Autumn

by Ali Smith

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“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”

“Autumn” is set in the Autumn of 2016 as the United Kingdom is in pieces about to decide on the Brexit vote. The novel is centred on two characters, Elisabeth, a 32 year old university student and tutor, and Daniel, her great friend and mentor who is nearing 100 and in a coma, near death in a nursing home.

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Above: Ali Smith

This book was published in October 2016, following the Brexit vote, and it’s a deeply original and philosophical work, meditating on the fluidity of time, history and art. It constantly flits between past and present, and nothing much actually happens in it, except life which in fact is everything. Much of the drama happens in people’s minds, and some of it is actually quite funny, as is the bureaucracy involved when Elisabeth goes to the post office to renew her passport.

The friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel  is beautiful and very moving. They first meet when Elisabeth is 8 years old, a precocious misfit, and Daniel is already an old man, the queer arty neighbour.

“The lifelong friends, he said, sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.”

Even though the England portrayed appears grim and devoid of hope, the close friendship of these two disparate people is a hopeful thing.

“We have to hope that the people who love us and know us a little bit, in the end have seen us truly. In the end not much else matters.”

The narrative changes back and forth between Elisabeth’s concerns for herself and her country and Daniel’s flashbacks to the past and all he has endured, being a refugee and seeing the horrors of World War II.

In the midst of her post Brexit anxieties, Elisabeth is confronted with the prospect of Daniel’s death. She comes to talk to him every day, regardless of his unconscious state.

“I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”

There are many subtle references to great literature of the past, Shakespeare, Keats and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and the importance of ‘reading’ both at a literal and figurative level is highlighted.

“Hello, he said. What are you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.”

Smith writes in a very dense manner, and part of the book is in a stream of consciousness style, but it very quickly starts to make sense. Her language is so inventive as when Daniel talks about words:
“Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth up around them, and when it does, up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting come up.”  
 

Parts of this novel filled me with great sadness. It was both funny and very sad, and it was about our crazy world and its borders which are growing ever more exclusive and anti-other.

But it’s also about the power of art and stories. And the seasons go on, despite what humans do. Loved this book. 5 ⭐️

 

Book & Exhibition Review – 1.Vincent Van Gogh & The Seasons: Exhibition at NGV Melbourne 2. Van Gogh: The Life (Naifeh & Smith)

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Above: Olive grove with  two olive pickers, 1889, Saint-Remy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum, Otterlo.

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“Art is to console those who are broken by life” Van Gogh 

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I think it is fair to say that most people have heard of Vincent Van Gogh, even ones that don’t know much about art, and most people have an idea of him as the archetype of the tortured artist genius, which he was, but there is so much more to him than that. Everyone knows of course that he cut off part of his ear, and he definitely had a mental illness, the likelihood being manic depression.

I have been delving into his life and work recently by reading the brilliant biography shown above, and seeing a groundbreaking exhibition of his work.

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L: The garden of the asylum at Saint-Rémy, 1889, Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

R: Self Portrait, 1887, Paris, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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“Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo.

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The NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) Melbourne has done a brilliant job at staging “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.  It is a beautifully curated exhibition, the chief curator being Sjraar van Heugten from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, showing in great detail the relationship that Van Gogh had with each of the seasons.

Van Gogh came from a religious Dutch Protestant family, and his father was a minister, but their religion was sober and practical. Poor Vincent was always the odd one among his siblings, preferring to read and be alone in nature. His father frequently accused him of being too serious, too intense and too sensitive; he was always too much of everything really. It was this sensitivity and intensity to both nature and human suffering, that ultimately contributed to the making of his greatest art.

“Today it was a real Spring day, and the fields of young wheat and the lilac hills in the distance are so beautiful, and the almond trees are beginning to blossom everywhere” Van Gogh in a letter to his mother, February 1890.

Vincent tried widely different professions, and was initially apprenticed to an art dealer uncle, which is deeply ironic, as he was able to only sell one or two paintings in his lifetime. This did not suit him, he was a loner and unable to form lasting social connections. Then he worked as a bookstore clerk, which was short-lived. He actually lived in a number of cities during his attempts at making meaning of his life: Amsterdam, The Hague, London, Brussels, and lastly Paris. When working for his uncle failed, he decided to become a preacher. As with everything he did, he threw himself fully into the venture, but it wasn’t to be. Incredibly he was sacked from his position for being too zealous. In everything he did, he was obsessive to the point of destroying his health, both physical and mental. He ultimately found that art was his way to God and the eternal.

Vincent had been very religious in a traditional matter when young, but as his life and art progressed, his relationship with nature became pantheistic. As an artist, I think he was unique in how much and how deeply he read, prior to doing any painting, only taking up painting seriously at the age of 27. He read the Bible, philosophers such as Thomas Carlyle, and writers such as Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Goethe. He was intensely drawn to the suffering of others, to his own detriment. He also wrote a lot – reams of letters, specially to his brother Theo. In these letters he passionately articulates how much his art meant to him, and how important it was to his literal salvation.

As he took up painting seriously, he only had ten years left to live, but what he did in that time was remarkable. Of the ten years up to his death in 1890, only the last four were spent in France, and it was there that he created nearly all of the paintings for which he is famous. “Wheatfield” below is a great example of his late style, where the painting is thickly encrusted, when you see it up close it’s almost 3-D, and you can feel the heat of summer in the thick impasto yellow.

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Wheatfield, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, P. and N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam

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The Green Vineyard, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

Similarly, in “The Green Vineyard” above, the vines with huge grapes almost leap out of the picture, and the sky is again thickly layered, like frosting on a cake. In these works, we can see the beginning of modern painting, as exact depiction of reality is no longer important, but the critical thing becomes the vision and feeling of the artist.

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For anyone interested in Van Gogh, the biography by Naifeh and Smith is the definitive work. It reads almost like a novel, with Vincent as the tragic troubled character, and it sheds new light on his romantic life, his mental anguish  and his early death at 37.

Below are a few more examples of Van Gogh’s work . All photos of Van Gogh’s paintings were taken by me on iPhone SE, at the NGV exhibition, “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.

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Farmhouse in Provence, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Orchard bordered by cypresses, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

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A wheat field, with cypresses, 1889, Saint Rémy, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

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Further information on this exhibition: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/van-gogh-and-the-seasons/

Further Reading: Van Gogh’s Letters are wide-ranging, and hugely recommended. He writes very well and with great fervour about all sorts of subjects. This Penguin edition is the one I have been reading.

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The last word should go to Vincent, who definitely showed the world by his art, what he had in his heart, and that is what draws so many people to his work to this day:

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

 

 

 

 

 

On TBR, and the joys of reading

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” Read in order to live.”

Gustave Flaubert in a letter, 1857

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I have been active on Instagram/Bookstagram for nearly two years and have noticed how my reading habits have changed over that time. From being a laid back reader of whatever I felt like, I have changed to feeling I need to read a book just because others have reviewed it or raved about it. So, I want to get back to a more relaxed reading pace, just following my whims.

It’s a double edged sword  to always be hearing about lots of different books. It can add needless anxiety, stress, and competition, which if carried too far can be detrimental. That’s what I found anyway. I have never had a massive TBR, yet I hear that this is common. Some people’s TBRs are in the dozens or even more.

It’s great to hear about what other people are reading, but it doesn’t mean I will then rush out and necessarily buy a particular book.

I have always been a very spontaneous reader, if I become obsessed with a subject I follow it as far as I can. Recently I reread ‘Jane Eyre’, one of my favourite classics. This led to me reading Clare Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, a book recommended on Instagram. Absolutely amazing book! Well, this led to reading ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Brontë, as I knew nothing about her. Very much an underrated classic. Then I decided to read ‘The Brontës” a huge biographical tome by Juliet Barker. So you get the idea, I’m obsessive. That’s my favourite kind of reading, following a particular passion, rather than trends.

My favourite types of books are classics, contemporary literary fiction, biography and poetry, also books about art and artists, with occasional sprinklings of YA.

So here is my current TBR, pretty modest but I may go to the library tomorrow and see something amazing which I will then read first instead!

Gogol -it’s a bit embarrassing, but I studied Russian Literature at university, yet never read Gogol. This need to be remedied.

Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ – I read this classic many years ago, and want to reread it in a new translation. This is a magnificent book, a murder mystery and a sweeping drama of sibling rivalry among three brothers.

Dracula- just because.  It has been hugely influential in current vampire literature, but I have no idea what the original story was. Hope it’s a fun read.

I would love to hear what your current TBR is, and what you are reading at the moment.