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    Me and Orson Welles by Robert Kaplow | Book review

    6 Dec 2009, 12:11 am

    Centred around Welles's 1937 production of Julius Caesar at New York's Mercury Theatre, which pared down Shakespeare's play to 94 minutes and disposed of togas, this novel – published to coincide with Richard Linklater's film – is narrated by 17-year-old Richard, a romantic New Jersey Jewish boy who, on an aimless afternoon trip to Manhattan, lands the small part of Lucius opposite Welles's Brutus. Ominously, Richard takes the place of a lad fired because of a personality clash with Welles. He becomes the actor's young mascot until he falls for the sparky, unstable Sonja. A schmaltzy yet charming coming-of-age story, it is dominated by its portrait of Orson "I am the Mercury Theatre" Welles: the artist and rising star; the charismatic tyrant. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    Disgrace | Film review

    6 Dec 2009, 12:11 am

    This decent, extremely faithful adaptation of Nobel laureate JM Coetzee's 1999 Booker-winning novel is the work of an Australian team led by director Steve Jacobs and screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli. John Malkovich stars as the arrogant 52-year-old David Lurie, a lecturer in English literature at a Cape Town university, who loses his job after refusing to apologise sufficiently for an affair with a coloured student and then joins his lesbian daughter at a remote farm where she is raped by three young marauding black men. The contrasted ways father and daughter react to this terrible act define their responses to a radical social change.

    Disgrace is both a compelling human fable and a complex, ambiguous allegory of post-apartheid South Africa, raising issues about white guilt, black vengeance, the shift in political power and the problems occasioned by the country's deeply divided past and problematically shared future. Malkovich invariably plays men apart and is here well cast as a fastidious intellectual, a Byronic authority on Byron, standing aloof equally from the unjust society in which he was raised and the new one in which he uncomfortably finds himself. His oddly strangulated accent contributes to a sense of alienation, though one doubts if this was the intention. This chilly film gets surprisingly close to the tone of Coetzee's precise prose. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    Treasure Island / A Christmas Carol | Theatre review

    6 Dec 2009, 12:11 am

    Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough, and on tour

    Gripping as a pirate's hook and timber-shiveringly scary, Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 tale of black hearts and buried gold is not for the lily-livered. Originally written as a serial for a children's magazine, it ships all the classic cargo of a buccaneering adventure – hidden treasure, a map, a desert island, a castaway. So far, so all-round family fun. However, the author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ballasts this swashbuckling high-sea romp with a weight of wickedness that makes it – to anyone wishing to stay faithful to the original – a less than obvious choice for a festive Christmas show.

    Andrew Pollard's adaptation, though, turns out to be a stormer. Six performers, a four-poster bed and a dead man's chest create the inn, the ship, the island and all the characters of the story with a dark intensity that would be too frightening to bear if it were not so declaredly theatrical – the utterly terrifying blind Pew is assembled in full view of the audience from a knotted rope, a rake, a saw, hat and coat; Jenni Molloy simultaneously plays on-stage roles and double-bass jazz accompaniment. This is a barnacle-blisteringly good production.

    Chris Monks's decision to make Scrooge a Yorkshireman for his otherwise back-to-the-story adaptation of A Christmas Carol was a cracker. It gave Kraig Thormber, as the "Bah, humbug!" Christmas-hater, a new starting point for the character. The result is a very human Scrooge: credibly cold and crabby at the beginning, reborn into unsentimental sentiment at the end.

    And so it is with all the characters in this deceptively simple seeming production: they are distinct, well formed and unhistrionic. The half dozen adult professional actors are joined, on alternate nights, by one of two teams of eight local schoolchildren; all are stunningly costumed in 1880s style, dance period dances, sing period carols. They charmingly evoke Dickens's time past and restate his message to time present: the gold standard is no measure of human happiness. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

    6 Dec 2009, 12:10 am

    It's been the year's strangest trend – horror 'mash-ups' of classic novels. Stephanie Merritt enters a blood-spattered world

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a brand as successful and limited as the Jane Austen industry must be in want of diversification. (It is a further truth that anyone writing about Austen must begin with a variant of that sentence.) Even the relentless adaptations machine, which seems to produce remakes of her best-known novels while the previous remake is still in post-production, finds itself necessarily constrained by the fact that Austen wrote only six complete books, of which one – Pride and Prejudice – is by far the best known. While the public appetite for Austen remains unsated, she herself remains stubbornly unable to produce any more in the series. For an enterprising publisher, therefore, there was really only one solution: give Austen's characters a new lease of life by splicing them with another, equally popular genre.

    Literary-horror "mash-ups" are probably the strangest trend to have landed in our bookshops this year, led by the phenomenon of Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk £8.99, pp320). First published in the spring, the book immediately became a New York Times bestseller, with more than 700,000 copies sold worldwide to date, and film rights bought up by Hollywood. It has just been reprinted in an illustrated deluxe gift edition for the Christmas market ("now with 30% more zombies!") and has, naturally, spawned its own legion of imitators keen to jump on the bandwagon.

    The original idea was the brainchild of Jason Rekulak, an editor at Quirk Books, a tiny independent publishing house based in Philadelphia. Inspired by the "creative copyright violations" abounding in other genres, with people conflating songs, film trailers or television shows on websites such as YouTube, he began compiling a list of classic works of literature in the public domain which might benefit from an influx of pop culture figures such as pirates, ninjas or zombies. "Once I drew a line between Pride and Prejudice and zombies, I knew I had a title," he said in a recent interview. He called Seth Grahame-Smith, an LA-based television writer, who takes up the story in his introduction to the new edition. "I told him it was the most brilliant idea I'd ever heard."

    The premise is simple: early 19th-century England is menaced by a plague of the undead; the five Bennet sisters are accomplished martial arts warriors, having been trained by their father (Mrs Bennet remains reassuringly obsessed with finding them husbands); Fitzwilliam Darcy is a renowned monster-hunter possessed of superior Japanese fighting skills. The surprisingly wide appeal of the book is less easy to understand, although it must be based primarily on the comedy of incongruity, which itself depends on familiarity with the original. Austen's characters – their pursuits, their language, their careful mannerisms – are so instantly recognisable either from the books or their film versions that they lend themselves beautifully to absurd juxtapositions, as in the recent ITV series Lost in Austen, where a modern young woman disillusioned with love collides literally with the world of Elizabeth and Darcy.

    But Lost in Austen had an obvious target audience – single women in love with the romance of Austen's world – while Pride and Prejudice and Zombies seems a more unlikely marriage of fan bases. The success of any pastiche lies in its ability to capture the tone of that original, and in this Grahame-Smith has succeeded admirably. By inserting his zombie battles into Austen's text in appropriate style, the structure and the bulk of the book's contents remain hers:

    "Apart from the attack, the evening altogether passed off pleasantly for the whole family. Mrs Bennet had seen her elder daughter much admired by the Netherfield party. Mary had heard herself mentioned to Miss Bingley as the most accomplished hapkido master in England; and despite having their gowns soiled with blood and bits of brain, Catherine and Lydia had been fortunate enough never to be without partners, which was all that they had yet learnt to care for at a ball."

    Whether the monster mash-up will blossom into a fully fledged genre or prove a one-hit wonder remains to be seen. Grahame-Smith, despite having told the BBC earlier this year "I don't want to follow this up with Sense and Sensibility and Vampires, because I could easily box myself in as being the mash-up guy," has since signed a deal with Grand Central books for an alleged $575,000 to write a life of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter". Meanwhile Quirk Books are attempting to repeat their success with the recently published Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (Quirk £8.99, p344) by Ben H Winters.

    Here, the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, are exiled to a small island off the Devonshire coast, where polite society does its best to maintain propriety in the face of terrors of the deep. As with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, on some level the monsters are not entirely inappropriate: the society Austen depicts is highly predatory on both sides, with young girls ready to be picked off and devoured by unscrupulous men such as George Wickham, and equally rapacious women bent on capturing their often unwitting prey. It might be argued that the mash-ups only make the metaphorical literal.

    While Marianne grows feverish over the dashing Willoughby, who saves her from a giant octopus, her less attractive but ultimately more durable suitor, Colonel Brandon, is presented as a benign man-monster with "a set of long, squishy tentacles protruding from his face, writhing this way and that, like hideous living facial hair of slime green… but his countenance was sensible and his address particularly gentleman-like." Naturally, Brandon proves himself a true hero, and Marianne learns to love the beauty of his heart (though in this version she also makes a pleasing discovery that brings her "certain marital satisfactions").

    In a recent blog for the Huffington Post, Winters laid out some golden rules for collaborating with dead people, beginning with: "Pick a really famous dead person" and "pick a really famous book". With this, you can't help feeling, he has put his finger on the genre's inherent flaw. Pride and Prejudice is so famous that even people who have never picked up a copy know its essentials. Even Austen's less-read novels don't have that kind of reach, and other hopeful authors are expanding the idea to famous figures in history, such as AE Moorat's recent Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter (Hodder £7.99, pp400), a clear attempt to get in ahead of Grahame-Smith's Lincoln. Moorat (a pseudonym for author Andrew Holmes) has draped his very funny tale of the marauding undead over a solid framework of historical detail, beginning as the 18-year-old Victoria takes the throne of a country beset by succubi, demons and reanimated corpses. Fortunately, the feisty young monarch is taught her craft by Maggie Brown, the sturdy Scottish demon hunter. As with the Austen adaptations, it is the women who are bold and quick-witted enough to take on the monsters, a nice reversal of the passive victim role traditionally handed to young women, in horror as in history.

    But the other obvious problem with monster mash-ups is that the joke very quickly grows old. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is often very funny, but by the third or fourth chapter you've well and truly got the idea; by the time you come to Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, the novelty has thoroughly faded. Winters himself sums up the future of Austen mash-ups on his blog when he says: "Confidentially, when Austen and I started collaborating, she wanted to do Persuasion and Sea Monsters because it's got loads of boats in it. I had to sort of gingerly explain that people don't read that one so much any more." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve | Book review

    6 Dec 2009, 12:10 am

    Kate Kellaway probes the secret of Anita Shreve's appeal

    Anita Shreve has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, earning her place in "popular" fiction. But she seems unable to transcend this category and is often snootily reviewed. Perhaps it is that critics tend to underrate the narrative gift (even though it is all too rare). Or is it that she is almost literary – but not quite?

    Most of Shreve's work is set in her native America, but in her latest novel – her 15th – she steps into the darkness, and light, of Africa. Set in Kenya, the novel is more than a cliffhanger: you could call it a glacier-dropper.

    American newlyweds Patrick (a doctor) and Margaret (a photographer) are expats temporarily based in Nairobi, where Patrick is studying tropical diseases. They are befriended by their hosts, Arthur and Diana, an unpleasantly complacent white colonial couple. It's 1977 and Jomo Kenyatta is still in power, but this is mere background to the human story. The two couples (along with a slightly random third pair) decide during a drunken dinner to climb Mount Kenya together. Halfway across the glacier – the ascent is described in nightmarish detail – one of the party is killed. Who is to blame? It is a tragedy that will, metaphorically, put Margaret and Patrick's marriage on ice.

    Reading A Change in Altitude, what struck me is that its author's narrative gift is so highly developed that it gets the upper hand. It is like a wind against which her characters have little resistance: they are blown at speed by it (or, in this case, a High Wind in Kenya) until their story is done. As a result, the novel is short on psychological insight. Self-knowledge is not, after all, quickly achieved.

    By contrast, she is over-thorough in describing clothes (the outdoor fleeces for the climbing trip are "bluish gray jackets with hoods" which they had bought "on sale in Boston before leaving") and on food (a picnic menu is exhaustive). You could say this makes the story more accessible. But the trouble is that there is at once too much information and not enough. Reading Shreve is like shopping, although far more eventful. It offers an almost consumerist satisfaction, like rifling through a catalogue or a travel brochure with snapshots of Africa in it. She writes well but needs a far more exacting editor. Every now and then, a stinker of a sentence slips through: "Patrick and Margaret sat in the sofa's plush center, fending off witty barbs and occasionally gazing at the stars." Less of the squashy sofa and more of the intricacies of the human heart would have made this a better novel.

    And yet, for all its faults, I enjoyed A Change of Altitude and found its moral sensibility attractive. Shreve asks readers to think about whether you can separate "actions" from "unintended consequences". And one of the consequences of the glacier accident is that Margaret falls in love with Rafiq, a British-educated reporter. It is a romance that goes nowhere at speed – like all the relationships in the novel. For the most peculiar aspect of this book is that it is full of incomplete stories. I was sure, to give just one example, that it would reveal the enigmatic Patrick to us. But it didn't. Perhaps the superhumanly productive Anita Shreve could be persuaded to write a sequel and put this right. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    The English Opium Eater by Robert Morrison

    6 Dec 2009, 12:10 am

    A new life reveals the colourful Thomas De Quincey – addict, essayist and genius – as a troubled soul and a terrible snob, discovers James Purdon

    A couple of years ago, while flicking through Iain Sinclair's London: City of Disappearances, a copious anthology of writing around the capital's erasures, I turned to the section of contributors' notes, hoping to learn more about the writers represented in the book. The entries – some offbeat, some straight – didn't disappoint, except in one regard. Where was Thomas De Quincey? Not where he ought to have been: in good company between film-maker Chris Petit and poet Tom Raworth. Although he had furnished the collection with two extracts, both from Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, his biography was nowhere to be found.

    Veteran absconder in life, in this afterlife De Quincey seemed to have managed a trick that even Houdini couldn't pull off: a posthumous escape. It seemed, in its own way, a fitting disappearance. Uncredited, he could at last give his many creditors the slip. And what sort of contributor's note could properly apprehend the Opium Eater?

    "The dreamer," De Quincey had written, half a century before Sigmund Freud, "finds housed within himself – occupying, as it were, some separate chamber in his brain … some horrid alien nature." He spent his life courting that strange presence, living out the contradictions that inspired and destroyed him. In Robert Morrison's scholarly and sympathetic account, De Quincey divided in himself and divisive in his own time. Predisposed to addiction, he gave way to it completely. Opium, alcohol, book-buying – all these he indulged in excessive quantities. Intriguingly, Morrison also calls greater attention to De Quincey's use of prostitutes than has previously been the case.

    Escape, whether on foot or on drugs, was an instinct acquired early: sent to a strict Manchester boarding school by his over-pious mother, De Quincey fled. He was soon brought back into the fold, but with typical stubbornness refused to return to school, instead persuading his guardians to fund a solo tramp through the Welsh countryside. Chafing against even these indulgent terms, he lost touch with home and slept rough in the Marches until ill-health and penury drove him to seek freedom, if not fortune, in London.

    Under the exigencies of debt, and perhaps wearying from the struggle with his own divided allegiances, De Quincey was driven to crowd-pleasing journalism. For the Conservative Blackwood's he remained a high Tory, writing "as a champion of aristocratic privilege", however sharp the torments of his own poverty. In the more Liberal Tait's, he was willing to concede the merits of radicalism, though in private correspondence and conversation he reserved "Jacobin" as his highest term of opprobrium. A staunch abolitionist, he hated all forms of slavery – especially the "chain of abject slavery" in the form of laudanum that had "inextricably wound itself" around his organs. Yet his rage against these oppressions was in direct conflict with his reactionary views on the Peterloo massacre and the Sepoy rebellion, on Catholic emancipation and the enfranchisement of the common people. He was – it should be stated clearly – a terrible snob and a fascist avant la lettre. His politics combined with his habits to make him unintelligible to modern eyes. Champagne socialists are so common as to be unremarkable; De Quincey was a laudanum Tory.

    Not even family life escaped these contradictions: in 1817, De Quincey married a poor farmer's daughter, causing a scandal among his ostensibly radical friends, the Lake Poets. Dorothy Wordsworth and Charles Lamb come out of the exchange particularly badly, gossiping ungenerously about their friend's new bride. De Quincey had no monopoly on hypocrisy.

    Still, Morrison is clear: he was capricious, devious and untrustworthy, neglecting both his family and his professional obligations. Pity the unsuspecting editor who commissioned a piece and expected copy to be delivered on time. His name became a byword for unreliability – and yet, while his literary arrears grew to match his financial debts, commissions kept coming. More than once, he was able to promise articles in lieu of bail to escape from debtors' prison: no other writer could outstrip the arch and erudite spirit behind the poppy-purple prose. If, by some miracle, a promised manuscript appeared one day on an editor's desk, it was sure to be the best of its kind. He was without doubt a genius, renowned as one of the finest linguists of his time. "That boy," said the headmaster at Bath Grammar, pointing out the teenage De Quincey to a colleague, "that boy could harangue an Athenian mob, better than you or I could address an English one."

    It was a life marked by unfulfilled promise, as well as broken promises. Chemical assistance and natural ability were enough to inspire De Quincey to three of the finest essays in the English language: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts"; and "The English Mail-Coach". But he flagged. Suffering through the cycle of highs and lows, as well as the symptoms of periodic withdrawal, De Quincey couldn't sustain himself through the months required for the longer writings envisaged in his youth; his "whole constitution and habit of mind", according to James Hogg, "were averse from sustained and continuous work of the kind".

    Yet what we have is remarkable, and – given De Quincey's carelessness with his drafts – it is remarkable that we have so much. He lived in a blizzard of paper that settled in drifts around the several lodgings that he owned, rented, and fled. Much was auctioned off by frustrated landlords; still more was abandoned and forgotten by the author, despite the punctiliousness with which he viewed the integrity of his published work. The pattern poses obvious challenges for a biographer, and Morrison deserves high praise for undertaking extensive research that succeeds in unravelling the strands of De Quincey's politics, his addictions, and the psychological traumas of bereavement and inadequacy that opium and imagination turned into a private typology of suffering.

    There are, unsurprisingly, some problems with pace: in the middle of the book a reader is increasingly beset, as De Quincey himself was, by editors and creditors. "Mrs Newbon was demanding her rent … Miss Craig was after him for rent … David Nicolson sued him again for £12.1s.8½d." Happily, the tedium of book-keeping is alleviated by anecdotes culled from the range of De Quincey's acquaintance, many of them disparaging; an equal number adoring; all arresting. Among the best is an evening in Edinburgh when the editor John Wilson visited his friend to find him naked except for an outsize greatcoat. Launching into a soliloquy on transcendental philosophy, he became agitated and the coat fell open. "De Quincey 'thought it not of any consequence'. Wilson agreed. De Quincey folded the coat 'round him and went on as before'."

    In style, Morrison wisely plays it straight, writing with a combination of perspicacity and generous puzzlement, and leaving the verbal fireworks to his subject. We will probably never know how completely De Quincey was taken in by his own delusions, or how many of his fabrications felt real in the writing. Thanks to Morrison, however, the life is clearer than it has ever been, and the danger of disappearance less present. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    AL Kennedy on Funny Bones

    6 Dec 2009, 12:10 am

    Peter Chelsom, 1995

    Funny Bones – it's a film about being funny and about being yourself, about being funny as an expression, a definition of self. I think it's a vastly under-appreciated piece that actually manages to apologise (fully and in advance) for its co-writer and director, Peter Chelsom, having gone on to direct the otherwise inexcusable Hannah Montana: The Movie.

    The general scarcity of appreciation is, of course, no surprise – Funny Bones fits into no known genre and makes no compromises about its many, many peculiarities. It nods fondly in the direction of vaudeville pieces such as Duck Soup and has the humanity, imagination and emotional range of a good screwball comedy. The plot is a law unto itself. We begin all at sea and stay there – encountering violent death, magical powder, corrupt policemen, adultery, flashbacks, theft, comedy turns, despair, classic patter and commedia dell'arte. Tommy Fawkes, the son of famous comic George Fawkes, bombs on his opening night in Vegas. Golden childhood memories mean he runs away from the States to Blackpool. From this unlikely flight, he hopes to rediscover his funny, re-exposing himself to the best and worst and strangest that Blackpool can provide. In the process, he finds a lost half-brother, a number of dark secrets and embarks upon a comedic education that is both absurd and profound. And, along the way, some exemplary cinematography creates a sort of love poem to Blackpool and to the life of performance.

    The cast list is perhaps the most bizarre I have ever encountered, yet it functions exceptionally well. Leslie Caron and Oliver Reed are in support as an ageing sex-bomb and a camp megalomaniac respectively. UK stalwarts Richard Griffiths, Christopher Greet and Ian McNeice fill their roles perfectly as overbearing impresario, sentimental lawyer and dodgy copper. Freddie Davies and George Carl form a heartbreaking double act, surrounded by a host of specialist acts and carefully constructed cameos. At the heart of it all are Oliver Platt – embracing Tommy Fawkes with gusto – and Lee Evans, who gives what I think is the performance of his life as Tommy's mad-clown half-brother, Jack. Oh, yes – and there's Jerry Lewis, too. He delivers a beautifully calibrated performance as Platt's largely toxic, yet expertly likeable, father.

    If you've never wanted to run away and join the circus, if you have no interest in the arcane skills of tumblers, gimps, magicians, music hall and sideshow folk, if the art and craft and illusions of performance hold no appeal for you – then you probably won't like Funny Bones. But if seeing a 16th-century physical skit made new again, or watching the unnecessary beauties of expert comedy, or being embraced by a film that both likes people and manages to invoke nostalgia for the present appeals, then I think you'll be happily surprised. If you have any interest in humour at all then Funny Bones is steadfast in its exploration of every possible type of funny: funny that's stupid, skilful, angry, delighted, intellectual, insane; funny that's subjective, personal, insightful; funny that plays with body parts and stares at death, defies it; funny that defies life – its losses, its wounds, its despair; stolen, denied, abandoned and rediscovered funny. It's all here. And this is the real thing, real funny: not the fey and uncommitted posturing of Pierrots; not the crass, trousers-down laziness of bad slapstick; not the monumental irritation of yet another poorly presented and incomprehensible Shakespearean fool. This is a generous catalogue of skills – old skills, real skills, human skills – the ones that take funny into the place where it troubles and frightens and liberates. Enjoy.

    • AL Kennedy is a novelist. Her most recent collection of short stories is What Becomes © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    Jonathan Coe on Comfort And Joy

    6 Dec 2009, 12:10 am

    Bill Forsyth, 1984

    Whenever I contemplate the career of Bill Forsyth, I realise I'm getting old. It's more than a quarter of a century since he was considered one of the great new hopes of British cinema, but to me, the sudden flowering of his oblique, wilful talent still seems like one of the more recent miracles of film history.

    After the cult success of his Glaswegian caper comedy That Sinking Feeling (just issued on DVD in an insulting format – with a dubbed soundtrack for American audiences), Forsyth hit the big time with his second feature, Gregory's Girl. I watch this film whenever it comes on TV – every two or three years, I suppose – and it never disappoints. The bittersweet experience of adolescent love is expertly captured, but more than that there is an unstoppable flow of comic invention: even the smallest characterisations are quirkily memorable, every scene crackles with good lines. There is not a dull moment.

    Local Hero, released in 1983, lacks the comic momentum of Gregory's Girl but makes up for it in several ways: a more global perspective; mature, expansive performances from Burt Lancaster and Peter Riegert; a magical sense of landscape. It has rightly become a classic. And then, in the late summer of 1984, Forsyth presented his latest comedy to the world: Comfort and Joy, the story of a Glaswegian DJ abandoned by his girlfriend and suddenly finding himself caught up in the city's (all too real) ice-cream wars.

    The diary I was keeping at the time records that I found the film "slightly baffling" when I first saw it. The comic brio of Gregory's Girl seemed to have receded even further. The pacing seemed to be weighed down by the melancholy of Bill Paterson's central performance. The plot didn't really make sense. I was, in effect, disappointed. I didn't quite get it.

    Yet now, 25 years later, Comfort and Joy is the Forsyth film I come back to most often, and with the most satisfaction. I can't find fault with it any more: or rather, it's become one of those films I love so much that even its faults become virtues. The language of the storytelling is fluidly cinematic; Chris Menges's cinematography keeps catching the grey-blue sheen of Glasgow at dawn and twilight in a way that perfectly reflects the emotional tone; Paterson is wonderfully vulnerable and endearing. And, far from lacking comedy – as I seem to have felt on a first viewing – the film is stuffed with brilliant jokes. Nothing endears me more to Forsyth's vision than the way he crowbars in the moment when Paterson's boss at the radio station, concerned that one of his star performers might be having a breakdown in the run-up to Christmas, asks his secretary to check the wording of his contract and "find out if there's a sanity clause".

    Because, yes, Comfort and Joy is a glorious Christmas movie as well as a glorious movie in its own right. I would far rather people watched it with their turkey and crackers than the hectoring, hysterical It's a Wonderful Life. The glow it induces is infinitely more subtle. It's that rarest of beasts, a truly serious comedy: a film that not only entertains us for 100 minutes, it then sends us out into the world feeling that, without realising it, we have been made to understand a little bit more about ourselves somewhere along the way.

    After making this film, Forsyth went to Hollywood and ran badly into trouble with his ambitious, ill-fated Robin Williams vehicle Being Human. He has not made a movie now for more than a decade. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, however, he is currently developing a new film project with the working title of Exile. If this is true, it's the best piece of news about British films that I've heard in years.

    • Jonathan Coe is a novelist. His most recent book is The Rain Before it Falls © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    Writing on the wall for libraries?

    6 Dec 2009, 12:10 am

    The latest stage in the 'modernisation review' of library services is nothing but waffle. Time to get out the boxing gloves

    It is now more than three years since I first began writing our imperilled libraries. I can't say that this is always a pleasure. Yes, occasionally, I'm able to bring good news. In October, I celebrated the fact that Wirral council had performed a stunning U-turn, and would keep open 11 libraries it had wanted to close. Mostly, though, it's incredibly wearying. So much bad news. Today is no exception. Last Tuesday, you see, some 14 months after Andy Burnham, then culture secretary, announced that his department would carry out a "modernisation review" of the library service, a document was finally published. Unfortunately, it did not contain, as one might reasonably have expected, the findings of the review; they won't now appear until "early spring". This was just a "consultation document". Which means? Well, that depends. Margaret Hodge, the minister with responsibility for the review, calls it a collection of inspirational ideas and provocative questions that will fire the starting gun on a further eight weeks of debate. But I call it a disgrace: a complete waste of time and money.

    The document has a title so hilariously nebulous, not even the writers of The Thick of It could improve on it. "Empower, Inform, Enrich" – sounds like a scented candle – consists of 30 essays by various interested parties whom Hodge bizarrely invited to rattle off their thoughts a few scant weeks ago (among them are the novelist Tracy Chevalier and the chief executive of the British Library, Dame Lynne Brindley). These are followed by a series of supposedly pertinent questions. At the Southwark library where it was launched, I flicked through its 85 shiny pages and, faster than you could say 'Dewey Decimal System', my blood pressure began to rise. Most of the essays – surprise! – simply reiterate the suggestions many campaigners have been making since, oh, forever: the launch of a national library card; longer opening hours; improved book stocks. Fine. Some things can never be said enough. Then I got to the last contributor: Darcy Willson-Rymer, UK managing director of Starbucks. Why did Hodge ask him? Since when has he been an expert on libraries? Actually, he isn't. His essay, which begins, enragingly, with the words: "How much time do you spend buying your coffee at Starbucks in the morning?" (Answer: none at all – I avoid it like the plague), is just one long advertisement. The best way to save libraries, he asserts, is to put coffee shops in them. Funny, that.

    Then I turned to the last few pages: the consultation questions. This section is, if anything, even worse. The issues we are now being invited to consider – how we measure a library's performance, for instance – are so blindingly obvious, it's embarrassing. What else does Hodge think library campaigners and professionals spend their time thinking about? As for question 20 – "Is it important that libraries remain a statutory obligation for local authorities?" – if the government is seriously suggesting that it might not be, this is a grave development indeed. But if it isn't, and I don't believe that it is, raising it is just meaningless space-filling.

    At the launch of "Empower, Inform, Enrich", Hodge devoted most of her speech to praising an e-reader she'd borrowed. Like many politicians, Hodge is obsessed with showing that she grasps the concept of digital; listening to her talk about it is like watching your dad disco dance. Afterwards, though, she sought me out, and shook my hand (politicians are trained to love-bomb their enemies; her smile never faltered). At last! I thought. Alone with the minister. But when I said I was bewildered that the review was taking so long – likely to be lost in the scrum of the general election, it will also arrive too late to influence councils now setting their budgets – she insisted, yet again, that this was down to her absence from the department for personal reasons, as if a vast department of state with all its mandarins, spinners and press officers, could not possibly have continued the thing without her. Her smile intensified. Why was I looking so sceptical? The review would be published. "I promise it will," she said.

    But I'm not holding my breath. It is now clear that the library review – which could have been such a force for good – is slipping quietly away from us. The contributions of five expert "workstreams" established by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2008 seem to have disappeared altogether, so even if, by some miracle, a report is published before March, you can bet it will be inconsequential: more last-minute waffle and prevarication. Meanwhile, encouraged by a lack of leadership from above, councils will cut services. In Northumberland, 12 libraries were last week earmarked for closure. The pity of it is that "Empower, Inform, Enrich" was not even the most feeble of the DCMS's utterances in the last seven days.

    In other news, the report of the Wirral libraries inquiry was published. Sue Charteris, its author, concluded that had the council proceeded with its plan to close 11 libraries, it would indeed have been in breach of its statutory duty under the Public Libraries Act. Given the chance to throw her weight behind this report, however, Hodge ducked out. Her attitude: Wirral did the right thing in the end, no harm done. But it only did the right thing because the government intervened and launched an inquiry, and the government only intervened when the pressure to do so from the public and the media grew sufficiently intense. What can we take away from this mess? Only that it continues to be up to us – the people who love libraries – to keep our beady eyes open, and our boxing gloves always at hand. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    Limey Gumshoe by Will Randall | Book review

    6 Dec 2009, 12:10 am

    For his latest excursion, travel writer and teacher Will Randall has gone to Boston, abandoning the classroom in favour of going undercover as a private eye. He proves a likable narrator whose excursions on behalf of Chestnut Investigations Inc provide plenty of drama. Less appealing are his stereotypical characters – the introverted Asian-American forensic scientist, the African-American from the wrong side of the tracks and an endless cast of female secretaries, lap dancers and schoolgirls who are either blonde and attractive or old and disgusting. Fun it may be, but Randall's "true-life adventure" – in which all loose ends are happily resolved – is just not believable. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    Will e-books spell the end of great writing?

    6 Dec 2009, 12:10 am

    How much have our perceptions of reading and writing changed now that you can craft a novel on a laptop and scroll through it on a Nintendo games console? This Christmas could be the moment when our idea of curling up with a fat novel are transformed for ever, says Tim Adams

    Two unrelated observations about writing have snagged at my attention in the past couple of days and refused to go away. The first was a quote from Don DeLillo, the author of the great modern epic, Underworld. DeLillo was talking about how he continues to write on a typewriter, and suggested that: "I need the sound of the keys, the keys of a manual typewriter. The hammers striking the page. I like to see the words, the sentences, as they take shape. It's an aesthetic issue: when I work I have a sculptor's sense of the shape of the words I'm making."

    The second was an advert in my local Argos for a "game" for the Nintendo DS console that features 100 classic books. The cartridge packaged itself as follows: "100 Classic Book Collection turns your Nintendo DS into a portable library containing must-read novels from iconic authors such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and many more. Hold the DS like a book and use the touch screen to turn the pages. 100 Classic Book Collection allows various search methods such as searching for a book that suits your mood, or a specific requirement such as a short read." The soundtrack that can accompany the reading of these classics includes the canned effect of a crackling log fire.

    Somewhere in between these two observations there seemed to be a disconnect, a kind of paradox, but it took me a while to work out where it lay. It had something, of course, to do with the fact that Don DeLillo, the pre-eminent American novelist of the present moment was holding tight to the technology of the past, while the Nintendo technology of the present moment was appropriating the old-fashioned printed world of the novel. But that wasn't it exactly.

    It was more about different understandings of the physicality of the act of writing and the act of reading. The makers of the bestselling Nintendo package may believe Shakespeare to be an "iconic author" of "must-read novels" but in describing him as such they betray some of the side-effects of their product – it treats all writing as if it were simply text, content, something else to scroll on a screen to suit your mood. DeLillo, who knows a good deal about the difference between writing and content, clearly resists this idea. Writing for him is a highly physical act; meaning is discovered and shaped in individual words and sentences, and their external form is fundamental to what they are communicating.

    This Christmas may well mark the moment when the Nintendo idea of writing – and reading – takes precedence over the DeLillo idea of it. The growth in sales of the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader – which can store thousands of texts, classic and otherwise, and which may eventually provide digital access to every book ever written – suggests that we are at an iPod moment: books, in particular novels, may well be about to face the fate of records and CDs. In America, Google is currently fighting a multi-million dollar lawsuit for the rights to 10m digital editions of books – a suit being countered by the French and German governments among others – which if successful will grant it a virtual monopoly over distribution of the digital word. This prompts a couple of questions: is reading from a screen the same experience as reading from a page? And further, is writing for a digital medium the same thing as writing for print?

    The answers to these questions are maybe not as simple as they at first seem. One consequence of the digitisation of nearly all aspects of our lives is the increasing sense that we live through our computers, that they are extensions of our selves. Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been examining this phenomenon for nearly 30 years. In her prophetic book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, written as long ago as 1995, she suggested that our relationship with our laptops and hand-held devices gave us a Freudian sense of the uncanny. "Like dreams and beasts, the computer stands on the margins," she wrote. "It is a mind that is not yet a mind. It is inanimate, yet interactive. It does not think, yet neither is it external to thought. It is an object, ultimately a mechanism, but it behaves, interacts and seems in a certain sense to know."

    All our engagement with the digital world carries elements of this mostly subconscious relationship. The spaces computers open up for us are in a real sense part of our personal space; we make them our own; they share our secrets, house our memories; they are our intimates. We would be bereft if we were to lose them.

    Slowly all the aspects of the world that were formerly external to us, out there – friends, shops, newspapers and now books – are being accommodated into this space, so that they can be contained almost entirely on our personalised screens: aspects of our selves, part of our understanding of who we are.

    We don't necessarily believe that computers can think, but we do have a sense that they can listen. Way back in the 1960s Joseph Weizenbaum, an artificial intelligence pioneer, wrote about his experiences with his invention Eliza, a computer program written to mirror the user's thoughts, which picked up on phrases typed into it and turned them into questions, making the program seem like a benign counsellor. To the comment "My job is making me unhappy", the program would respond, "Tell me about your job", or "Why do you feel unhappy?" Weizenbaum was disturbed to discover that even his brightest students, who knew perfectly well that they were talking to a computer program, nevertheless wanted to chat to it and share secrets with it – indeed, Weizenbaum suggested, they wanted to be on their own with Eliza whenever they possibly could.

    Part of the attraction of this, Weizenbaum observed, was that the dialogue with the screen was essentially risk-free. The students could engage with the computer without fear of exposure or embarrassment. It gave them the illusion of interaction, with none of the attendant dramas of human conversation.

    In the years that followed, Weizenbaum became increasingly sceptical of technology that allowed us to experience the world at one remove and on our own terms. He had grown up in Nazi Germany, and saw in the virtual world some of the dangers of a system that divorced the individual from the necessity of regular and frank human interaction and allowed everything to become an extension of personal need and desire.

    Most of the claims made for the virtues of online interactivity are also, read another way, the expression of these fears. We hear frequently that we are quickly moving toward an era that will allow each of us to become the editor of our own newspaper and director of our own television schedule; our computers will help us in this process, listen to our histories, define our likes and dislikes and recommend accordingly; they will be our personal shoppers and cultural critics, reinforcing our tastes.

    This new solipsistic power, however, is unlikely to be without consequences. Some of them are already apparent. A world that constantly reflects back to you your own wishes, through a computer that seems to be your friend, will inevitably enhance your sense of self, and the unwarranted belief that your views have a weight and authority. If there is a growth industry on the internet it is in opinion; the risk-free interactivity that Weizenbaum observed at the genesis of the technology has evolved in subtle ways.

    One of the most obvious and curious aspects of individual engagement with a virtual world, whether in a blog, or a chat room or on a discussion thread, is that a large proportion of it is conducted anonymously, or through an opaque alter ego. This allows all of the possibilites that Weizenbaum's Eliza granted to its audience, but with a greater illusion of proper interactivity with other human voices. It is the best of all worlds: in cyberspace you can say anything you want and never be held to account for it. Nothing is at stake. Any writer who has never come up against an editor, or a reader, can always feel himself a genius.

    It has widely been assumed, given that the progress of technology is generally thought to be a one-way street, that all information, all "content" will eventually migrate to one digital medium or another – the Kindles and Nintendos are the latest milestone in that progress. But what effect might that have on writing itself?

    There has recently been something of a backlash in the conventional publishing world against the "tyranny" of online conversion. Several of these books have argued that the feature of the digital universe that threatens to overwhelm us is that we are, in the phrase of Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at Washington, "always on", which is to say we are so consistently wirelessed to blogs and Blackberries and Twittering and Facebook that we are losing our capacity to think in the "real" world. Moreover, that the capacity for rigorous sentence construction, of the kind explored by Don DeLillo, is being replaced in online communication by a lazy and hasty "whateverism", where nothing that is written has to adhere to the rationalities of syntax or argument, and where no time is given to clarifying thought. Lee Siegel, meanwhile, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, extends this argument into an entertaining and sustained rant against the imprisoning internet and the rhetoric of "blogfascism".

    "In the pre-internet age…," he observes, "there came a moment when you turned off the TV or the stereo, or put down the book or magazine… You stopped doing culture and you withdrew — or advanced — into your solitude. You used the phone. You went for a walk. You went to the corner bar for a drink. You made love… You wrote a letter.

    "Now, more often than not, you go to the computer and online. There you log on to a social networking site, make an entry on your blog, buy something, try to meet a romantic partner… You might send an email, but no one ever just sends an email. Every online activity leads to another online activity…"

    Siegel exaggerates for effect maybe, but any one of us who spends a large part of his or her day – for work and leisure – in front of a screen will recognise at least the contours of that behaviour. Your computer invites habitual usage, from email to bookmarked sites, to Twitter followers, to YouTube favourites, and it is a circular rather than a linear progress; if you plotted your history folder I'm guessing you would discover it was not about narrative, but repetition. This circumnavigation of our familiar haunts may suggest exploration, or at least the possibility of it, but there is a compulsive sameness to the quality of the experience. Some of this has to do with the computer's illusion of constant novelty (constantly disappointed), some of it has to do with its inbuilt solipsism, its anti-social quality, which can give rise to that mean-spirited tone of generally anonymous debate and comment that the New Yorker writer David Denby has recently dismissed as "snark".

    Even evangelists of the newer technologies have lately been expressing some of this boredom. Lily Allen, a MySpace creation if ever there was one, recently abandoned all online activity in order to give privacy a go, and claimed she felt better for it. Stephen Fry's now famous anti-blogging diatribe is worth remembering for the following observation:

    "I don't know about you but whenever I read a blog I do not let my eye drop below half the screen in case I accidentally hit the bit where the comments reside. Of all the stinking, sliding, scuttling, weird, entomological creatures that inhabit the floor of the internet those comments on blogs are the most unbearable, almost beyond imagining."

    The unremitting tone of that "snark", it often seems, is born not out of genuine anger, but of the experience of half-engagement in the world, of shouting at someone who can't shout back, of interacting without feeling vulnerable to another person.

    A while ago, I tried to track down the creator of the first "weblog", Jorn Barger, who had coined the term in creating his legendary online home, Robot Wisdom. Having begun as a sort of personal polemic, Robot Wisdom had quickly developed into a list of daily links to dozens and dozens of internet items that had caught Barger's "always on" antennae. I'd read somewhere that Barger, despite his pioneering blog, was living on the streets of San Francisco. When I eventually tracked him down he agreed to speak online rather than in person (of course) and denied living rough. Some of our "interaction" went like this:

    Me: Can you remember the original impulse behind Robot Wisdom?

    Barger: The phrase goes back to 1978, referring to my methodology for studying psychology. I started the weblog as a way of finding an audience who might see the connections between my many interests…

    Me: How far do you think you have succeeded?

    Barger: There are hundreds of people who are aware of the range of my interests now, but still no sign anyone sees how they're connected.

    Me: Do blogs spell the demise of print, of newspapers and eventually books?

    Barger: I'd like to think that 20 years from now commuters will still read newspapers on the train to work, but that, because of blogs, the range of stories will be much wider and deeper, quicker to spot what's interesting… most people don't read anyway.

    Me: Do you think there is a limit to the number of voices we can listen to?

    Barger: I pity the fool who has any fixed limit.

    Me: Having lived most of your life in them, do you think virtual worlds are hopeful places?

    Barger: Currently they're exercises in coping with griefers, but in the long run this should be very useful…

    In some ways it seemed to me Barger's restless attention, his desire to have the world out there understand the connections he made between his spiralling online interests, was emblematic of the medium itself. Blogging, for all its virtues, has almost invariably proved itself to be an occasion for having the world understand me, rather than me understanding the world. For all its manifold benefits there is an inbuilt self-enclosure to online activity. One thing always leads to another.

    One person with a comparable range of paranoias and interests to communicate to the world as Barger is Don DeLillo. It is telling that DeLillo has succeeded in finding the connections between all the multiple strands of his attention, not through exponentially multiplying and endlessly self-referencing links to distant corners of the internet, but through the hard labour of putting one word down next to another and having each of his thoughts make sense with reference to the observable world. DeLillo is an extremely brilliant example, but that's what writers do. It is impossible to judge whether the 800 pages of Underworld could have been written on a computer, with all its inbuilt distractions and dead ends, but I'm guessing not.

    For the time being the Kindles and the rest are standalone devices, but it will surely not be long before they and the thousands of books they contain are bundled up with all the other must-have applications into a single computer which will mediate our lives: more undifferentiated text to match our own mood. "Technologies," Sherry Turkle points out, "are never just tools, they are evocative objects. They cause us to see ourselves, and our world, differently." Will anyone who is "always on" have the concentration to read the great social novels – those ultimate "interactions" with the world – on a screen? Will anyone be able to see far enough beyond themselves to write one?

    Email us your views at © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant

    6 Dec 2009, 12:09 am

    Multiple perspectives too often unmoor the reader in Mavis Gallant's early stories, says Adam Mars Jones. But when she sticks to one, it really pays off

    This collection of stories bears witness to a strong but not settled talent, and to a writer who seems to fight her chosen form at least as much as she blossoms under its restrictions. The short story is a brutal mechanism that punishes above all the loss of focus. Point of view in a story is the armature, the core, and no excellence of description and evocation, no sparkling dialogue or piercing insight into character, can compensate for the collapse of that core. By taking this hard line I'm setting myself up against the superb and august William Maxwell, renowned New Yorker editor, who shepherded most of these stories into print, but I can't help that.

    At the beginning of a story or near it, the reader needs to know whether the main character is being viewed from the inside or the outside. It's as basic as a time signature in music. If an early sentence goes, "In imagination, Lily became a punishing statue and raised a heavy marble arm" ("Acceptance of Their Ways") then we're inside. If the next page contains the assertion that Lily's eyes, "which were a washy blue, were tolerably kind when she was plotting mischief", then we're somewhere else, and to be in two places at once is really to be nowhere at all.

    Same pattern in another story: "What Stefan had never known and wondered now…" on the first page; "Rain darkened Stefan's fair hair" on the second. So there's a prevailing instability within a point of view – but there's also a lot of drifting between consciousnesses. It's not that the viewpoint needs to be fixed – changing it can be one of the most telling effects available to the writer of stories – but this isn't a neutral matter and needs to be tactically managed. When the perspectival shift becomes a mannerism or a reflex, as it does in many stories here, the result isn't enrichment but a sense of untethering. The writer may think that the house of fiction is being dazzlingly extended by this procedure, but the reader has a different feeling, of being trapped in a dream where every room opens into another one and there's no sense of home.

    In the story "Travelers Must Be Content" we enter in turn the minds of all the main characters: an American woman in Cannes, her daughter, the boyfriend who might be suitable or might not, and the fraudulently genteel hanger-on. When we know so much more about the game than any of the players, a story becomes the equivalent of poker on television, where the cards are plonked down on a glass table for our benefit. If one of your themes is the essential unknowability of human beings to one another, isn't it a bit of a cheat to flit from brain to brain while you prove your point?

    As with televised poker, there's some residual interest in seeing how things turn out, but reading has been reduced to a spectator sport, with no possible urgency. Emotional involvement slackens off. The titles of Gallant's stories are so non-committal as to be positively Japanese, but presumably she hasn't spent her creative life actively trying to avoid intensity. Even the story's quadruple perspective can't accommodate everything the author wants to say, and so there are moments of interpolated commentary, perceptions that have no possible source but her: "He saw everything about her except that she was attractive, and here their difference of age was in the way."

    The simplest way of tethering the point of view is to write in the first person. Gallant does this in "Autumn Day", and the change is remarkable, the focus greatly sharpened. It's easy to imagine her as feeling exhilarated by this, as if she'd been given the right prescription by an optician and was seeing the world entirely new. This volume offers only a partial narrative of Mavis Gallant's career, but the next piece here, "Thieves and Rascals", applies the same discipline to a story told in the third person, and again the results are impressive. The main character is a New York businessman whose daughter, assumed to be sensible and not unduly attractive to men, surprises everyone by going off the rails at college. His relationship to his wife, though, a successful model, changes at least as dramatically in the aftermath. When he comes across her doing a photo shoot at a museum, he sees the strain in the pose of perfection: "The shadow under her cheekbone, which photographed as a clean curve, seemed, under the hard winter sun, the concavity of illness. The eye framed by her fingers looked vampish and absurd, the over-darkened eye of silent films." This concise portrait of a marriage is all the more powerful for showing only one side of it. Then the author is free to move into the wife's side of things for the last sentence, its power much enhanced by the delay.

    Gallant was born in Montreal in 1922, though she moved to Europe in 1950 and has long lived in Paris. Her native country is the setting for one flawed but astonishing story, "Bernadette", which mixes a desultory satirical tone for the right-thinking liberal employers with a disorientingly deep understanding of the reality of their pregnant maid's existence. This destabilisingly fierce attunement to a relatively remote life here makes the fault of mixed perspectives almost enviable.

    The experience of the traveller offers classic material for a writer of stories, with the disadvantage that it's hard to stage an equal encounter between the rooted and the transient. Gallant finds a way round this in the title story, by having the narrator, an Australian living in Paris, be joined by her elder sister. There's a balance of forces between these women and the two French residents in their shabby hotel with whom they become involved.

    This is another first-person story, though the point of view is much freer. "It would be presumptuous for me to say what she was thinking," the narrator says of her sister, before splendidly going on to say, "but I can guess: she was more than likely converting the price of oranges, face powder and Marie-biscuits from French francs to Australian shillings and pence. She was, and is, exceptionally prudent." Soon the point of view is spreading to every crevice of the hotel, but that "was, and is" is a masterstroke, its authority silencing all doubts. You can get away with the most amazing things in the short story, as long as you play your cards right, and don't show them when you don't have to. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Century Story by Mary-Kay Wilmers | Book review

    6 Dec 2009, 12:09 am

    Mary Kay-Wilmers's family history of spies and shrinks intrigues Archie Brown

    Mary-Kay Wilmers is best known as the long-standing editor of the London Review of Books. In this, her first book, she has produced a deftly woven saga about three members of her own family who embodied some of the main currents of recent history. The Eitingon family provides plenty of raw material for a riveting story, but digging it out was clearly far from easy, especially as several of its members worked for the KGB – or the Cheka, OGPU and NKVD, as the Soviet security organs were earlier known.

    The family member who comes closest to dominating the narrative, Leonid Eitingon, was a cousin of Wilmers's maternal grandmother. He joined the Cheka in 1920, shortly before his 21st birthday. Along with other Chekists, he played a ruthless part in the Russian civil war, shooting a number of the more prosperous citizens of the Belorussian town of Gomel in cold blood. At the end of the 1920s, he led an operation producing fake documents which persuaded the Japanese that 20 Russian agents who were working for them had secretly applied to have their Soviet citizenship restored. The Japanese duly shot their anti-Soviet allies. This, Wilmers remarks, was "the kind of ruse Leonid enjoyed".

    He was to employ it again in Spain in the late 1930s and in Belorussia during the Second World War. As a high-ranking NKVD officer who was a master of several languages, he was responsible for numerous kidnappings and assassinations even in peacetime. His most notable success – certainly in the eyes of Stalin – was his organisation of the murder of Leon Trotsky.

    That did not save Leonid from arrest during Stalin's antisemitic purge of the early 1950s. It occurred as he stepped off a plane in Moscow after performing, with customary efficiency, the latest task allotted to him by the Kremlin – "liquidating" Baltic nationalists.

    Other family members were more appealing. Max Eitingon was an early acolyte of Sigmund Freud. A highly cultured man who established an institute of psychoanalysis in Jerusalem, he also had contacts with Russian émigrés involved in the abduction (and execution) of an elderly anti-Soviet Russian general from Paris in 1938.

    Motty Eitingon, the author's great-uncle, is the third central character in the story. He began his life in the Belorussian town of Orsha but moved to Leipzig in 1902 when he was 17. He was for many years a highly successful businessman (although he ended up bankrupt), in Germany and later in the US, trading principally in fur, which he purchased in bulk from the Soviet Union. To get favourable deals from his suppliers, Motty took pains to be on good terms with the Soviet embassy and visitors from Moscow. Indeed, he was questioned more than once by the FBI as a possible communist whose financial arrangements overseas were dubious. Noting that the kind of deals Motty made were impossible without very good contacts in Moscow, Wilmers adds: "So the question has to be asked: was Leonid one of them?" She thinks it unlikely. Rather, Motty wished to be connected to powerful people, whether in Washington or Moscow, and enjoyed doing favours, "especially favours that would turn out to be useful to him".

    Wilmers has taken a cool, searching look at some of her more exotic relatives in this superbly written book. The Eitingons is much more than a family history, for the author has a deep knowledge of the cultural and political context, whether of 20th-century America or the Soviet Union, in which they lived. It stands as an intimate portrait of a world that seems far removed from our own. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport | Book review

    6 Dec 2009, 12:09 am

    In the early 19th century, Europe was dominated by a conservative order trying, in differing but largely authoritarian ways, to keep peace after the Napoleonic wars. Social conditions were declining, industrial cities were surrounded by slums, and workers – when there was work – were spending 60-70% of their income on food and drink; German labourers, for example, "survived essentially on potatoes and hard spirits". In January 1848 De Tocqueville told the French Chamber of Deputies: "We are sleeping on a volcano. Can you not feel… the wind of revolution in the air?" And so it proved, with regimes across the continent, from Paris to Krakow, challenged, not always successfully. Cleverly and sensitively chronicled, this is a pacy, learned history that makes sense of an extraordinary year. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

    Geoff Dyer on Where Eagles Dare

    6 Dec 2009, 12:09 am

    Brian G Hutton, 1968

    I keep waiting for the day when Where Eagles Dare begins to pall. I mean, how many films can stand up to multiple viewings over such a vast span of time (about 40 years)? In fact, the opposite seems to be happening – it gets better, yields deeper layers of meaning, every time I see it.

    Adapted from the novel by EM Forster… no, hang on, that's Where Angels Fear to Tread, but there's a point to be made here. Where Eagles Dare is a great title, anticipating the widespread popularity of the SAS motto "Who Dares Wins", even though it was made years before the storming of the Iranian embassy in 1980, of which the film could be seen either as a prophetic allegory or a direct inspiration. And the title is not just a sonorous bit of rhetoric plucked from Shakespeare. No, the castle scaled by Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood et al is called the Schloss Adler, the Castle of the Eagles. So the title is literally true, thereby cleverly inverting or – as is said in the world of agents and double agents – "turning" the intended sense of the lines in Richard III: "The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch." How cool is that!

    I last watched Eagles the day after seeing Disgrace, the latter serving as a textbook demonstration of everything that is wrong with a certain kind of dutiful film-making. What a plod! JM Coetzee's great novel is ploddingly translated into a script that is in turn ploddingly transferred to celluloid. It's not a movie at all, it's a ploddie, whereas Eagles is a piece of perfect cinema, in that the script dissolves into the film. (Alistair MacLean wrote the script and then turned it into a novel.)

    But what a script it must have been! What a plot! How do people dream up twists and turns like that? The key turnaround comes in the castle's Great Hall and involves Burton crossing, double- and triple-bamboozling everyone in sight. In the script the dialogue was divvied up more evenly between Eastwood and Burton, but it ended up with Eastwood doing more of the shooting and Burton more of the talking. Good call. Burton admired Clint's "dynamic lethargy", but in this scene calls him a "punk – and a pretty second-rate punk at that". It's a devastating bit of verbal jujitsu since, effectively, Burton takes Eastwood's signature line – "Ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" – and turns it back on him, before Clint's even landed the part of Dirty Harry.

    As for Burton, was he ever better than in Eagles? It's a masterly display of how to boss people around. Do this, do that! Everyone else – Mary Ure, the German agents, even Eastwood – they're all just Burton's bitches. Like all bossy people, Burton ultimately resorts to "I'd better do it myself" mode. So when the German agents kick Eastwood unconscious and escape by cable car, it's the ageing, alcoholic Welshman who jumps on the roof and settles their hash – big time! One gets an ice-axe in the arm, the other falls into the valley after clinging so desperately to one of Burton's legs that it must have ended up a foot longer. Naturally, it's Burton who drives the bus at the end – and even then he's still barking out orders: "Take out the control tower!"

    Clint and Mary duly obey. That's another forward-looking aspect of Eagles: from King Kong onwards the role of women was often just to swoon, scream, look threatened and, ideally, get their kit off; here Mary Ure blasts away with a machine gun like she's the Baader Meinhof Gang's Gudrun Ensslin. In fact, now I think about it, I see that the film is a premonitory account of the impending guerrilla war on the impregnable fortress of the German state apparatus with its concealed roots – all those twisting tunnels and corridors – in the Nazi past.

    In keeping with this, although the concealed intention of the mission is to weed out top-ranking double agents, its most immediate consequence is gratuitous murder and mayhem on a huge scale. They trash the schloss, wreck the surrounding infrastructure (the cable car is a write-off) and, by the end, are so addicted to the thrill of vandalism that, instead of driving politely through the entrance to the airfield, Baader – I mean Burton – smashes through the perimeter fence (I love the way it gets dragged along after the bus) before achieving the ultimate goal of any self-respecting 1970s terrorists: destroying some stationary planes.

    And here we get to the most intriguing paradox of the film. If Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it, then the writers, cast and crew of Eagles were secretly on the side of the Germans, whom they ostensibly outwit, terrorise and slay in large numbers. Everything in the film is German. It's practically an advert for the superiority of German manufacturing. They fly in and out on a Junkers Ju 52. They rely exclusively on German weaponry (predominantly the MP40 Schmeisser submachine pistol). We do not see a British gun until they're on the way home and Patrick Wymark pulls a Sten on Burton. And guess what: the firing pin's been removed – it doesn't frigging work. Finally, and most stylishly, the stars all wear German uniforms. How come Hugo Boss has not reissued those super-cool – ie cosy – retro winter anoraks? Vorsprung durch Technik!

    • Geoff Dyer is a novelist. His most recent book is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds