Category Archives: Arts & inspiration

Books that will change your life: “Cloud Atlas”

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I originally picked “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell as a fun holiday read, but was soon gripped to it like I hadn’t been in a long time, so I though I’d share it with you:

 

The book

“Cloud Atlas” came out in the UK in 2004 to great acclaim; it was translated worldwide and turned into a gigantic-budget film epic by the people behind “Matrix”.

(The film flopped at the box office, which is a shame, but also not surprising because the book is so ambitious in scope and depth that attempting to capture it in two hours was a bit bonkers. Still, full points for trying!)

This intriguingly-named novel defies categories and is rather hard to describe. It tells the stories of six different characters living across the world in six different periods of time – 19th century South Pacific, 1930s Belgium, 1980s California, modern-day England, 2100s “Neo-Seoul” and 2300s post-apocalyptic Hawaii.

But don’t be fooled by the word “post-apocalyptic”, it’s not science-fi; and although it can be read easily without looking for deeper meaning (unless you’re like me, in which case this never happens), it is also a fable about the human condition.

The big idea

The six stories are almost self-contained, with only a tenuous link between them as one element of each story will be found again in the next. For example the journal of the South Pacific traveller will be found in a library in Belgium; a piece of music composed in Belgium will be heard again in California; a film made in present-time England will find its way to Neo-Seoul, etc.

But these links aren’t so central to our understanding: the real genius of the book is that each story is really powerful in itself, and by putting in parallel so many of them, it hints at the similarities between the people rather then what separates them.

The six characters all live in wildly different circumstances (a pensioner in a care home, a journalist investigating a nuclear plant, a clone on the run from the police…), yet they are all ordinary people trying to live their lives in challenging circumstances. As they face the difficulties, big or small, of their daily lives, they all have similar hopes and fears, loves and doubts, and the will to make sense of their lives and do the right thing.

At some crucial point in each story, the characters have to make a choice between following blindly what society dictates to them, or risking everything to break free of rules and be themselves: escaping slavery, helping others at the risk of their lives, etc

So the book is also a tale of courage and resilience, because following what they know to be right will test all the characters to their limits.

Why it will change you life

The most amazing thing about this book is how imaginative it is – its gripping narrative across six different “worlds” that all feel incredibly real. So if you just wanted a good holiday read, you could do worse: it’s hugely entertaining.

Yet readers will probably remember it for its deeper meaning too, the questions it brings about humanity and society – what links us beyond time and place, what makes us human.

It’s not all a warm fuzzy – the similarities between those people and their situations make it obvious that neither people nor circumstances evolve much over the course of History.

Patterns and mistakes are repeated – aren’t the “savages” of the 17th century colonies much the same people as the 23rd century “survivors” after the fall of our civilisation? Isn’t modernity perpetuating the same old cruelty under different guises – the compassion-less treatment of the old age pensioner echoing that of the slaves, and the human clones?

The author certainly doesn’t shy away from showing us what is nasty about humanity – greed, deception, cruelty, corruption, the pursuit of one’s own selfish interest.

This roller coaster ride of a book forces us to look at our own circumstances in the light of the characters’, and wonder for ourselves: where we are on this continuum?

But beyond the dark side, what I chose to get out of it is that although greed and cruelty may be omnipresent, there is always an option to do what we believe is right, even when it is not easy.

Each and everyone of us may be insignificant on the scale of History, yet the choices we make everyday – between crime and kindness, acceptance or fighting back, have the power to influence our collective future.

Our lives are shaped by events that begin long before we are born and will continue long after our death. Yet everything is connected – the future, past and present; the universal and the intimate.

As I said, a pretty gripping read…

 

Turner & the Sea (How to become great)

Turner & the sea RNM poster

I recently went to the excellent Turner & the Sea exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (down the road from our house), an exhibition of paintings by JMW Turner of – you guessed – the sea.

I am not much of a painting specialist, but this exhibition was hugely inspiring on many levels, which is why I wanted to share it with you:

First of all, the art was stunningly beautiful, and anyone could see why Turner is considered one of the greatest British painters. From his early works which were vividly descriptive scenes of sea wreckage (and must have been quite the sensation at the time – imagine nowadays someone painting scenes from a plane crash) to the poetic impressionist seascapes of his late career, it was a breathtaking display of imagination, beauty, and extraordinary skill and precision which never ceases to amaze me in old figurative paintings… another reminder that in spite of technological progress, we haven’t got much in terms of intellect or skills on the guys who lived centuries before us.

But the show was also interesting in other respects. It displayed Turner’s works along with paintings that might have inspired him: masters of previous centuries as well as contemporary competitors – younger painters that copied his style and became famous by emulating, and ultimately improving on it.

So it was a brilliant way of understanding how inspiration happens, and also what makes a good artist. As we learnt about Turner’s personal and professional circumstances, we were reminded that genius doesn’t happen in isolation, and that it is in fact shaped not only by the artists’ personal vision but also material contingencies such as fashions and market demand. We were also reminded that success, in art as in anything, requires not only talent but hard graft and a good dose of business acumen.

I discovered that Turner wasn’t born by the seaside as I might have assumed, and his ancestors weren’t fishermen. His father had been a barber and wig-maker in Covent Garden, and much of Turner’s trade had been learnt on the banks of the river Thames.

Because his family wasn’t well off, young Turner had needed to make money quickly, and so as his marine paintings proved popular at the time, he pretty much created for himself what marketers today would refer as a “niche” from which to make a good living.

And pretty good he was at marketing too, and PR – creating fame for himself by exhibiting in London’s biggest show at the Royal Academy, and later on in his own purpose-built showcase gallery.

Like all great successes though, he didn’t do it alone – he enjoyed great support from his father, who was his biggest fan from an early age, and went on to be his studio assistant for 30 years (an arguably bizarre father-son relationship, but support nevertheless).

In the end, the part of the exhibition that fascinated me most was an extensive display of Turner’s sketches and studies – notebooks upon notebooks and small format of drafts and ideas for larger paintings.

Here you took the measure of the artist’s capacity for work, but also his obsession with his craft. It shows us a man who was fascinated with the sea and must have spent hours by the coast or on sea journeys obsessively watching and tirelessly sketching, capturing his ideas again and again and again until they became perfect.

But there was also sheer genius, in the precious moments where art worked its magic and left you enchanted and speechless. As I stood contemplating small sketches of three or four brush strokes on plain paper, for a few seconds I actually saw a violent tempest, or a peaceful sunrise. Or did I? I rubbed my eyes and saw only a few brush strokes on letter paper again.

At that point, I truly appreciated how an artist’s life and and experience results in that amazing ability to create such pure emotion with such few brushstrokes, so that the viewer is not longer looking at a fixed scene on a canvas, but at an actual live scene from the past through someone else’s eyes.

So, much as I was impressed by the paintings, I was truly in awe of the man behind them. Because what we come to see as works of arts represent a lifetime of hard work and sweat, clever business planning,  and the sheer love of your craft that will keep your going even when things aren’t going your way.

As I wiped the ocean spray off my glasses and returned home, this is what remained with me: enormous inspiration resulting from having met a great artist, a visionary and a great mind – as refreshing as a day at the seaside. There are worst ways to spend an afternoon.

If you happen to be in London, the show is still on until 21st April at the National Maritime Museum.