Favorites Friday: Stories in Paintings (d’Orsay Edition)

A couple of years ago I did a Favorites Friday centered around paintings, and I thought it would be fun to revisit the theme.  I’m a slightly compulsive museum visitor, in that I like to write down the names of the paintings I like best.  I have a long list of paintings that resonated with me when I visited the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and I thought I’d share a few today.

As may not surprise you, I tend to like paintings best when I can find a story in them…

611px-Degas_-_Tänzerinnen_in_blauDanseuses Bleues by Edgar Degas – This is a nice little moment backstage among the dancers of the Opera Garnier, and I think we know I have a particular interest in that area, yes? 🙂  I do love how Degas captures human moments of the dancers, yet with that ethereal style too.

501px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_099Julie Manet with Cat by Auguste Renoir – I’ve felt attached to Julie Manet ever since I became fascinated by a different painting of her, Julie Dreaming, painted by her mother, Berthe Morisot.  In fact, the heroine of The Wanderers is named after her.  Considering that and the fact that The Wanderers also features a talking cat, you may see why this painting appeals to me–and Renoir is one of my favorite painters besides.

466px-Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_034The Church at Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh – I have no high-brow reason for liking this painting (though I always liked Van Gogh).  You see, one of my very favorite episodes of Doctor Who centers around this painting.  When I was standing in front of it at the d’Orsay, I looked around at the other people gathered, and I so wanted to say, “Doctor Who fan?  Anyone?” but alas, I didn’t quite dare.  I did check for a monster in the window (there isn’t one).

526px-Louiswelden_HawkinsThe Sphinx and the Chimera by Louis Weldon Hawkins – I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on in this painting, but wouldn’t it make a wonderful cover for a science fiction novel?  Maybe fantasy, but somehow I get a sci fi vibe from it.

It’s a very long list of paintings from the d’Orsay, but I think that will do for today. 🙂

Esmeralda of Notre Dame

Hunchback of Notre DameI’ve been working on intimidating books this year…and diving into shadowy mysteries and Gothic literature for RIP…so September was clearly the month for The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.  I enjoyed it quite a lot–I had been thinking I might take a break and read something else in the middle.  Instead, I ended up being so engaged that I didn’t stop after all–even though I had the new Jacky Faber book arrive while I was reading (but that’s a topic for another review).

The copy I read mentions on the jacket flap that Hugo despised the title The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which only arrived for the English translation.  Hugo called it Notre Dame de Paris–1482.  Not so catchy, but more accurate.  The Hunchback is just one member of an ensemble cast, and if I was going to pick one character as the lead, it would have to be the gypsy Esmeralda–hence the title of this post!  Because it really is centered around Esmeralda…and the men around her.

After my experience with Les Mis, I felt comfortable skipping or skimming when Hugo seemed to be off-plot, which happened a lot in the first hundred or so pages.  In fact, the main character of the first section of the book (if there even is one), is Pierre Gringoire, a destitute poet, and the story didn’t really pick up for me until he reached the Court of Miracles, where live the gypsies and vagabonds of Paris.

This is one of those books that’s worth sticking with, though, as it really does improve as it goes (with a few side diversions into history or cultural background…but that’s Hugo).  Gringoire has an interesting adventure or two, then disappears for most of the book as we finally focus on beautiful Esmeralda, terrifyingly sinister Frollo, sad hunchback Quasimodo, and surprisingly awful Phoebus.  For all the cultural weight and the number of pages, it’s essentially a story of unrequited love: Frollo wants Esmeralda who wants Phoebus who doesn’t value her–and no one wants Quasimodo, who was struck to his core by one act of kindness Esmeralda showed him.

Esmeralda is the center of the story, in that all the other characters circle around her and the plot is mostly driven by how they feel about her.  I couldn’t get much sense of Esmeralda herself, though.  She’s something of a will o’ the wisp, always flitting about but we don’t get into her head much.  She almost irritatingly enamored of Phoebus, and it’s a shame that that becomes such a driving part of her character.  She could be fascinating, as an independent woman who makes her own way in the world, on her own terms.  In a sense Fantine of Les Mis is independent, but her life fell apart; Esmeralda is actually getting along fine.  We don’t get much of that, though.

I was also rather disappointed by the lack of relationship between Esmeralda and Quasimodo.  She does show him kindness once in an extreme situation, but later on she’s still deeply uncomfortable around him.  Oh well, I should have known Disney would make it all rosier!

And on that subject–for a man named after the Sungod, Phoebus was horrible!  I deeply missed Disney’s courageous, noble captain, when Hugo gives us instead a philandering cad who can’t actually remember Esmeralda’s name…

This may be weird, but I think I was most fascinated here by Frollo.  Hugo’s heroine may have left a bit to be desired, but you can trust him to provide a complex villain.  It shouldn’t be surprising that we descend into the depths of his sordid obsession and twisted desire for Esmeralda.  I mean, even Disney didn’t manage to clean that up entirely!  I was more surprised by how openly sordid and at times sensual the book was, considering the time of the writing…maybe I’m just used to restrained British Classics, and it’s different when the French were writing them?  🙂

So how about the not-actually-title-character?  Quasimodo reminded me SO much of Leroux’s Phantom.  And I think that was just me and my particular, um, interests.  Hugo’s Quasimodo is dark, at times hostile, but also coming from a place of deep sadness.  His hostility towards the world is founded on the world’s rejection of him and that makes me feel so very bad for him.  I love his love for the cathedral, and I was thrilled to see a line where he’s talking to his favorite gargoyle statue…and it’s heartbreaking that that line is, “Why can’t I too be made of stone?”  Sad sad sad.

And he’s also like Leroux’s Phantom in that I think they both had authors who didn’t realize what they’d created.  Leroux spent far more pages on Raoul than he did on the much more interesting Phantom, and Hugo could have given us more of Quasimodo and less of some others…but what we got was very good.

This is only about half as long as Les Mis (so, 500 pages…) and some parts require a bit of wading, but on the whole I thought it was an excellent, very readable story with extremely engaging characters–even if some were less likable than I had hoped!  Once the book gets into its stride, it’s also hugely exciting.  I read the last hundred pages straight-through.  And, of course, the ending is deeply tragic.

I’ll probably still watch the Disney movie more often than I’ll read Hugo 🙂 …but I did thoroughly enjoy reading the original.

Other reviews:
My Turn to Talk
The Yellow-Haired Reviewer
A Good Stopping Point
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Saturday Snapshot: Quasimodo’s View of Paris

I’ve been reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo this week, so naturally I have the cathedral on the brain.  I already shared some photos in a previous Saturday Snapshot, though, so I had to come up with a new angle…like the view.

Notre Dame Views (2)The Seine and the Eiffel Tower, from one of Notre Dame’s towers.  I got lots of pictures of the Eiffel Tower and walked under it–I didn’t go up in it, because I was already planning to get the view from Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Views (3)This may look like a complete muddle of rooftops, but look for the gold statues near the center, with the blue dome behind them.  That’s the Opera Garnier, and what photography doesn’t manage to capture is how gloriously those statues seem to shine, even from a distance, even on a cloudy day.

Notre Dame Views (1)And this is not a view from the towers, but it is on a street a block away…  I wonder what Victor Hugo would think?

Visit West Metro Mommy for more Saturday Snapshots.  Have a great weekend!

What Are You Reading, History Edition

What Are You Reading - HistoryI didn’t plan it, but lately my reading has been revolving around history.  And, oddly enough, not historical fiction!  I’m midway through Winston and Clementine, a collection of letters between Winston Churchill and his wife, Clemmie.  They’re just adorable, and are an amazing blend of huge world events, domestic concerns, and romance.  One letter might feature lunch with the Prime Minister, questions about household bills, and cute nicknames!

I’m also researching for my Phantom of the Opera retelling.  I finished Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination in 19th Century Paris, which was remarkably helpful.  I skimmed parts, but other parts were fascinating, and on the whole it gave me good insights and some shocking historical details.  I found out they were still exhibiting people in freak shows and “anthropological exhibits” in Paris into the 1930s!

I’ve read about half of Nights in the Big City for research purposes as well, and it has been less helpful.  It’s too theoretical, discussing philosophies when I really just want to know what the night was like for people in the late 1800s.  For example, in the chapter on unaccompanied women, there’s long discussion about the societal and moral codes that influence women, how they were perceived and what archetypes were involved, etc., etc., when all I really want to know is whether a woman would have felt alarmed walking unaccompanied through Paris at night in 1880.  (I think the answer is yes, but there was lots of rhetoric to wade through to determine that.)

I’m enjoying Winston and Clementine, but I’m finding it hard to stick with them for 650 pages straight.  I took a break after World War I to read The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (excellent!) and plan to break again just before World War II.  I want to read Gryphon’s Eyrie by Andre Norton and A. C. Crispin, to finish out that trilogy.

So much for what I’m reading!  Visit Book Journey for more posts.  And…what are you reading? 🙂

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Leroux PhantomI think we all know I have kind of a thing about the Phantom of the Opera…  I recently did a reread of Gaston Leroux’s original novel–and since I can never keep straight what was in Leroux compared to other versions, even the third time through felt in some ways like a new experience.

The basic story is the same across most versions, and Leroux set the original pattern.  A masked man with a genius for music lives under the Paris Opera House.  In the guise of the Angel of Music, he trains Christine Daae in singing.  When Christine falls for Raoul, the handsome Viscomte de Chagny, the Phantom wreaks havoc in his jealousy.

Leroux was originally in French, so if you’re reading a translation I highly recommend Leonard Wolf’s.  Really, I can’t stress this enough–I’ve read two versions, both “unabridged,” and Wolf’s somehow has significantly more detail and better writing.

It’s always been the characters that really fascinate me in any version of Phantom–and mostly it’s Erik, the Phantom, himself.  Retellings in the last century have been on a nearly-consistent quest to make the Phantom a more sympathetic, romantic figure.  In the original, however, he’s a complete raving madman.  Truly, the man is unhinged.  He has a violent temper and (probably) kills at least three people over the course of the book.  I say “probably” because he denies it himself and we don’t actually see those moments, but I think his denial is a symptom of insanity, not innocence.

There’s nothing romantic about Leroux’s Phantom.  However, he does garner a certain amount of sympathy–or perhaps I should say pity.  I began feeling more sad for him when the Persian (a mysterious figure rarely appearing in films) took over the narration.  That’s not because the Persian portrayed Erik sympathetically, but just the opposite.  He’s the closest thing the Phantom has to a friend, and even the Persian still routinely refers to him as “the monster.”  We also learn from the Perisan that Erik really believed Christine loved him; the Persian himself doesn’t believe it…because Erik is so ugly.  Not because he’s a raving madman with violent tendencies–but because he’s so ugly.  There’s something wrong in that.

The final scene, in which Erik tells the Persian about how he parted from Christine, is absolutely wrenching.  And how can you not feel sad for a man whose mother always refused to kiss him?  Susan Kay does wonderful, devastating things with the idea, but it’s there in Leroux too.

The Phantom as a violent madman casts Christine in a different light too.  I’m not a Christine fan as a rule.  Often she’s an idiot or decidedly callous.  However, it occured to me rereading Leroux that Christine and the Phantom are sympathetic in inverse relation to each other.  The more rational and likable the Phantom is, the more blameworthy Christine seems for any lies and betrayals, and for ultimately choosing Raoul.  The more villainous the Phantom is, the more justifiable Christine’s actions are.  In Leroux, she’s still an idiot at times, but is pretty much justifiable too.

As for Leroux’s Raoul–I have to say I find it downright amusing how frequently he weeps, faints, raves or goes into a sulk.  I understand what Christine doesn’t see in Leroux’s Erik, but I don’t know what she sees in Leroux’s Raoul (his bank account, possibly…)

So much for characters.  The other aspect that struck me most in the novel was the structure.  So much of the story happens “off-screen.”  Many of the most iconic moments, including Christine ripping off the Phantom’s mask and their final parting, are only conveyed in conversations after the fact.  They’re almost detailed enough to be flashbacks–but aren’t really.

We get a lot of Raoul wandering about and wondering what’s going on with Christine.  We get very little of the Phantom actually present in the story.  I think Leroux is one of these classic writers who didn’t really know what he had created–or didn’t know quite what to do with it.  Nearly everyone retelling it has realized that the most interesting one in the story is the Phantom, and has been skewing the story his direction ever since.  Leroux…not so much.

Riding solely on its own merits, I have to say that I don’t think Leroux’s Phantom is all that great of a book.  It pains me to say it.  And I don’t think it’s a terrible book!  But it’s middling at best.  It’s far more interesting from a historical perspective, from the angle of “oh, that’s how Webber changed this” or “I love how Susan Kay took this one line and wrote six chapters from it.”  For me, at the end of the day, I far prefer Webber’s and Susan Kay’s versions.  But it is fascinating to see where they came from.

Other reviews:
ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
The Book Mine Set
In Which I Read Vintage Novels
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Phantom of the Opera

Marie, Dancing

Marie, DancingI think we all know I’m a fan of the Phantom of the Opera…and I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the primary reason I wanted to read Marie, Dancing by Carolyn Meyer.  It just happens to be set in the Paris Opera House around 1880, the same time as the Phantom.  But besides that, the book also plays to my interest in Impressionist art, and in Paris in general, and in stories about strong young women.  The book only shares a setting with Leroux and there are no Phantom references at all…but there is a good story and a lot of information about the Company of the Paris Opera.

Marie and her two sisters are ballet dancers at the Palais Garnier.  The story opens when the painter, Monsieur Degas, selects Marie to be his model for a sculpture he has in mind–the sculpture that will become The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.  Degas and his art are just one part of Marie’s story, as she struggles with her family’s poverty and tries to make choices about her future.

Marie lives in a very, very different world than Christine Daae.  Unlike Leroux’s spooky thriller, this is a gritty, realistic book.  Marie’s problems are real and serious, with never enough food, a mother who drinks too much absinthe to forget her pain, and an older sister who aspires to become a rich man’s mistress and thinks Marie should do the same.  The book is not depressing exactly, but it is a glimpse at the harsh reality behind the elegant forms of the dancers.

Marie does love to dance, and she has dreams of becoming a great dancer.  The book is not really about dancing though–that recedes more and more as it goes on, and becomes more about Marie’s family, her struggles, and a romance–lest you think it’s all grim!

From the point of view of a Phantom fan, this definitely gave me some different angles on things.  It gave me more basic information about life at the Opera House than anything else I’ve read, and was utterly eye-opening on the subject of money.  I never appreciated just how much money 20,000 francs a month (the Phantom’s salary) really is, until Marie sighed with envy over the salary of the higher-level dancers–6,800 francs a year.

The sections with Degas were particularly interesting.  There are occasional references to specific sketches or paintings, and I think I recognized some famous ones!  Mary Cassatt is also present as a supporting character, and I loved the glimpses of the history of Impressionism.

I would have liked more description of the setting–the Opera House is gorgeous, and yet other than a few bits here and there, I didn’t get much sense of it.  But even if appearances were somewhat lacking, Marie’s world came vividly to life.

If you’re interested in dancing, and particularly the Paris Opera, this is a very good slice of historical fiction, unflinching but not unremittingly grim either, and the characters and plot are both engaging.  And you’ll look at Degas’ Little Dancer in a whole new way!

Author’s Site: http://www.readcarolyn.com/

Other reviews:
The Estella Collective
That’s all I found!  Anyone else?

Buy it here: Marie, Dancing

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – Parts IV and V

Les Mis (2)We’re coming down to the final stretch in Les Mis.  If you missed them, you can go back and read the first and second reviews.  Today, I’ll be looking at the last two volumes, when the barricade arises.

This section begins with romance and then moves to revolution.  Marius and Cosette’s relationship takes leaps forward compared to the previous section–by which I mean they actually start talking to each other!  After a blissful interlude, however, circumstances separate them, seemingly forever, and Marius decides that he has nothing to live for.  Conveniently for him, a very good opportunity to get himself killed comes swiftly along.

The revolutionaries finally come into their own in this part of the book.  Paris rises in rebellion and the book focuses in on Enjolras and his band, building and holding the barricade at the Rue Saint-Denis.  They rally around to fight the good fight, while Marius turns up mostly by accident and plunges in.  Inspector Javert is in the midst, revealed as a police spy, and before too long Jean Valjean joins in too…for reasons I felt were never adequately explained.

This is certainly the bloodiest part of the book, and probably the most exciting (although it gets stiff competition from an earlier sequence when Javert was stalking Valjean).  Hugo demonstrates his ability to make even inaction interesting, as they wait on the barricade for each next engagement–and the engagements come with all their drama too.

A few spoilers here, although nothing that the musical won’t tell you…  Gavroche’s death is almost identical in the book as in the musical, and is heartrending in both.  Eponine’s death in the book was more of a disappointment to me.  It’s quick, and it’s largely ignored by everyone, including Hugo.  At pretty much every point of Eponine’s arc, I prefer what the musical did.

But the rest of the barricade sequence is excellent, and I didn’t even mind that they retreated eventually into the cafe.  The movie made it look like a pell-mell retreat, but in the book they fight every inch.

After the barricade falls and a few more trials are gone through, there’s a brief interlude where we actually seem to be heading for a happy ending.  But I didn’t trust Hugo to take us there…and he didn’t.  I won’t get into the particulars but the last section is heartbreaking, and I think the blame falls largely on the heads of Valjean and Cosette.

I love Valjean–he’s a wonderful man–at least until the last hundred pages or so, and then I just don’t know whether I want to cry over him or shake him.  He has a very strong streak of self-sacrifice throughout the entire book, and most of the time it’s immensely admirable.  At the end, though, it begins to approach the point of masochism, self-denial for very little purpose.  There’s an argument for what he does, but it’s flimsy.

Valjean clearly grasped two thirds of the “greatest commandments.”  He has “Love thy God” and he constantly demonstrates “love thy neighbor,” but he never got the idea of that last phrase, “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  The concept of self-forgiveness seems to have escaped him.  I still love him–but Hugo maybe takes it all just a little too far by the end.

As for Cosette–I don’t love Cosette.  She’s such a flighty, childish little nothing.  She has nothing to do in the musical, and scarcely anything more to do in the book, long as it is.  She’s sweet and she’s pretty and Hugo (and Marius) keeps referring to her as an angel, but she never does anything demonstrably angelic.  Cosette has all the refinement to present herself well, and appears perfectly demure and modest and all that, but that’s the extent of her talents.  I suppose if the ability to modestly lower one’s eyes makes one an angel, then by all means, call her that.  But by criteria of actively doing good for others…I find Gavroche far more angelic.

Heartbreaking (and somewhat frustrating!) as the end of the book is, this is still a wonderful read.  I spent longer on this book than I’ve spent on any one book in years, but it was absolutely worth it.  The characters and the world they inhabit are vivid and alive and drew me in completely.  Highly recommended–if you have some time! 🙂