Friday Fun: Provence in the Spring

Just back from a business trip to the South of France. I didn’t have much time to stop and smell the flowers or take pictures, but I couldn’t resist a few images of sun-bathed bliss and mountainscapes along the way.

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Relais du Grand Logis, Mirabeau.
Relais du Grand Logis, Mirabeau.

The hotel where I stayed is a former coaching inn dating from the 17th century in the small village of Mirabeau on the Durance river, on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence.

I sat and read on a bench  under the plane trees, with a waterfall sussurating in the background.
I sat and read on a bench under the plane trees, with a waterfall sussurating in the background.
Too early to use the swimming pool, but plenty of sun...
Too early to use the swimming pool, but plenty of sun…
You can walk for miles among the vineyards and hills.
You can walk for miles among the vineyards and hills.

Now I dream of returning there for a holiday… or maybe organising a writing retreat?

Inspiring Women and Their One Weakness…

From The Telegraph.
From The Telegraph.

I read this obituary of Naty Revuelta Clews, Havana socialite and one-time mistress of Fidel Castro, and it made me sad to see such a fascinating, unconventional woman reduced to pining and sighing after a man who did not treat her well and probably did not deserve her. Why is it that so many inspiring women have their moments of weakness (which in many cases last for years) when it comes to a man, that they succumb to the charisma and myth of the ‘great man’?

We need to see and hear about inspiring women not just for the 8th of March, but all year round. Here are some of my real-life and fictional inspirations – and their weakness:

the_philadelphia_story_katharine_hepburn_adrian_2

Katharine Hepburn

She was considered ‘insufficiently sexy’ to play the part of Scarlett O’Hara and her sharp tongue and independent manner made her unpopular in Hollywood. She even became box office poison for a while, but engineered her way back to a brilliant career by acquiring the script for The Philadelphia Story. No weak maiden waiting for a studio boss or even a knight in shining armour to rescue her! Still, one chink in her armour: Spencer Tracy.

pippi-langstrumpf-540x304

Pippi Longstocking

The creation of Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, Pippi lives by herself (with her horse and pet monkey) while her father is sailing the seas. She may not be able to count or sip her tea properly, but she is strong, fearless, cheerful and utterly non-conformist. Her weakness: her Dad.

Deb-Harry-debbie-harry-31503812-500-507

Debbie Harry

The epitome of cool, devil-may-care sexy style, Debbie Harry had the voice and inimitable, slightly off-beat jazzy singing that I’ve always loved. She survived band break-up, drugs, caring for her seriously ill ex Chris Stein (that’s her weakness right there), and nevertheless managed to have a solo career, a reunion and lots of interesting musical projects. She is a true survivor, and a lady, without the need to be constantly in the limelight that some other rock stars have.

simone-de-beauvoir (1)

Simone de Beauvoir

Philosopher, writer, feminist and political activist, Simone was so bright that she only narrowly missed out being first  for the agrégation for her year (Sartre was first, but he was a few years older than her). She is famous, of course, for her ‘open’ relationship with Sartre, but she is no superwoman – she is complex, conflicted and often prone to jealousy and sorrow. Her intellectual journey came at a cost – but she was always candid about it, bravely forging a pathway for others. For a nuanced look at her life and work, see Toril Moi’s biography. I’ve been carrying it with me for about 16 years now, across four moves to a different country.

 

So Old and Yet So New (Poetry)

This is some poetry inspired by my current re-reading of The Tale of Genji.

From ink-treasures.com
From ink-treasures.com

The brush at rest, she sweetly shed
her kanji burden in black rain.
Told it slant, but all refrain
from advice or like
on poetry’s thin frame.
Safflower and cicada shells linger on pages
but nothing compares
to the shy violet blush of
crocus beneath dried leaves.
How could I forget
the persistent folly of men
and how quickly sleeves are

dampened by the morning dew?

 

And, in the spirit of Royall Tyler’s multiple footnotes: kanji are the Chinese characters or ideograms used in Japanese (alongside the syllabic hiragana and katakana), safflower and cicada shells are nicknames used for certain ladies to whom Genji has shown some affection, while the wet sleeves are a recurring motif in all of Classical Japanese and Chinese literature and represent mourning, regret, suffering.

The Tale of Genji Readalong (1)

I joined Akylina from The Literary Sisters in her April readalong of ‘The Tale of Genji’ (Genji Monogatari). In my case, it was a re-read, but in a new version, the more recent translation by Royall Tyler. I have previously attempted to read it in the modern Japanese translation of Yosano Akiko (at university) and in English, in the old-fashioned and charming (but selective) translation of Arthur Waley and the more precise translation of Edward Seidensticker.

"Ch5 wakamurasaki" by Tosa Mitsuoki - The Tale of Genji: Legends and Paintings. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch5_wakamurasaki.jpg#/media/File:Ch5_wakamurasaki.jpg
“Ch5 wakamurasaki” by Tosa Mitsuoki – The Tale of Genji: Legends and Paintings. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch5_wakamurasaki.jpg#/media/File:Ch5_wakamurasaki.jpg

Written by court lady Murasaki Shikibu roughly 1000 years ago, it is considered the oldest novel in the world. It is perhaps also the longest novel in the world, more than 1100 pages long, spread over 54 chapters. Although it has a cast of over 400 characters, there is a recognisable main character (Genji himself, the son of the Emperor by a beloved but not royal concubine) and a small core of recurring characters. There is a narrative arc (of sorts): the characters grow older and wiser, the story gets darker as old age and regrets set in. However, the chapters are believed to have been written episode by episode for distribution amongst the other ladies of the court (there are some inconsistencies or overlaps in time, therefore), much like a feuilleton in a newspaper in more modern times.

I started a little late and have only reached Chapter 10. How do I feel about rereading this? First of all, I have to admit I am not yet won over by the Tyler translation. It is undoubtedly more accurate and has many annotations and explanations, but looking constantly at the footnotes breaks the flow of the story for me. Plus, it is almost too close to the original in all its allusive, obscure glory. Compare the following from the very first chapter:

In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and the lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill…

(Seidensticker translation)

In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health…

(Tyler translation)

The second surprise was how shocking I find Genji’s behaviour this time round. Because he cannot have the woman he has set his heart on (the Emperor’s latest consort, Fujitsubo, who reminds him of his mother), he pursues women left, right and centre, and won’t take no for an answer. Many of his actions could be construed as rape (although, invariably, the women are won over after a night of passion, and pine after his shining beauty). He tires of them just as easily, especially if they send a less than sterling poem or if their calligraphy displeases him. And he is quite rude when he is pursued by a shameless older woman. The only one he has patience with is young Murasaki – who later becomes his wife – but that may be because she is only about 9 years old when they first meet, which was a bit too much even for the Japanese standards of the Heian period.

Kano Chikayasu scroll of Genji, from commons.wikimedia.org
Kano Chikayasu scroll of Genji, from commons.wikimedia.org

Of course, this is the young and immature Genji that we are talking about, and he will change in the course of the book. But why was I not more shocked by all of this when I read it as a 19 year old? I suppose I was trying to be the super-cool first year student, trying so hard to demonstrate a sexual sophistication I did not possess. After all, I argued, the women in the book are also having affairs… But I’m, if anything, even more full of feminist indignation now, and the women are sitting passively in their pavilions, waiting for the night-time visits, rather than going out to seek adventure themselves. The consequences of being found out are of course much more serious for women: the best they could hope for was to have their hair cut off and be sent to a nunnery. If you are part of the imperial household, it’s even more serious: Fujitsubo is terrified people will remark the resemblance of her young son to a certain handsome prince. Genji will get his come-uppance very soon in Chapter 10 (spoiler alert!), but will he learn from his mistakes? And will it be just him who suffers, or his beloved Murasaki as well?

From TaleofGenji.org
From TaleofGenji.org

It’s a revealing picture of the constraints imposed upon women in Heian Japan, so I can only suspect I considered it within its particular context and did not judge it by today’s standards. And there is one encouraging example in Chapter Two: the lady of the Broom Tree, who rejects Genji’s advances despite all his efforts, entreaties and her own unhappy marriage. Such is the subtlety of Murasaki Shikibu’s writing, however, that we are left wondering if it is sense of duty or fear which motivates this lady. A sense of yearning lingers behind…

Weekend Fun: More Nooks to Curl Up In

I got too wrapped up in long overdue book reviews to have time for a Friday Fun post, so here is something for the weekend instead! Some places to curl up in with a good book, but with nature surrounding us, so we can make the most of the spring weather (when it does arrive).

From Domaine Home.
From Domaine Home.
Clooney's holiday villa, from Architectural Digest.
George Clooney’s holiday villa in Mexico, from Architectural Digest.
From Garden magazine.
From Garden magazine.
From Go Glamping.
From Go Glamping.

Mind you, that last one might get a little hot in summer…

 

What Was I Expecting? Beep-beep, Fashion!

I try to stay away from books that are being hyped and fussed over by publishers, reviewers, readers and most especially the media. Yet sometimes I succumb to fashion (turn to the left), fashion (turn to the right)… I nearly always end up a little underwhelmed, as I’ve been by four books in a row that I’ve read over the past two or three weeks. So I was wondering why that’s the case. I suppose it’s because my expectations are being piled up to skyscraper proportions, so it becomes impossible for any book to satisfy my hunger.

So, just to be perfectly clear, all of the books below are good books, just not great books. Like an overly demanding parent with a child who doesn’t quite achieve the stunning results they expect, I love them nevertheless, but can’t help feeling a little disappointed. And, of course, this is just my opinion, there are plenty of other readers who loved these books, etc. etc.

thefarmTom Rob Smith: The Farm

The premise is irresistible: the over-protected child (now grown up and trying to protect his parents from the truth about his sexuality) has to choose between his father’s and his mother’s account of events. Whom to believe? What is really going on? Marketed as a thriller, this feels to me more like a family saga, and makes excellent use of its remote Swedish farmhouse scenario. But I do wish there had been more uncertainty, more of the father’s side of the story and, even though I usually like a clear chronology and straightforward storytelling, in this case I would have liked more complexity, more conflicting perspectives. For a very different take on this, see the review on Crime Fiction Lover.

StationElevenEmily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

This is going to make me a lot of enemies, as nearly everyone I know who’s read it has loved this book. I did find it beautifully written, with a glossiness and thoughtfulness of language which is very appealing to the poet in me. But when I reached the end, I did feel a bit: ‘Ho-hum, is that it?’ It pains me to say this, as I saw the author in Lyon and loved everything she said.

There were some memorable scenes and a few intriguing characters, not necessarily the main protagonists (I preferred Miranda, Clark, Javeen). However, because of the constantly shifting points of view, I felt I didn’t quite come to grips with any of them. More could have been made of the Prophet, as well, and his troupe.

I enjoyed the Shakespeare references (more The Tempest than King Lear to my mind, but perhaps that just shows my own preconceptions), the sarcasm about Hollywood and fame, the description of life after the pandemic. I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, and thankfully the book did not go too much into the horror mode of graphic descriptions of dying.

Ultimately, it’s a story about human relationships and the longing for connection and for the comfort of the past, set against the backdrop of a threatening, uncertain world. But it’s not as moving and tender as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and a little too tame. If you want to see a writer who really goes out on a limb in an alternative world, try the much less hyped Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Saw. I did an interview with Ioanna for Crime Fiction Lover for New Talent November.

For much more enthusiastic appraisals of Station Eleven, see The Little Reader Library, Janet Emson and Naomi Frisby.

liarschairRebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

I’m rather a fan of so-called domestic noir, perhaps because of the ‘happy’ families I’ve known throughout my life. I do get fatigued by the inevitable comparisons to ‘Gone Girl’, as if that was the first of the domestic noir genre (Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier and Nicci French had been writing them way before the current batch). Furthermore, I don’t need likable characters to enjoy a book, so I thought I would be fine with the deceits and lies of the toxic marriage depicted here. In fact, my current WIP falls broadly under this same category.

The atmosphere of menace was very well done, particularly in the first half of the book, but it was a little hard to sustain throughout. At some point it felt like the author was piling on nasty gestures by either one of the couple, for no other purpose than to up the ante. Perhaps that was necessary, because there was no great moment of ultimate danger or huge revelation: the outcomes were somewhat predictable.

However, this is a talented author, with a great turn of phrase, whose future novels will almost certainly become even more intense and suspenseful. For more reviews, see Cleopatra Loves Books and Susan White for Euro Crime.

loindesbrasMetin Arditi: Loin des bras (Far from human arms)

Far from the arms of others, who can provide comfort and love, this metaphorical title describes not just the schoolboys in this book, who’ve been sent away to an expensive Swiss boarding school by their wealthy and indifferent parents, but also the teachers at this school. Each character is flawed and vulnerable in a different way: we have gamblers, homosexuals, former Nazi sympathisers (the book is set in the 1950s), people who have lost countries, languages or loved ones. A bit of everything in short, all longing for some human connection, for a sense of community, which this school provides in some way, while heading for bankruptcy. It was an enjoyable read, with short chapters and a sense of world-weariness very fitting with the landscape and the omnipresent subtle changes of the lake’s surface. The storylines are somewhat predictable, and some of the characters feel a bit cliché, but what disappointed me most was the bare, unadorned style.

The reason for that is again false expectations on my part. Metin Arditi is an intriguing person in his own right: born in Turkey, he moved to Switzerland as a child, became a professor of physics at EPFL Lausanne, and is also a very active promoter of culture and especially music in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Given his background, I expected a more flowery language, perhaps something in the style of Orhan Pamuk, but he dissects instead with incisive, cold precision, much more like a scientist. If you want to try reading him in English, one of his books has been translated The Conductor of Illusions

Perhaps next time I’ll do a post on the hyped books which did not disappoint me – there are a few that lived up to my expectations or even surpassed them. How about you? Do you read or avoid the buzz books of the moment? And do you ever feel that ‘is that all’ sigh?

 

 

 

 

Multiple Choices

For Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets Pub, I was inspired by this wonderful poem about Persephone by A. E. Stallings, written as a multiple choice quiz. Political indignation is all my own.

She pitches forward

  • in darkness
  • under cover
  • haunting waking hours
  • with mocking laughter

He wonders quietly

  • at her tangled shyness
  • how such a vamp could
  • where to shut her in
  • why she’s so cold

Their children hesitate

  • on brink of teendom
  • always picking the other side
  • which game to play next
  • to pick up weird vibes

We are so convinced

  • we have motley choices
  • our minds are our own
  • there is a right answer
  • we’ve the right to stun
www.thewhitepalace.com
http://www.thewhitepalace.com

Entitled in title and privileged, created in our image,

we sit back and enjoy

picking over the poor choices of others.