Monday, 17 January 2011

Chaplin's 1920s Paris. . .

I watched a wonderful movie last night, A Woman of Paris, the first drama that Charlie Chaplin directed. It premiered in 1923 and apart from a brief cameo, Chaplin chose not to act in it. In the DVD extras, Chaplin's biographer David Robinson introduces the film - which, though a critical success, flopped at the box office - and I was touched to learn that when Chaplin was 86, he went back and wrote a new score for the film that he had loved so much. Edna Purviance plays Marie St-Claire, a young woman who travels to Paris alone after her fiancé Jean fails to show up at the train station. A year later, she's the mistress of Pierre, a millionaire playboy, suavely portrayed by Adolphe Menjou. When Marie unexpectedly encounters Jean, now living in Paris as a struggling artist along with his disapproving mother, she has to re-evaluate what she really wants from life: love or luxury? There are so many clever and marvellous moments in this film. It's terrific at capturing the immoral, partying decadence of Paris in the twenties, the touching and humourous relationship between Marie and Pierre, the catty female friendships (a precursor to The Women?), and the ultimate tragedy and Marie's final decision. The costumes are absolutely gorgeous and despite the melodrama, there's a warmth, wit and sophistication between the characters that makes this a completely different type of film from G.W. Pabst's 1929 Pandora's Box, for example.

The DVD set also has a great documentary about the making of the film that includes an interview with Liv Ullmann talking about the film's innovations. It also includes a much later 1957 Chaplin film, The King of New York which I think I will be watching tonight.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

On The Road - With Books. . .

What a lovely little gem of a book. A sweet and funny middle-aged romance hitched to an exuberant ode to bookselling
Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley was first published in 1917; the edition I read is part of Melville House's Classic Novellas Series and was the perfect choice for my bus rides this week. The author's bio on the jacket flap was also fascinating. This was the first of Morley's books, but he wrote over 100 of them, including Kitty Foyle. He also founded the Baker Street Irregulars literary club and edited editions of Bartlett's Familar Quotations.
Helen McGill is a 39 year old woman who has baked too many loaves of bread in her time and devoted the last fifteen years to taking care of her ungrateful brother Andrew, himself a successful author of books containing reflections on man's relationship to nature. As such he's always leaving home for long periods of time to find literary inspiration, leaving Helen to do all the work on the farm.
When the devilish Roger Mifflin shows up with his Parnassus, a type of caravan that doubles as a travelling bookshop which he is hoping to sell to Andrew, Helen decides to buy it on a whim and have a few adventures herself. The two hit the road discussing the art of bookselling, the woes of creating an "anthology" of baked goods, and generally enjoying each other's company. Until an angry and disbelieving Andrew appears, determined to put a stop to the nonsense.
The tale is told from Helen's point of view and her gumption and growing excitement over the possibilities of her new life are inspiring and infectious. And you'll smile a lot at her self-reflections and Mifflin's philosophical and literary musings. My favourite is his idea for "Chloroform Classics" - books all written by authors over the age of forty. It's very much a reminder not to be too complacent about life; it's never too late to make a change. I have the sequel - The Haunted Bookshop - on my shelves, bought at a used bookstore many years ago. I'm eager to see what these two get up to next.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A Good Take on Tey. . .

I seem to be on a bit of a mystery reading kick. Just finished Nicola Upson's An Expert in Murder which features Josephine Tey as the protagonist. I've only read one of Tey's mysteries - the wonderfully inventive The Daughter of Time - and I don't know why I've never explored more of her work as I certainly love this "golden age" of crime writing.
I enjoyed Upson's debut mystery very much, set as it is in the world of theater during the run of Tey's very successful play Richard of Bordeaux in 1934 (something else to look up and read). Tey meets a young girl and fan on the train down to London. The girl is subsequently murdered at King's Cross, just minutes after saying goodbye and the connections to the play and Tey are only heightened and complicated when a second murder occurs in the theatre itself. There's a charming, solid detective named Archie Penrose who loves Tey but is reluctant to act on it as he still feels guilt over the death of Tey's lover Jack - his best friend - during the war. The reverberations, grief and secrets of the First World War are prevalent everywhere in this intricate and entertaining mystery; all of the characters have absorbed its sadness in one way or another. It's a good companion series to the Maisie Dobbs novels of Jacqueline Winspear. Apart from an unconvincing motive on the part of one accomplice character, I thought this was a very accomplished first book and look forward to reading the next in the series - Angel With Two Faces - particularly as it's also set in the theatre world. This time it's the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, a place I'm hoping to visit during the summer. And I must read more of Tey's detective novels as well.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Sinister Simenon. . .

Georges Simenon was such a prolific writer that I've been a bit wary of reading him - could someone who regularly cranked out three to twelve books a year, really be that good?

Well, let's just say that this may be the start of a lifelong addiction.

I dove in with an Inspector Maigret mystery from 1932. Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury, was a completely enjoyable read. It's a hot summer, Madame Maigret keeps imploring her husband to join her in the country and he keeps finding excuses to miss his train. On the trail of a six year old murder, he warily starts participating in the weekend partying of a group of dissipated and dissatisfied friends. The case takes a new twist when one of them is found shot and the one discovered holding the gun makes a run for it. The plotting was solid, although I did guess the murderer, though not the motive. Nevertheless, I loved Maigret's unrushed gloominess and self-righteous cynicism:

The case didn't taste nice. A musty taste of commonplace existence, with a remote undercurrent of something a bit crooked.

Simenon's writing has often been compared to that of Patricia Highsmith or Jim Thompson - both writers that I admire - and they certainly share an ontological fascination with doubles, with characters fantasizing about becoming somebody else, and with exploring how jealousy, envy and even (perhaps especially) boredom, can break down the social and psychological barriers between ordinary and evil. It's there in Maigret and it definitely seems to be a major theme of his romans durs. I followed up the mystery with the much darker The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, translated by Marc Romano and D. Thin, and first published in 1938. This is the story of Kees Popinga, a respectable Dutch manager who learns that his boss plans to fake his suicide and escape to a new life because he's driven the company into bankruptcy. After the initial shock, Popinga decides to emulate him and also run away from his family and the inevitable stresses that losing his job and savings will entail. But first, he'll pay a visit to his boss's former mistress. Who laughs at him and pays the price with her life. The novel then moves to the streets, cafes and bars of Paris where the fugitive Popinga, while trying to avoid the police, and extricate himself from a gang of car thieves, becomes incensed with the way the newspapers are portraying him. This isn't so much a crime novel as a major identity crisis - the story of a man who relishes the freedom to become someone completely different, but who plummets into a delusional, obsessive fury when he realizes that society not only doesn't comprehend and admire who he really is - they don't even care:

He'd made only one mistake: right from the start, he should have considered the whole world his enemy. Now they didn't take him seriously. They weren't scared. It made perfect sense for them to treat him like a clown.

Luc Sante sums the novel up perfectly in his introduction to this NYRB Classics edition:

You the reader assume the fears and tribulatoins of a character you cannot possibly like. You live and die (so to speak), sweat and cringe with him. You carry a knot in your chest as he drags himself around ever bleaker and more remote corners of Paris. You become almost physically uncomfortable on his behalf, even as you are repulsed by him. And then, after you have closed the book and put it back on the shelf, you realize that all along you have been reading a comedy.

More please!