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Reading as (True) Travel: Part 2

maptreasisle

Since writing the first post in this series a few weeks ago, I’ve discovered that the Germans have a word for the inconsolable yearning that seems to be at the root of much of what we do as humans: Sehnsucht. Apparently the notion is now commonly used by psychologists to describe our feelings of inadequacy regarding what we view as incomplete in our lives, as well as our perpetual search for happiness and alternative forms of living. C.S. Lewis became fixated with the idea, which he described as:

“… our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside …

Over a number of years this thought led C.S. Lewis towards his espousal of the Christian faith, which he saw as the only satisfactory counterpoint to the inherent restlessness of the human heart. Similarly, Ulysses’ condemnation in the Inferno is heavily linked to his pursuit of knowledge by purely terrestrial means (i.e. physical as opposed to spiritual travel). For Dante, as for C.S. Lewis, the only way to arrive was to embrace God.

However, turning away from religion, it is clear that a large part of what we derive from books and travel comes from the process itself. In other words, we often undertake both not as necessary steps towards a fixed goal or “arrival”, but as activities we enjoy in and of themselves. This is certainly where Robert Louis Stevenson was coming from when he declared that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Indeed, despite his frail health, Stevenson was a man constantly on the move, and his travel writing (notably In the South Seas, 1896) is said to have deeply influenced Joseph Conrad, who also travelled extensively in the south Pacific and used it as the location for much of his own work (see Lord Jim and Victory).

Seaward ho! Hang the treasure! It’s the glory of the sea that has turned my head.”

The idea of travel for its own sake plays a prominent part in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a novel which dwells on the invariably anticlimactic nature of achieving a specific goal or arriving at a specific place. The treasure itself becomes a corrupting influence, and is depicted as a stale symbol lying in stark opposition to the travel and adventure that precedes its acquisition. Gold requires a sophisticated system of exchange to recognise its value; in other words, it is inherently worthless. And yet, despite the absence of a meaningful objective, the central quest of Treasure Island is portrayed as a welcome antidote to the drab professionalism of nineteenth century Victorian England.

Reading is a similarly exhilarating but anticlimactic process. The realisation towards the end of a good book that there aren’t many pages left can be crushingly disappointing, as though we expected something more to appear miraculously after the final sentences. It is not, howver, a disappointment that stops us picking up more books, from which we must infer that, as with travel and treasure-hunting, reading is a never ending activity the real pleasure of which lies in the doing and not the arriving. As T.S. Eliot said,

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The Editors

Video Killed the Bookmark II

The problem with this topic is that the number of decent book to film adaptations –  since classics such as The Big Sleep and Lean’s Great Expectations were being made more than 50 years ago –  can be counted with alarming rapidity. After Visconti’s version of The Leopard with the wonderfully hirsute Burt Lancaster, the top three have been:

The Silence of the Lambs: this can be explained by any of a number of quotes – not the most obvious:

Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?
Clarice Starling: He kills women…

The clash of Thomas Harris’s splendid Hannibal with the compelling (but mostly taupe ) Clarice as she states the obvious gives rise to a tense dynamic that propels them across serial killers, the Goldberg Variations, fine wine and of course, her childhood.

No Country for Old Men led to the appearance of one of celluloid’s most malevolent figures: Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh swinging a customized stun gun as he slaughters his deadpan way through West Texas after Josh Brolin and the cash perfectly captures the grim relentlessness of McCarthy’s prose that similarly keeps you turning the pages, though you know the news is going to get much, much worse before it gets better.

Apocalypse Now must have been an absolute bastard to adapt. The murky novella, Heart of Darkness, manages to convey the chaos and residual fear Willard experiences as he ventures into the Congo; the fact that Coppola illustrates this with a pared back script and fractious cast set in Vietnam is seriously impressive. Whether you agree that bald fat Brando cuts it or not, if the loss of control at the last American outpost before they get to Kurtz doesn’t get to you, the surfing certainly should.

Graphic novels were broached by the Editors in the first instalment of this discussion, although of course there is a wealth of material to choose from, and the production line does not appear to be slowing. The production companies have long ago optioned the more obvious series for adaption to the screen, and the result is now TV series for the lesser known characters of Marvel and DC as well as mega-Marvel blockbusters.

It has been a tumultuous transition for comic fans. The original X-Men films can now be blotted out by the masterful First Class with the likes of Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence reclaiming the original story with authority. The fact that Wolverine: Origins was so woefully rubbish does not diminish the beast himself, or apparently Hugh Jackman’s bankability. Will.I.Am as Ghost was truly the nadir for the Marvel team.

Or it was until the Green Lantern appeared. The only good thing to come out of it was Ryan Reynolds meeting Blake Lively: who doesn’t like when two attractive people get together to flash some teeth? But the film went straight onto the midden heap alongside Daredevil, both Punishers, Hulks, Fantastic Fours and all initial three Spiderman films – shame for Evil Dead fans that Raimi lacked the sand to make a proper adaptation. No one wants to see James Franco as a broken Harry Gordon sobbing in an ugly fashion at sunrise. Raimi did do one vitally important thing of introducing the swooping, elated shots of Parker swinging along the grid of New York, our stomachs follow the trajectory of the camera in a great way and you can almost forget that Tobey Maguire just isn’t funny enough to play this self-deprecating hero. Without these, we may not have had the version of The Amazing Spiderman last summer that showed how entertaining the story is. Majestic casting with Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May were the perfect support for Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone to bashfully set up the original love story for Spiderman. Marvel films are currently on a role with The Avengers, Thor, the Iron Man Franchise (to a lesser extent Captain America). They are huge, funny, stunning and not yet bloated. Long may it last.

Which brings me to DC. Batman remains the most complex and enthralling character ever to feature in a comic book. A lone playboy, devoted only to his butler Alfred and the various permutations of Robin, there is no permanent love interest or nemesis, and no deviation from his goal: to be whatever Gotham needs to survive, or in good years, improve. Bruce Wayne is often depicted as a massive, scarred figure who appears almost ludicrous in a tuxedo. His calcified joints and scar tissue accumulated over years of letting the city take its frustration out on him is referenced in a great scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises when the news that Batman has no cartilage left in his knee does nothing to impede the plot. Phew.  Michael Keaton started what Christian Bale finished, although sadly Val Kilmer and George Clooney did some damage on the way with a lot of help from Jim Carrey and the wonderfully ridiculous ex-governor of California. Anne Hathaway absolutely smashed it as Catwoman to the extent that her other crimes against literature (One Day and Les Miserables, I’m not even starting with her Jane Austen impression) may be forgiven.

People performing extraordinary feats of strength and agility against gloriously unambiguous baddies in this dimension, or the next, will always have appeal. There is now aesthetic satisfaction as well as escapism to be had, and mutants no longer need be hammy. The momentum is such that there is no need for a rueful grin after delivering lines like: “How dare you attack the son of Odin!” as the audience knows a fight scene is coming, and it’s going to be ludicrous, violent, fast, and wonderful.

Next time: Will Dark Horse facilitate a third Hellboy film? Will Man of Steel and Kick-Ass 2 be any good? (Yes) And of course, Iron Man 3 as of April 14th.

The Editors

The enemy within

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

Let me begin with a confession. I am hiding things from you. I am sitting at my computer, selecting from the information in my head. What I have just written and will now write is the manifestation of my deliberate and ardent desire to direct your thoughts, to rule your brain for the following 600 or so words. For as long as I hold your attention, I wish to wash your thoughts with mine. Not because your thoughts are dirty and need cleaning. But because mine are blue and yours are pink or green. The aim of my washing is not to cleanse. The aim of my washing is to run the colours together. To create. Some of the colours of my washing are beautiful, brilliant, temporary. Some of them are staid, boring, difficult, ugly. I wish only for us to mix our colours in the hope of capturing the beautiful, mastering the brilliant and dislodging the staid, the boring, the difficult. Perhaps to create a third, more intriguing category: substance and beauty together. Either way, it is best that we share our colours, all of them. Do not peacock the brightest to hide the dullest for that is fraudulent. That is the lesson of The Secret Agent.

I first read The Secret Agent in 2010. Not an auspicious year for anything. Not even memorable for a catastrophe, though we should all be grateful for that. The blandness of the year, against the brilliance of the book is perhaps one reason I feel strongly about it. I am sure, for example, that Stevie is the hero. I know this for several reasons. The novel’s full title is The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. Stevie is simple of mind and speech. He has a clear and unencumbered view and understanding; the anarchists in one room swapping hackneyed political theory; next door he scrawls “circles, circles; innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric; a coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeated curves, uniformity of form and confusion of intersecting lines suggested a rendering of cosmic chaos.”

The book strips away the sophistications of modern life, of modern politics, the secrets and dirty laundry that make up so much of what might be described as ‘urbanity’. Stevie, a classic Shakespearean fool, is more revealing in his view of the world for being ‘innocent Stevie’. He does not see in colours especially. He sees the world as black and white. Recognises evil when it is evil and does not dress it up as anarchy or politics, love or business. He is the instinctive being in a mechanised and polluted world. Nature in this book does not look kindly upon the city: “A peculiarly London sun – against which nothing could be said except that it looked bloodshot – glorified all this by its stare”. This is a book about confession, about the importance of truth and the danger of concealment. It reveals the dangers that lie in petty lies, that lie in dirty laundry, that lie in the narrow alleys “littered with straw and dirty paper, where out of school hours a troop of assorted children ran and squabbled with a shrill, joyless, rowdy clamour.”  This is a book about approaching those alleys, metaphorical and physical, and exposing them to the bloodshot sun so that we and others can see, clearly, their colours, we can show our own colours and we can mix them, wash them, or indeed, if we choose, cleanse those colours or finally, and better still, we could expunge them all and be pure.

The Editors