In recent months I have become increasingly interested in writers who discuss nature and the wilderness in their work. I have been keeping a mental note of several writers to consider, and was trying to decide between J.A. Baker‘s landmark work The Peregrine, Robert MacFarlane‘s The Old Ways, or a selection of John Muir‘s writing about his time in the Sierra Nevada. Then I was reminded of a book that my wife had read the previous year, and decided to read the opening couple of pages to get a sense of the prose. The book was Cheryl Strayed‘s memoir, Wild, and I was hooked. (more…)
A philosopher in the ancient Greek city of Miletus posed a question. If somebody adds one grain of sand to another, and repeats the process, at what point do the grains of sand become a heap? The conundrum, known as the Sorites paradox, opens Samuel Beckett’s Endgame as part of Clov’s speech to the auditorium: ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. [Pause] Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap’. The paradox asks us to confront the ambiguities of rational thinking and empirical observation, and in Endgame it frames the ‘impossible’ problem of being in the world, of what constitutes a life lived.
I was reminded of the Sorites paradox in 2016, when Cambridge University Press published the fourth and final volume of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence. On the instruction of Beckett himself, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld led an editorial team to assemble, transcribe and translate thousands of letters, telegrams, and postcards held in archives and private collections around the world. These traces of Beckett’s personal and artistic life have been ordered chronologically, and fully annotated with cultural and historical notes that are accessible to the scholar and layman alike. Surmounting this seemingly impossible task, The Letters of Samuel Beckett brings these documents together in one place for the first time to form a masterwork of academic scholarship and rigour — allowing readers to glimpse over the shoulder of one of twentieth-century drama’s most distinguished playwrights as he corresponds with actors, directors, and loved ones.
This is an excerpt from a review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989, edited by George Craig et al., (Cambridge University Press, 2016), published in Studies in Theatre and Performance (July, 2017).
Grachan Moncur III recorded Some Other Stuff for Blue Note Records on 6 July 1964. When he entered Rudy Van Gelder‘s studio in Englewood Cliffs, he was already an experienced leader and an established trombonist on the avant-garde jazz scene. Before his debut album, Evolution (Blue Note, 1963), which was recorded the day before President John F. Kennedy was shot, he was an established sideman on records by Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock and Jackie McLean.
Moncur is known for a “clear-cut style of playing” (Richard Cook) that blends the hard bop of the late 1950s and early 1960s with the emerging free jazz movement. While the standout virtuosity of Evolution has led to a general critical reflect of Some Other Stuff, do not be fooled by the latter’s dismissive title. Moncur assembles a strong lineup that includes saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock (between the recording of Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage), and drummer Anthony Williams. Among the highlights: ‘Gnostic’ is ominous and meditative in a way that recalls the high points of Evolution; ‘Thandiwa’ is an upbeat piece written and performed in a hardbop style; and ‘The Twins’ steals the show with sustained performances from Moncur, Hancock, and Shorter.
In the thirty-seven years since its premiere, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) has been the subject of heated debate. Based on a bestselling novel by Stephen King, the adaptation was dismissed by the author as ‘maddening, perverse, and disappointing’. His judgement was not unique. Critics and audiences alike found the film bewildering and strange, not knowing whether to take it as an art film or a low-brow horror shocker. Yet, as Roger Luckhurst points out in his excellent book, The Shining (BFI Classics, 2013), despite its chilly opening reception the film is now regarded as ‘one of the most admired horror films in cinema history’.
Luckhurst’s take on The Shining manages to pierce the lid on thirty years of critical discussion, and to yield a fresh perspective on one of cinema’s most discussed and perplexing films. The book addresses Stanley Kubrick’s status as a distinctive auteur filmmaker, but dismisses the tendency of critics to see deliberate intention in every move and gesture. Instead, Luckhurst reads The Shining within the broader cultural and historical context of late 1970s-early 1980s American culture. Insightful connections are made to films like The Amityville Horror (1979), The Omen (1976), Poltergeist and The Evil Dead (both released in 1982). Through its representation of prescient children, telepathy, and horror, Luckhurst reveals how The Shining expresses widely-held anxieties about traditional gender roles, the nuclear family, and histories of repressed trauma and violence. (more…)
On this day in 1964, Eric Dolphy entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record one of Blue Note Records’ most distinctive and iconic records. Joined by Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Bobby Hutchinson (vibraphone), Richard Davis (bass) and an eighteen-year-old Anthony Williams (drums), Dolphy brought along his alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute for the date.
Out to Lunch! is the culmination of a sequence of recordings that explored the possibilities of avant-garde jazz in the early 1960s, from Dolphy’s first album as leader, Outward Bound (New Jazz, 1960), to Out There (New Jazz, 1960), to his 1961 recordings at the Five Spot and 1962’s Far Cry (New Jazz). Across these works we can hear the artistic development of Dolphy as a restless and inventive talent. Out to Lunch! nods a debt to bebop in its tribute to pianist Thelonious Monk (‘Hat and Beard’), and acknowledges the classical flautist Severino Gazzelloni (‘Gazzelloni’), but while the album negotiates the legacy of bebop and post-bop music it simultaneously reaches towards freer musical forms. (more…)
“I’m not working-class: I come from the criminal classes.” These words by the actor Peter O’Toole play on a broader prejudice that aligns working-class identity with marginality and transgression. Roberto del Valle Alcalá explores these thematic links in British Working-Class Fiction, which traces an alternative literary history of the British Isles, spanning from 1950 to the economic collapse of 2008. Alcalá documents life on the hard shoulder of modern capitalist progress, offering an analysis of working-class experience through detailed theoretical readings of Alan Sillitoe, Pat Barker, Irvine Welsh, Monica Ali and others. [Read More]
This extract is from my review of Roberto del Valle Alcalá’s British Working-Class Fiction: Narratives of Refusal and the Struggle Against Work, published in the Times Literary Supplement, 24 February 2017.
Can you imagine getting dating advice from Freud? This is one of the conceits of Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, recently published by Picador in a translation by Charlotte Collins. The novel is a coming-of-age story about Franz, a seventeen-year-old boy who leaves his rural town to become a tobacconist’s apprentice in Vienna in the 1930s. As the naïve young Franz is dazzled by the lights and stimulations of the modern city, Dr Freud appears as a customer in the small tobacco shop where he works. They strike up cigars and conversation, and speculate on love, life, and a rapidly-changing world.
Seethaler rose to prominence with A Whole Life (2014), a novel shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Praised by Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan, the text explored the influence of modernity and the Second World War on traditional ways of life. Seethaler’s interest in this theme persists in The Tobacconist, where what begins as a whimsical tale shifts gear into a novel exploring the rise of fascism in Austria. The forces of history push Franz towards maturity, and he transitions from a wide-eyed witness to tragic commentator on antisemitism, political violence, and populist rhetoric. (more…)
In the summer of 1970, experimental filmmaker Ferry Radax arranged to meet with the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Over the course of three days, Radax recorded the writer amid the pleasant surroundings of a park in Hamburg. For readers familiar with Bernhard’s work, the setting was incongruous: his novels Frost (1963), Gargoyles (1967) and The Lime Works (1970) portray dark, grotesque landscapes of murder, ignorance, and obsession. As Bernhard himself admits, ‘I am hardly a cheery author’. And yet, in such bright and affable settings, Radax manages to capture a revealing portrait of the writer George Steiner called ‘the foremost craftsmen of German prose after Kafka and Musil.’
Blast Books, an independent publisher in New York, has taken a great deal of care to adapt Radax’s film, entitled 3 Days, into a book. The beautifully presented hardback volume includes Thomas Bernhard’s own reflections on Radax’s film, and a fully-illustrated record of the documentary translated from the German by Laura Lindgren. Also included is a critical afterword by film scholar Georg Vogt, and a fully-illustrated appendix of Radax’s notes for the filmmaking. The book makes considered use of space, word, and image to capture the spirit of Radax’s documentary, and the rhythms and emphasis of Bernhard’s monologues. (more…)