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Extreme mid-life crisis and artistic calling

February 26, 2013 22 comments

The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham. 1919. French title: L’Envoûté.

book_club_2Things have been a bit hectic for our book club this month with flus, business trips and heavy workload. So we skipped the February meeting and I’m not able to share with you a discussion about The Moon and Sixpence, which was this month’s choice. I was delighted to read another Maugham since I loved The Trembling of a Leaf and Cakes and Ale.

The Moon and Sixpence is a first-person narration about a famous painter named Charles Strickland. Our narrator is a writer who relates how he met Strickland through his wife who had a literary salon at the end of the 19th century in London. He met the man once at a party organized by Mrs Strickland for his husband and his business associates:

The respectability of the party was portentous. The women were too nice to be well dressed, and too sure of their position to be amusing. The men were solid. There was about all of them an air of well-satisfied prosperity.

He found this broker on the stock exchange boring and didn’t befriend with him. Strickland appeared to be the perfect bourgeois, stable, reliable, perfectly happy in his daily routine and not interested in anything artistic. So, when at nearly forty, he flees to Paris, leaving his wife and children behind and alone in London, Mrs Strickland is flabbergasted. She asks our narrator to go to Paris and try convincing her husband to come home. As long as she thinks he left her for another woman – because for what other reason could he make such a radical change in his life? –she fosters hope to see him return to his former life. To our narrator’s surprise, Strickland left everything behind to become a painter. Talk about a hell of a mid-life crisis. It appears that Strickland had been taking painting lessons for a couple of years and now wanted to follow his heart and be a painter.

A while later, our narrator moves to Paris and is again in contact with Strickland through a friend who is also a painter, Stroeve. The narrator reveals fragments of Strickland’s life in Paris and later in Tahiti as our narrator crosses paths again with the famous painter. Because Strickland did have a gift for painting and did make a breakthrough in painting…after his death.

The Moon and Sixpence has the same kind of structure as Cakes and Ale and adds the Tahiti theme predominant in The Trembling of a Leaf. Cakes and Ale is about a writer and his posterity (allegedly Thomas Hardy) while The Moon and Sixpence explores painting and artistic calling. (Gauguin inspired Maugham)

maugham_moon_sixpenceMore than the story in itself, what’s interesting in The Moon and Sixpence is the questioning about Art and artists. Strickland is an unpleasant man. It’s as if he had consumed all his stock of social niceness during the years he was a married man and worked as a broker. After he decided to drop everything to follow his calling, he stopped yielding to social conventions. So he’s very rude, selfish, taking what he needs without thinking and thanking. He’s a man who shrugged off social polish to come back to “nature”. He only wants to paint, paint, paint. He interacts with others when required and doesn’t take into account their feelings. He doesn’t try to sell his paintings, doesn’t want to surrender to any social rule, any relationship that could get in the way of his painting. He’s possessed and it’s the title of the book in French.

The narrator is appalled by his behavior but also admire his strength and his talent. Strickland was brave enough not to let go of his dream and turn his back to comfort, friends and family. He never went back to England. The narrator has mixed feelings about him: Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.

The underlying question is: Do we forgive any kind of behavior from an art genius for the sake of art? We seem to tolerate actions from artists that we would never tolerate from common people. The beauty they bring to the world appears to be worth their living out of social conventions. I’ll go a bit farther: Do we even expect a gifted artist to be a difficult character? Don’t we expect extravagant gestures, fits of despair and mercurial moods? Maugham made me think about the myth of the artiste maudit. I have no idea of how to translate this concept in English. damned or cursed artist would be the literal translation. I wonder when this concept of the gifted artist living from hand-to-mouth, full of angst and dominated by an urge to create started to emerge. In the Romantic Era with Byron? In France with Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud? In a way, The Moon and Sixpence explores this myth, which is still alive if I think of the book Literary Rogues by Andrew Schaffer that Guy reviewed recently.

Another question raised by this novel is about whom we live for. The narrator also mentions another man, Abraham, who left behind a brilliant future as a hospital surgeon to live abroad in miserable conditions. He dropped everything in an instant, feeling he belonged to this place and not to London, just as Strickland found peace and home in Tahiti. As the narrator discusses Abraham’s choice with the man who had his life since he vacated the prestigious position, this man considers that Abraham lacks character and the narrator disagrees:

Character? I should have thought it needed a good deal of character to throw up a career after half an hour’s meditation, because you saw in another way of living a more intense significance. And it required still more character never to regret the sudden step.

This is why Newland Archer never left New York with the Helen. He was intelligent enough to acknowledge he lacked the character. This is why a lot of us give up dreams and live a quiet life. The narrator admires both Strickland and Abraham for following their instinct and their dreams, for being able to disregard money, comfort and social status to follow their dream. He thinks they might be right:

I wondered if Abraham really had made a hash of life. Is to do what you most want, to live under the conditions that please you, in peace with yourself, to make a hash of life; and is it success to be an eminent surgeon with ten thousand a year and a beautiful wife? I suppose it depends on what meaning you attach to life, the claim which you acknowledge to society, and the claim of the individual.

That’s a good question. The other question is: since you have only one life, why sacrifice it to respect social conventions, to protect your family’s feelings? Why should you give up your dreams or a life according to what suits you for someone else’s sake? Is it selfish or is it making the most of your life?

I don’t have the answer but it leads to another question that the narrator muses over: “Is it possible for any man to disregard others entirely?”

Along with these ruminations come the usual issues around artists and fame. How contemporaries have a hard time recognizing a genius (and I can’t help thinking that the fear of missing the new Van Gogh impacts the prices of contemporary art) and how an artist’s family soaks up their fame and live upon it by procuration. There’s also a belief that beauty crosses the border of intellectual knowledge, that when it is genuine, it touches the philistine as well as the cultured person:

I cannot agree with the painters who claim superciliously that the layman can understand nothing of painting, and that he can best show his appreciation of their works by silence and a cheque-book. It is a grotesque misapprehension which sees in art no more than a craft comprehensible perfectly only to the craftsman: art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand.

The vision of women is the one thing I didn’t like in this novel. How misogynistic. Women aren’t praised here, they are materialist, taming men with domestic comfort, unable of intellectual elevation, enjoying mistreatments. They aren’t muses but balls and chains attached to the artist’s ankle. Mrs Strickland’s portray isn’t favourable to her sex and neither is the depiction of Stroeve’s wife. The civilized woman is awful in this book. Only the Tahitian companion of Strickland has a positive description but she’s submissive and behaves more like a loyal dog than like an equal partner. I frowned when I read judgements like this one:

As lovers, the difference between men and women is that women can love all day long, but men only at times.

Yes, they have nothing else to do since they can’t have a profession of any kind. Who decided to have women at home and only occupied with fascinated things as cooking, tidying, washing and then has the nerve to complain that they are boring?

In my opinion, The Moon and Sixpence is an excellent novel but it’s not as good as Cakes and Ale. Perhaps it’s because I felt more interested in the portray of a writer than in the portray of a painter. Maugham’s style is always exquisite, he handles irony with panache and spreads little bullet sentences everywhere in the book.

“The mystic sees the ineffable, and the psycho-pathologist the unspeakable.”

“Only the poet or the saint can water an asphalt pavement in the confident anticipation that lilies will reward his labour.”

“There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor.“

And there’s this incredible little phrase she’d love it if you’d join our little coffee klatch. that went straight to my heart. In my region, we say “faire café-klatsch” to say you’re spending some time around a coffee and chat. This expression isn’t French but local patois coming from French mixed with German. I didn’t know this existed in English as well. Do you know it?

Guy recently reviewed The Moon and Sixpence here, it’s worth reading. It tackles with other aspects of the book.

Ah yes! Something else: if someone could explain the title of the novel, I’d be grateful.

A quote from The Moon and Sixpence

February 26, 2013 9 comments

A quote from The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham.

But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a more severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate which awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? And the successful books are but the successes of a season. Heaven knows what pains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache suffered, to give some chance reader a few hours’ relaxation or to while away the tedium of a journey. And if I may judge from the reviews, many of these books are well and carefully written; much thought has gone to their composition; to some even has been given the anxious labour of a lifetime. The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thought; and, indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.

This was written in 1919. I wonder how puzzled the narrator would be if he had to face the French Rentrée Littéraire…

Don’t they have coils in Sweden?

February 16, 2013 24 comments

Familjegraven by Katarina Mazetti 2005. French title: Le caveau de famille. Not available in English.

Mazetti_Caveau_FamilleFamily Grave is the sequel of Benny and Shrimp, a book I read almost two years ago. I wouldn’t have bought the sequel as these are usually disappointing unless the initial literary project was to write something in several volumes. Otherwise, once the pleasure of discovering a new set of characters and a new environment is gone, the sequel lacks the freshness of first impressions. In this case, my in-law lent me the book and I read it in two settings. It’s short, entertaining and does not really engage a lot of brain cells. Just look at the categories I chose; this is not a criticism, just a statement.

Mazetti’s characters are Benny, a farmer who struggles to keep his farm afloat by himself and Dérirée, who is a librarian and a city girl. They meet in the cemetery since Benny’s mother’s grave is beside Dérirée’s husband’s grave. They have nothing in common but still fall in love. In the sequel, we follow their improbable love story as they become parents. In this kind of book, with that kind of blurb, it can be anything from extremely corny to extremely funny and witty. Only the skills of the writer can make a difference. Perhaps it is, in a way, more difficult to write excellent fluffy books following well-battered paths than it is to write a book about yourself and your relationship with your mother.

But back to Benny and Désirée. Things weren’t easy between them in the first volume, they don’t improve in the second. It’s still written in the same light and funny tone as Benny and Shrimp and the details are rather realistic. Katarina Mazetti describes with a rather good accuracy the life of parents who both work and have several children under four years old. You live on a binary mode: Parent-Employee-Parent-Employee…Sometimes the man or the woman in you pops up provided that you haven’t fallen asleep before it can even happen. So it’s full of details that non-parents may have a hard time believing but that are still true. The huge piles of laundry, the illness that always occur at the worst moment, the desperate need to find someone to watch them when they’re ill and you need to work, the holidays that aren’t unwinding, the relief when it’s time for their nap or the constant run against to clock to get everything done and respect their need for meals and naps at fixed hours. Don’t get me wrong. There are wonderful moments with small children when you help them acquire new skills and cuddle them. These moments get enough advertising; it’s nice to have someone showing the other side of parenthood.

Mazetti_tomba_famigliaThe only detail I had difficulties to swallow is that Désirée keeps on getting pregnant by accident. Don’t they have coils in Sweden? This is the 21st century and I have a hard time imagining it can happen to such an educated woman as Désirée.

The most interesting aspect of the book is about Benny and his farm. Katarina Mazetti’s husband is a farmer, so she knows how it works. Benny works all the time, doesn’t earn enough to support a family, struggles with EU paperwork and Désirée isn’t very optimistic about the future of agriculture in Sweden. Money is tight and farms disappear. Benny is the last one milking cows in his neighbourhood. His character, although a bit of a caricature, still rings true. I’m not saying that all farmers act like Benny but more that they encounter the same kind of troubles in their work.

This novel doesn’t pretend to be a masterpiece; it isn’t but it’s a good light read if you need one. It came as a nice distraction to Marcel’s claustrophic behaviour to Albertine.

A word about the covers. The French one is rather corny and the red heart is a link to the cover of the first volume. I think that the Italian one is awful and the book doesn’t deserve such a pink syrupy cover. Again, it’s a book marketed for women and we can’t escape pink. And those ridiculous butterflies! It has nothing to do with the book…

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

February 10, 2013 26 comments

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. 1980. French title: La maison dans la dérive.

The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime there was an appalling accident. What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.

Robinson_HousekeepingAren’t you already packing a suitcase, wanting to visit this cheerful place right away? This is where Housekeeping is set. And it is a strange story. It’s a first person narrative and we see the events through Ruthie’s eyes. She relates her childhood and adolescence in the little town of Fingerbone, somewhere in Idaho. Her grand-father disappeared in the lake close to town. He used to work for the railroad and one train left the rails and fell into the lake. The grand-father died in the accident, along with all the people who were on the train.

He was married to Ruthie’s grand-mother who raised her two girls Helen and Sylvie on her own. Their childhood and adolescence was quiet. They both left home almost at the same time rather unexpectedly. They never really came back, even to see their mother. Helen got married and Sylvie as well. Both marriages were failures, the men disappeared. For Helen, her husband had the time to father two daughters before leaving her behind. This is where Ruthie and Lucille come from.

Ruthie relates how her mother drove them to Fingerbone one day and then committed suicide by launching her car in the lake. The two girls stayed with their grand-mother until she died. Then two great-aunts moved in temporarily until they tracked down Sylvie and ask her to come home and take care of the children. Do the housekeeping.

The main part of the book relates how the situation goes downhill from there. Sylvie is described as a transcient, a drifter. The word hobo isn’t used for her but she’s a wanderer and from the very start, Ruthie is afraid that she leaves too.

It’s a very strange book, I have a hard time writing about it. I was uncomfortable, bored, unable to know where the writer wanted to lead us. I had the impression to be kept in a literary fog. I couldn’t figure out at what time it was happening. It could have been anytime from 1850s to now. OK, the fact that Helen drives a car narrows a bit the period and I noticed somewhere near the end that Lucille was wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers. So it was post 1960s. But without these details, I was clueless.

The atmosphere is eerie like in Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier, smothering like in Les Ames grises by Philippe Claudel. The characters spend a lot of time in the woods, near the lake and nature is never inviting. It’s cold, windy, snowy, wet and muddy. Winters are very long. The lake is a sort of character in himself, like an ogre who has swallowed the grand-father and Helen. This lake eats people and Ruthie speaks about these souls wandering in the lake’s surroundings. There were a lot of descriptions of the wilderness around Fingerbone and all this greenery weighed on my reading.

Sylvie is clearly unbalanced, unable to take care of the children, physically and emotionally. She has no schedule, wanders at night, doesn’t cook diner. She accepts that the girls don’t go to school. She doesn’t serve as a guiding light to these two girls. While Lucille is resilient and decides to leave the house and live with a neighbor to save herself, Ruthie stays there and becomes more and more like Sylvie.

Ruthie is an unreliable narrator. She describes her life as if it were normal to live in a house crowded with old newspapers, walls of empty cans and broken windows. The grand-mother’s house is also a character, like a strange house in a fairy-tale. The grand-father built it himself, so it’s not very square. It’s dirty, old and full of memories. Housekeeping is the title of the book but I like the French translation better, La maison dans la dérive. It’s a strange phrase in French. It means the house in the drift. That’s exactly how it is. At the same time, the house is an anchor, the place they come back to, that prevents them from leaving Fingerbone. The house is the link between the past and their present. It hosts the ghosts from the past, the grand-father as a young man, Helen when she was a child and an adolescent, the grand-mother.

I felt ill-at-ease when I read Housekeeping and I didn’t care about the characters. They never touched me. I didn’t like the biblical references; that’s always a put-off for me. Perhaps they were there to enforce the atmosphere of this strange town:

For if Fingerbone was remarkable for anything besides loneliness and murder, it was for religious zeal of the purest and rarest kind. There were, in fact, several churches whose visions of sin and salvation were so ecstatic, and so nearly identical, that the superiority of one church over another could be argued only in terms of good works.

Something was chilling and I wanted to stay away from the book, it’s only 200 pages but it took me ages to read it because I didn’t want to go back to this unhealthy atmosphere after a day at work.

Robinson’s style is very good, very literary and elaborate. The fog and the smothering were in the writing too: not enough dialogues, long paragraphs of descriptions, long sentences with lots of commas, which is strange for an English text. The pages were stifling to look at, without the visual air brought by paragraphs and Ruthie’s long monologue seemed endless and trapped me.

I knew the bridge well. It began above the shore, some thirty feet from the edge of the water. I knew the look of its rusted bolts and tarred pilings. The structure was crude, seen from close up, though from any distance its length and the vastness of the lake made it seem fragile and attenuated. Now, in the moonlight, it loomed above us and was very black, as black as charred wood. Of course, among all these pilings and girders the waves slipped and slapped and trickled, insistent, intimate, insinuating, proprietary as rodents in a dark house.

Strange style, isn’t it? I wonder if she always writes like this or if it’s special for this story.

I should have felt something for Ruthie and Lucille, losing their beloved ones like this. It’s so much pain to take. And that’s one of the aspects of the book. The characters try to deal with the successive losses in their lives, a mother, a sister, a grand-mother. The ghosts from the past hover over them, they don’t manage to move on and they feel this presence all the time. At least Sylvie and Ruthie do.

The whole book was that uncanny and that kind of weird doesn’t agree with me. This is one of the two books Guy chose for Humbook exchange event last Christmas. I’d never hear of this writer before. I’m glad I read it, but sorry Guy, I can’t say I liked it. Has anyone read it? I’d like to hear someone else’s opinion since I really found it chilling. Creepy.

I finished reading La Prisonnière, eventually

February 1, 2013 16 comments

La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust. 1929 English title: The Captive

I ended my previous post about The Captive with the following paragraph:

Chapter 2 is entitled: Les Verdurin se brouillent avec M. de Charlus. (The Verdurins quarrel with M. de Charlus). Relief. He’s socializing again and we’ll get some fresh air.

Well, socializing doesn’t last long, so relief was short-lived. Sure, Marcel describes with shining details how M. de Charlus organized a music evening in the honour of Morel at the Verdurins’ and how he managed to mortally vex Madame Verdurin. The man invited the high society to his party at her place and never introduced her to his elite crowd. (Mme de Guermantes, Princesse de Guermantes…) She felt so humiliated by his behaviour that she decided to guillotine him from her Salon and cut him off Morel at the same time. The description of her way of trapping him and going for the kill is masterly crafted. It reminded me of the worst sharks in the politics of big corporations. But that part didn’t last long enough.

The rest of the volume is still devoted to Marcel’s unhealthy behaviour and twisted relationship with Albertine. His games lead them to break-up, which isn’t a spoiler since the next volume is called Albertine disparue (Albertine Gone). He’s obsessed by a question: is Albertine a lesbian? Is she acquainted with lesbians? While he casually speaks about M. de Charlus sexual orientation and his relationship with Morel, he is truly horrified by the idea that Albertine could be a lesbian. Most of what he calls love holds by his imagined mission to save Albertine from lesbian encounters. Speak of a knight in shining armor and what a sick basis for a relationship. Personally, I don’t understand why he makes such a difference between gays and lesbians. Knowing that Proust was a homosexual, being so against lesbians is as odd to me as black men being racist. When you’re yourself the target of racism or homophobia, how can you behave the same way toward other people? That question lingers in my head and I can’t grasp why the Narrator is so shocked by the idea of lesbian relationships.

The book also echoed strangely with the current parliamentary session in France. You’re probably not aware of this, but our députés are currently discussing a law that will legalize marriage for homosexuals. We have had pretty nasty comments and demonstrations from conservative and catholic militants. A pro-law député received a threat in the form of a mail full of excrement. This still happens in 2013. It was just a loud reminder that the door to the worse is always ajar and that contemptible behaviours just wait for an opportunity to spring free. While I listened to the news with consternation and followed a bit of the debates between French bloggers on Twitter, I couldn’t help wondering “Which side would Marcel Proust take these days?” If I read La Prisonnière very literally, I wouldn’t be too optimistic and think he would be against this law. But then, I can’t forget that it was written in the 1920s and that if he were alive now, his thinking would have kept up with his time. The man who supported Dreyfus from the start wouldn’t stick with the stinking conservatives right now, would he?

Expo_ProustAnd with this my minds leaps to my latest Proustian moment, when I attended the exhibition Du côté de chez Swann. Jacques-Emile Blanche. Un Salon à la Belle Epoque. For a glimpse at the exhibition, click here. Jacques-Emile Blanche is the painter who did Proust’s portrait you can see on the exhibition poster. This is probably the most famous portrait of this literary genius. They said at the exhibition that he loved this painting and moved it around with him every place he lived. Jacques-Emile Blanche is a social painter of the time. He is well introduced in the fashionable artistic salons of his time. His father was Maupassant’s physician and himself was a close friend to Proust. Well, they weren’t on speaking terms for 15 years because of the Dreyfus Affair. (Proust was Dreyfusard and Blanche anti-Dreyfusard). Blanche also painted Marguerite Saint-Marceaux, who became Madame Verdurin, Méry Laurent, who inspired Odette de Crécy (and Nana by Zola), Robert de Montesquiou who inspired M. de Charlus. There were also paintings of the Halévy family who are partly portrayed in the Guermantes and paintings of the Baignères who also inspired the Swanns. So the Swanns are made up with Charles Haas, Méry Laurent and the Baignères. I enjoyed the visit very much. Blanche was always a socialite and later befriended with Cocteau and Gide. I have a book entitled La vie élégante by Anne Martin-Fugier that retraces the history of salons from 1815 to the Belle Epoque. It’s on the TBR, I may read it after I finish Is That a Fish in Your Ear? which is a bit challenging to read in English for a French with no academic background in the field of translation, language and other related theories.

Marguerite Saint-Marceaux painting by Jacques Emile Blanche

Marguerite Saint-Marceaux painted by Jacques Emile Blanche

Robert de Montesquiou painted by Jacques Emile Blanche

Robert de Montesquiou painted by Jacques Emile Blanche

But back to Proust. I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading Albertine disparue because I know it’s a difficult volume too. The reward is really in Le Temps retrouvé which is an absolute masterpiece. I guess I’ll have to soldier on and think about this wonderful last volume.

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