This story in French is called ‘Frritt-Flacc’, the sound of the hurricane and the torrential rain it brings. Dr Trifulgas is a rich old doctor who demands exorbitant fees from his patients, or else they get no service. In the end, his greed brings him down when he least expects it. It’s a short horror story, but not scary enough to stop me reading it. (I scare easily.)
The opening lines invited me to keep reading, contradicting the advice that a writer should never start with the weather.
And by coincidence, as I write this, torrential rain that has threatened all afternoon has finally begun to fall. I’m not making this up. Fortunately I don’t have to go out with my dog, his lantern, and Dr Trifulgas.
1918. 8 March. There is so much influenza about that they’ve had to shut the university.
Opening line, The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla, 1966, translated by Peter Bush
Catalonia is in the news and on my mind. I’m reading Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook. And it’s in my face, for my desktop picture is a 1915 painting, L’esmorzar (Breakfast) by Joaquim Sunyer, one of Pla’s favourite Catalan artists.
Sometime last year I found this image online, bright and deep and earthy. But for an unknown reason I can’t find it again, so here’s a photo of my desktop picture. And my desktop. I so enjoy this painting that I haven’t removed it from my screen since I found it. The couple look friendly, as if they’d happily prepare me a meal even if I don’t speak Catalan, or even Spanish. They’re tanned from working outdoors, probably producing the food on their table and the tables of the townspeople. They’re rugged and strong, a little reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters but healthier.
The colours of south-east France and north-east Spain (or Catalonia) are warm and inviting, baked yellow and clay red, like the colours of the Catalan flag, like the colours in this wall plaque I snapped in Port-Vendres, not far north of the French-Spanish border.
This sense of real life, of a colourful realism, is what I’m reading in Josep Pla. The book is a diary written over twenty months, beginning the day Josep turns 21, but it wasn’t published until he was 69, by which time he had transformed it with added stories, reflections and a little stretched truth. It’s filled with descriptions, yarns, recalled childhood images, and plenty of cynicism. More than anything it revives my own pleasant memories of Pla’s part of the world, Catalonia.
Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost.
Opening line of Canto 1, “Hell”, The Divine Comedy, Dante, completed 1320, translated by Charles Eliot Norton.
Dante has lost the “right way” and hopes to find it before he grows old. But he begins his work “Midway upon the journey of our life”, that is, when he was about 43, though it was not midway for him; he died at 56.
Many of us live long past 56, though some old people seem to be still in the dark wood that comes with weariness and a tired mind, a thought that occurred to me this week in the National Gallery of Australia where thirteen old men in electric wheelchairs are rolling around a room aimlessly, dozing, sleeping, or staring into space. They’re not real. They’re an exhibit by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, “Old People’s Home”, part of the Hyper Real sculpture exhibition.
Unlike Dante I’m not in a dark wood turning over thoughts of hell, purgatory and heaven. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to purgatory, but I’m not so certain I won’t end up in its earthly counterpart as a model for the two Beijing artists when they create the female version of Old People’s Home.
At least two hundred poor beggars were counted sleeping out on the pavements of the main streets of Sydney the other night – grotesque bundles of rags lying under the verandahs of the old Fruit Markets and York-street shops, with their heads to the wall and their feet to the gutter.
‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’, Henry Lawson, 1896
The economic recession and strikes of the early 1890s forced a lot of Australia’s country people off the land and into urban areas, only to find there were no jobs there either. ‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’ is a short story that paints a clear picture of the poverty of poor beggars who had been sleeping in the park but were driven out by rain, onto the streets, under the verandahs.
The title refers to ‘dossing out’ in the city and ‘camping’ in the bush, two different ways of living with no money. In the bush, Lawson writes, you can light a fire, boil the billy, make tea, catch a sheep and fry a chop, wash your shirt, wash yourself, whistle and sing by the camp fire, breathe fresh air and make poetry.
In the city, when you doss out, there’s no possibility of lighting a fire to cook over. And a man is generally too hungry to make poetry.
The story ironically appeared in the collection While the Billy Boils.
When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions.
1 Kings 10:1
I have this painting on my living room wall. When I first saw it in the Art Gallery of NSW I fell in love with it, already being enamoured of Orientalism with its hot, deep colours and ancient drama and mystery. This painting is massive; it’s exhibited in an equally impressive broad gold frame, but even unframed, the painting measures 2.3 x 3.5 metres. Perhaps it was the size of it that had me suspending disbelief and imagining myself as a spectator in King Solomon’s court. I bought the print from the gift shop, had it framed, and over the years have put it up and taken it down. I’ve developed an occasional discomfort with the bare-breasted queen, lower in the space than the king, and approaching only because he bids her. Right now it’s up.
However, reading the opening line of this biblical story leaves me more impressed with the Queen of Sheba. After all, she was there to test the king with ‘hard questions’. This is good, it got me in, it’s exactly the kind of opening line that makes us read on.
She is, in a few alternative English translations of just this one verse, portrayed as quite a powerful and mysterious queen. Some translators have her trying him with subtle questions, with difficult questions, with riddles, or with enigmas. I particularly like this one in the Wycliffe bible:
But also the queen of Sheba, when the fame of Solomon was heard, came in the name of the Lord to assay him in dark and doubtful questions.
Can you imagine what kind of question would be dark and doubtful? Edward Poynter was evidently taken in by this opening line, whichever version he read (probably the King James bible). From the first, he was drawn into the story and stimulated to paint it for us all. May you read a great opening line like this, and may it lead you to an even greater achievement.
Many months ago I joined a group of women bloggers who wanted to contribute to a travelling sketchbook, the brilliant idea of Anne Lawson. The blank sketchbook was made by Anne in Melbourne and posted off to the first person on the list who posted it to the next one and so on and so forth until it reached me, the last one on the list. Consequently, being last, I had all the previous entries to follow. A hard act. Here are the creations, page by page:
The sketchbook has now returned from its round-the-world trip back to Anne’s house. It’s been a unique pleasure for each of us to decide on a suitable contribution and then execute it.
For me it was an unusual day. I’d been wondering how I’d find time to think about my contribution let alone write something in the book. But I’d gone to meet a student that day who forgot about her lesson, so I unexpectedly found myself with a whole day free. I went home and set about writing a number of meaningful quotations with a calligraphy pen, ending up with ten. I chose the neatest one that best fitted the page size. Then I added a piece of machine embroidery I’d made for a textile art course years ago. It was freely embroidered inside a wire coat hanger, then cut away. I had made several of them and attached them to a shawl for the course assessment, but had this one left over. Now it isn’t left over any more.
Today a new story has been published in Peacock Journal online, “The Enchanted Ring”, written by Catulle Mendès in 1887, translated by me. The story is in his collection, Pour lire au couvent (To Read in the Convent), which might surprise since it’s a wee bit spicy for innocent convent girls and only a little less risqué than his tales in Pour lire au bain (To Read in the Bath).
To set the scene, the Peacock Journal editors have illustrated the story with Claude Monet’s impression of Vétheuil in the outer regions of Paris in 1879. This will give readers a hint that the story works its way towards a country inn where three rich and handsome princes are resting for the night (only one of them is asleep…).
Another of my Mendès translations, “The Only Beautiful Woman”, appeared recently in The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation which you can read about in my blog post here where you’ll see a photo of Catulle Mendès standing casually in his study reading a story. Or a poem. If you don’t recognise Mendès, you might recognise his daughters from this painting by his friend Auguste Renoir in 1888, now in the Met Museum, New York:
Peacock Journal has a theme: beauty. The editors search for it in every submission. I feel fortunate and chuffed that they found it in “The Enchanted Ring”. Make your day better by popping over to read this and other stories about beauty.
We arrived at the ruins of the burnt-out observatory at Mount Stromlo before the sun set yesterday, excited about the performance we were about to see: “Nervous” by the Australian Dance Party, an hour of contemporary dance, music and lighting.
At eight o’clock, inside the structure in the light of the early evening, four dancers began their interpretation of the inner turmoil of nervousness, while the audience waited outside in anticipation, peeking in through the doorway. At last we were invited into the space to find a chair or floor cushion to settle into for the performance as the dancers slowly and aimlessly walked about the circular centre of the floor, confronting each other and almost colliding, wondering about the thing that was making them nervous.
And then they seemed to come together in harmony and moved as one.
Once the audience was comfortably seated, the dancers picked up speed, and the idea moved from wondering to worrying. The nerves were back in control, and we soon learnt why, through the dialogue of the blonde dancer: “Hey, there’s something I really need to talk to you about.” We heard it over and over in different phrasings, as she talked to herself or moved up to the audience and addressed them directly. Hello, there’s something…. No. Hey, how are you? There’s something I… No. Ahhhh, there’s something I really… No. Ughhh, just act natural… Why is this so hard?…
And as she practised her speech, the other three were her conscience, the angels and devils telling her she was doing it right and doing it wrong and she was hopeless at this but had to do it anyway. The four became one conscience and approached the audience, and again the blonde spoke, Hey, there’s something I really…, while a second dancer held her breath, another writhed and the fourth groaned painfully. All of that stuff that goes on inside us while we’re trying to appear calm and in control.
Eventually the nervousness conquered its victims and they could do no more than lie on the cold concrete floor in the purple light of defeat…
Over all of this movement was the intense electronic music composed by Ben Worth (my son), pulsating and vibrating and making us physically vibrate with it. It was loud and soft and occasionally absent but it always returned. And there was Robbie, the lighting guy up there on the platform with Ben, playing his lights over the dancers as darkness descended. Robbie’s light show became one of the players playing with the dancers’ nerves.
By nine o’clock, the sky above the roofless structure was black and starry with a crescent moon and nearby Venus growing brighter by the minute. Some cords from the floor became a prop that lit up and tangled about them, winding around and wrapping them up. The music stopped, the darkness was almost complete. Someone began clapping, and we realised this was the end.
Cones. Bert Flugelman (1923-2013) created them, and the National Gallery put them out under the blue Australian sky in the Sculpture Garden. Flugelman produced a number of stainless steel sculptures in Australia (where he lived), not to be confused with Austria (where he was born).
Children and adults alike love the 20 metres of image-distorting steel forms. You can be as thin, fat, short or tall as you want. Cones is a paradox, a totally unembellished minimalist artwork yet filled with detailed images. The seven iconic conic sculptures reflect this little bit of Australia, the sky and trees and flowers and dry sandy ground. And anyone standing around.
Today I was fortunate to find myself alone in this corner of the Garden to snap some photos sans visitors. My camera’s eye caught me in the stainless steel mirror, and my mind made a link to the nearby Portrait Gallery where I had just spent an hour, where I had seen a self-portrait of Bert Flugelman (it’s a sculpture), and now here he gives me my own self-portrait, an image of no one in particular. Indeed, it’s better (in my humble opinion) than the self-portraits by Ken Done and Sidney Nolan that really do look like no one in particular!
There are times when a gallery visit can be dull, and others that are unforgettable. When I walked into this room of old Australian art, I experienced a moment of consternation as the walls leapt out from behind the turn-of-the-century artworks. All four walls were painted in a red and black chevron pattern, clashing with the soft colours of portraits and landscapes in frames of ornate gold and timber. The intent was to shock, and it did. The pattern is a reference to the Wiradjuri people of Australia who paint chevrons on their skin and on trees. The installation artist is Brook Andrew.
I was disturbed by the clash of loud and soft. But on this Monday morning there was something even more disturbing in the room. On one of the viewing seats was an obese boy who had fallen into a deep sleep. His carers were trying to wake him, calling his name and shaking him. The gallery guard came to help with a louder voice, keen to move him along. She called for her colleague to bring an ice pack, which was laid on his shoulders and neck. He didn’t wake.
They phoned his mother, put it on speaker, put the phone near his face, all to no effect. The guard sent the carers off ‘to have lunch’, trying to trick him into feeling left behind. No reaction. He was now sliding off his chair, an ordinary chair, not a sofa, not even a soft chair. Just a gallery chair, hip but hard. The guards pushed him back onto it, talking to him all the while. Nothing. One guard said to the other, “We haven’t had this before,” and laughed as gravity pulled the boy down again.
The carers had not gone to lunch but were hiding from the boy in the next room. They peeked round the corner and saw that he hadn’t woken. The guards warned the sleeping boy that he would have to go home in the back of an ambulance. His hand twitched, and the guards and carers persisted with the cold pack, calling, rubbing and tugging.
Forty minutes later: they stood him up but his eyes were still closed. As I left the room, relieved, they were following me out, the carers guiding him, one each side as he walked blindly. His huge black t-shirt was too long, hanging down past his shorts, revealing only his heavy shuffling legs. They were taking him home to bed, they said.
I returned to look more closely at the artworks, to try to understand why the walls were screaming in red and black. But I could think of nothing but the boy, who must have been heavily medicated. Those chevrons are emblazoned in my memory, but the boy whose eyes never opened will not remember them.