Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Cheating at Canasta - the furtive joy of eating alone

Some of my women friends wouldn't dream of going into a restaurant for a meal on their own. Who wants to be the lonely woman in the corner with nobody to talk to? For me, it's one of the rare treats of travelling alone - to enjoy a meal and a couple of glasses of wine with nothing but a good book for company. Of course, family meals, dinners a deux and dinners with friends all offer different pleasures, but even so, there's an almost furtive delight about breaking all those rules of polite society about elbows and books on tables, to sit with a book propped up against the salt cellar and sink into anonymous oblivion in an unknown city. A book of short stories is ideal company - neither too long nor too short but just right (as Goldilocks might have said).

This week, working in Leuven in Belgium, I'm reading William Trevor's book of short stories, Cheating at Canasta. He is one of my favourite authors. His language is so delicately spun, subtle and haunting, so that it weaves a spell in the soul - a sense of persistent and melancholic wonder. The title story is about a man who eats alone in a restaurant which his wife and he used to visit on holiday, before she began suffering from dementia. He watches a glamorous young couple quarreling at a nearby table and he speaks to them as they leave, revealing more than he intended of his loss and immediately feeling ashamed. The story has the most exquisite ending: 'He watched the couple go, and smiled across the crowded restaurant when they reached the door. Shame isn't bad, her voice from somewhere else insists. Nor the humility that is its gift.' These are thoughts that linger in the mind, as does this whole gentle eulogy to love and marriage and loss and memory. The next story, 'Bravado', plunges us into a different, brasher world, and yet still one which is drawn with an exquisite tenderness and concern for its young male characters who have had to learn early 'of self-preservation and of survival's cunning.'

Like a good meal, such stories invite us to linger over them, to savour their delicate flavours, their subtle blends of moods and meanings. What a treat to enjoy both together.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Juxtapositions and Paradoxes

My son says my blog is TLDR - 'too long didn't read.' So I shall try to be more succinct.

These are impressions gained on a visit to the National Gallery on Wednesday:

The Sacred Made Real: visceral Spanish sculpture and art with a good accompanying audioguide, including theological reflections from James Hanvey SJ, and a specially commissioned piece of music by Stephen Hough.This exhibition would probably be more suited for Lent than Advent, and yet when London is ablaze with festive lights, it's a poignant and challenging reminder that human stories begin and end in vulnerability. The room on death is a space for deep reflection and has a piece of music on the audioguide which helps such contemplation. There is a bust of a grieving Madonna which communicates such stoic dignity and grief it just holds the gaze for long minutes of wonder. And in another gallery the sculpture of Mary Magdalene with her rush matting robe carved in wood is a work of genius and an optical illusion which surpasses even Anish Kapoor at his best.

Then out into the bright night of Trafalgar Square, with climate change campaigners camped around the fountains and singing Christmas carols, and queues around the block to get into the carol service in St. Martin's in the Field, and round the corner an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration.

I went home thinking what a species we are - we human beings. So creative and so destructive, and in the intertwining of both those dimensions we somehow must create a world and a story worth living. A theology that says that this deserves a man being flogged and tortured to death in order to placate God is obscene beyond words, but a theology that invites us to look at that wounded and dying body and his grieving mother and to be drawn into the divine participation in the muddle and the mess, the tender joy and the devastating sorrow of what we are, comforts me. These works of art were made for that purpose, although it was clear from some of the comments that modern audiences are a little bewildered as to how to respond. The Madonna squirting breast milk into St. Bernard's mouth sends out a rather different message from whatever cryptic messages are communicated by the baubles and glitter of the Christmas streets.  And resist if you can the temptation to bend down to get a glimpse under the loin cloth of the flagellated Christ who - the audioguide says - was modelled on  a hero of classical sculpture complete with genitalia.

I arrived home to discover a programme on Russian icons on television, which made me think there is a God after all!