Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Don't Fall in Love with Lord Byron

The trouble with studying history is that you have to wade through a lot of names, places and dates--so you tend to lose the point of why you were interested in a subject in the first place. I'm thinking now of one of Lord Byron's many, many mistresses, a woman named Claire Clairmont. Today, I simply want to share a funny quote with you, something Claire said. But to get there, I've got a lot of explaining to do.

Lord Byron was a rock star of Romanticism in the 1810s and 1820s. He was extremely handsome, with a beautifully sculpted face framed by dark curly hair, and many portraitists painted his picture. Though of strong build, he walked with a slight limp, a fact which may only have increased his appeal for women, of whom there were many falling at his feet all over London, as we shall soon see.

By all accounts, Lord Byron was a cruel lover. Not only was he a vain, arrogant womanizer, but he was very famous as well--a deadly combination, as we know in our own time from the gossip that comes out of Hollywood. And he was famous for good reason, because he was the finest poet of his time. Here's a taste from "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage":

Ah! may'st thou ever be what now thou art,
Nor unbeseem the promise of thy spring,
As fair in form, as warm yet pure in heart,
Love's image upon earth without his wing,
And guileless beyond Hope's imagining!
And surely she who now so fondly rears
Thy youth, in thee, thus hourly brightening,
Beholds the rainbow of her future years,
Before whose heavenly hues all sorrow disappears.

Wow. No wonder his half sister had an incestuous relationship with Lord Byron at the same time that he had affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb and Lady Oxford before he married Annabella Milbanke then left her a month after their daughter was born.

Claire Clairmont, herself an aspiring poet, didn't have a prayer of vanquishing him with her love when they met. She was just a silly girl, smitten and speechless. And here's the quote I've been waiting to share with you, something Claire wrote to Lord Byron shortly after they met:

"Do you know I cannot talk to you when I see you? I am so awkward and only feel inclined to take a little stool and sit at your feet."

Oh Claire, Claire. Don't you know The Rules? A girl never gives a guy the upper hand. She does everything to appear unavailable--her dance card is always full, she's not at home when he comes calling.

Poor little vegetarian, atheist, free-loving Claire came to a bad end, of course. She had a daughter "out of wedlock," as they say, and Byron named the baby Allegra and then refused to see Claire ever again. He asked his half sister to raise the child as his own, which she would not do, and so he locked Allegra up in a convent, determined that his illegitimate daughter would be "a Christian and a married woman," but Allegra died in the convent of typhus when she was 5 years old.

I'm not sure what the moral of this story is. Don't fall in love with a famous man? Be damned sure to get full custody? All I know for sure is that as soon as Claire Clairmont told Lord Byron she just wanted to sit silently on a little stool at his feet, all was lost.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Belly Dancers I Have Known

In an effort to stay in touch with my inner bad girl, I've been studying belly dancing. I'm a lazy student, though, and am afraid I'll never dance as well as my enchanting teacher, Julia, Jewel of the Nile, or Leela, of the Odalisque Dance Troupe.

I met Leela at the local pub on the day she moved to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and Leela later introduced me to Julia at a party. It was love at first sight for me, and I decided to court them both. I wanted to know them. Leela is a seriously winsome woman, and she loves to dance--she practices little moves even as she walks down the street. Julia has been belly dancing for over 20 years and teaches now. She has the mysterious allure of an artist who knows a lot but doesn't need to talk about it. As I've courted Leela and Julia, I've felt foolish at times, like a belly dance groupie. But they've been patient with me.

Leela Dances!

On my first night out with Leela, she invited me to hear Zikrayat, an Arabic ensemble of musicians who play buzuq, riqq, oud, nay and tabla, and this performance included solo dances by two women, Naraya and Dorit. The music was so gorgeous and strange as it washed over me, and as soon as Naraya and Dorit were finished, Leela got up to dance along with quite a few other women in the audience--dark, waving New York flowers, with flowing hair and discretely spangled outfits.

I was happy just to watch Leela swivel her hips and flutter her fingers, but she beckoned to me to join her on the dance floor. "Use your flamenco," she said (I've studied flamenco dance a bit), and so I did, adding in a little bit of cha-cha while trying to copy the moves of the women around me. "You dance beautifully," a man on the dance floor told me, which got me all confused. Didn't he see I was a rank amateur? Was he trying to cheer me up because he pitied me? Was he simply having a good time?

After a few songs, I returned to my seat, but Leela danced on, lost in an ecstatic haze, a sheen of sweat on her skin. The music kept going and going, obscure Egyptian film music of the 1950s, and the singer sounded like she was crying. A gray-haired man in a navy blue sweater threw a pile of money at the singer and she ignored the bills as they came fluttering to her feet.

"See?" Leela said to me afterward. "It's addictive, like crack."

A couple weeks later, I attended a solo performance by Leela in a dark basement nightclub in Manhattan. She covered herself with a veil at the start of her dance, but eventually threw it off so you could see her in all her gorgeousness. Wearing a brown velvet costume with gold spangles, Leela kept her waist bare to reveal her curves, and she had the sort of vava-voom cleavage I'll never achieve. As she danced, Leela also wore a knowing Mona Lisa smile, but was coy about not looking directly at anyone in the audience. Instead, she watched her hands and arms as they twirled and traced patterns in the air. And she did this incomprehensible and complicated twitch with her hips that reminded me of Mae West.

Julia, Jewel of the Nile

A couple of weeks later, I go to my first belly dancing class with Julia. We are ten or so women in a Brooklyn studio, wearing hip scarves with coins sewn on as we improvised to taqsims--repetitive, pulsing rhythms. Very hypnotic. I wear lipstick, bangle bracelets and my hair loose, but I'm no match for Julia's natural glamour. She has the strong presence of a silent film star, and she boosts her dramatic looks with heavy eyeliner and bangs cut straight across her forehead.

In class, Julia uses baroquely Orientalist metaphors to help us visualize what our moves should look like. We pluck grapes, we carry trays of fruit, we dance with imaginary partners. "Take off like rocket, drop back like a mummy," she says of a sinuous torso movement. She tells us to shape our bodies into creative tableaux. "Think of drawing yourself as a picture," she said. "Every woman has her line."

I've sought my line ever since, but it's not easy to find. Belly dancing is harder than it looks; it's not just about wiggling around. It's about the dance techniques of isolations, of small movements, posture and layering several movements on top of each other. Julia also teaches veil dancing, and I love throwing that sheer fabric around like a colorful, swooping cloud of mist.

Most of all, my favorite part of belly dancing is its erotic tension, because you're doing these tremendously sexy things with your body but trying to hold something back at the same time. One trick I've learned from Julia is that you should never, ever make direct eye contact with your audience; it's all about turning your focus inward, withholding, withholding--what Leela did at her solo nightclub performance. The idea is to drive the audience mad with desire.

What started out as curiosity has turned into a passion for me. I now regularly attend Julia's Wednesday night class and I've assembled a costume to wear--a cropped top, harem pants and that magic hip scarf with the gold coins attached. "I am a woman" is the mantra that runs in my mind throughout the entire class. A shame there are no men there to see me being a woman, but perhaps that's the point. I'm beginning to think the deepest expression of your gender happens when you're surrounded by your own sex.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Visit to Mai Z.'s Ghost

And now I've returned from Le Mazel, my cousin Kent's French villa in the Cevennes mountains where I spent my summer of love 2000. This time, I went with a purpose: to reacquaint myself with Mai Zetterling, the previous owner of Le Mazel. Kent and I and a group of friends formed an art colony at Le Mazel for that one brief season in 2000, and during that time we all thought about Mai Z. a lot because she died in 1994 and all her belongings remained virtually untouched for five years. She was a bit of a bad girl, and her children, ex-husbands and former lovers weren't interested in going through her affairs and settling her estate after her death.

In 1994, Mai traveled to Britain for treatment of the cancer she was battling, expecting to return a week later, but she never made it back home. In 1999, when Kent bought Le Mazel, he found a shopping list in the kitchen, a half-written letter in her cluttered office, a fur coat draped across a chair, dishes in the cabinet, a library full of books, a houseful of furniture--in short, she left behind her entire life in that house, and it remained there untouched for years, like some poor soul put under a witch's spell in a fairytale.

This is where the art colony lived for three months, among Mai's belongings, and we frequently invoked her spirit during that summer of love, making toasts to her at dinner on the terrace, speculating about her love life, and visiting her grave in a field below the house.

Mai Zetterling, born in 1925, was a famous Swedish actress who made a number of movies in Britain and just one in Hollywood (she hated the American film industry's phoniness and greed) before becoming a film director in the 1960s. She was a beautiful, passionate, headstrong woman who in her lifetime had two husbands, a string of lovers including the Hollywood star Tyrone Power, two children, and twelve abortions. It's easy to learn about Mai's secrets--all you have to do is read her autobiography, All Those Tomorrows.

I read Mai's autobiography at Le Mazel last week on a sentimental journey to my own past, the summer of love 2000 when I reinvented myself as a bad girls writer and hopeful free spirit, ready for adventure and a life full of art, happiness and satisfaction. It was three months of paradise, really, living in the mountains in France and waking up every day with a sense of peace and joy. These good feelings came close on the heels of the worst period of my life, when I had no home, no job, no money, no man, so my sense of wonder in arriving at a place like Le Mazel was especially strong.

Now, six years later, I have a life back--I returned to Le Mazel for a summer holiday with my new husband, having left behind only briefly my office job in Manhattan and my two-bedroom coop apartment in Brooklyn.

My own sense of stability gave me the space during this visit to study Mai as a subject for my book. I held meetings with Mai in her office as I read her books, went through her papers and looked at her pictures:

I communed with Mai's spirit as I bathed in her tub:

I read the original typed manuscript of All Those Tomorrows in Mai's fireplace:

I felt the spirit of Mai's ghost all around me at Le Mazel. Le Mazel is the sort of place that seeps into your skin. So much of what I remembered about it from six years ago is its physicality. The wind at night, the sound of my bare feet padding along the stone floors, the smell of the furniture. On this brief visit, I wrote feverishly in my journal every day. One morning, I wrote: "I slept poorly in paradise last night. Why can't I sleep in paradise? I left Dave [Note from Joyce: he's my husband, the man I haven't written about yet] to lie in my old bed in the corner studio where I used to sleep, next to my writing table. I lay there, reading Mai's memoir, feeling cozy with the mosquito netting pulled round the bed, and I read until I finally drifted off. An hour or two later I awoke suddenly from the cold and ran back to Dave's warmth in the faded light of dawn. Just like before, I half-feared, half-desired coming across Mai's ghost in the long hallway. So childish. And yet why not? If there is such a thing as ghosts, Mai would be here and I would meet her in the stone hallway late at night when I thought I was alone."

Mai, too, thought she might become a ghost. In a journal entry dated March 10th 1981, written at "Le Mazel, my home: a ramshackle castle, perched on an iron rock," Mai said: "Twilight all of a sudden. The sun has made streaky patterns everywhere. Soon the fog will whirl itself up the little hill and envelop me, and I shall become a ghost figure on my terrace."

At the end of her life, when her husbands, lovers and children had all left her, Mai lived all alone at Le Mazel. I can think of worse fates.

Next time, I'll talk about a slice of life in Brooklyn. Cheerio, Joyce Hanson