Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ludwig Bemelmans

I'm not as engaged by the Louisa May Alcott book as I wanted to be to read it on my weekend train ride. I knew the train environment would be distracting so I looked around the house for a lighter book or, at least, something I wouldn't willingly stray from easily. I wanted to be absorbed by my reading so I couldn't be annoyed by overheard cell phone conversations or the strains of music through someone's headphones. So, I elected to bring Ludwig Bemelmans' Are You Hungry Are You Cold. It was totally consuming but not in the ways I expected. I assumed it would be like Hotel Bemelmans, one of the author's illustrated works of non-fiction - funny, atmospheric memoir-diary-essay-travel hybrids. It certainly shares some of these qualities but the differences are surprising. For example, it's one of his seven works of fiction and has no pictures. And instead of Bemelmans himself, the narrator is a wise, wounded teenage girl.

I got both of the aforementioned volumes at an annual book sale in Prince Edward County that typically falls on the August long weekend. A local woman is a book dealer who formerly ran a store in Picton. She keeps her large collection in a barn on her property and infrequently opens it to the public to sell off her stock. I've purchased a few great books from her - an example, Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak's wonderful Open House for Butterflies. I selected Bemelmans' Are You Hungry Are You Cold to act on my interest in the author. Plus, the particular version I bought has a compelling provenance. There's a stamp in red ink on the flyleaf that says, "From the library of Anita Loos."

Bemelmans is of Austrian descent - born in 1898 - and is most known for writing and illustrating the Madeline series. The first of six was published in 1939 and the last in 1961. In all, he wrote fifteen books for children. Bemelmans didn't begin his writing and illustrating career until 1934 when a friend in publishing told him the paintings he made on his apartment walls would be effective in juvenile literature. I viewed a mural he completed later in life in the bar of New York's Carlyle hotel (a commission he accepted in order to secure room and board). It depicts many Madeline characters exploring different Central Park landmarks and is, I guess, a point on a continuum of marking up walls. I was consumed by it and the bar's pianist, and trying desperately not to watch one of the most flagrant displays of exhibitionistic PDA I've ever seen. I didn't pay attention when my dear friend Julie nudged me and pointed out that Kate Moss was traipsing through the room.

Bemelmans was a rebellious child and was kicked out of a variety of schools. For lack of knowing what else to do with him, he was apprenticed to an uncle in the hospitality trade. Bemelmans was bounced out of his establishments too. He moved to the US in 1914 with letters of recommendation to a handful of major hotels, working his way up to the position of waiter at the Ritz-Carlton before enlisting in the US Army in 1917. He returned to the hotel business after the war and even opened his own restaurant. He was itinerant, fiercely independent, and a bon-vivant. Still, the Madeline series aside, brutality and madness are commonly present in his art, perhaps due to his historical context.

Bemelmans' writing style is hugely appealing to me. His subjects are exclusively derived from real events and people he knew and are filtered through his keen perception, irreverence, and aptitude for what's funny. He approaches everything with curiosity and openness in a manner that's detached and distinctly uncomplicated. Humor, cruelty, greed, kindness, and peculiarity are presented even-handedly as components of human behaviour to be marveled at rather than judged. His sentences are clipped and lacking in excess - he includes just enough and no more. There are many similarities between his illustrations and writing. Each line and brush stroke is so loose as to appear effortless but conveys considerable movement and character. His style of composition is naive, verging on incompleteness, and the images and scenes appear almost flat. Yet they're fully rounded in terms of feeling and activity, and transmit bursts of colour and vitality in the most expedient ways.

Are You Hungry Are You Cold is a coming of age story coloured by anger and despair that's set during World War Two. In the face of this, the unnamed main character demonstrates fierce will. Relief from the book's bleakness comes from her self-determination, as well as Bemelmans' concise, inventive prose. As in his other work, Bemelmans shows great insight towards children's behaviour and thinking. The narrative is delivered in an episodic fashion comparable to his essay books and the writing is straightforward and unadorned so as to appear concrete and truthful.

The girl belongs to a Spanish mother and a French General father who directs the same dogmatism toward his children (she has a brother, Hugo) that he shows to his regiment and cavalry school. The children's best friends are siblings Alain and Veronique who are treated just as savagely by their military parent. The pairs become allies based on shared suffering. Over the course of the novel, the girl moves through a series of prison-like circumstances - a couple of convent schools, life in occupied Germany - that outwardly mimic the coldness and sadism of her family's parenting style. And while resenting her militaristic home life, she still absorbs her father's mindset and modes of conduct. She repeatedly states that she doesn't like to be touched and responds to all situations with soldier-like strategy and subterfuge. She sees every circumstance as a test to escape authority and obtain independence, and always attempts both through violence - she becomes practiced at knife-throwing and plots successfully how to start a building fire without getting caught.

The centerpiece of the book, and its most bravura passage, is a traditional Spanish bullfight. She and her mother are living in her grandmother's home and while there, she's forced to observe her First Communion. The bullfight is part of the festivities. She's horrified to be present and dreads the barbarism she's obliged to witness. A friend of her grandmother's attempts to reassure her:

"'...it's very beautiful, and there is nothing to worry about, one gets used to it very quickly - but the first time, my dear, there is a part when the horse comes on...' and she said that she herself had never got used to that. 'So when that happens, I don't look. I think about my clothes, or my next dinner party, and that is perhaps what you should do, also - don't look when the horse comes, think about your dolls - or your friends - or your lovely dresses.'"

Her mother and grandmother, and the women in their coterie, are consumed by family status, religious tradition, and domestic governance, all of which represent the narrator's meager allotment and limited potential. She rejects both wholeheartedly, though not easily. When a male family friend says the bullfight might be damaging for a young girl to watch, the narrator's mother balks. "Mama turned her coldest face to him, and with waxen nostrils hissed: 'She stays here.'" But she bolts, and descends the ramps of the stadium, unfortunately winding up in an open space adjacent to the bull ring.

"...gates from the arena were opened, and three mules, whipped, and with their legs pounding upwards, galloped in past me, dragging the dead bull. A man in a red suit whipped them, they came to a halt, and then a dozen men with bloody aprons unhooked the bull and dragged him to the centre of the place and in a moment they each had axes and long knives.
The bull's head was put on a wooden block as if on a pillow and they cut off his ears and gave them to a waiting man who ran with them, and then they all worked together without a word, and they chopped off his head and cut him open and the quivering red flesh was steaming. Two with smaller knives started to skin him, and a boy, barelegged and with a knife, stepped into the bull as it was opened, and he took out the entrails and the stomach and sliced it open, and out of it came a liquid mass of spinach soup that ran all over the floor and mixed with blood, and then I fell into this mess as someone pushed me out of the way.
I felt as if I were drowning in blood, and I saw everything as if it were under water. I was picked up and put on a stretcher and then carried around the space between the arena and the bull ring. It all turned like a huge carousel above me, the thousands of faces looking down on me all filled with pity...
The men who carried me were of the lot that had beaten the old horse. I was carried past banderillas stuck in the wooden side of the barrera, and men sharpening the points, and then past bullfighters, and where their capes were hung up. The people shouted in sounds that were like the waves of the sea. In the sky the setting sun gilded a plane very high, very small, and then the men turned right and I was taken inside the infirmary, and placed on a table. Two nuns came and took off my dress and started to wash me. I was naked. It smelled of carbolic solution and on the wall, where my feet were, up where the tiling ended, hung a print of the Madonna in a gilded frame."

The girl spends the duration of the novel fighting to avoid fulfilling her status as a sacrifice - a victim of her gender and her circumstance in history. Others in her peer group don't succeed, as children of either side, enemy or ally, are caught up in the murky entrails of their parents' battle. Its proportions are made dubious by the inexact morality of their actions, the parameters of which are expertly portrayed by Bemelmans. Eventually the narrator devotes herself to Alain, perhaps simply because they both made it out alive. He endured his war service but was severely hurt. Traces of Rochester can be seen in Alain's initially harsh treatment of the narrator, as well as in the disfigurement he suffers before their their romantic contract is sealed.

My husband recently shared an essay with me called "The Art of Fiction" that was written by Henry James. He laments that detractors criticize fiction for its lack of integrity due to being made up rather than based on fact. He insists that the best fiction aspires to truthfulness in its insights and conveyance of feeling and behaviour, if not in the events depicted. It was interesting to encounter this piece while reading of Are You Hungry Are You Cold. Bemelmans' prolific output spans from the truth of factual recounting to the falsity of fictive imaginings. But his work is consistently idiosyncratic, intelligent, and bare, never obfuscating who he is or what's real, as he sees it. Honesty is imperative.

(And, as it goes with reading, Are You Hungry Are You Cold dovetailed in lovely ways with the formidably talented Lorrie Moore's wonderful novel A Gate At the Stairs, the book I completed just prior to starting in with Bemelmans (though the Louisa May Alcott biography fell in there too). Both were portraits of a type of adolescence in which the person depicted demonstrates intelligence beyond their years that their life experience hasn't caught up to yet. Both novels depict the accrual of that hard experience. And, further, Moore and Bemelmans share a capacity for humour and, in particular, introducing it into dark conditions so as to modulate them and make them more human.)

Friday, January 13, 2012


As with many of my goals and practices, my blog has languished. I can't say why I have such a hard time writing with dedication. It's a source of disappointment and the single most important thing I want to change. So! I've returned to my blog with the intention of publishing writing with more frequency. I'll add new pieces as topics occur to me, and simultaneously work on other writing that corresponds with bookbinding. This means some writing will appear on the Internet and some will take the form of books.

Perhaps a large part of my difficulty with writing relates to not knowing where it should land. I want to be the ambassador for all of my work, so how do I deliver it to an audience? Should I even imagine them when I'm working? Creative expression depends on being met by a reader, viewer, or listener since it constitutes the dual purpose of becoming known to yourself and then to others. Currently, I'm reading Madeleine Stern's 1950 biography of Louisa May Alcott (I'm not sure yet if I like Stern's writing style). Alcott was able to write with diligence from the time she was a girl. This was probably due to her Mother's devoted interest in her progress. Her family was her first audience - they dutifully watched her plays and listened to her read aloud. (Alcott's father nurtured her intellect, but he was so self-absorbed his encouragement rarely took on practical proportions.) When Alcott was little, she received this note from her Mother:

"I am sure your life has many fine passages well worth recording, and to me they are always precious... Do write a little each day, dear, if but a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won."

Alcott also enjoyed the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson who acted as her father's benefactor for much of their lives. Emerson explained, "He that writes to himself writes to an eternal public. That which is done at home must be the history of the times and the spirit of the age to us."

So, self-improvement and self-discovery have widespread, beneficial consequences. Perhaps this relates to keeping a diary, an impulse to write that doesn't conceive of a reader. I became even more interested in Beatrix Potter's journal once I learned that, for over 15 years, she wrote it devotedly in a code of her own devising. The journal was discovered after her death and delivered to a Potter scholar, Leslie Linder, who had a particular interest in her visual art. For years he attempted to break the code and was continually frustrated. He finally chose to set it aside but, after one more look, had a breakthrough. Then he began the arduous task of translating it for publication. I now have it on loan from the library.

The published version of Potter's journal starts when she's 14 years old (though Linder indicates she began composing it at a younger age but went back as an older woman and destroyed early installments). She didn't publish the work she's most known for until her mid-thirties. She didn't leave her parents home until she was fifty. There's no doubt her code was a bid for privacy. But, in the preface to the edition I've borrowed, H.L. Cox argues that Potter also wanted to write and train her memory. There was no reason for her to write so she crafted one and, at times, it was simply automatic. Portions of her diary are transcriptions of hymns she'd committed to memory. She wrote them out to exercise her mind and enjoy the sensation of moving a pen with her hand. She sketched a lot too. Potter was an earnest fungologist who produced two hundred and seventy paintings of fungi, most of which were completed alongside her journal between the years 1893 and 1898. Cox defines Potter's journal as "a pertinacious search for the medium in which her own innate talent was to find expression...". It comprised a steady effort at preparation. It doesn't really elucidate her context or clearly outline progress toward the literary masterpieces she'd eventually create. It does, however, demarcate the union of influence and personality that lead to her greatest achievements, timeless contributions to art, farming, and land stewardship that were meant for and resoundingly found an audience.