After a slew of big posts, I want to change tack and look at things that are more contemplative, restful, and get at currents under the surface. From about 1995 to 2005, I noticed that the European fin-de-siècle was back in fashion. Fascination with the era from 1870 to 1920 persists: the Steampunk movement, Proust, H. G. Wells or Lovecraft fans come to mind. This period is our lost Arcadia. (Arcadia, a region of modern and ancient Greece, became synonymous in the late nineteenth century with idealized nationalist utopias.) People greeted the new century with confidence, certain that the twentieth century would bring great changes - equality and reforms. They used the term 'Arcadia' to describe a late Romantic reverie that laid the groundwork for things to come, whether fantastic or terrifying. For a beautiful tribute site to the styles of this period see the blog, The Pictorial Arts, especially this recent post and this post. There is a great site devoted to the era of picturesque postage stamps here.
Even absinthe has come back into fashion! Feel like buying original clothing from the period? Go here. If you want to write with period fountain pens, there are many vintage pen sellers such as those here and here. The great ink makers, J. Herbin, have concocted an incredibly beautiful moonlight-coloured ink, Poussière de Lune (Moon Dust), which is reviewed here and here. This is reminiscence in a bottle.
Image: Ink Noveau.
One reviewer described it: "Poussière de Lune brought back memories of long gone time at my parents' house, when on balmy summer nights, I would leave the big windows in my bedroom wide open to let the moonlight in. There's a different but poignant feeling brought by the sight of the silvery moonlight bathing almost everything inside my bedroom. Back then, on full moon nights, I'd stay awake late into midnight, just lying in bed, listening to the stillness and enjoying the exquisite serenity of the moment. Sometimes I would listen to jazz on late night radio, or read a book, but mostly, I'm content with just moon watching." I would have to agree with that. I wrote out much of my dissertation research with Poussière de Lune. In some lights it was grey (almost silver); sometimes it was burgundy like the edge of a nasty storm cloud; and sometimes it was a dusky lavender. Using it always makes me think that the Old World has suddenly entered the room. It's a comforting, ethereal colour that is rare in these days of pixilated, blinking, digitized, thousand-point colour spectrums.
Two pieces from the Czech composer, Antonín Leopold Dvořák are still widely played because they so precisely capture the mood of afternoons and evenings of the last turn of the century.
8th Symphony, Movement 3 (1890). Antonín Leopold Dvořák.
The Europe of this period was one without stringent borders, passports, and security checks. It was perhaps similar to a transnational ideal to which the European Union now aspires, but doesn't quite manage. Free movement across the Continent seems to have also persisted between the wars. I remember attending a talk given by Peter Ustinov, at which he described interwar travellers in Europe. He claimed they could take the train from Paris to St. Petersburg, and never be asked for their papers once. In the World War II-era novel, The English Patient, and in the movie based on the novel, the characters move from an interwar period of relatively open borders to closed ones. That uncomfortable, inexorable tightening of international traffic in response to crises and the descent into war is something with which we are sadly familiar. And it's that mood of constriction, of declining trust, which similarly prompted fin-de-siècle writers to explore a widespread sense of abiding unease. The trend was present in the turn-of-the-century macabre works of Saki. His short stories depicted strange drawing room scenes across the Continent - from England to Central Europe.
The Saki stories that stick out in my mind are Tobermory (full text here - about a talking cat who reveals the perils of academic research to a group of bored aristocrats); The Interlopers (full text here); and Sredni Vashtar (full text here). It was always my impression that Sredni Vashtar was about the onset of schizophrenia in the youthful protagonist. At Horrormasters.com, you can check out many of the ghost stories of period writers M. R. James (here) and Algernon Blackwood (here). One of my favourite Blackwood stories is The Willows (full text here). Blackwood, a British writer, had travelled in the Canadian wilderness and lived and worked in Canada and the United States. He brought a hardy North American flavour to this story about a British traveller and his Swedish friend, who decide to take a Canadian canoe down the Danube. They begin at the river's origins in the Black Forest, pass through Vienna, pass Bratislava (Pressburg), but then enter a marshy section with lots of little interconnected streams that is dangerous and unreliable. The locals warn them at Bratislava not to continue; but of course they go on, and the further they get down the river, crossing invisible borders, the more serious and frightening things become. It's a suitable metaphor for what happened to the young people who identified with, and helped define, the mood at the last turn of the century. Saki was killed only five days before the end of the Battle of the Somme at Beaumont Hamel in 1916: this whole generation moved from a period of reverie and Gothic contemplation to being practically wiped out.