31 December 2016

John Ruskin at Brantwood, Coniston, Cumbria

Brantwood, Coniston, Cumbria. Not the most brilliant photo of an author's home I've ever taken, but there we are. The original building (much added to later) dates from the tail end of the eighteenth century, when the land was bought by Thomas Woodville. By 1852 the poet William James Linton had bought it: his second wife was the popular novelist Eliza Lynn Linton, who wrote several of her triple-deckers here. John Ruskin (1819–1900) was recovering from an illness in Matlock, Derbyshire in 1871 when he bought the property unseen for £1500: he knew where it was and the view it commanded, and although the house itself was disappointing he was more than impressed by its actual situation.

WHITEHOUSE 1873–1900
who saved Brantwood
as a memorial to
John Ruskin'

The study. Linton had knocked two rooms into one here. This was a centre of activity for Ruskin, where for instance he founded the Guild of St George to provide fair rent farms.

The wallpaper is to Ruskin's original design.

The drawing room, with the painting Zipporah to the left of the fireplace.

The bay window looking onto Coniston Water, and the septangular room leading from the drawing room, are additions dating from 1905, after Joan (Ruskin's cousin) and Arthur Severn had inherited the estate from John Ruskin.

The dining room.

Children's illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846–1907), born in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, who was a friend of Ruskin's and who first visited Brantwood in 1883.

Plaster copy of the medallion on the Ruskin memorial at Friar's Crag, Derwent Water.

The turret, again looking out onto Coniston Water.

The bed in which Ruskin died on 20 January 1900.

Finally, images from the grave of John Ruskin in the parish church graveyard, Coniston:

30 December 2016

Dorothy Una Ratcliffe in Temple Sowerby, Cumbria

Temple Sowerby Manor, Cumbria. Originally called Acorn Bank, this building dates from around 1600 but was much renovated in about 1745 and bought by the writer Dorothy Una Ratcliffe (1887–1967) – who changed the name to Temple Sowerby Manor – in 1934, after which it was further renovated. Dorothy was born Dorothy Clough and married Charles Radcliffe (brother of the forgotten poet Victor Radcliffe) in 1909. She married her second husband Noel McGrigor Phillips in 1930, and lived with him here until his death in the 1940s. She also lived here for a few years with her third husband, Alfred Charles Vowles, who altered his surname to Phillips by deed poll. Dorothy Una Ratcliffe donated Temple Sowerby Manor (without contents!) to the National Trust, who have now (er, for purely historical reasons, or also out of spite because she took the contents?) chosen to change the name back to the original.

Drainpipe with Dorothy Phillips's initials.


The room in Temple Sowerby Manor dedicated to Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. The painting is a copy of an original by Ambrose McEvoy, now (as with many of the contents of this building) left to the City of Leeds.

Dorothy Una Ratcliffe published over forty books: plays, poems (sometimes in Yorkshire dialect), travel writings, etc. She was editor of the literary magazine Microcosm.

Dorothy Phillips's etching on a window in the entrance hall.

Our National Trust guide mentioned (more than once and clearly mockingly) that Dorothy Phillips (aka Dorothy Una Ratcliffe) thought herself lady of the manor. But without her, the National Trust certainly wouldn't have her (renamed) Temple Sowerby Manor to crow about.

On a happier note: this caravan is the first structure that greets visitors: Dorothy Una Ratcliffe was a fan of gypsies – even thought that she had gypsy blood in her – and she was an early caravanning enthusiast: with her third husband, she toured Scotland in one.

28 December 2016

Sylvain Tesson: Sur les chemins noirs (2016)

After a drunken and near-fatal fall from a building, the writer Sylvain Tesson spent four months recovering. He chose an unconventional form of 'ré-éducation': walking the length of France, which was a change from Russia, Tibet, South America, or any other far-flung places he's written about his journeys through before.

He chose to begin near Tende, near the Italian border with France, and go through Provence, across the Rhône and through the Massif Central and the Loire valley to the tip of the Contentin peninsula. He often camped rough or stayed at simple hotels along the way, drinking Viandox (a meat stock product similar to OXO (ugh!)) at cafés he passes, and occasionally being joined by friends such as the writer Cédric Gras or Arnaut Humann, or on one occasion his sister. But the general rule he was following, greatly aided by IGN maps, was wherever possible to use chemins noirs – an expression once used in Provence writer René Fregni's book title Les Chemins noirs – and which are applied to old untarmacked roads or footpaths deep in rural France.

Tesson has a number of things against technology: he hates the telephone, hates the thought that the government has a scheme for 'connecting' areas that it designates as in a state of 'hyper-ruralisation'. New technologies don't simplify life but are a substitute for it, they remodel the human psyche, block out thought. We are becoming the most docile and submissive people in the history of the world. By taking the chemins noirs we go through the crack in the wall.

And Tesson certainly has a point: the chemins noirs are as much mental paths as physical ones, as much an anarchistic way of looking at life. He reminds us that Napoleon said there are two kinds of people: those who command and those who obey. But Tesson suggests there's a third kind: those who run away, refuse to accept whatever fate is preparing for them.

All the same I can't can't help thinking that Sylvain Tesson couldn't have communicated with his friends using a poste restante address and guess that he didn't use telepathy, so he surely must have made use of the dreaded new technology to let his friends know where he was. And his friend Humann – incidentally a camera enthusiast – must have used a t........ to contact medical assistance when Tesson had an epileptic fit on the way. (Just thinking aloud.)

This is a thought-provoking book which at 142 pages could easily be read in a few hours, although it's far more advisable to take your time, act as if you're on a chemin noir, and use a map while reading it so you can trace out the fascinating paths.

24 December 2016

Guy Mazeline: Les Loups | The Wolves (1932)

It hardly seems possible to mention Guy Mazeline's Les Loups without also mentioning the fact that Mazeline triumphed in the 1932 Goncourt at the expense of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's masterpiece Voyage au bout de la nuit, and how this was an outrage, a scandal, a travesty of justice, etc. And of course it was all of this: Les Loups doesn't come anywhere near the category of masterpiece. But does the novel really deserve all the opprobrium that's been thrown at it? Certainly much ink has been used over it, and in 1999 Eugène Saccomano published a novelisation of the dispute (Goncourt 32), with a publisher's band 'Le Duel Céline–Mazeline' across the lower part of the cover. Much more recently Les Loups has been called 'illisible' (unreadable) in Figaro and 'Voyage au bout de l'ennui' in a particularly sarcastic article in Le Parisien. Why all the hatred? Have the people who criticise Les Loups actually read it?

The short answer in almost all cases is certainly 'No': in fact I doubt if more than a few people alive today have read it. I resolved to come to my own conclusions, take a deep breath and dip into it. You have to take a deep breath because it's 622 pages of minutely-packed print, or a roomier 775 in the English translation The Wolves. After all the scorn that's been poured on it I scarcely expected to wade through all of it, and yet – to my immense surprise – I not only read it all but in fact really enjoyed it.

Les Loups is not a quick read, and not only due to its sheer bulk: it's so crammed with characters, shifting allegiances and subtle plotting that it demands to be read carefully – if you want to take full advantage of its subtleties, that is. And there certainly are subtleties: this is what I'd call a psychological novel, in which what is going on in the mind of the characters is all-important.

Most of the main characters, though, aren't particularly likable, or at least not a great deal of the time. Pride comes over as a central theme, as does lust for money, and in the dog-eat-dog world of this book – set in Le Havre (where Mazeline was born) towards the end of the nineteenth century – appearances are vital.

Maximilien Jobourg has inherited his father's business and at the beginning of the story lives (financially) comfortably enough with his wife Marie-Jeanne and his children Didier (a lover of the sea), Vincent (who has a limp due to a childhood accident), Benoît (who's headstrong, given to violence and of the three brothers the one most addicted to prostitutes), Geneviève (who's engaged to the wealthy Gilbert), and Blanche (who's married but still lives at home along with her ferociously ambitious banker husband Georges, whom the younger sons accurately call the 'Hypocrite'.

Maximilien has long grown tired of Marie-Jeanne, who is largely concerned with the way things look, and who is exasperated that her husband has no interest in business. Maximilien's mother Virginie hates the working-class-born Marie-Jeanne, whom she insists on calling by her maiden name 'la Bretot'  when she's speaking to Maximilien, that is, which is not often at all: the two don't get on, which seems par for the course in the Jobourg family.

In fact Virginie (it seems) hates Maximilien too, as she plots with her grandson-in-law Georges to bankrupt him by getting him to move all his money into shares which are in fact worthless: a very bad psychologist as well as a very bad businessman, Maximilien can't see through the many faces of his son-in-law: in any case, why should the banker be working against his own interests, thinks Maximilien?

The appearance of Valérie in Le Havre radically changes Maximilien's life. He believes in self-renewal, which he sees as impossible in a family: how can his own family, for instance, ever see him as anything other than lazy, incapable of holding onto his fortune and his prestige? Valérie, though, is his secret daughter, the child his lover Pauline had after she left Le Havre for Martinique twenty years before, when she married Labrête and Valérie was brought up as their child. But Labrête drowns himself on learning Valérie isn't his daughter, and now a dying Pauline has sent Valérie to her 'uncle' Maximilien in Le Havre. Maximilien hides her with a former servant of his and comes to love her more than his children by Marie-Jeanne.

The end is dramatic, with Valérie – on learning that Maximilien is her real father and being incapable of living with the fact that her previous life has been a lie – killing herself with the 'ornamental' weapon her father has unthinkingly furnished her room with, and Maximilien lining his pockets with stones and jumping into the sea.

This may make the narrative sound a little melodramatic, but it isn't portrayed that way. Guy Mazeline can write and can write well, and although we can criticise him for stretching credibility (a twenty-year-old girl not realizing Maximilien is her father, after all he's done for her?), and for writing maybe a few hundred pages in excess and creating several characters too many, but so what? OK, Céline definitely should have won the Goncourt in 1932, but that's no reason to take it out on Guy Mazeline: clearly, this is not the best ever Goncourt, but nor is it the worst by any means.

Guy Mazeline's grave in the Cimetière du Montparnasse:

16 December 2016

Michel Host: Valet de nuit (1986)

Following L'Ombre, le fleuve, lété (1983), Michel Host's second novel Valet de nuit (1986) won the Goncourt in the year of publication. Unusually for such a prestigious prize though, it only sold 70,000 copies and in spite of about twenty later publications today the name of the author means little or nothing to most French people.

This is mainly the quest for the narrator Philippe Archer's father, although at the same time it is inevitably a quest for himself. He thought his father a war hero who had died, but reality bites and he's been a long way from the truth. Philippe's being cushioned from everything (especially from material discomfort) throughout his life doesn't really help him.

Didier Decoin: John l'Enfer (1977)

Didier Decoin's apocalyptic, Goncourt-winning John l'Enfer is set in a New York of stark contrasts in fortune, now a faded glory where the skyscrapers are crumbling, the dogs are taking to the mountains and we see the city through three people.

The book begins with the fall of an Indian window cleaner from a skyscraper: the twelfth in the last six months, when Indians don't normally suffer from vertigo. John l'Enfer is a Cheyenne Indian and also a cleaner of skyscrapers in this city of his ancestors until he loses his job following a demonstration about work conditions. He is in love with Dorothy, but the relationship is only platonic.

Dorothy Kayne is a young sociology lecturer temporarily blinded and infantilised after an accident, and who wears a mask. She too is doubtless in love with John, although she's blind to it and her sexual energy is spent on Ashton.

Ashton Mysha is a Polish Jew, a naval officer now grounded due to ill health, who will love Dorothy – if that's the right word – and then leave New York city, leave life, in a well-planned suicide.

Only John l'Enfer appears to be aware of what's really happening to New York. Oddly, there's no English translation of this very incidentally cinematic tale.

10 December 2016

Félicien Marceau: Creezy (1969)

Creezy – obviously a distortion of the English word 'crazy', and the same title of which was used in the English translation – is a story of not-so-everyday madness, but certainly of the madness of consumerism and the inability of the market to supply certain demands, such as love or happiness.

Creezy begins and ends in the same place, with député Jacques waiting a half-hour for the engine noise in his car to be fixed in the garage. While he's waiting, though, the reader learns why his life is such a mess, why he no longer has a wife and of the events leading up to the death of his beloved Creezy.

Jacques first caught a glimpse of Creezy – a beautiful and famous fashion model – at the front of the audience at a show. After that he meets her at an airport, the pair hit it off very well in sitting next to each other during the flight, and Creezy seems to be another of the conquests of the député (married with two children).

A fling becomes an obsession, lust turns to love and therefore psychological dependence, and all the hell that that brings. No, Jacques can't keep two lives together and things start to fall apart quickly. There's no indication of this in the form of the book, though, which consists of eighteen sections in a single paragraph, apart from when occasionally being split to incorporate quotations.

Creezy marks my thirtieth Goncourt winner reading, although this relatively short (197-page) novel feels  – at the moment at least, although I'll definitely reread it one day for confirmation or otherwise – like one of the best of them.

The grave of Félicien Marceau (1913–2012) in Le cimetière ancien de Neuilly:

My Félicien Marceau posts:

9 December 2016

Georges Conchon: L'État sauvage | The Savage State (1964)

Georges Conchon wrote the 1964 Goncourt-winning novel L'État sauvage – translated into English as The Savage State – after he had been secrétaire général of L'Assemblée législative centrafricaine in Bangui. Politically correct it certainly isn't. The epigraph, from Marcel Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe, is instructive: 'Ils avaient l’air d’une bande d’anthropophages chez qui une blessure faite à un blanc a réveillé le goût du sang' ('They looked like a gang of cannibals for whom a white person's wound had aroused the taste for blood.') The quotation at the head of the final chapter – from Blaise Cendrars's Poèmes nègres – is no less provocative – 'Le commerce des Européens sur cette côte et leur libertinage ont fait une nouvelle race d'hommes qui est peut-être la plus méchante de toutes' ('Europeans trading on this coast and their moral dissoluteness have created a new race of men who are perhaps the most vicious of all.')

The novel is set over a twenty-four hour period in Fort-Jacul, a Central African country recently independent from French rule. It begins with twenty-six-year-old French UNESCO employee Avit landing at the airport in Fort-Jacul, and ends with him leaving it. He has spent two years recovering from his very young wife Laurence just leaving him and taking off with another man, although he finds shortly after arriving in Fort-Jacul that Laurence is in Fort-Jacul too and now living with Patrice Doumbé, the country's minister of health.

And on landing, Avit is sent to see Modimbo, the Ministre de l'Information, who in no uncertain terms tells him to go home, although he doesn't say why. It becomes quite clear that the reason is the blacks' prejudice against the whites, and this is seen throughout the book, from the killing of Doumbé whose relationship with Laurence causes anger among the population, through the increasingly violent and threatening atmosphere of the country, all the way to the thousands of black and white people following Laurence and Avit to the airport.

The book was faithfully adapted into a film whose screenplay was written by Conchon and the director Francis Girod in 1978. I'm unsure how such works would fair in a post-politically correct age though.

7 December 2016

Jean Rouaud: Les Champs d'honneur (1990)

Jean Rouaud's Les Champs d'honneur was his first novel, and he won the Goncourt with it. Reading back over the immensely enthusiastic reviews, that win seems almost an inevitability.

And reading that novel for the first (and probably not last) time I have to say that I can understand the enthusiasm. Temporarily, the book flits all over the place, but that isn't important. This novel is (the beginning of) a family saga of sorts. Deaths are important here, and some of them relate to World War I. But the three deaths of note are those of the father, the 'petite tante' or great-aunt, and the grandfather.

The book begins with the grandfather and immediately the reader is captivated. His erratic driving, the painstaking way his chain-smoking while driving is described, but most of all his old 2 CV , which is called Bobosse and which lets in water through the canvas roof, make grand-père almost more the partner of his car than his wife.  Great-aunt Marie, with her saints and her lasting belief in their triumph over science and health, is also a fascinating character, and a kind of celestial comeback kid who comes back to life but loses her senses.

But maybe the rain (especially in the département of Loire-Atlantique) is the principal character on, er, reflection: one critic called Rouaud the 'Mozart of the rain-gauge', with his ability to comically describe and differentiate between spitting, drizzling, regular raining, downpouring, etc. Rouaud was an obvious gift to French literature.

Marie Redonnet: Mobie-Diq (1982)

Marie Redonnet's Mobie-Diq, particularly with its hyphenation, obviously calls to mind Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, as well as the Bible (Jonah and the whale), but more so – this being Redonnet and early Redonnet in particular – Samuel Beckett. Minimalism is in the nature of this play, which like Tir & Lir (1988) merely has two characters, although unlike that later play has no voices of other people.

Mobie is the ageing woman, Diq her husband, and they are in evening dress – which little by little turn to rags as the play progresses – because they have been having the honeymoon they didn't have on marriage, on board the luxury liner Tango. Unfortunately the ship (like the Titanic on its maiden voyage) comes to grief and Mobie and Diq are apparently the only survivors, on a rowing boat without a compass, but not without hope.

Although, the audience surely knows that hope is a short-lived commodity in the Redonnetian (as in the Beckettian) universe: the 'treasure' found in the boat will prove to be valueless, any compensation after the disastrous voyage (paid for by the sale of their pathetic home) will not be forthcoming, and inevitably they will end up in the belly of a whale. Gulp, all gone.

Links to my other Marie Redonnet posts:

Marie Redonnet: Rose Mélie Rose | Mellie Rose
Marie Redonnet: Seaside
Marie Redonnet: Nevermore

Marie Redonnet: Tir et Lir

3 December 2016

Beatrix Potter in Near Sawrey, Cumbria

Hill Top, Near Sawrey (Sawrey consisting of the hamlets Near Sawrey and Far Sawrey). This is the farm the very successful Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) – author and artist (a word she scorned in relation to herself) – moved to in 1905, shortly after her fiancé Norman Warne's death. At the time John Cannon managed the farm and lived there with his family .

Potter wanted the Cannons to stay there, so had an extension built, which is dated 1906. She married local solicitor William Heelis in 1913.

The entrance hall.

The parlour, originally a bedroom.

A glimpse of the kitchen.

Beatrix Potter only rarely used this room, and never slept in this bed.

The sitting room.

On the road down from Hill Top:

'Buckle Yeat
is featured in many
of Beatrix Potters [sic]
books, including The Tale
of Tom Kitten, Pie &
The Patty Pan and
Piggling Bland'

Beatrix Potter bequeathed over 4000 acres to the National Trust, including fifteen farms and many cottages.