This is the second in an occasional series of posts about the cultural world inhabited by Calypso Bergère. This post focuses on the second novella in the series, Calypso and the Christmas Map, set in Paris in the winter of 1931.
The story opens in the École des Beaux-Arts, where Calypso is a now a student. The photograph above, taken around 1930, shows a group of female students at the École, along with their male professor and a female model.
The old postcard above shows the exterior of the École, which is almost unchanged today.
Andrea Mantegna’s painting, The Holy Family with Saints Anne and John the Baptist features in this opening scene.. I choose this painting not only because it connects with some of the story’s themes, but because it’s my favourite portrayal of the Holy Family, both awe-inspiring and unsettling. The critic Jonathan Jones has written in the Guardian that:
This is a warlike holy family, with a martial Joseph (or it may be Mary’s father Joachim) and a proud, standing Christ. There is a stern singularity to this painting: it is bold, frontal, shorn of the cliches of church painting. It is so physically real, so conscious, looking right back at us, that it makes you think of no other artist’s religious paintings except, perhaps, Michelangelo’s. It is a surprise, a mystery; you wonder what was in Mantegna’s mind when he painted it.
Later on, Calypso and her friend Olivia mention that they are going to see René Clair’s musical comedy Le Million. The clip above is courtesy of the streaming service Mubi. Having seen this movie several times myself, I can say it’s great fun. The Criterion Collection’s website sums it up thus:
An impoverished artist discovers he has purchased a winning lottery ticket at the very moment his creditors come to collect. The only problem is, the ticket is in the pocket of his coat. . . which he left at his girlfriend’s apartment. . . who gave the coat to a man hiding from the police. . . who sells the coat to an opera singer who uses it during a performance. By turns charming and inventive, René Clair’s lyrical masterpiece had a profound impact on not only the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin, but on the American musical as a whole.
Calypso is working part-time at the Printemps department store to earn some money during her studies. The poster above shows the store in 1883, when it had just been rebuilt after a fire. The exterior appearance has changed little since then.
At the centre of the story is a map that Calypso finds in Sandrine’s apartment. When I first had the notion of the map I was thinking of it as a purely topographical device. Then I read Lisa Deam’s book A World Transformed, which got me thinking about the spiritual and psychological purposes of maps. Above is a photograph of the Ebstorf Map (courtesy of Wiki Commons), a thirteenth century mappa mundi, one of the maps discussed in Dr Deam’s book. Here is a quote from A World Transformed:
Yet we take journeys other than physical ones. We experience realities higher than those of earth. Even as we move forward in space, we recognize that our most important journey concerns footsteps of the heart.
However imperfectly, I hope my story captured something of these ideas of inner and outer journeys. (For more on the subject, see Lisa Deam’s website.)
One of the places marked on the Christmas map is the Hôtel-Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris. The photograph above was taken by Charles Marville, the pioneering photographer of nineteenth-century Paris.
On her way to the Hôtel-Dieu, Calypso passes a pair of mistletoe sellers. I got this idea from the photo above, published in a Buzzfeed article featuring vintage Christmas photographs of Paris.
Later in her search for Sandrine, Calypso passes the BHV department store on Rue de Rivoli, noting its Christmas tree. The photograph above is from the same Buzzfeed article as the mistletoe sellers.
Another place marked on the Christmas map is the Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis in the Marais district. The painting of the church and its surroundings above, by Lucien Hector Jonas, was completed in 1926, five years before the year of the story’s setting (apologies for the low-res image — it was the only one available for download on the Paris Museums website. Click here for the high-res versions).
Inside the church, Calypso hears the choir singing the carol ‘Les anges dans nos campagnes’ (‘The angels in our countryside’). The video above captures a performance of the carol by Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois.