Lunch and art: The fictional and real

Renoir Boating Party Luncheon

I’m reading Edmund de Waal’s brilliant memoir ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’. Very late, I know. But, better late than never. I’ve had the book for quite a while, a charity shop purchase, but every time I picked it up the picture of the netsuke on the cover put me off. I’m still not sure I actually like the netsuke but, as so often, a good book finds you when you are ready for it.

No doubt any day now – perhaps already – editions will include access to reproductions of the objects being described. But even reading the old style printed paperback all you need to do is google and… there is Renoir’s Le Déjeuner des Canotiers, (The Luncheon of the Boating Party), in front of you, as you read the story within the story:

A red-and-white striped awning protects the party from the glare of the sun. It is after lunch in Renoir’s new world of painter, patrons and actresses, and everyone is a friend. Models smoke, drink and talk amongst the detritus of the empty bottles and the meal left on the table …

The actress Ellen Andrée, in a hat with a flower pinned to it, raises her glass to her lips. Baron Raoul Barbier, a former mayor of colonial Saigon, his brown bowler hat pushed back, talks to the young daughter of the proprietor.

Her brother, straw-hatted like a professional oarsman, stands in the foreground surveying the lunch. Caillebotte, relaxed and fit in a white singlet and boater, sits astride his chair looking at the young seamstress Aline Chaigot, Renoir’s lover and future wife.

The artist Paul Llhote sits with a Proprietorial arm around the actress Jeanne Samary. It is a matrix of smiling conversation and flirtation. And Charles is there. He is the man at the very back, in the top hat and black suit, turning slightly away, seen glancingly. You can just see his red-brown beard. He is talking with a pleasantly open-faced, poorly shaved Laforgue, dressed as a proper poet in a working man’s cap and what could even be a corduroy jacket.

The ‘Charles’ is Charles Ephrussi, cousin of the author’s great-grandfather, art collector and the first owner of the netsuke collection de Waal has inherited. Charles Ephrussi was also a friend of Proust, and part model for the aesthete and dandy Charles Swann.

De Waal draws our attention to this intriguing extract in which Proust’s fictional artist, Elstir, reflects upon the real painting (above), and the real Charles:

A gentleman … wearing a top hat at a boating party where he is clearly out of place, which proved that for Elstir he was not only a regular sitter, but a friend, perhaps a patron.

Carpe Diem – Proust on fishing

water-birch

There’s no irony (is there?) that a novel the length of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is in fact about seizing the moment – or rather, trying to understand / appreciate / experience the full depth of every moment.

In this it is closer to the more accurate rendition of the phrase ‘carpe diem’ as ‘enjoy the day, pluck the day when it is ripe.’ (thank you, phrases.org.uk).

Here he is on catching the fleeting glance of a stranger through the window of a carriage travelling in the opposite direction:

… as soon as her individuality, a soul still vague, a will unknown to me, presented a tiny picture of itself, enormously reduced but complete, in the depths of her indifferent eyes, at once, by a mysterious response of the pollen ready in me for the pistils that should receive it, I felt surging through me the embryo, equally vague, equally minute, of the desire not to let this girl pass without forcing her mind to become aware of my person, without preventing her desires from wandering to someone else, without insinuating myself into her dreams and taking possession of her heart. Meanwhile our carriage had moved on; the pretty girl was already behind us; and as she had—of me—none of those notions which constitute a person in one’s mind, her eyes, which had barely seen me, had forgotten me already.

For Proust, every day is ripe for the picking; it is only habit and familiarity (and laziness) that dulls our vivid experience of every moment.

In the first place, the impossibility of stopping when we meet a woman, the risk of not meeting her again another day, give her at once the same charm as a place derives from the illness or poverty that prevents us from visiting it, or the lustreless days which remain to us to live from the battle in which we shall doubtless fall. So that, if there were no such thing as habit, life must appear delightful to those of us who are continually under the threat of death—that is to say, to all mankind.

And to fully appreciate every moment, it’s no good standing back, on the sidelines:

in the state of mind in which we “observe” we are a long way below the level to which we rise when we create.

To truly catch the fleeting moment we need to engage our imagination:

We need, between us and the fish which, if we saw it for the first time cooked and served on a table, would not appear worth the endless shifts and wiles required to catch it, the intervention, during our afternoons with the rod, of the rippling eddy to whose surface come flashing, without our quite knowing what we intend to do with them, the bright gleam of flesh, the hint of a form, in the fluidity of a transparent and mobile azure.

Proust on fishing! Who knew?! It certainly slipped by me first time around. But caught this time. All of which is to say, in a roundabout way, that after a break I’m just limbering up for Volume III: The Guermantes Way.

Beauty and daily life

Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera

Stop. Listen. Think. Look
The point of art is to remind us to be alive. To open our eyes. This is a great quote from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera:

It is wrong to chide the novel for being satisfied by mysterious coincidences, but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

Thank you musicthoughts.com (a new site by Derek Sivers) for reminding me of this great quote from the book by Milan Kundera. The site is a growing compendium of quotes, mainly about music. Here’s another great quote on the site, from Proust:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

The beauty of good design

Danger - weir

… is that it ages gracefully. And stylishly. Because it has integrity.

This sign, alongside the Stour at lower Bryanston, says what it needs to say in a plain, simple, appropriate font, and just keeps on geting better as the years pass.

Photograph taken during a morning walk with the dog in the present cold snap. The winter festival (just kidding), with added illness, provided some time for reading, including Kingsley Amis’s classic first novel, Lucky Jim where he is already firing on all cylinders:

‘I just wondered,’ Beesley said, bringing out the curved nickel-banded pipe round which he was trying to train his personality, like a creeper up a trellis. ‘I thought I was probably right.’

Skewered in a single aside. An object lesson in making words work. Not far from Proust’s less harsh but equally damning characterisation of Dr Cottard in Swann In Love who was ‘never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest …

And so by way of precaution he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he dared not allow this smile to assert itself positively on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty in which could be deciphered the question that he never dared to ask: ‘Do you really mean that?’

I was very pleased to be given This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes. A good, easy read which bounds along engagingly: Chocolat meets The Life of Pi, with added donuts. Enjoy.

Finally, with best wishes, a thought for the new year (where danger ahead also threatens). This from one of Jeanette Winterson’s recent newsletters:

Do it from the heart or not at all

Happy New Year.