Monday, August 26, 2013

Nice, August 17 - 24

The train ride from Paris to Nice took more than the promised four-and-a-half hours. The country views were brilliant--open blue skies, ochre rolling fields--and seeing the Mediterranean for the first time as the train hugged the coastline was very special, but next time we will take a plane instead. We left the crowded train station, picked up our apartment keys from a hotel nearby, and walked through the city, rolling our bags behind us. We were struck by how Italian the city looked. The first settlement was founded by the Greeks of Marseilles around 360 BCE. It came under the dominion of Savoy, then France, then Piedmont-Sardinia, and then back to France in 1860. After we had settled into the apartment on Rue de Suede, we took a walk along the famous Bay of Angels, by the Mediterranean.

Nice, Bay of Angels
The next day, the plan was to hit Coco Beach, some way out of the city, but we found an outdoors market when we walked about Vieille Ville, or Old Town. The Sunday market was a display of brilliant colors and enticing smells: olives, breads, nuts, fruits, cheeses, flowers, vegetables, handmade soaps, even fish. We decided to come back to the market after we had climbed Castile Hill. Standing on the old fortification gave breathaking views of the city and of the leisurely and magnificent sweep of the bay. I began to understand why painters like Matisse are drawn to Nice, and then stay. The light was very intense but also very soft. The city presented flat planes of solid red, yellow and brown. We were hungry after the climb. We bought food from the market and GH prepared a delicious lunch of fresh figs, olives, goat cheese and baguette back in the apartment. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging on Castel Plage, the gayish part of the bay, near to the castle. The beach was made up of rounded stones, not sand. I winced my way to the sea but the cool water made up for the pain. In the evening, we walked along the bay in the other direction, on the famous Promenade des Anglais, and saw the palace-hotels The West-End, Le Royal, The Westminister, Le Negresco tart up in lights.

Altar of La Chapelle du Rosaire
The bus station was very close to where we live. We took Bus 400 the next day to St. Paul de Vence in the hills. St. Paul was a very well preserved medieval fortified village. It had been taken over, however, by art galleries and boutique shops and waves of tourists flooded its narrow streets. I was not too unhappy to leave, on the bus again, for Vence. We had lunch in its main square. I did not go inside the old church on the piazza and so missed seeing Chagall's mosaic there. But that left my eyes clear for Matisse's chapel, the real reason we were in Vence. La Chapelle du Rosaire, or The Chapel of the Rosary, was a marvel, unspoiled even by the harsh tone of the guide explaining in French its design. The front stained glass window showed the Tree of Life in bold yellow, blue and green. The colors--yellow sunlight, green cactus and blue sea--are repeated but in different shapes in the side windows. The three murals are painted in simple strokes in black on white ceramic tiles. By the side of the altar was Saint Dominic, the patron saint of the chapel, imposing in his frontal directness. The other side mural was a Virgin and Child surrounded by forms that could be bushes or clouds. The Christ Child stood up with arms outstretched. He could be on a cross or he could be learning to balance on his mother's lap. At the back of the chapel was The Stations of the Cross. Instead of separate stations, the mural was done as a continous flow, from the judgment of Pilates to the burial of Jesus, with the crucifixion taking appropriately the center of the wall. When I was there, the light through the windows washed the floor and the bottom edge of the murals in color. I guessed the light must illuminate the whole of the murals at some season of the year. Matisse had spent a year observing the light in the chapel before finalizing his design.

The next day was another travel day, this time to Antibes. Due to traffic, the bus journey took an agonizingly long time, nearly three hours instead of one-and-a-quarter. The day before, a man who did not wash sat behind us on the bus. GH called him The Stinky Man. For the rest of our time in Nice, anything that went wrong was given the same name. Antibes had less beach than Nice. It perched close to the sea, on a rocky coastline. That gave the city a sense of drama that was in strange consonance with the sailboats gaily waving in the distance. Antibes, for me, was Picasso City. The painter was invited by the then Grimaldi Museum to stay and paint in its rooms. Picasso stayed for six months and then donated some works to the museum such as "The Goat" and "La Joie de Vivre." The museum renamed itself Picasso Museum and received more donations from the painter and his family. Built on the foundations of the ancient Greek city of Antipolis, the Château Grimaldi was an imposing stronghold for Picasso's art. I especially admired his large canvas "Ulysses and the Sirens." There was also a big display of his ceramic plates with drawings of goats, fish and women. There were many still-lifes of sea urchins, eels and fish. The artist was very happy during his time at Antibes. He gave up the minotaur for the faun. After walking about the town for a while, we decided to take the train back, instead of the bus. The train ride took us only 20 minutes.

Lunch in Aix-en-Provence
We rested well and the next morning saw us on the train again, this time to Aix-en-Provence. It was lunch time by the time the train pulled in. Cours Mirabeau, the main drag, was grand but also packed with tourists. GH found a delightful bistro in one of the many sidestreets. He decided to do some drawing while I was seeing the "Grand atelier du Midi" show at the Musée Granet. There were some interesting Cezanne landscapes in the show, but I don't remember much else. We were, I think, more tired by our constant movement than we thought. The spa Thermes Sextius was supposed to be the highlight of the day, but GH did not think very much of its reception area. We decided not to splurge, but had a long coffee in a quiet street before returning to the train station. In the evening, we took the tram to the gay bars, overshot the right stop, and then had a nice dinner at Place Garibaldi. We discovered afterwards that the bars were just around the corner, but they were more restaurants than bars at that hour, and so we left.

Matisse, The Swimming Pool
GH wanted to look at some modern buildings in Nice, and so I went by myself on the bus to Cimiez, where the Matisse Museum was located. Inside the Genoese mansion, I wandered in bliss through room after room of Matisse. There were a few paintings, but drawings, sculptures and cutouts dominated. The standouts for me were les gouaches découpées "Danseuse créole"1951 and "Fleurs et fruits" 1952-1953. Then, in a wonderful climax, I wandered into the room of the most recent donation. Matisse's grandson Paul Duthuit had the artist's cutout "The Swimming Pool" done in ceramic tiles. The work swam, dove and tumbled around the walls of the room in a joyous spirit of refreshment. It was an amazing work from a master who was very close to death. I carried it like a splash of cold water in my head, on the bus down the hill, through lunch in a cheap neighborhood bistro, and into the Mediterranean, where the outside finally met the cool inside.

We were unsure if we were up to traveling to Marseilles the next day, but fortunately we decided that we could not miss this possible chance-in-a-lifetime, and went. We were so glad that we did. The second biggest city in France, Marseilles proved to be a relief from all the picturesque French Riviera and Provencal towns that we had been visiting. It was big, bossy and bustling. Walking towards the sortie of the Metro, we could already smell fish. Unlike in Nice, where the old port was separated from the promenade by Castle Hill, the main drag in Marseilles emerged directly out of the old port. Marseilles was less a French city than a Mediterranean one. It bore a relationship to its country in an odd analogy to the one that New Orleans bears to the United States. A place that refuses to be circumscribed by the national narrative.

Villa Méditerranée
Declared the European Capital of Culture in 2013, Marseilles wore its pride on its sleeve. Shining like the reflective mirror that it was, on the promenade around the old port, was Foster and Partners' Ombrière. Yet, just steps away from the touristy brasseries was a neighborhood joint cooking up an authentic Berber couscous served in plates and bowls of colorful fired clay. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations had an eye-popping new extension. The cube-like building was clad with an organic pattern of pre-cast concrete. Next to it was the new Villa Méditerranée, by Boeri Studio, an international center for dialogue and exchanges about the Mediterranean and its peoples. Instead of rising to the sky, it projected itself in its high-tech look over the ancient green waters of the sea. When we were there, we saw half-naked teenage boys jumping off the high embankment into the water, just as they, and their fathers, had always done.

Cité radieuse
There was something else that we had come to Marseilles to see. Inspired by the Le Corbusier exhibition at the MoMA, we wanted to see his Cité radieuse (Radiant City), built on his modernst principle of the Unité d'Habitation. The building combined residential, commercial and office spaces, including a school for children. Its massive and colorful geometry underlined its artistic aspirations, as did the sculptural concrete forms on its roof. The rooftop also afforded a wading pool, sunbathing bays, a pantry and social room, a concert stage, an art school for children and viewing decks for the appreciation of the mountains on one side of the building, and the sea on the other. The third floor housed a restaurant and shops, the fourth floor offices. It was the most inspiring building that I had ever seen. GH was in heaven and could not stop clicking his camera.

I really liked Marseilles and wished that we had more time to see it. Of all the places that we visited in the south, we would return to Nice and Marseilles. Much as we enjoyed the old and the picturesque, our hearts are really with the modern and the vibrant. The latter qualities seem to require a certain size. The next day, we took the train back to Paris, then the Metro and the RER to the airport, then the plane to New York, and finally the subway back home. It was a long, long day of travel but still it did not afford enough time to detach ourselves from the dream of France.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Paris, August 10 - 16

GH and I spent two glorious weeks in France (August 10 - 24), the first week in Paris and the second in Nice. This was my fourth trip to Paris (it was GH's first) but my first trip to the French Riviera. We rented an apartment in both cities. The one in Paris was a lovely studio on the top floor of an old building along Charles V, in the St. Paul neighborhood of the Marais. It had wooden beams in the ceiling. From its windows one can see the rooftops of Paris. The apartment in Nice was a modern duplex, located just a block away from the Mediterranean.

Institute de Monde Arabe
On our day of arrival, we took a walk along the right and left banks of the River Seine. We had a late lunch at a small restaurant called Le Petite Plateau on a street facing the river, a little distance away from the tourist crowd on the Isle de la Cite. We walked to the Institute de France on the left bank before turning around and walking up to the Institute du Monde Arabe. The latter building, designed by Architecture-Studio and Jean Nouvel, had a marvelous steel curtain for a front facade. According to Wikipedia, "Visible behind the glass wall, a metallic screen unfolds with moving geometric motifs. The motifs are actually 240 photo-sensitive motor-controlled apertures, or shutters, which act as a sophisticated brise soleil that automatically opens and closes to control the amount of light and heat entering the building from the sun. The mechanism creates interior spaces with filtered light — an effect often used in Islamic architecture with its climate-oriented strategies."

The next day, a Sunday, we walked about Montmatre. I enjoyed seeing again Picasso's studio in le Bateau-Lavoir. We had lunch in the cafe near it, which looked downhill. We found our way onto Rue Lepic again and looked at the Moulin Rouge at the end of the curvy road. In the evening, we had dinner with my former student LS, who is traveling around the world on a writing fellowship. After stops in Berlin and Paris, she will go to South Africa and Cambodia. Both of us enjoyed the intellectual give-and-take with her. She is writing a book on fictional phobias.

Geneviève Asse, Stele No. 4 (1996)
On the morning of the third day, we walked around Place des Vosges, very near our apartment. Built by Henry IV from 1605 to 1612, it was the prototype of all royally-built residential squares in Europe. The French flair for uncloying symmetry was again so evident there. Victor Hugo lived in the square, as did Theophile Guatier.  After an early lunch, we walked over to the Pompidou Center. GH did not think that the once-innovative building stood well the test of time. Inside, we saw the work of Geneviève Asse and loved it for its deep feeling. A series called the Steles consisted of paintings bissected evocatively. Joan Mitchell's "Chasse Interdite" was also remarkably beautiful. It was Guy's birthday, and we celebrated it by having dinner in a restaurant at the end of the street where we lived. Le Temps des Cerises is a wonderfully authentic French bistro, intimate, friendly and unpretentious. The restaurant takes its name from the title of a song strongly associated with the Paris Commune. Written in 1866, the words were by Jean-Baptiste Clément and the music by Antoine Renard.

I went on my own to Giverny the next day, since GH was not as interested in visiting Monet's house and gardens. At the house, I was surprised to see that almost every inch of the walls was covered by Japanese prints, by Hiroshige and other masters. The water garden bore other signs of Japanese influence, what with the bamboo grove in the middle, and the wooden bridge over the water lily ponds. In the flower garden, I found the paths between the long flower beds more interesting than the beds themselves. Each path was shaded by overhanging flowers and leaves from both sides, and covered desultorily with covered petals. The village of Giverny, gateway to Normandy, was hemmed in by the river Seine and some hills. I had lunch in the inn that provided a meeting place for the group of American painters that gathered around Monet in the late 19th century. Monet was buried in the graveyard of the village church. Dedicated to Saint Radegonde who was reputed to cure scabies, the church was a rather austere affair. I sat in a side-chapel pew for a few quiet minutes.

Oscar Niemeyer, French Communist Party HQ
GH and I spent the next day together, walking about the up and coming neighborhood of Canal St. Martin. We saw the headquarters of the French Communist Party, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. It was a striking building, sleek and moden, not one's usual image of European communism. We watched boats passing through the still-working locks, and had lunch by the canal. Most shops were closed, so we walked all the way to Père Lachaise Cemetery. Balzac's grave had all the appurtenances of a writer's memorial, but Proust's tombstone was a simple black marble slab with a marble vase for fresh flowers. Oscar Wilde's tombstone was the most elaborate. It was in the shape of an angel seen in side profile, with wings aerodynamically streaming back. It was protected by a clear plastic screen on all four sides and a sign that warned against vandalism. The genitals of the angel were broken off and lipstick was smeared on the angel's mouth. The queer is not left alone even after he is dead. As if to turn insult and injury around, admirers planted their own lipsticked kisses on the plastic shield. Someone had left behind a handwritten copy of a passage about the fragrance of flowers from "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

Chateau du Clos de Vougeot
On Thursday, the next day, we took the train to Dijon where our tour of Burgundy wine region would begin. We found Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, less interesting than we had thought. The old buildings were preserved but the main street bristled with American retailers. I visited the museum of fine arts at the ducal palace while GH walked around town and took photos. I liked the sculpures by François Rude, especially his "Hebe and the Eagle of Jupiter." The paintings of women by his wife Sophie Rude nee Fremiet were also individual and strong. The wine tour was a delight for the senses. Charming villages. Beautiful countryside. The imposing Château du Clos de Vougeot, restored by the the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a modern "chivalric" order dedicated to defending Burgundy, the region and the wine. In the Château, we saw the giant wine presses that the monks used, all the wooden parts fitted together without nails. The wine-tasting took place at a far less grand, but still interesting venue. We tasted one white, a Chardonnay, the main white grape of the region, the other being Aligoté. Then we tasted four reds, all Pinot Noirs, a village wine, a regional label, a Premier Cru and a Grand Cru. They were delicious and complex, quite unlike the light-bodied Pinot Noirs that are usually offered in New York restaurants. Our tour guide, a Londoner who has lived in France for years and years, was helpfully knowledgeable.

Friday was our last full day in Paris. On our way to Musée D'Orsay, we found Matisse's studio along Quay St. Michel. I don't like to have my photo taken, but I had to have GH take this one of me, beside the information plaque. When we arrived at the museum, the line was so deterring that we decided not to go in after all. We walked to Place Vendome, as planned, and then to the Six Senses Spa where we pampered ourselves by getting a massage. We felt completely relaxed afterwards and walked out in with what can only be described as a glow of well-being. In the evening, we went to the bar Raidd, and then danced at the club Spyce. The next day, we took the TGV train to Nice.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji"

Reading Genji monogatari is like dreaming a beautiful and sad dream. The splendor of Genji's person, aptly captured in his nickname the Shining Lord, is marvelous. As is the splendor of his power after his return frome exile at Suma, cosmically represented by his house at Rokujo, with its four quarters and gardens corresponding to the seasons of the year. Yet splendor passes, as Genji first realizes when his father the Emperor dies.

The Edo period Japanese cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga first formulated the concept of mono no aware in his criticism of the Tale.  The "pathos of things" reaches its highest pitch in the death of Lady Murasaki, the wife that Genji loved above all. In a moment of reprieve from her illness, Murasaki grieves to imagine Genji's despair when she dies:

Alas, not for long will you see what you do now: any breath of wind
may spill from a hagi frond the last trembling drop of dew.

Genji answers, with unbearable poignancy,

When all life is dew and at any touch may go, one drop then the next,
how I pray that you and I may leave nearly together!

The dream darkens after Genji's own death when the Tale follows the life of Kaoru, the son born from Kashiwagi's adulterous affair with Onn San No Miya, Genji's princess-wife. The wildness of Uji, with its ceaselessly roaring river, provides the dismal setting for unfulfilled longing and despairing suicides. A woman comes back from the dead but swears off life by taking the Precepts. The last chapter, mysteriously titled "The Floating Bridge of Dream," ends without a clear resolution.

Royall Tyler's translation is unfailingly readable. At the beginning of every chapter, he explains concisely the narrative link between chapters and provides a list of characters making an appearance. His notes are always informative about cultural nuances and poetic references, and are handily located at the bottom of the page, but the Tale can be enjoyed without consulting them. A Chronology and a General Glossary are also given at the back of Volume Two, as well as information on "Clothing and Color" and on "Offices and Titles." There is also a summary of the poetic allusions identified in his notes.

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Adventures of Amir Hamza

The Adventures of Amir Hamza, an Indo-Persian epic translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, opens as a rollicking tale of war and romance, but turns into a repetitious cycle of fruitless attempts by Hamza to return from fairyland to his one true love. I find his faithful retainer, Amar the prankster, much more interesting a character. Hamza, the idealized hero and lover, is consistently faithful and loyal throughout. Amar, however, is more liable to upset established order. From the wise counselor Buzurjmehr, he receives a special codpiece called an aafat-band. A brocade pouch that protects Amar's testicles when he races, jumps and gambols, it has "flowers and leaves embroidered on it in seven colored silken threads, and a priceless ruby hanging from its sash for a button."

The Adventures have long existed in the South Asian oral narrative tradition of dastan-goi (dastan narrative). They also existed in different versions in multiple handwritten manuscripts. In 1855 they were published in a compilation by Navab Mirza Aman Ali Khan Bahadur Ghalib Lakhnavi, who identified himself as the son-in-law of Prince Fatah Haider, the oldest son of Sultan Tipu of Mysore. Sixteen years later, Abdullah Bilgrami, an instructor of the Arabic language in Kanpur, brought out an amended version of Lakhnavi's text. Bilgrami added ornate passages and poetry. Farooqi's translation is based on this amended version, as he explains in his Note to the Text.

The fanciful comparisons of writing to the sun rising or horse racing or love making at the start of each chapter gave me the idea of starting every section of "A Position of Defeat" with a reference to the sun.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" (2013)

It is tempting to describe Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine (2013) as a Madoff scheme of A Streetcar Named Desire. Last night at the Lincoln Plaza cinemas with GH, WL and DM, I kept expecting the infusion of Allenesque comedy into the Williamsian tragedy to pay off, but it never did. WL was right in describing the serious scenes as melodramatic. I thought only two minor characters carry whatever moral weight the film possesses. Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), the first husband of Ginger, loses all his money and his chance of setting up his own construction business. Their marriage breaks up. He makes visible the human devastation of Hal's scams. Closer to home, Danny, son of Hal, the Bernie Madoff character played by Alec Baldwin, is the innocent victim of father-worship. The short scene in the music shop, in which Danny (Alden Ehrenreich) pleads with his mother Jasmine to get out of his life, is searing.

Cate Blanchett is fine as the deluded Jasmine, the Blanche character, but even she cannot overcome the weakness of the script to show the tragedy at the heart of her delusions. Her Park Avenue life is so devoid of deeper values that it is hard to see the loss of it as sad. The knowing digs against that life got some laughs from the audience last night, but the jokes felt tired to me. The flashbacks to that former high life are unsurprising and thus seem unnecessary. If there is nothing insightful about New York, there is also little visually interesting about the San Francisco that appears in this film.

Sally Hawkins plays with great naturalness Ginger, Jasmine's sister, who settles for the poorer class of men, like grease monkey Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and philandering Al (Louis C.K.). They are all that she thinks she deserves, being born with inferior genes. Jasmine, whose aspiration is the direct opposite, sees accurately Ginger's low self-evaluation. It is her one true insight into people, an insight born out of a flaw. Both sisters, adopted as children, are more similar than they think. The compensations for being adopted that one seeks are the movie's true burden of knowledge.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Write like a Tiger

I read Crisis and Transformation in Seventeenth-Century China mostly because I was interested in the world of Chinese author Li Yu. The historians Chun-shu Chang and Shelley Hsueh-lun Chang use the life of Li Yu as a lens to see the dynamism of the Ming-Qing period. They also show the reverse, how the social and cultural upheavals of the period shaped the course of this innovative playwright, author, intellectual and publisher. They argue:
His first intellectual and professional pursuit, before the demise of the Ming, was his preparation for a career as a scholar-official. After the Manchu conquest, Li Yu became a professional writer, but he was never interested in the study of Neo-Confucian philosophy. Thus, the priority Li Yu placed on his intellectual and professional pursuits coincided with the intellectual and professional trends of his native region. Here again Li Yu becomes a microcosm of the Lan-chi-Chin-hua cultural and intellectual traditions.

The theory under which the book's authors operate is explained in the next paragraph:
Culture shapes a person's personality and character because it provides ready-made and pretested solutions to many of life's important problems. Culture is a set of devices for meeting individual needs. In time, culture also becomes a way of life for a person. If that person is an intellectual, the local cultural and intellectual heritage as well as the prevailing trends play an even more significant role in the formation and growth of the intellectual's temperament and orientation. The case of Li Yu provides a telling illustration of such a process.

I am particularly interested in Li Yu's literary thought. The authors delineate four major principles that run through Li Yu's writings on literature. First, he believed in the primacy of originality, spontaneity and individuality, and decried imitation, plagiarism and conventionalism. Second, he repudiated the idea of orthodoxy in literature by arguing that each period of literature had its own prevailing style, so no one genre was necessarily better than another. Third, he promoted the use of easy and simple language that could be easily understood by the common reader or by the audience of a play. The fourth principle was that of realism, the demand that writers should write about what they had seen and heard around them.

The authors quote a wonderful passage from his preface to his collection of works Sayings of One School:
[I am] not imitating the ancients, not conforming to the generation of the present sage, nor expecting to be followed by future generations. I form my own style of writing, and I write only what I want to write--just like the seasonal insects and night watchdogs which sing or bark according to their natural instincts, with no intention of imitating anyone or expecting to gain anything for their singing and barking. . . . Imitation demands workmanship; expectation of success leads to all sorts of artificial designs for covering up shortcomings. I am afraid that if one places too much attention on skill and too little on character, then one shall lose his individuality (weiwo). Insects sing when they feel the approach of autumn and dogs bark when they are alarmed. At those critical moments they sing or bark instantly without paying attention to the tunes, for if they were required to choose a certain tune, they might as well not sing or bark at all.

In his lyric "Shih erh-pei (Instruction for My Children)," he condenses his wisdom about the art of writing.

When you start to write in your youthful earnestness,
     Do not feel intimidated [by anyone and any thing].
Model yourselves after [the fighting spirit of] the tiger,
     Even though you have a [mild] disposition like cattle and sheep.

Shun bashfulness, sons and daughters,
     For a frightened or hesitant shyness will only cloud
the clarity of your mind, hinder the flow of your ideas
     and make a mouse of yourself no matter how hard you try.

Do not say that you dare not use the axe
     before Lu Pan [the patron saint of carpentry]
If you want to test your drum, you should try to beat it
     in front of the very best at the Gate Lei.

A little shaman who aspires to learn from a great shaman
     should be able to endure hardship,
have the courage to dance before gods, and be able to accept
     ridicule and criticism in order to make great strides.