Monday, September 24, 2018

The Mata Hari Series by Dark Horse Comics: The Reasons of a Failure

Dark Horse Comics published a 5-volume comics series on Mata Hari. Potentially a good idea but, in the end, a failure. What went wrong, exactly? Difficult to say, but clearly the series moved in bumps and jumps like a truck on a Mexican country road: sometimes speedy moving onward, sometimes making you seasick. The problems were equally bad with the story and with the imagery. Considering only the latter, in the first volume we had truly beautiful images, like this one:

Now, THIS is true to the image that Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was trying to project of herself as her alias, the creature named "the light of the day" in Malay, Mata Hari. An exotic, eerie, beautiful, mysterious, and even aggressive creature. In the pictures we have, Mata Hari was often shown dancing while holding swords and lances, sometimes even the kind seen above, the "Kriss".

But, then, as I said, the images in the series are unequal, they change in style and aspect. In the cover of the last volume, you see Mata Hari transformed into a clumsy creature, short-legged, a little fat, and with ridiculous heart-shaped lips. This is not Mata Hari, it is more Minnie Mouse.

And, in the 5th volume, they could do even worse. This image of the execution is truly an insult to Mata Hari's memory.

How could they create such a mess? I think I have an explanation but, first, let me show you an image (Paris 1905):

This is the real Mata Hari: look at the bearing, look at the expression, look at the way she is moving. This is real class: Mata Hari never was anything like a Barbie doll. She was an assertive woman in all her manifestations, in her dance as in life. And everything she did, she did with class. Great class.

So, I think that with the Dark Horse series they simply tried to drag the story too much: Mata Hari's life doesn't contain so much material that you could make five volumes out of it. Apart for her grand finale - the execution - her life story was not so dramatic. She was, mainly, a performer with a strong personality and a keen sense of self-promotion. You can describe her life in just a few sentences: she traveled to an exotic place, she divorced her husband, she came back to Europe, she had several lovers, she made some money, and she squandered most of it -- that's it, more or less.

Then, the story that she was a spy, well, it is more ridiculous than passionating. Poor Margaretha had the misfortune of finding herself as the target of both the German and the French secret services. The Germans tried to make the French look bad by having them kill an innocent woman, the French needed a scapegoat for their military failures. In the end, the enemies in the battlefield collaborated with each other in order to bring Margaretha Zelle in front of the firing squad. Bad luck aplenty for her, but not much of a "story" here.

What makes Mata Hari still remembered today is not what she did, but what she was. For sure not everybody loved her, but her personality was so strong and so powerful that it transcended the limits of the Dutchwoman Margaretha Zelle to turn her into the Goddess of the Sun, Mata Hari. All her glory showed up and faded in the single moment of the execution. And all she had done in her life, good and bad, found a justification when she stood in front of the firing squad, sending a kiss to the soldiers who were shooting her, and telling them, "Thank You."

In doing so, she truly transformed herself into the avatar of the Goddess, the sacrificial victim, and she thanked the mortals who were killing her for allowing her to return to the celestial realms where she came from. Not to everyone it is permitted to transcend their human nature in their last moments of life, but some have this destiny. Perhaps it is a blessing, perhaps it is a curse, but this is what we remember Mata Hari for.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Crying Women of Kiev.

It seems to be a real photo and it is incredible how it manages a perfect composition of foreground and background: the crying women in the foreground, more worried faces in the background, and, farther away, burning buildings -- destroyed during the battle for Kiev, in 1941.

It looks eerily similar to some Renaissance paintings, like this one, by an unknown Lombard painter, showing Mary, mother of Jesus, and the pious women around her, crying.

Much art is about suffering -- and many masterpieces show it. But it is not suffering in itself that makes a masterpiece -- it is the feeling about suffering. I have been thinking on this point, and I believe I can cite John Gardner in his "The Art of Fiction" - it is about literature but it is more general than that. So, here is what Gardner says:
Nothing in the world is inherently interesting -- that is, immediately interesting, and interesting in the same degree, to all human beings. [..] by the nature of our mortality we care aout what we know and might possibly lose (or have already lost), dislike what threatens what we care about, and feel indifferent toward that which has no visible bearing on our safety or the safety of the people and things we love. [..] Since all human being have the same root experience (we're born, we suffer, we die, to put it grimly), so that all we need for our symphaty to be roused is that the writer commincate with power and convinction the similarity in his character's experience and our own. 
And so is the secret of so much art - be it writing, painting, or photographing. It is all about sharing an experience. And suffering is something we all experience. So, the crying women of Kiev are us, and the bell tolls for them and for us at the same time.

(another piece of mine about Ukraine)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Mata Hari: The Meme Grows

We can get some idea of how the Mata Hari meme has evolved over the years using Google Ngrams. The image below is for the corpus in French.

It is remarkable how the "Mata Hari" meme has been growing in the past two decades. The "blip" from 1990 to ca 1998 may be related to something different than the Dutch dancer, or to some glitch or the Google counting algorythm, but the increase in interest is clear anyway.
In English, the trend is less clear, but it is there:

So, what we are seeing is the slow evolution of a meme. Note that most memes do not even remotely have this kind of persistence - most memes flare up and disappear in days. A meme lasting a century is rare, and the Mata Hari one is still growing. We have to see how it will evolve and how it will affect us.

Note also how the meme has changed its polarity: up to not many years ago, the commonly accepted version was that Mata Hari had been an evil femme fatale, now we see her as an innocent victim of an ugly propaganda machine. A meme - or a myth - is like a living being, it grows, it changes, it evolves. And so does Mata Hari, her ghost is still haunting us.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Mystery of Mata Hari: a Goat with Golden Feet

Can you note an interesting detail in this cover image? If you do, write about it in the comments!

"La Chevre au Pieds d'Or" by Charles-Henry Hirsch is perhaps the first novel ever published about Mata Hari's saga - in 1920. It set some elements that reappeared in later novels, for instance, the transformation of the Dutch dancer Margaretha Zelle into a more exotic creature, here a Russian dancer nicknamed "Toutcha," while the other main character of the novel is clearly inspired by Zelle's friend, Eduard Clunet.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, it is a pretty good novel. It comes from a period in which novels were a common entertainment form, they were rarely high-level works of art but had to maintain a minimum of quality. People would buy these novels in order to read them and the novels had to be simple enough to be understandable by almost everybody.

And this is what Hirsch does: his novel is a straightforward drama, very simple in form and told in a style that today we would find unsophisticated, but that's effective for the author's purpose. We have only three main characters, Toutcha (Mata Hari), Marc Brégyl (Clunet) and the painter Ursac. Toutcha is the evil seductress, Brégil is the well-intentioned, although somewhat naive, lover and Ursac acts as a connection, chorus, and witness. Other characters are barely sketched: for instance, when Brégil is told by a good friend of him that Toutcha is a spy, we never learn the name of this person. That has a purpose: the novel has to be simple and readable by readers who couldn't be encumbered with too many names. Hirsch was surely a professional in these things.

Then, the story follows closely the official version of the Mata Hari story, with only one quirk and a very nasty one. The final turn of the plot has Brégil telling Toutcha that her execution will not be carried out all the way to the end, that it is all a pretense, that at the last moment the guns will not fire, and that he (Brégil) will come to save Toutcha from death. And Toutcha, the smart and devilish spy, turns out to be dumb enough to fall for this dirty trick completely.

Again, these novels were destined to a general public and couldn't be too sophisticated. This kind of crude plot twist could work well, no matter how nasty they were in regard to poor Mata Hari, not only killed for something that she had never done but cheated up to the last moment of her life. But so it goes, Hirsch was simply reacting to a common legend of the time which said that Mata Hari had not been shot for real, that the execution had been a fake.

One last point, why "La Chevre au Pieds d'Or?" It is not explained in the novel and it takes a little work for the non-French reader to understand that it is a reference to Victor Hugo's novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." A goat with feet painted in gold. named Djali, is a companion to the character of Esmeralda the Gypsy. Considering that in Hugo's novel Esmeralda is hanged as a witch, the reference to Mata Hari is obvious,

From "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" by Victor Hugo

A little white goat came running to her. Its horns were painted gold. "Now it's your turn, Djali," said Esmeralda. She held out her drum. "Which month is it, Djali?" she asked, smiling. The goat tapped the drum once with its foot. "That is right!

Ah... and one last point: at some point in the novel, we learn that the real name of Toutcha is "Maria Tatiana Golgoronine." Evidently, an evil character has to have a suitably evil sounding name!

Monday, August 13, 2018

How a Novel Can be Like a Rube Goldberg Machine: "The Lost Mata Hari Ring" by Elyse Douglas

My fascination with Mata Hari makes me read all sorts of books dealing with her, not all of them being good. In particular, I still have to find a decent novel having Mata Hari as the protagonist. This recent novel by Elyse Douglas is an example. I would describe it as a "Rube Goldberg Novel." It moves onward, yes, but clumsily and without purpose. 

Let me start with the first page of this novel, nay, with the first paragraph. And there you read:

With a certain unease and reluctance, twenty-nine-year old Tracey Peyton Rutland entered Maynard Hopkins' private, sunny office on East 78th street. Dr. Hopkins closed the door softly behind her, clearing his throat. "Good morning. May I take your coat?" he offered.
Huh? Wait a moment, wait a moment, is it really the way this novel is written? Or is it just a trick to introduce it by showing how badly you can write the first paragraph? Do the authors, (Ms. Parmentier and Mr. Pennington, aka Elyse Douglas) want to compete for the Bulwer-Lytton prize? (you know the story, right? The novel starting with "It was a dark and stormy night."). But no, the novel is written all in this style, from the first paragraph to the last, for all its 368 pages. All the same: involved, clumsy, slow, heavily plodding sentences like the first one.

Huh, indeed. It makes you wonder if there actually exist such entities as writing schools where they teach you a rule called "show, don' tell." And if there ever existed novelists such as Ernest Hemingway.

Now, before continuing, a disclaimer: I am not a novelist, at best you could say that I am a (bad) blog writer. But, if I am a bad writer, I can at least claim to be a good reader. And when I read something, I can understand the effort of the author(s) in doing their best, but I also reserve the right to criticize them.

This said, I would also state that it is not impossible that a novel could be poorly written and still be a good novel. Kurt Vonnegut spoke of defects in novels making the comparison with a beautiful woman with two eyes of different color, a detail that could make her even more charming. But, as the world goes, an ugly woman is often ugly in every detail. And that's true also for fiction:  Some novels may be bad in every detail.

"The Lost Mata Hari Ring" is, indeed, a novel that I would compare to a Rube Goldberg machine. You know the concept: these are machines where things move in a chain, one step after the other. First, you have a ball going down a slope, it hits a lever, which lights a match, which punctures a water container, the water floods another container, which moves another lever, and so on. A Rube Goldberg machine can be some fun to watch in action, but it has no purpose. It leaves no impact on you.

Not that the Penningtons, Elyse and Douglas, haven't done their homework. They have. And that shows when the protagonist - Tracey - time-travels to 1916. The characters include historical figures and the setting looks reasonably believable, apart from some quirks such as referring to Vadim Maslov consistently as "Vadime" and for having the characters addressing Mata Hari in conversation with her stage name of "Mata Hari" - which makes no sense.

The problem with the novel is not the premise: there is nothing wrong with having the protagonist wearing a ring that belonged to Mata Hari and as, a consequence, being immediately whooshed to 1916. It is all part of the concept of "suspension of disbelief." After all, Dante Alighieri never told us how exactly he traveled to Hell.

The problem is that in any story characters must have a motivation - they have to be engaged in searching for something, learning something, finding someone. But the protagonist of this novel is described as if she were a Barbie doll and she moves through the novel with the same sense of purpose as a doll being shared among different children. Trace, the protagonist, travels to 1916, meets Mata Hari, falls in love with a British pilot, marries him, befriends Mata Hari's daughter, her husband dies, she is accused of espionage, she comes back to our times, she gets married, and she has a baby. Huh? The other characters are just as shallow, including Mata Hari herself.

Now, I know that a lot of work goes into writing a novel and that a novel is very much like a child for the author. Receiving criticism for one's writings - of any kind - is hard. As I said, writing a bad novel takes about as much work as writing a good one. But these are the rules of the game. And I can propose that NOT being criticized may be worse than being criticized. The Pennington couple wrote several novels - I counted 17 of them on the site. Considering that "The Lost Ring" seems to be one of the recent novels they published, I would be somewhat perplexed at the idea of tackling another one. Especially the one on the right, with a cover that makes it look like a chocolate candy.

I figure that the Penningtons love what they are doing and they would profit from some criticism in order to improve. The problem is that it is impossible to find some real criticism of their books. The reviews on Amazon or on Goodreads are all glowingly positive. Which is a general problem of all ratings on the Web, but an especially important one for the disappearing art of novel writing. Sure, there may be a market for a certain kind of "romance novels", but they don't have to be all bad. And if bad novels are not criticized, how can the good ones be recognized?

So, are novels a dead art form? Maybe. And then, maybe not. Some forms of storytelling are clearly obsolete, but that doesn't mean there won't be new ones. The future will tell and, in any case, there remain powerful mythopoietic symbols in our world, one of whom is Mata Hari. And you cannot stop symbols from expressing themselves in some way. Which is, in the end, what "The Lost Ring of Mata Hari" shows.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin: 1929-2018. The Magic and the Beauty.

Living, as I live, in a remote province of the Empire, I had missed the news of the death of Ursula Le Guin that took place last January. She was my most beloved author and possibly my deepest and most felt source of inspiration.

You can read a summary of Le Guin's work in this excellent article on "The Guardian." You can find several comments of mine on her "Earthsea Cycle" in the Chimeras blog. (for instance here, here, and here.)

Ursula Le Guin is now in the underworld that she described in the "Earthsea" series, "into the desert lands and lightless cities of the dead where the dead are " freed from anger and desire." Be in peace, Ursula, freed from anger and desire, as you have always been.

You gave us so much in this world: you gave us magic, you gave us beauty, you gave us poetry, and you gave us much love. You told us that in the underworld, "those who loved each other in life do not know each other now." But I can't believe that the beauty of your words will disappear, and perhaps your poetry will resonate in the lightless city of a desert land, where you are now.

By the white straits of Soléa
and the bowed red branches
that bent their blossoms over
her bowed head, heavy
with sorrow for the lost lover.
by the red branch and the white branch
and the sorrow unceasing
do I swear, Serriadh,
son of my mother and of Morred
to remember the wrong done
                      forever, forever

Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Wizard of Earthsea"

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Snake, the Death, and the Naked Flesh. Mythopoiesis of Mata Hari

The prima ballerina Anna Tsygankova as Margaretha Zelle MacLeod, a.k.a. Mata Hari, in the Dutch National Ballet’s production of 2016. Here, Mata Hari is portrayed as dancing with a snake, a popular story about her but, most likely, just a legend. It is the same for the legend that says she stripped naked in front of the firing squad at her execution, in 1917. The origin of both legends is hard to track down, but a turning point in their diffusion may have been the novel by E. Temple Thurston "Portrait of a Spy" published in 1929.

Mata Hari has turned out to be a myth-generating machine of incredible power. Myths which are pervasive, persistent, unstoppable, and - most often - completely false. Two of these myths are especially unlikely. One is that Mata Hari would sometimes perform her dances with a snake, the other that she bared her breasts in front of the firing squad that was going to kill her.

About the snake, it is not totally farfetched. We have pictures of dancers of the time of Mata Hari and sometimes they appear with snakes, as you can see here. This woman is often said to be Mata Hari, but she is not her, clearly. Yet, the legend of Mata Hari dancing with snakes is persistent. In addition to the image at the beginning of this post, it is described in Michelle Moran's recent novel "Mata Hari's Last Dance".

About the other legend, standing naked in front of the firing squad, it is not a common myth. We have no pictures of the execution, but most of the fantasy images created afterward show Mata Hari fully dressed and in a rather solemn attitude - or, sometimes, with a frightened expression.

Still, the legend exists. It is reported, among others, by Julie Wheelwright in her book "The Fatal Lover" (1992) (p. 3) in terms of a contemporary of Mata Hari, Natalie Barney, speaking of the "tawdry imagined sable coat over nude flesh invented by someone who wrote for the most scurrilous kind of literary weekly" It is mentioned also at this link.

I think it shouldn't take much effort to debunk both legends: there is no evidence anywhere - nothing at all - that Mata Hari ever danced with a snake. On the contrary, a descendant of her family, Ton Zelle, told me that "she hated snakes" - a rather likely attitude for a Dutch girl, born and raised in a place where snakes are not common - to say the least! About stripping naked in front of the firing squad, well, it doesn't even deserve to be debunked.

But these myths must have an origin: someone, somewhere, must have expressed them first. I haven't been able to find the "scurrilous literary weekly" described by Natalie Barnes, but I think it is possible to pinpoint the origin of both with the novel by E. Temple Thurston "Portrait of a Spy" appeared in 1929.

Today, Temple Thurston is nearly completely forgotten as a writer and perhaps for good reasons, at least judging from this novel. Not that it is poorly written, actually it shows the hand of a professional, the style reminds Faulkner, at times. But, as a novel, it just doesn't stand on its own. The protagonist, the British painter George Le Mesurier, doesn't ever gain life. Better, but still not satisfactory, is the female character inspired by Mata Hari. She goes under the name of Liane Sonrel (fictional alter ego of Margaretha Zelle) and Mada Garass (the fictional equivalent of Mata Hari). She is a character with some life, especially at the beginning. Apart from the different names, she goes through the same parable as Mata Hari, starting as a low-level stripper in Paris and in the end being shot. We read that, at the last moment,

. . . she flung open the folds of that sable coat and her body was gleaming naked to receive their bullets in her flesh.

As I said, not a good novel but, at least, Thurston created a myth that still lives today. It has been said in our time that propaganda "creates reality" and that was true also at the time of Mata Hari. Propaganda created the story of her being a dangerous spy and, in the process, people saw non-existing things, such as her dancing with snakes or appearing naked at her execution. In the end, all the madness, all the suffering, all the hate, love, folly, pain, joy, and misery are our creation. And I might cite Lafcadio Hearn in his "Out of the East"
We may have to learn that the infinite whirl of death and birth, out of which we cannot escape, is of our own creation, of our own seeking;—that the forces integrating worlds are the errors of the Past;—that the eternal sorrow is but the eternal hunger of insatiable desire;—and that the burnt-out suns are rekindled only by the inextinguishable passions of vanished lives.
Vanished lives who still project on us their inextinguishable passion. Margaretha, you are still with us.