Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead

EXHIBITION

Manet: Portraying Life,  Royal Academy, Burlington House  Piccadilly, London W1, 26 Jan - 14 April
A retrospective devoted to the portraiture of Edouard Manet. Works from Europe Asia and the USA are brought together in this showcase of a prolific and influential painter. Despite the fact that around half of Manet's artistic output was made up of portraiture, this is the first ever retrospective of this kind. It includes depictions of the artist's  family and friends, as well as literary, political and artistic figures of Paris of the time. The over 50 works on display include portraits of Manet’s wife Suzanne Leenhoff, intellectuals of the period Antonin Proust, Émile Zola and Stéphane Mallarmé, and scenes from everyday life, revealing Manet’s forward-thinking, modern approach to portraiture.

FILM

Breakfast at Tiffany's, British Film Institute, cinemas across London, 14 Feb

The BFI is screening Breakfast at Tiffany's, a classical romantic comedy, at 14 cinemas across London on Valentine's Day. Breakfast at Tiffany's tells the story of aspiring writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard) and to his unconventional neighbour Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). Holly is a stylish socialite with a hidden past and her unlikely pairing with Paul has become one of the most well-known of modern love stories on film. The movie will be screened at the following cinemas: Charlotte St. Hotel, Everyman Baker Street, Everyman Belsize Park, Everyman Maida Vale, Clapham Picturehouse, Gate Picturehouse, Greenwich Picturehouse, Hackney Picturehouse, Stratford East Picturehouse and Prince Charles Cinema.The movie will be screened at the following cinemas: Charlotte St. Hotel, Everyman Baker Street, Everyman Belsize Park, Everyman Maida Vale, Clapham Picturehouse, Gate Picturehouse, Greenwich Picturehouse, Hackney Picturehouse, Stratford East Picturehouse and Prince Charles.

EXHIBITION

Sylvia Sleigh, Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock  Liverpool Waterfront, Liverpool, 8 February – 3 May

Sylvia Sleigh was a realist painter in New York’s feminist art scene in the 1960s and beyond. Her explicit paintings of male nudes challenged the art historical tradition of male artists painting female subjects as objects of desire. This exhibition at Tate Liverpool will be Sleigh’s first UK retrospective. It is also the largest exhibition of her work to date. Sleigh’s portraits reject the idealisation of frmale bodies, painting details such as tan-lines and body hair. Her work highlights that there is beauty to be found in everyone, regardless of their imperfections. Tate Liverpool has invited LA-based artist Frances Stark to respond to the exhibition, offering an interpretation of Sleigh’s work and a contemporary consideration of her relevance and impact.

PHOTOGRAPHY

After the Fall - Hin Chua, Third Floor Gallery, 102 Bute Street, Cardiff, 2 Feb - 17 Mar
The photographs in After the Fall are taken at the edges of urban development, places where towns and cities dissolve in the surrounding countryside. These forgotten places - discarded fields, industrial hinterlands, geographical accidents – are described as “in a state of impermanence, their lifetime short compared to that of the man made sprawl that will take over them”. These images fix into photographic paper the unpredictable, often disturbing results of the collisions that are gradually and chaotically reshaping the spaces around us. Hin Chua uses satellite imagery to find locations; landing him in surprising and often deserted locations in unfamiliar countries. Taken over several years, After the Fall brings a global perspective on the process of urbanization, which is changing our landscapes.

THEATRE

The Captain of Köpenick, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1, 5 Feb – 4 April

Released after fifteen years in prison, trapped in a bureaucratic maze, petty criminal Wilhelm Voight wanders 1910 Berlin in desperate, hazardous pursuit of identity papers. Luck changes when he picks up an abandoned military uniform in a fancy-dress shop and finds the city ready to obey his every command. At the head of six soldiers, he marches to the Mayor’s office, cites corruption and confiscates the treasury with ease. But still what he craves is official recognition that he exists. A nation heads blindly towards war as the misfit takes on the state in Ron Hutchinson’s savagely funny new version of Carl Zuckmayer’s The Captain of Köpenick, first staged in Germany in 1931. Antony Sher takes the title role.

LONDON - DECEMBER 1: People walk past the Manet's Masked Ball at the Opera (circa 1873), Graeme Robertson, CREDIT: Getty Images
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism