Saturday 2 July 2016

Knut Hamsun, Maggie Nelson, Jules et Jim

Knut Hamsun's Victoria and François Truffaut's Jules et Jim, overlaid with Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts and a dash of Baryshnikov as Nijinsky (in review only, malheureusement), this week's cultural sandwich is served on a plate of summer field. A love story and a love story and a love story and another about madness and the rite of spring. Life's dire capacity for loss and misadventure, if not despair, if not theory.

Jules et Jim was the first European film I saw, at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead when I was about 17; here was an early european lightness of being, a fluidity that life up till then conspicuously lacked, with a seductive voiceover, almost languorous matter of fact, unpassionate romantic; in the coy mode of the 1960s Jeanne Moreau says goodnight to Jules and Jim outside a rural hotel, holding the neatly wrapped package of her white pajamas as she is about to découche with Alberto; Oskar Werner's german french, his helpless generosity; two scenes of the three of them going downhill on bikes, the temporary joy of it, the participation thereafter in every downhill run; Jeanne Moreau singing Le Tourbillon, her exact, unaccustomed delivery: she can smile, she can sing, we are captivated.

In the penultimate scene she drives off half a bridge with Jim (pronounced as in english). She's wearing a cloche hat and there's a wicked smile on her face: look at me now, look what I'm going to do next. I was dumbstruck. No one as beautiful and decided as Jeanne Moreau should drive into the river with one of her men; yet why not? I hoped this would all come clear when I went to university.

In the last scene Jules, Oskar Werner, is alone at the funeral of his wife and his friend, which at seventeen probably didn't strike me as strange, particularly as in my family women and children didn't go to funerals; this time I thought maybe the budget didn't stretch to another actress to play the daughter, older, or that verisimilitude would just create visual clutter. I still wonder why a german should have so french a name, and Jim, a frenchman, so english.

Knut Hamsun's Victoria, the first time I read it, seemed a weary trope: impossible love in a pastoral setting; rich girl, poor boy. Give me Hunger and Mysteries, the strangeness that walks the streets, poses in the alps and then drives off a bridge, not this opera of weak chests in rural Norway. This time Victoria was entirely consonant with Hunger, Mysteries and even Maggie Nelson's Argonauts. Am I more generous now? More equal? Ready for a simple tale. Or nostalgic. Life is a walk across an open field. Maybe. Would that.

Romance is not a success in Jules et Jim but friendship is, Jules the german and Jim the frenchman, across the trenches. In Victoria the only winner is poetry; the rich girl dies and the poor boy, the miller's son, becomes a famous poet in the manner of men who write poetry: everything else is impossible or unimportant. Maggie Nelson's Argonauts in the early twenty-first century do not recognize the impossible or the unimportant, rich or poor, yes or no; with the right surgery and injections a woman can become very male indeed; she can write her own vows, on her body or elsewhere, she can have a child in one of a number of ways.

This is not a trope, or a meme, or a hashtag. Birth is always a number of accidents. Act accordingly. Uncage John Cage. Follow Nijinsky's left arm. Mix your influences and gaze across an open field.

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