blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mr Diamant's legacy

Some music teachers exert an influence that extends beyond their lives. My husband Chris has weekly singing lessons from his teacher, the versatile Jack Cook, who, in his turn, several decades ago, was taught in Montreal by Bernard Diamant:
Bernard Diamant
Bernard Diamant. Baritone, teacher, b Rotterdam 11 Oct 1912, naturalized Canadian 1955, d Holland Aug 1999; honorary LL D (Dalhousie) 1988. A son of the choir conductor and composer Bernard Diamant and the operatic soprano Marie Taverne, he began playing cello and piano as a child. Starting voice lessons at 17, he studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, and privately in Holland, Germany, and France. [...] After singing in opera and concert in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Holland, Diamant moved in 1950 to Montreal [...] In the 1960s he curtailed his performing career and expanded his teaching activities, establishing in 1968 a second private vocal class in Toronto. He received a Centennial Award in 1967. In 1972 he joined the University of Toronto Faculty of Music and opera department [...] continued to teach [there] until 1991, then returned to Holland. [...] He was particularly known for his expertise in German lieder and French art song.
(The Canadian Encyclopedia)
He taught Maureen Forrester (1930-2010), as well.

Although Professor Diamant died before we had even heard of him, for the last ten years Jack, now in his 90s, has been explicitly aiming to pass on this expertise to Chris, while I help (or often hinder) the process by struggling through the accompaniments of the songs they work on. One of these, Schubert's famous Heidenröslein, was the last song ever performed in public by Diamant, as an encore; he must have loved it, so I'm sure that when Jack advises Chris where to slow down and what to emphasise in that song, it is actually Prof. Diamant who is the guiding force.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Afghan ghetto

I've been sent the minutes of a meeting I attended; I find that the secretary (Dianne) has summed it up so well that my own account would be superfluous. I gather that Dianne got the permission of the speaker to record what was said and has had this summary checked by her, which is another reason for sticking to the script on this blog. The lady who'd come to make our acquaintance at the meeting was a representative (but apparently atypical) member of the Afghan community in Ottawa. Here are a few paragraphs from the minutes. The last sentence raises debatable questions!
There are some 10,000 Afghans in Ottawa, according to the 2011 census speaking Pushtun, and 6,050 are Persian speaking. She noted that Dari is much the same as Farsi, the language of Iran. There are larger communities in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. Many come from refugee camps, in Pakistan particularly, and many are professionals who lack Canadian experience and therefore have little access to job markets in their fields. They own small businesses, sell carpets and real estate, work as mechanics or in construction and they have their own band playing Afghan music at weddings, which are huge. There are 4 or 5 Afghan restaurants in Ottawa and two bakeries where their version of Naan is available. As with many new immigrants, professional accreditation is difficult to obtain, and there are language barriers, so many members of the community are highly overqualified for the jobs they can get. 

She emphasized the Afghan community in Ottawa has only moved geographically. They have brought their misogynist and hard line Islamic values with them. [... ] They tend to live in large groups like the Bayshore area, isolated from mainline Canada. The families are large. The fact that the Canadian child tax benefit is allocated to mothers rankles in this patriarchal group. Most women are unaware of available assistance to attend school and to get childcare.
In the schools the Afghan-Canadian children attend, even the youngest exhibit the prevailing cultural views of the adults, with examples of children’s lunches being criticized for containing items that do not conform to religious standards or for playing with children of the opposite sex.
[She] suggested that Canada’s attitude toward freedom of religion and acceptance of ‘multiculturalism’ was allowing such strict religious and cultural mores to continue.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

How to change the world

My daughter sent me an American book entitled Influencer which I have just finished reading. I don't make a habit of reading How To books and this one is primarily aimed at company executives, of which I am not one, but despite my scepticism I found it interesting, especially the success stories it told, some of them amazing.

The book is written by a team of psychologists who use terms like "high leverage behaviors" and it splits infinitives all over the place, but if you turn a blind eye to that and concentrate on what's being said, I think it is worth reading. It teaches persuasion strategies applicable to a family member, or a small group of colleagues, or rebellious youngsters, or a whole nation. What I have gleaned from it is the following:

  • Before embarking on your campaign, do some thorough research into what is required and what is most likely to be effective.
  • Listen very carefully to the people you want to change and keep their stories in mind, so that they'll respect you.
  • Enlist the help of experts and trustworthy acquaintances. 
  • Enlist the help of the whole community, especially the help of popular and respected community leaders.
  • Nagging never works. (That's true!)
  • Offer praise for progress, however small the steps forward, instead of criticism for backsliding.
  • Tell success stories for encouragement, the more subtly the better. (The book gave examples of TV soap operas being used as a deliberate means of influence, without the watchers realising.)
  • Contrive to make desirable behaviour appear satisfying. 
  • Don't threaten the people you'd like to change ... or only as a last resort, giving fair warning, in which case you must not fail to follow through when they do misbehave.
  • If you offer rewards for better behaviour, make sure the rewards are imaginatively chosen and appropriate.
  • Be specific about what you want people to do, one step at a time, rather than lecturing them vaguely about aims and future outcomes. 
  • A pep talk, however inspiring, isn't of much use unless it's followed by assistance and firm discipline.
  • It helps if you can harness the persuasive power of peer pressure.
  • Change the immediate environment to make it less easy for people to be tempted into detrimental behaviour (e.g. by hiding bars of chocolate from your husband when he's trying to lose weight and giving him smaller plates to eat off).
  • As a would-be persuader, believe that change is possible and don't pray for serenity too often.
  • Don't give up. If you fail, learn from your mistakes and try again.

Having regurgitated all the above points, I wonder if we should always be aspiring to influence * other people's habits and attitudes.

Maybe the only person you can really change is yourself.

* I am aspiring to persuade the Loblaws supermarket chain to provide stools for their cashiers to sit on. I told Emma that, which is why she sent me the book.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

In one day

I know how lucky I am.

Here is a selection of photos I took yesterday, when I left the house at 7:30am to drive to Kanata with Chris. Later in the morning I helped to host a party at the Smithvale Stables for diplomats' families, the repeat of an event that took place this time last year.

Ottawa riverbank, early morning (view from Dick Bell Park)

Bales of straw for the horses at the stables

Sleigh ready to take passengers

First ride: they're off!

The horses' breath, between sleigh-rides

On the wagon, looking down

View from the ride, looking forward

Looking back the way we'd come

Musical chairs (my camera steamed up when we came indoors) 

The band, wearing their nautical hats for a sea shanty

Warming up to the music

A "Musical Ride"
Two hours later, in PTN.... the River Gatineau from above

Final approach for a touch-and-go at Gatineau aiport

Returning to Rockcliffe with the sun setting beyond the city

Turning base above the Ottawa River, in the Rockcliffe circuit

Chris had taken the afternoon off work in order to make the most of the good flying weather. After an hour in the air we came back home, spoke to my mother in Cardiff, to our daughter in London and to our son in Australia. Then friends visited us for a cosy supper with wine and one of those Bougie Doozie candles from Chelsea on the table.

I do not take my privileged life for granted.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ten words for a wife!

Another Chinese lesson this morning, and in the course of it, I asked my teacher to explain the many words for "wife" in his language, because I was getting confused by them. Predictably, he told me that the words were bù yī yang (不一样), not the same (in meaning), but I was amazed when he reeled off at least nine translations for "wife." In fact this page gives a whole lot more, and the first one on the list, nǔrén (女人) wasn't even mentioned by my teacher. He gave me the following:

lǎopo (老婆); he disapproved of that one, too common!
fūrén (夫人), too formal for everyday use.
taitai (太太), polite and rather formal, also means "Mrs."
qīzǐ (妻子); he uses that one for his wife, when talking to friends
xǐfu (媳妇), ... or this one
xǐfu r (媳妇儿), young wife
airén (爱人), lit. "love person"

An Emperor's wife (concubine) would have been his fēizi (妃子).

Then there are the words for people's unofficial wives or mistresses. Nǔpéngyǒu (女朋友) is "girlfriend," but if a man's already married to someone else, he might call the mistress his xiǎo sān r (小三儿) i.e. "little number three" (the phrase used to be used for the third child in a family, in the days when such a thing was allowed), or his èrnǎi (二奶) lit., "number two breast", as opposed to his dànǎi (大奶), lit. "big breast", i.e. the wife, again. The latter are not very polite words; my teacher was obviously embarrassed by them and apologised for his bad language!

Isn't that an extraordinary list, and interesting?


Thursday, January 17th

The young wife in my picture read the above and has sent me an email saying:
Interestingly, those ways of calling wife is happened in different time or different places (south, north, etc.) My dad calls my mum" ài rén" when he introduced my mum to new friends, but nowadays we normally call wife "lǎo po" in our generation. I guess your teacher is a funny man; he even taught you "xiǎo sān" and "èr nǎi." Those all the illegal lovers (not wife) exist in China, common and healthy family won't have those, those words just showed in society recently, say less than 20 years; they were new built words for that twist phenomenon. My grandpa's generation or even early called wife as" nèi rén" 内人 which means the person inside his house. Funny, isn't it? We won't use this anymore now though.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Felicity's Simple Heart

This is a longer post than usual, a defence of Flaubertoriginally written in 2005 in response to a derogatory comment about his short story A Simple Heart from my husband. I don't remember exactly what his comment was, but I do remember my white hot fury.  I found the essay yesterday and showed it to him again, and now he says that it ought to appear on my blog.

Why “Un Coeur Simple,” by Flaubert, is not a bad story

Were this remodelled as the story of an educated woman, it might then be read as tragic or inspirational. Since it is “only” the story of a simpleton, readers tend to find Félicité’s delusions ridiculous, as do the “superior” people in the fictional world of the story. At first glance, she comes across as a caricature, and in all likelihood it is her crazy ideas about the Parrot that will stick longest in our minds after we’ve finished reading about her. But the author wants us to think again. He once explained that he wrote it, “pour faire pleurer les âmes sensibles, en étant moi-même une” (to make sensitive souls weep, of whom I myself am one).
Take her name, Felicity. This was obviously chosen by the author for ironic purposes. Or was it? She does have her moments of bliss; they may be few and far between but they’re very intense. Maybe the title is meant to have more than one layer of meaning, too. By the time we have read the whole story we see that her simplicity has connotations of purity and straightforwardness as well as of stupidity. What’s more, perhaps she isn’t as “simple” as she seems at first sight, either; perhaps she has hidden depths, only hinted at in the text.
Note that the title itself focusses on the “heart” of this person rather than what she might outwardly seem to be. Like the trappings in the church – outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace? – perhaps her Quakerly, grey dress and her ageless face are mentioned in the first chapter in order to convey this woman’s subdued, unassuming nature. Or is she merely “a wooden doll driven by clockwork” (next line). Flaubert often makes us look at the world in more than one way at a time. In any case the introductory description of her in middle age is more to do with her job, giving elaborate details of the house she keeps in order, than her personality (or lack of it); this bias mirrors the kind of life she’s leading.
Felicité’s appearance is only ever sketchily outlined. Physically, she’s a shadowy figure, especially at the start of the story, exactly as a servant would appear to her employers, not even altogether human, a mechanical presence. Immediately though, the author begins to disabuse us of this notion by telling us about her youth, her sordidly pathetic “love affair” (a deliberate misnomer) with the exploitative Théodore, who then vanishes from the story exactly as he does from her life. However, his interference with Felicity has left enough of an impression to make us realise that she can suffer, with outbursts of “frenzied grief” that no longer tally with the doll-like automation described in the first chapter.
Back to the Aubains’ house, as if that former “love story” were just a fleeting memory in Félicité’s mind, distressing while she thinks back, but soon dismissed from her mind because “her pleasant surroundings had dispelled her grief,” or so she imagines.
The subsequent short and random depictions of the people who sometimes visit the house are similarly brief intrusions into Felicité’s consciousness, and hence into ours, the readers’. We only glean snippets of information about them because this is exactly how she experiences other people in the world and indeed the world itself, like the arbitrary illustrations the children have shown her in their geography book. The solicitor, M. Bourais, for example, is vaguely portrayed to us, and to her, as a somewhat awesome presence (probably the impression she gets from hearing Mme Aubain talk about him) but we’re not given any corroboration of this, and in fact, by the time we come to the mention of his death in Chapter 4 we realise what a worthless object of the women’s devotion he has been. Félicité’s not the only one who’s duped in the course of this story. Mme Aubain, likewise. We may even feel let down ourselves, when we realise that Flaubert’s adjective “outstanding,” to describe M. Bourais’ personality, was a sarcastic epithet all along. This is a writer who, by degrees, trains his readers not to take anything we’re told at face value.
The children Paul and Virginie are brought into the narrative as examples of Félicité’s objects of devotion. (Their names, incidentally, are an ironic allusion to a popular sentimental novel by Chateaubriand, entitled Paul et Virginie). The description of the children limits itself to the details their maid would have noticed: Paul’s trapping birds in the barn, Virginie’s embroidered knickers, etc. The children’s tutor likewise is merely mentioned as being “famous for his beautiful handwriting and ...had a habit of sharpening his penknife on his boots,” exactly the sort of details that would have stuck in any servant’s mind, when she came across him.
Suddenly, in the story as in the life, we are into the incident of Félicité’s heroism with the bull in the field, although, “it never occured to her that she had done anything heroic,” so we don’t dwell on it for long. Félicité’s never mentioned in the description of the family’s visit to Mère Liébard; in fact she’s ignored by everyone present in this scene of the story as well. To extrapolate from the details given, however, we’re seeing the farm through her quietly observant eyes. Once they get to Trouville, the verbal description gives the effect of an impressionist painting, with all our senses appealed to; we’re not limited to visual impressions either – Flaubert alludes to the heat of the sun as well as the “dazzling bars of light” shining through their blinds, the hammering on the boats and the smell of tar, the wind catching the sails of the boats, the splashing waves, as well as the “quivering fish” in the fishing nets. This seaside episode is one of the absolute highlights of the little life that’s being described in this story, hence the intensity of the description. Félicité, if we think about it, is actually a very sensual woman. One of the most terrible things about her life is that this sensuality is so frustrated and that this was so typical of the women of her station.
Even in the happy situation at Trouville, we’re given inklings of the predominantly sombre side of her life, with Félicité’s relatives, the Leroux family, making an appearance, “bent on getting all they could out of her” and Virginie starting to cough, the first hint that this child won’t live long. Typical Flaubert! (Thomas Hardy's novels have the same pessimistic tone.)
In Chapter 3, Félicité’s “education,” casually begun in a vicarious way via the children’s geography book, etc, continues, when she takes Virginie to her communion classes. Virginie is very young still, and so is her maid, developmentally speaking. So she learns about religion from a child’s perspective and weeps as she listens, Flaubert informs us, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about how the Gospels speak with familiarity to her simple soul. From fatigue (she falls asleep during the religious instruction) if not sheer lack of intelligence, she fails to grasp the Catholic dogma (“neither understood nor tried to understand anything”); thus, with her Simple Heart, she bypasses all the unnecessary baggage of Christianity and comes straight to its essence. Is Flaubert indirectly reminding us of Jesus telling the disciples: “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18, v.3)? Félicité will have no such problem. We’re given a hint here of how the story will end, as her literal mind tries to picture the Holy Ghost as a bird, a fire, a breeze or “the sweet music of the bells” – her sensuality alluded to once again, as she delights in the “coolness of the walls and the quiet of the church.”
The secondhand way in which she experiences life is spelled out in a direct manner during the First Communion scene, as Félicité watches Virginie approach the altar it seems “she herself was in the child’s place” and she (the mere watcher) almost faints in appreciation of what Virginie is supposed to be experiencing. This could be seen as spirituality of a high degree, or it could just be that she’s overexcited by a special event. Flaubert leaves it to us to decide. Spelling out the possibilities of interpretation would be too intrusive here, and would ruin his detachment as narrator; as his readers, we must make the connections for ourselves.
When Virginie goes off to school she kisses her mother goodbye. There’s no such mention of the child kissing her maid, who will be likewise stricken when she’s gone. Mme Aubain has “all her friends” to console her for the absence of her little girl, whereas Félicité’s, perhaps equally motherly sense of loss is ignored by everyone (except by the author, of course, and his more sensitive readers) and she carries on with her usual stoicism. The only evidence of her distress is that we’re told her clumsy fingers break the threads when she tries to make some lace and that she can’t sleep very well. Her emotions are trivialised by one means or another throughout the narrative, which means that as readers we must use our imagination, aided by a few hints. How strong her futile affection for her nephew Victor is, we can only work out from the fact (as we learn much later in the narrative) that she keeps his little gift of a shell box all her life long and that she walks ten miles after work to see him off on his ship, and arrives too late (another very Hardy-esque moment).
Unlike Mme Aubain, constantly worrying aloud about Virginie, the maid doesn’t mention her anxiety for Victor. She only does so when she thinks “her own example would comfort her [mistress]” but of course it doesn’t and Mme Aubain is offended by the comparison. “Who cares about a young, good-for-nothing cabin boy? Whereas my daughter...” This is cruel, but Flaubert understates Félicité’s response. The only description of her hurt feelings is that she was “indignant with Madame, but she soon forgot.” Does this show ox-like stupidy, necessity, self-deception or stoicism?
A few paragraphs further on, we may deduce that Mme Aubain later feels guilty for her indifference to Félicité’s feelings. When the news of Victor’s death comes and Félicité almost collapses from the shock, we read that “Mme Aubain was trembling slightly.” Perhaps from the realisation that someone could care for the good-for-nothing cabin boy.
Félicité has tried to visualise the young man in Cuba, so that she can pray for him, and for a moment we see her through the eyes of an outsider, M. Bourais, who humiliates her by roaring with laughter at her ignorance, wanting to find Victor’s house on that page of the atlas. Flaubert's narrative, however, is subtle enough here to give us an insight into M. Bourais’ unattractive character as well, at this point. There’s even the hint that Félicité may not be as stupid as we (or M. Bourais) would like to think, maybe she simply has the unconventional, inquiring mind of a child; at any rate, the narrative indirectly gives us M. Bourais’ opinion of her, “...whose intelligence was so limited that she probably expected to see an actual portrait of her nephew...” (my italics).
Félicité pulls herself together when she hears of Victor’s death and gets on with the washing. This is not from shallowness, but courage. We are told “She held back her grief...until the evening.” This low point in the story is immediately followed by another, the death of Virginie, for which goodbye Félicité once again arrives too late, but she does the necessary things in the place of the mother, a weaker character altogether, it seems. The two women’s lives have overlapped now. Félicité, the better educated in grief, is temporarily the one in control of the other. n gratitude, Mme Aubain gives her maid Virginie’s old hat, and in a moment of revelation, the women recognise one another as equals and embrace. Flaubert concludes this part of the story: “...henceforth [Félicité] loved her mistress with dog-like devotion and religious veneration.” Having identified with her mistress, she is putting herself back into the subservient position, whether consciously or not, at the same time finding another love to replace the loves she has lost, incidentally also hinting (by the inclusion of “henceforth”) that she may not have felt very devoted to her mistress before. All this is implied by the carefully chosen words, not directly stated.
And now, after the one-line paragraph that ends: “ time went by,” Félicité’s story begins to accelerate, just as life does, when when it becomes mostly monotonous, or when a person ages. There is no reference to historical events in the story, although the temporal setting is given.1
We next read about a regiment in the village – something that may have distracted Félicité momentarily from the general monotony – and of Polish refugees: “one of [whom] expressed a desire to marry her”... this is an astonishing revelation, but on second thoughts, obviously not something to be taken seriously, and not very important. The text simply goes on to state that they “fell out” because she caught him eating one of her salads!
After the Poles it was Père Colmiche,” the it here presumably meaning the next object of Félicité’s attention, and we’re plunged into another startling paragraph, describing the squalor in which this unexpected character lives, “in a ruined pig-sty.” Flaubert piles on the harrowing detail in order to contrast this with the saintly manner in which Félicité looks after him “without annoying Madame,” who presumably doesn’t know anything about it. The “poor old fellow” (Félicité’s? Flaubert’s view of him?) promptly dies, again leaving Félicité’s existence without a focus; then in the next paragraph comes the first mention of the famous parrot.
Her parrot is her alter ego as well as a symbol for everything she worships, whether mistakenly or not. Like her, the parrot is ridiculed: “Every sneer cut [her] to the quick,” says the narrative, though this was not stated about Félicité when her own, far realer sufferings were sneered at. The bird refuses to talk, though she does teach him to say “Hail Mary!” and “Your servant, sir!” which probably just about represents the limits of her own conversation and the two strands of her outward and visible life. Loulou doesn’t conform to people’s ideas of what a parrot should be, not having a suitable name. He “laughs” at M. Bourais, who in his turn gives it “far from tender” looks (note Flaubert’s humour!). Félicité begins to sympathize with what she imagines are the parrot’s feelings. She is afraid the bird’s antics will make him giddy. When Loulou goes missing for a few hours, she searches for him frantically, “death in her heart”. Is this too extreme a phrase? Perhaps not. We’re thus forced to realise what the parrot means to her and we have our suspicions reinforced when we’re told, “she never really got over it.” The situation thus described is very sad; on the other hand, this could be another instance of Flaubert's sarcasm.
In her pathetic conversations with the recaptured Loulou she speaks “from the heart” (the heart, again!) disconnected phrases that the bird replies to, with the only three phrases that he “knows.” This is clearly ridiculous, but at the same time, a serious business, because she is now deaf: “In her isolation, Loulou was almost a son or a lover to her,” an relationship which, as we know, she has never experienced in reality. This shocking comparison is the sort of analogy that caused Flaubert’s contemporaries to accuse him of bad taste, even of indecency. As she talks to the parrot, she even begins to look and behave like him, so closely does she (subconsciously) identify with him. Flaubert conveys this idea through a description of her clothes and gestures.
The bird inevitably dies and we read of her nightmare journey to Honfleur to get him stuffed. She is nearly killed in a traffic accident, but “fortunately nothing had happened to Loulou,” so she reassures herself on regaining consciousness. This is the ultimate irony; she’s thus shown to care more about a bird that’s already dead than about herself. Either she is being stupid beyond reason or she has become so selfless that she is capable of enduring any degree of suffering with equanimity. At least she tries to ignore the pain, it seems, by eating a “crust of bread”she has brought along. But all the miseries of her past, now associated with the death of her parrot, well up at the sight of Honfleur in the distance, and like Mme Bovary at her moments of crisis, Félicité feels faint and breathless again.
Solace comes to her with the delivery of the newly stuffed parrot. She makes a sort of altar for him in her room or sanctuary, itself stuffed with various other rubbishy objects of adoration, symbolising her whole life, all her veneration of hopeless, helpless creatures. But by contemplating this room, she manages to remember “the smallest details of insignificant actions, not in sorrow but in absolute tranquility.” Therefore from amidst the pathetic muddle of her life, it now seems she has learned to find peace of mind, a remarkable achievement. It is at this point that Flaubert’s narrative starts to describe Félicité’s (blasphemous) confusion of the Holy Ghost with a parrot, this dead one in fact, to whom she begins to pray.
She is by this late stage of her life living in a sort of trance, “in the torpid state of a sleep-walker” only to be aroused by the routine, religious celebrations of the parish and by the death of Mme Aubain, another isolated woman by this time with no further mention of “all the friends” who consoled her once, when her daughter went away to school. Félicité is apparently her only real mourner, being the one person who knew her by heart and the only one who seems to understand how and why the revelations about M. Bourais have destroyed her.
When Paul and the daughter-in-law come to pack up Mme Aubain’s things, Félicité is, as so many times before, “numbed with sadness” and the understatement continues, she sways, and is “obliged to sit down.” It must be something as serious as a stroke. Flaubert doesn’t actually say so, though a couple of paragraphs later he describes her “dragging her leg,” as she struggles about the empty house. At this desperate point, there is a measure of salvation or respite in the progression of her last moments, because another old lady – not previously mentioned in the tale – takes pity on her and begins to look after her. This is Mère Simon “whose grocery business had come to grief,” presumably someone who can therefore feel for others in a sad plight. She must have been known by, but been of very peripheral importance to Félicité before this; suddenly she becomes essential, and that is presumably why the author introduces us to this additional character at such a late stage in the story. Other nineteenth century novelists, such as Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and Dickens, also used this structural technique.
Dying in squalor like a Père Colmiche, and in pain from pneumonia like her former mistress, Félicité is troubled by thoughts of “sin” and sends for the priest. Whatever is this sin? Only the unlikely suspicion that Fabu, the butcher’s boy, may have killed her parrot! She asks for his forgiveness. This is a parody of classic deathbed scenes, with a vengeance. Flaubert cannot leave his sardonic humour alone.
The stuffed parrot is now just a worm-eaten corpse with the stuffing leaking out, and broken wings, all highly symbolic of Félicité’s own condition. But being too blind to realise (blind in more than one sense), she tenderly kisses the parrot’s “forehead” and presses him against her cheek. Though she can neither see nor hear, she can still feel touch and her imagination is still active. She visualises the church procession outside her window “as clearly as if she had been following it.”
This last chapter, describing the death of Félicité, is to a large extent still written from the main character’s own point of view – we readers share her vision of the Parrot as Holy Ghost at the end – but Flaubert also shows us the scene from the viewpoint of her friend, Mère Simon, who knows that “one day she would have to go the same way,” and so shall we; we share this uncomfortable knowledge with both fictional characters. The village’s outdoor altar or shrine is described in this chapter without irony, indeed as something rather beautiful, as if Flaubert could not bring himself to detract from the solemnity of the occasion by making fun of it... or so we might assume, until the final paragraph.
Félicité has lost the use of all her other senses but she can still smell, and with her last breath she inhales in the scent of the incense from outside “with a mystical, sensuous fervour.” Here, finally, Flaubert is no longer pulling any punches; he speaks of this poor, deluded servant woman as a mystic. Who is to say the chosen vocabulary is inappropriate? Then, as if scoffing at his own pretentiousness, he shocks us out of the sense of awe he has created by adding, at the very end, “...she thought she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.”
What are we to think? In the following century, Bert Brecht was to work the same trick in his plays, deliberately mocking the pathos of a situation, employing what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (Alienation Effect) to stop us becoming over sympathetic with his characters, to shock us into being objective in our judgement of them. Flaubert is a realist in his descriptions, a romantic idealist too, however. He inserts these Brechtian, sardonic touches at the very points where his prose might be in danger of slipping into sentimentality. He does not always do this blatantly, the irony often being very subtle, but the effect on his readers is that, as we read about the characters he describes, we swing from admiration to disgust, from pity to wry amusement. Besides being able to entertain or intrigue us with this story of the eccentric old dear and her pet parrot, he turns a very searching spotlight on the character of this woman, presenting his subject from more than one perspective, and in doing so he teaches us -- whether deliberately or not -- how to pay closer attention to people we might know in the real world, above all to humble souls like Félicité.

1. Actual dates are mentioned. The story having been written in 1875, let us assume that Félicité’s death must take place no later. Guessing from clues given in the text, Félicité enters Mme Aubain's service in 1809 at the age of eighteen. Her life could therefore be dated from, say, 1791 to 1874.

Vagabonds, all

My mother belongs to a Prose and Poetry interest group that meets at the Central Library in Cardiff, and the theme of their next meeting is "Journeys." Mum wants to bring along a copy of T.S. Eliot's poem, The Journey of the Magi and talk about that, although somebody else will have to read it out to the others, because her eyesight isn't good, these days.

Bernard Levin, a man of wide-ranging interests, claimed to have been gripped since boyhood by the story of Hannibal's march across the Alps with his army and his elephants in 218 BC to the extent that in his 50s, in 1984, he (Levin) went on a pilgrimage (filmed for TV) to follow the route of that march on foot. His book about it is called Hannibal's Footsteps. Chris and I read that, last month, and now I'm dipping into another book Chris likes, a translation of the memoirs of Shaikh Abu Abdallah Ibn Battutah, who for 29 years in the early 14th century travelled from Granada to Hangzhou and from the Volga to Tanzania in search of fellow Muslims, or perhaps just out of sheer curiosity.

I remember Bruce Chatwin's book, that George gave us, The Songlines, which contends that mankind is instinctively nomadic and that if that impulse to travel is frustrated, we lose track of something vital.

This week, Chris and I booked another transatlantic journey for the beginning of February and a transpacific flight for November. It's not that I am yet again suffering from what the Germans call Fernweh; there are more definite reasons for these trips.


A few years ago I kept noticing around town an advertisement for the courses offered at a local college. Quelle est ta passion? said the poster and underneath was the photo of a young person in a white lab. coat, beaming with enthusiasm, and the caption ... hygiène dentaire! Funny thing to be passionate about, I thought, but who am I to judge? More recently I briefly met my mother's "Toenail Man" who earns a living trimming the nails of the old ladies and gentlemen in and around Cardiff. He must be an enthusiast for his work as well; I'm not sure how he could put up with it otherwise.

I've been reading a book lent to me by Elva about the people who plant seedling trees in the clear-cuts of British Columbia and other Canadian provinces: it's called Eating Dirt and its author, Charlotte Gill, has been one of the planter community for 17 years, so knows what she's talking about. She writes in a style that makes for compulsive reading:
We find spots, and we stab as if to wound them, throwing our weight behind our shovels. If we’re lucky our blades penetrate slickly, as knives slide into melon. If not, we’ve got roots, rock, wood, grass—barriers to chip at with the blades of our shovels in search of elusive earth. We dig around in our left-hand bags and come out with the trees, one by one by one.
I push into my shovel as if it were a heavy door. A square of earth breaks open at my feet and sighs a moldy breath. I bend at the waist and slide the roots down the back of my spade. My job is to find these trees new one-hundred-year homes, though I seldom think of it that way. Douglas-firs with slick, wet needles, twigs dressed in green whiskers. I tuck them in with a punch of my fist. I haven’t stood up and I’m already walking. Bend. Plant. Stand up. Move on. The work is simply this, multiplied by a thousand, two thousand, or more. Twenty-five cents a tree.
Goodbye, little bastard. Have a nice life.
Not only does the book describe the gritty character and tribulations of her fellow planters, it's also very informative about the forests themselves. I hadn't realised, for example, that two-thirds of the carbon dioxide in forests is stored in the forest floor, not in the trees themselves.

And now I'm reading "The True Story Of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost At Sea" by Donovan Hohn, an American teacher of English literature who got so fixated by the quest to salvage plastic litter from the Pacific Ocean, in particular the bath toys lost from a Chinese freighter in a storm south of the Aleutian Islands in 1992, that he journeyed to the remote parts of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic and Hawaii researching the evidence and published 400 pages about it:
The next thing you know years have passed and you're still adrift, still waiting to see where the questions take you. At least that's what happens if you're a nearsighted, school-teaching, would-be archaeologist of the ordinary, with an indulgent, long-suffering wife and a juvenile imagination ...
He calls his book Moby Duck, an inspired title! My sister-in-law-in-law––is there another word for the wife of my husband's brother? I bet there is in Chinese––sent it to us.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The medium and the Message

Christ Church on Sparks Street is the HQ of a "diverse and vibrant parish that glorifies God and welcomes all people," so I read in the programme for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols that took place on the last Sunday of Advent. A diverse and excited congregation was indeed packing the church to bursting point when I came in, half an hour before the service was due to start. Or so I thought. It took me a while to find a side pew I could squeeze into, during which time Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols was being valiantly sung against the congregation's background chatter by the Cathedral choirs. Had I known beforehand that this was not a late rehearsal but the actual performance––the Choral Prelude to the service––I'd have turned up half an hour sooner and listened more carefully. I was sorry to have missed the beginning of it, but the event had been poorly advertised. I almost wonder whether the time had been wrongly announced on purpose, in order to divert attention from the musical element. As Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire vividly describe it, there has long been rivalry and antagonism between church musicians and the less musical anglican clergy.

I have no complaints about the music I heard. The cathedral choirs' first rate reputation is justified. Matthew Larkin's choral arrangements sounded faultless to me, and the organist and harpist played magnificently. However, I have half a mind to ask one of the Very Reverends or Right Reverends some questions about the framework.
  1. Why did the candlelit procession have to happen in silence? It would have been wonderful to have heard the choirs singing and not just treading, as they emerged from behind the scenes.
  2. Why were the lights kept off for seven of the nine Lessons (and Carols)? We were all handed an explanatory programme but nobody could read it in the dark.
  3. Why was the first Lesson read in French when none of the other Lessons were? If the few francophones in the church could follow the rest, and I'm sure they could, or else they wouldn't have come, why bother making a token gesture that alienates a large majority?
  4. Why finish each Bible reading, which surely speaks for itself, with: "Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church!"? This annoyingly repetitive and sanctimonious nagging adds absolutely nothing to the message of the story; in my opinion it detracts from it. It certainly detracts from the poetry of the occasion.
  5. Why include two unfamiliar hymns for the congregation to sing (Jesus came, the heavens adoring and Come, thou Redeemer) when there are so many better known Christmas carols to choose from? I am not one of those people who only wants to listen to the usual hackneyed stuff sung by the choir, quite the contrary, the more unconventional the better, but when it comes to my turn to sing, I like to recognise the words and / or music, or at least have access to some musical notation I could sightread.
  6. Why not use the archaic but beautiful words of the old, King James' Bible for the readings? Modern translations sound so inferior. Old version: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." What could be clearer than that? New version: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor [sic] rests.” Wasn't the whole point of Christianity to transcend such favouritism? But perhaps I have got it wrong.
Apart from those rather carping criticisms, I must congratulate the church's decision makers for allowing us to sing: "... pleased as man with man to dwell ..." and "... born to raise the sons of earth ..."  (in Hark The Herald Angels Sing) instead of some idiotically feminist substitute for those masculine phrases, such as you'd find in the hymn books in other local churches.

Anyhow I came away touched by the music and not at all in a religious frame of mind regarding the Lessons. Then the following day (Christmas Eve) I tuned in to the BBC Radio 4 broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College Cambridge, which was done properly, and put me into a less rebellious mood.

Happy-go-lucky Montreal

Nighttime view from the hotel
The ride from Ottawa to Montreal in the business class coach of a ViaRail train is fun. We were served a hot meal supplemented by a series of treats including alcoholic beverages and leant back to read our books and magazines by lamplight as the dark, snowy scenery flashed by and the moon rose. Once at Montreal's central station, we had the luxury of being able to glide up the escalator from the station straight into the lobby of our hotel, Le Reine Elizabeth (I assume the masculine article denotes the gender of the hotel, not the Queen) which once again had offered an inexpensive deal for the last two nights of December; to take advantage of it, we'd booked the rooms in November. This is a tastefully decorated, sensibly organised hotel, with soft beds, good quality coffee machines in the rooms, and the bathroom fittings in ergonomically suitable places, which is more than you can say elsewhere. I have slept in 20-something different hotels during this last year, so I appreciate such details. At the Q.E. they give you enough towels, they remember to replace the used shampoo bottles and the bedroom windows can be opened: more plus points. The management also saw to it that our neighbouring room was uninhabited from Dec.31st to Jan. 1st after the previous occupants had woken us up noisily by partying at 4am, the previous night.

Morning view of Place Ville Marie
It might be my imagination, but the citizens of Montreal seem more relaxed than the people who live in Ottawa or Toronto. The massive snow clearing job Montreal needed last weekend (le déneigement following a record snowfall of 45 cm "... 2 cm de plus que le record établi en mars 1971") had been left uncompleted; the sidewalks still deeply covered on Sunday night and Monday morning, so that it felt like slipping up and down sand dunes, even along a main thoroughfare like Sherbrooke Street. This is because Quebec snow-clearing crews stopped work after reaching their official overtime limit, and so they should. Nobody seems to mind.

Gateway to Montreal's Chinatown
My leg muscles are still feeling it, though, because we stumbled through the snow for quite a distance on our sorties from the hotel. First to breakfast at Nickels Deli on Ste. Catherine's as on previous occasions, then east to UQAM and the Place des Arts, then down the hill through the red light district and Chinatown, up the hill to Vieux Montréal and down again to the waterfront (ice front, rather). I got snow down the back of my boots from climbing on a berm to take a photo of some extraordinary graffiti decorating the wall of the "Mission Old Brewery."

Horses pulled calèches trundle along the streets, which looks romantic, with furs and blankets provided for the passengers, but I feel sorry for the horses (this sort of tourist attraction has recently been banned in London and Paris) who wear blinkers, jerk at their harnesses and probably suffer greatly from the cold wind and the present conditions underfoot.

Calèche, Old Port

Place Jacques Cartier, daytime

Rue de la Commune by the Old Port

Towers of Notre Dame Basilica
Christmas shoppers on rue Ste-Catherine, seen from Les 3 Brasseurs

On Monday afternoon we stopped at another brewery, jam packed with customers, Les 3 Brasseurs, for lunch; Elva and Carol had a Flammkuchen between them, like the one I'd eaten a few weeks ago at Stuttgart airport, and the rest of the gang shared two-thirds of my quesadillas. After that I repaired to the hotel for an hour or two of precious oblivion before setting out for supper, 25 minutes' walk away in the Old Port at Le Bourlingueur for a New Year's Eve supper, viz (my choice):
Verrine de saumon et avocat et coriandre
Soupe au cresson
Pétoncles rôties sur lit de poireaux
Tarte tatin aux pommes et sa glace vanille caramel fondant 
New Year's Eve in Montreal: Place Jacques-Cartier at 11pm
Notre-Dame angels
The restaurant was a cosy place with an Alsatian theme, with a metre thick stone walls and little windows overlooking the horses on the rue St-François-Xavier. The waiters and chefs were from France (eg. from Corsica and the Auvergne). No background music whatsoever was playing. Hooray for that; the seven of us could have a proper conversation. At the end of the meal we were enticed along the rue St-Paul by the attractive old buildings and Christmas lights. By 11pm a huge crowd of revellers, waiting for the New Year fireworks, had already gathered in the Place Jacques-Cartier to be entertained from the animateurs and animatrices on stage there. What a noise. The amplified music made the whole body vibrate. It was envigorating for a few minutes but we old fogies didn't fancy standing there for an hour in the cold to wait for the climax, so we ambled back against the opposite flow of the arriving crowds to the comfort of our hotel, passing the front of Notre-Dame with its three blue Christmas angels and other photogenic sites.

On our way back to the hotel
Our corner of the hotel lobby with its palms and poinsettias and leather armchairs was so quiet and comfortable (especially after Carol had contributed a bottle of ice wine to the occasion) and Chris' Predictions for 2013 quiz so enthralling (!) that we missed the Turn of the Year altogether. Suddenly somebody looked at his watch and said, "It's gone midnight!" Oh well, never mind.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Good start

Some of the steps
On the first day of the New Year my sister climbed a mountain in Wales (dusted with hoar frost), 886 m, and I climbed Mount Royal in Montreal (thoroughly covered in snow), 233 m. My walk with Chris and three of our friends was less rural than hers, and the views from the top less wild, but there were moments when, looking around, I could have sworn I was far from a city, and the air up there was fresh in every sense. The wind chill in Montreal today was a cheek-numbing -20º, but the south side of the mountain sheltered us from the wind and the exertion warmed us up considerably. The sky was deep blue and the sunshine dazzling.

Mt. Yamaska, from the lookout
Montrealers do know how to enjoy themselves. People wearing broad smiles, scarves and furry hats were pushing themselves up and down the hill on skis or snowshoes and children were rolling about on the slopes on all kinds of sledges; below the path we followed we could also see skaters on a frozen pond. We had to trudge up >400 steps and some upward sloping paths to reach the "chalet" by the Kondiaronk Belvedere––well worth the effort for the splendid views of the city and the Monteregian Hills on the horizon––the chalet being a large hall built in the style of a hunting lodge decorated with massive fireplace, heraldic shields, maps of La Nouvelle France, and rows of stone squirrels, its construction a means of employment for manual labourers during the 1930s Depression. Small children were running around in the big, bright indoor space and we adults were fascinated by the romantic-historic paintings hung near the ceiling, revealing how Canada saw itself in those days (as John commented).
John and I (well wrapped) at the lookout, photo by Chris

Interestingly, a large proportion of the people up there today were Chinese.

We followed the Olmsted trail for a couple of kilometres round the circumference of the hilltop, to the Cross of Mount Royal, past the more modern erections (the transmitter tower and candelabra tower) that share the summit with it. I preferred looking at the snow and ice laden trees. Returning to the chalet with Chris and John we found that Carol and Don had arrived there too. Time for a hot chocolate from the drinks dispenser before we set off along the serpentine trail to the McGill University campus, thus avoiding some of the slippery steps on our way down.

Gory scene in the chalet (battle of Long Sault)

The extensive floor space in the chalet

Downtown Montreal! John and Chris on the Olmsted trail.

Carol and Chris going downhill

Chris, Carol, Don and John walking down the mountain
More about Montreal in my next post.