Thursday, October 12, 2000

Philip Roth / The pleasure of betrayal

Philip Roth

The pleasure of betrayal

A third successive masterpiece from the America's pre-eminent fiction writer

PHILIP ROTH famously hates autobiographical readings of his fiction. At the same time, he does not always make them easy to avoid. Try this, for example . . .
In 1996, Claire Bloom published her memoirs, at the heart of which was a devastating account of her 20 years with Roth, whom she branded "Machiavellian". Among much else, she claims, he cruelly banished from their house her musician daughter, Anna - by an earlier marriage to Rod Steiger - and later made passes (unsuccessful) at Anna's best friend. At one point, Bloom visited Roth in a mental hospital, where he was so luridly hostile that she became a patient herself.
Now meet Roth's latest protagonist, Ira Ringold. Ira - a postwar radio actor - is married to Eve Frame, a Jewish actress who has a musician daughter, Sylphid, by a previous movie-star husband. True, Ira makes passes (successful) at Sylphid's best friend; but the marriage is doomed, primarily because the mother-daughter relationship is so pathologically unhealthy - and because, underneath her "English genteel" pose, Eve is a fragile hysteric. At one point, she visits Ira in a mental hospital where she is so melodramatically distressed that she becomes a patient herself.
And after the marriage fails, Eve publishes the lying memoir which gives the novel its title. Painting herself as blameless, she brands Ira "Machiavellian". "Isn't that the pleasure of betrayal?" comments one character. "It's a way to pay someone back for a feeling of inferiority they arouse in you . . . Yet knowing Ira as she did, how could she publish this book and not expect him to do something?"
One of the many astonishing things about I Married a Communist, then, is that the chilling personal subtext - which I defy the most scrupulous literary purist to be able to ignore if they have read Bloom's book - does not unbalance it. Like last year's American Pastoral, which landed Roth the Pulitzer, the new novel stands alone as the portrait of a largely good man destroyed by "the existence America had worked out for him". There, the 1960s did for Swede Levov; here, Ira is battered by McCarthyism.
His story is told over six Connecticut nights in 1997 by his brother, Murray, to Nathan Zuckerman, Murray's former pupil, a boyhood worshipper of Ira's, and Roth's usual alter ego. This structure has its risks. Leaving the bulk of the narrative to one observer looking back nearly 50 years certainly allows all perspectives to be explored. It can also - despite Murray, at 90, being fluent in perfect Rothian prose - make the events feel occasionally under-dramatised; the raw material for a novel rather than the novel itself.
But to attack a book as riveting and rich as this for not being even better would be an act of some ingratitude. With the fierceness of its intelligence, and with a stream of set pieces as good as anything Roth has produced, this is his third masterpiece in succession - and, more remarkably, his second in two years. Philip Roth's Indian summer blazes on.

Saturday, August 5, 2000

George Saunders's Pastoralia / Beautiful losers

Beautiful losers

Adam Begley enjoys strange satire in George Saunders's Pastoralia

188pp, Bloomsbury, £9.99 

Adam Begley
Saturday 5 August 2000 01.27 BST

Pastoralia: a good name for a theme park. It suggests rural simplicity tweaked, enhanced by modern technology and superior management skills. Though George Saunders uses it as the title of a story set in a theme park, it could also be his wry comment on the circumstances of the unnamed narrator, whose job is to impersonate a caveman. He lives in a cave and sleeps in a "separate area" equipped with a fax machine. On the cave walls are fake pictographs; outside, a herd of "robotic something-or- others" appears to be feeding.
Saunders's bitterly funny stories here and in his extraordinary debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), succeed in squeezing meaning and emotional resonance out of absurd, post-real predicaments. His satirical jabs are sharp and scary, but also sad and unexpectedly touching. In Pastoralia, the faux -caveman is urged to denounce a "subpar" colleague, but resists with a truth so primitive it shocks: "'She's a friend,' I say." Though he's meek and dim, beset by troubles and half-brainwashed by his inane job, he acquires with that single utterance a provisional heroism. In Saunders's world, that's the best you can hope for.
Saunders specialises in giving losers - the ugly, the weak, the self-absorbed - a flicker of appeal or delusional hope. We meet them in motivational seminars, drivers' education courses, walking home from dead-end jobs. We follow them to places like Sea Oak, with "no sea and no oak, just 100 subsidised apartments and a rear view of FedEx". Inside those apartments, the tenants are watching TV: "How My Child Died Violently is hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who's always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they've been sainted by pain."
Saunders's stories present an unsettling amalgam of degraded language and high art: slogans, jargon and the crippling incoherence of daily speech, arranged on the page with meticulous care. He cherishes the brutal solecisms of the American vernacular, working them for laughs and the odd shot of beauty, too. Who can resist a high school education "mini-session" called "Who You Do Is Up To You"?
Less shocking, less zany than CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, in which the subnormal, paranormal and not yet normal all clamour for a hearing, Pastoralia sticks mostly to plausible absurdities. There's one ghost story, but the supernatural dimension is eclipsed by the ghost's all-too-human complaint: "Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?" The rest of the stories succeed on the strength of fine-tuning, not special effects.
A darling of American critics, Saunders was last year chosen by The New Yorker as one of the 20 best fiction writers under 40. Though his sensibility is easy to spot, it's nearly impossible to pick out his voice. He's a self-erasing author, happy to let other voices do the work. This absence could be ominous - a black hole that sucks in the contemporary scene and spits out satire - but it reads more like confidence, or serene faith, or philosophical calm. Or a good sense of humour.
• Adam Begley is literary editor of The New York Observer.

Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Isabelle Huppert / I can be beautiful if I want, but a part of beauty must be fabricated

"I can be beautiful if I want, 
but a part of beauty must be fabricated."
Isabelle Huppert
by Alain Elkann
ft-imgIsabelle Huppert is petite. She practically tiptoes into a salon of the Hotel de la Ville in Rome, wearing grey pants, a beige pullover and a red scarf around her neck. Her hair hangs long and loose. It is a reddish brown, and her eyes are large and brown. She seems more like a student just starting out than an international star. We talk a bit about her day in the Italian capital, spent with her companion and children. They had lunch with Mauro Bolognini, a friend who directed her in the film Lady of the Camelias, which she shot alongside Gian Maria Volontè. Isabelle Huppert truly enjoys spending time in Rome, but says she couldn’t always live there.

Isabelle Huppert, have you just come back from shooting a film in Russia?
I was there for almost three months, and I enjoyed the privileged life of a tourist so I can’t say I really know it well. But Russia is a fascinating country with a big soul. It has great strength.
And now you are in Italy to promote another film?
Yes, Après l’Amour directed by Diane Kurys. I had already shot Entre Nous with her. It is like a sociological look at the life of couples in the mid-20th Century in a large city. It could take place anywhere. Diane Kurys wanted to focus on what happens when love ends. When, after having lived for many years with a partner, a woman feels the need for different passions.
What role do you play in the film?
The role of a writer trying to live two lives. She has lived with a man for many years, but she is trying to be free and not deny herself anything. It’s a film that doesn’t set out to resolve anything. It has a bit of the truth of a documentary and shows reality as it is lived by many. Today’s women don’t want to deny themselves anything. They want to experience everything.
6925Do you often play the part of ambiguous women who are a bit negative?
I play characters in the midst of negative situations, but their cruelty is a reflection of the situation in which they find themselves. My characters face challenges and suffering. And they aren’t ever people that have anything handed to them by life.
Are you like these characters?
No. I play the roles.
How do you choose which films to act in?
I choose a character when it suits my imagination. But the most important thing is the director.
Is Chabrol your favourite director?
I have a unique relationship with him. We have done three films together. I have had the opportunity to portray all the facets of certain kinds of sentiment and to bring characters to life that are often regular people. I am not attracted to big heroes.
Who has been your favourite acting partner?
I had a wonderful experience with Gian Maria Volontè in Mauro Bolognini’s Lady of the Camelias and with Marcello Mastroianni in Marco Ferreri’s Story of Piera, but I’ve always worked with good actors like Depardieu or Trintignant. I love actors that don’t cause conflict. To tell you the truth, I prefer actresses to actors. I think men have a negative way of relating to their profession. They want to dictate, to take control. Mastroianni and Volontè are great actors because they have not given in to the temptation to try to be in power, unlike many of their French colleagues who argue constantly with the director.
In your opinion, who are the great actresses?
Vanessa Redgrave in certain films and Meryl Streep. Perhaps there are some less famous actresses…
Do you think French cinema is good?
It exists. It is better than nothing. But it is always a bit limited, small, bourgeois and inward looking. Of course, at times it promotes amazing things, but that happens quite rarely.

Do you like the theatre?
Yes, very much. I rediscovered it four years ago. I hadn’t done theatre for a long time, and it was greatly satisfying. I worked in a Shakespeare comedy directed by Peter Zadek last year at the Odéon Theatre in Paris. Now I’m working on a show with Bob Wilson in Switzerland that will then move on to Paris.
Was it easy for you to find success?
Yes. I found success slowly, starting young and playing small roles. Success doesn’t bother me in its outward manifestations. I have always lived a normal life. I can go entire days without thinking about being an actress.
How do you live your daily life?
Shooting my films. My life is very tied to my work and very dependent on my work. But I have a companion, two children and a family life as well. Playing roles and having children are similar things. In both cases, there is always something taking place in your core. Actresses often have a strong relationship with maternity.
Are you a good mother?
I don’t know. I am a mother. I am very present. I always bring my children with me.
Do you feel like a fulfilled woman?
Yes. I am becoming one, though there’s always a bit of frustration in order to keep moving ahead. But the frustration is part of my self-realisation. When you start out in life, you suffer a lot and then, little by little, you let yourself go and you suffer less.
Are you afraid of aging?
Yes. I am afraid. I doubt there are many actresses that aren’t afraid, but I see some advantages because age is perhaps one way of getting more respect and perhaps finding certain types of affirmation. I am scared of aging, but I don’t know if I fear being old. It’s like when you dive into water. You are a bit scared because you think the water will be cold, but then you feel fine.
Huppert-3-200x150Do you feel beautiful?
It depends on the moment. I find beauty to be a funny thing. Yesterday, I was having some photographs taken and I felt gorgeous, but today I was looking in the mirror and I didn’t feel beautiful. I found these differences strange, and I thought to myself that this is the power of illusion. I can be beautiful if I want, but a part of beauty must be fabricated.
What things in life do you find to be most difficult?
Dealing with breakups, all kinds of breakups. And then I find it difficult to get ahead. Becoming an adult and forgetting you were once a child.
What more would you like to do?
It is difficult to answer that question. Right now, I feel like my aspirations correspond to reality quite well. I don’t have many dreams that are out of reach.
Can you paint me a portrait of Isabelle Huppert?
I never stop interpreting self-portraits. All one needs to do is see my films.

Amica Magazine, 1st March 1993.


Alain Elkann is an author, intellectual and journalist who was born in New York,23rd March 1950. Internationally well-known, his books have been translated into languages including French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew, Turkish and Japanese. Interview work in English includes dialogue with Prince Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan, To Be A Muslim, and The Voice of Pistoletto with the artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, published autumn 2014 by Rizzoli Ex Libris.
Alain has maintained a weekly interview column for the Italian national daily newspaper La Stampa since 1989. His archive encompasses an impressive range of celebrated subjects, including award-winning writers and editors; film stars and directors; fashion designers and businessmen; artists, collectors and museum curators; politicians and diplomats; economists and historians; thinkers and human rights activists.  Two books of classic interviews have been published by Bompiani.
Alain teaches Jewish 20th century writers – from Franz Kafka to Primo Levi, from Philip Roth to Aharon Appelfeld – at Penn University in Philadelphia. He has lectured on art, Italian literature and Jewish studies at the Universities of Oxford, Columbia, Jerusalem and Milan’s IULM. He is President of The Foundation for Italian Art & Culture (FIAC) in New York and in 2009 Alain was awarded the prestigious Legion d’Honneur by the French Republic.
All work on this site © Alain Elkann 2013/2014/2015

Friday, February 11, 2000

Marrying the Mistress by Joanna Trollope / Digest read


Marrying the Mistress by Joanna Trollope

(Bloomsbury, £14.99) digested in the style of the original 

John Crace Fri 11 Feb ‘00 14.37 GMT

Merrion Palmer had a dull childhood in Wales. She remembered her mother, Gwen, taking away a monster bar of Toblerone chocolate once, but nothing else bad happened. Except her father dying. And her grandmother. But she left them some money, so that was OK.
As Merrion grew up, she was a little wild. She grew her hair and had a butterfly tattooed on her ankle. One day she didn't come home until six in the morning and had a violent row with her mother. As she was going through a wild phase, Merrion ran away to Bristol but went home of her own accord six days later. Merrion decided to study law and went to live in London.
One day after visiting her mother, Merrion found an old book of her father's. She read it on the train home. It was called Esprit de Corps and was by Lawrence Durrell. She collapsed with laughter when she read the story of the faulty typesetting machines in Cairo that omitted all the "c"s from "canal zone" during the Suez crisis. Despite the laughter, she still noticed Guy when he got on the train.

Guy was a gentleman. He wouldn't let her eat free peanuts in bars. "Whose fingers have been in there before yours?" he said. Guy was married. With children. And grandchildren who called him "Grando". "And he's a judge," she told her mother. "I'm in love."
Guy left his wife to live with Merrion. She met Guy's son, Alan. She met Alan's wife, Carrie, in a wine bar by Victoria station. The time had been vague, so it didn't matter that she just missed a train. Carrie had a dull childhood in East Anglia. Nothing bad happened. Except her mother dying. That was hard as Carrie had loved her.

Merrion's mother, Gwen, came to London on a train. She brought her own sandwiches with her. She thought Guy was very goodlooking. "You're ruining my daughter's life," she told him. Gwen went home. She tried to keep herself busy and even took computer lessons. "Why's it called a mouse?" she asked. "Why's it called an icon?"
Guy phoned Gwen. "I'm coming to Cardiff," he said. Over tea in the Angel Hotel he told Gwen that he was not going to marry Merrion. And back in London he told his family that he was taking a job in the north, away from his wife and away from Merrion. "I'll recover," said Guy, "and Merrion will probably go on to be a very successful family law barrister and, hopefully, marry and have children, too."
And if you really are pressed: The digested read, digested:

Merrion's father died when she was young. Perhaps she was subconsciously looking for a father figure when she met Guy on a train while giggling over a rude word in her book. Guy left his wife. And then left Merrion.

Friday, January 14, 2000

Mirror Image by Danielle Steel / Digest read


Mirror Image by Danielle Steel

(Corgi books, £5.99) digested in the style of the original in 400 words 

John Crace Fri 14 Jan ‘00 14.41 GMT

I am half the mirror as you will see. My name is Olivia and I am a beautiful, upper-crust twin. We are identical twins, Victoria and I. Not even our bewildered widower of a father can tell us apart. Even after 20 years. And in spite of our radically different personalities. And dress. And manner. And way of speaking. Some say he is blind or dumb or that it is a novelistic cliché anyway, but he really is dumbfounded by our sameness. Truly. If I keep on going, will you believe me? Seriously, I can say it again!
Daddy wanted his children to run his old steel mills for him but we're women and this is the early 20th century so all those petticoated, middle-class women's libbers haven't made any changes yet. Don't tell Victoria I said that - she's my other half, the racy, adventurous one. I am as timid and chaste as a virgin, she is as pure as the driven slush. I, one half of the mirror, she the other. M-i-r-r-o-r I-m-a-g-e. Do you see it now? Are you sure? I can spell it out if you wish, dear casual reader! She married the man I loved. Bitch. Daddy made her do it - she kept on having affairs with rich, handsome men. Which is fine in itself, but they were all married. Daddy said she'd scandalise the family name. So we tied her up and made her marry the most boring, backward, penny-pinching lawyer we could find. His wife had conveniently died on the Titanic. He didn't know what she was doing on it. Travelling to America by herself for God's sake! It's the stuff of trashy bestsellers, not the stuff of life. Anyway, Victoria could never quite suppress her rebellious urges - she attached herself to any passing project that demanded a leap of faith. She wanted to join that big war outside the window. It did look tremendous fun! So, tally-ho, off she went like a bullet. Of course, we couldn't tell papa or her husband so I took her place.
Our father dies (I watch him do so, fighting back the tears). We both fall pregnant - Victoria, the little demon, by another man. I give birth to twins (and yes, you guessed it, they're identical girls). But Victoria dies. What did you think this was - a bloody fairy-tale?
• And if you really are pressed: The digested read, digested Remember, sleepy reader, appearances can be deceptive. Identical twins can be completely different. Like a mirror-image. One wants to have babies by her twin sister's husband. Confused? You will be. Just don't ask about the movie rights...

Thursday, January 6, 2000

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling / Digest read

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling (Bloomsbury, £10.99), digested in the style of the original 

Fri 16 Jul ‘99 17.39 BST

Harry Potter was not normal. For a start, he hated the summer holidays. An orphan, he was forced to stay with horrible Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia and their fat son Dudley. They hated Harry for being a wizard. They were Muggles, non-magic people, and did not let Harry mention anything to do with his beloved Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
'Your parents were bad eggs,' said Aunt Marge, another nasty relation, one night. 'And look how they burdened their decent, hardworking relatives when they died!' Harry snapped. It was forbidden by the Ministry of Magic to cast spells outside school, but he couldn't resist. Aunt Marge inflated like a giant salami...

Harry fled the house and caught a Knight Bus, a service for stranded wizards and witches. It took him to London, where he stayed at the Leaky Cauldron and learnt that Sirius Black, a murderer imprisoned in Azkaban fortress, had escaped. Worse still, Black was heading for Hogwarts to kill Harry. He wanted to avenge the death of 'You-Know-Who' - evil Lord Voldemort - whom Harry had killed to avenge the death of his parents (see earlier Harry Potter books). Harry also learnt that Black had been his father's best friend - until he betrayed him to Voldemort.

Harry fled the house and caught a Knight Bus, a service for stranded wizards and witches. It took him to London, where he stayed at the Leaky Cauldron and learnt that Sirius Black, a murderer imprisoned in Azkaban fortress, had escaped. Worse still, Black was heading for Hogwarts to kill Harry. He wanted to avenge the death of 'You-Know-Who' - evil Lord Voldemort - whom Harry had killed to avenge the death of his parents (see earlier Harry Potter books). Harry also learnt that Black had been his father's best friend - until he betrayed him to Voldemort.
When term began, everyone feared for Harry's safety despite the presence of Dementors, Azkaban guards who suck out people's souls. Harry was just happy to be back with Ron and Hermione, even if Hermione's cat kept attacking Ron's rat Scabbers. A great new teacher, Professor Lupin, taught them how to ward off Boggarts, shape-shifters that become whatever you most fear.
Harry was forbidden to leave the castle while Black was on the loose. But using his Invisibility Cloak, Harry, Ron and Hermione sneaked out to visit their friend Hagrid. He was sad because Buckbeak, his pet Hippogriff (half horse, half eagle), had been slaughtered. On the way home, Ron was dragged down a tunnel by a dog. Harry and Hermione followed. 'It's a trap!' shouted Ron. Too late. There was Sirius Black. They fought. Harry was about to kill him when Professor Lupin burst in. 'No Harry! It wasn't Sirius who betrayed your parents, but another man called Peter Pettigrew, now living as Ron's rat Scabbers! Sirius is your friend, Pettigrew is your enemy!' 'I am your godfather,' said Sirius. 'I would never have betrayed your parents.' Just as the Dementors whisked Sirius away to suck out his soul, and as Scabbers escaped into the night, Harry realised Sirius was indeed a friend. 'No' said Harry. 'He's innocent!' There was only one way to save him. By going back in time and rescuing Buckbeak, Harry used the beast to fly up to Sirius's window in the tower and saved him.