Alexander Scriabin, 1872 – 1915 – Musical Colour Wheel

For the past 6 months or so I’ve been listening often to the piano sonatas of Alexander Scriabin; he has been described as being an atonal composer but I think that is, perhaps, somewhat unfair as he is quite melodic (which one would think to be impossible in an atonal context) and seems to cleave to a musical key, at least in his sonatas (and preludes) that I’ve heard. I fell in love with both and have found that I can listen to them repeatedly in one sitting without growing tired of them. When searching thrift store for books I’ve also been on the lookout for his CDs but have had no luck as yet. I’m curious to hear his other works to judge their atonality.

I looked him up on Wikipedia ( just now and was delighted to see that he associated musical notes with colour; below is an excerpt from the Wikipedia page relating to his thoughts on music and colour as well as another colour wheel to add to our collection (see others here, here and here). The excerpt also discusses the colour impressions of other composers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov and discusses a “colour organ” that was designed for a presentation of one of Scriabin’s pieces, also reproduced below. If you get the opportunity, have a listen to his sonatas (and, no doubt, his other works) – they are very restful when playing in the background and equally enjoyable while you are listening to them intently.

Keys arranged in a circle of fifths in order to show the spectral relationship.

Influence of Colour

Though these works are often considered to be influenced by synesthesia, a condition wherein one experiences sensation in one sense in response to stimulus in another, it is doubted that Scriabin actually experienced this.His colour system, unlike most synesthetic experience, accords with the circle of fifths: it was a thought-out system based on Sir Isaac Newton’s Opticks. Note that Scriabin did not, for his theory, recognize a difference between a major and a minor tonality of the same name (for example: c-minor and C-Major). Indeed, influenced also by the doctrines of theosophy, he developed his system of synesthesia toward what would have been a pioneering multimedia performance: his unrealized magnum opus Mysterium was to have been a grand week-long performance including music, scent, dance, and light in the foothills of the Himalayas Mountains that was somehow to bring about the dissolution of the world in bliss.

In his autobiographical Recollections, Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded a conversation he had had with Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov about Scriabin’s association of colour and music. Rachmaninoff was surprised to find that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed with Scriabin on associations of musical keys with colors; himself skeptical, Rachmaninoff made the obvious objection that the two composers did not always agree on the colours involved. Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue. However, Rimsky-Korsakov protested that a passage in Rachmaninoff’s opera The Miserly Knight accorded with their claim: the scene in which the Old Baron opens treasure chests to reveal gold and jewels glittering in torchlight is written in D major. Scriabin told Rachmaninoff that “your intuition has unconsciously followed the laws whose very existence you have tried to deny.”

While Scriabin wrote only a small number of orchestral works, they are among his most famous, and some are performed frequently. They include a piano concerto (1896), and five symphonic works, including three numbered symphonies as well as The Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), which includes a part for a machine known as a “clavier à lumières”, known also as a Luce (Italian for “Light”), which was a colour organ designed specifically for the performance of Scriabin’s tone poem. It was played like a piano, but projected coloured light on a screen in the concert hall rather than sound. Most performances of the piece (including the premiere) have not included this light element, although a performance in New York City in 1915 projected colours onto a screen. It has been claimed erroneously that this performance used the colour-organ invented by English painter A. Wallace Rimington when in fact it was a novel construction supervised personally and built in New York specifically for the performance by Preston S. Miller, the president of the Illuminating Engineering Society.

Scriabin’s original colour keyboard, with its associated turntable of coloured lamps, is preserved in his apartment near the Arbat in Moscow, which is now a museum dedicated to his life and works.

Scriabin keyboard


Links – Trees Are Freaking Awesome!




Of interest to gardeners (at least to geeky ones):

How does a tree raise water from its roots to as much as 100 metres at its topmost branches? The above YouTube link, from the popular YouTube science channel Veritasium (produced by Derek Muller) explains how. There are many more videos explaining various scientific puzzles – a YouTube list, with extended video annotations is here.

You can watch an interview with Derek here. He has studied Engineering Physics and has a PhD in “making films to teach physics” (University of Sydney). These “hip” presentations would be of interest to students and his thoughts on teaching can be read here.

Update: Derek has a B.Sc in Engineering Physics from Queen’s University (Canada), and a PhD in Physics Education Research from the University of Sydney (Australia). I found (on this site) that he is a home town boy – grew up in Vancouver, BC (which would explain the accent).

Assemble and Publish an ePub Format e-Book


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In the preceding post we uploaded a Microsoft Office Word file of Fighting France, by Edith Wharton. I would like to introduce you to a few tools that can be used to turn this file into an e-book, in the form of an ePub format file, that can be imported into most of today’s e-readers; it can also be read on a computer with the correct software. As well, we have included an explanation of the software required to produce an e-book from scratch yourself – either from your own original writing or from text files of classic books that you can download from the internet. e-Pub is a free and open e-book standard that can optimize text across platforms and which has considerable language support, both in text and in user interface. It should go without saying that you should only be publishing literary works that are out of copyright but that is inevitably the case in reputable download locations such as the ones that we are referencing. does not presently support the upload of books in ePub format but I will be trying to contact them in the near future to see if that is an upcoming feature. I did e-mail support staff at Scribd and they advise that they expect to support the upload of ePubs by the next quarter so it should be possible to provide a link on blogs in order to download e-books that have been uploaded there.

As I’m a Windows creature, the software that I use is Windows-centric but I’ve indicated which programs are cross platform and which are exclusive to Windows and I’ve tried to source Mac programs (although I have no way of trying them to see how they work). My apologies to users of Linux for lack of documentation for their OS of choice (but hey – those guys are so smart that they’re already miles ahead of me)!

It might be best to start at the beginning (it usually is) and suppose that you might want to download a text file from an online location (such as or Project Gutenberg) and progress through the steps involved in turning it into a clean ePub file. In sequence, the steps/software involved would be:

Download – Download the text file from your location of choice and save it to a new folder on your computer – these online locations will often have ePub files available for download but they have normally been assembled from the text files available at the same location and usually have the scanning errors inherent in OCR (optical character recognition) scans which we will have to clean up before publishing them as ePub files so download the “Full Text” version from which to work.

EmailStripper – A free Windows application developed by PaperCut Software (to whom I will be eternally grateful); it was originally developed to clean up the ” < ” and ” > ” characters and broken line endings in plain text, forwarded and replied, email messages but will also clean up the original line endings in books that have been scanned with OCR software. Older books were often printed in a smaller format than modern books and had wider margins and do not transpose properly into modern word processing programs; EmailStripper will convert them to a modern format that you can work with; when pasting an entire book into EmailStripper you will have to wait a minute or two while it chugs through the book doing its reformatting magic. Mac users might try this page at to see if the applications listed might work on their systems.

A screenshot of EmailStripper with the first few pages of Gertrude Jekyll’s book Roses for English Gardens (copied from the full text, available at – I copied it from the browser window and clicked on “Paste”  in EmailStripper.

Here’s what you get when you click on “Strip It!” in EmailStripper.

Text editor – once I have cleaned my text in EmailStripper I paste it into Notepad (comes preinstalled on all Windows computers) to see how the formatting looks. It is usually sufficient but there have been times when I’ve had to paste back-and-forth between Notepad and EmailStripper (or even Word) to get it right (not sure why – typical computer magic). I usually then save the Notepad file, close it and then open it again to see if the formatting seems correct and stable. There are plenty of other text editors out there. (I often keep an instance of Notepad running to paste into to clear formatting when I’m pasting between programs).

I’ve clicked on “Copy” in emailStripper (to copy it to the Windows clipboard) and here it is pasted into Notepad; it looks good in terms of formatting.

Microsoft Word – Once the general formatting is correct in Notepad I then copy it and paste the whole works into Microsoft Word (I use Word 2003) and immediately save it again with a Doc extension. This will be my working editing file in which I can make use of the spell checker and formatting tools to edit the book and make it acceptable for further processing on our way to an ePub file. MS Word is also available for the Mac platform, as is Open Office (for both Windows and Mac), a free open source project, which contains a Word processor if you do not have access to MS Word. I hang on to the text file as a backup measure. If you have photos or illustrations to accompany your book, then insert them, in the appropriate location, in the word processing file; it is usually best to do this at the end of the editing process. The question of whether you should “align left” your text or “justify” it arises – in books, it has generally been justified (if that’s the expression) but I tend to simply align left. Justification has always been a design issue, and there’s no doubt that it looks better on the page, but I’ll have to look into it, and experiment with it before deciding how to proceed.

I’ve selected the text in Notepad, copied it and here it is pasted into MS Word – ready for editing. Some spelling errors are visible, including hyphenated words (line endings) in the original text that have been retained in our new copy; there are also a few artifacts (e.g. ‘^ ) caused by misinterpretation by the OCR program used in scanning the original page. Even pencil marks or smudges can cause unexpected results in the output of an OCR scan. You can also see page numbers that were scanned as well as book-title and chapter headings that often appear on each page of an original book; these would normally be part of your editing process but, for our purposes, we will continue with our exercise while retaining all of these “errors”.

I’ve taken what we’ve pasted into Word and saved it as a “Web Page, Filtered (*.htm: *.html)” – I’m using Word 2003 – you’re version of Word, or other word processor, may be different. Refer to Sigil’s documentation for information. Answer “Yes” to any warnings in Word when saving, or changing and saving, your html document. Saving as HTML will change your default onscreen view in Word to “Web Layout”. You can change it back to whatever it was previously – probably “Print Layout”  – by clicking on the “View” heading of your Word toolbar.

PDF reader – You can count on a long slog editing an entire book as you will have to correct misspellings that have been committed by the OCR scanning program (many instances of $ ^ * + @ ~ ` etc) and will have to check against an original copy of the book to look for italics – these are stripped out at the time of scanning and saving as a text file. For this purpose I normally download the PDF version that is usually available at the same location where I’ve downloaded the OCR scan saved as “Full Text” (so you know that you are comparing the same edition of the book) and run the word processor and PDF reader side-by-side, page-by-page, as I’m editing. The PDF file is normally a “snapshot” or “picture” of each page of the original book and the italics can be recognized and applied in the word processor. You can also check for original spelling in the PDF source file – older names and spelling styles are common in old books and, in gardening books, are the norm. It’s up to you how you want to deal with spelling issues – it has its regional and international variations as well – but I think that it is as well to stick to the locale and era of the writer that you are processing. Finally, the issue of the n-dash or m-dash raises its ugly head; I often leave them intact if the word processor has interpreted them consistently but, deep in my heart, I would like to banish them and simply use a hyphen in all situations. To that end I often compose an article in Notepad and then paste it into MS Word and the hyphens prevail. Adobe Reader is the best known PDF reader but I prefer PDF-XChange Viewer – it is much less resource intensive, has many more bells and whistles and is also free.

Sigil – The best-known software that can turn your Word (or word processor) document into an ePub file is called Sigil. It is an open source (free) application running on Windows (32 or 64 bit), Mac and Linux. It can be downloaded here. Sigil can only open ePub or html files so the first requirement would be to save your Word (Doc) file as a new file using the htm or html extension (in “Save as type” choose Web Page, Filtered) and then close it. (A handy conversion chart for importing into Sigil is here). You would then start Sigil and open your htm file to start editing it and save it as an ePub file. There is a very useful user’s guide on Sigil’s website (both online and as a downloadable ePub) but be aware that version 6.0 of the program has recently been released and that the user guide is lagging behind and is currently in draft form; if you download it, check for it from time to time to appear in its final form. Documentation for Sigil is excellent – I’m just learning the application myself so I’ve been reading it.

I’ve closed the Word web-page document and opened it in Sigil (File – open…); the only change that I made in the original (Doc) Word document was to format the first chapter heading – CHAPTER I GARDEN ROSES NEW AND OLD – as “Heading 1” so that Sigil would see it as a chapter heading in order to create a table of contents (TOC). In Sigil, I’ve only added the metadata (title and author name) and made a few changes to accommodate the TOC and then saved it as an ePub file. If it was a real book, it could now be added to an e-reader.

Calibre – The final piece of software (Windows, OSX, Linux & portable) that you should have on your computer is Calibre. When installed on a computer it will function as both an e-book library and an e-book reader; you can read e-books with it or preview ones that you have been working on. It will also convert e-books between formats so that they can be read on different devices than those for which they were designed when published. I use it on my netbook (10″ Acer Aspire One) as well as my home desktop to read e-books – regardless of their format. I’m in the market for an e-reader but haven’t yet decided on which one to buy. Calibre should be installed on every e-book aficionado’s home computer or note/netbooks. The same goes for Sigil – between the two you have the proper tools to produce and read e-books which are, more and more, beginning to be the way of the future.

I’ve now opened Calibre and added my new ePub book to its library; it appears at the top of the main library column when it is first added. Columns can be sorted according to your taste – title, author etc.

I’ve double-clicked the entry in the library in order to open it in Calibre’s e-reader. This looks very similar to what you would see in a mobile e-reader. The vast majority of e-readers will support the ePub format; Amazon’s Kindle is an exception but I understand that they are planning to support it soon.

Sigil is a powerful program and, as such, not something that you will grasp overnight but, with some effort on your part, you should be able to master it sufficiently to convert material into ePub format that can be conveniently consumed, at your leisure, on an e-reader. I collect interesting articles from various sources on the web, dump them into MS Word Docs in a folder called Internet Docs and save them up for the day when I’ll have the time to read them. Once I’ve mastered Sigil, it should be easy enough to condense them into my own e-magazine that can be loaded onto an e-reader (with a nice long battery-life) and, hopefully, read on the beach in Mexico (dream on!!!).

I hope that this introduction to e-book creation software has inspired you to experiment with some of them and to try your hand at creating e-books or e-articles and, perhaps, to purchase an e-book reader in order to access some of the material that has already been assembled. If you are passionate about a particular subject, these software programs can give you the opportunity to rescue cherished older books on the subject from their undeserved obscurity and present them to a new audience who share the same passion but have not had, and are unlikely to have, the opportunity to access the writing and wisdom contained in them.

A good comparison of e-readers on the market can be found at Mobile Read – this excellent site also has forums relating to e-readers and all aspects of e-reading (including Sigil & Calibre) to bring you up to speed and to help you deal with the inevitable digital frustrations that will arise as you learn this craft. It is not necessary to create an account in order to read the posts in the forums but, if you wish to ask questions and receive answers from knowledgeable forum participants, then you should create an account – it only takes a few minutes and can save a lot of time spent in trying to puzzle out the solutions to your digital dilemmas on your own.

Download Sigil and Calibre now and help to launch the e-book revolution.

Update: 06/11/2012: If you have Calibre (or other e-reading software) installed on your computer, or if you own an e-reader and would like to see an excellent collection of authors that can be downloaded in ePub format, then head over to eBooks @ Adelaide (from The University of Adelaide Library in Australia). The formatting and editing on these files (that I have seen) is truly professional and the selection is excellent – an ideal way to stock up on your mobile library.

Fighting France – Edith Wharton – In Alsace – Lamenting The Horror Of War


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Halloween, with its ancient commemoration of death, is as appropriate a time as any to contemplate the stupidity and horror of war – even more so as it is only a matter of a few weeks until Canada’s day of remembrance, Nov 11, arrives once again – and we pay tribute to the sacrifices offered by those who lost their lives, their limbs, or their minds in answering the call to arms that echoes from one generation to another, audibly, much like the beating of a drum. If you listen carefully you can hear the drum beating today, as it seems always to do; only the names of the “enemy” change – evil chimeras invoked to justify the ambitions of those currently in power, be they in their boardrooms or their cabinets. A compliant media can be relied upon to carry the tune and to swell the chorus, and the coffers, of the modern robber-barons who are the true beneficiaries of modern warfare (come to think of it, of ancient warfare as well).

The lyrics that accompany the beat of the drum are, much more often than not, composed of lies – communist horde; godless socialist; weapons of mass destruction; mushroom cloud; nuclear threat; freedom; democracy; etc etc. We’ve heard them all time and time again; we all know the song and all that is required is a substitution of the name of the transgressor – from Iraq to Iran; from Viet Nam to Nicaragua; from Germany to the Soviet Union. If our current Prime Minister, “Harper”, had held power in the run-up to the war in Iraq Canadians would have been killed, and killing, there along with their opportunistic allies. Today, according to his logic, diplomacy is too good for the Mullahs of Iran – presumably war is not.

There is no such thing as a “good war” although some are unavoidable, at the time of their onset at least. The Second World War was one such, when the Nazi tentacles began to spread across Europe, although the seeds of its fruition lay in the terms of the ending of the First World War at Versailles and in the arrogance and delusions of the victors. The first war had came as an unpleasant surprise to the people of Europe and there was a general disgust with the politicians and power-brokers for hatching it in their back rooms and, later, with the corrupt treaty that ended it. Canadians must make every effort to ensure that we are not surprised again and compelled to send the current flower of manhood to their deaths and to bear witness to the deaths of uncountable civilians for whom remembrance is fleeting. It has been said (Leonard H. Courtney) that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”; be that the case, it is the same price as for peace. We must be vigilant and raise our voices against the beating of the drum whenever the powers-that-be, and their minions, beat it and to raise our voices against the war-chorus when it sings its sordid song and to demand that all that is possible is done to avoid the horrors of the past (and the present).

Posted here is an opportunity to read a first hand account of the realities of the First World War, now in the process of being forgotten, written by Edith Wharton (see other recent posts for more of her writing). She was involved with establishing hospitals for war wounded and war orphans and had made sojourns to the French front to establish the requirements of field hospitals and to report her findings to the French command. She records her impressions of these excursions in a way that brings home the realities of the everyday lives of the combatants and of the people, such as those that remained, who lived in close proximity to the battlefield.

In a coming post I will upload the entire book and in a further one will discuss tools that will permit you to convert documents like these to ePub format so that they can be read on today’s e-readers.

Update: See a previous post here for an account of the origins of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, England to commemorate the war dead from the First World War which has a surprising connection to Gertrude Jekyll, the eminent Victorian/Edwardian English gardener.

Update: 02/11/2012: A news item in the British newspaper, Mail Online, details the story of a former history teacher (Andrew Robertshaw) who has created a replica WWI trench in his back garden in Surrey that would help to illustrate some of the descriptions of trenches made by Wharton in our excerpt from her book, Fighting France, and in other parts of the book itself. I came across this story from a page on MetaFilter, an intelligent “community weblog” which, in turn, I normally access from the site that I utilize as my home page, popurls, a very comprehensive news aggregator.

Mr. Robertshaw’s story is well worth visiting for the colour photographs of a WWI trench that accompany the post.

Read on then for an excerpt from Fighting France, In Alsace, by Edith Wharton. Fighting France can be download here in a variety of digital formats but, as mentioned, I will be posting it in its entirety, edited from its text file for scanning errors, in an upcoming post.

Continue reading

Images of Truth – Glenway Wescott, 1901 – 1987 – A Call on Colette and Goudeket

Following on from the preceding post, here’s an account (from his book Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism which can be downloaded here) of a visit paid by Glenway Wescott to Colette’s apartment in the Palais-Royal in Paris a few years before she passed away.

Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism (1962)

Glenway Wescott, 1901 – 1987

Chapter Five – A Call on Colette and Goudeket

When I went abroad in 1952 and called on my old and dear friend Cocteau, who was Colette’s neighbor in the Palais-Royal, he told me that it had been one of her most dolorous weeks; her arthritis clamping down tight and chiseling away at her. In spite of which, he thought, surely she would receive me, especially if he telephoned and asked her to. For various reasons, I scarcely wanted his powers of persuasion so exercised in my behalf.

Later in the week I found Anita Loos, the dramatizer of Gigi, dining at Florial’s, out beside the fountain under the honey locusts, and she confirmed the bad news of the arthritis; nevertheless, she encouraged me. “Don’t write,” was her advice. “M. Goudeket, the guardian husband, will think it his duty to ward you off. Just take a chance, ring the doorbell. At least you will see him, or you will see Pauline, the perfect servant. They’re both worth seeing.”

But I could not imagine myself standing all unannounced on their doorstep, nor think of any suitable initial utterance to the doorkeeper. Then I recalled the fact that when my young friend Patrick O’Higgins wanted to get in and take photographs of her, he armed himself with roses. With neither his infectious half-Irish gaiety nor his half-French manners, perhaps I could afford an even more imposing bouquet, to compensate. I sought out the major florist near the Palais-Royal, and asked if they knew which size and shape and shade and redolence of rose Mme. Colette favored. They knew exactly: I forget its name; it had a stout but not inflexible stem, and petals wine-red on the inside, brownish on the outside.

In the doorway the perfect servant gave me a good look and concluded that she had never laid eyes on me before. I held the roses up a little; I thrust them forward. It brought to my mind an encounter once upon a time with a fine police dog when, thank heaven, I had in hand a good thick slice of bread for the purpose of conciliation. I made polite statements about my not really expecting Mme. Colette to see me but, on the other hand, not wanting her to hear from M. Cocteau or Mlle. Loos or anyone of my sojourn in Paris and departure without having paid my respects. Pauline evidently regarded this as all hypocrisy but appreciated the style of it. She took the roses, forbade me to depart without being seen by M. Goudeket, ordered me to sit down and be patient, and went away very neatly.

The Palais-Royal is a quiet building. I could hear a heavy chair being pushed back somewhere; I could hear footsteps along a corridor, certainly not Pauline’s footsteps, heavier and not so neat. Facing me was a double door composed of panes of glass backed by permanent light-colored curtains, which made everything there in the hallway rather bright but nothing really visible.

“What is it, Pauline? Who is it, Pauline? But no, but no, not that vase, not for roses. Oh, they’re magnificent, aren’t they? So long-legged and in such quantity! Leave them here on my bed, for the moment.”

Though the farthest thing in the world from a young voice, it had a sound of unabated femininity, and it could never have been livelier at any age. It was slightly hoarse, but with the healthy hoarseness of certain birds; nothing sore-throated about it.

“Who brought them, Pauline? What young man? The one of the other day, the Swiss one? But, my poor dear Pauline, if he’s gray-haired, what makes you think he’s young? If only you’d remember names, so much simpler.”

Thus she sputtered or, to be more exact, warbled, and I gathered that Pauline withdrew from the room in mid-sentence; the hoarse and sweet phrases murmured to a close. Presently I heard a manly mumble of M. Goudeket, meant for me not to be able to understand; and presently there he was with me in the hallway, welcoming, at least half welcoming.

He declared that he remembered me, which, remarkable man that he is, may have been the case. “As for Colette,” he added, in a sort of aside, “I am afraid she is not in good enough health to see you.”

Using his arm like a great wand or baton he motioned me into a room which appeared to be his room, where there was a display of bibliophily and an important desk.

In France I always observe a great difference between politesse and just politeness. Politesse is stronger and can be made quite uncomfortable for one or both of the participants. M . Goudeket seated himself at the desk, assigned me a chair vis-à-vis, and questioned me for half or three quarters of an hour until he became convinced that I truly, unselfishly, loved Colette’s work and would continually do my best to further a general love of it in vast and remunerative America.

I told him what I thought: a number of the most interesting titles for export to this country had not yet been translated (still have not) — especially her reminiscences, which ought to be combined in one fat volume, suitable for a large-circulation book club. I went on to say, in a less businesslike manner, that I could not think of any autobiography by a woman to compare with this work of hers. Most women, throughout literary history, have been rather secretive, therefore objective. Not even Mme. de Sévigné is in Colette’s class for width and depth of revelation, for fond instructiveness, and for poetical quality. This comparison, though perhaps hackneyed, seemed to gratify M. Goudeket.

Then I mentioned Colette’s particular gift of brief wise commentary, epigram, and aphorism. As a rule this is not one of the abilities of the fair sex. Logan Pearsall Smith’s famous Treasury of English Aphorisms included, if I remembered rightly, only two authoresses. This information made M . Goudeket smile.

As soon as cordiality prevailed between us, our conversation flagged. Despairing by that time of seeing the beloved authoress, I looked at my watch and alluded to the fact that I had another engagement, beginning to be pressing.

This apparently astonished M. Goudeket. “But I thought you wished to pay your respects to Colette,” he protested. “Surely you can spare just a few more minutes! Speaking for Colette, alas, I am afraid she will be deeply disappointed if you don’t.”

He said this with rare aplomb, disregarding what he had said upon my arrival, exactly as though, at some point in our interview, he had been able to slip out of the room and reconsult her about me, or as though she had communicated to him by telepathy.

“Colette has changed her mind about seeing you,” he said. “She is feeling in rather better health today than usual. Come, we will knock on her door.” He knocked good and hard and then ushered me in. He addressed her as “dear friend” and he called me “M. Quess-cotte.”

Let me not flatter myself that the great writer had been primping for me all that half or three quarters of an hour; but certainly I have never seen a woman of any age so impeccable and immaculate and (so to speak) gleaming. Let me not try to describe her: her paleness of enamel and her gemlike eyes and her topknot of spun glass, and so forth. There was evidence of pain in her face but not the least suggestion of illness. What came uppermost in my mind at the sight of her was just rejoicing. Oh, oh, I said to myself, she is not going to die for a long while! Or, if she does, it will have to be sudden death somehow, burning death, freezing death, or thunderbolt of some kind. The status quo certainly is life, from head to foot.

She arched her neck back away from me and turned her head somewhat circularly, though in only a segment of circle. She worked her eyes, staring for a split second, then narrowing them, then staring again, so that all their degrees of brightness showed. She gave me her hand, strong with lifelong penmanship as well as gardening and the care of pets.

“Please sit on my bed,” she said. “Yes, there at the foot, where I can look straight at you. Arthritic as I am, it wearies me — or perhaps I should say it bores me — to turn my head too often.”

Oh, the French euphemism, which is stoicism in a way! Evidently it was not a matter of weariness or boredom but of excruciation. A moment later, in my enjoyment and excitement of being there, I made a clumsy move sideways, so that the weight of my elbow rested on the little mound of her feet under the coverlet. She winced but did not scowl. I apologized miserably, which she put a stop to by pulling the coverlet up above her ankles, in a dear humorous exhibitionism.

“Do you see? I have excellent feet. Do you remember? I have always worn sandals, indifferent to severe criticism, braving inclement weather; and now I have my reward for it, do you not agree?”

Yes, I did remember, I did agree. She exercised the strong and silken arches for me and twinkled the straight, red-lacquered toes.

On the whole, I must admit, our dialogue or trialogue was not very remarkable. I had been warned of her deafness; indeed the beautiful first page of Le Fanal Bleu is a warning. Now, as I try to recall things that she said, I find that they were not very well focused on the cues that her husband and I gave her; she only half heard us. She devoted all possible cleverness to mitigating and disguising the vacuum between us, and therefore did not shine in other ways, as she might have done in solo performance.

Naturally her husband knew best how to pitch his voice for her ear, or perhaps she could somewhat read his lips. “M. Ouess-cotte thinks your autobiographies will have the greatest success in America,” he said.

“Oh, has he read them? Oh, the Americans are greater readers than the poor French, aren’t they, monsieur?”

“M. Ouess-cotte is perhaps exceptional,” her husband murmured sagaciously.

“Have you read Le Pur et l’Impur?” she asked. “I happened to read it myself the other day and I took pride in it. I believe it to be my best book. It is the book in which I make my personal contribution to the general repository of knowledge of the various forms of sensuality, do you remember?”

I remembered so well that I recognized this last sentence as a quotation from it, almost word for word: “Le trésor de la connaissance des sens . . ” It is a work of gospel truth to my way of thinking, and has greatly guided me in my own life and love life.

When we fell silent M. Goudeket gave us a helping hand, a helping sentence. “M. Ouess-cotte suggests that I ought to make a selection of your thoughts in aphoristic form which I should find here and there throughout your work; something like the Pensées of Pascal or of Joubert.”

“But no, certainly not, my poor friend! You know perfectly well, I am no thinker, I have no pensées. I feel almost a timidity and almost a horror of all that. As a matter of fact, thanks be to God, perhaps the most praiseworthy thing about me is that I have known how to write like a woman, without anything moralistic or theoretical, without promulgating.”

And she expressed this bit of negative femininism in an emphatic manner, with her sweet voice hardened, sharpened. “I am a genuinely womanly writer,” she insisted. “I am the person in the world the least apt to moralize or philosophize.”

I felt challenged by this seeming humility. I, as you might say, took the floor and discoursed with eloquence for two or three or perhaps five minutes. I can recall everything I said, but, for some strange reason, I seem to hear it in English, not in French. Is it possible that in my opinionatedness I slipped into my native tongue without noticing? I seem to see Mme. Colette’s face turning mask-like, as though she had suddenly grown much deafer; and M. Goudeket, than whom nobody could be less stupid, looked a little stupefied.

It amounted to my giving her the lie direct. Whether she liked it or not, I declared, she was a thinker, she did philosophize. In volume after volume she has enabled us to trace exactly the stages of her development of mind, her reasoning in its several categories and connections. The gist of it may perhaps be called pantheistic; a cult of nature which is no mere matter of softly yielding to it, which infers a nay as well as a yea, and which includes, yes, indeed, with outstretched arms, all or almost all human nature. Of the utmost importance to her is, quite simply, belief in love; the particular passion in due course giving way to general loving-kindness, amor giving way to caritas, amour leading to amor fati. A part of it is just spectatorship and dramatic sense, with no admiration of evil, indeed not; only an appreciation of the part that evil may play in fate, as among other things it occasions virtue, and a willingness to yield to it in the end, when worse comes to worst, when it takes the form of death.

Suddenly hearing myself talking so grandiosely, and mixing my languages, my few words of Italian along with my French and/or American, of course I stopped; and then it was time to bid the great woman and her good husband au revoir. They very kindly urged me to return to Paris before long, and she undertook to rise from her bed when that time came and to lunch with me at the restaurant just down the street, the Véfour, where she had a corner table marked with her name on a brass plate.

I departed with a lump in my throat, with a very natural dread of old mortality. But then I reminded myself of the printed form of immortality, a sure thing in Colette’s case. I stopped at a bookstore and bought Le Pur et l’Impur, though I have two copies of it in New Jersey, one very cheap, for rough-and-ready reading, and one well bound, for the sentiment and the symbol. I immediately cut the pages of this third copy, not wanting anyone to observe it uncut in my hand and to shame me by the supposition that I had not yet read it. I walked through the Tuileries and up along the Seine hugging it (so to speak) to my bosom.

Images of Truth – Glenway Wescott, 1901 – 1987 – An Introduction to Colette

A day or two after posting the preceding excerpt of Colette’s writing (The Tendrils of the Vine) I came across, and purchased, a hardcover copy of Short Novels of Colette (The Dial Press, New York, 1951) in a thrift store; it will go onto the shelf to await its turn but, before setting it there, I had a quick look at the introduction, by Glenway Wescott, which seemed to be interesting, and resolved to read it once I’ve finished Judith Thurman’s biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh. While quickly researching Wescott’s introduction I came across it, in its entirety, at (download it here) as chapter 4 of Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism (1962) and I’ve posted it here with the first section of the chapter before the jump and the balance after. I’ve only read a bit of it and didn’t get much from the editing that I had to do on’s text file but it seems intact and is properly formatted and italicized and I’ll have to read it myself from the post.

I’ll follow up next with a post of chapter 5, A Call on Colette and Goudeket, which is an account of a (cold) social call that Wescott paid on Colette in 1952 which would have been about two years before she passed away.

Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism (1962)

Glenway Wescott, 1901 – 1987

Chapter Four – An Introduction to Colette

Upon publication of Mitsou, her love story of World War I, Colette received a letter from Proust. “I wept a little this evening, which I have not done for a long while.”

Mitsou concludes with a passionate communication from a little musical comedy star to her lieutenant in the trenches; and this impressed Proust especially, but he quibbled: “It is so beautiful, it even verges on prettiness here and there, and amid so much admirable simplicity and depth, perhaps there is a trace of preciosity.” He could not quite believe in the sudden elevation and refinement of Mitsou’s style, educated only by love. And how characteristic of the very neurotic great man! The chapter of the lovers’ dining in a restaurant reminded him dolefully of an engagement to dine with Colette which he had been compelled to break, it unfortunately having coincided with one of his illnesses.

Upon publication of Chéri she received a letter from Gide. He expected her to be surprised to hear from him; and perhaps she was. While Proust was a great complimenter, Gide was known to be somewhat chary of endorsements. He had read the tragical tale of the youngster in love with the aging courtesan at one sitting, breathlessly, he said. “Not one weakness, not one redundancy, nothing commonplace!” Why in the world, he wondered, had none of the critics compared her young hero or villain with Benjamin Constant’s “insupportable” Adolphe? “It’s the same subject in reverse, almost.”

On the whole, this was higher praise than Proust’s, and deservedly higher; for in the three intervening years Colette had extended and intensified her art. Gide quibbled also, or rather he suggested that with his natural uneasiness and malicious humor, if he took a little more trouble, in all probability he would find something quibble-worthy. “I’d like to reread it but I’m afraid to. What if it were to disappoint me, upon second reading? Oh, quick, let me mail this letter before I consign it to the wastebasket!”

It is pleasant and, I think, appropriate to begin with a glance at these two little documents of literary history. For, when Proust and Gide were dead and gone, it seemed to me — and to a good many other readers in France and in foreign parts — that Colette was the greatest living fiction writer.

I know that in critical prose, as a rule, the effect of the superlative “greatest” is just emotional. It is not really susceptible of analysis, at least not of proof. Even the comparative “greater” is unhandy in any limited number of pages, as it calls for some examination of those who may be thought comparable. Greater than Mauriac? Greater than Martin du Gard, Jules Romains, Montherlant, Sartre? Yes, I say, though I have not had the zeal to read or reread that entire bookshelf for the present purpose. Let me not pretend to be able to prove anything. Let me just peaceably point to those of Colette’s merits, here and there in her work, which I regard as components of greatness; going upon the assumption that in the essentials, as to general literary standards, the reader will agree with me. Easy does it!

I may state that, beginning about a decade ago, I have familiarized myself with Colette’s work in its entirety. My nearest and dearest friend, with characteristic munificence, made me a present of the collected edition, fifteen volumes, seven thousand pages, two million words, in that handsome format which finally crowns the French literary life: laid paper with margins, red ink as well as black; and had it handsomely bound for me in Holland. That spring I read everything that I had missed in ordinary editions in the past, and reread all the masterworks that I had loved so dearly for many years. I go on rereading every so often; and thus I know whereof I speak. I have it all fairly fresh in my mind.

I wish that I could illustrate this essay. From childhood and girl- hood on to the day of her death, Colette photographed entrancingly. The first written description of her that I ever read was an entry in Jules Renard’s Journal, November, 1894: her appearance at the first night of Maeterlinck’s translation of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, bright-eyed, laughing, “with a braid of hair long enough to let the bucket down a well with”; Melisande-like.

Rebecca West has described her in her middle age, out for a walk with her bulldog, a rich silk scarf looped through its collar in lieu of a leash. That most gifted and intrepid reporter’s principal impression was of animal energy and fierceness; to such a degree, she declared, that it almost frightened her.

I first met Colette in 1935, when she and Maurice Goudeket, her third husband, came to New York on the maiden voyage of the Normandie. Her American publisher invited me to a cocktail party in her honor. She was not expected to speak English, and as I had lived in France long enough to speak French fluently if not correctly, it was thought that I could facilitate the sociability. It thrilled me to meet her.

I remember her strong hands — serious writing is a manual labor! — and her fine feet in sandals, perhaps larger than most, rather like the feet of Greek goddesses. I remember her slightly frizzly hair fetched forward almost to her eyebrows, because (as she has told her readers) she has a square boyish or mannish forehead. I remember her delicate nostrils and her painted thin lips.

The conversation that I had been invited to engage in was not really very witty or deep. She extolled the great maiden ocean liner; how safe it seemed, how imperturbable upon the waves! She gave it as her opinion that there was nothing at all surprising about skyscrapers; man having been all through the ages a mountain climber, a tower builder. I then expressed my pleasure in the little conversation I had had with Goudeket, a distinguished and interesting man.

“He is a very good friend,” she said, and she emphasized friend a little. As I recalled certain bitter pages about her first marriage — the bitterest were still to come — I supposed that the designation of “husband” seemed unromantic to her.

Now I will furnish a sort of biography in rough outline and resume. I wish that, instead, her autobiographies — the half dozen little volumes that, taken together, are perhaps her most important work: La Maison de Claudine, Sido, Le Pur et l’Impur, Mes Apprentissages, L’Etoile Vesper, Le Fanal Bleu — were all available in English. What I shall do is flutter in and out of that noble repository and treasure-trove, picking out bright bits, like a magpie. Though she has many reticences, grandeurs of style, and sometimes little riddles, she seems not to have left much for other narrators of her life to do, except to simplify and vulgarize.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was born on January 28, 1873, in a village in Burgundy, Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. Her father, Jules Joseph Colette, was a pensioned-off soldier who had fought in North Africa, in the Crimea, and in the wars of Italian liberation, and lost a leg at the second battle of Marignan. Her mother, Adele Eugenie Sidonie Landoy, born in Paris, was a young widow when the ex-Zouave loved and wooed and won her. It was a good marriage. She was an octoroon. Blessed France! where it may seem to handicap one in a career of serious authorship to have commenced with a series of slightly raffish best sellers, or to have divorced and gone on the stage, as Colette did; but where race prejudices are few and mild. Never have I heard any mention of that sixteenth part of Negro blood in the famous authoress’s veins; only her own statement.

Mme. Jules Joseph Colette — Sido, if we may presume to use that abridged name which, her daughter has said, “sparkles amid all my memories” — was a woman of real force of character and unusual mind, with a gift of expression from which, doubtless, for the most part, her daughter’s genius derived. As a young girl Colette must have felt overwhelmed by her. The first independent action of Colette’s life, marriage, rash and premature, was in specific rebellion against the better parental judgment. Thereafter Sido must have sensed the wrongness of impinging too closely upon her daughter’s difficult life; she stood upon a certain ceremony, kept her distance.

La Naissance du Jour (Break of Day) (1928), the novel of the renunciation of love in which Colette portrayed herself under her own name, and as approximately the age that she had reached in reality at the time of writing it, testifies to the fact that the thought of her mother was still a challenge to her, sixteen years after her death. On page after page she studies herself in the mirror of her inheritance, measures herself against Sido’s stature; and true bereavement echoes all through it, slow and impassioned, like the ground bass of a passacaglia or a chaconne.

She began her filial tribute long before that. The best of the little chapters of La Maison de Claudine (1922), which is an account of the home from which the author of the Claudine novels came — not otherwise connected with the best-selling series — are portrait sketches of the dear progenetrix. Sido (1929) is a more formal portrait, but still entranced and entrancing. Even after thirty-four years, in L’Etoile Vesper (The Evening Star) (1946), there are sudden touching souvenirs: a fragment of a blue dress of Sido’s, a miniature of Sido’s mother — to whom Sido’s father, the quadroon, was notoriously unfaithful — one of Sido’s recollections of another of her children, and a severe motherly criticism, of neglected and disorderly cupboards. And in this text, as elsewhere, whenever assailed by fear or bitterness or any other serious trouble, she evokes the great strong spirit, and despite her own age, threescore and ten — threescore and nine, to be exact — clings almost like a child. The filial devotion, half of it posthumous, was the mightiest strand in her entire being.

The next most important strand was coarse and incongruous, and seemingly weak; nevertheless, it held her a long time. At twenty she married the noted journalist and hack writer, Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy. She was then, as he remarked some years later of her heroine, Claudine, as pure and unsophisticated as “any little Tahitian before the missionaries got there.” He was, to characterize him in his own manner, the opposite of a missionary. He was a bad, clever, corpulent, somewhat crazy man. He was only about fifteen years older than she, but already the worse for wear, physically as well as spiritually. “Worse than mature,” Colette said.

“The day after that wedding night I found that a distance of a thousand miles, abyss and discovery and irremediable metamorphosis, separated me from the day before.” What a painful sentence! What a beautiful sentence! All of her portrait of Willy from memory years later is perfection. “The shadow of Priapus, flattered by the moonlight or lamplight on the wall” — then, little by little, the traits of the mere middle-aged man coming out from behind that image of newly espoused male — “a look in his bluish eyes impossible to decipher; a terrible trick of shedding tears; that strange lightness which the obese often have; and the hardness of a featherbed filled with small stones.” He was nervous, disgraceful, and shameless, foxy and comical and cruel. He was thought to resemble King Edward VII; but in spite of his carefully dyed, extra-thick handlebar mustaches, his wife noted also something of Queen Victoria.

The term “hack writer,” as applied to Willy, needs a little explaining. He was, as you might say, a wholesaler of popular reading matter: music criticism and drama criticism; and in book form as well as journalism, revelations of his own everyday life and night life in the somewhat side-splitting way, sometimes verging on the libidinous, with verbal pyrotechnics, especially puns; and all sorts of light fiction, something for almost every type of reader; and once in a while, dramatizations. Hacking indeed; but he himself did scarcely any of the writing! Doubtless he had what is called a psychic block to start with, but he made it work. He employed writers, several at a time, for his different types of production. “Willy have talent,” said Jules Renard. He was not lazy. He helped his helpers. Sometimes he seemed to want to fool them, pretending that the work of one of them was his work, and getting another to revise it, and so on. He may or may not have given them a fair share of the income from all this; they never understood his finances. Some of them had literary careers on their own in later years: Messrs. Vuillermoz, Curnonsky, Marcel Boulestin.

Young Mme. Colette Willy’s literary career began with her telling little tales of Saint-Sauveur; tales of childhood, girlhood, and school-girlhood. One day Willy suggested her trying to get some of these memories down on paper. She tried, the result disappointed him, and he discouraged her. But one day when he happened to need money he picked up her manuscript again and thought better of it. Could she not work on it a little more? he asked her. It needed only a detail of psychology here and there, a specification of emotion. Why not develop her little heroine’s crushes on her girl friends just a little further?

Immature female writers, as Colette remarked years later, are not notable for their moderation; nor old female writers either: “Furthermore, nothing is so emboldening as a mask.” Before long Willy’s reminiscing young wife was his favorite ghost writer. He paid her too; well enough, it seemed to her at the time, enabling her to send little presents to Sido, woolen stockings, bars of bitter chocolate. He would lock her in her room for four-hour stretches while she inked up a certain number of pages with her heaven-sent and profitable phrases, sentences, paragraphs.

In her recollection of all this Colette has expressed mixed emotions, doubtless impossible to unmix: pathos, furious resentment, and toughness toward herself — Willy locked the door, but, she had to admit, there was nothing to hinder her from throwing herself out the window — and in spite of all, a certain appreciation of the way destiny worked to her advantage in it, amor fati. For thus in servitude, page by page, volume by volume, she became a professional writer. Regular as clockwork: Claudine at School (1900), Claudine in Paris (1901), Claudine Married (1902), Claudine and Annie (1903); and then a new series, Minne, and Les Egarements de Minne. Willy took all the credit and signed them all.

Claudine, all four Claudines, had a fantastic success. Shall I attempt to say what it was like, with American equivalents, for fun? Rather like a combination of Tarkington’s Seventeen and Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Also there was the factor of personal notoriety. Suppose Anita Loos had been married to, let us say, Alexander Woollcott, and he had posed as the author of it, and given the public to understand that it was the true story of her life! Also in due course it was dramatized and acted by a favorite actress, Polaire, who was, as you might say, a cross between Mae West and Shirley Temple. The name “Claudine” was bestowed upon a perfume, indeed two perfumes in competition, and upon a form of round starched schoolgirlish collar, and upon a brand of cigarettes and a flavor of ice cream. It makes one think of the old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, with a variation: young Mme. Willy not only brought the broomstick to life, she was the broomstick.

No wonder she has shown a divided mind about the merits and demerits of those early volumes. As a rule her references have been rather shamefaced, disdainful; and critical commentators on her work have followed suit, even I. But in truth almost any writer who had not gone on to write something very much better would be quite sufficiently proud to have written the Claudines. To be sure, here and there they put us in mind of that once popular periodical, La Vie Parisienne. They are a little foolish but not at all false. They are wonderfully recreational, with all the assortment of approaches to romance, and with small talk, sparkling every instant.

A part of Colette’s talent appears in them all right: her warmth of heart, brilliance of the senses, command of language; only none of her genius. She surely appreciates them as well as they deserve, for all her little promulgations of sackcloth and ashes. She fought hard to get the rights away from Willy; for a while both names appeared on the title pages, then hers alone; and she devoted two and a half volumes of the proud definitive edition to them.

While she was writing, writing, writing, for Willy, intimate relations between them went from bad to worse. Halfway through the miserable marriage, or perhaps three quarters of the way, she suddenly felt unable to stand it; collapsed in her own mind about it. She began to believe that perhaps Willy was not simply wicked but insane; a furtive kind of insanity, venting itself in little sadisms and in whims and frauds of one kind and another. She tried to pity him but she found herself unable to pity him. Presently she realized that the reason she was unable to pity him was that she had begun to be afraid of him. She wrote of this with somber moderation, with a sort of good nature, which gives one gooseflesh. “Healthy young people do not easily open their minds to fear, not altogether, not constantly. The worst tormentors have their hours of clemency and gaiety. Perhaps even a mouse finds time, between one wound and the next, to appreciate the softness of the cat’s paw.” And on another page there is an allusion to something that happened finally, that she resolved never to tell; worse than anything that she had told!

Whereupon she retreated to the country, to a little property in the Franche-Comté called Monts-Boucons. Willy gave it to her, but afterward seized it back. She told him that going away would enable her to get on faster with her work, his work; but there appears not to have been any vagueness in her own mind about it; it was for the specific purpose of suffering. It was what in our American life is so common or, I should say, what we have so common a term for (the French have none): nervous breakdown. It was the turning point of her life; anguish, the first phase of independence!

In her account of this, years later, I note one of those components of literary greatness which I have undertaken to indicate when I came to them; a sort of contradictoriness in the working of her mind; manifoldness. When reticence would seem to have closed down on her, because she is ashamed to tell the whole story, and no wonder; when her thought has failed, no knowing any longer what to think; when she feels obliged in all honesty and modesty to specify that she cannot really specify anything — then! then more than ever, compensatorily, her power of expression of emotion reaches its peak, by means of images and verbal music.

There in retreat in the Franche-Comté countryside, having on her mind day and night her problem of oversophisticated, broken-down psychopathological metropolitan home life, suddenly she discovered, not the meaning, not the moral, but the metaphor, in simple nature around her; in the painfulness of nature. Metaphor singular? No, metaphors plural! all over the place; but all saying the same thing. — A superb serpent pecked to death by hens. Dark painful wasps slumberous in the ground like a tiny buried bunch of grapes. Her cat undeterrably murderous without even any excuse of hunger, and the bird on its nest optimistic but obstinate as the cat approached. Her old horse so badly mistreated by its previous owner that, when she went riding, it had to be bandaged as well as saddled . .

By means of these observations she expressed the dread and disgust to which her married life had turned, more than by any outspokenness or outcry. And none of it really could be said to be, for the creature concerned, error or bad luck or injustice; in each case it was according to the given nature. Oh, likewise in her own case as the wife of Willy! She was justified in forgiving herself for her weaknesses of the past. On the other hand, she could not be expected to repress in herself indefinitely a certain dire strength of which she was beginning to feel the stirrings. Both things were in her nature, in her attitude and reaction to the rest of nature and to others’ human nature: awful compliance for a while, but power of rebellion after a while, even power of hatred.

But never, for her, indifference or obliviousness! This is what I call the contradiction: the creative mind embellishing what it hates; winding around what it is escaping from; rendering everything, as it goes along, in so far as can be, unforgettable. For example, that reptile and the barnyard fowl and those predatory insects and that beat-up horse; Colette kept them stored in her head for about thirty years, along with the more general concepts of early sorrow, early philosophy. As she has expressed it in the way of aphorism: “By means of an image we are often able to hold on to our lost belongings. But it is the desperateness of losing which picks the flowers of memory, binds the bouquet.”

Nervous breakdown had done her good, as it often does, or so it seems: something in the way of a liberating effect. In some way suffering outweighed her natural conservatism. As she expressed it in later years almost cynically, she had monogamous blood in her veins by inheritance, the effect of which was a certain enfeeblement in the ways of the world. There by herself in Monts-Boucons, bloodletting! What year was that? Perhaps 1904. Now and again the chronology of her memoirs disappears in the poetry. She did not actually, entirely, leave Willy until 1906. Why the delay, when she had seen all and foreseen all, and as they say, found herself?

In more than one text Colette has declared, and no doubt sincerely thought, that it was mainly on her mother’s account. From the very first day of her marriage and metropolitan life she had painstakingly prevaricated in every letter back to the provincial town. Perhaps Sido read between the lines, but she replied only to what her daughter chose to tell. Little by little Colette felt bound by her own spiderweb. Given what our sociologists call vertical social mobility, it is a frequent crisis in the lives of gifted young persons who have ventured to the city in search of fortune, to no avail, and then have to consider giving up and going back home: prodigal sons or daughters not even remorseful, nobodies with not even a cent or a sou. The prospect of burdening Sido in the financial way troubled Colette especially. Must she not have been inhibited by another point of pride also? In Sido’s instant perception of the miserableness of Willy, and prediction of the martyrdom of being married to him, had she not felt some possessiveness, bossiness? It is a matter of observations that daughters often very nearly perish rather than admit that mother knew best.

But at the close of a life and career so felicitous and successful, let us not glibly say that at this or that point things were misconceived or mismanaged. Nowadays one is apt to make too much of the spell cast by parents, and the fixation of first marriage, and everything of that sort. Especially in the lives of literary persons, planners by their temperament and training, the feelings of ability and ambition may be of more decisive effect. What caused her to set her bizarre young heart on the odd older man from Paris in the first place, if it was not the fact that he was a literary man? And after she came to hate him with her whole heart, probably it was the muse which kept her there beside him a while longer, faithful to vocation rather than to the marriage vow; only seemingly shilly-shallying, while accumulating the materials for a great piece of literature decades later.

Willy was her job as well as her husband and her subject matter. She remembered to tell us how — doubtless sensing her restlessness, the gradual unfolding of her wings for flight, also the sharpening and tensing of her beak and claw — he opportunely raised her wages. The Minnes were more remunerative than the Claudines. It does seem to me that if I had been the author of those six volumes at the rate of one a year I should have felt quite confident of being able to support myself by writing — also my mother in the provinces, forsooth, if called upon — even without an accustomed consort, slave-driver, agent, and front man. But Colette did not feel confident. She was like someone learning to swim, someone who has learned, who can swim, but still depends on water wings. And the fact is that, when at last she got up her courage and left Willy, and continued writing — an excellent volume in 1907, another in 1908 — there was not a living in it. It must be admitted that she did not, perhaps could not, certainly never wished to, write any longer in the previous half-humorous best-selling style, Willy’s style. She went on the stage instead.

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The Tendrils of the Vine – Colette – 1873-1954

The Tendrils of the Vine


First published (in French) 1908

The great cat lover about the time she wrote The Vagabond in a publicity portrait by Reutlinger. Photo – Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman

A good chunk of this summer was spent working my way through two biographies by Hermione Lee, one of Edith Wharton (see preceding posts), the other of Virginia Woolf (both eminently worth reading) and I am now settled into one of Colette by Judith Thurman (Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette) which is proving to be as entertaining and informative. We posted a few excerpts previously from Colette drawn from a Penguin anthology of her works (Colette – Earthly Paradise).

I seem to be drawn to fin de siècle women writers – I’m not sure why – although they do have, at least, tenuous links to gardening and to an era that interests me greatly and, of course, their writing prevails as reason enough to read them. It is Colette however who tends to get the blood flowing with her straight-forward yet poetic style. (It’s interesting, as I read somewhere, I believe in the Penguin anthology, that she was alert to poetic rhythm sneaking in to her prose and, once detected, excised, yet she reads not unlike poetry to me). I generally prefer non-fiction to fiction but Colette’s fictional writing often appears to be autobiographical; it is difficult to determine where the truth ends and the tale begins.

She and her husband/collaborator, Willy, outraged conservative French society at the turn of the century and her stage career drove the chattering classes to even higher levels of outrage and disgust but, by the end of her life, she was generally considered to be a national treasure and her reputation has, if anything, increased today. Willy, scoundrel that he was, comes across as a somewhat more sympathetic character in my reading  of Thurman’s biography (200 pages in) due in part to the era in which he lived and, in which, the attitudes that he shared with most, if not all, men at that time and to the suspicion that he did love Colette, in his way, and that she loved him.

Nonetheless, at the time that The Tendrils of the Vine was being finished Colette was in the process of divorcing Willy (another social outrage) and setting out on her own. The process, and her new-found theatrical career (not to mention her lesbian relationships), involved divorcing herself from polite society as well. It seems to me that Colette must have had an iron will as she yielded to no-one in her determination to be herself and to speak her mind as she saw fit regardless of the objections of French society in general and of critics, both theatrical and literary. It’s a wonderful thing for us that she was constructed in this way as her writing is an inspiration a century on, unchanged in its import (as unchanged as the chattering classes) and her example still stands as a testament to the notion that talent conquers all.

I came across mention of The Tendrils of the Vine in Judith Thurman’s biography and turned to my copy of The Collected Stories of Colette (edited by Robert Phelps) for an English translation of the title piece (the book, published in 1908 has never been translated into English); immediately below is a page from the biography that will serve to set the stage for Herma Briffault’s translation of this short fable. My paperback copy of The Collected Stories of Colette is coming unglued but should hold together enough to get me through it (it will be read soon) and will serve until I can come across another copy; it is likely to be a book well worth keeping on my shelves.

Update, 25/10/2012 – here’s a link to a New York Times review (outside their paywall) of Judith Thurman’s biography, Secrets of the Flesh, of Colette with additional links including one (Featured Author: Colette) to historical articles and reviews of Colette’s writing.

Scanned from:

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

Judith Thurman

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999

paperback, approx 6 X 9 ¼”, 570 pp plus index

In 1908, Colette published “The Mirror” and a selection of other short prose in Tendrils of the Vine. The famous title piece, written before her separation in 1905, describes a nightingale who awakens one spring morning to find that his feet have been trapped by the vine’s spiraling creepers. Believing he will die, he struggles to break free, and swears that he will never fall asleep again while the tendrils are climbing. “From that night on, he sang to stay awake . . . he varied his theme, embellished it, fell in love with his voice, became that mad singer, intoxicated and panting, to whom one listens with the unbearable desire to see him sing.” The writer identifies her fate with his.

The tone of Tendrils is as bittersweet as the taste of that freedom, and what makes it so is Colette’s sense of the unbreachable distance between the past – “the village I have left behind”- and the present. As a contemporary critic noted astutely, the narrator is “an emancipated woman writer, artist, and rebel … savagely and resolutely alone” but “unconsciously still fixated on her childhood.” And this is her allegory for the loss of self and the dawn of vigilance, for the discovery of her voice and her gifts, and for the conflict between the drive for autonomy and the yearning for submission that will inform her work for the next forty years.

The eroticism of the most candid and intimate Tendrils was meant to shock, as Colette cheerfully admitted to Willy, who read the manuscript for her and made some minor corrections. “Jour gris” is a feverish and melancholy reverie addressed to Missy, in which the narrator laments her lost intactness. “Nonoche” is a little paean to the siren call of male lust, for which the .. mother cat abandons her nursling. “Nuit blanche” celebrates Colette’s gratitude to her mistress for a love so containing and steady that it feels redemptive. The writing suffers in places from an exalted and somewhat adolescent solemnity, but to read the finest of these prose poems is to enter a pagan sanctum like the Villa dei Misteri – a temple of voluptuous devotions.

The Tendrils of the Vine (Les Vrilles de la Vigne)

Can be read online (in French) at

Scanned from:

The Collected Stories of Colette

Edited by Robert Phelps

New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983

Paperback, approx 6 X 9”, 605 pp

In bygone times the nightingale did not sing at night. He had a sweet little thread of voice that he skillfully employed from morn to night with the coming of spring. He awoke with his comrades in the blue-gray dawn, and their flustered awakening startled the cockchafers sleeping on the underside of the lilac leaves.

He went to bed promptly at seven o’clock or half past seven, no matter where, often in the flowering grapevines that smelled of mignonette, and slept solidly until morning.

One night in the springtime he went to sleep while perched on a young vine shoot, his jabot fluffed up and his head bowed, as if afflicted with a graceful torticollis. While he slept, the vine’s gimlet feelers – those imperious and clinging tendrils whose sharp taste, like that of fresh sorrel, acts as a stimulant and slakes the thirst – began to grow so thickly during the night that the bird woke up to find himself bound fast, his feet hobbled in strong withes, his wings powerless …

He thought he would die, but by struggling he managed after a great effort to liberate himself, and throughout the spring he swore never to sleep again, not until the tendrils of the vine had stopped growing.

From the next night onward he sang, to keep himself awake:

As long as the vine shoots grow, grow, grow,

I will sleep no more!

As long as the vine shoots grow, grow, grow,

I will sleep no more!

He varied his theme, embellishing it with vocalizations, became infatuated with his voice, became that wildly passionate and palpitating songster that one listens to with the unbearable longing to see him sing.

I have seen a nightingale singing in the moonlight, a free nightingale that did not know he was being spied upon. He interrupts himself at times, his head inclined, as if listening within himself to the prolongation of a note that has died down … Then, swelling his throat, he takes up his song again with all his might, his head thrown back, the picture of amorous despair. He sings just to sing, he sings such lovely things that he does not know anymore what they were meant to say. But I, I can still hear, through the golden notes, the melancholy piping of a flute, the quivering and crystalline trills, the clear and vigorous cries, I can still hear the first innocent and frightened song of the nightingale caught in the tendrils of the vine:

As long as the vine shoots grow, grow, grow …

Imperious, clinging, the tendrils of a bitter vine shackled me in my springtime while I slept a happy sleep, without misgivings. But with a frightened lunge I broke all those twisted threads that were already imbedded in my flesh, and I fled … When the torpor of a new night of honey weighed on my eyelids, I feared the tendrils of the vine and I uttered a loud lament that revealed my voice to me.

All alone, after a wakeful night, I now observe the morose and voluptuous morning star rise before me … And to keep from falling again into a happy sleep, in the treacherous springtime when blossoms the gnarled vine, I listen to the sound of my voice. Sometimes I feverishly cry out what one customarily suppresses or whispers very low – then my voice dies down to a murmur, because I dare not go on …

I want to tell, tell, tell everything I know, all my thoughts, all my surmises, everything that enchants or hurts or astounds me; but always, toward the dawn of this resonant night, a wise cool hand is laid across my mouth, and my cry, which had been passionately raised, subsides into moderate verbiage, the loquacity of the child who talks aloud to reassure himself and allay his fears.

I no longer enjoy a happy sleep, but I no longer fear the tendrils of the vine …

[translated by Herma Briffault]

Italian Villas And Their Gardens – Edith Wharton – Villas of Venetia

In a follow-up to the preceding post, we post here Villas of Venetia by Edith Wharton from her book Italian Villas and Their Gardens with a brief introduction from Edith Wharton Abroad, edited by Sarah Bird Wright. Italian Villas and Their Gardens is available in a variety of digital formats from A description of Edith Wharton Abroad is in the previous post – Italian Villas And Their Gardens – Edith Wharton – Villas Near Rome.

Excerpted from Edith Wharton Abroad, Selected Travel Writings, 1888 – 1920

edited by Sarah Bird Wright, preface by Shari Benstock, St. Martin’s Press N.Y. 1995 (hardcover, 216 pp approx 6 X 81/2″)

“Villas of Venetia”

Wharton focuses in this chapter on examples of the Venetian maison de plaisance, or pleasure house, in the environs of Venice, on the Brenta Riviera, in Padua, Battaglia, and Treviso, and in the Euganean hills. Within Venice, of course, there are no large-scale gardens or hillsides, no beech-alleys or rustic grottoes. Her charge from The Century magazine had been to write the text for the planned series of water colors and paintings already commissioned from Maxfield Parrish, covering villas with extensive gardens. (In Italian Backgrounds, where she has a clear field, Wharton pays considerable attention to palaces in Venice itself, such as the Palazzo Grassi and the Palazzo Querini-Stampaglia, which have noted frescoes.)

The villas on the Brenta Riviera, the canal/river running from Venice to Padua (about thirty miles), are of particular interest. About seventy villas were built along the Brenta, beginning in the fifteenth century. The Venetian nobility spent the villeggiatura, or vacation season, here (and many owners still follow suit). Architectural styles range from the austerity of the sixteenth century to the more fanciful Baroque of the seventeenth and the restrained classicism of the eighteenth. The commedia dell’arte is significant in this chapter, since some villas have garden statuary based on the stock characters. In The Valley of Decision Wharton describes life in an imaginary villa on the Brenta and causes a travelling troupe of actors to give a performance of the commedia dell’arte, another instance of her enduring interest in this theatrical genre. The Brenta was well known to Dante, who mentions it in the “Inferno” and “Paradiso” sections of the Divine Comedy, and it was painted by Canaletto. Goethe travelled its length on a canopied barge in 1786 and described it in his Italian Journey; other famous visitors included Carlo Goldoni, Voltaire, Byron, and George Sand.

Among the villas and gardens described in this chapter are several that can be visited today, including Malcontenta, La Mira, and Stra, all on the Brenta, as well as the Villa Valmarana near Vicenza (with frescoes by Tiepolo). This chapter contains the only plan in the book, of the Botanic Garden at Padua, which is open to the public.

Our excerpt from Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas And Their Gardens, Villas of Venetia, begins after the jump.

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Italian Villas And Their Gardens – Edith Wharton – Villas Near Rome

Villa Lante

Wiki user Brookie’s collection


In the course of my garden reading I have often come across mention of Edith Wharton, though no excerpts, particularly with regard to Italian gardens and specifically to her book Italian Villas and Their Gardens but, so far, have had no luck in locating a copy. The closest that I have come is in acquiring a copy of Edith Wharton Abroad, edited by Sarah Bird Wright, which contains excerpts from her travel writing from between the years 1888 – 1920. This contains two chapters from Italian Villas and Their Gardens (Villas Near Rome & Villas of Venetia) which has whetted my appetite to acquire the book and read the rest.

Bird Wright’s other selections in her anthology include The Cruise of the Vanadis (1888 [1992]), a luxury Mediterranean cruise aboard a chartered yacht with her then husband and a circle of friends; Italian Backgrounds (1905), which shows the country on a broader scale; A Motor-Flight Through France (1905), which paints a portrait of France in the first decade of the twentieth century; Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort (1915), which gives a fascinating insight into the horrors of the first war where Wharton, in the line of her humanitarian relief efforts, traveled to within a few hundred yards of the front lines; French Ways and Their Meanings (1919) in which she delves into the very psyche of her adopted country; and In Morocco (1920) where she describes that country in its still feudal state and lifts the veil, as it were, on the lot of Moroccan women, having had the rare opportunity to visit a number of harems, and on slavery at that late date.

Edith Wharton Abroad has an interesting introduction containing, as well, brief explanatory passages related to the excerpts in the book and I found that Bird Wright’s footnotes were most helpful (after all these years) in throwing light onto some of the more obscure names and incidents mentioned by Wharton – common knowledge then but often somewhat of a mystery today. They caused me to think that this is an excellent idea that should be pursued when older literature is reprinted or properly formatted into eBook form. I greatly enjoyed this read and, time and effort coming available, would like to return to Italian Villas and Their Gardens some day for further excerpts. If, in the meantime, you come across Edith Wharton Abroad you should snap it up.

I’ve excerpted the same two chapters from Italian Villas and Their Gardens as has Bird Wright and have used her chapter introductions here. My excerpts were downloaded from digital text of the book available from

Excerpted from Edith Wharton Abroad, Selected Travel Writings, 1888 – 1920

edited by Sarah Bird Wright, preface by Shari Benstock, St. Martin’s Press N.Y. 1995 (hardcover, 216 pp approx 6 X 81/2″)

Italian Villas and Their Gardens

Usually considered Wharton’s first published travel book, this work is marked by a high level of scholarship. The volume was actually commissioned to accompany the watercolors of Maxfield Parrish, and also includes drawings, from photographs, of some of the gardens and villas, as well as black and white sketches. Other artists who contributed were C. A. Vanderhoof, Malcolm Fraser, and Ella Denison. The book is primarily a learned survey of garden architecture and ornamentation rather than a study of the villas. We may imagine Wharton visiting the gardens in 1903 with a scholar’s eye, detecting, beneath the palimpsest of eighteenth-century horticulturists bent on transforming every garden into an English park, the original garden outlines and plantings. She sketches the history of the villas, most of which were built during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Her mission is to evoke, for the reader, the original tripartite relationship between villa, garden, and surrounding landscape. Wharton was disappointed that the publisher (the Century Company) refused to include detailed plans of each garden, a defect noted by early reviewers, which would have undoubtedly clarified much of the text. The book contains descriptions of more than seventy-five villas and their gardens; Wharton is careful to point out that villa, in Italian, connotes both house and pleasure-grounds rather than the house alone (IV 54). The volume has a bibliography of reference works in four languages, capsule biographies of fifty-five architects and landscape gardeners of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, and a detailed index. As was the case with most of Wharton’s travel books, serial publication preceded compilation of the book.

“Villas Near Rome”

In this chapter, Wharton describes many villas outside Rome, including the Villa Farnese at Caprarola, the Villa d Este at Tivoli and several at Frascati. Many were built by cardinals. Some date from the Renaissance; others were built in the sixteenth century, during the period of transition between the Renaissance and the Baroque. Wharton admires the classicism of the Renaissance villas, but, throughout the chapter, her interest in the Baroque is quite evident. The Villa Farnese at Caprarola, dating from the late sixteenth century, with its “huge sylvan figures half emerging from their stone sheaths,” seems “born, not built” a phrase used by the architectural historian Vasari. The best example of a theatre d’eau, or water theater, is at the Villa Conti (now Torlonia). She praises water theaters, not only in this chapter but throughout Italian Villas and Their Gardens, as the pinnacle of the garden architect’s art during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, combining natural topography and hydraulic engineering in a brilliant spectacle. She believes the water theater at the Villa Aldobrandini, however, though praised by critics, has too “heavy” a touch of the Baroque, with an “Atlas spouting” and a cascade of water from the hilltop. The Villa Lante offers a more pleasing example of “what the Germans call ‘water-art,'” with an inner fountain surrounded by an outer basin crossed by four small bridges. At the Villa Conti (now Torlonia) at Frascati, Wharton approves of the fountain, a “baroque pile of rockwork” with basins receiving both the recirculated fountain spray and cascading water from the hillside. Here the suggestion of tautness, of controlled energy, is a key element in Wharton’s admiration of the sculpture and architecture of the Baroque period. She also admires the “mossy urns,” mythical sea-gods, grottoes, and interplay of light, water, and shadow that characterize other villas of the period. Among those open to the public today are the Villa Farnese at Caprarola, the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, the Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati (park only), and the Villa Lante at Bagnaia.

Please continue, after the jump, reading an excerpt from Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas And Their Gardens.

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Edith Wharton – by Hermione Lee

We previously excerpted an introduction to Vernon Lee (as well as Vernon’s essay, Old Italian Gardens) from Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton and would like to do so again in order to serve as an introduction to two excerpts from Wharton’s book Italian Villas and Their Gardens, to follow. Published in 1904, the book deals primarily (and for gardeners, fortunately) with the gardens of these sumptuous estates rather than the villas.

Wharton was an amateur devotee of architecture and design but by wide reading and study (and extensive, and expensive, building and renovations of her own) and through her wide travels developed her store of knowledge to the point where she became an acknowledged expert in both. As was common in late Victorian society she received little schooling – girls were trained to become wives – but, through access to her father’s extensive library from an early age became literate enough to become one of the most successful novelists of her time. For myself, her non-fiction writing is a pleasure to read and her insights into gardening and into past times which interest me means that I will be looking for more of her material in the future. A copy of Italian Villas and Their Gardens has eluded me for years.

Hermione Lee’s biography of Wharton is excellent; at 853 pages it is a doorstop of a book but that allows for the inclusion of sufficient detail to become submerged in the mists of time and to gain an insight into the society of the era. She also devotes space to an analysis of Wharton’s fiction, it’s characters and their backgrounds, as the life unfolds that would be of interest to fans of Wharton’s fiction. She devotes a few delightful chapters to Wharton’s two houses in France, one outside Paris and a winter retreat near the Riviera that illustrate her love of gardening. I was surprised to learn of the assistance given to her by Major Lawrence Johnston (of Hidcote fame) in the design and construction of both of her French gardens.

Her account of Wharton’s wartime efforts and travels provide an enlightening background to Wharton’s own personal, and now historic, insights into the realities of WWI, now in the process of being slowly forgotten as they are covered over by the debris of subsequent history. I have also recently finished reading Lee’s (892 page paperback) biography of Virginia Woolf which contains an equal measure of insight. Both books are highly recommended.

In the biography, Lee mentions an account of Wharton’s garden at Castel Sainte-Claire at Hyères, near the French Riviera, by Alice Vaughan-Williams Martineau and I’ve tracked it down and posted the relevant excerpt here; the link below it will take you to an instance of it online. It doesn’t seem to be available as an eBook or available for download.

Gardening In Sunny Lands [excerpt]

Alice Vaughan-Williams Martineau

London, R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1924

A Few Riviera Gardens Described

The garden of Mrs. Wharton (the novelist) lies in the enceinte of the ruined castle above the town of Hyères. A steep road overhung by prickly pear and Judas trees leads to the house. A series of little gardens, sheltered and sunlit, are tucked away on terraces under the old walls and towers of grey stone. In some of these gardens are freesias and narcissus, in others roses; on one terrace are mandarins, and in a shady corner grow camellias, azaleas, and arums. The glare of the stone walls is tempered by groups of giant carob trees, which give dense shade, and a very old Judas tree overhangs the courtyard with a great flush of rosy red.

Before the house is a wide stone terrace with just a couple of spreading plane trees for shade, and looking down upon the old town of Hyères, the plain and the sea beyond. At one end is to be found a beautiful example of Cocculus laurifolius, a tall tree-like shrub, with long, shining evergreen leaves of beautiful texture and colour. This interesting shrub deserves to be more largely grown.

In one corner of the rock garden the charming Diosma cordata purpurea is to be found, its little round bushes covered with fragrant mauve flowers, while the ground is carpeted with Cheiranthus linifolius, another good mauve plant of wallflower type, though dwarf and almost creeping. Beyond a tall rock one comes on a bold massing of blue Echium fastuosum, with copper-coloured cupheas near by; while on the other and steeper side of the path grow the white and blue biennial Echium Descainii, and behind it, among the rocks, many brilliant scarlet aloes, from the dwarf A. Hanburyana and A. spinosissima to the great branching A. Salm-Dyckiana, and A. arborescens climbing from rock to shrub. In still another corner a sheltered sunny place is given up to a collection of rare plants from Morocco and the Canary Islands; beyond, among the rocks and grey agaves, drifts of the orange and red antholyza, like some giant montbretia, melt away into bushes of lentisk (the wild mastic) covered with its velvety red flowers. The vivid orange Mesembryanthemum aureum carpets the ground under groups of lilac Statice canariensis.

Libonia penzhorisus, with yellow and red flowers, Correa bicolor (also red and yellow), and C. cardinalis (red) are grouped with some of the red-flowered grevilleas, and in another part of the grounds Grevillea Pressei (red with a touch of salmon) is combined with G. rosmarinifolius (crimson) and G. alba.

On the entrance side of the house the great Judas tree in the centre of the courtyard is flanked by a wide border of veronicas, shading from deep purple to pale pink, and facing them, on the farther side of the court, is a bold group of blue echiums, the side of the house being draped with purple hardenbergia, and a brilliant note of orange and silver being given by a handsome specimen of Buddleya madagascariensis growing on a wall beyond. Above the buddleya are seen bushes of Viburnum suspensum, whose creamy fragrant flower-clusters are in great beauty through February and March; and higher still are terraces of freesias and roses, broad walks of white iris, and a level stretch of greensward overhanging the view of sea and plain.

View online

Here then is an excerpt from Hermione Lee’s biography that will set the stage for our two following posts, excerpts from Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens.

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Links – Colour Plays Musical Chairs – Goethe’s Colour Wheel – The Crayola-fication of Colour

Color Plays Musical Chairs In the Brain


We have touched upon, in the past, a few colour wheels (here & here ) and contemplated some of the imponderables of colour in artistic design (here); above is a link to an article (on an interesting site) entitled Color Plays Musical Chairs In the Brain that discusses how what the eye sees, the reality, is different from what the brain ‘sees’, the perception. It is easy for an artist or a magician to fool the eye and the key to this is the complementary, if not lazy, collaboration of these two organs.

The Big Think article makes the point that “it was Goethe who first understood that color is more than just a physical problem” at a time when, I suspect, artists and scientists were cut from the same cloth – much to the benefit of the garment.

Below is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article linked to from the Big Think article (as is the image of Goethe’s colour wheel) dealing with Goethe’s book on the subject. The book can be downloaded from Archive.Org.

Theory of Colours (1840), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)


Goethe’s Colour Wheel

When the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour, comprehends the whole chromatic scale.

— Goethe, Theory of Colours

Goethe anticipated Ewald Hering’s Opponent process theory by proposing a symmetric colour wheel. He writes, “The chromatic circle… [is] arranged in a general way according to the natural order… for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange, blue; red, green; and vice versa: thus… all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa. (Goethe, Theory of Colours).

Goethe expressed his understanding of the light and dark spectra in including magenta in his colour wheel. Whereas for Newton magenta was an ‘extraspectral’ colour, for Goethe magenta was a natural result of violet and red being mixed in a dark spectrum (see top of colour wheel), just as green resulted from the mixing of blue and yellow in the light spectrum (bottom of colour wheel).

“For Newton, only spectral colors could count as fundamental. By contrast, Goethe’s more empirical approach led him to recognize the essential role of (nonspectral) magenta in a complete color circle, a role that it still has in all modern color systems.”

Goethe also investigated the effects of colour on the physiology of individuals in an art of colour psychology. Because of this, he included aesthetic qualities in his colour wheel — associating Red with the beautiful, orange with the noble, yellow to the good, green to the useful, blue to the mean, and violet to the unnecessary.

The Crayola-Fication Of The World: How We Gave Colors Names, And It Messed With Our Brains


While we’re on the subject of colour, here’s a two part article from the website Empirical Zeal (which I haven’t had time to read yet) that, at first blush, seems to add a cultural dimension to the phenomenon of colour and its perception. It has morphed into a 27 page Word doc that I will get to in good time.

We know that colour is perceived differently by different creatures, and much has been written about their psychological implications in humans (and, no doubt, animals); some people report perceiving sounds as colour. One wonders how many other surprising notions there are out there regarding colour. I suspect there are many more.

Old Italian Gardens – Vernon Lee

I’ve been reading a fine biography of Edith Wharton written by Hermione Lee (and hope to have a few excerpts of Wharton’s thoughts upon old Italian gardens ready for posting  soon) when I came upon this frank account of Vernon Lee in Hermione Lee’s book which will serve nicely as an introduction to Vernon’s place in the literature of the time. (A bit more information is available on Vernon Lee at Wikipedia).

Following that is a chapter, Old Italian Gardens, from Limbo And Other Essays by Vernon Lee that will, no doubt, add to our appreciation for Italian gardens. It can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg in a variety of eBook formats.

John Singer Sargent, Vernon Lee 1881

Excerpted from Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee

Wharton met through Bourget the third of her Italian mentors, the only one of the three to have gone enviably native. ‘Vernon Lee’, the extraordinary Englishwoman Violet Paget, was only six years older than Edith, and provided her first close encounter with a professional woman writer. Wharton made few friendships with other women writers, and Vernon Lee, brilliant, loquacious, difficult, eccentric and mannish (she wore ‘the style preferred by intellectual lesbians – a man’s shirt, foulard and velvet jacket over a long skirt’), was not to be a lifelong friend. But, just when Wharton needed it, she was a perfect guide to Italy and an inspiring intellectual example.

Wharton often told Vernon Lee what an important guide she was to her, that when she was twenty ‘your Eighteenth century studies were letting me into that wonder world of Italy which I had loved since my childhood without having the key to it’. Vernon Lee’s Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880) gave vivid evocations of the hitherto neglected musical, literary and theatrical life of the period. In Vernon Lee’s ‘aesthetic essays’ Belcaro (1880), which Wharton called one of her ‘best-loved companions of the road’ in Italy, she would have recognised glimpses of a childhood in Rome very much like her own. ‘The Child in the Vatican’ remembers – as Wharton did – playing in the ruins, picking up pieces of ancient porphyry, watching the religious processions, and imbibing – in the classical term Lee made her own – the ‘genius loci’, the spirit of the place. Like Wharton, Vernon Lee had an itinerant European childhood. Hers was with a domineering mother, an absentee father, and a permanently ill, demanding and gifted half-brother, Eugene Lee-Hamilton, whom one Wharton biographer calls ‘a neurasthenic paralytic’. Edith was as much intrigued by the frail, poetic Lee-Hamilton as by his sister. He visited her at The Mount in 1896 and she was delighted when he compared The Valley of Decision to Stendhal. When he died, she wrote an effusive tribute to him, comparing his poems to Leopardi’s. The family settled in Florence in the 1880s, where they met the Bourgets, and then moved outside the city in 1889 to the Villa Il Palmerino, where Vernon Lee lived for most of her life. The simple, rambling house stood on the road winding up from Florence, overshadowed by a tall umbrella pine, backing onto fields, vineyards and woods, and surrounded by olives and cypresses.

Violet Paget was much quicker and more assertive than Edith Wharton in her jump into literary fame. She took the name Vernon Lee in her teens, as she was sure that ‘no one reads a woman’s writing on art, history or aesthetics with anything but unmitigated contempt’. The Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy was her first book, published when she was twenty-four. It made her into a young literary success in late-Victorian England, where she got to know Henry James, Maurice Baring, Ethel Smyth, Mrs Humphry Ward, William Morris and Leslie Stephen. She followed her early success with a Germanic, quasi-incestuous romance, Ottilie, clearly based on her relationship with Eugene, and a decadent novel, Miss Brown (1885), deeply embarrassing to Henry James, to whom it was dedicated, for what he called its ‘intellectual rowdyism’. Then there was a succession of essays on places, art and aesthetics, and of plays and romances set in Italy.

She quarrelled with everybody (notably, in 1897, with her neighbour Berenson, who accused her of plagiarism; they did not make up until 1920, by which time Wharton was firmly in the Berenson camp). In the years when Wharton came to know her, between 1894 and 1906, there were tumultuous fallings-out not only with her fellow Anglo-American Florentines, but with Eugene (who made a miraculous recovery in 1896, and even got married, much to his half-sister’s horror) and with her companion Kit Anstruther-Thomson, who, like others of Vernon Lee’s women friends, gave her up in despair to go and look after some other woman’s needs. Everyone, even people who liked her, made rude jokes about her. Max Beerbohm, who caricatured her, called her a ‘dreadful little bore and busybody’. Nicky Mariano, Berenson’s companion, used to see her in the 1920S on the tram from Settignano to Florence, mannishly dressed, and marvelled at her face of ‘almost baroque ugliness and high intelligence’. Wharton was so amused by Henry James’s spoken description of Vernon Lee that she noted it down:

The long lean face of a starved horse, large and intelligent eyes not wholly devoid of obliquity, a flabby pendulous nose covered with cutaneous scabs, an underhung jaw revealing a dental display of a really deplorable character, and on her head, my dear boy, from nine to thirteen hairs.

But everyone who met her said how wonderful it was to be shown Italy by Vernon Lee, and that passionate inwardness with the country is found in her books. She loved to lure the reader into a historical moment through evocations and personalities, and then let the figures of the past linger like ghosts. In her essay on ‘Old Italian Gardens’ of 1897, in the middle of a hard-headed account of the phases of fashion in Italian garden-design, she breaks into a fantasy about how these gardens are haunted by ‘the ladies and cavaliers of long ago’ and by ‘the ghost of certain moments of their existence, certain rustlings, and shimmerings of their personality … which have permeated their old haunts’, and invokes Verlaine’s poem ‘Clair de Lune’ (a favourite of Wharton’s, too), as set to music by Faure, to sum up the haunted magic of the gardens: ‘Votre ame est un paysage choisi / Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques / ]ouant du luth … Et leur chanson se mele au clair de lune .. .’

Wharton occasionally allows herself such flights of fancy in Italian Villas and their Gardens, which she dedicated to Vernon Lee (‘Who, better than anyone else, has understood and interpreted the garden-magic of Italy’), as when the ‘mysterious silence’ and neglect of the gardens of the Florentine Villa Campi makes her think of ‘a haunted grove in which the statues seem like sylvan gods fallen asleep in their native shade’. In Italian Backgrounds, Wharton also quotes ‘Clair de Lune’, and says that, under the spell of the poem’s ‘masques et bergamasques’, she was so allured by the idea of the ‘Bergamasque Alps’ that in 1899 she dragged her travelling companions for miles in pursuit of them, though in the end ‘the most imperturbable member of the party’ (Teddy, as he was then) noted that, interesting though their journey had been, they had never actually reached them.

Vernon Lee gave Wharton a model for a way of invoking the past, an authoritative woman’s voice confidently taking on the male terrain of travel and aesthetics, and a deep knowledge of and passion for Italy, especially its eighteenth-century history. When Vernon Lee reviewed The Valley of Decision in 1903, in Italian, greeting it with generous enthusiasm as ‘a wonderful account of historical truth’, she would have seen her own influence at work in the novel. (This essay was to be an introduction for an Italian translation of the novel which never materialised.) She was equally influential, ten years later, on the young writer Geoffrey Scott, a protégé of the Berensons, who would become a close friend of Wharton’s, and whose book The Architecture of Humanism (1914) helped to revive a taste for the Italian baroque. It was written with Vernon Lee in mind, and with much advice and encouragement from Wharton, by then an acknowledged Italian expert: ‘Her opinion is the most useful I can get’, Scott said.

Wharton had to outgrow Vernon Lee, as she did her other ‘introducers’. She made a point of telling her editor at Scribner’s Magazine that her discovery about the terracotta figures at San Vivaldo was news even to ‘Miss Paget, who has lived so long in Italy and devoted so much time to the study of Tuscan art’. When Vernon Lee’s unperformed ‘romance in five acts’, Ariadne in Mantua, came out in 1903, Wharton told her it was ‘exquisite’ but lacking in ‘movement and clash of emotions’. In later years, when in bossy letters Vernon Lee would tell her that she should write about Proust with less ‘piety’, or that Hudson River Bracketed contained too much ‘cult chat’, Wharton received these criticisms ironically: ‘for a damsel of over seventy (a good deal) this is symptomatic, isn’t it?’ By then Vernon Lee was a sad figure, suffering from failing health and deafness, and the two women were not close. But Wharton still wrote to her kindly, sympathising with her affliction and assuring her of her achievements:

I was very much grieved by what you told me of the increase in your deafness. I cannot tell you how I feel for you in this great privation, and how distressed I am when I am with you that my voice should be so powerless to reach you. I am particularly unfortunate in this respect for my voice has no carrying power, and I feel I can be of so little use or companionship to my friends who cannot hear. And yet we did manage to have a talk that last day at 11 Palmerino, and it seemed to me that we were as much together as we used to be in the old days when the physical barrier did not exist.

If you don’t know the great figure you’ve been, in letters & friendship, to me & many others I cd name it’s time you learnt it, & I’m proud to be your informant! So there –

Read on for Vernon Lee’s incantation for Italian gardens.

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Vincent Van Gogh, the Letters Online

Van Gogh: Willows at Sunset

Painting, Oil on Cardboard

Arles: Autumn, 1888

When I was researching our previous posts on Vincent Van Gogh’s letters I came across an impressive site,  Vincent Van Gogh, the Letters ( that contains the surviving correspondence from throughout his life. The site, and its content, has been prepared by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The level of detail is phenomenal and, being completed in 2009, it is to be presumed that the translations are of the highest quality.

Main Page (

On the home page of the site you can navigate and access Van Gogh’s letters by a number of categories. At the top left, clicking ‘The Letters’ will lead to a chronological listing of all the letters. To the right of that, you can access letters by period, correspondent, by place, and with sketches. Below, for example is a portion of the page that is reached by clicking ‘The Letters’.

Clicking on a particular letter will bring up the true genius of the site – the main screen is divided into two vertical panes, independent of each other, and containing the same six tabs at the top of each:

1. Original text – the original digital text in Dutch

2. + line endings – the original digital text in Dutch with original line endings (numbered)

3. Facsimile – a scan of the original letter – clicking on it will bring up a zoom-able enlargement

4. translation – a digital English translation of the letter – clicking on links within the letters will open a new ‘letters’ page for a name as well as other resources related to the link you have clicked

5. notes – extensive notes as indicated, and numbered, in the text of the letter (you can also bring up the notes in the white space between the two panes by clicking on the numbered notes in the digital text)

6. artwork – thumbnails of any artworks mentioned in the text of the letter that you are reading. Clicking on a thumbnail will bring up a new window with an enlarged JPG copy (roughly 500px x 600px depending on original).

Below is a screenshot of a letter page with the left pane tab set for ‘translation’ and the right pane tab set for ‘artworks’ – between the two panes can be seen one of the ‘notes’. Near the top is all info related to the letter and its chronological number. Towards the top right you can navigate forward and back of the current letter as well as search or print the current letter.

The site’s content is also available in book form – “6 hardback volumes, each 30 x 25 cm, slipcased, 2,164 pages, over 4,300 illustrations” – at £450.00 (+/- $720.00 US) it could not be seen as a bargain but would still be coveted.

The only suggestion that I could make to broaden the sites utility (and Van Gogh’s appeal) would be for the museum to put together an e-book of the letters so that they could be read on today’s e-readers (and my netbook) – EPUB format would be best for this as it is open source – and for any, and all, links within that are clicked to open a browser on the museum’s site to deliver the additional content.

This would not harm sales of the printed edition, and might even increase interest in it, and it would certainly serve society well by making Van Gogh’s writing, and his life story, more accessible to the masses. We don’t often think of Van Gogh as being a great writer – it was a surprise to me to find that he was – and his lessons in art and colour would be invaluable to artists today. Some of his philosophical musings are as beautiful as his art and an e-book (either cheap or free) would be a wonderful tribute to a great man who never had very much money that would help to ensure that he is not forgotten for another 100 years.

Dear Theo, The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh – Arles, France

Sunset: Wheat Fields Near Arles

Painting, Oil on Canvas

Arles: June, 1888

Our previous post contained an excerpt from Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Neunen where he had returned to his parent’s house to continue his drawing and painting. We follow now with a later excerpt where he has moved to Arles, in the south of France and rented a small house that he has turned into a studio. He is awaiting a visit from Paul Gauguin, who Vincent obviously considered a superior painter and from whom he hoped to learn much.

Our excerpt illustrates Vincent’s observant eye for colour and detail in nature, and in human nature, such as you might expect from an artist – very similar to the qualities of insight found in a writer who must reconstruct the world and its inhabitants from these insights in order to present them to an audience. His descriptions of the countryside can bring the scene to life for us as much by his words as by his impressions on canvas.

The excerpt ends, rather abruptly, with the incident where Vincent cuts off a piece of his ear and presents it to a prostitute in a local brothel, something that seemed to me to be very out of character for him from my impressions of him gathered throughout the rest of the book. There has also, lately, been some speculation that Vincent might have been murdered rather than having committed suicide – something we will likely never know – for us, now, all we can know for sure is that the world lost a monumentally talented artist and that we have been deprived of the artworks that would have issued from his brush. We can also lament that he never achieved a final success, or happiness, two things that eluded him throughout life.

Read on then for a glimpse of Vincent’s life in the south of France where he painted the canvases that have come to be regarded as his finest and as a testament to his long suffering artistic pursuit.

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