Portraits of women reading is perhaps one of the loveliest examples of ‘memes’ in art history, particularly in the 19th century and particularly in France. Was it the rise of the middle classes and of leisure time? Were the men boasting that their wives and daughters were well looked after, well-educated and could therefore spend time on that frivolous pursuit of reading novels? Or was it that there is a certain stillness in the act of reading which men as doers felt that they could not or would not choose to quite live up to? Or was it simply a respectable form of voyeurism for rich men/art collectors? Whatever the reason for it, it has left behind some beautiful paintings (all in the public domain, as far as I know, but please correct me if I am wrong).
For the first three months of the year, I was on a book-buying ban, loosely participating in the TBR Double Dog Dare challenge on James Reads Books blog. I didn’t quite get to read that many from my TBR pile because a lot of ARCs came in for review, but by and large I managed to resist book buying temptations, with the exception of Lyon. However, since that was right on the last day of March, I consider that a success!
Since then, I may have succumbed *a little* to book splurges. I blame FictionFan for not bestowing her Queen of Willpower Medal on me! I blame Tony for sharing a picture on Twitter of his lovely Japanese novellas from Strangers Press, based at Norwich University. You too can get them here: Keshiki – New Voices from Japan. I also blame the other Tony for his rant about the Best Translated Book Award shortlist for ordering Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Brazil, Open Letter Books). Neither of these two orders have arrived yet, so I can fool myself that there will still be room on the shelves for them.
However, when I tell you that the 25 vintage Penguin classics which I ordered from World of Rare Books are still patiently lined up by the desk, awaiting shelving, you will realise that I may have overdosed on books recently.
But how could I resist a special offer on the Penguins – a surprise bundle of 25 titles? It was mostly the orange fiction series (John Wyndham, Somerset Maugham, Nancy Mitford, Charlotte Bronte), but there were also a few greens (crime fiction by Christianna Brand, Holly Roth and Erle Stanley Gardner) and some unusual finds, such as Passages from Arabia Deserta, a sort of travelogue/anthropological study by Victorian travelling gentleman Charles M. Doughty; a biography of G. K. Chesterton by Maisie Ward;a strange little genre-straddling memoir by Richard Jefferies The Story of My Heart, which looks like a prose poem with wood engravings by Gertrude Hermes; two novels about the British Empire in India by now-forgotten novelist (and former colonel) John Masters; and a book by Peter Wildeblood Against the Law, ‘a first-hand account of what it means to be a homosexual and to be tried in a controversial case and imprisoned’, published in 1955.
The final two books I felt obliged to buy attracted me for different reasons. The first, Rumba Under Fire, edited by Irina Dumitrescu (Punctum Books), was because of its content. It is a collection of essays, poems, prose, interviews about what it means to do ‘art’ in times of crisis. Can art and intellectual work really function as a resistance to power? How do works created during times of extremes of human endurance fit into our theories of knowledge and creativity – can we even attempt to understand them from our privileged and comfy positions? There is quite broad geographical representations here: Bosnia, Romania, Congo, Turkey, Afghanistan, World War 2 concentration camps, India and Pakistan.
The collaboration between poet Derek Walcott and painter Peter Doig Morning, Paramin (Faber & Faber) is pure indulgence. Each double page spread features a poem and a painting, calling out to each other, answering and completing each other. The one to blame here is Melissa Beck, who reviewed this so magnificently on her blog.
While commenting on the review, we connected with Anthony Anaxagorou on Twitter, who asked if we would be interested in reviewing two books of poetry from Outspoken Press, which he promptly sent along. The first is To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus, the second Dogtooth by Fran Lock. You can expect to read reviews of both of these very soon.
Last night I dreamt that I had met up with an old friend of mine, whom I haven’t seen in ten years or so. I see her occasional updates on Facebook, but I don’t know much about her anymore or how her life has turned out. It’s important to make that clear, that what follows has little bearing to reality.
In my dream, she was turning cartwheels in a nature reserve somewhere in Valais. [How do I know it was there? Well, some lovely St. Bernard puppies were playing with her in the field.] When I remarked how happy and content she seemed, she turned to me quite seriously and said: ‘Don’t judge by appearances. You have no idea. I have to take strong painkillers for my back pain, follow my husband around to all sorts of different countries and I’ll be a franchisee, for heaven’s sake!’
So then I became all competitive and shouted at her: ‘Call that trouble? You should try being me, unemployed, divorced, got a rejection every single day last week – no rest even at the weekend – plus I’m not sure I can keep a roof over my head?’ [N.B. This is an exaggeration as well.]
The woman who was feeding the St. Bernards and cleaning out their litter boxes [yes, I know that’s for cats, not dogs, but in dreams nothing quite makes sense, does it?] turned and said: ‘You should try being my sister: her husband was killed for protesting against the dictator, her child has cystic fibrosis and can’t get treatment in their country, and she has been waiting for two years to get vetted but is now rejected by the US and has spent all her money on the application process.’
I don’t remember if the puppies then licked all of our faces to make us feel better, but I awoke soon after and started wondering what my friend was up to and why we had lost touch (our email addresses kept changing is one reason). Meanwhile, the barrage of world news is relentless, while my mother’s idea of support and encouragement is to phone me regularly to tell me how overweight I am and how discriminated women over 50 are when looking for a job (I am not yet 50), while my father gets me in a panic about the political situation in Romania. Private and public depression and stagnation intermingle, or, as Rebecca Solnit puts it, so much more eloquently than me:
One of the essential aspects of depression is the sense that you will always be mired in this misery, that nothing can or will change. There’s a public equivalent to private depression, a sense that the nation or the society rather than the individual is stuck. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in, and memory, the collective memory we call history.
So how do you keep going under the circumstances? With some great books and beautiful quotes, of course. (Motivational wallpapers not included, but here are some pictures which cheer me up.)
When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgement. (JFK)
So much world all at once –
How it rustles and bustles.
The joy of writing:
The power of preserving
Revenge of a mortal hand. (Wisława Szymborska)
Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art. (Andy Warhol)
Poetry changes the poet and, if you do your job rightly, it changes the reader. What’s being composed is me. (Gwyneth Lewis)
Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
We must accept finite disappointment but must never lose infinite hope. (Martin Luther King)
Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. (Helen Keller)
A failure is not always a mistake. It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying. (B.F. Skinner)
It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I am interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It is also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse one. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings. (Rebecca Solnit)
As far as I can see from here almost everyone I know is trying to do the impossible every day. All mothers, all writers, all artists of every kind, every human being who has work to do and still wants to stay human and to be responsive to another human being’s needs, joys and sorrows. There is never enough time and that’s the rub… creation depends as much on laziness as on hard work. (May Sarton)
You may not always be able to say what confines you.
And the Prison is sometimes called mistrust.
If it were that easy
one wouldn’t have any pleasure of it.
That is all I seek:
always something other than heroism.
I try not to forget how to jest.
Based on the Selected Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. The picture above is one of a series of pictorial prompts on the theme of ‘Arrangements’ from dVerse Poets Pub. The colours reminded me so much of Van Gogh’s palette. Plus, I tend to be a stickler for a tidy desk arranged just so before I can start writing…
Everyone has heard of Lalique and his famous glass creations, but have you ever heard of equally gifted and far less well-known Maurice Marinot? He was a painter and artist in glass from Troyes (1882-1960), but his glass-making period was relatively short. He only discovered the medium in 1912 and stopped working in it in 1937, when the glass factory that he had been working with closed down.
Another reason that his output wasn’t huge was that he was quite experimental (and not all the experiments went well) and a bit of a perfectionist, sometimes taking as long as a year to produce one piece. To top it all, his workshop suffered a direct hit during the Allied bombing, which destroyed most of his glass and paintings.
Here are some captivating examples of his work in the Lyon Museum of Art. Of course, glass through glass is notoriously difficult to photograph, so I apologise that you cannot see the beautiful shimmer and reflexes on these creations.
The second artist I discovered at the Art Museum in Lyon is Louis Janmot, a 19th century Lyonnais artist whose style is oddly reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites. An ardent Catholic, deeply affected by the childhood loss of his siblings, his work is romantic and profoundly spiritual.
I fell in love with his Mona Lisa equivalent, a painting entitled Flowers of the Fields, featuring the Bugey landscape around Lyon in the background.
However, he is best known for his magnum opus Poem of the Soul (Poème de l’âme), which he spent nearly 50 years on (and which was still not complete at the time of his death). He also wrote a lengthy poem (2800 verses) to accompany it. It’s a sort of reinvention of Catholicism, showing the life-cycle of a human, accompanied at all times by his/her soul. The first series of 18 paintings are displayed in a room in the museum.
I promised to share a love story with you from the Salon du Livre. Here is the story of how I fell in love with a cat, lost a substantial amount of money but gained much happiness.
In addition to the bold, colourful artworks decorating the various stands at the Geneva Book Fair, there was one stand which drew my attention. Fortunately (or should that be unfortunately?) it was right next door to us, so I could browse to my heart’s content.
ACB (Art, Creations et Bibliophilie) is a small company based near Morges, specialising in rare books, beautiful ililustrations and limited edition original artworks.
This is a booklover and book collector’s dream. Hand-coloured prints on delicate handmade paper – these are the illuminated manuscripts of the present day.
For the 70th anniversary of The Little Prince, they commissioned a contemporary artist to reinvent the colour prints to accompany the text. I cannot explain how exquisitely made the paper is, what a pleasurable tactile experience it is to leaf through the book.
But, of course, the original artwork is there too – on loose leafs, so you could frame each one of them.
I was also attracted by a leather-bound, gold-edged, hand-coloured edition of Ulysees, but at the price of around 4500 CHF (£3200 or $4700), it was well beyond my budget. However, if I were a millionare, I know in which shop I would go mad when it came to decorating my house!
ACB also had original artwork to decorate their stand and there was one painting by a Chinese artist which caught my eye. Apologies for the rather dim photo.
Only problem was: it was way out of my price range. After three days of hmming and hawing, much soul-searching, worrying and then telling myself that my parents had once upon a time given me some money to buy something memorable for myself on a round birthday (and I never had)… and after the lovely Pierre Perottin and other people at the ACB stand promised to deliver, offered me a better price and allowed me to pay in instalments… reader, I married this painting and am in utter honeymoon bliss!
If you want to see more of the artwork on offer, ACB have a Facebook page or you can contact Pierre Perottin directly on acbperottin[at]gmail[dot]com. They are not paying me to advertise or promote their business, but it’s the kind of thing that us inveterate booklovers might enjoy (to at least dream of!).
I was rummaging around on my blog and found the beginning of this post. For some reason I never finished it. It’s about two books that I got for myself as Christmas presents, that I read and loved throughout the winter holidays, and yet I never managed to review them. These two beautifully bound books (collectors’ items) are by and about one of my favourite writers, Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of my beloved Moomins.
These are semi-autobiographical pieces describing Tove’s childhood, her artistic parents and the great parties they gave, holidays at the seaside, being snowbound in a strange house, being ill with German measles. But in actual fact they are slightly surreal prose poems, exploring the big questions of life, death, beauty and truth, danger and safety, and the importance of art. And all is described through a child’s eyes, with limpid clarity, elegance and understatement. Jansson is a sophisticated stylist, leaving out so much in both her painting and her writing, implying more than saying outright.
Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (transl. David McDuff)
Although I had read somewhere that Moominpappa and Moominmamma were based on Jansson’s own parents, I hadn’t realised just how close she was to her family, nor how many personal difficulties and disappointments she had to face in her own life. She was very versatile: painter, illustrator, writer, stage designer, playwright, poet, political caricaturist, cartoonist – and although she occasionally complained of writer’s block (especially during the war), her output was prodigious. But her biographer can speak much more eloquently on her behalf:
‘Work and love were the things that mattered most to her throughout her life – and in that order. Tove’s life was fascinating. She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices … maintained a strict hold. She was a revolutionary, but never a preacher or a demaogogue. She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices…. When she was still a little girl she wrote that “freedom is the best thing”. It remained of utmost importance throughout her life.’
I cannot explain just how much this book meant to me. At times inspiring, at times sad and haunting, it is not only the biography of an exceptional woman and artist, but also a powerful meditation on the choices we constantly have to make as daughters, friends, lovers and creators. How to be human. She deserves to be better known for all of her work: above all, for her pared down prose and great sensitivity. But I’ll end with the inevitable: my favourite characters in her Moomin series.