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Literature in relation to American paintings in the 1930s

November 5, 2016 29 comments

At the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, there’s currently an exhibition called La peinture américaine des années 1930. (American painting in the 1930s) It displays the trends in painting in America during the Great Depression according to several themes: rural landscapes and way of life, cities and their work environment, social issues and entertainment. It is an exhibition organized with the collaboration of the Chicago Art Institute. It was already presented in Chicago and it will next go to the Royal Academy in London. It is very educational about the times, explaining the economic situation and the different art programs implemented by the federal goverment. While I was watching paintings, some reminded me of books and I couldn’t help thinking that some of them would make fantastic book covers. I’ll start with the iconic American Gothic by Grant Wood that has been borrowed by advertising and other artists. I’ve heard it called the American Joconde.

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

It’s probably one of the most famous American paintings of the time, along with the ones by Edward Hopper. It made me think of Willa Cather because these farmers seem to come right out of the 19th century and to represent the hard working pioneers.

Totally different setting: a harbour, maybe in Saint Louis. This one reminded me of American Transfer by John Dos Passos (1925) because there were parts in the harbour in New York.

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Exploring the social impact of the crisis, some artists protested against the ravages of capitalism and showed the life of the working class. This portrait of Pat Whalen, a Communist activist brought memories of I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) Alice Neel was a Communist herself and she portrayed several activists.

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Back in New York, I immediately thought about The Outing, a short story included in Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) or A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes, even if both were published after the 1930s.

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

It’s hard to talk about literature during the Great Depression without mentioning The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) In the section about rural life, there was this striking painting to express the destruction of land due to severe droughts.

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

In the room about the entertainments of the time, Philip Evergood’s Dance Marathon (1934) would really make a great cover for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1935), a book where a couple enters a dance marathon.

Dance Marathon by Philip Evergood 1934

Philip Evergood pictures the extreme fatigue of the couples who shuffle on the dance floor, the circus around this inhumane entertainment and the acute need of money of the participants if they were willing to enter that kind of contest.

There were about 50 paintings but I only picked up the ones that reminded me of a book. For readers who have the opportunity to go to Paris, I recommend going to the Musée de l’Orangerie, for this exhibition but also for the permanent collection of the museum. It will also be possible to see this exhibition in London at the Royal Academy, it’s entitled America after the fall: Paintings in the 1930s and it will last from February to June 2017.

Last but not least, I bought a book at the museum’s library: La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel and it is an excerpt of the diplomatic correspondence between Paul Claudel and his Minister Aristide Briand when Claudel was ambassador of France in Washington (1927-1933) I’ll write another billet about it as it is a fascinating read after the 2008 crisis and the current presidential election in the USA.

Prostitution in Paris (1850-1910) Prequel of the billet about Memoirs of a cocodette written by herself by Ernest Feydeau.

January 17, 2016 29 comments

I bought Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même by Ernest Feydeau at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris when I attended the exhibition Splendeurs et misères. Images de la prostitution 1850-1910. A cocodette seems to be the female of a cocodes, a young Parisian from the Second Empire (1852-1870) who is only interested in showing off and being elegant. I read this short novel right away but before writing about it, I want to share with you what I learnt at this fascinating exhibition. It will help understanding the context of the Feydeau.

Splendeurs et misère was very informative about prostitution in the French society from 1850 to 1910 and how it influenced painters and writers. There were gradations in prostitution. The “happy few” if I may say, were the cocottes, the highly privileged courtesans like Nana in Zola’s novel. The painting of Blanche d’Antigny, who inspired the character of Nana was displayed.

La femme aux bijoux (Courbet)

La femme aux bijoux (Courbet)

At the time, keeping a cocotte was a proof of wealth and virility for a man. It was a social status. These women were fashionable, rich and extravagant. The papers related their parties and described their clothing.

Second rank were courtesans. Like the prostitutes living in brothels, they were listed and the police kept the records straight and implemented health controls. They had business cards that said for example “Massages hygiéniques. Massages suédois. English spoken”. English spoken? Actually, there were a lot of English aristocrats having fun in Paris at the time. Victorian etiquette wasn’t relaxing back home. Now I’m not so surprised that Odette, in Swann’s Way by Proust, peppers her sentences with English words. She’s a former cocotte and I suppose Proust did it on purpose.

Third rank were prostitutes in brothels. That part was mostly illustrated with paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Femme tirant son bas (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)

Femme tirant son bas (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)

He did series of paintings in famous maisons closes and he was friends with a lot of prostitutes. He painted them in their everyday life. Relaxing, having a bath, chatting, waiting on customers. We also had the chance to see the Prince of Wales’s custom-made love seat.

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It stayed in his favourite Parisian brothel and was designed to accommodate his heavy body and allow threesomes. When you think of the hard time the current Prince of Wales was given for his long term mistress…

And then there were the others, women who had jobs that didn’t pay enough and resorted to prostitution to feed the children. They were linen maids or sales clerks. As linen maids, they had the opportunity to enter houses. (Keep that in mind for next billet) and as sales clerks, they were put on display behind the shop’s window and men had the chance to approach them. Now think about Gissing’s novel, The Odd Women and Monica who works at a shop and becomes Edmund’s wife…The implications of working in a shop ring differently.

The theatre and the opera were also an opportunity for men to meet women and for women to find a protector or at least customers. The bal of the opea was famous for that and even on normal nights, available women were lingering in the stairs and in the hallways to catch a suitor.

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It was explained that dancers of the opera Garnier were fair game for the men who had a subscription at the opera. They had the right to visit the dancers after the shows and hit on them. The dancers were willing to find a protector to leave misery behind. It gives another perspective on Degas’s series of paintings about dancers, no?

Available women waited on the streets or could be seen on the boulevards at nightfall. This is why they are called Belles de nuit (night beauties) in French.

L'attente (Beraud)

L’attente (Beraud)

Sur le boulevard (Louis Valtat)

Sur le boulevard (Louis Valtat)

Gas lamppost revolutionized prostitution as the women were able to better show off their assets. To attract customers, they would lift their dresses a bit to show an ankle or show off their derriere.

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Le lampadère (Jean-Louis Forain)

The other ways to find a prostitute was to go to a café. It was not appropriate for women to stay in a café without a chaperone. So, when a woman was sitting there, drinking alcohol, she sent the message that she was available for paid sex. Like here in Degas’s paintings:

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L’absinthe (Degas)

Femme à la terrasse d'un café (Degas)

Femme à la terrasse d’un café (Degas)

I wonder about Albertine, from In Search of Lost Time. Her freedom had always seemed odd to me. But now, I’m pretty sure she was selling her charms. She moved in with the Narrator and she was spending time in cafés with her girlfriends.

The law regarding selling alcohol was changed during the Second Empire. It resulted in the development of specialized cafés where women made themselves available for paid sex. They called themselves The Bees or other nicknames and recruited waitresses. They were solid competition for the women in brothels who were monitored by the police.

The exhibition made the link between painting and literature, quoting Balzac (Splendeurs et misère des courtisanes), Zola (Nana), Baudelaire, Dumas (La dame aux camélias)

This fascinating exhibitions showed that new inventions like photography and cinema were quickly used for pornography. A “red room” showed the visitors that our century has nothing to teach to the 19thC in that matter.

It also showed the miserable side of prostitution and the ravages of syphilis. There is no testimony from women. All we have is seen through the men’s eyes. I bet it’s not as ugly as it felt for the women.

Honestly, I didn’t know that prostitution had infiltrated society that way. It seems like it was everywhere and a component of it. It was, let’s say, a fact of life. It was extremely informative and it gave me another perspective on the paintings and literature of the time.

Maria, rider on the storm

May 20, 2015 25 comments

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion (1970). French title: Maria avec et sans rien. Translated by Jean Rosenthal.

Preamble: I read this with Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal and after being caught by Didion’s prose and narration in Run River and after reading Max’s excellent review of Play it as it Lays.

So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently. Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells.

Didion_playThe book opens with Maria speaking. She’s in a psychiatric ward and was put there after she killed someone named BZ. She was married to Carter, a film director. Then Helene speaks about visiting her, for BZ’s and Carter’s sake. Then Carter speaks about visiting her, for his own sake.

After these three short chapters, the novella is mostly a third person narrative, all seen from Maria’s point of view. Sometimes, short chapters in italic are told by Maria in the first person, like a voiceover in a film. Play it as it Lays is a succession of scenes that slowly build a puzzle and bring us to see when Maria killed BZ. It also gives us a view of her state-of-mind, of her behavior and of the crowd she spends her time with, mostly people from the film industry.

The story’s background is made of mental health issues, death, sex and the combination of the two, abortion. (We’re in 1970. For my generation the combination of sex and death would be AIDS). Maria is a strange character. She’s an actress who has a relative success in one of Carter’s first movies. She’s unable to work now. I don’t know how to qualify her or to picture her. She’s drifting, riding the storm of life with the help of barbiturates, alcohol and a massive dose of feigned indifference. She has trouble interacting with people. She’s plagued with guilt. A character says she has a very self-destructive personality structure, which sounds the perfect description for me. She’s silent, apparently indifferent, unreachable. She has compulsive behaviors, like when she drives aimlessly the roads of California. She was probably fragile already but her mental health went downhill after she confessed to Carter that she was pregnant with another man’s child. Carter reacted badly and gave her the contact information of a doctor who would perform an abortion. In the USA, abortion was legalized in 1973 (1975 in France). So it means that Maria does something illegal in a frightening place without medical security, without support and without being able to talk about it. And she wanted to keep the child. This episode changes her and her appetite for life.

Maria and Carter’s relationship is complicated. They can’t communicate and Carter picks fight just to get a reaction from Maria, to see if she’s still alive, still interested in life enough to get angry. They are both sleeping with other people and yet have a deep bond.

Maria has common points with Lily and Martha from Run River, written in 1963. She seems like the combination of the two. Carter resembles Everett, Lily’s husband and Martha’s brother. There’s a wall between Maria and Carter just as there is one between Everett and Lily. In both books, the main female character cheats on her husband for a reason the reader doesn’t quite understand. She doesn’t fall in love with someone else. It’s not really just for the sex. It seems more like an activity she engages in out of boredom or maybe to feel connected to someone else.

Maria has mental health issues but I won’t venture into foreign territories and try to qualify her illness. She’s obsessed with snakes and they obviously represent death and sex. Her mother died after she was bitten by a rattlesnake. Snakes are also part of the Californian fauna. They’re sneaky, unpredictable and possibly lethal.

Play it as it Lays left me with a head full of images. Images of roads in California. The complicated knot of highways in Los Angeles, roads through the Mojave Desert, roads in the desert around Las Vegas, roads in the Death Valley. Images of Jim Morrison in the Mojave desert.

Images of paintings by Edward Hopper, just as when I read Run River.

hopper_hotel_room

SHE SAT IN THE MOTEL in the late afternoon light looking out at the dry wash until its striations and shifting grains seemed to her a model of the earth and the moon. 

It also left me with Riders on the Storm by The Doors buzzing in my head because of the lyrics…

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm,

into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown

like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan,

Riders on the storm

and with The End by the Doors and its haunting music with a back sound that reminded me of rattlesnakes and the lyrics mention snakes and highways

There’s danger on the edge of town,

ride the king’s highway.

Weird scenes inside the gold mine;

ride the highway west, baby.

Ride the snake, ride the snake

to the lake, the ancient lake.

The snake is long, seven miles;

ride the snake, he’s old

and his skin is cold

It’s probably normal to have all these images and soundtrack since Play it as it Lays is very cinematographic and might have even been written for the cinema. It was made into a film released in 1972, shortly after the book was published and Didion herself wrote the scenario.

It also left me breathless and frustrated. I didn’t figure out why things happened that way. I never really understood the undercurrent between the characters. It left me hungry for details, background information, reasons why. It reminded me of novels by Marguerite Duras. I felt like spying on the characters and seeing fragments of their lives, enough to see a picture but not enough to understand them. Didion’s visual and concise style enforces that feeling. We have no way to understand Maria. Hell, she doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t act, she reacts, on instinct. Helene says she’s selfish and she certainly appears to be when she forgets to call Carter when one of his films is released or fails to go and see it. To me, she seemed more wrapped in herself than selfish, too ill to do anything else but survive. You need to have your own basics covered to be able to reach out to someone else. Maria doesn’t have that and therefore she’s unable to reach out. And nobody really understands it that way.

Didion may try to tell us that sometimes things happen for no reason, that it’s useless to try to decipher the whys behind everything.

Vienna in Provence

October 24, 2014 14 comments

I usually don’t blog about anything but literature. Today’s a bit different. I’ve been to the Carrières de Lumière in Les Baux-de-Provence, in the South of France. Imagine, you’re in a quarry transformed into a showroom. The quarries are no longer exploited but were used to extract stone to build the nearby village of Les Baux de Provence. The quarry has been covered to create a unique space to project multimedia shows. You’re in the quarry, the walls are about 10 meters high, there’s a ceiling to have the audience in the dark. You wander in the former quarry and images are projected on the stone walls of the quarry.

There’s currently a multimedia show entitled “Klimt and Vienna. A century of gold and colours”. It starts with pictures of Vienna and the art of the time before Klimt and other artists started the Vienna Secession movement. Then you see pictures by Klimt and Schiele. To go further in the century, there are pictures of Hundertwasser’s work.

It’s an incredible experience. We were surrounded by images from floor to ceiling and bathed in a musical soundtrack of the time. It felt like being in the paintings instead of watching them or like passing through the canvas and entering the world of the artist. It’s a fantastic experience and I wanted to share it. It’s totally different from contemplating paintings in a museum. You know how it is, it’s hard to forget your environment, the people walking around you. Here, you’re in a dark space, the sound of other people is drowned in the music and it feels like being in an enchanted artistic world.

I’ve taken pictures with my phone; they’re not great but might help you imagine what it felt like. Have you ever been to that kind of show?

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Hundertwasser (1)

DSC_0827See the people on the photo compared to the size of the image? Look at the floor.

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.

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.

A painting which portrays Charles Swann

December 11, 2012 17 comments

A la Recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust. (In Search of Lost Time)

When I visited the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, I stumbled upon a painting that reminded me of Odette Swann. This time, when I visited the exhibition Les Impressionistes et la mode, I saw the painting Le Cercle de la rue Royale by Tissot.

Tissot_cercle

When I looked at the caption, it listed the men painted there and I saw that Charles Haas was the last one on the right. I thought: He’s the one Proust based Charles Swann upon and I noted down the reference of the painting. Like Haas, Swann was a member of the Cercle de la Rue Royale and of the Jockey Club.

I always thought that scholars had recouped information spread throughout In Search of Lost Time and thus deducted that Charles Haas was the model for Charles Swann. Therefore I was quite surprised when I came home, resumed reading The Captive and read about Swann’s death. Proust indulges into self-congratulation as he muses over the immortality the first volume of In Search of Lost Time will grant to Charles Haas/Swann:

Et pourtant, cher Charles Swann, que j’ai connu quand j’étais encore si jeune et vous près du tombeau, c’est parce que celui que vous deviez considérer comme un petit imbécile a fait de vous le héros d’un de ses romans, qu’on recommence à parler de vous et que peut-être vous vivrez ». Si dans le tableau de Tissot représentant le balcon du Cercle de la rue Royale, où vous êtes entre Galliffet, Edmond de Polignac et Saint-Maurice, on parle tant de vous, c’est parce qu’on voit qu’il y a quelques traits de vous dans le personnage de Swann. And yet, my dear Charles——, whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a little fool has made you the hero of one of his volumes that people are beginning to speak of you again and that your name will perhaps live. If in Tissot’s picture representing the balcony of the Rue Royale club, where you figure with Galliffet, Edmond Polignac and Saint-Maurice, people are always drawing attention to yourself, it is because they know that there are some traces of you in the character of Swann.

He was quite smug, wasn’t he? Or confident in his gift as a writer, which is not the image the Narrator gives about his writing abilites. The reference to the painting by Tissot leaves no doubt: Charles Haas and Charles Swann are one unique person.

More importantly, in this passage, the Narrator is dropping the masks and writes as Marcel Proust and In Search of Lost Time sound like his memoirs. So, look at the picture, the man on the right with a hat is Charles Haas/Swann.

PS: Here is the list of the men portrayed on this painting, from left to right. (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Personnes_cercle_rue_Royale

A little research on Wikipedia teaches you that Edmond de Polignac is supposedly the one who introduced Charles Haas to Marcel Proust. Gaston de Galliffet inspired the Général de Froberville, involved in the Dreyfus Affair. These men were used to spending time at the Comtesse Greffuhle, who inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes.

Elizabeth Siddal and the pre-Raphaelites in Autumn by Philippe Delerm

December 30, 2011 13 comments

Autumn by Philippe Delerm. 1990. Not translated into English, the French original has an English title

Le soir venait comme à regret. Automne. Automne déployé contre le ciel, en branches entrelacées. Automne sur le sol jonché de feuilles, et cette odeur des pommes sous la pluie. Feuilles rouge écarlate sur les murs de Cheyne Walk baignés de vigne vierge. Branches de feuilles gagnant les fenêtres, s’élançant sur le toit. Feuilles tombées, mêlées sur la terre encore chaude aux mains ouvertes mordorées des feuilles de platane, au cuivre finement lancéolé des érables, des châtaigniers, au jaune vif si doucement ourlé des feuilles de chêne les plus minuscules. Tout était feuille, tout était l’automne : la mort du parc si bonne à fouler doucement, l’approche de la mort en beauté finissante. Il marchait comme enivré, les pieds dans la mélancolie bruissante, le regard fatigué noyé par la lumière chaude, rassurante, désespérée. Comme il était bon pour ce soir de se plonger dans le feuillage à chaque instant plus sombre, de boire en vin d’automne la danse d’or du désespoir. The evening was approaching sorrowfully. Autumn. Autumn with its enlaced branches unfurling against the sky. Autumn, covering the ground with leaves, and the scent of apples in the rain. Scarlet leaves all over the walls of Cheyne Walk which were overflowing with wild vine. Branches of leaves creeping over the windows, soaring over the roof. On the earth, still warm, fallen leaves, intermingled with the golden brown and wide open fingers of the sycamore leaves, the delicately striped copper of the maple, the chestnuts, the intense and softly seamed yellow of the tiniest oak leaves. All was leaves, all was autumn: it felt so good to tread softly the death of the park, and to watch the death of extinguished beauty slowly approaching. He was walking, as if drunk, his feet lost in melancholy swooshing, his tired gaze drowning in warm, reassuring and desperate light. How good it was, just for one night, to dive into the foliage that grew in darkness with every moment, to drink the autumnal wine of the golden dance of despair. BIG THANK YOU to Caroline for the translation, that was too difficult for me.

 Autumn starts in 1869 when Dante Gabriel Rossetti has Elizabeth Siddal exhumed for the sake of poetry. Indeed, he threw the only original copy of his poems in her grave when she was buried seven years before. After this first chapter, we go back in time and Philippe Delerm relates the adventure of the P.R.B. (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) and the intertwined destinies of this group of artists. Delerm’s perspective is from the inside. We follow Walter Deverell when he discovers Elizabeth Siddal. We enter Ruskin’s household. We meet Rossetti’s family and home, follow his obsessions and addictions. We hover over Elizabeth Siddal when she’s away from Rossetti. We see John Everett Millais move forward with the former Euphemia Ruskin. We notice William Morris and his furniture and design company. We hardly hear about exhibitions, critics or scandals but we guess there were a lot of them.

Chapters alternate between the description of key moments in the group’s life and letters from one member to the other. Despite rivalries, disagreements and time, they remain bound by an unbreakable Ariadne’s thread. Rossetti is charismatic and obsessed with Dante and his Beatrix. His father, relentless translator of Alighieri cast a spell on his son. He passed on his passion for the Divine Comedy to Dante Gabriel, like a disease. His name itself speaks of angels and hell. His life will be torn between the quest of a pure paradise and frequent visits to an earthly hell of drugs and sex. Elizabeth is an image; she almost gave up her life to be a muse, an icon, reaching eternity in paintings. Melancholy runs in her veins, nurturing her beauty. She becomes someone else, the Beatrix Rossetti is desperately seeking. Ruskin isn’t a likeable personality, domineering when art is concerned, childish in personal matters. The others, Millais in particular, are tempted by domestic happiness.

All these people have a problem with sex and love. Ruskin never slept with his wife and is attracted to a little girl. Rossetti has the eternal saint/whore dilemma; ethereal and perfect love with Elizabeth, sensual love with Fanny, debauch in the filthy areas of London. Millais slowly discovers sex with Euphemia and I was surprised that a man of his age was still a virgin. Christina Rossetti is on the sainthood path, sublimating any physical attraction in her poetry. The Victorian era corseted sex in such a rigid code that it created dysfunctional adults who either feared sex or felt guilty.

When John Everett Millais gives in to domestic happiness with Euphemia, he and Rossetti say his painting loses its edge. And the recurring question came to my mind: do you need to be tortured to be a genius in art? Or do we see artists as tortured because as they see more, feel more, they have more difficulties to cast into the mold that society prepared for them?

Delerm wrote an atmospheric book. Autumn as the death of summer, of youth, of dreams. Autumn as Elizabeth Siddal’s hair. Autumn as the warm colours of the pre-Raphaelite paintings. Autumn as the declining health of Walter Deverell and Lizzie Siddal, as Rossetti’s dying eyesight. Delerm’s novel is full of sensations. His words talk to our five senses and he manages to let you smell the wet rich earth, hear the dead leaves crack under the character’s feet, see the metallic grey of the sky, touch the silken texture of Elizabeth’s hair and taste the perfume of summer flowers. His words are full of cross-sensations. He manages to bring the sensations to life by using words for one sense to the other; I mean words you use for sounds to describe something you see. It’s a symphony of sensations. He has a unique way to describe melancholy, that feeling that gives you shivers in the neck like an autumn drizzle.

I came to this book via an indirect path. I’ve been to the exhibition Beauté, morale et volupté dans l’Angleterre d’Oscar Wilde at the Musée d’Orsay. Oscar Wilde’s name attracted me and anyway I’m interested in anything that can enlighten my reading of Victorian writers. I discovered the aesthetic movement there. The exhibition is fascinating, showing how the PRB’s quest imprinted the society in its everyday life. There were paintings of course but also wallpapers, furniture, porcelain and clothes. A full journey into an art movement. I knew Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings but I’d never heard of the PRB or the other painters or Elizabeth Siddal’s tragic story. I wonder how such a long and strong movement had escaped my radar. I suspect that the average French is like me and that’s why Oscar Wilde’s name was included in the exhibition’s title. As an aside, Caroline reviewed the BBC mini-series about the pre-Raphaelite painters here.

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