A Film For February: Nights of Cabiria

Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is the eternally optimistic prostitute walking along the Passeggiata Archeologica in Rome. As she witnesses humanity in all its guises, her indomitable spirit with its strange contradiction of innocence and street wisdom refuses to give up the hope of finding true love.

There’s the humility of the bag snatcher and the excitement of the movie star but it’s Cabiria’s self reliance that is her strength, her stubborn optimism never lets her down and Giulietta Masina’s physicality fabulously portrays this as she collapses when she’s beaten down only to get up and mambo with infectious joy. It’s this spirit that is so uplifting and offsets the tragedy with comedy and fun.

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Breakfast At Tiffany’s

Our narrator is sitting in Joe Bell’s bar reminiscing about the brownstone he lived in years back and Holly Golightly, the girl who lived in the apartment downstairs. Neither of them have seen her for years, in fact they haven’t seen each other for years but there’s a rumour she’s been seen in Africa so it’s time to meet up.

She had a cat and played guitar, she was flirtatious and kooky and when she danced she floated around ‘light as a scarf’. She ran messages for the mob every Thursday and held raucous parties filled with martini laughter and attended by New York’s glitterati, she suffered from ‘the mean reds’, not the blues worse than that, more like panic attacks and was always on the look out for somewhere safe to live, so that she could buy some furniture and give the cat a name. A place that made her feel safe like the inside of Tiffany’s with its quietness and kind men in their nice suits.

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Two Classic Crime Minis

Not the civilised world of dusty academics or even the cosy world of packages and parcels tied up with string, this is the underbelly of the book trade, where bookshop runners grasp for a particular edition leading to seedy underhand wheeling and dealing that isn’t afraid of theft or even murder.

Bookman Micheal Fisk is celebrating the acquisition of Keats’ own, signed copy of Endymion, staggering home he’s helped by Police Sergeant Jack Wigan, walking his beat (it’s 1956). The two strike up a conversation which leads to friendship and Wigan starting his own book collection. When Fisk is found murdered, the C.I.D call in Sergeant Wigan as someone who knows their way around the book world.

I really enjoyed this one. Lots of characters that were a bit rough around the edges, and some that were just plain rough but all knew a rare edition when they saw it and often remembered exactly where and when. But will they tell? It’s a world of sinister jealousy with its own unwritten collector’s code that the likeable and straightforward Wigan walks in too but he’ll have to race against the clock to catch the murderer.

Death Of A Bookseller (1956), by Bernard J. Farmer is an exciting and thrilling bibliomystery; but Farmer was also a knowledgable bibliophile and former policeman and that lends it an air of authority; not just in the quantity of book lore and bookish detail that’s included but also in the unflappable compassion and sense of justice that Wigan portrays. Definitely an author to look out for.

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The Exiles Return

Elisabeth von Ephrussi was born into a Jewish banking dynasty in 1899, her scholarly father was Viktor von Ephrussi and her beautiful socialite mother the Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla. Raised in the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna, she was at the centre of a city that had become a great collection of nationalities and ethnic groups. As her grandson Edmund de Waal says in his introduction ‘her memories were of a polyglot upbringing in a polyglot city.’ She attended the University, took up poetry and writing and had a significant correspondence with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In 1923 she married a Dutchman Henrik de Waal and after living in Paris and Switzerland settled in England.

In 1938 after the German occupation, Elisabeth returned to Vienna and in 1939 managed to get her father to safety in England. At the end of the war she returned again to find out about the rest of her family, and fought for a decade to get justice for the wrongs that had been committed, battling the hostile authorities. This sketchy family history is important because this is such a deeply personal novel. Not published during her lifetime, it was written sometime in the 1950’s and is set during 1954 and ’55 in Allied-occupied Vienna when the city was still divided into occupation zones. This is a novel about finding a home, but very specifically about finding a home in Vienna after the Anschluss. Told through the stories of 3 exiles, each seems to encapsulate something of Elisabeth’s own experience and the adversity she found; the drama that unfolds is as thrilling as anything shown at the Vienna State Opera.

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A Film For October: Sunset Boulevard

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a struggling screen writer fleeing from the insurance men who want to re posses his car. He reaches a seemingly derelict mansion and hides his car in the garage. Of course he gets out to have a snoop around and is met by the butler who takes him inside. The house is owned by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) a forgotten silent-screen star, now almost a recluse, hiding herself away except for the odd game of bridge with a group of other ‘waxworks‘!

Once Norma realises she has a screenwriter in the house she asks Joe to read the script she’s been writing for a potential film about Salome – a film in which she’ll star, and see her triumphal return to the screen. Needing the money Joe agrees, but once he’s moved in, the full extent of her demented fantasy world becomes clear.

Written and directed by Billy Wilder in 1950, this was utterly gripping right from the start. Narrated by Joe as a flashback to six months earlier this was thrilling and intense, ghoulish and at times bitterly funny as it dramatises the rejection by tinseltown of its once brightest star.

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Jules et Jim

First published in 1953, this is a title that to me has gained almost mythical status, partly because of the iconic film by François Truffaut, released in 1962 and partly for me, because of it’s absolutely joyous cover photograph taken by Raymond Cauchetier and yet it’s taken me until now to read, and I still haven’t seen the film

Henri-Pierre Roché was in his mid-seventies when he wrote Jules et Jim, his semi-autobiographical novel. He is Jim, ‘Djim not Zheem’ and Jules is his best friend in real life Franz Hessel (Proust’s first translator into German).

In Paris, at the start of the twentieth century the two live a carefree bohemian life. Writing and translating, they travel as the mood takes them sharing everything and everyone without jealousy.

They decide to go to Greece and find a statue of a goddess with an archaic smile, ‘her smile was a floating presence, powerful, youthful, thirsty for kisses and perhaps for blood.’ They don’t talk about her until one day they ask each other what they would do if they ever met such a smile? ‘Follow it.’ Then they see Kate, she has the smile of the statue, and the three are bound together.

‘A perfect hymn to love and perhaps to life.‘ Francois Truffaut

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Every Eye

I seem to be dashing around Europe at the moment in my reading and this time it’s Harriet and Stephen Latterly who travel to Ibiza by train and boat for their honeymoon.This is Hatty’s story and she begins by telling us that her Aunt Cynthia has died. Married to her Uncle Otway, Cynthia has been a difficult but important relation in Hatty’s life which doesn’t seem to include any one else other than a largely absent, bullying mother who is a master of acerbic lines and black humour.

Every Eye is only 119 pages in my Persephone edition and rather than chapters the story is told in alternate sections, either written in the present tense about the honeymoon or in the past tense when Hatty reminiscences about Cynthia, about her first love Jasper Lomax, (an old friend of Cynthia and Otway’s) and about her first meeting Stephen in France. There’s a lot of jumping around, but I thought the structure worked really well, there’s a naturalness that made it feel very personal.

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Murder in the Mill-Race

Dr. Raymond Ferens is thrilled to move from his industrial practice to a picturesque village in the Devon countryside and with his wife Anne they set up home in the Dower House – a study for him, a kitchen for her. Lord and Lady Ridding live in the Manor House, old Dr. Brown is getting ready to leave his practice to Raymond, there’s the church, the post office, farms, and a children’s home that’s been run by Sister Monica for more than 30 years. A formidable warden she wears an old fashioned habit and seems to have a strange hold over the villagers.

And at first all seems idyllic. But. Set on a hill top on Exmoor, Milham in the Moor has cut itself off from neighbouring towns and villages; not trusting strangers or liking questions; so when Sister Monica’s body is found in the Mill-Race the villagers close in on themselves, agreeing only that she was a saint, she had been having dizzy spells and it was an accident. Chief Inspector Macdonald is called in from the Yard with his able deputy Detective Inspector Reeves.

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Calamity in Kent

In the peaceful seaside town of Broadgate, an impossible crime occurs. The operator of the cliff railway locks the empty carriage one evening; when he returns to work next morning, a dead body is locked inside – a man who has been stabbed in the back.

Luckily, Jimmy London, newspaper reporter, is convalescing in the seaside town and meets Aloysius Bender the lift operator, just after he has discovered the body. The police are called and along with the local constabulary comes Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, whose staying in the area with his friend the Chief Constable. Jimmy London and Inspector Shelley have worked together before and distrustful of the local dunderheads decide to team up together to solve the mystery.

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Seize the Day

New York 1956. Wilhelm Adler a 44 year old living temporarily in the Hotel Gloriana is on his way to breakfast with his father, a permanant resident of the hotel that is home too many elderly retirees. As the elevator sank and sank and the great carpet billowed and the curtains drape like sails, Wilhelm can sense that this is a day like no other. ‘The waters of the earth are going to roll over me.’

Told in the third person by an omniscient narrator and through Wilhem’s own thoughts and flashbacks, Bellow deftly interweaves pathos and humour to track Wilhelm’s fall from a respectable middle management lifestyle. He’s been fired from his job, is separated from his wife and children and is now on the brink of financial disaster, this is his day of reckoning before he drowns in despair.

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