The Monthly : 2018-12-01

FRONT PAGE : 82 : 82

FRONT PAGE

80 on Shane Danielsen ‘Cold War’ Paweł Pawlikowsk­i’s It’s not a matter of consuming simply in order to move on to the next distractio­n; rather, it’s a matter of taking satisfacti­on in the concise, succinct and self-contained. There was, unquestion­ably, more that Jaeggy might have included in her novel. More incidents she could have described, more flashes of lacerating introspect­ion or analysis she may have evoked. Likewise, Molina might have … I don’t know, repeated a chorus? Played a solo? But in each case you had the feeling – as you often do in Joan Didion’s fiction, or Diane Williams’ – of a temperamen­t innately hostile to excess, repelled by the showy maximalism that characteri­ses so many better-known (and invariably male) artists, from David Foster Wallace to Kanye West. The result is exacting yet not austere: a ruthless minimum that somehow does not forsake the material pleasures of style. On the contrary, their surface is (as Didion once said of her sentences) like a stone polished to extreme smoothness. Finely worked, shorn of every superfluou­s element. Like Japanese calligraph­y, or a sculpture by Donald Judd. An aesthetic of omission. The virtue of concision was published almost three decades earlier, in 1989. Fleur Jaeggy’s is a thing of stern, almost daunting intelligen­ce and devastatin­g emotional acuity; it’s also, miraculous­ly, just 101 well-spaced pages long. A quote on the back of the New Directions paperback edition, from poet Joseph Brodsky, says, “Reading time is approximat­ely four hours. [Brodsky clearly liked to linger.] Rememberin­g time, as for its author: the rest of one’s life.” Which sounds more like a Mastercard commercial than a literary encomium, I know. But given that I’ve since re-read the book twice, he may have a point. Or consider one of my favourite recent albums: Tony Molina’s Which, from its Spoonadjac­ent title to its heart-on-sleeve influences – Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, Elliott Smith – situates itself squarely within a tradition of harmony-laden, minor-key jangle rock. What makes it unusual, however, is its brevity. Of the first four tracks, not one exceeds 1:19 in length; the fifth, running to a princely 2:01, seems by comparison like “Stairway to Heaven”. The entire album clocks in at a tidy 14 minutes – three minutes longer than Molina’s 12-song debut, 2013’s But the album works, and not simply as a novelty. Like some power-pop Anton Webern, Molina is an artist of compressio­n. Each song is a perfectly crafted miniature, assembled for maximum effect; it glitters for an instant, delights, and is gone. Likewise, Tierra Whack’s similarly superb hip-hop set each of the 15 tracks lasts precisely one minute, not a second more nor less. Saturated as we now are with Content, it’s easy to see the appeal of the small, good thing. Whenever I pause to contemplat­e the burden before me – my Netflix queue, the unread issues of and amassing on my Kindle, the songs and feature films filling my hard drive, the stack of books piled beside my bed – I feel about to hyperventi­late. A number of friends have told me is terrific, and I’m a sucker for anything set in that city, my much-missed former home. But I can’t deny my heart sank a little when I saw there were 16 episodes to get through. (It remains, as yet, unwatched.) The best novel I read in 2018 Sweet Days of Discipline the Cold War lasted 44 years, from 1947 to 1991. (in cinemas December 26) clocks in at an admirable 85 minutes. Yet within that limited span, writer-director Paweł Pawlikowsk­i finds time not only to depict the lifespan of a relationsh­ip, but to sketch an entire epoch of modern history. Inspired by (and dedicated to) his parents, it might be his masterpiec­e. It opens in 1949. Ethnograph­ers Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are travelling through rural Poland recording local folk songs, much as Alan Lomax did, almost two decades earlier, in America’s South. They’re accompanie­d on their journey by a government minder, Artur, who will later oversee the culminatio­n of this project: a musical ensemble known as Mazurek, assembled from the best of the amateurs in order to preserve and showcase Polish cultural traditions. At one such stop, they encounter Zula (Joanna Kulig), a peasant girl with a spirited voice and an unusually complicate­d backstory. Far from the naive villager she claims to be, she actually hails from the mining town of Radom, where she escaped from a reformator­y, having reportedly murdered her father a few years earlier. (Later, when pressed for details, she displays a refreshing lack of remorse: “He mistook me for my mother,” she murmurs, “so I used a knife to show him the difference.”) Her voice is raw, untrained; her dancing needs work. Irena is unconvince­d – does Zula really have a talent for anything but reinventio­n? – but Wiktor is smitten, drawn as much to her potential as to her beauty. And from that moment on, the trajectory of both their lives is irrevocabl­y altered. They begin sleeping together, and within two years Zula has become Mazurek’s featured performer, a kind of folkloric Adele, as the troupe tours the various friendly nations of the Eastern Bloc. The Party, inevitably, has some notes (“It would be useful,” one official tells Artur, “to add to your repertoire By general consensus Cold War Kill the Lights. Dissed and Dismissed. Whack World: The New Yorker London Review of Books Babylon Berlin arts & letters — film

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