Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

For a whimsical purchase one Sunday afternoon, I’m pleased with the rich provocations in Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From, a collection of powerful essays written for the New York Review of Books.

Parks’s clear incisive discussion of contemporary criticism, translation and literary convention is uncommonly fresh, but it is the essays on literary globalisation that strike me with greatest intensity. These essays, in particular, makes some of the stakes clear of a relentless pressure to make novels attractive to a global audience. I quote a passage here from his essay Writing Adrift in the World:

Perhaps the problem is rather a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.

I’m surprised not to have come across Parks’s essays before. His essays share the passion and flair I associate with Joseph Epstein, Zadie Smith (a better essayist than novelist) and Geoff Dyer.

Parks also leaves me with a tantalising list of reading suggestions to look into, including an earlier collection of his own essays.

Jonathan Gibb’s Randall

'black painting' - Ad Reinhardt
‘black painting’ – Ad Reinhardt

Satire is a demanding form, an act of aggression that can easily fail. Freud’s depiction of jokes as repressed hostility is evident in the sadistic satire of Anthony Burgess, and the snobbishness of Evelyn Waugh’s self indulgent attacks.

To qualify as satire a denunciation has to be potent, yet yield pleasures for a reader in sharing an act of narrative violence. Jonathan Gibb’s Randall aims its satire at the Young British Artists of the contemporary art world of the 1990s, starting with an act of literal violence, the killing of Damien Hirst, “hit by a train and killed, apparently when drunk”. Its secondary target is that period of the late 1990s when the shock-troops of New Labour’s marketing department set out to rebrand Britain as Cool Britannia, uniting in common purpose a bunch of mostly white males that included the YBAs, pop musicians, second-generation yuppies and media figures.

Randall not only captures the slightly hysteric mood of this period, but also nails its target with deftness and a degree of affection. It is perhaps successful because that hint of amused fondness balances its satirical offensiveness. But don’t take that to mean that Randall’s satire is insipid, it is exquisitely cleansing and gloriously funny.

Books emerge that come to define existence for a particular social strata in certain time periods: Geoff Dyer’s gratifying depiction of life in South London in the 1980s in The Colour of Memory hit its target squarely and cleanly, as does Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised of how people and communities disintegrate under neoliberalism. Randall sits between both time periods, skilfully satirising how art and money found common ground in the 1990s.

Lately …

Lately I’ve listened to a lot of music, intensely, for two to three hours a day. My musical taste is shaped by the punk era, though by the time I discovered punk, it was all over. I’m a child of the post-punk period. Those are my formative musical years – about the only time I wish I was ten, even five years older is when I dream of being present for the early years of the Sex Pistols and the Bromley contingent. But it is post-punk that I still turn to: bands like Joy Division, The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, Killing Joke, Echo and the Bunnymen, it has survived a lot better than most of the earlier punk stuff, which sounds crusty.

I’ve also been playing a fair amount of classical music, Schubert, Sibelius, Pärt, Ligeti and, of course, Beethoven whose late music is rough, abstract, beautiful and I’m kidnapping him as protopunk. The whole 60s-70s musical thing bores me to tears, with the exception of 70s Bowie (and from time to time, Dylan). I’m glad that I’m far too young to not remember the sixties. Jazz, which mostly I don’t get and what I do like is inextricably caught up with context, mostly from reading Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful and The Colour of Memory, hence Mingus, Monk, Chet Baker, but dominated by Miles Davis, mostly because he so fucking cool.

Lately I’ve been to the cinema at least once a week, mainstream films like American Hustle (intelligently written, captivating), Wolf of Wall Street (usual bloated Scorcese male-ego study), and Gravity (silly but technologically fascinating). Despite twice lapping up all fifteen hours of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, my film tastes feel uncultured. I’ll watch Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer and Yasujirō Ozu films with great pleasure, but also with the sense that I am missing a lot of depth and meaning. Watching Room 237 (after reading Molly Laich’s top 2013 films list) showed me depths to my favourite horror film The Shining that I hadn’t even considered after watching it at least a dozen times.

Lately, surprise, surprise, I’ve also been reading a lot. Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination is one of the most intelligent, sensitive readings of art and literature that I’ve read, ever. Both Carole Maso books were worthwhile but I preferred Defiance to Ava. Defiance succeeded in making a female psychopath multi-layered and sympathetic. It is also deeply upsetting. There were many beautiful moments in Ava but for me its fragmentary form never quite cohered into a sustained narrative, and I’m ambivalent about the literary romanticising of cancer and death. I had a fascinating debate on Twitter with @DeathZen about Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. In a moment of afterglow I compared it to Greek tragedy, a bit silly, but its portrayal of mental collapse and fury is reminiscent of the aftermath of Jason’s desertion of Medea. Ferrante is no Euripides but she can write with great potency, and to borrow a phrase from James Woods, is able to rip ‘the skin off the habitual’. I’m reading Alix Cléo Roubaud’s Alix’s Journal, which is quietly devastating, immensely personal, and also the best book I’ve read so far this year.

David Shields’ How literature saved my life

It’s been two, maybe three years, since I read David Shields’ manifesto Reality Hunger, and I’ve often wondered about my response to that book. It was uncharacteristic in a way I find interesting. While reading Reality Hunger I disliked the form, not quite knowing which material was borrowed and which was Shield’s own (while enjoying the reasons he adopted that form). I broadly agreed with the argument, neither original nor particularly well made, that plot-driven narrative fiction has become a stale and nugatory vehicle. Shield’s paean to the essay was less persuasive. Since reading Reality Hunger it has served as an irritant similar to grit in the soft part of an oyster. Hankering for more insight into Shield’s consciousness, I sought out The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.

So, it was with curiosity I read his latest How literature saved my life, essentially making the same point as Reality Hunger but serving as literary memoir and continued observation about art and death. As memoir, Shields’ personality is explicitly present on every page and it struck me that, in this and his earlier books, it is his personality that I respond most strongly to. It is the same sensation  I get from reading Geoff Dyer and Kate Zambreno. Literary flair aside, and there is plenty of that in all three writers, they pass the pub test. I can conjure up wonderful winter evenings spent in a good pub with Shields, Dyer or Zambreno, preferably all three, discussing art, literature, death, and generally, for a time, lessening the loneliness inherent in life. Though I prize their literary work, I cannot imagine a similar evening in the company of JM Coetzee or Susan Sontag. I suspect it is also why all three writers encourage such polarised opinion, in part a personal response to how warmly or coolly readers respond to their personalities.

From How literature saved my life, an excerpt that could easily serve as my personal literary manifesto. Perhaps in Shieldian fashion I should borrow it as my own.

How an awful lot of “literature’ is to me the very antithesis of life

We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb. Straight-forward fiction functions as more Bubble Wrap, nostalgia, retreat. Why is the traditional novel c.2013 no longer germane (and the postmodern novel shroud upon shroud)? Most novels’ glacial pace isn’t remotely congruent with the speed of our lives and our consciousness of these lives. Most novels’ explorations of human behaviour still owe far more to Freudian psychology than they do to cognitive science and DNA. Most novels treat setting as if where people live matters as much to us as it did to Balzac, Most novels frame their key moments as a series of filmable moments straight out of Hitchcock. And above all, the tidy coherence of most novels-highly praised ones in particular-implies a belief in an orchestrating deity, or at least a purposeful meaning to existence that the author is unlikely to possess, and belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhabit and overwhelm us. I want work that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foreground the question of how the writer solves being alive. Samuel Johnson: A book should either allow us to escape existence of teach us how to endure it. Acutely aware of our mortal conduction, I find books that simple allow us to escape our existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it.)

Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear

Assembling even a small collection of essays is a performance. A single essay may sparkle with brilliance and wit-particularly dangerous if the first in a collection-but a collection risks being abased by its weakest part. A coherent collection that manages to avoid the danger of redundancy is a rare and thrilling performance.

Reading Duncan Fallowell’s essay collection How to Disappear is to play for high stakes. His earlier To Noto: London to Sicily in a Ford is a touchstone book for me, an exemplar of modern travel literature. Like Geoff Dyer, Fallowell writes idiosyncratic non-fiction where he is as present as the subject of his essays.

There are but five essays in How to Disappear connected thematically by the notion of disappearance, whether by reclusion, death or disregard. Fallowell’s fondness for his subjects is evident in his obsessive research and tender portrayals, in particular of social climber Bapsy Pavry and Alastair Graham, Evelyn Waugh’s inspiration for the Sebastian Flyte character in Brideshead Revisited.

How to Disappear equals the charm and discursiveness of Fallowell’s To Noto and is enlivened by its chosen subjects. With the exception of the subject of the final essay-Diana, Princess of Wales-each subject had me googling to learn more about their lives. Besides the final, thankfully short essay, the collection is a performance of sustained pleasure.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Tolstoy liked Chekhov on first meeting, saying, “He is full of talent and undoubtedly has a very good heart.” That the sentiment applies equally to Elif Batuman is the concluding impression on finishing The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

Describing the book as a “volume of memoiristic literary-critical essays about the experiences of a graduate student of Russian literature” Batuman has explained, “The Possessed is not the book I meant to write – it’s not how I meant to write it.” The statement would apply to most of Geoff Dyer’s books, a writer with much in common with Elif Batuman. Though these essays are purportedly about the major Russian writers, in practise these are a framework for her to digress enthusiastically about multifarious subjects including theory, the difficulties of translation and watermelon selection.

Though the quality is uneven, all seven essays display Batuman’s wit and erudition, and I could happily have read another seven. My favourite is the three-part Summer in Samarkand, a beautifully evocative piece of writing, revealing of both place and the characters Batuman met. Her carefully selected words to describe a language teacher: “Muzaffar, a philosophy graduate student, had pale skin, pale almond eyes, high cheekbones, and a floppy, sad, puppetlike comportment”, contrasts with the more rococo portrayal of the Vice-Rector Safarov, “a personage whose refrigerator-like build, rubbery face, and heavy eyelids brought to mind some anthropomorphic piece of furniture in a Disney movie.”

Batuman’s The Possessed sits at ease beside the essays of Geoff Dyer or Dubravka Ugrešić and I await with interest whatever she writes next.

Idées Fixes of the Week

Zena Assi: from the Beirut series

I’ve wallowed in Zena Assi’s Cities series, meticulously detailed paintings of Beirut. Look close enough and you can see laundry hanging between buildings.

*****

Influenced by Geoff Dyer’s review I read Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman. The narrative is well constructed and compelling. Tokyo comes alive, as does each character. I read the book in two sittings, flagging only a little toward the end. Though I share Dyer’s admiration for Parry’s writing I am torn by the nature of the genre.

It is the first (and last) time I dip into the ‘true crime’ genre. The act of analysing and building narrative from the actions and emotions of the Blackman family and their friends, not characters but people in England, living not too far from where I live, feels exploitative. Is that just me being overly squeamish? How do you accurately interpret somebody’s emotions, and consequent actions, when they are living through such a horrendous experience? With the impossibility of accessing another person’s ‘inner’ feelings, any such interpretation is just what David Ellis termed ‘affable pretence’.

*****

*****

Zona by Geoff Dyer

Without reservation, I am a deep-seated admirer of Geoff Dyer’s work. Since reading his D. H. Lawrence book I have continued through each of his titles. Last year I went to a talk that Dyer gave on Camus, (available here, but registration needed for the full video. It is worth it when you have a free 55 minutes.), when he spoke of Camus as a kindred spirit. It is a similar, extraordinary kinship I feel for Dyer’s writing. There is a connection beyond some murky similarities in our backgrounds.

Dyer’s latest book Zona has as its foundation Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which has haunted me through three successive viewings. I am far from finished with Stalker so I am thrilled Dyer chose (and was permitted) to weave his discourse around (almost) a shot by shot post-mortem of the film. If you haven’t read Dyer before or seen Stalker, I recommend you watch the film and start elsewhere with Dyer.

At one point Dyer writes,

There are no clichés in Tarkovsky: no clichés of plot, of framing, no clichés of music to underline the emotional meaning of a scene (or, as is more usually the case, to compensate or make good for an emotional meaning that would be absent were it not for the music). Actually, we need to qualify this slightly; there are no one else’s clichés in Tarkovsky.

By the time you’ve read several of Geoff Dyer’s books, fiction or non-fiction (these categories become irrelevant), the same statement could so easily apply. Conceptually and in its realisation Zona is reliant on Dyerian cliché, but that is not a negation of the book’s virtuosity. Dyer’s writing is idiosyncratically brilliant for its immunity from the traditional contrivances of literature. Ostensibly about Stalker, Dyer digresses far from his original theme. This latest Dyer is brilliant, but on this occasion please don’t expect objectivity.

How I Became a Nun by César Aira

There may be hyperbole around the fiction of César Aira, or perhaps How I Became a Nun didn’t stand a chance of meeting my high expectations. Aira is sometimes mentioned alongside writers like Dyer, Berger, Krasznahorkai, Murnane and Coetzee as writing vital, forward-looking fiction. How I Became a Nun is darkly funny and surreal, and quite evidently an accomplished work of fiction, but it didn’t knock me sideways.

The story begins, “My story, the story of “how I became a nun,” began very early in life; I had just turned six.” Aira places “how I became a nun” in quotation marks in that sentence, in direct allusion to the title of his novel. Thereafter there is no further mention of nuns. The narrator, who dies before the end of the novel, narrates her death, is named as César Aira, though for most of the novel portrayed as a six-year old girl. I say ‘most’ as on at least two instances she is referred to as a boy.

The autobiographical narrator uses the children in the class to build elaborate stories, and thus obliquely narrates her/his fictional beginning.

As I had no dolls,I had to make do with make-believe children. And as I didn’t have any already made up, I used real ones, reimagining them as I pleased. They were my classmates, the only children I knew, and they were ideal for my purposes, because I had no idea of their lives outside school. For me they were absolute schoolchildren. To make the game more fun, I gave them twisted, difficult, baroque personalities.

The ending is absurdly brilliant. Aira is a writer I shall be returning to, but I’d appreciate any suggestions of what Aira books to read. My edition advertises An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

The Problem with History

History professor Joanna Bourke invokes Auden’s poem, Musée des Beaux Arts (1938), in a well expressed review of two history books by Peter Englund and Max Hastings. With few exceptions (for example, Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme) I dislike reading historical accounts of wars, and history in general. The genre’s presentation as non-fiction, all the while oozing fiction makes me queasy.

Bourke quotes Auden’s words,

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a
window or just walking along.

Reading this poem years ago perfectly captured my difficulty with reading histories (and poems) about the horrors of war. Bourke goes on to say,

This is what disturbed Auden about the response of writers to the atrocity at Lidice: the flood of poems actually served to draw attention away from the people of Lidice and towards the swollen sensibilities of the poets and their readers. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion, he concluded, that “what was really bothering the versifiers was a feeling of guilt at not feeling horrorstruck enough”.

In concluding her review, Bourke correctly adds that both Englund and Hastings serve as war correspondents, and that,”it is noticeable that elaborate recitations on the horrors of war do not necessarily translate into a politics of non-violence”.

A Corking Issue of the Paris Review


This corking issue of the Paris Review features not only the Geoff Dyer excerpt of his next book on Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but also a brilliant  essay by Lydia Davis, Some Notes on Translation and on  Madame Bovary.

Essential reading for anyone with an interest in translation, Davis discusses, in a wide-ranging essay, the evolution of her translation of Madame Bovary between hardback and paperback, and in later editions. Digressing into other languages Davis comes to the pleasures of the German language:

The concreteness of their word for (our Latinate) multiplication: Einmaleins (=”one-times-one”).

The economy or condensation of their Wildbachbrücke (=’wild-brook’bridge”) = bridge over a mountain stream).

One of my favourites is a word I remember from a Peter Handke novel but cannot now find in it, search as I may. I find it elsewhere, though, in an article about a 5,300-year-old corpse preserved by a glacier and discovered in the Alps by a Bersteigerhepaar (=”mountain-climbing-married-couple”).

This is Google translated more concisely as “climber couple”; the corpse is described in English by the translation machine as “freeze-dried.”

Even Geoff Dyer’s Footnotes are Worth Reading

A footnote, Noel Coward observed, is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love. On this, and many other topics, Noel and I am in total agreement. But as always in life there are exceptions, and if there is to be an exception for me it is likely to be Geoff Dyer.

This is a footnote from an excerpt of his next book which happens to be about one of my top-five favourite films, Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It contains all the elements that make Dyer my most prized contemporary writer.

On the subject of quotation within film: an interesting study could be made of scenes in films where other bits of film are seen, glimpsed, or watched, whether at a drive-in, on TV, or in the cinema (Frankenstein in The Spirit of the Beehive, Red River in The Last Picture Show, The Passion of Joan of Arc in Vivre sa Vie). Actually, maybe it wouldn’t be that interesting after all; one wouldn’t get far without the word meta cropping up and turning everything to dust. But, as it happens, this sequence in Stalker is used to a brilliant effect in Uzak (Distant, 2002) by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Mahmut, a middle-aged photographer, is living in Istanbul. When his clodhopping cousin, Yusuf, comes to the city looking for work, Mahmut is obliged to put him up in his apartment. They come from the same village, but they’re worlds apart and Mahmut is not about to compromise his high aesthetic standards just because a dull-witted cousin has come to stay. So when we see them at home, feet up, watching TV, it’s not Top Gear or Turkey’s Got Talent they’re watching; it’s Stalker, the trolley sequence. The two of them are slumped and starched out in their chairs, in a torpor of concentration and boredom. Mahmut is eating nuts, pistachios presumably. Cousin Yusuf has nodded off. One can hardly blame him; even the most boring night in the village cannot compare with the depths of tedium being plumbed here. Professor, Stalker, and Writer are on-screen, on the trolley, heading toward the Zone, faces in tight close-up, while, in the unfocused background, some kind of landscape blurs past. The electronic score echoes and clangs through the apartment. Yusuf wakes up, amazed to discover that he’d only been asleep for a few seconds or, even more amazingly, that after a decent nap the TV is still showing these three old blokes drifting along the railroad to nowhere. Peasant he might be, but at some level he has intuited Baudrillard’s insight that television is actually a broadcast from another planet. The evening, evidently, is not going to improve. He decides to go to bed. They say good night. After a decent interval, Mahmut gets up, fetches a video, puts it in the VCR, and points the remote. Stalker is replaced by girl-on-girl porn. Everything else remains pretty much unchanged. Before, he had one foot on the pouf, and one hitched up over the arm of the chair. Now he has both feet on the pouf, otherwise he’s stretched out the same way as when he was watching Stalker. The only difference is that now, instead of this long magical sequence of three men clanging toward the Zone, we’ve got a silicon-breasted woman sucking the tits of a Page 3 model. Upstairs, Yusuf calls home. After a while he comes down again, and Mahmut, who has not budged, who is not jerking off, whose fly is not even open, just about has enough time to flip to a broadcast channel. The fact that the indescribably boring film they were watching before has morphed into some kind of comedy is not lost on Yusuf-this is much more his cup of tea-and stands there snickering a bit, so Mahmut flips channels again and comes to a kung fu movie-which is exactly Yusuf’s cup of tea. His evening has improved after all, but Mahmut’s has taken a decided turn for the worse: no Tarkovsky and no g.o.g. action, just him and his moronic cousin watching a kung fu film. It’s late, he says. Let’s turn that off.

If you want a definition of deadpan you could do a lot worse than choose this sequence to illustrate you point. In fact, thinking about it, this is probably the most deadpan sequence I have ever seen in a film. It’s so deadpan that you have to be a real cinephile to find it funny, and even then you don’t actually laugh out loud. You just sit there in the sofa with your feet up, munching pistachios, watching, snickering. If you laugh out loud it’s partly to show you get the joke in all its precise levels of denotation, but there’s an element of affectation about that laughter; it’s one of those laughs that contain the desire to explain why you’re laughing, why you’re so clever. If I were to make a film I would contrive a scene in which a couple of people were watching Uzak, though probably not this bit. That way I’d really show how clever I was, and it would give people in the audience a chance to have a good, third-degree, cinephilic metachuckle.