Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Georgia O'Keeffe

O'Keeffe by Ansel Adams, 1937
Everyone thinks they know the story of Georgia O’Keeffe. It is only when you learn the actual details that you find she was not the iconic, forbidding, independent artist shown in later photographs of her. Bemused by her success, O’Keeffe felt that she had been lucky and at different points in her life it would have been hard to imagine the stature she achieved.

O’Keeffe was the oldest in a family of seven, born in Wisconsin. Her parents sold off their farm and moved the family to Williamsburg, Virginia, hoping to improve their chances, but they were never able to penetrate the Southern culture and family fortunes began to fall. O’Keeffe was certain she wanted to be an artist very early. She received some excellent education but it was sporadic, and partly because of her poverty, O’Keeffe was always an outsider.

Offered a teaching job in Amarillo, Texas, O’Keeffe took it. “The Wild West, you see. I was beside myself. The openness. The dry landscape. The beauty of that wild world,” Georgia later said. She then taught in South Carolina where she had enough free time to work out her own ideas about art but also enjoyed relationships with men. This time of working quickly on charcoal drawings without censoring her ideas or gestures, often verging on abstraction, was crucial. She sent some to a friend, who showed them to Alfred Stieglitz, a New York gallery owner, influential by virtue of the clarity of his judgments and his desire to find in America the kind of art that was invigorating Europe.

O’Keeffe met Stieglitz in New York, and when she went back to teaching at a college in Canyon, Texas, they wrote to each other. By this time, O’Keeffe’s mother had died and her father disappeared. O’Keeffe took her 17-year-old sister to Texas with her. She was not understood at the college, but Stieglitz mounted her first small show at his gallery. A critic wrote: “Miss O’Keeffe has found expression in delicately veiled symbolism for what every woman knows, but what women heretofore have kept to themselves.”

When O’Keeffe contracted the flu in 1918 she had to take a leave of absence. As she was without funds or help, Stieglitz sent for her. When she arrived, still sick, he installed her in his niece’s studio and began to photograph her, often nude. Stieglitz had been unhappily married for many years, and he and Georgia became lovers despite the fact that he was 54 and she 30. Stieglitz mother, the matriarch of their large family, summoned them both to the family’s summer home on Lake George.

O’Keeffe continued to work and live with Stieglitz, in New York during the winter, and at the crowded family Victorian on the lake in the summer. Stieglitz did everything possible to allow Georgia to paint. He showed his photographs of O’Keeffe at his gallery and then her paintings. The response to the photographs colored the critics interest in O’Keeffe’s paintings, insisting on her intuitive femininity, while Georgia tried to emphasize the intellectual and technical underpinning of her work. Interest in her did help sell paintings however!

O’Keeffe and Stieglitz married in 1924, but their differences soon began to pull them apart. O’Keeffe was exhausted by Stieglitz’ outgoing personality. He was constantly talking and surrounded by people. She accepted an invitation to visit New Mexico in 1929, staying four months and having a wonderful time. Because she was no longer willing to pose nude, Stieglitz found other women to do so. Dorothy Norman, much younger, but also married, became a partner to Stieglitz both in his gallery and intimately, a relationship which continued throughout his life. O’Keeffe endured this, but had a nervous breakdown in 1932. For almost three years she painted little.

What saved O’Keeffe was falling in love with a place far from New York, the remote country of northern New Mexico. She continued to spend winters in New York, caring for her aging husband, but spent her summers mostly in the Southwest. Steiglitz had driven the prices of her work high enough that they were very well off. O’Keeffe could afford both a New York apartment for the two of them and the purchase of an adobe at Ghost Ranch. She continued to paint and the Museum of Modern Art held a large retrospective of her work in 1946, the year in which Stieglitz died.

O'Keeffe by Christopher Springmann, 1974
After his death O’Keeffe spent several years working with Stieglitz’ photographs, letters and papers, finding academic homes for them. She also purchased another, less remote house in Abiquiu and had it renovated, moving there permanently. She lived simply, but very carefully, making art out of her surroundings. As she grew older a staff helped with her gardens and housekeeping, as well as the stretching of canvases, her recordkeeping and correspondence. By this time she was able to direct her public image and made sure that a picture of fierce independence and indomitable will to paint dominated. She and her home were widely photographed and her paintings commanded increasingly high prices.

O’Keeffe hid the fact that she was losing her vision as she aged. She came to rely on a young man, Juan Hamilton, for safety and certainty in the last decade of her life, though she was close to her sisters and continued to travel. She died in 1986 and Hamilton spread her ashes over her beloved Pedernal, the mesa she could see from her home.

Because O’Keeffe’s work and her story unfolded during my lifetime, I was very aware of her. Her simplicity and austerity resonated strongly with my own ways of living, though I would probably see more in her paintings if I were an art student. I relish the paradoxical sense of O'Keeffe's fierceness and tenderness as a woman. I first read the excellent Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life by Roxana Robinson [1989] and, as more letters and documents have become available, even more detail is filled in by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe[2004].

Monday, September 21, 2015

E Zhong d’Ampere

Chinese Woman, 1950s, Marc Riboud
Dai Sijie’s Once on a Moonless Night [first published in France, 2007] purports to be about a mutilated manuscript, torn in two and thrown from a Japanese plane by China’s last emporer, PuYi. An unnamed French girl narrates the story about her love for Tumchooq, a greengrocer with whom she falls in love with in Peking in about 1978. In reality, their love mirrors the more disastrous meeting of Tumchooq’s parents, who are torn apart by the Chinese government’s desire for the manuscript which they own. For me, the most important character in the book is Tumchooq’s mother, E (the word for the silkworm moth) Zhong.

Tumchooq is put in reform school because he leaves for dead the friend who has just told him the standard gossip: “your father sold your pregnant mother to a poet for the mutiliated manuscript.” While in this school, his mother writes down his father’s name, sobbing so much she cannot say it: Paul d’Ampere, a famous French linguist and writer of notes on Marco Polo’s book about the wonders of the world.

For his crime, Paul d’Ampere was sent to the horrifying mines at Ya An near Chengdu before his son was born. Tumchooq first meets him in 1975 when he travels to the prison camp at Ya An, an area which had been the site of such famine that between 1959 and 1961 more than a million people died.

Tumchooq’s mother is the granddaughter of a promising favorite of Cixi, the dowager empress who ruled and controlled the succession of rulers of China for 47 years until her death in 1908. To Tumchooq, his mother is the most beautiful woman in Peking. She works as an assistant curator of a museum within the Forbidden City. Tumchooq tells the narrator about his background, about the pieces of his life he is struggling to put together. He remembers finding the pipa, or lute, which his mother or father had played, hidden among the roof trusses of his house. According to a story which Tumchooq’s mother would never tell him, she had fallen in love with his father when he played the pipa even more beautifully than she did.

Tumchooq also tells the narrator of the singing sands of Manchuria, where he was taken by this mother at four, dressed as a prince to greet his great-grandfather. And of the times his mother and he picked fruit from a fig tree near her office in the Forbidden City at the office of the Imperial Archives. Playing with him, she radiated a “volcanic youthfulness.”

Visiting his father, Tumchooq learns of his father’s friendship with the historical prisoner Hu Feng, a writer and intellectual condemned by Mao himself. Paul d’Ampere teaches Hu Feng, who has been losing his mind, an esoteric language. Wearing a sheepskin jerkin on the inside of which d’Ampere has copied the half of the sutra he knows, the two men play oral chess in the dark. D’Ampere tells Tumchooq that he too will probably pursue the other half of the mutilated manuscript. When d’Ampere is killed by a lynch mob at the camp, Tumchooq buries him and refuses to return to Peking or to ever speak Chinese again.

Abandoned, the narrator aborts the child she has conceived with Tumchooq and goes back to France. But she cannot forget Tumchooq. Eventually she goes to Pagan, Myanmar, where at one time there were 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. At a monastery she finds notes that Tumchooq has made. He had come to see whether he could find, among the texts of the Hinayana school of thought, the complete fable of the mutilated manuscript. When the narrator arrives, Tumchooq is in Japan, soon to return, except that he is arrested for having a false passport and deported to Laos.

The narrator must go to Peking to find Tumchooq’s mother and establish his correct identity. She overhears the mutilated manuscript being discussed and finds that the Chinese government has quietly purchased the lost half. She is able to see a slide of it and complete the fable. More importantly, she learns something regarding Tumchooq’s mother: “A beautiful woman, elegant and aristocratic-looking, who withdrew into a sort of perpetual widowhood out of guilt for her husband, whom the authorities had forced her to accuse. According to Mr. Xu, she was given the choice between charging him with a crime he’d never committed or losing the child she was carrying.”

Dai Sijie has become a master at telling the horrifying, yet utterly compelling stories of 20th century China. Here, in a shyly told narrative, we find at base the story of a family, knit together by its complex heritage. Dai Sijie leaves us to imagine what happens, but I am left with the feeling that, amid the sacrifices and pain, some preserved the lush, sensual life, in memory and language, from which China’s ancient culture developed.

Monday, August 10, 2015


When Prince Genji, the Shining One, first meets Murasaki, she is a little girl, 10 years old, seemingly abandoned by her family in the northern hills of Japan. She is the niece of the woman Genji loves but cannot have and reminds him of her. Her father is said to be coming for her, but Genji preempts him and brings Murasaki to his mansion in Kyoto, where he educates and entertains her. They are charmed by each other and become quite inseparable. Genji and Murasaki are the main characters in The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early part of the Eleventh Century. The translation I use is by Edward Seidensticker.

Murasaki, the name of a plant from which a lavender dye is extracted, grows up in Genji’s household. When she is old enough, Genji takes Murasaki as his wife. Genji has had many women already, but Murasaki “seemed peerless and the nearest he could imagine to his ideal.”

For the high-born of Heian Japan, a very small minority, life is a succession of court rituals, intrigues and adventures. Genji is the son of the emperor, but by a low-born consort so he is never very secure. When his father dies, the new empress hates Genji and, not willing to be humiliated, he goes into exile to the remote coast of Suma, leaving Murasaki at home. She has become more beautiful and more mature and their affection for each other is deep. But there are only fishermen’s huts at Suma. He takes a bookchest, a koto and some Chinese poetry with him.

After a terrible storm during which a tidal wave almost carries him off, Genji retreats to Akashi, where an older man with a young daughter welcomes him. The man has high hopes for his daughter and presses Genji upon her. Genji is, of course, curious and before long she becomes pregnant. Genji writes to Murasaki, “I am in anguish at the thought that, because of foolish occurrences for which I have been responsible but have had little heart, I might appear in a guise distasteful to you.” He cannot bear to keep secrets from her. Murasaki responds with this poem: “Naïve of me, perhaps; yet we did make our vows. And now see the waves that wash the Mountain of Waiting!”

Meanwhile, the emperor abdicates in favor of the Reizei emperor (Genji’s son, though no one knows this). Genji is recalled to Kyoto and made a minister. He sends for his new daughter telling Murasaki, “I do not have children where I really want them.” The Akashi lady is very retiring, but Genji wants every advantage for their daughter. He asks Murasaki to take this daughter under her wing. Murasaki tells him, “I will love her, I am sure I will.” Genji arranges his large house so there are apartments for the several ladies for whom he feels responsible. He tells Murasaki she has nothing to fear from any of them.

The gardens Murasaki makes in her wing flower best in spring. No one equals her in competitions to make perfume, in calligraphy and in playing the koto. She remains very beautiful and despite Genji’s many commitments, "it was an ideally happy marriage, closer and fonder as the years went by." Even Genji’s taking of another consort, the Third Princess, doesn’t disturb them, though it gives Murasaki pain. Genji’s daughter is wed to the crown prince, and children and grandchildren fill the house.

When it seems that things can be handed over to the young, both Genji and Murasaki wish to leave the world and go into monasteries. But then they would never see each other again and Genji cannot bear the thought. Murasaki, with the help of scriveners, prepares 1,000 copies of the Lotus Sutra. During the years it takes to prepare this offering, Murasaki becomes ill and soon after its dedication to the Blessed One, she dies. Genji does not last long after her.

For some, The Tale of Genji is the story of the sorrows of women. Murasaki survives because of her innate sense of herself and her tastefulness. Murasaki has very little agency in her culture, but she becomes excellent at what she can do, refining and polishing her writing and music, dressing with great care and creating a lovely and peaceful household. She is always appropriate to an occasion and manages to be happy in a polygamous culture. Even though she does not have children of her own, she has the heart to bring up Genji’s children by other women.

Taste, in the sense of the universally recognized understanding of what has quality, is worth developing. It involves recognizing what is authentic, appreciating simplicity and appropriateness, and even has an element of contentment. It derives from a sense of natural limits and patterns in things and an acceptance of the place a person takes in nature: no more and no less than the flowering of one’s gifts. When it is genuine, nothing is more attractive, as Genji constantly attests!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Natasha Rostova

Natasha is one of the main characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, first published 1869. She was based on a real person, one of his wife’s sisters, and remains one of the most lifelike characters in literature. Partly this is because of the method Tolstoy uses. We discover life along with and through Natasha as we watch her grow up.

We first meet Natasha at 13 in 1805 at a dinner given on her name day. “The young girl with her black eyes and wide mouth was not pretty but she was full of life.” Though an aristocrat, her loving family doesn’t really have the money to keep up appearances and the Countess, Natasha’s mother, begs her children to marry well. Natasha, with high spirits, falls for several attractive young men before meeting Prince Andrei at a ball and responding to his admiration for her “shy grace.”

Natasha as played by Ludmila Savelyeva
Once after spending the day hunting with her brother Nikolas and others, they are invited home to the wooden dacha of an uncle. “A smell of fresh apples pervaded the entrance, and the walls were hung with the skins of wolves and foxes.” A wonderful meal is spread out by the uncle’s peasant wife and a balalaika plays. Uncle takes up his guitar and motions to Natasha. “Natasha flung off the shawl that had been wrapped around her, ran forward facing Uncle, and setting her arms akimbo made a motion with her shoulders and waited.” Natasha’s performance is so perfect, everyone wonders how she could have known (with her French education), how she could understand “all that was in every Russian man and woman.”

Natasha becomes engaged to Prince Andrei, but secretly, because Andrei’s father requires that the marriage not take place for a year. When Natasha meets Andrei’s sister Maria and his father they show their disdain for her. At the opera she is introduced to Anatole, who plots with a friend to spirit her away. Natasha loses her heart, agrees to elope and breaks off her engagement to Andrei. But her cousin Sonja, terrified, gives away the plot. Pierre, another rich friend of the family, drives Anatole, who was already married, away. Natasha, full of shame upon learning of this, tries to kill herself.

Napoleon’s advance into Russia in 1812 began to involve all of the aristocracy. Prince Andrei leaves for the front. Natasha is very ill for a long time. She is somewhat buoyed by the visits of Pierre. Prince Andrei’s father dies and Princess Maria, detained on an estate where the French are about to arrive, is rescued by Nicholas, Natasha’s brother.

As Napoleon enters Moscow, everyone who can leaves and Moscow burns. The Rostovs are slow to leave, packing all their goods. But Natasha sees that there are many wounded who need to get away too. She has a fit and insists that the furniture be unloaded and the wounded men be put onto their carts. “Are we a lot of wretched Germans?” Natasha asks. She finds that Prince Andrei is among the wounded.

The Rostov family retreats to Yaroslavl and Natasha nurses Prince Andrei. When his sister Maria hears he is there, she comes to help. By the time she gets there, however, Prince Andrei is ready to “awaken” from life. Maria and Natasha become close. Andrei’s death makes Natasha intensely sad, until the need to console her mother for the death of a younger brother brings her back to family responsibility. Finally she and Pierre meet in Moscow and understand that they are meant for each other.

In an Epilogue, Tolstoy shows us the happy married life of Natasha and Pierre. Natasha gives herself completely to her family and is jealous when Pierre is not at home. She lets herself go and nurses her children herself. “As soon as Natasha and Pierre were alone they too began to talk as only husband and wife can talk – that is, exchanging ideas with extraordinary swiftness and perspicuity, by a method contrary to all the rules of logic, without the aid of premises, deductions or conclusions, and in a quite peculiar way.”

I could not help loving Natasha when I listened to War and Peace read by Alexander Scourby on 69 long-playing records which my father ordered from the state of Iowa at a time when I was unable to see well. I can still hear the respect and love in Scourby’s voice as he gave the proper weight to every sentence. It was a wonderful experience to live with the Rostov family, which was actually that of Tolstoy himself during the happiest years of his marriage.

As Tolstoy saw it, “in 1812 simplicity, goodness and truth overcame power, which ignored simplicity and was rooted in evil and falsity” [Rosemary Edmonds, translator]. Natasha, like the peasant Platon Karatayev, never sees her life as a separate entity, but as a part of a whole of which she never loses consciousness. It is for her rushing life, and for this consciousness, that everyone loves her.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Adèle Eugénie Sidonie Landois Colette

Garden, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh
Colette's mother, known as Sido to her family, was born in August, 1835. Sido was left with a peasant family and her father and older siblings moved to Belgium when her mother died. It was the time of the Citizen King, Louis-Philippe, in France, but as journalists and members of radical groups, Sido’s brothers sought the haven of free expression Belgium had become.

Sido’s father traded in coffee, cocoa, cotton, rum and dyes. When Sido joined the family, she grew up in Brussels in a house filled with beautiful furniture and paintings. Sido acquired her father’s expensive tastes. At seventy she maintained she had never been able to drink out of a glass not made of crystal or a cup not of bone china.

Brussels was a hotbed of radicalism and buzzing with ideas, particularly those of Francois Raspail and Charles Fourier. Sido’s older brothers became editors and publishers of these men and others of their circles. The scientist Raspail advocated healthy living and preventative medicine, trying to spread notions of hygiene and moderation among the poor by operating free clinics. In Fourier’s utopian society, the passions — labeled vices in our Western civilization, or deadly sins in Christianity — would be used wisely and channeled from anti-social to social behavior, eventually evolving into harmony.

Sido lapped up these theories, becoming an atheist with a strong, independent personality. The Landois home was a refuge for radicals fleeing France and Sido was happy in the sophisticated, liberal milieu around her brothers. "Nothing supplanted in my mother's heart the beautiful Belgian cities, the warmth of their refined and gentle life, epicurean and enamored of the things of the mind," wrote Colette.

When Sido was 22, the family of Jules Robineau-Duclos sought her hand. Robineau had inherited farms, fields, wooded lands, cattle, and a vineyard that produced hundreds of liters of wine and brandy. He was an introverted, slouching alcoholic, but his family hoped Sido would be good for him. They were married in 1857 and Sido went to live in St.-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, a small village in an impoverished area of Burgundy. Called by Colette “the Savage,” Robineau, a “descendant of a once noble family, had inherited their disdain, their courtesy, their brutality and their taste for the society of inferiors.”

Sido was lonely but she had two children by “the Savage.” She also began an affair with Capt. Jules-Joseph Colette, a military hero who had lost a leg and had a post as tax collector in the village. They had a son together, and after Robineau finally drank himself to death, were married in 1865. Their daughter, the writer Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was born a few years later. Always an outsider and often the subject of the scandals the village looked forward to, Sido and her husband lived in St.-Sauveur-en-Puisaye for the rest of their lives. Preferring the provinces to Paris, Sido developed a strong sense of the social hierarchy, of the necessity for irreproachable conduct, and pride at inhabiting an ancient and honored house. “After all, I belong to my village,” she told her daughter.

I know Sido from the lush books Colette wrote about her: My Mother’s House, Sido and the frequent quotations from her letters in Break of Day. Colette wrote she was the personage “who has dominated all the rest of my work.” Colette recounts how she, her father and brothers, lived in a large house and garden utterly dependent upon Sido’s vivacious presence. “I still cherish happy memories of the sixth hour of the evening, the green watering-can soaking the blue sateen frock, the strong smell of leaf-mould, and the afterglow that cast a pink reflection on the pages of a forgotten book, the white petals of the tobacco flowers and the white fur of the cat in her basket.”

As Sido grew older, “she lived on, swept by shadow and sunshine, bowed by bodily torments, resigned, unpredictable and generous, rich in children, flowers and animals like a fruitful domain.” Sido worried her children, writing to Colette, “I’m better, and the proof is that at seven o’clock this morning I did the washing in my stream. I was enraptured. What a pleasure it is to dabble in clear water! I sawed wood, too, and made six little bundles of firewood. And I’m doing my housework myself again, which means it’s being properly done. And after all, I’m only seventy-six!” She died a year later.

Sido reminds me of my own mother, who tamed her powerful intelligence into a life of service and partnership with my father, a Lutheran pastor. With a great love of nature and surrounded by her many children, she was able to live in happiness and contentment in successive villages in the American Midwest. Like Colette herself, I loved and longed after my mother, treasuring her judgments and avid for her favorable regard.

It is women like Sido and my mother whom I wish to celebrate in these posts. Their large hearts and capacious intelligence have convinced me that women need not compete with men. Rather, women need recognition for their gifts. A culture based on strict rationality, in which only what can be measured counts for knowledge, is impoverished without the rich discretion as well as the understanding of natural laws which women, through hard-won physical experience and yes, education, richly provide.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls, approx. 1880
Laura Ingalls Wilder hardly needs introduction. Born in 1867 in Wisconsin, she and her family traveled west, mostly by covered wagon, living in various places until they settled on a homestead near DeSmet, South Dakota. The fictionalized story of their travels was written by Laura between 1930 and 1943 and published as a series for young readers. “I realized that I had seen and lived it all – all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns. I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history,” Wilder told her fans.

Wilder married Almanzo Wilder, who homesteaded near her family. So many troubles befell them during their early marriage that they sought a less harsh climate, and finally settled at Rocky Ridge Farm near Mansfield, Missouri in 1894. While there, Laura and Almanzo produced poultry, dairy and apples from their orchard. Their daughter Rose became a journalist, and Wilder wrote articles for the Missouri Ruralist.

When her sister Mary died, Wilder sat down with a pencil and yellow tablets and wrote a memoir which she called Pioneer Girl. Rose Wilder Lane tried to place the memoir with her various contacts in the publishing world, but it was rejected. Lane then reworked it as a story for young people, and got some interest in it, though Lane feared ‘juveniles’ never made money. But Wilder began to write what became the “Little House” books, fictionalizing material from her memoir. Though she was already 75 when the books were finished, Wilder lived to be 90 years old and saw how popular they became.

Two recent publishing events underscore the importance of Wilder’s work. In 2012, the Library of America published the series in two volumes, edited by Caroline Fraser. In their eyes, “here Wilder’s prose for the first time stands alone and can be seen for exactly what it is — a triumph of the American plain style.” In December, 2014, an annotated version of Pioneer Girl was published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. It has sold out in many bookstores and quickly went into a third printing.

Annotations to the memoir Pioneer Girl show how both Wilder and her daughter used the material. For her fiction, Wilder changed the actual locations of the story so that her family continued heading west, while in fact they zigzagged a couple of times across the prairies. She also streamlined the narrative, removing characters and attributing incidents differently. Wilder’s sympathies are clearly with Pa, highlighting his ingenuity and heroism. She said at one point that the novels were “a memorial for my father.” But Ma is also a courageous partner, taking the reins when Pa must lead the horses across a swollen creek, reaching for the coffee grinder when Pa wishes they had a mill to grind wheat during the long winter and sustaining the family for many months while Pa is gone.

Though fictionalized, Wilder wanted her books to accurately reflect the historical spirit of her time. Once when her daughter made editorial suggestions that were “all wrong,” Wilder wrote: “After all, even though these books must be made fit for children to read, they must also be true to history … I have given you a true picture of the times and the place and the people. Please don’t blur it.” She said, “What girls would do now has no bearing whatever. This is a true story and supposed to show a different (almost) civilization.”

Lately, as Caroline Fraser points out here, the “Little House” books have been taken up and politicized. But, she writes, “the Little House books have always been stranger, deeper, and darker than any ideology. While celebrating family life and domesticity, they undercut those cozy values at every turn, contrasting the pleasures of home (firelight, companionship, song) with the immensity of the wilderness, its nobility and its power to resist cultivation and civilization.”

My own mother asked the grocery and drygoods store owner in our tiny North Dakota town to order the “Little House” books as they came out in the 1950’s with the Garth Williams illustrations. She read them to us, as did our teachers in school at the time. The influence of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work upon me would be hard to over-estimate.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Gemma Roselli

Dark-haired Beauty by Alexeievich Harlamoff
Gemma Roselli is a young Italian girl living in Frankfurt, Germany, and working in her family’s pastry shop where she meets Sanin, a Russian nobleman. The story of this 1840 meeting is told by a mature Sanin as he looks back over his life with regret in Ivan Turgenev’s The Torrents of Spring, published in 1872.

Sanin, who is traveling in Europe before settling down to employment in Russia, enters the pastry shop in order to take a glass of lemonade. The shop is empty but soon a beautiful girl rushes out from a back room, imploring him to save her brother, who has fallen into a faint. Sanin asks for brushes, loosens the boy’s collar and begins rubbing the boy’s chest and arms. When he recovers consciousness, Sanin leaves, but not before Gemma thanks him, requesting that he return to take a cup of chocolate with her family.

Sanin is welcomed by the Rosellis as if he is one of the family. He is so delighted that he misses his coach to Berlin that night. Though they are Italian, they have settled in Frankfurt and Gemma is engaged to a German, Herr Klueber. Gemma’s mother laments that the pastry shop is no longer doing as well as when her husband was alive. The next day Sanin is invited on an outing with Gemma, her brother Emil and Herr Klueber.

Sanin is unhappy to learn that Gemma is engaged and also finds that Klueber is condescending to Gemma and her brother. Klueber is after all a successful tradesman. When they sit down for lunch together near some German officers, one of them comes over to drink to “the most beautiful coffeehouse lady in all Frankfurt and in the world.” Gemma is embarrassed and Herr Klueber immediately insists that his party leave. But Sanin goes over to the officers and presents his card, telling the young man his conduct was “unbecoming to a gentleman and unworthy of the uniform you wear.”

Sanin is called upon to a duel, as he expected. But on the dueling grounds, the officer shoots into the air and apologizes. Emil has watched all of this and reports it to his sister. When Sanin next sees the Rosellis, a melancholy has settled over them quite unlike their former gaiety. In the evening, Gemma gives him a flower and Sanin realizes he loves her.

The next day Gemma’s mother tells Sanin that Gemma has broken off her engagement. She is terribly worried about ruin and scandal and what will become of the family. She begs Sanin to talk sense into her daughter. Sanin goes out into the garden where Gemma is sorting cherries for putting in pastries. Sanin begins to speak to her and she asks him, “I know what my mother thinks. But what advice will you give me?” But Sanin breaks off and asks her to wait. “I will write to you,” he says.

Sanin then impulsively asks Gemma to marry him. He will sell one of his Russian estates and use the proceeds to help her family make the pastry shop a going concern. “First love is exactly like a revolution,” writes Turgenev. “The regular and established order of life is in an instant smashed to fragments.”

When Sanin meets a fellow Russian whose very rich wife might be willing to purchase the estate, he goes off with him to Wiesbaden to negotiate with her. And here we leave Gemma, because we never see her again. Sanin succumbs to the power of the Russian woman, Maria Nikolaevna, who seduces and enslaves him. He sends Gemma a “wretched, lying, miserable letter” which remains unanswered.

Thirty years later, Sanin comes upon the cross set with garnets which Gemma once gave him and wonders what became of her. He goes to Germany to find her, but she has emigrated to America. He writes her a letter and she answers, saying “she regarded her meeting with him as a source of happiness, since it had prevented her from becoming the wife of Herr Klueber.” She was married and lived in New York in complete happiness, contentment and prosperity with her husband, four sons and a daughter.

Turgenev took great care over this story, which grew into a lengthy novel and is regarded as among his best. Though Turgenev wrote A Sportsman’s Sketches which helped turn the Russians against the evils of serfdom, he saw himself as a coward and weak in will. He spent most of his life in thrall to a married woman and never established a nest of his own. The man or woman of will and commitment, embodied here in Maria Nikolaevna, obsessed him and appears in most of his work.

What I loved about Gemma was her liveliness and graciousness. She is in a difficult position in that her mother believes that only through Gemma’s marriage can the family’s economic fortunes be remedied. Gemma, without ever stepping out of the role of the dutiful daughter, nevertheless saves herself through her own deep feeling from marrying a man who patronizes and condescends to her. She regards with friendship the unfortunate Sanin, who thirty years before had betrayed her with the beautiful and powerful Maria Nikolaevna.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Kristen Lavransdatter

Statue of Kristen Lavransdatter, Sil, Norway
Set in medieval Norway, the story of Kristen Lavransdatter is so rich in the understanding of both the seen and the unseen worlds, and their relationship, that it must be read in its entirety. It has enthralled people all over the world since its completion in 1927 by Sigrid Undset. Its historical and cultural accuracy helped win her the Nobel prize for literature.

Kristen is the favored daughter of a wealthy Norwegian landowner, born about 1260 A.D. Even as a young woman, Kristen’s spirit gets her in trouble. She loves a peasant boy, though her father has betrothed her to a neighboring landowner. When the boy is killed, his mother rages that it happened because of Kristen. Kristen is sent to a convent in Oslo until the gossip dies down. When Erlend Nikulausson, a knight of noble birth, rescues her and a friend, she quickly loses her heart, and even her body, to him.

When Kristen goes home, she insists she will marry no one but Erlend. Her father resists, but after three years of Kristen’s stubborn insistence, he gives in and Kristen and Erlend are married. Kristen is pregnant, but she has told no one, not even her husband, and wears the golden bridal wreath and long flowing hair reserved for virgins at her wedding.

Near the time of the child’s birth, Kristen is utterly miserable at all the sin she has kept quiet about. Fearful of dying in childbirth, she confesses all to her husband’s brother, a learned priest. After a difficult birth, Kristen is delivered of a beautiful, unmarked boy. Binding him on her back, she goes barefoot to the cathedral at Nidaros, to the archbishop of Norway, for absolution.

Though Kristen’s early years are very dramatic (the movie made by Liv Ullmann based on the book ends with her marriage), I loved the continuing story of her later life. At first Kristen has one son after another, five sons in five years, and is ill much of the time. But, when Erlend spends several years away in the north, she recovers and becomes just as blooming and lovely as when she was a girl. She works hard to restore Erland’s neglected household and brings honor to it.

Simon, the landowner Kristen was first betrothed to, is now married to Kristen’s younger sister. When Erlend’s attempt to return a Norwegian king to Norway’s throne fails, he is tried for treason and Simon, because of his enduring love for Kristen, contrives his release. Erland is returned to his family, but his lands are forfeited to the Swedish crown and he and his many sons must move back to Kristen’s much smaller farmstead. Kristen, in her turn, when Simon’s son is expected to die, takes upon herself the sin of witchcraft to save him.

No matter how deeply they love each other, Erlend and Kristen cannot keep faith with each other during everyday life. Kristen worries constantly that her sons will now have to leave home, as her lands will not support seven sons. When she finally says so, Erlend packs up and rides away to a small ghost-ridden northern farm, the only thing he owns. Their sons suffer and so does Kristen, but she cannot apologize. When Simon dies, he secures Kristen’s promise to go and make up with Erlend. Kristen does. The two of them are happy alone there in the unkempt place. “Yet never, more than now, had he seemed the son of chiefs and nobles. So fairly and easily he bore his tall slim form, with the broad shoulders somewhat stooped, the long, fine limbs.” When she goes home to their sons, Kristen is again pregnant.

Erlend and Kristen are not destined to live long and happily. Erlend dies defending Kristen’s honor once again, and Kristen enters a nunnery, giving herself at last to God. She nurses people when the plague comes, and finally it claims her too.

Every one of the characters in the book is filled out with humanity, including the priests who befriend Kristen. None of them forgets the past, either. Both kinds of being, the intrinsic unchangeable self and the self that unfolds in time are always sensed in these remarkable people who lived so long ago in a feudal culture that affected their every movement, while they fought, as we do, to become the people they were meant to be.

At one point, I felt I was so involved with this book I sent my copy away! Like Kristen I first married a weak and possibly dangerous man and tried to redeem our life by steadfastly providing a courteous and seemly home for us. I could easily understand Kristen’s fears and her struggle, and I was heartened as she grew into a wise and valued woman. My worn copy of this book (which came back to me) was translated by Charles Archer and J.S. Scott, but I understand a new and better translation by Tiina Nunnally is now available.