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The Literary Laboratory of Honore Balzac Is Found in France

After Leonardo’s portrait discovered in 2009, and the imminent conclusion about what may be the remains of Mona Lisa, this is probably the next most important artistic discovery of the last few years. In France, a dedicated bibliophile Gérard Lhéritier, collector and founder of the Musée des lettres et manuscrits, has found the inedited manuscript, entitled Pensées, Sujets, Fragments, in the collection of Jacques Crépet, the most recent student of Balzac’s work. The manuscript contains notes, sketches, and phrases that had later found their way into the opus magnus of the celebrated French author – The Human Comedy by Honoré de Balzac. Mohammed Aissaoui reports.

I read Balzac’s biography by André Maurois, while still at school. Maurois, himself a great writer, has composed a powerful portrait of one of the greatest men-of-letters. His Balzac was a humorous chap, who dedicated himself entirely to his trade, spending days and nights in the attic, drinking extra-strong coffee to keep himself from sleeping, consumed by producing the most ambitious work literature has seen since the days of Dante, perhaps: a 140-pieces cycle of novels and novellas, under the common title La Comédie humaine. Out of those planned, Balzac managed to complete 90 different pieces in his lifetime, if my memory doesn’t fail me.

Maurois mentions the notepad with all the sketches, notes, and plans. Now we can see that it does contain a lot of information, written in the most tiny handwriting, to save the paper. 56 pages are covered with black, violet, and sepia ink. For instance, here is the plan for Father Goriot: “A brave man – boarding house – 600 francs of rent – gave everything to his daughters who both have 50,000 francs of pension – is dying like a dog”.  And this phrase eventually found its way into The Shagreen Skin (The Magic Skin): “Sometimes a crime may be a whole romance” (“Un grand crime, c’est quelquefois un poème“).

Apart from the literary notes, the notepad contains house plans, the list of names, checklists, and even sketches. Without a doubt, we now have one of the valuable insights into the artist’s “kitchen”, or “study”. It should be an inspiration to many of us.

Cherchez-Vous la Traduction de Blok?

“и повторится все как встарь аптека улица”

Вы искали стихи Блока – найдите же мой перевод.

Night, a streetlight, a street, a chemist’s,
All in a dim and useless light.
In the next twenty-five years
They’ll still prevail, against one’s plight.

And you may die, but then, returning,
You’ll see again the same old night,
The icy canal’s waters running,
The street, the chemist’s, the streetlight.

The end of May is wonderful, mostly warm, sometimes windy, but ever so hopeful. I recall the moments when I felt down, and I smile because I have since well learnt the wisdom of Nietzsche, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Wherever I happen to be, is the best place on Earth – because I choose it to be. Manchester was good for many years, now it is Moscow, the place where I was born but that I seem to have barely known. Not to mention Russia – I don’t think I know it at all.

Everything I planned to do between February and May has been accomplished. Of the things I planned for May and June, I’m well on track to accomplish those, too. There’s still a lot more to do until the end of the year. Obviously, when you don’t have to worry about providing every single thing for yourself it becomes easier to do whatever you set your sights upon.

In France, they discovered the mysterious “carnet” of Balzac, with sketches and plans for the Human Comedy.

More than ever before I agree with Picasso, it is futile and unnecessary and, in fact, dangerous to create something that is “beautiful”, especially today. Beauty is a compromise between the artist’s vision and the audience’s sensibilities. We are creating something that has good artistic taste; whether it is beautiful or not, is decided by a point of view.

I nearly wrote “no more statements”, but that’s a statement in itself. In one way or another, over the past few years, I managed to let life become too small, too complex, but it’s pointless to think, why, or how it happened. Perhaps, it had to happen. I do believe that certain things happen to us to teach us a lesson. The past months show that I’ve probably learnt mine.

You see, when you have so many gifts you have to carve your own niche in every field, even life itself is just another place to be different. So, it’s hard to be me, really. But I wouldn’t give up any of it.

Italy Through the Russian Eyes: Alexander Ivanov – Via Appia at Sunset (1845)

Alexander Ivanov, the contemporary of Nikolai Gogol and Karl Brullov, spent a large part of his life in Italy where he also did many sketches for his masterpiece, The Appearance of Christ to the People. Via Appia at Sunset shows the oldest road in Campagna leading towards the barely seen St Peter’s Cathedral; along the road are the tombs of the first Christians. Ivanov called this landscape “historic” in the proper sense of the word.

Alexander Herzen wrote about this part of Italy: “always sad and gloomy, Campagna only once becomes magnificent, and that at sunset, when the land challenges the sea… Who never visited Italy does not know what the colour or light is… This sad Campagna is forever bound to the Roman ruins; they complement each other. Indeed, there is some incredible grandeur in all these stones. It is for a reason that every generation from every corner of the cultured world comes to pay them a homage” (translated from Russian).

The Russian Manchester in the post-Soviet Era

Article first published as The Russian Manchester: How Ivanovo Is Finding Its Way in Post-Soviet Russia on Blogcritics.

People of Manchester, rejoice! No longer is Venice the only enviable comparison for a city – Manchester is, too.

In case you didn’t know, there are several “Manchesters” already existing. The historic English town was minutely described by Friedrich Engels, who had had the pleasure of studying the place while sharing a desk at the Cheetham School with Karl Marx. The rise in popularity of Marx and Engels’ works, as well as of the working class movement, led to many other European towns trying on Mancunian clothes for size. Usually being industrial, especially having cotton mills, and boasting a high percentage of working class people meant that a town might be described as another Manchester. Such were Lodz in Poland, Lille in France, Chemnitz in Germany, and Tampere in Finland.

In Russia, it was Ivanovo, or Ivanovo-Voznesensk, as it was called between 1871 and 1932. The town in the Volga region, not far from the millennium-old Yaroslavl, acquired a host of nicknames, affectionate and not, that would put many a city to shame. “The red Manchester”, “the Russian Manchester”, “the city of brides”, “the third proletarian capital”, “the city of red weavers”, “the textile capital”, as well as a few pejoratives, is just a selection of those descriptors that nonetheless gives a fine idea as to what “manchesterisation” means: red (reminding of brick, Revolution and Socialism), industrial and textile, and capital-worthy, although provincial.

At the dawn of the Soviet era, during the first Russian revolutions, Ivanovo was building on its historic experience of producing political advisors. It was from here that the Prince Pozharsky went to Moscow during the Mutiny Time in the first half of the 17th century when the Poles had quite literally seized power over Russia. It was here, as well, that the first Sovet (the Russian for “counsel” and “council”) had been formed in the beginning of the 20th century. Ivanovo’s reputation as a Sovet-ski town was sealed, but little used.

This monument commemorating the revolutionary ladies of Ivanovo greets you upon arrival to the railway stationIn Soviet times it came to be known as a city of brides, thanks to a film song. Intended as a gentle joke, that also pointed a finger at the real state of things: the number of cotton mills and calico factories was as high as the previous number of churches, and it was mostly women who worked there. At-home dads were a reality in Ivanovo before the same fate befell Western men. During the Revolution years, Ivanovo ladies had led the crowds; in Soviet times, they led the textile production. In both cases monuments to heroines were erected, although the statue to the Hero of Labour Valentina Golubeva was eventually removed because of the notoriety produced by Nikolai Obukhovich’s film, Our Mother Is a Hero (1979).

Following the demise of the USSR, Ivanovo, like nearly all Russian cities and towns, declined under economic stress and the overwhelming crisis of expectations. Much as the economy may have improved, the overwhelm remains. As with Manchester, the 19th century had been the springboard for Ivanovo’s economic growth, and throughout most of the 20th century its status as a proletarian capital was a comfortable cultural cushion. Unfortunately, unlike Manchester, Ivanovo failed to produce any zany music style or otherwise establish itself firmly as a fashionable threat to either Moscow or St. Petersburg. The famous Textile Academy is an alma mater for many designers, but most of them are determined to work in one of the two “real” capitals. The noughties turned out to be the time of having to come to terms with whatever was lost and of trying to find, exactly what to do next.

A house in the so-called workers' district. Some of the houses are over 80 years oldSome of these questions were raised recently at a conference dedicated to the town’s 140th anniversary. There is a funny ambiguity here: it is Ivanovo-Voznesensk, not Ivanovo, that is turning 140. Ivanovo itself is over 400 years old, but nobody appears to either celebrate this date, or to want to rename the city. The tendency towards nostalgia has been revealed, though. For historians, philosophers, geographers, and philologists this is not so much nostalgia for Stalin’s iron arm, but for the sense of security, including that of Ivanovo’s historical heritage. Over the past quarter of a century a lot of historic buildings and sights either vanished, were majorly remade, or entered a state of severe decline.

For someone who lived in the English Manchester, like I did for seven years, the story of Ivanovo is neither surprising nor unique. In fact, there are areas in Manchester that are also in a state of decline. The Ancoats Building Preservation Trust has worked hard and partnered with many UK organisations to renovate two of the historic mills and to actually give the district its second chance. Meanwhile, you need only leave Manchester city centre to find yourself face to face with the sites the British media usually keep private: derelict houses, ghost lanes where the windows and doors of all houses have been covered with iron or wooden boards, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and pretty much everything else you may expect to find at the backstage of an industrial and commercial megalopolis.

One of Ivanovo's factories looks like any normal historic sight...In this sense, Ivanovo, with its derelict factory standing a stones-throw away from a few museums, is hardly different. The decline is deftly hidden behind the imposing red-and-white brick walls, and is a curious, if terrifying, marriage of a quasi-war site and a place of an unknown epidemic. The epidemic had swept aside all the equipment and people; the invisible troops destroyed the building on the inside. A few sites you may come across in Manchester, Sheffield, and elsewhere in the UK are not quite dissimilar. They all cause a state of shock, followed by astonishment: how can this exist in a place that is otherwise advanced and cultured?

One of the streets in Sheffield, U.K.And yet, in Manchester and elsewhere, sites like this usually make a very fleeting impression. Perhaps this is how the efforts of the city developers pay off: you feel that something will be done sooner rather than later, and the mill will come back to life as flats, or offices. Where does the difference lie then? Is it the notorious East-West divide that harks back to Orientalist concepts and threatens to place Russia in the wrong cultural context? Or is it just an indication that Russia has yet to catch on to the development of media and advertising that successfully construct images that are not necessarily true to life?

The feeling of unworthiness certainly impedes the development of many Russian cities. Yekaterinburg, the real industrial capital sitting on the border between the European and Asian parts of Russia, is struggling to overcome its image as a bedsit of factorial monstrosity and pollution, also created by exiles. The quest for an alternative “image” is likely to be a sword of Damocles for many cities that historically relied on a single craft or industry to support their economy and justify their existence. And in this case some of them will inevitably feel that they do not have what it takes to become glamorous, if polluted. No wonder Ivanovo still feels more comfortable with its “revolutionary” branding. Little else seems to fit yet.

Hopefully, studying the examples of British and European Manchesters will help put the things into perspective. There was the time when Manchester was overshadowed by Salford; they have long swapped places. What the Russian Manchester really needs is a handful of resourceful, determined people who will be able to see the city’s potential in the political and cultural context of the new Russia, people who will rebrand the city and direct it towards new growth.

Manchester's Beetham Tower certainly possesses a strong symbolic powerThe only two things that currently seem to be in short supply in Russia are faith and enthusiasm. Or perhaps, they are just being diverted to a somewhat outdated, or irrelevant, cause. It is important to restore the churches and explore our religious faith, of course, but this is unlikely to improve the economy, attract the necessary foreign capital, or solve cultural problems. Ivanovo, along with most of Russia, needs to invest in its own potential, which goes well beyond religious beliefs. It has to find the audacity to be excited about its extra-capital status, to position itself vis-a-vis not only Moscow or St. Petersburg, but pretty much any other place on Earth. If there is anything the Russian Manchester can learn from its British elder sister, it is exactly this kind of bravura. But if a handful of places in Europe have already gone “Mense”, why cannot Russia?

The Kosher Beatles and The MopTops Medley

Truly, when/if you love doing something, you can find a thousand ways of doing it. The MopTops from L.A. have been a Beatles tribute band for years (and they’ve just reawakened my passion for The Four, thanks!). Well, apart from creating several amazing covers of The Beatles (where “Paul” actually sounds better than his British prototype), they also adapted the traditional Jewish song, Hava Nagila, to the rock’n’roll tune.

Funny Moments in Russian Manchester

Yes, I spent two days in Ivanovo, formerly known as Ivanovo-Voznesensk, the so-called Russian Manchester. The town, too, used to be famous for its calico production; nowadays, sadly, some of the factories lie in ruins. I wanted to share a few “funny” photos, as there will be a few posts looking at the more sober sights of this provincial town.

I went on my own, but didn’t miss the chance to pose between two handsome guys. On the left – Travel advert


The Jolly Roger on board!


This inconspicuous building houses the Actor House bar
The monument to Revolution greets everyone who leaves Ivanovo Railway Station
One of the best adverts I’ve seen. “I’m tired of waiting!“the girl says. The second ring comes free of charge
A play on words: “pyatachok” means both “piglet” and “a five-copek coin” in Russian
A tattoo studio
One of the doggies willingly posed for me and a colleague
A sausage dog is liberally used as a bench
A monument to a famous Ivanovo chansonnier
I called this “Lenin in Context”
The Soviet mural. The boards on the balconies advertise an Internet Centre. The van delivers matresses.
Bespoke Ivanovo art: swans made of car wheels
And another sculpture: The well.

What Do You Think an Artist Is?

Update (29 July 2009):

Almost three years on, this has become one of the most popular posts on Los Cuadernos blog. And in the first half of 2009 I saw one site and one video that presented individuals performing self-mutilating acts for art’s sake. First, a pair of twin brothers exchanged arms: one brother’s arm was cut off from his body and reattached to his twin’s body. Thus one man remained with only one arm, while another ended up with three. And the video below taken from TrendHunter explores artistic self-mutilation further, with ten jaw-dropping examples of what is considered art.

Far from decrying anything you see in the video, I will, however, reiterate the point I made in the original post: why, after all wars and losses, do people still need to “practise” pain and mutilation, as if viewing the images of the dead and disabled people is not enough to understand what pain and death is? Three years on, I think I know the answer.

Humanity is fascinated by Death because, like Love and Pain, this is an eternal secret. It is a mystery. Camus said that suicide is the only true philosophical problem, but since the result of a suicide is death, it means that death itself may be the only true philosophical problem. Philosophy, since its origins, has been preoccupied with making sense of Life and of Man as a living being; but much rarely has it delved into the mystery of Death, and this may be its biggest challenge and hurdle.

It is human therefore that everything morbid fascinates, intrigues, and perplexes us. (Zizek comes to mind: people are forever concerned with what they cannot change). Memento mori. Danse macabre. The theme of Death and the Maiden in art (e.g., Hans Baldung, 1517 (right)). Venus at the Mirror as the parable of the fleeting beauty and deplorable life… the list can be continued, and all it will serve to do is to prove to us how truly interested artists are in what philosophy isn’t so eager to discuss. And in this regard it is probably only normal that there are people who use their own bodies to understand the mystery of pain or the secret of being on the brink of dying. In order to live on, art must be experimental, even if it has to experiment with itself.

Having said so, I’d rather not have this kind of art being performed publicly, let alone covered by the media. With our inclination to build hype around things it would be hard to see the forest for the trees.

Most importantly, I am always somewhat confused when artists, writers in particular, claim that in order to write about something they must know it, experience it first-hand. I’m uttering things, but does that mean that Dostoyevsky would need to kill a couple of old ladies to be able to write Crime and Punishment? And at the same time, speaking of literature, can it not help us gain the life experience that we seek?

It may depend on how we read, of course. Reading is both mental and emotional process. However, what is interesting is that because we most often use words to express ourselves, our entire life is one huge text, and each of us is reading it and making sense of it according to our aptitude and experience. We have to translate this text, either in the language of our experience, or in the foreign language, or in the language of other arts or disciplines.

Can it be therefore that after all the millenia humanity has learnt to do pretty much everything, including the genetic engineering and flying into space, but is still rubbish at such important thing as reading? Reading is understanding. Understanding gives one a key to influence things, to change the world. But what is there at the heart of it? Love, no doubt. For we only care to understand things we care about. And nothing can drive us to care about something as much as Love does. However…

…if we cannot love enough to care to understand, does it not mean that even in our Christian world we have never taken Jesus as an example? Does it not mean that we broke the teaching into citations and took to memorise the words without understanding (sic!) their meaning? It’s been a while since I thought: how odd it is that we are told to love God – but not people. How odd that people love God but distrust their neighbours. Maybe it simply means that people inherently distrust themselves. Maybe it means that they find it easier to trust in the Object that is forever absent and therefore cannot let them down more than it already does, rather than trusting another human being whose money isn’t always where the mouth is. But if Art is born in Love, and the present generation of artists often lacks empathy, does this not explain the rising concerns that contemporary art is devoid of essence?

Original post (2 October, 2006)

Several sayings by Pablo Picasso have already appeared on The LOOK’s front page in the past. I also love this photo of him made by Robert Doisneau. A genuine portrait of the genius.

Another portrait of the genius was made by Jean Dieuzaide, and I’ll leave it for you to guess, whose historic moustache you’re gazing at.

I’ve also found this phrase by Picasso a while ago on the web:

What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.

One may say that Picasso’s viewpoint is somewhat outdated, in that people want to live in the world as peaceful as possible, hence art-as-war is no longer interesting. But there are many kinds of war, and not all are fought with tanks and missiles. There are language wars, religious wars, ‘moral’ wars, media wars, and all use art as a type of warfare. Furthermore, as George Orwell has put it, there are four main reasons to write prose, one of which is ‘political purpose‘ – ‘using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certan direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude‘ (Orwell, G., Why I write).

It would be very hard indeed to disagree with either Picasso or Orwell, and there are modern artists who follow in their footsteps. Perhaps, they don’t get involved in politics very much, but they nonetheless admit that their art exists because of people. One such artist is Dave McKean, who put it this way:

My own world is just trying to make sense of the real world. I don’t like the sort of science-fiction art and fantasy art that is just about goblins and fairies and spaceships. I don’t really see the point of that. It’s entertaining and it’s fine, but I couldn’t do it. I needed to be about people, who I have to deal with every day, and that’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in what people think and how they think, and the things that they believe in, and desire, and are frightened of. So I’m interested in that side of life, really. And then I’m trying to sort of look at those things from a different point of view, or from metaphor, or from dreams, or from these other angles, because I think they are just interesting ways of seeing things, you know, that you have to deal with everyday for fresh, and you see them with different eyes, I think. [read full article based on McKean’s interview].
Finally, however, comes this passage from The Wicked and Unfaithful Song of Marcel Duchamp to His Queen by Paul Carroll:


Art? A form
of intimate hygiene for
the ghosts we really are.

This brings to my mind a TV programme made by Channel 4, which explored the anti-art, particularly in the form of inflicting pain on oneself as a means of teaching the audience a lesson of empathy. One of my ‘favourite’ moments on the programme was the couple who drank tea with biscuits, while literally “hanging down” from the ceiling on chains, hooks perceing their skin. The idea was to explore their experience of pain and also to expand people’s understanding of pain through such performances.

Having read the entire 120 Days of Sodome by de Sade, I wasn’t scared or repulsed by what I saw on screen, but it made me think. The question I asked myself was this: why in the world where there are so many wars and where the footage of deaths and casualties is already available on the Internet, is it necessary to appeal to people’s empathy by sticking iron hooks in your chest? Far from telling the artists what not to do for their art’s sake, I’m simply wondering about the purpose of such art. If the knowledge of the two World Wars and many other military conflicts doesn’t automatically make people detest the very idea of an offensive war, if the photos of destroyed houses, orphaned children and open wounds don’t change people’s view of loss and pain, then why would seeing two able-bodied adults hanging on chains drinking tea influence people’s idea of pain, or make people more compassionate? I’d imagine that after watching such ‘performance’ people would lose interest in pain altogether. If it’s endurable, then what’s the problem?

Some people with whom I discussed this previously have pointed out that this practice of piercing and inflicting pain is ritual in some countries and cultures. The problem, though, is that the only instance of it on our continent that springs to my mind was flagellantism that had spread in Europe in the 13-14th c. and was later revived as a sexual practice. There is evidently a difference between the culture of piercing in African or Aboriginous societies and this ‘hygienic’ European movement, and as far as I am concerned, this difference is much bigger than someone may think. This ‘civilized’ pain-inflicting art, given its purposes, is – in my opinion – exactly the kind of ‘personal hygiene’ Carroll had written about. An artist, no matter how politically involved, is above all a human being, and when he lacks empathy and cannot relate to other people’s experience, unless he shares it physically, forces to raise questions as to how worthwhile, creative and useful his art is.

And don’t quote Wilde’s ‘all art is quite useless‘. Unknowingly, in this witticism Wilde precluded Sartre who would say that culture doesn’t save or justify anyone – but that it is the mirror in which humanity sees itself. Considering that the Wildean phrase comes from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, culture or art as the mirror symbolically connects Wilde and Sartre. Perhaps it is good if humanity finally notices that it spends more time destructing and inflicting pain instead of learning to love. But will it finally start doing something about it?