Friday, August 22, 2014

Edinburgh and the James Plays

One of the most memorable events I've seen in recent years (yes, years) was Rona Munro's James Plays. A trilogy of plays (each 2 1/2 hours long) the plays each tell about an early Scottish king: James I, James II, and James III.

On Sunday, August 17, sandwiched in between several other events, I managed to find a bit of time to sit down for James II: Day of the Innocents. I was riveted. The play tells the story of the life of this strong if unfortunate king as he grows up a prisoner and puppet of the powerful families who attempt to control his destiny (and the destiny of Scotland). His closest friend, William Douglas, son of a powerful lord, too, is a sort of lost soul and together they form a loving bond as a stalwart bond against the violence that is ever present: death, murder, kidnapping, betrayal all form mini-codas to their young lives.

We were seated on the stage during the performance, a part of the scenery and that made an odd way to view the play, almost as though you were part of it. At one point the actors were so close to us, I could have reached out and touched them and this kind of intimacy gave the performances an incredible kind of power.

It was a fantastic performance: the moments of brutal violence tempered with moments of tenderness. Pain
and pleasure, strength and weakness, faith and betrayal, love and hate. The emotional lives of these characters pulled us along, even to places we didn't want to see. One thing that struck me: to be a woman in these times (1400s) was to be ignored, forgotten, discounted, invisible. But to be a man often meant brutality, blood and death.

I have rarely been so affected by a play. It was one of those performances when everything comes together: excellent writing, solid acting, definitive direction and sets that worked. It was really a wonder and I want to see them again and again.

Anyone who misses a chance to see these plays is doomed doomed doomed.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Edinburgh and a discovery: poet Niall Campbell

OK so I should have written about Edinburgh already but it turned out to be one of those trips where I was running from morning until night, seeing events, meeting writers and other festival directors, and attending receptions. Not complaining! It was a blast. But the thick of it is that I have not had 30 minutes to add anything about the trip.

Edinburgh is an amazing city. It feels much smaller than Montreal. Heavy with lots of stone buildings everywhere. No trees! And lots of concrete. But the vibe was really something else: it's so clear that the people there are crazy about the arts: everywhere there were lines of people waiting to see something: a comedy show, a play, a concert and, yes, a writer or round-table.

For those unfamiliar, the Edinburgh Book Fest is one of the world's biggest book festivals (if not the biggest though it's not a book fair like Frankfurt or Guadalajara). But it's the collection of festivals which really gets people out and into Edinburgh: the Fringe Fest, the International Festival, and several other very popular and booming festivals going on in August.

I saw this awards ceremony for the Edwin Morgan poetry prize and once the winner read, I knew he'd be the winner. His work is so moving, full of images of the sea and his rural upbringing as a fisherman's son on islands off the coast of Scotland. Yet laden with intellectual rigour and a broad-ranging sampling of philosophy, literature and history. His first collection is called Moontide and it's a meditative read, one you linger over, recapturing images and phrases that are jarring but moving once you think about them for a while.

The evening was hosted by Jackie Kay, a writer whose work I have long admired. The other nominees included Claire Askew, Tom Chivers, Harry Giles (who gave a magnificent reading that blew the entire room away), Stewart Sanderson and Molly Vogel.

And so on that, I'll end this post with a poem from Niall in an older issue of Granta:

For the Cold

The last tenant of our newest house,
had the gas boiler fire up in the late hours.
And so, last night, so cold, I listened to
the floorboards warp in the unwelcome heat.

I barely slept. The thought of him stretched out
beside us, hot as a hand that gives the slap.
Since then the water tenses in the pipe,
as his darkness changes to my dark.

What I love about poems like this is their seeming mundane aspects: there is nothing "poetic" here at all and it's really a matter of the poet's sensibility and sensitivity in finding poetry in these day to day experiences (another poet I admire, Wislawa Szymborska, was a master of this, too). I love the odd rhythms, the unclear phrasing that makes one stop and consider carefully: the man stretched out ("beside us"?) as "hot as a hand that gives the slap" which I find to be such a carefully crafted line. And that final line which perplexes me more than anything (in a good way: it makes me read and re-read until I get closer at some kind of meaning).

Though not all the poems are as mundane in their settings or action as the one above, they all have this sense of careful craft and deliberate language that is at once illuminating and mystifying.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Francisco Goldman: The Interior Circuit

I find that certain writers are often on many individuals' lips and because I am often talking about books for work and with friends, I hear about certain pieces or books or writers frequently. Elena Ferrante is one (more about her another day of which I have much to say). Andre Aciman's piece in the New Yorker from the spring was another: at least 10 people have mentioned this piece to me, even months later, even people who don't typically read the New Yorker.

At a summer deck party the other day someone went on about an "amazing piece" he had read a couple of years back about a man whose wife had died suddenly. He thought the man was Puerto Rican but I knew instantly he was talking about Francisco Goldman. His novel Say Her Name was one of the most moving and haunting books I read the year it came out (2011).

Goldman's latest book, The Interior Circuit, references his 2011 novel frequently (not the novel itself but the experience leading up to and immediately after the action of it) but it's a very different work. I can imagine how the conversation between editor and writer must have gone as Goldman pitched the idea behind The Interior Circuit: it'll be about me and my struggle to overcome my wife's death but this time with more about the politics and crime of Mexico City (his wife was killed on the coast in an accident, not by anything criminal), lots about drinking, oh and I will learn to drive by taking a course!

I can't imagine it was an easy sell and it is an odd book. I read it quickly: the opening chapters are quite compelling. But he meanders and not all the meanderings are productive or that interesting. I felt like I did learn a lot about recent Mexico City politics (and Mexico City is a city which has long fascinated me since it is a city much beloved by writers, artists and friends that I very much respect). But the whole driving metaphor seemed a bit forced and some of the political information was a bit of overkill. The question that kept occurring to me was: who is the audience for this?

Goldman is, of course, a very talented and moving writer and this is the first time I've skipped paragraphs
and skimmed pages to get to the good stuff. He shines when he writes about his personal experience, his grief, his pain, his attempts at moving on. He continues to write beautifully about his deceased wife in a way that's surprising given how much he devoted to this subject in his past book. But she's still there on the margins. I also found fascinating his analysis of how his friends dealt with his grieving process: the odd things they said, the awkwardness. And I very much appreciate his attempts to not make this "all about him," though essentially it is.

Tomorrow I am off to Edinburgh so stay tuned for a few updates about the happenings there. I have a very busy schedule and there are so many events and writers confirmed my head hurts just looking at the schedule (there are, in fact, four Festivals all going on at the same time). It's my first time at the festival, one of the world's biggest if not the biggest, so I very much look forward to seeing what it's all about and meeting writers, other festival directors and cultural organizers from around the world.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Summer comes to an end and Valeria Luiselli

For us, at any rate. Yes, there is another month of summer left, but we are back in the office today after having most of July off. Time to get started on our 2015 Festival and it's going to be a great one!

Over the past few weeks I've been reading a lot but one of the works which really stands out is Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd. Luiselli is one of Mexico's new generation of writers and her work is fascinating formally. The book tells the story of a young mother in Mexico City as she reflects back on her college years in New York City and Philadelphia, while at the same time, telling the story of a Mexican poet living in New York in the 1920s. The voices are both compelling and engaging but it's what happens as the novel moves along that threw me for a loop. I won't say more because it'll spoil the book for anyone who wants to read it but I'll leave it with the comment that this novel is one of the most innovative things I've read in a long long time.

If I didn't have such a long list of books on my list, I would have turned it over and re-read it immediately. I probably will re-read it later this fall. Luiselli's other novel, Sidewalks, is now at the top of my list of books I need to buy.

I love the little asides in Luiselli's book like this one:

Leave a life. Blow everything up. No, not everything: blow up the square meter you occupy among people. Or better still: leave empty chairs at the tables you once shared with friends, not metaphorically, but really, leave a chair, become a gap for your friends, allow the circle of silence around you to swell and fill with speculation. What few people understand is that you leave one life to start another.

Born in 1983, Luiselli grew up in South Africa and lives in New York City.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


The movie Borgman by Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam is quite a ride. A bizarre movie. You know, that kind of movie you are sitting in and you are so perplexed and excited by what's happening that afterwards you need to just sit down on a park bench and process what you just saw.

The film starts with an almost throwaway epigraph: "And they descended upon the Earth to strengthen their ranks" and the camera pans a spring countryside that has not yet come to life. Swarthy-looking men are gathering, getting weapons (one is a priest) and deliberately moving towards something violent. But we are left in the dark, never sure where our footing is. Nor is this conflict ever really explained or detailed.

Men are hiding in the Earth underground and when they hear the other men with guns and swords approaching, they escape. Barely. This is not a mystical or CGI kind of experience. It's quite literal and very engaging: men running through thickets of trees, terrified of getting caught.

Then later, one of these men (looking like a homeless guy) shows up at the door of a wealthy Dutch family and asks if he can take a bath. When he is turned away, violence erupts but now it's too late: the sympathetic wife secrets him into the back guesthouse after the husband has left for work. Is this homeless-looking man up to something nefarious? Clearly he is but it's never made clear. Later his friends join him in the seduction of this family and the movie continues along almost like a parable, an allegory though there is no nice framework to set alongside the movie that makes the parable-like allusions clear.

I kept asking: "What is happening?" from beginning to end. It's not that it didn't make sense logically but there is no sense of  movie-logic here: things move along as if pre-destined and the actions of the characters are not mandated by free will. Other odd allusions: X's mysteriously tattooed on backs; scars on characters' bodies; surgeries being done on children which are never explained. Issues of class play in the background but nothing is ever determined nor is there a "message" to take away. Is it a treatise on destiny or fate? Are we supposed to feel nihilistic at the way our class determines our futures so that we have very little free will in shaping our own futures? Or is this reading too much into it?

It's a very interesting film and one I want to see again if only to get closer to some kind of resolution. Make more mistake: one doesn't leave this film understanding anything more than when one first arrives at it. But in terms of how movies operate, it's worth seeing and the acting is stellar.

Borgman is playing at Cinema du Parc all this week and next.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig

I was over at a friend's place the other day and she had a copy of Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman on her coffee table. Since she (like me) is surrounded by books, I knew she wouldn't miss one so I asked if I could borrow it.

The next day, I read most of it in one sitting. It's a fascinating novel. The book starts out as a conversation between two unnamed characters and it's only as the story progresses that the details are fleshed out: the two are in prison and are sharing a cell. One is a political prisoner and we learn more and more about his tale as he opens up to his cell mate. The other is in prison for "unnatural" acts (basically for cross-dressing though there is some intimation that he slept with someone underage). Molina (the trans character) tells the plots of movies to the other to pass the time which raises all kinds of limitations to their viewpoints. Valentin (the revolutionary) is allergic to bourgeois morality and values (materialism, romantic love), something which the overly romantic Molina needs to survive. Notions of performing genders comes into play here, Molina adopts the guise of the woman that he feels he is by modeling his notions of gender, his values, his approach to love, etc., on movies and how he sees biological women perform their genders.

For Valentin, though, being together with Molina allows him to express his vulnerabilities in a way that he's never been able to, admitting his own fears, his own views of his weaknesses, the ways he doesn't conform to the blustery machismo he performs in his own right (even if he is also an intellectual and a leftist).

The edition I have has all these annotations which relate to Freudian theories of sexual development which are highly irritating (pages and pages of psychosexual longings that are spelled out in clinical and theoretical terms, etc.) that seem only tangentially related to the story (besides, I don't need someone pointing out all the Freudian references in the plot, thank you very much). I'm not sure if these insertions are part of Puig's original or if they were added in by the translator and/or editor of the American edition. At any rate, they make the work feel incredibly dated. Also the views of homosexuality seem dated as well: though the writer is compassionate, we've come a long way since the mid-70s on defining gay identity and trans-identities which all seem to get lumped together as part and parcel of homosexuality.

But besides the above, the novel itself is really interesting. Formally it's unusual but there are so many things worth thinking about here: gender, class, leftist politics, Argentine politics, power. I won't give away much more but suffice it to say that this book is a great summer read and I wish that Manuel Puig were better known.

The movie version of this came out when I was in my very early teens though I don't think I've ever seen it. Still, I might wait a few months and then rent the film though typically I try to see the movie before I read the book whenever possible. William Hurt won an Academic Award for his Molina and Raul Julia (an actor whose work I really liked) plays Valentin. Julia died young in 1994.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski

Summer is my chance to see movies which I often can't during the year and yesterday I saw Ida. A fascinating little gem of a movie.

The film is set in 1961 in Poland and tells the story of a Anna, a young would-be nun who is told that her aunt, after many years of silence, has asked to meet her. The girl is an orphan, we are told, but we know nothing about her past or circumstances that have brought her to be raised in the convent. She has never left since arriving as an infant. She doesn't want to leave to meet her aunt but the mother superior insists.

Thus begins an odd little romp: one part personal journey, one part road-movie, one part historical exploration. Her aunt is a deeply troubled woman and tells Anna almost immediately that her name is Ida and that she is Jewish. Anna has no reaction to this and the tense first few moments of the encounter with her hung-over, half-dressed 40-something year old aunt ends with her deciding to go back to the convent, to end this solitary life adventure.

But sitting in the train station, the aunt's heart softens (we see an earlier shot of her in her capacity as a judge, mindlessly watching a trial that has to do with one neighbor cutting another's hedges and how this represents non-socialist behavior, etc.) and she and Ida return to her house. The stark shots, the austere background noises: all of that remains the same but the film warms up almost immediately and the two set out to find the bodies of Anna's parents (and Wanda's sister).

It's not useful to explain more of what happens because it gets at the heart of why the movie is so interesting but it involves a road trip and a young handsome saxophone player in a nightclub.

This leads me to one of the most interesting things about the movie: the music. Most of it is incidental (characters playing records or musicians playing on-stage in a bar) and there are only a few scenes with actual background music. Other than that, silence permeates this film. Not only silence from music but not as much dialogue as one might expect.

I kept thinking of Kieslowski while watching this. Not that Pawlikowski is a similar type of story-teller. In fact, they are radically different kinds of story tellers and the only thing that they have in common is their (often) bleak settings and the fact that they are both Polish. Kieslowski uses music in (at times) manipulative ways, appealing to our emotional lives less than to our intellectual ones.

But I appreciated Pawlikowski's vision a great deal. It's not a flashy film; it's very, very understated and he allows his viewers to be intelligent and sophisticated without handing them pat little morals or emotions on a platter. Because there are no answers: the past is our constant companion. Whereas Kieslowski was interested in the ways we find identity and then locate the bonds which connect us to one another, Pawlikowski is interested in how we live within the framework of the past, putting its painful episodes away or letting them overpower us.

Ida is playing at Cinema du Parc  (with English subtitles) and at Excentris (with French subtitles) all week.