The Irretrievable Moment

One of my favourite parts about my job is getting to interview artists. I recently spoke with Jim Adams in advance of his upcoming exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. He characterized his art as the following:

I’m always looking for the irretrievable moment where you’re committed to the action but the action hasn’t actually happened yet.

This is evident in his paintings. A Japanese bride is on her way to get married less than a minute after the first atomic bomb is dropped. A contrail is faintly visible in the sky overhead. Other paintings envision a peaceful evening sunset before a meteor streaks across the sky. Locals enjoy their drinks in a White Rock Starbucks as the blue and red lights of a patrol car are reflected in the window, and you know something’s about to change. You can see images here.

After Adams mentioned this phrase to me that’s also the title of his art show, I’ve been noticing numerous irretrievable moments crop up in my reading.

IMG_4546

As you will probably not remember at this time last year, I was reading Crime and Punishment for GRNM (Giant Russian Novel Month). This year, a friend and I are tackling Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We are not going to be finished in a month.

I am about a third of the way through. Even though the plot is faint and meandering and the characters are numerous and changing, many of the characters (particularly Pierre) seem to embody what Jim Adams was talking about. It’s as if they are able to get out of their bodies and look at their lives from a distance, knowing they will go on to make this decision, and that decision will snowball into this other thing, and they don’t like it but they seem powerless to stop it. And so they don’t. In the meantime, I’m reading and shouting at them, “But it’s not too late! If you don’t love her, don’t marry her!” Or, “Get out of there now, you don’t have to lose all this money that you don’t have!”

Take Pierre on noticing Hélène for the first time and wondering if he should take her as his wife:

He recalled her former words and looks, and the words and looks of those who had seen them together. He recalled the words and looks of Anna Pavlovna when she spoke to him about his house, recalled hundreds of similar hints from Prince Vassily and others, and terror came over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty.

Pierre knew that everyone was only waiting for him finally to say one word, to cross a certain line, and he knew that sooner or later he would cross it; but some incomprehensible terror seized him at the mere thought of that frightful step.

Or when he duels with Dolokhov after suspecting him of having a dalliance with his wife, though neither party wants to go through with it:

It was becoming frightening. It was obvious that the affair [referring to the duel], having begun so lightly, could no longer be prevented by anything, that it was going on by itself, independently of men’s will, and would be accomplished.

There is definitely a fatalistic streak in Pierre’s thinking. I also notice it in Rostov and Prince Andrei but, interestingly, not so much in the female characters. While I understand this feeling of “how way leads on to way” to borrow from Robert Frost, I think we tend to stick that irretrievable label onto our own lives more quickly than onto others’ lives. We are so entangled in our own that we sometimes can’t see there actually are other paths, other “roads not taken.” Sometimes I get the sense with these Russian characters that there’s even a Romanticism to fatalism, as if accepting the inevitable is heroic and must be so. But it’s so obvious as a reader that it’s not necessarily so.

I’m coming to a part in the novel now where the main characters are waking up from the false slumber of the inevitable, realizing that things can and should be otherwise, and perhaps it’s not too late . . .

Who is the Nightingale?

We meet an old woman reflecting on her past in Chapter 1 of The Nightingale. It is either Vianne or Isabelle, the sisters and main characters in this book by Kristin Hannah.

img_4541

We are slowly given more clues about this character. She survived the war. She is dying of cancer. Her husband is already dead. She has a son. It is 1995 and she lives in Oregon. In her attic, she has une carte d’identité, an identity card, bearing the name of Juliette Gervaise.

The second chapter plunges us into France in August 1939 where we meet Vianne Mauriac, her eight-year-old daughter Sophie, and her husband Antoine before he is quickly conscripted for the war.

This book of literary fiction, after all, tells the women’s stories during WWII—their sacrifices, impossible decisions, acts of resistance, courage, and love.

Vianne loves her husband and daughter. She is a little naive about war but who knew how many years it would last? She is hopeful for her daughter’s sake.

I assume the old woman at the beginning is Vianne because she is the first character we meet.

In Chapter 4 we are introduced to her younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol, impulsive and rebellious. She gets expelled from a finishing school (her fourth time), and goes to live with her father in Paris, who doesn’t want her. After the girls’ mother died, Julien Rossignol left his daughters in the charge of a nurse.

The two sisters couldn’t be more different. And they don’t get along. Isabelle felt ignored by Vianne growing up, and Vianne found Isabelle annoying and impetuous. Vianne got married young and Isabelle was sent off to school.

When the war comes, the sisters take very different journeys. True to her youthful and brazen personality, Isabelle joins the Resistance, risking her life time and time again to distribute mail, shelter downed Allied airman, and lead them over the Pyrenees into Spain where they could reach the British consulate and be sent home. She is the mastermind behind this operation and her code name becomes The Nightingale, or Le Rossignol in French (also her last name).

Vianne, on the other hand, stays put with her daughter in their beautiful home near an airfield in the fictional Loire Valley town of Carriveau. When the Germans occupy France, Vianne can’t pretend the war isn’t happening. A German officer billets in her home while she and Sophie continue to live there.

The author skillfully weaves between the sisters’ stories during a five-year time span, showing us how their paths diverge and how they intersect. I loved it when they intersected because as panoramic and historically researched as this novel is, it is also a very intimate story of family and friendship and the unthinkable scenarios that bring people together.

The sisters’ stories are interrupted only a few times to flash to the present, where we have the old woman speaking again. Her son is taking her to scope out a nursing home and she says, “I know these modern seat belts are a good thing, but they make me feel claustrophobic. I belong to a generation that didn’t expect to be protected from every danger.”

And now I am not sure who this old narrator is. Her comment sounds more like Isabelle and her flair for danger. I am convinced it is Isabelle when she thinks to herself, How can I possibly go without remembering all of it—the terrible things I have done, the secret I kept, the man I killed . . . and the one I should have?

Vianne could never have it in her to kill someone. Isabelle is disgusted with her sister for failing to do more in the war, like standing up to the soldier who lives in her home. And Vianne assumes her beautiful sister is away seeing a secret lover in Paris.

The sisters misunderstand each other, of course. And they also grow more alike. The longer the war drags on, the tougher decisions Vianne must make to survive. Isabelle hears about something brave Vianne has done and says that doesn’t sound like her sister.

I really cared for Vianne and Isabelle, hoping they would both survive though I had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen. Isabelle’s work as The Nightingale constantly puts her in harm’s way, but because I knew the old woman at the beginning was now Isabelle, I could breathe a little easier knowing she survived. As you reach the mid to last third of the book, each chapter ends with one punch in the gut after another. But I also couldn’t put it down.

It’s not until nearly the end that we find out who the old woman is for certain. It’s Vianne.

This was perhaps the biggest shock of all. At first I thought the author hadn’t done a great job of keeping Vianne’s voice consistent as an old woman, but after reflecting on this more, it’s quite brilliant actually. Vianne does sound more and more like Isabelle the longer the war drags out. My confusion over their voices indicates how alike the sisters actually are, or at least become because of the war.

This reading also makes more sense because when we discover Isabelle is The Nightingale and whom the book is named after, I feel like Vianne is shortchanged because she did very different but equally brave things. The author doesn’t give more emphasis to either sister, so Vianne is just as much The Nightingale as Isabelle.

This revelation added another rich layer onto this beautiful albeit difficult story whose sisters I will not soon forget.

On Hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s Passing

We called him The Dinosaur. Tall, old, he walked like he had roamed the earth for centuries. It was a slow walk yet you noticed him coming from afar. With each step, he seemed surprised the terrain under his feet still held him. There was a slight suspension of activity when he entered the Senate Chamber, the way a warm wind catches your face.

prudhomme

Sénateur Marcel Prud’homme greets fans in the House of Commons on Thurs, Nov 26, 2009 (his last work day). Prud’homme passed away at the age of 82 on January 25, 2017. Photo by Canadian Press.

Sénateur Prud’homme was the kind of man who shook your hand vigorously and generously. There aren’t many Senators’ speeches I remember from my days as a Senate Page, but a section from his comes back to me after ten years. It wasn’t a controversial debate or a throw-your-papers-on-your-desk finale to a vitriolic attack. I remember it because it sounded less like politics and more like poetry, something I hadn’t heard much up until then or would hear again in my two years in Parliament, and something that politics needs to hear more of. Sénateur Prud’homme had just returned from Russia where he had received the Order of Friendship that honours citizens in the Russian Federation and foreign citizens who have made a significant contribution to strengthen peace and mutual understanding between peoples and states.

Sénateur Prud’homme proudly wore his medal in the Senate Chamber where his colleagues recognized his achievement in strengthening Canada-Russia relations. In his thank you speech, he said:

If I dedicate this medal to anyone, it would be to the young people of Canada. I would tell them: Do not be afraid to stand up and fight for something you believe in. If you are lonely or if, at times, no one listens, then reach out. As I said in La Presse yesterday, my policy is reaching out. If there is no one to take my hand at first, then I reach out again the day after. I know that at the end of the day people will establish contact.

And then, so you can get a sense of his humour, he concluded with:

I am speaking with great passion. I must calm down. I will be going back to my so-called seniors’ residence to confront another great experience next Tuesday.

I wanted to remember his exact words so I actually requested a copy of the Senate recordings of the day called the Hansard. (This was not something I did often).

Upon hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s death recently, I’ve thought of him more than I expected to. He’s someone I wouldn’t have known had I not worked in Parliament. I was surprised to read he never married and didn’t have any children or grandchildren. He would have been an epic grandfather in all senses of the word. He looked like the kind of man who would have a family, more so than a lot of the men on Parliament Hill who did have families but treated work like theirs instead.

Sénateur Prud’homme was an unhurried man who liked to joke. I remember an Anglophone colleague recounting a time when he entered the Chamber in his slow and gargantuan way where she was standing at the door. He had said, “Ah, je suis vieux et décadent.” She replied, “Vieux? Non. Mais décadent? Oui!” She thought she was paying him a compliment based on her knowledge of President’s Choice Decadent chocolate chip cookies. He had given her a funny look and we all laughed and laughed when this story circulated around the Page office.

It’s unfortunate he didn’t leave behind any memoirs. I’m sure he could fill enough books that stacked as tall as he was.

This tribute is my way of saying thank you Sénateur Prud’homme for reaching your hand out. A nineteen-year-old girl shook it one day and the effect hasn’t worn off.

The Paris Wife

As I will be visiting Paris for the first time this year, I’m getting more and more excited by reading stories set there.

img_4540

I recently finished The Paris Wife by Paul McLain that fictionalizes the marriage of Ernest Hemingway to his first wife Hadley Richardson from 1921 to 1927. The story is told through Hadley’s voice.

There are always two sides to a story and after discovering Hemingway’s Paris memoir A Moveable Feast that also focuses on his years with Hadley, I was intrigued at what her version would say. Since she didn’t write her own memoir, we have to rely on McLain’s research.

She made the time period and the characters come alive for me. Hadley and Hemingway’s meeting and early dating in Chicago felt a little cliché, but the book really sang when they moved to Paris as newlyweds. In the prologue, the narrator writes:

This isn’t a detective story—not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well- made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.

Of course, when someone says don’t keep watch that’s the very thing I do. Every time there was a new woman introduced into the story (and there are a lot of characters since Hadley and Ernest hung around other expat artists and their partners like the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound), I wondered if this would be the woman who destroyed their marriage.

I also kept watch for Hemingway. I noticed McLain treated him very carefully—too carefully. It seemed as if she wanted to acknowledge his cruelty towards Hadley while still making him likeable. There are hints of Hemingway’s bravado and aggression in living room boxing matches he has with friends and in his appetite for watching Spanish bull fights, but apart from one tumultuous quarrel, all his and Hadley’s marital tension is unsaid or so subtle it feels unrealistic. For a character known as a hothead, Hemingway speaks remarkably cool, reserved, and casual throughout the novel.

I felt for Hadley in the net she was caught in—trying to believe in marriage in an age and place where marriage was becoming less and less defined. Men tried keeping a wife and a mistress in the same house. Hemingway and Hadley tried this with their friend Pauline who ended up being the woman to keep watch for, and you can imagine this arrangement worked out swimmingly for everyone involved (high sarcasm there).

Not everyone believed in marriage then. To marry was to say you believed in the future and in the past, too—that history and tradition and hope could stay knit together to hold you up. But the war had come and stolen all the fine young men and our faith, too. There was only today to throw yourself into without thinking about tomorrow, let alone forever. To keep you from thinking, there was liquor, an ocean’s worth at least, all the usual vices and plenty of rope to hang yourself with. But some of us, a very few in the end, bet on marriage against the odds. And though I didn’t feel holy, exactly, I did feel that what we had was rare and true—and that we were safe in the marriage we had built and were building every day.

Was Hadley as naive as McLain makes her out to be? I don’t know. I think you can be hopeful without being naive, but it does take her an awfully long time to clue into her husband’s infidelity. She is a good and faithful wife, but as Aritha van Herk writes in her review in The Globe and Mail, there are some definite moments in the book where Hadley could have been more nuanced, like when she loses a suitcase carrying literally all of Hemingway’s work (it was stolen on a train). She is all tears and apologies, but doesn’t she ever have moments of selfishness? Hemingway certainly did.

In reading this fictionalized memoir in the 21st century, I found it hard to completely sympathize with Hadley because she is portrayed as perfectly content to make her life dreams her husband’s. Her biggest streak of independence is playing the piano and practicing for a concert that she never ends up doing because that’s when she finds out about the affair. Certainly not every woman in this time period sacrificed like Hadley—look at Zelda Fitzgerald. Not saying she’s a healthy example either but finding your identity in your husband’s doesn’t leave you with much when the marriage dissolves.

I’d recommend reading A Moveable Feast and then The Paris Wife to see how the two accounts compare since McLain heavily drew on Hemingway’s memoir to create her version of this famous and tragic marriage.

Drawn in by Degas

My favourite outing the few times I’m in Houston is visiting their Museum of Fine Arts. I happened to be there recently when Degas: A New Vision was on display and got to see this retrospective exhibit of this famous French Impressionist’s work—the largest in the US in nearly 30 years!

img_4407

The exhibit begins with an insightful chronology of Edgar Degas’s life. I cherished this quote from his family because it shows such familial concern yet tenderness for their hardworking artist—something that all families of artists have felt at one time or another. I wish I could have told them from where I stand in history that it’ll be alright.

img_4386

Degas painted everybody everywhere—from prostitutes sitting in cafés to bourgeois women at concerts; from male patrons loitering backstage at ballets to businessmen making deals on the streets; from the ordinary event of women washing their hair to the spectacle of Parisian society watching a horse race. All these types of paintings were on display at MFAH but I’ll show you a few of my favourites that were particularly exciting to see in person.

img_4401

Edgar Degas, Rehearsal Hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier (1872).

I appreciate that Degas didn’t just paint final performances. He showed the work of preparing for a show—the stretches, repetition, boredom, sweat, and fatigue. He did countless drawings of ballerinas’ movements before he painted them (many of which were also on exhibit), and I like how the description on one of the panels said Degas became such a master of technique that he could tell when a ballerina had done a move incorrectly.

It’s also fascinating to see how he edited his preliminary drawings when he added them to his paintings. Notice in At the Louvre (1879) how the two women change position and the umbrella changes hands. Interesting fact: the woman leaning on her umbrella was fellow Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.

This ballet rehearsal was probably my favourite to see transformed from a textbook page to the colours and brush strokes on the gallery wall:

img_4406

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (1874).

The composition is so striking. Degas crams all the figures into the upper left and bottom right corners, leaving your eye to wander up the middle where the central ballerina leans forward on one leg. Her outstretched arm connects the gap between her and famous Parisian dance master Jules Perrot. Degas literally renders a slice of contemporary life here through the truncated legs on and around the staircase and the two cropped groups of ballet students—one set working, the other waiting.

img_4409

Edgar Degas, Theatre Box (1880).

Degas has the reputation of being an acute observer of contemporary life. You can see that in the painting above where he isolates a female theatre-goer in an ornate box. The artificial light of the stage reflects back on her face, making her look ghostly. Going to the theatre is a social event (especially for this time period in Paris), so why is she alone? Degas captures the alienation typical of modernity. I think this painting is another way of showing that feeling of being alone on a crowded street.

img_4420

Edgar Degas, In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker) (1875-76).

The last work I’ll mention is In A Café (The Absinthe Drinker). Talk about alienation! This painting so moved me when I first studied it in undergrad that years later I wrote a short story about a blind date inspired by it. I like how Robert L. Herbert describes what’s going on in Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society:

Shoulders slumped, eyes cast down, feet splayed out, her costume frowzy, she is the café habituée rooted to her seat, without aspirations. She will derive little comfort from the man next to her, the kind of elbow-leaner who will remain there for hours, eventually shuffling off to an uncertain destination. This is one of Degas’s most devastating images of public life.

There are many devastating things about this painting—how the floating tables trap the man and woman behind their drinks; how the two figures sit beside each other without engaging; how Degas seats us at the table diagonal to these forlorn figures, watching all this as if we too are supposed to be as detached as the painter but we cannot help but be drawn in.

img_4388

Small Town Texas, Big Taste

On our Christmas trip to Texas I told my husband (the Artist) that I wanted to see more of Texas.

So we went to Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas with a fun name to say (the “g” is silent). We toured the outside of Stephen F. Austin State University, his alma mater.

img_4346

I thought these circular dorm buildings were particularly interesting. I was reminded of the round room we had in the turret of the Empress Hotel in Victoria.

img_4345

We walked through the arboretum along the creek where we took in some swinging benches, lovely bridges, and alarming student public art.

img_4349

img_4352

img_4353

The trail opened out onto a grove of pecan trees, aptly named Pecan Park.

img_4364

The downtown was small but charming with its cobblestone streets and red brick buildings. The 28 degree Celsius weather certainly didn’t make it feel like Christmas, but it was fun to see the decorations regardless.

img_4372

img_4371

They sure know how to do their window displays.

img_4382

img_4378

img_4375

But what I’ll remember most about Nacogdoches are these Texas-sized onion rings my husband accidentally ordered, wanting to make sure the four of us had enough. After living in Canada for so long, he forgets what “Texas-sized” actually means. Oh we had enough alright. The pile was so high a table of eight looked at us incredulously when the waitress placed it in front of us.

img_4341

The other small town we visited was Lockhart. It has a beautiful courthouse but we went for their barbecue at Smitty’s Market.

img_4458

This unassuming place (behind the motorcycle) was named one of the Top Barbecue Restaurants in Texas, and my taste buds would agree. The smell that hits you when you walk into the barbecue pit is enough to get you salivating, and you’ll be salivating for a while as the line-up is long (for good reason, though it goes pretty quickly).

img_4476

You watch the apron-clad employees take the meat from the smoker and cut it on a table right in front of you, the walls black with decades of built-up grease (it opened in 1948). My father-in-law warned me not to lean up against the walls because you’d be taking some of that grease home with you.

image4

image2-1

De-li-cious. We devoured brisket, ribs, and pork chops on the tailgate of his truck. A stranger walking by took in the sight of the three of us and said, “Ain’t that the life?”

img_4460

In that moment I felt like this bumper sticker I got in my stocking was not far off the mark.

img_20170115_213430275