a little life

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Boy with hand to face (1910) by Egon Schiele. Watercolour held in a private collection. Public domain.

I’ve finished reading Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life. Oh my, what a book. Such compelling reading. I don’t know what else to say, except: Just read it.

I found two punctuation metaphors this time.

Willem always thought they clearly looked like brothers — they had their parents’ light, bright hair, and their father’s gray eyes, and both of them had a groove, like an elongated parentheses, bracketing the left side of their mouths that made them appear easily amused and ready to smile — but no one else seemed to notice this.

and

He was so discombobulated that he forgot that Willem was already onstage when he called, but when Willem called him back at intermission, he was still in the same place on the bed, in the same comma-like shape, the phone still cupped beneath his palm.

aftermath

On the occasion of the signing of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, Thomas Hardy wrote the poem ‘And there was a great calm’. This is the last stanza.

IX

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?’

The word ‘aftermath’ springs to mind.

Nevinson, Christopher Richard Wynne, 1889-1946; Rain and Mud after the Battle

Rain and mud after the battle (1917) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson. Painting held in Museums Sheffield, UK. Public domain.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), ‘-math’ is related to ‘mow’ and the word ‘aftermath’ has been in use since the end of the 15th century, meaning ‘a second crop or new growth of grass […] after the first has been mown or harvested’.

A century and a half later the word is also used figuratively to mean ‘a period or state of affairs following a significant event, esp. when that event is destructive or harmful’.

youth mourning 1916 clausen iwm-art-004655

Youth mourning (1916) by George Clausen. Painting held at the Imperial War Museums, UK. Public domain. — This painting is believed to have been inspired by the death of the artist’s daughter’s fiancé during the war.

Mother_with_her_Dead_Son_(Käthe_Kollwitz)

Enlarged version of Pietà (1937–38/39) by Käthe Kollwitz. Held at the Neue Wache in Berlin, Germany. Image © by Rafael Rodrigues Camargo (CC BY-SA 4.0). — The sculpture shows an old woman holding her dead son and was inspired by the death of the artist’s youngest son in October 1914.

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Mourning parents (1931–32) by Käthe Kollwitz. Sculpture held at the German War Cemetery in Vladslo, Belgium. Image in public domain. — The artist created this memorial for the cemetery where her youngest son, who had died in the war in October 1914, was buried.

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Hospitality to strangers (1920) by Gustave Van de Woestyne. Fresco held at Museum of Schone Kunsten in Gent, Belgium. Public domain. —  This fresco shows the artist inviting a stranger into his home and is believed to have been inspired by the works of mercy mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew and by the sufferings of people after the war, which Van de Woestyne wrote about in his letters at the time.

 

chrysanthemum

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Chrysanthemum by Piet Mondrian (c. 1909). Drawing held in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Public domain.

The Christian holidays All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (on 1 and 2 November, respectively) are to me inevitably associated with the chrysanthemum, a flower that blooms in autumn.

By (or on) 1 or 2 November, most people in Belgium — where I grew up — will make sure to visit the graves of deceased family members and place chrysanthemums on the gravestones.

In my childhood, these chrysanthemums used to be large, pale, globe-shaped or  spidery flowers. Nowadays, they’re round bushes with button-like flowers and strong colours.

The word ‘chrysanthemum’ comes to English, via Latin, from the Greek for ‘gold’ and ‘flower’.

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Sint-Agatha-Rode cemetery in Belgium. Image © by Wouter Hagens (CC BY-SA 3.0).

swallow

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Japanese stone figure of a swallow with opened beak (c. 1925–48) by an anonymous artist. Held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Public domain.

I went to a literary dinner with Danish author Sissel-Jo Gazan at Denmark House here in Melbourne a while back, and I’ve been reading a couple of her novels since — The Dinosaur Feather and The Arc of the Swallow. These two novels have some characters in common and they both mix crime with science and academia. I’m not keen on the author’s writing style but the storylines have kept me reading.

The ‘swallow’ of the second novel is a little wooden sculpture Marie, one of the main characters, receives as a gift because, when they first met, she had reminded the giver of a baby swallow he had rescued as a child. But he had also quickly learnt that swallows are tough birds, trekking the distance from Africa to Europe and back again every year.

I had only just started reading the book when I stumbled upon another punctuation metaphor

Søren scooped Lily up, placed her on the sofa next to Anna and left to hang up his jacket in the hallway. In the doorway he turned and said, ‘By the way, we don’t need to organise someone to look after Lily until she’s better. You can go to the faculty whenever you like. I’ll take care of her.’ Anna looked like a question mark, but when Søren added, ‘I’ve just quit my job,’ her expression turned into an exclamation point.

magnolia

magnoliaIt smells of spring today!

The jasmine on the garden wall is starting to flower and the first buds on the bare grapevines in the courtyard have opened.

Outside my window, the magnolia is in full flower. It’s not my favourite tree but it came with the house. So far it’s doing well, except in summer when its leaves get burnt on the first 30-plus degree day …

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Sparrow on a flowering magnolia branch (1900–30) by Ohara Koson. Woodcut print held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Public domain.

 

Magnolia trees were named after the French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638–1715). In his book Prodromus Historiae Generalis Plantarum, in Quo Familiae Plantarum per Tabulas Disponuntur (1689), Magnol was the first botanist to group plants into families according to characteristics of their roots, stalks, flowers and seeds. This was an important step forward for botany, and other botanists, including Carl Linnaeus, improved on Magnol’s groundbreaking classification.

In 1703, another botanist, Charles Plumier, named a flowering tree in Martinique after Magnol. This was the first magnolia. Carl Linnaeus later also adopted the name for the genus Magnolia.

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Magnolia branch with four flowers (1910–25) by an anonymous photographer. Radiograph held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Public domain.

consolation

painting of two football teams playing under the smokestacks of an industrial city and under dark grey skies

Any wintry afternoon in England (1930) by CRW Nevinson. Painting held in the Manchester Art Gallery, UK. Public domain.

The FIFA World Cup has made me feel a bit isolated. It’s winter down here, so it has been hard to get into the summery, festive atmosphere we were seeing on TV. It’s also in the middle of the night, if you watch the live matches. Strangely, none of my colleagues — even fellow immigrants — were following the event, so there was no football-related small talk in the kitchenette or elevator at work. If it hadn’t been for my seven-year-old neighbour, who plays both football and AFL in his backyard, I would have felt quite alone … To make up for the lack of a team, he tends to play everything: goal-scoring player, commentator and referee. ‘And … he SCORES!!!’ goes his little voice, and then he changes roles, ‘Play on, play on!’

I had to explain some of the rules of the competition to my partner. Luckily, in Dutch we often use the English words interchangeably with the Dutch words. So we may say corner with an accent, of course for hoekschop, penalty for strafschop and off-side for buitenspel. The competition is played in two stages: the group stage (groepsfase) and the knockout stage (knock-outfase). The latter consists of the round of 16 (achtste finales, literally ‘one-eighth finals’), the quarterfinals (kwartfinales), the semifinals (halve finales) and the final (finale). Quite logical compared to the AFL finals

One oddity (compared to AFL) is that, before the final, the two teams that have lost the semifinals have to play off for third and fourth place in the competition in a match unimaginatively called the third-place play-off in English. In Dutch, this match is called ‘the little final’ (de kleine finale) or, rather poetically, ‘the consolation final’ (de troostfinale).

Until now, the closest ‘my’ team had ever come to winning the world cup was the ‘consolation final’ in Mexico in 1986, which they lost. This time, they won the match and therefore the bronze medal, so c’est la fête after all!

blue book, red pencil

spilliaert blue sketchbook 1907

Self-portrait with blue sketchbook (1907) by Léon Spilliaert. Painting held in Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerpen, Belgium. Public domain.

spilliaert red pencil 1908

Self-portrait with red pencil (1908) by Léon Spilliaert. Painting held in Mu.ZEE in Oostende, Belgium. Public domain.