After a bit of thought, I’ve decided to make Monday on the blog “Miscellany Day,” i.e., a time to feature whatever interests me at the moment, whether it’s a painting, photo, movie, travel experience, short story or even — a BOOK! Since it’s spring, and, around here, that means cherry blossoms, I thought that I’d make the subject of my first “Monday Miscellany” my recent excursion to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry trees. The blossoms don’t last very long — making them a perfect symbol of spring and of human existence — so if you want to see them you can’t delay. This is the first time in many years that I’ve gone to the trouble — and believe me, it does involve a little planning, as cherry blossoms mean crowds, as well as spring — but worth it, don’t you think?
Although I seldom read poetry any more, cherry trees and spring always bring me back to one of my very favorite poems, from A. E. Houseman’s Shropshire Lad:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
And, speaking of nature’s beauty, I’ll end with my last image from the Tidal Basin, which perfectly expresses my own view:
Yes, dear reader, I know what you’re thinking — enough already with the bad alliteration! But you know, sometimes I just can’thelp myself — it’s like a little demon is sitting on my shoulder, urging me on! So how could I possibly resist? I will be the first to admit that, sometimes, I really, really need to (resist, that is), but if we were good all the time, well — we’d be pretty dull, wouldn’t we? And, besides, I couldn’t think of anything else to call this post!
My last few posts have included, but not been centered on, books, which is odd, because I read all the time (well, most of the time. When I was a kid, I did read all the time). Reading a book, however, is not quite the same as writing about a book; for one thing, it’s a lot more fun (although I do enjoy discussing what I’ve read). The problem, however, is that so much of my reading these days is required, which definitely changes how I approach a book. For instance, I absolutely adore Middlemarch, which I regard as the second greatest novel in English (the first being, with apologies to any ichthyophobes, Moby Dick! What’s a blog for, if not to voice your opinions?) but knowing that I have to read a hundred odd pages by next Wednesday does detract a bit from the pleasure of the experience! Also, I’m reading so much non-fiction these days for my research paper — Renaissance this, Baroque that; visions of whatever in the art of so and so — very interesting stuff, to be sure, but so serious! Do art historians never laugh? All this required reading was giving me the megrims, as Georgette Hyer might have said (another of my favorite writers, BTW, as much a genius in her own way as George Eliot. If you haven’t read Heyer yet, stop immediately, right now, run out and buy one of her books) so I decided to take a much needed break from Victorian England and Renaissance Italy and head for deliciously decadent Vienna — the city of Gustav Klimt! Alma Mahler, Bride of the Wind (and of about five other guys)! Sigmund Freud! Mayerling, Crown Prince Rudolph and Maria Vetsera! Egon Schiele!
In other words, I went for a brief but very pleasurable visit to the Neue Galerie, one of the most wonderful museums in the city of New York City. The Neue Galerie isn’t a comprehensive museum like the Metropolitan or Washington’s National Gallery; it’s focused, rather, on German and Austrian art from the early 20th century and is the brainchild of Ronald Lauder, son of Estee and heir to her great cosmetic fortune (it makes me very happy to think that all my eye shadow purchases may have inadvertently contributed just a teeny bit to the enormous amount of lolly it took to purchase this artwork!). Have any of you visited the Neue Galerie? If so, please share your experience; I’m such a fan of this place that it’s impossible for me to give an unbiased judgment, so I’d welcome someone else’s reflections. Although I’d gladly visit any time (the truly great cafe with its authentic Viennese pastries is in itself quite a draw), the specific lure this time around was the Galerie’s exhibition on “The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckman.” Before going there, however, the museum itself deserves some visuals, as the building itself is a work of art.
The exterior retains its original appearance of an Upper East Side brownstone dating from 1914, transformed with great skill to house a stunning collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative art from the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), which worked in a sort of Austrian version of art nouveau:
I will try to limit myself to only a few images of the interior. It’s difficult, for as you can see the space is gorgeous:
No matter what specific exhibition draws me to the museum, I always pay homage to the museum’s show stopper, Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer:
Aside from its undoubted greatness as a work of art, the painting’s history makes it even more special. Because the Bloch-Bauer family were Jewish, their fabulous art collection (including this painting) was stolen by Nazis in the 1930s. Did you notice Adele’s necklace? It, too, was stolen and eventually “presented” to the Nazi general Herman Goering as a gift for his wife. After the war, the Austrian government refused to return the Bloch-Bauers’ paintings to Adele’s surviving heirs (many of her relatives and friends perished in the camps). The ensuing legal battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark ruling in the area of reparations for stolen art works (spoiler alert: the family won). Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read all about it in this very good book or …..
…what’s even more fun, watch this possibly not great but very entertaining movie (worth it, just to see Helen Mirren in top form!):
For those of an historical bent, Frederick Morton provides a thorough and very readable account of a fascinating time and place, ominously ending his history of late 19th century Vienna with the birth of Frau Klara Hitler’s son, little Adolf.
But — I digress! Back to the museum and its very, very good bookstore (after all, this is a bookish blog!):
Despite my best intentions, I don’t read a lot of literature in translation and many German and eastern European writers are not familiar to me. As a result, when I browse here I usually find wonderful things that I didn’t previously know about; on a previous visit, for example, I discovered the great Joseph Roth and his Radezky March (keep this wonderful novel in mind if you need a European classic in any future reading challenges!):
This time around, my haul consisted of two shorter works, both by Stefan Zweig and published by the Pushkin Press (Zweig by the way was only one of the many writers and artists who frequented Adele Bloch-Bauer’s literary salons):
And you might ask, if you haven’t forgotten it by now, what about the exhibition itself? Although I seldom read autobiographies, I’m very interested in self-portraits, which I consider a type of visual equivalent. I love to see how an artist chooses to represent herself (and by this time there are at least one or two “herselves”) and the elements she uses to construct the identity presented to the viewer. This particular exhibition was both fascinating and troubling; many of these artists were Jewish, they all lived in troubled times; you know what’s coming and the art frequently makes you suspect that they did so as well. I particularly liked the following paintings:
To end on a positive note, I turn to one of my very favorite subjects — food! The Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky is modeled on the Viennese cafes that were a center of the city’s intellectual life. Beautiful period furnishings and great food — no better way to end a visit!
If you, dear reader, are even remotely like myself, you are always searching for something, whether it’s the meaning of life or the location of the laundry detergent! These days, perhaps because of the weather (will winter never just leave and go back to the arctic where it belongs?), I’m particularly restless, with a number of moderately intense searches going on. For instance:
I am …..desperately searching for spring!
…. contentedly searching for completion!
…. optmistically searching for a topic for my research project!
…. relunctantly seeking domestic order!
…. stoically searching for closure!
…. delusionally searching for physical fitness!
…. happily seeking harmonious sounds!
And you, dear reader — what are YOU searching for, in these days before the official arrival of spring?
The blog has been a little, ahem, “bare” of new content this past week, primarily because I’ve gotten away for a few days pursuing one of my secondary hobbies — looking at nature, particularly birds. Although I’m very much a couch potato type, there are times when I just have to get outdoors and breathe air that’s been neither recyled, reheated or artificially cooled. Aside from providing sheer relaxation, the natural world serves a number of functions for me; first and foremost, I’m very much a part of the 19th century school that views nature as a manifestation or expression of the sublime and that sees spirituality in nature’s workings. On a different level, the inter-relationships of the natural world — the ways in which the web of life binds plants, animals, birds, and insects into a functioning ecological system — can be incredibly interesting from a purely cerebral point of view. The more I learn about one little piece of nature (say, a new bird species or some strange plant) the more I become interested in the parts that connect to it. Moreover, there’s the added attraction of learning, if only a little bit (there’s usually not time for learning much beyond the birds) about the history and culture of whatever place I happen to go for my nature/bird viewing. And, last but certainly not least — nature activities can just be plain fun! Anyway, my “nature place” this time around was Jamaica, an island of bays, coves and mountains:
Unless you share my hobby you’re probably unaware that Jamaica has over 300 different species of birds, including 28 endemics, i.e., birds that naturally occur nowhere else in the world besides Jamaica! If you’re a birder, you go to Jamaica primarily for the endemics, such as this one:
And — you take this book, which you’ve hopefully studied before hand (I hadn’t!):
Remember my comment about finding the sublime in nature?
Now — for the “reading” part of my post. Because I’m talking Jamaica, I have to mention one of my very favorite writers, the immensely talented Marlon James. Has anyone read his Booker prize winner from a few years ago, A Brief History of Seven Killings? I think it’s one of the most powerful novels written by anyone in at least the last decade. A native of Kingston, James has set many of his novels on the island.
I can’t wait (but I’ll have to!) to read one of James’ earlier works, set in the British ruled Jamaica of the 19th century, when most of the island’s inhabitants were enslaved:
For the historically minded, there’s a fabulous nonfiction account of the history and culture of Jamaica and the other islands of the Carribbean basin. To my shame, I”ve never read my copy (which I’ve had for years) but — it’s on my TBR list for next year!
As for my other reading, when I wasn’t watching birds:
Finally (because I really, really, really have to get back to Great Expectations), remember what I said at the outset, about the fun aspect of nature activities?
I have a question for any of you wanderers of the web who may happen by my little space — do you like museums? I realize that the automatic answer is usually a “yes” but with fingers crossed — we think we ought to like museums, just as we think we ought to like classical music, paintings and serious books. Meanwhile, of course, we all spend far more time with movies, pop music and those wonderful paperbacks that promise a rollicking good time, especially when consumed with a nice glass of something white & dry, or a morsel or two of something dark and gooey! The point I’m trying to make is that, while I (and perhaps some of you) may appreciate museums, along with other indicia of high culture, my enjoyment is a bit constrained and artificial; two hours max and I’m out of there! Well, if you, too, share this limitation (and even if you don’t), I’d really recommend a visit to the Walters. It’s a museum and it’s FUN! Don’t be fooled by that forbidding exterior — there are wonders within. Paintings! Mummies! Sculpture! Stuffed alligators! Shells! Bugs (stuffed ones)! Jewelry! Chinese vases! More stuffed things! And — the staff is really, really nice and — admission is free. It is, in short, a Baltimore treasure and not to be missed (especially the Chamber of Wonders). I won’t bore you with blathering about the collection — that’s what websites are for — but here’s a brief sample of what’s on view:
My one criticism of the Walters is its lack of a cafe (there is a very nice snack bar, when art becomes too much, but sometimes you just want more). But — Little Italy is reasonably close! And there’s nothing like ending a day of culture with a nice plate of pasta ……………………..
Hey, I know — Valentine’s Day was ages ago (well, yesterday!) but I sort of forgot about it because I became all engrossed in thinking about a notion that I, at least, found interesting. So much so that I actually didn’t get around to writing anything in time for the big day itself. But since “better late than never” is part of my credo (I’d be dead by now, if it weren’t, or at least homeless), along with “you might as well” do whatever it is you were going to do, I decided to persevere with my thought, which is simply that certain books, written by different authors, from very different eras, go together. Or, to put it in fancier language, they engage in a dialogue, they ask and answer each other’s questions, one calls and the other responds.
This thought popped up (and whenever a thought does so, I cherish it) during my class on the 19th century novel, where we’re currently following the adventures of Jane and the brooding, Byronic Rochester. [Do I need a “spoiler alert” here? If you haven’t read Jane Eyre and you value suspense, well, proceed at your own risk!] We’re at the point in the novel where horrible, bestial, degenerate Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic,” is about to appear and rain on Jane’s parade. Because Bertha, despite her importance to the novel, never speaks, she’s defined largely through the words of Jane and Rochester, who are hardly disinterested parties.
In pondering Monday’s assignment to find a key passage reflecting Bertha’s importance to the novel (I should actually be doing that right now, rather than this, but this is more fun!) I found myself asking, “how fair is it that Bertha is voiceless?” This question led me to remember Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a wonderful book I read many years ago. Rhys was, like the unfortunate Bertha, of European descent; born on a Carribbean Island, she, like Bertha, only came to England as an young woman. Taking umbrage at Bronte’s depiction of Bertha as “mad, bad and embruted” Rhys wrote a novel narrating Bertha’s side of the story, from her childhood as Antoinette Cosway, to her arranged marriage to Edward Rochester, who re-christens her “Bertha” and appropriates her money, and, ultimately, to her imprisonment by him in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Bronte’s Bertha is voiceless because Rochester has stripped her first of her name and then of her identity; she is mad because she lives in a culture that literally drives women insane. Because Bronte’s novel is such a great classic of the 19th century, it elicited Rhys’ equally great (in my opinion) counter narrative/response in the 20th. After Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre could never be read the same way again. For a far better discussion than mine of both novels, click on this great short piece from the BBC, published on the 50th anniversary of Rhys’ work.
Or Both? My choice!
Well, every writer can’t be as effective as Jean Rhys, can she? But this whole line of thought did give me an excuse to continue evading Monday’s homework (and Tuesday’s for that matter) by attempting to come up with other, similar “pairings.” The idea of companion works seems particularly appropriate, doesn’t it, in this Valentine season of double happiness, or happiness doubled or paired or whatever? To be clear, I’m not referring to a novel which simply uses the same characters as a prior novel, or merely expands in an unoriginal way on situations or themes that were previously explored without offering any new insights (I would, for example, exclude the many variations on Austen’s novels that are currently flooding Amazon). Rather, I’m thinking of works that essentially spin the original story around by requiring us to visualize a familiar story in a new way. After much (painful) thought, I came up with Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, in which the eponymous heroine is a young maid who experiences in her own way the transformation of R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyl into Mr. Hyde, and Grendel, where John Gardner re-casts the epic Beowulf from the point of view of the lonely, savage, ruthless heart-breaking monster. While neither has quite the impact of Wide Sargasso Sea, which is in a league of its own, they are both wonderful novels that will alter the way you experience the previous works to which they respond.
Pop quiz time (I’m thinking in student mode these days) — name some more pairings! Since I’ve had the benefit of reading the BBC piece I linked to above, I’ll make it easy by listing a few pairs, with the disclaimer that I’ve not read these particular “re-inventions:”
Well, this is my list! Did I miss anyone’s favorite, or, if you happen by and have any additions, please share!
Is anyone out there in the mood for a period piece? Want some star-crossed romance and 1930s Irish country life, combined with a frisson of menace from the imminent outbreak of war? If so, head straight for Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer. If this novel ultimately left me a little unsatisfied, I can honestly recommend it as a good read; it also contained sections that offered a bit more than a merely pleasant way to pass an afternoon.
The novel opens in the summer of 1939, literally days before Germany’s invasion of Poland and declarations of war by Britain and France. Angèle Maury, a young French actress touring Ireland with some theater friends, impulsively decides to ditch the tour in order to pay an unannounced visit to her father’s family. Angéle, you see, despite her Parisian upbringing and French mother, is also the daughter of Tom Kernahan, the black sheep son of a family of Irish Catholic landowners (slightly more on this below). As we come to learn in bits and pieces, Tom was the middle of three Kernahan brothers, all of whom in their youth simultaneously fell in love with the beautiful Hannah O’Reilly, “a draper’s daughter from over her father’s bit of a shop.” Tom initially won the romantic prize, to the chagrin of his older sibling. The marriage didn’t come off, however, and Tom permanently decamped to France, where he met and married Angéle’s actress mother. According to a legend carefully cultivated by Hannah in subsequent years, it was she who broke the engagement, along with Tom’s heart; a few village residents, however, remember that it was Tom who did the jilting and left Hannah to his older brother with the words to walk away himself from a woman as lovely and as cold as “hollow ground steel.” Needless to say, older brother ignored this very good advice and, when the story begins many years later with Angéle’s impulsive visit, the now-widowed Hannah is the mistress of Waterpark House, the Kernahan family home. There she reigns absolutely over her small kingdom, fawned over by the local clergy, adored to the point of idolatry by her elder and favorite son Tom (named for his uncle), loved a bit more skeptically by daughter Jo and younger son Martin, and obeyed and feared by a small miscellany of poor relations and servants. Hannah is not pleased to see Angéle, whose existence she has concealed from the rest of the family. Her two sons do not share her opinion and the old love triangle repeats itself with minor variations. Over the course of the next week (!!!) both Tom and Martin fall madly in love with Angéle (variously described as a “water nymph” or Gothic angel); Tom proposes marriage; Angéle accepts; Hannah moves to break up the love affair and protect her reign over Waterpark; and WWII begins.
My honest reaction to the first half of the novel was a big yawn, combined with the thought that this might be the wrong book for me at this particular time. Keep in mind, however, that I’m not receptive to 1930s nostalgia and I have the kind of professional training that makes me ask uncomfortable questions, such as “would you really propose marriage to someone you met the day before yesterday?” and “why wouldn’t you run, absolutely just sprint, for the nearest train when you heard that proposal, instead of leaving your native country, renouncing your theatrical career and embracing a lifetime of Hannah as a mother-in-law?” But then, as I said at the beginning of this post, The Last of Summer is a period piece, written in the early 1940s, and I am somewhat unfairly subjecting it to a viewpoint formed by a far different time and place. Still, despite O’Brien’s considerable skill as a writer and her ability to create a convincing sense of atmosphere, I was seriously considering abandoning the novel for something just a bit more — cynical (Ivy Compton-Burnett, anyone?).
So what changed my opinion, after that big yawn around page 107? What countered my inability to suspend belief and go with the narrative flow of eternal love at a moment’s notice? Quite simply, O’Brien gave an absolutely penetrating psychological profile of a minor character that riveted my attention, followed by an equally acute and insightful analysis of Hannah. It was also around the halfway point, after Tom announces his engagement, that O’Brien ratcheted up the conflict between Hannah and Angéle, which provides the dramatic focus of the novel. The novel’s introduction, written by Eavan Boland, points out that Hannah provides the “glint of the scalpel” in this otherwise lush, romantic story (remember her lover’s description of Hannah as “hollow ground steel?); unlike Boland, I don’t ascribe any great symbolism to Hannah’s role in the story, but she does give it tension and strength. In addition to her psychological insight, O’Brien provides an unsentimental view of puritanical, small town Ireland, where a child derides Angéle for wearing lipstick and the powers of the small community silently unite to impede what they regard as an unsuitable match. Many of the minor characters were quite skillfully drawn and in Jo, the Kernahan daughter, O’Brien gives an unusually positive view of a highly intelligent woman with a strong and unsentimental religious vocation. Lastly, I was attracted by the fact that O’Brien’s characters are from a reasonably affluent, Irish Catholic landowning class rather than the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry who are the subjects of other novels I have read from this period, such as those by Molly Keane.
I’ve had this novel for years and, finally, read it as part of my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. In her introduction to the novel (which was published as a Virago Modern Classic), Boland delicately intimates that, while The Last of Summer is not among O’Brien’s best work (that honor belongs, apparently, to Mary Lavalle and The Land of Spices), it was written in the “best phase of her work.” For a very good review of the novel, I’d recommend you click over to Danielle’s more positive assessment at A Work in Progress. While I obviously had some reservations about the novel, for the right reader in the right mood it could be a wonderful treat; even for grouchy old me in a bad mood it was a pleasant diversion. And to that key question, “would you read another book by Kate O’Brien?” I’d answer “yes.” Just not any time soon.
In the brief life of my blog I’ve had a lot of fun selecting the visuals to accompany my postings. This one, however, was problematical — nothing quite popped into my mind with respect to this novel, until I thought “Irish country house.” How do you like what I came up with? But — I cheated! While I love the image, which I think embodies the mood of the novel, it bears no relationship whatsoever to the Waterpark described by O’Brien:
It was a plain, large house, washed with cream paint that was dilapidated. Its face was late Georgian “squireen,” smooth and blank. Five big windows across the first floor; four similar windows and a wide doorway below ….
In other words, the Kernahan family manse looked more like this:
So, what do you say? Do you prefer the accuracy of the “late Georgian squireen” or the poetic license of my ivy covered manor house?