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Ovartaci *

Louis Marcussen was born in a small town in Jutland, Denmark in 1894, the son of a dyer. Something was not right with the family – of 10 children, several were blind and half died early in life. Louis survived, trained as a painter and decorator, and after taking Spanish lessons, embarked for a great adventure in Argentina at the age of 29.

Whatever happened in Argentina, it wasn’t good.  Later Louis said the suffering he endured there had a positive value as it “toughened” him for what was to come. He stayed several years before returning home, working his way as a stoker on a coal-burning freighter.  Back with the family, he was apparently difficult, and after he pointed a defective rifle at his blind brother Knud, the family contacted health officials, and one day, while he was wallpapering a room, he was jumped and hauled off to a mental hospital in the Aarhus suburb of Risskov.

He died there, 56 years later.

Aarhus – Denmark’s second largest city, with around a quarter million souls – has what is claimed to be one of four women’s museums in the world, and I encountered Louis’ work there – a pipe, apparently made of the foil from a toothpaste tube.

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But Louis was not known as Louis Marcussen. He was Ovartaci, and he was no longer a man, but a woman.

The next day I trooped up to Risskov to encounter more work at a museum named after Ovartaci in the place she lived for half a century.**

It is hard to know what to make of this extraordinary life.  Despite a wealth of detail provided by various psychiatric professionals and art critics, Ovartaci remains an enigma to me, and possibly everyone who runs into her.

Dear reader – you can choose between the idea that Louis Marcussen believed in reincarnation and that in all his previous lives he had been a woman, that a terrible mistake had been made, that he wished to have corrected, or you can take the “analysts'”  idea that he regarded his lust for women as “dirty” and that to deal with this lust he needed to have what is now known as “gender reassignment”. Whatever, he convinced the authorities to castrate him, but when this didn’t meet his needs or expectations, and he could not persuade his minders to help, he cut off his penis. After a failed attempt using a razor blade, he succeeded with a chisel in the asylum’s carpentry workshop. Eventually authorities allowed “reassignment”, a vagina created when he was around 60, and Ovartaci died the woman she (according to me as well as to her) knew she had always been:

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Here is a chart of “available” genders from the Aarhus women’s museum:

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Which one, or ones, was Ovartaci?

Ovartaci’s life as a psychiatric patient is as puzzling as anything else about her. It is hard not to be suspicious of psychiatric professionals who overpowered someone while papering a room for the crime of brandishing a rifle that wouldn’t shoot, and kept that person incarcerated for more than half a century. The available details about Louis’ and Ovartaci’s behaviour are too sketchy to be really sure of the actual justification for keeping her locked up.  Yet Ovartaci spent many of those years as a sort of special case, less locked up than might be assumed, able to leave the facility and wander about the city.  Her keepers seemed well-disposed towards her, taking her to their homes and bringing their children to meet her in the hospital. Eventually she was allowed to buy a bicycle and travel further afield.

Ovartaci was also encouraged in art, producing at least 800 works ranging from pipes to dolls and other sculptures to paintings. Around 1960, a psychiatrist arriving at the Risskov facility recognised Ovartaci’s talent as genius, and not only encouraged it, but recorded long conversations eventually edited and published.

It is true too that by being a patient Ovartaci never needed to worry about food and lodging. If much of her work was made using whatever was to hand, she was also able to sell it, and to buy paints and other materials, and was able to decorate much of the hospital as well as her own room. She was able to study and learned Chinese and much else.

But is “not as bad as it might have been” good? Underneath all the positives there is something about Ovartaci’s life that makes me angry, and ashamed.

Before Ovartaci’s death in 1986, exhibitions outside the hospital featured her work, and after it, art as therapy led to the naming of the exhibition hall for patients’ work the Ovartaci Museum. However Ovartaci may have thought about that, I am not sure how I feel about it. Here is a painting by a later patient:

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This too makes me angry and ashamed.

Here are some paintings by Ovartaci:

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Ovartaci said, “I served my apprenticeship here in Aarhus.. .the orders we received were, that nature puts no colours wrongly side by side. The essential thing is to pick this up and learn from nature, as it does not put wrong colours together. That is what humans can do, these baroque and often so frightening, terrifying paintngs; they are not found in nature.”

Ovartaci made dolls that some critics say were not meant as “art objects” but as friends.*** She made them in various sizes and smaller ones went with her when she left the hospital; she could take them on her bike. She gave them names and talked with them.

While restoring one of the larger versions, a curator discovered that the head came apart. Inside was a sheaf of poems written in Spanish. Here is an English translation of one, published as “poems o the future”:

Life on Earth
Is suffering
Filled with false hope,
Expectances
And bitter experiences.
The disgraceful birth
Is to blame for our fate.
Calamities
And helplessness,
Dreadful fear of the moist poison.
Fear
Of illness,
Epidemics.
Fear
Of malicious men,
War, earthquake, lightning, revolution,
Starvation and destitution.
Fear
Of witches, illusionists
And fascists.
Fear
Of the result
Of our decisions,
And it hurts to be separated
When in love,
And it hurts to be coupled with something
Ugly and disgusting
Fear
Of the deceased
And of ignorance.
Fear
Of the life
To come.

 

*The second post from my summer 2017 European adventure. Thanks for reading.

**Ovartaci was at the Risskov facility for 45 years; s/he spent a further 11 at another.

***Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka also made a doll of a girlfriend – Anna Mahler,  ex-wife of Gustav Mahler and Walter Gropius – who dumped him. Kokoschka took the doll to dinners and parties and talked to it as if it was Anna. Eventually he destroyed it.

 

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Posted by on January 15, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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Anita Ree*

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Anita Ree painted this self-portrait in 1910.  The photograph does not do justice to the beautiful palette of the artist. Discounting its  erotic nature (as google images does by cropping it) it is a masterpiece, though there is no reason to discount it. The sweetness of Ree’s expression is  marvellous. There is a beauty of form too. And yet. . .the backdrop of prickly pears, a watery sweet fruit that if not handled properly can indeed prickle, makes a more provocative theme.

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Anita Ree painted this self-portrait in 1929.  Gone is the delicate palette and in its place a stark and difficult look, and on her face, the tragedy that had become her life.

Four years later, Anita Ree committed suicide. She was 48 years old.

These paintings, and a few others, are part of the collection in the Hamburg city art gallery, where I saw them in summer 2017.  They are among the most memorable works of my European tour. I found them very upsetting.

It is not surprising that she was unknown to me. Though baptised in the Lutheran faith as was common by Jewish Germans at that time, she was denounced by the Nazis for her Jewishness. Lutheranism didn’t save her. Her social life became difficult, and then impossible. After the Nazis took power in 1933, she killed herself. Her paintings were labelled degenerate, removed from galleries where they were displayed and mostly destroyed. Murals suffered the same fate.

The paintings in the Hamburg gallery were saved by a groundskeeper, who hid them in his apartment until after the war. Other works were in private hands enabling a retrospective  that is presently (January 2018) at the gallery.  http://www.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/en/exhibitions/anita-ree

Among the paintings on display:

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*This is the first of a series of posts rising out of my European trip in 2017. They are selfish in a way – what grabbed me, upset me, moved me. . .and who am I? Nobody, that’s who. But maybe you too, dear reader, will be prompted by my interests and enjoy some of them.

Thanks for reading this one.

 

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

Yours! All yours!

Hello dear readers. It is Christmas time, when people including those who are not Christians, give things to other people. Traditionally in some Anglo countries, they waited until the day after to trot round their friends’ places with their prezzies, and this is known in the country where I live, New Zealand, as Boxing Day, though the giving part tends to be on Christmas Day. Anyway, wherever you are, and whatever you are up to, I hope you have the very best holiday time, with friends, family and loved ones, and that you not only enjoy, but contribute as you should to the material and spiritual betterment of the entire planet. That should be our species’ role in the overall picture.

As part of this wonderful spirit, the online publisher where my books appear for sale, Smashwords, has an annual end-of-year bonanza. In my case, the usual apparently exorbitant 99 cents price of my novels is slashed to nothing at all. Nothing! Free! to a good, a bad, or an indifferent home. This lasts from about now to the end of the year.

Be in quick!

All the best for the rest of the year and 2018. Hey – for the rest of time! Why not?

 

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

“Nurse! Nurse!” “Why, doctor!”*

(Here is a post I had meant to finish before traveling to Europe for the northern summer from New Zealand, where I live. Finally! It is not so good as I would like. It is true that I am not a scholar, in Shakespeare or anything else, but I do not need to be.)

Anyone interested even a little bit in the work of William Shakespeare knows there is a lot of sex talk. There isn’t any sex, as it wasn’t the done thing in those days, though there are moments, as in Romeo and Juliet, when the deed is done just out of view. But the range of sexual allusion is astonishing, as it must be, I think, for the Bard to be who he is – the greatest writer ever.

Shakespeare wasn’t alone in his time in dwelling on sex. Most or even all of his contemporaries waxed lyrical. Thomas Middleton, for example – check out his Chaste Maid in Cheapside, in which the only thing chaste is the word in the title. While the sexual attitudes of the time may be charted through dramatic evidence, it is also true that theatre companies competed with other entertainments aiming to satisfy different kinds of bloodlust – bear-baiting and cockfighting among them. Getting bums on seats meant giving the punters spectacle and juicy bits.

Today there are still those who find the amount of sexual imagery and allusion unsettling**, but there are also those who find it fascinating. Gordon Williams has made a career out of tracing sexual references and innuendo in the literature of the time, and has produced a three volume dictionary (and more), but he is far from alone.

Demitra Papadinis has boldly – and as she says, “frankly” – annotated several of Shakespeare’s plays focusing on the sexual, giving readers the original First Folio texts to relish and prove her point. If all the references she finds were to be taken out, the Bowdlerised** complete works would engrave easily on the head of a pin, with room for the Iliad and Odyssey in Greek and translation.

Papadinis makes no apology for readings that might give a remark by a character five or six simultaneous interpretations, and why should she? We are dealing with the master. Let it be.

Papadinis is very far from thinking all the references to sex in Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists are positive, or erotic and it is clear they are not. A great deal is actually negative and often refers to disease. To read Troilus and Cressida in the David Bevington Arden edition is to discover a wealth of detail relating to syphilis as the clown Thersites spews invective at his fellow Greeks. Yet T & C is arguably a comedy. *** Whether it be or no, the sexual allusions can easily be missed as our language and meanings have changed over the centuries, and they affect the overall reading of the play.

Just so with Romeo and Juliet. After studying Troilus and Cressida, a few years ago I witnessed the performance of the scene between Juliet and the Nurse, who has returned from a meeting with Romeo, played as funny, and that’s all. It’s a big laugh when the Nurse says “Fie how my bones ache, what a jaunt I have had.” (Act II, scene five, line 30.)

The reality – I mean this – is that the Nurse has syphilis. An audience of Shakespeare’s time would have recognised immediately in the Nurse’s complaint of her aching bones that she was syphilitic, yet so far as I am aware no edition of the play picks up on this, though to her credit Papadinis recognises that it may refer to sexual disease. It does. The scene is humorous, but also tragic: the Nurse’s rambling as Juliet tries to get sense from her is also a sign of the mental degeneration associated with the disease. As Shakespeare wrote it, it is funny and very sad at the same time. Say I: it is the precise moment when the play, which until then had been pretty comic despite some ominous gestures (principally from Tybalt),  begins to reveal its tragic momentum.

There were hints of the Nurse’s illness earlier. Her rambling trip down memory lane with Juliet’s mother near the beginning is a clue but more significantly, Mercutio, meeting with the Nurse and her “man”, the clown Peter, mocks her appearance as of a prostitute and the fact she has lost her hair. It’s a quick quip from the jester Mercutio, foreshadowing the Nurse’s return to her charge. Mercutio elsewhere pokes fun at other sufferers who “cannot sit at ease on the old bench. O, their bones, their bones.”

Syphilis in Shakespeare’s time was a much different illness than we tend to think of it today****. It was a new sickness for Europeans, imported from the “New World” by Spanish sailors, and spread via the Spanish-owned “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” which included the Italian “boot”. “Neapolitian bone-ache” raced up the peninsula to infect the whole of Europe remarkably quickly and incredibly virulently. Attempts to stop its spread into England were fruitless, and before 1540 the disease, already known simply as “bone-ache”, was well-established in the sceptered isle.

In Europe as a whole, syphilis affected millions upon millions of people. Apart from making the victim’s bones ache, hair fell out, and even parts of bodies lost en route to an early death. Sir William Davenant, a mid-17th century poet and playwright who may or may not have been a natural son of Shakespeare^,  shed his nose to the disease. It has been argued that Shakespeare himself died of syphilis. Plainly there is no proof of this, but his profession would lay him open to it.

The effects led to new or revived^^ industries including wigs and cosmetics as sufferers sought public (and pubic^^^) disguises for the ravages of the disease, and to increased emphasis on sexual fidelity (read on).

It seems the strength of the disease lessened over time so that the epidemic of the 16th and 17th centuries became less apparent, though treatment until the 20th century and penicillin never amounted to a cure. The Nurse’s name may be “Angelica”, used as a (also fruitless) herbal remedy. Among latter day sufferers were political rogues Adolf Hitler and Lenin.

Does this matter in terms of the play? I think so. The Nurse as syphilitic – which I think is unarguable – may explain things that are otherwise left at best moot, beginning with the relationship between the two lovers. Early in the play the Nurse says her wish in life is to see Juliet married “once”. She wants her charge to marry a virgin, and thus not fall prey to her illness, and her tarted up mission to see Romeo  is a comic episode designed to satisfy that desire. Juliet wants simply for the arrangement she has made with her newfound love to be settled; the Nurse wanted to see if Romeo was sexually inexperienced and is relieved to discover him just so. The play earlier implies it, that Romeo is a newcomer to love and its pursuit, as Benvolio’s gentle treatment of his friend reveals.

Paris, Juliet’s suitor through her parents, seems more likely to be sexually experienced and thus plausibly syphilitic, though the Nurse, obedient to the wishes of Juliet’s mother, urges him on her after Romeo is banished for killing his lover’s cousin Tybalt. Romeo is portrayed as not only younger, but in the first flushes of lust. His infatuation with Rosaline,  Benvolio (meaning “Goodwill”) treating him as a tyro, the older Capulet’s referral of him as virtuous, all suggest not merely youth, but virginal youth.

Within all this, Juliet is revealed as mature in ways that Romeo is not. She rebukes herself for cursing her new husband after  her hotheaded cousin Tybalt is killed by him and goes on to rebuke the Nurse for urging Paris on her, destroying Juliet’s trust. While Romeo exalts his bride in long soliloquies and in dialogue with the Friar, Juliet’s attitudes are not simply empathetic, but practical. She may have seemed easily swayed, but  while a teenager, is adult compared to her husband.

In this we are again struck by Shakespeare’s attitude to women’s place, in this early play as later. He does not accept the idea that woman should be mounted on a pedestal as many of his contemporaries, in thrall to the “Virgin Queen” (see sonnet 130), but as wiser, more temperate, and sadly, tragically, victim. Juliet ends her life as her sole lover has ended his but only after struggling to find a solution her husband initially, foolishly, rejected. Elsewhere in his work Shakespeare seems to subscribe to the romantic view of relationships as lovers meet, fall in love, and stay happy ever after, but to me it is fair to argue that this is in a context of sexual and romantic relationships he could only chart but which is, say I, changing.#

The moral of Romeo and Juliet is played out by the remorse of the warring Montague and Capulet families and was a motive of the Friar’s and the Nurse’s in joining the two together.  The Nurse, who needs to keep sweet with the Capulet family, is swayed this way and that as she tries to help Juliet.

So all this, stemming from a revealing (to me) remark by the Nurse, missed by a few centuries of scholarship. Much of my argument is circumstantial. But the truth of the Nurse is not to be dismissed. Poor woman.

Thanks for reading.

*An exchange between Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margaret in the Mike Nichols-directed, Jules Feiffer-scripted film Carnal Knowledge. Jack  in glass-encased shower calls out to his new lover, who somehow discovers his erection in the steam. . .

**Thomas Bowdler and his sister Henrietta gave their name to the English language as they attempted to purge Shakespeare of sex. They lived two hundred years ago, but their shadow falls even over contemporary scholars. It  is hard to believe, but it is true.

***See my post “Toiling with Troilus”.

****See Johannes Fabricius, Syphilis in Shakespeare’s England. Gordon Williams in his 3-volume dictionary, says that examination of pre-Columbian bones throughout the world finds evidence of syphilis only in the New World and Oceania.

^Sir William’s parents owned an Oxford tavern where Shakespeare stayed while travelling by foot between his home in Stratford and London. Sir William is reported to have betrayed his biological origins when inebriated.

^^Wigs had been popular in classical times but their use fell away until the Renaissance and syphilis.

^^^The merkin was/is a pubic wig for intimate concealment.

#This is a central theme of my fiction, which readers are welcome to buy and read online at Smashwords – US99c each, cheap! See also my posts “Toiling with Troilus” and “Grand Larssony” on this blog. Recent revelations and developments in human relationships, especially in the United States, seem to suggest my interpretation is the right one.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Back on track

Hello beautiful and indeed magnificent human beings. You are doing me such an honour visiting, hopefully reading and enjoying my paltry contributions to spiritual, aesthetic, intellectual and even philosophical cultural enrichment of our species. It is kind of you.

For almost the last six months I’ve been in Europe, mostly cycling – after flying to Prague starting in Dresden, via Bautzen and the Spree river valley, through Berlin to the Havel waterway(s) to Rostock, from there a ferry to Denmark, through Copenhagen to Helsingor, ferry to Helsingborg in Sweden, after a tour of that fabulous country back through Denmark to Germany, the “back route” of the Netherlands and then through Germany again to Dresden! Not all of this was abike, but almost all.

It was fun, mostly.

It was also educational and stimulating and I’ve come back to my home in New Zealand with a renewed sense of purpose and desire. There is plenty now to do and to say, and if you keep on keeping on with me, I hope you will be rewarded and not bored. If you are bored, I am so sorry but the solution is at your fingertips! Don’t worry! It’s OK!

It’s a very fine day in Dannevirke, NZ. Let yours be just as fine!

Thanks for reading.

 

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Would it be about a bicycle?*

It would. Dear reader, it would be a wonderful thing indeed if you were able to swim against what seems to be the prevailing current of our sensational seas and be happy every day, all the time, flicking the fingers to the fickle fate of the ah Fatherland as you frolic in frivolous froth. . . Sorry. I am thinking of a man whose skin is orange and who is flicking his fingers at just about everyone on earth, even the people who made him who he is today. How did he get like that?  More importantly, how long will he stay like that? When his time is run, he could be immersed in aspic, like Laurence Harvey in the film.** It would be a sure drawcard in Washington, much more than the strange remains on Red Square in Moscow. Replicas could be sold at the hotel that bears his name at greatly inflated prices, the proceeds to go to his family trust.

Sigh. Anyway it has been months since I have added to this blog. I haven’t exactly been idle – instead I have been working away on a post dear to my heart that I will now not finish for another six months! No guessing! The reason for such a long wait is that I am headed for Europe again from my home in New Zealand to another cycle tour. This trip is really ambitious, ambitious even beyond reason! It is meant to add resources to my writing so I can pen ever more interesting yarns of whatever type. It is also meant to be good fun. If it is only one of these, I’ll take. . .no, I’m not telling.

If I get a chance and have interesting things to say while I am out there, I’ll post here. . .but if not, well, if you follow the blog, you’ll hear about it eventually.

Thanks for your patience and for reading. Go well, each and every one. . .

*A frequent question from a policeman in Flann O’Brien’s comic novel, The third policeman.

**A dandy in aspic, a novel by Derek Marlowe, was filmed by director Anthony Mann and starred Harvey as a very elegant Russian spy in England.  He looks not unlike Jared Kushner. Honest! Is it life following art? Peter Cook had a minor role. Despite the title and my inspired idea – it’s yuge and bigly too –  the dandy does not really end up in aspic.

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Thomas Bernhard anew

Hello there. It is a crisp and windy morning in the quaint village near the Ruahine range in New Zealand where I am presently parked in a tranquil cottage not far from the railway line. That may seem a contradiction as the wagons roll along the track, but it isn’t – the noise, even at 3 AM, is not at all irritating.

For months I have been working through the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s memoir Gathering evidence, the second of his non-fiction books I have read. That makes it sound like a chore, which in a sense it has been – I am not the only one to complain about the small type of the edition I bought that has made the physical act of reading literally tiresome. This is especially true as one of Bernhard’s  stylistic trademarks is not to have paragraphs. He starts, and keeps going. . .and going. . .and going. The writing is however a pleasure in itself; he is arguably the best post-war writer of all I have read. That’s saying a great deal when you consider wonderful stylists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass, but for me it is true.

Even though I enjoy and admire his fiction, Bernhard’s memoirs show him at his finest. There is a gritty integrity to Gathering evidence that for any writer is a challenge, as there also is to his shorter piece, Wittgenstein’s nephew. Bernhard did not flinch from the world he saw, experienced and depicted, and did not hesitate to draw tough-minded conclusions plainly if without rancour.

Celine, whose approach and style must have influenced Bernhard, wrote that “first  you’ve got to pay for it – then you can use it”. Celine’s point was about fiction, made up stories that the French writer argued needed to be based on personal experience. In Celine’s case this experience was often harrowing, if self-inflicted. Bernhard started off badly, an unwanted child born out of wedlock in the Netherlands where his mother had gone to give shameful birth, and made his mark through tough-minded assertiveness. He paid for it and paid for it, then mined it, magically transforming the dross of an often terrible youth into gold.

There were differences between Celine and Bernhard. Celine’s anti-Semitism drove him unwillingly into the arms of France’s Vichy collaborators in their outpost in Sigmaringen, Germany, while Bernhard, who began his adult life as a reporter for a socialist newspaper, turned his most cruel microscope on Austria’s Catholics and Nazis and later on the poseurs of a rekindled Austrian cultural renaissance. Yet both were anarchists. . .and felt deeply for those whose lives were blighted by the system that surrounded and shaped them.

What makes them cousins of the pen beyond perspective, however, is style. Bernhard took his cue from an apparently unending scroll while Celine famously used the ellipse, but for both, the effect was the appearance of raving that is anything but. A film of a Billy Connolly routine shows the wonder comic’s style was very much like that. Connolly tells stories, seems to wander and then comes back to the beginning to make his point. “You thought I had forgotten, hadn’t you?” he scolded his audience. “This is my technique!” Just so. What seems to effortless and even artless, is high art.

Bernhard wrote the five parts of his memoir in a certain order, ending them with his earliest experiences. The translator of Gathering evidence (or perhaps an editor) chose to put the last one first, to keep the memoir chronological. I should have skipped that one, and read it last as was Bernhard’s intention. I understand what he was doing, and I may read that section again.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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