Wednesday 30 March 2011

Colette at St-Tropez

Colette was in her mid-fifties when she wrote Break of Day. Her second marriage had ended and she had bought a house at St-Tropez on the Côte d'Azur, decades before the fishing village became a fashionable haunt for the jet set. The novel's theme is a woman’s return to independence, sustained and enriched by the beauty and peace of her natural surroundings. 

"Tomorrow I shall surprise the red dawn on the tamarisks wet with salty dew, and on the mock bamboos where a pearl hangs at the tip of each blue lance. The coast road that leads up from the night, the mist and the sea; then a bath, work and rest. How simple everything could be!"
                                                                                               From Break of Day

It’s less a novel than a kaleidoscope of ideas and observations, an assessment of her own life in middle age. She ignores the conventional rules of narrative, introduces real people into her fiction, and there are clear autobiographical passages as her first-person narrator finds, against the odds, a mutual attraction with a younger man, Vial.

At the time of writing, between July 1927 and February 1928, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) was one of France’s best-loved writers. She had written a series of novels featuring her eponymous heroine Claudine; she had been a prolific journalist, embarked on a scandalous stage career and had lovers of both sexes.

She was fifty-two when she fell in love with Maurice Goudeket, a thirty-five year old jeweller, and Break of Day is rooted in the idyllic summer they spent near St Tropez, before she purchased her house there. She and Maurice went on to marry and were together for the rest of her life – though, as a Jew, he was interned during the Second World War. It was during the horror and uncertainty of this time, that Colette turned to the past for comfort and wrote the small masterpiece that is Gigi.

The real joy and exuberance of Break of Day is its glowing spirit of place. Descriptions of the coast and the sea are vibrant and detailed. Stylistically, it is a sequence of post-impressionist paintings in words. Yet her attention to close-up detail – the pearl of dew that hangs on the leaf - gives a clear empathetic sense of what it is to be the famous (some would say, infamous) Colette as she walks alone along the paths, with time and space to stop and see clearly. Interestingly, Maurice Goudeket was a dealer in pearls…

"Vial took himself off and I became more aware of the warmth, the freshness, the increased slant of the light, the universal blue, a few sails on the sea, and the nearby fig tree spreading its odour of milk and flowering grass. A tiny little tuft of fire was smoking on a mountain. The sky turned pink where it touch the harsh azure of a Mediterranean as ripply as an animal’s coat (…) His absence left me with a sense of emptiness and airy well-being."

But to read Break of Day as an autobiographical work would be to miss the vital point she makes in it about writing and the writer. The genesis of any work is the writer’s experience, stored away like treasure, whether hurtful or happy. As the store of experience increases, she stands back from it like a painter from a canvas.

"…she returns, and stands back again, pushing some scandalous detail into place, bringing into the light of day a memory drowned in shadow. (…) Is anyone imagining as he reads me, that I’m portraying myself? Have patience: this is merely my model." 

This is the captivating - really quite perfect - cover with gilt cloth of the book published by the New York: Limited Editions Club, 1983. The version with brown cover and photo of Colette is the most widely available edition, translated by Enid McLeod, and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Sunday 27 March 2011

The Garden of Earthly Delights

              “I finally went blind when I was thirteen years old, and it was the loss of my sight that took me to places I might never have seen.”

Distortion of vision is a recurring theme in The Lantern, whether that is real or metaphorical blindness, or the fear and uncertainty of doubting what one sees. Visual illusions can be produced deliberately, as with a zoetrope, the cinematic cylinder that makes pictures appear to move, or the eyes can dissolve the world in common ways – by myopia, for example.

This mesmerizing abstract photograph is titled The Garden of Earthly Delights. It is by Leovi, a Spanish photographic artist whose work I have come to know and appreciate over the past few months. For me – though others may see very different images – there is a Pre-Raphaelite quality about this piece: rich Victorian stained glass windows; a silken flow of robes, draping into darkness. A woman is lying back in the top left quarter, and in the play of water and glassiness and light there are shades of Millais’ Ophelia drowned in the stream of flowers.

If the point of these abstracts is to induce a sense of infinite possibility in which the only boundary is the limit of the imagination, this one seems to me a perfect illustration of the imagination itself, and of the fearful distortions inherent in loss of sight. Because part of the draw of this picture is a powerful frisson of the unknown. Who has not, at some point, experienced a visual disturbance – whether an unexpected trick of the light, or a blind spot caused by staring too intently at a light or fixed point – and feared that something was wrong, that the effect might be permanent?

And here that is (though again, perhaps only to me, with my particular preoccupation) distilled into this beautiful but treacherous scene, with its underwater quality, cut off from salvation, as the river weeds wave and the world above of air and light is slipping away. 

The second abstract makes me think of amber, and vintage perfume bottles from the Art Deco era; the possibilities that this image, in a form of synaesthesia, somehow holds an opulent scent. The colours are warm and subtle, the kind of shades that compare with blushful fruit: peach and apricot, raspberry and plum. What does it depict? I don’t know. Leovi never tells us, though he does occasionally give titles.

But these pictures make us think, and the very act of staring into their essence relates to the loss of sight - the examination of objects ever closer to the eye to search for meaning.

For more superb abstract photography – and to let your own imagination fly – click here for Leovi’s blog, and here for The Garden of Earthly Delights in context with its companion pieces.

Thursday 24 March 2011

The tree of French life

               The road swooped in and out of plane tree avenues. By early summer they would form green tunnels under a high canopy of leaves, a reminder of the old rural France.

The dappled arches over sun-bright country roads are a symbol of an older, slower time: some of these stately plane tree avenues have been growing and providing shade for two hundred years. Even at this time of year, when they still lack leaves, they are a quintessential image of France.

Here, on the road from St-Rémy-de-Provence to Cavaillon, the route is wide enough to take the traffic easily, and is straight for much of the way, as befits a town with the proud remains of Roman settlement. But in some places, where the road is too narrow for large vehicles to pass comfortably, these avenues are gradually being uprooted for the demands of contemporary life: speed, convenience and safety.

Too many accidents are caused by wide modern trucks; by drivers losing control and ploughing head-on into the thick trunks, crashing into a wall of wood, hard as iron. Campaigners for their destruction say the flickering light between the tree trunks triggers headaches and even epileptic fits.

The tree-lined road across open countryside from Céreste to Manosque, where the large-scale lavender fields begin, is one of the prettiest in the region, but there’s no doubt it is narrow in places. If a bus is coming towards you, you have to keep a steady hand on the wheel and pull as far over to the right as you dare. But what a crying shame it would be to lose these characteristic beauties of the landscape just because drivers couldn’t be relied on to slow down to ensure safe passage.

Even in winter and early spring, when the trees are bare, they are still a stirring sight. The bark peels distinctively into a patchwork of palest pistachio green and brown, but there is a curious rippling of the core structure which gives the impression of a tight, wrinkled skin covering the body of the tree and exacerbates its nakedness.

In the towns, these are the trees that will shade busy squares full of restaurants and outdoor cafes during the summer months. But they are viciously pollarded after their leaves drop, so that in winter their deformed appearance can lend an atmosphere of surprising menace over the streets at night.

We once stayed in Avignon on a February night. The medieval streets twisted under stone arches, and cold street cobbles rang under our booted footsteps. The great papal palace loomed across the vast square, but most striking of all were the great plane trees on either side of the boulevard, lit grey by street lights and pointing gnarled witchy fingers into the black sky.

Sunday 20 March 2011

A source of macabre

                   Sometimes we’d light the sconce on the wall outside the kitchen. It is a sinister creation: a disembodied arm emerges from a wrought iron picture frame, extending a candle. It was left by a previous occupant; we would almost certainly not have bought such a grotesque artifact; yet we left it hanging there, and often lit it.  
                                                         From The Lantern

Much of what I describe in this novel is real. The hamlet on the hill and the surrounding landscapes are as true to life as I can write them, as are the stone arches outside and the little alley way. Even the “gifts from the house”: the painting of a lily, the old boots and tools, the ramekins at the back of a kitchen cupboard, are objects we really did find waiting for us. But not everything.

This creepy-looking antique wall candleholder was only ever a picture in a book, but it was so perfect for the background atmosphere in the story that I took it and hung it on the wall, so to speak. It comes from Provence Style, edited by Angelika Taschen, and the photograph is by Guy Hervais. The red wall is cleverly painted as a trompe l’oeil of a heavy curtain.

It’s one of many evocative, even macabre, images inside this apparently rather innocuous book of photographs. For under the cover is a treasure trove of pictures, some from the area’s traditional stone farm buildings, others from grand and echoing chateaux. On these pages I found a polished wood stature of a monk with a decidedly shifty expression, and garden statues pockmarked by lichen. Walls have faded frescoes. Chipped and battered earthenware rests on groaning dark tables. Shabby chic, or plain damaged?

Books of photographs must be some of the most enjoyable research resources, and this one proved an unexpected winner, providing many potent objects to accentuate a mounting sense of unease.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

The composer of music

Sensuous. (Adj.) Of, relating to, or derived from the senses.
Appealing to or gratifying the senses.

I adore sensuous writing, whether it is Lawrence Durrell’s vibrantly visual Mediterranean shores, or tales seductively layered with the textures of silk and fur and crystal-brittleness like Fitzgerald’s, or the soot-encrusted stenches and sounds of Dickens’ London. When I read, I want to feel I am in the book, experiencing the spirit of a place, fully immersed in scents and tastes and sights.

But how exactly do you conjure the sound of piano music, or the fragrance of lavender from words on a page? It seems to me that this is where books really engage the partnership between writer and reader. Because success or otherwise is dependent on the writer studding the prose with enticement enough for the reader to draw on his or her own sensuous memory bank to enrich the story.

Yet even as we reach into our own imaginary reserves of touch and smell and taste, we know that we all react differently to external stimuli. Some people are repelled by the aroma of meat cooking, for example, or actively dislike the sound of a certain musical instrument. Studies have shown that we don’t even all see the same shade of colour in a fixed object. Which, I’m sure, is part of the reason why different books are magical for different readers, but never magical for all.

The joy of film is that it gives a fixed view of a place and characters. The drawback is that these images might not chime with the pictures a reader has already constructed. But it can carry a soundtrack the writer will never be able to pin down in words.

So with that in mind, here are some atmospheric scenes from The Lantern, made (just for fun!) last summer with the help of old friends. Steve Eaton Evans is a playwright and teacher; he and his equally talented wife Jane have run a theatre company, and all three of their sons have acted professionally. Watch out for Jake Evans, the young man with the knife at the lamp-lit table: serious star quality.

And the haunting piano music is written and played by my husband Rob. It captures beautifully the romantic, yearning quality of the pieces that Dom composes, in the book. Sometimes, only sound itself will do.

For a little more background about how we came to Provence, you can click here to The Hungry Writer blog where poet, writer and tutor Lynne Rees invited me to write a guest post this week.

Sunday 13 March 2011

The rocks glow red...

               The rocks glow red above the sea, embers of the day’s heat below our balcony at the Hotel Marie.
                 Down here on the southern rim of the country, out of the mistral’s slipstream, the evening drops viscous as liquid: slow and heavy and silent. When we first arrived, the stifling sultriness made sleep impossible; night closed in like the lid of a tomb.
                 Now, in the few hours I do sleep, I dream of all we have left behind: the hamlet on the hill and the whispering trees. Then, with a start, I’m awake again, remembering.
                Until it happens to you, you don’t know how it will feel to stay with a man who has done a terrible thing. Not to know whether the worst has happened or is yet to come; wanting so badly to trust him now.
These are the opening seven lines of The Lantern, as the narrator Eve looks out at the distinctive coastal rocks near Cassis, hardly daring to contemplate the hamlet on the hill inland where she has been so happy. But each night she returns in dreams, to a place that is, and is not, itself.  

I’ve posted this today by invitation of romantic suspense writer Anne K Albert (here), author of The Piedmont Island Trilogy among other novels. 

Each Sunday, Anne and other novelists in an online community of mystery and romantic suspense writers post seven enticing sentences from one of their published books, or from a work in progress. The list and links can be found over at Suspenseful Seven Sentence Sunday (here).

Thursday 10 March 2011

Cloudy day reading

Cloudy days can come as a surprise in Provence. Cerulean blue is the usual outlook, despite the knowledge that winters can be harsh. But when the vineyard down the hill takes on these soft grey tones, it means a perfect afternoon for reading.

There’s nothing I like more than a book trail, where one leads on to another, linked in some way. Recently I’ve read three books about the Cévennes, that isolated and  mountainous region on the other side of the stately Rhone to the north-west of Avignon. Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879) is Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic account of a 120-mile walking trip he made alone with the obdurate donkey Modestine. It’s one of his earliest works, and its enduring popularity is surely to do with his wonderful descriptions of the landscape:

 It was already warm. I tied my jacket on the pack, and walked in my knitted waistcoat.  Modestine herself was in high spirits, and broke of her own accord, for the first time in my experience, into a jolting trot that set the oats swashing in the pocket of my coat. The view, back upon the northern Gévaudan, extended with every step; scarce a tree, scarce a house, appeared upon the fields of wild hill that ran north, east, and west, all blue and gold in the haze and sunlight of the morning. A multitude of little birds kept sweeping and twittering about my path (…), translucent flickering wings between the sun and me.

The other two books are much more recent. Both are novels in which descriptive writing about the countryside is equally lyrical and accomplished.

Trespass by Rose Tremain is a tale as brooding as the peaks and dark valleys she describes. It’s a novel about the outsiders who arrive in the Cévennes, searching for a paradise that exists partly in their own imaginations, and in collusion with each other. A British brother and sister, Anthony and Veronica Verey, begin a search for his perfect new life close to where she lives with her partner, Kitty. They are mirrored by the French owners of the property they fix on, Aramon Lumel and his sister Audrun, whose relationship is as fissured as the large crack in the old family farmhouse he makes a bodged attempt to hide. The dreamy, tragic air of the novel fuses perfectly the contrast between illusion and reality, until it acquires the quality of a fable from La France profonde.

The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton is also beautifully written, building a sensuous picture of the Cévennes, from the dampness of granite flagstones, to the “layer upon layer of blue mountain silhouettes, fading into bluer skies”. Again, it concerns the search for a rural idyll, but Catherine Parkstone, although not so very much younger than Tremain’s Veronica Verey, seems a more contemporary and believable heroine, as she sets about overcoming the nasty surprises and setbacks inherent in beginning a new life abroad - and perhaps even a new relationship. Catherine is a properly-rounded and sympathetic character, who easily engages our affection. Though less of a novel of ideas than Trespass, it is in some ways the more enjoyable for it.

Monday 7 March 2011

Oranges and lemons

           “In the kitchen, sunlight filtered through the movement in the leaves of the courtyard trees outside the window, rendering the white plaster walls inside diaphanous and transitory like fluttering muslin. A bright Christmassy scent of freshly peeled oranges was all around. I couldn’t think where it came from as we had only apples in the fruit bowl.”
                                               From The Lantern

Julian Merrow-Smith is a classically-trained painter, and it shows in every brushstroke. In his small oil Citron de Nice, the lemon seems to glow from within while the light around is sombre. It has a timeless quality, like a beautiful detail from an Old Master.

Likewise, this clementine is so richly evoked that you can almost smell the zesty aroma released by the fruit as its peel is pulled away, and juice trembles on the membrane. Look at that pith, fluffed and exposed, and you can taste its distinctive bitterness. What a gift to be able to engage so many senses with paint on a flat surface!

I wrote about Julian in one of my very first posts on this blog, when I was getting about three visitors a day, and two of these almost certainly accidental. So for those who missed it first time round, here is the link to his Still Life with Figs.

Extraordinarily, he paints a picture of this calibre a day - normally from his studio near Crillon-le-Brave but sometimes from his wider travels. These encompass landscapes and, occasionally, portraits as well as still lives; they are then auctioned online.

So successful have these proved that 140 from the collection have been published as a treat of a book, Postcard from Provence, the dream-like countryside of southern France seen through the eyes of a contemporary yet very traditional artist. It is available here from Amazon, or from the painter’s website here, which also has details of the daily auction.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Pour offrir...

In the absence of grapes in season, here are some French sweets for the lovely - but flu-bound and suffering - llevinso at her incisive and always intelligent blog Sarcastic Female Literary Circle (here) who has sent a One Lovely Blog award my way.

By the power now vested in me, I am now passing it on to the following equally lovely bloggers, not all of them book sites but all worthy winners:

The Reading Life (here) where excellent literary discussion is carefully illustrated with relevant photographs.

Literary Endeavors (here) where Jennifer presides over lively and thought-provoking discussion.

Nature en Couleur (here) where the detailed and quirky photography is such fun you don't need to speak French to get it.

The Slight Detour (here) where Samantha Sotto-Yambao waits for her first novel to come out with excerpts of great charm and originality.

Forest Dream Weaver (here) where visual artist Ruby Elizabeth Littlejohn shares somes amazing images.

Fitzgerald Musings (here) where Laurie gives food for thought and imaginative photographic interpretations of the great F Scott Fitzgerald's oeuvre.

Serendipity's Library (here) for the joy of loving books and more besides.

Bookbelle (here) where I am a newcomer but already know that I will enjoy many literary reviews to come. 

Friday 4 March 2011

Rosemary for writing

               Rosemary hedges were pin-bright with pungent flowers. Beyond, a promenade of cypresses, prelude to a field of lavender. And rising at the end of every view, the dominant theme: the creased blue hills of the Grand Luberon.
                                                          from The Lantern

A few days ago I saw the first pale flower of rosemary in the garden. The sun is bright and cold but here is a herald of spring, frail and tentative still. As the earth gradually warms and colours deepen, the great hills that hang like a backdrop beyond this tiny hamlet will be so blue they seem to soak up the sky.

Now and then eagles and hawks will hover above, riding the thermals. The thyme and rosemary and lavender patches will release their musky incense under our feet, and the tender south winds will be silk on the skin. We’ll use the herbs in cooking too, releasing and intensifying their fragrance in the kitchen.

What has this to do with writing? Plenty, I think. I take the view that writing is observation, to a large degree. Attention to detail is what makes a novel seem real, whether it is rooted in a real landscape or real emotions and hopes and fears. What the writer needs more than anything is for the reader to recognize some truth in the words on the page.

When I am drafting a new novel, my most important asset is my notebook - just as it was when I was a journalist. A thousand details will go into it. Some will never be used, or will be cut from a later version, but they are the foundations of the story and the prompts to start each writing day.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

The scent of memory

Culture is about human nature, and people who love food and fragrance are acutely aware of the connection between the senses and memory.” So writes Michelle Knell Kydd on her exquisite blog Glass Petal Smoke, dedicated to the olfactory and taste senses. Here she introduces us to osmanthus, the dried blossoms of which "are redolent of apricot, lemon and blonde leather" and uses it to infuse sugar for cakes. 

She has devised a questionnaire about the sense of smell which really does make you think a little deeper. Michelle is collecting responses, so if this appeals to you, do feel free to send her yours. You’ll see how it works by clicking on this link to Glass Petal Smoke. Here, just for fun, are my responses:

What does your sense of smell mean to you?
It adds the final layer of sensory experience, whether you are travelling on the Paris metro, or cooking a lamb tagine full of spices. Imagine walking around a garden and not being able to smell the mineral earth of early spring, or the sudden sweet perfume of a daphne or narcissus. I agree with Michelle that the sense of smell is a memory trigger like no other.

What are some of your strongest scent memories?
When I was quite young, my family went to live in China. The vibrant colours and sense of the exotic in Peking, as it was then, coincided with the age at which I really became aware of my surroundings. The gardens in front of where we lived were full of orange marigolds and every time I smell their sharp, sweet pepperiness, I am five years old again. There was a shop not far away that sold toys and dolls in silk clothes, silk figures in boxes and sandalwood fans. I still have some of these, and they have kept their scent to an extraordinary degree. If I ever come across them, as soon as the box is opened, I am remembering seeing them for the first time.

What are some of your favorite smells in nature, cooking, your environment?
I love the scent of flowers: lilies, the heliotrope, nicotiana, and the dark red cosmos that smells of rich chocolate. Pine trees after rain. Rosemary and thyme growing wild on sunny slopes. Dried Herbes de Provence frying with onion. And wood burning: sweet fallen branches from the fig trees and logs from a dead olive and cherry; bonfires in the evening; fireworks; even the striking and snuffing of a match is delicious.

Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?
Old books have a slight mustiness, almost like incense. It’s the perfume of my days as a student, in the library of a Cambridge college, the atmosphere of rooms containing rare manuscipts and ancient tomes. That scent can be powerful in secondhand bookshops, too. It used to be exacerbated by damp cellars in junk shops we used to haunt in Greenwich down by the Thames when Rob and I were renovating out first flat in south London together, but it still carries the scent of the old about to be rediscovered. 

Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.
Baking: any biscuits or cakes. And also toffee apples, though in my experience they always smell wonderful, but are a disappointment to eat.

What smells do you most dislike?
Cigarette smoke (though I don’t mind cigar or pipe tobacco), oil and petrol, bad drains, old fishbones, and mice.

What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?
French cigarettes - Gauloises, but they don't smell the same as they did when I was a teenager and the boys who smoked them were cooler than anyone in England. I've noticed that today's Gauloises and Gitanes have lost that rich, honeyed tobacco aroma and become almost as unbearable as Silk Cut.

What mundane smells inspire you?
Leather: the inside of old satchels and bags. The other day I came across a small leather shoulder bag I bought in Crete, many years ago on my first holiday abroad with friends. It’s a cheap, rough thing – but oh, the perfume of new independence mingled with anxiety!

What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
I have a whole library of perfumes that will take me to almost any given year! From the Chloe I wore as a seventeen-year-old, to the perfume I wore as a designer-suited journalist in London: Diva by Ungaro, and which remains a great confidence-giver. 

What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones? 
That would be the smell of houses, the unique alchemy produced by lingering cleaning polishes and cooking and perfume of the people who live there. 

What fragrances remind you of growing up?
The strawberries that grew in every garden and field in the village in Luxembourg where I lived as a child (two countries after China – we got around). English sweet shops, fuggy with a combination of Fry’s peppermint chocolate and comics. Germolene, the disgusting pink ointment for cuts and grazes. And TCP for teenage spots: one of the vilest and most lingering pongs known to man.

What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?
An endless list… I’ll just pick Youth Dew, a whiff of which takes me right back to Singapore, where I used to spend my university vacations with my parents, who were living there by then.

Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.
Perfume by Patrick Suskind has one of the best openings I have ever read. It opens with a sensory bang, full of rotting cabbage and other stenches. And Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell, which is a glorious evocation of Corfu in the 1930s and a treasury of visual riches.
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