Odyssey Books has just published my translation of Contes pour lire à la chandelle – Stories to Read by Candlelight by Jean Lorrain, and today I received ten copies of a very well produced, postcard-sized book. As yet it’s available on Amazon only to pre-order, but will actually be available from next week, 16th September.
The eight stories were written in the 1890s by the French author Jean Lorrain. About six years ago I completed my translation of them (the first one in English according to my research) and began submitting it to publishers. At last I can announce that the little collection is available in English, and as a bonus it’s illustrated with surprising silhouette images by the talented artist, Erin-Claire Barrow. The cover design is by Simon Critchell.
And now, an excerpt, for a little of Jean Lorrain’s whimsy:
Princess Mandosiane was six hundred years old. For six centuries she had lived embroidered onto velvet, her face and hands painted on silk. She was dressed all in pearls, her gorget rippling with heavy beading, and her gown was woven with threads of argentite and arabesques of the finest gold […] For a long time she had figured in processions and royal celebrations. She would be brought out and hoisted up on a banner staff, and the dazzle of her jewels would bring joy to great ladies and commoners […] Then the era of processions passed, thrones were abolished, kings disappeared, civilisation marched on, and the princess of pearls and painted silk now remained confined in the shadow and silence of the cathedral.
Please let me know if you read the stories and especially if you review them. May they give you as much pleasure as they did me when I pulled the original book from the library shelves of forgotten French literature.
Quite as if by arrangement on the first day of September, designated first day of spring, the temperature rose and there was a warmth in the air that we haven’t felt for months. Spring has sprung and flowering trees are performing on cue.
In Canberra two tree species shout loud and clear that spring is here: wattle and prunus. Wattle trees are bursting out everywhere in fluffy yellow flowers, and various plum, apricot, pear and others in the prunus family are lining our streets with their blossoms of white or pink flowers.
Here are some I snapped today on my stroll to the local shop, a row of half a dozen white prunus that have just bloomed and are already dropping petals to form a snowy blanket on the footpath below. They might technically be fruiters but this stand of trees hasn’t produced anything edible in the twenty years I’ve been walking under them, which is probably a good thing since the path would be covered in squishy fruit.
On my stroll back again I studied a lot of bees enjoying the pink flowers on these trees that produce dark red plums, and though most of them do drop off throughout summer, there is only grass and road below, no path.
Back home I felt more than grateful for this wattle tree in my back yard. I didn’t plant it and I don’t water it. It simply grew up among other plantings of mine and I remained oblivious to it until the yellow flowers appeared. I do nothing for it, yet it graciously gives me an undeserved pleasure every spring. In past years it has been a little taller but the men who keep their eye on the overhead wires command us to prune the branches that make them anxious. Even without a symmetrical form it is beautiful, filling most of the space along the back fence.
How good life is when spring comes. It’s a yearly reminder that the end is not nigh.
Every big city has its hip district. Canberra adopted this concept not too long ago, creating one in Braddon, right next to the city centre. Of the many cafés here, Lonsdale Street Roasters is my favourite. What does it have to do with winter? Well the coffee machine is close to the door that’s constantly opening and closing from 6.30am with the flow and ebb of coffee addicts, so on chilly July mornings even the barista wears long johns under his shorts.
And the barista’s mother sits in her house with a large gas heater at her back, playing with pens and inks, writing out the slogan for the 21st-century coffee culture which she is happy to be part of.
In the city centre an ice skating rink is presently being set up for the school holidays and will open tomorrow. The temperatures are not low enough for our lakes to freeze but an artificial frozen pond will stay solid with a bit of help. No skating is allowed today but I did spot this workman (in black) walking gingerly across the ice.
Behind the rink is the ACT Legislative Assembly from which the pollies will have a great view of the ice skaters, perhaps even ice dancers.
Here are a couple of girls in beanies putting up a white picked fence for that quaint northern look. The blue skies of past days have disappeared behind clouds, and rain is forecast, but children won’t mind. Skating in rain would probably be fun. Snow would be better.
So, as the sign on the marquis says: Get Your Skates On!
This morning I met my son for coffee at 9.30 and noted that everyone in the café was clad in coats and scarves. Many of them were in black, pretty typical of winter-wear here. Plenty of shops have racks of black, suitable for this city of public servants. In fact, in my early years in Canberra I wore black because I thought it was right: black turtle-necks, black overcoats, black skirts and black jeans. Then I realised I was conforming. Now I avoid it.
Here’s my son wearing a grey-black jumper, but the man behind him has a bright yellow jacket on that makes him look like he’d be at home on the sea. He’s the only dab of colour in Sfoglia this morning. (Even the Italian owner is wearing all black, including his beard.) Meanwhile at the table beside us there were several workers on a morning tea break, all in black.
Today was a little warmer. At 10am it was 3 degrees, up a degree on yesterday morning. And this afternoon it was 13 deg when I was pruning roses. I was wearing my fluffy jumper which keeps me snug when the temperature is a single figure, but when I started to work up a sweat I had two choices: take off the jumper or go inside (Canberra houses are cold, even with the heating on).
Around the rose bushes there are a number of deciduous trees looking very bare right now. An idea came to me to put down my secateurs and take a photo or two of the leafless limbs, which made me think about a curious contrast: when winter comes I don more and more layers while the trees shed every single leaf.
The mass of bare branches behind me in the photo is a crepe myrtle that emerged from the lawn shortly after we moved into this house many moons ago. The previous owner had shorn it off at the ground and assumed he’d executed it and death was certain. Well, you can’t keep a good crepe myrtle down. You can see how large it is now! In summer it’s pretty in pink and drops a lovely blanket of flowers on the grass below.
I got a lot of work done today, pruning rose bushes, sweeping dead leaves off the deck, mopping floors and more. Here’s another benefit of living in Canberra – low temps make me a high achiever.
Canberra has a pretty ordinary reputation for the capital city of an awesome country. Why? It’s not on the coast (unlike every other Australian capital), it’s a place of politicians and political decisions, and it’s uncomfortably cold for three months of the year and moderately cold for another six, too much cold for coast lovers.
Warm as toast in my coat and scarf this morning, I looked up to the clear blue sky and felt nothing less than gratitude for my Canberra life. If I give you five photos this week, one a day, you’ll get a glimpse of things I love about this city, even in its winter.
Today, 1st July, began cold and clear. At 10am it was 2 degrees and the leaves in the car park were white with frost. As the sun moved across them, the frost melted, the leaves turned soggy and wet but beautifully golden brown. Crouching close to snap the photo, I heard a passerby ask “What did you find?”. “Melting frost,” I replied. “Ah, Canberra,” she said, and walked on.
Théodore de Banville. Prolific poet and writer, frequenter of the most anti-conformist Parisian circles. Proponent of ‘art for art’s sake’:
« Il n’y a de vraiment beau que ce qui ne peut servir à rien, tout ce qui est utile est laid. »
[There is nothing truly beautiful except that which serves no purpose; everything useful is ugly.]
Banville was an enemy of realism and had nothing good to say about technology that produced smoke or steam. He was among a number of writers who scorned the introduction of electric lighting and mechanised production in factories, as well as the fad for stock markets and wealth-making. He believed that humans are better when they surround themselves with beautiful antiques and ancient masterpieces of art and literature than when they pursue capitalist, bourgeois progress.
Parisian by choice, not birth – he loved the city of Paris and said it is filled with the smiles of fairies – Banville came originally from the French region of Auvergne, further south. While still young he went to Paris and published his first volume of verse, Les Cariatides, at the age of 19. His best work was Odes Funambulesques (Tightrope Walking Odes, or, in Banville’s own words (translated), odes composed with the care, rigour and comic element of tightrope walking). By the age of 30 he was producing poetry, tales and reviews to the great praise of other men of letters, among them Victor Hugo. In his later life Banville wrote mostly colourful and comical prose about the elegant, artificial, unreal Parisian world.
More importantly for me and my search for fantastical French short stories, Banville was one of a few late 19th-century French writers to bring the genre of the fairy tale back into fashion. Very little of his prose has been translated into English, but I’ve got the ball rolling with my translation, “The Lydian”.
Scottish writer, Andrew Lang, translated some of Banville’s poetry at the end of the century, and later wrote about it:
Poetry so fresh seems to make us aware of some want which we had hardly recognised, but now are sensible of, at the moment we find it satisfied.
My own feelings, precisely. When I first read Banville’s tales of Parisian life in Contes féeriques, I was blown away by the observations he made about his fellow city dwellers and their hastiness, their jealousies, their yearning to electrify and mechanise and modernise life and their tendency to curl the lip at old simple pleasures like candlelight and artisans’ workshops.
Banville married Marie-Élisabeth Rochegrosse when she was 47 and he was 53, and he adopted her son Georges Rochegrosse who was inspired by his stepfather the poet, and became famous himself as an artist.
Two sculptures of Théodore de Banville ensure he will not be forgotten. One is a bust in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. (I like the lyre resembling a face…)
The other, in his birthplace of Moulins, is based on the drawing of Banville by his stepson Georges Rochegrosse (top of this page). Note the dog, Zinzolin, in the drawing and in the sculpture… In March 1944 this statue mysteriously disappeared from the park. The occupying Germans had stolen it with the intention of melting it down for weaponry, but fortunately the war ended before they got around to it. The statue was restored to the park in April 1945.
Banville died at 68 in 1891 and is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
Today I snapped this one of two men in Bakers Delight not looking at a poster on their right of a woman hiding her breasts with two pink buns, part of a campaign for the Breast Cancer Network of Australia.
Coincidence: I just saw the news on TV about Facebook banning these posters.
This was one of many social media controversies in Australia today. Some will be thanking God it’s Friday.