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.