The Universe seems intent on continuing my BIG LIFE LESSONS/NO TIME TO MYSELF theme in 2015, so although I have been reading, I have had neither the time nor the inclination to write blog posts. Therefore, here is my January reading in mind-blip form.
Paris France, Gertrude Stein, Peter Owen, 2003.
Paris France is Gertrude Stein’s celebration of everything French. Weirdly, I happened to be re-reading it when things kicked off in Paris recently. Hmmm. Anyway, part memoir, part cultural exploration, Paris France was published in 1940, on the same day that Paris fell to the Germans.
But still now it is 1939 and war-time, well it was just beginning and everything was agitating and one day we were with our friends the Daniel-Rops they are our neighbours in the country and he was expecting a call to go to Paris and the telephone rang. He went quickly to answer it he was away some time and were all anxious. He came back. We said what is it. He said the quenelles the Mère Mollard was making for us have gone soft.
Yep. Ms Stein could do that. It seems to me that she wrote very much as she spoke, with the same rhythm and word-patterns, and I can imagine her enthroned on her chair, wearing her robe-like costume and sandals, pontificating on this and that, her mellifluous voice mesmerising, her wit and irony spinning a veritable web of words. My favourite Stein work is Tender Buttons, which I decided to re-read after Paris France.
Clearly, I rather adore Gertrude Stein and think that if she had not existed as a real person, we might have had to invent her, because the world just needs more eccentrics. Stein is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some of her writing is notoriously difficult and I shall not pretend that I ‘get’ the whole shebang, but I love that she was so playful and curious and clever when it came to words. She did not just string them together into coherent sentences and say the same thing in the same way as a million other people before and after her. No, she made words dance to her own tune, and her writing was Art with a capital ‘A’. She ‘made’ her poems, just as painters ‘make’ pictures. Instead of brush strokes, she used the symbols we call the alphabet. And despite the way that much of her writing appears to us as incomprehensible, it would be foolish indeed to dismiss Stein’s work as incomprehensible. The thing is, we will never understand it if we try to ‘figure it out’. Like Buddhist koans, which must be intuited and not figured out, Stein’s sly, clever, and wittily cryptic poems reveal themselves when you least expect it.
Book was there, it was there. Book was there. Stop it, stop it, it was a cleaner, a wet cleaner and it was not where it was wet, it was not high, it was directly placed back, not back again, back it was returned, it was needless, it put a bank, a bank when, a bank care.
Suppose a man a realistic expression of resolute reliability suggests pleasing itself white all white and no head does that mean soap. It does not so. It means kind wavers and little chance to beside beside rest. A plain.
Suppose ear rings, that is one way to breed, breed that. Oh chance to say, oh nice old pole. Next best and nearest a pillar. Chest not valuable, be papered.
Cover up cover up the two with a little piece of string and hope rose and green, green.
Please a plate, put a match to the seam and really then really then, really then it is a remark that joins many many lead games. It is a sister and sister and a flower and a flower and a dog and a colored sky a sky colored grey and nearly that nearly that let. From: Tender Buttons
The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark, Penguin, 2006.
This novella is wonderfully suspenseful and apparently turns the crime story inside out, but seeing as how I am not an aficionado of that genre I have no idea if that is indeed the case. However, I very much enjoyed the experience of reading the book because I never knew what would happen next. I have seen The Driver’s Seat described as a ‘whydunit': Spark lets us know very early what happens but never gives an explanation as to why it happens, and I found the story a bit chilling unsettling, really.
The protagonist is a woman named Lise who appears to be heading off for a much-needed holiday in Italy. But, it seems that she has a hidden agenda. What could that be? And why does she wear such garish clothes and behave so strangely, and why is the man in the seat next to hers on the plane so frightened of her? Mystery!Crime! I was impressed by Spark’s ability to pack so much into so few pages.
A Meal in Winter, Hubert Mingarelli, tr. Sam Taylor, Portobello Books, 2014.
There are so many books about the Holocaust, but this one is gem. It might be a slim novella of only 138 pages, but it contains a powerful story. Three German soldiers take the opportunity to go over their immediate superior’s head when he is absent one day and tell a higher officer that they would rather do the hunting than rather than the executing at the Polish camp where they are stationed. They are all suffering from nightmares and profound distress after witnessing the horrors of the Jewish genocide. The frozen countryside is peaceful and beautiful and they are in no hurry to begin their task of hunting for ‘them’, but they stumble across a young Jewish man hiding in a hole in the ground and capture him. What happens next raises profound moral questions that speak to the very heart of what it means to be human, and humane. I found this narrative bleak and disturbing, but it is an important book and deserves to be widely read.
The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet, David Okefuna, Princeton University Press, 2014.
Albert Kahn was a French financier and banker who, in 1909, instituted a project to produce a colour photographic record of human life on Earth. Throughout the subsequent twenty years he financed the travels of a group of photographers who journeyed to fifty countries and made more than 72,000 images using the autochrome photography technique, the first portable true-colour photographic process. Sadly, the Great Depression saw Kahn’s financial ruin and he had to curtail the project before it was completed, but this book draws on images from the archive of collected images that languished, unrecognised, until quite recently.
The photographs are amazing! They made me think about what we have lost in the world since the advent of ‘globalisation’. There were so many wonderful national costumes, different types of dwellings, diverse urban and rural landscapes, but now everyone everywhere pretty much dresses and looks the same. I kept wondering who the people in the photographs were, what their stories were, and what happened to them. Did the woman locked in the wooden crate in the barren wastes of Mongolia manage to escape? What happened in the lives of those dandified Canadian cowboys, and who were all those magnificently mustachioed men wearing glittering jewels and turbans at that gathering in India? There are frontline nurses, wounded soldiers, a wrecked train, laughing children, tired old men, a beautiful reclining concubine, all in wonderfully soft and washed-out colours. Some of the archival images can be seen here. Not all of these images are in this book, but they are a good representation of the archive’s content.
Art and Music in Venice: From the Renaissance to the Baroque, Hilliard T. Goldfarb, Yale University Press, 2014.
In 2013 the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibition called Splendore a Venezia, which sought to explore the interaction between the visual arts and music in Venice from the early sixteenth to the late eighteenth century, from Titian to Guardi, from Willaert to Vivaldi. This is such a gorgeous book and I loved leafing through its pages and discovering all sorts of new things:
Lavishly illustrated, Art and Music in Venice brings Venice’s golden age to life through stunning images of paintings, drawings, prints, manuscripts, textbooks, illuminated choir books, musical scores and instruments, and period costumes. New scholarship into these objects by a team of distinguished experts gives a fresh perspective on the cultural life and creative output of the era.
Limonov, Emmanuel Carrère, tr. John Lambert, Allen Lane, 2014.
Eduard Limonov is another of those people who, if they did not really exist, would need to be invented, because his life has been so unbelievably weird and fascinating. Carrère’s book is a biography, but it is published as fiction because, obviously, he has taken liberties. But, I loved it to pieces.
Limonov has had many incarnations: from a poverty-stricken factory worker he raised himself up by dint of his own steely determination and became a celebrated writer, but he is no hero and I found that my reaction to him changed constantly depending on his behaviour, which could at times be appallingly bad. This NYT review manages to distil the complexities of Limonov’s life to manageable proportions and is worth reading. I think that Carrère has produced a narrative that is wonderfully evocative of time and place, and he gives us a multi-faceted portrait of a complicated and controversial man. I really enjoyed reading the book and I think that Carrère is now one of my new favourite writers.
I have no reading plans for February. Hopefully, I will find some time to write posts and read other people’s blogs. Maybe I will finally begin one of the reading projects I made notes for last year.