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Posts Tagged ‘grief into comfort’


Cherry Blossoms (Elmar Wepper as Rudi Angermeier, and Aya Irizuki [de] as Yu)

“What I love most about this book, as about all of Downie’s nonfiction works about France, is the way the reader is brought intimately into the adventure of his discoveries as he performs his intrepid research. We are spared, of course, the many hours of reading in dusty libraries he has done for us. But when he sets out into the Paris of today in search of its ghosts of yesteryear, he takes us along with him. We are there with him as he interviews the archivist at the Victor Hugo Museum, and the director of the Arsenal Library–a gathering place for such Romantic age luminaries as Dumas, Liszt, de Musset, Delacroix, Balzac, and Gautier—a place which, Downie tells us, “hasn’t changed much since the 1820s.” We are there with him as he sneaks up back stairways and into private courtyards in his furtive attempts to connect with Romantic heroes of the past, to look out the same windows they looked out of, gaze upon the same courtyards they would have seen. We are there with him in those rare moments when he is able to commune with those spirits of the past” (Janet Hulstrand)

The impermanence of life is at the core of Cherry Blossoms, an exquisite German film directed by Doris Dorrie (How to Cook Your Life). A wonderful sequence in the story takes place during the cherry blossom season at the beginning of spring in Japan. Hanami is celebrated for about ten days as families, friends, and visitors gather under trees while their pink and white flowers are in full bloom. The cherry blossom is seen as a symbol of beauty, awakening, and the transience of life … (Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat)

Dear friends and readers,

Summer is slowly turning into autumn, and I’ve written only once of this year’s summer reading and movies: David Nicholls’s Us, book & film, probably because I’ve only read and seen one I’d so characterize, and now as the days begin to shorten more quickly, I feel I’ve been remiss, partly because my spirits have been again rejuvenated by a movie and a book.


The audio book

First, the book, which will require my speaking first of David Downie as I encountered him in his earlier Paris to the Pyrenees last spring, and providing contexts with other books, and French movies. I took a course at Politics and Prose (the DC bookstore) called A Literary Tour of France, it was somewhat disappointing as the teacher refused to discuss any serious topics (!), and seemed to live in dread of offending people in the classroom, but she did offer two books, with real merit, the equivalent of Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon’s first and second Trip movies, the one where they drive around Derbyshire, into the Lake District ending at Bolton Abbey before returning to London, and the second a journey through Italy, from Rome past Pompeii to Naples.


Somewhere in the West Riding — an idyllic dream vision of what I remember of the rare walks Jim and I took out into the Yorkshire moors

Travel books encompass books about people making a home usually in what is to me a “foreign” country; they can be the encyclopedia type Trollope favored in Australia and New Zealand, the let’s analyze this country, his North America, or his jolly When the Mastiffs Went to Iceland (the nearest he got to popular travel books). I think the genre is invented in the 18th century where the idea of truly telling the truth of what you are seeing, of cultures being different, of trying to discover history this way began with Johnson and Bowell’s twin tours; a second variant is Susannah Moodie’s 30 Years in the Bush, a classic first Canadian book, about how she settled into the countryside to become Canadian.

Jeffrey Greene’s French Spirits: A House, A Village, and A Love Affair in Burgundy, was assigned first, and begins well, but David Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees sustains the type. Greene’s French Spirits is similarly replete with intelligent insight into places, objects, people. He and his partner are marrying and decide to buy and renovate as a place to live an ancient church: they have plenty of money, live upper class educated lives (whose values Greene never questions, the source of the money never told): Greene is trying to capture his sense of what life against history is, French culture in history, and uses these “odd people” in the countryside to bring this out. Greene’s book is light and half-way through falls off when he goes into these chapters (to me tasteless) on his wedding but it is picturesque and evocative of middle France. He and his wife renovated a presbytery to make it into a home: the history of the building and the real problems of trying to renovate such a structure are absorbing, teach one about buildings.

Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees is a sort of sceptic’s pilgrimage across that part France and down to the Pyrenees. He’s more somber in spirit, and the character he comes across made less eccentric at the same time more locally embodied. He has rejected much that Greene is content to accept: the materialism, hierarchies, fashion-laden admiration for what reeks of rank, monetary success. Downie is exploring his own mind (quietly, not that openly), his past, and the past of the countryside he and his wife are walking through. One needs courage and a partner to do what they are doing — — just walking following an old route and not sure whether they will find an inn in a given place, or the kind of food and drink they might require. They are doing their journey in an entirely non-commercial way.

Gradually his book turns into a more political polemic attached to French history (eons back) and the recent political events (1871 and the French occupation in WW2, Algeria, modern emergence of fascism). An emerging theme is how much is left across the French countryside of WW2. We saw that in Calais and Brittany. Downie describes so much left of the Resistance (and Nazis’ atrocities) and so criss–crosses for me A French Village (and Come What May). It’s a pilgrimage, in which the French landscape seems to contain almost no one, they have to find taverns and even once stay in someone’s home, take chances, depend on themselves and other people. It put me in mind of Anne Radcliffe’s gothics at their spiritual landscape best. Colleen’s Paris (a blog reviewer) captures the book very well, telling you the details of the story too. Downie’s book is more genuinely worked out than Greene’s.

Both are a long distance from VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival (Salmon Rushdie finds it too sad), but they move in this direction of deep meditation in a landscape about the history of the place through what’s physically left there and what we can know (and in Naipaul’s case) dream deeply and re-create to make of himself (to the person) embedded in this foreign landscape — through his memories too. For Naipaul it’s the landscape around Stonehenge, as a strong antidote to the culture he was born in and has rejected. Karen Langley in her Kaggsy’s Ramblings writes of a lighter gay variant, Hugo Charteris’s Marching with April (introduced beautifully by Frederic Raphael), the writer and his family determine to leave London and takes root in an ancient place, the Highlands (out of his background) and attempt to build a new life: this time the Highlands. It will come after Downie’s Paris Paris, is lower on onw my night-table’a pile.

To be honest, I’m only half-way through Paris, Paris but I’m just loving it. One problem with many travel books is they fail to convey a deep sense of what it feels like to be in the place — Downie has this ability. Each area of Paris the reader is taken to, is fitted into a larger coherent picture of the city, and then itself explored visually, physically, and mentally. The photographs are beautifully done (black-and-white) and epitomize a mood, the kinds of history that occurred in the place and/or what is there now, the people he sees. I’ve been to Paris three times now, once long ago for 6 weeks on my own in a cold winter, and twice with Jim and Izzy, 2 weeks around Christmas time and the New Year (2000), and the following summer. I am learning more, getting a better feel of the place than I’ve ever done and think if I could go back how much more I’d benefit. Each chapter is a little Eleanor Clarke, Rome and a Villa. Each one forms a walking tour; you are exploring with him. A shorter review by Kirkus. Janet Hulstrand says rightly there is so much here of history, literature, art, that it’s almost impossible to capture in a couple of paragraphs, but I believe she comes near and regales us with the details evocatively.

Downie himself, talking in France, about the book. He begins slowly, and has trouble getting into contact with the audience but as he goes on he’s extraordinary: the romanticism of Paris is the result of its negativity, that it make each visitor invisible, and conveys amid its austere life suffering, time past, darker passions contained.

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Hannelore Elsner as Nadja Uhi, with either one of the film’s younger actresses or perhaps the director? or costume maker?

I had confided in a friend how much I was again missing Jim this summer, and my friend recommended to me a 2008 German film, Cherry Blossoms, about an older man whose wife dies suddenly. I looked up the reviews and found most reviews to be vitriolically hostile or indifferent. For the record, I watched The Toyko Story and found it to be frozen, creepy, too long, too still, absurdly over-rated. The only parallels are the angry children and the deaths.

Cherry Blossoms opens with Nadja, the wife (a wonderful German actress, Hannelore Elsner) listening to doctor’s tell her that Rudi, her husband has not got long to live. She cries silently; they tell her to take him on a trip and she says he hates adventures. He follows the same narrow routine everyday of his life, including the sandwich she makes him for lunch. It would seem despite her staying home, being there for him all the time as he forges forth in the world, he stays within her sphere.

So no surprise when he follows her advice as she proposes a trip to visit their grown children in Berlin or some other German city (they live in a country town or suburb) and to the beach by a hotel. We see how much they do love one another, are dependent on one another, also glimpse the hostility to them of their grown children who slowly it’s revealed find their presence even so briefly an encumbrance, annoyance. Her favorite son lives far away in Tokyo — later we learn he moved there, that far to escape the domination of her quiet presence.

Quiet mood on a boardwalk; they move to the beach, by the shore, and suddenly she dies.

The film is half an hour in. The rest is Rudi’s very hard adjustment, then a chosen trip to Tokyo to see the son who fled them. At first he is bewildered and this son also hostile; they adjust to one another; he gets lost early on, but soon he is finding his way. Tokyo seemed to me as inhumane as I’ve thought it. The son says everyone works weekends, long days, all the time. They live in small boxes in high look-alike buildings, where everything looks the same. Their talk reveals that indeed the wife had always had this inexplicable desire to visit Japan, had wanted to be a Japanese stylized dancer. We have seen photos of her when young so dancing.

He has brought with him his wife’s clothes, at first he puts them on the bed beside him to sleep (what he started at home) but then he puts them on under his coat. He sees and then introduces himself to a street performer, Yu, an 18 year old girl who turns out to be homeless. She does a dance where she appears to get into contact with the dead; she says she is with her mother this way. She wears white make-up on her face — as the aborigine did in Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a sign he was willing to die, to let the whites murder him rather than flee them some more. He and she bond, form a friendship, she says she is an orphan and he suddenly cuts loose from this son (who has said he moved to Tokyo to get away from his mother who he loved so much but was overwhelming).

He takes the girl to Mount Fuji which his wife dreamed of going to. She dreamed of being a dancer, of going to Japan. He feels very badly that he stood in her way. We do see how middle class people in Japan take holidays: in a vast hotel-like structure where they live semi-communally — all eat in the same vast room. He and Yu are failing to see the Mount as each day it is so cloudy; and one morning he gets up very early and sees the mount: a vision. He hurries back, dresses in a Japanese dancing costume for a man that he has brought, and returns to the shore. As he dances, we see a hand reach his, and his wife is there, visible, similarly dressed. They dance intensely together. The camera moves away to Yu, just waking up. She discovers Rudi is gone, a couple of hours go by and he does not return. Now she too goes to the shore and finds him dead, laying by the shore. There follows a Japanese style funeral with his son and Yu presiding over his ashes in an urn, and then another funeral in Germany. The film ends quietly with the camera returning to the girl who has returned to the park to dance for money and to reach her mother. There is a dedication at the movie’s close, apparently by Dorrie remembering someone who perhaps died.

I use the phrase very moving so often, so let me say very very touching. Here is a review by Frederick and MaryAnn Brussat which begins to do the film justice. It’s beautifully tastefully filmed, written, the music just perfect, everything, tactful, controlled. I found it uplifting.

I do have one (many) regrets from my marriage: I never went to the shore or the beach with Jim enough. I knew how he burnt, and I’d get bored. Now I wish I had gone every summer with him — we’d go when we went to England to the Chitterings beach, once we went to Brighton. This summer I didn’t get to the shore at all. It is a three hour drive from my house to reach a public beach.

So these are the summer books and movies I have experienced this season of 2021; Nicolls at mid-summer and these at journey’s end.

Ellen

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