Friday, November 17, 2017

'I had to defend myself' / the night Harvey Weinstein jumped on Léa Seydoux

'I had to defend myself': the night Harvey Weinstein jumped on me

By Léa Seydoux

All throughout the evening, he flirted and stared at me as if I was a piece of meat. Then he lost control, writes the award-winning actor Léa Seydoux

meet men like Harvey Weinstein all the time. I have starred in many films over the last 10 years and have been lucky enough to win awards at festivals like Cannes. Cinema is my life. And I know all of the ways in which the film industry treats women with contempt.

When I first met Harvey Weinstein, it didn’t take me long to figure him out. We were at a fashion show. He was charming, funny, smart – but very domineering. He wanted to meet me for drinks and insisted we had to make an appointment that very night. This was never going to be about work. He had other intentions – I could see that very clearly. 
We met in the lobby of his hotel. His assistant, a young woman, was there. All throughout the evening, he flirted and stared at me as if I was a piece of meat. He acted as if he were considering me for a role. But I knew that was bullshit. I knew it, because I could see it in his eyes. He had a lecherous look. He was using his power to get sex. 
He invited me to come to his hotel room for a drink. We went up together. It was hard to say no because he’s so powerful. All the girls are scared of him. Soon, his assistant left and it was just the two of us. That’s the moment where he started losing control.

We were talking on the sofa when he suddenly jumped on me and tried to kiss me. I had to defend myself. He’s big and fat, so I had to be forceful to resist him. I left his room, thoroughly disgusted. I wasn’t afraid of him, though. Because I knew what kind of man he was all along.
Since that night in his hotel room, I’ve seen him on many other occasions. We are in the same industry, so it’s impossible to avoid him. I’ve seen how he operates: the way he looks for an opening. The way he tests women to see what he can get away with.
He also doesn’t take no for an answer. I once went with him to a restaurant and when he couldn’t get a table he got angry and said: “Do you know who I am? I am Harvey Weinstein.” That’s the kind of man he is.
I’ve been at dinners with him where he’s bragged openly about Hollywood actresses he has had sex with. He’s also said misogynistic things to me over the years. “You’d be better if you lost weight,” he said. That comment shocked me.

One night, I saw him in London for the Baftas. He was hitting on a young woman. Another time, at the Met Life ball, I saw him trying to convince a young woman to sleep with him. Everyone could see what he was doing.
That’s the most disgusting thing. Everyone knew what Harvey was up to and no one did anything. It’s unbelievable that he’s been able to act like this for decades and still keep his career. That’s only possible because he has a huge amount of power. 
In this industry, there are directors who abuse their position. They are very influential, that’s how they can do that. With Harvey, it was physical. With others, it’s just words. Sometimes, it feels like you have to be very strong to be a woman in the film industry. It’s very common to encounter these kinds of men.
The first time a director made an inappropriate comment to me, I was in my mid-20s. He was a director I really liked and respected. We were alone and he said to me: “I wish I could have sex with you, I wish I could fuck you.”

He said it in a way that was half joking and half serious. I was very angry. I was trying to do my job and he made me very uncomfortable. He has slept with all of the actresses he filmed.
Another director I worked with would film very long sex scenes that lasted days. He kept watching us, replaying the scenes over and over again in a kind of stupor. It was very gross.
Yet another director tried to kiss me. Like Weinstein, I had to physically push him away, too. He acted like a crazy man, deranged by the fact that I didn’t want to have sex with him. 
If you’re a woman working in the film industry, you have to fight because it is a very misogynistic world. Why else are salaries so unequal? Why do men earn more than women? There is no reason for it to be that way.
Hollywood is incredibly demanding on women. Think about the beauty diktats. All of the actresses have botox at 30. They have to be perfect. This is an image of women that is bizarre – and one that ends up controlling women. 
This industry is based on desirable actresses. You have to be desirable and loved. But not all desires have to be fulfilled, even though men in the industry have an expectation that theirs should be. I think – and hope – that we might finally see a change. Only truth and justice can bring us forward.
  • Léa Seydoux is a French actor. She was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival for her film Blue Is the Warmest Colour

The Weinstein allegations

The Weinstein allegations

A list of the accusations made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who has denied many of the allegations
Last updated on Friday

OCTOBER 20, 2017

"He tried to encourage me by telling me what a fantastic opportunity it was for me to be part of this project.Paula Wachowiak"
Intern Wachowiak was invited to Weinstein's hotel room where he exposed himself and asked for a massage Source: The Buffalo News

"Mr Weinstein was quite calm about trying to explain to me that if I would at least take my top off, this would demonstrate to him that I wasn’t going to be shy about doing so in front of the cameras."
Tomi-Ann Roberts

Weinstein invited Roberts to his hotel room to discuss a script, but was nude in the bathtub when she arrived. Source: Democracy Now
"He pushed me inside and rammed me up against the coat rack in my tiny hall and started fumbling at my gown. He was trying to kiss me and shove inside me. It was disgusting."
Lysette Anthony

Weinstein turned up at Anthony's home, later buying her a coat that she saw as an apology Source: Sunday Times

The 100 best nonfiction books / No 7 / The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979)

The 100 best nonfiction books

No 7

The Right Stuff 

by Tom Wolfe 


The author raised reportage to dazzling new levels in his quest to discover what makes a man fly to the moon

ewspapers and magazines often provide an indispensable patronage for writers. The Right Stuff is one of several great books in this list that derive from the interaction of high journalism and a higher literary ambition. In 1972, Rolling Stone commissioned its star reporter to cover the launch of Nasa’s final Apollo moonshot, one of many moments that marked the end of the 60s.

Tom Wolfe responded with what he later described as just “some ordinary curiosity”. What was it, he wondered, that would make a man “willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse?”
Wolfe decided, he says rather disingenuously, “on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17.”

Tom Wolfe... his account of Nasa’s final Apollo moonshot
became his best book in any genre.
Photograph: Mark Seliger/AP

The upshot was a four-part piece entitled “Post-Orbital Remorse”, which appeared in Rolling Stone during 1973. There was, however, an afterlife to Wolfe’s “ordinary curiosity”. He had stumbled on a “psychological mystery” – the motivation of the men involved, and his fascination with his own response. “I discovered quickly enough,” he wrote later, “that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question, or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.”
And so, with his unfailing instinct for a good story, Wolfe spent the rest of the 70s in “a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than half a century: military flying and the modern American officer corps”. Wolfe’s account of “one of the most extraordinary and most secret dramas of the 20th century”, became The Right Stuff, his best book in any genre.
A classic of reportage, The Right Stuff is both a showcase of Wolfe’s remarkable gifts, as well as a book of its time. Below the waterline, it was also, as Michael Lewis has identified in a brilliant Vanity Fair profile, all about Wolfe. Lewis notes that: “Wolfe took an interest in the moon landing, but less in the mission than in the men. The early astronauts had some traits in common, he noticed. They tended to be born oldest sons, in the mid-1920s, named after their fathers, and raised in small towns, in intact Anglo-Saxon Protestant families. More than half of them had ‘Jr’ after their names. In other words, they were just like him. What was it about this upbringing, he wondered, that produced these men? It was another way of asking: What strange sociological process explains me?”
And because, in addition to “courage”, “test pilots” etc, The Right Stuff is all about Wolfe, it exhibits its author’s lifelong – and, let’s face it, southern – quarrel with the New York literary establishment. The Thomas Wolfe Jr, born in 1931, who had grown up in Richmond, Virginia, during the second world war, revered those “adventurous young men who sought glory in war” and who had become fighter pilots. As a young reporter in 60s Manhattan, he found himself an outsider. Towards the record of these pilots’ self-sacrifice and heroism, “the drama and psychology of flying high-performance aircraft in battle”, Wolfe observes, with some dismay, “the literary world remained oblivious”.
On my reading, The Right Stuff becomes a triple whammy and Wolfe’s home run. It’s both an exploration of courage and a meditation on its author’s background, as well as being a coded rebuke to the Manhattan literati who, in their devotion to the values of the New Yorker (Wolfe’s bete noir) and also Partisan Review, perceived military men as “brutes and philistines”. Meanwhile, the Vietnam war was in full, horrendous progress and navy pilots were dying. It was this heroism that Wolfe wanted to salute. “The Right Stuff,” he wrote later, “became the story of why men were willing – willing? – delighted! – to take on such odds in this, an era literary people had long since characterised as the age of the anti-hero.

Tom Wolfe ‘repressed his most rococo stylistic flourishes’ with The Right Stuff.
Photograph by Jack Robinson

The unintended consequence of writing about laconic, iron-jawed heroes was that Wolfe repressed his most rococo stylistic flourishes. Gone (mostly) were Wolfe’s whirlwind literary arpeggios; gone was the extravagant interior monologue of, for example, his essay Radical Chic, with famous passages such as: “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savour of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons…”
More sober, more subtle, and more respectful, in The Right Stuff Wolfe dedicates himself to probing the hearts and minds of the first Americans in space – Yeager, Conrad, Grissom, Glenn – those heroes who rocketed heavenwards to take on the Russians in the deep blue night of weightlessness, to pioneer another new frontier, and to thrill the American people.
Wolfe, meanwhile, remained a child of his times. He could never give up his dream of writing A Novel. “It’s hard to explain,” he writes in The New Journalism, “what an American dream the idea of writing a novel was in the 1940s, the 1950s, and right into the early 1960s. The Novel was no mere literary form. It was a psychological phenomenon. It was a cortical fever. It belonged in the glossary... somewhere between Narcissism and Obsessional Neuroses.” After The Right Stuffmade him a heap of money, a fully self-sufficient Tom Wolfe was going to scale the north face of Parnassus if it killed him. And when Rolling Stone (which commissioned him as if he were Dickens) came calling again, we got... The Bonfire of the Vanities. But that’s a whole other story.

A signature sentence

“When the final news came, there would be a ring at the door – a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door as if she no longer owns it or controls it – and outside the door would be a man... come to inform her that unfortunately something has happened out there, and her husband’s body now lies incinerated in the swamps or the pines or the palmetto grass, “burned beyond recognition”, which anyone who has been around an air base for very long realised was an artful euphemism to describe a human body that now looked like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned a blackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in a word, with not only the entire face and all the hair and the ears burned off, not to mention all the clothing, but also the hands and feet, with what remains of the arms and legs bent at the knees and elbows and burned into absolutely rigid angles, burned a greasy blackish brown like the bursting body itself, so that this husband, father, officer, gentleman, this ornamentum of some mother’s eye, His Majesty the Baby of just 20-odd years back, has been reduced to a charred hulk with wings and shanks sticking out of it.”

Three to Compare

Norman Mailer: Of a Fire on the Moon (1970)
Carl Sagan: Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980)
Tom Wolfe: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Rereading / Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rereading: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

As Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro's unsettling story of a community of clones, comes to cinema screens, Rachel Cusk finds herself both intrigued and repelled by the novel

Rachel Cusk
Saturday 29 January 2011 00.06 GMT

n Kazuo Ishiguro's 1995 novel The Unconsoled, Ryder, a pianist, is due to give an important concert in a foreign city. The novel is written in the form of an extended anxiety dream: manifold impediments spring up to delay his arrival at the concert hall; at one point he realises he hasn't practised the pieces he intends to play. In a field outside the city where, through labyrinthine causes, he finds himself, he comes across the dilapidated wreck of his old childhood family car. "I stared through the spiderweb cracks [in the window] into the rear seat where I had once spent so many contented hours. Much of it, I could see, was covered with fungus." The elasticity of the subconscious is also the novel's elasticity – it is more than 500 pages long – and likewise the novel's procedures are those of its adopted system of Freudian values.

This tendency – which might be called a type of impersonation, a kind of camouflaging of the writer's authority and hence his responsibility – can be seen throughout Ishiguro's work, and goes hand in hand with his most persistent themes: the fear of disorganisation and abandonment; the psychical aftermath of childhood; and the relationship between the institutional and the personal through which these themes are frequently dramatised. His most popular novel, The Remains of the Day, recommended itself to readers by the purity of its translation of that perennial English favourite, the period piece: here the author's lack of presence was felt to be impeccable, as discreet and thorough as the butler himself, serving up an England of which he didn't personally partake. But impersonation is also hubris, arrogance, control, for it seeks to undermine or evade the empathetic basis of shared experience. Without empathy, the impersonator can misjudge people quite as spectacularly as he second-guesses them: in Ishiguro's case, The Unconsoled bewildered and alienated the very readers The Remains of the Day had gone to such lengths to satisfy. And indeed, The Unconsoled can on one level be regarded as a sort of outburst, almost an act of personal aggression, though it is a lengthy and meticulous work.
Domhnall Gleeson, Carey Mulligan (as Kathy H), Keira Knightley and Andrea Riseborough in Never Let Me Go. Photograph: Fox Searchlight

Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro's sixth novel and has proved to be his most popular book since his Booker prize-winning heyday. As with The Remains of the Day, there is a film, replete with English celebrities. Ishiguro's ventriloquism announces itself in the novel's first lines: "My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year." The "now'" and the "actually", the absorbed ordinariness, the vagueness of "they" and the precision of "eight months, until the end of this year": Ishiguro's ear is acute, and these are the verbal mannerisms of the public services sector in the humdrum modern world. Kathy is a "carer", and indeed the notion of the "caring professions" represents precisely that elision of the institutional and the personal that generates the undertone of disturbance in so much of his work. There are undertones of Kafka, too, in these words, and in the immediate sense they convey of the reader's imprisonment in the narrator, and thus of the narrator's actual powerlessness. Another elision is the humdrum and the sinister: triviality is the harbinger of evil, and Ishiguro's prose from the outset is conspicuously dull with trivia. Kathy calls the people she cares for "donors", and on the third page she says of one of them: "He'd just come through his third donation, it hadn't gone well, and he must have known he wasn't going to make it." And so the association, the elision, is swiftly clarified. This is a book about evil, the evil of death, the evil of banality: "he must have known he wasn't going to make it."
Never Let Me Go takes place in the late 20th century, in an England where human beings are cloned and bred for the purposes of harvesting their organs once they reach adulthood. These "clones" are reared in boarding school-type institutions: much is made, in the clone community, of the differences between one institution and another. Hailsham, where Kathy grew up as inmate before her "promotion", is mythologised for its special ethos: a Hailsham childhood is idealised, with somewhat grotesque and faintly Dickensian sentimentality, by those who were "born" into less fortunate circumstances. Hailsham is a grand place whose ample grounds encompass a pond, a pavilion and, towards its perimeter fence, a sinister area known as "the woods". It is staffed by "guardians" who have the quasi-parental function of the boarding school housemaster or mistress: these worthies bear the knowledge of their charges' fate as best they can. Once the children have reached maturity they leave their school-type community and embark on a twilit adult life, in which they are given limited access to the normal world while they await the summons to make their first "donation". This is where Kathy, as carer, comes in: she is the attending angel, seeing her portfolio of donors through the series of operations and consequent deteriorations that will lead to their certain death, or "completion". This role has extended her own lease on life, and so she must endure the survivor's moral and emotional suffering. And indeed, it is her capacity for emotion that provides the narrative occasion, that makes her the writer of this account.

It would seem from this description that Never Let Me Go is a work of unremitting bleakness and gratuitous sordidity. At the very least the question might be asked what style of literary enterprise this is. It isn't science fiction – indeed its procedures are the very reverse of generic, for there is no analogy at work in the text, which instead labours to produce its iterative naturalism as a kind of sub-set or derivation of our own. In this sense it has more in common with a novel such as Camus's The Plague, in which a dystopian but familiar reality dramatises the dilemmas of the age. But the dilemmas of our age are not really those of Ishiguro's dystopia: vainglorious science, meddling with the moral structure of life, is a kind of B-list spook whose antics have yet to offer any substantial intellectual or practical challenge to the populace.
In any case, the "scientific" basis of the novel is vague: it is the emotional world of the clones themselves that Ishiguro is interested in, for these are children without parents, children who lack the psychological burden of childhood that Ishiguro so painstakingly articulated in The Unconsoled. And what he concludes is that a child without parents has no defence against death; that its body is not sacred, that it is a force of pure mortality. The parent is a kind of god, sanctifying and redeeming the child: as in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the novel's horrific imaginings almost become a perverse kind of sentimentality, as though these (male) writers are unable entirely to distinguish between imagination and fear. The parent imagines the gruesome things that could happen to his child if he, the parent, weren't there to protect him; and the novelist tries to translate those imaginings into the empirical evidence valued by male literary culture. He creates a "reality" out of them, with every ghoulish component unrelentingly worked out and provided; a high-caste version of the tabloid newspaper's loving exposition of gory detail.
The Road has also been a popular success: readers seem to find the depressiveness of these novels exhilarating. In Ishiguro's case the "gory details" of organ donation and human exploitation are further freighted with the artistic scruples of the impersonator. The prose is locked tight with the inescapable repetitions of reminiscence: "There's an instance I can remember from when we were about eleven. We were in Room 7 on a sunny winter's morning. We'd just finished Mr Roger's class, and a few of us had stayed on to chat with him." The greater part of the narrative proceeds thus, and Ishiguro gets his darkest effects from this "dead hand" approach, creating an atmosphere of unbearable constriction that is like looking back down a tunnel. But his simultaneous need to manipulate, to dramatise his own concerns, pulls the story in the opposite direction. He gives the world of Hailsham a dominant characteristic: the belief in, indeed the worshipping of, creativity. The Hailsham children are indoctrinated in – and, one suspects as the narrative progresses, deliberately blinded by – the belief that their personal worth and the meaningfulness of their lives resides entirely in their ability to create art. From their earliest years they paint and sculpt and write poetry; they "sell" their work to one another at passionate auctions known as "Exchanges"; the cream of the school's production is selected to be sent to "the Gallery", by a woman known as Madame, who comes two or three times a year in her smart clothes to make her choices. Kathy's friend Tommy, though highly talented at sport, is bullied and ostracised for being bad at art; when he tells her that one of the guardians has privately suggested to him that his artistic failure doesn't matter, she hears this as the cataclysm of heresy.
On one level Ishiguro seems to be saying that art is a con-trick, like religion; that it obscures from us the knowledge or awareness of our own mortality, knowledge that in the case of the Hailsham children is brutally withheld. We believe that art is immortal, and so we represent creativity as an absolute good; but in making this representation to children, are we interfering with their right to know about and accept death?
At one point Kathy remembers the way poems were treated as equivalent to paintings or sculptures at the Exchanges: it seems strange to her now that it should have been so. "We'd spend precious tokens on an exercise book full of that stuff rather than on something really nice for [putting] around our beds. If we were so keen on a person's poetry, why didn't we just borrow it and copy it down ourselves any old afternoon?" Ishiguro's mask slips a little here: why go to such lengths to distinguish and devalue writing? Is he suggesting that this is what the culture does? Or is it the reverse, a further piece of evidence of the inside-out, perverted values of the novel's world?
Never Let Me Go, like the clones it portrays, has in the end something of a double nature, for it both attracts and annihilates. Or perhaps it is a book that requires two readers, the reader who can be blind to its ugly visage, and the reader who can see into its delicately conflicted soul. For those who perceive the latter, the novel's bleak horror will leave a bruise on the mind, a fetter on the heart.

Daphe du Maurier / Mistress of menace

Mistress of menace

Daphne du Maurier has often been dismissed as a writer of popular romances, yet her work is infused with hidden violence. To mark the centenary of her birth this month, Patrick McGrath relishes the dark side of her short stories

Patrick McGrath
Saturday 5 May 2007 00.02 BST

pparently Daphne du Maurier hated Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of her story "The Birds". She was baffled as to why the great director had distorted it as he had. The difference between the story and the film is striking, though less in the depiction of the birds' inexplicably aggressive behaviour than in the characters who confront it, and where it all happens. At the centre of du Maurier's narrative is a part-time farm worker called Nat Hocken, and in the story his struggle to protect his family from the birds is set against a wild Cornish coastline where gales sweep across stark hills and fields and isolated farmhouses. The combination of bleak landscape and rustic characters lends an appropriately elemental tone to the tale, and this is missing from Hitchcock's version, with its placid northern California setting and the urbane city folk he casts as his protagonists. This may explain the author's dislike of the film.

Du Maurier was born, on May 13 1907, into a distinguished London theatrical family but lived in Cornwall for most of her life, in a rambling romantic house near the sea called Menabilly. Although she never owned it, she adored Menabilly and raised her family there. It inspired several of her novels. She knew early success as a writer and commanded a wide readership throughout her career, with bestsellers such as The Scapegoat, The House on the Strand and, of course, Rebecca, which Hitchcock also filmed. (This adaptation, according to her biographer Margaret Forster, "delighted her".) A complex woman, she loved the simple writerly existence she created for herself in the West Country - she wrote once to a friend that she was only really happy "in the middle of Dartmoor in a hail storm within an hour of sundown of a late November afternoon" - but she also lived an intense, unorthodox personal life, and sustained for several years a deep, loving relationship with the great Noël Coward actress Gertrude Lawrence. A prolific writer who published more than three dozen works of fiction, history and biography, du Maurier despaired if ideas would not come, and when her imagination was finally exhausted she saw little point in going on. She died in 1989.
A girl is attacked by bloodthirsty birds in the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds

Of all the many short stories she wrote, "The Birds" is the masterpiece, in part, at least, because it provides no real explanation for the apocalyptic violence it depicts. Written in the winter of 1951, it was part of a collection called The Apple Tree, in which the theme of a natural world mysteriously antagonistic to humanity represented a new development in her work, and a somewhat pessimistic departure from what had come before. Previously she had been associated with romances, particularly historical romances such as Frenchman's Creek, Jamaica Inn and The King's General; her debut as a writer 20 years earlier had been with a novel called The Loving Spirit, which told the story of several generations of a Cornish seafaring family. But "The Birds" was not inspired by the past. It seemed instead to anticipate, with no little prescience, imminent large-scale environmental catastrophe. Some suggestion is made that Arctic winds are the cause of the birds' attacks, but the power of the story resides to an extent in the reader's suspicion that there exist other, less narrowly scientific explanations, rooted perhaps in cosmic punishment for humanity's sins. So the very indeterminacy of the cause of the birds' aggression contributes to the story's disturbing potency. Arguably it is the starting point for an entire genre devoted to environmental disaster narratives.
"The Apple Tree" story was written in that same winter of 1951, and while it lacks the menace of "The Birds", it does represent an expression of the same theme. It concerns a man who comes to resent the unspoken reproaches of "poor Midge", his long-suffering wife. To what extent he bears responsibility for Midge's long suffering, the story only hints at. But when she suddenly dies and he is free of her, he begins to project on to an apple tree in his garden those traits of Midge's that most irritated him when she was alive. This hostility comes, perhaps, from guilt: he feels responsible for Midge's unhappy life. And eager though he is to destroy the apple tree, eventually the tree destroys him, and we understand that it is through his own bad faith towards Midge that he has brought this end upon himself. If "The Birds" suggests that punishment by beak and talon is the inexorable destiny of fallen humanity, here we see the same story in miniature, a microcosmic instance in which one guilty man is made to suffer by root and branch.
Nature in du Maurier's stories is no romantic corrective to the ills of civilisation, and exerts no benign influence, other than in a coming-of-age story called "The Pool". In this tale, it is high summer in the English countryside. By a woodland pool, a girl finds a "secret world", a mystical underwater place peopled by fantastic beings. What she in fact discovers is the intense transformative power of her own imagination. This is nature as experienced by a child: magical, enchanting, and unreal. With the end of childhood - and this is a story that closes with the girl's first period - the secret world is "out of her reach for ever".
In a fine, powerful story called "The Chamois", in which the author's gift for evocation of place is magnificently on display, we follow a husband and wife as they go up a mountain in northern Greece. The unspoken tensions in the marriage have been established, as has the man's obsession with hunting the elusive chamois. Having reached the top of a mountain pass, they will be guided into the high regions by a goatherd. This rough, illiterate man exerts a strange fascination on the wife. What follows will reveal the truth of each character's nature, in a manner not unlike that of a Hemingway hunting story - "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber", for example, whose climax also involves man, wife, guide, beast and gun. Most surprising here, as in the Hemingway story, is the response of the woman, who feels strong, complicated, unconscious sexual emotions, and it is on to the wild man, the natural man - the goatherd - that she projects them.
A more tame and precious expression of the theme - an encounter with a wild man on the island of Crete - is found in the story "Not After Midnight". The Aegean seascape is vividly depicted, although it cannot approach the craggy magnificence and romantic grandeur of the high mountains where the climax of "The Chamois" is played out. The story involves a timid English schoolmaster, unmarried, who becomes obsessed with a large, florid, bibulous American boor of distinctly Dionysian tendencies, a man possessing some of the characteristics of a cloven-hoofed god of dissolute antiquity. The schoolmaster survives the encounter, but only just.
The relentless exploration of the human and the animal finds its most dramatic expression in the extraordinary story "The Blue Lenses". This was originally published in a 1959 collection called The Breaking Point, which included the two stories set in Greece and "The Pool", and it gathers up the various preoccupations of those stories and finds a bold, simple and fantastic idea with which to bind them together. A woman is recovering in hospital after eye surgery. Lenses have been implanted. The day comes for the removal of the bandages. To the woman's astonishment, and then her growing horror, everyone she sees has the head of an animal: cow, dog, kitten, weasel, snake ...
The reader recognises that this woman has gained the ability to discern the true nature of those around her, and that the peculiar manifestation of this clairvoyance resides in their each assuming the animal identity that best expresses their qualities: a kind of reverse anthropomorphism. The terrified woman yearns for her husband to come and take her away from this hellish menagerie. At last he appears ... and his head is not that of a man. We are not done. There is to be further eye surgery. The woman is to have new lenses. Again the bandages are removed from her eyes - and we move to the brilliantly grim denouement of the tale, an instance of perfect narrative ingenuity from this most gifted of storytellers.
"Kiss Me Again, Stranger" is a strange, dark tale, part noir and part gothic. It is narrated by a young single man living in London who one night goes to the cinema and is powerfully attracted to the usherette: "I'd never been taken so much with a girl in my life." He follows her on to a late-night bus and sits with her. She asks him to wake her before they get to the cemetery. A little later he tells her they haven't passed it.
'"Oh, there'll be others," she said. "I'm not particular."'
There is a lovely macabre humour here. The reader is intrigued as to what sort of cemetery-loving femme fatale this is. By the end of the story we know. She is a killer, and that night she will claim her third victim. We are also given a glimpse of her pathology: no mere lust for blood is at work here; there is a twisted rationale driving her murderous activity. The story was written in 1951, and it is hard to think of a single insane female serial killer operating in British fiction before du Maurier's coolly sexy cinema usherette.
Du Maurier's lover, Gertie Lawrence, died of hepatitis at the age of 54. This caused the writer intense grief. She later wrote to her friend Ellen Doubleday that the words Gertie spoke when she left her for the last time - "Go from me, and don't look back, like a person walking in their sleep" - she later used, in slightly altered form, for the usherette's farewell in "Kiss Me Again, Stranger".
Finally, "Don't Look Now". This was later made into a film by Nicolas Roeg, and du Maurier thoroughly approved of this adaptation. It is not hard to see why. Where Hitchcock shifted the action of "The Birds" to Sonoma County and developed a sophisticated plot involving a couple from San Francisco caught in a kind of Oedipal struggle with a controlling mother, Roeg stayed close to the original characters and setting of "Don't Look Now". That setting is Venice, in whose sinister, echoing labyrinth of alleys, piazzas, churches and canals the unwary visitor will quickly be lost.
As in "The Blue Lenses", blindness and clairvoyance are central themes. An English couple, John and Laura, are on holiday in Venice. They have recently lost their young daughter to meningitis. In a restaurant Laura is told by a blind woman with psychic powers that while she and John were eating, their dead daughter was sitting between them. This chilly piece of supernatural information is the first in a string of eerie developments that propel the hapless couple towards their tragic end. It is a horror story driven by coincidence, mistaken identity, clairvoyance and murder. It contains the uncanny scene in which John sees his wife in a vaporetto on the Grand Canal when she is supposed to be on a plane on her way back to England.
Only later do we learn that this was a glimpse into the future, at which point we understand the terrible reason for Laura's "return". "Don't Look Now" is a deeply unsettling story. Its power arises in part from its few supernatural effects, but is more a function of the slow, inexorable accumulation of incident and feeling that almost imperceptibly acquire a kind of critical mass, to the point that tragedy inevitably occurs - and when it does, it leaves the reader both shocked and relieved, for an intolerable tension has at last been relaxed. This is narrative control of a very high order.
Du Maurier's work has enjoyed great popular success over the years, but during her lifetime she received comparatively little critical esteem. "I am generally dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller," she once said, and she cared deeply that she was not regarded as the serious writer she took herself to be. It is true that she wrote fast and sometimes carelessly, but even her best work was treated with condescension. Rebecca, for example, was described as a "novelette", "melodrama" and "romance in the grand tradition". What the reviewers overlooked was the astute and subtle psychological dynamic in much of her work, and also the passion with which she wrote.
At her best, in a story such as "The Birds", there is an intense and exhilarating fusion of feeling, landscape, climate, character and story. She wrote exciting plots, she was highly skilled at arousing suspense, and she was, too, a writer of fearless originality.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Why we need fairytales / Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde

Love transfigured by imagination … 'The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde.
Illustration: Grahame Baker-Smith

Why we need fairytales: Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde's magical stories for children have often been dismissed as lesser works, but as examples of how important imagination is to us all – young and old alike – they are a delight

Jeanette Winterson
Wednesday 16 October 2013 17.21 BST

ar off, like a perfect pearl, one can see the city of God. It is so wonderful that it seems as if a child could reach it in a summer's day. And so a child could. But with me and such as I am it is different. One can realise a thing in a single moment, but one loses it in the long hours that follow … "

– Oscar Wilde, "De Profundis"
Oscar Wilde wrote "De Profundis" in Reading gaol where he was serving two years hard labour for being himself; he was homosexual. He was sent to prison in 1895 after one of the most notorious trials in English history. Wilde's fatal amour, Lord Alfred Douglas, was son of the Marquess of Queensberry, who was a bully, womaniser, gambling addict, cycling bore and amateur boxer (to him we owe the Queensberry rules). In his personal life there was no such thing as fair play. Queensberry was a vicious pugilist detested by his family. A caricature of masculinity, he loathed the cult of art and beauty that Wilde championed, and under the guise of saving his son from sodomy, he set about bringing down Wilde at the height of his fame.

The tragedy is that he succeeded. Wilde became the most infamous man in Britain. Queensberry bankrupted him. Even his copyrights and his library were sold. On release in 1897 he was forced to live abroad, separated permanently from his wife and children, who changed their name. Three years later he was dead.
Wilde loved his sons and had been a devoted father. He loved his wife, Constance Holland, too; in his domestic affairs, and perhaps only there, Wilde was unexpectedly conventional. He liked women, but in common with Victorian men of his class, heterosexual and homosexual alike, his interests and his excitements happened outside of the home – with other men.
Unlike other men, Wilde was flamboyant, outspoken and provocative. The all-male environments of school, university, the army, gentlemen's clubs and public life operated on a tacit code of concealment – whether of mistresses or misdemeanours. The "love that dare not speak its name" was a crime, yet in the eyes of society, Wilde's real crime was being found out. The Victorians didn't invent hypocrisy, but in an era of industrious taxonomy, they were the first to reclassify that sin as a virtue.
Disgraced and imprisoned, sleeping on a plank bed, his health broken, Wilde wrote a long letter to Alfred Douglas, later published as "De Profundis". It is a meditation on faith and fate, suffering and forgiveness, love and art. The strange thing is that in this, his last real piece of work, Wilde takes us back in tone and spirit to his first authentic work – the fairy stories or children's stories he wrote immediately after the birth of his two boys, Cyril and Vyvyan.
The work Wilde is remembered for was written over a period of less than 10 years. The Happy Prince and Other Tales was published in 1888. That volume marks the beginning of Wilde's true creativity. He had lectured extensively in the US – but that would not have won him any lasting legacy, any more than his journalism or his poems. He had published a great many poems, but Wilde was a bad poet – he rarely found the right words and he was old-fashioned. Read him next to Emily DickinsonWalt Whitman or WB Yeats, and you will see for yourself. We don't read his poetry now – it is dated and dead; too much Arcady and Hellenic Hours. The early plays suffer from the same verbal excess. Wilde at his worst wrote in purple. At his best he is dazzling.
The birth of his children seems to have regenerated Wilde as a writer. The tedious Hellenism vanished. The purple-isms faded. There are still overwritten images – Dawn's grey fingers clutching at the stars – and he never gives up his fondness for a biblical moment, usually appearing as precious stones or pronouns (thee and thy), but his style did change. The writing became freer and sharper, and also more self-reflective, without being self-absorbed.
Academic criticism of Wilde's work has too often dismissed these fairy stories as a minor bit of sentimentalism scribbled off by an iconoclast during a temporary bout of babymania. But since JK Rowling's Harry Potter and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, children's literature has been repositioned as central, not peripheral, shifting what children read, what we write about what children read, and what we read as adults. At last we seem to understand that imagination is ageless. Wilde's children's stories are splendid. In addition, it seems to me that they should be revisited as a defining part of his creative process.

the Happy Prince illustration
 The fate of the Happy Prince echoes Wilde's own reversal of fortune from fame and money to destitution and exile. Illustration: Grahame Baker-Smith

"The Happy Prince" starts a new note in Wilde's writing: loss. Emotions as poses are a distinctive feature of Wilde's work ("I can sympathise with everything except suffering"), and the poems had their fair share of lamentation, but from now on, loss is not a pose; it is real.
Fairytales always involve reversals of fortune. This works in both directions: beggars become kings, palaces collapse into hovels, the spoilt son eats thistles. Wilde's own reversal of fortune from fame and money to destitution and exile shares the same rapid drama. Fairytales are also and always about transformation of various kinds – frogs into princes, coal into gold – and if they are not excessively moralistic, there is usually a happy ending. Wilde's fairytale transformations turn on loss. Even "The Star-Child", in which meanness and vanity are overcome by compassion, ends with a kingdom that lasts only three years.
Wilde had a streak of prophecy in him. The children's stories can be read as notes from the future about Wilde's fate. It is as though the little child in him was trying to warn him of the dangers his adult self would soon face. "Every single work of art is the fulfilment of a prophecy", he writes in "De Profundis".
"The Happy Prince" is the story of a gilded and jewelled statue on a pedestal high above the town. One day, a Swallow late-flying to Egypt, after an unsatisfactory dalliance with a reed ("She has no conversation"), rests at the feet of the Happy Prince, who tells him of all the suffering he can see. He asks the Swallow to take the ruby from his sword and give it to a poor family. The Swallow does so. The Prince begs him to stay and to strip him bit by bit of all his gold and jewels to distribute to others. The weather is getting colder and the Swallow knows he should fly to the sun. But as he takes the Prince's jewelled eyes, he realises that he must stay, for now the Prince is blind. This is a lovely echo of King Lear, when the blinded Gloucester is not abandoned by his son Edgar – just as Cordelia never abandons the love-blind Lear.
Winter comes. The Swallow dies at the feet of the Happy Prince, no longer sparkling with jewels and gold. The Mayor has the statue pulled down – proposing one of himself in its place. As the workmen melt down the Prince they find they cannot melt his heart. They throw it on the rubbish heap next to the body of a swallow.
I don't think anything could be closer in description than this to the rubbishing of Wilde and his genius by a society obsessed by appearances and indifferent to imagination. The soul is often described as a bird – and if Wilde is the Happy Prince, then the Swallow is his soul, that returns to him and will not leave him. The Reed, shallow-rooted, flirtatious, blown about by every wind, is certainly Douglas.
Wilde believed in the soul. He played with ideas of the separation of self and soul. This is the pivot of his chilling story The Picture of Dorian Gray, but he explored this sinister theme for the first time in his fairy story "The Fisherman and his Soul". A young man wants to be rid of his Soul so that he can marry a Mermaid. He gets a magic knife from a witch and cuts away his Soul. But his Soul returns to him once a year seeking reconciliation. The story ends in death, but not in tragedy – at least not in Wilde's worldview, where Love is the supreme value. And it is Love that asks for the supreme sacrifice.
In "The Nightingale and the Rose", a Nightingale colours a white rose red with her own heart's blood so that a poor student will have the most beautiful flower in the world to give to his beloved. His beloved rejects him and his rose, and the rose is thrown in the gutter, where it is broken by a cart-wheel. As Wilde says to Douglas in "De Profundis": "Having got hold of my life you didn't know what to do with it … and so you broke it."
Indifference to gift and sacrifice is a theme of these fairy stories. In "The Birthday of the Infanta", the haughty princess humiliates the Dwarf who loves her. In "The Devoted Friend", a selfish Miller befriends Little Hans, a simple soul who tends his garden. The Miller likes making speeches about friendship, and never tires of telling Little Hans that the fruit and flowers he takes from the garden every day are only tokens of friendship. "At present you have only the practice of friendship; some day you will have the theory also." The Miller never gives anything in return, and when he has taken all there is, and Little Hans is dead of cold, hunger and exhaustion, the Miller thinks how selfish it is of Little Hans to die – not the kind of thing a friend would do at all.
When Wilde was out of prison and living on £3 a week, Douglas, who had sponged off Wilde for years, inherited £20,000. He refused to settle any money on Wilde. It was the painter Whistler, though, who was the model for the selfish Miller. Whistler was a sarcastic, self-interested friend whom Wilde ridiculed in his story "The Remarkable Rocket". In this tale about a batch of fireworks destined for a royal wedding, the Rocket assumes he is the star of the show: "The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else." Whistler was uncomfortable with Wilde's success and gradually became more vicious towards him. As Queensberry closed in, Whistler abandoned Wilde. Later, when Wilde was released and struggling to write, Whistler suggested he try writing "The Bugger's Opera". But as Wilde noted, Whistler always spelt Art with a capital I.
Wilde had a lifelong interest in Catholicism, although he was only baptised on his deathbed. He had a theory that Christ was the perfect example of what an artist should be – a true individual, a political and social radical, someone who enjoyed the company of the poor and the outcast – as Wilde did. Someone who could forgive and in whom love was transfigured as imagination. What is the resurrection if not the triumph of imagination over experience? His most overtly religious story is "The Selfish Giant". In a world that is always winter, long before CS Lewis created Narnia, Wilde's Giant is both fairytale giant and Victorian industrialist. Wilde hated the hoarding and excesses of his epoch's materialism – not because he was a socialist, but because his whole endeavour, his cult of art and beauty, was a fight against the coarsening of the soul.
When the Giant builds a wall around what is "his" and drives the children away, he drives away the springtime, too. His only friends are hail and snow and bitter wind. Then one day, by a miraculous intervention, unsought and undeserved, the children creep back through a hole in the wall, led by the most mysterious child of all, whom the Giant comes to love. It is this Christ-child who returns for the Giant as he dies, covering his body in white blossom – the living opposite of the snow that had for so long covered the garden. The little child is wounded in the hands and feet when he returns – but in answer to the Giant's cries of outrage and revenge, the child explains that they are "the wounds of love".
In An Ideal Husband, Lord Goring tells the devoted but puritan Lady Chiltern, "I have sometimes thought that perhaps you are a little hard in some of your views on life … It is love, and not German philosophy, that is the true explanation of this world, whatever may be the explanation of the next."
And so when Richard Dawkins says in all seriousness, "so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes; whether that has a sort of insidious effect on rationality, I'm not sure," we know he has made a category error.
Reason and logic are tools for understanding the world. We need a means of understanding ourselves, too. That is what imagination allows. When a child reads of a Nightingale who bleeds her song into a rose for love's sake, or of a Selfish Giant who puts a wall round life, or of a Fisherman who wants to be rid of his Soul, or of a statue who feels the suffering of the world more keenly than the Mathematics Master who scoffs at his pupils for dreaming about Angels, the child knows at once both the mystery and truth of such stories. We have all at some point in our lives been the overlooked idiot who finds a way to kill the dragon, win the treasure, marry the princess.
As explanations of the world, fairy stories tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not. There are different ways of knowing. "Bring me the two most precious things in the city," said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.