Artists of the Year

Framed, penned, screened, danced, sung, shot, delivered: City Pages lauds the artistic creations of 1999

The narrator (who may or may not be Sebald himself) is a melancholic and wry middle-aged man undergoing a life crisis, or, as he puts it in his typically understated way, "a difficult period of my life." He leaves England, where he lives "almost always under grey skies," and starts to wander across Europe in search of relief from his unspecified psychological affliction. He goes to Vienna, crosses into Italy, visits Verona and Milan, and then ends up in the Austrian alps. He is notably hysterical and easily menaced. No sooner has he arrived in a public place than he is liable to feel that others are looking at him or that he is being followed. He imagines that he can recognize unlikely figures from history and literature. In a bus in Italy, he grows convinced that a young man next to him is a reincarnation of the young Franz Kafka, so strong are the facial similarities. He tries to talk to him but is mistaken for a pedophile by his parents and has to get off the bus. He spends whole days alone in hotel rooms, he walks the streets of cities aimlessly, he sits in restaurants taking notes (perhaps for the book we are reading) and following up bizarre interests in the footnotes of art history and literature. He digresses at length on Stendhal's service in the Napoleonic armies and on his theories about love.

It all sounds weird and it is--though in a good way. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once praised writers who "allow themselves to be a bit weird," and Sebald is certainly one of these. There seem no logical connections between the various parts of Vertigo, and yet the disunity and digressions add up to a faintly pleasing whole. One is afforded a sense of the unusual correlations that can occur in the mind. Also, Sebald manages never to be boring. He infuses his prose with the tension of a stylish thriller: The narrator is constantly racing from one location to another in an escape from his demons, and this atmosphere of paranoia keeps us turning the pages.

Vertigo is not the book to start with if one has never read any Sebald. But committed fans (of which I am one) will nevertheless find many things to enjoy in Sebald's offering this year.

 

Alain de Botton is the author ofHow Proust Can Change Your Life andOn Love; his new book,The Consolations of Philosophy, comes out in April. He lives in London.

 

LESLEY MANVILLE

by Amy Taubin

The Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy is such a fabulous ensemble piece that I'm loath to single out any one participant on either side of the camera. It tops my best of 1999 lists in many categories: best English-language picture; best director (Mike Leigh); best screenplay (Mike Leigh); best leading male actor (Jim Broadbent); best supporting male actor (Timothy Spaull); best supporting female actor (Lesley Manville). Still, what transforms Topsy-Turvy from a witty, detailed, and buoyant costume picture about the collaboration of two dedicated lightweights into something more bittersweet, if not quite tragic, is Leigh's decision to hand its final ten minutes to three female characters who, until this point, have remained in the background: Gilbert's wife, Sullivan's mistress, and the D'Oyly Carte opera company's alcoholic soubrette. Suddenly, an entirely different film opens before our eyes, one that has been suppressed in the interest of telling the story of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of two male artists.

The actor who bears the burden of this turnabout is Lesley Manville. A respected British character actor of the same generation as Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, Manville has never before played a role that tested her skill and emotional resources as fully as this one. Her "Kitty" Gilbert seems to be a perfect wren of a woman with a chirpy voice and a slightly flighty, unchallenging demeanor. But in fact it's she who gets Gilbert back on track by taking him to the Japanese exhibition that inspires him to write the libretto for The Mikado. Gilbert never acknowledges Kitty's part in his success. And credit is not what she wants. What she wants is a baby, and Gilbert, for reasons left unstated in the film, is unwilling to enter into the collaboration that would make that possible.

The audience is still applauding the premiere of The Mikado when Leigh cuts to Kitty in her bed in a starched white Victorian nightgown, and Gilbert in evening clothes, sitting at the edge. They are talking about the performance when Kitty takes her husband aback by announcing that she would rather like to be an actor on the stage. "Wouldn't it be wondrous," she continues, "if perfectly commonplace people gave each other a round of applause at the end of the day? Well done, Kitty, well done," she trills, clapping her hands so quickly that they seem like bird wings beating. The effort to still a mounting hysteria has sent her voice into an even higher register than usual. The more pleasant she tries to be, the more we sense her complete despair. It's as if all the artifice of the world of Gilbert and Sullivan drops away and we're left with this terrible, naked anguish and loss. And it's Manville's performance that conjures up this other film that's been there all along. It's the greatest piece of screen acting I've ever seen.

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