The Oxonian Review Thu, 05 May 2016 20:58:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Repossession Thu, 05 May 2016 09:00:37 +0000 MARY-JANE HOLMES

He was cutting corners in the fog when the bird hit the windscreen. Its gizzard skittered back and forth between furious wiper blades. This he remembers. And the goddamit, the hard shoulder, the envelope he found to scissor-pick the creature off the glass. And there was the sound of it against the moor: a thud like a punch in the ling. And then, nothing, but him, the bloodied letter, his address dissolving in the driving rain.
He remembers too, the last time he was on high ground gathering crowberries and honey fungus, laughing with her at lapwings barrel-rolling in the blue; a time when foraging was fun and the promise of good fortune came in many colours, not just black and red.
What he doesn’t remember is how the mud went from soft beneath his soles to cinching him at the waist, the verge gone, and why he never thought to retrieve the bird, show her it could be like before. Then she might smile again, eyes glossy like the leaflets she leaves him slipped between the other final demands. But he’s sunk too far, the peat is gritty against his lips.
Then he sees it – a red flush unfolding amongst the bracken curls, testing the concertina of its wings. He fans his hands upwards and it crashes –gobackgoback – into the air but he clutches at its talons, and in a spray of earth, they soar into the sky, the mist as bright and fresh as a clean sheet.


Mary-Jane Holmes’ work has appeared in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Prole, JMWW, The Tishman Review, Firewords, The Lonely Crowd, Lute and Drum, The Incubator, and others. She was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2014 and will be published in The Best Small Fictions 2016 edited by Stuart Dybek this Autumn. She has been an article contributor at Flash Fiction Chronicles and The Lonely Crowd and is currently studying for an Mst in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford University.

Wrap Up the Week: Word Processors, Les Murray’s Genius, Susan Sontag’s Rereading List, and Writing in a Foreign Language Sat, 30 Apr 2016 09:00:20 +0000 The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. The Program Era: Eric Banks discusses the ways word-processing devices have structured our approaches to writing

2. ‘The Greatest Poet Alive’: James Parker analyses the unique approach and idiom of Australian poet Les Murray

3. ‘Glaciers and sex’: on the excesses of academic writing

4. ‘Rereading as Rebirth: Young Susan Sontag on Personal Growth, the Pleasures of Revisiting Beloved Books, and Her Rereading List’

5. ‘Why Write in English?’: Tim Parks explores the idealism, internationalism,and opportunism from one language to the other

The Blade Artist Thu, 28 Apr 2016 09:00:39 +0000 begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie begbie begbie’s ‘begbie CALLUM SEDDON

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The Blade Artist
Irvine Welsh
Jonathan Cape, 7 April 2016
288 pp
ISBN 9780224102155






In The Blade Artist, Irvine Welsh returns to the life of Francis Begbie, one of the protagonists of his debut Trainspotting (1993), its sequel Porno (2002) and prequel Skagboys (2012). Begbie, now inseparable from Robert Carlyle’s performance in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Trainspotting (1996) is a terrifying, compelling and complex character in contemporary Scottish fiction; violent, politically incorrect and so gloriously creative a swearer it would make Malcolm Tucker blush. As Mark Renton observes in Trainspotting, ‘Begbie smashes fuck oot ay innocent wee daft cunts whae accidentally spill your pint or bump into ye’.

In Trainspotting and its two related novels, Begbie is one of the few characters not to be addicted to heroin. But where Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and others are obsessed with skag and hypodermic syringes, Begbie is addicted to violence and booze, a football hooligan who likes to carry ‘an assortment ay stanley knives, basebaw bats, knuckledusters, beer glesses, sharpened knitting needles, etc’ down to Easter Road. The Blade Artist is also, in Welsh’s own words, about ‘a psychopath with a knife’, but it marks a significant break with the form, tone and characterization of those earlier novels. Instead of a heteroglossic, loosely associated collection of sketches and short stories about Leith’s youth culture, The Blade Artist is a compact thriller focalized almost entirely around the middle aged Begbie’s return to, and confrontation, with his past. It is Welsh on familiar ground, but in unfamiliar terms.

At the end of Trainspotting, we saw Renton betray Begbie and his friends by stealing the funds from a heroin deal and running away to Amsterdam, a betrayal that continues to define the relationships between Begbie, Sick Boy, Spud, ‘Second Prize’ and himself in Porno. In that novel, Begbie tries to enact revenge for this betrayal by confronting (and most probably, killing) Renton, but fails: he is run over by a car whilst chasing Renton, and whilst slipping into a coma at the top of Leith Walk, appears to be in the process of forgiving him. It emerges in The Blade Artist that Begbie has indeed put this violence behind him. Having spent much of his adult life in and out of prison, he has found rehabilitation through art and prison education. The combined efforts of a probation mentor and art therapist (Melanie, who becomes his wife) take away from the narrative that his friends and family had long expected of him: more prison. A successful exhibition in Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket gallery has lead to Begbie’s international recognition as a sculptor and painter, his specialty being the grotesquely mutilated likenesses of Holywood celebrities, churned out from his studio in California. Now going by the name of Jim Francis, Begbie’s life is the polar opposite to his past in Leith, with a functioning marriage and two children. But this idyllic life is under threat. At the start of the novel, we see Jim Francis see off two men who threaten his family without resorting to violence, but their bodies are soon found, leading a cynical police officer to suspect Jim/Begbie’s involvement. At the same time, Begbie is recalled to Edinburgh by the news of a death in the family, the unexplained murder of his first son, Sean.

Upon returning to Edinburgh, Begbie finds the police doing little to investigate Sean’s death, but plenty of his old acquaintances point the finger at the violent gangster Anton Miller. The novel follows Begbie’s own attempts to identify the culprit, motivated by a cause that is never satisfactorily explained (in Porno, Begbie was never particularly driven by the need to protect his family). In addition to this nod to crime fiction, The Blade Artist also examines Begbie’s own identity and relationship to the past. In this respect, the novel dovetails successfully with the struggles of Sick Boy, Renton and Spud in Trainspotting, Porno and Skagboys. For them, Edinburgh and Leith offer the potential for relapse and failure, through drugs or violence. For Renton, at the end of Trainspotting, the narrator observes that ‘He could now never go back to Leith, to Edinburgh, even to Scotland, ever again. There, he could not be anything other than he was.’ These words take on an uncanny resemblance to Begbie’s own struggles – abroad and in Scotland – as he negotiates the two facets of his personality: Jim Francis, an artist who channels violence into creativity, and Franco Begbie, a ‘psycho who used sharpened knitting needles when he wanted to sort some poor cunt out’. There’s clearly an uneasy link between both aspects to Begbie; as his agent notices early in The Blade Artist, Jim Francis’s studio does not use traditional materials: ‘[m]ost [of the knives] are the traditional thin stainless-steel blades he’s seen other artists use for clay sculpting, but there are some larger ones that look like hunting knives, while others appear to be a surgeon’s operating instruments.’

Welsh’s latest novel is then, a take on the established trope of ‘the double’ in Scottish literature, a tradition leading back to the James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960). Indeed, the onomastic indeterminacy at the heart of Jim Francis/Francis Begbie’s presentation is reminiscent of Spark’s ludic doubling of Dougal Douglas and Douglas Dougal. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long to realize that Jim Francis has not entirely done away with the violent urges of Francis Begbie. We learn that Begbie was indeed responsible for the deaths of the two men in California, whose murder is narrated with a shocking, violent rebirth of Begbie’s former self: ‘SAY MA FUCKIN NAME! FRANK BEGBIE!!!’ Begbie never did choose life, but knife. He became more adept at concealing the violence, replacing the explosive pub brawls with elaborate Patrick Bateman-like torture routines.

It would be easy to be cynical about this novel, with some reviewers finding the premise of The Blade Artist as simply too implausible. This, however, is precisely the point: none of Begbie’s friends or family respond to his claims to being a reformed man with anything other than incredulity and/or suspicion. Even if the plot does at times read like a blend of Begbie’s own reading material – A Clockwork Orange and those ‘true crime’ novels from the prison library – Welsh has succeeded in complicating and developing the characterization of Begbie. This development climaxes in the novel’s revelation that Sean was not killed by a small-time Leith thug, but his younger brother Michael, a fratricide that alludes to Begbie’s disastrous fatherly advice to Michael in Porno:

Ye huv tae learn tae stick up fir yirsel. Jist git a fuckin basebaw bat n batter the cunt’s heid in, wait till ehs asleep n ehs kip, like. That’ll fuckin well sort um oot. Worked wi Joe, only wi me eh goat a half-brick ower ehs heid. That’s what yuv goat tae dae. Eh might be stronger thin you but ehs no fuckin well stronger thin a half-brick across ehs fuckin chops.

Michael’s murder is a violent realization of this advice, and it clearly troubles Begbie to meet the legacy of his past ‘unreconstructed self’ in his younger son.

Any weaknesses are unsurprisingly a result of Welsh’s choice of form: a third-person narrative voice, occasionally switching to the memories of Begbie and his wife. The result is that Begbie’s monologues in the earlier novels, in the Edinburgh dialect with an explosive verbal energy, give way to prose that occasionally feels lifeless and flat. It may be the case that the novel will function for many as no more than a supplement to the novels in which Begbie has previously appeared. But for those readers who are already familiar with Begbie and his world, The Blade Artist is a rewarding installment in the history of the YLT.


Callum Seddon is in the final year of his D.Phil at Merton College, Oxford.

Hollywood vs. Netflix: Dawn of the Series Tue, 26 Apr 2016 09:00:04 +0000 DOMINIC DAVIES


Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Dir. Zack Snyder
Warner Bros. Pictures
Released 19 March 2016

Daredevil: Season 2
Writ. Drew Goddard
Dir. Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez
Marvel Television and ABC Studios
Released on Netflix 18 March 2016





You definitely don’t need another review to tell you how indescribably awful Warner Bros. Pictures’ latest offering, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, really, honestly, unbelievably is. It is often inadvisable to quote other reviews in one’s own, but on this occasion it’s just too tempting. Some of the best comments from across the internet include: “a stink bucket of disappointment, a sad and unnecessary PG-13 orphan fight”; “Lex Luther [looks] like a gibbering refugee from a Wes Anderson film”; “The Incredibles without the fun”; “It should really be called Batman and Superman v the Audience”. The Guardian have actually compiled a longer list of these and published it on their website as an article in its own right. Clearly, then, you don’t need another review. Maybe if we stopped talking about Hollywood’s mindless obsession with superhero films, which is growing faster than an acne-riddled, testosterone-fuelled group of greasy boys in their mid-teens and looks a bit like them too, then it will go away. To be honest, though, film critics probably enjoy ripping up these films, and the resulting tirades are often fun to read. If you aren’t aware of Mark Kermode’s review of Sex and the City 2, then you’ve got an enjoyable ten minutes in store.


However, there is something rather snobby about all this negative commentary; no matter what they all say, Batman vs. Superman has already made $600 million worldwide, so there must still be an audience for this sort of treatment. Superhero films somehow resolve a gaping crevice in our cultural consciousness; bereft of a good vs. bad narrative in today’s muddily complex world, we consume their simplistic formula with gusto. In a review of the first season of Daredevil written last year for the Oxonian Review, I pointed readers in the direction of Dan Hassler-Forests excellent book, Capitalist Superheroes: Cape Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (2012), which shows how superheroes propagate a twenty-first century neoliberal ideology. Though published back in 2012, his book was clearly on the money. In an inexplicably excitable half hour build-up documentary to the film’s release, which was bizarrely put together by the BBC, Batman vs. Superman director Zack Snyder actually claimed his film was an allegorical narrative of the U.S. Empire, in which Superman is an agent of America’s invasions in Vietnam and the like, whilst Batman is more cynical of these dubious foreign policies. Despite the film being so flat that it doesn’t even merit this kind of facile sociopolitical reading, there’s clearly a synergy between late capitalism and the superhero story.
In many ways, ABC Studios decision to team up with Marvel and produce the first season of Daredevil last year should be seen as an admirable attempt to take Hollywood head-on. ABC Studios cleverly exploits the cultural capital that the plethora of superhero blockbusters have generated, whilst leaving them trailing in the dust when it comes to visual and narrative quality, despite the fact that they created 13 hours of television for a tiny fraction of the cost. That Daredevil now enters its second season is testament to the first’s success; and indeed, it had a lot to live up to. Rather than the sickly, multi-coloured, CGI-ridden, apocalyptic destructions of New York, Daredevil’s first season was concerned with the much slower urban decay of a Manhattan backwater by the real-life structural forces of a power-hungry capitalism. It carefully weaved its way through the tense political contestations that shape the neoliberal city without ever settling comfortably into one simplistic ideological cushion. In continuing the exploration of these themes, this second season builds on the brilliance of the first; by switching between superbly choreographed fight sequences and compelling court scenes, Daredevil now surpasses itself.


Because Matt Murdoch, the day-to-day name of the series’ titular hero, is a lawyer, the notion of legality and justice emerge as a central theme. The tension implicit in the fact that Murdoch attempts to enforce justice legally by day and illegally (as a vigilante) by night allows Daredevil to prod at the tender membrane of the law, exposing its hypocrisies, failures and limitations.This theme is overlaid by another, more philosophical concern: the basic concepts of good and evil, routed here through the notion of the hero. Like Batman vs. Superman, Daredevil is not the only character with super-fighting skills to appear in this series. Other comic book favourites such as The Punisher and Elektra have central roles and fight both alongside and against Daredevil at various stages. Unlike Batman vs. Superman, however, Daredevil rejects outright the simplistic binaries that are embedded in that film’s title. By bringing more crime-fighting characters into the fray, the season doesn’t reinforce a balanced dichotomy of good and evil, but rather relativises them. With the absence of crime boss Wilson Fisk—Daredevil’s arch-enemy in season one—from the first half of season two, deciding who needs to be defeated now becomes an elusive process contingent on social and political context. Sometimes The Punisher and Elektra are seen as dangerous, law-breaking terrorists that Daredevil has to tackle head-on, whilst at others they become allies and agents of justice. The resulting relativisation of Daredevil’s agenda forces him to confess his own ideology to both himself and the audience, a confrontation that reveals the crevices embedded in nothing less than the idea of the “hero” itself. Given that Daredevil: Season Two and Batman vs. Superman were released within a day of one another, it is a fair to read the former as an active critique of the latter, one that tears gaping holes in the weak ideological resolutions Hollywood’s superhero films try to force down our throats.
And as if Daredevil’s intricate web of moral tension were not enough, it is punctuated by visually stunning fight scenes that reference a long tradition of martial arts cinema. Episode Three of Season One features a superbly choreographed fight scene in which Daredevil works his way down a gauntlet-style hallway filled with goons. In Episode Three of Season Two, a similar fight scene takes place (you can watch it in full on youtube here), but this time along a hallway, down a stairwell, into another hallway, all filmed in one long sweeping take that lasts almost five minutes. Unlike every fight scene in Batman vs. Superman, when one wonders if any real actors were ever actually used in the making of the film, Daredevil completely avoids the use of CGI; instead, it revels in the physical stamina and acrobatic athleticism of its stuntmen. Furthermore, in part because there are no cuts, the reality of the situation is brutally, but also beautifully, foregrounded. Firstly, because Daredevil’s directors know that their superhero can’t knock everyone out with one blow, we see opponents that have already been dispatched slowly recovering in the background, picking themselves up, and coming after him once more. Secondly, and perhaps more impressively, Daredevil gets tired: after fighting intensely for a couple of minutes, when he gets a break between opponents he begins to fall against the wall, out of breath, presumably because the stuntman himself is, genuinely, exhausted. This technique references the South Korean neo-noir film Oldboy (2003), which won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and that, in turn, is a homage to Korean cinema and its gradual perfection of the ninja fight sequence. It is this kind of artistic attention to detail, which is evident even during what one might presume to be Daredevil’s more mindless sections, that shows how fraudulent, dishonest and lazy films like Batman vs. Superman really are.
So maybe, given that you can watch all twenty-six hours of Daredevil for a £5.95 subscription to Netflix, just over half of the inflated price that cinema tickets go for nowadays, Hollywood’s proliferation of superhero films and franchises are an act of desperation that might be read as an indication of its imminent death. Its cultural hegemony, which has dominated cinema globally for at least the last half-century, may now be breaking up, and breaking down. With the dawn of the series, which gives writers and directors the time to create more complex narratives that actually confront the sociopolitical nuances of the neoliberal world, cinema needs to spend some time thinking through exactly what its form can offer, and this reviewer believes that Hollywood, so obsessed with profit, does not have the intellectual space to do so.


Dominic Davies is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in English at the University of Oxford, where he also completed his DPhil in March 2015.

Wrap Up the Week: Baby-Swapping, Teaching Creativity, Crumbling Willpower, Unnatural Disconnections, and Thank You Team! Fri, 11 Mar 2016 11:51:16 +0000 The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. Marvin Frankel and Howard Rachlin, ‘If Babies Were Randomly Allocated to Families Would Racism End?’, Aeon. Frankel and Rachlin play devil’s advocates as they conduct a controversial thought-experiment involving the random re-distribution of babies among biological parents. They argue that such “Social mixing would…use genetic chauvinism for ends beyond mere economic equality, providing grounds for a compassion that goes beyond the wellbeing of our immediate families. Since any man might be your biological brother, any woman your biological sister, concern for them would have to be expressed by a concern for a common good.”

2. Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper, ‘How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?’, The Atlantic. MFA programmes in the US receive about twenty thousand applicants a year for creative writing courses, leading many to ask, can creativity be taught? And shouldit be taught? So and Piper are professors of language and literature who have used tools from the field of computational text analysis to analyse the differences in language, diction, theme, and style, between MFA and non-MFA works. One of their more surprising general observations is rather damning for contemporary American literature: “MFA writers are no better at representing women, and both groups are downright bad at it.”

3. Daniel Engber, ‘Everything is Crumbling’, Slate. The influential “ego depletion” theory – based upon the premise that our willpower is a finite resource – was first devised by psychologists Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice twenty years ago. It may be about to be debunked.

4. Melissa Harrison, ‘I Let the Country Flow Under My Wheels…’, The Guardian. Harrison traces, through literature, the British people’s increasing disconnection with the nation’s great outdoors.

5. ’12 Great Novels Reviewed by Donald Trump’, BuzzFeed Books. “Reviews” like these remind us just how lucky we are to have such wonderful contributors to the Oxonian Review.

Wrap Up the Week: Anti-Love Drugs, Metaphysical Cartoons, Jamesian Identity, Cloudy Memories, and Happy World Book Day Fri, 04 Mar 2016 09:00:44 +0000 The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. Angela Chen, ‘Should Desire be Curable’, Aeon. Angela Chen reflects upon the ethics of “anti-love” biotechnologies, considering the circumstances in which it would be appropriate to use drugs to control sex drive and attraction. She asks thought-provoking questions like: would you inhale a spray to stop you from feeling pain after a break-up? Taker a pill that enables you to fall out of love with and then leave an abusive partner? To ease an unrequited passion? To change your sexual orientation?

2. Ilana E. Strauss, ‘5 Reasons that Cartoons are the 21st Century’s Great Metaphysical Playground’, Religion Dispatches. “A rich, new form of philosophy is on the rise in the public sphere, and it’s got a lot of bright colors and anthropomorphic animals,” Strauss argues, “This democratization of philosophy matters. It means that talking about a show you saw last week can easily turn into a philosophical discussion, and one not weighed down by elitism. It means that people who never thought about metaphysics are thinking about it, and from a very young age.”

3. Philip Horne, ‘The Native Henry James’, The Paris Review. On the hundredth anniversary of Henry James’s death, Philip Horne reflects upon the national identity and allegiances of this great Anglo-American writer.

4. Sophie McBain, ‘Head in the Cloud’, New Statesman. Sophie McBain ponders on whether we are destroying our own internal memories by relying increasingly on electronic devices and “new online forms of remembrance.”

5. ‘Great Book Sculptures: The Book Tunnel of Prague, Interesting Literature. In celebration of World Book Day, we thought we’d share a photo of this incredible book sculpture by Slovakian-born sculptor and artist Matej Kren installed in Prague Municipal Library.

Beyond the Great Divide Thu, 03 Mar 2016 10:38:40 +0000 JC Niala

The Marriage of Kim K

The Marriage of Kim K
By Leo Mercer
Keble O’Reilly Theatre
2-5 March

Nearly two decades after Andreas Huyssen foreshadowed the death of any useful meaning to the division between “high” and “low” culture in his book After The Great Divide, creative works still stoke the fires of the debate. In Oxford, a current example of this is The Marriage of Kim K a piece of musical theatre by Leo Mercer that is being staged at the O’Reilly Theatre at Keble College.

On the surface it appears to be an intriguing paradox, a well-loved opera by Mozart adapted to feature an outrageous current celebrity. It could lead to the assumption that the dramatist Leo Mercer is deliberately provoking the world of opera that has been berated for its stuffiness and elitism. Indeed the poster for his piece is an artwork that blends a familiar image of Mozart with Kim K’s face.

However, it turns out that Mercer is building on a recent and growing movement that is subverting this increasingly questioned view of opera as exclusive. With their 2015/ 2016 “Opera Undressed Season” the English National Opera is one of a number of organisations actively seeking to make opera increasingly accessible. A 20 pound ticket buys an 89 pound seat, pre-production talks and information helpfully washed down with a complimentary gin and tonic and future discounts with the ENO to boot. With backing from musicians like Damon Albarn, it is seeking to increase the percentage of people under 44 who attend the opera from 30 – 40.

Even historically, so-called “high” culture did not always have superior beginnings. The Marriage of Figaro was in its inception as scandalous as some of Kim K’s photos. It was first written in 1778/9 by Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais and challenged the class system during a tumultuous time in France. It was quickly banned by the French Court, and in Vienna where Mozart was working at the time. Mozart began what would continue to be a tradition of reworking the play and along with his librettist La Ponte was able to (by removing some of the most highly charged political aspects) get it past the censors and into the history books as one of the most successful operas ever written.

It could be argued that this was due to the fact that The Marriage of Figaro placed at its heart the play’s humanity and matters that transcend class, those of love marriage and laughter. It is these points that were the start for Mercer when he left a classical production of The Marriage of Figaro feeling that he had been treated to a long piece of music rather than something dramatic on the stage. It led him to create a piece of work where, true to the original, the action and music were so closely intertwined it was as important to see the opera as to hear it.

As artistic works are only defined as being “high” or “low” culture a posteriori, there has been a tendency for the designation of “high” culture to be skewed in favour of things that have been created in the past. Popular, particularly current popular culture, is therefore often seen as synonymous with “low” culture’. Yet what Mercer has done is to move beyond the divide and instead see the juxtaposition of the two as fertile ground on which to sow his imagination. He says, “… if you balance a love of the past with a love of popular culture, and see value in what most people see value in, you suddenly have a lot more material to make art with.”

Indeed music from The Marriage of Figaro is not uncommon in popular culture whether it is the duet Sull’aria in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption ,to the overture, which featured in The King’s Speech (2011).

Certainly it is the timeless themes of love and life coming together and falling apart that both Mozart and Mercer were attracted to and in turn hope to draw the audience into. Mercer hopes that the people who come to see his production will be surprised by the translation of The Marriage of Figaro both into English and through a lens that matches the frenetic pace of modern life.

Whether or not Mercer will bring together potentially disparate audiences, like the ENO has managed to, by piquing enough curiosity that even die-hard fans of Kim K or opera will find themselves sitting alongside each other to discover the magic that Mercer promises to weave is all that remains to be seen.

JC Niala is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at Kellogg College and is part of the production team of The Marriage of Kim K.

Wrap Up the Week: Vale Eco, Sexist Lexicography, Dandyish Selfies, The Neuroeconomics of Wine, And Navel-Gazing Fri, 26 Feb 2016 09:00:30 +0000 The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. Maria Popova, ‘Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary: Why Unread Books Are More Valuable to Our Lives than Read Ones’, Brain Pickings. This week, we lost the irreplaceable Umberto Eco. One of his many brilliant notions was the “antilibrary,” which is based upon the premise that yet-unread books are more valuable to our lives than already-read ones.

2. Nora Caplan-Bricker, ‘Should Dictionaries Do More to Confront Sexism?’, The New Yorker. In responding to this question, Nora Caplan-Bricker addresses a wider – and older – issue of whether dictionaries should be proscriptive (establishing a standard of usage) or descriptive (reflecting usage as it exists in the world).

3. Tara Isabella Burton, ‘Keep Smiling’, The Paris Review. Tara Isabella Burton traces the origin of the selfie – for many, the epitome of our age of narcissism – to the dandyism of nineteenth-century Paris.

4. Ian Tattersall and Rob Desalle, ‘The Neuroscience of Wine’, Nautilus. Galileo Galilei poetically described wine as “sunlight, held together by water.” Modern neuroeconomists have confirmed what the astronomer intimated four hundred years ago: the sensory pleasures of wine drinking depends as much upon the mind of the tasters – including their knowledge of extraneous factors like the price of the bottle – as the matter.

5. ‘Navel-Gazing: Portraits of the Bacteria in Our Belly Buttons’, The Guardian. Is it science? Is it art? Or just plain fluff?

Violence and Mimicry Mon, 22 Feb 2016 00:01:42 +0000 Sarah Jilani


The Battle of Algiers
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Algeria/Italy, 1966








The past few years have seen people around the world experiencing an unprecedented kind of intimacy with violence: the harrowing videos of killing released by terror groups, media coverage of lone-gunman shootings, and nation-states’ militarised responses have all embedded themselves in our daily multi-screen experience, creating visual parallels hard to ignore. Such saturation may not necessarily lead to desensitisation – each occurrence remains as shocking as the last – but it does lead to the impression that visual parallels, or a chain of action-response, are embedded within the very nature of self-perpetuating violence. The representation and reproduction of such violence, in turn, grows to have different, albeit still far-reaching, effects on those at a distance from its direct victims and perpetrators – “radicalisation at home” being one currently much-debated manifestation. Within this context, the visual representation of violence and violent historical moments gains a weighted, charged meaning we must continue to interrogate: both in that it prompts us to rethink the justifications and explanations for violence we may hear, and in that its repetitive nature is laid bare, invoking necessary questions around the continuing legacies of today’s violence on future lives.

Film is perhaps the one visual medium that has time and again best carried this burden of representation and urged enquiry. Looking to the work of directors such as Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu, 2016) or Deepa Mehta (Earth, 1998) can sometimes better allow us to see the workings of violence in our collective histories than instantaneous factual media can. One such memorable film is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year: The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 recounting of, and tribute to, the Algerian war of independence. Shot on location mere years after the violent struggle with French colonialism, the Algerian-Italian production focuses on the years 1954 to 1957, when guerrilla warfare between the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French colonial armed forces for control of Algiers was at its most brutal.

Shot with a documentarian impulse, in a newsreel style, we begin and end with the perspective of the fictional petty-criminal-turned-revolutionary Ali La Pointe. The screenplay was written by Saadi Yacef, one of the leaders of the FLN during the war of independence, draws from real historical figures to inspire characters in the film: the French paramilitary leader Colonel Mathieu is a composite of several French colonial officers such as Jacques Massu and Marcel Bigeard; the FLN commander leader El-hadi Jafar is a character based on Yacef himself; and FLN founding member Larbi Ben M’hidi is based on his real counterpart. Both sides match one another in their unforgiving tactics as the struggle to claim the capital continues. As well as a dramatization of a crucial period of Algerian history, Pontecorvo’s film is in many ways also a complex exploration of the nature, uses and limits of violence. Its philosophical grounding in the work of anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon and its mix of documentary and narrative allow for a contextualising of anti-colonial violence in the face of overwhelming oppression; however, the film also dwells on how violent response constructs and depends on its mirror image, thus questioning its long-term legacy. Pontecorvo’s film is naturally a product of its time – the global anti-imperialist response in the 1960s saw much politically-charged art, literature and film address the struggles in Vietnam, Kenya, Algeria and Angola among others – but 50 years on, it is perhaps a more apt moment than ever to revisit this cinematic epic for its critique of a violence that still feels all too close to home.

A moment from The Battle of Algiers where the ululations of Algerian women are heard from the city at night is easy to miss, but symbolically charged with the uncomfortable link between violence and self-representation in the colonial encounter. As a real archive recording of a French radio report at this moment in the film dubs their voices “unintelligible shrieks”, these sounds of mourning and anger demand the coloniser’s attention in a manner which suggests the significance of Fanon’s assertion that “he of whom they [the colonisers] have never stopped saying that the only language he understands is that of force, decides to give utterance by force”. The Casbah – the restricted North African quarter of Algiers – is poised on the brink of communicating their demands through a means that the coloniser cannot possibly find unintelligible: violence. Pontecorvo’s representation of the ensuing battle showcases both Algerian and French armed action between the years 1954 – 1956, intermixing liberational energies in moments of anti-colonial fervour with the seeds of doubt. When does answering the coloniser’s violence with violence stop being a restoration of native agency, instead becoming a vicious circle wherein every method of resistance relies on defining the emerging nation against and through antagonism? For all its political self-certainties, a closer reading of The Battle of Algiers reveals a nuanced critique of violence through depicting such acts as bound within a pattern of mimicry.

In the incendiary first chapter to The Wretched of the Earth (1960), “Concerning Violence”, Fanon’s confident words as to the inevitability of anti-colonial violence has rang louder in ears than his simultaneous acknowledgement that colonial mimicry is performed through violence. Yet the philosopher and trained psychiatrist in Fanon emphasised the fine line between violence as a restoration of native agency, and the same violence as inhibitive of this agency, because of its inherited, repetitively antagonistic discourse. Pontecorvo weaves the dual functionings of violence even at moments where his film depicts seemingly justified anti-colonial action. These are moments where violence enforces recognition, reasserting native presence in a city where a whole section of the population is holed-up, harassed and kept away from the Quartier Européen.

When the three female FLN members in European dress cross checkpoints with ease, seeking violent retaliation designed to mimic police bombings, Pontecorvo’s scene seems to reflect Fanon’s views on the empowering nature of anti-colonial violence as a means to break with physical and psychological entrapment. However, Pontecorvo follows this scene with a reminder of the problematic outcomes of answering violence with violence through depicting an oddly co-dependent relationship of warring ideologies, as represented through the characterisation of Colonel Mathieu and Ben M’hidi. Mathieu sees a series of historical dialectical oppositions, often invoking the historical severity of the moment by reminding his men of French mistakes at Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 battle that saw Vietnam’s Viet Minh emerge victorious and France’s colonial power in Indochina diminish. M’Hidi also sees violent struggle in terms of an unarguable Marxist dialectic. A corresponding measure of reciprocity, in both ruthlessness and mutual respect, seems to exist between the head of the French forces and the FLN. Pontecorvo may well have had such a retrospective critique in mind, for after independence in 1962, the main political opposition to the heavily-armed FLN took on the rhetoric of an equally incendiary Islamism. Post-independence oppositional voices were continuing to use a discourse dependent on mutual antagonism for validation. In a film that depicts both French colonials and Algerians locked by large historical developments into mimicry, Pontecorvo implies that so long as both sides continue to aggrandise violence as an agent of history, a cyclically antagonistic process will remain in place post-independence.

The Battle of Algiers’ most memorable moments often bring this concern regarding both sides’ systematic reproduction of violence to the forefront. When a local shelters El-hadi Djafar from the police, we cut abruptly from an exhilarating back-alley chase sequence to a mother’s stoic but tear-stained face. “They’ve taken my son,” she simply states in response to Djafar’s thanks. His only consolation is “take courage”; appeal for non-violence is lost within the repetitive rhetoric of violent revolutionary action. The political involvement of Petit Omar, too, is in itself a powerful trope. In a film already highly charged in symbolism, Omar becomes a figurehead for a future generation of post-independence Algerians growing accustomed to violence and potentially – as Omar does – falling victim to it. The young are in the midst of the struggle, and the transformative potential they represent is swept up in a tide of anti-colonial violence. In highlighting the mimicry and reciprocity found within violent anti-colonial resistance, the film suggests the stagnant future of such a process.

In this accomplished exploration of a complex historical period, The Battle of Algiers manages to represent the paradox that is a dialectic of violence, seemingly propelling historical events yet recreating its own conditions for existence through every manifestation. Highlighting the cyclicality of these structures of action and thought, the film implies that true resistance is not a sudden flare of violence that shakes one structure of antagonism but ultimately constructs another. If, in the insightful words of the anti-colonial thinker Amílcar Cabral, culture enables us to know what dynamic syntheses have been formed by social awareness, in order to resolve conflicts at each stage of the evolution of that society, then it is precisely the suspension of that dynamism in favour of a familiarly antagonistic dialectic that demonstrates just how far-reaching the effects of prolonged violence can be. Resistance to partaking of this violence enables a dismantling of first the structure of antagonism it seeks to address and then the need for its own existence. Instead of being momentary victors at some point of its ongoing historical process, it is denying violence that all-powerful definition itself, ringing with repetition and inevitability, that keeps it chained to its historical moment. Thus The Battle of Algiers utilises yet leaves the representation of violence at this problematic end, drawing attention to two futures: one a series of oppositional discourses which reproduce the myth of the necessity of violence, the other a future of continuous transformative alternatives.

Thus, that The Battle of Algiers should often be remembered as promoting violence where the film actually treated it with great ambiguity and scepticism is worthy of reconsideration at its anniversary. Works like these problematize certain ways in which violence is represented today, questioning the motives behind instances where its visual vocabulary communicates it as a one-off anomaly, a justified state response, or an ongoing product of history. In denying violence that kind of omni-presence by highlighting its patterns of mimicry and stagnancy, such works merit consideration beyond their time and encourage a historically-aware critical approach to our own moment.


Sarah Jilani is a graduate of the MSt English from The Queen’s College, Oxford. She writes on art, film and literature for publications including ArtReview, Apollo Magazine and The Economist.

Three Poems Mon, 22 Feb 2016 00:01:20 +0000 Pierre Antoine Zahnd

At the marketplace

On Tuesdays,
she does readings at her stall.
When you set down a few coins
for the fee, she opens her creel
like a library, feels for the right one
to lay on the table. After going in
she eases the knife under the soft,
watery pouches of the stomach,
shakes them out of the fish
into a dog’s bucket.
Before she separates the head,
with the point of the blade she prises
out the choice part, the white
flesh of the cheeks.

Chewing on it, she ponders,
then leans over towards us
with a spark in her squint,
like there was something racy
tucked under the ribs.


Villagers, explaining how the forest burnt down

I don’t think anyone
actually knows, but they all
have a story. I like the one

about the farmer, stern man
with a wife gone after
a stillborn son:

how through the year
he’d sniff around each season
for the scent of their departure;

how, when winter was finally done
tucking the snow in at the country’s creased corners
like hospital linen,

he’d come out of the barn
after dark,
waddling behind a wheelbarrow,

crossed the yard and tilted the whole
slop of mulch, pig-litter
by the bucketful,

onto a dry hay carpet
for kindling,
and struck a match. Then, the drink

catching up with him,
instead of watching
he turned back,

and pissed on the ice,
while behind him

the flames he thought would moulder
lashed out, like surgeons, to birthmark
the indelible land barren.


Picture of my brother, falling

When evening set in
nobody could see
past the length of their arm.

In such weather,
you know the only
way to make sure

the others are still close to you
is to listen: the wind clinking
in the buckles of your packs,

the army lift-and-drop
of steel-set bootsoles
clumped against the snow.

Don’t say they didn’t warn you:
how in the wintertime the north side
slicks all over with ice;

how easily sweat settles
under your eyelids
when it freezes.

Later, you’d mention
the blue slur in the shadows
when the shadow to your right side

slipped— your arm
disappearing after, ravaging
a coat-sleeve taut with gravity and fear:

and then go figure
from the wrench-and-grapple seizure of a waltz
you shambled clockwise on the ledge

whose leg docked where, what limb referred to whom,
till all your body knew was that you were
an inch away from all it ever knew,

no firm thing
to find footing on

—disarticulate black puppet
strewn along

the mountain-flank (where,
like we were told

as children,
the stillness makes

neither fuss nor echo
out of what it takes).


Pierre Antoine Zahnd is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is Senior Editor at The Oxonian Review.