The Ledger

May 2017

According to Ovid, the month of May was named for the maiores, Latin for ‘elders’, which has us thinking about the practicable wisdom conferred by a long memory, versus the bittersweet flavour of nostalgia, whose roots in the Greek mean something like homesickness. Too much of the latter leaves you paralysed, dressed in yesteryear’s wedding gown à la Miss Havisham, or poring over musty piles of old photographs. If memory can be said to be retrieval that’s intentional – summoning from the cobwebs the Pythagorean theorem, a beloved line of verse or the name of a colleague’s spouse (you’re pretty sure it starts with an M) – nostalgia is innately involuntary, being imbued with sentiment, which is by nature unpredictable. An innocent little sponge cake dipped in a cup of tea plunges the unnamed narrator of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time into a prolonged reminiscence that unspools over seven volumes, the writing of which took the author 13 years. An unearthed diary occasions the heartbreaking revelations in L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, whose opening line – ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ – is nearly as familiar as Proust’s madeleine. Hartley writes, ‘The past kept pricking at me and I knew that all the elements of those 19 days in July were astir within me, like phlegm in an attack of bronchitis, waiting to come up. I had kept them buried all these years, but they were there, I knew, the more complete, the more unforgotten, for being carefully embalmed.’ Not in the mood for lugubrious beauty? Sometimes a game of Trivial Pursuit down the pub is more our cup of tea.


A dwindling sorority: the haenyeo of Jeju

Haenyeo – ‘sea women’ – are female divers from the South Korean island of Jeju who have been harvesting creatures from the sea floor since the 17th century. ‘Jeju women are tough and burly’, a diver named Mun Yeon Ok told a journalist in 2013. They go ‘two telephone poles’ deep without equipment, holding their breath for up to three minutes. The work is hard, dangerous and lucrative – putting them on equal footing with (or giving them a leg up on) the men in their lives. ‘We saw the money and went diving one day at a time’, said another woman, ‘and then one month at a time, and when enough time passed we looked up and saw that we were haenyeo’ – but this generation of divers, some of whom are in their 70s, may be the last. As the sea grows warmer and more polluted, the abalone, clams, conch, octopus, seaweed, snails and urchins they gather are in ever shorter supply. Their daughters, meanwhile, work on the mainland in mainstream jobs.

Black and white illustration of three men on a bicycle from The Ledger in May 2017

Sublime memoir: Agnès Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes

Agnès Varda, a major réalisatrice of the French New Wave, has had the same bowl haircut since she was 19 (she is now 88). She varied it exactly once: ‘When Jacques died I grew a bit here. I made a braid because Chinese old people say that God will take you by the hair to join you with [the deceased] – but God didn’t take me, so I cut the braid.’ That detail indicates the intensity of Varda’s bond with her husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Lola, La Baie des anges) who died in 1990. Her Jacquot de Nantes (1991) pays poignant tribute to him through signature bricolage, meshing re-enactments of Demy’s childhood in the city of Nantes – when he experimented with set design, lighting, puppets and animation – with scenes of occupied France, footage from Demy’s films, and glimpses of the auteur in his final months. For companion viewing, seek out Varda’s equally affecting L'Univers de Jacques Demy, and her autobiographical Les plages d’Agnès.


Unflinching annals of strife and exile

‘He lifts his hands to the clouds and braids her tears into a flower. / In this way he sings. . . . In this way I go on’, writes the poet Dunya Mikhail in Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, a searing memoir of war and exile, in which she tries to wrest beauty from chaos. Born in Baghdad, Mikhail worked as a journalist for The Baghdad Observer and wrote poetry on the side until fleeing to the U.S. in 1996. Part one of her Diary consists of poems she wrote in Iraq; part two is autobiographical prose written in America. The Iran-Iraq war figures throughout. ‘They say you survive a war, but the war also survives in your memory’, Mikhail told an interviewer in 2012. War-scarred and far from home, she will always be a fish out of water. But she is amphibious, writing in Arabic, Assyrian and English with an osmotic approach to form and genre. Here, and in her work as a translator, she establishes her versatility and resilience.


Showcasing Vanessa Bell, with Patti Smith in complement

Dorothy Parker notoriously remarked that the Bloomsbury Group ‘lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.’ To that fair appraisal, we might add that they wrote in indelible lines. Virginia Woolf is the figure most celebrated today, inadvertently overshadowing her gifted sister Vanessa Bell. ‘Once I saw her scrawl on a black door a great maze of lines, with white chalk’, wrote Woolf of her sister. ‘ “When I am a famous painter – ” she began, and then turned shy and rubbed it out in her capable way.’ That Bell was a more than capable artist becomes clear at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, which hosts a major exhibition of her works through the beginning of June. She was also an accomplished interior decorator, switching seamlessly between fine and applied arts, and the show includes ceramics, fabrics and photographs as well as her bold paintings. The photographs are complemented by sombre black-and-white Polaroids of Bell’s Sussex farmhouse taken by the musician, writer and artist Patti Smith.


Reviving the radiance of Laura Nyro

In the late 1960s, Laura Nyro was a sleeper hit of a singer-songwriter, in the vein of Joni Mitchell but rather less famous. She had a knack for writing winners for others: ‘And When I Die’, recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary and Blood, Sweat & Tears; ‘Sweet Blindness’ and ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ for the 5th Dimension. So it seems fitting that a group of top-notch musicians gathered in 2014 to pay tribute with Map to the Treasure, which features inventive new recordings of some of her loveliest compositions. The pianist, composer and arranger Billy Childs convened a diverse roster to interpret 10 songs. From the world of jazz there is Esperanza Spalding; Yo-Yo Ma and soprano Renée Fleming collaborate on a track; the honeyed vocals of country artist Alison Krauss come in a little later. It’s a delicate hosanna and a fond follow-up to the posthumous honour Nyro received in 2012, when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


One who stared down the abyss: Imre Kertész

The Hungarian writer Imre Kertész died last year, at the age of 86, after a long battle with Parkinson’s, a disease he called ‘very bourgeois’ – a dark joke about surviving the Holocaust. As a teenager, Kertész was sent to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and wrote about the camps in his 1975 novel Fatelessness. Having lived through ‘a particularly cruel brand of totalitarianism’, he told The Paris Review, ‘I realized that I would have to write, write about the astonishment and the dismay of the witness.’ After the war, he chose to remain in Germany, writing and translating works by Nietzsche, Freud and Wittgenstein; he considered himself a Berliner. The Hungarian press gave him flak for that, especially after he won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, but Kertész was forever forthright in the face of censure – hardly surprising for ‘somebody who saw the Gorgon’s head and still retained enough strength to finish a work that reaches out to people in a language that is humane.’


Handsome, historic digs in inner Leipzig

Post-reunification Leipzig spawned an intrepid generation of artists, sometimes designated the New Leipzig School, and the city’s gallery scene surely gives Berlin a run for its Geld. That scene has enthusiastically converged on the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei, an old cotton mill made up of more than 20 factory buildings, for the light, space and ‘good bones’ of the place. Around 100 artists live and work there, and visitors can now enjoy an ambiance one might call tragically chic (New Leipzig School painters have been praised for their aura of disillusionment). The Spinnerei’s Meisterzimmer apartments exhibit clean lines, extravagantly high ceilings, unusual light fixtures, mid-century accents and rustic dish towels that make them something between a throwback Eastern Bloc guesthouse and a Philippe Starck studio residency. Stay a night or two, sample the Cajun chili (!) at Café Mule and keep an eye out for neo-Surrealist Neo Rauch.


Tiptoe through the Johnny-jump-ups

Is there such a thing as venerable plantlife? We think so. The living fossils of ferns and lichens, the broad trunks of California redwoods and the ghostly majesty of petrified forests all convey it, as does the Smithsonian Institute’s Heirloom Garden, which features ‘old-fashioned’ annuals, perennials, bulbs, shrubs and trees, i.e., those cultivated in American gardens prior to 1950. Delphinium and foxglove mingle with moonshine yarrow, a bright-yellow hybrid created by the inevitably named British horticulturist Alan Bloom, and butterfly weed, a medicinal plant thought to calm inflammation of the lungs. In springtime you’ll see and smell spicy chives. Nibble the blue borage if you’re feeling blue (it was administered as an antidepressant in Roman times). Did you know that tiny tri-coloured Johnny-jump-ups are wild pansies? If it starts to rain and you’ve forgotten your umbrella, head over to the Smithsonian Libraries Gallery for an exhibition about the evolution of gardening (at the National Museum of American History).