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Archive for August, 2009

Pedro Almodóvar and Penelope Cruz in London

Pedro Almodóvar and Penelope Cruz in London

Pedro Almodóvar has done a vampire story.

It’s true. It’s only a short one but it oozes style. The story crops up in his new film Broken Embraces, which was released in the UK yesterday.

Writer Harry Caine is discussing the story with his manager’s son, Diego. It’s Diego’s story but Harry is helping him develop it.

The vampires are running a blood donor centre. They invite people in to give blood, which they use for themselves. They are also running some legitimate businesses. A cosmetics business, for example. They’ve perfected a cream that you can wear to completely block out the sun. The story opens with one of the female vampires coating her naked body in the thick cream. She falls in love with a visitor to the blood donor centre. He’s not a vampire. She doesn’t want to bite him or even kiss him because she loves him so much that she doesn’t want him to turn into a vampire like her. So they don’t have sex. That’s the source of the story’s tension.

“What about a blow job?” asks Harry.

“He loves her so much that he doesn’t insist on that,” says Diego

But she gets aroused when she draws the blood from his veins. Later on, when her passion is so strong that she can no longer contain it, she wears a muzzle while they are making love.

It’s one of many stories within the story that is Pedro’s new film. Another is the love story between Pedro and Penelope Cruz. Of course it’s not sexual love. It’s soul love.

“She brings to me a great sense of security because of her blind faith in me. She trusts me so much,” he said in an interview for the BBC. “She sees me as an utter genius which is not the way I see myself at all. It’s embarrassing when I listen to her! It gives you a lot of strength having an actress who you know will do absolutely anything you ask her to do.”

Penelope has empowered Pedro to make a great film. Another great film, I should say. He is a genius. I agree with Penelope. But Penelope is great too, and never more so than here.

After I’ve calmed down I will probably go and watch this film again. I’ll get the DVD and watch it dozens of times. You can learn so much from Pedro.

The critics have called it a labyrinthine plot. It’s not. It’s a very simple plot. What’s complex is the way Pedro tells it. He brings so much passion to it. So much love. So much flair. So much craft. So much wit. So much personality.

I am a little in love with Pedro myself, as you can see. Fortunately he puts so much of himself into his films there is no need for Penelope to get jealous. There’s plenty of him to go round.

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My new home?

At least this one has an alcove

At least this one has an alcove

This week I went to see a luxury flat in the heart of London’s swanky financial centre. It has no storage space other than a single walk-in wardrobe but it’s minutes from my office and I could do a lot with the extra time, couldn’t I? It has lost over twenty-five percent of its value in the recession and is currently quite affordable. Should I pick it up cheap or hold out for somewhere with a cupboard and an alcove for a bookcase? 

As I teeter on the verge of giving away all my possessions, I am asking myself, Am I a reader or a writer? 

“You’ve read enough,” my wife keeps telling me. “You know enough. Stop reading now and just write.” 

But currently I am immersed in an involuted gothic story from the Fantasmagoriana called The Family Portraits. 

I’m reading it for the third time. The Fantasmagoriana is a self-published book, translated from the German by A.J. Day and C. Vorwerk. I bought it nearly a year ago and I’ve only just got around to reading it. I suppose if I read every story in it three times then it will turn out to be good value and I won’t regret keeping it instead of giving it away with the others. 

The Family Portraits is a very dense story and has gripped my imagination even though the plot is Byzantine, the prose is clunky and there are some annoying little typing errors here and there. If I were writing this story I would do it very differently. 

But am I a writer or a reader?

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vlad-tkachiev

Vlad Tkachiev in Cannes

I once saw a video of the great rapid chess player Vlad Tkachiev talking about his hobbies. To my surprise, he liked to relax by writing screenplays. He said writing a screenplay is a bit like playing a chess game because you’re dealing with patterns and structures. You are constantly moving scenes around in your head, visualising what would happen if you took something out here or added something else over there.

He had just watched the film Vidocq and, by coincidence, so had I, so his words really made an impact. I started to imagine Vidocq as a chess game. I even wrote a short story about Vlad and Vidocq.

A little bit crazy, perhaps, but not as crazy as Vlad, who said he imagines his daily routine as a chess game — get out of bed, pawn to e4; move to the kitchen, knight to f3; go out onto the street, bishop to c4; see a pretty girl, bishop to g5 check!

Medical experts have said that playing blindfold chess against more than three opponents simultaneously can make you insane. Vlad should know; this picture was taken when he was playing against 12 players simultaneously in Cannes. (He won 11 and drew 1.)

The interview was in English even though Vlad was born in Moscow and is a French-Russian-Kazakhstani chess player. He talks, like he plays, very fast and he’s a delight to listen to and watch.

When asked for his tips on learning languages, he said singing helps. When you sing, you remember.

I thought of Vlad while I was restructuring my novel today. I’ve taken Lanying out of it. I’ve had to rewrite dozens of scenes as she ran through the story like a thread.

The story is a lot tighter and shorter now but Lanying did wonder why I was watching TV wearing a blindfold and singing in bad Chinese with chess pieces stuck up my nose. She hates it when I even talk to myself so I think I’m lucky to have come out of this rewrite still married.

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john_miltonSince I discovered the ability to flit back through time when I was moved to ask Anthony Trollope about his prodigious prolificacy, I’ve been trying to get a second interview with him — and failing miserably. However, it occurred to me that it might be interesting in the meantime to hobnob with some other literary legend from long ago.

Someone I feel very close to is John Milton. At one time in my life I used to soothe myself to sleep reciting some of his shorter poems. Then, when I was in my twenties, I found myself working a mere stone’s throw from his home in Bunhill Row. I went back there a few days ago and rapped at his door.

A severe-looking manservant opened it. He squinted at me warily and asked me what I wanted. I said I had urgent business with the Secretary of Foreign Tongues. I was a blogger and a commentator on blogs, I said, and I’d recently had a brush with the authorities. I’d been censored and I needed some expert guidance on freedom of speech.

The manservant tried to shoo me away but, overhearing the kerfuffle at his front door, the great man loomed impressively in the hallway and asked me to state my business.

“I would very much like to hear your views on free speech,” I told him. “You’re pretty hot on the topic, I hear. Didn’t you address Parliament on it a while back?”

The Secretary of Foreign Tongues found my idioms intriguing and urged me to step inside so he could study me at leisure. He sat me in a hard chair beside the window with the light full on my face and peered at me closely. He couldn’t see very well at all, poor man. His wife sat by the hearth with an open book on her lap. It was some dreary religious stuff she’d been reading to him, purportedly written by King Charles I and which had become a bestseller after the king’s execution.

“You didn’t think much of it, I gather?” I said to Mr. Milton.

“Such prayers as these may haply catch the people,” he said, “but how they please God is much doubted.”

“Still, it sold pretty well. Let’s not turn up our noses at the forces of the free market.”

“It perhaps may gain him after death a short, contemptible, and soon fading reward.”

“Not much consolation when your head has been cut off,” I said. ” I guess you never wanted to write a bestseller, did you?”

“I do not desire to catch the worthless approbation of an inconstant, irrational, and image-doting rabble.”

“Hmm. Most of them have had a smattering of education these days. Well, being able to read is something anyway, isn’t it? When you gave that famous speech of yours in Parliament, you certainly sounded like you loved books.”

“I have a love of books and a love of truth.”

“But I guess you consider it very important to be discerning in what you read?”

“Aye. For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

“So you’re against banning books then?”

“As good almost kill a man as kill a good book. ”

“What about killing a king?”

“Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

“Wow! Strong stuff! I guess you’d also be against censorship on the internet?”

“What’s the internet?” he asked.

“It’s a bit like purgatory,” I told him. “It’s a place where you can find a lot of writers who aren’t quite good enough to be published yet. They get sucked in and stay there floundering around and lamenting loudly. There’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth and they get prodded and roasted by demons until they’re purged of all their sins.”

“I see.” He nodded vigorously. “And he who were pleasantly disposed could not well avoid to liken censorship of such writers to the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his park gate.”

I’d clearly got him onto one of his favourite subjects for he wouldn’t stop talking. No wonder he was in favour of the freedom of speech. Much of it went over my head, I’m afraid, particularly the stuff in Latin, which he spoke as fluently as English.

“You spoke with Galileo while he was under house arrest in Florence, didn’t you?” I asked him.  “His glib tongue didn’t do him any favours. But then you were never frightened to speak your mind even in Italy, if your Defensio Secunda is to be believed.”

“While I was on my way back to Rome,” he said, “some merchants informed me that the English Jesuits had formed a plot against me if I returned to Rome because I had spoken too freely on religion. I, nevertheless, returned to Rome. I took no steps to conceal either my person or my character; and for about the space of two months I again openly defended, as I had done before, the reformed religion in the very metropolis of popery.”

“You are a brave man. But not every one is as brave or as intelligent as you. What about people who publish bad poetry. Shouldn’t we try to stifle them somehow?”

“If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreation and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No music must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and Doric. There must be licensing dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth but what by their allowance shall be thought honest; for such Plato was provided of. It will ask more than the work of twenty licensers to examine all the lutes, the violins, and the guitars in every house; they must not be suffered to prattle as they do, but must be licensed what they may say. And who shall silence all the airs and madrigals that whisper softness in chambers? The windows also, and the balconies must be thought on; there are shrewd books, with dangerous frontispieces, set to sale; who shall prohibit them, shall twenty licensers? The villages also must have their visitors to inquire what lectures the bagpipe and the rebeck reads, even to the ballatry and the gamut of every municipal fiddler, for these are the countryman’s Arcadias, and his Monte Mayors.”

It was getting late so I was looking for some way of winding down our lively discussion.  His wife, I noticed, was already snoring peacefully in her easy chair. “Look at the time!” I said, catching him in a rhetorical hiatus.

“Fly, envious time!” he declared. He was clearly enjoying himself too much to stop now; he had been pacing the room energetically and now began sawing the air with his long arms. Fortunately, as I said, his eyesight was none too good and I managed to slip out unnoticed while the walls were resonating with the sonorous booming baritone in which he intoned the final line of this remarkable monologue.

“Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.”

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bad grammarIn my idle hours between being a fickle husband and a feckless father, when I’m not gardening, painting the house, writing my novel or kowtowing to angry equity traders, I like to surf the internet for entertaining blogs. I especially like writers’ blogs. You’d think writers’ blogs would provide plenty of diversion and you’d not be wrong. Some of them are hilarious and some of them are deep. Some are thrillingly lucid and some are quixotic and quaint. Not all the good ones are in my blogroll because I’m too lazy to log everything I read. But I’ve added a few that I’ve found.

The trouble with reading writers’ blogs, though, is that now and then you come across grammarians.

Now I know grammarians are necessary. I’ve even read books by some of the ones I admire. But there are plenty I don’t admire and, unfortunately, these are the ones that pop up and make comments on writers’ blogs.

Some of the writers who attract these grammarians show astonishing patience. Some even give thorough and thoughtful replies.

But this week I was getting so irritated by them that I almost popped up and started making grammatical observations of my own. Fortunately I have an iron will and was able to restrain myself before any damage was done.

Except in one case.

I was moved to comment on an obscure thread that was six months old. Six months is an eternity in the blogosphere. I should have left the thread alone. But one of the comments in it touched a raw nerve and took me back many years to the days when I used to be a professional writer. In those days I had to defend every word I wrote in interminable review meetings filled with lawyers and professional nitpickers. One memorable meeting included a recently-qualified lawyer who had a Classics degree from Aberystwyth. She pounced on a sentence that began “However, …”

“You can’t begin a sentence with However,” she said. “However is enclitic.”

I didn’t know what enclitic meant so she explained that it is a concept in Ancient Greek grammar meaning a word that leans on a preceding word.

I told her I was not writing Ancient Greek, I was writing Modern English.

She said “The concept is the same. You wouldn’t begin a sentence with And, would you?”

I told her I often begin a sentence with And.

She turned purple with apoplexy and challenged me to justify that to the review panel.

So I quoted her Blake’s poem:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

She said, “That doesn’t count, that’s a poem. That’s artistic licence.”

So I referred her to the King James Bible, which was overseen by Lancelot Andrewes, a notable Latin and Greek scholar.

Here is the beginning of Ezekiel, Chapter 5:

And thou, son of man, take thee a sharp knife, take thee a barber’s razor, and cause it to pass upon thine head and upon thy beard: then take thee balances to weigh, and divide the hair.

She said, “But that’s The Bible. That’s poetic writing.”

I said, “But is enclitic, isn’t it? And anyway, John Milton, one of the greatest of English prose writers often used to start a sentence with And.

Here is just one example from Areopagitica (1644).

And out of those ages, to whose polite wisdom and letters we owe that we are not yet Goths and Jutlanders, I could name him who from his private house wrote that discourse to the Parliament of Athens, that persuades them to change the form of democracy which was then established.

Finally she quietened down and I was able to keep my sentence as it was. There was no need to quote any of the many examples to be found in modern novels, such as Neuromancer — William Gibson sometimes begins a whole paragraph with And, which is just one of his many virtues.

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The biter bit

chistopher-lee-as-draculaI discovered while in Helsinki that Irina is writing a book.

“What kind of a book?” I asked her.

“A book about feminism.”

“Isn’t that old hat?”

“Not in Estonia.”

“So you are writing it in Estonian?”

“Yes. Why not? If it’s published I could be a celebrity.”

“What? And be on television?”

“Yes, why not.”

“Tell me more about it. What are the big ideas?”

“Actually all the ideas are taken from real women’s lives. Facebook is very good for that. I have all these conversations with women on Facebook and then afterwards I just copy and paste. Each conversation is the basis for a chapter in my book.”

“So you are stealing people’s lives?”

“Yes, that’s what writers do, isn’t it? They take people’s lives and they make a book out of them.”

“So it’s a novel, then?”

“Yes, it’s a novel.”

We talked for hours. Back in the hotel I wrote down everything she said. If you read my blog entry called A bloodless coup you would know I had reservations about that. It didn’t feel right.

But I wrote it all down anyway; it was great material.

Recently she told me she is taking another man on the same trip we went on, to all the places she loves in Estonia. I said, “This man, what’s he like?”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “He’s not my type. I don’t even like him.”

“Then why are you taking him on this trip?”

“Material for my book,” she said.

A week later I asked her, “Am I going to be in your book?”

“Yes, but I haven’t decided on a role for you yet.”

I must admit, I was a bit put out; but if she’d said no I would have been mortified.

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lady-killerLanying has lost interest in my blog.

“I don’t want to read your blog, I want to read your novel,” she told me. “How is it coming along?”

I’m behind schedule. I’m still revising Chapter 5. She’d like Chapter 5 as it’s about Ernst. I told her what happens in it and she said, “That’s very funny. You could make a TV series out of it. That would be very funny on TV.” Then she told me something new about Ernst and Greta, something I need to include. I can’t tell you what it is as it will spoil the story. It’s a surprise that comes right at the end.

I’ve had to rely on Lanying for nearly all the details about Ernst and Greta because I’ve never met them. This is good and bad. It gives me much more freedom but, on the other hand, my instincts can be thrown off by superficial facts.

Lanying likes to say that Ernst is a lady-killer. She loves that word. Probably it’s apt. He is tall, handsome, cultured and witty. He has a superb physique.

“Don’t underestimate Ernst,” she keeps telling me. “Ernst is deep. Greta is the shallow one.”

Greta is Ernst’s lover. I keep telling Lanying what I’ve done to give Greta more depth. I don’t think I’ve made things up. I’ve just revealed certain things that are under the surface in her conversations.

“Ernst is more cultivated,” Lanying told me. “He knows so many clever things.”

When she was in Munich, Lanying sent me a text from Café Mozart. She had finally arranged a meeting with Ernst. It had been touch and go all week. His movements are very unpredictable and she had been unable to get him to commit to a date. Finally she had told him, “Give me a straight answer: will you meet me or not?”

“I will but I might have to cancel at short notice,” he had said.

The next day Lanying went to his office at the appointed time and spoke to his secretary. “He’s not in yet,” she told Lanying. Ernst’s secretary only works mornings. By the time Ernst arrived, it was time for his secretary to leave.

“So you were alone with the lady-killer in his office?” I asked her.

“So! Do you want to make something of that?”

“No, no, of course not. I trust you. I trust him,” I said.

Lanying needs a lot of close friends of both genders because she is only happy when she is talking about sex. Lately she has been very happy. She has had fresh stories to share every evening for the past few weeks. But these are not about the people in my novel. “I hope you’re not going to neglect Ernst,” I told her last night.

“Oh, I can’t live without Ernst,” she said.

I never ask Lanying what she and Ernst talk about in their many emails, texts and phone calls. I wait for her to volunteer things.

But then, to be honest, there are some things I don’t want to know. I should say, like Henry James, “No, no! Not another word! I know enough!” But really there is no need. Lanying knows when to keep things to herself.

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