• Friday, January 25th, 2019

Susan Vreeland was born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1946 and grew up in North Hollywood before her family moved to San Diego, California where she died in 2017, aged seventy-one, after complications following heart surgery.

Susan Vreeland’s father worked as a production manager in the aircraft industry and her mother, who comes from an artistic family and had a long-standing interest in art, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Vreeland’s mother and grandmother were china painters.

After obtaining a B.A. degree in English from San Diego State University in 1969, Vreeland taught high school English for a while in San Diego. While still working in 1980, she wrote features for newspapers and magazines on subjects related to education, art, travel and cultural topics and in 1988 wrote some fiction. After a thirty-year teaching career, she retired in 2000, dedicating herself full-time to writing.

She said in one of her interviews that: “Coming out of the Louvre for the first time in 1971, dizzy with new love, I stood on Pont Neuf (in Paris) and made a pledge to myself that the art of this newly discovered world in the Old World would be my life companion (…) I couldn’t imagine then, I have been true to this pledge”.

Susan Vreeland is known for combining literature with visual art and fiction in most of her novels. She says: “Entering the mind and heart of painters has taught me to see, and to be more appreciative of the beauties of the visible world. That I can agree with Renoir when he said: “I believe that I am nearer to God by being humble before his splendour”.

Vreeland says it takes her about three years to write a novel. She goes on by saying: “Archival and published history don’t always record personal relationships so characters must be invented to allow the subject to reveal intimate thoughts and feelings through interaction. Scenes must also be invented to develop plot and themes (…) otherwise it would be dry facts, dates, numbers, place names, with people and feelings completely left out, but I take care not to change known history or the character of a historical figure”.

“Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, published in 2007, is the title given to the famous painting of the renowned French artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Susan Vreeland kept the same title for her novel since the story is about Renoir and how he achieved his masterpiece. In her book, the author depicts him like the sun surrounded by his satellites.

In the late summer of 1880, the thirty-nine-year-old Renoir invites a group of friends and acquaintances from different backgrounds to model for him. The invitees include the artist, Gustave Caillebotte, actress Angèle Legault, Italian journalist Adrien Maggiollo, the seamstress and Renoir’s future wife Aline Charigot, the restaurant owner’s son and daughter, Alphonse and Alphonsine Fournaise, the Folies Bergère performer Ellen Andrée, the Comédie Française actress Jeanne Samary, art historian Charles Ephrussi and five more.

Thirteen of them come to model for him. However, since the number thirteen was not acceptable around a dinner table (because of Jesus’ last supper with his thirteen disciples and the betrayal leading to the crucifixion), an unknown person was added to make the fourteenth sitter. They are all immortalised in his “Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, which will become one of Renoir’s best-known and most favourite paintings and one which will prove, at the time, to be more problematic to paint than he expected.

In stunning authentic details, the painting represents the new Parisian epoch following the traumatic and painful Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. It illustrates “la vie moderne” combined with “la joie de vivre” French style of the time. The scene takes place on the balcony of the Maison Fournaise, a restaurant with a small hotel and boat rental on the north-west side of the river Seine at Chatou, a suburb of Paris, and one of Renoir’s favourite settings for his paintings. The tableau not only depicts fourteen people having a good time over an agreeable summer Sunday lunch but also includes still-life and landscape.

In her novel the author portrays the people in Renoir’s painting in vivid, colourful impressionistic strokes by subtly disclosing their lives a little at a time, following them into cafés, cabarets, artists’ studios, people’s salons, regattas and by even delving into their past. From the way Vreeland animates all the characters in the painting, she demonstrates her genuine admiration for this piece of Renoir’s work of outstanding artistry.

With his impressionist style of art in “Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, Renoir was defying Emile Zola, the French writer and art critic for the daily newspaper L’Événement. In his article, Zola criticised the impressionists as being unable to produce a work of outstanding artistry conforming with their allegations.

Impressionist art was launched by a group of artists living in Paris. To become known to the public, these artists had the honour of exhibiting their work at the prestigious and most celebrated annual or biennial art event in the Western world, the “Salon de Paris”, during the eighteen-seventies and eighteen-eighties.

Renoir’s challenge for painting one of his biggest canvases was a risky task. He was limited by the summer light he wanted to catch before it faded into autumn, just a couple of months away, as well as by his general lack of money for modelling expenses, the cost of oil paints and for paying Monsieur Fournaise’s rent for the restaurant’s upper terrace. There was also the additional cost of the eight delightful Sunday lunches and drinks that Renoir was offering his sitters. Nevertheless, people who believed in his art advanced him credit.

Renoir was also challenged a great deal by his temperamental model, Circe, who refused to have him painting her profile and walked out, replaced by Aline Charigot. Other models could not make it every Sunday, one having a duel to settle while another was busy with her acting career. Renoir also had a feud with some of the other impressionists led by the passionate, well-known French painter and sculptor, Edgar Degas.

In one of her interviews, Vreeland explains why she chose Renoir’s “Luncheon Of The Boating Party” as a subject for her novel. She says: “Some part of me came alive in front of this painting the first time I saw it (…) I saw a lovely, enticing range of cultural attitudes to discover. I sensed that a study of this painting would lead me to an exploration that was bound to enrich my life (…) It was, in fact, the French “art de vivre (…) Such a gift from Renoir to the ages! One must clasp hands before it in awe. My novel is my way of living in the painting, learning its lessons of the art of living.”

The author immersed herself in the subject of her book. She read fiction and non-fiction about Renoir, the impressionist era and about the nineteenth century France. She did extensive research including visiting Paris twice, walking where her characters walked. She also learned French during the three years she was writing her novel to be able to read the original French texts concerning the subject of her book. She even had two lunches at the Maison Fournaise, which is still a restaurant and has also become a museum.

“Luncheon Of The Boating Party” is a charming book for art lovers in general and lovers of the painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his painting of the same name, as well as for all interested in the history of Parisian lifestyle in the nineteenth century.

• Friday, December 14th, 2018

Amy Tan was born in 1952 and grew up in Oakland, North California, USA. She is the second of three siblings born to Chinese immigrant parents. Her father was an electrical engineer educated in Beijing and a Baptist minister and her mother was from a high-class family in Shanghai.

Tan first attended Marian A. Peterson high school in Sunnyvale California for one year. After her father and elder brother both died of brain tumours within six months of each other in 1966, Tan moved to Europe with her mother and younger brother. She finished high school at the Institut Monte Rosa in Montreux, Switzerland.

She studied English and linguistics at San Jose State University and the University of California, Berkeley from which she received a B.A. Degree in 1973 and an M.A. Degree in 1974. In 1987 she also worked successfully as a freelance business writer.

After her father’s and brother’s demise, Tan was told about her mother’s former marriage in Shanghai to a Chinese man and having had twin daughters from him who were left behind when she emigrated to the USA. In 1987, Tan travelled with her mother to China to see her twin half-sisters for the first time.

This event inspired the last chapter in Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Award and was translated into several languages. It was also made into a film, directed by Wayne Wang and released in 1993.

Tan has written several novels, children’s books and non-fiction books and has received many awards. She lives with her husband in San Francisco.

After emigrating from China to San Francisco in 1949, Suyuan Woo, one of the main protagonists of the novel, remembers her idea of a Joy Luck Club from the days of her first marriage in Kweilin, before escaping the advancing Japanese troupes during the second world war. With the help of three Chinese ladies in San Francisco, she creates the American version of the Kweilin Joy Luck Club of Mah Jong.

The four ladies, all first-generation Chinese immigrants, meet in each other’s homes. They play Mah Jong for money as well as unleash some nostalgic, preciously accumulated memories from their native land, brought with them to exile after fleeing either the Japanese invasion of the second world war or the later Chinese communist revolutionary, Mao Zedong.

In their pleasurable meetings, the ladies enjoy gossiping about their children, while gorging on elaborate home-made Chinese food, prepared with great care and thought by their hostess. Later the club expands to include the husbands, represented in the novel as inept fathers as well as husbands and no better than the daughters’ American scheming partners.

The story begins with Jing-Mei Woo, who is asked by her father to be the fourth corner at The Joy Luck Club as a replacement for her mother who died two months earlier.

The novel consists of four parts; like the four hands that each Mah Jong player plays in turn; two parts (the first and the fourth) dedicated to the mothers and the two other parts (the second and the third) to the daughters. Each part is divided into four to keep the Mah Jong symmetry going and all these parts together form sixteen connected chapters, narrated by the voice of the character to whom the chapter is assigned.

The author moves back and forth between the lives of the four mothers and the lives of their four daughters, as well as alternating the mother’s present existence in the USA in juxtaposition to their pre-nineteen forty-nine lives in China with its good days and difficult, turbulent times before their exile.

The story is funny in parts and moving in others. It is written in parallels and from a feminist standpoint, between Chinese born mothers and their complicated relationships with their Chinese-American daughters. These mothers have carried with them all the traditions and superstitions they grew-up with to the new world.

They are always hoping to be able to instil their Chinese culture and beliefs into their daughters while disregarding their daughters’ different mentality, education and affinity to their surroundings and the country they have grown up in, which creates the conflicts between the two generations. The mothers being adamant that: “Chinese thinking is best” and wise and the daughters, who want to break free from their parents stifling insular customs and commence a carefree American life, unconstrained by old Chinese practices and traditions.

Nevertheless, the Chinese mothers are finally proven correct as referred t o in the last chapter: A Pair Of Tickets, when Jing-Mei Woo mentions what her mother told her when she was in her teens, revolting against her Chinese origins, she remembers her mother saying to her: “Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese. Someday you will see, it is in your blood, waiting to be let go”.

When, after her mother’s demise, the thirty-six-year-old Jing-Mei Woo goes to China with her seventy-two-year-old father to meet her half-twin sisters for the first time, she realises how Chinese she is. She says: “the minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. And I think, my mother was right, I am becoming Chinese”.

In her novel, the author is addressing the problems and dilemmas of the first-born generation of immigrant parents, depicting how they feel torn between two cultures with different values, conflicting outlooks and different habits and customs. A masterfully well written and narrated novel, weaving some stories told by the author’s mother with some fictional ones.

The book is dedicated to the author’s mother and in memory of her grandmother. Amy Tan writes in her dedication: “You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more”. That sums it all up.