Pellegrina's Notebook

"In art, as in love, instinct is enough."

Month: June, 2009

Luxe, calme et volupté

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,

Luxe, calme et volupté.

—  Charles Baudelaire – from L’Invitation au Voyage


Empty shop front (well, not quite), Place des Vosges, Paris 4e Arrt.

Not how one would expect a ‘swamp’ to be described, and that is the literal meaning of Le Marais, the centre of vieux Paris, but Baudelaire’s words conjure for me the allure of the indulgence and delight to be found in the neighbourhood that is my home from home.  Nestled around the languid grandeur of the Place des Vosges, formally place Royale, Le Marais is formed of a complex of ancient, labyrinthine streets of buildings and aristocratic maisons or ‘hôtels’ of 16th and 17th provenance, from Saint-Paul up to the Beaubourg (Centre de Georges Pompidou),  largely untouched by the emperor of the grands boulevards, Baron Haussmann.   I have loved it since I first found myself there years ago by trailing up rue St Antoine from the Opera at place de la Bastille on a grey April day.  As I said, it feels very much like my own quartier and I return often, so it was naturally going to be the setting for my novel ‘The Conductor’s Wife’.   Far from the exclusivity of the area, reputedly the most expensive place to live in Paris, it has a quirky bohemian feel that lends itself to its inclusive spirit – gay men with toy breed dogs attired in chic canine fashion may be seen on the same street as Orthodox Jewish jewellers carrying heavy cases bearing their wares.

In fact one of my favourite things about Le Marais is the small Jewish district that developed here after Jewish emancipation in the early 1800’s (although it had been a Jewish area on and off for centuries), spreading out from rue de Rosiers, known in Yiddish as the Pletzl or little place.  Here you will find gorgeous pretzels and pastries in the many boulangeries in this petit quartier.   Otherwise, Le Marais tempts with many of Paris’ highly fashionable niche boutiques, my favourites of which are the charming handbag emporiums of designers Jamin Puech in rue Vielle du Temple and L’Echoppe à Sacs Ets Richard in rue Charlot.  A great place for window shopping too, if your purse cannot bear more promise!  I would as happily settle at my favourite café – au Petit Fer à Cheval in rue Vielle du Temple nursing drip-fed coffees (the waiters will know what I want before I have had the chance to say “un autre…”!)  I think I am still welcome there, even after a strange birthday celebration with my best friend, where we drank a lot of free champagne plied on us by a waspish Indochinois, who claimed to be a political journalist, and his peculiar chum, who dragged us off to Le Baiser salé for late night jazz and a subsequent mess in which were witness to said Indochinois and taxi driver having a fist fight in the 8e!   Au Petit Fer is a long time  favourite hang-out with young French actors Romain Duris and Louis Garrel.   I have never seen either of them there sadly, particularly in the case of le beau Louis!

au petit fer

A day’s roaming Le Marais must include a visit to the place des Vosges (the epicentre of my book) and one of Paris’ best museums – the wonderful Maison de Victor Hugo, where the author and activist lived before and after long exile, and wrote Les Misérables standing up!  In this large corner apartment house, the writer dedicated its rooms to opulent and grand comfort to entertain his friends such as his ally in romanticism and neighbour, Théophile Gautier.

Vivement, to conclude with dîner in Ma Bourgogne or the cute and more local le Royal Turenne, where Georges Simenon sent Maigret to retire with his pipe and cidre.

IMG_0631Le quotidien – vins, arts, philosophie

Speaking of Paris and the young French actors I mentioned, no less than the the Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo of today, makes me think of this cute tribute to the Nouvelle Vague – ‘Dans Paris’.  Recommended, apart from the slightly overlong singing on the phone scene, redolent of ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’.  Louis is completely charming, as usual.

Dans Paris


Leaves from red to green from Russia with love

Below are extracts from a diary written by a very much younger me on a trip to Russia in November 1990 over the cusp of seismic change, which were the last days of Gorbachev’s  interregnum.   They are still fascinating and contained somewhere in my youthful rapture is the esprit of the dying days of the Soviet mantle.  It was a delightful and often very amusing excursion into a fading world with all its concomitant paradoxes, predicated on supposed progress.

There is much more than I have written here – episodic capturing of risible and fleeting encounters, such as with the waitress in the only real Russian restaurant or ‘Bystro’ we entered.   (It is said that Russian cossacks in Paris during the Napoleonic wars  used to shout ‘bystro’ in restaurants, which means ‘quickly,’ and thus restaurants became so named!)  We asked what was on the menu and she replied: “Meat – hot meat, cold meat.”  It was neither and looked somewhat green.  From which animal it was sourced, we couldn’t quite tell.   She was just one of the many warm, eccentric and sometimes woebegone characters we met and maybe for moments through them we glimpsed the anachronistically beautiful dark Russian soul, held somewhere between the red shutters of the Communist past and the transition to the refulgant, neon-lit promises of the future.  Change for better or worse?

Moscow Metro

Commuters on the Moscow Metro – ‘Palaces for the people.’


Day started early it seemed, after a late night.  Breakfast was a small affair, after which we organised tickets for the opera and changed money.

Our first sight of Moscow in daylight. Unfortunately, the weather is a bit dull and therefore the skyline is blurred and general impact dulled.  It is however, an amazing city – muscular and quite serene in an altogether Russian way. Seeing the city is like a reality turned on its head.  The abundance of the West hits you at the sight of food queues.  People here I think want to think as ‘westerners’ now but have had so many upheavals of late – ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ the buzzwords. They feel nothing can move fast enough and it will take so long to sift the wheat from the chaff in all this transformation.

Took lots of photographs in Red Square and of St Basil’s, the walls of the Kremlin and Spasky towers.  Kremlin means fortress – and looks like one.  Then a beautiful convent called Novordovichy I think or ‘new maidens’, glazed with brilliant gold cupolas.  Back to the Kockmock as we transliterate it! A very frugal lunch of a hard cheese sandwich!

Ira our guide, is a fascination!  Full of the absolute earnestness and profundity of most Russians we meet.  She gives us a running commentary on the bus, complete with her own cogitations! We laughed when Ira, spying a man jogging on a wide boulevard by the University, attired only in shorts and trainers on a very cold and dank November day, says –

“Oh, is this man not wearing a shirt!”

“No!” We all say.

“No, he is not!” (Laugh)  “I like that, that is so nice.”  All delivered in her sustained, composed commentator’s tone over a mic.  She is prone to draw attention to various dogs she spots outside.

“Look at that dog, he’s carrying an umbrella.”  (Perhaps this, you would only see on the streets of Moscow).   Or “That dog looks very happy!” Before moving onto the usual – “The building on the left is…”

She seems anxious to tell us how hard life is in Moscow with the food shortages and queues for everything, everywhere. The woman is clearly proud of her city though – a true Muscovite.

In the afternoon we went to a ‘popular’ art museum.  Popular with whom!?  It consisted of what they would consider ‘pop’ art, pottery and crafts and hundreds of those ubiquitous little lacquered boxes.  There was a group of young Muscovites outside trying to trade with us, proffering dolls, military hats and ‘Perestroika’ watches, whatever they were!  One was quite charming.  I didn’t buy anything – no black market dollars.

Evening spent at the Bolshoi (big) Theatre.  Wonderful wedding cake building.  Watched a performance of ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Tchaikovsky), from the story by Pushkin.  Did not know this opera at all and found it was a difficult story to translate to opera; however, the music is sublime -pure Tchaikovsky.  I had almost wished it was one of the symphonies as I didn’t enjoy the singing very much.  The soprano who sang Lisa was vocally and physically too heavy and a bad actress.  She seemed to only have one facial expression and moved mechanically.  The Countess looked like the elderly Queen Victoria in a bath chair.  Lovely divertimenti performed by the ballet company.  There was one young soprano with a lovely voice.   I wished I knew the Pushkin story better – I would have enjoyed it more as there was no translation, obviously!  We shared a box with a small, suited man who slept through the entire opera.   He also wore a hat which was not removed.  May have been KGB.

Monday November 5th

Had a walk in a small market near the hotel up toward the Exhibition of Soviet Economic Achievement!  A very foggy day again.  Aoife and I attempted the metro but didn’t get far. We started by trying to enter the station through the ‘Out’ door (vchod) to the chagrin of Muscovite commuters! Also failed to make any sense of the Cyrillic map, even though I can read it.

Money is baffling here – the hotel is ‘hard’ currency only, no Roubles, so this means going through U.S dollars, Sterling and Deutschmark.  If they run out of the appropriate currency you are apt to be handed various currencies and/or chewing gum!

Later we went on the official Metro tour with Ira’s cohort, Natasha.  The city is much more attractive when it is lively and peopled and the (empty) shops are open.  The queues curl around blocks.  All the central Metro stations are beautifully ornate in a Stalin Baroque way!  Highly embellished and efficaciously designed – welcome change from the London tube.  For a start on the basics – cleaner quicker trains and escalators that are steep and go at amazing speed! Stalin wanted ‘palaces for the people’ and that’s what they got.  The Moscow rush hour just as frantic as London and you are apt to be snapped between the double doors on the stations and trains!

A few of us did some shopping in an ‘official’ shop – a bit rushed and frightfully confusing! All the prices in the Intourist shops are in Roubles but they wouldn’t take them off us!  In conversion we were at a disadvantage when we were told the equation was 1 Rouble – £1!! I found some scarves at 1.20 roubles so that was acceptable.  You order your goods and collect a ticket, go to another counter to hand over said ticket and receive goods then off to another counter to hand over another ticket as invoice and then finally to pay!!  Metro back to hotel and everyone but me seems to have gone to the circus.  So I take time to scribble all this as follows:

Call-girls in the hotel seemingly acceptable but Communist Party members are not allowed to use many of the facilities; except apparently at a premium – there was a separate charge for them at the pool.  English spoken pretty well by many Russians.  Strange things keep happening in the hotel, such as the ‘floor ladies’ as they are known, (chambermaids to the rest of us) banging on our door frequently asking for American cigarettes.  Have spare boxes of Marlboro ‘reds’ to give them for which they are wholly grateful – “spaseeba, spaseeba!”  A couple of people in our group are getting phone calls in their rooms at all hours of the night asking where they can buy wine!  Black marketeers in their rooms previously one supposes.  The KGB are in evidence watching the calls-girls in the lobby making their deals.  They wear anoraks, even indoors.  Lobby throngs all hours of the day and night with Intourist groups, and North Korean and East German businessmen.  Plenty of opportunities for the hookers!

Western business coming in appears in the form of the newly opened McDonalds and a Pizza Hut.  Queues outside which are inevitably very long.  Natasha says the packaging interests Muscovites more than the food!

Kids outside the hotel trying to sell us badges for chewing gum – all things American of course.

One can’t seem to meet Russians our age anywhere apart from the occasional student vying for hard currency in the dusty streets.  Feel like we’re very much on the perimeter of life here – I suppose we can’t be anything else really.  We are just fodder for the Russians to sell to, victims of their greed for hard currency and the craving for things American/Western.  Met a young guy yesterday who said he could earn in a week racketeering what he’d earn in a month for the state as long as the KGB stay away from him.  He was peculiarly vague when asked what he did of an evening.

Muscovites are very pro-Yeltsin.  He speaks for them they say, Gorbachev is only good for international affairs, not domestic.  Nothing moves fast enough for them.  Food is allowed to rot in storage and one could queue for hours to find nothing at the end. With hard currency for us everything is (fairly) plentiful. Beer is $1 a can.  There are shops everywhere in Moscow stocking only a very small amount of poor quality anything.

BMR by the Moskva River Nov. 1990

By the Moskva River dressed for the Russian winter, imagining myself as ‘Anna Karenina’ sans troika or snow for that matter – oh youth!


Revolution Day

While I remember, we were talking about the Hotel Kosmos being a den of iniquity last night.  For last night in the bar we overhead a transaction between a call-girl and a Korean guy taking place. She asked for $100, he haggled and they eventually, after a lot of shouting, agreed on another sum (chewing gum and a pair of shoes perhaps!).  The entire hotel is apparently run off the profits of the black market and these very ‘transactions’.   The ones in power one never sees, only their minions.  The attractive ‘key lady’ we met, who held the keys to a cornucopia of Matroischka dolls and lacquered goods, was undoubtedly the girlfriend of one of them.   Natasha, as she was called,  disappeared very quickly after our business and wrote down everything she sold and what she was paid.  She was very fragrant.

When we boarded the bus outside the hotel, there were many of these guys selling their wares – rabbit hats, Perestroika watches (?) etc… Ira says that materialism will not make them happy – surely she is right.   She added that the “younger ones are the lowest of the low” and that it really depresses her.  One gets an impression however, that they are well educated and very bright.  We actually spotted a ‘bust’ when the police encountered one such group of racketeers and each had to pay a 25 rouble fine, which the leader of the gang collected from each of them and handed over.  However, this was we were told by Ira, just for show – for the tourists.  They have to pay the police to keep their patch anyway…

Hotel not as smart as Kosmos and the water comes out of the taps brown! Plumbing is extremely noisy and it sounds like a bath is being run constantly overhead amplified!  Have had though, a good breakfast in an elaborately muralled room with gaudy chandeliers.  Quite tasty and substantial for post-alcohol dehydration.  Comrades in the group are gone off to the revolution celebrations and demo.  There are two factions– the Communist Party Russian Federation celebrations and the Yeltsinite pro-capitalist counter-attack!

Waiters who served us breakfast did a neat line in caviar on the side!!  The business however, doesn’t seem as well organised as it was at the Cosmos!

Ira tells us later that she hates Gorbachev, and Russians despise Raisa in particular for being “materialistic, poorly educated and bossy.”   I must have a (brown) bath as there is a tour of the city at 2pm.  When the taps are on it’s a hell of a racket and the room shakes.  Toilet takes two hours to flush!  Bath like pig swill!

Rest gives time to observe that modern Russia/USSR is a mix of confusion, sadness, weirdness, beauty, history, many races across the plains, fantastic mineral wealth/resources but great material poverty.  This amounts to a nation in transition and chaos. There are immense shortages of food, civil war in the Republics, no hard cash and of course huge debt.  Yet there is so much here to offer the world – it was once brave new world, unlike any other in modern times.   There is a bravery – it accepts it is perpetually learning and adapting – unlike its sister in power, the U.S.  Glasnost and Perestroika are not just buzz words, small elements of the zeitgeist – they really mean something to these people.   They are shaping up to form the second revolution they have had this century and not the last, surely.  Federalisation is happening and is the next stage.

It is the 73rd anniversary of the storming of the Winter Palace.  We watch fireworks over the river Neva – quite spectacular, standing by a small jetty with a boatman called Mischa.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi

– For my Iranian friends  –

Persian tile

This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi

Persian Sufi poet and mystic

The Iranian kemancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider play \”Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged.\”

Passacaglia della Vita

Though I should add this is not by Stefano Landi, but an anonymously penned tarantella popular around the time Landi was composing and a wonderful capturing of another time and place, which sounds curiously modern.   ‘Live – for we must die’ is a general translation!

Alone in the museum

Las Meninas

Do we really view life from all its sides?  We have our own to think of and the collective chaos that surrounds us as today’s news – rage in Tehran,   the enjoyment of all day electricity in Kabul,  the relatively minor puddles of diseased polemic that appear in Westminster on a daily basis, bear down very little, even though we are truly in the thick of it.  It is all selective of course, we elect the perspectives of life that grip us – family life, a career, the amorphous hedonism of living one week to the next.  Enough has been written on ‘Las Meninas’, the Velasquez painting, which questions whether we are the viewers or the viewed (arguably the greatest painting in the world) for me to add to much, as Foucault did so well in ‘The Order of Things’, but I think this painting represents an everyday shock, and thought of it particularly today.  For it shows things removed from us and opens spaces in existence that we so often overlook – it makes us question our place in all of this.  Life is far more dangerous, yet more exciting, when the safety of our personal docile mission as a part of it is removed.

For example, one of my favourite films in recent years is Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s ‘The Lives of Others’, the story of a Stasi surveillance officer’s increasing engagement and empathy with a free-thinking playwright, who is the subject of his surveillance.  The focus of his intense and elaborate regard of the daily life of the writer begins to awaken something profound in Ulrich Mühe’s Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler‘s imagination, trapped in a tiny, discreet life buried in the offices of his calling.  It is an enchanting and captivating, yet unerringly simple portrayal of a man opened up to the freedom of the world and all that is in it – all we must take responsibility for.

Dare to be alone in the museum and watch the representation of others as Wiesler does.  Cut yourself out of the painting and see what others might, challenge the existential  kink that puts us in one life rather than another.  Imagine the enjoyment of the neon that illuminates the streets of Kabul that were once sullen and dark, learn what it is to fight for democracy, to write without fear of death, to paint what you see, and recite your pain, when you have been silenced for too long.

\’The Lives of Others\’ excerpt.

Songs of a burning heart

klimt - Death and Life

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall 31.05.09

Apart from my abiding passion for French music, particularly of the Fin de siècle, I have a long established attraction to late Austro-German Romanticism and Expressionism since my discovery first of Mahler at the age of eleven, to be ensued by the wider frame of the Second Viennese School (I have happily managed to combine all these passions in my novel).  Last night’s LPO programme , which was a ambitious concoction of the drive of early German Romanticism in Mendelssohn’s affirmative 5th Symphony ‘Reformation’, to the existential angst and spiritual yearning of Todtenfeier, the earlier incarnation of the first movement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony ‘Resurrection’, to be concluded in its UK premiere by Tortsen Rasch’s symphonic song cycle – Mein Herz Brennt, was particularly alluring.

Jurowski’s reading of the Mendelssohn was spritely but smooth.  Here we have the posthumously published work of the Jewish to Lutheran convert Mendelssohn –  ‘Reformation’ is a dedication to the anniversary of the Diet of Augsberg.  It is a work that demarcates a convert’s zeal with an affinity with Bach and looks forward to similar parallels in Wagner’s Parsifal, somewhat discomforting in view of the latter’s anti-Semitism.   The Andante introduction is reverential and chorale-like but extends into somewhat unconnected middle movements with dance-like characters, before returning to its earlier themes, with variations on the ‘Dresden Amen’ from the opening movement as a grand finale in D major, like a Lutheran hymn recapitulating its pious journey.

Mahler created Todtenfeier with a symphonic poem in mind, realised quite independently, although it would later exist with some small changes, as the first movement of the 2nd Symphony.  It has the somewhat German pagan reference point of the Todtenfeier or Funeral Ceremony, though he combined this idea with the apposite Christian sentiments of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode in the finished Symphony (Mahler was also a Jewish to Christian convert).  The LPO with Jurowski’s jerky but willowy energy, gave their reading a rounded and powerful sound, so much so that we could already feel something digging into elements of the late Romantic-Expressionism to come, due in no uncertain terms to Jurowski’s  prophetic  juxtaposition of the three works in this concert.

So far we have covered two ‘R’s’, what of the third?  The programme concluded in the second half with the UK premiere of Torsten Rasch’s Mein Herz Brennt, a work by a Dresden born composer known for film scores, a long stint in Japan and a collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, using the lyrics of songs of the German industrial rock band, Rammstein.   It is already known by a recording but finally we had the support of a full orchestra with two of the original soloists, the marvellous bass René Pape and the reciter, the redoubtable,  Lotte Lenya-esque actress Katharina Thalbach (who I note directed Rasch’s only opera Rotter in Cologne recently – I can’t wait to see it here).

It is a vast and sometimes disturbing work but there seems to be something for everyone, and Rasch certainly delivers some sublime melody, a lot of it redolent of the sound worlds of Berg,  Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker.  The Rammstein texts were feisty and vulgar, sometimes delicate and romantic,  and not exactly the calibre of Heine or Rilke, but worked well within the textures Rasch had given them.  The soloists were dynamic,  enjoying the interplay of music and text – apart from the amplified bass soloist, a soprano, Elisabeth Meister , appeared to deliver her enchanting Lorerei song in Seemann atop the orchestra and affront of the organ console; here was Rasch at his most lush – a beautiful effect when her voice combined with Pape’s over the orchestra.  Thalbach was simply magnificent, particularly in the use of her growling modal voice in the seventh song – Ich will. I did however, feel the work was overlong, with long gaps for setting up and movement of added forces.

So what might the third R be?  Might it be, after Reformation, then Resurrection, redemption?  The Germanic soul through the centuries from the Reformation, Enlightenment (Resurrection?) to the years we now know beyond the voices of all that went before.  Redemption is after all apposite for a reunified Germany still strongly associated with the scars of barely two decades, spun out here again in an orchestral palette of swirling colour like a Klimt canvas to the words of the ‘pagan’ rockers.  It got me, and I hope I got it.

Nebel from \’Mein Herz Brennt\’ René Pape, Dresden Symphony, c. Torsten Rasch