June 2011 Archives

The Twin


Back in September, I suggested Gerbrand Bakker's 2006 novel The Twin (translated by David Colmer) as an unconventional but relevant choice for the Gothic and mystery-themed RIP Challenge V. Having now actually read The Twin, I'm pleased to say not only that I enjoyed it quite a lot, but also that I can firmly stand by my odd categorization. There are other ways to read The Twin—as a pastoral novel, or a piece of quiet psychological realism—but I thought it might be fun to spend my post reading Bakker's work as a piece of Gothic fiction.

So. What's so gothic about The Twin? First and foremost, we're talking about a genre obsessed with stagnation, and with and the inevitable decay and death of the human body and man-made works. The Twin delivers on both counts: Helmer, its middle-aged protagonist, has spent the last thirty years stuck in the farming life he once tried to escape, ruled over by his increasingly infirm farmer-father, now on the edge of death. Although not a crumbling castle or a ruined abbey, the farm inhabited by Helmer and his dad is quickly established as a relic from another era, a place that has been bypassed by progress and the passage of time. In one early chapter, Helmer stands by his farmhouse as two young men canoe past; he is frozen in place as he watches the rest of the world pass by:

I was standing at the side of the house, unseen, and watched them trying to cut each other off. Their paddles slapped against the yellow water lilies. The canoe in front turned sideways and got trapped with its nose against the bank of the canal. The lad glanced up. "Look at this farm," he said to his friend, a redhead with freckles and sunburnt shoulders, "it's timeless. It's here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930."
       The redhead subjected my farm, the trees and the field the donkeys were grazing at the time to a careful appraisal. I pricked up my ears. "Yes," he said after a long while, "those donkeys are old-fashioned, all right."

The boy's remark is ironic, since the purchase of the donkeys is actually the only change Helmer has dared make in thirty years—the only aspect of the farm that wouldn't have been present in 1967 or 1930. Yet even they come off as "old-fashioned." A moment later, Helmer yearns after the two canoeists but feels he can't follow them: "I was stuck with nowhere to go, there was nothing I could possibly be working on around that side of the house." The isolation of the few people living at the farm—Helmer, his father, and eventually a teenage boy—is only accentuated by their occasional contact with the outside world in the form of canoeists or livestock dealers: a technique often used in Gothic fiction and mystery novels to heighten the suspense.

And if these excerpts paint Helmer as wholly a sad-sack victim, rest assured there is a more sinister and even eerie aspect to his character as well. Helmer is stuck in his stagnating farmer's life because thirty years ago his twin Henk, the one who loved farming and who was best loved by the boys' father, died in a car crash, and the second-choice brother was expected to take his place. The lost twin is, as one might expect, a ghostly presence throughout the novel; Helmer feels himself only half a person without Henk, but he also resents his twin for saddling Helmer with a life he never wanted, and leaving him as caretaker to the twins' once-abusive father.

The dynamic between father and son is, in fact, one of the creepiest and most morally ambiguous aspects of the novel. The opening sentence, "I've put Father upstairs," gives a good feeling for this facet of The Twin: Helmer has ceased to consider his father's wishes, making of this one-time tyrant a mere object to be moved around at will. "Father" has no agency in this sentence. Indeed, we see later on that while Helmer generally does provide his father with the basic necessities of life, his neglect verges at times on cruelty: the old man will say "I'm hungry," for example, and Helmer will answer "I get hungry sometimes too," but will not necessarily bring up any food. The reader's knowledge that the old man once beat and bullied his sons doesn't make his current state a comfortable one. The tyrant/subject or captor/captive relationship is a staple of gothic fiction, and Bakker plays with the trope in interesting ways by allowing both Helmer and his father to occupy both roles. The power dynamic between them has recently reversed (in fact, it may reverse exactly with that first sentence, when Helmer takes his father upstairs), and the reader is never quite sure which man is tyrannizing over the other, or where, if anywhere, her sympathies should lie. To my mind, this aspect of the novel is more genuinely disturbing than most similar dynamics in gothic fiction: the realist elements of Bakker's novel make the frailty of the elderly man very tangible, and Bakker's refusal to completely villainize or vindicate either character leaves the reader to draw her own uncomfortable conclusions.

There are other eerie touches as well. The ghostly twin is figuratively reanimated in the form of the teenaged son (also named Henk) of Helmer's brother's former fiancée. This is disconcerting enough for Helmer, but the approach of Henk Jr. and his mother Riet is also surrounded by a series of subtle but atmospheric details: noises in the night, phone calls with no one on the other end, the arrival of an unusual hooded crow which seems to watch Helmer and ends up wounding Henk Jr. in a bizarre accident. Later in the book there is an incident with a drowning sheep that reminded me of the final pages of Willa Cather's The Professor's House. None of these touches are actually supernatural, but their cumulative psychological effect on Helmer makes that almost irrelevant. He is a deeply uneasy, mildly unreliable narrator, and, as he says himself, has been "scared all [his] life." "In the back of my mind I knew that I saw things that couldn't possibly be there," he says, and he sees meaning in these events, whether that meaning exists outside himself or not.

One of the things I appreciated about The Twin, especially in contrast to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was the subtlety of Bakker's plotting and characterization. He does not bludgeon the reader with what he is doing here. If Helmer is even unreliable, for example, he's only very slightly unreliable—only as unreliable, truthfully, as any human might be if they tried to tell their own story, given that we all carry our own sets of grudges and investments. Helmer has a memory of spending hours as a boy with the farmhand Jaap, learning to skate on the frozen pond:

As I remember it, he skated around with me like that for hours. Long after Mother had finished her figure of eights. But it can't have been like that. Father must have strode out into the field to remind him sharply that he had more important things to do than entertain himself on the ice. He would have glared at me—a six- or seven-year-old kid—because Henk was doing the yearlings. Or collecting eggs, perhaps tail docking. Mother would have been downcast in the kitchen, back at work, because even she would have had an earful. Skating with the farmhand, what was she thinking?

Here the reader can sense Helmer's resistance to the idea that he may have a genuinely happy childhood memory. He remembers skating for hours with Jaap, but then he pushes back against his own recollection: it couldn't have been like that, because that memory contradicts the picture of his father he has built up in his own mind. Instead of believing what he actually remembers, then, Helmer superimposes a series of scenes he tells himself must be the actual, unremembered truth: his father's glares and lectures, his brother's happy farm labor, his mother's downtrodden submission. Not that we are supposed to disbelieve completely in either vision. We see behavior first-hand from Helmer's father that reinforces his son's vision of him as mean and petty, yet we also see a more vulnerable and well-meaning side to him that would be consistent with allowing his son to skate with the farmhand. I left the novel convinced that the truth was probably somewhere in the middle, but convinced also that nobody—not me, or Helmer, or his father—can really know for sure.

Psychological ambiguity; physical and emotional stagnation; a kind of family curse and a persistent, partially-reanimated ghost; a captive in the attic who is sometimes passed off as dead; noises in the darkness and oddly threatening animals; a farm left behind by the progress of modernity: it's a pretty gothic collection of traits for an understated psychological study involving no explicit horror at all.


The Twin is my last-minute contribution to Iris's Dutch Literature Month. Thanks for motivating me to pick up Bakker at last, Iris!

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


To be honest, I can't think of that much to say about Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that I didn't already write in last December's post on Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex. Replace Greek-Americans with Dominican-Americans, hermaphroditism with obesity, and references to classic Greek tragedy with references to sci-fi books and television shows, and you have pretty much transformed the one book into the other in four moves or less. Which is not to say that this is a bad example of the genre I like to call the Modern Family Epic. It's just that Lev Grossman's claim, on the back cover of my copy, that Oscar Wao is "an immigrant-family saga for people who don't read immigrant-family sagas" seems to me seven words too long: Díaz's book is par for the immigrant-family-saga course as far as I'm concerned.

If, unlike me, you gravitate toward this kind of story, I would recommend Oscar Wao. It's got everything fans of the genre no doubt look forward to: the multiple generations of a single family, stretching back to the Old Country and forward to the New; the flashbacks and flash-forwards which simultaneously reveal past and present mirrored storylines; the magical-realist touch of visions repeated over the generations and a family curse in which the reader can choose either to believe or not; the more-or-less explicit agenda of educating mainstream Americans about the political history of a country that doesn't make it into our textbooks. None of which are inherent negatives. I would never argue, for example, that mainstream Americans are not in need of some education about the history of other countries, particularly ones we've invaded multiple times and then proceeded to forget all about. But the combination of these elements together in a single piece of fiction became ubiquitous sometime between Cien años de solidad and Midnight's Children, and although I do love a few examples of the genre, this one offers nothing in particular to distinguish it from the herd.

Re-reading my Middlesex post, though, I do realize that the Díaz is less egregious than the Eugenides. It's leaner, for one thing. It does not attempt to sustain an epic tone for 600 pages, can even have a laugh at itself. Díaz has more respect for his readers' cognitive abilities than Eugenides for his, despite the intentional and deeply annoying overuse of footnotes to deliver history lessons to the assumed mainstream American reader. (It's true: am not on board with the postmodern footnote-o-philia that David Foster Wallace seems to have laid on the literary scene. And no, I have not read Infinite Jest, for this reason among several.) Most welcome of all, there is not the same ungodly level of coincidence and repetition in Díaz's novel, although the cane fields, the Faceless Man, and the Golden Mongoose do reappear at frequent intervals.

So too, the narrative voice is more engaging—although my feelings about said voice are mixed. A sample, before I go on:

Anywhere else his triple-zero batting average with the ladies might have passed without comment, but this is a Dominican kid we're talking about, in a Dominican family: dude was supposed to have Atomic Level G, was supposed to be pulling in the bitches with both hands. Everybody noticed his lack of game and because they were Dominican everybody talked about it. His tío Rudolfo (only recently released from his last and final bit in the Justice and now living in their house on Main Street) was especially generous in his tutelage. Listen, palomo: you have to grab a muchacha, y metéselo. That will take care of everything. Start with a fea. Coje that fea y metéselo! Tío Rudolfo had four kids with three different women so the nigger was without doubt the family's resident metéselo expert.

OK, so I think this passage is funny. Engaging. I laughed at all the parts I was supposed to, and even felt good about my ability to recognize some basic Spanish profanity. I appreciated Díaz's ability to combine a sharp evocation of life in the oppressed Dominican diaspora with a critique of the oppressive gender politics that prevail in same. But, two things. One: all the folks calling this prose "fresh" and "street-smart"? I feel extremely uncomfortable about that for reasons I'm having trouble isolating. I guess I just didn't find the overall book "fresh" at all. Competent, yes; a page-turner, perhaps; but essentially I found it to be a re-working of a decades-old set of genre conventions, a book whose only innovation is the occasional Spanglish phrase and a few "bitch"es or "nigger"s thrown into the mix. To good effect, don't get me wrong! The words are used effectively. But more than that is necessary before I start busting out with phrases like "one of contemporary fiction's most distinctive and irresistible new voices" (Michiko Kakutani). And a little voice in my head is asking whether this is all the innovation the mainstream wants: a set of comforting tropes, dressed up with a little cussing and "urban slang" to pass itself off as shiny and new, while still hewing predictably to genre norms.

That Oscar Wao fails to live up to overblown hype is hardly Díaz's fault. He didn't write the stuff! There's another issue with the narrative voice, though, which is that it should technically be "narrative voices," and yet it is not. The narrative is a slow reveal: it first appears to be third-person, but we gradually realize it is actually first-person, primarily from the perspective of a sometime-boyfriend of Oscar's loving sister Lola. However, certain chapters are narrated first-person from Lola's perspective, and the voice in those chapters sounds largely identical to that in her boyfriend's sections. To wit:

It was like the stupidest thing I ever did. [...] I got a job selling french fries on the boardwalk, and between the hot oil and the cat piss I couldn't smell anything else. On my days off I would drink with Aldo, or I would sit on the sand dressed in all black and try to write in my journal, which I was sure would form the foundation for a utopian society after we blew ourselves into radioactive kibble. Sometimes other boys would walk up to me and would throw lines at me like, Who fuckin' died? What's with your hair? They would sit down next to me in the sand. You a good-looking girl, you should be in a bikini. Why, so you can rape me? Jesus Christ, one of them said, jumping to his feet, what the hell is wrong with you?

Although I admired Oscar Wao for navigating a middle path between the everyman approach of some immigrant fiction (Anzia Yezierska's The Bread Givers, for example) and the quirk-fests of books like Middlesex, it did occur to me that the voice itself may play the everyman role here; that Díaz may be creating a "Dominican voice" that, logically enough, is shared by many of his Dominican characters. (Tellingly, Oscar, who does not speak like this, is often taunted by people who don't believe he's really Dominican.) Even so, it seems like an odd decision: laying so much emphasis on a memorable voice, only to dilute that voice by giving it to multiple characters.

And I suppose that's the essence of my disappointment with Oscar Wao: dilution. Dilution of a narrative voice among too many characters. Dilution of an engaging, mildly experimental style by an overly familiar story arc. And dilution of a depiction of the world outside the American mainstream—existence in the Dominican ghetto—with endless explanations to the mainstream American reader. Unlike Wole Soyinka in Death and the King's Horseman or Mario Vargas Llosa in Conversation in the Cathedral, unlike even such blatantly journalistic novelists as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward, Díaz assumes his reader will not only come to his novel with no knowledge of Dominican history, but will also refuse to do any work to get that knowledge. So that The Brief Wondrous History of Oscar Wao must be both primary text and its own built-in Sparks Notes—it seems to be explaining itself to the mainstream more than it is struggling with its internal conflicts or operating according to its own internal logic, more than it is addressing the Dominican community which it depicts. It's a pet peeve, but I have to admit a preference for books that don't fall all over themselves explaining to me what they are doing but just get on and do it.


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was this month's selection for the Wolves reading group, suggested by the lovely Claire, who I still adore even though I didn't love this book. :-) Please join us the last weekend of next month for Orhan Pamuk's Snow.

The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece


Those of you who read my comments on the first few chapters of Carola Hicks's awkwardly-titled The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece, are probably wondering whether I was ever able to get over my yearning for a close reading of the Tapestry, and enjoy this book for what it is: a "biographical" account following the artifact through the thousand years since its composition, and all of the social and ideological battles that have been fought over and around it during that time. And the answer would be, more or less, yes. I'm still interested in reading something geared more toward artistic analysis of the Tapestry—something that "fondles its details," as Nabokov might say—but Hicks's approach proved quite juicy as well, and brought up some interesting points of consideration.

She has plenty of material to work with. The Bayeux Tapestry has simply been around longer than most non-classical works of art in the Western canon, and when you combine that with the fact that by its very nature it exists on the boundary between two nations—depicting as it does the invasion of England by the Normans, a people from what is now the northwest corner of France—it's not surprising that the work has become the site of a number of nationalistic and ideological struggles throughout the years. As "antiquarianism" (the 17th and 18th-century precursor to anthropology) gained ground, for example, the Tapestry was the subject of a hilarious series of sniping pamphlets between Frenchmen and Englishmen, who argued bitterly about whether the thing was a "French" or an "English" artifact. The fact that the modern "English" have long incorporated Norman heritage into their identities; that "Normans" were not exactly French to begin with; and that the Tapestry's own narrative is remarkably sympathetic to those on both sides of the Conquest; did not stop pamphleteering gentlemen of leisure from interpreting the embroidery in the most jingoistic terms, such as in this nuanced reading from 1742:

We see the faithless, inconstant and perfidious disposition of the French and their behavior towards us. We see, then as now, the genius of the English, brave, generous, honest and true. We may learn hence never to trust the bonne foy of that nation, but expect they will still be the same, as from the beginning.

The question addressed in my previous posts, about who did the actual embroidering on the Tapestry, was actually a topic of hot debate during this time. The French contingent attempted to emphasize the work's Frenchness by claiming that it was embroidered by the French queen Mathilde (wife of William the Conqueror), whereas the English contingent tried to emphasize the opposite by claiming that it was embroidered by English monks or nuns, on English soil. As far as I can tell, this debate is still very much alive, with no one definitive interpretation emerging—although the theory that it was commissioned by Odo, designed by a monk and executed in England seems to be the most popular.

For their side, the French used the Tapestry when convenient to serve as a model for current events. Napoleon, for example, had his arts-and-culture man Denon arrange an exhibition of the Tapestry in the newly-converted Louvre, in order to drum up popular support for the idea of a Napoleon-led invasion of England. He even went so far as to plant pieces of information in the press (which he controlled) to the effect that a comet had recently been seen in the skies—just like the one in the Tapestry that heralds the downfall of Harold and the arrival of William the Conqueror. Clearly, whatever Napoleon wanted to do must be sanctioned by divine right.

In a similar but slightly stranger vein, Heinrich Himmler and the Nazi party were extremely interested in the Tapestry during the Second World War. As far as the Nazis were concerned, the Anglo-Saxon heritage of the pre-Conquest English made them more or less Vikings, which meant that they were more or less German. (I'm betting they did not ask a Norwegian's opinion on this.) Which, in turn, meant that the Bayeux Tapestry could be "reclaimed" as an example of "pure Aryan" art, and removed back to Germany to serve the cause of Nazi propaganda. It was only through the resistance of a few individuals (both German and French), and a series of lucky breaks, that the artwork survived the War and remained in France. This Nazi angle is one of the stories that Hicks is very interested in telling: she opens the book with an anecdote about Himmler ordering the Tapestry removed to Berlin in the last days of the War, and her chapters on WWII are longer and more detailed than most others. Personally, I found that they dragged a bit, but I must admit to being a little "Nazi-ed out" in my reading, so others may feel differently. Not, of course, that Nazis and the Holocaust should not be written and talked about, but I've read a LOT about them and at this point am more interested in other historical periods.

One of the aspects of the book I did find reliably fascinating was Hicks's examination of the social debates taking place around the tapestry: in particular, its relationship to feminism and art theory. In the early Victorian era, when the first rumblings of an organized feminism were afoot, attitudes to embroidery within that nascent movement were very conflicted. For some early feminists, like Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Lamb, embroidery was pointless, infantilizing busy-work, taught to upper- and middle-class women in order to signify that they had nothing important to do and so could afford to waste their time on trifles. These women agitated for a female education closer to that received by boys, emphasizing physical and mental activity over sedentary domestic arts. A different contingent of early feminists, however, looked to the Bayeux Tapestry and other works of needle art as a uniquely female sphere of artistic endeavor—one often unfairly dismissed, yet in truth equal to the male-dominated mediums of painting and sculpture, and in need of rehabilitation in the public eye. Both of these arguments are fascinating, and remarkably similar to debates still raging among feminists in the fiber arts world today. Neither side presents a case I can wholeheartedly agree with, but both provide food for thought, particularly as they intersect with issues of class. (And just to add spice to the mix, still other Victorian critics claimed that the naked figures in the margins of the Tapestry proved it COULDN'T have been embroidered by women, as their native delicacy would never have permitted such lewd subject matter.)

The other unexpectedly thought-provoking thread in Hicks's book was her tracing of aesthetic reactions to the Tapestry through time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, most people were extremely put off by details that I would not even think to criticize: for example, that the colors in the Tapestry are not "true to life," or that a single horse is often portrayed using different colors. See below, for example; the inner side of a horse's back leg is often embroidered in a different color, giving a sense of depth without Renaissance-style perspective.


Similarly, 18th and 19th-century viewers were alienated by the lack of classicism in the style of the Tapestry. They equated "good art" with the ideals of Greek and Roman statuary and the painting that imitated it—illusionistic perspective, clothes that drape "realistically" over a muscled body, and so on—and in many peoples' minds there simply was no other yardstick by which to measure a piece of art. Accordingly, when people started attempting to revive the reputation of the Bayeux Tapestry, they made obsessive parallels to classical art; the only way they could think to elevate public opinion of the Tapestry was to uncover previously-unnoticed similarities to the Greek and Roman style. Only the most sensitive art critics of these times, among them John Ruskin, were able to evaluate the Tapestry on its own merits rather than attempting to imagine it into being as the Roman frieze it so plainly is not. It's fascinating to think that modern viewers, long accustomed to the playful abandonment of perspective pioneered by Van Gogh and others, and the anti-realistic use of color in everything from Picasso paintings to TV commercials, can more easily appreciate the artwork of the Tapestry than people for several centuries before us.

So, despite the occasional slow section, Hicks's Bayeux Tapestry was more than worth my time. I have another, lavishly illustrated book of academic papers on the Tapestry, so hopefully I'll get my fill of both its biographical and textual details.

Huis Clos (No Exit)


This may be merely my brain's attempt to justify the hundreds of dollars I recently spent on French-language books, but I feel lucky to have read Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 existential black comedy Huis Clos (No Exit) in the original. It's been a while since I've read a piece in which the conventions of language are so obviously integrated into the meaning of the whole, in ways that defy translation—and I enjoyed that synthesis so much that upon finishing the play I immediately started again from the beginning and re-read it. In particular, it was Sartre's use of the familiar (tu) and formal/plural (vous) forms of "you"—common to Romance and other languages but nonexistent in English—that intrigued me, and added a surprising amount of depth to the characters' interactions.

The plot of Huis Clos involves three people, recently dead and arrived in Hell. Garcin, Inès and Estelle are shown, one after the other, into the Second Empire sitting room where they will be spending eternity together. The atmosphere is hot but not unlivable, and at first the deprivations seem surprisingly tolerable. No mirrors, for example. No beds and no toothbrushes; no windows; no ability to turn out the lights or open the door. Furniture no one particularly likes. Other than that, nothing too horrible. All three sinners expect gruesome punishments ("Where are the stakes?" asks Garcin), but no judge or executioner arrives. Instead, the three converse and gradually reveal themselves and their sins, becoming a perfect three-way trap of torment each for the others.

At one point, Garcin warns Estelle (who is perpetually hungry for male validation) that he will never love her: "je te connais trop" ("I know you too well"). This equation of human knowledge with distaste, and familiarity with painful vulnerability, is pervasive throughout the play, and Sartre underlines it brilliantly with his use of tu and vous. Whereas one would normally expect a person to use tu in more affectionate, sympathetic situations (such as conversations with a close friend, lover or spouse), and vous in colder, more formal situations or to emphasize a power differential (such as in a professional setting or a conversation between strangers), Sartre turns this expectation on its head. Most often, the periods of respect and temporary alliances between characters are marked by their use of vous with each other, whereas the use of tu is almost always either an attempt at emotional manipulation, or an act of outright cruelty.

Take this scene partway through the play, when the other two gang up on Estelle. Inès and Garcin have just finished an extended conversation with each other, in which they both relate the reasons they've been damned. They offer their revelations willingly, and are as sympathetic with one another as anyone ever is in this play; throughout their exchange, they use vous with each other. They then turn on Estelle, who has claimed not to know what she might have done to end up in Hell:

GARCIN: (à Inès) Oh! vous avez raison. (à Estelle.) A toi. Qu'est ce que tu as fait?
ESTELLE: Je vous ai dit que je n'en savais rien. J'ai beau m'interroger...
GARCIN: Bon. Eh bien, on va t'aider. Ce type au visage fricasée, qui est-ce?
ESTELLE: Quel type?
INES: Tu le sais fort bien. Celui dont tu avais peur quand tu es entrée.
ESTELLE: C'est un ami.
GARCIN: Pourquoi avais-tu peur de lui?
ESTELLE: Vous n'avez pas le droit de m'interroger.
INES: Il s'est tué à cause de toi?
ESTELLE: Mais non, vous êtes folle.

Here both Garcin and Inès transition from using vous in their relatively gentle conversation with each other, to using tu in their aggressive questioning of Estelle. Garcin's "A toi" in the opening line is a badge of contempt: he's indicating that her refusal to be truthful about her past is costing her any respect he may have had for her. Estelle is put in the defensive, pleading position, and continues to use vous with her tormentors—even when, as in the case of the last quoted line ("Mais non, vous êtes folle"), the gendered grammar makes it clear she's speaking to one of them alone, in this case Inès. Being addressed as vous is thus associated with the position of power and consent, whereas being called tu is the mark of force, of the act of depriving someone of their essential protective skin. I can't think of any way to pack this kind of meaning into an English translation without adding words that weren't there in the original—having Estelle say "Mr. Garcin," for example, or assigning words of contempt (child, idiot) to Garcin's and Inès's speech. Otherwise there's definitely less there:

GARCIN: (To Inès) Oh, you're right. (To Estelle.) And you. What is it you did?
ESTELLE: I told you I have no idea. I've tried to think...
GARCIN: Fine. We'll help you out. That fellow with the smashed face, who is he?
ESTELLE: What fellow?
INES: You know perfectly well. The one you were so afraid of when you came in.
ESTELLE: He's a friend of mine.
GARCIN: Why were you afraid of him?
ESTELLE: You have no right to interrogate me.
INES: Did he kill himself because of you?
ESTELLE: Of course not, don't be absurd.

The workings of tu and vous are explicitly acknowledged in another scene, which also involves the fascinating gender dynamics of the play. Here the lesbian Inès is trying to manipulate Estelle's affections by playing on her vanity and need for admiration. Inès offers to take the place of Estelle's absent mirror, attempting to insinuate herself into the girl's affections. She uses tu as part of her sweet-talk toward Estelle and asks the girl to reciprocate. But Estelle stubbornly continues to use vous with Inès, only lapsing into tu under pressure, and eventually admitting that "I find it hard to use tu with other women":

ESTELLE: Et c'est bien? Que c'est agaçant, je ne peux plus juger par moi-même. Vous me jurez que c'est bien?
INES: Tu ne veux pas qu'on se tutoie?
ESTELLE: Tu me jures que c'est bien?
INES: Tu es belle.
ESTELLE: Mais vous avez du goût? Avez-vous mon goût? Que c'est agaçant, que c'est agaçant.
INES: J'ai ton goût, puisque tu me plais. Regarde-moi bien. Souris-moi. Je ne suis pas laide non plus. Est-ce que je ne vaux pas mieux qu'un miroir?
ESTELLE: Je ne sais pas. Vous m'intimidez. Mon image dans les glaces était apprivoisée. Je la connaissais si bien...Je vais sourire: mon sourire ira au fond de vos prunelles et Dieu sait ce qu'il va devenir.
INES: Et qui t'empêche de m'apprivoiser? (Elles se regardent. Estelle sourit, un peu fascinée.) Tu ne veux décidément pas me tutoyer?
ESTELLE: J'ai de la peine à tutuoyer les femmes.


ESTELLE: Does it look alright? It's so annoying, not being able to judge for myself. Do you swear it looks alright?
INES: You don't want to use tu with me?
ESTELLE: Do you (tu) swear it looks alright?
INES: You are beautiful.
ESTELLE: But do you (vous) have any taste? Do you share my taste? Oh, it's annoying, it's annoying!
INES: I have your taste, because I like you so much. Look at me. Smile at me. I'm not so ugly either. Aren't I better than a mirror?
ESTELLE: I don't know. You intimidate me. My reflection in the mirror was tamed. I knew it so well...I'm going to smile: my smile will sink to the bottom of your pupils and God knows what it will become.
INES: And what's keeping you from taming me? (They look at each other. Estelle smiles, slightly fascinated.) You really don't want to use tu with me?
ESTELLE: I find it hard to use tu with other women.

The power dynamic here is less clear-cut than in the previous scene, but again we see the use of tu as an attempted power play—although Estelle's withholding of tu gives her a certain amount of power as well. Indeed, Inès's imprisonment with a beautiful woman she desires (and desires to control), but who will never take her seriously because Inès is not a man, is a key element of Inès's torture. Estelle craves the male gaze, and Inès, despite all her cunning and manipulation, simply cannot provide it. "[M'addresser à] elle?" Estelle exclaims at one point. "Mais elle ne compte pas; c'est une femme." ("[Talk to] her? But she doesn't count; she's a woman.")

Being a woman while also believing the socialized message that women "don't count" makes, of course, for a person who is hard put to spend any time alone, and goes a long way toward explaining why women like Estelle crave constant validation from men. Not that the idea of female invalidity is limited to Estelle, or to women. Sartre acknowledges it as widespread—Garcin, in fact, thinks so little of his wife (low-born as well as female) that he feels no regret at having casually abused her for years, and neglects to even mention to his fellow-prisoners when she dies. Instead, he obsesses about the opinions his former (male) colleagues hold of him and of his actions. Given the famed feminism of Sartre's long-term partner Simone de Beauvoir I'm not sure why I was so surprised at the insightful depictions here of the traps of gender, but, like Sartre's use of language, they came as a welcome treat.

As, despite its darkness, did this entire play. After two readings I know it's one I'll be coming back to again and again, especially as I learn more about the larger framework of Sartre's philosophy.


Well, this is it! We're on the plane back to Portland, and I reckon the best way to keep myself from falling asleep before my bed time is to tell you all about the day we spent hiking in the Auvergne region of France. It was a stunning finale to our trip—although David, who seems to have come down with the slapstick bug, suffered several Inspector Clouseau-style mishaps over the course of the day, including falling down, mis-aligned socks, getting electrocuted, and being rejected by cows. Please forgive me if this post is more rambling and incoherent than usual; I've been up for 24 hours and don't feel up to much in the way of editing!


So. One thing that's very different about hiking in France than hiking in Oregon, where I usually do it, is that the vast majority of the land here is to some degree cultivated. Auvergne and the Massif Central, in the center of the country, are some of the least populated areas in France, but the land here is still in active use—in other words, you can go to the country, but you can't (or at least we didn't) really go to the wilderness. The hundreds of square miles of virgin forest that still, despite the best efforts of loggers, exist in the Pacific Northwest, are not present here. Instead there are the kind of gentle rolling hills and sweeping meadows of wildflowers you see above. Unlike in Oregon, you can see destinations approaching for kilometers and even miles, as you stride toward them through clear, undulating countryside. It's breathtaking.


However, another side-effect of the relatively high-density land use is that, unlike in Oregon, one doesn't just arrive at a trailhead and start hiking, confident that one can more or less remain on said trail the whole way along. French hiking trails are incorporated into the populated landscape, passing through towns, by the sides of industrial parks, and along all possible varieties of path including paved highway, grass footpath, logging road, gravel campground track, the fenced border of someone's cow pasture, another person's driveway, dirt road, and private driveways. The dense network of trails and directory stations that branch off of the GR30 (one of Europe's long, multi-day "Grande Randonées") often traverse private property in a way disconcerting to American sensibilities. It's also disorienting to anyone who's expecting to a) get to the country before starting on a hike, or b) encounter clearly-signed directions to a particular trailhead (there are just too many of them).


For example, the beginning of our hike: we never actually found it. What we found was an entry point to the trail at one step beyond the point we were directed to enter, and we figured that was good enough. After parking the car at a little pull-out on the outskirts of the small town where we were staying, we went through the following steps, some of them described in our hiking book and others not:

  • Walk along a paved service road where there are several industrial supplies warehouses;
  • Turn right into what looks like part supply-delivery road, part private driveway (this right turn is not mentioned in the book);
  • Walk to the end of the private driveway, squeeze past the owner's car, and pass through a series of rusty metal gates in order to cross the railroad tracks into a wood;
  • Walk through the woods for five minutes before coming to a highway; cross the highway;
  • Jog to the right, following a street in the neighboring hamlet, before turning right on a cobbled logging road marked "private property."

And so on. Accustomed to an altogether less cozy style of hiking, we kind of couldn't believe many of these steps were for real. "This really looks like a driveway," said David several times, or "Isn't this somebody's cow pasture?" American farmers are not kidding around when they put up Private Property signs, so we were a bit skittish. Soon, though, we became accustomed to the intimacy of hiking through fields and towns rather than wilderness. It was lovely, for instance, to arrive in L'Usclade (described in our book as a "semi-abandoned hamlet"), where flowing water troughs, crumbling stone houses and rusty farm equipment made a fitting backdrop to the leaf fire that one of the few remaining farmers was stoking in his field. He looked up and nodded to us amiably as we passed, despite the rope spanning the trail a kilometer or so back, which I can only assume was intended to discourage someone from entering. Apparently that someone was not us.


Let me tell you something else unexpected about this walk, though: it was hard! I had assumed that the only way a 20-kilometer (12-mile) hike could be classed as "easy to moderate," as this one was, is if it were pretty much flat the whole way. I'd been telling people this for months: the hike we're doing in France is long but flat. Nothing of the sort, my friends. David and I were soon huffing and puffing up the brutally steep grade, trying to convince ourselves that our breathlessness was down to a higher-than-customary altitude, but knowing all the time that we just weren't conditioned for this kind of steep uphill trek. Soon after L'Usclade our book told us the trail would "start to steepen," and indeed it did, as we traversed fields of yellow, purple and white wildflowers, then entered a shadowy beech wood, rife with vibrant moss and rushing mountain streams. This part of the trail reminded me a lot of Oregon, except for the combination of "Private Property" signs mounted on barbed wire fences, along with helpfully-positioned ladders allowing hikers to climb over them.


Coming out of the wood at the same steep angle we entered it, we emerged into an open meadow full of ancient-looking stone walls crossing this way and that along the slope. In the near distance a flock of cows ruminated, their bells clanking with a soothing sound. The field was also the home of a large number of light-green, upright plants like those you see above. They're apparently gentian plants, which we found out when we were hailed by this freelance gentian-harvester. He told us he was gathering the roots to sell in town, where they make a digestif out of it. He then showed us the enormous tined fork he uses to pry the huge roots from the ground, and gave David a piece to chew on raw (knowing it was bitter, I politely declined). He seemed gratified at our little conversation; in the hybrid Franglais we were using to communicate, he told us that lots of hikers come by on the trail and many of them photograph him, but few will stop to chat. Understandably, this made him feel like a wild animal on some kind of tourist safari.

The conversation with the gentian-harvester also gave me some food for thought. We asked him for directions up to Puy Gros, and he told us to keep on as we were going and then turn right at the cows. Those who have read Samuel Becket''s Molloy may remember that there's a gag in that book where the main characters follow and re-trace the same path one after the other, which the reader realizes because they're passing the same landmarks. Except that the things Beckett uses as "landmarks" are stuff that can change position, like dogs and sheep. I always interpreted this as an existentialist comment on the unreliability of the human sense of recognition...but maybe not! Maybe it's just the reality of walking in rural France!


The wind came up as we turned right by the cows, and we put on our jackets and gloves to scale the formation above, known as Puy Gros. Possibly the steepest bit yet, it eventually rewarded us with spectacular views over the whole Dordogne Valley. La Bourboule spread out to one side of us, with its sister-town of Mont Dore on the other, and various fields and rock formations clustering all around us on the other sides. Not to mention, the top of Puy Gros is one side of a little plateau, so we had a few welcome kilometers of walking on the flat ground before a short but precipitous descent.


I should backtrack a bit at this point and tell you about David's morning, which was not going so smoothly. First of all there was an embarrassing incident at breakfast, in which I looked down at my croissant for a moment only to look up again and find David coughing and spluttering, features distorted and eyes watering horribly, with Earl Gray tea streaming out of his mouth and nose all down the front of his shirt and pants. Then we got back to the room and met up with the room service maid, who may have looked askance at David's OCD-inspired decision to take the toilet-paper rolls off their holder and perch them at a jaunty angle on top of the towel rack. "What is WRONG with that couple in 102?" we imagined them asking. "Do all Americans behave like this?" Such speculations set David off on a laughing jag that reduced him to tears. "Okay," he said, after it was over, "I'm ready for bed now. I've had a hard day."


But of course he didn't go to bed. Instead, while we were trying to find the elusive trailhead, he ran almost a mile round-trip trying to figure out whether a certain trail was the one we wanted. Then, coming down from Puy Gros, he stumbled and fell hard, gouging his thigh on a rocky outcropping. A good sport as always, he hobbled down into the valley, assuring me that he just needed to keep moving so nothing would get stiff. The wildflower-strewn fields grew truly spectacular as we climbed a few more stile-ladders and made our way across pastureland. For a kilometer or so we shared the field with these horses and foals, most of whom showed much less interest in us than we did in them. A single stallion did stand right in the middle of the path and inspect David's outstretched hand before allowing our disappointingly apple- and carrot-free selves to pass on over the next stile.


The great thing about the more densely-settled French style of hiking, is that you're never far away from a source of lunch, dinner or wine. My understanding is that people doing a Grande Randonnée, which can take two weeks or more, expect to stay in inns along the way pretty much every night, partaking of a hot meal and a shower-bath and sleeping in a real bed. (Which, as an aside, sounds like about the best holiday I can imagine, and has me dreaming about another hiking vacation in Europe—maybe in the south of England?) So, with this hike, there is a lovely little lakeside inn at more or less the halfway-point, where we arrived just as it was beginning to sprinkle. Even though we arrived at the awkward hour between 2:30 and 7, when most French restaurants are closed, the friendly innkeeper provided us with a half-bottle of local red wine, a basket of bread, and a plate each of their local cheeses: Cantal, Saint-Nectaire, and Auvergne Bleu. We whiled away a delightful 45 minutes, gazing out across the lake and watching a bus-load of French schoolboys, who seemed to be on some kind of field trip, cheering a fisherman as he reeled in a fish. By the time we were ready to walk again, the drizzle had cleared up.


We next had to cut along the side of the lake, which was very marshy in places. David stepped into a patch of mud and sank in almost to the top of his hiking boots. Smugly, I looked at him and thought "I won't sink in that far; I'll find a better way." I walked over to a patch of firmer-looking mud, took a step, and sank into the mud halfway to my knee. David said it looked like the mud was eating me alive, although there were no real ill effects besides getting muddy.


For him, unfortunately, the way back was more challenging. His boots are getting old, and his feet started to blister as we strode back along the disused gravel road leading between more wildflower fields and up to a series of abandoned farm buildings. In the chill wind kicking up occasionally over the fields, we stopped a few times for him to nurse his various injuries. The farm buildings presided over this whole phase of the walk, gradually drawing nearer and creating a melancholy yet aesthetically appealing atmosphere. I don't know anything about the place's history, but the buildings are long-abandoned, with trees growing through the floor and the roof of the erstwhile cabin. Intriguingly, the construction of the outbuildings looks fairly recent, as if they were abandoned shortly after being built. As we agreed passing by, "I guess things didn't work out at the farm."


Of all David's setbacks throughout the day, he claims that the most emotionally trying came just after we rounded a bend for a dual view of the Puy Gros and the Banne d'Ordanche, and he held out his gloved hand to a group of cows lying down in a field...only to have them leap to their feet and start heaving at us in something between a sigh and a growl. We weren't sure if they were interested in us or threatening us, but they continued to mill around excitedly as we made our way down the slope. "Oh dear," he said, "I shouldn't have disturbed them." "I think they heard about the incident at breakfast," I said. "They're appalled at your behavior." To top things off, shortly after the cow incident he got an unexpected shock from an electric fence under which I had passed with no incident.


The last three or four kilometers brought us back on our steps, as we plodded down the same steep slopes we'd worked so hard to scale: back past the gentian field and through the beech wood, back through the wildflowers and the water troughs of L'Usclade, back down the cobbled logging road, across the highway, through the metal gates and down the townperson's driveway, past the warehouses and back to our car. When you take into account several wrong turnings that added distance, it was well over twelve miles in total and more challenging than anything we've done in a while, but a gorgeous and rewarding way to cap off our trip. Even David, in his hobbled and electrocuted state, heartily agrees.


France Days 19 - 20: Rocamadour


It may be sacrilege to say so, but on a purely aesthetic basis I think I preferred Rocamadour to Mont St. Michel. True, it does hit that awkward middle ground in which a place is still a fairly large tourist attraction—its main street full of shops hawking hippified "medieval" garments, sunglasses, and cheap China-made figurines of fairies—yet doesn't have the same level of fancy-pants infrastructure that an even more popular location might. And perhaps its setting—perched on the side of a valley cliff as if chiseled straight out of the rock—is not quite as unusual as the tidal island that houses its more famous cousin. Yet there was a magic to strolling around the walled medieval city at nightfall, when all the tourist buses had departed and we had the whole place to ourselves, that I had hoped to find at the Mount and simply did not due to the massive numbers of people there, even at off hours.


The appreciation of Mont St. Michel that I ended up with is largely intellectual, based on interesting facts I learned from the tour of the abbey, and concerted efforts of imagination while wandering the city that were, occasionally, successful. My appreciation of Rocamadour was much more instinctual and imaginative, since we didn't go on any guided tours and indeed drove to more secluded parts of the valley during the most crowded times of day. But after hours, at twilight, it was simultaneously peaceful and intriguing to roam the labyrinth of fortress and chapels, imagining the lives that have been lived on this spot. Even during the day there are pockets of quiet here, such as the prayer service we slipped into and sat, listening to the call and response of the priest and nuns. (Ironically, I'm sure neither location was all that quiet or contemplative back in its heyday, with all the pilgrim traffic, horses and donkeys sheltering in churches and tradespeople trying to make money off the pilgrims. Still, no matter how hard I try, bus-loads of modern-day tourists will never be evocative for me of anything remotely positive.)


Rocamadour (the "rock of St. Amadour") was a big pilgrimage site on the route to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages, at least in part because of the Black Madonna still housed in one of the chapels here. In a show of commitment I'm unlikely to repeat, pilgrims climbed the twisting flights of wide, worn stone steps that lead from the main street up to the complex of churches on their knees as a show of repentance. By the time we meandered back down those same stairs the night of our arrival, no one was in evidence except a single gray cat, who showed no signs of repentance at all.


In the heart of the town, the buildings seem to grow directly out of the rock. Even the black shadow of a window-opening contrasted with its sandy sill, is echoed by the colors in the black-and-sandy rocks themselves. Whether it's an effect of the mineral content or the discoloration of years of human use, or some combination of the two, the end result is striking: a blurred boundary between the naturally-occurring and the man-made.


In an interesting parallel with some of our earlier adventures, Blanche of Castille (commissioner of much of the current Château d'Angers, which we visited last week) made a pilgrimage here in the early 1200s. It's always encouraging to start to recognize names and dates you've seen before, to start to build a context for a previously-unfamiliar historical period. Medieval France certainly seems closer to me now, easier to imagine and relate to, than before I visited these places. And when I see another mention of Blanche's name, I will have these two sets of memories with which to connect her. (Those, and the memory of David putting on a New Jersey accent and exclaiming, at Angers, "Awh Blanche, ya made such a nice house!")


Outside of the medieval heart of the town, the construction is largely 19th-century or later; apparently the town was almost in ruins after the decline in pilgrimages following the wars of religion and the revolution, and only became fashionable again in the 1800s. This leads to an interesting amalgam of styles, such as the 1887 Stations of the Cross that lead up the steep slope to the medieval château (really more of a fortress) that was built to protect the town and churches. The juxtaposition is slightly jarring but also interesting, like historical fiction written by an author who is herself long-dead.


Roaming around the twilit and illuminated medieval city wasn't the only thing we did over the past few days, although we're definitely slowing down as we near the end of our trip. We took a drive through the beautiful countryside, and stopped in at a working farm recommended by Marie Christine, which produces fresh goat's milk cheese and yogurt, and sells other regional specialties, including wine and pork saucissions. We visited with the goats, who seemed contented and healthy if a bit cantankerous in that typically goaty way, and then bought some picnic supplies made with their milk. On the way out we saw a horde of chicks being spirited away by their mother hen.


This morning we left Rocamadour for La Bourboule, our base camp for a longish hike we're doing tomorrow. Well, the hike is longish by American standards (about 12 miles). It's not long at all by French standards, as it will only last one day and not involve any camping or even staying overnight at an inn different from the one where we began. But you do what you can. People here are serious about their hiking, and perhaps I should call what we're doing a "day walk" or even a "light stroll." In any case, La Bourboule is a lovely, sleepy little town, and hopefully I'll have more to post about it tomorrow or the next day. Until then I'll leave you with a final shot of Rocamadour at night, taken from the steps of our hotel.


Only a few more days and we'll be back home!

Because I was in a hurry toward the end of my last post, I didn't tell you about the trip we made to the Toulouse branch of Palais des Thés and to another Toulouse tea shop called Lotus, or the fact that David was able to add to his already-sizable tea collection. It's very important to mention it here, however, because our second day in Toulouse was largely devoted to—you guessed it—books. I wouldn't want to give the impression that our destinations are all one-sided!

Because she is a woman after my own heart, Marie Christine greeted us at the door with, in additions to questions about which cheeses we'd tried so far on our trip to France, a pile of books for yours truly. It was based on conversations we'd had and on my France wish list:


  • Fatou Diome, Le vieil homme sur la barque: Marie Christine met the author of this slim volume at a wine and book festival this past year, and kindly had it autographed for me! Thanks, MC!
  • Alan-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes: I had never heard of this book before reading the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, but it apparently fills roughly the same niche in France as To Kill a Mockingbird in the US: a beloved classic that everyone reads in middle school or high school. It was also the subject of a series of interesting posts by Amateur Reader recently.
  • J.M.G. Le Clézio, Désert: I've been meaning to read more by Le Clézio, especially after Claire's intriguing yet not altogether positive posts on The Prospector.
  • Marguerite Duras, Moderato Cantabile: Marie Christine doesn't share my utter fascination with Duras but was kind enough to put this aside for me. And acknowledges that it's worthwhile to read a nouveau roman every now and then. ;-)
  • Amélie Nothomb, Hygiène de l'assassin: Showed up on Three Percent's list of best translated fiction for the year, and sounded intriguing.
  • Véronique Tadjo, Reine Pokou: Recommended very convincingly by Jenny of Shelf Love, and also enjoyed by Marie Christine.
  • Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, L'Autre Rive: Something by Châteaureynaud also shows up on that Three Percent list, but this one is more controversial as Marie Christine has little use for it. We shall see where I come down.
  • Michel Erman, Le Bottin proustien: A handy little compendium of Proustian characters (and maybe themes?) to feed my preoccupation.
  • Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet: I've only read Père Goriot (and that in English), so looking forward to trying out more Balzac.
  • And lastly, a gorgeous book of photographs and meditations that's a gift for both David and I.
So generous! Thanks, lady. So, as if that weren't enough on top of my book-buying from Paris, the rest of the day yesterday was also devoted to books. We visited Toulouse's lovely Art Deco research library, where the parquet floors and 1930s stained glass were particular highlights (no photography allowed, unfortunately, though you can see a few images online). Then came a slight non-bookish detour in the form of Basilique Saint-Sernin, a lovely Romanesque basilica that was/is also an important pilgrimage site on the road to Santiago de Compostela. (NB: Ever since I lived for a summer near Santiago de Compostela 15 years ago, it's come up on almost every single major vacation I've taken, even those to such far-flung locations as New Hampshire and Australia. Odd!) The photo below was taken by David of the spire of St. Sernin when we returned there yesterday evening.


Marie Christine told us that the characteristic pink brick of Toulouse was less expensive and therefore less prestigious as a building material, so buildings made from white stone (which had to be shipped in from elsewhere) indicate wealth whereas the brick buildings are signs of more humble origins. The older parts of the basilica were built in stone, but funds ran short and the builders switched to brick, or a mix of brick and stone, at later stages of construction. It's interesting to be able to observe the difference in different parts of the building. In fact, one portal was never fully finished due to money shortages.


Another highlight of yesterday (taking things a bit out of order) was the covered market we visited, and the delicious regional dessert specialty we picked up there: a pastis gascon, which is a flaky pastry crust filled with apples that have been flambéd in Armagnac and covered with crinkles of a browned, buttery pastry similar to filo dough. Wow. Really good. If I am able to appreciate any food, it's dessert, and this was a winner.

We stopped by Toulouse's Mediathèque, an expansive and beautifully designed modern library (bibliothèque) that embraces all forms of media. There's a lovely periodicals reading room, a whole floor devoted to music in all different formats complete with listening stations (I saw 45s, LPs and CDs as well as sheet music; I don't know if they have cassettes or mp3 lending), and of course several floors of books, organized by subject. There are also community events and common spaces, galleries, etc.: a really cool resource for the Toulousians, who seemed to be taking good advantage of the place. And the whole building is laid out around a contemporary-looking spiral staircase, in wood and metal. Lovely.


But a particularly appealing destination for me was Gilbert Joseph, the multi-floor bookstore chain that features a great selection of both new and used titles. I was already a bit concerned about my baggage weight so I didn't expect to buy many books, but so many were gently used and inexpensive! And then Marie Christine got into a conversation with the soft-spoken clerk about which Gallimard editions were on offer for free with the purchase of two Folios, and he brought out a huge box and told us to help ourselves. "How many do we get?" she asked, and he shrugged and said to take however many we wanted. Fatal words.

  • Merlin l'enchanteur was one of the free titles I snatched up: it compiles medieval tales about Merlin from many different sources. I've only ever been exposed to these stories in Disney-fied form, so this seems interesting.
  • Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann: Goes without explanation, since reading Proust in English was the reason I started studying French to begin with.
  • Albert Camus, La Peste: I read and loved this in English many years ago, so it's time for a re-read. Especially with my newfound love of Beauvoir and Sartre.
  • Jean Genet, Les bonnes: Genet's play was one of the inspirations for the Barak Marshall dance piece I wrote about just before I left on this trip, and I am curious to read anything that would open up new perspectives on that work.
  • Alfred Jarry, Ubu roi: For Amateur Reader's Anything Ubu Reading Opportunity, whose intro post I very fortuitously happened to spot while doing a drive-by of the internet yesterday morning.
  • Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vol de nuit: Since Toulouse is Saint-Exupéry's adoptive town, I thought it was only right to pick up something of his.
  • Simone de Beauvoir, La force des choses, I & II: The third part of Beauvoir's memoirs, split into two volumes.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis clos, suivi de Les mouches (No Exit and The Flies in English.): I've actually already started this, and it's unexpectedly hilarious! Especially interesting having just read Beauvoir's accounts of the composition of both plays.
  • Pierre Arditi, Les répliques les plus drôles du théâtre: A fun little volume that was one of the freebies. Witty repartee from French cinema.
  • Raymond Queneau, Zazie dans le métro: Another dose of Oulipo fun, about which Marie Christine was very enthusiastic. Having heard a bit about the storyline from her, I can totally see why this one would win hearts.
  • Nathalie Sarraute, Le planetarium: November pick for the Wolves.
  • Guy de Maupassant, Contes de la bécasse: Another freebie, and I have never read Maupassant. And was intrigued by yet another interesting series of posts chez Amateur Reader.
  • Émile Zola, Le Ventre de Paris: Yet another freebie, and after being surprised at my love of Germinal last year, I couldn't pass it up.
  • Molière, L'ecole des femmes: Also free, and giant of satiric theater whom I have never read. You see my difficulty.
  • Georges Perec, Les choses: High on the list of possible recommendations for next year's Wolves reading, should we do it again.
  • Romain Gary writing as Émile Ajar, Pseudo: This is another one from the Three Percent list, and I was totally intrigued by the blurb at Yale Press: "The Prix Goncourt made people all the keener to identify the real "Émile Ajar," and stressed by the furor he had created, Gary fled to Geneva. There, Pseudo, a hoax confession and one of the most alarmingly effective mystifications in all literature, was written at high speed. Writing under double cover, Gary simulated schizophrenia and paranoid delusions while pretending to be Paul Pawlovitch confessing to being Émile Ajar--the author of books Gary himself had written."
Whew. We topped off the evening by Marie Christine kindly donating an extra carry-on in which I can tote all these books, and by dining out all together at a local restaurant called La Madeleine de Proust, which is cozily decorated with lots of vintage French toys, and whose excellent food extends far beyond shell-shaped sponge cookies. (I got a whole grilled bream, and David some lamb, which we followed by a molten chocolate cake with blood-orange ice cream, and a chocolate mousse respectively.) Délicieux!


After a bit of a slow start this morning, we were soon were bidding our generous hosts farewell and driving the extremely scenic route toward Rocamadour, our next two-night stop. Marie Christine packed enough sweets and savories with us for both lunch and dinner, so we meandered lazily through the countryside of south-central France, stopping for a picnic in a lovely town whose name I've forgotten, but whose center sported a little pond surrounded by stone benches, next to a structure that played the triple role of bus stop, telephone booth, and fireplace.


We then made our way to a scenic village suggested by Marie Christine: St. Cirq-Lapopie, which is nestled in the Causses du Quercy regional natural park. Perched on a hillside overlooking a river valley, it's hard to imagine a prettier place; the photo that opens this post is of part of the main village. We parked and strolled around the town, which David said made him feel like he was living in Tolkein's Shire. Adding to the feeling that we might all be hobbits was the unnatural size of some of the insects, notably this crazy moth. Large and hover-y enough to be a small hummingbird, it had long, thick antennae and an even longer, flexible proboscis. A small amount of internet research reveals it was undoubtedly a Hummingbird Hawkmoth: a suitably dramatic-sounding name for such a bizarre animal.


After a bit more wandering about the town (whose picturesque ruins reminded me forcibly of the Romantic poets, although in fact the most notable writer to live here was Surrealist André Breton), we headed back to the car. The remainder of the drive to Rocamadour was equally beautiful, being completely contained within the natural park, a land of green fields, red poppies, cliffs and caves. I'll leave Rocamadour itself for its own post, which it definitely deserves. One more shot from Saint-Cirq-Lapopie before heading to bed in preparation for another day of exploration.


France Days 15 - 16: Montaigne + St. Exupéry


Yet again I have an overwhelming amount to tell you about a two-day period! We left our relaxing mini-castle and vineyard yesterday morning and made our way out to the Dordogne countryside, walking in the footsteps of the Romantic poets who first confused the estate's owners by insisting on making a pilgrimage to the former home of Michel de Montaigne, pioneer of the essay form.


These days it's set up a bit more like a tourist attraction than it was back in the late 18th century, although not much more. There was only one other car in the small parking lot when we arrived, and a group of friendly British and Welsh students greeted us and led us along the path through the grounds (modest by the standards of a Renaissance château, but still quite lovely), and to the tower itself. The tower is the only part of the château that remains of the house that Montaigne himself knew, the rest having burned down and been replaced by another house, which is still privately owned. But the tower would have been the most interesting part anyway, since that's where Montaigne went to get away from his forceful wife and mother, to sleep, and, of course, to write.


Here there is the opposite problem we found at Mont St. Michel: today this site is peaceful and quiet, and Montaigne biographer Sarah Bakewell points out that in this environment it's easy to imagine Montaigne as a retiring man, lost in his meditations. In fact, during his lifetime this was a working farm, and would have been teeming with all kinds of human and animal life, including yelling, mooing, cackling, and all the coming and going inherent in farm life. As one gesture toward all the agricultural activity that took place here, Montaigne's saddles are on display in his study; it's possible that one of these was involved in the near-fatal riding accident that changed Montaigne's worldview and enabled him to become more accepting of the idea of his own death. I particularly thought of my friend Ariel when I saw these, as we first read Montaigne in a college seminar together and, being a horsewoman, she would probably be able to make more of a saddle than I can. Hi Ariel!


One striking thing about the rooms in the tower is that by modern standards they are very small: David (5'11") had to duck to get through the doorways, and even I (5'4") was aware of them when passing through. The tower was Montaigne's sanctuary in more than one sense, as the ground floor contains a small chapel where he heard mass, which is still painted with the coats of arms and trompe l'oeil niches and columns that he had painted there. Up a very worn, steep stone spiral staircase is his bedroom, equipped with an extra niche next to the bed (for getting warm in the winter in an era of un-glazed windows) and an audio channel that was installed from the chapel to the bedroom, to enable the aging, bedridden Montaigne to listen to masses. Up another set of spiral stairs is the study, with its rafters engraved with sayings in Latin and Greek. Certain sections of the carvings are facing one way, while others are facing the opposite; this allowed Montaigne to pace back and forth, reading all the while.


During his lifetime all of his then-impressive collection of books would have lived up here too, but they were sold off after his death and visitors have to imagine how much more full and cozy the little room might have seemed with a thousand volumes shelved on the wall across from the writing desk.

The Montaigne estate was, and is again, covered with vineyards (although in the interim they were torn out), and we grabbed a bottle of their wine on the way out. In addition, of course, to a volume of the Essais. The friendly Welsh and British ladies waved us on our way and we were off on the longish drive to Toulouse, to meet up with our friends Yves and Marie Christine. After a few misadventures with getting turned around on the freeway and having to go through a ridiculous number of toll plazas as a result, we arrived and were fed an excellent salade niçoise before heading to Les Abbatoirs, a former slaughterhouse subsequently converted into a modern art museum.


Pablo Picasso, "Le Rideau de scène du 14 Juillet" (1936)

A big star of the museum's collection is the curtain that Pablo Picasso designed for the first July 14 celebrations after the triumph of the Front Populaire in 1936 (which established things like paid vacation and workers' rights in France). The above is just a detail of it; the thing is of an epic size, a full two floors tall, and can be viewed from three different levels of the museum. They really make the most of their light, open, many-leveled building to show this piece to best advantage. Marie Christine and I were interested to learn that it was scaled up from a smaller drawing using the same grid-line technique that she uses to design tapestries, and I use to design knitting charts!


François Morellet, "Geometree #10" (1983)

I was excited to see a few more pieces by François Morellet, the artist responsible for the "Esprit de l'escalier" windows at the Louvre, which I wrote about a few entries back. In the two pieces at Les Abbatoirs, one large and one quite small, he plays with the juxtaposition between the organic lines of found natural objects, and the exact geometrical lines created by humans. I liked both pieces and I liked their placement in relation to one another, on either side of a doorway: this delicate piece was offset by its much larger cousin, also in blacks and whites but made of a giant branch and black acrylic tape.


Yolande Fièvre, "Plan d'une vielle cité pour rêver" (1960)

A new discovery for me was Yolande Fièvre, who makes these amazingly appealing, densely-packed box constructions out of found objects. Those who know my taste in visual art will know that "box construction" is pretty much my favorite ever medium (Joseph Cornell being one of my favorite visual artists), and Fièvre's work is right up my alley: textural and evocative, but much denser than Cornell's. As suggested by the title of this one, each of her pieces is like a whole city in miniature, and as I stood and gazed at them, more and more details jumped out at me: objects arranged into the shapes of human figures; the texture of wheels and axles underlying the surface; textural waves leading the eye from one part of the piece to another. You can check out images of a few more of her pieces here; I'd love to pick up a monograph, but they don't seem to be readily available. A little research does indicate that Fièvre was friends with Raymond Queneau and André Breton, though, which only makes me more intrigued to get to know her art!


Georges Mathieu, "La bataille de Hastings" (1956)

In an extremely odd coincidence, right after posting twice about the Bayeux Tapestry, which details the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings in 1066, I ran into another, very different representation of that same battle, this one by abstract expressionist Georges Mathieu. Crazy! The two depictions are about as far apart as you can get, but I think they both manage to convey the intensity, energy and chaos of battle. And they are both, somehow, contained as well: the Bayeux Tapestry is very long but very small top-to-bottom, and its narrative was constructed to justify the way events turned out. Mathieu's canvas is explosive and chaotic, but the chaos is all neatly contained within the borders of the black background; none of the lines threaten to overflow the boundaries of the painting.


After leaving the museum's interior we took a walk around the grounds, which continue to make good use of the preexisting architecture; in the brick niches on the outside of the building are a series of ten or more mosaics by Fernand Léger, which I quite liked. The gardens next to the museum are home to an amazing steampunk carousel, which Marie Christine tells us was a project designed to employ out-of-work artists while also creating something TOTALLY RAD (okay, that last was my editorializing). Surely the most stylish carousel I've ever seen, it features Jules Verne-style flying machines, a giant clockwork ant, an ancient-looking turtle, an ironclad rhinoceros, and the riveted fish above, among many others.


Marie Christine then took us for a lovely walk along the promenade that borders the river Garonne, which runs through the center of Toulouse. I always prefer my cities to have a river running through them, so this helped me warm up to Toulouse right away. It actually reminds me a bit of Portland, with its large student population and its riverside esplanades, full of people lounging on the grass taking advantage of the nice weather. One obvious difference, though, is the amount of history here and the cultural memory of times long ago. Crossing the bridge, for example, Marie Christine pointed back to an area by the bank and informed us that that's where people used to be locked in a cage and dunked repeatedly in the river until they divulged whatever information they were being "interrogated" about. And further on, a niche by the door of a former hospital building was revealed to be the revolving platform where distressed parents could deposit infants they were abandoning. You can see it to the right of the main door in the picture below:

And so after a bus ride and a delicious dinner (including cheese AND dessert courses, and a conversation about how the French are opposed to the very idea of drinking water instead of wine with cheese or sweets), we had a macaron-making lesson (on which more later) and headed to bed.


Although he was born in Lyon, the writer and early aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (of Le Petit Prince fame) spent time in Toulouse, and the city seems to have adopted him wholeheartedly as a native son. A major street is named for him (with another one named after the Little Prince), and murals and statues abound. The above is a detail of a mural near our house, and below is a statue in a charming setting, next to a duck pond crossed by a footbridge in the Royal Garden. I like how the author and his character seem to be in conversation.


In other Saint-Exupéry news, we paid a brief visit to the Hotel Grand Balcon, where the author and other pioneers of aviation would gather, drink, and also sleep, in their glory days of the late 1920s and 1930s. The vintage mosaic floor tiles are still intact, although the interior has been remodeled into an ultra-chic black-and-white cocktail bar and restaurant.


Marie Christine is a wonderful guide around the city, and imparted lots of information about Toulousian history. A wealthy city during the Renaissance due to its specialty as an exporter of woad (the plant used to create the blue and green dyes for the Bayeux Tapestry, and apparently intensely stinky to process into a dye), the town fell on hard times with the importation of indigo and didn't fully recover until the aviation/space industry came here in the 20th century. There are still lots of beautiful Renaissance details, especially when you are with Marie Christine, who knows where to look. David and I both loved the gargoyle scratching his ear on the windowsill above, and the carvings below are found in the courtyard of an erstwhile inn, Le Vieux Raisin, which has now been converted into doctors' and lawyers' offices. Facing this young man and woman are their elderly counterparts, their twisting lower halves replaced with bundled sheaves of grain.


We were introduced to several aspects of typical Toulousian architecture, including these cool "antefixe" roof tiles, which are affixed to the outside edge of the roofs (originally to hide the chimney apparatus). Some, like these with little faces and fleurs-de-lis, are quite elaborate.


Toulouse is also full of gardens and green spaces—another similarity with Portland, although the latter's gardens are of course not surrounded by the remnants of the medieval city gates...


...nor do they feature quite this shade of hydrangea (this is right out of the camera, with no manipulation). At least, if they do, I haven't seen them.


Today we're headed back into town for further adventures. A big thanks to Yves and Marie Christine for their hospitality in putting us up and showing us around their lovely town.

France Days 13 - 14: Relaxation in Bourg


Delightfully, our last few days have been a bit more laid-back than the average for this trip, so two days have gone by and I don't feel overwhelmed by all the events that I have to tell you. We left the Loire Valley late yesterday morning and headed south, arriving at our vineyard-slash-bed and breakfast early in the afternoon. It's a beautiful place, a 16th-century miniature castle nestled among rolling hills of grapes, just north of Bordeaux. As you drive over the crest of a hill, this view meets your gaze:


The remainder of the experience is as pretty and restful as that sight would indicate. The owners here are the fourth-generation owners of this vineyard on the husband's side. Our room is in the remodeled side tower, with the modern bathroom actually maintaining the round shape of the tower as well as its narrow, archery-friendly windows.


We were in need of a rest, so apart from going out for a casual dinner last night, and a cellar tour and quick market trip this morning, we spent the last few days just lazing about the property. The air smells delicious, the view is spectacular and the water tastes great: what more could we ask? There are even cats.


I've actually been getting a little reading time in over the last two days, which has come to seem like a great luxury—I've barely read a page for the last two weeks, and I'm starting to feel a bit twitchy. I've been enjoying one of the books I picked up in Bayeux, Carola Hicks's The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece. Hicks gives an overview of the Tapestry itself, followed by a chapter about the theories on who could have commissioned the piece, and another on the probable methods of its production. Lots of interesting stuff, including the answers to a couple of questions y'all asked about the Tapestry. I hope you really wanted to know, because here you go!

Stefanie (I think? though now I can't find the comment) wanted to know if it was made by women, and the answer is probably yes. It's likely that women did the actual embroidery—probably English women, and likely nuns living together in a convent. Apparently there were several convents in England that sported highly accomplished embroidery workshops capable of taking on this kind of project. The overall drawing or design would have been created by a man, though, most likely a monk or someone with monastic training, who was familiar with the illuminated manuscripts of the day (the Tapestry borrows a lot of imagery from illumination conventions). The designer is likely to have supervised the whole project, and most of the embroidering would have been done to his strict instructions. Interestingly, the only place in the tapestry where the embroiderers were likely free to express their individual styles, was in the foliage found between the diagonal lines in the upper and lower registers. From the variation in styles along the length of the Tapestry, it seems likely that the designer merely told the women to stitch in some kind of leafy ornament, without getting too specific.

Actually, Hicks brings up the possibility that the Tapestry could even have been commissioned by a woman, rather than by Bishop Odo as generally thought. Edith Godwinson was the widow of Edward the Confessor (whose death sparked the whole struggle for rule of England), and sister-in-law to Harold (his designated heir and the loser at the Battle of Hastings). Hicks points out that Edith was a savvy politician who, very unusually, managed to keep her estates and most of her fortune after the Norman conquest; that, as queen, she had control of one of the most accomplished embroidery workshops in England; that she had previous experience commissioning a piece of propaganda designed to position her family members strategically with the King; and that her attitude toward the invasion, that of an English woman sympathetic to Harold but who nonetheless accepted the validity of the Conquest, would explain the Tapestry's many ambiguities regarding which side had the moral high ground.

Anne was interested in where the Tapestry was made and its use after construction, neither of which are known for sure. As I said, it was probably made in England, where William's court was spending most of its time in those early, contentious days after the Conquest, when rebellions were breaking out all over the countryside. The Tapestry's small size top to bottom means it was likely intended to be viewed at eye level, most likely in the great hall at William's court, where it would flatter the Normans who were involved in the battle, prop up the validity of the court, and impress visitors. But very little is known about what happened to it during the next 300 years, and how it ended up in Bayeux Cathedral in 1476, when it was included in an inventory of that cathedral's possessions. By the late 15th century its use had changed: it was being hung around the top of the nave for just over a week every year in July, to celebrate the feast of the relics on which Harold swore his oath to William. Of course, nobody in the congregation would have been able to see it properly so high up, and none of the church officials seemed very interested in the thing. Nevertheless, they continued to hang it in the nave every year in July, and were still doing so in the early 18th century, when a priest told an interested antiquarian that the annual hanging was in order to air the tapestry out. Essentially, they'd forgotten the original reason for the tradition and were just carrying on out of habit.

Hicks goes on to trace the later history of the Tapestry: its rediscovery by 18th-century antiquarians, the lucky coincidences that allowed it to survive the French Revolution, its use by Napoleon to justify his own invasion of England in the early 19th century, and so on. Although I'm finding this section interesting as well, what I'd really like is more "close reading" of the Tapestry itself, of its details and ambiguities. Hicks may get back to these questions in later chapters, and I'm also hopeful that the other book I bought (which is in French, and focuses on the Tapestry as a Viking chronicle) might scratch that particular itch. In the meantime, the information in Hicks's book about the manner of the Tapestry's construction was well worth the price of admission all by itself.


Our only other major activity over the past few days, beyond napping, reading, and gazing out over the vineyards, was to tour the cellars and vineyards with the other B&B guests. Philippe, our host, led the tour in French, and I understood quite a bit although there was also a lot that slipped past me. The information I did pick up was pretty interesting. Philippe's great-grandparents bought the property, which is in the Côtes de Bourg appellation, north of Bordeaux. French winemaking is highly regulated, and each appellation is limited in the varieties of grape they are allowed to grow. (I think this is something that strikes Americans as bizarre and overly restrictive of our FREEDOM, MAN, but it means that wine from a particular regions will have a generally predictable character, similar to how New World wines are bottled by grape variety.) In the Saumur region of the Loire Valley where we just came from, for example, all the red wine is Cabernet Franc, which happens to be one of David and my favorite grapes. Down here, in this particular appellation, Philippe's reds are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec grapes, while his whites are Semillon and something else I can't remember. He made the interesting point that if a French winemaker wants to grow a different type of grape ("like they do in the United States," he added) they're free to do so, but any wine from non-approved grape varieties will be bottled as plain table wine, not as the more lucrative and respected fine wines marked with the name of the appellation. Which means it's obviously not a great business decision for the vintners, but it also made me wonder if there's some interesting experimentation going on in the world of table wine production.

There was a hilarious, garrulous older Frenchman on the tour, who asked a lot of questions and aggressively voiced his opinions, sometimes actually shaking his finger at Philippe, although never, despite appearances, actually getting angry. He was just very enthusiastic and invested in every subject that came up. Philippe mentioned that they've been having a drought this year, but that because his vines are quite old, with deep, well-established root systems (some over 60 years old), they're still in pretty good shape. The garrulous Frenchman asked about people speculating on good and bad vintages, and Philippe said that wasn't a big problem because it is somehow controlled, but I didn't catch the finer points. Philippe also talked about his harvesting practices; his harvesting is now done by machine, and the garrulous man had a lot of questions about whether the quality of grape harvests by machine are inferior to hand harvesting. Phillippe answered that there was no noticeable difference; when they first got the machine they did a trial between machine-harvested batches and hand-harvested, and were satisfied with the work of the machine. The garrulous man and Philippe then got into a conversation about how expensive the harvesting machine was, and how capital investments are necessary but burdensome for small businesses. The man then wanted very much to see this famous machine, but unfortunately it was out for repairs prior to the fall harvest.

Philippe showed us the machine that skins and de-stems the grapes and sorts them from their attendant refuse. (This was in a barn with a small hole for the swallows to enter and nest, and suddenly the garrulous man was very intense about swallows. "They're amazing!" he exclaimed. "Every single year, they return to the same place. Generation after generation! Formidable!") We then saw the barrels and heard about the importance of continual tasting during the maturation process, to determine how the wines are shaping up and whether any controls on the temperature or other factors are necessary. Philippe said that he sometimes tastes the wines as often as every day. I noticed that the barrels were labeled "Mendocino," and managed to ask a semi-intelligent question about whether their wines are oaked in French or American oak. Philippe said it depended on the wine: their whites and roses are oaked in American, but their reds in French oak. The garrulous man then demanded whether the American barrels were made from American Oak grown in France, and a whole animated conversation ensued on that subject, with much hand gesturing and the general answer that no, the American oak barrels were imported from California.

We went back outside and looked at the actual vines, with the garrulous man wanting to know the whole story about how the vines are staked an espaliered, which is done by hand here in the winter. The particular vines we were looking at were 15-year-old Merlot, and Philippe mentioned (at a question from the garrulous man) that their main roots are about nine meters deep—part of what helps them withstand drought. Finally, we did a little tasting of the six or so wines produced here, which include a fairly fruity (what I think of as "merlot-y") red and a more tannic/Old World one (both 2007/2008); another red that's older and is almost like a port (2002); a very nice rose which struck me as the most interesting and unusual, kind of "condensed" feeling, and with nice peachy flavors that weren't over-sweet at all (2010); and an oaky white that tasted pretty similar to something from Napa (2010). The garrulous man kept exclaiming at the overly generous pours, and at one point insisted on giving his glass to David ("You have come from a long distance! You must get a good impression of France—and the French!") So there you go, our adventures in wine country. The whole experience was really fun, and had me wondering why we never go check out the vineyards near home, especially since Oregon is pretty much the Pinot Noir capital of the country.


Fittingly, for a day we're staying in a castle, there was a great thunder and lightning storm this afternoon, and the grapes finally got a little water. It was lovely to smell the fresh, cooler air drift in from the vineyard after the huge echoing claps of thunder and flashes of lightning had abated. Tomorrow, we're on to our friends' house in Toulouse, with a stop at the former home of my old buddy Michel de Montaigne. PS: Argh, I have no idea why excerpts from some of these entries are appearing above the header, and I don't have time to sort it out now. Sorry about that!

France Day 12: Villandry


At the risk of sounding like a shill for the place we're staying, let me report that La Grande Maison continues to be a huge highlight of the trip thus far. Shortly before I finished the last blog entry, one of our innkeepers invited all the guests down to tour the cave—a small network of underground tunnels that probably pre-date the 14th-century house. They were originally used by troglodyte peoples, and were later adapted to wine storage and winemaking. The creamy, crumbly local tuffeau limestone, on and of which most of the buildings are built, was soft enough for the troglodytes (and later the winemakers) to hollow out tunnels with nothing more sophisticated than an axe, and you can still see the ancient axe-marks where these tunnels were hacked away. Apparently, they would even bring their cattle into the tunnels during the winter, keeping them in a larger, hollowed-out ventilation shaft at the narrow end of one tunnel. The tunnels are narrow—intentionally so, since the troglodytes wanted any potential hostile encounters to be one-on-one—and I can't really imagine fitting a cow down there. Nonetheless, it was apparently done.


One of the caves is quite large, and was used from the 14th to the 20th century as the estate's wine-making center. Hollowed out under the vineyard itself, it was equipped with a stone chute that enabled the harvesters to heave the harvested grapes directly into the underground press area, where they would be stamped by foot—or, later, crushed with mechanical presses that were first wood and then metal. The same area also featured the estate's pigeon-cote, a cylindrical underground room with several thousand individual rectangular partitions around the inside, where pigeons nested in the heyday of the manor. Residents would eat the eggs and the baby pigeons—and, we assume, the older adult pigeons, although they probably wouldn't have been as tasty. The number of partitions allowed was regulated by royal mandate according to the amount of land the family owned, and the one here proves the family here was quite wealthy during the 17th century and earlier. Some of the partitions around the bottom of the room are blocked up, and apparently there's documentation about this: in 1706 the family lost some of their land, and were therefore required to reduce the pigeon capacity in their tower. They would have been required to reduce it still further as their estate dwindled, but the French Revolution intervened, abolishing the former system of royal taxes. It was so fun to talk to Sue about what they've managed to unearth about the history of the house, as she obviously loves the place. I feel lucky that we get to share it with her and Michaela (and their three hilarious Springer Spaniels) for a few days.


When we finally tore ourselves away from our fascinating accommodations, we decided to tackle the longish drive to Château Villandry, whose famous gardens intrigued me ever since I first read about them while researching the trip. And man, they are stunning. Even for someone like me, a non-gardener and no particular aficionada of the formal garden style, being in the midst of these, or looking down at them from the many terraces around the property, is a remarkable experience. Especially with my narrow-angle lens it is difficult to capture the scale of these, but I'll try to give you a little taste.


The portion of the garden that gets the most publicity, and which originally caught my interest, are the ornamental Renaissance "love gardens." Laid out in four large squares of planted box, edged with topiaried yew trees, each square depicts one of the "four types of love." To the left in the above photo you can see the "tender love" garden, with its pink roses and heart motifs. There are also motifs among the hearts meant to mimic masks worn at masquerade balls, which apparently spelled tenderness to the French Renaissance mind. To the right you can glimpse the "passionate love" square, whose box hedges feature swirling triangle motifs meant to symbolize a heart torn to pieces by passion, and also the swirling motion of dancers on a ballroom floor. In the foreground there's a tiny glimpse of the "fickle love" square, which features fan motifs and cuckold horns, and the last square depicts "tragic love," with dagger-shaped motifs and red blooms imitating blood. Let me just add here, that I question whether these four types of love are an exhaustive list or even different "types" at all—surely tragic love often comes about because it is also either fickle or passionate, and often both? Nevertheless, planning out a garden on such a narrative scheme greatly appeals to me.


Next to the love garden is the music garden, featuring more box and an appealing color scheme involving gradations of green with bits of purple mixed in. Musical motifs include lyres and other instruments, and schematic metronomes in the shape of triangles. Our audioguide informed us that there is an amazing 52 kilometers (32 miles) of box throughout the Villandry gardens, and that all the weeding around the base of the box must be done by hand because of their delicate root systems. Holy moly. All the topiary is also shaped by hand.


It didn't take us long to start wondering how many gardeners the estate keeps on staff to care for all of these elaborate gardens, and our audioguides obligingly informed us, as we walked through the greenhouse area, that there is a full-time staff of nine, plus two part-time apprentices. Frankly, this does not seem like very many people to me. Based on the size of the place I would have guessed at least twice the number. Nine people must work HARD to keep the place up, especially with all that hand-weeding around box roots, hand-trimming of topiary, and all the seeding and starting they do themselves in their greenhouses (about half the plants in the place are sprouted on-site).


Unexpectedly, one of my favorite areas at Villandry was the sparse and open, yet extremely restful, water garden. Very much in the formal French style toward which I don't normally gravitate, the large reflecting pool surrounded by wide swaths of green and lined with lime trees is nevertheless an extremely restful and meditative place to be. (It also reminded me of the Alain Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad, which lent the whole thing a slightly surreal, fragmented quality.) It was a very warm day, and the dappled light under the lime trees was the perfect setting for languid movement.


There is, of course, a labyrinth section of the gardens, through which giggling and shrieking children were chasing each other with great glee. At the outer edge of the maze is a small garden devoted to the Villandry Rose, a strain developed particularly for this garden. It's pink, and richly fragrant.


The recently-added "sun garden" is done in a more mixed, cottagey style, although the shapes of its garden areas are apparently taken from Renaissance-era plans. In this garden in particular, but really over the whole estate, it seems like the Villandry decision-makers are making an effort to institute sustainable practices. The plants in the sun garden require little water beyond what the valley naturally supplies, and the large reflecting pool in the water garden, together with the fountains, and the irrigation system for the kitchen gardens, are constantly recycling water. In the kitchen gardens, the crops (which look to be the most amazingly happy veggies I have ever seen) are harvested and shared among the owners of and visitors to the château, and those that can't be eaten in time are composed back into the earth.


The kitchen garden was probably the most fascinating section of Villandry. It's vast—far larger than I'm able to convey here—and the vegetables are planted in geometrical beds, with crops of different colors alternating to create a complex checkerboard effect. Apparently, this alternation of crop color and geometric patterning is a tradition that dates back to medieval monastic life. The monks would also plant a rose tree at each veggie bed—my understanding being that the color of the rose would indicate which monk was responsible for that bed. The Villandry gardens were never tended by monks, but they combined traditions from French monastic gardening with new Italian influences to create a hybrid style.


Another interesting tidbit about the original layout of the kitchen garden concerns the choice to put it right at the foot of the château. This is not the usual placement for such a utilitarian garden (although I think it's visually stunning), but apparently around the time of its original design, the owner had imported some new, unheard-of vegetables from the New World—tomatoes, eggplants (aubergines), and peppers, among others—and he was eager to supervise personally the planting and cultivation of these exciting new plants. I love this detail because it gives me such a vivid mental picture of the then-owner of the château: an excitable, possibly officious man who bustled down to check on his squashes at the least provocation, no doubt fretting about them during adverse weather, and driving his gardener crazy with his anxiety for their successful adaptation to French soil.


Since my mom is a gardener and had specifically asked about French gardens, I thought about her a lot during our trip to Villandry, and probably would have even if she hadn't asked. In particular I kept thinking about a particular conversation we had a month or so ago about her recently-discovered preference for gardens that maintain space between the plantings. At the time I thought immediately of Japanese style gardening, but I realized today that typically French style gardens do a similar thing, even though the end effect between Japanese and French is so different. An unexpected connection.


After Villandry, we drove our meandering way back toward La Grande Maison, stopping in the little town of Notre Dame de Puy for dinner at a local restaurant recommended by our hosts. The food and wine were excellent, and we ate them sitting outside on the corner of a narrow village street next to the town church, whose bells rang so enthusiastically at 7:05, and for such an extended period, that we theorized some town kids may have broken into the bell tower. As the sun set, a cloud of swifts circled the church spire. It was lovely. And today, we're on to the Bordeaux area, after having encountered the first area of France I feel I must return to: I have really loved the Loire Valley.


France Days 10 - 11: Châteaux and textiles


Wow, you guys. Two days without internet and I have a ridiculous amount to tell you. Better get down to it before I forget everything I wanted to say!


The last time I checked in we were just leaving the Grand Hotel, Cabourg. We headed west to Bayeux, where the star attraction of the whole town is the famous Bayeux Tapestry. For those who don't know, this document in cloth—technically an embroidery rather than a tapestry, the but name has stuck—is almost a thousand years old, having been completed shortly after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It tells the story of the events leading up to and culminating in the Norman Conquest of England, and was commissioned by someone (the exact patron is unknown) on the Norman side as a piece of propaganda to display to the oft-illiterate English commoners who remained largely unconvinced of the legitimacy of Norman rule. For someone interested in textile history, the thing is fascinating. The actual experience of viewing it, however, was a little odd. It reminded me of going to see the Crown Jewels in England—not least because at least half the people standing in line to see the Bayeux Tapestry were indeed Brits. I guess that makes sense; after all, William the Conqueror did determine the line of their royalty. Another similarity between the display of the Bayeux Tapestry and that of the Crown Jewels, though, is that you're basically herded onto a human conveyor belt and moved swiftly along with a minimum of juicy background information of the type I always hope for. Still, seeing the tapestry was amazing. It's so rare to see a piece of textile art that old, let alone one executed so intricately, with such interesting interplay between different elements.

The embroidery is surprisingly long, sporting nearly forty separate scenes which bleed into each other in interesting ways. Some scenes have "transition" figures—messengers, for example, who are running or pointing from one scene to the next. The entire work is only about a foot high, but it has three registers, with the main action taking place in the large middle section, and the upper and lower registers mostly taken up by embroidery of fables and other animals. The interplay between the main action and the specific things the artist chose to illustrate in the upper and lower panels is fascinating, and apparently the source of much scholarly contention. In scenes of great intensity, like the launching of William's fleet from Normandy or the actual battle itself, the artist has allowed the main action to overflow into the upper or lower register. During the battle, for instance, the lower register acts more or less as the battlefield, setting the stage for the actions of the military leaders by illustrating common soldiers dead on the field, decapitated, mutilated, or being stripped of their armor. It's an interesting use of the three-tiered format, and almost functions like visual perspective. In other places, the artist has created the sense of depth by overlapping ships or horses in contrasting colors.

Understandably, no photography was allowed of the actual tapestry, so I can't show you, but I highly recommend checking it out if you have the opportunity. I became so intrigued by all the things the overly-concise audioguide wasn't telling me, that I bought two books on the tapestry in the gift shop and already started reading one, which is fascinating thus far.


After an abortive attempt to eat lunch at Le Pommier, kindly recommended by Amateur Reader but sadly closed for the post-lunch break, we headed further west to Mont St. Michel. Things started to look very Norman indeed out on this spit of land jutting into the Atlantic, and we passed plenty of cows and sheep grazing in beautiful green fields, as we drove along. We arrived in time to check into our hotel and drive over to the Mont before the sun set but after the parking lot had largely emptied and the bus-loads of tourists departed.


I'm so glad we took this night-and-morning approach to Mont St. Michel, because it's one of the biggest tourist attractions in France—not a good match for my tendency to panic when subjected to large crowds. By eight o'clock, though there were still plenty of people around, it was possible to move at one's ease, to explore the medieval city without jostling elbows at every turn.


Built on a granite rock which for most of the abbey's life has only been accessible at low tide (and then surrounded by quicksand—actually the source of a dramatic episode in the Bayeux Tapestry), the walled fortress-cum-abbey-cum-prison at Mont St. Michel is ideally located for keeping enemies out or prisoners in. The level of density of cobbled stone streets and houses layered on top of one another, means that one is always confronted with new angles and juxtapositions: a twist in a crenelated walkway reveals someone's backyard garden; or one's eye is drawn by the stunning view of the bay, only to light on the blackbirds nesting in the chimneys. Tranquil courtyards catch the last lingering rays of light, and as the crowds thin out it becomes easier to imagine the days when this walled community was inhabited almost entirely by monks, knights, and pilgrims.


We ate dinner on the rock, in one of the many tourist restaurants there, and stayed late enough to see it lit up at the end of the day. Against the massing clouds it looked like the sinister lair looming at the end of some fantasy hero's quest, and I wondered what impression it might have made on a religious pilgrim arriving on a similar evening hundreds of years ago. If anything, the lack of electric lights would have created an even more intimidating silhouette.


After being awakened in the morning by a flock of sheep being herded by our window (in my sleep-befuddled state I thought to myself, "Why are all those tourists pretending to be sheep?"), we braved the morning crowds to visit the abbey itself. This was almost a Disneyland level of claustrophobia, but it was worth it to see the abbey and hear about its long history: as a pre- and post-Benedictine community; as a center of learning and scholarship; as a setting in which to minister to poor pilgrims and schmooze important knights and dignitaries; as a place for the abbots to consolidate their political power and elevate themselves ever-more clearly above the lowly monks; and finally, as a place of imprisonment for several different kinds of criminals.


It was also interesting to hear about the many renovations and restorations at the Mont, and about the thick layers of history that have built up as one generation modifies, destroys, reconstructs, or builds directly on top of the structures from a previous era. The abbey, and probably the whole town of Mont St. Michel, are a many-layered architectural palimpsest, and it's fascinating to think about the ways in which those different layers influence and interact with one another.


One of the most appealing parts of the abbey grounds is the cloister garden, which was reconstructed in the mid-20th century for the return of the Benedictine monks who still live there today. At the top of the abbey, exposed to natural light, the cloisters would have been the central courtyard of the monks' private quarters, giving access to their other spaces, like the refectory and the dormitories. In the heyday of the abbey, the entire top floor of the abbey was occupied solely by the monks, with the middle floor housing knights and important or wealthy guests, and the bottom floor ministering to pilgrims and beggars. This clear hierarchy was interesting to observe in the architecture—it was obvious the degree to which the top floor offered the best quality of living.


From Mont St. Michel we headed to Angers, home of the medieval/early Renaissance Château d'Angers and another famous textile piece: the Apocalypse Tapestries. The château itself is an interesting specimen because it was originally built very early in the scheme of Loire Valley châteaux, and conceived as a serious military fortification. (Later châteaux, built during the Renaissance when no actual military defense was necessary, retain some of the surface traits of this military architecture but not their function.) As you can see from the photo above, the walls are thick, with many intimidating towers pierced by arrow-slots, and the entire fortress was surrounded by a dry moat. Its entrance portal sported a double-portcullis, a drawbridge, and two trap doors: these people were not messing around. As the region became more peaceful and technology changed, the building changed along with it, and King Réné of Anjou made a number of alterations that prettied up the fortress, changing it into something closer to a family home and/or government offices.


My mom asked about gardens in France, and this is the first of several we're planning to see. The château has a surprising number of different kinds of gardens within its grounds: above are the geometrical walkways of the courtyard in the center of the property, which creates a kind of park perfect for strolling in. There are also more casual, English cottage-style flower gardens tucked away in various corners of the fortress, where herbs and a few vegetables are grown in addition to ornamental blooms.


In addition, there is a small rooftop vineyard, although from what I gathered, the royal vineyards during the height of the fortress's power were actually located a few kilometers away.


And lastly, the former moats are now occupied by formal gardens, whose elaborate designs are best viewed from the rampart walk, many meters above.


Although I'm not often drawn to the formal French style of gardening when I see pictures of it, I must admit that these gardens are oddly compelling and beautiful in person. Something about seeing the peaceful, harmonious designs contrasted with the obviously military character of the château has a balancing effect. We learned an interesting tidbit about this particular style of gardening: it was apparently originally inspired by embroidery patterns of the time, with the different textures of plants imitating different embroidery stitches.


Finally, we made our way in to see the Apocalypse Tapestries, which are truly amazing. Non-flash photography is allowed but I didn't have a tripod and the room was very dark, so forgive the above blurry photo: it's just to give you some idea of the scope of this work. Epic in size and subject matter, it fills an entire long, L-shaped room, its upper and lower registers re-telling the Biblical story of the Apocalypse in all the grotesquerie of the 14th century. Seven-headed dragons vomiting floods, the destruction of Babylon by Maurice Sendak-style demons, and trumpeting angels turning rivers to blood and unleashing fires and pestilence, all feature prominently. There are also contemporary political allegories: in one scene, for example, the cavalry of Satan look surprisingly like the English soldiers of the day.

Technically, these tapestries are an astounding feat: they were produced a surprisingly short period of time, with the weavers working at approximately seven times the average speed for a loom weaver these days, and despite their massive scope, there were apparently NO knots on the back prior to restoration in the 20th century. Despite this or perhaps irrespective of it, the actual storytelling of the tapestries seems to modern standards a bit haphazard or lacking a modern sense of "unity," which I find is true of quite a bit of medieval art. (All the cathedrals, for example, whose façades sport mis-matched towers.) The first two groups of tapestries proceed in an orderly way, telling of the breaking of the seven seals and the unleashing of the four horsemen and their attendant catastrophes upon the earth. Starting with the third grouping (of six), the artistic style changes, incorporating geometric background patterns, and the storytelling is more dispersed, with several stories-within-a-story and a few events (like the destruction of Babylon) retold more than once. I'd be fascinated to know more about the history of the Tapestries' production and the symbolism therein, so I was a bit disappointed to realize that we'd lingered over the real thing too long to take a spin through the bookstore. Hopefully I can snag a book on these intriguing pieces when I get home, or later in the France trip. In any case, seeing these in person was quite an experience, and something that couldn't be replaced by looking at photos.


And then, after grabbing some quick panini and stopping off at a boulangerie for pastries to go, we were on the road again to our rural haven at La Grande Maison, a bed and breakfast run by a charming British couple in a 14th-century wine-making estate. Let me just say: SPECIAL PLACE. After getting a bit lost, we arrived while the sun was setting gold and pink over fields of vines and narrow country roads. We were only planning to spend one night here, but by the time Sue and Michaela had welcomed us with glasses of excellent wine and we'd drunk them at the little table in their backyard garden, we had decided to change our plans and stay here an extra night. The delicious breakfast that awaited us this morning convinced us we'd made the right decision, and now we're off to explore some more châteaux...or perhaps just meander through the lovely countryside. I'll let you know what we decide.


June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography