‘A Place of Greater Safety’ by C.Palomares
It was the mediocre of times, it was the worst of times. Over the past few months there has been a collective outcry that 2016 is the most woeful year for humanity. Considering 1916 was the Battle of the Somme, we do not think this is the case. We do not wish to minimise the existential crisis we have plummeted into, for there is much to worry over and we have pens to sharpen for 2017. As always, we have found great solace in art, a refuge of interiority, and a reminder that there is more to humanity than our disgrace. – G.E.
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Books in 2016
Grotesque and grisly tales of prurience and murder, this is much of what I read in 2016. Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, winner of the 2016 Stella Prize, is Lord of the Flies meets The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a novel filled with gruesome imagery (the most memorable: a rabbit fetus sewed into the cavity of a stuffed doll, its slowly rotting carcass a brilliant image of quiescent body horror.) The novel is a fey narrative that, I confess, I could never take wholly seriously while reading it. But as an allegory, The Natural Way of Things is as potent and as powerful as anything I’ve read this year. It cuts to the heart of our capacity for collective cruelty, either in the neglect and/or callous treatment of victims of sexual violence in our judicial system and media. It also tells of our indifference, and in some cases, willingness, to let those of extreme vulnerability rot to death in exile, on an island prison of our own jurisdiction.
Yet embedded in the grisly and horrific of Wood’s novel is tenderness, immoderate and devastating in almost every occasion. In the figures of Verla and Yolanda, The Natural Way of Things finds its anchor in female friendship, as it does for The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante’s devastating conclusion to her Neapolitan Quartet. The sex scenes in The First Bad Man by Miranda July are almost baroque in their perversity, with uncanny capacity to induce dry-heaving while reading, but couched inside this dirty, daring novel is an tremendous sense of longing. July’s first novel is much like her films: winsome as they are peculiar.
However, there was one novel that eclipsed all others for me in 2016, and it’s fitting that no other quite so inhabits this strange combination of tenderness with the macabre that I found typified much of what I read this year: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. A Little Life is a study of cruelty: of just how much cruelty can one individual receive in a lifetime (both given and self-inflicted), but also, of how much cruelty a reader can endure in the empathetic act of reading. Harrowing are the horrors that Jude must bear, the little life described, and for the reader too, but Yanagihara writes with such authority and luminosity (of law, of parental grief, of mathematics, of contemporary art, and particularly, of male friendship) that she makes the almost Sisyphean experience of reading this novel undoubtedly worthwhile.
In 2017, I am comforted by the knowledge that the short story writer, George Saunders, will publish his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.
Magda Szabó’s intensely feverish The Door is the story of the obsessive mutual dependence between a Hungarian writer and her housecleaner, set at the height of the Cold War. Whilst their relationship reaches a burning pitch, the reader grapples with the extent to which one is obligated to those they love. Szabó’s conjuring of the bleak emotional landscape of post-World War II Hungary is dependent on the characters’ fear of the unsaid. What is ultimately revealed to be behind the eponymous door is heartbreaking.
Kris Kraus’ I Love Dick’s new edition markets itself as book you’ll be too afraid to read on the bus (I did). The book straddles the line between fiction and memoir (the protagonist is named Kris Kraus). Epistolary in form, the novel follows Kris’ psychosexual obsession with Dick, the subsequent disintegration of her marriage, and her reconsideration of female agency (both artistic and intellectual). Since its original publishing, the novel has amassed an almost cult following. Whilst I found myself fascinated by the story of Kris’ failed affair and Kraus’ meditations on the tension between heterosexuality and feminism, I found much of the art-talk a bit trying.
The first part of Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians is a modernist-style romp through the flatshares of 1990s London. An 18-year-old Irish girl moves to The Big Smoke to attend drama school, only to fall into a clandestine affair with an actor twenty years her senior. What follows is the revelation of hidden traumas lying behind both their lives. McBride’s rendering of female desire through stream-of-consciousness metamorphoses possibilities for representations of sex in literature. The book, despite its dark middle, is filled with a joy for life. I was, however, somewhat disappointed with its Jane Eyre-like ending.
I read two memoir-cum-theory books this year, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It is curious that whilst Coates is the most inspiring new voice for the struggle of black people in the United States, his book offers a nihilistic view on the struggle against white supremacy. It opened up a new world of black art for me, whilst reinforcing how black bodies – and thereby culture – are systematically destroyed by the state. I found this book totally inspiring and transformative, and essential, if not urgent, reading to the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the core of The Argonauts is the love story between Nelson and the gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge. The book is a purposeful consideration of queer family-making, blending theory and deep feeling. Although the theoretical backdrop may turn people off, I found the book quite intellectually exciting and sexy. Identity issues are one of the final frontiers of feminism, and this book surmounts it with much empathy and humanity.
Ali Smith’s Autumn was as beautiful as I hoped it to be. The first of a quartet called Seasons, it tells the story of a friendship between a young lecturer and an old man, their mutual fascination with art, and the banal injustices of life. The novel clearly contextualises itself as post-Brexit, but despite the setting, it transpires to be sublimely optimistic. I read this book in a bit of a daze; as a meditation on time, it is pretty easy to glide through unthinkingly and just take it in as a piece of aesthetically pleasing writing. I would not say it is as brilliant as How to be both (is anything?), but I did finish it with that feeling in my chest as though it were about to bloom.
Seeing as most of what I read can be demarcated into the ‘experimental fiction’ box, I have ended this year with a traditional English-style novel, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. I did not expect to become totally subsumed by the hefty tome, which I gulped down in the space of a few days. I closed the book feeling enraged and saddened for the young protagonist, Nick, ousted by his friends and society because of his homosexuality. Like a mix between Henry James, Brideshead Revisited and The Great Gatsby, on the surface level the novel peers into the decedent lives of obscenely wealthy Thatcherites. Underneath the social satire is a harrowing and cynical bildungsroman of love and life lost.
Top: Arrival (2016 dir: Denis Villeneuve); Bottom: Nocturnal Animals (2016 dir: Tom Ford)
Film in 2016
Disappointingly I have seen fewer films this year than I would have liked. I somewhat blame this on living in Australia and releases happening here later than in the rest of the world. But I digress. By far my favourite film of 2016 is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, not just because the protagonist is a linguist (the unsung heroes of the Humanities). The film is slow-burning and intense, and like the best sci-fi, it is ultimately optimistic and moving (Star Trek, anyone?). And, pardon the gushing: the aliens are super-cool.
I have always been a greater fan of comedy than tragedy, and thus my favourite films tend to be ones which make me free-heartedly guffaw. Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship was the pinnacle of wit; Kate Beckinsale deserves plentiful accolades for her wry portrayal of Lady Susan. The Coen Brothers, too, never fail to amuse me. The scene in Hail, Caesar! where the Russian submarine emerges from the depths was uproarious.
There are only two films that I really felt strongly about this year. One is an out-and-out masterpiece, the other: a strange and beautiful failure. The out-and-out masterpiece is Rocco and his brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli) directed by Luchino Visconti in 1960 and starring Alain Delon, which I watched in a 4K restoration at this year’s Lavazza Italian Film Festival. This restoration, a project supported by Martin Scorsese, is one of the best I’ve seen of a black and white film, lustrous and inky, and deserves to be seen on the cinema screen, though you can buy the restoration on DVD and Blu-ray. Rocco and his brothers is a neo-realist fairy tale, of four brothers from Southern Italy, who seek their fortune in the north. The middle two, Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon), will find their fortune in boxing, and their downfall in the shared pursuit (and destruction) of Nadia (Annie Girardot). Some of the pleasure in seeing the film is to see how strands of its DNA can be found in some of the later, great films of American New Hollywood. The tenor of operatic tragedy found in Rocco finds much echo in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy (itself much imitated) while Scorsese’s seminal Raging Bull is surely indebted to the gritty ecosystem of the sport detailed in Rocco, as well as its inspired boxing match set pieces.
Alain Delon has perhaps never been more beautifully photographed as he is in this film, his beauty in it is angelic, otherworldly even, reflecting Rocco’s extreme innocence, or as the film suggests, extreme naiveté and misguided sense of self-sacrifice. Like Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin of The Idiot, Rocco’s tremendous goodness leads to as much self-destruction as Simone’s more base and dissolute impulses leads to that character’s self-implosion. While the film features too much violence on women to be considered proto-feminist, the film can be read as an indictment of machismo, visibly critical of the proprietorship of women, in Simone’s extreme need to own Nadia, and Rocco’s willingness to abandon Nadia for the sake of his brother’s (ultimately male) preservation and dignity.
Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (2016) also attempts to criticize masculinity, but Ford’s approach is far muddier and less effective. Like Rocco though, it is a visually gorgeous film. Based on the novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals features a film within a film. Susan (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Cormac McCarthy-like-fable about a family terrorized by a trio of itinerant nasties led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. There are some superficial visual similarities between the overarching plot and the manuscript (the father in the novel is also played by Gyllenhaal, while the mother is played by Isla Fisher), but they are remarkably few. What emerges is an uneven double feature in which neither part never quite knows what it is, or what it is trying to say about marriage, about art, about revenge or about masculinity. Despite this, Nocturnal Animals is worth seeing for its sheer stylishness, to the sleek, ultra-modernity of Susan’s home in LA to the Coen-Brothers’ inspired vistas of the American west. In the long, distressing chase-scene that is the centerpiece of the film, Ford is at his most effective, creating a skillful scene of terror with Hitchcockian verve. Nocturnal Animals an interesting failure to say the least, and sometimes those are the most compelling of all.
Top: Twelfth Night (Belvoir, 2016); Bottom: Die Walküre from Der Ring des Nibelungen/The Ring Cycle (Opera Australia, 2013)
Theatre in 2016
There were a few productions this year that enraptured me. Sport for Jove’s Shakespeare productions rarely disappoint. I took issue with their implantation of random sonnets into Love’s Labour’s Lost, but in general their production of a rarely done (and difficult) play was sweet. I did, however, enjoy their The Taming of the Shrew more for its production-value (even if I loathe the play itself), especially the cast’s group action, a particular Sport for Jove speciality. Their rendering of Antigone was unexpectedly breathtaking; the translation did not feel at all unmoored from Sophoclean language. Setting the play in Aleppo, however, I felt was a tad garish. I was much less partial towards their Three Sisters, which did not do any justice to the ability of the company, or to Chekhov.
At the Sydney Theatre Company, the stand-out was King Charles III, a play in blank-verse by Mike Bartlett. Tellingly, it was not by the STC itself but a production by The Almeida Theatre Company. Watching this play is perhaps the closest we will come to what the groundlings felt whilst watching their world played out four hundred years ago. Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, directed by Sarah Goodes was stylish and sharp, and effectively deployed the tension at the heart of the script. Arcadia, written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Richard Cottrell was elegant and touching, although the production was riding too much on the coattails of Stoppard’s genius. I do not understand, for the life of me, the production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, directed by Andrew Upton. I did not expect to see something so soulless and devoid of joy (it’s a comedy?) upon the STC stage.
My favourite production was by far Belvoir’s Twelfth Night, directed by Eamon Flack. The acting was mostly brilliant, particularly Peter Carroll as Malvolio and Keith Robinson as Feste. The production was so full of feeling, wholehearted and downright funny (Shakespeare has some problems in the humour department). I also heartedly enjoyed the co-production between Bell Shakespeare and Griffin Theatre Company of The Literati, an adaptation of Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes by Justin Flemming. It is pretty hard to pull off a satire of presumably much of the play’s audience, but Lee Lewis and his team did it with aplomb.
2016 was the year of theatre – at least it was for me. I went to a live performance almost every week, and sometimes even more; sometimes with others, but mostly alone. Theatre became a ritual, a kind of mass. I became addicted to the excited hum that drifts just before a curtain rises, of an orchestra tuning its instruments, to the slow dim of lights and a darkened room, and of a collective joy that really only happens in the theatre, fleeting and ephemeral. Particular highlights of 2016 included King Charles III by Mike Bartlett (STC) and its spine-tingling coronation scene, the final waltz in Arcadia (STC), the enmeshing of contemporary dance and documentary podcast of Ira Glass’ Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host at the Sydney Opera House. Twelfth Night (Belvoir) was such a giddy pleasure that I saw it twice, and I could have revisited Taming of the Shrew (Sport for Jove) just for its utterly magical recreation of a 1920’s Hollywood studio lot. The one-parter The Hanging (STC) showed plenty of style, atmosphere and a remarkably assured Australian voice, while another one-act, +51 Avacion, San Borja (Okazaki St Theatre, Sydney Festival), performed entirely in Japanese, showcased a theatrical heritage and history of startling richness. Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa gave superlative performances in Antigone, itself richly translated and transposed by Sport for Jove to reflect 21st century ambiguity.
Of Musical Theatre, Sydney productions were the usual mixed bag, containing some of the worst things I endured all year (Ghost, Singin’ in the Rain), but also some of the most moving. Anthony Warlow might be the most improbable Tevye ever but he was in glorious voice for Fiddler on the Roof, a musical whose ending of marked uncertainty (of hope but mainly despair) illustrates the refugee experience as well as anything currently produced today. It’s also the streak of tragedy that is Audrey’s life that marks Little Shop of Horrors (Luckiest Productions) as more than a campy romp, a facet that was highlighted in one the best directed and produced musical theatre productions I’ve seen in recent memory.
Yet the absolute highpoint of 2016 was seeing Opera Australia’s production of Der Ring Des Nibelungen, or the Ring Cycle, by Richard Wagner in Melbourne. Despite being a four-part, sixteen-hour epic, ostensibly preoccupied with dwarves and dragons, magic rings and swords, the most surprising aspect of the Ring Cycle is its psychological richness and intimacy, beautifully nurtured in this production by theatre director Neil Armfield. Combined with the proto-cinematic music (some of the most glorious music ever composed), I could not begrudge its place as Gesamtkunstwerk, a total (yet troubling) work of human achievement.