“Thank you for the Light,” a previously unpublished story by by F. Scott Fitzgerald, appeared in the August 6 edition of the New Yorker Magazine. The piece was recently discovered by Fitzgerald’s heirs; they were perusing his papers in preparation for an auction at Sotheby’s. Several commentators have dismissed this sad, brief tale as facile and sentimental. I think Sarah Churchwell’s piece in the Guardian comes much nearer the truth.
When Fitzgerald originally submitted this story to the New Yorker in 1936, it was rejected. His heirs offered the magazine another crack at it. This time around, unsurprisingly, they accepted it.
“An Affront To Love, French Style” by Agnes Poirier appeared in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. This article was written in response to a recent Parisian phenomenon: locks affixed to the railings of the bridges over the River Seine. These locks purported symbolize the commitment of the lovers who place them there. However, Poirier and others find them erroneous and misguided, and worse: utterly at variance with the French way of loving:
At the heart of love à la française lies the idea of freedom. To love truly is to want the other free, and this includes the freedom to walk away. Love is not about possession or property. Love is no prison where two people are each other’s slaves. Love is not a commodity, either. Love is not capitalist, it is revolutionary. If anything, true love shows you the way to selflessness.
This brings me to Midnight in Paris. Several nights ago, Ron and I finally got around to watching Woody Allen’s blockbuster romantic comedy cum time travel fantasy. Let me just say right up front: we loved it! For those of us who’ve been fans of Allen’s work for decades, Midnight in Paris was a most welcome return to form. He has penned, in cinema format, the kind of affectionate love letter to the City of Light that, in earlier films, he frequently offered up to New York City. I loved the evocation of Paris in its glory days, He did a great job of summoning up the rich artistic scene of the 1920s. The viewer gets to share the same “Wow” factor that Gil Pender is experiencing. (Pender, an unmistakable Woody Allen stand-in, is played delightfully by Owen Wilson. He gets the stumbling, excuse-making Wood Man character just right!) There’s Scott Fitzgerald! And with him Zelda, already displaying signs of increasing instability! And what’s this: I’m talking to Hemingway! (That’s him all right: every sentence is a weighty pronouncement; there’s nary a glimmer of irony or humor; but instead, he’s always gunning for higher profundity! As you can guess, he’s not been a favorite of mine – but I did enjoy Corey Stoll in the part.)
And there are many more: Luis Bunuel, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, T.S. Eliot, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas – all appear on the crowded canvas portraying the splendor of Paris in times past. My personal favorites were Adrien Brody’s delightful send-up of Salvador Dali in all his outré glory, and Kathy Bates as the hyper-intellectual, nonstop verbalizing Gertrude Stein. (And what a treat to see Picasso’s portrait of Stein prominently displayed in her apartment! The painter himself, played by Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, appears in a brief cameo.)
Allen is great at skewering pretentious pseudo-intellectuals, and he does it again here in the person of Paul Bates, played by Michael Sheen. Bates is an acquaintance of Gil and his wife Inez (played with marvelous bitchiness by the beautiful Rachel McAdams), encountered quite by accident at a cafe. My favorite scene with Bates/Sheen is the one in which he critiques the flavor of a wine he’s been sampling: “…slightly more tannic than the ’59; I prefer a smoky feeling.” Aargh! you’d like to shake him. (Ron’s invariable observation upon hearing a pronunciamento of this kind: “They’re making that stuff up!”)
The shots of the city, especially at the beginning of the film, are ravishing. Gil is positively childlike in his delight: ” This is unbelievable! There’s no city like this in the world!” That just about says it.
(You may have to endure an ad before watching this trailer.If so, be patient; it’s worth it!)
How To Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell
At the beginning of How To Live, Sarah Bakewell recounts the story of a horseback riding accident suffered by Michel de Montaigne, in either 1569 or 1570. He was in his mid thirties at the time, and the accident almost killed him. He was thrown violently to the ground and knocked out. When he at length regained consciousness, he had to fight for every breath; in addition, he was vomiting up blood. Yet in his mind, he was elsewhere entirely:
He suffered no pain, and no concern at the sight of those around him in emergency mode. All he felt was laziness and weakness. His servants put him to bed; he lay there, perfectly happy, not a thought in his head apart from that of how pleasurable it was to rest. ‘I felt infinite sweetness in this repose, for I had been villainously yanked about by those poor fellows, who had taken the pains to carry me in their arms over a long and very bad road.’ He refused all medicines, sure that he was destined just to slip away. . It was going to be ‘a very happy death.’
Only it wasn’t. To everyone’s amazement, including his own, Montaigne made a full recovery. But he reflected a great deal on the meaning his near death experience and came to a provocative conclusion on the subject:
In dying, he now realized, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there. You die in the same way that you fall asleep: by drifting away. If other people try to pull you back, you hear their voices on ‘the edges of the soul.’ Your existence is attached by a thread; it rests only on the tip of your lips…. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for. It is an aimless reverie.
(Reading this, I was put in mind of the concluding lines of The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Tolstoy:
“And death…where is it?”
He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.
In place of death there was light.
“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
“It is finished!” said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.
“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.)
In later years, Montaigne offered this summation of his thoughts on the subject of death:
‘If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.’
Adds Bakewell: “‘Don’t worry about death’ became his most fundamental, most liberating answer to the question of how to live. It made it possible to do just that: live.” And this is why a book entitled How To Live begins with death. In fact, this book opens and closes with this same subject. Montaigne’s own death was excruciating and very hard to read about; especially since, in the course of Bakewell’s recounting of his life, I had developed a real affection for the man. While it is true that Montaigne’s final illness was anything but “an aimless reverie,” he faced it surrounded by family, friends, devoted servants. He displayed extraordinary courage throughout. I finished How To Live in tears, thinking “Ave atque vale” – Hale and farewell to a truly noble spirit!
How To Live is a sort of dual biography, of the man Michel de Montaigne and of his masterwork, The Essays. It is a crowded canvas, filled with interesting characters and fascinating highlights of the history of sixteenth century France. This latter consists primarily of religious wars and is very dispiriting to read about, but it provides a vital context in which to appreciate the life and singular achievements of Montaigne.
Initially, I got this book from the library. By the time I had finished the first chapter, it was already bristling with post-it flags. I was going to have to buy it.
Sarah Bakewell has done a marvelous job of distilling a complex subject into a comprehensible form. She writes with great energy and intelligence, and her prose is seasoned with more than a soupçon of wit. Here she is, accepting the National Book Critics Circle’s award for best biography of 2010: . (One of the finalists in the biography category was Selina Hastings’s superb life of Somerset Maugham. These were both such terrific books; I would have been hard put to choose between them.)
I’ll have more to say about How To Live in future posts.
Kathleen Flinn takes the Book Babes book club on a delightful – and delectable! – excursion to The City of Light in The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry
This past Sunday night, the Book Babes (also known by its more refined name, the Literary Ladies) discussed The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn. This is a memoir of Flinn’s experience attending the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris. Most emphatically, this is not a book I would ordinarily choose to read on my own, but our leader was to be Jean, who herself just got back from Paris. Her presentation really brought the author’s experience to life for us. And of course, as always, it was a pleasure to hear the fluent French that trips so easily and beautifully off her tongue.
The Sharper Your Knife belongs in the genre (subgenre?) of culinary memoirs. The reason I personally shy away from these books – from any books about the cooking life, in fact – is that Type Two Diabetes has caused me to develop an extremely vexed relationship with food. Fact is, though, that I was never an especially good cook. Why go to all that trouble, after all, when my absolute favorite thing to eat could be found safely sealed in a bag? No freshness issues here; I always knew they would taste great – would crunch deliciously – would make me feel wonderful…. Yes, here they are again: . Ah,yes; once they were to me what the Sirens were to Ulysses and his shipmates – but alas, those days are gone forever…
Well – back to the book: Kathleen Flinn’s Cordon Bleu experience made for some pretty entertaining reading. And talk about going to trouble! Some of those dishes, not to mention the techniques that had to be mastered beforehand, were positively mind boggling in their complexity. As someone who considers the production of a decent plate scrambled eggs a culinary triumph, I was deeply impressed, I can tell you! Of course, the Cordon Bleu students get to concentrate on the food preparation while someone else does the washing up. In fact, when Flinn tells us about one of the dishwashers, I thought she was speaking of genus Whirlpool or Bosch, but no – she was actually referring to “…a tiny, pleasant Algerian who comes up as high as my shoulders.” Les plongeurs, Flinn assures us, form a vital component of the Cordon Blue staff: “They’re the only ones who can get you a passoire when urgently needed.” (A passoire is a colander or strainer. When I did an image search on this term, I got this unexpectedly delightful result.)
I liked the bright and breezy style with which Kathleen Flinn narrates her Parisian life in general, and her cooking school experiences in particular. Chapters have headings like “La Catastrophe Americaine;” these are usually followed by “Lesson highlights;” in this case: “The International Buffet, Why You Can’t Make Substitutions with Cheesecake.” As one would expect, there are plenty of recipes, ranging all the way from surprisingly basic to dauntingly complex. (There’s an index to the recipes in the back of the book.) At this point in my life, I cannot read a recipe without first assessing the dish’s carbohydrate content. The French tendency to bake food en croute – wrapped in pastry – and the frequent presence of potatoes, rice, and pasta caused me to shake my head sadly. But there were a good number of recipes that were fairly low in carbs. For instance, there’s a recipe I’d like to try for Diffusion de Tomate Provencal – Provencal Tomato Spread. The ingredients are as follows: olive oil, red bell pepper, onion, garlic, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, Nicoise olives, capers, fresh basil, and coarse sea salt. Of course, what do you do with this delectable mixture? Spread it on bread or crackers, of course, those notorious repositories of carbohydrates! But even I must consume some carbs, after all, and Kathleen recommends this spread for seared or grilled fish as well.
Flinn introduces us to her fellow Cordon Bleu students, and we get to share in their awe as they’re taught by the creme de la creme of the culinary universe. I expected to encounter screaming, uncompromising perfectionists who would think nothing of humiliating the poor struggling students. That did happen a couple of times, but mostly Flinn describes individual chefs who are eccentric rather than tyrannical, each with his own unique approach to the art of la cuisine francaise. (I use the masculine pronoun deliberately, as there seemed to be very few, if any, women chefs on the premises.)
And speaking of which, Flinn was at a distinct linguistic disadvantage when she began her studies: her knowledge of French was rudimentary at best. The school did provided translators, but not on every occasion. As her tenure at the school progressed, Flinn’s grasp of the language did likewise. I was once more reminded - as if I needed reminding – of the beauty of this language, which I can read with a fair amount of fluency but can speak only in a very halting fashion. (I was also reminded of the delightful film series from the BBC Sandrine’s Paris, featuring art historian Sandrine Voillet. This aired some months ago on PBS and has since been rebroadcast at least once that I know of. Otherwise, both the book and the DVD are difficult to obtain here. )
While at the Cordon Bleu, Flinn was also in the midst of a rapturous love affair, begun in Seattle, and continued in France when Mike, the object of her affection, flew over to join her there. Jean asked us if we became impatient with the details of this relationship – but we older and wiser folk (plus the young and already wise Joanne) declared that if you couldn’t indulge your passions in Paris – well, then, where could you?
Another theme running though The Sharper Your Knife is the abandonment of an unrewarding job, or series of jobs, in order to pursue a dream. This is what Kathleen Flinn did when she decided to move to Paris and enroll at the Cordon Bleu. I admired her daring; I also wondered at her ability to get along without a regular paycheck – an ability apparently shared by Mike. (Well, it’s good to have things in common with the one you love!)
For me, the most interesting part of this book came near the end, when Flinn’s class took a field trip to Rungis. Qu’est-ce que c’est? Well may you ask. I had never heard of it, but Rungis, located on the outskirts of Paris, is purported to be the largest wholesale food market in the world. It replaced Les Halles, the storied marketplace that had existed in the heart of the city for hundreds of years. In 1971, Les Halles shut down, to be replaced by Marche d’Interet National de Rungis. Click here for the market’s official site. And don’t miss the video of the month. You’ll hear some lovely French spoken, as praise is heaped upon the humble turnip!
Here are some pictures of the market: . Click here to see more, but I should warn you: formerly living creatures destined for the dinner table are delivered to the market – shall we say, unprocessed. This includes rabbits…sigh. It’s enough to make one a vegetarian, n’est-ce pas? Dealing with raw ingredients in this form was something that Kathleen Flinn had to work to get used to. (Full disclosure: I had a grilled hamburger at Applebee’s last night – delicious!)
The French do love their meat. In fact, many of the recipes that Flinn first learned featured “meat stuffed with meat.” When my son and his wife were in Paris last Spring, they had to search long and hard for a vegetarian restaurant. (They finally succeeded in finding one – I don’t recall its name. They also took some great pictures.)
Inevitably, as our discussion wound down, much longing was expressed to be once again in the City of Light, where Jean just was and where lucky Marge and her husband will be next month. I was last there in 1995, when my son was spending a college semester there. I have intensely happy memories of that time, especially of my solo visit to the Musee Cluny ( now the Musee national du Moyen Age), where I sat for some time communing with the fabulous Unicorn Tapestries.
Thanks to Jean for the lively discussion of a rather unusual selection that proved to be exactement a propos. What we really need to do, of course, is to descend on the city en masse, with Jean as our guide!
Here’s another recent film I look forward to viewing: It too appeared recently on PBS. I missed it, but have just managed to acquire the DVD. And speaking of DVD’s, do yourself a favor and watch the BBC comedy Chef! – one of the most entertaining programs I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing on television.
“Those were happy times, Bruno. That’s how I fell in love with my Annette, treading the grapes together.” – The Dark Vineyard, by Martin Walker
Every once in a while, a book transports you so vividly to a particular time or place that you feel a real sense of loss at its conclusion. This just happened to me as I finished The Dark Vineyard by Martin Walker. This novel’s evocation of life in the Perigord region of southwestern France is so vivid, so captivating, that I felt as though I were right there. Actually I really want to be there – and now. Put me on a plane at once!
Mais non – this is a dream that will have to wait…
As the novel begins, Bruno Courreges, Chief of Police in the village of Saint-Denis, is investigating a fire at an agricultural research station. The research involved GMO’s – genetically modified organisms from which genetically modified foods are derived. There’s plenty of ill will in the village on this subject. In addition, there’s something mysterious about this operation. The obvious question: was the fire deliberately set?
Not long after this conflagration, two deaths occur in Saint-Denis. One is almost certainly due to natural causes, but the other is more suspicious. And not only that: it is a loss of life that could only have occurred in a place where wine is produced.
Quite honestly, the criminal investigation was, for me, the least interesting aspect of this book. This is not to impugn the character of Bruno Courreges, an enormously appealing creation. With his deep knowledge of, and loyalty to, the denizens of Saint-Denis, he puts me in mind of Constable Hamish Macbeth of the village of Lochdubh, in the Scottish highlands. (And thanks due to M.C. Beaton for that delightful series!)
Where The Dark Vineyard really triumphs is in its depiction of a vibrant culture deep in the heart of “La France Profonde.” As you might expect, wine making and wine tasting are central to that culture. In one scene, the villagers tread the grapes as their ancestors did.The vendange becomes an occasion for celebration as well as a spur to romantic impulses. (The birth rate usually goes up ninth months later!)
A cave is an underground wine cellar. The cave of Hubert de Montignac, the pride of Saint-Denis, is one of Bruno’s favorite places:
Directly ahead lay Hubert’s own wines, which were the source of his success. He had started by blending the wines of local growers into his own brand of Bergerac whites, reds, and roses. Then he’d bought a small vineyard near the castle of Monbazillac to produce his version of the sweet and golden dessert wine….To the right lay the seat of the cave’s reputation, row upon row of the finest wines Bordeaux, year after year after year of Latours and Lafites, Cheval Blanc and Angelus, and the famous unbroken run of Chateau Petrus. To the left was what was said to be one of the finest selection of malt whiskies outside Scotland and one of the best collections of vintage Armagnacs in France.
Thirsty yet? But wait – Saint-Denis has more to boast of. Weekly markets are still a staple of French villages. Bruno is proud of the fact that Saint-Denis has two such markets. One was founded by a prefect of Napoleon’s in 1807. The other was granted by a royal charter in 1347 and has been held every Tuesday since then.
The culture of wine harmonizes with the culture of fine cuisine – not just at upscale restaurants but also in people’s homes. (Among his other virtues, Bruno is a terrific cook.) Be warned, though: some of the local culinary customs are, to say the least startling. For example: in one scene, becasse, a species of woodcock considered a delicacy, is served up grilled for the guests at a banquet. One of these announces that she is about to devour her favorite part of the becasse:
She neatly severed the charred head of the bird from the remains of its body, and then picked it up by the beak. She put the head of the bird into her mouth and cracked the thin skull, tossed the beak back into the plate and chewed with evident pleasure.
According to Tom’s Wine Line, the French consider les becasses to be “the epitome of game birds.”
Hunting these little guys is a favorite local pastime. Bruno does it with the help of his hunting dog, a basset hound named Gigi whom I immediately coveted.
In this realistic rather than idealistic portrayal, certain individuals in Saint-Denis are shown to be vulnerable to the same dark impulses that prey on the rest of humanity. Incomers and tourists create friction with the locals. The village as a whole struggles with corporate and international pressures as it fights to retain its unique identity.
Still, Martin Walker’s respect and love for French country life shine through on every page of his book. Likewise his deep knowledge of the land and its people. Toward the novel’s conclusion, a veteran and Resistance fighter is laid to rest with all due ceremony. This scene had me close to tears.
Here’s a faded tourist poster glimpsed by Bruno:
The top half depicted the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux and the lower half an idyllic view of the valley from the ridge above Saint-Denis. Between them was the phrase “Valley of the Vezere, cradle of mankind for 40,000 years.” Whole civilizations and nations, monarchies and cultures, had come and gone.
Born in Durham, in the north of England, Martin Walker earned his M.A. at Balliol College, Oxford. He wrote for the Guardian for twenty-five years, during which time he served, among other things, as that news organization’s Bureau Chief in Moscow. He presented Martin Walker’s Russia and Clintonomics on BBC TV, and he has also authored several works of nonfiction. With his wife Julia Watson, Walker now lives primarily in Washington DC, spending summers in their house in the Dordogne.
The Dark Vineyard is the second novel in the series featuring Bruno, Chief of Police. In his Acknowledgments, Martin Walker states that ” this book once again owes everything to the kindness and generosity of the people of Perigord and the splendid way of life they and their ancestors have devised over thousands of years.”
For a closer look at all things Bruno-related – the series, the setting, the author, and of course, the character – click here.
I absolutely loved this book.
For a closer look at La France Profonde, I highly recommend The Discovery of France by Graham Robb.
For me, no music evokes the French countryside like Songs of the Auvergne (Les Chants d’Auvergne) by Joseph Canteloube. Many of us first heard this music when this recording came out in 1983: . I remember thinking that Canteloube’s lushly romantic arrangements of these folk songs were unlike anything I had ever heard in the classical canon. (They still are.)
Here is Dame Kiri singing “Bailero,” from this album.( The songs are in Occitan, a romance language spoken in the south of France and certain other regions of Europe.)
“The literary couple…is a peculiar English domestic manufacture, useful no doubt in a country with difficult winters.”* — Parallel Lives, by Phyllis Rose (with a brief poetical digression)
This will not – cannot! – be a lengthy review, filled with details and anecdote about Rose’s fascinating subjects. I wish it could be. I read this book several months ago, so even though it is bristling with post-it flags, many of the particulars have faded from memory. What has not faded is the rapturous sense of revelation that I experienced while reading it.
What follows are some of the high points – for this reader, at least – of Parallel Lives:
The b0ok is subtitled “Five Victorian Marriages.” The dramatis personae are as follows: Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. Theses unions range from fraught (the Carlyles) to disastrous (the Ruskins) to radiantly happy (George Eliot and George Henry Lewes).
After a lengthy courtship, Jane Welsh finally agreed to wed Thomas Carlyle. She had a request, though: Could her widowed mother live with them? Jane was an only child and did not want to her mother to be bereft when she herself left home to marry. (Her beloved physician father had died when Jane was eighteen.)
Up until this time, Carlyle had been in ardent and tender pursuit of his beloved. But once Jane had accepted him, his demeanor altered radically. He immediately raised an objection to her entreaty: “Mrs Welsh, as the older party, might think the household was hers to rule, whereas in fact, man was born to command and woman to obey.” The author then comments drily: “His [Carlyle's] metamorphosis from humble suitor to arrogant cock of the walk is distressing.” The reader will agree, this transformation does not bode well. And so it proved.
In a different source, I found this quotation, attributed to Samuel Butler, concerning the Carlyle-Welsh union: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”
But there’s worse to come…
Anecdotal evidence holds that when John Ruskin beheld his bride Effie Gray as God made her, on their wedding night, he was so appalled that he was unable consummate their relationship. What did he see that so disgusted him? Apparently, the problem stemmed from the fact that John Ruskin had never before seen a woman nude. Passionate art lover that he was, he’d seen plenty of representations of the female form, both in portraiture and sculpture. But, especially as regards classical statuary, certain details of the female anatomy tended to be glossed over… or, should I say, smoothed over…
At any rate, one receives a rather astonishing image of Ruskin fleeing the premises after laying eyes on what was, after all, a perfectly prosaic feature of the female anatomy – and the male’s too, for that matter. (I don’t mean to be coy here – in case you haven’t guessed, we’re talking about pubic hair.)
And so this marriage-that-was-not-a-marriage limped along. Eventually, the Ruskins befriended the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everitt Millais. Millais used Effie as a model for one of his most famous works. In it, he depicts an event that occurs during the Jacobite Rebellion. A wife is conveying a release order to her husband’s jailer:
The painting’s title, “The Order of Release,” turned out to be prophetic. Eventually Effie divorced Ruskin (though it was technically an annulment) and married Millais. With that act, she went from a frustrating, sexless marriage to one that was rich and fruitful: together, she and Millais had eight children.
(Obtaining a divorce in early Victorian Britain was no easy thing. Until the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857, the only legal way to dissolve a marriage was through an Act of Parliament!)
The painting of Effie Gray just above the photo of Ruskin came to light only recently. Click here for the story.
Here is Phyllis Rose’s summation concerning Charles Dickens and his numbingly miserable marriage to Catherine Hogarth:
‘…it must be said that Dickens seems to have learned little about himself from his sufferings–and less about the suffering of others. As he transferred all the blame to his wife in the matter of his marriage, he blamed most of his woes in later life on his male children, accusing them of shiftlessness and lack of energy, which they had inherited–as he thought–from their mother. Dickens’s emotional development is not inspirational. It is a story of survival merely and proves only, as Jung said about his own reprehensible behavior to a younf woman, that sometimes it is necessary to be unworthy in order to continue living.
I shared this passage with my husband, who exclaimed in astonishment: “This is THE Charles Dickens?” Alas, yes. Some writers who depict wonderful and compassionate characters so memorably in their fiction are not invariably wonderful and compassionate themselves. The life and work of Tolstoy further illustrate this syndrome.
The union of Marian Evans (who wrote under the pen name George Eliot) and George Henry Lewes is an altogether different story:
‘If ever a couple was united in purpose it was Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes, dedicated to Duty, to Work, to Love, spreading warmth and light from their domestic hearth in the most approved style of Victorian domestic fiction. They were the perfect married couple.
Only one small technicality mars this otherwise blissful portrait: these two loving individuals were in fact not legally married. It was not possible for them to be wed in the law for the simple reason that Lewes already had a wife. (And his domestic entanglements make for some fascinating reading.) Rose can scarcely stop herself from extolling the virtues of this rare partnership:
‘By turning their backs on the search for happiness in their daily lives, by committing themselves to each other, to their work, and to Duty, the Leweses managed to be as happy together for the twenty-four years they lived together as any two people I have heard of outside fantasy literature.
The author seems to be saying that here, in this exemplary mode of living, lies a lesson for us all.
George Henry Lewes died in 1878 at the age of sixty. But Marian Evans’s marital history does not end at that point. In her bereavement, and with the usual matters of estate to attend to, she found herself relying increasingly on a forty-year-old banker named John Walter Cross. Their mutual attachment grew: “Cross was young. He was useful. He worshipped her.” And he too was grieving, having recently lost his mother to whom he’d been deeply attached. Despite the age difference – Marian Evans was nearly sixty years old – she married John Cross in 1880.
In her youth, Marian Evans believed herself to be homely and unattractive. She never expected to find fulfillment in love, so the flowering of her relationship with Lewes must have seemed something of a miracle. It was in part due to his support and encouragement that we have some of the great masterpieces of Victorian fiction:
Although Daniel Deronda not usually ranked with the three works pictured above, I’m partial to this novel for two reasons. First, it has a Zionist theme, rather unusual in the mainstream fiction of the time (although one also encounters it is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe). Secondly, one of the novel’s centerpieces is a marriage founded on deceit and lies and described in excruciating and memorable detail.
In Parallel Lives, Phyllis Rose writes from an acknowledged feminist perspective, but I am deeply impressed by the evenhanded treatment of her subject matter. She states that her aim “…has not been to show that Dickens or Ruskin or Carlyle were ‘bad’ husbands, but to present them as examples of behavior generated inevitably by the peculiar privileges and stresses of traditional marriage.” In her summing up at the book’s conclusion, she evokes Erik Erikson’s concept of ‘mutuality:’
‘Erikson warns that to approach any human encounter in a demanding spirit is to solicit disappointment. We can never be given enough. But if we ask only to give, to nurture and strengthen someone else, we will find ourselves strengthened in the process. In a marriage that works well, one person’s needs strengthen–do not deplete–the vitality of the partner who responds to them….”
Parallel Lives was published in 1983. I’ve known about it since then and have always meant to read it. So why now? Professor Patrick Allitt includes it in his bibliography for Victorian Britain, an audio course from The Teaching Company. Thank you, Professor Allitt, for your lively and engaging narration! Here is the teacher we all wish we could have had in college (though graduate of Goucher College that I am, I did have several professors of that caliber: Barton L. Houseman for chemistry; Wolfgang Thormann for French; William Mueller and Brooke Peirce for English…ah, those were the days…O I have fallen into a reverie, have I not – please excuse…Ah well, if you’ll indulge me just a moment longer, Dear Reader…
When I was studying French in college, I carelessly remarked to the aforementioned Professor Thormann that I had never really been moved by French poetry. He looked at me with disbelieving eyes and then proceeded to recite from memory this poem by Paul Verlaine:
Il pleure dans mon coeur.
Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur ?
Ô bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
Ô le chant de la pluie !
Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?…
Ce deuil est sans raison.
C’est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi
Sans amour et sans haine
Mon coeur a tant de peine !
I was, of course, duly chastened, an experience much needed by your basic undergraduate!
Click here and scroll down for the English translation of this poem.)
For more information about the individuals discussed above – and for a rich source on all things Victorian – go to The Victorian Web.
I wonder if Katie Roiphe used Rose’s book as a model for her own highly engaging work, Uncommon Arrangements.
*Phyllis Rose is here quoting Elizabeth Hardwick, from the latter’s essay, “George Eliot’s Husband.”
Regina “Reggie” Lee, a curator at London’s National Gallery, is trying to put together an exhibit featuring several paintings by Caravaggio. A task that should have been relatively straightforward becomes anything but when two of the four lenders suddenly go back on their promise to provide works for the exhibition. What is going on? Reggie is determined to find out.
Her investigation takes her deep into the French countryside. Reggie has an affinity for the paysage; one of her grandmothers was French. The reader will be similarly enraptured by author’s deliciously evocative descriptions of the region. I was reminded of a DVD I watched recently which showcased the attractions of the Dordogne, with its ancient, still-preserved villages and medieval strongholds perched at cliff’s edge. And a river runs through it!
I wanted to pack my bags and go there at once, preferably with Reggie Lee as my guide.
I found Reggie quite appealing. A brainy woman passionate about art, she’s also passionate about – well, passion. As the novel opens, she has just been left by a lover she still longs for. Later, in the course of her investigations, she has an ill-advised one night stand with a journalist whose wife she considers a friend. She even finds herself attracted to the steely, sinister Jean-Jacques Rigaut. Luckily, she has no opportunity to act on that (potentially very dangerous) feeling.
My one reservation concerning Caravaggio’s Angels is that by the time I was halfway through the novel, the plot lines had become so tangled that I was having some trouble figuring out exactly what was happening and why. We fans of crime fiction have all experienced this phenomenon, and often more than once. Sometimes we throw up our hands in despair; other times, interesting characters and a great setting are sufficient compensation. For me, with this novel,the latter was the case. I stayed with it and was glad that I did.
The angel on the book’s cover is a detail from St. Matthew and the Angel. Here is the painting in its entirety:
One cannot help but be fascinated by Caravaggio, with his supreme talent and his turbulent, occasionally violent life (and inevitable premature death). It is not surprising that novelists make use of this mother lode of dramatic material. One of my favorite examples of this paradigm occurs in The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers. On this post you’ll find images of two of Caravaggio’s works: The Supper at Emmaus and The Taking of Christ. The latter is the subject of one of my favorite nonfiction titles of recent years, The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr:
Click on the Wikipedia entry for this masterpiece and read the first section, entitled “Description.” Then click to enlarge and look to the extreme right of the image. Be prepared for chills…
Caravaggio’s Angels comes to us courtesy of Soho Constable, a new imprint launched a little over a year ago by one of my favorite publishers, Soho Press. Peter Lovesey’s terrific contemporary novels featuring Peter Diamond and also, of late, Henrietta “Hen” Mallin have long been published by Soho. While scrolling down the Soho Constable Frontlist, I noted with pleasure the inclusion of this fine writer’s excellent Sergeant Cribb historical series as well. And then, I exclaimed with delight! Why? Because I had spotted, just below the Lovesey titles, slated for an August 2009 release, this book:
So why am I so excited? In 2005, this mystery by Olive Etchells arrived in the library:
The following year brought this sequel:
What was so special about these two novels? The characters were fascinating, the writing was excellent, as were the plots – and the Cornwall setting was utterly captivating. Meanwhile, 2006 came and went, then 2007… Nothing further was heard from, or about, Olive Etchells. So yes, I could not be more pleased that at last, the third DCI Channon procedural is on its way to us.
It’s official: Ron and I hereby declare that the best restaurant meals we’ve ever eaten have been served at Tersiguel’s, located downtown in Historic Ellicott City. Wednesday night I had the pan roasted seasonal salmon, while Ron had the rockfish special. Now I note that on the menu, my entree is more precisely called “saumon mignon.” I don’t exactly know what “mignon” means when used to describe seafood, but I do remember being 21 years old, standing on a street corner in Paris, and having this word applied to me (“Que tu es mignonne”) by a gendarme, no less. Ah, well, that was another country…
Ellicott City was founded in 1772 by the Ellicott brothers John, Andrew, and Joseph. The town was originally called Ellicott’s Mills, after the flour mills built by the brothers. (To read more about the history of Ellicott City, click here.)
The historic district comprises a short stretch of Main Street; the edifices located thereon are a mix of old and new. The newer buildings have for the most replaced those damaged by either flood or fire. The area has sadly suffered both depredations, more than once, in recent history. Tersiguel’s, originally called Chez Fernand, opened on Main Street in 1975, where it enjoyed great success before being destroyed by fire in 1984. Those of us who prize fine cuisine feared that we had lost this treasured dining venue for good. However, after a stint in downtown Baltimore, the Tersiguel family returned to Ellicott City in 1990 to re-open their eatery as Tersiguel’s Country French Restaurant. (Here is the story, as told on their website.)
Many are the pleasures of dining chez Tersiguel’s: gracious surroundings, a warm, welcoming, and knowledgeable waitstaff, and above all, of course, the cuisine. For those like myself, who can no longer consume with careless abandon the food we once loved – and who still harbor, albeit with some degree of embarrassment, a desire to have a nice big bag of
for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner! – it has become a matter of some urgency that the meals that we still can eat be delicious as well as nutritious. In addition, when I first started learning to live with dietary restrictions after years of food-based self-indulgence, I came to understand that the anticipation of delicious fare to come is as important as the actual consuming of same. Any outing to Tersiguel’s stokes the flames of that anticipation. We feel blessed to have a restaurant of this caliber a mere ten minutes from our front door! And BTW – from time to time, we have dined at other establishments where, although the food itself may be just fine, the portions are – well, I guess the phenomenon is usually described as “nouvelle cuisine.” Ron, who likes hearty servings and never eats between meals, has been known in such situations to stare down at his plate and exclaim, “Hey – I already had my appetizer – I can’t eat these little squiggles around the edge - where’s the rest of my entree!” (Or words to that effect.) Such has never been the case at Tersiguel’s.
Right now, in this country, we are living in parlous times. All the more reason to allow yourself, when possible, a few of life’s small but exquisite luxuries. Here is Tersiguel’s current bill of fare. If you can’t quite see your way to having dinner, try going for lunch. Ron and I have never had a meal there that was less than excellent. A goodly number have been superb.
In the immortal words of Julia Child, who knew a thing or two about the joys of French cuisine: Bon Appetit!
Wednesday night, Rose and Jean, two of my erstwhile colleagues at the library, presented a wonderful program in which they celebrated all things French. Obviously, there was only so much territory they could cover in the space of little more than an hour.
The culture of France has been one of the chief glories of Western civilization for the last thousand years. Much of tremendous value has emerged in the course of its fascinating history: magnificent music and art, and a body of literature conveyed to us through one of the world’s most beautiful and expressive languages.
We entered the room to the strains of Edith Piaf:
Rose treated us to excerpts from three travel DVD’s.
In addition, she showed us print travel guides by Rick Steves, Rudy Maxa, and others. We were reminded that tools for learning French can be found on tape, CD, and digital audiobook via the newly acquired Playaways. As an aid to locating these items, Jean and Rose provided program attendees with an extremely helpful handout, which was a combination pathfinder and book list.
Jean booktalked some titles with which I was unfamiliar but which I will now seek out. (Jean is such a terrific booktalker, if she were extolling the virtues of the yellow pages, I rush to procure them tout de suite!):
I found this video slide show of Monet’s paintings, set to Debussy’s haunting Clair de Lune.
Other titles I was already familiar with: Paris to the Moon is a collection of dispatches that Adam Gopnik filed with the New Yorker from 1995 to 2000, while he and his family were living in Paris. ( The French newspaper Le Monde called him a “witty and Voltairean commentator on French life.”) Follow this link to an audio interview with Adam Gopnik on the Barnes and Noble site.
I was delighted to see that Georges Simenon, one of my favorite authors, was well represented at the program.
A number of films were on hand for the taking:
Apple slices, cheese and crackers, and l’eau Perrier were provided by our gracious hostesses. And there were door prizes – I won this!
The French language is beautiful whether spoken or sung. Here is the famous duet “Au Fond du Temple Saint” from the opera Les Pecheurs de Perles by Georges Bizet. The singers are two of today’s greatest: tenor Roberto Alagna and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.
In recent years, the Howard County Library has presented numerous fine programs featuring authors and other outside guest speakers. “Bon Voyage” showcased the efforts of two of the library’s own resourceful and creative staffers. They have much to offer in this venue!
I’d like to conclude with this video of a 1989 performance of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. The soloist is Mireille Matthieu, whom many consider a worthy successor to the great Edith Piaf. (The Youtube poster described this as “legendary footage.”)
This fascinating obituary appeared in today’s New York Times. It will be of especial interest to Francophiles.
Last Sunday, Marilyn Stasio concluded her column of mystery reviews by praising the Penguin re-issues Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels. She describes them as “compact, beautifully designed, irresistibly tactile.”
Here I sit here holding The Bar on the Seine, with one of Brassai’s evocative pictures of a bygone Paris inset on the cover. I could not agree more with Marilyn Stasio’s observations. This is a case where you really can judge the books by their covers!
More photos by Brassai: