Gilbey on film: A matter of life and death

Kazuo Ishiguro and the cinema of mortality.

According to Stephen King, the first contact he ever had with Stanley Kubrick came shortly before the director filmed his adaptation of King's novel The Shining. (Which, by the by, gives me a great excuse to link to this fake trailer, much-circulated but still hugely amusing, imagining that bright-lit horror as a cockle-warmer à la Regarding Henry or A Good Year or Dan in Real Life.) King tells the story of how Kubrick called out of the blue one morning to posit the theory that all works of the supernatural must be inherently hopeful because they propose that there is life after death.

This thought occurred to me a few weeks ago while I was watching Biutiful, which is approximately 99 per cent grim, with a crucial 1 per cent of hope provided by the knowledge that all the suffering endured by the characters will be followed by serenity -- at least if there's any truth in the brief glimpse the film gives us of the afterlife. The spirit may begin its journey clinging to the ceiling, like something nasty you get in your hotel room on a cheap package holiday to Gran Canaria, but at least one dead character ends his days in a peaceful, snow-covered woodland clearing, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film's locations: sweatshops, funeral parlours, immigrant detention centres and cramped urban apartments at which even a battery hen would turn up its beak.

Another, more transparently reassuring film about the afterlife -- Clint Eastwood's Hereafter (the placatory spiritual content of which is discussed here) -- also opened last week. Put aside the latter picture's shameless piggybacking on disasters natural (the 2004 tsunami) and man-made (the London bombings on 7 July 2005) and it's clear that Hereafter is providing a necessary and traditional service. On one hand such movies offer the same balm in troubled times as a great work such as A Matter of Life and Death, which in 1946 reassured audiences grieving over wartime losses that an afterlife resembling their mortal existence, right down to the meddlesome bureaucracy, awaited them at the top of a vast staircase. But there is always the question of tone: while Powell and Pressburger's film brings a warm, wry wit to bear on its fantasy, and leaves ample space for the viewer's good-natured incredulity, Hereafter depends for its success on being watched straight; in that context, it leaves you feeling you've been taken for a sucker.

At the other end of the scale on the subject of spirituality and the afterlife is the forthcoming adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which opens on 11 February. Look out for it: despite the shocking snub it received from Bafta, and the fact that its distributor is effectively throwing in the towel by releasing it on the same day as the Coen brothers' True Grit, with which it will compete for the same audience, it has much to recommend it. Certain details from Ishiguro's novel have been compromised: the main character, for example, has been weirdly stripped of her sexual promiscuity in the apparent interests of good taste, while a key moment pertaining to the title has been completely undermined.

But what remains undiminished is the source material's staggeringly sane perspective in the face of death. The film's director Mark Romanek has already explored death and its attendant taboos from unusual angles -- first in his whimsical 1985 debut Static (a highly original work which, outrageously, he now omits from his CV) and then in the mighty video he directed for "Hurt" by Johnny Cash. Without lessening the cosmic dread around the subject, Never Let Me Go brings to it a sense of resolution, even positivity.

Some reviews of the novel were understandably circumspect in discussing the story's surprises, which were revealed only gradually, but I can say upfront -- because the film does -- that it begins at a boarding school for children who have been cloned to provide organ donations when they reach adulthood. As the characters grow up, their struggle to come to terms with their premature deaths (well, premature to us, but natural to them) mirrors the futile wrestling match with mortality in which we all engage.

"I think we're offering a fairly optimistic story," Ishiguro told me last year.

"How the characters behave to each other provides an optimistic view of human nature. They're not all fighting for their little bit, they're not grasping at material possessions; what they really care about is each other, and if they've done something wrong they want to apologise and put it right. That's why the bleak backdrop is there. It's so we can watch what matters to people when they know they're down to their last few moments. There's a big metaphor about mortality, the human lifespan, in the book but for me the point of the story isn't to say, 'Look folks, we're all going to die, just wanted to remind you!' It's not that. It's more that given we only have limited time, how should we use it? What's actually important? What are human beings like?"

Never Let Me Go is released on 11 February.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era