Wednesday 11 November 2020

Favourite Books #28

‘Does Milan Kundera Still Matter?’ and ‘How important is Milan Kundera today?’ were two headlines from articles which appeared in 2015, when Kundera’s last novel, The Festival of Insignificance was published. Which is kind of funny, as he was all the rage in the ’80s, when you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a copy of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being or The Art Of The Novel sticking out of people’s pockets. A critical and popular success, as they say.

Personally, I loved this novel, and I read everything else he had published up to that point (as I tend to do, when I find a writer I really like). When I used to teach Contemporary Fiction, I alternated all his novels on the syllabus from year to year, just to keep things interesting for myself. His essays are also informative and illuminating.

Like Beckett, he is something of a transitional figure between High Modernism and Postmodernism, in that he has all the scholarly knowledge of the European Classicist tradition behind him, but rather than (re)producing epics, realises he can only function as an artist through fragmentation – a radical remaking of everything that went before, which he still nevertheless holds dear. (Kundera’s declaration, ‘The history of music is mortal, but the idiocy of the guitar is eternal’, from The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting, has always struck me as especially fuddy-duddy, when juxtaposed with what was then regarded as his formal experimentation and innovation.)  

If his reputation has taken a tumble in the intervening years, it is mostly at the hands of feminist critics who (quite accurately, if not entirely justifiably) take issue with his constant deployment of ‘the male gaze’. But what widely successful male novelist of that era (e.g. Mailer, Roth, Coetzee, Amis, Foster Wallace – hey, why not let’s go right back to Joyce and Beckett too?) has not come in for a retrospective bashing from the ladies? But all the young, straight white males who now signal solidarity with the sisterhood by disdaining these ‘problematic’ scribes will one day be Old White Guys themselves, if they live long enough, and inevitably Dead White Males sooner or later.    

A not bad film adaptation directed by Philip Kaufman (1988) also exists. Not as good as the book, though.


Monday 9 November 2020

The Queen's Gambit

I know it’s been dissed a bit in some quarters, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit. I can see that it starts out brilliantly and finishes up rather conventionally, and maybe there was not enough story to sustain 7 x one hour episodes. But who cares, when the production values are so high, the design so beautiful, and it looks so good? Yes, Anya Taylor-Joy may spend a lot of time later on swanning around looking glamourous until it appears her character Elizabeth Harmon is serving as nothing more than an elegant clothes-horse for expensive fashion items, and her easy defeats of opponents may become a bit predictable (although she encounters tougher challenges as she reaches the summit), but I was still rooting for her all the way – especially in the heavily male-dominated world of competitive chess. Besides, her glamour is just a critique of the notion that a woman can’t be super smart and a knockout at the same time (a criticism addressed in her relationship with French model Cleo anyway). Look, I just plain liked the fact that the whole series stood on its head the often geeky, nerdy, buttoned-up image of high-level chess, and managed the not inconsiderable achievement of making chess look sexy. And I know that’s a bit like praising immaculate record production when the songs are naff, but in this case the material is not, in my opinion, naff at all. 


So many things I liked: the subtlety with which her amorous relationships with men (and women) were handled, everything understated; the Cold War atmosphere, which EH effectively disrupts in how she behaves after her triumph in Russia; the perfectly captured sense of stifling domesticity and thwarted ambition women suffered under in the ’50s, personified in the character of stepmom Alma (and also EH’s own birth mother); EH telling the good ladies of the Christian organisation which has been sponsoring her to take a hike when they want to use her as a propaganda tool – why? “Because it’s fucking nonsense?” (note the raised, interrogative, intonation); the sense it conveyed of what many top players – solitary, obsessive types – have spoken of as the appeal of chess, that they feel safe when playing, because it reduces the outside world to the sixty-four self-contained squares on the board. Finally, who doesn’t like a story of an orphan making their way in the world, overcoming adversity when the odds are stacked against them?


I’m no grandmaster (in fact, I’d be one of the amateurish guys Elizabeth Harmon would have blown away with bored, dismissive ease at the start of her career), but maybe you just need a passing interest in and appreciation of the game in order to fully enter into the JOY of the series. I could have watched it all day – and night. My kind of girl (although of course she’d break my proverbial heart).

Thursday 5 November 2020

Favourite Books #27

And we think the postmodern novel came along sometime after the Second World War? Think again. First published serially between 1759 and 1767, Tristram Shandy remains as unconventional now as it was then. It gives us little of the life, and few of the opinions of its writer/protagonist, the hapless Tristram. Hell, he doesn’t even manage to get himself born until Volume III, and the story terminates when he is four. He realises he will never have enough time in the rest of his life to tell the story of his life, so prone is he to digression and exactitude. He is engaged in a race against time which he is bound to lose, if it takes him a year to write about a day in his life. “A COCK and a BULL – and one of the best of its kind I ever heard.”