Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Reader, by Bernard Schlink

I may be the only person you know who hasn’t seen the film of The Reader yet. The week it was showing locally I was up to my eyes in other boring stuff. Then I heard that we were doing it in our book-group and decided to read the book before seeing the film.

Somehow that works best. Reading a novel you build your own pictures of a character. Very often it’s not down to the descriptions of characters. For me, building a picture of a character is more likely to be based on their behaviour, or a name, perhaps a mannerism.

So we don’t only have a picture in our mind of the character’s appearance but of the way they move, talk, smile. Then out comes the film: if it’s well cast we say, Ah, Just as I imagined them! Or perhaps – rather more often - quite the opposite. If the film is really good, the viewer can live with the difference between the personally imagined and the film-makers vision.

But to see a film then read the book does mean that the imagination does not kick in the same. The picture of the character is already there and it often jars with the description. And one of the things I love about reading is the pictures …and the suspense. See the film first – no suspense. Why bother reading it. The moving images have already been filtered and digested. The plot has been simplified and truncated.

Needless to say, there was so much in the press about the film, The Reader, that although I hadn’t seen the film I had seen clips. I knew that the central character was played by Kate Winslet, so I saw the character Hanna as her. She was well cast, fortunately, but it means I was denied my own image.

Bernard Schlink is quite a writer. The book is easy to read. Deceptively simple. Short chapters, large print, not (for a refreshing change) very long. And it was not, we all agreed in the book group, a holocaust novel. It was a novel about relationships, primarily, and shame.

A young boy, Michael, aged fifteen, is seduced by a mature woman, Hanna. He becomes totally besotted by her. She uses him. He is fixated on her to such an extent that when she has left he is unable to form other lasting bonds. He learns of her shameful past in the Second World War. But it is her other shame – that of being found to be uneducated – that informs her actions. Not the shame that should.

And we, the readers, are expected to believe that Hanna’s fear that her secret will be discovered is the prime reason for her hateful work in the war. Schlink leaves some points such as this unclear, questions not answered, things unresolved. Some found this annoying, others challenging.

But as the we never get under Hanna’s skin, never get to know her true motives, or any bar those rather tenuous ones, the character Hanna gets little sympathy from the reader. Certainly not those in our group. Although, at the end, one or two had begun to pity her.

For my part, I thought that Hanna was portrayed as someone who finally learnt about victims’ reactions to imprisonment, torture and death through their printed stories. Not as someone who instinctively came to realise that what she had done was wrong. She was amoral. If she had known that what she did was wrong then she could have done something about it sooner.

Michael was another of Hanna’s victims. Although not everyone agreed with that view either. Some felt that his actions were just too far fetched. Others that he loved her, simple as that, and continued to do so. Personally I think that’s over simplified. In my mind his personal life had been blighted by his relationship with her. And I did not feel there was any redemption at the end of the novel. The ending was not a surprise.

But, in spite of all this, it was a good read, an interesting story to discuss and it generated much talk about emotions – fear, shame, cruelty, love – and how a people come to terms with the sins of their fathers. Now all I have to do, is watch the film.


Sunday, 19 April 2009

Silence is Golden but Time is Short

It’s getting harder to find the time to write my blog. I started by writing every week. I decided that I’d do pieces with some meat – similar to the sort of pieces I do for publications – rather than just a paragraph. Now that I’m finding it hard to find the time to do them I wonder if I made the right decision.

Of course I can always change – adapt - which is what I probably will do but strangely enough it’s not the length of the blog that’s the problem. I think I would still have trouble if my blog was just a paragraph or even that stream of consciousness, just an-aside-sort-of-thing like a twitter.

Now there is something I definitely don’t have time for. Mostly because I’m not glued to my mobile phone. I am still trying hard not to rely on my mobile – I continue to do that old fashioned thing of using it just for emergencies, messages, appointments and liaising. I hardly ever use it unless use includes one of these.

This seems to be contrary to every other person under the age of thirty and almost every business body under the age of forty. The mobile phone is always there, in the car, on a quiet country walk, on holiday, at work, on the bus or in the train. We have all been bored and sometimes disbelieving about the “Hello, I’m on the train” conversation but this is now small beer.

One friend who travels regularly to work by train tells me that she is now privy to the lurid details of one of her fellow mobile phone toting passenger’s love life. The girl gets on her phone immediately she’s in the carriage and fills in her friends with all the details of her last passionate encounter. With sort of nitty gritty that would make a Lolita blush.

One would imagine that she would wait until somewhere private before baring all (!) but modesty, privacy and discretion seem to be defunct now we can speak to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Anyway, it seems the mobile phone is an extension of many an arm. It is positively scary that so many hardly seem capable of going anywhere without it. And I don’t want to go down that slippery path. And you know why? Because I love silence.

Silence: what bliss, no noise, a chance to think. I’m sure lots of people love silence but to do anything creative there’s just got to be some peace and quiet. Or, as the prodigal once said aged seven, ‘I need a piece of quiet’. Like many a child’s amusing malapropism it became a family phrase. Used whenever appropriate because, apart from the nostalgic sentimentality of it, it just happens to be right on the button.

I need a piece of quiet to work. There’s got to be room to think. There’s got to be big white spaces for ideas to pop up into. Silence is golden, golden. My ability to come up with fresh and original, deep or insightful ideas is impaired if I’m surrounded by chatter or clatter.

Apart from that commodity which is in such short supply it’s not the amount I aim to write for my blog that’s the stumbling block. It is simply the time to get the backside on the seat, time to get the mind in gear and time spent when I could be writing my book. And there’s the nub, or the rub in the words of the bard. Every minute writing my blog is time I could be writing my book.

When I started the blog I had finished my novel, it was about to be published in paperback, I still had things to do, talks to give, places to go all associated with it. So I thought a blog would be just the thing to keep my writing going. And that’s the trouble. It did, but it also stopped me starting the real thing.

And now I am into the book full swing. I still do design work so only have a limited ‘writing space’. Next time I write my blog I’ll explain how it’s going but at the moment, sorry, I just don’t have the time.


PS Hope you like the still and silent picture

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The violet – a tiny treasure.

Spring has so many stunning flowers: bold brassy daffodils and delicate fritillaries, sunny bright aconites and elegant narcissi to name but a few. But it’s often the shy little numbers that lurk in the shadows that tweak at my heart. The violet – Viola odorata - is one of them.

Not for nothing is the phrase for a shy, modest sort, ‘a shrinking violet’. The shrinking violet was the one on the edge of the dance floor, the modest little woman who never pushed herself forward. Pretty, simple, not showy.

And it’s the same in the borders of the garden, under the hedgerows and on the banks by the roadside. Out walking, cast your eye down and at this time of year and you can be surprised by a little group of violets. But not all of them are violet: those in the garden may be deep mauve or pale lilac, or you may even find white ones wild in the verges.

The Victorians were heavily into the symbolism of flowers - white violets were for candour – and the violet is known as a symbol of love. A hundred years ago an admirer might buy his girl a small posy of violets to pin on her lapel.

Grown en masse in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall especially for the market these little corsage produced healthy rural businesses. They were gathered in the morning, tied in bunches, packed in boxes, transported by rail to London for sale that same night.

But many tiny bunches were gathered in the fields and hedgerows that bordered cities too. They were also sold the same day, on street corners and outside theatres. More often than not they were the only livelihood for many a poor soul.

And in the days before refrigeration such a tender little bloom had to be sold immediately, before it drooped and died. The simple small token of love would be unpinned at home and put in a vase to be admired the next day. I remember that my grandmother had a tiny crystal vase especially for putting violets in to keep on her dressing table.

But Violets have hidden depths too: they can be used in all sorts of ways we have lost touch with today. Candied or crystallized – dipped in egg white and coated in sugar – they were used to decorate cakes and make into sweets. The dark green, kidney shaped leaves can be added to salads and the flowers too are edible. As a salad garnish they add colour and interest, and the flowers can be used to make salad dressing.

In the past violets were used extensively in cosmetics and toilet water. The flowers and leaves were steeped in water until they had rendered up their colour and scent. Medicinally they were made into teas or syrups for coughs and colds, and used as ointments and poultices for a variety of ailments.

Because the flower was popular in Victorian times so the name Violet became popular too. But the colour violet was also considered a powerful symbol in Victorian and Edwardian England possibly because of its closeness to purple, the colour that symbolises royalty. The Suffragettes used violet as one of the colours of their flag and it came to stand for the word Vote in their motto, Give Women the Vote.

So, remember that the little shrinking violet is no insignificant flower. Like many a small thing, they can pack a punch. Choose a moist patch in your garden, in dappled shade, and plant yourself a few violets. The sight of these simple little flowers in spring will be something to treasure.