Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

A Wartime Art Story in Paris and Roussillion 

Susan Vreeland‘s historical fiction will always appeal to me, ever since an artist friend first handed me a dog-eared copy of Girl In Hyacinth Blue way back in 1999. Since then Vreeland has written quite a few art history novels, including Luncheon of the Boating Party (read about my literary day trip here), Clara and Mr. Tiffany, The Forest Lover, Life Studies and The Passion of Artemesia. I’m such a Vreeland fan, the only one I haven’t read is Life Studies. Better get on that. . . .

lisett'es listAnyway, Vreeland’s latest is called Lisette’s List (available August 26, 2014 in the US) and is everything what we have come to expect from her. It is yet another lovely art history novel, this time set in Paris and Roussillion, a quaint hilltop village in the Luberon area of France.

Much of the book takes place during and after World War II, when Lisette’s husband decides to hide his family’s valuable paintings rather than let them fall into the hands of the occupying Germans forces. The catch is, Lisette’s husband doesn’t tell her where he hid them, worried that she would be coerced into giving them up while he is off at war.

Lisette Roux’s story begins at a Catholic convent in Paris, La Maison des Filles de la Charité de Saint-Vincent-de-Paul on rue de Bac, where Sister Marie Pierre teaches Lisette enough to instill a lifetime passion for art. Lisette dreams of the day when she could work in an art gallery in Paris, the center of the art world. In the meantime, Lisette works in Maison Gérard Mulot, a rue de Seine patisserie near the convent (it’s still there – you should go there if you can!)

Lisette meets her future husband André, a talented young frame maker, on the corner of rue de Seine and boulevard Saint-Germain. They enjoy a sophisticated 1930s Montparnasse lifestyle in all of the famous cafés, including The Rotunde, La Couple, the Dingo and Closerie des Lilas.

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In 1937, Lisette and André must give up their Paris dreams to go help with Andre’s elderly grandfather who lives in a small village in southern France. Lisette misses Paris, but learns to appreciate the small quiet pleasures of provincial life. She bonds with her grandfather-in-law Pascal as he shares the story of his life, from his work in the ochre mines near Roussillon to his job as a pigment salesman and frame maker for such artists as Pissaro and Cézanne.

The not-yet-famous painters sometimes paid Pascal with a painting in lieu of money. As a result, Pascal happens to own a few incredible paintings. In some of the best passages of the book, Pascal explains how he came to own each painting and what they meant to him. Vreeland explains in her author’s note that she invented two of the paintings in the book, but the rest are real, including one of Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire:

Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valey (1882-85), Metropolitan Museum of New York

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley (1882-85), Metropolitan Museum of New York. In the book, Lisette said this was her husband’s favorite painting because it captured the region of Provence so well: “cultivated fields dotted with ochre farmhouses, a string of distant buff-colored arches of a Roman bridge, a narrow country road, tall pine trees on the left, their trunks bare, with foliage only at their tops, and the grand Montagne Saint-Victoire in the distance, a pale lavender moonlit, triangular and imposing.”

Pissaro’s Red Roofs of Pontoise:

Pissaro, Red Roofs,Corner of a Village, Winter, Le Verger, Cotes St-Denis a Pontoise, oil on canvas (1877) Musé d'Orsay, Paris

Camille Pissaro, Red Roofs, Corner of a Village, Winter, Le Verger, Côtes St-Denis à Pontoise, oil on canvas (1877) Musée d’Orsay, Paris.  In the book, the elderly character Pascal uses this painting to teach Lisette the history and significance of the ochre mines near Roussillon. He says: “And the history of Roussillon is in . . .  the tile roofs of l’Hermitage in Pontoise. Those roofs are stained red-orange from Roussillon pigments. And the red ground and the row of bushes aflame–that’s Roussillon red-ochre. That may not mean anything to you now, but if you had lived here all your life and had seen those miners come home filthy and exhausted, it would.”

As well as Pissaro’s Factory Near Pontoise:

Camille Pissaro, Pissarro, Facotry near Pontoise, oil on canvas (1873), Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA

Camille Pissaro, Factory near Pontoise, oil on canvas (1873), Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA.  In the book, Pascal tells the story about how Pissaro give him this painting. Pascal visited Pissaro at his home in Pointoise, just north of Paris, delivering a frame Pascal had just carved. Pissaro said, “I haven’t a sou, but you can choose a painting from this row for yourself.” Pascal pulled a canvas from the back of the stack and saw a small painting of a factory. Pascal recognized it as the same Arneuil paint factory in Pointoise where he had sold ochre pigments from Roussillon. As Pascal told Lisette, “Inside that building, at long lines of tables, dozens of workers turned raw pigments into paint and filled the tubes Tanguy sold to Pissaro, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin, and others – the hues we made in the furnaces of the Usine Mathieu, our factory right here in Roussillon, . . . ” Lisette then realized why Pascal had chosen that painting: “Despite its ordinariness, it spoke to him of his purpose, his participation in the world of art, the link in the chain from mine to majesty, . . .” (I love that phrase, don’t you? — “From mine to majesty?)

Pascal delights in telling Lisette the story of his visit to Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence,  another lovely town about 25 miles from Roussillon. As Pascal describes Cézanne’s home: “It was a grim, cluttered old house. The studio had high ceilings and tall windows. I seem to remember a potbellied stove. Along a shelf there were white compotiers like my mother’s, straw-wrapped wine bottles, a candlestick, gray jugs, pitchers, and the green glazed toupin [olive jar] that’s in my painting.”

You can still visit Cézanne’s house and studio today. It is known as Atelier Cézanne and is located on a hill at 9 rue de Cézanne. There is also a Paul Cézanne Tour sponsored by the Aix-en-Provence Tourist Office, where you get to see the Bibémus quarries that are an important part of the story in Lisette’s List. You can even download this “Cézanne’s Footsteps Map” for your own self-guided tour through Aix.

The doorway to Cézanne's studio in Aix en Provence. The studio and gardens are open for public tours.

The doorway to Cézanne’s studio in Aix en Provence. The studio and gardens are open for public tours.

 

The foyer at Atelier Cézanne

The foyer at Atelier Cézanne

 

The interior of Cézanne's studio

The interior of Cézanne’s studio

 

A nice touch - Cézanne's coats and art smock hang in the corner of his studio.

A nice touch – Cézanne’s coats, hats and smudge-up art smock still hang in the corner of his studio.

 

The courtyard garden outside Cézanne's studio

The courtyard garden outside Cézanne’s studio

 

Lisette has her own brush with a famous artist as well, based on the true story of Marc Chagall’s escape to the French countryside and finally to New York during the early years of the German occupation. Chagall was Jewish, and was saved by a secret American rescue operation that smuggled artists and intellectuals out of Marseille with forged visas.

Vreeland imagines that the Chagalls might have hidden out in the hills of Provence. Lisette’s bus driver friend (who happens to work for the French Resistance) introduces her to the Chagalls, who are hiding out in an abandoned school for girls on the outskirts of Gordes, another hilltop village in the Luberon region. Vreeland imagined that Lisette would have had friendly chats with Bella and Marc about Chagall’s new style of painting. When Lisette returns for another neighborly visit, she learns that the Chagals had escaped to America but had left a painting behind for Lisette as a gift for her friendship.

Marc Chagall, Bella with Rooster in the Window, Private Collection. In the story, Lisette imagines that the woman in the window might be her, along with her own little pet goat named St. Genevieve.

Marc Chagall, Bella with Rooster in the Window, Private Collection. In the story, Lisette wonders whether the woman in the window is her, along with her own little pet goat named St. Genevieve. Lisette ponders: “Was the woman Bella or me? Was the man Marc or André? A crescent moon, or maybe it was a slim fish, hung in the rosy sky. I was tantalized by the ambiguity. The image blurred as I recognized Marc and Bella’s love for me.”

In Lisette’s List, Vreeland delivers a fascinating dose of art history and art appreciation, just like we have come to expect from her. I loved the way she traced the pigments all the way from the Roussillon ochre mines to the paintbrushes of Pissaro and Cézanne. I also enjoyed watching Lisette’s character transition from a Parisienne to a Provençale, adapting beautifully to the southern, rural way of life without losing her love for Paris. As Lisette herself said, “J’ai deux amours.”

If I have any reservations about the novel, it is probably that Lisette’s search for the hidden paintings seemed unduly prolonged and the plot device of “Lisette’s List” seemed a bit underwhelming. I would have enjoyed more heightened danger in the plot, and wished that the German threat had been put to use in a more sinister way. But in the end, Lisette’s story wrapped up well in post-war Paris and I was left satisfied overall.

The real treat of the novel is to read about the setting of Roussillon. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon there, walking down its narrow red streets and shopping in its art galleries. I even had the time to take a hike down a dusty red path to see its beautiful red ochre cliffs up close. It is now a spectacular little artsy town, just as the villagers had hoped in the novel. By all means, if you’re heading to Provence, add this town to your itinerary and leave a little time to hike on the paths out to the red ochre cliffs. It’s sublime.

You might want to poke your head into Francoise Valenti’s art gallery and say hello for me. You can assure her that her round painting of the view of Paris from the breakfast table  is now quite happy at my home in Chicago.

The town of Roussillon

The town of Roussillon

 

The red ochre cliffs of Roussillon

The red ochre cliffs of Roussillon

 

The view of the Luberon from Roussillon

The view of the Luberon from Roussillon

 

An artist I admired in a gallery in Roussillon: Francoise Valenti.

A lovely oil painting of Rousillon by Francoise Valenti, an artist I admired in a gallery in Roussillon.

 

 

Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland: Highly Recommended

Be sure to visit Susan Vreeland’s website where you can find more photos and information about the inspiration for the book.

 

August 1-2, 1914: France Mobilizes, Edith Wharton Visits Her Dressmaker

Edith Wharton, 1905

Edith Wharton, 1905

August 1-2, 1914*: Wharton Visits her Dressmaker and Dines on rue Royale While France Mobilizes

One hundred years ago today, American novelist Edith Wharton was living in Paris, and like all Parisians, was waiting for news of war. Germany and Russia had declared war on each other only the day before. Everyone in Paris held their breath.

Edith Wharton visited her dressmaker.

I’m not making light of the tragedy of war, and neither was Wharton. I remember studying history in college and thinking to myself, there has to be more to history than the story of men marching into battle. What did the women do? How were the families affected? What did the women whisper among themselves?

Imagine yourself a woman in Paris on the eve of war. It’s the beginning of August. Everyone knows that Paris empties out for an entire month at the end of summer. Who knows what businesses would stay open if war came. If Edith Wharton needed to get fitted for new dresses, time was of the essence.

Wharton couldn’t just run into Galleries Lafayette, recently opened in 1912, because that kind of place provided fast fashion for the masses. Wharton was a high-society woman, and had been a long-time client of the fashionable couture dress designers of rue de la Paix in Paris, such as the House of Worth and Droucet.

In Fighting France (Scribner’s 1915), Wharton reports that she visited her dressmaker’s, but is discreet enough not to drop a name. We don’t know if she went to Worth, Droucet, or someone else’s shop, but it was likely on the rue de la Paix, just a short walk from the Hôtel de Crillon where she was staying. She later stated in an article for Scribner’s Magazine that she interacted with the seamstresses who were anxious about the prospect of war.

At the dressmaker’s, the next morning, the tired fitters were preparing to leave for their usual holiday. They looked pale and anxious – decidedly, there was a new air of apprehension in the air.

 

Seamstresses at the atelier de couture chez Worth, Paris 1907

Seamstresses at the atelier de couture chez Worth, Paris 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/

 

House of Worth Salon, 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/

House of Worth Draping blouses, 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/

After visiting the dressmaker, Edith Wharton returned to La Place de la Concorde, where she observed people standing on the street corner, reading a newly posted notice on the French Naval Headquarters. It was the French mobilization notice.

And in the rue Royale, at the corner of the Place de la Concorde, a few people had stopped to look at a little white piece of paper against the wall of the Ministère de Marine. “General mobilization” they read – and an armed nation knows what that means. But the group about the paper was small and quiet. Passers by read the notice and went on. There were no cheers, no gesticulations: the dramatic sense of the race had told them that the event was too great to be dramatized. Like a monstrous landslide it had fallen across the path of an orderly laborious nation, disrupting its routine, annihilating its industries, rending families apart, and burying under a heap of senseless ruin the patiently and painfully wrought machinery of civilization. . . .

 

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Later that night, Wharton dined at a restaurant on rue Royale, not far at all from the Crillon. It could have been Maxim’s, which was certainly a popular dining destination at the time. Wharton could see that the mobilization order was already being obeyed.

That evening, in a restaurant of the rule Royale, we sat at a table in one of the open windows, abreast with the street, and saw the strange new crowds stream by. In an instant we were being shown what mobilization was – a huge break in the normal flow of traffic, like the sudden rupture of a dike. The street was flooded by the torrent of people flowing past us to the various railway stations. All were on foot, and carrying their luggage; for since dawn, every cab and taxi and motor-omnibus has disappeared. The War Office had thrown out its drag-net and caught them all in. The crowd that passed out window was chiefly composed of conscripts, the mobilisables of the first day, who were on their way to the station accompanied by their families and friends; but among them were little clusters of bewildered tourists, laboring along with bags and bundles, and watching their luggage pushed before them with hand-carts – puzzled inarticulate waifs caught in the cross-tides racing to a maelstrom (Fighting France, Scribner’s 1915).

 

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Inside the rue Royal restaurant a loud patriotic mood prevailed.

In the restaurant, the befrogged and red-coated band poured out patriotic music, and the intervals between the courses that so few waiters were left to serve were broken by the ever-recurring obligation to stand up for the Marseillaise, and to stand up for God Save the King, to stand up for the Russian National Anthem, to stand up again for the Marseillaise. “Et dire que ce sont des Hongrois qui jouent tout cela!” a humorist remarked from the pavement. [And to say that they are all Hungarians who play here!]

As the evening wore on and the crowd about our window thickened, the loiterers outside began to join in the war-songs. “Allons, debout!” and the loyal round begins again. “La chanson du départ” is a frequent demand; and the chorus of spectators chimes in roundly. A sort of quiet humor was the note of the street. Down the rue Royale, toward the Madeleine, the bands of other restaurants were attracting other throngs, and martial refrains were stru ng along the Boulevard like its garland of arc-lights. It was a night of singing and acclamations, not boistrous, but gallant and determined. It was Paris badauderie at its best

(Fighting France, Scribner’s 1915).

 

Families accompanying their soon-to-be French soldiers to the train station, August 1914. Source: http://vergue.com/post/2013/10/08/A-la-guerre-en-chantant-1914

Families accompanying their soon-to-be French soldiers to the train station, August 1914. Source: http://vergue.com/post/2013/10/08/A-la-guerre-en-chantant-1914

 

Mobilization in Paris, August 4, 1914. Source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6931124r

Mobilization in Paris, August 4, 1914.

 

Lines form for French mobilization at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. The official order was given at 4 pm on Saturday, August 1st, beginning the initial call-up of a million men for the French Army. Source: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/fr-mobilize.htm

Lines form for French mobilization at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. The official order was given at 4 pm on Saturday, August 1st, beginning the initial call-up of a million men for the French Army. Source: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/fr-mobilize.htm

 

 

 

 

*A note about dates: Edith Wharton’s exact dates get confusing in Fighting France, The Look of Paris. She often repeats herself by saying, “the next day.” The reader is left to wonder, the next day, or the same day as the last time you said the next day? For example, it appears the French mobilization order was issued at 4pm on August 1st, but it was dated August 2nd. So did Edith Wharton see the posted notice late in the day on the first or mid-day on the 2nd? Sorry to confuse you even further. My point is, I’m trying to get the dates right but I could be off a day or two. Let’s just all stipulate that it’s definitely early August? Good. Then I’m done worrying about it.

Recommended Reading:

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

 

 

 

Paris, August 1,1914: Edith Wharton Waits for War

August 1, 1914: Edith Wharton Wakes Up at the Hôtel de Crillon; Russia and Germany Declare War

Edith Wharton had been living in Paris for over seven years by the time World War I started. She first arrived in 1907 at the age of 45, along with her then-husband Teddy Wharton. She settled in along the rue de Varenne in the fashionable 7th arrondissement.

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For an enjoyable read about Edith Wharton’s early years in Paris, her surprising mid-life affair with Morton Fullerton, and her divorce from her American husband, you should definitely check out Jennie Fields’ 2012 novel, Age of Desire. (And follow along on my Edith Wharton Paris Literary Tour here.)

By the time war came in 1914, Wharton was a seasoned American in Paris. She knew Paris and Parisians well, and had claimed the city as her own.

 

 

On July 30, 1914, Wharton had just returned to Paris from a “motorflight” to Spain with her friend Walter Berry. She checked into her favorite suite at Hôtel de Crillon, her favorite Paris hotel on the Place de la Concorde. It was her habit to check into the Crillon to get settled back into town, even if she had owned her own home at 53 rue de Varenne since 1910.

Hôtel Crillon, Paris

Hôtel Crillon, Paris

The view of the back of Edith Wharton’s apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, which overlooked beautiful private gardens.

The view of the back of Edith Wharton’s apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, which overlooked beautiful private gardens.

Wharton woke up at the Crillon on August 1st, observing and listening as she moved through the hotel and the streets of Paris. As Wharton later reported:

The next day, the air was thundery with rumors. Nobody believed them, everyone repeated them. War? Of course there couldn’t be war! The Cabinets, like naughty children, were dangling their feet over the edge; but the whole incalculable weight of things-as-they-were, the daily necessity of living, continued calmly and convincingly to assert itself against the bandying of diplomatic words. Paris went on steadily with its mid-summer business of feeding, dressing and amusing the great army of tourists who were the only invaders she had seen in nearly half a century.

 

All the while, everyone knew that other work was going on also. The whole fabric of the country’s seemingly undisturbed routine was threaded with noiseless invisible currents of preparation, the sense of them was in the calm air as the sense of changing weather is in the balminess of a perfect afternoon. Paris counted the minutes until the evening papers came.

 

They said little or nothing except what everyone was already declaring all over the country. “We don’t want war – maid il faut que cell finesse!” “This thing has got to stop”: that was the only phrase one heard. If diplomacy could still arrest the war, so much the better – no one in France wanted it. All who spent the first days of August in Paris will testify to the agreement of feeling on that point. But if war had to come, the country, and every heart in it, was ready (Fighting France, 1915).

 

What Wharton does not say is exactly what the papers had reported. In fact, on August 1, 1914, Russia and Germany declared war on each other, just four days after Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. France was not yet at war, but all of Paris waited the news that was likely to come.

Coming Next: August 2, 1914 – Edith Wharton Visits Her Dressmaker; France Issues a Mobilization Order

 

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

 

 

Edith Wharton Waits for War

Edith Wharton, 1905

Edith Wharton, 1905

Edith Wharton might have looked like one of the Gilded Age society matrons straight out of the pages of her novels like The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, but it turns out she could really roll up her sleeves when the situation demanded. Now, on the 100th anniversary of World War I, it is time we give Wharton full credit for her service as an American war correspondent and refugee aid worker.

Wharton recorded her observations about World War I in a series of articles for Scribner’s Magazine. Since then, these articles have been published together in a book called Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort. Her war work, which included charitable efforts on behalf of Belgian refugees and international advocacy against American neutrality, earned her a French Legion of Honor medal in 1916.

A postcard sent by Edith Wharton to her housekeeper Anna Bauman picturing the town of Heiltz-le Maurupt after the First Battle of the Marne in September, 1914.

A postcard sent by Edith Wharton to her housekeeper Anna Bauman picturing the town of Heiltz-le Maurupt after the First Battle of the Marne in September, 1914.

This blog will follow in her footsteps from the outbreak of World War I in July, 1914 through her travels through the battlefields of the Champagne-Ardennes region in early 1915, and her visit to the Lorraine and Vosges regions in May of 1915. In addition to her travels to the German front, Wharton worked tirelessly to organize workshops for unemployed Parisian women and shelters for Belgian refugees.

July 30, 1914: Wharton Returns to Paris, Stops at Chartres Cathedral on the Eve of World War I

It was the last days of July, 1914. Edith Wharton and her “unromantically companionable” travel partner Walter Berry were hurrying back to Paris from a three week trip to Spain. Events in Europe were quickly escalating after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. As Wharton herself put it: “the international news [was] looking fairly black.” Just a few days earlier, on July 28, 1914, Austria had declared war on Serbia. Wharton and Berry spent the night in Poitiers, where the atmosphere was “strange, ominous and unreal, like the yellow glare that precedes a storm. There were moments when I felt as if I had died, and waked up in an unknown world.” (A Backward Glance, 1934).

Nevertheless, as Wharton and Berry drove from Poitiers to Paris, they stopped for a picnic lunch underneath some apple trees and she found it hard to think about the reality of war: “the serenity of the scene smiled away the war rumours which had hung on us since morning.” (Fighting France From Dunkerque to Belfort, The Look of Paris, Scribner’s, 1915).

The traveling companions made it to Chartres by four o’clock that afternoon, just as the sun was bursting out from behind banks of thunderclouds. They entered the Chartres Cathedral, stood before the magnificent stained glass windows, and sought solace from the beauty and power of the sight before them. Wharton later recalled the scene like this:

[S]teeped in a blaze of mid-summer sun, the familiar windows seemed singularly remote yet overwhelmingly vivid. Now they widened into dark-shored pools splashed with sunset, now glittered and menaced like the shields of fighting angels. . . . When one dropped one’s eyes from these ethereal harmonies, the dark masses of masonry below them, all veiled and muffled in a mist pricked by a few altar lights, seemed to symbolize the life on earth, with its shadows, its heavy distances and its little islands of illusion. All that a great cathedral can be, all the meanings it can express, all the tranquilizing power it can breathe upon the soul, all the richness of detail it can fuse into a large utterance of strength and beauty, the Cathedral of Chartres gave us in that perfect hour (Fighting France, The Look of Paris).

 

A Visit to Chartres in Wharton’s Footsteps

You too can feel the same tranquilizing power of the stained glass windows of Chartres. The train ride from Paris to Chartres is as short as one hour, and the Cathedral is an easy five minute walk from the Chartres train station. If you’re lucky, the sun will pop out for you just like it did for Wharton and Berry in 1914. Unfortunately, the day of my visit it was wet and rainy, and only the dimmest of light poured through the windows.

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The Blue Virgin Window in the Chartres Cathedral.

The Blue Virgin Window in the Chartres Cathedral.

 

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South Rose Window

South Rose Window

 

Standing in the rain outside the cathedral

Standing in the rain outside the cathedral

 

If you’re looking for a good spot for lunch on a day trip to Chartres, the town is absolutely full of them. But for an unbelievably memorable crêpe, you’ve got to stop in at Creperie la Picoterie at 36 rue des Changes, Chartres.

Creperie la Picoterie

Creperie la Picoterie

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Creperie la Picoterie’s buckwheat crepe with smoked duck, apples, cherries, goat cheese, lettuce, black olives and rhubarb compote. As good as it looks!

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One of my traveling pals got the Pain de Poilane sandwich with sun-dried tomatoes and it was incredible too.

 

Next Up in Wharton’s Footsteps: Paris on the Eve of War, August 1914

 

Recommended Reading:

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook at archive.org.

 

Hermione Lee's biography of Edith Wharton

Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to Sarah’s Key

The original US cover of Sarah's Key. (In which the Eiffel Tower strangely appears on the wrong side of Luxembourg Palace?)

The original US cover of Sarah’s Key. (In which the Eiffel Tower strangely appears on the wrong side of Luxembourg Palace. Anyone else notice that or is it just me?)

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay was one of the first books I wanted to map out during my year in Paris. I read this book with my Chicago-based book club and never forgot it. I was determined to find the sites from the book and take some photos for my blog. My original post, with photos of the commemorative plaques and statues near the Eiffel Tower can be found right here.

I’ve been meaning to update that post for awhile now. Back in 2012, I made some new discoveries and went back to take some more photographs. How it happened is kind of cool.

I noticed that one of my favorite Paris bloggers (Richard Nahem of Eye Prefer Paris) had posted photos of the courtyard of the fictional apartment from Sarah’s Key. But wait! His photos were of 26, rue Saintonge in the Marais, and mine were from 32, rue Saintonge. Whoops!

I tweeted out to Richard (I’m @parisartclub, he’s @eyepreferparis) wondering about the mix-up, when who should tweet us back? Tatiana de Rosnay herself (what a treat!), explaining the reason for our confusion. Apparently, in the book Sarah’s address is 26, rue de Saintonge and in the movie it’s 32.

So then of course I had to go see the address from the book for myself. I good friend and fellow reader from Chicago was visiting and was game for a literary trek. We headed into the Marais (she had a recent travel article in hand about the hopping Haut-Marais) and we found ourselves near rue de Saintonge. “This way to Sarah’s house!” I pointed. Obviously, book lovers like me have a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction.

I found the bright blue doors at #26, just like Eye Prefer Paris had earlier. My friend and I also got the chance to peek in the courtyard, and we had a little “book club moment.” We looked up at the open windows, picturing Sarah’s old neighbor the music teacher, playing the violin as he sat in his window. Seriously, I think I wiped away a tear or two.

Here is the passage from Sarah’s Key that we recalled:

     Outside, the girl saw a neighbor wearing pajamas leaning out his window. He was a nice man, a music teacher. He liked playing the violin, and she liked listening to him. He often played for her and her brother from across the courtyard. Old French songs like “Sur le pont d’Avignon” and `A la claire fontaine,” and also songs from her parents’ country, songs that always got her mother and father dancing gaily, her mother’s slippers sliding across the floorboards, her father twirling her round and round, round and round until they all felt dizzy.

“What are you doing? Where are you taking them?” he called out.

His voice ran across the courtyard, covering the baby’s yells. The man in the raincoat did not answer him.

“But you can’t do this,” said the neighbor. “They’re honest good people! You can’t do this!”

At the sound of his voice, shutters began to open, faces peered out from behind curtains.

But the girl noticed that nobody moved, nobody said anything. They simply watched.

 

 

The bright blue doorway to 26 rue de Saintonge

The bright blue doorway to 26 rue de Saintonge

 

The fictional courtyard from the book Sarah's Key at 36 rue de Saintonge, Paris

The fictional courtyard from the book Sarah’s Key at 26 rue de Saintonge, Paris. Can’t you just picture the nice man and his violin leaning out the window?

 

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The plaque on a nearby school. It says: "From 1942 to 1944, more than 11,000 children were deported from France by the Nazis with the active participation of the Vichy government of France and assassinated in death camps because they were Jews. MOre than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement. A number of them went to the elementary schools in this quarter. Let's Never Forget Them.

The plaque on a nearby school on rue des Quatre-Fils in the 3rd.  It says: “From 1942 to 1944, more than 11,000 children were deported from France by the Nazis with the active participation of the Vichy government of France and assassinated in death camps because they were born Jewish. More than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement. A number of them went to the Ecoles Elementaires Filles et Garcons des Quatre-Fils.  Never Forget Them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is all probably a good reminder as we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris on August 25, 2014. Ne les oublions jamais.

 

Life Drawing by Robin Black

life drawingI just can’t pass up a novel about art and artists.

Especially if the cover art features a broken paintbrush which has left a streak red paint (cadmium red medium?) across the cover, hinting at some kind of danger or menace. How intriguing.

Life Drawing by Robin Black (Random House US, July 15, 2014) is an astutely psychological novel about a troubled marriage between an artist and a writer. Seeking to escape the city, Gus and Owen buy a country home where she can turn the back porch into an art studio and he can use the stone barn for a writer’s retreat. Sounds idyllic, romantic even? Hardly.

From the very first line you know the husband will be dead by January: “In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death, he visited Alison’s house every afternoon.” Gus is narrating, and what a multi-layered voice she has: remorseful, restless, thoughtful, haunted and sad. She quickly lures you into the mystery of her misery.

It is not a question of what happened to her husband, but how and why. The mystery is even more beguiling because Gus is just barely coming to understand it herself. Gus tries to explain: “as one of my teachers used to say, you cannot see a landscape you are in.”

And what a complicated landscape she’s in. Even before the new neighbor Alison moves in, Gus and Owen are having a rough go. Gus had an affair a couple of years ago, and they’re still sorting things out. As Gus says, the betrayal was “a lingering presence in our lives, a taunting little goblin in the shadows, daring us to call him out.” Her husband suffers from writer’s block, and Gus believes that she is to blame for killing his creativity. In contrast, Gus’s imagination is sparked by old newspapers she finds in the farmhouse and she is both enthralled and challenged by her work on a new series of paintings. Owen is irritated and Gus feels guilty. But still she escapes to her studio and paints.

Chances are that you will soon be convinced, like I am, that Gus is utterly real. Even the paintings on her walls come alive, complete with their own backstory. One in particular captivated me. There is a painting above the fireplace, Owen’s favorite, a painting Gus made in an old millinery shop in Philadelphia. I’d love to know where Robin Black got the inspiration for that fictional painting, maybe . . . here?

tissot milliner's shop

James Tissot, The Shop Girl, from the series Women of Paris, 1883-85, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Or here perhaps?

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop ca. 1882-1886, The Art Institute of Chicago

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop ca. 1882-1886, The Art Institute of Chicago

Just knowing that Gus had spent weeks sketching and painting in a millinery shop, looking past the vivid hats out to the dingy gray of a February streetscape, and somehow doing a pretty good job of it – good enough to hang the completed painting above the fireplace anyway – made me admire her as an artist. Was it the subconscious pull of art history that was drew her to the same kind of place as Tissot and Degas? Or did Gus just need a warm sheltering place to change hats after her affair was finally over?

I found myself wishing that Gus could stop by my own  studio some time, have coffee, and talk about art. Maybe we could take a life drawing class together at our local art league. Gus struggles with the human form; she’s not a natural portraitist. She’s just not that good with people.

Poor Gus.

Such is the talent of Robin Black. She makes her characters live and breathe and entangle  you in their world. I care deeply about Gus. It’s been about a month since I finished an advanced copy of the book and I’m still wondering how she’s doing.

Trust me, you won’t be able to put this book down until you learn how and why Gus’s husband died. Life Drawing is a beautiful literary book with deep personal insight and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Without a doubt, one of my favorite reads this year.

 

–Margie White is a former bookseller, an avid reader and a painter of limited talent but unlimited enthusiasm.

 

A gathering at Printers Row Litfest (from left to right): Jenny Offill, Sue Kowalski, Rebecca Makai, Margie White and Robin Black

A gathering of fans and authors following a panel discussion at Printers Row Lit Fest, June 2014 (from left to right): Jenny Offill, Sue Kowalski, Rebecca Makai, Margie White and Robin Black

 

 

D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944

The recent anniversary of D-Day has put me on a reading streak of WWII related books. My favorite is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. (You can read my earlier review and see my photographs of its setting in St-Malo here.) One of the most powerful insights from the book was the realization of how much damage the Allies caused as they forced the Germans out of St-Malo.

An Alliance Francaise teacher recently shared with me a line she recalled from her parents: “Nous aimons les Américains. Mais nous aimerions qu’ils encore plus si ils ont bombardé un peu moins.” (We like the Americans. But we would like them even more if they bombed a little less.)

d-day through french eyesSpurred on by these insights, I was drawn with great curiosity to this book: D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944 by Mary Lousie Roberts (University of Chicago Press 2014). The book is based on first-person testimony by French people who lived in Normandy in June of 1944. It’s absolutely fascinating to hear their stories.

Paratroopers fell into family gardens and farmers’ fields and were welcomed into French farmhouses, regardless of the danger. Norman families gathered up the silk parachutes and later used them to make shirts, blouses and even wedding dresses.  As Roberts put it: “In the next few years, hundreds of Norman brides would be married in dresses made from that material.”

But the truth is much more complicated. Liberation came at great cost. Nineteen thousand civilians were killed during the Norman invasion. The towns of LeHavre, Caen and Saint-Lo became “martyred towns, almost completely wiped off the map.” These towns were key transportation routes for advancing German troops and the Allies were determined to  destroy their bridges and roads. The Allies dropped leaflets to warn the occupants of these targeted towns, but they often had nowhere else to go. Bomb shelters were rare in France, unlike England. The Normans hid under tables or mattresses and prayed the rosary while “friendly” bombs fell and their homes were destroyed. By the time Caen was liberated, just one-quarter of the town was still standing.

In a chapter called “First Glimpse,” the French share their first impressions of the American soldiers. They were all amazed at their height and size – they called the Americans “giants,” “beanpoles,” “strapping fellows.” They noticed the Americans’ silent rubber boots, so different from the loud sound of German boots they’d become accustomed to.

Norman children fondly recalled American soldiers who gave them their first Hershey bars and their chewing gum. They thought the “brownish-beige chocolate . . .  tasted funny,” and didn’t really know what chewing gum was. “Do you just keep on chewing?” Many Norman children were fatherless during the war, so they bonded quickly with the American soldiers who befriended them, playing soccer and basketball. The adults marveled at “thin” Lucky and Camel cigarettes wrapped so neatly in cellophane. The French noticed that German soldiers smelled like leather, soap and tea, but American soldiers smelled like peppermint, doughnut and American tobacco.

These are just a few of the many well-told first-person stories in D-Day Through French Eyes. They offer a refreshing and sobering point of view for Americans who are more accustomed to looking at the world through their own eyes. We should probably try it more often, n’est-ce pas?