December 10, 2008

Hamish Keith's artistic crush

Hamish Keith will be at Central Library tomorrow evening to present his memoir Native Wit. I really enjoyed reading this book. As you would expect, it’s got great style that carries you right along; and as you would also expect, it’s full of wonderful stories. The one I’m about to share comes from when he was in art school in Christchurch. It follows a paean to the old Penguin paperbacks which touches on the literary crush, and involves instead the artistic crush:

My first artistic passion was for Amedeo Modigliani. Not a great leap forward from the leggy nymphs of Petty and Vargas, but at least his nudes had pubic hair. I suspect that I was as much attracted by the little I could glean about his life as I was by his painting. He seemed to have much more fun than Gulley Jimson and was entirely more sexy. Had my sleep-out had the Mecca Dairy mirror, I might well have tried out a few Modigliani routines and adopted his arms-akimbo stance as my own. I rather fancied I did look just a little bit like him. (If I had had his corduroy suit I could have really pissed my father off.) I adopted the one aphorism of Modigliani I had read as my own: une vie brève mais intense (a short but intense life). What a wanker!

Just before the Library’s bargain book sale last month I was trying to find some books that I could donate to the sale to make room on our shelves for the books piled all over our window seat, where by now only the cat can fit, and only if curled up. I spotted an old, hardcover biography of Modigliani which I hadn’t looked at for years, and I thought I might have found one – already a great success rate for me. But as soon as I opened it I knew it would never go. All I had to do was reread the death scene, the two death scenes, actually, because his lover and model Jeanne Hebuterne threw herself out of a window the next morning at dawn, nine months pregnant.

Jeanne Modigliani, their first child, is the author of the book, which from a look at the dates might have been published just after Hamish Keith had had to make do with gleaning the odd aphorism. He would have known so much more, like the fact that if for him “une vie brève mais intense” was a laudable stand against monotony, for Modigliani dying young had always been the only possible outcome; he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis when he was only sixteen. This is not to say that his lifestyle (a friend drops in near the end to find him and Jeanne in bed, surrounded by empty wine bottles and open sardine tins) helped, but maybe this is where the intensity comes in. Jeanne the daughter recalls how her grandparents always mentioned Modigliani's drug use, rather than his drinking, she thinks because they rather admired Baudelaire.

So last night upon reading that passage in Native wit I got the book back down and there as a frontispiece is the photo in the corduroy suit! What a suit it is. It brings to mind the dress Scarlett O’Hara makes out of her green velvet curtains. Three piece, thick, the ribs gleaming, worn over a light-coloured necktie and a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar. The chair leg rests on a piece of rubbish, the hand dangles a cigarette. The gaze is lovely dark and deep.

I’m hoping tomorrow evening to get a chance to show the book to Hamish: yes, the library has a copy, just as old and yellowed as mine, down in our marvellous basement stack. It’s called Modigliani: man and myth.

Hamish Keith on “Hamish Keith: man and myth” is tomorrow evening at Central Library. Come at 5:30 PM for a glass of wine thanks to Glengarry Wines; the talk starts at 6:00. For more information, see our What’s on pages.

December 01, 2008

Let's be mad! Romantic heroes from Heathcliff to Zhivago

It’s been really fun to read the literary love confessions which people have been posting here, not least for the introductions to some romantic heroes I hadn't encountered, such as William, described by Wikipedia in its exhaustive way as "adventurous, imaginative, romanticising, irrepressible, optimistic, and lovable”. My only doubt is about the irrepressible, a fine character trait for a best friend but a bit worrisome in a soulmate you'd be planning to glue yourself to.

Yuri Zhivago was on a lot of people’s lists and he came to my mind as well, but I wasn't sure if I were in love with him or with his love story. “But to go to Varykino now, in winter, that would be madness. But why not, my love, let’s be mad if there is nothing but madness left to us!” I quote this line from memory so cannot vouch for it exactly, but this is what it is all about. Revolution, civil war, the lovers' desperation, the snow, always the snow, the candle flame.

Heathcliff was another name which came up, problematical as always. Not long ago I read, I think in the TLS, someone's opinion that Wuthering Heights is the only instance of "L'amour fou", mad love, in English literature. In notes on Abismos de pasión, Bunuel's fantastically named film version of the novel, Kevin Hagopian tells how what fascinated the surrealist was precisely this, the book's portrait of mad love, “a tempest of rage and self-indulgence.” Despite the call to madness, Dr. Zhivago is not about mad love which leaves devastation in its wake. It is the world which is mad, and which devastates the lovers.

Boris Pasternak made his name in Russia as a great poet during the first World War. At the time of the Revolution, he was 27 and optimistic about its idealism, unlike Anna Akhmatova who, just a year older but evidently tougher, was “neither young enough to believe in it nor old enough to justify it”, as Joseph Brodsky put it with his usual acumen. Forty years on, in 1957, there was Dr Zhivago.

Knowing it could not be published in Russia, Pasternak had the manuscript delivered to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher who is still famous today in Italy for defying pressure from Russia and being the first to publish this great work, as well as for dying while setting explosives on a Milanese electricity pylon in guerilla warfare against the Italian state in the 1970s.

In the midst of all this, a book came in on reserve for me which I have no recollection of having requested. It’s about Russia’s poets of the Silver Age: Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Pasternak, and the rest. The author, Elaine Feinstein, is a poet and a translator of Tsvetaeva, and her grandparents were Russian Jews, as were so many of these writers, including Pasternak. She goes to St. Petersburg to write this book, "for the ghosts" she says.

She tells the story of Pasternak's anguish over the Nobel Prize, which he at first accepted and later refused, possibly under threat of exile. He was a somewhat Hamlet-like character, as was his hero Yuri Zhivago. When he had to look for something else to do during the Stalin years, not a good time for poets, he translated Shakespeare. His banned poem Hamlet, included in Dr. Zhivago, was recited by his friends at his funeral.


The rumbling has grown quiet. I walk out on the stage.
Leaning against a door jamb,
I try to catch in a distant echo
What will happen in my lifetime.

At me is aimed the murkiness of night;
I'm pinned by a thousand opera glasses.
If only it is possible, Abba, Father,
May this cup be carried past me.

I cherish your stubborn design
And am agreed to play this role.
But now a different drama is underway;
This time, release me.

But the order of the acts has been determined,
And the ending of the journey cannot be averted...

The books:

  • Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • The Russian Jerusalem by Elaine Feinstein

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