From Perth, Australia, came the message that she could not countenance, these days, reading anything that was not beautiful. She is right. Why, by choice, should we read about ugliness of action, deed, character, when all that is so readily available in our daily newsfeeds? Why shouldn’t we self-select and sanitise what we choose to consume, listen to, read, watch? Why shouldn’t we keep on the sunny side of life? It struck me as odd, then, when I heard about a book group, this side of the hemisphere, that had de-selected something refined, lovely, beautiful. In a case of wobbly logic, they had lost all appetite for the planned selection of A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, and thought it disloyal to read it. I knew I had a copy on my bookshelves, I had heard it was beautiful, and I decided to join Australia on the beauty diet.
It is an elegant book, the language and sentences have wonderful deportment, albeit they may sometimes they walk too straight with a little too much ‘look at me’ carriage. In the main though, the bearing suits the narrative, suits the story of the gentleman Count balanced between centuries, who, despite his straightened circumstances, enjoys all things beautiful: literature, food, art, music, clothes. We are well into the twentieth century – it is 1922 at the beginning of the novel – but he is an elegant vestige from the century before. In spite of his privilege, he is the embodiment of the positive pickings from the old guard that are being lost to the brutalism of the new communist state. It is one of these stories that rises above its backdrop, makes a conscious choice to focus on the small joys, the everyday beauties. It is a pleasure to read.
In the same week, I went to see Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, which surprised me in its almost Woody Allen nostalgic feel, filled with the sort of intergenerational character studies that Allen does so well. In an odd way, the city of Belfast hardly features. Beyond one terrace street, Belfast has little character, and even the redbrick terrace street where Branagh’s family live could be any working-class area of any English city, were it not for the accents. There were long, panoramic shots of the city at the beginning, Belfast as it is now, modern day, in colour, and then Branagh time travels to 1969 and shoots it all in black and white. In a break with my beauty-diet, I expected more strife and trouble, more politics, some exposition of custom and practice that would make it particularly Belfast. But we got none of that, except perhaps peripherally. It is, at its core, a love story in memory of his parents and grandparents and a Shangri-La of a place that I don’t think ever existed, or that only ever exists when you move away from a place at a young age so that its ugliness becomes contained and minimal, and its charm becomes elevated to something magical.
Branagh could have probed more deeply into what makes us belong, the wrench of leaving, the violent splintering of a community because of civil war, but I suspect he wanted to make something beautiful, something for the heart. Towards the end, I realised the film was a postcard to his parents and grandparents in heaven, and a reminder to himself that it could all have been so different – most likely not in a good way – had his family stayed in Belfast and toughed it out. Then, when the credits rolled, I knew I was right about the postcard, because there it was, a message short enough to fit on a postcard: “For the ones who stayed, for the ones who left, and for all the ones who were lost.” Postcards have almost been assigned to the past, although I still love to receive one as they are always mailed from the sunny side of life.
Belfast descending into the Troubles, Moscow under Stalin’s grip, two beautiful stories, who would have thought it?
One thought on “The Sunny Side of Life”
This is another heartfelt, topical piece. ‘a break with my beauty diet’ 💕. It pulls in the positivity of the young to always see the bright side. I can understand why Branagh would want to make it beautiful for his parents and grandparents, because love wants you to see beauty, drown out ugliness. And I feel for the ones who remained, embroiled in the ugliness.
LikeLiked by 1 person