Thursday, 27 October 2011

Edward Lear in Corfu

Edward Lear, talented and troubled, loving and lonely, first lived in Corfu in 1855. The weather was wet, Lear suffered from attacks of epilepsy and depression and for a while could not work at his sketching and painting. When spring made an early appearance and he got to know more people and started selling his drawings, his mood and outlook also improved. He began to explore the island and in a letter to his sister Ann he wrote “The hills are positively an immense crop of geraniums all gold colour - & in the olive woods, the large white heath looks like snow & the pale lilac asphodels in such profusion as to seem like a sort of pale veil over all the ground.”

He was a restless man. His perceptions fluctuated, turning a fresh and expansive outlook into a cold and shrunken territory. But when he travelled, no matter how difficult the journey might be, simply to be in movement released the feeling of impoverishment of the senses and emotions, it lit up the landscape of possibility, like a shaft of sunlight.

In 1848/9 he had travelled through mainland Greece and Albania, sketching and painting. His Journal of a Landscape Painter in Albania makes fascinating reading, in its detailed descriptions of the lives of a people little known to the English speaking world. It is also full of Lear's witty and sometimes self-deprecating comments.

He left Corfu after two years because he wanted to make a journey to the Holy Land, though he returned in 1860 and lived there until 1864 when the British protectorate ended and Corfu and the other Ionian Islands became part of Greece.

The house where he lived in the 1860s was very close to Prosforou, where I lived earlier this year, and a poem about him, and a picture of the house can be found on Catapult to Mars.

Thanks to Corfu blues for the image above of Lear's painting of Paleokastritza, Corfu.

Edward Lear: The Corfu Years - A Chronicle presented through his Letters and Journals

There is also an excellent biography of Lear by Vivien Noakes

Monday, 17 October 2011

House of Exile - an Appreciation

Evelyn Juers – House of Exile

This is what biography should be! This book pushes you deep into the consciousness of the time by its descriptions of the lives of individuals.

The main characters are the writer Heinrich Mann and his wife Nelly Kröger-Mann. [photo of Heinrich and Nelly, courtesy of] Other members of the Mann family put in frequent appearances particularly his brother, the Nobel prize-winning Thomas and his son Klaus, and a host of other writers, including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, Lion Feuchtwanger, Jakob Wassermann and many others. It takes us through the thirties and the rise of fascism in Europe, and the war years.

What has often irked me about biographies is a tone that can sometimes slip into the critical or judgemental – how easy I think, to look at another's life, one that, presumably, is admired [why else write about them?] and see 'flaws' in their character or decisions they made. Evelyn Juers has managed very cleverly I think, and after a huge amount of research, to get inside the lives of her main characters. She does this partly by quoting their letters and journals, partly through magnificent writing where she does not signal her presence by waving opinions or interpretations, though does sometimes say things like - I imagine her walking down the Kurfurstendamn etc. So that we feel as if we are experiencing events through the eyes of the people described. And there is no hint of judgement, but rather, great compassion, which is not overtly stated, but in which the whole book is steeped, like a colour, a subtle scent or flavour, the kind of light which is only found in a certain place, whether geographical or psychological.

What sticks in my mind is that boat full of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany crossing the Atlantic and being turned away from the USA. Having to go back across the Atlantic and as the author said, probably ending up in the camps. The way that the French collaborationist government helped to seek out German residents in France, who were then sent back to Germany and to the concentration camps. The way all the German resident exiles had to apply for visas to the USA and exit permits from France. And if you knew someone in the USA already, it made it at least more possible. How many writers committed suicide. How Virginia and Leonard Woolf had a suicide plan ready, should the UK succumb. The way Heinrich [then nearly seventy] and the others with him had to climb over the Pyrenees to escape to Spain. And how the Nazis in pursuit reached Cerbère near the French-Spanish border a day later – they were just in time. The relentless pressure, anxiety, fear for oneself and one's loved ones. No wonder people turned to alcohol, and came to rely on morphine, barbiturates and other drugs, as they tried to sleep at nights.

The suicide toll goes on and on. People still in Germany who had been arrested, or knew they were about to be, those who lived in France or Prague or other European cities, after France's capitulation and collaboration with Germany. People who were trying to escape but did not manage it, like Walter Benjamin on the Spanish border, taking the same route that Heinrich and Nelly took. He did not have a French exit visa and was refused entry into Spain. A few weeks earlier he wrote in a letter - the complete uncertainty about what the next day and even the next hour will bring has dominated my existence for many weeks. Like so many of the refugees he carried a lethal dose of morphine tablets with him, and took these rather than return to France.

Thomas Mann's journals and letters are often quoted. It's clear from them that he never liked Nelly, Heinrich's wife, considering her 'common'. After her death – she had problems with alcohol, other health problems, and eventually took her own life – Thomas Mann says 'she caused him [Heinrich] a lot of trouble.' She also cooked for him, looked after him, typed up his manuscripts, went out to work and took on menial jobs in the USA to support both of them, and clearly loved him. She was described by others as 'a ray of sunshine', and 'the kindest person I ever met'. Heinrich was devastated by her death, and particularly remembered her courage and how she helped him when they were escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain.

So relevant to our own times too, as many refugees from various wars and oppressive regimes continue to seek asylum, escaping from horrors quite unimaginable to us, who live in freedom and relative security.

You can find the Guardian review here

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Back Roads and Magic Carpets

What is the name of these fair wondrous plants, now somewhat withered, past the fullness of their blossoming, and appearing as with the colours of clouds near the horizon at the setting of the sun with a faint whisper of pink in their feathery aspect, like plumes of some exotic bird, scattered by the roadside?

These may not be the exact words of my companion, but that's how I remember them, more or less, with perhaps a faint inserted echo of Chaucerian English, which somehow I associate with him, at least in my imagination.

(Answer to his question – rosebay willowherb)

We're driving through hills of an extraordinary colour, part-russet from bracken part purple from heather – all in this low sunlight, a summer day slipped into autumn like a surprise thin packet, tied with a ribbon of many colours, a glitter of silk, a slim wedge of shiny paper, with the resulting startling yellows and deep reds of trees glowing among the shades of green. There's also the statuesque profiles of windfarms and we discuss the possibility of painting them rainbow hues, to shed colour on the hillsides, on grey winter days.

It's open day for artists' studios in and around Dunbar. We first visit Lesleymay Miller's and Judith Rowan's in a basement in Church Street. JR notices things - he points out a lobster creel in the garden which I would have failed to see otherwise. I tend to look into the distance, to horizons. Lobster creels and pink roses.

A band playing traditional jazz music can be heard off the High Street, where we go for coffee to the 1650 café. We decide it is so named because that was the time when coffee houses first made their appearance.

We then drive to Stanton, following a narrow country road through velvety corn coloured fields – the road lined with beech-hedges, pale green and yellow tinted – the low sunlight shines in my eyes and I pull down the sun visor. JR looks at the map. I circle a roundabout a couple of times then find the right road. There is no wind and the sunlight laps over the land, in peaceful unhurried waves.

Aliki Sapountzi's photographs are of Turkey and Afghanistan. The tomb of Shah Abbas. Stony landscapes. Deep blue skies. It seems to me that if you have travelled in a particular landscape then a part of you belongs to it and it is somehow always inside of you so that you are then part of it, inseparable. Seeing images of these places reminds you of that other part of you that's also you. This is the way I feel connected to the photographs of Afghanistan. It then seems inexplicable that I should be here, when I feel this connection, shiny as copper, stony and dusty as the tracks and mountains, deep blue as the sky – with this other land. Its minerals I feel, part of my hands and fingernails. Lapis in the veins. Turquoise around the finger joints. Bowl of sky like a loose blue scarf around my neck.

I don't have photographs from that time but I remember the deep silence at night, so many moving points of light, stars in the night sky. It's as if there is another perceptive self, one that doesn't always see the lobster pots, may not register the present details but carries its own memory imprint, that returns in feeling like a soft and subtle cloak and its language is more one of shifting light, colours, and the slopes, curves and hollows of landscape.

Its terrain unfolds, it rolls out like a carpet when I see images of that remembered land. Look! it says – step onto this carpet and walk over the thick wool, feel the worn places and the ridges underneath your feet - and it turns into the vegetation and the dust of this land. As if I'm walking in another being's footsteps – smell the baking bread, in the mountain air...

(Images of Afghanistan courtesy of wikipedia)