Friday 24 February 2012

A shady spot for reading

Under a fragrant fig tree in a garden in Provence...this is where you'll find me and my books during the summer. I wrote a post about it here last August: Reading under the fig tree.

I'm re-visiting now to join in the Follow Friday blog hop. I'm been working very hard on my new book so it's been a long while since I took part in one of these but they are terrific for finding new blogs to read and follow, and for spreading the word about your own (though I apologise, I'm hopeless at trying to get buttons and official links installed). This is hosted by Parajunkee and Alison Can Read, and if you follow the links to their blogs, all will be explained. To take part, you post an answer to this question:

Where do you most like to read? Describe your spot or post a picture.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

The Italian cover

I am thrilled with the jacket for the Italian translation of The Lantern, to be published in July by Piemme. It's a beautiful piece of artwork that captures the haunting romanticism of the book. There's a change of title too, to The House of Wind and Shadow, which is quite intriguing.

As soon as I saw the design it reminded me of Lynne Ciacco's work, especially City Lupins, pictured below.

I wrote a couple of blog posts last year about Lynne and her work, which I admire greatly for the sheer variety of experimental styles and the atmosphere and thoughtful playfulness she achieves. You can link to them here:

The art of entanglement
The art of translation

Monday 20 February 2012

On character...

My blog friend Elizabeth set me thinking when she made a comment on the post about the Roman Empress Sabine. While most of the other reactions voiced admiration for Sabine, she was alone in saying that she came across to her as manipulative. And as I know that Elizabeth is a woman of great sensitivity, I found this both astute and thought-provoking as it leads to the question of character: both how we each judge the characters of others in life, and how we read and write them.

I described Sabine as a strong, independent-minded woman from her face as captured so beautifully in stone and from the little I’d found out about her. And while most of us would consider those worthy character traits, it’s also true that you can have too much of a good thing. Elizabeth is quite right: Sabine could very well have been manipulative. The refusal to have any children by her husband probably bears that out; “strong woman” does not automatically equate to “good woman” or “woman who always behaves well”. As with any virtue, pushed too far strength can become unlikeable – a harridan of a boss, a difficult member of the family, for example.

Largely, how we react to people and characters in fiction is to do with our own internal scale, experience with similar characters and perception of our own strengths and weaknesses. This was brought home yet again to me when I did a little talk for a book group the other week. Some readers engage with one character in a novel, others see the book very differently. Different aspects appeal to different readers. It always happens.

The most forthright discussions I ever have are when a reader tells me she or he hated a character - and by extension, the novel – because the way they behaved was so terrible, or annoying or cruel, while I had put all the wrong emphasis on which was the “good” character which the “bad”. And I have to explain that the very complexity they dislike is the point of book: the writer is trying to use characters to reflect the complexities of life. It's possible for a sympathetic character to do something wrong without that incident making them a bad person through and through. Unpleasant characters can have redeeming features. Often our reaction to these specific events strikes a chord with a personal memory.

So I went back to find out some more about Sabine. She married Hadrian in 100 AD. According to some records she was only 13 which was on the young side even for the ancient Romans, and she was the great-niece of Hadrian’s guardian, the Emperor Trajan.

Now Hadrian gets a good press as Emperor. In addition to his military interests, he was passionate about architecture and construction. He ruled over a vast empire that was stable, with a strong economy, and he travelled to many of its outposts. To the people, he was an admired and popular figure.

But behind closed doors there’s another side to Hadrian. His marriage to Sabine was purely political, a disastrous union on the personal level. Young Sabine was his closest unmarried female relative, thus increasing the family’s powerbase, but there was never any love between them. The relationship was so antagonistic that he said he would have divorced her if he were not Emperor.

But what was the cause of this hostility and unhappiness on both sides? Well, a little more research reveals historians of the time freely admitting Hadrian’s “Hellenistic” tendencies – a love of all things Greek. For Hadrian, this extended to homosexuality and a particular attraction to young boys.

Hadrian’s page boy Antinous became “the slave of his unlawful pleasure” and “a loathsome instrument of his master’s lust”. When this youth was found drowned in the Nile while the court was in Egypt, his death sent Hadrian into a torment of grief. He made Antinous a deity, as it was the highest accolade he could bestow.

Yet against all this must be weighed the acceptance that Hadrian was no monster by the standards of the times. There’s no place for revisionism here: Hadrian was a great admirer of all things Greek, and among the intellectuals of ancient Greece the love between a man and a boy was considered the purest form of love. We can contrast his actions and the acceptance of them with the mores of the world now, but we cannot condemn him absolutely on our terms.

However, if we consider Sabine’s position now, what we can say is that her attitude to Hadrian might have made her a woman ahead of her time. But there again, the historians were men who gave a man’s account excusing Hadrian’s proclivities. They don’t record the effect on the woman he married, or the feelings of any of the women expected to understand and excuse the Hellenic ideal. Or indeed, the boys who caught his eye. All we can do is imagine from our own perspective.

You wonder, too, lost in admiration at the artistry involved, how much of this was in the mind of the sculptor when he created the statue of the Empress Sabine, and what an achievement it was to capture a tantalising essence of the woman that can still intrigue after two thousand years.

PS. The bust pictured isn’t Sabine. I found her in a junk shop years ago and reckon she started out as a garden ornament. But she fits into an alcove and I like her presence. 

Elizabeth Young’s blog is here.

Saturday 18 February 2012

The Empress Sabine

Further to the previous post about Roman remains in Provence, I couldn’t resist giving you an update on the identity of the intriguing statue of a woman in Vaison la Romaine. She is the Empress Sabine, wife of the Emperor Hadrian who ruled from AD 117 to 138. And she was indeed a strong and independent-minded woman.

The photo above shows another statue of her, from the Villa Adriana in Tivoli, Italy. She was born in AD 83 and married Hadrian while she was still a teenager. That must have been pretty normal in those times, but what wasn’t quite as normal was that she took steps never to have children with her husband because she feared their offspring would “harm the human race”! She had an affair, too, with the historian Suetonius.

And Hadrian was known as one of the good emperors…though he did enjoy stomping around in military uniform and spending a great deal of time with his armies. Most Britons know him as the man who built Hadrian’s Wall across the north of England to mark the northernmost boundary of the Roman empire.

There’s also a neat little coincidence in that Sabine is the name of a character in The Lantern – and it’s not a particularly common name either. How about that?!

This comes with thanks to Sacha for solving the mystery – her blog Un Jour…Une Photo is full of visual treats which you can find here. And if you are interested in reading more about Vaison and its Gallo-Roman past there’s a great link here.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Vaison la Romaine

‘What kind of treasure?’ we all wanted to know.
   ‘No one can say for certain. Most people say it’s a cache of gold coins. But it might be jewellery, or Roman swords and cups. The Romans were here, you know.’

                                                            From The Lantern

You can’t travel far in Provence without being reminded that the ancient Romans were here – and that it still bears the name given to the region by Julius Caesar, simply The Province. The mythological beauty of the countryside is underscored constantly by the loving preservation of classical ruins and the way other ancient buildings live on alongside the present. Some are still used, like the theatre at Orange, while others have simply melted into other walls.

A clear cold day in winter is my favourite time to visit such places, and here is Vaison la Romaine in the Haut-Vaucluse. There are no crowds and it’s possible to stand and gaze at the broken columns without having to filter out the present. What was it like to walk through those narrow roadways two thousand years ago?

What comes through most strongly for me is the sense of calm, though with big questions hovering that I may or may not want to think about. The passing of time, for one. The way what we are seeing in these weathered stones is ‘all passion spent’ for those who erected them – but survival of their spirit and vision.

The face of this statue of a woman – I should find out who she is, shouldn’t I – is striking. At first I thought she looked sad, but after a while it seemed her expression points to a woman who is contemplative, with strong opinions and character and a drive to understand the world around her. She looks like a book lover to me. 

Friday 10 February 2012

A Romantic Novelist

Some wonderfully heartening - and most unexpected - news announced this morning: The Lantern has been shortlisted in the Epic Romantic Novel category for the Romantic Novelists' Association's 2012 Awards. It's up against some very strong competition so I've not a crumb of expectation of this going any further, but just as it is, this is just the spur to the confidence I needed.

The RNA is much respected across the whole publishing industry here in the UK, and they are also renowned for the lovely parties they host! This time we'll all be hoisting a glass at One Whitehall Place in London for the annoucement of the category winners next month and I know it'll be a lot of fun.

Meanwhile, I'm back at my desk, cracking on. One laptop for writing, one for the internet. This is the way it works best for me, writing on the old one using Windows Vista. I get so furious with the Windows 7 on the new one as I can never find the edit icons I want! I've tried and failed to write on it - my temper won't hold long enough for any attempt at romantic lyricism. So the faithful old keyboard it is, some handwritten pages and a good old-fashioned thesaurus and I'm away.

You can read more about the Romantic Novelists' Association here in these links to The Bookseller and the RNA site:

The Bookseller
Romantic Novelists' Association

Oh, and if you thought for a moment that I was most uncreatively tidy, then here's a wider view of my study!

Tuesday 7 February 2012

On lavender sugar

As snow has fallen here in the south-east of England, I’ve been deep in the lavender fields of Provence as I work away at my novella. The first draft is nearly there but I’ve been breaking the days of intense concentration with walks out into the countryside beyond my window. The other day there was a granular quality to the snow, and so studded with tiny bits of leaf matter it was like stepping into lavender sugar.

The moment made me think of how perfect lavender biscuits can be with a cup of tea.  Here’s a very simple recipe, though if you find the taste of lavender too strong you could use sugar that has been stored in a sealed jar with sprays of lavender rather than the chopped flowers.

65 g caster sugar
175g butter
4 tablespoons icing sugar
1 handful finely chopped lavender, fresh or dried
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
160g plain flour
35g cornflour
Pinch of salt

Cream together the butter, caster sugar and icing sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the lavender and lemon zest. Combine the flour, cornflour and salt before adding to the butter and sugar mixture. Blend well until you have a smooth dough. Roll the dough into a ball, cover with cling film and refrigerate for an hour. Heat the oven to 170 C / Gas mark 3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough out to about half an inch in thickness. Cut into shapes and place on baking trays. Bake for about 20 minutes or until biscuits just begin to brown at the edges.

If that’s whetted your appetite, here’s a delicious-sounding recipe for lavender and mint shortbread cookies from Woody Creek Lavender Farm in the USA:

It sounds an idyllic place. “Our family lives simply and happily on our 27-acre farm east of Ceresco, Nebraska,’ writes Shawni Vincent Cook. ‘We have never felt so at home, so content and fulfilled as we do right now. I am rustling up the genes that have been calmly waiting their turn to dominate my life…given by both my grandmothers – they had no problem sewing an outfit at the last minute, canning an entire garden with a smile, or renovating a room in the house like it was just an average day.”

What is it about lavender farms that haunt the imagination, the very thought of which gives a sense of ease and contentment? I think it’s the way the senses seem to conjure up the fragrance at the very mention of the word.

Friday 3 February 2012

Winter wonderland

It really is snowing in Provence now - I'd heard whispers of it when I wrote my last post - and it's bitterly cold too, as it is across Europe. I couldn't resist putting these pictures up, taken some years ago and not by me. Even under a thick blanket of snow, there are enchantments - though you wouldn't want to stand too close to those icicles hanging off the roof of the bergerie...

Wednesday 1 February 2012

The strange calm of snow

          Snow took hold of the skeletal structures of the garden, coating seed heads and stalks. Soon the alliums and globe artichoke were extravagantly plumed in winter's coat. Life slowed into strange calm as disarray and decay was covered over, thickly smothered, hour by hour. 
                                                                                 From The Lantern

Winters can often be harsh in Provence, for all the luminous skies. When the snows come they can be heavy. In our village they still talk of a winter in the 1930s when the paths up to the village from the outlying hamlets were impassable for several weeks. The school was half-empty and so cold that the violet ink froze solid in the wells set in the wooden desks.

The isolating effect of snow in these hilltop villages is captured by artist Rahim Najfar in this painting, Bonnieux sous la Neige. The beautiful desolation of the winter sky holds pale reflections of spring colours. The exposed trees at the summit are clogged full of snow and wind. And you can almost feel the frozen stillness of the orchard trees lower down, the quiet closing down of life.

Rahim Najfar is an Iranian-born artist works in the picturesque village of Bonnieux, above. I’ve already blogged (here) about the masterly way understands the sizzling colours of summer in Provence. His studio and exhibition space in Place Carnot burst with big powerful landscapes, some completely abstract and always engaging of the senses. Some have 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.

But this painting is the exception: the winter scene that tells a more subtle story of life year-round in Provence, the contrasts and the cold.

 For Rahim Najfar’s website, click here.
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