Friday, 25 September 2009

IT’S early Friday morning and I am supping a glass of wine, listening to Galician folk/rockers Celtas Cortos and feeling I should set down a marker for my future self just to see where I was at this point in time.
Tonight I will be playing a gig at The Mill, Ballyduggan, close to Downpatrick. Although my band Samson Stone has been together for nearly three years this is only our fourth live outing but then I suppose that makes each gig an event rather than a routine.
Tomorrow, Saturday, I’ll be heading off to Tennerife for a few days on a press trip which involves visiting a volcano, various nature reserves and a boat trip to do some whale watching and I suppose forcing myself to enjoy lots of regional cuisine.
The pisser about that is that my new Chinese doctor has told me to give up seafood and spicy food for two months. I tried to explain to him that I live on seafood and spicy (mostly vegetarian) food but he shook his head and said it was essential.
I really went to see if he could help my back, which is not chronically sore but can get quite strained and knotted, but while I was there I asked him could he give me something to ease the recurrent head cold I seem to have these days – which is where the abstinence from seafood and spices comes in to play. Next week when I get back for Las Islas Canarias, fine, but there is no way I am going to a Spanish island and not trying to find a restaurant with ‘navajas’ (razor clams) and a ‘racion de calamares’.
In terms of writing I met my publisher on Tuesday who told me that my new novel ‘ecopunks’ is scheduled to come out late next year. Good news. However, given the fact that Lagan Press is dependent on funding from the Northern Ireland Arts Council and that the Stormont executive is facing a major cash shortfall I wonder if that will impact on it.
Another publishing project seems to be making good progress. A short story I was commissioned to write is due to appear in a book out, published by Morrigan Books, next year called ‘The Red Hand of Crime’, which features some great writers, including Ken Bruen, Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway and Sam Miller.
I met one of the anthology’s editors, Gerard Brennan, at John Banville’s reading last Saturday night and he was raving about the variously contributions, so as well as seeing my own story in print I’m looking forward to seeing how the other writers tackled the theme of a crime story based on a Celtic myth.
In terms of reading I am engrossed in the novels of Robert Bolaño at present - half way through the 900-page ‘2666’ and dipping back into ‘Distant Star’ and ‘By Night in Chile’. I hadn’t actually realised that he had become a publishing phenomena until last week and was quite pleased that I’d read a couple of his novels already. More on 2666 soon.
As well as Bolaño I have been dipping in an out of Jung’s ‘Memories Dreams and Reflections’, John Moriarty’s Turtle Was a Long Time Gone Vol I’, poems by Gabriel Rosenstock, Robert Graves, Yevgenny Yevtushenko and a critical study of the poems of Derek Mahon.
Half read and struggling to be picked up again are ‘The Angel’s Game’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafron, ‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry and the Bueno Aires Quintet by Manuel Vazquez Monalban.
Also recently reread were Hugo Hamilton’s Disguise – best novel of 2008 – and John Water Lapsed Agnostic – yes well?
Soundtracks to my life at present are Senagelese singer Es Lo, Thelonious Monk, Johann Johannsson’s new album Fordlandia, Celtas Cortos (como siempre), Paddy Keenan, Horslips and Tinariwen.
Due to see Tinariwen in Dublin in a few weeks and Horslips in Belfast in September.
Haven’t watched TV in weeks and no desire to. News now and again but that’s it and more often on Al Jazeera or on the Spanish channel 24H than terrestrial channels.
Bhuel, sin é. Off to practice my chords for gig – Wishing Well, Blitzgrieg Bop, I Predict a Riot, That’s Entertainment, Echo Beach, Shadow Play, Should I Stay or Should I Go and (God help us) Born to be Wild.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

John Banville reading

The setting for this reading was in a small private church on an estate on the shores of Strangford Lough and getting there entailed a torchlit walk along a dark tree-lined path.
During the reading itself the lights were dimmed and the church was lit by candles, with spotlights for Banville and violinist Ruby Colley.
Colley uses an electronic violin and lays down her own backing tracks as she performs that are then played back on a loop and gradually builds to create layered pieces that musically seemed to be inspired by Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Michael Nyman.
The musical interludes sat well in the candle-lit church and might well have been composed as a soundtrack to a movie adaptation of John Banville's new novel The Infinities.
He read two pieces from his just-released book that I thought were not particularly representative of the novel as a whole or at least didn't give a real sense of the novel. However, they went down well and it was interesting to hear the clipped diction of someone who is in Ireland's premier division of novelists.
The question and answer session that followed was less structured and gave a good insight into the mindset of Banville the novelist. He is often portrayed as an arrogant novelist who antagonises other writers and his critics but came across as quite humble about the impact his novels have on the reader.
He often refers to himself in the third person as Banville and seems to have, in his own mind, distanced the man John Banville from the writer Banville and his crime-writing offspin Benjamin Black.
He said that quite often when reading back on what he had written he has no recollection of writing it, as if it comes from somewhere outside of himself. When he gets up from the desk at which he works in a Dublin flat he said leaves a "simulacrum" still sitting there that is Banville the writer while he returns to being Banville the man.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces)

THIS is pure classic Pedro Almodovar, a story within a story, and a movie within a movie, that cuts back and forward in time and is shot in a highly stylised manner.
As in Hable con elle (Talk to Her), La mala educación (Bad Education) and Carne trémula (Live Flesh) Almodovar depicts his characters living in the present and then flashes back to a key event or series of events in their past.
Harry Caine (formerly known as Mateo Blanco) is a blind writer living in Madrid who is approached by a younger man, calling himself Ray X, who wants to pay him a fortune to write a script based on his relationship with his father.
However, Mateo recognises his voice as that of someone from his past and with the help of others manages to place him.
The film flashes back to 14 years earlier when Lena, played by Penelope Cruz becomes involved with billionaire businessman Ernesto, who is in his 70s.
She wants to be an actress and approaches Mateo who gives here a role in a film he has written and which she persuades Ernesto to finance.
Ernesto's son, Ernesto jnr, - who Mateo recognised as Ray X, films the filming and then delivers the footage to his father who employs a lip reader to find out what Meteo and Lena are saying to one another.
There is some fine acting from José Luis Gómez, who plays Ernesto, and you can almost see him being eaten up by jealousy as he realises that Lena and Mateo are having an affair and that Lena loathes him.
In a fit of rage he pushes Lena down a staircase - a knowingly cinematic scene and one which is repeated in the film that Mateo is making to explain why Lena, when she returns to the set of the film she is staring in, is wearing a plastercast.
Despite Ernesto's violence Lena returns to him, telling Mateo that she must stay with him until the movie is completed but when she is injured again the lovers flee Madrid and hide out on the island of Lanzarote.
Ernesto gets back at them by paying the editors of the film that they were working on to choose the worst takes and splice them together and release it to a huge fanfare which is panned by the critics and in sees Mateo and Lena being ridiculed.
Mateo decides to go back to Madrid to sort things out, leaving Lena in Lanzarote but on the way to the airport a car crashes into the them, killing Lena and leaving Mateo blind.
He can still write but no longer direct films so he insists that he should from then on be known as Harry Caine, his pen name, and that Mateo Blanco the film producer died alongside Lena.
By recounting the story Mateo is reconcilled to the past that he has tried to kill off along with his former identity and in the telling he begins to realise that many loose ends have not been tied up.
It is a film full of symbolism, Dario, the son of Mateo's agent Judit empties a bag of torn photos and starts to piece together a picture of Lena and Mateo, just as he helps Mateo piece together the events that lead to his lover dying.
There are visual clues as well as verbal ones scattered throughout the film that help pave the way for a series of denouements towards the end.
In the scenes where Lena is pushed down the stairs, Lena remarks that it is the sort of thing that only happens in movies, and it does here, twice. Almodovar is proudly cinematographic auteur who is not afraid to acknowledge that this is cinema rather than gritty reality.

The Infinities by John Banville

Deities and mortals intermingle in a country house in a world that seems to be ahead of our own in terms of technology. A mathematician, Adam Godley, has been felled by a stroke and his lying dying. His mathematical discoveries have paved the way for a new science on which the world’s energy needs are met by utilizing sea water.
His wife Ursula is hiding her alcoholism, his daughter Petra is a self-harmer and his sons, also called Adam, is floundering as his marriage to the enigmatic Helen seems to be on the verge of collapse.
Into the domestic drama the Greek god Hermes and his father Zeus lurk and occasionally interact – Zeus is besotted with mortal women and on this day with Helen who he seduces, leaving her with only a vague memory, like a half remembered dream.
The narrative point of view switches between the mortals and Hermes. Despite being in a coma old Adam’s mind remains alert and he can recall events from his past and even seems to be aware of what is happening in other parts of the house beyond where he lies.
Occasionally the narratives of Hermes and old Adam run in to one another as if Banville is suggesting that the deities are as much the creation of the mortal as the other way round.
Indeed it is the gods who are jealous of humans, even to the point where they envy their mortality and minor domestic dramas. Although Zeus is the creator of all things his infatuation with Helen can never be truly physical.
Banville’s prose is as sinewy as always with at least one arcane or obscure word seeming to crop up on every page.
Despite the slightly surreal plot Banville is constantly articulating acute insights into the human condition and the angst of living in a world where science claims to be on the verge of coming up with a formula to explain everything.
Adam’s mathematical discoveries turn upside down all previous scientific discoveries but even he is felled by mortality and left regretting lost loves and wishing he had lived more in the moment.
The hints are there from the start but it comes as a let down when we discover Ursula’s secret and while it is clear from the start that Petra has mental health issues the revelation of their full extent and their physical manifestation is painful to read.
Critics have been raving about this novel, newspapers and magazine supplements profiling the seemingly curmudgeonly novelist, with writers expending as much time telling their readers how nervous they are about confronting Banville.
That is probably understandable because The Infinities is the work of a novelist whose prose is exquisitely crafted and who can take on themes and plots that would leave others looking ridiculous.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

A Hole in the Head by Francis Stuart

Although the central character in this novel shares many of the traits of a typical Stuartian character the story is less obviously biographical than many of his other novels.
Stuart often took parts of his own life and recast them as fiction, playing on the outsider role which it seemed he willingly embraced following the condemnation heaped upon him after he spend the Second World War living and working in Germany.
The narrator, Barnaby Shane, is still a fringe figure, damaged and isolated, but this time because of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide after his wife leaves him.
Mentally surfing on a cocktail of perscription drugs (although stolen by him) he arrives in his homeland – never named but easily identified as 1970s Ireland – accompanied by Emily Bronte.
Emily is his muse and, because of medication he has taken, as real to him as the doctors and nurses who treat him.
Barnaby is a writer who has lost his way, earning acclaim but whose own novels no longer inspire him.
Stuart paints a picture of a smug literary circle in Barnaby's home city (Dublin) where novelists, poets and playwrights tread on uncontentious ground and rely on literary tricks and forced drama rather than truly challenging their readers.
Emily's Wuthering Heights is highlighted by Barnaby as a truly daring novel in which the heights of human passion and madness are explored.
Barnaby and Emily venture north to the city of 'Belbury', easily identifiable as Belfast, which like its real-life counterpart in the 1970s has been ripped apart by inter-communal conflict.
According to his biographer, Kevin Kiely, Stuart was a regular visitor to the north in '70s and the depiction rings true.
The dynamics of the conflict are glossed over and Stuart does not really want us to identify the various warring factions as republican or loyalist. They are a backdrop to his more intense tale of a disturbed individual wrenched from reality into a self-created parallel world in which aspects of his unconscious (Emily) interact with the reality perceived by everyone else.
As he weens himself off the medication he drifts back to normality but in the process loses Emily, although his memory of his imaginary encounter with her continues to haunt him.
The second part of the novel sees Barnaby, still nervous and edgy, more or less restored to the accepted definition of sanity and after a brief period spent back in the south he returns to Belbury.
He gets caught up in a siege situation where he is sent in as negotiator.
The plot of A Hole in the Head, occasionally drifts into absurdity, but like many Stuart's novels it is more a vehicle for him to explore an isolated individual who finds himself cut adrift from the world in which he lives.
It is one of Stuarts most satisfying novels and one that confirms for me why he is my favourite writer whose novels I keep returning to and finding something new in each rereading.