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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…”

Book Review: Summer of Strangers (and Other Stories) by Masao Yamakawa

4 Jul

“The woman sees herself in the sea. She calls out to that other self.
The sea took you from us, Hiroshi. Then you became one with it…I wonder, if I throw myself into the sea, will I become one with you?”

(Masao Yamakawa, The Gift of Loneliness)

Georges Lacombe, Blue Seascape, Wave Effect, 1893

We are starting this July on the blog with my little review of the short story collection called “Summer of Strangers (And Other Stories)” by the Japanese writer Masao Yamakawa which was recently translated by J.D.Wisgo. I have already written a few book reviews for short stories “The Days and Nights” and “Downfall and Other Stories” by Fumiko Hayashi, both translated by the same translator.

The author of these short stories is the Japanese writer Masao Yamakawa who was born in 1930 in Tokyo. He wrote his university thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre and worked as the editor of the literary magazine “Mita Bungaku” which is interesting because that magazine published famous Japanese authors such as Tanizaki Junichiro and Akutagawa Ryunosuke; I enjoyed the works of both of these writers immensely. Yamakawa’s short story “The Summer Procession” is one of his most well-known. Sadly, Yamakawa died at the age of thirty-four as a result of a traffic accident, but his work is popular in Japan even today. The book contrains seven stories; “The Gift of Loneliness”, “You in a Box”, “Summer of Strangers”, “The Distorted Window”, “The Summer Procession”, “No More Summers”, and “Fireworks of the Day”. Each story is presented both in the English translation and in the original form, that is, in Japanese. I think this would be very fun and useful for someone who was studying Japanese language. It was interesting for me too, I will admit it.

Photo by Mervyn O’Gorman, 1913

As you can see, each story has a title that is delicious and alluring and I found it hard to chose which one to read first! What struck me with these stories is how different they are to each other, how uniquely crafted and individualistic, not following a certain plot-formula or having repetitive, recurring motives. And also, how the stories often take a surprising turn. When I would start reading each story, I always finished reading it and feeling surprised: “whoa, I did not expect that!” That was literally my reaction and that made reading all the more fun. The first story I read was “Summer of Strangers” because the title was very inviting and I love how it contained a story within a story: the main character who lives in a coastal, touristy town is swimming one night and meets a mysterious woman and, fearing that she might intend to commit suicide by drowning, he tells her a tale that his father would tell him. This tale, although affirming the individual’s right to decide whether to live or die, ends up saving the woman’s life and changing her perspective on things.

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

The second story I read was “The Gift of Loneliness” because, again, the title made me curious. The story starts with a man and a woman sitting on the beach. We find out they are a husband and a wife, but they are emotionally distant from each other… Winter time is approaching in the story and the cold, raging sea seems to mirror the coldness and turmoils that the couple is experiencing. This image of two people, joint together by love and/or marriage, but feeling distanced from one another instantly brought to mind the famous painting by Edvard Munch called “The Lonely Ones” from 1895. In the painting the man and a woman are standing on the beach, gazing at the sea. The waves crush on to the shore as the two of them stand there in silence, just one step away from each other, and yet emotionally distant. The murmur of the sea, louder than their loneliness, matches the turmoil that rises in their soul. Are they a couple who just had an argument, or two lovers who have, after being drunken with love, now sobered and realised that nothing, not even their love, will spare them the loneliness and feeling of isolation that they experience as individuals…? The mood of the story, at least in the beginning, feels similar and quickly we find out the reason behind the mood: a month ago their four-year old son Hiroshi had died, drowned in that very same sea. Here is a passage from the beginning:

It seems like Hiroshi was everything to you,” the man says, forcing a smile. “But Ryoko, you were my wife to begin with…even before you became Hiroshi’s mother.”

The man seems to be calling out to her, but the wind makes his voice difficult to hear.

The woman does not turn around. Far out in the indigo sea, a faint mist hangs in the air.

The sea churns. Surely Hiroshi has already dissolved into the ocean. A month has already passed since the waves carried off his tiny, four-year-old body. Why did we ever go to the beach in September in the first place…
(…)
The man is calling me again. My husband must be worried.

Husband? Is that really my husband? He’s like a stranger to me, a man I’ve never seen before.

Suddenly the sea screams. A powerful roar. It engulfs her.

The woman sees herself in the sea. She calls out to that other self.

The sea took you from us, Hiroshi. Then you became one with it…I wonder, if I throw myself into the sea, will I become one with you?

“Let’s head back to the hotel soon.”

The man’s hand holds her shoulder tightly. Gazing at her from the side with a cautious look in his eyes, the man’s stiff cheeks force a smile. Silly man. You actually think I would jump from here.

“I’m ok. Let go of me,” the woman says. “If I wanted to die, I would have been dead long ago.”

Through the characters’ conversations and visual imagery, the story beautifully captures the sadness of loosing a child, and, as the title suggests, it brings a thought-pondering idea about loneliness being a gift, giving someone some time and space out of love as a gift.

Tanigami Konan (1879-1928), Dahlia, 1917

First and last pictures here by Magdalena Lutek (Nishe)

“I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they’re real
I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel”

(The Cure, Pictures of You)

The story that especially surprised me the way it turned out to be is “You in a Box” because at first we are presented with a shy, withdrawn, slightly socially awkward woman whose coyness reaches such levels that she cannot even look a man in the eye, but as the story unfolds we discover that her shy, frightened demeanour hides an entirely different nature; twisted passions and a distrust, a fear of any relationship with people, with men in particular. The story begins with her strolling around park, meeting a stranger – a tourist and taking his picture, but this innocent start mustn’t fool you because things turn deadly very quickly…

I especially found this inner monologue of hers chilling: “Darling, I’m really sorry about killing you…but just deal with it, ok? You see, I’m scared of the living. I can’t predict what they’ll do, and people who are alive will never truly become mine. In this form, you’re very obedient and will never betray me. Now there’s no reason for us to hide things from each other. I’m sure that you aren’t lonely either. Let’s live together like this forever, happily ever after…” While I was reading the story my perception of who is the predator and who I should hate and fear changed almost instantly as the events in the story unfolded.

Even though the story is very short, the character of the woman in it is very psychologically complex and the story left me feeling haunted for days. At first she struck me as a creepy horror film character, but as this sensation subsided, I came to see the woman as a deeply lonely individual and the story shows how intense loneliness, isolation, and distrust of people can lead to harrowing acts of aggresion. In a way, the woman in the story reminded me of the character Etsuko from Yukio Mishima’s novel “Thirst for Love”; she is also a shy, private person but her calm exterior hides rage and an obsessive love which turns deadly.

I enjoyed all the stories in the book, but this post would be too long to mention them all so I just mentioned the ones that struck me the most. All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog: Self Taught Japanese and Goodreads page.

This book is available here on Amazon.

The Family Moskat: Asa Heshel had seen all of this before in a dream, or maybe in a previous existence

22 Dec

I am more than half way through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel “The Moskat Family”, originally published in 1950, and I am enjoying it tremendously, although it is very sad at parts. The novel follows the lives of the members of the Moskat family and others associated with it, in Warshaw, in the first half of the twentieth century. The character who appears very early in the beginning and quickly takes central place is 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. A lot of things happen as the novel progresses; Asa falls in love with Hadassah, the granddaughter of the family patriarch Meshulam Moskat, tries to elope with her unsuccesfully but later marries Meshulam’s step-daughter Adele in Switzerland, their love (or lack of it on his behalf) quickly becomes bitter and they return to Warshaw where he reunites with the now also married Haddasah and starts an affair with her, then joins the military at the outbreak of the World War One.

In the novel’s beginning Asa’s life was a blank page, a clean white piece of paper, and oh how quickly the ink stains of bad decisions, flaws, inconsistencies, and betrayals tainted the paper’s snow whiteness! The lyrics from the Joy Division song “New Dawn Fades” comes to mind: “different colours, different shades, over each mistakes were made.” In a way, the character of Asa is symbolic of the desintegration of the Jewish culture due to the process of modernisation which planted a seed of doubt in many; some characters become Christians, some move abroad and leave their traditions behind. Characters who, like Asa, were seeking freedom from old norms and traditions, instead found themselves lost, directionless, disillusioned… I can’t help but wonder then, what differentiates an experience from – a mistake?

The passage that struck me particularly and that I will share in this post is when Asa first arrives to Warshaw one warm October eve from the countryside and he is quickly enamoured by the hustle and bustle of the big city, and everything seems to him as if he had seen it before; everything is familiar yet strange both at once. This particular feeling of arriving to a new place, being young and full of dreams, is something I have experiences myself and I love reading about it in a novel. I love how vividly Singer describes the scene, I can really imagine I am there; the carriages, the red trams, the scents in the air, the large red setting sun, it is so atmospheric.

Pierre Bonnard, Rue vue d’en Haut, 1899, colour litograph

A few weeks after Meshulam Moskat returned to Warsaw another traveler arrived at the station in the northern part of the capital. He climbed down from a third-class car carrying an ob­long metal-bound basket locked with a double lock. He was a young man, about nineteen. His name was Asa Heshel Bannet. On his mother’s side he was the grandson of Reb Dan Katzenellen­bogen, the rabbi of Tereshpol Minor. He had with him a letter of recommendation to the learned Dr. Shmaryahu Jacobi, secretary of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. In his pocket rested a worn volume, the Ethics of Spinoza in a Hebrew translation.

The youth was tall and thin, with a long, pale face, a high, prematurely creased forehead, keen blue eyes, thin lips, and a sharp chin covered with a sprouting beard. His blond, almost col­orless earlocks were combed back from his ears. He was wearing a gaberdine and a velvet cap. A scarf was wrapped around his throat. “Warsaw: he said aloud, his voice strange to himself, “War­saw at last. People milled about the station. A porter in a red hat tried to take the basket from him, but he refused to surrender it. Though the year was well into October, the day was still warm. Low clouds floated about in the sky, seeming to merge with the puffs of steam from the locomotives. The sun hung in the west, red and large. In the east the pale crescent of the moon was visible. The young man crossed to the other side of the railing that separated the railroad station from the street. On the wide thor­oughfare, paved with rectangular cobblestones, carriages bowled along, the horses seeming to charge straight at the knots of pe­destrians. Red-painted tramcars went clanging by. There was a smell of coal, smoke, and earth in the moist air. Birds flew about in the dim light, Happing their wings. In the distance could be seen row upon row of buildings, their window panes reflecting the daylight with a silver and leaden glow or glinting gold in the path of the setting sun. Bluish plumes of smoke rose from chimneys. Something long forgotten yet familiar seemed to hover about the uneven roofs, the pigeon cotes, the attic windows, the balconies, the telegraph poles with their connecting wires. It was as if Asa Heshel had seen all of this before in a dream, or maybe in a previous existence.

He took a few steps and then stood still, leaning against a street lamp as though to protect himself against the hurrying throngs. His limbs were cramped from the long hours of sitting. The ground seemed still to be shaking beneath him, the doors and windows of the houses receding as though he were still watching them from the speeding train. It had been long since he had slept.

His brain was only half awake. “Is it here I will learn the divine truths?” he thought vaguely. “Among this multitude?”

Reinaldo Arenas: There was freedom to say that there was freedom

6 Dec

“Freedom was something constantly talked about but not practiced. There was freedom to say that there was freedom or to praise the regime, but never to critize it.”

(Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls)

“Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) and his wonderful autobiography “Before Night Falls”. I discovered him through the film of the same name starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo and I was instantly captivated by Reinaldo’s life story, and not just him as a person, but the political and social environment that he lived in. What I love most of all about Reinaldo is his strength, courage and a wild, drunken determination to live his life to the fullest. No one had more trials and tribulations in life, and yet no one endured all the life’s misery and defeats with more bravery, defience, and cheekiness than Reinaldo. Despite living under Castro’s oppressive regime, Reinaldo never lost his inner freedom, never bowed down to authority, never comformed or compromised himself only to gain little bread crumbs of safety, profit or convenience. Even when in prison, or on the run from the law, Reinaldo always remained free at heart. He fled to the United States in 1980 and died on the 7th December 1990. In 1989, in New York, he wrote an auto-epitaph that starts with a very beautiful line, here is an excerpt from it:

“A bad poet in love with the moon,

he counted terror as his only fortune :

and it was enough because, being no saint,

he knew that life is risk or abstinence,

that every great ambition is great insanity (…)

He knew imprisonment offenses

typical of human baseness ;

but was always escorted by a certain stoicism

that helped him walk the tightrope

or enjoy the morning’s glory,

and when he tottered, a window would appear

for him to jump toward infinity.

I really love the line that he was always escorted by a certain stoicism that helped him walk the tightrope, a really great description of Reinaldo’s life. These past days the big, yellow letters on the spine of the book “Before Night Falls” have been inviting me from my bookshelf, and I finally gave in, for I am weak when it comes to good books, especially if they are as inspiring as this one is. I have read it a few times and every time something else caught my attention because there are so many ways to approach its content. Well, what struck me the most this time, given the miserable, dystopian times we are living in, was Reinaldo’s description of Fidel Castro’s regime, its beginnings, and the slow but shocking realisation that the future isn’t as bright and victorious as Castro had promised, and that bad things are looming on the horizon:

My grandfather’s grocery store, which had been his livelihood, had already been taken over by the government, and he now spent his time on a stool next to the closed store, talking to himself. He did not read the newspaper or “Bohemia” which no longer was the liberal, irreverent, critical magazine that he used to read to us in the country. By this time it was but another instrument in the hands of Castro and his new regime. The press was now almost completely controlled. Freedom was something constantly talked about but not practiced. There was freedom to say that there was freedom or to praise the regime, but never to criticize it. (…)

Fidel Castro was (and is) not only the maximum leader but also the chief district attorney. In one instant, in which an honest court did not want to condemn a number of air force pilots accused of bombing the city of Santiago de Cuba, which they actually never did, Fidel set himself up as district attorney and judge, and sentenced them to twenty and thirty years in prison. The judge, who had a long rebel beard and had declared them innocent, shot himself. All this had already given us an inkling of what the new regime was about. There was still some hope, however. There is always some hope, especially for cowards. I was one of them, one of those cowardly or hopeful young men who still thought the government had something to offer.

George Sand: My soul ravished by the music and the beauty of the sky

17 Aug

A few days ago I started reading George Sand’s autobiography called “Story of My Life” and I am really enjoying it so far. It follows her life from birth up to the Revolution of 1848. It was originally published in 1854. I particularly enjoyed this little passage about the wonders of music that little Aurore (that was her real name) had experienced for the first time. It is written in such a way that it instantly made me daydream so I chose a painting that depicts a dreamy scene of girl gazing at the moon. Can you not feel the music in the air?

Johann Peter Hasenclever, Die Sentimentale, c. 1846-47

A memory which does date from my first four years is that of my earliest musical response. My mother had been to see someone in  village near Paris, I do not know which village. The apartment was very high up, and from the window, as I was too small to see down to the street, I could only distinguish neighboring housetops and a large expanse of sky. We spent part of the day there, but I paid attention to nothing else, so absorbed was I by the sound of a flute which played a flock of tunes that I found wondrous all the time we were there. The sound was coming from one of the highest garrets, quite far away, for my mother could hardly hear it when I asked her what it was. As for me, my hearing was apparently finer and more sensitive at this period, and I did not miss a single modulation of this little instrument—so piercing from nearby, so sweet at a distance—and was charmed by it. It seemed to me I heard it as in a dream. The sky was cloudless and a sparkling blue, and those delicate melodies seemed to soar over the rooftops as far as heaven itself. Who knows if it wasn’t an artist of superior inspiration who, for the moment, had no other attentive listener but me? It could just as well have been a cook’s helper who was learning the themes from Monaco or Les Folies d’Espagne. Whoever it was, I experienced indescribable musical pleasure, and I was truly ecstatic in front of that window, where for the first time I vaguely understood the harmony of external things, my soul being ravished alike by the music and the beauty of the sky.

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams…

3 Aug

“Night after night I lie awake,

Listening to the rustle of the bamboo leaves,

And a strange sadness fills my heart.”

(As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams)

Japan | takaphilography

A week or so ago I finished reading this wonderful little book whose title alone lured me from the bookshelf of a dimly lit library: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. How alluring is that title!? As I took the book into my hands and flipped the pages, it was as if I were instantly transported to the world of dreams, the quotes spoke to my heart and I knew right away this book was a treasure. And what a delight, in warm summer nights, with the nocturnal music of cicadas and rain, to read a diary of a young girl, later a young woman, living in the 11th century Japan. Lady Sarashina was born in 1008 at the height of the Heian Period, at the same time when Sei Shonagon was writing her “The Pillow Book” which I love, and she spent most of her life in Kyoto. As a child, she is utterly dreamy and obsessed with reading tales and daydreaming of a charming, handsome prince that she will meet one day and the wonderful life she will have.

Timid, withdrawn and hypersensitive, little Sarashina feels deep sorrow after her sister dies and her step-mother leaves, and the same poignancy is seen in her experience of nature, especially the sight of the moon and red leaves of the trees in autumn. As she grows up, she finds that she doesn’t want to participate in the world and that her dreams are more fulfilling. She tries being a court lady for awhile but is a failure because she is too dreamy to participate in the court life. Eventually, at the age of thirty-six she marries a middle-class man and has three children. It is assumed that she started writing the book at the age of forty-nine, just after her husband had died. Perhaps, with this huge loss that brought a change to her life, she started thinking about lost times and again sank into the deep, wild sea of dreams.

Maples and River by Ogata Kenzan, Edo Period, 18th century; Look at those maples leaves, falling down in the river like bright red stars!

“Though it was already the end of the Tenth month when we crossed Mount Miyaji, the maple leaves were still in their height.

So the storms have not yet come to Mount Miyaji!
For russet leaves still peacefully adorn the hills.”

Ogata Kenzan, Autumn Ivy, after 1732; Notice the gorgeous gradient colours of the leaves; from brown to green, red to orange, just mesmerising…

I lived forever in the dream world. Though I made occasional pilgrimages to temples, I could never bring myself to pray sincerely for what most people want. I know there are many who read the sutras and practice religious devotions from the age of about seventeen; but I had no interest in such things. The height of my aspirations was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in the mountain village where he would have hidden me like Lady Ukifune. There I should live my lonely existence, gazing at the blossoms and the Autumn leaves and the moon and the snow, and wait for an occasional splendid letter from him. This was all I wanted; and in time I came to believe that it would actually happen.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Autumn leaves in Sangoku, 1914

“The trees in our garden grew as thickly as those that spread their darkness at the foot of the Mount Ahigara, and in the Tenth month we had a blaze of red leaves, like a rich covering of brocade, which was far more impressive than anything on the surrounding hills. A visitor to our house mentioned that he had passed a place with some magnificent red foliage and I improvised:

What can excell this garden where I dwell
In my autumnal weariness?”

Toyohara Chikanobu, Autumn Leaves, 1897

Lady Sarashina’s disinterest in the real world around her is also evident in her descriptions of her travels; her knowledge of geography was limited and sometimes flawed, but she writes with ardour about a field of poppies, a sea of mist, or the beauty of the waves hitting the shore. She saw life through a poetic lense and real life facts and data had little meaning to her. Over time, she comes to regret wasting her life in dreams and wishes that instead she had invested more time in her spiritual growth, but in a way this is yet another escapism because monks live in the own world, away from society and its troubles. By engaging in spiritual concern, Sarashina could once again escape reality, just like Anais Nin. Needless to say that I find Lady Sarashina’s thoughts and reveries very relatable and I find it very poignant that a thousand years ago a girl lived who is so much like me and who could understand me like no one else does know. I can only imagine how lonely she felt in her reveries, since people mostly think that fantasising is a waste of time. Little do they know how pleasant it is … to cross the bridge of dreams and pass the time in that pleasant, other-world.

Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872

“That evening we stayed in Kuroto Beach, when the white dunes stretched out far in the distance. A bright moon hung over the dense pine groves, and the wind soughed forlorny in the branches. The scene inspired us to write poems. Mine was:

Had I not stayed awake this night
When should I have seen the moon –
This Autumn moon that lights Kuroto Beach.”

Utagawa Hirshige II, Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Temple (Ishiyama shûgetsu), from the series Eight Views of Ômi (Ômi hakkei), 1859

“Late one nights towards the end of the 8th month I gazed at the wonderful dawn moon illuminating the dark cluster of trees and the mountainside, and I listened to the beautiful sound of a waterfall.

“If only I could share this moon
With one whose feelings are like mine –
This moon that lights the mountain village in the Autumn dawn!”

Mary Wollstonecraft’s Visit to Deserted Palace of Versailles in 1792

9 Jun

At the moment I am reading Charlotte Gordon’s book “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstoncraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley”. It’s a wonderful, informative and beautifully written dual biography about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley; a mother and daughter who never quite got to know one another as Mary Wollstonecraft died in 1797, just one month after her daughter Mary was born. Mary Godwin Shelley grew up without her mother, without even a memory of her, but the idea of her mother haunted her throughout her entire life. Both Marys were passionate and intelligent rule-breakers and so the title “Romantic Outlaws” is more than fitting. I am slowly savouring the book, chapter by chapter, and I love the rhythm of the book; one chapter is about Mary Wollstonecraft and the next about Mary Shelley and that makes the story even more exciting.

Claude-Louis Châtelet (1753-1795), The Temple of Love at Versailles, 18th century

In the chapter eighteen it’s the spring of 1792 and we find the thirty-three year old Mary Wollstonecraft living in the middle of a revolutionary Paris, witnessing the cruelty of the revolution that is taking a darker turn than anyone had anticipated, and yet, in the middle of all the riots, dangers, violence and uncertainty, she falls in love for the first time: with Gilbert Imlay. Mary decides to move to a little cottage in Neuilly, just outside Paris and, in a restless, dreamy and romantic mood Mary starts going on long walks hoping that exercise and walking will distract her mind from constant yearning and pining for her beloved. On one such walk Mary visits the lonely and abandoned palace of Versailles and this passage from the book was very atmospheric and melancholy to me:

Undeterred, Mary roamed through the nearby fields, even trekking eleven miles to Versailles. She would be one of the last to see the deserted palace before the royal furniture was auctioned off later that summer. It was still very much as it had been when the king and queen lived there, though the halls echoed with emptiness. The “air is chill,” she wrote, “seeming to clog the breath; and the wasting dampness of destruction appears to be stealing into the vast pile on every side.” It was an eerie experience, walking alone through the Hall of Mirrors, the War Salon, the Hercules Room, the queen’s chambers. She felt surrounded by ghosts: the “gigantic” portraits of kings “seem to be sinking into the embraces of death.” Outside, all of the famous grottoes and statues were still there, including Marie Antoinette’s “Temple of Love” and her infamous “farm,” the petit hameau, where she and her ladies had dressed as shepherdesses and milked the prettiest, most gentle cows the servants could find. But now the grass was overgrown and the flowerbeds unweeded. Mary was both shocked and saddened by what she saw, writing, “I weep, O France, over the vestiges of thy former oppression.” Yet while she disapproved of the opulence of Versailles, its glorification of kings and their armies, she was also appalled at the reports she heard about the Jacobins’ abuse of power, killing people “whose only crime is their name.” Hope lay in freedom, she believed, not in tyranny, whether the tyrants were republican leaders or monarchs.

I wish I could travel back in time and take a walk through a deserted palace and gardens of Versailles, oh I’d love to linger around for a while, pine for the lost times, like a true nostalgic, admire the loveliness of it all, seek for the ghosts in the deepest, darkest corners of the once great salons and halls…. This little passage truly makes it seems like Mary had witnessed an end of an era; the Rococo, with its emphasis on joys, pleasures, fun, flirtations and games, was gone. It seems that no century had such love for the sweetness and pleasures of life as much as the eighteenth century. The Revoution seems like an end of a sweet rosy dream.

Claude-Louis Châtelet, Plan du jardin et château de la Reine, before 1790

In the ninth chapter of the book Mary eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley and they went to Paris:

But when they arrived in the capital on August 2, 1814, dusty and tired, fraternité and liberté were nowhere to be found. They checked into the unprepossessing Hôtel de Vienne on the edge of the Marais and roamed through the city streets, disappointed to find most Parisians war-weary and cynical. Napoleon’s defeat earlier that year, a relief to many as it meant the end of the war, was also a blow to French honor. No one was preaching revolution anymore. Many of the people they met were royalists, eager to restore French gloire. Justice and freedom were passé. The martyred revolutionaries Madame Roland and Charlotte Corday, so inspirational to Mary when her friend Isabella had talked about them in Scotland, were long dead. And so, for that matter, was Mary Wollstonecraft.

It’s funny how in 1792 the revolutionaries were mad for blood and revenge, and in 1814 no one cared anymore about the justice and liberty. How quickly the fires of the revolution die out…

Artists in Literature: Amy March from Little Women

4 Jun

Louise May Alcott’s coming of age novel “Little Women”, first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, is a well-known and well-loved book, especially nowadays with many film versions and series being made. The novel follows the lives of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, from their teenage years to their adult lives. The girls’ personal trials and growing pains are intertwined with the social hardships and tribulations that came with social events such as the Civil War. Amy March, the third sister, starts the novel as a vain, self-obsessed little girl occupied with all things of elegance and beauty, and as the story progresses Amy grows up to an elegant young lady who is still occupied with Venusian things but her obsession with personal beauty transcends into a love of Beauty in art and she eventually goes to study art in Paris with her aunt. The twenty-sixth chapter from the book called “The Artistic Attempts” deals with Amy’s growing pains of being an artist and I think it is very interesting because we rarely have artists as characters in a book.

“…mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity.”

Amy March in Little Women (2017)

Here are the passages from the book:

It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius, especially ambitious young men and women. Amy was learning this distinction through much tribulation, for mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity. For a long time there was a lull in the ‘mud-pie’ business, and she devoted herself to the finest pen-and-ink drawing, in which she showed such taste and skill that her graceful handiwork proved both pleasant and profitable. But over-strained eyes caused pen and ink to be laid aside for a bold attempt at poker-sketching. While this attack lasted, the family lived in constant fear of a conflagration, for the odor of burning wood pervaded the house at all hours, smoke issued from attic and shed with alarming frequency, red-hot pokers lay about promiscuously, and Hannah never went to bed without a pail of water and the dinner bell at her door in case of fire. Raphael’s face was found boldly executed on the underside of the moulding board, and Bacchus on the head of a beer barrel. A chanting cherub adorned the cover of the sugar bucket, and attempts to portray Romeo and Juliet supplied kindling for some time.

Winslow Homer, Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine, 1883, watercolour on paper

From fire to oil was a natural transition for burned fingers, and Amy fell to painting with undiminished ardor. An artist friend fitted her out with his castoff palettes, brushes, and colors, and she daubed away, producing pastoral and marine views such as were never seen on land or sea. Her monstrosities in the way of cattle would have taken prizes at an agricultural fair, and the perilous pitching of her vessels would have produced seasickness in the most nautical observer, if the utter disregard to all known rules of shipbuilding and rigging had not convulsed him with laughter at the first glance. Swarthy boys and dark-eyed Madonnas, staring at you from one corner of the studio, suggested Murillo; oily brown shadows of faces with a lurid streak in the wrong place, meant Rembrandt; buxom ladies and dropiscal infants, Rubens; and Turner appeared intempestsof blue thunder, orange lightning, brown rain, and purple clouds, with a tomato-colored splash in the middle, which might be the sun or a bouy, asailor’s shirt or a king’s robe, as the spectator pleased.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Bow, 1887, Charcoal and graphite on off-white laid paper

Charcoal portraits came next, and the entire family hung in a row, looking as wild and crocky as if just evoked from a coalbin. Softened into crayonsketches, they did better, for the likenesses were good, and Amy’s hair, Jo’s nose, Meg’s mouth, and Laurie’s eyes were pronounced ‘wonderfully fine’. A return to clayand plaster followed, and ghostly casts of her acquaintances haunted corners of the house, or tumbled off closet shelves onto people’s heads. Children were enticed in as models, till their incoherent accounts of her mysterious doings caused Miss Amy to be regarded in the light of a young ogress. Her efforts in this line, however, were brought to an abrupt close by an untoward accident, which quenched her ardor. Other models failing her for a time, she undertook to cast her own pretty foot, and the family were one day alarmed by an unearthly bumping and screaming and running to the rescue, found the young enthusiast hopping wildly about the shed with her foot held fast in a pan full of plaster, which had hardened with unexpectedrapidity. With much difficulty and some danger she was dug out, for Jo was so overcome with laughter while she excavated that her knife went too far, cut the poor foot, and left a lasting memorial of one artistic attempt, at least.

Claude Monet, The Studio Boat, 1876

After this Amy subsided, till a mania for sketching from nature set her to haunting river, field, and wood, for picturesque studies, and sighing for ruins to copy. She caught endless colds sitting on damp grass to book ‘a delicious bit’, composed of a stone, a stump, one mushroom, and a broken mullein stalk, or ‘a heavenly mass of clouds’, that looked like a choice display of featherbeds when done. She sacrificed her complexion floating on the river in the midsummer sun to study light and shade, and got a wrinkle over her nose trying after ‘points of sight’, or whatever the squint-and-string performance is called.

If ‘genius is eternal patience’, as Michelangelo affirms, Amy had some claim to the divine attribute, for she persevered in spite of all obstacles, failures, and discouragements, firmly believing that in time she should do something worthy to be called ‘high art’.

Vincent van Gogh: Life and Art in the Face of Failure

23 Apr

“He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.”

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, October 1888

This post will be my final one (for now at least….) featuring wonderful passages from Irving Stone’s romanticised biography about the life and struggles of Vincent van Gogh: “Lust for Life”, originally published in 1934. I really love the book and I reread it this spring and I feel that it is truly too beautiful not to be shared! I already have a post about the sun, heat and vibrant colours of Arles, and posts about the art discussions that Vincent had with Gauguin while he stayed in Arles; part one and part two. Today I would like to share a passage which deals directly with the question: why? Why do I paint? What is it that drives me to persist with it, despite constant failure? Vincent is asking himself that and the answer is a very beautiful one and I think all artists should be inspired by it. Indeed, my artist friend loves the quote as well. I think inspiration for creating art should be intrinsic, it has to be the fire within that drives one to create, if one is doing it to please someone else, to gain admiration, approval, praise or popularity, then it’s just not going to work. And now here is the quote:

The hot sun built up his vitality, even though his stomach was getting little attention. In place of sane food he put absinthe, tobacco, and Daudet’s tales of Tartarin. His innumerable hours of concentration before the easel rubbed his nerves raw. He needed stimulants. The absinthe made him all the more excited for the following day, an excitement whipped by the mistral and baked into him by the sun.

As the summer advanced, everything became burnt up. He saw about him nothing but old gold, bronze and copper, covered by a greenish azure sky of blanched heat. There was sulphur-yellow on everything the sunlight hit. His canvases were masses of bright burning yellow. He knew that yellow had not been used in European painting since the Renaissance, but that did not deter him. The yellow pigment oozed out of the tubes onto the canvas, and there it stayed. His pictures were sun steeped, sun burnt, tanned with the burning sun and swept with air.

He was convinced that it was no more easy to make a good picture than it was to find a diamond or a pearl. He was dissatisfied with himself and what he was doing, but he had just a glimmer of hope that it was going to be better in the end. Sometimes even that hope seemed a Fata Morgana. Yet the only time he felt alive was when he was slogging at his work. Of personal life, he had none. He was just a mechanism, a blind painting automaton that had food, liquid, and paint poured into it each morning, and by nightfall turned out a finished canvas.

And for what purpose? For sale? Certainly not! He knew that nobody wanted to buy his pictures. Then what was the hurry? Why did he drive and spur himself to paint dozens and dozens of canvases when the space under his miserable, brass bed was already piled nearly solid with paintings?

The desire to succeed had left Vincent. He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.

Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne – A Novel by Linda Lappin

17 Apr

“My dying, I mean. I can’t change it now. But nothing could ever have kept me from loving Modi; or him, me. We were born for each other, under his lucky black star.”

(Loving Modiglian, by Linda Lappin)

Jeanne Hébuterne, c 1918

The 6th of April marked the birth anniversary of Jeanne Hébuterne; the muse, the lover, the companion, common-law wife of the great painter Amedeo Modigliani and an artist in her own right. She was born in Paris in 1898, and died on the 26th January 1920 after throwing herself from the window of the fifth floor of her parents’ flat. The Paris she left behind was a very different world from the one she was born into; it had seen the great war and it has witnessed many art movements appearing like shooting stars and disappearing into the (art) history. And most importantly of all, for Jeanne, the Paris of 1920 didn’t have Modigliani who had died on the 24 January that year. The Paris without Modi was a dreary and sad urban wilderness.

This tale of art, love and death is perhaps the most tragical and heart-breaking tale from the world of art and it is not easy to write about it in a fresh and exciting way, or find a unique and original perspective on the topic which can easily become sentimental in the hands of a bad writer. Still, I recently read a book on the topic which blew my mind; “Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne” by Linda Lappin. I was instantly drawn by the title alone and the way the novel begins in medias res, with Jeanne’s fall from the window, and the way everything was told from her point of view. Jeanne, as a ghost, leads us through the tale of her love for Modigliani whom she desperately wants to find now that they are both dead. What can be more romantic than that!?

The writting is so vibrant, exciting and captivating. The novel has a great flow and the pages just pass by like landscapes from the window of a train. Indeed, the whole book feels like a very intense, poignant and exciting journey that begins with death and ends with …. well I am not going to tell you that. From the Paris of the living and Jeanne’s burial, to the “other Paris” as the author calls it in the book where Jeanne goes through a trial, meets the Death herself and seeks Modigliani so that their souls might wonder together the promenades and the avenues of the dead. A segment of the book is set in 1981 where a young art history student comes to Paris to do a research about a painter Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, and also a part which is Jeanne’s diary. This seemingly strange composition actually works beautifully and everything falls in its place in the end. The storyline is nonlinear and that makes the reading very exciting; you feel as if you are unravelling a mystery. All in all, in my opinion this was a beautiful novel and I think it would be a great read for those who are familiar with the story of Jeanne and Modigliani, as well as for those who don’t even have an interest in the art history because in the end it is a tale of love, death and lovers separated by death and that is something everyone can connect with. Also, I must say that I found the novel very poignant, it made me feel the same way that the book “Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis” did and I already wrote a book review for it here. You can visit the author’s page for more information.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

And now some quotes from the book which I really loved:

“Examining her past, we will see that she had always been a perverse child—moody, disobedient, quarrelsome, and stubborn. (…) Rather than follow the sensible wishes of her family to prepare herself to become a wife and mother, she badgered them to let her enroll in an academy of arts, to become an artist, a painter, as you heard her prideful boast. But has her work ever been sold by a gallery, displayed at an exhibition, represented by a dealer, reviewed in a newspaper? In the art world the name of Jeanne Hébuterne is totally unknown. And so it is likely to remain.”

I was fuming now. What right had he to judge my artwork?”

When I gaze at Jeanne’s face, the phrase “still waters run deep” comes to mind because she was seen by those around her as shy, quiet, melancholy and delicate, and yet she had all that passion hidden inside. If channeled in a different way, that passion would have made her a great artist. A quote from Jeanne’s diary (not Jeanne’s real diary, but the diary from the novel):

This is the room of a proper jeune fille, the person I am outgrowing or perhaps have never been. It is a room where Modi will never set foot, where his smile will never be caught in the mirror. Yet the thought of him fills every room, every space I go, and replaces the air in my lungs.

Jeanne Hébuterne, Self-Portrait, 1916

I can’t explain why I keep watching the horizon, but I feel that my real life is waiting for me out there somewhere across the water. Who am I? Who will I become? Maman says I am going to be beautiful—but that my hips are too round, my face too full, and when I am older I will have a double chin, like hers. But my eyes are the color of southern seas in summer, changing from green to gold to turquoise. I have seen those waters in the pictures of Gauguin, who is my favorite painter.

She was an artist, you see. Not many people knew that. A very talented artist. He was not only her lover, her husband, and the father of her children, but also her maître. He was teaching her, guiding her artistic career. He was a god in her eyes. Her passion for Modigliani was equaled only by her passion for her art. As a mother, well, she was too young to have taken on that responsibility, and he was certainly not much help.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne in a Large Hat, 1918

Jeanne Hébuterne, Death, 1919

Jeanne Hébuterne, Suicide, 1920

Jeanne Hébuterne, Self-Portrait, 1918

Jeanne Hébuterne, Portrait of Modigliani, 1919

I really enjoyed this description of Modigliani’s scent and the way it brings back memories to Jeanne who had just died:

“And then I saw his brown velvet jacket with frayed cuffs reflected behind me, hanging on a nail in the wall. (…) I went to it now, caressing the length of the sleeves, remembering the arms they once held, that once held me, and although I could not lift it from the nail, I could almost feel the smooth velvet ribs against my fingertips and cheek. Sticking my nose into the folds, I sighed deeply, and a miracle happened! I could smell again, and his scent, a ripe potpourri of tobacco, wine, turpentine, sweat, hashish, and soap, poured into my senses, and I thought I might collapse. My chest heaved with sobs, but my eyes produced no tears.”

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne with Hat and Necklace, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919

“This is the cemetery of the unborn. (…) Things that have been left undone—unspoken loves, unwritten books and symphonies, unexpressed regrets, unrealized wishes, unsolved mysteries, unsatisfied hunger… (…) Things unfinished all end up here in this graveyard, where they remain until they either disintegrate or return to life, drifting about in the wind in hopes someone will catch them.”

 

Edward Okuń, Four Strings of a Violin, 1914

Jeanne Hébuterne played the violin and I really love the motif of the violin which is repeated throughout the novel; Jeanne’s memories of taking violin classes, Jeanne taking the violin as the one thing she can bring to the other world and the ghostly sounds of violin in the air:

Nothing  I  cared  about—except  my  violin—which the gallery thieves had abandoned on my worktable. I reached for the handle of the violin case and most amazingly, lifted it up before being swept through the door. Or perhaps it was the soul of the instrument I held in my hand—for the violin case still lay on the table even as I carried it away. But I had no time to puzzle this over. (…) Caressing  the  worn  leather  case  on  my  knees,  I  thought  of  the many times I had taken the horse-drawn omnibus to go to my music lesson with old Maître Schlict on cold rainy days like this, and how I would stop for a cup of hot coffee or chocolate to warm my hands up before my lesson.

“I always loved that hour in winter and would sit  by  the  window,  gazing  out  through  the  dusk,  waiting  for  Modi  to  come  home  from  the  cafés  when  he  was  out  on  business  with  Zbo.  I would take out my violin, which I had brought from my parents’ flat in Rue Amyot and practice a little Schubert, “Death and the Maiden.”But I could never get the opening bars of the first movement to sound quite right. Maître Schlict, my old violin teacher before the war, always said that I was too hesitant in the attack. I needed to learn to be more assertive. I could almost hear that music now…”