27 November 2013

Oscar Wilde (update): Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise #2

Since I was last here in 2011 Oscar Wilde's monument has been scrubbed clean of all the lipstick, loving comments and a few insults. I feel a certain ambivalence towards the clean-up, though.

Link to my earlier post on Père-Lachaise:

Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise / Père Lachaise Cemetery

Henri Barbusse: Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise #1

The most noted novel by Henri Barbusse (1873-1935) is the autobiographical Le Feu (1916), for which he won the Prix Goncourt, which was translated into English as Under Fire, and which tells of the time he spent on the front line of the trenches from December 1914 to 1916: he volunteered at 41 in spite of weak health, and in spite of previous pacifist declarations. Le Feu is considered as a very
significant work of war literature.
Link to my earlier post on Père-Lachaise:

Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise / Père Lachaise Cemetery

26 November 2013

Alain Mabanckou: Mémoires de porc-épic | Memoirs of a Porcupine (2006)

A few reviews have remarked that Alain Mabanckou's Mémoires de porc-épic – translated as Memoirs of a Porcupine, although I prefer 'Porcupine Memoirs' – only contains one sentence, but it doesn't even have that: there isn't a single full stop in the whole 221-page novel, and the only capitalisation used is with proper nouns. But this doesn't make it what I would call an 'experimental' novel. It has six titled divisions, and many other divisions within those divisions: it just doesn't use sentences, preferring often long, comma-strewn passages.
The book is heavily influenced by African stories and legends, the principal one being the concept of human beings having an animal double. It's also influenced by writers from the Americas, and García Marquez's Macondo is mentioned, and there's also a passing reference to Edgar Allan Poe, although the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga is dwelt on a little more.
But to return to doubles, the central (human) character is Kibandi, whose male ancestors have had animal doubles since way back. Kibandi's father initiates him, making him take the magic potion mavamvunbi, leading him to a porcupine double – although this is a double that performs bad as opposed to good things.
We only learn very near the end that Kibandi called the porcupine Ngoumba – we aren't told this before because 'Ngoumba' means 'porcupine', and the porcupine thinks he's rather more than just a porcupine, which he certainly is, but as we have no other name how else can we refer to him?
Ngoumba is the narrator, and as he has no friends to talk to at the end of the novel he addresses the story to the baobab tree in which he lives. And his story is very funny in spite of its black content, as it is partly a satire on human – especially white human – folly. Ngoumba may be a bad double, but he's pretty cultured – he reads, for instance, although he doesn't think much of the Bible. He even has a conscience, and although he is directed to kill people (acts which he's more or less obliged to fulfil as Kibandi's double) he's by no means always happy to do so.
Amédée, for instance (and unless I'm wildly out this surely calls to mind Ionesco's play?), is a pretentious asshole who may be highly learned but he wants everyone to know it, especially all the young girls who fall at his feet, and as he has nothing but insults for Kibandi he has to be killed. Interestingly (and this brings us back to Horacio Quiroga), Amédée has unwittingly spoken of his own downfall: with a group of young virgins at his feet hanging on to his every word but not hanging onto their virginity for long if Amédée can help it, he speaks of a short story by the Uruguayan writer.
This (although the title isn't mentioned) is Quiroga's 'El almohadón de plumas' ('The Feather Pillow') from his collection Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte (1917) (Stories of Love, Madness and Death), which concerns the death of Alicia, who has had the blood sucked out of her temples for several days by a small monster living in her pillow: the porcupine kills more rapidly than this, by injecting his quills into the temple or base of the skull, although the result is the same (albeit less visible as he licks off the blood and waits a few seconds for the mark to disappear).
The porcupine doesn't at all like killing the baby of a dull-witted drunkard Kibandi has a grudge against because the man owes him money and insults him, and the killings increasingly lose any justification, until the porcupine fears – after 99 murders – that the next will be the last and be a disaster. By avoiding it, it doesn't happen, although the terrible twins Koty and Koté kill Kibandi, and yet the porcupine lives on after the death of his double, talking all the while to the baobab tree – maybe he's reprieved, can settle down and have kids. The reader hopes so.
Humans lose out in this book, but readers (in spite of all those, er, white lies) don't. This is entrancing, gripping, and although it may sound a little gruesome the violence is on a cartoon level: think of Astérix. Most of all this is a very original – and human – read.

My other posts on Alain Mabanckou:

Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé | Broken Glass
Alain Mabanckou: Lettre à Jimmy | Letter to Jimmy
Alain Mabanckou: Black Bazar | Black Bazaar

25 November 2013

Pierre Loti: Pêcheur d'Islande (1886)

There is no indication in the first paragraph of Pierre Loti's Pêcheur d'Islande (translated as An Iceland Fisherman) that the opening drinking scene takes place on a boat, although there is a suggestion of this in the evocative phrase of the room being 'tapered at one end like the inside of a huge gutted seagull' ('effil[é] par un bout, comme l'intérieur d'une grande mouette vidée'). Unfortunately the book doesn't continue with the same opening promise, but it's still worth a read.

Pêcheur d'Islande is largely set in Brittany in late nineteenth century Paimpol, where the lives of the people are essentially circumscribed by the men who work in the fishing industry, taking the boat every year from the Breton town to fish cod off the coast of Iceland from the end of February to the end of August. Austerity is the norm.

And death is also common,  recorded on the tombstones in the town cemetery and those in the small cemetery in Iceland. The huge, handsome protagonist Jean (known as Yann here) is in his late twenties and is a close friend of Sylvestre, a mere innocent (Loti mentions his virginity and his shyness a few times) and in his late teens he is sent to China for his military service, is seriously wounded, and only makes the return journey as far as Singapore. His death devastates his grandmother Yvonne.

Living with Yvonne is the other main character in this book, which is more a sentimental love story than a book of gritty realism: Gaud comes from a wealthy family, her father having made a fortune in the fishing industry, but she isn't inerested in money and loves Yann with an unquenchable passion, although he doesn't respond to her obvious love. Until, that is, her father gambles all the money away and she becomes far poorer than Yann himself. It's then that Yann reciprocates the love, they enjoy six days of married bliss, and then Yann, like so many other men, gets killed on the return journey from Iceland.

The book is thick with sentimentality, and it's perhaps not surprising that this is Loti's most popular book, although there are many redeeming features here. If only Loti hadn't made Yann and Gaud so perfect: there are a few very minor phrases about Yann getting his wild oats, and he very rarely gets drunk (doesn't even touch a drop on his wedding day); but Gaud? no, I can't see a single blemish – this is just not realistic.

The link to my other Loti post is below:

Pierre Loti, Rochefort, and Saint-Pierre-d'Oléron

22 November 2013

Oscar Milosz in Fontainebleau, Seine-et-Marne (77), France


Ecrivain Français, poète, diplomate, Lituanien.
amis des oiseaux, fit de longs séjours à
l'Hôtel de l'Aigle Noir de 1930 à 1939.



French writer, poet, Lithuanian diplomat
and bird lover, enjoyed long stays at the
Hotel de l'Aigle Noir from 1930 to 1939.'

LE 2 MARS 1939
O. V .DE L. MILOSZ    NÉ EN 1877'

Milosz moved into his new home on 1 February 1939, and died just
four weeks later. He is buried in the cemetery at Fontainebleau.

Poète et Métaphysicien
Premier Représentant
  de la Lithuanie
   en France

...nous entrons dans
la seconde innocence,
dans la joie méritée,
reconquise, consciente.'

Katherine Mansfield and Gurdjieff in Avon, Seine-et-Marne (77), France

Katherine Mansfield
Ecrivain née le 14 octobre 1888
A Karori (Nouvelle-Zélande)
Décédée le 9 janvier 1923
Au prieuré des Basses-Loges, Avon'

It's not much but at least it recognises the importance of its former resident.

Obviously, no one would expect a conventional grave for Gurdjieff. Below I transcribe a poster at the side of the grave, and then translate it into English, changing the tense into the past as is conventional in English.

'Georges Ivanovitch GURDJIEFF
né au Caucase en 1877
mort à Paris en 1949

Dès son enfance, il s'intéresse aux questions
inexpliquées philosophiques et religieuses et, avec
un groupe de Chercheurs de Vérité, poursuit à
travers l'Asie sa quête de sources
de connaissances traditionnelles.
Pour mettre en pratique son enseignement
il crée en 1920 à Tiflis l'Institut pour
le Développement Harmonique de l'Homme.
En 1922 il s'installe à Avon, au Prieuré des
Basses Loges (actuellement propriété privée).
Le lieu devient un centre qui attire quelques
intellectuelles parmi les plus éminents de l'époque,
en particulier des Anglais et des Américains.
Quelques années plus tard il ferme l'Insitut et
poursuit son travail à Paris et aux Etats-Unis.
L'œuvre de Gurdjieff suscite toujours recherches
et interrogations passionnées, scepticisme
ou admiration sans bornes.'
'George Ivanovitch GURDJIEFF 
born in the Caucasus in 1877
died in Paris in 1949'
'From childhood, he was interested in unexplained
religious and philosphical matters and, with
a group of Seekers after Truth, pursued his
quest for the sources of traditional
knowledge across Asia.
To put his teaching into practice,
in 1920 in Tiflis he created the
Institute for the Hamonious Development of Man.
In 1922 he moved into the
Prieuré des Basses Loges (now private property).
The place became a centre of attention for
some of the most eminent intellectuals of the day,
English and Americans in particular.
A few years later he closed the Institute
and continued his work in Paris and the United States.
Gurdjieff's work still arouses endless enthusiastic
research and investigation, scepticism and admiration.'

1888 – 1923
'Katherine MANSFIELD

(de son vrai nom: Kathleen BEAUCHAMP)
(1888 – 1923)
Très tôt, elle révèle des dispositions
pour la littérature et la musique.
En 1917, elle contracte une pneumonie
qui se complique en tuberculose pulmonaire.
Le 18 octobre 1922, elle arrive à Avon pour
effectuer une retraite auprès de GURDJIEFF.
dans son "Institut pour le Développement
harmonique de l'Homme"
installé au Prieuré des Basses-Loges
(actuellement propriété privé).
Elle y mourut le 9 janvier 1923
d'une hémophtysie.
Parmi ses nouvelles les plus célèbres,
on peut citer
"Pension allemande" (1911)*
et "Sur la baie" (1922)*.'

*The dates given are the first editions in English, but I doubt very much that they were translated into French in the same year.

'Katherine MANSFIELD
(birth name: Kathleen BEAUCHAMP)
At a young age she showed a predilection
for literature and musique.
In 1917 she contracted pneumonia
which developed into pulmonary tuberculosis.
On 18 October 1922, she arrived in Avon
to stay at Gurdjieff's retreat,
in the "Institute for the Harmonious
Development of Man" at the
Prieuré des Basses-Loges
(now private property).
She died on 9 January 1923
of a pulmonary haemorrhage.
Among her famous short stories,
of note are
"In a German Pension" (1911)
and "At the Bay" (1922).'
My other Mansfield posts are below:

Claire Tomalin: Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life
Katherine Mansfield in Wellington, New Zealand

Arnold Bennett in Avon, Seine-et-Marne (77), France

I'd been completely unaware of this plaque in Avon near Fontainebleau and only came upon it by chance. This was unveiled by the Arnold Bennett Society in 2008.
'L'auteur anglais
vécut dans la villa "les Néfliers"
(1908-1911) où il écrivit
son chef d'oeuvre
"The Old Wives' Tale"'.
Néflier means 'medlar'.

Olivier Larronde in Samoreau, Seine-et-Marne (77)

1927 – 1965
Olivier Larronde was born in La Ciotat, noted for his beauty, and left for Paris in 1943, where he soon met Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet, the latter of whom persuaded the publisher Marc Barbezat to bring out his first collection of poems, Les Barricades mystérieuses, in 1946. This book interested Raymond Queneau and Michel Leiris among a number of other people. The year before, Larronde and his equally beautiful constant companion, protégé and muse Jean-Pierre Lacloche had charmed the likes of Cyril Connolly in London. Larronde was seen as an obviously gifted young man destined for a great future, although he had an attack of epilepsy and started self-medicating with opium for it.
 His second collection of poetry wasn't published until thirteen years later, in 1959: Rien voilà l’ordre, which is an anagram of his name, and the book was liberally illustrated by Giacometti. But epilepsy, opium and alcohol took their toll and Larronde died at 38. His third book of poetry, L'Arbre à lettres, was published the year after his death. He is seen by some as belonging to the poète maudit tradition, particularly like Rimbaud.

He was buried in Samoreau cemetery next to Mallarmé, his favourite poet. Many years later (in fact just seven years ago) he was joined by
Jean-Pierre Lacloche.

21 November 2013

Stéphane Mallarmé in Valvins, Vulaines-sur-Seine, Seine-et-Marne (77)

Stephane Mallarmé à Valvins: Livret de visiteur by Marie-Anne Sarda (Vulaines-sur-Seine: Musée départemental Stéphane Mallarmé, 1995)* is a very useful and beautifully illustrated guide to Mallarmé's holiday home, more than half of it consisting of biographical detail of Mallarmé in Valvins, and the rest is a more detailed description of the house itself.

The front, Seine-facing elevation, where Mallarmé loved sitting on the stone bench, and very much as it looked over a hundred years ago.

HABITA DE 1874 À 1898

Mallarmé, then, lived here for twenty-four years, although by no means all of the time because he had been teaching English in Paris since 1871. Shortly after arriving in Paris Mallarmé met Édouard Manet, who became a good friend and who executed the famous Portrait de Stéphane Mallarmé in 1876. It was partly under the influence of Manet – noted for his plein air paintings – and partly due to the example of his contemporaries – that he sought a holiday home. He rented only two rooms in the house at Valvins initially in 1874, renting more in 1895 after his retirement. It was then that the Mallarmés did work on the house, transforming the two rooms on the upper floor into bedrooms.

Mallarmé had married Maria Gerhard, with whom he had two children – Geneviève and Anatole, the latter dying at the age of eight. In 1874 they stayed at Valvins in the school summer holidays in August and September, although this was often extended in later years to include Easter and la Toussaint, and occasionally other days.

The poet spent his days at Valvins writing correspondence, but probably did little creative writing after his retirement in 1893. The river also took up a lot of his time. He had had a little wooden boat with a triangular mast and which he called a 'canot' and (idiosyncratically) Paul Valéry described as a 'yole' in his poem 'Valvins'; it was built at Honfleur and Mallarmé loved sailing 'S.M.', as he called her. In addition, Mallarmé enjoyed walking in Fontainebleau forest.

He also delighted in receiving a number of guests to his 'petite maison', some of the writers including Paul Valéry, Édouard Dujardin, Octave Mirbeau, Georges Rodenbach and Henri de Régnier.

The back of the house.

A new fruit press in the garden.
The outside lavatory.
Which has a quarry tile floor.

And a verse by Mallarmé:

'Toi qui soulages ta tripe
Tu peux dans ce gîte obscur
Chanter ou fumer la pipe
Sans mettre tes doigts au mur'

Outside the house is an extract from a letter Mallarmé wrote to Paul Verlaine on 16 November 1885, in which, with a little fantasy, he writes of his great love of the river and of sailing, of its ability to heal:

'[...] J’oubliais mes fugues, aussitôt que pris de trop de fatigue d’esprit, sur le bord de la Seine et de la forêt de Fontainebleau, en un lieu le même depuis des années : là je m’apparais tout différent, épris de la seule navigation fluviale. J'honore la rivière, qui laisse s'engouffrer dans son eau des journées entières sans qu'on ait l'impression de les avoir perdues, ni une ombre de remords. Simple promeneur en yoles d'acajou, mais voilier avec furie, très fier de sa flotille'

After Mallarme's death Geneviève, now married to Dr Edmond Bonniot, bought the house and left the rooms intact, and collected what her father had kept in his home in rue du Rome, Paris: in so doing she preserved much of the memory of her father's life.

The family grave is in Samoreau cemetery about a mile away.

mort à huit ans
*The photo on the front cover is by Nadar

Antoine Bourdelle in the the 15th arrondissement, Paris

Musée Bourdelle is based in and around the former home and studio of the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929) in the 15th arrondissement. It was established as a museum in 1949. The size of some of the exhibits make this museum quite remarkable, almost overpowering.

The Great Hall, with Centaure Mourant, modèle imberbe (Dying Centaur, unbearded version) in shadows on the right.

Auguste Rodin (1910) in the front garden.

Bourdin's atelier (studio).

I didn't expect to find misericords there.

La Vierge à l'offrande (The virgin of the Offering) in the interior gardens.

Télémaque reçu à Pylos par Nestor (Telemachus Received at Pylos by Nestor).

Anatole France (1919).

Portrait of Bourdelle (1930) by Otto Otto Bänniger.

Study of head for Le Monument à Adam Mickiewitz (1909–28), the Polish romantic poet.
A fragment of Bourdelle's monument to Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855).

Mickiewitz's statue as it is at the top of the monument, which was installed at place de l'Alma in Paris, and was then moved to Cours Albert-Ier, where it remains today.

20 November 2013

Georges Brassens in the 15th arrondissement, Paris

Poet and singer Georges Brassens (1921–81) lived in rue Santos-Dumont not far from the park now named after him in the 15th arrondissement.

A sign in the park says the bust of Brassens is by Creck, although I can find no information on this person.

I could only find two stones on which extracts from poems were inscribed, and assume that earlier there were a number but that they went astray. This one reads:

'Auprès de mon arbre

Auprès de mon arbre,
Je vivais heureux,
J'aurais jamais dû m'éloigner de mon arbre...
Auprès de mon arbre,
Je vivais heureux,
J'aurais jamais dû le quitter des yeux.

'Discours de fleurs

Sachant bien que même si
Je suis amoureux transi,
Jamais ma main ne les cueille
De bon cœur les fleurs m'accueillent.'

François-Xavier Lalanne (1927–2008) sculpted the cart and donkey.

There's also a small vineyard and an apiary here, but this is the main attraction: at the east (rue Brancion) side of the park, every weekend of the year, is the Marché du livre ancien et d'occasion, a covered market (simply known as 'Brassens' in the trade) where secondhand and antiquarian books have been sold since 1987.

The attractive Parc Georges Brassens.