One of the advantages of ageing – aside from the fact that when travelling via public transport – in the rush hour, say, on the London Underground (when it was safe to travel on the London Underground) or once, memorably, on the delayed 17.57 from Leeds to Hebden Bridge via Bradford Interchange – one, at least, of your fellow passengers will eagerly offer you their seat – will, in fact, be quite offended if, in your embarrassment, you decline – [and I sympathise if, reading this sentence, you are beginning to feel you are clinging on by your very fingertips] – one of the advantages, I suggest – and now, finally, we get to it – is the realisation that the loss of short term memory can, in certain situations, be a blessing.
It is perfectly possible, for example, to rewatch the television adaptations of Henning Mankel’s excellent Kurt Wallander novels as if each were made up from a series of revelatory events, some of which may have faint echoes of a distant past. A somewhat fractured viewing process which has its effects doubly charged by the fact that Wallander himself is haunted by the fear of descending into the same terrifying blankness of dementia that overwhelmed his father. And the fact that there are, as some of you will know, two separate series – separate though using, in the main, the same basic stories – in which Wallander is played by two quite distinct actors – Kirster Henriksson in the original Swedish version and Kenneth Branagh in the later British one – serves only to taunt the memory and further contribute to an overall state of confusion.
Branagh seeks to bludgeon any suggestion of a growing loss of powers with loud and sometimes violent anger – you can ‘see’ him acting – whereas Henriksson’s denials are more private, more controlled. The scene, late on, in which he smooths aside the clothes hanging in his wardrobe to reveal photographs of his work colleagues taped to the wall alongside their names, is quietly devastating and, once seen, impossible to forget. Whatever else may fall away.
It barely seems possible, but thirty years have passed since the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment, was published. I’d like to say it seems like only yesterday, but that would be to belie the truth; with a memory like mine nowadays, I’m lucky if yesterday seems like yesterday. 1990, though – the year, I do remember, that Notts County – the team with Mark Draper and Tommy Johnson [the Jack Grealish of his day?] – were promoted to the old Division One. Some things just seem to stick.
Rough Treatment, though: a glance at the first page brings it back …
“Are we going to do this?” Grice asked. Already the cold was seeping into the muscles across his back, January he hated with a vengeance.
Milder than usual days, Grabianski thought, you expected nights like these. “A minute,” he said, and started off towards the garage. For a big man, he moved with surprising lightness.
Grice and Grabianski, cat burglars by profession; Grice a small, ratty little man, short on temper and a lifelong supporter of Leyton Orient; Jerzy Grabianski, in both his size and his Polish heritage, a deliberate echo of Resnick himself – a soft-centred man who will pause in making his escape from a house he and Grice are burgling to give CPR to the unfortunate house owner who has just had a heart attack, and who will fall in lust with another of their victims, Maria Roy, when she comes across him unawares …
The man was still in the same position, almost leaning against the jamb of the door but not quite. He was a big man, nothing short of six foot and stocky, wearing a dark-blue suit with a double-breasted jacket that probably made him broader than he actually was. He didn’t say anything, but continued to stare at her, something in his eyes that was, well, appreciative of what he was seeing.
Round about this time, I’d been reading, and hugely enjoying, the novels of Elmore Leonard, and my two burglars were a nod in his direction, a combination, hopefully, of humour and criminal – sometimes violent – behaviour. It works, I think, quite well on the page, but perhaps better still when brought to life by Jim Carter and Tom Georgeson, as Grabianski and Grice respectively, in the 1993 Deco Films & TV version for the BBC.
We had a little difficulty, I remember, casting the part of Maria Roy, mainly due to one of scenes I’d carried over from the novel into my dramatisation …
Maria Roy lay back far enough for her breasts to float amongst the scented foam which covered the surface of the water. In the pale light from the nearby nightlight they were soft-hued, satin, the darker nipples hardening beneath her gaze. Harold, she thought. It didn’t help. Softly, she rubbed the tip of her finger around the mazed aureoles and smiled as she sensed her nipples tense again. What kind of marriage was it if after eleven years they only place you had ever made love was in bed? And then, not often.
“Never mind,” she said to her breasts softly. “Never mind, my sad little sacks, somebody loves you. Somewhere.”
And easing herself into a sitting position she gave them a last, affectionate squeeze.
“Never mind, my sad little sacks of woe.”
While some we spoke to, otherwise keen to play the part, drew the line at the above, we were delighted when the wonderful Sheila Gish seized the opportunity with, shall we say, both hands.
For some years – a period that, for me, encompassed the first ten Resnick novels – Lonely Hearts to Last Rites – Daniel Woodrell and I shared the same publisher in the States, the redoubtable Marian Wood at Henry Holt & Company. Address: 115 West 18th St., New York 10011 – I remember it well.
Whereas Marian would have worked closely with Dan from the first draft manuscript on, with Resnick she would have bought US and Canadian rights to books that already existed in published form. For many publishers that might mean little more than commissioning a new jacket, scouting out some blurbs that would mean something to American consumers, and maybe – just maybe – sending a junior through the manuscript with the task of Americanising those ‘difficult’ British terms which might defeat US readers – ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’ and ‘sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’. Not so Marian. She was as eager to get to grips with the text as would have been the case were she the primary editor, and, more importantly, she was keen to make suggestions as to how the series and its central characters might best be developed, pointing out weaknesses that should and could be avoided. When, in Easy Meat, for instance, I ventured to set Resnick up in a relationship with a teacher named Hannah Campbell, Marian argued quite fiercely that I should make her a far stronger character than she first appeared to be, more conscious of the feminist issues of the time.
Most importantly, she championed my books, just as she did Dan’s, in the face of sales figures that would have had Holt’s accountants sadly shaking their heads. We were her authors, her boys, and she believed in us, which didn’t mean she was above putting us in our place if she thought it was deserved; the only reason I can get away with publishing the pair of you, she pointed out on more than one occasion, is because I also publish Sue Grafton.
I first met Dan Woodrell in St. Louis, probably the largest city close to the Ozarks, the vast rural area of Missouri where he had been born and continued to live. Both with new books out – Dan’s Give Us a Kiss (the one that gave birth to the term Country Noir) and my 8th Resnick, Easy Meat – we were due to appear at Big Sleep Books, then under the management of Helen Simpson. I assumed that, in the normal way of things, I would read an extract from my novel before chatting amiably to would-be customers and, finally, signing as many copies as I could lay my hands on – the usual malarkey – and I’d imagined Dan would do the same. But no. Dan doesn’t read, Helen said. He just doesn’t. Ever. He’s shy. Which would have left me showcasing, while Dan sat quietly in the corner, nursing a beer. It didn’t seem right. Okay, I said, tell him if he won’t read then I won’t either. [Clearly, to anyone who knows me, a barefaced lie: given an audience in excess of one I’ll read till someone finally puts out all the lights and jiggles the keys.] To Helen’s surprise, however, Dan agreed. Perhaps he was being polite to a fellow author visiting from across the Atlantic. And, of course, he read brilliantly, bringing out every nuance of the language, every ounce of humour, every frisson of sexuality, and left me thanking the heavens I’d read first!
Give Us a Kiss is told in the first person, its central character, Doyle Redmond, is Ozark born and bred, a writer who – like so many of us at times – feels his work is both undersold and misunderstood. Dan getting some of his frustrations out into the open. Here’s a couple of examples …
I always get called a crime writer, though to me they are slice-of-life dramas. They remind me of my family and friends, actually. I hate to think I’ve led a “genre” life, but that seems to be the category I’m boxed in.
… and …
I sat up, crossed my legs beneath me. “When I’m dead they’ll say I was ‘passionate and ruggedly self-reliant,'” I claimed.
“Oh, Doyle.” Lizbeth’s lips had that puffy, tenderer look lips get from deep kissing someone new. “They’re not going to talk about you when you’re dead.”
That sealed the end. That comment. This was the sorest spot she could gouge at, my life’s work to this point being four published novels nobody much had read, let alone bought or reviewed prominently. This sore spot of mine had yet to quit oozing since the last book had been met with a great, vicious silence, and for her to stick me there meant it was over for sure.
Some time after our meeting in St. Louis, Dan and his wife, the novelist, Katie Estill, moved, temporarily, to San Francisco, which is where my partner, Sarah, and I got to hang out with them a little. One of the reasons Dan had been attracted to San Francisco was its associations with Dashiell Hammett, a writer he greatly admired; Hammett had lived there in the 1920s, and it was there, in a top floor apartment on Post Street, that he had written the bulk of The Maltese Falcon. So, in honour to both Hammett and his private eye, Sam Spade, we went to John’s Grill, which has long traded on its association with The Maltese Falcon, and ordered the over-priced but tasty lamb chops, as briefly featured in in the novel …
He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a touch cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.
“All set, Mr Spade. She’s full of gass and rearing to go.”
We also went to Burritt Street, where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was lured to his death by his seemingly innocent client, Brigid O”Shaughnessy, and not shot and killed, as she had claimed, by one Floyd Thursby.
Spade said” “Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years’ experience as a detective to be caught like that by a man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was a dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb …
He ran his tongue over the inside of his lips and smiled affectionately at the girl. He said: “But he’d’ve gone up there with you, angel, if he was sure nobody else was up there. You were his client, so he would have had no reason for not dropping the shadow on your say-so, and if you caught up with him and asked him to go up there he’d’ve gone. He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”
Finally, before leaving the subject of Daniel Woodrell, it’s worth noting that of his nine novels, three have been turned into films: not a bad ratio. Woe to Live On was filmed by Ang Lee in 1999 under the title, Ride With the Devil; Debra Granik made Winter’s Bone in 2010; and Tomato Red was filmed by Juanita Wilson in 2017. Of the three, it seems to me that Winter’s Bone is the most successful. In part this may be due to the fact that it was largely filmed in the Ozarks, where the novel is set, and Dan, I believe, helped both with the locations and in persuading some of the locals to take part. Without losing on the finer points of atmosphere and characterisation, Granik never allows the pace of the narrative to slacken, and she secures a compelling performance from Jennifer Lawrence in her ‘breakthrough’ role.
There it is, amongst the Top Ten films directed by Stephen Frears as chosen by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, there alongside such excellence as The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things and My Beautiful Launderette, in at No. 10, Gumshoe, Frear’s first feature, working from a script by Neville Smith and starring Albert Finney as a Liverpudlian bingo caller who fantasises about being a private eye.
Neville won a Writers’ Guild Award for his screenplay, which he then – after some persuasion from his publisher, his agent and, quite possibly, his bank manager – turned into a novel. First published by Fontana Books in 1971 to tie-in with the film’s release, it was allowed to drift out of print, and joyfully picked up by Slow Dancer Press when we had a crack at publishing crime fiction alongside poetry in the late 1990s.
Pre-publication, I tracked Stephen Frears down to W8 and talked him into writing an introduction and Neville himself supplied a Coda. All it needed then was a strong and snappy design for the cover, which, as was usual, Jamie Keenan supplied, using a photograph by Trevor Ray Hart.
And this is how it begins …
He looked like the kind of guy your mother would like to marry your sister. If you had a mother. If you had a sister.
He wore a three-button Italian suit, a Billy Eckstine-style flex-roll, buttondown collar, a slim-jim tie. Neat, flat-cut hair topped the lot off. The perfect brother-in-law, circa 1957. He leaned back with his feet on the desk, bored out of his mind, looking at me sitting opposite in my vintage Grenfell trench coat (Hawkes of Savile Row, W1. By Appointment); I wasn’t bored.
Stephen Frears and Neville Smith first met in 1968 when they were both working for Yorkshire TV. In his Coda, Neville describes it thus …
I was acting in an episode of Parkin’s Patch for Yorkshire Television in Leeds. The director was Michael Apted. Sitting in the canteen, in a powder blue suit, and dripping with gold, was Les Dawson, fidgeting while his wife fetched him a cup of tea. Apted and I took the table next to him, hoping to overhear a few quips.
We were joined by an unshaven chap. He wore tennis shoes, baggy corduroys, a green sloppy joe, and a black jacket, all of which had seen better days. He had a mass of black hair and, like Apted, was handsome.
Very soon he and Apted were drawling away in their posh Oxford accents. It was like listening to Trevor Bailey nattering away between overs. Then Apted said, apropos of nothing at all, it seemed to me, “Was it Nietzsche or Wittgenstein who said that the limits of language are the limits of the world?” The unshaven chap said, “No. It was Fatty Arbuckle.” I laughed, and that is how I got to know Stephen Frears.
It was then, or a little later, as he says in his Introduction, that Frears said to Neville, “Why don’t you write a thriller?”
He … gave me the opening pages of what would turn out to be Gumshoe. I don’t think it then had a title. And I found I’d stumbled on a writer with the grace of Jackie Milburn and the wit of S. J. Perelman.
I had thought he was writing a thriller. In fact he was constructing a self-portrait; a record of what it was like to have been a teenager in the English provinces in the Fifties. “I want to write The Maltese Falcon; I want to record Blue Suede Shoes.” He could describe a life unlike my own yet one I would like to have lived. His world was warm, funny, observant, generous, ironic, scrupulous, complex.
… I’ve never lost my love or admiration for Neville, who is in some ways, I think, the best writer I’ve ever come across. This book – the book of the film – I’ve never read. I couldn’t bear it if I found a job he hadn’t thought of when he wrote the film.
Of the various things Molly and I wanted to do and see in Vienna, two were triggered by movies: the Ferris Wheel from Carol Reed’s The Third Man of course, in one of the cabins of which Orson Welles defends his illegal sale of penicillin on the black market to Joseph Cotton and makes his famous speech about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock; and the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, so central to Jem Cohen’s excellent 2012 film, Museum Hours.
The Ferris Wheel, as it turned out, was a disappointment, standing as it does on the edge of the Prater Amusement Park, half-hidden amidst a loud and garish collection of roundabouts and rides and fast food outlets, and, thus, sadly devoid of atmosphere.
Gallery X on the second floor of the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, however, with its collection of eleven of Bruegel’s paintings, more than lived up to expectations. The paintings themselves – which include ‘The Tower of Babel’ and the marvellous ‘Hunters in the Snow’ [but not ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, which is in Brussels] – bristle with life, a kaleidoscope of activity shot through, here and there, with humour, with small moments of scatological delight. And all so true to Cohen’s film – he is basically a documentary film maker after all – that we found ourselves looking round, if not for the museum guard as portrayed by Bobby Sommer in the movie, then, at the very least, to work out where he would have been sitting.
We saw Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial on the first day. A large, solid construction, it stands at the centre of Judenplatz, a square of grand houses [like so many in Vienna] which would have been home to Jewish intellectuals and members of the professional classes.
Also known as the Nameless Library, its walls are cast from library shelves facing outwards and filled with identical books that face inward, untitled and unreadable. It is a testament both to the loss of knowledge and the nameless lives of those who died in the Holocaust.
On the base of the Memorial, in front of heavy concrete doors that will never open, is a brief text in German, Hebrew and English with a Star of David at its centre … In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945 … and the names of the many concentration camps are engraved at the rear of the plinth and along the sides. But it is the solid weight of the building that impresses most, forcing you to walk around it, stare at its bulk, its walls of forbidden books, a metaphor in concrete that it is hard to ignore or deny. A work of public art with great significance and purpose.
Here’s a list, for those who like lists, of the movies, music, books and exhibitions that have given me the most pleasure in the first half of the year; given me pleasure and, more often than not, stopped me in my tracks.
BOOKS An American Marriage : Tayari Jones Long Bright River : Liz Moore (proof copy – pub Jan 2020)
FILMS Hale County This Morning This Evening : RaMell Ross Foxtrot : Samuel Maoz Dirty God : Sacha Polak [mainly for the extraordinary performance by Vicky Knight]
Blues & Roots Ensemble w. Alice Zawadzki : Pizza Express Jazz Club
Viktoria Mullova : unaccompanied Bach on violin : Sage, Gateshead
Two CDs by writer Willy Vlautin’s band, The Delines Colfax (2014) The Imperial (2019)
Harold Gilman – Beyond Camden Town : Djanogly Gallery, Nottm.
Albert Irvin & Abstract Expressionism : GWA, Bristol
George Shaw – A Corner of a Foreign Field : Holbourne Gallery, Bath
Joan Mitchell : Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
Don McCullin : Tate Britain
Dave Heath – Dialogues with Solitude : Photographers’ Gallery
Chris Killip – The Last Ships : Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Luigi Ghirri – Cartes et Territoires : Jeu de Paume, Paris
No call to bring down further scorn on the Academy’s choice of Green Book as Best Film; Spike Lee’s already handled that in his own, well, spiky way. And the truth is there’s not too much wrong with Green Book as pleasurable movies go – nice performances and along the way an interesting insight into what passed for middlebrow entertainment in the early 1960s, in this case the rather flashy neo-classical piano style of Don Shirley. As the jazz pianist Ethan Iverson points out in an article in the current issue of the New Yorker, Shirley was “one among dozens of pianists who were popular at mid-century, a moment when the piano was at its zenith in American life.” In America it would have included Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein on the more traditionally classical side of things and light music specialists such as Carmen Cavallaro, whose best-selling recording was his version of Chopin’s Polonaise, Op. 53., and who, of course, paved the way for Liberace, all simpering smiles and glittering arpeggios.
In England there was the duo, Rawicz and Landauer, dispensing popular versions of the classics to radio audiences through the middle years of the century, and Alberto Semprini, whose radio programme, Semprini Serenade, introduced with the words, “Old ones, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones”, began as a Sunday afternoon feature on the BBC Light Programme in 1957 and continued for another twenty-five years.
Iverson is interesting discussing Don Shirley’s singular piano style, which leaned towards jazz and popular music, but interpreted through the prism of his classical music training. He quotes the saxophonist Branford Marsalis as saying, “Don Shirley’s music is a joy to listen to. It’s not jazz, and his approach is clearly influenced through classical training. Because he is not a jazz soloist, he has to create momentum through color and melodic exploration.”
It could well have been that, instead of carving out a career as a popular attraction, Shirley could have played in more conventional classical surroundings, but it seems that his colour was against him. As the jazz bassist Ron Carter, whose first choice would have been to have played the symphonic repertoire, was told by no less than Leopold Stokowski, the classical world was “not ready for a colored man to be in their orchestra.” In the UK, the Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell, though classically trained, found herself held back by similar prejudices, which resulted in her – not, I imagine, totally unhappily – performing a succession of ragtime compositions that topped the charts and propelled her to huge popularity, especially in Australia, where she settled in the 1970s, becoming an Australian citizen two years before her death.
Here they are, in order of seeing, the best, to my eyes, of this year’s new releases; the films I enjoyed most and would happily see again.
Loveless : Andrey Zvyagintsev Western : Valeska Grisebach BlacKkKlansman : Spike Lee Cold War : Pawel Pawlikowski The Rider : Chloe Zhao
The Miseducation of Cameron Post : Desiree Akhavan Lucky : John Carroll Lynch Nae Pasaran : Felipe Bustos Sierra Skate Kitchen : Crystal Moselle Shoplifters : Hirokazu Koreeda Disobedience : Sebastian Lelio Roma : Alfonso Cuaron The Old Man and The Gun : David Lowery
Okay, I know the last mentioned is a little on the lightweight side, especially when compared to a heavy-duty [but brilliant] film like Loveless, or Cold War, or Cuaron’s Roma, but it does have an absolutely sparkling performance by Sissy Spacek, who – excuse the cliché – lights up the screen whenever she appears. And hey, I’m of the age when I can happily take sustenance from watching someone of, shall we say, advancing years running the screen and living a mostly happy and fulfilling life – even if that life does comprise robbing banks. I felt the same about the Harry Dean Stanton character in Lucky, just as I did about the real-life Rolls Royce workers who refused to handle airplane engine parts that were destined to be used by the Chilean government against their own people. Watch those deeply principled yet otherwise ordinary, now elderly men finally getting their due recognition in the final scenes of Nae Pasaran and hold the tears back if you can. More movies for old geezers, that’s what I say!
And the most disappointing film of the year? For me, without a doubt, Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s The Wild Pear Tree. After watching his marvellous Once Upon a Time in Anatolia for the third time just a few days before, I was hoping for something more striking and cinematic than his previous effort, the dull, overly-Chekovian and aptly titled Winter Sleep, which won the Palme D’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, no such luck. Until – far too late – the last twenty minutes or so, Ceylan’s latest film revolves around three hours of argument and aimless conversation, relieved only by his trademark shots of empty and beautiful Turkish countryside.
If one of The Photography Gallery’s ambitions when setting up it’s current pair of shows (until 14th October, 2018) was to establish the widest possible contrast between two artists’ practice, they could hardly have chosen better than to focus on Tish Murtha [whom I wrote about in my previous blog post] and Alex Prager. Murtha is firmly in the school of documentary realism, black and white, working class, political, small scale in image, universal in reach and meaning. Prager, in contrast, is high colour, glossy, large scale, concerned with politics of gender and deeply indebted to film imagery and technique – not any kind of film, but that exemplified by Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk – technicoloured melodramas that simultaneously present a heightened version of real life at the very same time as they foreground the means they use (colour, lighting, mise-en-scene) to point up its falseness, its fakery. Gendered Hollywood fairy tales. [Like all fairy tales?]
Shots like the one above were made on a sound stage using up to 150 extras.
Images such as the one below, which could almost be a production still from The Birds, make explicit not just Pragers’ obsession with Hitchcock, but her obsession with his obsession – young blonde women under threat, held under the camera’s gaze.
The section in The Photographers’ Gallery regular booklet series, Loose Associations, which deals with Prager’s work, includes extracts from feminist film critic and academic Laura Mulvey’s key 1975 article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which dissects the ways in which classic Hollywood film positions women at the ultimately passive receiving end of the all-powerful male gaze. And that’s a three-way: male behind the camera; male within the narrative; male in the audience. Hitchcock – for Prager, whose concerns, one suspects, are similar to Mulvey’s – is, of course, the perfect subject, the perfect example, perfect for them both, in that he is transparent as to both ends and means. After several viewings, it seems to me, it’s difficult not to see Vertigo, for instance, as an object lesson in just how male dominance of the female in terms of image, action and emotional response can be achieved.
It’s no surprise that Prager moved from photography – the kind of large scale, pre-planned and well-resourced still photography that is well displayed on two floors at TPG – to film itself. Short films with large crews and real stars. For Touch of Evil, commissioned by the New York Times, she managed to nab a host of A-listers including Jessica Chastain, George Clooney, Kirsten Dunst and Rooney Mara. The ‘star’ of Face in the Crowd, one of the films showing at TPG, is Elizabeth Banks, playing an attractive blonde woman (what else) forever, seemingly, trapped behind a wall of glass, while around her – the film is shown on three screens, central, left & right – various crowds are shown on the beach, at a ball game, crowds from which individuals are intermittently seen in close up, expressing their doubts and fears to camera.
Is it possible to look at Prager’s work and see only the surface, enjoy the size, the visceral pleasure, the high-gloss slickness of it, and not be concerned with what rides beneath? That, after all, would be the mainstream Hollywood way. But here we’re not submerged in the dark. We’re in a gallery and this is art. As well as responding on an immediate love, we’re expected to think. And we do.
I watched John Crowley’s film version of Colm Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn, again the other night, after reading an interview with Toibin in The Guardian Review. I was particularly interested in his remarks concerning the screenplay, written by Nick Hornby, and the ways in which the film’s ending differs from the original.
Unable to find suitable work at home, Eilis [Ey-lish] has emigrated from her home in south-east Ireland to Brooklyn, where a priest has found her both employment and somewhere to live. Once settled, she falls into a relationship with Tony, a young man of Italian descent, and, though uncertain of her feelings, when she is called back to Ireland due to the death of her sister, she agrees to marry him, hastily and secretly, before she leaves. Once home, she resumes her old life with a new maturity and greater self-confidence; a good job presents itself, along with a dependable man of a higher station, whom she likes and who would marry her. She has not told anyone – not the man, not her mother – that she is already married. It’s as if she herself has forgotten: has chosen to forget. Her husband’s letters are shut away, unopened, in a drawer. But gossip and rumour seek her out and Eilis has to decide what to do, which course to take. In this, her dilemma is not unlike that of Isabel Archer at the end of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady [both author and novel much beloved of Toibin] though Tony the plumber is, thankfully, neither as mendacious nor manipulating as Gilbert Osmond.
In both novel and film, she returns to America: there seems to be no viable alternative. But in the novel, her feelings about this are ambivalent at best; the film recasts this in the far more positive light of an inescapably happy ending. Eilis, unburdened by doubt, stands in bright light on the opposite side of the street from the building supplies store from which Tony and one of his brothers emerge, talking; it takes a few moments for the brother, and then Tony, to realise Eilis is there. Almost unable to believe his eyes, Tony, bedazzled, hastens into Eilis’ arms and the final clinch of an unambiguously happy ending.
What does Colm Toibin think of this?
“I’m interested in what Nick [Hornby] did with the structure of it,” says Toibin, “which is so brilliant; how much he left out, how he moved the drama on. But I tear up for the very last section, that I didn’t write.” He doesn’t mind that it changed the novel? “It’s gorgeous. And what were they meant to do, have an ending with her sitting on the train feeling smug: look what I’ve just done to everybody?”
This recognition that different forms of media have different requirements is something that writers perhaps find easier to accommodate than readers, whose reaction, more often than not, is less generous, less understanding; they are more likely to want the film, radio or television version to be as close to the original as possible and expect the author to feel the same.
Over the past years I’ve adapted the work of a number of authors: Arnold Bennett and Ruth Rendell for TV; Graham Greene, Paul Scott, Qiu Xiaolong and A. S. Byatt for radio. The majority of those, sadly, are no longer in a position to complain, and those that are, to the best of my knowledge, have refrained. When Antonia Byatt’s Frederica Quartet was being broadcast, and she was asked about it on Woman’s Hour, she was careful to make clear – before making comments which were, thankfully, positive – that’s John Harvey’s Frederica Quartet, not mine.
With other writers’ work, my process has always been to strip the story down it basic elements, then begin to build it up from there, with the demands – strengths and weaknesses – of the particular medium in mind. Where adapting my own work is concerned – two books for television, two books and three short stories for radio – I think I have been more successful with the latter. When I was writing the screenplays based on the first two Resnick novels, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, I was guilty of forgetting my own rules at times and sticking too close to the originals; favouring a speech, a scene, an exchange of dialogue, because I liked it rather than because it contributed towards an effective piece of film. Which is why, whenever the Resnick books have been optioned by this or that television company since – as has fairly frequently been the case – and I’ve been asked if I would be interested in writing one or more of the scripts, I’ve always said thanks, but no thanks – someone else, experienced and coming to it with a fresh eye, will likely do it better.