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

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Meeting Noreen Riols

noreen-riols-1001325     Yesterday evening, instead of going straight home after work, I headed for W.H. Smith’s in Paris, in order to attend the Parisian book launch of Noreen Riols’ latest book, The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish: My Life in Churchill’s School For Spies.

Noreen Riols is a respected BBC broadcaster, novelist, and regular contributor to Woman’s Hour. She is also one of the last surviving members of SOE (Special Operations Executive), which she joined in 1943, shortly before her eighteenth birthday. Now in her eighties, she has at last agreed to commit her memories to paper: The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish is her memoir of her time working for Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F (for French) section, in what was also known as Churchill’s “secret army”.

Though Noreen Riols herself was not an agent, she became intimately acquainted with the process of recruiting, training, and debriefing the men and women who were sent into Occupied France on highly dangerous missions, and many of them became her friends. To hear this small, white-haired woman, with her sweet smile and twinkling eyes, talking so calmly about events nearly seventy years old, and of such legendary names as Violette Szabo, Yvonne Rudellat, or Pearl Witherington – but also of others, both French and English, many of whom never returned – was an extraordinarily moving and unforgettable experience.

The book, with the inscription on the flyleaf in Noreen Riols’ pre-war handwriting, was originally meant for my mother, who is fascinated by SOE and has probably read every book ever published on the subject. I will eventually give it to her, but for the time being I have confiscated it and am reading it myself. It makes for a riveting read but, inevitably, it is also frequently deeply upsetting.

This afternoon, for example, I was reading about Vera Leigh, one of four women agents who were caught and sent to Natzweiler camp in 1944, where they were cremated alive. It seems Vera Leigh was from Maisons-Laffitte (a pretty town just outside Paris which is known for its racing stables), where I currently live. After the war, Leigh’s mother had a commemorative plaque put up in Maisons-Laffitte’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church. I had never before visited this church but, finding myself in the vicinity, I decided to go on a little pilgrimage. Unfortunately, when I arrived, the church was locked and there was no-one about – but now that I know, I am not likely to forget, and one day I shall return.

In her talk last night, Noreen Riols explained that this was precisely the point of her book: not merely to record sordid details and grisly events, but to remember with respect, with compassion, and with humility, the people who gave their lives for our freedom. She feels it is her duty, and it certainly is ours.

bookcover school for spies

© Florence Berlioz 2013

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Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume, by Silvena Rowe (2010)

purple citrus     The evenings are drawing in and all of a sudden it is chilly enough to start wearing jackets and scarves again. Autumn is a particularly beautiful season so I don’t mind – the only thing that gets me down is when the rain goes on for days on end and my shoes never have time to dry out properly. However, instead of focusing on rustling piles of russet leaves, street vendors selling paper cones of hot roasted chestnuts, and the first pumpkins and butternut squashes appearing on market stalls, I find my thoughts turning irresistibly in another direction, towards the heat and vibrant colours of the Eastern Mediterranean.

I have never discussed a cookery book on this blog before, despite my very French love of food and cooking, because I find that reviews of cookery books all tend to sound the same. But rules are meant to be broken from time to time, and this book is different.

Silvena Rowe is an award-winning British chef and food writer who was born to a Bulgarian mother and a Turkish father. After her father died, a desire to reconnect with her Ottoman heritage led her on a journey of discovery through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume is the fruit of that journey.

Part memoir, part travelogue, illustrated with beautiful photographs and interspersed with stories and descriptions by such illustrious forerunners as Mark Twain, Alphonse de Lamartine, or Suleiman the Magnificent, this is a recipe book that takes the reader on a sensual voyage of discovery. Each recipe, whether garnered from a reputed chef, a local street café, or a convent kitchen high up in the mountains, is more exotic and more exciting than the last. Mediterranean tends to be synonymous in our minds with the olive oil and tomato-based cooking of Italy and the south of France. This book shows us that there is much, much more than that. I would never, for example, have had the idea for a spicy pomegranate and blood orange chutney had it not been for this book. Almonds, roses, spices… the recipes are full of magical ingredients that seem to come straight from the realm of fairytales. And indeed, Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume would be the perfect bedside companion to the Arabian Nights.

© Florence Berlioz 2013

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Ireland’s Sorrow

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney died yesterday at the age of 74. My regrettable lack of curiosity with regard to contemporary poetry means that I am – to my shame – only now discovering Heaney’s work. I have spent the past hour or so attempting to remedy this and have read several obituaries with the greatest interest. Heaney comes across as a quiet, moderate man, acutely aware of the troubles besetting his native country yet refusing to embrace the headstrong violence many of his countrymen saw as the only solution. Heaney was not one to stir up trouble with rash words, but was lauded for his thoughtfulness and tact as much as for the clarity and readability of his verse. In his tribute to Heaney in yesterday’s Guardian, fellow Irish writer Colm Toibin extols the “shivering grace and honesty” of Heaney’s writing. Of his own relationship with words, Heaney wrote “I was in love with words themselves […] words as bearers of history and mystery” (“Feeling into Words”, Preoccupations, 1980). Anyone who can coin that lovely alliterative phrase “bearers of history and mystery” is well on their way to winning me over! So I am looking forward to getting to know Seamus Heaney a little better in the future, even if it is posthumously. In the wake of his death, I am sure all the major publishing companies will be rushing to edit new anthologies of his work, and I am counting on Everyman to produce one of their pretty pocket-sized hardback editions, which I will be able to slip into my briefcase and read in the train on the way to work of a frosty morning.

© Florence Berlioz 2013

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A Friend, a Book, and a Garden

The first ever Festival of Garden Literature opened yesterday in Hertfordshire. Ever since I got wind of this event, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I can’t quite understand why it has taken so long for a garden-themed book festival to be organized. Gardens feature in several of the world’s oldest texts, and the Hesperides, the Garden of Eden, or yet again the famed hanging gardens of Babylon, have inspired writers for centuries.

Regarded variously as places of (religious) contemplation, of pre-lapsarian innocence, of awakening sexuality, or yet again, as markers of social status and symbols of man’s power over nature, gardens have been invested with a multiplicity of meanings, and literature has played on all of them.

Just look at what Daphne du Maurier did in Rebecca! One of the most striking features of the Manderley gardens is the dense hedge of blood-red rhododendrons that lines both sides of the great avenue leading up to the house. Visually, those rhododendrons are a stroke of genius – I have pictured them in my mind’s eye fifty times at least, and my  hands have itched to try out something similar. The new Mrs de Winter, however, finds them vaguely sinister, and I can’t say I entirely blame her. The tunnel formed by the over-arching branches of the trees, the shadows lurking in the undergrowth, and the startling splashes of crimson, like spilt blood upon the leaves, create an oppressive atmosphere in keeping with the hostile attitude of the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers – as if the garden, like a code that had to be cracked, contained in its various components the truth of Rebecca’s death.

The Manderley garden plays but a small role in the story itself. It is there mainly for atmospheric purposes but in that it succeeds admirably, and I have always been fascinated by it. If truth be told, all descriptions of gardens fascinate me. It is like coming across a description of a library: I immediately picture myself there, and the more details there are, the better I like it. There is a keen pleasure in mentally strolling about a fictional garden, noting a reference to a peony here or the mention of an “Albertine” rose there. It is akin to snooping through a character’s bookshelves and coming across old friends like Little Women and Jane Eyre. And a character who gets up early in order to re-pot basil seedlings wins my instant sympathy.

Sometimes I get a little confused about which I prefer: books or plants. Which is why books about plants appeal to me so much, whether fiction or the kind with complicated Latin names and lots of glossy photographs. Reading one of the latter when actually in the garden is a particularly satisfying experience: you can look up every few minutes, select a portion of the garden in front of you, and mentally replace whatever flowers (or weeds and brambles) were there before with the specimen you are currently studying in your book, say mango-coloured Icelandic poppies, with petals like Japanese rice paper, or an English vicarage border of blue delphiniums and yellow “Graham Thomas” roses. It’s like playing paper dolls all over again.

I spent many such hours last summer, when it was too hot to do anything but sit in the shade and read. While I leafed through a pile of gardening books, my father read The Novel in the Viola with a small frown, and my mother immersed herself yet again in the world of Harry Potter. It was very quiet and peaceful, the only sounds those of pages being turned, the dry rattle of the breeze in the palms, and the occasional plop of a frog diving off a lily pad in the nearby fish pond. At five o’clock, my mother would carry the tea tray out and we would pause briefly to sip green tea out of willow pattern cups.

_____

Garden-themed Reading List:

  • An Island Garden, by Celia Thaxter (1894).
  • Elizabeth and her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim (1898).
  • The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911).
  • Down the Garden Path, by Beverley Nichols (1932).
  • The Illustrated Garden Book, by Vita Sackville-West (1986).
  • The Lost Garden, by Helen Humphreys (2002).
  • Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen (2007).
  • The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng (2012).

© Florence Berlioz 2013

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This is why I teach!

The school year is drawing to an end. And don’t the kids know it! They are positively pawing the ground in their impatience to be gone and it is futile trying to get them to work. Today I gave up and let them play games, as long as they spoke English, but yesterday I was still fighting the good fight, and when I saw a sheet of paper being passed openly from hand to hand, I decided enough was enough and confiscated it. There was a collective shout of protest: “NO! Madame, that was for you!!!”

They weren’t lying. When the bell rang for the end of class, I unfolded the paper and found the following letter (with twenty or so signatures on the back):

thank you letter 4°1

     It’s at times like these that you feel that the long hours, and the shouting, and the moments when you think you’re going to tear your hair out in frustration, are actually worth it after all…

 © Florence Berlioz 2013

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Desperate Romantics

     Exactly a week ago today, when I was in Washington D.C., I spent the afternoon at the National Gallery of Art. A friend of a friend had recommended I see the Albrecht Dürer exhibit, but when I arrived in front of the West Building’s main façade and saw the banner advertising another exhibit on the Pre-Raphaelites, I knew that Dürer didn’t stand a chance.

Exhibition catalogue. (courtesy of the National Gallery website)

Exhibition catalogue.
(courtesy of the National Gallery website). The cover shows Millais’s “Mariana”, based on the heroine of Tennyson’s poem.

     “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900” is the first major exhibit on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to be organised in the United States. It features 130 works of art on loan from the Tate Gallery – paintings, sculpture, photographs, and decorative artefacts – which reveal the imaginative power and scope of the group founded in 1848 by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in open defiance of the Royal Academy.

     What mingled sensations of pleasure, privilege, and awe you experience as you enter a room and behold paintings which you have read so much about, which you have seen reproduced so many times (with varying degrees of success), but never before seen in the flesh, so to speak! What a pang you get as, again and again, in the faces of the subjects, you recognise the features of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Burden, or even Rossetti himself! Millais’s Ophelia, Morris’s La Belle Iseult, Rossetti’s Proserpine, his Bocca Baciata, his Beata Beatrix… they were all there, every brush stroke as fresh and vivid as if the paint had just been applied.

"Bocca Baciata", one of my favourite paintings, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1859).

“Bocca Baciata”, one of my favourite paintings, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1859).

     Scenes from the Bible, from Arthurian legend, from Shakespeare, Dante, and Keats vied for my attention; besides the more famous canvases, there were others, by friends and admirers – satellites, as it were, of the Pre-Raphaelites. I was interested, for example, in some small paintings by Elizabeth Siddal, which, with their glowing colours and great precision of detail, bore a strong resemblance to mediaeval manuscripts. Also of note was a large decorative screen, all three panels of which had been embroidered by Jane Morris. It was a very rich and varied exhibit, and I emerged three hours later, my head reeling with colours, patterns, and images of mysterious, elongated female figures. Washingtonians, the exhibit is on until May 19th, so you still have a chance to go and see it!

     The Pre-Raphaelites were to be a bit of a running theme for me this past week, for this weekend I came across a lovely blog called The Kissed Mouth. The title, added to the fact that the authoress writes under the pseudonym Fanny Cornforth (Rossetti’s model and mistress) makes it clear the blog’s subject is the Pre-Raphaelites – with a certain preference for Rossetti, it seems, which is far from displeasing to me! Though Miss Cornforth is perhaps a little too apt to swoon and drool over the smouldering sexiness of Mr Rossetti, which sometimes gives her blog the flavour of a teen fan page, she may be forgiven this in light of the many interesting topics she covers. I particularly enjoyed her recent article on May Morris, entitled “William’s Daughter”.

     Fired with enthusiasm all over again, I knew there was only one thing to do: sit down to watch an episode (or two or three!) of the 2009 BBC mini-series “Desperate Romantics”. Focusing on the tight-knit group formed by Millais, Hunt, Rossetti, and the fictional art critic Fred Walters (a conflation of Frederick George Stephens, Walter Deverell, and Rossetti’s brother William), it tells the story of their friendship, their careers, and their rivalries, both artistic and amorous, from the moment when they first discover Elizabeth Siddal in a hat shop and convince her to model for them, to her suicide several years later.

     What I like so much about this series is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s meant to be fun, as you discover from the very beginning – as soon as you hear the title tune, in fact. It begins sweetly enough, but just as you are lulled into thinking that you’re in for another period drama in the grand BBC tradition of “Pride and Prejudice”, an anachronistic bass beat starts up and sweeps you up in its wake. For a split second, I hated it. Then I burst out laughing…and fell in love. I think that title tune tells you all you need to know about the film and what it aims to be: modern, energetic and audacious. Adjectives that could all be applied to the Pre-Raphaelites themselves, for these were men who longed – and indeed, did their very best – to shake their contemporaries out of their staid Victorian complacency.

     Easily the most provocative of the group was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and I think Aidan Turner (better known now as the dwarf Killi in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit) excels at capturing the passion and the excesses of the Italian painter-poet. Rossetti comes off as a man of multiple contradictions: possessed of enormous talent yet chronically lazy; arrogant but also charming, with a rare gift for persuasion (i.e. getting his own way); an affectionate friend, yet both selfish and self-serving; a visionary artist, in constant pursuit of a poetic ideal, but at the same time a man of coarser appetites, addicted to laudanum, cheap gin, and cheap women. In short, one of those larger than life characters, both charismatic and infuriating, whose antics are a source of endless fascination, even as we pity poor Lizzy Siddal for her devotion to him.

© Florence Berlioz 2013

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