Friday, March 23, 2018

Poet of the Underworld

Peter Lennon

Jean-Pierre Melville said it himself: "I have a bloody awful character." In 1972, towards the end of his career, glowering at the world through smoked glasses under a Texan ten-gallon hat, the man whom some consider to be the "father of the nouvelle vague" listed the collaborators for whom he still felt gratitude after 25 years in the business. None of his stars stars got a mention; neither Belmondo, Delon, Lino Ventura nor François Perrier. Nor, outrageously, did his his great director of photography, Henri Decaë. Melville told the journalist Rui Nogueira, author of The Cinema According to Jean-Pierre Melville (1996) that he only felt gratitude to Pierre Charron and René Albouze. Charron chose the furniture for his films; Albouze was a prop man.

This is as good a clue as any to the character of this provocative, morose, secretive, private and perverse man, whose life was a running battle with collaborators, former admirers and critics. He once said he was "a solitary to the power of five - myself, my wife and three cats."

It was of course this sacré caractère which drove Melville to employ the independent methods of a "new wave" director well before the nouvelle vague. Melville made his first feature in 1947; the nouvelle vague proper did not appear until 1959. Frustrated by the film establishment, which regarded him as an amateur, and angered by what he saw as the "communist dictatorship" of the unions, he built his own Studio Jenner, in 1947, the only director to have one. It was destroyed by fire in 1967.

His first film, an adaptation of "Le Silence de la Mer by "Vercors" (pseudonym of Jean Bruller, a celebrated Resistance hero) was shot in Vercors's own home. It is the story of a German officer billeted with a French family who maintain a total silence throughout his cultured monologues. It was one of three Occupation stories Melville filmed.

Melville then had a quarrelsome relationship with Jean Cocteau making "Les Enfants Terribles" (1950), Cocteau's tale of covert incest, before getting to the film which gave him real nouvelle vague credentials, Bob le Flambeur (1955). Bob starred Roger Duchesne as a compulsive gambler who, in that stalwart cliche, plans a final heist intended to guarantee a comfortable retirement. He tries to clean out the Deauville casino, but in an ironic twist wins a fortune legally while his raid is in progress.

It was not the plot but the freshess of treatment which distinguished this work. Shooting on the streets of Pigalle, in the clubs and bars of pimps and lowlifes, Melville brought style and humanity to this grotty territory. But he wasn't starry-eyed about gangsters. He expressed this in a rather nicely chosen phrase: "The underworld is as rotten as the bourgeois world." Not that Melville was a lefty. A former member of the Gaullist resistance during the war, one of his problems for the Cahiers critics who first revered and then loathed him, was that politically he was unacceptably rightwing.

Melville has both a contradictory and complementary relationship with the philosophy behind the nouvelle vague. American cinema was its inspiration and when working as critics, Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette, et al, were intolerant of the French approach to film-making. But when it came to making their own films they turned out work that was quintessentially French. Someone had to be left minding the store. Melville was the man. He became France's "American" director, noted for the lengths to which he went to model his gangster output on American classics.

The gangster's office in "Le Doulos" (The Finger Man), made in 1961, is an exact copy of the office in Mamoulian's City Streets (1931), reconstructed from an old photo in a film magazine. Melville liked to plant American two-piece phones in French cabaret scenes, and preferred Anglo-Saxon sash windows to the French shuttered variety. Even his name was borrowed from America - from Herman Melville. His real surname was Grumbach. Curiously, although he was a most notable producer of garlic gangsters he disapproved of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. "They killed the western," he complained.  

But Melville was certainly not acting in isolation. France already had its ersatz American thrillers, notably the creaky "Lemmy Caution" 1950s secret agent series featuring Eddie Constantine, France's tame American tough guy. Before the war, Jean Gabin holed up in Algiers in "Pépé le Moko" and in an attic room in "Le Jour se Lève." Jules Dassin, American-born but exiled to Europe, made the Paris-set heist movie Rififi in 1955. And, as London's French Institute demonstrates with a parallel season of French films noirs, when the nouvelle vague actually got going, Truffaut offered an adaption of David Goodis's downbeat novel, Shoot the Pianist, and Louis Malle affected noir stylistics in Lift to the Scaffold (1958).

But Melville's films at least had a personal style which soon went beyond simple imitation. It reached its most iconic resolution in 1967 with "Le Samourai." Following a quarrel - routine for Melville - he had to swap Belmondo for Alain Delon, and dress the pretty boy up in Melville's regulation trench coat and snap-brimmed hat. He would break out the gangster uniforms twice more, in "Le Cercle Rouge" (1970), and his last film, "Un Flic" (1972).

Melville's hardboiled world is really that of the film buff, but a skilled one. He involved himself in every aspect of film-making; set design, writing the script, running the camera, and designing his heroes' fetching gangster gear. Here we come to a puzzling contradiction. Alongside his seemingly obsessive gangster pastiches, Melville was perfectly capable of producing work that was restrained, precise and sensitive with no reaching for decorative symbolism.

A mid-period work, "Léon Morin, Priest" (1961) was the best example, notable for the risky but successful casting of Jean-Paul Belmondo (the vagabond charmer of A Bout de Souffle) as a priest. It is essentially a two hander with Belmondo, priest in a small town in occupied France, and a young communist (Emmanuelle Riva). He converts her to Catholicism, to which she submits with expectations of an erotic reward on earth rather than any gratification in heaven. There was plenty of scope for pretentiousness here but Melville made a perfectly straightforward, intelligent and quite moving film. "L'Armée des Ombres" (The Army in the Shadows) a Resistance story taken from a Joseph Kessel novel, was also thoroughly straightforward and effective.

Melville's films have not had a smooth ride critically. Ginette Vincendeau, professor of film studies at the University of Warwick, is the author of the first major study of Melville in English: Melville: An American in Paris. She sums up Melville's rollercoaster career. "In the 1950s, after Bob the Gambler, he was appreciated by Cahiers du Cinema. That changed dramatically in the late 1960s when he became an object of their hatred. The critical agenda had become very politicised. They thought Melville was rightwing and therefore abandonded him aesthetically. He himself said: 'I live like a rightwing person.'

"This was the point when Melville was making films that were very beautiful cinematographically. They saw him as Americanised and they were very anti-American in the 60s. But at the same time the quality press was still very pro-Melville. Also he turned against the 'new wave'. He became a member of the French censorship commission and he was against subsidies, having himself started purely independently. He was also an extremely provocative person. But what is often overlooked is that he became a hugely successful director. 'The Red Circle' (1970) had four million spectators in France, which is huge."

"The change," she continues, "dates from 1996 when the Cahiers du Cinéma had a change of heart - for the second time - and devoted an entire issue to Melville." Quentin Tarantino joined in the praise, naming "Le Samourai" and "Le Doulos" in his 1995 selection of favourites for a programme of screenings at the National Film Theatre in London. Recently John Woo, the Hong Kong director claimed he wanted to do a remake of "The Red Circle."

Melville died in 1973 of a heart attack while having lunch with the French journalist, Philippe Labro. The story goes that his father and grandfather both died of heart attacks aged 55 and that Melville approached that same age with increasing apprehension. So how old was he? You guessed it - he was 55.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in The Guardian in 2003.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Interview with Author Kim Adrian

TLY: We are delighted to have award-winning writer Kim Adrian with us today. Kim has published fiction and non-fiction, and she is the author of Sock (Bloomsbury, 2017) and The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet (U of Nebraska, Sept. 2018). She graduated from Barnard College with a degree in cultural anthropology. She holds a M.F.A. in literature and creative writing from Bennington College. Kim lives in the Boston area with her family.

Kim is also the editor of The Shell Game (U of Nebraska, April 2019), an anthology of essays that makes use of borrowed forms.

Again, Kim, thank you for speaking with us. We here at TLY are always interested in trips and experiences away from home. When did you first leave home?

KIM: I was sixteen when my parents sent me to France for the summer to live with a host family in Cadillac as part of a language-learning program. I spent six weeks there. Every day was quietly mind-blowing. In a weird way, France seemed more real to me than America. Maybe this was just the novelty factor, but I think it also had something to do with the way culture is so deeply rooted there. In ordinary, everyday contexts, you can see history stretching back for hundreds of years. It’s in the architecture, in the layout of the streets, in the food, it’s in everything. That trip opened my eyes and gave me new perspectives, just as they always say travel does. I remain a devoted Francophile.

TLY: Do you find yourself gravitating to certain cities? Regions?

KIM: As an adult I’ve lived in New York, San Francisco, and Boston. I sometimes wonder if I would have lived in other places if I hadn’t been with my husband from such an early age (we started living together when I was eighteen). The places I like aren’t always the same ones that pull him. But if all the logistics could be magically settled, and my husband were on board, I’d move to Sweden today. I’ve always been drawn to the Scandinavian countries, in part because my grandfather was Swedish, on my mother’s side, and so was my great-grandmother, on my father’s side. So Swedish is the biggest slice of my mutt pie chart.

TLY: What inspired you to major in cultural anthropology?

KIM: My husband, James. As I just mentioned, we got together when we were very young. He was at Columbia. I was at Barnard. I was kind of a lost puppy—I’d just come out of a crazy home life, with alcoholism, violence, drug addiction, psychological abuse. I had no bearings to speak of and hardly any boundaries. James was (and remains) very smart, very kind, very centered. I listened to him about practically everything. One great piece of advice he gave me back then was to take Introduction to Cultural Anthropology with a wonderful professor named Robert Murphy. That class was like France had been: totally mind-expanding. One day Murphy said that there are two kinds of anthropologists, two kinds of people: those that see and emphasize the differences between people and cultures, and those that see and emphasize the similarities. I immediately understood that I was in the latter camp. Murphy was great like that. He helped me understand that I couldn’t possibly hope to understand another culture—or anything at all—without also studying my own mind, my own cultural and intellectual biases. After that class, I was hooked.

TLY: In an interview, you said: “I love working in the essay form because of the way it allows for lateral movement of thought—a kind of wandering. Yet, at the center of every good essay is a still point, and there stands the essayist—or, rather, the essayist’s sensibility.” Would you share with us some more of your thoughts on the relation between the essay form and the writer's sensibility?

KIM: One of the reasons the essay appeals to me is that it can be both extremely personal—actually intimate—but at the same time almost clinical in its engagement with facts. The personal part of the equation has to do with the writer’s sensibility. The facts are largely what that sensibility engages with. More than any other prose form, the essay uses the author’s sensibility to shape and energize the work. It’s similar to poetry in this sense. A big part of what’s going on with both forms is simply a presentation of the writer’s mind at work. Part of the thrill of a good essay (as with a good poem) lies in watching that mind make connections between unexpected, sometimes wildly incongruent thoughts, images, feelings, and facts. This is how we all respond to the world around us, mentally and emotionally, but both the poem and the essay make it their business to track that process in an especially lucid way. Sometimes when I’m working on a complex piece, I feel like there’s something actually physical going on inside my head. It’s almost acrobatic: sensibility grappling with subject. So yes, in one sense, the writer’s sensibility is a still point, because it’s located inside the writer—but it’s also extremely dynamic.

TLY: In the lovely work, “I Wish I Could Write Like Russell Edson,” you finish in part with the following: “… I wish I could write the way Harpo Marx talked.” Can you describe Harpo’s manner of speaking and why it appeals to you?

KIM: Well, as you know, Harpo doesn’t talk at all. And yet he communicates more perfectly, with more subtlety and beauty than either of his brothers (and they’re pretty great communicators!). I guess what I meant by that line—what I meant by the whole piece—is that I wish I could write better, more clearly, more honestly, and in that way better reflect the complexities of the world around me. I suppose I also was talking about how language always falls a little short. It can only point at things. Never be them. Harpo got that, and bypassed it. I think that accounts for his Buddha-clown appeal.

TLY: You write with great passion about craft. What is the role, if any, of politics in craft-oriented work?

KIM: Ooh—good question! This is something I think about a lot, though I’ve never settled on a very clear answer. I’d say first of all that all work is craft-oriented in the sense that craft is required to create a finished piece of writing. But if you’re paying some kind of extra-special attention to craft, if, for instance, you’re looking very closely at the relationship of form to content, or rejecting conventional forms in favor of something more idiosyncratic or experimental, your work tends to bring craft to the forefront, where people notice it more readily. There’s an assumption that conventional work—work steeped in American Realism, for instance, or any of its offshoots—is less crafted, but this isn’t the case. It’s just harder to see, because realist modes of literature are so ingrained and so popular. Yet even conventional forms take tremendous efforts on the craft front. I know because I’ve tried to do them and I can’t. As much as I’ve wanted, in the past, to write more conventionally, at the same time something in me resists writing this way. It makes me feel very ill at ease. Not to sound dramatic, but it can make me feel physically sick. Yet for ages I bought into the idea that the conventionally structured novel, and the conventionally structured short story, and the conventionally structured memoir, et cetera, were all somehow natural formations: the right way to write. It took me years to accept that I’m simply not wired that way -- that the things I want to write about simply don’t fit into those forms. It’s strange it took me so long because the work I love most is almost always more formally inventive. Now, I understand realism to be a mirage. A materialist fantasy. A very seductive one, sometimes a very comforting one, but it’s important to recognize that it’s limited. I think it’s also important to recognize that conventional forms can only hold certain kinds of stories—stories that fit comfortably into that specific kind of container, stories that can accommodate those particular restrictions. But there are a lot of other stories out there that don’t fit those restrictions. And if you don’t struggle to find the right way to tell them—if you don’t work your ass off crafting something different—they just won’t get told. So yes, I think there really is a political element embedded in form—both conventional and unconventional forms.

TLY: Apart from writing, what is your favorite mode of expression?

KIM: Hm. Probably cooking. I love baking especially. I’ve always baked a lot—cookies, pies, cakes, bread. There was even a time in my twenties when I trained to be a professional baker, but I quickly realized I was happier as a home baker, which is a completely different animal. But actually I like to cook everything—not just baked goods. It’s creative and sensuous, but it’s also a way of expressing love, not only for those you cook for, but also for the ingredients. I’ve been practicing yoga for 20 years, daily for the last ten or so, and along the way I’ve studied a bit of Ayurveda, yoga’s “sister science.” One of Ayurveda’s basic tenants is that food should be prepared with great care, ideally with love, because when we eat we are not only imbibing nutrients and calories, we’re also taking in energy—the energy with which the food was grown, raised, harvested, and prepared. This principle holds true for everything, actually, because energy is in everything, is transferred through everything. I think that’s important to think about, as a writer.

TLY: Kim, we can’t thank you enough for the interview. Your work is something to be treasured. Before you go, would you mind telling us about any projects on which you are currently working?

KIM: Thank you! It’s been fun. And thank you for your kind words about my work. Right now I’m working on novel about the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. It’s a fictional biography, but of course it plays with form a little more than that.

More About the Author

Kim Adrian is the author of the forthcoming memoir The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet (University of Nebraska Press, October 2018) and Sock, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. She the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. Her award-winning stories and essays have appeared in O Magazine, Tin House, Agni, the Gettysburg Review, Brevity, and many other places. She has taught at Boston and Brown Universities.

She may be found at the following sites:

author site ——

reading blog ——

twitter ——

For purchase Sock

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Case Study

Kathryn A. Kopple

            My ancestors came the Lombard town of Mortara. The Romans called it Pulchra Silva. With the coming of Charlemagne, it became known as Mortara. Roughly translated, Mortara means “place of death."  These days, people go there for risotto and goose sausage.  In the late '70s, I made the trip with Sofia.  I put on so much weight that she teased me, saying I looked like a goose-stuffed sausage.  Now, my hair is white. There is hardly enough meat on my bones for the hyenas to make a decent meal of me. And yet, even in this decrepit state, I am fond of this body. I am not at all eager to part with it.              
Often I think of Edgardo. I wonder if I haven’t walked in his footsteps my entire life.  I don’t mean to say I have attained Edgardo’s transcendence. I mean only to say I have also suffered. 
 Edgardo was removed from his parents’ home as a young boy and adopted by Pope Pius IX.  I too was adopted as an infant. We share this early separation from our birth parents. At the time he was taken, Edgardo's parents fought to have him returned.  They pleaded with the authorities.  They contacted powerful leaders. The Rothschilds came to their aid. The French government tried to broker Edgardo’s release.  Across Europe, people took to the streets in protest. Steadfastly, Edgardo refused to return to his mother and father.
Edgardo possessed rare courage. In sermon after sermon, he spoke of his miraculous conversion.  He asserted under oath that demons tortured him day and night.  He blamed his mother, claiming that she was possessed.  Only his faith could protect him from her.   
I learned I was adopted when a group of boys spied on me in latrine at school one day.  Mortified, I vowed I would tell no one.  Noticing my pensive mood and poor appetite, my mother devised a simple scheme to get me to tell her my troubles.  She set out a bowl of cherry ice, handed me a spoon, and sat—smiling, patient—until I broke down. How I managed to communicate the details through my shame and blubbering I will never know.  Worse yet, by the time I had finished spilling the sordid details, she could scarcely look me in the eye.  She lived her faith so genuinely; the slightest stain on her spiritual life was a source of affliction.
            Her piety, humility—the twin pillars of her faith.  I did my best to follow her example, filling my hours with devotion and liturgy, the smell of chapel incense clinging to me wherever I went.  I reminded myself daily that I lived in a loving home.  My father was a simple but good man.  My mother was caring.  Of course, there were moments when I was plagued by curiosity. I considered confronting my mother.  On second thought, confront is too strong a word. I only wanted to hear the truth--told to me simply and directly.  The essence of who I was came from another place, in the history of another people.  What did I know of those people? 
When my mother passed away, I confess I felt liberated.  The time had come for me to leave home and pursue my studies.  I decided to become a history major, not an unusual choice for someone with an uncertain sense of his own past.  In the middle of a rather dull class on the Battle of Lepanto, a young woman sitting next to me passed me a note.  She wished to get to know me better.
Her name was Sofia.  She was the daughter of a prominent family, several of her kin high-standing members in business and politics.  Over coffee and  pastries, she told me that she was drawn to me because I had a kind face.  I returned the compliment, adding that I thought her very pretty.  When she reached for my hand across the table, the touch of her skin against mine reminded me of how little physical contact I had experienced.  I was a stranger to the most basic expressions of human affection.  For more years than I could count, I had held myself back, unable to touch or be touched, frozen inside. 
          We married and moved into a house with a sunny kitchen. Pots of marjoram decorated the windowsill. The extra bedroom became my study.  With Sofia at my side, I felt I could do anything.  I graduated from college and attended law school. I earned accolades and stellar grades, as well as some undeserved notoriety for a paper I published on Edgardo’s case.  What can I say?  The legality of the case intrigued me.  I remember spending a hot and muted summer in the library buried in scholarly tomes.  My article was accepted by a prestigious journal. I received reviews—not all of them flattering; some will always take pains to go that extra step. I was vilified by a prominent newsletter on religious affairs.  Looking back, I realize that it is not an easy thing to review the catalogue of human suffering and maintain one's objectivity.  I felt for the boy's family.  I suppose with a slight twist of the facts I might have argued in their favor.  And yet I never doubted that authorities had scrupulously observed the law.
            I graduated and found myself out of work.  Many years would pass before I was able to set up my own firm.  Sofia never complained, although the same can't be said about her family.  They opposed our marriage from the start, and when their objections failed, they tried to use money to get what they wanted.  My poor wife.  The family pressured her mercilessly, and there came a point when she threatened to break with them entirely.  I tried to act as a mediator (after all, isn't that what lawyers do?). I believed she would regret turning her back on her mother and father because of me.  Never--no matter how much I cared for her--did I wish to be the person who came between Sofia and her family.  
          Regardless of my in-laws, ours was the happiest of partnerships.  Sofia was a modern woman and insisted on working and raising our children.  We had three of them.  I couldn't have imagined that our marriage would end as it did:  my lovely Sofia murdered and I, a condemned man.
             Wrongly condemned, I insist.  Although I can’t name the man who killed Sofia, he exists.  I would recognize him immediately; you can’t say that of everyone; that, a man you met once occupies your mind, not as mere memory, but as a fixture.
What do I recall?  I recall that, the night of the murder, I stayed past five at the office tying up this and that—the sorts of chores that keep us lawyers with our shoulder to the grindstone.  By the time I was able to get away, the streets were quiet. Such a gloomy evening, cold and damp, and as I walked home I recall in sharp detail the branches of the trees scraping in the wind and the spires of the Cathedral dark masts against the sky.  These sights added to my gloom.  A man hurrying in my direction asked me the time.  He was tall and gaunt, with a woolly black beard and long hair that gave him a prophetic air.  An odd bird if there ever was one. I glanced at my watch.  It read 11:00 pm. 
I made it home without further incident. Not wishing to disturb Sofia, I ate a ham sandwich for supper, got a fire started and settled in a chair with a good cognac for company.   I closed my eyes and drowsed.  A loud bang, a shot, woke me.  I ran up the stairs.  Immediately, I recognized him—the same man who stopped me in the street.  He dropped the gun and rushed for me.  Why he dropped the gun I can only guess.  I had the impression that he wanted to get his hands on me.  He was tall, tough as shoe leather, and his bony fingers dug into my neck.  My trachea buckled, the blackness of his eyes grew wider.   I was disappearing into that blackness when he lost his grip and the light rushed back in.  I grabbed at him and we stood, locked in each other's arms, imprisoned there. What a monster!  And then, he pulled back his head and spat at me, the saliva stinging my eyes.  I let out a cry of rage, broke loose and lunged for him.  We tumbled, first he over me, then I over him, our bodies landing hard at the bottom of the steps.  I never doubted that he wanted to kill me.
            The next thing I remember is the bright sunlight through the window.  I didn’t know it at the time but Sofia lay dead in the upstairs bedroom.  The intruder was nowhere to be seen.   
­­­­­­­­­            I have been convicted of killing my wife.  How is such a thing possible? I loved my wife.  No one believes me when I say that she was murdered. From start to finish, the case brought against me is preposterous. Men do not kill their wives on a whim.  If the police had done their job and searched the house for the murder weapon, they would know that I am telling the truth.  The beard was discovered; it achieved a certain mythic status, a prop in a drama staged for the jury's entertainment.  It was said that I had worn it the night of the murder to disguise my features.  Absurd!  Even if I had tried to disguise myself a beard is not the first thing that comes to mind. 
            To be wrongly accused is a terrible thing.  I suppose it is my innocence that causes me to think so often of Edgardo.  Few people take his side of the story—would defend him as I have, and not for purely legal reasons:  only love explains his refusal to return to the arms of his grieving mother—just as love proves that I could not have killed Sofia.  Edgardo and I differ simply in our devotion to God.  When I step into the execution chamber, I will die as Stefan Mortara. It is terrifying. I wish had Edgardo’s faith but I am human, made of skin and bones, in need of air to survive.  And yet, even at this dark hour, I have no taste for miracles.  I do not need the water to turn into wine.  Instead, I ask myself:  if man solved every mystery related to his physical reality, would he still yearn for transcendence?  If God is the ultimate mystery, he must be the solution to all mysteries.  Like most men, I am a mystery.  I would like to live in this condition of ignorance a bit longer.  Forever, if you must know the truth.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Xul Solar: Utopia, Unlimited

Jonathan Kandell

The museum dedicated to Argentina’s foremost painter, Xul Solar (1887–1963), evokes a cabinet of curiosities befitting the eccentricities of this talented artist and polymath. Besides his paintings, often whimsical and occultist, Xul Solar invented a language he called neo-criollo that he hoped would replace Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America; he concocted an elaborate chess game and a new deck of Tarot cards; and he built a three-keyboard piano that linked musical notes to colors. All these creations are on display at the museum that occupies his former home and studio.

The Museo Xul Solar is in the upper-middle class Palermo district of Buenos Aires, on a quiet street of multi-story dwellings mostly from the second half of the 20th century. The museum was inaugurated in 1993 after a thoroughly contemporary redesign. But its façade dates back to the early part of the century and preserves its lengthy wooden window shutters and balconies with wrought-iron railing that were typical of the French-Spanish hybrid architecture of the period.

Inside, I’m greeted by several watercolors from the early 1950s of half-human, half-animal faces of zodiac figures that remind me of characters created by Maurice Sendak 40 years later. At the suggestion of my guide, Teresa Tedin Uriburu, the museum’s communication director, we view the 84-work collection in chronological order. But first, she offers a brief summary of Xul Solar’s early years.

Xul Solar 

He was born Oscar Schulz Solari on December 14, 1887, in the small town of San Fernando, now a northwest suburb of Buenos Aires. His mother, a housewife, was Italian, and his father, an immigrant from Estonia, worked in an Argentine penitentiary giving technical job training to the inmates. Their son studied architecture, painting and classical music, but never received a degree. In 1912, he set off for Europe on what would prove to be a dozen-year sojourn in France, Italy and Germany during World War I and the bitter peace that followed.

It wasn’t until 1918, while living in Florence, that he changed his name to Xul Solar: Xul is the pronunciation of the father’s last name, minus the z, and spells “light” in Latin backwards; Solar is the mother’s last name, minus the i, and means “of the sun.” Already enamored of symbols and hidden meanings, the artist became “Light of the Sun.”

In Paris during wartime, he socialized with Picasso and other cubists and in Italy with futurists. But Xul Solar’s early postwar years in Germany proved to have the most lasting influence. He was spellbound by the German Expressionist group, Der Blaue Reiter, especially works from this period by Paul Klee. Like the Swiss-born artist, Xul Solar often included deceptively child-like figures along with letters, numbers and other symbols in his paintings.

The first room at the museum contains art works, many of them watercolors on cardboard, that Xul Solar painted during his time in Europe. A repeated motif is reincarnation. His 1915 El Entierro (The Burial) depicts a funeral procession in which the fetus-shaped soul of the deceased levitates and returns to a womb-like cave.

Many of his works contain snakes, representing forbidden knowledge. The sun appears frequently in his paintings, as might be expected from the artist’s assumed name. Humor is another element in Xul Solar’s repertoire. The 1922 watercolor Las Cuatro is a playful jab at Cubism—four cartoon-like faces, with eyes attached to nose and an orifice for the mouth, glance in different directions. Ña Diáfana (Lady Diaphanous, in the neo-criollo language invented by the artist) is a 1923 semi-abstract watercolor in the style of Klee. The woman, her organs exposed, grasps a serpent that encircles her.

In 1924, Xul Solar moved back to Argentina with a missionary zeal to shake up its sleepy art scene. He joined the Martín Fierro movement. Linked to an eponymous short-lived magazine (1924-27), the movement was named after a rebellious mythical gaucho and called for cultural change in a country still heavily influenced by formalistic 19th century European notions of art and literature. Martín Fierro members included Jorge Luís Borges, the phantasmagorical novelist, who became a close friend of Xul Solar.

Perhaps the most important Xul Solar work to come out of his involvement with the movement was the 1927 pencil and watercolor, Drago (neo-criollo for Dragon). It depicts a powerful, united Latin America transformed into a giant serpent swimming across the ocean to rescue a Europe impoverished by World War I. In the reptile’s wake are the flags of the former colonial powers—Spain and Portugal—as well as the Stars and Stripes of the neo-colonial pretender. But Drago was one of the few overtly political works among Xul Solar’s varied creations. More typical of the same period is the 1925 San Dansa (neo-criollo for Saint Dances), writhing stick-like figures that invite comparison to Keith Haring’s paintings from 60 years later.

By the 1930s, the Martín Fierro movement was a dim memory. Xul Solar’s works took on an increasingly narrative and mystic quality. In the 1936 Vuel Villa (Flying Village in neo-criollo), clumsy ships carrying exotic residences and other buildings are lifted by balloons high above an earthbound village of more conventional homes. Another notable work, Santos y Guardianes (Saints and Guardians, 1942), depicts holy men of Western and Eastern faiths climbing heavenwards on shaky columns and ladders.

Some of Xul Solar’s largest paintings are from the 1940s and ’50s. He became enthralled by the links between art and music. In the 1948 Barreras Melódicas, peaks and valleys represent high and low musical notes. And he returns to the theme with a similar landscape in Cinco Melodías (1959). In between, he created his famed three-keyboard piano, which is on display on the museum’s mezzanine.

Above the mezzanine, up a winding staircase, are the modest living quarters of Xul Solar and his wife, Lita Cadenas. The apartment opens into a library of 3,000 volumes, arranged eccentrically by size rather than subject; in a corner is a wood-and-wire skeleton fashioned by the artist. This was the room where Xul Solar and Borges met frequently for hours to discuss art, literature and astrology, and to play pan-ajedrez, an expanded chess game in which each opponent had 30 pieces that not only moved across the board, but also bore alphabet letters to be shaped into words.

Earning little income from art, Xul Solar made a living as a translator of books in English, French, German and Italian, and by renting out two apartments in his Buenos Aires residence. In his last decade, he spent much of his time in Tigre, the isle-dotted delta of the River Plate a few miles north of Buenos Aires. And in the years after his death in 1963, he became an almost forgotten figure.

There was a brief spike in interest in Xul Solar when the Buenos Aires Museum of Latin American Art, known as MALBA, staged a retrospective of 130 of his art works in 2005. The exhibition traveled to São Paulo and to Houston. But Xul Solar remains largely ignored even in Argentina. His museum has tried since 2010 to fund and publish a catalogue raisonnée of his works, but the project isn’t yet nearing completion.

Perhaps his friend Borges phrased the lack of interest most poignantly when he wrote a dozen years after the artist’s death: “Xul Solar’s utopias failed, but that failure is ours, not his. We have not known how to deserve them.”

Credits:  This article originally appeared in Arts and Antiques.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Interview with historical fiction writer Lisa J. Yarde

TLY: Today, we welcome author Lisa J. Yarde. She is a historical fiction writer whose stories are inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe.

Thank you so much for joining us, Lisa! Growing up, did you hear a lot of stories about your own family history?

LISA: Thank you so much for hosting me, Kathryn. Both of my grandmothers, my aunts and uncles, even older cousins told me a lot about family history in Barbados. Enough to inspire me to do some research and purchase an Ancestry DNA kit. As I had assumed, my history includes West African origins, but I also had confirmation of an Irish heritage, which the family has long suspected based on stories of my maternal great-grandmother.

TLY: You live in Brooklyn, New York. What might a tourist find in Brooklyn that is of historical interest?

LISA: I’m fascinated by New York’s role in history from the colonial period on. I’m fortunate to live 10 minutes’ drive away from Wyckoff House, which exists as a museum now, but had been a Dutch colonial home since the 17th century. Then there’s the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve walked the span of it many times and always marveled at the ability to construct this bridge with 19th-century technology. Brooklyn was also home to Jackie Robinson for two years during his start with the Dodgers.

TLY: Six out of your eight novels are set in Moorish Spain. What is Moorish Spain?

LISA: Moorish Spain is not only an epoch of history where architecture, literature and medical knowledge thrived. It was a fascinating period in which Arabic became the courtly language and Islam, the dominant religion, not Christianity. Moorish Spain introduced innovative ideas, farming techniques, and trade goods into the Iberian Peninsula. Although the Christian Reconquista eliminated Moorish rule after 700 years, the influence of Moorish Spain remains in the language – especially any word beginning with ‘al’ that derives from an Arabic term - and the foods. The country’s turbulent history, revolving around a civil war between people who differed in their religious beliefs, provided the perfect inspiration for my 'Sultana"series about the last Moorish rulers, the Nasrid dynasty of Granada.

TLY: As someone who has spent time in Spain, what is it you enjoy most about the country?

LISA: The people. I’ve always found Spaniards to be welcoming and incredibly tolerant of my vain attempts to speak their language. In my travels, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the setting of my novels, Granada’s Alhambra. There’s something so special about walking in the places where the real-life personages who’ve inspired me once did more than 500 years ago. Among the tourists at the site, I’ve always found Spaniards who have a deep appreciation for their cultural heritage. Those with whom I’ve engaged, once they find out I’ve written about the Moorish period, are always receptive and encouraging.

TLY: The poet Federico Garcia Lorca is quoted as saying: "In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world. What do you think he means?"

LISA: It’s true. Beyond their fervent veneration of Catholic saints, there is this sense of history deeply embedded in the Spanish psyche and culture. The experiences of centuries past still influence the outlook of the Spanish on their country and the world today.

TLY: Some people consider the term “historical fiction” a kind of lie—that by fictionalizing history you are being unfaithful to the past. Thoughts?

LISA: As novelists, if we’re lucky, we get the ‘who, when, where and how’ of history, but we rarely get ‘why’ something occurred. I view it as my responsibility as a writer of historical fiction to pursue accuracy and authenticity, but it’s impossible to know everything. In the case of the characters I’ve written about in the Sultana series, I amassed a wealth of detail about their lives, but often, viewed through the biases of the victors, Queen Isabella of Castile and her husband King Ferdinand of Aragón. Historical records themselves are often unfaithful to the truth, hence the adage, ‘history is written by the victors.’ In adopting major Moorish historical figures as my main characters, I hoped to give them a voice, to portray the possible reasons for their motivations in the two centuries of warfare and détente between Moorish and Christian Spain. In 20 years of research, I’ve learned many earlier assumptions of historians aren’t necessarily accurate and that the losers of history found means to tell their side of the story, too.

TLY: Authors may love or hate their characters. Can you tell us which of your characters you like or dislike?

LISA: Oh, Lord! That first part is like asking me to choose a favorite family member. But I’d have to say among the female figures, it would be Sultana Fatima, the heroine of the first and second books in my series who emerges as the character I’ve liked the most. The real Fatima was a fascinating woman, impacted by political events in her youth, who later exerted major influence during the reigns of her grandsons after their father’s murder. I did not doubt the ruthlessness of the Nasrids, but I was surprised an element of that existed in Fatima’s personality, too. She apparently arranged the stabbing of her eldest grandson’s chief minister in her home because of his heavy influence over the young Sultan. Surprisingly for me, the villainess Maryam of the third and fourth novels is a close favorite behind Fatima. I knew less of Maryam’s life than her more powerful predecessor in the harem, but I don’t doubt she was a survivor primarily. For a woman who entered the harem as a slave, became the mother of seven of a Sultan’s children and successfully schemed to remove her eldest son’s rival from the throne, Maryam had to have been a remarkable person in life.

As to characters I dislike, it should be clear to readers of the fifth and sixth novels in the series that Queen Isabella is a personage whom I do not favor. She was not only partly responsible for unleashing the Inquisition, one of Spain’s darkest periods, but she was an extremely dishonest broker in her final agreement with the Moors. As I’ve said, religion was truly the sole difference between the Moorish and Christian peoples of Spain. Isabella exploited that contrast to gain papal support for her war when really, she was just as interested in gaining a foothold in Africa to stave off her Portuguese rivals AND gain wealth through trade. I’ll grudgingly admit she preserved Granada’s Alhambra as most visitors see it today; her descendant Carlos is responsible for the significant alterations that occurred later.

TLY: Lisa, it has been great talking historical fiction with someone who really has devoted her life to writing the past. Can you tell us about any current projects you are working on?

LISA: Now that the "Sultana" series is complete, I’ve moved on to 15th century Romania with a trilogy about the father and two brothers of the real Prince Dracula. The first of the novels, "Order of the Dragon" explores the difficult choices Vlad Dracul II made to maintain his power base and keep his family safe from the Turks, as they appeared poised to seize Constantinople. The second and third books, "Sons of the Dragon" recount the turbulent lives of the respective eldest and youngest sons of Vlad; Mircea and Radu, who each faced their own difficult circumstances against the Turks in a struggle for survival. Because some of the events across the series overlap, I’ve had to write some chapters of each book concurrently. I hope to have all three novels available at the end of the year.

Thanks again for this opportunity to share my publication journey with your readers, Kathryn!

More about Lisa:

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of the six-part "Sultana" series set in Moorish Spain, of which the first title is available in five languages. Lisa has also published two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy. Born in Barbados, Lisa lives in New York City. Learn more about her writing at the website

Monday, March 5, 2018

Where Do Words Come From?

Luisa Futoransky
(trans. Daniel Balderston and Mary Schwartz)

Marc Chagall

The language of speech, writing, and thought sometimes reflect in a simple way, as in the latest astronomical discoveries of the "brown dwarves" (dark stars that constitute a large share of the universe), the strong power of absent language.  That is to say, what permits and yet impedes the acquisition of what the expatriate finds most difficult to access:  internal residence.

On June 11, 1938, Freud wrote to the Swiss psychoanalyst Raymond de Saussure that emigrants suffer most from the loss of the language in which they lived and though, which is irreplaceable.  Freud took refuge not in German or English, but in a dead tongue, Latin, to define the irreversible: FINIS AUSTRIAE, two words that came to summarize the drama of emigration from one circle of hell to another.

Transterrado:  landless, expatriated, in asylum, exiled, distanced, absent, colonized, in flight, because almost always, at the beginning, emigration is a swallow, a river overflowering its banks, without accounting for the missing pieces that go beyond the surface.  Missing pieces that spring up in the first unspoken evocation.  Eclipses that reappear in dreams that we quickly wipe away.

Many  travelers take on the painful process of translation, to decant, to transfer one human landscape to another.  Above all to build a bridge.  Each person will establish with what means he or she has available, with flimsy ropes or with sophisticated works of engineering, to carry appropriate words across successfully, words that reveal the inner landscape, that since childhood traces with its peculiar tastes and bitterness the common denominator of that other shore, a transaction that is no doubt complicated by memory's lapses and falsified accounts.  But almost always the transmutation has occurred by the time one suffers through the ravages of winter, both internal and external.

Exiles and refugees are stripped of their characteristics and all that is left to them sometimes for self-defense is to shield themselves with armor, a callus against otherness made of clumsy or painful irony and sometimes to wound those that they consider barbarians.  That is to say, they begin to translate.

But what is translation and exile if not taking a random block of words, a planetary system of old ideas, phonemes, and illusions and transporting them into a new and unknown planetary system.  Frequently the orbits are disrupted and many words and laws, generally the most important ones, the deepest and most secret are left floating like enert particles out of orbit.  Translation and exile are always synonyms of loss.

To come from one language and write in another, sometimes thinking in a third and living in whichever one you can, has become a large part of the literary experience of the contemporary novel.

The answers vary, and the rules, sometimes pushed to their limists, establish excessive ties to things far away and the filigrees of nostalgia are revealed in the undercurrent of hatred and resentment.  Finnegans Wake would be in this sense the great text of exile, but there are other alliances and negotiations that are almost as dramatic with language:  Primo Levi, Kundera, Condrad, Singer, Nabokov, Kosinski, Beckett, Gombrowicz, Kafka, Cortázar. Or for example closer to mine:  Dujovne, Bianciotti.  The relation of the country of origin where you no longer live emerges from the mere listing of their names, the dense jungle that exile has produced.

Each author in some way, in his or her own way, is a kind of traveling library, an atlas, which refers to and sends us back to the libraries where the unwritten and uncharted multiply endlessly.

We all participate in this great leap of communication, negotiating sometimes in an extreme way with language because the inalienable weapon in the hands of the exile is sarcasm.  Irony is capable of absorbing hatred and pity without poisoning its user too much.  Out of this dispossession the world may become a chaos inhabited only by barbarians.

As I translate my theme of exile as it traverses and grows, almost like a Bermuda Triangle, translation being a synonym of marginalization and remainder, an image sticks in my mind: a detail from a painting by Bacon.  From a chaotic circle of green lines emerges a massive tree, uprooted, defenseless.  Without anesthesia.  Like a wisdom tooth.  Roots lying on the earth, disproportionate to the hapless trunk.  I foresee that from there will be some sprouts while others will perish.  Over this shape there is a glow, something like a yellow point clearly tracing a path.  Perhaps a man's head.  An easel perhaps.  The title of Bacon's painting announces:  Portrait of Van Gogh.

Credits:  This essay was originally published in 2002 in the anthology Voice-Overs: Translation and Latin American Literature (Daniel Balderston and Marcy E. Schwartz, Editors).

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Game of Chess

Ezra Pound

Gosia Herba

Red knights, brown bishops, bright queens,
Striking the board, falling in strong ‘L's of
Reaching and striking in angles,
holding lines in one colour.
This board is alive with light;
these pieces are living in form,
Their moves break and reform the pattern:
luminous green from the rooks,
Clashing with ‘X's of queens,
looped with the knight-leaps.

‘Y' pawns, cleaving, embanking!
Whirl ! Centripetal ! Mate ! King down in the
Clash, leaping of bands, straight strips of hard
Blocked lights working in. Escapes. Renewal of

Poet of the Underworld

By Peter Lennon Jean-Pierre Melville said it himself: "I have a bloody awful character." In 1972, towards the end...