Tag Archives: novel

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: Sun, Heat and Vibrant Colours of Arles (from Lust for Life)

17 Mar

“The Arlesian sun smote Vincent between the eyes, and broke him wide open. It was a whirling, liquid ball of lemon-yellow fire, shooting across a hard blue sky and filling the air with blinding light. The terrific heat and intense clarity of the air created a new and unfamiliar world.”

(Irving Stone, Lust for Life)

Vincent Van Gogh, Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, August 1888

One of my greatest joys in these early spring days is noticing and gazing at the trees in bloom, the same trees which were sad-looking and bare for months, and enjoying the golden rays of sun caressing me and promising ever warmer days. The joy of feeling the warm sun on your skin cannot be put in words! When it comes to art, my mind instantly went to Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers, his delicate almond blossoms and blooming orchards, I need his yellows and blues like I need the air to breathe. I was reading some of his letter again and also I was rereading Irving Stone’s wonderful novel “Lust for Life”, first published in 1934, which is a romanticised biography of Vincent van Gogh. I really recommend the book to everyone because it’s just so beautifully written and it absolutely sweeps you away. Irving Stone was just a great writer, I also read his novel “Agony and Ecstasy” about the life of Michelangelo, and I loved it as well, and I am not even interested in the art of Michelangelo and I think that speaks for the brilliancy of Stone’s writing. So, I decided to share passages from the novel which I found particularly interesting and accompany it with Van Gogh’s paintings and my own thoughts. After spending some time in Paris and living with his brother, Vincent, a man from the drab north, felt an inexplicable aching and longing for sun and in spring of 1888 he arrived to Arles, a small town in Provence, and that is where some of his most exciting, most vibrant paintings were painted. Here is how his arrival and first impressions of Arles are described in “Lust for Life”:

He dropped out of the third-class carriage early in the morning and walked down the winding road that led from the station to the Place Lamartine, a market square bounded on one side by the embankment of the Rhône, on the other by cafés and wretched hotels. Arles lay straight ahead, pasted against the side of a hill with a neat mason’s trowel, drowsing in the hot, tropical sun. When it came to looking for a place to live, Vincent was indifferent. He walked into the first hotel he passed in the Place, the Hotel de la Gare, and rented a room. It contained a blatant brass bed, a cracked pitcher in a washbowl, and an odd chair. The proprietor brought in an unpainted table. There was no room to set up an easel, but Vincent meant to paint out of doors all day.

He threw his valise on the bed and dashed out to see the town. There were two approaches to the heart of Arles from the Place Lamartine. The circular road on the left was for wagons; it skirted the edge of the town and wound slowly to the top of the hill, passing the old Roman forum and amphitheatre on the way. Vincent took the more direct approach, which led through a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets. After a long climb he reached the sun scorched Place de la Mairie. On the way up he passed cold stone courts and quadrangles which looked as though they had come down untouched from the early Roman days. In order to keep out the maddening sun, the alleys had been made so narrow that Vincent could touch both rows of houses with outstretched fingertips. To avoid the torturing mistral, the streets wound about in a hopeless maze on the side of the hill, never going straight for more than ten yards. There was refuse in the streets, dirty children in the doorways, and over everything a sinister, hunted aspect.

Vincent van Gogh, Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-May 1888

Vincent left the Place de la Mairie, walked through a short alley to the main marketing road at the back of the town, strolled through the little park, and then stumbled down the hill to the Roman arena. He leaped from tier to tier like a goat, finally reaching the top. He sat on a block of stone, dangled his legs over a sheer drop of hundreds of feet, lit his pipe, and surveyed the domain of which he had appointed himself lord and master.

The town below him flowed down abruptly to the Rhône like a kaleidoscopic waterfall. The roofs of the houses were fitted into each other in an intricate design. They had all been tiled in what was originally red clay, but the burning, incessant sun had baked them to a maze of every colour, from the lightest lemon and delicate shell pink to a biting lavender and earthy loam-brown.

The wide, rapidly flowing Rhône made a sharp curve at the bottom of the hill on which Arles was plastered, and shot downward to the Mediterranean. There were stone embankments on either side of the river. Trinquetaille glistened like a painted city on the other bank. Behind Vincent were the mountains, huge ranges sticking upward into the clear white light. Spread out before him was a panorama of tilled fields, of orchards in blossom, the rising mound of Montmajour, fertile valleys ploughed into thousands of deep furrows, all converging at some distant point in infinity.

Vincent van Gogh, Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass, 1888

But it was the colour of the country-side that made him run a hand over his bewildered eyes. The sky was so intensely blue, such a hard, relentless, profound blue that it was not blue at all; it was utterly colorless. The green of the fields that stretched below him was the essence of the colour green, gone mad. The burning lemon-yellow of the sun, the blood-red of the soil, the crying whiteness of the lone cloud over Montmajour, the ever reborn rose of the orchards… such colourings were incredible. How could he paint them? How could he ever make anyone believe that they existed, even if he could transfer them to his palette? Lemon, blue, green, red, rose; nature run rampant in five torturing shades of expression.

Vincent took the wagon road to the Place Lamartine, grabbed up his easel, paints, and canvas and struck out along the Rhône. Almond trees were beginning to flower everywhere. The glistening white glare of the sun on the water sent stabs of pain into his eyes. He had left his hat in the hotel. The sun burned through the red of his hair, sucked out all the cold of Paris, all the fatigue, discouragement, and satiety with which city life had glutted his soul.
A kilometre down the river he found a drawbridge with a little cart going over it, outlined against a blue sky. The river was as blue as a well, the banks orange, coloured with green grass. A group of washerwomen in smocks and many-coloured caps were pounding dirty clothes in the shade of a lone tree. Vincent set up his easel, drew a long breath, and shut his eyes. No man could catch such colourings with his eyes open. There fell away from him Seurat’s talk about scientific pointillism, Gauguin’s harangues about primitive decorativeness, Cezanne’s appearances beneath solid surfaces, Lautrec’s lines of colour and lines of splenetic hatred.

Rimbaud – No One’s Serious at Seventeen

12 Nov

Today I thought I’d share a poem called “Novel” by a French poet Arthur Rimbaud. I’ve loved the poem for years now and then I also noticed it was recited in the film “Young and Beautiful” (Jeune & Jolie, 2013) which I also love. The poem instantly transports me to a summer evening in June when the scent of linden trees fills the night air and the pavements are littered with its tiny golden flowers, in those summer evenings the scent of the linden trees, the fireflies and the stars above give the illusion that everything is possible. It’s a heavenly feeling and this poem gives me that feeling, even though it’s misty and drab November.

Still from the film Jeune & Jolie (2013)

I

We aren’t serious when we’re seventeen.

—One fine evening, to hell with beer and lemonade,

Noisy cafés with their shining lamps!

We walk under the green linden trees of the park

 

The lindens smell good in the good June evenings!

At times the air is so scented that we close our eyes.

The wind laden with sounds—the town isn’t far—

Has the smell of grapevines and beer . . .

 

II

—There you can see a very small patch

Of dark blue, framed by a little branch,

Pinned up by a naughty star, that melts

In gentle quivers, small and very white . . .

 

Night in June! Seventeen years old! —We are overcome by it all

The sap is champagne and goes to our head . . .

We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips

Trembling there like a small insect . . .

 

III

Our wild heart moves through novels like Robinson Crusoe,

—When, in the light of a pale street lamp,

A girl goes by attractive and charming

Under the shadow of her father’s terrible collar . . .

 

And as she finds you incredibly naïve,

While clicking her little boots,

She turns abruptly and in a lively way . . .

—Then cavatinas die on your lips . . .

 

IV

You are in love. Occupied until the month of August.

You are in love. —Your sonnets make Her laugh.

All your friends go off, you are ridiculous.

—Then one evening the girl you worship deigned to write to you . . . !

 

—That evening, . . . —you return to the bright cafés,

You ask for beer or lemonade . . .

—We’re not serious when we are seventeen

And when we have green linden trees in the park.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876

*Translation found here.

Art in John Fowles’s The Collector

25 Jul

“I’m so far from everything. From normality. From light. From what I want to be.”

(John Fowles, The Collector)

Berthe Morisot, Child With A Red Apron, 1886

John Fowles’ debut novel “The Collector” is one of the most fascinating novels I’ve read recently and it will probably become one of my all time favourites as well because the theme is so fascinating. It’s about a lonely, alienated individual called Frederick who collects butterflies and one day “collects” a girl called Miranda, a pretty twenty year old art student that he had spent weeks admiring from afar. I wrote a book review of it here, but today I would like to focus on the theme of art in the novel because it’s not so often that art gets mentioned in fiction. Art is bound to come up in the conversation with Frederick because Miranda is an art student in the dawn of the sixties so it’s specially interesting to hear her thoughts on the then contemporary art world. After Frederick kidnaps her, he keeps her in his basement and they spend time together and start to get to know each other. On one of such occasions, Miranda draws a portrait of him:

One day about then she did a picture of me, like returned the compliment. I had to sit in a chair and look at the corner of the room. After half an hour she tore up the drawing before I could stop her. (She often tore up. Artistic temperament, I suppose.) I’d have liked it, I said. But she didn’t even reply to that, she just said, don’t move. From time to time she talked. Mostly personal remarks. “You’re very difficult to get. You’re so featureless. Everything’s nondescript. I’m thinking of you as an object, not as a person.” Later she said, “You’re not ugly, but your face has all sorts of ugly habits. Your underlip is worst. It betrays you.” I looked in the mirror upstairs, but I couldn’t see what she meant.

Paul Cezanne, Four Apples, 1881

Another time, Miranda made still life studies of fruits in a bowl. I think this scene shows Miranda’s artistic temperament and how Frederick never has a clue about anything, he is so inferior to her in every sense that Miranda cannot help but laugh. For example, he thinks the best painting is the one that is most accurate, most realistic, he doesn’t understand why someone paints something in a free-spirited, colourful way:

Another day she drew a bowl of fruit. She drew them about ten times, and then she pinned them all up on the screen and asked me to pick the best. I said they were all beautiful but she insisted so I plumped for one. “That’s the worst,” she said. “That’s a clever little art student’s picture.” She said, “One of them is good. I know it is good. It is worth all the rest a hundred times over. If you can pick it in three guesses you can have it for nothing when I go. If I go. If you don’t, you must give me ten guineas for it.” Well, ignoring her dig I had three guesses, they were all wrong. The one that was so good only looked half-finished to me, you could hardly tell what the fruit were and it was all lop-sided. “There I’m just on the threshold of saying something about the fruit. I don’t actually say it, but you get the idea that I might. Do you feel that?” I said I didn’t actually. She went and got a book of pictures by Cezanne. “There,” she said, pointing to a coloured one of a plate of apples. “He’s not only saying everything there is about the apples, but everything about all apples and all form and colour.” I take your word for it, I said. All your pictures are nice, I said. She just looked at me. “Ferdinand,” she said. “They should have called you Caliban.

Syd Barrett with his painting, spring 1964

And I chose this last quote because it shows Miranda’s view on art at the time, her disdain for the avant-garde approach to art. This picture of Syd Barrett above may seem out of place because the post is not about him or the Pink Floyd, but the reason I decided to include it is because he was an art student in the early sixties. When I read The Collector and thought about Miranda, I also thought about the real people and the real art scene from that time. Miranda the book character was probably a few years older, but they could have crossed paths in London. Syd’s generation praise imagination and had a child-like vision of things and I love that approach to art; experimental and fun, not stuffy and rigid and full of rules. I also love how Miranda points out that the bottom line is that either you can paint or you can’t, and I agree:

I felt our whole age was a hoax, a sham. The way people talk and talk about tachism and cubism and this ism and that ism and all the long words they use — great smeary clots of words and phrases. All to hide the fact that either you can paint or you can’t. I want to paint like Berthe Morisot, I don’t mean with her colours or forms or anything physical, but with her simplicity and light. I don’t want to be clever or great or “significant” or given all that clumsy masculine analysis. I want to paint sunlight on children’s faces, or flowers in a hedge or a street after April rain. The essences. Not the things themselves. Swimmings of light on the smallest things. Or am I being sentimental? Depressed. I’m so far from everything. From normality. From light. From what I want to be.

Book Review: The Collector by John Fowles

15 Jul

I read quite a few interesting novels lately, but John Fowles’ debut novel “The Collector”, published in May 1963, is the most peculiar one; both the theme and the style in which it was written are fascinating. I discovered this novel by serendipity, completely randomly, but it turned out that this was exactly the kind of novel I craved. I was captivated from the very first page because from the very beginning Fowles places the reader into the mind of a seemingly ordinary, yet very unusual individual named Frederick Clegg. Frederick isn’t the Arnold Layne from Pink Floyd’s song, stealing and collecting girls knickers from the washing lines in suburban gardens of Cambridge, but he is a collector of other things; firstly the butterflies, and then one beautiful girl called Miranda he watches from afar and over time falls in love with, despite not knowing anything about her really, apart of the Art School she goes to and what she looks like. He is a socially awkward, strange individual and it’s hard to decide whether he is good or bad; the things he does are bad, but his intentions truly are not.

His early daydreams about her are very romantic and sweet, but concerning in their delusional nature: “I used to have daydreams about her, I used to think of stories where I met her, did things she admired, married her and all that. Nothing nasty, that was never until what I’ll explain later. She drew pictures and I looked after my collection (in my dreams). It was always she loving me and my collection, drawing and colouring them; working together in a beautiful modern house in a big room with one of those huge glass windows; meetings there of the Bug Section, where instead of saying almost nothing in case I made mistakes we were the popular host and hostess. She all pretty with her pale blonde hair and grey eyes and of course the other men all green round the gills.

Other days the sweetness of these innocent daydreams takes a darker tone when he sees her spending time with other men, for he, naturally, wants her all for himself, even though Miranda doesn’t even know he exists: “The only times I didn’t have nice dreams about her being when I saw her with a certain young man, a loud noisy public-school type who had a sports car. Those were days I let myself have the bad dreams. She cried or usually knelt. Once I let myself dream I hit her across the face as I saw it done once by a chap in a telly play. Perhaps that was when it all started.

Catherine Deneuve in UK filming 1965 British psychological horror Repulsion, London, Friday 2nd October 1964. Photo by Wilson

One day, Frederick wins a prize in the football pools and decides to buy a lonely and old countryside house. From that moment on, his daydreams and wild fantasies become serious plans; he decorates the cellar and is ready to catch his butterfly-victim Miranda. One evening he follows her after her classes: “It was all planned. And then she was near. She’d come up and round without me seeing, only twenty yards away, walking quickly. If it had been a clear night I don’t know what I’d have done. But there was this wind in the trees. Gusty. I could see there was no one behind her. Then she was right beside me, coming up the pavement. Funny, singing to herself.” After he kidnaps her, he drives her to his countryside house and locks her in the cellar. The novel is divided in three parts; the first part is seen from Frederick’s point of view, the second part is Miranda’s diary written in captivity, and a tiny bit at the end is again told from Frederick’s point of view.

Miranda’s emotions change greatly throughout the novel; at first she is frightened and thinks he must be interested only in sex, which isn’t true, but as she gets to know him, she realises just how pathetic, uneducated, uncultured and weak he truly is; a working class nobody, that is how she sees him, for she is a posh, middle-class art student. He doesn’t have a clue about art or Mozart; things that Miranda loves. Frederick also realises that Miranda is far from the girl of his dreams; she is insolent, she regularly mocks him for the way he walks and talks, decorates his house, nothing escapes her snobbish prejudice. And the most heartbreaking realisation comes in the end, when he realises that she never loved him. The realism gives this novel humanity; Frederick isn’t a cruel savage and a monster, but rather a lonely, confused, strange individual who simply wants to connect with another human being, and he tries doing that the only way he thinks it’s possible, as he says: “if she’s with me, she’ll see my good points, she’ll understand. There was always the idea she would understand.” Things aren’t always black and white and this novel shows the complexities of such a situation. Even though one would assume Miranda was a poor victim and Frederick the evil person, I grew fond of Frederick whilst reading the novel and I developed a sadness and understanding for him. I don’t think he has a cruel heart.

And now more quotes I enjoyed:

That was the day I first gave myself the dream that came true. It began where she was being attacked by a man and I ran up and rescued her. Then somehow I was the man that attacked her, only I didn’t hurt her; I captured her and drove her off in the van to a remote house and there I kept her captive in a nice way. Gradually she came to know me and like me and the dream grew into the one about our living in a nice modern house, married, with kids and everything. It haunted me. It kept me awake at nights, it made me forget what I was doing during the day. I stayed on and on at the Cremorne. It stopped being a dream, it began to be what I pretended was really going to happen (of course, I thought it was only pretending) so I thought of ways and means — all the things I would have to arrange and think about and how I’d do it and all. I thought, I can’t ever get to know her in the ordinary way, but if she’s with me, she’ll see my good points, she’ll understand. There was always the idea she would understand.

Apollo Butterfly, Illustrations taken from ‘The Natural History of British Butterflies’ by Edward Donovan, Printed for the author in 1792 and for F. and C. Rivington

He’s so slow, so unimaginative, so lifeless. Like zinc white. I see it’s a sort of tyranny he has over me. He forces me to be changeable, to act. To show off. The hateful tyranny of weak people. The ordinary man is the curse of civilization. But he’s so ordinary that he’s extraordinary. He takes photographs. He wants to take a “portrait” of me. Then there were his butterflies, which I suppose were rather beautiful. Yes, rather beautifully arranged, with their poor little wings stretched out all at the same angle. And I felt for them, poor dead butterflies, my fellow-victims.

She’d taken her blue jumper off, she stood there in a dark green tartan dress, like a schoolgirl tunic, with a white blouse open at the throat. Her hair swept back into the pigtail. Her lovely face. She looked brave. I don’t know why, I thought of her sitting on my knees, very still, with me stroking her soft blonde hair, all out loose as I saw it after. Suddenly I said, I love you. It’s driven me mad. She said, “I see,” in a queer grave voice. She didn’t look at me any more then. I know it’s old-fashioned to say you love a woman, I never meant to do it then. In my dreams it was always we looked into each other’s eyes one day and then we kissed and nothing was said until after.

For some time she sat smoking, with her eyes shut, as if the sight of me tired her eyes.

High Brown Fritillary, Illustrations taken from ‘The Natural History of British Butterflies’ by Edward Donovan, Printed for the author in 1792 and for F. and C. Rivington

The author explained the inspiration behind the novel in his journal entry for 3rd February 1963:

The Collector. The three sources. One. My lifelong fantasy of imprisoning a girl underground. I think I must go back to early in my teens. I remember it used to be famous people Princess Margaret, various film stars. Of course, there was a sexual motive; the love-through-knowledge motive, or motif, has also been constant. The imprisoning in other words, has always been a forcing of my personality as well as my penis on the girl concerned. Variations I can recall: the harem (several girls in one room, or in a row of rooms); the threat (this involves sharing a whip, but usually not flagellation—the idea of exerted tyranny, entering as executioner); the fellow-prisoner (this by far the commonest variation: the girl is captured and put naked into the underground room; I then have myself put in it, as if I am a fellow-prisoner, and so avoid her hostility). Another common sexual fantasy is the selection board: I am given six hundred girls to choose fifty from and so on. These fantasies have long been exteriorized in my mind, of course; certainly I use the underground-room one far less since The Collector.

Two, the air-raid shelter incident.

Three, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Fragonard, Kundera and the Pleasure of Slowness

22 Apr

“Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? All, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor: “They are gazing at Gods windows. A person gazing at God’s windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do. which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.”

(Milan Kundera, Slowness)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Reverie, 1771

Milan Kundera’s novel “Slowness”, his first novel written in French and not in Czech, was published in 1995. Like all of Kundera’s work, “Slowness” is a philosophical novel. The plot line and the characters serve only as a starting point for the exploration of topics such as slowness, pleasure and hedonism as things of the past, and how the modernity, speed suppress sensuality; modern people have no time for idleness of conquests of love, everything is about the goal and not about the process. To contrast the motifs of slowness vs speed, slow seduction vs rash conquest, Kundera combines two plot lines set in different times. One follows a couple driving in a car to a countryside chateau in France, and the other goes back in past, Kundera takes us back to the wonderful 18th century by retelling a story originally written by Vivant Denons in which the two lovers have a night of slow seduction full of secret symbolism and love language. This is how the novel begins:

We suddenly had the urge to spend the evening and night in a chateau. Many of them in France have become hotels: a square of greenery lost in a stretch of ugliness without greenery… I am driving, and in the rearview mirror I notice a car behind me. The small left light is blinking, and the whole car emits waves of impatience. The driver is watching for his chance to pass me; he is watching for the moment the way a hawk watches for a sparrow. (…) I check the rearview mirror: still the same car unable to pass me because of the oncoming traffic.Beside the driver sits a woman: why doesn’t the man tell her something funny? why doesn’t he put his hand on her knee? Instead, he’s cursing the driver ahead of him for not going fast enough, and it doesn’t occur to the woman, either, to touch the driver with her hand; mentally she’s at the wheel with him, and she’s cursing me too.

And I think of another journey from Paris out to a country chateau, which took place more than two hundred years ago, the journey of Madame de T. and the young Chevalier who went with her. It is the first time they are so close to each other, and the inexpressible atmosphere of sensuality around them springs from the very slowness of the rhythm: rocked by the motion of the carriage, the two bodies touch, first inadvertently, then advertently, and the story begins. Then begins their night: a night shaped like a triptych, a night as an excursion in three stages: first, they walk in the park; next, they make love in a pavilion; last, they continue the lovemaking in a secret chamber of the chateau.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Pursuit, 1771-72

I read “Slowness” five years ago, but this philosophical discussion is something that comes to my mind often and it dawned on me now how connected the slow seduction from Kundera’s novel is with the French Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s series called “Progress of Love” which was originally commissioned by Louis XV’s mistress Madame Du Barry for her pleasure pavilion designed by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Despite the beauty and vivacious nature of these canvases, they weren’t displayed for a long time in the pavilion, Du Barry soon ended up returning them to the painter. The reason behind her odd dissatisfaction with the master pieces is unknown, perhaps the resemblance between the young lad and the king Louis and the girl and Du Barry was too strong, or perhaps the Rococo spirit of the paintings was going out of fashion and she wanted something less kitschy, more elegant and simple.

I certainly don’t share Madame Du Barry’s opinion. If I could travel in time, I would have persuaded Fragonard to sell the paintings to me and then I would hang them in my luxurious countryside castle and gaze at them and daydream all day long. I just love the elegance and romance in these artworks, the secrecy and the innocence of this love chase. In “The Pursuit” the young lad is handing her a rose, like a true romantic and cavalier. “It’s thy love I want, don’t run away from me!”, his lovely face seems to say. Her answer to this flirtatious proposal is a ballerina-like pose. Kundera directly mentions Rococo art and Fragonard in “Slowness”: “The art of the eighteenth century drew pleasures out from the fog of moral prohibitions; it brought about the frame of mind we call “libertine,” which beams from the paintings of Fragonard and Watteau, from the pages of Sade, Crebillon the younger, or Charles Duclos. It is why my young friend Vincent adores that century and why, if he could, he would wear the Marquis de Sade’s profile as a badge on his lapel. I share his admiration, but I add (without being really heard) that the true greatness of that art consists not in some propaganda or other for hedonism but in its analysis.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Secret Meeting, 1771

Despite faking fear and disinterest in the first canvas, there is our love heroine again, pale and delightful, dressed in a white silk gown. The place of their secret meeting is part-Rococo and part-Romantical; statues and vases are man-made ornaments, but the trees and the mood are summery and romantical. Pink fragrant roses everywhere, birches, serene blue sky and all those tiny light green leaves on the trees. I love the special shade that appear often in Fragonard’s trees, this turquoise, teal shade, the love-child of green and blue. The girl’s face shows concern, as if she had perhaps heard someone’s footsteps approaching. And he had just climbed up the overgrown ladder to the secret walled garden. Can this get more romantical?

I love to enjoy all the little details of the painting such as this letter the girl is holding in her hand. It seems this is the love letter from the young cavalier, filled with sweet words of seduction and details about the secret meeting in the garden which is now taking place.

First stage: they stroll with arms linked, they converse, they find a bench on the lawn and sit down, still arm in arm, still conversing. The night is moonlit, the garden descends in a series of terraces toward the Seine, whose murmur blends with the murmur of the trees. Let us try to catch a few fragments of the conversation. The Chevalier asks for a kiss. Madame de T. answers: “I’m quite willing: you would be too vain if I refused. Your self-regard would lead you to think I’m afraid of you.”

Everything Madame de T. says is the fruit of an art, the art of conversation, which lets no gesture pass without comment and works over its meaning; here, for instance, she grants the Chevalier the kiss he asks, but after having imposed her own interpretation on her consent: she may be permitting the embrace, but only in order to bring the Chevalier’s pride back within proper bounds.

When by an intellectual maneuver she transforms a kiss into an act of resistance, no one is fooled, not even the Chevalier.

Jean-Honorá Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Lover Crowned, 1771-72

The third painting of the series “The Lover Crowned” shows the girl crowning her lover with a crown of pink roses. A crown for the man of her dreams who managed to seduce her. The may be the most vibrant painting out of the series, the colours are just wild; look at all that red and pink of the flowers, the red attire of the lad who seems to be painting a portrait of them, and then the lovely mustard yellow dress the girl is wearing. There isn’t a direct connection between Fragonard’s series “Progress of Love” and the 18th century couple in “Slowness” in terms of content, the story line is different, but it is the element of slow seduction, slow approach to pleasure that unites these two eighteenth century arts. Kundera describes the slowness of one summer night’s seduction, with every detail carefully planed and the pleasure delayed, and Fragonard’s approach is even broader because it portrays the slowness not only of one night’s seduction in a pavilion, but a carefully planned, romantic and innocent game of love which ultimately brings sweet, ripe fruit. Here are some passages from “Slowness”:

The end of the first stage of their night: the kiss she granted the Chevalier to keep him from feeling too vain was followed by another, the kisses “grew urgent, they cut into the conversation, they replaced it. …” But then suddenly she stands and decides to turn back.

What stagecraft! After the initial befuddlement of the senses, it was necessary to show that love’s pleasure is not yet a ripened fruit; it was necessary to raise its price, make it more desirable; it was necessary to create a setback, a tension, a suspense. In turning back toward the chateau with the Chevalier, Madame de T. is feigning a descent into nothingness, knowing perfectly well that at the last moment she will have full power to reverse the situation and prolong the rendezvous. All it will take is a phrase, a commonplace of the sort available by the dozen in the age-old art of conversation. But through some unexpected concatenation, some unforeseeable failure of inspiration, she cannot think of a single one. She is like an actor who suddenly forgets his script. For, indeed, she does have to know the script; it’s not like nowadays, when a girl can say, “You want to, I want to, let’s not waste time!” For these two, such frankness still lies beyond a barrier they cannot breach, despite all their libertine convictions.

“I see her leading the Chevalier through the moonlit night. Now she stops and shows him the contours of a roof just visible before them in the penumbra; ah, the sensual moments it has seen, this pavilion; a pity, she says, that she hasn’t the key with her.

As she converses, Madame de T. maps out the territory, sets up the next phase of events, lets her partner know what he should think and how he should proceed. She does this with finesse, with elegance, and indirectly, as if she were speaking of other matters. She leads him to see the Comtesse’s self-absorbed chill, so as to liberate him from the duty of fidelity and to relax him for the nocturnal adventure she plans. She organizes not only the immediate future but the more distant future as well, by giving the Chevalier to understand that in no circumstance does she wish to compete with

They approach the door and (how odd! how unexpected!) the pavilion is open!

Why did she tell him she hadn’t brought the key? Why did she not tell him right off that the pavilion was no longer kept locked? Everything is composed, confected, artificial, everything is staged, nothing is straightforward, or in other words, everything is art; in this case: the art of prolonging the suspense, better yet: the art of staying as long as possible in a state of arousal.”

By slowing the course of their night, by dividing it into different stages, each separate from the next, Madame de T. has succeeded in giving the small span of time accorded them the semblance of a marvelous little architecture, of a form. Imposing form on a period of time is what beauty demands, but so does memory. For what is formless cannot be grasped, or committed to memory. Conceiving their encounter as a form was especially precious for them, since their night was to have no tomorrow and could be repeated only through recollection. There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Love Letters, 1771-72

The last painting of the series “Love Letters” shows the lovers in a happy union. Again in some beautiful garden with roses and statues. A little dog is lying near the roses, perhaps hinting at the fidelity of the love union, or perhaps just enriching the painting with his cuteness. The girl’s rosy cheeks and pink dress are cuteness overload, and the way the young cavalier is gazing at her is of equal sweetness. Red parasol is a nice Chinoserie hint. But now, to end, I would like to share another quote from the novel “Slowness” about hedonism:

In everyday language, the term “hedonism” denotes an amoral tendency to a life of sensuality, if not of outright vice. This is inaccurate, of course: Epicurus, the first great theoretician of pleasure, had a highly skeptical understanding of the happy life: pleasure is the absence of suffering. Suffering, then, is the fundamental notion of hedonism: one is happy to the degree that one can avoid suffering, and since pleasures often bring more unhappiness than happiness, Epicurus advises only such pleasures as are prudent and modest. Epicurean wisdom has a melancholy backdrop: flung into the world’s misery, man sees that the only clear and reliable value is the pleasure, however paltry, that he can feel for himself: a gulp of cool water, a look at the sky (at God’s windows), a caress.

Modest or not, pleasures belong only to the person who experiences them, and a philosopher could justifiably criticize hedonism for its grounding in the self. Yet, as I see it, the Achilles’ heel of hedonism is not that it is self-centered but that it is (ah, would that I were mistaken!) hopelessly Utopian: in fact, I doubt that the hedonist ideal could ever be achieved…

I think the whole philosophy of slowness, pleasure, idleness and hedonism is something we could all use in our hectic, fast modern lives over-bombarded with information and changes, just take things slow and enjoy them.

Peter Ilsted and Hamsun’s Hunger: Ylajali Looking Out the Window

4 Feb

I recently wrote about the turn of the century Danish painter Peter Ilsted and his delightful, sunny and cozy interior scenes with girls playing or reading books and I mentioned Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger”, well today I want to focus exclusively on Hamsun’s novel and the painting which reminds me of one scene from the novel.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted (Danish artist, 1861-1933), Looking Out the Window, 1908

In “Looking Out of the Window”, a pretty young girl in a black dress and two long braids is looking out of the window. As usual with these Northern painter such as Hammershoi and Ilsted, the girl’s face is not seen, but still I know that she is pretty because she must be and I want her to be because I see her as the Ylajali from Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger”; the sweet-scented, pretty and mysterious girl that the narrator meets one day by chance in the street and later he has a very interesting conversation with her one night. In this painting Ilsted offers a somewhat voyeuristic view of the girl looking out of the window because she is in the other room, and she left the doors behind her open and that’s why we see her through the corridor. If the white doors were closed, the girl would be a mystery and all that would remain on the canvas would be the little table, a painting with shadowy figures and the door. The interior would seem cold and uninviting, but the girl with the braids adds a mysterious touch to it.

What is she looking at? Or should I say, on what strange gentleman are her eyes set? The answer lies in Hamsun novel “Hunger”; written in the first person in the stream of consciousness style, the unnamed narrator is a young aspiring journalist who, poor and hungry, wanders the streets and encounters many things on his way. This is how the novel begins: “It was during the time I wandered about and starved in Christiania: Christiania, this singular city, from which no man departs without carrying away the traces of his sojourn there.” Hungry, half-desperate and half-hopeful in a mad way, with frail nerves, empty stomach and a thin coat, he leaves his attic room in search of….something to fill his day. While on a walk in the beginning of the novel, he sees two ladies walking with their parasols, and accidentally brushes one, turning around to apologise, he sees her pale face and cheeks blushing and she is instantly lovely to him; “I feel myself seized with an odd desire to make this lady afraid; to follow her, and annoy her in some way. I overtake her again, pass her by, turn quickly round, and meet her face-to-face in order to observe her well. I stand and gaze into her eyes, and hit, on the spur of the moment, on a name which I have never heard before–a name with a gliding, nervous sound–Ylajali!

The mysterious girl whose pale face hidden under the veil cannot leave his mind is named Ylajali and he follows her to the bookstore and then to the house where she apparently lives and here is that part of the novel which reminds me of Ilsted’s painting:

Outside No. 2, a large four-storeyed house, they turned again before going in. I leant against a lamp-post near the fountain and listened for their footsteps on the stairs. They died away on the second floor.

I advanced from the lamp-post and looked up at the house. Then something odd happened. The curtains above were stirred, and a second after a window opened, a head popped out, and two singular-looking eyes dwelt on me. “Ylajali!” I muttered, half-aloud, and I felt I grew red.

Why does she not call for help, or push over one of these flower-pots and strike me on the head, or send some one down to drive me away? We stand and look into one another’s eyes without moving; it lasts a minute. Thoughts dart between the window and the street, and not a word is spoken. She turns round, I feel a wrench in me, a delicate shock through my senses; I see a shoulder that turns, a back that disappears across the floor. That reluctant turning from the window, the accentuation in that movement of the shoulders was like a nod to me. My blood was sensible of all the delicate, dainty greeting, and I felt all at once rarely glad. Then I wheeled round and went down the street.

I dared not look back, and knew not if she had returned to the window. The more I considered this question the more nervous and restless I became. Probably at this very moment she was standing watching closely all my movements. It is by no means comfortable to know that you are being watched from behind your back. I pulled myself together as well as I could and proceeded on my way; my legs began to jerk under me, my gait became unsteady just because I purposely tried to make it look well. In order to appear at ease and indifferent, I flung my arms about, spat out, and threw my head well back–all without avail, for I continually felt the pursuing eyes on my neck, and a cold shiver ran down my back. At length I escaped down a side street, from which I took the road to Pyle Street to get my pencil.

Ylajali, what a beautiful and exotic name to my ears! This scene from “Hunger” lingered in my mind for some time after finishing the novel.

Vilhelm Hammershoi, Interior, Strandgade 30, 1901

And just for comparison, here is Vilhelm Hammershoi’s painting with a similar theme, again a lady is looking out the window, her back turned against us, her face hidden, but this version of the same scene doesn’t speak to me as much as Ilsted’s version does. Hammershoi does have a mystery and a certain magic, but this strictness of elements, minimalism, and the palette of greys is painfully oppressive and I just wanna die when I gaze it for a long time.

Clarice Lispector – I know the story of a rose

17 Aug

Here’s a beautiful passage from Clarice Lispector’s novel “The Stream of Life” (Água Viva).

John Waterhouse, The Soul of The Rose, 1903

“I know the story of a rose. Does it seem strange to you to speak of a rose when I am talking about animals? But it acted in a way that recalls the animal mysteries. Every two days I would buy a rose and place it in water in a vase made specially narrow to hold the long stem of a single flower. Every two days the rose would wilt and I would exchange it for another. Until one certain rose. It was rose-colored without coloring or grafting just naturally of the most vivid rose color. Its beauty expanded the heart by great breadths. It seemed so proud of the turgescence of its wide open corolla and of its own petals that its haughtiness held it almost erect. Because it was not completely erect: with graciousness it bent over its stem which was fine and fragile. An intimate relationship intensely developed between me and the flower: I admired her and she seemed to feel admired. And she became so glorious in her apparition and was observed with such love that days went by and she did not wilt: her corolla remained wide open and swollen, fresh as a newborn flower. She lasted in beauty and life an entire week. Only then did she start to show signs of some fatigue. Then she died. It was with reluctance that I replaced her. And I never forgot her. The strange thing is that my maid asked me once out of the blue: “and that rose?” I didn’t ask which one. I knew. That rose that lived from love given at length was remembered because the woman had seen how I looked at the flower and transmitted to her the waves of my energy. She had blindly intuited that something had gone on between me and the rose. That rose-made me want to call it ‘Jewel of my life;’ because I often give things names-had so much instinct by nature that I and she had been able to live each other profoundly, as only can happen between beast and man.”

Book Review: The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

18 Jul

“I felt a tremendous distance between me and everything real.”

(The Rum Diary)

Rincón, Puerto Rico, picture found here.

Some time ago I watched the film “The Rum Diary”(2011) starring Johnny Depp as the main character Paul Kemp and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was just totally captivated by Kemp’s exciting lifestyle set against the vibrant backdrop of the Caribbean. The ocean, the sunsets, the rum…. ahhh. A few weeks ago, in these warm and yellow days of July, I decided to read the novel “The Rum Diary” written by Hunter S. Thompson. In took not three full pages for me to fall in love with it. I was especially intrigued by the fact that it wasn’t a work of pure fiction. Thompson actually lived and worked as a journalist in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s. He worked for the magazine El Sportivo which folded soon after his arrival but Thompson found another job as a journalist and managed to stay on the island long enough to gather inspiration for the novel which would spend almost forty years sitting in his drawer; it wasn’t published until 1998. The novel is based on Thompson’s adventures on the island, but is part-truth and part-fiction, written in the first person and told by a journalist Paul Kemp who comes to San Juan to work for the newspapers called San Juan Daily News.

“Like most of the others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that my instincts were right. I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles — a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other — that kept me going.”

Thompson’s writing has the same qualities which I love and admire in Jack Kerouac’s novels; they both write in a fast-paced exciting style, they both brilliantly capture the atmosphere of the place, in Thompson’s case the vividness of San Juan, and they both have a similar type of character; young, wild, rebellious, idealist, wanting more from life but ultimately just wasting time on alcohol and women, characters who are prone to jumping from one thrill to another, because boredom equals death. No time to sleep – you’ll sleep when you’re dead. Life just seems so exciting in these novels, full or endless possibilities, and even a hangover seems like the most romantic thing in the world. Kemp is so excited about coming to the island and he says: “I wanted to write all my friends and invite them down. (…) I wanted to cable them all — “Come quick stop plenty of room in the rum barrel stop no work stop big money stop drink all day stop hump all night stop hurry it may not last.”

Picture found here.

Similar to Kerouac’s novel “Tristessa”, which I love, “The Rum Diary” captures the fragile moment in time. Two North Americans going down to more exotic southern places and writing about it. Kerouac spent a year in Mexico City and Thompson spent about two years in Puerto Rico. Their experiences are tied to a specific moment in time, had they gone to those places just five years later, nothing would be the same. Through Thompson’s writing you sense a layer of sadness under the ecstasy and drunkenness that he describes; a sense of going nowhere, growing old, time passing by… Perhaps this is the source of that rush to experience things which often leads to silly decisions. I also love the way Thompson describes the place; hot air, palm trees, narrow streets with buildings jammed together and balconies that hung over the street, chatter and music coming from open windows, narrow pavements where people sell peeled oranges for a nickel each, how he feels “the foreignness of the place”, he is specific with names of places and very observant to everything that is going on around him, the things he hears, the sights, the sounds, the smells:

“I leaned back in the chair and sipped my drink. The cook was banging around in the kitchen and for some reason the piano had stopped. From inside came a babble of Spanish, an incoherent background for my scrambled thoughts. For the first time I felt the foreignness of the place, the real distance I had put between me and my last foothold. There was no reason to feel pressure, but I felt it anyway — the pressure of hot air and passing time, an idle tension that builds up in places where men sweat twenty-four hours a day.

Hunter S. Thompson in Puerto Rico

There is also another aspect of the novel; the exploitation of the beauties and nature of the island, represented by the businessman Yeamon who befriends Kemp. The Americans from the mainland saw Puerto Rico as a source of their wealth, they planned to built hotels and exploit what there was to exploit and that makes me quite sad. “At that time the U.S. State Department was calling Puerto Rico “America’s advertisement in the Caribbean — living proof that capitalism can work in Latin America.”

In one part of the book, it’s described how the houses use to have a view of the ocean, but now the hotel at the beach has a view on the ocean, and the houses are looking at the hotel. If Capitalism isn’t devil’s idea, I don’t know what is. And now some fun and interesting quotes:

“There was a strange and unreal air about the whole world I’d come into. It was amusing and vaguely depressing at the same time. Here I was, living in a luxury hotel, racing around a half-Latin city in a toy car that looked like a cockroach and sounded like a jet fighter, sneaking down alleys and humping on the beach, scavenging for food in shark-infested waters, hounded by mobs yelling in a foreign tongue — and the whole thing was taking place in quaint old Spanish Puerto Rico, where everybody spent American dollars and drove American cars and sat around roulette wheels pretending they were in Casablanca. One part of the city looked like Tampa and the other part looked like a medieval asylum.”

“Sala’s apartment on Calle Tetuán was about as homey as a cave, a dank grotto in the very bowels of the Old City. It was not an upscale neighborhood. (…) The ceiling was twenty feet high, not a breath of clean air, no furniture except two metal cots and an improvised picnic table, and since it was on the ground floor we could never open the windows because thieves would come in off the street and sack the place. A week after Sala moved in he left one of the windows unlocked and everything he owned was stolen, even his shoes and his dirty socks. We had no refrigerator and therefore no ice, so we drank hot rum out of dirty glasses and did our best to stay out of the place as much as possible.”

“It was so hot that I began to sweat each time we stopped for a red light. Then, when we started moving again, the wind would cool me off. Sala weaved in and out of the traffic on Avenida Ponce de Leon, heading for the outskirts of town. Somewhere in Santurce we stopped to let some schoolchildren cross the street and they all began laughing at us. “La cucaracha!” they yelled. “Cucaracha! cucaracha!”

Sala looked embarrassed.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“The little bastards are calling this car a cockroach,” he muttered. “I should run a few of them down.”

***

“At six-thirty I left the bar and walked outside. It was getting dark and the big Avenida looked cool and graceful. On the other side were homes that once looked out on the beach. Now they looked out on hotels and most of them had retreated behind tall hedges and walls that cut them off from the street. Here and there I could see a patio or a screen porch where people sat beneath fans and drank rum. Somewhere up the street I heard bells, the sleepy tinkling of Brahms’ Lullaby.”

“After living there a week I’d established a fairly strict routine. I would sleep until ten or so, depending on the noise level in the street, then take a shower and walk up to Al’s for breakfast. With a few exceptions, the normal workday at the paper was from noon until eight in the evening, give or take a few hours either way. Then we would come back to Al’s for dinner. After that it was the casinos, an occasional party, or simply sitting at Al’s and listening to each other’s stories until we all got drunk and mumbled off to our beds. Sometimes I would go to Sanderson’s and usually there were people there to drink with.”

And now here is an exciting part of the book which matches the memorable scene in the film where Chenault (played by Amber Heard) is dancing in a very provocative way in a stuffy and crowded club on the isle of St Thomas:

“They had made a big circle, and in the middle of it. Chenault and the small, spade-bearded man were doing the dance. Chenault had dropped her skirt and was dancing in her panties and her white sleeveless blouse. Her partner had taken off his shirt exposing his glistening black chest. He wore nothing but a pair of tight, red toreador pants. Both of them were barefoot.”

(…) Now, as if in some kind of trance, Chenault began to unbutton her blouse. She popped the buttons slowly, like a practiced stripper, then flung the blouse aside and pranced there in nothing but her bra and panties. I thought the crowd would go crazy. They howled and pounded on furniture, shoving and climbing on each other to get a better view. The whole house shook and I thought the floor might cave in. Somewhere across the room I heard glass breaking.

(…) Now they were close together and I saw the brute reach around Chenault and unhook the strap of her bra. He undid it quickly, expertly, and she seemed unaware that now she wore nothing but her thin silk panties. The bra slid down her arms and fell to the floor. Her breasts bounced violently with the jerk and thrust of the dance. Full, pink-nippled halls of flesh, suddenly cut loose from the cotton modesty of a New York bra. (…)

Yeamon was screaming hysterically, struggling to keep his balance. “Chenault!” he shouted.

“What the hell are you doing?” He sounded desperate, but I felt paralyzed.

Pictures found here.

“They were coming together again, weaving slowly toward the middle of the circle. The noise was an overpowering roar from two hundred wild throats. Chenault still wore that dazed, ecstatic expression as the man reached out and eased her panties over her hips and down to her knees. She let them drop silently on the floor, then stepped away, breaking into the dance again, moving against him, freezing there for a moment — even the music paused — then dancing away, opening her eyes and flinging her hair from side to side.”

***

“Moberg was a degenerate. (…) Often he disappeared for days at a time. Then someone would have to track him down through the dirtiest bars in La Perla, a slum so foul that on maps of San Juan it appears as a blank space. La Perla was Moberg’s headquarters; he felt at home there, he said, and in the rest of the city — except for a few horrible bars — he was a lost soul.”

***

“Driving along the beach I remembered how much I’d enjoyed the mornings when I first came to San Juan. There is something fresh and crisp about the first hours of a Caribbean day, a happy anticipation that something is about to happen, maybe just up the street or around the next corner.”

Giorgio de Chirico – Melancholy and Mystery of a Street

14 May

In this post we’ll take a look at Italian Metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico’s perhaps most well-known painting called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street” and the way its portrayal of space and mood connect to some scenes from Vítězslav Nezval’s Surrealist novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders”.

Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

When we think of melancholy, mysterious and lonely streets and squares in art, Chirico must be the first painter to come to mind. He painted many such scenes with cold sharply precise architecture and a strange almost sinister mood, and a well known example is the painting above called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street”. I hesitate to call it an urban scene, even though it is a city and not countryside, because it belongs completely into a world of its own, with unique logic and moods which have nothing in common with our world. At first sight, his paintings look similar to the world we live in, but then the strangeness start lurking from the shadows and we cannot help but notice the isolated and creepy mood of the street. A white building with a repetitive row of arches, disproportions, shadows… One can almost feel a deep layer of silence and then a strange giggle coming from afar, as the shadow starts growing bigger until it covers the whole square. And yet, Chirico’s paintings manage to stay lyrical despite their coldness. Another work of art which has a world of its own is Vitezslav Nezval’s novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1934, at the height of Surrealist movement in Czechia, and published a decade later. Partly inspired by Surrealism and the dream theory, and partly by the tradition of the Gothic novel, Nezval’s novel is a beautiful contradiction in mood and themes. While some motifs are ever so romantic and gloomy such as the vault, long corridors, crypts, burial sights, others brings an anxious mood of dreams that is more reminiscent of Chirico’s paintings, especially the beginning of the Chapter V called “Losing the Way”:

Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted. When she glanced at one of the locked gates, a missionary appeared to her standing in front of it. She left the square and entered the square. Her legs were tired and were leading her on her own, while her spirit wandered like that of someone sleeping. Over one doorway she noticed a cluster of grapes held in the beak of a dove. Then she was alarmed by four windows that seemed to have been forged from a storm. She thought she heard a groan. Her eyes settled on a tall gas lamp with moths fluttering around it. But the groan came again. Having circled the square, she suddenly found herself just a few steps from the lamp and saw to her amazement a terrifying image: tied to the lam’s base was a girl, emitting plaints from deep in her throat. As Valerie stepped up closer, she recognised her clothes, which were torn in several places.

Scene from Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)

Naturally, the small square of a picturesque Czech village that Valerie has found herself on has nothing to do architecturally with Chirico’s classical and monumental Italian squares. It’s Valerie’s inner state, her emotions, fear and curiosity which give the square a slightly nightmarish mood. It’s not what she sees in front of her, it’s how she feels within that is projected on on the outside. Space in Chirico’s paintings is illogical to the eyes of grown ups, but to Valerie it isn’t unusual because she still sees things from children’s point of view, or rather, she is in the middle; just like the girl in the painting, childhood is behind her and she is walking slowly towards the shadowy figure; the adulthood. This connects to something that Chirico himself said: “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.