In each edition, a personal selection of things of value: we ask each contributor to nominate their favourite book, film, piece of music, work of art, restaurant or pub, and place. This week: critic and academic Jean Barr
Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, an Italian-Algerian depiction of France’s suppression of the Algerian uprising, is a long time favourite film. Made in 1965, just three years after the end of the Algerian war in the streets of Algiers, its grainy black and white newsreel effect, amazing score by Ennio Morricone (playing like a quickening pulse inside scenes of rising tension) and Pontecorvo’s unwavering camera place us right there in the middle of the conflict. A brilliant film that uses non-professional actors who must surely still feel the impact of the recent conflict, its themes of counter-terrorism, surveillance and torture, as well as Pontecorvo’s icy clear-eyed treatment of these themes (no nonsense about hearts and minds here) are chillingly resonant right now. Other favourite films include Claire Denis’ 1999 foreign legion epic, 'Beau Travail', which features the most sinuous solo dance routine ever committed to celluloid, and Terrence Malick’s 1970 tale of amoral youth, 'Badlands', starring a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, whose disingenuous voiceover haunts the film.
I have many favourite books, including Cormac McCarthy’s searing 2007 apocalyptic novel, 'The Road'; anything by Hilary Mantel, and all of the short story collections of the Canadian writer Alice Munro. I am a fan too of good translations of European literature such as Anne Born’s wonderful Norwegian-to-English translations of Per Petterson’s novels, notably, 'Out Stealing Horses' (2006). A good translation can actually enhance the original through a kind of alchemy.
In this category, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 'The Leopard', published posthumously by Feltrinelli in 1958 and immaculately translated from Italian into English by Archibald Colquhoun in 1961, is hard to beat. It tells the story of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, caught in the middle of civil war and revolution and having to choose between (upper) class loyalty and breaking tradition to secure his family’s continuing influence. The novel charts the death throes of the feudal nobility in Sicily during the Risorgimento when Garibaldi, hero of Italian unification, swept through the island with his redshirts. The book’s central theme, that everything needs to change so that everything can stay the same, is voiced by Fabrizio’s nephew, Tancredi: 'If we want things to stay as they are’, he says, 'things will have to change’. Personal tragedy, self-deception, disillusionment and the elusiveness (and sacrifice) of truth are handled with a bleak irony that I still find compelling decades after first reading.
'The Leopard' was made into a film in 1968, starring a handsome Burt Lancaster as the conflicted prince and a luminous Claudia Cardinale as the love interest whose role is to bridge upper- and middle-class interests through marriage. 'The Leopard' is easily my favourite Visconti film.
There is no conflict for me here. My favourite piece of music is Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Nothing matches hearing Bach’s greatest choral work live. This is how I first encountered it in my early 20s, because people close to me were playing in the orchestra and singing in the choir. That the best things are the things you never knew you wanted until you got them is borne out by this experience. There are some glorious recordings of the 'St Matthew Passion', including John Eliot Gardiner’s 1988 version with its energetic choral singing, and the remarkably lithe and pared down 2008 performance by the Dunedin Consort, with conductor John Butt. But I am particularly attuned to a much earlier (1947) Decca disc featuring Kathleen Ferrier and The Bach Choir: this is the one I return to again and again, especially for Ferrier’s beautiful contralto rendering of 'Have mercy Lord on me’.
Another favourite piece of music is Richard Strauss’s 'Four Last Songs', especially the third song, 'When falling asleep’. This is music of sublime beauty which I find almost unbearably moving: you need to be feeling fairly robust to listen to it, especially if sung by Jessye Norman.
A favourite work of art to which I return repeatedly is a small painting by Cézanne in the National Gallery of Scotland called The Big Trees (1902-04). It is a lovely composition, presenting a close-up of trees that is almost geometrical in structure and nearly, but not quite, abstract. It catches painting just as it is on the turn into abstraction. I love it and miss it because it seems to have been out on loan for a long time (although the National Galleries of Scotland website says it is currently on display). Cézanne painted many trees and returned to the same scenes again and again. The great Scottish painter William McTaggart also painted the same subject often. I love his 'The Storm' (1890) and re-visit it frequently, as I do Joan Eardley’s glowing 'Catterline in Winter' (about 1963) with its houses in the moonlight sliding down a snow-clad hill.
This really is an almost impossible choice but I’ll give it my best shot. Before Berlusconi and all that, Italy, specifically Florence in the early 1970s, was a liberating place to spend a year, not long out of university and with a nearly new baby. It retains a special pull. My favourite place in Florence is the convent of San Marco with its wonderfully shaded cloisters and gardens and Fra Angelico’s lovely, sometimes surreal, frescoes that decorate the tiny monks’ cells. For a heathen, I am oddly drawn to devotional art such as his delicate 'Annunciation' mounted at the end of one of the convent’s corridors.
Closer to home in more northern climes, walking the An Teallach Ridge overlooking Little Loch Broom in Torridon remains the place of my peak peak experience.
My favourite bar is Edouard Manet’s 1882 A Bar at the Folies-Bergère for its marvellous brushwork and playful approach to perspective and point of view. My favourite restaurant is Rogano’s in Glasgow because of many celebratory events held there over many years. A recent favourite is Falcon Manor in Settle, Yorkshire. This excellent heap is a dead ringer for Fawlty Towers but is much calmer, with excellent food and fabulously ornate light fitments, sconces and mirrors.