Monday, June 11, 2012

Reading Concatenation -- of Asparagus and Painting and Pleasing Coincidences

I love when something I'm reading bumps into something I've read recently. Of course, this sends the little file clerk who presides over my memory scurrying through the vaults, tossing pages frantically hither and yon, in search of the vaguely remembered image or, sometimes, the painfully specific yet frustratingly elusive paragraph.

Most recently, it was a reference in Mark Doty's Still Life with Oysters and Lemons that triggered the search. Speaking of "[t]he still life's movement [throughout its 17th-century history in, especially, Dutch painting] toward simplicity," Doty speaks of its culmination in "paintings of single things, rendered with an absolute attention, a perfection of eye and hand brought to what is no longer in dialogue with anything else [as he's analysed things as being, in multi-object still life painting], but a simple one-on-one exchange, object to viewer." His example is Adriaen Coorte's 1697 painting Still Life with Asparagus of which he says "The title misleads; there is nothing to be seen but asparagus, and never has it been so thoroughly seen. A bundle of stalks, tied by a bit of raffia or twine, rests on the edge of a stone slab or ledge, propped at a slight angle on the back of a single stalk that has perhaps slipped out of the pack." Doty goes on to describe the painting's colours, and to offer some history and technical detail about the paints themselves. He includes painting advice offered by a 17th-century painting manual.

Doty links this close attention to the range of colours in asparagus to a moment in Proust. And at some point during my reading of the two or three pages he devotes to Coorte's painting, a glimmer of memory sought my attention, tugging like an insistent two-year old at her mother's skirt. Reading on the ferry, I put my Kobo aside and searched through my bag for a pen and notebook, harnessing my often errant memory, committing to ink the first breadcrumb leading me back to wherever else I had recently read about asparagus and paintings together.

A simple process of elimination meant that I started my search with the book I finished 7 or 8 weeks ago, Edmund De Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes. And here I had some detective luck, as my reader's habits include jotting down, just inside the front cover, any page numbers of passages I want to be able to find again. Inside that cover, then, I've pencilled, in teeny scrawled letters, "p. 75 charming anecdote - Manet asparagus." Turning to that page, I arrive at De Waal's account of his great grandfather's cousin Charles Ephrussi's art collection. Charles, as De Waal tells it, "created one of the great early collections of the Impressionists"; he was an important advocate of their movement generally, and a supportive patron of its struggling members. Here's the anecdote I found so charming:

Charles bought a picture of some asparagus from Manet, one of his extraordinary small still lifes, where a lemon or rose is lambent in the dark. It was a bundle of twenty stalks bound in straw. Manet wanted 800 francs for it, a substantial sum, and Charles, thrilled, sent 1,000. A week later Charles received a small canvas signed with a simple M in return. It was a single asparagus stalk laid across a table with an accompanying note: "This seems to have slipped from the bundle."

Compounding the coincidence my memory strove to put together, De Waal immediately continues with a reference to Proust, who, he tells us, "knew Charles's paintings well from visits to his apartment, [and] retells the story to his credit" (75).  De Waal notes Proust has his Duke de Guermantes fume, of a painting by the fictional painter Elstir, "modelled partly on Whistler and partly on Renoir," that 'There was nothing else in the picture. A bundle of asparagus exactly like what you're eating now. But I must say I declined to swallow Monsieur Elstir's asparagus. He asked three hundred francs for a bundle of asparagus. A Louis, that's as much as they're worth, even if they are out of season. I thought it a bit stiff." (76).

De Waal includes a photo of Edouard Manet's Une botte d'aspèrges in his book -- you can see a copy here. Paris' Musée d'Orsay offers an image of the single spear here, along with its version of the anecdote De Waal tells. Coorte's much earlier canvas is pictured here; interesting that there are two versions of the single spear, separated by two centuries . . .

We brought home our own bundles of white asparagus from the market several times last month in France. Verging on grotesque, their thick, odd, phallic beauty cooks into a succulent treat, although one must guard against fibrosity, choosing and trimming and cooking attentively. Their slippery delicacy suits, to me at least, being served tepid, even cool, with a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette.  I saw them in our local grocery store the other day, but they'd been shipped up from California so were probably several days from the field, and I passed by them with only the slightest twinge of regret. Whenever I do eat them again, it will be a memorable occasion -- their season is short, their range limited. And every time I eat them again, I think I've organised my memory now so that these two passages, these two writers, and these two painters will be united, my reading having bumped them together in the most fortuitous and productive way.

Tell me, have you such an experience to recount? Oh, of course you have! You wouldn't be reading here if you weren't a reader, and eventually, as a reader, your biblio-memory will bump up against something you're currently reading and deliver you the most serendipitous shiver of recognition. Tell me about it, would you?

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