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venerdì 30 dicembre 2011

My 2011 in books

I've been away from my blog for a couple of weeks.... we moved back to Italy and I had to deal with a turmoil of positive emotions and energy. After being away for so long my perception of smells, colours, atmospheres was amazingly sharp and intense. For instance, the smell of winter. The earthy, foggy, rich smell of winter evenings in the countryside struck me both as something completely new and overwhelmingly familiar. A beautiful feeling, yet slightly melancholic, evoking mixed memories from past winters.

Every morning, when we get up, we open the window in our study and see the sun rising in the field opposite our house, so preciously beautiful.

Anyway, in less than 48 hours a new year begins, and I wanted to list the books I've read during 2011, maybe write a few lines about each of them, and some reviews. At the moment I'm deeply into 1Q84, wonderful as only Murakami can be.

So, here's my list. I'll write books in the language I've read them.


Innan du somnar, by Linn Ullmann
The Sea, the Sea, by Iris Murdoch


A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch
Fleana, bambina triste, Laura Facollo
The Unicorn, Iris Murdoch


Not I, but the Wind, Frieda Lawrence
Sons and Lovers, D.H.Lawrence
Una bambina e basta, Lia Levi
Nessuno si salva da solo, Margaret Mazzantini
Stelle di cannella, Helga Schneider


The Hours, Michael Cunningham
Il bambino ritrovato, Alda Marcoli


Il cammino dell'uomo, Martin Buber
Memorie di una Geisha, Arthur Golden
L'abito di piume, Banana Yoshimoto
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami


Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
After the Quake, Haruki Murakami
La fine del mondo e il paese delle meraviglie, Haruki Murakami
The North-China Lover, Marguerite Duras


The key, Junikiro Tanizaki
Il mio Nome è rosso, Orhan Pamuk
Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
L'anulare, Yoko Ogawa
Profumo di ghiaccio, Yoko Ogawa


L'energia vitale della donna, Xiolan Zhao
L'isola di Arturo, Elsa Morante


Il sole si spegne, Osamu Dazai
Polvere rossa, Ma Jian
Un bacio, Ivan Cotroneo
La madre del riso, Rani Manicka
Il medico di te stesso, Naboru Muramoto


Il rumore delle onde, Yukio Mishima
Il sorriso dell'agnello, David Grossman


Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Why Love matters, Sue Gerhardt
Trastulli di animali, Yukio Mishima


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
The Beach, Alex Garland

Each book deserves at least a short post, so I will be busy writing these days. :)

martedì 13 dicembre 2011

The God of Small Things

Simply lost for words after reading this book. Touched by its unbearable beauty and stunning perfection. By the hopeless sadness and bottomless tenderness it has left in me like a strong, lingering aftertaste.

When you realize who The God of Small Things is and why, you just want to cry.

"The God of Loss.
The God of Small Things.
The God of Goose Bumps and Sudden Smiles."

Arundhati Roy's writing is wonderful: full of beautiful imagery, unusual word combinations, and so alive and exploding with smells and colours and textures that you really feel you are inhabiting her world, touching it and breathing it. It is funny, grotesque, tender, crude, poetic, down-to-earth.
I often just stopped at a passage, read it again and again, to savour its charm.

The novel is partly based on the author's childhood memories and tells the story of a Syrian Christian family in the town of Ayemenem in Kerala, India. Events unfold in a nonlinear, multi-perspective way, so that what in the beginning seems like a fragmented kaleidoscope image, gradually takes shape and each single small detail makes sense and echoes much bigger things.
When I finished the book, upset and incredulous, I read the beginning again and it didn't feel like the beginning at all but like a prosecution, or a totally new start where everything makes sense. A terrible sense.
John Updike wrote in his review:

"Roy peels away the layers of her mysteries with such delicate cunning, such a dazzling adroit shuffle of accumulating revelations that to discuss the plot would be to violate it."

It is absolutely true. There's little to say before you read this novel, but so much to say after that you are utterly breathless and lost for words.
It's a book about many things, but most of all, it's a book about Love. "They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much."
At the moment I feel I can't read anything, I'm too entangled in this story, and I'm afraid any other book I read will somehow be overshadowed by The God of Small Things. So heartbreaking and indelible.

A handful of books, and nearly Goodbye Stockholm

We are going back to Italy in a few days, and we are going to stay there for a little more than 3 months. There are billions of things I could write about: my feelings, my expectations, the things I've missed here and those I'm going to miss there. I could write about how from an Italian perspective I'm an emigrant, from a Swedish perspective I'm an immigrant, while from my own perspective I'm caught somewhere in between, suspended between two worlds, two ways of life, two completely different ranges of possibilities. Both places are mine, in very different ways. Both my tiny home town in the North of Italy and the always-perfectly-functioning capital of Sweden. But none of that has anything to do with a book&film blog.
I will just say that, though my heart has been craving for All I Left Behind, and though I'm definitely happy to go back to Italy, now, with our passports ready and the floor scattered with open bags and suitcases, some sort of submerged fondness makes my heart sink a little at the thought of being away from Stockholm. The bare fact of Leaving a place implies melancholy thoughts. So, I'm madly happy to go home, but with a slightly melancholic happiness.
When we move from our flat in Stockholm to our house in Italy (or the other way around), I always perform my Browse-through-the-books Ritual: I look at all the books on the shelves, take out some, leaf through them, put them back and pick some more until I decide what book I want to read. I'm very fond of this little ritual, and I'm already thinking about the books I'll take out and start first. Here they are:

Michel Faber - The Crimson Petal and the White

Jon McGregor - If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.

Mo Yan - Red Sorghum

David Grossman - To the End of the Land

Elizabeth Von Arnim - Vera

John R. R. Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings

Charles Dickens - The Old Curiosity Shop

So, my heart packed with happiness plus a blend of nervousness and submerged melancholy, I'm ready to go!

venerdì 9 dicembre 2011

Tea & Books Reading Challenge

As far as I can remember, books and tea have always been in my life. An immense pleasure, a reviving comfort, and even - seriously - a biological necessity. My brain freaks out without a constant dose of tea and books. I don't just love to read books and drink tea. I love to leaf through books I've already read, carry a book or two wherever I go; I'm mad for opening metal tea boxes and smelling the scent of dried tea leaves, I'm always eager to try new teas, and I have an obsession with tea cups. So, this Challenge is just perfect for me! :)
During 2011 - so far - I've read around 40 books, I mean read through, from cover to cover, while some more were left unfinished along the way. They were mainly in English and Italian, and a few in Swedish (I've been lazy with French and Russian, I will try to compensate for this next year). None of all those books reached 700 pages. I have nothing against huge books, I've read and enjoyed a few, like The Brothers Karamazov, the fact is that there aren't that many big tomes I've ever felt interested in. BUT I have two on my bookshelf, they've been there quite a while now and actually one of them was already on my 2012 list. I'm talking about The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber. I've read other things by him, and liked them a lot, and The Crimson Petal is set in my beloved London, so I really don't know why I haven't read it yet. The other book is The Lord of the Rings. Generally speaking, I'm not much of a fantasy reader, with a few exceptions. Yet I've always felt that The Lord of the Rings is not only for fantasy readers, and we even have it in three languages (English, Italian and Swedish, as usual). So I will take part in this challenge, humbly picking the basic level Chamomile Lover. I will start with The Crimson Petal in January at the earliest because I'm reading other things for pleasure, plus some more stuff for my upcoming new job, which is my biggest challenge at the moment! I might upgrade my level anyway, who knows. And I'm curious to see what other readers will choose....

Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge 2011

Just found out about this. Of course, I couldn't resist!

giovedì 8 dicembre 2011


NELLI PALOMÄKI was born in Finland in 1981. She started exhibiting her works in collective exhibitions in 2004, and in 2008 as a solo artist. She is a portrait photographer, it is true, yet this definition in her case is very reductive. Portrait photographs are usually not natural, because the subject is perfectly conscious of being looked at, studied, examined. The photographer has time to think, search, decide. Yet Nelli Palomaki makes every picture dreamy and suffused with different emotions, because the interaction between photographer (herself) and subjects makes every single photo different from all the others, and the feelings experienced in the acts of photographing and being photographed create the final image. She wrote:

The way people act in front of camera, is truly fascinating. Desperately searching for their mirror-face which only exist in their mind. Everyone is aware of their better side and even more aware of their flaws, unsuccessfully hiding them. But they can recognize the same thing in me, realizing this makes me really insecure and nervous. This makes the portraiture, the actual moment of taking the image, really extraordinary. Accepting the fact that we are there as we really exist, with our good and bad features, makes it suddenly quite comfortable.

Kulturhuset in Stockholm is currently hosting a selection of her works.

This is her personal website.

domenica 4 dicembre 2011

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

When I got this book I knew nothing about Carson McCullers. I was just very intrigued by the plot of the novel, and I was not disappointed. On the contrary, I'm determined to read other works by the same author.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is set in a small town in the South of the US, and events take place within one year, between two hot summers just before World War 2. It is a complex book, and the amazing thing is that Carson McCullers was only 23 when she wrote it. Her sensitivity and understanding of human loneliness are unbelievably deep. The novel is about people whose lives accidentally intermingle, and about the changes and feelings their encounter brings about. It is also about life in the south of the US back in the 30's, when racism was still part of everyday life and when rumours of the Nazi horrors were starting to flutter about. The book starts describing the lives of John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos, the only two deaf mutes living in town. They share a flat, walk to work together, walk back home together, never mix with other people. Their existences unfold following such regular patterns that they feel more like rituals rather than plain habits. Singer works in a jewelry and Antonapoulos in a candy shop. They both work at the back of the shops, one repairing things and the other preparing candies. Singer is very devoted to his friend, he speaks a lot to him with his hands, using the sign language. Antonapoulos is a fat, dull guy who hardly listens, only cares about eating, and never seems to react to Singer's attentions. He's a rather annoying character. At some point, after having to diet for a while due to bad health, he freaks out, doing very rude and embarrassing things, so he is taken to an asylum. Singer is left alone.
He starts to wander the streets late at night, and even moves out, unable to inhabit the same place he had shared with his beloved friend (Antonapoulos is described as such an unpleasant and irritating person that it feels very strange that anyone can like him so much, but still). Singer moves to a boarding house run by the Kelly family: mother, father (based on the author's father), and many children: Bill, Hazel, Etta, Mick, Bubber and baby Ralph. Mick is a twelve-year-old girl who dreams about composing music and who is going through the brittle time between childhood and early adolescence. She's a tender mixture of child-like attitudes and big thoughts and dreams. She's without a doubt my favourite character in the book.
Singer finds a small restaurant nearby, the New York Café, and decides to have his meals there every day. Mr Brannon, the owner of the café, is somehow attracted to Singer, which is basically what happens to everyone who meets him. The novel is about the struggles of four of these people: Mick, Mr Brannon, Doctor Copeland, an idealistic African American doctor, and Jake Blount, an alcoholic labour agitator. As time passes, their lives will be changed forever by their encounter with Singer. I won't go into the very details because I hope people will read the book. I will just say that I think the main theme of the novel is the impossibility to communicate one's deepest feelings and needs. All the characters lay their souls bare to Singer, share with him thoughts they would never think to share with anyone, and feel desperately close to him, as if they were sharing the most precious secret. Singer can make them feel in peace, can soothe their troubled minds with his silence and calm smile. The fact is that they unconsciously interpret his silence as they please, while Singer is just puzzled. He is simply trying to fill the time gaps between his rare visits to Antonapoulos at the asylum.
If, in the beginning, it seems that Singer's presence is positive, in the end we understand it isn't, because the people who were attracted to him are left alone with the longings and struggles his presence has triggered.
Carson McCullers is great at creating characters and at calling into being atmospheres and minute states of mind, those sharp feelings that strike us like painful revelations, yet are too quick and sheer to be grasped. Here are some passages:

The place was still not crowded - it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone. The mutual distrust between the men who were just awakened and those who were ending a long night gave everyone a feeling of estrangement.

That was when she realized about her Dad. It wasn't like she was learning a new fact - she had understood it all along in every way except with her brain. Now she just suddenly knew that she knew about her Dad. He was lonesome and he was an old man. Because none of the kids went to him for anything and because he didn't earn much money he felt like he was cut off from the family. And in his lonesomeness he wanted to be close to one of his kids - and they were all so busy that they didn't know it. He felt like he wasn't much real use to anybody. [...] That night she sat down in a chair by his bench and they talked a while. He talked about accounts and expenses and how things would have been if he had just managed in a different way. He drank beer, and once the tears came to his eyes and he snuffled his nose against his shirt-sleeve. She stayed with him a good while that night. Even if she was in an awful hurry. Yet for some reason she couldn't tell him about the things in her mind - about the hot, dark nights.

Carson McCullers was born in Georgia in 1917. Her father was a watch maker and jeweler of French descent. He gave her her first type writer when she was 15. She started taking piano lesson when she was 10. Her grown-up life was rather hard. At a young age she began experiencing strokes, so that by the age of 31 the left side of her body was completely paralized. She suffered from depression and had problems with alcohol. She married the aspiring writer Reeves McCullers in 1937, divorcing him in 1941. They remarried in 1945 and were together for some more troubled years, during which she attempted suicide. Reeves tried to drag her into a double suicide but she fled. He killed himself in 1953 with an overdose of sleeping pills, in a hotel room in Paris. She died in 1967 after a brain hemorrhage.

sabato 3 dicembre 2011

In a Lonely Place. Gregory Crewdson's America

Today I finished reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by American writer Carson McCullers. The characters of the novel and their stories are still trying to settle down in my mind, so it will take a few days before I can write a review of the book. The novel is set in the US, somewhere in the South, in the late 30's. While I was reading I realized more than once that I visualized streets, houses and places through the photographs of Gregory Crewdson. Last spring I saw an exhibition of his works at Kulturhuset, Stockholm. It was called In a Lonely Place. I don't know whether the photos were actually shot in the South of the United States or not, anyway they remained very much with me, especially their nocturnal, slightly surreal atmosphere.
Gregory Crewdson was born in NY in 1962. His photos almost always represent either streets of small towns or household scenes. In both cases he shots them with the help of big crews as they are elaborately staged and lighted. Films and paintings influenced his works: echoes of David Lynch and Edward Hopper are particularly evident. Surreal and uncanny elements creep into his pictures, making them disturbingly unnatural, yet fascinating and beautiful. Here are some.

giovedì 1 dicembre 2011

Japanese Literature Challenge 5, my review: The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

I've had a blog for only a week, and I've already found so many interesting things: sites, blogs, challenges, blog hops. When I found out about this, hosted by Bellezza, I just couldn't resist. I've always been interested in Japanese literature and culture in general, and this interest has grown and swelled up to a point where the word "interest" is not enough anymore. It has become something bigger and stronger, and if I hadn't studied English and Russian at University (learning also French at school and Swedish by accident and keeping in mind and heart my mother tongue, Italian ) I would certainly have studied the Japanese language. Who knows anyway, Marguerite Yourcenar started when she was in her 70's, so: never say never. This year I have read many Japanese books, more precisely:

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami
Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami
Hard-boiled Wonderland & the End of the World - H.Murakami
After the Quake - Haruki Murakami
Dance dance dance - Haruki Murakami

The Setting Sun - Osamu Dazai

The Key - Yunichiro Tanizaki
Diary of a Mad old Man - Y. Tanizaki

The Ring Finger - Yoko Ogawa
Profumo di ghiaccio - Yoko Ogawa

Asleep - Banana Yoshimoto
Hard-boiled & Hard Luck - Banana Yoshimoto
Argentine Hag - Banana Yoshimoto

Trastulli di animali - Yukio Mishima
The Sound of Waves - Yukio Mishima

The Sound of Waves

Shinji is a poor fisherman who lives with his mother and younger brother on a small island, where the sea - with its sounds and colours - is always present, pacing and shaping the rhythm of everyday life and acting as a source of spiritual strength. Everything is very much the same, day after day and season after season, until Hatsue returns to the island. She is the daughter of the richest man in the village, and the news of her arrival spreads quickly. Many young men, including Shinji, begin to like her. When Hatsue and Shinji fall in love, they have to face malicious gossip and jealousy until Hatsue is forbidden to see him. This separation strengthens their love and after many vicissitudes and through the intervention of different secondary characters, Shinji outshines his rivals and the lovers will be engaged to get married. The Sound of Waves is a simple, lyrical love story, offering evocative descriptions of the sea and detailed sketches of lives on the island. There are passages of extraordinary beauty, especially one: a blend of eroticism and innocence, taking place when Shinji falls asleep by the fire at the Temple, and wakes up to find Hatsue naked, waiting for her clothes to get dry. Their desire for each other struggles with the respect they have for their love as something too pure and sacred to be consumed there and then, and their decision to wait draws them irretrievably close. Shinji is described as a very down-to-earth person, probably not particularly smart yet strong and loyal. He is not used to ponder on his emotions, or to experience feelings he can't explain or relate to something clear and precise. It is with increasing amazement that he realizes something is happening to him.

"Shinji always went to sleep easily, but last night he had the strange experience of lying long awake. Unable to remember a day of sickness in his life, the boy had lain wondering, afraid this might be what people meant by sick."

"Shinji was not at all given to brooding about things, but this one name, like a tantalizing puzzle, kept harassing his thoughts. At the mere sound of the name his cheeks flushed and his heart pounded. It was a strange feeling to sit there motionless and feel within himself these physical changes that, until now, he had experienced only during heavy labor."

The charm of this novel lies in the haunting presence of the sea and in the awakening of Shinji to love and manhood, in his acceptance of the new feelings blossoming so suddenly within him. Despite having a simple plot and a happy ending (unusual in Mishima), there's an aura of solemnity surrounding Shinji and his sudden growth to manhood and love which makes everything vibrant and almost holy. Shinji and Hatsue represent a pure and simple way of life in harmony with nature, far from the the corruption and complexity of society, represented in the book, among other things, by gossip and prejudice. Their purity and endurance will be stronger and eventually succeed, and in this perspective the happy ending is not as simple as it may look at a superficial level. They are both "creatures of the sea", Hatsue winning a diving competition and Shinji outstanding a terrible thunderstorm. Their moral natures and respect for traditional values make them keepers and defenders of the island's beauty and austere simplicity. A truly beautiful book, where apparent simplicity conceals some of the author's ideals and beliefs.

Literary Blog Hop: The Suitcase, by Sergej Dovlatov

Literary Blog Hop The Blue Bookcase has raised an interesting question in the last Literary Blog Hop: what book(s) would we recommend to a literary-shy person? There are, of course, infinite possibilities, especially considering that we would probably recommend different books to different people, or at least I would. Anyway, here is my answer. There are broadly two kinds of people who find it hard to appreciate literature: those who innocently claim they don't like it, and those who think they do, yet are blindfolded with all sort of prejudices: they won't read books that are "too short" (as if "good" literature were a question of quantity and not quality), or written by authors that are "too young". They might as well self-righteously claim that To the Lighthouse is boring because "it has no plot". Some wonderful works of literature would unfortunately reinforce these attitudes, but some might, on the contrary, crumble them up. One of these, I think, is The suitcase by Russian émigré writer Sergej Dovlatov. He was born in Ufa in 1941 of Armenian mother and half-Jewish father. He emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979, together with his mother. All emigrants were allowed to bring only one bag. After many years in America, Dovlatov finds a battered suitcase into his wardrobe. It is still full of stuff: a poplin shirt, a pair of boots, a stained jacket... each item triggers a chain of memories, and each chapter in the book corresponds to an object from the suitcase and its story. Dovlatov shares glimpses of his Russian life with us with his dry, irresistible humor, full of tenderness but absolutely far from sentimentalism. I would recommend this book to literature-shy friends because it is a short book, which will be good for the lazy and will at the same time show how good literature doesn't only come in thousands of pages. It is a book you read easily, and it is funny and ironic, yet exquisitely human and full of depth and subtle melancholia. It is well structured and the language is simple but bright and clever, showing with simple, detached grace what an extravagant blend of laughter and gloom life is. It's a lovely, "happy sad" book that will leave no one dissatisfied.

sabato 26 novembre 2011

Wonderlands, part 1

It all started with a dinner and a mirror. A few weeks ago we were invited to spend the evening with my in-laws, and as is often the case with small children, my daughter started to run around and explore their big, cozy flat, so full of cool and interesting objects. In the hall there's a big rectangular mirror with a carved golden frame, almost reaching the floor. We don't have such a low mirror at home, so it was an exciting surprise for my daughter to see herself in full length. She started to talk with "the other Elin", the one in the other side of the mirror. She even asked me if she could actually go to the other side. I was struck by her fantasy, because she came up with that thought just by herself, with her 3 year old (young) experience of the world. The same evening as we went back home I ordered Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass on the internet, the original text with the drawings made for the very first edition. When the parcel with the book slipped through the mail slot in our door, it was my daughter who picked it up and opened it, and again I was surprised when she recognized Alice in the watercolour painting on the cover of the book. She had seen the Disney cartoon only once before, and not so recently. Even if it was a "grown-up's" book, she decided it was hers, and I had to read it for her, translating simultaneously from English into Italian. As I told my mother about this, she decided to send us a copy of the book in Italian, so yesterday we got it, together with a bag of chocolates. Elin hugged the parcel when it came in trough the door, and looked at the pictures many times. She was particularly fond of the one where Alice swims in her own sea of tears. AND, last but not least, my in-laws had some new posters on the wall, some uncanny, surreal and truly beautiful pictures of weird girls, flamingoes, flying pigs.... I found out they were some illustrations by Maggie Taylor, an American digital image artist who, among other things, made this. So, in a couple of weeks a series of coincidences triggered by my daughter and a mirror lead to me Alice and different Wonderlands: the novels by Lewis Carroll, who was also a lecturer in mathematics and a photographer, so automatically another door opened onto his photographs, and then Maggie Taylor.
Maggie Taylor was born in Florida, and she studied Philosophy at Yale and photography in Florida, and worked 10 years as a still-life photographer before starting to use computer techniques to create her imaginary world. This happened in 1996. She intermingles different sources of inspiration, like 19 century photos, vintage objects, and her own photographs, which are all combined to create her unique pictures, so disturbing and yet so beautiful and calm. "It all seemed quite natural", quoting from Alice in Wonderland, has she first notices the white rabbit. Natural with the distorted and astonishingly plausible logic of dreams.
Her photos look very much like paintings, and they perfectly match not only the disquieting atmosphere of Carroll's novel, but even, somehow, his works as a photographer. In 2003 Douglas R. Nickel, curator of photography at the S. Francisco Museum of Modern Art, arranged an exhibition called Dreaming in Pictures: the Photography of Lewis Carroll. The exhibition displayed 72 pictures, mainly portraits of people and enigmatic portraits of children, who were maybe his favourite subject. According to Nickel, "Carroll's photographs show the workings of his unique intelligence, underscoring his literary concerns with fantasy, dreaming, childhood innocence, and the power of the imagination, but they also illustrate a strain of Victorian photography that has been largely ignored by or suppressed in official histories of the medium. This exhibition offers the opportunity to examine both the individual and his times."

venerdì 25 novembre 2011

The sea, the sea (wonderful Iris Murdoch)

I bought this book when I was pregnant, back in 2008, sometime in the spring. I tried to read it several times, because I knew it had to be a great book, and because I wanted to like Iris Murdoch. Yet I regularly got stuck, not because I was bored, but because I couldn't stand the main character, who is narrating the whole story in first person, in the form of his memoir. I simply couldn't stand him, that is, Iris Murdoch's fictional character felt as lively and plausible as any existing human being you can instinctively perceive as unpleasant. This fact alone tells very much of Murdoch's amazing gift with words. She can really create, re-invent herself completely to give voice and life to the character she's building. Last January I took The sea, the sea again from its place in the bookshelf, and made another attempt at reading it.... and just couldn't stop. I devoured and adored it. I still think Charles Arrowby is sort of a bore sometimes, when he abounds in detailed, extra-precise accounts of his meals and food tastes. Like this passage, for instance:

"For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London.) Green peppers would have been a great addiction only the village shop (two miles pleasant walks)could not provide them. (No-one delivers to far-off Shruff End, so I fetch everything, including milk, in the village.) Then bananas and cream with white sugar. (Bananas should be cut, never mashed, and the cream should be thin.) Then hard water-biscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese. Of course I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheese are the best in the world. With this feast I drank most of a bottle of Muscadet out of my modest `cellar`. I ate and drank slowly as one should (cook fast, eat slowly)and without distractions such as (thank heavens) conversation or reading. Indeed eating is so pleasant one should even try to suppress thought. Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too. How fortunate we are to be food consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger."

I mean, writing this at page 8 on an over 500 pages book can really discourage a big share of readers. Yet, from a wider perspective, Iris Murdoch has been amazingly good at standing in the shoes of a 60-year-old unmarried man, just retired from a glittering theatrical career in London to an isolated cottage by the sea. He has plenty of time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, like food, swimming, watching the sea, thinking. And it is plausible that he can express his feelings through words much better than many people, because working in the theatre means constantly facing and dealing with emotions; plus, he is quite cultivated, which means it doesn't sound strange to read wonderfully written and deeply evocative descriptions of the sea, and of his own states of mind. Here are some:

"I am still almost shy of my emotions, shy of the terrible strength of certain memories."

"I loved my father so intensely at that moment and was at the same time conscious (I was ten, twelve?) that I could not express my love, and that perhaps he did not know of it, how much it was. Did he ever know?"

"It is after tea and I am sitting at the drawing-room window watching the rain falling steadily into the sea. There is a terrible grim simplicity in this grey scene. Apart from an iron-dark line at the horizon the sea and the sky are much the same colour, a muted faintly radiant grey, and expectant as if waiting for something to happen. As it might be flashes of lightning or monsters rising from the waves."

"And I felt upon the empty darkening road a shuddering sense of my utter solitude, my vulnerability, among these silent rocks, beside this self-absorbed and alien see."

"....and there was a new extremely anxious excitement and a sheer plucking physical longing to be in her presence, the fierce indubitable magnetism of love."

"Time had suffered a profound disturbance, and I could feel all sorts of dark debris from the far past shifting and beginning to move up towards the surface."

"The past and the present are after all so close, so almost one, as if time were an artificial teasing out of a material which longs to join, to interpenetrate, and to become heavy and very small like some of those heavenly bodies scientists tell us of."
Charles Arrowby buys this cottage in a remote place by the sea. He expects to be alone (not lonely) and to relax,leaving career, friends, and lovers far away in London. Yet the people he left behind appear one by one, threatening his peaceful isolation. And, quite absurdly, he happens to meet his childhood sweetheart Hartley, now turned into a secretive, dishevelled middle-aged woman. He become utterly obsessed with her, and at this point I won't say anything more, in case someone might want to read the book. I'll just add that, as is often the case with Iris Murdoch's fiction, events ramble on and on, becoming increasingly absurd and exaggerated as Iris Murdoch explores the extreme possibilities and consequences of our actions and feelings.

After reading this book, I wasn't able to read anyone else but Iris Murdoch for a few months, and I even re-watched the film about her life. She was born in Dublin in 1919 and published her first novel, Under the net, in 1954, two years before meeting and soon marrying John Bayley. They were a happy, loving couple all through their life together. The film Iris is actually based on his memoir. In 1995 she started to develop the first symptoms of the Alzheimer disease, which she first attributed to a writer's block. She died in 1999.

giovedì 24 novembre 2011

Café Lumière, with digressions

Café Lumière is a film by Taiwanese-born Hou Hsiao-Hsien that was shot in 2003 and meant as a homage to Yasujiro Ozo. For some reason, I had quite high expectations about this films. First of all, I was intrigued by the title. I automatically connected it with a collection of photos by Anders Petersen, called Café Lehmitz. I found out about this wonderful Swedish photographer by chance: one photo taken from the Café Lehmitz collection is the cover image of the album Rain Dogs, by Tom Waits. The photo shows a man and a woman hugging, they could be friends, mother and son, lovers, brother and sister.... it's an extremely powerful picture, full of life. So, Rain Dogs was the way I found out about the wholeCafé Lehmitz collection. In 1967, Anders Petersen started to photograph the regular late-night clients of a café (named Lehmitz, of course) in Hamburg, and went on for over 3 years. It was mainly prostitutes, drug-addicts, drunks, lovers. A blend of humanity and lives that became a book about 10 years later. 
"The people at the Café Lehmitz had a presence and a sincerity that I myself lacked. It was okay to be desperate, to be tender, to sit all alone or share the company of others. There was a great warmth and tolerance in this destitute setting." He wrote.
When I found out about all this I was a student, working in a hotel at weekends and in a café 3 nights a week. Of course, I felt I could really understand what Petersen meant, because I always saw the same people in the café where I worked, basically a sex-obsessed piano player and his entourage, an English young man playing Stairway to Heaven on a guitar and keeping me company as I cleaned the bar, and some other people I have now almost forgotten. His photo collection became intimately connected to my experience, and to my idea of "café".
Going back to our issue, the title Café Lumière brought that very special atmosphere back to life, like eating a madeleine. Plus, one of my favourite actors (Tadanobu Asano in the role of Hajime) is in the cast, and the plot is actually intriguing, even if it's not a "plot" in the proper sense of the word.
Yoko,a Japanese  researcher who has spent some time in Taiwan returns home to tell her family and male friend that she is pregnant with her Taiwanese boyfriend, but that she doesn't want to marry him. Hajime also helps in her research about a composer, as he works in a second-hand bookshop and seems very devoted to his job; he has the singular hobby of recording the sounds of trains in different parts of Tokyo. So far, so good. What I found difficult to accept was the almost total suppression of emotion(s) from the film. No one reacts to the news that Yoko is pregnant. Actually, Hajime makes a computer desktop with the picture of a foetus in a womb of trains. He also searches for and finds a children's picture book telling a story that perfectly corresponds to a dream Yoko had told him about. So we understand that he cares for her (he makes food for her when she's down with flu), that he even likes her. Yet everything feels so dry, so polished.
I can't say I didn't like it. On the contrary, the slow, meditative scenes are beautiful, poetic, never dull. The film is basically a long walk through the streets of contemporary Tokyo with Yoko and Hajime, and through the minutiae of every-day life: hanging clothes, making and eating food, getting the flu, being on a train, spend time working and doing small things we like. It is all beautiful, the absence of emotion makes everything serenely dry, somehow unreal, somehow sad, because there aren't any true human connections. This is what left me slightly dissatisfied....
Café Lumière was awarded the Golden Tulip at 2005 Istanbul International Film Festival, the award as "Newcomer of the year" by the Japanese Academy in the same year, and was nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival in 2004.

Last Life in the Universe

Last Life in the Universe is a 2003 Thai film directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and set in Bangkok. It is one of my favourite films, for different reasons. It's a film about two troubled people, finding a troubled comfort in each other. It is trilingual: the characters shift between Thai, Japanese and English according to their needs, showing how language is always imperfect, caressing the smooth surface of things while so much more lies underneath. It is very much about unspoken feelings, invisible currents of emotions drawing Kenji and Noi closer and closer, yet never as "close" as a western audience might expect, or rather, not with the same kind of closeness. The soundtrack - so delicate, melancholic, and beautiful - enhances the dream-like atmosphere of the whole film, sometimes interrupted by the presence of other characters, reminders of the past life of Kenji and Noi.

The title refers to a picture book Kenji decides to read (and always keeps with him), after seeing a girl looking at it at the library where he works. The book is about a lizard waking up and realizing she's the last surviving member of her species. She ponders on the thought of loneliness, getting to the conclusion that even being surrounded by enemies is better than being alone.

Talking about the plot of this film is somehow the wrong thing, because Last Life is about Kenji and Noi, about what they experience together, and all the rest is meant to explain and give sense to what they do and feel. Anyway, here it is.

Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) lives alone in Bangkok, working as a librarian at the Japanese Foundation. The film opens showing his flat, made of obsessively precise stacks of books, obsessively tidy wardrobe compartments and museum-like displays of knives. Then we see a pair of feet dangling over a scattered pile of books, obviously belonging to someone who has hung himself, and the camera slowly moves up as Kenji starts talking: This could be me two hours ago..... He hasn't actually committed suicide as he attempts to do several times throughout the film. This time, he has been interrupted by his Yakuza brother Yukio, hiding in Thailand after raping his boss' daughter. A Yakuza "colleague" of Yukio's follows, and as Kenji, alone in his bedroom, finds out that Yukio had hidden a gun into a teddy bear, the other two start fighting in the living room. Yukio is shot to death, and Kenji shoots the other man with the gun he has just found. Kenji leaves his flat after some mild attempt at washing the blood stains, and wanders through Bangkok at night.
He stops on a bridge, where traffic flows intensely. Again, he flirts with the idea of suicide, watching the dark, muddy water under the bridge. He climbs on the railing and stares down (T. Asano said in an interview that climbing on that bridge was maybe the scariest thing he ever did). Meanwhile, on her car driving home Noi is having a fight with her sister Nid (Sinitta and Laila Boonyasak are popular TV actresses in Thailand and sisters in real life, too), as Nid has apparently slept with Noi's boyfriend. Noi suddenly stops the car and forces Nid to gett off, right on the bridge where Kenji is standing. He recognizes Nid as the girl he had seen at the library, looking at the children's book, so he steps down the railing and watches her. It all happens in seconds: as Noi changes her mind and calls her sister back to the car, Nid is run over by a car, a hit-and-run, and Kenji witnesses the whole scene. This is how their lives intermingle. Kenji offers his awkward, dry support to Noi and later asks whether he can go home with her. She lives in a huge house not far from the sea, with stylish furniture and details yet extremely dirty and unkempt, in short, the very opposite of Kenji's home. They form a shy, subtle friendship at times tentatively resembling love. Surreal elements sneak into the film: after smoking pot, Noi sees the objects in her house fly back to their place, and Kenji fantasizes about having Nid leaning on his leg, instead of Noi.
As their innocent friendship develops, Noi's violent and unfaithful (ex-)boyfriend is spying on her, while three Yakuza members are looking for Takashi. Both tracks lead to Kenji, who has gone back to his flat after driving Noi to the airport to pick up his passport and follow her to Japan, where she has planned to go to further her career. The corpses are still there. Kenji has to go the loo and while he's busy there, both the Yakuza and Noi's ex-boyfriend sneak into his flat. It is not clear whether Kenji escapes from the window or is taken by the men, because the film shows two different endings, cutting back and forth between two scenes: one in which Noi arrives home in her new place in Japan and sees Kenji's bag lying on a chair. She looks extremely happy. The other scene shows Kenji at the police station. So we actually don't know what happens. My own interpretation (I like to be optimistic) is that Kenji was actually arrested, so he couldn't travel with Noi, but managed to reach her afterwards. I like to think it this way. And it makes sense. 

I truly loved this film, melancholic and sad yet so positive under the surface, showing how two wounded souls can heal each other, how human desire for warmth finds its complicated ways. And everything happens so subtly and silently as only an Asian film could show, without being neither sappy nor dry. To my humble opinion, a wonderful, wonderful film!

Last Life in the Universe received the Thailand National Film Association Award twice, and the FIPRESCI Prize at Bangkok International Film Festival, as well as the AQCC Award and Jury Prize at the Fant-Asia Film Festival. Tadanobu Asano received the upstream Prize for Best Actor at the 2003 Venice Film Festival for his role as Kenji.