Gutenburg’s Apprentice, by Alex Christie

Publicity material

Publicity material

Four hundred and fifty years ago, a dishevelled entrepreneur called Johann Gensfleisch arrived at the huge Frankfurt trade fair to launch a project he had been working on with a team of skilled craftsmen for four years. Some thought it blasphemous; many marvelled and a lucky few put down a deposit for their own copy. The exhibit was the monumental Gutenburg Bible, the first to be set in moveable type. For once, it is no exaggeration to say that the world would never be the same again.

The basic technique Gutenburg developed, that of making castings of each individual letter in metal, arranging them in rows, then in frames, inking them and pressing the letters against vellum or paper, remained in use with various technical modifications until the 1960s. Even now, well into the digital age, we use terms derived from the process. We talk about upper case and lower case letters, referring to the way that the hundreds of metal casts were stored; we talk about going to press, print runs and inking contracts. It is hard for us to imagine, as we tap away at our keyboards, how filthy, noisy, exhausting and technically demanding printing used to be. Many years ago, I joined a tour of a newspaper works and still recall the excitement as midnight approached, the enormous presses roared into life and the first edition was pulled from the rollers, little knowing that I was witnessing the end of an era.

Gutenburg would have known all about ending an era. Both the Catholic Church and the powerful trade guilds in his native city of Mainz were prepared to play dirty to get their hands on his revolutionary printing press; secrecy and subterfuge gave way to hard bargaining and deals on the side; the Catholic Church, as the world’s largest bureaucracy, knew that their power rested on the mass production of indulgences as much as illuminated religious texts. At first, the fledgeling enterprise bought off the local trade associations to prevent rumours circulating. The end of the world as we know it is always going to upset somebody. And this technology was definitely in that league. Within 50 years of the Bible being shown, a mass of small printers had sprung up throughout Germany and the authority of Catholicism was being challenged. Information revolutions, and the debates they lead to, are not confined to the digital age.

How apt it seems, therefore, that the writer of the wonderful novel I’ve just finished, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, was born in Silicon Valley. She has worked as a journalist and as a printer, on her own 1910 letterpress. Her account of Gutenberg’s Bible, seen through the eyes of the three real people at the eye of the storm, is masterly. At its heart is Peter Schoeffer, plucked from his promising career as a scribe by his hard-nosed adoptive father, Johann Fust, and ordered to join Gutenberg’s workshop.

At first Peter hates it and plots his escape by sneaking out to beg work from his old contacts in the scriptorium. No wonder – he has gone from a highly skilled and refined job to a Stygian hellhole of filth and fire where his boss’s idea of discipline is to lose his temper and burn his arm with boiling metal. Gradually, however, Peter forms bonds with his fellow workers and a grudging, if guarded, respect for his near-impossible boss. Ultimately he sees the production of the Bible as his life’s calling, and part of the tragedy of the novel is that eventually betrayal and disagreement break the fellowship of labourers, even as their finished project ignites the Western world.

One of the best things about Alex Christie’s book, and this sets it apart from most historical novels, is that at its heart it’s about the joy and brotherhood connected with finding truly meaningful work. Not that it lacks in drama, romance and political manoeuvring; it has all those spades, but the beating heart of the story, and of Peter’s life, is the crucible of innovation and the bond forged by the intensity of work on a project that pushes them to the limit in every imaginable way. Nothing is romanticised; this is emphatically not the glib story of some lone genius having a lightbulb moment. We see this revolution through the eyes of Peter, whose skill and commitment see it through against almost impossible odds and Fust, the financial backer whose wheeling and dealing make everything happen, rather than Gutenburg himself. Far from being presented as a hero, Gutenburg comes over as a medieval Steve Jobs whose abrasive personality threatens the success of the great Bible as much as facilitates it, and Peter’s developing role as his fixer and executive director becomes utterly draining as the challenges escalate. Christie’s marvellous story will transport you to medieval Europe, and a characteristically German story of craftsmanship, engineering brilliance, and innovation. It joins Hilary Mantel’s prizewinning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies as part of a new wave of realistic historical fiction, casting great figures of the past in a refreshingly modern mould.

A Tale of Two Monsters – Dracula and Frankenstein compared


Do women write better horror stories than men? Any conclusion based on a sample of two is hardly scientific, but a comparison of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Bram Stoker’s Dracula is very revealing.

I never intended to read Dracula. Then we spent a weekend in a holiday cottage near Whitby, and I happened to find a copy on the bookshelf. The first few chapters were gripping and atmospheric, describing the terrifying few weeks spent by the young solicitor, Jonathan Harker, as a prisoner in the Count’s Transylvanian stronghold. Particularly unexpected and intriguing was the blatant eroticism of the scene where he is approached by three female vampires, having disregarded Dracula’s instruction not to go wandering about (The Doctor would have understood the Count’s frustration very well).

Then the action moves to contemporary England. The word “contemporary” is not used lightly, because if ever a novel abounded in descriptions of the wonders of technology, it is this one. Characters constantly record their journals on phonographs, send telegrams and discuss the latest developments in science and technology. Yet Stoker seems curiously ambivalent, or perhaps just inconsistent, in his views. His famous Dutch vampire hunter, Van Helsing, constantly asserts the importance of maintaining a belief in the apparently irrational, whether it be the existence of vampires or the efficacy of Christian symbolism. The text articulates a deep anxiety that the speed of scientific progress will lead to a pervasive rationalism that will leave us vulnerable against the things that go bump in the night.

Anxiety is the defining feature of Stoker’s narrative. That’s not unreasonable in a book that is, after all, intended to scare us stiff. But the particular anxieties implied in Stoker’s account are clustered around the vexed question of gender politics and sexuality. His world-view is a patriarchal as the Book of Genesis. Women have only one acceptable aspiration – to exist as icons of purity. The world is repeated constantly. They are vessels to be filled or emptied by others – quite literally in the case of the passive Lucy Westera, whose very name embodies Stoker’s racial prejudice. In a frantic and ultimately futile attempt to save her life, she undergoes no fewer than four blood transfusions (all from different men!) in four consecutive days, all without her awareness or consent, and done in the name of their devotion to her. It is significant that, while the blood-letting of a vampire is the underlying cause of Lucy’s malaise, we are told that such a creature can only enter a house by the victim’s invitation. Inviting the vampire into her bedroom is Lucy’s only really autonomous action in the whole narrative, and all her sufferings flow from it.

Female independence was a cause of considerable anxiety in the late 19th century, with its defining feature of the rise of the “New Woman” demanding access to university education and suffrage. Closely linked to this concern was a reductive and conventional understanding of masculinity. In Julian Barnes’ novel, Arthur and George, set in the Edwardian era, an innocent Indian man is suspected of murder, partly because he hasn’t learned to play “our great manly games.” It is possibly coincidental that Dracula, with his nocturnal habits, his shameful addiction, sunken eyes and feminine features, superficially resembles Oscar Wilde, but some commentators think otherwise. The vampire can only be defeated by a united fraternity of men, whose virility is frequently and glowingly praised. They lock themselves away in smoke-filled rooms, excluding the clearly intelligent and capable Mina on the grounds that the fairer sex could not bear the horrors that they are discussing.

Blind faith has its dark side – irrational prejudice.  Dracula abounds in what we would now call “Isms” – sexism, racism, even class-ism. Stoker’s attempt to produce Cockney or Yorkshire dialect, combined with frequent veiled demands for beer money, make it clear that in his universe the lower classes exist primarily to be patronised by their betters and provide comic relief.

Does Dracula still have the power to terrify? In a well-directed movie, perhaps, but the original is by turns infuriating and hilarious. It says far more about the sexual anxieties of late Victorian males than the habits of the undead. There is no attempt to explain, empathise with or pity the Count. And in this respect, particularly, it differs markedly from Shelly’s Frankenstein, which in my view has lost none of its haunting power.

Shelley, too, had concerns about the growing power of technology. Frankenstein is rooted in the Romantic sensibility, and its reaction to the prospect that mankind might be on the brink of using electricity to reanimate the dead, and create new life. Should humanity have such a power? How could male vanity – such a feature of Stoker’s narrative – be limited by ethics and responsibility?

These issues have, if anything, become more significant rather than less. That is partly why Frankenstein has retained its appeal. But Mary Shelley was also a parent, one who had stoically dragged a growing brood of toddlers around Europe in thrall to her husband’s grand ideas (only one of their five children survived the experience). Frankenstein is filled with this sensibility, with her conviction that humanity owes a debt of moral responsibility to any sentient being it has created. Her Creature does not fit easily into the good/evil binary. He is the innocent victim of his creator’s revulsion and neglect; it is this that looses horror upon the world, and leads to the death of everyone that Frankenstein holds dear.

The Creature is a complex character – we are privy to his aspirations, his anguish and his growing desperation. Much of the story is told from his viewpoint. Through his account of his social isolation, he comes to represent the social and political prejudices that divide us, and that the Shelley’s would have clearly witnessed in their travel around a war-scarred Europe. We can’t condone his behaviour, but we understand why he feels he has no alternative. He is human, and seeks only the connection and acceptance that all human beings are entitled to. Ultimately, we pity him, probably more than we pity his hubristic creator, who spills so much ink bemoaning his own fate and so little on that of his creation.

In Shelley’s moral universe, the monsters are more than simple projections of society’s repressed anxieties. They are like us; in a sense, they are us. They exist on the fringes of society, feared, shunned but ultimately no more evil than those who brought them into being. We make our own monsters, and the way forward is not to band together in vigilante groups intent on their destruction, but by extending a hand of mercy and acknowledgement to the apparently hideous and unknown.

Dracula is a melodrama. Frankenstein, though every bit as much of its time as Stoker’s classic, remains contemporary, haunting and disturbing. It terrifies because we know, in our hearts, that we are capable of creating our own monsters, and sealing our fate as well as theirs by our reluctance to acknowledge the monstrous in ourselves.


Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s “Frankenstein” (National Theatre)

My heart aches for Cornwall and Devon right now

Storm damage at Dawlish, South Devon (BBC photo)

Storm damage at Dawlish, South Devon (BBC photo)

It breaks my heart to see the horrendous storm damage to the South West of England this week. Of all the regions of my native country, it’s the one I love most, and crossing over the Saltash Bridge from Devon into Cornwall gives me a thrill that never abates. The line at Dawlish that has just been swept away holds particularly special memories for me. The first holiday that my husband of 26 years and I took together was a trip to Penwith and the Isles of Scilly in 1984. We took the night train from Manchester to Penzance – an adventure in itself at the time – and I remember waking at 4.00 am to look out of the window and discover, with a thrill of joy and anticipation, that we were literally travelling along the Devon coast. That line, built by Brunel in the 1840s has always been a marvel of engineering, defying the elements, linking the far west of England with London. Now it has gone.

The South West in general, and Cornwall in particular, is a world apart. That is what draws so many people there for relaxation and adventure, but it is also a vulnerability that leaves them economically fragile. I was concerned on our last trip to the region to discover that the Isles of Scilly no longer has a direct air link with Penzance. Beautiful though it is, the tiny population of Scilly is one of the most economically deprived in Britain, and having to travel the 32 miles to a halfway-decent shopping centre via Newquay puts an unfair burden on them. Such cuts in infrastructure are increasing the impoverishment of an isolated region where many local people can already barely find a decent place to live and secure year-round work.

For the last five years DH and I have been walking the entire South West Peninsula Coast Path; a monumental trek of 630 miles, including a combined ascent three times the height of Everest. We are just over halfway through, with our ninth campaign planned for early summer. During that time we have always travelled down from our home in Manchester by train and used local transport to get around. We have stayed in a variety of hotels and B&Bs, most of them delightful and memorable. I wonder if all of them will survive to welcome guests into the 2014 season.

Ultimately our goal has always been to retire to the region. Like many others, no doubt, recent events may cause us to rethink those plans. With ageing and decreasing mobility to consider, finding the right property has been a balance between the delights of living right on the sea coast and the relative safety of an inland home, which in most cases will be up a hill steep enough to isolate an elderly person. Much as I love the high street at Lyme Regis, I shudder to think of the practicalities of getting down it and back on a frosty winter morning without falling and breaking an oseteoporotic bone or two. So the attractions of a coastal home are not simply aesthetic.

About two years ago, on a glorious September evening, we walked into Kingsand, the first village west of Plymouth, and fell hopelessly in love. We made enquiries about the local community and felt that this could be the right place for us, regardless of our earlier decision that Cornwall was too remote and isolated. Now the lovely little village hall with its iconic clock tower is on the verge of collapse. And if we’d been able or willing to find the £750,000 for our dream house, we’d probably now be pumping out the cellar. With the present weather, even your own private smugglers passage direct to the beach is a mixed blessing.

Our Enid Blyton vision may be faced with the cold winds of reality and common sense, but our problems are nothing to those faced by those who live and work in the beautiful South West counties. When we return – hopefully by train – next Whitsuntide, I can only hope that the path, and the hotels we have booked, will still be there to welcome us. I have a Cornish ancestry that stretches back to the early 19th Century. I’m taking this personally. My thoughts are with you all.

A Tale of Three Movies: Abuse, Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Eric Lomax with Takashi Nagase

Eric Lomax with Takashi Nagase

We saw The Railway Man last night, completing our recent hat-trick of “abuse movies.” The other two were Philomena and Twelve Years A Slave.

It was my partner who pointed out the interesting parallels and contrasts between these three stories. Each concerns a person who was dreadfully abused, caught up in an evil system without their knowledge or consent, but simply as an unfortunate accident. Philomena bears an illegitimate child in 1950s Ireland, which leads to the removal of her baby and its forced adoption, sanctioned by the state (in contemporary terminology, outsourced to the Catholic Church).

In 12 Years A Slave Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1840s Saratoga, is duped into being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Finally, The Railway Man tells the story of Eric Lomax, appallingly tortured by the Japanese in Burma as a young man in World War II. For the rest of the life he is emotionally crippled by this trauma, and eventually has the opportunity to meet one of his tormentors face to face and decide whether to murder or forgive him.

All three are based on true stories. All continue to have contemporary resonance. We still struggle, as a species with the questions of torture, war, trauma, slavery, racism and what to do about people who don’t follow the socially sanctioned rules for reproduction within marriage.

And all three ask a vital question – is it possible to recover from severe abuse, and is forgiveness an essential, or even desirable, aspect of that process?

Such forgiveness takes two forms – forgiveness of one’s individual abuser(s), and forgiveness of the ideological system in which the abuse takes place. You can have one without the other. It may be too difficult and dangerous on a practical level to return to the scene of the crime, even assuming you would want to do so. This was clearly Solomon Northup’s situation. The evil of slavery was so entrenched in society at the time that his only option was to continue to fight on outside the South as an abolitionist, which was what he did.

Eric Lomax, however, was offered the opportunity to return and offer reconciliation. It is interesting that, according to his second wife Patti (who features prominently in the film, played by Nicole Kidman), he returned to Thailand with every intention of killing his torturer, expecting that to bring him closure, if not inner peace. It was only when they met, and he discovered the reality of Takashi Nagase’s commitment to reconciliation through his work of historical education that Lomax concluded, “Sometimes, the hating has to stop.” This is the most complete reconciliation of the three stories under discussion, and the film depicts it movingly and convincingly.

Philomena’s case is rather more complex. She remains a Catholic and is, in that sense, reconciled with the institution that was the author of her pain. In fact, the film strongly implies that only the Church gives her the moral framework to cope with the very pain it has caused her. She is not reconciled with the individual nun who sanctioned her child’s adoption, and we see that her attitude has, if anything, hardened in old age. And the film does not touch on Philomena’s views towards the Irish government for allowing her child, and many others, to be sold rather than creating a society where illegitimate children were valued and included. So this is a partial, and rather problematic and incomplete, reconciliation.

However, the parallels between these stories are instructive, and it is interesting that they have all been made into successful films at roundabout the same time. The questions they ask have a timeless relevance and are arguably the stuff of compelling drama. In each case, though certain accommodations with the original source material have inevitably been reached, the movie treatment is broadly faithful to the original.

Undoubtedly all are worth seeing. Of the three I found Philomena the most entertaining, 12 Years A Slave the most shocking and The Railway Man the most emotionally satisfying. In addition, The Railway Man gave me a far more powerful insight into the reality of being consistently and repeatedly tortured than the far more morally problematic Zero Dark Thirty I saw about a year ago. At the time I concluded that Zero Dark Thirty was morally justifiable because it showed that torture brutalises the perpetrator as well as the victim. Now that attitude has shifted. Torture is wrong, period. There are no attenuating circumstances and justifications whatsoever.

Twelve Years A Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in Twelve years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in Twelve years a Slave

Twelve Years A Slave, which I saw yesterday, is a harrowing and shocking film. I expected that. I was rather less prepared for what shocked me the most.

I was primed for scenes of sickening violence and they will stay in my mind for a long time. I also thought I was a decent, liberal person who understood racism and what it must feel like to experience it.

In fact, I was wrong.

Yes, the n-word was used, repeatedly and casually, to such an extent that I felt that, for the first time, I could imagine what life would be like in a community habituated to such things and the attitudes that accompany them. It was the absolute commoditisation of human beings that shocked me the most. That sounds like a no-brainer – slavery is about owning people, well, d’uh. We think we understand it, that we can imagine it. I think we’re wrong. At least, I was.

The scene where the new batch of kidnapped slaves are put on the market was as shocking, in its own way, as the vicious beatings and lynchings that followed. Here were human beings being sold as possessions, regardless of any dignity or feelings involved. A little boy forced to demonstrate his physical fitness. A mother screaming as her children are sold away from her before her eyes (later, when she arrives at her new home without them, the mistress says, ‘Poor creature. Give her rest and food, she will forget them in a few days.’) Human beings tagged, abused, robbed of all dignity and self-determination. And hope.

Keep your head down. Don’t let anybody find out you can read and write – they’ll single you out as an uppity n-r. You are now, officially, someone else’s property, to do what they think best with. If you are a woman, you may be raped regularly by the master and, as if that isn’t bad enough, savagely beaten by him because he loathes himself for being attracted to you and takes out that loathing on your body and soul and, for good measure, his wife will hate you for reasons of her own and find her own ways of making you wretched.

If you are a man, your destiny is to work until you drop dead in the field and then be thrown into an unmarked grave with scant ceremony.

A system so evil is horrendous for everyone to live in. For the slaves, that’s obvious. But equally disturbing is the brutalisation of the entire society, the acceptance of extreme violence as part of the texture of everyday life, the well-dressed little white children playing while lynched bodies swing or vicious beatings occur in the background of their world.

We may congratulate ourselves on the wickedness of times past and feel a sense of false worthiness because people don’t keep slaves now (an argument that it, as it happens, untrue). But we continue to live in a society that singles out particular kinds of people – poor people on welfare, for example – as being less worthy of the description “human” and the privileges that go with it. And that is an attitude that impoverishes us all.

I can only watch and reflect, in humble horror, and feel glad that at least Solomon Northup escaped, returned to his family and did not forget his sufferings – that, quite literally, he lived to tell the tale.

Business as Usual at Baker Street (Spoilers for His Last Vow)

After two episodes of fan-pleasing emotional complexity and self-referential humour, there was a bit of a feeling of “business as usual” about last night’s Sherlock finale as ex-teacher Stephen Moffatt cracked the whip and put a stop to all this touchy-feely nonsense. He turned in a brisk, tightly plotted tale full of twists and rather short on convincing character development.

Watson, in particular, seems like a different character this week. Apparently he’s already a little bored with married life, but not bored enough to call his old friend and check whether loneliness is driving him back to the crack dens. In Moffat’s defence, this behaviour pattern is pretty consistent with John’s military background, English emotional reserve and the general male reluctance to do emotional heavy lifting. If anything, it’s the increased openness of the previous two episodes that’s the aberration.

I have no problem whatsoever believing that John has spent the last four weeks with the thought “Must call Sherlock,” niggling away at the back of his mind but constantly postponed, since to do so would open up a can of worms that could potentially wreck his marriage.

Of course, that was nothing to the can of worms that very nearly did. And, while it was certainly a lovely jaw-dropping reveal when Mary turned out to be a bad ‘un, the more I think about it, the less likely it seems that Sherlock, who thought nothing of grilling her friends to check whether they were suitable wedding guests last week, wouldn’t have had his suspicions aroused by Mary’s lack of family and friends, and done a little pre-marital sleuthing. If I still wrote fan fiction, I’d quite enjoy going AU and writing the scene where he confronts John with his findings and the wedding gets called off.

The trouble with Mary is that, with her nefarious background left hazy, it’s a tough call to feel any identification or sympathy with her – particularly as writing three-dimensional female characters has never been Moff’s strong point. Indeed, it was notable this week that all the female characters were less fully developed than in the previous two outings. Mary is now a blank slate – ironically, perhaps, very much as she was in the original. So, despite her pregnancy, she immediately becomes the less worthy rival than Sherlock for John’s heart.

I don’t want to get too far into Moff-bashing. It’s such a cliche these days – and because I don’t have a huge emotional investment in Sherlock I enjoyed His Last Vow despite its faults. Loved the mind-palace stuff, enjoyed the reptilian villain enormously, so much so that I rather regretted his demise. Lindsay Duncan’s tormented blackmail victim was a class act, we found out once and for all who bought the Teletubbies’ old place after they moved out and Moffat got to dramatise another cherished male fantasy. No, not shagging a tabloid hack. What red-blooded male, comotose and grumpy after Christmas lunch, hasn’t fantasised about someone turning up in a chopper, knocking all those irritating relatives out for an hour or two and transporting him to a James Bond-style lair?

(Incidentally, those who criticise Sherlock’s harsh treatment of Janine might care to read the ACD original, in which Sherlock proposes marriage to the blackmailer’s maid in order to get into his house).

But back to Mary, whose situation ironically echoed that of Wanda Ventham (BC’s mum,  also featured in last night’s episode) in the 1970s TV series The Lotus Eaters. Does anybody really have a shred of sympathy for her now? This story exposes her to much of the fan-hate that was so neatly avoided in The Empty Hearse, since she’s now isolated as the devious interloper and architect of Sherlock’s emotional collapse. In some ways, this whole series demonstrates how tricky things become once you acknowledge the emotional subtext that fans love so much. It’s going to be hard to return to the Case of the Week format that served so well until the Pandora’s box of UST was opened up.

Of course, all this applies equally, if not more, to Doctor Who, which Sherlock seems to resemble more and more. I am not sure that is a good thing. More confusing still, I saw a lot of RTD’s Who in His Last Vow. The ending was pure Doomsday; I was waiting to hear the immortal line, “And, John Watson, since it’s my last chance to tell you…” And then we had the trailed return of Moriarty, with its unpleasant echoes of Simm’s cackling Master in the best-forgotten The End of Time.

And so concludes a thoroughly entertaining and divisive third series. There was much to admire. The acting was uniformly superb, the writing excellent, the plotting somewhat problematic as we stray further from ACD’s clearly defined template. If there’s one conclusion to be drawn, I think it echoes Laurie Penny’s (her piece on Sherlock in The New Statesman is a balanced, well-argued read):

What is significant about unofficial, extra-canonical fan fiction is that it often spins the kind of stories that showrunners wouldn’t think to tell, because fanficcers often come from a different demographic. The discomfort seems to be not that the shows are being reinterpreted by fans, but that they are being reinterpreted by the wrong sorts of fans – women, people of colour, queer kids, horny teenagers, people who are not professional writers, people who actually care about continuity (sorry). The proper way for cultural mythmaking to progress, it is implied, is for privileged men to recreate the works of privileged men from previous generations whilst everyone else listens quietly.


I don’t think it’s quite that simple, because some writers fit and follow the Straight White Male demographic more closely than others. What results is a kind of fan-whiplash, when writers with a different angle on the fan-creator relationship pen adjacent episodes of the same show. It reminds us that fandom seeks to address what remains an unequal dynamic. The creators (usually straight white males, as Penny points out) have the power to dole out largesse, but also to withdraw it and reinstate the conventional hegemony at any time. And while this is invariably accompanied by howls of indignant publicity-generating reaction on Tumbr and elsewhere, sending their ratings skyrocketing, that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Thoughts on La Dolce Vita

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space - were it not that I have bad dreams. Hamlet

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.

Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weigh upon me. Peace frightens me; perhaps I fear it most of all. I feel it is only a facade hiding the face of hell. I think, ‘What is in store for my children tomorrow?’ ‘The world will be wonderful’, they say. But from whose viewpoint? If one phone call could announce the end of everything? We need to live in a state of suspended animation like a work of art, in a state of enchantment. We have to succeed in loving so greatly that we live outside of time, detached.”

Cinema gives us the ability to frame moments of beauty and passion and replay them again and again – but only by creating and staging them in the first place. Is there any such thing as an authentic life that is a beautiful work of art? Or must all beauty carry within itself the corollary that it is the product of artifice?

Is this why Steiner finds his life unbearable?


Rather bizarrely, we watched this on a DVD that had been given away with the Daily Mail years ago, harvested from John’s parents’ home.

I’m really glad I was almost completely ignorant of this movie before watching. It meant that I went in blind to all the moral judgements others had made on the characters, particularly Marcello. Although he works in a shitty job and does some very shitty things, right from the start of the movie, I never felt he was completely beyond redemption. So although the movie has satirical elements, and definitely a satirical character, I saw it as a tragicomedy (or perhaps a Divine Comedy), with some clear decision points for Marcello, and therefore it had dramatic tension.

Another example – according to Philip French, Maddelena is a nyphomaniac. Well, that might be true, though her behaviour doesn’t seem noticeably more promiscuous than that of others in her set. I saw her rather as a privileged woman suffering from crippling ennui, hungry for any new experience, including slumming it in a prostitute’s bedroom. It seems to me that she is a balance to Emma, who is romantically deluded, thinking that she can save Marcello through her devoted, maternal love. Clearly that is a non-starter, given the kind of man he is, and in fact her behaviour is smothering and controlling. I didn’t feel that Fellini was presenting Emma in a particularly attractive light.

Maddelena is more complex. With all her faults, she can touch a nerve in Marcello that few others can reach. What he loves in her is her total lack of illusions. Even while she is proposing marriage to him, she’s flirting with someone else. He doesn’t see this happening (though you wonder if he suspects), so he is free to imbue her with whatever ideal qualities he needs. But to call her his Beatrice is reductive in the extreme. He would like her to be his Beatrice, but he knows she never would be. In fact a recurring theme of the whole film is Marcello experimenting with different kinds of womanhood, and rejecting them all. Other archetypal females are Sylvia, Steiner’s wife, Nico, Fanny (the Kit-Kat hostess) and possibly even Nadia – there are also a couple of archetypal cultured women (interestingly neither are Italian). They are all possibilities, but ultimately he rejects them.

That leaves Paula, his little Umbrian angel from the sunlit cafe. I do think Fellini may be setting her up as a genuine alternative to the cynicism and sensation-seeking of Marcello’s milieu. She remains an innocent, a pure and natural template on which anything could be engraved. She still takes a simple delight in pleasures like a piece of catchy pop music (later used very differently as the background to Nadia’s striptease). She appears in one of the few scenes shot in the full light of day (this is very much a movie of long nights and weary dawn scenes). She appears as Marcello is trying to write, making at least a gesture towards what Steiner believes his true vocation to be.

And we see her in the film’s last frame, smiling enigmatically, Madonna-like. It’s inconceivable that we shouldn’t connect this to the film’s opening scene. Considered blasphemous by the Catholic Church at the time of the movie’s release, this showed a Christ statue being airlifted over Rome, holding out its hands in apparent benediction. But Christ was pursued by a helicopter containing Marcello and Paparazzi, and the noise of the rotor blades made communication impossible. We saw the world of the trivial and the depraved in pursuit of the holy and the ideal. The last scene echoes this set up, but now the fish (an old emblem of Christianity) is an enormous, stinking, three-day-old corpse. And Marcello cannot hear what Paula is saying; her words are blown away and lost in the crashing of the waves, so ultimately he returns to the battered crowd of revellers and turns his back on her.

What are we to make of Steiner, who appears to represent everything worthy and desirable in the pursuit of a meaningful life? Steiner has it all – wealth, a beautiful home, gorgeous children, devoted wife, interesting friends and cultural authority. But he can’t enjoy it. He is tormented – by the past (World War II – there are searchlights outside his balcony?), by the future (nuclear Armageddon?) or just by existential angst?  Whatever the answer, his demons pursue him until he shoots himself and his gorgeous children, and in a particularly tragic scene (with an undertow of dark comedy) his wife becomes a commodity pursued by Marcello and his band of paparazzi – and at first she’s flattered (“Are you turning me into a film star?”) before she senses the terrible truth.

Peter denies Christ three times. Marcello has three – or possibly four – opportunities to turn his life around:

1 the “truth scene” with Madellena

2 when he reaches out for connection with his father

3 when he breaks up with Emma (this one is the most ambivalent, I feel)

4 when he is complicit in the reporting of Steiner’s suicide

Most if not all of these come with huge caveats. The third in particular is probably a complete illusion (interestingly, it’s the only one where we witness him changing his mind). All are presented with a dark mirror. Immediately after (1) we have a ghostly mock-wedding procession breaking into a church that almost became a brothel. In (2), the hottie that Marcello lines up for his dad almost ends up killing him, as if to remind us that once youth is gone, it is futile to try to recapture it. (3) is so full of contradictions that there is no need for any subtext, although I still find the presence of a blinding floodlight interesting. And (4) carries its own heart of darkness into an apparently perfect set up.

In all these scenes, there’s use of silence and space, and that contrasts with the movie’s generally noisy and frenetic world. Normally, there are too many people around, too much going on, for any real human communion to take place, and you get the sense that most of the characters are actively avoiding it. And the framing first and final scenes both use the contrast between space and supposed “civilisation” to make a satirical point about affluent society and its discontents.

What came over most strongly to me was how beautiful the film was to look at, as if it carried the DNA of every James Bond movie, every Avengers episode, every Martini advert of the 1960s (perhaps it did). You could imagine that anyone wanting to portray sophisticated people in a movie for at least the next 10 years would have aspired to make them look like they do La Dolce Vita. And that is what makes it such an honest movie – it shows us how attractive excess can be.

Every scene carries a weight of conflicting metaphors. A church can be a brothel. A popped balloon can become a smashed plate. Again and again there is the still, small, wordless voice of pathos invading scenes of feasting and success. When the showgirls take a break, onto the dance floor comes an incredibly beautiful, Chaplinesque comic trumpeter, and although he plays badly, he pulls all the balloons away with him and makes the onlookers cry, without really knowing why. In a world of lies, the truth cuts like a knife.