Saturday, January 10, 2015

Je Suis Charlie

“Je Suis Charlie”
I was so glad to see a sign that read “Je Suis Charlie” at “The Center for Fiction” when I went to return my library book.  The slogan has justifiably been heard and seen everywhere in the last few days, and is so appropriate in an organization devoted to writing and writers.
The declarative phrase has double meaning for me—in addition to expressing support for freedom of expression, it parallels the opening lines of my novel, “None But a King: the Story of Anne of Brittany.”  My protagonist tells herself “Je suis Anne, Duchesse de Bretagne.” Repeating the words gives the thirteen year old girl  strength and reminds her of the responsibilities she has to deal with as the ruler of an independent state at war with France.
Both for Anne and contemporary sympathizers carrying signs and wearing T-shirts, that expression of identity marks their resolve to live up to the symbolic meaning of the title. I would like to identify a link between Anne's life and Charlie Hebdo; but it is very difficult.
I've been reviewing my research about the period  from 1488 to 1514, in which Anne ruled, as duchess of Brittany and queen of France, to find traces of the spirit of “la provoc” –the inimitable French pursuit of provocation. In Anne's time, France was a strictly Catholic country, albeit sometimes at odds, and sometimes at war with, the pope. That was long before the Protestant Reformation, before the Enlightenment, before the French Revolution.  Jews had been expelled long ago, and there may have been a few Muslims in the south. The closest relationship I can find to free thinking is Anne’s pursuit of knowledge, and  her encouragement of writers, artists and printers, leading to better education.
Her husbands, King Charles VIII and Louis XII both went to war in Italy and returned with greater appreciation of the arts and sciences, which they shared with their very well- educated wife and together helped to bring the Renaissance to France.
That receptivity to learning, to thinking in new ways, was the beginning of the spirit of open-mindedness, if not progressivism, that has characterized France and must not be tempered by the violence which has so often accompanied its history and progress.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


There is nothing like the Metropolitan Museum of Art for constant discovery and a wealth of treasures. Whenever I go, new things attract my attention and add to my understanding of my characters and their world.
I am quite sure that I have learned as much by the art and architecture that I have been able to see—starting in Pittsburgh, ongoing here in New York, of course throughout France, and that excellent exhibition in Chicago—to compensate in some measure for my inability to read original French source documents.
Today, just walking through the French Renaissance rooms of the Met, I saw several of “my characters”—pieces that I do not think had been on display since I’ve been working on this. There, all in one cabinet, were a bronze medal of Louise de Savoie, and enamel and bronze representations of her son François I and his symbolic salamander (which also appear in stone on the walls of the Alwyn Court apartment house on West 58th Street). 
There was also an enamel of Henri II, the son of Anne’s daughter Claude and King François I, showing that he inherited his father’s long pointy nose, as well as the crown of France and Duchy of Brittany after the death of his older brother, the Dauphin François.

There were six large wooden relief panels from the Château de Galion, which Cardinal Georges d'Amboise had built—two showed his portrait, and one that of Louis XII.
The double wood panels were too high for me to photograph; I asked a very tall man to take the photos and engaged in a nice conversation with him, his wife and son, visiting from Holland and finding the museum wonderful.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The World of Anne and Claude

This afternoon I was able to immerse myself, after too long, in the glimmering but somber world of Anne of Brittany, my protagonist—extending to that of her daughter, Queen Claude. How I wished I had a magnifying glass—and even more that I could touch—the detailed miniature manuscripts on display at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, in the small gallery that houses the extraordinary exhibition of the work of the “Master of Claude de France” –an artist whose real name is not known, but so called because he created the Prayer Book of Claude de France and Claude’s Book of Hours, which is also shown. A special bonus for me was that Anne’s Book of Hours was also exhibited—I am so fascinated by that book, commissioned by Anne herself to teach her first son, who died before he was three.

The featured piece is the 2 3/4 x 2 inch, Prayer Book of Claude de France, which could almost be a piece of jewelry, so exquisite is the art and detailing in its 132 miniatures—primarily a series of depictions of the lives of Jesus and the saints, with each page embellished by the royal symbols to which I often refer in my novel. Claude commissioned this work around 1517, when she was crowned queen at the age of 17 after the recent deaths of her mother Queen Anne and father, Louis XII, who was succeeded by her husband François I.

The comments of the curators emphasize another critical emotion that preoccupied the lives of Claude and her mother—their duty to bear a son who would become king, and guided her instructions to the artist. Sadly, Anne‘s nine pregnancies did not produce a son who lived; but Claude’s seven pregnancies resulted in the birth of King Henri II.

The Morgan Library and Museum gallery includes other works by the Master and other royal artists and provides digital access to the Prayer Book via an iPad and Anne’s Book of Hours on its website.

http://Morgan Library

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

I am somewhat appalled at how long it has been since I added to this blog. But I have been extremely busy and involved with the book itself, which is my main goal. In addition, I've been involved as leader of the New York chapter of the Historical Novel Society. Since my last post, I have taken two writing workshops and revised the manuscript several times. I think it is getting better and better and closer to the book I want it to be.  It is important for me to note here that the title of the book has changed to "None But a King: The Life of Anne of Brittany."

I had a wonderful surprise and affirmation for the wonders of the Internet when I got an email from a woman who is a determined researcher. Val Wood, of Uwchmynydd, Aberdaron, Gwnynedd, Wales, found me through SOFAR NY, the organization of which I am co-Director (which provides mental health support services to military families).  She had found this blog in her research on Anne of Brittany, which she took up after finding a ring that she was able to relate to Anne’s symbols.

There are the ermine, the fleur-de-lys, the crown. I’ve never seen anything like it! Her sources believe it was made in France, plated with silver. She hasn’t been able to have it dated. But in a search quite like mine, Val plans to go to Brittany to pursue more of Anne’s history. She was able to tell me more about Anne's betrothal at a very young age to young Edward, Prince of Wales. That relationship is included in my book, but Val gave me more background.

And I’ve had another interesting meeting and art connection with the images that inspired my book. On my way to my writing workshop, held at the Tribeca branch of the 92Y in Manhattan, I went through an area  used as an art gallery. Again I stopped short when I saw a large figure with right-and-left facing heads. It is a fascinating, timeless and organic figure rendered in shades of gray, in graphite. I was able to contact and to meet the artist, Colette Robbins. My visit to her studio was wonderful and we had a long conversation that I hope will continue.  She too has studied art and anthropology and has rendered quite a few versions of these figures and has a rich library of resources from throughout the world.

There’s also been more research, of course, and I’ve both added to and confirmed some of the data. I found additional graphic material, including maps, when I was in Brazil…I discovered that searching Google in Portuguese yielded international treasures that did not appear in English.
I hope that it will not be long before I can be posting some very good news here.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

I am obsessed with a woman who lived five hundred years ago. For more than three years, I have been researching her life and times, and writing about Anne de Bretagne ( or Anne of Brittany). I planned a trip to France and Brittany to understand more about her by experiencing her world, rather than reading about it. The basic facts listed about her always start with the fact that she was twice Queen of France, having married two kings successively. But that would not have been enough to have set me on this journey that entails serious study of art, religion, symbolism, political and economic history and the variety of factors that comprised life for royalty as well as for others.

It is my curiosity that got me started--I’ve often said that the best thing about this time of my life is my ability to pursue my curiosity. And pursue it I have been doing.

My mixed-media journey started at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, in the Hall of Architecture, which is a vast repository of statuary casts and models that brings together replicas from all parts of the world and centuries of human creativity, from Venus de Milo to the Arc de Triumph. I was on an excursion studying Frank Lloyd Wright, and we were looking at places of artistic as well as architectural interest.

I had separated from the others and was wandering around, fascinated, with my camera. Suddenly, I stopped, then walked slowly around a large sculptural group, taking pictures from all angles. It was clear that it was a tomb; two figures were lying atop a large catafalque, (I learned that word later) surrounded by rows of smaller religious  figures and protected by angels. My imagination was seized by one of the four larger-than life-size, quite representational, figures at the four corners. Looking outward was a lovely young woman, in a marble robe that flowed beautifully in graceful folds.  But the back of her head was the image of an old man. What did that mean?  
The labels shed little light. All I learned was that this was the tomb of François  II, Duke of Brittany, and his wife, Marguerite de Foix, and allegorical figures. The sculpture was credited to Michel Colombe, and it said the original is located in the Cathèdrale St. Pierre in Nantes.
I had to find out more. When I got home I did some research; but found little to explain the meaning of that two-faced figure that so intrigued me. As a writer, I am fascinated by allegory, and have always loved art, so I continued to look into the uses of allegorical figures in art, and found nothing else quite like this tomb, but others that I could see had some relationships.
 I found basic information about the sculptor, about the cathedral, about the Duke. I learned that the tomb had been commissioned by his daughter, known as Anne of Brittany. She became Duchess of Brittany after her father’s death, and twice became Queen of France, upon marrying first King Charles VIII, and then Louis XII. Neither of them is very well known or frequently written about in English. I soon realized that François and Marguerite were less interesting than their daughter, Anne.
Eventually I learned that this extraordinary young woman had participated—and been a key figure in--a momentous period of history that saw the world change: Born in 1477, she had her first child the year Columbus discovered America; Brittany and France were embroiled in alliances and wars amid shifting leadership and national borders throughout Europe; the printing press began to spread information and ideas to the growing middle class; she and her husbands brought the artistic genius of Italy to flourish in France, while building a nation from feudal duchies and states.

Interesting, but I still had no clue about that provocative figure, or why it should be decorating, or watching over, the tomb. It was a busy time for me, and although  I could give my mystery  only intermittent attention, I  could not forget it. I continued to get ideas that I would track down. I My notebook and computer show occasional  notes made over the next few years when something brought it back to me or moved my inquiry forward. 
One day when I was at the Cloisters, looking at the Unicorn tapestries , I heard the docent say  that some authorities think they were a gift to Anne  before her marriage to Charles. Two-headed figures would capture my attention, until I realized they were usually Janus, which didn’t seem to pertain here. My readings in many areas of art, literature and communication would bring thoughts of parables and allegories. What is behind that figure? Finally I was able to identify it as an unusual version of the allegorical representation of the cardinal virtue Prudence—which was usually shown as a three-headed man, signifying  past, present and future. Naturally, the next subject to explore was “the Virtues,” as they were described by Plato and seen in Christian and in pagan religions. New areas kept opening  for my reading  on allegory and images in medieval art.
Many interpretations, but no pertinent answers.…. Why did Anne want those figures, that image, on her parents’ tomb? Or was it that the sculptor interpreted her wishes that way? How much influence would a patron have on an artist?

In one month, several things converged in my life. Two courses of study that had occupied me for the past two years had ended.  I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Medieval section with a friend and was frozen by three small  three-dimensional figures: one was a two-faced image; the others were four-inch bronze discs showing the faces of Queen Anne and King Louis XII.  I told my friend of my fascination with both the two-faced figure and with Anne.  She urged me to go on with my investigation. Then I learned that my ongoing editorial job had come to an end. That was it. Now I could spend the time to research and write about my obsession.

I had to find out about Anne of Brittany. The same bare information appeared wherever I looked. I could find only two books about her published in English. (My high school French is not up to research into original materials.) I located a copy of the 1917 biography, and read its stilted language, full of adulation for the admirable young woman who had such an interesting, challenging life. Then I found the 1967 version written for teens, in less formal language, with descriptions of gowns and coronations, but few more facts. In the process, I had been consulting an increasing variety of histories of France, of the Middle Ages, Medieval period, and early Renaissance—politics, arts, daily life. So much was now available on the Internet; I rarely had to leave my computer. But I did. I was able to check out many of the sources listed in  bibliographies, and to order books from the library. My curiosity was  in high gear but it was not satisfied.

Anne was just 12 when she became Duchess of Brittany; and 14 when she married King Charles VIII and became Queen of France. A widow at 21, she married King Louis XII and again bore the French Queen’s crown. She was highly educated and prepared for royalty; she was a leading patron of the arts.  Despite two controversial political marriages that resulted in loving relationships, despite  nine pregnancies; despite loyal supporters and important adversaries, despite devotion to the church and generous philanthropy; Anne failed at  the primary purpose of the Queen of France: no son of hers became King.

I am in thrall to modernity. I know that I could not have done the research or written my novel without the electronic tools that I use constantly to augment the serious reading I do. See a reference or a point that needs checking? I wouldn’t guess how many Google searches I’ve done, how many Wikipedia articles I’ve consulted for quick answers or background to  a specific question. By now, I can read Wikipedia articles and websites in French even better than the on-line translations.  They may lead me to  a reference to a book or article I want to consult, or to an out-of-print volume that Google has digitized  about my period and characters. The language is stilted and the facts often in conflict or wrong, but still, I’ve unearthed some useful tidbits. Any of these may lead me to hours of reading, and may confirm or question what I had before.

The books on my shelves are now two-deep --I’ve broken my resolution not to buy too many books and increasingly am tempted by  e-readers. I have spent hours reading ‘analog’ old and new books, which I can obtain after electronic searches and requests of the New York Public Library.  I am so fortunate to be in New York!  I’ve been permitted to borrow many of them; the library has tracked them down electronically and sent them to my local branch for me to pick up. The older, rare and more expensive volumes are available for me to consult at the main reading room, where I am permitted to bring my Netbook computer…an indispensible investment for this work.  I feel privileged  to be allowed to use the Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum and the Rare Books collection of the JP Morgan Library and Museum . I had a fantastic bonus when I was at the Morgan: before being admitted, I had had to submit a list of the books I wanted. Then  the wonderful librarian, realizing that I was researching Anne de Bretagne, brought me additional rare facsimile material that I didn’t know was available. They also have a valuable Book of Hours that was commissioned by Anne de Bretagne for her son. It is completely digitized and available online for me to study, page by page, as long as I want to, right from my desk. My French is  not up to reading academic books or articles, but when I am consulting a French art book at one of the libraries, my online French dictionary will find a translation. I admit that not everything is in New York but my computer is! Amazing collections from major libraries and museums are now digitized and accessible to me, many from home (some require me to be in my library to use their links.)

I was absorbing all this fascinating information, generating questions  (often of myself) as I went along,  and trying to gain  a sense of how I would handle this challenge. I spent  about eight months putting  together the basic facts, but  reaching answers to  all my questions wouldl take much longer. Here I am in the 21st century; shaped by a society so different from Anne’s:  it  is diverse and democratic  and respects the pursuit of knowledge; women are treated and considered completely differently than  in Anne’s time; we are blessed with a growing wealth of information, new theories of history and art , advances in science and medicine;  a world  that values intellectual growth and individual development. Unlike Anne’s earlier  biographers, I want to write a modern book; a good story that is also analytical.  I  want to tell  the story of Anne’s life, in the context of her time and setting, so as to give perspective on contemporary lives.  These people were experiencing the onset of the Renaissance! How did the time and place shape their  attitudes –toward religion, medicine, parenthood, marriage, art, learning, warfare, royalty? I would have to find a way to put into a modern perspective both the facts and the understanding I was gleaning about this unique young duchess/queen who, while representing her time. And I would have to decide how to handle the many details and facts--even dates-- that remained in conflict after all my reading. My constant frustration at the inconsistent dates listed in the histories was alleviated when I found that calendars have been changed several times since her period; that years and ages were reckoned differently, and that the attempt to impose uniformity did not come until after her time. For Anne and several other characters, I couldn't even be sure of when they were born! To say nothing of other controversies regarding people, antipathies, motives, and allies. Some books talked glowingly of the happiness of Anne and Charles when they married; others said she was virtually kidnapped!

I would have liked to be a scholar; to write a definitive biography; but my French isn’t good enough to research whatever original source material has not made it into English language books. But with the information available to me, I can write an interesting novel, that reveals and incorporates the issues that make it so compelling. I  would tell the story of Anne in her time, based on actual historical events, but not  write a history book.

I’ve always been a reader; there is usually a novel by my bedside that I read for pleasure, and piles of books  next to every chair, with a notebook on top, that I read for background and information. At some point, I realized that my recreational reading had shifted to  historical fiction. First I would search for books about early France (and learned that most of them start with François I, who reigned after the death of Anne and her husband Louis. Books of the turn of the 15th century usually were about the Tudors in England or the Borgias in Italy. And frequently I would find that I could not read past a few pages: the writing was banal! The text would vary from detailed descriptions of gowns and people’s glances and heavy breathing  to sword play. But then Wolf Hall came out in America. I was blown away. Hilary Mantel had crafted an absorbing story about real historical characters; with insight, depth, and  skill. Then  Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff was published, to great acclaim. That was another case where the author crafted a wonderful biography despite not having definitive source information; yet she was able to call on the known facts and her broad research. Both of those works left me inspired and frustrated. I would love to write like that, but I know I am not as skilled as they. But better to aim for quality than settle for something I have no respect for. I would write what is known as ‘literary’ historic fiction. My aspirations are high. I gave up on bodice-rippers and focused on really good books that offered professional inspiration as well as an engaging  story.

So I knew most of what I want to say and what I want to leave the reader thinking about. But the question of how to say it was still to be resolved. I want to evoke compassion and sympathy toward a queen who lived five centuries ago. Because  many of my sources were based on just a few early histories, and some facts were in conflict, my research did not reflect as broad a perspective as I would want  and did not even mention or question some of the points  that are of interest to contemporary readers. Not even all nobles in northwestern France or Brittany would think alike, I am sure. Indeed, I knew there were many conflicts. I would have to make assumptions and fill in a lot of areas that to us are significant  but would not have been considered by early male historians who focused on politics and war  or even the 19th and 20th century women authors, who dwelt on romance, fashion, and ceremony. I want my reader to feel engaged in this story, to relate to the lives of Anne and her world, despite the fact that that world is so different. 

Anne was a woman, as well as a Queen, whose emotions should be understandable by the reader, even though the institutions and conditions she knew  are so different from ours.  My notebook was filled with ideas and false starts. And then it came to me. The people in Anne’s life would tell her story from their own points of view, sometimes not typical of their time. I had already made family trees and long lists and short bios of family, nobles, artists and religious leaders with whom she interacted. Some had fascinating stories themselves. Most significantly, the use of a variety of people would allow me to illustrate aspects of the time more sensitively than an all-knowing and -judging authorial  voice.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

When does it end?

I’ve happily and proudly declared (to myself) that I reached the end of my historical novel, “Journals of a Renaissance Court….the story of Anne of Brittany.”  Now I’m polishing. But last night I attended a reading of a play by Lorraine Liscio about Christine de Pizan (1363-1434), who although she died about 60 years before the period of my novel, was an important influence on Anne and the other women in her time and place.
Christine was an intelligent, rather free-thinking and influential woman, and quite possibly the first ‘professional writer.’ I have all that in the book. But in the dramatization of her life I realized  the possibilities of some of the political characters and battles on which I had not really focused  because they took place so much earlier. I see some fascinating links that will really augment the story.
One of the ways to enrich a historical novel is to include references and links to significant people and events that relate to the main characters and situations. And now I have a series of situations and family links that I know will be fascinating. That’s today’s job.
But how and when do I stop?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Learning from Midrash

In my studies of Jewish teachings, questions are often answered with 'Midrash.' The word comes from the Hebrew word “to seek” and its literal meaning is ‘to investigate’ or ‘to study.’ Without going into technical  explanations of the two kinds of Midrash—legal and narrative—it can be said that Midrash is usually described as a form of storytelling by rabbis and thinkers over the centuries to fill in the gaps of biblical stories, words and teachings; to answer the unexplainable; to comment on the unclear.  Midrashim (Hebrew plural for midrash)  may speculate on human weaknesses ..motivations …nuances..on the available information. Midrashic stories are often told  to shift perceptions of stated actions. (i.e. “why did Cain kill Abel?” “why was Noah chosen to save his family?” “why did Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery?”) The goal seems always to be to find a religious yet meaningful /logical /ethical explanation for questions.
In contemporary terms, the process of explaining answers to difficult questions can be related to the sages’ development of Midrash. “Mommy, why…”
No novel, whatever its subject or goal,  can be compared to the work of rabbis who wrote Midrash, or to learned teachings. But on consideration, I believe that in the process of writing fiction based on real but incomplete or flawed history, it is the author’s task to create secular Midrash…to explain what is unclear or unknown from the available facts; to speculate on the participants' actions and thoughts; sometimes to shift perceptions of accepted dogma by applying a new lens.
My novel about Anne of Brittany, which takes place in France 1488-1515, is based on  a great deal of historical research. But most of the history of that period consists of dates: wars, treaties, reigns, births, deaths, marriages. That leaves a lot of blanks. I’ve learned at least as much from the arts of the period, and from visiting the places in her life. But that is still not sufficient to tell a meaningful story. That’s why I couldn’t write it as a biography or history. I’ve had to extrapolate to fill in the blanks. Why? Where? When? How? What did it feel like? What were the reactions of others? Who are the people without titles who made things happen? It had to be a historical novel. 
I do not intend to be presumptuous or irreverent by using the word Midrash. Instead, again, it has offered me another view of the process of thinking and writing.