Sunday 27 February 2011

The dinner party

            Inside and out, pools of light burned from hurricane lamps, candelabras, chandeliers, tea lights, and the rusty lantern we found in a garden storeroom and used on the dining table on the terrace.
                                                                    From The Lantern

The stage is set, the atmosphere suspended somewhere between serene and lonely. The table awaits our guests, for the food to emerge from the kitchen and be brought down the steps, for the wine and conversation to flow.

Here are the bare bones of the evening, or the calm before the storm, actually, because what happens around this table (and even more so when the extension table is added) frankly isn’t dainty. It’s usually a glorious free for all with a lot of belly laughter, and a certain amount of hilarity at well-remembered stories. We love having family and lots of old friends to stay during the long, hot summer, and now there are all our children – some the same age as we all were when we first met.

As night falls, the candles will be lit and placed in lanterns and jam jars. In the courtyard, glass yoghurt pots wired and hung in the olive and fig trees hold flickering gold flames. At some point my husband Rob will slip away into his music room – the door on the left – and start playing the piano. The teenagers will drift down through the dark garden to the pool with their own music, switch on the underwater lights, and dance in glowing turquoise water.

Which is all a rambling way of saying that I’m acutely aware that this blog is only at the scene-setting stage. I’m setting out the pictures and there is a certain anticipation, but the action hasn’t started yet. I’d like to hand you a drink and tell you a story, introduce you to some people I’m hoping you’ll get along with; but all I can do right now is show you around a little and try to put you at your ease. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have made the acquaintance of so many lovely, like-minded people in such a short time.

Some of my posts might seem to have nothing to do with writing, or books, but they are all relevant in their way to one book. I’m hoping that when The Lantern is published, those who have enjoyed reading it will come here and sift through the archive to see what certain places really look like, and whether the pictures in their mind were anything like the ones I saw in mine when I wrote it.

Sooner or later, I’ll want to discuss the sense of smell; lavender and the production of essential oils; to take you to Manosque and the great lavender-growing plateau of Valensole; to wonder about the existence (or not) of a sixth sense and the vivid inner life of a reader; about the unquiet history of old houses.

But all this could be dangerous. Because you are such intelligent, artistic, imaginative visitors and the novel that you are half-creating in your minds as you look at my pictures may well be far better than the one I’ve written. Yet if that’s the case, all well and good: use it. Write your books, and tell me about them, and we can all raise a glass to creative endeavour.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Fontaine de Vaucluse

            The River Sorgue flows green and glassy through Fontaine de Vaucluse. The green is extraordinary, a malachite composition of underwater meadows of emerald weeds, reflection of the deep greens on the steep valley above, and the ice-blue purity of the mysterious source that boils up from a pool beneath the cliffs, a pool so deep they say it has never been accurately measured.
                                                                 from The Lantern

The village is a dead end, a beautiful place where the river rises from a wall of rock. Held captive on three sides by fractured precipices that climb steeply into the sky, Fontaine de Vaucluse is the place that gave this part of Provence its name, from the Latin Vallis Clausa, the closed valley.
The stones breathe a tangible sense of antiquity. People have been drawn here since Neolithic times; a ruined castle perches high above. The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74) lived here and wrote love sonnets to his Laura. An unrequited love, it was, that brought "a rain of tears”. Though a hundred years later, when the poet was being recognised as the Father of the Renaissance, his worship of Laura from afar was already being romanticised. And I’m not sure, but I think it’s possible that the water coming down from the mountain in this image could well represent the river at Fontaine de Vaucluse.

        Petrarch, Laura, and Cupid c. 1444 (from the Bibliotheca Nazionale Centrale di Roma)

But there are mischievous Provencal fables, tales told for centuries by the shepherds as they walked their flocks between the summer and winter pastures, that take a different view of Petrarch’s doomed love. A rather macabre slant, as it happens, involving the switching of plague-victims’ bodies in Avignon, and much more besides for the storytellers to relish on their interminable journeys. The tale of The Shepherd of Fontaine can be found in the collection The Provencal Tales by Michael de Larrabeiti.

Nowadays the paper mill driven by the Sorgue prints Petrarch’s words on single hand-blocked sheets, embedded with tiny dried petals, among many other tourist offerings. Along the side of the mill, a path leads from shops and restaurants up to the source of the river: the great bowl of spring water that is the only exit for the vast caverns of water in the subterranean basin that stretches from Mont Ventoux to the Lure in the east.

Looking deep into the greens and blues in the pool is like a meditation; you can get lost in the shifting dreamscape of colour, cold-clear and almost iridescent. This photograph was snapped with our basic little camera and simply cropped. I’ve done nothing to the colour.

Trying to describe the river here, as it rushes and then stills close to the weirs, I often feel inadequate to the task of capturing it in words, tasting the bitterness of inarticulacy, perhaps trying too hard. Better perhaps simply to sit and absorb the scene at one of the café terraces, where you can sip a glass of rosé while the timeless flow of extravagant sea-greens gurgles and rushes past your table. Then the pictures form, half-real, half-imaginary, and the words come too.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Sunlit landscape

There's a stunning sense of perspective and distance in this painting by Richard Moisan: a landscape unfolding that gives a visual equivalent of the feeling you have at the beginning of a holiday when the time stretches ahead and gives you time to breathe in warmth and sunshine.

I like the way he paints with thick strokes of the palette knife, so that the floor of the valley has texture and a hint of real shadow under the smooth, perfectly blue sky. Vibrant colours are a vital component of Moisan’s paintings, encapsulating the joy of sunlight on the rolling hills, perched villages and isolated farmsteads. In this case there is no artistic exaggeration: those fields of yellow and blue are the sunflowers and lavender of Provence, together in life as in art.

            Sunflowers had tossed up golden heads in sumptuous contrast to the palette of blues. The bands of yellow ochre sang with stinging clarity between ropes of indigo on the tilting fields.
            In other areas where lavender rose upon lavender in a hundred shades of mauve, twilight brought a deep unreal violet to the plateau. One evening in late July, I watched transfixed as the undulations merged into a mysterious landscape where no boundaries were definable between flower and sky, between falling shadow and the darkening blue. For an hour or more perspective ceased to exist.

                                                               from The Lantern

The title of the picture is Hameaux et Garrigues, which translates rather prosaically as ‘hamlets and scrublands’ as we don’t have a word for the sweet-scented open countryside where herbs and pungent shrubs grow wild on dry ground that is so redolent of the south of France.

A writer as well as an artist, Richard Moisan had galleries at Vallauris, close to Antibes, and at Cannes. He is now semi-retired but still exhibits a few of his paintings at the artists' village of Biot. Alongside his paintings of the Riviera coast and its bays and rocks, many of the works depict the Luberon region in his distinctive style.

For more shafts of sunshine, click here for his website and more information in English, and here for more pictures and a link to his blog in French.

Thursday 17 February 2011

The haunting of cupboard doors

         The sun had emerged, quick and sharp. It seared into the wall, on one small patch, lifting layer after layer of surface tints, from cream to burnt brown; so mottled, hacked, knocked, replaced, corroded that the effect was of a decrepit fresco. It would be a bit of a shame to paint over it now, I was thinking; it was part of the fabric of the building’s history, like the various places in the house where the ghostly outlines remained of old doors that had been bricked up and plastered over. They were a fine counterpoint to the doors that opened into new rooms that hadn’t seemed to exist.
                                                                   from The Lantern

Sunlight through the catalpa tree, when the wind stirs the leaves and the light is so bright it seems to flash, makes me jump sometimes. Here is the winter light streaming though the kitchen door to glance against the cupboard doors. Cast shadows move in the breeze outside and the patterns wave. If you catch it in the corner of your eye…well, you can see how the over-imaginative mind works.

“Where do you get the ideas for your books?” is a question I’m asked quite often. I suspect that a response of “The kitchen cupboard doors” might prove disappointing in the abstract, but the shifting light and shadows in our south-facing rooms was indeed the genesis of The Lantern and its various hauntings, real and metaphorical.

We love the kitchen in our French house. It’s large enough to hold a long pine table by a shuttered window that faces south into the courtyard and beyond to the blue hills. Two cupboards set into wall recesses, and one on the central island, have doors that clearly originated from pieces of old furniture. The evidence shows they were once devoured by woodworm in various places, which probably explains how they came to be re-used like this. No matter, the charming imperfection is just right for our shabby chic ethos here, and of course, endless food for thought.

Here are the winter shadows from a different perspective. From the outside, when the kitchen door and window are shuttered, there is a tangle of stark branches on the facade. It's part of the magic of this place that it is so different according to the seasons. This bare tree, in summer, will provide dense shade and a cool place to read or drink a glass of rosé with friends. 

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Le Mimosa

February is the month when the mimosa comes into flower, brightening up late winter with its scented yellow bobbles. Here is a jug-full from Apt market.

These flowers will almost certainly have come from further south, les terres du sud along the Riviera coast where whole hillsides in blossom sent out waves of sweet perfume. A heady trail leads from Bormes-les-Mimosas to Grasse, blending with pines and herbs as the sun warms the landscape.

Mimosa scent, to me, is a curious lingering mixture of powdery almonds and honey, with a hint of candyfloss and that white paper glue in a pot (with a little spreading spatula) that you never see anymore.

It’s the centrepiece of a new Annick Goutal soliflore fragrance,  Le Mimosa – soliflore, because it concentrates on the character of only one flower in a starring role, though we’re told there will be a supporting cast of peach, sandalwood, powdery iris and anise. It will be in the shops in March, and I can’t wait to try it.

Friday 11 February 2011

Bookish confessions

I was charmed to receive a Stylish Blogger Ward this week from two sources: Lynne Rees at The Hungry Writer (click here) and llevinso (here) at the Sarcastic Female Literary Circle (but was she sincere…?) No matter, acceptance speeches have been made, and I shall spare you those here.

First rule of acceptance is to reveal seven facts unknown to your readers, which I’ve decided to do in the form of books – books I love, not because they make me look clever, but the books that make me seek out a large comfy chair and wallow in pleasure.

Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing. A year of reading from home – this is Hill’s premise. No more buying books, but rediscovering old favourites. Along the way, her insight about books, life, reading and authors makes you feel you are sitting by the bookshelf with a wise friend.

F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. I’ve chosen this one because it’s set on the French Riviera, but it could have been almost any of the others; The Great Gatsby is my longest-standing favourite book. And just look at that glorious old cover!

Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escapes is the whole deal: sumptuous food, travel, light, colour, and he’s a cultured cove. How many other restaurateur-cooks would write (or talk to camera, as this is the book of a TV series) about Corfu with a book by Lawrence Durrell in their hand?

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is a very old friend, and literary godmother to a novel never far from these pages…

Pleasure Gardens in Provence: The Art of Michel Semini by Louisa Jones and Anita Ortiz. I have a quiet fantasy that one day I will become a Vita Sackville-West and create a garden paradise in the sun. If I could afford him, I would definitely hire Michel Semini to design it. Many happy hours have been spent with this book.
Antoine de St-Exupery’s novella Night Flight is the kind of read that takes armchair travel to a different level, a dark world of astonishing courage from the early days of aviation, when men flew across the mountains of Latin America with the mail service in open cockpits at night with few navigational aids beyond the stars.

Up the Garden Path by Sue Limb is a joyous, hilarious, life-affirming comfort read. Love's Labours, its sequel, is just as good. She now writes mainly for teenagers, and my daughter and I adore her Girl, 15 series.                                   

The second part of the award is that it should be passed on to fifteen other bloggers. Well, it doesn’t say you have to do it all at once, so here are my first five shout-outs:

La Fourchette s’est Emballée, a consistently outstanding photography and food blog that comes to us from Aix-en-Provence.

Cornflower Books, of which I’ve been an avid reader for years, long before I began this little endeavour. Karen’s original blog – simply, Cornflower – is for food, craft and photography, and if we get really lucky, she makes the perfect biscuits or cake for certain books and serves with a flourish.

A Writer’s Lot in France, where Vanessa blogs about the practicalities and idiosyncracies of living in France, and I really enjoy the tone of her writing.

French Essence is so successful it hardly needs any accolades from me. Australian writer Vicki Archer’s blog is quintessentially stylish and essential reading for anyone interested in Provence.

Avignon in Photos is full of stunning photography, but also of quirky detail – open it, meet Nathalie and you’re being driven around Avignon and the surrounding areas on the inside track with a local.

So there you are, you don’t need to do anything more with it if you don’t want to. Just have your moment in the knowledge you are appreciated. If you want to take it further, make your own seven confessions and fifteen awards. Oh, and acknowledge who gave you the award. Enjoy!

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Terre Fauve

Between the tumbling slopes and steep pine-bristled ravines, the sea was a constant companion. Its dazzle lifted the letters off the pages of my walking guide until I could see precisely how each black mark was stamped on the soft paper.
                                                        from The Lantern
This bold Fauvist-inspired painting by Rahim Najfar is a masterly understanding of landscape lit by summer sun in the south of France. This is the burning light that sears every edge between tree and sky, earth and scrub, setting disparate elements jangling and competing. Opposites sizzle against opposites in a joyous display of the colour wheel: blue versus orange; red versus green; yellow versus purple.

Born in Iran, Rahim Najfar works in the picturesque village of Bonnieux, high on its hill and topped by a defiant church spire. Across the valley, one of the many that ripple the Luberon ridge, is Lacoste with its ruined castle once owned by the Marquis de Sade.

A stroll up the steep winding streets of Bonnieux will bring you to Najfar’s studio and exhibition space in Place Carnot. From spring to autumn the door is always open. His landscapes are big, powerful statements: some completely abstract, some with Persian-influenced borders which seem to tell his journey here, from his birthplace in Teheran, an academic career as professor of art and drawing at the universities of  Farabi and Teheran, to teaching at Aix-Marseille, and becoming an artist who has lived for many years in Provence and exhibited widely abroad.

Terre Fauve, the picture above, is redolent of a slightly more southern landscape, where umbrella pines flower against the penetrating blue of Riviera skies. It’s the countryside down towards the sea at Marseille and Cassis where the much-loved French writer Marcel Pagnol spent his boyhood and recaptured in La Gloire de Mon Pere.

But you can still be surprised where we are by paths that seem warmed by their own micro-climate, and have the look and scent of the coastal south. Pines smell stronger, as does the wild thyme. On such a path the low spreading juniper bushes release the sharp tang of gin and the dry earth beneath your feet seems salted with sand.

For Rahim Najfar’s website, click here. His studio-shop in Bonnieux also sells limited edition prints and a wide selection of his pictures printed on cards.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Luberon blue

This view from the beautiful village of Gordes encapsulates the magic of this valley. The Luberon hills are a great wide curtain, falling in folds made by steep gorges, and distance softens the dense cover of trees so that the distinctive ripples take on the apparent texture of velvet.

The blue is all-encompassing: the sky, the hills, the distant villages that cling to other hills along the great valley.

In The Lantern I’ve tried hard to capture the exquisite quality of the landscape and its effect on the characters in the novel as they begin their dream life in Provence - while never quite forgetting that beneath the surface there are histories and harsh realities embedded in the enchanting stone farmhouses and olive presses and lavender fields.
                Living there, waking up to it each morning, I felt as if life – my real life, that was, the life I had always been hoping to have – had truly begun. In every way imaginable, I was happy, exhilarated even. And at the core of it, I had found Dom, and he had found me. We were embarked on a new life together.
               That first summer, like the deepening love and understanding between us, the property kept growing. Armed with a fistful of medieval keys, we discovered new rooms, hidden chambers revealed below and beside the rooms we thought we already knew.
                And in these hidden places were the discarded objects which we claimed as gifts from the house: a bad painting of a peace lily, a hoe, a vase, a set of ramekins pushed deep inside a kitchen cupboard, a pair of rubber boots, an iron birdcage, much rusted and with a broken catch.
              (…) Outside, our northern pores sucked in the warm blue sky, the astringent bracers of rosemary and thyme, the dust of ages, and we looked at each other and smiled.  A home of our own – and what a place!

A note about the photo: Although part of every winter is normally harsh in the Luberon, with plenty of snow on these first ripples of the Alps, there are also many days of sunshine. This photograph was taken one February, looking across from the terrace of La Bastide de Gordes. It’s a smart hotel, but when we arrived without a booking (obviously it was out of season, so not to be attempted in high summer) we got a very good deal. Click here for their website, and some glorious slideshow views.


Wednesday 2 February 2011

Give Me Your Heart

Dear Dr. K --,
   It’s been a long time, hasn’t it! Twenty-three years, nine months, and eleven days.

A writer at the height of her powers, Joyce Carol Oates takes a shiver of an incident by the scruff of its neck, and dazzles. The stories open abruptly. Immediately the reader is immersed in a disconcerting situation; here, in the title story of her collection of tales of mystery and suspense Give Me Your Heart, it is a stalker’s obsession that began in love. Narrative voices are desperate, unhinged, terrified, unravelling. The emotions are so raw it’s like reading with the unsettling sense that someone is creeping up behind you.

In The First Husband, Leonard - the second husband, whose heart “kicked in his chest” in the presence of his enemy - finds photographs his wife has kept of herself with her first husband. In his obsession, Leonard sees these simple Polaroids of another time and place as ‘exotic and treacherous’.

Of all the ignoble emotions, jealousy had to be the worst! And envy.
   And yet: he took the photos closer to the window, where a faint November sun glowered behind banks of clouds above the Hudson River, seeing how the table at which the young couple sat was crowded with glasses, a bottle of (red, dark) wine that appeared to be newly depleted, napkins crumpled into dirtied plates like discarded clothing.

With just a few devastating sentences, Oates manages to hand us the old photo, along with an uncomfortable insight into Leonard’s self-torture. An innocent bottle of wine becomes horribly threatening (red, dark), dirtied plates take on an unpleasant connotation, until suddenly he is at the point of imagining the discarded clothing of his wife and her former husband. The entirely self-inflicted knock to Leonard’s self-esteem sees the story play out in shocking, mind-lost brutality.

Unsettling in another way, Smother show us an estranged mother and daughter. A long-buried and nightmarish childhood memory begins to stir, shredding the daughter’s fragile sense of self. But who is to blame? And who will pay the price as the feeling of menace grows, and which way will the truth fall?

Amnesia is a desert of fine white sun-glaring sand to the horizon. Amnesia isn’t oblivion. (…) Amnesia is almost-remembering. Amnesia is the torment of almost-remembering. Amnesia is the dream from which you have only just awakened, hovering out of reach below the surface of bright rippling water.

In the space of a few lines we go from a parched desert to bright rippling water. If the story weren’t disconcerting enough, the sinewy prose whips one way and then another. In the hands of a less accomplished writer, this might be ham-fisted execution, but with Oates, it’s sheer brilliance.

The ten stories of Give Me Your Heart are both intimate and chilling, unpredictable as any supernatural universe.

Throughout her long and distinguished academic career, Joyce Carol Oates has been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and at certain times published books in a variety of genres including Gothic and suspense novels at the rate of two or three a year.

Asked how she managed to write so much – so brilliantly – she replied that she kept regular hours, did nothing exotic, and felt no need, even, to organize her time. "I am not conscious of working especially hard, or of 'working' at all. Writing and teaching have always been, for me, so richly rewarding that I don't think of them as work in the usual sense of the word."

And in that, I think, she is giving us the secret of life – and for a writer, or anyone who is creative, a grounded life that lets the imagination fly.
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