Blue Self-Portrait, by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis), is an introspective inner monologue that flits around the narrator’s angst ridden thoughts. Travelling home on a flight between Berlin and Paris with her sister there is time for such self reflection. She is suffering ‘the wrath of grapes’ (possibly the best description of a hangover I have read) and dislikes air travel, attempting yet failing to distract herself with the books she balances on her lap. Her sibling expresses excitement at the mode of transport although is sensitive to her companion’s disquiet. They have a close relationship and mutual understanding. Thay are both well educated in ‘cultural integration’. The narrator, whilst outwardly composed, is bellowing in silence following her behaviour during dalliances with a pianist-composer in Berlin. She berates herself for having talked too much,
‘dizzying the pianist with a flood of verbiage’
The couple met in a popular intellectual cafe, the setting offering a model of restraint and good taste. Clientele would typically sip their coffee whilst leafing through a newspaper in a relaxed, cultured way. The narrator’s body language she describes as wired, feeling shame afterwards for her indecorious behaviour whilst the pianist remained calm and collected. Her thought processes travel in tangents as she recalls the time spent with this man. She ruminates on her prejudices at his choice of drink and her inability not to pause and consider before she shares her learned conceits. She says of herself:
“I disturb, I’ve never done other than disturb”
She believes that, after some time, the pianist was no longer listening to her many words. They visit a cinema where the narrator feels deliberately silenced.
There are reflections from their conversations on inspirations which the pianist believes may be found by following in the footsteps of the greats, including to their graves – composition amongst decomposition. There are scenes in cafes, in a modern, soulless building as well as those steeped in history.
Pivotal is a visit to the Brandenburgian castle of Neuhardenberg after which the pianist was moved to create a new composition following his discovery of the German composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Blue Self-Portrait. Its gloomy palette is displayed amongst what he regards as hateful depictions of Aryan collective happiness promoted by the Nazi regime. The narrator muses that the pianist
“felt incapable of talking about the music but also dying to give it a good talking about”
She herself is haunted by the portrait, and by her behaviour.
The pianist’s appearance is described as:
“the difference between style and affectation not only in the artistry of his playing, in particular, but also in his art of life, in general, the art of living”
The narrator considers herself to be outwardly socially acceptable, although jittery and appearing underfed.
“looking after yourself means aligning your mind to be in tune with your body”
Her mind is anxious amidst her embarrassed reflections.
There are thoughts on resistance, collaboration, shame and the meaning of moral existence. The effect of the portrait is woven throughout with music and the relationship between artists, composers and a genocide in which they may be complicit.
The writing is insightful although at times opaque. This is a book that will likely benefit from considered rereading.
Schoenberg’s Blue Self-Portrait