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.

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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.

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.

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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.

A Moveable Feast

On my road trip to Vancouver Island this summer, I picked up Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in a used bookstore. I finally read it the other week. Although I am not a huge fan of Hemingway’s writing (based on the one book I’ve read, For Whom the Bell Tolls), I thoroughly enjoyed the sketches of his Parisian life.

This memoir was published posthumously in 1964 and describes his time in Paris from 1921-1926 when he was pursuing a career as a novelist in his early 20s, in love with the city and in love with his wife, Hadley Richardson.

He would later go on to have three more wives, but as his last words of the book say:

But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.

From this, you can tell his memories slide between bitter and sweet.

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

Hadley and Ernest with their son Bumby in 1926, months before they separated

Near the end, he recounts how “new people [read: rich people] came deep into our lives and nothing was every the same again” and he links these new people with his descent into marital infidelity.

 When you have two people who love each other, are happy and gay and really good work is being done by one or both of them, people are drawn to them as surely as migrating birds are drawn at night to a powerful beacon. If the two people were as solidly constructed as the beacon there would be little damage except to the birds.

 It’s incredibly moving because he’s writing these vignettes as an older man looking back on a younger man with the unfortunate privilege of hindsight. His melancholic sentences seep like wounds.

We both touched wood on the café table and the waiter came to see what it was we wanted. But what we wanted not he, nor anyone else, nor knocking on wood or on marble, as this café table-top was, could ever bring us. But we did not know it that night and we were very happy.

And at the end:

When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.

Hemingway also provides vivid portraits of other American literary expatriates living in Paris during this time: Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald whose physical descriptions were dead on with how they look in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris. Actually, the book felt like the literary equivalent of the film since I had just watched it before reading the book, but since the book came first, I suppose it should be the other way around.

Fitzgerald took Hemingway under his wing as the more experienced writer and the two became good friends, but Hemingway always felt Fitzgerald’s genius had been cut short because of his erratic and unpredictable wife, Zelda, whom Hemingway didn’t like from the beginning.

If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby, I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him.

Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston as Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris

Hemingway says Zelda was jealous of Scott’s work and was out to destroy him from the beginning, constantly dragging him to parties and getting him drunk because she was bored. She ended up suffering several mental breakdowns and spent the last part of her life checking in and out of hospitals.

There’s an epigraph to the section on Scott that, in my opinion, shows Hemingway’s greatness with language (perhaps more than his novels do):

His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.

The lines remind me of a painting by Sucontha Wongsalee, which in turn, was inspired by Coldplay’s song, Paradise. So much art inspired by butterflies, a hinge creature between flight and frailty, beauty and brokenness, strength and subtlety.

Paradise-Coldplay by Sucontha Wongsalee

The picture is telling a story about a butterfly with the broken wing trying to get back to where it flew from. It’s trying so hard but still….just like when we were young, we expected life in a different way right?
Then, we got a broken heart when life disappointed us and we try to move on but we’re stuck somehow…

Hemingway has a line in the book, “Everybody has something wrong with them.”

In The Moveable Feast, he shows exactly this. Sketches of people with damaged wings, trying to recall the love of flight.

 

 

 

 

Pictures of Women

See the similarity in these pictures?

Edouard Manet. A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. 1882.

Jeff Wall. Picture for Women. 1979.

Édouard Manet painted the one on the left in the 19th century; Jeff Wall photographed the one on the right in the 20th century.

I came across Jeff Wall while reading Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City. He calls himself an artist-photographer because many of his photographs are staged in studio with elaborate costumes and a troupe of actors. This theatrical, staged side to his photographs puts the “artist” in “artist-photographer,” whereas the “photographer” title standing alone implies a natural, spontaneous, lifelike medium.

The Vancouver Sun recently had an article on him as the Vancouver Art Gallery just added this Wall photograph to its permanent collection:

Jeff Wall, Ivan Sayers, costume historian, lectures at the University Women’s Club, Vancouver, 7 December 2009.

Wall himself says he takes inspiration from painters like Édouard Manet. The article compares Wall’s and Manet’s pictures based on their similar architectural motifs and mirrors, but also on their depiction of the power dynamic between men and women.

While the woman in this photograph (Virginia Newton-Moss) exudes a strong presence with her solid stance and black garb, she is literally in costume and on display, showing off a British ensemble circa 1910. Ivan Sayers, a costume historian, holds the floor as he gives a lecture at the University Women’s Club. The male professor lectures; the female model is on display. The man teaches; the women listen. This reminds me of the whole idea of the active versus passive gaze dichotomy that often comes up when analyzing social relationships in paintings or photographs.

A great painter who depicted these complex gender interactions was Impressionist painter Édouard Manet. I like the intertextual relationship between Wall’s modern photograph Picture of Women from 1979 and Manet’s classic painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère from 1882. I find Manet’s picture more striking, which is why I’ll address my comments to this one.

Here are some notes I dug up about it from an Impressionist art course I took in university:

  • these café-concerts are less about the concert and more about the social interaction between strangers – notice the casualness. It hints more at separateness than at conviviality
  • waitress has immense dignity even though she’s confined
  • viewer is disconcerted with her matter-of-fact, cool glance that lacks expression
  • she’s a victim of commercialized leisure
  • waitresses typified the new Paris
  • many of them used their jobs as waitresses as a cover for prostitution, yet Manet gives waitresses dignity in his portrayal of them

I’ve always been intrigued by this painting and remember visiting the Courtauld Gallery in London where it hangs. I stood and stared at it for a long time. It was much bigger than I expected and even more striking in person.

It’s disturbing to view because the waitress looks directly at the viewer, and we do not know how to read her. Notice the image in the mirror. It’s faulty. In the reflective glass, she leans in to the male customer, but in the real image, she is standing perfectly straight. The man’s location is where the viewer would be standing, so what does this say about us? Are we the man, the villain of this leisure society that commodifies women? Is she on display for us? Do we consume her with our gaze? Some art critics think she’s not so much selling drinks as selling herself, as symbolized by the ripe oranges that are a motif for sexuality in many of Manet’s paintings.

Every time I look at this painting, I am still moved by the waitress’ aloof, ambiguous expression, while there seem a million different thoughts going through her head. I wonder if the interaction in the reflection is one of these scenarios she’s playing out in her mind of how the impending transaction will go with the new customer who’s just approached the counter. Perhaps the reflection is five seconds ahead of the reality, for when she faces us, she looks professional as she waits for him/us to come to her, yet when she turns to the man in the mirror, she looks yielding — yielding to his desire. It’s like she knows how the scene will play out even though she doesn’t want it to. Seeing that a mirror comprises the entire background of the painting, the themes of appearance versus reality, thoughts and actions, engagement and detachment seem entirely plausible.