Saturday, July 28, 2018

Strapless by Deborah Davis

I recently heard these on our local Beethoven Network.  They are by Jean Sibelius titled, Five Characteristic Impressions.

StraplessStrapless by Deborah   Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have recently discovered how much I love the paintings of John Singer Sargent (and also his contemporaries like Whistler and William Merritt Chase). My interest was first peaked when I read a book review of Sargent's Women. Learning the background of the artist's subjects make the works more significant.

I realize now that is why some people are not interested in art. I took a trip to Europe with such a friend. I was so excited to see the architecture and famous works of art that I knew so much about. She found it all a bore. But then she did not have any prior knowledge to what she was looking at and it meant nothing to her.

When I taught music in a grade school I learned that in order for a student to understand what you are trying to teach them, you must find out what they already know and build on that. Once you have built a foundation of prior knowledge you can then add new knowledge.

As a teacher this was my goal. I exposed my students to as much music and literature and art as possible in order to inspire an appetite for the wonderful things of this world.

All that to say, Strapless, like Sargent's Women, has given me the prior knowledge I need to truly enjoy Sargent's work.

While Sargent's Women examined the lives of four of Sargent's portrait subjects, Strapless examines the life of one. And not only her but the entire backdrop of 19th century Parisian life, and also, to a lesser extent Americans and their reasons for living in Paris.

The book starts in New Orleans where an old aristocratic family had plantations and wealth; Virginie Amelie Avigno was born into privilege and luxury. After the Civil War, her family deserted the South to reconstruct itself and settled in Paris where an American could easily live like royalty at half the cost and also find eligible husbands for beautiful daughters.

Amelie soon became the belle of Paris, acquired a rich husband and with the freedom being a respectable, married woman afforded her, spent her days at balls, horse races, and every other social occassion Paris had to offer a lovely young woman. She created a stir wherever she went.

Considered the most beautiful woman in Paris, her arrival at any destination caused a stir and was recorded in all the newspapers.

Davis describes the glamorous climate of Paris. With the rise of the bourgeouis, shops were catering to the cosmetic demands of their new clientele. We see all the different tricks and methods women used to look beautiful. Amelie took to powdering herself with a pale, lavender powder she believed set her skin off to its most alluring.

Also in Paris was a, as yet unknown but aspiring artist, John Singer Sargent. His career had been going well and his work had been accepted into the Salons for the last couple of years. He conceived of making a portrait of the most famous woman in Paris as a calculated business move to project his career to the heights he reached for.

In short, things did not go as planned. The Paris public hated it. They felt the portrait was shocking, especially since the original version had Amelie's strap hanging off her shoulder. Her skin was described as "corpse-like". The newspapers had a field day. The woman who had so recently been worshipped was now despised. It was the end of Amelie's reign over Paris.

But the beginning of Sargent's career. The notoriety helped propel his career to world fame while Amelie sunk into ignoble anonimity.

Davis' account is thorough and fascinating. We learn about Parisian life, about an unknown Sargent, and the sad ending to a promising life.

What is mostly sad to me, is that such a scandal would ruin a woman. Her entire life was centered around being adored. Even without the painting, she would have eventually aged out of the "beautiful young thing" stage. Apparently being the focus of attention was her only "rasion d'etre". She became a recluse and ultimately died alone, being estranged by that time from even her husband who only served as a financial vehicle at any rate.

I conclude that Amelie was not only vain, but vapid. There are many beautiful young women who, when they aged, still managed to keep a bright social life, largely because they had the intellect to occupy themselves with worthwhile pursuits and good company, even if it wasn't an adoring company of young, besotted men.

In her thirties, Amelie tried to regain her fame. She had several more portraits made of herself, but none that incurred public interest. Her group of admiring men became older and older until she simply stayed home and out of public life.

That is the greatest tragedy. A person who cannot move out of the past. Youth is so fleeting and Amelie never seemed to realize it. She did not even have the foresight to buy her portrait.

Sargent repainted the strap to a more prim location and kept the painting in his studio for more than thirty years. After Amelie died, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where it hangs to this day.

I have seen the painting, when I visited the Museum on many occasions, but I was not interested in American portraiture at the time so barely glanced at it. Now that I have built up my own prior knowledge, I would like to return and see the painting that started a one career and ended another.

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas by Donna M. Lucey

I'm still listening to Jean Sibelius.  Here's his 13 Pieces.

Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the CanvasSargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas by Donna M. Lucey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The value of this book is that if someone is a fan of John Singer Sargent's portraits, as I am, the stories behind four of the portraits are a real boon. No longer are the women staring out at you from the canvas an empty shell but someone with a history.

I suppose if someone were to create a Venn diagram out of the lives of these four women they would see that what they all had in common was the fact that they were extremely rich American women. They belonged to the upper crust of society of the 19th century. But being rich doesn't make someone happy. It does not make someone nice, or a good financial steward or even autonomous over one's life, although they certainly had privileges that the average person did not.

They spent much of their lives in Britain, hanging out with intellectuals and bohemians, scorning the rich business men who were their fathers or husbands, whose money they rode on to live out their idle lives, never working a day themselves.

That may make these ladies less than desirable, but frankly it is true. They were rich and selfish and even though their lives weren't always rosy, a lot of the unhappiness had more to do with strong will and poor marriage choices.

The first portrait is about a youngish girl, Elsie Palmer, who carried a burden of family responsibilities that would have sunk weaker shoulders. But she soldiered on, finally marrying in her thirties, someone who her family was against, but I think she was trying to free herself from her controlling father, especially since she had to leave England to live with him and her sisters in Colorado after her mother died. Her first romance did not work out, because he was a married man and anyway, her sister ran off with him and became his mistress.

The second woman is as vague as her portrait which is only a side view with her face wrapped in a scarf. Sally Fairchild was so beautiful that all sorts of rich and famous men asked for her hand in marriage. She said no to them all and stayed devoted to her mother all her life. And that's about all we know of her, so Lucey concentrates on her more colorful sister Lucia.

Lucia married for love and then spent her life supporting her husband and children through painting. Neither side of the family would support her because they were against her career as an artist. Yet somehow she eked out a living and maintained a social life with the same artists and writers who socialized with the other ladies in the book. She became a known miniaturist in her day, painting tiny portraits of the Morgans, Rockefellers and other prominent members of New York society of the day.

The third portrait is the most beautiful yet. We see a self-possessed woman regarding us with confidence and a calm demeanor. Elizabeth Chanler was one of the famous Astor orphans and lead a childhood that was wild until relatives intervened and put her in a strict British school for ladies. She tended to be sickly while growing up and one of her legs was shorter than the other, probably due to undiagnosed tuberculosis.

Yet when she was old enough she carried on a clandestine affair with her best friend's husband. The whole thing is strange. This man, Jack, beat up a man whom he thought insulted his wife, Minnie. He was mistaken and in penance burned his arm in a fire. The arm was so badly injured it had to be removed. So why did he later cheat on his wife? You're willing to lose an arm for her honor but not be faithful to her?

And why would any woman be attracted to a man of that quality?

Minnie died suddenly, freeing Jack to marry Elizabeth. This he did and soon after went insane. He slowly recovered and they remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives, but his children had their own problems, some committing suicide, which was apparently a habit among the rich. Lucia and Sally Fairchild had four brothers who also ended their lives.

Lucey saves the most scandalous for last. Isabelle Stewart Gardner married money and lavished it on herself and her interests. She seemed to have two main interests: scandalizing Boston society with rebellious and outrageous behavior (by Victorian standards) and collecting art. Her portrait by Sargent is considered risque because her "decolletage" is exposed with a low cut dress. Frankly I've seen lower necklines on earlier portraits. Gardner adored her portrait and the uproar it caused. Frankly I find it hideous. She stands with her hands clasped in front of her with her rear end jutting out, looking as wide as a gate, probably due to the corset was wearing and her mouth open.

Her husband, upon seeing it said, "Well, it looks like hell, but it looks just like you."

While I found the women in this book not the most particularly interesting people I've read about, it did inspire a thirst for more of Sargent's art and I have ordered some books of his work accordingly.

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Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

 I hope you enjoy this link to Bach's Flute Sonata in E-Flat Major performed by Emmanuel Pahud accompanied by Trevor Pinnock on harpsichord.

Note:  I have revised this review in order to take out a few spoilers.

The Radetzky MarchThe Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book I have read by Roth and it was very interesting. We begin with the Battle of Solferino, which was part of the battle for Italian independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph I is saved from a lethal bullet by a Lt. Trotta who throws himself in front of the Emperor and takes the bullet for himself, but survives.

The Emperor gives Trotta a Baronetcy, which thrusts Trotta and his progeny into the uncomfortable realm of aristocracy. Baron Trotta does not wear it well and continues to act like the peasant he was born as, retiring to his estates and burying himself there.

His son becomes a District Captain and his son becomes a Officer in the Calvary. While the District Captain upholds his aristocratic bearing, his son sinks into ignominy through the usual way of women, alcohol and gambling.

The lives of these three men parallel the rise and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is the back drop for the story.

The first Trotta barely enters into the story while the focus centers on the second Trotta and his son. The father being the pinnacle of proper conduct and honor and his son the opposite.

The youngest Trotta is a tragic figure because his thinking is so simple. He has no friends, he does not connect to his fellow officers and when he finally makes friends with a man, it is complicated and tragic because the man is Jewish.

This friend is interesting. He is also an outcast because he is Jewish. Joseph Roth, while being Jewish himself, did not write "Jewish ethnic" literature the way Isaac Bashevis Singer or Chaim Potok does.  One would not necessarily know Roth was Jewish from his writing.  In this he is like Stephen Zweig.  In fact I find their writing similar.

Yet, they do bring Jewish characters into their writing and show the racism and discrimination against them during the time period.

By the time of WWI, the Trotta fortune is gone, the Archduke has been assassinated and when it's all over the Empire no longer exists.

The interplay between father and son and the personal relationships with others is what I found the most intriguing about the story. There is a sequel called the Emperor's Tomb which follows the Trotta family and Austria into Nazi Germany. I am looking forward to reading this book as well.

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

Here is the second movement of John Davison's Sonata for Trombone and Piano. This is not my favorite interpretation but I could not find another one on youtube.

I found this book in the Boulder Bookstore in Colorado.  I had heard about Zweig and was curious to read his work.  If this is a good example I will be looking for more of his work.

Beware of PityBeware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was quite powerful. I do not know when I have become so emotionally involved with a story. I found myself involuntarily having conversations with the characters, lecturing them on their fatal flaws.

This is a book about fatal flaws. Our protganist, Hofmiller, is an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer stationed at a small village at the edge of the empire, in what would now be Hungary.

While there he encounters a wealthy family who welcomes him like a family member. Hofmiller is delighted while surprised and a little confused. Why have such important people included him so definitely into their life?

The story is written in first person so we hear every thought Hofmiller has as he tells his tale. The family's name is Kakesfalva and Herr von Kakesfalva practically adopts Hofmiller as a son and treasured guest.

Kakesfalva lives in a large estate, owns most of the property of the village and is kept company by his beautiful niece, Ilona, and his daughter, Edith.

What starts out as a pleasant break from his harsh existence as a soldier gradually turns into a psychological nightmare, making his life in the barracks as a carnival in comparison.

Edith is a teenager, maybe seventeen, and a few years ago, by some kind of staph infection, probably polio, lost the use of her legs. She has kept the household enslaved and miserable with her bitterness. Lashing the whip with threats of hurting herself. Her father and her cousin are completely in her thrall.

Hofmiller finds himself becoming ever more entangled in this unhappy family's affairs. At first he is invited simply to keep them company and provide diversion for an otherwise weary existence. But as time passes, it becomes evident that the family all expect more from him.

And here is the hero's fatal flaw. Even though he becomes more and more ill at ease visiting, he is afraid to extricate himself for fear that it would destroy Edith.

This story is a brilliant discourse on emotional manipulations. Not just the manipulators but people who allow themselves to become manipulated, all because of pity.

Hofmiller knows that pity is his only motivation for continuing his relationship with the family. He sees it and feels absolutely helpless. And by acting out of pity, he makes the situation worse and worse. In the end, he still does not see clearly. He thinks too poorly of the Kakesfalvas and too highly of his own ability to "save" Edith to do the right thing.

I do not want to give away the plot because there are some interesting and unexpected developments that take the reader deeper into the lives of each character.

But I will end with the last sentence of the book:

.."no guilt is forgotten as long as the conscience still knows of it."

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Sunday, July 1, 2018

She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac translated by Geoffrey Sainbury

Going in a different direction in music.  Honestly, I wasn't listening to classical music while writing this.  This is a recording by a group that got music degrees from University of North Texas in Denton.  My little niece is getting a degree in Interior Design there.  North Texas has a top notch music school; I almost went there but decided to go north.  The band is called Midlake and the song is Roscoe.  I personally love the subtle harmonies that are above and below the main singer.  They blend so well.

I first became interested in this book because of one of my favorite detectives, Columbo.  If I ever get another bird, I will name him after the lovable, squint-eyed Lieutenant. 

I came across an article where the creator of the TV series wrote where he got the idea for the Columbo.  He mentioned the detective in Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and another detective in the movie Les Diaboliques.  Curious, I watched the movie.  Then I read the book.  Below is my review.

She Who Was No MoreShe Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is undoubtedly one of the most suspenseful and unexpected stories I have read.

I first saw the movie, which took a little away from the book since I had foreknowledge of certain key elements and, honestly, I don't know whether to advise seeing the movie first or reading the book, because whichever one you do first, it will rob you of a great surprise. But both the movie and the book are extremely good.

Incidentally the movie is titled, Les Diaboliques and is in French with sub-titles. Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make the film but French film director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, beat him out by a nose. It would be interesting to have seen how Hitchcock would develop the film, but I do not know if Clouzot's version could be surpassed.

I will tell you just enough of the plot to know what the storyline is about but I won't give anything away, because that would be robbing you of what makes this story so successful.

Fernand Ravinel leads an existential life and is sick of it. His wife, Mireille, is faithful and good, but a bore. Yet he knows that he is also bore. He acquires a mistress, which alleviates some of the emptiness in his life but he knows that he bores her as well.

The mistress, Lucienne, hatches a horrible plan that should turn their lives in a better direction. Or so she claims. Together they plot to murder Mireille. Afterwards they will start new lives away from Paris and down to southern France.

I say together they hatch a plot, but really Lucienne is the mastermind. She instructs Ravinel to take out a life insurance plan on himself. Mireille decides to do the same. After Mireille's life insurance is secure, Ravinel lures his wife to a hotel where he is staying (he is a traveling salesman).

When she arrives, he prepares a drink for her which is drugged, but not too much. Just enough to knock her out. Lucienne is a doctor and has taken every precaution. After Mireille is unconscious, Ravinel and Lucienne drag her to the bath tub, which is full of water and put her under with weights on top and leave her for forty-eight hours.

Two days later, they pick up the body and take it to Ravinel and Mireille's house and dump it in a stream behind the yard. It should look like she slipped and knocked herself unconscious and drowned.

And that is all you're going to get.

The movie's strength is that everything is visual with very little talking. The book's strength is the opposite. The narrator is Ravinel in third-person, limited. We read every single thing Ravinel is thinking. His observations about his life, about Mireille, Lucienne, about what he did, why he did it. The suspense and torture of trying to work out their plan. His desperate hopes for a new life.

And his thoughts about the shocking things that happen next.

Boileau-Narcejac were a writing team, several of whose books were turned into film versions, most famously by Alfred Hitchcock: Vertigo; and Eyes Without a Face by Jean Redon.

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