The Desert of the Tartars

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The Desert of the Tartars (1976), an Italian film directed by Valerio Zurlini, is another of those cinematic works whose description in books would leave me tantalised and frustrated. A brief entry would tell you that the film existed but when would ever get to see it? Last week I finally got to see this one thanks to a recent restoration via a French blu-ray disc which, for once, had English subtitles.

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Zurlini’s film is an adaptation of The Tartar Steppe, the most popular of Dino Buzzati’s novels, and for a long time the only book of his that you could easily find in English. I often feel a little hypocritical when it comes to Buzzati. I’ve been telling people for years to look out for his strange stories—the phrase was used as a subtitle for a Calder & Boyars edition of Catastrophe—even though the translated collections were all out of print. The Tartar Steppe has been reprinted more than most yet I still haven’t read it. I’ll be correcting this now I’ve seen the film. Buzzati’s story concerns a young soldier, Lieutenant Drogo, being posted to a distant border fortress where a small company of soldiers awaits a barbarian invasion which they believe will come from the surrounding desert. All the soldiers are eager to experience the thrill of battle yet the invasion has so far refused to arrive. Matters are complicated when officers who were determined to stay are sent back home while Drogo, who says he was posted there by mistake, finds the place impossible to leave. A Cavafy poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, is credited as an inspiration for this, but the spectre of Franz Kafka haunts any story with a deferred or inaccessible resolution, and in that respect Buzzati’s novel, which was published in 1940, may be one of the first to learn from the example set by The Castle.

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Jean-Louis Bertucelli and André G. Brunelin wrote the screenplay which was apparently criticised for not doing justice to Buzzati’s story. I can’t comment, obviously, but it wouldn’t be the first time the subtleties of a novel have been lost in the translation to the screen. Faithful or not, I was happy to be watching the thing at all, and besides which, familiarity with the source material can sometimes blind you to the other qualities of an adaptation. The film has a minimal score by Ennio Morricone, and an impressive cast that includes Philippe Noiret, Fernando Rey, Jean-Louis Trintignant and a dubbed Max von Sydow.

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It also looks fantastic, with photography by Luciano Tovoli and spectacular locations in the Iranian desert. The ancient Bam citadel at Arg-e Bam in southern Iran provided the location for the Bastiani fortress, a massive and exceptionally photogenic ruin. A note at the end of the restored print tells us that the citadel and surrounding area was devastated in 2003 by an earthquake that claimed 26,000 lives and levelled the place. The citadel has since been rebuilt, so the film also serves now as a record of its former appearance.

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As for Buzzati, it’s still a mystery why his books haven’t been made more widely available in English but matters improved recently with the republication of Catastrophe and Other Stories. He was also an accomplished artist whose illustrations are deserving of more attention. Some of these were featured at 50 Watts a few years ago, together with samples from his book-length graphic adaptation of the Orpheus myth, Poem Strip, from 1969.

Weekend links 555

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I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928) by Charles Demuth.

• “Reading the new edition in 2021, I’m struck by his dismissal of CD-ROMs, of VR, of interactivity; how he anticipates contemporary debates about algorithmic bias…his prescient exhaustion.” Sukhdev Sandhu reviews Brian Eno’s diary for 1995, A Year with Swollen Appendices. Meanwhile, Eno himself says “Artists like me are being censored in Germany—because we support Palestinian rights.”

• “Kink is often pathologized in popular culture: it’s shamed, used as a punchline, and, on the whole, relegated to the margins of desire.” Greg Mania interviews R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell about Kink a collection of new stories about unorthodox desires.

• “This album is the king of hauntology. From where I’m sitting, I’m going back to the past, listening to an album imagining the future, imagining the past.” Tom Herdman on the fabulous Time (1981), a science-fiction concept album by the Electric Light Orchestra.

Cavafy, the ultimate Alexandrian, gave us an Alexandria that was already not quite there in his own lifetime. It kept threatening to disappear before his eyes. The apartment where he had made love as a young man had become a business office when he went to revisit it years later; and the days of 1896, of 1901, 1903, 1908, 1909, once filled with so much eros and forbidden love, were already gone and had become distant, elegiac moments that he remembered in poetry alone. The barbarians, like time itself, were at the gates, and everything would be swept in their wake. The barbarians always win, and time is hardly less ruthless. The barbarians may come now or in a century or two, or in a thousand years, as indeed they had come more than once centuries earlier, but come they will, and many more times after that as well, while here was Cavafy, landlocked in this city that is both the transitional home he wishes to flee and the permanent demon that can’t be driven out. He and the city are one and the same, and soon neither will exist. Cavafy’s Alexandria appears in antiquity, in late antiquity, and in modern times. Then it disappears. Cavafy’s city is permanently locked away in a past that refuses to go away.

André Aciman on the poetry of Cavafy and the Alexandrias of memory

DJ Food on the package design for The Superceded Sounds of…The New Obsolescents, which uses a similar foil card to the “Héliophore” stock used by Philips in their cult series of electroacoustic compositions, Prospective 21e Siècle.

Onlyou by Can, is “A relaxed studio session, recorded on a mono taperecorder in 1976 at the Innerspace”. Released in 1982 on a 34-minute cassette sealed inside a can (geddit?), and limited to 100 copies.

Olivia Rutigliano ranks 45 films containing prison escapes. I’d put the Bresson at number one but otherwise, yes.

• “…some kind of future unrealised time…” Mix of the week is a mix for The Wire by Muqata’a.

• RIP Christopher Plummer. Never mind the musical, watch him in The Silent Partner (1978).

• At Ubuweb: short films by Erkki Kurenniemi soundtracked by his own electronic music.

• New music: Neurogenesis by Robert Rich.

Kinky Boots (1964) by Patrick McNee & Honor Blackman | David Watts (1967) by The Kinks | The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight (Dominant Mix) (1984) by Dominatrix

Weekend links 308

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Frank Herbert’s Dune receives a new cover design by Alex Trochut together with other notable works of science fiction and fantasy for a new series from Penguin.

• “…poet, scholar and biographer Sandeep Parmar…has raised the possibility that a long poem by Hope Mirrlees, titled Paris and published by the Hogarth Press in 1919, was a strong influence on The Waste Land.” Alfred Corn on new TS Eliot scholarship.

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• Library music “is a sonic world of ‘weird beats, odd instrumentations, albums full of dark jazzy interludes or bizarre garage rock.'” Adrian Shaughnessy on innovation in banality.

Italy, which EM Forster called “the beautiful country where they say ‘yes’”, became another resort, especially the island of Capri, where a French poet staged a ceremonial flogging of his teenage Italian lover before the boy departed to do his military service and became the subject of a novel by his compatriot Roger Peyrefitte. In the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Forster observed the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy “standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”, and the Australian novelist Patrick White met a local man who became his lifelong companion. For decades, the novelists Paul and Jane Bowles presided in Tangier, which Jack Kerouac was to call a “sinister international hive of queens”. William Burroughs arrived in 1954 with a teenage Spaniard named Kiki who, Woods writes, “was, famously, the boy who would blow smoke into his pubic hair and say ‘Abracadabra’ as his hardening cock emerged from the cloud”. Tangier was to figure in Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch as a phantasmagoric, rubbery walled sex market called the Interzone.

Caleb Crain reviewing Homintern by Gregory Woods

• Beardsley biographer Matthew Sturgis reviews Aubrey Beardsley: A Catalogue Raisonné, a two-volume collection edited by Linda Gertner Zatlin.

• “He was the Bresson of Birkenhead.” Andrew Collins reviews the forthcoming collection of BBC dramas directed by Alan Clarke.

• “The postwar Hollywood western was more content to let strangeness be strange,” says Michael Newton.

• “Bosch’s work has always caused trouble for interpreters and critics,” says Morgan Meis.

Misplaced New York: a project by Anton Repponen and Jon Earle.

Wyrd Daze, Lvl2 Issue 6, is out, and as before is a free download.

Lessons we can learn from Robert Altman’s 3 Women.

• Mix of the week: FACT Mix 548 by Peder Mannerfelt.

Paris 1971 (1971) by Suzanne Ciani | Paris II (1987) by Jon Hassell | Dreaming Of Paris (2013) by Van Dyke Parks