08 October 2017

Ivana Lowell and Harvey Weinstein

Improbably enough, a third post about a book that hardly anyone has read.

Since I finished reading the book, "revelations" about the conduct of film mogul Harvey Weinstein have become public. The initial full account was in the New York Times and, as is usual, other victims of harassment have begun to come forward. The general opinion is that everybody in the film biz knew about this, but no-one said anything. Except, it turns out, Ivana Lowell in a book, published in 2010, that hardly anyone has read.

She worked for Weinstein in the 1990s (the dates aren't spelled out, but it was after the success of Sex, Lies and Videotape) publishing tie-in books for his films. She describes two incidents of fairly blatant harassment.

First she says that in the office
He would call me into his office under some pretext [...] his office door would be slammed shut and he would playfully chase me around his desk. [...] I was always too fast for him, and I don't think he would have done anything even if he had ever caught me, but it made for an interesting work experience.

Later, she was relaxing in her flat late one evening with her friend Francesca*. Harvey knocked at her door (she presumed he had bribed the doorman to get into the building).
The living room was small, made smaller by the sofa bed. There was nowhere for him to go. He seemed large, and out of place, and didn't seem to know what to do with himself. The only place for him to go was the bedroom, so he went and sat on the bed. Francesca and I both awkwardly edged away.
He lay down on the bed. 'I am so fucking exhausted,' he groaned. 'Which of you girls is going to give me a back massage?'
The scene was comical; Harvey lying spread-eagle, dwarfing the bed like Gulliver pinned down by midgets and Francesca and I laughing nervously, still edging away as far as possible.

She says she and Francesca talked him out of it. He just "for the next hour or so proceeded to complain about this 'schmuck' and that 'fucking moron' [in the movie business]" and eventually left.

Ivana makes light of the incidents but, as in the Francis Bacon anecdote I think true feelings burst through. The phrase "laughing nervously, still edging away as far possible" makes it clear that these "interesting work experiences" were truly frightening. And what if Francesca hadn't happened to be with her that evening?

*Apparently this was Francesca Gonshaw, best known as Maria from 'Allo 'Allo, trivia fans.

Reference: Ivana Lowell, Why not say what happened, publ Bloomsbury, 2010, pages 113-116.

Ivana Lowell and her mother and her fathers

In my last post I looked Ivana Lowell's memoir, Why not say what happened?, and a particularly blatant piece of plagiarism. With minimal changes, Ivana presented a piece that her mother, Caroline Blackwood, had written about Francis Bacon as her own. Now that I've finished the book, I want to consider her possible motivation.

Her book's interest for readers is largely the depiction of the way of life of the very wealthy society she grew up in, and her relationship with her mother. The book's main interest for her, though, is about her relationship with her father. After Caroline's death, Ivana found out that the man she had thought was her father wasn't. There were two possible suspects, and she eventually found that her biological father was (and there's a hint in his name) Ivan Moffatt. She was disappointed that it was him, but angry with her mother for never having told her.

In the second half of the book, covering the period after Caroline's death, Ivana's anger towards Caroline is clearly expressed. It contrasts with the generally rosy emotional mood of the first half. But of course the whole of the book was written in a state of knowledge. Isn't it likely that the bout of plagiarism was an irruption of that anger? The worst assault on a writer is to steal their words.

And is it too much to suggest that there's a link with the notion of authorship? Caroline deceived Ivana about who her author was. What better revenge than to deny Caroline's authorship of something? Unplanned, I'm sure, but a revenge planned rationally would be less reckless, less easy for a man in Catford with too much time on his hands to uncover.

02 October 2017

Caroline Blackwood and her daughter

Caroline Blackwood, who lived from 1939 to 1996, was a Guinness heiress, who became known for three main reasons:

1. She eloped away from her privileged background to marry Lucian Freud and was the subject of some of his best paintings
2. She later married Robert Lowell (who died in a taxi while returning to his ex-wife, a Freud portrait of Caroline in his hands)
3. She wrote a number of books, one of which was nominated for the Booker prize

I'm going to read some of her books but currently I'm reading the memoir of one of her daughters, Ivana Lowell, Why not say what happened? It's a good read, a fascinating story of three generations of Guinness heiresses, all with amounts of money that meant they never had to worry about the price of anything, and all with a dangerous attraction to alcohol.

Caroline's mother, Maureen, once got so pissed that she passed out in front of the Queen Mother, fracturing her tiara. Caroline died of cancer at the age of 64 after a short lifetime of booze (whenever she opened a bottle of vodka, she would throw away the cap). In Ivana's book she comes across as a very loving, if utterly chaotic mother.  Robert Lowell, a famously difficult man, appears sane and sympathetic in this setting. Third gen Ivana recounts in detail her own experience of rehab.

I'm going to get hold of some of Caroline's writing. She wrote a few novels, and some non-fiction, including a study of foxhunting, which earned the disapproval of her then-neighbours in Leicestershire, and an apparently very sympathetic study of the women's camp at Greenham Common.

In the meantime I've found some of her writing online. In particular this extended anecdote about an early meeting with Francis Bacon, written after his death in 1992. As I read it, more and more of it sounded familiar and it turns out Ivana has lifted it, almost word for word and planted it in her own book. Here's how the story starts.

Caroline in 1992Ivana in 2010
I was then eighteen, and I was invited to a formal London ball given by Lady Rothermere, who was later to become Mrs. Ian Fleming. Princess Margaret was among the guests and could immediately be seen on the parquet floor wearing a crinoline and being worshiped by her adoring set who were known at the time as “the Smarties.” She was revered and considered glamorous because she was the one “Royal” who was accessible. Princess Margaret smoked, and she drank, and she flirted. She went to nightclubs and she loved show business and popular music. She was then eighteen, and was invited to a formal London ball given by Lady Rothermere, who was to become Mrs. Ian Fleming. Princess Margaret was among the guests, and she immediately spotted her on the parquet floor wearing a crinoline. My mother said Princess Margaret was being worshipped by her adoring set, who were known at the time as "the smarties". She was revered and considered glamourous because she was the one "Royal" who was accessible. Princess Margaret smoked and she drank and she flirted. She went to nightclubs, and she loved show business and dancing to popular music.

The whole piece by Caroline is retold over three pages of Ivana's memoir. She has shamelessly plagiarised her own mother and got away with it too. I've read a few reviews of the book and no-one mentions this.

Does it matter? Or is just another example of inherited opportunity? With all poor little rich girl stories there's a suspicion that the advantages of family connection – social capital – are a bigger contributor to success than any talent. Ivana obviously has some talent as a writer, but the talent on display here is undoubtedly her mother's. And inheritance is not theft, perhaps.

The New York Review of Books, SEPTEMBER 24, 1992 • VOLUME 39, NUMBER 15
Ivana Lowell, Why not say what happened? London, 2010, pp 71-74

18 April 2016

Iris Murdoch character names

Hugo Belfounder, a fireworks manufacturer and film magnate
Annette Cockeyne
Rain Carter
Toby Gashe
Martin Lynch-Gibbon
Randall Peronett
Pip Lejour
Otto Narraway
Barnabas Drumm
Octavian Gray
Julius King
Ludwig Leferrier, a young American historian
Arnold Baffin
Blaise Gavender
Hilary Burde
Cato Forbes
Meredith, the son of Thomas and Midge McCaskerville
Marcus Vallar
Alfred Ludens

10 January 2015

Murakami 3

[Written in April 2014]

After a long gap, I'm trying again with Murakami. This time it's Kafka on the Shore. It looks like I'm going to like it more than Norwegian Wood but already I'm a bit frustrated by the clunky construction.

There are two main threads in the book so far: Kafka's own story of running away from home, and a sans-serif, quasi-documental account of a mysterious incident that took place during the Second World War.

Kafka is the name the central character, and first-person narrator, has adopted for himself. Just as with the Magic Mountain references in Norwegian Wood, I can't help feeling clobbered by the signposting. And while we don't yet know how the two threads will be linked, we can be sure they will be. It's not an unusual technique, of course, but just seems a bit mechanical here.

And then there's this, at the end of chapter 7:
But on the evening of the eighth day - as had to happen sooner or later - this simple, centripetal life is blown to bits.
With crushing inevitability, chapter 8 then picks up the story of the war incident. Again, not an unusual technique to create suspense, but it feels tired, and the manipulation is so obvious that my initial response is to resist it.

A bit further on, and I'm beginning to be quite annoyed by the philosophical discussions that keep popping up. To take a short example, here's one from page 261. Kafka is discussing a song with Oshima:
"The lyrics, though, are pretty symbolic" I venture.
"From time immemorial, symbolism and poetry have been inseperable. Like a pirate and his rum."
This really isn't the worst example, not by a long way, although the "pirate/rum" simile is a bit odd. It's a kind of exposition, I suppose. Like the Kafka name (and various other literary references that are strewn around) it's guiding us rather too obviously. If you want a full-length example of what I'm talking about, read page 262 in full.

I'll finish this book but I don't think I'll read another Murakami. At risk of being patronising and superior, they seem likely to appeal to readers with less experience of narrative construction, which, objectively, is most other people compared to me (ie - simply - I've read more novels than most people.)
Well, reader, I finished it, though it felt like a bit of a chore towards the end. It's obvious from early on that the book won't deliver the simple closure of a more conventional narrative, so there's no turn-the-page imperative. In the end one is left uncertain of how much of the story is to be taken at all literally, and maybe that's the point, at a metaphysical level: literature, and life, are constructions and "literally" is, as always, a slippery concept. At the simplest level, we can think of the book as depicting Kafka's mythical journey in forgiving his mother. Neither of these seem sufficient. The metaphysical meaning is hammered home, but still vague, while the personal story is too lightweight to fill 508 pages (656 in the hardback, apparently. 656!)

What is its appeal? From time to time I was reminded of John Fowles' The Magus, a book that similarly captivated an earlier generation of adolescents, including me. In terms of content there are similarities: ghosts of the second world war interacting with an over-sexed younger version of the author in woods. But maybe it's more to do with the mysteries or gaps in the book. Both leave enormous scope for speculation and discussion. I've read that Murakami's Japanese publishers invited questions to their website. Thousands were posed but Murakami's only (canny) answer was that the book is full of riddles and you have to read it a few times. But essentially, I suppose, the questions would largely be about "what really happened", and what was dream/fantasy/deception.

In the end, but it took a while, I grew angry at Fowles' manipulation. I think it's just taken me a lot less time for that to happen this time.

23 November 2013

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (2)

... of course, the answer might simply be that all their fine words about artistic value are almost immediately undermined by their panicked reaction when there's any kind of threat to their gravy train.

But the purpose of this post is to note a contribution to the debate on vraisemblance. In Act 1 Scene 2, the Dancing Master proposes a musical sketch featuring shepherds and shepherdesses. Why is it always shepherds? Jourdan asks.

Lorsqu’on a des personnes à faire parler en musique, il faut bien que pour la vraisemblance on donne dans la bergerie. Le chant a été de tout temps affecté aux bergers ; et il n’est guère naturel en dialogue, que des princes, ou des bourgeois chantent leurs passions.

which is obviously a parody of  a certain theory of theatre. But it's basically true in recognising that what is accepted as realistic is very changeable.


Since writing the above, I've finished the play and what has struck me most is the slightness, the inconsequentiality of the plot. Jourdain's clumsy attempts to woo Dorimene come to nothing, as do his attempts to marry his daughter to Dorante. It all falls apart much too easily, with very little real peril. Jourdain is made to look a bit of a fool, but is materially pretty much unaffected. As with Amphitryon, it's as if the narrative itself gets bored and calls a halt. Perhaps that's why I found I had little memory of the story, but just recognised a few smart phrases. I don't even remember being upset by the lack of plot-complication: didn't we notice it?

If you were to compare this play with The Alchemist for example, you'd see exactly what I mean. Clearly a French 17th century comedy was a quite different thing to an English one. Perhaps it's just intended to be a series of amusing scenes, interspersed with music and dance, and we shouldn't expect anything else. So any coherent "plot" is a bonus, or even a distraction. Maybe, too, there's an influence of the orthodox 17th century French view that tragedy and comedy don't mix.

11 November 2013

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1)

Again, I'm reading this online, here.

And already I've got something to go on. The first scene is peculiar. The Music Master and the Dancing Master have an unnecessarily long discussion about their patron. Partly it's exposition: we're told that Jourdain
 ...est un homme à la vérité dont les lumières sont petites, qui parle à tort et à travers de toutes choses, et n’applaudit qu’à contre-sens

and that he is driven by his pretention to be quasi-noble.

But the two Masters also have a brief debate on where the real reward for their work is to be found. Both recognise that Jourdain pays them well, which is important, but they agree that informed, educated appreciation of their work is the highest reward. The Dancing Master puts it most clearly:
Pour moi, je vous l’avoue, je me repais un peu de gloire. Les applaudissements me touchent ; et je tiens que dans tous les beaux arts, c’est un supplice assez fâcheux, que de se produire à des sots ; que d’essuyer sur des compositions, la barbarie d’un stupide. Il y a plaisir, ne m’en parlez point, à travailler pour des personnes qui soient capables de sentir les délicatesses d’un art ; qui sachent faire un doux accueil aux beautés d’un ouvrage ; et par de chatouillantes approbations, vous régaler de votre travail. Oui, la récompense la plus agréable qu’on puisse recevoir des choses que l’on fait, c’est de les voir connues ; de les voir caressées d’un applaudissement qui vous honore. Il n’y a rien, à mon avis, qui nous paye mieux que cela de toutes nos fatigues ; et ce sont des douceurs exquises, que des louanges éclairées.

It doesn't take up long, this discussion, but I'd bet it gets cut out of a lot of productions. The question is, why is it there in the first place?