jeudi 13 mars 2014

Gibran in Paris, Yusuf Huwayyik, 1976

Introductions or prefaces to works of fiction or autobiography are generally explanatory and laudatory so whenever I encounter one which is argumentative or contestatory, I take notice. In the case of Yusuf Huwayyik's memoir "Gibran in Paris", a book which I enjoyed and would recommend, I was somewhat taken aback by the introductory essay's forthright assessment not of the work itself but of the psychologies and philosophies that lay outside the scope of the book...
The twenty five short stories, more accurately characterized as episodes or character studies are perfect. They were written in 1957 when Lebanese painter Yusuf Huwayyik  was 74 years old, describing two short but fruitful years (1909-10) in his youth, spent in Paris studying art with Kahlil Gibran — painter, poet, mystic and author of "The Prophet". The stories are written by a mature, older man who has reflected on life and given us a balanced, discrete (oh so charmingly discrete) account of the adventures of two young men of limited financial means but great ambition who sowed their wild oats in Picasso and Isadora Duncan's Paris.
In the introductory essay, a fifth of the entire book, its author Matti Moosa —  academic, critic and translator of Huwayyik's reminiscences, makes almost no reference to the stories. Instead, he maps out a sophisticated philosophical and sociological schematic of Gibran's life and work, missing no opportunity to point out inconsistencies and gaps in his thought. Gibran is a Modernist, a Catholic, a Romantic, a student of Nietzsche, a self-appointed guru, a conflicted Easterner and a conflicted Westerner - an unlikely mix, clearly. Moosa also shows how Gibran sometimes just gets it wrong, misreading history or philosophy, "vitiated as his understanding is by a somewhat spurious naivete", especially when voicing his opinions on the position of women in his native culture or his interpretation of Nietzsche. There is nothing of the hagiography here!
After the toughness of the introduction, how can the reader move on to enjoy the generous, whimsical quality of the stories?
And yet there is much to recommend this little book which I would argue is really two separate pieces of writing: twenty five charming stories about the lives of two young men in Paris and a university-style essay best suited to an academic journal. They don't go together and yet they're both worth reading.

lundi 13 janvier 2014

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell, 1933

Over the years, travelling by train to Paris and London, I've seen dozens of readers tucking into George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London". It's just short enough to be able to finish if read uninterrupted on a round trip journey from one capital to another. And, because it's based on real places (which are easy enough to locate), you're motivated to read quickly so that if you pass through any of the areas described you can do some amateur forensic sleuthing, if you like.
This book is neither straight journalism nor high literature but a combination of the two. Journalism's mandate is to tell, as clearly as possible, what happened, how, where, to whom and if possible, why. Style serves content. Literature is free to examine an event or a situation, to get at the truth too, but the rules regarding form and content are completely different. "Down and Out" does both brilliantly.
Orwell himself admitted that while the events and people he described were real enough, he took liberties with the facts by rearranging the sequence of events, sanitizing the dialogue and changing or omitting names of people or places. In this way, publishers, censors and young Orwell's fellow 'plongeurs'' concerns could be satisfied. This document - memoir viewed through socialist sensibilities, wrapped up in fine description is a classic in that strange genre of writing that others like Hemingway also excelled at.
Read the opening scene - it will hook you:
"The rue du Coq d'Or, Paris, seven in the morning. A succession of furious, choking yells from the street. Madame Monce, who kept the little hotel opposite mine, had come out on to the pavement to address a lodger on the third floor. Her bare feet were stuck into sabots and her grey hair was streaming down. 
MADAME MONCE: 'Salope! Salope! How many times have I told you to not squash bugs on the wallpaper? Do you think you've bought the hotel, eh? Why can't you throw them out the window like everyone else? Putain! Salope!' 
Thereupon a whole variegated chorus of yells, as windows were flung open on every side and half the street joined in the quarrel. They shut up abruptly ten minutes later, when a squadron of calvary rode past and people stopped shouting to look at them. 
I sketch this scene just to convey something of the spirit of the rue du Coq d'Or. Not that quarrels were the only thing that happened there - but still, we seldom got through the morning without at least one outburst of this description. Quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing orange-peel over cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse-carts, made up the atmosphere of the street."

lundi 16 décembre 2013

Back Where I Came From, A J Liebling (1938)

"People back where I came from are receptive to artistic influences from outside, and among the visiting priestesses of the arts I remember was a dancer named Princess White Wing. Shortly before her arrival the City License Department had prescribed opaque clothing over the critical portions of all dancers' anatomies.
"What's the use of opaque clothing?" demanded the Princess. "You can see right through it."
The Princess, who was a graduate of a college in Sherman, Tex., had abandoned the brick-and-stucco teepees of the Cherokee nation to carve out a career as a feather dancer. She employed as many as two feathers at a single performance, and she had been all set to open at a new night club when along came this theatrical reform business..."
Thus begins the first story in the section entitled "The World of Art" from A J Liebling's book called "Back Where I Came From", originally published in 1938.
Liebling had a long and successful career writing columns and stories, primarily for the New Yorker. This collection of stories and profiles was written early in his career but his style, tone and subject matter had already been set. He introduced his readers to both ordinary and unusual people, mundane and specialized professions, likeable and sometimes unsavoury characters. If you want to meet in print, at least, jockeys, hairdressers, pickpockets and the police who chased after them, feather dancers, grifters and punters who lived in NYC in the 1930s, this lovely book will satisfy.
Liebling was a master of understatement and hyperbole; he had an acute ear for dialogue, the vernacular, and could convincingly leverage the rhythm and syntax of spoken English of numerous ethnic groups. If you like Leo Rosten's books, (another New Yorker from the same generation) particularly "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N", you will enjoy the friendly way that Liebling handles ethnic dialogue.
The stories and prose are measured and when read out loud, they flow well, constituting an oral history of a fascinating time that is long gone.

mardi 10 décembre 2013

La Symphonie Pastorale, Andre Gide (1919)

"La Symphonie Pastorale" is a novella written by Andre Gide in 1919 when he was 50 years old, and despite its small size (70 pages), it is both structurally and thematically sophisticated.
The characters, for example, are complex: some grow, some change, one dies, while one, the narrator, damns himself to perpetual moral stagnation. He is the most interesting figure in this sad story: a sort of anti-hero, he is a country minister living in a remote part of Switzerland in the 1890s, who, imbued with some kind of truncated Christian charity, takes on the academic and moral education of a blind, initially mute orphan girl, and two and a half years later, at the girl's demise, falls to his knees, now broken and pathetic but still not enlightened, petitioning God for forgiveness.
Poor us. We have waded through the theological distinctions he has made between Protestantism and Catholicism, Pauline doctrine and Jesus' teachings; listened to his theories of language acquisition; and patiently stood by as he puzzled out the role of knowledge in happiness. In fact, the minister at first seems erudite, quoting Scripture and Virgil but his logic proves faulty and his self-described Christian core shows itself to be empty. He is always almost coming to self-understanding but always falling short, retreating...
The last line, "I would have wept but I felt my heart more arid than a desert" should signal understanding and remorse but only a paragraph or two before he dismisses the authenticity of his son's newly discovered vocation and instead of asking for his wife's forgiveness, asks her to pray for his if he is all that matters.
The form of the book is appropriate to the characterization: divided into two notebooks, the first, written in the past tense and told after the fact, describes how the narrator educates Gertrude, ending with the girl moving to another home, inadequately formed perhaps, but happy; Jacques, his eldest son and his competition for Gertrude's affections is temporarily sent away; and Amelie, the minister's watchful wife, while purposely ignored by him, anchors the events in some kind of objectivity.
At the close of the first notebook, redemption is possible and no irreparable damage has been done but the second notebook is different. The action in this one moves quickly, it is set in the narrator's present, writing it as it happens to him, so that in the span of a few short weeks, the minister's life unravels and he lacks the time to figure out how he is responsible: Jacques, disillusioned by his father's ministry, joins a Catholic order, converts Gertrude and offers her real understanding of the world. Gertrude in turn, comes to see her guiltless but central role in the disintegration of the unity of her host family, and accepting the impossibility of love with the priest, she dies by her own hand. This is a perfect, lyrical tragedy.

jeudi 24 octobre 2013

First Love by Ivan Turgenev (1860)

I love well-written, autobiographically inspired novels because I believe they reveal the heart of the writer in a way that a completely invented plot and cast of characters cannot do. Ivan Turgenev's novella "First Love" is one of my favourite examples of this form. Written when he was 42, it opens with three middle aged men recounting the circumstances of their first love. Vladimir Petrovich (a thinly veiled Turgenev) is one of these gentlemen, the one whose bittersweet story is told.

The events in the story take place in the Russian countryside during one short summer when the narrator is 16 and Zinaida, the object of his desires is 21. In the first half of the novella, Vladimir describes the personalities, events and emotional games that Zinaida plays with the suitors she regularly gathers together to tease and torment. "But my blood, I remember, used to rise when Malevsky would sidle up to her like a sly fox, lean gracefully over the back of her chair, and begin to whisper into her ear with a self-satisfied and whedling little smile - while she would fold her arms and glance at him attentively, then smile at herself and shake her head". Zinaida, we can all agree, is wicked: in full view of the half dozen young men sitting at her feet, she, in turn, transfixes, arouses and humiliates each one.

At the mid point of the novella, another dimension is added to the story: the narrator convinces himself that Zinaida has fallen in love with one of her suitors and pursues any clue that will reveal who that man may be, all the while imagining how he can win her love. The man-boy says, "I saw a vision of myself saving her from the hands of her enemies; I imagined how, covered with blood, I tore her from the very jaws of some dark dungeon and then died at her feet". Poor young Vladimir, poor young Ivan, poor young us...

lundi 23 septembre 2013

Frank Lloyd Wright: A Life (2004) by Ada Louise Huxtable

Ada Louise Huxtable was an architecture and media critic, Pulitzer Prize winner and preservationist who sometimes wrote books with odd, endearing titles like "Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger: An Anthology of Architectural Delights and Disasters" (1986). Her book, "Frank Lloyd Wright: A Life" was first published in 2004 when she was 83 and it is pitch perfect, a joy to read.

Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935

In this book, Ada Louise Huxtable combines the skill and knowledge that architectural historians and biographers require to do their job properly, with the sensitivity and humour of a good storyteller.

It's a mix that in my case allowed me to understand on the one hand Frank Lloyd Wright the school of thought, the architectural phenomenon and the professional iconoclast, and on the other hand Frank Lloyd Wright the deeply flawed, reckless, sometimes kind, sometimes cruel human being.

Try looking at a photo of Falling Water or the Johnson's Building and describing it to someone who has never seen either before. Good luck! In this book, Ada Louise Huxtable does it often and beautifully each time. She can also help the reader understand and evaluate the work being examined, both as a building (whether it be a church, a house, a museum or an office tower, all of which Wright sought to re-imagine) and as an historical artifact, a sign of the times.

The first paragraph in the book sets the tone for this lovely homage to the great Wright:
 "The life starts with a lie: a changed birth date, from 1867 to 1869, the sort of small, white vanity lie usually embraced by women but common also among men... In Frank Lloyd Wright's case, it had the desired effect - it made a case for a precocious talent with an impressively youthful, early success in Chicago in the 1890s... The change did no harm to anyone, although it annoyed his sister Jane all during her lifetime, since it was her birth year that Wright usurped."
Frank Lloyd Wright may have stolen his sister's birth year but he gave Taliesin and the Guggenheim Museum to the world...a fair trade.

mardi 28 mai 2013

Francis Bacon

Comparatively few people of substantial means collect and hang Francis Bacon paintings in their homes. They're beautiful but too intense, too disturbing, exhibiting a "terrible beauty" that both attracts and repels.

Imagine, however, finding a venue that opens up (quite literally) the door that leads to Francis Bacon's home, studio, library and even his kitchen. Would you enter that place, knowing that you were admitting yourself into a space that only Bacon's closest friends were ever allowed to visit? Would you be afraid of finding bizarre or all too intimate objects that were supposed to be hidden, private, secret or even meant to be destroyed upon the death of the artist? Or would you be afraid of finding out that Bacon was an obvious borrower or a fake and not the inscrutable, complex, cupid-faced original that we take him to be?

Go to the Dublin City Gallery Hugh Lane to see the "prodigious mess" that was Bacon's home and studio accurately reconstructed, bare light bulbs and all. Or wander through the Bozar Centre in Brussels which is exhibiting hundreds of torn, stepped-on, painted-on magazine and personal photos, postcards and medical textbook drawings as well as the four paintings which Bacon left unfinished in his home at the time of his death. The amateur connoisseur in you will be satisfied because we now see who Bacon's influences were, how he composed his figures and laid down the paint, and we see the very strict delineation he made between work space (filled to overflowing, pack rat style) and living space (small, basic and utterly spartan). The material on show is revelatory and exhilarating.