Archive for September, 2010

The mother who could not be a Mom

September 27, 2010 13 comments

La Virevolte, by Nancy Huston. Translated as Slow Emergencies: a novel.

Lin Lhomond is a famous dancer and choreographer. The novel opens with a crude and harsh sentence: “This body came out of her”. Lin is giving birth to Angela, her first born. Lin is married to Derek, a teacher at the local university, somewhere on the East Coast of the USA. The first part of the book describes her life as a mother-dancer. The mother was born with Angela and motherly duties absorb Lin and smother the dancer. A second child arrives, Marina. The motherly duties increase. The dancer, the creator in Lin claims some space. The need to create, to express through the dance, the absolute need to feel her body move are stronger and stronger.

Second part of the novel: Lin makes the choice. The one choice that will irrevocably damage lives. She flees away from her family, accepting an assignment in Mexico. She cuts off the bridges. She shuts the mother in her. The second part relates the parallel lives of Lin and of Derek and the girls, how it is to have done the unforgivable, how it is to grow up with a mother who left you behind and preferred the dance to you.

 La Virevolte was published in 1994. I had already read it, and have thought about it regularly since. It’s quite rare that a book stays in mind that way. This one had disturbed me, probably because the idea of a mother abandoning her children for dancing is disturbing. But for Lin, dancing is more than a job, it is a way to feel alive. To quit dancing is to die. She’s an artist. Rainer Maria Rilke said one is a real writer if not writing is synonym to death. Lin is that kind of artist, dance is her art.

 “Yes this is why I was born

And nothing – no nothing

can equal this pleasure to make bodies

move into space

fill the air with movements

embrace the music with chanting silence

leaps and leaps

mute howls of the joys and sorrows of the universe.”

 Lin has done what society cannot understand: being a mother and turning her back on her children. Yet Nancy Huston never judges her or tries to find psychological explanations. She clinically describes the wreckage Lin left behind and how she fully accepts the consequences of her choice. As in the passage I poorly translated before, the flow of sentences is sometimes broken. Her voice is scattered, like a breathing disturbed by dancing or by smothering.

 When Angela was born, the narrator says of Lin:

“She isn’t dead and she has not become someone else. Not only is she always herself but she is a mother. Not only is she always alive but someone else is also totally alive, over there, at the end of the corridor and she feels the life of this little human pull on the fibres of her heart.”

 She loves her daughters but she shouldn’t have been a mother and with horror realizes it deep inside.

 “What did I do?” Lin thinks

Oh my God what did I do

The dance, already so fragile so dependant, which dies at the very moment it was born, the dance already a mortal child of my mortal body and now these two girls too, these moving and breathing little girls, what did I do”

 I had no children when I read it for the first time and it’s been interesting to read it again now that I am a mother too. Parenthood is not something you can imagine; you can read about it, think about it and all the mental construction you will have elaborated will crumble into sand when reality comes. No one can understand this kind of love and relationship without living it. And no one can picture the “no-man’s-life” of parents of under five-years-old children. Lin was glued in that time. I cannot judge Lin though I probably should. Dancing and creating were stronger than anything else. How could she have known that before? Parenthood is a life experience that is definitive. You cannot try to be a parent, like you try yoga and then quit, thinking “this is not for me”. It is a unique experience in life because it is definitive. The only other irrevocable experience I found is death.

 Nancy Huston is an Anglophone Canadian, lives in Paris, writes in French and then translates her work in English. Though she writes in French, her characters and settings are American. I beg her pardon for the poor translation I made of her voice, but I couldn’t find quotes and I wanted to show how she sometimes turns the language as Lin bends her body. I’m always impressed by authors able to beautifully write in another language than their mother tongue. Maybe it is a way to tell things they would dare writing in their native language. Maybe their inner voice, their author voice sounds just speaks another language. That’s a question I’d like to ask her. And I’d like to see how a writer translates their own work.

 I liked this book a lot. I was taken in the twirl of Nancy Huston’s sentences and the story is not one you can forget.

Human fauna and enchanting landscapes.

September 22, 2010 4 comments

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck.

“Cannery Row in Monterey California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories, and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.”

All is said in the first paragraph introducing the book. Everything is there : Steinbeck’s urgent and rhythmic prose, his compassion, his genuine interest in these people’s lives. He gives them a voice, reveals their existence to the outside world.

 Who are they ? Lee Chong, the Chinese grocer. Doc, the owner and operator of the Western Biological Laboratory. Dora, the madam who methodically runs the local brother named the Bear Flag. Mack and the boys, former bums who moved in the Palace Flophouse owned by Lee Chong. Mr and Mrs Sam Malloy, who live in a ancient boiler. Henri, the frightened painter. A unique and colourful crowd of unpaired misfits. All are damaged by life. None of them runs really right. Steinbeck observes them with tenderness and sympathy trying to show the better of them, without hiding their flaws. His voice is musical, the images original.

 The book is composed of short chapters, sometimes of only two or three pages. The first ones are the description of the inhabitants of Cannery Row. Then comes a thin plot centred around Mack and the boys who decide to throw a surprise party for Doc, to thank him for all the good he does for the neighbourhood. They decide to collect living frogs for him, who needs them at the laboratory and thus earn money to purchase at Lee Chong’s the items they need for their party. The chapters of their outing in a antique Ford T in Carmel to hunt frogs are marvellous. I have not read Mark Twain, but this is how I imagine Tom Sawyer, especially for the technique used to gather frogs.

Their party is a predictable disaster. After a period of social ostracism following the failure of the party, they decide to throw another one, but this time with the complicity of the whole community. Much love is put in preparing the new party because they are grateful to Doc for his prodigal goodness.

 These people live in the edge of town and on the fringe of society. However, they are their own society and stick together. Doc is a central figure, he alone has a relative wealth, an honourable and stable job. He reads, listens to classical music. He is socially above them but his being eccentric prevents him from living in the city. He works in Cannery Row, shares their lives and is a sort of good Samaritan. Everyone on Cannery Row is indebted to him, for an advice, a medicine, some money. He acts like a self-invented social worker. Is he Steinbeck’s alter ego ? We understand why Steinbeck likes them through Doc’s voice:

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. An while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

 These people live with few things and never complain. It is how life is for them. Their respectability is their treasure, although they have their own idea of what “respectability” means. They do not envy the people living in better conditions but imitate their way of life. Mrs Malloy hangs curtains in her boiler-home which has no windows. Mary organizes tea parties with the stray cats wandering around her house because she has no money to throw real ones. All this is pictured with a tender irony.

 Aside from the lively portray of this crowd, Cannery Row is also a tribute to California. Steinbeck was born in Salinas, not very far from Monterey, Carmel and Point Lobos. This area is the wild coast between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. He depicts the landscape, the sea, the fauna with devotion. Doc’s trip to La Jolla, the beach located between San Diego and Los Angeles is an opportunity to praise the beauty of the panorama.

“The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble”

I felt like being there and walking on this beach too.

 Cannery Row is undoubtedly a remarkable book. Steinbeck’s voice is engaging but not bewitching. It took me time to walk on these streets and not look down on them from a reading tower. However, I enjoyed the descriptions of California and appreciated the generosity Steinbeck put in his attempt to give eternity to this little world. He shows their material poverty and their wealth of heart. All along the novel, their behaviour breathes with dignity. But it lacks the comical touch which makes John Fante a better writer.

The dangerous non-liaisons

September 18, 2010 7 comments

The Pretended Mistress, by Honoré de Balzac. A story from La Comédie Humaine, published in 1841.

In 1835, Clémentine de Rouvre marries Comte Adam Mitgislas Laginski, a Polish exile living in Paris. Adam was a soldier and took part in the uprising led by Polish Cadets against Russia in 1830, during which he met Thadée Paz. They became close friends, and their attachment is intensified by their being brothers in arms.

Clémentine and Adam’s marriage is a happy one. Thaddée, who comes from a noble but poor branch of a Polish family, decides to stay with Adam and work for him as his steward. He is afraid that Adam’s carelessness and Clémentine’s ignorance of business matters will lead to their ruin. So he takes everything under his control and they become prosperous. For example, he managed to negotiate the price of their beautiful home to their advantage.

Why such a devotion? Apart from the brotherly affection he feels for Adam, Thaddée has been madly in love Clémentine from the very first moment he met her. Clémentine, blind to his attachment, does not understand why her husband’s fine best friend stays in the shadows and does not participate to their Parisian life. She insists on his going out with them and sharing their diners.

During one of those evenings, Thaddée, handsomer than Adam, realizes that she may fall for him. Out of loyalty, he sacrifices his own happiness for the sake of Adam’s. He invents himself a mistress in the person of Malaga, a circus acrobat. He picked the name in his head, having seen her on a poster earlier on the street. To corroborate his story, he has her moving in an apartment he pays for and makes up every detail to keep up appearances. As soon as he has fabricated the evidences, he is caught by his lie as a fly in a cob web.

Although Blazac states that “Nothing so resembles the Divine love as hopeless human love”, I see evil in their relationships anyway. Indeed, their love triangle in based on lies, although Thaddée is the only member of the triangle who actually knows he is in such a triangle. Unlike the malignant lies of The Dangerous Liaisons, these ones are told for honourable reasons but produce the same kind of mischief. Thadée manipulates Clémentine for her own sake, and whatever the motive, manipulation cannot be justified. The two non-liaisons – the one between Thaddée and Clémentine and the one between Thaddée and Malaga – hover over them and sour the atmosphere.

We can wonder “Why such a sacrifice from Thaddée?” Balzac, sardonically answers through Adam’s voice:

Friendship, my dear angel, knows nothing of bankrupt sentiments and collapsed joys. Love, after giving more than it has, ends by giving less than it receives.”

 It is as if Thaddée were making a reasonable choice, searching the security in friendship and fleeing from the dangers love could bring.

 Apart from the original plot, the style of the book is a treat. From the first lines, Balzac unleashes his irony and addresses to the reader:

“In September 1835, one of the richest heiresses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, Mademoiselle du Rouvre, the only daughter of the Marquis du Rouvre, married Comte Adam Mitgislas Laginski, a young Polish exile. We ask permission to write these Polish names as they are pronounced, to spare our readers the aspect of the fortifications of consonants by which the Slave language protects its vowels,—probably not to lose them, considering how few there are.”   

I was much entertained by his witty tone. In the first pages, Balzac describes the background of Clémentine de Rouvre and explains the origins of Polish exiles living in Paris, ie they took refuge in France after the Cadet Uprising was routed by the Russian army. I was quite interested by this introduction and was curious to know more about the uprising of Poles against Russia, (See here for more details). This introduction is necessary for us to understand the roots of the comradeship between Adam and Thaddée. It is based on life-threatening experiences and relies on an absolute trust between the two men.

 But I also suspect that Balzac takes advantage of this story to expose political ideas. For example, here is the description of Clémentine’s boudoir :

Such is a lady’s boudoir in 1837,—an exhibition of the contents of many shops, which amuse the eye, as if ennui were the one thing to be dreaded by the social world of the liveliest and most stirring capital in Europe. Why is there nothing of an inner life? nothing which leads to revery, nothing reposeful? Why indeed? Because no one in our day is sure of the future; we are living our lives like prodigal annuitants.”

The last sentence relates to the political uncertainties that France had known for 50 years when Balzac writes this and echoes Musset in Confession of a Child of the Century, which I reviewed here.

The Pretended Mistress was also translated under the title The Imaginary Mistress, but I like “pretended” better than “imaginary” to translate the adjective “fausse” used in French. Imaginary means that Malaga does not exist. But she does, she just pretends to be Thaddée’s mistress. By the way, I think that the English translation I found is a bit flat compared to the French original text.

Wisdom from an Older Poet

September 13, 2010 7 comments

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. Read by Denis Podalydes.

 In 1903, Franz Kappus is a cadet in a military school. He writes poetry and wonders whether his poems are good and if he is meant to be a poet. When he learns form one of his teacher that  Rainer Maria Rilke is an alumnus of the same school, he decides to write to him and ask for an opinion on his poems. A long correspondence will follow, and Franz Kapuss had Rilke’s letters published years later, leaving his own in the shadow.

 I have borrowed the audio book of Letters to a Young Poet at the library. The voice of Denis Podalydes was sometimes musing, sometimes firm, and always warm, soft and convincing. Rainer Maria Rilke has a calm wisdom which applies a soothing balm on one’s mind.

In the first letter, Rilke answers to Franz’s interrogations. He gives his vision of being an artist. How do you know if you are meant to be a writer ? The answer is simple: if you can imagine your life going on without writing, then you are not a writer. He advises Franz to turn his attention to himself to find in his inner life the roots and the raw material for his art. Critics from journalists, magazine owners and readers are not relevant to evaluate the worth of his poems. He shall find this answer in himself. No one can teach him how to write, something I agree with. (I’ve always wondered what Americans teach in writing classes). He needs to find his voice as a writer, and this voice comes from deep inside.

The other letters are more guidelines for life than writing counsels. The experience of the artist is solitary and to bear its loneliness with forbearance is a way to strengthen and reveal one’s personality. Rilke thinks a period of solitude is a mandatory step to discover who we are and that if we throw ourselves in the world without caution, we shall never know ourselves deeply. Solitude is a mean to shut out the futilities of life and concentrate on the essentials. It will give us solid roots to face the tempests of our existence.

His vision of women suits me and is insightful for the time. He points out that men and women are more similar than it seems (Remember, we are in 1903 and women have the rights of children). The greatest worldwide innovation will occur when men and women will not consider themselves as opposites but as human beings. Women should no be individuals defined in comparison to men but as themselves, a feminine human being. Rilke perceives that love relationships will be affected by this transformation and men will be surprised. Love will consist “in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”.

To Franz who seems to have lived some hard times, he says sorrows should pass through him. The sadness which crosses someone nourishes them but when it stagnates, it putrefies and pollutes their soul. Fate is not external to men but within. The future is immobile, we are moving and imagining that events fall on us. But we just fail to listen to our inner minds and detect the coming events. It is that way that the future penetrates in us.

On courage, Rilke writes that the only true audacity is to welcome the unusual, the new, the strange as a benefit. “…perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”  Perhaps the ability to adapt to changes and new events is indeed the route to happiness, if happiness can be defined as a state of “non-suffering”

Rilke’s personal telescope is pointed on life from an fresh corner. These peaceful letters are the sort of book you want on your bedside table. They are a kind comfort for bad days, a silent shelter from the tumultuous outside world.

For another review, read Caroline’s fascinating take on these letters.

The Controversy of Valladolid, by Jean-Claude Carrière

September 11, 2010 11 comments

The Controversy of Valladolid by Jean-Claude Carrière.

The Controversy of Valladolid is a novel based on historical facts. According to Wikipedia: “The Valladolid debate (1550–1551) concerned the treatment of natives of the New World. Held in the Spanish city of Valladolid, it opposed two main attitudes towards the conquests of the Americas. Dominican friar and Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de las Casas argued that the Amerindians were free men in the natural order and deserved the same treatment as others, according to Catholic theology. Opposing him was fellow Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who insisted the Indians were natural slaves, and therefore reducing them to slavery or serfdom was in accordance with Catholic theology and natural law. Las Casas and Sepúlveda each later claimed to have won the debate, but no record supporting either claim exists. The debate had no clear effect on the treatment of the natives, it did ensure that the 1542 New Laws, which were initially designed to abolish the encomienda system, were to remain in effect.”

The encomienda system consisted in giving lands with all their resources (forests, water, peasants, mines) to soldiers. Natives became slaves.

 In the foreword, Jean-Claude Carrière explains that Las Casas and Sepúlveda may not have had their argument face to face. The controversy was probably lead through letters, which were actually publicly discussed. As a novelist, Jean-Claude Carrière decided to create this physical confrontation of ideas to enforce the drama. However, the reasoning is accurate and come from historical documentation. In the novel, the verbal fight takes place in a monastery. Las Casas and Sepúlveda are there with their assistants and their documentation. The Cardinal Roncieri was sent by the Pope to act as an arbitrator and will decide of the position the Roman Catholic Church will officially have on that matter.

 There were 20 millions people in the New World. Many of them were killed by Spanish or died because of the new diseases brought from Europe. Las Casas gives details on the maltreatments of Indians. Slaughter and torture are the appropriate words for the treatment of them by Spanish conquistadores.

I will not describe here all the ideas each opponent puts forward to win the fight. The argument is interesting but it is even more fascinating to read how literally narrow-minded they are. Their thoughts are limited by certitudes. Some fixed points cannot be moved without shaking the foundations of their lives. Christianity is the Truth. There is only one God. It is more important to save the Indians’ soul than provide them with decent living conditions. Jean-Claude Carrière describes the Cardinal Roncieri thinking after he has heard the two rivals:

“As educated and trained as his mind may be, as adroit his intelligence, as alert his conscience, all these precious qualities have a limit, which is precisely the truth. On Cardinal Roncieri, this truth works as a cage where he is born and in which he grew up, without ever seeing it was a cage. Outside of it, in the darkness, are the territories of ignorance and errors, which are reluctant to enter into the cage to such a point that one must force them in. Only in the cage, hold by the benevolent hand of the Creator, prevails the peace and tranquillity of certitude. In the cage only is the world properly laid down” (sorry for the poor translation)

That passage says everything and applies both to Sepúlveda and Las Casas. The first, who has never left Europe, is certain that Indians are not human, of if they are, they can only be of lower category, which authorizes slavery. If they were men equal to Europeans, he cannot imagine that these people could refuse to become Christians. He judges them as idolatrous and sinners. God has abandoned them and he wants the Spanish to punish them, just as he wanted them to push the Moors out of Spain. Their condition is the will of God. Las Casas, who has spent most of his life in the New World, feels that Indians are humans but lacks the words to conclusively prove it. His vision of Indians, tolerant and kind, would demand a “relativity” of belief, the idea that several religions can coexist. But admitting this would go too far and oblige him to break his cage. So his demonstration has always embarrassing flaws. Their thinking evolves in a restricted playing field. Expanding it is unconceivable. When Galileo will expose his theories fifty years later, the Church will prove her incapacity to accept changes.

The idea of two worlds growing apart, ignoring one another and finally meeting struck me. Of course I knew it had happened but I had never paused for a moment or tried to visualize the scene. I realized how astonishing and unthinkable it must have been. How can we imagine that? It must have been as if we discovered the existence of other men on another planet, except that we are probably more prepared to this idea than the people of 1492 were.

In fact, the theological debate was just a pretext, religion was used for more earthly and greedy aims. Spain needed the Church to confirm that God was on her side, that she was entitled to possess these countries and all their wealth. Accepting Las Casas’ theory would have required to pay the Indians for their work. It would have reduced the profits made of the encomienda  and less gold and wealth to be sent back home.  The justification of Spanish military and economical domination on the New World was more at stake than the moral quest on humanity.

 The Controversy of Valladolid is well written. Jean-Claude Carrière succeeds in bringing serious ideas in a lively debate and in providing just the appropriate level of historical details. The theological part is easy to understand for a modern reader and the description of the historical context is really interesting. Of course, as Carrière is a scenarist, he is skilled at creating an atmosphere and bringing new developments to keep the attention of the reader. 

I had a nice time reading The Controversy of Valladolid and learnt many things.  A film adaptation was shot in 1992 and Jean-Pierre Marielle played the part of Las Casas and Jean-Louis Trintignant of Sepúlveda

Journey into the Past, by Stefan Zweig.

September 8, 2010 11 comments

This is going to be frustrating. Reading such a marvellous short-story, writing about it and not being able to quote anything of Zweig’s bewitching prose. That’s one of the inevitable limits of blogging in English while reading books in a French translation.

 Journey into the Past starts with an exclamation “Here you are!”. And yes, here we are, witnessing the reunion of a man, Ludwig, and a woman, whose name is never given, at the railway station in Frankfort. They are lovers meeting again after being apart during nine years. Can love survive such a long separation? During their journey in the evening train to Heidelberg, Ludwig recalls their love story, these years spent far from one another.

Their relationship starts in 1910 as the young Ludwig, 23, reluctantly moves in his rich and ill boss’ house to become his private assistant. He instantly falls in love with his benefactor’s wife, though he does not name the feeling until his boss decides to send him to Mexico to run the local branch of his company. His absence is due to last two years, but as WWI starts, an embargo on seas prevents him to come back to Germany.  

Zweig has a unique and sensual way to describe the internal mayhem created by young love, the overflowing of Ludwig’s body and soul when he finally admits to himself that he loves her, the mental fireworks in his head and explosion in his heart when he realizes that his love is requited. Zweig’s picturing of desire is sensitive and well crafted. In his worlds love throws a radiant light on places and circumstances. She is there. Her hostile home becomes his “home sweet home”; his job as a private secretary, half servant, half guest in this house, no longer looks like a degradation.

 War is the deus ex-machina of their lives. Once it closes all maritime routes and Ludwig is stuck in Mexico. Then it pollutes their reunion as a military march crosses their way nine years later. Zweig’s disgust for war leaks through Ludwig’s thoughts. “Haß, Haß, Haß” (Hate, Hate, Hate), Ludwig thinks while watching the demonstrators. It slaps in the air like military feet on the pavement. The French translation (“La haine, la haine, la haine”) sounds so soft compared to the hard German “Haß”. Can their love bloom again in the middle of this hate?  

Zweig’s prose is a delicate jewel. He has an overwhelming and yet simple way of portraying feelings. He perfectly catches how fleeting happy moments are, how petty details can ruin a mood and spoil a moment. Happiness is like a butterfly, beautiful, furtive and hard to catch and keep. Memories nourish Ludwig’s inner life in Mexico and help him going on with his life.

 I was blown away by Zweig’s prose. I’ve read Journey into the Past on a train, in a very noisy environment but I was more in that train to Heidelberg, Germany than in my train for Toulon, France. Definitely something which deserves to be read, no excuse, it’s only 70 pages!

 I bought this book because the cover caught my eyes. It is published in a mass paperback collection, Le Livre de Poche. This edition is unusual for this collection and I was surprised to discover the original German text just after the French translation and a long and documented foreword on the life in Vienna in Zweig’s times and relevant biographical details. Usually, Le Livre de Poche offers no dual editions and forewords are limited to one page. By the way, it confirmed that “Louis” was of course named “Ludwig” in the German text: I will never understand why translators should overdo it and translate names too. I expected a German name, “Louis” sounded so odd for a man living in Frankfort.

 PS : I have found another review by Kimbofo from Reading Matters and I have read it after I wrote mine.

A Winter Journey, by Amélie Nothomb

September 5, 2010 9 comments

Le Voyage d’hiver, by Amélie Nothomb, read by Thibault de Montalembert. 

Yesterday, I subscribed to my local media library. As I was to accomplish a repelling amount of housework during the week-end, I decided to find solace in audio books. That’s how I borrowed “Le Voyage d’hiver”, which has not been translated in English yet. On Wikipedia, the English title I found was “The Winter Journey”. But I would rather use the word “trip” than “journey” as the drug-related meaning of “trip” has a sense in this story. 

The book opens with the narrator – we will learn later that his name is Zoïle, sitting at Charles de Gaulle airport and waiting for the 1:30 pm flight for somewhere. The destination doesn’t matter as he intends to hijack the plane and crash it. He is writing his first and last diary to explain how he got idea to commit such a crime even if relating his story is pointless as his journal is bound to disappear with him in the crash.

Zoïle, whose name comes from a Greek sophist philosopher, works for EDF (1) and visits destitute people to help them reduce their heating bills by financing house improvements on thermal insulation. (2) He thus meets Astrolabe and her autistic room mate Aliénor. When he first rings at their flat, he knows that Aliénor is a writer and mistakes her for Astrolabe. He could not imagine that the gifted writer could be this ugly autistic simpleton while her beautiful friend was an ordinary person. He falls in love with Astrolabe and they start a peculiar love relationship.  

Amélie Nothomb plays with names, with literary references. Her prose is liquid, funny, easy to read/hear. Music has a decisive impact on events, the title refers to a lead by Schubert and the music of Aphex Twin (apparently a British group doing electronic music, but I don’t know about them) is heard at the climax of the book.

On a second level of reading, Aliénor and Astrolabe seem to be the division of Amélie Nothomb herself. The names both starts with an “A”. In Aliénor, we hear “alien” and “aliéné”, which means “insane” in French. Aliénor is other and insane. Astrolabe, which means “star-taker”, is nursing Aliénor, protecting her. She translates in intelligible language the books Aliénor dictates. They have an intense relationship, as if they were one unique person.  

I probably wouldn’t have bought this book. It’s a short one, less than 150 pages and only a two hours listening. Maybe it is what Anglophones call a novella, but I’m not sure. This concept has no equivalent in French and though I understand what it is, I still struggle to figure out if a book is a novel or a novella.

 I had a good time listening to The Winter Journey. Amélie Nothomb has a witted and funny style. Better, she just knows how to tell good stories with strange characters, and all the while insert subtle remarks on love, hate, beauty, ugliness and human behaviour.

This book doesn’t bring anything new to literature or will probably not be read in twenty years but it is good entertainment.


 (1) The French electricity company

(2) I think that this kind of program really exists, to meet the Kyoto Protocol engagements on saving energy to fight against global warming.

Nick’s perfume: “Je promets”

September 1, 2010 6 comments

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst.

In the summer1983, Nick Guest, a twenty-one-year-old student freshly graduated from Oxford moves in with the Feddens, in Kensington Gardens, London. The family is composed of Gerald Fedden, a newly elected Tory MP, his wife Rachel, their daughter Catherine and their son Toby, Nick’s friend from Worcester College. Nick is doing a doctorate on Henry James at University College (London). Nick is gay, handsome, intelligent and has agreeable manners. He’s interested in arts and is described as an aesthete. Unlike the Feddens, he comes from the middle class.

The book is divided in three parts. The first one starts in summer 1983, when Nick is just out of Oxford and out of the closet. It relates the beginnings of his life with the Feddens and his first sexual intercourse and relationship with a black man named Leo. The Tories have won the election and Margaret Thatcher is PM. Gerald Fedden is a selfish, ambitious, rising Tory, whose dream is to have the PM attend one of his parties.

The second part takes place in 1986. Nick is now the secret lover of a rich heir, Wani Ouradi. The Ouradi family is Lebanese and owns food-retail stores. Wani takes Nick into his whirl of parties. Sex, cocaine and money are now Nick’s daily companions, the three mandatory ingredients for the parties in Wani’s class, a world of lies where gay men show off with a girl-friend or wife, paid to keep up appearances. Wani is supposedly straight and has a French girl-friend named Martine. (A rather odd name for a girl born in the 1960s, by the way).

The third part is in 1987, the Tories win the election, but less easily. Everything crumbles and masks fall down. I won’t tell more, to avoid spoilers.

Nick takes life as it comes, accepts gifts and invitations, not resenting their potential ugliness as for him beauty and ugliness can only be grasped through the prism of art. He is under the illusion that good manners and money put these people above common littleness. His own pursuit of beauty, his dandy way to grasp life blind him.

“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever the force and beauty of its process.”

He does not realize how shallow their feelings for him are, that apparent beauty can hide a rotten heart. No matter how long he would know them, he would never belong to their world, the class barrier, the gay barrier would always stand between them. He deludes himself in thinking that his love for art and his art to speak would get him into the world. He never fools anyone but himself.

Thus living, Nick almost turns his back on his family, the only time we see them is when Gerald Fedden comes for a visit, as the MP of their district. His name “Guest” sums up what he is: a guest in the Fedden’s house, a guest in Wani’s life, and eventually a guest in this world, like we all are.

 “Je promets” is the French perfume Gerald Fedden gives to Nick, the summer he moves in. “Je promets” literally means “I’m promising” as in “I have a great future” and “I’m making a promise”. Nick could have a great future, as he is well educated and intelligent but he spoils it. And he makes promises that are not mouthed but tacitly agreed.
I suppose Nick can be despised. After all, he never does anything with himself, living like a sponger on his rich friends. But I could not see him like that. I stood for him right from the start and I pity him. He has a sort of classy/chivalrous manners and an outdated sense of loyalty.

And what a loneliness! I pity his loneliness. I was sad for Nick as he must bear an unbearable double solitude. He does not belong to his own class any more and his homosexuality prevents him to belong to the world, any world. His not belonging to the upper class he now lives in makes of him the perfect scapegoat when things end badly. He never hides he is gay and the weight of others’ secrecy and tricks fall on him.

“What really was his understanding with Wani? The pursuit of love seemed to need the cultivation of indifference. The deep connection between them was so secret that at times it was hard to believe it existed. He wondered if anyone knew – had even a flicker of a guess, an intuition blinked away by its own absurdity. How could anyone tell? He felt there must always been hints of a secret affair, some involuntary tenderness or respect, a particular way of not noticing each other… He wondered if it would ever be known, or if they would take the secret to the grave. For a minute he felt unable to move, as if he were hypnotized by Wani’s image. It took a little shudder to break the charm”.

The 1980s seem well-pictured. I don’t recall clearly the politics of that time or the pursuit of fame and money as an open goal. But I was in my teens and I perfectly remember how AIDS added a second thorn on the rose of sex and an additional fear for parents.
I was amazed of the description of “the Lady”, the “PM”. She dazzles her MPs with her blue eyes and her presence hovers over the story. The image I had of her was more of a merciless warrior joyfully running over social rights and public services, crushing strikes than of a worshipped queen. (No play on word, I swear). Catherine and Nick observe her at a party:

“It’s so funny watching the men with her. They come up with their wives but you can see they’re an embarrassment ̶ look at that one now, yes, shake hands, ‘Yes, Prime Minister, yes, yes,’ can’t quite get round to introducing his wife…obviously longing for her to get lost so he can have a hot date with the Lady himself ̶ now she’s got to sit on the sofa, he’s furious…but yes! she’s got him ̶ he’s squatting now…he’s kneeling on the carpet…”

It sounds like journalists comments on a football game or on a 100-meters run. It also took me a second to collect my thoughts and realize that “The President” could only be Ronald Reagan. In a French book, it would have been written “The President of the United States” but here, “The President” is obviously clear enough, as if there were no other president in the world, as if this president was also theirs.

Several book references popped up in my mind while reading The Line of Beauty. In the first place, I thought of the New York jet-set from Jay McInerney’s books, but the characters invented by Hollinghurst are less vulgar. Then I remembered the decadence and elegant parties of Françoise Sagan and it suited better. The difficulty to enter a prestigious university where so little students come from middle/working classes reminded me of I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Nick can be compared to the character named Hoyt, because, like him, he plays a game whose rules he thinks he understands but discovers too late he doesn’t.

I was sorry to miss a lot of Hollinghurst’s beautiful prose. I am sure I did not grasp all the innuendos, references and irony hidden behind his precise, subtle and well-chosen words. Incidentally, it has been very educational for my vocabulary. I warmly recommend this book for its style, its picture of the 1980s and its immersion into gay life.

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