Life Studies: Stories

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9780143036104: Life Studies: Stories

With her richly textured novels Susan Vreeland has offered pioneering portraits of the artist’s life. Now, in a collection of profound wisdom and beauty, she explores the transcendent power of art through the eyes of ordinary people. Life Studies begins with historic tales that, rather than focusing directly on the great Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters themselves, render those on the periphery—their lovers, servants, and children—as their personal experiences play out against those of Manet, Monet, van Gogh, and others. Vreeland then gives us contemporary stories in which her characters—a teacher, a construction worker, and an orphan for example—encounter art in meaningful, often surprising ways. A fascinating exploration of the lasting strength of art in everyday life, Life Studies is a dazzling addition to Vreeland’s outstanding body of work.

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About the Author:

Susan Vreeland is the New York Times bestselling author of eight books, including Clara and Mr. Tiffany and Girl in Hyacinth Blue. She lives in San Diego.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Mimi with a Watering Can

Paris, 1876

Jérôme did not want to go to his sister’s garden party. He did not want to mix cordially with her motley Montmartre neighbors, did not want to sit on a crumbling stone wall among buzzing insects in her half-wild yard drinking that sharp piccolo from the last scraggly Montmartre vineyard, making trivial conversation with some tinsmith or shoemaker or painter Claire might have invited.

“But this is the second time she’s asked,” Élise said, sipping her coffee in the sunny breakfast room with their four-year-old dancing a paper doll around her bowl of porridge. “She’ll think you despise her.”

He loved his sister, but he would much prefer to stay in his dressing gown all morning reading Baudelaire and Verlaine, his method, though of dubious effect, of resisting self-pity, and to spend the afternoon walking one of Baron Haussmann’s new grand boulevards with Élise and Mimi, which might make him feel expansive. Maybe stopping for lunch at Chez Edgard might help him throw off this malaise of dullness. Then they’d stroll home through the Tuileries, or cross the river to Luxembourg Gardens, and not have to talk to anyone else.

All week at the bank he had to be with people, affecting cordiality to clients and to Monsieur le directeur, when there was no juice of cordiality on his tongue. He saw only gray walls, gray desktop, gray ledger books, gray suits, gray hair. He had stood face to face with the director the day before, not even listening to him, only noticing the sickening grayness of the man’s skin. He’d wanted to scream, to curse the monotony right in front of the man, to leap out the door and never come back.

A disappointment in life had taken hold of him lately, originating nowhere, everywhere, a resentment with no logical reason because he had all a man could want—except the thing he couldn’t identify. This morning the dull power of that irony had shocked him. As he lay in bed, just at the moment of waking, the instant when he became conscious that it was Saturday, which should have made him happy, he couldn’t open his eyes. They were stuck shut. With a shudder of panic, he’d made a conscious effort to lift his lids, but the dryness underneath had sealed them shut, and all he succeeded in doing was raising his eyebrows. He lay disoriented for a long time before he tried again. One eye opened part way, with a soft pop, but he’d had to push up the lid of the other with the pad of his ring finger. An absurd experience. Ridiculous to attach any significance to it. Still, he wanted to erase the fear of its happening again by doing something absorbing, by thinking of something exquisite—by reading poetry.

He finished his coffee and noticed Lise’s hopeful, liquid blue eyes. “All right, we’ll go,” he said, not sure that he could be very sociable.

Mimi jumped down from her chair, and stretched her arms out to her sides, raising one arm while lowering the other. “Can we see the windmills, Papa?”

“Naturellement.” He touched Mimi’s head and felt her blond childhood curls slip between his fingers like silk threads.

Upstairs, in their bedroom easy chair, he had time to read one poem before Élise came in to sit at her vanity and dress her hair and prepare her toilette. In a moment she would talk, and the poetic thought would fly away.

C’est l’Ennui!, he read, l’oeil chargé d’un pleur involontaire. An involuntary tear. And for what? Because Baudelaire couldn’t recognize present beauty? Because life is too good? Because in a moment the silk of his wife’s dressing gown might slide down to reveal the shape and smoothness of the globe of her breast and he might smell her sweet musk scent? It made no sense.

“Life is good,” his father had affirmed the last time he’d seen him, chuckling before he added, “but better spent if not devoted to making a living.” This from a man who worked all his life at a desk, uncomplaining, until a month before he died. His father’s declaration ought to have alerted him to something important, but instead, this discontent had taken root.

What was he, some immature, spoiled Romantic overcome with pity that life was smaller and meaner and duller than he would have made it if he’d been the Creator? His gloominess disgusted him, that it clung to him like a stale odor, that it lay like a thief in some deep part of him he couldn’t reach, that he couldn’t shake it. If only his father had lived just two months more, he could have asked him if he’d ever felt this way.

Élise came into the bedroom in a swirl of her dressing gown, talking. “I should not have been able to bear it if you had insisted on staying in today.” Her dimple appeared in her left cheek when she scrutinized herself in the glass. “The view from Claire and Paquin’s garden will be gorgeous.” She lit the small spirit lamp on her dressing table to heat her curling irons. “Maybe you can leave your moodiness at home and manage a little gaiety.”

Her words stung. It was only two months ago that his father died. That wasn’t quite fair. Surely she wouldn’t have said that if she knew about his eyes not opening. He wanted to tell her. Today. He wanted her to see it as a thing quite apart from his own doing, as some unwanted heavy-heartedness come upon him, bearing down, filled with portent. She would comfort him, he was certain of that.

She caught his eye in her wall mirror and smiled in a coquettish way. “Do you know what day it is?” she asked, dampening her curling papers in rose water.

“Saturday.”

Her hands fell to her lap. She turned toward him and waited, her smile devastating him.

“June thirtieth,” he added.

Palm up, she bent her slender index finger toward her.

“Eighteen seventy-six.”

A look came over her face, not of exasperation, which would have been understandable, but of mystery, a faraway look, her eyes lit by a secret, if only he knew what it was.

“Six years ago today ... at Bougival ...” Her voice trailed off as though blown on a cloud, teasing him.

He heard Mimi fussing with her nursemaid in the hallway. “No, I won’t,” her high voice protested, and there came through the half-open doorway the sound of a dainty tantrum of a stamped foot. “I want to wear my new blue one with the lace. And my blue shoes.”

“It’s much too fine for a day in Montmartre,” the nursemaid said just as Mimi burst into the room and flung herself on Élise’s lap.

He had lost the moment of telling her.

“Why can’t I, Maman?”

Élise looked at the maid. “Let her,” she said, and then turned to Jérôme. “It’s a special day.”

Hands on hips, Mimi brushed past the maid out the door.

“Six years ago today,” Élise said, “was the first time I saw you. The boating party at La Grenouillère. Remember? You were smoking that silly, long porcelain pipe like a Dutchman and were wearing a striped jersey and a straw hat. Monsieur Seurin mistook you to be an expert oarsman and let you take one of the skiffs and we went downriver and got out to walk among the poplar trees and wild poppies and cornflowers, and then you picked a daisy and put it in my hair and said, ‘Adornment for the adorable,’ and you dared to put your hands on my waist, and we slid into each other’s eyes and both of us knew we wouldn’t be strangers any more.”

Mild shame that he hadn’t guessed swept over him and quickly faded. She had already forgiven him, or rather, she had not thought to take offense, enjoying the memory so much. How could he invade her reverie with the mundane absurdity that his eyes had been stuck shut?

“As thin as a pencil,” he said.

“My waist?”

“That skiff. If I’d made one wrong move, everything would have been ruined. With the boat and with you. I had all I could do to get you back safely.”

“Because of the skiff?”

He chuckled. “Because of me. Because you were so beautiful.”

The heath separating Montmartre from Paris seemed narrower than the last time they’d visited Claire. New houses with their unsooted red chimney pots were creeping down from the Butte and the city stretched to meet them.

“Jérôme, see how the heath is absolutely covered with mustard blossoms? Mimi, look. It’s like yellow lace.”

Mimi stretched out her arms to gather in the whole heath.

At the base of the Mont, the open-air horse cab lurched sideways on the cobbles of rue des Martyrs, past the shabby used-goods stores with paintings, lamps, and rickety tables and chairs displayed right out in the street. They climbed the Butte on rue Lepic past the plaster quarries and small, perched houses. Like so many rabbit hutches, Jérôme thought, smelling the air. He held Mimi so she could stand up in the carriage and watch for the black windmills along the way. In front of a narrow rooming house, two old women were combing lice from children’s heads clamped between their knees.

“What are they doing, Papa?”

“Playing a game.”

“What kind of a game?”

He shrugged.

“What game?”

She drummed on his thigh for an answer, but he had no playful spirit to make something up like he used to. Élise glanced at him as though waiting for him to come up with something. He saw that she realized he couldn’t.

The people living their tawdry lives on the way up the Butte had little to speak of, but they were always singing in the streets or laughing around the hurdy-gurdy. He couldn’t understand it. What did they know that he didn’t? Even among the rag-and-bone men and the flower girls and laundresses with chapped red arms, there was a robustness, an insouciance that quite overcame him. It was absurd, really, to envy them. He spotted four Parisians dressed in affected rustic costumes—peasant shirts and muslin dresses, pretending to be denizens of Montmartre. Their fine shoes and precise haircuts and coiffures gave them away. What were they seeking in those getups?

“Look, Papa. The big windmill is turning.” Mimi slapped his wrist, unable to contain herself, as if the whole world, not just a windmill, were turning and turning for her sake.

The narrow black sails of Le Moulin de la Galette near the top of the Mont and its smaller neighbor turned only to attract attention now. Their use as grinding mills was long past. The Moul’ had become an open-air dance hall. With the buildings and fence repainted in green, the acacia trees and trellises and tables, the globed gas lamps strung tree to tree, it was an unpretentious gathering spot for the working people of Montmartre. Already a few musicians were tuning their instruments and one violinist was playing a melody.

“It’s ‘Amanda,’ the song he’s playing. Isn’t it lovely?” Élise said.

He chuckled wryly. In the song, Amanda tosses away her maidenhood in a dance hall. A mix of sadness and guilt came over him. He hadn’t made love to Élise lately.

A block beyond, at the crest of the hill, he noticed an unsightly new telegraph pole on the plain round tower of the old Church of Saint Pierre. An indignity, he thought sadly, not to let something remain as it had been for seven hundred years. From there, he could see the huge foundation for Sacré-Coeur, a basilica planned to be as magnificent as the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Though it meant little to him, he didn’t particularly like that it would be so monumental. Maybe none of it made any difference. Another seven hundred years would go by in a blink and none of it would matter.

They turned left onto rue Cortot and its worn, uncared-for homes, Claire and Paquin’s among them. Two centuries earlier his sister’s house had been a grand residence of a gentleman vintner. Now it was chopped up into small flats, and the garden in the back was shared by all of the tenants.

The door was ajar, so they stepped inside the dim maroon parlor.

“Claire? Paquin?” Élise called.

Laughter floated up from the garden. They went through the stone kitchen and Jérôme hesitated on the back porch. How would he get through the afternoon? Mimi hopped down and ran past the people at the table to chase a cat under the arbor, and Élise joined the women picnicking on the grass.

“Jérôme!” Claire cried. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming. I was afraid you’d chosen some dead book in a stuffy room over this.” She waved her arm toward the garden and the view.

To the right, cream-colored gravel paths wound through banks of flowers planted in front of a tangle of vines and lilacs and wild roses climbing the arbor. To the left, poppies bobbed their heads between the vegetable rows, and sunflowers grew along a shed. Beyond that was the henhouse. Nasturtiums and mustard were taking over the apple and pear orchard which sloped downhill so that over the tops of trees he could see as far as Saint-Denis. The countryside was dotted with smoky factories, but here, high in his sister’s overgrown garden, he felt surprisingly light-headed.

“I thought it might be too breezy up here. For Mimi and Élise, I mean.”

Claire took Jérôme by the elbow and pulled him toward the rustic table spread with too small a cloth. “Our mother had to push him out-of-doors every spring like an old dog,” she said to the guests eating in a blue haze of pipe smoke.

Her saying that made him feel foolish in front of these people he didn’t even know.

Claire patted his cheek. “I’m only teasing, brother. Don’t look so glum.”

She introduced him to the vintner, his toothless, smiling wife, a quadroon who made saddles and smelled of leather and sweat, a young Italian frame maker missing a finger, and a high-booted Cuban painter whose odd- colored trousers were tucked into his boots like a soldier. Merde-of-goose green, those trousers. What did he have to say to such people?

“Auguste Renoir is coming too. The painter. You’ve heard of him? He lives just upstairs.”

Jérôme looked with detachment at the shapes of the women’s hats—an inverted pan, a mountain of flowers, the feathery body of a headless chicken—and watched Mimi pick a dandelion and wave it to release the seeds.

“Jérôme, are you listening to me?” Claire shook his arm. “Why, here he comes now.”

The man was in his thirties, like himself, thin, dressed plainly, with reasonable brown pants, a round felt hat, and with a fringe of beard at his jaw, like his own only not so carefully trimmed. The painter had an air of absent-minded study as he looked across the garden, taking in the women, the lilacs, and Mimi following a bird along a path.

Coming out of the orchard, Paquin set down a basket of pears and swept Mimi up in his arms, lifting her high in the air until she squealed. Jérôme watched his thick fingers with split nails grasping her waist. Paquin kissed her, set her down, and picked up the basket. “A pair of pears, or a game of chess, anyone?”

“Better not today,” Renoir said. “With you, one always leads to another.”

“Afraid of losing again, eh?” the vintner said and began setting up the chessboard opposite the Italian.

“I’ve got something more important to do.” He grinned and raised his eyebrows. “My painting. The Moul’ will be filled in an hour.” Renoir took out a tobacco pouch to roll a cigarette. “I can only stay until Georges comes to help me carry it down the hill. He’s going to pose in a dance position with a seamstress I know. I don’t want to be late.”

...

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