Van Gogh obscured by his own mythology: At Eternity’s Gate. Dir Julian Schnabel

Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.  This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.

VanGogh

Reading Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, intellect and erudition shine through, certainly financial worries and an inability to find love, but self confidence? No. I wouldn’t say so.

There is more than one reference to Christ in the film, including pictorial ones.  Jesus himself, Van Gogh tells the priest, wasn’t famous until forty years after his death. Well maybe but that’s not a line guaranteed to get you out of the asylum in France in 1890.

The artist himself wrote:

‘’…on no account would I choose the life of a martyr.  For I have always striven for something other than heroism, which I do not have in me…’

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

Has Van Gogh become obscured by his own mythology? And does it matter?    This clearly is a concern to Ronald de Leeuw in his 1990 introduction to the Penguin edition of Vincent’s letters to his brother, Theo.   It is worth pointing out here that the Editor of the letters was at the time of the book’s appearance Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – so hardly a slouch in terms of authority.    Both de Leeuw and the translator of the edition are clear that Vincent took his own life.

Yet film makers beg to differ.  He was shot they claim, by a local thug.    In this respect At Eternity’s Gatefollows on from the excellent and exquisitely rendered artists film,  Loving Vincent(2017) which also pushed the shot-by-a-local called René Secrétan angle.  Whereas scholarly thinking is that he committed suicide.

 

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It’s hard not to be fascinated …

by the life stories of artists and this one in particular.  After all,  Van Gogh painted his way from unknown son of a preacher man to incipient global icon in a period of roughly 11 years,  making the decision to become an artist (a late start for a  painter with no particular formal training in 1879) and dying aged 37 from gunshot wounds in 1891.

Possibly no other artist’s life  – or death – seems quite so intriguing to us or quite so surrounded with mysteries. And film loves a mystery.   But there is scholarly theory that these mysteries are not mysteries at all but are add ons to our popular image of the ultimate tortured and impoverished artist.  I do not claim that there is no substance in these ideas – the ear chopping episode (mercifully done off screen in Schnabel’s film) is sufficient evidence of a mind and body in torment.   But to make a shortcut between that and genius, and to claim little else for the man?  That I don’t accept.  Also the fact that the artist had self- harmed so spectacularly makes a greater case for his subsequent suicide, rather than a lesser one.

Van Gogh rarely discusses his illness in his letters to his brother perhaps not wishing to make him anxious but occasionally he does make reference to his illness.

When I came out of hospital with good old Roulin, I fancied there had been nothing wrong with me, it was only afterwards I felt I’d been ill.  Well, that’s only to be expected.  I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek oracle on his tripod. 

But when I am in a delirium and everything I love so much is in turmoil, then I don’t mistake that for reality and I don’t play the false prophet.

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

One aspect of Schnabel’s film which seems on the surface intriguing, but which is in fact inaccurate,  is the matter of the missing ledger book.  An empty ledger book was given by Madame Ginoux to Van Gogh for him to use as a drawing book and which the film claims was returned to her (although without her knowledge) complete with more than 60 of his drawings.  Heavens!  What would that be worth now?   The ledger, the film says, mysteriously disappeared and was only rediscovered in 2016.

The first thing that occurred to me when I saw this was  why? If the artist was reviled in his lifetime certainly by the local populace of Arles, and if so few of his paintings sold, why would someone go to the trouble of stealing a ledger book to all intents and purposes considered worthless at the time? And where was it all those years? How exciting!  The answer however – as answers often are – is more prosaic.

Martin Bailey, in an article dated 29thMarch 2018 for The Art Newspaper, writes that the book was not authentic.

Schnabel told The Times that it is “irrelevant” whether the drawings are genuine or not. He has seen them and says “they were pretty damn good”. This comes as a surprise from an artist, since the sketches are weakly drawn, derivative works. The Arles Sketchbook is not authentic, as the Van Gogh Museum determined after an exhaustive examination. (And the sketches were not discovered “in 2016”, since I had been shown some of them in 2010.)

Our need for the tortured artist as sacrificial victim should not overtake historical accuracy in biography. For the film maker it seems, it is not enough that Vincent should have taken his own life but that someone needed to do it for him.  Perhaps so that we may be yet more convinced of the rightness of his vision. Perhaps genius can only exist against a backdrop of ignorance, so that it may shine ever more brightly? I don’t know.      But here is the artist’s own voice on the subject:

“… I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make pictures that give rise to serious reflection in those who think seriously about art and life.”

 

Last season’s dust sheets or Jimmy Choos

When you’re dead you don’t need to worry about image.  Groaning away in last season’s dust sheets or Jimmy Choos is one and the same thing.  And it doesn’t matter how many likes you get because you don’t have a FB page.  There has not yet been a generation of computer literate ghosts to worry about their image on social media.

common female blue butterfly
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

How will manifestations of ghostliness be dealt with in literary fashion as we move further into the 21st century and is there anyone left to care?

I am fascinated by how and when spirits will modernize. What will happen to the ghost in the machine, given that self development is unlikely in the beyond. Not for these modern ghosts the task of operating as Dickensian warning signs;  no dreary chain rattling or informing the living of their error of their ways.  The new ghosts will surely want to trend on twitter.      Maybe they will copy humanity and become abusive, distributing fake news. Who knows.  Maybe they will just go because humanity will no longer have the element of any spiritual belief that sustains the realm of the other.

I have experienced apparitions of a sort the film industry became bored with decades ago; you know the  watch out, ghost! sort of ghost  with misty bits and drifty bits and stormy bits.    In short, a coughing, banging about, whispering cliché.  Hark!  Is that the sound of paying customers yawning!   We are bored ghost.  Away with thee and thy foleying nonsense.   There are more lethal darknesses upon us.

What is the mystery that brings prose writers and poets back to the hinterlands of dream and being? The hope of standing on the pinafores of giants and creating some Brontë-esque masterpiece for without the realm of the psychological many of our great works could not exist. Jane Eyre to quote the most obvious example.

Yet increasingly the realm of the unknown is being beaten around its metaphorical head by tub thumping 21st century bureaucracies and an educational system that penalises young people; that teaches them not to dream of anything other than being fed into the maw of a capitalist system they increasingly see as irrelevant to their future.   Because the future of our young people is inextricably linked to climate change and its potential disasters.  As usual, politicians are light years behind on this thinking. The children are way ahead as we have seen in the last couple of weeks.

The literary ghost is still a manifestation of spirit rather than a collection of undeleted files left lying around in the ether.   Let us celebrate this.   Despite the cliché of knocking and whispering and sounds of the audience yawning,  I kind of hope he stays that way.     But maybe he or she doesn’t want our hope. Like Greta Thunberg – the young Swedish climate activist –  the ghosts want us to panic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The planet has 50 years left to live – but hey! It’s Awards season again

In this week when we are told that the planet has about 50 more years to live, a self-congratulatory industry beanfeast doesn’t really seem relevant or appropriate. That said, it’s hard not to get swept along in the tidal miasma that represents awards season at this time of year.

I usually try to see as many of the usual suspects as I can in order to nod sagely or expostulate that yes I agree or no, it was the wrong decision, when an actor glides,  stalks, staggers or stumbles up onto the stage at the BAFTAS or Oscars.  Of course if a decision goes my way, it is the correct decision.  If it doesn’t it was undoubtedly wrong. However all is irrelevant because this year my best intentions have gone awry and I missed most of them.

portugal

 

Despite my existential angst, I was able to nod sagely at a win for best actor Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.   When we came out of seeing the film we got into conversation with a gentleman who had been involved in the music industry and said he had been at Freddie Mercury’s 21st birthday party.  Now that is impressive.   I think Malek is too young to have done anything but watch Freddie on youtube which makes him impressive too.

I saw Roma which I loved although feminist interpretation of this film is not exactly positive, one critic claiming that it ‘glorified servitude’; the implication I suppose being female servitude since there are not really any significant male roles in the film.   Mmm! Not sure about that one.  I think it was just Alfonso Cuaron making a film about his home and childhood in Mexico and the two women who raised him which I imagine he is entitled to do.  Also I regret watching  Roma on Netflix even though they paid for it because this is a film that needs to be watched on a cinema screen.

Staggering on to Mary Queen of Scots.  So much blood and gore.  Yes  I know that it was how they behaved.  And yes Saoirse Ronan is great and woman in a man’s world and the whole nine yards.   And yes I know David Rizzio was stabbed 57 times and yes you can still go to Holyroodhouse and see the plaque in the chamber where it happened.  In fact it claims on the Palace website that you can still see bloodstains on the floor.  But do I really need to?

 

Reading is like life – a work in progress

Many are the books that I have read and many are the books that I have joyfully completed during my life.   But then there are always those that I couldn’t quite get through and that’s fine.   No-one can like everything and life isn’t long enough so, next please.     img_0168

Having a week’s holiday recently I took  a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s  My Name is Red.  This is a considerable and beautifully crafted tome coming in at 666 pages  just perfect for hours spent in a hotel room when I should have been enjoying the aprés ski if only (a) I drank alcohol and (b)I wasn’t so shattered from falling over on the slopes.

I spent my week and two plane journeys happily engrossed in it.  But lo and behold at page 425 (the number is significant) with less than a quarter of the book to go I couldn’t read it any more. For some reason the magic had gone.  When I got home I replaced the semi-finished copy on my bookshelf,  but found to my amazement a second copy of – guess what – Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red that I had forgotten I owned bookmarked at the last read page  415!

What led me to read over 400 pages of this excellent book and then give up on it in almost exactly the same place, twice?   This required in literary terms a surgical examination.    It almost felt like there was a point in the writing when the whole style of the book changed.   Did I entirely understand the arguments about erroneous religious teachings or the disquisition on the philosophy of art?  Probably not but up until that point I had been enjoying them – but they were not what caused me to stop reading.

I think the reasons I stopped reading were far more pragmatic and plot related.

I decided I couldn’t take Shekure’s two whining children another minute, thought Black somewhat feeble for giving in to her conditions regarding their marriage (he had to find her father’s murderer before she would sleep with him but the poor guy is an artist not a detective) nor regrettably did I any longer care who pushed Elegant Effendi down the well .

Ding dong bell.

Two other books I am struggling with: the Booker shortlisted Everything Under by Daisy Johnson an examination of a relationship between mother and daughter which can only be described as savage it’s words seeming to jump off the page and scrape at the bones; and the Booker prize winning The Milkman.   Although I love what Anna Burns has done with the narrative voice,  even a Booker judge admitted it was a bit of an uphill struggle to keep reading.

I‘m nervous about books from the Booker shortlist but every year I forget my nervousness and pile in.  I’ve had failures before including Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.   Although I adored (and definitely finished) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the book that didn’t win the year it was nominated but should have.

But then no reading is every wasted.  And reading is like life.   A work in progress. I certainly don’t intend to spend precious time feeling guilty.  Next please.

 

 

 

 

All Those Toppling Piles of Certainty

When I can’t bear the blood, gore and apologist position on sexual violence of modern TV crime dramas – I resort to re-watching endless episodes of Poirot.      There is one episode that comes to mind where a ballet dancer who suffers from her nerves becomes stranded in an avalanche bound Alpine hotel.  For some plot reason that now entirely escapes me, this poor girl  is kept medicated up to her eyeballs by an evil doctor with things to hide and axes to grind.  One evening, she wanders dazedly into the hotel dining room and demands “ a bottle of wine – and food of some description”.

I thought of this scene when just before Christmas I walked into a book store (remember those?) to be faced by mountains of the latest offerings penned by the great and the good, spread across thousands of square feet of floor space.

pile of covered books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Trying to avoid the latest slush pile of sleb memoires in my face at every turn and all the stuff laid out on tables  –  a format I despise – I wandered lonely as a cloud looking for … something.

“Bring me a bottle of wine – and food of some description” I shouted.  No.  I didn’t.  Not really.  Had I done so I would have been carted away and be writing this from a locked room.

But as I stood there with no prospect of being rescued by any fictional detective, another most unlikely hero turned up instead in the form of  Allen Ginsburg whose poetic words addressed to Walt Whitman march purposefully across the  dust jacket  of a new volume of prose poems

The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (2018).

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“I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”

The idea of the prose poem is not one that is immediately comfortable to me. I tend not to try and write them because while I vaguely understand what a poem might look like, although in my case very rarely seems to,  a prose poem is an oxymoron.    Neither fish nor fowl, I used to think it was just poetry without line breaks or overly mannered prose.   Well, that was where I was back then, all of two weeks ago.  Now I have had my damascene moment.  My mind has been utterly changed forever by the toenails of a squirrel.

Hear the words of Anne Carson describing how she spent Christmas Day alone reading Hegel:

The function of a sentence like “Reason is Spirit’ was not to assert a fact (he said) but to lay reason side by side with Spirit and allow their meanings to tenderly mingle in speculation.  I was overjoyed by this notion of a philosophic space where words drift in gentle mutual redefinition of one another but, at the same time, wretchedly lonely with all my family dead and here it was Christmas Day, so I put on big boots and coat and went out to do some snow standing.  Not since childhood! I had forgotten how astounding it is.  I went to the middle of a woods.  Fir trees, the teachers of this, all around.  Minus twenty degrees in the wind but inside the trees is no wind.  The world subtracts itself in layers.  Outer sounds like traffic and shoveling vanish.  Inner sounds become audible, cracks, sighs, caresses, twigs, birdbreath, toenails of squirrel.

(Merry Christmas from Hegel)

I love that ‘Not since childhood!’

“‘All good poetry’ wrote William Wordsworth in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads (1802) ‘is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’  Verse serves as a mould to a moment of emotion, shaping it to a rhythmic pattern.  Without line breaks, the prose poem is free like this paragraph to extend across and down the page … and it is in this freedom that we can locate the distinctive feeling to which the prose poem gives form: expansiveness.”

I like this idea of expansiveness as part of the definition of prose poetry. And there it is – the very essence of expansiveness –  in the Anne Carson extract I have used above.  In the middle of this lonely Christmas that the narrator spends reading the work of dead philosopher, there appears a snowy scene of woodland complete with breathing birds and scrabbling squirrels and it is made manifest for us in one short paragraph.

But most of all the difference between Carson and all the toppling piles of ‘expert’ stuff on the bookshop tables is that  poetry is  sufficiently humble not to have all the answers or even some or any of the answers or even the questions.  All those topping piles of certainty.   I am sick of everyone pretending to know bloody everything when the reality is that if anyone knew even 20% of the stuff they claim to the world would be in less of a mess.

Other Things

To light a lamp is to hide darkness in the same closet as sleep, along with silence, desire and yesterday’s obsessions.  To read a book is to marry two solitudes, the way a conversation erases and erects, words prepare for wordlessness, a cloud for its own absence, and snow undresses for Spring.

 

(Alvin Pang, 2012)

2019

 

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Be like the mountain, stand strong before the eight winds.

I wish for a less volatile 2019 for all humankind.

Disobedience: the film. As relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich

This story started life in 2006 as a book by Naomi Alderman. It was according to the author the first time a book had been set among the orthodox (frum) Jewish community since Daniel Deronda in 1876.  It was a book born out of the author’s own experience and crisis in faith (if crisis it can be called) and not least her experiences of being in the vicinity when the twin towers fell,  which precipitated a drastic change in lifestyle and a writing career.

So.  to the plot,  in which Ronit the daughter of the Rav (Rabbi) has left her orthodox roots behind to live and work in New York but returns to Hendon upon hearing of her father’s death.

Given Ronit’s somewhat flexible sexual arrangments and perceived lack of faith, her  presence is not welcomed by the community who are much taken up with organising a memorial service for the Rav and see Ronit’s return as an unwelcome distraction that needs to be dealt with at what for them is the worst possible time.  One rather rascally gentleman of the synagogue tries to pay her to go back to New York early and leave them all in peace!

But peace is not to be had so easily it seems, for any of the characters.  Esti, the wife of Dovid (likely to be appointed the new Rabbi)  was once involved in a teenage affair with Ronit.  Upon Ronit’s return from New York, this affair looks likely to reignite and to take half of Hendon with it.

The book wasn’t perfect (what book is) – some of the scenes were borderline silly – but it had some good ideas and something to say at the end that was life enhancing.

Books don’t have to be the same as their films nor films the same as their books.    But it seemed to me this film is as relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich.

I admire Naomi Alderman for managing to sit through it. It was almost more than I could manage – apart from a few moments of beautiful singing in the synagogue.    The author wrote recently for an article in the Guardian that they had changed the end of the film.  She didn’t add – presumably out of delicacy – that they also butchered the middle and the beginning, without benefit of kosher.   The author said that she thought she had written a book about a frum community in Hendon but it turned out that she had written a book about lesbians.  She was being ironic, I think.

I don’t understand why everyone is raving about a film which assumes that all its viewers are stupid and won’t ‘get’ that Ronit is no longer part of this community unless she makes daft comments about selling her father’s house on shabbat (the comments,  not the sale), or tries on a wig for laughs when visiting her uncle; nor apparently is the viewer capable of understanding that there was once a passion between Ronit and Esti  (played respectively by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdam)  unless there is a 20 minute scene watching them making out in a hotel bedroom.  If this scene was meant to convince me that the two were passionately in love it failed; rather it looked like just another version of the male gaze objectification of women for which the film seeks to criticise its fictional protagonists.

It is the nature of film that none of the characters has an internal monologue.   Yet this played such an important part in the book, giving us Dovid’s migraines, his innate gentleness and liberal tendencies and Esti’s confusion. The important resolution at the book’s ending revolves around wanting to make things better rather than baling out.

The film however having spent two hours obsessing over sex,  back pedals furiously at the end with a tacked on speech from Dovid about ‘freedom’ as he decides he is not qualified to be Rabbi (nonsense, of course he was) and Esti (now pregnant) deciding freedom means bringing  up a child on your own in London without the support of the community that she is pleased to complain about having grown up in, thus in one fell swoop depriving a father of his child and a child of his father, and all for no discernible reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by [Towles, Amor]

Set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and during the Stalin era, Count Rostov is an aristocrat who more by luck than judgement has managed to survive the revolution, being saved from execution but ordered by a tribunal to permanent house arrest inside the Hotel Metropol.

  “And who knew,” says Rostov’s friend Mishka, a poet who would later be claimed along with millions others by the terror, “that the day you were sentenced to life inside a hotel was the day you became the luckiest man in Russia.”

His daughter is a pianist but inexplicably is reluctant to take up an offer to travel to Paris with the Moscow Youth orchestra.  The Count who has not left the Hotel Metropole (except once for a medical emergency) in over twenty years is at dinner trying to persuade Sofia to take up this wonderful opportunity.  How can she not wish to go?

“I fear I have done you a great disservice, “ he tells his daughter.   “From the time you were a child, I have lured you into a life that is principally circumscribed by the  four walls of this building…. .   But your mother was perfectly right.  One does not fulfil one’s potential by listening to Sheherezade in a gilded hall, or by reading the Odyssey in one’s den.”

And:

…” what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”

As a philosophy this can’t be beaten.  Nor, as a literary character,

can the handsome, educated and aristocratic Count Rostov – with a talent for formal seating plans and a worthy but unfulfilled desire to read the essays of Montaigne – be beaten.   In the days when it would be taken for granted that barbers were artists and conversationalists; in the days when the Chassagne Montrachet could not be served at other than the exact temperature, we know that somewhere there would always be a Rostov.

Life in the Metropole – even under its oleaginous party functionary new manager – continues to have pre-revolutionary echoes because its principal character has pre-revolutionary echoes, as to his lifelong friends the maitre d’ of the famous Boyarsky restaurant and Emile the chef, wielding his chopper in order to enforce a particular point in the conversation.

Nevertheless,  a prison is a prison whether gilded or not.   There is a poignant reference to feeling Spring in the air on the one occasion he has to leave to take his daughter to hospital.  What must it be like to spend so many years of your life indoors?   Does a compelling narrative require the characters to be allowed to range far and wide?  Apparently not.      The Count is only able to traverse from bar to dining room to hall to rooms and back again (he does on one occasion make it to the roof)   yet his story  is highly readable.  He becomes resigned but not accepting of his situation – what else is available to him?   To be sure adventures seem to come to him, sometimes in a way that a less forgiving reader might question as likely.

This book is a complete joy.  I hear that Sir Kenneth Branagh is to play the part.   A more perfect piece of casting is hard to imagine.

A demographic timebomb

I was once asked at an interview what I thought were the causes of crime.  While I rummaged in my mind for my completely non-existent degree in criminology, another answer popped up.  Buddhism has its own answers away from studies of criminology for the underlying causes of crime which will be one of three things:  greed, anger and foolishness.   Whatever is the latest horror reported in the papers, it will have as its base one of those lifestates.

We live in an increasingly fragmented and complex age but sometimes things are not as complex as we would like to imagine them.  If we believe that everything is too specialist;  every thought requires an ‘expert’ opinion, every action requires a full risk assessment.    That way of thinking  can lead to  a form of lethargy and paralysis which affects the mind, the willingness to engage with problems imbuing everything with a sense of hopelessness.

Hopelessness is becoming pervasive and driven on by a cynical media obsessed with the most shallow issues.  While it is worrying to consider the many and conflicting problems that adults in society face, even more worryingly statistics are that these damaging mindsets are now affecting children.

Buddhist Philosopher Daisaku Ikeda has published a dialogue with Professor of Philosophy Lou Marinoff. (The Inner Philosopher Dialogue Path Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2012))

In a discussion about health and in particular the health of children Marinoff states:

Overexposure to visual media coupled with institutionalised inattention to the written tradition have produced a generation of cognitively impaired children, millions of whom are drugged daily with stimulants.

American Psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk in his book on trauma The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin 2014) confirms the statistics coming out of the US.

The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma

 

The number of people under the age of 20 receiving Medicaid funded prescriptions for antipsychotic drugs tripled between 1999 and 2008…   Half a million children in the US currently take antipsychotic drugs.   The percentage of children, the author states, receiving antipsychotics increases to 12.4% of children in foster care, compared with 1.4% of Medicaid eligible children generally.  This implies that foster children are being given drugs to make them more manageable.

I do not know what the statistics are for the UK but the word ‘malleable’ seems appropriate to describe what our education system is doing to our kids.  Churning them out to fit the needs of some tech firm somewhere –  a tech firm which may have gone under by the time todays youngster graduates with his/her £40,000 debt.

Some of us use the expression ‘first world problem’ if the washing machine needs fixing or we have mislaid our cinema tickets,  but in fact the first world is facing the most significant and desperate problems – a demographic timebomb –  a whole generation of traumatised children.

Ikeda quotes Arnold Toynbee:  Human dignity cannot be achieved in the field of technology in which human beings are so expert.  It can be achieved only in the field of ethics … and ethical achievement is measured by the degree in which our actions are governed by compassion and love, not by greed and aggressiveness.

Our spiritual development has not kept pace with the dramatic progress of science and technology.  Look no further further for the causes of crime.

 

 

 

 

 

Running backwards, passing the baton to no-one: A Review of Three Men on the Edge

 

Three Men on the Edge, Michael Loveday V. Press

This debut novella of poet Michael Loveday is filled with questions such as  ‘Where are the fragranced pillows, where are the flying horses?’   The answers unsurprisingly, are not always forthcoming.  Temporarily and sadly, the flying horses are not to be found no more the Spitfire key rings or the tiger print purses as protagonist Denholm rummaging through boxes in a old storeroom is an opportunity too good to pass up,  and we are soon drifting back through layers of time to coin box skulls and footballing pigs and remembrance of hated games of blind man’s buff.

This book is an investigation of the mindsets of its three protagonists, threaded through with evocations of the settings of Rickmansworth/Chorleywood/Hertfordshire ‘on the edge’ of London.  Such geographical placements – as is the case with many settings in literature and poetry –  are both physical and metaphorical,   for it is part of the human condition to feel on the edge of things, to experience this acute ‘edgeness’  as being alone.

But beyond the metaphor of the protagonists psyches, the landscape fulfils another role, that of a character in its own right. Second protagonist Gus seeks out the shadows and forms of the natural world which lap at the edges of our space:

‘there’s a veil between him and the world that will not lift and to tear it down seems like a betrayal.  Why is it still not consolation – witnessing these swans, these shadows, this sky?’

Amid the minutiae of everyday life including the afternoon TV show Homes under the Hammer and a visit to Watford’s ‘antiseptic shopping mall’,  Loveday renders this acute (even surgical) inspection of the lonely confusion of being 21st century human.  The landscape functions to remind us what we are losing, that we are the only animal on the planet that destroys its own habitat.

The author mocks the meaningless nonsense which modern culture forces on us in the interests of the safety elves and some insurance company somewhere.  For example,  ‘the small print’  consists of fourteen lines of  horrendous sounding symptoms, obviously taken from some prescription medication,  ending in a pinnacle of silliness:    ‘pins and needles, psoriasis, diarrhoea,  impotence, mental disturbance  … and (rarely) temporary thinning of the hair.

In the section entitled ‘Martyn – chewing glass’ I particularly like the way the author pinpoints the co-dependence of sexual relationships:

In Anja … he’s found the companion men surely crave; a guardian god of his secrets, magnifying mirror to his better self, and match for his lost mother’s perfections,’.

and,  the increasingly extravagant media-fed fantasies upon which we rely for a sense of identity;

To join the London Olympics as proxy hero, Martyn intends to complete two thousand and twelve laps of Bury Lake.  He’s not running for charity – it’s a piece of performance art, and he’ll be running backwards with a paintbrush as a baton that he’ll pass to nobody.

Another fantastic question:  What is a gateway but a history of exits?  How many have passed this way before?  What lives did they lead?

This book is a rummage through the storerooms of the human heart with all its fears, its passions, its yearnings, its failures, its betrayals.   Part of me suspects that  Three Men on the Edge is a series of prose poems with an interlinking narrative structure. But that is merely a quibble of naming.   That the prose is a feast of poesy is no accident, Loveday being a fine poet as well as, now, a fiction writer.