The Wonders of Pygmalion

Recently I’ve figured that it’s beneficial to read books as double features (that’s what I call them in my pseudo-English) meaning two books of the same topic or topos but from different authors. My double features so far:

Michael Frayn, Copenhagen – Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Physicists

George Orwell, 1984 – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther – Ulrich Plenzdorf, Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.

Then I realised I had another potential DF on my shelves: George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Educating Rita by Willy Russell. Shaw’s Pygmalion became famous as My Fair Lady and so a question sprang to my mind:

Why Pygmalion?

I googled it and came across one of the most fascinating little stories I’ve ever heard about. Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells us about a sculptor, Pygmalion, who despises women for their wickedness. He makes the sculpture of a woman so beautiful he falls in love with her. On Venus’ festival he asks of the goddess to give him a woman like the statue but Venus knows what Pygmalion really wants. Coming back home he kisses his sculpture and she turns into a real woman. (Pygmalion keeps testing her realness by repeatedly groping her breasts.) They get married and have a son.

Now isn’t that gender studies gold?! A man creates his own perfect woman and she is exactly what he wants her to be. It reminds me of this wonderful gothic novella, The Sandman (1816), by ETA Hoffmann. In it the male protagonist finds his nagging and self-determined wife to be a real pain in his behind. One day he catches sight of the most beautiful woman and falls for her. She never says a word, she’s patient, she’s gracious, and from time to time the sweetest sigh escapes her mouth. Turns out she’s a robot.

The whole thing works the other way around too, of course. In German there’s a saying according to which you can bake the man of your dreams (or Mr Right is yet to be baked in which case there’re baking sets available to bake oneself a man in a most literal sense).

Back to our Pygmalion. Shaw does what is a very plausible thing to do: in his play from 1913 he asks the question of what happens after the statue turns real. I mean, imagine this. Technically there’s a woman now with the knowledge and experience of a newborn. Shaw calls her Eliza (well, strictly speaking it was Johann Jakob Bodmer who did this in 1749), makes her a London flower girl and lets her ask Professor Higgins (Pygmalion) to teach her how to speak properly so she can work in a flower shop. The playwright makes it a story about gender and class and uses education as a vehicle for her emancipation – an emancipation he grants her in the play, but not in his epilogue. A love story between Higgins and Eliza would be utterly absurd, concludes Shaw: “Galatea [the name later given to Pygmalion’s sculpture] never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”

Willy Russell’s Educating Rita (1980) is familiar to many as a modern version of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. Once again a male playwright tells us a story about a woman who wants more and once again it is about education and her relationship with her tutor. Frank educates Rita – and loses her.

This is not the place to analyse the plays in depth. You guys are smart enough to do it yourselves and I guarantee you there’s enough food for your thoughts to keep your minds busy in a fun and rewarding way for awhile.

I would, however, like to draw your attention to the fact that Pygmalion has inspired painters and sculptors alike to produce some great artwork. Edward Burne-Jones, a Pre-Raphaelite, painted a series of four pictures (click on the link for more information on them):

The Heart Desires

The Heart Desires

The Hand Refrains

The Hand Refrains

The Godhead Fires

The Godhead Fires

The Soul Attains

The Soul Attains

Last but not least I would like to tell you about the Pygmalion effect: an experiment showed that students performed better after their teachers had been told that their (actually average) students were particularly gifted.

Pygmalion, Pygmalion, you curious little thing you…

Psst! If you ever felt physically attracted to sculptures, you have Pygmalionism (aka Agalmatophilia).

Viv Albertine – Clothes, Music, Boys

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With the return of Sleater Kinney and renewed interest in the Riot Grrrl movement it seems rather prescient that two of the major influences on the movement, Viv Albertine of the Slits and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth both have books out.  I’ve not got round to Kim’s yet but having just finished Viv’s I feel like I’ve just emerged from a mosh pit, a big smile on my face at the sheer unabashed joyfulness of it all but also bruised, sweaty, scared and somewhat unsettled.

This is no vacuous ghost written PR pamphlet it’s Viv’s voice telling her own story from the birth of punk through to today and it’s a story that is raw, uncompromising, funny, courageous, visceral, shocking, unflinching, uplifting and inspirational.  A bit like the music she played and the bands that reference her, The Slits and others of that ilk, the individual notes may jar at times and appear discordant but the overall sound and message is impossible to ignore.

Viv splits the book into two ‘sides’; Side 1 effectively charting her upbringing, discovery of music, youth, the punk movement, sex, fashion becoming part of The Slits and through to their break up.  Side 2 takes you through more sex and fashion, marriage, illness, depression, blood, family, motherhood, career, middle age, and creative rebirth.  It is not a comfortable ride, the stories and anecdotes assault you in rapid fire fashion sharply written with no punches pulled mirroring the songs of the movement that she was part of.  The characters, music, clothes, boys swirl around in a dizzying kaleidoscope as Viv grows up in the white heat of the punk movement before settling into the seeming middle class rural idle of a designer house by the sea, but as the saying goes be careful what you wish for.

Viv’s writing is whip smart throughout and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that is so unflinchingly honest, she does not hide from her own mistakes but throughout you get a sense of a woman constantly grappling with who she is and what her place is.  She is also laugh out loud funny and comes across as a warm person who you’d want to spend some time with.

A thought that remains with me after reading this book – what is punk ? and is it still relevant ? for me it’s not about what you wear, look or sound like, it’s about independence of thought the willingness to make your own mind up, go your own way and cut against the prevailing wind. Viv Albertine is the embodiment of this and this book is as punk a book as you could ever hope to read.  However what do I know about what punk is ?  Perhaps this extract from the book where Viv goes to see the Pistols and watches John Lydon gives the best interpretation of punk and it’s continuing relevance:

 All the things I’m so embarrassed about, John’s made into virtues.  He’s unapologetic about who his is and where he comes from.  Proud of it even.  He’s not taking the world’s lack of interest as confirmation that he’s wrong and worthless.  I look up at him twisting and yowling and realise it’s everyone else who’s wrong, not him.  How did he make that mental leap from musically untrained state school educated, council estate boy, to standing on stage in front of a band?  I think he’s brave.  A revolutionary.  He’s sending a very powerful message, the most powerful message anyone can ever transmit. Be yourself.

For me Viv’s fight to be herself IS the story and in telling it she asks the most pertinent question of all – What does it mean to be an independent, creative, intelligent woman and what has changed in society from 1976 through to today ?

 

Book Club 2014

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I wrote last year of the 99 books we had so far read in the boys book club and the joy, friendship, camaraderie and nourishment that I get from it.  I decided after pulling all the books together in one post last year that at the end of each year I’d do a post on the books of that year.  We always have a review of the year and last night was no exception, we both reviewed the current book and reflected upon what we’ve read across the year.  What I like about this process is that a book you might have scored very highly on the night originally does not stay with you as the year develops, whereas other books seep into your bones, resonant and you come to remember and reflect on them far more even if you didn’t score it that highly when you first read it.

Some thought that this year has been a poor year for us in terms of books but I think that they are letting the clang for a few shockers reverberate across the great books we have read the noise drowning them out.  The reflection last night was good as it dispelled this as we looked back, yes there were a couple of really bad books but there were some gems as well that will live long in the memory.  I think the year was roughly split actually between the good and not so good.  What I did notice though was that we have read a real range of stuff from 16th century political treatise right up to current day publications hot off the press.  We have covered huge issues through books covering slavery, genocide, class, gender politics, body image and ‘normality’ as well as different genres.

As always though it is the discussion that brings the books alive as we view the issues through the prism of our own experiences and world view and it is this that makes the boys book club so special.  Through the input of the other members I continue to grow as a person, they help me reflect on who I am and why I think the way I do.  I’m challenged, amused, horrified, perplexed but above all nourished by them.  One of our founder members is bowing out as they now live in another city and have struggled to keep up with the rigour that is required.  It’s a sad day in many ways as he will be deeply missed by us all but the book club will go on evolving and I can’t wait to see what 2015 will bring.

So without further ado what collectively were our top three books of the year:-

1. Ask the Dust – John Fante

2. Zone of Interest – Martin Amis

3. The Year of the Hare – Arto Paasilinna

I’d love to know what you think of the range of books we’ve read this year and whether or not you are in a book club, what has been your best books of the year, what would you recommend for us to read in 2015?

 

The Zone of Interest – Martin Amis

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Last nights boysbookclub was a vintage edition, a book that completely split opinion with scores ranging from 2 to 9 meaning that discussion was heated and varied throughout.  We were, as we always are, looked after by the lovely staff of the Crosskeys and enjoyed sumptuous food (the venison and black pudding scotch egg was a thing of wonder) and wine while sinking our teeth into Amis’ latest book.  It’s actually a really good experience to be able to thoroughly disagree with someone and argue the point back and forth but to do so from a position of respect for the other person which only deepens the bond on friendship between us.  I left feeling thoroughly enriched.

If you can’t make it to the book club then you are need to submit a written review and while I have a very different view of the book than this, below is the fantastic review from Phil (@phildean1963) who scored the book 9 out of 10.

Before I read this book, the first question I asked is does the world need another holocaust book? The death camp Holocaust story has been told powerfully many, many times in film, book, stage and for me there has to be a very good reason to put the reader through it again. But after I’d read it, I had to re-appraise my view.

Firstly I have to say I found the The Zone of Interest one of the most brutal, empty, morally void, ambivalent and unflinching books we’ve ever read. At times this book was unreadable—in a good, bad way.

Amis is clearly a writer of real stature, a ‘proper’ author who uses words to massive effect (often ones I have to look up in a dictionary, so he must be proper). He’s that good. He perfectly captures the stark contrast between the captors and the captives – each suffering in their own way. I was reminded many times of Maus, a very different take on the holocaust but no less powerful.

I like at 1st how we didn’t know when the story was set. The picture gradually revealed itself, which usually frustrates but I enjoyed this reveal. Initially it could have been any time in history or the present day, which I’m sure was an intentional dramatic ploy.

The multi-voice narrative was bold, powerful and immersive. Confidently painting the darkest picture imaginable. Unusually, this was easy to navigate displaying the author’s prowess. The impeccable research and exquisite German cultural detail sat alongside horribly accurate concentration camp atrocity. I felt the book laid bare the German psyche: the reasons, the impact, the retribution, the horrific fallout and consequences of their actions. Amis casts an unswerving eye on Germany as a whole and whether involved directly in the mass murder or not, everyone is guilty by implication.

The notes at the end of the book were most enlightening: the immersion and desire to understand what happened and the philosophical arguments that to somehow understand why it actually happened actually validated the actions. These discussions actually helped me to make some sense of the book.

There was of course a mini drama being played out against the harrowing backdrop: Hannah, Thompson and Doll’s complicated relationships seemed at first petty and pathetic, annoying details set against the enormity of industrialised death. It seemed horrifically banal. But in the final chapters, the bitter love story developed into an insightful filter by which we could observe and understand how Germany came to be like this and the dreadful outcome. The relationship was unexpectedly but satisfyingly resolved in the end, in a typically and brutal fashion, the long, icy fingers of the past creeping into the present.

This book made for a truly unenjoyable read: not in the sense that it was hard to read or that it was laborious prose, but because to turn each page was to unearth inhumanity. In the end I didn’t want to turn the pages but I felt compelled to. At times I felt hollowed out by it. There was no triumph of the human spirit to be had here. The atrocities were laid bare, responsibilities clearly handed out and the complicated aftermath only just beginning. Amis revels in the moral ambiguity of his characters, challenging the reader at every turn. At the heart of it were meticulously drawn characters – not sketches – but Leonardo-esque in their detail and accuracy.

I actually love reading history books about the Second World War: Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad and The Second World War are immense and immersive accounts of man’s inhumanity to man (both credited by Amis I noticed in this book). But for me personally, the veneer of factual history literature protects me from the grab you by the balls detail of a novel, where the writer has unfettered access to our imagination—the imagined more powerful than the actual, for once.

And yet his book digs deeper. Gets under the skin of the Third Reich, using the collective German psyche as a prism for their actions; gradually, imperceptibly becoming truly horrific. The book maps out the moral maze Germany faced: everyone implicated from locals turning a blind eye to grey snow and the stench to corporates like Bayer, who still exist today in our everyday lives, quietly making products like Alka Seltzer.

It’s not often I wheel out words like elegant, intense, powerful, truthful. But this book is all of these. I’m not sure it’s ‘fearless and original’ as the blurb describes (back to my earlier point about does the world need another book about the holocaust) but In The Zone of Interestdemands the attention of the reader until the very last page and I’ve scored it high because the book held me in its vice-like grip to the very end.

Impossible to pick up, impossible to put down.

Reliance – by PB

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Following on from our boysbookclub trip to Barcelona where as well as reviewing a book we also took on the task of doing some writing of our own based on the theme of Reliance.  I’ve put up Phil’s and Stuart’s and here’s another one of the pieces done by PB.

The holiday camp next door had portholes for windows and a jaunty ships funnel on its roof, as if all the smoke from the combusting fun had to safely escape to prevent vacation asphyxiation. To the north a silent nuclear reactor, sitting monolithic, casting a long, evening shadow over the caravans. Behind, inland, the rusty Imperial Chemical factory emitting orange, fat, noxious plumes. All that was left was wide expanse. The sky. And to the west the bay, flat-lands and mud, salt-marsh and treacherous, shifting, sinking sands and rolling, curling tides.

Each school holiday the world revolved around this spot on the edge of the ocean. It was still guarded by hexagonal,  piss-infused pillboxes. Some of these crumbling sentinels were losing their own battles. Under them the soft, clay-layered coastline and cliff distintegrated, leaving foundations exposed, teetering on the brink. Others had already made a swift descent to the beach. Now they were making the slow journey to the sea, like giant, unwieldy, concrete, new-born turtles, where the motion of the waves would return them to sand and pebbles.

And a beach littered with huge slabs and blocks, more remnants of coastal fortifications and defences. Why would the Germans invade the country through a caravan site, where good folk take their families for summer, half-term, easter?

But, what i didn’t appreciate at the time was that caravan sites like Quantum Theory, baby boomers and credit cards were a more modern phenomenon, not one the nazi’s had to negotiate.   Their popularity coincided with the post-war picking up and brushing down. From where we were you either headed east or west. And west was where we headed.

The eight berth metal box on wheels was secure. Tethered to the ground, like a barrage balloon, to stop it blowing away in the gusts, gales and winter storms. In high winds it was safe under the sway and the drumming of the rain.

The roof was a ballroom for albatross-sized seagulls that tap-danced across it. If you crawled under, among the grains of dry, sandy earth, you could see the chains keeping it grounded. A hub surrounded by 3 generations, cousins, parents, aunts and grandparents. Fat chips for dinner and ham out of a tin. There were other tins. Tinned potatoes. Tinned carrots. Tinned peas.Vegetables with a metallic edge. Tinned pies. Tinned people.

It was a beautiful place.

After a quarter of a century things have changed. The caravan site, although the same size as it ever was has shrunk. It still smells the same though. According to someone that told me they’d read it, Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past refers to the rush of memories he experiences when smelling a biscuit, a madeleine. My madeleine moment happens whenever i pass a sewage works. I never realised why i’d smile and think of childhood holidays until I returned as an adult.  It can instantly transport me to childhood holidays by the sea and the aroma of the sewage pipe that still carries shit out into the ocean.

The family has dispersed like the tide going out. The stall selling nettle beer in the local village has disappeared.  Further still, in the town, turning away from the empty shops, dilapidated amusements and derelict attractions across the bay there are green hills and purple mountains that weren’t there before but emerged from behind the clouds of growing up.

It is a beautiful place. The always changing constants.

Roll of Honour – by Phil Dean

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When the Boys Book Club go away for the annual trip we have, over the last few years, done some of our own writing as well as reviewing whatever the book happens to be.  The year in Barcelona we had a theme of Reliance and could come up with whatever we wanted to around that theme.  We hunkered down in a bar and read out our own pieces to each other, it was a special moment for me and a real highlight of the trip.  It’s one thing to critique published authors, it’s quite another to have a go at something yourself over a short time-frame (we had three weeks) and reveal that to others.  Phil is, alongside me, one of the earliest members of the bookclub and he wrote a beautiful piece called Roll of Honour inspired by his visits to the stunning Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red installation at the Tower of London.  He has published his piece on his blog so make yourself a cup of tea and go and have a read of Roll of Honour 

I’ll post a couple more of our interpretations on here hopefully over the coming week with the authors permission.

Barcelona and the Boys Book Club

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This year’s annual boys book club weekend away saw us continue the search for a bit of autumnal warmth by heading to Barcelona.  Our trips follow the routine that I wrote about in last years Palma post and Barcelona would be no exception, no grand plan just wander around taking the temperature of the city and it’s culture as we meander, perhaps with a bit of architecture or art thrown in for good measure.  We would of course be reviewing this months book, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and discussing some of our own work as we had set ourselves the theme of Reliance and were tasked with coming up with something creative around that theme.  We also had a couple of new members this year who had not been away with us before so that was also going to be interesting to see how the dynamic might be affected.

Much as I’m not a fan of getting up early in the morning, the forced early start does enable you to make the most of a weekend away as we were sat with a cold beer in our hands in a lovely little plaza by lunchtime with the day before us.  We’d actually stumbled upon a historic weekend to be in Barcelona as all 881 mayors of the various towns and villages of Catalonia were in town to discuss whether they should collectively sign a memorandum calling for the right to be able to hold a referendum on independence.  As a result there were TV crews around, demonstrators and a general feeling of excitement that something was afoot heightened by incredibly loud firecrackers being let off.  Yellow badges were being handed out that it was explained to us were not necessarily signifying that the Catalans wanted independence but that they wanted the right to a referendum to decide their own fate  Echoes of course of what we have recently gone through with Scotland and what might happen with Europe.  Much as I fully support the principle of national self determination I can’t help feel that globalisation is causing communities and nations to encircle the wagons somewhat and wrap those wagons in a national flag which has potentially dangerous undercurrents.

One thing that has definitely changed, even in the short few years we’ve been doing this, is technology.  Photos can be quickly snapped on phones (in the early days a couple of the lads used to rock up with some serious proper camera gear) and of course city maps, places of interest, where to eat / drink etc can be summoned up instantly.  There are many advantages to this but at the same time it can add a bit of tension for those who want to experience things in the moment and not second hand through the glow of a screen or someone else’s recommendation.  The same is also true of the books, do you read it with no prior knowledge or do you use the easily available information to find out more ?  In our book club it is very much frowned upon to do research around the book / author but for some this is a very difficult temptation to resist

Friday’s wanderings saw us drift down through the Gothic quarter mazing our way away from the crowds down through Bareloneta to the beach before thinking about eating (we did a lot of both thinking about it and doing it over the weekend).  A few people had said to me before the trip that you’ll get stung in Barcelona, really expensive.  This was of course true if you couldn’t be bothered to walk a couple of streets away from the honey traps.  If you could then you could (and we did) eat and drink like kings for staggeringly reasonable prices – much cheaper and better quality than Leeds that’s for sure.  Walking away from the seafront area saw us adopt the method for the weekend, a simple neighbourhood bar with a few tables outside and a tapas board delivered fantastic quality and value both from a drink and food perspective every time.  As in every other Spanish city the vast majority of places to eat and drink are small, independents which makes such a refreshing change from the branded sameness of much of the UK these days

We lazily headed back towards the centre of town keeping our eyes open for somewhere good to eat in the evening and popping our heads into anything that looked interesting, which included me joining some lively looking locals for a game of street table tennis.  Before heading out for the evening we had a very quick turnaround at the hotel before regrouping at a local pinchos bar to discuss our own work.  This is always an interesting and eye opening part of the weekend and we started doing it partly as an experiment but also we spend a lot of time critiquing ‘professional’ writers so what does it feel like to have a go yourself and open yourself up to a bit of peer reviewing.  This year we had some great interpretations on the theme, from a Haiku to poetry and short stories, some funny others reflective and some genuinely moving.  I think it really adds something to the weekend and it also proved to me that no matter what we do for our day jobs there is some hidden talent and creativity amongst the group.  Hopefully with the author’s permission I’ll post a couple of the pieces on here.  After more wandering, eating and drinking we turned in after covering a good ten miles during the day, which we would do again on the Saturday.

After clearing our heads – how nice it is to be able to do this sat in a nice plaza with a fresh coffee and orange juice – we decided to have a wander up to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.  Historically of course cathedrals did often take hundreds of years to complete but it feels slightly surreal that this is still the case today – I think 2026 is the anticipated finishing date to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death, but I have my doubts.  It’s a very difficult building to describe but it is undoubtedly one of the most staggering pieces or architecture (or works of art?) that I’ve come across.  Of course there is plenty more of Gaudi’s work dotted about the city that you will come across from the astonishing to the mundane as he designed some of the paving you will be walking on and, as I’ve written about previously, I think you can tell a lot about a city from it’s paving.

After another stunningly good value pavement lunch we wandered down to the Museum of Contemporary Art which had a real mixed bag of a collection in it, a great exhibition called Nitrate by Xavier Ribas contrasted sharply to me against a couple of floors of impenetrable offerings and several surreal items including songs by the Housemartins and the Smiths ?  We all needed something to drink after wandering round the museum before we gathered ourselves for the evening meal and a debate on The Moonstone.  Despite a valiant attempt by one member to point out the relevance of the book it’s fair to say it was universally not enjoyed and I doubt very much if it will enter the reckoning for our book of the year awards in December.

Although we had the odd focal point what I enjoyed most about the weekend was the aimless wandering, the randomness of the conversation and getting to know the other members more.  As we wandered about you would find yourself drifting in and out of different conversations as you walked next to a different person or sat next to someone different at the next bar, these moments are for me what makes the boys book club such a wonderfully rich and rewarding experience.

The photos on this post are a mixture of mine, Phil’s and Andrew’s taken over the weekend.