Thursday, December 11, 2008


When traveling, you don’t have time to record (or not in detail) all you are doing. Quick summary: Marilyn Hacker arrived this past weekend and immediately invited Margo and myself to dinner, which gave us a chance to exchange news and think of projects. Monday Marilyn and I attended an interview-reading given by Vénus Khoury-Ghata. It was a pleasure to renew acquaintance with her. A Lebanese poet and autofiction writer, she has just published a new collection titled Les Obscurcis.

I saw an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume devoted to the life and work of the American photographer Lee Miller, who was a few years ago the subject of a revelatory biography by Carolyn Burke. In addition to Miller’s startling pictures were portraits of her made by other photographers, including Man Ray and Steichen, and a film about her life. All of this is an avenue to the artistic ferment of Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, a period of inexhaustible fascination. I didn’t know, for example,that she played the Muse figure in Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poète. Another aspect of her life was the war photography she did in London during the blitz and on the front once the Allies invaded Europe. She was with the troops that liberated Dachau, and the photographs she took at that moment are the most horrifying she ever made. It’s good that interest in this less well known figure is being revived.

The Musée Maillol, in addition to its permanent collection is currently showing works by a primitive painter named Séraphine Louis (known to art historians as Séraphine de Senlis), who lived and worked a century ago in that cathedral town in the provinces. A new film by Martin Provost (titled simply Séraphine and starring the Belgian actress Yolande Moreau)) tells her story, how she worked as a housecleaner and painted in her free time, her paintings eventually discovered by a visiting German art critic named Uhde. But it’s not a triumphalist narrative, instead it involves mental illness and confinement in a hospital at a period when treatment of the insane was cruel and ineffective. I saw the film first on my own, and then Margo and I saw the show.

Apart from these activities, I fill my day with long strolls through the streets of Paris, absorbing sights familiar and new. One such stroll took me to the Île St. Louis and past a little hotel on rue St. Louis where Ann Jones and I stayed forty-one years ago while we were looking for an apartment to live in during my Fulbright year. (Why did we choose a hotel on the Île St. Louis? Well, it’s quieter than other parts of town, centrally located, and, according to Proust’s novel, it’s where the character Swann lived, which gives it a certain literary aura.) Edmund White and I stayed in the same hotel three years later after a drive we took together from Rome to Paris. In the Eighties, he took an apartment on the island, I believe on rue Poulletier, and when I came to Paris during the decade he lived here, I again stayed in the little hotel, though by then it had been renovated and looked much smarter than it did in the Sixties. As I’ve suggested before, a visit to Paris is layered experience for me, memory on top of memory, and I hope it doesn’t too much resemble archeology when I write about it here.

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