Tag-Archive for ◊ France ◊

• 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.

If you enjoyed reading this article or found it useful, please consider donating the cost of a cup of coffee to help maintain the site...
• Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Dai Sijie was born in the Fujian province of China in 1954. Both his parents were professors of medical sciences at West China University. Dai Sijie went to primary school followed by college. At the beginning of the Chinese cultural revolution, orchestrated in May 1966 by the seventy-three- year-old Mao Zedong, Seijie’s parents were labelled as “bourgeois”, therefore enemies of the people and were put in prison.

Being the son of a “bourgeois”, the seventeen-year-old Seijie, was sent to a village in the mountains of Sichuan province for re-education from 1971 to 1974. In 1974 he worked as an employee in a school and in 1976 studied History Of Art at Beijing university while simultaneously studying French. He left China for France in 1984, having won a national competition allowing students to travel abroad. After his time was over, he didn’t return to China and has remained in France ever since, working as a film maker and subsequently becoming a writer.

Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is Dai Sijie’s first novel and a big instant success. It was written in French, like his two other novels, and was published in France in 2000. It won many prizes and has been translated into several languages. Sijie re-adapted his novel to become a film which he directed and was released in 2002.

The story of Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is influenced by what the author himself lived and experienced in his late teens like his two fictional characters: the narrator and his close friend, Luo, who both come from families of doctors. The two protagonists, like Sijie, had an academic education, went to primary school and to college and therefore had bourgeois upbringings and consequently qualified, according to the new Chinese regime, to be sent to a remote mountain village camp to be re-educated from 1971 to 1976.

Mao Zedong’s policy was to send millions of intellectuals to the countryside for re-education in the form of physical labour meted out to them by peasants. Mao’s intention was to purge the representatives of the capitalist urban bourgeoisie as well as the revisionists who had infiltrated the Party, both regarded as enemies of the people. He even closed schools and universities for several years, accusing them of being places of counter-revolutionary education.

Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party Chairman, was the actual architect of the Great Cultural Revolution which started in 1966 and ended in 1976, the year of his demise. Although born a son of a wealthy farmer, Mao Zedong was the founding member of the communist party of China and became the “Great Helmsman Of The Revolution”.

The Great Cultural Revolution period is one of the most sombre and traumatic in Chinese contemporary history. It was enforced after Mao Zedong’s failure with his economic and social campaign named “the great leap forward”, which was an ambitious country-wide modernization policy that lasted from 1959 to 1961 and resulted in terrible famine.

The narrator and his friend, Luo, find their new life and repetitive tasks given to them by the peasants to be very harsh. Thanks to their captivating art of story telling they manage to escape a few days of hard labour in the mines. The two youths are sent by their superior to the next village where films are occasionally shown. Their assignment is that, upon their return, they must narrate the story of the film to the villagers who are illiterate people leading a simple life in this remote mountainous area near Tibet, called: “Phoenix Of The Sky”.

The narrator and his best friend Luo’s story-telling improve greatly and their horizon widens when they discover a hoard of forbidden “reactionary” western classic novels translated into Chinese. These include books by Balzac, Dickens, Dumas, Hugo and Flaubert, among others, concealed in a suitcase by an educated young man their own age called Four-Eyes, the son of a poet, sent for re-education in the village next to theirs. After pleading with Four-Eyes, they manage to borrow one of his novels, Balzac’s, Ursule Mirouët. They both spend the whole night reading it and finish it by dawn. The two young men are so overwhelmed by Balzac’s story that they strongly desire to possess Four-Eyes novels and they end up stealing them.

From now on Luo, the narrator and their beautiful, illiterate, young seamstress’s lives will radically change as a result of their literary discovery which overturns their existence and opens up a new, magical world for them. They feel the emergence of a literary vocation. There is no longer a barrier between fiction and reality for them. The little seamstress becomes Luo’s lover-cum-student and he becomes her Pygmalion. He introduces her to the world of literature not realising that the effect will be devastating for him and the narrator, who both loved her so dearly and looked after her like a “little princess”.

After listening to all the stories written by famous classic writers narrated to her by the two young men, Luo tells the narrator that the little seamstress’s new obsession is to resemble city girls, she cuts her hair and make herself a bra, copying a drawing she had found in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Luo even notices that she is copying their accent.

Learning from Balzac “that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price”, the little seamstress makes a surprising choice. She decides to leave her rural life and everything else behind for the big city life in order to conquer her destiny, like Balzac’s character, Eugène de Rastignac in “La comèdie humaine”. Her decision leads to the surreal and eerie final scene of the book-burning by the narrator and Luo out of spite and rancour. These books they loved so much have to be sacrificed, reduced to cinders, now that they have the nasty effect of emancipating the little seamstress and making her quit after discovering her self-worth.

Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is a book about books, an ode to literature and especially a tribute to Balzac, as well as to the art of story telling and how the talented story tellers possess the know-how to captivate their audience. Dai Sijie is a good narrator and at the same time his characters are talented story tellers.

It is a novel about literary novels and their power of enchantment. It is about the emergence of literary vocation and how books can be a good education for life. The story illustrates the mysterious strength of fiction as a liberator of the mind and how reading can change people’s lifestyle and enrich it. A novel with outstanding themes that mixes serious subjects with humorous ones with great skill.

Category: Book Reviews  | One Comment