Showing posts with label Lawrence Durrell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lawrence Durrell. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Lawrence Durrell's Greece

Lawrence Durrell

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Durrell centenary

Lawrence Durrell was born exactly a century ago, on 27 February 1912, in British India, where his parents were colonial expatriates.

He spent a few years at a secondary school in England, and then moved to the shores of the Mediterranean, where he spent his life as a poet and novelist.

I've evoked this great writer in several blog posts:

First encounter with Lawrence Durrell [display]

Back in touch with Durrell [display]

Phantoms of a lost paradise [display]

Old house in Sommières [display]

As an adoptive Provençal, with a profound awareness of the history and culture of that magnificent region, he would have been fascinated by this marble bust of Julius Caesar.

But Durrell died at Sommières in 1990, and it was only in 2008 that Caesar's splendid bust was discovered in the murky waters of the Rhône at Arles.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Phantoms of a lost paradise

Once again, I've finished rereading the excellent book on Provence by Lawrence Durrell, Caesar's Vast Ghost, published in 1990 just before the author's death.

And, once again, I'm trying to analyze the contents of this remarkable book—probably Durrell's most profound work, to my way of thinking—in order to set the various themes in their right perspective, and to determine why he decided to blend together several quite different styles of writing, ranging from travel and tourism through to history and philosophy, with twenty original poems and two or three hefty blobs of pure fantasy.

Back at the time that Durrell brought out The Alexandria Quartet, readers were warned amply that the novelist had in fact invented the people and the places that he wrote about. In other words, a visitor to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria would not encounter anything, today, that might be associated with the exotic context of Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. Even in the case of Durrell's so-called travel books inspired by such places as Corfu, Rhodes and Cyprus, readers should not imagine that they are being offered tourist guidebooks. Durrell's tales are hinged around the author's special relationships, not only with exceptional places, but with various colorful individuals. And a typical site, deprived of the author and his contacts, can become rather sterile. I'm reminded of the idea of considering the Bible as a guidebook to the modern land of Israel. Unfortunately, all the biblical personages disappeared long ago. And today, the places and people you encounter as a tourist in the Holy Land are not necessarily particularly "biblical" (whatever that might mean).

In the case of Caesar's Vast Ghost, on the other hand, I believe that we can truly take advantage, in a pragmatic sense, of Durrell's profound awareness and vision of Provence.

Durrell's book has little in common—at the level of both its form and its content—with a conventional guidebook such as, say, the excellent Michelin guide to Provence. They're not at all in the same writing category. But, although Caesar's Vast Ghost does not appear to be a tourist guidebook, I look upon it as a wonderful guiding book for visitors who would like to acquire a set of basic notions concerning the historical and cultural foundations of Provence, and the essence of this fascinating region. Without these notions, a newcomer to Provence runs the risk of being waylaid, sadly and superficially, by caricatural images of Provence. I see this happening constantly in the case of visitors who imagine naively, for example, that Provence is primarily a romantically pretty land for photographers. (See, for example, the olive tree and field of lavender on the cover of the Green Guide.) While it's a fact that sunny Provence can indeed be an ideal subject for photographers, it would be silly to imagine this fascinating region as little more than a giant set of colorful postcard images, whose inhabitants are generally beautiful, glamorous, quaint, rich, famous…

From the very first paragraph of Durrell's book, I was struck by the familiar tone of his description of his arrival in Provence, which evokes my personal memories of the '60s. Here are Durrell's opening words:

"My own version of Provence is necessarily partial and personal, for, like everyone else, I came here to fall in and out of love long ago, entering old Provence by the winding roads, the only ones, the old Routes Nationales, down the interminable corridors of cool planes in leaf, at the turn of the harvest moon…"

The most famous road, for visitors driving down from Paris, was the Nationale 7.

Generally, it led us through rural settings, and countless villages. But often, it forced us to drive through the main streets of busy towns.

Durrell arrived in Provence around 1957 with his future wife Claude, and they lived for a while in a house in Sommières, the Villa Louis.

A year later, they moved to the stone house north of Nîmes called the Mazet Michel, mentioned in my recent blog post entitled First encounter with Durrell [display]. And it wasn't until 1966 that Durrell and Claude moved into the big house in Sommières… where Claude died in 1967, and where Lawrence Durrell finished Caesar's Vast Ghost in 1990. This is the place at 15 Route Saussine mentioned in an earlier blog post entitled Old house in Sommières [display].

Durrell suggests that "the best way to strike up an acquaintance with […] Provençal towns is to arrive around daybreak, preferably on a market day when the place is full of sleepy vendors unloading their vans and trucks of everything you can imagine from pigeons and hams to olives and plums".

Early in his book, Durrell introduces us to two of his mates, Aldo and Jérôme, who are talking about the idea of writing a book on Provence. Aldo is said to be the owner of a dilapidated castle and vineyard near Beaucaire, and Jérôme is a beatnik of the kind that moved away from cities and roamed around in the south of France in the '60s. Frankly, though, I have the impression that these two personages are largely make-believe, made necessary by the author's desire to present the back woods of Provence as a decadent and decrepit place, on a par with Durrell's mythical Alexandria. Durrell attempts to make his readers believe, for example, that Aldo had once studied medicine, and that his passion for embalming led him to gold-plate dead human foetuses, which he would sell to a gypsy whom he had met at the famous fête at Saintes Maries de la Mer. One of Aldo's friends was "an old and somewhat impoverished Roman Papal Count", Reynaldo de Saturnin, who had asked Aldo to embalm the body of his daughter, so that he could keep her in a glass case.

Another of Aldo's strange former companions was a painter named Zoravis. When a bistro in Montparnasse claimed to be able to supply any beverage whatsoever that their clients might request, Zoravis asked for a glass of bull's blood. As soon as it was finally delivered (by a servant on a motor-cycle), the painter confirmed his virility by gulping down a glass of warm blood in front of his admirers. To my mind, those are the kinds of tall stories that Lawrence Durrell liked to spin in order to persuade his readers that he led a most exotic existence, surrounded by weird folk. Let's forgive him for this urge to invent unlikely characters. After all, Durrell was a story-teller.

Durrell analyzes brilliantly the ancient role of several forms of bull-worship in the culture of Provence, which emanated probably, in Greek and Roman times, from the religion of Mithra.

Since then, bull-worship has evolved into bull-fighting of one kind or another. In the arenas of Provence, there are both Spanish-style combats in which the bull is actually killed by a matador, and French-style events in which young fellows taunt the bulls while trying to flee without getting hurt.

In the midst of splendid places such as Marseille, Aix, Nîmes, Avignon, Orange, Vaison la Romaine, Saint-Rémy, Carpentras and Cavaillon, Durrell seems to consider that the heart of Provence is "dusty, sunburnt Arles at the end of its cobweb of motorways". And I agree with him totally. He draws attention to "the beauty of the Arles girls: each looks as if she had been freshly wished and love-minted to order".

Towards the end of Caesar's Vast Ghost, Durrell devotes an entire chapter to an amazing historical subject that is little-known in the English-speaking world: the evolution of the medieval art of courtship, as practiced by troubadours in the so-called "courts of love" in places such as Baux de Provence. This phenomenon was described in a celebrated book by the Swiss intellectual Denis de Rougemont, who was one of Durrell's close friends.

Durrell writes about so many fascinating themes in his book that I cannot hope to mention them all here in this short blog post. The most profound theme of all is the fact that most of the man-made marvels of Provence, creations of Caesar and Augustus, have lost their pristine splendor. Today, we witness no more than the remnants: a pale ghost of the Roman paradise.

As for the concluding chapter of Caesar's Vast Ghost—with a French title, Le cercle refermé—I've worked through Durrell's surrealist pages several times, trying to grasp what he was trying to say. I remain dumbly confused, however, by the author's weird descriptions of his romantic idyll in the company of the doll Cunégonde. It's worse than attempting to grasp the kind of relationship that might have existed fleetingly between a celebrated international economist and a humble hotel maid. The jumble of crazy words brings to mind a fuzzy derogatory expression that I remember hearing long ago, when I was a student: literary masturbation. The writer rambles on in an orgy of images, trying vainly to arouse his senses by the mounting fever of his choice of words. In the middle of this curious chapter, there are even smatterings of colloquial French, suggesting that Durrell has forgotten momentarily that he was writing an English-language book about Provence. There is much stoical despair in these 19 pages, as if the author were conscious of the fact that he was penning a testimony. But I can't help wondering whether Durrell would have retained this effusion of sad sexuality if he had been offered the luxury of calmly reworking his typescript in the company of competent editors and critics.

A trivial anomaly in chapter IX (Woman in Provence) of Caesar's Vast Ghost, concerning Durrell's friend and lover "Marie M-D", suggests that no such final editing ever took place. Durrell wrote:

… I knew the measure of her love because once she woke me long after midnight with a phone call, arriving almost at once in a taxi with a bottle of champagne and flowers to tell me: 'Darling, Anaïs is dead. I didn't want you to hear the news from anyone but me.'

There's a problem here. Marie Millington-Drake died in 1973, whereas Anaïs Nin didn't die until 1977. So, the messenger who arrived at Sommières in the middle of the night in 1977 was either Marie's ghost or another of Larry's girlfriends. Or maybe Cunégonde.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Back in touch with Durrell

In my earlier post entitled First encounter with Lawrence Durrell [display], I think I made it perfectly clear that this British novelist was truly a hero, for me, when I ran into him in the summer of 1963, in Nîmes, by an amazing stroke of luck. Once upon a time (not so long ago), before my enlightenment by great 21st-century scientists such as David Deutsch and Richard Dawkins, I even used to designate my chance encounter with Lawrence Durrell as an obvious manifestation of the mysterious phenomenon referred to as synchronicity. That's to say, I was convinced that some kind of yet-unexplained convergence of our respective destinies had caused our paths to cross, for an instant, on a sunny morning in Nîmes. With a small additional dose of imagination, I might have even concluded that the magnificent blocks of stone in the ancient Roman arena had surely contributed—in ways yet unknown to science—to the focalization of our itineraries upon that particular point in Alexandria-Quartet space-time: Nîmes, 18 July 1963. It all sounds so nice, in a fuzzy way (of which Durrell himself might well have approved), that I'm a little sad to admit that I no longer believe an iota about so-called synchronicity. Be that as it may, I'm relieved to realize today that there are infinitely many mysteries in the Cosmos that are infinitely more astounding than the silly synchronicity idea... and I take pleasure in deliberately spicing up my sentiments with the "infinitely" adverb.

Immediately after that encounter with Durrell, three major events took place in my life.

(1) I worked for a while as a seaman on a Greek cargo ship [display].

(2) I returned to Paris and started work as an English teacher at the Lycée Henri IV [display].

(3) I met up with my future wife.

Curiously, an indirect but undeniable outcome of these three events was that I totally abandoned my fascination for Durrell and his formerly-exhilarating Alexandria Quartet. Instead of dreaming romantically about the inhabitants of a make-believe city in Egypt, or trying to imagine Durrell's life in places such as Corfu, Rhodes or Cyprus, I became more interested in the realities of modern Greece. In particular, I fell in love with the island of Tinos [display]. But I was rapidly convinced that there was one outstanding nation on the shores of the Mediterranean, and it was neither Greece, Egypt, Spain nor Italy. That nation was France. Its capital was Paris, where I would be spending the next three decades. And its Mediterranean port was the ancient Greek settlement of Massalia (designated by my friend Natacha as Marseille)... the official European capital of culture in 2013.

At this point, if my story is to be meaningful, readers need to know that, in 1965, I married a French girl, Christine, whose maternal ancestors were essentially Provençal. In the summer of 1968, with our 18-month-old daughter Emmanuelle, we drove down to meet up with Christine's grandparents at their home in the village of Saint Sériès, in the Mediterranean département of the Hérault, not far from Nîmes.

This was an excursion of immense joy: my discovery of Christine's marvelous maternal grandparents, and of their Languedoc province.

One day, Christine's grandparents happened to speak to me of a certain British writer who lived nearby, in Sommières. They told me that he had a reputation of spending most of his time as a boisterous drunkard in local taverns. I soon gathered that they were speaking of my former literary hero, Lawrence Durell, whom I had encountered 5 years earlier in Nîmes, when he was living in a stone cabin up in the vicinity, north of Nîmes, indicated by a green bubble in the above map. Needless to say, I set off immediately, to see if I could meet up once again with Durrell in Sommières. I located the property, but Durrell himself was not there. So, I missed him.

Meanwhile, for years, I had started to realize to what extent the mythical novelist of my late teenage years in Sydney had ceased to concern me directly, if at all. Today, retrospectively, I can understand perfectly why this was the case. Durrell had fascinated me at a time, back in Australia, when I still believed in romantic Mediterranean legends. But I had grown up since then, and I realized that Durrell was merely an adept story-teller: no more, no less. But certainly not an authority on authentic present-day Mediterranean society… which was better described to me—devoid of the romantic trappings of literature—by Christine's splendid grandparents. Her grandfather had worked for the French military as a specialist in explosives.

Christine's ancestors were real Provençal individuals, with authentic Mediterranean genealogies, not mere figments of the fuzzy imagination of a British novelist. Consequently, by "the force of things" (a splendid existentialist expression that I've always admired), I ceased to be a dyed-in-the-wool Durrellian (if ever I were). I became, modestly, the Australian-born husband of a lovely Breton girl (born, in fact, in Cognac) whose mother was Arlesian. Besides, incidentally, Christine told me she loved the French translations of Durrell's novels.

Meanwhile, my second face-to-face encounter with Lawrence Durrell took place in the Latin Quarter of Paris, in the early 1970s, when the novelist was exhibiting his talents as a painter, identified as Oscar Epf.

On that evening, I was thrilled to meet up with the 20-something daughter of the writer/painter, Sappho Durrell. Back at the time of my initial encounter with Lawrence Durrell, in Nîmes in 1963, Sappho was a child.

That evening, in Paris, she was an elegant young woman, sporting a magic name: Sappho Durrell. While her father chatted diplomatically with visitors, I preferred to enter in contact with Sappho. I told her, of course, that I had met up with her father for the first at Nîmes in 1963. Then I explained how I had come upon their family mansion in Sommières, in 1968. I half-expected that I would hear the profound reflections of the writer's daughter concerning life in a small Provençal town such as Sommières. Instead, at that instant, I was utterly stupefied by the spontaneous reaction of Sappho Durrell, who replied casually in the style of a mindless suburban brat:

SAPPHO DURRELL: "We refer to my father's place in Sommières as the House of the Addams Family."

I had no idea who might be designated by Sappho's "we", but I was immediately shocked (the term is true) by the fact that this young woman, daughter of a great British novelist, with the privilege of living with her illustrious father in the heart of Provence, might dare to allude to such cheap foreign shit as an American TV series. I concluded immediately (maybe wrongly, but first impressions count) that, intellectually, there was little to be acquired from Sappho… who may or may not have inherited significant genes from her Alexandrian mother Eve Cohen, a victim of depressive schizophrenia.

Years later, Christine's brother Lan Mafart, aware of my interest in Durrell, happened to be traveling around in the south of France, and he sent me a lovely photo of the entrance to Durrell's house in Sommières:

Lan also sent me a postcard from Sommières, with an image of the ancient rectangular keep on a hill above the capricious Vidourle:

Here, on the other side, is the text (in French) of Lan's postcard, written from the Café du Commerce:

Lan wrote: "A pale lightbulb shines upon the entrance to the house of Lawrence Durrell. The flakes of paint are like dead leaves forgotten by the gardener." In a cynical vein, Lan notes the absence of "camping-cars in the driveway", meaning that Durrell's home is no longer, apparently, a place of pilgrimage (if ever it were).

The most striking aspect of Lan's postcard is the date: 17 February 1990. On that day, if I understand correctly, Lawrence Durrell was in fact working inside his great bourgeois home on the manuscript of his final masterpiece: Caesar's Vast Ghost — Aspects of Provence. And the writer himself would be dead before the end of that year.

Today, when I learn that Sappho Durrell hung herself in London in 1985, and that she left papers suggesting (in terribly indirect terms) that her father might have straddled her incestuously, my immediate reaction is: crazy Addams-family talk!

I simply cannot, for a moment, imagine why Larry—surrounded constantly by hordes of seductive females—might have suddenly decided to fornicate with his 15-year-old daughter. Inversely, I can well imagine why Sappho might have decided, later on, that it would be nice if she were to make herself interesting (Durrell's daughter was a budding writer) by injecting make-believe sex into the alleged relationship with her father. After all, wasn't that a bit like what her old man had been doing, for ages, to add spice to his stories?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

First encounter with Lawrence Durrell

When I left Australia for Europe in January 1962 on the Greek ship Bretagne, I was traveling light. But I had nevertheless found room in a corner of my two suitcases for The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. I had purchased the four Faber paperback editions at Clay's Bookshop in Macleay Street, near Kings Cross, and it was out of the question to abandon these precious novels in Sydney.

Besides, our ship would soon be sailing alongside Durrell's Mediterranean world of Egypt and Greece, and I had planned on rereading the Quartet during the voyage.

During my first year and a half in Europe, I lived in Paris for 8 months, and then in London for the harsh winter of 1962-63, working in both places with IBM. I carried on reading Durrell, particularly his wonderful books on the Greek islands. Finally, at the start of summer in 1963, I said goodbye to my colleagues in London and set off wandering around as a backpacker, staying in youth hostels. First, I dropped in at Canterbury, where I wanted to visit the tomb of the 14th-century archbishop Simon Mepham, whom I imagined (and still do) as a vague paternal ancestor.

I was amused to think that 14-year-old Lawrence Durrell had once arrived here, in the heart of the superb county of Kent, to study at Saint Edmund's School.

After this rapid pilgrimage, I crossed the Channel by ferry from Dover and hitchhiked from Calais down to Nantes. I then spent a fortnight staying in hostels and moving slowly from Nantes across to Tours and down to Poitiers and Beaulieu-en-Dordogne. At Saint-Brévin-les-Pins, I was fascinated by a French girl who took me out on an excursion to the local market to buy fresh fish, which she then prepared expertly in the simple kitchen of the youth hostel. I've often thought, retrospectively, that it was then that I was charmed, for the first time, by the subtle blend of simple beauty and provincial pragmatism (quite the opposite of sophistication) that characterizes so many young French women.

Meanwhile, I had heard that my hero Durrell was settled in the south of France in the vicinity of Nîmes, which I imagined naively (I was still totally uncultivated in the domain of French geography) as a Provençal village. Early on the morning of Thursday 18 July 1963, a truckdriver took me into Nîmes. I remember being dispirited, as we approached Nîmes, by the sight of clusters of dreary residential buildings, which hardly corresponded to my vision of Durrell's hometown. The truckdriver let me off at an intersection where a signpost indicated the direction of the centre ville. Twenty minutes later, coming upon a huge antique structure (the Roman arena), I realized that I had surely reached the center of Nîmes.

The streets surrounding the arena were quite busy. Most of the pedestrians seemed to be local folk: employees rushing to their jobs in offices and shops, women engaged in early-morning shopping, and adolescents obliged to spend the school vacation in their hometown. There were many tourists, too. Like me, they were clearly overwhelmed by the massive proportions of the ancient Roman structure. The local people, on the other hand, walked past quickly without ever glancing at the stones; they were far more interested in the likelihood of running into friends. For me, this busy scene was far removed from my expected idyllic image of a village square with a tiny church, a stone fountain, and a couple of bistrots whose outdoor tables were shaded by plane trees. The scale alone overpowered me. Nîmes was no village. It was a big town, if not a provincial city. Clearly, this place had nothing to do with the austere Durrellian environment I had imagined on the basis of a few photos I had come across in books and literary magazines.

Feeling somewhat lost, and a little disappointed by the dimensions of the place, I decided to stroll around the stone walls of the Roman arena in Nîmes. On the far side of the vast square, there were several large cafés, where black-uniformed waiters were organizing the rows of tables and chairs out on the pavement.

At this early hour of the morning, there were not many clients, merely a handful of old men reading newspapers. I walked towards the largest café, which was almost empty. A single customer was seated in the sun at one of the tables in the front row. He was sipping a beer and gazing out at the Roman edifice. I recognized him instantly. I had found my novelist. Without hesitating, I walked towards him.

ME: "You're Lawrence Durrell. No?"

DURRELL: "Please be seated. What can I get you to drink?"

I asked for a beer. Durrell got up and walked back up into the café to order my drink. When he returned, I was in a rather confused state of mind, and I attempted to mumble out explanations about why it was totally extraordinary that I should run into him here, of all places, less than an hour after my arrival in Nîmes.

DURRELL: "It's most unusual for me to be sitting in a café in Nîmes at this hour of the morning, but I had to bring my car in for repairs. So, I simply have to wait around until it's ready."

We spent about half an hour together, on that sunny terrasse, talking about various trivial things. I was a naive young man of 22, and that was no doubt the first time in my life that I had found myself in a face-to-face conversation with a celebrity such as Durrell. (Later, during my three or four years in the French TV world, this kind of encounter would become commonplace.) I made a conscious effort to avoid behaving like a wonderstruck fan, but I'm not sure I succeeded. Durrell told me that he had family friends down in Tasmania who had the habit of sending him a crate of home-grown apples every year. That anecdote made me feel more at ease. I sensed immediately that, in the contemporary Tasmanian domain, Durrell's awareness was probably limited, like mine, to that single item of information: they grow apples. Fortunately, I was not yet sufficiently impregnated with all the intricacies and mysteries of the Quartet to be able to raise any interesting questions. So, there was little chance of my boring Durrell at that level. On the other hand, I did make a point of telling him, quite truthfully, that one of the aspects of the masterpiece that had attracted me from the start was the four-dimensional relativity-inspired thing, since I was more-or-less familiar with modern physics. I remember having the impression that Durrell was visibly happy to hear me say this. (I've since learned that various well-intentioned critics were quick to point out that this alleged structural aspect of The Alexandria Quartet does not really stand up to any kind of rigorous scientific analysis.) Durrell spoke of a recent visit of his friend Henry Miller, who was apparently a little ill at ease with the primitive outdoor lavatory at the Mazet Michel. Finally, when Durrell left me to pick up his car, I still had trouble convincing myself that I had actually been chatting with the author of The Alexandria Quartet.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Old house in Sommières

[Google Maps image — Click to enlarge]
Route Saussine 15

Only of late have I come to see this house
As something poisoned when I paid for it;
Its beauty was specious and it hid pure grief.
Your absence, dearest, brings it no relief.
We have all died here; one by spurious one
Of indistinct diseases, lack of sun, or fun,
Or just our turn came up, now mine; so be it, none
Decline into oblivion without a guide,
The last of maladies, death, love can provide
The abandoned garden, dried up fountain oozes,
A stagnant fountain full of tiny frogs
Like miniature Muses; say to yourself
No hope of change with death so near.
Days come and sigh and disappear.
Despair camps everywhere and my old blind dog
Though lacking a prostate pisses everywhere.

Lawrence Durrell, in Caesar's Vast Ghost
The "absence" mentioned by Durrell was that of his wife Claude-Marie, who died on New Year's Day 1967, less than a year after their purchase of the house in Sommières. Durrell himself died in this house on 7 November 1990. He was buried in the graveyard behind the chapel of Saint Julien de Montredon, a few kilometers north-west of Sommières.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dirty talk

After my arrival in Paris in 1962, I was exhilarated—among countless other things—by the possibility of purchasing and reading the original editions of various famous banned books such as those of Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell.

[My copy of the Olympia Press edition of The Black Book,
which I purchased and signed in 1963, is
not for sale.]

The literary censorship of the middle of the 20th century is rather has-been. Today, it's the the walls, not books, that talk. Dirty talk. But they don't necessarily need words. Graphic images suffice to get the sexual message across.

I've just encountered, with stupefaction, the supposedly clinical description of the allegedly evil acts of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the company of a Guinean girl in a room of the Sofitel in New York.

OK. Enough. Let's put all that fucking fuzzy US legal shit between parentheses, for the the moment, and do a bit of simple dirty talk.

It so happens that I've just been reading the most alarmingly explicit document that could possibly exist today on the fucking all-important subject of foul language:

The brilliant Harvard professor Steven Pinker does a splendid job of explaining dirty talk, sex and sundry. And he thrusts vigorously all this lovely dirty stuff, in a manly fashion, into the soft warm global context of the hairy and smelly psychology of sex. Nice, mildly nasty at times, excruciatingly honest, amazingly revealing… essential reading for all us aficionados of dirty talk. Click the above image to access my article of 25 April 2011 entitled Books by Steven Pinker.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One-track mind and reading

The first time in my life that I tuned in exclusively to a single author, reading nothing else, was back in my adolescent Durrell days. Totally enraptured by this novelist, I've surely read the greater part of everything that Lawrence Durrell [1912-1990] ever wrote, culminating in Caesar's Vast Ghost, mentioned in my article of 27 March 2007 entitled Books about Provence and the French Riviera [display].

Later, in other domains, I often made a point of reading everything I could lay my hands upon from poets, intellectuals and researchers who impressed me greatly: Rainer Maria Rilke, of course, then my friend and mentor Pierre Schaeffer in France, and great US computer scientists such as Marvin Minsky and Roger Schank. At the same time, I was thrilled in particular by the literary opus of Kurt Vonnegut. Concerning all the above-mentioned authors, I ended up acquiring and reading all their fundamental writings. But, in all these cases, my basic emotion [to use the concept at the heart of Minsky's recent masterly synthesis entitled The Emotion Machine] was admiration, rather than total fascination as in the Durrellian universe. There always seemed to be some little thing that was missing in their works: maybe simply the power and magic of first-person poetic writing.

These days, once again, I've become a one-author reader. His name won't surprise readers of my blog: Richard Dawkins, born in Africa... like all of us, at one time or another. As a reader, I feel that my commitment is for life! Faced with the Dawkins phenomenon, I'm a little like a novice monk about to make his permanent vows. [Dawkins would surely sprout some kind of invisible rash if he learned that a devoted reader dared to liken him to a spiritual abbot.]

Unweaving the Rainbow, as the title implies, is all about rainbows, of all kinds: those that we see in the sky, formed by light passing through droplets of water, and those in our human minds, construed by the foibles of Darwinian evolution. The soul of this book is poetic. Was it not Keats who complained that Newton's analysis of the colors of the rainbows had destroyed forever their charm? Dawkins deals, as it were, with Keats, placing him on the sidelines of fabulous scientific revelations that enable us, now, to know the rainbow.

A Devil's Chaplain is pure Dawkins curled up in a leather lounge in front of a log fire, talking on about anything and everything: that's to say, about life and death, and the quest for profound challenges in our meaningless existence. Dawkins tackles all kinds of topics, including the emptiness of fashionable French philosophy (professed by intellectuals such as Lacan, Guattari and Deleuze), silly religious reactions to the cloned sheep named Dolly, alternative medicine, and the obnoxious expression of religion that disgusted the world at large on 11 September 2001. Dawkins reiterates that the religions of everybody are to be condemned, once and for all: Catholics, Protestants, Jews of all denominations and Moslems.

In the wake of Dawkins, I simply can't imagine what I might ever read from now on. Maybe old Tintin comics. Better still, exciting tales of archaic fiction from the Bible...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Books about Provence and the French Riviera

I don't wish to appear foolishly pretentious, but I still believe that the most readable English-language book about Provence and the French Riviera is the one by Jean Hureau that I translated for his French publishing house back in 1977. Over the thirty years since then, in my (biased) opinion, this tourist guide has hardly—as they say in French—developed a face wrinkle.

That book was a funny writing affair. When I first browsed through the original, after having signed a well-paid translation contract, I was horrified. Jean Hureau's French was excessively syrupy and mushy. I had the impression that he was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the places about which he was writing that he had abandoned all sobriety and constraint. As we used to say in vulgar and misogynous Aussie parlance, his written expression was all over the road like a mad woman's shit. I quickly concluded that there was no way in the world that I could simply translate literally Huleau's descriptions dozens of cities, towns and villages. I could generally understand what he was trying to say, but he wasn't using the kind of words and phrases that would go down well in English. So, I decided to do the only thing possible. Instead of attempting to carry out an almost impossible task of translation, I would carefully read the multiple elements of Hureau's text—which had the merit of being well documented—and then I would simply rewrite each description from scratch, in my own words.

When I finally submitted my "translation" to the publisher, they gave it immediately to somebody whose job consisted of evaluating my work. He/she apparently read through my typescript, found it not only readable but well-written, and told the publisher that I was indeed a good "translator". That's why they then gave me a contract to write a tourist guide on Great Britain.

Since 1989, most English-speaking visitors arrive in Provence with a copy of Peter Mayle's book in their luggage. Over half a million copies sold! The observations are informative and thorough, but it's superficial writing, like articles in a weekly magazine. He describes a gay and quaint Provence inhabited by stereotypic French individuals who belong to a sun-drenched lavender-scented adult fairy tale. I guess it's great if you're a tourist or a newcomer, and you like and believe that kind of story.

By far the most profound treatment of Provence I've encountered (thanks to Natacha) is Caesar's Vast Ghost by Lawrence Durrell. It's a mixture of poetry and history, with a little madness thrown in for good measure. At times, I had the impression that Durrell might have been half-drunk when he was writing, particularly in the final chapter, whose heroine is a full-sized latex doll named Cunégonde with the features of a sexy Provençale. I recall that, when I dropped in at Sommières long ago in the hope of finding Durrell at home (which was not the case), the village people all warned me that he was more often drunk than sober. The best-written sections of his monograph take up the theme, introduced by Denis de Rougement, of the invention of courtly love in Provence. Durrell talks of Avignon, Arles and Aix as if these magic places transmitted aphrodisiac waves, or exuded a vaporous love potion. Ever since running into the great novelist/poet in Nîmes in 1963, and hearing him talk about Provence, I've never doubted his words on this subject.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Things that happen conjointly

From a scientific viewpoint, causality is a concept that enables us to predict that such-and-such an event will soon occur as a consequence of an earlier event. For example, if you pour hot water on a ball of snow, it will start to melt.

In the context of mathematical statistics, there's another concept, correlation, which can be applied to sets of events that have already happened, with a view to demonstrating that they appear to be interdependent. You might say that, faced with correlated events, we suspect the existence of causal relationships, but we are not able to specify them precisely. In certain cases, observers discover correlations between series of events that could not possibly be related by causality. For example, we might find that a graph expressing variations in the price of lemonade in Sydney over the last decade is almost identical to statistics concerning the number of foxes killed by hunters in England. Pure coincidence!

In France, at the present moment, road safety authorities are dismayed by the fact that the number of deaths in accidents during the month of January was considerably higher than a year ago. Specialists immediately wondered why. Was there some causal factor behind this disappointing statistic? They have been unanimous in pointing out that there is indeed a strong correlation in France between road deaths and presidential elections. In other words, as strange it might seem, greater numbers of French drivers kill themselves when there's an election just around the corner. The suspected causal relationship involves the weird French tradition of presidential amnesties. In regalian style, one of the first acts performed by a newly-elected president is to grant amnesties to vast numbers of small-time delinquents and citizens who have committed petty misdemeanors such as parking their vehicle illegally or speeding. The alleged reasoning of pre-election drivers is as follows:

If I were to drive recklessly and get pulled over by a gendarme, I might be condemned to paying a fine. But when the new president arrives on the scene next May, he/she will wash away our sins by granting the traditional amnesty. So, there's no reason why I should worry about getting pulled over by a gendarme. So, I'll drive recklessly.

Now, that sounds a bit far-fetched. But experts swear it's a fact that French drivers "reason" in that weird way.

I'm particularly interested in another concept, not unlike correlation, known as synchronicity: a term applied to coincidental happenings that are so amazing that observers get around to wondering if these events were not brought about mysterious forces that we do not yet understand scientifically. A typical case of synchronicity is when you come upon an old letter from a friend whom you haven't seen for ages and, while you're browsing through the letter, the friend in question phones you. It's not surprising that many serious people consider that believing in a concept such as synchronicity is akin to believing in magic. But some scientists are prepared to admit that certain coincidental happenings are so extraordinary that it's tempting to imagine them as instances of situations that we do not master totally in terms of conventional probability theory. Most often, when such happenings are discussed among people of a scientific bent, they soon end up evoking things such as quantum events or Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

My favorite personal synchronicity anecdote concerns the British novelist Lawrence Durrell [1912-1990], who was one of my heroes when I was a young man. I had heard that he lived in a village in Provence, and I imagined erroneously that the name of this village was Nîmes. In fact, Nîmes is a large city, and Durrell's village was located quite a long way away from the city.

[My misunderstanding was like that of a French tourist in Australia who, having heard that a friend lives in the bush to the north of Sydney, starts searching for his friend by taking a taxi to North Sydney.]

Be that as it may, I strolled around the heart of Nîmes, early in the morning, a little dismayed to discover that it was indeed a huge "village"... and nevertheless met up personally with Durrell, seated all alone at a café patio alongside the ancient Roman arena. Exceptionally, Durrell had driven into Nîmes early in the morning to get his automobile repaired. We spent an hour together, conversing about trivia such as Henry Miller's shock at the idea of having to use an outdoor dunny at Durrell's place, and Durrell's relatives in Tasmania who would regularly send him a crate of apples every year.

I've often imagined that I had this marvelous encounter with my novelist hero, not through mere chance, nor even through a causal chain of events, but rather because—somehow or other—I had "willed" that I should meet him there, at that place and at that moment. Now, call me crazy, if you like, call me unscientific... but I can think of no better explanation of this synchronicity.