Wild Girls and Independent Cats

Or should that be ‘Independent Women and Wild Cats’? A change of pace in my reading, with a biography of early 20th century artists and a quiet ode to a beloved cat.

Diana Souhami: Wild Girls – The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks

Portrait of Natalie Barney by Romaine Brooks.

Natalie ‘the Amazon’ Barney and Romaine Brooks were two wealthy, independent and pivotal figures of the bohemian expat world in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Although they formed an intense personal relationship that lasted for half a century, this book tries to document their entire lives and their (multiple) relationships with other women (and men) before, during and after their own love story. As such, it simply tries to cram too much in and often feels like a long list of famous names and decadent practices (drugs, orgies, infidelity feature heavily). Although the blurb on the back cover suggests that the Sunday Times considered Souhami ‘an exceptionally witty and original biographer’, I found her lacklustre. She managed to make these fascinating women and their entourage, plus their turbulent lives, sound dull. There was far too little focus on their art, too much detail about all of the secondary figures (including footnotes) and as for the personal ‘anecdotes’ interspersed between chapters? What on earth was that all about? It added nothing to the story – if the author wanted to write a memoir, then she should do so separately from this biography.

Nevertheless, there are still many poignant moments, particularly in the final chapters, when the lovers are ageing. Born to a life of privilege but also parental neglect, they seem rather insufferable in the early years. While I cannot quite say that their arrogance and sense of entitlement takes a beating in their old age, it becomes obvious that money, fame, even some artistic success cannot lead to lasting happiness. While Natalie Barney seems flighty and a serial womaniser in her youth, in old age she shows deep compassion and devotion to an increasingly stubborn and aloof Romaine.

Self-portrait by Romaine Brooks.

Above all, I was shocked by Romaine Brooks pro-Fascist stance (a former lover and admirer of D’Annunzio, she continued to live in Italy throughout the Second World War and turned into quite a xenophobe). Her final years were spent in self-imposed solitude, rebuffing all offers of love and help, supposedly for the sake of her art, but unable to produce any paintings or writing, and in fact suffering from depression and possibly paranoia.

‘I suppose and artist must live alone and feel free otherwise all individuality goes. I can thing of my painting only when alone, even less do any actual work.’ … But however much she thought, no work got done. She sat on her solitary bench by the sea, ate her modest meals, suspected that ‘awful looking Orientals’ were communists, and seemed closed to the world.

Hiraide Takashi: The Guest Cat, transl. Eric Selland

This is a charming palate cleanser, although by no means as light-hearted as you might be led to believe (see my previous post on ‘mood-boosting books’). It was also a surprise hit when published in Japan in 2014 and then translated into English (and many other languages). It’s the story of a couple in their mid-thirties, both writers or researchers who work from home. They have rented a guesthouse at the bottom of a large and beautiful garden of a 1920s mansion in Tokyo, a bit of a rarity in the late 1980s, when this novel takes place. Their neighbour’s son adopts a kitten and soon this small, delicate creature starts visiting them and occupying a place in their house and in their hearts.

This is not just a love song for a cat that has made the (childless) couple feel alive again, but also a paen to nature that is fast disappearing from the city. A nostalgia for a gentler, more caring way of life, but also respect for the creature’s fierce independence, allowing it to exist in all its mystery and strangeness. A reminder to not forget to live, to play, to love even though your heart might get broken. And, like nearly all Japanese literature, it is a meditation on the transience of life. Set in the final year of Showa and the controversial Emperor Hirohito, at the height of the Japanese property boom, it marks the end of an era.

The author is best known as a poet, and this becomes obvious in the lyricism and illuminating fragments of memories (like flashes in the dark) that he describes in this book. While it’s not strictly speaking a memoir, it is based upon Hiraide’s encounter with a real cat, and you can feel that love and understanding of our feline companions seeping through.

In Our Mad and Furious City

This debut novel by Guy Gunaratne doesn’t really need much by way of introduction. It has won the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. The author is a film-maker, covering post-conflict areas around the world, and this sensibility serves him well in presenting London as a place of multicultural influences and friendships, yes, but also simmering resentments, occasionally exploding into full aggression and rioting.

Yoos, Selvon and Ardan are three lads growing up on or around a council estate in Neasden, North London. They all have ‘elsewhere’ in their blood (i.e. their parents were immigrants) and they are mates: they bus together to school, they are in the same year, they play football on the estate. A loose, unspoken friendship binds them, but is it enough to make up for their differences? Selvon is training hard and listening to motivational podcasts, keen to get a sports scholarship and make his way out of the place. Ardan’s way out is through his music, he writes lyrics and dreams of success as a grime artist. Yoos (Yusuf) is Muslim and doesn’t much like the wave of radicalism engulfing his brother and the mosque where his father used to be the Imam.

In a normal world, they could remain friends, a proud showcase for diversity and integration. But this is London one hot summer when a black boy struck down an off-duty soldier with a cleaver, shouting something about what happens to infidels. So races and religions are pitted against each other, and London’s ‘scowling youth’ are at the end of their tether, ‘fury was like a fever in the air’. There is no possibility of leading a normal life, of not taking sides. Over the course of just two days, we move from the gritty everyday to tragedy to comedy and back to tragedy again, all conveyed in a language that closely follows oral traditions, belonging to several generations and cultural backgrounds. It is both deeply depressing and ultimately uplifting. It is impossible to read this book without feeling somehow changed. It reminded me, both in terms of subject matter, and the friendship of the main characters, of the cult film La Haine.

Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui and Hubert Koundé in La Haine.

Alongside the three boys and two additional older characters whose relationship to them is initially somewhat unclear, there is a sixth character, perhaps even THE main character in the book: the city itself. The description of London in all its confused, noisy, vast, pluralistic muddle made me think instantly of Paris at the time of the Commune, and not just because I was reading the two books at nearly the same time.

Neither of the two cities prove to be a haven; idealism and hopes for a better life are doomed, whether it’s the dreams of immigrants or those trying to build a new utopian social order.

I know this city and its sickness of violence and mean living. These things come in sharp ruptures that don’t discern. It was the fury. Horror curled into horror. Violence trailing back for centuries… Each of us were caught in the same swirl, all held together with our own small furies in this single mad, monstrous and lunatic city.

One of the enduring images of the London riots of 2011, from The Guardian.

Compare that to the description of Paris of the years 1869-1874 by Rupert Christiansen in Paris Babylon:

… a noisy multifariousness and confusion, and a hostile resilience to all attempts to placate or silence them. Like every city, it argued with itself, constantly pulling in a thousand different directions, growing like a virus, in an unreasonable organic fashion. The reality of Paris is its people’s voices and stories, motivated by the pressure of immediate daily experience and the ceaseless flow of misinformation we call ‘news’; it cannot be reduced to a thesis, an image or a generalization.

It’s these ‘other voices’, often forgotten voices but nevertheless an organic part of the city, that finally take centre stage in the novel. Although the three young men have the most seductive voices, it is old and frail Nelson who has some of the best lines about the high price the city demands of its inhabitants.

This grey, miserable place what hold the young in like a pig pen… Lord, I wish I could tell my son what I know. All that I know about how the city raise a young man’s fury. How it bend him back, beat him down with so much hard rain he want shelter with whoever will carry him.

In Christiansen’s view, the Commune too was not so much a calculated political strategy and rebellion, but a furious instinctive response to the destruction of a way of life to give room to the modernisations of Haussmann and the humiliation of the Prussian siege. It ‘simply had to happen… for reasons beyond reason.’

The Commune from an archive picture, from L’Humanite. The Emperor and Baron Haussmann had been very keen to get rid of the cobblestoned streets, to avoid the cobblestones being used for barricades. As you can see, they didn’t quite succeed in getting rid of all of them, certainly not in Belleville and Montmartre.

I found reading the two books in parallel to be an enlightening experience. And both of them, in a way, end with a declaration of love to the great cities which somehow remain elusive, annoying, impossible to capture in their full complexity. The cities and their infuriating, maddening, heroic people.

So here it all is, this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and romance of the colours, talk gladly of the changes and the flux and the rise and the fall without feelings its storm rain on your skin and its bone-scarring winds, a city that won’t love you back unless you become insoluble to the fury, the madness of bound and unbound peoples and the immovables of the place. The joy. The lights lies in the armoured few, those willing to run, run on and run forever just to prove it possible.

Friday Fun: French Urban Gardens

Spring is almost ready to spring, or so we hope! It seems to come earlier in England than in other parts of the world, but this week my pictures take me  to France. Paris and other French cities may not have quite as many green spaces as London does, but it’s always a pleasure to discover some of them, however small. French gardens may be famous for their severe geometric precision, but this is the more natural, unkempt style.

My favourite park in Paris: Parc Buttes-Chaumont, outrageously romantic, with an amazing view towards Sacre Coeur from the temple.

But it’s also about finding green spaces everywhere you go: cafes (here in Saint-Germain).

… along disused railway lines (from Time Out France)

…in little residential impasses (much like the mews of London). From Pariszigzag.fr

Another passage Grenelle from 15e arrondissement.

The famous flower market between Notre Dame and the Palais de la Justice. From La Compagnie.

Side streets in Montmartre, from sakartonn.fr

Jardin Sauvage Saint-Vincent in Montmartre.

Japanese garden from the Pantheon-Bouddhique, 16e. Pariszigzag.fr

Friday Fun: Old Montmartre in Photos and Paintings

If I could live anywhere in Paris, and money were no object, I would choose Montmartre, despite the tourist hordes. The endless steps and steep roads would keep me fit, and there are still many quiet picturesque corners if you know where to look. Plus oh, the historical artistic associations! Of course, in the 19th century Montmartre was anything but posh and expensive: it was a scrappy little suburb full of rebellious smallholders (marking the start of the revolutionary Paris Commune in 1871), poor working class people, bars and cabarets. Artists flocked there because it was cheap and provided an excellent spot for people-spotting.

Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre.

Van Gogh’s representation of it.

Impasse Girardon in real life.

Utrillo’s version of Impasse Girardon.

The infamously steep road Impasse Trainee.

Impasse Trainee in winter, by Utrillo.

Rue St Vincent and the cabaret-bar Lapin Agile.

Yet another Utrillo rendition of the same spot.

Place du Tertre, which is now filled with portrait painters and souvenir stalls.

Antoine Blanchard’s rainsodden version.

The vineyards in Montmartre have existed since Roman times, but almost fell victim to property developers in the early 20th century.

Not quite the same angle, but Van Gogh was fascinated with these orchards and vineyards too.

The vines are flourishing now and celebrate an annual harvest festival. From montmartre-addict.com

#20booksofsummer: Books 6 and 7

After the disappointment of my 5th book choice for the #20booksof summer, Ingrid Desjour’s Les Fauves, I turned to some lighter reads on a French theme. Or at least I thought they would be lighter… They both turned out to be darker than their titles or blurbs suggested, but both of them were perfect holiday reads. Even if I don’t really have any holidays this year.

parismonamourIsabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour

Alexandra is an American woman (educated in Britain), happily married to a Frenchman and living a golden life in Paris. Or so she thinks. But then her mother puts the thought into her head that her husband might be having an affair. When Alexandra discovers that this is indeed the case, she loses control and finds herself embarking upon a reckless affair with a much younger man – the son of her husband’s best friends. You just know that it cannot end well, and indeed there is plenty of foreshadowing (perhaps a little too much for my taste), as we see in the very first chapters a contrite and sad Alexandra at some later date ruminating about her behaviour.

After reading so many psychological thrillers which deal with adultery, it was refreshing to read a book which does not make a dark mystery about it, yet is far removed from the humour and lightness of chick lit. There are many quite candid and sensual scenes in the book, but it’s not at all gratuitous sex for the sake of it (as with Maestra, for instance). It’s a grown-up look at adultery, at how we become embroiled in things we initially believe we can control before they end up controlling us. The author does an excellent job of describing how torn and guilty people can feel, yet continue to do the things they feel bad about; how they can blind themselves to any danger warnings and find increasingly absurd self-justification for their actions.

And, of course, if you are a lover of all things French, there are plenty of alluring descriptions of place (including a few of my favourite spots in Paris) and Parisian lifestyle in this book.

colinnielColin Niel: Ce Qui Reste en Foret (What Stays in the Forest)

This is the second in a series of crime novels featuring Detective Anato in French Guyana. I haven’t read the first in the series, but fellow book blogger Emma highly recommended him. When we met the author at the Quais du Polar in Lyon and realised what a lovely person he was, with a fascinating background, who knows that part of the world really well, I couldn’t resist exploring further.

Anato is of Ndjuka descent, but grew up in France, and has only recently returned to his home country. He doesn’t speak the local language well enough and is still finding out surprising things about his family and his past. He gets called in to investigate the death of a scientist, Serge Feuerstein, an ornithologist based at a scientific research station deep in the Amazonian rainforest. The researchers are ‘sharing’ the forest with illegal gold mining ventures, so at first glance it looks like it might have been a territorial dispute. But Anato and his team suspect that the easiest answer is not often the correct one.

There were so many things to enjoy about this book: a cracking plot and dogged investigation; the contrast between the wilderness of the jungle and the attempts to impose French law and order; Anato and his team, all of them with their own personal troubles, but still working together to discover the truth; discussion of the integrity of scientific research and the future of research facilities in remote locations; the futile fight against illegal mining. Plus plenty of intriguing secondary characters and learning a lot about local culture and the diversity of society in French Guyana, in the so-called DOM/TOM (overseas departments/territories).

I’ll certainly be looking out for the third in the series (already out) and hope that it will be translated into English, to reach a wider audience.

Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, from Caribbean-beat.com. Photograph © Ronan Liétar
Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, from Caribbean-beat.com. Photograph © Ronan Liétar

 

 

Everyday Happiness

Happiness Is…

ParisSpring

A sunny day early in the Paris spring.

Happiness is sun-dappled apple in its freshness

but lingering smooth like chocolate almonds melting on your tongue.

Hearing flowers grow or each blade of grass unfurl,

or gentling out of fluff lining the nests.

Happiness is hearing the bustle elsewhere

oneself in no hurry

quick only to smile at passers-by.

Sweet hesitations of nothings to fill a day.

A perch somewhere astray, to pontificate and contemplate

glimpses of famous monuments,

but no need to tick them off your list.

You admire the sleek and chick Parisian parents, their control

of pushchairs…  breathe relief they’re not your own…

It’s the little everyday things we celebrate today on dVerse Poets Pub. Join us there for a drink, a chat and plenty of good poems!

The Rhythm of Paris 19eme: Arab Jazz

From Telerama.fr
From Telerama.fr

The book’s title references James Ellroy’s novel ‘White Jazz’ (the main protagonist’s favourite crime read), but this is a very different kind of story.

It’s not just Arab music in the 19th district of Paris, it’s also mosques, Jewish barbers, black youths hanging out on street corners, Armenian shopkeepers, Turkish kebab shops… It’s this frenetic bustle of people which documentary film-maker Karim Miské potrays so well in his first novel Arab Jazz. And it’s at  this level – capturing the sounds, smells, food, jargon, eccentric characters – that the book succeeds. The crime thriller element of it is secondary – and those who are expecting a thundering ride of a rollercoaster mystery will be disappointed. However, it succeeds as a fascinating social study into the roots of fundamentalism (of whichever religious stripe) and the urban turmoil of present-day Paris.

Ahmed Taroudant has all but retreated from normal life.  He tries to go out as little as possible, stocking pasta, crackers and a few bottles of wine in his flat, which is by now so full of books that he can barely find his way to the fridge. He never knew his father, his mother is in a mental hospital and he himself is clinically depressed. His only two joys in life are: buying crime fiction in bulk from an Armenian second-hand bookshop and his pretty neighbour Laura. Laura is an air hostess and he looks after her orchids when she is away on her frequent travels.

Then, one evening, he finds Laura killed and displayed in a grotesque fashion, strung up above his balcony. There are disturbing elements to this murder which suggest it may have been a religiously motivated killing. Ahmed is terrified he will be a prime suspect, but the shock jolts him out of his lethargy and he starts collaborating with the police to find the real culprits.

P1020817You could argue that Miské leaves no stone unturned in his quest for diversity: the two main investigators are Jewish and Breton, and there is a steady parade of imams, rabbis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, blacks, whites and everything in-between in the pages of his book. We find out relatively early on who the baddies are, certainly before the police do, and it all becomes a bit of an international conspiracy with drug links. From that point of view, I did not find the plot hugely exciting.

However, the local colour and atmosphere kept me reading on. I have a soft spot for the 19th arrondissement, as we stayed there during our most recent holiday in Paris. It contains the beautiful park Buttes-Chaumont (featuring in the latest series of ‘Spiral’ too), as well as multi-ethnic shops and restaurants, which give it a cool, happening vibe for tourists. Beneath the scrubbed up veneer, it has its fair share of social problems and the author does not shy away from those. Above all, I enjoyed the relationships between the young people who grew up in the same area, went to the same schools, formed a hip-hop band together and then lost hope and started listening to hate-filled preachers.

karim-miskeTalk about great timing: MacLehose Press publishes this just as the Charlie Hebdo and subsequent Paris attacks turned the spotlight onto the French capital. The debates will rage on about the causes of radicalisation of Muslim youth in France, but in his book and interviews, the author makes clear that not much has changed since the banlieues (suburban) riots in 2005. If  you live in those ghettos, ‘your chance of getting a job if you are a young man is very limited. That is true if your name is  Mohamed. It is probably also true if your name is Michel.’ The one slender glimmer of hope is in the friendship across racial and religious divides between the young girls in the neighbourhood

 

 

 

 

Friday Fun: Paris As an Inspiration

Back from our Paris trip and wading through 650+ emails… so I may be a little behind with reading and commenting on your blogs… Here are some highlights from our trip – some iconic sights, and some lesser-known ones.

Notre Dame in autumn.
Notre Dame in autumn.

Sainte Chapelle  stained windows.
Sainte Chapelle stained windows.

Flower market.
Flower market.

Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden).
Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden).

Natural History Museum - Evolution Hall.
Natural History Museum – Evolution Hall.

Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

City of Science - The Geode.
City of Science – The Geode.

Zoo of Vincennes.
Zoo of Vincennes.

Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture along the quay bearing her name.
Nikki de Saint Phalle Nana sculpture along the quay bearing her name.

Jardin des Tuileries. The goat in front of the Louvre.
Jardin des Tuileries. The goat in front of the Louvre.

More Nanas... bathing...
More Nanas… bathing…

The obligatory pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Although, as my older son said: 'What's the point of bringing us here if we don't buy any books?'
The obligatory pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Although, as my older son said: ‘What’s the point of bringing us here if we don’t buy any books?’

I do wish I'd bought this pop-up book of Paris...
I do wish I’d bought this pop-up book of Paris…

 

 

Books Set in Paris

The holidays are coming up and we are planning a trip to Paris – albeit much shorter than we had hoped for! With three days less than we had originally planned, this has meant giving up on visits to the Louvre or Versailles, but it does mean that it leaves us something to do on our next trip to this wonderful city.

SacreCoeur1In preparation, of course, I’ve been reading (or remembering) some of my favourite books set in Paris.

Daniel Pennac: La Feé Carabine (The Fairy Gunmother)

Set in the lively immigrant and working-class community of Belleville, this is one of the funniest and most macabre installments in Pennac’s saga of the Malausséne family, place of refuge for numerous children, drug-addled grandpas and epileptic dog.

Paul Berna: Le Cheval Sans Tête (The Headless Horse)

A children’s classic, set in a deprived post-war Parisian banlieue bordered by railway lines, this features a gang of street children whose pride and joy is their headless wooden horse on wheels, which they use to careen down the cobbled alleyways. Then some real-life criminals get involved, but nothing daunts the kids, especially not one of my favourite female protagonists ever, tough Marion, the ‘girl with the dogs’.

FranSacreCoeur2çoise Sagan: Aimez-Vous Brahms? (Do You Like Brahms?)

The title comes from the question a young man asks an older but still attractive woman, and it marks the start of a real Parisian love story. Bittersweet, with lots of meetings and discussions in cafés and galleries, concert-halls and rain-soaked streets.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast

The quintessential guide for Americans in Paris. Hemingway captures the exuberance and sheer love of life, as well as the rivalries and cattiness of that period, 1920s Paris. For the other side of the story, read Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’, for Hemingway’s first wife’s account of the same events.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française

Not strictly speaking set in Paris, it nevertheless follows the fortunes of those who have had to flee from Paris following the Nazi occupation. Written with surprising maturity and reflection, this novel is particularly poignant when we bear in mind that it was written in the midst of the terrifying events which led to Némirovsky’s arrest, deportation and death in concentration camp in 1942.

MontmartreViewFred Vargas: Pars vite, reviens tard  (Have Mercy on Us All)

Many of Vargas’ crime novels are set in Paris, but this is the most memorable of them all, featuring the uncoventional Commissaire Adamsberg, but also incongruent phenomena such as a town-crier in modern-day Parisian squares, sinister cryptic messages and a possible revival of the bubonic plague.

Victor Hugo: Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame)

A much more tragic and ambiguous story of unrequited love and the plight of outsiders than the Disney version will have you believe, this is above all a love story for the cathedral itself, which Hugo thought the French were in danger of destroying to make way for the modernisation of Paris, and a panoramic view of the entire history of Paris.

TuileriesGeorge Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Based partly on his own experiences of working as a dishwasher in Parisian restaurants, the first half of the book recounts a gradual descent into poverty and hopelessness in the Paris of the late 1920s. This is the darker side of the gilded ‘expats in Paris in the coin of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and still remarkably accurate for low-paid workers today: ‘If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.’

Cara Black: Murder in the Marais

For a lighter, more enjoyable read, this is the first (and still one of my favourites) in the long-running Aimée Leduc crime series set in different quarters of Paris. Always based on a real-life event, the books show a profound love for the streets, food, sights and people of Paris, plus they feature a resilient, resourceful and very chic young heroine with a penchant for getting into trouble. What more could you want?

ParisMetroSimone de Beauvoir: Memoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)

The first part of de Beauvoir’s autobiography, it is of course primarily concerned with her intellectual and emotional awakening as a child and teenager, but it also gives an intriguing picture of Parisian society at the beginning of the 20th century: its snobbery and limitations, the consequences of a lack of dowry for girls, the impact of Catholicism on French education. The friendship with the beautiful, irrepressible Zaza (and her tragic end) haunted me for years.

There are so many more I could have added to this list. It seems that Paris is one of those cities which endlessly inspires writers. What other books set in Paris have you loved?