29 February 2016

From a Large Flat Land: Andrei Makine

In a letter to his mother, written in 1919, T.S. Eliot, a native of the Midwest, might have been thinking of himself when he made this comment about the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev: "There are advantages in coming from a large flat country which no one wants to visit."    Turgenev, who died in France in 1883, made the transit from east to west and, a century later, so did Andrei Makine.

By chance, two of my favorite living Russian writers represent two different Russias.   Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is from Moscow, capitol city of European Russia although residents of St. Petersburg would loudly contest that designation on cultural grounds.   Andrei Makine comes from central Siberia, part of what is known as Asian Russia.    Born in 1957,  Makine. after several early displacements,  grew up in an orphanage.   Although his schooling was  erratic, Makine's teachers recognized a brilliant student.  Bilingual since early childhood, Makine wrote his doctoral thesis at the University of Moscow on contemporary French literature. 
In 1987, while taking part in a teacher exchange program with France, Makine asked for and was granted  political asylum.  At first he led a clandestine existence, taking shelter in the old Père Lachaise cemetery for a period he has described as one of "permanent despair."  He got his first job as a professor of Russian at the Lycée Jacques-Decour and then wrote another doctoral thesis - this one at the Sorbonne - on the Russian writer Ivan Bunin.  Makine, who has said "(S)tyle is more important. It's not the what, it's the how," wrote about Bunin. "He was a great stylist who wrote very suggestively. He didn't spray us with ideologies or worries. His writing is pure poetry." Makine has also named Katherine Mansfield as his favorite writer in English.
All Makine's novels have been written in French but they were so good that publishers suspected a hoax of some kind.  Makine played along, saying that the works were translations of his Russian originals and then they were published    Only with his third book, Once Upon the River Love, did Makine abandon the deception.  His next book, Dreams of My Russian Summers (1995) won  both of France's top literary prizes, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis, establishing Makine as one of the most celebrated writers in Europe.   Success enabled him to acquire a home,  a former lunatic asylum in Montmartre. "The poet Gérard de Nerval was taken care of in my building.  It was the only place he felt really well. He found real happiness there."

Contemporary French fiction is characterized by a language in constant analysis and self-examination, what  the French refer to it as nombrelisme or navel-gazing.  Makine contrasts this to his style, calling it "external."  

"Beauty was the least of our preoccupations in the land where we were born, Utkin, me, and the others.  You could spend your whole life there and never discover whether you were ugly or beautiful, never seek out the secrets of the mosaic of the human face or the sensual topography of the human body."
 "Love, too, did not exactly take root in this austere country.  Love, for love's sake had, I think, simply been forgotten - had atrophied in the bloodbath of the war, been garroted by the barbed-wire entanglements of the nearby camp, frozen by the breath of the Arctic."

Its title accurately reflects the wistfulness that suffuses Once Upon the River Love (Au Temps du Fleuve Amour). The  river itself (Amur in Russian, Amour in French -- the pun in not possible to replicate  in English)  is just an element of the backdrop,  although the Amur is one of the world's  ten longest rivers, like so much else about Siberia, it seems very far away.
It is winter in eastern Siberia, the village is buried under snow up to the chimney tops, an escaped prisoner has frozen to death in a tree,  and the brightest lights are the windows on the trans-Siberian express.   Of course, the train seems to thunder as it passes in the dark of a brutally cold night. 
The residents of little Svetlaya are in no doubt that they live on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.  With meager prospects for the future - the only jobs around are in logging, mining, or guarding the local gulag - but they are fascinated by the shreds of Western culture that come their way.  
In a nearby village the Red October Cinema is running a sort of film festival of Jean-Paul Belmondo movies  That a run-of-the-mill B-movie adventure could undermine official Soviet propaganda  extolling the crop yields on a collective farm more effectively than lofty ideals of freedom and democracy is both charming and sad.   Three boys, Samurai, Utkin, who is disabled, and Mitya, make repeated pilgrimages to the cinema, tramping  through cold woods, so enamored do they become with the French tough guy on the big screen.  Although they have no way of knowing it,  each will eventually find his own way out of Siberia:   Samurai to die in an unnamed Central American liberation struggle, like Che Guevara,  Utkin to write captions for pornographic cartoons,  and Mitya who gets the prize - a job in the movie industry.  
Makine's attraction to the French language is an idea with a history behind it.   When Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, his novel about Russia during the time of Napoleon, two per cent of the novel (portions of dialogue) was written in French because  the upper class characters in his story would  have been ardent Francophiles.  For them France represented the culture they found lacking in their own country.  The romance continues to this day.

For further reading: Once Upon the River Love by Andrei Makine, translated from the Russian by Geoffrey Strachan, New York, Arcade Publishing: 1998.

1. Isaac Levitan - The Lake (unfinished), 1900, Russian State Museum, St.Petersburg.
2. Isaac Levitan - Winter. 1895, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

22 February 2016

The Russians are Coming: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

"Until the age of nine I had nothing—just one ancient dress. I went hungry, ran around barefoot from April to October, even begged. We were a family of “Enemies of the People.” That was what they called those who had been accused of political crimes and sent to the camps. Three of my relatives had been accused of spying for the Japanese, and were executed. Later, my great-grandfather was assassinated in the middle of Moscow, pushed under a car. I didn’t have toys and had only one crayon, purple. I found a piece of cardboard and made a purple horse with a purple eye. It seemed too skinny, so I wrapped a rag around its middle and played with it. In the street, I always picked up bits of brick, limestone, and charcoal, and drew on the pavement with those three colors: red, white, and black." 

- Ludmilla Petrushevskaya speaking with New Yorker  fiction editor Deborah Treisman, her comments translated from the Russian by Anna Summers    

 To appreciate the dark comedy of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's novels and stories you don't have to get the humor embedded in the phrase  'Apocalypse pretty soon', but it doesn't hurt.  There is an old Russian saying that goes: "I wake up; it's a bad day."   Petrushevskaya must know this well; her stories are often described as fairy tales but not by her fellow Muscovites who see her as the chronicler of their daily lives.
The girl Ludmilla who made a space for herself under a table in her demented uncle's apartment gave birth to the writer whose depictions of  suffocating family life all but drives her characters crazy.   The bleak living conditions in urban housing blocks, known as kommunalkas, have outlasted the Soviet regime that decreed the virtues that would result from communal living. 
All too predictably, scarce material goods and lack of privacy led to the fierce possessiveness that could bring relatives to argue over "ownership" of an electric light switch. Anna, the protagonist of "The Time Is Night" (1982), has to eke out the resources to care for her grandchildren, while her grown children circle like vultures, ready to grab whatever they can.  In a more recent story, "Chocolates With Liqueur" from 2002, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's "A Cask Of Amonttilado," a married couple is locked in a struggle to the death for possession of an apartment.   

Petrushevskaya, who was born in Moscow in 1938, was widowed in her twenties, a young mother with a child to support.  Soon she began writing and,  although she had a few stories published during the next two decades, most were banned  by the authorities.  While her stories lay rejected in a desk drawer, Petrushevskaya staged them as plays at schools, factories, or anywhere there was an available room.  When  glasnost (the thaw) happened in 1988  and Immortal Love was published, Petrushevskaya was recognized as one of the finest living Russian writers.

"Love them,­ they'll torture you; don't love them, ­they'll leave you anyway."
What most deeply satisfies me in Petrushevskaya's writing is her refusal of an unctuous, too easily ingratiating, attitude toward her readers.  By this I mean that she does not direct our sympathies to one character but not others.  Sometimes her characters behave operatically, their emotions matching the plot lines that life hands them. Does deprivation drive people crazy?  Petrushevskaya reminds us that it can.  Petrushevskaya the philosopher of life as it comes, rather than as we would wish it to be.   Like that other clear-eyed philosopher, Billie Holiday, who said: “You've got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body's sermon on how to behave.”  

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In  by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers, New York, Penguin Books: 2015.

1. Natayla Goncharova - Linge de maison (Household Linens), 1913, tate gallery, London.
2. unidentified photographer - Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, courtesy of Penguin Press.

15 February 2016

Le Givre: Hoarfrost on the Asparagus!

I can never quite decide how good a photographer Jean-Baptiste Leroux is;  he always seems to choose the most photogenic locations.  Grant him that it would be difficult to avoid the centuries-worth of dramatic chateaus and cathedrals that organize the French landscape into a visual history book.  There is much drabness and poverty in the blighted banlieeus that surround French cities like circles of hell but Leroux doesn't go there.  Outside France, he seeks out the beautiful and finds it in the back canals of Venice and the gardens of the Palais Royale at Casablanca.   I don't want to make too much of this,  as Leroux comes to his work with a special love of gardens and interest in biodiversity.  Contemporary French artists seem less inclined to valorize ugliness than their American counterparts; maybe that's what two World Wars and a Hundred Years' War that lasted one hundred and seventeen years will do the  collective psyche.  In any case, it was an inspired choice that the Conservatoire des jardins et paysages (French Conservation of Gardens and Landscapes) made in awarding Leroux carte blanche to document the gardens of France.  When I look at his photograph of frost on the asparagus at Versailles, I feel the bite of the cold.

Image: Jean-Baptiste Leroux - Le potager du roi a Versailles les asperges et - au loin  -  la chapelle (The kings's garden at Versailles, asparagus and - in the background - the chapel(, Grand Palais, Paris.

05 February 2016

A Wealth of Bonnards

One of the great French artists of the twentieth century is Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) whose work is well documented.  Why then are the paintings shown here  not more familiar? 

"As Delacroix wrote is his diary, 'One never paints violently enough.'  In the light experienced in the south of France, everything sparkles and the whole painting vibrates.   Take your picture to Paris: the blues turn to grey....Therefore one thing is necessary in painting: heightening the tone."  -  Pierre Bonnard, translated from the French  by Julian Bell

Typically, in a  Bonnard landscape vegetation functions as a frame that separates what is far from what is near.  From his perch the lush, variously colored plants form a kind of tapestry  laid out before the viewer;  when figures appear against such a backdrop they are often the last things we notice.

The answer begins with Georges Bemberg (1915-2011),   the very model of  a cosmopolite, twentieth century edtion.  Born into a wealthy  family in Argentina, Bemberg grew up in France and graduated from Harvard University.  He was a pianist, who also wrote  novels, for instance  Quatre mains: nouvelles (Four Hands: Novellas) published in 1953, but his true profession seems to have been that of a traveling art collector.  Bemberg, like Barnes, created a foundation to share his collection with the public, hitting on the happy solution of collaborating with the city of Toulouse, owner of the Hotel Assezat, a sixteenth century building in the Renaissance style, nicely suited to be re-purposed as a museum.   It was built (c. 1555) as a hotel  particulier, the French term for  a palace owned by wealthy non-royalty, in this case the manufacturer Pierre Assezat.    The Fondation  Bemberg opened to the public in 1994, with paintings, sculpture, furniture, and antiquarian books from five centuries but it is the modern French art that is it greatest attraction.

Critics have long chewed over the question “Was Bonnard an easel painter or a decorative painter?”  The artist managed to have it both ways.  In Bonnard’s later paintings, color is the measure of sensation; lines, especially those used to frame an image are the anchor  as the artist attempts to capture on canvas what the constantly moving human eye sees.  Marthe, Bonnard's long-time mistress and then wife, appears seated at a table; she is bracketed doubly, by a window in the background at her left and by a strip of matching color, of undetermined function to her right. (see above  Even in a still life such as Nature morte aux citrons the strong lines are predominately vertical.  (see below)

By now, you can probably place the locale in Bonnard's paintings by referring to his observations about coloration.

When Bonnard began his sojourns  on the Cote d’Azur he was a seasoned traveler, visiting   Spain in 1901, then  Algeria, and Tunisia in 1908,  and, most importantly,  two months at  Saint-Tropez during the summer of 1909. So  it is romanticizing his story to suggest that the south of France provided a revelation to the artist; more likely  it concentrated his stored reactions to those previous experiences. Still, in  a letter to his mother, he described it as  an “ ‘Arabian Nights experience’, dazzled by “the sea, yellow walls, and reflections as colorful as the lights themselves.”  Pierre and Marthe  began to make yearly visits, staying at  Saint-Tropez, Grasse, Antibes, and ultimately at Le Cannet where Bonnard bought a house in 1926. 

At about the same time, Bonnard bought a little house on stilts at Vernonnet on the Seine in 1912, a house he called Ma Roulette (My Caravan).   Although the climates of north and south differ, what connects Ma Roulette and Le Cannet is that both studios perched on summits overlooking their surroundings.  Did Bonnard chose to live in studios that recreated the frames that he had worked within  on  his murals and decorative wall panels in the 1890s? 

According to his nephew Charles Terrasse, Bonnard’s  forties were “the years of anguish” for the artist.   He responded to the new cubist art with a sense of inadequacy, questioning whether his own had reached a dead end.  Picasso dismissed Bonnard’s work as insipid where Matisse, the more discerning, corrected him: “Bonnard is a great artist for our time and for posterity.”  Matisse even considered Bonnard's work to be superior to his own and his estimate has been seconded by artists as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Fairfield Porter, who believed that Bonnard was the artist who laid out a path between representation and abstraction.
Both these paintings of Marthe are less emotionally diffiuclt to read, if only for the prosaic reason that, being fully clothed, she seems more in possession of herself.

Bonnard always shows his most uncomplicated emotions in his pictures of children and, when his pets enter the picture, they steal the show.  Bonnard painted The Little Girl With a Cat in 1894, the same year that he painted the more familiar White Cat (in the collection of the Musee d'Orsay) and their similarities are remarkable.   In both, Bonnard uses distortion to suggest humor and  curving lines to create a sense of motion.  Whatever the highs and lows of his personal life, Bonnard was always capable of painting joy.

Sadly, for Bonnard the painter, his  forties were “the years of anguish” , according to his nephew Charles Terrasse,  He responded to the new cubist art with a sense of inadequacy, questioning whether his own had reached a dead end.  Picasso dismissed Bonnard’s work as insipid where Matisse, the more discerning, corrected him: “Bonnard is a great artist for our time and for posterity.”  Matisse even considered Bonnard's work to be superior to his own and his estimate has been seconded by artists as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Fairfield Porter, who believed that Bonnard was the artist who laid out a path between representation and abstraction

For further reading: Bonnard At Le Cannet by Michel Terrasse, translated from the French by Sebastian Wormell,  New York, Pantheon Books: 1988.

Images: from the collection of the Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse.
1. Pierre Boonard - Le cannet, 1930
2. Pierre Bonnard - L'Omnibus, 1901.
3. La femme au restaurant, c. 1900.
4. Pierre Bonnard - Nature morte aux citrons, (Still Life Wwith Lemons), c.1917.
5. Pierre Bonnard - La fillette au chat (Little girl with a cat) 1894.
6. Pierre Bonnard - House Among the Tress at Vernnonet,  c.1919, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.