Friday, August 19, 2011

'The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim' by Jonathan Coe

19 August 2011

Jonathan Coe ranks alongside David Mitchell as one of my favourite contemporary novelists. Both write clever comic novels but their styles are quite different. Jonathan Coe’s writing appears more straightforward, without the linguistic tricks and stylistic ventriloquism that David Mitchell does so impressively. But Jonathan Coe’s more simple approach is deceptive: like David Lodge he writes light and accessible stories that contain complex themes and emotions which seep through the narrative rather than being rammed home. I’ve just finished reading Jonathan Coe’s latest novel ‘The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim’ (as an unabridged audio book, read by Colin Buchanan). After the more serious departure of ‘The Rain Before It Falls’ (reviewed here in August 2008), this is a return to the comic adventures of Coe’s best known works, ‘What a Carve Up’ and ‘The Rotters Club’. Like those novels, ‘The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim’ deals with themes of family relationships, technology and politics. In fact there are many themes lying beneath this humourous road trip across Britain (to sell toothbrushes in Shetland) and it was fun trying to decide which was the main purpose of the book. Is it really (as we are told towards the end) a study of the political and environmental implications of the toothbrush? Or is it a very subtle reflection on the banking crisis and the credit crunch? Surely the overriding focus is on loneliness: it is an often sad tale of a very lonely man suffering from depression who is embarking on a significant journey in both senses of the word. But, actually, I think ‘The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim’ is ultimately about the act of writing. Max tells us his remarkable story in the first person, making it clear that he is an inexperienced an unconfident writer. His narrative is interspersed with a series of pieces of writing by his friends and family that he discovers on his journey. But it is hard to tell what is real and what is invented: who is faking their stories? This is a tale about fiction (and meta-fiction), very easy to get into and enjoy on the surface with much food for thought lurking beneath.


Saturday, August 06, 2011

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' by William Shakespeare

6 August 2011

On Friday we were back in Stratford-upon-Avon to see Nancy Meckler's new RSC production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Meckler had set the play in a modern-day Athens with the gentlemen dressed in black suits and ties like a Greek Reservoir Dogs and the rude mechanicals actually wearing blue mechanic's overalls. I liked that, when Lysander and Hermia meet in the woods to elope, he arrives with just the clothes he stands up in but Hermia has the presence of mind to bring a sleeping bag, thermos flask and toothbrush! It was a very funny show, with the final performance of 'Pyramus and Thisbe' milked for every drop of humour but still leaving me wanting more. And it was great to see some serious comic dancing that could have come directly from a Hal Hartley film. But the humour of Peter Quince's players was surpassed by the lovers in a pillow-fight scene that was truly hilarious. All four of the lovers were excellent but the show was stolen by Lucy Briggs-Owen as Helena with her brilliant mixture of hysterical despair, falsetto disbelief and manic movement. She even outdid Marc Wootton who was fantastic as Bottom. And the fact that both Lucy Briggs-Owen and Marc Wootton are in their debut seasons with the RSC emphasises the company's ability to spot and nurture wonderful acting talent. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was a good example of the RSC's ensemble approach, with no real star names on the bill but a universally impressive cast. And while it made good use of the facilities of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre, especially the massive pit beneath the stage, unlike the first two productions designed for the new auditorium (Macbeth, reviewed here in April 2011 and The Merchant of Venice, reviewed here in June 2011) it didn't appear to be so blatantly trying to show off the new theatre. The funniest Shakespeare I have seen for many years.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell

3 August 2011

In my previous job, when I was commuting to London every day, I managed to consume massive amounts of contemporary literature, often reading a novel a week. Now that the train has become my office, I find it hard to find time to read for pleasure. Regular readers may have noticed that my book reviews often tend to coincide with my holidays. I have therefore been amassing an ever-expanding list of books I am intending to read, with little prospect of making serious in-roads into it. I do, however, manage to find plenty of time to listen to music and radio programmes, usually on headphones while doing something else. So I thought I would see whether unabridged audio books might provide the answer to reducing my ‘to-read’ mountain. I signed up to the subscription service and I have just finished listening to my first audio book, David Mitchell’s ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’. David Mitchell is one of my favourite contemporary novelists and I had been looking forward to his latest work. ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ is an epic work – the audio version, wonderfully read by Jonathan Aris, lasts 19 hours. Structurally, it is much more straightforward than David Mitchell’s earlier novels, ‘Cloud Atlas’, ‘Ghostwritten’ and ‘number9dream’. This is an old-fashioned historical saga on a grand scale. Set in a Dutch trading post outside Nagasaki at the end of the 18th century it tells the tale of a young Dutch clerk, Jacob de Zoet, arriving at this grim colonial outpost and beginning to learn the mysteries of the closed Japanese empire. Had I been reading the book in print I wonder whether I might have struggled to get into it – I suspect I would have carefully re-read the opening chapters to get to grips with all the Japanese and Dutch names and work out exactly who all the characters were. Listening to the audio version allowed me not to worry about pronunciation (all done for me!) and letting the huge cast of characters initially wash over me worked fine: you soon begin to differentiate the main protagonists without having to work too hard. David Mitchell manages to draw very clear characters – all of whom have believable flaws. Within each group in the story – the Dutch traders, the Japanese officials and the British navy – there are both likeable and despicable individuals: there is no sense that one side are the ‘baddies’. The sheer length of the work engenders, by its end, a huge emotional attachment to the main protagonists. While the author avoids false sentimentality, the last few chapters are incredibly moving: you really feel you know these people personally. The historical detail was also fascinating: without laying on his research too heavily, David Mitchell teaches you a great deal about Japan and the tussles between Britain and the Netherlands. But ultimately this is a book about fathers and sons – from the opening birth scene to the pain of a lost son to the heartache of parting from your father. ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jabob de Zoet’ reminded me a lot of the work of Louis de Bernières, particularly ‘Captain Corelli's Mandolin’ – the small, closed community, the Dickensian cast of characters, the clash of cultures etc. I really enjoyed ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ – it felt like an epic journey but one well worth embarking on.


Monday, August 01, 2011

WOMAD 2011

1 August 2011

Everybody's WOMAD is different: like any big festival there are so many bands to see on so many stages that each individual curates their own personal festival. This year my WOMAD seemed to be dominated by the violin: a surprising number of the groups I chose to watch featured one or more fiddles - from the sublime Scottish folk fiddling of Rua MacMillan to the unbelievably fast playing of Romanian legends Taraf de Haidouks; from the klezmer violin of Oi Va Voi to the eclectic mix of styles of the Barrunto Bellota Band from Caceres in Spain; from the uncategorisable fascination of Arthur Jeffes' Penguin Cafe to the brilliant Norwegian folk fiddle quintet Majorstuen. I saw 30 different bands over the WOMAD weekend at Charlton Park in Wiltshire including 20 complete sessions. I particularly enjoyed the AfroCubism super-group - it was amazing to see so many African stars, including Bassekou Kouyate (reviewed here in December 2007), Toumani Diabate (reviewed here in May 2008) and Djelimady Tounkara, sharing the stage with members of Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club. And it was wonderful to see the veterans of traditional Egyptian band El Tanbura, triumphant from their performances earlier this year in Tahrir Square. The WOMAD crowd (Womadders? or Womadians?) is a generous and sympathetic audience: if a roadie was to accidentally drop a guitar on the stage someone would start dancing to it! It's always lovely to see bands from completely different cultures, such as the Korean Tori Ensemble this year, start their set with serious frowns of concentration only gradually to realise how enthusiastically their music is being appreciated by a passionate, massed crowd in front of the stage. As the performers begin to look at each other and smile and (this year much more than I remember previously) take out their mobile phones and take photos of their audience, you begin to feel optimistic again about the prospects for intercultural dialogue and understanding. I think my favourite performances of WOMAD 2011 were those by: the young virtuoso of the South Indian veena (an earlier version of the more familiar sitar) Hari Sivanesan with the Cuban violinist (another violinist!) Omar Puente; the 10-strong Chinese acoustic group from Inner Mongolia, AnDa Union; the laid-back acoustic pop mixed with Scottish folk and Maori vocals from female trio Pacific Curls; and the stunning set by London-based five-piece female vocal group The Boxettes, led by world champion beatboxer Bellatrix. Oh, and I forgot to mention Appalachian clawhammer banjo maestro Abigail Washburn who was wonderful. All this and the weather was brilliant!

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