A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Under Siege

The following review appeared today in the Dallas Morning News:

CITY OF THIEVES
By David Benioff
Viking, 258 pp., $24.95

“I thought it was strange that powerful violence is often so pleasing to the eye, like tracer bullets at night,” says Lev Beniov, the protagonist and narrator of City of Thieves. Powerful violence is everywhere in David Benioff’s novel.

As Lev sums up: “The days had become a confusion of catastrophes; what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by the evening. German corpses fell from the sky; cannibals sold sausage links made from ground human in the Haymarket; apartment blocs collapsed to the ground; dogs became bombs; frozen soldiers became signposts; a partisan with half a face stood swaying in the snow, staring sad-eyed at his killers.”

And yet from this gruesome and bizarre state of things, drawn from one of the nightmare passages of the 20th century, the siege of Leningrad, comes an immensely readable novel, a sort of picaresque thriller, that celebrates humanity while at the same time exposing the depths of cruelty to which human beings can sink.

Lev is 17 years old, living on his own in the starving city, where people are eating “library candy,” the glue from the binding of books, and selling the dirt from a bombed-out food warehouse because it contains melted sugar. Lev’s father is dead, a victim of Stalin’s tyranny; his mother and sister have fled to the country. When he is arrested for looting the corpse of a German paratrooper who froze to death before he hit the ground, Lev is thrown together in prison with a dashing, clever, handsome Cossack named Kolya, who has been arrested for desertion, though he had just slipped away from his unit to look for a woman to relieve his perpetual horniness.

To avoid execution, Lev and Kolya agree to an absurd mission: to find a dozen eggs so the daughter of a colonel can have a wedding cake. They venture out into the frozen no-man’s-land between the city and the German army, an odd couple who will become a trio when they’re joined by Vika, a sharpshooting guerrilla who may be an agent for the NKVD, the secret police that arrested and murdered Lev’s father. Vika is a woman about Lev’s age, disguised as a boy.

City of Thieves is premised on the possibility that it may not be entirely fiction. It begins with a screenwriter named David – Benioff adapted his first novel, The 25th Hour, for the movies, and wrote the screenplays for The Kite Runner and the forthcoming Wolverine, the latest in the X-Men series – visiting his grandparents in Florida. His grandfather tells him about his wartime experiences, but when David presses for more details, retorts: “You’re a writer. Make it up.” So David proceeds to make it up, in his grandfather’s voice.

That metafictional tease aside, City of Thieves is a book rife with ironies and a kind of existential absurdity, but Benioff resists the impulse to preach at us. The most he does is introduce an occasional wry observation: “Kolya seemed fearless, but everyone has fear in them somewhere; fear is part of our inheritance. Aren’t we descended from timid little shrews that cowered in the shadows while the great beasts stomped past?”

The plot is as formulaic as a buddy movie – Butch and Sundance in Russia. But Benioff puts flesh on the formula with skills at characterization that are first-rate – Kolya is a particularly memorable creation, and both Lev and Vika come alive for the reader – and his careful attention to landscape, his research into the horrors of the siege, and his deft use of vivifying detail give the novel an unexpected and very welcome richness.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare

The following review is an expanded version of one that ran today in the Dallas Morning News:

SHAKESPEARE’S WIFE
By Germaine Greer
HarperCollins, 416 pp., $26.95

The little we know for certain about the private life of William Shakespeare could fit in a slender file folder: records of birth and marriage and death, a few other documents mostly pertaining to real estate transactions and some legal matters, some evidence of his work with various theatrical companies, a handful of mentions by his contemporaries, and the like. But we have the plays and poems, too, and from that has been spun the vast web of maybes and perhapses that constitutes Shakespeare biography.

We know even less about his wife, Ann (or Anne or even Agnes) Hathaway Shakespeare. We do know that she was born in 1556 and died in 1623 (outliving him by seven years), that they married in 1582, when she was 26 and he was 18, and that their first child, Susanna, was born six months after the wedding. They had two more children, the twins Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. And that’s pretty much it for Ann, except that in his will, Shakespeare left her his “second-best bed.”

But if countless volumes can be got out of the little we know about William’s life, it’s not really surprising that Germaine Greer can get 400 pages out of Ann’s. Greer is best known – at least on this side of the Atlantic – for her 1970 book The Female Eunuch, a key text in the foundation of the women’s movement of the ’70s. British tabloid readers and TV-watchers know Greer as colorful and uninhibited. (The role of the public intellectual in Britain is evidently very different from that of the American equivalent. Greer appeared on a celebrity edition of the British version of “Big Brother.” Try to imagine John Updike on “Survivor.”) But her persona is anything but flamboyant in this new book, which is a sober, fact-laden attempt to figure out what the life of Mrs. Shakespeare must have been like.

This is not to say that Shakespeare’s Wife lacks controversy. Greer’s target is what she sees as the sexism of scholars who assume that Ann was more of an impediment than a helpmeet to Shakespeare. Scholars (mostly male) have conjectured that Shakespeare was trapped in a marriage to a woman he didn’t love. They cite the disparity in ages between William and Ann, the inference that she was pregnant when they wed, their prolonged separation when he went off to London to make it big and apparently left her in Stratford – three days’ journey away – to take care of the kids. And then there’s that dismissive-sounding bequest.

Greer’s chief target is Stephen Greenblatt, whose 2004 Shakespeare biography, Will in the World, was a bestseller. To paint her very different portrait of the Shakespeare marriage, she uses some of Greenblatt’s own history-scouring techniques, digging deep into the minute details of Elizabethan daily life. Maybe Ann wasn’t a conniving hussy who trapped a mere boy into marriage, she proposes. And maybe consummation of the marriage before the wedding ceremony was commonly accepted, maybe they weren’t separated as long or as often as is usually thought, and maybe Shakespeare didn’t leave her much in the will because he didn’t have to – she was already entitled to her share of the estate. She may well have been a capable businesswoman, supporting the family on her own while he was away. And that bed could have had both sentimental and monetary value.

The one thing Greer doesn’t do is rely heavily on the poems and plays for evidence. She does touch lightly on passages in the plays that reinforce evidence she has found elsewhere, and she dismisses the sonnets – with their implications of the poet’s affairs both gay and straight – as mostly conventional, except when she finds evidence of marital affection in them. She doesn’t even expound on marital themes in the plays, such as the jealous husband/innocent wife motif found in tragedy (Othello), comedy (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and romance (A Winter’s Tale).

What she does give us in her account of the life led by women in Elizabethan Stratford-upon-Avon, is sometimes fascinating. And sometimes it’s tedious and tendentious. There’s a long and mostly irrelevant description of what the medical practice of John Hall, the husband of Ann and William’s daughter Susanna, must have been like. And an equally detailed account of the conflict in Stratford over the enclosure of land once held in common, in which Greer suggests Ann and her daughters might have taken part – and then admits “perhaps none of them” did. And there’s a gruesome section on syphilis and its treatment, all in service of the possibility that William might have contracted it in the brothels of London.

The result is a bit of a jumble of a book. There are flashes of insight, and the suggestion that Ann may not have been such a burden to her husband as some have argued is a sensible one. But a barrage of facts about everything from childbirth in Elizabethan times to the making of ale to the price of land doesn’t constitute a full portrait of Shakespeare’s wife, or add very much to our understanding of his art.

In the end, on almost all questions, Greer is content to leave the conclusions up to the reader: “If Ann Shakespeare had both skill and business acumen, she could have become a wealthy woman in her own right. So far we don’t know that she did, but we don’t know that she didn’t either.” That admission, almost an authorial shrug of the shoulders, comes halfway through the book. Which may be as far as some readers get.

Since Greer makes much of Stephen Greenblatt's portrait of the Shakespeare marriage, here's my review of his book, which ran in the Mercury News in 2004:

WILL IN THE WORLD: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
By Stephen Greenblatt
Norton, 406 pp., $26.95

Perhaps. Probably. Maybe. These words hiccup through any biography of Shakespeare, and Stephen Greenblatt's is no exception. For the facts about Shakespeare's life are, as Greenblatt puts it, ''abundant but thin.'' We know all sorts of stuff about the property he bought and sold, the taxes he paid, the theatrical companies he worked for. We have his baptismal record, his marriage license and his last will and testament.

What we don't have are letters, diaries, manuscripts or anything that would give us, in Greenblatt's words, ''direct access to his thoughts about politics or religion or art.'' We want the People magazine profile, the Terry Gross interview, the ''E! True Elizabethan Story.''

But we're not going to get them, so let's be happy with the perhapses supplied by Greenblatt, a professor of humanities at Harvard. His new book, Will in the World, manages to be what a popular biography written by a noted scholar should be: readable but learned, speculative but carefully documented.

As his title suggests, Greenblatt draws his probabilities not only from the documents and the poems and plays, but also from the world Shakespeare lived in. Greenblatt imagines an 11-year-old dazzled by the pageantry surrounding the queen, who stayed at Kenilworth, 12 miles from Stratford, in 1575 -- awakening a fascination with English history and the glamour of royalty. He posits that Shakespeare was obsessed by his father's business failure, which happened when the poet was 13, and that it echoes in the theme of banishment and loss of status found in plays like As You Like It, King Lear and The Tempest.

He sees 18-year-old Will marrying 26-year-old Anne Hathaway six months before their first child was born, and speculates that the marriage was an unhappy one, reflected in the exhortations against premarital sex and skepticism about marriage found in the plays. The only married couples in the plays who have ''a relationship of sustained intimacy,'' Greenblatt notes, ''are unnervingly strange: Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet and the Macbeths. These marriages are powerful, in their distinct ways, but they are also upsetting, even terrifying, in their glimpses of genuine intimacy.''

But we don't really know if an unhappy marriage prompted Shakespeare to seek his fortune in London, which was two days' ride from Stratford, where his wife and three children remained. He probably did them a favor by not taking them with him: The London in which he spent much of his adult life was a city of 200,000 people -- in Europe, only Naples and Paris were larger -- but even in years when the city was spared from the plague, the death rate was higher than the birth rate.

And when disease wasn't killing people, Queen Elizabeth was. The heads of traitors were stuck on poles on the Great Stone Gate leading to London Bridge. ''A foreign visitor to London in 1592 counted thirty-four of them,'' Greenblatt writes. Many of those convicted of treason were Roman Catholics, which may have made Shakespeare uneasy, since there's evidence that his own father covertly adhered to the faith that Elizabeth was determined to wipe out.

Greenblatt believes that the political and religious tensions of the age taught Shakespeare some ''powerful lessons about danger and the need for discretion, concealment, and fiction.'' The heads on the bridge, Greenblatt writes, ''may have spoken to him on the day he entered London -- and he may well have heeded their warning'' -- a warning to be cautious and sly. And this may explain not only why we have so little documentation of Shakespeare's own beliefs, but also why his plays -- and even the sonnets, his most apparently personal work -- are so complex, so subtle, so ambiguous.

Unlike some biographers, Greenblatt doesn't rely too heavily on the sonnets for clues. He accepts that the Earl of Southampton is the ''likeliest candidate by far'' as the young man addressed in the poems, but he calls the efforts to name the other figures -- the Dark Lady, the Rival Poet -- ''beyond rashness.'' He's also cautious about speculating whether the intimate way the poet addresses the young man indicates that Shakespeare was gay. Sonnet-writing, Greenblatt says, was a kind of game, the point of which ''was to sound as intimate, self-revealing, and emotionally vulnerable as possible, without actually disclosing anything compromising to anyone outside the innermost circle.'' And Shakespeare played that game better than anyone.

Most of all, Greenblatt gives us what he calls ''an amazing success story,'' that of a bright young man from the provinces who took on the challenge of working amid playwrights better-educated than he was -- and won. There was the brilliant but unstable Christopher Marlowe, whose Tamburlaine inspired Shakespeare to his first success, the Henry VI trilogy. There were the university-educated playwrights who gathered around the corpulent and dissolute Robert Greene, who attacked Shakespeare in print as an ''upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers.''

Shakespeare far outdid these rivals, even transforming the unsavory Greene into one of his most beloved characters, Falstaff. ''What Falstaff helps to reveal is that for Shakespeare, Greene was a sleazy parasite, but he was also a grotesque titan,'' Greenblatt says.

By the time we reach the mature works, the biographical mysteries recede, as Greenblatt explores Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, The Tempest and other plays not only for what they tell us about Shakespeare, but also for what Shakespeare and his world tell us about the plays.

Which is as it should be. The biographical mysteries are really less interesting than the artistic mysteries: the melancholy wit of Twelfth Night, the erotic entanglements of Antony and Cleopatra, the power maneuvers of the history plays, the bittersweet magic of the late romances, the rootless malevolence of Iago, the airy dazzle of Rosalind, the stubborn humanity of Bottom, and so on -- not forgetting all those well-shaped words.

Fortunately, Greenblatt never forgets that the works are uppermost. He has given us a clever and alive book, one that makes us makes us return to Shakespeare's work with a fresh vision, and one that finds a living person in the mass of dry documents and the heaps of conjecture. Scholars may quibble about the way Greenblatt reads the facts -- it's their job to do so -- but I felt a little closer to knowing the unknowable Shakespeare than I did before I read the book.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

To War Is Human

The following review appeared today in the Houston Chronicle:

PEACE
By Richard Bausch
Knopf, 171 pp., $19.95

If war didn’t exist, novelists would have to invent it. What other pursuit reduces humanity to a raw essence and brings into question the nature of civilization?

Richard Bausch’s Peace is a very short novel. Some would call it a novella, but that diminutive doesn’t do the book justice. For with a kind of magical economy, Bausch packs more into 171 pages than some novelists do with three times that number. He has written 10 previous novels, and he has learned how to propel a story, to lay traps for the reader, to entice one into turning the page. In his latest novel, he not only tells a story, but he also gives his characters back-stories, illumines their inner lives, and even finds room for a couple of subplots. But the book owes equally as much to his work in short fiction – he has seven volumes of stories. He knows the importance of placing the right word, the right image, in the right place.

The main plot is a familiar one: a patrol goes out on reconnaissance; some of them kill, and some of them are killed. The three principal characters are straight out of the melting-pot cast of a Hollywood World War II movie: a Catholic, a Jew, and a foul-mouthed bigot from the Midwest. And of course the great precursor Hemingway haunts any tale of grace under pressure, sometimes creeping into the prose itself: “They all stood silent and did not look at one another, or at Glick, and the only sound was the rain.”

It is the winter of 1944. Italy has fallen, but the retreating German army is still very much a lethal force, hidden in the mountains near Cassino. When an American patrol encounters an old Italian on the road, he agrees to lead them to where the Germans are. So Robert Marson, a corporal, is put in charge of two other soldiers, Saul Asch and Benny Joyner, to follow the old man into the hills.

It is a miserable climb. Freezing rain turns to snow as they go higher. Marson, the novel’s central character, suffers the agony of a blistered foot. Asch and Joyner bicker constantly. And when they find where the Germans are – or have been – a sniper attacks.

Has the old man led them into a trap? For the enigmatic Italian, who understands – or claims to understand – only a few words of English, was once their enemy, as Joyner keeps reminding them. “Non sono fascista,” the old man insists, every time Joyner utters the word “Fascist.” But from the moment we first see him driving his cart along the road, the man evokes the traditional image of Death: “A crooked shape in brown, a hooded man with dark thin hands, held the reins. Under the hood was only the suggestion of a gaunt face in shadow.”

Thus Bausch gives us a story with the resonance of a fable, but permeated with psychological realism. Here is Marson, alone, undertaking a crucial mission: “Not quite gradually, but with a slow widening of himself, he felt a lessening of tension, as if something had been released in his blood, a drug, preventing him from feeling what he had felt only seconds before.” And after he has completed his mission, “He had the sense, again without words, that life – all life, the life he had led and the life he had come to – had never been so suffused with clarity, a terrible inhuman clarity, made utterly out of precision, like the precision of gear and tackle in a machine. Except that he understood, in a sick wave, that this was utterly and only human.”

For that is Bausch’s point: War is human. And recognizing the moral implications of that fact can be shattering.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Or Maybe Betting on the Wrong Tree?

"Everybody was barking at the wrong horse."

--UC-Berkeley engineering professor Leon Chua on the development of a new circuit called the memristor.