31 January, 2006

Life before contraception

Read Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata last week, a sad, mad polemical novella on sex and the impossibility of a pure love between men and women. It felt more like Dostoevsky than Tolstoy: harsh, impassioned writing. It was very dislikeable, actually, startlingly so. It seemed to be written by someone completely different from the generous, human Tolstoy who wrote War and peace. [6]

Doris Lessing wrote an interesting essay about The Kreutzer Sonata in her collection of essays Time bites where she discussed the practicalities of married sex in the 19th century and suggested that in an age before reliable contraception, men suffered as well as women - a reflection of Germaine Greer's point about women's liberation being a liberation for men as well. Time bites was generally good but occasionally Doris Lessing is so wrong I want to scream. Her outright rejection of communism is fair enough, but occasionally it feels as though she attributes all the evils of the modern world to communism, which seems hardly fair. [7]

Finally two hippie books on writing by Natalie Goldberg: Writing down the bones and Wild Mind. The basic premise of both of them was: keep writing and practice frequently, and don't edit while you write. Fair enough, but padded out with a fair amount of rather irritating hippie and Zen nonsense. I must start writing again though. This blog is hopefully a good start. [8][9]

24 January, 2006

You were made for me, Gene Kelly...

So, a Gene Kelly-heavy weekend - on Friday I watched Les demoiselles de Rochefort which was charming but me oh my Gene Kelly is old. He shouldn't ever be old. He should be always young, in a sailor suit or a white t-shirt and jeans. Also Catherine Deneuve's wig is a bit much, frankly, but she is so pretty anyway.

I read Singin' in the rain, a short study of the film (so short I read most of it in the bath) by Peter Wollen. Interesting but not much there - the most interesting part was a shot-by-shot analysis of the famous Singin' in the rain routine, which pionted out some of the film techniques for making the whole thing flow. I'd never thought about the way a cinema dance routine has to be so carefully co-ordinated between camera, choreographer, music arranger, performer and so on. The rest of the book was mostly things I knew, but I liked the emphasis on how many of the people involved in the making of the film suffered under the blacklist. [4]

I also finished the awful biography of Gene Kelly, Gene Kelly: a life of dance and dreams by Alvin Yudhof (see previous posts). It was truly dreadful, probably the worst biography I have ever read. In addition to the stupid conceit I already mentioned, I picked out a few factual inaccuracies, including the point where Mr Yudhof states that 'Betsy Blair had been a member of the Communist party up until the Nazi-Soviet pact'. Now, he's already suggested that BB was introduced to left-wing politics by Gene Kelly. I find it hard to believe that she was a teenage member of the CP in her small-town youth in New Jersey - especially as she says that she was never in the CP*. Furthermore, the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in 1939, when Betsy was sixteen.

Oh, the whole book was just stupid and annoying. Mr Yudhof has no idea of the real motivations of real people, which meant that Gene Kelly and everyone around him came across as paper figures being moved on a stage to create whatever impression Mr Yudhof was after. I might, one day, try Clive Hirschhorn's Biography of GK, which was written in his lifetime and included material from interviews with GK. But this was a great disappointment. [5]

* Betsy Blair, in her autobiography, says that she wanted to join the Communist Party and approached them after she and Gene had moved to Hollywood. According to her, they refused, saying that as the wife of a prominent man who was known for his left-liberal sympathies, she would do more good outside the party. This seems more plausible to me than Mr Yudhof's teenage communist idea.

21 January, 2006

Why Mrs Kelly, you're wonderful

The third book I read over the last weekend was Betsy Blair's autobiography, The memory of all that. Betsy Blair was an actress and Gene Kelly's first wife - she met him when she was seventeen and he was twenty-eight, and stayed with him for eighteen years. She was also very left wing and blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy period. This was a lovely, wise, forgiving biography; she writes about Gene with great affection, but also great honesty, and she's also honest about herself and her behaviour during those years. After she divorced Gene she moved to Europe where she still lives, and she continued acting in European films until she met her second husband, the director Karel Reisz. She's an enormously interesting and appealing woman, and I'd love to see some of her films. Marty is the only Hollywood movie she made before being blacklisted, and then a few European ones. [3]

This inspired me to borrow a biography of Gene Kelly from the library: Gene Kelly: a life of dance and dreams by Alvin Yudhof. Unfortunately, Mr Yudhof has adopted an extraordinarily irritating conceit of cutting between decent enough standard biography, although in a pretty apalling prose, and (in italic print) the imagined thoughts of the elderly Gene Kelly as he attends a Hollywood celebration of his life and work in the 1990s. To be frank I could not carry on reading if I didn't skip these bits. But worse is to come. Flipping through, I've realised that the story essentially ends with Singin' in the rain in 1952, despite the fact that that film (marvellous though it is) is only about the half-way point on Gene's career. Birth to SITR spans pages 1 to 219.The next section is titled 'Fast forward: 1951-1996' and begins 'Over the next forty-five years of Gene Kelly's life, he received many honors.' Then it cuts to the very end of his life and his apparently unhappy third marriage (the divorce from Betsy and his second wife are pretty much skimmed over), and then he dies on page 255. Pretty cheap way to write a biography, especially as it seems to me that some of the most interesting bits of people's lives are what they do when they stop doing the things everyone knows them for.

Still I'll probably read it, unless I turn to my other library books: a short study of SITR by Peter Wollen (so that I can pontificate knowledgeably about the messages it contains about sex and identity), a book called The American film musical by Rick Altman which looks like a vast compendium, everything from the first sound films to Annie in 1982. Hooray! Also on the Hollywood theme (Senate House has an enormous American Studies section hence loads of Hollywood books) an excellent collection of interviews with victims of the Hollywood blacklist of the McCarthy period by Patrick McGilligan, called Tender Comrades, and in a more serious vein Tolstoy's Kreutzer sonata, inspired by reading Doris Lessing's article on Tolstoy and sex, (and also because Grossman's Life and fate was on loan).

19 January, 2006

From 1848 to 1945

Finally, I have some books to report.

The age of capital was splendid, a marvellous drawing together of the prevailing historical themess of the 1848-1875 period, the first mad flush of the capitalist world. Hobsbawm writes exceptionally well, lucidly and with some pleasantly acerbic asides (the passage on the arts is particularly amusing), and his connections between the worlds of science, arts, philosophy and economics are brilliant - the connections between activities in the various fields and the economic climate as well as the philosophies of capitalist, democratic liberalism are made clear, so that one feels an enormous light has been turned on, illuminating the wholeness of historical, literary, economic and philosophical events where previously one saw them as isolated bits of history knowledge. [1]

It made me want to read more Marx. I might have a bash at The eighteenth brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which my da says is his favourite of Marx's writings. (I wish I'd read enough Marx to have a favourite of his writings.)

Antony Beevor's Berlin: the downfall was rather less splendid. It's a rollicking, novelistic history of the war in Europe from around 1944 to definitive German defeat, and it reads tremendously easily (one can see why it made it on to so many 'books of the year' lists: books that read easily but sound worthy always do). Novelistic, perhaps even filmic, in that it's very chronological so it cuts between the goings on in Moscow and the court politics surrounding Stalin, to the frenzied terror and hubris of Hitler's bunker, from Vasily Grossman's diaries as he advances with the frontoviki to the diaries of terrified Berliners, from the Yalta conference to the refugees returning to Germany from the eastern parts of the Reich. However he has a rather distasteful obsession with rape - I am not in any way denying that an awful lot of rape did happen on the Eastern front, but Beevor's focus is more on the most horrific of personal accounts rather than in trying to establish, for example, exactly how prevalent rape was. There was also some rather cheap speculation on Hitler's sexuality - he 'suppressed his homoerotic side' for the relationship with Eva Braun, for example - an assertion which is not backed up by anything at all. Later in a description of Hitler's last public appearance where he met some Hitler youth members, he describes Hitler as displaying 'the intensity of a repressed paedophile'. Now, I'm not springing hotly to Hitler's defence here, but it seems to me there's plenty to accuse him of without unfounded insinuations of paedophilia. It leaves one wondering how much historical evidence he bases the rest of the book on, which seems rather unfortunate. [2]

Vasily Grossman's diaries of his experiences on the Eastern front were recently published, edited by Antony Beevor (A writer at war: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945). I'll probably buy them when they're out in paperback. Before then I want to try reading his enormous novel centered around the battle of Stalingrad, Life and fate, conveniently available at a library near me.

11 January, 2006

Time bites

A new acquisition yesterday - a collection of Doris Lessing's occasional essays, Time bites. Essays are good for baths and bus journeys I find - times when one can't be bothered to start something new but wants to avoid rereading trash or just staring into space.

10 January, 2006

This post was brought to you by my Xmas book tokens

The year is off to a good start with Eric Hobsbawm's The age of capital 1848-1875.

I bought this with my Christmas book token along with the first two volumes of Victor Klemperer's diaries, I shall bear witness 1933-41, and To the bitter end 1941-45. I'm not very good at reading diaries. I get bored and dip in and out looking for interesting bits.

Literary resolutions

To read a hundred books this year

To have some specific interests: the long 19th century; the realist european novelists; Racine; Shelley; linguistics; Thomas Mann; middle eastern history.

To read more Marx.

To buy some decent, keepable books, and only get trash and contemporary novels from the library.

To not run up library fines.

To avoid rereading childrens' books and trash, and read new worthwhile things instead.