Thursday 22 October 2015

'Mildew' by Paulette Jonguitud

The great Mexican print-maker J. G. Posada (1852-1913) specialised in the strident, the melodramatic and the grotesque, portraying a vividly strange world of grinning dios de la muerte skulls and bewigged demon brides and epic biblical catastrophes, of freaks and omens, of random explosions and collapsing churches.

Readers familiar with Posada may be prepared for what goes on in Mildew, a wonderfully shocking debut novel by the young Mexican writer Paulette Jonguitud.

A day before her daughter's wedding Constanza, a theatre designer, discovers a small blemish on her upper thigh. This very quickly spreads, a combination of the titular mildew and something more momentously invasive and accelerated, as if she's been trapped in a David Cronenberg movie. The mould, part vegetable part mineral, rapidly consumes her leg. 

The alarming physical symptoms are accompanied by a mental and emotional malaise that accompanies the change - or  perhaps we should say Change, as this is clearly a menopausal metaphor, among other things. As Constanza rots she becomes increasingly less visible to those around her. There are awkward encounters with her husband, her niece, her children - although 'awkward' is hardly the word.

Past events have a spectral purchase on the present - an aborted foetus can be found alive and (fairly) well in her husband's guitar case; there's a very strange grandmother who teaches herself palmistry;  the narrator is step-mother to her own niece, who has an affair with her husband.

This haunting fable cites Hieronymus Bosch, Macbeth, travelling freak shows, torrid television melodramas and modernist surrealism. The presiding spirit, though, is Kafka. A really impressive novella, deftly translated from the Spanish by the author.

You can read more about Mildew and order a copy from the reliable CB editions

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Save the Horse Hospital

News from my friend, the writer and hepcat Cathi Unsworth, about The Horse Hospital.

This place is a stone's throw from Russell Square, and for a quarter of a century has been London's pre-eminent centre for exhibitions of Outsider Art (and much else besides). It's a wonderful venue, of great architectural and cultural interest and an antidote to the slick corporate blandness of other cultural hubs. It's now under serious threat from (three guesses).

Cathi writes:

Like me, most of you will have spent at least one of the best nights of your life at the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury, where for 25 years Roger K Burton has been offering a platform and a refuge for genuine outsider art, across every permutation of that word that you can think of. […] Now it is in danger of becoming lost to us all and instead turned into that thing that we dread the most - luxury flats. 

Roger has spent nearly two years trying to fight off his landlord to remain in the venue that he has built up over all this time, but needs more money than he can generate on the door alone to be able to meet the legal bills required to go on fighting. So he has set up a crowdfunding camapign. You don't have to give very much, and everything you do give is rewarded with a special bit of very exciting HH-related art. 

If the HH is forced to close, we will probably never know anything like it again. So please, try and help in any way you can, by spreading the word as far as you can. And if you can see your way to a small contribution, the site is HERE.

There's also a WEBSITE. 

Dig deep. Don't let The Horse Hospital become a knackers' yard.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Remainder - the film

To Tate Modern last night, to see the world premiere of Remainder, a highlight of the BFI London Film Festival. 

Based on Tom McCarthy's outstanding debut novel, the script and direction was by the Israeli video artist Omar Fast, and marks his feature debut. It's a film worth seeing, and even worth going to see (and I  discovered that Tate Modern is open until 10pm on Saturday nights and with hardly a living soul in the building. A revisit soon seems in order, as the cavernous building works best without crowds).

Remainder's premise was achieved briskly in the novel but interminably in the film, which begins with twenty minutes of throat-clearing. In the novel all we are told is all we need to know: that the protagonist has received a colossal sum in damages for injuries and amnesia sustained in an accident he cannot remember, allowing him to spend - or fritter - lavish amounts of cash on realising increasingly elaborate, highly personal recreations of what may or may not be actual memories from his past. At a literal level this is about the negotiation of post-traumatc stress. McCarthy is too clever and accomplished a writer to investigate such a banal subject and his novel is a magnificent interrogation of - well, what it means to be human, and the contingencies of existence.

In the movie we get all the legal background in explicit but implausible detail, with unctuous lawyers and non-disclosure clauses and all that paraphernalia. A particular sum of compensatory money is specified (£8.5 million), which doesn't seem so much these days, given the grand projects that follow - and I wasn't alone in mentally ticking off the likely cost of acquiring a large London property, recruiting and training actors, building sets and so on (Think Synechdoche New York). I found myself wondering whether it could really be achieved, even in part. The literalist approach to finance made bean-counters of us all, and the realist grounding worked against the more phantasmagoric elements of the novel and, indeed, the film. I also found myself wondering whether the sum was a reference to the movie's modest budget. The film is a brave attempt at an uncommercial subject but in cinematic terms disappointingly inert (while the novel was richly and rewardingly inert, in common with much experimental fiction). There's a situation but no plot to speak of, no character arc, no development and, a few moments aside - when, for instance, the hero assembles and briefs a cast to inhabit his refurbished apartment building, there to perform, at a moment's notice, the same micro-tasks such as frying liver, practising Chopin on the piano or revving a motorcycle engine - we get a lot of faces interacting, with dialogue that veers between the cryptic and overly-explicit, untethered by McCarthy's smart reflections on consciousness and personality that made the novel such a brilliantly compelling original. 

McCarthy himself makes a brief self-referential (or selfie-referential) appearance as an image on someone's mobile phone - we needed more of this, I think. Film offers no end of opportunity for the director to comment on the process of production - one might have expected cutaway shots of the actors employed in the elaborate apartment reconstructions 'off role', as it were, commenting no-doubt-sceptically on the film they were making. Michael Winterbottom did this with wit and flair in A Cock and Bull Story, his under-rated take on Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

There are plenty of bright ideas jostling for the viewer's attention and it's a rare pleasure to watch a new film that repays close attention throughout, and one that prompts no end of (in my case) half-baked intellectual responses. The best ideas were those sourced directly from the novel - the departures were less achieved and convincing. In a clunky reference to Proust the South London apartment building where things unfold is named Madlyn Mansions (geddit?). As far as I recall this was not in the novel so please correct me if I'm wrong (and I suppose there's a further reference to the Kim Novak character in Hitchcock's sublime Vertigo). The most annoying departure is an entirely gratuitous snog between Sturridge and Arsher Ali, who plays Naz, the general factotum elicited to make things happen. In the novel Naz (an unflappable Jeeves-like amanuensis) becomes increasingly committed to, and complicit in, the project - a journey here crassly condensed into a hairy and prolonged French kiss.

Casting seemed off-kilter. Tom Sturridge has such a lean and chiselled expression that he always appears to be in profile, whichever way he's looking. At one point he wears the most preposterous beard and wig (not, I'm sure, intended as a joke). His look is mostly dazed and impassive, the exception being when he describes his need to have the smell of frying liver waft up to his room in the newly-repurposed apartment building. He gives the word 'waft' an engagingly connoisseurial inflexion.

Cush Jumbo as the American girlfriend (not in the original novel) was given little to do. Danny Webb as the Gorblimey crime consultant blew in from another movie halfway through, lifting things considerably, but this was the point at which genre conventions began to take over. Webb has a chortling warmth that none of the other actors were invited to approximate, and with his arrival the film is repurposed into a more-or-less straightforward heist movie, with lots of shouting and shooting and bloodshed and comeuppance, with an existential top-dressing. Picture Rififi remade by Peter Greenaway (and I was more than once reminded of Greenaway's more purgatorial excursions of the 1980s). 

If you're looking for a metaphysical and philosophical movie exploring memory and consciousness and  identity I'd certainly recommend Remainder. I'd also recommend more mainstream crowd-pleasers such as Groundhog Day, or The Truman Show or, of course, Vertigo. And there's always Remainder the novel, which is superb. McCarthy's having a pretty good year - he's currently shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Goldsmiths Prizes for his most recent novel Satin Island. He was not directly involved  in the making of the film and I'm not sure what he made of it all - he was in the audience, and on the Q & A panel that followed the screening, but we had to leave before that kicked off.

You can read the very perceptive Variety review by Catherine Bray here.

Thursday 1 October 2015

London Lit Weekend

This Sunday I'll be in conversation with Jerry White (historian of modern London), Gillian Tindall (author, among other books, of The House by the Thames and The Fields Beneath about Kentish Town) and Tessa Mcwatt, author of Higher Ed, a novel about London today. 

We're expected to discuss "how London appears in literature – historically, architecturally and imagined – to insiders and outsiders."

I have no idea where this will take us, but I hope to work in a favourite paragraph, from  Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four, in which Doctor John Watson reflects on life before his momentous encounter with Sherlock Holmes:

I had neither kith nor kin in England, and was therefore as free as air -- or as free as an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day will permit a man to be. Under such circumstances, I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.

Do come along to King;'s Place this Sunday at 5:00pm Details here.