News from Ampurdan

May 5, 2014

Salvador Dali - The Pharmacist of Ampurdan Seeking Absolutely Nothing - 1936

I like that dusty, maritime region of Europe known as Catalonia, and, in France, Languedoc.  Josep Pla is from that area, specifically Ampurdan.  His diary from the period at the end of WWI, heavily reworked over the succeeding decades, has just be translated and published by the NYRB.  It is a delightful read.

 

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Catalonia and Pla

This book is long, and before starting it, I asked myself, “Do I really want to spend this much time in this man’s life?”  Almost immediately after starting, I realized that the answer was yes.    Here’s a bit from one of his countless arguments in a café:

Literature,” he said, “should be idealistic, delicate, out of the ordinary, It should come from here” — and he placed his hand over the heart.

“And why must literature be like that?” I asked.

“Because literature is for moments when there is nothing to do, when nothing is pressing, the only time there’s a vague possibility that people might want to curl up with a book.  Man wasn’t brought into the world to read books.  Make no mistake…the single serious problem we face in this world is how to get by, that is how to earn or spend money.  Men and women devote ninety-eight percent of their conscious life to that.  And that’s probably an understatement.  So, literature will always be a Sunday-afternoon activity, a moment on the day in the week when maybe — and this was truer years ago, since nowadays people to the movies — maybe they’ll feel like some distraction from their abiding obsessions.  And you expect them to pine for your raw, spare, realist fiction?  Why?  They’ve already had more than their fill of your real life.  Your kind of literature is redundant, flat–footed, commonplace, blindingly obvious.”

Well, I like fantasy, and I like realism.  And Pla hardly wrote any fiction at all – perhaps none at all.  And yet he gives full billing to these somewhat crackpot ideas in his journal.  And clearly, he’s somehow sympathetic, at least to the spirit of his friend.   Then there’s this;

Today Enric Grigola said that he knows a big fat man with a sensitive soul who feels immediately relieved of all material needs and worries , in a state of grace, whenever he loosens his belt a notch.

Coromina laughs when he hears this piece of information, and Frigola launches into him with feigned indignation, half ironic, half annoyed.  “You mock everything!” he says.  “I give you physical proof of states of mind that are purely spiritual, and you laugh.  What more do you want?  You’re never satisfied.”

Another book that I am reading takes up the theme of distraction, in an almost medical sense, and with a good deal of irony. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox is remarkable and entertaining for several reasons.  It was written by a woman, who had help in the writing business from Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson; it is very funny; it is an inversion of another Spanish tale, i.e. Don Quixote.  Instead of a man bewitched by tales of chivalry, bent on rescuiong damsels in distress, we have an intelligent and sharp-witted young lady intent on playing the role of female heroine of romance.  She insists on interpreting the behavior of all around her through the lens of her books, but though she is ridiculous, we end up rooting for her.  Maybe it’s because she’s a woman in a man’s world, or maybe it’s just the sheer determination she brings to having things (in appearance, at least) her own way that is so winning.

Charlotte_Lennox_The_Female_Quixote_Cooks_Edition

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Castle of Love Besieged

December 25, 2012

Trebuchet – lower left

A common secular theme in medieval artifacts, often in beautifully wrought ivory cases for whatnots and mirrors.    Knights attack the castle of love, defended by maidens who have only buckets of roses with which to repel the attackers.  Sometimes Cupid lends a hand…to whom?  The knights use the usual run of siege tactics, and sometimes a trebuchet is present.

Another view of the one above

Trebuchet

Lower left – another trebuchet

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Trebuchet on the right

For a change of pace, the two left-hand panels on the case below show the story of that lovable old coot, Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the Great, being humiliated by Phyllis.  The ones on the right tell the tale of Pyramus an Thisbe, from Ovid, and known to most through its later incarnations, such as Romeo and Juliet and The Fantasticks.

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More siege craft and love below.

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My kind of Orlando

February 22, 2011

click for summary of poem

From “Taking Liberties,” a review of David R. Slavitt’s new translation of Orlando Furioso, by David B. Hart in Commonweal. 137.13 (July 16, 2010)

During the high Middle Ages, poems written on the “Matter of France”–that is, tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and of Count Roland (or Orlando) in particular–were among Europe’s most beloved literary entertainments… once the Carolingian theme had been stated [The Song of Roland], the variations that followed…departed ever further from the original story’s stern simplicity, and came to incorporate ever more fabulous elements: impossible feats, mythical beasts, magical objects, and superhuman foes.

In the end, the whole tradition culminated in the three great Orlando “romances” of the Italian Renaissance: Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (1478-83), Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (finished 1486, published 1494), and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516-32). These are, without question, among the wildest fictions in European literature. They are “epics,” perhaps, but are every bit as defiant of the classical unities (not only of time and place, but of tone and texture) as the dramas of England and Spain’s Golden Age theaters. Their stories spill across the entire known world, to say nothing of faerie, hell, and the moon. They recount sieges, military engagements, and single combat, but also tell of giants, sprites, sorcerers, sea monsters, magic gardens, and hidden kingdoms. They lurch convulsively–though somehow quite nimbly–from the hilarious to the tragic to the mystical.

Once upon a time, moreover, they were widely read … Now, however, they gather dust in those shadowy galleries where the Western canon’s most rarely visited monuments are kept. This is a pity. Modern readers may not have much patience for long verse narratives, but these works are anything but forbidding; they can be enjoyed by anyone with an imagination and a sense of humor. Yet Pulci and Boiardo are scarcely remembered today outside Italy. Only Ariosto lingers on in the consciousness of educated persons, and then generally only as an important name.

. . .  Exactly what [Orlando Furioso] is about is difficult to pin down, but this hardly matters. The narrative takes up the various stories begun in the Innamorato, but left unfinished at the time of Boiardo’s death: the infatuation of Orlando with the beautiful sorceress Angelica, daughter of the King of Cathay, and Orlando’s pursuit of her across Europe and into the Far East; the siege of Paris by the Moors; the adventures of Ruggiero, mythical founder of the House of Este (of which both Boiardo and Ariosto were clients); the rampages of the evil Moorish King of Sarza, Rodomonte; and a number of other plot lines. The principal pleasure of the poem as a whole lies in the ingenuity with which Ariosto weaves the tales together in ever more outlandish and intricate complications–and then manages to resolve them all in a single moment of dramatic finality.

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Monty Python? -click for source

Fantasy Land


Stalin’s Girl

August 19, 2010

Ninotchka (1939) is a fairy tale about the transformation of a political animal into a full-bodied woman.  As a slave to the Garbo gaze, I can’t help but like this film.  I saw it as a boy after hearing my mother talk about the tag line used by the studio, “Garbo laughs!” Laugh she does, and the film is witty and entertaining, with some very strange dark notes for us post-WWII viewers.

The story begins with some hapless Russians, bumbling diplomats charged by the Soviet government with the task of selling off some jewels confiscated during the Revolution.  The USSR needs hard currency badly because its harvests are so bad.  The three bumblers are seduced by the pleasures of Paris and fail miserably in their job.  Garbo’s no-nonsense, hard as nails character is sent to remedy the situation.

Waiting to meet their superior, whom they do not know, at the train station, and expecting a man, the diplomats at first follow a likely fellow who looks the part.  Nope, he’s a Nazi.  Finally, they realize the dour Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, aka Ninotchka, waiting on the platform, is the one.  How are things in Moscow, comarade?  Very good!  The latest mass trial was a great success.  There will be fewer but better Russians now! Black humor indeed!

Ninotchka asks for some cigarettes while meeting with her team, and they ring up the maids.  The lovely staff, thinking they are in for a repeat of the previous night’s orgy rushes up to oblige.  Ninotchka is no fool, and she quickly sizes up the situation.  Comrades, you must have been smoking a lot!

Melvyn Douglas plays a smooth character, Count Leon d’Algout,who meets Nitnotchka by chance outside her hotel.  He also happens to be the lover of the émigré noblewoman whose confiscated jewels are the subject of the bumblers’ mission, but that comes out later.  Leon attempts to charm Ms. Soviet but can’t penetrate her caricatured facade of rationality, logic, statistics, and 30’s stlye political correctness.  Viewing the city from the Eiffel Tower she remarks that it’s beautiful, but a waste of electricity.  Nevertheless, no slave to convention, and ever eager to study the natives of the decadent west, she goes to his apartment.  She is honest and self-aware enough to admit that they have a great chemical attraction to one another.

He asks her just what kind of girl is she?  Just what you see.  A tiny cog in the great wheel of evolution. He avers that she is the most beautiful tiny cog he has ever seen.

In the hotel lobby, she is surprised and disgusted by a hat for sale.  So impractical and frivolous, not to mention expensive.  She could probably by a few cows for what that hat costs!  It’s an odd style, but I guess on fashion’s leading edge at the time.

After their mutual interest in the jewels is revealed, Ninotchka puts off Leon, but he persists and follows her into a working class bistro for lunch.  He makes a funny show of trying to convince her that he always eats here, and loves the company of workers.  Vowing to drag a laugh out of her, he starts on a series of jokes, all of which meet with utter failure.

The explosion comes by accident.  He is exasperated, moves away, and falls off his chair.  She laughs.

They laugh together.  It’s wonderful.

Transformed by her love for Leon, she notices that the weather is fine, there are birds outside while snow is still on the ground in Moscow.  We have the high ideals, but they have the climate, comrades. Stuck in Paris for two weeks until the dispute over the jewels can be settled, what shall they do?  One fellow suggests a visit to the sewers, most instructive.

She goes and buys that hat and puts it on after ridding herself of her underlings.  Woman confronts fashion…and herself.  In Wilde’s story, The Birthday of the Infante, a dwarf jester dies of a broken heart after being scorned by the spoiled princess and then seeing himself in a mirror for the first time in his life.  He realizes he is truly ugly, and the princess is so beautiful.  Here, Ninotchka sees herself in the mirror, and seems to see herself for the first time, and she is beautiful.  No longer a cog in the inevitable triumph of Marxist-Leninism, she sees herself as a woman.  Of course, a woman in love with a man.

She’s really quite forward – she knocks on Leon’s door.  Those Bolsheviks have a point about doing away with the old traditions.

After a late night and far too much champagne, Ninotchka pours out her heart to Leon.  She’s so happy, surely she will be punished for it.  Nobody can be so happy and not suffer for it.  It’s her Russian soul speaking, and perhaps a intuition of what awaits her back in the USSR.

She tells Leon she knows what her punishment should be.  She should be stood up against a wall…  Leon obliges.  Blindfolds her, raises it for a kiss, and then goes to get his weapon of execution.  Quite a titillating scene if you choose to read it that way.  With the sound of the cork popping off, she starts as if shot and sinks to the floor.  Now I’ve had my punishment.  Let’s go on with the party she declares!

This is Hollywood romatic comedy, and Leon is a gentleman, so after she collapses into a heap, he carries her to her bedroom and gives her a kiss while Lenin looks on.  Will they make a loving couple, or must they be a bourgeois-Marxist ménage à trois ?

Ninotchka is forced to return to Russia without Leon.  He tries to write to her and to get her out.  Life is pretty grim in the Socialist Paradise.

No worries.  It’s just a Hollywood backlot.


Tales from Casanova

December 23, 2004

…after escaping from the dreaded Venetian prison, the Leads, I found myself penniless and alone in Paris. At a gathering of friends, I overheard a courtier discussing his ambitions for the state lottery. When I told him that I had an idea for making the event more profitable for the King, he exclaimed, “I have an idea too!” and proceeded to tell me his plan. I said, “Your idea is far superior to mine.” Of course, I had no plan, but I promptly appropriated his, and soon found myself as the director of the state lottery, a lucrative position…

…kneeling down and peering through the keyhole, I was able to view the splendid naked body of a woman lying on her bed in a manner that concealed none of her charms from me. Her face, ravaged by smallpox, was covered by a black lace veil, and with the aid of this device she never lacked for lovers, of whom I soon became one…

…our view from the window in the staircase afforded us a clear view of the plaza in which the execution was to take place, and gave me a splendid opportunity to please myself with the two women who, bending down to rest their elbows on the window sill, presented to me, standing behind them, an even better prospect…

…with the help of a few good fellow soldiers, we carried off the beautiful woman who had the poor fortune to be married to a mere innkeeper, and took her to a room that was well provisioned with food and spirits. She, with the spirit of a lady, at first resisted our efforts to take possession of her charms which were so tempting and manifest, but after noting that we were many and she but one, the door locked and secure, and that no one came to her assistance from without, she resolved to make the best of a situation that was not subject to her will, and she gave herself over to the carnal enjoyments of our assembled group with an enthusiasm that exhausted us…

Freely adapted from my memory of Casanova’s Memoirs. You get a sense of the range of his escapades, from scam, to titillation, to fornication, to rape.