Sunday, January 31, 2016

In Pursuit of Poems in Paris

I used to begin every new year at a poetry writing retreat held at a convent in New Jersey. What better way to begin a new year than by writing poetry? So I decided to usher in 2016 by setting myself the challenge of writing a poem every day during my week in Paris.

The wonderful thing about a self-challenge like this is that it sharpens your perceptions and heightens your awareness of lurking magic. Each day I was on a mission, prowling Paris in search of something to write a poem about. Some days it would be late afternoon and I'd still be without my poem, so I'd decide to add in another quick museum visit just in case a poem might be waiting for me there.

Here are a few of my captures.

Rodin's Victor Hugo

"Rodin's contemporaries were shocked
by this depiction of the ravages of age,"
reads the English translation
of the placard below the pedestal.
What ravages? I ask, puzzled. Oh, those.
Do you know you're growing old
when sunken chest and drooping belly,
gnarled fingers and sagging skin,
wrinkled brow and hooded eyes
no longer surprise?

 At the Cluny

It's a good place to come
when this century doesn't seem to be working out.
The statues so still and silent,
unperturbed by a missing hand here,
there a nose worn to a nub.
Saint Denis, cradling his severed head,
has had a day worse than yours.
But its eyes are closed in slumber,
while tapestried bunnies play motionless
by a stiff unicorn and his lady,
waiting for what may or may not happen,
biding their time, of which there is plenty.

La Neige à Louveciennes

Wherever they painted, I want to be,
Those Impressionists with their loving gaze,
To walk down just that snowy street
By just those laden trees
Toward just that muffled church
For just this silent blessing.

Literary Pilgrimage: Rousseau

My favorite philosopher is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). By this I don't mean that he put forward my favorite philosophy, that his political and intellectual views are those with which I most identify. I mean that he is my favorite philosopher: it's the man Jean-Jacques himself whom I adore.

I've taught Rousseau in a  full-semester single-philosopher course five times now. We start with his Confessions, the first modern autobiography, which anticipated Freud in its exploration of the influence of childhood sexuality on adult character formation. We read On the Social Contract, of course, and his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, but also his groundbreaking work proposing a "natural" model of child rearing, Emile. We weep over his novel Julie, or the New Heloise, the best-selling novel of the 18th century. We listen to the opera for which he wrote both libretto and score: Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer). And we finish with his poignant, late-life meditations, Reveries of the Solitary Walker.

Rousseau signed his political works "Citizen of Geneva," but he lived much of his life in or near Paris. So I used my free day in Paris to take myself to the Rousseau museum just outside of Paris, in Montmorency, the place where he resided for five years (1757-1762) and wrote the books for which he is best remembered.

It wasn't easy to get there. Rousseau's contemporaies railed against him for living so far from the city that they could visit him only at great inconvenience. Indeed, Denis Diderot called Rousseau a hermit and caused a public rupture between the two formerly close friends when he put into the mouth of a character in one of his plays this line: "Only the wicked man is alone." In order to get to Montmorency, I had to take a train within Paris to Gare du Nord, then a train outside Paris to Enghien-les-Bains, and then a bus to Montmorency, all navigated in my very halting French.

But it was worth it.

The museum is open only in the afternoons. The door to it offers an invitation.
A beckoning path then leads the way to Rousseau's former residence.

I was the only visitor, and I think the museum guide truly had never presented her tour to someone who loved Jean-Jacques as much as I do. She showed me the little table where he would have breakfasted with his longtime companion Thérèse.
She led me to the "donjon" where he retreated to do his writing.
And she pointed out the desk at which he wrote Julie. "We call this the Julie table," she told me. I clasped my hands over my heart.
Two large paintings, illustrating incidents from his books, hang in a front room. "This one shows a time that Rousseau and two of his friends--" she began. "The cherry picking scene from the Confessions!" I squealed.
She knew me then as the devotee I am, and we fell into each others' arms. Well, so to speak.

I loved going so far, alone, with difficulty, to find Jean-Jacques in one of the few places where, for a brief time in his tormented life, he lived happily. Pilgrimage can be a communal affair, Chaucer's band  of travelers on the road to Canterbury. But pilgrimage can involve a solitary journey as well, just me and Jean-Jacques and a kindly tour guide, sharing a sweet hour on a chilly January afternoon.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Literary Pilgrimage: Paris

Our Enchanted Spaces course took us from London to Paris on the Eurostar train that speeds at 180 mph under the English Channel, by far the quietest mode of transportation I have ever experienced. We checked into our very French hotel, the Hotel Claude Bernard on the Rue des Ecoles, in the Latin Quarter, just beneath the Pantheon.
Mine was the room at the second floor (the lowest set of windows with balconies), at the end of the hall, just before the corner. Here is the view from my balcony.
We didn't have the ambitious day trips we had enjoyed in London. Instead we caught glimpses of various authors and their texts as we roamed the streets of Paris.

In Montmartre, we stood in front of the hotel where H. A. Rey and his wife Margret lived as they were working on the manuscript that became Curious George, then called The Adventures of Fifi. When the Reys, as Jews, had to flee Paris on bicycle to escape the occupation by the Third Reich, they had Fifi with them in their bicycle baskets. And when their German accents attracted unwelcome attention - might they be German spies? - one glimpse of Fifi/George was enough to reassure.
 We saw the clock in the Musée D'Orsay, the railway station now turned stunning Impressionist art museum, which inspired the Caldecott-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret and the subsequent film, Hugo, by Martin Scorsese.
One afternoon we did a self-guided walking tour of the Parisian neighborhood of Belleville, the second highest point in the city after Montmartre, to enter into the magical world of the 1956 Albert Lamorisse film The Red Balloon.

I should have brought a red balloon with me that day, but I didn't want to embarrass my students.

But perhaps they wouldn't have been embarrassed. We spent much of our time tracing the progression of Madeline and her fellow little girls, who walked all over Paris. We tried to visit the locations where "They smiled at the good and frowned at the bad and sometimes they were very sad." It was at the Hotel des Invalides, seeing a wounded soldier limp by, that the "twelve little girls in two straight lines" were "very sad." When we visited there, my students obliged me by letting me pose them into two groups of twelve, with appropriately very sad faces.

And here I am, standing beneath the Eiffel Tower, Madeline cover in hand. Not very very sad, but very very happy.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Literary Pilgrimage: Betsy-Tacy Connections

Most of my friends know that of all the books ever written in the history of the world, my most beloved are the Betsy-Tacy books of Minnesota author Maud Hart Lovelace. The books take the characters of Betsy and Tacy (based on the author and her real-life best friend), from their initial meeting at Betsy's fifth birthday party through to Betsy's Wedding. Unlike many series that trace the development of a character from early childhood to adulthood, there is no falling off in appeal as Betsy ages. Fans of the ten-book series adore the grown-up Betsy books every bit as much as they enjoy little-girl Betsy, in some cases even more.

The penultimate title is Betsy and the Great World, in which Betsy spends much of a year in Europe on the eve of the First World War: Munich, Venice, Paris, and London. So as I was leading my students on our Enchanted Spaces tour of children's literature sites in London and Paris, I snuck away for my own private moments revisiting Betsy Ray's journey a century ago.

In London Betsy stays in Mrs. Heaton's boarding house on Taviton Street. So I found Taviton Street on my map (note: not app!) and headed out to locate Betsy's London dwelling.
Mrs. Heaton's is "one of  a row of attached houses, all tall and thin with neat door plates, bells, and knockers." I suspect the houses there now are a result of postwar rebuilding, but tall and thin they are.
The house "overlooked a green square," and I walked through that green square. And what a lovely green square it was.

I also made sure to worship at Westminster Abbey as Betsy does: "She attended church every Sunday in Westminster Abbey. 'Why not?' she defended herself at the storied portal. 'That's what it's meant for.' You soaked in more of the dear gray old place, kneeling in the candlelight, than you did walking around with a guidebook." I sought out an Evensong service, glorying in the boys' choir's angelic voices and glad that I was praying there rather than clicking away with my camera after paying the hefty admission fee for tourists; worshippers are admitted free (but any worshipper who whips out a cell phone - which was NOT me - is scolded instantly).

In Paris, Betsy and I both visited Victor Hugo in the Pantheon and the Venus de Milo in the Louvre.
 "'I never dreamed she would be so beautiful,' she said to Miss Wilson. "I never expect to like famous things. But I guess they're famous because they give everybody this wonderful feeling.'"

I was surprised, though, that Betsy doesn't mention seeing the original of the Winged Victory, given her younger self's thrill at a reproduction of it in Deep Valley's Melbourn Hotel, which inspires her story, "Flossie's Accident," about another headless girl who loses her head in a bobsled accident but goes on to have various subsequent tragic and romantic adventures (!).
 Betsy visits the statue of Henri Quatre on the Pont Neuf, making her own literary pilgrimage in the footsteps of her favorite character, Paragot from the 1906 novel The Beloved Vagabond by William John Locke. At a crucial juncture in his life, Paragot asks advice of the statue and gets, from the king's gesturing arm, an answer, that he should go to the Gare de Lyon. Betsy asks Henri Quatre for advice about how she can reconcile with her estranged boyfriend Joe, and gets, indirectly, her own answer, too. (The next title in the series, after all, is Betsy's Wedding.) I so wished I had some crucial life topic on which I could solicit Henri's advice, but I really didn't, so I just returned his wave and said "Au revoir."
Betsy's stay in Paris culminates in "one good bat" when she and her chaperone, Miss Wilson, are taken out for a decadent dinner at the Ritz by the wealthy American author Mrs. Main-Whittaker, whom Betsy met on her ship voyage at the start of the book and encounters in Paris at the American Express office.

On my last day in Paris I took myself on my own "bat" and treated myself to decadent hot chocolate at elegant Angelina's on the Rue de Rivoli, even though, unlike Mrs. Main-Whittaker, I hadn't just "had a check for royalties big enough to float a bond issue."
My friend Dawn had told me this was the best hot chocolate in Paris, and it was indeed delicious. But it was even more delicious as I imagined sipping it in the company of Betsy Ray in the summer of 1914.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Literary Pilgrimage: Roald Dahl

Confession time: I've never liked the children's books of Roald Dahl. With the exception of The BFG, which did win me over with its sweet friendship between Sophie and her Big Friendly Giant, the other titles I've read seemed unpleasantly exaggerated and frankly mean-spirited in many ways (glorying in the depiction of nasty people receiving nasty consequences for their nasty behavior). But he's such an enormously popular recent British author, second only in popularity to J. K. Rowling, that a visit to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre seemed an important part of our Enchanted Spaces travel itinerary.

The museum is situated in the charming village of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, about an hour's drive from London. It wasn't open yet when we arrived, so we set off on the lovely walking tour that veteran researcher Tiffany found for us online.

We entered the small public library where Matilda, in the book of the same name, would have come to get her library books. The children's room is now named "Matilda's Library."
 Across the street is the post office where Dahl would receive his staggering volume of fan mail, prompting him to write this poem:

Dear children, far across the sea,
How good of you to write to me.
I love to read the things you say
When you are miles and miles away.
Young people and I think I'm right
Are nicer when they're out of sight.

The nearby Crown House was the inspiration for Sophie's "norphanage":
The museum itself is small but delightful. Even the trash cans are delightful!
Best was Dahl's "writing hut," with its oversized shabby armchair and special writing desk he designed for himself to alleviate the constant pain he experienced from injuries sustained in a crash when he served as a RAF pilot.
The Twit Cafe served themed foods from the books such as this Whizzpopper, which, yes, I ordered and greatly enjoyed.
A short walk from the town led up to the church where Dahl is buried, with large Big Friendly Giant-sized footsteps leading to his grave:

The day left me with a fondness for Dahl that I hadn't expected (helped also by the excellent West End production of Matilda the Musical that we saw on the trip, enjoying analyzing the different choices made in film versus stage adaptations of the book).

I came away thinking that while those who love an author set off on pilgrimages to follow in his footsteps, pilgrimage can also work in reverse: following in someone's footsteps can lead to, if not love, at least a certain affection - here, for an injured, curmudgeonly man who sat daily in his writing hut scribbling curmudgeonly stories that generations of children have adored.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Literary Pilgrimage: Alice

On our day trip from London to Oxford, we went in search of a little girl who fell down a rabbit hole into Wonderland. Well, we went in search of the shy, stammering mathematician at Christ Church College who formed a warm friendship with the three young daughters of Dean Henry Liddell: the middle one was named Alice. A devotee of the new art form of photography, he also photographed the girls. Here, Alice posing as "The Beggar Maid."
On the "golden afternoon" of July 4, 1862, Charles Dodgson, who wrote witty verse under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, took the Liddell girls on a boat ride on the Thames. As they drifted along the river, he told them the story of Alice's adventures "underground." Alice begged him to write it down for her, and he did, giving her a handwritten copy of the story, with his own illustrations, for Christmas, 1864. It was then expanded and published with the illustrations by John Tenniel (Alice now blond instead of brunette) in 1865, under the title Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The students and I saw the continuing 150th anniversary exhibit of Alice at the British Library, with original manuscripts of both editions on display.

At Oxford we toured Christ Church College:
The grand staircase and great hall have a non-accidental resemblance to Hogwarts:

Here is the quad where lifelong bachelor Dodgson had his rooms (it was a condition of his academic appointment that he remain unmarried).
Later in the day I also remembered C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien when I treated myself to hot mulled wine at the Eagle and Child pub where they met together every Tuesday with their fellow Inklings for decades.

But it was this moment of the day that meant the most to me, when I wandered alone down to the river, in the fading glow of this wintry afternoon, and remembered the summer afternoon boat ride where the story began.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Literary Pilgrimage: Harry Potter

Even though my students were wild with excitement about our visit to the Warner Brothers Harry Potter film studios west of London, I wasn't particularly looking forward to it. I thought it would all feel fake, over-hyped, crassly commercial.

I was wrong.

It was magical. And really doubly magical, because to the magic of Harry Potter was added the magic of film-making: magic squared.

When our tour bus pulled up into the parking lot, I wasn't reassured.
But from the moment we stepped in, the magic began. Before we even entered the tour proper, here it was, Harry's cupboard under the stairs.
And once we did enter, the door to the Great Hall of Hogwarts opened for us by a little girl in attendance who happened to have a birthday that day, there we were, in that long room flanked by tables groaning under the (plastic, but so real-looking) holiday feast.
Our tour was hosted, via video welcome, by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, sharing stories of how they had grown up over a period of ten years on these sets together. Already, I felt a lump forming in my throat. I've decided that there is little that gets me teary-eyed faster than evidence of the sheer passage of time: how young they looked then! how much older they look now!

The tour was so well designed, with the chance to stand before sets of exactly the locales we most yearned to inhabit.

The cozy Griffindor common room, decorated for Christmas:
Dumbledore's office.
The Weasleys' homey burrow, where a sweater magically knit itself as a knife magically chopped carrots for dinner.
Throughout there was abundant evidence of the extraordinary care and attention to detail that had gone into every set, prop, and costume, to recreate this beloved world for millions of fans across the globe.

We rounded a corner, and there was the Hogwarts Express, ready for us to board.
In the car we could walk through, each railway compartment represented one of Harry's years at Hogwarts, the seats strewn with whatever items he, Ron, and Hermione might have left behind.

After a stop for lunch in the cafeteria, where butter beer was for sale (tasting very like cream soda), we went outside for a look at Privet Drive
and the home of Harry's parents:

The exhibits on the last third of the tour were perhaps the most meaningful: a close look at how the magical creatures were created for the film through elaborate makeup and use of prosthetics on live actors or fashioning of birds and animals operated through remote control machinery. We saw the detailed architectural drawings for each set, including the white card models made of them. Oh, the extraordinary effort made by thousands of talented behind-the-scenes artists for so many years.

And then, in the final room, there it was : an enormous model of Hogwarts (large enough that perhaps fifty of us could have formed a ring surrounding it) used for many shots in the film.
As we stood there, the soaring score from the films played. Some students wept. We all lingered for as long as we could, hating to leave Hogwarts behind to buy our Ravenclaw sweatshirts and chocolate frogs in the gift shop.

We also had a chance on other days to visit the actual King's Cross Station where Harry departs for Hogwarts on Platform 9 3/4. Although those scenes were filmed in the next door and much more architecturally gorgeous St. Pancras Station, King's Cross now has its own replica of the famous platform:
In our "debriefing" session in class yesterday, where we shared which moments of our "Enchanted Spaces" trip had been most enchanted for us, one student cited approaching Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross. To her, it felt more "real" than the platform at the film studios. Of course, they are in a sense equally fake. But also equally real. The very day we visited the Harry Potter studios, Alan Rickman died, the actor who played Snape in the series. Students who made their journey to Platform 9 3/4 later in the week reported that it was heaped with flowers left by grieving fans.

It that isn't real, what is? I'll give the last words to J. K. Rowling, from this inscription posted at the entrance of the studio tour:
Few authors have made us want to listen as long and as hard as she has.