Walter Benjamin, flâneurs, the historical shudder, lorettes and Paul Gavarni

Flânerie again: I turned again today to the opening section of Benjamin’s Convolute M in The Arcades Project, ‘The Flâneur’, a concept which has featured several times here on the blog (dérives in Paris and elsewhere, for example). That’s it in my picture below.

From p. 416 of The Arcades Project

From p. 416 of The Arcades Project

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a helpful introduction to the notion of the flâneur as Benjamin sees it. He’s scornful of that usage which is found too often nowadays, too: the ‘idler’ or ‘tourist’, wandering ‘capriciously’ as Henry James put it, through the urban streets. His is a more charged sense, a key term in his kaleidoscopic presentation of the significance of the city of Paris and its inhabitants in the 19C.

Notre Dame de Lorette, Paris

Bizet and Monet were baptised in this church: 1840 and 1841 respectively. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

I was unfamiliar with the church of ND de Lorette, mentioned there. After a bit of digging online, this is what I came up with:

It’s a church (building started in 1823) on the edge of the 9th arrondissement of Paris, near Pigalle and just south of Montmartre. That is, the red light district. Ah ha.

So I looked up ‘lorette‘ in the OED online (that superb free resource, thanks to Cornwall Library Service):

 A courtesan of a class which at one time had its headquarters in the vicinity of the Church of Notre Dame de Lorette in Paris.

Google took me to this website: France in the Age of Les Misérables. Here I found the following quotations:

“The middle ground between street prostitute and grand dame of commercial sex, the courtesan, lorette became an umbrella term for the kept women set up discreetly in a private apartment by a businessman, professional, or wealthy student… Always elegantly dressed, the lorette peeps out coyly from a theatre box, engages in double entendre with male admirers at a masked ball, displays herself while enjoying the view from her apartment window… the lorette slid imperceptibly across the boundaries of acceptability and social stigma.”

The lorette was bound in many ways by the codes of polite society and yet, was not embraced as a part of that same society. “On the boulevards, she was virtually indistinguishable in costume and appearance from the more fashionable among her lover’s female relations. And in a sense, for men she was quintessentially public property – to be discussed, admired, acquired… In other words there was a radical mismatch between the social and moral codes marking out the lorette within ‘respectable’ society and the way she gained public representation in the spectacle of the metropolis.” (The lorette was essentially a decoration for her lovers, something to be admired and used as needed, but not something for everyday inclusion into society.)

(Nicholas Green, The Spectacle of Nature: Landscape and bourgeois culture in 19th century France by Nicholas Green, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1990.

She would be, in Benjamin’s view, a perfect example of the exploitation of the urban poor. Here’s what he says at p. 446:

“We know,” says Marx, “that the value of each commodity is determined by the quantity of labor materialized in its use value, by the working-time socially necessary for its production.”

This would apply as much for the journalist as the courtesan or lorette.

Also mentioned in that opening section in my picture at the start is [Paul] Gavarni. This was the nom de plume of Sulpice Chevalier, a Parisian artist-illustrator (1804-66), noted for his magazine images of characters and scenes of Parisian life. He also illustrated the first collected edition in 1850 of Balzac’s works. So Benjamin’s words resonate at many levels.

Here’s Gavarni’s drawing of a dandy – another central figure in Benjamin, close relation to the flâneur:

[Attribution: By Pline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

In April last year I wrote more on The Arcades Project

This section of the book begins with a number of epigraphs, including this by Mallarmé:

‘A landscape haunts, intense as opium’

Below is my picture of the title page, which gives bibliographical details.

Arcades Project title page

 

 

 

Tilling and sowing: the Très Riches Heures in October

It’s the first day of the month, and I intended writing about the last book I read: another Barbara Comyns novel – Sisters by a River. I wrote about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in a post in January. But I find I don’t have much to say about it right now. Might come back to it shortly, if I feel inspiration.

So as I did for April and May, I’m turning to the beautifully illuminated pages of the calendar in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, painted mostly by the Limbourg brothers in the early 1400s, although this page might be by a later artist who completed the work after the Limbourgs and their patron died (probably of the plague) in 1416.

A book of hours was a book of private prayers and devotions based on the church liturgical pattern. The kalendarium in medieval texts was originally a checklist of saints’ festivals for each month. Over time the tradition evolved so that illustrated versions included, by the 15C, scenes of the occupations associated with each month.

The Limbourgs painted landscapes from different scenes for most months – places owned by their noble patron, or which he’d visited, as here.

October in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

via Wikimedia Commons

In the background of the October sowing and tilling scene is the Louvre Palace, owned at that time by the Duc’s elder brother the king of France. Originally built in the 12C as a fortress, the Louvre was converted into the main royal residence late in the 16C. When Louis XIV made Versailles his main palace in 1782, the Louvre became largely a repository for the royal collection of artworks. This in turn was taken over as a public museum after the Revolution.

Its name perhaps derives from its origins as a wolf-hunting den (Latin ‘lupus’, wolf), according to Wikipedia, but this seems unlikely to me. OED cites a dance named in English from the French palace, but says the origin is obscure, and possibly derived from Latin and Icelandic terms for chimney.

Between the three towers on the palace’s outer wall are two bretèches (anglicised as ‘brattice’). These are small machicolated balconies. Machicolated? This means an opening between the projecting supports or corbels of a fortification’s wall through which missiles, boiling water or cooking oil, etc., could be dropped on to attackers beneath the walls. The word probably derives from OF ‘mâcher’, ‘crush’ + ‘col’, ‘neck’ (OED online).

On the terrace outside the palace walls can be seen people walking and chatting (presumably not peasants, and therefore they don’t have to labour in the fields). Several dogs prance and pose. At the bottom of riparian steps women appear to be doing their laundry in the water of the Seine, which flows in front of the palace. A boatman is embarking or arriving at a mooring.

It’s in the foreground that the main ‘labour of the month’ scene is depicted. A red-clad peasant whips on a horse pulling a harrow, weighted down with a rock to make the prongs dig deeper into the soil and thus bury the sown seeds. Nearer to us another lugubrious looking peasant sows seed by hand from a pouch. Behind him greedy crows and magpies gobble up what he’s sown.

The artist shows a nice eye for detail: we can see the footprints left in the freshly-turned earth by the sower.

The field behind has already been sown. It’s guarded by a scarecrow in the guise of a bowman, and a network of strings threaded with white feathers or rags.

Overhead there’s the usual solar chariot crossing the gorgeous blue of the arch of the starry heavens. There are the usual astrological and lunar cycle symbols around the outer arches.

Ernest Hemingway, ‘A Moveable Feast’ – review part I

PART ONE (of two)

A Moveable Feast  (Vintage, London, 2000; first published
England and the US by Scribners, 1964) begins with this epigraph:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

Hemingway with his second wife Pauline, Paris 1927 (photo: WikiCommons)

Hemingway with his second wife Pauline, Paris 1927 (photo: WikiCommons)

The words were apparently addressed to Hemingway by his friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner.   The title has a Christian liturgical origin (Easter being the most notable example). Having converted to Catholicism shortly before marrying his second wife, Pauline, who came from an Arkansas Catholic family, Hemingway may have chosen this phrase because it resonates with her faith and his relationship with her – she appears only in the final few pages – rather than with his first wife, Hadley, who inhabits the rest of the story.  Given his tendency to abandon his wives before they dumped him (possibly a consequence of his painful experience of being dropped by Agnes von Kurowsky in Italy, 1919 – he based his character Catherine on her in his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms) this seems a little disingenuous.

Hemingway (1899-1961) placed this epigraph at the head of A Moveable Feast, his memoir of life in Paris 1921-26 with Hadley.   In 1928 he had deposited many of his notebooks and papers containing his record of his sojourn in the city in two trunks in the basement of the Paris Ritz, and did not reclaim them until 1956.  According to a note in the text by his fourth wife Mary, who edited the manuscript after his death, he started work on what became A Moveable Feast in Cuba in late 1957, and continued working on it in America and Cuba again for two more years.  He finished it in 1960, but continued making revisions to the text.  It was published three years after his death in 1964 by Scribners of New York.  I have not yet read the revised edition published in 2009 by his grandson Sean.

Hemingway, Hadley and Bumby in Schruns, Austria, 1925 or early 1926 (Wiki)

Hemingway, Hadley and Bumby in Schruns, Austria, 1925 or early 1926 – interesting body language (WikiCommons)

I don’t find Hemingway the most likeable of characters.  He enjoyed big-game hunting and fishing, bullfights, boxing and projected a macho image of himself.  This book is highly engaging, however, mostly for its gossipy anecdotes about the expat writers and artists of ‘the Lost Generation’ in post-war Paris, and his lucid descriptions of living in the poorer quarters with Hadley and baby John (always known as Bumby, who was born in 1923), as a struggling young writer: ‘Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container’.  ‘Hunger was a good discipline’ is the title of one chapter, in which he claims he often skipped meals, taking circuitous rambles along routes that deliberately avoided restaurants or food shops.  He tells how they struggled to afford firewood, which had to be carefully rationed, as their food was.

Hemingway in Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

Hemingway in dashing bohemian pose, Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

The picture of 20s Paris is delightful, if romantically fictionalised: goatherds drive their flocks through the city selling milk.   There’s an awful lot of description of meals taken on the rare occasions when they were in funds (often from winning after serious gambling at the horse race track), when they’d happily splurge in expensive restaurants.  But he paints a picture of life with Hadley in near squalor as happy and glowing in the warmth of their idyllic love, as this typically breathless sentence shows, with its characteristic paratactic syntax and patterned repetitions:

Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, not the moonlight, nor right and wrong, nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.

All of this is cast away at the end of the book when Hemingway callously embarks on an affair with their mutual friend Pauline.  He and Hadley divorced in 1927.  I’ll return to this rather unedifying finale to the book in Part II of this review: link HERE. For a link to my review of Paula McLain’s fictional treatment of the marriage of Hemingway and Hadley, The Paris Wife, click here

Although the poverty he claims that he and Hadley endured during the period covered by the book has subsequently been questioned by scholars, it does make for a fascinating narrative of bohemian, artistic Latin Quarter life in the 20s, well told by a master craftsman.

Buffalo velodrome 1905
Buffalo velodrome 1905

 

The book is teeming with carefully observed details, like the vivid description of the Belgian cycling ace, Linart,  zooming round the banked track at the Stade Buffalo, the velodrome at Montrouge, ‘dropping his head to drink cherry brandy from a rubber tube that connected with a hot water bottle under his racing shirt when he needed it toward the end as he increased his savage speed.’

Fitzgerald's picture at the Bar Hemingway, Paris Ritz

Fitzgerald’s picture at the Bar Hemingway, Paris Ritz

There are twenty short chapters (the book is only 182 pages long), mostly of only three or four pages; several of the most intriguing feature F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom he is presented as having a curious love-hate relationship.  In the longest chapter in the book we see the moment when they first met, in 1925, shortly after The Great Gatsby had been published – a novel Hemingway admired – in a café, of course (most of the narrative in this book takes place in cafés or restaurants; that’s where the artistic set lived, worked and socialised) – Hemingway reports how Fitzgerald abruptly asked him if he’d slept with his wife before marriage; with Hemingway’s usual tough-guy brevity and sardonic coolness he replies:

‘I don’t remember.’

‘But how can you not remember something of such importance?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said.  ‘It’s odd, isn’t it?’…

‘Don’t talk like some limey,’ he said.

Fitzgerald then turned deathly pale, and Hemingway had to help him home.  He’s convinced that Fitzgerald was as heavy a drinker as he was, but is typically scornful that he couldn’t hold his drink as well as Hemingway himself says he does.  He also upbraids Fitzgerald for ‘whoring’ his talent by shaping and revising his stories to suit the lucrative magazine market, and portrays himself in the rather flattering light he favours:

I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best he could write without destroying his talent…Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do.

In an earlier chapter he says revealingly (if not exactly modestly) of his vocation: ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence you know.’  When Fitzgerald tells him Gatsby isn’t selling and that he has to write stories that will sell, Hemingway bluntly replies: ‘Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.’

He puts this into practice in nearly all of his best writing, including in A Moveable Feast, saying how he’d throw away anything ‘elaborate’, any ‘scrollwork or ornament’.  He relates his ‘new theory’ for short story writing:

[Y]ou could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

This book is also written in this trademark style: short, unadorned declarative sentences with few adjectives and largely simple vocabulary.  At their best these sentences are inimitably beautiful.  But what a shame Hem makes it so clear that he thinks so, too…

PART TWO link here: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and others