Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Art of Forgetting

Memory and the art of remembering is something that writers and philosophers choose to dwell on at great length - perhaps because in so many cases the creative process itself is a means of commemorating a past, and the act of creating a story is often the path to remembering something. Over the past two hundred years, authors ranging such as Kafka, Kundera, Borges and Murakami have spent a great deal of intellectual horsepower on what it means to remember, and what it means to forget.

Following this noble and illustrious line of storytelling is The Amnesiac, by Sam Taylor. The narrative opens in Amsterdam, where the protagonist, James Purdew, is recovering from a broken ankle. Living an apparently satisfactory life (he has a stable job, a loving girlfriend, an apartment in the heart of Amsterdam) his veneer of contentment is perpetually ruffled at the edges by premonitions of his past, and the fact that he has no memory of approximately three years of his life. What happened to him when he was a university student in the English town of H.? Why is he haunted by the strains of a tune that he cannot remember more than two lines of? And above all things, who is Anna?

Ankle healed, relationship with Dutch girlfriend Ingrid terminated, James returns to H. (why can’t we call it Hull and be done with?) to try to find out more about his past, and to (both figuratively and literally) find a key to unlock his past – because of all the diaries he’s ever kept throughout his life, the ones pertaining to the three years he cannot remember are in a locked black box, and he cannot find (or even remember) where the key is. From here on the novel begins its tortured tour through the past of a life that is at once fascinating and also equally dull and pointless. For Purdew’s life is very bourgeois, with all the trappings of a traditional English childhood in the seventies and eighties – the bad hairstyles, the quaint television shows on the BBC, the agony and the ecstasy of first love, sex and death. Add to this mix an ongoing renovation project that Purdew takes on (how could a novel so thoroughly English leave out the persistent English obsession with home equity?) and you have a classically English novel for our times. Through all these events, clues towards unlocking the past slowly accumulate; references (almost tongue in cheek) zip past as we hurtle along the narrative as the author throws in clues to the denouement.

Taylor does well in creating a haunting reality, almost Camus-like in his emphasis on duality; his one passage on how hope and fear, light and dark, are potentially merely two sides of the same emotion is very reminiscent of The Absurd. Taylor veers between different times and narratives, choosing to work in several voices (the hidden observer, the narrator, the first person) to move the story forward. Over the course of nearly four hundred pages, Taylor moves (sometimes smoothly, other times not) between genres, going from nihilistic twentieth century self-reflexive novel to Robin Cook-like medical thriller involving large sterile corridors and doctors with mind-altering chemicals speaking in hushed tones through to nineteenth century Victorian murder mystery, tracing its path through the narrow side alleys behind Waterloo.

But alas, that is where the good times end. The extended references to Borges are cute to start with but soon belabour the point, and there are sections where he insists on discussing philosophy that could have been handled with more subtlety; either readers will already know about solipsism, or they will have the good grace to find out; you don’t need to explain it a la Philosophy for Dummies. And perhaps most disappointingly, after all the build-up, the denouement is completely unsatisfactory; loose ends come together a little too neatly, the whodunit solved cleanly, all the pieces falling into place too well, but the overall conclusion is like the English football team (who also make an appearance, albeit tangentially, alongside Doctor Who) – just not good enough. And if you rely on Borges’ trick of nothing being as it seems, surely there was some way to keep the ending as engaging as Borges?

Despite its flaws, The Amnesiac is an engaging read; Taylor writes cleanly, albeit a little too consciously and cerebrally, and his prose is crisp and engaging. One has to acknowledge that despite the shortcomings, The Amnesiac is better than a lot of what passes as literary fiction these days, and Taylor knows how to dot his literary i’s and cross his cultural t’s; he just needs to do it with a little more aplomb. Maybe he'll remember that for next time?

(The Amnesiac is published by Faber in the UK and Penguin the US)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Les Chansons d'Amour

Over the weekend I had a classic "crazy" moment and ended up renting about a hundred different movies (okay, not a hundred, but more like seven). I then proceeded to spend hours watching them, even after squeezing in a night of crazy clubbing on Saturday, and reached Sunday evening in a state of bliss. Don't you love insane weekends like that?

One of the movies I rented (alongside more staple Hollywood fare like Be Kind, Rewind)is a French production from last year titled Les Chansons d'Amour (or literally, Love Songs). Directed by Christophe Honoré, who is reputed to be one of the great new hopes for French cinema, and with music by Alex Beaupain, this movie is a new all-time favourite. With fantastic cinematography, crisp dialogue and also incredible mind-blowing music, its something I've already ordered on Amazon, and have also bought the soundtrack on iTunes - in fact, I'm listening to "J'ai cru entendre" right now.

So I'll leave you with the lyrics to a beautiful song As-tu déjà aimé....

As-tu déjà aimé
Pour la beauté du geste?
As-tu déjà croqué
La pomme à pleine dent?
Pour la saveur du fruit
Sa douceur et son zeste
T'es tu perdu souvent?

Oui j'ai déjà aimé
Pour la beauté du geste
Mais la pomme était dure.
Je m'y suis cassé les dents.
Ces passions immatures,
Ces amours indigestes
M'ont écoeuré souvent.

Les amours qui durent
Font des amants exsangues,
Et leurs baisers trop mûrs
Nous pourrissent la langue.

Les amour passagères
Ont des futiles fièvres,
Et leur baiser trop verts
Nous écorchent les lèvres.

Car a vouloir s'aimer
Pour la beauté du geste,
Le ver dans la pomme
Nous glisse entre les dents.
Il nous ronge le coeur,
Le cerveau et le reste,
Nous vide lentement.

Mais lorsqu'on ose s'aimer
Pour la beauté du geste,
Ce ver dans la pomme
Qui glisse entre les dents,
Nous embaume le coeur,
Le cerveau et nous laisse
Son parfum au dedans.

Les amours passagères
Font de futils efforts.
Leurs caresses ephémères
Nous faitguent le corps.

Les amours qui durent
Font les amants moins beaux.
Leurs caresses, à l'usure,
Ont raison de nos peaux.

(Music - and lyrics? - by Alex Beaupain)