Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Children's Book And Black Swan

Phew, I did it. I finally managed to read all of A S Byatt's The Children's Book. It has taken me almost two weeks which is about seven times longer than anything else that I have read recently but I'm glad that I finished it. It begins in the last quarter of the 19th century and charts the lives of Humphrey and Olive Wellwood and their extended family and neighbours for over thirty years.

The cast of characters is immense and it is this that caused me to take so long in the reading. I read that Byatt had to keep a spreadsheet to keep track of everyone in the book and it might have been helpful for the reader if a couple of family trees had been included as, for the first two hundred pages, I was constantly having to confirm the inter relationships. If you think that I am being a lightweight, consider that the following - Imogen, Marian, Phyllis, Florence, Tom. Geraint, Benedict, Humphrey, Olive, Gerald,Charles, Prosper, Basil, Dorothy, Florian, Julian, Wolfgang,Hedda,Ann,Robin (x2), Elsie, Serafina, Griselda and Philip all play fairly prominent roles (and I've missed a fair few out). As there is no lead character as such and everyone is given a fairly equal amount of time, the book has the feel of an epic saga as the somewhat Bohemian family grows up through the golden age of art nouveau, the years of the suffragette movement and ultimately towards the horrors of the Great War.

Byatt cleverly entwines real people of the day into her narrative - Oscar Wilde and J M Barrie are amongst the many famous names woven into her story. She writes knowledgeably on the Grand Exposision in Paris and the work of Pallisy, Lalique and William De Morgan. She also writes convincingly about German puppet theatre whose imagery plays an important part in the book.

One of the major characters, Olive Wellwood, is an author who writes children's stories. She also writes individual private stories for each of her many children and it is to these that the title refers. Olive is extremely tolerant of her husband and with strands of free love, hints of incest and homosexuality and a smattering of tragedy, the book is extremely well plotted and very neatly tied together - Victorian prudery and suppressed sexuality is well and truly laid to rest amongst this artistic group.

Despite my initial misgiving on the complex range of characters, I enjoyed the book and was keen to see how each branch of the family and their offspring developed. With so many people's stories being told I did not engage fully with any one particular character which meant that, when tragedies inevitably arise, the book does not tug on the heartstrings in the way that a novel with a less complex family set up might. But, for the same reason, the book is able to investigate a hugely varying and interesting array of subjects from pottery and communism to puppetry and women's suffrage - a range that would not have been possible with a smaller cast of characters.

I could see this being made into an epic television series - a dark and far more serious successor to Larkrise to Candleford. If it was, the unemployment rate amongst actors would be cut at a stroke. Do read it - if you've got the time.

After our Orange Wednesday trip to see Black Swan yesterday we've now seen seven of the ten best  picture category Oscar nominated movies. True Grit and The Fighter are only just being released in the UK and we somehow missed The Kid's Are Alright. Unfortunately, with Black Swan, we've also missed something as Marion and I were both puzzled by the rapturous rave reviews that it has been getting.

The film tells the story of a young ballerina Nina, played by Oscar Nominated Natalie Portman, who, after years of devotion to her ballet company, is finally given the opportunity to play the prima ballerina lead in Swan Lake. Living at home with her mum in a small apartment Nina has a sheltered existence which is reflected in her pink bedroom crammed full of cuddly toys and ballet ornaments. Her predatory director gives her her breakthrough by telling her that she has no problems in portraying the white swan  (goodness) but she needs to find the black swan (evil) within her. Amongst the sage advice he offers to help her to find her inner black swan is the instruction that she should go home and touch herself. She does this with some relish but doesn't manage to find a black swan down there and when she brings a fellow ballerina home for what I felt was a bit of lesbian titillation put in purely for the boys, her friend also fails to find the black swan despite having a very good look.

The search for her dark side causes poor Nina mental stress that leaves her neurotic, hallucinating and on the edge of a breakdown. The film climaxes with the spectacular opening night when we discover whether or not she has found the Black Swan.

I know that some of my comments look like a flippant dismissal of a critically acclaimed film but, of all the Oscar nominated films, this alone has something of the king's new clothes about it. The music is great, the filming is dark and threatening and yes, Portman puts in an excellent performance but for us the story was weak, cliched  and extremely predicable. I feel guilty criticising a film that has been so widely loved but we enjoyed the other six nominated movies very much so we aren't that much out of line with the judges' opinions. Go and see it and let me know what you think.