Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Week One - The Kennedy Center and a couple of novels

2nd May – A visit to the Kennedy Center

First impression: not a particularly attractive building. It was no doubt ultra-modern when it was built, but now it just looks plain and slightly tired. This really highlights a problem with a lot of modern architecture. So little of it aims for, or believes in the existence of, objective beauty. They are sold instead on their originality and newness, so when tomorrow’s structures are even brasher and flashier, yesterday’s avant-garde becomes old fashioned as well as ugly. Even Arlington’s twee pseudo-colonial homes, though they’ll never be considered ahead of their time or original, will at least always be pretty. Once you get inside the Kennedy Center you realise its magnitude – as if foreseeing my criticism of its style, its architect decided to go large in recompense. Architectural fads may ebb and flow but people-sized beings will always feel something (in my case discomfort) when you put them in a vast, stark marble room. We’ll call it ‘Speer’s Law’. Anyway, once you’re out of the Hall of States and the Hall of Countries, the Kennedy Center isn’t too shabby. The café has views of the Lincoln Memorial and you can go out onto the terrace for terrific views of the Potomac.

But this isn’t a blog about sightseeing. I’m supposed to be getting culturally educated...

Noticing that a play was starting shortly I snapped up a ticket (at half price) for Shear Madness. Five minutes before the start and there is still nobody inside, then suddenly it is full of teenagers – which should have been a warning sign. Shear Madness is described as a 'Whodunit' and the longest running play of some sort or other in American history. This naturally made me think of that other long-running whodunit, The Mousetrap, which I'll admit was an unfair yardstick. It is labelled a comedy and the flashy stage and pop soundtrack pretty forcefully confirmed that this was no Agatha Christie. Still, it does say it’s a whodunit, and the one area in which my earlier cultural education is not deficient is in whodunits. Every single Agatha Christie sits on my shelf at home – even the pretty average experiments in thriller writing and the murders without Poirot or Marple – alongside a fair complement from Doyle, Chesterton, Chandler, Sayers, Marsh and Mitchell (the golden age, before forensics ruined the fun). As a whodunit, Shear Madness really isn't up to much. But it is funny and is obviously regularly rewritten to work in up-to-date gags: in this case on Bieber, Paris Hilton and the basketball player who came out a few days earlier. This stuff was a hit with the teen audience and, because fun is infectious, with me too. Not the most highbrow start to my education but… I’m not complaining.

Saul Bellow’s Herzog
When you’re feeling down and missing home, what better pick-me-up than a good novel? Herzog may be a great novel, but it wasn’t the tonic for that particular ailment. Much too close to home to be enjoyable. The plot concerns a about middle aged academic who starts to lose the plot when his wife leaves him and takes their young daughter. Bellow actually intended this as a comedy (see the Preface to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind), but I had to put it aside halfway through for something more escapist.

4th May - Graham Greene's The Quiet American
The Quiet American was that something. Whether it was a coincidence or a subconscious desire to revisit my state of mind from earlier travels, but I realised partway through that I had originally started reading Graham Greene during a backpacking trip in 2001 – Our Man in Havana, The Third Man, and The End of the Affair – this one wasn’t quite up there but it had that same unmistakable atmosphere of international intrigue and cynicism, like a grown up, sophisticated and tired version of Bond. Was Greene a prophet or was America’s involvement in Vietnam so prominent even in the early 50s when this was written? It’s also a lesson not to take a narrator for a reflection of the author. The character of Fowler is an atheist, whereas Greene was a Catholic. It reminded me of Thailand too – and Jim Thompson, the American former CIA agent who disappeared in mysterious circumstances some years after Greene’s novel, but who was active during the same period.

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