MONA LISA AND BOB HOSKINS

The next post will be or before Friday July 6th

MONA LISA AND BOB HOSKINS

If you are British, and even if you are not, there is a fair chance you have seen the 1986 movie Mona Lisa starring Bob Hoskins (1942-2014) at least half a dozen times. Directed by prizewinning Irish author and filmmaker Neil Jordan (born 1950) it is always being shown on TV and in the old days was a gratis DVD in the Sunday Times. Jordan has made some unarguable masterpieces, including 3 political thrillers: namely the 1982 Angel set by the Northern Irish seaside starring Stephen Rea; then, also with Rea and Forest Whitaker as an innocent black soldier, The Crying Game (1992), and finally the 1996 biographical movie Michael Collins featuring Liam Neeson. Also first class was The End of the Affair (1999), an adaptation of the Graham Greene, novel, with suave and cryptic Ralph Fiennes and decorous and conscience stricken Julianne Moore on top form. However, Jordan has also made two execrable duds in the shape of the misfiring ghostly comedy High Spirits (1988) with Peter O’Toole, and even worse the unwatchable 2005 adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s novel Breakfast on Pluto, which as far as I can remember has talking sparrows in it.

Mona Lisa despite the awards and acclaim it received, is not a masterpiece, neither I am glad to say, is it anywhere near being a dud. It has many fine things in it, including a bravura performance from Bob Hoskins playing middle aged Londoner George, recently out of a 7 year prison sentence and now driver for a high class and beautiful black call girl called Simone, under the aegis of Soho master crook Denny, a man so sleazy and appalling you want to hit him as soon as he is on the screen. Denny is played immaculately by Michael Caine (born 1933) who adopts his customary oblique Cockney rhetoric in playing the part, and takes nil responsibility for letting George take the rap 7 years earlier. George is both frightened of and contemptuous of Denny, and at the start of the film enters his club and leaves a live white rabbit to be given to Denny as indication of his boss’s cowardice. Before that and just out of jail he goes to visit his teenage daughter Jeannie (Zoe Nathenson born 1969, who now runs her own film school) who is living with his estranged wife. He bears flowers and wears a tidy white suit, but the screaming mother kicks him out and orders Jeannie to get in the house. George reacts by flinging a full dustbin at the door and then doing the same at the gawping amused neighbours, the majority of them black. He is rescued from retribution by his old mate Thomas, played by Robbie Coltrane (born 1950) who is a kind of dramatic foil to the horrible gangster underworld, as he is a decent man living alone in a shack of a garage with his ramshackle bed in among all the ramshackle cars. Coltrane does his usual dry unfoolable persona, but his character and Hoskins’ relationship with him are I would say the weakest thing in the film. He is given 2 quirky attributes which are meant to be funny, but in my view are not, more like facetious. One is making avant garde sculptures in his garage out of spaghetti and the other is retailing the mad labyrinthine plots of mad thrillers where characters like dwarves and even horses turn out to be the villains. Hoskins reads all these recommended books and the two of them spend far too much time swapping opinions about these whimsical and tedious artefacts. Robbie Coltrane is a gifted and very successful actor but he played the same autopilot facetious one liner part in his relationship with Emma Thompson in the otherwise excellent TV rockband drama Tutti Frutti which interestingly was made about the same time (1987) as Mona Lisa.

George’s relationship with Simone (Cathy Tyson, born 1965 and best known from the ITV series Band of Gold) is far more nuanced and convincing, and is frequently very touching. She is a high-class prostitute for rich always elderly clients with special tastes, and the meetings are usually in plush hotels where the snooty head waiter is also a class of discreet custodial pimp. In one enjoyable scene George storms in on Simone when she is long delayed, only to find an old man in hideous white underwear who has her in her bra and knickers tied up and gagged on the bed. George throws him out of the room, unties the angry Simone, who stands of course to lose money, and then as they run out of the hotel he batters the head waiter whilst Simone flings mace in the lackey’s eyes, her trusted device against all aggressive males. By this stage, she and her driver are on relatively amiable terms, but to start with she mocks him for his terrible dress sense and gives George a wad of money to buy something decent. He  duly purchases a reasonable jacket, but to her disgust goes for the maddest Waikiki shirt in the world. She scorns his stupidity and he angrily retorts that he is cheap, and she must accept that, but nonetheless the two of them gradually develop a convincing and moving tenderness. Simone thoughtfully has a liveried waiter take refreshments out to the car where George is waiting for her, and George demonstrates his nascent feelings by telling her that for him, Simone is emphatically a lady, not a tart. However, there is a twist and a subtext, inasmuch as Simone was once not so elevated but was working the London streets on the nightmarish thoroughfare near King’s Cross, mostly peopled by young prostitutes with severe drug addictions. She had a friend among them she has lost touch with, who is still only in her teens, a blond-haired waif called Cathy (played by Kate Hardie, born 1969 who is daughter of the TV comedian Bill Oddie). Simone commissions George to try and find her, and together they trawl King’s Cross, mistaking various girls for Cathy, and there is an excellent scene where an aggressive and loathsome young pimp in a jaunty trilby hat has his face battered on the wound down car window by no nonsense George. Male violence is predictably a constant motif in the film, and as George sets about detective style to track down Cathy on his own, he takes a wrong lead and ends up in some seedy brothel where he poses as a customer interested in blond underage girls, one of whom has a face covered in ugly bruises. George sits on her bed and grills her about her identity, but she urges him in a babyfied voice to make love to her, or she will be beaten up for not doing her job. Later he takes her out for an ice cream in an egg and chip café and again in her reduced state she babbles pathetic baby talk, and likewise when George eventually finds the real Cathy, she not only whines like a deprived infant but can eat only ice cream, a convincing dietary detail when it comes to women with severe drug addictions.

George had eventually tracked down Cathy in a massive, empty London church where she is liaising with her black pimp Anderson, a Denny employee played by star US actor Clarke Peters (born 1952) familiar from The Wire. They meet in the church, because of course it is the one place where no one ever goes, and eventually Hoskins follows them to a crumbling mansion owned by Denny, who is busy parading around in a supervisory role in an impeccable dinner jacket. There in an adjacent boudoir, Cathy has to give her body to a disturbing old man in a dressing gown who has an array of nasty implements he will employ for rear penetration of the underage girl. George sees all this by reflection in a purpose built voyeuristic mirror, whereupon incensed he bursts in to steal the girl, and ultimately takes her down to Brighton where Simone has just eloped.

The film accelerates to compelling pursuit and panic mode, as come to think of it do most films set in Brighton, and when George has pale and fragile Cathy safely in a smart hotel, she discloses that Simone is not just any old friend but a very special one. Later he spots the two of them lying on a bed as if they are lifelong lovers, and he takes Simone on a walk along the pier to pour his heart out. There are 2 admirably powerful scenes in the film, where one of them is justifiably incensed and the other is as it were exposed and stricken. The first is when George discovers a porn video of Simone giving fellatio to a faceless black man, confronts her with it, and she beats him across the face with a belt in her anger and her shame. Hoskins shows his tears and humiliation with incredible poignance and likewise he unleashes his anguished rage now, for as he sees it he has ‘risked everything, including his life, for two dykes’. To emphasise the bilious black comedy, as he sees it, he promptly purchases two pairs of ludicrous ornamented sunglasses with plastic frames, such as little kids would wear. With the pair of them looking like partying buffoons, he accuses her of callously mocking his feelings and of risking his neck. However, he is stopped half way through his excoriation, as 3 of Denny’s London heavies have turned up, including Cathy’s minder, Anderson. The pair of them manage to race back to the hotel, where as final irony, with Cathy still fast asleep, Denny is sat calmly on an armchair caressing the white rabbit that was given him as an emblem of his cowardice. Caine stands up and in his usual spry hectoring tone, starts slapping Simone brutally on the face. At which point, with a precautionary gun earlier provided by George, she shoots him dead, and he is splayed across the wall covered in blood, the little white rabbit meanwhile sniffing innocently nearby. She also blasts and kills Anderson and all the rest of the heavies. But the amiable conclusion is inexplicable as far as I can see, for we learn no more about Simone and Cathy, but George returns to London and joyfully resumes a kind of wholesome family life with daughter Jeannie, even down to Robbie Coltrane lending her an avuncular arm as she is sandwiched happily between him and her Dad.

I am still baffled why all 3 of them, the two gay lovers and George, weren’t quickly tracked down by the police and put away for decades, but that aside, this is still a fine and engaging movie with a haunting soundtrack, and it is worth rewatching at least once a year for ever more.

Advertisements

NO GO, NO WIFI

The next post will be on before Wednesday July 4th

NO GO, NO WIFI

I mentioned recently my friend Kostas, a successful professional Athenian in his mid-50s who has family connections with Kythnos and who is, what’s that word I really hate, conflicted. Or rather I see him very obviously as that, whereas he is quite happy to hold diametrically unreconcilable opinions regarding this out of the way and relatively tiny Cycladean island.  Kostas give him his due reveres the pure and simple old-fashioned Kythnos, with its elderly goat farmers straddling patient little donkeys, alongside the winding monopati footpaths and their handsome kserolithia dry stone walls, unlike their Cumbrian counterpart having a huge lozenge-shaped support boulder at regular intervals. He also loves the authentic version of inland village life where the cafes and restaurants crowd the main narrow thoroughfare, meaning a kind of amiable congestion where everyone is on top of everyone else and there is no way of feeling lonely or alone however hard you try. It is a village life where the little shops, especially those selling clothes and household goods are in unwinnable competition with the internet or a trip to Athens or Lavrio laiki agora/ folk market, and where exhilaratingly if you happen to be on a budget, many things are a third, a quarter, or sometimes a tenth of the island price. As a result, they get few customers other than the old and the loyal and an occasional tourist, and consequently feel no obligation to man an empty shop, but leave the key in the door and wait for the hopefuls to ask anyone passing by where Antonis or Tasia might be, usually no more than 50 yards away in a café, happily chatting to a pal.

However, touched as he is by that antiquated village life, it also irritates Kostas and especially when it comes to those Neanderthal tavernas that have no websites, where the proprietor, usually elderly, doesn’t speak a word of English, and has to do laborious mime or affably drag the tourist into the kitchen to point at what is on offer.  The old lady who runs such a restaurant would never show a menu to a Greek, but simply tells them what she has prepared today. However, she has to have something visible as a document for finicky foreign tourists, so there is a notional menu full of English mistranslations which I love and which Kostas really hates. One old monoglot proprietor I know has revithia down as ‘cheek pies’ instead of ‘chickpeas’ and sadly Kostas doesn’t find that hilarious at all but reprehensible. He points to the pleasing contrast of the new gourmet place up the road, where they have a gorgeous flash and twinkle website, the handsome young manager has trained as a Michelin chef in Thessaloniki, and where both he and his wife have excellent English to lure in all the foreigners. At which point I retort that the gourmet place is only open June to September, i.e. when all the money is to be made, but old Kyria Evangelitsa is loyally open 12 months of the year, many of those winter months with one or no customer per day. Kostas snorts and responds with default libertarian gusto apropos working to market forces, and accommodating to demand, meaning it makes no sense at all in 2018 to be open when no lucre is to be earned. And it gets even worse than that. He froths at the mouth when he says what lovely premises the old lady has, crying out for exploitation so to speak, including an upstairs balcony with a glorious and heartrending view of the lovely old bougainvillea-clad houses, that is almost never used on account of the fact that Evangelitsa, nearly always without any waitress help, is so old and rickety she doesn’t like wobbling and staggering upstairs, so encourages everyone to eat below deck.

So there you go. Picturesque as she is Evangelitsa is a worrying failure because she foolishly stays open when there are no customers, because  not only is she without a glimmering website in 4 languages, including Finnish, but she has she never touched a computer in her life, she offers no wifi to smartphone-staring clientele, and she gets someone with a baroque grasp of English to have gavros/ anchovy down  on her menu as ‘arogant fish’ (eh?), bekri meze as the startling ‘drunkard’s appetizer’ and kolokythia keftedes, meaning ‘courgette fritters’ as ‘pumpkin balls’ which sounds fruitily risque to me, I don’t know what you think.

CAN MIKE LEIGH DO HAPPINESS?

The next post will be on or before Saturday 30th June

CAN MIKE LEIGH DO HAPPINESS?

Some of Mike Leigh’s early movies were exercises in unremitting bleakness, or rather they showed just how miserable some people’s lives can be thanks to marital and other kinds of bullying. In Hard Labour (1973) an old charwoman played by Liz Smith is treated like dirt by her gruff, cantankerous husband, who in turn is bullied by an officious supervisor in his precarious job as a nightwatchman. Meanwhile the couple’s son, a gentle mechanic played by Bernard Hill (best known as Yozzer of Boys from the Blackstuff) is harassed by his pretentious nagging wife portrayed by that virtuoso veteran Alison Steadman (born 1946) who was also the wife of Mike Leigh from 1973-2001. That was preceded by the director’s first movie, made when he was 27, accurately entitled Bleak Moments, and summarised by one no-nonsense critic as ‘tortured semi-articulated anguish in suburban West Norwood’. However, Leigh’s is a complex and idiosyncratic talent, and even in the 70s he was capable of laugh out loud farce, best exemplified by everyone’s favourite, Nuts in May (1976). Here Steadman plays the gormless and submissive Candice-Marie married to the insufferable Keith (Roger Sloman, born 1946) both of them into spartan camping, the pious study of local history and fossil geology, not to speak of chirruping tuneless folk songs together and driving everyone around them mad. By contrast, my own Leigh favourite is the flawless 1993 Naked which is a fearlessly raw and uncompromising account of a young Mancunian vagabond at large in faceless nocturnal central London. The vagabond Johnny is played with impeccable brilliance by David Thewlis, born 1963, and his ranting apocalyptic eloquence (he knows vast chunks of Revelation by heart), and even more, his sexual and emotional neediness, are, I would agree, shocking and disturbing, but not in the last analysis bleak, for there are numerous moments of redeeming black comedy, and Johnny is anything but self-pitying.

Leigh has made 2 films overtly celebrating human happiness, both of them released close together over almost a 50-year career: Happy Go Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010). The first one starred  Leigh regular, Sally Hawkins (born 1976) as a London primary school teacher perkily called Poppy, and idealistically portrayed as cheerful and kindly no matter what. At the start of the film, when someone is rude to her in a shop, she smiles and bears no grudge, and right after that, when her bike is pinched, her only sadness is that she didn’t get to say goodbye to it properly, so that even at this early stage one wonders if she is too good to be true. By that I mean if it weren’t for the dramatic foil of her incredibly disturbing driving instructor played to perfection by Eddie Marsan (born 1968) the film would be so sinewless, it might all but disappear.  Poppy’s monotonal happiness is a kind of rosy childlike innocence and much of her dialogue is a chuckling entirely harmless tit for tat banter. I think this is a significant Leigh statement, because in the film I will concentrate on, Another Year, we get almost an identical persona in the shape of Katie, the girlfriend of the son of the central happy couple, jovially if ironically named as Tom and Gerri. The husband, a geologist played by Jim Broadbent (born 1949) has had a long and happy marriage with Gerri (Ruth Sheen, born 1952) who works as a counsellor attached to a medical practice, and their only real worry is their son Joe, played by Oliver Maltman, who also had a part in Happy Go Lucky. Joe works as a solicitor specialising in housing problems, but is very tight lipped about personal matters, so they have no idea if he has a girlfriend, much less if he is happy or not. Eventually he springs a girlfriend on them by literally hiding and leaping out from behind the door with her, much to everyone’s hilarity. Katie has a demanding job as a residential social worker in an Old Peoples’ Home, and she like Poppy is cheerful, positive and bristling with light-hearted and inconsequential repartee. So already we perceive that happiness is frequently linked to a caring and selfless profession (social work, primary school teaching and counselling) and that when it comes to the younger end, Katie and Poppy, they banter and sustain themselves and cheer their often doleful and problematic friends by a sort of medicinal light-heartedness. This apparent conviction on the part of the director is made even more overt when twice during the film Gerri says with deep feeling to various friends who ask about Joe’s girlfriend (and, remember, with the authority of a counsellor):

‘She is lovely. She is really lovely.’

The finest acting on view is right at the start, where Imelda Staunton is a depressed insomniac housewife, interviewed first by her GP and subsequently by colleague Gerri. With her facial muscles alone, and barely any dialogue, Staunton portrays a whole nuanced range of despair, anger, resentment and a twitching stoniness that refuses to tell anyone what is really upsetting her. She believes if she gets a few nights sleep she will be able to cope, and is openly contemptuous of Gerri digging away at any irrelevant personal issues. But this counsellor not only has problematic clients, she has problematic friends, and the other virtuoso acting is that of Lesley Manville (born 1956) who plays Mary, her GP secretary colleague and old family friend. And apropos Manville and Sheen, it is worth reminding ourselves here that Leigh has a pool of tried and tested actors who appear and reappear in his films, and which to a certain  extent explains the sustained excellence of much of his work. Manville was the decorous Scotswoman in the 2014 Turner and the posh Yuppie in High Hopes (1988) and likewise Sheen was the great artist’s put upon and estranged wife, and also the council gardener wife of Cyril the Marxist  motorcycle courier in the earlier movie. Likewise, you will recall Jim Broadbent was Andy the catering chef and would-be burger entrepreneur in the excellent 1990 Life is Sweet, and in that film, happy though he was in many ways, he had a severely bulimic daughter (Absolutely Fabulous’s Jane Horrocks, born 1964) who gorged herself in secret and never left her bedroom. You could say that sweet as Andy’s life was in some ways, he had a major and horrific problem at close quarters, whereas with Tom the problems are much more at a manageable distance in the shape of neurotic friends.

Dysfunctional Mary then is the foil to the marital contentment of Tom and Gerri, one of whose major consolations and joys is their allotment gardening which punctuates the film at regular points (the healing potential of allotments is indeed rammed home by the counsellor at various points, and she tells someone at one of her barbecues that he too should grow tomatoes for therapeutic purposes). Brittle and nervous Mary is divorced and lives in a poky flat, and would love to have a nice man but finding one who is not a rogue nor a liar, proves to be elusive. She drinks a great deal and often discerns sexual attraction in public places when none is there. Absurdly she has a crush on Joe who she remembers as a little boy, and prior to his dating Katie she flirts with him and keeps suggesting they meet up for a drink with or preferably without his Mum. Invariably half cut and slurring her words, she has a habit of inviting others to confide their closest secrets, as she is, she believes, a sensitive listener. She offers her confessional role to both counsellor Gerri who smiles ruefully, and to the counsellor’s son, who in fairness to Mary does in fact behave in an ambiguously playful manner with a woman very much older. In any event Mary is fecklessness personified, and she gets so drunk at dinner with Tom and Gerri she has to stay overnight and collapses fully clothed on the bed. Manville is excellent at portraying Mary’s bleary loneliness when she has to go home to her empty flat the next morning, and throughout the film this gifted actor has her character staring naively at the people around her, trying to work out what it is they have that she doesn’t, and how just possibly she might acquire the secret of happiness.

And just as Gerri has her hopeless female counterpart, so Tom has an unhappy old college mate Ken (Peter Wight, another Leigh regular, born 1950) an office worker who is well on the way to an early heart attack as he drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney and gets no exercise. He lives up in Hull as does Tom’s morose and unhappily married brother Ronnie, and Ken travels down for the weekend by train clutching an armful of cans from the bar and a giant packet of tomato crisps. Once he’s arrived in London, the old mates indulge in boyish horseplay with Tom leaping on Ken’s back just as Ken later shrieks and disconcerts Tom when he is making a careful shot in a friendly golf match.  Worryingly Ken has reached an impressively advanced state of bachelor piggery, for as he snorts up his food like a hoover (Tom is a gourmet cook) he is both swilling beer and glugging wine alternately. Later he admits his perennial loneliness, his hatred of his job, the fact that his favourite occupation of sitting in a pub is ruined these days by noisy and arrogant kids. Then drunk he breaks down as he remembers the death of a close friend, and Tom is so concerned he suggests that to lift his spirits they should go walking together in the Peak District in the autumn, stopping over in country pubs along the way. But Ken is a lost cause, and agrees to the pubs but not to any walking, something obviously beyond him by this stage. There follows a set piece where his hosts celebrate his arrival with a barbecue, and which dizzy Mary arrives at 3 hours late. Like many unhappy people, she believes that a single novel thing might change her life completely, and in this case, she acquires a little car very cheap from 2 dubious brothers who insist on being paid in cash. However she hasn’t driven since 1984, so the insurance is steep and add to that that coming to Tom and Gerri’s by tube for years, has meant she got completely lost in her car. While she swiftly homes in on still single Joe, hopeless Ken decides that he and Mary might make two happily united lost causes, and makes futile attempts to gain her attention. Instead Mary treats Ken very rudely and spends her time running away from him, just as when she later discovers Joe has a girlfriend, she is so shocked and put out she treats Katie with a blatant aggression and incurs Gerri’s indignation as a result.

The scene then changes dramatically to up north, for Tom’s sister in law has died suddenly, and the son Carl having broken off with both parents, Tom and Gerri go up to organise the funeral on brother Ronnie’s behalf. Ronnie is played by the reliably saturnine David Bradley (born 1942), well known for his Harry Potter and Game of Thrones parts, as well as his TV Dickens and stage King Lear. Ronnie is a Neanderthal Northerner at his worst, monosyllabic and borderline mute, and having been mothered all his marriage by his wife, he allows Tom to take over the catering for the funeral tea. At the cremation ceremony his ranting and alienated son Carl (played by Martin Savage) arrives late and he shouts embarrassingly at Ronnie for not delaying the service. Tom eloquently defends his brother, but Carl is unappeasable and even confronts his cousin Joe, nastily accusing him of staring at him. He also says at the funeral tea that his Dad didn’t love his Mum, and he briskly orders the neighbours who have come to pay their respects to get out. Tense as this showdown sounds, I was waiting for Carl pace classic Leigh to turn truly and squirmingly volcanic, instead of which it all turned to anti-climax and he stormed out to buy a bottle of wine and that was the last we saw of him.

The final section of the film reaches a kind of rounded conclusion but by an initially unpredictable route which ultimately for me turns formulaic. Tom invites his bereaved brother to come and spend a week or two with them, so that the mute man from Hull is transposed to leafy London where he sits alone watching the telly, apathetic enough to refuse an invite to his brother’s allotment. While the happy couple are out planting their tomatoes, hopeless Mary suddenly turns up unannounced, nursing a terrible hangover. Her car had predictably fallen to bits and the £20 the salvage garage gave her she had spent on a bottle of champagne.  Faced with stony Ronnie for company and no one else, anyone but Mary would have gone home, but instead she worms her way in where she finds herself chatting doggedly to the hawklike mute. She asks him a string of kindly questions but receives either monosyllables or a paralysing silence. Then bearing in mind both his bereavement and her own confessional skills, she comes out with the truly astonishing:

“Would you like a hug?”

Even this evinces no surprise in basilisk Ronnie, so that eventually she begs time out and lies down on the couch for a remedial snooze. At which point the happy couple return from the allotment, and for once Gerri loses her cool and reproves her hopeless friend in a way I simply did not believe of any credible counsellor. She is at first huffy and then accuses Mary of ‘letting her down’ but unless I was missing something, the only crimes Mary had actually committed were to turn up unannounced to see an old friend, and to be in a very low way emotionally. Surely no counsellor on earth would come out with that guilt-inducing formula, as in therapeutic terms it is the authoritarian parent reproving the adapted child, and you would wonder why a bright and clued up man like Leigh who writes as well as directs his films, would not know as much. In any event, after Mary’s wretched tears and contrite apologies, she is allowed to stay for tea, where she now observes 2 happy couples, Tom and Gerri and Joe and Katie, so vividly in contrast to herself and wooden Ronnie. The last thing Gerri had said to her was as a matter of urgency to go and see a counsellor and the film concludes with her staring diagnostically at everyone who is happy and wondering what on earth it is they are so privileged to possess and that she is not.

 

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ LIAM O’ FLAHERTY

The next post will be on or before Sunday 17th June

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ LIAM O’ FLAHERTY

‘[In the hotel] they bustled around serving mutton chops and potatoes, huge pots of tea…and charging 7 times the normal price for each meal, for even though Kilmurrage was in uncivilized Inverara, it had nevertheless become civilized through contact with priests, bishops, county court judges, Government officials and shopkeepers…to the extent that it had already mastered what is known and appreciated in the civilized world as “the business instinct”’

Thy Neighbour’s Wife (1923) by Liam O’Flaherty

For Inverara read Inishmore in the Galway Aran Islands, and for Kilmurrage read Kilronan which is Inishmore’s biggest village. The Aran Islands were made famous by the playwright and folklorist John Millington Synge (1871-1909) who spent 6 summers there and published his classic Aran travelogue in 1907, and who also fictionalised rural Mayo in his controversial play The Playboy of the Western World which caused riots on its first night in the Abbey Theatre. Liam O’ Flaherty (1896-1984) was born on Inishmore of a politically radicalised father, and after a spell at University College, Dublin, and then renouncing training for the priesthood,  under the name ‘Bill Ganly’ he joined the British army, the Irish Guards, and fought in WW1 on the western front where he was badly wounded. As he had two severe nervous breakdowns from 1933 onwards, it is also possible he might have suffered delayed shellshock.  Returned from the war, he became a founding member of the Communist Party of Ireland and in 1922 he and others seized the Rotunda Concert Hall in Dublin, sited where is now the Gate Theatre. They held it for 4 days in protest at the apathy of the governing Irish Free State, until the latter eventually forced their surrender. Shortly afterwards he moved to London where destitute and workless, he turned to writing and within a year his first novel Thy Neighbour’s Wife was published when he was only 27. It is a compelling and undoubted masterpiece, given that among other things O’Flaherty manages to take a tiny, infinitely obscure community and effortlessly universalises it, so that Inverara/ Inishmore stands as emblematic of anywhere in the world, hamlet or metropolis, where greed, hypocrisy, power wangling, corruption, sexual perversion and sexual jealousy hold sway.

The protagonist is Hugh McMahon, the young, ascetic and troubled island curate, who before joining the priesthood was loved by another Inveraran, the beautiful Lily McSherry. Young Lily had been heartbroken by her rejection in favour of Hugh’s vocation, but eventually was married off by her uncle, the priest Father O’ Reilly, to an appalling businessman in his fifties, Mr McSherry, who had spirited her away at once to South America. The novel starts with the return of the McSherrys to Inverara, somewhere pre-Irish independence, and Lily already looking openly distraught as her awful husband is quite simply out of control. Not only is he a drunk but he is also drunkenly lecherous in public and at her first interview with Father O’Reilly, Lily starts to tell her uncle exactly what her husband did to a woman on the way here…but the priest shouts at her to stop and rapidly urges her to accept whatever cross has been put upon her. And here Lily, who her uncle had taken in when she was orphaned and even sent her to university in Dublin, shows she is no squashed little flower, when she accuses him before his housekeeper of crudely selling her off to an aging drunkard in exchange for extensive funds to refurbish his church. McMahon, observing Lily’s distress at a distance and learning more via the gossip of his housekeeper, suddenly has his priestly feelings turned upside down as he realises he is smitten and in love again with his former sweetheart. And of course, he being a priest and she being married, even to a dissolute monster, makes any kind of romantic reconciliation impossible.

As for Lily’s uncle and McMahon’s superior, Fr O’ Reilly:

‘On steamer days, when he stood down at the end of the Pier, he looked like a well-bred English country gentleman, and many people said he greatly resembled a fox-hunting squire, standing on his hearth rug before a roaring log fire, with fox terriers scattered around the room, and the local gentry singing Tally ho! Tally ho…!’

51-year-old O’Reilly is the most powerful person on the island, with only a strictly necessary quantity of spirituality and sanctity, so to speak. He is more famed for his wheeling and dealing, and his always pragmatic approach, one which wins him the loyalty of the fishermen, for with typical shrewdness he allows them to break the Sabbath when there is a glut of fish. Notably he had campaigned to get the Congested Districts Board to buy the land for the fine new Pier from the landlord (even though it was Land League agitation actually did that) though less selfless was the fact he has accumulated estimable sums of money from Government officials for getting the islanders to jump to heel in paying their rents. As a result, this handsomely grey-haired priest who long ago arrived on the island penniless, has:

‘…a greyness that could be associated with a well-fed body…a well-fed priest who knew that his reputation for sanctity was secure, as secure as his bank account, which ran well into 4 figures sterling…and the reddish tinge in his nose, and the pimple on the tip of it, showed according to his enemies he was “a little fond of the bottle”.’

Alcohol, and especially that of the non-taxable kind, the poteen as brewed in Inverara shebeens, is central to the novel, for McMahon whose solicitor father had died in a home for inebriates, has taken a vow of lifelong abstinence. Before Lily came back to Inverara he had been relatively happy with his priestly duties, his token Home Rule idealism, his occasional article for religious journals about ancient Inverara architecture. He had also penned poems published in little magazines, which the islanders, poetry lovers to a man, were very proud of, but which an unkind Dublin critic had dubbed as ‘schoolgirlish’. Now that he is obsessed with Lily and already hating her oafish husband he feels an overwhelming need to drink, and a significant part of the novel deals with his efforts to distract himself and stop himself breaking his vow. But then, worse still, another rival arrives on the scene, in the form of one O’Malley, revered by the islanders as his Inverara line goes back to hoary antiquity, to island heroes, ancient kings and the days of Finn MacCool. O’ Malley, as well as being a handsome and radical Republican, hence contemptuous of Home Rulers and Landleaguers and the kilted Gaelic Leaguers etc, is educated and contributes to Dublin reviews to earn a living, something which O’ Flaherty with his own panoptic view of the various compromised alliances cannot help satirising.

‘And although O’ Malley would rather die than work for his living in Inverara, he was quite content to do so as a journalist in Dublin, and yet was proud of his ancestry as a peacock of his feathers, but he questioned the right of Pat Coleman to be proud of the fact he was a postmaster and of value to the community, or of the right of Mr Mulligan to be proud of the fact he was a publican and sold bad porter instead of unadulterated porter and made money by his cunning…”

McMahon several times secretly observes a budding tenderness developing between Lily and O’ Malley and finally unable to endure it, he goes out at dead of night to a remote shebeen, which functions as a kind of clandestine pub, to get himself some poteen. He had previously beaten Brannigan the poteen maker in public with a stick for his wicked trade (O’ Reilly by contrast always had a bottle put by for those who wanted it at his table) so he has to invent a devious means of acquiring it. Ranting and threatening to put a curse on him in his shack, he commands Brannigan to hand over for destruction all the evil poteen he has in his possession, so that the wily publican gives him 2 big bottles, a fraction of his stock, and sends him on his way. McMahon smuggles the bottles past his housekeeper into the hotel room where he lives, and it takes some protracted agony and deliberation before he can open one, but once he does, he consumes enough on successive nights to go unconscious, and is obliged to miss several early communions as a result. In his drunkenness he wavers between morbidly harrowing guilt and a kind of sublime indifference where he wonders why he ever chose the priesthood in the first place. But his most painful trial is that he cannot give Communion to the islanders unless he has made his own Confession to another priest, in his case O’ Reilly, and of course if he does so he must confess his new addiction. He escapes this partly by feigning illness, and by a stroke of luck O’ Reilly one day has to go the mainland on urgent, meaning worldly affairs. In a succession of set pieces, McMahon then follows deviously in pursuit of Lily and spies on her various rendezvous with O’ Malley, on one occasion being so drunk on his return he falls off his bike and has to be carried home by worried peasants. Miraculously, no one discerns his drink problem, aside from a spectacularly old and deaf physician Doctor Cassidy, who is so inept his wife has to chaperone him everywhere, and she hushes him scandalised for suggesting the curate might be a drinker. Cassidy is one of a range of confidently drawn island eccentrics, including an unworldly Church of Ireland clergyman who gives no services whatever to the 6 Protestants on the island but spends his time lying on his back reading works in ancient Greek. There is also the stinking rich Englishman Mr Blake who has his own yacht for taking his favourites around and says things like ‘Pon my soul’ at every opportunity. Most poignant in the context of McMahon’s approaching tragedy though, is Seameen O’ Toole the island recluse and anarchist, who happens to get in the way one day when the curate is close to confronting Lily and professing his love for her.

‘He never worked as other men work, with an objective, to raise a family or perpetuate themselves. Seameen just worked to exist…he raised a few sheep and sowed a few potatoes every year, potatoes which he never dug or weeded or sprayed, but scratched a few from the ground when he needed them. He fished most of the time when the weather was fine and when the weather was not fine he slept…’

With his symbolic opposite Seameen idling nearby as indifferent audience, and despite his terrible constraint McMahon attempts to declare himself to Lily. But to no avail.

‘She shrugged her shoulders a second time and taking the tip of her skirt in her right hand, she walked past him into the fort, looking away from him out to sea.’

Meanwhile, shameless McSherry having assaulted one of his young servants and made her flee the house in terror, means that he and Lily no longer have any marital relations, which inevitably makes his drinking worse. Parallel with his gradual dissolution, Lily’s fascination with charismatic O’ Malley reaches a climax on the day of the Boat Race, an event so famous that it attracts visitors from a hundred hamlets and villages on the mainland, not to speak of dozens of itinerant food and drink stalls and those dedicated to holy trinkets, as a rule and bizarrely, manned by Jewish vendors. O’ Malley is the favourite for the race and O’ Flaherty gives a bravura account of the cliff edge excitement throughout.  The island hero wins by a short head, but far from heroically, with his boat collapsed and letting in water, and with the other contender’s prow comically stuck up its stern and shoving it to the touchline.

Shortly after his victory, he and Lily have a passionate rendezvous and they declare their mutual love, O’Malley promptly offering to take her far away from the island, married or not. Lily shudders and demurs at something which even in liberal Catholic terms was well beyond the pale, but the whole thing becomes academic when news reaches them that McSherry has finally dropped dead of a heart attack. In his last few seconds he had angrily confessed that he was a priest’s bastard, though the paternity is not elaborated on and we can only conclude that his alcoholism and hostility to women might have its roots in that well-kept secret. Aware of all this, McMahon decides to resort to something he had read concerning the customs of the monks on this island long ago. Sometimes to test the seriousness of their piety they would set off in coracles into the ocean but without any oars, and simply allow themselves to be blown by the wind. If they were truly pious monks, no matter how bad the weather, they would eventually be blown back to land, but if they were at root evil, they would perish. McMahon sets off drunk to achieve this feat of divination and he goes to the obscurest part of the island called Rooruck which thanks to the Inverara topography was short on sunshine and big on overwhelming grimness and desolation. The village had 6 cabins and a population of 35 and was so remote and unvisited that some inhabitants had never even got as far as Kilmurrage. McMahon prevails upon a Rooruck man called Big John to have his coracle and ends up surlily demanding it, even though as its owner points out the weather is turning terrible and it is his only means of earning a living should it be wrecked. Nevertheless, the drunken curate sets off into a brewing storm in his stupor, unaware that Big John has slung a pair of oars into the coracle at the last minute. The curate duly faces his terrifying Nemesis, and I won’t give away the tense ending, but suffice to say he survives after a fashion and in the end goes a very long way away from Inverara.

If you have read O’ Flaherty at all, it is probably some of his short stories you looked at when you were studying anthologies at school, most likely from his fine 1950 collection The Pedlar’s Revenge. Alternatively, you may have read his most successful novel, The Informer (1925), about a confused Republican who betrays his companions, which won the James Tait Black prize that year, and was made into a film by John Ford in 1935. But O’Flaherty wrote a total of 16 novels, 14 of which appeared between 1923 and 1937, and despite their consistent excellence most of them have long been disgracefully out of print in the UK. The heroic and sad to say late Wolfhound Press of Dublin put them all back into circulation in the 1990s, and I can recommend every one of them and especially: Skerrett (1932) with its quirky and disturbing protagonist, plus the harrowing epic about the potato famines, Famine (1937) and the idiosyncratic Mr Gilhooley (1926) about the spiritual dissolution of a lonely middle-aged man who becomes disastrously infatuated with a teasing, two-faced and faithless young woman.

 

 

 

THE END OF THE PHRASEBOOK AND THE END OF THE OLD GREECE

The next post will be on or before Sunday 17th June

THE END OF THE PHRASEBOOK AND THE END OF THE OLD GREECE

Yesterday I was having an amiable if passionate argument with an Athenian man who has several generations of family connections with the island where I’ve lived for 5 years now. In his mid-50s, let’s call him Kostas, has a good job in the capital connected to natural energy resources, but that is not where his heart is, and what Kostas really wants to do is get into upmarket themed tourism, meaning upmarket themed Kythnos tourism. In the last few years there have been 2 local initiatives started up providing guided walks and island experiences on the lines of learning Kythnos cookery and Kythnos pottery. Add to that one of them works in conjunction with someone who offers kayaking trips to remote beaches, and as a separate initiative altogether, someone is teaching yoga in a big house on one of the obscurest bays along one of the worst island roads, and undeniably quiet and sleepy Kythnos has been transformed and stands to be changed yet further. The rumour is that within a few years there will be a fast train from Athens to the port of Lavrio (at present there is only a crawling 2 hour bus ride) and that many of the Piraeus routes will be decanted to Greece’s 2nd port, which already living on whispers, is a boom town when it comes to real estate. Lavrio is currently one of the 2 ports that serves Kythnos and the only one to serve nearby Kea, and if there is going to be fast transport there from Athens, then Kythnos being close to the mainland, stands to be immoderately inundated. Kostas of course is very excited by this, for although he loves the pure and simple and authentic Kythnos and is one of its most vocal prophets, he also likes the idea of crowds of wealthy foreigners flocking here, some of whom will stay in the upmarket villas he plans to build, replete with wifi, jacuzzis, exquisite classical furnishings, and of course optional themed cultural activities, stuck out along a pristine bay on the eastern side of the island. You can imagine how I assured him that the old and simple peasant Kythnos, which is still discernible from time to time with its donkeys and dusty kafeneia and tavernas that have no written menus, doesn’t sit easily side by side with jacuzzis and organised walks with everyone wielding those splendid hiking sticks and sporting the inverted plant pot hats that wrinkled foreign walkers adore so much. In any case I told him drily, over a decade ago an elderly taxi driver high up in the Nea Demokratia party had forecast to me Lavrio’s imminent renaissance and its eventual take over of Piraeus, and precisely bugger all had happened since. But Kostas had a prophetic gleam in his eye and like all gleaming prophets, he believes with great intensity whatever it is that he wants to happen.

You don’t need to be a prophet to guess that I would prefer that Kythnos had stayed the way it was, and that if people wanted to e.g. go walking on this compact and easily navigable little island, they could do it themselves easily enough rather than fork out 30 plus euros for the privilege. Buy any decent Kythnos map nowadays, and the main hiking routes are laid out, and on the back of the map it will give you enough information in Greek and English about the island and the walks to last you for a month at least. Examine the new themed tourism websites and they don’t have much more to say, and in any case there is copious historical, archaeological and cultural information in English on the numerous free luxuriously printed pamphlets handed out every year by the tourist office in the Kythnos port. That said, it doesn’t take a genius to work out why foreigners like guided walks as opposed to going by themselves. Greek is not an easy language and not one in a hundred foreign tourists has even the simplest Greek, even the ones who have been coming here for decades. On that basis they feel simply nervous about navigating anything, whether it be explaining their needs to a taxi driver (only 1 out 5 here speaks any English) or asking a passing farmer if this is the right route for Kastro Tis Orias. Fair enough, not everyone has to be a linguist, but there are such things as phrasebooks and what I have noticed in Kythnos, is that not a single tourist deigns to use them, and instead they think they are a hero if they cheerily manage to say yassas (hello/goodbye) and efkharisto (thank you). To use a phrasebook really is minimal effort, and aside from anything else can help you to make sense of mad taverna mistranslations (e.g. courgettes/zucchini as ‘pumpkins’ and the revolting galeos = abominable lamprey as ‘cod’). Moreover, if you are frightened of mispronouncing, then you can just point to the Greek phrase itself which is surely better than doing some of the inane and at times rude mime language (2 fingers stroked near the mouth to indicate ‘I want food’) I have seen one or two British and US monoglots resort to. Reflect also that if you are anything but anglophone you will damn well have to be a linguist when in Greece, like it or not. Greeks communicate with French, German, Russian, Japanese, Senegal and every other tourist via English, as not one in a hundred Greeks speaks any other foreign language.

All these things are structurally related though. If you don’t speak any Greek and won’t use a phrase book, nor even the linguistic gizmos and apps on your smartphone, you cannot go off the beaten track as you don’t know whether they want 7 or 70 or  700 euros for the lovely icon reproduction, or whether they are talking about rooms (domatia) or tomatoes (domates) that are of such sterling quality. It’s appropriate to conclude then that giving up on phrasebooks and their equivalents encourages a learned helplessness, and that the antidote for all true Greece fans is to push themselves to go somewhere really out of the way, like some of the obscurer reaches of the northern mainland towards the Albanian or Bulgarian borders. There they really will need their phrasebooks or they will come close to starving, and they will find no decent hotel nor rooms nor nice tomatoes, and even if they do, they might have to share the same room with a senile granddad and 2 goats, as simple as that. Meanwhile if they manage to fish out a Pocket Berlitz or a Pocket Collins Greek-English from a UK charity shop, they will pay only a quid or so to make life easier both for themselves and for the hospitable and warm-hearted Greeks who are busting to enjoy a bit of chat and banter with that enterprising rarity that is the visiting stranger.

PHILISTINES AND FLAGELLATION AND HERMANN BROCH

the next post will be on or before Sunday 17th June

PHILISTINES AND FLAGELLATION AND HERMANN BROCH

‘Broch is the greatest novelist European literature has provided since Joyce’

George Steiner

‘We are at the very limits of the expressible…impeccable virtuosity’

Aldous Huxley

‘“You’re right,” Zerline admitted. “Nobody understands it. If you sleep with too many it’s bad: if you sleep with too few it’s bad, and if you don’t sleep with anybody it’s even worse.”’

The Guiltless by Hermann Broch (1950)

Thus speaks the old, ugly and conniving servant of the Baroness, who routinely refers to her employer’s beautiful unmarried daughter Hildegard as ‘the bastard’ as she knows who her real father was and it wasn’t the Baron, an eminent judge. The novel in set is in the unnamed capital of one of the old German municipalities in between the two world wars, and there are regular references to chronic inflation and the precariousness of the Deustchmark. The young hero A who is surely Broch’s alter ego has Dutch citizenship and has moved here to a kind of premature retirement as he is stinking rich from his time as a diamond collector in South Africa. In reality Broch himself (1886-1951) was an Austrian Jew who came of a very wealthy family and after entering their textile business changed course at the age of 42 to attend Vienna University where he studied Maths, Philosophy and Psychology. Strikingly, he converted to Catholicism in 1909 in order to marry the aristocratic Franziska von Rothermann. He was regularly unfaithful however, and they divorced in 1923. His first novel, a trilogy called The Sleepwalkers came out when he was 45 in 1931 and 7 years later with the Austrian Anschluss he was arrested by the Nazis, and, Catholic convert notwithstanding, put in prison. Friends of his including James Joyce successfully campaigned to have him freed, and after a brief while in the UK he settled for the rest of his life in America. In Vienna he had been acquainted with many of the great Modernists of the day including Rilke, Robert Musil and the Bulgarian Jewish Elias Canetti (1905-1994), subsequently the lover of Iris Murdoch and the Nobel winner in 1981. Like Canetti, Broch was fascinated by the phenomenon of crowds and there are enlightening references to his obsession in The Guiltless. Among others, Milan Kundera has claimed to be greatly influenced by the Austrian master and specially by The Sleepwalkers.

Broch’s last work The Guiltless assembled 2 years before his death, is something of a complex patchwork. His Munich publisher wanted to put out some uncollected stories from the 1920s, but Broch decided they would make more impression if 6 extra stories were added, and the whole was given a lyrical unifying framework with some of the original stories expanded. Thus, we have a collection that reads like a novel of sorts, with a core of mesmerising characters reappearing throughout. The central stories extend the tale of wealthy A in his mid-30s who decides to move in as lodger with the Baroness, much to the chagrin of her very hostile but beautiful daughter Hildegard. We fully expect Zeline the stony and knowing old maid, to be a tangential character, instead of which she immediately reveals Hildegard’s illegitimacy to A, meaning the shocking details of the Baroness’s affair with the rake of a diplomat Herr von Juna, who once lived in the castle’s hunting lodge. It is fair to say Zerline is contemptuous of almost everyone and especially of women of all ages, and given that she was once a beauty herself, she also has a strong line in declaring sexual manipulation is at the root of all power and self-assertion.

‘“Except that if you took a good look at him [Herr von Juna] you could see the ugliness behind his pretty goatee, even behind his pretty mouth, you could see that he couldn’t and kept on wanting to, the ugly lust that comes of weakness. That kind of man is easy to get. If I had wanted him” -she pinched an imaginary flea between two fingers – “I’d have had him just like that.”

Even though the pair of them openly loathe each other, both Zerline’s and Hildegard’s unrepentant wickedness knows no bounds. Fascinated by the handsome diplomat, and contemptuous of the Baroness, the young Zerline lies in wait one day and flings herself upon him, driving him half mad with lust, as he has another mistress over in the Lodge so cannot take her there. Later, the maid starts to muse in a way extremely untypical of peasant servants, and rather more like A and other highly sophisticated refractions of the author, Broch.

‘“Everything that passed between me and Herr Juna was such a darkly gentle timeless gift of death, and one day it will help to gently carry me down, itself carried by the fullness of memory. Anyone would say it was love, love to the death.”’

Whereafter Broch, jumps athletically out of the implausibility of peasants ruminating like literary intellectuals in their profoundest moments, by adding:

‘That was what A had heard, but there was no certainty that is what Zerline had said. Many old people have a way of breaking into a mumbling chant, into which the imagination can easily read one thing and another…’

And then dramatically, one of von Juna’s hunting lodge lovers dies in suspicious circumstances, and the rumour is that he must have poisoned her, meaning in Zerline’s crude terms that Hildegard is the bastard child of a murderer. However, it transpires the same lover was a morphine addict, with a whole pharmacy by her bedside, so that von Juna looks set to escape the guillotine as the capital punishment method was in inter-war Germany then. At which point, merciless Zerline decides she wants to make all of her superiors and especially her diplomat lover suffer, by unearthing the Baroness’s and von Juna’s love letters and sending them anonymously to the trial judge, who happens to be no other than the Baron, the cuckold himself. As Zerline explains to A, the Baron, stern as he is, is such a moral man that he will refuse to be swayed by personal interests and will almost certainly acquit von Juna, even supposing the rake did deserve the guillotine. This indeed is exactly what happens and the diplomat retires abroad where he will die in safe obscurity.

Zerline in old age also takes upon herself the questionable role of procuress when she brings the young peasant girl Melitta, currently a humble laundress, to be A the new lodger’s mistress. A had already met Melitta which means ‘little bee’ (her doting grandfather keeps beehives) in her own grubby part of town, had shown a keen romantic interest, and presented her with a beautiful handbag which had won her heart immediately. Zerline now arrives with a fictitious invitation from A and then leads her to the hunting lodge where she promptly orders Melitta to undress.

‘“Not bad,” she says, lifting the girl’s breasts a little. “A bit soft and heavy. Mine were firmer at your age, but you’re all right. Just what lots of men like, they’re mad about them, and pink little nipples like yours are like milk and honey to them.”

After a tender night of love, A duly falls in love with Melitta and she with him. A. then makes the bizarre proposal that he will buy a huge house in the countryside and will take the Baroness there, and be for her the son she never had. Zerline who will also be going there, is delighted at the news, whereas Hildegard the daughter is horrified and thinks it will just make more intolerable anxiety and uncertainty for her, especially if A dies before her mother. Nevertheless, A proceeds with his cloyingly sentimental plans, the only problem being that Zerline refuses to countenance Melitta moving in with them too. That would mean that she the family servant would be skivvying for a laundress and her pride cannot bear it. A. may sleep with Melitta and pamper her wherever he likes, but not in the new mansion, where he fully intends to spoil his new mother who is the Baroness. Hildegard is even more cruelly prescient, in this respect, and she goes round to the laundress’s slum and tells her that A no longer loves her and has other women besides. Soon after she leaves, the distraught young girl flings herself out of the window to her instant death. And well before this, and as part of her plan, Hildegard had already seduced A in a scene that is infinitely disturbing in its portrayal of absolute moral nihilism. She urges A to rape her when he gently insists he loves her, and the more she demands to be raped, the less he is able to perform. Hildegard prophesies that he A will now be incapable with all women, and then commits another riot of violence on his body.

‘A cry of triumph and of lust, of pure animal lust. He made a forlorn move to escape her, but he was helpless: she held him in an iron grip and her teeth bit into his shoulder until the blood came; every movement increased the raging pain. Then, when she saw that he had given in and was holding still, she fell suddenly asleep.’

What follows all this ugly violence and harrowing suicide is blackly comic in its anti-climax. A and the Baroness and Zerline all move into the new house, where the old maid proceeds to stuff the other two with infinite amounts of food, so that A especially becomes obese and tranquil and loses his hair and suddenly has no sex drive, just as Hildegard had obliquely prophesied. His sole activity apart from chatting to and doting on his replacement mother, is lying on his back reading the details of his always steady stocks and shares. Bizarrely he tries to counter the overall sloth with leaving at least one window open in all weathers, so that he almost petrifies and has to wrap himself in umpteen blankets. In this cosy living death, he is one night visited by a strange, blind, very old man who we soon guess is the grandfather of Melitta. This prophetic old man had previously appeared in a story called The Ballad of the Beekeeper and rather like one of the pantheistic seers out of a Jean Giono novel, such as Bobi in Joy of Man’s Desiring, he comes to confront A in his terminal sickness, his sloth, his asexuality and his guilt about the tragic death of the old man’s granddaughter. I won’t give away the surprise ending but suffice to say this dialogue between white bearded prophet and obese sybarite, is far too expositional and idealised, so that we are more or less being treated to a contrived moral lecture by the author. The point is that Bloch’s genius is as Huxley says, in writing about the inexpressible, and he does it best when it comes as a kind of integral and subtle meditation from one of his more complex characters, especially A, or for that matter Hildegard. For Bloch’s real fictional concern is the understanding of Evil, a proper enough obsession given that as a Viennese Jewish intellectual he saw the decades building up to Hitler, and now in New Haven, USA, has had another decade to reflect on the appalling aftermath. His conclusion is that evil is rooted in philistinism and that the worst philistine ever was Hitler, the kind who would not for a second baulk at the monstrousness of concentration camps nor gas ovens but might well be prudishly affronted by sexual frankness as witnessed in both the arts and in ordinary culture.

However, Broch’s account of the inexpressible does not just touch on the coordinates of Good and Evil, but also on the infinitely inexpressive mystery of Experience itself, and it is here he is reminiscent of writers like Proust, William Gerhardie, and, at least in his critical musings, Vladimir Nabokov.

‘The red geraniums sparkled in harmony with the glittering glass as though the soul of man were born to pure joy, nay more, as though it had existed since the beginning of time and would live forever. This of course was only the façade, of that A was well aware, and he was no less aware that there are dark cubicles behind the brightest, the most timeless façade; he knew that there is no colour without a substance behind it, but all this knowledge was diffused and attenuated by the blueness of the air and the gladdening arch of the fragmentary rainbow, which now stretched over the square, giving with its veined transparency, an intimation of the dark, immeasurable cosmos behind it: a spectrum connecting the dark and earthly, the solid and substantial, with the open light of heaven and nevertheless leading back to immeasurable darkness.’

If all this seems too enormous and too abstruse, be aware that in The Guiltless there is also a hilarious one-off tale about a preposterous teacher called Zacharias who A bumps into in a pub before he moves in with the Baroness in her castle. Zacharias is the most pompous stuffed shirt you have ever met, albeit he is a prominent Social Democrat, though one of  those who doesn’t believe in going too far. Hence he decries Einstein for doing just that with his Relativity Theory, and though it is not emphasised in the text, Einstein was of course a Jew.

‘“Did I say anything about killing it by silence?” Zacharias countered sternly. “You weren’t playing close attention…didn’t I make it very clear that I am only opposed to modishness, not to progress…I am a member of the Social Democratic Party, which stands foursquare behind the theory of Relativity. But progress must not be allowed to confuse the schoolboy’s undeveloped mind. Now do you understand?”’

With the Social Democrat piously protesting, A buys the pair of them more and more drinks, until both of them are good and drunk. As A has somehow mislaid his hat, the suddenly uninhibited Zacharias is inspired to share his own with his inattentive companion. He swiftly cuts it in two and keeps the brim for himself, and the brimless cup for A. He then orders A to come home with him, where it all turns into grotesque albeit worryingly German vaudeville. His angry wife is waiting up for her drunken husband with a punitive feather duster, and before A’s eyes she inverts it to employ it as a cane. Her prudent and reasonable Social Democrat husband then submissively extends his backside for a flogging, which his bridling wife administers with due gusto. Just as A is leaving, he sees the stern teacher pulling his trousers down for a more effective flagellation, and it is apparent that this kind of drama is a regular pattern for the philistine social democrat and his unforgiving and equally philistine wife.

‘The Guiltless’ was translated by the legendary Geman translator Ralph Mannheim and published in the USA in 1974, and then in the UK by Quartet Encounter in 1990