I'm a writer and linguist. My short stories have been published in several literary magazines and some of my stage plays have been professionally performed with the support of Arts Council England. One of my essays was shortlisted by Wasafiri Magazine for their Life Writing Competition 2014. As a linguist, I've authored four textbooks, including Digital Textuality (2015, Palgrave Macmillan), and I've had my research published in several books and journals. I am also a regular contributor to the Literary Encyclopedia.
I’ve been receiving the New York Times daily newsletters on the war in Ukraine. In the early days, I was reading every item, every report, every commentary. This was on top of other reports from television, radio, papers (The Observer, I Paper) and magazines (The New Yorker, The Atlantic). As the days turned into weeks and now months, I’ve been skimming the reports and reading only the commentaries, looking for predictions of when and how the war will end. By skimming, I’m left with something like a word cloud in my mind. This week’s reports look like this:
As for the predictions, I’m reminded of lines from Robert Frost’s famous poem:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
Today, the New York Times announced that it was ending the daily newsletter: ‘The pace of news has changed from the initial furious days of the war. And so, we’re changing too. Beginning next week, we’ll be landing in your inbox three times per week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday.’ With this, the NYT is admitting that the war is dragging on and is less newsworthy given the international financial crisis, the pandemic fallout and climate change. In Britain, the news this week has been dominated by rising fuel prices and the shooting death of a nine-year old girl in Liverpool. The Ukrainian war seems further than the 1,500 miles between London and Kiev.
This concerns me. Other recent wars have continued for years and petered out of our collected consciousness in the West, such as in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Official conflicts over, they seem to leave behind anti-western sentiments and percolating terrorists’ cells. But these are problems western governments deal with, experiencing mixed results among peaks and troughs of public interest. The situation with Russia is different. In Putin we see an unpredictable leader, who conducts cyberattacks on foreign powers, imprisons and poisons his personal enemies and makes strategic military mistakes, which are covered up by propaganda. Above all else, Putin’s government, which doesn’t look like it’s crumbling down any time soon, has nuclear weapons – even the smallest ground missiles can destroy crops and cause illnesses well-beyond Ukraine – and Putin’s Russia could damage and is currently circling nuclear power stations in Ukraine.
This is where I’m at after continuing to read the commentaries. I’m afraid the word cloud has been replaced by a mushroom cloud.
I wasn’t looking for a theme, but in the last few weeks I just happened to read two books set in the US and Central America during the 1960s. I was a baby when Kennedy was assassinated and only half experienced this decade as a young child. Yet it keeps a grip on my consciousness – a combination of selective nostalgia for the music and the changing attitudes and a fascination with that era’s dubious social politics and reshaping of world order. These two books, Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer and Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, delivered on both fronts.
A Book of Common Prayer was written in 1977 and has enjoyed a resurgence since the author’s death last year. (I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to it given that I’ve been an admirer of Didion’s non-fiction for decades.) Set mostly in the fictitious country of Boca Grande, somewhere in Central America, it dips in and out of the US, where the main characters are from, with flashbacks and flashforwards. A personal and political story, the novel gently satires the privileged lives of Americans in the corrupt country, war-torn and exploited by American involvement. The narrator, the widowed Grace, owns most of the country’s land and knows its political secrets when she meets Charlotte, a wealthy and naïve norteamericana, as she is called. Charlotte, married to a lawyer who traffics weapons, is eluding the FBI, who are searching for Charlotte’s fugitive daughter, an architype of the 60s rebellious generation. Keenly observing Charlotte’s behaviours that range from flippantly self-centred to darkly mysterious, Grace’s narration exudes a controlled voice that delivers wry comments with aplomb. It’s writing that leaps out at you while never neglecting the character-driven story or the slippery ruthlessness of the US presence in Central America at that time.
Angie Cruz’s Dominicana came out in 2019 and is mainly set in New York in the 60s, when immigrants were arriving from the Dominican Republic to escape poverty, civil war and ultimately an American invasion. In the Dominican Republic, Ana, aged 15, is chosen to marry Juan, who has negotiated a deal to purchase her family’s land and take Ana to America, where he and his brothers are working. With falsified documents, Ana becomes 19 and soon finds herself in a starkly different culture where she doesn’t speak the language, spending her days alone cooking and cleaning for her abusive two-timing husband. The stranger in a strange land is a worn trope, but here it works because it doesn’t drive the plot. The need to send money home to her family and contend with her own personhood while pregnant move this story into a page-tuner. Along with delving into the hardships of immigration and oppression of women, the reader is treated to glimpses of 60s America, where vintage episodes of I Love Lucy bemuse and influence Ana’s views of Americans. Though stylistically not in the class of Didion’s writing, it has its literary moments, including a delightful sex scene featuring a pregnant woman.
Both novels fed into my 60s selective nostalgia, while reminding me of the difficulties of the time. If I could time travel, I wouldn’t go back to that decade, especially as an adult, especially as a woman. Some time periods are best viewed from the vantage point of hindsight with a helping of fictional escapism.
With the death of James Lovelock last week at the ripe age of 103, the obits have been full of his quotable remarks. He once said, ‘Too many greens are not just ignorant of science, they hate science.’ Lovelock wrote this in 1964 in his seminal book Homage to Gaia, reflecting on his hypothesis that the earth was like a self-regulating organism. It seems unimaginable now, but this idea that greens hate science held through the 70s and into the 80s. That was when the shift started to take hold and green politics was shedding off its hippy-come-new age origins. I recall being on the crust of that wave and how it changed my life.
My early childhood in the 60s was peppered with tie-dyed t-shirts, peace signs, Joan Baez and psychedelia. Although I was only superficially aware of it, the 60s saw the birth of the ecology movement and green politics. Although Lovelock was publishing his Gaia hypothesis before this time, the science behind his ideas hadn’t yet taken hold in the popular mindset. Unlike environmentalism today, the hippies and new agers lead this eco-awareness by pointing the figure not only at governments, but also at scientists that gave us the technologies that polluted our air and water. The emphasis was on returning to the sanctity of nature. This would have a huge influence on my thinking for years to come, aided and abetted by my post-divorce mother, who was a compulsive shopper for spirituality.
My late childhood and teen years were marked by a parade of Hindu swamis, mediation groups, psychic readings, Course in Miracles meetings and creative consciousness workshops, dabbling along the way in the Kabala, Zen Buddhism, Sufism and the writings of Carlos Castaneda. All of this was laced with pop psychology, and all of this was seen as cool. The highlights were the spiritual retreats led by the spiritual group du jour out into nature – forest preserves near Chicago or a jaunt up to the Wisconsin countryside. Since my family didn’t own a car, any trip that was devoid of public transport and that meant getting away from city neighbourhoods and skyscrapers was itself an otherworldly experience. Meditation and chanting were not required.
At these retreats that, alongside tree-hugging – I mean this literally – I was exposed to a dangerous dichotomy. Spirituality seemed anti-science because it accepted phenomena (e.g., psychic healing) that could not be explained by science. Scientists, especially medical scientists, didn’t know what they were doing. Like the materialists, they were seen as corporate and were pushing us away from higher consciousness, formerly known as God. I was aware of some of the ironies even then. The new age movement was in its own way commercial and corporate and had its share of charlatans, looking to separate people from their money. The biggest irony of them all was that scientists were the ones informing us about the long-term consequences of pollution – the greenhouse effect and climate change.
I was also troubled by this polemic as a teenager as my interests in biology and astronomy was growing in parallel to my interests in literature and language. Such is the mind of a teenager, where everything and nothing seem possible. I suspected a non-spiritual career move into the sciences would have had a detrimental effect on my relationship with my mother, self-righteous and judgmental in her quest for spirit.
As my world opened through education and travel, the spiritual movement was losing its grip on me. But something in it, perhaps its comforting familiarity or the idea that these spiritual paths went against convention, still held an attraction for me. It was there like an old song from childhood, a welcomed earworm.
In the mid-80s, when I was a postgrad at Edinburgh studying linguistics, my mother would write to me hinting that I take advantage of being in Scotland to visit Findhorn, a spiritual community in Inverness. It was known at the time for its organic farming and less charitably as a place that Americas visited to become hippies. I was intrigued enough to take the four-hour train journey – but on my own terms. I attended an environmental conference held at the community. It was a heady mix, intended to bring together spirituality and environmentalism. Interestingly, despite the distinctive styles and ways of speaking, the two domains did not clash. I realised that these worlds were no longer divided as they were in my childhood. As an aside, in the years since then, Findhorn has renamed itself as an ‘ecovillage.’
While my mother thought I was at Findhorn discovering spirit, I was meeting with Green Party members and representatives from environmental NGOs. And it was there that I encountered Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, in all its beauty, its science and metaphor rolled into one.
I satisfied my mother’s spiritual needs in my letter to her with a new age spin on Gaia – that is, the Native American’s has been saying this all along – and I mentioned to her the Druids and self-proclaimed psychics and healers that I had met. I left out the geology, chemistry and biology supporting Lovelock’s work.
That was the last ‘spiritual retreat’ I went on. Gaia was the footbridge that took me into the sciences, leaving behind on the other side a dubious spiritual land. The river in between flows with psychology that I dip into and accept and the mindfulness in my daily meditation practice that can be seen as spiritual and/or physiological.
It’s that time of year when we’re bombarded with recommendations of what to read while on the beach or in the garden or, if your British and it’s raining, in the camper or beach hut. The New Yorker’s recommendations start with ‘For your summer reading, it might be nice to go with something relatively light.’ As I’ve been reading these listacles and adding a couple of titles to my Amazon Wishlist (though eventually I’ll get some from the library), I’ve noticed what’s missing – the books I’ve been reading so far this summer. Explainer: with an apartment in Nice and no school calendar to follow, my summer began in mid-May. I’m not complaining.
The three fiction books I’ve read for my first half of summer, and summer does seem to be more about fiction, are all authored by Ukrainian writers. While a couple have had favourable reviews in the popular press, with one on the New York Times best-seller list, none of them appear to be worthy of ‘summer reads.’ Is summer reading all about light subject matters for our holiday-mode brains? Or is there an unwritten rule among media outlets that summer reading should be detached from the harsh realities of current events?
Ignoring the summer hit list, my reading choices came from my friends and book reviews from earlier in the year.
Late May was consumed by Sweet Darusya: A Tale of Two Villages by Maria Matios. A deceptively simple read with a hint of magical realism, it could have been on any summer list. Perhaps it didn’t make the cut because it deals with some of the cruelty of life in Ukraine. Not the Ukraine that has been in our news since late February. This novel is set in a rural Carpathian village from the 1940s to the 60s, telling the story in three parts in reverse chronological order. The dysfunctional and often brutal lives of the two families at the centre of these interlocked tales have their moments of dry humour and weirdness. Ultimately it takes the reader back to the Second World War when the village was seized by the Romanians, followed by the Soviets, the Germans and back to the Soviets again. Though not a story about war, the fighting holds a shadowy presence. ‘Life and war continued simultaneously, at the same time dependent on and independent from one another.’
A few weeks in June went to Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov. Set soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea when Russian-backed separatists were fighting Ukrainians in Donetsk and Luhansk, this story is all about war but from the view of civilians caught up in it. During this conflict, Donbas became a grey zone, which included a village where only a beekeeper and a ‘sort of friend’- that is, a friend of convenience – remain with limited resources. More of a page turner than Sweet Darusya, Grey Bees has characters I cared about and could chuckle with. The novel is sprinkled with light touches of humour and socio-political satire, and yet at the same time manages to convey the gravity of the circumstances for these lost souls.
I’ve ended this Ukrainian trio last week with a collection of stories by Oksana Zabuzhko called Your Ad Could Go Here. Indeed, the stories are as diverse as advertisements, a potpourri of subjects, written with the sophistication and bizarre juxtaposition of Zabuzhko’s celebrated poetry. I’ll let her prose speak for itself in this passage of a woman trying to go about her routine the morning after a casual sex encounter:
“Later she takes a long, thorough bath, and brushes her teeth three times because the odour seems permanent, and when she steps out of the bath, it’s starting to turn grey outside. Vovka Lasota lies in her bed with his head wrapped in the sheets like a Bedouin corpse ready for burial, and just like the dead Bedouin, he has nowhere to go (sure, divorce isn’t easy on anyone, especially on men, who soon seem like abandoned dogs who’ll lick anyone, seeking a master).”
I’m glad I didn’t let the heat wave (39C in Ely last week) stop me from taking in these books that might not be beach reading but seem as important as they were enjoyable. Forget the summer reading listacles, I’m keeping some of my thoughts with people trapped in this ruthless war.
In recent days, the US Supreme Court has made two rulings against the wishes and strongly held opinions of most US citizens.
The first was the ruling against the state of New York’s gun laws. The Supreme Court divined that carrying a concealed handgun in public was a legal right upheld by the US Constitution. The Constitution that I studied in the eighth grade was not only written in the 18th century by white landowning males, but never mentioned concealed handguns or individuals protecting themselves with guns. The constitutional right to bear arms was to protect communities from militarized governmental powers.
This Supreme Court ruling brought to mind the whole handgun debate that was sweeping America back in the early 90s, when I last lived Stateside. This was before semi-automatics were regularly featured in mass shootings. One of the arguments against handguns was that they, unlike hunting rifles, were easy to conceal and therefore the weapon of choice for criminals. Such arguments are still true thirty years later.
Following American news from Europe, I expect to see more murders and more bystanders shot by misguided bullets, just as I expect to see a continuation of mass shootings. These predictions are not only the common-sense views shared by most Americans, but also the expert opinion of criminologists and law enforcement specialists. Yet, the nine members of the Supreme Court, who hold jobs for life and do not need to run political campaigns sponsored by the NRA, seem to be motivated by their own sense of intellectual superiority.
The other ruling against the views of US citizenry and expert opinion – in this case public health workers and medical scientists – was the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Some studies say two-thirds of Americans, others say 85%, support the right to an abortion. That is, the majority of us are aware that most women seeking abortions have already had children and cannot afford to have any more. We also know about abuse and rape and medical conditions that make giving birth untenable, if not dangerous. For the justices on the Supreme Court, the rights of women over their bodies and the health of women are no longer important, nor is the prospect of more children born into poverty and the public health consequences of that.
While many in the media and public figures around the world have been quick to call this decision a ‘step backward’ for women’s rights, this is even worse than that. According to The New Yorker, recent decades have seen some US states create laws that criminalise not only women who have abortions, but those who have had miscarriages and stillbirths that government officials claim were induced by the mother. It’s hard to believe that the Supreme Court justices are unaware of these Gilead-like laws. Apparently, these justices are again acting on their understandings of what is best for society – that is, the subjugation of women. These justices know better than the women themselves, than health workers, than social workers, than medical scientists, than those of us that support the pro-choice movement. The arrogance of it all.
From this side of the pond, I find myself, like many Europeans, shocked and bewildered. Like many Americans who have emigrated from the so-called Land of the Free, I’m grateful that I’m not living there.
For the past five years the Royal Society of Literature has celebrated the writings of Virginia Woolf on a Wednesday in June. Today is that Wednesday. Interesting that this society has chosen the short novel Mrs Dalloway for the festival name. As much as I appreciate Mrs Dalloway, and have read it twice, of Woolf’s oeuvre, To the Lighthouse is a richer story, one that had me up until 3 am to finish it, and it remains at the top of my list.
I appreciate that Mrs Dalloway is more accessible than some of Woolf’s other books. It has also benefitted from an excellent film adaption (1997), with Vanessa Redgrave in the lead role. Written in a third-person omniscient narration as if in the mind of Clarissa Dalloway, the story takes place in London over a 24-hour period soon after the end of the First World war, moving continuously between the past and the present as remembered and interpreted by Clarissa. The intensity of the drama unfolds in otherwise mundane circumstances as Clarissa prepares for a party at her home, which she shares with her husband, a wealthy politician. Depicting an era full of hope and a renewed sense of freedom mixed with the unhealed wounds in the aftermath of war, one of key subplots involves a veteran suffering from what was then called shell shock (PTSD).
Stylistically, Mrs Dalloway is well worth reading. The dreamy stream-of-conscientiousness style with calculated repetitions weaves together emotions, actions and dialogues. While the book has many quotable lines, I’ll just give you this to savour:
‘She belonged to a different age, but being so entire, so complete, would always stand up on the horizon, stone-white, eminent, like a lighthouse marking some past stage on this adventurous, long, long voyage, this interminable—this interminable life.’
But is this enough to justify a day to celebrate the writings of Virginia Woolf? I think so for the simple reason that in modern parlance, she is an influencer. Her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own is an often-quoted title, edging on the verge of cliché. Mrs Dalloway served as the premise to the point of modern-day-rewrite for Michael Cunningham’s brilliant The Hours. Taking a somewhat cynical look at Woolf worship combined with social satire on reality television, I flagrantly purloined from the author’s life and works in my stage play Virginia Woolf Get a Makeover. This list of borrowings probably has no end.
Dare I say that people who have never read Woolf’s work know of her, and I’d like to think that this virtual holiday encourages more people to read one of the English language’s greatest writers.
One of my former colleagues was stabbed to death, allegedly by her husband. After hearing about this from a former student of ours, I went online to find the story. There was very little in English press even though this had happened a couple of days earlier in England. The university announced her death and their sadness at the news but gave no details. The Italian press was full of stories about the killing, with headlines such as ‘Italian Professor murdered in Britain.’ One of the Italian papers reported this as a ‘jealous rage’ due to her ‘career success.’ Another focused on her husband as being ‘Turkish-Syrian and holding a British passport.’ Another still on how her family was helping her to return to Italy without him. These ways of explaining the tragedy and reducing it to a soap opera narrative, laced with xenophobia, only added more anger to my bag of emotions – shock being on top.
I stumbled upon the Italian version of Vanity Fair. They started their report with a simple fragment sentence – ‘Another femicide.’ My former colleague and friend is already a statistic.
Antonella and I worked together for four years. We had been hired within a year of each other and bonded as the only PhD’s and the only Italians in the English department (though our colleagues saw me as only American). She was from northern Italy and so fluent in English, we only spoke Italian to one another on a few occasions. My strongest memories of her involve her laughing – she had a wild and loud laugh. In our serious moments, we had some great conversations about literary criticism, language and her love for Pasolini. She authored a book on the controversial poet and film director, and to this very day, any mention of Pasolini makes me think of her.
As I was looking online trying to grab what I could of Antonella’s life and her untimely death, I kept on seeing the same photo – a university mug shot in black and white. I typed her name into Google Images, and one of the first pictures that came up was of her and me at a poetry reading. It’s a blurred image but seems appropriate as she has become blurry in my life. Academic politics can be vicious, and it appeared to come between us. I have to say ‘appeared’ as this was down to the machinations of others. I left the university, shaking off the whole mess, and lost touch with colleagues good and bad. One of my regrets was not re-establishing the friendship she and I once held.
As Antonella is the victim of yet ‘another femicide,’ in my mind memories of her life will forever be entwined with the manner of her death. I am angry, resentful at the ways of the world. I return to Pasolini and find one of his most famous poems translated into English. Rest in peace, Antonella.
The Day of My Death
In a city, Trieste or Undine along an avenue bordered by linden trees in spring when the leaves change colour
I will fall dead under a burning noonday sun my eyes closing upon the sky and its splendour.
Beneath the mild green of the lindens I will sink into the black of my death parting from the sun and the leaves. Beautiful young boys will run in the light I will now have lost streaming from their schools curls on their brows.
I will still be young, in a bright shirt, my hair tender in the rain falling on the bitter dust. I will still be warm and a child running on the soft asphalt of the avenue will come and rest his hand on my crystal loins.
I usually don’t start with quotes, but this time I will:
‘Does an American belong more in America than elsewhere when most of us came from elsewhere? How to account for the violence of founding a country on someone else’s land? How can any model of American belonging function unproblematically on top of such a heritage? But then wasn’t every country in the world formed out of conflict over who owned the land? All of human history is a story of migrations and conquests. All of us are exiles, but some of us are more aware of it than others.’
This is from Lauren Elkin’s book-length essay, Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London.
Given the current prominence of replacement theory and its proponents among the extreme right in Western countries, especially America, I do wonder about the role of belonging, or this false sense of belonging, in this twisted ideology.
The New York Times recently published their study of 1,150 episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight. Among the many disturbing findings was Carlson’s version of replacement theory, where ‘they‘ want to replace ‘you’ with ‘third world immigrants,’ who are more ‘obedient voters.’ The ‘they’ is the powerful ‘ruling class’ of left-wing so-called liberals, and the ‘you’ is supposed to be his audience, who are perhaps best defined when Carlson points out ‘They call you a racist.’ The reference to ‘immigrant’ suggests that they do not belong in America. Belonging also slinks into Carlson’s diatribes with comments such as ‘They care more about foreigners than their own people.’ Carlson’s idealised American belongs to a grouping of people. Which group of people is never specified. If Carlson tried to specify and delineate this group, he would run into the problem that Elkin writes about.
All of this reminds me that race is a sociocultural concept. But this idea is nothing new, I remember reading an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic Monthlysome nine years ago – which shows the powerful impression it left on me, as opposed to any superb memory on my part. The article was entitled ‘What We Mean When We Say “Race Is a Social Construct.”’ After quoting the historian Nell Irvin Painter who said, ‘Race is an idea, not a fact,’ Coates concludes ‘Indeed. Race does not need biology. Race only requires some… guys with big guns looking for a reason.’ Nine years on, this could still help explain the latest hate-related mass shooting in America in a literal sense and figuratively the likes of Tucker Carlson.
The moral of all of this brings me back to where I started, with a quote from Lauren Elkin: ‘Beware roots. Beware purity. Beware fixity. Beware the creeping feeling that you belong. Embrace flow, impurity, fusion.’
Disasters fascinate. The Titanic still garners interest after 100-plus years. Though I suspect some of that has to do with the lost ship and its treasures. The other side of Titanic fetish comes from the high number of casualties, that mass grave in the North Atlantic, arguably an example of what’s been called ‘dark tourism.’
My disaster fascination is with Pompeii, where some 2,000 people died when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. I first caught Pompeii fever as a child when an exhibit about Pompeii toured America and came to the Art Institute of Chicago. I was mesmerized by the plaster casts made from the ashen moulds of bodies frozen in time at the moment of horrific death. My recollection of this includes seeing people screaming. But that’s an unfaithful childhood memory. The reality wasn’t so detailed or morbidly vivid. Most of the figures are covering their heads, crouched or lying down. My adult self looks at these casts and imagines people being in a state of meditative acceptance of their mortality I visited the remains of Pompeii on two occasions, once in the 80s and sometime around 2005-06. The disaster is still fascinating, but more so for what it has left behind – the artifacts and structures that reveal how the inhabitants of the ancient town lived.
More recently, I had the pleasure of hearing the historian and classicist Mary Beard talk about her book and television series on Pompeii. Beard has changed my way of thinking about these people, for instance, pointing out that it would be wrong to call them Romans. The graffiti and inscribed objects indicate a diverse population, with speakers of Latin, Oscan, Greek and Hebrew.
This point is also picked up in Robert Harris’s brilliant novel Pompeii, a true page-turner set in the days before and during the eruption, with well-drawn characters and an attention to detail praised by historians. Harris digs into the minds of the people of that time who regarded such disasters as vengeance from the gods and the warnings that they had that went unceded. His protagonist, the region’s aquarius responsible for the aqueducts feeding into the towns, makes this observation: ‘Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails – and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?’ This underlying environmental message also makes this worth a read.
There’s another type of dark tourism that I’ve been thinking about lately. The phrase is also used for visiting places like the concentration camp at Auschwitz, the Rwandan genocide towns (Kigali, Nyamata and Ntarma) and the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, where apparently the rubble and twisted metal from the immediate aftermath of the bomb remain in situ. I’d argue that these sites, though they might hold a morbid fascination for some, are more about education, pointing the finger at human destruction and the mistakes of those who turned a blind eye. Watching, reading and hearing the news day in and day out, I wonder if Bucha and Mariupol will become sites for dark tourism.
Wandering around Paris with her camera, the director Agnès Varda once made a short film about them, Les Dites-Cariatides (The So-Called Caryatids). Caryatids are stone statues of women which form load-bearing columns at the front of buildings. Sometimes these women appear to be supporting the lintel above an entranceway, other times they’re preventing a terrace from crumbling down. For all this arduous work, they never grimace or perspire.
According to Lauren Elkin, author of Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, ‘They’re all over Paris, these caryatids. They come in sets of two or four and sometimes many more than that, depending on the building’s ostentation.’ With this in mind, before heading off to Paris last weekend, I investigated caryatids online and found claims of over 500 of these stone women holding up Parisian buildings. The first was sculpted in 1550 by Jean Goujon and can be found in the Louvre – which having seen it years ago, is the last museum I would want to see in Paris, overrated with too many tourists ticking their bucket lists.
Walking all over the 18th arrondissement near Sacré Coeur, I couldn’t find any caryatids, not even a pair of them that I had read about online and knew which street they were on – or not, as the case may be. It wasn’t until the end of our second full day that my David spotted a couple of caryatids on the edge of the 10th arrondissement where we were staying. Typical of the caryatids I’d seen in photos, they were draped in tunics, held neutral expressions and had smooth wrinkleless even-toned skin. Idealised women.
I on the other hand am not a caryatid. In Paris celebrating my 60th birthday, I was aware of the fine wrinkles around my eyes, the patches of dark beige on my hands and those internal signs of aging – the knee that aches after jogging and feeling dozy before 10 pm among them. By the time we were in Paris, I was past the how-could-this-be-happening-to-me stage and had come to accept this milestone birthday as the start of a new, and hopefully worthwhile and productive, stage of life. It is a new stage. As much as I still feel ‘middle-aged,’ sixty has given me my ‘senior’ railcard and other discounts all over Europe. It has also made me think more about full retirement – if a writer can ever be fully retired – and how I will spend the years ahead, hoping to stay active in every sense and to experience new things, discovering writers and artists and the hidden gems – such as caryatids – in cities like Paris, Nice and London.
In the end I only saw ten caryatids (five sets of two). Agnès Varda’s film is 12 minutes long and only shows some 30 caryatids, which confirms my suspicion of the exaggerated claims of their ubiquity in Paris. The film is worth seeing for the beauty of the images and the accompanying poetry of Charles Baudelaire, a film made when Varda was 56. She continued making films well past her sixtieth birthday.