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Posts Tagged ‘Romance’

Friday, November 7, 2014 @ 01:11 AM  posted by sysadmin

A beautiful visual tone poem about the Seine. The Seine plays a huge part in both The French Art of Stealing and its sequel, The French Art of Revenge.

The French Art of Revenge by Mark Zero

The Heartbreaking Grace of Claire-Marie Osta

Wednesday, December 28, 2011 @ 12:12 AM  posted by Mark

From the Joyful First Act of Oneguine

I attended Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Oneguine,” choreographed by John Cranko, on Christmas Eve at the Palais Garnier. The venue, of course, is magnificent, from the florid ornamentations and plush red velvet of its balconies and box seats to the refreshing ceiling mural by Marc Chagall. The acoustics of the hall are superb, and the orchestra of the National Opera of Paris played almost flawlessly, so the setting and accompaniment of the ballet were second to none.

Here’s a brief clip of the hall: The Chagall Ceiling and Balconies of the Palais Garnier

The narrative of the ballet is adapted from Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, a story of romance, unrequited love, duels of honor and, ultimately, heartbreak, as the heroine Tatyana is forced to give up her love of Onegin to remain faithful to her husband. The performance I saw on Christmas Eve was mesmerizing, as the dancers delivered the cathartic power of Pushkin’s story with grace and strength (the stars were Claire-Marie Osta, Benjamin Pech, Mathilde Froustey, and Josua Hoffalt). Though the following clip can’t do justice to the magic of the performances or the stellar sound of the orchestra in the hall, it at least gives a taste of the ballet. Unfortunately, no video is available of the third act, in which Tatyana breaks both Onegin’s heart and her own in order to keep her honor.

Video excerpts from the First Two Acts of the Ballet Oneguine

This performance reaffirmed my belief in the cathartic power of art, and the otherworldly grace of the dancers conjured a beauty beyond the power of words to describe. I am normally not effusive or sentimental, but this company, the orchestra and the amazing hall combined to make a magical evening.

A Charming Christmas Eve

Sunday, December 25, 2011 @ 11:12 AM  posted by Mark

The Champs Elysees and rue de Rivoli were packed with nervous last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve, so I avoided the crowds and headed for the back alleys of Village Saint Paul in the Marais, where the atmosphere was calmer and more genial. I had a few last-minute gifts to buy myself before attending Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Oneguine” in the evening, so I strolled toward a lovely anglophile bookstore called the Red Wheelbarrow. Holiday cheer filled the air, and there were a few quiet little surprises for la veille de Noël. I captured a couple of them.

One of thousands of Christmas tree displays around town.

A charming anglophile bookshop in the Marais.

Champagne was flowing at the Red Wheelbarrow.

Penelope, the charming owner of the Red Wheelbarrow.

Here’s a brief video clip of an intriguing Christmas display in Village St. Paul:
Christmas display Rue St Paul

Bouquinistes on the Seine. Occasionally, you find a treasure here: today, I discovered an old copy of Denis de Rougement's "La Part du Diable."

And finally, before heading back to wrap gifts and dress for the ballet, I stopped by the Hotel de Ville to see their charming Christmas pyramids:

The charming lights of the Hotel de Ville.

Golden Rings

Saturday, December 10, 2011 @ 11:12 AM  posted by Mark

File Under Socialist Wedding Gifts

I recently got a new wedding ring (someone else’s), by accident, in the Jardin des Tuileries. I was walking along, minding my own business, when a little old woman, tottering toward me, suddenly bent down to the ground and scooped something up. She approached me and said, “Excuse me, sir, you dropped your ring,” and she held up a shiny golden band. This is a fairly common scam in the tourist areas of Paris: somebody “finds” something you dropped, you say “no, that’s not mine,” they say, “well, you should keep it anyway as a souvenir, and by the way I don’t have enough money to eat, and you just got this stroke of luck, maybe you could share your luck with me and give me some money.”

That’s more or less the way this encounter went, except that the little old woman didn’t ask for money. I said,” No, it’s not mine,” she said “well, it’s a man’s wedding ring, much too big for me, what am I going to do with it, just keep it.” I put the ring on and it fit like a charm! “Really?” I said. “Sure,” she said. “Have a nice day.”

I looked around to see if someone was coming up to pick my pocket, but it was just me and the old woman. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”

As I was walking away, however, the woman came running up behind me and said, “You know, come to think of it, I don’t have a place to stay tonight.” I rolled my eyes, took the ring off and tried to hand it back to her. “Forget it,” I said. “Take the ring back.” And now, instead of begging some more, the woman became intensely angry. She refused to take the ring back and instead started cursing me and then gave an impassioned speech about the injustice of the world and how unfair it was that some people have vast riches and some people starve on the street, and there was no logic or merit in the distribution of wealth and so on. I’d met a socialist revolutionary old woman street gypsy.

Most people, I think, would simply have walked away, but the longer she talked, the more I found that I agreed with the woman. The world is unjust! So I told her I would give her all the change in my pocket. Sometimes, this can be as much as eight or ten euros, as one often collects one- and two-euro coins throughout the day in Paris. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, I had only a measly sixty centimes, which I offered to the woman.

She took the money, counted it, and spat. “What am I going to do with sixty centimes?!” she yelled. She had a point. It was quite bad luck, but I wasn’t about to take my wallet out in a tourist area while being harangued by a gypsy, and anyway, she was getting on my nerves. So I offered her the ring back, and she refused and kept yelling!

I turned to walk away, at which time a very dapper Parisian man wearing a sleek gray suit and expensive overcoat came up and started explaining quite forcefully to the woman how interested the cops would be if they found someone in the Jardin des Tuileries yelling at people, and the two got into a huge fight. I sauntered away and crossed the pedestrian bridge in front of the Orsay Museum, holding my hand up to the sun, admiring my new quasi-golden band/quasi-shower curtain ring. Whatever else you might say about it, it fits perfectly!

The Jardin des Tuileries

Scene of the Crime, the Jardin des Tuileries

Romeo & Juliet Make an Omelet

Sunday, February 14, 2010 @ 11:02 AM  posted by Mark

The classical idea of romance is tragic—the lovers want something they really can’t have in this lifetime, and so someone must ultimately be sacrificed to the idea of love. Romance survives as an ideal precisely because it can never quite be realized in this imperfect world, where a collicky baby keeps Juliet up half the night and then Romeo prattles irritatingly at the breakfast table about the Veronese government. Imagine Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, surrounded by a brood of yammering children, Romeo with a paunch and baggy eyes, Juliet with stretch marks. Their days are filled with the (possibly happy) tedium of everyday life, but happy or sad, the idea of eternal union was not what Shakespeare was going for—that’s not romance—it was the ideal of eternal longing.

Romance has a tough time in this modern world because of our many freedoms: we are free to marry or not, to sleep with our lovers or not, to divorce and remarry without censure, and no one really believes in immortal damnation for the soul who commits adultery or divorces or defies the will of the parents by eloping with someone from another kingdom. In our individual lives, the barriers to love that once inspired romance have disappeared, and without real obstacles, the ideal of romance simply does not apply. That’s why there are so many absurd, unbelievable obstacles thrown in the way of modern lovers, which make both their romance and their union ridiculous (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, anyone?). But does the ideal of romance survive today?

Happily, yes.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is not, in its main concerns, a romance. It asserts the redemptive value of art in a world where not all mistakes can be confessed or forgiven. However, the romance around which the major action revolves is classically romantic with a modern twist—not only are the lovers sacrificed for the ideal of Love, their romance takes place only after the lovers are already dead. It’s an ingenious way for us to eat our cake and have it to: by displacing the romance with a metafictional device, McEwan creates a satisfying romance in the classical sense and uses it to make a statement about storytelling itself. One of the best novels of the aughts.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient features a straight up classical romance, with real obstacles of class, adultery, enmity and the lure of Impossible. The fact that it won the Booker Prize indicates how much we still long for the classical myth of Romance in our fictions and that, however self-aware and detached our modern attitude toward love, compared with earlier eras, we’re not beyond believing that our feelings are more important than life itself. The tragic sacrifice of the lovers in this novel return us to a conception of romance as ethereal, impossible and desirable.

Alain de Botton’s charming novel On Love is a prime example of what happens to romance in modern times. Witty and deft, the novel nevertheless replaces all the tragedy of classical Love with mathematical calculations, the exaltation of the everyday over transcendent passion, and the acknowledgment that any particular romance is just one in a string of romances that you will indulge and that will fail before you settle into marriage. A delightful book, with its share of surprise, discovery and romantic gestures, On Love captures the true-life experience of love for many of us moderns: engaging, essential but not transcendent. The One True Love has been replaced by the one you happen, by luck and effort, to work out all the details with. No lightning strikes or love potions here.

Finally, I would like to recommend the tale that started it all, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Quite a few versions exist, with minor variations, but this is the Bedier version. It’s a medieval story, so it has a fairy tale ring to our modern ears, and it has everything you want in a romance: passion, longing, adultery, battles with giants, dangerous voyages and most of all, a love to die for. As the model for all romances that came after it, right down to The English Patient, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult is still the best tale of love you can find: quick-paced, moving and tragic, it will make you long for the days when everyone knew what romance was and knew how to make real romantic gestures.

On a personal note: though the story of romance has been degraded by modern freedoms, I would still say that it’s possible to use the old, tragic gestures to express true love. Today, Valentine’s Day, my wife and I will be attending a matinee of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, after which I will make her favorite dish for dinner, which we’ll eat by candlelight. Is that romantic??

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Does Romance lead to Marriage? Turgenev’s Spring Torrents

Thursday, February 11, 2010 @ 01:02 PM  posted by Mark

Several of you took issue with my Valentine’s Week post about Pride and Prejudice, saying that I was unjustly dismissive of Austen only because the romances in P&P lead to happy marriages. Isn’t that where romance is supposed to lead, to a happy marriage? What’s wrong with a happy ending?

There’s nothing wrong with happy endings. Personally, I like happy endings. But Romance does not lead to happy marriages (at least, not in literature), and if you see a happy ending, you’ll know that something other than true Romance is really happening.

Romance in literature is, by its very nature, against marriage. In fact, even the “romantic” stories that end happily in marriage end with the wedding: these “happy ending” novels and plays and movies have no interest whatsoever in the married couple or their happiness, since there is no drama in marriage, no ideal of longing—all these stories care about is the obstacles to love. The happy ending wedding brings characters who have been in defiance of community morals back into line with accepted codes. We don’t go to romances for happy endings, because that’s not what they’re designed to deliver: we go to romances because we want rapturous longing that doesn’t care about society’s rules, the superiority of noble feelings to everyday morality, and the exaltation of the individual over the community. When they end happily in marriage, these stories reaffirm a basic covenant that they’ve spent their entire length contradicting.

Nastassja Kinski played Polozova in a 1989 film of Spring Torrents.

Great romances always make their protagonists contend against arranged or loveless marriages, hypocrisy, duty and necessity; they are in favor of a transcendent emotion that cannot be contained by society. When a great romance ends in marriage, the great romance itself ends and the lovers are absorbed back into society; when a great romance ends in death or exile, the great romance lives on past the lives of the lovers, as a grand, swooning ideal of love superior to the mere laws of the community (or physics). In the story of Romance, the lovers must die so that Romance itself can live.

Ivan Turgenev‘s curious little novel Spring Torrents is an excellent example of the great love that refuses to end in marriage. It’s especially telling that there are no good reasons in the story of the novel for the protagonists not to have a happy ending—the main character, Sanin, simply chooses not to marry his beloved. This choice is represented as an unhappy one, made seemingly against his will, but in fact he must choose not to marry his beloved in order to prolong his romantic feelings for her and not ruin them with the less dramatic comforts of marriage.

As Jane Austen captures the plight of middle class Englishwomen with wit and clarity, Turgenev describes the stranger in a strange land with insight and sympathy. The protagonist of Spring Torrents is Sanin, a minor Russian aristocrat traveling abroad for the first time, having adventures and falling in love. (Here‘s a clip of Timothy Hutton as Sanin in the 1989 film, doing a Russian mating dance for Gemma). Through a series of mishaps, he is stranded temporarily in Frankfurt, where he falls in love with Gemma, a clerk in her family’s pastry shop. Gemma is already engaged to another man, Herr Kluber, but Sanin falls instantly in love with her, anyway (why not?). In the course of events, Sanin saves Gemma’s brother’s life; and, more importantly, when a soldier insults Gemma, Sanin defends her honor when her fiance will not. Eventually, Gemma rejects Herr Kluber and agrees to marry Sanin. Sanin is overjoyed, the family is happy, Gemma is happy: cue music, roll credits.

Not so fast! Jane Austen might have Sanin marry Gemma, now that the obstacles to their love have been examined and exorcised, but Turgenev is not interested in affirming the basic structure of marriage or society’s rules. He’s so interested in keeping his Romance between Gemma and Sanin alive that he subverts it with a ruinous, unmotivated, even cruel plot twist. In order to pay for the wedding, Sanin agrees to sell some land in Russia to an aristocratic Russian woman, Polozova, who is sojourning in a nearby town. While away from Gemma transacting this business, he has an affair with the woman (who is married!), and then he abandons Gemma and follows Poozova and her husband to Paris. There, he is tormented by both Polozova and his love for Gemma and ultimately returns to Petersburg a broken man. In a coda, we learn that Sanin loved Gemma for the rest of his life; in his old age, he travels back to Frankfurt to find her and learns that she is happily married. Gemma forgives him for abandoning her.

If we didn’t understand that Romance is about eternal longing rather than happy marriage, the plot of Spring Torrents would be incoherent. As an instance of Romance, though, it’s perfectly realized. Sanin himself doesn’t even understand why he chooses to undermine his great love for Gemma, but we as readers know it is because, in the myth of Romance, great love is always opposed to marriage. Sanin chooses to desperately desire Gemma forever rather than have her because by doing so he may pine for an ideal that is always alive in his heart rather than live in an untranscendent reality.

Despite the fact that I’ve just spilled the plot to Spring Torrents, I would still recommend it, because, like all great literature, its value is not in its plot, and there is one sublime extended scene near the end of the book that will stay with you long after you finish reading this slender volume.

Romance is an ideal of passionate desire. Marriage is a reality of devotion. Romance places the lover’s own satisfaction above everything—God, family, law. Marriage places the partner’s well-being above one’s own. Are these two kinds of love mutually exclusive? Maybe not in life, but in literature?

If you know a passionate novel of romance whose main couple is already married to each other at the beginning and stays together through the end, please let me know.

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Today in the Holocene: Valentine’s Week

Monday, February 8, 2010 @ 04:02 PM  posted by Mark

All this week, leading up to Valentine’s Day, I’ll be writing about romances, so I thought it best to kick off the series with a little background. By romance, I don’t mean the quasi-pornographic bustier-busters you see at grocery store checkouts or the heroic medieval verse narratives of knights like Gawain and Orlando; instead, I mean the middle ground that romance has settled into for most of us, the novels and movies of mainstream Western culture, which form the very heart of what we consider romantic love today. The novels I’ll be discussing—ranging from Pride & Prejudice through Atonement, with stops along the way at Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville, Flaubert and Turgenev—have so thoroughly shaped our personal, individual ideas of “falling in love” that it’s easy to forget that romance is just a Western European invention.

To start Valentine’s Week, I’d like to recommend three entertaining critical books about what romance is, how it developed and how its earliest forms continue to influence our lives. Sandra Bullock‘s romantic comedies, the novels we read to forget our often unromantic lives, and the very assumptions we unconsciously make about our lovers, wives and husbands all began as radical new ideas in the early Middle Ages, though now those ideas are so familiar that they’re nearly invisible.

Paul Zweig’s The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism looks at how Narcissism influences our ideas of love, religion and society. Ever been with someone you’ve just fallen in love with and get the feeling that, when they look deeply into your eyes, they might actually be seeing themselves and not you at all? You’re not alone. Zweig analyzes the work of the medieval authors of Romance (Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Chretien de Troyes) to show how Narcissism is built into the very idea of romantic attraction. He also explores how the romantic exaltation of the individual affects our ideas of God, government and art.

Denis de Rougement’s classic study of the origins of Romance, Love in the Western World, describes how all the traditional elements of love came together: the damsel in distress, the shining knight on the white horse, and the forbidden desires that must be hidden from the lovers’ families. He covers everything from the Iberian poetry of Sufi mystics in the 9th Century to the screwball romantic comedies of the 1940s. He also discusses how the basic ideas of love solidified in the popular imagination with the real-life love affair of Heloise and Abelard and the fictional tragedies of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet. Engaging and polemical, de Rougement occasionally makes leaps that other historians have disputed (he connects the chansons of Provençal bards to the Catharist heresy that inspired the first Catholic Inquisition in a way that evidence does not entirely support), but the originality of his insights is impressive and his thoroughness in exploring the implications of his thesis, in literature and in everyday life, ultimately convinces.

Finally, to get even more “meta” on the lit/crit side of things, Northrop Frye‘s The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance offers a free-wheeling study of the different forms Romantic literature takes and why the form (epic verse, chanson, play, opera, novel, pop song) matters to the meaning of the work. Our ideas of what Romance means change when the forms of the stories change, and his wide-ranging discussion includes Classical Greek and Roman drama, the stories of O. Henry, William Golding, Benjamin Franklin and The Magic Flute. Frye’s digression into the differences between the erotic and the pornographic is entertaining.

Romance is a complex myth, one of the founding myths of our modern culture, and Valentine’s Day has reduced it to flowers and chocolates and happily-ever-afters. But Cupid still has some poisoned arrows in his quiver, and if you see him coming, you might just want to run for cover.

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