Wives of the Artists

The rue Duvivier in the 7th arrondisement in Paris  is a charmless street that houses the discreet, the elderly and the comfortably-off.

There never seems to be much sun in this street, but, at least, it’s within walking distance of the dusty Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower, and, on a stifling summer’s day, a coolness emanates from its grey stone and shuttered windows.

When the Lazars’ first arrived at Apt.3, 68, bis, Vlado moved the vast pieces of ornate furniture out of reach and draped everything with white sheets,  He then emulsioned the pale, patterned wall-paper white, so that this uncomfortable, claustrophobic flat gleamed like the shiny  inside of a shell.

Anything ugly or unaesthetic caused Vlado pain.  If he couldn’t eliminate some unpleasing object from his life and home  ( and the terms of the  contract forbade this), he would merely cover the offending object with white paint.

Marisa  had grown sensitive to this artistic compulsion of his. Living with him, she had learned how vital it was for everything to be perfect – even down to the design of his pencils ; the correct shade of colour; or the exact positioning of an ashtray.

The kitchen in the flat was galley-shaped and overlooked a small courtyard, where a group of elderly men played boules and smoked for most of the day. Marisa liked to hear the click-click sound of the petanc balls: it was peaceful and relaxing.  The men had made themselves a little camp around two old armchairs in this piece of scrap ground here in the middle of Paris; and, as she prepared their evening meal – frothy omelettes with a dash of cumin –  she watched their ponderous, measured game.

‘On mange’, Marisa called out to Vlado, she called out gently to Vlado, because she could see that he was concentrating on a drawing.

‘J’arrive’, he replied triumphantly, with a smile, relishing these new French sounds. His French was still rudimentary; and his English fractured even after having lived in London for twenty years.

Marisa lit some candles. It was dusk. Paris, outside their window, seemed, momentarily, at bay, as its bad-tempered inhabitants were now mostly  a table.

 

 

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‘Francis Huxley and the ‘guiding light’ of Bach.

This piece by Bach, however, was completely new to me, and I was full of gratitude to Francis for introducing it to me.  As I wrote in 2002:

‘I was left to listen to the entire piece on my own, with a cup of espresso in front of me.

Gradually, I became still. I tried to make out bits of German in the first recitative. ‘Schmerz’ (pain) was repeated.  I felt calmer as I listened to the ‘Duet’; and was almost in tears during the famous Chorale, transfixed by its questing and spiritual agonising.

Was Francis – at a subconscious level – gently guiding me into a new place of stillness and rapture.  Was this a gift to me; to admonish me and then lead me to a higher level of trancendence.

It was late now, and time to leave. Francis helped me on with my coat, and gallantly walked me to the tube station.  We shook hands rather stiffly, and said goodnight. The evening hadn’t been a success; but he had left me with a new, delicious secret: Bach!

Within a few days, I’d bought a long -play record of two Bach cantatas: ‘Sleepers Awake ( Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme!’) twinned with ‘Lobet Gott’.  It was an E.M.I. recording, on mono, with a splendid reproduction of Blake’s illustration of ‘The Wise and Foolish Virgins’, on its rather austere black and white cover. I kept it until 2010, when I moved house, and gave it away.

Certainly, Francis had awakened a life-long  love of Bach in me.  Years later I read an interview between Francis and Ben Colodzin in the Olympia Institute Quarterly about the importance of having a ‘guiding light’ in one’s life.

And I totally understood what he meant.

‘Francis Huxley and the ‘guiding light’ of Bach.

But now, I shall digress in my account.

In 2002, I wrote this piece, when my memory of this meeting was much fresher, I shall now recount what I wrote then.

‘My father was a friend of Francis, and they shared many interests. Primarily, a curiosity about how human beings try to make sense of the world; the spiritual journeys that we take; and the longing for transcendence and ‘meaning structure’. Francis saw my father as a one-off urbanite shaman.  But I was no match for Francis’ formidable intellect. He had the questions – but I was unable to provide the answers’.

In despair, Francis decided to show me round his splendid front room, patiently describing the various pieces and their provenance to me. I was engrossed and fascinated.  Francis appeared exhausted.  Later, he went off to make some coffee; and I was told to sit and ‘relax’ on the sofa.  As I was still considerably in awe of him, this was difficult’.

In a gentle, but rather schoolmasterly way, Francis then announced that he was going to ‘play me some music’, and that I must listen to it very carefully.  I noticed that in his living room he had the latest, most up-to-date state-of-the-art sound system available at the time: equipment straight out of  Hi-Fi News.

Gingerly, I lay back against the velvet upholstery, and waited. The it began: the gloriously optimistic first movement of Bach’s Cantata 140 – Wachet Auf! – with its tremendously upflifting ‘Chorus’.

It was the first time in my life of twenty-five years that I had heard such music. My very first Bach cantata. I was entranced, and totally enraptured by the ‘chorale melody’.

Francis smiled wearily at me.

To him, I must’ve appeared to be a lightweight; a mere tyro.  A twentieth-century girl more used to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, although, in fact, I had been collecting recordings of  music by,   Beethoven, Dvorak , Sibelius and other compusers since I was ten years old.

 

 

 

‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

I did write back to dear Diana, but, this time, I didn’t receive a reply.

I knew that she had moved from her flat into a marvellous ‘care’ home for elderly, literate women.  Perhaps my cards and letters didn’t reach her. I wish I had persisted, but my news at the time wasn’t very cheerful.  I was very involved then in caring for my beloved husband, who was very ill, and finally died in 2010.

I also continued to care for my mother, who died in 2017, aged ninety-nine.

I have read all the obituaries to Diana, and learned even more about her and her life.

It is a little poignant for me that she died on January 23 rd  – my mother’s birthday.

Because, in a way, Diana was my ‘writing’ mother.  I regard her as a role model, an inspiration and an example that it is never too late to have a successful writing career, and that gaps in one’s writing life are inevitable when ordinary demands, such as work, childcare and family matters take over.

Diana – for your kindness and encouragement to me over a lifetime – I salute you!

 

 

‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

‘Dear Sprout – How lovely to hear from you!  And how happy I feel after reading your generous appreciation of my book, for which I thank you.

What a pity you weren’t at Charleston. It was such a beautiful day, the house and garden at their best, and Katherine W and I had an almost overwhelming reception from that huge tentful of people, all of whom seemed to be beaming at us and ready to roll in the aisles laughing at our feeblest jokes.  We ended up very pleased with ourselves and each other.  Although Hay is meant to be more important, and can be v. enjoyable, I don’t think it will be better than Charleston.  I go to it the day after tomorrow – and it does have the advantage of being quite near where my sister lives, so I’ll stay with her for a few days.  Then there’ll be a gap, then Dartington – then a longer gap – the Edinburgh. And that will be that.  I shall miss the shots of adrenaline one gets from these jaunts, although they are rather exhausting.  Granta is quite pleased with the book’s sales…and I am agreeably astonished.

I wonder what form your blossoming has taken. More poetry? Or something quite different?  Do write and tell me, if you have the time.

With best wishes

Diana Athill

PS Interesting to hear that Camden’s doing well by your mother, because it can’t be too long before it has to ditto for me!!

28.5.08

‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

I was delighted to receive Diana’s comments of my poems.  I think that she much preferred fiction to poetry, so was even more happy that she had liked a few of them.

I feel Diana’s death very keenly.  She was a remarkable woman – one of the greatest editors ever, who overcame heartbreak in her youth, worked until she was 75, and then powered on – in her retirement – to write  a series of lovely, life-affirming books, such as her meisterstuck  ( in my opinion) – Somewhere Towards The End (2008), written when she was nearly ninety!.

I read it in one sitting. Un-put-downable, and again wrote to congratulate her. I also told her a little about the trials and tribulations of caring for my mother – born in 1918 – and similar in age to Diana.

This was her reply:

 

 

 

‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

Shortly after receiving Diana’s letter, I sent her a piece I had written about my having met the poet, Stevie Smith in 1970, which I hoped she would enjoy reading.

I received this reply, on a lovely card showing a reproduction of Mary Cassatt’s The Lamp.  Diana was an accomplished artist, as well as a sublime author.

‘Dear Amanda – Thank you for writing again. It’s v. pleasant to think of you and your friends thinking of me. And I loved your meeting with Stevie – could see her so clearly in your description.

I ought to have written earlier about your poems – sorry! Such idleness! I’m too old now to ‘feel’ love poems, happy or sad ( been there, done that!) but I liked Mr Greenwood very much, and the Norwich Floods, and indeed several of the others.  I agree with Graham Ackroyd about their Chinesey quality of spare precision.

What an interesting far-flung life you have!

Yours

Diana    19.10.01