Thursday, August 21, 2014

House of Habsburg-Lorraine

 Emperor Francis and Empress Maria Theresa and their thirteen children who survived infancy. They had a total of sixteen; Marie-Antoinette was the fifteenth child and youngest daughter. Share

Looking Young Forever?

From God and the Machine:
Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and Jamie Lee Curtis have all, allegedly, skipped the knife and simply aged into their faces the way God intended.
And what is wrong with that? Remember the words of Yeats:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face
The pilgrim soul in you. A pilgrim is not the same at the end of a journey as at the beginning. If he is, he’s done something wrong. Pilgrimage changes us. It marks us.
Life marks us too. Wood enters the ocean as little more than a dying tree, and is plucked out, miles further and years later, a beautiful piece of art shaped by no human hand. When we try to use technology to strip away that effect of time and tide on ourselves, we don’t retain our youthful looks. We simply put on the mask of a child we no longer are.

I don’t want to be a child again. I’m getting older, as is my wife. We wrinkle and sag and creak. We also love and create and grow. We’re slowly being called home, our bodies bearing the years and the miles on their return trip to the earth from whence we come. Technology could give us back only a facsimile of youth, and a grotesque one at that. It cannot give us back the real thing.

We will never be young again, and that’s okay. Even young, we weren’t truly who would we should be, because we were born deformed by sin. None of us are perfect at 20 or 25, but we will be so at the end when, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed: for this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. All else is just dust. (Read more.)
Share

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Suite Française

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky is a posthumously published novel about the German invasion of France. Written before her death in a concentration camp, Madame Némirovsky's manuscript did not see the light of day until 2006. Of Jewish extraction, she and her family escaped the Communists, became devoted French citizens and Catholics, only to be killed by the Nazis. Due to the author's murder, the novel has a slightly unpolished feel about it and the ending leaves the reader hanging in some ways. It is brilliant nevertheless and captures all the fear and uncertainty of the early days of the invasion. According to The Guardian:   

It was Némirovsky's habit to go into the woods to write, and to make notes on her work-in-progress. This was to be a novel written in five sections, dealing with France under German occupation. The book, she thought, would be a thousand pages long: an ironic reference to the German fantasy of a thousand-year Reich. She completed the first two sections, "Storm in June" and "Dolce", and together these make the novel now published as Suite Française. Even these sections were not finished, in Némirovsky's view. She intended to revise, noting that the death of one character was perhaps schmaltzy, and that she found "in general, not enough simplicity".

Like Katherine Mansfield, whose journal she took to the woods on that July day, Némirovsky was an incisive critic of her own work. This search for simplicity reflects Mansfield's own longing to purge her work of effective little writerly tricks. Némirovsky knew what she was aiming for, how high a standard she had set for herself, and how hard it would be to achieve.

Her model for this large-scale novel set in wartime was Tolstoy's War and Peace, which she knew intimately. There is a great deal of play and echo between War and Peace and Suite Française, some of it respectful, some experimental. Némirovsky creates brilliant and often ironic parallels between scenes in the two novels. For example, Tolstoy's description of the Rostov family loading their possessions into carts as they prepare to flee Moscow before Napoleon's advance is echoed in a scene in Suite Française where the wealthy, bourgeois Péricand family crams its worldly goods into the car as the Germans advance on Paris. But while Natasha Rostova is horrified by her family's materialism, and shames them into emptying the carts and filling them with wounded soldiers, the Péricands behave throughout with selfishness barely cloaked by convention. Their departure is absurd, and it is observed with cool, merciless comedy. The high-minded, religiose Péricands delay not because they wish to help anybody else, but because the monogrammed linen is not yet back from the laundry. Némirovsky understood very well the callousness of those who consider themselves virtuous. Unlike the Rostovs, the Péricands cannot be abashed, and cannot repent.

In her increasing isolation and danger, Némirovsky had good reason to understand the psychology of collaboration. Her portrait of French society in the tumult of war and occupation is not judgmental, but it is devastating. The Michauds, clerks who belong neither to the bourgeoisie nor to the working class, are almost alone in their kindness, their gentle, practical goodness and their realism about human suffering. This couple resembles the wise innocents so cherished by both Tolstoy and Dostoevky, who become touchstones for those around them without making the slightest claims to moral grandeur.

Tolstoy's technique fascinated and inspired Némirovsky, as her notes on the composition of Suite Française show. Némirovsky had been forced to leave Russia at the age of 15, after the revolution, and French became her everyday language as well as the language in which she wrote. But her work does not repudiate her Russian identity: instead it reflects the historical interplay of the French and Russian languages in Russian literary culture. Némirovsky comes across as an intensely Russian writer, lyrical, forceful, earthy, idealistic and yet without illusions.

The influence of Turgenev and Chekhov is also apparent. Her descriptions of the French rural landscape have the blend of realism and poetic tenderness that Turgenev perfected in Sketches From a Hunter's Album. Like Chekhov, she observes and powerfully expresses the detail that fixes a scene, whether interior or exterior. For example, when the injured soldier Jean-Marie Michaud is sheltered by a farming family in a remote hamlet, a girl puts a bunch of cherries next to him on the pillow. Jean-Marie is delirious and has returned to a childlike state as he slips in and out of consciousness. But all the time he's aware of the cherries. "He was not allowed to eat them, but he pressed them against his burning cheeks and felt content and almost happy."

When she began Suite Française, Némirovsky was in her late 30s and already a well-known novelist. From her notes, it's clear that she knew her new work was of a different order. "Today, 24th April, a little calm for the first time in a very long time, convince yourself that the sequences in Storm, if I may say so, must be, are a masterpiece. Work on it tirelessly." Her longing to complete the masterpiece which she believed she had in her is immensely moving, given that she was never able to go beyond the second section of the novel. Two days after Némirovsky sat writing for the last time in the Maie woods, she was arrested by the French police under a directive that affected "stateless Jews between the ages of 16 and 45". She was taken first to Pithiviers concentration camp, and from there was deported to Auschwitz, where she died on August 17 1942. Her husband, Michael Epstein, had begged for her release but was also arrested and sent to the gas chamber immediately after he arrived at Auschwitz on November 6. Her children escaped death only because of the dedication of their carers.

The manuscript of Suite Française was preserved by Denise Epstein, Némirovsky's daughter, who was 12 at the time of her parents' murder. She kept her mother's leather-bound notebook with her each time she and her younger sister were moved from one place of safety to another. Almost 60 years later, Denise read the notebook and discovered that it contained not a diary, as she had always supposed, but a novel. The history of the manuscript, and its survival, is remarkable enough. The authority of the novel, though, does not come from its history, but from its quality. Incomplete as it is, lacking the revision that its author undoubtedly wished to give it, the narrative is eloquent and glowing with life. Its tone reflects a deep understanding of human behaviour under pressure and a hard-won, often ironic composure in the face of violation.

Némirovsky understood that her own life was about to be horribly violated, even though she could not know exactly what was intended for France's Jews. She created characters who would coexist comfortably with these violations, such as the author Corte, a man of letters whose preciousness about his own creativity is matched only by his mean-spiritedness. Némirovsky noted that "Corte is one of those writers whose usefulness will become glaringly obvious in the years following the defeat; he has no equal when it comes to finding euphemisms to guard against disagreeable realities".

In the fictional world of Suite Française, everything is in flux. Some are stunned, while others already jockey for position in the new order. A few prepare themselves to resist. But nothing is abstract; everything is made present, whether it's the cherries on the pillow, the privileged little dinner that Corte secures for himself and which is then snatched away by a hungry man, or the sound of music drifting over a lake at evening while young German soldiers celebrate. Perhaps Némirovsky's most extraordinary achievement is the humanity of these individual Germans, and the sense of tragedy when their celebration dissolves at the news that Germany has invaded the Soviet Union. Their dreams of peace vanish; fantasies of a bargain between conquerors and conquered cannot survive. (Read more.)

What struck me most about Madame Némirovsky's work is her insistence upon upholding the humanity of every single character, even the German invaders. There are no Nazi stereotypes in the novel, which is shows the author's ability to rise above the hatred of the time. Such greatness of spirit is even rarer now, which makes this book shine like a light in the darkness.

Michelle Williams stars in the upcoming film version.
Share

Medieval Horses

An indispensable commodity for a noble. To quote:
Steven Muhlberger, in his book Jousts and Tournaments, helps us understand the value of warhorses during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by looking at the records of the king’s compensation to men-at-arms for horses lost during a campaign. He says that, “the lowest value assigned to a warhorse was £5 and the highest £100.”

To put this in perspective, “a well-off English peasant family at the beginning of the century might earn just a little over £3 annually.” In order to qualify to become a knight, Muhlberger says that a landowner would need to make £40 a year. They were “an elite class that included at the very most 1500 men.

With warhorses being valued all the way up to £100, some of the noblest of the beasts would be worth more than a lower-level knight’s yearly income. The loss of a horse, therefore, would be a devastating blow to all but the wealthiest of men (meaning that a man would think twice about taking his horse into battle…unless the king was willing to compensate him if his horse was lost). (Read more.)
Share

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Comte and Comtesse d'Artois

A portrait on Sèvres of the newly married couple. Share

Medmenham Abbey

An intriguing history from Nancy Bilyeau:
History does not record a single event of interest that took place within the abbey walls while Cistercian monks actually inhabited Medmenham between 1207 and 1536. It's what happened to a woman around the time of its founding and to a man two hundred years afters its dissolution that spark interest--and, in the case of what happened in the 18th century, an infamy that reverberates today.

THE FOUNDING: The person responsible for the abbey's existence was Isobel de Bolebec, a woman of strength who was determined to have a say in her own life. This was no small feat in the early 13th century, especially for an heiress.

The de Bolebecs were a family that possessed extensive land at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, mostly in Buckinghamshire. Isobel was the daughter and co-heiress of Hugh de Bolebec--builder of a stone castle with a moat--and is believed to have been born shortly before his death in 1165. Her first husband was Henry de Nonant, Lord of Totnes; they had no children together.


The mound is all that remains of
Bolebec Castle, destroyed by Oliver Cromwell

At some point Isobel granted lands to the abbey of Woburn, an existing house of Cistercian monks, and they decided to expand, using those lands. Medmenham Manor had belonged to her father, and she decided to bestow the land between the manor and the Thames to the Cistericians. She was clearly a pious woman who believed in religious patronage--she is best known for being a major benefactress of the Dominican order in England. In 1204 a colony of Cistercians began to live in the newly constructed abbey on the Thames. (Read more.)
Share

Monday, August 18, 2014

Marriage of the First King and Queen of the Belgians

From Cross of Laeken:
[August 9] is the anniversary of the first, and most important, of Belgian royal weddings: the nuptials of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, first King of the Belgians, and Princess Louise-Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte-Isabelle d'Orléans, eldest daughter of Louis-Philippe, King of the French. The marriage was celebrated with great magnificence at the Château de Compiègne, on August 9, 1832, exactly two years to the day after the bride's parents, in the aftermath of the July Revolution, had ascended the French throne. Leopold and Louise had three wedding ceremonies: civil, Catholic and Protestant. Bride and groom left Compiègne a few days later, traveling to Laeken in triumph, amidst a sea of French and Belgian tricolor flags, acclaimed by Belgians eager to welcome their new Queen. 

Physically, morally, spiritually, Leopold and Louise presented a striking contrast. He was dark, she was fair. He was a seasoned, middle-aged soldier and statesman, a widower and an experienced lover, an ambitious man of the world, rather hardened by years, sorrows and disappointments; she, a shy, innocent, tender young girl, who had dreaded the idea of becoming Queen, weeping copiously at the thought of separation from her parents, brothers and sisters, the only loves she had ever known. He was a Lutheran, and, reputedly, a Freemason, she a devout and pious Catholic. 

Yet, by the standards of the time, their marriage proved a success. Despite her initial reluctance to marry Leopold, Louise gradually fell deeply in love with her husband. Although he never returned her passionate devotion, and felt free to seek romance elsewhere, Leopold did cherish Louise as a dear friend and a clever political ally. He was profoundly grieved by her untimely death in 1850. (Read more.)
Share

Pro-Choice: The Choice of Failure

From TFP:
The pro-choice cliché resonated somewhat well during the 60s and 70s, but it is now falling upon deaf ears. A 2003 CBS/New York Times poll found that 35 percent of young women ages 18 through 29 thought abortions should be available to anyone who wants one, down from 50 percent in a 1993 poll indicating a 15 percent drop in only 10 years. Corresponding to this lack of sympathy for abortion from young women, the total of abortion clinics nationwide has shrunk dramatically. According to the website AbortionDocs.org, the total number of surgical abortion clinics remaining in the country is now 582. That is a 12 percent decrease in surgical abortion clinics in 2013 and a 73 percent drop from a 1991 high of 2,176.

As feminists struggle to give plausible answers as to why the steady decline in clinics and the resistance to the abortion movement continues, they fail to see the more profound reasons why pro-choice caught in the first place and what has happened to public opinion since. Liberal optimism thought that it was possible to ride the wave of success indefinitely considering that each successive generation would increasingly favor their cause as morals declined.

However, this did not happen. The ferment in public opinion that was evidenced by declining morals by the late sixties indicated an increasing willingness to accept abortion and to throw off all moral restraints. Slogans such as “it’s forbidden to forbid,”  “if it feels good do it,” or  “do your own thing” summarized the ideology that drove the sixties revolution. (Read more.)
Share