Archive for December, 2010

Seven months in the life of a Russian terrorist.

December 30, 2010 9 comments

The Pale Horse, by Boris Savinkov.  (French translation : Le Cheval blême)

This is strange. I had ordered that book after reading Guy’s post on it, thinking I’d read it “someday”. But when I received it, I started to read the first page and I was caught at once. I didn’t put it down until it was finished. Perhaps it is because it is at the crossroads between books I have read recently. There’s something of Novel With Cocaine: the Moscow setting at the beginning of the 20th century, the brutality and absence of remorse of the narrator. There’s something about Gary’s thoughts in The Dance of Gengis Cohn on murders in the name of an ideology.  

Back to The Pale Horse. It is the journal of a Russian revolutionary terrorist, from March to October 1906. George – a pseudonym, we never get to know his real name – is writing the diary. He is the boss of a commando in charge with the assassination of the governor of Moscow. The commando has five members, including George and each of them has their own reason to be a terrorist. Each one corresponds to a type of terrorist.  

Heinrich is the intellectual. He is a convinced socialist and an advocate of violent actions to bring socialism to power. Killing is the necessary path to give the power to the people. He doesn’t have the temper to be a terrorist but he wants to be in to practise what he preaches. He says he’s not credible if he stays in the sidelines. He’s too soft for this, but he’s doing it for the revolution and for himself, to prove to himself he can do it.  

Vania is martyr material. He’s a fervent Christian, his speech is full of quotes from the Bible. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ being one of the Ten Commandments, he struggles to reconcile his faith in God and his faith in terrorism as a necessary mean to achieve the revolution. He thinks his being killed while bombing an enemy is the greatest sacrifice he could make. Killing is a mortal sin. If he kills someone and is hanged for it, he will sacrifice his life and his soul. His speeches are full of love and how Christian love should rule the world but his acts are hatred He really made me think of religious martyrs. His motto could be “Make war, then love”.  

Erna is in because she loves George. And George doesn’t love her but needs her for sex and for her skills in chemistry. She’s the one who prepares the bombs. Erna is madly in love with George. It’s a painful, unrequited, crushing love. He sleeps with her without loving her and perfectly knowing she’s in love with him. He’s cruel, selfish, insensitive but honest. He tells her he loves someone else, he never hides he doesn’t love her.  Poor Erna who fell in love wih the wrong man.

Fiedor is ready to die. He’s the mercenary type. He’s in this revolution but he could have been involved in another one with the same enthusiasm. He’s more looking for danger and adventure than really eager to bring socialism to power. He’s cold-hearted and brave.  

And then George, the narrator. Cold, full of hate, bored. He seems heartless but he seems genuinely in love with Elena. He’s capable of feelings. He’s not immoral. He’s amoral. He doesn’t want to abide by any law. He thinks rules don’t apply to him. He’s a terrorist because it is a job that suits his lack of ethics. He talks about vengeance, hatred but never explains the roots of these feelings. He just sounds utterly depressed and prone to self-destruction. He is drowned into a sort of deep despair that found a mean of action and expression in the revolutionary context of the Russia of that time. I see him as an opportunist. Like Vadim in Novel With Cocaine, he watches himself live. He doesn’t feel the emotions at the time he is living the events. He’s like hovering over himself and observing himself live with detached eyes.  

We follow the preparation of the bombing, the waiting, the attempts. All this left me with an impression of improvisation. They look like resolute amateurs. They observe, but not really thoroughly. They don’t know for sure how to reach their target. How do you throw the bomb? When? Who’s going to throw the first bomb? Can you avoid to get killed? They’re alone, they’re not even trained. The Pale Horse is autobiographical. Boris Savinkov did organize such bomb attacks. So we can assume things happened that way. Seen from the 21st century, with all the technology we now have, this seems really hazardous, home-made terrorism.  

Besides the idea of killing for a cause, what disturbed me is the total absence of political speech. These people – apart from Heinrich – didn’t really believe in their cause. But had they deeply believed in their cause, could that faith be an excuse for their acts? Can anything justify a murder? Is killing for political reasons more noble than for personal reasons? Is it forgivable to murder a hateful person? Do the ends justify the means? This journal raises all these ethical issues. Savinkov wrote it in 1908, when he was living in France. He wasn’t in action at the time. Was he starting to question the justification of the assassinations he had organized?  

I was also shocked by the Andreï Petrovitch character. He represents the Central Committee. He’s the link between the political – and supposedly – respectable face of the movement and its armed arm. He regularly checks on George, giving him the latest instructions. The wind changes of direction at each visit. Once they want to slow down on terrorist actions. Once they want to intensify them. Andreï Petrovitch is convinced he has a direct influence on the events. But whatever he says, George just does as he pleases. It shows how limited the influence of politicians on these groups is, how dangerous a weapon there are. I thought of Northern Ireland, of the Spanish Basque Country, of Corsica.  

And in the middle of all this violence, this hatred stands the sunny Elena. She’s the Ariadne’s thread that still connects George with the bright sight of humanity. She’s the Achille’s heel of his supposedly solid shell. She’s married and loves both her husband and George. She wants to be free to love two men at the same time. Is she an image of the fight for women’s rights? And George, who claims there are no rules, can he bear to have the rule of monogamy broken? Elena perfectly knows George is a terrorist, however, she doesn’t give him to the police. What does this mean? Does she make an exception to moral rules out of love? Or does it point out that the terrorist actions are welcome and understood by the Russian people?  

I was fascinated by the progression of the events and the workings of the relationships between the members of the commando and between George and Elena. The underlying question is that of the relativity of moral principles.

Savinkov’s style is as dry as George’s heart and soul. No compassion. No compromise. Only facts shown in a crude light. The only soft moments lay in the description of nature, of Elena, of George’s feelings for Elena. The dialogues are composed of abrupt sentences, bullets sent between the persons. It sounds like Marguerite Duras, though she couldn’t have influenced Savinkov, of course. It reminded me of Hiroshima, mon amour and of L’Amant. Indeed, in L’Amant, the female narrator builds a shell around her, she doesn’t want to fall in love with the Chinese. She deludes herself into thinking that she’s not touched by their affair. George does the same with killing. He thinks and shouts he doesn’t mind, but he does. Is that was Savinkov discovered about himself in Paris, when the excitement of day-to-day action had vanished?

There would be much more to say about this fascinating book. I didn’t expect the constant references to the Evangels. Sometimes, when the characters talk, they use whole sentences from the Bible. The love triangle between Elena/George/Erna could have been superfluous but it fits in and sheds some light on George’s temper. I’ve read it with candid eyes, I’m not educated enough to detail the political and historical context. In fact, I didn’t care. It has a universal insight on the dynamic of such groups. This is literature, not history, which brings us back to the haunting question of Gary in The Dance of Gengis Cohn: how can we accept that the horror gives birth to a book, to art?

A last thing. My French edition is excellent. The foreword written by the translator is relevant to explain the context and the place of this book in Savinkov’s life. The footnotes are useful for the political and religious references.

Whose mind am I in?

December 28, 2010 9 comments

La Danse de Gengis Cohn, by Romain Gary. (English version : The Dance of Gengis Cohn).

 La Danse de Gengis Cohn is one of the few books by Romain Gary I had not read. It was written in French in 1966 and then translated in English in 1968. Two reasons led me to read it now. On the one hand, Nancy Huston recently wrote a fascinating article comparing the English and the French versions of this book and explaining Gary’s vision on translation. She says one could write a PhD thesis on the comparison between the English and French versions Gary made of some of his books. On the other hand, Myriam Anisimov, Gary’s French biographer, declared it was her favourite book by Gary. She also pointed out that this one forecast Emile Ajar’s style. I thought I had missed something there.

La Danse de Gengis Cohn is difficult to sum up. The narrator, Gengis Cohn, is a dibbuk, that is to say an evil spirit that haunt people in the Jewish tradition. Gengis Cohn is currently haunting the subconscious of Schatz, the former SS officer who shot him. Here is how Schatz sees him:

Je porte un manteau noir très long, par dessus mon pyjama rayé et, sur le manteau, côté coeur, l’étoile jaune réglementaire. Je suis, je le sais, très pâle – on a beau être courageux, les mitraillettes des SS braquées sur vous et le commandement Feuer! ça vous fait tout de même quelque chose – et je suis couvert de plâtre des pieds à la tête, manteau, nez, cheveux et tout. I’m wearing a very long black coat, over my striped pyjamas, and on the coat, on the side of the heart, the prescribed yellow star. I am, I am aware of that, very pale – you can be as brave as may be, the Tommy guns of the SS pointed on you and the order ‘Feuer!’, it does do something to you – and I’m covered with plaster from head to toe, coat, nose, hair and everything.

We are in 1966, in Schatz’s office, who is now a policeman. The biggest case of his career falls down on him. Men get killed in the Forest of Geist. At the beginning of the novel, already twenty-two men have been murdered and all corpses were found naked with an ecstatic grin on their face. They died happy, after climax. Schatz quickly understands they were all murdered by an eunuch named Florian after the victims have tried to sexually satisfy a frigid woman named Lily. The second part of the novel takes place in the Forest of Geist, where Schatz, always accompanied by Cohn, is searching Florian and Lily.

The reader soon comes to understand that Florian and Lily are allegories personifying Death and Life/Humanity. In the foreword, Gary claims that this book is in the tradition of picaresque novels. I can’t tell if he has achieved his goal, I know nothing of this area of literature. (It never tempted me, but I’m open to suggestions)

I think this is the most Jewish book Gary ever wrote. It is full of yiddish words and Cohn is a former comical artist who used to perform a one man show in a cabaret in Warsaw named the Schwarze Schickse. The way Cohn colonizes Schatz’s mind is truly hilarious. Gary is usually a funny writer but this is pure black humour. For example, Schatz never uses soap because you never know who is in it! (on ne sait jamais qui est dedans!)

A word about the names. Schatz is a love word in German, like darling or sweetheart. So when Cohn calls him Schatzchen, it is as if he called him Sweetie. Geist means ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’. The Forest of Geist is at the same time the forest of dead people – slaughters happened there – and the forest of the human mind. The Forest of Geist is the subconscious of humanity. It is located near a village named Licht, which means Light. It is probably a reference to the century of the Enlightenment and to Goethe’s last words ‘Mehr Licht’, (More light).

The substance of the book is triple. The first point is to talk about the Holocaust. Gary lost relatives in camps and this book was written just after a visit to Warsaw with Jean Seberg. Nancy Huston explains in her article that Gary would have fainted during this visit and remained unconscious during three hours. This book was a necessity for him as he was haunted by the Holocaust, as a Jewish and as a humanist. This novel is an exorcism for him. Sometimes, he intervenes in the novel, like when he says:

Ma place était là-bas, avec eux. C’est curieux: il y a des Juifs qui mourront avec le sentiment d’avoir échappé à la mort. My place was there, with them. It’s strange: some Jewish people will die under the impression they have escaped to death.

Through Gengis Cohn, he questions what happened and how humanity and society cope with it. It was written in 1966 and the subject had been a taboo in France. Gary chose to have Cohn haunting a former SS but he could have chosen a Gestapo member instead.

Which leads us to the second big idea of the book. Gary struggled to understand how humanity created La Joconde and Botticelli’s paintings as well as gaz chambers. This issue is in the background of his whole work: how Humanity includes inhumanity.

On peut être un salopard et goûter la poésie. One can be a scoundrel and appreciate poetry.

He was also convinced that humanity had yet to be created, that it is an ideal that we, human, haven’t reached yet.

 And the third underlying question is how artists manage to create beauty from the horror, like Picasso with Guernica or Goya with The Disasters of War, for example. Here are Lily and Florian talking:

– Qu’est-ce qu’il est venu faire dans le Ghetto de Varsovie?- Oublier ma chérie. Il en fera sûrement un livre, c’est leur façon de se débarrasser de ce qui les gêne.- Il est mignon.

– Mais puisque je te dis que c’est un écrivain, ma chérie. Ils s’en tirent toujours avec un livre.

“What’s he come to the Warsaw ghetto for?“Blood and tears, luv. He’s looking for material.”“In such a filthy place?”

“That’s nothing compared to his subconscious, peach. A writer’s subconscious is one of the filthiest places there are: as a matter of fact, you can find the whole world there.”


“I know. Writers are born shit-eaters, luv, then they use the filth, the horror, and the shame they’ve eaten to present you with some more literature, peach.”

The English quote comes from the English version of the book. That’s why it is not the exact translation of the French quote. (If anyone is interested by the literal translation, please ask in the comments, I’ll translate it). It’s also more aggressive.

In the end, the reader wonders where he is. Are Schatz and Cohn haunting a writer’s mind, which is in fact that Forest of Geist?

 The Dance of Gengis Cohn is not my favourite novel by Gary. The idea of a Jewish dibbuk haunting the mind of the SS who killed him and playing him funny tricks is good. The thoughts on creation are interesting. However, I was not convinced by the form of the novel. It is full of life, despite the depressing theme. It is a firework, an explosion of words, ideas, images, references. It would have needed editing. I lost his train of thoughts and would have appreciated a more orderly thinking.

 For those who have never read Gary, I don’t think it’s a good way to start with his work. You need to know his way of thinking to fully appreciate it. La Danse de Gengis Cohn is for fans only.

 A last word about the quotes. I translated all the quotes, except for the last one. I translated literally, which is a betrayal to Gary’s vision on translations. Indeed, he used to adapt his work to his Anglophone public. He used to modify the cultural French references to American ones in the English versions. His point was to have his public understand what he wanted to say. As he liked to hide serious issues under jokes – witz in yiddish – and as he knew each culture has his own comical references, he wanted to adapt. He thought HE had to adapt, not the reader, aware as he was, that humanity is diversity.

Merry Christmas ! Humbug, he said.

December 23, 2010 7 comments

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

 It’s easy to be in a Christmas mood with children opening the window of their advent calendar every morning and counting how many days are left until the d-day. So I decided to read A Christmas Carol. I’m not going to sum up this story, every body knows it. I wanted to see if what I had in mind was faithful to the text. Just to remember, it was written in 1843.

I had read Great Expectations and David Copperfield a long time ago. I remember I enjoyed both of them. To be honest, I was expecting something starchy and full of dutiful Christian sermons. Not at all.

Dickens’s style is really oral, you can imagine him telling this story by a fire, with voice effects and speaking with his hands. Here is Scrooge’s description:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!

I didn’t expect the fun either and I’m sure I missed tons of innuendos and play-on-words. 

‘You’re quite a powerful speaker, sir’ he added, turning to his nephew. “I wonder you don’t go into Parliament”

or when Scrooge meets Marley’s ghost:  

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

Of course, the way Scrooge changes his mind about Christmas and totally modifies his way of life isn’t realistic at all, but fairy-tales aren’t supposed to be realistic.

I’ve had a good time reading A Christmas Carol and it suits the season.

I wish you all a merry Christmas. Je vous souhaite un joyeux Noël.

PS: By the way, in French a turkey is a “she”. It was a bit disturbing to read this:

I was a Turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ’em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax.

Nudity of a selfish, horrid and arid soul.

December 19, 2010 17 comments

Roman avec cocaïne by M Agueev. (Translated from Russian by Lydia Chweitzer)

Novel With Cocain by M Ageyev (English translation) 

Il me vint à l’esprit que ce qui importe à l’homme ce ne sont pas les événements survenus dans sa vie, mais seulement la répercussion de ces événements dans sa conscience. It came to my mind that what matters to a man are not the events of his life, but only the echoes of these events in his conscience.

Very Proustian. And indeed, this is Proust with an evil narrator.

I first heard of Novel with Cocain in Laurence Cossé’s book Au Bon Roman. It intrigued me. According to my edition, this book was written in Russian in 1934 by a mysterious M Ageyev. (M Agueev in French). It was published in a Paris, in a magazine in Russian aimed at the Russian community who took refuge in the French capital after the revolution in Russia. According to Anglophone Wikipedia, M Ageyev would be the pen name of Mark Levi, a Russian writer who died in 1973.  

This novel is split in four parts. We are in Moscow, in 1916.It is a first-person narrative told by Vadim, a 16-18 years old young man.

The first part consists in his high-school memories. He relates remarkable episodes of his years in a Muscovite high-school. It starts with a terrible scene where Vadim’s mother comes to the high-school because he has forgotten the envelope with the tuition money. His description of her is terrible. She’s old with worn out clothes, in bad health. She looks like a beggar. He’s ashamed of her and dares not acknowledge she’s his mother. He joins the group of other students who make fun of her. It’s a heartbreaking scene and right from the start, I disliked the selfish and cold-hearted Vadim. I was also horrified by his telling how, knowing he suffered from a STD, he nonetheless has sexual intercourse with a young virgin named Zinotchka. He knows she will get sick too but does not care. His own pleasure is above all. Of course, I thought of AIDS while reading this. I shuddered to think about her and I was angry with Vadim’s unbearable selfishness. This section also includes interesting scenes picturing reactions towards Jews and hints of how revolutionary theories had entered into schools in 1916. After the episode between Vadim and his school comrade Bourkevitz, I wondered if he was gay.

The second part is about his relationship with a married woman, Sonia. It opens like this: 

Les boulevards étaient comme les gens : semblables sans doute dans leur jeunesse, ils changeaient progressivement en fonction de ce qui fermentait en eux. The boulevards were like people: probably alike in their youth, they were changing according to what was fermenting in them.

 Their relationship is doomed to disappointment. Sonia loves him and he watches her loving him and he watches himself behaving in such a way that she can only love him. He feels nothing and he feels too much at the same time. He’s not really attracted to her physically, which brings me back to the question of his homosexuality. I won’t tell too much about this section, to avoid spoilers. A quote, showing how sensitive – hum – Vadim is: 

La femme, c’est comme le champagne, froide, elle enivre davantage, et dans un emballage français, elle coûte plus cher. Women are like champagne, cold, they intoxicate more, and in a French packaging, they cost more.

Very gentleman-like. Sounds like Sacha Guitry or George Bernard Shaw.

The third part is about cocaine. Vadim happens to sniff cocaine and rapidly becomes an addict. He thoroughly relates the sensations he feels when he first takes this drug. He tells how it is to feel withdrawal symptoms. He explains why he was bound to be an addict. It reminded me of the introduction of Naked Lunch, that I read earlier this year.  He also questions the effects of the drug on his mind. 

The fourth part is called ‘Thoughts”. Vadim tries to analyse feelings and especially hatred and bestiality. His reasoning is interesting. He says cocaine gives him the immediate feeling of happiness. He would have had to work a lot to reach the success in life – the external event – that could have given him the same pleasure. He concludes, with an extreme lucidity: 

J’aurais pu lutter contre la cocaïne et lui resister dans un seul cas : celui où la sensation de bohneur aurait été déterminée chez moi moins par la réalisation de l’événement extérieur que par le travail, la peine, les efforts qu’il aurait fallu fournir pour y arriver. I could have fought against cocaine and could have resisted to it in one case: the one in which the feeling of happiness would have been determined in me less by the realisation of the external event than by the work, the trouble, the efforts I would have had put in to make it happen.

He was doomed to be an addict.

On Anglophone Wikipedia, they say this books looks like Nabokov. I can’t tell, I have only read Lolita, and it was a long time ago. In my copy, they say it looks like Proust. And it’s true. Ageyev has a way to describe routine, to desiccate feelings and the effects of feelings on the soul, and to depicts memories that is really Proustian. Some sentences sound like Proust.  

Mais telle était déjà la force de l’habitude, que même dans mes rêves de bonheur, je pensais avant tout non pas à la sensation de bonheur mais à tel fait qui (s’il se réalisait) me procurerait cette sensation, n’étant pas capable de séparer ces deux éléments l’un de l’autre. But the strength of routine was such that, even in my dreams of happiness, I thought above all, not of the feeling of happiness but of a given event that – if it happened – would give me that feeling, as I was not able to split these two elements from one another.
But Proust is moving, for example for his love for his mother, his grand-mother, the affectionate description of Françoise. He never hides people’s pettiness but he loves humanity. Vadim is a coward. He treats his mother with an extreme cruelty. He exploits her, sucks her money and she is reduced to poverty. He’s like Delphine and Anastasie in Le Père Goriot by Balzac. He’s a despicable character. He’s smug, nasty, irresponsible, fickle. He seems shut up to any soft feelings, except for some brief moments of exaltation, of elation.

Proust is also incredibly funny. And Ageyev is only bleak, there is no sense of humour at all. That’s why this is not Proust. I enjoyed the descriptions of Moscow, the promenades on a sleigh. It is a good book, cleverly written, shattering. Nudity of a selfish, horrid and arid soul.

It’s worth reading, really.

PS : Of course, I couldn’t find the quotes in English. Now that I know that some publishers dare publish translations of translations without any guilt, I decided to translate myself the quotes I had in French. It is obviously far less good than what a translator would have done, but let’s say it’s better than no quotes at all. I have the edition with the abstract painting cover but I think the one with the boy is much better. I imagine Vadim like this.

Click here for another review

Life and literature

December 16, 2010 12 comments

Romain Gary committed suicide on December 2, 1980. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of his death, the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits organises an exhibition entitled “Romain Gary, from The Roots of Heaven to Life Before Us” Of course, I had to see it and thankfully my job requires regular visits to the Parisian headquarters of the company I work for. Turning the mandatory discomfort of being away from home into an opportunity has become my motto.

 I had never been to this museum, located Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris 7ème. It is coincidentally located very close from the 108 rue du Bac, where Gary used to live from 1963 until his death. I also paid a visit to his street.

 The exhibition has been organised with the help of Gary’s only son Alexandre Diego. Personal letters were showed. Unpublished manuscripts including the one of his first novel, written at 17, were displayed. Alexandre Gary said in an interview that he intends to respect his father’s will, as he explicitly wrote on this manuscript it should not be published.

I found really moving to see the pell-mell pictures Romain Gary had in his office. I enjoyed discovering the covers of the first editions of his books, in their English or French version. Most of them were published in English, before or at the same time as in French.

Some manuscripts were written in English and then translated and rewritten in French. I knew for The Ski Bum but not for Education Européenne, published in 1945 after a first English version – Forest of Anger – had been published in London in 1944.

It says :

To the question “How long have you been writing? In which language?”, Romain Gary used to answer:

“Do you know the story of the chameleon? You put it on a blue carpet, it turns blue; you put it on a yellow carpet, it turns yellow; on a red carpet, it turns red; you put it on a tartan carpet, it goes mad. I didn’t go mad, I became a writer. My first colour has been Russia, then, after the Revolution, it has been Poland, where I stayed 6 years. Then it has been the South of France, the lycée in Nice, the aviation, 10 years in Ajaccio, 15 years as a diplomat, 10 years in America, bilingual French-English, press correspondent… Voilà. I am the chameleon who never exploded.”

I was particularly impressed by the constant switch of languages he was doing. For example, there was a love letter to Christel Kriland in 1937:

Je voudrais [] te dire des mots qui n’ont jamais servi. Je voudrais inventer une langue spéciale pour te parler, quelque chose comme le contraire de l’esperanto. I wish I could tell you words that were never used. I would like to invent a special language to talk to you, something like the opposite of Esperanto.

Then it goes on in German, with French words in a parenthesis. I’m not fluent enough in German to understand the rest of the letter, unfortunately. This letter is interesting because it shows what aim he will have in writing: to create a language of his own. Characters have their voice, defined by the very way they choose and arrange words in their sentences.

The manuscripts were written in an urging handwriting, most of the time in rather big and incomprehensible letters. It gave me the impression that writing was a flow, that the hand had a hard time running at the same pace as his mind and that he was not a man who desperately contemplated a white page until he wrote the perfect word. To be honest, the reader can feel this burst of life in his novels and regret it sometimes, as some sentences could have been cut off. 

It was fascinating to see the genesis of the novels, like watching the drawings a painter made as studies before a major painting.

I wonder if what I just wrote is of any interest to anyone but me. Anyway. I had a lovely moment there, one of those ‘out-of-time’ moments when you set aside every day routine and do something for yourself only.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

December 14, 2010 18 comments

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein starts as an epistolary novel. Robert Walton is writing letters to his sister Margaret from Russia. He wants to explore the North Pole, eager to leave a mark in history. During his journey, he rescues Victor Frankenstein, who relates his story. He tells about his childhood, his adolescence in Geneva. We get acquainted with his family, especially with Elizabeth and friends, particularly Henry Clerval. He was already interested in science and chemistry.

He then leaves Geneva to study in Ingolstadt, Germany, and resumes the study of galvanism. He launches himself in deep study and feverishly and enthusiastically fabricates a creature. When it wakes up to life, Victor is frightened and gets nervously sick. The creature escapes but Victor does not care to find him. Victor’s friend Henry then comes to Ingolstadt and nurses him back to health.

Victor’s health recovered, he and Henry go back to Geneva, just in time to hear that Victor’s younger brother William has been murdered. Victor connects this murder to the wretch he has created and feels miserable. His misery will increase as the family acquaintance Justine is accused of the murder, tried and condemned to death. Victor, having the death of two innocent people on his conscience, tries to find solace in hiking in the Alps.

There starts an interesting section of the novel as he meets his creature. He tells him what his life has been since he was born. He asks Victor to create a female for him, because he frightens humans and thus cannot share their life. He advocates that he and his fellow creature would leave the country to live in a barren country, away from men. The monster threatens Victor to hurt his family if he does not agree to the bargain.

Victor consents, willing to protect his family. He starts a journey to Great Britain, to meet the scientists who can give him the remaining knowledge he needs to create a female. Henry Clerval accompanies him. Victor settles in a remote village on the Scottish shore and starts his work.

After a while, he realises that if he creates this female, she and his first creation may breed and start a new kind. He figures out that he has no way to ensure that the creature will keep his promise and leave Europe to live in inhabited areas. He cannot know whether this female will love her mate and will graciously follow him in an isolated zone. Victor decides he cannot take that chance and destroys the female he had started to create. Giving life to another creature to protect his family seems the utmost selfishness. When the monster understands that he has definitely abandoned his work, he threatens him “I WILL BE WITH YOU ON YOUR WEDDING NIGHT” Victor does not change his mind. To prove his determination, the creature murders Henry.

Victor is accused of the murder but after a while cleaned of any accusation. He is sick again, another nervous fever. His father has come to Scotland to nurse him and brings him back to Geneva, where he is to marry Elizabeth as soon as possible. The wedding takes place and the creature strangles Elizabeth early in their wedding night. Victor decides to pursue his creature where ever he goes, to kill him or be killed.

This chase leads him in Siberia, where he meets Walton and it is the end of Victor’s flash back. Upon Victor’s death, the creature commits suicide.

I’m not going to analyse such a famous book, I don’t have the skills for this. I just want to share some thoughts about this. I can only guess that Frankenstein inspired SF writers and film makers, I’m not familiar with that genre. I admire Mary Shelley’s intelligence in this work. This tale was published in 1818 and she was only 19. Victor’s creation is not named in the book, a way to show he never recognized himself as his father. We see the events through Victor’s eyes and he calls his creation “daemon”, “wretch”, “monster”, “fiend”, all negative words.

I was a bit lost in the Russian dolls construction of this book. There are stories in stories. Walton on his boat telling Victor’s story who is telling the creature’s story who is telling the cottagers’ story. Not all these stories were necessary. I think the introduction to how Walton met Victor and the beginning of his tale is too long and that the cottagers’ story was useless. (Or I haven’t understood what Mary Shelley wanted to show through this)

Victor Frankenstein really got on my nerves. He is thoughtless. It takes him almost three years after he has created his monster to question what he has done on a larger perspective that the misery it brought on his family. He has no insight whatsoever and from the description of his enemy he should have guessed Elizabeth was in danger. He creates a being and then, horrified by its look, escapes and never cares about it in two years. He is irresponsible. He is the image of the crazy scientist caught up by his passion and who never thinks of the consequences of his research. This topic is premonitory and really contemporary.

The section where the creature explains to Victor how he has lived during the two years between his first day in Ingolstadt and their meeting in the Alps is interesting. He spent a long time hidden in a hovel adjoining to a cottage, from where he could observe the inhabitants. Mary Shelley describes how he met civilisation, learnt how to speak and witnessed affection. Strangely, the creature raises more philosophical issues than Victor. Mary Shelley is very insightful on how self-consciousness relies on other people’s look and regard. Interaction with other beings is needed to develop one’s personality. Culture is above nature: she explains we need to grow up among other humans to discover love and companionship. Seen in another way, it also reminded me of the myth of the noble savage. The creature was good in itself before humans turned away from him with disgust and taught him hatred. Very Rousseau.

The style was a bit complicated for me. The sudden switch to antique forms always took me by surprise and slowed my reading.

“Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us”


 “Still thou canst listen to me and grant me thy compassion. By the virtue that I once possessed, I demand this from you.”

Moreover, some sentences sound so French they seem to have been translated from French rather than written in English, like this one:

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

I don’t know if it is because Victor is Francophone or because Mary Shelley just wrote that way. Of course romanticism is in the background. When Victor is hiking in the Alps, trying to find some peace of mind in admiring the grandeur of nature:

“Dear mountains! My own beautiful lake! How do you welcome your wanderer?”

The description of the valley of Chamonix is beautiful and sad when you know how it looks like now. The glacier is melting due to the global warming. A motorway arrives in Chamonix and the Tunnel du Mont Blanc, allowing trucks to join Italy from France is nearby. Within two centuries, the destruction of the natural setting shouts at the modern reader.

Something else. Stephenie Meyer sure knows her classics. In addition to the two ones openly referred to in the Twilight Saga (Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights), I had already noticed how the scene of Jane Eyre meeting with the now half-blind Mr Rochester had inspired a scene between Edward and Bella in New Moon. Now I found common points between Frankenstein’s creature and her vampires, especially when the monster describes his first sensations after he was born. Then of course, there are the creature’s characteristics: strong, fast, enduring and his method for suicide – fire. But I’m such a weak reader of SF that I can’t really tell if Stephenie Meyer conscientiously used Mary Shelley’s work or if Mary Shelley’s invention is now a vampire cannon.

If I turn back on this book, I’m glad I’ve read it but I didn’t enjoy it. Mary Shelley’s style is too romantic. As usual, it doesn’t speak to me. This story is powerful but too long. Victor’s mulling over, weeping, moping, complaining bored me. Two nervous fevers in a book for one character is too much for me. He never really copes with the consequences of his acts and I didn’t like him for that.

She moves him in mysterious ways

December 8, 2010 34 comments

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.

I don’t know where to start, I’m still knocked out by Murakami. Third book in six months about an unforgettable past love coming back in present time and upsetting a comfortable and happy routine. Journey Into the Past. The Art of Losing. South of the Border, West of the Sun. All three breathtaking. All three moving and questioning.

Hajime and Shimamoto-San were close friends when they were children. 12 years old, adolescence is timidly arriving, transforming this deep friendship into a love than cannot yet be mouthed. Desire is about to bloom. Then Shimamoto-San leaves the town. They stop seeing each other. Shimamoto-San moves out, Hajime moves on.

Hajime has a high school romance with Izumi which ends up in Izumi being hurt and Hajime moving to Tokyo. After university, he finds a boring job in a publishing house, spends 10 years there, bored and single. He meets Yukiko during a vacation and it is love at first sight. He is 30 now, it’s time to settle, they happily move in a new home. Two daughters arrive. Yukiko’s father helps Hajime to start his own business. He opens two jazz clubs in Tokyo. He loves his wife. He loves his daughters. He loves his job. He is successful. Life seems perfect.

But Shimamoto-San hides somewhere in his head, despite this happiness, this perfect life. She’s behind a door which stands ajar, as it cannot be shut, the relationship abruptly frozen by absence. One February night, the mysterious Shimamoto-San comes to the Robin’s Nest, one of Hajime’s bars. She is a sort of Japanese Santa Ana coming from the south of the border, a wind that opens wide the half-open door.

What will this throw on their lives? Can they find their love intact? What consequences will this have on Yukiko’s life? What’s the mystery surrounding Shimamoto-San?

Hajime is the narrator of this story, everything is seen through his eyes. It is a first person narrative. The language is perfect in precision and in its reserved tone. Feelings are dissected with clarity, lucidity. There’s a quiet sadness in the fatality of this story.

 Yukiko looks like Naomi in The Art of Losing. She doesn’t deserve to be hurt. She’s facing something bigger than her. Though she’s pretty and loveable, she’s not enough. The relationships in the three novels I mentioned in my introduction have a common point: they stopped unexpectedly and couldn’t come to term. They linger in memories, tainted by ifs. If Shimamoto-San hadn’t moved away? If WWI hadn’t prevented Ludwig to come back to Germany in due time? If Lydia had left Martin when it was still simple to do it? They left a sweet-sour taste of unfinished and left behind an emptiness.

Like after A Journey into the Past, I’m terribly frustrated not to be able to share quotes and show how wonderful Murakami’s prose is. My copy is in French, translated by Corinne Atlan, the usual translator for Murakami. The story takes place in Japan but it could be anywhere else. Without the Japanese names of places and characters, the reader would forget it’s Japan. Hajime listens to jazz and Western classical music. No specific food is eaten. There are no descriptions of houses, furniture or traditional buildings. They go to cafés, drink whisky. At a moment, Hajime says it is Christmas. Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan? If they do, it is as sad as pumpkins all over France at the end of October. Murakami published South of the Border, West of the Sun in 1992 and he didn’t live in Japan at that time. Did that exile influence his writing?

There would be much to say on this book but I don’t want to ruin someone’s pleasure by giving away spoilers. However, if anyone has already read it and remembers it well, I’d be glad to discuss it further in the comments. I don’t like to be left alone with such a powerful book.

America, Switzerland, Outer Mongolia and Italy

December 1, 2010 19 comments

The Ski Bum by Romain Gary

Anyone who knows me a little, be it in my flesh and blood form or under my Bookaroundthecorner alias, is aware that I’m a Romain Gary fan. Right. Today, I was stuck at home by snow, somehow it seemed the appropriate day to read The Ski Bum. As a coincidence, I was reading Romain Gary again 30 years after he killed himself, almost to the day. (He died on December 2nd 1980).

The Ski Bum opens with Lenny, an American ski bum, who flew from America to Switzerland. Lenny is looking for oblivion. He wants to fall into oblivion not to be sent to Vietnam. He skies into oblivion to run away from himself. He does his best to avoid speaking, thinking and feeling.

You must never feel too sure of yourself and imagine there’s no danger around. Emotions. Love. Tenderness. Life propaganda, that’s what it was. You had to watch it all the time. You fall for that and then life goes important on you.”

So Switzerland is interesting in many ways: it’s a neutral country, the ski experience is fantastic and he can avoid conversation since he neither speaks French or Schweitzerdeutsch. Lenny usually stays in a chalet belonging to Bug Moran and makes a living as a women ski instructor — with benefits. A perfect place to be, except when the snow melts. And now, the snow is gone and so are the ski tourists.

There was nowhere to go. No snow. It was summer. There was no getting away from it. They were stranded in Bug Monran’s chalet on the rocks like fish on the sand. Summer. The worst thing that can hit a guy.”

He is called in for a mysterious job that his employer thinks will suit him. Lenny doesn’t care to ask what it is about because “It simply didn’t matter to a bum what he did below six thousand feet” and hunger makes him go down to Geneva and take that job.

Down in Geneva lives Jess Donahue, the daughter of the American Consul. She is completely broke too and her father Alan is in rehab, for alcoholism. Like Lenny, Jess tries to run away from herself but she uses different means. She works for the local SPCA clinic, protests against all sorts of injustice in the world. She’s thinking about joining a kibbutz or the Peace Corps. She studies literature and is vaguely fancying the idea of writing a book entitled The Quality of Despair. She is just as lost as Lenny except than she has to take care of her father.

As a diplomat, Alan has CC plates for his car, which means his car is never searched through when he crosses a border. And that’s what interests Lenny’s employer, Ange. He needs to carry gold from France to a cosy Switzerland bank. As Lenny is a good-looking American and a womaniser, he is supposed to seduce Jess and find a way to cross the border with a valise full of gold.

But things won’t happen exactly as planned.

Lenny has a particular voice. He uses vocabulary in a very special and personal way. He dropped out of school at 14 and is almost illiterate. Concepts and words get confused in his head and his speach becomes facetious.  Jess is quite the opposite, very literate, all in brain. The narration alternates from Lenny to Jess, even inside a given chapter. The reader follows their thoughts and sees the scenes in both points of views and realises that they try to fool each other but neither of them achieves their goal. The way they speak tells more about who they are than many pages of psychological analysis.

Romain Gary put some autobiographical details in Alan’s character. Alan’s life overlaps Gary’s career as a diplomat. Alan is an alcoholic because of his job, Jess thinks.

“Her father still had idealism, though it was 1963 and his first crack-up could be traced to the hanging of Stravrov in Bulgaria, in 1947: he had personally assured the Agrarian Liberals that the USA, who were at that time members of the Allied Control Commission, would never allow the suppression of the democratic opposition. He had been given no instructions whatsoever to make such a commitment, he was merely acting out of deep understanding of everything his country stood for. Fatal”

This is a tragic event that actually took place when Gary was a French diplomat in Sofia. There are fascinating thoughts about what it is to be a diplomat in non-democratic countries, knowing what happens to the people and then get acquainted with the executioners in cocktail parties.

The characters around Lenny and Jess are peculiar, sometimes nuts. In the beginning of the novel, Gary describes the crowd of the bums living in Bug Moran’s chalet. It’s very funny. Jess’ friends are weird too. Thoughts about art, literature, politics ans society are spread in the novel, filling the romance with interesting issues or amusing comments.

“Albert Camus, prophet of the absurd, getting killed in an absurd automobile crash, which proves he was wrong and that there is some inner logic in life.”

I like Lenny and Jess, I always have. I like them for their fragility and their way to play the tough guys when they’re all soft.

Romain Gary wrote The Ski Bum in 1964, in English and that’s the book I’ve been reading today. It’s out of print now but I found a used copy on Amazon. I thought Gary translated it in French later, but in fact, he did more than that, he re-wrote it in 1968. The French version is entitled Adieu Gary Cooper as Lenny reminds people of Gary Cooper. I have read the French version several times and I have favourite quotes in it. I was a bit disappointed not to find them again in the English version. The French version is a lot better, less cheesy and a lot more poetic, funny and witty. Clearly, Gary was more at ease with writing in French than in English. The story is the same but the language, the thoughts and descriptions are superior in French. So if his Anglophone biographer David Bellos, who is also a translator from French, could translate Adieu Gary Cooper in English, it would be perfect.

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