March 28th, 2005

Arles figures in the public imagination primarily through the brief and tragic residence of its most famous visitor, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-89) . There is Daudet's play "L'Arlesienne" (1872) which served as inspiration both for the two beautiful "Arlesian Suites" of Georges Bizet and a tragic opera by Francesco Cilea, "L'Arlesiana". What is undeniable is that the spell cast by this Roman citadel over van Gogh exerts its magic over everyone seeing it for the first time.

A seaport in Roman times, the small city is a repository for well-preserved Roman architecture, a market town for the farms in the surrounding countryside, a gateway to Provence, the principal urban center of a region of beautiful and varied landscapes, and the venue of several world-renowned festivals, fairs and exhibitions.

It was hardly pre-ordained on this Easter Monday that I would be able to reach Arles from Montpellier. Cloud-free skies and a warm breeze, rare events during my 5 day sojourn in Montpellier, buoyed my optimism, ( always in need of buoying). At the train station at 9 AM I was allowed to savor another charming French custom: at least one essential industry or service is always on strike. Slow-moving as a soliton, the transport strike which I'd first encountered in Paris had been working its way through the entire country, just so that it could reach Montpellier on the very day I needed to leave!

A mass of angry travellers filled the lobby before the counter of the cramped information room. Was there any chance I asked,(when I got the chance), of boarding a train to Arles sometime that day ? My question was short and to the point; it was not a time for lecturing the SNCF on destiny or fate.

One knows the routine from many years of living in France. The clerk exhibits a host of gestures adding up to a shrug: "Mais, c'est impossible, Monsieur! ". After which he immediately goes into consultation with a dispatcher and discovers that there will be one train that morning going to Lyon, making special stops at Tarascon and Arles. It was leaving in 20 minutes.

I walked through the station onto the crowded quays. There was the predictable grumbling about the inconvenience caused by the strike. However not even those who complained the loudest would dream of surrendering their own right to go on strike if and when it suited them. All this was a welcome relief to me from the obnoxious American work ethic. In my view there are more important matters than seeing to it that the trains run on time.

The train therefore arrived in its own time and we hopped aboard. It was the old-fashioned kind that I'd known in the pre-TGV 60's. Rows of compartments with upholstered benches for seating 6 passengers . Four, all of them French, were already seated in the one I ended up in.

Just before the train got underway a final passenger entered the compartment. Everything about him spoke the Irishman: physiognomy, personality, language and dress. In his mid-50's. He wore dark informal clothing and a wide photogenic white hat, the kind that need not indicate a literary personality but almost always does. ( I have several). Two shopping bags comprised all his luggage, an indication that his journey would be of short duration. His command of French was not of the best. When he discovered that I was an English speaker, he became very garrulous, a trait common to that class of Irishpersons who are not taciturn. He sat down next to me and we shook hands. His name is Colum Gallivan.

Colum is a free-lance actor in British film and television. His name is not of the household variety, although he's starred in many films with actors who do possess such names: Michael Gough, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Pryce, Billie Whitelaw . His films include "Ressurection Man", "Beyond Reason", "Circle of Deceit". His career in television is more extensive, including parts in "Rumpole of the Bailey" and "Eastenders" , roles with names like "Father Reilly", "Mr. Ryan", "Freedy Delaney", etc. ( He doesn't look that Irish; obviously he's been typecast) He is also a classics scholar, as I learned from putting his name into an Internet search engine.

When I passed him one of my business cards identifying me as an Author-Journalist-Math-Physicist he threw up his hands in horror. Clearly the sciences terrify him. Then he observed that his brother is an applied mathematician specializing in Operations Research. We ended up spending much of the day together.

Currently staying with friends in the town of Sète, neighboring on Montpellier, Colum was traveling to Arles to take in the bull-fights. I'd not realized that the date on which I'd chosen to visit Arles was the last day of a week long bull-fight fiesta, culminating in a round of corridas going on until 8 o'clock that night.

The bullfights are produced in the ancient precincts of a (restored) Roman Coliseum. The kind of spectacle to which it provides accomodations represents a considerable advance in civilization over the uses to which it was put in Roman times. Perhaps I am too fastidious. Vegetarians might with justice rebuke me because I'm a meat-eater, but to me there is something truly revolting in making a spectacle out of the murder of an animal, incapacitated in advance by having its spine broken.

Colum clearly felt some uneasiness(not quite amounting to guilt) about attending a bull-fight. While on the train he gave me repeated assurances that less cruelty is involved in killing them in the arena than in slaughtering them for food. "The matador can only insert the sword in a special place just behind the neck. The bull dies instantly; there' s no pain." he told me.

Perhaps my objections come from Jack London's bitterly satiric story about this blood sacrifice ritual. In it he says that the evils of bull-fighting are only partly derived from what is done to the bull. They come mainly from what the humans are doing to themselves through the pleasure they derive from it, a kind of gluttonous indulgence of the worst sort of cowardice.

However I'd picked up the notion somewhere that the bull isn't killed in the bullfights at Arles. He'd heard the same thing, though this didn't square with the custom of giving the ears to the matador as souvenirs. A famous modern toreador was billed on that evening's program; he would find out then.

For the rest of the day Colum manifested an obsessive curiosity on this matter of the killing of the bulls: "I must find out if they kill the bulls! " (They do) He did not impress me as being a cruel person. His curiosity about bullfighting may have been related to some part in a film script.

He perked up his ears when I told him about my website. He's developed some very original ideas about the correct way to stage Shakespeare's plays. To date no magazine has been willing to publish an article about them, nor any producer to try them out. "Everything is flat in Shakespeare", he explained, "there is no perspective." The possibility of setting up a website (with the possible assistance of his mathematician brother), interested him greatly, one devoted to his theories about Shakespeare (and perhaps, for all I know, his theories about bullfights!)

The train pulled into Arles. I knew the town well, having stayed there for several days in 1989. After two nights at the Youth Hostel I'd been driven away by the arrival of a contingent of rowdy German college students. Their idea of a good time was an all-night drinking, singing and yelling festival, a concept I'm not opposed to on principle, but one that's contrary to Youth Hostel regulations, and for good reasons.

However they did me a service. It turned out that the hotels near the train station in the off-season were exactly the same price per night as the Youth Hostel, for an immeasurably superior room complete with balcony overlooking a lively plaza of cafes and restaurants.

The hotel that Colum and I decided to stay in was also in this plaza. Inevitably, the prices aren't low anymore. Because of the festival , the Hotel Gauguin was charging 31 Euros a night, essentially the same price as the Hotel Picard in the Marais in downtown Paris. As in every other sector of the economy, when the Euro replaced the franc prices went through the ceiling.

This being the final day of the festival, the scene directly below our rooms overflowed with music blaring from loudspeakers, noisy crowds, the rumble of conversation and busy motorized traffic. The uproar lasted until midnight. All amplified sounds were cut off at the stroke of twelve.

The scene in front of the Hotel Gauguin

We took adjacent rooms on the second floor, dropped off our luggage and went back out. Colum needed my help in purchasing a ticket for the final corrida that evening. The broad, thin stone flags leading up to the Coliseum's entrance and ticket windows were thronged with spectators. As we entered the wide stone apron, scalpers descended on us from all sides like a mudslide after torrential rains. I indicated firmly that we weren't interested. We moved up to the ticket saleswoman, sitting behind a narrow aperture in the walls. Tickets ranged from 53 to 68 Euros ( $72 to $112) . Colum bought the 53 Euro admission.

Now he needed to download some money from an ATM, then visit the tourist office to inquire about trains back to Sète the next day. The tourist office is located on the Boulevard Victor Hugo on the far side of town just beyond the old historic districts.

The carnival merry-go -round on the Blvd Victor Hugo

The walk of a few miles took us past every monument and building that might interest a sight-seer, through streets sparkling with crowds, bustling restaurant terraces, revelers, dancers, music, and open air markets. Tourist heaven. It was also the best time for experiencing the two faces of Arles. On the following morning and throughout the next day, the town would be quieter than the tomb of the unknown centurion of the Gallic Wars.

Fiesta time in the streets of Arles. The Coliseum is in the background.

Colum was desperate for a Pastis (an anisette drink manufactured in the Midi ). I welcomed the notion myself as I hadn't tasted a pastis in 20 years. We settled into the small terrace of a restaurant where personnel were setting up tables and chairs for the lunch crowd. The pastis was refreshing, so we ordered another. Since we were both hungry (as residents of the developed world understand the word) we ordered paella, followed by coffee.

It was easy to get Colum to talk about the London theater scene. He revers Laurence Olivier; he claimed to have seen him in the very first performance of his much- celebrated production of Othello. I complemented him for having been present at an artistic event of true greatness.

Theater is gone to completely hell in London, he assured me: cheap commercialism everywhere , no vision, no standards, whatever brings in the money. The golden age of British theater, inspired by the presence of two great theaters facing each other across the Thames, the Royal Shakespeare, and Olivier's National Theater, is definitely over. (I could picture myself hearing similar complaints from an actor, over lunch and drinks in a foreign land, at any time in the past 4 centuries.)

Then, as I hoped he would, he started talking about people. Judi Dench is a personal friend. He went to drama school with Alan Richman, his opinion of Jonathan Pryce is low . Although he expressed a predictably defensive disdain for Kenneth Branagh,it appeared to reflect little more than professional rivalry. He certainly hadn't liked Branagh's performance in "Conspiracy", the British remake of the German film about the Wahnsee conference. Branagh plays Heydrich; Colum's idea of Heydrich is that of a full blown monster, while he considers Branagh something of a wimp.

( I saw the film myself recently. It's difficult to form an opinion of Branagh's performance.He does a polished, highly professional job in a role for which he's completely unsuited. I had the same reaction while watching "Shakelton". Until further notice, Branagh is not a tough, rugged, taciturn leader of perilous scientific expeditions. He's perfectly suited for Benedict, Hamlet, even Iago, the dreamy poet in Fry's "Lady's Not for Burning", even the appallingly sadistic anti-hero of Look Back in Anger. These well complement his extraordinary range of talents. Certainly the world should be grateful that he's not cut out to play Heydrich!)

After lunch I returned to my room for a nap. Colum went off to attend to some more business. The bed was too large for a room this small, leaving just enough space for a small bed-table, a single chair and a clothes-closet. I was out again by 3. A visit to the train station to consult the time table for Aix-en-Provence informed me that the strike could very well still be in force at my departure in a few days. Sensibly I opted for the bus; of which more later. For the rest of the afternoon I walked about re-visiting sites I'd visited in 1989. On that occasion I'd performed the Kol Nidre of Bruch arranged for violin by the fountain in the ancient forum of the city, as a tribute to the victims of the Tieneman Square massacres.

7:30 found me back on the steps of the Coliseum to receive Colum's first-hand account of the bull-fights. He was easily identified in the crowds from his broad-brimmed white hat. The first 2 corridas were ruined, he complained: the bulls were lame! Indignation over the lameness of some poor animal being led to the slaughter was a bit much as far as I was concerned ; my curiosity was more than satisfied. The remaining fights went off well by his lights, and the world-renowned toreador had performed splendidly.

I'd brought some bread and cheese with me, so we went to the fountain and obelisk to divide it up. He offered to buy me a beer, but we couldn't find any place where we didn't need to order a meal as well. He wanted to read for a while, so I left him and went back to the hotel. Around 10 one could hear him returning to his room . I turned in around 11. Despite the high volume of street noise I fell asleep immediately.

Colum had asked me to wake him up at 7:30 the next day; he was already up and ready to go to the station when I knocked . Before leaving we exchanged home and E-mail addresses. He 's promised to give me a tour of the theaters in the West End the next time I come to London.

Arles, Day 2, March 30:

After seeing Colum off at the station, I returned to the hotel for a breakfast of orange juice and pastries taken on the balcony outside my window. The square was almost completely deserted. The only activity consisted of the arrival and departure of trucks to take down the stands, tables and chairs left over from the festival.It appears that on normal days, Arles doesn't begin to come to life before 10 AM. Very few things are up and running before 11, and that the active life of the town doesn't really get underway until noon! ( Of course, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin have been out in the fields and painting since 5 AM. )

An hour-long search, from 9 to 10, resulted in the discovery of a café/tabac that was open for business and where I could feel comfortable . The outdoor terrace of the cafe sits on a downwards slope overlooking the ruins of the Roman theater and a park.The rest of the morning was filled with the routine errands of tourists everywhere: withdrawing a final 50 Euros from my bank account, mailing postcards, confirming the bus schedules to Aix-en-Provence, and purchasing a new set of disposable cameras.

The salesperson at the camera shop was a tall dark-haired girl in her 20's, cute,charming and uncomfortable in dealing with foreigners. My first choice was a pair of disposable cameras with flashbulbs. I was already walking over to the counter with them when I noticed that the cameras without the flash were much cheaper. The day was miraculously clear, without a cloud in the sky, and artificial illumination would not be necessary.

As I returned the first set of cameras to the shelf and picked up the others, she became cross. She wasn't impolite, exactly : flustered is the better word. After buying the cameras I left the shop, my plans for revenge already formulated. An hour later I was back on the steps shop, standing in the doorway. When she turned around to look at me I snapped her picture! Her look of horrified delight in the photo is simply inimitable.Here are two versions of same (The picture didn't come out very well. This one could have used the flash!)

Aprés Seuratification

We won't require a church or synagogue service. A civil marriage will do quite well, thank you.

My catharsis accomplished it was time to start assembling items to take back to the hotel for lunch. Along one of the streets not far from the hotel there is a traiteur in one of the narrow streets leading to the hotel. East Asian traiteurs are an excellent alternative to expensive French cuisine or short-order junk food. (Walking around Arles one notices that the signs pointing the way to the city's MacDonald' s are placed together with those for museums, historical buildings and Roman ruins.) Beneath a row of glass shields at the front counter one finds the usual assortment of Oriental specialties, rice, pork, beef, chicken dishes, noodles, etc.

The shop-keeper was an elderly, though lively Vietnamese. He was happy to meet Americans; he' d lived with his brother in Minneapolis for a few years. He particularly wanted me to read a news clipping pasted on the wall. A relic to be treasured, it's a pity he didn't have any copies to hand out:

A few years ago actor Mickey O'Rourke stepped into the shop. He was in Arles to make a film using the bullfights as backdrop. A statuette of the Buddha placed on the cash register attracted his attention and he picked it up to examine it.

As per usual O'Rourke , the hero of "Barfly", was typecast as a street tramp. The owner naturally thought he intended to steal the statue. He became angry and ordered O'Rourke out of the shop. A short time afterwards he was back with a news reporter and some members of the film company. O'Rourke took out a little book from his pants pocket filled with wise Buddhist sayings! Apologies were lavish on both sides. Arles is short on world-class scandals of this sort and it got into the local papers.

Descending the cobblestoned helicoid walkway to the right of the Coliseum, my imagination tossed out the perverse reflection that the tradition of awarding the ears of the bulls to matadors might have some connection with van Gogh's gift of his own ear to one of the town's prostitutes. If we're going to have bookshelves of biographies treating him as the "artist Christ", why not explore the variant theme of the artist as sacrificial bull?

He lived here less than a year, yet clearly his mark on the town is deeper and more lasting than that of Mickey O'Rourke. The "Foundation van Gogh", a gallery, museum and artist's colony, faces the arena on the right. The hotel where I stayed in 1989 was called the Hotel van Gogh, even as my present lodgings were in the Hotel Gauguin. The former hospital where he was taken now bears the name, "Espace van Gogh".

Originally it must have been a cloister, with pillared walkways around a central garden. In the surrounding buildings one finds an extension of the French university system and the "Mediatheque van Gogh" , a smaller version of the media-technology-enhanced library "Emile Zola" that I visited in Montpellier. I would be coming back at 7 that evening to attend a talk by a local resident, a well-known Spanish literary translator, Claude Berton.

The herb garden

Visiting hours for the ruins of the Roman theater begin at 2 PM. At the opened gates I asked the ticket vendor if , as a senior, I could qualify for the "tariff reduit" . No, she replied, the reduction is for students only. So I paid the 3 Euros while looking around for ways of recouping my losses. They soon presented themselves

Ruins are fun: that-which-once-was is less intimidating than what-is, and certainly less terrifying than what-is-to- come . Altogether very impressive. These ruins have been well maintained for hundreds of years, which is more than one can say for most houses that people are living in today. Most of the semi-circular stone rows which held the audiences in Roman times, have been restored. Not so the stage: a high brick wall once supported by 100 pillars on 3 levels, it has entirely crumbled into ruins. Rows of plastic seats are in the process of being fitted onto the stone benches, while at the center a modern stage is taking shape , just beyond the area called the "Orchestra" in Roman times, the place where the chorus used to stand.

Stepping out into the street I found myself surrounded by a crowd of about 20 people. They were elderly and obviously from England. Their tour guide was a young French woman, a college student who spoke English well. Another guide held a sign with the words Noble Caledonia . This led me to wonder if the tourists were from New Zealand or Australia. My questions brought a round of laughter: no, they were all from England. Noble Caledonia is the name of the Travel Agency that arranged the tour! I was welcome to remain as far as the speaker was concerned; I knew both the region and French and could help her out when she got stuck.

The Noble Caledonia guided tour

Roman theaters were very different from their Greek prototypes. Rather than being built into the sides of mountains, the amphitheatres faced high brick walls holding pillars and casements. They weren't used for staging dramas; instead propaganda pieces were presented, praising the glories of the Roman empire and reminding the people of Arles of their good fortune at being Roman citizens. This explains why, although the theater holds seats for 10,000 spectators, the normal audience was 2,000 or less. As our guide put it " The Coliseum games were more fun!" Unproduced playwrights take note: there is a way.

From the Roman theater we walked down a long narrow street to the central square, site for the original Roman forum, the place where, for 2,000 years, all administrative buildings have been located. At its center sits an ancient obelisk surrounded by a moat and fountain. I'd always assumed it had been stolen from Egypt by Napoleon. In fact it's Roman booty taken from Ethiopia. Set up in various places around the city, it was moved to its present location in the Middle Ages.

The Ethiopian obelisk

The Forum

Street performer on the plaza.As a profession street performance isn't all it's cracked up to be.Take it from me.

A restored Romanesque church dating from the 12th century stands to the north of the square. Its facade was recently cleaned. Although built in the age of the great Gothic cathedrals, there aren't any Gothic churches in Arles. The Midi rejected the Gothic style as an alien import from northern Europe. Scenes from the Book of Revelations are sculpted around the facade. Our guide pointed out angels, devils and famous personages from the new Testament.

The frieze. The massed figures on the right side of the door(Christ's left) are being sent off to Hell. Among the crowd of the saved on the left is an unbaptized babe. Presumably it's got to spend some time in Limbo.

I now left my new acquaintances on the New Caledonia tour and returned to the hotel for a nap.
Around 6 I walked back to the Médiatheque van Gogh to attend a talk by Claude Berton. In a conference room set in back were assembled the core of the intelligentsia of Arles: writers, teachers, librarians, actors. Berton has translated Spanish writers from every period going back to the 15th century. He used the clever narrative device of interrupting his monologue with excepts from a DVD of the Marx Bothers film , "A Night in Casablanca" ! The film had been dubbed into French, but the DVD also held the original version, so he could switch back and forth between French and English. The film could be, and was, used to highlight the many difficulties in making a literary translation; basically it was a treat to watch and put us in a better mood to listen to the more technical aspects of his talk.

He then spoke about the authors whose works he's translated. After a discussion of each one in turn, an actress read out passages from his translations of them. He'd studied Rabelais to capture the mood of a 16th century Spanish writer, and the actress read some passages from Rabelais together with Berton's translation of this writer.

He told us a story about a contemporary Spanish writer with a command of French. The writer was shown a copy of the first chapter of the translation of his book. He read it through with amazement before handing it back to Berton, saying :"Until this moment I'd had no idea that the entire first chapter consists of one sentence " A good translation can instruct even the writer himself. Berton has also translated Cervantes. 2005 is the 4th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote.The windmills episode was recited by another actor standing in the wings dressed in the garb of an ancient hidalgo!

Berton asserted that the greatest novelist of modern Spain is Gonzalo Torrente Ballester. Berton has translated his 1000-page opus, "Fragments of the Apocalypse". He compared it to Joyce's Ulysses. At the reception afterwards I asked him if any of Ballester's works were available in English. He wasn't sure.

Back to Middletown I've made a catalogue search of libraries across Connecticut and come up with a single book, a novel of about 100 pages: "A King Amazed". The translator, Colin Smith, also calls Ballester one of the greatest, if not the greatest, modern Spanish novelist. In its preface he states that this is the only Ballester novel in English translation. He also believes that Bellester's masterpiece is another long novel "Saga/Fuga" , written when Ballester was a teacher at SUNY-Albany in the 70s !

On the day before I returned to the US I tried to find some of Ballester's novels in the Parisian bookstores. Ballester is very popular in France and Berton's translations were sold out.

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