I am here for you

st-basils

This is my entry for this week’s What pegman saw, a writing prompt based on Google Streetview. Stories have to be 150 words or fewer.  This week’s location is the Red Square in Moscow. See here to join in and to read the other stories.

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You did not think I would come here to find you, all the way to Moscow.  You thought you were safe.

Your sweet looks deceived me at first.  Like St. Basil’s Cathedral, your face was a swirl of colors: blue, yellow, red.  Like the cathedral with its swirls of frosting and candy cane stripes, you looked so cheerful, so playful, so harmless.

Ivan the Terrible commissioned St. Basil’s.  After its completion, Ivan had the architect blinded. That way, he could not replicate the design for anyone else.   I suppose that is a compliment of sorts.  Did you know that Ivan killed his own son in a fit of rage?

After the first time, you swore it would never happen again.  It was just because you were jealous.  Because you loved me so much.  Of course it happened again.

I am no longer blind.  I am here now. I am ready.

 

 

 

You Must Change Your Life

In You Must Change Your Life, Rachel Corbett elucidates the unlikely friendship between French sculptor Auguste Rodin and Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Not only was Rodin 35 years Rilke’s senior, but their personalities were polar opposites. Rilke was sensitive, delicate, refined, while Rodin was robust and carnal.  At the time of their meeting in 1902, Rodin was famous and admired, while Rilke was still unknown. his poetic gifts unformed.   Their meeting was transformative for them both.  Rilke was transfixed by the older artist, and they developed a master-disciple relationship that lasted until Rodin’s death.

rainer_maria_rilke_1900
Photograph of Rainer Maria Rilke Photographer unknown

You Must Change Your Life provides a sketch of both artists’ biographies.  Corbett includes information on the most significant relationships of the two men’s lives, especially the women who surrounded them.  (I wrote a previous blog post here on one of these

NPG x6573; Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford
Photo of Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford

fascinating women: Lou Andreas-Salome.) Corbett is most interested, however, in exploring the process of creativity and artistic development.  In doing so, she delves into the intellectual and artistic currents of late 19th century in order to explain to readers the influences on both Rilke and Rodin.  She explores not only aesthetic theories, but also on other intellectual currents such as philosophy, psychoanalysis, and the newly explored concept of empathy.  Corbett also illuminates the significance of particular places in creativity—especially the city of Paris, which has been the incubator of so many artists.

Of all the many influences on Rilke, Rodin was one of the most important. Rilke allowed himself to be like clay in his master’s hands, yearning to be shaped into something memorable.   He learned many things from the sculptor, especially “the meaning of structure.  [Rodin] had given [Rilke] the blueprint to build his poetry like a carpenter builds four walls around him” (246).  Learning structure was immensely valuable to the poet.

However, Rilke also misunderstood some of Rodin’s advice, much to his detriment.  Rodin urged Rilke to “travailler, toujours travailler” (work, always work).   Unfortunately, Rilke followed this advice literally, sacrificing close relationships and many of the pleasures of his life in order to pursue his art more fervently.  “He had sat around empty hotel rooms, stared at cathedral towers and caged lions, slept in empty beds.  But deep within the body of this lifelong observer was the trace of a ‘still feelable heart’ that had been ‘painfully buried-alive by images,’” observes Corbett.  Rilke had abandoned life “in anticipation of future payoff” (247).

It was only later that Rilke realized that “Rodin had not made any of the sacrifices that he, Rilke, had.  Rodin was no martyr for his art.  How did he live? Full of pleasure, and exactly as he pleased, it turned out” (247).   At first, Rilke felt disillusioned when he realized his mentor was not what he thought he was.   Eventually, though, Rilke realized that nobody, no master, could tell their disciple how to live.  The artist has to figure it out for themselves.  The important thing about art, Rilke realized later in his life, is that “there was never anything waiting on the other side: There was no god, no secret thing, and in most cases no reward.  There was only the doing” (247).   Rilke does, of course, become a great poet.  Corbett does not suggest that Rodin was the only reason for Rilke’s greatness.  He was, nonetheless, a pivotal figure in Rilke’s artistic development.

I found Corbett’s book fascinating.  I would recommend it to readers who are interested in the arts, in creativity, in the cultural and intellectual currents of late 19th century Europe, or even in the city of Paris.  The book contains a number of different “threads,” of which I only touched on a few here.  Perhaps one could fault Corbett for trying to cover too many different topics, leaving a somewhat “meandering” feel to the book.  I, however, enjoyed her excursions into some of the facets of fin-de-siecle European art.

Dickens plus Austen = Gaskell?

elizabeth-gaskellI had never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s work before.  After reading her 1855 novel North and South, I have decided that this 19th century English writer is a cross between Jane Austen (especially Pride and Prejudice) and Charles Dickens (especially Hard Times) because of her combination of social critique, romance, and light satire.

Like Dickens, Gaskell is concerned in her novel with portraying the harsh effects of the industrial revolution on so many people.   Margaret Hale, a young woman in her late teens, is the daughter of a clergyman.  She is not as beautiful as her cousin Edith but people admire her because of her dignity and intelligence.    She grew up in the South of England partly in the  beautiful village of Helstone and partly in London.  At the beginning of the novel, Margaret discovers that she has to leave her beloved Helstone parsonage and move north to Milton, an industrial city (based on Manchester).  Her father is moving the family because he has some dissenting views from the Church of England and no longer feels he can remain a clergyman in good conscience.  (If Gaskell explained what these dissenting views were, I missed it.  Why keep them a secret?)

Margaret and her mother nearly have a nervous breakdown because of the move.  One would think nothing worse had ever befallen a soul than having to move homes to a new town. Margaret finds Milton lamentable at first.  A large, bustling, dirty industrial town with bad air, it has none of the charms of her beloved Helstone or the sophistication of London.  It also lacks the “right” type of people—gentlemen and their families.  Instead, it is full of industrialists and people who are in trade.  Margaret looks down her nose at all such people.

She begins to soften her stance towards Milton when she makes some new friends—some people who work in the mills.  However, by getting to know the “hands,” as they are called, she learns how deplorable the conditions are for them.  She learns that one young woman is dying at age 18 because of breathing in so much cotton.  She also learns how hard it is for the “hands” to make ends meet with the money they make and she sympathizes with them when they go on strike.  It is Gaskell’s sympathetic portrayal of the “hands” and her critical view of industrialism that reminds me most of Dickens.  (Apparently, Dickens was her editor, so this resemblance is perhaps not surprising.)

North and South reminds me more of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when it comes to her characters and her wit.  Margaret meets mill owner (and self-made man) John Thornton when she first comes to Milton.  He is attracted to her, but she looks down on him for not being a gentleman. (She has both the pride AND the prejudice.) Later, she disapproves of him because of the way he treats his workers.  The two characters remain sparring partners for most of the novel.  Gradually, though, we see both of them changing and growing (for the better) into more mature and complex selves.   Creating strong central characters who change in a realistic way throughout the narrative is one of Gaskell’s strengths.  I also enjoyed the way she gently but realistically created characters with glaring weaknesses: her mother is self-pitying, her father is weak, and Mrs. Thornton is, frankly, a witch.   The novel is not a comedy, but some of the scenes with these flawed characters interacting together were quite amusing.

Although I admired Gaskell’s critique of industrialism and her creation of characters, I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped I would.  This was partly, I think, because of her long-winded writing style.  She could have cut out a couple of hundred pages with no harm to the story.  I also wondered why certain aspects of the novel were included.  Why the story of the brother in exile?  Why the proposal from Mr. Lennox?  The worst part, though, was the last half or so of the novel, in which people were dropping dead like flies.  I found that such melodrama ruined the impact of the story.

I neither loved nor hated the novel.  I thought it was OK.  I know that a lot of people love it, though, so if it sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to go for it.

 

This is my post for “19th century classic” in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate

Changing Seasons 2017: January

 

january-2

This is my January entry for Cardinal Guzman’s 2017  Changing Seasons Photo Challenge.  I am doing Option 2 in which we choose one photo that represents the month to us.

I live in Minnesota (USA) and it’s been a tough week for weather, with below zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures and several snow storms.  I’m not a big fan of January.

thechangingseasons_6367

 

 

After the Integratron

integratron

Google Street View of Landers, California.

 

I met this guy named Tassel back in 1960 at a party.  I was young back then.  Trying to make it in Hollywood.   Tassel yammered on about geomagnetic this and ferromagnetic that.  I had no idea what he meant, but he was cute.

So I got in the car with him. We drove to the Mohave.  We climbed inside this building he called an “Integratron.”  He sat me down on this contraption and strapped me in.  I saw myself reflected in the opposite mirror. Kinky, I thought.   But all he did was press a few buttons and we were done. He drove me home. That was that.

As the years passed, my friends all changed: gray hair, flab, wrinkles.   But I remained the same.  I am 80.  But when I look in the mirror, I see the same reflection I saw in the Integratron in 1960.  I do not age.

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This is the January 14 edition of  What Pegman Saw,  a flash fiction challenge based on a scene from Google Earth.  The story is limited to 150 words.

To enjoy stories inspired by the What Pegman Saw prompt or to submit your own 150-word story, visit the inLinkz button:

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Lou Andreas-Salome

louandreassalome

Put Out My Eyes

Put out my eyes, and I can see you still,
Slam my ears too, and I can hear you yet;
And without any feet can go to you;
And tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
And grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
Arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
And if you set this brain of mine afire,
Then on my blood-stream I yet will carry you.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation from German: Babette Deutsch (1895-1982)

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this poem for Lou Andreas-Salome, with whom he was deliriously in love.   I discovered the poem in Rachel Corbett’s recent book You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin.  Corbett’s book explores the relationship between Rilke (a poet) and Rodin (a sculptor).  Corbett focuses on how Rodin’s artistic example helped to shape Rilke’s own growth as a poet.  While the main thrust of her work is on the Rodin-Rilke friendship, Corbett also brings to light many of the other important influences on Rilke, one of whom was Lou Andreas-Salome.

Before reading Corbett, I had never heard of Andreas-Salome, who lived from 1867 – 1937.  (She was born in Russia of German parents.) Her role in You Must Change Your Life is minor, but I am devoting this post to her because I find her fascinating, and I think she deserves to be more famous than she is today.  (In her own time, she was well known in intellectual European circles.)

A prolific writer, Andreas-Salome penned more than a dozen novels.  She was also a philosopher, critic, and one of the first women psychoanalysts.  She published several critical works as well, including major studies on Ibsen, Nietzsche and Rilke.

Andreas-Salome also known for her personal life as a femme fatale and a “serial muse” who captivated and intellectually guided a number of famous men.   Corbett observes that

Andreas-Salome’s main gift was her acutely analytical mind.  She had an uncanny ability to comprehend abstruse ideas from the era’s most formidable thinkers, often illuminating aspects of their own arguments that they had not even conceived.  She was a kind of intellectual therapist: listening, describing, analyzing and repeating back their ideas in order to illuminate the places where shadows fell in their logic. (26)

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the men she inspired.  He referred to her as “by far the smartest person I ever knew” and proposed marriage to her twice.  (She declined.) Later, she became a close friend to Sigmund Freud and studied psychoanalysis with him.  She became a pioneer in the psychoanalysis of women’s sexuality.  Freud and Salome exchanged ideas about psychoanalysis in over two decades’ worth of letters.  These letters are published and are available on Amazon here.

A free-thinker, Andreas-Salome made her own rules about how she should live. Her life was remarkably, even scandalously, liberated for a woman of her time.   She was married for over 40 years to Carl Andreas, but with the understanding that there would be no sex and no children.  Further, both people were free to take other lovers.  (It was rumored that Carl Andreas had threatened to kill himself if Lou did not marry him.)

One of her deepest relationships was with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was 14 years her junior.  Rilke regarded her as not only a lover, but as a muse.  Corbett explains that

Andreas-Salome did not return Rilke’s unhinged adoration, but she began to genuinely appreciate his talent and believed that the qualities she disliked in him could be fixed with a little grooming.  She began to mold the poet into a version of himself that she found more attractive.  . .  The poet hungered to become her creation.  More than his first great lover, Andreas-Salome was his confidante, his mentor, his muse, even a kind of mother—if not to the young man, then at least to the artist maturing inside him.  “I am still soft, I can be like wax in your hands. Take me, give me a form, finish me,” he wrote in an autobiographical story when he met her” (28).

It is hard (probably impossible) to speculate on how different Nietzsche’s, Rilke’s, and Freud’s works would have been without the intellectual influence of Salome.  I find it sad that few people today have heard of her, while these three men are household names.

Corbett, Rachel.  You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin.  New York: Norton, 2016.

 

 

A Walk in the Ruins

This is my 150 word response to the Google prompt provided by What Pegman Saw.  The photo is of Shahi Qila, a ruined palace, in Burhanpur, India.

Google Street View of Burhhanpur

They say that Shah Jahan built the hamam (the royal bath) at Shahi Qila for his wife, Mumtaz, so that she could enjoy a luxurious, scented bath.  They say he decorated the hamam with paintings on honey comb work to match his wife’s beauty.  They say he was crazy in love with her.  They say my husband built a mid-century modern house for me.  They say I enjoyed the heated flooring, the steam shower and the French bidet of the bathroom.  I did.  Enjoy them.  They say that he was crazy in love with me.  They say that now he lives in a French Country with his new wife.  They say that he added a rose garden to match the beauty of his wife.  They say he is crazy in life with his wife.  They say the Shahi Qila is mostly in ruins now.  They say I am, too.

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To enjoy stories inspired by the What Pegman Saw prompt or to submit your own 150-word story, visit the inLinkz button:

For guidelines and rules for the What Pegman Saw weekly writing prompt, visit the home page.

The Sinking House of Usher

jacked-up
Photo by Sandra Crook

 

“We have to jack up our house–the sinking House of Usher!” she yelled into the phone.

She paused.

“I know.”

She listened to her mother lambaste Jim, her husband.  So flaky. Can’t even buy a decent house. She’d heard it all before.  Usually she added her own complaints.  Hasn’t mowed the lawn in weeks.

She was about to complain about Jim’s cooking.  Then she remembered last night, how hard he had made her laugh. His imitation of Trump!

“Oh, by the way–I saw dad yesterday at Al’s Bar.  Has he told you yet that he lost his job?”


This is the Jan 6 edition of the Friday Fictioneers, hosted by Rochelle. This week’s photo courtesy the  Sandra Crook. To read more flash fiction inspired by the prompt, or to submit your own, click the blue froggy button:

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His Bloody Project

I was looking forward to reading His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.  The crime novel is billed as a historical thriller and is set in the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-1800s.  Roderick Macrae is arrested for murdering three people. He admits he is guilty, and he is already in jail awaiting trial before the book begins.  We read his memoir of the events, along with other documents related to the crime, such as statements by people who knew him, medical reports, and so forth.

his-bloody-project

Bloody Project received rave reviews and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.  Critics called it “gripping,” “compelling,” a “psychological thriller.”  I enjoy psychological thrillers and was ready to be gripped and compelled.

However, I was disappointed.  Although I was impressed at Burnet’s evocation of the godawfulness of the life of crofters in 19th century Scotland, I did not find the book riveting.  Roderick Macrae admits from the beginning that he killed the three people and is ready to face the consequences.  His memoir explains what led to the killing.   Maybe I missed something, but I failed to see anything of a psychological thriller in his account.  His voice was devoid of emotion or any real depth.  He wrote in what a psychologist might call “flat affect.”  The life he and his family led was devoid of any warmth, affection, joy or anything to make life worthwhile.  The way Lachlan Broad treated them was brutal.  Given the circumstances of his life, I completely understand why Roderick murdered the three victims and why he did not much care whether he lived or died.  I guess that is a testament to the strength of Burnet’s writing.  However, because Macrae’s life was so grim, and there was nothing compelling about his personality, I did not feel affected one way or the other about the outcome of his trial.

To state it bluntly, I felt no thrill or mystery or much of anything except pity for the entire class of people who had to live this way.

Note to writers

From a craft perspective, though, I did find Burnet’s use of various documents to tell the story interesting. It is a different way to convey multiple perspectives on a character or event.   Tim O’Brien used this technique brilliantly in his novel In the Lake of the Woods, and I think it added layers of complexity to the story.

I also thought the inclusion of J. Bruce Thomson, the expert in the field of criminal anthropology, was interesting.  This character illustrates the real trend at that period of “experts” who were able to tell if a person was inherently prone to criminality by examining his physical features.  Criminality was believed by some to be something hereditary and innate rather than a response to circumstances.  Bringing in this character was a good way to help readers understand the intellectual currents at work in this period.

Question for my readers:  I know this was a critically acclaimed book.  What am I missing?