Crime Fiction Update II: Mysteries of Brittany, as elucidated by Jean-Luc Bannalec

April 9, 2021 at 2:30 pm (France, Mystery fiction)

Hardcover Death in Brittany Book Hardcover Murder on Brittany Shores : A Mystery Book

 

Jean-Luc Bannalec

Having hugely enjoyed Death in Brittany, I knew I’d want to follow up with this series. The second entry, Murder on Brittany Shores, concerns the relation between the lad and the sea. Unlike Death in Brittany, the story does not concern itself with the region’s rich artistic heritage. I was initially disappointed by this, but I was won over as I read on. For one thing, Bannalec’s descriptions of coastal Brittany are simply wonderful. To whit, Commissaire Georges Dupin’s ruminations early in the novel :

He had stopped saying that the sea was blue. Because that wasn’t true: the sea  was  not just blue. Not here in this magical world of light. It was azure, turquoise, cyan, cobalt, silver-grey, ultramarine, pale watercolour blue, silver-grey [sic], midnight blue, violet blue…Blue in a good ten or fifteen base colours and and infinite numbers of shades in between. Sometimes it was even green, a real green or brown – and deep black. All of this depended on various factors: the sun and its position, of course, the season, the time of day, also the weather, the air pressure, the exact water content in the air, all of which refracted the light differently and shifted the blue into this or that tone….The most important factor was a different blue though – the sky, which varied in the same way and even contrasted with the clouds. It was this blue that found itself in an infinite interplay with the various shades of the sea. The truth was this: you never saw the same sea, the same sky, not once in the exact same hour and in the exact same place.

Then he cannot help adding:

And it was always a spectacle.

All credit to this eloquent writer – Jean-Luc Bannalec, pseudonym of Jörg Bong, a German national and deep lover of all things Breton. Equal praise is due to to the translator, Sorcha McDonagh.

One is given to believe that Brittany’s Celtic heritage is alive and well. Folk tales and legends are retold, with gusto. Here, for instance, is a retelling of the story of Groac’h, a species of supernatural being that (supposedly) inhabits the Breton landscape:

‘If she calls your name, you have no choice. She leads you to the Baie des Trépassés, the Bay of the Deceased. A boat is waiting for you. It’s low in the water and seems to be heavily laden and yet it’s totally empty. The Skiff of the Dead is waiting for your crossing. A sail hoists, as though by a ghostly hand, and you are tasked  with steering it safely to the Ile de Sein. As soon as the skiff reaches the island, the souls leave it. Then you may come back, to your family. Everything is just a shadow, but you are never the same.’

As I read the above passage, I got chills, because I recalled coming across the same tale in a book of Celtic legends some years ago.

Meanwhile, my liking for Commissaire Dupin is steadily growing. It helps greatly that these novels are police procedurals.

I went on to read the third book in the series, The Fleur de Sel Murders. In a way, the subject matter this time was the most exotic I’d yet encountered. As defined by Wikipedia, Fleur de Sel “…a salt that forms as a thin, delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates.” It has apparently been harvested from the Atlantic since ancient times.

Commissaire Dupin notes:

The fleur de sel gave off a curious fragrance in the days after the harvest; it mingles with the smell of rich clay and the salt and iodine in the air that people here in the middle of the white land–the Gwenn Rann. the far-reaching salt marshes of the Guerande–smelled and tasted more strongly with every breath than anywhere else on the coast.

Here is what this substance looks like just prior to harvesting:

And here it is, made ready for commercial consumption:

All this was quite intriguing to me. I’d never  before heard of fleur de sel; the same is probably true for you as well, Dear Reader. I might just betake myself to Wiliams-Sonoma and purchase this little item, provided the price is not overly outrageous.

Square plots of salt marsh are carefully laid out, zealously guarded and harvested by the paludiers, or salt farmers, who are responsible for their maintenance.

Now, as fascinating as all this may be, the plot of The Fleur de Sel Murders never developed any big momentum. There were times when I had to push myself to keep going. Mostly it was the substance itself that held my interest.

Despite this somewhat disappointing reading experience, I intend to stick with this series. On to The Missing Corpse! my hopes are high. Mostly I love spending time in Brittany, even if it as at a wide, wide remove. In my dreams, I will go there….

 

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‘That arm, hacking like an executioner, performed an act of the most extreme cowardice.’ – The Wreck of the Medusa, by Jonathan Miles

February 26, 2021 at 4:02 pm (Art, France)

https://kiamaartgallery.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/thc3a9odore-gc3a9ricault-the-raft-of-medusa-1818-19.png

The size of the above image does not convey the full impact of this painting. The format of this blog does not allow for anything larger. So I suggest that you click here . Then click again on the image displayed.

The Raft of the Medusa depicts the actual aftermath of a terrible maritime disaster that took place in July of 1816, off the coast of what is now Mauritania. The artist is Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault.

There were 148 persons aboard  the raft – 147 men and one woman. These were the ones that didn’t make it into the lifeboats. At first, the lifeboats were towing the raft. But then, those in the boats felt that the raft was too much of a drag on their efforts to reach the shore.. So one among them took an axe and hacked away at the rope that connected the sea-going vessels. Thus, with those brutal strokes, the raft was set adrift, with almost no food, precious little water, and no navigational instruments with which to aid their passage through the stormy Atlantic.

Everything terrible that could happen to those on the raft, happened. Every desperate measure was acceded to. When they were finally rescued, only fifteen survivors remained.

The story of the  survivors’ ordeal on the Medusa’s raft is fairly well known. What is less wel known is the story of the survivors on the lifeboats. They put ashore in what is now Mauritania. (Their original destination was Senegal.) They found themselves in the Sahara, marooned with almost no food or water and harassed by hostile tribesmen. The heat alone was nearly unbearable. For sustenance, they were forced to drink milk mixed with camel’s urine, a “…common source of nourishment for the nomadic tribes who spent up to a week without solid food….”

After a horrific ordeal, the survivors of the shipwreck were finally rescued. It is a miracle that any of them lived to tell the story. And yet, miraculously, they did.

Horace Vernet, Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Gericault, probably 1822 or 1823, 1998.84, MET.jpg

Theodore Gericault, by Horace Vernet, 1822-1823

And let us not give short shrift to the artist. Gericault was the very embodiment of the tormented Romantic artist.   While still in his teens, he embarked on a passionate love affair with Alexandrine Caruel, Baroness de Saint Martin. She was young and beautiful, and possessed a keen interest in the arts. In short, she was everything Gericault wanted in a woman. She was also, by marriage to his father’s brother, his aunt. Alexandra Caruel by Géricault

The affair went on for several years. Gericault absented himself for a time in Italy, partly in an effort to forget Alexandrine, but it didn’t work. As soon as he returned to France, he fell back into her embrace. Eventually she became pregnant, and this finally put paid to their affair. Their infant son was farmed out to the care of another; Gericault never saw him.

Gericault was a man of overmastering passions. He transferred his obsession with Alexandrine to an obsession with the story of the Medusa shipwreck. He shaved his head and sequestered himself in his studio as he labored on his great masterwork. He obtained body parts from the mortuary of a nearby hospital to aid him in his quest for a realistic depiction of a horrible event. (At the time, the composer Hector Berlioz was a reluctant medical student at the same hospital.)

The painting was completed in 1819. By that time, Gericault was beset by illness – depression and tuberculosis. He died in 1824 at the age of 32.

Today, The Raft of the Medusa is one of the most renowned works of art in Paris’s Musee du Louvre.

This book was recommended by Paul Glenshaw. Mr. Glenshaw has recently presented a number of fascinating art webinars for the Smithsonian Associates Streaming Service.

Theodore Gericault’s monument is located in Paris’s famed Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

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All the Devils Are Here, by Louise Penny

December 1, 2020 at 3:57 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  I must dash this review off, lest I start forgetting what I’ve just read. Oops! – it’s already started!

Okay, so:

Armand Gamache, former head of the Sûreté du Québec, and his wife Reine-Marie have recently arrived in Paris from their home in the village of Three Pines, in Quebec. They’ve come to await the birth of their fourth grandchild. Also present is Stephen Horowitz, Armand’s godfather. Horowitz is a very wealthy man who presents a mysterious face to the world, but not to the Gamache family, who know and love him.

Having established the mise en scene in the City of Light and peopled it with her familiar characters, Penny proceeds to launch the story almost immediately with a dastardly transgression committed right in their midst, a crime whose evil intent very nearly succeeds. From this point on, events unfold rapidly, with Armand forced to pit his wits against an extremely ruthless and cunning foe.

This plunge directly into the icy water of criminal intent has  become a familiar trope in contemporary crime fiction – in other words, don’t waste time on description, get things moving at once! (You can just hear the editor/first reader exhorting the author.) It didn’t trouble me this time, mainly because Penny kept the pace lively right up until the home stretch when, at least for me, the plot became labored and overly complex. I find that when that happens  in a crime novel, I start to zone out, not really caring whay happens next – or worse, not being able to believe in the increasingly arcane developments.

As for the characters, all the members of the famille Gamache are front and center. Everyone does not love everyone equally, which refreshing. Armand is ferociously devoted to everyone, which can be grating at times. Also grating is his Superman schtick – he is always there to save the day (Oh wait – should  that be Mighty Mouse?), always on the side of Right, always stronger and more resourceful than the next guy (or woman). As if to affirm her wokeness, Penny has grown men crying and declaring “I love you!” to one another – again, this is usually Armand.

I loved the Paris setting. I don’t always read Penny because I don’t always like her novels, but when I realized that this one was not set in the overly cute little Québécois village of Three Pines, I thought I’d give it a go. (I was especially pleased not to have to spend time in the company of one of my least favorite denizens of Three Pines, the truculent poet Ruth Zardo and her pet duck Rosa.)

Finally, a point concerning grammar. Penny makes frequent use of ‘this’s’ as a contraction of ‘this is.’ I did a bit of research on this, and as is frequent with question of usage, I got widely differing results. My conclusion is that while ‘this’s’ is not flat out wrong, it could still be termed nonstandard. Now this may seem like a small point, but I’m something of a grammarian – blame long years as an English major and then an English teacher – so things like this matter to me.

Looking over this write-up, it would appear that this is a negative review. If so, I’ve conveyed a not quite accurate impression. I actually enjoyed the book and pretty well raced through it – at least, up until the closing chapters, where too much was happening that was confusing and strained credulity. Nevertheless, a thumbs, up, although with reservations.

My favorite Gamache novel is still Bury Your Dead.

 

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More on Paul Gauguin and Brittany

November 29, 2020 at 8:53 pm (Art, France)

 

….in February 1888, Gauguin returned to Pont Aven. Brittany suited his temperament. At that time, he wrote to his friend Schuffenecker:’I love Brittany. I find a wildness and a primitiveness there; when my wooden shoes ring out on its granite soil, I hear the muffled, dull, powerful note that I am looking for in my painting.’ The moors, the valleys gouged by rivers, hidden pathways, hedgerows, the old slate-roofed grey dwellings huddled in the hollows, dark forests of beech, ash and oak-all these contributed to the romantic atmosphere of the legendary landscape. A dampness in the air, a special quality in the light, revealed that the sea and its rocky coast were not far away. Gauguin found a spiritual climate here that was perfectly in tune with his desire for a simpler, more intimate form of painting. The little chapels nestled among mossy trees, the stone Calvaries and the crudely carved wooden statues became fused in his mind with other primitive forms that haunted him.

The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard, and Their Circle, by Claire Freches-Thory and

Antoine Terrasse 

Maybe it’s my current immersion in art, but this paragraph struck me as exceptionally beautiful.

Paul Gauguin en Bretagne

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More on the Post-Impressionists

November 22, 2020 at 9:10 pm (Art, France, Mystery fiction)

[Click here for the previous post on this subject.]

Roderic O’Conor was an Irish artists who lived and worked with the Pont Aven painters, for a time.

Yellow Landscape 1892, by Roderic O’Conor

 

Moonlit Lndscape, Roderic O’Conor

On the Irish Times site, there’s an excellent piece on O’Conor. Be sure to watch the video; there’s a presentation by an exceptionally eloquent curator.
***********

  Our instructor recommended to us a mystery novel set in Brittany. Death in Brittany, translated and published here in 2014,  features Commissaire Georges Dupin. Judging by  the name, c’est un hommage, I assume, to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous Parisian armchair sleuth. But this Dupin spends very little time sitting around waxing intellectual. Instead, he traverses the length and breadth of his adopted  home, trying to solve first one murder, then another.

Being as he’s a newcomer – only lived in Brittany for three years, specifically resident in Concarneau – he is still in the process of getting to know the place, and to understand it:

Inhale in Concarneau and you tasted salt, iodine, seaweed, mussels in every breath, like a distillation of the entire endless expanse of the Atlantic, brightness  and light. In Pont Aven it was the river, moist, rich earth, hay, trees, woods, the valley and shadows, melancholy fog-the countryside.

And there’s more:

The landscape became more and more enchanting as the narrow little streets of Pont-Aven gave way to thick woodland. The trees were dripping with mistletoe and ivy, overgrown and moss-covered. some of the trees here had entwined as they grew, forming a log dark green tunnel. now and then the Aven shimmered between the trees on the left hand side as though it were electrically charged, a pale silver color. The last of the day’s light bathed everything in its glow, lending the landscape even more of a fairytale atmosphere.

As for the painters of more than a century ago – their traces are still very much present. Dupin enters a room in the main floor of a hotel that’s central to his investigation and at once  beholds stunning collection:

There were twenty-five of these by his estimation, maybe thirty, by artists from the famous artists’ colony such as Paul Serusier, Laval, Emile Bernard, Armand Seguin, Jacob Meyer de Haan and of course Gauguin….

The Talisman, an 1888 work by Paul Serusier, so called because it attained an iconic status for Les Nabis. They thought of it as the jumping off point for their artistic movement.

The author of Death in Brittany writes under the pseudonym. Jean-Luc Bannalec is German but spends much of his time in Brittany. Monsieur Bannalec is the holder of a doctorate from l’Université Johann Wolfgang Goethe de Francfort-sur-le-Main. He has worked as an editor and journalist. There’s a Wikipedia entry for him in French under his real name, Jorg Bong.

The Georges Dupin novels currently number five. I look forward to reading the next one.

Breton Girls Dancing, by Paul Gauguin

********************************

Although Van Gogh is classified as a Post-Impressionist, he did not go to Brittany to paint. He famously went to the south of France instead, hoping to found an artists’ colony there. Gauguin joined him there for two months. It did not go well.

There’s an interesting book on this failed experiment: 

Alas, poor Van Gogh; very little went well in his short, sad life. I read a biography of him recently that was excellent, very engrossing, but…”If you have tears, prepare to shed them now….

Many of us wish that Van Gogh could somehow come to know how much his art is loved and valued in the present era. There’s an episode of the long running British series Doctor Who that made  that happen. I for one am very grateful to them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dueling Post-Impressionists

November 22, 2020 at 2:30 am (Art, France)

Of late, I have  been taking an online course entitled Dueling Post-Impressionists. Initially I was intrigued with the title; now I’m enthralled with the art.

The term Post-Impressionism encompasses a wide variety of artists. who followed the Impressionists in their triumphant march toward modernism. Two specific schools of painters fall under this rubric: the Nabis, and the School of Pont-Aven. The dates we’re talking about are roughly the mid 1880s to the turn of the twentieth century.

Our instructor provided these background notes;

Everyone’s heard of Gauguin who started his serious painting career in Brittany in 1886 at what was later called the School of Pont Aven. He was noted for his experimental use of color and Synthetist style that were distinct from Impressionism.

At the same time, a group of Parisian Post-Impressionist painters called themselves Nabis from the Hebrew word for prophet. They were a loose-knit group of over a dozen young artists in Paris. The Nabis played a large part in the transition from impressionism and academic art to abstract art, symbolism and the other early movements of modernism….

Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard were two of the most distinguished Nabi painters.

They were inspired by many sources, including Cezanne, Gauguin, and Japanese art. The Nabis created wallpaper, folding screens, and domestic scenes of remarkable intimacy. They have come into their own with 3 major exhibitions in 2019 in Paris, NY, and Washington, DC.

It should also be noted that the main impetus for the move to Brittany was that it was cheaper to live there than in Paris.

An explication of  the term ‘Synthetism’ helps the viewer understand the principles which governed the art of the Nabis painters and those of the School of Pont Aven. The chief characteristics, enumerated by our instructor, are as follows:

Abandonment of faithful representation;
Creation of a work based on the artist’s memory of the subject but reflecting his feelings while painting;
Bold application of pure color;
Absence of perspective and shading;
Application of flat forms separated by dark contours;
geometrical composition free of unnecessary detail and trimmings.

So at this point, let’s consider ourselves finished with the academic aspect of the art, and go on to the actual art.  The leading light among the painters who took up residence in Brittany was Paul Gauguin. Many of us are familiar  with Gauguin’s depiction of girls and young women from his years in Tahiti. These are earlier works, which I, for one, had never seen. Here are two of my favorites:

Water Mill at Pont Aven, Paul Gauguin, 1894

 

Le Champ Lollichon et L’Eglise de Pont Aven, Paul Gauguin

Gauguin settled in at an establishment called Pension Gloanec in Pont Aven. Not only was the rent low, but the food was excellent.

The Pension Gloanec no longer functions as a hostelry; instead, it houses a book store and event space.

Our instructor has thus far shown us many enchanting paintings. Then just cruising around on the web, aided by her list of artists, I found more on my own. (To obtain such lists on your own, go to the Wikipedia entries for Les Nabis and the Pont-Aven School.)

Little Girl in a Red Dress, by Maurice Denis

 

Les Delices de la Vie, by Armand Seguin

(The above work was until recently owned by David Rockefeller. Mr. Rockefeller passed away in 2017, at the age of 101.  Les Delices de la Vie, which translates roughly as ‘The Delicious, or Wonderful, Things of Life,’ was among the works in his collection that went to auction. Christie’s had estimated that it would sell for between $1,000,000 and $1,500,000. In the event, the price realized was $7,737,500.)

Paysage de Martinique, by Charles Laval.

 

Dining Room on the Garden, Pierre Bonnard

 

Farmhouse at Le Pouldu, by Paul Serusier

 

Little Laundry Girl, by Pierre Bonnard. (The word en francais is especially lovely: ‘Blanchisseuse.’) This work shows the influence of Japonisme on Bonnard’s art.

Enfant avec Goblet, by Edouard Vuillard

This past Wednesday, we were shown a painting by Vuillard called The Garden of Vaucresson. It fairly took my breath away:

One painting that I discovered just  recently that very much appealed to me is a landscape by Robert Bevan, a British painter. (Although Les Nabis and the Pont Aven artists were mainly French, there were others from farther away: England, like Robet Bevan; Ireland, like Roderic O’Conor; The Netherlands, like Meijer de Haan; and Poland, like Wladislaw Slewinski. In addition, there from time to time quite a few Americans.)

In fact, I was so enchanted by  this image that I have ordered this:

More to come on this, my current favorite subject.

 

 

 

 

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“….one feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must be done.”

March 15, 2020 at 4:55 pm (Art, Book review, books, France)

  Vincent Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, Netherlands. Having lived variously in the Netherlands and Belgium, he went to Paris to live with his brother Theo, an art dealer, in 1886. Despite the brothers’ deep love for each other, there were conflicts. Van Gogh was always painting and drawing; he soon developed the idea that living in the south of France would would be beneficial to his life and his art. And so, in 1888, to Arles, and the yellow house.

The Yellow House, 1888

While in Arles, Van Gogh’s health, both mental and physical, rapidly deteriorated. Yet as an artist, this was one of his most prolific and fruitful periods. He had had an idea of creating a sort of colony artists, and Paul Gauguin did in fact join him there for a time. It is hard to imagine two more volatile personalities cohabiting in the same small space. After 63 days had passed, Gauguin left Van Gogh, the yellow house, and the south of France forever. (The Yellow House by Martin Gayford describes this turbulent period in fascinating detail.)

Meanwhile, Van Gogh was experience increasing periods of instability and breakdown. He left the south of France in 1890 and went to live in Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris. In this way he could be close to Dr. Paul Gachet, who was himself an aspiring artist as well as a physician.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890

This was to be the last port of call for the tormented spirit of Vincent Van Gogh. In July, he was found in his room with a gunshot wound to the chest. He survived for some thirty hours. No surgeon was available, so the bullet could not  be removed. At any event, a fatal infection soon set in. At the time of his death on 29 July 1890, Van Gogh, his stunning genius largely unrecognized by the art world, was 37 years old.

(In recent years, a controversy has arisen as to whether Van Gogh actually shot himself, or whether some other person was responsible. For more on this, click here.)

This quick summation leaves out a great deal. For instance, there is a period when Van Gogh was living in The Hague – 1882 to 1883. He took in a prostitute named Clasina Maria “Sien” Hoornik. Sien, pregnant at this time, served as an occasional model for Van Gogh.

Sien, who already had a five-year-old daughter, gave birth to a boy in July of 1882. Vincent cared for Sien; he loved her children even more and was especially taken by little Willem:

A baby, for Vincent, was simply “the best thing”— life’s first fresh bud, irresistibly calling for the consolation that makes us human, a primary reality of a kind he himself was fated never to produce.

Julian Bell wrote A Power Seething some four years after the publication of the mammoth tome – 976 pages – by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.  In his introduction, Bell explains:

I have written this book out of my love for Vincent van Gogh, the letter writer of heart-piercing eloquence. Researching it, I have gotten to know something of Vincent the social animal, the misfit tearing a ragged course through the late nineteenth-century Netherlands and France.

I deeply appreciate that Bell declares his love so boldly and without apology. He wields an even hand in the telling of this story, but his devotion to his subject nonetheless shines through. By the time you finish this (comparatively slender) volume, you may very well feel the same. I did, but I was most of the way there already.

In July of 2018, my friend Jean and I had the pleasure of attending a presentation at the Smithsonian entitled “Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard.” I created a post on the subject; it features two guest appearances by my granddaughter.

There exists a lovely book on this subject.   I also recommend this edition of Van Gogh’s wonderful letters. It contains visuals of those letters, in addition to some of his most memorable art.

Vincent and his brother Theo were very close. Theo almost singlehandedly kept Vincent afloat, both financially and artistically. It’s often said that Vincent sold only one painting in his lifetime. He might have sold more, had he not given his art away so freely and so generously. Theo was  shattered by Vincent’s death. In frail health himself, he died six months later at age 33.

Theo van Gogh
*1882

Johanna ‘Jo’ van Gogh-Bonger (1862-1925) was Theo’s wife. In 1890, she gave birth to a son, whom they named Vincent Willem. Jo was instrumental in assuring that Vincent’s fame was established and continued to grow in the art world.

Julian Bell, writer and painter, comes by his gifts naturally; his father, Quentin Bell, likewise practiced these professions. His father, in turn, was the art critic and theorist Clive Bell, who was the husband of painter Vanessa Bell, who was the sister of Virginia Woolf.   (The Bells and Virginia and Leonard Woolf comprised the nucleus of what famously became the Bloomsbury Group.)

 

The Handover, by Julian Bell

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has a section for questions and answers. Someone asked if there were any descendants of the van Gogh family still living. The site features a gracious response from Willem van Gogh.

*****************************

A Van Gogh gallery

Bedroom in Arles, 1888

 

The Night Cafe, 1888

 

Red Vineyards, 1888

Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles, 1889

 

The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890

The Starry Night, 1889. One of the first paintings I ever came to know and love. My mother took me to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I was eight years old. We went upstairs; she sent me in ahead of her. I just stared and stared, not moving.

 

Starry Night over the Rhone, 1889

We all end our lives with a deficit, van Gogh once told Theo, “yet, yet, one feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must  be done.”

 

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Best of 2018, Six: Nonfiction, part four – the best of the rest

January 1, 2019 at 11:30 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, France, True crime)

For This Reader, it was a great year for nonfiction.

In history:

 

To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, by Charles Spencer, Ninth Earl Spencer (brother to the late Princess Diana)

A History of France by John Julius Cooper, Viscount Norwich, a terrific – and prolific – historian whom we lost in June of this year.

The Race To Save the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport. A commenter on this blog post said: “Sounds like a fine book about an endlessly fascinating topic.” I certainly find it so. Endlessly fascinating and endlessly tragic.

In current affairs:

 

      Nomadland: Surviving American the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard. This small book consists of the text of two lectures delivered by Mary Beard, a renowned Cambridge classicist, courtesy of  The London Review of Books.

Beard’s book also contains a priceless picture of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel in matching power suits!

   Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy

In a variety of other areas, hard to pin down:

   The White Darkness by David Grann. The author of Killers of the Flower Moon delivers yet another powerful narrative.

   Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum, by Kathryn Hughes

   Ghosts of the Tsunami  by Richard Lloyd Parry. This is a devastating story, told with great sensitivity. Parry is an excellent writer. For an exceptional work of true crime, try People Who Eat Darkness.

In nature:

The Meaning of Birds, by Simon Barnes. I finished it – Yay! Also downloaded it from Amazon and so will have it forever. Mr. Barnes, you have opened a world to me, for which I am deeply grateful.

I can’t resist sharing two more videos of avian nature:

 

(With thanks to Sir David Attenborough)

In Art and Architecture:

How Do We Look: the body, the divine, and the question of civilisation, by Mary Beard. This is a companion volume to the BBC’s Civilisations: From the Ancient to the Modern. (The three DVD’s that comprise this series are owned by the local library.)

True Crime / International Intrigue:

Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found, by Gilbert King

Blood & Ivy: the 1849 murder that scandalized Harvard, by  Paul Collins

    Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective, by  Margalit Fox.  Fox comes up with an especially well expressed locution when she compares crime writing to doctoring. Both, she says, are rooted in “the art of diagnosis,” an art “…which hinges on the identification, discrimination, and interpretation of barely discernible clues in order to reconstruct an unseen past….”

The Spy and the Traitor: the greatest espionage story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: one woman’s obsessive search for the Golden State Killer, by Michelle McNamara. Inevitably, the impact of this powerful narrative is augmented by the fact of the untimely passing of its author.  Michelle McNamara did not live to complete this labor. Two researchers, crime writer Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen, performed that task, and did an admirable job. And McNamara’s husband, actor/comedian Patton Oswalt, also deserves credit for assigning the task the highest possible priority. He could have arranged no better memorial for his wife.

An Accident? – or Something Else?

   The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness, by Dale Peterson. For those of us who have long admired the work of Jane Goodall, this book provides  a fascinating look at how the research camp she established in Tanzania, East Africa, functioned on a day to day basis in the 1960s. At the same time, Peterson relates the story of a researcher who goes missing. In July of 1969, as part of her research project, Ruth Davis follows a chimpanzee into the forest. She does not return to camp. An investigation follows, with the outcome everyone dreads.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of the Body at the Belvedere, by Mikita Brottman

And of course, there was  this rather specialized publication…handmade by two doting grandparents, with the help of Google Photos:

Some highlights:

Dad and Welles enjoying some quality time

 

Mom, Welles, and Etta making art at the Art Institute

I asked Etta strike a pose appropriately “Gothic.” As you can see, she obliged!

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Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard

July 27, 2018 at 12:35 pm (Art, France, Smithsonian Associates World Art History Certificate Program)

Self-portrait with Grey Felt Hat, 1887

Les peintres du petit boulevard. So they were called, first probably by Van Gogh himself. On a recent Saturday, my “art partner” Jean and I went to a Smithsonian program about these artists. The lecturer was art historian Bonita Billman, two of whose presentations we’ve already attended and greatly enjoyed.

When attending a function of this sort, one always hopes to receive a handout replete with definitions of terms, bibliography, and other enriching information. This Ms Billman provided. Here are the first two paragraphs of the handout:

Vincent Van Gogh spent 1886 to 1888 in Paris, living with his brother Theo, an art dealer. Theo’s connections with the avant-garde art world gave Van Gogh a quick and intensive contemporary art education as he was drawn into a social and artistic circle of like-minded painters that included Pissarro, Seurat, Signac, Gauguin, Laval, Bernard, Anquetin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. He called the rising group the Painters of the Petit Boulevard to distinguish them from the established and successful impressionists like Monet, Degas, and Renoir.

Van Gogh’s time among these young artists was among the most influential in his brief life. In searching for his own style, he rapidly passed through approaches including impressionism and divisionism, lightening his Dutch-inspired palette and breaking up his brushstrokes. He conceived the idea of his fellow artists joining him in a community he called the Studio of the South – a colony that never came to pass.

Divisionism is defined by Ms Billman in her handout as a “…painting technique making use of color theory in which the application of dots of complementary colors heightens their luminosity…” This is similar to pointillism, a term greatly disliked by Seurat, to whose work it was principally applied.

Seurat’s most celebrated painting, Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte, holds pride of place in the Art Institute of Chicago, where my granddaughter, a Chicago resident, is always happy to encounter it.

More art by painters in this group:

Avenue de Clichy, Louis Anquetin

 

Portrait of Felix Feneon, by Paul Signac

 

Laborer at Celeyran, by Toulouse-Lautrec

 

Une Bergère Bretonne (a Breton shepherdess), by Paul Gauguin  1886

 

Bathers at Asnières by Seurat, 1884

 

Elégante de profil au Bal Mabille, 1888

 

And there she is again, Grandma’s little art lover!

I saved Camille Pissarro for last because I’ve fallen deeply in love  with his paintings, especially  the early works. This just happened – honestly! Here are several:

Road in a Forest, 1859

 

Paisaje tropical con casas rurales y palmeras, 1853

 

Entrée du village de Voisins, 1872

 

Two women chatting by the sea, 1856

To me, there is something magical about these two women. I imagine they are talking over some small, mundane matter as they stand by the sea, bathed in the calm and beautiful sunshine. Some time ago I titles a post  about the art of Vermeer, ‘Quotidian moment, frozen in time.’ The same phrase might be applied, I think, to this painting.

In these works, Pissarro shows an almost uncanny way of capturing light, especially sunlight at a certain time of day. In 1885, he began studying With Seurat and Signac, adopting for a time their Divisionist technique:

La Récolte des Foins, Eragny (1887)

Pretty, but I rue the absence of that special light. At any rate, after a few short years, Pissarro abandoned the neo-Impressonist style, claiming that

‘It was impossible to be true to my sensations and consequently to render life and movement, impossible to be faithful to the effects, so random and so admirable, of nature, impossible to give an individual character to my drawing, [that] I had to give up,’

[From John Rewald’s biography of Pissarro, quoted in the Wikipedia entry.]

The artists of the petit boulevard frequently painted and drew one another:

Émile Bernard by Toulouse-Lautrec, 1886

 

Paul Signac, by Georges Seurat, 1890

The above portrait is executed in conté-crayon, defined in Wikipedia as  “a drawing medium composed of compressed powdered graphite or charcoal mixed with a wax or clay base, square in cross-section.” The entry goes on to further elucidate:

They were invented in 1795 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté, who created the combination of clay and graphite in response to the shortage of graphite caused by the Napoleonic Wars (the British naval blockade of France prevented import). Conté crayons had the advantage of being cost-effective to produce, and easy to manufacture in controlled grades of hardness.

Van Gogh, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887

 

Henri de Toulouse-Laurec by Louis Anquetin, 1886

Although Toulouse-Lautrec painted numerous different scenes and portraits, his fame rests largely on his depictions of the patrons and the performers at the Moulin Rouge:

Bal au Moulin Rouge

And here it is, brought to vivid, joyous life in the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. Watch carefully: About a third of the way in, you’ll see Toulouse-Lautrec’s hands sketching the scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846, by Alethea Hayter

January 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, France, London 2017)

While in London, I had the good fortune to find myself in the vicinity of the London Review Bookshop. (Sister-in-law Donna figured this out courtesy of the mapping function she employed with admirable dexterity on her iPhone.) Naturally that meant that I soon found myself inside the shop.   The cash register was at the back; there, I found issues of the venerable London Review of Books. I informed one of the young people staffing the desk that I subscribe to the review ‘back home in Maryland, USA.’ He immediately exclaimed, with booming gusto: “Cracking good mag, innit?!” Yet another wonderful British moment….

As it happened, I had a new issue waiting for me when I got back home. In it was a review of One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli ad the Great Stink of 1858, by Rosemary Ashton.

Reviewer Rosemary Hill observes that aside from the choking stench emanating from the Thames River, nothing else of great moment happened in London in the year 1858. It is therefore, she concludes, “the perfect subject for a microhistory.”

Hill continues:

Great events cast shadows over details which in an undramatic year, or season, can be more clearly seen. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, published in 1965, was one of the earliest and best examples  of what has become a popular  genre. Set in another heat wave, in 1846, Hayter’s account weaves together the famous, the obscure and the forgotten.

Hill enumerates just a few of the writers and artists who are featured in Hayter’s slender volume – Samuel Rogers, Jane Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett,  and Gräfin Hahn-Hahn (that’s her name alright – no mistake!). Hayter documents their lives and interactions so closely that “…from day to day and street to street, the sublime and the ridiculous appear in the proximity they occupy in life.”

Hill then goes on to make further observations on the microhistory subgenre:

This is surely one reason for the rise of microhistory, that it brings the texture of the past closer. It illustrates the ‘human position’, the way the momentous occurs ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’…When it is done well, microhistory opens out from its immediate subject matter and  the result is like looking through a keyhole and seeing a whole landscape.

Meanwhile, I had developed a strong need to get my hands on A Sultry Month. There is no e-book available; the physical book is out of print. I bought a used copy from Amazon.

I’m now about two thirds of the way through it. I am deliberately reading as slowly as possible, as I do not want it to end. I love it.

While Haydon was walking out of the northern fringe of London, Browning was sitting on the grass in the garden at New Cross, and was conscious of the immensity of the whole round earth under him, and saw it as an image of  the love that now supported all his life. At the same time Elizabeth Barrett was sitting on the drawing-room window seat in Wimpole Street, writing to him while he was thinking of her.

(Those of my generation may recall watching the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street on television in 1956. I was twelve years old at the time, and that production made an indelible impression on my  nascent romantic imagination.

Katharine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett)

I had never heard of Alethea Hayter before this. Her obituary in The Guardian – she died in 2006 at the age of 94 –  says this of her works:

In all these books, she manages to unite the narrative sweep and urgency of a novel with impeccable historical and social research and a uniquely elegant style.

I will certainly be reading more books by Alethea Hayter. I’ve  already downloaded this one: 

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I can recommend yet another microhistory: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. This book came out shortly after the release of a terrific film Le Retour de Martin Guerre starring Gerard Depardieu. (And while you’re  at it, seek out Janet Lewis’s novelized version of this true story, The Wife of Martin Guerre.)

 

 

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