Dubliners – James Joyce

James Joyce is named, by some, as one of the greatest writers who has ever lived. Whilst I did not unhesitatingly accept these suggestions I did approach Dubliners with some trepidation and high expectations. However, within the first couple of pages these feelings were allayed and I experienced genuine enjoyment as I read. The book has remained just as approachable as it would have been when it was published in 1914. The covers of each edition might change but they remain focused on the human aspect which is at the heart of Dubliners, as is apparent from the title itself.

The book consists of a collection of short stories which focuses on experiences of both a particularly Irish concern as well as universal human problems. Mrs Kearney in ‘A Mother’ tries her hardest to do the best for her daughter by creating a position of prominence for her in the Irish Nationalism movement. While this might not be every mother’s desire it is clear that she is motivated by her pride and belief in her daughter above all else. However, attempts to break down the stories and describe character motivations and plots misses the point of Dubliners. The plots might occur everyday but the stories are far more ethereal.

There is definitely a feeling of some sort of culmination as the collection ends with its longest short story – ‘The Dead’. Joyce uses this length to expand on details which allow the scene to become inescapably clear and for each character’s foibles to be sympathetically but carefully emphasised. Gabriel Conroy, the main character, has his thoughts carefully detailed by Joyce and this leads us to greater knowledge of Conroy and his surroundings, both material and human. It is this precision that hooks the reader although they remain unsure as to what the significance of certain events might be. If everything in our own lives was observed so minutely I expect that people would quickly experience revelations similar to that of Gabriel Conroy.

Although I would recommend Dubliners this is not a book that will cheer you up and this atmosphere is unlikely to change even if you read it by an open fire. Nevertheless, as I read it I did feel like I was reading some of the best examples of the short story genre and I am even tempted to begin further adventures into Joyce!

Babette’s Feast (1987)

I must admit that I had high hopes when the opening scenes of Babette’s Feast began as one of my favourite films and books ( Out of Africa ) is based on the life of Isak Dinesen, the author of the short story on which the film is based. Dinesen, who wrote under the pen name Karen Blixen, lived an unconventional life which included both the plains of Africa and the colder shores of Denmark. However, while watching Babette’s Feast I was struck by how quickly the rhythm of the community was evident, just as it is soon clear in her tales of African life. While this clarity is partly due to Gabriel Axel’s direction it also demonstrates that Dinesen understood that inherently communities share a common humanity wherever they are based.

The film revolves around two elderly sisters and their French maid Babette in a remote town in Jutland, Denmark. All three women are loved throughout the village due to their devotion to the poor and community spirit. However, Babette has not always lived in this small village and the film returns to past events to explain her presence. The two sisters had both been very beautiful in their youth but their father, a preacher, encouraged them to remain above worldly desires and passions. One sister watches as a shy military suitor gives up hope while another gives up her beloved singing lessons to dissuade her teacher from falling in love with her. This asceticism leaves the sisters elderly and alone when Babette arrives at their door and begs them to take her in, having been sent by the spurned music teacher.

Babette is alone and has lost everything due to the French Revolution. After several years of looking after the sisters in Jutland she discovers that she has won the lottery, her only remaining link with France, and is now very rich. She decides to make a real French dinner for the sisters and their friends to thank them for their kindness. The sisters agree and suddenly watch on as their humble kitchen becomes host to exotic ingredients and exquisite china. However, what the viewer finds enchanting and exciting the sisters find terrifying as they increasingly imagine Babette to be cooking temptation itself for them to eat. The guests agreed that although they must eat the food which Babette has made they will refrain from discussing it so that they can demonstrate they remain above worldly delights.

The final scenes around the dinner table focus on each guest’s face as they attempt to not register a single moment of enjoyment. However, not only do faultless dishes keep arriving from the kitchen but Babette ensures that every wine glass remains full. Eventually it becomes clear that despite their best efforts the guests do not remain immune to the effects of Babette’s feast. The dimly lit scenes encourage an intimacy with the group and demonstrate that Babette is not only providing them with a meal but an unrepeatable experience. Although the food is shown, as each course appears including caviar, turtle soup and duck pastries, this is second to the social interaction which takes place – the dinner table makes the guests equal, even with the decorated military general, and differences are forced aside.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this film, in part because I have discovered that it is Pope Francis’ favourite film. I expect that he appreciated the calm meditation on artistic riches set against the Danish coastline as much as I did. It is a film which I have thought about often since watching it and I intend to watch again. However, I would also recommend any of Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen) work as it is the slightly ethereal nature of the plot which provides such a simple film with such a fascinating effect.

Constable: The Making of a Master

Through out the V&A’s most recent exhibition on John Constable the artist’s attention to detail is apparent. His progress is charted from initial copied etching to the large projects which required confidence and careful skill. Although he is famed for his paintings of ethereal clouds I was also impressed by overall feeling of movement present through out his paintings.

Constable painted the scenes which surrounded him. His paintings capture both scenes which appear to only exist in that moment and views which will remain eternal. I went to the exhibition with a friend who knows the areas of Suffolk and Essex which Constable lived in well. She could recognise bends in a river of his landscapes and church steeples which poked through trees. This familiarity allowed the views to seem fresh even when they included hay wains and working mills.

There were several instances where multiple versions of a painting were exhibited side by side. This was fascinating as it uncovered the development of Constable’s vision for each creation. The Hay Wain slowly included a playful dog, a boy drinking from the river in a red waistcoat and a rainbow as Constable neatened up the picture and assessed what was still visually needed. The addition of the dash of red balances the picture and draws the viewer to the boy’s playful face. In another picture a white horse which is introduced into a stormy landscape provides a contrast to the dark clouds overhead.

At times the exhibition felt repetitive as it hung such similar paintings side by side. This feeling was particularly strong during the rooms which included comparisons of etchings and Constable’s attempts to copy them. Sadly, the main difference at this point which could be noticed were to Constable’s detriment as he is still learning his strengths and the techniques necessary.
However, my frustration with the repetition of images was softened at the end of the exhibition when three paintings of similar tree trunks were hung side by side. One was an original image by a Dutch master which had inspired Constable’s own work. This painting in turn led Lucien Freud’s study on a tree trunk, entitled ‘After Constable’s Elm’, which was the third painting hanging. This thread drawing together centuries of artists through such a simple theme demonstrated that sometimes imitation can be more than just the height of flattery.

With such variety provided by paintings of ominous dark clouds, cheerful rustic scenes and vibrant city scenes I very much enjoyed this exhibition, although I feel as if I learnt more about the process of training to be an artist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than about Constable himself. However, I am now planning to see the exhibition on his rival Turner at the Tate!

The exhibition continues until 11 January 2015.

Double Indemnity (1944)

I read Double Indemnity by James M. Cain last summer and ever since then I have been planning to watch the film. The book creates a heavy atmosphere which involves the reader without mercy in a dark and cynical world. When Billy Wilder directed Double Indemnity in 1944 he visually recreated this atmosphere through meticulous attention to both the lighting and the set presentation. He would ‘dirty’ up sets just before filming would begin in order to present a slightly sordid image of the characters’ lifestyle – ashtrays would be overflowing and dust would be visible in the air. Due to the nature of black and white filming the lighting of a set becomes even more overt as contrasts are emphasised. Characters stand with bars of light thrown across their faces by blinds and hide away from the California sunshine in dimly lit rooms as they plot their selfish actions.

The plot follows an insurance salesman, Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray as he falls for the original femme fatale played by Barbara Stanwyck. Without much hesitation Neff promises to kill Phyllis’ husband and ensure that they get a ‘double indemnity’ payout from the insurance company he works for through this death. However, they need to make sure that every alibi is irreproachable, every circumstance planned for and that no one is able to link them together. They are forced to meet in supermarkets, as if by chance, and plan in the open.This creates a web of carefully organised events which the audience waits in suspense to fall apart. However, due to their forethought this is not an inevitable occurrence but only a possibility in the presence of laxity.

Nevertheless, it is Walter Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes played by Edward G. Robinson, who is unable to accept a narrative of accidents surrounding Phyllis. Through working at the insurance company for so many years he is able to sense a false calm even without explaining how or why. This ensures that Walter is forced to look on while his boss searches for evidence of the murder he committed even as he is trying to stay a step ahead. Billy Wilder had originally filmed a different ending for the plot but realised that this relationship between Neff and Keyes was central to the film and could be developed in more subtle and interesting ways.

Although Double Indemnity was advertised as a story of love as well as murder it noticeably also details how quickly love can turn to hate or be misunderstood. Walter and Phyllis might be the dysfunctional couple at the centre of the plot but Phyllis’ step daughter also has trouble with a jealous boyfriend and Keyes is constantly aware of the huge numbers of spouses who cheat their partners. Double Indemnity was at the beginning of the noir tradition and it set the bar high. I would definitely recommend watching it straight away, although not if you’ve recently signed up for life insurance!