Tuesday, March 30, 2010

eat, pray, love

It was with cynicism that I undertook to read this novel, lent to me by a friend, as its cover, blurb and very appearance shouted ‘chick-lit’, a genre that I (snobbishly) cannot swallow. There are, after all, only so many versions of ‘Brigid Jones’-type, self-obsessed, shoe-and-bag-devotee books one can read! But guaranteed that I’d love this book (?!), I decided to give it a go.
It’s written by Elisabeth Gilbert, about a year in her life wherein she begins a journey of self-exploration by living out some of her dreams in an effort to find meaning and worth in her life after a painful and messy divorce. She divides this journey into thirds: one third in Italy, eating pasta, gelato and learning Italian; one third in an ashram in India, where she practices meditation on a daily basis under the guidance of a spiritual guru; and she spends the final third in Bali, where she returns to stay with a medicine man named Ketut, whom she briefly met on a previous visit, and who teaches her a different form of meditation. Now how she was lucky enough to get funding from her publisher to spend this year travelling and ‘finding herself’, I’d like to know! But such was the case, and in fairness, the book that she wrote, based on her experiences validated the funding.
The structure was based on japa mala, beads used by Buddhists and Hindis, strung with 108 beads to keep them focused during meditation. She thus divides the three sections of her book into 36 parts, adding up to the total 108.
My strongest impression of this book was its honesty, which I believe is the most important end of any writer. The author unashamedly confesses all, and draws you unwittingly close to her, as though a confidante or very close friend. She encounters some flashes of spiritual joy and insight, which she does her best to share. These are sometimes effective, but often clumsy, her colloquial writing style and hyperbole often rendering extreme feelings trite and trivial. When describing the meditation in which she witnessed God, she says: “I got pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute, and in that rush, I suddenly understood the workings of the universe completely”. (Completely?!)
On the whole though, this is a very readable, quite insightful book, and by the end, I found myself wishing her well as she ‘got on’ with her life. She trustingly revealed her vulnerablities and exuberantly described her recovery and growth, and as such, I feel for her, in a protective, but a hopeful sort of way.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A prophet

‘A prophet’ tells the story of Malik, an 18 year old Arab youth who cannot read or write who is condemned to 6 years in prison. As one so young, he stands out as more vulnerable than anyone else, and is quickly taken in hand by a Corsican group of prisoners who rule the roost in this prison. This gang is headed by Cesar, a bullish autocrat, who ‘tests’ Malik by forcing him to kill a fellow prisoner. This scene was extremely vivid and powerful, but certainly not for the fainthearted (I was nearly under the chair!) Having earned the approval of the gang, Malik is now somewhat better protected and can pursue his personal aims: he begins to use his intelligence to improve his life as much as possible and to discreetly develop his own network. He’s used as a ‘go-between’ for the Corsican gang and outside business affiliates, and when he gains ‘day passes’ to the outside world, he uses these to foster his own links. He eventually succeeds in obtaining the approval of the Muslims in the prison, the rival gang, and a further struggle for power ensues, from which Malik detaches himself.

The director, Jacques Audiard, effectively conveys the universal feelings of fear and isolation which pervade prison life by letting us see life from the eyes of young Malik, and his awareness of all that he is missing out on. There is even a poetic element to the film, where Malik imagines the presence of the prisoner that he killed, which is the playing-out of his conscience. Malik, as well as learning to read and write, learns both the subtlety of power and the power of subtlety as he observes the movements and interactions of daily prison life. Prison is seen as a metaphor for society: divided and aggressive, and Malik, after six years in institutional prison life, leaves better educated and prepared for society than most people after a lifetime of conventional ‘education’.

Worth a watch, but as I said, not for the fainthearted. And also quite confusing in terms of language: it's difficult to establish Corsican as the dominant race in the prison, as it swings between different languages, and the French spoken is often of an excessively colloquial quality.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

It’s impossible to know even where to start in reviewing a book of such immense power, volume and scope. As an avid Lessing fan, I believe this to be her best work, and one which allows her to explore all of the themes that preoccupy her: love, relationships, politics, feminism, race, class, psychology…

Human complexity is one of Lessing’s greatest concerns, and she explores this with great depth and clarity in all of her novels. However, in ‘The Golden Notebook’ we are privileged as readers to get inside the human psyche and actually experience the complex nature of the protaganist, Anna Wulf as she lives from day to day (blue notebook), as she engages in political life (red notebook), as she feels emotionally (yellow notebook)*, and as she thinks and lives as a writer (black notebook). As we read and engage with these various fragments of her life, we get an immense understanding of her character, her feelings, her motives, and we understand how each of these separate fragments are present simultaneously within her. However, while these various threads are demarcated in the various notebooks, it becomes clear that they cannot be streamlined in such a distinct way. For life is complex, and the more aspects in Anna Wulf’s life become enmeshed to the point of ‘meltdown’, the more she (and we, the reader) see the need to unite and integrate the various ‘streams’ into one life, which she records in one notebook, The Golden Notebook. The very structure of the novel, ie. the four notebooks as well as Anna’s story recorded in the third person, is an excellent device on Lessing’s part, as it shows, by its very fragmented nature, the process of writing a novel.

Lessing writes with a sublime combination of intellectual clarity and psychological compassion, and this is evidenced in ‘The Golden Notebook’. She focuses very vividly on the range of emotions that one person can feel, and how their emotions drive them to act as they do. It is Lessing’s descriptions that encompass the minute details of feelings and actions of a character, right down to their very dreams, that makes Lessing such a great writer for me.

While I loved the novel as a whole, there were various elements that stood out for me, some of which I will mention:

In the black notebook, she writes about the character, Willi, who features strongly in the novel she has just published: Frontiers of War:

“Willi however was not weak. On the contrary, he was the most ruthless person I have ever known.
Having written that I am astounded. What do I mean? He was capable of great kindness. And now I remember that all those years ago, I discovered that no matter what adjective I applied to Willi, I could always use the opposite. Yes, I have looked in my old papers. I find a list, headed Willi:
Ruthless Kind
Cold Warm
Sentimental Realistic
And so on, down the page; and underneath I wrote. ‘From the process of writing these words about Willi I discovered I know nothing about him. About someone, one understands, one doesn’t have to make a list of words.’
But really what I discovered, though I didn’t know it then, was that in describing any personality all these words are meaningless. To describe a person one says: ‘Willi, sitiing stiffly at the head of the table, allowed his round spectacles to glitter at the people watching him and said, formally but with a gruff, clumsy humour’: Something like that”

The above extract, for me revealed so much about the greatness of this novel, The Golden Notebook, that is, not Frontiers of War! It showed Lessing as a thinking writer, even though it is through Anna Wulf that this, the process involved in trying to convey reality in a meaningful way, is conveyed. Words alone cannot do this as Anna Wulf says. It also returns to the idea which obsesses Lessing: that of disintegration or multiple, often opposing facets of personality all existing simultaneously.

It is interesting, however, that she applies this idea to Willi, a man, as it is usually women she describes as capable of endowing such diverse aspects within herself. In fact, later on in the book, she mentions the idea of a ‘real man’, claiming that there are still some left in the world and she will find one for Janet, her daughter. This idea left me somewhat disconcerted as it seems to imply that most men are not ‘real men’, or that if a man fails to manifest all the qualities that she deems essential for him to qualify as a ‘real man’ (which she doesn’t outline so far as I can see), then he’s not a real man. It seemed either an oversight on her part, or more likely, an unfair double standard, which, can be forgiven in light of her being such an honest writer, allowing us to discover the ideals of her heart’s desire. In my mind, the idea of opposing traits existing within a single body, or a schizoid aspect to ones personality, exists no less in men than it does in women, and it does men an injustice to simplify them thus. In fact earlier in the book, she states such fragmentation as a human condition, rather than that owned exclusively by women, when she says:

"Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing they do it”

Another part of the novel that stood out for me was when Anna, in her blue notebook, outlined in minute detail, every aspect of a particular day. She begins this extract with:

“I am wondering if the fact that I chose to be very conscious of everything that happened yesterday changed the shape of the day. That just because I was conscious I made it a special day?”

In this extract, marked 17th September 1954, we are led through the interior mindscape of Anna, and how she integrates this with her exterior world. We are brought through the mundane routines, about which she comments, and we learn her frustrations, angers and resentments as well as her moments of joy, relief and peace. Through such explicit detail, such brutal honesty and unashamed subjectivity, I identified very strongly with her character, recognising such thoughts, feelings and actions as my own.

Despite this wonderful honesty, Anna comes to realise that her attempts to record the truth, however close they come, nevertheless fail. The further she compartmentalises the various elements of her life, the more she realizes that no one approach or theory will allow an individual to recognize the whole person. People are more wholesome than this, and the idea of ‘writing’ a life, in fact falsifies the very essence of life. Life is chaotic, shifting. Words name, label, and once words are committed to a page, it’s assumed that this defines the person. Lessing, through the writing of the various streams of this book, posits the notion that a person’s overall nature can never be fully realised on paper. This, to me was what made the book so special. It’s the magical quality of presence that is the strongest medium of truth. Change, for me, is humanity in its greatest sense…a constant striving towards development, and while writing goes so far in expressing certain aspects of a person’s life at a certain stage in their life, it can by no means be absolute.

* The yellow notebook consists of an ongoing novel describing the lives and loves of Ellie, a fictional character, but one with whom Anna Wulf strongly identifies, as she uses her own emotional experience to inform the novel.

Monday, March 1, 2010


This was a very long film, and much of it was unnecessarily slow-moving. On the whole it was quite enjoyable, but I certainly won't be rushing back to the cinema for a second viewing!

The overall story told of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, in which the Springboks, much loved be the white South Africans were playing the All Blacks, notwithstanding a chance. Nelson Mandela's accession to presidency was a recent event in post-apartheid South Africa, and director Clint Eastwood suggests that sport can be the uniting force in a country. Mandela supports the rugby team, visibly promoting an attitude of fairness, unequivocally employing black and white people, and treating all with dignity and respect. While there is huge distrust in both camps against the other race, Mandela urges them to work together, himself setting the example. Slowly the captain of the team, played by Matt Damon, is won round to Mandela's wisdom and grace, and begins to spread his enlightenment to the rest of his team.

The poem 'Invictus' was cited as the team visited the cell where Mandela spent many years, and this was quite a memorable scene, showing something of the political minefield that was. It showed how the soul can overcome, and the mind can forgive, which leads to liberation.

Morgan Freeman, an obvious choice for Mandela, played the part well, restrained and dignified in the role. Much of the other characters were less than inspiring, and I felt that Damon didn't do himelf justice in the part of the team's captain. The team themselves seemed ill-at-ease in anything but playing the game, which was executed believably.

Overall, I thought that while the idea, that sport can unite, was nice, it was also naive. It was idealistic, and removed from reality. It diminished the political climate of the time, failing to show what must have been a violent and very painful struggle towards unity.