A Triumphant Entrance

A Triumphant Entrance

It’s always an occasion of rejoicing when a Tomorrowsbooks book arrives in print, and never has this been truer than in the case of Behind the Scenes at the Ballet Russes: Stories from a Silver Age, just published by I.B. Tauris. Its interviews with great dancers of the post-Diaghilev generation are fascinating, and not just for balletomanes: the stories of the families who fled Russia after the October Revolution, survived terrible hardships, and saw their daughters put on the road to stardom by the great teachers of the day, are particularly gripping and topical. To read it is to be taken not only behind the scenes but around the world – to the USA, South America and Australia, where the dancers blazed a trail and in many cases stayed on after their tours to lay the foundations of new national ballets. The reader can only wonder at the encyclopaedic knowledge which Michael Meylac displays – but just as much credit must go to the translator, Rosanna Kelly, who overcame all manner of unexpected obstacles and delays to produce an elegant and fluent text.

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Hubert Butler: The Irish Essayist Who Outwitted the SS

Hubert Butler: The Irish Essayist Who Outwitted the SS

Hubert Butler (1900-1991) was both a brilliant writer and a fearless activist. His interest in Central and Eastern Europe gave him an early awareness of growing anti-Semitism in that region, inspiring his work on behalf of Jewish refugees and, after World War II, his investigations into ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Professor Roy Foster will chair a discussion of Butler’s work with his publisher Antony Farrell and biographer Robert Tobin at Europe House, 32 Smith Square, London SW1P on Tuesday 14th November at 6.30 for 6.45 pm. Admission is free, but please email comm-lon-rsvp@ec.europa.eu to say that you’d like to come

What If We Were In The Same Boat: Janne Teller

What If We Were In The Same Boat: Janne Teller

Janne Teller is one of Denmark’s leading writers, best known for her existentialist Young Adult novel ‘Nothing’. She will be talking about her life and work, and particularly her refugee novel ‘War’ (endorsed by Amnesty International), at Europe House, 32 Smith Square, London SW1P on Tuesday 7th November at 6.30 for 6.45 pm. Admission is free, but please email comm-lon-rsvp@ec.europa.eu to say that you’d like to come

Remembering Leslie Kenton

Remembering Leslie Kenton

To her junior colleagues at Harpers & Queen Leslie Kenton was an awe-inspiring figure, sweeping into the office in a blur of white like an advertisement for Omo washing powder. With her blue eyes, blonde hair and gleaming teeth, she was a classic American beauty, radiating confidence and enthusiasm. The only thing about her that didn’t dazzle was her Porsche, which was black.

We knew little about her personal life, except that she was the daughter of a famous band leader, Stan Kenton, and had four children – the youngest of them, Aaron, said to have had a carefully orchestrated birth at home by candlelight, surrounded by his older siblings. She also famously advised new mothers to eat their placentas, and we imagined her frying up her own in sage butter. Though this practice has yet to enter the mainstream, many of the then outlandish subjects she wrote about as health and beauty editor of Harpers in the 1970s and ’80s – from Pilates and juicing to the importance of organic food – have now become commonplace.

So serene was her manner that none of us guessed her to be the product of an appallingly dysfunctional family, whose shortcomings she would chronicle in an extraordinary memoir, Love Affair (2010). Its main focus was her father, with whom she claimed to have had an incestuous relationship. Despite this, she saw parenthood as the most fulfilling thing in life, and took pride in having had four children by four different men.

Leslie Kenton was born at the Queen of Angels Hospital, Los Angeles on 24th June 1941. Her arrival was not entirely welcome: her jazz-pianist father was about to start touring with his first band, into which he had sunk every last cent; her mother, Violet, lived for beauty and glamour and was horrified by the messiness of child-rearing. As a result, Leslie spent her early years in the care of Violet’s mother – a disciplinarian whose friends included L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of Scientology. Not until her father’s success allowed him to buy a house in the Hollywood hills did she experience something approaching normal family life; but while her parents entertained showbusiness stars such as Nat King Cole and Ronald Reagan, her one companion was a collie called Tuffy – who, she said, taught her the meaning of love.

Accompanying her parents on tour did nothing to lessen her sense of insecurity. The pressure of running a large band pushed Stanley Kenton towards drugs and alcohol, and in 1949 Violet left him. Leslie now only saw her father on occasional holidays, and during one of these – she alleged in Love Affair – he raped her. She was eleven; the abuse continued for three years. Eventually she suffered a breakdown, and was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy which blotted out her memory of her ordeal for twenty years. Yet she refused entirely to condemn the relationship, describing it as ‘wondrous and horrific’, and dedicating the memoir to her father ‘with all my love’.

At 17, during her first year at Stanford University, she befriended and became pregnant by a medical student, Peter Dau. Though not in love, she agreed to marry him. With their son, Branton, they moved to New York – where Leslie studied Russian and worked as a model – before separating in 1962. Almost immediately, she found herself pregnant again, following a brief liaison with a family friend, Barry Comden (who would later marry Doris Day). This time the child was a girl, Susanna.

Moving to Paris, Leslie embarked on her second marriage, to Dan Smith, a journalist; their son Jesse was born in 1965.

It was the break-up of this relationship five years later, and the need to earn a living, that set Leslie on her writing career. By this time the family had settled in England, where a brief though promising career as an actress had been scotched by work-permit difficulties. Her first paid article was on heavy-lifting gear for Industrial Management magazine.

In 1974 she was invited to become beauty editor of Harpers & Queen – but, believing that beauty came from within, she insisted that health should also be her province. She held the position for thirteen years, gaining a reputation for meticulous research: the buried herself in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, and consulted experts such as the Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling. At the same time she was fascinated by alternative therapies, from shamanism to transcendental meditation.

Above all, she argued that food and nutrition were the cornerstone of healthy living. Her books The Joy of Beauty (1976), Raw Energy (with her daughter Susanna, 1984) and Ultrahealth (also 1984) were among the first to highlight the negative effects of fast food, excessive animal fats and a sedentary lifestyle, emphasising instead the benefits of exercise, raw food and high-potency vitamins and minerals. She wrote over 40 books in all, including a ‘spiritual thriller’ about Beethoven entitled Ludwig.

Leslie was part earth mother and part canny businesswoman: it is hard to imagine anyone else acting as a consultant both to Greenpeace and to Estée Lauder (for whom she developed the Origins skincare range). Her refuge from London was a fisherman’s cottage in Pembrokeshire called Blue Dolphins, where she rose at 4am to meditate and run on the beach. She was kind and generous to her assistants, always encouraging them to develop their potential.

In 1998 she moved to New Zealand, where she and her son Aaron created a programme for natural weight loss and personal growth, Cura Romana. She died at home aged 75 on 13th November 2016, surrounded by her family.

Design At A Price

Design At A Price

     London’s Design Museum has long been a vagabond of the cultural world. Starting life in 1984 as the Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum, it moved five years later to a banana-ripening warehouse on the Thames near Tower Bridge. But the need for more space soon became clear, and last week it opened on new premises: the late lamented Commonwealth Institute off Kensington High Street. The museum’s founder, Sir Terence Conran, describes it as a ‘magnificent new cathedral of design’, and declares this to be the proudest moment of his long career.

The contrast with the collection’s previous home could hardly be greater. ‘Bauhaus-on-Thames’, as it was sometimes described, was a white-walled, flat-roofed, rectilinear building whose picture windows constantly led your gaze away from the exhibits and towards the river. The new museum, with its blue-grey exterior, is a symphony of curves – and although it overlooks Holland Park, the focus is inwards and upwards, towards its extraordinary roof. The architectural term for this structure is a hyperbolic parabola, which means that it manages to combine a convex axis with a concave one: from the outside it has often been compared to a tent, and from the inside to a manta ray.

John Pawson, who redesigned the interior, has a metaphor of his own for the atrium: ‘an open-cast mine’. Lined with pale oak and speckled beige marble, it gives an uninterrupted view of the concrete ceiling and its supporting stilts; access is via a series of glass-fronted terraces linked by high-sided staircases, so that as you ascend you are constantly seeing the curves above from a new angle.

It’s an extravagant use of space, but – unlike at Tate Modern – it doesn’t leave the galleries squeezed into poky, claustrophobic corners. The double-height basement (which opens with an exhibition of nominees for the Beazley Designs of the Year awards) is particularly generous. Another good-sized temporary exhibition can be housed on the ground floor, while at the top of the building is a permanent display aimed at visitors unfamiliar with the concept of design, encompassing everything from the first fitted kitchen – created in Germany in1926 – to an Anglepoise lamp and a AK47.  The museum also manages to fit in a 200-seater auditorium, a large events room, an educational centre, a shop, a coffee and juice bar, and a restaurant – which, if the chef knows his onions, could become as fashionable as its Thames-side predecessor, the Blueprint Café.

At the opening press conference, much emphasis was placed on the rescue of a great venue which had been on the verge of rack and ruin. Unveiled in 1961, the Commonwealth Institute was rated by English Heritage as the most important modernist building in London after the Royal Festival Hall (the two were designed by the same architect, Robert Matthew); but in 2002 the Institute closed and the structure was left to decay, with rain leaking in through the famous roof. The site was eventually bought by property developers, who welcomed the Design Museum in return for permission from Kensington and Chelsea Council to build three blocks of flats beside it.

We must be grateful that the building still exists and has been put to such good use. Aesthetically, however, the price has been appalling, because what made the Commonwealth Institute such an extraordinary experience for visitors was not just its futuristic, sky-blue façade and Thunderbirds-style interior walkways but the approach to it from Kensington High Street: a wonderfully imaginative piece of landscaping by Sylvia Crowe with lawns, trees, open water and a forest of flagpoles – one for every Commonwealth nation. Now almost all of that has gone to accommodate the unremarkable flats, leaving just enough room for a cramped little courtyard and a half-hearted fountain to remind us of a lost urban paradise. The museum, consequently, is like an elephant without its trunk and tusks: impressive, but not thrilling.

Inside, however, some of the original features have been preserved, such as the stained-glass windows framing photographs of life in different parts of the Commonwealth; and there are other, more surprising echoes of the past. The ‘Fear and Love’ exhibition, running until April, consists of eleven installations commissioned from leading international designers to explore ‘a spectrum of issues that define our time’ – among them the wastefulness of the fashion industry, the use of social media to search for love and sex, and the settlement of nomads in cities. But looking at Ma Ke’s selection of textiles woven on traditional wooden looms, André Jacques’ video about dating apps –   shot to look like old Technicolor stock – and Rural Urban Framework’s glorified yurt, you feel a strange sense of familiarity. Where might we have come across things like this before? That’s right – in the Commonwealth Institute half a century ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

Richard Ford’s Canada

Richard Ford’s Canada

     To most Europeans, the differences between the USA and Canada seem minimal. They occupy a single landmass; the inhabitants speak English with similar accents; they wear the same clothes and enjoy the same pursuits. If pressed, we might observe that Canada is emptier and (as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine) its people are less likely to shoot each other – but that’s about it.

So it’s interesting, and educational, to read a novel in which Canada defines otherness. For the narrator, Dell Parsons, it’s a place of exile, a diversion from the life he was supposed to lead.

The book begins with Dell and his twin sister, Berner, living quietly with their parents in Montana. Their father has given up a career in the Air Force to become a car salesman, but proves ill-suited to the job; when he runs into financial trouble, he persuades their mother – a teacher – to help him rob a bank. The plan fails, and in the aftermath Dell finds himself driven across the border and given shelter of the most basic kind in a small town in the middle of nowhere. There he is taken up by another exile, Arthur Remlinger, who owns the main hotel; but before long Dell finds that he has jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

I have long believed Richard Ford to be the greatest living American novelist – an F. Scott Fitzgerald with lower social horizons but the same perfection of narrative tone and gift for wise generalisations about life and human nature. Canada, however, doesn’t find him at his best. Its main fault – oddly for an author who embraces a pared-down, low-key style – is that it gives us too much information, explaining and elaborating when this is completely unnecessary. Most obviously, Dell refers throughout the 400-odd pages to ‘Berner, my sister’, as if we could possibly have forgotten his relationship to this key character; and when, at an anxious moment, his mother passes the time by cleaning the bath tub, he adds as an aside ‘which Berner always left dirty’. Does this contribute to our understanding of Berner, or anything else? No.

The unfolding of the plot, meanwhile, is low-key to the point of perversity. It has dramatic – not to say sensational – elements aplenty: not just the robbery, but suicide, incest and a double murder. Ford chooses, however, to tell us far in advance what’s going to happen (whether the robbery will succeed, who’s going to die), so that the tension is minimal. Reading Canada, I wondered at times whether he was lapsing into self-parody, as Anthony Powell did at the end of his career in The Fisher King.

Having said that, the book gets better as it goes along. There’s an obvious change of gear halfway through, when Dell arrives in Canada: Ford’s evocation of the bleak, almost abandoned township in which he finds himself is mesmerising, and the enigmatic Arthur Ramlinger is a chilly, fascinating character. As for the final few chapters, which bring us up to date with Dell’s subsequent life, they are really excellent – above all in their brave and wise contemplation of death.

After putting the book down, I found myself wondering how many other novels had been given the name of a real country. Kafka’s America was the only one that came to mind. Curiously, he wrote it without having visited the place, and one can’t help wishing him alive to see its present state. Perhaps only he could do justice to Trumpland; or will Richard Ford’s next novel prove otherwise?

Stories To Die For

Stories To Die For

     The American publishing house Scribner recently announced that it planned to issue ‘the last complete unpublished stories’ of F. Scott Fitzgerald in April. To fans of Fitzgerald, such news would once have brought unalloyed excitement; but after the damage done to Harper Lee’s reputation by Go Set a Watchman, one can’t help feeling apprehensive. Will I’d Die for You (as the collection is to be called) remind the world that his stories are as entrancing as his novels, or will it expose unimagined shortcomings?

Scribner declares that the stories ‘provide new insight into the bold and uncompromising arc of Fitzgerald’s career’ and include pieces he could not sell because ‘their subject matter or style departed from what editors expected’. They deal with ‘controversial topics, depicting young men and women who actually spoke and thought more as young men and women did, without censorship’.

The key question is how Scribner defines ‘controversial’. It is not as if Fitzgerald presented a sanitised view of the world: though rightly celebrated as a great romantic writer, what gives strength and credibility to his work is that he never overlooks the mundane and seamy side of life. The most prevalent themes in the already published stories are disillusionment and the power of alcohol to wreck people’s lives: in The Rich Boy it comes between the protagonist and the girl he should have married, in May Day it leads to violent death. Nor does Fitzgerald shy away from sex: his unsparing dissections of married life, such as Two Wrongs and The Rough Crossing, have adultery as a central theme, while his most substantial novel, Tender Is the Night, hinges on the greatest taboo of all – incest.

But he was not entirely wedded to realism, and what is particularly interesting about the short stories is that they venture into a realm which has almost no place in his novels: the Gothic. His best-known story, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, is a case in point. As a portrait of a family rich enough to buy anything on earth, it is clearly the wealth-obsessed author’s ultimate fantasy, and he delights in cataloguing their extravagances, such as an ebony-roofed limousine upholstered in cloth of gold. But what seems at first a simple jeu d’esprit has a darker side: the family is served by slaves, and those who discover the source of their wealth must be silenced. The fantasy ends in mayhem and madness.

Some tales belong directly to the ghost- and horror-story tradition: The Cut-Glass Bowl focuses on a wedding present with a curse, while A Short Trip Home involves an encounter with a dead man. Where Fitzgerald makes the genre his own, however, is in stories which  combine the disturbing with exuberant comedy. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is remarkable not only for its inspired premise (Benjamin is born as an old man and grows younger as the years pass) but also for its hilarious satire: the hero is initially branded a cad for ignoring the laws of nature, but overcomes opposition to his marriage by financing his father-in-law’s pet project – ‘his History of the Civil War in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine prominent publishers’. The brilliance of The Lees of  Happiness – the tale of a man and a woman bound together by their devotion to a stroke victim – lies in the way Fitzgerald gradually modulates the narrative tone in the course of its two dozen pages: opening with an almost Dickensian facetiousness, it turns first to more subtle comedy, then to sober realism, and finally to deep pathos.

His short stories are also remarkable for giving centre stage to seedy characters who would merit only walk-on parts in the high-society world of his novels – above all Pat Hobby, the roguish Hollywood screenwriter who appears in no fewer than seventeen tales.

But the cardinal reason for reading anything by Fitzgerald is the pure beauty of his prose, evoking the elusive and the evanescent, marrying the physical to the abstract, as in Winter Dreams:

‘Later in the afternoon the sun went down in a riotous swirl of gold and varying blues and scarlets, and left the dry, restless night of Western summer. Dexter watched from the veranda of the Golf Club, watched the even overlap of the waters in the little wind, silver molasses under the harvest-moon…It was a mood of intense appreciation, a sense that, for once, he was magnificently attuned to life and everything about him was radiating a brightness and glamour he might never know again.’

If anything in I’d Die for You comes close to that, it will have been worth the 80-year wait.