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Archive for the month “January, 2019”

Discovering the French author Romain Gary

“ One of his hands was covered in blood. The other carried a torch “

Authors write under a plethora of nom de plumes and for a variety of reasons. Most recently Elena Ferrante, author of My Brilliant Friend, attempted to hide her identity, but throughout time many women have chosen alternate identities, for example, George Sand, and even the Bronte Sisters. However, men too , some preferring to be reclusive and out of the public glare have followed this path of pseudonyms: Mark Twain born Samuel Clemens, Theodore Geisel our own Dr. Seuss. Most fascinating is the discovery of Romain Gary, born Roman Kacew who win the Prix Goncourt under two different names, his pen name Emile Ajar, the only person to receive it twice.

Born in Vilnius to Jewish parents in 1879, his mother a flamboyant actress who impressed upon her son he was destined for greatness and his father, a businessman who abandoned the family in 1925. The mother and son moved to Nice, France, and Roman began to reinvent himself. Eventually his curriculum vitae would list him as Romain, an aviator in the RAF, a captain of Free France Air Forces, decorated for his bravery in WWII with the Legion d’Honneur, a French diplomat in Bulgaria and Switzerland, the Secretary of the French delegation to the UN and in 1956, the French Consul General in Los Angeles.

Beyond the daring and the political, Romain also demonstrated his gift for writing and published under the names Shatan Bogat, Rene Deville and Fosco Sinibaldi along with his original birth name. In LA, he wrote the screen play, “ The Longest Day”. His second wife was the beautiful actress Jean Seberg. Romain himself was dashing and moved in the circles of the distinguished with Arthur Koestler, JeanPaul Sartre and Charles de Gaulles.

With his background and devotion to France, his books’ themes come as no surprise. Considered one of the 20th Century’s most acclaimed works of French fiction, The Kites appeared shortly before Romain Gary’s suicide, claiming one of France’s Goncourt’s. Mesmerized by his mother’s obsession with France, Gary stated,” She spoke to me of France as other mothers speak to their children of Snow White and Puss in Boots.” Only in France could his potential be revealed”, she prompted, rivalling( so she believed ) Robin Hood, Lord Byron, Garibaldi and Richard The Lionhearted.”

In The Kites, the story is imagined and partly experienced by the author through the character of nine year old Ludovico Fleury, his life shaped by his uncle, a simple postman, but also an extraordinary honoured creator of kites , or gnamas. Although the Fleurys have a talent of never forgetting, Ludo possesses a special attribute, similar to an idiot savant, the ability to work with numbers. Uncle Ambrose, decorated for bravery in WWI, is now a pacifist , a philosopher, a conscientious objector, a defender of values of humanism, but a reclusive personality fixated on his craft of kite making, seemingly a child’s diversion.

All ready the family is marked as unusual, strange or out of the ordinary, for Uncle Ambrose, and later Ludo will be viewed as unstable, distracted and a bit eccentric. This strangeness allows them latitude in being able to resist, go about their lives in prohibited behaviours under the label of “ nuttiness” or madness: “ ‘ a battiness’ some would call a sacred spark.” Gary’s real life opposition to Petain’s Vichy Government landed him in a mental institution.In one of the book’s ironic scenes, Uncle Ambrose flies one of his kites that resembles the turncoat Petain anchored to the finger of a German soldier.Soon too, the Germans will prohibit the flying of his kites, first reducing their heights flown in the air , then restricting them altogether.

When WWII creeps closer and closer into the small town of Clery, Normandy, this guise of mental instability aids in the Fleurys being able to hide pilots, disperse pamphlets, conceal a printing press , engage in subversive underground activities, move people to safety and manoeuvre against the Nazis. In deed Gary’s own firsthand knowledge of occupied France situates fictional characters in real places with real people.

This underlying theme of concealing one’s true self is raised early when Ludo’s school master. Monsieur Binder poses an assignment in which he asks the students to debate, “ To keep touch with reason: to follow good sense; to act reasonably.” Or,”, to the contrary, “ To keep one’s reason, to live.” So with this notion, the reader queries who in the world of advancing war is reasonable? Who is sane? And what might one do to survive, even camouflaging their true selves?

Because this is a Bildungsroman of growing up and crossing boundaries, Ludo’s driving passion is his love obsession, Lila, the daughter of the duplicitous Polish aristocrat, Stas Bronicki, he encounters as an adolescent . Separated by war, Ludo keeps Lila alive in his imagination, reliving in detail, their moments of perfect reverie and dalliance whether in Normandy or Poland. As he grows into manhood, he must accept the disparity between his wakeful dreaming and reality, for he learns that in spite of daring acts of bravery, Lila has been the consort of more than one German. After the war, her head is shaved as a collaborator but throughout the story and with Ludo’s difficult compassion, she has insisted, “ You had to survive to save family” , reminding the reader of the leitmotif that underpins the novel.

Another in disguise in that same area is a Jewish brothel madame Miss Julie who caters to the enemy. People do not always appear to be who they are. Here too Ludo himself misjudges Hans, a cousin and suitor who adores Lila, accusing him of planting stolen goods in cupboard. Ludo maimes him in a duel, later to discover Hans’ innocence and willingness to lie for Ludo’s crime of burning Lila’s residence in Normandy.

However, the love of France implanted by Gary’s mother is the bulwark around which the story revolves in the form of subterfuge: in the guise of French cuisine in their neighbourhood Clos Joli. For the reader, this line of argument is confusing, tinged with discomfort. Operated by Monsieur Marcellin Duprat, his restaurant remains open during German occupation, receiving the finest fare to feed soldiers, generals even though Gary as Ludo writes,” French haute cuisine became his ( Duprat’s)last line of defence, “ boasting ,”…there will always be a France in the Michelin’s guide.” Ludo rationalizes and appears to support the continuation of France’s gastronomic endeavours by preventing the Resistance from planting a bomb in the restaurant that might take out the Nazi generals and colonels who dine there.

There is a certain blindness in Duprat’s staunch loyalty to his tradition of high standards and excellent recipes served to perfection to the occupiers and destroyers of the country he loves. He believes he is keeping the true France alive, defending and maintaining resistance by holding fast to the French custom of extraordinary food. He states, “ A good Frenchman, nowadays, is one who stands firm”..our politicians have betrayed us, our generals turned out to be fools, but the men responsible for France’s great cuisine will defend it to the death…” The logic appears twisted, for if there are no people left to ingest the food, what was the point? However, Duprat will not lower his standards in the kitchen, winning the affection of his patrons and eventually helping in some small ways to aid the war effort although his intent is the theoretical , not the practical.

Maybe the overarching theme on keeping the restaurant open at all costs is part of my unease with Duprat whose desire to maintain the high standards of cookery, believes this act ensures that France will endure-while most starve or are killed in the streets- and feels for me disingenuous. Of course we comprehend life is complicated and as Lila observes the importance of survival. In deed, how many times have we heard that to save one person is akin to saving the world. But so it seems Gary’s devotion to France, almost rendering Duprat a hero with his carefully concocted dishes extends a caricature of France persistence -no matter what -even to Duprat’s integrity that Gary/Ludo opines as “ idealism and loyalty.”

Only in the Vel d’Hiv roundup when hidden Jewish children are handed over to the Nazis does Duprat close his doors for eight days. To demonstrate outrage and protest, Uncle Ambrose is punished for flying seven yellow kites in the form of a Jewish Star, all of his kites burned to ash by the Nazis. Although Duprat is fictional, other chefs mentioned such as Pic, Point, Dumaine were real. So too are the famous names of French Resistance comrades such as Henri Honore d’ Estienne d’Orves, philosophers such as Voltaire, historical kings and politicians ,Leon Blum, Edouard Herriot, Jean Jaure and writer Emile Zola:all memorialized in Uncle Ambrose’s kites. The symbol of the kite moves throughout the novel, reminding us of characters whose feet are stuck on the ground, earthbound, but some with high flying ideals. Sadly, Uncle Ambrose the embodiment of these aspirations winds up in a death camp.

Perhaps Gary himself, at taking his own life, was confused, obsessed and troubled, and played with the contradiction of being a human kite, held down while aspiring to fly high. The Kites is a wonderful, fast read that speaks to that confusion, the war, duplicity, coverup and resistance. In the reviews I perused, there was little that revealed Gary’s connection to Judaism, his truncated upbringing, most focusing on his mother’s desire for her son’s excellence, and her overwhelming belief in France as the place where new identities could be assumed. Gary’s mesmerizing lauding of the best of France reduced to its cuisine may have caused him to employ it as symbolic for the entire country, although in truth, the metaphor does not provide a satisfying meal. Yet, even for him, that enduring vision did not suffice. Still the context and resistance in one tiny part of France, whether through food or underground activities is emblematic of a country torn apart in wartime.



“Rain, rain go away…” we chanted in a frenzy as we beat the ground harder and harder with our indignant heels, wild with fury that we had to stay in, confined in our houses, not permitted to romp out of doors, our entire bodies weapons of protest.

Grown up now, in California, we still resent the manoeuvres of weather, this week in particular, that restricts our movements, limiting our freedom.

If we grumble to ourselves or mutter beneath our breath, it’s not mere climate we protest, we are crying out against the restraints the rain gods have imposed. Dammit all.

Reading Circe by Madeline Miller, I am swooning, captivated by the age old story , the confrontations between the Titans and the Olympians, gods, mortals, and beings half way in between. We encounter a world so incredibly realized in the arrogant flounce of Helios and his troop of petty, powerful, penetrating, persnickety players, his arch rival almighty Zeus, only tenuously held at bay. The gods lounge on purple cushions, imbibing from golden globes as big as glittering Halloween pumpkins, they gossip and frolic, heads in one another’s laps, whispering in ears, gossiping and frolicking, delighted at the sport of Prometheus who having given fire to mortals is chained and whipped, his golden blood, ichor and nectar, in ribbons flowing . Later a vulture will consume his liver daily for Prometheus , for a god, cannot succumb to death: so they ( gods) find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savour rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.” Their reach infinite, all consuming,pointless.

Our guide to this fantastical world is Circe, daughter of Helios. Her human voice an affront, her yellow eyes a joke, her upturned chin an aberration, her discovery of her power to transform, like her siblings ,a reason for banishment that will bring Odysseus to her island, Aiaia.

We know the creation of gods is a tale to hold mere mortals, people like us, in check, to terrify and awe them into submission by their masters. Terrible and unforgiving these mighty mighty Titans maintaining their reign on sovereign impulse whether the rising of the sun, the barrenness of the harvest, the inclemency of the weather, the downpour of unceasing rain. Most helpless, even naiads and dryads following dictates and amidst the lolling and frolicking and the flights and the couplings still they are prone to jealousy and impulses of love. So Scylla of the most perfect face is transformed into the multiheaded monster who awaits the sailors caught in the crags: Circe’s revenge for the mortal, Glaucos’ , desire to marry Scylla, the tantalizingly temptress: “ Her necks were longer than ship masts,her six heads gaped, hideously lumpen, like melted lava stone. Black tongues licked her sword- length teeth.”

These creatures, gods and goddesses, hang from one another’s necks, possess feathered wings, scaly tails,body adhesions and skin of wandering hue and colour, electrifying and fierce, but dazzling too. They live unending lives, flowing through time and distance, but can experience pain which they attempt to avoid.Flirting and playing at love and childish pranks are so much more delightful. Hermes having pilfered his brother, Apollo’s lyre, lands on Circe’s island, the spot of previous battle between Helios and Zeus, a drop of the later’s blood transfigured into the tiniest of flowers. In the meantime, Circe is perfecting her craft of pharmaka: the reason for her exile.

To explain the reason for the existence of gods is simple, a didactic tool in the minds of bosses, the governing and grownups , a way to withhold and chase power in a narrative recited long ago before the invention of scientific fact could be parsed and catalogued and queried. And now that we know why glaciers crumble into the sea, why cities turn black and vast parcels of land are gobbled up by frightening boneheaded monsters, we merely ignore those stories, preferring to be drawn back and suspended in the hammock of lies and reverie, imitating the gods of the past who endured forever.

However, as inconsequential humans, we might be poisoned by the Titans again, for we are mere mortals like Odysseus caught on Circe’s island, ourselves silenced and mesmerized, now allowing the continuation of the battle wherein we indeed, flesh and bone and decaying flesh will be lost to sea as Scylla laughs.

Award Shows and Their Topics

Why do we watch the movie award shows like Golden Globes and the Oscars? I’m honest enough to say I love the variety of dresses, gowns and sartorial twists that are flaunted before viewers. Certainly Lady Gaga’s poof of a gown( matching chignon. Oh my!) last Sunday night that might have been previously hanging from a curtain rod in a decrepit mansion suggested Scarlet O’Hara’s ballgown as transformed by Valentino. So both laughter and visual interest were my rewards for tuning in.

Yet the films at the theatres are now certainly challenged and rewarded by their own alter egos created to be viewed on Netflix, Prime, whatever- such as My Brilliant Friend, The Americans, Bodyguard, Outlander, Homecoming, The Crown: also included as contestants in these broadcasts.

Yet the purview I felt last week was truly retro. A Star is Born has been around the block several times, most settling on the dewy- eyed Judy Garland as the star although a lovestruck, bleary- boozy-eyed Bradley Cooper was truly convincing as the Gaga promoter. Green Book too, although well acted, produced stereotypes of a good- hearted Italian’s decision to befriend the black pianist Dr. Shirley. In spite of its “ inspiration” rooted in realities, the characters reek of stereotypes with little shading beyond the haughtiness of an erudite performer, the backseat sharing of fried chicken, the closeness of Italian families, and Tony’s eventual good hearted defence of the erudite Shirley, for example. The film does speak to one man’s disavowal of segregation and societal restrictions of a day, but for me, only a group of black field hands in the south stopping to ponder and stare at a white man driving a black man( shades of Driving Miss Daisy) created a true moment of real discomfort as the audience observed from the eye of the oppressed, amazed and perturbed. Articles in the news do point out the film’s perspective is based on the education of Tony the Lip, ( Vallelonga), the true life driver as recorder by his son, Nick.

I haven’t seen Queen, but although lauded by some and acknowledged by Rami Malek’s portrayal, newspapers, two days after the Golden Globe, say, ” The film itself is a wash, a pandering and disrespectful portrayal of a complicated man and artist , Freddy Mercury, that all but erases his queerness”( Barry Hertz in The Star). This news piece also indicates a sexual abuse issue with director Bryan Singer dismissed from the production. Even so, Mercury’s greatest impact occurred around 1969. So it seems our films reach back to times passed and although there is nothing intrinsically bad or wrong in this act, why bother, if nothing fresh is added, and if we cannot learn something new and valuable by the endeavour, why rehash it?

With the resurrection of Hamilton for example, the recasting of diverse actors , the sensitivity of portrait, the talent of performance, the hubris of Aaron Burr, Washington and Hamilton, himself, touches us in a way unexpectedly- but then it is theatre with real people standing before us, not two times removed by the media. But in truth, a really wonderful film can accomplish this too.

Perhaps that is why Roma by Alphonso Cuarzon has found its way into awards. And it is true that we can empathize with Cleo, the housekeeper- slave in the film. She is genuine, loving, sweet with no recourse but to submit to her life. Shot in black and white, Roma feels more like a documentary and it is based on the film maker’s relationship with his own nanny- housekeeper. Although Cleo lives for us on screen, she is surrounded by the harsh stereotypes of employer and changes in a time of governmental suppression and student unrest that complicate and darken the impact on her life.Not to mention her unfortunate linkup with a marital arts sadist, the resultant pregnancy that makes for a pretty depressing film.

Maybe because the film Boyhood with Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke took 12 years to film, its honesty and sensitivity in portrayals were uplifting, refreshing, a balance of goods and bads, the long view afforded us by the master Richard Linklater. In Roma, a year or so in the life provides the ongoing reality of a life that is unlikely to change save the very odd outburst of second hand joy perhaps through the children to whom she is indentured.

On the other hand, what appeals about Roma is the stark moments of truth of the story: that poverty, educational limitations, no access to outside help continue to grind down the less fortunate in society. The filmmakers’ production that avoids easy, rosy false solutions takes us into the heart of the matter, offering us the facts, as he sees them, that continue to confront the world. Unpleasant images such the repetitive washing away of dog turds are symbolic of the life Cleo faces- with no answer suggested in the film. In deed, by engaging the audience of watchers, the problem as part of the viewers’ realm becomes ours. No gloss, no glib, just the ongoing tragedy of so many Cleos we would prefer to ignore, pass on the street and turn away from. Ironically, watching Lady Gaga’s empowerment in Star removes us from the everyday so we can applaud the women who are strong enough, talented enough to escape the drudgery of life.

Further, in terms of irony outside of the film, Joanna Schneller in her discussion of Roma in the Globe today remarks how Cleo, Yalitizia Aparicio, a teacher from rural Oaxaca, when involved in auditioning for the film, thought for a minute she might be inadvertently involved in a human- trafficking scam.

In the end, I suppose we need both the Gagas and the Cleos in film, those able to lift us up and believe there are the opportunities to leave harsh circumstances, be brave enough, to take a chance and reach towards the heavens. However, in a year of Me#Too, we absolutely must be mindful of the Cleos of the world, the ordinary, everyday women with no resources, no outstanding talents or access to better lives, who may be unable to take the steps, who cannot locate the right person, within or without, to help support those initial moves towards better lives. We, as the watchers, must continue to press for ways and means to make the world fairer and more accessible. For every one.

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