Call My Agent – 90% Brilliant, 10% Genius

Call My Agent is a French, subtitled drama series, set in a Paris actors’ agency, called ASK. The series had 24 episodes broadcast between 2015 – 2020 and is now available on Netflix. It is hard to write about the series without revealing a few plot details – don’t read on if that is a problem.

So I have reached the end of series 1 and I love it.

What intrigues me, apart from the great acting and locations, is the way Call My Agent reflects on the role that acting and fantasy play in life. The agents act as go-betweens, linking reality with the pretend world of film. They are gatekeepers, facilitators, therapists, working to smooth that difficult relationship between the two realms. Fittingly in their unique position, the agents combine fiction and reality in their own lives. The staff at ASK are usually acting a role in some way. The first episode opens with the arrival in Paris, of Camille, a young hairdresser from southern France, who dreams of a job in films. She talks to Mathias, an agent at ASK, who seems to be connected with her in some way. Within a few episodes we learn that Camille is actually Mathias’ daughter, the result of a brief affair, which Mathias wants to keep secret. Immediately there is acting, in the way father and daughter try to hide their relationship. Sent on her way with some money and advice that the film business is not to be recommended, a demoralised Camille runs into another agent, Andréa, at the ASK reception desk. Andréa, finding herself in sudden need of an assistant, conducts a brief interview and makes the impulsive decision to recruit the youngster, who is in the right place at the right time. This sets off a series of situations where both Mathias and Camille have to do a lot of acting to keep their secret.

And that’s only the start. Let’s take the agent Andréa, for example, who in many ways I find the show’s most interesting character. She has contrasting elements to her personality. In some ways she is a sleek, tough, business woman. But this side of her coexists with a wild, hard-partying, seductress. Andréa struggles to balance the differing aspects of her personality. Is one side more real than the other? You might think that the smooth business woman is an act, with the wild child as her reality. But the real Andréa is actually both of these roles. She is an agent in the middle trying to keep each side happy.

So it goes on. Mathias’ assistant, Noémie, lives in a fantasy where her boss is just waiting to ask her to be his wife. Mathias himself is similar to Andréa in the way he has two sides to him, a ruthless business side, and a well-hidden softer side. Like Andréa, he is an agent negotiating the relationship between two roles. Then there’s Gabriel, nice chap and caring agent, who has a weakness for telling people what they want to hear. This lands him in scrapes when different people operate on different versions of the truth. Gabriel’s assistant, Hervé, is always ready with tricks to help his boss bend the truth – often with mixed results. Arlette, now getting older, her energies flagging, calls herself an “impresario” in the hope that this gives the illusion that she is grander than a mere agent. Arlette has a truth-telling terrier dog who has a knack for revealing deception by attacking the trousers of human deceivers. Sofia the receptionist, and aspiring actress, slips her own resumé into submissions to casting directors. When Gabriel ticks her off for pretending to be an ASK client, Sofia furiously responds, by reminding Gabriel of all the tricks she has pulled on his behalf in keeping actors happy. And hanging over the whole series is an audit by play-it-by-the-book tax inspector, Colette, who reprimands the agency for its poor accounting, the way staff treat company money as their own, and a nonexistent division between personal lives and work. And yet, even Colette, whose life seemingly runs along such straight lines, has two sides to her. She is like Andréa in reverse, with a buttoned down character dominant, hiding a carefully controlled sensuous side. Fittingly she has an affair with Andréa. Even a tax inspector becomes an agent balancing roles.

And that brings us to the end of the first series, a wonderful story about fiction and reality. And this isn’t just an abstract game for actors. After all, out in the wider world a lot of people seem to be having trouble reconciling reality and illusion – what with their vulnerability to rumours, conspiracies, and political versions of reality.

I am very much looking forward to the next three series.

Oh, and by the way, if you are a literary agent reading this, please give me a call.

Sons And Lovers by D.H. Lawrence – Live At The Apollo

D.H. Lawrence’s childhood home, model for the Morel household in Sons And Lovers – photo from a visit in 2006

Sons and Lovers was D.H. Lawrence’s third novel, published in 1913.

This was a tricky one for me. I reached the end and wondered what it had all been about. I mean I could see what it was about in terms of the story – a middle class woman accidentally marries a miner, falls out of love with him, and then turns her frustrated love on her two sons – so that the young men become so fixated and dominated by their mother that they are unable to form healthy relationships with women of their own age. But beyond that, what was it about? Suffragettes are mentioned, but it didn’t seem to be about the role of women. Politics and miners’ strikes are mentioned, but the book isn’t about those things either. It was all just background detail to this unsettling account of mother attachment.

And yet it was a powerful story… In the end, trying to make sense of it for myself, Michael McIntyre popped into my head. Yes, Michael McIntyre, that very talented comedian who mines his own life, and the life of those around him, for comedy. Embarrassing details of going to the toilet in the middle of the night, or of Mrs McIntyre putting on her tights, an activity which while slinky at first, gets less attractive at the half way point of donning – all of this, unfiltered and unadulterated, is presented live at the Apollo. And of course now that Michael has said it, the audience know exactly what he means. The thing with Sons and Lovers is that D.H. Lawrence does the same thing with offering up details of life usually left in darkness. And the use of aspects of other peoples’ lives is certainly ruthless and uncompromising. Apparently, an unfortunate girlfriend, recognising herself in the character of Miriam immediately sent Lawrence’s manuscript back to him and ceased all contact! But the show that results from Lawrence’s material is less funny than Michael McIntyre’s, and less likely to give that feeling of recognition. All the hectic fluctuations between love and hate, the unhealthy mother fixation, the emotional cruelty, the transference of personal emotional issues on to someone else. I could see D.H. on stage at the Apollo, looking around for recognition in his audience, and having to say:

“Just me then?”

Of course it wouldn’t just be him. Lawrence said the book reflected “the tragedy of thousands of young men in England”. But even so, I think he is describing extremes of experience, rather than overlooked familiar aspects of life. It is hard to immediately recognise much of what Lawrence is writing about. I was looking in on a situation, with some degree of horror.

On the up side, Sons and Lovers is a good novel in the way it presents life as too messy and indefinable to easily conform itself to neat “issues”. The issue of women’s rights for example is there in the book, but it’s set against complex power dynamics in relationships which can show women possessing a profound measure of control over men. I liked that. It seems to me that’s where novels have the advantage over history books, or tomes on politics, sociology or psychology, or whatever it might be. Novels present messy, contradictory lived experience which can’t be easily placed in neat boxes. In being determined to portray the real details of, in Michael McIntyre terms, going to the toilet in the middle of the night, Sons and Lovers does achieve a raw feeling of reality. I didn’t feel it was about anything, except the messy business of life as seen through the specific situation of these characters. And that was fair enough.

For me this was a striking novel, ruthlessly honest about its subject, effective in conveying messy reality. But in many ways, the truth it portrays is particular. Creepy as I sometimes found the book, I told myself that one of the reasons you read is not to see your own experience but to see other people’s, and gain a wider perspective.

A Poem Built With What3words

The view from humid.wiser.audit

What3words is a location app, dividing the Earth’s surface into 3m x 3m squares each with a unique three word code. I downloaded the app and found myself loving its word combinations. They meant something very specific, at the same time as reminding me of Edward Lear’s nonsense verse. So, out on bike rides, I started collecting word codes hoping to make them into a poem. Here, after much rewriting, is the result, using places I rode through, combined with other places around the world. What3words is designed to reach someone wherever they are. I hope this poem reaches you, whatever your three word location happens to be!

What3words

I stopped at a cafe where I found capers.anchovies.nuance

There I sat sticking words.together.sounds, moody with sleepy.stop.salience

Using slick.laptop.glue

As if I were a cars.varying.guru

Now that it’s written I send out my latest.scrap.invite

To arrive.train.alight

In my opinions.nest.igloo

My scrap invite goes out over grass.parade.hint

Happy.stomp.hills

And walks.factories.print

Through a field.readjust.fiction

Around the golfer.tree.diction

And via a wowed.blank.tone

And a balloon.patio.phone

I will give you a call and bring you gearbox.dispenser.home

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – Still Trying To Escape The Chill After All These Years

“We’re all the same you know, that’s the joke.”

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is John Le Carré’s 1963 novel about the Cold War, as fought by the secret services of Britain on one side, East Germany and Russia on the other. Well, I talk of sides, but that isn’t really accurate. You’d think it would be clear which side was which, seeing as there’s a great big Berlin Wall between them, topped with barbed wire, swept by search lights, guarded by soldiers. Ironically, the book shows that one side is much the same as the other. It is difficult to work out who is working for whom. Spies double cross their governments, though that treachery might be loyal service in disguise. Both sides use the same ruthless methods.

There is a curious use of the word “same” in the novel. It crops up a lot. Have a look at page 12 – when Control is talking to our world-weary spy protagonist, Alec Leamas. The word “same” appears nine times. And then through the book, it’s there repeatedly – 57 times in all. I counted them! Same even appears on the very last page, referring to steps on a ladder over the Berlin Wall. Same, same, same. That got me thinking – when we find the same cold on both sides of the wall, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that the cold is everywhere, and there is no coming in from it.

But there is warmth in the book, personified in certain individuals, particularly in the figure of Liz Gold, a lovely, caring women Alec Leamas meets while working in a library. She is nurturing, sensible and kind, the moral compass of the book really. Consider Elizabeth Gold’s name. Gold has all sorts of positive connotations of warmth and happiness. Then again, don’t you think gold sounds so much like cold? It’s sounds almost the SAME! If the cold is everywhere, maybe the warm is too.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a fascinating book, a compelling spy story hiding all sorts of subtlety, like a cold war cypher. It is certainly true that readers can make a pessimistic interpretation. John Le Carré, by all accounts was himself a pessimistic and troubled man. Nevertheless, there is something in his book, a suggestion that while we are out in the cold with no possible hope of relief, warmth is never far away.

Piranesi By Susanna Clarke – Controlling The Tides

Sketch from the “Imaginary Prisons” series by Giovanni Piranesi – eighteenth century Italian archaeologist, architect and artist

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, published in September 2020, is set in a kind of parallel world. This takes the form of a series of vast, interconnecting halls on three levels stretching for hundreds of miles in all directions. The lower levels of “the house” are washed by ocean waves, the upper levels obscured by cloud, the mid levels habitable, at least if you know how to fish, and burn dried seaweed to stay warm.

I read this book two ways. The first involves the way people, self-regarding as always, tend to see their own affairs reflected in the world around them. The house appears to judge those within it through the action of natural events, rewarding those it favours and punishing those it doesn’t, mostly through the occurance of floods. This reflects the way many societies have viewed nature. The ancient Egyptian civilisation, for example, had priests whose job it was to intercede with the gods to make sure the Nile flooded regularly and replenished the soil.

From this point of view I thought the scenario of Piranesi, an entire world built as a reflection of humanity’s doings, was as silly as expecting Egyptian priests to really control flooding with their prayers.

However, there was another aspect of the book that made me think again. The central character, known as “Piranesi,” emotional and mysterious though his bond with the house may be, is also a scientist. By close observation he knows when high tides will occur, and when they will pose danger by washing through the habitable part of the house. So when a dangerously high tide appears to help Piranesi, while thwarting his enemies, that is just a reflection of his understanding of tides, rather than any mystical judgement by the house. Piranesi really is in tune with the house, but he achieves this not with prayers and mysticism, but through close observation and note taking.

So the book is about the relationship of rationality and irrationality, or art and science if you like. Getting to the house involves a bit of mystical setting aside of rationality, but once there, what seems to be mysticism is actually the result of careful study.

Piranesi is an interesting and imaginative book, with an engaging central character. It’s actually a mystery story, which even involves a police character who helps unravel the puzzle of how Piranesi ended up in the house. At a time when society seems to be struggling with irrational ideas, this is a timely reflection on how people think about the world around them.

The Truman Show – Leaving Conspiracies Behind

Conspiracy theories and disinformation are rife. Many of the reasons for this come up in Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show – which I watched the night before the storming of the United States Capitol. This is an odd sci-fi story, involving an orphaned baby, Truman Burbank, who is adopted by a television studio and placed unknowingly in a reality show where everyone else is an actor.

Conspiracy theories make people feel important. They are about having “special knowledge” ignored by most people. This sets the believer apart as one of the chosen few who really knows what’s going on. No need to go to university for years, and then spend a long time gaining expertise in a job, to end up in a position of eminence. You can get all that by simply believing that the world is flat, or that the American election was stolen. The reasons people believe in conspiracy theories are complex, but I think you can say generally that a frustrated desire for prestige is often involved. Conspiracy believers are either unwilling or unable to achieve prestige in the normal, laborious way. They seek a short cut to self importance. It’s like choosing to steal a car rather than waiting to earn the money to buy one.

Truman Burbank grows into adulthood unaware of the true nature of his life. But then a number of production mishaps on the show start to make him suspect something is going on. He feels that he is living in a world focused entirely on himself. Clearly this suggests that he is very important. He has to try and square this feeling with the fact that he also seems to be an ordinary man.

Truman’s efforts to escape his false existence come to a climax in a sailing voyage across the “ocean” towards the limit of his world. And fittingly, his odyssey takes place on a flat Earth which really does have an edge. His boat bumps into the outer wall of the huge Truman Show studio. Truman disembarks, and walks around the sea’s margin, while the show’s director seemingly talks to him from the sky. We see the prestige which this closed world confers on Truman. He seemingly walks on water while God speaks to him from the heavens. God – that is the director – calls on Truman not to leave the show. It is so tempting to stay there and remain at the centre of things. But beyond the door lies the real world, and the woman who once broke the rules by loving Truman for himself and not because she was an actress following a script. Truman stands at an exit door in a painted sky, and debates with himself what to do. Finally he makes the decision to leave, cheered on by his audience. But his exit also results in the loss of his fame and importance. Truman’s glorious denouement coincides with two security guards reaching for a TV guide, to help them decide what to watch next. So you can see why some people hang on to their illusory beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence against them.

I think The Truman Show is a lesson in humility. We all have to accept that knowledge is hard won. Truman nearly drowns on his hazardous voyage to the edge of his world. He really has to work for what he knows. And his moment of triumph, ironically, is the moment he realises that everything doesn’t revolve around him. To truly appreciate the world, we have to stop telling ourselves that we are at the centre of it.

What Maisie Knew By Henry James – Innocence Meets Experience

What Maisie Knew is a 1897 novel by Henry James, about a young girl, tossed around between two parties in a vengeful divorce. They fight over custody of Maisie, and fight just as hard when each parent thinks they are being expected to spend too much time with the child. Then there is a sub plot of nannies and guardians who themselves have affairs with each vile parent, and with each other – and fight over Maisie!

This plot sounds like a kind of nineteenth century version of Dynasty. The tone of the writing, however, is very much nineteenth century literary fiction. The story is told from the point of view of Maisie, who is both confused by the machinations of adults, and able see through the self-serving fictions adults cook up to make themselves look good. We see events through Maisie’s eyes, but rather than the narrative voice remaining with her, we hear instead the tone of a world-weary, adult with literary pretensions. So the viewpoint and the voice make for an odd mixture, a combination of the innocent, and the knowing, which is fitting for the book’s preoccupations.

This is a very artful book, reflecting on the contradictions of knowledge and deception, innocence and experience. As just a brief example – Maisie always sees the best in everybody, which is a lovely quality. But admirable though this quality is, it has the practical effect of making her believe in whoever she is with at any particular moment. Her guileless effort to be loyal to everyone, can also have the appearance of flighty disloyalty.

A number of reviews of the book are included at the end of the Penguin edition. One from the Manchester Guardian of 1897, concludes by saying:

“It is undoubtedly a work of art, but hardly one you would like to hang on your walls.”

I think this sums it up. What Maisie Knew is a very clever book, but is by no means an easy and relaxing read. The world of childhood only comes to us through the voice of an adult, who loves his long sentences and even longer paragraphs. This is a children’s book for the sort of adult who is willing to suffer for their literary rewards