100+ essays on literary topics
The French writer, Yasmina Reza, is best known in England and perhaps elsewhere for her play, ‘Art’, which has been a great success everywhere and has been translated into English by Christopher Hampton, as have some of her other plays. Her new novel, Heureux les heureux, was published in France earlier this year and won the first Le Monde Prix Litteraire. The announcement was made when I happened to be there on holiday, so I bought it in the local Maison de la Presse. (Imagine being able to do that at a newsagent’s in England), brought it home and read it finally last week. The title is from Borges: ‘Felices los amados y los amantes y los que pueden prescindir del amor. Felices los felices.’ Happy the loved and the loving and those who can do without love. Happy the happy. The novel consists of about twenty dramatic monologues by characters whose lives overlap with each other in various ways. The title is ironic. Happiness has at best a walk-on part in the lives of the people who make up Reza’s cast. The novel starts with a violent disagreement between husband and wife about what cheese to buy in the supermarket and ends with a cancer patient’s memory of a childhood fishing expedition. It’s best at observing in fine detail human behaviour and its disconnection from real life. The boy who grows up thinking he is Celine Dion, whose parents love him so much that they are unable to prevent this delusion from taking a permanent hold on his life, is the character in whom that disconnection is taken to its logical conclusion. Happiness, as Reza shows it to us, is something we can only hope to enjoy by clinging to our delusions. Perhaps she’s right.
I saw the work of another playwright this week at Birmingham Rep, Dunsinane, David Greig’s sequel to Macbeth. The play is really about the invasion of Afghanistan, using the defeat of Macbeth by an English army as a way of exploring the West’s involvement in the Middle East with a broader brush than a play set in the real Afghanistan would allow. There was plenty to enjoy in the production (a collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company, currently touring England) but I left with a feeling of disappointment, which I think had two sources. One was that the expectations inevitably raised by a sequel had not been met. The play had very little to do with Macbeth. The geography and culture of Afghanistan was overlaid on the landscape and history of Scotland, leaving the Scottish play as no more than a pretext for a commentary on the politics of liberal intervention. I felt slightly cheated. The other was a more general disappointment with the absence of poetry. The playwright has only himself to blame for inviting comparison with Shakespeare, which might otherwise be considered unfair. It’s not that Dunsinane is written in prose. Poetry is not a matter of form. Shakespeare’s prose was poetic. The Elizabethans found their poetry in the music of everyday speech. So, in their different ways, did Shaw, Wilde, Synge and Beckett. But then, they were Irish. So too did Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg. So too the Americans, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams. David Greig’s play reminded me how prosaic our prose has become and how drama suffers as a consequence. I haven’t seen his dramatisation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but I’m told that it’s very good. Words by Roald Dahl.
Literary essays once a fortnight with occasional diary entries in between.
The next essay, to be published on 2 October, is REALITY AND IMAGINATION – three Jewish writers on the Holocaust.
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