Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Simon Turner - A Roundup of Recent Reading / Listening / Viewing

Hello!  Long time no see (I can hear the groans of 'Oh Christ, they're back' echoing through the intersphere as I type).  Partly this is due to being busy, engaged as both the editors are in the trials and pitfalls of meatspace, which is alaways a drag, but it's also a result of indifference, for which we deserve a proverbial kick up the arse.  But that's all set to change: spring's on its way - although as I'm writing, the clear blue sky's become clouded over and the leafless poplar across the road's taken on a dark and cheerless aspect, like every scene in The Godfather Part III featuring Sofia Coppola.  But I'm not going to allow the change in the weather to deter me from my witless outpourings.  Here, for your delectation, is a brief roundup of the books I've been reading, music I've been listening to, and movies I've been watching.  Why?  Because I can.


Robert Fraser, Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne

I threatened a review of this work when it was published, and here it is (or rather, here's the trailer: I plan to post something a little more substantial later in the month).  It's a bit of an odd beast, all told, simultaneously insisting upon the importance of Gascoyne's post-Surrealist projects, but hamstrung by the fact that the Surrealist years are the ones by which Gascoyne will be judged and remembered.  Indeed, the problem Fraser's biography faces in this regard are signalled in his choice of title: Gascoyne can't be billed as a Surrealist poet, according to the terms of the biography, but neither can Surrealism - the engine and catalyst for much of his writing - but ignored altogether, so we're faced with the rather clunky phrasing as it stands.  There's also - again, signalled in the title - the problem of Gascoyne's relative obscurity: I can't imagine an equivalent study of Auden or Larkin or Ginsberg that would have to remind readers of the profession of its subject.  Minor gripes, though.  The book itself is extremely readable, and offers a compelling portrait of Gascoyne: haunted much of the time, inward looking and prone to depression, but also extremely (if intermittently) energised and productive.  It's also a great portrait of a particularly fervent period in British poetry and literature: the later stages of high Modernism, ex-pat Paris awash with ideas and cheap booze, the political turmoil surrounding the Spanish Civil War and the run up to WW2.  This is the nerd in me speaking, but there are - at least in my copy - quite a lot of typos, as many as one or two a page for vast stretches of the text.  Most are forgivable, if annoying, but claiming that the notion of April as a cruel month originated in Four Quartets is a bit of a stretch, surely?  I began to wonder after a while, given their recurrence, whether the typos were a deliberate Surrealist gesture designed to unstable the reader's grasp on the authority of the written word, and thus all forms of hierarchy.  Unlileky.    


David Gascoyne, Journals 1936-7

Inspired by Fraser's study, I felt it necessary to go straight to the horse's mouth, and took a punt with Gascoyne's journals covering the period between 1936 and 37, which served to confirm Fraser's portrait of the poet as rather dour and self-involved for the most part.  It's very interesting reading, however, beautifully written, and, when Gascoyne does step outside of his own consciousness, it's as valuable a document of the atmosphere and personalities of the period as, say, Spender's own journals.  One particularly telling passage covers a meeting of the British Surrealist group that quickly descends into, basically, high-toned bickering and name-calling, coupled with pseudo-political posturing and sloganeering: it reads like a potted history of the avant garde.  


Ted Joans, Teducation

Ted Joans is a name I've stumbled across a few times in my reading around Surrealism and the Beats, so thought it incumbent to read some of his work.  Teducation is an excellent selected from Coffee House Press, which is, frustratingly, rather schematic in its division of Joans' work into political and Surrealist categories (compounded by the fact the poems are not arranged by period or collection, but alphabetically, which I suppose is as good a means as any of creating randomness).  Joans has in the past been rather neglected by anthologies and literary historicising, mostly, I suspect, because of his failure to fit into any one cateagory: he's a Surrealist, certainly, but also connected to the Beats in a big way, and was a pivotal figure within literary Black Nationalism.  His poems are also highly performative: in many instances I get the impression from the lesser poems in Teducation that their performance would rescue them from mediocrity, as is the case with many performance poems when viewed within the confines of the page.  I'm tempted to test this theory at an open mic night with some of the more confrontational pieces here, though I suspect I'm a little too which and middle class to pull it off.


Wolves in the Throne Room, Celestial Lineage

A sonic cathedral, basically.  There's a very exciting collection of bands - Alcest, Les Discrets, Altar of Plagues, and Wolves... - who have been reshaping black metal, one of the most extreme and inhospitable of musical genres for most people, due to its historical association with hateful and stupid shit like virulent anti-Christianity and bandmate murder (this is before we get onto the sound of the records themselves, which nine times out of ten sound like a hurricane in a snow-blown forest in Norway), into something quite beautiful and transcendental.  I love this album, having been largely unconvined by their previous effort, and I'm not ashamed to say it moves me in ways that little music has for some time.  It sounds like the end of the world, and it's got a lute on it.  What more could you ask for?


Various Ealing comedies (and Kill List)

I'd never seen Kind Hearts and Coronets, and felt I should remedy the situation before I was caught out at the next annual meeting of the Alec Guiness Appreciation Society.  I was not disappointed: it's really a black comic masterpiece, for all its gentility an all-out assault on the English class system and the stultifying culture it helps to prop up, and, like Fraser's biography of Gascoyne and Gascoyne's own journals, an accurate (though heightened) portrait of a particular moment in history (in this case, Edwardian England viewed through the lens Britain's bruised post-WW2 psyche).  Less savage but equally enjoable, Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob are, likewise, cultural time capsules, a comic, anarchic condensation of a particular strand of eccentric English anti-authoritarianism.

Kill List, meanwhile, is a very different beast.  If Ealing comedies are emblematic of a paricular moment in British cultural history, Kill List is indicative of its own.  Possibly the most harrowing film I've seen for some time, Kill List might profitably be described as a post-Mike Leigh horror thriller for the austerity age.  But I'm not going to do that, because it'd make me look like a gaping arse.  But what I will say is that Kill List proves once again that invention and innovation are often a matter of hybridity.  That awful tabloid shorthand above for the type of film this is really isn't far off: the sheer discomfort the audience is subjected to is at least in part due to the generic restlessness of the movie as its subject matter (though the subject matter - two professional hitmen hired by a sinister organisation, trudging through a miserably mundane British landscape composed almost entirely of anonymous chain hotels, post-industrial architectural detritus and blasted wasteground - is grim enough).  The way in which the genres rub up against each other wrong way is part of the brilliance of the film.  What's more unsettling: the simmering violence of an increasingly loveless marriage, or the violence unleashed by the protagonists on their intended targets?  They're really, at heart, mirrors of one another: violence located at the very heart of life, round every corner (virtually every frame of Kill List is imbued with a sense of dread and impending disaster, which places it in the company of The Shining, a film it seems to be riffing on unobtrusively throughout).  See it immediately, though be prepared to need a cup of tea and a lie down immediately afterwards.   

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