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Los Angeles was doomed. It was a city with a curse upon it. (John Fante)

June 30, 2010 7 comments

Ask the Dust, by John Fante 

Ask the Dust is the third volume of the Bandini saga by John Fante. Arturo is now twenty and has left Colorado to live in Los Angeles as a writer after his first short story was published. The novel has no precise plot and I would split it in two different parts. The first one is centred on Arturo’s completing his metamorphosis from a Catholic Italian teenager to an atheist adult writer. We find here the themes of the previous novels: poverty, lust for women, the difficulty of being Italian and Catholic. In the second part, he is writing a book and tells about his tragic relationship with a Mexican girl, Camilla.

I could talk about the birth of a writer, from the excruciating doubts about his gift to the serenity achieved through having his first good idea for a novel. Then writing brings him happiness and is not a painful process as often described by other writers.

I could also choose to describe the maturity Arturo gains in his relationships with women and how desire is now under better regulation than in The Road to Los Angeles. His craving for women is muted by his love for literature. Writing is the desire which outdoes physical ones, food and sex included.

 But I would rather write about Los Angeles, for a sheerly selfish reason: I picked up John Fante’s work these days to read about California. Though there were fascinating descriptions of stevedores, shores and fish factories, in The Road to Los Angeles, Ask the Dust better met my expectations. Los Angeles is a character itself in Arturo’s life and it fills the novel by its underlying presence.

What was odd to me is how the city seems already so contemporary, certainly smaller but with all the attributes of today Los Angeles, as I imagine it. Fante leads us through highways, buildings, cafes to have a beer and eat hamburgers, neons, and abandoned suburbs. Everything sounds familiar and if it weren’t for the brand of the cars, the absence of phones and a short reference to the beginning of the war in Europe, I would have forgotten this was taking place in 1939.

More than its architecture, the geographic position and the population create the identity of the city.

Two angels bent over Los Angeles’s cradle: the Ocean and the Desert, each of them blowing its influence on the city’s climate like winds on Venus in Botticelli’s painting. Fog and sand.

I was surprised by the constant reference to fog, that I had already noticed in The Road to Los Angeles. When I think of a foggy city, the first name that comes to my mind is inevitably London. And then San Francisco. But I would never have associated Los Angeles with fog. However, look what happens when Arturo opens his windows to freshen the air in his room.

I threw open the two windows and watched the fog float through in sad tumbling lumps. When it got too cold I closed the windows and, though the room was wet from the fog and my papers and books were filled with dampness, the perfume was still there unmistakably.

Nonetheless, Arturo’s room is in no better shape after the desert has reminded Los Angeles of its close presence:

Sand from the Mojave had blown across the city. Tiny brown grains of sand clung to my fingertips whenever I touched anything, and when I got back to my room I found the mechanism of my new typewriter glutted with sand. It was in my ears and in my hair. When I took off my clothes it fell like powder to the floor.

Fante also points out the fragility of the city, its existence in constant jeopardy because of earthquakes and the power of nature, just waiting for the opportunity to gain the ground back on cardboard human constructions.

Here was the endlessly mute placidity of nature, indifferent to the great city; here was the desert beneath these streets, around these streets, waiting for the city to die, to cover it with timeless sand once more. There came over me a terrifying sense of understanding about the meaning and the pathetic destiny of men. The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilizations to flicker and pass into the darkness.

As for the population, of course, I knew L.A. is a city of immigrants. But I always pictured people leaving the East to make a brand new start the West. And Fante describes quite another kind of newcomers: retirees, numerous enough to be noticeable on the streets.

The old folks from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes, their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun.

Who knew that moving South for retirement was already in style in the 1930s ? Not I.

 I didn’t expect that Los Angeles was already so multicultural, with Mexican, Chinese, Japanese communities and neighbourhoods. I knew Chinese came to America to build the rail-roads and that there were Japanese on the West Coast because of their being parked in camps after Pearl Harbor. The presence of Mexicans seems natural too, considering how close the border is. But I never thought they were so numerous so early in the 20th Century.

 I lack the words to describe Fante’s amazing style. I could quote many different breathtaking descriptions of both desert and sea. His style reminds me of modern paintings. Just as a face can be painted with blue tones and still better reveal the soul of the subject than if the actual colours had been used, Fante’s choice of words is so powerful that you can almost feel the implacable heat, the wind, the dust. He can describe a person in a few words.

More than a style, he has a voice, with breathings, accelerations, music and change of tones. An author to read absolutely.

I reviewed The Road to Los Angeles here

So the experience has been intense but worth the effort. I’m not giving up.

June 25, 2010 10 comments

I started blogging two months ago and I feel I needed to think and share about this new experience. When I told a friend of mine that I was starting a literary blog in English, the first question she asked was: “Who’s going to correct your English?” When I said that no one would be re-reading before publishing, I saw several feelings flash through her eyes. Awe (“How can she dare sending to the void all these incorrect sentences ?”), reprobation (“Isn’t she a bit presumptuous to think she’s good enough for that?”) and astonishment (“Why not do it the easier way and write in French?”)

These have been intense two months. My head is so full of English words that I sometimes stumble on a French word when I speak, the English one coming first to my mind. Never mind, my colleagues probably already think I’m weird anyway and my husband knows whom he married.

I’m trying to learn as fast as I can many little details about writing in English that I never learnt at school or used in writing business memos. Among those are punctuation rules, how to insert book titles in a text, how to quote an author. All habits which are different from French. I still haven’t found how to create “clean” links in a post, but I keep on trying.

Truly, I knew this would be challenging for someone who hasn’t spent more than three weeks in a row in an English-speaking country. I’m not disappointed on that point and my dictionary is becoming my best friend.

What is the most frustrating is when I read other people’s posts that shout to my face how my English is poor and when I read mine, I see how the language barrier narrowed my thoughts. I almost gave up and was thinking about writing in French when I got my first comments. Thanks for the indirect encouragement.

Wandering on English-speaking blogs reminded me why I had made the choice in the first place: to expand my horizon beyond France. I’m not disappointed on that point either. It is refreshing to read about French literature through the eyes of people having another background. For example, I would never have considered reading Saint-Exupéry again without Max’s post on it. I got bored to death reading this at school and I was prejudiced against the author.

It is also very interesting to hear about other literatures and discover new reading possibilities. Thanks, I now have a long list of Hungarian and Czech authors to look for in my next stop at the bookstore.

So are reading comments and following discussions. The Anglophone world has issues about reading I couldn’t have imagined because it’s simply not an issue in France.

My endless curiosity is probably the most powerful motive.

There have been unexpected obstacles due to the permanent switch between the two languages.

First: Quotes. I can’t quote anything of an English book I read in French. Translating it back is out of the question. So with any luck I can find the original on the net and if not, there will be no quote at all and it impoverishes my post. Too bad for Sam Savage’s Firmin. I would have liked to show his lovely style.

Second: book titles. I have to look for the English names of French books, which took me a tremendous amount of time for the French reading list. The other way round, how can I find the corresponding French title of a non-Anglophone book if I want read it after seeing someone else’s review on it ? Nobody ever gives the original title, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have had the idea to put it either if I were writing in French. 

I also started blogging to force myself to pause between two books and think about what I read. This requires other skills than the ones I use all day long at work. My brains lack the training, hopefully, I will improve. My not having a degree in literature or arts doesn’t help either. (My English classes mainly consisted in translating fascinating FT articles in French and even more fascinating Les Echos articles in English…)

For me, reading is above all a pleasure. I don’t plan what I’m going to read, I have enough of planning and scheduling in my professional life. I’m impulsive on the choice of the books I read. (In French we say “un coup de coeur”, a blow of heart).

I don’t intend to write lectures about the books I read but mostly to share of my personal experience with them. I’m trying to keep a  balance between a distant tone and personal feelings. 

I feel I have to say that I’m not writing this to attract comments or encouragements. I just wanted to share about this, that’s all.

So the experience has been intense but worth the effort. I’m not giving up.

Emmanuelle.

PS : I saw a pub in Paris named The Frog and the British Library and I thought “Damn it! This is how I should have called my blog!”

Categories: About reading

Was the world anything else than a tiny village with hilarious hazards ? (Djian)

June 22, 2010 7 comments

 Impardonnables, by Philippe Djian.  

As Philippe Djian is best known in France than abroad, some biographical details are probably welcome. Djian is a French writer, was born in 1949 and has been famous in France since the 1980s. He lived in the USA for a while and is now settled in Biarritz, in the Basque country. According to me, his best books are the first ones, “37°2 Le Matin” (Betty Blue), “Echine”, “Maudit Manège” (the following of Betty Blue) and “Bleu comme l’enfer”. Apparently, the last three ones have not been translated in English, unfortunately. His favourite writers are mostly American: John Fante, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman and many others. They deeply influenced his style.

Impardonnables (Unforgivable: a novel) was published in 2009. The plot is centred on Francis, who lost his wife and eldest daughter in a terrible car accident, some ten years ago. His second marriage with Judith, a 50-years-old real estate agent, is in bad shape. The book opens on another personal drama, as his second daughter, Alice, disappears. For Francis, the pain is excruciating and the unhealed grief from the former car accident resurfaces. I will not tell more about the story, to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say things are not exactly what they seem to be and that I did not see the end coming.

Francis is an alter ego for Philippe Djian. He is a sixty-years-old famous writer, who lives in the Basque country. Djian already used another alter ego named Dan in Echine. Francis seems to be an older and disenchanted Dan. When Dan was young, a writer-to-be, a good father for his son Hermann, Francis is 60 (“a young old man”), a famous writer, whose best books are behind him. He raised Alice alone and failed as a father, according to him. Dan was full of life and Francis is sad and disillusioned.

However, there is a lot more in this book than just a mourning and whining writer. It raises issues on parenthood, on how ungrateful children can be, whatever you do for them. (Think of Father Goriot, by Balzac). Francis is lucid about himself and does not try to evade responsibility in the disaster of his life. “Unforgivable” applies to several realities in the novel, the French title is a plural. It relates to acts and to persons. Some things are forever unforgivable because the one who could grant the pardon is dead. Some things are unforgivable because they lead to someone’s physical or mental death. Some people are unforgivable because what they did for futile reasons brought an irretrievable pain to beloved persons.

Reading Impardonnables just after Fante’s Road to Los Angeles was as big a mistake as eating Gruyère cheese after Roquefort. The taste of the first one is so strong that the second seems tasteless, even if it is the best Gruyère ever. So is Francis after Arturo Bandini.

I had never noticed before how much Djian mimics Fante’s style. Even with the difference of language, French versus English, the similarity is obvious. Djian also writes in short sentences, with images and every word is thought through. But I missed the fun Fante sprays in his descriptions and dialogues. Maybe the lack of energy in Djian’s book is only due to the difference in ages between the two characters. Francis is depressed and ageing, whereas Arturo is 18 and excited to start his adult life.

Impardonnables gathers the usual themes of Djian’s novels: a father raising his child alone, a struggling writer, a woman as a best friend. Several weaknesses displeased me in the book, such as Alice being an actress, without sparing us all the clichés (former drug and alcohol addict, egocentric). I did not like either the frequent allusions to Hemingway, as if Francis were a stupid rock star fan worshipping relics. It also includes too many present-day references. No one will understand them in a decade or so, and it will prevent Djian’s work to reach some immortality. I am convinced that immortal books, apart from being exceptionally well written, are the ones that have an eternal theme put in a vague enough setting, so that readers from another time can easily identify. Impardonnables will become outdated because of all those little references to the present time, such as the name of a pain-killer, Philip Roth’s last book or an allusion to Brad Pitt. It is a pity, for it is well written.

Despite all these flaws, I enjoyed reading Impardonnables, and I was eager to know how this would end. I was surprised, which is usually agreeable in a book. It only sounded dull after The Road to Los Angeles, I probably would have had liked it better if I had read it at a different time.

I am on the threshold of expression (Arturo Bandini)

June 18, 2010 11 comments

The Road to Los Angeles, by John Fante

The Road to Los Angeles is the second volume of the Arturo Bandini Saga. John Fante wrote it in 1936 but it was published posthumously in 1985. According to the editorial note of my American edition, the subject was too provocative for the mid-1930s. I suppose it’s due to Arturo’s atheism and his communist views. The first book of the saga is Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), which has already been reviewed by Max Cairnduff (1) I didn’t read any other reviews before writing mine, to be sure to only express my own thoughts.

In this volume, Arturo Bandini, the alter ego of John Fante, is 18. His life is at a crossroad. After his father died, he dropped out of high school to make a living to support his mother Maria and his 16-years-old sister Mona.
The Road to Los Angeles is actually the psychological road Arturo is following to leave childhood behind him and move out to Los Angeles to start his grown-up life. The novel is centred on Arturo’s inner mind. He struggles to discover who he is and what he will do with his life. Early in the novel, he declares he wants to be a writer:

“The writing instinct has always lain dormant in me. Now it is in the process of metamorphosis. The era of transition has passed. I am on the threshold of expression.”

We thus follow him through his metamorphosis.
His adolescence is not finished yet and he has typical teenage rebellion crises. He fights with his mother and has a stormy relationship with his nun-to-be sister. He reads frantically all kinds of books, delights in grandiloquent expressions and concepts, without quite understanding them. He rejects his Catholic education, becomes obsessed with sex and now worships the secular Trinity of males: Legs, Breasts and Bottoms. (NB: Brain wishes it could one day dismiss one of the Trinity members to take their place but yet to no avail.)
Let’s follow Arturo at the public library :

“Will you show me the history section?” I said.
She smiled that she would, and I followed. It was a disappointment. The dress was the wrong kind, a light blue; the light didn’t penetrate. I watched the curve of her heels. I felt like kissing them. At History, she turned and sensed I’d been thinking of her deeply. I felt the cold you through her. She want back to the desk. I pulled out books and put them back again. She still felt my thoughts, but I didn’t want to think of anything else. Her legs were crossed under the desk. They were wonderful. I wanted to hug them.
Our eyes met and she smiled, with a smile that said: go ahead and look if you like; there’s nothing I can do about it, although I’d like to slap your face. I wanted to talk to her. I could quote her swell things from Nietzsche; that passage from Zarathustra on voluptuousness. Ah! But I could never quote that one”

He has multiple fantasies about real and unreal women. When they’re real, he never dares talking to them. Since I’m a woman, I don’t know how it feels to be an adolescent boy but Fante seems insightful. I do remember though my legs being watched that way and being given such silly nicknames as “Beautiful Legs”, whose you never know whether they’re a tribute to your legs or an offence to your unremarkable face.
Moreover, having a Catholic Italian-French grand-mother, I do sympathize with his rebellion against religion. I dreamt of ditching mass and couldn’t because my grand-mother would be checking I was there. I remember quite well the fight I had with my father when I declared I would never attend mass again.

Arturo goes through teenage mood swings. He may be deeply convinced he is a genius and a minute later, be as deeply convinced that he is a despicable loser. He experiences outbursts of violence, which can be physical, like spending an afternoon killing crabs, or verbal, with swearwords Captain Haddock would be proud of:

“You sanctimonious, retch-provoking she-nun of a bitch-infested nausea-provoking nun of vile boobish baboon of a brummagem Catholic heritage.”

When Arturo eventually writes his first novel, the metamorphosis is completed.

“I looked up. It was daylight. The fog choked the room. The gas was out. My hands were numb. A blister showed on my pencil finger. My eyes burned. My back ached. I could barely move from the cold. But never in my life had I felt better.”

His story may not be the best novel ever written but now he’s sure he’s meant to be a writer. Writing brings him happiness.
Fante succeeds in describing the turmoil of adolescence and its luxuriant imaginary life. He never judges Arturo. His look is full of tenderness but without concealing Arturo’s flaws or foolishness and his benevolence reaches the reader.
Apart from Arturo’s personal dramas, Fante also succeeds in showing the life and work conditions of poor immigrants workers. Indeed, the latest job Arturo takes is in a fish cannery. He spends his first day vomiting because of the heavy and persistent smell of mackerels and on his way home…

“Travelling with me was the stench of fish, a shadow that could not be seen but smelled. It followed me up the apartment the smell was everywhere, drifting straight for every corner of the apartment.”

The smell was bad enough that the Catholic Bandinis couldn’t stand the idea of eating fish and ate meat even on Fridays. John Fante describes the tough work in these factories, the heat, the absurdity of the job.

“My uncle was right about the work, all right. It was work done without thinking. You might just as well have left your brains at home on that job. All we did through the whole day was stand there and move ours arms and legs.”

The workers earn just enough money to survive and are not always well fed. Fante was probably attracted to communist ideology, as many artists of the 1930s.

I discovered John Fante around 1990, through Philippe Djian’s novels and interviews. I like his style, made of short sentences and funny images. He has a real sense for picturing people and sceneries, like this description of the owner of the fish cannery.

“This man was Shorty Naylor. He was much smaller than I was. He was very thin. His collarbones stuck out. He had no teeth worth mentioning in his mouth, only one or two which were worse than nothing. His eyes were like aged oysters on a sheet of newspaper. Tobacco juice caked the corners of his mouth like dry chocolate. His was the look of a rat in waiting. It seemed he had never been out in the sun, his face was so grey.”

 Annie Proulx has also this kind of sharp and precise way of writing.
The Road to Los Angeles is huge fun. I started reading it in a train, where I had got on all stressed by work. I got off totally relaxed, smiling. This novel should prescribed as a tranquillizer!
I have at home the third volume of the saga, Ask the Dust, and I plan to read it soon.

PS : I know I used a lot of quotes in this post, but honestly, it was hard to chose. And for once, I read the book in English, so I had quotes in the proper language.

I also reviewed Ask the Dust here

(1)  http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/category/fante-john

My own alternative hypothesis : don’t read it

June 17, 2010 7 comments

A friend, whose opinion I value, lent me La Part de l’autre (The Alternative Hypothesis), by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt saying it was a good book. It is about what would have happened if Hitler had been admitted in Vienne Art School in 1908 instead of failing to get in.

I was reluctant to read it because of the subject. I had already read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, which has a similar plot and I doubted Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt could do better. Moreover, I kind of get tired of stories taking place during WWII.

 I started it anyway.

 The book is constructed with parallel stories: Hitler’s story (the real one) and Adolf H’s story, the one in which Hitler becomes an art student. Chapters alternate from one story to the other. The style is tolerable, obviously not a breakthrough in literature.

 I decided to quit reading it when young Adolf H faints at school any time he needs to draw a naked woman and when his physician, Dr Bloch (!!), takes him an appointment with Dr Freud. That was too much.

 I reminded me why I seldom read French present-day writers: they are often a disappointment. Either the subject is centred on their own petty dramas (The “Me, Myself and I” writers) or it’s so dreary or depressing you think they want to create a suicide wave among their readers.

 As far as The Alternative Hypothesis is concerned, it is definitely a book to avoid, to my point of view.

Firmin, le Rat de bibliothèque

June 16, 2010 Leave a comment

What first caught my eyes was the cover and the words “If reading is your pleasure and your destiny, then this book is for you”. I don’t know if reading is my destiny (what a big word!), but it certainly is my pleasure, and the publisher, Babel, usually selects good books. Therefore I went for it.

 Firmin by Sam Savage is the imaginary autobiography of a rat. His mother shelters in the basement of a bookshop, Pembroke Books, to give birth to her 13 babies and fills their nest with pages of books. Firmin is like The Ugly Duckling because he is the smallest and is despised and sometimes molested by his siblings. As her mother has 12 udders for 13 children, one of them needs to wait for the second sitting. And that one is often Firmin. So, starving, he starts eating the book the nest is made of. He enjoys the taste and keeps on eating pages and pages until he can recognize subtle differences from one book to another. A book oenologist, so to speak.

 He eventually finds out that reading them is another way to devour books. Books do not feed his body any more but feed his mind.

 When not reading, he observes the activity of the bookshop from a hole in the ceiling (“The Balcony”) and leaves the book store only to find some food. One of his favourite destinations is a cinema where he can eat popcorn and watch movies, and porn movies after midnight. He thus becomes sexually attracted to women instead of female rats.

 Unlike the Ugly Duckling, no happy transformation happens to Firmin. A rat he is, a rat he remains. Sam Savage never frees Firmin from the contingencies of being a rat. He wanders through the tunnels built by former generations of rats in Pembroke Books and feeds from leftovers. He must walk inconspicuously on side-walks to stay alive. He wishes he were Fred Astaire and is only a puny rat with yellow teeth, who repels the humans.

 Firmin is  prisoner of his own body. His imagination gradually develops and his mind comes close to a human mind. His head is full of words he cannot tell because his vocal cords can only utter squeaks. There’s a funny passage when he explains how he tried to learn sign language in a desperate attempt to communicate with humans. But he only interacts with two men during his life: the first, Norman (Normal-Man?) treats him like a pest and the other one, Jerry (a mouse name), takes him as a pet.

 Firmin’s destiny is closely linked to that of Pembroke Books, which is located in Scollay Square, Boston. This shady neighbourhood is to be demolished and both Firmin and the street he lives in decline until they are destroyed. (Scollay Square was a real Bostonian neighbourhood, which was actually pulled down in the 1960s.)

 The novel is written in quite a sad tone. Firmin is solitary, for he is a freak among rats and vermin for humans. He feels he has a lot to share and has no way to let his thoughts known. He suffers from his loneliness. Literary references are spread throughout the pages, as Firmin’s imagination takes off. He lives in his own imaginary world until some body urgency, like hunger, brings him back on earth.

 I liked this book. It is well written ;  I have no quotes in English to insert though, as I read it in a French translation by Céline Leroy. It is full of thoughts about life, identity, unrequited love and exclusion. The uncomfortable difference between what we are in our heads and what people think we are (Rimbaud’s famous Je est un autre) is of the acutest kind for Firmin.

However, I would have liked it better if the tone had been more ironic and less lyric.

 PS: The French expression for « bookworm » is « rat de bibliothèque », which can be literally translated by “Library Rat”. As “librairie” is the French word for “book store”, I wonder if it is a coincidence that Firmin is a rat who loves reading and lives in a bookshop.

The 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader

June 9, 2010 1 comment

 These rights have been described by Daniel Pennac, in his book “Comme un roman” (literally “Like a novel” translated by “The Rights of the Reader”). This book is about reading and here are the 10 inalienable rights of the reader :

1) The right to not read,

2) The right to skip pages

3) The right to not finish a book,

4)  The right to reread,

5) The right to read anything,

6) The right to “Bovary-ism,” a textually-transmitted disease

7) The right to read anywhere,

8  The right to sample and steal (“grappiller”),

9) The right to read out-loud,

10)  The right to be silent.

What it means to me :

  1. Reading is neither a daily obligation or something one must do to be a good or accomplished person.
  2. I admit I skipped some pages of description of the Napoleonian battles in War and Peace and some pages in Naked Lunch. And I’m not ashmed of it.
  3. Reading Naked Lunch reminded me Daniel Pennac had written about the 10 inalienable rights of the reader, among those the right to give up reading a book.
  4. This puzzles my husband. “How many times have you read this book?”.
  5. Yes I both like Philip Roth and Anne Perry. I don’t expect the same thing from them, that’s all.
  6. By this right, Daniel Pennac means the right to read thrillers or romance, books that talk to our senses more than they talk to our brain.
  7. I always have a book in my handbag.
  8. Daniel Pennac means the right to pick up a book on a shelf, read one passage or two, and take another one.
  9. This is something adults don’t do very often, except to read to children. Maybe we should reinvent reading evenings like in 19th century novels.
  10. You’re not obliged to talk about what you read.

Can an accountant understand Naked Lunch?

June 8, 2010 2 comments

Reading Naked Lunch was a challenge for my (too?) Cartesian mind. Writing about it is even more challenging.

Burroughs claimed that the title was suggested by Jack Kerouac: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

In the deposition written in 1960 after a successful rehab, Burroughs clinically describes the devastation of body and mind due to drug abuse.

“I lived in one room in the Native Quarter of Tangier. I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction.”

He puts into straightforward words how withdrawal symptoms are painful and how drug becomes the highest need, the one that erases all the others. The image is that of a monkey clamping its arms and legs on the junkie’s back. Addiction is a Sickness and not a vice.

Lee (in fact Burroughs) experiments all kind of drugs taken in all possible ways. It’s very impressive to see there’s no end to the lengths he’ll go to find and take drugs.

Junk is the ideal product… the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.”

Naked Lunch is about Lee’s travels trough his drug-addicted mind. Each chapter is a vision of a crazy but still coherent imaginary world. It is as if Burroughs had swallowed surrealist automatic writing, Kakfa’s universe and Becket’s sense for absurd, digested it and were giving it back through a new kind of writing.

 It’s violent, it’s hypnotic, it’s frightening. Sometimes funny. Definitely disturbing. It’s a complex mix of destruction, death, degradation and yet melted with an incredible yearning for life.

Lee is on and off. NBs are inserted in parenthesis in the deliriums, to give definitions. They remind the reader that Lee has some moments of lucidity, that he is trying to give up drugs.

 As Lee progressively recovers from drug addiction, the stories are more coherent and become more like SF short-stories than like the visions of a twisted mind.

 I read Naked Lunch in French, in a translation by Eric Kahane, which dates back to 1964. It seems a good translation. I bought the Folio paperback edition and I wonder why it is in the SF collection. Are Gulliver’s Travel or The Metamorphosis considered as SF ?

In the end, I am glad I read it because it is a mythical book but I don’t know what I will remember of it, except that it was well written and sane despite its apparent insanity.

But I’m still under the impression I totally failed to understand any of it.

 NB : For French readers : listening to Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine is a perfect way to be in the mood for reading Naked Lunch. Prefer older songs such as Aligator 427, La vierge au dodge.51 or Cabaret Sainte-Lilith and you’ll be good.

Lorenzaccio under a big top

June 6, 2010 3 comments

 Lorenzaccio is a play Alfred de Musset wrote in 1834. The plot takes place in Florence, ruled by the Medicis at the time when Charles Quint was emperor. (Early 16th century). Alexandre de Médicis, Duke of Florence, governs the city and is loathed by his people as he is despotic and libertine. He is manipulated by the Catholic Church and sold to Charles Quint. Three plots are lead at the same time:

  • Lorenzo (nicknamed Lorenzaccio) is a Médicis who wants to murder Alexandre for personal reasons. He swore to kill a tyrant one day and chose Alexandre. He decides to befriend with Alexandre to achieve his goal and becomes Alexandre’s favourite and confident. He follows him in all his partying, makes sure he thinks him harmless in order to approach him unguarded.
  • The Strozzi family intend to fight Alexandre to free the city from its tyrant and increase their power over the city. They want Florence to become a Republic and are thus supported by Republicans.
  • The Cardinal Cibo also wants to get rid of Alexandre, by ambition, as he hopes that serving the Pope and Charles Quint’s interests will be rewarded by being elected Pope one day.

 In a way, the reader doesn’t know who will first succeed in murdering Alexandre. Though the motives are different, the result would be the same, as it would only replace a tyrant by another one.

Musset excels in mixing the intimate quest of Lorenzo with political issues. The scene when Lorenzo explains why there is no coming back for him, why he needs to follow through his idea of murdering Alexandre is moving. He says he was pure and innocent and learnt to live a dissolute life to be faithful to the promise he made to himself. But he also discovered that he no longer needs a mask to live this libertine life. He likes drinking, seeing women and all kinds of pleasures. What was first done as a duty to get closer to Alexandre, has become a pleasure and he resents his corruption. He now needs to assassinate Alexandre to ensure he didn’t lose his innocence, his purity and the respect from his family for nothing.

Moreover, in sharing the dark side of humanity through his partying, he loses faith in men and realizes that murdering Alexandre will not change the political situation or improve the people’s living. He sees men as coward or at best as indifferent. They claim they want a revolution but aren’t brave enough to fight for it. He points out to Philippe Strozzi in Act 3, scene 3 : 

If you’re about to do something for humanity, I advise you to cut your arms right away, because it won’t be long before you realize you alone have arms” (1)

 He wants Philippe to face the cowardice and pettiness of men but disclaims to be a misanthropist. 

If you only see in me someone who despises humanity, you insult me, for I perfectly know there are decent men. But are they useful ? What do they do ? How do they act ? What’s the point of having a living conscience, if the arm is dead?” (1)

 So he is lucid enough not to expect any public gratitude or any popular uprising after his deed is done. He will murder Alexandre for himself, to save what is left from the idealistic boy he once was.

It is strange that Musset was so pessimistic on human nature, as he was only 24 when he wrote this play. The reader is also face to face with their own everyday little defeats and weaknesses.

The questions raised are timeless, about political engagement and tyranny. It reminds us how political power is concentrated in the hands of a few minority who protect their own interests.

Aside to the political issues and identity quest, what also surprised me is the lack of religious feelings. There are no references to god in this play, no people praying as it could be expected in a text written in 1834. Even when people die, their relatives don’t try to find comfort in prayer. No big words as “soul”, “redemption” or “divine intention” are to be heard. The Church is more interested in earthly matters than in heavenly ones. Priests use confessions as an intelligence mean. When the Marquise confesses to the Cardinal Cibo, he sees it more as an opportunity to dig out information than as a moment to comfort and guide a lost soul. That probably gives away Musset’s atheism.  

I saw Lorenzaccio live this week-end. The director chose to have the actors play outside the theatre, under a big top. So, they were on a circular stage, in the middle of spectators. It allowed very cinematographic effects and it was lively. The round stage created the illusion of a piazza for outdoor scenes. When the Florence crowd were involved, the actors sit among the spectators and acted from there. Voices came from different places and the public had the impression to be in Florence too. A sort of 3D effect. The production was very modern and yet appropriate. (Well, to my taste, at least. Not like last year’s naked Hamlet with a Rage Against the Machine soundtrack)

 The text itself is beautiful and incredibly contemporary. Sometimes, 19th century literature has a pompous wording and requires concentration to follow through. Not here. The director wrote in a comment on the play that for the actors, acting with Musset’s language is like playing on a Stradivarius. I think she’s right.

Musset never saw Lorenzaccio played. He meant to write a play that could be read at home in an armchair. He succeeded. Lorenzaccio is worth reading, for the beauty of the text and the interest of the subject.

 (1) My own highly perfectible translation

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