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Joz Norris


Tape 103: Art & Hope & A Little Life

  • Tape 103: Art & Hope & A Little Life

Hello! How are you all doing? Hope everyone’s keeping well. First up – I have moved to Substack! To previous subscribers who only recently put up with my moving the newsletter to Email Octopus, I apologise – this move should be for good, as Substack seems much better at the community-building-and-engagement elements of writing a newsletter that I’ve always wanted to get better at. Those who have joined the newsletter only this week, welcome! It might take me a bit of time to get my head around Substack, but if any of you can help me get to grips with it, I’d be hugely appreciative!

I am celebrating my move to Substack with this beautiful picture of Stack Rocks in Pembrokeshire, which I found on Google

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Anyway. This week, I’m going to expand on some conversations I started having over on Twitter after I shared my thoughts on the current West End production of Hanya Yanagihara’s trauma doorstop novel A Little LifeI didn’t expect so many people to reply and share their own takes, but I found the resulting conversations – some simply in agreement, some in disagreement but very friendly and respectful, some more heated (though even the heated one I think we managed to wind down peacefully), but I found all of them really interesting and they got me reflecting on the nature and purpose of art, so I thought I’d explore those ideas in more depth in the newsletter this week and see what you all make of them!

First up, to get everyone up to speed – A Little Life was one of the literary behemoths of the last few years, and tells the story of Jude St. Francis and his three friends Willem, JB and Malcolm. Gradually Jude’s past is unveiled and it emerges he has been horrifically abused, tortured, exploited and traumatised throughout his life, and continues to be into adulthood. I read it a couple of years ago and thought it was brilliant, largely because I had such an extreme emotional reaction to it – if it wasn’t brilliant, then why was I crying so much every time I sat down to read it? In the years since, my feelings on the novel have changed a bit, and I’ve become more suspicious that actually it’s fairly irresponsible and exploitative when it comes to what it tells us about trauma narratives, and when I heard there was going to be a stage adaptation I was pretty cynical about it – I couldn’t think of a story that would be more miserable to watch live. But I was still weirdly fascinated by the original novel, and couldn’t possibly imagine how it could even work onstage, so I went to see it with my friend Emily.

Long story short, I didn’t like it. It’s miserable. Despite being four hours long, it had to make significant cuts to the 850-page novel, and a lot of what was cut concerned the lighter, more human scenes of friendship between the four, the scenes that give us some indication of what it is about these friendships that gives Jude his salvation from the cycle of abuse. Gone also were pretty much all the scenes that show us Jude’s competence, his kindness, all the qualities that his friends love him for. All we see is Jude as the constant suffering victim, and a lot of the themes of friendship and care are pushed into the background so the focus can be placed more squarely on trauma and pain (not to mention the fact that nearly all the book’s female characters, including Jude’s adoptive mother Julia, are cut, so that the only female presence onstage is a dead ghost who narrates the scenes that are difficult to stage by saying things like “Then he threw him down the fire escape.”)

There are all sorts of reasons the stage version left me completely cold – a clunky script, the insistence on telling us everything rather than showing it to us, a number of very odd staging choices that rendered supposedly traumatic moments weirdly comedic, etc – but the thing I said on Twitter to sum up my feelings on it were that it was “art without hope, and therefore redundant” because “the entire point of art (including tragedy) is to give us hope.” The more heated debate this led to essentially picked up on the fact that it was silly of me to phrase this as though it was an objective fact – I had assumed it would be clear I was sharing my thoughts and viewpoint, not denying any other potential interpretation of what the purpose of art might be, but I can see that my initial statement was a little black-and-white. But it did prompt a number of really interesting discussions.

I should stress that the, for me, failure of A Little Life has nothing to do with the cast, who are excellent, or the staging or any of the great work done by a clearly very talented creative team. All my problems are with the source material, the adaptation by Ivo Van Hove, and the decision to adapt it in the first place. Huge kudos to this cast for acting their socks off in such a difficult piece every single day.

First up, I need to emphasise that I emphatically do not mean that art has to be “feelgood” in its nature. Art should express the breadth of human experience, and should contain the capacity to make us feel rage, sadness, despair, fear, revulsion, anger as well as joy, wonder, laughter, relief, amazement, excitement. But I think that ultimately, good art that expresses dark emotions and leaves us in a vulnerable state also points us towards hope. I don’t mean that, after everyone dies at the end of a tragedy, someone should come on and say “But look, a new day is dawning” or anything as clunky or obvious as that. It’s fine for a piece of art to end on a resolutely bleak note (I’m reminded of the ending of Se7en, one of the most horrible films ever made, which ends with Morgan Freeman saying “Someone once said it’s a fine world we live in, and worth fighting for. I agree with the second part,” a final line which is simultaneously despairing and hopeful). But somewhere within it, I think it has to have shown us some way of looking at the world that we haven’t encountered before, that returns us to ourselves somehow galvanised around what we care about, what we want, what we strive for. Some people on Twitter mentioned Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet, asking me if I thought they were hopeful stories. I think they are. I think the sacrifice of Romeo and Juliet shows up the pointlessness of the hatred between their families, and paves a way towards a world that can heal. I think Hamlet, despite ending with widespread bloodshed and death, does at least see some form of justice done with the death of Claudius so that, again, there is some path back towards healing and order that Horatio, the sole surviving character, can follow.

Someone else on Twitter mentioned Sarah Kane, whose work I’m not that familiar with. From what I understand, it’s pretty unremittingly bleak, but someone else countered that her plays are full of humour and characters that feel rich. I think this is another way in which a truly bleak piece of work can still feel hopeful – by showing us the possibility for joy. The best tragedies show us characters who we love, because they make us laugh, or they show us what they care about, and then those joys will be taken from them by the tragic events that follow. Perhaps the tragedy offers us a message about what are the wrong choices or values in life, and which ones we should make to lead a happier life, or perhaps it’s more arbitrary and less “fair” than that, but it still perhaps leads us back towards a sense of hope at the end by having shown us some measure of joy along the way. Despite not knowing much about her work, what I do know about it has led me to often categorise Kane in my head as occupying a similar space to that of Samuel Beckett, who perhaps more than any other writer is obsessed by the bleakness and pointlessness of life, but also gives us characters and images that are so strange they make us laugh and wonder even as we’re also led towards despair. A lot of that joy and humour and wonder was absent from A Little Life – one of the most triumphant moments in the book, where something really good happens to Jude for perhaps the first time in his life, was set to the miserable Nine Inch Nails song “Something I Can Never Have,” so that even that supposedly joyous moment felt full of foreboding and doom.

After having all these conversations with various people, and considering different perspectives, I eventually realised what I was really getting at by equating art with hope. Ultimately, I think the creative act IS a hopeful act. Even if someone is in the midst of darkness and despair, if they choose to channel that feeling into making something rather than into spiralling further into their pain, then that in itself is an act of hope. It involves thinking “Things can feel better than this, and perhaps if I create this thing I will find my way towards that.” I think it’s impossible to create a piece of art in the first place without hope. The resulting piece of art might be full of pain and hurt and sorrow, and it might be hard to watch. But I think a really good piece of art also shows the chinks of light and the shards of hope that led to it being made in the first place. I don’t see that hope in A Little Life. It feels exploitative and voyeuristic and fetishistic, and I’m not convinced that either Yanagihara or Ivo Van Hove (who adapted it for the stage) wrote it in order to lift themselves out of pain and towards hope, or necessarily to do the same for others. I think it was written in order to exploit people’s desire to witness pain, and I don’t feel comfortable with that as a driving influence behind a piece of art. Am I being silly to go round saying “Art should be this, and not that?” Yes, undoubtedly, and I apologise again to the person on Twitter I annoyed by seeming too certain about these perennially unfathomable concepts. But I do think that thinking about them has led me towards a greater understanding of what I want good art to feel like.

Most annoyingly of all, does the fact that the stage version of A Little Life forced me to consider all these things so that I ultimately came to a greater understanding of creative expression mean that it is in itself a good play? Not sure, jury’s out on that, but it’s obviously very frustrating to realise after all this that it’s a possibility.


A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I’m recording my last two comedy shows, Blink (magical extravaganza) and Joz Norris Is Dead. Long Live Mr Fruit Salad(character comedy nervous breakdown)! Hooray! I’m recording them at the brilliant Moth Club for the brilliant online comedy store Go Faster Stripe (even bigger hooray!) We’re recording them as part of a big day of show recordings by other legends including John-Luke Roberts’ brilliant A World Just Like Our Own, But… and Benjamin Alborough and Sean Morley’s bizarre new experiment Terry Wogan Screams (one last hooray!) Tickets and more info are available here. It goes without saying, I would love to sell these recordings out, so get booking if you’d like to see these shows live one last time!

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most –I had the pleasure of performing at the Paddock this week, which is always a lovely gig. This month they screened the short animation My Breakfast With Barfwhich is a wonderful, ridiculous short that made me snort.

Book Of The Week – I’ve just started Circe by Madeline Miller, which is a retelling of the Odyssey from the point-of-view of the witch who turns Odysseus’s men into pigs and traps him on an island for a bit. I’m only a chapter in, but it’s good so far! Everyone keeps telling me it’s brilliant.

Album Of The Week – Secret Life by Fred Again.. & Brian Eno. No idea who Fred Again.. is, but I’ll listen to anything with Eno’s name on it. This got savaged in the Guardian, but it’s growing on me. I think Fred Again.. is some very young cool electronic musician, and working with someone from a different generation seems to have revitalised Eno a bit, as this is one of his more interesting ambient albums from the last few years. Worth a listen.

Film Of The Week – The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry. Having been hoodwinked into reading the book last week as part of a marketing campaign for the film, I thought I should go and see it. The book is really lovely, actually, and the film is possibly even better. A couple of story points don’t quite get translated across successfully, but Jim Broadbent and especially Penelope Wilton’s performances really make the film shine. Wilton is unbelievably good in it. She takes what could be a bit of a nothing part and tears its throat out. Everyone should watch it just for her.


That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, and if you’ve enjoyed the newsletter, please feel free to send it on to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,

Joz xx

PS It’s getting nice out there, don’t forget to smell the roses.


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