Thérèse, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay – Montreal in 1942

September 27, 2020 5 comments

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay (1980) Original French (Québec) title: Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is the second volume of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal. Michel Tremblay wrote a six books saga about the French-speaking working-class neighbourhood of Montreal, the Plateau Mont-Royal. We discovered a few families in the first volume, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant.

In the first volume, everything happens in one day, May 2nd, 1942. In this one, the story is spread in the four days before the religious gathering, la Fête-Dieu. We are in June 1942. Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone are best friends and attend together the catholic school of the Saints-Anges. The book opens to a very special day, Simone is back to school after her operation. She used to have a harelip and now she’s pretty. It’s a big day for her and her friends.

Tremblay weaves several story threads into a vivid tapestry of these four days.

One strand is related to the religious community who runs the school of the Saints-Anges. The headmaster is Mother Benoîte des Anges. She’s a despotic and cruel to the sisters she manages and is supposed to guide. She’s unkind to the pupils and contemptuous in her interactions with their families. It is well-known that she lacks a lot of basic human qualities but she’s good with managing the school’s budget, so she stays.

Tremblay shows us the relationships between the sisters, how each of them has her place and her reputation. Some are good friends, some may be more than friends and some barely tolerate each other. They live in a close circle and have to make do with everyone’s temper and specificities. They all live in fear of Mother Benoîte and the only one who dares to confront her is Sister Sainte-Catherine.

Tremblay shows us a catholic school with a headmaster whose behaviour is in total contradiction with the New Testament. Mother Benoîte summons a trembling Simone in her office to berate her: her parents say they’re too poor to pay their subscription to the school magazine and yet they can afford Simone’s operation. She must bring the money the next day. Instead of being happy for the girl, she only thinks about money. The truth is that Simone’s doctor arranged for a surgeon to take her as a pro-bono case. Her parents would never have been able to afford the operation. The scene where the doctor and Simone’s mother confront Mother Benoîte is sublime, the revolt of poor people who do as best they can and do not need more humiliation than the more already inflicted on them by poverty.

In that time the Catholic church had the same hold on French-Canadians as it had on Irish people. I don’t think it had the same power in France at the time, not with the strong anti-clerical movement in the French society.

Another thread is the friendship between Pierrette, Thérèse and Simone. Tremblay pictures the games, the relationships between the pupils, their interactions with the nuns. We see them in class, preparing the Fête-Dieu, a big parade, slightly ridiculous but very important to them. Who’s going to play Mary? Who’s going to be the hanging angel? This is childhood in its universal form and characters in the make. Thérèse is the leader and she’s a bit calculating. Simone is insecure and got her insecurity from her harelip. Now that she feels pretty, her confidence is growing. Pierrette is the kind one, the peace maker.

Boys and flirting make their appearance in the girls’ lives. Simone’s brother adores Pierrette and follows her with his puppy-love. It’s funny and lovely. Thérèse too, has an admirer. Hers isn’t a puppy. He’s a wolf named Gérard. He’s 21 and is obsessed with Thérèse, following her, staying near the school gates to watch her. Tremblay brings in this dark thread and I trembled for Thérèse, hoping nothing would happen to her.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is a vivid picture of these four days of 1942. It sends direct punches to the Catholic institutions and the way they mistreat the people they should take care of. Their lack of compassion is shocking. It brings us to Montreal in 1942, into a poor neighbourhood and their attaching inhabitants. I was happy to be reunited with Thérèse, Pierrette, Simone and their families.

I love French from Québec and I had a lot of fun observing Tremblay’s language. It’s full of English words inserted in French sentences and I don’t always understand how they came with the gender of the words. Some English words have been translated into French. For example, Tremblay mentions un bâton de hockey, the literal translation of a hockey stick, aka une crosse de hockey. He also says un bat de baseball (direct use of the English word) when we now say une batte de baseball. Tremblay’s French is a delight and an homage to his origins. Contrary to Mother Benoîte, Tremblay loves these struggling families. Highly recommended.

The next volume is centered around another family member, Edouard.

PS: I should set up a contest about the ugliest cover ever. The Québec cover is a bit dark but true to the book. But tell me, who would buy Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel on impulse with this ugly and silly cover?

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze – Judaea in Roman times

September 22, 2020 12 comments

Sator or the Riddle of the Magic Square by Alain Le Ninèze (2008). Original French title: Sator ou l’énigme du carré magique. Not available in English.

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze is a historical fiction novel set in Judaea in 62-67 AD. At this time, Nero was the emperor of the Roman Empire. The narrator of Sator is Lucius Albinius Piso, based upon the historical figure Lucceius Albinus. He was the Roman procurator of Judaea from 62 til 64 AD.

When the book opens, he’s in Jerusalem in times of unrest. His uncle the senator Balbus Piso – based upon Gaius Calpurnius Piso – is in Rome. He’s under the scrutiny of Poppaea Sabina, the Roman Empress married to Nero. Poppaea demands that Piso solves the mystery of the Sator Square, a word square used by early Christians. He asks for his nephew’s help.

Piso is a Roman senator secretly converted to Christianism. At the times, Christians were persecuted by Nero and his life is in danger. He also asks for information about Jesus’s death.

As the book progresses, we see Lucius investigating Jesus’s death, meeting with witnesses of the crucifixion and wondering what really happened. He also digs into the Sator riddle, discussing it with Jewish scholars. Meanwhile, he exchanges letters with his uncle who keeps him informed of his fate in Rome. The situation there deteriorates quickly as Nero becomes more and more crazy and despotic.

The Great Fire of Rome happens, Christians are murdered and Balbus Piso decides to participate to a conspiracy to assassinate Nero.

In Judaea, things deteriorate as well. The Jews rebel against the Roman rule and Lucius Albinus fails to prevent a war. He refuses to break the law and is dismissed by Nero. We see a procurator not really into his task, struggling to be the armed arm of an emperor he doesn’t respect anymore. He’s happy to be demoted and goes to live in the household of a retired centurion who married a Jewish lady and settled in Jerusalem.

Le Ninèze’s Lucius Albinus is a lot more human than his actual counterpart, according to the portray depicted on Wikipedia. No big deal. This is a historical novel and Le Ninèze imagines a humanist procurator who doesn’t want to use force when it’s not needed.

It’s a first-person narrative and Lucius addresses to us. It is strange to have a character tell you that he went to the Mount of Olives, that he now shares the outcome of his interviews with soldiers who guarded Jesus’s grave after he died or with people who attended his trial. Lucius takes you to a time where all this was recent history or event contemporary. I was raised a Catholic and hearing Lucius Albinus investigate this as a journalist put things at human height, stripped of the aura brought by religious rituals. It’s a strange feeling.

Le Ninèze also shows that there were a lot of messiahs at the time and that the communities in Jerusalem had trouble coexisting in peace. (Greeks against Jews, radical Jews against moderate Jews, all against the Roman occupant) The region was always bubbling with rebellions and attacks.

Le Ninèze left a lot of footnotes to give the source of the events he describes. He mostly used the Evangiles, The Wars of the Jews by Flavius Josephus and The Histories by Tacitus. It was an interesting read. I enjoyed reading about Judaea at the time. I liked being in Lucius’s company and I had fun watching him unravel the Sator Square riddle. (or at least find his own meaning)

PS: The Sator Square includes the word Tenet and it has something to do with Christopher Nolan’s film, in case you’re wondering.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante – adultery and adolescence in Colorado in the 1920s

September 20, 2020 18 comments

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante (1938) French title: Bandini. Translated by Brice Matthieussent. (He’s Fante’s main French translator)

Then she left. The poor thing. His mother –the poor thing. It worked a despair in him that made his eyes fill up. Everywhere it was the same, always his mother –the poor thing, always poor and poor, always that, that word, always in him and around him, and suddenly he let go in that half darkened room and wept, sobbing the poor out of him, crying and chocking, not for that, not for her, for his mother but for Svevo Bandini, for his father, that look of his father’s, those gnarled hands of his father’s, for his father’s mason tools, for the walls his father has built, the steps, the cornices, the ashpits, the cathedrals, and they were all so very beautiful, for that feeling in him when his father sang of Italy, of an Italian sky, of a Neapolitan bay.

John Fante (1909-1983) was born in Boulder, Colorado. His parents were Italian immigrants. He’s well-known for his Saga of Arturo Bandini, Fante’s alter ego. Including Wait Until Spring, Bandini, I’ve now read three out of the four books of the saga. I loved it as much as The Road to Los Angeles and Ask the Dust.

In Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Arturo is 14. His life revolves around his parents, his siblings and school. It’s winter in Colorado in the 1920s. We see how this winter is a turning point in Arturo’s life. He’s growing up, he’s losing his illusions about marriage and sees his parents in a different light.

Arturo’s father, Svevo, is a mason and bricklayer. There aren’t a lot of construction works at this time of year and he’s currently out of work. The family barely survives. Meat is rare, the children clothes are always too small and the Bandinis have debts at the local shops.

Arturo is fourteen, still a child in some aspects but getting the vision of an adult on others. He loves his parents and sees what a strange couple they make. His mother Maria is blindly in love with her charming womanizing husband. She’s also a Catholic devout, living rosary in hand, going to church every Sunday and feeling so proud that her sons are altar boys. His father Svevo doesn’t care about religion, likes to drink and gamble with his childhood friend from Italy. It’s a bone of contention between the two:

Svevo had said, if God is everywhere, why do I have to go to Church on Sunday? Why can’t I go to the Imperial Poolhall? Isn’t God down there too? His mother always shuddered in horror at this piece of theology, but he remembered how feeble her reply to it, the same reply he had learned in his catechism, and one his mother had learned out of the same catechism years before.

This winter, Arturo will see his parents in a new light. When Maria’s mother announces one of her dreadful visits –she despises her son-in-law and never misses an opportunity to let it known –Svevo leaves the house and doesn’t come back. We see him stay with a rich mistress. Maria is so depressed that she neglects the children.

Arturo is torn between his two parents. He understands why his father would want to escape. Svevo is the sole breadwinner and bears the weight of providing for five. He doesn’t have a stable job. He never earns enough, he’s always in debt and never has a break. Seen from Svevo’s point of view, this affair sounds more like a holiday from the worries and the poverty than a true love story. He stays with her for a while, in a house where he doesn’t have to worry. As a young adolescent, Arturo is also secretly proud that his working-class father managed to seduce such a rich lady.

But Arturo also understands how heartbroken his mother is, how in love she is with Svevo and how betrayed she feels. He hates his father for it. Svevo may bear the burden of earning enough, she bears the brunt of raising the children, scraping by all the time. She’s the one who struggles to feed everyone with the little money that she has. There’s a heartbreaking scene at the butcher’s, we see how humiliating it is for her to go there without enough money and buy the cheapest meat possible.

Arturo becomes the underground middleman between the two. He threatens his brother with bodily harm if he tattles to his mother that they’ve seen their father with another woman. Arturo knows it’ll burn the bridges between his parents, and that their mother would not recover or take her husband back. And they need their breadwinner.

Arturo knows that the family needs that their parents patch things up.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini means that things will get better in the spring, when the construction works resume, when Svevo finds a job and brings money home again. They have to live through the hard Colorado winter.

Besides the drama between Maria and Svevo, we also see Arturo’s school life and his relationship with his siblings. He can’t stand his righteous brother Federico. Arturo’s temper is more like his father’s but he’s still under his mother’s influence. Religion instills a deep fear of sins and makes him sweat. He doesn’t like going to church or being an altar boy but it makes his mamma happy. He’s also desperately in love with Rosa, who is in his class and looks down on him. Fante describes his life as a poor student in a Catholic school.

All this is packed in 266 pages, in a novel full of creativity. Fante writes about hardship and poverty but keeps his sense of humor. I suspect that he hates pitying looks and that irony is a weapon against unwanted pity.

Fante was 29 when he wrote this novel. In the foreword of Wait Until Spring, Bandini, he explains that he never reread it after it was published. Maybe it was too painful. Maybe he was afraid to find it lacking. I think it’s a very fine piece of literature.

I still have to read the fourth book of Saga of Arturo Bandini, Dreams from Bunker Hill. You’ll hear more about Fante on this blog soon since our Book Club’s choice for September is West of Rome, a bundle of two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy. Looking through my shelves, I realized I’ve already read the French translation of The Orgy. I’ve also read Full of Life. Fante was a fashionable writer in France in the late 1980s when they go published in the 10/18 collection.

Fante also wrote the script of Walk on the Wild Side, the film made out of Algren’s book. Published in 1956, I hope to read Algren’s novel for the 1956 Club, after reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.

PS : This was Book #19 in my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

20 Books of Summer #18: The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson – Longmire #5

September 16, 2020 7 comments

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson (2009) French title: Dark Horse. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Dark horse: noun

1 a: a usually little-known contender (as a racehorse) that makes an unexpectedly good showing. B: an entrant in a contest that is judged unlikely to succeed.

2: A person who reveals little about himself or herself, esp. someone who has unexpected talents or skills.

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson is the fifth volume of the Longmire series of crime fiction books set in Wyoming. I was happy to read the definition of dark horse because it explains a lot about the title and how fitting and multilayered the book is.

In this volume, Sheriff Sandy Sandberg of the Campbell county transferred his prisoner Mary Barsad to the jail in Absaroka county, Longmire’s jurisdiction.

In appearance, it’s a straightforward case. Wade Barsad was found dead with six bullets in his body. He and his wife Mary owned a ranch where she raises horses. She used to compete in racehorses and is very attached to her horse, Black Diamond Wahoo Sue.

Wade had set the horses’ barn on fire before going to bed, while the horses were trapped in the building, burning them alive. Incredibly cruel. Mary confessed that she killed him for this. See, straightforward.

But, locked in Longmire’s jail, Mary refuses to eat and the sheriff starts interacting with her to coax her into eating her meals. Things don’t add up and Longmire goes undercover in the town of Absalon, 40 souls to investigate this murder.

Being undercover in Wyoming and in a town of 40 inhabitants is a challenge. It turns out Wade has made enemies in town, due to shady dealings.

He came from the West coast, knew nothing about ranching still purchased a ranch. Longmire remarks: “He hated animals, and he hated the West? That kind of strikes me as odd for a fella who buys a ranch in Wyoming.”

What pushed Wade Barsad to settle in Wyoming? Why did have to move?

Did Mary really kill him? Longmire is on the killer’s trail while digging into Wade’s past and business to understand what lead to his death.

As usual with this series, the sense of place makes the salt of the book. Details like this one when Longmire arrives at a bridge that workers are dismantling, contribute to the feeling.

I topped the hill and pulled the gunmetal Lincoln Town Car alongside the Pratt truss structure. There weren’t very many of them in the Powder River country, and the few bridges that were left were being auctioned off to private owners for use on their ranches.

Apparently, even old bridges can be monetized and auctioned. I’m always surprised by the deals made between the State and the people on practical matters. It probably is better for the State’s budget to sell the bridge than to cover the costs for destroying it. It’s like asking the ranchers to cut the grass along the roads to keep it for their cattle. It’s such a different mentality than the French one.

Johnson always aims at deconstructing western clichés, like here:

“You know, one of the worst images perpetrated on society is the idea of a cowboy with a gun—you give a real cowboy a choice between a gun and a rope and he’ll take the rope every time, because that’s how he makes his living. No self-respecting cowboy makes a living with a gun.”

I guess it makes sense.

I won’t go into details about the personal lives of the characters, to avoid spoilers. Longmire’s daughter Cady is back to her life in Philadelphia, the election for sheriff is coming up and Longmire’s right arm Vic is true to herself.

I read The Dark Horse in the car, during a long drive during the holidays and it was a perfect Beach & Public Transport book. Tight plot, charming characters, a good sense of humor and little reflections dropped here and there:

I thought about how we tilled and cultivated the land, planted trees on it, fenced it, built houses on it, and did everything we could to hold off the eternity of distance—anything to give the landscape some sort of human scale. No matter what we did to try and form the West, however, the West inevitably formed us instead.

My next Craig Johnson will be Junkyard Dogs.

PS : Another ugly cover for the English edition. It looks like a kid’s book.

20 Books of Summer #17: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy – Budapest in 1913

September 13, 2020 6 comments

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy (1933) Translated by John Bátki. Not available in French, as far as I know.

Everyone lived their lives, only Rezeda lived in a dream.

Gyula Krúdy wrote The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda in 1933, the year he died. The book opens at a New Year’s Eve party at the Hotel Royale in Budapest, one or two years before the Great War. Even if some birds of ill omen talk about the war, the atmosphere is light and the tone set on futility.

Back then we lived in an era when the description “virtuoso of love” may have ranked higher than Royal Councillor or any such pre-war honors that gentlemen ambitioned to attain.

The star of the evening is a certain Fanny Tardy, wife of a fashionable journalist nicknamed Nine. Kázmér Rezeda is a rising journalist and writer, he’s handsome, well-mannered and quite successful with the ladies. Fanny believes that she should take a lover and her eyes are set on Rezeda. He nicknames her Fruzsina Kaiser and that’s how Krúdy names her for the rest of the book.

She’s a force to be reckoned with and she’ll make all the overtures and steps needed to start a liaison with him. Rezeda is no match against such determination and surrenders. We see him unattached and bending over backwards to be available whenever Fruzsina is free. Krúdy takes us to pre-Great War Budapest and Rezeda is his young alter ego. He lives in a boarding house run by a Madame, a place where a lot of fellow journalists rent rooms too.

Fruzsina moves him into a room where she can meet him more discreetly, a hotel famous for hosting illicit couples. Krúdy describes their affair with a lot of humor. The sentiments professed sounded staged and I felt like Fruzsina was more into having an affair with a pretty and rising journalist than into Rezeda himself.

Her social standing demanded that she have a lover. She picked him. He was putty in her hands. I don’t think he actually fell for her; he just went along with the ride. No deep feelings are involved and Fruzsina seems to stage love scenes from novels or paintings, in an attempt to live the full liaison experience. And Krúdy observes his character with amusement, after his mistress organized an outing to Crown Woods for a tryst:

But the actual scene of lovemaking left precious few memories to sweeten the times to come. “You must be a Nymph or a Faun to properly enjoy making love in the great outdoors. These sylvan deities are used to the forest floor, the grass, the fallen leaves and those ants that take you by surprise; but we, mere mortals with sensitive skins, can’t really enjoy even a tumble in the hay!” thought Rezeda.

Rezeda seems to attract female attention without actually looking for it and several amorous adventures follow. If he weren’t so detached, you’d think of him as a victim of predatory women. One even cornered him at her own party to have her ways with him.

Krúdy looks back to his youth with a bit of nostalgia but above all, with a lot of humor. His Rezeda self is a young man who glides in life, taking new development with stride and not bothering about tomorrow. People talked about an upcoming war at the New Year’s party but it doesn’t worry him. He’s a we’ll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it kind of person. He’s centered on foolish matters of the heart, on writing his feuilleton and turning his papers on time.

Krúdy writes a brilliant picture of Budapest at the time, of the society he kept. His tone is caustic at times, pointing out changes in mores.

The apartment of a Budapest lady of that time was quite unimaginable without a telephone (another channel for her “social life”), but Fruzsina needed daily telephone conversations for nurturing her liaison as desperately as a flower needs daily watering by the gardener.

The correspondence kept up by gentlewomen of yore, those marvelous, ten-page love letters, were now replaced by the telephone, which dealt with all things that a few years earlier had to be arranged by the way of missives.

Each era has their technology leaps, eh? I’m sure that Fruzsina would have been all over social media these days. No need to rant, people haven’t changed much, they just adapt to the technology they have.

The pages at Johanna’s brothel/boarding house are funny and take us among the journalists of the time. Krúdy wrote for the famous Nyygat and was part of this crowd.

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda is a picture of a world doomed to disappear and the Great War accelerated the process.

According to Wikipedia, Krúdy wrote 86 novels, thousands of short stories and thousands of articles that haven’t been all listed. Only ten novels are available in French and the same number in English, but not the same books. I read this one in English and there’s no French translation. A translation tragedy.

Other billets about Krúdy’s work: The Adventures of Sindbad and N.N. I also have Le Compagnon de voyage on the shelf.

20 Books of Summer #16: Last concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen – A Breton crime fiction novel

September 9, 2020 2 comments

Last Concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen (2009) Original French title: Dernier concert à Vannes.

During my holiday in Brittany, when I visited the book village Bécherel, I discovered the publisher Edition du Palémon. It’s a Breton publishing house focused on regional books and local crime fiction. If you’re abroad and want to read Breton crime fiction, their books are available in ebooks on their website. They even have three translated into English. They seem to have fifteen authors of their own on their catalogue.

I wonder why I’ve never heard of Palémon before. I picked up Last Concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen and Hide-And-Seak in Ouessant by Françoise Le Mer which I haven’t read yet.

Last Concert in Vannes is first book of the Commissaire Baron series and it has 17 titles already. The book opens on a scene where Commissaire Baron is woken up in the middle of the night because there’s been a murder. I couldn’t help thinking about Bosch’s first appearance in The Black Echo, especially since Baron likes jazz music too.

Francine Rich’s husband found her body in their house. He’s a photographer and had gone for the weekend to take pictures. They were getting a divorce and Francine had rented an apartment in downtown Vannes.

Stéphane Arbona is the guitar player of the rock band Why Not. They had a gig at a bar, the Jack’s Potes. After the bar closed, he found a woman on the parking lot, arguing with a man. Her name was Corrine and he decided to drive her home. He went up to her apartment but they only had a drink. Now Stéphane wants to see her again but when he looks for her, she seems to have vanished.

Eventually someone connects the dots and realize that Francine and Corinne are one person and that she had well-kept secrets. The victim was also a poisonous person for people around her, her husband, lovers or colleagues. Baron digs into her past and uncovers the dirt until its muddy trail takes him to the murderer.

Last Concert in Vannes is an honest polar, in the cozy crime category. We follow Baron and his team when they investigate Francine’s murder but we also see what happens for Stéphane Arbona. A former convict, he tries to start over and doesn’t always make the best choices.

I thought that Baron was a promising character and Huguen’s style and plot were good enough to catch my attention. I kept reading to know who had killed Francine. I thought that sometimes his style was a bit old-fashioned in the choice of words. Who still calls a computer a micro instead of ordinateur or cell phone un cellulaire instead of a portable? The Brittany setting wasn’t that important, I don’t think it gave to the book a special sense of place.

All in all, it was an entertaining read.

20 Books of Summer #15: Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou – An ode to James Baldwin

September 6, 2020 10 comments

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou. (2007) Original French title: Lettre à Jimmy.

Alain Manbanckou wrote Letter to Jimmy in 2007, for the twentieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death. It is an essay, a letter to a writer and a man he admires immensely, someone he feels close to. You don’t see it in the English translation but this letter is written with “tu” and not “vous”. It’s a letter addressed to Jimmy, not James, a “tu”, not a “vous”.

Mabanckou says it all started with a picture of Baldwin that he bought in Paris at a bouquinist on the banks of the Seine. It was in the late 80s, which means that Mabanckou was in his twenties. You can say that Baldwin influenced him early in his life.

Letter to Jimmy takes the reader on a journey through Baldwin’s life, his literary work and his essays. Manbanckou explains where Baldwin came from and how it influenced his thinking. He never knew his biological father and was raised by David Baldwin, a preacher who wanted his son to be a preacher too. This will be the material for Go Tell it on the Mountain (La Conversion, in its French translation)

Baldwin was born in 1924 and David Baldwin’s mother lived with them and she was a former slave.

N’importe quel Noir américain est attaché à l’histoire de l’esclavage. Sauf que Barbara Ann Baldwin est là, et l’histoire se lit non pas dans les manuels, mais dans les yeux baissés de la vieille femme.

Any Afro-American is linked to the history of slavery. Except that Barbara Ann Baldwin is here and history is not in school text books but in the old woman’s downcast eyes.

To James Baldwin, the history of slavery was in front of him when he was growing up. His father hated white people. James Baldwin will not follow this road because his white teacher noticed his intelligence and took him under her wing. (What we owe to primary school teachers! Thinking of Camus here.)

We follow Baldwin to Paris, we see his own thinking develop and set free from his influences like Richard Wright. Mabanckou explains how Baldwin wanted out of the Black Writer box. He didn’t want to write books only about the condition of Afro-Americans or with black characters. Giovanni’s Room is the perfect example of this. Yes, he’s a black writer but it doesn’t mean he must write only about black characters.

We go back to the USA and see Baldwin’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Mabanckou branches out and reflects on the fight against colonialism that Africans went through. He also broadens the issue and reflects on being black in France. This section of the book complement Christiane Taubira’s Slavery Explained to My Daughter. They are in agreement.

James Baldwin in 1969 by Alan Warren. From Wikipedia

Mabanckou pictures very well Baldwin’s unique standpoint. His brand of opposition lies in healthy indignation. Hatred and systematic opposition are not constructive. They burn bridges and leave ashes. Angelism is another pitfall. It’s cowardice and Baldwin’s essays are not gentle. They are documented punches aimed at facing the truth and moving forward. This is also Taubira’s approach and one I can relate to.

In the end, Baldwin shaped Mabanckou’s mind. He found in him someone who was brave enough not to take the easiest route, to stand up for himself and had humanism as a guiding light. Baldwin came out and wrote about homosexuality in 1956. He fought for civil rights and never fell for violent theories. He never let his personal experience foster hatred. His bright intelligence and insight meant a clean, direct and nuanced thinking.

We are in dear need of nuanced thinking these days, so reading Letter to Jimmy is a way to remember that such thinkers exist and that, alas, what Baldwin wrote is still accurate. Besides Go Tell It to the Mountain, I’ve also written billets about If Beale Street Street Could Talk and Going To Meet the Man. My next one will be Giovanni’s Room. 

PS: Letter to Jimmy opens with a foreword featuring Mabanckou lying on Santa Monica State Beach and feeling Baldwin’s presence. I know I’m obsessed, but it sounds like the incipit of Promise at Dawn, especially in French since Gary lies on the sand on a beach in Big Sur, which is not translated as such in English.

20 Books of Summer, it’s a wrap! And I’ve made it! :-)

August 31, 2020 18 comments

Congratulations to me, I completed the 20 Books of Summer challenge. I’ve read 21 books from June 1st to August 31st. OK, I abandoned two of them but only after reading at least 120 pages of each. Out of the 21 books read, 17 come from the TBR, so that’s good.

I didn’t have time to write a billet about the 21 books, I’m only at billet 14 but I did seven Literary Escapades billets from June to August. I guess it makes up for the missing “book review” billets. Since September is going to be very busy at work and slow on reading, I’ll catch up and 20 Books of Summer will turn into 20 Books of Indian Summer. Is that OK with you? 😊

In my billet introducing the 20 Books of Summer challenge, I explained that I’d read books for my book club, books I’m reading along with my sister-in-law, books that represent the Ghosts of Trips Past, the Ghost of the Missed Trip –I was supposed to visit Wyoming, Montana and Colorado this summer—and the Ghost of the Backup Trip to Brittany, France.

So, here’s a wrap-up of my last reading months.

My first readalong was our Book Club’s choices.

 1 – Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski.

 2 – Snow by Orhan Pamuk

 3 – La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio

While I had a lot of fun taking a walk on the wild timeline of Expiration Date –I think I could read anything by Duane Swierszynski— I couldn’t finish Snow or La Horde du Contrevent, the two books I abandoned. They are well-written and well-constructed books but they didn’t work for me.

My second readalong was Read-the-West-With-Sister-In-Law. We had picked three excellent books.

4 – The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke. If you’ve never read anything by Burke, just add him to your TBR.

5 – Cathedral by Raymond Carver. Beautifully written short stories.

6 – Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo. The billet is yet to come but I’m so sorry that Richard Hugo didn’t have time to write other crime fiction books. How could he die on us before writing other books? I hope he’s trout fishing with WG Tapply in the great rivers in the sky.

I enjoyed all the books from the Ghost of Trips Past

7 – Québec: Therese, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay. The billet is upcoming and I loved visiting with Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone in Montreal in the 1940s. The language is a delight and Tremblay doesn’t write a classic childhood book.

8 – Sicily: Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia. A chilling parody that unveils the absurdity of Italian politics and the deep roots of dishonesty in public life.

9 – Spain: Nada by Carmen Laforêt. I read it along with Vishy for Spanish Lit Month and we both found it stunning. Laforêt was so young to write such a powerful and novel. Barcelona in the 1940s is trying to recover from the Civil War and it left wounds.

10 – Australia: Blood by Tony Birch. I read it for Lisa’s Indigenous Lit Week. Two children stick together to have a better life and escape from their absentee mother’s claws.

11 – Portugal: Lisbon’s Poets. This was my first introduction to Portuguese poetry and a nice souvenir to bring back from a lovely trip to Portugal.

12 – UK: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. Berlin in the early 1930s and how the Nazis take over the city and its inhabitants’ lives.

13 – Denmark: The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg. Honestly, I still can’t make up my ind about this one. I found it charming and irritating, refreshing and fake, funny and profound.

14 – Hungary: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy. The billet is yet to come. A true Krúdy book that I read in English because there’s no French translation. In true Krúdy fashion, it’s funny and melancholic with a scatterbrained womanizer.

15 – USA: Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante. Another upcoming billet. I’ve read several Fante (and will read another soon) and I loved them all. This one belongs to the Bandini Quartet and reuniting with Arturo was as delightful as ever.

There’s the Ghost of the Missed Trip and its two books, although Death and the Good Life qualifies for this as well.

16 –The Overstory by Richard Powers. This is a book tree, powerful but a bit cold. Powers was on a mission and it’s a clever book, I thought I lacked passion for the characters.

17 – The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson. I read it during a long car drive and I was happy to go back to Wyoming and see Sheriff Longmire again. Upcoming billet about a great Beach & Public Transport book.

Ghost of the Backup Trip to Brittany, France. For this, I switched books and ended up reading books set in Brittany:

18 – Last Concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen. I discovered a Breton publisher of crime fiction novels. I bought two and read this one. The billet will come in September and it was a decent polar.

19 – Fisherman of Iceland by Pierre Loti. A surprise and accompanied by a great literary escapade in Ploubazlanec, or how to mix literature, books and tourism.

And, last but not least, a bridge between the three Ghost Trips, between France and the USA and both in line with the news.

20 – Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, written in 2007 for the 20th anniversary of Baldwin’s death. Upcoming billet.

21 – Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira. It was very educational and I would recommend it to French readers.

On the list and not read:

  • Who You Think I Am by Camille Laurens
  • An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg.
  • A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How To Do by Pete Fromm

I’ll catch up on those because I still intend to read them. I’m looking forward to the Fromm, I keep hearing that he’s an outstanding novelist.

Many thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for organizing this fun event. I’ll do it again if you’re up for it next year.

And what about you? Did you take part to 20 Books of Summer challenge? If yes, please leave a link to your wrap-up post in the comments. I’ll enjoy reading what you’ve been up to.

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20 Books of Summer #14: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood – Disquieting

August 30, 2020 20 comments

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (1938) French title: Adieu à Berlin. Translated by Ludmila Savitsky

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was published in 1938. It is composed of six pieces set in pre-WWII Berlin. They are in chronological order and feature characters that overlap from one piece to the other. The narrator is named after the author, but he claims in the foreword that there’s nothing to read into it and that “’Christopher Isherwood is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more”. I’ll call him the Narrator, to avoid any confusion between the writer and his literary doppelganger.

Goodbye to Berlin opens with A Berlin Diary – Autumn 1930 and ends with A Berlin Diary – Winter 1932-3. A contemporary reader immediately knows that the Narrator will picture Berlin during crucial years, the ones when the Nazis took power. Between these two bookends, we’ll spend some time with Sally Bowles, The Nowaks, The Landauers and spend the summer 1931 On Ruegen Island with the Narrator.

We get to meet with Berliners in one of those boarding houses that were so frequent in those times. Frl. Schroeder rents rooms in her flat to survive and the Narrator lives there while he supports himself by giving English lessons. He stays there the whole time, except when, broke, he moves in with the Nowaks, a working-class family. While I didn’t care much about Sally Bowles, I was interested in the Nowaks. It gives a good picture of the struggling working class of the city. The part about the Landauers, a Jewish family who owns a famous department store in Berlin, was engaging too. (For the record, the store already has an inhouse nursery to watch the children while their mothers are shopping.)

Isherwood doesn’t write an openly political novel but his description of life in Berlin is a vivid picture of a city that slowly shift from free and impoverished to ruled and controlled by the Nazis. With light touches, the reader feels things change around the Narrator. His students’ type changes: at first, we see him giving lessons to bored upper-class housewives and in the last winter, he teaches English to Germans who want to leave their country and work in the USA.

Unemployment is going up. Bobby, another of Frl. Schroeder’s boarders goes from occasionally working to unemployed. The Nowaks live in a squalid attic, one that regulations declare unfit for accommodation but do they have a choice? Banks go bankrupt, factories close, the price of food goes up. There’s no clear focus on this, details here and there alert the reader and it’s up to them to put the pieces together to have a clear picture.

The more the book progresses, the more the presence of the Nazis and S.A. men makes itself known. It starts with flags and militants. It ends with beatings on the streets, arrests, book burning and Hitler taking power. The night life goes from wild and free to interrupted by police raid in cafés and cabarets. The attacks against the Jews progress, get more and more violent until it is pure persecution.

And the population adapts, like Frl. Schroeder:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to any new régime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Fürher’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

The Narrator is in a unique position. He lives in Berlin and shares the population’s way-of-life. He’s protected by the safety bubble of his British nationality but at the same time, he’s not there as a newspaper correspondent. He belongs to the Berliner people and is an outsider.

Goodbye to Berlin is the Narrator’s farewell to a city he spent time in and had to leave due to the political circumstances. It’s also his adieu to a certain Berlin, the fun one where he sowed his wild oats. His book is disquieting, especially in the times we’re living. What would I do, if I were in Frl. Schroeder’s shoes? Do we, common people, see dictators coming before it’s too late?

20 Books of Summer #13 : Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia – A masterpiece

August 22, 2020 13 comments

Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia (1971) French title: Le Contexte. Translated from the Italian by Jacques de Pressac, revised by Mario Fusco.

After my trip to Sicily and after reading The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia, I bought his novel Equal Danger. (Il Contesto, literally translated as Le Contexte in French) This book was made into a film directed by Francesco Rosi, with Lino Ventura as the main character. Equal Danger made a lot of noise when it was published. It is a thinly veiled attack towards the Italian political scene, on both side, the party running the country and the opposition.

Inspector Rogas investigates a series of murders. All the victims are judges. The more Rogas digs into the judges’ personal lives, the more he unveils muddy relationships between the judges and the political milieu. Nothing is fully honest, nothing is clean. The dice of the political game are loaded, just like they are in Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu.

Equal Danger is built as a crime fiction novel and written as a parody. It is a mix between Candide and political crime fiction. Sciascia blends the two genres perfectly and his book is like a literary bombshell thrown at the Italian ruling class.

The beginning is humorous, as we see Rogas start his investigation, tackle politics and navigate between what he wants to do and what his hierarchy wants him to do. We root for him and hope he’ll beat the system at its own game. But will he?

In the afterword, Sciascia says that he kept this book in his drawer for two years before publishing it, probably because when he started to write it, he was amused but when he was finished, he didn’t feel like laughing anymore. And that’s how I felt as a reader too.

Very highly recommended.

20 Books of Summer #12: The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg – Adventure, banter and soul-searching

August 14, 2020 13 comments

The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg (2010) English translation by Martin Aitken. French title: Les enfants des cornacs. French translation by Anne-Charlotte Struve

It’s not that one can’t take pleasure in seeing others make progress in life, especially when it’s your parents. But making progress isn’t enough on its own, one has also to consider in what direction such progress is progressing. And right now, as we sit here in front of all these newspapers clippings, Tilte and I share the thought that our mother and father seem to be progressing in giant evolutionary leaps towards at least eight years in prison.

Meet Peter and Tilte, the two main protagonists of The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg. The only narrator we’ll have is Peter. We’re on Finø island, the island they call Denmark’s Gran Canaria. Tilte and Peter are the youngest siblings among three children. Their brother Hans is older and remains on the mainland. Tilte is sixteen and Peter fourteen. They have a dog, Basker, named after The Hound of Baskerville. Let’s call them the Finø Team.

Their parents Konstantin and Clare are respectively the minister and the organist of a church on Finø. They are missing and their children are tracking them down. From the beginning, we understand that Peter’s parents are con artists and that they are probably working on a big scam to embezzle money. Contrary to the blurb on my paperback edition, I don’t want to say too much about the plot because Peter slowly unveils the extent of the issue.

The whole book is an adventure, a race against the clock. Will they find out on time what their parents are up to? Will they manage to prevent it and save their parents from themselves? They’re not the only interested party in this. The bishop of their church also wants to avoid a scandal and will do anything to find Konstantine and Clara before it’s too late. The police are after them too, because they want to put them in a children shelter until their parents are found.

Will the Finø Team escape their pursuants?

A paragraph here and there and we get to know this family and their quirks. Tilte has a formidable personality and a lot of sass. It’s encapsulated in her forewarning her mother before a parents-teacher meeting at school:

Mother, this evening the teachers will complain about me, and it’s because they feel squeezed by the breadth of my personality.

Isn’t that the most wonderful way to explain mischief in the classroom? (This is something that Arturo Bandini, Fante’s recurring character, could say)

Peter is an odd but refreshing narrator. He’s obsessed with soccer and I have to admit some of his soccer comparisons flew over my head as I know nothing of the rules of the game. He’s also heartbroken because his girlfriend Conny left Finø to become an actress. He’s a thoughtful teenage boy, observant and looking at the world with his own lenses and always at odd angles. He’s a lonely soul, reflective and sharing his thoughts about life.

Peter Høeg created a gallery of characters with odd names and weird biographies. For example, you’ve got Count Rickardt Three Lions, Anafalbia Borderrud or Leonora Ticklepalate. Adults will either help or chase after the children. There are many twists-and-turns in the book and a solid suspension of belief is necessary to enjoy the ride. The tone of the book is light and fun, like a continuous banter.

It’s something between The Fabulous Five, The Goonies and Scoobidoo, if these referred to Nietzsche and discoursed on loneliness. It’s full of humor and it made me chuckle and smile.

There’s a school of philosophy that has established itself on Finø and elsewhere in Denmark that believes that blondes with plunging necklines to be warm-hearted, though empty-headed. The woman in front of me dispels that theory at once. She’s as cool as a refrigerator and her aura suggests she is continually processing information at high speed.

The constant banter and detours to say something was tiring sometimes. It’s fun but too much fun kills the fun. Here’s another sample of the book’s tone:

Among Danes at large, even on Finø, a great many people, adults and youngsters alike, though perhaps especially the former, hold the opinion that of all the humiliations and insults to which they have been subjected, life is by far the worst. This doesn’t apply to the residents of Big Hill. Not one of them has escaped losing everything in the world, and for that reason, they seem to recognize that once a year, at least, one perhaps ought to be slightly glad to be alive.

It’s fun but it makes you long for Hemingway’s style.

However, soulful passages are inserted in the fun. Tilte explains that their parents are elephant keepers without knowing it.

She means that Mother and Father have something inside them that is much bigger than themselves and over which they have no control.

In his offhand tone, Peter muses over various deep topics: parenthood, loneliness, dreams, love, family and one’s expectations. It complements the cartoonesque side of the book and provides nice breaks in the chase.

The Elephant Keepers’ Children is an unusual book and I can’t decide whether I find it entertaining or irritating, light or deep. Perhaps it’s a little of everything.

It’s not for every reader, I found it tiring at times but still enjoyed the ride.

Literary Escapade: Ploubazlanec and Pors-Even, Brittany with Pierre Loti

August 12, 2020 17 comments

As mentioned in my previous billet, today’s Literary Escapade takes us along the Icelanders’ walk in Ploubazlanec and Pors-Even, Brittany.
It starts at the Wall of the Missing Sailors in the cemetary. Since a lot of fishermen never came back from the fishing campaigns in Iceland, there was no burial and no grave. The families put plaques on the wall of the cemetary to remember them.

Loti_Mur_Disparus

After a walk, we arrived at the Perros-Hamon chapel. Gaud, the young woman in love with Yann Gaos, stops there to pray on her way from Paimpol to Pors-Even. The chapel in its current form dates back to the 18th century. Here’s the entry side

Chapelle_Perros-Hamon_Face

Inside the chapel, there’s a replica of the boats used for the Iceland fishing campaigns. See how the ceiling looks like the hull of a boat.

Chapelle_Perros-Hamon_Interieur

Original plaques for the missing boats have been moved from the cemetary to the chapel, for preservation.

Chapelle_Perros-Hamon_plaques

Here’s the chapel inside the chapel where Gaud stops to pray, reads the all the names of Yann’s family members who disapeared at sea. It makes her shudder.

Chapelle_Perros-Hamon_chappelle

In this chapel, families celebrated Easter while their beloved ones were at sea and they had a special ceremory for them. It’s called Le Pardon.

Then we arrive to Pors-Even, a fishermen village, even today. See the landscape:

vue_pors-even

After that, the trail takes us to the Chapelle de la Trinité. It was never used as an actual chapel but it is a tribute to sailors. Here’s the view from the chapel:

vue_chappelle_trinité

Families used to go there to say goodbye to the ships when they were leaving. They were so close to the shore that people could recognize each other.

Then we walk to the Croix des Veuves. (The Widows’ Cross).

croix_veuves

This is were women used to go at the end of the summer to look for incoming ships. They were looking at the sea to wait for their husbands, fathers, sons or brothers’ return. Some of these women will become widows. Gaud goes there to wait for Yann’s return.

The Virgin Mary was a typical protector of sailors. Loti reports that they has this kind of ceramic sculpture on board:

vierge_ceramique

The village still has the stops for the Pardon procession. Religion was an important part of life at the time.

At first, I thought that Ploubazlanec was fictional, then I saw the road signs. Then I looked it up in our tourist guide and found the articles about the museum and the walk.

I think it’s the first time I’ve been on the premises of a novel that I was reading and where I could see places of the novel that were close to being the same as in the novel. It’s incredible and I’m happy that our timing was so good.

It looks bright and beautiful with this incredible weather. It’s quiet, the sea looks like the Mediterranean but there are terrible tempests there. The wind can be really strong, so strong that since centuries, church towers have “holes” to let the wind go through. You can see it on the chapel picture before.

That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed our Literary Escapade with Pierre Loti. If you ever read Fisherman of Iceland after reading my billets, please let me know, I’m always glad to have feedback.

 

20 Books of Summer #11: Fisherman of Iceland by Pierre Loti – A fascinating novel about fishing campaigns in Iceland’s waters in the 19th century.

August 10, 2020 14 comments

Fisherman of Iceland by Pierre Loti (1886) Original French title: Pêcheur d’Islande.

I’d never read Pierre Loti. For me, he was a 19thC author who wrote adventure novels. I thought that Fisherman of Iceland was a something about an expedition to explore Iceland. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was set in Brittany and is about Breton fishermen. (I know, I really have a knack for finding books that involve fishing)

Fisherman of Iceland is set in the Paimpol area, in North Brittany. From 1852 to 1935, fishermen from the region left their homes for six-month cod-fishing campaigns near Iceland. They left mid-February and came back in end of August. They fished, prepared the cod and put it in salt for keeping. Imagine that they used fishing lines, not nets. They sold the fish in the Bordeaux area and came home with the holds loaded with fresh salt for the next campaign. There was only one call during the campaign and some cruisers from the French State sailed to the fishing areas to bring mail and supplies.

The work was very hard and dangerous but it paid well. At least when the boats returned safely. More than two-thousand men never came home from Iceland and Newfoundland. Generations of men never spent a summer in France, as they were enrolled as ships’ boys at a young age. The villagers’ lives were organized around the fishing schedule. For example, weddings were all celebrated between October and February.

Fisherman of Iceland is Loti’s most successful book. It was a bestseller when it went out in 1886. By 1924, 445 French editions of the book had been published. It’s a love story between a sailor, Yann Gaos and his sweetheart Gaud Mével, mixed with the friendship between Sylvestre, Yann and Gaud.

Forget about the love story, that’s not the most interesting part of the book. Honestly, Loti’s characters are paper-thin, not developed enough and depicted with a Douanier Rousseau literary brush. Nice to look at but not feeling like real-life characters. The descriptions of the landscapes make up for that lack of depth. Loti writes in classic French but keeps it simple and accessible for readers. No calling the sea “Neptune’s kingdom” or compare these sailors to Greek heroes as it could happen for a writer of that time.

Biscuits for sailors. They had to break them with a hammer to eat them

Fisherman of Iceland is interesting to read for the history of these fishing campaigns. I didn’t know about them. I knew about French fishermen sailing to Newfoundland but not in the Iceland waters. Loti describes life on the boats, life at home and the celebration around the fishing campaigns.

It shows the religious traditions, the preparation of the trips and the community’s life at the time.  I discovered that military service lasted five years in the 1880s and that the French State took the opportunity to teach French to all these young men who only spoke local dialects. The Third Republic was really the one to bring public education for all and unify the country around the French language. It killed local dialects. Whether it was a good thing or not is still under discussion.

With Sylvestre leaving for the military navy, I learnt about the Tonkin Campaign in Indochina.

The novel is set in Paimpol, Ploubazlanec and Pors-Even. I’ve been to the museum of the Icelanders in Ploubazlanec. The first part is dedicated to the Iceland campaigns and the other to contemporary merchant navy. The Iceland part explained the whole historical context and showed items from the times. The background of Loti’s novel holds a whole room and it was fascinating to see and read about it, especially since I was reading the novel.

Picture of Guillaume Floury

Pierre Loti was a navy officer. This is where he met two fishermen named Guillaume Floury and Sylvestre Floury. The first became Yann Gaos in the book and the other is Sylvestre Moan. The rumor says that Sylvestre Floury saved Loti’s life in Saigon.

Loti spent some time in Ploubazlanec, fell in love with a local girl and was rejected. We can be grateful that he poured his broken heart into literature. Many descriptions in Fisherman of Iceland are true-to-life, except for the ones of life on the fishing ships. Loti romanticized and glossed over the gory details.

Ploubazlanec really celebrates its history and there’s an Iceland walk in the village. This is why our next Literary Escapade will take you to Ploubazlanec and Pors-Even on the locations described in Fisherman of Iceland.

TBC…

Literary Escapade: Combourg and Chateaubriand

August 6, 2020 25 comments

Chateaubriand (1768-1848) is a writer that my highschool BFF and I had nicknamed Chateaubrichiant. (Chateauboring) That’s how much we enjoyed the excerpts of Memoirs of Beyond the Grave that we studied in school.

Since then I’ve read Atala and René and mused in my billet that I didn’t know that Chateaubriand was in favor of kibbutz (Atala) and missed the opportunity to invent Kleenex (René) The whole billet is here.

Chateaubriand is taught as the precursor of Romanticism and I have to confess this is not my favorite literary movement. Too much gloom and doom for my tastes. And indeed, see what Chateaubriand writes about his own birth:

Il n’y a pas de jour où, rêvant à ce que j’ai été, je ne revoie en pensée le rocher sur lequel je suis né, la chambre où ma mère m’infligea la vie, la tempête dont le bruit berça mon premier sommeil, le frère infortuné qui me donna un nom que j’ai presque toujours traîné dans le malheur. Le Ciel sembla réunir ces diverses circonstances pour placer dans mon berceau une image de mes destinées. A day seldom passes on which, reflecting on what I have been, I do not see again in thought the rock upon which I was born, the room in which my mother inflicted life upon me, the tempest whose sound first lulled me to sleep, the unfortunate brother who gave me a name which I have nearly always dragged through misfortune. Heaven seemed to unite these several circumstances in order to lay within my cradle a symbol of my destiny. 

Translation Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

Kill me now…Anyway, this house is still there, in St Malo, in what is now Chateaubriand Street. (of course)

Chateaubriand was brought up in Combourg, a castle bought by his father who made a fortune as a fisherman in Newfoundland, tunred corsair and then invested in slave trade. A man of his time. Combourg is still owned by the descendants of the family and it’s open to visit, with a guided tour. The castle was empty during 80 years after the Revolution and was renovated by Viollet-Leduc. Here’s a general view of the castle.

And here are the grounds, taken from the stairs of the castle. There’s a lot of space to run around.

The visit takes us through parts of the castle and it’s a Chateaubriand tour, with quotes from Memoirs Beyond the Grave and all.

Here’s the room where he slept as a child, in a remote tower of the castle. The poor boy had to accompany his mother and sisters to their rooms, lock doors and check that there were no monsters and then had to go back to his isolated room in the dark and on his own. I can’t imagine what scars this you-will-be-a-man kind of education leaves on a young boy. Don’t you think that his room looked like a cell?

Chateaubriand died in Paris, rue du Bac. (Like Romain Gary, btw) His furniture was moved to Combourg and they have redone his Parisian room in the castle.

It was a nice tour, telling about Chateaubriand’s early life in Brittany.

The most moving part for me was this tree. It comes from the north of Canada and it’s called a faux cyprès de Lawson in French and according to the dictionary, a Port Orford tree in English. I couldn’t help thinking about The Overstory by Richard Powers, who keeps reminding us that trees, if we don’t destroy them, often survive us.

It’s two-hundred-and-fifty-years old, it has known Chateaubriand as a child. The little stone structure is the Lucile cross, a place where Chateaubriand and his sister Lucile used to chat. She was the one who encouraged him to write.

I left Combourg with an anthology of Memoirs Beyond the Grave. I’m not up for the whole memoirs, so I’ll rely on the work of Jean-Claude Berchet who selected the parts he thought worth reading.

I’ve started to read it and I find it a lot easier than expected.

I’m very curious about the historical aspects of Chateaubriand’s life. He has lived through several political systems in France: born under Louis XV, formative years under Louis XVI (1774-1792), he lived through the Revolution and the Ist Republic (1792-1804), Napoléon and the Ist Empire (1804-1815), the Restauration (1815-1830), the July Monarchy (1830-1848). When he died, the Second Republic had just started. All this in a lifetime.

He traveled a lot, had piolitical responsabilites. I’d like to read his biography some day. (And Lamartine’s, for the same reasons)

I always wonder how common people navigated and survived all these changes.

20 Books of Summer #10: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

August 5, 2020 18 comments

Cathedral by Raymond Carver (1983) French title: Les vitamines du bonheur. Translated by Simone Hilling.

I think that I first heard of Raymond Carver in interviews of Philippe Djian. He admires Carver a lot and I had in mind to read at least one of his books. It’s always difficult to write about a collection of short stories and Cathedral is not an exception to that rule. I’ll spare you the one by one account of each story.

Carver’s stories are like short videos of a moment in the lives of these men and women. We feel that they’ve lived before we peeked into their lives and that they’ll keep on living after we’ve dropped the curtain we had risen.

We catch them at awkward moments of their lives, like in the first story Feathers. A couple goes to the man’s colleague’s house for dinner. The couples have never met before and the guests are confronted with the ugliest baby they’ve ever seen and a strange peacock. Talk about an uncomfortable meal.

We meet people in hard times, a couple losing their child on his birthday, a man unable to leave his sofa after being laid off, a couple recently separated, an alcoholic just admitted in a rehab facility, a man whose wife has taken off, leaving him struggling with their two children. We catch them raw, at a pivotal time of their lives even if they don’t always know it. We see middle and working class people in their quotidian. They lose their job, they go fishing with their colleague or they try to crawl out of alcoholism.

The only story that stood out and seemed at odds with the others is The Compartment. An American man in on the train to Strasbourg, France to meet his estranged son. An event on the train will derail him from his journey. This one was different, probably because of the setting and the context.

Carver has a gift to pack a lot in a few pages and each story leaves vivid impressions on the reader. Some end abruptly and I thought “That’s it? What then?” and others sound more complete. The last one, Cathedral, eponymous of the collection’s name is about a man who attempts to describe a cathedral to a blind man. They end up drawing one. It’s what writers do. They observe life with their unique glasses and take us, blinds, through their vision. And they draw characters and write stories.

Highly recommended.

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