Friday, 23 July 2010

The Talented Ms Highsmith

I often say sometimes I love a song so much it's probably illegal, and very often I love a book so much it makes my heart want to crumple into pieces so devastatingly, I feel I might cease to be.

Of course the melodramatic in me often gets carried away, but the overall sentiment is true. The Talented Mr Ripley is such a book that has that kind of beautiful effect of satisfaction, a bit like wolfing down a chocolate bar when you have not eaten all day; a delight and warming satisfaction rolled into one.

Written by Patricia Highsmith in 1955, The Talented Mr Ripley was the first Highsmith novel to feature Tom Ripley, a troubled protagonist Highsmith would go on to write five novels about. A psychological crime thriller, Highsmith writes the book from the perspective of Ripley, a struggling sociopath; a New York misfit small-time con-man, whom aspires to so much more than his dreary existence. From the dirty, mundane streets of New York city, Highsmith takes the reader to the sleepy beauty of coastal Italy, and the sophistication of the wealthy, the beautiful; thrown amongst a backdrop of crime.

What makes this book so effective is Highsmith's almost simplistic style, which flows easily and engages you. Yet there is an underlying level, a complex psychological undertone in the narrative that draws the reader into engaging with, essentially, a very sinister and disturbed mind.

As every thriller novel should be, it is moreish. But this is also due to the affinity Highsmith achieves between the reader and the protagonist. And this is what is so wonderfully unsettling in itself. The acknowledgement that you almost accept Ripley's utterly amoral actions, even though you also know they are very wrong indeed. You begin to fear for Ripley, fear for him getting caught, wanting him to succeed in his plans. Highsmith makes you fall in love with the lifestyle of the beautiful in the Mediterranean almost as much as Ripley himself. This is partly why you can almost empathise with Ripley's behaviours. It is this complex sensation of the human psyche that makes the book so deliciously remarkable.
This draws strong parallels to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho which often leads the audience into ambiguous feelings towards Norman Bates (interestingly enough, Highsmith's work often reads like a Hitchcock film, with similar themes and suspense. Her excellent novel Strangers on a Train was made into a successful Hitchcock film).

Written at a time before criminologists and Cracker-style TV shows that endlessly bombard us with glossy crime dramas of elaborate psychopaths, Highsmith draws attention to the idea of what a criminal thinks, how a criminal behaves. Just like Norman Bates, Ripley is and can be, charming, likeable, seemingly normal. Unlike classic melodramatic evil villains in books and film, Ripley is subtle, unassuming, sensitive, intelligent. He enjoys art and high culture. The book challenges the too often screaming tabloid headline notion of criminals only being 'monster uncultured lowlifes'.

The book also deals with strong themes of identity, questioning the idea of who we are, what makes what we are. Ripley is a fantastic mimic, assuming new idenities with ease, acting out roles. It not only highlights how we act out different roles ourselves throughout life, but also the interesting paradox of what the self actually is to what we appear to be.

Highsmith may not be a particularly fashionable writer now, and seems to be too often underrated or forgotten about. A troubled personality herself, her own life was filled with personal turmoil. She had a difficult relationship with her mother, and as an adult became an alcoholic. She often suffered from depression, and Highsmith found it difficult to have relationships with either sex. Acquaintances often called her 'cruel' and 'difficult'. Her behaviour was often erratic and reclusive. Yet she did also have a dry sense of humour. This dark humour can often be seen in her writing.
She was, arguably, one of the finest modern crime thriller writers, paving the way for characters such as Hannibal Lecter and various psychopathic literature since. She writes with such matter-of-fact-ease, and yet deals with such intrinsically convoluted psychological issues. It is this skill of making such sagacious insights on such a difficult subject accessible, which makes Highsmith's work so remarkable.

Reading The Talented Mr Ripley is very much like indulging in delicious chocolate. It is wonderfully enjoyable, supremely satisfying, and yet, also, you have the guilty feeling. The guilt that we humans are all, like Ripley, flawed, and it questions our own capacity to be just that little bit wicked.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Betjeman Beats

Music and poetry is a potent combination. Like music and images, they are entangled together in forms of exuberant brain-pleasuring or indeed heart-wrenching experiences that seem to make life just that little bit more purposeful.

When I was growing up, my parents used to play us a vinyl 45 of this elderly gentleman reciting his poetry to music; crackling clicks of the record against the slightly eccentric English whimsical tones, set against clarinets and bands that sounded like something out of Wind of the Willows. There was a resonance with The Beatles' Yellow Submarine-type of pieces. Whatever the comparisons, it was bizarre. Utterly strange. And yet also rather alluring and admittedly, catchy.

The 45 my parents enjoyed playing us so much was the single release of "A Shropshire Lad", by John Betjeman. Already a fan of his poetry, this particular poem (and single) was all about the place where my mother grew up, somewhere that rarely got any kind of limelight. For my mother, it was like Justin Bieber singing about his greatest fan's home street in the middle of nowhere.

In 1974 the poet laureate Betjeman released an album of his poems accompanied by music called Banana Blush. The well-loved poet of a specific English quaintness; his poems are humorous, touching. They are reflections of a by-gone age. When reading Betjeman's work or indeed, listening to him perform them, it seems almost incredible to ever connect Betjeman with, essentially, a form of rap music.
And yet, it very much works, if not for everyone's taste.

The idea behind Banana Blush belonged to Hugh Murphy, the producer who would later bring us Gerry Raftery's Baker Street. Murphy had already made a record of poetry to music and sought out Betjeman for his next project. The music was written by Jim Parker, who now writes music for TV shows (Midsummer Murders included).

A Shropshire Lad both enthused and unnerved me. The catchy tune and pace was enjoyable for a kid, very much in the same way I enjoyed on Sgt Pepper at the same time. The crackling of the vinyl and odd accent bellowing about ghosts also made me a little spooked. There was an eerie tone to the record as he recited the poem against the clash of cymbals, making me think of ghouls in the personal place which I knew so well, and yet most people didn't; where my Nan lived, and in a place which I was already oddly convinced was haunted.
Moreover, I wondered when my parents might play me a record that involved Kylie or Madonna, but I was already accepting they didn't do things like this. Unless Philip Larkin was going to be remixed to a Jason Donovan number.

That these Betjeman albums have been forgotten about by the mainstream is intriguing. Poetry struggles to be seen as cool by the younger generations, whatever the exaggerated Hollywood films involving Michelle Pfieffer may lead you to believe. And yet the same generations submerge themselves amongst rap music, which has never been more popular.
In 2006, the Guardian reported the Betjeman music albums had resurfaced and become popular with DJs, including the tracks in mixes. The vinyls are apparently highly sought after on ebay for their "dope bass action". Aptly enough, Betjeman's own grandson is a DJ, and he played his grandfather's albums at a set at Glastonbury in 2004. The set went down a storm.

Betjeman's 'rap' efforts have also inspired a range of musical artists such as Suggs and even the great Nick Cave. An unlikely fan you would think but the legendary Cave described them in the Guardian as "beautiful, fantastic stuff. You have these blissed out memories of Betjeman's youth over wah-wah guitar. It's odd and brilliant..."

Odd and brilliant. Absolutely. With emphasis on the brilliant. Perhaps my parents were cooler than I ever gave them credit for, just a little before their time.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Comics will be the culture in the year 3794 - Salvidor Dali

The Guardian featured a recent article on graphic novels, which immediately caught my eye. What particularly interested me was the writer's admission that for years, 'picture books', were to her, just read by nerdy men.

In a lot of ways, something there resonated. However, I grew up with graphic novels, mostly in the form of Asterix, but more importantly, the work of the legendary Posy Simmonds. I did not realise it at the time, but they were helping to shape my humour, as well as beginning to hone my observational skills. As a child, I thought in pictures. I lived in pictures. I drew things daily. I played out my drawings, creating characters with costumes and accents. The world was a giant, living, colourful graphic.

Then I suddenly stopped reading graphic novels. Perhaps it was a time I was discovering Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen. I became entangled amongst Chekhov and Harold Pinter. I wanted the word. I dreamt pretentiously of acting. I also became obsessed with film and cinema, particularly Hitchcock, and perhaps this fulfilled my visual need.

But I forgot. I forgot the magic of the drawn image that had been conjured as a kid. I forgot that graphic novels weren't all superheroes in silly tights, read by greasy teenagers (an unfair stereotype if ever there was one). I forgot there was more to a cartoon than met the eye.

Fancying reading something different, years later I remember picking up a copy of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta that was lying on the floor of my friend's bedroom, amongst fag ends, Vogue mag, Sex in the City DVDs and photograph negatives. It seemed a tad out of place.

I quickly rediscovered my love affair with the graphic novel. I stayed up all night to finish it and the next day I re-read the Posy Simmonds books. It was back. For not only did I enjoy the comedy and witty observations of 1980s life, I could appreciate fully, for the first time, jokes and insights that had been lost on me as a child.
I dug out the Asterix books from the cobwebs of my parents' attic. I even rescued the Tintins. The drawings were visual delights. The stories entertaining yarns. Tintin books had taken me to far away lands as a kid. And I still used to refer to Asterix books for a lot of my Roman history knowledge.

I have since been amassing and reading as many graphic novels as I can. I had already spent years studying photography and art. I was being submerged back towards the still. And whilst I am not a particular fan of superhero books, I adore the medium more than ever. And it brought me back to drawing.

What fascinates me most about the graphic novel is how diverse they come in style or form, in theme or type. A Posy Simmonds novel is beautifully drawn in intricate detail, but often with a lot of text. Her observations portray the minute of middle class life perfectly. Daniel Clowes' Ghost World is more 'cartoony' and yet simply beautiful in the illustration, depicting adolescence so wonderfully tragic and yet so humorously enjoyable. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home is graphicy and drawn on computer and more text heavy, a memoir of personal experience, tender, tragic, self discovering, dealing with sexuality, of coming of age. Alan Moore's From Hell is a sketchy graphic tale of gloom and grim 1880s London, taking you back to the Ripper murders, in a wonderfully gruesome world that seems so vivid and real. Like Maus, a rather more crudely graphic novel that deals with coming to terms with the Holocaust, with the characters as animals, these images stay in your vision when you have long put the book down and closed your eyes tight.

Do not be fooled into thinking graphic novels are not literature, not worthy for study, not 'serious' enough to be treated as art. Or that they are just for kids. Or for nerds. Even if I, admittedly, am both a nerd and a kid.

My top ten favourite graphic novels at the moment, it changes (and is in no order):
1. Ghost World - Daniel Clowes
2. From Hell - Alan Moore
3. Tamara Drew - Posy Simmonds
4. Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth - Chris Ware
5. A Drifting Life - Yoshihiro Tatsumi
6. Fun Home - Alison Bechdel
7. Roach Killer - Jacques Tardi
8. Maus - Art Spiegelman
9. Exit Wounds - Rutu Modan
10. American Splendor - The Life & Times of Henry Pekar - Robert Crumb