Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants *

2356412883.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book #99: ♫ Parle-leur de batailles de rois et d’éléphants / Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants* by Mathias Enard ★★★★½
Source: Municipal Library
Edition: Audiolib (2011), Unabridged MP3 CD; 3h20
Awards & Distinctions: Goncourt des lycéens (2010)
Goncourt Shortlist (2010)
Original publication date: 2010

I picked up this amazing little book because it came highly recommended in a “best of” directory consisting mainly of French writings (La bibliothèque idéale RTL edited by Bernard Lehut); it has not been translated into English yet, but it can only be a matter of time given it won a prestigious French literary award, its vastly famous protagonist—the artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, aka Michelangelo—and the compelling premise that the great Italian Renaissance master had made a trip to what was then known as Constantinople in 1506 after being invited by Sultan Bayezid II.

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8th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Bayezid II (1447 – 1512)

From a few verifiable facts, Mathias Enard has weaved a highly poetic tale on the premise that following the Sultan’s invitation, (which Michelangelo’s famous biographer Giorgio Vasari noted in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), the great master did in fact accept the invitation and spent three months in Constantinople to present plans for a bridge connecting the Eastern and Western parts of the great capital. Sultan Bayezid II has been mostly forgotten by history, but it seems he was a great visionary who promoted learning, fine arts, poetry and earned the epithet of “the Just” because of the smooth running of his domestic policies. Among other things, he organized the evacuation of Jewish and Muslim Spanish civilians who were evicted from Spain as part of the Inquisition, and granted them full Ottoman citizenship. Bayezid II was keen to have a bridge designed by one of the great Italian Renaissance masters, and asked Leonardo da Vinci to submit his designs first. This drawing is still in existence today, but it seems the proposed bridge was deemed impossible to build with the technology available at the time and it was rejected by the Sultan’s engineers, after which Bayezid II turned to Michelangelo.

The story he weaves here begins with Michelangelo’s arrival to Constantinople in May 1506, where is he given shelter by an Italian merchant and greeted by one of the Sultan’s protégés, the Ottoman poet Mesihi of Pristina. The two men couldn’t be more different; Mesihi, though now still considered as an important contributor to Ottoman letters, having died young in an impoverished state and total obscurity, while Michelangelo went on to become rich and famous and died towards the end of his ninth decade. Mesihi enjoyed much food and drink, and openly courted both men and women, while Michelangelo was of an ascetic nature, refusing all drink and eating little. But here Enard imagines the two men developing an unlikely friendship and the poet introducing the renaissance artist to a performer of great beauty and indefinable sex during one of their outings. The language is sublime, and we are privy to some of Michelangelo’s actual correspondence with one of his brothers, which Enard has translated into French for his book.

As for the intriguing title of the short novel, the author took the sentence from Rudyard Kipling’s preface of Life’s Handicap, a short story collection. This preface contains a fictive conversation between Kipling and “Gobind the one-eyed”, a holy beggar, who explains the art of telling stories:

“Tell them first of those things that thou hast seen and they have seen together. Thus their knowledge will piece out thy imperfections. Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike. All the earth is full of tales to him who listens and does not drive away the poor from his door. The poor are the best of tale-tellers; for they must lay their ear to the ground every night”.

Such a beautifully told tale that it’s well worth reading twice in a row.

*Proposed translation for the English title

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Rich, Dark and Fascinating

f82e1d6edf8d49759716a676a51444341587343♫ Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth ★★★★½
Source: Audible.com
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 19h26
Original publication date: 2012

Partly based on the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force—a cousin of the Sun King, Louis XIV—who was banished from the court of Versailles by the King for a series of scandalous affairs to live in a nunnery, this book interweaves her own life story with the fairy tale we’ve come to know as Rapunzel. According to Wikipedia, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, or Mademoiselle de La Force, was a French novelist and poet, and her best-known work was her 1698 fairy tale Persinette which was adapted by the Brothers Grimm as the story Rapunzel, though it seems this story originally came from an Italian folk tale which Mademoiselle de La Force would have had no way of becoming acquainted with, and Kate Forsyth uses her ample skill as a novelist to suggest how this now famous fairy tale might have been transmitted to her.
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When Charlotte-Rose arrives at the convent where she is to spend the rest of her life locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, she meets with a harsh and brutal reception. Stripped of her luxurious court garments and shorn of her cascading locks of hair, then systematically bullied by her overseer, she is eventually taken under the wing of an old nun, Soeur Seraphina, who comforts her with an old Italian folk tale about a young girl who was taken from her parents because her father has stolen a handful of bitter greens; before little Margherita was born, her mother nearly died during the pregnancy because she was unable to eat. At her request, her husband stole a handful of herbs from the garden of the renowned courtesan next door. According to the story, Selena Leonelli was a famous courtesan in the Venice in the 16th century, the favourite model of a great painter, and by that point also a powerful witch with dark powers. When she catches Margherita’s father stealing the herbs, she threatens him with declaring him to the authorities, the punishment for theft being the cutting off of both hands. A bargain is made, and so the parents must agree to eventually give their daughter away. On her seventh birthday, Margherita is taken away, first to a convent to receive a proper education and then into a tower where she is shut off for years, her only visitor being Selena Leonelli on monthly calls and blood rites. There are monstrous secrets hidden in the tower, which has no doors nor stairs, and Margherita must drag around yards of hair which the witch uses to climb up to the only window every month, and the only company the girl has the rest of the time is her own beautiful voice to distract herself, with the hope that someday somebody might hear her and come to her rescue.

Kate Forsyth has a gift for storytelling and we get a narrative from three points of view: there is Charlotte-Rose, locked away in the convent and looking back on her youthful follies and excesses; Margherita in her tower, becoming a woman and looking back on her childhood while learning to outsmart a powerful witch; and Selena Leonelli, telling her own fascinating life story starting in the plague-ridden Venice of the early 16th century and explaining how and why she became Margherita’s jailer. The long narrative of her life is perhaps the most fascinating of all.

I haven’t yet read Angela Carter, and looking forward to redressing that omission, but from the descriptions I’ve read about the way she retells fairy tales, it seems Kate Forsyth has also adopted a very modern, adult and feminist point of view which is rich, dark and fascinating. Certainly miles away from the Disney folks and their ilk. A thrilling book with which to start the year, and heartily recommended.

A Drawing Project

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I’ve just posted the gallery above, showing the progression from start to finish of my latest completed piece on my art blog, createthreesixty5.com. You are welcome to view the post (and larger images) and leave comments if you like by clicking here.

At Play with 420 Characters

420 Characters by Lou Beach ★★★★
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011), Kindle eBook with audio selections

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“Danny and I stand outside the church, fidget in our muted plaid sport coats. Maybe not muted enough. An old guy in a tuxedo walks up to Danny and hands him some car keys. “What’s this?” says Danny. “Aren’t you the parking valet?” says the guy. “No, I’m the best man.” The guy walks away and we see him later inside. He’s the father of the bride. “Oh, it’s going to be a fun reception,” Danny says, taking out the flask.”

Lou Beach is a well-known artist (but recent discovery to me) who has done many illustrations for clients such as Wired, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (where he was a regular contributor to the Book Review). The bio on his website starts with the following paragraph: “I was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, killed me a bear when I was only three. No, wait..I was born in Germany of Polish parents, came to the US when I was only four, spent my youth in Rochester, New York, riding my bike, building snow forts, throwing chestnuts at the kid down the street. I was a fair student, no great shakes, disappointing several teachers by not realizing my “full potential.”

Right away, you know you’re dealing with a highly creative individual who doesn’t take himself too seriously, especially given the kinds of illustrations which animate his site (see below). I discovered Beach when I was looking up reviews for The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann, offered as a Kindle daily deal one day and landed on the NYT review page featuring one of his gorgeous illustrations. Looking up his blog, I found out he’d published this book, which is a collection of short stories exactly 420 characters long, including punctuation, which he had initially published as his Facebook status updates when the site only allowed that specific amount of text. The kindle edition includes some illustrations and several audio selection read by Dave Alvin, Ian McShane, and Jeff Bridges. As can be expected from this sort of project, the results are a mixed bag. There are some sublime moments, some ho-hum moments, and some head-scratching ‘WTF?’ moments, but undeniably, the man had fun with the form and a reader is bound to find something that appeals. A few examples that worked for me:

The servants seem peculiar lately. The kitchen help, the housekeeper, and the gardener move about in a shuffle, mumbling, glazed. When I confront them they appear startled, as if just awakened. Only Claude, the chauffeur, retains his old demeanour, sneering or scowling, smoking a Gauloises as he leans against the Packard, wiping a long black fender with my cashmere sweater.

***

A bird lives on my head, nests in my hair, pecks at my scalp. A finch, I believe. When I go out in public I cover it with a hat, so it’s away from prying eyes and cats who would climb my body to catch it. Sometimes on the bus I notice others wearing hats, and if there are seeds or an errant feather on their shoulders, I nod and smile and preen.

***

I lay the book on the floor, open to the middle. It’s a lovely volume, green leather covers, engraved endpapers. I remove my shoes and step into it up to my ankles, knees, hips, chest, until only my head is showing and the pages spread around me and the words bob up and down and bump into my neck, and the punctuation sticks to my chin and cheeks so I look like I need a shave.

***

And my favourite:

“Are you my mommy?” said the little blue egg. “No, dear. You are a plastic trinket full of sweets,” said the brown hen. “My baby is over there,” and she pointed to a pink marshmallow chick being torn apart and devoured by a toddler. The hen screamed and woke up, her pillow wet with sweat, the sheets twisted around her legs. “Christ, I hate that dream.” She reached for a smoke.

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More stories which weren’t included in the book can be found on his site: loubeach.com/stories/

A drawing in 12 snapshots

This woman on the metro with her pensive demeanour really inspired me to draw her, and I was lucky enough to capture her expression on a candid shot I could work from, since drawing her right there and then wasn’t an option. The image above shows the work in progress. See the gallery for the final drawing right here: createthreesixty5.com/2012/10/05/pensive-lady-a-drawing-in-12-snapshots

Sitting on the balcony, drawing my dad.

Hope all you fathers out there have been enjoying your day. My dad and I sort of celebrated yesterday, when I invited him over to sit for me for some drawings on my balcony over homemade lemonade and cookies. Then we enjoyed a viewing of Les triplettes de Belleville, an awesome animated movie from 2003 which was an international co-production (France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Canada) and was nominated for a couple of Academy Awards. Having been thoroughly entertained and impresses with the level of artistry in this nearly wordless production,  I see what all the fuss was about.

The two adorable mutts in my dad’s arms are my Coco and his Lulu, a high energy girl who is sweet and calm once she’s settled down. In the background is a large drawing I did of my dad just minutes before I took this photo. You can view it, along with preliminary sketches I did, on my other blog, createthreesixty5.com.

Beware the Crazy Woman

My first watercolour class of the session was today and it was… interesting. It’s a full class, whereas last term we had a very small group, so I needed to adjust to having so many people there. This one woman showed up and her appearance dismayed several of those who had had the bad luck of having her as a classmate before. She criticizes absolutely everything in a very loud, strident voice, when she’s barely even gotten through the door. I’ve had words with her in the past, so I have to really keep my temper and attitude in check because she has a way of driving me crazy. She thinks nothing of putting down a person’s work, which is completely unacceptable behaviour in this school, where they really strive to create a nurturing environment. But then—anybody who thinks they don’t have artistic talent? should see this woman’s work. This woman apparently thinks she has a gift though. The stuff she showed today literally made me feel sick. Yes, that bad. The teacher usually finds the loveliest things to say about everybody’s work—it’s a real talent she has—no matter how much or how little talent a person has, and she was more or less rendered speechless, along with everyone else. She pleaded the fifth after class when I asked her about it, and that told me everything I needed to know. Continue reading