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by Nikki Tranter

19 Nov 2008

Making breakfast—coffee and a honey sandwich—I tried to put myself in the mind of Vladimir Nabokov.

I’m old, I’m dying, but I’m so devoted to my art that struggling with my last gasps I’m managing to scribble out a final masterpiece. As both my book and I near our conclusions, I make my loving wife vow: “You, Mrs. Nabokov, must burn this feisty manuscript!”

I’m pouring my coffee, spreading my butter, with few answers forthcoming. Why am I doing this? Why, as one of the heroes of 20th Century literature, with a reputation already in place as controversial, daring, brilliant, would I hold back anything I’d committed to paper? Why do I want my scribblings turned to ashes?

I can’t figure it. Unless the “unfinished” aspect of the work made the author nervous that his motivations and themes might be left unresolved. I can see that. Maybe he wanted a chance to edit this piece—it was, you know, written on index cards? Maybe the scandalous aspects of the piece are transparently less about story fluidity and more about an old man getting his rocks off one final, messy time? Maybe it just sucked?

But then you might ask dear old wife just to hold onto the book—why burn it? There’s such drama there. Not, let my kids see my final work, I am a revered genius, after all. But BURN EVERY WORD IN A BAROQUE BYRON-ESQUE BONFIRE!

Maybe Nabokov was just a big drama queen?

So, now, Nabokov’s son Dmitri is going against the old man’s wishes and we will all get a chance to read The Original of Laura sometime next year. Speaking with the BBC Newsnight program, Dmitri Nabokov excused his decision theorising that his father would not have named Laura as one of his favourite works—which he apparently did in conversation with his son—had he planned to destroy it. Son is convinced Father would be happy to see the work on bookstore shelves. 

Tom Stoppard, on the other hand, is of the belief that if Nabokov wanted the book burned, so it should be burned. But who can blame us for being just so intrigued about the contents of a book the author of Lolita, for heaven’s sake, wanted vaporised?

Something tells me what was shocking enough to make Nabokov want his work burned will be sadly all-too parental guidance recommended today. But that’s not really the point. In the end, in my Nabokov brain, I think I would have preferred my wishes granted. I might be an author, but I’m also a man. I am not owned by my public, and therefore do not owe my public all parts of myself. Quality of work, theme, historical significance ... I’m think with Stoppard that the wishes should have won out.

The Independent has a write up here, and the Newsnight report is here.

by Bill Gibron

19 Nov 2008

He may be our most inventive living director - or at the very least, our must idiosyncratic. In his brief tenure as a feature filmmaker he’s made a Hitchcockian thriller (Shallow Grave), a daring dope fiend farce (Trainspotting), a less than routine romantic comedy (A Life Less Ordinary), a flawed idyllic allegory (The Beach), a revisionist horror film (28 Days Later), a feel good kiddie flick (Millions), a stunning sci-fi meditation (Sunshine) and now, a knotty little jewel called Slumdog Millionaire. When he succeeds, he does so royally (the last four films on that list, for example). When he fails it’s the most spectacular of stumbles (the less said about Life, the better).

Most filmmakers don’t often venture outside their own creative comfort zone. More times than not it’s both a personal and professional choice. The aforementioned Master of Suspense rarely tried anything outside the thriller. Steven Spielberg sticks almost exclusively with big budget blockbusters, or important themed dramas. Tim Burton is and will probably always be a good natured Goth goof, while Guy Ritchie has been making the same steak and kidney pie crime comedy since he first merged handheld camerawork with songs by The Clash. There are some who like the shake things up: Peter Jackson has gone from zombie gore to puppet porn to Oscar winning epics; The Coen Brothers often break the gap between genres, doing screwball comedy one opening, a nasty crime drama the next.

But Boyle not only jumps from type to type, he excels at them. Forgiving his flops for the moment, the man who made us believe in the viability of post-2001 serious science fiction, the Brothers Grimm grandeur of drug addiction, and the controllable terror of fast moving monsters so often broaches brilliance that to think of him in any other terms is just absurd. Again, when he’s good, he’s gonzo!  And yet there is that stumble in his catapulting career path, a pair of perplexing entries more concerned about their leading men (Ewan McGregor and Leonard DiCaprio, respectively) than the artistry he would show otherwise.

Naturally, there’s a reason behind his high percentage output. Boyle is clearly a humanist. Strip away the veneer of vibrance and showboating style from what he brings to a project, and his movies end up as very clever character studies. We care about the Scottish smackheads who have getting ‘clean’ - and finding a fix - down to a science (the better to get back on the wicked white horse) and worry about the random patient who wakes up in an abandoned, Rage-infested London. The roommates of Grave get our attention and swayed sympathy because of how rapidly they allow money to change everything - sometimes, fatally so - and the big idea elements of Sunshine still can’t overwhelm the individuals onboard, each one desperate to do their job to save a dying solar system.

His latest, Slumdog Millionaire, is a testament to his continuing affirmation of the dignity and worth of the human being. It’s bleak, bizarre, and often bereft of a single glimmer of hope. And yet in telling the tale of dirt poor Jamal, his brazen brother Salim, and the orphan girl Latika who comes to define them, Boyle brings such perilous poverty to vivid, unforgettable life. Even better, we get a real handle on how everyday existence is metered out in such horrific, merciless conditions. As he does with all his films, Boyle finds the shorthanded way of explaining the pragmatic precepts of making ends meet - scavenging for food, hustling for money, avoiding the law…even defying the laws of physics. We go into his movies as innocents. We come out with a wealth of real life lessons.

In addition, Boyle is a great believer in spaces, be it a ratty Glasgow bedroom/rehab center, the filthiest toilet in all of Scotland, an isolated slice of Thai paradise, or a spaceship’s observational “sun” deck. He uses his locations to illustrate the often unusual or outright odd situations in his story. They often provide a counterpoint to what is happening onscreen. In Slumdog, our characters seek refuge in an abandoned hotel, the proposed opulence overshadowed by its dusty, unused interiors. Similarly, the childhood ghetto of Jamal and Salim is turned into a set of luxury apartments, some of which appear carved directly out of the side of a mountain. It’s such a stunning juxtaposition that we forget all about the people involved - that is, until Boyle sets the last act of his drama directly in the middle of his stifling newly forged suburban sprawl.

But more than just people and places, Boyle is a filmmaker influenced by ideas. All of his films offer unique perspectives on the seemingly mundane - or if not ordinary, the everyman approach to the outsized. When England becomes a pseudo-zombie warzone, the reaction of the survivors is more terrifying than the creatures, while the same can be said for the greedy brother of the kind hearted lad at the center of Millions. Even the angels in A Life Less Ordinary are more workaday than the main characters. All throughout Slumdog, the good natured smiles of young Jamal and Salim annul the horrific squalor they live in, and even when they find themselves a part of an abusive beggar’s school, they remain convinced that happiness is just around the corner.

In fact, the final thing that can be said about Boyle is that he’s forever indebted to the forces of the feel good. His movies don’t always end on an up note, but they do tend to trip ever so closet over toward the notion of optimism. Sometimes, such suggestions are studio mandated (the alternate endings for 28 Days Later), while in many cases, Boyle’s approach to the material mandates same. Certainly characters make massive sacrifices to get us to these upbeat finales (Sunshine and Slumdog both moderate tragedy into tenuous joy), and in the end, the success might be temporary at best. But in a world where the downbeat and the dour tend to rule most missives, having someone cater to hope now and again is something worth noting. Where someone as clearly skilled as Danny Boyle goes from here will be interesting to see (there is talk of a Trainspotting sequel!). But whenever it is, he will surely make the journey more than worth our while.

by Rob Horning

19 Nov 2008

Paul Kedrosky linked to this FT article describing life in Iceland after their banking system completely collapsed. The whole thing makes for some unsettling reading, unless you hate Sigur Ros or something and can extract some schadenfreude from the whole situation.

The Icelandic krona’s freeze in the capital markets had now spilled over into the day-to-day transactions of Icelanders abroad. Holidaymakers and business travellers venturing “til Útlanda”, as it is called, found their credit cards refused, and those wishing to buy foreign currency could not find willing sellers, aside from one or two who limited their purchases to €200.
Trust in the banks had evaporated and people were trying to find a safe haven for their cash. One man had waited for six hours in a bank while his life savings, more than £1m in kronur (at IKr200 to the pound), were counted out in cash in front of him. “I feel like an innocent man dragged from his bed, put in a barrel and hurled over Gullfoss!” wrote one journalist that morning.

This is why people used to stuff money into mattresses.

Naturally, Iceland (just like the U.S.) had an irresponsible housing boom alongside its overleveraged banking system.

Easy access to 100 per cent mortgages has seen a change to the traditional pattern of young Icelanders living with their parents until their mid-twenties. The suburbs of Reykjavik have grown by a third in the past decade, most of it housing for first-time buyers. Whole new neighbourhoods have emerged. New streets house young couples, many with children, most with two cars in the drive and furnished with the best that Ikea can provide. All bought with 100 per cent loans, many in foreign currencies.

Also mentioned are the “viking raiders”—brash Icelandic bankers like Jon Ásgeir who have now destroyed their nation.

One of the most telling images was the departure of Jon Ásgeir’s private jet on news that the government had nationalised Glitnir Bank (in which his investment vehicle Stodir was a leading shareholder), wiping out his shareholding and rattling the debt-burdened house of cards that is his Baugur business empire. Painted black and as sleek as a Stealth bomber, the aircraft was photographed taxiing from its hangar by Morgunbladid, a daily newspaper. Like the last helicopter out of Saigon, the departure of Ásgeir’s jet symbolised the end of an era, the last act of Iceland’s debt-fuelled spending spree.

An article from Spiegel also explores what happens when nations go bankrupt. It highlights Argentina’s experience, when people scurried to Uruguay with suitcases full of dollar bills and others slept in front of ATMs waiting for a chance to withdrawal money, if any was left. And it looks at Hungary, the first European nation to be bailed out by the IMF.

Much of the blame for Hungary’s current debacle lies with the failings of the past. The once-successful nation of 10 million people lived beyond its means for years. With government finances spinning out of control, the national debt ballooned to two-thirds of the country’s GDP. “The funding for our excessively high standard of living came from other countries,” admits András Simor, the governor of the central bank, not without a dose of self-criticism.
The Hungarians have always been considered shopaholics. Hundreds of thousands bought themselves big cars and went on shopping sprees in the chic boutiques on Váci Utca in Budapest—all on credit. The real estate market boomed, turning close to 90 percent of Hungarian apartments are privately owned.

This all sounds very familiar. How long will it be before we have to say, “We are all Hungarians now”?

by PopMatters Staff

19 Nov 2008

Check out the PopMatters tribute to the 40th anniversary of the White Album. Side Two songs highlighted below posted today.

Side Two

Andie Forgie from the recreation of the White Album at Abbey Road on the River 2008
Martha My Dear [Video]


I’m So Tired [Video]


Bobby McFerrin
Blackbird [Video]


Carly Simon
Blackbird [Video]


The BeaTrips (Japanese Beatles cover band)
Piggies [Video]


Andy Fairweather Low
Rocky Raccoon [Video]


Rocky Raccoon, Don’t Pass Me By [Video]


Grateful Dead
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? [Video]


Of Montreal
I Will [Video]


Ari Hest
Julia [Video]


by Rob Horning

18 Nov 2008

One of my favorite features of the Financial Times are the special sections devoted to relatively obscure regions that assess the politics and investment possibilities. Today’s edition included a four-page section on Belarus, home to Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Yes, you can learn a great deal about the city of Grodno, and Belarus’s dependence on Russia’s gas, and its thriving tractor-building industry. But the only must-read is this interview with Lukashenko, in which he proudly, if ironically, seizes the “last dictator” mantle.

You are so lucky to have a chance to talk to the last dictator of Europe. You could only dream of meeting with the last dictator of Europe and see what kind of dictator he is. Touch him, sit at the same table with him. You only read this in books, but now you’ve seen it for real.

It’s probably a stereotype I’ve absorbed from 1980s Cold War films, but this is exactly how I expect Eastern European dictators to sound, contemptuous of Western journalists to the point of mocking them to their faces. (It makes me want to reread the New Yorker article about the mad dictator Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, the self-styled “father of all Turkmen,” or this classic about chess-loving dictator Kirsan Ilyumzhinov of Kalmykia.) Lukashenko dismisses his political opponents (“if they come to power they wouldn’t know what to do ... They feel good being eternal oppositionists”) and declares Belarusian elections “transparent without precedent” before dispensing this brilliant piece of parenting advice.

It is very important for a father to teach his son a real man’s life. And when [my youngest son] Kolya turned one year old, I took him by the hand and brought him to a steam room. Of course he complained and ran out. But now he is four years old, he can endure temperature differences from 100 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the steam room to 28 degrees in the swimming pool. Plus he endures ice baths. I taught my [two] elder sons to do that. We would cut a hole in ice on the river, dive into it, and then run along through the snow to the steam room.

No wonder my adult life has seemed so inauthentic and unreal—it’s been distinctly lacking in drastic temperature swings and ice baths.

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