The sun has finally returned to Paris, and I am sitting on my balcony--oh, hardship!--to watch a woman on the street opposite do her laundry and to write to you. To be fair, there was sunshine yesterday, as well as torrential rain, but we spent 7 hours in the Musee d'Orsay, so were bothered by neither after we waited half an hour to get in. And while we waited, we were helplessly privy to a lover's quarrel going on in the line ahead of us. He was arguing about the line, which was indeed very long but which was also moving very fast. She was emphatic about wanting to go to the Musee, which was open until late last night. He finally won the argument, but I didn't know which of them made me more furious: him for being a bully who didn't appreciate art or her for giving in. (Veronica suggested--is she cynical?--that he'd have sulked for the rest of the holiday if the woman had simply said "Fine. You go your way, I'll go mine.") The reward for their decision was that just at that moment we arrived under the enormous awnings of the Musee, the skies opened, drenching both of them. As we walked through the two islands in the Siene this morning, we noticed that there are walking paths that are completely under water. As well, some American tourists reported to other American tourists (do they all have beacons on them so they can find one another?) that their cruise had been aborted because the water was so high that the ship could not get under bridges. So lest you think that my opening--"the sun has finally returned"--is a little self-indulgent--you need to know that it's been a very cool and rainy spring in Paris.
But yesterday, weather didn't matter unless it was on the canvas before us. The Musee gives you a brief, rough and ready picture of pre-Impressionist nineteenth-century painting before you ascend to the Impressionists. One of the main genres approved by the French salon was history painting: enormous canvases with millions--okay, hundreds--of tiny figures that freeze some historical moment. In The Content of the Form, Hayden White argues that when we narrativize history (and yes, "narrativize" is a word: it means to force something into a narrative shape) we force a set of events into a sequence that has the increasing conflict of the rising action, a crisis, and a denouement. So what we regard as history as often battles, conflicts, heroic ventures. French History Painting does this with a vengeance. Looked at with a certain viewpoint, they are simply celebrations of masculine heroism mostly set in classical or neo-classical times. Were a Martian to fall to earth and have access to only this period of painting, she would think humans were very peculiar and would perhaps wonder most of all about the way the female nude was depicted over and over again--often without her head. Was this some kind of fetish? Some idealization or commodification? Puzzling.
What you find when you get beyond this work to that of the Nabis is that there are suddenly bodies at work. Normal bodies. Tired bodies. Grateful bodies. And when we're getting indoor scenes and there aren't labouring bodies, there is wallpaper recorded on the canvas with numbing detail (at least it would have numbed me if I were the painter, to get all those white flowers on the pink ground more or less symmetrical and lined up). Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis began recording everyday life, often in brilliant and joyful colour. I have thought long and hard about the kind of novelist I want to be. I know that "bigger" novels dealing with war or politics or extreme and dramatic situations tend to get the most critical attention, but this is really not what I'm trying to do. It's your life, a corner of the life you might have lived or a sliver of the life you see in someone you love that I want to illuminate and celebrate, if I can. I don't know nearly enough about the Nabis--I didn't know the term even existed--but learning about them seems like one more excuse to retire. It comes from Hebrew and means "prophet,"though their joyful and even decorative dailiness seems the antithesis of prophetic, unless the point is to see the colour, joy, and beauty in one's everyday life.
What can I say about the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that hasn't been said before? At some point, I felt as if I'd eaten too much chocolate or gorged on something similarly rich. That was, fortunately, a moment when Veronica and I could sit down on the museum's benches (which are too deep for little old ladies like me) and wax philosophical. Perhaps their very choice to paint en plein air meant that they saw beauty where they found it in the world. There was no arrangement of vases in the studio or of perfect nude models. There was, perhaps a snowy day that could be focused by placing a single black bird on a fence. Or an alley of trees or a hillside of poppies. Since Elaine Scarry's 1990 lectures On Beauty and Being Just, philosophers have been thinking about beauty in quite different terms, as if it gestures toward some civil virtue or virtues. Let me simply say that in these galleries, which were jam packed, people were unfailingly polite. Mrs. Dalloway is sure that her love for beauty will help the Armenians (Or was it Albanians? She has difficulty keeping the objects of her political husband's political enquiries straight). What you are left with, after you have seen room after room of Impressionist paintings is a way of seeing the world, plus the memories of canvases you are sure you could have returned to again and again to take away something different each time. True beauty is complex, and wants to speak again and again. Interestingly, if you listened in the museum, what you heard was a delicious hum of people talking to one another about what we saw.
After nearly eight hours on our feet yesterday, we decided to have a simpler day today, walking through the small shops on the island to the east of the one that holds Notre Dame. There we found small shops of silk scarves and really goofy, delightful kitchen equipment (does anyone need me to bring back a plaid toaster?). Here and in the small shops along our route to La Drougerie, one of Paris's premier knitting shops, we found colour and fun. There was a table that had been covered, I suspect, with some kind of resin into which had been pressed every wild kind of bead or button you could imagine--right down to its toes. There were white vases that looked like they'd been covered with very chic fridge magnets. There were silk scarves (from which French women acquire some of their style) of every colour imaginable. It was a cold, rainy, windy day, but Parisians were still having fun. They continued to have fun at La Drouguerie, where you could find exactly what you needed to re-decorate your straw hate or just the right purple linen to make yourself a summer sweater. Creativity lived here.
I ended my day today with a story. Quite close to use (and no, this didn't influence our choice of a hotel) is a French patchwork shop called "Le Rouvray." When I went in at the end of my day today, the shop keeper didn't sing out "Bon jour Madame!" the way they invariably do, but continued her hurried phone conversation, which gave me a chance to choose some lovely blue and brown fabrics. When we finally began to talk, I asked her whether the quilt behind her on the wall was a copy of "Dear Jane." The quilters will know what I'm speaking of. There are hundreds of small four-inch blocks, many of them very complex, and none of them the same. She said that she had started it with her mother-in-law when her own mother was quite ill. Doing all that hand piecing helped her get through a difficult time. She has now moved on to a similarly complex project that's called "Nearly Insane," which is of similar crazy complexity. She does all her piecing by hand and doesn't even know how to use a sewing machine. While she cut my fabric we talked simply, in English, about the ways that our projects distract us in difficult times and give us the sense of control in our lives--something you need even in Paris.