April and May in the Très Riches Heures

The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the most important and beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century. It is done in the International Gothic style. It is a Book of Hours – prayers, psalms and other texts, usually commissioned by wealthy patrons, as here. Horae, as they were called in Latin, represented abbreviated forms of the Breviary, which contained the texts for Divine Office as celebrated in monastic communities. They were developed to enable lay people to introduce a monastic discipline and element into their private devotions.

It contains 206 folios, of which about half are richly illuminated, with expensive pigments and lavish gold leaf. It was painted between 1412 and 1416 by the three Limbourg brothers, originally from Nijmegen in Holland, for their patron Jean, Duc de Berry. They left it unfinished at their (and the Duc’s) death in 1416. Charles I, Duc de Savoie, commissioned another artist to finish the paintings between 1485-1489. It is now MS 65 in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

The most famous illuminations are probably those which represent the months in the Calendar, often containing images of the agricultural-rural labours associated with each month, as well as the nobility enjoying leisure pursuits in expensively commissioned examples like Berry’s. A calendar was usually incorporated at the start of the book of hours as a guide to the church feasts and saints’ days, so it was not specific to any year; its purpose was to remind the owner which saint or festival to celebrate on that date. Mary of Egypt, for example, about whom I’ve posted recently, is usually commemorated on April 2.

Above each month’s illumination is a hemisphere depicting the heavens, traversed by Phoebus’s solar chariot, with the signs of the zodiac.

As today is the last day of April I’ve begun (above) with the illumination for this month. As in many of these images, noble lords and ladies are seen with one of his castles in the background – in this one it’s the château Dourdan, or possibly Pierrefonds – and a walled garden, boats on a pond, and serried rows of trees. Other months depict peasants engaged in seasonal labours.

The subjects’ headgear is particularly elaborate, and the fabrics of the cloaks and gowns is sumptuous. To the right what appears to be two attendant women (at any rate they are more simply dressed) stoop to pick wild flowers – a traditional April pastime, and symbolic of the season of hope (not the cruellest month, as Eliot would have it).

The central figures are intriguing: the man in the elegant blue robe (the Duke himself? He’s depicted in other illuminations) seems to be exchanging rings with the young lady on the right (perhaps his second wife, Jeanne de Boulogne, who was much younger than him), while another couple witness the scene. Behind them a fifth figure lurks, apparently a young boy. Or is this just a typical scene of betrothal, again representing hope, rebirth and continuity?
Berry May 2 The illumination for May depicts courtiers on horseback, many of them wearing the green garments associated with this pageant, entering (or possibly leaving) the forest in a traditional Mayday cavalcade, wearing foliage to decorate their headgear or as garlands. They are preceded by trumpeters. In the background is probably the Hôtel de Nesle, the Duke’s Paris residence. Small dogs gambol in the foreground.

As I write this my friend Mary’s little dog snoozes on the couch beside my desk, grunting and sighing occasionally with sleepy satisfaction. The sun shines amiably outside, and these two beautiful medieval paintings seemed an appropriate way for me to round off April’s posts and usher in those for May.

More literary material will follow soon. I hope you all have a peaceful, healthy month of May, and experience the hope and vitality so wonderfully depicted in these images.

All images are in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Glory and littleness: Robert Walser’s ‘Jakob von Gunten’

On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion…the unmistakeable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings. W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country (2013), reviewed by me here.

Here is a section from my post on Sebald’s posthumously published collection of essays that dealt with Walser:

The essay on the isolated ‘outsider’ Walser is a poignant mini-masterpiece.  This ‘most unattached of all solitary poets’ is portrayed with delicate, loving sensitivity; we see the ‘precariousness’ of Walser’s existence, his loneliness and ‘virginal innocence’.  At the core of this ‘ragged soul’ was an ‘absence’ that was the source of his ‘unique strangeness’.   Although he was always ‘beset by shadows’, his writings are ‘illumined…with the most genial light’, striving towards ‘weightless[ness]’ in an attempt to ‘obliterate himself’.  He ‘almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself’, he was ‘a clairvoyant of the small’, his thoughts were ‘honed on the tiniest details’ but they became increasingly incomprehensible as his sanity faded, and he tended to ‘get lost in the clouds’ and dissolve into the ‘ephemeral’, into ‘thin air’, heading for the darkness of insanity and a solitary death in the snow one Christmas Day.

 

Robert Walser (1878-1956) grew up in the Swiss border town of Biel. His work was admired by Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin – a group of artists who no doubt found similar themes to their own in his existentially anguished ‘outsider’ narratives, concealed under a deceptively slight, charming and eccentrically naïve exterior.

Jakob v G Walser cover Jakob von Gunten (first published in German in 1909, translated in 1969 and with an introduction by Christopher Middleton, reissued by NYRB Classics in 1999) seems inspired by Walser’s own experience. It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who runs away from what he feels is a stifling bourgeois home to join a training academy in Berlin for aspiring servants, the Benjamenta Institute, named after its principal, Herr Benjamenta. Walser had attended a similar school in Berlin in 1905, followed by a period of employment as a butler in a castle in Silesia.

The teaching is mostly conducted by the principal’s sister, Lisa. There’s only one class, and the teaching consists largely of rote-learning from a tract called ‘How Should a Boy Behave’; ‘we are not taught anything’, Jakob explains with bland transparency. There appear to be other teaching staff, but they are either absent or asleep – a typically enigmatic situation: it’s difficult to tell throughout this hazy narrative how much is fantasy, dream or some kind of intuited reality as perceived by the eponymous first-person narrator; he writes in an early journal entry:

Sometimes my whole stay here seems like an incomprehensible dream

There’s little in the way of plot. The novel is constructed as a journal, with short, disconnected entries in which Jakob puts down his thoughts, dreams, reflections on the mundane events of the day with his classmates, several of whom recur in different situations. He forms intensely close and bizarrely fluctuating relationships with them (and with everyone else), at times speaking of them as if they were adored intimates, at others with arrogant disdain. Paradoxically, Jakob claims to admire the compliance of the other boys with this unconventional school regime, while at the same time exhibiting tendencies of rebellion and feelings of scornful superiority. By the end, however, he expresses gratitude to the school for transforming him into ‘an ordinary person’, happy to become ‘lost and forgotten somewhere else in life’, a cipher: ‘I don’t want to think of anything.’ Later he says: ‘You’ve no idea what bliss, what grandeur there is in yearning, in waiting.’

He develops a schoolboy crush on Fräulein Lisa, which doesn’t end well, while her brother the principal appears to fall heavily for Jakob. The school’s pupils gradually leave, and there is a sense of inevitable closure by the end of the novel, and we’re left unsure whether the protagonist is set to embark on a life-enhancing adventure with his partner. Or else it’s like Don Quixote riding off into the Mancha with Sancho Panza, a deluded escape from a crushingly banal life of servitude – or a flight into madness.

This is a strange and challenging novel. It can become so superficially inconsequential that I was tempted to put it aside, and then something arresting and strange happens (often inside Jakob’s head, as far as I can tell), and I carried on reading. It gets under the skin despite the apparently inconsequential surface. As Christopher Middleton says poetically in his introduction:

The stylistic invention ranges between maximum abruptness and beautifully timed arabesque dottiness.

With his obsessive narrative accumulations of fantastic mingled with quotidian minuscule details, Walser as a writer resembles the ‘primitive’ style of that other psychically troubled artist, Richard Dadd, rather more than Douanier Rousseau, with whom he is more usually compared. ‘Is this a morgue, or is it a celestial house of joy?’, Jakob muses at one point, in a typically polar opposition.

I’ll finish with an extract to try to illustrate the novel’s unique quality. It will have to be quite long in order to demonstrate these curious qualities in the prose:

What singular oddities we are. Our hair is always neatly and smoothly combed and brushed, and everyone has to cut his own parting up there in the world on his head…That’s how it should be. Partings are also in the rule-book. And because we all look so charmingly barbered and parted, we all look alike, which would be a huge joke for any writer, for example, if he came on a visit to study us in our glory and littleness. This writer had better stay at home. Writers are just windbags who only want to study, make pictures and observations. To live is what matters, then the observation happens of its own accord. Our Fräulein Benjamenta would in any case let fly at such a wandering writer, blown in upon us by rain or snow, with such force that he would fall to the floor at the unfriendliness of the welcome. Then the instructress, who loves to be an autocrat, would say to us, perhaps, “Boys, help the gentleman to pick himself up.” And then we pupils of the Benjamenta Institute would show the uninvited guest the whereabouts of the door. And the morsel of inquisitive authordom would disappear again. No, these are just imaginings. Our visitors are gentlemen who want to engage us boys in their service, not people with quills behind their ears.

Robert Walser

Walser in 1890 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1929 Walser had some kind of mental breakdown (he attempted suicide maybe more than once) and entered the first of the psychiatric clinics in which he was to spend the rest of his life. When he was placed in the Herisau sanatorium in 1933, he stopped writing and spent most of his time on solitary walks.

 

Burned by a man: Rose Tremain, ‘The American Lover’

 

The dominant tone in this collection of stories is a mix of sadness, loss and regret, but leavened by a wry humour and warmth of human feeling. Deception or exploitation underpins much of the sadness, as in the title story, in which an impressionable young art student in Paris is seduced by her much older, philandering tutor, who introduces her to unusual sexual practices, gets her pregnant then dumps her, leaving her heartbroken. Although she turns the experience into a successful novel (this literary theme is also recurrent), she’s permanently scarred emotionally and spiritually.Tremain American Lover cover

‘Juliette Gréco’s Black Dress’ tells a similar story of innocent, youthful love in Paris, but told with rueful irony within the frame narrative of gossiping stylists (is that what you call them?) in an unlovely beauty salon. Love, like ‘beauty’, is a commodity needing time and experience to get right, these stories suggest, and it doesn’t come easily or endure without pain.

Literature appears as an influence in ‘The Jester of Astapovo’, which filters the well-known tale of Tolstoy’s attempt in 1910, when dying, to flee from his wife, and spending his last hours in a stationmaster’s house – the eponymous jester, whose neglected and betrayed wife uses the distraction of the great man’s demise to leave her husband ‘because she’s tired of my jokes’, he quips. Jesting is preferable to despair, he tells his older lover.

‘The Housekeeper’ is the Polish woman who has a passionate affair with Daphne du Maurier, is abandoned by her, then devastated when the writer turns her into an ugly monster in Rebecca. She waited with ‘a fainter and fainter heart’ for love to return, but it doesn’t.

This story too is told in a different way in ‘Extra Geography’: two boarding school girls develop a crush on their teacher, but get out of their emotional depth when she responds more passionately than they’d anticipated.

Possibly the saddest is ‘Captive’, in which the proprietor of a boarding kennel for abandoned dogs (that theme again) faces a grim decision when a spell of Arctic weather sets in and his unfriendly neighbours steal his fuel oil. ‘A View of Lake Superior in the Fall’ comes close, with another portrait of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship that results in flight and guilt.

There’s heartache all round in ‘Lucy and Gaston’, a story which skilfully blends a woman’s frailties in 1976 with the accident that killed her pilot husband in WWII, and the tragic revelations that ensued when his body is found decades after his crash in a boggy field in rural Normandy. ‘Smithy’ is a strange story about an old man’s obsession with clearing litter from a country lane, and his critical encounter with an abandoned mattress.

As in her novels, Rose Tremain writes lucid prose and creates well-rounded, living characters for the most part, though the other stories in this collection look to me a little like exercises.

Being abandoned and forsaken is an inescapable part of the human condition in most of these stories, but they’re not grim: there is often hope, and if there’s no hope, there’s experience.

 

Rose Tremain, The American Lover and other stories (Vintage paperback, 2015; first hardback edition, 2014). I don’t know what kind of gum the people at Waterstones (where I bought my copy of this book last year) use to stick on those awful ‘Buy one get one half price’ stickers, but they make the cover look most unsightly.

 

 

Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, colportage and flâneurs

A divagation away from book reviews today, inspired by my leafing through an old notebook and seeing an item from 6 years ago: notes on a review of Beatrice Hanssen’s study (published by Bloomsbury now) of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (my copy of the text in English, trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass and London, 1999). This is the fascinating proto-postmodern montage of notes and essays started in 1927 and left unfinished at Benjamin’s mysterious death (suicide to escape Nazi arrest as he tried to cross the Pyrenees into Spain) in 1940, representing his musings on the 19C ‘passages’ or arcades of Haussmannised Paris, ranging from ‘physiognomy of a flâneur’ to peregrinations through the city’s streets, with Marxist aphorisms and quotations from a huge range of obscure texts interspersed.Benjamin Arcades cover

Some time ago I wrote a post about Leopardi’s similar project of collected texts, Zibaldone (link HERE), likening it to other florilegia such as that by Chamfort.

There are some striking phrases in the review, arising from the text of The Arcades: ‘The Historian as Chiffonier’; ‘Politics of Loitering’; ‘Peregrinations through Paris’; ‘anamnestic intoxication’. This adjective sent me to the online OED (thank you, Cornwall Library Service, for making it available to cardholders for free; it’s a magnificent resource): ‘the recalling of things past; recollection; reminiscence < Greek ἀνάμνησις remembrance, n. of action < ἀναμνα stem of ἀναμιμνήσκειν to remember, < ἀνά back + μνα call to mind, < μένος mind.

Then there’s ‘The Colportage Phenomenon of Space’; a ‘colporteur’, says OED, is

A hawker of books, newspapers, etc. esp. (in English use) one employed by a society to travel about and sell or distribute Bibles and religious writings.

 The etymology is curious: ‘French agent-noun < colporter, apparently < col neck + porter to carry’, referring to the practice of carrying a tray or box (of books) held by a strap round the neck.

When I first looked this up in a print dictionary, probably Chambers, I noted this entry nearby: colpopoiesis: surgical construction of an artificial vagina. There’s no entry for this word in OED, but a quick Google search took me to an online medical definition, derived from the Greek for vagina plus ‘poeisis’ – making (as in poet as ‘makar’ (Scots) or maker.

 Strange how one word leads to another.

A quietly heroic woman: Barbara Pym, ‘No Fond Return of Love’

Back in February I wrote about Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952: Excellent Women. No Fond Return of Love came four novels later in 1961. This was to be her final publication before the long hiatus caused largely by her work coming to seem old fashioned, with its casts of characters drawn from the class of repressed and obscure ‘distressed gentlewomen’, fastidious academics, librarians, anthropologists and clergymen, and settings in the non-U suburbs of London and the provinces. The Angry Young Men and new realists had taken over.

Her popularity revived after an issue of the TLS invited prominent literary figures to nominate those writers they considered the most underrated of the century; David Cecil and Philip Larkin chose Barbara Pym. From that point publishers vied with each other to secure her work. Her back catalogue was reissued, and new works started appearing, culminating in the shortlisting of Quartet in Autumn for the 1977 Booker Prize.

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

No Fond Return of Love deals with similar characters and issues – the trials and heartaches of a lonely spinster entering her middle years. Dulcie Mainwaring, another of Pym’s characters who likes to feel she’s ‘needed, and doing good’, has recently been dumped by her pompous fiancé– a pretentious intellectual art gallery assistant – leaving her confidence in tatters and her heart broken; she feels ‘relegated to the shelf’. She maintains the curiosity in other people, however, which her self-confessedly dull career as an indexer and researcher for more able, notable literary figures’ books has fine-tuned.

At an indexers’ conference (a typical set-piece portrayed with Pym’s wonderful ear for dialogue and absurd characters behaving ridiculously) she meets Viola Dace (her characters’ names are just right; this one’s is occasionally likened by unkind observers as the name of a fish), who had recently indexed a book by the academic Dr Aylwin Forbes, a handsome but selfish man. Both ladies find him alluring. The scene is set for a romantic plot similar to that in Excellent Women: the central female character is self-effacing and dowdy, but attracted to a dashingly inaccessible and not entirely sympathetic man (he indulges in a caddish flirtation with Dulcie’s new lodger, her 18-year-old niece).

The plots are not particularly where the pleasure resides for me in reading Pym’s work: it’s in the scrupulous examination of relationships, not just of burgeoning romances but also of the setbacks and personal mortifications we all experience in the real world, but which tend to be overlooked in fiction. It’s easy therefore to dismiss Pym’s novels as lightweight or prissy; this is a mistake. She has the psychological insight and ironic technique that’s reminiscent not just of Jane Austen, with whom she’s often compared, but also of that great anatomist of the female psyche, Flaubert.

Her style and tone are quite different, of course, and her novels can be categorised as light comedies of manners. But this is to overlook the subtlety of her characterisation and the richness of her portrayal of the unsung heroines of suburbia.

Let me try to give a brief indication of her qualities.

Dulcie has become intrigued by Aylwin Forbes, and turns sleuth in finding out about him and his family, including his equally attractive clergyman brother, Neville, over whom, as Dulcie blithely points out, women are always likely to ‘make scenes’ over (ie fall in love with them). Viola, who has come to live as a lodger with Dulcie – a comically mismatched pair like Mildred and Helena in Excellent Women – is discussing Dulcie’s quest with her:

‘”I can’t think why you’re so inquisitive. It isn’t as if you’d even met Neville Forbes.”

“No, but it’s like a kind of game,” said Dulcie. It seemed – though she did not say this to Viola – so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people – to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or a play.’

 

Dulcie is one of Pym’s onlookers in life, too emotionally bruised to participate actively, conscious that her chances of finding romantic fulfilment are rapidly waning, and that most of the men she meets are selfish and shallow. As the novel develops, however, so does her self-esteem and courage. In her own way Dulcie is quietly heroic.