Adventures in post-war Paris

I don´t know if it´s this wretched weather (rain, rain, rain), but my pipes are not what they should be after a cold I had a month ago. Bound paper isn´t doing my health any favors, so I´m limiting my reading selection to electronic material. The library´s selection is limited, but on the other hand, I´m reading stuff I never would have found anywhere else.

My latest find is "Existentiell resa" (= existential journey) by Thomas Wahlberg. It´s not a novel, but a publication of letters, mostly written by his mother Britta, married at the time (1947) to Swedish artist Bertil Wahlberg, from Paris and Menton on the French Riviera, during an eight month long trip, when Bertil was supposed to work and study other artists. And he did, according to the son, who claims the 40´s (Bertil and Britta were only 24 years old) may have been his father´s greatest years as an artist, before he succumbed to the financial pressures (he eventually had five children by two wives) and painted more "sellable" things. (A quick look around internet auctions shows that his work now goes for prices well below 2000 kr, or 200 British Pounds, or 280 USD.)

This book is published by the author himself (I can not find any reviews of it online, at least) and the tone sometimes leans a bit toward the private. Between the letters he explains the background, sometimes ventures into the future and at times digresses into issues unexpected, sometimes interesting, sometimes not so much. A stern editor wouldn´t have gone amiss here. That said, I am charmed. Wahlberg has a very interesting story to tell and I read it all greedily.

One gets a real sense of the zeitgeist, both from the letters and the pictures, some of the adventurers themselves, some of the family back home, and some of the paintings that were made during the trip. The Wahlbergs married young, as people often did at the time. Sons Thomas and Jockum was born in 1943 and 1946 respectively. When the parents went to Paris, the children were left with Bertil´s mother Berta, and seem not to have been much missed. Clearly, there was a lack of responsiblity, both financial and parental. Bertil hardly wrote home at all, except to give his parents instructions about money matters, but when he did, his descriptions of Paris and France are very charming and hints at a literary talent. Some of his poetry (and other writings?) has been published by the son Thomas and I intend to have a look at it.

There were anecdotes I found pretty amusing. For example, in one of the first letters, from Bertil to his young wife, he advises her to try what was considered the next most reliable way to provoke a miscarriage (next to the infamous and dangerous knitting needle method), which was to walk excessively and drink lots of tepid beer. Apparently, she tried this with both pregnancies and I imagine the excercise and vitamine B only made her and the foetuses stronger. If it had worked, the British Isles would be scarcely populated, indeed...

I don´t entirely understand the title of the book. There isn´t much existentialism in here, although the young couple do visit the famous club Tabou and Bertil may have been more influenced by the movement than the text actually shows. It´s more about bickering with some Swedish friends that they share lodgings with, gambling, drinking and dancing. And one also gets a good insight into the horrid conditions in France and all of Europe after the war, where everyone was trying to survive and didn´t loose any sleep over ripping off and outright stealing from a young, naive, and seemingly wealthy couple from Sweden.

The author does not try to hide that there has been quite a bit of animosity from the children over being abandoned for such a long time at such young ages, but he claims now to be reconciled with it. And one belives him. The book is a rather loving account of the young adventurers his parents were and the tone in the book is tender. And I can´t decide whether this is the book´s greatest strength or its greatest fault.


Looking forward to Rome

The first weekend i November, we are going to Rome for the first time ever. We´ve been talking about it for years, and now it´s going to happen! Rome is one of those odd places that I feel I almost know, because I have read so much about it, but now I realize that the Rome I think I know anything about is classic Rome, the Rome of the Ceasars. It´s been two thousand years...

To close the gap I grabbed this book: Kristina Kappelin´s (Swedish journalist extraordinaire, reports from Italy about absolutely everything, and does it super well) "Rom - maten, människorna, livet" (=Rome - the food, the people, life). Turns out, it was a very good choice.

It´s like being guided through the city by a good friend, someone who is really enthusiastic about where she lives. The pictures, taken by another Swedish woman living in Rome, Charlotta Smeds, are über-wonderful, you can almost feel the smell of the food, hear the noise from the streets and it just makes me think I can´t wait to go there and how am I ever going to see all those places in just two days? At the same time, she is telling me that Rome is not all those things that tourists have on their checklist, but the streets, the small shops, the small osterias, the crappy wine, the good food, the Romans, the atmosphere. And she makes me relax. And hope for good weather. So that I can walk those streets all day long.


The Psychology of Art

I had a half hour to spare and spent it in front of the psychology-section at the local library. There is plenty for those who seek help and support, mostly about separations, depressions and sleeping disorders. Surprisingly many books about sleeping. I came home with two volumes by Rollo May, one of the classics in the field of existential psychology.

I´m pretty sure I´ve read him before, in the 80´s, probably "Freedom and Destiny" ("Frihet och öde" in Swedish) but I can´t remember much about it. Or maybe I´m wrong, perhaps it´s just that everyone refers to him that makes me think I have read him. However that may be, the one that really resonated with me this time was "The Courage to Create" (="Modet att skapa") which is a thin volume, densely written, about the psychology of the artist and the role he has to play in society.

It really has made me think differently about art, both literature and visual arts. He writes about how the artist channels the zeitgeist and expresses the undercurrents of politics and culture in his work and it really inspires me to study history - a subject that I´m already very interested in - from another point of view.

Excellent book. "Freedom and Destiny" didn´t grab me as much this time around. Perhaps I will have reason to return to it later. But for anyone interested in the mechanics of creativity and art, I really recommend Rollo May´s "The Courage to Create".


The Demands of the Genius

Another memoir about a creative woman: Käbi Laretei. She is now perhaps most known for having been married to Ingmar Bergman for ten years, but she was also a very successful concert pianist in her day, who collaborated with Stravinskij and Paul Hindesmith, to mention only two. In this small book "Toner och passioner" (= notes and passions), she writes about her working life, about the pianist Laretei. Her two husbands are only present in a couple of anecdotes that are of importance to the story of her career. Much more important is her own "housewife", Bärbel, who was her nanny/housekeeper/secretary. In the end, when she asks the question why her career as a pianist cooled off and she started doing other things, one of her answers is that Bärbel left her. (It rings a bell: Åsa Moberg writes in her memoir that one of the most thrilling things about her lover, Harry Schein, was that he lived with a housekeeper.)

When Laretei writes about the struggle of the travelling performer: lost luggage, time to practice, a place to practice, inferior instruments (there´s a lot about Steinways and Pleyels and such in here), noisy hotelrooms, demanding impressarios, demanding conductors, demanding composers, the difficulty to sleep, taking care of one´s hands, the importance of a certain kind of earplug, irritating children on planes - well, you think it can´t have been an easy life.

The whole memoir is centered around one special relationship she had to an American couple, that acted as her impressarios in the US for ten years. It´s interesting to read how they courted her, did everything for her, but in the end also demanded quite a bit from her. There are no free lunches, as they say. Unconditional love is a rare thing, indeed.

And there is also the doubt, the constant striving for a better performance. Laretei is never satisfied and in this passage, she is talking about it with her first husband, Gunnar (in my own, quick translation):

After a concert in Helsingfors I cried on the phone and lamented my total failure with my Beethoven concert. A few years later I heard the same concert on the radio, a fantastic recording. "That´s exactly how I want it to sound! Why can´t I play it like that, that´s how I want it!" Gunnar said calmly: "That´s you playing."

I bet that felt like a rather pleasant slap in the face, haha.

After my read, as I google Laretei and think about the demands of the creative person and how impossible it must be for that kind of genius to thrive in Swedish society today, with its demands for equality and how no one is expected to have to give up anything (career, a good night´s sleep, whatever) for a child or a spouse, I come across mention of her son with Bergman, Daniel. I remember him also becoming a film director but I haven´t heard anything of him for years. Turns out, he doesn´t seem to have done anything in the film industry since 2000. According to Wikipedia, he works as a nurse. I don´t know if it´s true, but if it is, there is a sense of balance to it, I think. Or irony, if you will. Perhaps the cult of equality and sameness, agreeable though it may be, has cost us quite a few original thinkers and performers.


On the Subject of Idolatry

I rarely read feministic literature. Writers who try to say something about the general female experience never fail to make me feel a bit queer. Perhaps it´s that I´m not a mother, and that I´m not the least bit career driven. Apparently, Simone de Beauvoir felt the same. She didn´t think she was a feminist until very late in life. This didn´t stop her, however, from writing "The Second Sex", which became a kind of feminist bible.

Åsa Moberg, a Swedish feminist writer and nuclear opponent, has translated "The Second Sex" in its entirety and is considered one of this country´s leading Beauvoir experts. She has written a personal memoir, "Simone och jag" (= Simone and I) about the way she has been able to mirror herself in Beauvoir´s texts ever since she first read "The Mandarins". I picked it up more because it was about the art of reading, and how we use famous people as idols, archetypes really, to help us get along with our lives. I have said this before, that it seems to me like some authors are more interesting and perhaps have become classics, not so much because of what they wrote, but because of how they lived. I mean, how many people really enjoy reading Virginia Woolf´s or Beauvoir´s novels? Not as many, I bet, as those who get absorbed in biographies about these ladies, and others like them.

In the end I found more nutrition in this book than I had thought I would. She (and Simone) has some really profound things to say about the way women are brought up and how that affects the creative process, things I can really relate to and that might help me to get on in my own development. And I could identify more than I though, since both Beauvoir and Moberg are women who have, more or less, chosen to remain childless. And perhaps they were not as career driven as they wanted to seem, they both had a man behind them pulling the strings. That is something I don´t have. But seeing what function a man like that has in a woman´s life, also made me realize a few things about my own processes.

I like these personal biographies, where the writer engages in a kind of dialogue with his or her subject. I think all conscious readers do this, and it´s very enlightening to follow another´s process. Unfortunately, a quick look at what amazon has to offer indicates that Moberg is not translated to English. There is, however, this: "Åsa Moberg und ihre Spiegelung in Simone de Beauvoir: Beleuchtung, Analyse und Interpretation" by Elisabeth Prudic. If it´s of any interest, I don´t know, and I don´t intend to find out.