For me it was a story about a man called Mr Flop who was a flower collector. Mr Flop gathered up faded and dying flowers and whisked them off on a flying apple-tree branch (sort of prototype of Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000) to the Kingdom of Flowers where they ‘regained their lost beauty and perfume and became more beautiful than ever’.
I loved the idea, but even more appealing was that Mr Flop whisked off the young heroine for a magical visit to the Kingdom on his flying branch. And what was the young heroine’s name? Alice? Dorothy? Wendy? No, they’d already had their fun. It was Laurette.
I had my first crush aged thirteen in a small village in the north of France, not far from Amiens. It was the end of a long journey for a group of excited grammar school girls from a working class town in the north of England. We were going on a ‘French exchange’. We were going ‘abroad’. Oh the resonance of that word. Abroad – different, exotic, possibly dangerous, and undeniably, 100%, ‘foreign’. It was heady. Some of us had never even been outside Yorkshire apart from the odd day trip to Blackpool, which in spite of the Tower and the funny accent, could hardly be called foreign.
I don’t remember much about our arrival. We were all tired and probably fell straight asleep in our foreign beds with their funny sausage-shaped pillows. But I do remember the first morning, awaking to an amazing smell. Downstairs in the kitchen of my penfriend’s house I discovered my first ‘ficelle’, another sausage-shaped object, this one long, thin, crusty, golden and warm to the touch. Anne-Marie split it longways, slathered it with butter and jam from a jar labelled ‘confiture d’abricots’ and handed it over. I would later discover rows of similar jars lining the shelves of the ‘grenier’, the loft, along with boxes of apples in slatted wooden crates, and herbs hanging from the ceiling. The second morning was even more amazing. Anne-Marie and I were ordered by ‘Maman’ to go and buy the ficelles–still in our pyjamas and dressing gowns!
We stepped out into a hot summer’s morning, the dust rising from the village street beneath our slippers, and pushed open the door of the boulangerie. Inside were several ladies, also in nightwear, exchanging the latest news, speaking in high rapid voices with a lot of hand-waving and ‘dis-donc’s. Their hair was a gleaming confection of undulating waves and complicated curls, their eyebrows perfect, glistening arcs, and waves of eau-de Cologne from their morning ‘toilette’ mingled with the smell of baking bread. It was dizzying and dazzling. Strangely, they were all wearing the same silky dressing gown, a navy blue model with white spots, belted neatly at the waist. (Several years later, watching a rerun of the classic horror film ‘Les Diaboliques’ I discovered Vera Clouzot wearing an identical version as she helped Simone Signoret drown her husband in the bath tub.)
La joie de vivre. The joy of biting into that perfect ficelle, of lingering in the potager in the falling dusk, bats flitting and ‘Papa‘ watering the tomatoes, of being welcomed into the perfumed embrace of the glamourous ladies in the boulangerie every morning, of comparing bra sizes with Anne-Marie in the bathroom mirror (2 white egg cups, 2 pink egg cups), of hanging out of the bedroom window hoping to catch a glimpse of the tobacconist’s son (he of the convict-cropped hair and bold black eyes), of lying in a boat in the middle of a lake, catching the flash of a swooping kingfisher or the menacing shadow of a drifting pike. Taking the time to enjoy life’s pleasures, le temps de vivre. Freedom was a relatively new concept in a country which still remembered the wounds of a six-year Occupation.
The seed of love had been planted that year and it continued to grow, nurtured through successive holidays. A summer in Brittany as a camp counsellor, herding singing crocodiles of little French girls in plimsolls and cotton hats through the country lanes leading to the beach. The beach itself, all fine white sand, swimming lessons where you hung on to the fillettes by the straps of their woollen swimsuits hoping they didn’t stretch far enough for them to plunge to the seabed and drown. Rockpools, starfish, picnic lunches of cold omelettes and Breton pancakes. At nightfall, a return trip for the older girls to lie on the sand and contemplate a million stars or gaze out at an ocean shimmering with phosphorescence.
Later, other beaches, further south approached through pine forests echoing with the strident vibrato of cicadas. The crash of the surf, rows of burnished women in bikinis and ankle chains stretched out like cats on sunbeds, the tap of balls hitting wooden rackets. The palm-fringed beach, a salty breeze coming in across the blue yacht-studded water, wafts of Ambre Solaire and the smell of beignets and chouchous. And it would be on these summer holidays, spreading the towels and putting up the beach umbrella for the first time, that I would listen out for that most beautiful and evocative of sounds, the laughter of children. Racing in terror from the waves, splashing each other in mock fights, digging holes in the sand, wriggling out of the grasp of suncream-bearing parents, launching themselves onto rubber rings. The embodiment of what it is to be joyful and carefree, to be insouciant. La joie de vivre. Le temps de vivre.
On July 14th this year, day of the Fête Nationale, an Islamic terrorist killed 85 people who were out enjoying the firework display in Nice. 307 others were injured. The following week, in a small church in Normandy, an 85-year-old priest was forced to his knees to have his throat cut. It was the 11th attack in 18 months by Islamic terrorists, starting with the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre. Bombings, stabbings, shootings, beheadings and vehicle rammings. This year, in the second half of July, children playing on the beaches of France saw a new and terrible sight, soldiers and police patrolling with machine guns.
‘…le passé, peut-il renaître?’ ‘Can the past live again?’ asks Yvonne de Galais, heroine of ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’, that most devastating of novels about adolescent friendship and the quest for ideal happiness. And Meaulnes himself tells his friend François Seurel that, when he found the mysterious Domain where Yvonne lived, ‘I had reached a height, a degree of perfection and purity that I will never reach again’, adding ‘Dans la mort seulement…je retrouverai peut-être la beauté de ces jours-là…’ ‘Only in death, perhaps, will I find the beauty of those days once again.’
Packing up our suitcases I realise that this is the end of a French idyll. Those summer holidays with their carefree children are gone. For many of us, who knew what it was like before, we shall look back on how it was and mourn the end of insouciance.
It was good to rediscover Kamel Daoud’s voice once more in a recent article in The New York Times:
In the spring of 2016 the talented Algerian author of prize-winning novel ‘The Meursault Investigation’* had announced he was giving up journalism after his article about the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne had provoked a torrent of violent recriminations from a group of 19 French academics in Le Monde.
Accused of ‘pathetic clichés’, ‘colonialist paternalism,’ ‘anti-humanism’, racism and Islamophobia, Daoud replied that he found their reaction ‘immoral’: ‘They don’t live in my flesh nor in my land and I find it illegitimate, scandalous even, that I am accused of Islamophobia by certain people sitting in the safety and comfort of their western cafés. All dished up like a Stalinist trial…’
For 20 years Daoud, writing in the newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran, had adressed such controversial issues as religious freedom and women’s rights. ‘Women’s freedom is my freedom,’ he said at a literary festival in Germany. A fatwah calling for his execution was announced in 2014 by a salafist imam.
Ironically, (and happily), two months after the media controversy, Daoud was awarded the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardère for Journalist of the Year. Denis Olivenne, presenting the prize, spoke of ‘his courage as a journalist…in the tradition of great writer/journalists such as Camus and Mauriac.’ French Prime Minister Manuel Valls congratulated ‘a brave journalist who refused to be cowed’, adding ‘Freedom to inform is also the right to blaspheme and be irreverent, a fundamental principle that France will defend to the last.’
*‘Meursault, contre-enquête’ by Kamel Daoud, Goncourt du 1er roman 2015
In a couple of hours I shall turn on the TV and see the result of the UK referendum on Europe.
Many years ago I had the privilege of being invited to join the French team of delegates sent to Montreal for an ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) conference. My mission was ‘linguistic’, the aim being to develop a bank of language used in international meetings, and I was given permission to interview delegates from different member states. It was, to put it mildly, an eye-opener. The ICAO, like the UNO, operates on the basis of consensus but as the subject of the conference that year was particularly controversial, it appeared as though a vote (the last resort) loomed.
‘Why not a vote? Why is consensus important?’ I asked one member (from a Middle Eastern state, educated at Oxbridge).
‘Because,’ he said, ‘a vote turns people into winners and losers.’
Last Friday I mentioned on Facebook that I visited the exhibition of artist Gordon Seward in Toulouse. Always a visual treat of enormous magnitude, this year there was an extra. Gordon has written a book called ‘Why I paint’.
Here’s a story from it (with the author’s permission). It’s called: ‘Portrait of a woman singing’.
“A gallery in Toulouse. A young woman enters and looks at my paintings for a long time. I am in the back room. My wife asks her if she would like any information. The young woman beams out a smile when she realises who my wife is and that her artist husband is there too. I come out to say hello.
‘Can I sing for your paintings?’
Apprehensive but amused I told her that she could go ahead while wondering to myself whether this was really a good idea.
‘So I am going to sing a piece by Puccini that states that “the worth is meaningless if not appreciated”.
She told me that she was in Toulouse to perform a lead role in the Mozart opera ‘The Magic Flute’, and by chance she had found herself in front of the gallery. She admitted that for a long time she had been looking for the sensation that opera gave her in contemporary painting and that “at last I have found it.’
So she sang for the paintings. The small room seemed to swell as the voice left her lungs. The paintings blazed. We stood as if tied to a mast in a storm, the sound waves rose impossibly then fell melodiously. A crowd assembled outside the door and windows. We cried. When it was over she held my hands and said:
‘I just wanted you to know how your paintings made me feel.’
‘Listening to paintings, looking at music’ is the title of this chapter.
After two weeks during which the daily news has showed nothing but bitter division and strife in the three countries in which I have lived, the UK, the US and France, and for which I have immense fondness, I’d like to say the following:
Let’s hear it for consensus.
Let’s find a way together. Let’s remember the words of Jo Cox, in her maiden speech in Parliament:
‘We have far more in common than (that) which divides us.”
I believe, from everything that my parents taught me, that, for the majority of us, it is possible to open our minds, to listen to a painting, to look at music.
For each of us human beings with a clamouring voice in our heads, is it too much to listen to those other voices? Have we closed off our ears to ‘the other side’, insisting on what is different rather than what is in common?
Do we really want to live in a world of winners and losers?
Gordon Seward’s book ‘Why i paint’ , Collected Thoughts on Art, is dedicated ‘To Cécile’, his wife, his Muse, poet and lyricist, brilliant translator into French of ‘Pourquoi je peins’: Cécile Toulouse.
‘I think this calls for something really special.’ Edward had a gleam in his eye. ‘Maybe ‘special’ like lunch at the Grand Palais?’
Caroline shrieked, stood on tiptoe and gave him a kiss. Jill, who had got as far as the bottom of the stairs, gave another whoop.
‘The Grand Palais? Is that that pink thingy on the cliff with the fifty-foot gates? Will we get in? Do you have to bribe the chef? Caro, what are you going to wear?’
Extract from ‘Hot Basque’
In the ‘French Summer Novels’ the Hôtel du Palais*, sometimes referred to as ‘le Grand Palais’, makes a star appearance. This amazing building is the perfect romantic symbol. The original construction, the Villa Eugénie, was commissioned in 1854 by Napoléon III, Emperor of France, as a love token for his Spanish-born bride, Eugénie. From the windows of this summer residence, built in the shape of an E, she could look out towards the Pyrenees and her native country. The yearly visits of the royal couple and their entourage would shape the destiny of Biarritz, transforming it from a little-known fishing village to the ‘The Queen of Resorts and the Resort of Kings.’ **
María Eugenia Ignacia Agustina de Palafox-Portocarrero de Guzmán y Kirkpatrick was born in Spain in 1826. Did she ever dream that that her romantic destiny was to become Empress of France? That one day she would be introduced to Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, that he would be struck by a coup de foudre, and that, after a two-year courtship involving some fancy footwork on the part of the heroine, she would finally get her man?
But the royal couple’s life together was not without its ups and downs. Napoléon was an unabashed Don Juan with an impressive list of mistresses. ‘L’empereur était volage…un incorrigibleséducteur’, according to his biographers. Flighty, an inveterate seducer with an insatiable appetite for his ‘little distractions’, he reportedly said “It is usually the man who attacks. Personally, I defend myself, and I often capitulate.’
When Eugénie first appeared on the scene the beau monde was divided. Her detractors called her a ‘jumped up Spaniard’, ‘an ambitious adventuress’, while her supporters praised her ‘graciousness’ her ‘Spanish vivacity’ and striking beauty. What she thought about her poor husband having to beat off hordes of lovestruck women has gone on record when, at a famous soirée, he disappeared with a certain Mme de Castiglione. Seeing him return looking somewhat rumpled, Eugénie is said to have flown into a rage and heaped coals of wrath upon his head before the assembled guests. ***
No wonder he had to shower her with love tokens.
‘As the barrier swung upwards, Jill clutched Caroline’s hand ‘Omigod…’ The taxi dropped them in front of the imposing entrance. Caroline smiled at the look on Jill’s face as they stepped inside the foyer. She bet she’d looked exactly the same one year ago, when they first came for cocktails. Le Grand Palais. Its interior breathed luxury, elegance and refinery. The opulent belle époque decor was so packed with tiny details, carvings, mouldings, delicate traceries of goldleaf that it could have been overwhelming. But the romantic history of the palace made everything seem quite fitting. A gift from an Emperor to his beloved, it was perfect. Marble pillars, magnificent teardrop chandeliers suspended from lofty ceilings, glittering fractals of light reflected from dozens of mirrors, all transported the beholder back to a vanished world. ‘I’m in a Renoir painting,’ said Jill. ‘Really. Do you know that one, Caro…’Dance in the City’, there’s this woman in a beautiful white satin ballgown and long white gloves, dancing with this bloke…a dark handsome stranger, a bit like Antoine now I think of it…’ Caroline nodded. It was easy to imagine a sea of dancers waltzing through the magnificent salons, across the shining floors, past the painted frescoes, pausing to chat among the palm trees and flowers. Easy to succumb to the magic, and dream.’
Empress Eugénie wearing a gown designed by Charles Frederic Worth
In the portrait on the left Eugénie is wearing a gown by the father of haute couture, Charles Worth. She became his most famous client, launching a new vogue in fashion. Seeing her dresses, fashionistas in Europe and America would order la tournure, or bustle, when visiting their dressmaker: the era of the crinoline was over.
And modern fashionistas? For their chic lunch date, Caroline wears a dress of ‘vivid scarlet’. It was ‘fitted, emphasising her small round breasts and tiny waist. High-necked, and plain except for ruched cap sleeves.’ Jill wears ‘a dress in black and white georgette, the sleeves and low neckline picked out in satin which threw Jill’s velvety skin into relief. It fell semi-fitted to a slightly flared hemline, just above the knee. The bold black and white vertical stripes drew attention to her voluptuous bosom and flat stomach.’
Will hot Basque Antoine be impressed? ‘Ah, Irish. You are more beautiful zan last night. And last night you were very very beautiful.’
Aaah. Some men know just what to say to women.
Of course there’s no way our fictional heroines could have rivalled Eugénie in terms of jewelry. The Empress had a stupendous collection which included the famous Pelegrina pearl, another gift from Napoléon (what had he done?), reputed to be the most perfect pearl in the world. As part of its legend, it became famous once more in 1969, playing a role in a love story that thrilled fans everywhere when Richard Burton bought it for Elizabeth Taylor as a Valentine’s Day gift. (Actually, she lost it, and only after searching the room frantically for the priceless bauble did she recover it–from the mouth of one her Pekingese dogs…) ‘Shaded from the sun by a vast awning, the terrace seemed to overhang the sea, so close that you could almost dive in…. below, in a panoramic sweep, the Atlantic spread before them, filling the graceful curve of the bay as far as the opposite promontory. On their visit last summer they had chosen the house cocktails, the Emperor and the Empress. Caroline remembered sharing complicit looks with Edward, their relationship was just starting to blossom, she had been filled with unbearable happiness.
‘Good,’ said Antoine, ‘Emperors and Empresses for one day. Let us dream.’
He may not have the Peregrina pearl up his sleeve, but he’s got the sexiest French accent, not to mention other assets, as Jill soon finds out…
To raise a toast to all romantic dreamers, ‘Hot Basque’ is on special offer at $ 0.99, £0.79 and €0.99 (from 26th May, limited time only)
**for more about Biarritz see my blog post February 2015, ‘Biarritz’.
***‘Les Couples Royaux dans l’Histoire’ Jean-François Solnon, Broché.
This month sees the bicentenary of the birth of one of the world’s greatest novelists, Charlotte Brontë, April 21st 1816-March 31st 1855. Her remains lie in the family vault in the church of Saint Michael and All Angels, Haworth.
The Brontës have been much on my mind in recent months. Not just because of the bicentenary but because I was born in Halifax, in Yorkshire’s West Riding, where the Brontë legend is part of the air breathed in by every newborn. Also, Haworth is the setting for my new novella ‘The Passage of Desire’.
I grew up in a small industrial town not far from the moors. There were still some dark satanic mills about in which my forefathers (and mothers) had toiled, but there was the open countryside nearby, the heather and the skylarks. An ideal place to mooch with your best friend and share the delicious angst of being a fourteen-year-old misunderstood aesthete in a world of philistines.
Obscurely we felt there must be something, some mystical bond, linking us to those three great sisters who revolutionised English literature. Maybe a long-lost relative who—if we could only find the birth certificates in a musty old box in Grandma’s back bedroom—would turn out to be an actual member of the Brontë family, hitherto undiscovered, plunging us instantly into literary fame-by-association?
My family had lots of stories to tell about our ancestors. The legends were usually dusted off for Christmas and brought out with the turkey and the sherry. They caused the usual eye-rolling among the younger generation, hunched in their chairs, waiting for the dreaded moment they’d be called upon to start off the charades or strum ‘Little Donkey’ on the guitar. Most stories involved scandal, at least one bend sinister, and acquired extra bells and whistles over the years. They were long, involved and accompanied by raised voices and dramatic action which sometimes resulted in chairs getting knocked over. A song might be thrown in, a capella, or with piano accompaniment.
But in the 1840s (here, breath would be held) there was one brush with literary fame. Great Great Aunt Mary (or Martha or Phoebe) got a job as a housekeeper in Haworth. Yes, Haworth! Did she ever bump into those famous sisters as she hurried down the cobbled streets, shawl tight against the wind? Maybe even dropped by the Parsonage to give Emily a hint on plot development? Again, history was disappointingly vague on this subject. However, it seems her path did cross that of their brother, as, somehow or another, our family acquired a silver-mounted walking stick belonging to Branwell Brontë himself. (One version of the story had Branwell leaving it behind after too many drinks at The Black Bull Inn. But that was later expurgated.)
The missing link remained missing, alas. But the Brontë influence remained. And so, in this third book in the French Summer Novels series, I wanted to try something different. My thoughts kept returning to the brooding moors and wild storms of ‘Wuthering Heights’, that mythic story of doomed love and violent passion that has seized the imagination of readers since it was published in 1847. When Cathy says: ‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff!’ she is uttering, according to Simone De Beauvoir, ‘the cry of every woman in love.’
The problem was, how to relate a Yorkshire family to the characters of the two preceding romantic novels?
The answer came in the form of Alexandra, the mother of Caroline and Annabel, killed in a car crash when her daughters were little. What was her story? In ‘The Passage of Desire’, we take a step into the past and meet Alexandra in her mid-thirties, on her way north to spend a holiday with her best friend Juliet. What happens during that summer will have dramatic repercussions on the lives of both the women and their families.
Now that it’s almost time to say goodbye to the characters, the anxieties have come rushing in. The usual suspects—is the book a load of rubbish? Will anybody like it? Is it too much of a departure from the first two? ‘Maybe I should just scrap it’—along with other minor wobbles. Context for example. Have I got the details right? We’re back in the early nineties, people didn’t have mobile phones or Skype, the Internet was in its infancy. What did people wear in those days? What did they drive? This is always a tricky one for me. ‘What sort of car do your neighbours have?’ Answer: ‘A grey one’. In ‘Hot Basque’ I had my hero behind the wheel of a Renault Picasso. It was only thanks to eagle-eyed best friend and beta reader Elizabeth that I changed ‘Renault’ to ‘Citroen’, thus escaping scorn and ridicule from autophile Amazon reviewers. Then there was the time I decided to change a character’s name after the entire manuscript was finished and ready to upload. No panic, easy peasy, click the command on Word and tell it what to do. Find ‘Mark’ and replace with ‘Liam’. Go! It went. Fortunately I did yet another read-through before clicking the Publish button:
‘What beautiful weather,’ Margaret reliamed.’
‘They decided to take a trip to the liamet town of Liamet Harborough.’
Oh no! Oh yes. Hundreds of them.
Why did I decide to change Mark to Liam? Names have always been a problem for me. Faced with a myriad of possibilities, my imagination freezes. The heroine. Her name is pretty damn important. Charlotte, Emily, Anne, Catherine, Jane, Emma, Elizabeth, Scarlett. Been there done that cross them all off. Peaches, Brooklyn, Hilton, one day they’ll be stuck in a time warp, like padded shoulders and big hair. Sigh. How about…Eleanor? That sounds promising. I like Eleanor. Wait, there was that woman at work, years ago, the one who used to chew with her mouth open, you can’t give your heroine the same name as someone whose back molars you were once intimately acquainted with. Gwendoline? Hang on, didn’t you just see a Gwendoline in a book you read a few weeks ago on the Kindle? Or was that Gwenllian ? Anyway too risky, plagiarism, quelle horreur. Films! Not the big Hollywood stars at the beginning, fast-forward to that endless list of names that rolls up when the DVD is finished and you’re just putting your slippers back on and brushing the biscuit crumbs off the sofa. The Clapper Loader, the Gaffer, the Best Boy, all those five zillion special effects people…That’s handy, the Maître de Maison has left a disc inside the machine…just a minute, why are all these names Hungarian? What’s he been watching now? Oh. ‘The Martian’.
Inspiration strikes. The bookcase! Elementary cher Watson, millions of names on those shelves…no, not ‘Beowulf’, move along, how about ‘Moll Flanders’, hello, this must be my student copy, did I really write those cringe-worthy notes in the margin? ‘Moral sense, ‘uncertainty,’ ‘resigned acceptance of hard truth’? That can go back for a start.
Dickens! There’s my man! A thousand and one unforgettable characters! Names galore! Mr Snawley, Master Wackford, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Lord Verisopht, Miss LaCreevy, Miss Knagg, Miss Snevellici (was he on something, our Charles?) Smike…oh poor tragic Smike! It’s the bit where he’s just leaving Miss LaCreevy’s house and heading off to Bow….oh no, he’s been caught again by the loathsome sadist Mr Squeers who’s going to haul him back to Dotheboys Hall! He’s boxing his ears and slapping his face!
‘Poor Smike ‘warded off the blows as well as he could’…‘stunned and stupefied’ with ‘no friend to speak to or advise with.’
Don’t you just love Dickens? In fact maybe I’ll take a wee break and read what happens next. In fact maybe I’ll just leave the name-search till later. Tomorrow is another day.
And that’s another story.
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Last month’s blog, ‘Love Story’, related the story of a dog and how she was rescued by compassionate friends. Pace all sceptics of anthropomorphism, I am sure she understands what happened to her and now returns the same affection to those who transformed her life.
Last week, a little over a month after posting ‘Love Story’, live images from Brussels began to appear on our TV sets. At first it was hard to believe that what we were seeing was real; then came the realization that the scenes of suffering on the screen were not due to some terrible accident, but the result of acts of gratuitous hatred and cruelty. They were a flashback to what we had also seen, and at first been unable to believe, in November 2015 in Paris. As news came in of the explosions at the airport and metro, dazed survivors stumbled on screen, repeating the same words: ‘scènes d’horreur’, ‘l’enfer’, ‘le chaos’ ‘un cauchemare’. Scenes of horror, Hell, chaos and nightmare. Stunned passengers picked their way through dark tunnels, children sobbed and screamed, a paramedic stood, immobile, head in hands.
When it became impossible to watch I turned for answers to the words of one of France’s greatest writers.
The chateau de Montaigne in the Périgord region of France became home to the Montaigne family in 1477. Today, visitors can still see the tower which housed the library of the great Renaissance humanist, Michel De Montaigne and in which he worked, surrounded by paintings and books:
“I look out on my garden and farmyard, my courtyard and most of the house. I leaf through one book, then another, in no particular order and with no specific aim, sometimes I dream, sometimes I take notes and, wandering about, I dictate my reveries which are here set down for you.’
Montaigne (1533-1592) led a high-profile public life. He was a magistrate, served as the mayor of Bordeaux, played an active part in negotiations during the devastating wars of religion during which he lived, and travelled extensively in Europe. But the world remembers him as the author of the famous ‘Essais’, written over the last twenty years of his life, and which would impress generations to come by their profound insights into the human condition.
In attempting to understand who we are, Montaigne first applied his astonishing erudition by examining different topics from the standpoint of previous writers and philosophers. He then added to the mix his own personal experiences, giving the essays their unique and fascinating flavour: ‘Others form man, I only report him’, ‘I myself am the subject of my book’, and, he adds, had circumstances been otherwise, he would willingly have painted himself ‘in the fullest nudity.’*
Inspired by those who came before him and an inspiration to those who followed, Montaigne’s contemplative, meandering prose, studded with examples from daily life like the illuminations in a book of hours, is a true pleasure to read. It is also full of compassion and tolerance, and, like the works of Shakespeare, writing just after him, astonishingly modern in its relevance. He moves with ease from lofty, abstract subjects such as death, solitude, education and friendship, to the engagingly down-to-earth, discoursing on drunkenness or the intractability of the male organ, rising when it shouldn’t and refusing to rise when it should: (Car je vous donne à penser , s’il y a une seule des parties de notre corps qui ne refuse à notre volonté souvent son opération et qui souvent ne l’exerce contre notre volonté.’(Book I Ch 21)
Of particular relevance to the events of last Tuesday are his reflections on the subject of cruelty (Book II). For Montaigne, cruelty is the worst of all vices. ‘Je hay entre autres vices, cruellement, la cruauté…’ And not just cruelty between human beings, but also cruelty to animals. He cannot bear to see ‘a chicken have its throat cut’ nor hear the whimpers of ‘a hare in my dog’s teeth’. In the following chapter ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’ he returns to the subject of animals again, starting by attacking man’s arrogant presumptuousness, his ‘natural and original illness’. In our ‘divine’ presumption, he writes, we consider ourselves superior to animals who are ‘our fellows and companions’. Yet it is often such ‘morally superior’ beings who show themselves to be capable of terrible cruelty. Citing the example of the Romans who, starting with spectacles showing the slaughter of animals then progressed to the slaughter of men, he expresses the fear that nature has ‘attached’ to man some ‘instinct toward inhumanity’. No one, he says, takes pleasure in watching animals play together while everyone enjoys seeing them “s’entredéchirer et desmembrer“, dismember and tear each other to pieces.
Many people remarked on this aspect of the Paris attacks, where the terrorists specifically targeted people who were out to enjoy themselves-an evening with friends, a football match, a concert-people who were there to ‘s’entrejouer’ and who finished by being torn to pieces and dismembered.
One hundred and thirty people died in those attacks. This weekend the world has been remembering the latest victims of man’s ‘instinct toward inhumanity’, the 35 dead and 340 injured, their grieving families and friends, all those who suffered and died at the hands of other, ‘morally superior’, beings: the cruel authors of ‘Hate Story’, written in Brussels.
‘I have the tenderest compassion for others’ afflictions…Nothing tempts my tears but tears.’ Michel de Montaigne
A special thanks to Sylvain Grand’Maison for permission to use his striking illustration:
*Montaigne’s writing is accessible on the internet from a multitude of sources, varying according to the different editions/translations of his works. I’ve used the following sources to check the accuracy (or not) of French and English versions, with most of the latter being freely (and possibly incorrectly) translated by myself.
This tender-hearted beauty is our neighbour’s dog Indie, also known as Indiq, Q being the Breton diminutive for ‘little’ Indie. And, in a Valentine weekend special, this is her story. (Warning to softies, have the Kleenex handy.)
It was a bitter winter’s night. The snow was coming down in huge white whirling gusts, the wind wuthering like a wild creature around an isolated farmhouse in the Tarn.
Indoors, Monsieur and Mme Dupont were sitting in the kitchen, toasty warm in front of a crackling log fire. Suddenly Mme D. heard a sound, like a child whimpering. She cocked her head to one side, listened. There it was again! She looked at her husband, threw a shawl hurriedly round her shoulders and drew back the bolts on the ancient creaking wooden door.
‘Oh là là! Gustave !’ she cried.
Peering over her shoulder, Monsieur Dupont gave an exclamation of pity mingled with horror. (Probably something like ‘Nom d’une pipe!’) Bending down he scooped the tiny bundle into his strong farmer’s arms and cradled it close to his broad, farmer-like chest.
‘Where can he have come from?’ said Mme D, heating warm milk for the tiny waif.
‘I do not know. But look at these pose.’
‘Yes, pose, four of them on the end of its feet.’
(Film buffs will have cottoned on that M. Dupont speaks English with the same accent as Inspector Clouseau. Why he was suddenly speaking English to his French wife is irrelevant to the narrative.)
Mme D. pressed her hands to her mouth and tears of pity filled her eyes.
‘But they are covered with blisters! ‘
‘Yes. This little deug has walked for miles. And it’s a she, by the way.’
Here I am obliged to confess (in case the neighbours read this blog) that most of the above is somewhat exaggerated, not to say a pack of downright lies. However the most important bit is true. Our neighbours did, really, truly, discover a puppy at their gate, her paws worn out, panting with exhaustion. They already had two dogs, two horses and a cat so after scratching their heads they put her in the car and drove round the local farms to try to find out where she’d come from. Finally they found the right place and this is what they discovered.
The puppy’s mother had died shortly after giving birth. Fortunately one of the other farm dogs had a litter of her own and seemed to accept the idea of suckling the orphan. However the cruel laws of nature being what they are, when Step-Mum decided she’d done her bit for social services, she informed all her offspring (via some kind of canine communication system) that it was time to stand on their own four paws and go off and herd a few sheep.
The kids got the message, all apart from Puppy, who was turning out to be a big soppy softie, a bit of a clinger. Sterner measures were called for. Step-Mum opted for some tough love and took to disappearing at high speed into the woods, trying to shake off her adoring step-child. The farmer noticed she would return alone, a satisfied gleam in her eye, but then, hours later, a bedraggled Puppy would stumble back and flop at her side with an adoring look. This continued up until the day that Step-Mum finally succeeded, and Puppy found herself lost and abandoned in front of our neighbour’s gate.
What to do? The bottle of pastis came out and there was a pow-wow. Our neighbours had a soft-hearted niece (who incidentally lives next door to us), maybe if she saw Puppy…?
Honestly now, who could have resisted that two-month-old Disney version of cute doghood, with its silky black and caramel coat, little white bib, rose-petal-pink tongue, and chocolate eyes?
The waif was taken in and named Indie, in honour of the famous cinematic adventurer.
Boy, Indie had really fallen on her paws. All these people to make a fuss, play with her, give her puppy chews, tickle her tummy, it was doggy paradise! Better still Maman and Papa didn’t have any other dogs, just human children, who, she quickly learnt, were in fact her very own adoring Aunties and Uncles, otherwise known as the Slaves. Overnight she switched from being the runt outsider to the worshipped only child. She fell in lerv. Deep lerv.
And there were fringe benefits. Her doggy brain had registered the existence of two other houses nearby, no dogs there either. Perhaps she could acquire these as sort of second and third residences, places she could drop into for a mid-afternoon snack of juicy ham bone or saucisse de Toulouse? And these neighbours, sitting outside on summer evenings, had nothing to do except throw sticks! It was so exciting that she forgot what Step-Mum had taught her about walking properly, one foot in front of another and just bounced round on all four paws at a time, boing! boing! boing!
The months passed. Cute little Indie grew bigger. And bigger. In fact she began to bear an alarming resemblance to the Hound of The Baskervilles. But, in spite of her habit of sneaking up behind you as you were pruning the lavender and nearly giving you a heart attack, we all agreed that this growth spurt was a good thing, a great burglar deterrent. Unfortunately, in spite of her impressive musculature, even more impressive fangs, and the way she powered through the fields chasing rabbits like a rampaging rhino, her personality remained unchanged. Burglars? Did they have a beef chew in their pockets perhaps? Would they rub her tummy if she rolled on her back? Would they like a lick or a nudge from her wet doggy nose? Would they love her like maman et papa? Our neighbours should have called her Valentine.
But Indie is not just a dog who wants to be loved. She’s a sharer. Obviously Maman and Papa are top of her list, Aunties and Uncles next, but she’s anxious not to leave anyone out. This is why, in the last few weeks, she has intensified her ‘be nice to the neighbours’ campaign. How do I love thee, let me count the ways, let me shower you with gifts…
Now you may remember, if you read the last blog, that I am currently engaged in a literary tussle with the Muse, Divine Eureka, and the leading lady of my current oeuvre, the ghost of Alexandra. Concentration is essential. Which is why, a couple of weeks ago, I was not happy to be startled out of my trance by a demented howl from below.
‘Oh non! Merrrrde!’
A flood? A lighting bolt? An escaped bull?
I raced downstairs to find the Maître de Maison standing in the garden with a face like thunder.
His Maitreship merely pointed, finger quivering with accusation.
I went to inspect. Nestling coyly behind a large bush was a gift from Indie. A large gift from Indie. The first. But not the last.
We were on the list. Maman and Papa had already received numerous love-tokens, the most impressive being a half-digested rabbit regurgitated at the feet of Auntie, who suddenly came over all faint. Over the following days faithful Indie got into the habit of dropping off early morning gift packages chez nous. Now, not to boast, but we obviously possess the gift of dog-whispering. Had we not trained Indie in a matter of seconds how to sit and count to three before leaping into the air to catch her doggy treats? Surely it was just a matter of more whispering into her floppy ear. Kind of menacing growling whispers.
‘Come here! Look! Bad girl! Bad girl! Nasty poopoo. Grrr.’
But this time it didn’t seem to be working. Indie acquired a permanently mournful look as she tried to work out what was wrong. Maybe what was needed were extra morning deliveries, closer to the doorstep?
Finally we caved in and ratted her out to a horrified Papa and Maman. Would it get as far as an ASBO? Indie would sit with her head on one side as a frowning Papa pointed with his shovel at the lavender bush. Then she would slope off at his heels, throwing a last reproachful glance at the two snitches hiding behind the curtains.
This week, as Valentine ’s Day approaches, we have noticed an improvement. The gifts are diminishing both in frequency and size. For the last couple of days, the lavender bush has held no murky secrets.
Clever girl, that Indie. In fact I can see her now, from the window, giving the lavender a wide berth. Wait a minute, why is she sniffing round that tree? Indie! Indie!
A very Happy Valentine’s weekend to all!
I have not forgotten you, Biarritz Passion is FREE for 2 days, 13th and 14th Feb! Forget the rainy weather and enjoy romance in France….
Living in France sometimes has unexpected benefits. Like, for example, having the whole of January in which to express your New Year greetings. Yes, you can dally along, whistling, until January 30th then leap to the phone and cry: ‘Bonne Année! Bonne santé!Meilleurs voeux!’ to all those friends poised to cross you off their dinner invitation list.
So, in the time-honoured tradition of my adoptive country, and well within the deadline, let me begin this blog by wishing a very sincere Bonne Année to one and all. And another wish: may 2016 be a happier year than 2015. Foolishly optimistic? Perhaps. But looking out of the window on January 2nd this is what I saw:
There are other advantages to this tradition of month-long well-wishing. One is that it gives you a chance to get over the turkey fatigue, another is that by the time you’ve got to the last name on your Bonne Année list, one of the most depressing months of the year is drawing to a close. The garden may look bare and bleak, but there are invisible stirrings, you just know the worms and beetles are at it underground, Tolkien-like creatures tilling the soil and helping those elvishly ethereal snowdrops and crocuses to spring forth. No sign of green shoots as yet, but last week, a neighbour brought round a few sprigs of winter daphne, and the whole house was suddenly redolent of spring.
So, January, it’s not all bad. In fact it has often been surprisingly productive for me in terms of writing, character and plot-hatching, and so forth. Of course there could be other reasons for this surge of activity aside from an atavistic urge to emulate worms and snowdrops. In January you can’t loll on the patio sipping pina coladas and waiting for the steaks to grill. Not in the Tarn anyway, where a lot of time is spent sitting by the fire, staring into the flames and letting your thoughts wander. But whatever the reason, the nouvelle année has nudged me into trying something new.
I should have been writing up the notes for Book 3 in the “French Summer Novel” series. But something was holding me back (no, this is not a feeble excuse about bionic hips and stoic suffering). That ‘something’ had been tugging at the curtains of my mind since finishing “Hot Basque”, a sort of Hamlet’s ghost moaning plaintively off-stage. It definitely moaned louder after the September anaesthetic wore off and in November the phantom finally stepped forth from the wings holding a lantern. The face was familiar. The apparition grew brighter and started to wave and suddenly I recognised Alexandra, mother of Caroline and Annabel, despatched well before the beginning of Book 1 in a fatal car accident.
‘Remember me!’ she quavered. ‘Tell my story! Time those skeletons came out of the family cupboard!’
I pointed out that I was busy planning a wedding for Caroline and skeletons were inappropriate guests but sometimes characters have a mind of their own.
And so the idea of a backstory gradually emerged. The ideas kept coming, Alexandra kept quavering, and I kept waving my lucky rabbit’s foot in the air and invoking Divine Eureka, she of the inspirational hot flashes. ‘Please Your Divineness let the light-bulbs keep popping on the cakewalk of the imagination! Thanks to your mercy I am now 20,000 words into “When Your Heart’s On Fire”, my…my…’ My what?
The backstory was more of a sketch than a portrait. Was it a short story? No, too long. A novel then? No. Too short. Maybe a novella? Er…what exactly is a novella?
Here dear readers permit me a fascinating digression. When we settle down with a book we know straight off whether it’s a novel or a short story. “War and Peace” is a novel. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a short story. But what about those things in between, novellas/nouvelles/short novels/novelettes, that inhabit what Stephen King described as ‘a really terrible place, an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic’?
If you look on the internet, you’ll discover an amazing amount of disagreement about what constitutes a novella, which is handy if you think you’ve written one and other people don’t. Artistic considerations aside (plot and character development, style, tone etc, a discussion which would run to several pages), one of the main problems concerns the length, particularly if you’re offering it to a publisher. Publishers measure in words, and publishers, writers and literary critics all have different ideas about how many words constitute a novella.
As I was musing on this in relation to Alexandra’s story the following link popped up:
This is a paper with suggestions about what might go into a high-school literature curriculum. The author, Ted Morrissey, looks at the length of various works, then, using definitions by writers and critics, establishes what he calls ‘some benchmarks’:
-short story: 500 to 15,000 words.
-novella: 30,000 to 50,000*
-novel: 50,000 words upwards.
So what does this mean in concrete terms? He lists some commonly taught novels: “To Kill a Mockingbird” (104,250 words), “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (108,575 words), “Jane Eyre” (191,500); then two short stories: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (13,692 words), and “The Fall of the House of Usher” (6,710 words), finishing with two novellas: “Heart of Darkness”(37,746 words) and “Wide Sargasso Sea” (45,499 words).
But what about the following?
“Death in Venice”. I had always remembered this as a novel. In fact it’s 28,770 words. OK, well it felt as long as a novel. A long novel. Next: “The Old Man and the Sea”. Hmm. Difficult, long time since I read it. Was it one of Hemingway’s short stories? No. Longer. 24,191 words. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, easy, that’s the novel they turned into THAT film, with Audrey Hepburn. Wrong. Only 26,433 words. Mathematically-inclined readers will already have their hands up, having spotted the numerical gap. These three works, ‘odd-ducks’ Morrissey calls them, fall between the 15,000 word limit for short stories and the 30,000 kick off for a novella. They are denizens of a ‘literary no man’s land’.
But time to leave all those fascinating internet discussions and go back to the question that started everything off.
Will Alexandra’s story turn out to be a novella? According to the above criteria it needs at least another 10,000 words before becoming a citizen of King’s ‘anarchy-ridden literary banana republic’. Or will it be an odd-duck, waddling through the mud of a literary no-man’s land?
Something tells me I’m not really going to get a say in this. The final decision about when the story ends is going to be made by Alexandra’s ghost, shouting ‘Au diable with wordcounts, that’s it, curtain!’
And just how important are these literary labels anyway?
In a wonderful interview on the Southbank show (June 2015), George R.R. Martin talks about ‘genres’. For him, ‘a genre is a matter of furniture’ ; whether the setting is a castle with dragons or a spaceship in the future is not important; what really matters is the central notion of ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’.
Better write that quote on a piece of paper and pin it up over the desk. Labels, schmabels. Time to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to writing. Except…
Alexandra is not the only one involved in the new project, is she? What about Divine Eureka? It’s like the plumber having to work with the electrician to get the new bathroom finished. What if the Goddess gets into an Olympian sulk and throws the switch on all the light-bulbs? What if the cakewalk is plunged into blackness?
Help, where did I put the rabbit’s foot? ‘Oh, your Divineness, I was just going to sacrifice a goat but all I can see in the garden are bluetits, maybe the neighbour can …’
Just a minute…what does it say at the end of Morrissey’s paper? Something about the publisher…there it is…No! Yes! Read it for yourselves…
‘This article first appeared in…. ‘Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction’… 😉
*Morrissey uses John Gardner’s definition, “The Art of Fiction, Notes on a craft for young writers” (Vintage 1991)
P.S. “Hot Basque”, in case you were wondering, is 104,700 words long, and all of them are FREE for download between 25 and 29 January! Talk about a pot of gold…
P.P.S. Trending! Trending! There’s a new picture relating to December’s blog! It’s a photo of the infamously famous Spot Bar, haunt of Dev Haskell, and was kindly contributed by one of the habitués of the neighbourhood in a rare moment of sobriety….