Tuesday, January 24, 2006


My sister is a writer. These last few months, she's been working on a book about Morocco. In her background reading, she ran across a lovely poetical work called Desert Divers, by Sven Lindqvist, translated from the Swedish into English by Joan Tate. Desert Divers is part travelogue, following Lindqvist's journey in the latter part of the twentieth century across North Africa, mostly in Morocco and Algeria. It's also a reflection on personal and political memory, the ways in which we supress some things, lie about others, and aggrandize the rest. What sustained my interest, though, is that he tells his story through an exploration of a handful of French writers who were drawn to the Sahara, which reaches up into North Africa, during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

One of these writers was Andre Gide, whose book L'immoraliste takes place in part in Biskra, Algeria. A novel about liberating the self from societal constraints, it's a book I remembered reading in graduate school twenty years ago. I became dissatisfied relying on Lindqvist's retelling and interpretation of Gide's desert drama, so I ran upstairs to the study to pull out my copy of the book from my lawyer grandfather's bookcases, which I've inherited from my mother. As I thumbed through the well worn copy of the book, reviewing the notes I'd scribbled to myself years ago in the margins, I was caught by this passage, which defines what it is to be an artist:

J'ai toujours cru les grands artistes ceux qui osent donner droit de beaute a des choses si naturelles qu'elles font dire apres, a qui les voit: "Comment n'avais-je pas compris jusqu'alors que cela aussi etait beau..."

In English, this more or less means:

I've always believed the great artists to be those who dare to give the right of beauty to everyday things, which lead those who see them to say afterward, "Why did I not understand before that this, too, was beautiful..."

By these standards, I think my mother was an artist. I have a vivid memory of her making toast for me one morning many years ago in her apartment. It was a lengthy process, and I marveled then, as I do now, at the way she held everything required for toast making in complete reverence--the slices of homemade bread, the toaster, the creamy butter and the knife she used to spread it with, the white Limoges plate she chose to put the toast on, the crisp linen napkin she spread across my knees. It seemed so easy and natural with her, and when I went home after that visit, I tried to replicate the experience on my own. But, without her there to promote the artistry, it wasn't possible. All these years later, I see that I have inherited something of her eye for beauty. And I try to stay true to her intuitive understanding, expressed so succinctly by a Frenchman before her, that art and artists lie right before our very eyes.

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