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King Kong

The name Peter Jackson fills my heart with dread. If I saw it in a shop I’d cross the street and buy what I wanted elsewhere. I’ve seen movies where breaking an egg to make an omelette (Big Night) has more drama than all of Jackson’s dinosaurs stampeding down a gulch. After King Kong the phrase “special effects” is meaningless: where everything is “effect” nothing is “special”. But my self-imposed word limit for trash is 100. As Stravinsky said of Fantasia (a masterpiece alongside King Kong) “Of unresisting imbecility no criticism is possible.”

Twelfth Night

Wasn’t this Illyria? Don’t they speak English there? At first the Russian dialog was puzzling, but soon it didn’t seem to matter: we all knew we were watching the performances of a decade. Malvolio’s tangled self-love and self-deception—in a creamy linen summer suit, the garters only discreetly showing—was a quiet study by Dmitri Shcherbina. Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s unmanageable bluster, explosively played by Dmitry Dyuzhev, never seemed more dangerous to himself. But the night belonged to Alexander Feklistov as Sir Toby. This was clowning as only great clowns can do it. The full comic kaleidoscope.

Presented at this year’s Sydney Festival, all delicacy, lightness, and high style, the production allowed three-dimensional characters to come alive, a fresh and attractive feature in a play often insufferably buffooned. Mr Declan Donnellan had his name plastered all over the place, but we know whose theatrical gifts really made it a success: first of all the gifted Russian players; then whoever made the adaptation; then Shakespeare himself.


There are novels you wish you had written. Pure wishful thinking of course, but even non-fiction people like myself can feel when reading William Trevor that, well, perhaps… with a bit of luck and encouragement I could have done that. Anyway a page or two… or a sentence. I almost felt like that reading Tobias Wolff’s Old School, a gift at Christmas. And then there are novels you know you couldn’t write in your wildest dreams—couldn’t even think of writing, for the entire performance lies right outside the dim imaginative domain of one’s own experience and will forever.

One such book is Ian McEwan’s Saturday, 24 hours in the life of a London neurosurgeon and a tour de force by any standards. However, some controversy surrounds the novel, as indicated by the notice by Craig Raine that appeared in the TLS “Books of the Year” for December 2nd 2005. Since Raine’s comments throw light on both the book and its critics they may be worth quoting in full:

“Ian McEwan’s Saturday (Cape) should have won this year’s Booker Prize. It was harmed by two things – envy and envy. After the novel’s catastrophic Royal Flush of laudatory reviews, John Banville’s notice in the New York Review of Books spoke to, and for, every disconcerted rival pained by mention of the Nobel Prize.

“It was an extra irony that Banville’s novel should carry off the discredited prize. McEwan’s novel isn’t perfect, but it has bravura evocations (perhaps a couple too many) of surgical operations that are unrivalled in fiction. The happy family of the surgeon is a little too implausibly gifted, but the meticulous formal organization of the novel around the theme of brain damage is elegant and Euclidean.

“Banville’s damaging review was a coarse caricature that couldn’t even get the result of the squash game right. It centred on two ‘implausibilities’: first, the idea that a husband might kiss his wife on waking in the morning, regardless of ‘morning breath’. Mightn’t love outweigh squeamishness? Ignore it, even? I daresay Banville’s morning breath is a thing of legend – capable of bringing up bubbles on varnish.

“The other summary criticism can be summarized as a joke: why bother with a burglar alarm when you can screw a copy of Matthew Arnold’s Poems to the side of your house as a prophylactic against psychopathology?

“Readers will remember that the murderously violent Baxter is deflected by a recitation of ‘Dover Beach’. This is neither a surprise nor a contrivance to the careful reader: Baxter experiences violent mood swings because he suffers from Huntington’s Disease. Arnold’s poem occasions one of them – an unpredictability that is predictable enough.”

Virtuosity is an unqualified merit in music and in dance. And as a critical term of approval that’s where it most naturally belongs. The more virtuoso the performance the more breathtaking, whether in ballet or playing a violin. In neither can there be virtuosity to excess—and the more risky the successful performance the more an audience cheers.

But Raine’s mention of “bravura excess” in Saturday reminds one of the ambiguousness of virtuosity in the world of words. The novelist’s main task is to create believable characters and tell a believable tale. Words are the means: they cannot be an end in themselves. When you feel—as you do sometimes in Saturday—that the writing is showy and the vocabulary provocatively esoteric, attention drifts from the central issues, the characters and the story fade, and you become more aware of words and sentences than you should be. [Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’ is reprinted at the end of McEwan’s novel and has a place in the plot. That it was used here a month ago is an odd coincidence.]


He takes his keys and phone and garage remote from a silver dish by the recipe books. His wallet is in an overcoat hanging in a room behind the kitchen, outside the wine vaults. His squash racket is upstairs on the ground floor, in a cupboard in the laundry. He puts on an old hiking fleece, and is about to set the burglar alarm when he remembers Theo inside. As he steps outside and turns from closing the door, he hears the squeal of seagulls come inland for the city’s pickings. The sun is low and only one half of the square—his half—is in full sunlight. He walks away from the square along blinding moist pavement, surprised by the freshness of the day. The air tastes almost clean. He has an impression of striding along a natural surface, along some coastal wilderness, on a smooth slab of basalt causeway he vaguely recalls from a childhood holiday. It must be the cry of the gulls bringing it back. He can remember the taste of spray off a turbulent blue-green sea, and as he reaches Warren Street he reminds himself that he mustn’t forget the fishmonger’s. Lifted by the coffee, and by movement at last, as well as the prospect of the game and the comfortable fit of the sheathed racket in his hand, he increases his pace.

Robert Lepage

Sydney has hundreds of miles of sunny beaches. Montreal has a choked and muddy river. Sydney has weather to die for, while most seasons most of the year Montreal is where you’d least like to be. Sydney’s Opera House is one of the wonders of the world. Montreal has… what? A mouldering 30-year-old Olympic complex that has yet to be paid for. Australia has so many advantages over Canada the comparison is downright absurd—so how come we have Edna Everedge when Canada has Robert Lepage?

Posted in Arts and Letters, Theatre, Notes.

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