Monthly Archives: October 2011

The new exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, A World of Glass by Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg, is probably the best exhibition I’ve seen there – and elsewhere – for months.

Nathalie Djurberg works chiefly with stop-motion animation, creating short films which address very complex adult themes that their childish appearance belies. The apparent simplicity of the work is completely at odds with its subject matter and the arduous process involved creating this kind of work Some of her earlier films epict – for example – a female eskimo slaughtering a walrus, disembowelling it, and then climbing inside the carcass and swimming off; or a woman whose children climb back inside her vagina, after which their limbs start protruding through her skin, turning her into a multi-limbed and awkward beast… Wallace and Gromit it ain’t.

A World Of Glass is composed of four short films, music, and a series of ‘glass’ sculptures. The sculptures are not, in fact glass, but a kind of plastic. This is because they are actually casts of many different objects, moulded together with clay, which creates wonderfully strange fragile-looking sculptures like otherworldly towers of glassware; tables set for a strange feast, perhaps. Some even resemble stalagmites in the way they seem to rise shakily and unevenly from the tables. Indeed, the lighting and the tinkling, echoing music does create a cavernous atmosphere. It all brings to mind Alice’s topsy turvy through-the-looking-glass world, and every nursey rhyme or fairy tale you’ve ever heard. This exhibition taps into something essentially very dark, but childlike too – Brothers Grimm eat your heart out.

Hans Berg – who creates the music for all her films – has added an unusual twist to this exhibition, making just one soundtrack for all four films. This creates a spectacularly immersive effect which builds through the exhibition as the audience becomes more aware of the links being made between the audio and the visual, as the musical arcs correlate to the story progression. It’s atmospheric, challenging, gripping, often surprising and not without humour. Expect animals, animalism, nudity, violence, gore, sadness, desperation and fear… with a sprinkling of humanity, beauty and wonder. Great stuff.


The blurb on my copy of Written On The Body says that the gender of the main protagonist/narrator is unspecified, but I can’t help but hear a woman’s voice when I read Winterson. How far are we expected to suspend disbelief and pretend this could be a man? I suppose it must be frustrating for a celebrated female, lesbian writer to always be fighting the same corner; or being see to be. I can understand the impulse to write a non-gender-specific narrator, but I’m just not convinced there’s much point beyond the gesture – it remains a gesture, pure and simple. Perhaps if you didn’t know who Winterson was, and you were a man and had never met a lesbian you might be predisposed to think of this person as male.. but even then.. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m predisposed to swing the other way entirely, so I’m hardly the best judge of how impartial or androgynous this voice actually is. Suffice to say, I got about a page in before I had a fully formed female narrator speaking to me, despite the blurb’s helpful pointer in the direction of androgyny.

It’s a short novel. It’s very dense, and seems to be more an exercise of certain ideas than a novel in the traditional sense. It reads like a study; an exploration of themes. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable or masterful – it is both – but it’s very condensed, and there’s a certain amount of repetition. Perhaps this is to illustrate the obsessive nature of desire, and the fixation that the characters are experiencing.. but I found it a bit tedious at times.

Plot summary: the narrator is a person with a colourful sexual/relationship history and a talent for picking the wrong people; mostly married women (this was the section that I found most enjoyable – it’s full of short studies of brief encounters and character flaws). The narrator ‘settles down’ with a steady, dependable, comfortable woman. The narrator meets another woman, she has red hair – which stands us in good stead for metaphors and similes of autumn – and is married. They start an affair. Our narrator’s dependable other half finds out and wrecks our narrator’s flat. Our narrator continues having the affair and is very happy. The red-haired lover’s husband tells our narrator that his wife has cancer and that only he can help her to live (he is a cancer specialist). Our narrator decides to leave the red-haired lover in order to let her be cured. Red-haired lover doesn’t want to go back to her husband, but our narrator is nowhere to be found. Dischord and disaster and dramatic gestures of self-sacrifice ensue.

Key themes: women and sex, and a side-helping of pathology.

Having studied Ishiguro at University, I am painfully aware of the amount already written about his work, and it makes me (ever so slightly more) nervous about contributing my own thoughts to the dialogue. Of course this is true for most of the authors I have read and reviewed here, certainly there is enough written about Zola alone to fill a library, but Ishiguro stands out particularly because he is still alive. Ok, so Arundhati Roy is still alive and definitely kicking, yes. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s daughter was friends with my youngest sibling whilst they were at school together, and he has been to my house (I hid. I was too shy to say anything). This always haunts me when I read his books. Like no other author I am constantly aware of the reality of this person – the hand putting pen to paper. It’s odd.

But enough of this: to the novel itself! The protagonist is a precocious man called Christopher Banks who fulfils his life ambition to become a celebrated detective; an ambition formed after his parents are mysteriously abducted inShanghaiwhen he is still a boy. Christopher is a typical Ishiguro narrator – unreliable in the extreme. The facts presented at the outset become more and more unbalanced and uncertain as we progress through the novel. We are tempted at times to think of Christopher as utterly delusional, but he is our only guide through this fictive maze – perhaps made flesh by the rubble-strewn ‘warren’ he must negotiate at the end of the novel – so we must stick to him, and trust him as far as is reasonable. 

Like so many Ishiguro novels, there is a constant sense of unease; the feeling that there is always something significant just out of sight, or out of the range of our grasp. What is being kept from us? Is this paranoia justified or simply a reflection of our own expectations of storytelling?

Themes of importance, self-importance, significance and insignificance are explored in this novel under the broader horizon of the final gasps of Empire and the start of the Second World War. It is easy to see how these themes dovetail, especially when one is considering an awareness of authority in one’s narrator. How much of our narrator’s importance is merely self-importance? The interrelated nature of Christopher’s delusion, his strange childishness and the place the International Settlement holds in his heart is a fascinating set of clues for the reader to unravel. The International Settlement in Shanghai is portrayed obliquely at the start, through a lens of childhood, but as the action creeps closer to the present-day reality, the scales start to fall from our eyes. The International Settlement’s absurd conviction of it’s function as the centre of the universe becomes apparent just at the moment that Christopher starts to doubt it.

This is a novel about distortion, childhood, adulthood and memory; about delusion on a small and large scale, and about the human propensity for wilful ignorance or allowing inconvenient events to go unexamined and unseen. These are themes we have seen before in Ishiguro’s work, and themes we will doubtless see again, but the manner of delivery renders them fresh and vital and disturbing each and every time.

I’ve only read one other title by Zola, which was Nana. It was a book that required a couple of runs at it to immerse myself sufficiently to read on, but once I took the plunge it was a fantastic experience, sufficiently vivid to stay with me even years after I read it. So it was, and I think so it will be, with La Bête Humaine. Zola is a marvellous writer, there’s no doubt about that*, but he can be a little dense – it’s a style that takes a bit of getting used to. However, because of this quality it is full of life and detail and emotion. It reminds me a bit of Russian novels I’ve read in the way that it deals so specifically with thought and interaction; the minutiae of life provide the beating heart of this kind of writing. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the fact that both are translated.

There is also a socio-scientific and political current evident in this book. The human condition – judging from Zola’s account of it here – is pretty dire, and modernity/progress shows everyone in an unflattering light. The brutal savage of our ancestry (quite literally, the human beast – a phrase repeated often throughout this novel) is alive and well; living in a modern world with advancing technology that – Zola implies – he has not learnt to master, and perhaps never will. The train and the train station provide an atmospheric and symbolically significant backdrop to the novel as a whole, interspersed only with brief glimpses of the corrupt political classes of Paris, and the vast and neglected hinterland that the train traverses.

The overall impression of this book might be summarised as; sex, death and trains. It’s these three elements that make up most of the content, and it’s a startling concoction. Husbands have jealous rages and nearly batter their wives to death, lovers plumb the depths of passion, randy old men abuse young orphan girls, people avenge themselves for broken hearts in unspeakable ways – it’s a mess, and no mistake. Sex seems inextricably linked to violence, and the idea of ‘love’ is an irrelevance or at best futile in the extreme. Throw in the devastatingly grim imagery of new mechanisation; trains with fiery furnaces rushing through the night and onwards into the blackness of the Future, and the effect is certainly high drama; almost operatic in its grandeur and silliness. But riveting, nonetheless. Perhaps all this death, narrated in classic Zola style – without discernable emotion – might be seen to presage the horror of the war that is to come? It seems likely.

* when La Bête Humaine was first published in 1890 it was all but dismissed as an unnecessarily bloodthirsty and brutal piece of writing, with little or no literary value. “Murder” should have been the title’ read a comment in The Athenaeum.