Sunday 29 April 2012

Cassis revisited

When you think of the glamorous coastal resorts of the South of France, the first names to spring to mind are the really famous ones like Nice and Cannes, St Tropez and Juan-les-Pins. Then you discover Cassis, along the coast to the east of Marseille. This, you feel, as you wander down to the harbour in the warm evening, is what St Tropez must have been like fifty years ago.

Once a fishing village, Cassis is now a fashionably charming mooring for yachts and centre for sea trips. I wrote about it several times when I first started this blog - it has, after all, a relevance to The Lantern - and then haven't returned because I haven't returned in real life either for the past couple of years.

So instead of rewriting earlier posts, I'm just going to leave the links here, starting with what I wrote about the French artist Olivier Boissinot's stinging blue and turquoise painting (above) of the nearby Calanques.

Link: The Calanques: jazzy blue

Here's an early post about Cassis's literary connections. The Bloomsbury set came to the town in the 1920s, as did D H Lawrence to the equally enchanting resort of Sanary-sur-Mer further along the coast. Then there was Edith Wharton at Hyeres, where she wrote several novels, including The Age of Innocence.

Link: Red rocks at Cassis

And finally here's a very short post, mainly to illustrate the other-worldly red rocks in the wilder parts of this rocky Mediterranean coastline, as described by Eve in the opening chapter of my book.

Link: The rocks glow red

Friday 27 April 2012

Mysteries in stone

This little stone figure peeps from a casing high on a building at the corner of the Place de la Poste in St Christol in the Vaucluse. It's a confidently jaunty pose from this tiny chap in his frock coat. I've no idea who or what he represents, and I should have asked at the cafe opposite when I was there, but I didn't. These days it's all too easy to think that you can find out anything from the internet, but in this case I drew a blank. Though I did find a photo, taken at the start of the 20th century, of the building. You can just make out the lantern-shaped casing jutting out between the corner statue (of the Virgin and child) and the shuttered window:

Impossible to tell from this what it is, without knowing what you're looking for. Here it is closer in:

I'd gone to St Christol for other researches for the new novel and novella but, of course, once my imagination had been snagged I was left wondering. So much of the long history of Provence and the stories inlaid in the landscapes are left casually hidden in plain view. If you want the tales and explanations, you have to find the right person to ask and if you strike lucky, you'll be enlightened in the age-old way, by word of mouth.

It goes without saying, that if anyone who happens to read this knows about this statue, please do tell me! 

We might even have found a mysterious stone face of our own, at home. The light has to be right, but when it falls brightly from the south, I'm convinced this shows the weathered face of a cherub on the end of a step:

What do you think? Is this a stone that was re-used from somewhere else or is this yet another example of my over-active imagination spinning off into the realms of fantasy?

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Marsh orchids and other wildflowers

Dom pointed down the valley: ‘That’s full of cloud and mist on autumn mornings. It looks like snowfields.’
   He could have left it there and I would have assumed he was just speaking generally.
   ‘And the garden is full of wild flowers again – the moisture must bring them out,’ he went on.
   ‘How do you know?’
   He barely missed a beat. ‘Rachel and I came up here.’
                                               From The Lantern

Still in the garden with Eve and Dom (see previous post)…actually, it’s not only in autumn but throughout the year: there’s a constant springing of wildflowers in the meadow-like lawns whenever there is rain after a period of dryness.

After spring showers this year, the deep blue meadow clary is already staking its claim. There’s been a carpet of wild grape hyacinth and violet, and much that I can’t identify for certain but that I think includes sea rocket and fumitory or hounds-tongue. The white mop heads of hoary cress have begun their colonisation, along with massed ranks of comfrey and mallow.

Later in spring, if we’re lucky, we’ll find the marsh orchid, a fairly rare plant that I have never seen for myself anywhere else (photo above and below). It pops up holding waxy flowers on a strong straight stem from a most unpromising part of the garden where rubble and damp sandy soil are covered by tough grass.

Wild orchids in Europe are considered great prizes, and quite rightly so, but for me there’s a very similar beauty in a plant that would be considered the lowest of the low: the common stinging nettle, or lamia and its variations. Just look at the delicate petals and butterfly beauty of this one growing on our hillside.

I do love details like this (though I do appreciate that novels shouldn’t be overburdened with them; I’m working on it, honestly…). One of the unexpected pleasures of writing a blog and deciding to take my own photos to illustrate it has been in finding and capturing the images I want.

My camera now comes everywhere with me and even at home, many happy hours are spent wandering around not-quite aimlessly, pointing and shooting, then playing around with the image afterwards. There’s something about the instantaneous creativity that really appeals, when the process of writing and publishing a book is so long and complicated.

And of course, the pictures provide a vibrant reference library to complement the writer’s notebook.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Plinth and logophile

Together we managed to haul out what remained of the statue (head and torso and one arm), cleaned her battered body (but not too much), and propped her up against a wall, where she slumped, exhausted, a study in survival against the odds.
‘Do think she might preside over us?’ I asked. ‘When she recovers, obviously.’
He laughed, still out of breath. ‘I’d hope so, after all that.’
‘We could find her a nice spot.’
‘A plinth!’
He found her one, too: a plain cube of sandstone.

                                                                          From The Lantern

Plinth. It never occurred to me that a word like “plinth” could be troublesome. It’s the base on which a pillar or statue rests. But when I can gather the courage to have a look around the internet to see what the blog reviewers and readers are saying, I do find a fair few complaining that my vocabulary is too esoteric.

Well yes, I do have a decent command of the English language because I’m well-educated and interested in other languages too: I speak fluent French, basic German, and studied Latin at school. I enjoy words. And, quite importantly, in The Lantern the narrator Eve is a translator whose business is to choose words carefully.

There’s a separate point about why readers shouldn’t expect writers to write with confidence and flourish – when surely we’d expect professional sportsmen to play to the best of their ability without muttering darkly about them showing off, or musicians to give their best performances, or artists paint the best pictures they can?

Sometimes though, it’s simply the difference between English and American English. I was reminded of this when someone pointed out, at the end of my previous post, that “smartened up” was a very English phrase, meaning “spruced up”, cleaned and tidied. As I was writing about a place, I might equally well have used the term “gentrified”.

Most British people would be completely familiar with the word plinth, especially if they were garden enthusiasts. Just think how much worse the misunderstandings might have been if I’d gone for stylobate or crepidoma (look it up here!).

I’m going to invite the very funny British comedienne Miranda Hart, clearly a logophile herself, to have the final word. Watch out for the King of Words… (I so hope that this very short YouTube extract is accessible in the US – if not, I suggest searching for Miranda Hart + Moist Plinth.)

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Apt, the market town

If any town has a claim to being a market town, it is Apt. Every Saturday morning for 800 years, there has been a market in its narrow streets and squares; from June to September there's scarcely room to move for all the summer visitors jostling to sample the cheeses and olives, and smell the lavender, herbs and soaps. Now the stalls are full of spring goodies: the local white asparagus (sweet and wonderful with vinaigrette for lunch) and imported strawberries.

Much as I enjoy the market (I blogged about it in greater detail here: The 800-year-old market) I have to say that this is a place I love to wander around on a slow day, visiting all my favourite spots, like the parfumerie Senteurs et Provence, the bric-a-brac shops, the wonderful Librarie La Fontaine bookshop, the V Comme Vin wine boutique and the great mediaeval cathedral at the heart of this small, vibrant working town.

There are Roman ruins of a theatre currently being excavated after their discovery in the cathedral crypt - or rather the very start was found there: the theatre stretches far under the town. There are museums tucked away behind the streets of shops, telling the history of this unassuming place in the Calavon valley at the foot of the great Luberon ridge. The backstreets hold surprises, like the neighbourhood café called Du Coté de chez Swann after Proust's famous literary volume, and fabulous candied fruit sweet shops, one of Apt's traditional products.

Strolling with my camera the other day, I came across a display of old photographs showing that this was always a thriving hub of local commerce. This must have been taken a hundred years or more ago:

Even in the decades I've known Apt, it has been smartened up, especially along the main streets and around the squares. In the 1980s it was quite run-down but now there's pretty paint on shutters and stucco fronts of the buildings. But you don't have to go off the beaten track to get a glimpse of the age-old place where alleys and archways through thick stone walls attest to its long habitation in warrens of interlinking living spaces.

And that's part of the fascination too: the way the past exists alongside the present in every sense. Some of these walls have been in place for a thousand years. Who passed through these streets and what was happening in their lives? I can wander around for hours just letting my imagination take flight.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Quince blossom

"That's how artists change the world. They see beauty that is overlooked by the fashion of the day. Then others come to their shows and see in their turn, and so the truth of beauty is preserved. Except they don't come, and the truth is lost."
                                                         from All the Hopeful Lovers
                                                         by William Nicholson 

Impossible not to think of poor Vincent van Gogh as I read these lines in William Nicholson's novel; Van Gogh who only sold a handful of paintings in his lifetime, and whose talent was only recognised after his death. Of course, the truth of beauty isn't lost as the artist in the book claims, however deeply he feels, in his disappointment, that it is.

Wandering around the garden with my camera, I was struck by the simple truth of spring blossom against a blue Provencal sky, as depicted by Van Gogh in his Almond Blossom series, a version of which I saw at Les Baux the other day:

The quince tree (photo above) has all the clear beauty of the white against blue, and the fragility of petals still at the mercy of seasonal wind and rain.

William Nicholson is the kind of writer-artist who has an eye for telling detail, but all in a remarkably fluid and easy style. I came to this novel after loving the first of his I read, The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, a story - as is this sequel - of intertwining relationships and intimate thoughts. If you haven't discovered him yet, I suggest you treat yourself to his gentle (and not-so gentle) observations that might make you see the world a little differently.

The characters in his fictional Sussex countryside are instantly recognizable but Nicholson's masterly dissections pin their inner lives to the page to offer insights that have the weight of universal truths. Connections between individuals - some loose, some close - as their lives interweave seem judicious rather than forced for the sake of a story. Just like real life, in other words, but with all pretence gone: closely examined and enhanced in order to offer understanding. Which has to be the aim of art in any form.

In such a mood of admiration and reverie, I stood staring for a long time at the quince, the way the warm rose of the buds fades to a shell pink. How could I use it in my own writing? How many quinces will result from such a profusion of flowers...? The fruit is a knobbly brute of a hard yellow pear, but the flavour is delicate and subtle. If you leave them around the house in autumn, they release a fragrant aroma that is supposed to banish any mustiness. There might be something in that...

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Van Gogh and Gauguin at Les Baux

Yesterday I stood inside a painting by Vincent Van Gogh: surrounded, taken up and transported by colour and movement. Music by Saint-Saens seemed to push the images around vast spaces. Cornfields rippled and were echoed in different views, the starry night intensified above and below.

At Les Baux de Provence, the old bauxite quarry has metamorphosised into an extraordinary art venue. The current show is Gauguin, Van Gogh: Painters of Colours. The entrance is in a curtain of grey rock and gives little indication of the experience about to unfold.

An ordinary-looking door opens into a vast, dark and chilly space, and then the eye starts to make sense of the light show in progress. We arrived as huge yellow rush chairs appeared amid Arlesien street scenes painted by Van Gogh. On great rectangular pillars 14-metres high were pictures of and by the artist, all projected on different surfaces through the enormous chambers, and all moving languidly to music.

The theme of the exhibition is the different ways these two Northern European painters used colour to express their artistic release in the warmth and light of the South of France in the later part of the nineteenth century - Gauguin then famously travelling on to Tahiti.

It's hard to do justice in words to this astonishing artistic endeavour. We were left dumbstruck by the inventiveness and vision of the designers Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto and Massimiliano Siccardi. In these cavernous spaces, Les Carrieres de Lumieres is a permanent video installation, the largest in France, with 70 video projectors and surfaces that emblazon images on more than 6,000 square metres of wall, ceiling and floor. The result is just magical.

When we talked about it afterwards, what came through so clearly was that these are the kind of events the French do so magnificently. This is high culture: art, history and music all presented in a thrilling way. The music is of the period - Saint-Saens, Brahms, Ravel - and appropriate to the artistic movement of the time. All the images are from the paintings, and show the journey from cold north to Provencal landscapes and on to the South Seas in monumental scope and animation. There's no obligatory dumbing-down to make it "relevant" for young people as so often at home; there are no flashing lights and fast cutting to rap music. It is purely itself, and contains moments of indescribable beauty.

The exhibition will be on all summer and runs through until 6 January 2013.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Happy Easter!

Easter has sent the chocolate makers of France into a frenzy of ever more elaborate creations. Shops are stuffed with eggs, rabbits and hens, all presented with miles of ribbon and chic plastic packaging. Here's the window of Apt's finest patissier-confiseur J. C. Rousset - a personal opinion, of course, as the French will happily debate the relative merits of competing establishments (especially where bread and desserts are concerned) with gusto and forensic attention to detail.

And it may be Easter Sunday but there were plenty more shoppers with exacting standards at the local Vide Grenier this morning. This may be of lesser quality than a Brocante - literally, a "Clear the Attic" sale - but the crowds were out and the prices ranged as ever from the near-gift to the insanely optimistic. (Perhaps both ends of the scale are a reaction to the eye-wateringly high cost of all the Easter chocolate: the large egg pictured, gleaming dark and red-marbled, was 53 euros...) 

A bright sun shone cruelly on many of the dustier items but in amongst the mountains of rubbish, you can always find gems at these events. Today there was plenty of nice glassware, and some interesting pieces of garden furniture. Here's what we came back with, given that our intent was just a stroll around under blue skies: a small wooden side-table, useful in all sorts of places, for 5 euros and a pretty tray for one euro. Last of the big spenders, eh? But there's nothing like coming back with a bargain!

Thursday 5 April 2012

Paris and pantomime

So...we were in Paris a few days ago. (Oh, yes we were...) The sun shone on the Louvre. The glass pyramid sparkled.
   'The Stoo-Reasons,' I offered.'With their son Stan.'
   A moment's thought from the pantomime king.
   'No,' he said. 'Mr and Mrs Dingroom-Only and their son Stan.'
   'You're right, much better.'
   We were on the embankment of the Seine by now, the great river golden.
   'I don't know how you do it,' I said, with some irony intended.
   'Mr and Mrs Pier-Wit and their son Ray,' he replied, to settle the matter.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Periwinkles and pantomime

It's not panto season...oh, yes it is in this house! For the past few weeks as I've battled to get a serious edit of the novella done before the Easter holidays, jolly tunes have risen from the piano. Rob is writing a new pantomime. Each time I venture out of my study upstairs, the proud composer insists I listen and then laugh at his latest lines.

Running gag this weekend, to which all family and visitors have been contributing, began with Mr and Mrs Winkle and their son Perry. Although they quickly changed their name to Odic-Table. Indulge us. Some very old jokes but they do make us laugh. They'll still be making the Noel Coward of the village panto laugh during each and every performance next winter. His uncontrollable appreciation of the gags is as much a feature of the show as the venerable spotlight operator ("Got '!").

So here we go. At the entrance to the ballroom, the master of ceremonies announces the arrival of guests:

"Mr and Mrs Odic-Table...and their son Perry"
"Mr and Mrs Wall-Carpeting...and their son Walter"
"From the Scottish Highlands, Major and Mrs Champions...and their son Wee Arthur"
"Mr and Mrs Hanger-Ending...and their son Cliff"
 - and my particular favourite -
"Lord and Lady Tiques-Roadshow...and their daughter Ann"

As you can see, no chance of being precious about writing novels at our place. To those readers who thought that the piano-playing Dom in The Lantern was too quiet and mysterious, all I can say is, if only...!
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