Wednesday 23 October 2013

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Last year, after decades of liking Patti Smith's music in a semi-detached kind of way, I got to see her performing live at the Forum in Bath. And that's when something her die-hard fans have known since those early pre-punk breakthrough days finally dawned on me; here is a woman who's the real deal - artist, poet, musician and legend.

She goes her own way, does Patti; during the first chorus of her iconic 'Because the Night...' she spat out a huge gobbet of saliva where the word 'night' should have been (check it out on YouTube here and you'll see what I mean). She talked of Rimbaud but also gave us a meanderingly entertaining story about a mix up between a lasagna and a steak-and-ale pie in the Lamb and Flag pub just outside Bath. Germany were playing Italy in the European Cup semi-final that evening, so she talked a bit about football as well. And her music was sublime, most especially for me her rendition of Gloria, which I only realised later was one of her poems set to music. Here's a woman in her sixties at ease in her own skin, looking as though she's lived a lot because, in fact, she has.

I didn't have any money on me that night because I was a steward, so it took me a while afterwards to buy her National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids. I'd heard the odd snippet on Radio 4 when it was Book of the Week, but all I could remember was that Allen Ginsberg once tried to pick her up in a cafe because he mistook her for a pretty young boy. It was only after she'd performed at the Bronte Parsonage and autographed some books there, that I got my mitts on a signed copy which I then accidentally defaced with my pen. Ah well, my own personal markings on a Patti Smith classic, you could say.

In Just Kids, Patti tells the story of her relationship with the artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe whom she met in New York City in the late 1960s. He was a 'hippie shepherd boy' with tousled curls and strands of beaded necklaces, she was socially awkward with a head full of nineteenth century literature. Robert rescued Patti from a date gone wrong and they became inseparable, virtually penniless but pooling their belongings and moving once they could almost afford it to the artistic hub in central Manhattan that was the Chelsea Hotel. There they were surrounded by other writers, musicians and artists, living in the aura of Dylan Thomas, Frida Kahlo, Bob Dylan and many, many others who'd passed through its doors.

Later Allen Ginsberg became her good friend and teacher and asked her how she would describe how they met
'I would say you fed me when I was hungry', I told him. And he did. 
They rubbed shoulders with the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground and before long were moving into the orbit of Max's Kansas City where Andy Warhol and his posse from the Factory liked to hang out. Their romantic relationship may have dwindled as Robert explored his sexuality and Patti found other lovers, but they were never able to break the feeling each had of finding their soul-mate
We promised that we'd never leave one another again until we both knew we were ready to stand on our own and this vow, through everything we were yet to go through, we kept.
Patti was Robert's muse and they were always happier together than apart, visiting their favourite haunts in Coney Island and pushing the boundaries of their art. Patti eventually married and moved out of New York and Robert settled down with the art dealer Sam Wagstaff, but their friendship endured the miles until the spectre of AIDS arrived to claim their generation.

This is a tender homage to Robert Mapplethorpe and the bond he and Patti Smith shared from the moment they first met. Patti writes with sensitivity and deceptive simplicity, explaining Robert's talent and beauty without sparing his flaws and her reservations about the extreme nature of some of his work. She chooses her words with the care of a poet, recreating the buzz of the drug-fueled explosion of creativity and self-destruction happening around her, as she moved from writing poetry to acting and performing as a musician. But above all, she describes Robert's decline with an almost unbearable poignancy and regret for the years which should have been.

Just Kids captures two lives, one bond and a heady world which simply isn't there any more. It's an original voice from a unique artist and whether you enjoy Patti Smith's music or not, or whether like me you are late to the party, this hauntingly personal memoir will enthrall, delight and ultimately move you.

Monday 14 October 2013

Merivel by Rose Tremain

I love Rose Tremain's writing, particularly her absorbing 1989 Booker-shortlisted novel Restoration. So when my book club chose the long-awaited sequel Merivel A Man of his Time which follows the further adventures of Restoration's engaging central character, I couldn't wait to read what happens to him next.

In Restoration, Merivel finds favour as a physician in the court of King Charles II. He's richly rewarded but there are strings attached, requiring him to enter into a marriage of convenience with the King's mistress. In return he receives Bidnold, a Norfolk country estate, but his tenure is cut short when he earns the King's displeasure by inadvertently falling in love with his own wife. Forced to flee, he finds shelter with his old medical-student friend John Pearce, a Quaker who lives and works in the community of New Bedlam. Merivel helps out in the asylum but runs into more trouble by becoming involved with Katharine, one of his patients. Both are expelled and they travel to her mother's house in plague-ridden London, where Katharine dies in childbirth. Merivel and his daughter survive the Great Fire and his heroic actions during the catastrophe restore him to the King's favour and ultimately to his Norfolk estate.

In Merivel, we have moved on some fifteen years to 1683; a more world-weary Charles remains on the throne and our protagonist is still residing at Bidnold with his beloved daughter Margaret. But he's restless and when Margaret is invited on a visit to Cornwall, he decides to travel to the court of King Louis XIV in Versailles. He obtains a letter of introduction and sets out on his journey, but finds Versailles overcrowded and overwhelming; with little opportunity to glimpse Louis, he instead meets the seductive Madame de Flamanville who invites him to stay with her in Paris. Once there, Merivel quickly succumbs to her charms, but finds trouble catching up with him once again when her soldier husband returns home unexpectedly. Fleeing back to England accompanied by a bear he's rescued, he arrives at Bidnold to find his daughter is dangerously ill...

It's a bit like stepping into a bath where the water's exactly to your liking, when you begin a much-loved novel's sequel and find the main character's voice, albeit altered with age, is essentially intact. All you need is to lie back and let the delightful warmth lap round you and that's exactly what I did as Merivel's genial tones reflected on past adventures at the opening of this book. Sadly though, my delight was to be short-lived; whereas the narrative in Restoration is zestfully driven, as Merivel progresses, the novel, much like the character himself, starts to feel a little bit directionless and despondent. Many of the plot-lines fizzle out in melancholy; Merivel travels to Versailles for no particular reason before giving up and repairing to the house of Madame de Flamanville. Back at Bidnold, he neglects the bear he took such trouble to rescue and you wonder at the point of him having brought the creature there in the first place. He journeys across the continent to be reunited with his lover, only to embroil himself in a random orgy with an unattractively wide-girthed matron. Then he starts on a thesis about animals' souls, which just as quickly is abandoned.

All this may be an accurate reflection of what could happen in the depression and search for purpose of a man's twilight years; furthermore Restoration itself is also a series of false starts. However, Merivel doesn't appear to have acquired any particular wisdom with the passage of time; often he seems set on repeating his own foolishness.

There are still some affecting episodes in Merivel's picaresque series of misadventures; his treatment of his former lover Violet is courageous and touching, as is his affection for his manservant Will and expertise at the King's bedside. Fubbs, the King's latest mistress is well drawn and Merivel's more spirited buffoonery continues to provide amusement. Tremain succeeds in bringing Merivel's voice back to life, but this sequel is not nearly as enthralling as Restoration. 

Published by Vintage in paperback. 

Monday 7 October 2013

Great Expectations at Bristol Old Vic

A spotlight. A chair. A bucket. A cloth.

This is all that greets you on stage at the beginning of Bristol Old Vic's new production of  Great Expectations. Immediately, I was reassured - you can't help but feel nervous when one of your favourite Dickens' novels, indeed one of your favourite novels full stop, is adapted for the theatre, even when the adaptor and director is as assured as Neil Bartlett.

But I needn't have worried, because from the opening scene it's obvious Bartlett has a very clear vision of what he wants to achieve; a pared-back staging with storytelling to the fore. Pip (Tom Canton) walks on and describes his early childhood using Dickens' evocative opening lines about the origins of his name. He visits the graves of his parents and the 'five little stone lozenges' that mark his dead brothers and first meets, of course, the terrifying escaped convict Magwitch (Timothy Walker).

Pip's is a harsh and solitary existence, brought up by an older sister who resents the drudgery of looking after him, as well as her kindly but downtrodden blacksmith husband Joe Gargery (Tim Potter). He's beaten with the dreaded 'tickler' and harangued for not being grateful enough that Mrs Joe (Lindsay Dukes) took him in. But Pip's life is transformed when his presence is requested at the house of the wealthy but reclusive Miss Havisham (Adjoa Andoh) and her chilling niece Estella (Laura Rees) and then once more when he's visited by Mr Jaggers (Tim Potter again), a solicitor who informs him of an anonymous benefactor who wishes to remove him to London to be schooled as a gentleman of' 'great expectations'.

Tom Canton is a charismatic and convincing Pip at all ages, adopting a younger, uneducated voice for the boy and switching effortlessly to the tones of a gentleman as he narrates his own story. Canton is very tall and the decision not to introduce a young actor for the childhood scenes was an inspired one; the sight of gangly young Pip folding himself into the smallest chair or being admonished by an adult forced to look up to him adds to the comedic moments. The whole ensemble cast is excellent, often acting as a chorus creeping upon Pip from backstage, wheeling tables around as a sideline and switching roles in his narration. Miltos Yerolemou (whose Bottom I'll never forget) provides many of the Dickensian comedy moments as Mr Pumblechook and Sarah Pocket. But the performance of the night must go to Adjoa Andoh as Miss Havisham, utterly breathtaking in her voicing and movements which didn't appear entirely human - in fact my husband and I spent the interval debating whether she was more arachnid or crab.

Michael Vale's austere staging means there's a greater focus on sound and lighting to dramatise Pip's story and prevent it from appearing too makeshift. Timothy X Atack's sound is crystal clear and elemental; hammer on metal, watery marshes, naked flames consuming flesh. The striking of matches reminded me of Bartlett's own 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC and of David Lynch's film Wild at Heart. Microphones, although occasionally distracting, are used to magnify sounds and add an anachronistic edge. And lighting switches moods and defines room sizes, closing off or illuminating the murky depths of the stage and dramatically highlighting Miss Havisham's dreadful demise.

With a book as long as Great Expectations some of the story has to be glossed over or omitted and a few of the elements, such as the development of Estella's relationship with Bentley Drummle or Pip's reluctance to keep in touch with Joe, seem rushed. They might be difficult to understand, in the second half in particular, without prior knowledge of the novel and older children (the recommended age is 11+) or anyone not familiar with (or having forgotten) the subtleties of the plot would be well advised to read a synopsis before seeing this production.

Ultimately though, this is a reader's adaptation, storytelling at its finest and true to the original text. It captures exactly the spirit of Pip's desolation, the mystery of his change in fortune, his need for forgiveness and to forgive himself. Bartlett reflects in the programme notes that this is Dickens' most darkly autobiographical novel and, despite the many moments of comedy, this production has a more authentic emotional heart than any version I've seen.

Great Expectations is at Bristol old Vic until 2nd November 2013. Pictures and my tickets to see Great Expectations are courtesy of Bristol Old Vic.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We loved Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in my book group and wanted to read more of her work. When we discovered Americanah isn't available in paperback until next February, we plumped instead for her acclaimed debut novel Purple Hibiscus.

This is the story of Kambili, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy family who, thanks to her father's business enterprises, appears to have everything she could want. But, from the outset, the reader has the unsettling feeling that something is amiss; although materially well blessed, the lives of Kambili and her brother Jaja are dominated by their overzealous father. Outwardly Papa is charming, generous and principled in running his factories and the only newspaper in Nigeria to stand up to government tyranny, but at home he imposes his own strict brand of Catholicism, allowing Kambili no space to think for herself in her days dominated by his schedules. To be anything less than top of her class at school is unacceptable and she works hard to fulfil her father's wishes, accepting his disproportionate punishment when she inadvertently lapses into sin.

Kambili and Jaja communicate through a secret language, an empathy of looks; their Mama too chooses to speak few words for fear they might be the wrong ones. But Kambili is growing up and beginning to notice she's not like other teenagers, particularly her loud and opinionated cousins. And when a military coup prolongs the visit she and Jaja are making to their Aunty Ifeoma, a university lecturer threatened by her own struggle against corruption, they really begin to find their voices.  Meeting local priest Father Amadi introduces them to a gentler, more forgiving version of their faith but Papa is unwilling to loosen his grip and for Kambili, Jaja and Mama the struggle is ultimately a brutal one.

Kambili narrates her own story and, so intensely real is Adichie's closely observed writing, she immediately draws you in. Mama caresses her cornrows
she liked to do that, to trace the way strands of hair from different parts of my scalp meshed and held together...I could smell the chalky deodorant under her arms. Her brown face, flawless but for the recent jagged scar on her forehead, was expressionless.
while Papa offers her a sip of his tea
Have a love sip he would say...Then I would hold the cup with both hands and raise it to my lips. One sip. The tea was always too hot, always burned my tongue...But it didn't matter because I knew that when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa's love into me
The details of Kambili's world are vividly authentic, from the tastes and textures of the fufu and onugbu soup she eats for lunch to the exotic colours of the hibiscus and allamanda flowers. The smallest of shifts, such as Papa unexpectedly switching from English to Igbo, can signal a threatening change of mood, another sin to be corrected. You find yourself coming to care deeply for Kambili's well-being but Adichie is equally skilled in her portrayal of Papa, a black man following a white Jesus. She shows him not as an unthinking monster, rather a man capable of great goodness who, in the name of religion and saving their souls from eternal damnation, abuses his wife and children and all but cuts his ties with his own father and sister. Kambili's growing feelings for Father Amadi are also explored with great sensitivity, although I was a little less certain about his response.

Adichie's love of her homeland shines through every page, as too does her awareness of its many shortcomings. She writes of places she knows intimately and it shows; the university town of Nsukka where Aunty Ifeoma and the cousins live in their cramped and shabby flat is where Adichie herself grew up. Her hero is the renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and she incorporates the title of his book Things Fall Apart into this novel's opening line. Purple Hibiscus has a linear structure, simpler than Half of a Yellow Sun, retaining Kambili as its sole narrator throughout. Yet it's still an astonishingly confident and accomplished debut and one which makes me even more impatient for my book group to read Americanah.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Sweet Charity

Oh dear, I've been let loose in the book section of my local charity shop again. Given the current teetering state of my reading pile I should've exercised more restraint, but I justified my purchases because they're all in a good cause. I did put a few books back, in fact, so I was really being quite restrained, after all. What's more, I've been hankering after some of the titles here for a while...

First up is Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a story of the brutal conditions in Stalin's Siberian labour camps, which Solzhenitsyn experienced first hand. I read a review on Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings blog here and am especially pleased to see my Penguin version is by her preferred translator Ralph Parker.
By contrast my next book is The Rotter's Club by Jonathan Coe, a comic coming-of-age tale set in the 1970s. I read Coe's The Rain Before it Falls when he visited Bath Literature Festival a few years ago and wasn't totally convinced. One of my fellow stewards told me The Rotters Club was way better, so I'm giving him a second chance.

Then I chose What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn purely because it was recommended by my daughter's English teacher (it's possible she was actually recommending it for my 15 year old daughter now I think about it). Mrs Cunningham I'm holding you responsible...

And finally, lacking a little Mantel in my life while waiting for the final instalment of the Wolf Hall trilogy, I found a near pristine copy of A Place of Greater Safety a story of the French Revolution. At 872 pages it definitely falls into the long novel category, but I always find Hilary Mantel immensely readable.

So there we have it - four completely different worlds to explore for a total outlay of £6! Now all I need to do is read (and review) these previously-loved treasures...