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Documentaries – A Coda…. :(

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“Russia 2017: Countdown to Revolution” on BBC 2…. I.Am.Not.A.Happy.Bunny….

Loved the concept – a mixture of historians and commentators set against some reconstructions of events, but the execution was completely off, as far as I was concerned.

Problems:

  • I didn’t like any of the actors portraying the three main protagonists, which may sound superficial but if they’re going to be giving a decent rendition of important historical figures they should be convincing. They weren’t. Frankly, the communist cooking sketch from Rutland Weekend TV had better acting (and was funnier…)
  • The acted sequences were pretty over-dramatised and over the top, to the point of caricature – come on, chaps, this was BBC2 not Channel 5 so credit your audience with a little intelligence…
  • I felt that Stalin’s role in the revolution was a tad overplayed (although I *was* happy that Trotsky got due credit).
  • The historians and commentators – ah yes, this was where things fell apart for me. I got remarkably vexed about the lack of balance in the programme with right-wingers like Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag Montefiore being given much more air time than China Mieville and Tariq Ali. The latter two came across much more rationally and reasonably than Figes in particular, who was pretty worked up. I ended up getting very worked up myself and shouting at the TV, which rather upset OH…
  • Martin Amis – why was he there? (apart from the fact he wrote a book called “Koba the Dread” about Stalin, with whom he has a problem). Another wasted potentially erudite commentator.
  • Efforts to ramp up the tension by making the programme into a dramatic countdown to the actual October revolution just added to the sense of attempted style over content; hard facts were sacrificed for sensationalism; and what was one of the cataclysmic events of the 20th century was actually undersold.

I was disappointed and angry; the latter mostly because of the bias, and the former because the opportunity for a sensible programme on the Revolution was lost. Mieville and Ali were so underused and yet their contributions were for me the most interesting. The whole thing came across as a comic-book style rendering of Big Events, and probably not aimed at someone who’s been reading about the RR since their early teens – I did find myself wondering what the casual viewer would have made of the show…

Obviously, one failed documentary doesn’t spoil the rest I’ve been watching, and there are a shed-load of Radio 4 programmes I can explore this week covering the subject (though I’m a little nervous about the bias I may find). Alas, it’ll have to be back to books – off to the Verso website to check out the books by Mieville and Ali … :((

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The Curse of Modernity

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All That is Solid Melts Into Air by Marshall Berman

Growing up in the latter part of the 20th century, it was impossible to ignore the changes going on in society around me. The old towns around me were being torn down and developed into brutalist and modernist concrete blocks; the shops were full of shiny consumer goods available to all; standards were changing; and new technology was dawning starting off with simple things like domestic cassette recorders and pocket calculators. I’ve consequently always had a nostalgic fondness for 1960s architecture and furniture, and this was one of the things that first attracted me to Berman’s book (along with the fact that it had long sections on Russian writers!). However, a read of this large and fascinating tome makes it quite clear that modernism is not something that began recently….

solid

As Wikipedia tells us: Marshall Berman (November 24, 1940 – September 11, 2013) was an American philosopher and Marxist Humanist writer. He was a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at The City College of New York and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, teaching Political Philosophy and Urbanism. His book, subtitled “The Experience of Modernity”, defines the modern age as having started when human beings made the transition from a feudal, rural kind of living to an urban, mechanical style and he uses the text “Faust” by Goethe to exemplify this change. The book goes on to travel through a wide-ranging series of works, discussing and debating the human experience of living in, and coping with, the modern world and all its conflicts. Berman covers texts by Baudelaire and Marx; Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Bely; and the late 20th century experience of living in New York during rapid and often brutal redevelopment.

It’s a breathtaking and audacious study, and quite amazing to read. Even if you haven’t read all the works Berman discusses, you can still understand the points he’s making. “Faust” for example is a story I know the basic plot of, but I’ve never read the full book. According to Berman, this is where modernisation begins, with Faust himself being the first large-scale developer, building huge cities and trampling all in his way. Cities and their boulevards become a crucial element in modern life, with the public space changing the ways humans interact with each other (a fact recognised by Baudelaire) And the section on Petersburg is inspirational, reflecting Russia’s attempts to engage with the rest of the modern world, dragging a hopelessly feudal and serf-bound society towards a way of living it couldn’t really comprehend.

By the end of the book, in the sections about the wholesale development and destruction of parts of New York during the 20th century, Berman has come full circle; we are once again witnessing the kind of large-scale push for progress that Goethe’s Faust was aiming for, and it seems that in our desperation for change and modernity, it is the little people and their human needs who will be swept aside. There is a dichotomy here, as Berman recognises, and even all this time after his book was written I’m not sure we have solved the problems.

MarshallBerman

“All that is Solid…” was first published in 1982 and has had something of a cult following since; Verso brough out this edition in 2010 and the book has had a new lease of life . Although some aspects are dated the basic premise, and the discussions of the dilemmas facing us, have not really changed (although he could not have foreseen the technological world with all its modern trappings that we are having to cope with and the political and social systems in which the individual is the least important thing).

In many ways the final section of the book, the New York portion, is the least successful; Berman moves from focusing on a literary/historical interpretation of the past to a much more personal response to the modernist developments of his lifetime. The focus has changed, and the arguments are a little harder to follow because of the author’s emotions about the destruction of the neighbourhood in which he grew up, all in the name of progress. The parallels with Faust are clear, but his narrative seems to have diffused a little. Nevertheless, it’s still a fascinating read, particularly with the perspective we now have of the decades that have passed since Berman wrote this book.

However, the part of the book I found really enlightening was the discussion of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”, particularly in relation to his views of the ‘Crystal Palace’. I’d often wondered quite why the Underground Man was so against a glass structure in London, but Berman puts the whole thing into context; explaining how Dostoevsky (and many other writers, in particular Chernyshevsky) had visited London and seen the Palace, and how it symbolised the progress of the West, with which Russia was unable to keep pace. Chernyshevsky had lauded the Crystal Palace, and it was this with which Dostoevsky had a quarrel (and indeed which Zamyatin satirised in parts of “We”). This section alone was worth reading the book for, and although I didn’t always agree with Berman’s take on things, it was always entertaining.

It’s pretty much impossible to go into the detail that this book deserves in a blog post, as there are numerous complex and intriguing arguments on display which I think could occupy many happy evenings of discussion. However, if you’re at all interested in how we got from a feudal world to a highly mechanised one, or in the works of art that reflect that change, this is definitely a book you want to pick up!

In which I (gasp!) read a graphic novel…

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Yup – I really did! It was “Red Rosa” by Kate Evans, and this is the first time I’ve read a graphic novel since, ooh, probably around 1991 when I blubbed through “Maus”. If I’m honest, it’s not a genre I often dip into, much as I love good comic book art, but reading about this one on the Verso site (such temptation on there) made me keen to explore, and fortunately a proof was available via NetGalley. The book is out in November, and I really, really recommend it.

red rosa

The titular Rosa is of course Rosa Luxemburg, left-wing thinker and revolutionary, and the book tells not only her life story, but also fills the reader in on her theories and thinking in a way that makes it approachable and understandable. Born into a Jewish family in Russian-controlled Poland, she had disadvantages from the start; her sex, her religion and a hip ailment causing a limp were all against her. But Rosa had a ferocious intelligence and fought for education and to go to one of the universities which would accept women. After obtaining her degree, she made her life in Germany, devoted it to the cause, as well as having a very healthy love life!

It’s clear from the graphic novel that Luxemburg was a formidable intellect, with many regarding her as on the same level as Marx (and indeed she did take many of his ideas and develop them further). She was involved in agitation all her life, imprisoned at times, and pivotal in the German revolution of 1918-19. However, as the book makes clear, the revolution failed when the Social Democrats (who should have been sympathetic to their cause) had the uprising crushed; and Rosa and fellow revolutionary Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered.

Author Kate Evans' view of herself.

Author Kate Evans’ view of herself.

“Red Rosa” is inspirational on a number of levels: there are Rosa’s feminist struggles in a world that is really not comfortable with intelligent women; her belief in her right to love who she wants when she wants; her anger at the poverty and inequality she encounters; and her constant fight to overcome the prejudice she meets as a Jew. Kate Evans’ artwork is excellent, capturing brilliantly Rosa’s look, and some of the larger spreads, covering double pages, are dramatic and impressive. The pages dealing with the effects of WW1 are stunning and the book is a perfect example of what a graphic novel can and should be. The book also succeeds wonderfully in explaining complex theories and issues, and is an excellent primer on Luxemburg’s thought. It does deal graphically (though always tastefully!) with her many loves, and gives a rounded portrait of a woman who was much more than just an anarchist bomb-thrower.

I was absolutely entranced by “Red Rosa”; both the artwork and the concepts made the book one I just couldn’t put down. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to read the life of an inspirational woman!

(Many thanks to publisher Verso and NetGalley for the proof copy – the book comes out in November, and I’d highly recommend getting a physical copy so you can appreciate the artwork properly. Kate Evans has a website here which is worth checking out).

A pair of Verso Volumes

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Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger
America by Jean Baudrillard

It’s becoming quite obvious that I’m spending much too much time hanging about the Verso Books site lately… Trouble is, they keep having wonderful flash sales and offers, and I confess to being something of a sucker for these. I went a little mad when their e-books were all on sale with 90% off (!) but these two titles are hard copies I picked up recently, and both rather thought-provoking volumes.

bento

John Berger is, of course, an author I’ve been reading recently, and I loved his novel “A Painter of our Time”. “Bento’s Sketchbook”, however, is something completely different; it’s a lovely, large format paperback filled with Berger’s sketches and musings, as well as extracts from the philosopher Spinoza – the Bento of the title. Spinoza was rumoured to have always carried a sketchbook during his short life, which was lost after his death. Berger had often wondered what the sketchbook would hold and when a friend presented him with a brand new sketchbook of his own, he decided this would be Bento’s Sketchbook, and went on to fill it accordingly.

It’s a fascinating work, full of random thoughts and musings; autobiographical tales; quotes from Spinoza; and some wonderful sketches by Berger. He recalls visits to Dresden after the bombing; a recent visit to sketch in the National Gallery when a jobsworth guard behaves like a moron (I’m still cross about that bit); an encounter with an exiled Cambodian artist; and each of these pieces is shot through with Berger’s humanity and intelligence. Much of the writing is concerned with the process of drawing, and as a total amateur who’s always wanted to draw but never been able to, I found these pieces fascinating. Berger observes the world around him with a clear eye, seeing and recognising the inequalities, and I ended up feeling that nothing he writes could ever be dull. The scope is wide-ranging too – in a long life, full of experience, Berger has encountered many people and events, all of which inform his philosophy.

What’s distinct about today’s global tyranny is that it’s faceless. There’s no Führer, no Stalin, no Cortes. Its workings vary according to each continent and its modes are modified by local history, but its overall pattern is the same…

I came to the end of Berger’s book intrigued, interested, thoughtful and oddly reassured – while there are minds like his in the world there is still hope.

amereica

“America” however is quite another kettle of fish. Baudrillard is a highly regarded French postmodern thinker, and the book is a collection of his meditations on the USA. Framed by thoughts on the desert landscapes (which haunt the book), Baudrillard muses on the differences between American and French culture, the attitudes of both countries and how geography shapes personality. It’s a complex work which I confess often lost me (I’m not that knowledgeable when it comes to philosophical terminology) and yet there are parts that jumped out at me; places where he nailed the essence of things and also some wry humour at the expense of both countries.

The book was written in the 1980s and much of his analysis still seems relevant. However, once place where I think he was off-centre was in his thoughts on race; he almost seemed to be implying that though there were racial tensions in Europe, in the USA these did not really exist any more and all peoples were getting alone fine in the country’s melting pot. Recent world events show that that’s not the case on either side of the Atlantic and in some ways Baudrillard’s analysis seems a little simplistic.

Nevertheless, this was an intriguing book, if difficult in places, and I might be tempted to try another of his books one day… 🙂

Portrait of the Artist as Political Animal

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A Painter of our Time by John Berger

I confess to being partial to a number of independent publishers, and a recent discovery has been the left-wing imprint, Verso. They product a lot of very interesting-looking non-fiction (I am currently trying to resist the call of “NIghtwalking), but I was intrigued to discovery recently when they had a flash sale that they also publish fiction. A title which caught my eye was this one, by an author who’s probably best know for being behind the TV series (and book) “Ways of Seeing” – John Berger.

a painter

Berger has a long history in the arts, but the section on this novel on Wikipedia deserved picking out and reproducing here:

In 1958, Berger published his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, which tells the story of the disappearance of Janos Lavin, a fictional exiled Hungarian painter, and his diary’s discovery by an art critic friend called John. The book’s political currency and detailed description of an artist’s working process led to some readers mistaking it for a true story. After being available for a month, the work was withdrawn by the publisher, under pressure from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.The novels immediately succeeding A Painter of Our Time were The Foot of Clive and Corker’s Freedom; both presented an urban English life of alienation and melancholy. In 1962 Berger’s distaste for life in Britain drove him into voluntary exile in France.

I found in fascinating that the book should have been considered so subversive in 1958 that it had to be withdrawn; but then I remembered that the world was still in the grip of the Cold War, and that 1956 had seen the abortive Hungarian uprising. So it was a given that I had to pick up a copy to see what it was all about.

As the Wiki entry states, the book is narrated by art critic John, whose commentary frames the diary kept by Janos Lavin, the Hungarian painter of the title. Lavin, a Communist by belief, has washed up in London with his second wife Diana after a life spent moving around the continent: from Hungary, through Berlin then to France and finally on to Britain. His political beliefs and activities have been at the root of his constant movement, as each country becomes too hot to hold him, and he’s retreated from active politics, instead spending his time scraping an existence teaching, painting and being supported by Diana (who comes from a monied family and has a personal income, supplemented by work in a library). But although Janos seems to have cut himself off from the past, it is never as clear-cut as it seems; and as John reads through the diary, much of Janos’s past (previously unknown to John) is revealed. But where has Janos gone, and what prompted his disappearance?

“A Painter of our Time” was an absolutely fascinating read. One one level, there is a mystery, the solution of which gradually becomes clear as we make our way through the diary. However, the book is in many ways an extended meditation on the meaning of art; why we create, whether it’s relevant, whether political action is a better choice and so on. Janos, having abandoned political activism, puts everything into his work: his beliefs, his wish for the world to change, the accumulation of all his life’s experiences. And as his story is gradually revealed, like someone scraping away layers of old paint, it seems that he has indeed had a very active life; his memories of torture, betrayal and all the nastiness existing in the early part of the 20th century are powerful. All is not dark, though – there are hints of happiness with his first wife in the early days of their marriage, and of his powerful, comradely friendship with Laszlo.

As Communists we believe that we understand how, on a far more urgent and immediate level, we can make life better, richer, juster, truer with a speed that has never been possible before. I believe this despite the harshness, the treachery, the deaths. I believe it with Asia and Africa, for whom such an improvement is life and death for their own and the next generation. The point from which politics starts for me is hunger. Nothing less.

In fact, without giving too much away, Laszlo is a critical element of Janos’ tale; the events in Hungary during the 1950s inform Janos and Laszlo’s eventual destinies, and trigger pivotal decisions. I don’t want to say any more as it would risk spoiling the development of the book – but a basic knowledge of the Hungarian situation in the 1950s would help…

john berger

There is also a little light relief, to be found in the form of Len, a ‘Sunday painter’; a butcher by trade, he’s fascinated by the clichéd image of a tortured Parisian in a loft with a beret (rather reminiscent of Tony Hancock in “The Rebel”) and longs to paint his wife Vee in the nude, much to her bourgeois embarrassment. Len regards Janos as the real deal, and despite the man’s limitations, Berger is surprisingly kind to him and his artistic ambitions, almost as if he regards his naive aspirations as more honest than some of the posing of the so-called professional artists. The book also captures brilliantly the atmosphere of foggy, post-War London and Berger’s writing is quite evocative in places:

I can see the moon through the skylight, and somewhere there is an owl. It is surprising how many owls there are in London.Writing as I have done makes me nostalgic. Why do the lights on the Erzebet Bridge still flicker for me, whilst the recollection of sailing under it, lying on my back on the bottom of a dinghy, leaves me only incredulous about the way I lived then? Why do the lights on the Erzebet Bridge still flicker for me? The bridge has been destroyed, anyway.

Janos is very much an outsider, and you get the sense he has been all through his life. It’s only towards the end of the book, ironically, that his work gets an exhibition of its own and it seems as if his paintings might become fashionable and start to sell. However, unexpected events take over and choices have to be made.

“A Painter of Our Time” was an absorbing read, giving a fascinating snapshot of political and artistic life in the 1950s. I felt that Berger had really captured the dilemmas that must have been faced by intellectuals at the time. Janos is a man drawn in two conflicting directions, torn between politics and art – can they ever be reconciled? The book also hints at just how little we humans really know each other; John is chastened to find out how little he really knows about Janos, and if it hadn’t been for the diary he would have had no idea what was going on beneath the painter’s surface level daily life. I’ve definitely had my thoughts provoked by “A Painter of Our Time” and I think I might well nudge “Ways of Seeing” closer to the top of Mount TBR…

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