Looking back

91. Pandora's Box (film, dir. G. W. Pabst, 1929)
92. Look Back in Anger (film, dir. Tony Richardson, 1959)
93. *C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (novel, 1953)
94. On Chesil Beach (film, dir. Dominic Cooke, 2017)
95. Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (novel, 1918)

Pandora's Box aside, apparently this has been a week of English people grappling with their feelings! Saiorse Ronan and I have very different taste in films, apparently, so there's that - don't let me put you off On Chesil Beach, because if you're the sort of person who was thinking of going to see it, then you'll probably like it, but I wasn't, so I didn't. I sat and read The Return of the Soldier in the back of the cinema, because How Many Repressed Feelings Are Too Many Repressed Feelings.

Let's talk about The Return of the Soldier - it was published in 1918, before the First World War had even ended, and very short, and it's broadly about a soldier called Chris who get sent home from the Western Front with shellshock, having forgotten the last fifteen years of his life - including his wife and his dead two-year-old son - remembering only being in love with a girl he met as a teenager on holiday. It's written from the perspective of his cousin Jenny. This is not the sort of book where if you know the ending the book is ruined, so in the end he gets his memory back and the implication is that everything's going to be fine, for a given value of "fine" which almost certainly involves going back in the trenches, getting back with your wife who you don't really like that much, and leaving a very nice woman to an unfulfilling life of poverty and colourlessness. The Return of the Soldier is 180 pages trying to answer the question, should Chris remember the truth? Because the truth is significantly worse. Nobody is set free by it or any of that guff. It's a little puzzle box of a book. Worth playing with.

Apparently generations of critics decided that because Chris gets his memory back, the moral of the story is that Rebecca West thinks Freud works, hallelujah, it's all going to be okay. West herself said that the method of Chris getting his memory back was beside the point. I agree with her; this isn't a book about Chris, and it's not a book about Sigmund bloody Freud. It is about the women who have to manoeuvre themselves around an uncomfortable situation where they only have half the details, and also shellshock exists. It is, in fact, quite an interesting thing to read in the back of On Chesil Beach.

When I got out of the end of Look Back in Anger, I loved it, and I was chatting to a gentleman who emphatically didn't. "Why?" I asked him. "That was a relationship that should never have happened," he said. And he's dead right, of course - Look Back in Anger is about an awful relationship. It is, as the kids would say, Problematic. But that's what art is for, some of the time - poking the horrible thing with the stick and seeing what it does, why people would behave like that, why poor old Alison would come right back at the end, why Jimmy losing his temper manifests itself in those particular ways. It's an unhealthy version of The Dynamic, isn't it? This is what happens when your Absolute Nightmare has a lot of internalised misogyny and no resources, and your Sweaterboy's heart is too big and she thinks she can take all the punches. I am uncomfortable with all of this because I think we're supposed to sympathise with Jimmy. Which is to say, director Tony Richardson and writer John Osborne feel more akin to him than to her. Because they are. To me Look Back in Anger is an excellent example of a piece of art making a very different point to the one it thinks it's making. It is an absolute pisser to be a creative person with few outlets, no colleagues, no way of turning that energy into Something with a capital S. It is also - or so every flatmate I have ever had can probably attest to - an absolute pisser to live with that person. That's the story. That's, in fact, not too far away from what Phantom Thread and Redoutable are exploring - albeit the creatives in both those stories are very successful. Fifty years ago, you'd never have got either of them. You would have got Look Back, and the contrast is sharp, and I like to poke at it.

Pandora's Box is from 1929, it is a German silent film, with Louise Brooks as Lulu. I don't like femme fatales, or the tortuous knots that creators have historically tied themselves in to explain that the woman is clever, because otherwise all the men wouldn't have been ensnared like this, but she's also stupid, because woman. But I will put up with it because Louise Brooks has such a compelling face, and also there is a translated Jack the Ripper poster half an hour from the end which is one of the most hilarious "this is what we think the British sound like" things I've ever seen. I'm reminded of Hedy Lamarr - known for her beauty, but so incredibly clever and engineering-minded. I know very little about Louise Brooks but I hope she had people in her life who took her seriously.

Other things I've seen/heard/read this week: a month or so ago, someone put me onto The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose - it's a gigantic tome, with a staggeringly awful title considering that the subject matter is both innovative and extremely cool, and I didn't pick it up for ages. On Sunday, I went to take it back to the library and thought, I'll just have a go at the introduction, just for posterity's sake. Two hours later, I took it back home with me. It's going to take me a while to get through, but also it's a beaut.

Also, largely as a result of an encounter with Naomi Mitchison's war diaries, I am suddenly completely obsessed with Mass Observation. Sinister name, but there's an archive you could wander for days.