Sunday 29 May 2011

New York: books and jazz

I’ve been far away from Provence this past week, and from the blog world for that matter – having the most wonderful time in New York. Book-related matters dominated with the huge Book Expo America book fair.

The hotel was a few minutes away from Saks and the Rockefeller Center. The Stars and Stripes fluttered from every flagpole in readiness for Memorial Day weekend; sailors in pristine whites roamed around like modern day Sinatra’s and Kelly’s in On The Town. I hadn’t expected the trademark New York wit to be in such full flow all around, or the sky-high levels of friendliness to match the soaring towers.

The first night there was a party at The Park down by the water in Chelsea, given by HarperCollins where I was introduced, among others, to some of the loveliest lady librarians anyone could hope to meet. Then it was off - in another shiny black limo, natch – to dinner with my fabulous literary agent Stephanie Cabot, and to toast the night, exactly a year ago, that this dream scenario began with the sale of the manuscript.

The next day I was signing galley copies of The Lantern at BEA, trying to master the art of talking and writing at the same time while meeting booksellers, avid readers and many more lovely librarians. It was exciting and frenetic – like being in the centre of a whirlpool. We had to close the line because we ran out of books but these early copies have been so beautifully produced it’s not surprising they were in demand. Also, something of a collector’s item as the cover is being changed for the main edition, as it is in the UK.

It’s only fitting that I pay tribute here to my American editor, Jennifer Barth. It has been an absolute joy to work with her, and she has taken such infinite care with this book. Huge thanks too to everyone at HC that I’ve been working with – many of whom I met in person for the first time on this trip – especially Mark Ferguson, Jason Sack and the scintillating Katherine Beitner, publicist extraordinare. At The Gernert Company, the literary agency, I met David Gernert and the team working with Stephanie for my book: Rebecca Gardner, Will Roberts and Anna Worrell.

That evening, after emerging shell-shocked from the BEA signing at the vast Javits Center, I went down to East Village where the very funny and laconic British author Helen Smith was reading excerpts from her work as part of a Guerrilla Lit performance with other writers at Bar on A. She kicked off with the opening of her novel Alison Wonderland, a new edition of which is published in August, and had us all hooked right from the start. Have a look at the video of her on her blog, linked here, reading her short story Aubergine. I challenge you not to laugh out loud!

Another night, I met up with my friend from university days, the musician and jazz vocalist Alexandra Frederick. Alex took us from live jazz in Greenwich Village and dinner, to the amazing piano cabaret of Mr “Chicken Delicious” the artist formerly known as Hunter Blue at Mimi’s Piano Bar and Restaurant. I simply can’t resist reliving and sharing some memorable moments there…

Then, when Alex was invited to play and sing, she obliged with a short set that culminated in a superb rendition of Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. It was just perfect.

Thursday 26 May 2011

The art of translation

Alibaud is another softly beautiful and clever composition by artist Lynne Ciacco, that keys into that same mood captured in her City Lupins featured a few posts ago. It dovetails a photo of allium flowers by Owen Phillips, a picture of Lynne’s daughter and the written text of a Rimbaud poem, Sensation, in the poet’s own hand.

Like the first picture, it’s dream-like - an exploration of the subconscious perhaps - and evokes a powerful sense of time passing. If you look carefully, there’s a similar tracery of branches and stems in delicate white that adds another layer of detachment from the face behind, as if the girl is already out of reach. The effect is reminiscent of sentimental Victorian cards, romantic and nostalgic.

Although it’s correct to transpose the word “sensation” from French into English, it would perhaps be more helpful here to think of it with the emphasis on “feeling”. There are many translations available. The American poet Joshua Mehigan really seems to capture the sensuous lyrical simplicity of the original.

Blue summer evenings, pricked by stalks of wheat,
I’ll walk the paths, crush short grass where I tread:
Dreaming, I’ll feel its coolness on my feet.
And I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

Click here for the whole poem in French with Mehigan’s translation and a biographical note about Arthur Rimbaud in the online literary magazine

And for those who enjoy the nuances of translation, here’s another version, this time by A.Z. Foreman, a formidable linguist whose Poems Found in Translation blog (click here) is a wonderful site to get lost in. You can even listen to him read the poem in French, and hear how he brings out Rimbaud’s languorous rhythm and interior rhymes.

Through evenings blue with summer, pricked by wheat,
I’ll roam the roads and crush the grass I tread,
Will dream and feel its coolness underfoot,
Will let the breezes bathe my naked head.

I’m aware we’ve travelled away from Lynne Ciacco’s art, but actually these ramblings do illustrate something I feel very strongly: that different forms of creativity are all interconnected. I could, of course, be wrong. Some people don’t feel that at all. Not all artists like other people coming along and offering their impressions. As the French painter and pioneer of pointillisme Georges Seurat said:

“They see poetry in what I have done. No. I apply my methods, and that is all there is to it.”

Lynne Ciacco lives and works in Atlantic Canada. She has a fine art degree (BFA) from the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver and works in diverse media, from acrylics to pastel and watercolours, as well as textiles. This is another example of her digital art using textured layers and blending modes. You can find her website here and her art blog here.

Sunday 22 May 2011

More lavender...bygone days

In the lavender fields…

  Men with pitchforks were throwing the stalks and flowers up like hay. Another stood on top of the shaggy load, shouting. Then, when it seemed not another petal could possibly cling on, and the mauve tassles were dripping in every direction, the order was given to sway off to the corner where the alembic had been pulled in by a donkey.

More lavender, and a glimpse further into the past. In the crossroads village of Coustellet, best known for its Sunday morning market, stands the Musée de la Lavande, the lavender museum, where these evocative old photographs from the 1920s and 30s hang on the walls.

It was back-breaking work, on an arid landscape and under an unforgiving sun at harvest time at the end of July. There were no mechanical aids for the cutting and gathering of the stems, just a hand scythe and a cloth bag worn over the shoulder. The women would have worn clothes like this:

   I was given a bag, a small sickle and a starting place. Although he asked my name and nodded, he did not introduce himself. For several days afterwards, until I got to know some of the other girls and exchange information, he would remain simply the man in the waistcoat.
  ‘Watch out for the bees, and the vipers,’ he said.
  ‘They hide under the flowers.’
   I put on my apron and pulled my cotton scarf up over my head. My eyes were already hurting from the relentless sun.
   Nervously, I began. It was tiring work but I was keen to prove myself. The bag grew heavier and bumped against my legs. The scent was heavenly, all around in heavy fumes, so intense that after a while it seemed to pulse.
                                                         from The Lantern

Musée de la Lavande: Route de Gordes (D2), 84220 Coustellet
For their website click here.

Friday 20 May 2011

The lavender distillery

Small lavender fields are woven into the landscape all the through the hills around the town of Apt. These are not the huge commercial concerns of Sault and Valensole, but smallholdings tended in the traditional way. When the sheaves of mauve flowers are picked in July, the distilling begins, sometimes in the field itself, and a heavenly scent is carried on warm evening breezes.

Last summer I discovered the Distillerie Les Coulets, near the village of Rustrel. As you arrive down a narrow country track, time stands still, and you enter the world of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Although Pagnol’s enduring stories were set further south towards the coast at Marseille, the same rural idyll really does seem to linger in every stone and corner.

An old still, once used to extract the essence from the lavender flowers, stands proudly outside the farm. This is a tiny, family-run business: Christian Borde & Fils. The lavender is grown in the surrounding fields and brought to an unassuming barn for the magic of scent distillation to begin.   

The water in the still was bubbling merrily. At the table, one of the much older women known to us simply, namelessly, as Madame, was thrashing the head of a sheath against a box to break off and collect the flowers. Then with one deft sifting motion she showered the ground with any remaining remnants of stalk and leaf and an even more intense cloud of lavender scent exploded into the warm air.
                                                          From The Lantern

The alembic still is heated. Then, when steam has risen through the lavender flowers it is pushed up through the pipe that comes out of the top, and then down through the cooling cylinder full of cold water that coils round and round. At the end of the process, the liquid contains the essence of the flower, its oil and scent.

With this essential oil, the Distillerie les Coulets makes different strengths of lavender preparations, from the pure essence which must be diluted – with almond oil, perhaps – before it comes into contact with the skin, to soothing massage oils that Madame Borde makes up and labels in her workshop, which is barely larger than a garden shed.

It’s a truly charming enterprise, and the resultant natural oils have a deep and sweet, almost honeyed aroma, a world away from synthetic mass-produced fragrances.  

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Secrets of terracotta tiles

Baked red tiles on the ground floor – tomettes – stamped with incident, finger and animal prints, like fossils, told a possible tale of the playful farm dog who would not obey and came running across the earthy work while it was still wet.
                                                         From The Lantern

Throughout the ground floor of the main house, in traditional Provençal style, terracotta tiles have been used. As a floor-covering, they are practical and hard-wearing – and each tile is slightly different which gives that sense of charming imperfection that is so redolent of relaxed country-living, wherever that may be.

In the kitchen there are stains on some of the squares that might have been there for generations. When I first got to grips with the scale of the cleaning operation – and mindful that Rob, rather typically, had invited the first wave of summer visitors on the basis that things always worked out somehow - I rubbed and scrubbed and sanded, but the evidence of bygone carelessness remained indelible.

After a while I began to relax into it, to accept that the place would never be completely, surgically clean; that was impossible. Everyone was in and out of the house constantly, traipsing from pool through garden and courtyard to the fridge and back, that it was a losing battle. And the tiles in the kitchen have even more mottled variations of colour, so are eminently forgiving. So I learned to live with the dust, and think of it as a light dusting of magic.

All the time, though, I continued to wonder about the previous lives of the house, and to wonder what messages I could read. Some of the tiles seem to tell their own stories, and a few hold an obvious clue.

This particular tomette is in the downstairs hallway. How many years ago did the dog scamper over the still-pliant tile? Did someone place the tile here deliberately, as a welcoming talisman? It might even be a kind of commemoration of a well-loved animal who once skittered around the property, a hunting dog rather than a pet, in these parts.

Fernand nodded sagely. All these tiles were hand-made, he said, some were perhaps a hundred years old. “Chaque tuile a son secret…cherchez-le!” he said. Each tile has its secret – look for it!

Saturday 14 May 2011

The art of entanglement

City Lupins by Lynne Ciacco

In this intriguing picture by artist Lynne Ciacco, a tangle of lupin flowers and branches obscures the house behind. Nature is taking over, perhaps even barring the way. The muted colours give a melancholy atmosphere, and the green in the foreground ceases to denote leaves, and hints at creeping damp on the outside walls.

Shadows beneath the tracery are not immediately apparent, but they are there, and once noticed, they seem to grow. Even the blue sky is overrun, as the house bleeds into it, blocking out the light. It makes for a rather eerie and intense disorder – or is that just how I choose to read it?

It reminds me very much of the scene that greeted us when we first arrived at our property here. It was July and a relentless sun had supercharged weeds and wildflowers in the courtyard. The grass on the terraces was thigh-high. In the five months since we had first seen it in winter (below), the place seemed to have changed and slumped further into decay, its bare bones reclaimed by a surging wildness.

Inside, the smell of mouse was overpowering. Drifts of dry leaves had found the corners of every room. Dead insects crunched under our feet. Scorpions scuttled up walls. We camped on stone floors, took note of the many large structural cracks in the buildings, and hoped for the best.

That first daunting summer, in between restoring order outside, sweeping and scrubbing, and meeting builders, I re-read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and wondered…what if I had come here knowing less about the countryside I was in and the man I was with? Who had lived here before us, and did anything of them remain? That’s when I started writing…

Lynne Ciacco lives and works in Atlantic Canada. She has a fine art degree (BFA) from the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver and works in diverse media, from acrylics to pastel and watercolours, as well as textiles. City Lupins is an example of her digital art using textured layers and blending modes. You can find her website here and her art blog here.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Champagne and chocolates

This post is for my blogger friends Isabelle, Muriel, Jennifer O, Kenya and Emily.

Blogging is all about making connections, and sometimes it may seem as if I lose sight of that, so intent am I on creating my own little world here. All of these five have given me awards in the past few weeks, and received not a word in return on these pages - though I hasten to add, I did thank them elsewhere.

This blog began very simply: it was a way of updating my website without involving my site manager, Judy. She made the link to the blog and I was going to post odd bits of news about my new novel – “Here’s the cover design!”, “Three weeks to publication!”, that kind of thing.

But it very quickly became something else. When I thought about the book blogs I enjoyed reading, they weren’t just about one book, or one person. The best are generous and outgoing; they feature the work of other writers, art, style, and life in general. So I looked and learned, and began to see how I could pull all those elements together.

Over the months since I started blogging last December, I’ve gradually built up an archive of posts that are relevant to my writing. Usually, I give the reference in a short extract from my book, but sometimes I just write about perfume, or a place, or other books that chime with an aspect of The Lantern.

So, yes, my blog is a marketing tool for the book, but I hope it’s a site that has broad appeal too. I’ve deliberately kept it very clean of all the add-ons (the stats, awards, link badges and other bits of fun most bloggers have) because I’m hoping it will work on two levels: one, to introduce potential readers to the setting in Provence and, with any luck, entice them to consider reading the book; and two, to stand retrospective reading as a source of visual background information after The Lantern is published, should anyone be interested to come and find it.

Excuses and explanations over, back to the business of the Kreative Blogger Award. Here’s where you can find my friends and their fine blogs, if you don’t already know them:

Isabelle is an actress with a wicked turn of phrase and some wonderful insider tales at As the Actress said to the Bishop. Click here.

Muriel is MuMuGB, a French wife, yummy mummy and enthusiastic - though occasionally bemused - inhabitant of London at 40blogSpot. Click here.

Jennifer O is a serious literature-lover, whose opinions are always a joy to read at Literary Endeavors. Click here.

Kenya is another actress, also a novelist and scriptwriter, who doesn’t sleep much. She’s based in Los Angeles and blogs at Sleep Deprivation and Me: A Love Story.  Click here.

Emily’s blog The French Hutch is full of gorgeous pictures and general joie de vivre. Click here.

I’m going to pass on the Kreativ Blogger Award to the following five bloggers I really enjoy reading. There’s something rather special about each one of them, whether verbally, visually, or a combination of the two to give a certain je ne sais quoi… Cheers!

Joanny at Live Dream Love. Click here.
Cathy Kozak at While the Dervish Dances… Click here.
Sarah at Snippets…of Thyme. Click here.
Olga at Artful Nuance. Click here. 
Charley Appenzellar at 365 Things That I Love about France.  Click here.

Monday 9 May 2011

Strange Invisible Perfume

By August we were sleeping with all the windows thrown open. That was why, when I became aware of the scent, I assumed it had come from outside.
   It was a voluptuous scent: vanilla with rose and the heart of ripe melons, held up by something sterner, a leather maybe, with a hint of wood smoke. The first time it stole into my consciousness I was half-wakeful in the early hours, in the act of coming around from one dream before settling into another.
  Gradually it faded, and I must have gone back to sleep. In the morning I examined every possible source but nothing came close to replicating that fragrance.
    I decided it must all have been a highly charged dream. (…)
   After an absence of about a week it returned, and continued to do so, though with no discernable pattern to its reappearance, and with slight variations on the ingredients of the scent. At times it carried essence of vanilla, sometimes a robust note of chocolate and cherries. It might linger only for a few minutes, but strongly, or less distinctly for up to an hour. Some nights it was carried off by a whisper of wind in the courtyard trees, an ethereal smoky lavender.

                                                                        From The Lantern

As a perfume lover, I had a lot of fun writing fragrance into this novel. A scent is at the heart of the story in The Lantern, with its roots in the herbs and flowers that grow wild on the hillside, and the lavender fields beyond. Aroma releases memories and opens a powerful sensory path between the past and the present.

The perfume in my book is a mysterious concoction that comes and goes with no obvious source. So I was more than intrigued, earlier this year, when I discovered Strange Invisible Perfumes, thanks to a post on the lovely A Rose Beyond the Thames blog here.

Using a strictly botanical library of scents, perfumer Alexandra Balahoutis creates enchanting fragrances with no synthetic approximations of essences that cannot be extracted, like gardenia and violet. She runs an authentic botanical perfumery based in California, using only organic, wild-crafted, biodynamic, and hydro-distilled essences, and states: 

"The art of perfumery begins with the art of distilling essences.
   The perfumer then arranges these distillates into gorgeous, olfactory narratives. Making perfume without real essences is like writing a book without real words.”

Looking closer into her library of perfumes, I found two that are very much in the spirit of the imaginary one that I mixed, using only words on the page, for my novel. There’s Essence of Ix – a “brambly, stirring, floral” with white sage, roses, blackcurrant, Californian lavender, wild honey, and French oak. It’s a limited edition pure perfume, very expensive, and sounds most alluring.

Then there’s Moon Garden – a dream of tuberose, jasmine, resins, and night-blooming flowers that release pulses of exquisite scent in warm summer darkness.

I love the way their creator speaks of the art of perfumery as a narrative. But a good perfume does develop and unfold on the skin, allowing each ingredient of the blend its time to warm and blossom before fading to give another precedence. It’s a story, but not in words.

For more details, and many more evocative combinations, click here to visit the Strange Invisible Perfumes website.

Friday 6 May 2011

The Marquis de Sade's castle

Now that high tourist season was over, the streets were quiet. We discovered anew the enchanted villages of the great valley: Bonnieux, topped with a church not a castle, opposite the bleak ruined fortress of Lacoste; Menerbes, ship-like on its low outcrop at the foot of the range; Roussillon, perched on the edge of surging cliffs of red ochre amid green pines; Gordes, majestic in its autumn emptiness, incomparable views framed to artistic perfection by its own limestone ridges planted with candles of cypress.
                                                             From The Lantern

These villages, built on high rocky outcrops, are some of the most lovely in Provence. From a distance, the most forbidding is Lacoste, with its bleak ruined castle that once belonged to the Marquis de Sade. These days it is owned by the veteran fashion designer Pierre Cardin and is the centerpiece of a summer music festival. World-wide opera stars sing here within its ruined walls on warm summer nights, and tickets are much prized.

But it has a gruesome past. Before the cruel and excessive Marquis arrived, the castle was already a notorious haunt, as the scene of the rape, torture and murder of three hundred members of the heretical sect of the Vaudois in the sixteenth century. The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) was a politician, philosopher and sexual libertine. He was forced to flee his castle in Lacoste in 1777 – that year there was trouble with everyone: local women, male servants, the police – and the place was eventually destroyed by an angry mob. The Marquis spent thirty-two years in prison, some of those in a mental asylum, and sealed his notoriety in his own books Justine and One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, written in his cell.

Nowadays it’s still a steep climb on the narrow cobbled streets up to the castle, but Lacoste is a sleepy place. An art school flourishes here, and galleries of modern work, including the Espace Cardin, stand higgledy-piggeldy with cracked stone houses with lushly overflowing gardens, cafés and restaurants, including the Restaurant Sade. (“Bet they can whip up a good lunch there!” – Rob)

There are lovely views from all around, especially across a valley to the east where the village of Bonnieux flaunts its proud Catholic tradition with a church at its highest point, in answer to the stark ruins of Lacoste’s pinnacle of amorality.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

A Secret Kept

“He remembered waiting for the tide. Waiting for hours for the Gois causeway to appear beneath the slowly receding waves. And there it was at last, cobbles glistening with seawater, a four-kilometre amphibian road dotted with high rescue poles with little platforms for unfortunate drivers and pedestrians stranded by the upcoming flood.”
                                                          From A Secret Kept

The Gois causeway to the Ile de Noirmoutier, off the west coast of France, is a powerful symbol in Tatiana de Rosnay’s compelling new novel A Secret Kept. It is the old link to the island, and also a family’s link to the past – a past that, like the causeway which is daily submerged, cuts them off and must be approached with caution.

Antoine Rey is a successful but troubled architect, from the buttoned-up higher echelons of Parisian society. His much-loved wife has left him for another man, and his teenage children are wrapped up in their own worlds. In an attempt to recapture happier times, Antoine takes his younger sister Mélanie to Noirmoutier as a birthday surprise. Their childhood summers were spent on the island, though neither has been back for decades.

At the heart of the story is their mother Clarisse, who died when Antoine and Mélanie were young children. Clarisse, like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, haunts this story, remembered but never appearing in the book, a constant but unknown and unsettling figure. When, surrounded by the beauty of the island, Melanie experiences a disturbing resurgence of a long-ago memory, it leads to near-disaster, and in the following days the life of everyone concerned begins to unravel.

As old memories surface and new facts are discovered in the present day, Clarisse becomes as mysterious to her children as she is to the reader. For this is a novel about communication: a family’s inability to communicate through the generations, and the legacy that leaves.
UK Edition

It’s a beguiling and lyrical book, with the perfect pace of a thriller, though its strength doesn’t lie so much in the unveiling of the secret that has been locked away, but in the investigation of the mysteries of human relations and families. All the relationships are tested, as each character proves hard to read by another, even the brother and sister, who have always been close. The mid-life crisis of Antoine Rey is realistic, honest and painful as he confronts the past and dares to look beneath the surface for the first time.

What I loved most about reading this novel, though, was to do with language. The author is a French citizen, who lives in Paris, but is half-English with Russian blood; until this one and her previous, hugely successful, novel Sarah’s Key, she wrote in French. But even now that she has now changed to English, she retains a French sensibility and writes in many ways as a French writer would. It’s a subtlety I find fascinating. This is no meticulously researched facsimile of French people at home in France – this is simply the real deal, the real France of a certain milieu.

It feels at times like a foreign novel, from the phrasing, to the attitudes of the characters, to its very structure and themes. Indeed, de Rosnay is currently the third bestselling author throughout Europe, after Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson. If you want authentic insight into how the French think and behave, this is the novel for you – with not a word or shade of meaning lost in translation.
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