Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A wander through Apt

A spring morning in the South of France...just wandering through the streets of an ordinary little town feels like a sensuous adventure. In the medieval Rue des Marchands that runs through the centre of Apt, where the 800-year-old market takes place every Saturday morning, there are all kinds of intriguing doors to enter, from small brocantes (above) to patisserie emporia and perfume and wine shops.

Here's a glimpse inside Senteurs et Provence, which offers a range of fragrances you won't often be able to buy outside France:

They also stock these charming metal pomanders, which hold solid blocks of scent - there's a lovely selection of fragrances to choose from, and they make great gifts. I hang them in wardrobes, but I liked one large design filled with amber and orange blossom so much that I keep it by my bedside.

Just down the street are several linen shops, with vast ranges of the traditional Provencal boutis, the padded cotton squares used for bedspreads and tablecloths.
As it's France, food is all-important - so the displays outside the kitchen shop are equally alluring. If anything is ever going to entice me to purchase a garlic grater or a herb-grinder, these might!

The displays outside the flower shops are pictures in themselves...

 ...and the Patisserie Rousset always has a window display to draw you in closer...

Time for a coffee or a Perrier on on one of the squares, watching the world go by - and wondering whether it might be worth going back via the boutique to try on that crushed silk tunic top, and perhaps making a slight detour via V Comme Vin, the best wine store for miles around. And let's just pick up a copy of Paris-Match to read in a sunny corner of the garden later...

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Natural Detective

The rotten almonds on this tree tell the story: the winter was long and wet; torrential rains bore down even in early spring. How do we know? The nuts are still clinging fast to the branch. The moisture that holds them fast has not been dried by the sun, which would allow them to drop. The blossom is dedraggled, battered by showers and wind; it should have been out weeks ago.
I've always enjoyed the narrative suggested by observation. On a basic level, it is purely journalistic, providing realistic detail to give richness to the story. Taken a step further, it is Pathetic Fallacy, as defined by Rushkin, "expressions of external things" which are related - in an unreal or exaggerated way - to human emotion and circumstances. I used a great deal of it in The Lantern to suggest an enclosed world where reality and imagination merged.
Here, for example, the soggy black almonds could also be described as "sad". Clearly the inanimate nuts have no emotion; the sadness would be a reflection of the state of mind of a character in the narrative. Perhaps the most satisfying use of these subtle metaphors occurs when the attribution works equally well for nature and human nature, as might be the case for making the blossom "vulnerable".   
Apprentice writers seem to enjoy the challenge of 'writing prompts'. I can't think of any better writing prompt than simply to go outside with a keen eye and look. The more you do so, the more you see that all the clues are there in nature.  

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Digital Impressionism

The point of art is to make us look again at the world with new insight. Hardly surprising, then, that the monolithic yet sensuous exhibition at Les Baux de Provence (see previous post) should fracture the real landscape into shards and layers of colour devoid of sharpness. Here, for example, is the main road through the Luberon valley, captured on digital camera from a moving car.
The cherry and apple orchards are in full blossom, and it's the time of year when the grass between the trees and vines is bright yellow, thickly speckled with dandelions. I snapped away through the open window out of curiosity to see what would be captured on camera, hoping to get something of the lines and layers of these small regimented fields. 

This morning I've had some fun playing around with the images by cropping them, isolating parts that seemed interesting. Now, I'm well aware that to most reasonable people, these are simply blurred photographs, but if you relax and don't try to focus too hard, you can see that they have elements in common with paintings, the suggestion of what is there in life and the light. After all, this is the way the Impressionists began, by daring to suggest rather than slavishly reproducing.

This last is as far as I want to take it - vines, dandelions and a drift of blossom - but even so, it makes an interesting pattern with naturally complementary colour. I'd quite like it as fabric for a scarf! 

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Les Baux: "Voyages en Mediterranee"

Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Derain, Signac, Dufy, Chagall, Bonnard: the shores of the Mediterranean drew them all to paint the bright, warm colours of the South. Once again, the extraordinary art space of the old bauxite mine at Les Baux-de-Provence has been transformed into a 21st century multi-media exhibition of the familiar made new and exciting again. The paintings engulf the viewer, sliding and dancing around the vast projection walls, choreographed to music by Ravel and Gershwin and sinuous jazz.

The show begins with the 18th century marine landscapist Joseph Vernet, commissioned in 1753 to record the life of ports in France, including Marseille, Toulon, Bandol and Antibes (above). Monet's waterlilies swirl all around, on the floor and on the ceiling, to Debussy's Clair de Lune, possibly the most atmospheric suite of all.

In 1883, Renoir spent time with Monet in the Midi, and was so enchanted by Cagnes and the possibilities for painting that he ended his days there.

The Fauvists arrived too, of course: Matisse, Derain, Camoin and Signac were among those who wandered the southern shores with little money but big, explosive visions. You feel that they, in particular, would be thrilled and amazed at the presentation of their work.

Raoul Dufy was born on the northern coast of France, at Le Havre. Pulled south to find true colour and working in his distinctive style of Fauvism, he captured St-Tropez and Hyeres, but became best known for his views of Nice and Vence.

Then came Chagall, with his peerless blues and dreamscapes. Here, in Les Carrieres de Lumieres, to music by Khatchaturian evoking the artist's Russian heritage, the atmosphere gradually becomes calm and spiritual.

As in last year's Van Gogh and Gauguin show, the designers Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto and Massimiliano Siccardi have produced an astonishing spectacle in these cavernous spaces - bigger this year by 500 square metres. It's very well worth visiting, and runs all through the year until January 5, 2014.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The mirabelle tree

Talking of honey (as I was last post), the mirabelle tree is humming - extraordinarily loudly - with bees. There are hives a few fields away, and Monsieur L'Apiculteur in his white van is one of the regulars along the almost-forgotten track that passes the hamlet.
In high summer, the fruit is a small orange plum, very tart to the palate. It grows in abundance, like clusters of party lights in the tree:

At a time when so many bees have been dying, probably due to industrial use of pesticides, it's good to know that our land is doing its bit to help. A judicious neglect has resulted in swathes of wild spring flowers, including banks of grape hyacinth, violets, forget-me-nots and lamia, all of which are busy with bees.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Waugh and peace

"The fortnight (...) passed quickly and sweetly - perhaps too sweetly; I was drowning in honey, stingless." I couldn't help but think of Evelyn Waugh's evocative line in Brideshead Revisited when I came across this honey stall at Apt market. Perhaps it was the honey-scented beeswax candles and his conversion to Catholicism.

Waugh was describing a visit to Venice in the 1930s, and it introduces a passage of sublime lyricism that moves from "fierce sunlight on the sands" to "cool, marble interiors; of water everywhere, lapping on smooth stone" to painted ceilings and palaces Byron might have known, to night fishing for scampi, and ending (as ever) in champagne cocktails at the English bar.

He is such a polished writer, who rarely uses a word too many; "I was drowning in honey, stingless" not only carries the image but the rythym of being pulled down into inescapable sweetness (say it out loud). Moreover, the drawn poison of "stingless" is positioned exactly where the reader who knows Waugh expects the sting in the tail. Given the bitter-sweet tone of the novel, it's nothing less than genius.

So, nothing much to do with honey or French markets, this post then. Except that in the abundance of varieties of honey - the acacia, wild flower and lavender - on offer, the sense of continuity and peace inherent in the work of the honey bees (and their worrying disappearance from some areas), the power of words, all seems connected. Or is that just the way a writer would think?

I'll leave you with another word to the wise expressed by Waugh:

"The truth is that self-respecting writers do not 'collect material' for their books, or, rather, they do it all the time in living their lives." (from Ninety-Two Days)

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