Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"To Make the Bears Dance"

Gustav Flaubert

I recently read Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert because various critics that I respect kept referring to it and its style as ground-breaking. Ever since Madame Bovary, James Wood says, novels are called upon to have to have a style. I had read it in college but did not remember it as a novel that particularly moved me. But in this reading, I found it to be the masterpiece it is usually considered to be. I read the English translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling, the first English translation, in the Barnes and Noble classic paperback edition. I feel that I have not yet penetrated truly what this book is about, although it surely depicts the hapless life of someone who lives in narcissistic illusion as well as the damage wrought by others who are the same but in a different style. Flaubert once said that Madame Bovary was actually a portrait of himself and that he had dissected himself without mercy. But I have a feeling that the devil is in the detail, and it would take other closer readings to approach an understanding of all that Flaubert means to say.

Aside from its psychological accuracy, I thought the book was a major achievement because of its use of language and image. Flaubert's descriptions of settings are so vivid that often I felt as I were in the scene myself. He also passes, seemingly without transition but without the slightest jolt, from the inner thoughts of one person to the next.

Sometimes we find a novel that uses images in a brilliant and beautiful way, but the poetry of these images almost runs like a counter plot to the book--that is, they run parallel with the story but are not part of it. In Madame Bovary, it is the images that raise the pathetic story of Madame Bovary to the level of art that is concerned with profound matters. His precise and poetic use of language serves to bring out the truth of the psychological moment, to say that which is so difficult "to put into words." For instance, the following paragraph took my breath away. It describes Madame Bovary's lover, Rodolphe, just before he sets down to the task of writing her his jilting letter. He shuffles around in the souvenir box of his love affairs and thinks about all the women who have written him love letters. Flaubert writes:

"In fact, these women, rushing at once into his thoughts, cramped each other and lessened, as reduced to a uniform level of love that equalised them all. So taking handfuls of the mixed-up letters, he amused himself for some moments with letting them fall in cascades from his right into his hand. At last, bored and weary, Rodolphe took back the box to the cupboard and said to himself, 'What a lot of rubbish!' Which summed up his opinion; for pleasures, like schoolboys in a school courtyard, had so trampled upon his heart that no green thing grew there, and that which passed through it, more heedless than children, did not even, like them, leave a name carved on the wall."

In my poetic paucity, I cannot imagine how Flaubert ever came up with such an image, which describes perfectly, as he wanted, what this man's heart was like and how it got that way.

This is but one of many such examples in Madame Bovary, and I am not surprised to read that Flaubert agonized over his work and spent hours upon hours on it. Earlier in the novel, Flaubert hints at his yearning as an artist as he registers Rodolphe's blase attitude toward Madame Bovary's effusive pleas of love for him:

"Because lips libertine and venal had murmured such words to him, he believed but little in the candour of hers; exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fulness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make the bears dance when we long to move the stars."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Saint Patrick's Day Everyone!

See Tea at Trianon for Saint Patrick's beautiful prayer, the Cry of the Deer (or Saint Patrick's Breastplate). This is one of my favorite prayers, made even more beautiful to me its name. The legend is that one of the Irish kings was warned against Patrick, who was proclaimed a "falsifier who is deceiving everyone." When the army plotted to attack Patrick in 433, there was a fog but all the soldiers could see were deer at the edge of the woods. But the next morning there were only the tracks of men at the edge of the wood, leading to the belief that Saint Patrick had been miraculously changed into a deer so that he could escape. According to the tradition, Saint Patrick composed the Cry of the Deer while in flight from this ambush.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Putting Things in (Painterly) Perspective

Self-Portrait of Jan Steen: Painter of the Dutch Golden Age

Reached for his comments on the many economic and social problems that afflict the United States and its households today, the great Dutch painter Jan Steen (1626-1679) simply said that nothing was new under the sun. He said he had no words to describe his thoughts on the subject, only paintings, and referred me specifically to these, which I now share:

Beware of Luxury: Households were crumbling under credit card debt for acquisition of luxury goods.

The Idlers: Unemployment and all its attendant evils were on the rise.

Effects of Intemperance: Substance abuse left adults dumb and children without supervision.

The Village School: Kids didn't learn anything in schools and paid no attention to the "teacher."

Love Sickness: People thought only about sex and their e-mails.

The Burgher: While the poor suffered, fat cats took the money for themselves.

The Doctor's Visit: Only the rich could afford health care.

Asked what could be possible antidotes to these ills, Mr. Steen with a nod, pointed me to these paintings:

Grace Before the Meal: Remember what is truly important and be thankful.

The Schoolmaster: Forget Dr. Spock.

Self-Portait as a Lutenist: Never lose your sense of humor.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Learn How to Cook for the Depression

Thanks to Suzanne for introducing me to the wonderful Clara, who demonstrates her recipes for eating during a depression. Have fun!

Find more cooking videos with Clara here.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Jane Austen: Seamstress and Quilter

The middle of a medallion quilt made by Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, and her mother.

Jane Austen considered her books to be her "children," not her craft. In crafts, she was proud of her sewing and needlework. Jane, her sister Cassandra, and her mother made this medallion quilt shown above. In May 1811, in a letter to Cassandra, Jane asked, "have you remembered to collect pieces for the Patchwork? -- we are now at a standstill." According to the Jane Austen Society of Australia, "This very fine patchwork quilt uses 64 different fabrics. The quilt is worked using two sizes of lozenge diamond, and a rhomboid shape of black-and-white spotted fabric for the light-coloured 'trellis' effect dividing the diamonds. Each diamond-shaped patch is placed in sequences of four around a central diamond-shaped floral motif featuring a basket of flowers. The quilt has a deep border of smaller diamond patches adorned with landscapes and flowers."

The museum at the house in Chawton, where Jane lived with her mother and sister, also has a white embroidered Indian muslin tucker and a white embroidered lawn handkerchief that Jane crafted. As a young woman, she also made a tiny embroidered sewing bag as a present for Martha Lloyd, which, reports David Cecil, contained thread, needles, and a tiny pocket with this poesy written in tiny handwriting:

This little bag, I hope, will prove
To be not vainly made,
For should you thread and needles want.
It will afford you aid.

And, as we are about to part,
Twill serve another end:
For, when you look upon this bag,
You'll recollect your friend.

This picture of the quilt shows the border which was created with tiny diamonds in darker prints.

For information on seamstresses in Jane Austen's day, see Jane Austen's World.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

It Was a Cheerful Home at the Austens'

The Steventon Rectory, the house in which Jane Austen grew up with her parents and five brothers and sisters. Here she wrote her youthful History of England from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st, which she prefaced thusly: "By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian. To Miss Austen eldest daughter of the Revd George Austen, this book is inscribed with all due respect by The Author N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History."

One reason why Jane Austen might make a distinction between house and home was the liveliness and love in her own family, which exhibited a spirit of playfulness that seems curiously missing in the film Becoming Jane.

According to David Cecil's A Portrait of Jane Austen, her mother, Cassandra, had more aristocatic connections than her husband but "much enjoyed jokes. She was herself a humorist -- writing entertaining light verses -- and a vivacious talker 'uniting,' it was said, 'strong common sense with a lively imagination' and a crisp epigrammatic phrase....

"Born and bred a country woman and by nature contented, she threw herself into the duties of the rural and domestic existence in which fate had placed her. It did not bother her that she was forced to arrive for the first time at her new home sitting alone with many of her belongings on a feather bed perched on top of a wagon; the track leading to Steventon Rectory was too rough going for any more genteel conveyance; and from that day on, her small slight determined figure, dressed usually during these first years in a scarlet riding habit, was always on the go, seeing after children and household and superintending brewing and baking, and cows and chickens.... She did the family mending in the drawing room and went on doing it, even if interrupted by strangers paying a formal call. Yet she still found time and spirit to talk entertainingly and write lively chatty letters reporting family news to her friends and relations....

Jane's bedroom in Chawton, her last home, where she produced most of her novels. The furnishings in the Austen home were always sparse but not displeasing. Wrote the young Jane, of her favored queen, Mary Stuart: "Oh! What must this bewitching Princess, whose only friend was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight and myself..."

"Indeed home life at Steventon was affectionate, cheerful, untroubled.... Home had fostered their cleverness especially on its literary side. They had inherited this from their father and he had encouraged it, partly by reading aloud to them -- reading aloud was a great feature of Austen family life -- and partly by giving them the run of the library. There they grew acquainted with Pope's poems and Shakespeare's, with the essays of Addison and Johnson, with the novels of Richardson and Sterne and Fielding and Fanny Burney....

"From reading it was a short step to writing; several of the Austens went in for writing if only skits and occasional verses. They also amused themselves with word games and paper games; and with conversation. Their talk, one gathers, was lively and lighthearted in tone, more concerned with personalities than with ideas or public affairs. What is rare in clever families, it was uncontroversial. 'It was not their habit to dispute or argue with each other, even about small matters,' said an observer.... Their principles were those of the moral and religious orthodox Anglicanism instilled into them by their father; they set a special value on the virtues of unselfishness and self-control, prudence and good humour. When young, this more serious side of them was less in evidence than their jokes. The sense of comedy flourished at Steventon Rectory, exuberant, mischievous, delighting in human absurdity, detecting and making fun of any kind of affectation or silliness or false sentiment....

"The Austen corporate personality combined qualities not often found together. It was at once affectionate and unsentimental, satirical and good-tempered, orthodox and highly intelligent."

Jane was a devout Anglican all of her life and, in her last years when she was ill, also wrote prayers that were filled with both repentance and thanksgiving and also hope:

More particularly do we pray for the safety and welfare of our own family and friends wheresoever dispersed, beseeching thee to avert from them all material and lasting evil of body or mind: and may we by the assistance of thy Holy Spirit so conduct ourselves on earth as to secure an eternity of happiness with each other in Thy Heavenly Kingdom.

The church at Steventon, where Jane's father was the reverend and where Jane went to church with her family until she was 25, when the family moved to Bath.