Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Day of the Dead

The French don't celebrate Halloween. They celebrate the Day of the Dead, tomorrow, November 1st. It's a day for honoring the deceased, remembering their lives.

We're back in Paris. The train ride home yesterday was less than comfortable. There was an accident on the line south of Avignon that made most of the trains run late. Ours was running over two hours late, so we boarded a different train (along with everyone else). Altogether, I think two trainloads of passengers were left stranded and they all crowded onto this one train. We didn't get seats. Fortunately, we were able to find stools in the restaurant car, but they weren't exactly comfortable and the ride was close to three hours.

The scenery was beautiful though. We were facing the window and it was actually very nice for about the first hour. After that my butt began to complain. In any event, we made it. It's cold in Paris. Seems colder than when we left, but maybe that's just because it was so warm in Avignon. It's crisp up here—feels like winter coming on.

The weather is evoking new thoughts about my book. It opens in winter and I notice that as the cold settles around me, I find it kind of exciting. It causes me to think in a slightly different way about my story and somehow makes the whole thing seem closer, more tangible.

I was trying, yesterday, to explain where I'm at in my process. It seems to me that I've been dumping ingredients into my pot since arriving. One thing after another, pretty indiscriminately and without much thought or concern for the implications. I feel like I'm cooking a stew or a witch's brew. Now, I seem to have come to the moment where I'm beginning to taste this concoction and wonder what I think. What have I got? What does it need? What am I after?

I'm absolutely looking for the opening lines. I'm trying to determine if they are going to stay as they are or change, and if they're going to change (which I'm pretty sure they are) then how and how much? Like I said yesterday, I'm pretty fascinated with the idea of giving the narration over to the fortune teller, to let her make the comment about how the stones of Père Lachaise weep for the dead. The questions that arise when I make that choice have to do with logistics. I need to know where she is, who she's talking to, what she's doing and when in time she's doing it. Is she alive or dead? Is she a ghost? She died in 1843. She can't be alive for the whole of my story. So I'm thinking.



What I'm trying to say about the weather and the feeling I got in the backstreets of Avignon, is that something seems to be brewing (hence my brew pot) just under the surface. I can feel it, almost taste it and it seems to be in the weather in the same way it seemed in the streets.

When I first visited Père Lachaise, I said that I needed to go back in a storm. I don't know about the storm, but I do need to go back now that the weather has changed. The cold seems to be literally creating a new layer of emotional information. Memories? Familiarity? I'm note sure. Perhaps. It all depends on what one believes possible, doesn't it?

I think it's likely the book opens in Pére Lachaise, though it might open in the fortune teller's parlor. I suspect the piece I originally wrote about Père Lachaise—which I've changed dozens of times—is still not right, that as interesting as it is, it's off, not what it should be. Finding the beginning is always the most challenging piece for me, it seems. I had a great deal of difficulty finding the beginning of Requiem. It was the last major change I made to the book, changing the beginning yet again, settling finally on the hanging scene, which I had tried to put into more of a chronological telling, but couldn't. This is similar, though I'm at a much different juncture in my process. I'm at a point where I can't seem to go forward until I know where I'm starting from. It's all about framing, kind of like staging and then cropping a photograph. So. Here I am, like I said, thinking....

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Sibyl of Faubourg Saint-Germain

There's a maze of backstreet alleys behind the main square in Avignon, in the opposite direction of the hotel. It's an area of narrow passageways and buildings that rise for only three or four stories. Medieval. More like Paris in 1830s than most of what I've seen in Paris. I liked it so much I kept going back, and each time I did, I found more places to walk.

Some streets curve like the webs of a spiral, others cross at sharp angles. It's like the Latin Quarter without its shouting fast food booths and all the clubs and bars. Like the Marias—but in both cases more extensive, the walled city in its natural habitat. Which isn't to say that it's not filled with little shops, but when I walked through during lunchtime many were shut and the streets were almost empty. That got my attention. I started thinking: These are the streets that belong in my book. This is more of what it felt like.

The arched walkways were especially spectacular, and the church spires shooting up above the rooftops. It used to be that the churches were the tallest buildings, that they dominated and defined the geography. I love it when all over Avignon the bells chime the hour.

I kept walking back over the same territory, finding new corners to turn, new curves. I really like the curves, the fact that everything isn't all at right angles. In fact, more of it is not at right angles than is. I like the way it curves away to the horizon, so to speak, so that you can't quite see all the way to where you want to see. It suggests a mystery almost, as if there's something to expect round the next bend. It's also very easy to become lost or disoriented. Which way is which? Where was I just a few moments ago? Victor Hugo talks about getting lost like that in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In it, his poet character, Pierre Gringoire, is following Esmeralda, the beautiful gypsy girl, through the alleyways of Paris, somewhere near the Seine. But he has no idea where he is anymore, and Hugo complains loudly and with great wit about how confounding the streets of Paris are. My experience of getting lost the first day I was here was some small version of what he was writing about, except that in his day (which is the day of my book, of course), there were pockets where the maze was simply overwhelming, it seems.

I've shifted a few words in the opening line of my book, but the shift is seismic. If I keep it, it changes everything. It did read: If stones could weep, would they not weep for the dead of Père Lachaise? Now it reads: "If stones could weep, my Lady, would they not weep for the dead of Père Lachaise?"

The changes are visually subtle. I added quotes around the statement, that's the most important thing. I added quotes because now someone is saying it. And they're saying it to a woman who is being called "my Lady".... The speaker is Marie-Ann-Adélaïde Lenormand, the fortuneteller they called The Sibyl of Faubourg Saint-Germain.

She was the most famous fortune-teller of her day and is reputed to have foreseen the outcome of the French Revolution and predicted the downfall of Danton and the death of Robespierre. She read cards for Josephine and Napoleon and lived until 1843. I'm contemplating making her the "narrator" so to speak, a bit like the housekeeper in Wuthering Heights—but I'm still undecided about who she might be speaking to.

That's the question I most need to answer: with whom is the fortune teller speaking? Who is the woman she's calling "my lady"? Is it really a lady? Is it Tori? At first I thought she was speaking to a man, saying "Monsieur." My friend Toni thinks I should have a modern-day character in the opening and somehow slide back into a past that the fortune teller precipitates. I like that idea, but am not committed to it, or to anything at the moment. I'm waiting for some sort of impulse. Interestingly, the streets of Avignon stimulated my imagination and even now, thinking about them, my emotional connection to the story seems stronger and richer and more complex than it was. That's where I'm looking, to the emotional thread.

Touring the Lubéron

The Lubéron in a plane stretching on both sides of the mountain that gives it its name. The hills are craggy and there is white limestone atop the peak. The land is cultivated with grapes, olive trees, ancient plane trees, and fields of purple lavender. This is the Provence of the two amazing French films, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, that I saw last spring. Ah... je comprend.

It was a glorious day. Warm and welcoming and full of mischief. We talked writing and politics and the ways of the world. It was fun. Very fun. The scenery was sumptuous and, my god, we had our own private tour guide, taking us down back roads to view points, telling us stories and just being a kind friend.

L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a village built on an island in the River Sorgue. It has waterwheels and lots of ducks and ancient narrow streets filled with antiques shops. And the church of Notre Dame des Anges, which I'm proud to say, I recognized as having a French Baroque interior. It took me awhile, but finally, as I stood there looking at the putti on the back wall, I murmured to myself, isn't that Baroque? And now I've read it is. It was originally built in 1222, which is why my first comment was Gothic. It was "rebuilt" in the 17th century and I'm pretty sure that there was a statue honoring Jeanne D'Arc in one of the niches.

We visited two hill towns—Gordes, which perches on a granite hillside and looks positively medieval, and Roussillon, which is made of ocre red rock that looks like it came from Utah. And we visited Le Thor where Janine lives with her delightful French husband and their two sweet children, Juliet who is nine and Liuk who is six. They have a classic old farmhouse that has huge beams in the ceiling and lots of character.

It was all one could ever need to have a memorable day in the French country side. And it was a rite of passage in a way, as I was, this very day, exactly halfway through my stay in France. I am sad to see time passing so quickly and feel myself growing just a little tense with the thought that all this will be over all too soon.

I don't mean to sound like a tour guide. I think I'm a bit brain dead when it comes to writing because I'm surrounded suddenly by people to talk to. What a concept!

It was also a cat day. Since arriving in France, dogs have ruled. The French, indeed, love their dogs. But today I met a cat in Roussillon who deigned to allow a stranger to pet her, and I met Teddy who lives at Janine and Hervé's house, and is still mostly a kitten. Teddy (at least in his mind) is pretty much Hervé's cat, and the relationship between them was très amusant. Teddy's favorite perch is in Hervé's lap with his paws on the table. Hervé, I surmise, finds Teddy's sense of entitlement a bit much. Unfortunately I was too entertained by them to think to get a picture. This cat is not Teddy; this is the nameless cat of Roussillion.

The day ended when we caught the local train home from Le Thor's tiny station and walked Avignon's narrow streets back to our little hotel which is tucked into middle of the walled part of Avignon. We ate a late dinner at a nearby restaurant and sighed contently numerous times. It was a long, full, fully satisfying day. Merci bien to everyone who helped make it happen, including all the cats and children and quail, and even the pigeon who flew low under an arch and almost ran into me.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


We traveled 360 miles south in about two and a half hours today—and the last fifteen minutes, as the train came into Avignon, was considerably slower than the rest. The TVG (high speed trains) normally travel up to about 200 mph; they've set records up around 350mph. The only time I had any sense of how fast we were going was when we passed another train in the opposite direction. We had window seats in the upper deck. It was a beautiful ride. It's fall; the leaves are turning colors and we saw at least one fairytale castle.

Avignon is located on the south bank of the Rhone River in the region of Provence. It's warm. We stepped off the train into a balmy afternoon. We're about 50 miles north of the Mediterranean here and it feels like it.

Avignon is a walled city with ramparts and seven gates. Between 1309 and 1377 it was the seat of the Catholic Church (instead of the Vatican) and the city belonged to the Papacy until The French Revolution. Avignon is one of the oldest cities in Europe. It's origins date back to 3,000 BC. It sits along an ancient trade route and was a Phoenician trading post before it was Greek and before it became a flourishing Roman town. Just casually strolling, we saw evidence of Roman ruins. And the Celts were here too, from the 4th century BC.

Avignon is medieval in character inside its walls. It's charming and walkable with lots of narrow streets and alleyways. It reminds me just a bit of an Italian hill town. I thinks it's the age of the architecture, more than its style—but the many little squares and Gothic and Romanesque churches add to that sense.

There's a cathedral and a Papal Palace, which they say is the largest Gothic palace in the world.  There's a beautiful garden park, a charming city hall, and a wonderful old theatre from the 19th century that sports a statue of Moliere out in front. There's also a two-story antique carousel that looks like it must be from the 19th century, and, of course, there are museums and lots and lots of shops and cafés.

There is a troubadour associated with Avignon, one Bertran Folcon. He composed and performed poetry in the high middle ages. Like other troubadours, he sang about chivalry and courtly love. Dante called it poetic fiction. The troubadours disappeared during the Black Plague, which hit this area hard around the middle of the 14th century.

Tomorrow we are meeting a modern day troubadour, my friend Janine. She's another writer and she's showing us around the neighborhood she loves. She lives in the village of Le Thor, which is on the banks of the River Sorgue. She was out hiking today with her son and daughter and bunch of local school children. She calls herself a concierge and makes her living setting up vacations for the very rich. The countryside around here is called Monts de Vaucluse. It's famous for its crags, its castles, and its lavender and truffles. I've never had a truffle, but then, I've never been in the South of France before, either.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Update: Persistence Pays

So. Apparently this is a picture of the home of M. Caruel Saint-Martin and Alexandrine. I just read that Château du Chesnay is an 18th century structure, remodeled by M. Caruel Saint-Marin in the early years of the 19th century. The original chateau, built in 1638 (the time of Louis XIV) was torn down, but this house still stands.

The reference goes on to say that this is where Gericault stayed when he came out to Versailles to study and sketch the horses, that, indeed, he lived here between 1812 and 1816 when he went off to Italy. He probably painted the portrait of his aunt on horseback here. Perhaps they rode together. It's the home where Alexandrine lived and was eventually confined. It exists. I can't quite get over that—that it exists and I've apparently identified it. I'm not certain about the home in Montmartre. I have a feeling the information I found pointing to that might have been in error, might have been  confusion around Gericault's studio at 23 Rue des Martyrs. I don't know, yet. I'm still researching all that.

What I do know is there's a garden behind the chateau with a fountain of a river god and… Pegasus. Pégase, the mythic horse that has captured the imagination of my main character, Tori, in the opening of the book. In other words, seems I've found something here that circles back around. Magic.

One more little piece that makes me happy. I'm reading Stendhal and I'm fascinated, charmed. He's a very good writer. And I've just come to a chapter that opens with a quote from Lord Byron's Don Juan.

And then there were sighs, the deeper for suppression,
And stolen glances, sweeter for the theft,
And burning blushes, though for no transgression

Stendhal quoting Lord Byron. I love it. Stendhal met Byron in 1816 in Milan, Italy. Byron was famous, Stendhal was not, but they were moving in the same literati circles and Stendhal spoke English. At first, Stendhal reports, Byron was haughty, Stendhal timid. But the fact that Stendhal had been Napoleon's secretary for a time drew the poet in. He wanted to know about Napoleon. From what I know of Byron, that makes perfect sense to me—Byron was fascinated by Napoleon. Stendhal says Byron was "put quite out of humor" when Stendhal recounted Napoleon speaking eloquently to his troops.

Stendhal met with Byron over a period of some months and wrote that whenever Byron was present "there was the finest conversation which I have ever known in my life; a volcano of new ideas and generous sentiments." Byron, he said, was "the most amiable monster that I have ever seen; in poetry, in literary discussions, he is simple as a child; he is the opposite of an academician. When that singular man was elated and spoke with enthusiasm, his sentiments were noble, grand, generous, and in a word, did justice to his genius. But in the prosaic moments of life, the sentiments of the poet seemed to me very ordinary. There was much petty vanity, a continual and puerile fear of appearing ridiculous, and sometimes, if I dare say it, that hypocrisy which the English call cant."

What interests me about all this is that part of the reason I had thought to include Mary Shelley was to make the connection back to Byron. She was a character present in the novel who knew Byron. Clearly Stendhal didn't know him in the same way, but—he did meet him and could provide that continuity or insight or whatever it is I'm looking for, to the book. Lord Byron influenced a generation of writers and artists. He became one of the defining forces in the emerging culture of Romanticism. I might be able to employ Stendhal to bring Byron into focus. 

I've identified the apartment where Stendhal lived while writing The Red and The Black. It's very near The Palais Royal and Comedia Français—and wouldn't Stendhal have walked the half dozen blocks down there to see Hernani? He was an outsider, true—not one of Hugo's Romantiques. Nevertheless, there's every reason to believe he was there; I'm thinking his face should be one of those in the crowd.

I Need to Visit Le Chesnay

There are a number of things going on here. First of all, unfortunately, I'm fighting off being sick. I'm not sure yet, where I'm coming down in the battle, but I've done everything that has ever worked before to hold off a flu:  Oscillococcinum, Airborn, Echinacea, lots of vitamin C.... all that stuff, plus gargling with vinegar (which Toni suggested—boy, is that stimulating!) And I've been snorting an essential oil that another friend swears by, called Thieves—a blend of a number of oils including cloves and eucalyptus. I've also thrown the kitchen sink at it.

So far, I'm barely holding my own. Coughing, congestion, all that. This morning it seems to be moving up instead of down. Last night it was definitely in my chest. So I've got my fingers crossed here. I really don't want to get sick and I've hovering right on the edge.

The upshot is we didn't do much yesterday. We went out in the late afternoon and walked a bit around the neighborhood, ending in my favorite little café where we sat and talked and then stayed for dinner. That's about all there is to say about voyaging dans la streets of Paris. Not much.

What I did do while I laid around feeling like my throat was a battleground between good and evil, was read. I'm back on the Gericault circuit, which was activated by our walk in Montmartre and my reflections about his relationship to it. What I've begun to piece together is both curious and interesting to me. It's connected to Stendhal as well. One of the fascinating aspects of The Red and The Black (Stendhal's novel, written in 1830), is that it tells the story of an illicit affair between a younger man and an older married woman; Gericault's story. It becomes even more interesting because in Stendhal's story the husband is the Royalist mayor of a small town. Gericualt's uncle, the husband in his affair, was the Royalist mayor of a small town.

There are a number of things that make me wonder if Stendhal didn't know Gericault's story and was borrowing from it as he wrote. One piece of evidence for this beyond the text is that Stendhal posed for a portrait with painter, Dedreux-Dorcy, who was a close friend and intimate of Gericault's. In other words, there is reason to believe that Stendhal might have known the story first hand. And I've found at least one online writer who tells me that "Gericault is the model for the Romantic man Stendhal proposes."

Stendhal was an art critic. He published a work on Renaissance painting called, Histoire de la peinture en Italie, which apparently influenced Delacroix. Stendhal believed that art appreciation was "not a matter for the mind so much as a matter of the heart." He wrote reviews of the Parisian Salons. He was living in Paris during the early 1820s before Gericault's death. He self-identified with the artists' community though he does not seem to have ever attempted to paint. It's quite possible he met Gericualt. I need to read more to find out.

The horsewoman is by Gericault. It's assumed to be Alexandrine. She was from a titled family, but had no money. She married Jean-Baptiste Caruel, a wealthy banker who made his money off of tobacco during The Revolution and Napoleon's Empire. He wanted titled respectability, and indeed, he achieved his goal, becoming a baron. In 1819, just a year after Alexandrine's illegitimate child was born, he added Alexandrine's family name to his own and became Jean-Baptiste Caruel Saint-Martin. He was not the brother of Gericault's father, but of Gericault's dead mother.

Stendhal's portrait of the small-town mayor, M. de Rênal, fits with my notion and colors my thoughts about M. Caruel Saint-Martin who was 27 years Alexandrine's senior. M. Caruel Saint-Martin was the mayor of Le Chesnay, today a suburb of Versailles. In their day it was a separate village that had been originally created for the nobles at Louis XIV's court. One of the sidenotes that all this explains is how it was that Gericault spent time in the stables at Versailles studying and sketching the horses. It's likely that his uncle, the mayor, got him the necessary permission, and was certainly a justification for long stays at Le Chesnay.

So all sorts of things about Gericault's life are becoming clear. The biggest question I have at the moment is how his story fits into what I've been writing. And actually, it's not his story that I'm after, it's Alexandrine's. She had no personal wealth. Her husband was able to quite literally lock her away after discovering her affair. He kept her more or less a prisoner at Le Chesnay, and it's quite likely that after his death in 1847, her eldest son—who became the next mayor of Le Chesnay—followed suit. I believe she is a character in my novel. At this point I'm simply waiting, thinking, and reading with the hopes of understanding how and where and why she fits.

I'm toying with the idea of Alexandrine appearing at Chartres. Chartres is not that far from Versailles. It's in the opposite direction of Paris. It's a place of pilgrimage. If Alexandrine, who lived her life "in pious retreat, like a nun," might have ventured out (been allowed to venture out) it more likely she'd be in Chartres than Paris. So I'm thinking maybe she's at the inn, having come to Chartres and that Georges Sand strikes up a conversation with her. That's what I'm exploring at the moment. I'm also thinking that horses have to be part of it... not sure how, yet, but... maybe that will become clearer after I go Le Chesnay, which I am now planning to do. The picture is of an estate in Le Chesnay—possibly like the one the mayor owned and lived in.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Montmartre In the Rain

Toni and I ventured up to Montmartre today and it is up. Stairs and more stairs and streets that just go uphill. And it was raining. Not hard, but wet, though the air was warm, still in the 60s. We stopped in a café and strolled the square called the Place du Tertre where modern street artists ply their trade and sell their works. Even in the rain, it was bustling. A lot of them do portraits; I was tempted. Enough so I might go back another day and actually sit for one.

Montmartre is famous for its artists: Salvador Dali, Modigliani, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh—they all lived or worked there. And Toulouse-Lautrec, of course. We visited the Musée de Montmartre, which had a number of Toulouse-Lautrec's works. He used to do publicity posters for the cancan clubs up there. The museum attempts to capture the history of the village. The main bit of information I walked away with was an understanding of how Montmartre became the center of the dance hall culture, which is one of the places where it connects to my novel.

The biggest piece has to do with the wall around Paris that I wrote about a couple days ago, the Wall of the Farmers-General, which was put up late in the 18th century just before The Revolution and was used to collect taxes on goods entering Paris. Because of the tax, goods sold in Montmartre, which was just outside the city walls, were cheaper—including wine and alcohol, and food. Furthermore, when Haussmann started transforming Paris, large sweeps of land near the center of the city found its way into the hands of his friends and financial supporters, forcing the original inhabitants to the edges of the city—and to Montmartre.

Gérard de Nerval, a poet who makes a brief appearance in my novel (along with his pet lobster) was one of the early artists to make his way up to Montmartre. And of course, I've already talked about the fact that Gericault's aunt and lover, Alexandrine Caruel, lived in Montmartre with her husband. And then there's this story I've bumped into abut the Summer of 1831 when a bunch of the jeunes France, (Hugo's followers—including Nerval and Gautier) camped in tents in Montmartre. Inspired by Lord Byron, they slept on animal skins and ran around naked "emitting animal howls" until the neighbors drove them out. So far that's all the information I have on the subject. I'm looking for more.

The guinguette (dancehall) culture got started because the places in Montmartre could undersell similar ones in Paris, and because some of the nuns up there made darn good wine. (The word guinguette comes from the name of a local white wine.) The guinguettes were popular (and so avant garde) in 1830 that Hugo passed out free tickets in them for Hernani. He expected their clientele to support his controversial play—and, indeed, they did.

The Chat Noir was a famous 19th century club that began as a salon in a private home and evolved into a public cabaret located on Blvd Rouchechouart, the main street I walk when I go to catch the Metro. The place still exists. Eric Satie (I love his music) used to play piano there in the 1890s. We walked past the building where he lived. Apparently Chat Noir was one of Picasso's favorite spots, and Debussy too spent time there.

At the museum we saw one of the only grape arbors that has survived, but in the early 19th century, the hills were dotted with vineyards and, even more wonderfully, with moulins (as in the Moulin Rouge)—that is, windmills.

The number of artists connected with Montmartre makes my head spin. Some names to add to those already mentioned, include: Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, Henri Rousseau, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Degas and Édith Piaf, of course—(Montmartre was the setting for La Môme). And I'm just naming the people I know about. As I'm quickly learning, most of the names I'm unfamiliar with (as an English-speaking American) have fascinating stories to tell.

One final word: Gericault should be considered a Montmartre artist. I keep finding references to the fact that he lived in Montmartre, referring to his studio at 23 Rue des Martyrs. It's an easy mistake to make, Rue des Martyrs does go up the hill into Montmartre, but No. 23 was inside the city walls.

But Gericualt clearly spent time in Montmartre. He painted this picture, Le Four à Platre, after walking there. It's of one of Montmartre's gypsum mines, which I learned about today. Alabaster comes from gypsum and much of Paris was built from the gypsum mined in Montmartre. They closed down the mines around 1830 because of the instability of the ground. Before that, they were haunted by the underbelly, thieves and dangerous characters. Once they begin to close those people moved on and Montmartre became safer, again increasing the migration to the village both to live and for the pleasure of the dance halls.

The last piece about Gericault is the most curious. I've been thinking he must have been riding in Montmartre when he injured himself. He fell from a horse and the resulting injury cost him his life. According to one of the French sites about him, I am correct. "His passion was to ride on the Butte Montmartre." And the injury that killed him was from a fall at the Barrière des Martyrs—the gate in the Wall of the Farmers-General that's now called Place Pigalle. I walk across Place Pigalle everyday to the Metro. In fact, I walked there today on my way to Montmartre. (This is the intersection about 100 years ago.)

Mon Ami Arrivé

My friend Toni arrived today, bringing thoughts of home with her. So it seems like a good day to post the pictures my friend Sheri, who is housesitting for me, sent of my menagerie of creatures. I do miss them. Can't help myself. Arthur and Merlin to the left and below, Pelé and Sélène (note the French spelling), are posed in one of their favorite spots.

I waited for Toni at the little café next to my apartment—they were most kind and turned on the heaters for me. It's definitely beginning to feel like winter and it's raining today. While I waited I drank coffee and read Stendhal's The Red and The Black. Such an interesting book. I'm really enjoying it.

One of the best things is that it's footnoted with all sorts of historical information to help the modern English reader understand the historical references that Stendhal, of course, takes for granted writing in 1830. It's set in the countryside, but it's very politically-pointed. He makes all sorts of observations about the Liberals and the Conservatives of the day. I swear it sounds contemporary. The hatred of the Right for the Left… very familiar.  Stendhal is sly. So is Hugo. I don't know, but it seems that might be a "French" characteristic. I've read that the French value wit in conversation, that they score points more through wit than through factual logic... I'm not sure if I'm explaining this well, but there's something in both books that I really like, a kind of satirical voice that I'm calling "sly." In any event, I'm not only reading a good, well-told story, I'm also learning a lot of interesting bits of detail that point directly to my time period, which is great.

When Toni finally arrived,  I'd been reading for close to two hours. It took her longer to negotiate the train than she had expected. She speaks French much better than I do, although she hasn't been here in quite awhile. I think she figured it's been ten or twelve years.

Later in the afternoon, we moseyed over to the Anvers Market and had a lot of fun buying groceries. We bought these huge shrimp. They aren't shrimp. I don' t know what they are, smaller than a lobster, but bigger than the biggest shrimp I've ever seen. We're planning to have them for dinner tonight. They cost a fortune, so I hope they're worth it. Didn't realize how much they were going to cost because it's so hard, still, to make the shift between grams and ounces and pounds.

We also bought mushrooms and spinach and a green pepper and a couple of avocados, a real shopping spree. Lots of fun. We didn't leave the neighborhood. Toni just flew the ten plus hour flight from San Francisco that I did six weeks ago. Amazing that I've been here six weeks, and she lost 9 hours, so we're taking it easy for the moment. We're planning to go to Montmartre this afternoon and poke around up there.

Last night we went out to dinner in a little café that's across the street from my apartment. I had rabbit with mustard sauce and a medley of steamed vegetables. It was excellent. I've been wanting to try rabbit, which I don't think I've ever had before. It does taste a lot like chicken.  So. Not a lot of exciting news from the home front. Just life. It's very nice to have a friend to travel with. Tuesday we're heading south to Provence.

C'est tout pour aujourd'hui. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Le Marché Aux Chevaux

The Paris Horse Market—painted here by a woman artist Amy told me about when we met the other day. Her name is Rosa Bonheur and she was born in 1822, which makes her about the same age as Tori. She is a Realist and an Animalière (known for her skill in the realistic portrayal of animals.)

Rosa came to Paris from Bordeaux in 1828. She was six years old and her mother was a piano teacher. It's possible the Bonheurs could have met the Farrencs through this fact. Rosa's father was a painter, a friend of Goya's and a passionate Saint-Simonian socialist who believed in equality for women. Saint-Simon influenced many of the artists I'm writing about including Georges Sand, Berlioz, Delacroix and Hugo.

Rosa, like Georges Sand, became famous for walking around in men's clothing, smoking cigars, and riding horseback astride like a man. I like her look. (She changed this portrait, which someone else painted—adding the red bull.) She apparently studied animal physiology by going to the horse market (animals not sold for equestrian purposes were sold for meat) and butchers. She even obtained a special dispensation from the Paris police saying she could dress in men's clothing to do her research. Most interesting.

The market was located along Boulevard d'Hôpital between Barrière d'Italie (now Place d'Italie) and the Hôpital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière, which coincidentally, was the asylum where Gericault painted a famous series of portraits for French psychiatrist Étienne-Jean Georget. (Salpêtrière is known these days is a prestigious teaching the hospital—where they took Princess Diana that night she died.)

The Barrière d'Italie was a city gate in the wall called the Farmers-General. The wall was built in the late 18th century and was unpopular because it was built not to protect Paris, but to enforce tax collections on goods entering Paris. I'm pretty sure it's the wall Hugo is writing about in Les Misérables. I have to do more research, but from what I've found so far, the taxes were dropped before the French Revolution and then reinstated by Napoleon. It's not clear what was happening in 1830, but as I remember from our Revolutionary Paris tour, the wall was still being used. It was not completely demolished until the 1860s.

Interestingly, every time I go to my classes in the south, I get off the Metro at one of the old gates in that wall, Place Denfert-Rochereau. The gate, called Place d'Enfer, is a setting in the opera La Bohème, which is taken from Scènes de la vie de bohème written by Henri Murger, a contemporary of my time period. It's about Bohemian culture. He was part of a group of artists who called themselves "water drinkers" because they were too poor to afford wine. Among other things, Murger wrote lyrics, the most famous being La Chanson de Musette, which Gautier reviewed. (Gautier is the author and literary critic who wrote the ballet Giselle—a friend of Hugo's who appears in my book.) Gautier said Murger's lyrics were "a tear, which has become a pearl of poetry." So, whether or not they all knew each other, they knew of each other and obviously all this fits together, n'est-ce pas?

Back to Rosa. The question, of course, is who knew Rosa? And the connection has got to be horses. Gericault, Delacroix and Rosa Bonheur were all fascinated with horses. Delacroix may very well have visited the horse market. Gericualt certainly did. Like Rosa, he studied dead bodies and went so far as to visit morgues when he was working on The Raft of the Medusa. But then, so did Michelangelo and da Vinci—and both Rosa and Gericault spent time copying the masters in the Louvre to learn their craft.

I'm pretty sure Rosa studied Gericault's horses. You can see evidence in her work. Certainly Delacroix poured over Gericault's horses when working to paint his own. According to Amy, one of Gericault's images—of a lion attacking a horse—which I found at the library is almost indistinguishable from Delacriox's, (which, of course, was painted later.)

And these guys rode horses. Amy likes to say that horses were their "hot rods," their fast cars. One thing Tori and Rosa share in common is a love of horses. Perhaps Tori needs to ride before this book is over. And there's Georges Sand too; she wrote about riding astride (like Rosa did) as a girl. In fact, one would think that Rosa and Georges would have been well-aware of one another. Maybe a scene of these women riding together? Could such a thing have happened?

Rosa was accepted into the 1841 Salon with a painting of rabbits. She was only 19—still the Academy refused to allow her to study at the prestigeous École des Beaux-Arts because she was a female. The same thing happened to Louise Farennc. She could not study at the Conservatoire de Musique because she was a woman, but eventually she was asked to teach there. These are women pushing the envelop, moving the destiny of women along; the kind of women Virginia Woolf was referencing in her famous "Shakespeare's Sister" discussion.

While studying for my midterms, I read that when Louis XIV established the Academy in the 17th century, he explicitly said it should include artists regardless of their sex. Only a limited number of women were ever accepted, however. And at one point, The Academy passed a rule that no more than four women could be part of the Academy at any one time—younger women had to wait for someone to die. And then in 1770, the Academy eliminated women altogether. They couldn't compete for any of the prizes either. In other words, no professional career was possible. Women were not allowed back into The Academy until 1922. That's intense.

So, like Georges Sand, Rosa Bonheur fought dramatically against the limits placed on women in her day. "What a bore to be limited in movement when one is a girl," she's quoted as saying. She never married and seems to have had two women partners over the years—so if I include her, she will bring another dimension to the book. She feels a little like Gertrude Stein.

One last tidbit about Rose: she had a pet lion. This photo was taken much later in her life. Curiously, Rosa, Géricault and Delacriox all painted lions and other big cats.

Cats and horses: they certainly have my number.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Done With My Tests

I've taken three tests and two quizzes and turned in two journals in the last three days. And tonight I'm done. Good thing. I've barely slept. Sunday I was up until 4am studying,  last night I was up until almost 5am.

The brain has had a real workout—the equivalent of all that walking. Art History is mostly about memorizing: the artist, the title, the date it was created, the style and in some cases, the location as well. Over the last several days, I've memorized those bits of information for some sixty pieces of art. I had to identify twenty of them on the tests, and analyze another eight. One of my favorites is by an Italian Renaissance artist Uccello. The work is The Battle of Romano; it was painted in 1440.

For one of the essays we had fifteen minutes to compare Donatello's David with da Vinci's Vitruvian Man—that was the question I most enjoyed trying to answer.

I am glad to be done. I'm sure by tomorrow 90% of the information that I absorbed in the last couple days will be gone, but some of it will probably last.  I have begun to understand something about the conversation going on, the way art is a response to art and culture, the way art begets art. I know there's a lot more that I could say and probably would, if I weren't burned out from the effort. It has to do with what Virginia Woolf was talking about in A Room of One's Own. She was making a point about women, but it actually has another, larger application. Her point was that genius emerges out of the conversation. That's not what she called it, but it is how my Art History teacher refers to it. When I'm not so tired, I'll try to say more about it.

There's not a lot else to report. I ate dinner out last night, at my local café. I had cauliflower au gratin with mussels. It was unusual and tasty. It was very nice in the café. I stop there often. It's the first café I went to and I keep going back. Last night in the dark, with these round, 19th century-looking lamps, it was quite atmospheric. I hadn't realized how much it could change from morning to night. I took this picture from the outside some days ago. It's appropriately called, Des Artistes.
Just an ordinary, run of the mill café, that's what I like about it. Mostly locals, very little English.

The other exciting moment was when a young French-speaking woman asked me for directions. I guess I'm looking French, or at least not lost. I understood what she was asking, but didn't know the answer. I surprised myself by telling her that I was a "foreigner." It was a more sophisticated answer than I usually give. My French is still so basic it's pathetic, but, little by little, I seem to be remembering and using more vocabulary. I understand quite a bit more too. As I was walking out of the Metro Monday, I was given a handout about the fact that the line I ride was going to be running a special schedule on Tuesday. It was all in French of course, but I figured enough out to understand. So, like that. I am getting better.

It's almost 1:30am. I really need to try to get some sleep for a change. One more picture for the road: Paris in 1830, not far from where I'm living. And one more thought too: I met with Amy about my book, that was one of the journals I turned in, all my work tracking down the particulars of the book. She knew about a horse market in the South of Paris, a place that Gericault, for example, probably hung out. I'm writing a paper about him for Art History, and it has to be tied to a architectural event as well, so the horse market might do it—if I can hunt it down. I'm very in to horses these days. Wish I could go riding. In fact, I intend to before too much longer, though probably not until I get home from France.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tuesday Morning Coffee

I'm studying for midterms. I have two quizzes and three tests, plus two journal hand-ins that all have to be completed by the close of day Wednesday. I've taken one quiz, one midterm, and turned in both journal assignments. I've also met with Amy over my Independent Study project, which is like having "class" for my book research. She keeps coming up with good suggestions, which is great.

I've got a test this afternoon and a test and a quiz tomorrow. Feels like school. I stayed up all night memorizing the artists, titles, dates and styles of art Sunday night. I'm doing the same again now. I can tell you it's a tedious process, but I'm happy to see that, for the most part, my brain can still pull it off. Memorizing the night before, taking the test and knowing the material.... lucky for me—though clearly my brain is more taxed by the process than it was when I was in my twenties and thirties.

I lost the most points (on the quiz) identifying this wonderful piece of sculpture. (This is my picture, taken from behind it.) Trusting Wikipedia, I decided it was called Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss. Had I bothered with my text, I would have seen that it's actually called Psyche and Cupid. Plus, I spelled the artist's name wrong, one of the very few I did. It's Canova, not Cadova. And I got the date wrong, although it was within the window. I said 1800; it was actually commissioned in 1787, though not finished until sometime in the 1790s. I had memorized the dates and knew the others, year by year.  I also called the sculpture Romanticism, which must have been because I was tired and secretly think of it that way.
In fact, it's Neoclassicism. The reason I did not have the answers at hand for this wonderful piece of sculpture is because it wasn't on my list of pieces to study. We had a list to work from for the midterm and another list for the quiz (which for everyone but me came first). The midterm list eliminated several of the items from the quiz list and not thinking it through, I didn't worry about them. Canova's sculpture was (fortunately) the only eliminated piece that actually made it onto the quiz. So, I was guessing, pulling from my casual memory of it. 

None of this is that important. I'm taking all this pass/fail. But it annoyed me. My instincts to do well are, as per usual, aroused. I am the perpetual student. I love to learn; I love to compete academically. I love to do well. One of the most pleasant aspects of my life, actually, as been how much of it I've spent in academic settings, either as a student or as an instructor. I love them both.

I've been reading, for another of the tests, about the French educational system. It's centralized, and the author discussing it, who is Canadian, finds that fact pretty unacceptable. There really isn't an equivalent to a state in France. It's not a group of united states. It's a single state, the state of France. There are no local governments with local authority. They are all acting under the authority of the central government, what we call the Federal Government. France is not a federation. One of the consequences of this difference is that educational standards are set centrally and are the same in every corner of the country.

I actually like that. I think the fact that the Far Right in the United States has been focused for years on taking over School Boards and, in my opinion, undermining educational values by trying to prevent students from learning about things like evolution (for example), is deplorable. I think it has undermined civic life in the United States. In my opinion the Far Right is pretty medieval in its thinking. They want their religion to be the governing power, like the Church (and the divinely appointed Kings) of old, with their inquisitions and all the rest. No. I'm not impressed by that form of governing.

The French also have the best health care system in the world. So, I'm on their side. I think it makes sense. One of the main things the author I'm reading fails to consider, among the many, is that both the United States and Canada are huge in comparison to France, which is more the size of a US state or a Canadian territory. I'm not sure what advantage there would be in having a loose federation of states rights advocates in such a small region of territory. And, as I watch the US deteriorate while the Far Right yells about taxes and flushing government down the toilet, I'm not sure Americans are making the best choices they can, about our collective state and governing it. It seems to me we are moving towards a corporate theocracy of sorts. So there you have it.

In any event, I'm going back to my books and my own education. All my work will be completed on Wednesday and on Friday, Toni arrives and we'll be heading off to Provence next week. I'm six weeks into my stay. It's gone by way too fast. We all knew it would.