Saturday 5 March 2011

Reads and flicks

I've recently read two novels that were contenders for last year's Booker Prize. Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, an exploration of male Jewish friendship and identity, was the winning novel.

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This was not my best read ever (see here), and I'm not convinced that my lack of engagement can be put down to the fact that I am neither a Finkler nor a man. After posting that review I was interested to find while browsing online that many other readers had almost identical problems with the book, often more strongly expressed - see this Man Booker readers' forum, for instance. It's not everyone's cup of tea, it seems. I was amused to read here though, Jacobson's tongue-in-cheek claim that he will spend the £50 000 prize money on a handbag for his wife ("have you seen the price of handbags?").

On the other hand, Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, shortlisted for the prize, had me fully engaged from start to finish (see here). Galgut's story is based on experiences of his own life, raising the question of whether it is autobiography rather than fiction. He does a curious thing in narrating it, of switching (sometimes within one sentence) between first and third persons, so that the 'Damon' of the story is both (involved) narrator and (distant) character. My work includes an interest in the 'narrativization of memory': what we choose to remember, to give prominence to, and what we choose to forget or downplay, is all part of the selective process of remembering, and the 'connections' between events are the ones we choose to see. So I found it interesting to read here (and listen to here) Galgut's explanation of why "the act of narrating a memory is an act of creating fiction". 

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I'm told that Galgut has been compared to the more famous South African writer J.M. Coetzee (Nobel prizewinner and twice winner of the Booker), and I must admit that a similarity in writing style occurred to me more than once while reading In A Strange Room.  The very obvious difference, to me, between the two is that you are never in doubt of Galgut's humanity and kindness. 

On a different note, I caught up with two movies that were on the circuit last year - both coincidentally on the same theme of 'bourgeois wife finds late-life passion with unsuitable paramour' ...

In Luca Guadagnino's I am Love (Io Sono l'Amore)the brilliant Tilda Swinton, speaking Italian with a Russian accent, plays the wife of a hugely wealthy Milanese industrialist whose carefully constructed life (and those of her family) unravels when she falls for a handsome much-younger chef, who seduces her first with his food and then with his, umm, magnetic personality. The point is really less the plot than Tilda Swinton, who is perfectly magnificent in a physical and mental transformation from immaculate, proper and designer-perfect wife in a stultifying patrician family ...

to cropped-head Natural Woman ...

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The stunning visuals of clothes and interiors (the Recchi family mansion is the Villa Necchi Campiglio - take a look here) are the second reason not to miss this film. 

Less opulent but no less dramatic is Partir, with Kristin Scott-Thomas (below) as the French wife and mother in comfortable middle-class existence who falls for ... the builder, this time - a rough-around-the-edges Spaniard with a dodgy past and a sketchy income. Her controlling, obnoxious doctor-husband, nicely played by Yvan Attal, is the third player in the dark twists and turns that follow (well, you don't expect a heartwarming Disney plot from a French drama, do you), but again, it's Scott-Thomas who really shines here.

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Both these films should come with a health warning to married women who find themselves tempted to run off with the hot handyman (this cannot end well!)


  1. I will have to put in a reserve request at my library for In a Strange Room. Thank you for the recommendation.

    I did see the film I am Love and would echo your comments. Tilda Swinton's performance was remarkable.

    It was also interesting to view the wealthy family's attempt to find an international bridge to take its textile fortunes into the next century, and the accompanying stresses and family fights that followed the death of the patriarch.

    I will have to look out for that other film. It's bound to get to New York eventually.


  2. Merci indeed!
    I just discovered Partir is available in Netflix streaming (I'll watch post-pool). I adored I Am Love - what a visual treat.
    My interpretation was that 'Tilda' came from a craftsman tradition in Russia (her father was an art restorer). i.e. she could not truly play the madeup role her wealthy husband required of her - and why she was always belowstairs with the help in the kitchen. That WAS her domaine much more than the salon upstairss.
    Her mad attraction to the chef began there as well - they were joined at the hip so to speak - but what a terrible price to pay for that connection... tres triste

  3. Note to myself:
    Visit Karen's blog once this semester is over (end of June).
    Then indulge in all those books and movies she is writing about. ;-)

    Today, a shipment from arrived, with two books of photographs by André Kertész and the "Hare with the Amber Eyes".


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