May Summary

May was quite a busy and happy month culturally speaking, and thus marked a return to blogging. I attended two crime fiction festivals and wrote copiously about them. I saw one art exhibition, one film in cinemas and one play. And I read lots of books.

The exhibition was the Spanish crowd-pleasing artist Sorolla, who seemed to enjoy a charmed life back in the early 1900s: his paintings were selling well, he was commissioned to do interesting work, he was married to the love of his life who modelled for him regularly, he had three children he adored. No tortured artist’s existence for him. He also had a remarkable facility for painting in different styles (from social realism to impressionism to Velasquez like portraits). In my youth I might have been a little sniffy and dismissive of such an obviously bourgeois painter, but I actually enjoyed his work a lot. Nothing wrong with being ‘pretty’. His use of colour (especially the different nuances of white) and light is spectacular.

From the programme for Sorolla at the National Gallery.

The play I saw was part of the RADA showcases as their third-year acting students finish their degree. I saw Love and Money, written by Dennis Kelly in 2006 but very prescient about the financial crisis of 2008 and bad debts. It was, like all the best plays are, both funny and rather dark, the story of a marriage floundering in a sea of trying to keep up with the Joneses and getting out of consumer debt. All of the performers were good, but Stacy Abalogun and Bea Svistunenko stood out for me. It was the second time I’d seen Bea after her riveting performance in Linda: we are going to hear great things about her, mark my words.

Now that I no longer have books to review regularly, I am reading with more of a theme. In May the theme was the Paris Commune, because it was in May that it came to a very bloody end in 1871. I was wise enough to read two historical accounts about the Commune back in April, because the novel by Emile Zola The Debacle ended up taking most of the month. Not just because it was long (and in French, which always means slightly slower reading for me), but because it was also emotionally quite a challenge to read. I’ve written two blog posts about it, here and here.

Sadly, this meant that I didn’t manage to read another book in French about the Commune, Jean Vautrin’s Le Cri du peuple, but I think I will persevere with it over the summer, as I continue to be fascinated with this period in French history. I’ve managed to talk Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings into buying an English translation of this book, so we might engage in a joint read during the holidays.

I took a break from this very serious topic with a lot of crime fiction and one true crime, The Five, the very moving accounts of the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper. Not perhaps the most obvious choices for ‘lighter’ subject matter, but a change of pace from Zola anyway. But what could I do? I turned to Martin Suter’s Elefant for a nice cosy read and instead it featured homeless people and ruthless experimentation on animals. But yes, also an adorable pint-sized, pink glow-in-the-dark baby elephant.

So I felt entirely justified in picking up Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, because no matter how serious and shocking the subject matter is, Moss also manages to be witty about it. Her description of teenage grumpiness and rebellious undercurrent are spot on. Of course, this is a dig at those who are overly nostalgic about the past, as well as a study in how easy it is to get caught up in mass hysteria.

Finally, The Exiles Return by Elisabeth De Waal is beautifully evocative of 1950s Vienna, with the different occupied forces still very much present in the city. Although it has a bit of a rushed and violent ending, it is also a superb meditation on whether it is ever possible to return and reintegrate after you’ve been exiled from the place you once considered home. Is it possible to forgive and forget?

14 books read, 6 by women, 8 by men. Only two books in foreign languages this month (probably because it took me so long to read one of them).

Plans for the upcoming months?

A Twitter exchange with Barcodezebra about Brazilian fiction led to an impromptu spending spree (so much for my book buying ban, but I am trying to contain it all in the merry month of May and then go back to austerity). It’s been a long time since my last obsession with Brazilian literature, back when I was doing my Ph.D. right next to (or above) the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies. I would saunter in and explore all the writers I’d never heard of before: Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, Machado de Assis and many more. So I thought it was high time I caught up with some of their more contemporary authors and ordered a whole bunch from Abe Books. I will certainly read some during the Women in Translation Month in August (Patricia Melo, Socorro Acioli and Clarice Lispector’s short stories), but I’m tempted to soak up some Latin American atmosphere before then. However, I also plan to keep going with my #EU27Project. I am very close to finishing it!

I also intend to read a lot more poetry over the summer, as I try to regain my poetry writing groove. This will be mostly random rummaging through my rather hefty poetry bookshelves, just seeing what appeals to me in the moment, although I may have ordered Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic online, as I couldn’t wait anymore for it to come out in the UK. There is as much buzz around it as there was around Claudia Rankine’s Citizen a few years ago, so I hope I will love it as much as I loved that one. (Poetry book buzz seems to be more reliable than bestseller book buzz.)

Hmmm, sounds like quite a lot of plans. Have I bitten off more than I can chew, as usual?

Modern Couples Exhibition

I mistakenly thought the exhibition at the Barbican Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde was on until the end of February, so I still had plenty of time to visit it. I’d been meaning to go since it opened in October, but something or other always seemed to intervene. So when I realised on Thursday that it was closing this weekend, I scrambled desperately to get tickets. Me and a few hundred other people, which meant that it was very crowded and quite a challenge to read the many texts telling you about the different couples of the exhibition.

Klimt: Death and Life, from the Klimt Foundation, Vienna.

The focus was firmly on the first half of the 20th century and the so-called avant-garde, including Surrealism, but the definition of art was very broad, including textiles, architecture, interior design, literature etc. Some of the couples I knew pretty well already: Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, Rodin and Camille Claudel, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Others, however, were more in the ‘heard about them vaguely’ category rather than knowing anything about their art, such as Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Lee Miller and Man Ray. And then there were those who were completely new to me: Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer, Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst. (I knew about Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, but not about this later relationship.)

I fell in love with this self-portrait by Romaine Brookes (another artist new to me): she looks so ready to embark upon adventure.

There were many positives about this exhibition: all kind of relationships were taken into account, from short-term love affairs to long marriages and more or less platonic relationships. Heterosexual couples, gay couples, a trans marriage, threesomes, fluid gender, interracial relationships – everything was present there. Many of the exhibits displayed that sense of exhilaration when true minds meet each other, when mutual support and collaboration inspires artists to new heights. Salvador Dali encouraged Federico Garcia Lorca’s drawings, Aino and Alvar Aalto completed each other by thinking about a house from both the inside and the outside, Emilie Flöge the fashion designer was not only Gustav Klimt’s muse but also translated his artistic visions into magnificent and revolutionary dresses.

Sonia Delaunay creation.

Overall, however, reading the notes about the different relationships saddened me somewhat. It appears that all too frequently the women were appreciated mainly for their bodies and looks, were often much younger than the ‘artistic men’ to whom they became muses. Many of the letters on display show a male obsession with the body, a female obsession with the mind and the emotions. Take this sad little P.S. at the bottom of one of Camille Claudel’s letter to Rodin: ‘Surtout ne me trompez plus.’ (Please stop cheating on me.)

Mask of Camille by Rodin, portrait of Rodin by Claudel. Copyright: Musee Rodin, Paris.

Needless to say, this ‘muse’ period was often transient, and the men moved easily on to the next shiny thing, leaving quite a lot of despair, desolation, broken dreams, mental health issues, abandoned children etc. in their wake. There are only two women who acted like men in this respect: Alma Mahler (the original groupie, her list of lovers and husbands reads like a Who’s Who of the Germanic arts at the turn of the 20th century- Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel) and Gala (married to Paul Eluard, in a threesome with him and Max Ernst, eloped with Salvador Dali and then short affairs to encourage many, many younger artists).

Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp in front of some of her puppet creations.

Even the happy marriages only appear to have stayed happy because the wife died prematurely (as is the case with Aino Aalto and Sophie Taeuber-Arp), and so was presumably somewhat idealised by the surviving partner. Not for too long, however. Within three years, the men settled down with a new life partner. Jane Austen certainly observed and expressed this perfectly in Persuasion: ‘All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’

I am very glad I caught this exhibition, where I could have spent hours, but the downside of visiting on the last day was that they had run out of exhibition catalogues. And this is one catalogue that I really would like to keep.

Cultural Events Summary 20 May 2018

I hope you have all been enjoying the nice weather this week. I’ve been mostly stuck inside, as we’ve been busy at work with two conferences, a workshop, becoming GDPR compliant and budget forecasts. However, sunshine is always good for the soul, and especially at the weekend. And I’ve managed to sneak in a couple of cultural events too…

On Thursday I watched the film 120 BPM (beats per minute), runner-up at the Cannes Festival last year. Filmed as a sort of faux-documentary of life as an activist member of ACTUP Paris in the early 1990s, it captures that frenetic spirit of being young (but not only), fighting for your life as well as for justice, fighting Big Pharma, public ignorance and apathy, government failure to debate, inform or provide any coherent policies. It is also a love story and, inevitably, as with any story about AIDS, there is grieving. But this is no Philadelphia or Longtime Companion, unashamed tear-jerkers, with (usually not gay) actors fading away eloquently and elegantly. This is about anger and survival, doing anything you can to feel alive, about strategy and protest and disagreements within the group, but also about coming together, solidarity and changing the world. ‘Paris were frankly a bunch of complete maniacs’, a former ACTUP London member said, and I had to laugh as I tried to imagine those protest or virulent discussions transposed in a British environment. The two male leads are extremely charismatic: Arnaud Valois from Lyon and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart from Argentina (who, as far as I can tell, are both gay, which makes it all the more realistic) make that very serious struggle look like fun.

The real ACTUP Paris in 1995.

The film transported me back to 1989-1992 when I too was young and politically engaged, although in our case it was regime change and democracy that we were fighting for. In spite of the disillusionment or flaws or failures (and the pain of watching friends die), it was an exhilarating movement to be part of (both mine and ACTUP) – and this is perfectly captured in this film. It’s all too easy to say that the world has moved on since then regarding attitudes towards AIDS and the LGBTQ+ community, but sadly, it hasn’t really progressed that much. The film is forbidden in several countries (where homosexuality is illegal) and in my own home country, alas, there was a church-organised protest when it was first screened.

A very different atmosphere on Friday when I attended an early morning viewing of the Rodin Exhibition at the British Museum. This beautifully curated, reasonably small show demonstrates that you don’t need to overwhelm museum-goers with information or exhibits if you stick to a narrow topic and present it well. Rodin was obsessed with ancient sculptures, and collected many of them himself, so it was refreshing to see to what extent they inspired his own work.  There were plenty of original plaster, bronze and marble examples of many of Rodin’s sculptures on loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris, as well as the Parthenon marbles that are already (controversially) in the British Museum.

Icarus’ sister.

I also got to hear that Lord Elgin originally wanted sculptor Antonio Canova to ‘renovate’ the Ancient Greek fragments and complete them. Luckily, Canova was wise enough to not meddle with the beauty of the original. Rodin himself was so taken by the incomplete statues, that he deliberately sculpted many of his own like that.

The Walking Man.

The links with literature were never far away. Not only was Rainer Maria Rilke briefly Rodin’s secretary, but I was not aware that Rodin had illustrated Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (one of my favourite volumes of poetry, especially back when I was in my teens). And that he intended to reproduce it in sculpture as well.

Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre…

A wonderful, calming way to start the day with art, not forgetting the quotes from Rodin about the sculptor’s ability to capture motion.

For next week, I have a very special recommendation for you: experience a piece of literature in an all-immersive annual event at Senate House on 23rd May. To celebrate 200 years since the first creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the School of Advanced Studies will present a Living Frankenstein evening, with pop-up activities, talks, films, performances and ghost stories. The full programme is here.

Finally, no weekly summary would be complete without a few books begged, borrowed, stolen or bought.

From the library I borrowed Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, the May read for the David Bowie Book Club. Written in 2007-8, it is sadly more timely than ever. I was also looking for some Richard Yates novels which I haven’t read yet, but found instead a very bulky biography by Blake Bailey A Tragic Honesty. Nicely cheery, then…

I also got Ali Smith’s Autumn, the so-called Brexit novel, and Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning. I’ve already finished the latter: this author is one of my favourite comfort reads, and Three Pines is where I would love to retire if only it existed. I also came across a strange little volume called Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, an early Norwegian feminist compared to Colette and Jean Rhys.

Last but not least, Europa Editions are producing new editions of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy and have sent me the first volume, Total Chaos. Little do they know that it is one of my favourite French novels (or trilogies) ever and that I bribed a second-hand bookshop in Lyon to find me all three volumes in French. You can expect a close read of the book in French and in translation coming up soon. (Although my personal favourite is Chourmo, the second in the trilogy, coming out in August 2018.)

 

Weekly Summary 11th Feb 2018 (Part 2)

This is part 2 of what was threatening to become The Neverending Story in my last post.

The spectre of Communism is haunting Europe…

First of all, an enormous thank you to Kaggsy who wrote about the Red Star over Russia exhibition on her blog and convinced me that I should go to see it. I was initially sceptical, because the Socialist Realist art that I had witnessed in Romania during the Communist era was truly awful, a feast of nauseating kitsch. This exhibition, however, drawn primarily from the collection of British graphic designer David King, focuses on early Soviet art, 1905-1955. This was a period when it was still all about creating a new society and demonstrating that through a new type of art. New fonts, new designs, experimental work and techniques were all employed to show the modernity and success of the Soviet venture. I thought I knew the history behind it reasonably well, but I discovered many new things at this exhibition, for instance the multilingual posters to capture hearts and minds in the Soviet republics. Thank you, curators everywhere, and it always pays to stay humble and learn more!

Was the Soviet artistic enterprise all a lie? Yes, quite a bit of it: success was military rather than economic and came at a great price. Many of the artists were imprisoned or purged by Stalin at a later date. Their designs were imitated at knock-off standards in the decades that followed and by the other Soviet satellite states, cheapening their impact. Yet many avant-garde artists clearly believed at the time that art and architecture could bring out about a more democratic approach to art, render it less elitist, create a new environment where everyone felt empowered to create. All admirable goals (sound familiar to what we are discussing nowadays?). Plus, many of the designs still look fresh and beautiful today – and especially poignant, when you consider the tainted history behind them.

Another part of the exhibition which was painful to see: the self-censorship and mutilation of photographs. Ordinary citizens who had photographs of the Soviet leaders would then cross or cut out those who had fallen out of favour, for fear that someone would examine these photos in their own homes and accuse them of colluding with the traitors. Romania in the 1980s may have had many flaws, but at least we did not have quite this level of terror and paranoia.

Just by way of contrast, here is an example of the disgusting cult of personality and bad art that I grew up in.

The Emma Press is a charming independent press based in Birmingham, publishing mainly poetry (and some short fiction and children’s books). They don’t often organise events in London, so I was delighted to hear that they were launching their latest anthology of Love Poetry at an unusual café Coffee Cakes and Kisses not far from where I work. The café is designed to look like a kitchen (a working kitchen, where people can watch food being prepared), so people pull up chairs or stand around to chat like at the best parties. It was perhaps a bit too small for the large number of people who did turn up to watch the readings by 20 of the 56 poets featured in the anthology. I heard of Emma Press through Jacqueline Saphra, whose poetry I have admired ever since I returned to poetry in 2012, and she was there too. But I also got to meet and listen to new-to-me poets like Kitty Coles, Rachel Plummer, Jack Houston, Lenni Sanders, Paul Haworth, Maya Pieris and Ben Norris. The Emma Press Anthology of Love is a beautiful work of art: beautifully produced and illustrated, with a colourful cover that belies the anything but saccharine poetry inside.

Unsurprisingly, with so many cultural events happening, I did get a bit carried away and bought quite a few books. I was quite proud of myself for not buying all the tempting Russian novelists or books about Russian history at the Tate Modern, but then I lost control at the other events. In addition to the ones I bought to be signed at the Emma Press launch and the Literally Swiss event, there were also a couple I borrowed from the library and one I got gifted. Anyway, here is a selection.

I won the beautiful edition of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan in a Twitter giveaway and it came with a matching tote bag. Both so beautiful and turquoise that my younger son, who is not usually impressed with my book post, exclaimed out loud and kept the bag for himself.

By coincidence my friend gave me a dystopian novel about the consequences of China’s one child policy ‘An Excess Male’ by Maggie Shen King, which I am even more eager to read after speaking to Xiaolu Guo on Friday night.

Unrelated to any cultural events, but espied a while ago in the Waterstones Gower Street, I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying my fifth different translation of The Tale of Genji, this time by Dennis Washburn. I am hoping it will bridge the gap between Seidensticker’s user-friendly translation and Tyler’s rather too literal one.

Finally, I had a good old rummage in the Senate House Library, based upon feedback from my older son’s Parents Evening. They are reading Jekyll and Hyde for GCSE and the teacher suggested that he read other Victorian novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray. So I borrowed that for him, but of course I can never stop at just one. I thought that HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau and Bram Stoker’s Dracula also described scientific experimentation and human monsters rather well, reflecting the darker side of the British Empire. A few years ago he would have run a mile from any book that I recommended to him, but now  I hope he will read them and want to discuss them with me.

Last but not least, I got James Baldwin because the February read for the David Bowie Book Club is James Baldwin’s essay The Fire Next Time.

Next week or fortnight will be much quieter, although I will be taking my older son to a theatre performance at RADA – a great opportunity to see some of the nation’s future stars.

‘Ha! This is what you abandon me for?!’ Zoe is unimpressed with my book haul.

 

Weekly Cultural Wrap-Up

Instead of just doing a reading and book buying wrap up of the week, I thought it might be fun to do a summary of all the cultural highlights. Which I have been fortunate enough to have plenty of, now that I am living near and working in London. So this will include any films, theatre, opera or ballet, book launches, talks or other events which I might have attended, as well as anything I might be aware of which is coming up for the following week, which might be of interest to others in the area. There’s got to be an upside to the downside of commuting (one day this week was particularly hellish, with my total commute taking over 4 hours – instead of 2.5 – in horrible conditions).

On Tuesday I got to see the witty, forthright and beautiful Leïla Slimani in action (and speaking English, much to my surprise!) at a Q&A and book signing at Waterstone’s Gower Street. With her journalistic background and feminist activist credentials, she had lots of opinions about current affairs and the #MeToo movement, but two things she said about her book Chanson Douce (translated as Lullaby in the UK and The Perfect Nanny in the US) particularly resonated with me: 1) how quick readers were to blame the mother Myriam for leaving her children with a stranger to go out and work when she didn’t need to, simply for her personal fulfilment and to go out for dinner with her husband; 2) how differently reviewers reacted to her book in France and in the UK/US. In France they commented mainly on her style and the narrative choices she made, while in the Anglo-Saxon community it is marketed as a thriller and is mainly about plot and unlikable characters. French literature is of course littered with unlikable characters, but so is classic English and American literature, so I don’t understand what this current emphasis is on sympathising with your protagonists. Besides, you can empathise and feel sorry for both Myriam and Louise (the nanny) in the book.

On Friday I saw a ballet double bill at the Coliseum. Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, a very modern tale of depression and suicide (gorgeous Ivan Vasiliev as the young man and the wonderful, ever-young Tamara Rojo as the woman), followed by the very different, classical romantic ballet of La Sylphide, full of men in kilts and the long white tutus of the ghostly sylphides. It was delightful to see the Sylphide played by a junior soloist of the company, the very young, incredibly light and graceful Japanese dancer, Rina Kanehara. Afterwards, we had a wander around the West End to admire the light installations of the Lumiere Festival – although London proved it was not quite the 24 hour city it prides itself on being, with the lights switching off promptly at 22:30!

Westminster Abbey illuminated by French digital artist Patrice Warrener, courtesy of Creative Boom website.

This week I’ve been reading the biography of Shirley Jackson, which has prompted some more purchases of her lesser-known novels Hangsaman and The Sundial. Of course I had to buy the English translation of Slimani’s novel to get it signed by her and I’ve already read it (review will be coming up shortly). And, since I never escape unscathed from a bookshop, I also stumbled across one of those photo-rich trilingual Taschen Bibliotheca Universalis editions about the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth. As the bookseller said, ‘You can’t go wrong with Bowie.’

In other reading: just finished Hell Bay by Kate Rhodes, set on the Isles of Scilly (review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover) and am currently reading Nadia Dalbuono’s The Extremist set in Rome (review coming up on Shiny New Books). I’m reading Marie Darrieussecq in both English and French and will be posting a review of her disappearing husband book, as well as Hawksmoor on this blog very soon.

On TV, I’ve only watched the mistitled Big Cats documentary (because it refers quite a bit to wildcats which are smaller than my own moggy – who was watching just as carefully as me and probably taking hunting lessons) and my beloved Engrenages series.

Last, but not least, the Winter Issue of Asymptote Journal is out, and it is an anniversary edition, as Asymptote celebrates its 7th birthday. Yes, it first launched in January 2011, before I even became absorbed by writing or moved to France. For this special edition, there are some big names (Ismail Kadare and Daniel Mendelsohn), as well as many new voices and languages, including translations from Montenegrin, Mè’phàà and Amharic. For those of you who like short samplers, there is also a special feature on international microfiction or flash fiction.

Coming up: I would really like to attend (but can’t) the Gower Street Waterstone’s Forgotten Fiction Book Club this coming Tuesday, which will be discussing one of the defining books of my adolescence:  Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier. Two art events to catch this coming week (for those who can make it): last week of the Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican and the Hayward Gallery at the South Bank finally reopens after refurbishment with a photography retrospective of the work of Andreas Gursky.