Prieuré de Marcevol, Pyrénées-Orientales

For a recent sojourn in the Pyrénées-Orientales, I asked Dennis Aubrey to recommend some Romanesque churches and monasteries to visit.  Marcevol was on his list.  Thanks Dennis.

On our way to spend a weekend in the higher Pyrenees, a friend and I visited the Prieuré de Marcevol which had unfortunately closed two minutes before we arrived.  But the sun sets late on these spring nights and I was able to take some photos of the exterior.  It’s a twelfth-century priory founded by the Order of Saint Sépulcre, destroyed in an earthquake in 1428, abandoned as ruins during the French Revolution and only properly restored in the last 40 years.  The priory now welcomes groups for cultural and sporting activities.

Facade, Marcevol Priory, France

Facade, Marcevol Priory, France

The facade is impressive, but the eye returns again and again to the rosy marble framing of the door and window.  The marble comes from the nearby quarries in Villefranche-de-Conflent, and has been used in many churches in the region.

Marcevol priory, Pyrénées-Orientales, France

Rose marble, Marcevol priory, Pyrénées-Orientales, France

Uphill from the priory, there’s the small hamlet of Marcevol and a small Romanesque eleventh-century church, Nostra Senyora de las Gradas.

Church in the hamlet of Marcevol, France

Romanesque church in the hamlet of Marcevol, France

We drove up the hill to see if it was open but unfortunately we were out of luck again;  indeed, it appears to be quite fragile and might not open at all.  It’s right next door to, practically adjoining, a house which we thought was part of the church structure.  The owner, sitting on the steps by his back door, set us right.

Church, Marcevol, France

Church, Marcevol, France

The little church and houses are all of stone, which means there’s nothing ugly in this hamlet.  For even when stone structures are neglected and tumble down, wildflowers grow quite naturally in the gaps. On the web site for the Marcevol prior, I read:  ‘Anyone who has never been to Marcevol does not know everything about the world’s beauty.’  It’s not just the priory, the hamlet and church that inspire, but also the setting, close to the majestic Mount Canigou (2785 m), the mountain loved by the Catalans.

Steps up to the church, Marcevol, France

Steps up to the church, Marcevol, France

*****

 

Anzac Day 2015

On 25th April it will be 100 years since Australian and New Zealand soldiers charged the beaches in Gallipoli, Turkey, in an attempt to beat the Turks and give the Allies a chance to take Constantinople.  They were mown down, slaughtered.  The battles continued for months until December 1915 when they withdrew, defeated.  Out of a population of less than 5 million, Australia lost 8,000 young males at Gallipoli.

The following year, 1916, my grandfather, Ernest Bruce, joined the army after stowing away on a ship of volunteers headed for Egypt.  In July at Pozières, France, on the Western Front, he was trapped under concrete in an explosion, and then gassed.  But he survived.  He was one of the 40,000 Australians killed or wounded in 1916 on the Western Front (see AWM).  That’s a huge part of a population of 5 million.

When he returned to Australia, he was too ill to work for more than a few days a week, yet it took the government years to offer him a pension.

His oldest son was my father, Ronald Bruce, who hadn’t learnt a thing about the futility of volunteering to fight in a war.  In 1941 he joined the army, was sent to Egypt, and months later was sent home with shell shock.  He couldn’t hold down a job, and at 25 was offered a pension.

This Anzac Day, I honour my father and grandfather for volunteering to participate in Australia’s defence.

At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra there is a wall called the Roll of Honour.  It’s covered in the names of Australians who have died in war.  My grandfather and father are not on the wall because they returned alive;  but my grandfather’s three cousins, the Shaw brothers, did not.  They are all buried on the Somme in France, and their names are here on the wall.  I put poppies beside their names.

Since I learnt that they were all killed while my grandfather returned, I haven’t looked at life the same way.

 *****

Weekly photo challenge: Early Bird

I’ve been to Port-Vendres in France twice, and each time I found the early mornings to be a great introduction to the day.

Once, I was awake before sunrise, admiring the blue cargo ship moored in the port overnight beneath the lightening sky of deep pre-dawn blue.  By a happy coincidence, the dome of the church at the centre of my view is also blue, and the lighting on the obelisk at the right is mauve-blue.  But that day wasn’t a blue blue day.  The sun rose and shone on the old village houses, highlighting the pink and orange tones of their walls, promising a good day.

Pre-sunrise, Port-Vendres, France

Pre-sunrise, Port-Vendres, France

Early morning, Port-Vendres, France

Early morning, Port-Vendres, France

Thanks Weekly Photo Challenge for the prompt.

Chopin’s Raindrop

Today in Valldemossa, Mallorca, I heard two Chopin piano concerts, each lasting ten minutes, included with the ticket to the Real Cartuja monastery museum.  Though one of Chopin’s pianos is present in the museum, it was not played today;  the pianist played on a grand piano in the adjoining Palace of King Sancho, who owned the monastery before it was a monastery.

The Chopin pieces give visitors an impression of the sounds that drifted from the monks’ cells where he was staying in the winter of 1838/39.  Though he began his sojourn by composing on a borrowed instrument, in the last few weeks of his stay his new Pleyel piano arrived from Paris.  In the cold bare cells he composed a few Preludes, a Polonaise, a Ballade, a Scherzo – pieces now famous. Today’s tourists come to see this very piano, they photograph it and even hear it played by concert pianists, but only in summer.  I missed out, being here in spring.

Chopin's piano in the Real Cartjua, Valldemossa

Chopin’s piano in the Real Cartuja, Valldemossa

They photograph his handwritten musical scores, his death mask, his hand mask.  There’s little information attached to the exhibits, and if visitors can’t speak to the guide in Spanish, they can only look but not learn. Yet if Chopin’s name is famous here, it is a modern phenomenon;  when he and his lover, George Sand, were staying in Valldemossa, they were anything but popular, he having a disease which in the Mallorcan mind was contagious and deadly, and she wearing men’s clothes and not attending mass on Sunday.  Even two years later when she wrote her account of their stay, Un Hiver à Majorque, Sand did not reveal the name of her companion but discreetly referred to him as the sick one, the invalid, our friend, someone in my family.

Time passed, and the world learnt that Chopin had been here, had composed here.  They wanted to come and feel his presence, hear the echoes of his music in the cloisters, see his music scores with all their corrections exhibited on the walls.

George’s photos and images also adorn the three-cell museum, samples of writings by her and about her are exhibited under glass, with no indication of who wrote what.  Copies of paintings of Sand, Chopin and their contemporaries hang on the walls.

Display for George Sand in Chopin Museum, Valldemossa

Display for George Sand in Chopin Museum, Valldemossa

The view from each cell is stunning, a distant perspective with a foreground of Mediterranean plantings in a monk’s garden. While Chopin composed, Sand finished Spiridion, the novel she’d begun a year earlier, coincidentally about monks in a monastery. What providence for a writer to land in her imaginary setting, to live for a short time the life of her protagonists!

View from monk's garden, Valldemossa

View from monk’s garden, Valldemossa

Copies of Sand’s travel account, Un Hiver à Majorque, are on sale in the museum in many languages. An English translation by Shirley Kerby James, A Winter in Mallorca, sells well. Clearly tourists like to buy it and relive Sand’s experience here with Chopin, its ups and downs, mostly downs.  His health deteriorated with the winter rains, the cells were miserably furnished and bitterly cold and the local food was unpalatable to them.  If you listen to Chopin’s Prelude in D-flat major, Op. 28 no. 15, sometimes called the Raindrop prelude because of the repeating A flat which seems to imitate insistent raindrops – it’s believed he wrote it during a rainstorm – remember him at this low point in his physical health, remember that this music came from his suffering.

As for Valldemossa, I can recommend it if you like well cared-for stone houses and cobbled streets, green-shuttered windows, and if you like to be surrounded by your fellow human beings, for masses of them flock to this village to see the place that unceremoniously inspired Chopin to write beautiful music, the place where Sand observed so astutely the Mallorcans and a few monks left over from the days when the Real Cartuja was a functioning Spanish monastery.

*****

George, Frédéric and Valldemossa

Early morning moon, Valldemossa, Mallorca

Early morning moon, Valldemossa, Mallorca

Morning, Valldemossa.  Defeated by the insomnia of jet lag, I rise and open the curtains to a full moon shining on me.  It’s four o’clock.  Sheep down below the valley wall shuffle through grass, chewing and bleating.  No other sound; no other presence; it’s the other extreme of Valldemossa.  Twelve hours ago the streets crawled with tourists, Europeans on spring holiday spending their money in the restaurants and terrace cafés, in the souvenir and art shops.  Their numbers surprised me.  I’d expected this small village to be of minor touristic interest, but I was wrong.  It’s all because of George Sand.  Well, more precisely, because of Frédéric Chopin.

His is the famous name.  Even the non-musical could tell you he composed music in some past century.  Without him, Valldemossa’s cafés wouldn’t be nearly as profitable.  It began when he fell in love with one of nineteenth-century-France’s gifted writers, George Sand, a woman six years older with two children in tow. In need of a warmer, healing clime for his bad chest, they ventured to Mallorca in the Mediterranean.  After a few weeks of hurdles and blocks (inevitable when travelling abroad) they found themselves on the west coast of the island, temporary residents of three monk cells in a recently secularised monastery, the Real Cartuja de Valldemossa. Real for Royal. Cartuja for Carthusian.  Once a king’s residence, then a Carthusian monastery.  Now a museum and tourist attraction.

Real Cartuja, Valldemossa

Real Cartuja, Valldemossa

I’m quietly, very quietly, celebrating the publishing of my translation of Spiridion, George Sand’s novel that she finished in the cells of the Real Cartuja while Chopin, in his poor health, composed several pieces – Preludes, a Polonaise, a Ballade, a Scherzo.

When you wake at three, the morning is long.  I wait for the new day by writing, and eating scraps of leftover food, my First Breakfast, like the hobbit.  Now it’s ten to seven and the ragged Mallorcan mountains are silhouetted in the east. It’s seven o’clock and church bells in the monastery are ringing. It’s twenty past seven and there’s light, soft and shaded by mountains. The warm yellow street lamps are still on. It’s a quarter to eight and the lamps are now off.  It’s half past eight and the hotel owners have set the tables.  Time for Second Breakfast.

Valldemossa sheep

Valldemossa village with sheep

Spiridion

Four years ago I began translating one of George Sand’s novels:  Spiridion.  She was, some say, the first French feminist.  I wrote a post about her here, not because she was a feminist but because she did what people said she couldn’t do:  George Sand was a female who earned her living from writing, which, if it’s difficult in the 21st century, was next to impossible in the 19th.

Two years ago I finished the translation, and SUNY Press agreed to publish it.

Today, sitting in an airport in a foreign land – an unusual experience no matter how many times I do it – I’ve received an email from them to say Spiridion is now available as an ebook from their website.  I’ve had a few short translated pieces published in literary journals, but this is the first novel.  It’s a morning of unusual things.

In May it will be available as a real hold-in-your-hand book.  Fantastic!

Here’s the book cover and summary of the story, with a little bit about me as the translator, copied from the web page.  Hope it tickles your 19th-century French literary fancies!

Spiridion cover

An abbot’s ghost searches for an intelligent monk to exhume his manuscript from a hellish crypt and learn the truth that monks lack two things: freedom of inquiry and benevolence.

Both Gothic and philosophical, Spiridion tells the story of a young novice, Angel, who finds himself cruelly ostracized by his monastic superiors and terrified by the ghostly visits of his monastery’s founder, the abbot Spiridion. Though he founded the monastery on the search for truth, Spiridion watched his once intelligent and virtuous monks degenerate into a cruel, mindless community. Turning away from the Church and withdrawing into his cell, he poured his energy into a manuscript that tells the “truth” about Roman Catholic doctrine and monastic life and provides a vision of a new and eternal gospel. The manuscript was buried with him, and his spirit now searches for a monk who is intelligent enough to exhume it from his crypt, which is guarded by hellish spirits, and share its vision with the world.

Translated into English for the first time in more than 160 years, Spiridion offers a fierce critique of Catholic doctrine as well as solutions for living with the Church’s teachings. Although Sand had broken with the Church several years earlier, she nevertheless continued to believe in an omnipotent God, and her novel makes the distinction, as Angel’s protector, Father Alexis, puts it, “between the authority of faith and the application of this authority in the hands of men.” As translator Patricia J. F. Worth argues in her introduction, the novel’s emphasis on freedom of inquiry, benevolence, and moral reform inspired other nineteenth-century writers, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Matthew Arnold, and Henry James, and the novel is also relevant to twenty-first-century discussions of religious authority and rigid adherence to doctrine.

“This is an excellent translation of a tale of the supernatural by a major French author. With her searing critique of Catholicism and its labyrinthine structures, Sand in Spiridion deconstructs her culture in a way similar to what Mary Shelley has done in Frankenstein. Both works are effective as horror stories, but both can also sustain serious academic inquiry, yielding still deeper rewards. Beyond academe, serious students of religion will also find that Spiridion’s subject matter raises provocative theological questions.” — Lynn Hoggard, translator of Nelida by Marie d’Agoult

Patricia J. F. Worth is a French-English translator and private tutor of English and French. She received her master of translation studies from the Australian National University, Canberra, where she focused on nineteenth-century French literature and recent New Caledonian literature.

 *****

On the SUNY Press web page for Spiridion there’s a link to what is called the ‘first chapter’, but it will in fact take you to the introductory material.  So, to read the first chapter you will have to get the book…

Happy Reading!

*****

Weekly photo challenge: Orange

If I ask ‘Aren’t you glad it’s photo challenge time?’ it doesn’t sound like ‘Orange you glad it’s photo challenge time?’  But for Americans at WordPress who pronounce all the r’s it does, and I don’t mind because they give us brilliant photo prompts, like this weekend’s orange idea.  Yes, I am glad it’s photo challenge time because I saw something amazing in orange just a few months ago at a Christmas celebration where some women performed an Indian dance, and I took this photo as they spun like whirling dervishes.  The ‘something amazing in orange’ is my daughter-in-law, who loves India, has lived in India and would make a great Bollywood dancer.  She’s actually amazing in any colour!

Orange sari

 

Weekly photo challenge: Symmetry

I found this photo of the Grand Hotel in my father’s war album, from his time in Egypt in 1941/42 with the AIF.  The hotel in central Cairo is part of the Gamalian complex built in 1939, designed by Kamal Ismail.  At street level are the hotel foyer and shops, above them is a mezzanine level of offices, and then eight floors of apartments.  The complex is an excellent example of stark modernist architecture with its streamlined, symmetrical arrangement of facade details, repetition of balconies, rounded corners, simple balustrades and lack of ornamentation.

On the right and left of the photo where it is out of focus there are small corner balconies on separate buildings, between which there are three pedestrian walkways leading to a central rotunda.  The walkways these days are blocked with shops and stalls, but they were designed to allow natural ventilation and illumination between the three parts of the complex, as you can see in the layout plan below the photo.

Grand Hotel, Cairo, c1941

Grand Hotel, Cairo, c1941

Layout plan Gamalian Complex and Grand Hotel Cairo

I found the plan at archnet.org in a very interesting article, “Gamalian:  a rediscovery”, about the design and innovations in the complex.  The author laments the deterioration of the buildings since their construction in 1939.

Thanks to the Daily Post for this photo challenge.

*****

A moment in time

Today there’s a prompt to show and tell:  show the last photo I’ve taken, and tell the story behind that moment in time.

Yesterday I was passing the Civic library where I’ve worked casually as a tutor for a couple of years.  There’s something in there that I’ve often wanted to photograph, but when I’m working I’m too busy for such an indulgence, though I sit gazing up at it while my student is busy with his writing exercises.  Yesterday it wasn’t a work day, I had my camera, and I had time.

Here it is, my last photo.  It’s of an artwork suspended from the library ceiling, a stripped down Vietnamese boat.  The oars are long golden arms and hands pushing through the air, while a pair of eyes on the prow watches where the boat is going.  The artist, Nerine Martini of Sydney, created the work during an artist residency in Vietnam in 2006 and has exhibited it in Vietnam on a lake (on a stand in the water) and at outdoor sculpture exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne.  The design of the Civic library is ideal for hanging a long object in the high-ceilinged space above the ground floor, up there at the mezzanine level where we can lean over the railing and look into the boat.  The golden hands, each with a different gesture, reach out to the viewer;  it was tempting to reach my own hand out to touch one.  I didn’t.

Lifeboat: Thuyen Cuu Roi by Nerine Martini

Lifeboat: Thuyen Cuu Roi by Nerine Martini

It was an odd moment finally seeing the boat up close, as pleasurable as I expected it to be.  But up on the mezzanine level where I took an earlier photo (see my header), as I leaned over the rail I was aware of a tutor at a table behind me teaching four students.  I knew her.  She was enjoying the interaction with her group, so I studied the boat for some moments and then I turned to her and quietly said “Hi, Jenny”.  Although I have known her for five years, she looked at me blankly.  I most uncomfortably interrupted her class to explain our connection as tutors.  “Your face looks vaguely familiar,” she said.

I left the library feeling fulfilled but forgettable.   Not so the rugged beauty of the Lifeboat.

*****