KANT’S LITTLE PRUSSIAN HEAD AND OTHER REASONS WHY I WRITE An Autobiography in Essays By Claire Messud
We dog people are incorrigible, so after dutifully reading the first few essays in Claire Messud’s new book in order, I of course skipped ahead to the one titled “Our Dogs.”
Its opening sentence — “People react differently to our canine situation” — worried me: Who has a canine situation as opposed to too many dogs, too few, tongue-lolling angels or fang-baring devils? What a technical locution. What a cold one.
I was given even more pause on the next page, where Messud devotes an entire paragraph to the “holistic foulness” of her dachshund’s stench. Where was this essay going? And was I supposed to be enjoying it?
Eight pages later — pages, I should add, that went by with steadily increasing logic and ease — I was reading the last words, flicking away a tear and nodding gently at her question: “How does our strife with the dogs differ from our general strife: Could it not be said that our canine situation is simply our life situation?” It could, and while it could be said more colloquially than in this odd and oddly affecting rumination, it really couldn’t be said a whole lot better.
“Our Dogs” is one of about 25 essays in “Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write,” and it’s in many ways emblematic — the elegance of it, the challenge of it. Messud isn’t a writer who grabs her subject matter by the throat or pumps her prose full of kinetic energy. She moseys, she circles, she lies in wait. She sighs where others might scream, mists up where others might sob, ponders “holistic foulness” where others might just run for the cleaner-smelling hills.
But more often than not, it works. There’s usually a moral in her sights, one worth getting to, and there’s sometimes a deceptively strong current of feeling beneath a surface of reserve. I didn’t gobble these essays down, as I would a bucket of buttered popcorn. I savored them in unhurried spoonfuls, as with a bowl of glistening consommé. And I felt amply fed.
I’m speaking in large part of the first section of the book, which is the heart of it. It’s called “Reflections” and comprises essays that, like “Our Dogs,” are essentially snippets of memoir, with the exception of two, “How to Be a Better Woman in the Twenty-First Century” and “The Time for Art Is Now,” that are more topical, political and not especially memorable. The book’s second section, “Criticism: Books,” is slightly longer, while its third and last section, “Criticism: Images,” is the shortest of all. Nearly all of these essays have been published before, in places as diverse as Vogue, Granta, Kenyon Review and The New York Review of Books.
Messud is best known to readers not for nonfiction like this but for fiction, especially “The Emperor’s Children,” her exploration of three young strivers (of sorts) in New York City in the prelude to 9/11. Count me among the many happy readers who found that novel an indelible portrait of a certain kind of entitlement, a certain cast of ambition, and of the laughable, pitiable chasms between who we are, who we expect to be and who we really want to be. It was packed with cutting social observations and, even more so, with wisdom.
These essays don’t carry the same weight or deliver the same punch, perhaps because they don’t enjoy the free rein of imagination. They’re confined by the parameters of Messud’s own life and the lives of the writers and artists she examines in her criticism. But a similar intelligence courses through them, coupled with an erudition that, unfortunately, tilts into exhibitionism. If you played a drinking game in which you took a shot every time you tripped across an invocation of Tolstoy, Nabokov, T. S. Eliot or the like, you’d be tipsy just a few paragraphs into some essays and blotto by the end of others.
Messud’s literary criticism is more absorbing than her arts criticism and its appeal is proportional to a reader’s familiarity with the subject. I’m less versed in Albert Camus than I should be, even now that we’re living “The Plague,” so the three essays about his work — written long before the coronavirus — mattered less to me than her vivid, insightful analyses of three novels that I read in the recent past and remember well: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” Magda Szabo’s “The Door” and Teju Cole’s “Open City.”
The beginning of her take on “Open City” demonstrates her great talent for enlarging the context of whatever she’s writing about and weaving in astute bits of broader commentary. It also captures her determinedly elevated tone and vocabulary, which won’t be to every reader’s taste: “In our age of rapid technology and the jolly, undiscriminating ephemeralizing of culture and knowledge, an insistence upon high stakes — a desire to ask the big questions — can seem quaint, or passé, or simply a little embarrassing.”
The ending of her take on “The Door” demonstrates her even greater talent for bringing her essays to a poignant, haunting close, with a few final phrases that distill the meaning of all that preceded them and send a kind of shudder through your mind and heart. If she were a gymnast, she’d be renowned for sticking her landings.
The essays in “Reflections” reflect a background that is geographically expansive, privileged and bereft of big, messy drama — the word “genteel” kept popping into my brain. “Like many of us, I’m a mongrel, a hybrid, made up of many things,” she writes in the title essay. “My childhood was itinerant, my identity complicated. My father was French, my mother Canadian. I grew up in Sydney, Australia; in Toronto, Canada; and then at boarding school in the United States. I went to graduate school at Cambridge University, where I met my British husband.” That doesn’t make Messud the most relatable narrator, but it affords her a panoramic perch and allows her, for example, to take readers on an extensive, evocative tour of Beirut in “The Road to Damascus.”
With that essay and others, she explores two themes — two conflicts — in particular: the impermanence of human circumstances versus the durability of art, and the evanescence of experience versus the tenacity of memory. In her memory, her mother and her father’s sister live large; so she immortalizes them in “Two Women,” about what strange bedfellows some in-laws make. A long-ago friend’s disappearance endures as a lesson in people’s inscrutability that she imparts in “Teenage Girls.”
Messud makes the point that every relationship we’ve had and every residence that we’ve inhabited survives in the scrapbooks that constitute ourselves: We leave them far behind and never leave them at all. “It is wrong to think of them as past: Sydney, then, was just beginning; and Toronto was, in our lives, a constant, and then, for a time, a home; just as Toulon, my father’s family’s chosen place, remained until just a few years ago my life’s one unbroken link,” she writes in “Then.” “They were concurrent presents, and presences, and somehow because of this, and magically, they have remained always present. If I crossed the ocean today, would I not find my childhood friends dangling from the monkey bars, their ties flailing and their crested hats in a pile upon the grass?”
Now those friends, those monkey bars, those ties and those hats exist not just in her thoughts but in these pages, where they’re fixed forever. That’s why Messud writes. It gives the past a future.
Of the 15 to 16 pieces available for sale during that time, he’s been able to acquire all but a couple of them.
He said while there’s an “enormous level of curiosity” in Edenshaw’s work, the market “is in its infancy in a sense.
“I guess I have to say Art Toronto is a way to test the waters,” he said.
“In all likelihood, I might end up donating five or six works to the National Gallery or to (Vancouver Art Gallery) subject to what happens with the building.”
DEG is showing 19th century ledger drawings which were made by largely anonymous Indigenous artists from the Great Plains nations such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota.
In many of them, horses figure prominently. When the animal was introduced by the Spanish to the Comanche in the 17th century, Ellis said, it led to major changes among all the aboriginal people in what later became the U.S..
Ellis said ledger drawings are “one of the most important aspects of North American art history and most people don’t even know they exist.”
They’re called ledger drawings because accounting ledger books were a major source of paper for Indigenous people.
“The drawings are both records of actual events and articulate the cumulative acquisition of spiritual power and status,” the Donald Ellis Gallery said in a news release.
Donald Ellis Gallery will donate 10 per cent of all sales to Canadian organizations addressing the legacy of residential schools, supporting Indigenous education and mental health, and promoting reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. The gallery said clients can choose to support one of the following charitable organizations:
She enjoys creating wreaths and bouquets by layering threads and designs
When Henry first started her embroidery hobby about three years ago, she was looking for something to do creatively with her hands. One night while her husband was out, she asked him to pick up some supplies.
“I bought a couple of patterns online. Soon, I was doing it constantly. And while I was really enjoying it, I wasn’t very good. I’d never stitched anything before,” said the 27-year-old.
“It takes patience and practice. You really need to be devoted to it to get better.”
Soon, she was reading through a book of stitches, detailing the different types and techniques.
It’s a slow art, she said; it’s not something a person can pick up and finish within an hour.
“The first pieces I started were floral bouquets. I basically would rough outline and then fill it in as I went. I’d work with different colours of threads and details.”
As she continued to hone her craft, people would tell her that her embroidery pieces were beautiful and that she should consider selling them.
“I was asked to recreate a bridal bouquet for a wedding commission. Monograms as well. You can customize each creation. It makes a good keepsake, even hanging decorations in a newborn’s room.”
But selling her work didn’t come immediately.
“I was nervous to put anything out. People said they were good, but I wasn’t sure they were good enough.”
Another Island maker asked her if she ever considered entering an Etsy pop-up or starting her own Etsy store. That interaction helped her gain more confidence to start a business, Hoop and Holler.
Of all of the embroidery she creates, Henry said likes the different wreathes she can make by designing flower patterns and bouquets.
“It’s all about layering. I love the texture in pieces I can create by using different thicknesses of thread. It’s always fun. Every piece depends on what works for you and what works for the piece.”
The practice of embroidering is relaxing, she said.
“Any craft where you can use your hands, focus on it, but then still have the opportunity to have the tv going or listen to music while you work… there’s nothing better than embroidering while you’re under a cozy blanket with a cup of tea by you and a movie on.”
She said she’d like to start working on more personalized pieces, a trend that she’s seeing among makers.
“I feel like embroidered flowers and greenery are always going to be popular. But I’ve seen lately people are using thread to paint a picture rather than use traditional stitches. People are getting portraits made or even pet portraiture. So, a piece of thread will have six individual strands, and then an artist will use those six strands to start the project. Adding a more authentic texture to what the picture is of.”
Get a hoop
Pick a material (not too thick) and thread.
Secure fabric in the embroidery hoop.
Using a pen or other writing utensil, sketch a pattern on the fabric lightly; this will act as a guide for the pattern.
Depending on the design, there could be several stitches used to fill in the design (running stitch, whip stitch, fishbone stitch, woven wheel, etc.)
Once finished, Henry adds another fabric to the hoops acting as a backing.
When Henry is finishing a project, she prefers to finalize the creation in a wooden hoop.
“They’re really simple and pretty and compliment the projects compared to the bright-coloured, plastic ones. But when I’m in the process of making something, I prefer the plastic ones, because they can hold the fabric really snug, and that’s what you want.”
The hoop must be snug and tight against the fabric to make sure the material doesn’t crease, which can make the process harder and impact the designs, she said.
“I prefer to use cotton or linen because it isn’t super thick. When the fabric is thick, it will be harder to stitch. I typically use quilters cotton and D.M.C. embroidery thread.
“As for needles, get some that are big enough so you can thread the needle, but one that’s not too big that it will leave visible holes in the fabric. I also keep a pair of small, sheer scissors.”
For someone who wants to start an embroidery project but doesn’t have the materials, there are many local Canadian artists that can supply them with the materials, pdfs, and kits.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of kits become available to people wanting to give it a try. I think it (and other hobbies like this) are being sold a lot more and becoming more popular because people are looking for a way to relax.
“And it’s an awesome craft because it’s portable. You can do it where ever you want.”
She said those looking to try a new hobby, including embroidery, shouldn’t be a perfectionist.
“If I could go back and tell myself anything, it would be just that, not to be such a perfectionist. Just have fun and be creative. Don’t be so concerned about the end result. Make it about the process and get enjoyment out of it. Use it as a way to relax or learn.”
Local dignitaries gathered on Saturday to celebrate the grand opening of Art Works, the city’s newest Art Centre.
Joining owner Chris Bennett for the official ribbon cutting was Belleville Chamber of Commerce CEO Jill Raycroft, Bay of Quinte MPP Todd Smith, Belleville Councillor Garnet Thompson on behalf of the City of Belleville and Bay of Quinte MP Neil Ellis.
Bennett, a familiar name in the local art scene is the creator behind many of the amazing murals seen around the city. Bennett has been a self-employed muralist, dancer, performing and multi-faceted artist and performing artist in the Belleville area for more than 25 years.
Bennett’s dream has always been to provide arts opportunities for youth and adults, helping them grow and discover their passions through inspiration, education and the freedom to express themselves.
Art Works is his dream come true.
“Art Works reflects how well I am personally doing as an artist; to be able to give back and provide a space for all aspiring and established artists to grow from and to be the influence to our community that I did not have growing up in the Quinte area by creating a studio like no other,” said Bennett.
Check out Art Works on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Arts—Entertainment/Art-Works-203932277210806/). Art Works is located at 257 North Front St. in Belleville.
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