Tag Archives: Literature

The Night When Modigliani Stole a Stone…

5 Feb

Amedeo Modigliani, Woman’s Head, 1912, limestone

There is a beautiful bohemian chapter in André Salmon’s book about Modigliani (original title: “La Vie passionnée de Modigliani”) where the devilishly handsome sculptor and painter Amedeo goes out one night to steal a stone that he needs for his statue. The theft wasn’t a one night thing, for Amedeo had often ventured into the blue Parisian nights to steal a stone from a store or a warehouse, guided by the light of the shining stars. He dared to steal only after midnight, and often went with a friend, usually with the fellow painter Emmanuel Gondouin. What a sight the two artists must have been, roaming the empty streets: Amedeo with his raven “hair of a rebellious angel and fiery eyes”, as Salmon describes him, and Gondouin who was of robust built and whose appearance was similar to that of Beethoven. Gondouin would help him carry the heavy stone.

But that night Modigliani was alone… It wasn’t wise to go to the stone theft alone, all sorts of thoughts roamed his pretty head… but he had to carve, he had to create, nor his hands nor his mind would be at peace if he didn’t have that stone… Perhaps the night would be peaceful and the stars forgiving at this poor melancholy angel?… And so he went – alone. “I will get caught… I will end up in prison”, he thought as the darkness of the night shrouded him softly. After he stole the beautiful piece of limestone from someone’s shed, still in a haze from the alcohol and hashish of those glorious nights of Montparnasse, he carried it out and hid around the corner trying to catch his breath. His weak body, plagued with years of alcohol and illnesses, couldn’t keep up with the blazing passion of his spirit. Amedeo, at long last beholding his beauty, glanced at the stone. The beautiful piece of white limestone answered to Amedeo’s loud heartbeats with a smile and whispered promises of inspiration. It was happy to be in loving arms, at last. Then, he heard someone’s footsteps… Could it be the police? Drops of sweat slid down his forehead… No?… Good. It was a man, an anarchist and a nocturnal wanderer who worked at the Halles market, and whose intentions have proved to be kind. He helped Amedeo with the stone and chatted until they arrived to his atelier where they parted.

Modigliani would say that it doesn’t matter if the stone is soft, as long as it gives the illusion of marble. The photo above shows one of his sculptures. It is stylistically very similar to the paintings which followed; an elongated face, long slender neck and large almond-shaped eyes; eyes that seem to gaze into eternity, a face that echoes the sadness of the world, a neck of a swan, so fragile and breakable…

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Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Mandarin Oranges

26 Jan

Last year when I published a post with the story The Good Faith of Wei Sheng by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) many of you seemed to like it, so I decided to share another one I loved. The story I am sharing with you today, Mandarin Oranges, is less lyrical and more realistic, but it possesses a strength that culminates in the very end with a sentence that I couldn’t forget even after a year of reading the story: It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.

I accompanied the story with beautiful paintings of Victorian flower girls and poor children, which, in my view, suits the mood of the story. I am not an expert in Japanese art to find the Japanese art to follow the story.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, The Flower Girl, 1872

It was a cloudy winter evening.

I was sitting at the end of the seat in the second class car.  The train was to leave Yokosuka for Tokyo and I was waiting absentmindedly for a whistle to blow.

As is not usual,  there were no passengers except me in the car,  which had already been lit inside.

Looking out at the platform,  I didn’t see any persons who came for a send-off; only a puppy was sometimes barking sadly in the cage.

Strangely enough, such bleak scenery fit my feeling of that time.

Inexplicable fatigue and weariness were casting their shadow in my mind like the cloudy sky threatening to snow.

I kept both my hands in my overcoat pocket;  I didn’t have much strength even to take an evening newspaper out of it to read.

Meanwhile, a whistle blew to signal the departure.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington, The Pinch of Poverty, 1892

Having a slight peace of mind, with my head against the window frame, I was expecting half-heartedly that the station before my eyes would start moving backward trailingly.

But prior to it, I had hardly heard a loud noise of wooden clogs from the gate accompanied by the conductor’s abuse, when I saw a girl in her early teens open the door and come in hurriedly.  At the very moment the train swayed heavily once and moved off slowly.

Each pillar on the platform, a water-wagon for a locomotive looking as if left behind, and a porter thanking his customer for the tip —-they lingered but soon fell behind the smoke blown against the windows.

Feeling relieved at last , I opened my heavy eyelids and gave my first serious glance at the girl seated in front of me while I was lighting a cigarette.

She was a typical bumpkin with ichogaeshi-styled dry hair and chapped cheeks so flushed as to look strange.

She hang loosely a spring-green colored woolen muffler over her knees, and on them lay a package covered with furoshiki.

She held it in her frostbitten hands, in one of which she also clasped tightly a ticket for the third class car.

I disliked her vulgar looks.

I was disgusted by her dirty clothes.

And I was displeased by her senselessness of not being able to tell the second class car from the third class car.

So after I lit a cigarette, I took the newspaper out of my pocket and spread it on my knees, for one thing, to forget about her.

Vilko Šeferov, 1928

Then suddenly the light lit on the newspaper changed; it had come from outside, but now it came from the ceiling, making the types of the newspaper appear clearly before my eyes.

Needless to say, the train was entering the first of the several tunnels on the Yokosuka Line.

When I looked over the newspaper under the electric light, I found nothing but routine incidents occurring in the world, which were there to console my gloom.

Treaty of Versailles, weddings, bribery, obituary — I ran my eyes over these dreary articles almost mechanically,  under the illusion that the moment the train entered the tunnel in the opposite direction

However, I could not but be aware of the girl sitting in front of me, personifying the vulgar reality.

This train passing through the tunnel, this bumpkin girl, this evening newspaper filled with routine articles— weren’t they all symbols?   Didn’t they all symbolize obscurity, lowness and boredom of life?

Coming to feel everything was worthless, I threw away the half-read newspaper and closed my eyes as if dead.  I began to doze with my head against the window frame.

Several minutes had passed.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, Little Flower Sellers, 1887

Suddenly I felt as if I had been threatened by something and I looked around in spite of myself and found the girl, who had changed her seat from my opposite to my side, trying to open the window eagerly.

But it seemed that the heavy window would not open up against her wishes.

The chapped cheeks became all the more flushed and some sniffles accompanied with a low breathless noise reached my ears constantly.

It certainly aroused some sympathy of mine.

But it was obvious that the train was right on the point of another tunnel by seeing the mountains on both sides, where dry grass were reflected by twilight,  approaching the train window.

Nevertheless, the girl was trying to drop open the window which was closed on purpose.

I couldn’t understand what forced her to do so.

No, I could not but think she was doing out of caprice.

So, with hostility deep inside toward her, coldheartedly I was watching her struggling to open the window with those frostbitten hands, hoping that her attempt would never succeed forever.

Then the train rushed into the tunnel with an appalling noise, at which moment the  window was dropped open at last.

And the air , as dark as melted soot, came in through the square opening and , turning into suffocating thick smoke, began to fill the car.

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877

Having a naturally weak throat, I tried but failed to put a handkerchief over my face in time not to be bathed with the smoke.  Consequently, I was made to cough so violently that I could hardly breathe.

But the girl seemed not to care about me and looked hard in the direction the train went,  making a long neck out of the window with her hair blown in the wind in the dark.

When I saw her in the smoke and the electric light,  it was getting brighter and brighter outside the window, from which the cold smell of soil, dry grass and water flew in; otherwise I would have scolded the strange girl without waiting for her excuse and ordered her to close the window though I had been relieved of coughs at last by that time.

Aleksander Gierymski, Jewess with Oranges, 1880-81

But having gone through the tunnel smoothly, the train was coming near the crossing on the outskirts of a poor town lying among the mountains covered with dry grass.

Near the crossing were shabby cramped houses with thatched and tiled roofs.

And in the dusk was fluttering languidly a white flag, which would be waved by a gateman.

It was when I thought the train had passed through the tunnel at last that I saw three red cheeked boys standing closely together in a line behind the fence of the crossing.

They were all as short as if they were held down by the cloudy sky.

And all of them were wearing kimono of the same color as the gloomy scenery of the outskirts town.

They had no sooner raised their hands at the same time, while looking up at the train passing, than they bent their little neck backward and gave an incomprehensible cry with all their might.

Then it happened.

William J. McCloskey (1859–1941), Wrapped Oranges, 1889

The girl,  who had leant half her body out of a window, stretched her frostbitten hand and shook it vigorously.  Then some five or six mikan, so beautifully sunny-orange colored as to make one happy, showered down on the boys who had seen the train off.

The unexpected scene took my breath away.

And I understood everything at once.

The girl, who was likely to be on the way to her new employer, threw some mikan out of her kimono pocket to reward her brothers who came all the way to the crossing to see her off.

The crossing of the outskirts town in the dusk, the three children cheering like little birds, and the bright color of mikan falling around them – all of them had gone by in a blink.

Henry Walton, The Market Girl, 1776-77

But the scene had been printed on my mind so clearly in a heartrending way.

And I realize a strange feeling of something cheerful also sprang up from there.

I raised my head confidently and gazed at the girl as if she were another person.

Before I noticed, she had sat on the seat before me again , with her chapped cheeks buried in her spring-green colored woolen muffler.

In her hand, which held a big furoshiki, she clasped tightly the ticket for the third class car.

It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.”

________________________________________________________________________________

*mikan, the fruit the girl is giving away, is of Asian origin, also translated as satsuma mandarin, satsuma orange, tangerine and cold hardy mandarin, hence the title.

Reality Gives No Romance: Emma Bovary and Blanche DuBois

13 Jan

In this post I will explore the similarities between two literary characters: Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois. January seems like the best time to tackle this topic when we are waiting for blossoms, romance and promises of spring, or at least I am. “Reality brings no romance” is a line from a song “Walk me to the bridge” by Manic Street Preachers.

madame-bovary-1991Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary (1991)

In his 1857 novel “Madame Bovary”, Gustave Flaubert expressed loneliness, longings and provincial claustrophobia with eloquence that surpasses that of any other writer before or after. Flaubert found inspiration in a newspaper article, and by writing this book, he wanted to prove to his friends that style is more important than the theme itself, adding that he was himself repulsed by the subject of adultery.

Every page of this novel is wrapped in silent melancholy, and the story offers neither the happy ending nor the solution; the countryside offers nothing pure suffocating boredom, while the city brings cheap pleasures and shallowness. This book is everything Morrissey sang about; lost dreams, impossible loves, boredom, small town frustration. Where The Smiths used just three or four minutes to say what they had to say, and coated it in whimsical, cheerful catchy tunes, Flaubert fills more than three-hundred pages with longings and disappointments. Emma’s story is a real ‘from despair to where’ one, to quote the Manic Street Preachers now. From despair – to death, it seems for her. If there’s one line from a pop song that describes her life perfectly, it’s this one by The Smiths: “I was happy at the height of the drunken hour but heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

Source: here.

“Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one’s lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy.”

“Emma lost weight, her face became pale and gaunt. With her smooth black hair, her big eyes, her straight nose, her birdlike walk and the silence that had now become almost constant with her, did she not seem to be passing through life without touching it, bearing on her brow the mysterious mark of a sublime destiny?”

Who is Emma Bovary, anyway? And why is she so negatively portrayed in popular culture when she is so realistic, everyone suffers that melancholia and boredom occasionally, so why deny it? Emma Bovary is a young and beautiful woman whose exceedingly romantic, verging on sentimental, disposition is all due to reading too many sentimental novels at convent where she was schooled. Her views on life, love and marriage are shaped almost exclusively by what she has read in those novels. She marries Charles, a simple minded country doctor, because she sees in him a potential rescuer from the boredom of her life. Soon, she becomes disappointed because nothing turned out like she wanted it. Charles is happy living in a small town, while she withers and daydreams of Paris – “She wanted to die. And she wanted to live in Paris.” A sense of unfulfilled longing lingers throughout the novel.

Here are a few quotes about Emma’s boredom in marriage:

Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied that she must have been mistaken. And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the worlds ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’ which had looked so beautiful in books.

“‘Then the appetites of the flesh, the craving for money, the melancholy of passion, all blended together in one general misery. (…) Her drab surrounding drove her to dreams of luxury; marital tenderness prompted the desire for a lover. She would have liked Charles to hit her, that she might have just cause for hatred and revenge. She was surprised sometimes at the hideous ideas that occurred to her. And all the while she must go on smiling, hearing herself insist that she was very happy, pretending to be so, acting the part.

“She was so sad and so calm, so gentle and yet so shy, that by her side you felt under the spell of a frosty charm, just as you shiver in church at the scent of flowers mingling with the feel of cold marble. … But she was filled with lust, with rage, with hatred.”

Whenever I imagine Emma Bovary, I imagine her either wistfully strolling the paths of her garden with sad apple trees, half-dry pink hydrangeas, worn out wooden fence, moss and wet soil in the morning after a rainy night; or standing by the window, dreamy and beautiful, with a look of pain, disappointment and longing all at once in her dark eyes, as rain drops slide one by one on the outer side of the window, sighing “Everyday is like Sunday, everyday is silent and grey…”

This quote explains well why Emma hated life at the countryside and never relished in natural beauties around her:

If she had passed her childhood in the back room of a shop somewhere in the middle of a town, she might now have awaken to the lyric call of Nature, which usually reaches us only through the medium of books. But she was too familiar with the country: with the bleating of the flocks, with the dairy and the plogh. Acustomed to the peaceful, she turned in reaction to the picturesque. She loved the sea only for its storms, green foliage only when it was scattered amid ruins. It was necessary for her to derive a sort of personal profit from things, she rejected as useless whatever did not minister to her heart’s immediate fulfilment – being of a sentimental rather than artistic temperament, in search of emotions, not of scenery.

And all the time, deep within her, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a shipwrecked sailor she scanned her solitude with desperate eyes for the sight of a white sail far off on the misty horizon. (…) But every morning when she woke she hoped to find it there. She listened to every sound, started out of bed, and was surprised when noting came. Then, at sunset, sadder every day, she longed for the morrow.

And so they would follow on, one after another, always the same; innumerable days that brought nothing.

She gave up playing the piano. What use, with no one to hear her? Since she could never play at concert, in a short-sleeved velvet gown, lightly caressing the keys of an Erard and feeling the murmurs of ecstasy wafting all about her like a breeze – it wasn’t worth the boredom of practising.”

She left her drawing-folios and her needlework lie in the cupboard. What was the use? What was the use? Sewing got on her nerves.

‘I’ve read everything,’ she said to herself.

So she sat there holding the tongs in the fires or watching the rain fall.

If matters had fallen out differently, she wondered might she not have met some other man? She tried to picture to herself the things she might have been – that different life, that unknown husband. For they weren’t all like this one. He might have been handsome, intelligent, distinguished, attractive, as were no doubt the men her old school friends has married… What would they be doing now? Living in town, amid the noise of the streets, the hum of the theatre crowd, the bright lights of the ballroom – the sort of life that opens the heart and sense like flowers in bloom. Whereas for her, life was cold as an attic facing north, and the silent spider boredom wove its web in all the shadowed corners of her heart.

Blanche DuBois

Tennessee Williams’s characters are known for their complexity, and his plays turned into films are wonderful. Needless to say, I am a big fan. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was published in 1947 and is an example of Southern Gothic. The main character, Blanche DuBois, an ageing southern belle, is a soft-spoken, well-mannered, polite, dreamy, theatrical, exceedingly romantic and gentle person, who, due to her own nature and personal losses in her youth, is left vulnerable, emotionally needy and slightly psychologically unstable. There’s also something childlike about her naivety and idealism. She is a wonderful literary creation, portrayed beautifully by Vivian Leigh in the film from 1951, and another one of Tennessee Williams’ fabulous, layered, mysterious and decadent characters.

The play is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans; Blanche has just arrived and takes a streetcar named “Desire” to visit her sister Stella and her husband Stanley. The contrast between Blanche’s magical aura and the poverty and roughness of Stella and Stanley’s life is immediately noticeable. Blanche with her soft blonde curls, her long flimsy gowns with thousands of shimmering flounces that play the most charming melodies of Tchaikovsky, her pearls and roses, her rouge and her old love letters, her perfumes and soft shawls. Blanche constantly insists on creating an aesthetically pleasing environment and nurturing the dreaminess that she perpetually inhabits; she takes long baths and dresses most exquisitely despite Stella’s poor situation, insists on covering the bare lamps and keeping a boudoir lightning. She says herself: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” Her well-mannered, educated and polite nature are odd compared to the brutish nature of Stanley and his friends.

There’s something so fragile, delicate, nervous about Blanche, you can’t point your finger on it, but you feel it. As if her inner life is a butterfly trapped in a jar, fluttering hopelessly and heating the glass to no avail. In the play Tennessee Williams wrote a note: “Her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.” Blanche is delusional to the end, fragile like a moth, beautiful and dreamy, refusing to open her eyes and see the world the way it really is, accepting the hand of a stranger, with an eerie smile on her face, saying: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” A moth is broken and quenched at last.

“Physical beauty is passing – a transitory possession – but beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart – I have all these things – aren’t taken away but grow! Increase with the years!”

One of my favourite lines by Blanche:

“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”

Source: here.

The rest of my days I’m going to spend on the sea. And when I die, I’m going to die on the sea. You know what I shall die of? I shall die of eating an unwashed grape. One day out on the ocean I will die–with my hand in the hand of some nice looking ship’s doctor, a very young one with a small blond moustache and a big silver watch. “Poor lady,” they’ll say, “The quinine did her no good. That unwashed grape has transported her soul to heaven.

What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.

vivien leigh as blanche 1

“I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misinterpret things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on!”

This dialogue is my particular favourite:

Stella: You needn’t be so cruel to someone as alone as she is.

Stanley: Delicate piece she is.

Stella: She is. She was. You didn’t know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody, was tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her to change.

So, what is it that, in my view, connects the two heroines? Firstly, they are both highly imaginative and prone to melancholy and self-pity. Both follow a religion of beauty, dreams and magic. They are big aesthetes, their surroundings and appearance means a lot in keeping their dreamy vision of the world. Emma initially tries to keep away her disappointment away by decorating the house and indulging in pretty fabrics and shawls, but no amount of material possessions can fill the emotional void both heroines feel inside. They are misfits, they aren’t accepted in their communities because they are different, not realistic and down to earth. And lastly, both are emotionally and psychologically unstable.

Book Review: Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

21 Oct

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Reinaldo Arenas’s beautiful memoir Before Night Falls. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), the self proclaimed “bad poet in love with the moon” (in Spanish: “Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”) was a gay Cuban poet, novelist and playwright who fled to the United States in 1980.

The sea; turquoise blue and whispering thousands of secrets in every wave that rhythmically kisses the soft and golden sand of the beach. Photo found here.

Reinaldo Arenas… When I whisper his name, I hear the murmur of the sea, and that ‘r’ melts on my tongue like pure golden honey… Arenas… And ‘arena’ means ‘sand’ in Spanish.

How did I came to know about Arenas? Well, it all started one warm crimson night in August when I first watched the film Before Night Falls (2000) based on his autobiography, starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo. The film struck a chord with me; there was something poignant about the talented boy from the provincial area arriving to Havana to study agronomy, the boy who was at the same time naive and enraptured by the new and exciting possibilities that the big city offered. The sea, ahhh, the clear and warm sea in colours of turquoise and teal, the endless sandy beeches, and the vibrant architecture of Havana with colourful but decaying buildings with iron fences and palm trees everywhere…  And I’ll be honest, just gazing at Javier on the screen was nice too! I soon found myself daydreaming of Havana and I couldn’t get Reinaldo Arenas out of my head, so I read some of his poetry. His famous Auto-epitaph, written in New York in 1989, is just mind-blowing:

“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

and the most sordid horror has its charm.

He lived for life’s sake, which means seeing death

as a daily occurrence on which we wager

a splendid body or our entire lot.

He knew the best things are those we abandon

— precisely because we are leaving.

The everyday becomes hateful,

there s just one place to live – the impossible.

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.

He wanted no ceremony, speech, mourning or cry,

no sandy mound where his skeleton be laid to rest

(not even after death did he wish to live in peace).

He ordered that his ashes be scattered at sea

where they would be in constant flow.

He hasn’t lost the habit of dreaming :

he hopes some adolescent will plunge into his waters.”

It’s hard to put in words what this poem meant to me in those warm afternoons of August I spent soaking in the golden rays of sun and daydreaming of the tropical sea, and what it still means to me. There is one line that’s particularly poignant to me and I dare say it’s almost burned in my mind: “Sólo hay un lugar para vivir – el imposible.” (There is just one place to live – the impossible.)

This painting by Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa (1871–1959) has absolutely nothing to do with the book, but if I had to chose one painting to describe my feelings upon reading the book, this would be it: bloom, vibrancy and ecstasy!

It took me only a few pages to realise that the book I am holding in my hands is a very special book, so I read it slowly, savouring every page. Arenas’s writing is so flowing, brutally honest and poetic despite the grittiness of his life. If I had to describe the book in short, I would say: sea, sex, madness for living and writing, and fighting Fidel Castro’s regime. The book starts with memories of his childhood; he was brought up by a single-mother and lived with her large family. He described his mother as a very beautiful and a very lonely woman. Despite their material poverty, he, along with other children, discovered beauty all around them; in the morning fogs, in silent nights in the village, and especially in soil. He writes about an almost primordial connection to the soil; he ate soil as a child, his first crib was a hole in the ground dug by his grandmother, he made mud castles, and in the end the dead body would rot in the soil and become reborn as a flower, a tree or some other plant. Still, the thing that enraptured him the most was the sea which was a constant presence in his life. The sea, with its rhythmic play of waves and its blueness, spoke of freedom. This is what he says about the sea later in the book: “The sea was like a feast and forced us to be happy, even when we did not particularly want to be. Perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.

Winslow Homer – A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Here are some quotes about his childhood fascination with the trees:

“I used to climb trees, and everything seemed much more beautiful from up there. I could embrace the world in completeness and feel a harmony that I could not experience down below.”

“Trees have a secret life that is only revealed to those willing to climb them. To climb a tree is to slowly discover a unique world, rhythmic, magical and harmonious, with its worms, insects, birds, and other living things, all apparently insignificant creatures, telling us their secrets.”

And here is one about his mother; the lingering sadness and disappointment of her life is so poignant:

“Before getting to my mother’s house, I would always think of her on the porch or even on the street, sweeping. She had a light way of sweeping, as if removing the dirt were not as important as moving the broom over the ground. Her way of sweeping was symbolic; so airy, so fragile, with a broom she tried to sweep away all the horrors, all the loneliness, all the misery that had accompanied her all her life…”

Colourful architecture of Havana. Photo found here.

At one point he moved from his little village to the city of Holguín, and in 1963 he won Fidel Castro’s scholarship and moved to Havana to study at the School of Planification. Later he studied literature and philosophy at the Unversidad de La Habana, but left the course without completing a degree. Ever since he first visited Havana, Arenas felt drawn to it, he felt it is the place to be: a big vibrant city where no one knows your name, a place far away from the poverty of the countryside. There he meets many interesting people: bohemians, painters, eccentrics and fellow writers such as Eliseo Diego and Lezama Lima. Arenas’s time spent in the sixties Havana was a vibrant and a happy period of his life, filled with sexual escapades, swimming, spending evenings at the famous cabaret Tropicana. There were three things he enjoyed in the early sixties: his typewriter, countless young men (fulfilling lust was a path to liberty because it was anti-regime), and the full discovery of the sea. Arenas wrote that sitting down and writing was a special experience and that the rhythm of his typing would inspire him and chapters would come like waves of the sea, first strong and wild then silent and slow. Many pages are devoted to descriptions of his writing and wild parties where everyone brought their notebooks, wrote poems or chapters of novels which they would then read to each other and, of course, made love. As Reinaldo said: literature and passion went hand in hand.

But things changed in the late sixties when Reinaldo’s openly gay lifestyle and his writing fell out of favour with the Communist regime. He had to hide his manuscripts and his novels were published abroad with the help of his French friends. In 1974 he was arrested and sent to prison. After he escaped from prison and tried to flee Cuba he was arrested again and sent to the notorious prison called El Morro Castle where he lived in gruesome circumstances. There’s a great scene in the film where in the middle of a dirty prison cell and loud inmates, Reinaldo is shown writing. Nothing could stop him from creating; hunger, imprisonment, illness. Creative expression was everything. While he was in prison he organised French lessons and helped his inmates by writing love letters to their girlfriends or wives. If you’re looking for self-pity, you won’t find it on any page of Before Night Falls.

Peder Severin Krøyer,Summer evening at the South Beach, 1893

Winslow Homer – Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

And here is an explanation for the book’s title ‘Before Night Falls’ (original: Antes que anochezca: autobiografía):

‘Being a fugitive living in the woods at the time, I had to write before it got dark. Now darkness was approaching again, only more insidiously. It was the dark night of death. I really had to finish my memoirs before nightfall. I took it as a challenge.’

There is such a romanticism about Reinaldo’s life; the way he was never spiritless despite the hardships, imprisonments and betrayals of people he considered to be friends. It seems like nothing could really get him down, and he never wasted time but wrote, wrote and wrote. He lived for his writing, everything else came second, and despite his relatively short life his oeuvre proves his fruitfulness as an artist. Particularly interesting was to read about the creation of his novel “Farewell to the Sea” (Otra vez el mar). I honestly can’t even remember how many times he wrote that novel but every time the manuscript would get lost, stolen, burnt, you name it. And you know what he did? He started writing it again.

In 1987 Reinaldo was diagnosed with AIDS. On 7th December 1990 he died after an intentional overdose on alcohol and drugs. His decision to end his life instead of passively waiting for death is summed in this quote: “I have always considered it despicable to to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.”

In this photo you can see the man himself.

To close this ode to Reinaldo, here is another interesting thing, an interview from 1983 which you can read here. Here is a fragment from the beginning, the interviewer’s impression of Reinaldo: “Though I was nervous about meeting the great man, one of Cuba’s most admired writers, Arenas immediately put me at ease. “Encantado,” he said, smiling and taking my hand. Forty years old at the time, he had thick, curly black hair and enormous, sad eyes…”

I was especially interested to hear about his writing process and choosing different styles of writing for different scenes:

“If there’s a moment—as in my novel “Farewell to the Sea”—where you want to satirize all the uniforms, swords, and so forth of a dictator, you can do a caricature of the baroque. If you’re describing the characters’ nightmares, that may be the time for surrealism. All of these techniques or styles can come into play as you realize your vision. (…) But there’s a moment for every style. That’s why I advocate an eclectic technique.”

I loved this book because I felt as if I was on a journey with Arenas, through space and time. I loved it because of its wild and sincere yearning to live life to the fullest, to write and create and breathe and be excited by the sight of the sea for the thousandth time. In his last letter, Arenas wrote: “I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue working … I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.

I see this book as a gift from Reinaldo, it gave me hope and assured me in my opinion that there is nothing more elevating than suffering and struggling for art.

Joan Miró – Blue Is the Colour of My Dreams

20 Aug

Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró (1893-1993), whose work is usually classified as Surrealism, painted many beautiful paintings that show the vividness of his imagination, bursting with bold colours and intricate shapes. Still, his painting This is the color of my dreams has a special place in my heart: it is simple, just a blue fleck on white background, and underneath it Miró elegantly wrote the words that serve as the title of the painting, in French. Those words, the idea behind them, gives this simple blue a poetic, dreamy, mystical dimension.

Joan Miró, This is the color of my dreams, 1925

Isn’t it just a beautiful idea, to paint the colour of your dreams? And different dreams come in different colours, shades, different fragrances, melodies and moods. Miró dreamt in blue. And here’s what Jean Cocteau had to say about blue colour in “The Secret of Blue”:

The secret of blue is well kept. Blue comes from far away. On its way, it hardens and changes into a mountain. The cicada works at it. The birds assist. In reality, one doesn’t know. One speaks of Prussian blue. In Naples, the virgin stays in the cracks of walls when the sky recedes. But it’s all a mystery. The mystery of sapphire, mystery of Sainte Vierge, mystery of the siphon, mystery of the sailor’s collar, mystery of the blue rays that blind and your blue eye which goes through my heart.

Jack Kerouac – Tristessa: Love, Frenzy and Sadness in Mexico City

13 Aug

Even though I always proclaim On the Road as my favourite novel by Jack Kerouac, it is the novella Tristessa that most often comes to mind when thinking about Kerouac because the story of his wild impossible love, decaying souls in seedy streets of Mexico City where “a soul eats another soul in a never ending void”, addiction, prostitution and poverty is so damn haunting, poignant and beautiful, from a literary point of view.

The novel starts in a chic Kerouac way, with him driving in a taxi with Tristessa, drunk, with a bottle of Juarez Bourbon in his hand, in a Mexico City on a rainy Saturday night. “Tristessa” is Kerouac’s name for a young prostitute and a morphine addict whose real name was Esperanza Villanueva.

It always puzzled me why he decided to change her name from Esperanza (“hope” in Spanish) to Tristessa (“tristeza” meaning “sadness” in Spanish), but the change, admittedly, makes the title sound cooler. Beauty of Kerouac’s writings often contrasts with the gritty reality he is describing, but he lived among that low-life and misfits and that gives his book a genuine flair. For example, he describes Tristessa as a beautiful, enchanting girl with high cheekbones and a sad face expression that speaks of resignation. In real life, she looked like a drug addict; ill, frail and weary. Other characters are also morphine addicts, pimps and thieves. In that shabby room where a hen, a dove, a rooster and a cat walk freely, a room with a leaking roof, posters of Mexican pin-ups on the wall, a dirty mattress, and candles on the little altar of virgin Mary, there Kerouac realises that birth and death are the same empty dream. There is too much restlessness in him to fully accept the idea, but Tristessa’s soul is full of beautiful resignation, she has nothing and wants nothing, choosing to walk through life mute on every suffering that comes. There’s something beautiful in that fragility, life stripped to its essence; painful and pointless without any pretending that it’s not true. Reading about Tristessa’s suffering is poignant, it makes you feel you want to reach out and help her, but you can’t. Kerouac’s novels burst with characters of sad, lost, vulnerable souls, fragile as poppy flowers that gently dance in the wind and yet, if you pick them, their petals fall, too fragile to live anywhere apart from the meadow. So, leave them there, on a vibrant green meadow, leave them to dance their short waltz and die in silence, you cannot help them.

In Tristessa, Kerouac describes with his typical vibrant, at parts poignant and sad, at parts fun and wild rock ‘n’ roll writing style a fragile period in time. Even though he returned to Mexico City two years after, nothing was the same. The mystical flair from the first few pages, that of candlelight and statue of Madonna, leaking roof, morphine and a hen, disappear quickly and turn into grey hopelessness and poverty of the slums. Kerouac drunk, Kerouac sober. Glamour stripped away. Sadness lingers. I’ve never been drunk in my life, and yet I feel “drunk” after reading Kerouac.

And now a few quotes:

It starts raining harder, I’ve got a long way to go walking and pushing that sore leg right along in the gathering rain, no chance no intention whatever of hailing a cab, the whiskey and the Morphine have made me unruffled by the sickness of the poison in my heart.

***

I play games with her fabulous eyes and she longs to be in a monastery.

***

She is giving me my life back and not claiming it for herself as so many of the women you love do claim.

***

And a wonderful, inspiring sentence to end the novel:

I’ll go to the south of Sicily in the winter, and paint memories of Arles – I’ll buy a piano and Mozart me that – I’ll write long sad tales about people in the legend of my life – This part is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours

Gabriel Garcia Márquez: Love Letters, Fresh Lilies, Tears and Dried Butterflies (One Hundred Years of Solitude)

16 Jul

A week ago I finished reading Márquez’s magnificent novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and I have fallen in love with the story, the mood, the characters, his writing style and magic realism. Art equivalent of the book must be, for me, the blue dreamy world of Marc Chagall’s lovers, flowers and psychedelic fiddlers on roofs in far-off villages of his imagination, which might as well be Márquez’s mystical Macondo, and I can also see myself listening to Pink Floyd and daydreaming of chapters from the books. Some sentences have really left me feeling high as a kite; it rains for four years, plague insomnia which leaves people not tired but nostalgic for dreams, tiny yellow flowers that cover the entire village the moment José Arcadio Buendía dies, yellow butterflies that follow the dark melancholic-eyed Mauricio at every step, Rebeca who eats earth and arrives with a sack that makes a clock-clock-clock sound of her parents’ bones; illusion upon illusion, magic upon magic, and in the end, only eternal solitude remains.

Savely Sorin, Two Women, c. 1920s

I recently discovered this painting of two women in white by the Russian artist Savely Sorin (1887-1953), and now every time I look at it, it reminds me of Amaranda and Rebeca, sitting on a begonia porch, their hands busy embroidering; both lost in their own worlds and their hearts full of woe, both lonely with an impenetrable inner life, both finding consolation in writing passionate perfumed love letters to the same man which they never send… I imagine the lady in the front to be Rebeca and the brown-haired one is Amaranta, for me.

When I started reading the book, one morning sitting on my balcony, surrounded by pots of pink begonias, I flipped through the pages wondering about their content, and this was the first sentence that I randomly saw and I was mesmerised, what a scene: “On rainy afternoon, embroidering with a group of friends on the begonia porch, she would lose the thread of the conversation and a tear of nostalgia would salt her palate when she saw the strips of damp earth and the piles of mud that the earthworms had pushed up in the garden. Those secret tastes, defeated in the past by oranges and rhubarb, broke out into an irrepressible urge when she began to weep. She went back to eating earth.

I don’t think I will ever see begonias again and not think of Márquez. I like to daydream of flowers and their different personalities and connect flowers and trees to people, real or imaginary.

Even though I loved the entire book, there is a part of that I particularly enjoyed reading, that appealed to me the most, when Buendía family was at its most lively, vibrant state, and the house was full of love: Aureliano was consumed with passion for Remedios who is described as “a pretty little girl with lily-colored skin and green eyes”, and Rebeca and Amaranda were besotted with their dance instructor, a dashing and handsome blonde Italian called Pietro Crespi. With love followed daydreams, passionate letters, tears, torments and jealousies:

The house became full of love. Aureliano expressed it in poetry that had no beginning or end. He would write it on the harsh pieces of parchment that Melquiades gave him, on the bathroom walls, on the skin of his arms, and in all of it Remedios would appear transfigured: Remedios in the soporific air of two in the afternoon, Remedios in the soft breath of the roses, Remedios in the water-clock secrets of the moths, Remedios in the steaming morning bread, Remedios everywhere and Remedios forever. Rebeca waited for her love at four in the afternoon, embroidering by the window. She knew that the mailman’s mule arrived only every two weeks, but she always waited for him, convinced that he was going to arrive on some other day by mistake. It happened quite the opposite : once the mule did not come on the usual day. Mad with desperation, Rebeca got up in the middle of the night and ate handfuls of earth in the garden with a suicidal drive, weeping with pain and fury, chewing tender earthworms and chipping her teeth on snail shells. She vomited until dawn. She fell into a state of feverish prostration, lost consciousness, and her heart went into a shameless delirium. Ursula, scandalized, forced the lock on her trunk and found at the bottom, tied together with pink ribbons, the sixteen perfumed letters and the skeletons of leaves and petals preserved in old books and the dried butterflies that turned to powder at the touch.

As soon as Amaranta found out about Rebeca’s interest in Pietro, she wanted him too:

When she discovered Rebeca’s passion, which was impossible to keep secret because of her shouts, Amaranta suffered an attack of fever. She also suffered from the barb of a lonely love. Shut up in the bathroom, she would release herself from the torment of a hopeless passion by writing feverish letters, which she finally hid in the bottom of her trunk. Ursula barely had the strength to take care of the two sick girls. (…) Finally, in another moment of inspiration, she forced the lock on the trunk and found the letters tied with a pink ribbon, swollen with fresh lilies and still wet with tears, addressed and never sent to Pietro Crespi.

Marc Chagall, Bouquet près de la fenêtre, 1959-60

Meanwhile, some things occur, Rebeca marries another man and Pietro, heartbroken, finds consolation in hours spend in Amaranta’s company. This must be the dreamiest, most romantic passage of the book, for me. I mean; suffocating smell of roses in dusk, this dashing Italian translating Petrarca’s love poetry for his sweetheart, and both sighing and daydreaming on the begonia porch of that remote village in Columbia about that famed Europe and wonders of Italy, nostalgia pervading the Columbian night:

Amaranta and Pietro Crespi had, in fact, deepened their friendship, protected by Ursula, who this time did not think it necessary to watch over the visits. It was a twilight engagement. The Italian would arrive at dusk, with a gardenia in his buttonhole, and he would translate Petrarch’s sonnets for Amaranta. They would sit on the porch, suffocated by the oregano and the roses, he reading and she sewing lace cuffs, indifferent to the shocks and bad news of the; war, until the mosquitoes made them take refuge in the parlor. Amaranta’s sensibility, her discreet but enveloping tenderness had been weaving an invisible web about her fiance, which he had to push aside materially with his pale and ringless fingers in order to leave the house at eight o’clock. They had put together a delightful album with the postcards that Pietro Crespi received from Italy. They were pictures of lovers in lonely pink. with vignettes of hearts pierced with arrows and golden ribbons held by doves. “I’ve been to this park in Florence,” Pietro Crespi would say, going through the cards. “A person can put out his hand and the birds will come to feed.” Sometimes, over a watercolor of Venice, nostalgia would transform the smell of mud and putrefying shellfish of the canals into the warm aroma of flowers. Amaranta would sigh, laugh, and dream of a second homeland of handsome men and beautiful women who spoke a childlike language, with ancient cities of whose past grandeur only the cats among the rubble remained.

Have you read the book? Have you enjoyed these passages as much as I have?