Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Literature’

Remembrance of things current (No.2): À la table de Mme Verdurin

Marcel Proust continues to ensnare me with the mellifluous poetry of his prose. Having struggled through the first 50 pages of his epic first novel, Swann’s Way, I found that what had at first been like an exercise in chipping away at solid ice had become the easier removal of slushy semi-melted layers, before the watery manifestation of his literary masterpiece washed over me without any effort on my part. I am now what could be termed Prousted, so easily accustomed to bathing languidly in my daily dose of Proust’s world that it has become less an escape from reality as a natural reacquaintance with a perfected present, from whose elegant embrace I depart unwittingly whenever I happen to put down the book.

Happily, when the time comes to place to one side the irresistible pages of In Search of Lost Time, my departure from Proust’s reality is rarely complete, for now the work is inspiring my artwork too. Just before Christmas, I introduced La Madeleine de Proust, the first instalment of my Remembrance of things current series of paintings. I have now completed the second: À la table de Madame Verdurin.


Remembrance of times current (No.2): À la table de Madame Verdurin (2017 ©Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, acrylic on canvas)

Anyone who has read Proust will know Madame Verdurin as the monarchical matriarch of her own exclusive, carefully selected carve out of Parisian society. Gathering together those people who she considered to be sufficiently witty to contribute to what she termed her collection of The Faithful, this little congregation importantly included Odette de Crécy who was later to become the infamous Mme Swann, wife of one of the book’s major protagonists, Charles Swann. The gatherings which Proust describes, ruled over by Mme Verdurin and her obedient husband, and playing host to the witticisms of guests, musical recitals, and even its own in-house artist, make for some of the most enjoyable passages of Swann’s Way. Providing an enthralling insight into the self-imposed societal norms practised by those who are not quite high society but form their own exclusive club in lieu of the better connections to which they secretly aspire, the Verdurin salon says so much of the social climbing and inter-class backbiting which was rife in Paris in the belle epoch.

Importantly for the novel, the house of Mme Verdurin provids the backdrop for Swann’s first encounters with Odette, and the frictions which thereafter developed when the couple dared to live a life beyond the congregation of The Faithful. In my painting, I have tried to capture the friction between Swann and Mme Verdurin in the two figures which dominate the bottom half of the piece. There, Mme Verdurin’s hairstyle is almost halo-like in her self-imposed status as a kind of deity in her home, while the red bar above her head is like the sentencing hat worn by a judge who makes severe judgement on the society around her. Above and below, the chandelier and the black and white floor represent the decorative embellishments which ensured that visitors to the Verdurin household were fully aware of their burgeoning social status, but the black and white also represents the keys of the piano which played out Vinteuil’s musical refrain which was to underpin the force of Swann’s passion for Odette. Yet for all this pomp and ostentation, the table of Madame Verdurin, around which the diners sit, is notably empty. Vacuous and without depth, like the true nature of the party’s rather frivolous conversation.

Now I am on the third novel of Proust, and with 4 still to go, I know that my collection of paintings will grow accordingly.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the work of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, head to his art website at

Remembrance of things current (No.1): La Madeleine de Proust

Memory is a powerful thing and there are times in life when it is triggered quite involuntarily. Such moments occur frequently during this season of Christmas for example, when the smell of tinsel upon opening a box of decorations may transport you directly back to a moment of your childhood, or when the sound of a carol may take you back to a chilly but magical evening in a carol concert. Such moments of involuntary remembrance were a principal preoccupation for the extraordinary French novelist, Marcel Proust, and the so called “Madeleine moment”, when the narrator is reminded of a whole raft of his childhood by the innocuous flavour of a madeleine dipped in tea, is one of the central most important moments of Proust’s seminal novel, In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu).

It has long been an ambition of mine to read Proust’s masterpiece of 7 volumes but I must admit that on previous attempts to start his epic, the scale, and the style of the work somewhat intimidated me. But I believe that there are good times and bad times to read such a substantial philosophical work, and from the moment I restarted the tome last month, I was hooked. As inevitably happens when I am engrossed in a book, Proust started to colour my present life and my imagination. The coincidence of reading his first volume with a visit to the Crystal Cubism exhibition in Barcelona made for a powerful motivation, and within days a painting, inspired by the very same Madeleine moment, was blossoming in my head.


Remembrance of things current: La Madeleine de Proust (2016 ©Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, acrylic on canvas)

And here is the result. A work which combines both the Madeleine, the musings which result, and a reflection upon my own current life while reading the novel. Thus you have the knitting with which I have been engaging myself of late, the armchair and lamp in which I have taken to reading the work, and the use of arabesque-like patterns taken from Pakistani fabric. For my current tea of choice is not the tila (lime blossom) featured in the novel, but Pakistani tea – a so called black tea with festive spiced hints. These reflections upon my current environment also inform the title of this new collection “Remembrance on things current” which is a play on the original title of the book, “remembrance of things past”  originally adopted for the seminal english translation before the more literal “In search of lost time” was universally accepted.

Now I am well into volume 2 of Proust’s work, and as his poetical reflections and magnificent belle epoch atmosphere continues to ensnare me, I have no doubt that a second painting like this one will not be long in coming.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the work of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, head to his art website at

The house of Robert Graves

They say that once in a while you will read a book that changes your life. A story of DH Lawrence’s obsession with the inspirational light of the Mediterranean read while I soaked up the sun on the Amalfi Coast last summer came very close (Lady Chatterley’s Villa by Richard Owen). After all, I surely followed his mantra in moving to the Mediterranean. But more powerful still was The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough.

Telling the real life story of his time with great uncle Robert Graves on the island of Mallorca, it was a story which more than inspired me to move to the Balearic paradise in which I now find myself; it injected my very heart with a passion for the island which formed the genesis of the life I now live; it transported me to a golden era in a utopian island and made me deeply conscious of the life and work of Robert Graves, the English writer and poet who probably did more for Mallorca than any other Englishman before or since when he moved to Deia in the 40s.

The house of Robert Graves

DSC00979 DSC01026 DSC01036 DSC01028 DSC01013 DSC01020 DSC01015 DSC01031 DSC01039 DSC01040 DSC01030 DSC01038

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the house of Robert Graves and his family just outside my beloved Tramuntana village of Deia. Replicating exactly how the house would have been in Robert’s day as brought to life again with the help of his son, William Graves, my visit to the house had the power to bring the book I had so admired fully to life. From the glasses laid nonchalantly on the poet’s desk, to the garlic hung anticipating a feast in the little sun-drenched kitchen, the house was every inch the familial idyll I head read about.

…and the gardens he so loved

DSC01010 DSC01043 DSC01004 DSC00987 DSC00989 DSC01003

Only the now busier road alongside the house had the power to transport me back to reality. For no more does the family donkey pass sleepily along its dusty path. But that brief interruption asides, with its garden still abundant and the stunning coastal views ever present, Robert Graves house at Deia remains every inch the paradise which drew him to remain on the island and in his house for the remaining decades of his life, and which inspired him to write his life’s best work. I can only hope that Mallorca will continue to inspire me to my greatest work. In the meantime I plan to reopen the pages of Simon Gough’s stunning novel, to relive the idyll which brought me to Mallorca. 

All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2015 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Paris, Dreyfus, and Vienna – the coincidences which led me to De Waal

Life is full of coincidences, and for me, this has been no more proved than recently, when I have been beset by a series of overlapping coincidence. The series of greatest significance has been the one leading to this post. It started in the early Autumn, when the fading of summer led me to start feeling my familiar autumn yearnings for a trip to Paris. In part-alleviation of this desire, I started reading the aptly titled Paris Requiem, by Lisa Appignanesi, which is, on its face, a period murder mystery, but set against the historically significant Dreyfus affair. I was already aware of Dreyfus on my periphery, being as the involvement of one of my favourite authors, Emile Zola, had pretty much destroyed his career, forcing him into exile in the UK when he sought to uncover what was one of the greatest conspiracies in French history, and unveiled a disturbingly vehement level of anti-Semitism both at the heart of the French Government and within French society at the end of the 19th Century.

The degradation of Alfred Dreyfus

The degradation of Alfred Dreyfus

The article which incriminated Emile Zola

The article which incriminated Emile Zola

Then, just as I was finishing Paris Requiem, the long-awaited new novel of another favourite author, Robert Harris, was published, this book also dealing with the Dreyfus affair from the point of view of the Army Officer who uncovered the scandal and suffered his own career-breaking consequences in the process. Mid-way through the book, a new documentary series started on TV. Telling the story of the Jews, the narrator, Simon Schama,  also told of this disturbing period of French History.

I thought the coincidences had ended there, but when I went to the National Gallery’s excellent new Viennese Portraiture exhibition, Vienna: Facing the ModernI picked up a copy of Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes in the gift shop, and thought the time had come to read this much applauded novel. So, with Robert Harris’s sensational novel, An Officer and a Spy finished, I started De Waal’s captivating family history, originally narrated by tracing back the story of the Japanese netsuke which he had inherited from his Great Uncle Iggie. Starting off in 19th Century Paris with the story of the formidable art collector Charles Ephrussi (he can be seen in the top hat at the back of Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party) who was the family member who first bought the netsuke, it turned out that, guess what, Charles too had got himself involved in the Dreyfus affair – being Jewish, his support of the innocent Dreyfus could hardly be avoided, but, like Emile Zola, Ephrussi suffered social rebuffal as a result.

Amalie Zuckerkandl by Klimt - featuring in the National Gallery's new show on Vienna

Amalie Zuckerkandl by Klimt – featuring in the National Gallery’s new show on Vienna

The Netsuke

The Netsuke

Portrait of Charles Ephrussi by Leon Bonnat

Portrait of Charles Ephrussi by Leon Bonnat

The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir

The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir (with Charles Ephrussi in a top hat at the back)

Manet's Bunch of Asparagus (1880) - part of the significant impressionist collection of Charles Ephrussi

Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus (1880) – part of the significant impressionist collection of Charles Ephrussi

So suddenly, this story of Dreyfus, a Jewish scapegoat and symbol of the underlying currents of European anti-Semitism, had become a major focus, appearing, quite by coincidence, in reference after reference of both television and literary entertainment. But of course the Dreyfus Affair was only the start of the tragic scale of anti-Semitism which was to escalate in Europe, and as De Waal’s stunning book goes on to demonstrate, the horror of Europe’s anti-Semitic manifestation as the 1930s took hold was on a scale that none could have imagined in the persecution of that single man back in 1890s France.

Of course we all know the history of the holocaust and of mass-murder and injustice so unprecedented that words alone are not sufficient to describe it. But where De Waal’s book is so powerful, is that through his captivating narration of his family history, by the time the great Palais Ephrussi is ransacked by the Nazis in 1938, its art collections, along with everything else, stolen in a barefaced lawless destruction of Jewish life and liberties, you feel as though you know the family so well, have lived their history to such a degree, that reading of the exorbitant outrage, the dumfounding horrors suffered during that time actually becomes physically painful. You want to turn back the clock  there and then and somehow destroy the Nazi regime singlehandedly; you want to save all of those who suffered, and put all that injustice right.

The Palais Ephrussi

The Palais Ephrussi – ransacked by the Nazis

But history is what history was, although books like De Waal’s do an incredible job in bringing those emotions back to light. And, it is not just books which bring history knocking at the door of the present day. The last set of coincidences in this string was that in the same week as I read about the Nazi ransacking of the family art collections of the Ephrussi palace, I read an article about the biggest discovery of Nazi looted art in Munich for centuries, much of which is believed to have been stolen from some of the biggest Jewish collectors of the time, and then, but hours later, I saw that to my amazement, a TV documentary on Edmund De Waal himself was being shown on TV, a documentary which also dealt with the subject of the restitution of stolen Jewish art.

As to that documentary – that has provided its own source of inspirations which I will discuss tomorrow. But for today, what is my message? Well, not only that coincidences can happen in life, but more so that all of this reminder of the great injustices of war have coincided with today, which also happens to be Remembrance Day, when, in wearing a red poppy and marking the end of World War One, we pay our respects to those who have fought in wars throughout history, and in the present day.

Well, in paying my respects to those people this year, I will also be thinking of those who have suffered in wars, not just as fighters, but as innocent victims, families, Jews and non-Jews – the people to whom injustice was so great that history can never erase it, and words can never truly describe it. At 11am today, I will be thinking of them.


Daily Norm Book Club: The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

“The water rose up the stairs from the beach and spilled over the sidewalk. Consider your next play very carefully, warned El Quemado, and he began to splash away toward the Del Mar…The water was black and now it came up to my ankles. A kind of paralysis so thoroughly prevented me from moving my arms and legs that I couldn’t rearrange my counters on the map…The die, white as the moon, sat with the 1 faceup. I could move my neck and I could talk (or at least whisper) but that was all. Soon the water swept the board off the wall, and it began to float away from me, along with the force pool and the counters. Where would they go? Toward the hotel or the old town? Would someone find them someday? And if they did, would they be able to see that it was a map of the battles of Third Reich, and that the counters were Third Reich armoured corps and infantry corps, the air force, the navy?…

Calmly, and with no hope of saving myself, I waited for the instant when the water would cover me. Then, emerging from under the streetlights, came El Quemado’s pedal boats. Falling into a wedge-shaped formation (one pedal boat at the head, six two-by-two behind, and three bringing up the rear), they glided noiselessly along, synchronised and gallant in their way, as if the flood were the perfect moment for a military parade. They took turn after turn around what had once been the beach, with my dumbstruck gaze fixed on them; if anyone was pedaling and steering, it must have been ghosts, because I couldn’t see a soul. Finally they moved out to sea, though not far, and changed formation…From my position all I could see was the nose of the first one, so perfect was their new alighnment. Suspecting nothing, I watched the blades cleave the water and the boats begin to move again. They were coming straight for me! Not very fast, but as relentlessly and ponderously as the old dreadnoughts of Jutland. Just before the floater of the first one, surely followed by the remaining nine, was about to smash into my head, I woke up.”

The Third Reich, Roberto Balaño (Picador, 2011) © heirs of Roberto Bolaño

The lastest posthumous publication from author Roberto Bolaño is a profoundly disturbing novel. Not because the novel is full of back-to-back gruesome descriptions of serial murder (as in Bolaño’s most celebrated offering, 2666) but because there is something intrinsically unsettling about the narrative, told from the point of view of a young 25 year old German tourist, Udo Berger, who appears to descend into some form of intellectually advanced emotional breakdown as the book goes on: From a lucid beginning, Udo, as narrator, spends more and more time preoccupied by the realms of his nightmares, while in the real world, his descriptions of the places and people around him become gradually more sinister and surreal.

The story starts relatively normally. Udo Berger, an aspiring writer and part-time gamer from Stuttgart, and his girlfriend Ingeborg, are on holiday in a typical tourist-pot resort on Spain’s Costa Brava. It isn’t clear when the book is set, but a reference to a split-Germany and the reliance on landline telephone communication (rather than mobiles or email) suggests that the story is probably 1980s at the latest.

Udo Berger is a war-games champion back in Germany, and consequently spends much of his time immersed in the slightly niche world of war gaming, both playing, and writing related articles which he publishes around the world. The game with which he is primarily preoccupied, and the one which gives the name to the novel, is Third Reich. The game, which is a real game released in 1974 by gamers Avalon Hill under the full title, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, is a grand strategy wargame covering the European theatre of World War II in Europe. It’s a long running game (not your average Monopoly) which requires the players to take on the roles of the various major national powers at play in the war. The players then simulate the entire war effort from 1939 until it’s end, but with the opportunity to re-strategise the course of history and investigate different courses of military manoeuvre which may not have been undertaken in reality (for example a German invasion of Spain).

It is against the rather fractious setting of war that the story of a holiday in peace-time Spain plays out. Udo spends much of his time cooped up inside his hotel room strategising war, while his girlfriend attempts to enjoy normal holiday past times. It is on one such occasion that she meets another holidaying couple, Charly and Hanna, and a group of shady locals who introduce both Ingeborg and Udo to the darker side of town life beyond the tourist sheen. The new-found friendship between the couples does not end well, when Charly, after various tumultuous encounters, disappears without a trace. As the holiday comes to an end and Ingeborg decides to return to Germany, Udo is intent on remaining behind in Spain to make sense of Charly’s disappearance.

It is at this point that the heart of the novel begins to play out, and various factors combine to affect a mood of disintegration and melancholy in the mind and surroundings of Udo. As the hotel gradually empties, the once bustling resort takes on a ghostly feel. Udo describes noises in the corridor and mirrors without reflection as his mind becomes more and more troubled with nightmares. In the meantime he strikes up a gaming relationship with El Quemado – a severely disfigured and enigmatic local who runs a boat pedalling business by day, and sleeps in a fortress built from his boats at night. Once introduced to the rules of Third Reich, El Quemado becomes progressively more zealous in his role of allied strategist, until it becomes clear that his enthusiasm to play against a German is laced with more sinister undertones. Despite becoming aware of this risk, and long after the mystery of Charly’s disappearance is clear up, Udo Berger feels compelled to remain in Spain and play on, despite the seriousness of the potential consequences once the game of war is ended.

Scene from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal

This is a story which is unsettling perhaps because of the many ironies it entails. Udo Berger is on holiday in peace-time Spain, but remains cooped up inside reliving the history which dogs his nation. He is adamant that he is no Nazi, yet he is obsessive in wanting to re-stage the second world war in order to improve its outcome. Meanwhile the core of the story plays out when the tourist season is over, when the hotel is tired, dilapidated and empty, ready to hibernate for the winter, when it’s owner is dying and its staff are rebelling, and when, instead of sun, the sandy beach is pitted with the patter of rainfall. The story is also unsettling because our access to it is through Udo Berger, a man who makes for an unreliable narrator, forever wavering between nightmare and reality, historical strategy and contemporary indecision. Yet this is what makes the book so edgy, electric and captivating.

This book reminds me of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 cinematic masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, particularly the scene when the protagonist, Antonio Block, plays a game of chess on the beach against Death. Enigmatic, eery, sinister yet compelling. It also reminds me of the surreal and slightly unsettling works of Rene Magritte – on the surface, he presents recognisable everyday situations, yet at their core, they unbalance and disconcert. Bolaño’s newly published novel is another such gothially-surreal success, which presents a further opportunity to discover the comprehensive and multifaceted oeuvre of Roberto Bolaño, much of which remained unpublished on his death in 2003. I urge anyone with a taste for the unusual to read this novel.