Letters from Far and Near

It is my considered opinion that nature intended man to hibernate throughout the months of January and February, only awakening around the ides of March, when spring sunshine sets the raindrops sparkling and everything is young and fresh and green (did you know that in the oldest Roman calendar, the new year only began in March? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the Romans had everything right). To be forced to rise in the dark and toil one’s way to work in the bitter cold of a winter morning is one of life’s many injustices. It seems perfectly obvious to me that we ought instead to be snuggling down beneath the covers for as long as possible, and then spending the short hours of daylight and the long lamplit evenings curled up on the sofa drinking tea, enjoying the last of the season’s mince pies, and either reading or watching movies.

That being impossible (or at any rate, incompatible with the tiresome business of earning a salary), one must seek consolation elsewhere.

But what, you may well ask, is there to do at this time of year? The Christmas festivities are far behind us, and Easter still too far ahead. February stretches before us, dull and dreary. Interminable, despite its mere 28 days. To be sure, there is Valentine’s Day, with all its attendant panoply of hearts and roses, chocolates and kitsch cards, expensive restaurants and even more expensive lingerie purchases. Fine. That still only takes care of one out of the twenty-eight days.

Do not despair! For those who are so inclined, there is a remedy. For today marks the beginning of International Correspondence Writing Month (also known – quelle horreur! – as InCoWriMo).

And what, pray, is that? That, good people, is a noble endeavour, in these dark and degenerate times, where the email reigns supreme, to revive the all but lost art of letter-writing. It is a challenge. It is the missing ingredient that will add zest to your daily lives. It is the star to every wandering bark. It is, in short, a pledge to write a letter everyday throughout the month of February. To make it more interesting, you even receive letters in return! A full and detailed explanation is available on the InCoWriMo website, which is worth a visit if only for the whimsical picture of an oversized snail, laden with brown-paper packages and old-fashioned mail bags, which heads the home page.

Basic InCoWriMo Toolbox:

  • a notepad
  • envelopes
  • a pen
  • 28 stamps

What could be simpler? For those who want to liven it up a bit, now is the time to use all those pretty notecards, stickers, collectible stamps, and coloured inks you’ve been hoarding for so long! And for those who would like to add some more stationery to their desk drawers, here are a few websites for inspiration…

Ink Drops: Carla and Annastasia send you a hand-written note with any purchase you make on their website. My brother got me their Keep in Touch box for my birthday, and it was full of pretty surprises!

Cressida Bell: Cressida is the grand-daughter of Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, and an artist in her own right. Her selection of cards is truly beautiful!

Rifle Paper Co.: This famous American stationery company has so many wonderful things for sale that the mind simply boggles. I think I can safely say I want every single item on the website.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a letter to finish.

"Vélin de France" paper by G. Lalo, Paris; goose quill with steel nib; "Rouille d'ancre" ink by J. Herbin.

“Vélin de France” paper by G. Lalo, Paris; goose quill with steel nib; “Rouille d’ancre” ink by J. Herbin.

© Florence Berlioz 2015.

Posted in Events, Quills | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Literary Notecards

It has been many moons since I last posted anything here. It’s not so much that I don’t want to, as that I don’t seem able to, somehow. Which doesn’t mean that I haven’t been reading. I have a pile of books to review! But whenever I consider sitting down to work on one, I feel a treacherous apathy creep over me, which has been affecting all my writing. I have gradually taken up composing letters and journal entries again, and I have managed to write a few more pages of my novel, but I haven’t got around to blog posts yet.

The workshop in session...

The workshop in session…

In the meantime, I have been dabbling in arts and crafts. Back in June, I bought some lovely new stationery, including a set of mint green-coloured blank notecards and matching envelopes. I had a lot of fun customising these with stickers, rubber stamps, decorative hole-punchers, and a selection of bookish quotes, ranging from Shakespeare to Walt Whitman, to Elizabeth von Arnim.

The Japanese rice paper in all its glory.

The Japanese rice paper in all its glory.

In fact, I enjoyed myself so much that I have decided to renew the experience every season. This September I chose lavender-blue notecards with magenta envelopes. The quotes I finally settled upon this time were by Sylvia Plath, Daphne du Maurier, or Maurice Sendak. A timely birthday present from my sister-in-law allowed me to play around with Japanese rice paper in pretty patterns.

The best part – but also the greatest challenge – is finding suitable quotes. I’m a bit tired of coming across yet another “It is a truth universally acknowledged” card in the bookshops; however much I love Pride and Prejudice, it strikes me that the immense choice of literary works out there should allow for a little variety.

Fun with frogs.

Fun with frogs.

So here’s a little game I’d like to play with you, if you’re willing: post your favourite quote in the comment box below and, when I do my next batch of cards in December/January, I’ll use a few and post pictures of the results on this blog.

Oh, and there’s a also a quick survey I concocted, just for fun!

“And now”, cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

© Florence Berlioz 2014

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Of Shoes, and Ships, and Sealing Wax, Of Cabbages, and Kings

I am supposed to be saving up for my trip to Italy this July. Ha ha, isn’t that a joke!

There I was yesterday, minding my own business, reading Lytton Strachey’s Biographical Essays and finishing up my lunch, when I was assailed by an ungovernable urge to splash out on luxury stationery (see, that’s what comes of writing letters early in the day). Conscience tussled briefly with desire, and lost: for “The only way to get rid of temptation”, wrote Oscar Wilde, “is to yield to it.” Well, if Oscar said it, then it must be true, so off I trotted to Paris, where I just happened to know of a wonderful stationer’s shop – a veritable Aladdin’s cave! – in the sixth arrondissement.

Get off the metro at “Odéon” and you find yourself plunged in Revolutionary Paris. The huge bronze statue of Danton, which was erected on the site of the house where the lawyer and Revolutionary politician used to live, is a popular meeting place for students, who mill about and perch on the plinth, smoking and talking loudly. Just down the road is one of the oldest café-restaurants in Paris, the Procope, where Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists used to argue over coffee, and later on, Danton, Marat, and Robespierre. And across the street yawns a tall archway, leading down one of the few remaining pre-Haussmann – pre-Revolutionary! – covered passages in Paris: the Cour du Commerce St André.

Narrow, cobblestoned, and cambered, this passage is one of the most difficult Parisian streets to negotiate in heels. Actually, it’s difficult to walk down, period. But it is so picturesque that it is well worth the risk of spraining an ankle. If you walk past the cafés, the chocolate factories, and the back entrance of the Procope (where Robespierre curls his lip at you from his portrait in the window), you reach a pair of black wrought-iron grilles, which used to close off the street at night from nocturnal wanderers of ill-repute or ill-intent (a necessary precaution, when you think of what happened to Marat). Just beyond those gates is the façade of Grim’Art, an old-fashioned stationer’s shop held by a quiet Italian gentleman and (I presume) his wife.

façade Grim'Art

vitrine Grim'ArtI make it a rule not to come too often to this part of Paris. The temptation to step into Grim’Art is simply too great, else. It’s not as if my banker liked me (I have this slight problem with buying books). There’s no need to give him excuses to call me up and yell at me.

The smell of leather is the first thing you notice when you push open the door and step inside. At the far end of the shop, the floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with tooled Florentine leather-bound journals of all shapes and sizes. All around the other walls, notebooks, letter paper sets, vintage postcards, luxury wrapping paper, and ornate brass bookmarks are attractively displayed. Near the till lies the greatest danger: a selection of goose quills, coloured inks, and sticks of sealing wax that has had me reaching for my purse many a time before! And Jean Herbin is the biggest culprit…

encres et stylosJean Herbin was an enterprising seventeenth-century sailor who, in 1670, founded a company that manufactured ink and sealing wax, thanks to formulas he brought back from his trips to India. Such was Herbin’s success that he counted the Sun King himself among his customers. Later on, the company was able to add Victor Hugo and Coco Chanel to its list of illustrious clients. As for me, I bought cartridges for my fountain pen in three different colours (“Poussière de Lune”, “Lierre Sauvage”, and “Larmes de Cassis” – “Moondust”, “Wild Ivy”, and “Blackcurrant Tears” respectively) as well as a bottle of “Rouille d’Ancre” (meaning “Anchor Rust”), which, I confess, I chose as much for the name as for the colour. The Victorian naturalist within me also fell prey to a couple of pretty lepidoptera-themed postcards.encre et papiers

It could all have ended there. But it was such a beautiful afternoon that I decided to walk down the Boulevard St Germain – and that’s where I came across a large art supplies store that sealed my fate. A bottle of ink, I reasoned, necessitated a pen of some sort, or it was useless. But all my quills and wooden pen-holders were seven hundred kilometres away, in the attic of my parents’ house. Therefore (kindly admire my infallible logic) I was perfectly justified in buying new ones. Half an hour later, I emerged with a scarlet pen-holder, a glass vial containing two new steel nibs, a bottle of turquoise ink, a mint green card and envelope set, and – for a touch of whimsy – a small green frog-shaped paper puncher. Ahem.

encre Sennelier

Well, there was no need to hang around for cabbages and shoes. I went home, took Doggy for a walk before dinner, and smiled a smile of pure contentment when I heard the fluting of the frogs from a nearby pond.

© Florence Berlioz 2014

Posted in Fabulous Bookshops, Quills | Tagged , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

The Nightwood, by Robin Muller (1991)

The Nightwood cover by Robin Muller     Oh dear, oh dear. It’s been ages since I posted a book review. Somehow January and February slipped by without my noticing, and March seems set on following their lead. Oops. And yet it seems like only yesterday that the whole family was gathering for the Christmas festivities: brothers and sister, future in-laws, and my little nephew, who is now – amazingly – a year old.

Up till now, my nephew has treated the board books I have given him merely as colourful chew toys, but watching him during the holidays, I realized with anticipatory pleasure that he will soon be old enough for storybooks. The thought sent me to the two huge bookcases of children’s books in the dining-room, which date back to the now distant time when we would all gather on my parents’ bed after dinner, for story hour. Browsing among the wonderful titles and beautifully-illustrated dust-jackets that lined the shelves, I came across The Nightwood by Robin Muller, which was a favourite of mine for many years. I couldn’t resist: I pulled it off the shelf and, later that night, when I was cosily ensconced in bed near the fire in the TV room, with a dog curled up at my head and another at my feet, I settled down contentedly to re-discover this old favourite.

Based on the Celtic legend of Tamlynne, The Nightwood tells the story of Elaine, the spirited only daughter of the Earl of March. Elaine has all but outgrown nursery stories and is growing increasingly restless at having to sit demurely indoors at her embroidery, day after day. Yet her father continues to treat her as a child. When he refuses to let her attend the up-coming ball he is organising, Elaine furiously decides to run away.

Elaine knows there is dancing at the Elfin Queen’s court. The elves have taken over the wood at the edge of the Earl’s lands and many dark tales are told of youths and girls disappearing amid the trees and never being seen or heard of again. But of course, the possibility of danger only increases the allure of the escapade… It doesn’t take long for Elaine to run headlong into adventure. In the wood, she comes across a solitary rose bush and, just as she is stretching out her hand to pluck one of the roses, there is a tinkling of bells and a young man appears before her, with a string of tiny elfin bells about his waist. He is Tamlynne, favourite knight of the Elfin queen and guardian of the rose bush, whose blossoms have magical properties.

Tamlynne whisks Elaine away to the very heart of the wood, where, in a clearing among the trees, a phantom orchestra plays unearthly music and couples dance by the light of the moon. Together they dance until the first light of dawn disperses the shadows and sends Elaine running back to her father’s castle. Night after night from that time forth, Elaine slips out to join Tamlynne in the woods. At length, however, the Earl catches on to what is happening and locks his daughter up. Elaine knows she must somehow escape and find her way back to Tamlynne before it is too late: for Tamlynne is a mortal, one of those lured away from their homes and their families by the power of the elves, and on All Hallows Eve, his soul will become forfeit to the Elfin Queen. Only mortal love can save him. Elaine must come face to face with the Elfin Queen herself and fight for Tamlynne before he is lost to her forever.

Elaine’s rebelliousness and courage make her an endearing heroine, and I, for one, have always found her fascination with the Nightwood and the elves (hauntingly depicted by Robin Muller) very easy to relate to. Situated beyond the gardens and farmlands of the Earl’s estate, and therefore also beyond the borders of his jurisdiction, the wood is a wild place, both undomesticated and unknown, full of unplumbed secrets most attractive to the adventurous mind. It is uncharted territory and, as such, it represents freedom. But as Elaine quickly discovers, it is also a place of potential danger. The elves lurking within the dark recesses of the wood embody this duality – in a way they are the Celtic equivalent of the role played by Pan in Greek mythology.

The Elfin Queen’s rose encapsulates the dual nature of the wood: its magical properties are called upon to protect Elaine from the power of the elves, guaranteeing her safe passage through the woods; yet at the same time, an adult reader is very much aware of the connotations attached to the rose – or, more specifically, to the plucked rose. It is not insignificant that Elaine’s arrival in the wood should coincide with the plucking of a rose, nor that it should be a man who does the plucking. The rose Tamlynne picks and gives to Elaine can thus be seen as a symbol of lost innocence, not to say lost virginity. In fact, in most versions of the Tamlynne story, the heroine comes home pregnant from her nocturnal wanderings. In this light, her father’s decision to lock her up can be interpreted as shame at her pregnancy, just as the urgency with which she seeks out Tamlynne again can be seen as stemming from a desperate need to legitimise their union. Whether Elaine’s fierce struggle to win Tamlynne’s hand is motivated by love or necessity, however, her journey into, and out of, the wood takes on all the importance of an essential rite of passage.

Nowadays, the character that interests me most is the eponymous hero of the legend, Tamlynne. Tamlynne is a shadowy, mysterious figure – ergo, highly romantic. All that we know about him is that he is one of those who succumbed to the treacherous allure of the elves, and that he has been bound to their queen for seven years. But what exactly does it mean, to be the favourite knight of the Elfin Queen? The term implies that the relationship is of a sexual nature. This makes Tamlynne one of a literary brotherhood of knights-errant – both wandering and erring – who, in entering the forest, have strayed off the beaten track and, discarding the codes of acceptable behaviour and forsaking the duties attendant upon their rank, have allowed themselves to be seduced by a sorceress/femme fatale. Keats’ “palely loitering” knight-at-arms, pining for La Belle Dame Sans Merci; Tannhaüser and Venus (and yes, this is probably the only time you shall ever hear me mention Wagner, so make the most of it!); Prince Rilian and the Lady of the Green Kirtle – like Tamlynne and the Elfin Queen, all of these couples speak of the power of sensual pleasure.

It needed all the strength of Elaine’s love, and her extraordinary will-power, to bring Tamlynne back to the consciousness of the life he had left behind, and to make of him a husband, a father, and a lord. There are times, however, when I cannot help regretting – just a little bit! – that she could not leave him be. There is a sweetness to freedom of which I have not yet grown tired and, given a choice, I do not think I would have forsaken the elves.

© Florence Berlioz 2014

Posted in Book Reviews, Children's Literature, Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Typewriter Fever

Saturday 1st March. Eleven thirty on a bright, chilly morning, in one of the seedier suburbs of Paris. Peeling billboards, a graffitied bus shelter, and massive façades of dismal grey concrete. A car parked on the curb, the open trunk containing a treasure unsuspected by passersby. A parting handshake, and I walk away feeling slightly stunned. I have just made the best deal of my life.

It had all begun a few days previously, at 2:00 a.m. on a February night of wind and rain-spattered window panes. Yet again, I had been trawling the internet in search of the perfect, affordable, vintage typewriter. I had seen dozens of Olivettis (all ugly); scores of 1970s Olympias (simply unmentionable); a blue and grey Japy Script from the 1960s with a matching case lined in snazzy red artificial silk; a delightful green Erika, also from the 1960s, which I was half-tempted to buy; and countless other models in various states of disrepair. But what I really lusted after, what I had lusted after for nigh on fifteen years, were the American Streamliners of the 1930s, preferably by Remington or Smith-Corona. And of those, there were none.

That’s when I stumbled upon an ad that changed everything. All it said was “Old Typewriter for Sale” but something about the poor quality picture caught my attention. I peered at it more closely and all of a sudden, my heart gave a lurch of excitement. Could it be??? Again I squinted at it, my nose almost touching the computer screen. There was no doubt about it: I was looking at a 1940 Remington Rand Deluxe Model 5. Some chap all the way across Paris was clearing out his basement and was selling it for a song.

Remington Deluxe Model 5There followed two days of agony as I waited for an answer to the email I had sent off post haste, half-convinced that it wasn’t even worth trying, that the Remington – MY Remington! – had already been snapped up by someone else, that such wondrous strokes of luck never happened to people like me. When at last I received an answer and learnt that the typewriter was still available, I was jubilant! I counted the days till I could go and pick it up, and when, finally, it stood upon my desk in all its splendour (smelling strongly of mildew, I might add!), I couldn’t stop gloating.

typewriterI examined it anxiously for flaws but the man hadn’t lied: it was in perfect working condition. Only the key that activated the little bell, signalling the carriage had reached the end of a line, was jammed, but ten minutes of careful jiggling with a knife soon put it to rights. To my delight, though much-used and slightly torn in places, the ribbon even had enough ink still left in it to type several exploratory pages.feuille

Only rarely does one get the opportunity to act out a long-cherished fantasy. But every time I sit down at my beautiful typewriter, a deep contentment steals over me. Suddenly, I feel a strong sense of kinship with those who came before: every letter I type, every click of the keys brings me closer to Hemingway, opening his windows to the sea breezes of Key West and mixing himself another mojito before sitting down to work again; to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, swatting at mosquitos and tap-tap-tapping away in the hot, humid atmosphere of her home in Cross Creek; or to Helene Hanff, chain-smoking at her desk in her New York brownstone apartment and regaling friends across the Atlantic with her hilarious views on books and life…

Friends, beware: I sense a veritable avalanche of (typewritten) letters coming on!

© Florence Berlioz 2014

Posted in Quills | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

Christmas with Judi Dench

Cover photo by Sarah Dunn.

Cover photo by Sarah Dunn.

It was in the Slightly Foxed December newsletter that I first saw mention of this wonderful CD. “Given for Christmas” is a selection of Christmas-themed prose and poetry, read by a stellar cast of British actors and recorded at St Paul’s and Westminster Cathedrals. Dame Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Penelope Wilton, Sam West, and Eileen Atkins are just some of the well-known (and well-loved) actors who lent their voices to these readings.

To my utter dismay, however, the CD is sold out on the Cancer Research UK website. I hope there is another way of getting my hands on it because “I wants it, my precious!”

© Florence Berlioz 2013

Posted in Audiobooks, Fiction, Gifts, Poets' Corner | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Nicomedes, by Pierre Corneille (1658)

2nd century B.C. Rome’s enemies are falling one  by one. The great Hannibal is dead and there is no-one left to prevent Rome from stretching its greedy fingers out towards Asia Minor and the kingdom of Bithynia. King Prusias is weak-willed and aging, all the more unwilling to enter into conflict with Rome as his younger son was educated at the Republic’s expense. Rome’s crafty ambassador, Flaminius, enjoys an influential position at court, where he manages to have a say in all affairs of state.

The only fly in the ointment is the king’s elder son and heir to the throne, Prince Nicomedes. Fierce and proud, a seasoned warrior who has conquered three kingdoms in his royal father’s name, and a disciple of Hannibal’s to boot, Nicomedes resents Rome’s interference and does not hesitate to make his opinions known. Though he is beloved of the people, he has made many enemies at court, chief amongst whom is his stepmother, Queen Arsinoë, who would like nothing better than to clear the way to the throne for her own son, Prince Attalus.

Arsinoë is too clever to dispatch assassins who might later betray her. Instead, she sends two spies to infiltrate Nicomedes’ army and make him believe there is a plot to have him assassinated. Incensed, the prince returns hotfoot to the palace to confront his stepmother. But the king (who dotes on his wife and is secretly afraid of his son) is not disposed to listen to him. A few well-timed tears on Arsinoë’s part together with a plaintive speech on how all her efforts to conciliate Nicomedes are met with nothing but rebuffs and unkind accusations, and the prince is discredited. A cleverly orchestrated interview with Flaminius, during which Nicomedes loses his temper (a suggestion that Attalus marry Nicomedes’ fiancée in his stead certainly does nothing to placate the irate prince) and tells the Roman ambassador exactly where to get off, does the rest. Nicomedes is disinherited in favour of his half-brother, and to soothe Rome’s ruffled feelings, Prusias offers Nicomedes up as a prisoner, to be dealt with as the Republic sees fit.

Enter Nicomedes’ fiancée, Laodice. Laodice is a queen in her own right, which makes her another political pawn in the power struggle between Rome and Asia Minor. As a ward to King Prusias, she has been residing at his court, where she and Nicomedes have formed a strong and mutual attachment. Some critics have suggested that Laodice is merely a female version of Nicomedes, that she lacks complexity, and that, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, she does no more than echo his words and political ideas. Some would have liked to have seen more tension between them, especially when Attalus redoubles his efforts to woo her. On the contrary, with everything else Nicomedes has to contend with, the last thing he needs is to have to win back the wayward heart of his lady fair. Why add jealousy to the mess he is already in? Amid the treacherous sands of political intrigue, Laodice’s unwavering loyalty is the rock upon which Nicomedes can regain his footing. We see Laodice counselling him and supporting him. We see her continuing to defend him in his absence and resisting all Prusias and Flaminius’ efforts to bully her. And when the news comes of Nicomedes’ arrest, we see her taking immediate and forceful action: before Prusias knows what has hit him, the palace is besieged by an angry mob, clamouring for Nicomedes to be released and proclaimed king in his father’s place.

Nicomedes is a fascinating play. I would never have read it had it not been expressly recommended to me, but I am very glad I did. First of all, the language is wonderful. Secondly, the plot keeps you in suspense from beginning to end: when Prusias threatens to have Nicomedes beheaded and his severed head thrown to the mob to show them just who is king, you can’t help wondering how on earth Nicomedes is going to get out of that one. In the end, all’s well that ends well: Attalus decides to stop being an ass and does his big brother a good turn, Arsinoë admits defeat (for the time being only, in my opinion, but still), and Prusias invites everyone to a jolly feast. There’s an element of farce in this last detail that shows just how cretinous Prusias is. You can just imagine the dinner table conversation: “Pass the wine, son. Oh, and by the way, no hard feelings about this afternoon, I hope! I wasn’t really going to have your head chopped off, you know!”

This happy ending notwithstanding, Nicomedes is classed as a tragedy. Partly because of the action-packed political drama that unfolds, but even more so because of the historical context, because of what we know happens after the curtain comes down on the final scene. Despite all Prince Nicomedes’ proud speeches and valiant efforts to preserve the greatness and independence of his kingdom, ultimately he is doomed to failure and Bithynia is fated to become just another Roman province. All Nicomedes has succeeded in doing is buying a little time. I’ve been re-reading Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, and it’s particularly interesting to draw a parallel between Nicomedes’ struggle for political independence and the better-known case of Egypt’s ill-fated war with Rome.

Perhaps what struck me most about this play, however, was how modern it felt. All you have to do is alter the setting and the names of the characters, and two thousand years on, you’re faced with a situation that feels surprisingly familiar. Scheming, back-stabbing, diplomatic gaffes, demonstrations that turn ugly… nothing much has changed. And Laodice would make a fantastic politician’s wife!

© Florence Berlioz 2013

Posted in Book Reviews, Drama, French Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments