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Category Archive for 'France'

Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) was already recognized as one of the most important impressionist painters in the world by the time this study of his work begins in 1914. At seventy-four, he still worked outdoors, painting in his garden at Giverny, his rural home forty miles northwest of Paris. He was impatient to keep working, with many more paintings to go, many more milestones to reach. The word “impressionistic,” a pejorative term when it was first applied to the work of Monet and others at their group exhibition in Paris in 1874, refers to their seemingly spontaneous and unstructured style, a marked contrast to the smooth, elegantly formal paintings of the Salon of Paris, the official style of the French Academie des Beaux Arts. The impressionists’ light-filled paintings and their ability to achieve a new depth and immediacy in their work by superimposing colors upon colors in short brush strokes, gradually won over patrons, and over the next twenty-five years, artists like Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt became both famous and successful. Concentrating on the last years of Monet’s life, as he begins his massive “Grande Decoration,” a series of fifty water lily paintings, each one measuring fourteen feet by six-and-a-half feet, the reader shares Monet’s frustration and even anger as he must also deal with serious vision problems.

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As the novel opens, Jean B. is in Milan. An explorer and maker of documentary films, he has become disenchanted with his job, and his private life is falling apart. His wife is having an affair with Cavanagh, his friend and partner in the film business. Privately, the discouraged Jean B. has decided to stage his own disappearance, instead of taking his scheduled flight to Rio to begin a new documentary. Flying to Milan instead of Rio, he takes off from Orly, but upon arriving in Milan, he never leaves the airport. Having convinced his family and fellow filmmakers that he has left on the announced flight for Rio, he turns around and secretly flies back to Paris, planning to stay in a Paris hotel, not at home, and to change hotels regularly so that he will not be discovered. At some point he plans to tell his wife what he is doing – but not yet. The superimposition of past and present, so often featured in the work of Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick Modiano becomes not only the primary aspect of the plot of this narrative, written in 1990, but also a controlling idea in its structure. Jean B., the main character, appears in episodes from the age of twenty through his late forties, as the narrative switches back and forth among time periods. Modiano writes spare prose with little lyricism, but he evokes emotions so real that many of us have become addicted to his writing, perhaps in the hope that what he discovers about life will be applicable to our own. As Modiano says, “ Circumstances and settings are of no importance. One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs and disappears.”

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Produced and directed by famed cinematographer Louis Malle and written by Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano, who became the Nobel Prize for Literature winner in 2014, this 1974 film of Lacombe, Lucien broke some unspoken taboos when it was first shown. Only once before had a film raised questions about the masses of French citizens, many of them living in the countryside, who were ignorant or oblivious to the horrors of the Holocaust and the terrible costs to France at the hands of the Nazis in Vichy France. Marcel Ophuls had first produced a documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, in 1972, nearly thirty years after World War II ended, claiming that the prevailing view of the actions of the French citizenry during the war was naïve. Many citizens had been working farms in rural areas during the war and did not know or care to find out about what was happening on a national level – they had enough to worry about keeping food on the table and their families safe. A surprising number of citizens had collaborated with the Germans, not for political reasons, but because they believed that it was the only way they would be able to survive, and far fewer had worked with the Resistance to overthrow their German occupiers than was once believed. Ophuls suggested that most citizens just accepted what was happening because they did not believe they had much choice. With Lacombe, Lucien, Malle and Modiano continue this theme, and both had had experiences that made this subject important to them.

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Author Nellie Hermann’s recreation of two years in the life of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) breathes with Van Gogh’s earnest attempts to live a productive life while he is also burdened by crushing sadness and isolation. Depicting Van Gogh before he became an artist, she focuses on the years of 1879 and 1880, when Van Gogh was living in a coal mining village in the Borinage mining area of southwest Belgium, near the French border. The young twenty-seven-year-old son of a Dutch Reformed preacher had worked for several years in the Goupil & Cie gallery and its showrooms in the Hague, London, and Paris, before studying theology to become a minister and missionary, like his father. His letters to his younger brother Theo, used as resources by the author, provide intimate glimpses of his life in the Borinage, including the misery he shared with the miners and their families, which his own depression may have exacerbated. Throughout the novel Vincent’s own life develops in great detail, and readers interested in his biography will have plenty to keep them involved and intrigued here. His references to existing paintings that epitomize what he himself is seeing and to scenes which he himself eventually brings to life in his own paintings will please art historians. He puts so much heart into his actions, giving up everything he can from his own life so that the miners can benefit, that he becomes emotionally ill and spiritually at loose ends, and requires intervention from his father and family. A dramatic and insightful novel of a man whose sensitivity exceeded what his heart and mind could bear.

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Only thirty years old when Villa Triste hits the Parisian literary scene, Modiano reveals his continuing belief in “writing about what you know.” Here his main character betrays a palpable sense of loss, a lack of understanding about who he is and who he might become. A man alone, he yearns for deep, long-time relationships. Calling himself Victor Chmara, a name he tells us is invented, the main character in Villa Triste is eighteen as the novel opens in 1960, and Modiano’s development of the intimate details of his thinking and his emotional states attest to the powerful influence his own past must have had in the creation of this realistic character. Victor does not connect effectively with the rest of the world, and his uncertainty about how to deal with issues of life, love, and the ghosts of his past lead to his pervasive loneliness and sense of isolation. As he reveals in the quotation which begins this review, he avoids the big issues, keeping himself moving, living in the moment, and losing himself in films, books, and romantic attachments – anything to avoid thinking about the uncertainties of French life, which add to his own tensions. The “action” here is internal action, related from the point of view of Victor. Most of the outside action is superficial, deliberately so, a way for the wealthy and would-be wealthy to avoid thinking about their own problems and the problems of the country. Those who have never read Modiano would do well to start with SUSPENDED SENTENCES.

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