A Calm and Serene Time

Nicolas Poussin’s “Landscape with a Calm” (ca. 1650)

I choose to translate the title of painting as “A Calm and Serene Time” (from the French “Un temps calme et serein”). Ever since I first ran into his paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art as a high school student, I have loved the work of Nicolas Poussin and his near contemporary Claude Lorrain (about whom in a follow-up post).

The 17th century in France has always been a special interest of mine, and Lorrain, Poussin, and a handful of others have only engaged my interest the more in the intervening years.

According to the description on the Getty Center’s website”

In the late 1640s and early 1650s, at the height of his artistic maturity, Nicolas Poussin turned from historical narrative to landscape painting. Landscape with a Calm does not illustrate a story but rather evokes a mood. The ordered composition and clear, golden light contribute to A Calm’s utter tranquility, while glowing, gem-like colors and fluid paint strokes enliven this scene of benevolent nature. Poussin’s sketching campaigns in the Roman countryside with his friend and fellow landscape painter Claude Lorrain account, in part, for its fresh observation of cloud-scattered sky and grazing goats.

The peacefulness of this image and its subtle classical overtones makes me regard this as one of my favorite paintings at the Getty Center.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Days

Château de Amboise, Where Leonardo Is Buried

King François I of France invited Leonardo Da Vinci to move to Amboise, where he lived in a splendid house within walking distance of the Chåteau de Amboise. Polish Poet Adam Zagajewski wrote a poem musing on Leonardo’s last act on the Loire in France.

Leonardo

He lives in France now,
calmer and much weaker.
He is the jewel in the crown. Favored
with the monarch’s friendship.
The Loire rolls its waters slowly.
He considers the projects
he left unfinished.
His right hand, half-paralyzed,
has already departed.
His left would also like to take its leave.
And his heart, and his whole body.
Islands of light still
stand sentry.

The Third Degree

Louis Jouvet (Right) Sweating a Suspect (2nd from Left)

The French criminal justice system is very different from our own. I have just finished reading Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife [Maigret et la grande perche] (1951); plus I have just recently seen Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film Quai des Orfêvres (1947). In both works, the investigating inspectors give their suspects the third degree. It is a process of intimidating the suspect until he or she talks, no matter how long it takes. In the film, there was a kind of tag team of interrogation, involving Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) and the two detectives above with cigarettes hanging from their lips.

I wonder if things have changed that much in the last seventy years or so. France’s laws are based on the Napoleonic Code of 1804, in which there is a presumption of guilt rather than innocence, as in English Common Law. Suspects could be held in custody for longer periods of time until the evidence was clear.

In the Simenon novel, Inspector Maigret proceeds with the arrest even before this point, because he is so sure that the evidence is forthcoming. In the movie, the suspects, Maurice Martineau and Jenny Lamour, are convinced they will be framed by Inspector Antoine, who actually frees them when he gets a confession (albeit by sustained intimidation) from the real murderer.

It is interesting to see and read about police procedurals from other countries. In the United States, we have adopted English law. I rather suspect that, in the end, both legal systems are equally fair—or unfair.

Lost in the Mayle

Pick a place, imply that it is a paradise, write several best-selling books about it, maybe invest in real estate there for the inevitable onrush of rich twits—and you could be said to have wrecked the place for good. I am referring here to Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and its 10,000 sequels.

Some thirty years before Mayle started in on his demolition quest, M F K Fischer spent some time with her two daughters in Aix-en-Provence and wrote a far better (though not so well-known) a book with her Map of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence (1964). Fisher obviously loved Provence, but she (M F K stands for Mary Frances Kennedy) was not afraid of presenting it warts and all.

When she first visited Aix, France was still suffering from the war. The town was full of misshapen beggars, many of whom were from Poland and other places that suffered the brunt of Nazi invasion. She tells one story of a French pianist whose house quartered several German officers. Her expensive piano was not to be touched by the pianist, but she was expected to appreciate the musical efforts of her tenants.

I have always loved books about travel, but I have always preferred books which were honest. There are thousands of puff pieces about the four corners of the earth, but they pall rather quickly. To give one example, Jonathan Raban’s excellent Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings was not only about travel, but about its author’s life coming apart in the process. The following quote from a review in The Guardian explains it all:

“Journeys,” says Raban, somewhere towards the end of Passage to Juneau, “hardly ever disclose their true meaning until after – and sometimes years after – they’re over.” This book was conceived of as a piece of work, but the professional project is, in the end, wholly subsumed by a floodtide of personal crises that leave the author gasping for air. Did he contemplate keeping them off stage and sticking to the route he’d blithely plotted, back in his Seattle study? Perhaps – but like any good captain, Raban elects in the end to go down with his ship. Passage to Juneau is not the book Raban set out to write. It’s richer, rawer and far, far more rewarding than that.

For this reason, I’ll take M F K Fischer over Peter Mayle any day of the week. I highly recommend her book.

How (Not) to Celebrate New Years

A traditional way of celebrating New Years Eve in France is by setting cars alight. According to the BBC, as of some 12 hours ago, a total of 874 cars have been set on fire. I’m sure that’s kind of like a firecracker, but multiplied out, that’s got to be about 10 million dollars in damages.

Far better is a series of two cartoons from Brooke McEldowney in his “9 Chickweed Lane” series. The first cartoon ran on December 31 and was a bit confusing:

It all came clear with today’s cartoon:

I loved this set of images. We make a jump from one reality to another. Actually, it’s the same reality: Just a different template overlaying it. BTW, the look on the little girl’s face is priceless.

So let’s take that leap without incinerating any automobiles, if you please.

The Author Foresees His Death

The Car Crash That Killed Albert Camus on January 4, 1960

Months before his death in an auto accident, Albert Camus wrote in his notebook words that prefigured how he was to end his life:

I don’t sleep all night, fall asleep at 3 AM, wake up at 5 AM, eat a lot, and, beneath the rain, take to the road. I don’t leave the steering wheel for eleven hours—nibbling a biscuit from time to time—and the rain doesn’t leave me either until I reach the Drôme where it lets up a bit over the heights of Nyons so that the scent of lavender comes to me, awakens me, and enlivens my heart.

Ryan Bloom, the editor of the last volume of his Notebooks, sets up the scene:

Struggling with his writing, Camus sent a letter to Catherine Sellers in which he wrote: “To work, one must deprive oneself, and die without aid. So let’s die, because I don’t want to live without working….” On December 30 he wrote a line to Maria Casarès regarding his return to Paris, which, had the line been written in one of his novels, would certainly have seemed to stretch believability: “Let’s say [Tuesday] in principle, taking into account surprises on the road….”

And it was on the road, five days after these words were written—January 4, 1960—that the dashboard clock of Michel Gallimard’s 1959 Facel Vega HK 500 stopped ticking at 1:55 PM. The clock lay in a nearby field. Fragments of the wreckage spread almost 500 feet. A tire sat alone on the scarred cement. Drizzle dotted the road. A black leather valise lay in the mud, tossed next to the tree around which the car was wrapped.

And so died one of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century.

Glorious [Bang!] 4th

We Celebrate Our Independence by Playing at Terrorism

As I write these words, the air is full of explosions. Dogs and cats are whimpering as they hide under beds, tortured by their pet-loving owners who celebrate our independence with backyard barbecues and playing at being terrorists. I’m not sure that many Americans are giving any attention to the Declaration of Independence from King George III.

Ultimately we got our independence, but mainly because of help from France. You can read all you want about American history and not find a word about George Washington ever winning a battle. France helped us at a horrible cost to the French monarchy: their assistance bankrupted the treasury and was a major contributor to the French Revolution, which began shortly after we won our independence. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette paid for helping us by being publicly beheaded in Paris’s Place de Grève.

Ingrates that we are, we tend to downplay the French role in winning our freedom. When the British under Cornwallis were tied up at Yorktown, it was because Admiral François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, Marquis of Grasse-Tilly was backing up the Continental Army led by Washington and Lafayette.

Don’t think I’m feasting on escargots, Coquilles Saint-Jacques, and Pouilly-Fuissé because of this. I’m not celebrating at all, especially as it sounds like my street is being bombed.

The Death of Boris Vian

Writer and Jazz Musician Boris Vian (1920-1959)

This is a reprint of a blog I posted on October 1, 2018—with some minor changes. Vian was not only a member of the Oulipo literary movement, but he was a renowned jazz musician.

There is a myth that the French are contemptuous of everything that the United States stands for. They might be now, seeing how how our country has sunk to Stygian depths since November 2016. But there have been many exceptions, consisting of key figures in the arts who have paid homage to American art forms. In the case of Boris Vian (1920-1959), the contributions have been in the form of music (he was a jazz trumpeter who knew Duke Ellington, Hoagie Carmichael, and Miles Davis), literature (detective and Oulipo), and translation (Raymond Chandler and sci-fi writer A. E. Van Vogt). In addition, he was a friend to the existentialist writers of the 1950s.

I have just finished [in 2018] reading Vian’s Mood Indigo, the English title of L’écume des jours. It is an inventive work of the Oulipo school of literature. It starts out as a manic love story and becomes ever more somber and even tragic as the characters come to sad ends. It is reminiscent of works by Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec.

Boris Vian at the Trumpet

Vian died at the age of thirty-nine of a heart attack while watching the credits of a French film adaptation of his novel I Spit On Your Graves [not to be confused with the various rape revenge films released under the name of I Spit on Your Grave without the “s”]. You can see the credit sequence by clicking here. Reportedly, Vian cried out “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and collapsed in his seat. He died en route to the hospital.

He had a point, it looks a lot more French than American. It’s a pity we lost him, because he was a real friend to American literature and music.

Liberté

French Poet Paul Éluard (1895-1952)

There are many ways of discovering a great poet. In the case of Paul Éluard, I was introduced to his work from seeing films of French film director Jean-Luc Godard, particularly Alphaville (1966).

Liberté

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sands of snow
I write your name

On the pages I have read
On all the white pages
Stone, blood, paper or ash
I write your name

On the images of gold
On the weapons of the warriors
On the crown of the king
I write your name

On the jungle and the desert
On the nest and on the brier
On the echo of my childhood
I write your name

On all my scarves of blue
On the moist sunlit swamps
On the living lake of moonlight
I write your name

On the fields, on the horizon
On the birds’ wings
And on the mill of shadows
I write your name

On each whiff of daybreak
On the sea, on the boats
On the demented mountaintop
I write your name

On the froth of the cloud
On the sweat of the storm
On the dense rain and the flat
I write your name

On the flickering figures
On the bells of colors
On the natural truth
I write your name

On the high paths
On the deployed routes
On the crowd-thronged square
I write your name

On the lamp which is lit
On the lamp which isn’t
On my reunited thoughts
I write your name

On a fruit cut in two
Of my mirror and my chamber
On my bed, an empty shell
I write your name

On my dog, greathearted and greedy
On his pricked-up ears
On his blundering paws
I write your name

On the latch of my door
On those familiar objects
On the torrents of a good fire
I write your name

On the harmony of the flesh
On the faces of my friends
On each outstretched hand
I write your name

On the window of surprises
On a pair of expectant lips
In a state far deeper than silence
I write your name

On my crumbled hiding-places
On my sunken lighthouses
On my walls and my ennui
I write your name

On abstraction without desire
On naked solitude
On the marches of death
I write your name

And for the want of a word
I renew my life
For I was born to know you
To name you

Liberty.

 

 

Reconnecting

French Novelist Marie NDiaye

For one month out of every year, I attempt to read only authors I have not previously read. One of the biggest surprises this month as been French novelist Marie NDiaye, whose novel My Heart Hemmed In [Mon coeur à l’étroit] I have just finished reading. Unlike many postmodern writers, who do not shy away from boring their readers to tears, NDiaye carries out a relentless examination of the life of her heroine, a teacher who, along with her husband, suddenly finds herself roundly hated by most of her acquaintances. Nadia has distanced herself from her ex-husband, her son, and her parents. She has gained weight, and several of the people she meets assume that she is pregnant.

The story begins when her husband Ange returns from the class he has been teaching with a serious stomach wound. A neighbor shows up who is known to everyone she meets as an educator and television personality, but whom she does not know as both she and Ange do not even own a TV, being disconnected from their popular culture. NDiaye follows Nadia closely as she begins to try to reconnect with her past and try to come to terms with the pain she feels. The process is a wonderfully told voyage of self-discovery that transforms her.

I have always felt that the best novels involve a radical transformation of the main character. What NDiaye has done is make this voyage exciting rather than the usual banal. I can see myself reading more of her works in the months to come, most recent of which is La Cheffe, which is on my TBR pile.