Can artists grow the heart the European Union has to have to hold and bind together?
Imagine the happiness of sitting on a sun-dappled terrace in the French countryside, where you have had to reassure, say, the oldest person at your café table — your dear, monolingual English father-in-law — that you suggesting that he try la tarte du village has nothing to do with the two ladies of the night before, loitering beside the picturesque stone bridge in décolletage more evident than clothes.
Forever after, this will be the most risqué story you will repeat and embellish at family gatherings, but — still in the original moment — everyone at your table goes on to order a second cup of coffee and sipping quantities of gullet-scorching marc. Why? To stretch out the pleasure of listening to the unannounced, spontaneous concert-with-poetry that has begun unobtrusively at the other end of the patio, a performance mostly in the language or dialect of this part of France that lets you crawl under the skin of the place, into the preoccupations of its people, as you could not hope to do on the usual sightseeing-and-feeding tourist rounds. Perhaps you strike up a conversation with the born-and-bred-here family at the next table, when they explain the history behind the lines of one of the songs you’ve been listening to, which reminds you of a novel by Stendhal or Colette you read and wept over as a teenager. Your satisfaction, your feeling of enrichment, becomes incalculable.
Unless and until most Europeans have sensory treasures like these to savour, personal experiences of being in other EU nations, the Unión Europea, Europäische Union, Unione Europea and so on … will never be more than a merely pragmatic head-over-heart construction. This autumn’s dismal Brexit negotiations resemble the arguments in a divorce battle at the end of a marriage notable not just for a lack of love or passion but simple affection. It is a union of countries joined in the equivalent of an arranged marriage that made unassailable good sense on paper — but in which the parties never made any effort to get to know each other at the level of scent or touch, let alone become mutually endearing; or develop shared habits; or accumulate a store of common memories.
And how can you tell what a true inter-cultural marriage — respecting and revelling in cultural differences — would be like?
There is a sort of — marvellous — answer in a set of performances captured on Just in Case, a CD first mentioned on this site six years ago that reappeared in a bookshelf-tidying exercise the other day. It sounds sung and spoken straight from the souls of Bretons about scenes and old legends of Brittany, although all its material is new, and it lets you hear Breton voices — including one that is especially gravelly and magnificent, belonging to Fañch Peru, to which you can listen on a clip uploaded here — singing or reciting poetry, some of it protesting, conveying the depths of understandable anger about attempts by authorities in Paris to stamp out the Breton language as if it were a foul pest.
But no, not all the performers are actually natives of Brittany. Among them are Marianna Butenschön from Germany, Owen Martell and Tomos Williams from Wales, and several from other French regions.** All the poetry and lyrics are by Roy Eales, a part-time inhabitant of Breton country whose forte is elegantly delectable whimsy with powerful undercurrents, and whose first language is English — even if, when reading English and French versions of his poems side-by-side, you might strongly suspect that several came to him first en français. The foreigners share Breton sentiments — cultural pride, outrage about subjugation — to a degree that would be implausible to anyone who had no idea of how many antifascist outsiders lost their lives fighting in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9, including 500 from Britain and 900 Americans.***
Roy and his wife and perfect mate, the painter Susan Eales, have with a fine and cherishing ear translated into English dozens of poems by a munificently gifted Flemish friend of theirs, Willem Roggeman, published in A splendid view on words. He has reciprocated, introducing Flemish readers to Roy’s poems in his own English-to-Flemish renderings.
Like Just in Case, none of these collaborations and exchanges were subsidised by the EU or any government, as far as we know, or organised by official edict, or prompted by worthy kumbaya ambitions.**** They seem to have come about from natural attraction, or what is most essential in art.
If only they were more common, and were advertised and shared more energetically — not necessarily on the internet, where you can find uploads of the odd clip from Just in Case that, certainly at this stage of technological evolution, sound woefully anaemic and fail to do justice to its impeccable, professional production.
The collection’s tone is set by Julie Murphy, born English, but singing translations of Ealesian verse into Welsh — the language of her husband’s people — in a warm yet sublimely ethereal voice, as movingly as the young Joan Baez (and yes, that is saying a lot). It is a performance with an intimacy that cannot be faked, free of the annoyingly over-the-top emoting of too much Celtic fusion music, and of slick, big-studio tricks and manipulation. You, the audience, seem to be a privileged eavesdropper, as when listening to the riffs of jazz musicians who have been playing together for an eternity, or the improvisations of a classical Indian sitar-and-sarod ensemble — even if the pieces that make up Just in Case are not live recordings.
Saying more than this would approach literary or musical criticism. At post-Gutenberg, we prefer to let work speak for itself, on the whole — a preference that the objets d’art in this poem would certainly share:
Royal Academy of Arts
how the paintings feel
when the exhibition is over.
Is it not then
that these tired oils
deserve a little rest?
They have seen enough
eyes and heard enough
words of artful observers.
Enlarged by a superior sense
who speak aloud, these masters …
… these accountants of
image, of culture,
these over-filled vessels of real meaning
(they speak of this work or
that to anyone
who listens till nobody hears).
must be taken down.
The paintings decide they can’t take any more.
— Roy Eales, in A poem decides/ Ar barzhoneg an fini a ziviz/ C’est le poème qui decide/ Ein Gedicht entscheidet (2013)
** Reciting the names of the musicians and performers makes a feast for the ears — or aural overload. A by no means complete list would also include: Bernez Tangi, Marthe Vassallo, Emmanuelle Huteau, Nanda Troadeg, Kemo and Matilda Veillon, Jean-Michel Veillon, Yannick Jory, Jean-Luc Thomas, Pierrick Tardivel, Philippe Gloaguen, Philippe Ollivier … And then there are the translators from English: Fañch Peru (Breton); Nanda Troadeg, Marie-Noëlle Le Tallec, and André LeFèvre, in addition to Roy and Susan Eales (French); Maria Tritschler, Marianna and Wolf Buenschön (German); and Owen Martell (Welsh). For your own copy of the CD, telephone or write to Marie-Pierre Le Pennec, Le Bourg, 22140, Pluzunet, France. Tel: mobile -0033635911833. €16.50 (including p&p). Email: email@example.com
*** In the first part of her autobiography, An Unfinished Woman (1969), the playwright Lillian Hellman — who travelled to Spain to report on this war — wrote: ‘Never before and never since in my lifetime were liberals, radicals, intellectuals and the educated middle class to come together in single, forceful alliance.’
**** A kind note from Roy on 23 September added valuable enlightenment, summarised as follows:
The artists worked together for four years without any external financial support. Once the collection of performances that became Just in Case was ready in final form, funding for production of the CD and for concerts to promote it arrived from: the cultural services section of the Conseil Générale of the Côtes-D’Armor and Itinéraires BIS des Côtes-d’Armor (the département where the Eales family and Breton and other artists have homes); Stiftung Brass, a cultural foundation in the German city of Aschaffenburg (which had in the past supported and helped to arrange exhibitions of the works of Sascha Juritz, see above); the Arts Council of Wales and Welsh Arts International; and Dao d’a r C’had and Ti ar Vro, two Breton cultural associations in Cavan and Pluzunet. After Just in Case was released, France 3 Television chose it as one of the three best CDs of 2011.
Thank you for this exquisite piece of writing. It really does so much, huge justice to the talent, the ideas and the hearts of the people involved in Just in Case. You have perfectly not only twinned it with the bleak and dangerous narrowness of what we are facing in Britain and thus Europe right now, but also presented it as a microcosm of what is altogether possible, really necessary, artistically, socially and politically if we are to hold to the beautiful vision of Europe and of European collaboration for all our good and futures. There are many, many, many artistic collaborations among Europeans themselves and with other artists from outside Europe. These joined talents thrive without much income or notice but with great respect, especially among local populations and others when doors are opened by wise heads for them to play, exhibit, express elsewhere across the continent. Yes, it happens, despite the overhanging, overwhelming dominance of the billions-show business offer of a universal glitter and noise “culture”.
Before all that, this happened … two European fathers got Europe together.
Robert Schuman, French foreign minister: “Through the consolidation of basic production and the institution of a new High Authority, whose decisions will bind France, Germany and the other countries that join, this proposal represents the first concrete step towards a European federation, imperative for the preservation of peace.” 9 May 1950.
Jean Monnet, French political, thinker, diplomat: When people work together, it shows them that “beyond differences and geographical boundaries there lies a common interest.” And so, he said often: “Continue, continue, there is no future for the people of Europe other than in union.”
Thank you for such a kind reading, and a comment sharpening and deepening perspectives on the subject.
Those Ministry of Culture mandarins in Paris certainly knew what they were doing when they chose this particular Chevalier des Arts et de Lettres — Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters — fourteen years ago. He could have made his decoration an excuse for moving to the capital to hobnob with fellow-honorees of the likes of Philip Glass, the composer; or the director Ang Lee, or the ultra-glamorous George Clooney — but has never abandoned his and Susan’s beloved Brittany and their close friends and projects there.
I have returned to listening to Just in Case — after a depressing hour watching the news about an increasingly disheartening public sphere — and feel lucky to have something so hopeful for a distraction.
There must be millions of others longing to see more signs of Europeans drawing closer together without the direction or interference of bureaucrats in Brussels, and there must be lots of ideas about how this can be done. Shouldn’t there be a forum where these can be discussed?
Thank you! Reading this only now, as I prepare to introduce a Scottish audience to a very Breton story, in English (with the help of one Roy and one Susan Eales), the latest Brexit news buzzing in my ears along with the small, personal question: next year, will I be able to come and share my work with a UK audience? It so happens that only yesterday, a German friend was showing me around his Saar region, making me see how much of a crossroad it always has been, on a border over which so much blood was shed and that, nowadays, locals pass several times a day almost without knowing. You are right, Europe can only become real to most Europeans through personal, sensory experience. So much has been made, but so much more remains to do.
As one of the performers on the CD and one of Roy’s friends, I will not comment on either literature or music, because they are not my field. All I want to say and emphasize is that Just in case is a wonderful example of European cooperation and unity, hopefully a little symbol of what Europe could be, if we had more intelligent and more educated leaders, i. e. politicians with vision. This work — done in one of the most open regions of France, where the people have admitted French, German, Polish, Hungarian, Finnish, Russian and American writers, painters and composers to let them create on that fertile soil — shows what people are capable of, if they are welcome, and if the conditions are appropriate. Among Roy’s friends I always felt almost at home. Such a community is very inspiring and the switching over from one language to another is enriching. While creating you learn to respect each other, because creating is a hard job. At a certain point you start to like and even to love the others and you could continue working endlessly. Because people who write, sing and dance, who plant trees and compose, who try to save songs and poems of a culture in danger, are very special people. Europe needs such people urgently.
Yes, artists can grow the heart the European Union has to have to hold and bind together. But they should raise their voice.
Yes, of course they can. Vive l’Europe!
Thank you, Marthe, this is very interesting indeed — and you make your point about Saar vividly.
So sorry for the delay in releasing your comment from the new-commenter filter, I’m dealing with mysterious technical problems. But now that a first comment has been approved, you won’t have to wait for a green light from me again. … What wouldn’t I give to be listening to you in your Scottish audience! If there’s an audio clip or text with that story, do consider letting me post it here.
I don’t disagree with any of that — not a single word. All very well said indeed, and in fluent English that makes me sigh with longing for a parallel life in which I spoke German as well … or at all.
Thank you so much reading and responding, Marianna.
Yes, Marthe, “So much has been made, but so much more remains to do.” And there are Brits who decide they do not wish to play their part in helping to do what remains to be done! I am a Brit and know so may other Brits also appalled that an “advisory” referendum of a tiny margin should be used by an uncourageous government bowing and dictated to by a right-wing fringe of ultra-nationalist politicians and others to curdle British minds and in doing so usurp the underlying visionary creation of a peaceful Europe. Do they argue with their actions and words that the British have nothing to contribute to reforms that would enhance this vision? Sadly, they seem to say just that.
Marianna suggests this also when she writes of Just in Case as “a little symbol of what Europe could be, if we had more intelligent and more educated leaders, i. e. politicians with vision….” I add to her words — especially in Britain. The EU could help as well, by informing and educating Europeans much more than it has and does about the historic, cultural and social aspects of Europe and its achievements and how the vision of the EU must work against ever seeing again its horrors — as Marthe recalls in her meeting and conversation in Germany. We all know that we need this more than ever in Europe now.
Ah, dear Marianna, you do remember that not all Brits have been absent from Brittany, but they are not in your list of painters and composers who have come to Brittany to work. British artists have come to Brittany to search and express its mysteries and beauty in their work. They know they are not on unfamiliar ground or with unfamiliar people.Their ancient language happens to be the language of ancient Celtic Britain and an essential part of the Bretons’ passion to guard their culture. The arrival of other artists inspired by Breton culture, in turn, encourages this passion. So you might add to your cast British writers and painters, among others, Joseph Conrad who worked and lived across Brittany’s Trégor in 1896, especially at the Ile Grande, and whose voyages there inspired the short story The Idiots included later in his Tales of Unrest, and Mr J.M.W.Turner, among other Brits, who painted in Brest and other coastal parts of Brittany, whose sketchbooks include Landerneau and other drawings of Breton parts from Morlaix to Nantes that can be seen at the Tate Gallery, London, and A.S. Byatt who wrote Possession, a 1990 Booker prize-winning book, set largely amidst the mysterious Brittany, in which young scholars research two Victorian poets.
There’s a campaigning ‘EU Supergirl’ in this short YouTube video appearing near the top of Google’s search results for Brexit today — apparently posted on the net by BBC3. Not enough interviewees in it, sadly, but it suggests that there should be vastly more coverage focused on the generation whose entire lives are likely to be conditioned by a new isolationist Britain:
‘Life Of A Pro-Brexit vs. An Anti Brexit Campaigner | Generation Activism’
That’s very good to have — a list of arts-related British connections to Brittany. It’s not hard to conceive of the Breton coast as the setting for some of the Turner paintings I was lucky enough to see at an enormous Tate Modern exhibition in the mid-1980s, but its appearance in Possession made no impression at all. Perhaps that’s because descriptive writing isn’t A. S. Byatt’s forte — or possibly because I found the novel a slog after I’d got over the surprise of its charming big idea. Too schematic, and although the mock-Victorian poetry was skillful, it wasn’t moving. I realise that I’m in the minority, here. The book was commercially successful and won prizes.
The rarity of English writing about this place that endeared itself to me as a child reading Dumas — permanently imprinted with all the clichés about a hardy, courageous people shaped by foaming sea, rocks, bracing weather … (not to mention cotriade, which I enjoy cooking on freezing winter days) — is part of what makes your books and collaborations with Sascha and Susan extremely special treasures.
Roy, Marianna, Marthe,
If only aggressive ultra-nationalists could look to Brittany as an example, to see that there’s nothing inconsistent about loving your own culture, even fighting to protect and preserve it, yet welcoming the presence of foreigners. I wonder whether those who cherish what is theirs most dearly are also most likely to respect the same sentiments in others, and not feel threatened by or competitive about them.
Just so, your comment, “… there’s nothing inconsistent about loving your own culture, even fighting to protect and preserve it, yet welcoming the presence of foreigners.” Bretons have welcomed us with open arms. It is part of their culture to do so. They look outwards to the world and do the same as we do in other countries with other artists. Who can believe that an artists nationality is relevant to any artistic creation? It is the artist’s original heart and cultural place that add a real dimension to his or her music, painting, writing, whatever, and that dimension is expanded, heightened, enriched through the multi-cultural experiences of collaborations with others’ cultural hearts and places. A passport says British, French, German, Swedish, Danish, whatever, but nothing about cultures. In his year in the EU’s marvellous Erasmus programme, one of my sons, Damian, lived, joked, ate, sang, washed-up, in a dwelling with other Erasmus students like him studying at Bologna University, Italy, from nine European countries.They did not exchange together their nationalities daily, he says, but their cultures.
Congratulations on bringing up a young Erasmus scholar, although — considering his parents — I’d be pretending if I said I was surprised. Insider information tells me that you will be too busy to write back, now or in the immediate future, so I’ll reply later, in this spot.
This paper about your work that looks as if it was presented at a conference at the Sorbonne came up in Google when I was looking for helpful links for this entry:
You are so far off the charts in the degrees of your immersion in other cultures that of course you understand even better than most of us wanderers how right Mark Twain was to say …
I found the statistic I’m putting here before I wrote the piece — but didn’t want to contaminate a celebration of music and poetry with contributions from the ‘counting mind.’
Apparently, nearly two-fifths of EU citizens — 37 per cent — have never visited another EU country:
The young do seem to get around in the Union as much as they should — although I I’ve been wondering whether there shouldn’t also be long-stay exchanges not just for university students but apprenticeships and vocational training in the German Fachhochschule (polytechnic) tradition.
A few years ago, Didier Bottineau, as Cheryll notes above, is a specialist in the intricacies of translations and their incontournable relationship with themselves and with literature (whether English, Breton, Basque, French and many others). Didier stumbled over my books somewhere in Brittany and followed his natural inclinations to examine technically, intellectually, the cross-play of words, phrases, in these four languages and the outcomes on meanings and effects on the poems themselves. If I understand him correctly, and he may well want to correct me, as a result we appear to end up in each case with not one original poem simply gone from English into another language but four poems in four languages each reflecting a range of additional external/internal influences (for example — a translator’s understanding of the original language, own language, own experiences, own nuances, etc.). HIs own words about the above — on my books in his Sorbonne paper and in a chapter of his book — express his explanations, interpretations much better than I could ever do. Didier embodies Europe, its collaborations and its ideals. And yes, of course, Cheryll, widen the scope. Yours is a wonderful ideal to promote such long-stay exchanges in the German tradition you mention.
Yes, that’s also how I’ve read his encapsulation of the reasons for his keen interest in your work. Fascinating, and perhaps a glimpse into a type of creative collaboration that will become more common in the future. Here’s the link to his paper, with an offer of a rough — automated — translation from the French: