Tag Archives: short

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.

Short story: The Lonely Tree


This is just something I rattled out, slightly in the style of Murakami:

This is the story of a boy, who was not yet a man. It’s the story of his first love, his first heartbreak and the tree that fell on him.

It’s the fashion to have summer romances but the boy was allergic to everyone’s favourite season. It made his eyes red and his nose stream.  In fact he had always thought that girls were allergic to him. It wasn’t that he couldn’t speak to them or that they didn’t like him, but that they couldn’t love him. More than anything the boy wanted to know love. One winter, when the air was crisp and the nights chilled, he thought that he did.

He couldn’t believe his luck. A childhood crush, the cleverest catch around and a friend he cared for deeply rolled into one package. Her smile locked his worries away and out of reach for hours. Being with her he felt as if he wasn’t alone for the first time in his life. Hearing from her was, surprisingly, almost as good. Making her happy filled the void of purpose in his life. His existence no longer felt empty. Simply put: she made him happy.

Fate had never looked so kindly upon him before and deep down he knew that her favours would be brief. But while it lasted nothing else mattered. Or rather, everything mattered more. Her dreams enriched and expanded his own, her energy and life gave them colour. He was filled with enthusiasm and a drive he did not know he possessed. He felt like a better person and fully himself for the first time.

Looking back on it he supposed the relationship would seem a short lived folly to onlookers, and this angered him. Nothing had ever meant more. At least to him. The boy had never realised just how important intimacy, close friendship and the joy of caring for someone was to happiness. When it ended, for no reason besides that she didn’t love him after all, things reverted to normal. Only more so.

He wondered if that happiness had been an illusion and whether he had truly known love. He felt catapulted back to square one. He did not know what to think or feel, knowing for certain only that he was empty again. And he was alone. The dreams that had grown to new heights in her company were now mere weeds, smaller than the clumps of green nothingness at the foot of the tree in his garden.

The tree watched as the boy moped and rolled around like a pig in his misery. At first the tree felt sympathetic towards the boy, as no one knew better than him what it was to be alone. Trapped in his hollow shell with no friends to speak of, and no means to speak, the tree longed for contact of some kind. He knew everything the boy was missing and more. And then the tree realised how selfish the boy was. And how much harder it was to be a tree.

As the spring rapidly shifted into summer the boy felt every concrete trace of his love fading away, swamped by the passing of time. With each day he felt more and more like he had no right to feel anything at all. All he had left were the memories and hopes in his head. He missed so much; far too much for words, he told himself.

On a blue morning with a blazing sun and abstract strokes of white overhead, the boy had an epiphany. Well it was that day at least that he admitted to himself a truth that he had felt for a while. He said to himself: “Love is enough for me”. He knew that, for the right person, he would sacrifice all the goals and ambitions he had thought essential to his well being, satisfaction and success. He acknowledged that, during his time with his first true love, he had enjoyed and derived immense contentment from even the harder things. He was glad to be there when she was upset, happy to calm her down, even if he was only a slight comfort. Caring for someone important to him, as important as that, was all he could ever need.

He remembered reading a novel in which the main character believed there were only three chances of finding your soul mate. He pondered whether for him, “soul mate”, meant someone worthy of his absolute care. Plunged back into sadness and despair by the thought of having lost someone he could lose himself in and devote himself to, he ran into the garden, blinded by fierce tears. He crouched down in the dirt, sniffling as the pollen swarmed up his hostile nostrils. He pressed his back against the trunk of the tree. He stared at the world around him, confused and crying.

By this point, the tree was seething. The tree didn’t know how he knew all about what the boy was thinking and feeling, but he did know, and it made him angry. The tree did not know he was capable of anger. The tree could not think, had no brain and nothing at all to account for the melancholy consciousness brooding within his gently swaying frame. The wind blew lightly across the garden, flicking the odd leaf and stroking the odd stem. The tree felt a shiver of cold. The tree felt.

The boy was gradually coming out of his panic, descending into a depressed paralysis. The loveliest, brightest petals of the most vibrant flowers looked bleak to him. His mind’s eye conjured a symbolic bonfire of his dreams in the corner of the lawn. If he could be so easily tempted from them, what chance did he have of achieving such grand plans? What did they matter anyway? Forcing his head up from its slouch on his knees, he felt the bark in his hair and decided there was no point to any sensation at all without someone to share it with.

The tree was fuming with anger from its roots to its summit. It could sense the boy’s sadness. His self involved and ungrateful emotion wasn’t just saturating the air around the tree now, but squirming and writhing against its flaky skin. The tree couldn’t stand it. It was determined not to take it anymore. It wouldn’t be buffeted by nature or ignored by men today.

The boy sighed deeply, turning his face into the breeze and relishing its cold wipe. He felt the gusts get stronger and firmer in waves, as if someone were stirring the air with an enormous food blender. Pulse after pulse slapped against him. The sweat under his arms went from hot and sticky to icy and damp. His spine creaked as the tree trunk rocked a little against him. His back stood firm easily like a castle wall against the minute thrusts.

The tree was summoning all of its energy from its very furthest extremities, even the roots beyond the garden wall. The tree was straining every part of its being in pure and untamed rage. The tree was alive and a part of nature but for the first time ever it was wild. It did not have muscles to tense or bones to move but it had life and the tree channelled every last ounce of it into its rage. It didn’t know what it was doing or understand the consequences. All it knew was how wrong the boy was, how angry it made the tree feel. It was trying to teach the boy a lesson, on behalf of trees everywhere.

The boy continued to feel little swellings at his back. Small pressures, surely caused by the wind, made the entire structure of the tree wobble a fraction. Leaves that had been noisily rubbing in the flower beds slowly stopped. The bending blades of grass rested and stood upright. Gradually, the trunk seemed to be moving faster, almost pushing out into the boy, like something was stuck inside. The tree rocked more and more as the breeze died away to an unnoticeable whisper. As the branches began to rattle, the boy noticed properly for the first time the firmer and firmer touch of the trunk. He glanced up towards the sky, through the canopy of crisscrossing browns and greens, only to shrug away again with a sob.

The boy’s indifference only enraged the tree still more. So that, as the swaying grew quicker and quicker, the consciousness that had formed inside the tree disappeared, becoming something else entirely. Now the tree was just movement, just energy, just purpose. All of the life the tree had ever known became focused on the boy and ending his ignorant and cruel soul. The tree had never known what a soul was; would never know. It did not know whether or not the boy had one. It only knew that the boy had to be stopped. He had to be taught that at least he had tasted love, known happiness, shared warmth and feeling. He had to be shown that at least he could dream, chase dreams and possibly live them. There were always those lives that did not live, always those with truly no hope left; always lonely trees.

There was a crack. And the trunk threw its full weight at the boy, who scrambled too late from his pity. Falling branches pulled away the light and the blue from the canvas of the sky, bringing only dark.

Like in films, the boy came to gazing at sheer whiteness. Nothing else. The colour white was the afterlife? Appropriately empty he thought. And then he remembered. The tree.

He had often dreamt about his funeral. A song lyric drifted into his mind – “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”. The dreams in which he was dead were some of the best he’d ever had; terribly self indulgent fictions in which all the figures and characters of his life turned up, gushing praise and regrets. All the girls and friends he’d ever wanted poured their hearts out. He was great after all.

There was no one here he really wanted to see. The strip lights buzzed and whirred, stuffing light down his retinas. The whiteness turned out to be the roof tiles. A steady beep and blip passed the time like a clock ticking. His heart was liable to suddenly conk out. He was hooked up to a monitor like on telly. His parents were here.

They didn’t believe him about the tree. When he was well enough to argue, they argued. They accused him and lectured him. They warned and scorned him. His mother ranted about the hardships of life, bemoaned his ignorance. Even his father shouted. He wasn’t allowed grapes, hadn’t been for years, so someone, probably his mother, had brought biscuits. His father had eaten most of them during the interrogations.

If he’d been able to text, he might’ve texted her, would definitely have texted his best friend. She hadn’t come to see him, even when he’d asked his parents to try to organise it. He was still alone. But something felt different. His skull was cracked, his spine weakened, his legs bruised, his right ankle broken, toes misshapen, right thumb fractured, left hand in plaster, nose crooked, face scratched, knees cut, wrists sprained and buttocks sore. But he felt stronger.

When they took him home he realised what it was. The tree hadn’t been dealt with yet. Its big, bulky carcass, torn in two and smashed in a heap through the fence, reminded him how bad he had felt. It reminded him that he’d realised he just wanted somebody to love. A universal truth, some might say, theme of many a song, but for him it was deeper, all his other wants were trivial and only to love was what he needed and what he craved.

Those trivial dreams might have been exposed as mostly meaningless, but somehow the tree had taught him they were still important. Months in a hospital bed had forced him to write again to pass the time. So that’s what he would do. He would write more and more, hopefully better and better, churning out any old nonsense. He would write to forget, write to remember, write to move on, write to preserve, write from the heart, write from the mind, write in the night, write in the day and write to lose himself. He would write because he could. And to touch, now and again, on truths that made everything worthwhile.  Even the lonely trees.

Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 4 – The Doctor’s Wife


Am I getting overexcited if I say that this episode had everything? The Guardian series blog says that at its heart this was just a story of love between a man and his car, “perfectly pitched”. But I think that’s a simplification of the abundance of ideas in The Doctor’s Wife and a misunderstanding of the bond between Doctor and machine. If the TARDIS is a car it’s the fastest and most exclusive vehicle on the roads. And the machine is so deeply rooted in Time Lord culture, carrying such a magical image with divine possibilities, that its equivalent as a car would have to be the very latest model opening up the world for travel in a time of horse and carts. The Doctor, after all, is more than just a poser in a Porsche; he’s an adventurer, explorer and conquering genius. And the TARDIS is his home, the one constant in his lonely existence.

There is too much to talk about after such a spot on execution of a tantalising premise. I had not heard of Neil Gaiman before this week but he brings a distinctive and fresh feel to this episode, with its industrial junk and grimy Victoriana costume. Yes we’re clearly in the classic setting of a quarry, but it isn’t samey; the set is wonderfully lit and decorated to create a unique rubbish dump environment.

 His glittering CV in sci-fi and fantasy is evident everywhere but Gaiman also grasps the history of Who and mines it for inspiration. More than any other incoming writer he creates a fan fest for die hard followers. The focus on a personification of the TARDIS and distress calls from Time Lords such as the Corsair, provides the pudding for lifelong Whovians, whilst the running around corridors is a classic treat many newer fans will have missed from the RTD era.

But it’s not just running around corridors. With the jaw dropping concept of the soul of the Doctor’s beloved blue box transplanted into a woman, it would be easy to gloss over the scenes with Amy and Rory. There’s no doubt that the Suranne Jones and Matt Smith double act steals the show. However the scenes with our married couple continue running themes of Moffat’s reign, raising further questions about the story arc.

What is it with constantly killing Rory? Mysterious and powerful entity House, brilliantly voiced by Michael Sheen, twice kills him with his hallucinogenic tricks. He also turns him against Amy, which is something many are saying might happen for real later on. There are chilling psychological scares with “Kill Amy” daubed all over the walls and some classic Whovian prosthetic frights with the tentacle strewn beard of the Ood.

What next? How about the marvellously creepy and eccentric Auntie and Uncle, both “patchwork people” continually “repaired” by the sadistic House? They add a delightfully quirky touch with touches of humour as well as menace. And Auntie, with what many might have missed as a throwaway line, hints at the story arc of Amy’s pregnancy. She grabs her and says “House loves you” and given that House feeds off of Time Lords or at least their TARDISes, are we meant to take that as a hint that the regenerating child at the end of The Day of the Moon is Amy’s? How on earth do the Doctor and Amy have a child? Is this just an elaborate red herring?

Enough speculation and back to the genius of this episode. House is a great idea for an adversary for the Doctor, an intelligent “entity” and one that simply wants to feed off of Time Lord energy, whilst also having fun with his food. The lovely sci-fi idea of a “bubble on the outside of a soap bubble” of the universe was also introduced through fantastically playful dialogue. Suranne Jones, effectively playing the TARDIS, did an absorbing and varied job of realising the rest of Gaiman’s excellent lines.

Indeed Gaiman’s script was perfectly structured as the TARDIS adjusted to human form, moving the character from nonsense, by degrees, to harmonious cooperation with the Doctor. This is an episode that really rewards a second viewing, as all the seemingly mad ramblings from Idris/TARDIS at the beginning, turn out to be quotes from later in the script or confused foresights from the time machine of what’s to come. For once the accompanying episode of Doctor Who Confidential was a total joy, as Gaiman read extracts from his screenplay that sounded more like intoxicating poetry and far better in many ways than the action brought to life in the episode itself.

Other odds and ends then: Matt Smith was excellent, getting the chance to be emotional, crazy and angry and determined. If we didn’t get many answers relating to this year’s story arc, we did get some partial ones to age old questions about the TARDIS and the Doctor’s past. For one thing we finally ventured beyond a control room. Ok the budget didn’t stretch to that swimming pool, but there was a lovely cameo from Tennant’s old control room. The TARDIS, given a voice, was at pains to say it was she that chose the Doctor to see the universe, not the other way around. And a satisfying explanation for all the random thrills and battles with evil: “You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go,” /”But I always took you where you needed to”.

After last week’s enjoyable run around, The Doctor’s Wife was a romp, romance and refreshing ideas episode rolled into one. Hopefully Gaiman will be persuaded to return and deliver the kind of one off story Moffat used to do so well. Next week The Rebel Flesh looks set to bring back some sort of Cassandra like creature. But things still look dark, dingy and dangerous.

P.S Are all humans like this? Bigger on the inside?

BlogalongaBond: You Only Live Twice – A review from memory


After getting the ball rolling last month with the underwater mad, but still in my view underrated Thunderball, I was looking forward to sitting down to the even grander and more SPECTRE dominated You Only Live Twice. Here was a Bond film not only hell bent on exotic thrills but a whistle-stop tour of Japanese culture for a Western audience. With such a diverse location to work with, a script adapted by Roald Dahl from one of Fleming’s best novels and the fresh direction of Lewis Gilbert, this would surely be bigger and better Bond. I licked my lips at the prospect of rediscovery.

Unfortunately I came across a substantial stumbling block perusing the beloved and holy row of Bond DVDS. I do not own a copy of You Only Live Twice. I am anxious to keep this knowledge from my friends. Among them my, perhaps unhealthy, obsession with all things 007 is the stuff of notorious legend. I am counting on the fact that they are not good enough friends to read my blog.

You might ask why I haven’t simply gone out to buy a copy. I am not marooned on a desert island with no access to British high streets and if HMV should prove woefully stocked the internet is of course at my disposal. If it were a missing fragment of any other film series I wouldn’t hesitate. But my James Bond collection is comprised of two disc Ultimate Editions with beautiful matching packaging. To my horror, around the release of either Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace on DVD, the Ultimate Editions were re-released with all new (and vastly inferior) packaging. Reluctant to tarnish the perfection of my sacred DVD area, I have refrained from buying a newer copy of You Only Live Twice and have been unable to find a copy to match my collection.

Oh I know you feel my pain reader. Life is a cruel and unpredictable mistress. I felt resigned to my fate and the torturous wait till June where the snowy delights of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service lurked in the Alpine trees. I was on the verge of giving up and leaving a gaping hole in my own personal BlogalongaBond journey. But then I got to thinking: why didn’t I own You Only Live Twice? Why hadn’t I made it a priority when assembling my shrine to the world’s most recognisable spy?

For Sean Connery of course it was the film that took the character too far and into the realm of the ridiculous. He resented the space age driven plot and the increasing repetitiveness of the one liners. In particular he must have felt like a first class prat being initiated as an honorary citizen of Japan, with a haircut that made him look like a monk (perhaps M really did want him to be “half monk/half hitman”). For fans looking back on the whole series of 22 films, Connery’s concerns might seem rather unfounded compared to the silliness to come with the Moore era. But clearly the Scot didn’t agree with the direction of travel away from intimate plots like those in From Russia With Love. The scale of this, the franchise’s fifth film, couldn’t be beaten without being dreadful.

I think some of Connery’s conservatism must have rubbed off on me. As a child YOLT was one of my favourite Bond entries. In particular I thought the climactic battle at the volcano base was one of the most exciting things in the universe, a totally awesome shootout with the baddies. I would have called it “an engrossing and epic finale on an impressive scale. One of the classic scenes in film history” had I had the required vocabulary. I also loved all the scenes featuring Little Nelly, as my Dad would chirp on and on about it, building the anticipation until the treasured scene would grip the household with awe and laughter.

But then as a teenager I obviously sought to reject the things my parents thought of as “good”. Little Nelly became silly. It was the sort of bland nonsense my Dad would always blabber on about. Later on I would find my love for Bond rekindled by the approach in Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, so that I rapidly acquired and devoured the books (none of Fleming’s are missing from that collection). So enthralled was I by the dark and bleak novel that pushed Bond’s character to the limit, that my attitude to the film as a whole became lukewarm at best.

Most of all it was my view of Blofeld that changed so dramatically after reading YOLT the novel. I was struck by the complete contrast between the cinematic and literary characters, even in terms of physique. In the books he was tall, in the films a short, bald, fat and often wheelchair bound man with a fluffy white pussy. I don’t mean that he was a woman; the contrast wasn’t quite that shocking.

Anyway I might be being unfair because it’s Austin Powers’ Doctor Evil that creates such a daft cultural vision of Ernst Stavro, rather than the portrayals from the Eon films (aside from perhaps the PTS of For Your Eyes Only). But after reading the book I was no longer captivated by Donald Pleasence’s iconic performance. He was THE Blofeld to me and countless others, but after my personal enlightenment he became a wasted opportunity, a stupid cardboard cut out villain and an imitation.  

I’ve already mentioned that unintentionally hilarious assimilation of Bond into the ninja community, which ruined the pace of the film and its focus upon Japanese culture. Another definite reason I came to find YOLT a turnoff was that it tried too hard to do its location justice at times, almost showing too much respect. That is not to say there wasn’t beautiful cinematography of the landscape and cities, just that too much was made of the whole “culture clash” angle. Having said this there were some wonderfully contrasted Ken Adam interior sets, which simultaneously showcased the equally beguiling faces of modern and traditional Japan.

In the aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami it is fitting and poignant to watch YOLT this month. Sadly, as I’ve explained, I am not. Everything I have said so far I have said from memory. Some of these files have been saved since childhood, others downloaded from more recent viewings. The trend seems to be that boy me loved it, more recent me had reservations. There are things about the film that the younger me hated that I now love however. Nancy Sinatra’s title song was whiny and not very Bondian back in the 90s, but now I find it a refreshing and beautiful track. Likewise John Barry’s score, which picked up substantially on the Japanese themes at times if memory serves me right, now strikes me as majestic when once it was irritating and plodding (not that I’d have used those words).

I genuinely wish I owned YOLT on DVD, despite what might be a tone of negativity coming across because of my love for the pages of the book dripping in revenge and sensual doubt. I know that the last time I saw the film on TV I found it to be a wonderful snapshot of both 1960s and Japanese culture, with fun as well as thrilling moments and the fresh angle of the space race. In many ways it is the classic film of the entire franchise, adhering more to the globally recognised Bond formula than Goldfinger and coming complete with spiky dialogue with Blofeld; the ultimate confrontation.

 But perhaps this is also why I can’t quite bring myself to love YOLT. Like Connery, and with the added benefit of hindsight, I see YOLT’s sensational and epic tone as the start of a trend away from the style of the early films. I adored these grander and dafter cinematic Bond adventures for different reasons, but in the early films I could indulge my love for the books and the movies at the same time. Whilst good, perhaps YOLT symbolises the end of my own personal Bondian bliss and this is why my memories of it are so mixed.

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.

Memento


Ideally I like to write my reviews shortly after I’ve watched a film, as I’m doing now. First impressions are important right? I think recording that instant reaction can be valuable, especially for readers dithering over whether to see something. Of course taking more time to chew over the substance of a movie can also have its advantages. It might help me to get my head round it and make some more insightful points. But somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get my head round Memento.

The protagonist of Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce), certainly couldn’t make it as a film reviewer. And I’m not saying that because it’s a particularly difficult task with insurmountable challenges. In fact normally I’d take the view that anyone could do it and that’s what makes cinema so engaging in the first place. But Leonard is not just anyone. For him remembering the plot of the most transparent Hugh Grant picture would indeed be an insurmountable challenge. There’s an advertising slogan that reads “Impossible is nothing”: this is literally true in Memento. It would be impossible for Leonard to write a review because he would remember nothing about the film. Not even Hugh alternating between “gosh” and “golly”.

Leonard suffers from a rare condition which basically means he can’t form new memories. I say “basically” but if you watch Memento it’s rapidly clear that his day to day existence is not a simple matter. Repeatedly Leonard tells us, via voiceover or mysterious conversation, that through his mastery of routine, instinct and a system of writing down “facts” as they happen, he has conquered his inability to save memories to the mainframe of his brain. But as the story progresses things that seemed certain prove to be far from it. Leonard’s quest to find his wife’s killer, and the man who whacked the talent of remembering from his skull, gives even the most ordinary encounter life and death importance. If Leonard draws the wrong conclusion from something and writes it down for future reference, he could end up on a path that causes him to kill the wrong man.

With last year’s hit Inception, Christopher Nolan reminded us that before his skilled reinvention of Batman for the mainstream he had a reputation as an experimental narrative trickster. Inception was his first film since The Prestige, which had twists and turns aplenty in the plot, to tell a daring story free of the Gotham city universe. The hype for the “dream heist” thriller was hysterically huge. I and countless others positively salivated at the sound of the concept. The possibilities of such an idea were endless. Sadly the film is one of the most overrated of recent times. Whilst good it did not compete with the whirring of imaginations kick-started into life by the premise.

Memento is much better than Inception when it comes to realising a tantalising idea. This is despite the fact that Nolan’s relative inexperience as a director is evident in a handful of lacklustre shots; one drab and overlong focus of Pearce strutting away into a building stands out. The acting isn’t always brilliant either, with what seems like half the cast of The Matrix on show and in hit and miss form.  The script however is superb, bouncing themes and tension around the scattered narrative structure. I was never bored. And I never knew what was going on.

As well as being extremely gripping and exciting, Memento has its other strong points. Leonard as a character is an engrossing figure, complete with those striking memories in tattoo form (which Steven Moffat recently adapted in Doctor Who for the monsters you forget when you look away). He is trying to make sense of his life, in one sense with nothing to go on but also with endless notes and information he’s amassed for himself. We’re all trying to settle on a purpose and the excess of notes could be an interesting symbol for information overload in the modern age. Clearly Memento has its insights on memory given the driving force of the story but it also comments on the nature of fact and perhaps the notion of history. Leonard insists he only collects facts and this ensures no one takes advantage of him. But his “facts” are manipulated. And what’s the point in revenge if he can’t remember it? Is it enough that “the world still exists when I close my eyes”, as he says?

Memento gave me a headache. I may have had one before sitting down to watch but after having the pieces inside my head jumbled about until my brain moaned in pain, it didn’t help matters. Nonetheless I enjoyed it. The overwhelming strength of the film is its originality. The execution was certainly there, which is why this was Nolan’s breakthrough picture. But the real genius lies with the idea behind the story. And the script was based on a short story by Christopher’s brother Jonathan Nolan. Perhaps he is the real mastermind behind the family’s success and the endless plaudits should be more evenly shared.

DVD Review: London Boulevard


The trailer for London Boulevard at the tail end of last year promised the best kind of British gangster flick; slick, stylish, smart, sexy and darkly funny. A disappointingly short run in cinemas and a lukewarm critical reception suggested that something didn’t quite click though, despite the stellar cast and seductive snippets of footage. Perhaps audiences anticipated more of the same; substitute Ray Winstone for Michael Gambon and Colin Farrell for Daniel Craig and you essentially get Layer Cake. But I was inclined to disagree with the tepid expectations because of interesting parallels between criminality and celebrity.

Farrell plays Mitchell, a cockney con straight out from serving three years for GBH. He explains he was merely involved in “an altercation” (he educated himself through hordes of books inside) and that he’s no thief. He’s trying to convince Keira Knightley’s paparazzi besieged actress to employ him as a bodyguard, after he uses his street smarts and hard as nails attitude to help a friend of hers avoid a nasty scuffle.  Mitchell eventually takes the job protecting the star from crude happy snappers, whilst simultaneously trying unsuccessfully to remove himself from friendships drawing him back into London’s underworld. Without even trying he rapidly builds a reputation for himself that Ray Winstone’s crime boss wishes to utilise.

I found the idea of a gangster tied to his life by the contracts of violent deeds and debts, compared and contrasted with a celebrity trapped by fame, an extremely interesting one. Neither can easily escape those aware of their existence and constantly keeping tabs on them. The relationship between Mitchell and his globally known actress had the potential to provide a refreshing lens through which to view a swaggering, traditional gangster story.

And at times the angle is slightly different. Some of the dialogue between Knightley and Farrell, particularly when they slip away to the countryside, is both full of black humour and believable observations about their determined destinies. But sadly most of the dialogue is ordinary and predictable and has indeed been seen countless times before. Farrell’s performance is neither fantastic nor a failure, merely passably cut off and charismatic, in keeping with the genre. He is suitably cool. Most disappointing is Knightley, who despite looking the part with a withered and thin appearance, never truly inhabits a role that must be close to the reality of her life on occasion. She ought to be capable of more than caricature with such personal experience to draw on.  

For me the main problem with London Boulevard was that it boiled down to an endless simmering. The stylish and often mildly funny build up was pleasing enough for a while, but only because it seemed to hint at the plot coming together and igniting at some point. It never really does. The climax on offer lacks intensity and urgency. With funny, vivid performances in supporting roles from David Thewlis, Ray Winstone, Ben Chaplin and Anna Friel, London Boulevard ultimately lets down an impressive cast of capable Brits. As well as the audience.

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra – yes you read that correctly


I’ll start with a revelation; I paid actual money to own this on DVD. It was cheap, it was on offer, but nevertheless I handed over real currency. Why not just burn a wad of cash instead? The answer is that these days I am so enjoying wearing my critic’s hat that I actively sought out a film on the shelves of HMV that would prove the perfect target for a volley of vitriol on a day of frustration. Yes bad films can be painful to endure, but take a tip from me; write derisively about them afterwards and the whole experience is transformed into the best kind of therapy.

I also thought that given the hordes of superhero blockbusters soon set for release, a great many of which based on cinematically underused characters, it would be interesting to examine a film trying to establish a franchise. And more than likely point out all the areas it fails in, thus advising the big cheeses at Marvel and DC and the like, who all hang on my every word.

Having said this despite day after day of dismalness since I purchased GI Joe, days in which I could have done with a cleansing rant, I could not bring myself to sit down to watch it, knowing that watching the film itself would probably shovel manure onto my already foul smelling mood.

Now though the deed is done. All of GI Joe’s 113 minutes rammed down my eyeballs and willingly into the vaults of memory. My verdict will be far from surprising. As usual it’s simultaneously comforting and disheartening to have my own views almost precisely tally with the summary on Rotten Tomatoes:

While fans of the Hasbro toy franchise may revel in a bit of nostalgia, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is largely a cartoonish, over-the-top action fest propelled by silly writing, inconsistent visual effects, and merely passable performances”

Yes I might be getting it right, but what’s the point in me if I don’t say anything new?

With this in mind then, here are some things that were surprising about GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra:

1)      It’s got a really impressive cast! People pop up from all over the world of film and TV, for even the slightest of roles, and in particular from places kids will love. There’s a Doctor Who being bad (a suitably evil and decent performance from Christopher Eccleston), the Mummy from The Mummy, the villain from Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies as the President, the guy who stops the Mummy in The Mummy, that cool street dance kid, her from Stardust, the serious one from Inception (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s soon to be in Batman too!) and that shouty scientist who saves the world from the inevitability of global warming in The Day After Tomorrow. I can only assume that all the American stars in this loved the toys and all the Brits were paid treasure chests full of booty for their unavoidably sinister accents.

2)      Talking of booty GI Joe has an awful lot of it for a family friendly action story. Dennis Quaid struts around as a General with a stunning beautiful assistant always to hand. Sienna Miller’s cleavage deserved its own recognition on the billboards. Red headed, blonde and brunette beauties are showcased in everything from skin tight “accelerator” suits, to tiny jogging tops or outfits made from 100% leather. Obviously to enjoy GI Joe at all you leave plausibility and realism at home. But there’s something disturbing about all this flesh for a potential franchise based on toys and a film with a 12 rating. It’s like the Playboy bunnies broke into Toys R Us and are teasing you before an orgy.

3)      I enjoyed (some of) it. Maybe it was just Sienna’s constant pouting. But the extended action set piece in Paris was quite creative at times; over the top and overflowing with visual effects for sure, but enjoyable compared to the other numerous grandstand battles.

The most annoying thing about GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra was its endless focus on the back-story of various characters. This is saying something. Most of its irritating faults are obvious; the wooden and unwatchable Channing Tatum, the relentless pointless noise, the other mechanical actors playing cartoon cut outs, the fact that the whole thing is a lifeless mess. Perhaps what was really annoying about the continual flashbacks and diversions to show how the characters all had past grudges against each other, was that it made GI Joe have ambitions that went beyond making noise. Almost as if they thought they were telling a narrative that could be called “engaging” or kick-starting a franchise that could be “successful”.

The very opening scene, with absolutely atrocious French and Scottish accents in the 17th century, tried far too hard to give the characters meaning and seemed redundant in reality. Studio chiefs take note: don’t fuck with history or flit through the past lives of your characters. Even if you’re trying to sell the toys they’re based on.

The failure of Reading and Writing Month – An apology and explanation from Mrt’sblog


If anyone at all follows my blog they would’ve noticed the disappointing petering out of Reading and Writing Month. I feel I should explain as briefly as possible why a project I was very excited about and had big plans for did not turn out as I had hoped.

What happened then? I suppose the simple answer is: real life. It’s an excuse all the same I know but when it came down to it I couldn’t motivate myself to either write for my blog all that much or do enough reading because of actual events and “dramas”. I used to make the mistake of using this blog as an emotional outlet for “real life” and I have no intention of ranting again here and spoiling what I’ve worked hard on. But I also once said I would write on this blog should I ever find that elusive state known as happiness. I may as well say now that for most of 2011 so far I have indeed been happy; the happiest I have ever been probably. I am grateful to have felt that even if it was fleeting.

Enough of that though and back to blogging matters. It really is most regrettable that I have a real life at all sometimes. I am frequently full of ideas for writing but most thoughts never become blog pieces or creative works. Often I know that if I try to realise an idea and rush it to some sort of completion, its quality will disappoint. I know that an awful lot of the words I vomit onto these pages are not examples of the best work I can produce. Sometimes it’s just imperative that I produce something or air my views on whatever issue I am passionate about, no matter how inadequately.

For Reading and Writing Month for example I had numerous ideas in the pipeline. I planned to write on literary classics like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita, comparing their taboos. I planned to write my own short stories after amateurishly examining a selection of some I had managed to read. I wanted to discuss the future of reading with the coming of Kindles and IPads and audiobooks etc. I intended to explain why I rarely re-read books, and ask why we come back to old favourites when there was so much to discover and consume. Do we all have bibles for certain things, like good writing or storytelling, which we like to re-read to learn again? Like revision almost. Or do we re-read to recapture a feeling? Generally I wanted to have finished reading a lot more books than I did.

More recently in terms of general blog writing I’ve wanted to comment on the Libyan situation and the ethics of a no-fly-zone. Trips to Fulham football club and controversial Champions League games would have once spawned some thoughts. Various television programmes from comedies like 10 O’Clock to dramas like Christopher and His Kind have tempted me to put pen to paper, or finger tips to keyboard more accurately, but I have simply lacked the confidence, the time and the reserves of happiness to begin.

This is incredibly self-indulgent but it does annoy me that a) I don’t write enough and b) I don’t write well enough. Lots of things interest me and I want to write about most of them, but the task often seems insurmountable. The recent impingement of my real life on my blogging has forced me to rethink my writing habits. I shall have to accept that I can’t do it all. Especially if I’m to keep reading. And if I’m to do anything at all with at least a degree of adequacy. So I’m considering drawing up a more regular timetable for posts on particular topics. Film pieces will probably still emerge in a regular messy pattern, but perhaps other things I should simply talk about once a week on a certain day.

It will be sometime most likely before I do anything concrete about this. But it will probably soon have to be done out of necessity and I’m hoping it might help improve both output and quality. If you do drop by now and then I’d love any feedback or suggestions on what readers want and what Mrt’sblog can do better.

In the meantime I am personally trying to convince myself of the positives of Reading and Writing Month, despite its undoubted failure. I read a good mix of short stories and who knows maybe in future I’ll draw on them to write my own. At least for now I have good stories I can return to. I’ve generally rediscovered my taste for reading, not that it ever really went anywhere, even if progress is slow. I’m currently devouring, well gently chewing, Room by Emma Donoghue and soon I’ll start on Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman, now a film called The American starring Mr Clooney. After these reads I’ll return to the list from Reading and Writing Month and try to make headway once more.

A heartfelt sorry from Mrt’sblog then, to myself at least if no one else is that bothered. Do follow me on Twitter (@Mrtsblog) and give me that feedback (constructive or completely pointless, all comers welcome)

The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.