Dr. Peter Lowe

Professional bookworm, with work appearing in The New York Review of Books, The Modernist, and Russian Art & Culture; occasional blogger for Pushkin House; supporter of blue and white sports teams; lecturer in 20th-century literature

Entry Wounds: The Art of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast
Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK: 29 January to 17 April 2022

Francis Bacon, ‘Second Version of Triptych 1944’ (1988) Photo © Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

In Francis Bacon’s art we are always aware of what acts of violence do to the human form. Flesh is punctured or flayed, carved from bones so the body resembles (or is sometimes replaced by) a carcass in an abattoir. In some portraits it seems to slip downwards, as though gravity were pulling the top layer off the people, the paint revealing what T. S. Eliot called the ‘skull beneath the skin’. Bodies are mangled, with the sites that should be faces identifiable, like murder victims, only through the placement of their teeth. To visit the Royal Academy of Arts’ ‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’ exhibition on the day that Russian tanks rolled over Ukraine’s borders and missiles rained down on targets both military and civilian inside the country was to be particularly reminded of this fragility, this capacity to be harmed, or to inflict harm. It was also a reminder, though, of another facet of Bacon’s painting: his undermining the sense of grandeur that Vladimir Putin has aped in his recent appearances to show how our flesh mocks our arrogance. For Bacon, we are all bodies, frail even in our pretensions to power, even if we are often powerless when others act out these pretensions on us.

In a world still getting used to again seeing art in the company of many bodies, this immense survey of Bacon’s large-format painting is a timely reminder of his output, his life, and his continuing relevance. His 1988 exhibition in late-Soviet Moscow has recently been recalled in a memoir by its curator James Birch. Then, the presence of Bacon’s work in the Russian capital was a measure of a changing cultural climate, an artist from the West suddenly visible to a Russian populace both excited and bemused at what had appeared in its midst. Now, as the full measure of what Putin’s regime is becomes clear to all, Bacon is on display in London, or ‘Londongrad’ as some commentators call it as they draw attention to the vast sums of Russian money that have flowed through the city in recent years. While the rhetoric of the Cold War is dusted down and put to work again, his paintings come back to haunt a world still recovering from a pandemic, and which now sees another Apocalyptic horseman on the horizon.

After two years of on/off social distancing, where much of life has been, at times, reduced to an online conversation between two people sitting alone in their respective rooms, we have acquired a new level of insight into many of Bacon’s images. Issues of isolation recur in his paintings, where subjects often occupy solitary, claustrophobic spaces inside their frames. These famous boxes of glass or light surround them like personal booths, while curtains of light fall in front of their faces. Space is tightly demarcated and policed by lines of perspective, painted in like the laser beams of a security system. As television images in recent years have shown, Russian courtrooms often place the accused in a glass booth so as to establish a symbolic distance between them and the events in the room that decides their fate. Footage shows this applied to murderers but also to political dissidents like Alexander Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or the members of Pussy Riot (in her memoir, Riot Days, describing her role in the ‘Punk Prayer’ protest of 2012 and its aftermath, group member Maria Alyokhina refers to it as ‘the aquarium’). Such a setting invariably seeks to turn the individual into an object of curiosity or disgust, as though confined to protect society from their influence. Bacon anticipates this, although his sitters veer from looking like threats behind glass to freaks exhibited for the public’s fascinated horror. Under his gaze, Pope Innocent X changes from the symbol of supreme if psychologically uneasy power that Velázquez produced into a troubled figure, sometimes twisting awkwardly on his throne, sometimes staring out at the viewer, screaming into the void that separates us from him. These were joined, in the 1950s, by a series of portraits of businessmen; dark-suited figures sometimes captured sitting on beds or chairs in dimly-lit rooms, whose formal attire only accentuates the melting face with its teeth in a rictus of a smile.

What would the artist who produced such images have made of Putin’s pre-war public appearances? How would he have depicted the comically long tables at which incoming heads of government were made to sit (social distancing taken to an absurdist extreme in a country with one of the worst records of COVID-19 deaths in the world), or the staged security council meeting of 21 February in which Putin sat one side of a vast Kremlin reception hall while one after the other his ministers obligingly reinforced a decision he had surely taken anyway. What would he have made of the rambling televised address that preceded the invasion, with Putin at his desk with its bank of telephones, delivering to camera a diatribe the consequences of which are now filling the world’s screens?

Such images, repeated across the media, take on their own power to inspire responses, and the Royal Academy helps us to see where some of Bacon’s images drew their inspiration, returning us to that famously chaotic studio at 7 Reece Mews to find the books or photographs that were painted into many canvases. From the Muybridge photographs of wrestlers, dogs, and birds, to the press cuttings and the books of wildlife that showed the natural world to be every bit as brutal as his vision of the human one could be, Bacon’s art is suffused with images from somewhere else. Amongst these, a key reference point was one of the most celebrated screaming faces in cinema: the nurse from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), seen with her spectacles smashed over her face and her mouth wide in horror as she watches a pram bounce down the Odessa Steps in the midst of murderous Tsarist troops. In a 1957 work at the RA, ‘Study for a Nurse in Battleship Potemkin’, Bacon grafts that face onto a nude body, sitting as though on a swing with its legs dangling outside the transparent cube in which it sits. Eisenstein’s representation of a massacre reflected in one screaming face became for Bacon a symbol of a world of horrors both existential and all too real. Many of the UK newspaper front pages on Friday 25 February featured the bloodied and bandaged face of Olena Kurilo, a schoolteacher in the city of Chuhuiv wounded in an air-raid that destroyed her home. If Bacon were alive today, one could imagine the image cut out and stuck on his studio wall.

‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’, the 1944 triptych that catapulted Bacon to fame, is not in this exhibition, although other works from the same period stand in for its absence. Against other versions of that acidic orange background, half-human figures seem to writhe and squirm, snarling at the viewer like caged animals, or like the very worst reflections of what human nature was capable of in the years that surrounded the famous work’s first appearance. His career as an artist began in an age that felt to many like the lowest point that humanity had reached, where its most bestial and its most coldly sadistic aspects had been given free rein with such devastating consequences.

The body, for Bacon, was where the marks of inhumanity were always visible. It would record each blow, each act of violence. Bacon destroyed many paintings throughout his life, often being as violent with them as their subject matter suggested, but as Annalyn Swan and Mark Stevens record in their 2021 biography, Revelations, he later regretted having done away with a mid-1930s work known only as ‘Wound’, which (from surviving accounts) depicted the area around a gash in human flesh. His later crucifixions are rarely those that a Christian church would wish to have on display, but in stripping away the religious nature of the event, they reflect its horrific violence, the disregard for the human form, the process by which a body becomes offal. Images from Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, and other towns and cities along what is now a frontline in a warzone show those paintings turned into realities for tens of thousands of people, as the world looks on with that blend of outrage and powerlessness that so often follows our exposure to someone else’s pain.

Meanwhile, the dark-suited Putin sits behind his desk trying to justify his actions in a logic of perverted history and present-day mania. As the trials of Nazi war criminals in Bacon’s lifetime showed, evil is often bureaucratic in its appearance and horrific in its effects. From his Popes to his businessmen, to the twisted bodies of models, lovers, and friends, Bacon represented a world coming to terms with a degree of violence that it realised was always latent and horrifically likely to be repeated on a personal and a global scale. His art was produced in response to its time, but its truths were timeless, like the Old Masters Velázquez and Rembrandt, which he never failed to praise. In W. H. Auden’s assessment, when it came to making suffering visible and comprehensible both in its banality and its horror, the Old Masters ‘were never wrong’. And neither was Francis Bacon.


In the Cage: The Mirror and the Light at the Gielgud Theatre, London

The Mirror and the Light review

When the action of The Mirror and the Light opens Thomas Cromwell is already a prisoner in the Tower of London. Putting a brave face on a situation into which he himself has cast many others, he talks up his plans for when he is released. Even as he does this, however, messengers bring word of his house being ransacked by the King’s agents, seeking to lay hands either on the wealth that he has accumulated or the evidence that will damn him. Cromwell knows how the machinery of the Tudor police-state works, and how well it works. Informed that Henry has sent money for his board and lodging within the Tower his instant response is to ask ‘for how long?’ His gaoler declines to answer that question directly.

The process by which a man who enjoyed the favour of Henry VIII could fall so swiftly dominates the concluding novel in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Cromwell’s life. Now, like its earlier instalments, The Mirror and the Light has been adapted for the stage, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2014 versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies to complete in the theatre what Mantel has concluded in print. Many of the same cast and creative team are involved, and in due time this London production, which runs at the Gielgud Theatre until January 2022, will surely follow its previous parts to Broadway.

A key difference here, though, is that Ben Miles, whose performance as Cromwell was so integral to those earlier productions, is now credited alongside Mantel with adapting the work for the stage. The two have collaborated to great effect, and Cromwell’s complex interior world is captured here with ever greater nuance. The close third-person narration of Mantel’s novels will always be hard to convey to the theatre audience, but we are grateful for any new aperture into the mind of the man whose rise through the Tudor system provided the first two parts of the trilogy with their narrative drive. In this case, that need is arguably more pronounced because this work is both a record and an analysis of how the man who forged so much of Henry’s state could not keep himself out of its punitive reach.

At the start of the play the bare, concrete-like walls of the set are lit to suggest the Tower’s damp darkness, and as the audience takes its seats the drip of water, the sliding of bolts in locks, and the cries of prisoners and gaolers can be heard. A cage, built from iron boxes, is suspended over the stage as though to suggest the gates of the Tower, or the cells within. Although it is raised or lowered as the play progresses it is always visible: a reminder of the state’s ultimate fate for those who, inevitably, fail to keep pace with its shifting definition of service or loyalty.

Cromwell’s rise within Henry’s court – achieved not via family connections or inherited wealth, but through pragmatism and personal amorality – alienated many of those through whose ranks he progressed. The brewer’s son from Putney knew how to anticipate and react to the moods of the capricious monarch to the point at which he was indispensable when unpleasant tasks had to be done. And there were plenty of those: the wrangling over the ‘Great Matter’ of Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, the elevation of Anne Boleyn, the split with Rome, the swallowing of the Church’s assets into the royal coffers and, beset as it would always be by enemies at home and abroad, the forging of a new English state.

The cost of this was always going to be high, and the collateral damage is still visible when the events of this play begin. Even as the audience is taken back to the happier times of Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour hopes for the future are tempered by the past. The birth of the long-awaited Edward provides Henry with a male heir, but this moment of joy is immediately counterbalanced by Jane’s death. Henry (acted, as in the earlier plays, by Nathanial Parker), who had seemed rejuvenated by his third marriage, appears from here on as volatile and grief-stricken, hobbling around the stage on his wounded and septic leg while frightened courtiers try to second-guess his moods and desires.

Tragically, it is at this point that Cromwell’s deft touch deserts him. Brokering Henry’s marriage to Anna of Cleves is a politicly sound way of giving England a continental ally amongst the German states, but the marriage itself is a disaster, with the King opining that Hans Holbein’s portrait of Anna’s was preferable to the woman herself. The audience knows as soon as the marriage starts to founder that Cromwell’s role in it is a misstep that his enemies will not fail to use to their advantage.  Looking up, the cage seems to be lower above the stage than it was in happier times.

Whereas Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies showed Cromwell’s rise as a victory over the country’s aristocratic order, The Mirror and the Light reminds us that although the old families of England seemed to be in retreat they were never wholly defeated by the brewer’s son. Men like the Duke of Norfolk, who looked like remnants of the past when Anne Boleyn’s fall disgraced their old networks of power and patronage, revive in stature as Henry loses patience with some of the new men around him. When religious uprisings threaten the stability of the realm the old dukes and earls can call up men from their estates, putting an army in the field at short notice to restore order. Cromwell has money enough to buy arms and hire men, but is seen to be lacking that older feudal bond between the monarch and their nobility. Indeed, he accepts such titles as Henry bestows on him precisely because they off-set his parvenu’s status, for the same reason that he brokers his son Gregory’s marriage to Elizabeth Seymour. Indeed, when Cromwell does stockpile weaponry in anticipation of another uprising it only leaves him open to charges of plotting against the King, for why else would a man of his background keep arms at his home and mercenaries on retainer?

The world of Mantel’s novels is one in which the living and dead move through a shared space, and here we see both Cromwell’s father Walter and his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, reappearing as if to remind him of his earlier self, and the road he has travelled. Wolsey’s fall from power torments Cromwell, always wondering whether he had been loyal enough to his former master, whose fate seems increasingly to anticipate his own. Dispatched to the Tower, Cromwell finds himself occupying the same rooms used by Thomas More before his execution, and sure enough More’s ghost is briefly visible, like a reminder of the human cost of Cromwell’s pragmatism. ‘You never saw me coming,’ Cromwell thinks at the end of Wolf Hall as he muses on how he has brought about More’s downfall. Now, the two meet again: the one already dead, and the other about to be. Those men, like Richard Riche, who have themselves risen, Cromwell-like, are equally quick to distance themselves from him when his fortunes collapse, as he did with Wolsey when the crisis came. Their pragmatism is a final, terrible compliment to the example he has set.

The core achievement of Mantel’s novels, the first two of which won the Booker Prize for fiction, was their making the men and women of Tudor portraits come alive with a range of all too human vices and virtues, and in Cromwell’s fate we discern an almost Shakespearian lesson in the cold realities of power. The end of the play is not, of course, the end of Henry’s martial merry-go-round, and the marriage to Katherine Howard (news of which reaches Cromwell as he is en route to his death) will prove no happier or politically expedient than the match it superseded. Henry’s England will remain small and vulnerable, for all its puffed-up showmanship, destined for decades of domestic instability and in-fighting once his overbearing presence no longer dominates its political life. For his part, Cromwell, as this play reminds us, was a highly skilled functionary who got caught in the gears of the machinery he designed and operated for so long. “Who will your majesty trust hereafter,” wrote Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to Henry, trying to come to his friend’s defence at the last, “if you cannot trust Cromwell?”  The answer, as history shows, was ultimately ‘no one’. Although he ends up in the cage himself, one still suspects that Cromwell would have had it no other way.

Looking at the Land: John Nash at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne

John Nash painted ‘The Cornfield’ (1918) to express his thanks at having been spared death in the trenches of the Western Front. Seeing it today, some of that gratitude still seems to radiate from the canvas, even if the viewer cannot hope to fully appreciate the deliverance felt by a man who had returned to England to find that “the whole Vale of Amersham is a mass of corn” rather than a blasted landscape of craters, barbed wire, and tree stumps. Bathed in evening sunlight, its pastoral tranquillity takes on an almost religious hue, like the ‘golden country’ imagined by Winston Smith as an escape from the dystopian nightmare of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The landscape and the landscape-format painting provide balance and harmony in an unsettled world.

A century on, our own relationship with such views is shaped by different concerns. If we are less likely to be troubled by the possibility of British fields becoming battlefields we have, nonetheless, no choice but to consider whether a changing climate will alter such familiar motifs beyond recognition. In a country beset by drought and flash-flooding, with an agricultural sector in crisis, ‘The Cornfield’ retains a totemic hold on our imagination.  This is, perhaps, because we need to think of it as true just as much as the traumatised artist who, even as he painted it in the hours after his day’s work producing ‘official’ war art for the government, wrote to Dora Carrington that there were ‘battalions’ of binders working to pull the corn into the sheaves that seem to march across its landscape. We know, too, that discussions of landscape and its ‘ownership’ easily shade into debates over the relationship between ‘community’, ‘nation’, and ‘place’; all terms that carry a dangerous charge in the uneasy climate of Brexit Britain with its fraught sense of the ‘metropolitan’ and the ‘rural’, the ‘native’ and the ‘migrant’. After eighteen months of the pandemic, too, we may have our own sense of gratitude and being able to survey such a landscape for ourselves, to know that such things are still there after all.

John Nash ‘The Cornfield’ (1918, Tate Britain)

In the Towner Gallery’s excellent exhibition ‘John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace’, the visitor encounters ‘The Cornfield’ in the context of Nash’s wartime experience and the work that he would go on to produce afterwards. In its floorplan the exhibition resists chronology, using its opening room to plunge the visitor directly into the First World War in order to then return them to Nash’s earlier years, before emerging again into the wide variety of work that he began to produce in the 1920s and maintained for five decades. This arrangement carries a significant emotional weight. Like his brother Paul, John Nash’s time in the trenches produced some of the most well-known artworks of the First World War, from the large-format landscape of ‘Oppy Wood, 1917, Evening’ to the soldiers in ‘Over the Top’ who seem to leave their trench to trudge wearily towards the gunfire that has already mown down several of their comrades. Like Paul’s ‘Menin Road’, his wartime works invert the idea of what a landscape should be, keeping the components only to show how the world mocks the artist’s attempts to find beauty in it, swapping shell craters for ponds, and barbed wire for hedgerows. As an ‘other ranker’, John, unlike his brother, was not allowed to draw in situ, and so produced his war paintings from memory once he was back in England. It took, understandably, a long time for him to move beyond the images fixed in his memory, living as he did simultaneously in the present and the trauma of the past.

Whereas Paul would spend the 1920s and 30s processing that psychological shift through a Surrealist approach to subject matter and form, as Tate Britain’s 2016 retrospective made clear, John returned to depicting the natural world with a greater degree of fidelity. Works like ‘Winter Scene’ (1920) or ‘The Edge of the Plain’ (1926) are atmospheric, but without the dark air of crisis that permeates Paul’s ‘Margate’ paintings. Having not had his brother’s formal artistic training, John would find his most effective subjects in smaller things. His output in the 1920s incorporated illustrations in botanical volumes, woodcuts, and designs for book dust jackets for the Curwen Press.  His landscapes become almost devoid of figures, although objects and buildings are always suggestive of a human presence.  Rather than appear troubling on account of this absence, though, a sense of harmony is often pervasive, as though the land itself retains its own sense of balance.

The difference between John’s more conventional style and Paul’s critically acclaimed blending of a Surrealist aesthetic into his Second World War paintings (as in the piled-up wreckage of the German aircraft in ‘Totes Meer’ for example) came to be reflected in their subsequent standings in the history of British Art. The Towner’s exhibition is the first solely devoted to John since his 1967 retrospective at the Royal Academy, and in the scope and quality of its content it is long overdue. Endowed as it is with a rich holding of works by Eric Ravilious, the Towner is, however, also an ideal venue to showcase how John Nash arguably fits into the British artistic scene of the 1930s more readily than his brother’s European-influenced vision. Seeing some of John’s Second World War paintings, like ‘A Dockyard Fire’ (1940) it is a great advantage to be able to follow the exhibition with a visit to the nearby Ravilious galleries to carry over one’s assessment and see where John’s work finds its place.  The exhibition’s final room also draws attention to John’s teaching and administrative duties, reminding us of the figure of ‘the artist as committee man’, supportive of others and sustained himself by many friendships.

John outlived Paul by thirty-one years, surviving his wife Christine by only a few months and dying in 1977. Their life together, with its moments of emotional and creative triumph and loss, is richly captured in the new biography John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace written by the exhibition’s co-curator Andy Friend and published by Thames & Hudson to coincide with the display. As with the Towner’s 2017 exhibition ‘Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship’ (also co-curated and with an accompanying book by Friend) both the display and the biography provide ample material to (re)engage with the artist’s work, and to think anew about its place within a rich tradition of Twentieth-Century British landscape art. In the final room, we see John’s ‘The Barn at Wormingford’, painted on the occasion of his becoming a full Royal Academy member in 1951, displayed amidst a rich vein of landscapes and book illustrations produced well into the 1970s. One of these, ‘Harvesting’, produced in 1947 for inclusion in the School Prints scheme, transposes the earlier cornfield into a more human scene, as people sit in the shade of the sheaves while dogs chase rabbits run across the exposed earth. Produced after the end of another war, its blend of natural and human interest reassures the viewer that some things endure even after the century’s second cataclysm. Although commissioned for display in schools, the image is in no way ‘childish’ in nature, just engagingly focused on the small things that reflect rural continuity amidst the turmoil so visible elsewhere.

John Nash, ‘Harvesting’ (1947, Tate Britain)

This continuity is important, and reminds us that alongside the richness of the works on display arguably the best reason for visiting the Towner’s exhibition this summer is the fact that one can do so. To be able to see these works in person is an experience that has been impossible in the months of lockdown and which we are happily beginning to enjoy again. Standing in front of ‘The Cornfield’ and the other works as viewers file past, linger, and take in this fine survey of Nash’s oeuvre, it is impossible not to feel one’s own sense of gratitude.  For us, as for Nash in 1918, the challenges of the future remain real but the comforts of the present are indeed welcome.

‘John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace’ is at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, until 26 September.

New Publication – The Fascination of Ruins

Last October, in the days before Paris returned to its Covid lockdown, I visited the exhibition of Josef Koudelka photographs at the Bibliotheque Nationale. The resultant essay was published by the New York Review of Books on 16 January. To read more, please click on the link below.

Romain Gary’s The Kites: The Consolations of Memory

2020 has been a year in which we have all had to learn to live without something, or without the possibility of being with someone. As a result, we have grown accustomed to looking for consolations in our memory for those things and people missing in the present. Literature, rooted as it often is in the exploration of memory, has played a correspondingly large part in many people’s lives as social horizons have narrowed. In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, readers around the world turned initially to Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) as a way of better understanding life under lockdown. The narrative of a town cut off from the outside world took on new resonance not as a metaphor for France’s wartime occupation, or as a study in Existential philosophy, but as a human-centred tale of loss and the hope of reclamation. In the late-spring months sales of the novel rose in step with the speed and severity with which people felt their lives changing.

Those who acquired copies of The Plague earlier this year, or pulled them from their existing place on their bookshelves, have had ample time to read the novel by now, so are there any other ‘pandemic novels’ to fill the weeks and months of a second wave and the reality of an autumn and winter of continuing restrictions? Here, another French author, Camus’ countryman Romain Gary, might prove useful. Like Camus, whose memories of an Algerian childhood remained a touchstone throughout his writing life, the Russian émigré Gary was a writer with a highly complex sense of memory. Active, like Camus, in the wartime Resistance, but without the explicit philosophical strand to his writing that made Camus so celebrated, Gary’s work – much of which still awaits an English language translation – conjures from a sense of loss and deprivation a belief in the power of individual and collective memory to function as a bulwark against the losses of life.

In his final novel The Kites (1980) Gary frames within the tale of a young man’s love affair a wider study of France’s pre- and post-World War Two fate, with the Occupation serving, as it did for Camus, as a time of national and personal deprivation. Like The Plague, Gary’s novel is a study in the nature of memory, and the endurance of emotions and experiences when they are left inaccessible by the tide of historical events. As the lockdowns have been partially eased around the world only to be phased in again, and when a return to pre-pandemic ‘normality’ remains remote, The Kites remains a powerful testament to the longevity of the imagination. It is, arguably, a novel for the ongoing pandemic rather than the immediate crisis of last March: a complement to Camus’ vision, and worth revisiting as a lasting reminder of the value of what we remember when we think of what has been lost.

Unlike Camus’ third-person narrative, which circles around its protagonist, the town doctor Rieux, before revealing only at its close that the ‘chronicle’ we have read is indeed the doctor’s own account, Gary’s novel makes full use of the first-person perspective. His hero, Ludo (Ludovic) Fleury, has lost both his parents and lives with an eccentric uncle, Ambrose, in a small Normandy village. Ambrose, a former postmaster, is famous for the range of kites he makes and flies, much to the delight of the local children. These kites, fantastic in their design and artifice, are representations of the great men of French history and thought. Their flight or, as under the German occupation, their being grounded, reflects the fortunes of the country over which they are seen

Like many in his family, though, it seems that Ludo is afflicted with ‘an excess of memory’: initially a tendency to recall facts, names, and numbers with startling success, but later a trait that proves both a source of pain and solace as he draws closer to himself people and places he has seen and lost. In the first instance this takes a form that readers of Proust will swiftly recognise: a meeting with a mysterious girl whose beauty and sense of distance will function as lodestones in the young hero’s life. “Even now,” the older, narrative Ludo recalls when thinking of his first meeting with the enigmatic Lila in a field of strawberries, “I don’t know whether I succeeded in life because I didn’t take off running, or whether I came to ruin because I stayed.” If that initial motif has a pedigree in French fiction, though, Gary’s narrative frame is a very different thing. Ludo is not Marcel, and this novel is a long way from Combray. Lila is aristocratic, but her family comes from a Polish background, and she is first met when holidaying in France with parents whose emotional and financial states fluctuate wildly. There are larger historical forces at work than those of Proustian nostalgia, too. In the late-1930s Lila’s return to Poland is tinged for Ludo not only with emotional loss, but the very real fear that like her family her homeland itself is on the verge of being swept away.

After a few years of awkward courtship, the outbreak of war severs the bonds between the two young lovers, as we also see the conflict dividing their respective nations. As ‘the Polish debacle’ is repeated in the late-spring of 1940, a similar gulf opens up between Ludo’s memories of France and the painful reality of the overrun nation that capitulates to German force and limps on only as the servile Vichy regime. As in The Plague, realisation of what has happened comes only when it is too late to do anything else. Ludo will serve in the Resistance, hoping for an eventual return to normal life, and sustaining himself all along by the thought that Lila is indeed still ‘with’ him through the operation of his memory. Her voice bursts into his first-person narration at times, creating surreal ‘conversations’ between them in the way people often talk to those close to them but not in the moment physically present. Such exchanges are reminders of memory at work. “I’m not forgetting you,” Ludo tells Lila in one such moment, “I’m just hiding you.” As we have come to learn in a time of separation (partly assuaged as ours is by forms of contact unavailable to those of occupied France) the survival of bonds and relationships can, and sometimes must, take many forms.

Camus, in focusing on his doctor, Rieux, gives the reader little information about his absent wife. As readers, we know that when the plague begins she is away at a sanatorium, and her death comes towards the close of the novel almost as an aside, occurring at a distance in the midst of so many other truncated lives. Gary, taking a different path, does not have Lila die but, indeed, brings her back to France as the companion of Hans, a German officer (himself a figure with whom Ludo has had dealings earlier in the novel) so as to problematise the extent to which the Lila of Ludo’s memory can ever be matched by the woman who has seen her homeland vanish and had to make a string of sacrifices to survive. In the final analysis, Ludo’s love for her – like his love for France itself – must be tested by the end of the war as much as by the privations of occupation and separation. In ‘victory’ it will be necessary to recognise the actions that individuals, like their homelands, chose to take in order to try and survive a bit longer.

As in The Plague, though, there is an eventual victory in Gary’s novel, and at least the prospect of a return to normality. In the aftermath of D-Day, Ambrose Fleury’s kites once again fly over the fields of Normandy, and the restrictions and impositions of occupation give way to an intoxicating sense of freedom. Like the occupants of Camus’ Oran, however, the release of victory only partly conceals the awkwardness of coming to terms with one’s own actions, and those of others, under the ‘lockdown’. “I told myself that we’d really miss the Nazis,” Ludo recalls toward the end of the novel, “that it would be difficult without them, because we wouldn’t have any excuses anymore.” Were all of the people as heroic as they would like to be seen, and what ‘justice’ is to be meted out (and by whom?) to those who are deemed to have fallen short of the ideal? In one of the most famous sentences from Camus’ novel Rieux muses that in times of trial “there are more things to admire in men than to despise”. Ludo, on the other hand, is told by ‘Madame Julie’, brothel madam and Resistance coordinator, that at the end of the war “there’s been enough black and white. Grey is the only thing that’s human.”

Some aspects of Gary’s tale of France under German occupation are, arguably, more clichéd than effective. Writing in The New Yorker in 2018 Adam Gopnik described The Kites as “oddly eighteenth-century in its piling on of coincidences” and readers may well agree that some elements of the plot are more contrived than realistic, being set up in order to offer up opportunities for reflection and comparison. As the Frenchmen and women prove capable of either heroism and cynicism in their actions, but rarely a blend of both, the Germans are equally clear-cut, being crudely barbaric or awkwardly humane. The fate of the Clos Joli restaurant, a Michelin-starred outpost of the country’s finest gastronomic traditions, can seem too much like an obvious symbol of some essential Frenchness resolved to continue serving as the ‘soul’ of the nation even as its clientele becomes largely German in nature. Continuing to source and serve haut cuisine may seem a questionable form of resistance, although the restaurant’s role as a source of information for the Resistance gleaned from its diners’ table-talk reminds us that simplistic judgements are not the best. However we choose to view the restaurant’s remaining open, there is, as its owner proudly asserts, at least something of ‘France’ still standing when the Allies arrive in 1944.

For the bulk of the novel, though, concerned as it is with Ludo’s very personal set of experiences, it is individual memory and imaginations that provide the most lasting and valuable consolations for the present and hopes for the future. At the depth of the crisis, with France occupied, Poland wiped from the map, Lila missing, and the past seemingly lost beyond recall, Ludo visits his old schoolteacher and finds that whereas Monsieur Pindar was once concerned about his pupil’s excessive memory he is now more understanding of its usefulness, although also worried about what might occur at the moment when Ludo has to exchange idealised memory for post-war reality. Hoping that Lila will indeed prove to be the same as the figure of Ludo’s remembering, Pindar equates her return with that of the country as a whole. “France, when it returns, will need not only all of our imagination, but a lot of imaginary things as well” he muses, conscious that while memory and hope can sustain people through privation, they remain necessary at the difficult moment when ‘normality’ returns and proves not to be all that people have chosen to remember.

Nonetheless, The Kites is a testament not only to keeping faith, but to choosing not to be defined by loss. The kite workshop, like France itself, is in a poor way when the thrill of victory wears off. Ludo’s recollection that “our stock had suffered a lot and we more or less had to start from scratch” could just as easily refer to his homeland as to his uncle’s business concern. Even so, the kites can fly again over the village of Cléry at the novel’s close. Composing his narrative, the older Ludo closes the memory of his wartime meeting with Monsieur Pindar by recalling that his old teacher and his wife were arrested a year after their last encounter, and that neither of them returned from the prison camps. Nevertheless, he adds, “I visit them often, in their little house, and they welcome me just as warmly as they always did, even though they’ve been gone a long time now, I’ve been told.” Memory, whilst woven into a larger matrix of loss, keeps alive and present those things that matter: a man, a woman, an idea of a community, or a vision of what a country is or should be. If Camus saw the epidemic as a trial set for humanity by an indifferent universe, to which men and women responded with the qualities, good or bad, that they held in reserve, then Gary reminds us that in facing those challenges the act of remembering is also an act of resistance. Like Ludo’s idea of France, our lives post-Covid may not come back in quite the way we recall them beforehand, or quite the way we expect, but as the weeks and months accumulate our memories can still keep alive the things we wish to find in the future, and help us to recognise them or work for their resumption when we emerge there.

The Kites by Romain Gary (trans. Miranda Richmond Mouillot) is published by Penguin Books.

State of the Nation: Albion at the Almeida Theatre

Mike Bartlett’s 2017 play Albion is about a garden, a war memorial, a family, and a nation. It’s about the dangers of trying to reclaim or recreate the past, and the temptations and costs of nostalgia. Now, reprised at the Almeida for the month of February 2020, it feels even more timely as a message as to what kind of country Brexit Britain has allowed itself to become, and what it might yet delude itself into doing.

Audrey Walters (played, as in the original run, by Victoria Hamilton) has left London and bought the country house formerly lived in by her uncle. The house, however, is barely referenced in the play – except as a source of anxiety and expense – compared to the appeal of its garden. Laid out by a famous designer (‘Weatherbury’) in the wake of the First World War, we are told that its series of individual ‘rooms’ became a template for subsequent designs, conceived as a memorial to those British soldiers who never returned from the trenches. The garden is in poor repair, but with her memories of visiting it when she was child Audrey is resolved to see it returned to the beauty and renown that it once held.

Immediately, though, the audience sees the problems inherent in this scheme: the family’s move out of London that is not to the liking of Audrey’s daughter, Zara, and is accepted, if not with much enthusiasm, by her second husband, Paul. Why would a successful businesswoman pledge herself to such a project? Is her desire to make the garden a memorial to her dead son, James, a soldier killed in a more recent conflict, altogether rational, or has she conflated different forms of loss into one place – most clearly when she reveals that after months of keeping the urn with her, unsure as to what to do with its contents, she has scattered her son’s ashes in the garden without consulting his partner, Anna?

Anna, grieving for a man she knew briefly only to lose in traumatic circumstances, is unable to move on from James’ death, and comes to ‘visit’ the garden repeatedly in search of a sense of connection. The restoration project, though, is far from simple. The resident gardener, Matthew, reminds Audrey that climate change would necessitate a different planting scheme than that of the 1920s, while the local community – having become used to having access to the garden for their events – are unhappy at Audrey’s exclusionary approach. “We have to feel we own it,” she tells Edward, apologising that the village fete will need a new venue. She wants a return to a past state, but only in ways that satisfy her, and the nostalgic vision soon gives way to cliché. In Act Two we see the characters ‘in costume’ for a 1920s-era murder mystery party, as though the house and garden are more about the past than the world of the present, in which the Polish cleaner, Krystyna, takes on the part of a housemaid rather than the enterprising woman whose business – unlike Audrey’s – is benefitting from her efforts and attention.

The relationship between the real and unreal, the fictional and the ‘true’ provides an undercurrent in the play as a whole. Audrey’s friend Katherine is a novelist, while Zara, with her English degree from Cambridge, has hopes of getting an entry into the literary world as a writer or through publishing. Gabriel, a young man from the village who graduates from window cleaner to gardener in the first half of the play, is taking a year out before embarking on a creative writing programme. In time, these strands become dangerously intertwined, and hopes and loyalties are strained by the inability of those around Audrey to fully and unquestionably accept her vision of the future for the garden, the family, the community, or for them.

At one point, having been told by Audrey that she found her most recent novel filled with characters that “you didn’t like very much” Katherine replies that the 587-page work was “a satire on the wilfully ignorant people who seem to be full of hate”, adding that the garden project is hardly a bulwark against the very forces of small-minded nationalism that are gaining ground as Audrey retreats into nostalgia. As we saw in his earlier work, Charles III, a Shakespearean-style version of a tale of monarchical fallibility, Bartlett has a keen sense of how literature frames our sense of time, place, and culture. With its title invoking an older name for England itself (frequently used by William Blake) and reprising the metaphor of ‘the garden as nation’ from Shakespeare’s Richard II, his play probes the need to find a sense of mental and physical belonging in a place whilst at the same time warning against the costs of letting those desires obscure other realities.

Nature is cyclical, and by the end of the play all of the characters have certainly undergone a range of experiences, trials, and changes. It is hard, though, to see that any of them are better for the experience, unless one considers Krystyna’s hopes for the future to be a counterpoint to a deteriorating English situation. The human and the economic costs of Audrey’s plan have become all too plain, but even at the last she cannot and will not abandon the vision of the garden that she has allowed herself to form. “I don’t want anything else but this piece of land” she shouts, frantically digging in the earth of her fantasy garden as her family fragments around her, her business slides into ruin, and her sanity becomes questionable. As the discourse surrounding Britain’s identity, future direction, and fate becomes increasingly febrile Albion has lost none of its resonance and power to unsettle. It is undeniably a play for today: and more worryingly shows every sign of being a play for tomorrow as well.

Albion is at the Almeida Theatre, London, until 29th February. See https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/albion/3-feb-2020-29-feb-2020

‘Bearing Reality’ – T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in 2019

Opportunities to see one of T. S. Eliot’s plays in performance come along rarely, and opportunities to see Murder in the Cathedral performed in a cathedral are rarer still, so Scena Mundi’s production of the play gives viewers a valuable chance to experience the tale of Becket’s martyrdom in a setting that infuses its lines with a thrilling sense of place. At the crossing beneath the tower of Southwark Cathedral, characters circulated between the pillars and up and down the nave, while Becket knelt at the altar and preached his Christmas Day sermon as though to an actual congregation made up of audience members. The acoustics of the building are not always forgiving, particularly when voices are speaking in chorus, but the blend of subject matter and setting made this an evening to remember.

Murder in the Cathedral was Eliot’s first foray into the theatre (four more plays were to follow between 1939 and 1959) and it shows him branching out into a new genre, testing the possibilities of what characters can be made to say and do before an audience. It is not a straight historical retelling of events so much as a probing of motivations, a study in the decisions taken, or not, and the consequences that ensue. Hearing Becket say that ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality’ as his fellow priests look to usher him away from the murderous knights we are reminded that left-over lines from the play found themselves repurposed in 1936’s ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of what would, in time, become the Four Quartets and the capstone of Eliot’s poetic career. It is a play that requires close attention from its audience, not so much to the well-known events it covers – the 850th anniversary of which will be upon us in December 2020 – but the language in which a conflicted man wrestles with the prospect of death and his place in a divine order of things.

Jasper Britton’s performance as Becket is rich and complex: his politician turned priest has little problem in dismissing the Tempters’ suggestions that he seek either a rapprochement with the King or an alliance with the barons but is less secure when offered the “vision of eternal grandeur” of a self-sought martyrdom. Distinguishing between a death as part of a divine scheme and a death actively pursued by human will, albeit anticipating a divine plan, is the difference between resignation and presumption, and the Archbishop wrestles with them just as Eliot does in much of his poetry, from the ‘give, sympathise, control’ injunctions at the close of The Waste Land to the acceptance that “all manner of things shall be well” at the close of ‘Little Gidding’.

Around Becket, the Women of Canterbury provide the choral counterpoint to the events unfolding in the city and its cathedral. Simultaneously rejoicing in their Archbishop’s return from a seven-year exile and conscious that in so doing the routine of their lives (“living and partly living” as they have been) will be wrenched into disorder, they capture the mood of a society that fears confrontation and its effects, preferring a half-life without discord to a full measure of upheaval. They remind us that Becket’s very personal fate will have repercussions far beyond himself, and that while his martyrdom belongs in a divine order its temporal impact will be immense.

The agents of that martyrdom are, of course, the four knights who arrive at the Cathedral on 29th December and are first seen in angry exchanges with the Archbishop about his return and his relations with the King. The audience has seen them before, though, in so far as they function as the four Tempters in Act One, thereby setting up the sense that Becket’s rejection of the options offered previously leads inevitably to acceptance of the death that he sees as his place in a larger design. In a work that Eliot (a great fan of crime fiction) once considered calling ‘The Archbishop Murder Case’ they take us into the very modern realm of motives and alibis. Eliot’s master-stroke in the play, of course, was that having committed the murder the knights should appeal directly to the audience’s sympathies, taking turns to point out that they stood to gain little from the act, were following orders made necessary by Becket’s intransigence, were somewhat intoxicated, and were – in the final analysis – put in an impossible position by a man seeking his own end and more deserving of a verdict of ‘suicide while of unsound mind’.

These direct addresses turn audience members from spectators into witnesses – a dynamic that becomes particularly intense when we have sat in a cathedral and seen the play’s action unfold. The first knight’s injunction that, having heard their justifications, we “disperse quietly to [y]our homes … do[ing] nothing that might provoke any public outbreak” re-establishes the awkward relationship between the individual and the state that Becket has managed to transcend but which continues to trouble those still alive at the play’s conclusion. Is it possible to return to “living and partly living” after being witness to such things? The play offers no direct guidance, and the closing choral prayer that ‘Blessed Thomas’ will now intercede in Heaven for the people of Canterbury blurs History and the present (another theme that the Four Quartets would pursue much further) without necessarily showing how a good man or woman could reconcile a sense of divine will and a recognition of temporal authority without it costing their life to do so.

Written as it was the first half of the 1930s, when temporal authority (in Europe particularly) was assuming a disturbingly totalitarian guise, Eliot’s play has lost none of its power to unsettle. In its closing prayer, the Chorus admits that ‘we’ are all more likely to “shut the door and sit by the fire” than to do anything that might leave one open to “the blessing of God”, a blessing which comes in the form of privation as much as reward. Becket’s path to sainthood, like Eliot’s own definition of Christianity, is a demanding one, and as it sends its audience / congregation back into the modern world Murder in the Cathedral is a play that has lost none of its unsettling quality, particularly when staged and performed in so thoughtful and evocative a manner as this production.

For more information on Scena Mundi’s production see https://www.scenamundi.co.uk/boxoffice

The Variety of Things: Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern

In September 1913 Natalia Goncharova had a one-woman exhibition at Moscow’s Mikhailova Art Salon. This was in itself a significant event for a woman artist, and all the more so as Goncharova was herself still in her early thirties. If the catalogue from that event is to be believed, close on 800 works were on display, and the third room of Tate Modern’s new exhibition tries to convey something of the profusion of images those Muscovite visitors would have seen. Here, around 30 paintings have been gathered for this re-imagining and even in reduced numbers the effect is remarkable. The sheer profusion of colours and styles threatens to disorient the viewer, showing what use Goncharova had made of the time spent (as many young artists in Moscow did) visiting and learning from the collections of Ivan Morozov and Sergei Schukin, where crates of modern art arrived from Paris bearing the latest innovations in modern art that the acquisitive Russians had authorized their dealers to acquire for them. From these influences were see Goncharova adopting the delicate Impressionism of ‘Mountain Ash’ (1908) before switching to the to the acid greens and yellows of Van Gogh-influenced ‘The Pond’ (1909) and the traces of Picasso in ‘The Deity of Fertility’ (1910). Goncharova’s partner Mikhail Larionov, who worked with Ilia Zdanevich on the catalogue to accompany this mammoth display, coined the term ‘Everythingism’ to Goncharova’s work. It is a fitting word for a room that overwhelms with its diversity.

The borrowings from Paris are one thing, though, and the paintings that sit alongside them in Room 3, as they did in Moscow over a century ago, are something else entirely. In a monumental installation called ‘Harvest’ seven canvases (out of an original nine, the other two missing presumed lost) are reunited from their usual homes in Paris and Moscow to hang alongside each other once again. The effect is stunning. In a riot of bright yellow, orange, blue, and purple the Christian Apocalypse (depicted here, as the Russian church often framed it, as a harvest scene) comes to life. Mythical birds and beasts look on while angels rain rocks down upon a city doomed for destruction. Nothing else in the room hints at the visual excess of these images – at once both daringly modern and ancient – where the centuries-old faith of Goncharova’s homeland collides with the neo-primitivism of Gauguin and Picasso.

Throughout the exhibition it is that interplay between Russia and the West that informs Goncharova’s art and sets it apart from both sides. An image like ‘Peasants Picking Apples’ (1911) owes as much to the Russian lubok tradition of wood-block prints as it does to developments in Montmartre, and in their quiet monumentality these men seem old and new at the same time. Elsewhere, the vivid colours of traditional Russian dress are reprised in designs for Parisian fashion houses (Goncharova having made visited the city several times before making it her home in 1919 when the Revolution made a return to Russia impossible) and the same angels seen in ‘Harvest’ hover above the advancing troops in the ‘Mystical Images of War’ series from 1914.

The religious element recurs, too, in the icons and religious works that caused such controversy when first displayed in 1912-13. Having made a claim to the role of an icon painter – traditionally an exclusively male vocation – Goncharova gives us images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Evangelists that are both traditional and modern. Removed from view by Tsarist censors, her Evangelists now line up alongside the prints in which Goncharova tried to frame her own response to the imminent horror of the war into which Nicholas II had led her Russia. Through a juxtaposition of modern warfare and traditional religious imagery (biplanes and angels in one image, Russian heroes like Alexander Nevsky elsewhere) the First World War is awkwardly framed as a just cause for Russian faith and nationalism. By the time the mechanised horrors of the conflict were fully understood the old regime in Russia had been swept away, and Goncharova watched from a distance as the Soviet state emerged. One might argue that in her own responses to new technology Goncharova saw all too clearly that the Futurist aesthetic was also a militarised one. In 1912’s ‘Factory’ the chimneys resemble gun barrels, while images like ‘Aeroplane over a Train’ (1913) look more like collisions between different forms of mechanised reality. The figure in her wonderful ‘Cyclist’ (1913) seems to shake before the viewer’s eyes, each line suggesting the vibration produced as he rides his bicycle over the cobbled street. Modernity is not a comfortable world.

In a retrospective exhibition we may usually find ourselves following the artist’s journey, chronologically and geographically, seeing how their style changed over time and tracing the links between early work and later development or recycling. Goncharova frustrates that approach because everything is already there from the outset, and just becomes more evident as time goes on. I say ‘just’ not to dismiss the body of work produced, but to suggest that her work contained within it the multitudinous possibilities of her career from its very earliest stages. An artist who can exhibit 800 works while in their thirties has deep reserves on which to draw. And Goncharova kept on drawing on those reserves throughout her life.

Like many émigrés, Russia was always there in Goncharova’s view from her Parisian apartment on the corner of rue Jacques-Callot and rue de Seine. The travels that she and Larionov undertook in the years before the Revolution were often linked to her work with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and in the final room of the exhibition we see her designs for costumes and stage sets for the company. Here, mythical figures from poems and folk tales are brought to life on stage, their costumes a riot of colour like those of the peasants depicted in Goncharova’s early work. It is a fitting close to the exhibition, a reminder that this most diverse of artists carried with her the traditions of her home and the sense of daring that enabled her to produce work of such variety that is celebrated in this justly deserved display. The work of Natalia Goncharova is, as this exhibition reminds us, as complex and as daring today as it was over a century ago. Head to Tate Modern and be dazzled by her, just like the Muscovites of 1913 were.

Natalia Goncharova runs at Tate Modern, London, until 8th September. For more details visit: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/natalia-goncharova

The Many Sides of Weimar

With the centennial anniversaries of the First World War’s events now themselves in the past, a good deal of historical attention has shifted to developments in the aftermath of the conflict, and their legacies for the world of today. Tellingly, in a time beset by economic instability and populist politics, the centenary of the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1919 provides a subject for commemorative attention, both in Germany and beyond.

Hamstrung as it was by the post-War order in which it came into being, the ruinous reparations imposed at Versailles, the ‘war guilt’ that Germany had to officially own, and the failure of the League of Nations to fully secure the peaceful order that its idealistic establishment had tried to promise, German government in the 1920s is too easily seen as a series of failures finding its historically inevitable denouement in the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933. ‘Weimar’ becomes a by-word for democratic inadequacy, cultural decadence, and the fragility of institutions that could not resist the rising voice of a demagogue who promised simplistic answers to the problems that it had failed to solve. A study of political posters from the period reveals a worrying similarity of visual language, whether promoting the ‘strength’ of right or left-wing parties as solutions to a worsening situation. When the only question facing a society is the direction from whence the remedy for its perceived problems will arrive its politics will inevitably become a battle of wills: in this case one that the Nazis were best able to plot their progress and take out their opponents until there were none left to oppose.

Hindsight makes this view inevitable, perhaps. But was that how it seemed at the time? As Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum’s current exhibition Weimar: The Essence and Value of Democracy explores, the Republic achieved a great deal in social, educational, and material terms and managed against the odds to oversee Germany’s transition from Prussian-led militarism to fragile but functioning democracy. Repeated elections, hung parliaments, and changes of government certainly made the task of German reconstruction harder, but even if the system eventually fell victim to the sheer volume of political parties within it it did provide a model of a parliamentary system. If it was a victim of events, those external forces were often of such a nature that its relatively shallow roots made German democracy particularly susceptible to them, but that does not necessarily mean that its failure was inherently its own fault.

Celebrations of the culture of the period also capture this tension. Tate Modern’s current display of Weimar-period art, under the title Magic Realism, often unsettles us with its subject matter and style, but also attests to the creative forces unleashed in post-War Germany and the sense of artistic liberation of the time. The BFI’s current season of Weimar-era film, whilst offering plenty of examples of the landmark horror and romantic (and daringly sexual) works associated with the time – from Nosferatu to The Blue Angel – also features a wealth of social commentary and reportage: films later banned because their ‘shocking’ nature lay in their unflinching view of the country around them. Such developments, like the establishment of the Bauhaus – the hugely influential art and technical school initially based in Weimar itself and celebrating its centenary this year as well – became possible within a state that was prepared to create room for them or, at the least, to permit them to continue even as it disapproved. This is arguably not a sign of ‘decadence’ or decline so much as an affirmation of possibility and licence. The ‘excesses’ of Weimar ceased in 1933, but so did a great many other things, and none of these cessations was to Germany’s, or the wider world’s advantage.

Ultimately, perhaps, Weimar’s lasting legacy is the fact that the Nazis felt obliged to denigrate and then dismantle it. Its ‘failure’ and its fate are, as the Deutsches Historisches Museum reminds its visitors, of immense importance in 2019, but so are its successes: not products of an age that saw itself as ‘doomed’ but rather expressions of one that believed in possibility, even against the odds. We should celebrate what was produced in and by it, and not allow its collapse to read as its unavoidable result. At the same time, though, Weimar’s collapse should be a salutary lesson to us in case we find our own societies turning towards the simplistic ‘alternatives’ to democracy that did not work then and will not work now.

For information on the Deutsches Historisches Museum Exhibition, visit https://www.dhm.de/en/ausstellungen/democracy-2019/weimar.html

For information on the BFI Weimar Film Season, visit: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam%3A%3AWScontent%3A%3AloadArticle%3A%3Apermalink=weimarcinema&BOparam%3A%3AWScontent%3A%3AloadArticle%3A%3Acontext_id

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!