Week 3 – ♦Queen♦
Short story: “Plain Pleasures”, by Jane Bowles (1946. In: Plain Pleasures, 1966; Everything Is Nice, 1989; My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles, 2005)
Alva Perry is a lonely, grumpy widow who lives in a tenement house. She fills her days (and her loneliness) with a series of small tasks, and remains “as industrious in her solitude as a woman who lives in the service of her family.” Hers is a structured loneliness filled with plain pleasures – “the ones that come without crowds or fancy food”.
Plain pleasures provide Alva with a structure for her loneliness, but plain pleasures can also break this structure. One day, one of her neighbours, John Drake, offers to help her carry a bag of potatoes to the backyard, where she intends to make a fire and bake them. Mr. Drake is an equally lonely man who also lives in her tenement, but, until then, they had barely talked to each other. Having taken the potatoes to the backyard, without further conversation, he simply starts to imitate Alva, gathering twigs for the fire. They are two lonely souls, maybe he is just acting mechanically, and maybe she is just being polite when she invites him to share a meal of baked potatoes in the tenement’s backyard.
“Do you like plain ordinary pleasures?”, Alva asks him. Slowly, we come to feel that, to her, this topic is not only a way to fill in the silence, but also a personal obsession: one topic leads to another, and soon she is talking in a derisive manner about her sister, Dorothy Alvarez, who is always partying and going to restaurants.
Alva, on the other hand, is armed with her small pleasures against what she believes to be her divorced sister’s dissipation. “We each have only one single life which is our real life (…) I warn Dorothy every time I see her that if she doesn’t watch out her life is going to be left aching and starving on the side of the road and she’s going to get to her grave without it. The farther a man follows the rainbow, the harder it is for him to get back to the life which he left starving like an old dog. Sometimes when a man gets older he has a revelation and wants awfully bad to get back to the place where he left his life, but he can’t get to that place – not often. It’s always better to stay alongside of your life. I told Dorothy that life was not a tree with a million different blossoms on it.” When she asks Mr. Drake about plain pleasures, this is less a gesture toward him than it is a plunge inside herself and her obsession.
But this is obviously not the way Mr. Drake interprets the question. “He was a little embarrassed at her mentioning anything as solemn and intimate on such short acquaintance, and he could not bring himself to answer her. Mrs. Perry, who was ordinarily shut-mouthed, felt a stream of words swelling in her throat.”
He is a shy, lonely man, and this is probably the first time a woman addresses him in a way he sees as intimate. He tries to follow what she is saying, but gets inevitably stuck in his own shyness, his own fear of trespassing, and his struggle to simply take part in a conversation. He then approaches a topic closer to his heart: he once had a chance to move to Florida, but, afraid of what might have been, he never went. The might-have-been now comes back to haunt him, and he talks about his brother – a man who never stays in one place for more than three months.
We soon feel that the two are not really talking to each other, but rather talking to themselves, locked inside their loneliness, inside their personal obsessions, their might-have-been.
In return for the shared potatoes, Mr. Drake then invites Mrs. Perry out to dinner the following evening. Maybe he just wants to make the moment last, or to have someone to talk to, or maybe he is, once again, just trying to be polite. Alva’s answer to his invitation is even stranger: “Do you think I should do that?”, Mrs. Perry asks him. Do what, exactly?, we may ask. Bowles is never easy on us, and, much like Mr. Drake, we do not really know what is going on in Alva’s mind.
But she accepts. Not only that, she also goes to her sister to get her best dress fixed, and accepts to borrow Dorothy’s spare necklace especially for the dinner. We cannot help but to revel in the dry humour with which Bowles infuses the conversation between the two sisters, balancing it on the tension between Dorothy’s obliviousness and Alva’s contempt. “‘Well I hope this is the right guy for you’, said Dorothy with her customary lack of tact.”
Alva is anxious to prove to her sister that it is just a dinner, nothing else. She may be also anxious to prove it to herself, and may be trying not to create any expectations about it. We don’t know. But, when she arrives at the restaurant, she seems intent on blowing it, come what may: Mr. Drake arrives a little late, and Alva is already simmering with anger. They eat the meal in silence, Mrs. Perry drinks more than she can handle, and soon she is drunk with the wine, spilling out her contempt. The first thing she says to Mr. Drake that evening is: “I think they cheat you in restaurants”.
Rather than despairing, though, he is pleased that she said anything at all. And the conversation continues as if they were talking at cross purposes, with Alva’s voice getting louder and louder. They are once again locked in their loneliness, Mr. Drake with his earning for kindness, Mrs. Perry with her resentment. “What are you making a bid for, anyway?”, she asks him. “Nothing dishonourable”, he answers, not knowing exactly what he is saying, just wanting to keep her there.
But, in another of Bowles absurd turns, Mrs. Perry takes it to be a marriage proposal. “I suppose, she said, smiling joylessly, that you would like a lady to mash your potatoes for you three times a day. But I am not a mashed-potato masher and I never have been.” She lays her necklace in her gravy, then wanders off to an empty room above the restaurant. Rather than looking for the ladies’ toilet, as Mr. Drake assumes, Alva just wants a place where she can be alone. She cries, and seems a bit delirious, imagining that she could reach her own room from there: “‘I have kept the pathway open all my life’, she muttered in a thick voice, ‘so that I could get back’”. Is she thinking about home, or about her real life, the life which she left starving like an old dog? Finally, she passes out with her hat on.
This detail is important, because Bowles subtly hints at the fact that Alva does not have her clothes on, the following morning, when she wakes up. Bowles also hints at the fact that the restaurant owner had followed Alva when she went upstairs the night before: “in her present drunken state it would be easy to sneak a kiss from her and perhaps even more.”
We know she has been raped, and the scene feels dreadful to us. But what about Alva? What does it feel to her? Bowles is constantly playing with our false expectations, as much as she is playing with those of her characters: her writing is sparse and full of non sequiturs, and her characters are seemingly ordinary people who are constantly bordering on madness. Maggie Nelson once wrote about Jane Bowles in The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011): “Like many artists of cruelty, she is no philosopher. She is roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin”.
When Mrs. Perry awakens, she does not remember how she had gotten in the room, nor what she said to Mr. Drake, but she feels happy. Refreshed. She dresses, eager to go back downstairs, back to the restaurant, which she then finds “flooded with sunshine”. “My sweet John Drake”, she whispers tenderly.
Now, what are we to make of all this? The title of the story takes a whole new meaning – and a quietly cruel one, as Alva’s rape seems to be perversely equated here with her sexual awakening.
Does Alva remember what happened after she passed out? Is it mixed up with dreams? Is she revelling in what is, ultimately, only delirium? Or is she revelling in plain pleasures? Has she followed a rainbow and left her real life behind? As she is anxious to get back to the restaurant, where she had left Mr. Drake the night before, does it mean that she is anxious to get back to the place where she left her life? Dream and reality are mixed here. Maybe Alva is delusional; maybe she is in denial; or maybe she is simply intoxicated by her repressed hopes, now finally unleashed.
My rating: ★★★★☆
Essay: “Baudelaire”, by Walter Benjamin (written in 1921-1922, but unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime. Also in: The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, by Walter, tr. Rodney Livingstone, 2006)
In this fragment, Benjamin compares Baudelaire’s way of looking at the world to an artist who photographs the essence of things, registering the negative of that essence on his photographic plates. No one but Baudelaire can read these plates and extract from them the true essence of things as they really are, a presentiment of the real picture.
To Benjamin, Baudelaire writes from this presentment; he writes the negative of essence in all his poems – and, underlying his writings, there is the idea of knowledge as a form of guilt, the knowledge of the true essence as something bought at the price of eternal remorse.
Commenting on the title of one of the sections of Les Fleurs du mal (1857), ‘Spleen et ideal’, Benjamin argues that both spleen and ideal have a double meaning: they are not only spiritual essences, but also the intended effect upon those essences. Further, essence and effect are intertwined through the experience of melancholy: it is the melancholic whose gaze is fixed on the ideal, and it is the images of melancholy that kindle the spiritual most brightly.
Spleen is, first and foremost, “that fatally foundering, doomed flight toward the ideal, which ultimately – with the despairing cry of Icarus – comes crashing down into the ocean of its own melancholy.”
Album: “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, by Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)
Late 1990’s/ early 2000’s teenage angst. Simple songs with some punk, folk, and 1990’s lo-fi influence, and disillusioned, somewhat surreal lyrics with references to the World War 2 and The Diary of Anne Frank.
- Length: 39:55
- My rating: ★★★☆☆
- Album n. 98 on NME’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time
- Favourite songs: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; untitled; Communist Daughter; Holland, 1945
“And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly
From the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see
What a curious life
We have found here tonight
There is music that sounds from the street
There are lights in the clouds
Anna’s ghost all around
Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me
Soft and sweet
How the notes all bend and reach above the trees
And when we meet on a cloud
I’ll be laughing out loud
I’ll be laughing with everyone I see
How strange it is to be anything at all” (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea)
“(…) Sweetness sings from every corner
Cars careening from the clouds
The bridges burst and twist around
And wanting something warm and moving
Bends towards herself the soothing
Proves that she must still exist
She moves herself about her fist
The communist daughter
(…)” (Communist daughter)
“The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening in 1945
With just her sister at her side
And only weeks before the guns
All came and rained on everyone
Now she’s a little boy in Spain
Playing pianos filled with flames
On empty rings around the sun
I’ll sing to say my dream has come
But now we must pack up every piece
Of the life we used to love
Just to keep ourselves
At least enough to carry on
And now we ride the circus wheel
With your dark brother wrapped in white
Says it was good to be alive
But now he rides a comet’s flame
And won’t be coming back again
The Earth looks better from a star
That’s right above from where you are
He didn’t mean to make you cry
With sparks that ring and bullets fly
On empty rings around your heart
The world just screams and falls apart
But now we must pack up every piece
Of the life we used to love
Just to keep ourselves
At least enough to carry on
And here’s where your mother sleeps
And here is the room where your brothers were born
Indentations in the sheets
Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore
And it’s so sad to see the world agree
That they’d rather see their faces filled with flies
All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes” (Holland, 1945)
Film: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma (2019, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, IMDb)
The film opens in a small boat crossing through rough sea, as Marianne, the daughter of an accomplished painter, is heading towards a remote island off the coast of Brittany. The scene is filmed in such a way that we feel we are inside the boat, together with Marianne. It’s somewhere during the 18th-century, and a countess has just commissioned her to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse.
However, everything must be done in secret: officially, Marianne has been hired as a ladies’ companion for Héloïse, who has just come out of a convent to mourn the suicide of her sister. The countess is intent on marrying her daughter to a Milanese nobleman, and, before the deal is closed, a portrait must be shown to the prospective husband. However, Héloïse is not sure she wants to get married, and would therefore never consent to sitting for a painting.
Marianne’s predecessor has been fired, leaving an unfinished portrait with a blurred face – a fractured woman who will haunt Marianne throughout the first half of the movie, only to be finally committed to the flames. The scene where we watch the fire slowly spread through the breast of the half-finished woman in the painting is a turning point in the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse – the painter, her model and muse, and her art.
While, at first, Marianne had been compelled to observe every detail of Héloïse, so as to be able to paint her from memory, once Héloïse finds out about the scheme and agrees to pose, it is Marianne who starts to be observed: the table is turned, and the portrait of Héloïse becomes also the portrait of the artist – who, maybe, is also on fire. While the first painting she makes of Héloïse is a stale, bland simplification, the second painting is much more intriguing: in it, Héloïse is pictured looking askance at the viewer, with an intriguing half-smile and a half-amused, half-disapproving look.
While, in the first half of the movie, the camera follows Marianne’s point of view, as she observes Héloïse — the way she walks, the light on her skin, the way she moves her hands -, on the second half, we have a kind of collaboration between artist and model, and the camera follows the way Héloïse observes Marianne painting her. The act of sitting for the picture feels then like something between revenge and seduction. The woman who is being looked at looks back at the woman who is looking at her, and they are caught in the web of this shared gaze. From a mere representation of a subject, Marianne’s painting becomes a vital human experience, a form of mutual collaboration, and a transgression.
When the countess goes away for a week, the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse quickly flourishes, and they also form a closer bond with the maidservant, Sophie. It’s a small window of freedom for them, and they are intent on making its flame burn as brightly as possible: they know it will not last long. For a short while, the three women are intertwined in a self-contained world that is deeply womanly: an island of their own, and its element, the sea – a symbol of renewal, transformation, yearning, hardship, fertility, and the source of life and death.
In one stroke, we have a representation of women’s circumstances, their lack of larger opportunities, but also their intimacy and solidarity. In one scene at a local village gathering, women dance around a bonfire, singing “fugere non possum” — “I cannot escape”.
One of the most beautiful scenes is where we see an abortion performed: we see it from above, close to the woman undergoing it, almost as if it were also a sex scene. We follow it through her face and her gaze – and, at her side, we see a small baby, touching her. It’s simple, and powerful, intimate, painful, and poignant. Birth and death, intertwined, and seen very closely. Almost as if we were looking at a painting, or a mirror.
The title refers to the unfinished portrait that is committed to the flames, as well as to another painting made by Marianne, where a woman is shown from a distance, with flames coming from the hem of her dress. In a fleeting scene, we picture the real moment that inspired the painting, and it feels like a vision.
The title also refers to the burning of witches, and to passion burning. Portrait of a Lady on Fire – what exactly is on fire here? The lady or the portrait, or both? The fire in the title also mirrors Marianne and Héloïse’s passion, and the all-consuming, finite nature of it. It refers to what Marianne sees in Héloïse at that particular moment, something she could only retain by daring to look at it and to let it go. “When do we know it’s finished?” Héloïse asks about the painting. “At one point, we stop,” Marianne replies.
The film, told as a flashback, is built on memory and on what it retains through gaze. In another key scene, Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie are reading a book together: it’s the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Sophie is outraged at his foolishness, when he turns around for one last look at Eurydice. To Héloïse and Sophie, however, the myth represents something else: maybe Orpheus deliberately chose to be left with a memory of Eurydice, a memory of something that they knew would not last anyway; maybe Eurydice even asked him to turn and look. Maybe their story is more significant because of that look, and what it could create and retain.
MARIANNE: “En se retournant, Orphée fait un choix, le choix du poète et non celui de l’amoureux
HELOÏSE – Mais c’est peut-être Eurydice qui lui a demandé de se retourner? “
- Running time: 120 min
- My rating: ★★★★☆
- Film n. 39 in the BBC’s list of 100 greatest films directed by women
- Favourite scenes: opening scene where Marianne is in a boat in a rough sea, the abortion scene, the final scene of Héloïse crying while listening to Vivaldi.
That’s all for now, folks. What are you reading and listening this week? Tell me about it.