literature


Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think finally, the only real question.

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one matter, only one finally worth telling.

But if this is your only story, then it’s the one that you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth what happened, or move you further away? I’m not sure . One test might be whether, as the years pass, you come out better from your own story, or worse.

This is the start of Julian Barnes’ latest book, ‘The Only Story’, which Joan gave me on Valentine’s Day. I was touched: romance is clearly not dead, but then I read further ……

Paul was only nineteen when he met Susan. She was forty five and had two teenage daughters. They were drawn to partner each other in the mixed doubles tournament at the tennis club in the Surrey village where they both lived. Although they were not the most successful tennis partnership, they made each other laugh. Paul had a car and would take her home after tennis. Their unlikely relationship developed. The found time to meet other than at tennis, they spent weekends away together and Paul would even make love to her in her bedroom at home while her husband, whom she derided as ‘Mr Elephant Pants’, snored in another room. They were both smitten, though it was such a high risk affair.

They put money into an escape fund and ran away together, renting a flat in south east London. At first things went well. They were happy. Paul got into law school and studied to be a solicitor. He felt very responsible and grown up. But then, he began to notice that Susan was drinking rather a lot. She said that she needed it to relax, promised to give up, but after a while made no attempt to hide it from him; she was more obviously drunk when he came home and more irritable. Then Paul found that she was deceiving him by going back to see her husband when he was away at Uni. The drinking became worse and along with it, her mental state, but they were both too dependant on each other to end the relationship.

Eventually after several episodes when the police were called and Susan was admitted to a psychiatric institution for a time, Paul realised that his mental health was also deteriorating. He had to get away. He took a sequence of posts abroad, but not before he wrote to her daughter to ask if she would look after her mother. But he always kept in touch with Susan, coming back to see her whenever he was in London. Susan never stopped drinking, never got better and died prematurely of liver failure. Paul never married. Their’s was his only story.

Julian Barnes never seems to tell a happy story. His plot lines are full of convoluted and tortured relationships that explore the nature of the human condition. ‘The Only Story’ tackles several monumental themes: intergenerational sexual relationships, addictive attachment, and self annihilation.

Separation from one’s parents is a vital rite of passage for a young person. Although Susan is not his real mother and her husband is ignored and emasculated, not murdered, Paul’s relationship with Susan, conducted while he is still living in the parental home, is what Freud would have described as oedipal and does not allow him to develop his own identity. Instead, he forms an intense attachment with Susan, which lasts all his life. Susan, despite bearing two children and established in the community, is also naive, but too anxious to manage alone without the help of alcohol. They are both like children who have never grown up.

Inevitably, their relationship fails. Perhaps it was too intense, too needy; it didn’t allow any personal space But as Susan’s love deteriorates into a tiresome habit and then into a kind of hatred, the alcohol addiction that comes to replace it disintegrates from a prop to become a means of self destruction. To survive, it seems, relationships must be a balance of independence and togetherness. The secret of life, as the child psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott once said, is ‘to be alone in the company of others’, but that requires a degree of self reliance and responsibility. We can end up hating a partner either because they are too needy or because we need them too much. The sad thing is that, having risked all for their love, Susan and Paul had to make it work. They had made a trap for themselves.

Why do human beings tend to have this inclination to do the very thing that is likely to damage them the most? Is it that they fear not being able to do the thing they want to do so they pretend they never wanted to do it anyway? Or is it more than that? Do they just want to destroy the whole idea of self control and responsibility? Would they rather live for whatever gives them excitement or pleasure, even if that turns out to be the route to meaninglessness and self hatred?

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the secretIris had known there was something different and rather strange about her since she was very small, but she could never quite put her finger on what it was.  Her mother, Elizabeth, was everything to her; she not only clothed her, fed her and cared for her as most mothers would, there was something deeper, stranger. Her mother knew her so well she seemed to be able to regulate the way she felt. This feeling of difference intensified when she went to school. Her mother had wanted to educate her at home, but was persuaded by the social worker that this would not be in Iris’ best interest. At school, the children seemed to know she was different, a bit weird but not in any obvious way. After all, she looked like a normal little girl, and she was bright and interested in things. Maybe it was the way she didn’t seem to want to join in with the other girls; it was like her mother was enough for her. As she grew older, her isolation intensified; she never hung out with the other girls. Her somewhat detached air of self containment irritated them and she was picked on and bullied, but her mother knew her so well and was always there to calm her and make her feel secure.

She began to ask questions. Why didn’t she have a father? Why were there no aunts or uncles; no grandparents? Why did her mother have no close friends? It was like she and her mother were everything each of them needed. As Iris developed into a young woman, they even looked identical: same height and shape, same colour hair, same way of walking, same choice in clothes. People did a double take when they saw them both together. It was weird. This feeling of strangeness grew in Iris; she wanted to know who she was and where she came from. Elizabeth was evasive, telling her that she was not old enough to know yet; she couldn’t handle it, but that only intensified Iris’ curiosity. Once, Janey, Elizabeth’s sister, came to Chicago. She kept looking at Iris and seemed almost frightened of her. It was all very odd.

Iris had to find out what was going on. When her mother went out, she began to search through her papers. In the cellar, she found an old filing cabinet. It was like a treasure chest. There were all sorts of things in there from way back: Elizabeth’s old school reports and certificates, letters from boy friends, a whole stash of letters from her mother, sad, poignant letters that indicated a big rift in the family, but there was no mention of Iris’ father. Then she found it; tucked away at the back of the bottom drawer  was her birth certificate. She hardly dare read it.  Next to the heading: father, the registrar had written ‘none’, and under that by way of explanation: ‘clone’.

So there it was. Iris was a clone of her mother. She was not a separate person, she was just a copy.  Suddenly, everything was explained: the unnatural closeness to Elizabeth, the sense of strangeness, the estrangement from family, the absence of a father – everything!  But it was devastating!  Was she some kind a monster; a freak of nature? Did she even exist outside her mother? What was the point of carrying on if she was just a copy of her mother?  What future did she have if it was already determined?  Could she ever have her own identity? She had to get away.

They had a violent argument. Iris got her fingers round her mother’s neck and almost throttled her. They could both no longer exist in the same space. Then, some days later, in the middle of the night when Elizabeth was asleep, she left. She flew to New York.  It was where her mother’s family had lived.  She needed to fill in the gaps.  Perhaps if she knew more about her mother, she could begin to know herself.  She stayed in the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, was picked up by a man in the bar, had sex with him more out of sense of curiosity than desire. She even went to the clinic where she was made and met the scientist who had produced her, but this just intensified her sense of alienation. With the help of Piotr, a strange geeky young man, she lived with for a time, she hacked into her aunt’s computer and found where her grandparents lived. She flew to Palm Beach and surprised them. Whether it was the shock of seeing Iris, meeting a facsimile of Elizabeth as she was when they had last seen her or just ‘natural causes’, her grandmother, who had not been well, collapsed while they were walking back from the beach.  Within a few days, she was dead, but not before Iris, as Elizabeth, was able to forgive her ‘mother’ for putting pressure on her to have a baby.  Her grandfather died a few weeks later.

Returning to Manhattan, Iris lived with Janey, enrolled in university to study molecular science, and went into therapy, though the psychoanalytical interpretations seemed too rigid and not entirely relevant to her situation. Then she met Robert first on an on-line chat room that allowed her to reveal who or what she was.  Robert recognised her own unique self, and they fell in love.  It was the final act of separation. She was no longer her mother. In a strange, dream like sequence, Iris and her mother see each other again while walking in France. They both stop, turn and walk the other way.

 

Eva Hoffman’s intriguing novel uses ‘the clone’ as an extended metaphor to explore the notion of separation. It is something that we all face. In the beginning we are part of our mother and then gradually we grow apart and establish a sense of our own identity. Childhood is a protracted process of separation until we leave home and live our own lives. Sometimes our mothers are reluctant to let us go and fail to give us the freedom to explore our own personality. Then we may struggle to separate or, needing ‘the other’ to survive, we may dive straight into a merger with somebody else, who then becomes our new soul mate.  Or we may never really separate; there are still mother and daughter dyads who claim to be ‘best friends’.

Elizabeth did not only try to prevent Iris from developing an independent life, in perhaps the ultimate narcissism, she  created her as a copy of herself.  Iris was Elizabeth, except that she wasn’t, in the same way that identical twins are not the same person. They may share an identical genetic template, but this becomes overlain with differences in experience so that with time they become different people. It raises the whole nature/nurture discussion. Genes can only provide a blueprint, a tendency to behave in a certain way; the rest is the epigenetic and psychological influence of environment and experience. The notion of self is a creation, not a given.

Iris may have looked like a young Elizabeth, but the influences on their lives were very different. Elizabeth never had such an incestuous relationship with her own mother; she had an extended family, a sibling, grandparents, friends. Iris had own known the intensity of her relationship with her mother and some difficult times at school and with friends as a consequence of that relationship; she was a different being, but, because of her unusual situation, somewhat flawed and autistic.  Her psychological development was much the same as many others, whose relationship with a parent is too close.  This was why, if she was going to find ‘herself’, she would need to ‘kill off the mother in her’.

Iris escapes and spends the next few years trying to discover who the is, first by archaeology through contact with the doctor who made her and her own extended family, and then by accreting layers of her own experience and finally by realising her own independent self in Robert’s recognition and acceptance. How she was created is no longer relevant. It is who Iris has become that matters. She is her own person.  But this is not a boy-meets-girl, happy-ever-after romantic tale. Robert and Iris didn’t get married. Perhaps, having struggled so hard to find her own identity, Iris was not willing to subsume it into a merger with another person.

 

The Secret by Eva Hoffman was published in 2001. Born in Cracow, Poland, to Jewish parents who had escaped the holocaust by hiding in the forest in Ukraine, Eva was brought up in Vancouver, went to University in Texas and now lives for part of the time in Hampstead. The Secret is undoubtedly informed by considerations of her own identity.

 

Hot-Milk

Rose is paralysed. She cannot walk or even feel her legs. The doctors do not seem to know what is wrong. So Sofia has accompanied her mother to see Dr Gomez, a charismatic doctor/healer with a clinic, built in white marble ‘like a spectral beast’ on a hilltop in Almeria, Southern Spain. Throughout Deborah Levy’s new novel, Hot Milk, we are never quite sure whether Gomez is just a clever practitioner, who is trying to create the conditions where Rose has no alternative but get well, or whether he is a charlatan preying on her vulnerability to fund his clinic.

Ever since Rose was abandoned by Christos, Sofia’s Greek father, she has been dependant on her daughter to care for her. Bound by chains of control and dependency, Sofia has struggled to find her own life. She trained to be an anthropologist, interested, of course, in kinship, but she works as a barista and in her spare time, experiments with sexual relationships with both men and women. Her obsession with Ingrid, whose ‘body is long and hard like an autobahn’, seems to mirror her dysfunctional attachment with her mother, while with Juan she plays out a desire that is never quite reciprocated.

A little more than halfway through Sofia, throws a vase on the floor. The vase is a replica of an ancient Greek krater. In the shards Sofia sees “the ruins that were once a whole civilisation”, an image of her mother’s shattered life in Greece. When she takes a week off to visit her father in Athens, a city broken by economic collapse, she finds him shacked up with his child bride and baby daughter in small apartment. She sleeps in an airless storeroom on a camp bed that collapses as soon as she lies down on it. Upon leaving, she discovers her father has made a will leaving all of his not inconsiderable wealth to the church.

Back in Spain, she goes swimming in the sea and notices her mother walking over the sand. Her legs are clearly working fine. She swims though a swarm of medusa jellyfish which sting her into action. “My love for my mother is like an axe,” Sofia says. “It cuts very deep.”

Later, she offers to take her mother for a drive, but at a viewpoint high in the hills, she wheels her mother to the centre of the road. In the distance she sees a white lorry approaching. So she leaves her and drives off. When she returns to the apartment her mother is already there. Without a word, she walks into the kitchen to fetch Sophie a drink.

Deborah Levy’s novel is not a great read. I could not easily sympathise with any of the characters. The men seemed not to care, the women self centred and acting out of a sense of injustice or grievance. The stark desert landscape, the relentless sun, the chained Alsatian on the beach that won’t stop barking, the sea full of poisonous jellyfish; they all seemed to represent Sofia’s life in confined exile. She uses her desperate, ambivalent sexuality as a gesture of freedom from her dysfunctional relationship with her parents that she cannot relinquish, but that in turn threatens to be an obsessional entrapment. Ingrid calls Sofia a monster. Perhaps she is. She is certainly not a heroine I could warm to.

Hot Milk isn’t a long novel, but it is heavy with meaning, like a poem. In the first few pages, Sofia drops her computer and its screen shatters. “My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else”. Perhaps that is a clue. Deborah Levy’s book about identity and entrapment. Sofia floats through her life like the poisonous jellyfish which drive the tourists away from the white-hot beach. Her her mother’s illness devours her past, her father’s new family render it meaningless, and her relationships with Ingrid, with Juan, with the inscrutable Gómez, seem to evaporate like spray on hot sand.

Perhaps her trip to Spain with her mother marks a fracture in her life, a life that has been on hold because of her mother’s incessant demands and her confusion of her mother with herself. When her mother limps painfully, so does Sofia. “My legs are her legs.”, she says. Only now, it seems, they can both walk away independantly, but to where?

Hot Milk is a powerfully hypnotic narrative of a troubled life, containing a constellation of disturbing symbols, that continue to haunt me long after I turned the final page.

PROD-The-Child-In-TimeBBC 1 have recently broadcast a production of the play based on Ian McEwen’s ‘The Child in Time’ with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role. It was not an easy viewing. There can be few people, who could not identify with the panic of losing a toddler in the supermarket. One minute, Kate is there and playing happily, then she just disappears. Stephen runs round the store calling her name, he asks everybody, ‘have you seen a little girl in a yellow coat’. Nobody has. Then he has to go home and tell his wife, Julie, what has happened. She is angry, distraught. She blames him. They are incapable of comforting each other.

How can a marriage survive something like this? She moves out and lives by herself in Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast. He carries on; always looking for his daughter, never giving up hope. On one occasion, he visits Julie and on the way home calls at The Bell Inn. Looking through a window, he sees a young woman he recognises and smiles at him. She smiles back. When he tells his mother about it, she says, ‘Yes, I was there thirty years ago and so were you. I had just discovered I was pregnant with you’.

Stephen writes childrens’ books and, sponsored by his publisher and close friend, Charles, he sits on government committees discussing childrens’ literacy.  In a strange, somewhat disjointed development, Charles goes mad. He gives up his job, moves to the country and reverts to being a little boy, playing in the woods, climbing trees, building dens, only returning home when his wife rings the bell for mealtimes. Stephen tries to understand him, but ultimately loses patience. Confronted with the inanity of his behaviour, Charles cannot hold it all together and hangs himself in the woods.

Later, after Charles’ funeral, Stephen is at home asleep. He has unwrapped an intercom system and left one phone on Kate’s bed and taken the other to bed with him. He is awakened by Kate’s voice telling him that she is with mummy. The the phone rings to say that Julie is in labour.  He arrives in the hospital just in time for the birth of his baby boy. it feels as if this will heal all their pain.

McEwen writes harrowing psychological novels. At one level, we identify with the plight of this young couple. The book came out twenty years before Madeleine McCann went missing in Spain. Unless the author is a psychic, he could not known how much that   very public abduction gripped the nation for many weeks and months.  Madeleine McCann is still frozen in time.  She has never been found.

How heartbreaking to lose a child. Even if you find them years later, they are no longer the same person. A missing child never grows up.  Such extreme grief is a form of madness. Stephen catches glimpses of Kate; he hears her voice. Once, he is so convinced that he has seen his daughter that he goes into a school and kneels by the desk of a little girl who looks like her, only to be kindly convinced that there is no way she is Kate.

Maybe McEwen is playing with the idea of reality and madness. Did the child ever exist except in Stephen’s imagination? Did he and Julie both want a baby so much that his mind hallucinated Kate and her devastating disappearance?   Is that why the police were not more involved and why nobody in the store remembered seeing Kate?  Did Stephen really have a flashback of seeing his mother through the window of The Bell Inn?

Was Charles’ attempt to recapture his lost childhood in the woods a literary device, a metaphor for recapturing a lost or absent childhood. Stephen is, after all, a writer of children’s fiction. It’s his stock in trade? But why was the prime minister involved and the Child Education Committee? Was that also a device to underscore the emotional significance of childhood, so often ignored by tests and grades devised by educationalists?

We might suspect all of those, but the author cannot possibly comment.  McEwen’s skill as a writer lies in stimulating his readers’ imagination, not in providing the right answers.

high riseAnarchy in the sky, but could it ever happen? When all responsibility is taken over by the management, would people revert to childhood, trash their homes and services, and resort to drunkenness, violence and aggressive, opportunistic sex. Would the lack of external constraint release our basic emotional animal selves?

These are the questions, being asked in J.G. Ballard’s novel, ‘High Rise’, which my daughter, Esther, gave me for my birthday. He describes the latest concept in inner city living for young professionals: new high-rise apartment blocks designed to take over all the responsibility for domestic life. Not only are all the utilities and services provided by the company, but the blocks also contain their own recreation facilities – swimming pool, gymnasiums, restaurants, cinemas, a play area for children and meeting and event space for their parents, and their own supermarkets, shopping centre and banks. Each tower block is a self contained town; 1000 full equipped homes in the sky with views over the city. There is no need to go out except to work, but nowadays many could work on-line from their apartment. It is a new concept in living; an architects dream that within weeks turned into a nightmare.

It starts innocently enough with noisy ‘get to know each other’ parties. Bottles are tossed over balconies, casual liaisons formed and then broken. Then within days, delays in getting elevators lead to tensions.  Those living on the top few floors have their own express elevators, epitomising  a vertical gradient in status and income, the richer celebrities and top executives on the top, the professional classes in the middle and the nurses, air hostesses, shop managers, bank officials towards the bottom.  This leads to factionalism and eventually conflict.

As the inhabitants lose control, so the building itself starts to fail, first the electricity – whole floors are blacked out for a time. The garbage disposal chutes become blocked. People dump their rubbish in the foyer or throw it over the balcony. The cars in the front few rows of the car park are wrecked by falling bottles. Then the elevators fail and the stairwells are blocked by rubbish, the water supply is cut off, the sewage system fails and  swimming pools become open sewers.

People form themselves into gangs, raiding parties that trash the apartments on the upper floors, attacked the inhabitants, rape the women. There is no food, the shelves in the supermarket have been cleared. People resort to killing pets that are by now running feral throughout the building and cooking them over open fires lit from broken furniture on the balconies.  The furniture that is not burnt is used to barricade the apartments and stair wells.  As the violence escalates, people are killed and most likely also eaten.

Into the chaos, comes  Wilder, a self appointed war lord, his loins bare, his insignia emblazoned in lipstick across his chest, accompanied by his entourage of followers and sex slaves. The apartment town achieves a kind of stability, organised by violence and fear, as strict rules are established, punishable by death.

High Rise is a disturbing and unrealistic dystopia. Realists might question how people go  to work as normal during the day, but always return to their urban jungle at night, why many find the gang warfare and permissive sex exciting, why nobody informs the authorities and when asked, denies there is any trouble. Even the newsreader who reads the one o’clock news every day says nothing of the anarchy at home. The way Ballard wrote it, they just don’t care anymore, but wouldn’t their upbringing have equipped them with the self imposed constraints to live together?  Isn’t that what civilisation and socialisation imply?

I can’t imagine that Ballard meant High Rise to be taken literally. It is science fiction, what-if, a metaphor to think about, but close enough to other examples of societal breakdown in Berlin, Stalingrad, the Congo, Ruanda, and more recently in Mosul and Aleppo. Axel Munthe wrote how during the plague in Naples, when all civic control had broken down and people were dying in their thousands, the survivors were openly having sex with each other in the city squares, on fountains, benches, everywhere. Trauma disconnects the thinking brain so that people can behave  like animals and follow their basic emotional drives until somebody asserts strict control, which they follow without question, like Bettleheim’s Musselmen, the walking corpses, who marched to their death in the gas chambers in Buchenwald or the followers of ISIS.

But when people first moved into the tower black, they were not traumatised, they could still think. The trauma came later. So what caused them lose control? Was it some kind of mass hysteria, like an unstoppable contagion? Helen Wilder said it was the tower that made them behave so out of control, but it is difficult to see how or why.  Why would everybody become so irresponsible just because they were living in a luxury high rise? There would surely  be some who wouldn’t.

I cannot agree that High Rise is JG Ballard’s best novel, though there are echoes of the Japanese camp in ‘The Empire of the Sun’ The themes of vandalism, sectionalism and flagrant sexuality are somewhat repetitive and disturbing. The high rise society deteriorated too rapidly The best metaphors have to be credible. This is too divorced from reality to suspend disbelief. The metaphor is flawed.

Ballard wrote High Rise in 1975, at around the time, high rise tower blacks were being constructed in every major city in Britain.  His apocalyptic vision has not been realised, but only this year the vulnerability of high rise buildings to fire has been exposed in West London.

 

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Don Juan, the ambivalent one, the wild man women love to hate or hate to love, the one they want to tame or not, the libertine who liberates sexuality from the everyday shackles of marriage, the maverick who rejects the mores of society to please himself, the nomad who promises freedom but delivers loneliness.  Don Juan epitomises the essential conflict of masculinity, excitement or commitment; constantly on the move, he comes in through the window late at night but does not stay for breakfast. 

But who is Don Juan?  Is he a melancholic, searching for something he can never find and does not wish to?   Inasmuch as we all model future relationships on our first love with our mother, do we imagine little Juan’s mother as a tease, unavailable, the joy of possession snatched away from him leaving the unremitting quest but no trust.  So is the Don predestined to a perpetual  struggle between life and death; does he yearn for the love that will kill him, yet fear it?  His promiscuity embraces death but flees the pain.  Is he Peter Pan, forever in search the Wendy he must reject in place of Lilith, la femme fatale, who will seduce and kill him?  Or can we imagine him unfulfilled, getting old;  a wine soaked depressive regaling all who will listen with of tales of conquest,  sans teeth, his flirtations rendered impotent by repetition?    

Don Juan is complicated; he disturbs us.  On the one hand he represents excitement, power, liberty, joy, orgasm.  On the other he is a coward; fearful that relationships weaken him.  He will never  commit or belong.  He does not wish to possess.  He needs to explore, seek out, live the adventure, continue the quest. 

So what of Don Juan in the 21st century?   In an age when technology has uncoupled sexual urge from reproduction and given women control of their own sexuality, has he been rendered redundant by a tipping of the scales of sexual power?  Is there less risk in seduction and less meaning?  Disconnected from social responsibility, coupling is ruled by the thrill of the moment, the sensation.  So is everybody Don Juan?  Is it a case of every man and every woman for themselves?   We read that community and family are being eroded, less people are entering the commitment of marriage,  more children are raised by single parents who are less available as role models or guides,  young people are exposed to sex and pornography at a precocious age and are more likely to experiment with variations in sexuality.  There’s no mystery any more.   So has the Don not so much disappeared as become normalised, familiar and tamed and well, boring?  Is he just as likely to be gay these days?   Has our sexualised society become lost in adolescent fantasy?   Psychiatrists tell us that more males are phobic of commitment.  Sociologists report that career women cannot find partners to father their children.  At a time when loneliness and depression are the common ailments among the young, has romantic love lost some of its passion?

The idealistic Konstantin, humiliated by his famous mother, the actress Irina Arkidina, his play publicly dismissed as ridiculous, tries to shoot himself but instead shoots a seagull and presents the corpse to Nina, the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, whom he adores.  Nina is disturbed and disgusted, but shows it to the sinister Trigorin, a famous writer and house guest, who notes down the metaphor for future use.   Nina is in thrall to Trigorin.  She sees in him an opportunity to escape the cage of the family estate and take flight as an actress.  She follows Trigorin to Moscow, becomes pregnant and is rejected by the writer who is being kept by Irina. The baby dies, her family lock their gates against her, and she is transformed into the kind of tragic heroine that the painter, George Frederick Watts depicted in his allegorical studies of hope and poverty. She becomes the seagull.    

Watts had taken as his child bride the teenage actress, Ellen Terry, in order to protect her from the same fate, or so the story goes.  The marriage failed.   It was supposedly never consummated. According to the amusing fiction by Lynne Truss, Watts just wasn’t interested in her that way.  Released from Watts’ protection, Ellen soared upwards to become the most famous actress of her generation. 

The Seagull possesses the usual Chekhovian themes; the country house, a self indulgent Russian bourgeoisie, decadent, bored and in decline,  the threatening clouds of the oncoming revolution  And the actors have the same familiar roles, the ageing actress and matriarch playing to the balcony while the theatre crumbles around her,  the elderly and ailing uncle, the owner of the estate, representing old Russia about to vanish forever, the frustrated and bullish farm manager, fed up with the old ways and wanting progress,  the desperate young author, the naive and fragile girl, and the doctor, perhaps Chekhov himself, a reflective observer, not entirely engaging with it all.  Soon all will be scattered.  Seen from this perspective, the seagull presents a broader perspective on the oncoming crisis,  a fragile but beautiful way of life soon to be chopped down like The Cherry Orchard.  Of course, the characters seem hysterical and self centred, they are all in love with love as a form of escape, the end of their world is coming; what else can they do?  It wouldn’t be theatre if they all behaved sensibly and worked together. 

The Seagull is currently playing at the Arcola Theatre in Stoke Newington; not an area I know well but accessible via the London Overground.  The theatre is a converted warehouse.  The set and seating are rough and ready but the cast and direction is as accomplished as many productions you might see in the West End.  Geraldine James plays the actress and matriarch.  The doctor is played by Roger Lloyd Peck, recently seconded from the Dibley parish council.  Chekhov billed the play as a comedy but nobody in Stoke Newington was laughing.

The Watts Gallery opened at Compton on the North Downs outside Guildford on June 18th.  It is said to be the only major gallery in the country devoted to a single artist.  Watts was immensely popular in his heyday; two rooms were devoted to his paintings in the newly opened Tate Gallery at Millbank but the fashion for Victorian art changed and by the nineteen fifties you could pick up his paintings for less than a hundred pounds.  His museum at Compton fell into disrepair but was rescued by coming second in the BBC’s Restoration programme and then getting a 4 million pound lottery grant.  Watts’ paintings are not exactly cheerful.  The most famous are allegories of themes like hope, poverty and despair.  They are sombre and intense; Watts saw his mission to produce work that encourage young people to think about moral issues.   

Lynne Truss didn’t treat Watts kindly.  In her novel, Tennyson’s Gift, which described with humour the characters that circled the bard of Farringford, she portrayed him as self obsessed and sexually repressed.  Who knows, if he had been more responsive to Ellen’s allures, she may never have felt the need to escape to the stage.    

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