Reading Matters: The Good Soldiers

I want to say a word to our troops and civilians in Iraq. You’ve performed with incredible skill under demanding circumstances. The turnaround you have made possible in Iraq is a brilliant achievement in American history. And while this war is difficult, it is not endless. And we expect that as conditions on the ground continue to improve, they will permit us to continue the policy of return on success. The day will come when Iraq is a capable partner of the United States. The day will come when Iraq is a stable democracy that helps fight our common enemies and promote our common interests in the Middle East. And when that day arrives, you’ll come home with pride in your success and the gratitude of your whole nation. God bless you.

– George W. Bush, April 10, 2008

Each of the chapters in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, the account of the fifteen months he spent in Iraq with the 2 – 16 battalion on the outskirts of Baghdad, begins with a quote from the then President of the United States; and, without editorial comment, Finkel shows us, in each chapter,  the changing attitudes and growing incomprehension of the officers and men, their fraying hopes and dogged aspirations, as what is happening on the ground increasingly contrasts with the President’s words. And it only takes a glance in the direction of the evening news to set those remarks into a wider context.

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Geoff Dyer said recently that it was non-fiction books that had made the strongest impression upon him of late, rather than fiction. And it’s the case that many of the qualities we expect from fiction – characterisation, narrative development, tension, surprise – the opening up of a world that is both familiar and strange – are here, but with the added knowledge that what we are reading in these pages does not have its wellspring in the writer’s imagination – though there are times when we might wish that were the case – but from his observation. All right, he has made choices, as any writer does, what to report, what to omit, which conversations to include, which to set aside, but the bedrock here is fact rather than fiction and as such, to my reading at least, it hits all the harder.

And what shines through all of Finkel’s writing, alongside a growing bewilderment of the task these men have been set, is his respect for them, no matter what they say or do – no matter how far their views might stray from what we might presume to be his own – and the respect, the love, they have for one another. So, as you read on, each injury becomes an injury shared; each death, lingering or sudden, a loss that is strongly felt.

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

A US Humvee in Iraq. Photo: Jewel Samad

A US Humvee in Iraq. Photo: Jewel Samad

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Photography: Narrative on My Mind

I’ve been thinking about narrative lately. Partly because if you’ve still got author on your passport, you just do – from time to time, anyway – and more specifically as I’ve agreed to take part in a panel discussion at this year’s Bristol CrimeFest to be chaired by no less august a personage than the current Crime Writers’ Association chair, Alison Joseph, entitled ‘Narrative, Resolution and Crime Fiction’.

I’ve previously mentioned Geoff Dyer’s book on photography, The Ongoing Moment, and reading that alongside re-reading Middlemarch, has been interesting. George Eliot’s way of progressing the storyline, the novel being initially published in serial form, was, essentially, one of carrot and stick, carrot and stick; move one character or pair of characters just so far, bring them to what seems an impasse and leave them there while  you switch the attention elsewhere (leaving us worried about their fate, the meanwhile), then, when you return to them, find a way of moving them on another stage, each small resolution having within it a new problem to be negotiated. Do this with each major character or pair of characters and you have a multi-faceted narrative, complex and richly textured, and, at story level, satisfying.

I’m reminded of those Saturday Morning serials I used to watch as a kid: the hero or heroine left at the end of the episode in what seems to be an utterly hopeless situation; then, at the beginning of the next episode the following week, that scene is repeated with a slight difference, something that had been kept hidden is revealed, allowing the hero/heroine to be saved and the story to progress. It’s how most narrative works, I guess, Middlemarch or Eastenders and, perhaps, crime fiction most blatantly of all.

What Dyer does in his book, and what differentiates it from most discussions of photography I’ve read, is to look at it as a series of narratives in which photographers (knowingly or unknowingly, but mostly the former) converse with one another, constructing as they do so histories of subjects – the chair, the fence, the filling station, the road – that are simultaneously histories of photography and social histories, too.

Some photographers, Dyer suggests, are close to novelists in the narratives the body of their work creates. William Eggleston, for one.

Eggleston’s photographs look like they were taken by a Martian who lost the ticket for his flight home and ended up working at a gun shop in a small town near Memphis.

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William Eggleston

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William Eggleston

And Eggleston himself has said he regards his photos “as parts of a novel [he’s] doing”.

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William Eggleston

Dyer makes a comparison between the effect of some of Eggleston’s photographs and the paintings of Edward Hopper, of whom he says:

Hopper could, with some justification, claim to be the most influential American photographer of the twentieth century – even though he didn’t take any photographs.

Hopper’s pictures …

 … tend not to be paintings at all; they are photographs in waiting. They are not only in waiting, they are also of waiting.

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William Eggleston

That’s why they generate such intense curiosity about what is happening either side of the moment depicted.

As he quotes the poet, Mark Strand, saying …

it is always just after and just before … just after the train has passed, just before the train will arrive.

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William Eggleston

And Wim Wenders – who knows a thing or two about narrative, to say nothing of photography …

An Edward Hoppper painting is like the opening paragraph of a story.

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William Eggleston

The moment on the cusp of something, some forward movement,  that can, and is, caught in fiction, too. Look at (I mean, of course, literally, read, but given the nature of the piece, the emphasis on light, look seems right) this paragraph from Middlemarch. A Hopper painting, surely, in words. (And, in its final sentence especially, anticipating D H Lawrence, but that’s another discussion, another blog.)

It had taken long for her to come to that question, and there was light piercing into the room. She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

 

 

 

 

Photography: Sittin’ in the Park with Geoff Dyer (well, almost)

For all that my recent visit to the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the William Morris Gallery has to be counted something of a disappointment, let it not be thought my journey to the furthest reaches of Walthamstow was wasted. For there, behind the gallery, resplendent in early Spring sunshine and calling to me, as it were, was the newly redeveloped Lloyd Park.

Infiltrating myself between the mums-and-buggies crowding out the gallery tea room, I quickly  purchased a pre-wrapped sandwich and bottle of water and headed down to the park  in search of an empty bench. More mums; more buggies; more small children than you could shake a stick at.  (A strange idiom, but, in this context, perhaps appropriate.) Then, just when I’d come close to giving up and entertained risking my new black jeans on the Lloyd Park grass, there, opposite the tennis courts, I spied an elderly couple slowly vacating a bench.

No sooner had they stepped away, than I had slipped into their place, divesting myself of coat, hat, scarf and shoulder bag and spreading them liberally to either side. This bench is occupied.

After a burst of hefty thwacking, the two young men on the court directly across from where I’m sitting pack up their things and go, to be replaced immediately by an almost identical pair – sun glasses, sports gear, Nike trainers, high slashing serves and wild returns. The sandwich is smoked salmon and avocado on seeded bread; not a combination I would have immediately thought of (something of a Resnick sandwich perhaps, putting on, for a moment, my other hat) but excellent and at £3.50, these days not too bad a deal. A couple more bites and I lean back and take out my book, which happens to be The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer’s book on photography, which I last set aside, exiting the tube earlier that morning, at page 129.

Though it can serve as one, a bench is not a bed. Nor is it a chair. Chairs move around, congregate in different ways, reconfiguring themselves according to the demands of the social situation in which they find themselves. In their limited way they even enjoy a bit of travel – chairs on the terrace of a Paris café go inside for the night – but the bench has no inner life like this. The bench sits it out, waiting for dawn. As such, its nocturnal life is potentially more romantic than the chair’s

Yes, here I am, sitting on a bench in Lloyd Park, reading Geoff Dyer’s thoughts about a bench. The bench. Famous benches that, thanks to photography, we have known. A coincidence? Of course. And true. (You don’t, for a minute, think I make this stuff up?)

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Brassai’s bench, for instance, a  solitary figure sheltering from the Riviera sun in 1936 … and it’s companion, Dyer suggests, taken by Lartigue just a few years earlier, just a short way along the coast, Renée at Eden Roc. All right, they don’t exactly share a bench, but railings, umbrellas, the same Mediterranean sun …

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This is one of the ways in which Dyer takes us through the history of photography, not in a clinical way, nor in a manner that is a ready prey to theory, but by a tracing of image, the images that so many photographers share, sometimes in what seems like conscious nods in one another’s direction, sometimes as if unaware. The bench, the open road, the window, the car, the beggar, the musician, the naked woman, the hat.

This is André Kertesz in New York in 1962, photographing a man, a broken bench, some background.

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Like so many photographs, a chance moment? What did Cartier-Bresson say? Something about the held breath, the captured moment of fleeting reality. The man, what is he doing, standing there with his hands clasped behind his back? His gaze, where is it directed? At the broken bench? The two women sitting on another bench in the background? The line of cars? The line of our vision, I think, takes us through a slight curve from front to back; a line that follows those lines already trod, the uneven line of benches to the right; the line of sight of the man, presumed from the angle of his neck, towards the first of the women, the woman in white.

We don’t know, until we are told, until Dyer tells us, that the man, a friend of Kertész, is blind; nor that the women on the bench are Kertész’s wife and the mentally unstable younger woman she has befriended. The man is seeing nothing: the scene is one that Kertész has staged. Knowing none of this, are we are tempted, nonetheless, to see the bench, in part, as metaphor? And knowing everything , knowing the truth, something of the truth, behind the photograph, does it become less of a great photograph – if that’s what it is – or more?

So many questions. So many benches. Benches in Budapest, the French Riviera, Central Park. As it sit reading, I become more and more aware that everyone – everyone, it seems – the tennis players, the couples passing by, the young woman talking excitedly into her mobile phone – is speaking in a language that may be Russian. Polish, possibly, or Russian. Some Eastern European language that evades me, as most languages do, and for a moment it would not be difficult to imagine myself somewhere else, some other bench …

But, of course, the moment passes. I finish my sandwich, close the book. Page 139, Paul Strand: White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916. Just time before moving on, getting off the fence, as it were, for a bench or two of my own …

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Shaded Bench, Hamspstead Heath

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Shaded Bench, Hamspstead Heath

Not to mention, a fence …

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Shaded Bench, Hamspstead Heath

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Shaded Bench, Hamspstead Heath