Lisette’s List, by Susan Vreeland

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In 1937, young Lisette Roux and her husband André leave their beloved Paris and move to the south of France, to the small Provençal village of Roussillon to care for André’s grandfather Pascal.

Once an ochre miner, Pascal loved paintings whose pigments used his ochre. By exchanging his homemade frames for paintings by destitute artists, Pascal had acquired eight works of art. These paintings have grown in value as the fame of the artists grew, but their worth is beyond money to Pascal. He wants to be sure that André and Lisette understand their true worth and will protect them when he himself is gone.

The story is from Lisette’s point of view, first her misery at leaving Paris and the art world she is just beginning to move into, hoping for a job at a gallery, then her growing love for Pascal and Roussillon. She keeps track of her vows and promises to herself of what she will do in her lifetime.

All too soon, their life in Provence is overtaken by World War II. André hides the paintings before going off to fight, leaving Lisette to manage without his income. When the Germans occupy Roussillon, they are determined to find Pascal’s paintings.

In this final book from the author of books such as Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemisia, we have the combination of historical fiction and a deep appreciation of art that we’ve come to expect from Vreeland. Along with Lisette, we are introduced to artists such as Pissaro, Cezanne and Picasso. The descriptions of the paintings and of Provence itself are luscious.

So why did I grow a little bored towards the middle of the story? Partly it was because these artists were not new to me. Partly it was because Lisette, the girl from Paris, seemed to accomplish new things without any trouble at all. Acquire and learn to care for a goat and chicken? No problem. Figure out how to make cheese and candies good enough to sell? Child’s play. She does face some challenges with the Germans and a man in town, it’s true. But I had a bigger problem with the book.

What we expect in a story is a protagonist with an overwhelming need or goal who faces obstacles to achieving what she’s set out to do. We expect there to be an external journey as she confronts these obstacles, as well as an internal journey as she learns more about herself and changes as a result of her inner and outer conflicts. We expect the stakes to be high for both.

The problem for me was that while Lisette certainly had an eventful outer journey, one with high stakes, she didn’t have much of an inner journey. She does have those vows and promises; she does want to be part of the art world, but it all seems rather vague. The stakes are low or non-existent for her inner journey. She doesn’t change by the end of the book. After eleven years, she’s still the same naïve young woman who came to Roussillon.

However, I’m glad I read the book, if only for the descriptions of life in Roussillon and of how the paintings affected Lisette and others. I’m grateful for the opportunity to think about the uses of art in our day-to-day lives, outside of museums and galleries.

What novel about art and artists have you enjoyed?

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

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In this new (2016) book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. After a brief prologue, we find ourselves next to the lift in his apartment building, a small suitcase at his feet. He debates bringing a chair from the apartment, but he’s too nervous to sit and anyway, “it would look decidedly eccentric, sitting down to wait for the lift.”

The year is 1936 and Shostakovich in undergoing the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect. When we learn why he is waiting by the lift, we understand that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Life for an artist under Stalin is a series of compromises. One could choose the heroic gesture, but probably only get one chance since it inevitably would lead to imprisonment and/or death. In a series of exquisitely calibrated musings, Shostakovich ponders cowardice and compromise, and his interactions with the powerful. We follow rabbit trails into his past and present, but always his thoughts center around his music. I want to go back and look more closely at how Barnes has constructed this story so effectively.

Shostakovich is trying to navigate a narrow path that will enable him to continue composing what he wants without getting himself and his family killed. This is not an easy task since those in power define not only what is good art but also the actual purpose of art.

The book is structured in three parts, corresponding to his three encounters with the head of the Soviet state, each twelve years apart. I was particularly struck by the inside view of what life is like under a tyrant. Sadly, this seems to be a preview of things to come in the U.S. and what is already happening in countries like Hungary.

I relished the inside view of this man who is quite ordinary and quite remarkable at the same time. I am endlessly fascinated by what it means to live a good life, what choices and compromises we are faced with and how we negotiate them. Shostakovich criticises others, second-guesses himself, wonders what music he might have written if he hadn’t been constrained by the Soviet state. He counts over his awards half-heartedly, turning his thoughts more often to his defenses and failures.

All his life he had relied on irony. He imagined that the trait had been born in the usual place: in the gap between how we imagine, or suppose, or hope life will turn out, and the way it actually does.

In addition to considering the difficulty of leading a good life, Shostakovich also imagines what it is like to be one of the sycophants sucking up to Stalin or the tyrant himself. He declares that Shakespeare’s plays are no longer relevant: “for all that he was unparalleled in depicting tyrants knee-deep in blood, Shakespeare was a little naive. Because his monsters had doubts, bad dreams, pangs of conscience, guilt.” Shostakovich doubts that his tormenters ever see “the spirits of the dead rising to reproach them.”

As readers of this blog can probably deduce, Barnes is one of my favorite writers. I bought this book without even looking to see what it was about; I knew if it was by him I would be intrigued and challenged and ultimately changed. I have been, it’s true. And also chilled by this look at what seems to be coming to my country and too many others.

What books have you read about trying to work as an artist under a dictatorship?

Calyx, Volume 24, No. 1

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Cleaning out a box, I came across this copy of Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. I’m not sure where it came from, but I could tell right away that I had never read it. The opening story was so gripping, I knew I would not have forgotten it.

In “Goulash”, by Anna Balint, the fourteen-year-old narrator is in Budapest, Hungary with her parents and younger brothers visiting Uncle Zoltan and his family: Auntie Eszter and their daughter Gizi. They are all on their way out into the countryside, a trip Zoltan didn’t want to take and Eszter is still angry about. But Mum fought for it, Mum who refuses to speak Hungarian, who claims she is “English, English, English.” There is much here about language and heritage and what we choose to remember, about denial and loss, all wrapped in a story full of enticing scents and sounds, the taste of apricots and hot peppers, singing in the night, and outstretched hands.

The poetry in this volume, too, is stunning. Each poem resounded deep within me. Such innocent images at first, drawing the reader in, ever further in, through forests of joy or comfort or peace. Take “Doorpost”, by Laurie Patton:

There is a lightness
when we cross a threshold—
. . .
No matter the sorrow,
every door holds a hope

And then the memories summoned by the room’s objects begin to multiply, memories of joys and losses, of days past, days that can seem like a future—all conveyed in just a few lines. And then the final lines subtly tie these memories to the image of the door, the threshold, the liminal space between past and future.

There is art here as well, black and white photographs of paintings and sculptures, starting with four pieces by Leah Kosh that seem to unearth hidden memories in me, truths I once knew but have let slip away. Kosh says, “My paintings most often explore the belief that there are a multiplicity of realities co-existing and that these realities are our shadows and our mirrors—always with us, rarely acknowledged.”

Four substantial reviews of books by women close the volume.

Each piece in this issue is a gem. I am stunned by the quality of the works and their diversity. There are stories of a girl who sees her absent mother as a star floating in a pond, of a young woman whose boyfriend’s age seems to be going backwards, of an older woman who has suffered one too many accidents. There are astonishing poems about crows and dancing and walking in the dark.

There are hundreds of literary magazines out there. I used to subscribe each year to a different one, until I hit a rough patch timewise and decided to get through the backlog before continuing. However, there has always been one so consistently good that I’ve continued to subscribe to it and read year after year.

I think I’ve just found a second one.

What literary magazines have you enjoyed reading?

The Door, by Magda Szabó

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I have been thinking a lot about doors this week, what doors are closing, what doors are opening. It is a time of great change for me personally, for my country, for the world.

Szabó’s brilliant novel opens with a recurring nightmare of desperately trying to force a door open; there is someone inside who needs saving. Yet she cannot even call for help; she has no voice.

The narrator of this first-person story is a Hungarian writer, also named Magda. She and her husband, also a writer, have no children, indeed no family, for Magda’s mother has recently died. After 10 years, the government has finally lifted its restrictions on Magda’s writing and, overwhelmed with opportunities, Magda decides to hire a housekeeper. Thus, Emerence enters their lives.

A sturdy older woman, Emerence takes control of the interview, announcing that she will decide whether to work for them, rather than the other way around. With great physical strength and an unrivalled understanding of how the world works, she performs herculean tasks to maintain the apartment building where she lives, clearing the snow for 11 buildings, providing meals for the sick, finding homes for stray animals, and the many other duties she has assumed.

Emerence is proud of her role as the bulwark of the neighborhood. She is the one they turn to with their problems, holding court on her front porch with strong tea or coffee. However, no one is allowed inside her apartment, which Magda calls the Forbidden City. This is only one of many mysteries about this remarkable woman. Did she steal the valuables Jewish neighbors had to leave behind when they were rounded up during the war? Did she kill a man and bury him in the back yard? Who is the young woman whose arrival she anxiously awaits?

Magda and Emerence frequently clash, more and more violently as they grow closer. Emerence has a laborer’s contempt for the idea that tapping on a typewriter could be considered work. She disapproves of Magda’s faith and criticises her when she attends church services. In her turn, Magda dismisses many of Emerence’s gifts as not being up to her standards and resents the way Emerence has appropriated the love and obedience of Magda’s dog.

Miscommunications and misunderstandings plague the relationship. In one hilarious scene, Magda takes Emerence to where a film is being shot, thinking to give her a treat. Upon learning that there are machines making the tree branches dance during a passionate love scene, Magda is disgusted and accuses Magda and the other filmmakers of being liars and cheats. Magda asks her, “‘Don’t you think it’s a function of art to create the illusion of reality?’” Emerence’s response changes how Magda understands her own art.

“Art . . . If that’s what you were—artists—then everything would be real, even the dance, because you would know how to make the leaves move to your words, not to a wind machine or whatever it was.”

Neither woman is spared in this brutal, yet subtle work. Every page reveals Szabó’s profound understanding of human behavior and motivations. I am grateful for the work of translators like Len Rix and publishers like New York Review Books for enabling me to read novels from other countries such as this one.

The book works on many levels. Some have seen it as old Hungary versus new Hungary or peasant versus educated elite. Perhaps it traces the difference between art and physical labor. In the end, though, it is a story about how difficult it is to love someone, and how necessary.

Have you read a book translated from another language? What did you think of it?