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Archive for the ‘French’ Category

Of the Impressionists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was always the one I was most comfortable with, the one whose pictures seemed as though you could live with them. Maybe this was because I had, as a child, a large-format booklet with poster-sized reproductions of many of his paintings, out of which I eventually tore The Swing to stick up on the wall of the first space I ever had to myself, in Hyderabad, and The Reader, to adorn my book cupboard at home in Bombay. I lived with the former for a year and the latter is still up, on the plywood door of the cupboard, just above where my grandmother used to sit in her chair; I pass by it every time I pass the piano and smile at it when I notice it, for even after all these years, that faded girl with the book looks as absorbed in her reading and in the painting as she did the first time I saw her. By now, she, and Renoir, have quietly settled down in that corner of the flat in which I grew up.

And, taking that feeling a little further, Renoir, My Father, a memoir/biography by French filmmaker Jean Renoir about his famous painter father, is a book I could live with; in fact, a book I will live with. It is comfortable and comforting, the sort of book I will go back to when I am miserable or lonely or exhausted, because it will calm and delight and be an example of sorts.

What strikes me most about this book is that it is testimony to one aspect of how to live well. Perhaps one of the hardest lessons we ever learn as human beings is that of how to forgive our parents for being mortal, frail, fallible, flawed—for being, in fact, no better than us, and not the perfect comfort they might have been, sometime, in our memories of the distant past. This is a book about Renoir and, to some extent, also about his son, Jean Renoir, but it is also a book about that lesson in forgiving one’s parents. And if anyone ever understood that lesson, it was Jean Renoir as he wrote this book about his father, his family, the artistic ethos that surrounded them, and the warm, loving friendships threaded through his father’s life. For, as he writes in the first person, he neither sentimentalizes nor judges his parents; all he does is give us a matter-of-fact account of them, writing with great tenderness but also frankly and honestly, taking an approach of maturity, of the sort that many do not ever seem to attain.

Jean works his way through Renoir’s life, from his childhood to his apprenticeship in a porcelain factory, painting on fine china, through art school and his meeting with Sisley, Bazille, and Monet, to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, on to travels in Europe and North Africa, and marriage to Aline Charigot, as the family man, to his struggle with crippling arthritis, and finally, his death. His style is anecdotal and digressive, now wandering off with a recollection of old neighbours, then coming back to a tale of Renoir and a patron, moving onto a recollection from his own childhood, then talking about Renoir’s philosophy and work, and so on. Much of the book is based on conversations he had with his father after being invalided out of the First World War with a leg wound. These are mostly supplemented by recollections from Jean himself and from Gabrielle, the Renoirs’ cousin, nanny, and a model for the artist.  The result is the sort of book you can dip into at random, picking an anecdote or homing in on a name, and then reading whatever you come across, for while this is a long biographical narrative, it is also a fragmentary one, and each fragment brings something precious with it.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Self Portrait, 1910

Jean’s discussion of Renoir’s artistic work and his process of creation and “seeing” his pictures is deeply insightful for anyone interested in Renoir, the painter. But it is his discussion of Renoir the man that has the most enduring value. All the same, make no mistake about it—Jean never puts his father entirely on a pedestal. He talks of all sorts of aspects of his father’s life, everything from his particular preoccupations with protecting children from illness and injury to his reactions when face with a painting forged to look like one of his, to even, briefly and discreetly, conjecture on his parents’ sex life. But it is the detachment and simultaneous fondness in his tone that  mark the narrative out as remarkable, as much as the wealth of detail he provides on personalities and a way of life long gone.

When I sat down to think about it, I realised that Renoir had his children quite late in life—44 when the eldest was born and nearly 60 at the birth of the youngest. Fifty-three years separated Jean and his father. As a consequence, they were young at the time of his physical deterioration and death and saw their mother, too, constrained by diabetes and respiratory issues. Who is to know what the young Jean felt about his old parents’ ill-health? But if there was any resentment, any impatience, any anger at their parents, Jean does not mention it; and considering his willingness to talk about his own foibles as a child, it seems likely that what is not mentioned never existed. Instead, there is a strong sense of acceptance of “everything that is the case”  (as Wittgenstein would have it); Jean’s telling of the tales of his father’s life is rooted in a firm memory of what was his reality, not in regret or seeking for an explanation for any errors committed by his parents.

This is, perhaps, the fruit of repeated contemplation of that memory; perhaps the creases have been smoothened out already, before this writing. But if they have indeed been done away with, it is not to produce triteness. There is nothing contrived about Jean’s writing of his father’s working through arthritic pain and stiffness, struggling to grasp the brush, sighing at his bedsores, calm in the steadiness of artistic creation that, Jean says, was shot through with a sense of rightness because it was the path Renoir knew he was made to go down. It is touching and intensely moving, a portrait of horrible degeneration of the body along with the ineffable fluidity of a mind entirely at ease with its place in the world.

Renoir, My Father is thus the biography of a remarkable man and also of his remarkable family life. Is it the truth about Renoir? Jean Renoir clearly understood that this would be the question people would ask, for his epigraph remarks on how history is just another genre—this cannot but be a book about his conception of Renoir his father. Does it even matter if this is the truth? It does not, though at the same time, there seems to be no question of it being anything but the truth. For the truth of this book goes well beyond the truth of biographical detail. What it carries is the truth of a good life lived and the love of a son for his father, as a human being above all else.

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Nicaraguan stamp showing Maigret lighting his pipe
Inspector Maigret lighting his pipe on a Nicaraguan stamp, one of a series depicting famous fictional detectives; others in the series included Lord Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe, and Father Brown.

Considering my fondness for detective novels, I am mildly ashamed to say that I’ve never given Simenon and his creation, Maigret, as much time as they probably deserve. In part because, even though there are dozens of books featuring Maigret, they’re not particularly easy to get hold of. And, in part, because I always found Simenon drier, less engaging than other detective novelists I enjoy.

Maigret’s Pipe is a selection of 17 short stories; I picked it up in Bombay, out of the towering stacks at the dusty, musty New and Secondhand Bookshop, sometime last October. It got read in stages; some in October, some in December, the rest this February. Perhaps a good way to read Simenon’s short stories, spreading them out a bit.

I had some problems getting into the swing of reading, once again; this time, I know it was because of the way the dialogue was punctuated. Too many ellipses and exclamation marks can really cause problems–the ellipses gave me a curious sense of the characters talking to themselves, not each other, disengaged from what was happening around them. And then the exclamation marks made it all seem too staccato. Which is not to say the stories were not engrossing–they were, for reasons I discuss below. But they weren’t the easiest of reads, for all that Simenon was and still is a “popular writer.”

But, in the course of reading these stories, I began to understand that Maigret has never entirely appealed because I am wary of him. He is brusque and free from pretensions to politeness, patient only in that he will hold out long enough to get information out of a suspect–as befits a character in a series of institutional interactions presented fitfully, so jerkily, as those exclamation marks seem to underline. As such, I don’t think I’d ever want to be interrogated by him; he’s not above anything, locking himself up in a room with a young girl for hours in one of these stories, and keeping a set of suspects in the room with the corpse of a murdered man in another, even when they complain of the smell. Gentility is not for the police, not in Maigret’s world.You’d want to make sure you’d be found innocent as soon as possible.

As for the suspects–unlike those in many detective novels, they never really gain the sympathy of Maigret or get admitted into his confidence. They are the focus of his attention, until they are proved innocent, after which they are tossed out onto the rubbish heap composed of those the police are not interested in at all. They are not his friends. They won’t be. It’s not wonder they talk hesitatingly, as if they talk to themselves, almost as if they can’t meet the eyes of this embodiment of impartial justice. What a contrast to Wimsey and Harriet Vine, or Holmes and Irene Adler, or Inspector Morse and a series of women, or Albert Campion and his friends in the criminal world. And you don’t even have the comfort of emotional insight into Maigret, as you do with Adam Dalgliesh, to make him seem more approachable.

So these aren’t cosy stories. You read them not for precision of plotting and puzzle, either, but for a black-and-white, realist, strictly unbiased treatment of the solid structure of the detective story–crime, investigation, solution. But in his bare-bones, quick, but startlingly vivid sketches of characters and place and social situation and dynamics, Simenon presents us with a finely realised world, one of modernity and alienation and cynicism. There are few comforts–his people are mostly working class, or middle class, ordinary, and even if they have outstanding intelligence or beauty or wealth, they are never permitted to be more than people in the crowd of suspects. They are always real, sometimes sordid in their deeds and ways–the story The Three Daughters of the Lawyer stays with me for its slow stripping away of bourgeois value of various sorts, to expose something ultimately wretched and miserable. And Simenon’s one interest is not to pass judgement on his characters, but rather to let Maigret discover the thread of action and speech and behaviour that has led to a crime and away from it to its perpetrator. Varied are these threads in their patterns and their paths, ingenious yet perfectly believable and real in these stories.

Maigret’s investigations rely on intuition and on his close observation and interpretation of what people do and say and how they live. Nothing within his powers is permitted to distract him from his goal; he is steadfastly, unshakably objective in his search. There are no redemptions here, no happy endings, no allowance for human relationships to form out of this crucial seeking for the truth of how one human being has done injustice to another. There is only the struggle to work the mills of justice. Reading these stories, I remain wary of the uncompromising Inspector Maigret, but there is no doubt about it–I respect him most deeply.

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