Archive for November, 2012

The Book Haven goes to Lagrasse, home of “Banquet des Livres”

Thursday, November 29th, 2012
Wine, books, philosophy, conviviality ... and a very good vieux prune and eau de vie.

Wine, books, philosophy, conviviality … and a very good vieux prune and eau de vie.

When I told friends in Paris I was going to Lagrasse, no one had even heard of it.  “Grasse?” they kept asking in puzzlement.  “Non, Lagrasse,” I kept insisting. They didn’t quite believe me.

Chez moi … at least for a day or two

Yet this little village in Languedoc-Roussillon is a gem is rated as one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.” Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrénées, it hosts a twice-a-year literary festival, Banquet des Livres and also hosts a very active philosophy society.  As Libération puts it: “Au cœur des Corbières, le village de Lagrasse mêle le goût du vin à celui de la parole, la philosophie à la littérature, l’exigence à la convivialité.”

Charlemagne okayed it.

I went on a walking tour along the narrow medieval streets with a friend I hadn’t seen in 35 years – the way-back days in Pokhara and Kathmandu.  The village of about 500 is easily walkable.  A few minutes walk away from his home, where I’m a guest for a few days, is the abbey built in the time of Charlemagne, and the 1303 Pont-Vieux à Lagrasse on the river l’Orbieu.

We are in the very south of France, close to the Spanish border.  Lots of signs say that this is “Pays Cathars” – an odd thing to brag about, since the Cathars were slaughtered mercilessly in these parts.  For me, it was a bit like seeing advertisements directing drivers to the locales of concentration camps.

But after a spirited dinner party (with an excellent locally made vieux prune and eau de vie), my dinner companions explained to me that the Cathar movement symbolized local resistance, and is a sign of local pride.

Maybe.  I guess I can see it.

Simone Weil of course wrote a great deal about the Albigensian crusades that routed out the Cathar heresy.  I like this quote from her the best: “Official history is believing the murderers at their word.”


Ovid: Middlebrook’s last passion comes to light

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Mama’s boy.

When the legendary biographer Diane Middlebrook died of cancer in 2007, she left behind an unfinished manuscript about the Roman poet who had been her lifelong passion. Had death not halted her progress, Ovid: A Biography would almost certainly be in print by now.

In her last months, she tried to radically revamp her book into a study of Ovid’s early years, Young Ovid. Finally she had to abandon the project altogether, leaving as her completed legacy Anne Sexton: A Biography (1992), Suits Me: The Double Life of Billie Tipton (1999), and Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, A Marriage (2003).

Her executors, her daughter Leah Middlebrook and literary scholar Nancy K. Miller, are working to publish the completed sections of the book. The first of their efforts has been published in the current edition of Feminist Studies as “20 March, 43 BCE: Ovid is Born.”

Her work cut short.

The piece describes childbirth practices in ancient Rome as well as the role of Ovid’s family – particularly his mother – in his writing and his life.

“Was it in childhood that Ovid’s imagination was captivated by what went on among women sitting together over their spindles and their looms?” Middlebrook asks. “If Ovid’s poetry is original in its treatment of fathers, it is unique in ancient literature in its representation of the social world that women created for themselves within the household, a world largely concealed from the attention of men. Women of all ages and kinds appear and interact with one another in Ovid’s tales, enriching the world of the poem and broadening its emotional and social reach. If an unwelcome man should arrive on the scene, interrupting the women, this world would immediately fold itself up and away out of sight. A male child of less than 7 years, however, might have been a tolerated exception.”

Stanford colleague and friend Terry Castle said of the article (which can be ordered online here), “It’s a lovely memorial to Diane, but also a marvelously interesting essay on Ovid and the nature of childbirth in ancient Rome: a feminist topic if ever there were one.”

(By the by, I just discovered Diane Middlebrook’s 1998 lecture on Ovid online here.)

Paris: inescapable culture, love at first sight

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

The superb Prélude de Paris playing for free in Colette Place. (Photo: C.L. Haven)

It’s hard to avoid cultural life in Paris – unless you put your mind to it.  And to my continual surprise, some people do precisely that.

As I was leaving my apartment today to say farewell to a few haunts in Paris, I heard a professional or quasi-professional choir on the streets below singing Christmas carols to an audience of passers-by.  By the time I got to Colette Place next to the Louvre, I ran into Prélude de Paris playing Vivaldi for whoever would like to listen.  (If you would like to listen to them, try here.)

Lonely guy.

Meanwhile, since Paris is the City of Love, I have to confess I fell hard while visiting the celebrated “Raphaël, les dernières années” at the Louvre, a historic collection exhibition in partnership with Prado (it continues till January 14). The Louvre itself lends itself to the sublime – and so does Jean-Baptiste, at right.  He was skilfully set in a small passageway of great paintings, all making the same gesture.  But he was … special.

Now here’s the thing:  I was all alone in my passion.  Everyone was swarming where they were told to swarm – the pack was thick around some of the bigger paintings, but Leonardo da Vinci‘s stunning work was all by its lonesome. It is believed to be Leonardo’s last painting, sometime between 1513-1516.

Different story a few floors above (no pun intended).  In deference to Zbigniew Herbert‘s poem, I dutifully made the trek, following the prominent signs, to the Mona Lisa.  I couldn’t get within 15 feet of it, the crowds waving cellphones at it, like masses of seaweed swaying on the ocean floor.

My friend Max Taylor said it’s the same old, same old:  “I will never forget the first time I saw this painting, in July 1976, about a month before I turned fifteen. The Mona Lisa was behind glass a few paintings away on the same wall and was attracting all the attention, while everyone was ignoring this mysterious and fascinating painting.”

My friend and artist Susan Williamson told me I better enjoy it while it lasts.  He will not always be “‘a light that shineth in the darkness.” Jean-Baptiste is about to vanish on me.  Apparently Leonardo, who was always experimenting with pigments, mixed resin tar tar in one of the layers of paint. Susan has tried it herself, and said it gives a beautiful, honey-colored glow to her painting … at first.  Then it keeps darkening and darkening over the years, to pitch black eventually.  It’s not a fixable problem, because the resin and paint and tar are all mixed up together.

Enjoy him while he lasts.  He’s worth it.  Only another century or so to go … then pffffftttt!

Toute seule: “One can never be alone enough to write.”

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

Is it really so bad? The view outside my window. (Louvre at back, with trees of the Jardin du Palais Royal.)

Paris is for lovers, right?  Mais non.

I actually enjoy wandering the narrow streets of the first arrondissement alone, exploring the byways that open unexpectedly to a spectacular scene like the autumn trees of the Jardin du Palais Royal, or ducking out to the fromagerie for some Roquefort from the Pyrenées, or discovering a 200-year-old bakery around the corner, Au Grand Richelieu, which provides homemade marrons glacés – or simply sitting alone, in my tiny studio apartment overlooking the Louvre.  There is no one to mediate or mitigate my interaction with the city – it’s a direct hit, every step I take.

Susan Sontag, who adored Paris, nevertheless found being alone a drag – even for a quick croissant and coffee in the morning with Le Monde.  She told memoirist  Sigrid Nunez that when she was alone, her “mind went blank” like “static on the screen when a channel stops broadcasting.” Yet she also claimed, “One can never be alone enough to write.”  Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?

Emily Cooke discusses the writer’s solitude over at The New Inquiry:  “Being alone lets you develop, become strange, be mad. If to be with people is to be socialized, to submit your rough edges to the whetstone of others’ desires, to be asocial is to be ragged and, thus, original.”

Sontag falls under her lorgnette, but so does Vivian Gornick and Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 11/25:  My friend Pierre de Taille over at La Plume Périodique  tells me what I already knew: “Roquefort cheese is not from the Pyrenées but from the region of the village of Roquefort, south of Le Massif Central (  There are similar kinds of cheeses in the Pyrénées, one of the best being from the town of Salies-du-Salat, a little hard to find but delicious.”  What can I say?  They told me it was Roquefort from the Pyrenées, but maybe they didn’t want to explain to all their customers why a very similar cheese is from the Pyrenées.  It just confuses us.  The price would certainly suggest it was hard-to-find. Thanks, Pierre!

Happy Thanksgiving! Celebrate with a bag of marrons glacés.

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

As soon as I read this passage in Marcel Proust‘s Swann’s Way, I knew I must have one:

Being the only rather vulgar person in our family, she took care to point out to strangers, when they were talking about Swann, that, had he wanted to, he could have lived on the boulevard Haussmann or the avenue de l’Opéra, that he was the son of M. Swann, who must have left four or five million, but that this was his whim.  One that she felt moreover must be so amusing to others that in Paris, when M. Swann came on New Year’s Day to bring her her bag of marrons glacés, she never failed, if there was company, to say to him: “Well, Monsieur Swann! Do you still live next door to the wine warehouse, so as to be sure of not missing the train when you go to Lyon?”  And she would look out of the corner of her eye, over her lorgnon, at the other visitors.

These candied chestnuts migrated to northern Italy and southern France after the Crusades.  Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about them:

“The earliest known record of a recipe for marrons glacés was written by the French at the end of 17th century in Louis XIV‘s Versailles court.  In 1667, François Pierre La Varenne, ten years’ chef de cuisine to Nicolas Chalon du Blé, Marquis of Uxelles (near Lyon and a chestnut-producing area), and foremost figure of the nouvelle cuisine movement of the time, published his best-selling book Le parfaict confiturier. In it he describes ‘la façon de faire marron pour tirer au sec’ (‘the way to make (a) chestnut (so as) to “pull it dry”‘); this may well be the first record of the recipe for marrons glacés. ‘Tirer au sec’ means, in a confectionery context, ‘to remove (what’s being candied) from the syrup’. La Varenne’s book was edited 30 times in 75 years.”

Good enough for him.

So that’s how I celebrated my Thanksgiving.  Returning home from the Sorbonne, I stopped in a boulangerie on the Rue de Richelieu for a baguette, and saw a enormous pile of marrons glacés.  I had my doubts.  The little suckers were going for 1.80 euros apiece.  I’ve never been able to quite make friends with the humble chestnut – you know, the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and so on every Christmas – and that, despite making a reasonably good chestnut soufflé in the wintertime.  But the marron glacé?  Un vrai délice!

Have a happy Thanksgiving.  And don’t pass them up, if you get the chance.

(Or try the recipe here.)


Bad sex in good books

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

It is too late to make your own nominations this year, but London’s Literary Review is about to announce this year’s winners for one of the world’s most dreaded competitions:  the 20th annual award for the most embarrassing passage of sexual description in a novel, to take place  on December 4, 2012.

According to Jonathan Beckman, a senior editor, wrote in the Financial Times last year: Auberon Waugh, Literary Review’s former editor, founded the prize with crusading purpose. He was genuinely convinced that publishers were encouraging novelists to include sex scenes solely in order to increase sales. The award’s remit was ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it’. But it is rather hard to convey the redundancy of a passage to an audience that has not read the entire novel, and so the prize has evolved to acknowledge the absurd, the implausible, the overwritten and the unwittingly comical.”

This year’s finalists are:

  • The Yips by Nicola Barker
  • The Adventuress by Nicholas Coleridge
  • Infrared by Nancy Huston
  • Rare Earth by Paul Mason
  • Noughties by Ben Masters
  • The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills
  • The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine
  • Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe  (he was a 2004 winner, too!)

I think they’ll have difficulty topping previous winners.  Rowan Somerville was awarded for this passage in The Shape of Her: “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.”  Tom Wolfe winning 2004 entry in I Am Charlotte Simmons: “Moan moan moan moan moan went Hoyt as he slithered slithered slithered slithered and caress caress caress caress went the fingers.”

Go over to the #LRBadSex2012 twitter hashtag to check out some of this year’s more promising contenders. How about this one? “She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of custard.”

Beckman wrote: “It did not occur to me on joining the magazine that my job would include, every autumn, the corralling of a selection of egregious descriptions of sexual activity.”

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.  The difficult work is described in the video below.

Chez moi – old neighborhood, eminent neighbors, and a long wait

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

My neighbors at the Palais-Royal.

Diderot lived and died here.

So, while waiting for my luggage, and deepening my relationships with the baggage resolution personnel at United Airlines, I finally did spend a few minutes this afternoon wandering around my neighborhood, with my cellphone handy in case I had to rush back home for a joyful reunion with my suitcase.  Alas, the phone call never came… (we’re getting close to three days now).  Clearly, this arrondissement is big on the 17th century – so am I, so it’s a nice match.

Colette lived and died here.

Daniel Medin was right in telling me that this is a literary neighborhood – but really, aren’t all Paris neighborhoods literary ones?  Certainly my previous digs near the Eiffel Tower had its share of literary associations. Since I could not meet Daniel at the Louvre today as we had hoped, this increasingly grubby woman could explore the sites that Colette, Diderot, Molière, Corneille, and even Peruvian writer César Vallejo (1892-1938) called home – or at least a place to die.

A few blocks away, French tragedian Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) is entombed at the magnificent Eglise St. Roch.  Nearby, the Comédie-Française, which reaches back to the days of Molière (1622-1673). Good company for an afternoon walk.

The brouhaha with the airlines reminds me of the famous saying of Colette (1873-1954), “Plus je connais les hommes, plus j’aime mes chats.”  Mes chats are far away, but I’ll settle for the company of a few ghosts, these eminent and familiar spirits.

This one, however, disquiets me.  A marker for Ludovic J. Jacquinot, one of the “group of angels” who “fell gloriously” on the 26th of August, 1944.  The name, which has slightly Slavic resonances for me, reminds me of the ones I saw in Poland, trying in my off-hours to find out what I could about these wartime victims and heroes.  Unlike his Polish counterparts, however, there were no flowers at Ludovic’s marker.

There’s not much about him online. The FFI, or “Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur,” were the French Resistance fighters at the tail-end of the war. He may have been an architect, and may have lived on this or that street.  He was forty years old, and of course did not fall but was “tué,” under what circumstances it isn’t clear, except that it occurred here, at 2 rue des Pyramides.  Who remembers him?  I will, I guess.

Postscript:  Voilà!  My luggage has arrived while I have been writing this.  What a glorious thing it is to be clean again.

36 hours in France: Have I become a Proustitute?

Saturday, November 17th, 2012

Je retourne.

My arrival in the First Arrondissement of Paris, sans luggage, has had one advantage, besides familiarizing me with the personnel at United Airlines, who, in the last 36 hours, still haven’t returned my toothbrush, my clothes, my medical prescriptions, the books for my research, or anything else I had packed. It has been a monk-like existence in the sixth-floor apartment, the sole excursion being to my beloved Galerie Mazarine at the La Bibliothèque Nationale de France again.  Amid the Parisian students, I figured one more grubby, earnest person would pass largely unnoticed and unremarked.

Here’s what else the seclusion has done:  It has brought me at last to Marcel Proust.  In all the whoop-de-do about Proust’s madeleines, passages like this one, early in Swann’s Way, tend to be overlooked.  It’s the one that sold me as I read on the train, and read in my studio overlooking the Louvre:

Proust as teenager

Proust as teenager

“But even with respect tot he most insignificant things in life, none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others.  Even the very simple act that we call ‘seeing a person we know’ is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part. In the end they swell his cheeks so perfectly, follow the line of his nose in an adherence so exact, they do so well at nuancing the sonority of his voice as though the latter were only a transparent envelope that each time we see this face and hear this voice, it is these notions that we encounter again, that we hear.  No doubt, in the Swann they had formed for themselves, my family had failed out of ignorance to include a host of details from his life in the fashionable world that caused other people, when they were in his presence, to see refinements rule his face and stop at his aquiline nose as though at their natural frontier; but they had also been able to garner in this face disaffected of its prestige, vacant and spacious, in the depths of these depreciated eyes, the vague, sweet residue – half memory, half forgetfulness – of the idle hours spent together after our weekly dinners, around the card table or in the garden, during our life of good country neighborliness.

So what?

The corporeal envelope of our friend had been so well stuffed with this, as well as with a few memories relating to his parents, that this particular Swann had become a complete and living being, and I have the impression of leaving one person to go to another distinct from him, when, in my memory, I pass from the Swann I knew later with accuracy to that first Swann – to that first Swann in whom I rediscover the charming mistakes of my youth and who in fact resembles less the other Swann than he resembles other people I knew at that time, as though one’s life were like a museum in which all the portraits from one period have a family look about them, a single tonality – to that first Swann abounding in leisure, fragrant with the smell of the old chestnut tree, the baskets of raspberries, and a sprig of tarragon.

For a different take on Proust, the famous madeleines, and “odor memory,” try here.

Postscript: My thanks to Twitter’s Proustitute, the founder of Sharing Poetry, who may have coined the term “Proustitute.”

“America’s birth certificate”

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012
Here it is...America's birth certificate, signed by Martin Waldseemüller

Here it is…America’s birth certificate, signed by Martin Waldseemüller

Twelve large sheets, assembled together in a 4′ X 7.5′ spread, form the 1507 map that has been called “America’s birth certificate.”

Like father…

Last night, I listened to Chet Van Duzer discuss his latest book, Seeing the World Anew (Library of Congress/ Levenger Press).  He spoke about both the 1507 and 1516 maps by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller – but it was the earlier, dreamier map that caught my attention imagination.  Especially since it’s the first map to mention “America” by that name.  Or rather, by the name of the man who was the first explorer to decide that the Americas were not the eastern tip of Asia, but a whole different continent – or, put another way, he saw the Pacific as a separate body of water.

…like son.

America was named for him, but who was he named for?  That story falls outside the world of cartography and takes us back to saints. It seems this Florentine was named for an obscure 11th-century Hungarian, St. Emeric – which is to say, “Henry,” or in Hungarian, “Imre.” He was the crown prince of Hungary; his father was the legendary founding king of Hungary, St. Stephen.  The lad was killed by a boar at age 24, and buried church of Székesfehérvár.  (Is it just me, or does it seem like lots of folks in those days were killed by boars?)

When Waldseemüller made the 1516 map, Vespucci suffered a huge demotion, and had been supplanted by Christopher Columbus. He disappeared from the maps and from popular imagination. Still, it’s nice to know my homeland has been named for a Hungarian.

I didn’t hear the whole talk – I had to tiptoe off to the Humanities Center for Tobias Wolff leading a discussion of William Maxwell‘s So Long, See You Tomorrow, the debut event of “Another Look” book club.


Notting Hill Editions: Irish saints, Dutch executioners, and “a crumb of helpless goodness”

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

Alas, the books pile up faster than I have time to read them – or, in some cases, even look at them.

Some months ago, I received an unbidden package from the U.K., and I’ve only just now broken the cellophane on the two books that were enclosed.  Notting Hill Editions is “devoted to the best in essayistic nonfiction writing.” It’s an excellent series, sized for the “Tube-bound intellectual,” according to the very thorough website, which includes  Harry Mount‘s weekly journal.  Beyond their portability, the superb cloth-covered books in a rich spectrum of colors are classy and very affordable at £ 10.00 each.

The two that arrived in my mailbox are the orange-bound edition of Zbigniew Herbert‘s classic Still Life with a Bridle (translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter) and Hubert Butler‘s The Eggman and the Fairies, Irish Essays (edited by John Banville), in a suitably Irish green.

In gratitude for the gift, I can do no better than site a few passages from both.  I have not chosen these passages entirely at random; they are neither the most representative nor the most elegant passages of the books, but instead I was drawn by two eloquent passages about mysterious nature of mercy and charity.

Butler’s discussion of “the movement for the rehabilitation of Celtic saints, which had begun in chivalry, [and] had ended in sterility.” The author, who died at 90 in 1991, writes in “Saints, Scholars and Civil Servants”:

Ailbe in infancy: he worked his way up to lions

But why should it be undermining to our morals or bruising to our national pride if one were to argue that the Irish saints were many of them the tribal gods of a gentle and intelligent people, whose racial origins retreat so far into history that to use the national terms for them, Celt, Iberian, Gaulish, would not be easy? I was brought up in the diocese of St. Canice, but the less I believed in him, the more I was fascinated by him. He covered five Irish counties and as many Scottish and Welsh ones with his churches and miracles.  He left his crozier in Iona, the little toe of his right foot in northern Italy, and, standing on one leg, was fed by seagulls in the Gower Peninsula. He is a link between the medieval world and one that is immemorially old. Those who treat him as a monastic fiction are as wrong as Cardinal Moran, who saw him in his own image as a busy Irish prelate with widespread diocesan responsibilities.  The lives of the Irish saints reflect an ingenious innocence, a primaeval charity, that links them with Greek legend and the beginnings of poetry. For example, when St. Ailbe, travelling in Italy, resurrected two  horses and their groom, who had been killed by lions, he took pity on the hungry, disappointed carnivores and arranged for a suitable meal (an aptum prandium) to come down Heaven for them on a cloud.

Of course we’ve always loved Herbert – Seamus Heaney says, “He shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility.” Herbert’s essay, “The Mercy of the Executioner,” describes the execution of the statesman Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, who had “defended his honor rather than his life” at trial:

Defended his honor more than his life

When they brought in the condemned man, the crowd fell silent. Van Oldenbarnevelt was hurrying toward death: ‘What you must do, do it fast,’ he urged the executors of the verdict.

The something happened that went far beyond the ritual of execution, beyond the procedure of any known execution. The executioner led the condemned man to a spot where the sunlight was falling and said, ‘Here, Your Honour, you will have sun on your face.’ …

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s executioner broke the rules of the game, left his role, and, what is more, violated the principles of professional ethics. Why did he do it? Certainly it was an impulse of the heart. But didn’t the condemned man, who was stripped of all earthly glory, perceive derision in it? After all, it is indifferent to those who are leaving for ever whether they die in the sun, in shadow, or the darkness of night. The executioner, artisan of death, became an ambiguous figure filled with potential meaning when to the condemned man – in his last moment – he threw a crumb of helpless goodness.

Banville on Butler below: