Category: Travel

The best novel by the favorite writer of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is about a woman who lives off men.

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, here to present a woman who feels much worse than you can in the dull bottom of February.

The favorite writer of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is said to have been Jean Rhys (1890-1979). If so, that says a lot, for the main character in a novel by Rhys tends to be a woman in her 30s who is losing her looks and her ability to attract men. She drinks. She lives in a cheap hotel. She has no expectations that things will get better for her — indeed, she almost wills life to get worse.

Jean Rhys was a first-tier writer who deserves to be widely known, and I can easily understand why — on literary grounds alone — Mrs. Onassis would elevate her to her personal pantheon. I can also understand why Mrs. Onassis might identify with a Jean Rhys character: Mrs. Onassis was notoriously tight. I’m guessing here, but I’d bet she had an irrational fear that she had to hold on to every dollar lest she end up poor and alone — a bag lady. She wouldn’t be the first to feel this way; any number of rich people I know seem to tell themselves daily, “This could all go away.” [To buy an inexpensive paperback of ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ from Amazon, click here.]

For Julia Martin — the main character in ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ (1930), probably the finest of the novels by Rhys — it has all gone away. It’s the late 1920s, and Julia’s in Paris, where her nightly companion is a bottle rather than a man. Outside, there’s an endless party, but she stays in her gloomy room all day, reading. And musing:

She found pleasure in memories, as an old woman might have done. Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. She would lie thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical country that she had never seen.

That burst of writing is on page 3. It is both a tour de force of insight and a warning: Rhys has an unblinking eye. What that eye sees may not be pretty — but you can count on it to be the truth. Here is the key truth of this novel: a woman in her ’30s, already looking back rather than forward. You can’t help but worry for her.

Work? “By her eyes and the dark circles under them you saw that she was a dreamer, that she was vulnerable.” Drunk, she looks out at the Seine and imagines it’s the sea. Dear Lord, how will she make her way?

That grotty topic — money — is ignored in most novels. People just…. have it. Not here. Indeed, the engine of the plot of ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ is money. Julia lives from check to check — on the kindness of the men who have used her and discarded her, you might say. Which is fine when the men are generous and guilty.

But now comes a lawyer’s letter, with a check for 1,500 francs, five times the usual amount: This is her final payment. Mr. Mackenzie is cutting Julia off. A prudent woman would — well, what good does it do to outline a plan of action that is unavailable to an imprudent woman like Julia? We know what Julia will do: seek Mr. Mackenzie out and have a scene. Which she does. In a restaurant. Where she ends her haughty, desperate monologue by slapping him lightly on the cheek with her glove.

Ah, but luck is with her. Reeling out of the restaurant, she encounters George Horsfield, a troubled, interior man who is attracted to birds with broken wings. Bars follow. Too many drinks. Much talk. From Mars, this could look like a mating dance.

England beckons. I can’t see why — there’s nothing for Julia in London except a sister resentfully nursing their dying mother. But the change of scene energizes Julia: “She had lost the feeling of indifference to her fate, which in Paris had sustained her for so long. She knew herself ready to struggle and twist and turn, to be unscrupulous and cunning as are all weak creatures fighting for their lives against the strong.”

Her mother’s death triggers a complex reaction: the realization that she hates her sister (and vice versa), a sharpened resentment against the power of money, the feeling that she can almost see “the thing that was behind all this talking and posturing,” a sense of herself as “a defiant flame.” And on a more basic level: Can she cut a deal with George Horsfield?

Sex is ahead. Very 1920s sex — what passes for passion in that time will be an eye-opener for some readers. And more wine. A funeral. A kind of crack-up. And, finally, the return to Paris. All along, you cannot help but think: What is it with Julia? Has she just had some bad luck and it turned her sour? Is she a selfish bitch who’s getting exactly the life she deserves? Will she come to a “bad end” —- or does her decay roll on like the Seine?

Ah, but there is Mr. Mackenzie in a cafe. This time Julia doesn’t hesitate to approach him. And to ask him — with a directness she lacked earlier — a question. It’s a short scene for an end of a book, just two quick pages. But they are so stunning they take your breath away. If you didn’t know, from the terse writing on every page before this, that Jean Rhys is a great writer and that this, but for the grace of God, is the story of your life, you know it now.

Fête des Lumières

Every year on the 8th of December the city of Lyon, France celebrates the Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières).

It began in the 17th century – during a particularly horrible plague the city council swore to pay tribute to Mary if their town was spared. The town lives, and so does the festival in Mary’s honor.

Citizens traditionally light candles in the windows of their homes, and in addition to the religious lighting displays, there are many professional, municipal installations.

It looks like every type of light can be found somewhere in the city. From fires to huge floodlights to lasers to digital projection onto the building facades.

Not surprisingly, the festival has become a huge tourist draw, they were expecting over 4 million people at the four day event this year.

All these photos are from this year’s festival. The variety of displays is amazing.

The city is beautiful all year long, but during the festival it literally shines.

I have never been, but every year I look at the photos and sigh…

Have a lovely Tuesday,

Sarah from Design Flourishes

 

all images from the official Fête des Lumières website

“I see things better with my feet,” said the blind man who was, in his day, the world’s greatest traveler

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week with a totally inspiring story.

James Holman was a 21-year-old British sailor with the bad luck to be the man on deck as his ship was buffeted by a winter storm off Nova Scotia. He had the frame of a boy — he weighed just 146 pounds — and not enough of a man’s coat to make a difference. By the end of his watch, he felt stiff in every joint.

The diagnosis was gout. He got some rest, was sent home, received a new assignment — and, once again, was on deck in terrible weather. By 24, he was taking water cures in Bath. But this time, he developed new symptons: shooting pains in his eyes.

At 25, for reasons unknown, he was completely blind.

You can scarcely bring yourself to read about the treatments for blindness in 1810. Start with leeches “applied directly under the eyes.” Move on to a “slender spike” inserted in the eye. Luckily for Holman, he wasn’t looking for a cure as much as he was seeking an explanation.

He never found one. But he did find something better: a refusal to live out his days as an invalid on a Navy pension — or, worse, as a beggar. So he acquired an “ordinary walking stick” and a writing machine. He soon learned to get about the streets. And to create documents.

He was now ready to make his way in the world.

The world. Well, he had lifetime tenancy of three rooms. He had 84 pounds a year. He was 26 years old. [To buy the paperback from Amazon.com, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

He enrolled in medical school. He made it look easy — but then, he made everything look easy, so as not to call attention to himself. Still, he took ill. Doctors recommended a rest in the South of France. He taught himself to swim alone. To be self-sufficient — although the wives of fellow travelers were only too happy to help him make ready for bed.

And then comes the huge surprise. This guy wants to go around the world. On the cheap. Without a guide. Traveling through expanses too daunting for the average tourst — who crossed Russia in those days?

What happens on these trips is so beyond our sense of what is possible that you read this book with jaw slack. You can readily understand how his travel writing became immensely popular, why Darwin cited him as an authority — as Holman put it, “I see things better with my feet.”

You will see things better if you read this remarkably entertaining and inspiring biography.

A French novel that sold 1 million copies in France in 1927 — and you’ve never heard of it

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week bringing you a droll voice from the long-lost past.

Maurice Dekobra?

His name is now almost completely forgotten, but in 1927 he published a novel called “The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars” that sold a million copies in France. (It was eventually published in 24 languages.) In 1928, The New York Times described him as “the biggest seller of any living French writer — or dead one either.” Fifteen of his novels became films. (“Madonna” was filmed twice.) Over his career, he sold 15 million books in 32 languages, and his kind of writing — a slick blend of journalism and high-society intrigue — acquired a brand name: dekobrisme.

“The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars” went out of print in 1948.

It’s finally back. So let me introduce you.

Maurice Dekobra (1885-1973) began his career as a translator (Daniel Defoe, Jack London, Mark Twain). In the early 1920s, he was a journalist and foreign correspondent. His fiction reflects his training — it’s grounded in the news, is briskly paced and has an unusually tart point-of-view.

The plot, as these things go, is simple. Lady Diana Wynham is a London widow known for her beauty (“the type of woman who would have brought tears to the eyes of John Ruskin”). She is just as well known for her unabashed amorality. Presented with a list of her lovers, in chronological order, she has only one correction: “Excuse me, but they were contemporaneous.” [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here].

Lady Diana is about to be ruined financially. Her sole hope of salvation is l0,000 acres of Russian oil land that her late husband, the English ambassador to the court of St. Petersburg, received as a gift from the government of Nicholas II. It is — in 1920s money — worth 50 million dollars.

The bad news: Russia’s Bolshevist government has confiscated all foreign property.

The good news: Leonid Varichkine will get it back for Lady Diana in exchange for “one night” of love.

What are a few illicit hours to a woman “who could never be happy without a great deal of money?” But Lady Diana is as clever as she is amoral. She proposes a better deal.

“Madonna” starts in London, makes stops in Berlin, an Arabian prison and a yacht in the Mediterranean, with a melodramatic climax in a castle in Scotland. In addition to distance, lessons are learned: a Communist can be converted to capitalism for less money than you might think, and “passing infractions of fidelity” are “trivial.”

I’ve dipped into a few other Dekobras. They’re not awful. But “Madonna” is clearly his showpiece. It’s a fun, terse, story that is as convincing about London drawing rooms as it is about Russian execution chambers. And he makes you care about Lady D.

Paris + New York in children’s books

Hello dear English Muse readers, Naomi Bulger here. I also like to blog little messages in bottles from Australia.

I recently had a little girl, Madeleine, and I have discovered that one of the most fun parts of having a baby is having a legitimate excuse to delve head-first into children’s books. Ok at 13 weeks, my little girl isn’t exactly advanced in the literary department, but that doesn’t stop me reading to her. And already she loves to look at the pictures, and makes little “Oooh” noises, trying to copy my speech, as I read aloud.

I bought Paris Y Es-Tu while I was in Paris last year. It is a stunningly illustrated ‘hide and seek’ book by Japanese artist Masumi, kind of like Where’s Waldo/Wally, except you are looking for different people and little lost things all over Paris. When Madeleine is older, we will trace our fingers together over all these places, and I’ll tell her what is there, and we will dream about going to Paris together.

Then on the weekend I found this little New York, Baby book, and I have already read it to her several times.

“Look, they’re shopping in SoHo, that’s where Mama lived,” I say. And, “This is Central Park. One day, we will go together and see the turtles.” And, “That’s ‘The Lion King,’ on Broadway. Mama took Daddy and Nanna and your two sisters to see ‘The Lion King’ when they came to New York for a visit.” And, “Just around the corner from there is where Mama and Daddy met.” So she will learn about her mother’s life in New York.

What would/do you read to your child?

Packing for Milan

Hello lovely readers. Jenny here. I am trying to pack for Milan at the moment and am so confused. After 3 months of non-stop rain in London, I have almost forgotten what sun feels like. I can’t wait to wear shorts and a t-shirt but at the same time I do want to look summer chic, if you know what I mean. So here are my dilemmas:

1. High and pretty or comfortable but less pretty sandals?

2. One day or Kafka on the Shore?

3. Maxi dress or jumpsuit?

4. Proper camera or Blackberry camera?

Oh, dilemmas, dilemmas. I might just put whatever comes first to my mind in my suitcase and just ignore it. Did I mention I hate packing?

I love Kate Spade's packing guides. This one is for Los Angeles.

 

%d bloggers like this: