Sunday, 29 December 2013

Villains of the year

I'm not talking Putin, Assad or lesser monsters of the daylight horror world, but three dreamhaunters of my reading and filmwatching year. Two gave me nightmares during an otherwise jolly Christmas in the bosom of our Lacock friends.

My compulsive pageturner was Fyodor Sologub's 1907 comic shocker The Little [perhaps better Petty] Demon, charting the descent into madness of a wretched provincial schoolmaster, Ardalyon Borisovich Peredonov, all envy, paranoia and hunger for the mortification of young flesh by the birch (top image, incidentally, is Boris Grigoriev's of Gogol's The Government Inspector as I couldn't find anything closer to this particular source). Peredonov's hopes for promotion through the agency of a distant, elderly princess - shades of The Queen of Spades - are exposed as ridiculous from the start, and their failure accelerates an already slippery slide.

Whereas Giulio Andreotti, seven times Italian prime minister and the all too real yet ungraspable subject of Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino's previous masterpiece before La Grande Bellezza, went right at the top of the tree and stayed there, God knows how, for far too long.

The inscrutable devil died only this year. He was the spider at the heart of the mafia web investigated by Peter Robb in Midnight in Sicily, so we knew a little about the circumstances before seeing the film, which might well confuse you if your grasp of labyrinthine Italian politics is forgivably loose. Yes, I need to see Il Divo again, but I'm not sure the density is really a problem when the basic issue of compromised political ambition is so clear. In any case Sorrentino makes a virtue of necessity by giving a host of red print - sometimes speeding up with deliberate absurdity - around murder victims and courtiers (all of whom have nicknames, like mafia henchmen).

The two cardinal virtues here are the bewilderingly beautiful cinematography - every frame a gem of perfect lighting and composition - and the flummoxing impersonation of Andreotti, 'Il Divo' himself, by Tony Servillo. What a gulf separates Servillo's performance here from his melancholy-mocking ageing playboy in La Grande Bellezza; but what a payoff in the virtuoso monologue where his Andreotti rises from impassivity to hysterical fury in trying to argue the right reason - keeping Italy together - for the wrong deeds (mass murder). He's even allowed a measure of sympathy in the scenes with his wife Livia. But the inner decline is inevitable.

And that's what seems to connect Peredonov and Andreotti with the truly horrifying Cathy Ames, negative pole of  John Steinbeck's strange and wondrous family saga East of Eden. Steinbeck leaves us in no doubt of what we're in for before we even meet her in the eighth chapter. 'I believe there are monsters born into the world to human parents', it begins, and a little later on: 'it is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighted, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth'.

Which explanation doesn't stop us hating Cathy or fearing what she's going to do next. The implosion here is much longer, over years, but it comes all the same. Peredonov and Cathy can't really be called tragic, for they have no perception of the path to their own downfall. Like Andreotti, with whom there's more room for doubt, they lack understanding of any human needs other than their own dreadful imperatives; they know nothing of compassion or even - again, not clear with the enigma of Andreotti - guilt. And so, as both authors make us abundantly aware, there is no complexity in their characters, only in the nature of the responses they cause: horrified fascination in Cathy's case, except from a few supremely moral individuals, and mirth at Peredonov's antics, tragic because there's a complimentary failure to understand the mental illness which leads to murder..

Yet both Sologub and Steinbeck make the banality of evil very compelling -  and in Sologub's case very funny, as in the manifestations of Peredonov's paranoia in the maltreated white cat he's afraid will report him to the police and the antics of the nedotykomka, the dirty little laughing creature rendered by Ronald Wilks as 'little demon', making two in his not always felicitous translation.  I came across the wacky Russian artist Dobuzhinsky's rendering of the nedotykomka in the novel below on a fascinating Russian website devoted to Sologub.

There are, of course, 'good' characters in both novels, even if the society of The Little Demon is mostly very shallow; it has a peculiar parallel plot in which a girlish schoolboy becomes involved in a queasy erotic game with one of three capricious sisters (a transferred homosexual fantasy on the author's part, perhaps?). Steinbeck's chronicle, on the other hand, is one of the richest and most nuanced novels I've ever read - I might even compare it to War and Peace. I can't frankly see the point of the film (Jo Van Fleet pictured up top in the middle with James Dean, and below), which as I understand it launches in two thirds of the way through the family history.

The recurring cycle is what counts. There are characters who comprehend the good but still veer to the bad; there are lyrical descriptions of the beautiful and occasionally ferocious Californian landscapes in which they're placed. And the Biblical parallels move quickly way beyond the schematic. It's certainly the most powerful book I've read this year, Steinbeck himself my fondest rediscovery for a very long time (hell, I never did get to blog about the enchanting road book Travels with Charley). He seems so very modern in his ecological concerns. So it's The Log from The Sea of Cortez, his diary of a journey with the polymathic marine biologist who inspired the loveable hero of Cannery Row and Sweet Sunday, which I ought to read next, or soon.


Susan Scheid said...

David: I look forward even more to getting hold of Il Divo on reading this. As for Steinbeck, I realize, as I read your post, that I think the only book by Steinbeck I ever read was The Grapes of Wrath. Shameful, I know, and all the more so as my father, though in a later period than Steinbeck, was a denizen of Cannery Row, among other things playing Tuxedo Junction in a bar after he finished cooking at one of the local tourist joints. (Dad, the typical suburban father whose cooking was limited to summer BBQ on the grill weekends, became a cook in a later incarnation . . . ) I cannot (she says) add another book to my stack right now, but looks like East of Eden would be the Steinbeck to try out.

Loved the TAD year-end review of classical and opera, and, as I've been reading Powell's bio of Britten, was particularly interested in your comparison to Adams vis-vis "fertility and dangerous drive to cover new territory." I've been engaged in a bit of a discussion with one of my music class pals who doesn't like Adams and had occasion to make the point that one of the things I like so much is his continuing musical transformation. Our last guests have left, so now I can get back to listening to music of my own choosing after being on a very restricted musical diet for 3 weeks. Hard to know where to begin, but I suspect I'll find a way . . .

David said...

I know how you feel. Our Norfolk hosts over the New Year were very much agin the first El Nino (though found my plea of information overload plausible) and think JA might be in it for the money and the showoffiness. But they haven't read Hallelujah Junction and as Susie (composer) has just completed a cantata called Magdalene I thought acquaintance with The Gospel According to the Other Mary might not be a bad idea now she's composed her own take on the subject.

I remember you telling me about your intriguing dad's connections with Cannery Row. He sounds anything but a typical suburban father, or was that the male menopause?

Happy New Year. We had a very wet but wonderful one in Hindringham, crowned by a double rainbow in a sunset yesterday afternoon, one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.

Susan Scheid said...

I had very nearly written here that my villain of the year was Taruskin, for his treatment of Adams in the Late 20th C volume of the Oxford History. I knew he was terrible about Klinghoffer, but in this book, in which he claims to try for even-handedness, he reached a new low. Thank goodness we have Adams' own book, and here Ross, too, offers a much-needed corrective. (I'm pleased to report that my correspondent has since listened to and enjoyed the String Quartet, which I'd recommended, and he went on from there to find two other pieces that he liked.) As for Dad, stories to tell worthy of Cannery Row. Hmm. I may need to add Steinbeck to the reading pile, after all. PS: J made us a brilliant dinner for New Year's Day from the Moro cookbook: duck breast and okra, each prepared with pomegranate molasses (the latter not quite made as the recipe indicated, but delicious). Now, there is a gift that keeps on giving, all thanks to your post noting it. Do hope you got a snap of the double rainbow!

David Damant said...

It is indeed difficult to believe that "All God's Chillums got wings"

And is " tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner" always true?

"Hindringham" will make a wonderful title when Her Majesty finally gets round to my peerage.

David said...

Are you telling me, Sue, that J actually laboured over producing the pomegranate molasses? We buy ours in bottles from the local Iranian and Iraqi shops.

Should point out that our hostess prepared the Boxing Day pork (fed on her husband's apple pomace - sp?) with a Moro recipe of chllli, fennel seeds and garlic. Sensational, and the smell as it cooked slowly for 24 hours was as good as the eventual eating. She is the doyenne of good cookery and the Moro Cookbook is, I think, her No. 1.

Taruskin is a lot of folk's bete noir(e). Such panache and knowledge, but so many prejudices - which is why I rail against students taking his often admirable writings as gospel truth. His loss if he doesn't 'get' Adams.

My camera ran out of juice from going to town on Binham Abbey so my J and our friend Jill tried on their iPads for the double rainbow - I think one of hers will do, though only a 360 degree film could take in the full bows, which of course the land- and seascape let us see so well.

Sir David - admirable on all three points, the questions rightly raised as well as the wish with the right ring about it. I should tell the world that you really do practise what you preach with the motto 'all God's chillun got wings'. I have seen you expostulating vehemently at behaviour, but never known you to kvetch about the person.

Hindringham said...

Well, the Church, even before Francis, argued against the sin, not the sinner. He may of course be changing the list of sins, but that is another matter

David said...

Still worth repeating the only sins in Nabokov's Pale Fire: thou shalt not kill, and thou shalt not do harm to others (which surely embraces killing, so maybe there's only one).

David Damant said...

The question arises whether "thou shalt not do harm to others" includes not hurting people by making cruel or comic comments on their deepest beliefs. If those beliefs lead to the hurting of yet others, handling the matter requires a high level of judgement and self control

David said...

Not sure where that came from, but I'm sure I've been guilty of such derision. Which leads us back to another of my favourite saws, Paul Eddington's who, when he was dying, said he wished as his epitaph 'he did very little harm - because people do do a great deal of harm, often without realizing it'.

wanderer said...

Of MIce and Men can be read in an afternoon.

If only more heed were paid to the truth taught by the ancient Greeks that one doesn't hurt others, one only hurts oneself while others have been gifted the blessings of forgiveness.

Speaking of epitaphs, that wonderful man from Woy Woy (sic), Spike Milligan, when asked what he wanted for same said it should read: I told you I was sick.

David said...

Spike, Spike! Wit and wisdom personified.

Is there a specific source for that Greek apercu?

Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday can also be read in an afternoon - but not speedily, because there's too much further wisdom in there

wanderer said...

My ref is Bryan Magee's The Story of Philosophy where in the discussion on Socrates and Justice he says:

"Provided your soul remains untouched, your misfortunes will be comparatively trivial. Real personal catastrophe consists in the corruption of the soul. That is why it does a person far, far less harm to suffer injustice than to commit it. We should pity the perpetrator of injustice, not the victim of injustice'.

And on Plato he says:

"Where Plato never parts company with Socrates is in his commitment to the view that the only real harm that can come to a person is harm to the soul, and therefore it is better to suffer wrong than to commit it;"

I really have been meaning to get get back on this but what with one thing and another, Debbie no less, days have happily slipped by into weeks and now I can only offer apologies from a sun-kissed land in playtime.

David said...

Magee - a wise and lovely man, whom I've had the pleasure of meeting at lunch. He's a hero of mine for the lucidity and simplicity with which he can state the most complex philosophies. His first volume of autobiography, A Hoxton Childhood (I have yet to read the second), is one of the best of its kind too.

So thank you for extracting those saws.