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  • The Nights Of Akhenaton by Agnes Nemes Nagy

    The Nights of Akhenaton by Agnes Nemes Nagy. Poetry collection by Bloodaxe. Translated by George George Szirtes
    The Nights of Akhenaton

    Ágnes Nemes Nagy was one of Europe’s greatest 20th-century poets. A Hungarian, she lived and wrote through the War, its aftermath, and the subsequent Communist takeover, dying in 1991. Monumental is a word often used to describe her work. It’s not that her poems in The Nights of Akhenaton are long or unwieldy, but that they rise up, tower high, even the shorter ones.

    George Szirtes spent sixteen years translating these poems into English. In his introduction, he looks at Nemes Nagy’s life and writing. He also addresses the issues involved in translating another poet’s work.

    The Nights of Akhenaton collection presents the poems in chronological order.

    Female Landscape addresses the subject of the female body. But Nemes Nagy moves away from stereotyped descriptions into something more fantastic. The body reminds the poet of a place where children ride mosquitoes, where tortoises are being taught, “and thought flowers from my shoulder / with its stout unfurling bud.”

    In the short poems of Journal, Nightmare stands out: “From a world of rotting rags and clout / the marsh-light of cold reason flashes out, / plays on the corpse, the softening skull beneath, / and illuminates its naked row of teeth.”

    No Wish sees the poem’s narrator cleaving to life, although the years have stacked up against them. The thirst to live is still there, in spite of the bitterness years and experience have brought.

    In Balaton, among the descriptions of nature and the landscape of the poem, a girl floats in the lake among the reeds, dead.

    Statues appear repeatedly in Nemes Nagy’s work across the years. In an essay, she talks about the importance of objects in her poems: “I think it is the duty of the poet to obtain citizenship for an increasing horde of nameless emotions.” Objects are a means of transmitting the unknown and the nameless: “… a geyser, a branch, the fragment of a statue, a tram… may bring with them memories of war… or the experience of nature…” 

    The statues in Nemes Nagy’s poems are mysterious, heavy, implacable.

    Statues I Carried is a perfect example of her lyrical simplicity. She creates the image of someone carrying statues onto a boat, to be taken to “the island where they should stand. / Between nose and ear there were ninety / degrees, measured precisely, / with no other sign of their rank. / Statues I carried on board, / and so I sank.” 

    Repetition, lyricism, and the mysterious nature of the statues are what makes this poem work.

    From The Notebooks of Akhenaton deals with the Pharaoh who made himself a god, but also an idol, a statue: “heaven should be of rough cement.” The statue will “sit, stare, eternally in state.”

    Then there’s When – “In carving myself a god, I kept in mind / to choose the hardest stone that I could find. / Harder than flesh and not given to wincing: / its consolation should appear convincing.”

    It’s tempting to speculate on the repeating theme of statues. In the Communist Bloc, Stalin was something of a statue, an iconic figure for the population. And the Nazis had Hitler, giant rallies harking back to ancient Rome, plus a desire for a thousand-year Reich. The war would have been a major event in Nemes Nagy’s life. As she says in her essay, “war: the fundamental experience of my generation.”

    Like the statues, death haunts the collection. In the dead girl floating in the lake, in poems like No Wish and Nightmare. And in Revenant, a beautiful and lyrical evocation of someone, now a ghost, in the place where they once lived.

    Night Oak is one of the most memorable works. A walker out at night sees an oak tree in pursuit. The tree moves to catch up. Then it leans against a lamppost, pushing back its hair, where birds sleep in their nests.

    There are prose poems, as well as later poems, plus informative essays by Szirtes and Nemes Nagy herself. It’s a credit to Szirtes, also a poet, that he’s produced such exquisite translations.

    This review of The Nights of Akhenaton by Agnes Nemes Nagy was originally posted in 2004.

  • Incognita by William Congreve (1692)

    Incognita by William Congreve.
    2003 edition of Incognita by William Congreve

    William Congreve is best remembered as a playwright and the author of The Way of The World. Born in 1670 in England, his father’s military career meant that William grew up in Ireland, where he studied alongside friend and fellow writer, Jonathan Swift.

    Initially set on a law career, Congreve gave it up for writing. As a consequence, he became a successful playwright (under John Dryden’s tutelage) while still in his twenties. In fact, his last play, The Way of the World was produced when he was around thirty. After that, he disappeared from the literary world to work in government. But amongst the work he left behind is the novella Incognita which he wrote while at university.

    Incognita is a delightful piece of late seventeenth-century writing, a romance and a masquerade, a story of mistaken and assumed identities. Set in Florence during nuptial festivities, the story sees the heroes Aurelian and Hippolito arriving in the former’s native city. The two young men attend some festivities, including a masquerade. Hippolito borrows a costume, and the two arrive as strangers.

    Separating for the rest of the night, they fall under the spell of two masked women. And so begins a series of deceptions. Hippolito discovers the costume he borrowed belongs to a man who killed someone else. The young woman he encounters, Leonora, sees his costume and believes him to be her cousin, warning him that he ought to leave before someone takes revenge. He doesn’t correct her mistake and they leave, after which he asks how he might contact her the next day.

    Aurelian has fallen for a different woman who delights him with her quick wit, and who offers him the choice of knowing her name or seeing her face. He asks to see her face, only later realising that without her name, it will be difficult to find her.

    There’s an inevitability to the proceedings, and the reader will no doubt guess where things are going. The twists and turns might seem somewhat contrived, and yet everything that happens fits perfectly within the story.

    Occasionally, the narrator speaks to us in asides and draws our attention to some point or piece of background information. It’s easy to imagine this story performed on a stage as the seventeenth-century romantic comedy, which is not surprising given the later career of the writer. According to Congreve himself, Incognita was “an essay begun and finished in the idler hours of a fortnight’s time.” Sadly, it also serves as a reminder of what Congreve was capable of, and what literature lost when he abandoned his career.

    Please note, the cover image at the top of this page is from the 2003 Hesperus edition of this novella, which is now out of print. Other versions of Incognita by William Congreve are available. A longer version of this review was published online in 2005.

  • The Wall by Jean-Paul Sartre (1939)

    The Wall by Jean-Paul Sartre. First published in 1939.
    The Wall by Jean-Paul Sartre (1939)

    This review of The Wall by Jean-Paul Sartre contains some spoilers.

    Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher, existentialist, Marxist, playwright and critic. But he was also a fiction writer, his most famous and best novel being Nausea, published in 1938. That was his first novel. The short story collection, The Wall, came out the following year. The characters in the collection suffer alienation in different ways.

    The Wall

    Three men are condemned to death in the title story. They share a cell with a Belgian doctor supposedly there for their benefit, but he’s actually observing their mental descent as their last night passes and a firing squad approaches. The backdrop is the Spanish Civil War. One of the condemned men is an Irishman, a member of the International Brigade. Another is the younger brother of a wanted man. The main character, Pablo, is condemned because of his association with another wanted man.

    As the hours pass, the men are forced to think of their impending death. The youngest worries about the torture stories he’s heard about the Falangists (Spanish Fascists) who hold them prisoner. He wonders how much it will hurt to die.

    Pablo grows to dislike his fellow inmates. There’s no camaraderie in death. Meanwhile, the Belgian doctor scribbles down their reactions with detachment and objectivity. The wall itself is the wall of the firing squad and the cell. It’s the wall between life and death. It’s also a wall of detachment and objectivity as exhibited by the doctor.

    Memories seem unimportant to Pablo now. The woman he loves no longer seems important. Death itself is an aberration, almost impossible to conceive. But psychologically the characters do pass from life to death before the guards come to take them away. However, there is an ironic twist to the ending.

    The Bedroom

    The Bedroom begins with a woman lying in bed, suffering from some unnamed affliction. She and her husband are concerned for their daughter whose husband is descending into some kind of hereditary and degenerative mental illness. The father wants his son-in-law put in an institution. But his daughter refuses to give up her husband. Not only that, she goes along with her husband’s hallucinations, to the extent that they almost seem real to her too.

    Herostratus

    Herostratus has a man who literally looks down on other people by looking down on them from his window. He visits a sex worker and makes her walk around naked, at gunpoint. He decides to go on a killing spree. His escape is all planned, but things don’t turn out as intended. Like other characters in this collection, he seems cut off from other people and from intimate contact. The story is named after the man who burned down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus to immortalise himself.

    Intimacy

    Intimacy is a story whose contents belie its title. Lulu and Henri clearly have a problematic marriage. Henri is impotent and Lulu has taken a lover. She plans to run away with this man, encouraged by her friend Rirette. Tricking her husband on to the balcony, she locks him out. There’s a humorous scene where an older couple turns up and Henri and Lulu act as if everything is a joke. Again, though, things take a turn at the end.

    The Childhood of a Leader

    The strongest story in the book is the last, which is more of a novelette or novella. The Childhood of a Leader follows Lucien, the son of a factory owner, from his early years where he is pretty and admired, through his boyhood and into young adulthood.

    From early on, Lucien doesn’t seem to know who he is. But he learns early that his father is a leader, someone the workers look up to. As time goes on, Lucien becomes alienated from his mother. He obsesses over himself and his complexes. Now well into his teens, he reads Freud, falls in with a boy at school who introduces him to an older man, a surrealist. This predatory man has a sexual interest in Lucien and they go away for a weekend. Later, Lucien worries about whether he is now a homosexual. He decides to turn his attentions to the young maid who now works in his home. But when he has the opportunity to take things further, he backs off.

    In time, he falls in with a new group of friends, right-wing, anti-Semitic students who call out slogans like “France for the French” and beat up Jewish people. Lucien discovers a gift for sniffing out Jews, which attracts admiration from those around him. His father approves of his new interests. Lucien joins the movement, beats up a young Jew, and snubs another at a party. And so he goes from boy to man. He sees the future ahead of himself: he will be a leader like his father, he’ll become the local mayor, he’ll find a nice virgin who’ll submit to him. He’ll be a leader of France.

    Although the story was written before the war, Lucien already embodies the features of the Vichy fascist and collaborator. And the persecution of Jews takes on a whole new meaning for modern readers. The Holocaust, and the handing over of Jews by the Vichy government loom over this story in a way they wouldn’t have done at the time it was written. Sartre’s story seems to predict what lies ahead.

    The Childhood of a Leader plays out against the last years of the Third Republic. To some extent, Lucien shares a great deal of his psychology with Sartre himself. Their backgrounds are similar. But Sartre made a different choice, associating himself with the Left.

    Because Lucien has picked up and discarded different belief systems throughout the story, there’s reason to think he too could still change. It might not be too late. But the fear is that in the short term, and the short term being Vichy, his fascist tendencies will lead to collaboration with the Holocaust. This is a reading that goes beyond what Sartre probably intended when the story was published in 1939. But the Nazi state-sanctioned persecution of Jews was already underway. This could not have escaped Sartre, nor could the build-up of the German war machine. There had already been a near outbreak of war in 1938. Perhaps Sartre knew exactly where the world was going after all.

    A version of this review of The Wall by Jean-Paul Sartre was originally published in 2005.

  • Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios – Clinton Heylin

    Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood System by Clinton Heylin (2005)
    Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios
    By Clinton Heylin (2005)

    Orson Welles was one of the great cinematic figures of the 20th century. His first film Citizen Kane would be a financial flop, but a critical success. Now, generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, it’s certainly one of the most innovative. But instead of reaping the creative rewards of his masterpiece, Welles was consistently wrong-footed and undermined by the studio system. Producers and executives interfered with his work, denying him final edits. Films were cut to pieces while Welles was left writing memos on how he wanted a particular scene edited. Advice that was generally ignored unless it had a cost-cutting benefit.

    When Orson Welles came to Hollywood, he had a reputation as a boy wonder. He was twenty-five when he directed his first film, Citizen Kane. He’d never worked in film before. Nevertheless, he was given the opportunity to act, direct, and have the final cut.

    His background was in theatre, particularly the Mercury Theatre he’d set up in New York. With them, he’d made War of the Worlds for radio. The broadcast, partly dramatised as a series of news reports, caused panic. Some listeners thought the Martian invasion was real. The War of the Worlds broadcast is now part of the Welles mythology. It belongs to the trickster side of his personality. He was something of a magician and had a genuine interest in magic tricks, and their cinematic counterparts. But he also once said that a film studio was the greatest train set a boy could have.

    There’s a photographic portrait of Welles taken in 1946 by Irving Penn: Portrait with Symbols. A young Welles in black suit and bow tie stands, one foot resting on a low table, cigar in hand. On the table are a collection of objects, including a train set, a magician’s hat, a crow, a box camera, a gramophone, a decanter of port, a French horn, a hoop, and a stick of dynamite. (Another Penn portrait of Dorothy Parker, also titled Portrait with Symbols includes a bunch of lemons, a sax, a carving knife, a syringe, a corkscrew, and a sign that reads Black Eye Specialist.)

    By the time of Penn’s photograph, Welles’ career in Hollywood was on the downward slide. After Citizen Kane, he never again had the same power and control. In time, as he grew older and appeared in cameo roles and ads, he was often regarded as a failure. He was still admired in Europe. But in Hollywood, his failure was laid at his own door, at his inability to work within the studio system.

    Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios is not a biography of Welles. Instead, it’s an examination of his films as a director, particularly within the Hollywood studios. By examining memos, cables, and other documentation, Clinton Heylin challenges the myth of Welles as a failed genius, or as a man who only had himself to blame. As Heylin illustrates, while Welles did not have a business mind, and Hollywood was above all a business, his problems lay with the power of the producers and executives.

    Welles was an auteur and wanted full control of his own productions, including the final edit. But his filmmaking methods, his dark and baroque vision, and his tendency to constantly rewrite scripts and make last-minute changes, left risk-averse producers nervous.

    Welles was constantly open to new ideas and inspirations. He was a perfectionist who understood the importance of the soundtrack and sound effects – something Hollywood had not exploited. He was also prone to running over schedule and over budget. In time, he would learn from some of these mistakes. But Hollywood became more and more reluctant to back his ideas. There were people within the studios who recognised genius when they saw it. But they feared the public wouldn’t understand or appreciate it. Welles despaired of the tendency to treat the public like children.

    The procedure of test viewings didn’t help his work either. If an audience failed to appreciate a film, or laughed inappropriately, the film was sent back to be butchered again. As Heylin points out, test audiences were often there to see a completely different kind of film and were not a good sample of the public. But even some of those supposedly bad screenings actually went down better than we’ve been led to believe.

    In the case of The Magnificent Ambersons, a test screening in Pomona was seen as a complete disaster. A studio executive wrote a letter afterward, saying “in my twenty-eight years in the business, I have never been present in a theatre where audiences acted in such a manner. They laughed at the wrong places, talked at the picture, (even) kidded it… I don’t have to tell you how I suffered, especially in the realization that we have over a million dollars tied up.” 

    But Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing later in Movie Wars, saw most of the 125 audience response cards. 53 were positive, “some of them outright raves” calling the film a masterpiece.

    Unfortunately, the executives didn’t agree. They only cared for their investment. Changes at the top of RKO didn’t help matters.

    Welles was in Brazil at the time. He wanted to make a film there and in Mexico. But after shooting the Carnival and other footage, the project ran aground. His foray into thriller territory, which might have looked more commercially promising to the studios, also ran into trouble. Welles’s own descriptions of scenes show just how innovative and imaginative he was. But these things cost time and money. And, as always, his films were butchered in the editing process while he was frozen out.

    As he himself noted about the Hollywood system, “a genuine individual is an outright nuisance in a factory.”

    In Europe, he had a better reputation, and it was to Europe that he went to continue directing. He wanted to work as an independent. Acting was a way to pay the bills or fund a film. His screen presence meant that he could command a large salary even for a cameo role. Other than Citizen Kane, the film he’s best remembered for is The Third Man. Yet, according to Heylin, Welles was never that interested in the film that would immortalise him as Harry Lime.

    Hard as it is to believe, Welles only appears for about ten minutes. Nevertheless, his performance and presence tower over the film. The speech he gives on the Ferris wheel is iconic. Harry Lime would be a character he’d return to in a series of BBC radio broadcasts. But Welles was at heart a director.

    One of his secretaries remembers him during one period as seeming very alone. Since Heylin’s book does not deal with Welles’s private life, readers need to look elsewhere to fill in those spaces.

    However, Heylin does have some contempt for some of Welles’ biographers, with Simon Callow, in particular, getting some flak. Heylin is such an enthusiastic defender of Welles that he can’t resist bitchy asides about other writers. This is particularly noticeable at the beginning of his book and is somewhat distracting.

    On the whole, though, Heylin does a good job digging up evidence that supports much of what Welles himself claimed. There’s a quote from Peter Bogdanovich on the back of Heylin’s book that highlights the importance of Despite the System: “This is the book Orson Welles always hoped for: one that would, as he put it, ‘set the record straight’.”

    I wrote this review in 2005. The book may be out of print and only available from used book dealers. But it’s an invaluable exploration of Welles’ problems with the studios.