REVIEW: LOVING LE CORBUSIER

Yvonne Gallis

Loving Le Corbusier by Colin Bisset tells the story of Yvonne Gallis, a working class girl from Monaco, who came to Paris in 1918 at the age of twenty-six, looking for adventure and romance. Working at the salon, Jove, known for dressing the higher ranks of the ‘oldest profession’, she caught the eye of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, later to be known as Le Corbusier, the world famous architect.

This book, told from her point of view, traces the course of their relationship from the early, happy days in the Rue Jacob in St Germain, through to the end of her life in 1957. It is not simply the story of an archetypal ‘odd couple’ but also a beautiful depiction of France during a war-torn part of its history.

At the core of the book lies the mystery of human attraction. Which one of us hasn’t looked at a couple we know and wondered what on earth they see in each other and why they stay together?  Down to earth and not particularly interested in art or ‘Ed’s’ (as he was called in his family) buildings or books, Yvonne was an unsophisticated working-class girl, who managed to capture the heart of a rich and sophisticated man. And what did Ed see in her? Maybe a woman who  would accept that he did not want children, (“my career will always have to come first … I’ll be away so much researching and building.”), a woman who would tolerate his extremely long absences and  a woman who would endure him doing pretty much exactly as he pleased – an affair with Josephine Baker is hinted at and one presumes there were others. He must also have been struck by her beauty and her spirit. At one point Le Corbusier rather chillingly comments:

“We are influenced by every object around us so it’s vital to make sure that we live with only beautiful things that function properly because only those items will bring us happiness.”

Yvonne however, although certainly beautiful, is a human being with human needs and eventually she does start to ‘malfunction’. First she is removed from Rue Jacob, which she adores, to an apartment in one of  Le Corbusier’s buildings out in Porte Molitor in Boulogne-Billancourt. Then as war breaks out he parks her in Vézelay, while trying to get work with the Vichy government and travelling to Algeria. After the war is over, Le Corbusier stays away longer and longer, travelling to amongst other places, South America, the United States and India and the wire-haired schnauzer, Pinceau, although much loved, is no substitute for his presence. She misses her husband and turns to the bottle for comfort. Finally, he hires a man servant, Luan, to look after her and try to control her drinking during his absences. Arguments increase, plates are thrown but they stay together.

One of the clues as to why Yvonne accepts her situation is perhaps provided by two revealing scenes with their respective mothers, a fairly ghastly pair. When Yvonne finally gets to meet Ed’s snobby, chilly mother, Madame Jeanneret says:

“Edouard is very taken with you and of course you are a very lucky girl to have met a man like him.”

Later, when she takes Ed to meet her parents in Monaco, her own mother’s vicious disapproval and criticism of her, everyone and everything makes Yvonne’s sick to her stomach. In fact in the context of her family it seems amazing that she has emerged with her joie de vivre in tact and it makes her attachment to Le Corbusier very understandable. At least she knows that she is loved and she is materially looked after.

There is a lot of gentle humour here as well. When Ed shows her a sexually explicit sketch of a woman, she asks him why he’s been out buying pornography. On being told he’s been given the sketch by Picasso who “had heard he was in love with a voluptuous woman and he thought he’d appreciate it,” she sighs and says “Well, he’s really very famous these days so I suppose we can at least sell it.” Visiting the new apartment for the first time, she is bewildered by the bidet, which is out in the bedroom next to her dressing table and not particularly taken by a bed which has metal legs a meter high. Le Corbusier may be a visionary and ‘a god’ to some people but he never manages to sort out the leaking roof of the house he built for his parents.

In the end I was left wondering if Yvonne wouldn’t have been happier if she’d never met him and instead married a working class Parisian boy and had the large family she craved. At least then she wouldn’t have had to have a marble dining room table that was designed with the idea of a mortuary slab in mind. When, towards the end of her life, he builds her “a palace by the sea” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, it is a tiny shed with a narrow bed, the head of which is close to the toilet bowl.

You don’t have to be interested in Le Corbusier, architecture or the history of France  to enjoy this beautifully written book, although if you are you’ll find a great deal to savour; Loving Le Corbusier is for anyone who has ever wondered about love and the strange workings of the human heart. At the end I was left thinking that if there is a moral to be drawn from the book it is perhaps that, if a man claims he is a visionary, it might be a good idea to give him as wide a berth as possible. However, I may be influenced by an inability to forgive Le Corbusier for what he did to Pinceau. No, I’m not going to tell you. Read the book to find out!

Below is the link to Colin’s website which has  lots of fantastic photos and writing about Le Corbusier’s buildings.

http://www.colinbisset.com

Here’s the amazon link for the book:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01FE4FNCQ/

And here is Colin on twitter:

LUCK BRINGER

Last year one of my favourite books was The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebank. I was surprised. It’s not that I’ve got anything against sheep, it’s just that before reading it I never would have thought I would become so fascinated by sheep and shepherds. The fact that I did is testament to the quality of James’s writing.

I was thinking about that book reading Luck Bringer by Nick Brown and I was thinking who knew I could become this interested in triremes and hoplites? But with writing this good why wouldn’t I?

“The smell of a trireme hits you, a mixture of sweat, urine, damp wood and salt. In rough weather this is augmented by vomit, and in battle by the effect of looseness of bowels as fear grips the heart.”

Luck Bringer is the story of Mandrocles, a teenage boy, who is handed over to the Greek renegade general, Miltiades, by his father to get him out of a bit of trouble he’s got into at home. In this case definitely a jump from frying pan to fire. The Persian army is on the prowl and Miltiades ends up fleeing to Athens, where he is viewed with suspicion both by the aristocrats, (the Alkmaionidai), and the demos. The boy gets his nickname “The Luck Bringer” because early on he deflects a blow intended for Miltiades and the device is a clever one because, as the bringer of luck, he becomes a talisman never allowed to stray too far from the general’s side and is therefore an observer of the politics, trickery and villainy which swirl around his master.

One of my favourite scenes is when a play “The Sack of Miletos” is  being performed in Athens:

“The bloody slaughter scars our soil

Our young dead now, thrown from walls

Maidens ravaged, crones lamenting

Youths gelded in the blood pit …”

The performance causes a riot because the sack has taken place relatively recently and the populace is frightened that this is exactly what will happen to Athens soon at the hands of the Persians.

Characters you may have heard of (Themistocles, Aeschylus, Pythagoras) either appear or are referenced. Here’s an entertaining description of Pythagoras:

“I tend to think of him as a potentially decent military engineer gone astray. His notions of the soul and eating beans, his long windedness and lack of understanding of the affairs of men may have won him a reputation for wisdom … but to me he was a potentially good craftsman who became crazed.”

There are also some funny and scathing comments about the Spartans, who failed to turn up and help the Athenians at The Battle of Marathon, which is the climax of the book. This was the battle in which a ragtag army of 10,000 Athenian hoplites beat a professional army of 20,000 Persians.

“And where were the Spartans, the showy, heel dragging buggers then, when the whole world held its breath as the Persian Empire turned its full might on a small city?”

“Everything that’s good or makes sense about life is inverted in Sparta. A place that chooses a regime that keeps thousands down so that a small group can waste the richness of the land in this type of posturing vanity.”

Reading this book reminded me how much I enjoyed fiction set in the classical age and how little of it I have read since I devoured Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Robert Graves in my teens. At the beginning I became slightly confused by the politics but that ironed itself out soon enough.I loved the descriptions of the triremes and what it was like to be in one when it rammed another ship. The moment Mandrocles puts on his heavy helmet and his world narrows to the eye slits will stay with me for a long time. If you want to know what it was like to fight at the Battle of Marathon my guess is this is as close as you’ll get.  Luck Bringer is an example of a vivid imagination fertilizing the seeds of detailed historical research. A great read. And I do love that cover. Below is the link to Nick’s website.

http://www.nickbrownbooks.com

THE MAN IN THE CANARY WAISTCOAT

Recently I’ve been reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I’d reached half way through and was wondering if perhaps I wouldn’t finish it. Although compelling in some ways, the book was beginning to irritate and frustrate me. I decided to take a break from it and began to read Susan Grossey’s book instead. I am very glad that I did because she makes writing historical fiction look easy and the reading of it a great pleasure. The Man in the Canary Waistcoat is set in 1825 in London (“this great, filthy, threatening, promising , thriving city …” – not much change there, then) and its protagonist is Samuel Plank, a magistrate’s constable. The story is about financial fraud concerning investments in the new energy of gas lighting. Sam Plank is helped out in his investigations by his engaging wife Martha and also his junior Constable Wilson. Here is a touching description of Martha.

“Despite having been married to a police officer for over twenty years, Martha retained her faith in the essential goodness of people – indeed I counted on it. On days when I had seen the very worst that someone can do to his fellow man I comforted myself that an evening by the fireside with my wife would convince me once again that although I moved in a world of shadows, I identified them as shadows only because of the lightness that Martha brought to my life.”

Grossey  is particularly good at quick, vivid descriptions of people and place. Here is the man and his waistcoat:

“His fair hair was cut fashionably, and his clothes – from the bright yellow waistcoat to the artfully arranged cravat -suggested someone with altogether too close an acquaintance with his tailor and his looking glass.”

Here a young law clerk:

“The young man who answered my knock was wearing a coat clearly inherited from someone much larger; it hung from his shoulders, and he repeatedly and pointlessly pushed back the cuffs. The ink smudges on his fingers told me that he was a junior clerk, and his relegation to door duties told me that he was not much good at it.”  

And here’s a lovely  description of a nasty bit of weather:

“If it is true that the wind drives creatures and men mad, then that first week in August would have seen Bedlam bursting at the seams. It was a hot dry wind – coming all the way from southern France, they said – and it whipped and whistled through London for five days straight. The draymen’s horses whinnied and stamped their discomfort as the foetid gusts swirled around them, while the livestock being driven through the streets bleated and bellowed their unease and took every opportunity to break away from their herders.”

The plot leads to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison and also the ‘twisting alleyways of Wapping’ where Plank was brought up as a child due to his father being a lighterman. There is enough archaic language here to make you feel you are in a different era and a useful glossary at the back to check on unfamiliar words. This is the second in the Plank novels and I’m now going to go backwards and take a look at the first one Fatal Forgery. My only slight quibble is that I wouldn’t have minded if the book was longer. Plank and his associates are  amiable company and I didn’t want the book to end. Of course, it may have been that in comparison with A Little Life (a long book) the next book I read was always going to seem short.

Here’s the link to Susan’s blog: https://susangrossey.wordpress.com/purchase/

WHEN YOUR CHARACTER IS INTERVIEWED

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Robert Blake: January 1939 

Today Michael Armstrong, the main character in my book FAR AWAY is being interviewed by writer Helen Hollick. Helen has been interviewing 26 characters in historical novels for the A2Z Blog Challenge. The historical part of my book is set in Africa and Italy during the Second World War. The interview was fun to take part in although also slightly alarming since my main character is based, ahem, loosely on my father, the historian Robert Blake, and so it turned into had the potential to turn into a bit of a Freudian nightmare.

As the A2Z has advanced I have been experiencing that well-known disease ‘character envy’. Oh, why wasn’t my character a nineteenth century Romany footballer (Steve Kay’s Rabbi Howell), or a seventeenth century pirate (Helen Hollick’s Jesamiah Acorne) or a Greek soldier in 5th century BC (Nick Brown’s Mandrocles) or an Ancient Egyptian Queen (Inge Borg’s Nefret). Well, the reason why not is because one of the purposes of my book was to publish the part of my father’s memoir which he managed to complete before he died; the part which covered his experiences of being in the Royal Artillery and being captured at the fall of Tobruk in Africa and his subsequent escape from a POW camp in Sulmona, Italy. And because I’m a fiction writer I wanted to use a novel to do it.

One of the complications in doing this was that I had quite a large body of writing already in existence before I started and was confronted with the question of how best to utilize it. In none of my other writing have I started off quite so constricted. Throughout the book I battled with whether I should cut or not cut some of his material. Finally I cut very little and for the most part the details of the escape described in FAR AWAY are what happened to him.

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Robert Blake in later years

Of course, the Michael Armstrong of my novel is not my father. He couldn’t be because I have no idea what my father was like as a twenty-five year old soldier imprisoned in an Italian POW camp in 1942. I was born when he was forty-eight so I got to know him in the last forty years of his life. If I think back to what I was like in my twenties that person appears to bear little relation to who I am now although my sisters might beg to differ! There is, of course, a perennial fascination to the question of who our parents were before we turned up and maybe that in the end was part of what fueled my desire to write this book. In life my father was not a man to be open about his fears or his passions. He was a charming, brilliant and staunchly private man. FAR AWAY is perhaps my attempt to get to know him a bit better and to shine a light on the young man he once was.

If you’re interested in historical fiction these interviews give an incredible range of characters to choose from. A nineteenth century American spiritualist, a Viking, a Roman soldier, an Egyptian Queen … Great interviews and brilliant books. Thank you, Helen!

If you want to know what Michael Armstrong has to say about me you’ll find him here. Oh, he does go on … and the comments are worth reading just to watch me getting into a whole load of trouble!

http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk