Reviews

Valentine by Lucius Shepard

Matt Dionne

Shepard doesn't embarrass himself with the steamy stuff here.


Valentine

Publisher: Four Walls Eight Windows
Length: 181
Formats: Paperback
Price: $11.95
Author: Lucius Shepard
US publication date: 2003-01
Amazon

Lucius Shepard's latest novel Valentine takes the form of a letter from Russell, a well-traveled journalist, to his sometime-lover Kay, a college professor. For 181 pages, he writes about their latest encounter, when by chance a hurricane generously forced them both into seclusion in the Florida Gulf town of Piersall. They spent several days together, making love and reconnecting after six years apart. Russell relates this with some melancholy as Kay has since returned to her husband.

Valentine never wanders far from Piersall, although we get some references to Russell and Kay's relationship at different times. Valentine has less plot than many short stories, but more sex. There's probably nothing in literature that can produce unintentional laughter and cringing as frequently as the sex scene. It's just a high degree of difficulty dive. Shepard doesn't embarrass himself with the steamy stuff here. Some of it even replaces plot to move the story along and reveal the characters' feelings. Other times it's just sex on the page and you'll be perfectly able to laugh or cringe or get turned on or get turned off or whatever it is you do when you're reading a sex scene.

Those familiar with Shepard's other fiction, such as the recommended novel Life During Wartime and the short story collection The Jaguar Hunter, will recognize Russell as a typical protagonist. He's worldly, cynical yet romantic, capable but not successful and has a lot of sex without getting married. And, of course, Shepard remains a smooth writer with a strong voice. With Valentine, Shepard has ventured slightly out of his usual genres. Although Piersall has an eerie, unreal atmosphere and the ending has an X-Files-ish twist, Valentine can not be classified easily as science fiction or fantasy.

As a single letter, Valentine is also not a classic epistolary novel. Shepard must balance the workings of a letter and the necessities of a novel. Although constructed as an intimate communication, we are not Kay. As readers, we look for character detail, exposition and plot -- things that aren't always at home in a letter between intimates. Russell relates details and entire conversations that would not be necessary for Kay who, after all, was there. He relentlessly uses the first and second person voice with lots of "I did" and "you said." Although Shepard uses care and style to work his way around some of these problems, the letter structure occasionally seems to falter early when the reader wonders, "Why tell her that? She was there."

Or was she? I apologize for dragging out that figure from your Intro to Literature course, the dreaded Unreliable Narrator, but there is a good chance the romantic interlude in Piersall is entirely imagined by Russell. First of all, the town seems remarkably untouched by the hurricane that leaves everyone stranded. The electricity stays on, but the phones conveniently don't work. It doesn't even rain, but the roads are closed.

Tellingly, Shepard gives the couple an idiosyncratic hobby to imply our story is Russell's fantasy. Kay enjoys reading exotic stories from Russell about the life they might have shared if she had left her husband. His letters dream up their life together in Bahia or Hawaii. Since from the start we know Valentine is a letter to Kay, it doesn't seem to be too much of a grad student impulse to interpret it as Russell's invention of their brief life in Piersall.

This heightens both the romance of the book and its melancholy. The X-Files-ish twist at the end explains Russell's odd presentation of this romance to one of its participants and coats the book with an additional layer of sadness. Given the structure, we learn far more about Russell than we do about Kay. We never learn her reasons for having an affair beyond fairly simple ones. She is the muse of the book, but her motivations and her plans for the future are a mystery.

Parts of Valentine are not filled in. One might argue that it is an exceptional short story stretched out to short novel length with sex (or, to use the literary marketing term, erotic) scenes. Even remarkable and perfectly enjoyable scenes, such as a wishing well alligator or a date at an arcade, lack a certain connection with a larger story. In the end, the twists that transform Valentine from a recollection of hotel room lust to a haunting and desperate plea override such complaints. Although slim for a novel, Valentine works as a thought piece, an expression of love and a meditation on both love and loneliness.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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