adaptation of such a book is painful and a great shame. I think that Room by Emma Donghue, shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, is such an un-adaptable book.

It’s been a while since I finished reading Room, and in any case my observations and insights would not compare to fellow blogger Tom Cat’s: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/room-emma-donoghue/

I will briefly say why I think any adaptation would fail however. Room is reliant on the first person narration of Jack, a five year old who has been imprisoned since birth in a small room with his mother. This is the controversial novel inspired by the Fritzl case. I was sceptical about reading it and presumed it to be an exercise in creative writing drawing rather shamefully off of ghastly deeds in the media.

After I read the first pages of Room however I was hooked enough to buy it. And Jack himself is never abused. The novel is bleak and harrowing at times, but usually because of what Jack doesn’t say. The obvious implications, for example when Jack counts the creaks in his mother’s bed from his hiding place of the wardrobe, are the chilling thing for the reader.

What Room is really about is a unique five year old, nurtured with extremely intimate and confined love from his mother. As Tom Cat points out in his review, the philosophical points potentially there to be explored are many. Instead of really delving these depths however Room is more intriguing for its characterisation of Jack and the original voice Donoghue gives him. He makes incredibly perceptive observations about the modern world through both his innocence and ignorance. Occasionally his impressive vocabulary doesn’t quite sit right and convince, despite it mostly being explained away by his intense education from an early age; sometimes Jack obviously uses Donoghue’s word or phrase rather than his own. But the fact that this only happens now and then is a remarkable achievement.

For the most part Room is a heartbreaking, funny and thrilling story that takes a fresh view of modern life and culture. Everything good about this story derives from Jack’s completely original and skilfully executed narrative voice though. Many of the reviews of Room call its concept unique, but it really isn’t that astounding, simply ripped from extensive news coverage. It’s the clever angle from which Donoghue approaches her story that’s so wonderful and this couldn’t be transformed into film, no matter how they attempted to do it. Voiceover would not work; we are witnessing the thoughts tumbling through Jack’s head not a commentary of events. Jack’s innocence wouldn’t transfer to the screen, so neither would the appeal and success of the novel.

Looking for love – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


After an indulgent weekend rest, I’m beginning to make some headway with short stories. It’s starting to seem like there are some broad categories of tale. Many are symbolic and first person. The following tiny attempt at something is based on the style of some of Haruki Murakami’s short stories.

One Wednesday I went looking for love. I’ve no idea why that particular day made a search seem necessary. Usually I’d dismiss such an undertaking as a foolhardy waste of time and effort. But that day it seemed possible I might find something resembling love at least. I didn’t have a rational hope in my mind or blind faith in my heart; just the sense that I might glimpse something if I took time out to look for it. And an overwhelming need to stop for a moment.

Perhaps it was the way the sun fell in dusty rays on my pillow. Or, in fact, not my pillow at all, but the forever vacant one next to it. The way the feathery grains wafted over the empty, unruffled fabric. The way they swirled upwards in a golden bliss. The way they danced with their infinite, weightless friends. The very fact that I could see them, rather than a face cloaked in sleep or a sprawling arm, highlighted my loneliness.

Outside my gloomy bubble, the sun smiled and everything was right in the world. The worker ants dashed about bathed in optimism. Something told me that it was going to be a good day, if only I was sure to stand in the middle of it. I could hardly lie in bed, daydreaming of aimless floating, when the grass was so green and the sky so blue. I had to get up and look.

I threw the window open and rushed about my flat in an inexplicable, excitable daze. Wednesday, some people said, was a hump day, from which the downward slide to the weekend began. It was the beginning of the descent from monotony to freedom and relaxation. My working hours were sporadic, but it just so happened I had to be somewhere for one o’clock. I might have finished looking by then; I might not.

Whole water droplets, untouched by the deadly stab of a towel, quivered in the chill from the window as I pulled on some clothes. I was out the door early, way before the rising sun had climbed above the clustered buildings of my road. I travelled light, reasoning that love could do without any extra baggage. Even my watch, which I regarded practically as a vital organ, lay forgotten about somewhere near the bed. My cavernous empty bed.

At first I simply walked. Up streets, down alleys, across roads. My creased, hastily buttoned shirt billowed around my waist like a skirt in the wind. I drew glances from passersby and tore past determined commuters. Rounding a corner onto a key London artery, I recoiled like a vampire in the harsh, all consuming stare of a fierce mid-morning sun, focused like a laser between two squashed buildings into my eyes. I felt them roll back in their sockets, suddenly burning with the vibrancy of it all. I staggered to a nearby wall, colliding with an irate businesswoman, greedily sucking hasty gulps from a cigarette, discarded yards later. I caught my breath.

Where best to stand for a fleeting glance of love? Where was the pivot, the enlightening epicentre of this shiny, beguiling day? Panting against my grimy patch of wall, I spied a gargantuan bookstore and made my way inside. Calmer now amongst the scent and flicker of turned pages, I allowed the dream of a likeminded, slender hand reaching out for the same book to grow in my mind’s eye. Browsing here today I would find love, I thought.

It didn’t happen. And neither did it happen at the cinema, where I lingered about the foyer, peering round pillars for the elusive moment. Hopes were raised and dashed by beautiful women scanning my favourite poetry or chatting noisily about a film I wanted to see. One o’clock came and went.  It’s funny but I never once seriously considered approaching any of them. I think deep down I disliked the notion wheeled out by some, so called, “romantic” men, that it was possible to fall repeatedly in love with numerous women from the most meagre meetings. Inexperienced I may be but I’d formed my own ideas of love.

I didn’t go in for this chance encounter, novelistic crap. If I’d known anything like real love it was born first out of friendship. It surely couldn’t blossom just like that, in a single moment in all its complexities, between utter strangers; could it? So I gave up hope and set off home; trudging forlornly without any of the energy or automatic spring to my step I had left with that Wednesday morning, cursing such a total waste of such precious time. I began rehearsing the pointless phone call to work, explaining my absence.

But near the station I saw a record store, the type that was the domain of collectors and enthusiasts. I found myself wandering in. Subconsciously at least I clearly wanted one last throw of the dice, even when I knew things didn’t work like that. It didn’t take long for regret to wash over me on stepping inside. I felt almost instantly conspicuous, an agent behind enemy lines with their cover about to be blown. It wasn’t that I disliked music. I simply knew nothing about the dusty vintage jazz or limited edition punk littering this place. And I despised any form of artistic snobbery. Glancing at the other customers I could tell most of them did it for superiority, for bragging rights rather than passion.

Except one couple that is. Only they weren’t a couple, exactly. He was rifling through boxes of records, almost in a frenzy, whilst she leafed through the odd selection, drifting quietly just behind him. I felt myself instinctively drawn to them. They were fascinating. Though standing so close, it was clear they were not together. And yet it seemed as if they would be; they ought to be.

It felt too cliché to be real. Both were absorbed in their browsing, their mutual passion evident despite their completely contrasting methods and expressions. Both backed gradually towards each other, their gazes locked intently on the records. Then as he made an erratic eureka lunge for a treasured collectable, there was the inevitable clash and she dropped her own prize.

After endless seconds of token British apologies and awkward eye contact, they both shared a kind, selfless smile for a snapshot of a moment. It was a smile that said they knew each other, and had done for years. And yet it was also a smile of discovery, of innocence and renewal. I had watched the whole unremarkable incident. They left the shop separately. As far as I know nothing came of it, not that I chased the matter up. But it made me feel as if I’d seen love; if only a rough edge of what its purity could be.   

I don’t know if I was in my right mind that Wednesday. Most would probably say I wasn’t, given the circumstances. Back then the operation seemed a long way off, but it was still an ever present, looming reality. Now I only have hours to wait. I think of that weird Wednesday and my sudden compulsion to search for love. I remember it as I try to bring myself to trust absolute strangers with everything I have. I cling to it in case anything should go wrong and I am left with a brief window of time to properly fall in love, and be loved in return.

Transforming and adapting the essence of simplicity: Never Let Me Go


The way in which I discovered the story to Never Let Me Go is typical to our cultural age. Last year I discovered a trailer which hinted at a marvellously moving tale, stuffed with fine acting, a soaring soundtrack and an intriguing premise. Then there was a second trailer, less gripping and more melancholy than the first, which turned out to more accurately reflect the film. Haunted and beguiled by the tremendous first snippet though, I sought out the novel and determined to read it before the film’s release in 2011.

It was the first time I’d read a book by Kazuo Ishiguro and I’ve since become a fan. It was satisfying to discover the subtle, incredibly English tone of the book so well mirrored in that first trailer. It was rewarding too to delve deep into the joys of Ishiguro’s fabulously realised narrator Kathy H, so attractively played in that teaser by Carey Mulligan. Ultimately the book felt so real, raw and affecting, and the writing was so beautiful, that my allegiances switched devotedly to the original work, despite that snapshot of film hooking me in the first place. However in our modern world of innumerable choice, adaptation and interpretation, I realise the futility of being a snob about such things. Just because I’d embraced the true complexity of the original work, did not diminish the potential power of the film.

I say complexity, but the real merit of the novel was its immense simplicity. It’s perhaps this that the film struggles to adequately capture. Cinema usually requires more than the touchingly mundane. I’ve commented before on my blog that the adaptation would struggle to balance the different chronological segments of the novel. Reading it leaves you with a vivid sense of childhood nostalgia and an unquestionable understanding of the importance of youth and school to Kathy H and the other main characters, Tommy and Ruth. The sinisterly picturesque boarding school of Hailsham is clearly of paramount importance to the characters in the latter stages of the film too, but it was not as vibrantly established earlier on.

That said the filmmakers do a wonderfully thorough job of making the childhood scenes convincing. The younger incarnations of Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan in particular look remarkably spot-on. More importantly all the key performances from the younger actors are excellent. Ella Purnell, as the young Ruth, even gives a far superior performance to Hollywood starlet Knightley as the grown up. If you’ve read the novel you’ll appreciate the way Purnell better captures Ruth’s good and bad sides, whereas Knightley seems rather one dimensional in her portrayal of Ruth as predominantly vindictive. If you haven’t read the book you’ll still see the Pirates of the Caribbean star’s turn as the weakest of the three leads.

Mulligan continues to impress. She stole the show in what’s widely hailed as the best modern Doctor Who episode, Blink, and has gone from strength to strength ever since, breaking through internationally with her performance in An Education. Here she does a wonderful job with some tricky bits of voiceover. As a general rule, voiceover as a story telling device can either be atrociously bad or astoundingly good. Mulligan’s efforts to replicate the tone of melancholic memory from the first person narration of the book ensure that in Never Let Me Go, voiceover tends to tread closer to the positive end of the spectrum.

She’s also regularly fabulous in her scenes with Knightley and Andrew Garfield. Her pained expressions and displays of emotional restraint come just about as close as possible to the brilliant subtlety and ambiguities of the novel. She’s as likeable as Kathy H should be. Garfield also adds another respectable notch to his CV, coping admirably with Tommy’s notorious rages and his place at the centre of a slow burning, heart wrenching love triangle. Despite Knightley giving the least classy and layered performance, she also doesn’t do a bad job. In many ways she may have been limited by a necessarily narrow interpretation of Ruth’s character in the book and a lack of time for her character to redeem herself in hospital scenes with Kathy on screen, as she does on the page.

The book was finely crafted, composed and executed, to produce a tender, touching and intelligent final product. To an extent the film is also brought to life with bags of quality. There are some luscious shots from director Mark Romanek that conjure feelings of nostalgia; windswept British landscapes and colourful toys abandoned in the summery grass. It’s for the most part perfectly acted, with good contribtutions from Charlotte Rampling as Miss Emily and Sally Hawkins as Miss Lucy alongside the leads. In general the whole film is full of evocative and eerie period detail, given the slightly sci-fi premise.

On the page the fact that there was a mere whiff of sci-fi, that didn’t actually lead to some groundbreaking revelation, was perhaps a minor disappointment. But in a way it allowed for a more pure distillation of relationships, love and the human capacity (or perhaps a very British ability) to cope with suffering and endure with dignity, rather than run away. The film was always going to require some more direct references to the purpose of Hailsham and its children. And because there is no huge, thriller like conspiracy, Never Let Me Go will feel a letdown to most and unbelievably light on plot and originality. There’s simply never a sufficient peak to the drama, just a constant tasteful simmering of emotion.

It certainly would have been a mistake for Alex Garland’s script to transform hidden truths, memories and secrets into contorted plot twists. Part of Never Let Me Go’s refreshing realism, maturity and originality is its subdued approach. But it also led to people leaving the cinema in front of me bemoaning the whole idea of the story as weak. Somehow the film needed something more and if the novel had one fault it was its lack of a satisfying, big reveal. The poignancy of the writing meant the lack of drama mattered less that it does on film.

However just because Never Let Me Go is an inferior adaptation with a fatal flaw and is often a bit dull, does not make it bad. Some scenes really stand out with every little ingredient almost perfect. It’s undoubtedly superbly made. Even those cinemagoers leaving with disappointments around me were singing the praises enthusiastically of the acting talent on show. It’s a mystery to me how the actors at least did not get some awards season nominations for this film. And as a fan of the book it’s disappointing the film failed to capture its distinctive essence and live up to the intoxicating promise of earlier trailers. I guess the only real way to judge Never Let Me Go, whether you know the story or not, is to see it yourself. Personally for its refusal to be bombastic and sensational alone it’s a worthwhile watch.

Thoughts on … Never Let Me Go/The Canal/The Dice Man


I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.

First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too.  It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.

 I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.

I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.

The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.

Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.

If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.

From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.

Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.

The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.

The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other.  What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality?  Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.

I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.

These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman


Ned Beauman’s debut novel is a distinctive, original and confident creation that is immensely readable. It is not especially remarkable for young novelists to produce compelling fiction but it is a considerable achievement for Beauman to have pulled off a story based on some controversial ideas and subject matter that may have otherwise repulsed or offended readers if not carefully executed. It is by no means a perfect debut and its often ghastly and occasionally two dimensional themes do grate at times, but its success lies in its bold originality and playful prose.

The inside cover of Boxer, Beetle brazenly asserts that this is a clever, distinctive and entertaining novel. Despite a number of flaws including the unconvincing skin deep characterisation of one of the main protagonists Phillip Erskine and simply an over abundance of weirdness at times, I would not disagree with this confident claim on the cover having finished the book. At times the novel displays all three qualities and its brave comic handling of potentially problematic areas such as the collection of Nazi memorabilia ensures it is a distinctive experience throughout. It probably helped my enjoyment of the book that I found many of its chosen themes of eugenics, fascism and underworld boxing culture historically fascinating, but Beauman also vividly evokes the period sections with well written and sensual description that ought to engage those without a particular interest in the era.

Indeed Beauman demonstrates a gift for colourful and accurate description during the third person period sections of the novel and he also has little trouble in fleshing out believable minor characters with unique idiolects. He does struggle to make the key characters, repressed homosexual and twisted beetle collecting Fascist scientist Phillip Erskine, and rampant homosexual Jewish boxer Seth “Sinner” Roach, into rounded individuals though. It might be argued that Beauman does develop their characters enough, it is simply that I did not like them and neither was I meant to, but I can’t help thinking that Erskine in particular was a little too predictable in terms of prejudice and the attempts to make Sinner endearing in some way by introducing a regret at losing his devoted sister seemed forced.

The first person sections of the novel were always enjoyable however, seen through the quick witted and odd eyes of the impossibly smelly Kevin Broom, nicknamed “fishy” by his rich Nazi collector friend Grublock, who meets a sticky end at the hands of a sinister Welsh assassin searching for clues about the boxer and the beetles from 30s Britain. At times the present day sections felt almost like a comic novel, such was the pace and playfulness of the prose. One chapter begins with the narrator musing about what Batman would do, only to conclude that he could not imagine Batman in a Little Chef and that in general the everyday, mundane architecture of modern Britain was not conducive to a cunning, acrobatic and glamorous gothic hero. Generally the novel works superbly well, even with so many ideas flying about, providing they pass through the lens of the likeable narrator. In the third person sections too many ideas can bog the plot down and make passages with Erskine in particular almost tedious. However the novel rarely becomes an essay, despite a couple of unfocused chapters devoted to invented, short lived artificial languages and the third person chunks set in the past tend to zip along well enough despite the inferior sense of character.

Overall Boxer, Beetle is a satisfying read with a bizarre, strangely gripping narrative populated by characters we are not meant to take too seriously dealing with a cocktail of varying grand ideas and themes. Beauman’s writing style succeeds largely in pulling together a lot of seemingly unconnected subject matter into a coherent and entertaining read. It will be interesting to see how Beauman chooses to follow up such an individual first book but his writing talent is evident and Boxer, Beetle is such a mixed bag you get the impression he could and would turn his hand to anything and make a success of it.