Of beauty and raw pumpkin

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NTHIKENG MOHLELE WRITES like an angel. His material flows so smoothly that you just cannot stop reading it, drinking in all the rhythm and song of the concatenation of the words he’s chosen and how they juxtapose and interface. But there, also, lies the rub. This work, premised on a character devised by JM Coetzee in 1983 sails away on its own sense of possibility and as a result, the read, while abstractly beautiful, doesn’t offer much in the denouement department.

Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K gave voice to a socially-disabled character, born with a harelip who travels alone and with no resources through the harshness of South African landscape to visit his mother’s birth place in the off-the-beaten-track Western Cape village of Prince Albert. It’s a kind of a take on some of the premises informing William Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, as it offers an important foray in what it means to be poor, disabled and alone in a country riven by racism. It was also the novel that won Coetzee the coveted Booker Prize that year.

Mohlele’s character Miles, who is written in the first person, meets “Michael K” at the other end of his life, eating raw pumpkin and subsisting with birds, but the focus of his prose slips in and out of sharpness in this text, as “Miles” contemplates the dementia of his father, his desire to have sex with his young maid and his relationship with a man who was once his university professor. On a level, the give and take between mentor and mentee might remind you of the dialogues in Leonhard Praeg’s Imitation, but that is where the similarity ends.

You emerge from this text feeling like you’ve just returned from an immersion in beautiful poetry, but you’re less haunted by the idea of narrative than you might like to be. Mohlele’s Michael K teeters toward the self-indulgent, the self-consciously meditative for meditation’s sake and the overly reflexive. Names are dropped all over the place and if you don’t recognise them, or appreciate their value, no mercy is offered by way of context. His references to Coetzee as “the laureate in the Land Rover” smack of sense of writerly self-deprecation that is both bitter and jealous, and while there are astonishingly powerful ideas informing this literary novel, they’re not drawn out and given the kind of attention or voice they warrant.

Thus, Michael K becomes a bit of a hollow read filled with gem-like experiences in which you reach at and discover snippets of South African values in small interregnums along the way.

  • Michael K by Nthikeng Mohlele is published by the Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2018).

The unutterable hubris of the copycat

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ARGENTINE WRITER JORGE Luis Borges (1899-1986) did it. Italian philosopher Umberto Eco (1932-2016) did it. And now, there’s South African philosopher Leonhard Praeg with his debut novel weaving together a tale of self-reflection and intrigue; philosophy, politics and coincidence, to say nothing of love and tragedy in a way that will grab you by the mind and spirit and not let go, even after you’ve finished reading it. Imitation is an extremely lucid narrative which doffs a hat to Czech writer Milan Kundera (b. 1929) as it plays intelligently and curiously with all the possibilities of what storytelling can be.

Granted, it doesn’t have the gravitas of Eco’s Name of the Rose, which engages the meaning of laughter in the world through a medieval cipher, but it sits comfortably on the same shelf. Cast between a farm in the Karoo, an apartment in Paris and a building site on the Ivory Coast, among other places; it’s contemporary and sexy without being overworked or irrelevant and once you start reading it, you will not be able to remove yourself from its confines until the very last page.

The novel weaves together first person narrative with the back story of fictional characters developed through the pen of Kundera and truths that play with the notion of hubris in our world. What Praeg is doing here is penetrating deeply into Kundera’s 1990 novel Immortality, and exploring the what ifs of that tale. In doing so, he finds other characters of his own, including a young man who is safe in the confines of his own silence and has survived 17 suicide attempts. And while each of the book’s seven parts seems self-standing, they’re tacked together with delicate yet robust threads that jolt you in the solar plexus when you see them.

In the 1980s, a basilica called Our Lady of Peace was controversially commissioned and built in Yamoussoukro, the administrative capital of Côte d’Ivoire. Controversial because it was paid for by the country’s then dictator, one Félix Houphouët-Boigny, from his private monies. Controversial because it was extremely costly and the community, extremely poor. And controversial because it challenged the architectural integrity of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Praeg’s character is insinuated into this heady tale of imitation and hubris as the project’s publicity guy.

And no, it’s less of a tale about the architecture and more of one about the underpinning thinking that enabled it to happen, and to exist in the world. Imitation, they say, is the most earnest kind of admiration. And from this premise a yarn of such noble and internal proportions evolves that you’re left sleepless. How does Buffon’s needle which posits an 18th century theory of coincidence relate to psychiatric patients on the steps of a mental institution in Switzerland? How does a friendly gesture by an elderly swimming student to her gym instructor erupt into a narrative of engagement, which crosses lines of gender habits? This very finely constructed novel makes you sit up and focus as the most extraordinary associations are brought to bear and contextualised with wit and wisdom.

Marred ever so slightly by a couple of subbing oversights and a little too much moralising when it comes to the taxonomy of ruling structures, the work is a very powerful read which is elegantly structured and beautifully told. It’s a feather in the cap of Praeg as a fictional debut, but also one in that of the University of Pretoria, where Praeg heads up the philosophy department.

  • Imitation by Leonhard Praeg is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg (2018).

Women with fire in their bellies

Themba

MY books, my frock: Thabisa Dinga in Autho(r)ise. Photograph by John Hogg.

BOOKS AND THEIR inflammable contents, the perennially absent South African father, and unleashing the wrath of decolonised feminist fury are the issues central to the works staged by Themba Mbuli in Dance Umbrella, earlier this month. Mbuli’s topics are hot and relevant and the presentation is clear and engaging. But it is the work of Thabisa Dinga that ramps up the nerve centre of these pieces with fierce abandon and utter electricity.

A demure young woman, from the outset and outside, Dinga has skills that take you by surprise. She plays traditional African instruments that blend bow-instrument with blown instrument with weapon, as she captures the vortex of the works. Dealing with social issues central to who we are as people in this world, who have a tendency to overlook the values and the spaces of others, Dinga is key to the narrative in Memory Box, opposite Mbuli himself.

In Autho(r)ise, a work pummelled a little by typographical errors in the videoed projection, Dinga is seen in collaboration with Kristen De Kock and Nkemiseng Khena. It is here that fire is evoked with politically sensitive comments, an image that calls to mind South African visual artist Penny Siopis’s well-loved work from 1988, Dora and the Other Woman with the idea of pinning images onto a dress, and the complex life of text in a decolonised environment.

De Kock is another performer who also looks too demure and gentle to manifest the kind of performative fire that she makes, and you sit, transfixed and moved by the whorl of values that these two works present.

Looking at Mbuli’s work you cannot but mourn not only the Dance Umbrella in its current manifestation, but also the fact that the Standard Bank Young Artist Award – which Mbuli won in 2016 for dance – never did boast a travelling platform, as it does for visual arts in this country. It’s an omission that enables fine and feisty choreographers and performers of the ilk of Mbuli, to slip though national cracks.

  • Autho(r)ise and Memory Box are choreographed by Themba Mbuli. The former features creative input by Maris Steenkamp (costumes), Meryle Van Noie (composer), Thabisa Dinga (life music), Bamanye Yeko (lighting and technical design) and Christelle Dreyer (video) and is performed by Kristen De Kock, Thabisa Dinga and Nkemiseng Khena. The latter features creative input by Merry K Designs (costume), Thabisa Dinga (live music), Camile – Le fil, Mika Vainio, Alva Noto and Ryuichi (recorded music) and Bamanye Yeko (lighting and technical design), and is performed by Thabisa Dinga and Themba Mbuli. Both works were part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season and performed on March 17 and 18 at the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Pixie dust and make believe

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TRANSFIXED by our big sister, Wendy. Michael (Danny Meaker) and John (Daniel Keith Geddes), little boys who love stories. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

ARE THERE STILL children in this world who make forts out of blankets and cushions, from which they conduct complex battles and adventures? Do children in this day and age still go on wild adventures in their own back yards, where they lie on their backs and peer at the moon and pretend they can fly? This is a play that with an incredibly sophisticated understanding of the potency of childhood, articulately explores make believe, and in doing so, it takes the JM Barrie tale of Peter Pan by its horns and doesn’t let go, not for a minute.

It’s a fascinating scenario. Barrie lived in the latter part of the 19th century, dying 37 years into the 20th. The yarns he wrote are wild and manic, but the English he used reflects his times, and is often prohibitively detailed for young readers to access. Mike Kenny – like others before him, including Walt Disney in 1953 – has taken the thread of Peter Pan and with a solemn nod to Barrie and a wink to the children in the audiences, set it free, in contemporary language with beautiful songs.

And Francois Theron and his creative team in turn, have taken this lead even further, dotting it with a deliciously idiosyncratic set, magnificent choreography and music on the part of the cast that lend an element of sheer perfection to the work. The cast, headed by Nirvana Nokwe-Mseleku as Wendy Darling, the authoritative big sister, and Daniel Keith Geddes in the role of John, the middle child – as well as Captain Hook, give it an edge that will set your child’s heart on fire. Supported by Danny Meaker as Peter Pan – and Michael, the youngest Darling child – and Phiphi-Gu’mmy Moletsane in the role of Tinkerbell, the oft sulky fairy, the work sings with synchronicity and wisdom.  It has to do with a mix of the sense of possibility and that of ordinariness that can bring a crocodile with a ticking clock in his tummy into the context of lost boys who fell out of their prams and mermaids who are beautiful but not nice.

Touching on everything that is central to what being a child means, the work is rough and tumble all the way, punctuated by the ‘aarghs’ of pirates, a beloved absent daddy’s beloved dressing gown, and some delicious cameos with a ukulele and a mouth organ. It engages with gender issues and power struggles, with the fear of growing up and becoming something or someone else – and in the process forgetting the fairies in the garden. It’s a tale of madcap adventure in the confines of your big sister’s love and care and creativity and one which opens your heart to the what ifs that dot the horizon. Along the same kind of lines as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe staged some months ago by this theatre, the work lacks forced contrivance. It is premised on the children themselves and the magic in their hearts. And this becomes a gift to your child, something he or she will never forget.

  • Underneath a Magical Moon is adapted for stage by Mike Kenny, based on Peter Pan by James Barrie. It is directed by Francois Theron and features creative input by Cathrine Hopkins (musical direction), Tandi Gavin (choreography), Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Daniel Keith Geddes, Danny Meaker, Phiphi-Gu’mmy Moletsane and Nirvana Nokwe-Mseleku until April 15 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg. Call 011 484 1584.

Humble giants; flies on the wall

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TAKE TWO INTELLECTUALS with something to say, put them together and record, transcribe and publish their words. Effectively, this is what you get in Footnotes for the Panther, which sees William Kentridge chatting to his friend Denis Hirson about life, the universe, his art, the craft of writing and being in the world.

On the one hand, this curious little book, designed and made with the kind of properness and dignity that lent the hard cover book its longevity as well as its sense of character, a hundred years ago, fits in the 19th century construct of belles lettres: pretty words cast out for posterity. And this makes it feel oddly precious and decidedly prescient and ironic in its sense of nostalgia.

Hirson (b. 1951) is a Paris-based writer. Born in South Africa, he was the son of anti-apartheid activist Baruch Hirson, who was jailed by the South African government for many years. Denis graduated in South Africa in the 1970s and then went to Paris where he made a life around theatre and literature, and where he still lives today.

Kentridge (b. 1955) is a South African-based artist, the son of Sydney Kentridge, who was one of the leading voices in many significant trials that South Africa weathered, including the Treason Trial, the Rivonia Trial and the inquest into the death of Steve Biko. In many respects, William needs no introduction — the meteoric rise of his fame and world respect has rendered his name known everywhere.

The two men knew each other as boys. As they chat, you realise an easy camaraderie which enables difficult questions to be asked and complicated answers to be teased out. The tone differs in the two conversations which were presented for an audience, and the other, more intimate eight, but this doesn’t make them any less readable.

So what you get when you read this book is a give and take, a recitative play between two men who have allowed you to sit, like a proverbial fly on the wall, as they wrestle with panthers conjured by Rainer Maria Rilke and South African nostalgia, with the detritus of Marikana and a brass band from Sebokeng township, among other things. It’s a foray into the work of Kentridge that reaches from his Jeu du Paume exhibition in June of 2010 to Amsterdam and the rehearsals of his interpretation of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu in May of 2015. Lots of work happened in that period.

Without an overriding voice, or internally edited-in contextual material, the work presupposes that you know what they’re talking about. And this, in many respects, is its downfall. It’s also its strength. As you slip deeper and deeper into the words of Kentridge and Hirson, you begin to hear their voices in your head. There’s a profound sense of humility in Kentridge’s mien; there’s humour and sadness; an understanding of the context of the art world, and a reach into philosophy and myth, the magic of chance and the madness of unusual juxtapositions, from violence in Betty Boop cartoons to the ways in which Kentridge represents himself in his drawings, films and other works. It is here where you learn of photographer David Goldblatt’s “fuck-all landscape” and how it makes drawing sense in a South African highveld context, and the thrill of drawing a piece of paper as it blows in the wind.

The work touches on everything from Kentridge’s collaborative talents, to his relentless work ethic and his Norton lectures. These, delivered in 2011-12, as Six Drawing Lessons, were commissioned by Harvard University and put him alongside thinkers of the ilk of Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Octavio Paz, John Cage, Orhan Pamuk, to celebrate “poetry in the broadest sense”. But in discussion, these also represent a rich cross-pollination of Kentridgean energy which considers courage and growing old, confidence in a variety of mediums and that question of so what, in the development of an artwork.

And all at once, you reach the end, and you have this powerful urge to start again. At once. It’s a gem of a publication which doesn’t kowtow to rules. Call it a vanity piece, if you must; but it’s a delightful dialogue to challenge the idea of formal research, as it places everything on the proverbial table. It’s detailed and nuanced, direct and mesmerising. And one reading just doesn’t do it justice.

  • Footnotes for the Panther: Conversations between William Kentridge and Denis Hirson is published by Fourthwall Books, Johannesburg (2017).

Decency in a time of hateful chaos

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IT IS SELDOM that you read a chunk of autobiographical writing by someone and come away not only with a deeper understanding of the historical context of the period under scrutiny, but also with a genuine warmth toward the writer himself. This is patently apparent in this text by Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002), one of the heroes of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, which is beautifully honed, curated and articulated.

The downside of this eminently meaty read which is at times surprising, exciting and witty, as it takes you through the detail and history of South Africa and pulls you through the bristly heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, is the handling of the publication: there are some typographical errors in this iconic South African text. Not many. But enough. There is also a blatant lack of engagement with the material itself and Bernstein’s biography, which is disappointing. Both authors of the forewords, in this, the second edition of this publication – Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki – basically write about what a jolly good text Bernstein’s is. And it is – they do not exaggerate, but both forewords read like press releases marketing the book rather than engagements with the text itself.

You might want to know what happened to Bernstein between 1994 and his death in 2002. You might want to know a little more about Bernstein, the man – though the basic decency of the writing and the way in which Bernstein describes his own position and challenges does a pretty good job of it. You might want to understand what prompted the writing of this important text or when it was published, or even why it was published again in 2017. You might want to know if the drawings on the book’s frontispiece and cover, presumably made by Bernstein himself, were from the Rivonia Trial or the Treason Trial. None of these mysteries are uncovered here.

However, once you get your teeth into the body of the text, all is forgiven. Taking you from 1938 through the challenges he faced in becoming the architect, the political activist, the communist, the husband and father and the mensch that he was, the text is fulsome and detailed. It’s crafted with a sense of openness – it’s written in the first person and the present tense throughout, but there’s a delicate balance that Bernstein achieves from beginning to end – it’s never self-congratulatory or egotistical, grand-standing or foolishly moralistic in its articulation. You’ll weep at the crude and cruel injustices of not only the apartheid regime, but also of the way in which men such as Bernstein were treated in prison.

This work sits with great comfort and dignity on the shelf alongside Raymond Suttner’s Inside Apartheid’s Prison and Jonathan Ancer’s Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, not only for its historical iconicity but also for its readability and value as a publication, presenting an understanding of the monster of apartheid as something a lot more nuanced, dangerous and complicated than a litany of white legislation imposed on black civilians. It’s about vindictiveness and loyalty, paying the highest price for one’s values, and above all, it’s about the basic value of human decency. This is a must read for any reader of South African politics, young or old.

  • Memory Against Forgetting: Memoir of a Time in South African Politics 1928-1964 is by Rusty Bernstein and features forewords by Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki. It is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg 2017.

My mother’s dignity, my society’s shame

Judasbok

BETRAYED as a repository for sins: the Scapegoat.

A BEAUTIFULLY CRAFTED tale of loyalty and values learned and imbibed, Dalene Matthee’s novel Die Judasbok (The Scapegoat) translates with a true sense of Klein Karoo grit into an Afrikaans-language radio drama you won’t forget in a hurry. It’s an extremely sensitive and intelligent radio-adaptation that will haunt you with all the moral decisions you’ve made that you would change if you could. And while its live broadcast was hosted a few weeks ago, this is the kind of work you will want to listen to again and again.

Karel (Dean Balie) and Lillian (Danielle van der Walt) are engaged to be married. They’re on a 1 300km road trip, to visit Karel’s mother, Ou Bet (June van Merch) in Wolwedans, the farm on which Karel grew up. They’re planning to leave the country; it’s a farewell visit. Sounds idyllic? It is, until you take a step back in terms of context. It’s 1982. It’s South Africa. Apartheid is rumbling like a destructive force through society, breaking hearts, confusing beliefs and smashing values in its wake. Andries Treurnicht, a government minister, is in the process of carving out a place in South African politics for the Conservative party. Bad things are happening everywhere.

And, yes, Karel is not white. Lillian is. Technically, their relationship, under the apartheid jurisdiction, is illegal. Ou Bet, whose the general factotum in the house and has raised the farm’s family as best she can, believing herself to be a part of it. She knows that Karel has a “Lillian” in his life, but the two women have not yet met. This roadtrip is infused with the ghosts and memories of Karel’s past, the beauty of the farm in Lillian’s unsullied eyes, and deep, difficult crossroads to encounter and confront for the mom. And there’s the memory of the farm’s dam which too contains mixed understandings of what skin colour means.

Along similar lines to Mark Behr’s Die Reuk van Appels, it’s a play which contemplates the horrors of being ‘different’ in a society that promulgates very specific race and class and gender values. Containing revelations about the past that will make you tremble, it’s a story that wrenches an old woman from her sense of where she fits in, in her everyday world, and one of bravery and beliefs in the face of disbelief.

The first adult novel penned by Matthee in the 1980s, it’s a book which contains all the energy and verve, the rich and complex understanding of an Afrikaans-speaking community who are not white-skinned and where they fit into the society in which they exist. As you listen to the crisp and solid tones and scene changes in this work, so do you melt, under the tough sway of the story’s impact, but also the way in which the environment is conjured by words and references, music and the twittering of birds. It’s a must-hear and a must-have.

  • Die Judasbok (The Scapegoat) is written by Dalene Matthee and adapted for radio by Anton Treurnich. Directed by Eben Cruywagen, it features technical assistance by Ricardo McCarthy is performed by Dean Balie, Susan Beyers, Danielle van der Walt and June van Merch, and debuted on RSG on November 17. It is available through the rsg website as a podcast.
  • RSG can be found on 100-104FM, on DStv channel 913 or live on http://web.sabc.co.za/digital/player/1.0/rsg/index.html#listenLiveTab

Jo’burg: A portrait with broken dreams

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YOU WILL RECOGNISE many characters in this debut novel by Peter Harris, not by their names, but by their amoral attitudes and cavalier actions that enable them to play loose and fast with money, values and other people’s lives. Bare Ground is absolutely unputdownable; it’s ideal holiday reading – not because it’s frothy and easy, but because it is crafted with such a deft understanding of the complexities of madness, human nature and greed with such an intelligent approach that you will race through it, your heart in your throat, in a bid to know what happens next. And you will be surprised by the nifty bends in the story, from its prologue to its very last word.

These characters are the ones who populate our news right now; you’ll find many a ‘flabby fellow’ in the tight fitting suit of a government minister, with mayonnaise from an expensive club sandwich dribbling down his front, and his face, distorted by the reflections in a whisky glass. Hell, you even encounter the president himself, who remains nameless behind dark glasses and much unmirthful laughter. He’s a man to be avoided, or cherished and adulated, depending on how much you – or your loved ones – have benefited from him over the years.

Bare Ground is the complex tale of Max Sinclair, a man born of South African privilege who seems to be piling riches on riches as he goes. With Oxford credentials, he was raised a lonely child, but has grown into someone controversially respected. Perfect though he may seem, from his sharply ironed impeccable clothing to his taste in the most expensive cars and whiskies, he’s a man not without personal horrors.

It’s also the tale of Sifiso Lesibe, an earnest hard-working geologist from the Eastern Cape who studied at Rhodes University. Like anyone in his shoes, he’s ambitious and wants good things for his young family. In every way, this chap is ideal grist for the mill of sordid hypocrisy, writhing snakes and gifts – a multitude of gifts cast in the sickly sweetness of dangerous traps, hidden resources and corporate crime on a massive scale.

And then there’s the straight lawyer, and the guy with struggle credentials who smells a rat and finds a notebook. There’s the wives who have more perspicuity than their men credit them with, and the contexts and childhoods which have left their mark on each individual. Stereotypes abound here, and the narrative is laced with the relentless sound of singing cicadas, a cipher of horror and insanity that subsists just under the surface of the unfolding events.

More than all of this, it’s a story about the mining history of this city, and how even the mine dumps, detritus of an earlier history of mining technology, become useful means to continue squeezing money from it. Think the biggest mining consortium the country has seen being put together, but also think kick backs and cartels, deals and sinister manoeuvres, the kind that keep the backstabbing in corporate jargon alive and seething. It’s a racy tale by any account, but it is written so well and has its characters and their contexts so intently and wittily described with such strong and convincing narrative line work and colour that you feel you are a part of it all.

Everything from opportunistic crime at Johannesburg’s traffic lights to the dirty little street urchins, some more horribly deformed than others, comes under the loupe of this exceptionally fine novel, playing its role in the richly textured portrayal of contemporary Johannesburg with all its rough and tumble, underhandedness and disparities. If you’re not from Johannesburg – or South Africa – you may find some of the references to real monsters in contemporary society a bit obscure, but that will not hurt the rollercoaster you will find yourself on in every one of Bare Ground’s 291 pages.

  • Bare Ground by Peter Harris is published by Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2017).

A scrumptious bit of Victoriana to make you cry

The Man

ME and my phantoms: Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), alongside Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) and other fantasy characters from A Christmas Carol. Photograph courtesy www.wlrfm.com

PICTURE THE VISUAL clichés of Victorian England with all its beautiful costumes, complicated pathways and wooden buildings. While you’re doing this, don’t forget to add in its dire poverty, abject filth and propensity toward child labour. It’s a complicated series of images which this filmic team, headed by Bharat Nalluri present you with: the back story to Charles Dickens’s 1843 runaway classic, A Christmas Carol. In The Man Who Invented Christmas you get so much more than just the story. It’s a delicious piece of film that brings to life all the timeless Dickensian characters in this happy/sad/shameful tale of society of the time, through the medium of a curmudgeon and four ghouls.

It also articulates the messy business of writing fiction under deadline with complicated family manoevres and unrelenting family responsibilities in the background. Featuring some totally fabulous cameo performances to look out for – including the always delightful Simon Callow as the illustrator John Leech and wonderful Miriam Margolyes as the Dickens’ chief cook and bottle-washer, Mrs Fisk – the work is entertaining and developed with a perspicuity that will keep you focused.

It takes you through the agony of Dickens’s previous critical and commercial flops – including Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes – his everpresent financial troubles and his personal history. You get to meet more than just the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future: you get a scary peek into the nature of debtors’ prison and the realities of Victorian work houses — institutions in London of the time — as well as a complex father/son pathology and an adoring grandfather with a sense of magic and a necromancer’s hat (Jonathan Pryce).

Even if you do not know the original tale, you’re taken through the rollercoaster of London in the early 1800s, and exposed to everything from maggots in biscuits to a caged crow named Grip. Christopher Plummer is completely superb in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and the popping up of fictional characters in the mind’s eye of Dickens as he unravels what turns out to be amongst the greatest stories of all times, is handled with filmic wisdom and wit.

The only palpable flaw in this work which considers Dickens as a full blown individual with flaws and passions, moods and an ability to become angry but also an ability to forgive, is the casting of the Dickens couple – Charles (played by Dan Stevens) and Kate (played by Morfydd Clark). And the problem here is that they’re just too physically perfect, which lends a tone of insufferable blandness to the lynchpin in the tale. Indeed, you keep having to remind yourself that this blue-eyed young man is actually meant to be Charles Dickens, and you come away thinking of him as a performer rather than as textured a character as the rest of the cast.

Remember, that the year is 1843. Dickens would have been 31 at the time. He died at the age of 58. By this time in his life, he’d suffered the indignities of poverty and rejection and was immensely prolific. And when you find yourself looking at this pretty young man and thinking about how blue his eyes are rather than the grit and substance of the character, something seems wrong.

Similarly, Kate. She had a total of 10 children with Dickens, and divorced him after 20 years of marriage. We meet her when she’s pregnant with number five. She looks much too young and flawless for a woman living the fairly unhappy and complicated life she had.

But the rambunctiousness of the tale allows you to forget this flaw as you recognise caveats from the original text and get taken through the ups and downs of Christmas in a time of want and need, miserliness and financial disparity. More than anything, the work under scrutiny is a slice of Victorian life and the film offers insights into all of the social and political, economic and historical interstices. It’s delicious.

  • The Man Who Invented Christmas is directed by Bharat Nalluri and is performed by Patrick Ball, Valeria Bandino, Annette Badland, Desmond Bird,  Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Jasper Hughes Cotter, Sean Duggan, Justin Edwards, Cosimo Fusco, Degnan Geraghty, Séamus Hanly, Derek Hannay, John Henshaw, Eddie Jackson, Miles Jupp, Miriam Margolyes, Kevin McCormack, Ian McNeice, David McSavage, Anna Murphy, Bill Paterson, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Mark Quigley, Ger Ryan, Mark Schrier, Cameron Simpson, Donna Marie Sludds, Ely Solan, Dan Stevens, Donald Sumpter, Ava May Taylor, Rosin Whelan and Aidan Wylde. It is written by Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Standiford. Produced by Niv Fichman, Vadim Jean, Robert Mickelson, Susan Mullen and Ian Sharples, it features creative input by Mychael Danna (music), Ben Smithard (cinematography), Stephen O’Connell and Jamie Pearson (editing), Amy Hubbard (casting), Paki Smith (production design), Julie Ochipinti (set), and Leonie Prendergast (costumes). Release date: December 15 2017.
  • There are currently three productions dealing with the Dickens classic: this film, A Seussified Christmas Carol, directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here.

Why there are stories in this world

Reimagined

VERY OCCASIONALLY, THROUGH the course of living, reading and looking, you may come across something so overwhelmingly perfect that will reaches you so directly simply you have to have it, at whatever cost. And then, having acquired this thing of great beauty, it doesn’t matter, whether you sit and ponder its treasures every day, or whether you never look at it again, but just rejoice in the fact of your ownership, because that ownership attests to the fact that something as wise and beautiful as this actually exists in the world. This is what Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal will  trigger for you.

Impeccably designed, this over 300-page foray into the life’s work of easily contemporary Jewish art’s most unexpected giant, will touch you deeply, whether you are Jewish or not, religious or not. It’s about the magic of metaphor and the cross pollination of ideas that infiltrates everything from the kind of angelology that infused the thoughts of German Jewish thinkers Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem in the pre-World War Two years, to the political value of ritual objects to the ways in which ritual values can splay into shocking and unexpected directions.

A man who can turn the eight-branched candelabrum, traditionally used by Jews in the celebration of the festival of lights, Chanukah, into a series of sinister railroad tracks; or a child’s noise-maker into a gallows, Podwal (b. 1945) is an unexpected giant because he wasn’t trained to be an artist and nor did the trajectory of his career take the expected twists and curves in this kind of road.

Podwal was educated as a physician. He is not a religious man. His unique handling of line and metaphor, with wit and intellect, mysticism and astounding simplicity begs comparison, to an extent, with the line work of American-Lithuanian artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969), the imagery of Belorus-born artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), and yet, nothing jades the scalpel like sharpness of Podwal’s reflection on everything, from the Golem of Prague to kabbalistic overtures. He makes Hebrew letters dance with a robustness that enables you to hear the jollity of hassids of yore, and an instinctive knowledge of colour and line work that takes hold of you, eyeballs first, and sucks you into the kind of mad, death-defying conflation of superstition and truth, politics and history, that make you believe you can reach the ineffable, just by looking at these drawings.

A colourist as much as a draughtsman of lines both bold and cross-hatched, historical doodles and the jigsaw puzzle of shtetl geographies, Podwal is an entity unexplored by conventional art historical scholarship. This book is a magnificent celebration of the litany of his work. [The review is premised on a pdf of the publication and for this reason does not comment on the quality of the printing or the texture of the paper]. The layout of the book is conventional and elegant. While you may not believe that an occasional use of bold blue background is a good unifying idea for pages in a tome of this nature, when Podwal’s line art is juxtaposed in this context, it glimmers with an effervescence that makes you remember why there are stories in the world.

This is not an academic tractate celebrating the art historical contribution of Podwal to visual culture. Rather, it is an event all of its own – it’s an experience which you will want to visit and revisit, haunted as you will become by a curiously witty metaphor, by that beard that has turned into a fish, by the city that sits on top of the Golem’s head, like a crown; by the cry of a woman that pours from her mouth, palpably, by the sense of surreal possibility that Podwal evokes with his lines and crayons, just as Polish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) or Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) make magic happen with their words and stories.

Along the lines of the Coen brothers’ film A Serious Man (2009), which features a mentaculus – a kabbalistically-inspired probability map of the universe – the body of Podwal’s work, from his liturgical illustrations to his tapestry designs, plays with the simple complexity that feels both obvious and so deep and rich you can lose yourself in it.  This is the kind of book that overrides ownership of a whole library of texts. It embraces the universe at its core.

  • Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal features a foreword by Elie Wiesel, a preface by Cynthia Ozick and an essay by Columbia University Professor of Jewish Studies, Elisheva Carlebach. It is published by Glitterati, London (2016).