“People always ask very bizarre questions like, ‘Why did Picasso like you?’ or ‘Why did Jonas Salk like you?’ So I said, ‘Well, usually, lions do not mate with mice!’”
I took an instant liking to this fascinating woman upon hearing her utter this line with a laugh in a documentary that my best friend shared years ago. Right then and there, I was determined to read Life with Picasso one day.
And here it is. The engaging conversationalist comes out in Gilot’s writing. With a clear and strong voice and nary a narcissistic hint, she does not make the book about her, but brings about an unsurpassed portrait of the man that was Pablo Picasso with all the contrasts of light and darkness. She does not play the victim of an eccentric genius, although the book tells us of how she draws the line not only on canvas but also in life.
I doubt if there can be a more intimate and honest account of how Picasso created, his thought process, his private life, and his artistic and political beliefs. As a rippling consequence, Gilot also paints a profound portrait of an extraordinary era that had a surfeit of literary and artistic personages that shaped history.
Stimulating discussions on Modern Art and its dilemmas, on artistic movements, on technique, color, composition; this account is nothing short of enlightening! There is no shortage of lessons on art, on living, on relationships, and on woman.
Introductions to Françoise Gilot usually begin in 1943 when she met Pablo Picasso with whom she lived for ten years and with whom she had two children; and continues on the same thread that in 1970, she married Jonas Salk who was famous for developing the polio vaccine.
What I find remarkable about this woman is how, despite the monumental names to which her name was attached, she remained her own person as an artist, and as a woman — who, apparently, just refused to mate with mice!
I am sure she was, above all, referring to an intellectual symbiosis.
Venice, through the pen of a mediocre writer, can easily become cliché.
But this is Joseph Brodsky.
If you, like me, have read Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell and thought it was alone in its indefinable sub-genre or sur-genre (if there’s such a thing), we can rejoice! Venezia’s Watermark is the worthy soulmate of Corfu’s Prospero’s Cell.
Meditative with a sensual rhythm but not without intelligent humor, here is travel literature that casts an enchanting haze on the borders between poetry and prose, a place and the self.
I would slip this in my handbag in a heartbeat on a return trip to the best city to get lost in.
These three, read in this particular order reminds me of realist painting lessons: One starts by sketching the foundation and the outline, followed by painting the background and setting the mood for the main subject, and then finally filling in the details and emphasizing the contrast of light and shadow by articulating the source of light.
Because of its fullness, it is hard to believe that Everything Flows is an unfinished work, but after having read the three in succession, I now see it as a concise foundation on the scope of Grossman’s knowledge and profundity. Stalingrad exists to set a monumental stage, Life and Fate consummates the masterpiece.
Everything Flowsis a forceful literary piece in which the main character occasionally disappears to give way to in-depth analyses of Russia, Lenin, Stalin, other political figures of that era, and sometimes, its literature.
For someone considered the Tolstoy of the 20th century, it is important to note that the difference between Grossman and Tolstoy is that Tolstoy wrote about a war that took place before he was born, while Grossman wrote about wars in which he was a war correspondent. The things immortalized through his fiction, he experienced and witnessed firsthand.
He wrote at a time when there was hardly any published information regarding the Gulag, Collectivisation, the siege of Stalingrad, the Holocaust, Treblinka, 20th century’s lesser-known acts of genocide — the Armenian, the Circassian, and Ukraine’s Holodomor or Terror Famine — and he wrote of these things. Most of all, he did not merely write, he did so with unbelievable insight and clarity.
And because of current world events, I think there is no better time to read him.
He was born in Ukraine.
Stalingrad, an expression of how the siege impacted the lives of Russians and one particular extended family is, to me, epic in every sense of the word. But what will stay with me is the hopeful tone that Grossman maintained amidst all the human suffering!
“No wartime blackout has darkened the stars.”
Despite the horrors of which he wrote, he never fails to stop to admire beauty: “At times like this we cease to have distinct perceptions of light, space, silence, rustlings, warmth, sweet smells, the swaying of long grass or leaves — all the millions of ingredients that make up the world’s beauty. What we perceive then is true beauty, and it tells us only one thing: that life is a blessing.”
I believe this is also where he leaves clues about the kind of art he sought to achieve. In a brief chapter hides this beautiful passage that book reviews of Stalingrad (at least, the ones I’ve read) fail to mention:
Art of this kind does not separate people from the world. Art like this connects people to life, to other people and to the world as a whole. It does not scrutinize life through strangely tinted spectacles.
As they read this kind of book, people feel that they are being infused with life, that the vastness and complexity of human existence is entering into their blood, into the way they think and breathe.
But this simplicity, this supreme simplicity of clear daylight, is born from the complexity of light of different wavelengths.
In this clear, calm and deep simplicity lies the truth of genuine art. Such art is like the water of a spring; if you look down, you can see the bottom of a deep pool. You can see green weeds and pebbles. Yet the pool is also a mirror; in it you can see the entire world where you live, labor and struggle. Art combines the transparency of glass and the power of a perfect astronomical mirror.
All this applies not only to art; it is equally true of science and politics.”
And if you ask me, Grossman has achieved this in these three works.
Life and Fateis where the excruciating details are.
How can one convey the feelings of a man pressing his wife’s hand for the last time? How can one describe that last, quick look at a beloved face?
And yet he does!
I overestimated my courage when I set out to read this. Some of the most heartrending passages in literature are found between these pages: A Jewish mother who is about to be seized writes a long farewell letter to her son, the last words being, “Live, live, live for ever… Mama”; a woman, mad with hunger, who had just eaten her two children; a suffocating chapter of a scene where Jews are being herded like cattle to their deaths; a childless woman who had a chance at freedom but chose to hold the hand of a boy on the way to a gas chamber, and as she draws her last breath, she reflects, “I’ve become a mother.”
It took me longer to finish reading this than expected because I had to put it away so many times just to catch my breath or to calm myself down before continuing, not to mention a fever that made it difficult for me to read the last two hundred pages. But then again, Life and Fate concludes the painting. And what work of realism would be complete without its darkness?
The thing about masterpieces is that you cannot merely read them. You experience them.
As I review my notes of the three books, I notice recurring themes: Warnings about the tendencies of totalitarianism and its evils, what it means to be human, what causes one to cease being human, freedom, and kindness as the greatest achievement of the soul.
Never mind the fascinating passages on quantum mechanics that reflect Grossman’s knowledge in this field, never mind that Life and Fate contains some of the most illuminating discussions on Russian literature, never mind the other things about Grossman and his works that easily come up in internet searches, Raymond Chandler sums it up beautifully in his introduction to Life and Fate, “It is an exhortation to live.”
Afternoon light enters silently through the gaps of Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand and transforms the whole necropolis into a prismatic vision that makes one understand why this place has earned illustrious names throughout the ages, and why it is most widely known as “The Mirror of the World”.
But as I sat there mesmerized, I became more inclined to believe that it mirrored constellations and galaxies… and that so much of what we find beautiful are mirrors of our joys, sorrows, and the distinct libraries of music and thoughts stored in our beings.
It probably was not the first time that a girl stood under its hypnotic gaze and made her contemplate on beauty and celestial realms; and I’d like to think that those reflective beings who came before me must have also gravitated towards its lesser-known epithet — “Garden of the Soul.”
My last few days in Uzbekistan were supposed to be spent in Termez, a place bordering Afghanistan where Alexander (considered not so great in these parts of the world) founded a town. But after learning about the tragic earthquake in Afghanistan, and for the peace of mind of those I love (not that I’ve given them so much of that), I decided to be practical (yes, I can be, sometimes) and come back to Tashkent to be closer to the airport. Termez will have to wait; and perhaps, it is a romantic idea to leave something to come back for.
It is risky to travel these days, and it is crazy how the fate of some dreams and travel plans hang in the balance between two words — Positive or Negative. And when I asked my niece who works in a bank to change some currency for me, she reported that the bank declined upon learning of my destination, “Kay duol sa na-ay gyera.” (It is close to areas of conflict.) She had to go out of her way to another money changer. If one looks at the map, the bank is not wrong.
But here I am. Because when something feels right, it feels right. I booked my ticket with so much faith, and the itinerary that has been ready since 2020 finally came in useful.
“But I thought you wanted to go to Iran?” friends asked. I am in what used to be part of Persia. “Stan” is a Persian suffix that means “place of”. This is the place of the Uzbeks that was once of Persia. When the Achaemenids expanded their empire, they sought not to Persianize whomsoever they conquered but allowed different peoples and cultures to thrive — as long as they paid tribute, of course. And since we know borders are all but manmade, I am in the region of which I have been reading and dreaming for a long time… and it is intoxicating, and beautiful, and enriching.
The books I have been reading did not end on their last pages. The best books never do. They only give the reader a deeper yearning to continue the journey and the learning beyond the pages. They give one an urgency to live.
In the alley right below, a child sings in a language both strange and familiar to me. Strange because she sings in the Khorezmcha dialect, familiar because it is music.
A few meters away from her, women in traditional dress eclipse the child’s voice as they bargain with her mother, a scarf seller. These women are tourists from the other “Stan” nations. They flock the streets by sundown. (Western tourists tend to forego Khiva because it is out of the way. To get here from Bukhara, one has to drive for hours through an expanse of steppeland that seems to stretch to infinity, and the usual tourist would usually opt for another stamp on the passport from another Stan than come to Khiva. I am now closer to Turkmenistan than I am to Bukhara.)
But I also see Khiva changing right before my eyes. I see workers installing LED lights, replacing some crumbling bricks, and fixing the cracks of the old city, making it look new. And although they have the tourist’s best interest in mind, I feel a pinch in my heart. I know Khiva will not look the same in a few months, or weeks… and there is a bittersweetness in realizing that I came just in time — or perhaps, a few centuries late.
In the distance, the tallest minaret in Central Asia calls my attention, calls to prayer, calls time to stand still, and all falls silent.
Does this balcony right outside my bedroom explain enough why I chose to stay in Khiva longer?
The temperature is significantly higher in Bukhara that you can feel your skin baked into the color of a lepyoshka as soon as you step out of the caravanserai. Yes, I am staying in a caravanserai! Isn’t that the most natural thing to do when traversing desert cities?
In contrast to Samarkand that can only be depicted in golden blues and vibrant shades of dreams, Bukhara wears the colors of the desert.
But that’s not to say that this important stop on the Silk Route is monochromatic. For as we know, the desert yields surprises; and thousands of years of history have stamped their mark and bled their hues on this oasis city.
I made two friends today who know their history! One endearingly encouraged me to look it up on my phone because he says it’s all there, and the other is an imam who saw me taking pictures of the architecture while trying my best to be unobtrusive at a site sacred to Muslims. He must have appreciated this because he beckoned to me and invited me to take closer pictures of the mosque and its interior, and afterwards, for tea. It was the best tea I’ve had on this trip!
“I found in this library such books, about which I had not known and which I had never before seen in my life. I read them, and I came to know each scientist and each science. Before me lay the gates of inspiration into great depths of knowledge which I had not surmised existed.” — Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
Avicenna (980 – 1037) — philosopher, poet, astronomer, mathematician, physicist, the father of early modern medicine, among many other things — has been known to us as a Persian polymath. But he was, in fact, born in Uzbekistan. His early education began here in Bukhara.
The library in the Ark of Bukhara has not survived the many conquests that Bukhara has been through, although this enormous structure that dwarfs me continued to be a fortress from circa 500CE until it fell to the Red Army in 1920.
Sadly, there is no way for me to find the books of which Avicenna wrote, but the book wide open before me now is Bukhara… and I am savoring every line.
“A city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse.” This line by Elif Batuman, who wrote briefly about the height of the Timurid Renaissance, came back to me so clearly as I took my last look at Samarkand.
I can only commit these soft mornings in Samarkand to memory, as another gem in the Silk Route beckons…