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Sabina as an Artist (Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

25 Jan

“And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it Behind the Scenes. Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract. After pausing for a moment, she added, On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.

Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, written in 1982 and published in 1984, is one of my favourite novels, as many of you probably know by now because I have written about it before. I love the simplicity with which this novel, and other Kundera’s novels, are written. Kundera never writes to fill the paper with words, he never wastes time on unnecessary descriptions and digressions, every sentence is carefully weighed, simple but philosophical and thought-pondering. He never bores the reader like some writers *cough* Balzac *cough* do. He gets to the point and I appreciate it.

The novel is set against the political events of 1968 and it revolves around the lives of four main characters; Tomáš, a surgeon, an intellectual and a womaniser; Tereza, a shy and gentle provincial girl who falls in love with Tomáš and comes to live with him in Prague and marries him, then Sabina; Tomáš’s lover and his best friend who is a painter and is in a self-declared war on kitsch, and Franz, an idealistic, kind yet weak professor from Geneva and Sabina’s lover. Kundera always uses his characters to explore ideas and philosophies so his characters are not just characters. I’ve always had a soft spot for Sabina because she is very free-spirited and because she is a painter, and she also represents the ‘unbearable’ lightness of being from the title, as opposed to Tereza’s view of life as ‘heavy’ burden. Tomáš and Sabina both represent the lightness of life because they take everything as it comes, they are like balloons in the air, flying freely wherever wind takes them, and Tereza is someone who pulls Tomáš down to reality with her heaviness. Tereza is initially jealous of Sabina, for obvious reasons, but eventually they befriend and on one ocassion Tomáš brings Tereza to Sabina’s studio and Sabina tells us something about her art.

As I mentioned above, the novel is set in the sixties and at the time when Sabina was a student the artistic and cultural climate was strict. We know this from real life examples, the life of the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, or from literary examples; Kundera’s first novel “The Joke”, published in 1967 but set in the 1950s, where we see how a simple joke against the regime can mean a life in prison or at least ostracism from society for the individual. If Sabina had painted as freely as she wanted perhaps she would have been expelled from university, but these restrictions only served to inspire her creatively and in her works, which of course we don’t see because it is a novel although I wonder what they might look like in Kundera’s mind, she finds ways to beat the system from within. The space in her paintings always shows two worlds, realism and magic meet and live alongside one another on Sabina’s cavases.

Jeanne Hebuterne, Self-Portrait, 1918

This dualism always reminds me of circus or theatre stage, at once vibrant and melancholy, and that is why I chose the picture of red curtains on the stage because they show this divison well; the red velvet curtains separate the real world of the audience from the magical, fanciful world of the stage. Here is what the novel says:

Sabina invited Tereza to her studio, and at last she saw the spacious room andits centerpiece: the large, square, platform-like bed.

I feel awful that you’ve never been here before, said Sabina, as she showed herthe pictures leaning against the wall. She even pulled out an old canvas, of asteelworks under construction, which she had done during her school days, aperiod when the strictest realism had been required of all students (art thatwas not realistic was said to sap the foundations of socialism). In the spiritof the wager of the times, she had tried to be stricter than her teachers andhad painted in a style concealing the brush strokes and closely resembling colorphotography.

Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with abuilding site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it Behind the Scenes. Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract. After pausing for a moment, she added, On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.

(Sabina and Tereza, two women in Tomáš’s life, stills from the film from 1988 which Kundera disliked intensely.)

Tereza listened to her with the remarkable concentration that few professors ever see on the face of a student and began to perceive that all Sabina’s paintings, past and present, did indeed treat the same idea, that they all featured the confluence of two themes, two worlds, that they were all double exposures, so to speak. A landscape showing an old-fashioned table lamp shiningthrough it. An idyllic still life of apples, nuts, and a tiny, candle-lit Christmas tree showing a hand ripping through the canvas.

She felt a rush of admiration for Sabina, and because Sabina treated her as afriend it was an admiration free of fear and suspicion and quickly turned into friendship. She nearly forgot she had come to take photographs. Sabina had to remind her. Tereza finally looked away from the paintings only to see the bed set in the middle of the room like a platform.

You’ve been reading some old letters, You smile and you think how much you’ve changed

29 Dec

The end of the year approaching, my thoughts naturally tend towards reflection. Bouts of a bittersweet wistfulness overwhelm me often these nights. So many different feelings mix and mingle in my soul, to quote Morrissey, “I’m not happy and I’m not sad”. Night after night, when everyone is asleep, I found myself alone in the quiet stillness of the night, flipping through the pages of my many diaries written throughout the years. I don’t even know why I have the habit of doing it, for it only leaves me shattered and in tears, but at times there shines a smile on my face and this song, not originally written but covered by the Welsh band the Manic Street Preachers comes to mind. I love how the video for the song captures the highlights of the band’s early years, especially moments with Richey who looks just stunning with his eyeliner and cool hairdo. I really love how the song combines both sentiments; the looking back at the past and all the wonderful moments that no money in the world could bring back, but also stating ‘this is the day your life will surely change’ so it’s looking cheerfully into the future and what goods things it might bring. It’s almost like the Roman God Janus who represents things such as duality, gateways, passageways, transitions, endings, beginnings, and whose face looks both ways; into the past and into the future. To be able to simply appreciate the beautiful moments of the past days without the ache of yearning in your heart, now that would be a true gift.

William Turner, Moonlight, 1841

You didn’t wake up this morning
’cause you didn’t go to bed
You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red

The calendar on your wall is ticking the days off
You’ve been reading some old letters
You smile and you think how much you’ve changed
And all the money in the world
Couldn’t bring back those days


You pull back the curtains
And the sun burns into your eyes
You watch a plane flying
Across a clear blue sky

This is the day, your life will surely change
This is the day when things fall into place

You could’ve done anything if you’d wanted
And all your friends and family think that you’re lucky
But the side of you they’ll never see
Is when you’re left alone with the memories
That hold your life together, together like glue


You pull back the curtains
And the sun burns into your eyes
You watch a plane flying
Across a clear blue sky
This is the day, your life will surely change
This is the day when things fall into place
This is the day, your life will surely change
This is the day when things fall into place
This is the day
This is the day

Edvard Munch’s Kiss By the Window, Asa Heshel and Hadassah (The Family Moskat)

27 Dec

“I longed for you very much.”
The girl quivered. There was a movement in her throat, as though she were swallowing something.
“I too,” she answered. “From the beginning.”

Edvard Munch, Kiss by the window, 1892

“If only (…) the twilight last forever, and the two of them, he and Hadassah, to stand there at the window, close to each other, for eternity!

And now for the final post of my The Family Moskat triptych; the scene in the novel where Hadassah visits Asa in his room and it is a very special moment in which they both admit their longing for one another, and the snow is falling and the darkness of an early winter night is descending. “The Family Moskat” is a novel written by Isaac Bashevis Singer published in 1950 and it falls the lives of the members of the Warsaw Moskat family starting from just before the First World War up until the horrors of the Second World War. The first post of this little series is about Edward Hopper’s painting “The Evening Wind” and Hadassah’s sleepless night and the second one is about Asa Heshel’s thoughts when he is alone in his room. This third and last post, at least for now, is the crown of the other two posts because it combines both Asa and Hadassah in a single scene. Asa had not visited Hadassah as he had promised and so Hadassah decides to visit him, which was quite a bold move for a girl of her age at the time. The passage from the novel goes:

You’re too pessimistic. I know, because I’m very melancholy too. Everyone is against me-my grandfather, Papa, even mamma.”
“What do they want of you?”
“You know. But I can’t.”
She started to say something else, but suddenly stopped. She walked to the window. Asa Heshel went after her and stood beside her. There was a twilight blueness outside. The snow fell slowly, broodingly. Lights gleamed from the opposite windows. There was a faint rumble of noise, which sounded at one moment like the sighing of the wind and again like the rustling of the forest. Asa Heshel held his breath and let his eyelids close. If only the sun were to stand still in the skies, as it had stood still for Joshua, and the twilight last forever, and the two of them, he and Hadassah, to stand there at the window, close to each other, for eternity!
He glanced toward her and met her own eyes turned toward him. Her features were hidden in the dimness. Her eyes. deep in pools of shadow, were opened wide. It seemed to Asa Heshel that he had experienced all this before. He heard himself say:
“I longed for you very much.”
The girl quivered. There was a movement in her throat, as though she were swallowing something.
“I too,” she answered. “From the beginning.

Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones (Two People), 1895

The reason that Edvard Munch’s painting “The Kiss by the Window” came to my mind is because of its atmosphere. There is a sense of a foreboding doom, not just for Jews in Warsaw in the novel, but for Hadassah and Asa in the novel because Asa is an essentially heartless nihilist who only cares for his own needs and is ultimately a selfish person uncapable of true love. But he awoke tender feelings in Hadassah, the kind that she had never felt before, and the first step of the path of heartbrokenness is paved.There is always something foreboding about Munch’s art, especially in his paintings of lovers. They never express the pure loveliness that love can bring, but rather tackle the darker sides of love. The painting is painted in nocturnal blue shades which instantly makes it atmospheric. Two lovers are standing by the window and are merged in a kiss, merged indeed because their grimace-like faces are melting one into another, but not in that typical romantic notion of being “as one”, but in a much gloomier way which hints at more disturbing things. Lovers merging and becoming one may carry connotations of loosing oneself, disappearing, loosing one’s identity. In Asa’s case, he is a good representation of this fear and throughout the novel he always kept himself to himself in a way that would prevent him from truly connecting with another, and it is quite sad. From Munch’s painting “The Kiss by the Window” to his painting “The Lonely Ones (Two People)”; this is the love path of Asa and Hadassah and upon reading the novel again I find myself mourning over Hadassah’s choices, her devotion and adoration, all for Asa who was most unworthy of it all.

Asa Heshel (The Family Moskat): And if time did not exist, Then what was the sense of love?

26 Dec

“Time makes refuse of all things. No philosophy could alter that. He stretched himself out on the bed and closed his eyes. Hadassah would grow old, too. She would die and they would carry her corpse in the funeral procession along the Gensha to the cemetery. And if time did not exist, then she was a corpse already. Then what was the sense of love? ‘Why should he yearn for her?”

Willem Drost, Standing Young Man at the Window in his Study Reading, known as ‘The Student’, 1653

This post is the second part of the intended ‘triptych’ about Hadassah and Asa Heshel from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel “The Family Moskat”, published in 1950. I already wrote a post about Hadassah’s sleepless night and Hopper’s etching “The Evening Wind” which you can read here. But today let us sink into the atmosphere of a winter afternoon in Warsaw, just before the beginning of the First World War. A young man, Asa Heshel, is lying on the bed in his room. He had come to Warsaw from his little village in order to study and achieve greatness, but is feeling disillusioned with it all, and his thoughts keep returning to something outside of his field of study, a girl he had just met: Hadassah. He is awaiting her visit, but she is not coming… Snow is starting to fall:

He started up in bed. What was happening to him? Why was he wasting his time in idle fantasies? He had come to Warsaw to study, not to moon about love. Ah, how he envied those ancient philosophers, the Stoics, whose determination no amount of suffering could disturb; or the Epicureans, who, even when their house was in flames, ate their bread and drank their wine! But he would never be able to achieve such heights. His emotions were constantly returning to plague him. All he could do was think about Hadassah, her room, her books, her father and mother, even about Shifra, the maid. If only he knew whether she ever thought about him! Or had she forgotten him altogether? He would make an attempt to telephone her-or maybe he would write her a letter. He got off the bed, turned on the lamp, and sat down to write to Hadassah. After the first few lines he dropped the pen. What was the sense of it? He would plead with no one; he would sooner die. When he fell asleep, the gray dawn already showed through the window. He got up late, his head aching. He dressed and went out to the food store to buy a couple of rolls and some cheese and then went back to his room. He leafed through a geography, a Russian grammar, a world history. His eye caught a sentence about Charlemagne, founder of the Holy Homan Empire. The author described Charlemagne as a great man, defender of the Church, a reformer. Asa Heshel shook his head. “The crueler the tyrant, the greater the world’s praise,” he said to himself. “Mankind loves the murderer.”

He tried to clear his mind and go on with his reading. But his thoughts would not be dismissed. What sort of world was this, where the order of things was continual murdering, looting, and persecution and where at the same time the air was filled with phrases about justice, freedom, love? And what was he doing? Poring over children’s primers, hoping that some day, maybe in ten years, he would manage to earn a diploma. Is this what had become of his youthful dreams? What was he but an inconsequential nobody, with inconsequential and futile notions? He got up and walked over to the window. He took the nickel-covered watch from his vest pocket; it was half past three, but the winter dusk was already beginning to fall. There was a deep quiet in the courtyard that the window overlooked. A thin snow fell from the rectangle of sky he could see above the surrounding roofs. A crow had perched atop a weathervane on the opposite rooftop; against the pale white sky it took on a bluish color. It seemed to be peering into the vast distances of another world. At the roof’s edge, along its gutter, a cat carefully paced.

Down below in the courtyard a beggar woman bent over a box, a sack on her shoulders, poking with a hook among the refuse. She pulled out a couple of rags and stuffed them into the sack. She lifted a shrunken, worn face toward the upper windows and sang out in a thin voice: “I buy bones, I buy rags. Bones, bones.” Asa Heshel leaned his forehead against the pane. Once, he thought, she too was young, and the ox whose bones she now sought to buy was a calf leaping about the meadows. Time makes refuse of all things. No philosophy could alter that. He stretched himself out on the bed and closed his eyes. Hadassah would grow old, too. She would die and they would carry her corpse in the funeral procession along the Gensha to the cemetery. And if time did not exist, then she was a corpse already. Then what was the sense of love? ‘Why should he yearn for her? Why should it grieve him that she was to be the bride of Fishel? He must acquire the indifference of the Hindu yogis. Enter Nirvana while he was yet alive.

He fell into a half doze. The sharp ringing of the outside doorbell woke him. …”

Edward Hopper’s The Evening Wind and Hadassah’s Sleepless Night (The Family Moskat)

22 Dec

The years had gone by like a dream.

Edward Hopper, The Evening Wind, 1921, etching

I am usually not a great fan of etchings because I love colour, but this etching by Edward Hopper called “The Evening Wind” was particularly captivating to me. I had been wanting to write about it for some time now, but the timing never felt right, the words never seemed right… And now, reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel “The Family Moskat” for the second time, in these grey winter mornings and candlelit winter evenings, the image of a naked woman in her bedroom, in the black and white form of an etching, instantly came to my mind upon reading the passage of the novel which I will share further on in the post. The etching is a portrait of a human figure in isolation, as is typical for Edward Hopper’s work. A naked woman is seen kneeling on her bed and looking towards the open window. The evening wind coming from the window is indicated by the movement of the curtains. It is a simple scene but striking visually and really atmospheric. There is a beautiful play of darkness and light in the scene. The woman is naked, but her face is hidden by her long hair. What is she looking at? And which wind opened the window, was it really the evening wind, or was it the breath of a long-lost lover, her beloved ghost still haunting her? Or was it the wind of nostalgia, bringing in a fragrance of memories and things long-lost. She seems startled as well as frozen in the moment; the wind startled her at first but then made her stop and ponder. The woman is wistful and alone, alone save for that evening wind, and this made me think of Hadassah.

The novel, published in 1950, follows the lives of the members of the Jewish Moskat family and others associated with it, in Warshaw, in the first half of the twentieth century. One of the main characters is Hadassah, the granddaughter of a wealthy family patriarch Meshulam Moskat, who is portrayed as a very shy and dreamy teenage girl in the beginning of the novel – quiet on the outside but passionate on the inside, but over time, through disappointments and love betrayals, Hadassah turns inwards and becomes as quiet and wistful as the forest that she lives nearby. “Still waters run deep” is something that comes to mind when I think of Hadassah, and someone had used that term to describe me one time. Hadassah is my favourite female character in the novel. She quickly falls in love with Asa Heshel, a disillusioned Jew who read Spinoza’s writings a bit too much. At first he comes off as a misunderstood, moody loner but very soon reveals a lack of character and horrible moral standards. I dispise him immensely, especially because of the way he treated Hadassah.

Edward Hopper, Study for Evening Wind, 1921, fabricated chalk on paper

In this passage of the novel, Hadassah is awoken from her slumber by the winter wind beating against the windows. Feeling wistful and nostalgic, she opens her old diary and starts flipping the pages (have I not been there myself…). She is not physically naked in this passage in the novel, but she is naked in spirit, in sorts, because Singer truly offers us a rare glimpse into the world of a dreamy young girl. The way her room, her diary, her thoughts and the conversation she is having with her mother about marriage are described, all feel so familar to me, as if my own. Pressed flower petals, yellowish diary pages, grammar books, dress laid over a chair, strange new feelings arising in your soul, unknown and unexplored territories of love, “the years have gone by like a dream”; this speaks to me in a language I can hear, to paraphrase the Smashing Pumpkins’ song “Thirty-Three”;

On that same night Hadassah, too, was sleepless. The wind, blowing against the window, had awakened her, and from that moment she had not been able to close an eye. She sat up in bed, switched on the electric lamp, and looked about the room. The goldfish in the aquarium were motionless, resting quietly along the bottom of the bowl, among the colored stones and tufts of moss. On a chair lay her dress, her petticoat, and her jacket. Her shoes stood on top of the table-although she did not remember having put them there. Her stockings lay on the floor. She put both hands up to her head. Had it really happened? Could it be that she had fallen in love? And with this provincial youth in his Chassidic gaberdine? What if her father knew? And her mother and Uncle Abram? And Klonya! But what would happen now? Her grandfather had already made preliminary arrangements with Fishel. She was as good as betrothed.

Beyond this Hadassah’s thoughts could not go. She got out of bed, stepped into her slippers, and went over to the table. From the drawer she took out her diary and began to turn the pages. The brown covers of the book were gold-stamped, the edges were stained yellow. Between the pages a few flowers were pressed, and leaves whose green had faded, leaving only the brittle veined skeletons. The margins of the pages were thick with scrawls of roses, clusters of grapes, adders, tiny, fanciful figures, hairy and horned, with fishes’ fins and webbed feet. There was a bewildering variety of designs-circles, dots, oblongs, keyswhose secret meaning only Hadassah knew. She had started the diary when she was no more than a child, in the third class at school,in her child’s handwriting, and with a child’s grammatical errors. Now she was grown. The years had gone by like a dream.

She turned the pages and read, skipping from page to page. Some of the entries seemed to her strangely mature, beyond her age when she had written them, others naive and silly. But every page told of suffering and yearning. What sorrows she had known! How many affronts she had suffered-from her teachers, her classmates, her cousins! Only her mother and her Uncle Abram were mentioned with affection. On one page there was the entry: “What is the purpose of my life? I am always lonely and no one understands me. If I don’t overcome my empty pride I may just as well die. Dear God, teach me humility.” On another page, under the words of a song that Klonya had written down for her, there was: “Will he come one day, my destined one? What will he look like? I do not know him and he does not know me; I do not exist for him. But fate will bring him to my door. Or maybe he was never born. Maybe it is my fate to be alone until the end.” Below the entry she had drawn three tiny fishes. ‘What they were supposed to mean she had now forgotten. She pulled a chair up to the table, sat down, dipped a pen in the inkwell, and put the diary in front of her. Suddenly she heard footsteps outside the door.

Quickly she swung herself onto the bed and pulled the cover over her. The door opened and her mother came in, wearing a red kimono. There was a yellow scarf around her head; her graying hair showed around the edges.

“Hadassah, are you asleep? Why is the light on?”

The girl opened her eyes. “I couldn’t sleep. I was trying to read a book.”

“I couldn’t sleep either. The noise of the wind-and my worries. And your father has a new accomplishment; he snores.”

“Papa always snored. (…) Mamma, come into bed with me.”

“What for? It’s too small. Anyway, you kick, like a pony.”

“I won’t kick.”

“No, I’d better sit down. My bones ache from lying. Listen, Hadassah, I have to have a serious talk with you. You know, my child, how I love you. There’s nothing in the world I have besides you. Your father-may no ill befall him-is a selfish man.”

“Please stop saying things about Papa.”

“I have nothing against him. He is what he is. He lives for himself, like an animal. I’m used to it. But you, I want to see you happy. I want to see you have the happiness that I didn’t have.”

“Mamma, what is it all about?”

“I was never one to believe in forcing a girl into marriage. I’ve seen enough of what comes of such things. But just the same you’re taking the wrong road, my child. In the first place, Fishel is a decent youth-sensible, a good businessman. You don’t find men like him every day. … ”

“Mamma, you may as well forget it. I won’t marry him.”

(…) She went out and closed the door behind her. The moment she was gone, Hadassah flung herself out of bed. She went to the table, picked up the diary, thought for a moment, and then put it away in the drawer. She turned out the light and stood quietly in the darkness. Through the window she could see a heavy snow falling, the wind driving the flakes against the window pane.”

Tennessee Williams: We have not long to love, A night. A day….

19 Nov

A poem that’s been on my mind these days…

Lovers, c 1850

We Have Not Long To Love

We have not long to love.
Light does not stay.
The tender things are those
we fold away.
Coarse fabrics are the ones
for common wear.
In silence I have watched you
comb your hair.
Intimate the silence,
dim and warm.
I could but did not, reach
to touch your arm.
I could, but do not, break
that which is still.
(Almost the faintest whisper
would be shrill.)
So moments pass as though
they wished to stay.
We have not long to love.
A night. A day….

Illustration for Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin by Lidia Timoshenko, 1878

Depeche Mode and Caspar David Friedrich: Pleasures Remain So Does the Pain, Words are Meaningless and Forgettable

9 Oct

Autumn is a time for wistfulness, melancholy and introspection, and also a time for one of my favourite painters Caspar David Friedrich whose Romantic landscapes perfectly fit this autumnal mood.

Caspar David Friedrich, Memories of the Giant Mountains, 1835

These days I was listening to Depeche Mode and I especially enjoyed the song “Enjoy the Silence” which is probably their most recognisable song anyway. I also enjoyed watching the video, directed by Anton Corbijn, where the singer Dave Gaham is dressed as a king and is seen walking around through fields, meadows, beaches and mountains; all the landscapes which irresistibly bring to mind the moody landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. The specific places in the video are the Scottish Highlands, the Algarve coast in Portugal and the Swiss Alps which beautifully showcases the beauties and diverities of European landscapes. All of these places in nature; forests, beaches, snow-capped mountains, can easily be found not only in paintings of Friedrich but also in paintings of other Romantic painters. Corbijn’s concept behind the video was that the King (Dave Gahan) represented “a man with everything in the world, just looking for a quiet place to sit; a king of no kingdom.” I think the video is a good representation of that.

Whilst gazing at the video, I suddenly remembered something that my friend had said. Years ago he had sent me the video to the song “Enjoy the Silence” and pointed at the similarity between the video’s aesthetic and the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. I hadn’t seen the video before he had sent it to me because I was mostly listening to Depeche Mode from my mother’s casettes, so this was something very interesting to me. These days my thoughts again turned to Depeche Mode and Friedrich and finally I felt it was the right time to tackle the topic because, as you know, I am always fond of discovering aesthetic parallels between art and rock music and poetry. I had done so previously by connecting the cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Crocodiles” (1980) and “Heaven Up Here” (1981) to Friedrich’s landscapes. I am writing this post with the memories of my friend who, although estranged from me now, will always have a place in my heart. And, interestingly, Corbijn also directed many music videos of Echo and the Bunnymen too.

Scenes from the “Enjoy the Silence” video.

In some scenes of the video, Gahan is seen as a solitary figure against the vast landscape; a transient figure passing through the ever-lasting landscapes of beauty. In some scenes he is sitting and turning his back to us, which is again something we see often in Friedrich’s art, for example in his famous painting “Moonrise Over the Sea” (1822). In the scenes filmed at the beach in Portugal the sea waves are crushing onto the sandy shore and Gahan is seen looking out at the sunset over the sea, everything painted in dusky pink and purple shades, and this romantic imagery is also seen in many of Friedrich’s beach scenes. In one scene Gahan is walking across a landscape where the tree is the only other thing in the scene and there is a tight line separating the land from the vastness of the sky. This, for example, made me think of Friedrich’s painting “Monk by the Sea” (1808-1810). I also incorporated the lyrics of the song into this post because I like them, I think they are wise and profound and they fit the mood of loneliness and isolation that Friedrich’s landscapes have.

Words like violenceBreak the silenceCome crashing inInto my little worldPainful to mePierce right through meCan’t you understand?Oh, my little girl
Caspar David Friedrich, Evening, 1821
Caspar David Friedrich, Seashore by Moonlight, 1835-36
All I ever wantedAll I ever neededIs here in my armsWords are very unnecessaryThey can only do harm
Caspar David Friedrich, Riesengebirge, 1830-35
Scenes from the “Enjoy the Silence” video.
Caspar David Friedrich, Sunset (Brothers) or Evening landscape with two men, 1830-35
Vows are spokenTo be brokenFeelings are intenseWords are trivialPleasures remainSo does the painWords are meaninglessAnd forgettable
Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808-10
Scenes from the “Enjoy the Silence” video.

Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” – A Life of Seclusion and Imagination

16 Aug

“My Name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom… Everyone else in my family is dead.”

(Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle)

I recently got my hands on this little mystery novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by the American writer Shirley Jackson. It was originally published in 1962, just three years prior to Jackson’s death. The title of the novel definitely intrigued me and when I opened the first page I was lured enough to continue reading it. I am perplexed at just how simple the style and form of the novel are, and yet how mysterious and strange the story itself is. The way Jackson writes makes writing seem effortless and easy.

The novel tells a story about two sisters who live isolated and alone in their castle at the edge of a small village in Vermont. The sisters, a twenty-eight year old Constance and an eighteen year old Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, live with their uncle Julian and their cat Jonas. The villagers hate the family because of the tragedy that had happened six years before the novel reacts; the whole family, apart from Merricat and Constance, was poisoned by means of the arsenic-laced sugar on their blueberries after supper. Only the uncle Julian survived; Merricat was sent to her room that night as a punishment, and Constance was the only one who didn’t put sugar on her blueberries. Constance was blamed for the poisoning, but nothing could be proved.

When the novel begins, Merricat is going out to village to get books from the library and fresh groceries since Constance is an agoraphobic and doesn’t leave the garden of their castle. Merricat and Constance live their peaceful, isolated life together happily. The only thing that disrupts this peace is the arrival of the intruder, their cousin Charles whose motives are not sincere, for he is only after their inheritance. Merricat can intuitively sence the arrival of change, as personified in the character of Charles: A CHANGE WAS COMING, AND NOBODY KNEW IT BUT ME. Constance suspected, perhaps; I noticed that she stood occasionally in her garden and looked not down at the plants she was tending, and not back at our house, but outward, toward the trees which hid the fence, and sometimes she looked long and curiously down the length of the driveway, as though wondering how it would feel to walk along it to the gates. I watched her. On Saturday morning, after Helen Clarke had come to tea, Constance looked at the driveway three times.”

Castle Hill Ruggle, Ohio. Built in 1878.

His visit ends in a house fire and a ransacking of the castle by a deranged group of villagers. At the end of the novel, Merricat admits that she is the one who poisoned the family and Constance says that she knew that all along and they agree not to talk about it ever again. I love how the strange is the normal in their home. Constance is completely unphased by Merricat’s strange habits or behavior, and she never shows any rash emotions such as anger, snapiness, impatience, no, she is always calm, composed and sweet-mannered, like a doll. Constance always finds a way to justify Merricat’s behaviour, even the murder of their parents, uncles, brother etc. I find it amazing that the novel is told from Merrica’t point of view and even though she specifically states that the rest of her family is death, she never admits to us, the readers, directly that she was behind it.

All sugar. Like, zero arsenic.

Here is a little passage with conversation between Merricat and Constance. I really like Merricat’s view on life here:

The rain started while we sat in the kitchen, and we left the kitchen door open so we could watch the rain slanting past the doorway and washing the garden; Constance was pleased, the way any good gardener is pleased with rain. “We’ll see color out there soon,” she said.

“We’ll always be here together, won’t we, Constance?”

“Don’t you ever want to leave here, Merricat?”

“Where could we go?” I asked her. “What place would be better for us than this? Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people.”

“I wonder sometimes.” She was very serious for a minute, and then she turned and smiled at me. “Don’t you worry, my Merricat. Nothing bad will happen.”

(March 1995. ‘What makes a good finale? Gowns that look just as good on the way out.’, Picture found here.)

Whilst reading the novel, I found myself liking Merricat’s personality which is crazy because she is a pychopatic murdered who killed everyone in her family at the age of twelve. Still, there are things about her that I like and even find relatable; her hatred for everyone in the village; for example, when she says: “I wished they were all dead and I was walking on their bodies.” I like that her love is very limited; she only loves Constance and her cat Jonas. I love how she lives in her own little world and daydreams about going to live on the moon. I love her imagination and her strange little rituals which she perceives as a way of keeping her safety. I love how childlike Merricat is and how, despite being eighteen years old, she still runs around her house and garden as if she were a younger teen, she is completely oblivious of the fact that she is becoming an adult. And Constance behaves towards her in a motherly and nurturing manner, further cradling Merricat into her prolonged state of childhood. I love how she hates guests and anyone intruding the solemn space of her castle, for so do I! And I am envious that, unlike Merricat, I have not the means to completely isolate myself from society but rather, I am forced to participate in it, one way or another. So, in a way, this novel describes the ideal life for me; away from everything and everybody. Oh, I can just imagine Merricat slamming the doors to Charles’s face and playing Iggy Pop’s song “I’m Sick of You” very loudly; “I’m sick of you and there ain’t no way/ Don’t want to know, don’t want to see/ Don’t you ever bother me/ Sick of hanging around your pad/ Sick of your Mom and sick of your Dad…”

Give Me The First Six Months of Love (Michelle Gurevich)

5 Aug

I recently discovered the music of the contemporary Cannadian singer-songwriter Michelle Gurevich. As you may see from her surname, she is of Russian origin and interestingly her fan base is mostly in the Eastern Europe and Berlin. She lives in Denmark at the moment. I discovered her two songs “Lovers are Strangers” and “The First Six Months of Love” one cloudy and rainy afternoon a week ago by serendipity but the lyrics instantly chimed with me and I found the music hypnotic. Needless to say, these two songs became the soundtrack for my gloomy summer afternoon and I still can’t get them out of my head. The foreboding lead-grey sky went so well with the music that I almost felt I was transported to another world. It was definitely one of my little ecstatic moments and so I wanted to share the song lyrics in this post and I hope you check out her music if you don’t know it already.

Lovers, shot by Paolo Roversi for Vogue Italia February 2000

You must know that moment
When the miserable world cracks open
You finally meet someone
Suddenly the chapter’s written
Six months with nothing other
Than a duvet and a jug of water
It’s a chemical jackpot babe
And we’ve got the winning number
Give me the first six months of love
Give me the first six months of love
Before the truth comes spilling out
Before you open your big mouth
One of the finest things in life
Gone on a serotonin ride
God knows I’ve waited long enough
Give me the first six months
First six months of love
Before begin the dissections
Before the therapy sessions
We danced the night we met
Now we need dancing lessons
Remember how it all began
We must not let habit set in
Come up the stairs, let’s recommence
The first six months over again
Give me the first six months of love
Give me the first six months of love
Before the truth comes spilling out
Before you open your big mouth
One of the finest things in life
Gone on a serotonin ride
Babe if we gonna stick it out

Give me the first six months
First six months of love
Give me the first six months of love
Give me the first six months of love
Before the truth comes spilling out
Before you open your big mouth
One of the finest things in life
Gone on a serotonin ride
Babe if we gonna stick it out
Give me the first six months
First six months of love

Bruce Springsteen’s Blue-Collar Heroes, the Rust Belt and “My Hometown”

22 Jul

“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody
Wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks
Foreman says, “these jobs are going, boys
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown…”

(Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown)

Charles Burchfield, Grain Elevators (Evans), 1931-33, watercolour

Lately the things that I have been seeing, reading, and listening to have turned my thoughts towards the Rust Belt; its decaying towns and fallen industries, its sad flair of something that once was thriving and great and just isn’t anymore. Of course, the main inspiration behind this theme were songs and the lyrics of the songs by Bruce Springsteen, especially from the albums “The River” and “Born in the U.S.A.”. Then, I watched two horror films: “Don’t Breathe” (2016) and “It Follows” (2014) and both are set and (partly) shot in Detroit. In both films we can see the whole neighbourhoods of abandoned, decaying houses and that was both immensely sad and visually striking to me. I was thinking about and started rereading (for the 10th time probably!) Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America”.

She was a huge Springsteen fan and would, at times, fantasise of leading the kind of life that the heroes in his songs led: “Sometimes I lie in my own bed and listen to music for hours. Always Bruce Springsteen, which is weird, I have to admit, because I’m becoming this really urban punked-out kid, and he is kind of the spokesman of the rumpled, working-class suburbs. But I identify with him so completely that I start to wish I could be a boy in New Jersey. I try to convince my mother that we should move out there, that she should work in a factory or as a waitress in a roadside diner or as a secretary at a storefront insurance office. I want so badly to have my life circumstances match the oppressiveness I feel internally. It all starts to seem ridiculous: After all, Springsteen songs are about getting the hell out of the New Jersey grind, and here I am trying to convince my mom that we ought to get into it. I’m figuring, if I can just become poor white trash, if I can just get in touch with the blue collar blues, then there’ll be a reason why I feel this way. I will be a fucked-up Marxian worker person, alienated from the fruits of my labor. My misery will begin to make sense.

Charles Burchfield, Hot Summer Afternoon, 1919

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores…

And finally, I read “Voices from the Rust Belt”; a collection of essays by different authors, edited by Anne Trubek. Some of the themes that linger throughout the essays are urban decay, deindustralisation, white flight, school desegregation, suburban boredom, rise of crime etc. Here is what Anne Trubek writes in the Introduction “Why the Rust Belt Matters (and What It Is): (…) in the 1970s, the demand for steel, which was high during World War II, had begun to wane, and many saw their jobs disappear. Arguably the most symbolic date in Rust Belt history was Black Monday, September 19, 1977, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Ohio closed down, leading to a loss of some forty thousand jobs. Also notable: the region’s population peaked in the 1970s and has been in decline ever since. Those manufacturing jobs are never going to return to the levels seen in the 1970s. The lack of jobs and opportunity for the white working class has been an ongoing problem for over forty years now.

The essays reveal the contrasts between the American dream and the reality of life in the Rust Belt, especially in connection to the decline of the industry and the failing economy. Likewise, the heroes of Bruce Springsteen songs, especially on the albums “The River” (1980) and “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), are the blue-collar workers who often find themselves loosing their jobs due to the failing economy, or, as is the case with the hero from the song “Downbound Train”, the misery of their hard work is intertwined with the miseries outside it such as the love woes.

Max Arthur Cohn, Coal Tower, ca. 1934

The Huber Breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania was one of the largest anthracite coal breakers in North America. It was built in the 1930s and closed in the 1970s. John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA.

While the guy from the aforementioned song has three different jobs in one song: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard/ Now I work down at the car wash/ Where all it ever does is rain/ (…) Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang/ Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain…”, other heroes such as the guy in the song “The River” are not as lucky; he did find a job but there hasn’t been much work because of the economy: “I got a job working construction/ For the Johnstown Company/ But lately there ain’t been much work/ On account of the economy/ Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air/ Now I just act like I don’t remember/ Mary acts like she don’t care…”

In songs such as “Youngstown” Springsteen directly mentions the town and referrenced the closing of Jeanette Blast Furnace owned by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube and closed in 1977 but uses a simple, poetic language to convey the sadness: “Here in Youngstown/ Here in Youngstown/ My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down/ Here darlin’ in Youngstown…” Songs such as “Out in the Street” deal less with the job losses and the failing of the economy and more with the everyday reality of being a blue-collar worker; the song’s hero is waiting for his shift to finish, waiting for the working week to finish just so he can out in the street, see his girl, and, talk and walk the way he wants to talk and walk:

“Put on your best dress baby
And darlin’, fix your hair up right
‘Cause there’s a party, honey
Way down beneath the neon lights
All day you’ve been working that hard line
Now tonight you’re gonna have a good time

I work five days a week girl
Loading crates down on the dock
I take my hard earned money
And meet my girl down on the block
And Monday when the foreman calls time
I’ve already got Friday on my mind
When that whistle blows
Girl, I’m down the street
I’m home, I’m out of my work clothes
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I walk the way I want to walk
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I talk the way I want to talk….
_

Perhaps the most interesting and sad reference to Rust belt’s deindustrialisation is in the song “My Hometown” where the foreman hauntingly foresees the future and says that the jobs are going and are not coming back to their hometown.

William Arthur Cooper, The Lumber Industry, 1934

In the 1920s and 1930s many artists such as Charles Sheeler, Charles Burchfield, Max Arthur Cohn, William Arthur Cooper and many others captured the glory of the industrialised landscapes in their cold and slightly bleak portrayals of the coal mines, modern machinery, lumber yards, and steel mills. Some of these artists were either inspired or directly involved with the art movement called the Precisionism; a uniquely American art movement which sought to portray the machinery and modern life in a precise, sharp and cold manner. For them, the industrialised landscapes were a sort of a victory over nature and they were fascinated by the newest inventions and the sleek appearence of these new machines. Little did they know that some thirty-fourty years after they had painted these painting those same steel mills, lumber yards and coal mines would be abandoned and destroyed. These painters captured the heigh days of the Industrial Midwest before it because the “Post-Industrial Midwest” (a synonim for “Rust belt”). Just look at the painting “Coal Tower” by Max Arthur Cohn; how dark, gloomy, powerful and intimidating the coal tower appears, its windows gandering over the landscape like the eye of the Mordor. And what a contrast this powerful building is to its decaying state to which it succumbed.

Max Arthur Cohn, Bethlehem Steel Works, 1938

And returning for a moment to the collection of essays “Voices from the Rust Belt” I have to say that I really recommend it if you are interested in the topic. I love that each essay is written by a different author. In that way we get a unique and intimate perspective on the topic, writing styles are different and most essays deal with personal experiences, memories, longings, so it is very personal and the sadness of the Rust belt is then even more palpable. My favourite essays are “The Fauxtopias of Detroit Suburbs” by James D. Griffioen, “Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall” by Eric Anderson, “The Kidnapped Children of Detroit” by Marsha Music, and “A Girl’s Youngstown” by Jacqueline Marino. I would like to end this post with a quote from the essay “Moundsville” by David Faulk: “When I first heard the term “Rust Belt” during my last year of junior high, the rust had barely formed on Moundsville. (…) The Ohio Valley in the early 1980s was marked by patterns: for every mill closure, bankers closed in on the houses, women dried their eyes with pink Kleenexes, and the belts came off. Then families moved away or fell apart.