Dr. Peter Lowe

Professional bookworm, supporter of blue and white sports teams, lecturer in 20th century literature

Books of the Year(s)

Thinking about a ‘Books of 2018’ list raises a tricky question. Is it a list of books published in the past twelve months, or the best books I’ve read in the period? Happily, as my list isn’t destined for a newspaper or magazine, and is unlikely to generate vastly increased sales for any of those titles I single out I feel comfortable with including in this year’s ‘Best of’ works that were certainly not published in 2018, but which have certainly made my year, reading-wise.

My first rule-bending exercise is to make room for Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels. It’s impossible to single out one in particular (and I’ve only read a fraction this year out of the immense seventy-plus that he wrote) but thanks to my local lending library I’ve come to love these spare, psychologically intense dramas and the morally compromised demi-monde in which they play out. Recently re-translated and re-issued by Penguin in the UK, each novel is complete in itself but also part of a remarkable body of work, with a detective weary but decent, and a milieu that, even in its darker aspects, makes mid-20th century France feel like a welcome escape from Brexit Britain.

Elsewhere in fiction the year has had three highlights. Madeline Miller’s Circe is, in the same vein as her first novel The Shield of Achilles, a rich and complex reworking of classical myth into a narrative of great power and contemporary resonance. In a year when gender issues were never far from the news headlines, she gave the ‘witch’ of Homer’s Odyssey a compelling voice. Elsewhere, C. J. Sansom’s Tombland continued his series of murder mysteries set in Tudor England, with his lawyer-detective Matthew Shardlake once again endeavouring to see justice done amidst political conflicts and personal tests of loyalty. The historical context (the rebellions that marked Edward VI’s reign) was constructed with the care and attention to detail that Sansom’s readers have come to know well, and although Shardlake is an ageing protagonist I hope his adventures are not over quite yet.

If I had to single out one novel for the year, though, it would be Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, a work that, like The English Patient, deals in slowly-revealed secrets and half-truths as its characters navigate their lives and try to make sense of them. With its setting in the still-ruined cityscape of post-World War Two London and its cast of characters whose backgrounds remain opaque to the end, it is a rich and complex reading experience. Warlight is a study in the world of espionage, an exploration of the human heart, and a reminder of what fiction can do.

In non-fiction Owen Hatherley’s Trans-Europe Express and Adventures in the Post-Soviet Space are both great examples of his gift for writing about our built surroundings and the political and economic forces that shape them. Whether discussing town planning in central Europe or the decaying ruins of the Soviet empire in its more remote outposts Hatherley remains one of the most perceptive and thoughtful analysts of the spaces in which we live and the people into which they can sometimes transform us.

My book of the year (although published at the end of 2017) is both ‘new’ and at the same time as old as its possible to be. It is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. In the time of MeToo much has been made in the media of this being the first significant translation of the epic by a woman, and there are certainly many instances where the problematic gender roles of the ancient poem are probed in her work. In a world where the topics of immigration and ‘movement’ are so politically volatile, though, and where notions of ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ can prove divisive Wilson thoughtfully makes the tale of Odysseus seem more relevant than ever. In her Introduction she expresses the hope that in its translation Homer’s ‘alien’ poem can find new homes and readers, reminding us that in Greek culture welcoming the stranger, the refugee, or the exile was often a social and religious obligation. The mysterious guest in your home might prove to be a god in disguise, so your kindness towards them would be much more than a matter of simple charity: it would be the measure of the person that you are and would like the gods to believe you to be. In a year shaped by talk of a border wall, a ‘hostile environment’, and a worldwide turning away from the idea that immigration could be anything other than a problem, Wilson has given us an ancient text that feels utterly necessary and relevant today.  Happily, too, in picking her Odyssey as my book of the year I also don’t have to bend my ‘2018’ rule that far at all!

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A Question of Timing: Macbeth in 2018

Shaped as it is by the murder of a king and the consequences (both personal and national) that follow, Macbeth remains one of Shakespeare’s most chilling warnings about the pursuit of power and its effects. Visually, it is a play steeped in blood, described by its title character at one point as a river into which he has waded so far that he may as well carry on rather than go back to the bank from which he set out. At the same time, though, some of its worst horrors remain unseen and exist only so far as characters describe them: we never see Duncan’s body after the murder, any more than we are shown the fate of his horses, turning on themselves and eating each other in the terrible confusion that ensues when the man who kept the kingdom together is dead.

What we do see, in frightening detail, is the psychological collapse of the title character and his wife: a couple united by the desire for power and undone by the price they pay for securing it. Duncan’s murder, so easily planned and carried out, proves to be not the end of a process so much as its beginning. “Naught’s had, all’s spent,” as Lady Macbeth reflects later, “where our desire is got without content.” Her husband, having killed once, sees security only in killing again, always looking for the next threat to his insecure position and thinking that one more victim – Banquo, Fleance, Macduff – will be enough to make things safe. At the end of the play, the cycle of violence is closed when Macduff kills the usurper and (in the text if not in every production) presents his head to Malcolm prior to acclaiming Duncan’s oldest son as the new and rightful king. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, has met her end in an off-stage suicide that denies her at the last any of the play’s attention beyond a third-party incident report. So much for ambition, Shakespeare tells his audience: legitimate power is not to be seized by those who should not have it, and if they try and circumvent this rule then they are not allowed to prosper for long.

Polly Findlay’s excellent production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (now in its London residency after a season in Stratford) sets a clear time limit on the Macbeths’ reign by starting a digital countdown clock on stage once the plan to murder Duncan is in motion. The clock reaches zero at the moment Macbeth dies when, as Macduff announces, “the time is free” once again. In between those two moments the play proceeds with the pace of a thriller, as conspiracies are hatched and rivals killed. At the same time, though, the speed with which the loyal and noble soldier of the first Act descends into murderous paranoia makes you appreciate that Macbeth’s tragic fall is so vertiginous because he was already in such high status when the play began. Here, at the moment when Duncan announces that Malcolm is to be his heir, Christopher Eccleston’s Macbeth takes a step forward as though in anticipation of his promotion only to stand back, abashed, once the other name is mentioned. He already had the King’s trust and gratitude, but didn’t find them to be enough once the issue of succession set blood above loyalty. As such, he plans to shed the royal blood and make his own rules, with consequences no less horrific for their being so well known.

Eccleston and Niamh Cusack are compelling as the Macbeths, by turns intoxicated by their ambition and horrified by the depths into which it plunges them. As the death toll rises in this production the Porter keeps a chalk tally on a wall at the back of the stage, only to abandon the task as the play nears its conclusion, endlessly replicating the numbers of dead not only as a result of Macbeth’s own plotting but the wider wave of terror that his reign has unleashed on Scotland, the “poor country, almost afraid to know itself.” The top-down use of violence as a political tool impacts not only those on stage, Shakespeare reminds us, but those over whom they claim to rule, the deaths we don’t see and the victims who don’t have voices.

Capturing the febrile mood of a post-Gunpowder Plot country, Macbeth has always been a play that warns of the consequences when rightful power is usurped and the state collapses without its divinely-appointed leader. Duncan’s murder is not just the extinction of a life but a rejection of a whole scheme of order. Nothing less that the Macbeths’ eradication will satisfy the play’s need for restored harmony, and Shakespeare’s deft means of having Macbeth killed by Macduff (arguably English Literature’s most famous Cesarean-section birth) allows Malcolm to assume his throne without having had to kill to get it. The cycle of violence, the audience hopes, is closed.

Findlay recognises, though, that in many respects we are living in times as troubled as Shakespeare’s original audience, disturbed by authoritarian leanings and state-sponsored terror, and as fearful for the integrity of the nation state and its populace as any 17th century playgoer. In the play’s final scene – with the clock at zero and Malcolm crowned – she raises one of the play’s unanswered questions: how will Fleance fulfill the Witches’ prophecy to Banquo, “thou shalt get kings / Though thou be none”? Here, in what should be a resolution to the turmoil of the previous two hours Fleance enters and circles the new King as the witches reappear on the balcony above the stage. “When shall we three meet again?” the trio asks, as the countdown clock accelerates back into life before stopping again at the two-hour mark. The play’s conclusion has rarely felt less secure, and perhaps more timely.

 

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production runs at the Barbican Theatre, London, until 18th January 2019. For more details see https://www.rsc.org.uk/macbeth/
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building a New World

‘Aftermath’, an information panel in the first room of Tate Britain’s new exhibition informs us, is an agricultural term for the new growth that follows a harvest. It is a very fitting title for a thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition on the artistic responses to the trauma of 1914-18 and, as the four-year cycle of centenary commemorations prepare to reach the anniversary of the 11th November Armistice, a reminder that the First World War shaped the artistic, political, and cultural landscape of Europe long after the guns fell silent on the Western Front.

I say ‘Europe’ here because the Tate has focused its exhibition on Britain, France, and Germany, acknowledging that other countries were certainly involved but that constraints of space and time necessitate a narrowing of focus. This approach works well. In each room a defeated combatant nation and two ostensibly victorious ones are seen to be wrestling with the legacy of a conflict that lasted longer than anyone foresaw and challenged its survivors to respond to its enormity once the fighting had ceased. Among the first exhibits the visitor sees are landscapes of near-total devastation: film footage of Ypres (or what was left of it) seen from a dirigible, photographs of Reims and its cathedral shelled almost into rubble. Alongside these landscapes, the human form is similarly ravaged. Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s 1916 bronze Fallen Man reduces the human form to one poised between a crawling figure and an utterly prostrate one, head on the ground as though unable to go forward any further. Abandoned helmets recur in paintings as representatives of dead soldiers while a display case nearby contains actual examples from British, French, and German troops. The top of the German helmet has been sliced open. One can only ponder the fate of its former owner.

In the second room official remembrance codifies the ways in which nations honour and mourn their dead. The human body now appears either in the form of heroic resolution – as in Charles Jaggers’ figures for the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner – or is absent altogether in the cenotaphs (empty tombs) that are included in victory parades in London and Paris and later complemented by the burial of unknown soldiers in places of national honour. Elsewhere, the burial of hundreds of thousands of corpses in state-designed cemeteries turns individual loss into national grief. The war dead are, in an aesthetic sense, accorded all the dignity that their countries can give to them.

The awkward truth, as the exhibition goes on to remind us, is that the war-wounded were still alive, even if they were finding ‘life’ near-impossible on account of wounds both physical and psychological. In France (where the mutilated survivors were accorded a place of honour in the victory procession) and Britain (where they were not) the state claimed – with varying degrees of success – to be caring for those whose war did not end in 1918. In Germany, ravaged by economic, political, and social collapse after defeat, the war-wounded were reminders of all that had wrong and seen all too often as a living impediment to any return to ‘normality’. In the works of George Grosz the wounded veterans function as the national subconscious, seen (in images like 1919’s ‘Are We Not Fit for the League of Nations?’) as blind, one-legged beggars while suspiciously rich businessmen saunter past on the streets of Berlin.

Artistic reactions to the War’s longer-term effects took two main paths: the rise of Dada and its exploration of psyches so ravaged that the most surreal images seemed coherent, and the equally intense desire to affirm and restore some kind of artistic ‘order’ in a world that no longer seemed to have any. After everything that has come before, the idea of ‘order’ in the latter stages of the exhibition seems less convincing. John Nash’s The Cornfield and his brother Paul’s Landscape at Iden may well be images of rural tranquility, but after all the dead bodies left behind in France and Belgium is it possible to think that those sheaves of corn and piles of logs are really just what they look to be? Like the religious works of Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights displayed elsewhere in the room, they seem to be the products of a world revalued by the War, more acutely aware of how thin the veneer of ‘normality’ is.

The final examples of ‘new growth’, then, have a frenetic element to them, reflecting an age newly conscious of the forces that had, in some cases, lain dormant under the pre-War order. The hedonism of the jazz age is seen as a reaction against the weight of guilt and grief of which the post-War world found itself in possession, and the rise of new political movements in response to changing patterns of work and life lead the viewer out of the 1920s. The pace of life in the modern city fascinates these artists, from Fernand Leger’s film Mechanical Ballet to the photomontages of Paul Citroen and El Lissitzky and their futuristic cityscapes. The machine ceases to be the means of dispensing death more efficiently and becomes the agent of improved living conditions, freeing the worker for more leisure or for unemployment, depending on your point of view. In the final room of the exhibition, a copy of Otto Griebel’s The International (1930) shows the massed ranks of men now not in uniform but bound together in a collective need to resist the economic forces destabilising their world as it slipped into the Depression that would itself help to fuel the rise of a toxic political extremism.

There was indeed ‘new growth’ after the trauma of the First World War, but by the time this exhibition concludes the viewer can anticipate where many of the complex emotions seen on its walls are going to find – one way or another – their next stage of resolution. In Germany, in particular, the war veteran would not be ignored so much as elevated to the status of victim; a victim not of enemy action but of national betrayal. Barely suppressed feelings of injustice would be channeled by a party adept at manipulating the popular will, and turning the nation’s gaze outwards again onto those ‘enemies’ who had defeated it in war and punished it in peace. There is no direct mention of the rise of Nazism in the exhibition, but there doesn’t really need to be: we know who many of Grosz’s war veterans would support when asked to do so, and how dangerous the German war experience would prove in the hands of Nazi propagandists.

The nature of ‘memorialising’ the War was more complex in Germany than in France or Britain, largely on account of feelings of guilt that the other powers did not really need to address. In the second room of the exhibition Ernst Barlach’s 1927 bronze The Floating One is suspended over the viewer, as it was designed to hang in Gustrow Cathedral. This angle-like figure, its eyes closed, has the facial features of Barlach’s friend Kathe Kollwitz, whose designs for other memorial sculptures are displayed nearby. Projecting an image of calm at odds with the context in which it was produced, it has a timeless quality, a memorial not to any specific war casualty but to all. The telling detail, though, is that the Tate’s exhibition features a 1987 casting of the bronze, made from moulds smuggled out of Germany after the Nazi regime declared the original a work of ‘degenerate’ art and melted it down. The aftermath of the ‘Great War’ was soon caught up in the rush towards another conflict that would, as the exhibition’s subtitle remind us, necessitate referring to the 1914-18 cataclysm as ‘World War One’.

‘Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One’ is at Tate Britain, London, until 23rd September 2018. For details visit:http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/aftermath

The Classical Now

An exhibition organised by King’s College, London in partnership with the Musee de l’Art Classique de Mougins, The Classical Now challenges its visitors to think about the status and role of the art of Greece and Rome in the contemporary cultural imagination. It is an insightful and ambitious show, thoughtfully organised and thought-provoking.

Spread over two of King’s locations on the Strand, the exhibition is best entered by the displays dubbed its ‘overture’ in Bush House. Here, you find etchings from Picasso’s ‘Vollard Suite’, sculptures by Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, and Edward Allington’s 1987 work ‘Victory Boxed’ – in which the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’ is reduced in size and replicated multiple times in ranks of blue and yellow figurines. Taken outside of its setting in the Louvre and looking more like a trinket found in a museum gift shop, we are reminded both of how recongisable Classical art is, and how our culture has sometimes tended towards a packaging of its complexity to serve our own needs. The success of the exhibition, though, is in its capacity to make the viewer think through this process again, and in doing so to open up new areas for discussion. If we affirm the continued relevance of the Classical, we may need to question what we want it to mean.

Alongside those works in Bush House the visitor can pull up a chair and enter into the video installation ‘Liquid Antiquity’: a series of video interviews with artists discussing their own usage of Classicism as a resource for the present. The consensus view, one might say, is that artists today are as intrigued by the Classical past as artists have always been: far from being a sign of a backwards glance in their own work, it is more often a way of unlocking ideas for future innovation, a near-limitless repository of ideas and narratives that can be re-imagined for other ages than their original ones and lose nothing in the process. Damien Hirst’s 2013 golden head of Medusa startles the viewer with its blend of aesthetic beauty and horror, but as readers of Mary Beard’s recent book Women and Power may recall, Medusa herself is a Classical figure more recently recycled by supporters of Donald Trump to represent the ‘danger’ posed by the ostensibly Gorgon-like Hillary Clinton. Hirst’s work predates the rancourous 2016 US election campaign, but the echoes seem to bounce back off his shining artwork, reminding us that the Classical is never wholly free from what our own age seeks to make of and with it.

Across the Strand, in the Inigo Rooms of Somerset House, thematic displays on the nature of ‘place’, on the importance of ‘myth’ and, in the final room, on the idea of a Classical ‘pose’ and a corresponding view of the human body, guide the viewer through a series of interactions and engagements between antiquity and the present. Statue heads, mosaics, and funerary urns are complemented by modern sculptures, paintings, and video work. Whether pushing the material into areas wholly modern (Mark Wallinger’s video piece Prometheus, for example, recasts the titan’s eternal punishment as a man forever strapped in an electric chair and undergoing repeated ‘executions’) or simply responding in kind to the issues posed by the originals, we see modern artists probing their Classical indebtedness and, at the same, time, looking closely at themselves and the times in which they are working.

In an exhibition so carefully curated it might seem counter-productive to single out a representative work or artist, but for me the most thought-provoking content was from Christodoulos Panayiotou whose work looks, at first glance, to have come down from Antiquity only, upon closer inspection, to reveal its contemporary essence. In his 2015 fragments (the works displayed in the exhibition are called ‘74.51.2474’ and ‘74.51.25870’ respectively) we are scrutinising blocks of limestone, the broken appearance of which suggests pieces from long-destroyed statues or buildings. They are, it transpires, nothing of the sort: blocks, rather, selected and worked specifically to look like the pieces of the past that they themselves are not. Their numeric titles employ the cataloguing system in use at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to label antiquities, but they only become part of a Classical past if our imagination assumes that their current state is indicative of their having once been something else. In another part of the exhibition, though, there is something even more unsettling. The 2013 work Untitled sees Panayiotou constructing a wall mosaic from brown, black, white, and gold tesserae. There is no discernible pattern, although within the exhibition the design finds a correlative in a 1st century Roman design in an adjacent room, but we learn that these modern tesserae are themselves copies of ancient originals found in Syria before the outbreak of the civil war there. It doesn’t come from Palmyra, but it could easily have done and if it did its survival in a museum would be interwoven with the story of how its original location is ruined again by the recent fighting over its remains. Thus, the ancient past – and its fragmentary survival in the face of destruction – confronts the visitor of 21st century London with a reminder of why we can never escape our fascination with it. Its survival and/or ruin is, uncomfortably, a reminder of our own.

‘The Classical Now’ is at King’s College, London, until 28th April. For more information visit: http://modernclassicisms.com/exhibition-2/

Standing up for Rome

Before the first lines of Julius Caesar have been delivered in the production currently running at London’s Bridge Theatre, you know that the play has been transposed to a very contemporary setting. The Roman feast of Lupercal here becomes a political rally, as Caesar baseball caps and t-shirts are offered for sale while a band storms through ‘Seven Nation Army’ and the populace (in this case comprised of audience members with ‘mob’ tickets) sing along. When the tribunes Flavius and Marullus silence the band and tell the crowd to go home the mood of discontent is a palpable warning of things to come. A crowd inclined to celebrate its hero’s return can swiftly become a lynch mob seeking vengeance for his assassination.

With the rest of the audience seated in the round, looking down on the Roman mob, this production reminds you how volatile that crowd can be. It parts like a sea to allow characters to pass through and take the central stage, closing back in to better see and hear what is being said. In the crucial scene where Brutus gives the assembled people his reasons for Caesar’s death only to give the microphone (literally, in this case) to Mark Antony for the funeral oration, the shift in sympathy and support is seen and heard. As his speech progresses, David Morrissey’s Antony dispenses with the PA system of the Roman forum, speaking plainly and emotionally of his friend’s virtues while skewering the reputations of the ‘honourable men’ who killed him. By the time he produces Caesar’s will and tells the crowd that he “must not read it” for fear that knowing the dead Caesar’s love for them would make the ordinary Roman people ‘mad’ their ‘ears’ are not lent to him, as his famous line asks, but are wholly his, for whatever end he wishes to use them and their owners.

Julius Caesar has always been a play about the exercise of power, but in this production’s post-truth age of ‘alternative facts’ its relevance seems undoubted. At the Bridge, modernisation opens up new areas of emphasis. The baseball caps, “Do This!” t-shirts, and badges sported by the supporters of David Calder’s Caesar are on sale in the theatre lobby, ready to be worn on the streets outside. Ben Whishaw’s bookish Brutus ponders the case for assassination sitting at a desk piled high with volumes on more modern dictators. We never see Caesar with a phone (although other aspects of his wardrobe may look familiar) but it’s hard not to think that in this Rome ‘social media’ means more than simply meeting the crowds in the forum. At times these modern transpositions are a little strained. When Caesar meets his bloody end it comes not with daggers but with handguns: undoubtedly a modern death but lacking, perhaps, the terrible physical closeness of the killing that the conspirators turn into a sign of their courage and that Antony convinces the crowd is the measure of their betrayal.

Running for two hours without an interval, this production gives the play the momentum of a thriller, but also makes clear how swiftly in Shakespeare’s version of the events the assassination paves the way for the civil war that follows. The nature of Shakespeare’s history plays is often their ability to compress time for dramatic advantage, but in removing the interval the audience sees even more clearly that the inevitable consequence of Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral is the ‘flight’ of the conspirators from Rome, the establishment of rival armies, and the decisive showdown of the war that ends at Philippi.

Whereas the opening scenes of the play use the ‘mob’ as the citizens of Rome, the later ones require them to stand uneasily around in a series of bunkers and battlefields. Whishaw’s Brutus and Michelle Fairley’s Cassius argue while explosions are heard outside their command post. Plaster falls from the ceiling with each shell that goes off as wounded soldiers are hastily triaged around them. It is a long way from the study/lounge in which Brutus met the conspirators and joined them, and a measure of how ill-adapted the ‘honourable men’ are for the reality that their actions have induced.

In contrast, Antony and Octavius – their rivalry contained for the time being as the pretence of a Triumvirate with the inconsequential Lepidus obscures the real scope of their ambition – appear at the head of a well-drilled, well-equipped army. The ending is not in doubt and the people who gathered to cheer Caesar and stayed to mourn him and swear vengeance on his killers now stand around to survey a tableau of dead bodies. As Antony stands and delivers his final lines on Brutus, able to distinguish between Brutus’ misled patriotism and the ambition of all those around him now that his opponent is safely dead, Kit Young’s Octavius climbs on to plinth and salutes the crowd below. Balloons fall from the ceiling as the play ends in the transition from a threatened (if flawed) democracy to the incipient autocracy that Caesar’s death was supposed to prevent and ended up accelerating. Make Rome Great Again.

Julius Caesar runs at the Bridge Theatre, London, until 15th April. For more information see: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar/

A Year of Reading

Once again, newspapers, websites, and booksellers are showcasing their ‘Books of the Year’ and looking back on the past 12 months and some of the best work to have appeared in them. I don’t always keep quite the same pace with contemporary publications – often because I’m still reading my way through the previous year’s list and/or tackling books written a century or more ago – but, for what it’s worth, here’s my 2017 list of the books that have said the most to me this year.

In fiction, Ali Smith’s Winter continued the seasonal quartet begun with 2016’s Autumn and showed Smith once again to be one of the keenest and most thought-provoking commentators on our modern lives. Picking her way through the material, social, and emotional landscape of Brexit Britain, she has once again woven a tale as “rich and strange” as anything in Shakespeare and yet at the same perfectly rooted in the trials of everyday life. The thought that there are two more seasons still to come is comfort indeed.

Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair was a masterly tour of the artistic and emotional changes of the past century, and proof that in his analysis of the subtleties of social life Hollinghurst is perhaps the Henry James of our time, without the nearly-impenetrable prose. Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land was another superb survey of British life, revisiting the ‘state of the nation’ novels of the late-Victorian period and infusing the genre with Brexit-era ambiguity.

In a year when ‘reality’ often seemed stranger than fiction it was reassuring to have astute chroniclers and commentators on events that often tested the limits of what was credible. Luke Harding’s Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump win the White House summarised and contextualised the events still unfolding and which will surely continue to dominate 2018’s headlines. Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia reminded us that there is far more to ponder in terms of Russian policy than the saga of Trump’s election, and that what happens inside Russia itself as Putin stands for another 6-year term as president may yet be the largest global concern of all.

2017 was, of course, the centenary of the Russian Revolution(s) and amidst a host of art exhibitions and film screenings there were excellent new additions to the canon of writing on those events and their aftermath. Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government was as monumental as the Moscow apartment complex that provided it with its setting and its cast of characters, all rising and falling within the vortex of 20th century Soviet power. As ambitious as a Tolstoyan novel, and as disturbing as a thriller, it charted the life and death of a ruling class and a nation through an era that still reverberates in the present. In the same vein, the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s immense biography of Josef Stalin (Waiting for Hitler 1929-1941) showed the man at the heart of Russian’s century at his most murderous and enigmatic, dictatorial in power even as he made himself the living embodiment of the Revolution in whose name millions were urged to sacrifice their lives or had those lives taken from them anyway.

My book of the year, however, is a Russian text of a different kind. Recognised by a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, the historical works of Svetlana Alexievich have only recently become available for English readers and constitute perhaps the most important recent additions to the canon of Russian writing. Her poly-vocal histories weave together the voices of witnesses and survivors, often captured after years of silence (self-imposed or state-enforced) and setting down on the record their own roles in the seismic events of their time. Whether discussing nuclear catastrophe (Chernobyl Prayer), war in Afghanistan (Boys in Zinc) or the freefall of post-Soviet society (Second-Hand Time) the reader in her works is surrounded by a multitude of thoughts, emotions, and griefs, each carefully woven into a text that reads like the collective memory of a community or a nation.

My book of the year is the English publication this year of The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin Classics) – a book originally written in the 1980s and comprising the testimonies of a few of those millions of Soviet women who served in the armed forces between 1941 and 1945. In its pages the reader meets a generation of women whose heroism was crucial to the ‘Great Patriotic War’ that defined 20th century Soviet life (and is still extensively invoked by Putin’s regime today as a rallying point for national loyalty and sentiment) but whose stories were officially erased from the national narrative of masculine triumph. Only after decades of silence did anyone ask them to speak, and when Alexievich transcribes their words their stories assume a cathartic nature. Collating the details often lost in the broad sweep of history, the book gives us an experience of war (and peace) by turns surreal and disturbing but illuminated by moments of joy and relief as welcome as they are unexpected. That many of the voices Alexievich recorded are now silent makes her work all the more vital and the greater cause for our gratitude and recognition. In a year when we have often been deafened by what the poet Osip Mandelstam (writing amidst the Purges of Stalin’s rule) called ‘the noise of time’ The Unwomanly Face of War – like all of Alexievich’s works – demands our attention and affirms our faith in the human ability to endure all things.

The Suppliant Women of Contemporary London

At the start of the Young Vic’s current production of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women (in association with the Actors Touring Company and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh) the Chorus stands and affirms its readiness to perform the play while the names of financial supporters are read. This, as far as we know, was common practice in Athens, when such works first went before a viewing public in the 5th century BCE. Those things done, a libation is poured for Dionysus – god of wine and theatre – and the play begins.

The revival of these ritual steps reminds us both of how the Greeks saw theatre in a societal and religious sense and also of how those ideas are still carried into the world of today. The financial backers are not thanked individually this time: all those who have purchased tickets are too numerous to name along with the funding bodies whose institutional support echoes the benevolence of the wealthy Athenians. The Chorus, too, made up of women from the local area, takes on the parts that would have been played by young Athenian males, working alongside professional actors to realise the play. The libation is poured from a bottle of wine rather than a ceremonial bowl, but as the red liquid stains the front of the stage it is still possible to feel, amidst the incense and the authentic music provided by Callum Armstrong and Ben Burton, that something of the ancient original persists on a November afternoon in 2017.

Of all the ancient Greek plays, though, this revival feels the most urgent and vital. Its plot, the tale of fifty women fleeing forced marriage in Egypt and seeking asylum in Greece, brings into focus issues that preoccupied the ancient world every bit as much as that of today. What are the obligations of the country to which refugees flee? What do we mean when we talk of ‘safety’, ‘sanctuary’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘understanding’? How far will we be asked to go on the behalf of those who are strangers to us until they arrive on our doorstep? The play is staged in contemporary dress, so the women could well have fled their homes in the clothes they are wearing, while King Pelasgos in his business suit could just as easily be the minister delegated the task of resolving their asylum claim. It all looks and sounds ritualised, but with a real trace of the bureaucratic and the political.

In the tense exchanges of the opening hour of the play pleas are submitted, promises made, arguments offered and, finally, a decision reached. The women will be offered the protection of Argos: a course of action proposed by the King but crucially approved by the populace. When the Egyptians arrive and try to claim what they consider ‘theirs’ the Greeks stand firm. When the issue was still in the balance Pelasgos had pondered that “to bar you brings horror, but welcome brings war.” The decision to help, even at the risk of incurring consequences, is arguably the play’s great lesson: from this stems much of the Greek awareness of why they were to be considered superior to other nations. A sense of justice prevails, a belief that there is a ‘right’ course of action and a duty to pursue it. The play creates tension while the women’s fate is in the balance, but the resolution of that anxiety is the affirmation of the Greek world-view.

At a time when the beaches of Greece are frequently filled with incoming boats from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean this play feels incredibly timely. At a time when issues of gender discrimination and sexual abuse are so widespread the women’s pleas for equality and understanding carry a powerful charge. In this production the Chorus is been made up of women from the local community who have rehearsed their parts in the evenings and weekends of the past two months. Alongside the other actors, their collective speech and movement foregrounds the suppliant women’s plight: by turns fearful and optimistic, putting their lives in the hands of strangers but knowing that doing so represents their best hope. The overall effect is remarkable, and a testament to the work of everyone involved. For the play’s original Athenian audience this work, along with other (now sadly lost) parts of the tetralogy from which it alone has survived, was a ritual affirmation of the values that made them who they were. For London in this age of Brexit, fake news, and immigration bans it challenges us to ask whether what the Chorus call “this thing called democracy” matters as much to us as it did two and a half millennia ago.

The Suppliant Women is at the Young Vic Theatre, London, until 25th November. For details see: https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/the-suppliant-women

The Future of Yesterday

It may be far from St Petersburg, but in this centenary year of the Russian Revolution London’s museums and galleries have offered some excellent exhibitions. From the visual arts at the Royal Academy to the documentary material at the British Library and, perhaps most intriguingly, the Design Museum’s fascinating display of the Soviet plans for Moscow that were conceived in high idealism and destined to remain unfulfilled as the Communist Party’s focus shifted to the realities of power, both in its maintenance and its insecurities.

Tate Modern has been saving its own Revolutionary exhibition for later, preparing as it now is to stage what will surely be a superb display of propaganda posters in November. Interwoven with that, though, it now offers a retrospective of the work of Russian conceptual and installation artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov that powerfully and beautifully captures the traces of where the idealism of 1917 may have gone when the reality of Soviet society ossified in its place.

Rejecting the official doctrines for the visual arts, Ilya Kabakov (his collaboration with Emilia begins in the late-1980s) produced most of his early works in the knowledge that they were not for public display. In several of these pieces it seems, oddly then, as though we are actually looking at standard works of Socialist Realism. Large-scale paintings show a woman being given back her Party card after an internal inquiry, a construction site, or a series of stereotypical images ostensibly found in storage after their fictional Socialist Realist creator fell from favour. Only on closer inspection do the cracks in this surface reality become visible, revealing other realities beneath – a building site where none of the projects is remotely on schedule, or a painting adorned with sweet wrappers in a failed attempt to assert its ‘brightness’ to the required Socialist standard.

The slippage between real and ideal continues throughout the exhibition. In of the larger rooms the installation work ‘Not Everyone will be Taken into the Future’ draws upon Kabakov’s childhood experience of Soviet Youth camps and the fear of being left behind by progress but merges this with the artistic legacy of the Suprematist Kasimir Malevich to capture a sense of a potential aesthetic, political, and social future always out of reach. One wall of the room is taken up by a mock-up of a carriage from the Moscow Metro, heading (or so it seems) into the wall while the work’s title runs like a destination on its LED screen. Discarded canvases litter the tracks over which the train has just run, indicating that many will be discarded en route to Utopia if, indeed, Utopia itself exists.

It more recent works, both Kabakovs have returned to oil painting, although the ‘Two Times’ and ‘Vertical Painting’ series both have the illusion of collage: scraps of images that could have been torn from the Socialist Realist canon now pasted over and alongside other similar scenes or, in a deliberate attempt to defamiliarise what we see, over 17th century artworks. After the USSR’s collapse, they force us to ask, how are we to regard such images? The carefully staged happiness continues to look false, but if more recent history has produced little that is better a strange sense of nostalgia remains. It was a lie, perhaps, but the smiles on the faces remain, even in fragmented form.

Nostalgia – that longing both for time and place – permeates the exhibition, but challenges the viewer to think that the Soviet past may itself be the object of those longing backward glances. At the centre of the display space is Ilya’s 1990 work ‘Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album)’ in which we walk along dimly-lit corridors intended to evoke a communal housing apartment, reading framed sections of his mother’s life-story accompanied by faded photographs and the faint but always audible sound of Ilya’s recorded voice singing songs remembered from childhood. As the segments of a life accumulate, we find hardships balanced with moments of pride: reminders of purpose and identity and an almost timeless Russian fatalism that simultaneously recognises the shortcomings of its Soviet life but questions whether alternatives were ever really possible in any case.

The dream of the Revolution, the exhibition suggests, was only ever going to be that: a yearning for something ‘other’ now exposed as a fake by an age trapped in its own matrix of manufactured truth. The installation that provides the image for the Tate’s poster, ‘The Man who Flew into Space from his Apartment’ (1985) captures this perfectly. Primed for what we see by a range of supporting ‘documents’ that record the testimonies of his neighbours in a communal apartment block, we peer through the doorway of a boarded-up room and see, amidst the debris, a large elastic spring suspended beneath a hole in the ceiling. From this spot, we are told, the room’s inhabitant launched himself skywards in the hope of being taken up in one of the ‘energy streams’ that circle the Earth. Too poor to furnish his room more fully, we learn that he used old Soviet posters in lieu of wallpaper, and they remain covering the walls as though representative both of the idealism that this amateur Gagarin brought to his mission and the prosaic reality from which he made so spectacular an escape. No indication is given as to whether this space flight was successful: an empty pair of shoes denote where the man once stood, but our scepticism as to his ability to transcend his surroundings as hoped is itself challenged by his absence and the large hole blown in the roof by his exit. Did he succeed after all? Not everyone, we are reminded by the exhibition’s title, was going to be allowed into the glorious future the Revolution promised. As we stand ready to dismiss its failures, Kabakov suggests that for all of our superiority we may, perhaps, be the ones left behind after all.

Ilya and Emila Kabakov, ‘Not Everyone will be Taken into the Future’ is at Tate Modern, London, until 28th January 2018. For more details see http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ilya-and-emilia-kabakov

Past and Present – Anselm Kiefer at the Hermitage

As the centenary of the October Revolution draws closer, Saint Petersburg is a city that invites the visitor to think about how events in the past carry forward into the present and shape the future. Visiting the Hermitage museum last week I couldn’t help but recall the ‘footage’ of the Winter Palace being stormed in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1927 film October – in which a crowd of ‘extras’ made up, in some cases, of actual revolutionaries from a decade earlier, ‘re-enacted’ the process of breaking into the home of the Provisional Government and seizing it for the Bolshevik cause. The knowledge that more damage was done to the Palace in this 10th anniversary celebration than in the actual event reminds us that ‘history’ is always in the process of being edited in line with the requirements of the present. For the record, we managed to avoid the queues snaking around Palace Square by making use of a strangely under-employed automated ticket machine and entering by the side door.

Navigating this immense museum is a challenge, not least because in many rooms it’s not clear whether your focus should be the Old Masters on the walls or the rooms themselves. The Hermitage is not a ‘neutral’ gallery space, but a gallery inside a palace, and your attention is always demanded by something in the decor. This task made more challenging as the never-ending stream of guided tour groups floods into its rooms, positioning anywhere up to fifty people in front of a single painting, straining to get a good angle for the selfie that they all aspire to get in front of a 60cm high Leonardo or something similar.

At the top of the grand staircase – used so effectively in October – there is a temporary exhibition in the Nicholas Hall of Anselm Kiefer’s monumental paintings. The first solo show that Kiefer has been given in Russia, ‘For Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations’ allows his immense canvases to fill the Hermitage’s dauntingly large rooms. From Rembrandts and Van Dycks the visitor is taken into Keifer’s mysterious landscapes, dark and muddy, framed by reeds or trees, often receding towards an unstable vanishing point. With the paint applied so thickly that it stands out from the canvas (if you can, stand as close to side-on to a Keifer painting and you’ll know what I mean here) they have a sculpted quality, as though the layers of paint were themselves the layers of history through which the painter tries to probe. In these works, as in many that featured in his recent show at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Keifer makes use of a model boat or submarine, rusted and cut in half so as to be affixed to the canvas, navigating its uncertain world.

The presence of History in Kiefer’s work has long been a critical talking point, and for a German artist born in 1945 the past is often inescapable. In these works, though, the invocation in the titles of many paintings of Khlebnikov, a leading figure in Russia’s early-20th century avant-garde, draws the viewer back to the Saint Petersburg setting, and the intersection between art and history, between the ideals of the poet and the realities of how era-defining changes occur on the streets. Khlebnikov saw the turmoil around him as part of a still-larger process of historical flux, with states rising and falling at each other’s expense but without a final resolution. Like many of the artists and writers who saw the early Soviet period he died (in 1922, aged 36) before the outcome of its upheaval was fully clear. In a new century, Kiefer’s work reminds us that the past casts a long shadow, and it is as hard for us to escape its influence as it is for the model boats in his works to free themselves from the swathes of paint around them. In 2017 his work can, perhaps, have no better home than the top of the staircase that revolutionaries ‘stormed’ a century ago and have been re-imagining ever since.

‘Anselm Kiefer – For Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations’ is at the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, until 3rd September 2017. For more information see:

https://hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/what-s-on/temp_exh/2017/kiefer/?lng=en

Meeting Mr Eliot

In recent years T. S. Eliot enthusiasts have been recipients of a host of materials that many, perhaps, doubted they would ever get to see. Having made do for years with a solitary edition of his letters (published in 1988) that ended with the appearance of The Waste Land in 1922, and with a body of poetry and prose reprinted largely in the form that Eliot himself approved it in the early 1960s, the reader and student of arguably the poet of the Twentieth Century now finds themselves with a complete annotated 2-volume set of his poetry, the first volume of Robert Crawford’s biography, a still-unfolding multi-volume Complete Prose and, incredibly, an edition of his Letters that sets new standards for its scope and completeness. Now seven volumes in, each of which comes in at close on a thousand pages, we are up to 1934-35. Professor John Haffenden (who has overseen the project since Volume 3) deserves praise and thanks from all Eliot readers for taking on so complex a job and discharging his duties with such editorial care.

On the cover of the new volume Eliot is captured in a still from 16mm home movie footage outside Canterbury Cathedral, squinting a little, perhaps, in the June sunlight as his play Murder in the Cathedral is prepared for its initial performances in the Chapter House. In terms of Eliot’s writing this volume is dominated by his forays into drama: the verse-pageant The Rock, performed to raise funds for church-building in London and, emerging out of that, a play about Thomas Becket that goes by the title of ‘The Archbishop Murder Case’ or ‘Fear in the Way’ until it finally acquires that by which it is known today. There is little in the way of poetry, although the volume ends, tantalisingly, with a letter from New Year’s Eve 1935 to Donald Brace in which Eliot refers to a poem he hopes to finish ‘within the next fortnight’ – a work which will become ‘Burnt Norton’ and, in time, the first of the great Four Quartets sequence. Although he expresses his doubts as to the subject, Eliot’s poetry isn’t finished after all.

The fact that each new volume of Eliot’s correspondence covers only two years of his life is a reflection, in part, of how much business that life contained. Editorial duties at Faber and Faber and on the Criterion take up time and space, although the letters produced by such duties allow us to see Eliot promoting and encouraging the work of Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and others, along with an ongoing correspondence with Ezra Pound, conducted in a idiolect known to both parties but designed to frustrate the reader almost as much as a reading of Pound’s Cantos would do.

Two external factors, however, make this volume significant. The first is in Eliot’s personal life, and his decision – on returning from his 1932-3 teaching year at Harvard – to formally separate from his wife Vivienne. Eliot biographers have wrestled with this for years, trying to see the separation as one not only rooted in Eliot’s despair at his marriage but also a spiritual conviction that only so drastic an action could save both parties. Vivienne’s unstable mental state, with its bouts of psychosomatic ill-health undoubtedly placed an enormous strain on the couple, especially when Eliot’s own fragile mental equilibrium is considered as well, but the asceticism of his ‘renunciation’ puts his still relatively new Christian faith to the test and is arguably something that he was never wholly able to explain to himself. When in ‘Little Gidding’ (1942) the speaker is warned of “the things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue” it’s hard not to see the roots of that crisis in the behaviour of a man who lodges with a priest so as to avoid returning to his marital home and conducts all dealings with his wife through a solicitor as he files writs to have his personal effects and books recovered. When Vivienne attempts to track her errant husband down to the Faber offices in Russell Square Eliot’s secretaries keep her occupied with excuses while Tom exits by a rear door to avoid seeing her. Unstable as she may have been, Vivienne could hardly have been treated thus and not suffered even greater anguish. Towards the end of the volume we learn that she has attended a public lecture given by her husband on 18th November 1935 and ‘met’ him afterwards – an event that Eliot scholars will recall as the occasion when Tom is said to have said “how do you do?” to his wife, signed the books she was holding and with a final comment about being unable to talk with her at that moment made his exit, never to see her again.

This volume of letters is strengthened considerably by the inclusion of letters written by Vivienne at this time, giving the reader a sense of how Eliot’s wife was struggling to come to terms with his departure and of the immense mental strain that she was herself under as her husband embarked upon the path to what the Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon called his ‘new life’. Vivienne writes repeatedly to remind Tom that the door to his ‘home’ remains open and unlocked, and that she considers herself still ‘Mrs Eliot’, a woman beset by legal worries and visits from bailiffs employed to recover Eliot’s possessions from their flat. In some letters she expresses her concern that Eliot may have been kidnapped, or to be held in some durance that prevents his return. Eliot scholars have long rationalised the separation in terms of the crisis between Tom’s spirituality and Vivienne’s mental illness, but having Vivienne’s voice included reminds us of the human cost on both sides of this unhappy equation. It is greatly to the credit of the editors that ‘the wife’ should get her voice heard here, and although it doesn’t lessen the prevailing sense of tragedy in the Eliot’s marriage it certainly lays to rest the simplistic idea of Vivienne’s mental collapse as entirely unrelated to her husband’s path of spiritual austerity.

We also know that Vivienne attended that November 1935 lecture in her British Union of Fascists uniform and that, sadly, is the other growing concern that this volume contains. Letters to Ezra Pound warn against ‘involving’ himself with “that Mosley”, whose Blackshirts were themselves to appear in The Rock amongst the worldly critics over whom the Church prevails. The publication of Pound’s Jefferson / Mussolini further raises issues, as the Italian-based poet travels further along the road that would ultimately lead to the Pisan Cantos, a prison cell, and a charge of treason. In this volume then we have the close friend flirting with Fascist ideology and the lonely, isolated wife who finds in political extremism the sense of belonging she lost when her husband walked out on her. One feels on finishing this collection that the Eliot squinting into the June sunlight on the book’s cover is as conscious of the darkness as he is of the light, both in the world around him and in the lives of those whose lives intersect with his own.

The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 7: 1934-1935 (ed. John Haffenden) is published by Faber and Faber, priced £50.