LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
She opened the closet door and took out a robe. It was an antique silk kimono with a motif of plum blossoms on a black background. The other one in the closet had a chrysanthemum design on a peach-colored background. In her two days in the room, she had paraded around in both of them, and both were flattering. The room was filled with mirrors that reflected all the flowers in the pictures and on the wallpaper back upon themselves, so parading around in the kimonos had been a bit of a forbidden pleasure, if you considered vanity a forbidden pleasure, which normally she did. She went to the window that faced away from the pool. The garden fanned out below as if it had been there for years.
commentary: Last week I did a post on Gogol’s Taras Bulba, a work that Ernest Hemingway considers to be one of the top ten novels ever written. (Don’t you hate it when that’s a book you’ve never heard of?). I came across it via the great Jane Smiley, who wrote about it in her non-fiction work 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, (recommended to me by my friend Christine Poulson). I was sufficiently intrigued to get hold of it and read it – Smiley loved it too, more than I did. But I did remember something – which is that in Smiley’s novel Ten Days in the Hills, today’s book, some producers are anxious to make a film of Taras Bulba.
I absolutely loved Ten Days in the Hills: I read it when it first came out (2007, a year after 13 Ways) and thought it was a stone-cold classic. I wondered what I would think of it now – it was very much a book of its time, with a very specific timeframe. So I picked it up to read what the film-makers said about Taras Bulba, and ended up reading the whole book from start to finish, all 450 pages.
That in itself might be tribute enough, but actually I did also love it all over again, and am even more mystified now that it never seems to be mentioned or discussed. Yet again, and I know I bang on about this, is it because it was by a woman? If Philip Roth or Jonathan Frantzen had written it, I suspect it would be seen as a Great American Novel, a true state-of-the-nation piece of literature. (It’s probably also far too funny, entertaining and readable to be considered a serious work of art.)
Another issue might be that It is about rich liberal Americans who work in the film industry, but it shouldn’t be dismissed for that. A Thousand Acres – her book based on King Lear, which IS considered a classic, is about farmers in rural Iowa, and is not automatically better or worse because of that.
So. 13 Ways also deals with Boccaccio’s Decameron, and it is superclear to me now how much Smiley based Ten Days on that.
The book starts the day after the Oscar ceremony, and at the start of the Iraq war, in March 2003.
[Incidentally, I have this book in first edition hardback, and also on my Kindle, and this shows the difference: finding the date was easy in the h/b, hard in the Kindle. On the other hand there is a character called Diana who is suddenly mentioned very late in the book – I would challenge anyone reading the h/b to be able to work out who she is. On Kindle it was easy to find a fleeting previous mention of her, literally 400 pages earlier.]
A group of disparate people assemble in the beautiful home of Max, a Hollywood director, including his current partner, his ex-wife, her new partner, her mother, the mother’s friend, and a couple of offspring. In total there will be ten people (with a little coming and going) and they will stay together, cooking and eating and arguing and telling stories: and this is what the 14th century Decameron consisted of. The stories are short or long, personal or invented, funny or serious, and are just dropped into the framework of the book. As they are eating someone will just start telling a tale. I found this tremendously satisfying and enjoyable.
There are some serious arguments about politics, the war, and patriotism. The point of view keeps changing, and we find out pretty much everyone’s thoughts. There are changes in various relationships, everyone moves on to some degree.
Some way in, they all move to a different house, one owned by Russian businessmen: very wealthy and rather dubious characters, who have an even more luxurious house, and a large staff.
It is the Russians who want to make the film of Taras Bulba:
“It could be an important movie. I mean, here it is in the Middle East, Ukraine and Russia on one side, Muslims on the other, lots of religion, but, you know, removed by five centuries. Jews in traditional costume. Everyone in traditional costume. The time is ripe for something authentic like this that kind of comments on what is going on nowadays but doesn’t actually make a statement. This could be big for you. And the Cossacks had certain fighting techniques. I don’t know what they were, but I was thinking of Crouching Tiger when I was reading the book. Crouching Tiger on horseback. I guess they were great horsemen….
Taras is a Cossack. His sons are named Ostap and Andrei. The time is the 1560s. Wars and skirmishes are constant all over the steppe. The Cossacks are stirred up. They go lay siege to a Polish town. Andrei, let’s say he’s the Brad Pitt character, fights in his first battle, and afterward now, here he is, walking around, looking at the other Cossacks, who are sleeping off their drunken revels.”There will be yet another post on this book later…
I love pictures of kimonos and am forever using them on the blog – luckily it is clear that artists love painting them as much as I like looking at them.
Woman in a Black Kimono is by Alexander O. Levy
Girl in Kimono Arranging Flowers is by Floris Arntzenius. Both from the Athenaeum website.