Monday, November 29, 2010


At about 2 am a couple of days ago I pulled out a book on Egyptian mythology from the shelf where it sits with many other books about ancient Egypt. As you know if you're a regular visitor here, I feel an intimate familarity with ancient Egyptian culture, art and ambiance, even though I have no actual connection to Egypt. It's one of those déja vu things, if you believe in reincarnation, or simply affinity if you don't. Anyway I suddenly wanted to re-read about the Ka.

In art the ka was portrayed in several ways: a person identical to the person whom it was associated with, as a shadowy figure, as a person with two upraised arms on his head.........The ka is a manifestation of vital energy........The ka could also be seen as the conscience or guide of each individual, urging kindness, quietude, honor and compassion......In images and statues of the ka, they are depicted as their owner in an idealized state of youth, vigor and beauty......The ka is the origin and giver of all the Egyptians saw as desirable, especially eternal life.

EventuaIly I went to bed and had this dream: I was watching a panel of critics discussing a book which was either called SNOW or had that word in the title. The people on the panel were very c0mplimentary about it but one of them began arguing vehemently. She was a gnarled old woman with a prominent nose and mouth and dusky skin colour. She was sarcastic about books and films portraying Jewish subjects in banal ways and I thought she meant that SNOW was one of these. But her tone suddenly changed and she began to praise it warmly, saying it wasn't like any of the others. 

That's all I remember but the dream was extremely vivid, as if I'd been watching a live debate on television. When I woke up I immediately turned on the computer and googled snow to see if there is a book by that name. There is: it's SNOW by Orhan Panuk. I'd never heard of it (shame on me) so I read a summary of the plot:

Pamuk's hero is a dried-up poet named Kerim Alakusoglu, conveniently abbreviated to Ka: Ka in kar in Kars. (The word for snow in Turkish is Kar). 

Though most of the early part of the story is told in the third person from Ka's point of view, an omniscient narrator sometimes makes his presence known, posing as a friend of Ka's who is telling the story based on Ka's journals and correspondence. This narrator sometimes provides the reader with information before Ka knows it or foreshadows later events in the story.

As if that wasn't enough synchronicity, I wanted to find out if there was yet another link in the dream to ponder, so I googled snow together with Jewish . I got Phoebe Snow (real name Phoebe Ann Laub) a jazz/blues singer, best known for her 1975 hit The Poetry Man, a video of which I found here . Pamuk's character in SNOW is a 'poetry man' - Phoebe Snow is Jewish but changed her name (her double, her KA).

What are all those dream and real connections trying to tell me? What do you make of this sequence of serial synchronicities:

1. Ancient Egyptian KA or double> 2. dream: discussion about book called SNOW> 3. dream: old woman with dusky skin dismisses banal Jewish productions>4. in reality SNOW is book by Orhan Panuk >5. main character is poet called KA> 6. in the book KA has a 'double' called Orhan Panuk >7. Turkish word for snow is Kar >8. singer Phoebe SNOW is Jewish, her real ('double') surname is Traub 9. another doubling: she has become a Buddhist> 10. her skin colour is dusky: people have thought she is black>11. her hit song was The Poetry Man

I have, of course, ordered Panuk's book SNOW

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I stayed on in Florence for a year after we all left the Villa Ulivi but that story will go into my autobio when I get around to filling in the many blanks in time and space. Right now we're talking about my Papa. In the photo below he's arriving at an airport - I'm not sure where or when - but it's so characteristic of him: the eternal traveller, always arriving or leaving 

My father had many theories and one which he wrote, re-wrote and talked a great deal about over the years was called: The Focus of Perception . It was the basis for his next project and also influenced his observations of people in general. Here are some edited quotes which I've selected from his notes:

The premise of The Focus of Perception is that the mind contains a mechanism or process similar to a camera lens which, by its aperture and angle, determines the way people, situations and events are perceived and thus one's emotional and intellectual responses to them. This process is psychological, not visual, but the camera is a useful metaphor to describe it. 

Not only do we contradict one another, but we also tend to contradict ourselves. Human contradiction and its effects, whether on a personal or a global scale, might be better understood if the Focus of Perception was observed in action within one's self and in others' behavior and attitudes. Relationships, whether between individuals, groups or nations, often undergo a cavalcade of contradictory states, affirmations and negations, depending on the angle at which the Focus is set, how wide the angle is and whether it is static or fluctuating. 

There is a great difference between understanding another person through their focus and trying to understand them only through one's own. In the absence of a strong motivation - such as love, a specific goal, or the desire for truth - we see no reason to change our Focus of Perception and we passively accept whatever focus is provided by our upbringing, environment, or the winds of fashion. But if we become aware of our focal position in relation to others, it becomes possible to change what had seemed immutable in ourselves.

We are prisoners within the boundaries of our current focus only if we accept to be imprisoned in this optic. To change one's focal position, it is necessary first of all to change it on a specific subject or problem: to make a leap. This might result in moving to a position diametrically opposed to our current stance. With further small steps, a change may occur in our perception of the particular issue, and thence a gradual opening of our understanding of the larger picture.

Sacha's new undertaking, although rooted in the above premise, took shape in a less theoretical way. He called it Who Do You Think You Are . This happens to be the name of a current television series but I'm fairly sure they don't know that my father thought of the title long ago. Anyway the TV series is about celebrities looking into their genealogical history. Sacha's project was something else entirely. 

He began by contacting three people: Françoise Sagan, whose slim first novel Bonjour Tristesse  had propelled her to instant fame; Art Buchwald, the witty satirist whose regular column in the Washington Post my father loved; and Gipsy Rose Lee, the burlesque stripper/actress. When his project was described to them they agreed to take part. There was no connection between these three and I have no idea what prompted Sacha to choose them as subjects for his enquiry. 

He recorded audio interviews with each of them, asking them to describe how they saw themselves. Separate interviews were then arranged with some of their friends, acquaintances and colleagues, to record their own views of these individuals. The aim of the exercise was to demonstrate that the image we have of ourselves frequently contradicts the impressions others have of us. No conclusions or judgements were offered as to which views were the 'truer' ones. We were simply asked to consider the possibility that 'who we think we are' is open to many interpretations. 

In one of those amazing synchronicities that the blogosphere occasionally generates, Jean in her perceptive review of Summertime by J.M. Coetzee, seems to have tuned into my father's thinking and into what I was about to blog concerning it. She wrote on 19 November:

It's something we could all do: speculate on how our intimates might describe us. But, think about it, put yourself there... I can quickly see that I'd do one of two things: construct a rosy, seamless image - the wish-fulfilment version, or go way the other way and indulge my darkest fantasies of how they all disliked and despised me really. 

The audio interviews were only the preliminary stage: Sacha's intention was to make a film, if funding could be raised. This didn't happen and Who DoYou Think You Are was shelved and forgotten. But at least the memory of it now lives on, here in this tiny corner of cyberspace. 

Before ending this flashback into some of my father's creative adventures, there's one more I must mention: the thirteen minute film, Report on Love , a comic commentary on the Kinsey Report, produced and directed by Sacha in 1955.

When Dr. Kinsey first heard of the film he prepared to sue, without having seen it. But after a preview was arranged especially for him at Indiana University (where he was Professor of Zoology) he changed his mind and the film went ahead, screened in cinemas across the USA as the 'featurette' along with major films; it was even nominated for an Academy Award. Below is a write-up from Picture Week in New York. 

I have a copy of the film on VHS tape and watched it again a few days ago. It is extremely dated conceptually and technically but quite clever, combining animation and live action. Light-weight stuff compared to Sacha's other projects but I think he was hoping this one would achieve commercial success. It didn't, but so what? It was not gold but a little glitter never hurt anyone. 

Friday, November 19, 2010


To give you some idea of how Sacha's concept was presented to the students, I've done the rough sketch/montage below but it's nowhere near accurate. Why didn't anyone think of keeping a photographic record of the whole experience? Too busy, I guess. 

My father had gathered an enthusiastic team of volunteers and everyone pitched in with ideas and work. Two giant wooden spools were built by a local carpenter and a very long roll of canvas was wound around them. With the spools positioned an appropriate distance apart, mounted on spindles and rotated by two people standing at either end, hidden by curtains, the sequence of images painted on the canvas slowly unrolled before the audience.

The students - no more than about five or ten at a time - sat on high-backed chairs in one of the large, beautiful rooms of the house. In dim light, a recorded narration and music were played, paced to match the unwinding canvas. A film, without film technology. There were no computers, no PowerPoint, no DVDs or CDs at the time but the performance was all the more intriguing for being so low-tech and DIY. 

Where is that recording of the House of Contrasts script? I don't know, but I do have a copy of some of the text. Where is that huge roll of canvas? Possibly in Rome, in storage, unless destroyed. And who painted it? slight assistance from an Italian multi-media artist and conversationalist. 

When I first walked into the Villa Ulivi, I was astonished by the buzz of creative activity. My mother and little brother had arrived from New York as well as several relatives from France, recruited to help with the proceedings. There were also the Italian crew and of course my older sister Annie (autobio P.16) a key player in my father's scheme. Annie was working at the time for a student travel company in New York and it was she who organised the visits of students to the House of Contrasts, as well as taking them to meet leading personalities on the Italian cultural scene. There she met her future husband, the writer Gerardo Guerrieri, but that's yet another story. 

My main role was to illustrate Sacha's Dante-esque script on that huge roll of canvas but I had insisted, even before seeing it, that I would need help. So my father found and somehow - unbelievably - managed to persuade a very busy artist/architect/designer to be my 'collaborator'. This collaboration was the most enjoyable I've ever experienced but it consisted almost entirely of talking. 

Before coming to Italy, I did not know that talking could be an art-form or that a mere verbal exchange could be a performance, with all the colour, magic and mystery of opera. Or that it could actually be a substitute for action. All Italians can talk this way but some are more gifted than others and Giorgio was a genius at it. I don't remember a word of what we talked about but it must have concerned the task we were supposed to be working on. Did Giorgio ever apply brush to canvas? I don't remember that either but he did have great ideas. 

The canvas had to be ready for the first presentation of the summer and Giorgio was very busy with his multiple activities so I found myself inevitably and urgently responsible for covering that six-foot tall and endlessly wide ribbon of canvas with interpretations of Sacha's verbal panorama of hellish and heavenly stereotypes. I think I used a lot of red and black in painting the hellish and a lot of pastel hues for the heavenly but apart from that, don't ask me what the finished work looked like because it has entirely escaped my memory.

What I do remember nostalgically was the table at mealtimes. There were usually at least a dozen people around the long, chunky table and much laughter and animated talk while huge bowls of pasta and fresh green salad were devoured and glasses were refilled with the local wine. Outside on the stone terrace small green lizards dozed in the sun. My little brother loved the lizards and imitated their shy, watchful concentration. Here he is at that time, making like a lizard at Villa Ulivi, the House of Contrasts. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Fast forwarding, skipping over Sacha's South American and other ventures because I want to focus on the more off-beat things his restless imagination drove him to undertake. Come to think of it, everything he undertook was off the beaten track. 

Here he is in Florence - I don't know who took the above photo but it strikingly captures him in inward-turned, isolated mood, oblivious to his surroundings. Whatever the triggers which could set off his recurrent bouts of melancholy, Sacha's response was always to leave, move, travel far away and begin something new. In this instance New York was the place he left and the something new was an idea he conceived - perhaps on the way from one city to the next - for which a special house in special surroundings was required. Once an idea had taken root in my father's mind it began growing instantly, spreading antennae in all directions and locating with extraordinary serendipity all the elements needed for its realisation. Thus he found the special house in the special surroundings: it was called Villa Ulivi, within walking distance of the heart of Florence - you could see the Duomo from the rooftop terrace. 

How Sacha came to discover this magnificent fifteenth century residence I do not know but he did, and it happened to be for rent, and so he rented it for several months. Apart from a photo of my recently resurrected painting (see January 20, 2010) of cypress trees in the garden, the only picture I can find of the villa is the black and white snapshot below. Yesterday, on the off-chance, I googled Villa Ulivi and...what do you know?...the Villa is alive and well and has become a hotel (I borrowed the colour picture of the house from their website). A very nice hotel apparently but I don't recognise the current interior decoration. When Sacha moved in, and later on all our family, there was very little furniture, only a few beautiful, darkly austere Renaissance antiques.

Sacha named his project The House of Contrasts. Here's a summary, taken from a description written after the event: 

It was proposed that a demonstration of positive and negative stereotyped views about each other held by two cultures, American and European, presented in dramatic fashion and in uninterrupted succession, could produce an enlightening psychological shock. This shock would help to crystallize one's own manner of seeing and perhaps also come a step closer to the goal: a kinder and more tolerant understanding of one person, or one nation, towards another.

The experiment was tested on groups of American college students on a cultural tour of Italy. A Florentine villa was the setting for the demonstration and the script, narration, music and graphic presentation was prepared by voluntary collaboration between American and Europeans. The stereotype views were shown in allegorical fashion, inspired by Dante: the negative clichés were 'Inferno' while the positive ones were 'Contrastland'. The reactions, opinions and criticisms of each group of students who visited the House of Contrasts were tape-recorded to serve as valuable records for further exploration of this theme. 

I was in New York pursuing my art education when my father's idea and Villa Ulivi got together and the House of Contrasts began to take shape. At first I resisted his urging me to come and work on the visual presentation - I felt it would distract me from my own path. But Sacha's power of persuasion was hard to resist, especially when it offered such an intriguing situation in such tempting surroundings.

I'd better continue this in another post, otherwise I'm just going to be at this computer all night. Part 3 coming up next - is anyone still here? 


Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Young Sacha from a photograph  NdA 2003. Acrylic on canvas. 40 cm X 30 cm 
I had decided to post something on October 30th, the fourteenth anniversary of my father's final departure (1996) but I've been finding it really hard to get down to blogging recently. It could be the blogging blues, which we all experience from time to time, or it could be the advancing dark dreariness of winter, or it could be that I'm concentrating on other things. 

Whatever the reason for this twelve-day delay, I will now write this post for Sacha, my dear father Alexander d'Arbeloff (not the same person as Alex V. d'Arbeloff who died in July 2008 - see my blog post July 9, 2008).

I mentioned Sacha on this page of my ongoing autobiography - yes, the autobio will be updated: it's on my to-be-continued list so of course it will be continued - and also blogged about him on October 23, 2003 but such a many-sided individual can't be summed up in a few family memories or an obituary - he deserves a whole book to himself. I wouldn't be the person to write it but there's no doubt that he had a tremendous influence on me and certain things in his story stand out particularly sharply in my mind. 

Sacha had already undergone several life-shaking traumas by the time he was in his teens: boiling water from a samovar accidentally spilled on his chest when he was a child. Confusing (or repressed) memories of intense family upheavals. Seeing dead bodies on the streets of Baku during chaotic political riots. Escaping from Russia during dramatic circumstances of the revolution. A hyper-sensitive and deeply introspective young man, it's not surprising that he then had a nervous breakdown - or what we would now call clinical depression - and was sent to a sanatorium. There are a lot of blanks and question marks in the information we tried to gather about those years in Sacha's life but I do know that after some temporary periods in Switzerland and the U.S.A. he stayed in Paris and became involved in cinema and publishing.

The film-maker and film historian Kevin Brownlow when researching his book Napoleon, about Abel Gance's film of that name, interviewed Sacha in the 1980s about his role in that production (my father's comments are on pp 99-101 of Brownlow's book). Briefly: a small film company was formed by Sacha and his cousin, Jacques Grinieff and other associates. Eventually, they were able to raise the funds to make Abel Gance's ground-breaking movie. By then my father had resigned from the company but Grinieff went on to become a film producer in America.  (Many many moons later, in New York, Uncle Jacques gave me a job adapting film scripts. But that's another story).

After the cinema experience, Sacha decided to publish a magazine. It was called AUDACES  (boldness in the plural: boldnesses?) Below is the cover of one 1934 issue. The magazine was a mix of current events - eg: article by J.B.Priestley about an ominous fascist demonstration in Manchester. Themed interviews - eg: What role have men played in your life? answered by actresses Colette, Gaby Morlay and others. How they judge - Judges talking about their experiences. Some comic pieces. A sensational crime story. Lots of pictures of women in 'seductive' poses. Photo-montages of people in the news. Cinema reviews etc.

I don't know how long Sacha persisted in the magazine venture but apparently it was successful. It must have been around this time in Paris that he also wrote and published two novels under the pseudonym Alexandre Darlaine. One was: Il Etait Une Fois Une Femme et Une Jeune Fille (There was once a woman and a young girl). The other was titled Crépuscule de la Raison (Twilight of reason). I have a very time-scarred copy of the first. The latter was turned into a play but was never performed, although many years later, probably in the 1960s or 1970s, the well-known Italian sound-track composer, Mario Nascimbene, composed two pieces of music for it - I'm unsure about dates but I do have these music sheets: Chanson de Florine  and Scène Florine et Daniel.
Sacha's novels were poetic, romantic, melancholy - more reveries than stories. I'm incapable of judging them objectively because I know that they were about his view of Blanche, my mother, and their relationship, however fictionalised.

My aim with this post is not to analyse my father's personality but simply to present some of the achievements of his life that are little known. I'm getting the references together for Part Two so don't go away.