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Contributor’s Picks – June/July 2018

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Introducing Contributor’s Picks! Recommendations for the very best in arts, culture and literature from the writers for The London Magazine June/July 2018 issue. Read their writing in our latest issue, available now

Nicholas Summerfield (Essay: On the Road)
Thinks – David Lodge

This is a light-hearted comedy and, at the same time, a consideration of human consciousness itself.  An overlooked gem.

 

Maggie Butt (Poetry: Cycling the Appian Way)
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

 

The most extraordinary, original, memorable piece of fiction I’ve read for many years. I have a serious case of writer-envy.

 

Andrew Lambirth (Review: Public & Commercial: Degas and Patterns of Exhibiting)
Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman – Garden Museum – Until July 22nd

Timely reappraisal of the painter and gardener who ran a private art school in Suffolk and taught Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling, among many others. He’s clearly a forerunner of the School of London, and his beautiful flower paintings look as fresh and beguiling today as when they were painted 80 or 90 years ago.

 

Sharon Black (Poetry: Lucky Penny)
Paterson (2016)

 

A meditative, poetic journey through the streets of New Jersey via a bus driver and William Carlos Williams – I loved this film for its quiet quirkiness and its tentative stepping-into the centre of things.

 

Roisin Tierney (Poetry – Fiesta and Mock Orange)
The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in WWII – Svetlana Alexivich

I was really taken by The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, in which the author interviews Soviet women -captains, tank drivers, snipers, pilots, nurses and doctors – who fought in the second world war.  It is a pitiless read, yet unputdownable and very illuminating. 

 

William Bedford (Fiction: Flying Lessons)
Vivre Sa Vie/My Life to Live 

 

A New Wave masterpiece, as powerful and true today as when I first saw it in 1963.

 

Emily Priest (Essay: Akihabara)
How to Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran 

In the age of #MeToo this book is more relevant than ever. With a sharp wit and laugh-out-loud anecdotes, Moran makes feminist ideology accessible and relatable and makes every female reader cry with laughter. It’s the book I needed whilst growing up!

 

Jeffrey Meyers (Essay: Conrad’s Judgement: Stevenson
vs. Stevie Crane)
Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva – Rosemary Sullivan 

A fascinating account of a disastrous inheritance.

 

Michael Spinks (Poetry: The Question & Silver Birches)
Vilette – Charlotte Bronte and The Royal Wedding (19th May 2018)

A book that haunts me with its beauty and daring, its contrived secrecy and its surgically open-hearted confession, Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, Villette, surely stands on the stocks as possibly the greatest novel written in English. She plays with our sensibilities just as she plays with her own beating heart, and what a dreadful, courageous ending.

 

My second recommendation is The Royal Wedding. People drawn to the intellectual are not supposed to enjoy spectacles like the royal wedding, but the theatre created was both intimate and spectacular. The drama was centred on Harry and Megan but the cast was huge and odd and the charged narrative changed with every minute, and one had glimpses of all sorts of relationships and unexpected contacts. Reading faces and movements was fascinating. And Bishop Michael delighted with bubbling enthusiasm for the occasion, for the two central characters, and for the great source of love, God himself, also present. ‘How important is love?’ he asked. ‘Two people fall in love, and we all turn up.’

 

Peter Robinson (Fiction: A Seaside Funeral)
Girlfriends, Ghosts, And Other Stories – Robert Walser 

 

 

After a visit to Bern in April, I have returned to reading Robert Walsen, and have been enjoying this collection translated by Tom Whalen, Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner.

 

Ian Stone (Essay: The Commune of the City)
Edward the Elder and the Making of England – Harriet Harvey Wood 

 

 

Harriet Harvey Wood’s biography is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the monarchy and the period – and legacy – of Alfred the Great. The author writes with erudition and engagement. A thoroughly rewarding read.

 

Peter Slater (My London)
Us – Zaffar Kunail

Image taken from LondonReviewBookshop

 

I am looking forward to this debut volume out in July. It includes ‘Fielder’, an uncannily evocative poem, which captures the profound significance found in what might have been a small, unremarkable moment.

 

Ella Windsor (Essay: Mexican Treasure)
Testimony – Robbie Robertson 

The compelling story of the front man of The Band, told from his own poignant perspective.

 

Read our contributor’s writing in our June/July 2018 issue: order now!

The Lobster

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If you were to be turned into an animal what animal would you choose? This question remains at the forefront of Yorgos Lanthimos’s first English-language feature The Lobster, where his protagonist David, the bumbling hairy-lipped Colin Farrell, decides he’d like to be turned into just that, a lobster. The premise of Lanthimos’s world is, like his previously acclaimed feature Dogtooth (2009), suitably surreal; singletons have forty-five days in order to find a mate, if they fail they are turned into animals. Co-written with his long-time collaborator Efthymis Filippou the echoes of the past are clear.

This is a world in which we are reminded again and again that there are ‘no half sizes’. A world run by strict regulations, no one measures by halves – there can be no deviations. You are or are not a size, just as you are or are not a human, you are or are not a couple. Identities in The Lobster are defined through the ability to conform and ‘match’ oneself to another, or at least the ability to pretend.

Here a man must fake a lack of heart, a perchance for nose-bleeds, a love of something other than what he is in order to survive. Men must adopt a disguise in order to ‘fit’ with a potential mate. Yet what Lanthimos astutely shows us is that this form of adaptational love rarely leads to happiness, that through compromising our identities, the strange oddities that make us who we are, we risk losing ourselves, a price hardly worth the sanctuary of a human shell. As an animal you will still be able to think, you will still be able to eat, you will still be able to have sex, you won’t – in the words of Olivia Colman’s exquisitely deadpan Hotel Manager – be able to appreciate a good work of literature. It’s an amusing premise, but one that casts a serious shadow. What are the distinctions that separate us from our animal selves? For Lanthimos it appears the differences are few and far between.

In this way The Lobster ultimately brings into question the ludicrous nature of human emotions, our wilful and spontaneous desires, along with the illogical and often bizarre means by which we attempt to connect. How do our lives intertwine with those around us? How do we form relationships? How do we fall in love? The dystopian ‘hotel’, where the majority of the film takes place, is the site that sees singletons through the process of finding a match. If they fail they are taken to the ominous ‘transformation room’ and emerge recast according to their aforementioned bestial preference.

The entire set up feels like some horrific dating night or spa retreat gone wrong (comparisons to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror often come to mind). When they enter contestants are stripped and made to dress in the same clothes; individuality – the trait you would think would be essential for potential match making – is eradicated. Participants then endure bizarre seminars in which re-enactments of scenes from ‘life’ dictate the importance of the binary pairing of man and woman (interestingly the question of homosexuality barely raises its head in the film). The strange conference setting, complete with a podium and loudspeaker, only adds to the horrific humour of the whole situation. Ballroom dances and breakfast dates are interspersed with the brutality of human ‘hunts’ performed with ritual regularity day in and day out. One of the most enjoyably surreal shots of the film sees the hotel guests leaping through the forest in slow motion to a classical soundtrack, the writhing of their victims and the animal behaviour on both sides magnified to an eerie dance, the madness made almost mundane.

Struggling within the system David breaks away, finding solace in the hunted rather than the hunters. Fleeing to the woods – itself an act of magnificent symbolism – he joins a group of stray loners. Loneliness is marked as something that lasts; unlike the restrictions of singleness in a coupled word, here in the woods ‘there is no time limit’, a stable security in a world ridden with sudden and abrupt alterations. However, led by the wonderfully stony Lea Seydoux, this new environment of supposed ‘freedom’ proves equally austere, with the regimented rules of the hotel staff replicated in the undergrowth of the woodland grounds. Despite its continued comedy the film is grounded in the tragic inability of real relationships to grow either inside or outside the walls of the hotel. Instead we are merely shown new problems, which fester a different kind of social unease. Those who break the rules may not be turned into animals, but they are similarly branded. Betrayers who seek to form deeper more complex relationships with their companions are transformed through grotesque punishments with comparable dehumanising qualities, a sinister ‘red kiss’ (a warped Glasgow smile), ensures no kissing, no connection, perfect silent isolation.

Love inevitably intervenes – Rachel Weisz’s voiceover attesting to this may be the single most annoying fault in the film – but Lanthimos’s deadpan examination of how relationships are built is surprisingly tender. Yet with this tenderness it seems the director sacrifices something. We lose a little of that rare tone of veracity Dogtooth struck: when previously we were made to watch a girl hack at her own body, in The Lobster the eye of the camera is shyer, more elusive, and – in the final moments –potentially more brutal.

By Thea Hawlin

Macbeth

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Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. Credit: Studio Canal

Scotland herself is the main character in this blood-soaked reimagining of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. So enamoured is director Justin Kurzel of his Highland landscape that it becomes his focal point: a gaping maw of brutal heights and contours before the poor players. This is a cold pagan place, where the respite from war and rain is never very long.

From the opening scene– a child’s funeral –we discover a country of hope murdered in its infancy. Power is wielded by a clutch of men, whose in-fighting has led to continuous conflict for Scotland’s people. Michael Fassbender’s eponymous hero is gladiatorial: a fiercely rugged and committed Thane (of Glamis, Cawdor etc.) whose noble spirit turns sickly with untamed ambition. This is very much a Macbeth about men-at-war, a reading that Kurzel follows through effectively, albeit at the cost of some of the play’s best and strangest elements.

The ‘weird sisters’ are not so very weird at all. They appear on the fringes of the battlefield as wandering mothers, accompanied by their children and whispering prophecies that always sound closer to prayers than incantations. Indeed, the famous coven scene with its fabulous potion-brewing is sliced from the text; instead, Macbeth wanders through a field of ghostly soldiers, whose deaths haunt him throughout the film.

Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender as the Macbeths. Credit: Studio Canal
Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender as the Macbeths. Credit: Studio Canal

The substitution of the witch for the apparition is a crucial one. Shakespeare’s supernatural solicitings get short shrift here, and this is nowhere more evident than in the characterisation of Lady Macbeth. It ought to be one of the very best roles in the entire canon, and the ever-impressive Marion Cotillard does what she can within the confines of the direction. But this is a wraithlike portrait of a grieving mother, not a guilt-ridden murderess, for whom the ‘damned spot’ is an infant’s smallpox rather than a bloodstain. The raven himself is silent as Kurzel foolishly crops her stunning first soliloquy, a move symptomatic of the broader effacement women suffer in this film.

Visually, however, Macbeth is magnificent. The country’s storm-tormented glens and verges are a topology of the play’s bitter and hallucinatory psychology, forming an apt counterpoint to Macbeth’s frenzied decline. Fury builds through the slow-motion scenes of slaughter, and an attention to the rituals of war: the application of paint, and the assembling of weapons. In his soldierly interpretation, Fassbender is an outstanding Macbeth. His readings are underplayed and natural, yet full of ire beneath a hardened countenance. The final scenes of grief-stricken madness are particularly powerful, as he prepares to fight again with the ashes of a fiery Dunsinane blowing through the battlements.

As a war film, and a study of men and power, Kurzel’s adaptation is both well-acted and engrossing. But so much of the original play is framed by the plotting and prophesying of women, and the supernatural summons Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth whispers in her bedroom ought really to be cackled from the ramparts.

By Megan Girdwood

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