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20 years after his death, we still know so little of Derek Jarman

A facsimile of his only book of poems, A Finger in the Fishes Mouth, and a new book of sketches, thoughts and quotations, brings Jarman's art into fuller and more luminous perspective.

A Finger in the Fishes Mouth
Derek Jarman
Test Centre, 148pp, £12.99

Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks
Ed. Stephen Farthing and Ed Webb-Ingall
Thames & Hudson, 256pp, £28

These are two beautiful books, diverse records of an artist who transformed every element of his life into beauty. Indeed, Derek Jarman, who died 20 years ago this week, ended his life with a perfect metaphor of his art by creating a garden in Dungeness in Kent, the only small area of Britain that is geographically classified as desert.

A Finger in the Fishes Mouth is a facsimile edition of the only book of poetry Jarman ever published, at the age of 30 in 1972. He apparently took efforts to destroy all known copies for reasons that are not clear. The poetry is that of a young man who has read deeply in both the Beats and T S Eliot. In Venice, we hear old Tom – “we could see the rain drifting in from the dead Adriatic” – and in Manhattan, Ginsberg: “I have walked through lives littering the east side”.The poems are placed in montage with a series of postcards that expand the text both geographically and historically. The whole effect is both charming and interesting but nobody would claim that the book is more than juvenilia, which is how Jarman described his own poetry.

Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks brings Jarman and his art into fuller and more luminous perspective. From early on in his life, Jarman kept large, elaborate sketchbooks in which he would pursue his ideas and images. Thoughts or quotations written out in Jarman’s elegant italic hand were juxtaposed with typed pages from the books he was writing and pressed wild flowers. Images from classical painting and tabloid newspapers were placed beside personal photographs or drawings, and all this riot of word and image was arranged with an insouciant care. The process of investigation was itself a thing of beauty.

This collection of sketchbook pages, painstakingly edited and strikingly reproduced, is punctuated by revealing texts by some of Jarman’s closest collaborators, from Tilda Swinton to Neil Tennant, and an acute and informed running commentary provided by Jarman’s partner, Keith Collins. My first and most valuable lesson in film came from Derek, after I had spent three months closeted with lawyers persuading Nicholas Ward-Jackson to give up his ownership of Jarman’s Caravaggio script and thus let the BFI produce the film that Derek had dreamed of for seven years. “What you must remember, Colin,” Jarman said, “is that the finished film is only a by-product. What matters most is that everybody working on it is having fun.” And what fun we had.

In 2004, when Derek had been ten years in his grave, one could have been forgiven for thinking that he had disappeared forever. The loathsome UK Film Council openly boasted that its only policy was “not to make Derek Jarman films” and his work seemed to have been largely forgotten. Ten years on, the Film Council has been abolished, the British Film Institute is mounting a full retrospective of his films and King’s College London is staging a series of events, from an immersive exhibition to a conference on Jarman’s multiple investigations of the Renaissance.

But even all the current attention does not seem fully to take the measure of a man whose talents were so many and multiple and whose engagement with the history of his time so varied and vital. Jarman’s writing, in the series of books that he produced from Dancing Ledge (1984) onwards – part autobiography, part queer manifesto, part reflections on history and politics – may be among the finest English prose ever written (certainly there is little from the 1980s and 1990s to match it).

The films seem to me to have not yet been differentiated out from one another. Sebastiane and Jubilee are essential documents of the social history of the 1970s but it is difficult to claim them as great films. It was only after Jarman was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1986 that he made a series of films – The Last of England, Edward II, Wittgenstein, Blue – that mix politics and philosophy, history and sexuality, form and self in one of the greatest cinematic experiments of all time.

And even with this praise we have perhaps not yet taken the full measure of Jarman. He trained as an artist and in the last years of his life devoted as much time to painting as film-making. Let’s hope the reappraisal of his work continues – in another ten years, perhaps Tate will have a full Jarman retrospective.

Colin MacCabe is executive producer of the Derek Jarman Lab, Birkbeck, University of London.

Image: pages from Derek Jarman's Sketchbooks, courtesy of the Derek Jarman Estate.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit