Madame de Staël is a biography of my perennial favorite, Germaine de Staël. This one is a much more high-level overview of her life than Mistress to an Age was. It doesn’t talk as much about her philosophy or her writing or her politics, but it does give you a good idea of where she was and who she was with. In fact, where Mistress to an Age sometimes confused me with too much detail, especially when she was traveling through Germany, this book had a lighter touch and was able to give me a much-needed 10,000 foot view. This would have been a good first book on her to have read.
I have an abiding soft spot for Germaine de Staël. She was determined to make a difference in the crazy and deadly Paris of the French Revolution; she thought Paris was the center of the world; for her, intellectualism and writing were the way to shape that world; and Napoleon hated her. I find her endlessly fascinating.
Mistress to an Age was the first book-length biography I read of her; it was written in 1957 and is still in print. It was quite readable as well – I was a bit worried it was going to be too academic, but it read like a novel in some points. It helps, of course, that she, her parents, and her friends were all like something of characters out of a novel. The people in her life who were more subdued tend to take a back-seat – like her husband.
There are times you want to shake her, to get her to leave well-enough alone, but that wasn’t who Germaine de Staël was. She had energy to spare, tended to draw the best thinking (if not the best of intentions) out of the people around her, and wanted to be known as the person she was – but she also needed things defined in a way that would sometimes get her into trouble. For example, Napoleon kept banning her from Paris, or France, or somewhere. And then the administrators would let things slide, like they do because their attention was elsewhere; and so she’d move closer – not to Paris, per se, but closer than the 40 kilometers than she was strictly allowed, maybe because her son was in school in Paris. And it was tolerated because her son was in school in Paris. But then she’d insist that Napoleon ok the fact that she was there, and maybe she would even ask for his approval to go visit her son in Paris. At which point, he’d be like “No, I said 40 kilometers, you have to leave.” And you know if she’d just not insisted that Napoleon say it was all right that she was there, she would have gotten away with it.
But on the other hand, that insistence that people listen to her was what made her famous. And she certainly didn’t care that people thought she was too out-there or too mouthy or not ladylike enough. Without that chutzpah, she wouldn’t have been Germaine de Staël.
Mistress to an Age was a great introduction to her, for me. I’m excited to read and learn more about her.
For all of my love of reading books about Paris, they’re usually books written by English-language authors. Not French authors in translation. I found The Nicolas Le Floch Affair – a murder mystery that takes place in 1774, translated from the French – I grabbed it mostly as an intellectual exercise to see how French popular writing is different from English popular writing.
So, how is it different? Well, there is a LOT more attention paid to the food. LOTS. Meals were routinely described, with recipes given in the text of the novel along with complements to the chef. I’m not going to lie – reading this book made me hungry. Clothing, too, was described in more detail. Even though these are police officers, mostly un-fancy, they also did have to go to Versailles to talk to the king, and both their regular wardrobes and court attire were described. In short, between the food and the clothes: atmosphere matters.
The other difference that took time to get over was sentence structure. In English, there is an idea (probably from Hemingway) that shorter and simpler is better. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair had, in contrast, very rambling sentences. They would have been a disaster to diagram. There was definitely an adjustment period.
The mystery itself was fairly standard: a Nicolas’ lover is murdered at the beginning of the book, he stands accused of the crime and has to find the real culprit. It’s the fourth in the series, so there were some references to earlier books that I didn’t get, but they were easy to skip over.
I am considering reading the earlier books, just for more practice. Plus, the historical period is fun. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair is worth your relaxation time.
The Louvre is the world’s largest art museum and certainly a huge building. I’ve been there a number of times, and this was somehow the first time I went to the exhibit on the history of the building itself. True, that’s not necessarily the point of going to the Louvre (and we spent only a small amount of time on that part), but it was interesting to learn about how it changed and grew over the years.
These are the original walls that date from the 1100s, when the Louvre was a functioning fortress as a part of the Philippe Auguste walls.
But, the art is the point of the Louvre, and here is a small selection of the not-super-famous works that we saw:
This is a sculpture of Hermes that is in the sculpture gardens under glass in the Richelieu Wing. I’ve been on a bit of a Hermes/Mercury kick lately, so it was good to see him in his silly, Flash-esque hat, putting on his winged sandals.
I am forever and always in love with the blue in this mosaic.
Napoleon III was as over the top as you might think he was. The rooms that they’ve preserved are kind of incredible.
It’s also vaguely ridiculous that so much excellent Flemish art is in a French art museum (why, exactly?), but you should enjoy this Rembrandt.
And this Vermeer. I’m a big Vermeer fan.
I am forever and always here for the Winged Victory of Samothrace, aka the statue that Megan Rapinoe reminds me of when she celebrates goals. She is athletic and in shape and she is celebrating because she has just won. And there are so few statues of women, especially from antiquity, that celebrate strong women.
I like this Da Vinci that you can get close to and enjoy – a portrait of Anne, Mary, and Jesus – without the insanity of the Mona Lisa.
Here is an actual famous piece of French artwork, Liberty leading the troops to victory.
The Louvre is full of amazing artwork, but the Tuileries gardens (just outside the museum) are also amazing and worth your time. Especially at the end of a day that you’ve spent on your feet in a huge museum that could be the basis for a semester-long art history class.
It’s full of tourists, but it’s full of tourists for a reason. Visit Paris in an off-season, make your plan of attack ahead of time, and then go enjoy the amazing artwork.