A couple of tense filmmakers push the boundaries in ambitious, sometimes uneven prose




An English couple, facing a year of personal, professional and societal uncertainty, are haunted by the ghosts of European history in this evocatively but often frustratingly written novel by Jean McNeil, a Nova Scotia-born writer who lives now in London.



The first half of the book, titled “Night”, is narrated in the first person of Richard, an arthouse writer-director who is not famous, he says, just “well known.” With his wife Joanna, a wise producer, he wants to make a film that follows the last days of Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish intellectual and essayist who was hunted down by the Nazis and committed suicide in northern Spain in 1940.

Set in Brexit-era Britain, the novel takes the growing nationalism, refugee crisis and social unrest of Benjamin’s time and suggests an echo in our culture today. As Richard delves into the screenwriting process, the ghostly Benjamin often appears, in “his faded serge overcoat,” offering a melancholy commentary on the past and present.

Overlaying Richard’s obsession with his cinematic subject is his unexpected feelings for Elliott, the young androgynous actor he has chosen to play Benjamin. “Very few people have this innocent charisma,” Richard thinks.

After a traumatic event, the novel goes halfway through “Day,” shifting from Richard’s perspective to a third-person narrative from Joanna’s. She too is drawn to Elliott, her feelings for him mingled with her relationship with Richard and her involvement in the film project.

This second section becomes more experimental, mixing the observations of political theorist Hannah Arendt with alternate stories and phantom voices.

Photo fournie</p><p>Jean McNeil's new novel, set in Brexit-era Britain, explores notions of dislocation and European citizenship.</p>

Photo provided

Jean McNeil’s new novel, set in Brexit-era Britain, explores notions of dislocation and European citizenship.

McNeil is an award-winning novelist, memorialist, and travel writer. (She also co-created a multimedia art exhibition and publication, Day by night: Landscapes of Walter Benjamin, which follows the path of Benjamin’s journey through 1930s Europe.)

As the story moves from London to Kenya via Italy, Spain and America, McNeil’s descriptions of towns and their streets, people, and food are poetic and precise, as when Joanna and Elliott walk in New York City in August, “in the late afternoon humidity.”

Taking its title from a cinematic technique in which night scenes can be filmed in daylight, the novel is also sharp in its descriptions of films and cinematic achievements, capturing the intensity and eerie intimacy of the shoots.

But there are blind spots. Richard is the freelance director, while Joanna is the best-selling producer, leaning over Excel spreadsheets and putting together lucrative Netflix projects – “mostly nostalgia prizes of pearls and tiaras for North America pierced by codified social hierarchies “, remarks Richard – so the emotional complexity of their marriage sometimes threatens to be reduced to a confrontation between creativity vs commerce, idealism vs pragmatism. Richard’s nickname for Joanna is “Realpolitick”.

Richard’s criticisms of the gentrification of London and the young professionals in their ‘cashmere sweaters’ flocking to Soho also seem a bit from a guy who spends a lot of time drinking champagne and eating tapas in fancy bistros. and over-designed. McNeil’s overall narrative voice seems to duplicate Richard’s cognitive dissonance rather than unravel its contradictions.

And while the rage just against Brexit – against the self-satisfied oligarchs and the Tory government’s ‘arch-manipulators’ – fuels this novel, passing by McNeil in its characters, some readers may think it pushes too hard. historical parallels.

McNeil writes about the theft of European citizenship and European identity through Brexit, and while the dislocation, confusion and economic suffering caused by Brexit is real, it seems an odd choice to channel it through of Richard, whose privileged multinational upbringing gave three passports and a Kenyan estate. worth millions of pounds.

When Richard visits a monument to Benjamin, whose statelessness presumably resulted in his death, he tells Joanna, “Brexit is going to do this to us. It will make us refugees in our own country. At this point, the comparison between a comfortable creative couple in today’s London and the millions of people who tried to escape Nazi persecution and murder seems more strained than illuminating.

Alison Gillmor writes about pop culture for Free Press.

Alison gillmor

Alison gillmor
Writer

A student at the University of Winnipeg and later at York University in Toronto, Alison Gillmor considered becoming an art historian. She eventually caught the journalism bug when she started as a visual arts critic for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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