The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

It’s an image that’s survived many parodies: a medieval knight playing chess with Death. The knight in question, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) have returned to Sweden after fighting in the Crusades. After Death (Bengt Ekerot) shows up, Block challenges him to a game of chess on the condition that Death grant him a reprieve if he wins. The game is played at intervals throughout whilst the knight plunges into existential crisis, wrestling with doubts about God’s existence.

The two Crusaders return to a horrifying spectacle: The Black Death (notably one of the most God-forsaken periods in recorded history) has ravaged society and torn down order. Some are self-flagellating and praying for mercy; others are thrust into situations where, like the knight, they feel alone and helpless. A depraved man corners a young woman in a barn and sneers, ‘No-one will hear you, neither God nor man’; later at a tavern, he forces Jof to dance like a bear as everyone watches. Notably, in both instances it’s not divine miracles that save the victims but the pragmatic Jöns, who in his own words ‘guffaws at the Lord.’

The absence of God is a central theme in many of Bergman’s works, including Winter Light (1963)and Through a Glass Darkly (1961). However, The Seventh Seal (1957) is perhaps his most direct and uncompromising in this direction. Before he dies, Block needs to know there is something beyond his mortal existence. Wherever he looks, he only finds representations of God or the Devil in stories, religious iconography, rituals and prayers. Death, on the other hand, is personified, donning the classic hooded black robe, and follows Block throughout the film. “Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses?”, the knight laments as breaks down in the confessional. As he does so, Death sits on the other side masquerading as the listening priest. Death’s personification in classic black hooded robe and Block’s inability to elude him contrasts with the absence of God to convey a stark message: only Death is certain.

The film is shot in black and white despite colour fast becoming the cinematic norm at the time. This accentuates chiaroscuro (contrast between light and shade), especially on the beach at the beginning. I automatically interpreted this as a metaphor for the battle between good and evil. This would render it merely another reflection (or shadow, so to speak) of the knowledge Antonius Block yearns for, suggesting it to be intentionally ironic on Bergman’s part.

Despite foregrounding its interrogation of God’s existence, The Seventh Seal also reminds us that ignorance is bliss. Jof and Mia are two thirds of a travelling troupe, and have a son, Mikail. They’re satisfied with their lot and undisturbed by existential uncertainty. Jof experiences visions, and at the beginning believes he has seen the Virgin Mary, but quickly forgets about it. When they cross paths with Antonius Block, their optimism rubs off and he remarks that his crisis of faith ‘seems unreal’ with them. The strawberries and milk they consume together symbolise the sweetness of their ignorance.

This film is undeniably a classic of world cinema. Some have said its thematic imagery is too stark, but I enjoyed its directness, and think it’s part of what makes it such a classic. Max Von Sydow, who sadly died in March this year, gives a bold, visceral performance as the knight–he starred in eleven of Bergman’s films and all that I’ve seen are made better by his performance. It’s a strange film—its macabreness, range of characters, loose plot, and the way all of these combine make it completely unique. And as with so many other films, I got more out of the second viewing.

In portraying Death as something Block cannot escape during his existential plight, and forcing the audience to face it literally and figuratively, it is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Despite this, Block’s interrogation proves fruitless, and it is Jof and Mia that end up best off. The paradox that underpins the film, therefore, is that it forces the audience to question God whilst acknowledging it might be better not to do so.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Like many others, I’m listening and learning about racism, the many forms it takes and the active role I must play in the fight against it. During this time, I’ve realised there aren’t enough works by black authors on my bookshelf and committed to changing this, so you can expect more reviews of such works on here in the future. This is an incredibly powerful book for so many reasons. It reveals the horror and cruelty of slavery and racial discrimination, but it’s also a complete, accomplished literary work by its own merit, and enshrines Hurston as a great writer in her own right. I’m open to the possibility I’ve made misinterpretations in my review, and if I have please feel free to share this in the comments.

Put simply, this should be on everyone’s must-read list. Hurston fits universal lessons around identity, self-worth and fate into prose peppered with aphorisms stunning enough to make me blink with wonder and reread. This is evident from the first paragraph:

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”

A lot of the text is made up of dialogue. It’s filled with elisions like ‘dat’, ‘lak’ and ‘ole’ to reflect the Southern US dialect of the early twentieth century. As a reader, it doesn’t take long to adjust to this, and Hurston’s experimental style doesn’t narrow the book’s audience.

The narrative begins at the end of the story, as Janie Crawford returns to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida as a middle-aged woman after many years away. As she arrives, the locals gossip about her from their porches. Sitting on her own porch shortly afterwards (a crucial symbol of how empowered she has become), she tells her life-story to friend Pheoby.

Janie’s childhood leaves her lacking a sense of identity that she’ll spend much of her adult life trying (and failing) to find in others. She never meets her parents and is raised by her grandmother, Nanny. She grows up playing with white children and doesn’t know she’s black until someone points her out in a picture. Her childhood nickname is ‘Alphabet’ in reference to the many other names she goes by.

Nanny has had a tragically tough life because of the colour of her skin. She was born into slavery, and became pregnant with her master’s child after he raped her. Her daughter, Leafy (Janie’s mother), became an alcoholic and ran away after being raped by her white schoolteacher. Nanny describes herself as a ‘cracked plate’ (27) and is desperate for Janie to find a husband that’ll provide the social status and financial security to avoid a life of equal hardship. With this intention, she arranges for her to marry a local boy named Logan Killicks, to which Janie acquiesces.

Youthfully naive, and influenced by Nanny’s convictions, Janie moves in with him ‘to wait for love to begin’ (29). She expects it will solve her problems and answer her doubts about herself. What follows is a string of tumultuous relationships with variously flawed men – Logan, Jody and finally Tea-Cake. Through these, she learns her ‘missing piece’ cannot be found in another because it is already within herself. Paradoxically, her unsuccessful relationships are stepping-stones on this journey of self-discovery, most of all the special bond she forms with Tea-Cake – the novel is, as Zadie Smith puts it, ‘the discovery of self in and through another.’[1] However, it’s also through Tea-Cake that Janie learns some of life’s defining moments are produced by forces beyond her control (hence the title).

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) spent over thirty years in literary obscurity after publication. It was rediscovered after the establishment of several Black Studies programmes in universities across America in the 1970s and 1980s.[2] Today, it’s widely considered among the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Like the novel, I’ll end where I began: put it on your must-read list.


I read the Virago Modern Classics edition.

[1] From the introduction to this edition.

[2] https://bookmarks.reviews/the-dream-is-the-truth-their-eyes-were-watching-god-at-80/

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

As well as my first review, this is the first time I’ve read anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s non-chronological structure, multiple character viewpoints, and ornamented style mean it isn’t a straightforward read. Nonetheless, it’s beautifully written and creates a world that is dark in a fascinating way, and I really enjoyed it.

In 1925, many wealthy Americans were flocking to Europe during the short-term economic boom following the First World War (known as ‘The Roaring Twenties’).[1] It’s there, at a beach on the French Riviera, that eighteen-year-old Hollywood film starlet Rosemary Hoyt meets socialites Dick and Nicole Diver. From Rosemary’s naïve perspective they are the perfect couple, with the beautiful looks and exquisite social grace that matter most to people of their class.

During dinner with her mother after the meeting, Rosemary says she fell in love with Dick (20), and eventually she begins an affair with him. As she’s drawn deeper into the high society of the Divers, the cracks in their façade begin to show. Nicole suffers from periodic mental breakdowns. Dick, falling victim to alcoholism, age, and a lack of purpose, is beginning to lose the charm and looks his social status depends on. On top of this, they are slowly drifting apart from one another.

The story slowly centres around Dick’s deterioration. He makes an unconventional protagonist because there’s no real reason for the reader to root for him and he has a troubling tendency to play the romantic caregiver to young, wealthy, emotionally vulnerable women. Nonetheless, his enigmatic persona is capable of captivating the reader as it does the other characters in the novel.

Dick and Nicole Diver were inspired by Fitzgerald’s own experiences with his wife, Zelda. Throughout the nineteen-twenties, they were notorious for heavy drinking and partying, and Fitzgerald later regretted wasting his potential during this time. He had a turbulent relationship with Zelda, and in 1932 she suffered a breakdown and was sent to a clinic in Switzerland like Nicole.[2] It is fitting that, despite personally deeming it his masterpiece, Fitzgerald’s high hopes for the novel weren’t met as critics gave it lukewarm reviews upon release. Even more fittingly, it turned out to be his last.

Tender is the Night (1934) lays bare the dangers of excessive wealth and social freedom. It’s easy to overlook how much violence and murder features in the plot, including the ridiculous drunken duel that results when Tommy Barban tells Albert McKisco to “shut (his) wife up” (53). What’s more, Rosemary is surrounded by rich and influential men constantly vying for her attention with her mother rarely there to protect her. And Dick, living off Nicole’s wealth, lacks purpose and fails to see any of his projects through—he abandons a scientific treatise (72) and discontinues his medical practise (73). Through Dick’s squandering of his potential, the novel reveals that some form of necessity is, ironically, a necessity when it comes to staying well.

Despite appearances, the characters’ world is unenviable. Taken from the author’s own experiences, the novel is a warning against materialistic pursuits and the unseen dangers of a life of luxury and liberty. It’s also a sobering reminder that time can create as many wounds as it heals.

 

I read the Penguin Modern Classics edition.

[1] https://www.history.com/news/pandemic-world-war-i-roaring-twenties

[2] https://www.independent.ie/style/beautiful-and-damned-the-tumultuous-marriage-of-f-scott-fitzgerald-and-zelda-35055101.html