Archive for January, 2011

An unfortunate death

January 31, 2011 12 comments

The Ladies from Saint-Petersburg, by Nina Berberova. (76 pages) I have read the French translation by Cécile Térouanne.

  Those who follow this blog know that I’ve decided to join Sarah’s challenge entitled “Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge”. The 10th book of the challenge must be a friend’s choice and that’s how Guy from His Futile Preoccupation ended up picking The Ladies of Saint-Petersburg for me.

Summer 1917, the Russian Revolution has begun. Barbara Ivanovna and her daughter Marguerite arrive at doctor Byrdine’s guest-house. The house is located at twelve versts form the nearest train station. They are exhausted. They left St Petersburg behind. The country is disorganized, the trip lasted two days instead of a six-hours journey by train. We don’t know why they come here, but we guess they are fleeing from a city devastated by fights.

Upon the night of their arrival, Barbara Ivanovna dies from a stroke. The heat is intense. The village is far away. It is impossible to send the corpse back to St Petersburg for its burial. The doctor’s wife suggests to bury Barbara Ivanovna in their garden. We then follow the preparations for the funeral.

Marguerite is about 20, I think, though her age is never mentioned. Despite the horror of the situation, her instinct is to live. She is all alone, her parents being both dead now and among strangers. She needs to take practical decisions for the funeral. She is in pain. But her life force is strong enough for her to notice the beauty of the garden, to think about marriage. Her mother is dying and she thinks:

Il ne lui restait plus qu’une chose à faire : épouser, à n’importe quel prix, Léonide Léodinovitch, autrement, elle était perdue. There was only one thing to do now: to marry Leonid Leodonovich at any cost, otherwise, she was lost.

She could sound vapid and selfish but she isn’t. She knows her feelings are improper but youth is stronger than good manners. 

Marguerite ne quittait pas Byrdine : ainsi elle ne sortit pas dans le jardin, touffu et parfumé où elle craignait de succomber à des tentations, une douceur et un laisser-aller inopportun qui déjà la gagnaient à travers les fenêtres et les portes de la maison. Le sentiment de l’été et de la liberté lui faisait tourner la tête. Marguerite never left Byrdine. She didn’t go out in the thick and fragrant garden. She was afraid to succumb to a sweetness and an improper abandon that already reached out to her through the windows and the doors of the house. The feeling of summer and of freedom made her dizzy.

When Nina Berberova relates Barbara Ivanovna’s death and its consequences, she also depicts 1917. People on the roads running away from cities, peasants and craftsmen taking advantage of the situation. Social links are falling to pieces. She shows the poverty is the countries, the children running after the doctor’s carriage and begging for food and their bad health. In a few words, she describes how people rapidly lose any fake politeness or friendliness when living through hard times. The reader first perceives the changing of regime through tiny details, such as St Petersburg suddenly being called Petrograd. The last chapter is quite significant on that part, but I won’t tell more here.

Nina Berberova’s style seems simple, made of short sentences anddialogues but she has an original way to assemble words, like in her “Byrdine glanced at her lazily and aggressively”. How can someone be lazy and aggressive at the same time? Or here is Marguerite’s night after her mother passed away: “Without moving or crying, she laid still until morning, listening to birds, then servants, then the ladies and gentlemen wake up.” We can well imagine her sleepless night.

I really enjoyed reading this novella and its combination of a pleasant style,  historical background and personal story. So thanks Guy, you made a good choice.

 PS : I did the translations. I did my best.

Mme de Guermantes, from dream to reality

January 28, 2011 16 comments

Le côté de Guermantes. Tome 1. A la recherche du temps perdu, volume 3 by Marcel Proust. I will use the translation by CK Scott Moncrieff.

Le côté de Guermantes is the third volume of In Search of Lost Time. It is split into two books, and this post is about the first one.

In my previous post about Le côté de Guermantes, I said I would dedicate a whole post to Mme. de Guermantes, who is the central figure of this volume. The narrator now lives in an apartment dependant from the hôtel de Guermantes and thus sees her everyday around. He can observe her way of life from her in-and-outs and through the ballet of her servants. As Françoise gets acquainted with the servants from their landlord, she regales her masters with anecdotes about Mme de Guermantes. Françoise seems as aware as the narrator of who can visit whom in the high society.

The narrator has an idealized vision of Mme de Guermantes coming from his stays at Combray, where this noble family has owned an estate for decades. He has already described in Swann’s Way the impression left on him by Madame de Guermantes in the Combray church and his reveries about the Guermantes portrait on the stained-glass windows of the church.

He now lives near her and fantasizes about her. Due to all the memories and reveries associated with her name, he is from the start in the perfect mental state to become infatuated with her. But he is not as deeply in love with her as he was with Gilberte. His heart is available, he wants to think himself in love and her proximity makes of her the object of his fantasies.

J’avais, hélas, dans la réalité, choisi précisément pour l’aimer la femme qui réunissait peut-être le plus d’avantages différents et aux yeux de qui, à cause de cela, je ne pouvais espérer avoir aucun prestige ; car elle était aussi riche que le plus riche qui n’eût pas été noble ; sans compter ce charme personnel qui la mettait à la mode, en faisait entre toutes une sorte de reine. I had, alas, in reality, chosen to love the very woman who, in her own person, combined perhaps the greatest possible number of different advantages; in whose eyes, accordingly, I could not hope, myself, ever to cut any figure; for she was as rich as the richest commoner—and noble also; without reckoning that personal charm which set her at the pinnacle of fashion, made her among the rest a sort of queen.

The word « chosen » proves this is more a crush built by his imagination than a genuine sentiment. We usually fall in love and the verb “fall” implies it is an accident, not a choice. She is just living memories of sweet afternoons in Combray and she is intimately linked to his quest of perfection.  

Et même dans mes désirs les plus charnels toujours orientés d’un certain côté, concentrés autour d’un même rêve, j’aurais pu reconnaître comme premier moteur une idée, une idée à laquelle j’aurais sacrifié ma vie, et au point le plus central de laquelle, comme dans mes rêveries pendant les après-midi de lecture au jardin à Combray, était l’idée de perfection. And even in my most carnal desires, magnetised always in a certain direction, concentrated about a single dream, I might have recognised as their primary motive an idea, an idea for which I would have laid down my life, at the innermost core of which, as in my day dreams while I sat reading all afternoon in the garden at Combray, lay the thought of perfection.

She is a sort of ethereal woman. The woman he is infatuated with only exists in his imagination but he wants to take advantage of their living in the same place to know her. He starts strolling in the neighbourhood to “accidentally” meet her on the streets. He can’t help it, even if he is perfectly aware that she is irritated by these provoked encounters.  

Hélas! Si pour moi rencontrer toute autre personne était indifférent, je sentais que, pour elle, rencontrer n’importe qui excepté moi eût été supportable. Alas, if to me meeting any person other than herself would not have mattered, I felt that to her meeting anyone in the world except myself would have been endurable.

 As she is Robert’s aunt, he finally manages to meet her at Mme de Villeparisis, another Guermantes relative. He has been acquainted with the old lady since his stay in Balbec. The tale of his visit in her salon occupies a great part of this volume. We learn more about Mme de Villeparisis and discover her position in the high society is not as glorious as the narrator had supposed it in Balbec. The explanation of how a woman can become an outcast in her social class and be only tolerated by her relatives is very interesting. But back to Mme de Guermantes. Here she is, in the salon:  

Mme de Guermantes s’est assise. Son nom, comme il était accompagné de son titre, ajoutait à sa personne physique son duché qui se projetait autour d’elle et faisait régner la fraîcheur ombreuse et dorée des bois de Guermantes au milieu du salon, à l’entour du pouf où elle était. Mme. de Guermantes had sat down. Her name, accompanied as it was by her title, added to her corporeal dimensions the duchy which projected itself round about her and brought the shadowy, sun-splashed coolness of the woods of Guermantes into this drawing-room, to surround the tuffet on which she was sitting.

The narrator has his still idealized vision and when she starts talking, he discovers who she is: a terrible gossip without a solid education. Vapid would be the word if she hadn’t that French nasty sense of humour and tendency to hurt other people just for the pleasure of uttering a witty remark; what we call in French un bon mot.  

Mais voyons Basin, vous savez bien de qui ma tante veut parler, s’écria la duchesse avec indignation, c’est le frère de cet énorme herbivore que vous avez eu l’étrange idée d’envoyer venir me voir l’autre jour. Elle est restée une heure, j’ai pensé que je deviendrais folle. Mais j’ai commencé par croire que c’était elle qui l’était en voyant entrer chez moi une personne que je ne connaissais pas et qui avait l’air d’une vache. “Why, Basin, you know quite well who my aunt means,” cried the Duchess indignantly. “He’s the brother of that great graminivorous creature you had the weird idea of sending to call on me the other day. She stayed a solid hour; I thought I should go mad. But I began by thinking it was she who was mad when I saw a person I didn’t know come browsing into the room looking exactly like a cow.”

A nice creature, indeed. Her irony can hit anybody. That the person she mocks is her nephew’s lover is of no importance:  

La demoiselle de Robert, je vous assure qu’elle est à mourir de rire. Je sais bien qu’on m’objectera cette vienne rengaine d’Augier : « Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse! » Eh bien, Robert a peut-être l’ivresse, mais il n’a vraiment pas fait preuve de goût dans le choix du flacon! If you saw Robert’s girl, I assure you, you’d simply die of laughter. Oh, I know somebody’s going to quote Augier at me: ‘What matters the bottle so long as one gets drunk?’ Well, Robert may have got drunk, all right, but he certainly hasn’t shewn much taste in his choice of a bottle!

Isn’t she a lowbrow gossip? Proust’s genius explodes in that passage. In one cue, the reader understands that Mme de Guermantes is nasty and uneducated. Her tone is of contempt and mockery. And as Alfred de Musset, and not Augier, wrote “What matters the bottle so long as one gets drunk”, her lack of literary knowledge cannot escape neither the reader nor the narrator’s notice. What a dreadful moment it must have been for him! The goddess is down from her pedestal. The truth forces itself into the narrator’s mind… 

“Quelle buse!” pensais-je, irrité de l’accueil glacial qu’elle m’avait fait. Je trouvais une sorte d’âpre satisfaction à constater sa complète incompréhension de Maeterlinck. “C’est pour une pareille femme que tous les matins je fais tant de kilomètres, vraiment, j’ai de la bonté. Maintenant, c’est moi qui ne voudrais pas d’elle.” “What a goose !” I thought to myself. Irritated by the coldness of her greeting, I found a sort of bitter satisfaction in this proof of her complete inability to understand Maerterlinck. “To thinks that’s the woman I walked miles every morning to see. Really, I’m too kind. Well it’s my turn now not to want to see her.” (1)

…but he is not ready to accept it yet.  

Tels étaient les mots que je me disais ; ils étaient le contraire de ma pensée ; c’étaient de purs mots de conversation, comme nous nous en disons dans ces moments où, trop agités pour rester seuls avec nous-mêmes, nous éprouvons le besoin, à défaut d’autre interlocuteur, de causer avec nous, sans sincérité, comme avec un étranger. Thus I reasoned with myself; but my words ran counter to my thoughts; they were purely conversational words such as we say to ourselves at those moments when, too much excited to remain quietly alone, we feel the need, for want of another listener, to talk to ourselves, without meaning what we say, as we talk to a stranger.

There is nothing such as being insincere with ourselves when we need to acknowledge a fact we would rather not or try to force ourselves to be indifferent when that thing/person we would like to forget does matter anyway and we perfectly know it. 

The narrator also explains how Mme de Guermantes invites artists because they are fashionable and attract other fine people but never discuss their art with them. Is she even interested? I hope we’ll hear more of her in the second book of this volume.  

I know there are many quotes in this post but how can I paraphrase Proust in my cheap English? Honestly, I lack the words to tell how witty, intelligent, insightful this is. We are thrown in a world totally different from ours but that sounds strangely familiar. We all know a Mme de Guermantes. Gossips come from all social classes and whatever their supposedly good education, their meanness overcomes good manners and seeps through their chat.

The narrator is progressively losing his illusions and experiences that all that glitters is not gold. Well, he’s becoming an adult. 

(1) A word on the translation « Maintenant, c’est moi qui ne voudrais pas d’elle » literally means “I wouldn’t want her now” and not “it’s my turn not to want to see her”. If I’m correct, the sexual connotation is thus erased of the English text.

Everyday life near the Guermantes

January 26, 2011 22 comments

Le côté de Guermantes. Tome 1. A la recherche du temps perdu, volume 3 by Marcel Proust. I will use the translation by CK Scott Moncrieff.

Le côté de Guermantes is the third volume of In Search of Lost Time. It is split into two books, and this post is about the first one.

In this volume, the narrator and his family have just moved in an apartment dependant from the Guermantes mansion. The structure of the novel is similar to Swann’s Way and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: it opens with a description of domestic life and the narrator’s various occupations to progressively come to the subject of the book, in this case, Madame de Guermantes.

The first sentence is about Françoise, who can’t get used to her new home.

Le pépiement matinal des oiseaux semblait insipide à Françoise. Chaque parole des “bonnes” la faisait sursauter ; incommodée par tous leurs pas, elle s’interrogeait sur eux ; c’est que nous avions déménagé. The twittering of the birds at daybreak sounded insipid to Françoise. Every word uttered by the maids upstairs made her jump; disturbed by all their running about, she kept asking herself what they could be doing. In other words, we had moved.

The narrator who was so anxious in his new room in Balbec can only sympathize with her and explains why she feels so uprooted:

Moi qui assimilais aussi difficilement les nouvelles choses que j’abandonnais aisément les anciennes, je me rapprochai de notre vieille servante quand je vis que l’installation dans une nouvelle maison où elle n’avait pas encore reçu du concierge qui ne nous connaissait pas encore les marques de considération nécessaires à sa   bonne nutrition morale, l’avait plongée dans un état voisin du dépérissement. I, who found it as hard to assimilate new as I found it easy to abandon old conditions, I felt myself drawn towards our old servant when I saw that this installation of herself in a building where she had not received from the hall-porter, who did not yet know us, the marks of respect necessary to her moral wellbeing, had brought her positively to the verge of dissolution.

What follows is a funny and, as always with Proust, spot-on description what it is to move into a new house. Françoise needs to find her place in the society of the servants in the Hôtel de Guermantes. The set of rules – spoken or unspoken – is as delicate and complicated as rules in high society. Françoise idealizes the old house in Combray and now thinks well of her former enemy Eulalie:

Elle ne souffrait plus de ce qu’Eulalie eût si bien su se faire chaque semaine “donner la pièce” par ma tante. It no longer pained her that Eulalie had so skilfully managed, Sunday after Sunday, to secure her ‘trifle’ from my aunt.

 I don’t know exactly how “secure her trifle” sounds in English, but in French, “donner la pièce” sounds like my grand-mother. Proust delights us with all the details and gossips.

There is an interesting moment when the narrator goes to the theatre to hear La Berma again. He had previously related how important this event was for him. It is now indifferent to him. This difference alone indicates to the reader that the narrator has grown up. His tastes move on, he has partly lost the enthusiasm of children.

The description of how bourgeois and aristocrats avoid and spy each other in the theatre is terrific. The show is in the public as well as on stage. Aristocrats go to the theatre to be seen not to watch the play. Proust throws a mocking look on this snobs, who show off in their private boxes. See the unflattering portray of the Marquis de Palancy:

Le marquis de Palancy, le cou tendu, la figure oblique, son gros oeil rond collé contre le verre du monocle, se déplaçait lentement dans l’ombre transparente et paraissait ne pas plus voir le public de l’orchestre qu’un poisson qui passe, ignorant de la foule des visiteurs curieux, derrière la cloison vitrée d’un aquarium. Par moment il s’arrêtait, vénérable, soufflant et moussu, et les spectateurs n’auraient pu sire s’il souffrait, dormait, nageait, était en train de pondre ou respirait seulement. The Marquis de Palancy, his face bent downwards at the end of his long neck, his round bulging eye glued to the glass of his monocle, was moving with a leisurely displacement through the transparent shade and appeared no more to see the public in the stalls than a fish that drifts past, unconscious of the press of curious gazers, behind the glass wall of an aquarium. Now and again he paused, a venerable, wheezing monument, and the audience could not have told whether he was in pain, asleep, swimming, about to spawn, or merely taking breath.

It’s really picturesque. The fish metaphor makes him look brainless and ridicule.

The narrator’s friendship with Robert de Saint-Loup grows stronger. He comes to visit him at Doncières, where he is stationed as a soldier. They are intimate enough to be on a first name basis now and decide to call each other “tu”. (If anyone needs an explanation about the use of”tu”/”vous” in French, please ask in the comments, I’ll answer).

– Je ne vous ai demandé que l’une des deux choses, la moins importante, l’autre l’est plus pour moi, mais je crains que vous ne me la refusiez ; cela vous ennuierait-il que nous nous tutoyions?- Comment m’ennuyer, mais voyons! joie! pleurs de joie! félicité inconnue! – Comme je vous remercie…te remercie. Quand vous aurez commencé! Cela me fait un tel plaisir que vous pouvez ne rien faire pour Mme de Guermantes si vous voulez, le tutoiement me suffit. “I’ve mentioned only one of the two things I wanted to ask you, the less important; the other is more important to me, but I’m afraid you will never consent. Would it bore you if we were to call each other tu?”“Bore me? My dear fellow! Joy! Tears of joy! Undreamed-of happiness!“Thank you — tu I mean; you begin first — ever so much. It is such a pleasure to me that you needn’t do anything about Mme de Guermantes if you’d rather not, this is quite enough for me.

 When I read this passage, I really wondered how the English translator had coped with this. It is still an awkward moment when you cross an immaterial barrier and start calling someone “tu” instead of “vous”. You always stumble on the “tu” the first times and feel intimidated to use it although the “vous” you used to say was friendly. It hasn’t changed that much. Knowing when to say “tu” or “vous” is one of the subtle French social rules. Some “tu” sound more formal than some “vous”

The narrator and Robert are fond of each other, although they are utterly different. They trust each other enough for Robert introduce his mistress to the narrator. A dreadful moment for the poor narrator, who recognizes in her a former whore. (Remember, the narrator used to go to brothels)

Saint-Loup is very kind and thoughtful, paying attention to the narrator’s poor health and little whims. The narrator envies Robert’s beauty, easiness in life and birth in an aristocratic family. Robert’s admires the narrator’s mind, his lively conversation and his quickness of mind. He wants him to show how witty he can be when he’s with other soldiers or his mistress Rachel. Here is Robert praying the narrator to tell her funny stories about Françoise:

– Alors raconte les choses de Françoise aux Champs Elysées, cela lui plaira tant!- Oh oui! Bobbey m’a tant parlé de Françoise. “Then tell her about Françoise in the Champs-Elysées. She’ll enjoy that.” “Oh, do! Bobby is always talking about Françoise”

 This moment shows us that the narrator is used to entertaining his audience with funny anecdotes from everyday life, the things his alter-ego Marcel Proust will later put in his work. Like Mme de Villeparisis and her memoirs, he tries his stories on his friends before writing them. Rachel’s answer and the use for the « Bobbey » – no typing mistake, it’s really written like this in the French text – reveals once again the use of English words out of snobbery. Roberts have no short name in French. Saint-Loup calls his mistress Zézette, which is totally ridiculous and brings to light how infatuated he is.

A pause on these two names. For the modern French reader, Robert and Zézette are connected to two fictional characters. Robert was abundantly given to babies in the 1940s and 1950s in France and is now associated in my head with parents’ friends and Robert Bidochon, a character in comic books who pictures the archetypal middle-class Frenchman, what we call a “beauf” in slang. I can’t help it, I hear Robert and Bidochon’s face pops up. Zézette is directly linked to the cult French comedy “Le Père-Noël est une ordure” (“Santa-Claus is a bastard”), where Zézette is an illiterate pregnant woman. It’s hard not to think about this when seeing these two names. End of the pause and back to Proust’s aristocratic world.

The moments spent with Saint-Loup at Doncières are also an opportunity to explain the difference between the aristocracy coming from the Ancien Régime and the one coming form the Empire. The Prince de Borodino’s ancestor was ennobled by Napoleon and despises the bourgeois more than Saint-Loup.

Jamais le Prince de Borodino ne recevrait chez lui ce petit-bourgeois. Et c’est tout de même un fameux culot de la part d’un homme dont l’arrière grand-père était un petit fermier et qui, sans les guerres de Napoléon, serait probablement fermier aussi. (…)  ajouta Robert, qui, ayant été amené par un même esprit d’imitation à adopter les théories sociales de ses maîtres et les préjugés mondains de ses parents, unissait, sans s’en rendre compte à l’amour de la démocratie le dédain de la noblesse d’Empire. “The Prince de Borodino would never have an outsider like that in his house. Which is pretty fair cheek, when all’s said and done, from a man whose great-grandfather was a small farmer, and who would probably be a small farmer himself if it hadn’t been for the Napoleonic wars. (…) ” added Robert, who, having been led by the same spirit of imitation to adopt the social theories of his teachers and the worldly prejudices of his relatives, had unconsciously wedded the democratic love of humanity to a contempt for the nobility of the Empire.

 This passage shows how little consideration the ancient nobility has for the latest one and how the new nobility struggles to feel their titles legitimate. It goes with nobility as with money, new money is always more ostentatious than inherited and ancient wealth. By the way, I wonder why Scott Moncrieff translated “l’amour de la démocratie”, literally, “the love of democracy” by “the democratic love of humanity”. It doesn’t mean the same thing to me.

We learn a little more about the narrator, but indirectly. We can feel he’s older now because he’s less naïve when it comes to adults. He sees their flaws, no longer worships his parents’ opinion. He can see Françoise’s meanness and his mother’s incapacity to really impose rules on her servants. His grand-mother is ageing and he takes notice of it. He has partly lost his capacity to wonder, to ignore the dark side of people. He has a crush on Madame de Guermantes, more because he wants to think himself in love than from real and deep feelings. But I’ll come to her in another post.

Proust doesn’t give away too much about the narrator – him, at least not openly. But the reader, gathering details scattered in the flow of events can have a impressionist portrait of him. His health is still poor but he never complains. Proust never lingers on these aspects, never shows the symptoms of his malady. He can’t write, though he wants to. He lacks the discipline, tries to sober, sleep better to be able to work but fails. He wants to have fun. Sometimes, we can guess Proust was gay, in the way he describes men, like here:

Grands, minces, la peau et les cheveux dorés, tout à fait le type Guermantes, ces deux jeunes gens avaient l’air d’une condensation de lumière printanière et vespérale qui inondait le grand salon. Tall, slender, with golden hair and sunny complexions, thoroughly of the Guermantes type, these two young men looked like a condensation of the light of the spring evening which was flooding the spacious room.

 I think it would suit better to portray women. Through the eyes of his friends, we can imagine he was fragile but of good company. His conversation was fascinating and witty. Saint-Loup’s friends invite him to stay after Robert’s departure, because they enjoy his company.

In this book, Proust also starts relating the impact of the Affaire Dreyfus on the French society. But this will require an entire post as it is really fascinating. He shows how the social and political cards will be dealt again after this affair.

Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge

January 23, 2011 27 comments

I’m usually not drawn to challenges and readalongs but Sarah’s challenge has caught my attention because there is no schedule and because I can choose whichever book I want into the categories she designed. When I was reading her funny categories, book titles came to my mind. So I thought, why not?

Voilà. Here are my choices, so far. I may change my mind later because I’m not good at sticking to reading plans.  

1. A book that has been previously abandoned. 

I’m not kamikaze enough to try again the Wind Up Bird Chronicles or Quo Vadis?  Let’s bravely say Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, already started twice and because she’s an author I expect to like.

2. A re-read. Didn’t quite get it/thought there was more/made promise to self to re-read? Time to make good.

I’m already re-reading In Search of Lost Time. I think that will do and will probably take the whole year, considering I’m reading it as fast as turtles walk.

3. A book that has sat on the shelf, like, forever. (Decades.)

Diadorim by João Guimarães Rosa. I’ve had difficulties with all the Southern American books I’ve read.

4. A book that paralyses one with dread.

 René by Chateaubriand. A writer I’ve been avoiding like the plague. It could fit for category 3 too. We’ve been watching each other for a while.

5. Investigate a canonical writer hitherto most shamefully overlooked.

 Life’s Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy. I love this title. It’s going to be a difficult read for me because I have the English paperback edition.

6. Seek out a book by an author who has earned ostracism by being so good that any further novel could surely never measure up…?

 Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. He won the Prix Goncourt in 2010 for another of his novels. The whole universe praises him. The book has been on my shelf for a while.

7. And the opposite… That author who was supposed to be really good, but didn’t go down too well? Give him/her another go!

I’m not masochistic enough to inflict on me the reading of Paul Claudel, so Les dieux ont soif  by Anatole France. (Translated as The Gods Are Thirsty). It seems every town in this country has a street named after him. He was Zola’s friend. National funeral were arranged when he died in 1924. Nobody reads him anymore. Unjustly forgotten or too rooted in his time to reach eternity?

8. Take a chance. Read a book which you would rather not. For instance when the OH says ‘you’ll really like this’ and you’re thinking ‘no, I really won’t…’

Un roman français, by Frédéric Beigbeder. He wants to be the French Jay McInerney. I’m suspicious when a writer wants to be someone else. I received this book last Christmas and it’s not something I would have chosen by myself.

9. A book from an unfamiliar genre

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Another Christmas gift that has been on the shelf for decades because of its science-fiction tag. It could have been my number 3 but I would have had to read two SF books. Let’s take it slow on that genre.

10. Ask a friend (preferably a person of impeccable taste, and definitely not someone who might have an axe to grind) to choose a book that you will, in their opinion, like. (This does not mean ask a dozen people until you get the right answer!)

I was about to ask for ideas to all the persons who will read this — it would have been fun — but I see it would be cheating. I could have chosen one book automatically recommended by Amazon or but I’m not ready to take a computer as a friend. The best solution is undoubtly to ask a recommendation to a fellow blogger, and if possible to someone who has similar literary tastes. I’m going to play safe on this one, so Guy, if you read this, will you choose the 10th book for me?

And of course, the challenge within the challenge will be to follow the challenge!

Categories: Challenges

Golden eyes maybe, but certainly not a golden book

January 21, 2011 41 comments

La Fille aux yeux d’or (1835) by Honoré de Balzac.

Translated as The Girl With the Golden Eyes. The translation I found online is by Ellen Marriage.

I’ve decided to read this novella after reading contradictory and strong comments at the end of Guy’s post on The Chouans. I was curious. Well sometimes curiosity is a bad master.

Paris, 1835. Henri de Marsay, 22, walks in the Jardin des Tuileries and meets a beautiful young girl with golden eyes. Henri has everything, he is handsome, rich, witty. He likes partying, and though he is still young, this dandy is already blasé. After several meeting and glamorous glances in the Jardins, Henri is sure the girl fancies him too. He follows the carriage in which the girl leaves the Jardins to try to discover who she is and where she lives. Henri sends his valet to meet the postman and learn as much as he can about her. Her name is Paquita Valdes, she is Spanish and kept from men by an army of servants. Henri suspects an old jealous lover.

Henri finally finds an incredible way to reach her, through secret contacts, drugs and tricks. However, when Paquita organizes their meetings, everything is so well put up that Henri wonders if she as innocent as she seems. He intended to play with her. She plays with him. It’s a dark story of manipulation and violence. Who manipulates who? Are there true feelings somewhere?

It’s Romanesque in the worse meaning of the word.

I really disliked this book. The sentences are long, full of adjectives. They sound pompous. I don’t like the Balzac I can read through the lines. He sounds conceited, misogynistic – this is not a surprise – and racist. Everything foreign is suspicious and full of clichés. He generalizes and lacks of subtlety. For example:

Nous prenons tant de choses des Anglais en ce moment que nous pourrions devenir hypocrites et prudes comme eux. We take so many things from the English just now that we could become as great prudes and hypocrites as themselves.

On a literary point of view, this text is a melting pot of several influences, as if the writer had not found his voice yet.

The most evident one is Romanticism. The introduction about the mores of the Parisian people is a grotesque lecture. There is a trace of Romanticism in the way he despises the society he finds corrupted by money, ambition and material pleasure. He depicts a disenchanted society dominated by pettiness and boredom. Right. Alfred de Musset will brilliantly explain the same things in La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (The Confession of the Child of the Century) in 1836. Musset is a lot better for the style and the depth of the analysis. This part was too long according to me. There were too many pages just to say:

Qui donc domine en ce pays sans mœurs, sans croyance, sans aucun sentiment ; mais d’où partent et où aboutissent tous les sentiments, toutes les croyances et toutes les mœurs ? L’or et le plaisir What, then, is the dominating impulse in this country without morals, without faith, without any sentiment, wherein however every sentiment, belief and moral has its origin and end? It is gold and pleasure.

It is interesting to see that what he describes could be applied to nowadays society too. People run after time to earn money, do not make effort to think or learn.

The Spanish theme is common in the French literature of that time. Hugo’s Hernani dates back to 1830 and was a huge scandal. It is the landmark of Romanticism in France. So, Spanish protagonists are a way to link this novella to the Romantic current. Hugo will also write a poem named Guitare in 1840 with Spanish characters. In 1847, Mérimée will write Carmen. Spanish women represent passion and violence in the French imagery of that time. The other reference to Romanticism is when Henri uses the name of Adolphe to meet Paquita. I think it refers to Adolphe by Benjamin Constant, a Romantic novel published in 1816.

I could also see the influence of theatre, especially Molière, Marivaux and Musset. Laurent, the valet, made me think of Sganarelle, a famous character in Molière. Balzac openly refers to comedy:

Il fallait jouer cette éternelle vieille comédie qui sera toujours neuve, et dont les personnages sont un vieillard, une jeune fille et un amoureux : don Hijos, Paquita, de Marsay. Si Laurent valait Figaro, la duègne paraissait incorruptible. Ainsi la pièce vivante était plus fortement nouée par le hasard qu’elle ne l’avait jamais été par aucun auteur dramatique !   He was about to play that eternal old comedy which will always be fresh, and the characters in which are an old man, a young girl and a lover: don Hijos, Paquita, de Marsay. If Laurent was the equal of Figaro, the duenna seemed incorruptible. Thus, the living play was supplied by Chance with a stronger plot than it had never been by dramatic author! 

Molière is also present through Henri de Marsay, who looks like Dom Juan. He wants Paquita. He knows he can seduce her. I also thought of Marivaux and Musset for the disguise and the playing with sentiments.

What truly made me yawn and roll my eyes are the two scenes where Henri has a rendezvous with Paquita in a mysterious place where he is led with his eyes bandaged. Balzac makes a reference to Ann Radcliff’s novel. (Oops, that hurts) The room is decorated with white, gold and red. The allusion to oriental settings is obvious; it made me think of the Turk Bath by Ingres, thought it was painted years after this book was written. Paquita is a virgin but well instructed in all the pleasures. (sic!) It is all ridiculous and dripping with mawkishness and at the same time quite pervert.  Balzac needed pages to tell what Baudelaire will later put in two verses:

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté
There, everything is order and beauty,
Luxury, calm and voluptuousness

So how can I sum up my impressions on this novella? I disliked it because it is a patchwork of several genres. There are two many themes and none is well treated. I thought the story ridiculous, even if the revelation of the name of Paquita’s lover is quite a surprise and an unexpected theme for that time. I was more than irritated by his vision of women as brainless beings. There are too many references to books (Rousseau, Radcliff, Molière, Constant…) or paintings (Boticcelli, Delacroix…). It’s heavy, it’s clumsy, it’s arrogant.

Well Balzac was not Balzac yet when he wrote this. Don’t start reading Balzac by reading The Girl With the Golden Eyes.

The witty pie turned into gooey mashed potatoes

January 19, 2011 14 comments

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

What a disappointment! This book sounded so funny and lovely!

The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society is based on a good idea.

London, 1946. Juliet Ashton is travelling the country to meet the readers of her recently published book Izzy Biggerstaff Goes To War. It is the gathering of the columns she wrote for a newspaper during the war under the penname of Izzy Biggerstaff. Her publisher is directed by her dear friend Sydney, whose sister, Sophie, lives in Scotland and has been friend with Juliet since boarding school. The three of them are the first circle of pen pals.

On Guernsey Island, Dawsey Adams happens to read a book by Charles Lamb who once belonged to Juliet. He writes to Juliet to ask for a favour: since there isn’t any bookstore on Guernsey anymore, would she be so kind as to send him another book by Charles Lamb? Touched by his request, Juliet provides him with another book and starts corresponding with him.

That’s how she first hears of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This literary salon was created during the war, out of fear. Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during WWII. Nothing new for a French reader, everything was pretty much the same in France during those years: hunger, fear, cold, curfew, troops, women sleeping with the enemy by interest, genuine love stories with German officers.

Like in France, livestock was thoroughly listed and some Guernsey neighbours tricked out the Germans to withdraw a swine from them. They throw a party to eat this unexpected meat and forget the curfew. As walk home after the feast, they are caught by the Germans, wandering after curfew. One member of the group, Elizabeth boldly lies and tells they had a literary meeting and forgot the time while talking about books. The Germans buy it and the next morning, the neighbours, led by Elizabeth, buy as much books as possible and start the literary circle for real, to keep the pretence.

Letters fly between Juliet and the Guernsey friends. In the second part, Juliet ends up leaving London for Guernsey to write her new book and meet her pen-friends. Unfortunately, the strongest personality, Elizabeth, is missing, as she has been sent to a prisoner camp on the continent for having protected a Todt worker. Follow then the description of her life in Guernsey, anecdotes about the German occupation, etc.

There are so many goods ideas in this book that it’s even more disappointing that they have been wasted. Elizabeth could have been a more central character as her personality and her actions influenced other people’s life. It is always strong in a book when an important character is there despite her absence. I’m thinking for example of Lydia, in Rebecca Connell’s The Art of Losing.

I would have liked to read Sophie’s letters as well. I think Juliet should have stayed in London and stick to writing letters to Guernsey; it would have been more powerful. And the literary meetings are disappointing. The first part raised my expectations. I expected to read more on books and the characters’ reactions to them.

I’ve read that Mary Ann Schaffer’s health declined and as she knew she wouldn’t have the strength to finish her book, she asked her niece Annie Barrow to complete it. I wonder where Mary Ann Schaffer stopped writing. If she wrote the first part and Annie Barrow the second part, it would explain the differences between the two.

The first part is lovely. The letters addressed by Juliet to Sydney and Sophie, describing her love for literature and her life in London are tender, funny and witty. There are interesting thoughts on how individuals recover from a war, if they recover at all. The early correspondence between Guernsey inhabitants and Juliet is nicely put.

The second part is goofy. Juliet takes a boat to Guernsey to write a book about the German occupation of the island. It seems all the possible clichés are there: a lonely shy and reliable Dawsey – Naming him George would have been too obvious – , an illegitimate child born from the love affair between Elizabeth and a decent German officer, orphans, an eccentric middle-aged lady with a golden heart.

The description of the occupation goes on. The predictable love story between Juliet and Dawsey happens with all the peripetia of romantic comedies. No, Juliet isn’t in love with Sydney since he’s gay. No, Dawsey isn’t in love with Remy, the French woman the literary society welcomes to Guernsey. The end is absurdly “Austenian”.

Well, what could have been a good book turns into a silly romance.

I can’t resist reporting the description of THE French woman in this book: stylish, practical and bold.

“Remy, for all she’s so frail and thin, manages to look stylish at every turn. What is it about French women?”

“Remy, like most Frenchwomen, is practical”.

“I would tell her of his affections, and then she, being French, would know what to do. She would let him know she’d find favour in his suit”


I’d never thought that my being practical came from my nationality. As for stylish and bold, I’m not the best judge. But this, added to Rebecca Connell telling me that my Italian features look exotic, makes me think I should have spent an Erasmus year in England. It would have been fun.

The positive point is that I’d never heard of Charles Lamb before. At least I will have learnt something, for which I’m always grateful. My opinion isn’t at all representative of the reviews. It is rated 4,5 stars on Amazon by almost 1400 reviewers.

Instead of reading The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, you might want to read the wonderful Journal à quatre mains written by Benoîte et Flora Groult. I think it has been translated as Diary in Duo. THIS is worth reading. It is autobiographical and composed of extracts from Benoîte and Flora’s diaries during WWII in Paris. If you want to know how it felt to be a teenager in Paris from 1940 to 1945, it’s witty and insightful. For men who’d be interested in understanding what it is to be a teenage girl, it’s pretty accurate.

Here is a teaser. Benoîte writes about her suitor Pasquale, who wants to sleep with her:

En me quittant, Pasquale dit « Vous êtes mignonne à croquer » J’en reste pantoise. Serait-il idiot ? S’il m’arrive d’être croquée par un homme, je compte bien lui rester sur l’estomac! Je ne suis pas une bêtise de Cambrai qu’on suce et qui fond sous la langue. » When leaving me, Pasquale says ‘You’re so lovely I would eat you’. I’m flabbergasted. Is he dumb? If I am to be eaten by a man, I hope I’ll weigh heavily on his stomach! I am not a Cambrai humbug one sucks and that melts under the tongue. (1)

(1) NB: “être mignonne à croquer” is the French expression to say “to be as lovely as a picture”. I meant to keep the food metaphor so I didn’t use it.

With blandishments from Slim Vicious.

January 16, 2011 28 comments

No Orchids for Miss Blandish, by James Hadley Chase

It starts with a Baghdad Café picture:

It began on a summer afternoon in July, a month of intense heat, rainless skies and scorching, dust-laden winds.

At the junction of the Ford Scott and Nevada roads that cuts Highway 54, the trunck road from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, there stands a gas station and lunchroom bar: a shabby wooden structure with one gas pump, run by an elderly widower and his fat blonde daughter.

For a European, this is the mythical America: a gas station and a lunchroom in the middle of a incredibly hot nowhere. Very cinematographic.


A gang of little yobs, Bailey, Old Sam and Riley hang around, broke and up to no good. They desperately need to find a way to “scratch up some money”. When Bailey meets Heinie, the local gossip journalist who also feeds the local gangs with useful tips, he learns that Miss Blandish, the daughter of the richest man of the country, will be given a fifty grand diamond necklace for her 24th birthday. Riley decides they should grab that necklace, though it seems too big a job for them. The grand theft turns wrong and Bailey kills Miss Blandish’s boy-friend. The grand theft becomes a kidnapping.


Taking gas on their way to a hiding place, they encounter Eddie and Flynn, members of a rival gang, directed by Ma Grisson. Miss Blandish is so lovely that she catches Eddie’s eye. He enquires after her. Not buying the lies Riley tries to sell him, Eddie tells Ma Grisson about the incident. She recognises Miss Blandish and quickly understands what Riley is up to, though Flynn thinks it highly improbable as Those cheap hoods wouldn’t have the nerve to snatch a purse let alone the Blandish dame!


Ma Grisson orders her men to double-cross them and snatch Miss Blandish. Greedy as she is, she immediately imagines how much money she can make out of it, in selling the necklace and cashing the ransom. Orders are promptly executed, Riley’s gang eliminated. Ma Grisson’s gang spread the noise that Riley kidnapped Miss Blandish to lead the Feds in the wrong direction. Heinie tells the cops about his discussion with Riley. He seems the perfect scape-goat.


Things look pretty good for Ma Grisson but for two problems. The first one is Anna, Riley’s girl-friend who can’t accept that Riley disappeared and left her behind. The second one is Slim Grisson, the dangerously unbalanced son of Ma Grisson who falls for Miss Blandish. And Slim is vicious. Here starts Miss Blandish’s agony. This book was published in 1939, so the writer is not very explicit on the relationship between Slim and Miss Blandish, but you can guess it is violent and destructive.


Three months after the kidnapping, Mr Blandish hires Dave Fenner, a former journalist recently settled as a PI, to find his daughter. And I won’t say more about the plot.


I enjoyed reading this book. The characters are well drawn. Of course, Miss Blandish is incredibly beautiful. She does turn men’s heads. She is not seductive though. Her beauty is her fate but it’s hard to decide if it is a gift or a curse. She has more in her than she appears at first sight and her reaction may be mysterious.


The Grisson gang made me think of the Daltons, probably because its head is Ma Grisson. She has no compassion or love for anyone but her son Slim. He is her Achilles’ heel. He is what we call now a psychopath. He is unbalanced, has no moral rules and loves killing. Unpredictable and highly dangerous. Eddie thinks It’s women and money that make the world go round and that tells everything your should know about him. I would have thought they make the world go crazy. Flynn, Woppy and Doc are less developed.


As a PI, Dave Fenner is a funny, nice and clever fellow. I enjoyed his witty exchanges with his secretary. I’ve seen on Wikipedia that James Hadley Chase only wrote one other book with Dave Fenner as the detective. Too bad, he would have deserved to be developed.


The translation dates back to 1946 and uses old fashioned argot words. For me there is a difference between colloquial, slang and argot languages. Colloquial would be spoken language and slang is vulgar. Argot is more a flowery parallel language used by the underground of pimps, small delinquents, whores… It sounds like dialogues of films with Jean Gabin, told in a throaty voice. It fits the genre. However, like for the Bukowski I’ve read recently, the translation is a bit inventive and exaggerates on argot words. Translating “boy friend” by “coquin” instead of “petit ami” sounds strange. Or “nothing” by “nib”, “Get going” by “Décarre!” What kind of words are those? The English doesn’t sound outdated and the French does.


Sometimes, the words used sound ridiculous. Here’s an example: “How’s tricks? You look kinda low” is translated by “Et les affaires, ça boume? T’as pas l’air bien brilliant”. I’m not sure a translator would have used “ça boume” nowadays. And I’d rather not speak of changing or translating names. The Lincoln has become a Packard and the Golden Slipper the “Chausson d’Or”.


I’d like to read more of James Hadley Chase, but I’ll read him in English. It feels like I’m at a turning-point regarding Anglophone literature. I’m more and more dissatisfied with reading it in translation and yet it does take more time and effort to read in English. Perhaps I should accept to read less books for a while and read in English. I should give myself the time to progressively improve my English vocabulary and later be able to read faster.


PS: I’d be grateful, if someone could explain the title of this book to me. Orchids are the symbol of love, luxury and beauty. That’s what Miss Blandish is. An orchid who withers under Slim’s blandishments. It’s the only explanation I found.





To sheer enjoyment. Cheers!

January 14, 2011 10 comments

I’ve just started to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and I wanted to share this :

That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you on another book, and another bit there will lead you to a third book. It’s geometrically progressive — and with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.

I couldn’t have said it better. This book sounds lovely.

Categories: About reading

Thunder Road

January 11, 2011 25 comments

Post Office by Charles Bukowski.

Foreword: I have read this in French and I will probably make mistakes in using vocabulary related to the post office environment as I had to look for words in the dictionary.  

Bukowski wrote the foreword of Ask the Dust by John Fante, a writer he adored and contributed to re-discover. A writer who praised John Fante is a good recommendation for me, so I thought I should read one of his books and when I saw Post Office in Guy’s Top 10 books for 2010, I decided to read it too. When I told my mother I was reading Bukowski she said “Isn’t he the guy who was drunk at Apostrophes and caused a scandal?” Apostrophes was the most famous live literary talk-show in France from 1975 to 1990. Though it dates back to 1978, the incident was famous and scandalous enough to be related in the foreword of the French edition of Post Office.

But back to the book.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was born in Germany from a German mother and an American father. His real name is Heinrich Karl Bukowski. His parents started to call him Henry after they moved in America. First-names are important here as Bukowski used Charles for his pen name and Henry for his literary alter-ego Henry Chinarski.

Post Office is based on autobiographical elements and relates Bukowski’s years as a postman in Los Angeles. In this novel, Bukowski uses the same technique as John Fante, using a literary alter-ego to turn out his tough years into a literary work.

In the first part, Henry Chinarski is a mailman. His description of his life as a post man is huge fun but does not hide the awful truth. I laughed at his descriptions of crazy clients and frightening dogs:

Then I felt something jamming its way into my crotch. It moved way up there. I looked around and there was a German Shepherd, full-grown, with his nose halfway up my ass. With one snap of his jaws he could rip off my balls. I decided that those people were not going to get their mail that day, and maybe never get any mail again. Man, I mean he worked that nose in there. SNUFF! SNUFF! SNUFF!

I put the mail back into the leather pouch, and very slowly, very, I took a half step forward. The nose followed. Then I took another half step with the other foot. The nose followed. Then I took a slow, very slow full step. Then another. Then stood still. The nose was out. And he just stood there looking at me. Maybe he’d never smelled anything like it and didn’t quite know what to do.

I walked quietly away.

The work is hard, there is never enough time to have lunch and the weather does not help either. The episode of delivering mail during a heavy rain is amazing. Postmen were drenched and here are Chinarski’s misadventures with his underwear:

When you shorts get wet they slip down, down they slip, down around the cheeks of your ass, a wet rim of a thing held up by the crotch of your pants.

When Chinarski marries Joyce, he quits his job as a postman to follow her in her native Texas, where they live upon her father’s money. Back to Los Angeles with Joyce, she insists on taking a job to prove her father that they can make a living without his money. She gets hired in a police station and Chinarski is back to the post office, in a sorting office this time.

If being a mailman was hard, this is even harder. Bukowski describes everything, from the petty and mean chiefs to the inhuman cadences and the appalling work hours. Letters must be sorted in a limited amount of time. To become a permanent employee, postmen must pass an incredibly detailed exam about Los Angeles postal areas. I loved the sex-based mnemonic method Chinarski invented to remember all the areas. So funny.

 His private life seems limited to alcohol, horse races and sex. He often starts his shift at work with a hammering hangover. He developes a strategy to earn money on horse races, and is quite successful at a time. His love life has ups and downs. After a divorce from Joyce, he is back to Betty and then meets Fay. Women are objects for him but he is an object for them too, so it levels the playing field. He always chooses them with one terrible flaw that sort of match with one of his own: Betty is always drunk, Joyce is a nymphoman and Fay is lazy.

Despite all his flaws – the alcohol addiction being the worse one – Chinarski is a decent man. We have a hint of his goodness when he arranges his former lover Betty’s funeral. The birth of his daughter is a moving moment. I read through the lines a stronger attachment than what he was ready to show. I thought he was also quite enduring and not as lazy as one would think, considering his bad living habits and the exhausting work he was doing. In the end, Bukowski/Chinarski worked for the post office during 11 years, which is a considerable amount of time. When he quits, his body is worn out by silly and tiring work.

I’ve read that Bukowski needed only a month after he quit his job to write Post Office. It must have been simmering in him for a while. That’s also why it sounds so right and deprived of any nostalgia.

One personal note. My father used to be a post office clerk and was in charge of organizing mailmen rounds. I have grown up hearing stories about postmen, rounds, lost letters and ridiculous circulars. I can tell that the dog stories are universal as well as the client ones – though hot stories about women in underclothes never came to my young and chaste ears.

Reading Bukowski brought to my mind two books I’ve read in 2010: The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Bukowski is at cross-roads between Fante, Steinbeck and Céline, two other Californian writers and a French one. He reminded me of Fante for the description of the working conditions of small employees. Bukowski has common points with John Fante: both were Roman Catholic, from foreign parents, poor, had a drunk and violent father. Both lived in California, although Fante spent his childhood in Colorado. Steinbeck came to my mind for the kind description of the outcast of the American dream and of lives damaged by alcohol. He reminded me of Céline for the spoken language and the argot he used.

That makes three talented god-fathers for a single writer. Bukowski is gifted. Post Office is funny, sad and tender. I must say I prefer Fante, perhaps the alcohol abuse in Bukowski threw a veil of bitterness on the events, when Fante is all sun and fun. Moreover, Arturo Bandini knows he wants to be a writer and this ambition fills him with energy.

A word about the translation. Hmm. There were a lot of outdated argot words. Some I didn’t know, some weren’t even in my French dictionary. I downloaded a sample of Post Office on my kindle – how convenient for quotes! — because I wanted to know how the real text sounded. I’m under the impression that the French translation is a bit inventive on the argot tone.

A Japanese Tatie Danielle

January 7, 2011 11 comments

The Hateful Age, by Fumio Niwa. (Japanese title: Iyagarase No Nenrei). Translated in French by L’âge des méchancetés.

Ce qu’elle peut faire de mieux dans son état actuel, c’est mourir vite et rien d’autre. Comment se fait-il qu’elle vive aussi longtemps ? What she can do best in her current state is to die soon and nothing else. How comes that she lives that long?

Funio Niwa (1905-2005) is a Japanese writer. He was already famous in his country in the 1930s but few of his books have been translated in English or in French. I discovered The Hateful Age thanks to the paperback collection Folio 2€. I enjoy this collection as it is an opportunity to discover writers I don’t know through short texts. (about 100 pages) 

The Hateful Age, published in 1947, is a shattering book on old age.

Tokyo, 1947. Umejo is 86 years old and her only daughter died some twenty years ago. Her family left is her three grand-daughters, Senko (43), Sachiko (36) and Ruriko (20). Sachiko’s house in Tokyo has been destroyed during the war and she and her family are sent to live in the country. They rent a two-rooms lodging in a peasant’s house. The village is poor, there is no electricity and they are five persons in their family. Her living conditions do not allow her to take care of Umejo.

Therefore, after living with Sachiko and her husband Minobe, Umejo has been staying at Senko’s house for three months. Senko is married to Itami and has no children. Umejo is a burden for them. She pinches objects in the house, is awake at night and enquires ‘Who’s there?’ any time someone goes to the toilets in the night. Itami cannot stand it anymore and threatens Senko to sleep in his office for the next couple of weeks if Umejo goes on living with them. His words are violent, horrible but he manages to convince Senko that sending her grand-mother away at Sachiko’s is the right thing to do. Here is Senko informing Umejo of their decision:

Vraiment grand-mère, vous êtes un cancer. A cause de vous seule, nous ne pouvons pas vivre en bonnes relations entre sœurs. Vous-même, d’ailleurs, vous n’auriez pas pensé que vous serviriez seulement à empoisonner nos relations en vous laissant aller à vivre trop longtemps.   Really, granny, you are a cancer. Because of you alone, we sisters cannot have a good relationship. By the way, even you wouldn’t have thought that your only role would be to poison our relationship by letting yourself live that long.

What are these words? “letting yourself live that long”? Does it mean that her family expected her to act responsibly towards us and commit suicide? Later in the book, Niwa explains that when a husband dies, his wife’s name is written in advance on the grave and covered with red painting until she dies too. Umejo has been a widow for such a long time that the painting has disappeared. The grand-daughters seem to think Umejo purposely stays alive to annoy them.

So Senko sends Umejo at Sachiko’s house. Send is the right verb, as Umejo is treated like a parcel. The narration of the journey is terrible. Ruriko is designated to bring the old woman to the country house. The village is remote; there is one and a half league from the train station to the village. As Umejo cannot walk, she is attached with ropes on Ruriko’s back, who carries her. The walk between the station and the village is a nightmare. It is so cruel that it is almost unbearable to read.

Although they have little room and little money, Sachiko and Minobe welcome Umejo. She keeps on pinching, yells after the children, wakes them three times per night because she needs to go to the toilets and gets lost in the dark. She starts tearing her clothes, which is a huge problem as fabric is rationed in these post-war years. The reader slowly discovers how ungrateful the grand-daughters are, though Sachiko and Minobe behave better than Senko but also discovers how difficult it can be to live with Umejo. The description of old age is appalling but true-to-life. People are not equal in ageing. Some get sick, lose their mind, some remain spry and witty. Niwa decided to show us the dark side of old age.

This text is purposely brutal to be thought-provoking. How shall the community take care of elderly citizens? Fumio Niwa examines a growing problem for the post WWII Japanese society. Indeed, I’ve read that at that time, Japan has to face a growing population of octogenarians. The custom is that children take care of the old parents. As they live longer and longer, they cause increasing problems in families. Niwa gives an awful example of cohabitation between Umejo and her family to challenge the traditional model coming from Confucianism. He demolishes the cliché of the affectionate grand-mother, cement of the family, kindly bestowing her wisdom on her beloved family. I have to admit I had that cliché in mind too, especially for Japan and China. Niwa thinks families should live separately and promotes the foundation of retirement houses like in America. I’m not familiar with Japanese culture, but this seems quite revolutionary.

I also perceived between the lines that the Japanese society is at a turning point in 1947. The country is occupied by the Americans, who bring Western customs with them. Food and clothes are rationed, consequence of WWII, just as they were in France at that time. The social model is compared to the American one. The way of life is still traditional but is going to change. Niwa’s text tells more about Japanese culture than the Murakami’s books I’ve read. 

A word on the style. Niwa’s prose isn’t really impressive, I wonder if the translation is responsible for that. It’s not easy to translate from Japanese to a Western language as kanjis (Japanese ideograms) convey images as well as ideas. This short-story – or novella? The concept of novella doesn’t exist in French, I never know how to recognise a novella – is emotionally difficult to read but it raises an issue we have to face in our Western societies as well, as people grow older and older.

Ironically, Fumio Niwa developed Alzheimer disease in 1985 and died in 2005. I wonder where he was living during his long illness and who took care of him. As there always seem to be an inner logic in life, I usually prudently avoid criticizing old people, as I don’t know what kind of old lady I shall be.  

PS: The title of that post is a reference to the excellent French film Tatie Danielle by Etienne Chatiliez. In this film, an old aunt terrorises her nephew and his family when she comes to live with them. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to watch it, it’s very good.

Fire and Ice: Will’s power or wills’ power?

January 4, 2011 14 comments

The Last of the Savages, by Jay McInerney.

 I have already read several books by Jay McInerney and my favourite one is probably The Good Life. I’m fond of his stories and his style, though his novels usually concentrate on the New York upper classes. The Last of the Savages was first published in 1996.

 The narrator, Patrick Keane is interviewed by the police as his colleague Saul Felton is found dead in a sordid hotel room in the Bronx. This married man seemed to have a quiet life but had actually a secret sexual life with gay prostitutes. This event is the catalyser which brings Patrick into relating his life and his friendship with Will Savage.

We are first in 1965. Patrick Keane is a brilliant high school student who just got in a private prep school. He comes from a modest Irish family and has a scholarship. As a member of the middle class, as a Catholic, Patrick is an outsider among these WASP old American families. Will Savage, born in a rich family from Memphis, happens to be his roommate. Unexpectedly, they become close friends, though they are like fire and ice.

Will is rich, charismatic, with an aristocratic easiness in his manners. He is a tempest, full of energy. He is eccentric, loud, provocative. He is rebelling against his family and the most efficient rebellion in Memphis for a boy like him at that time is to hang out with black people. Will has also a passion, blues and soul music and wants to be a music producer. He spends most of his free time in black neighbourhoods, bars and churches to discover new musical talents. So school is definitely not his main preoccupation. He is at war with his powerful and castrating father, Cordell.

Being shy, introverted, hardworking and ambitious, Patrick is fascinated by him. Patrick’s aim in life is clear: he wants to be a WASP too. We follow his life from prep school, through Yale, Harvard Law School, his beginnings in a law firm. Patrick has no life for years, concentrated as he is to achieve his goal. He just studies and works hard, lives cheaply. He succeeds in everything he undertakes: he becomes a partner in his firm, he marries a WASP daughter, lives in an apartment on Park Avenue and has a house in Connecticut. From the beginning of the novel, we know he has reached his goal: he has turned into a typical WASP.

Will is an anomaly in his perfectly orderly life. Whenever Will condescends to call him for a meeting, he clears his schedule and runs to him. For many years, his only intimate relationships are linked to Will: his wife Taleesha, his Southern friend Lollie Baker. Patrick and Will maintain a distant but permanent friendship.

The reader also follows Will’s tormented life through its collisions with Patrick’s. He marries a black woman in Memphis, right in the middle of the civil rights fights. Jay McInerney explores the consequences of such a choice and describes the climate in the South at that time. Of course, Will abuses of drugs, is always surrounded by an eclectic fauna, it wouldn’t be the music business without that, would it? He succeeds in creating his music label but he is too impulsive, has too reckless a life to build a stable empire.

From a psychoanalytic point of view, Will is the id and Patrick the superego. Neither Will nor Patrick is a well-balanced person, in the end. Will has a power over Patrick but not enough power to divert him from the path he has chosen for himself. Both have a strong will and know what they want.  

Though the book is entitled The Last of the Savages, I thought it was more about Patrick after all. He is quiet and his desires are strongly under control. He wants to be successful in his professional and social life, whatever the cost for his happiness. We progressively learn why he is built that way, but I will not tell it here. To me, he sounds terribly empty. He reminds me of Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. He never lets his feelings rule his life. His decisions are always reasonable, weighed and appropriate. He is able to sacrifice a lot to conventions, apart from Will. He is also really lucid about his ability to live outside social rules. He could not, so he thinks he should not.

The construction of the novel isn’t innovative: a violent event leads a character into reconsidering his life. It is a first person narration, with flash backs. Patrick attempts to analyse his past and the decisions he made. Sometimes he drops a sentence on the Jenson affair, to remind the reader where the story began. I thought the strings were a little bit too visible though, contrary to Dead Babies by Martin Amis, they were not meant to be visible. I don’t like when the reader can see the craft and the work of the writer: whatever the work they put into a book, the reader should always imagine that it has been written in one long flow of words, especially when the narrator addresses directly to them.

I wasn’t thrilled by The Last of the Savages. Though Jay McInerney writes well, I thought the novel explored too many subjects and should have concentrated on one. The racial conflicts are depicted in the first part and then disappear. The show business environment is mentioned but not analysed. Will’s conflicting relationship with his father was not detailed enough. Plus, I liked neither Patrick nor Will, even if I don’t have to like the characters to enjoy a book.  I thought of Patrick as a living-dead and felt no compassion for him. That’s probably because I have difficulties to understand someone who sacrifices his happiness for social status or for money. And Will looked more like a caricature of the excesses of the 1960s-1970s. 

In my opinion, Jay McInerney has done better.

Happy New Year from Book Around The Corner

January 1, 2011 16 comments

I wish a happy New Year to all the people who will – intentionally or not – read this. I hope 2011 will bring you health, happiness and success in your projects.  

2010 has been my first blogging year. Well, 8 months precisely, since I started in May. I have posted 70 reviews and thoughts, more than I imagined I would when I started this. The list of the books I covered will be published on the Reading Lists page. I know at least one person who used one of those lists for her reading trips at the library, so it’s worth publishing.

I’ve been in touch with people from different countries and different backgrounds and it was the aim of this blog too. I’ve told this before but switching permanently between French and English wasn’t easy at the beginning. It’s getting better and I stopped worrying about the mistakes I make. I’ve decided to consider them as a cute written French accent.

Regarding my imperfect knowledge of the English language, I warmly thank all the persons who kindly and patiently answered to all my what-does-it-mean questions. My knowledge of British slang and acronyms hasn’t magically improved over the night, so you can expect more of those questions in 2011.

According to the comments I receive, there must be three to five people who regularly read my thoughts on the books I read. Thank you, book-friends, for the time you gave me and the interesting discussions we’ve had. I also enjoy time difference: when I throw my little literary bottle in the Internet sea just before bedtime, I’m almost certain to have a good-morning comment when I wake up. It’s so nice. Thanks. If I have other regular readers I’m not aware of, don’t be shy, leave comments, I’ll be delighted to know you.

I’ve also enjoyed reading other people’s blogs, it allowed me to discover authors I’d never heard of before. Looking back on 2010, when thinking of the books I have loved this year, here are the 10 books that came to my mind. They stayed with me, it means they are the best ones.  

– “I am on the threshold of expression” Arturo Bandini says. The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante is Arturo’s adolescence and departure to Los Angeles. It’s a funny and kind description of the working class in California before WWII and the birth of a writer. Arturo and Alexander from Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth would have much to share on their loving and invasive moms. 

A Journey Into the Past by Stephan Zweig. I was blown away by that short powerful book. Can a lost love resurrect from its ashes? Zweig’s description of Ludwig discovering love was sensitive and true-to-life.

 – She moves him in mysterious ways. South of the border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami. I was curious to read what Murakami had done with the same theme as Zweig’s Journey Into the Past. He wrote a wonderful and melancholic book, one of those that stay in mind.

 – Eleanor Rigby is Hungarian and lives in Normandy. Or in Vancouver? Skylark by Deszó Kosztolányi. This is the story of an ugly girl who is bound to remain single. She lives her parents for a vacation and her absence reveals what her destiny has imposed on their lives. Thanks to Max from Pechorin’s Journal to make me discover this book. It was full of emotion, from Skylark’s point of view and from her parents’.

– Wisdom from an Older Poet. Letters to a Young Poet, by Reiner Maria Rilke. I’ve heard an audio version of these letters, read by the French actor, Denis Podalydes. The spoken form gave life to the letters Rilke had sent to Franz Kapuss, who wanted advice about writing. These letters are kind, soothing, intelligent, full of spot-on thoughts on life and creation. It’s the kind of book you want to keep on your bedside table, to have a look at it in tough moments.

– Nick’s Perfume: ‘je promets’. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. This one I should have read in translation, I think. I probably missed a lot of the beauty of Hollinghurst’s prose. However, I was overwhelmed by Nick’s story and truly interested in the description of London during the Thatcher years.

– Nudity of a selfish, horrid and arid soul. Novel with Cocaine by M Ageyev. “No one here gets out alive”, I could say. Vadim is a horrible character. But the novel is stunning by the crude description of the workings of Vadim’s mind and by the incredible Proustian style. It’s a book hard to offer, because it’s bleak, but it’s worth reading.

– Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E Westlake. There’s no review of this one. I discovered it through Max’ post here. I loved it for the fun, the style and the cinematographic pace. It left with wanting to read more of him.

– When lost time is not searched but stubbornly imposes itself. Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. Billy Pilgrim’s coping with post-wars memories in a book that we French would categorize as “Conte philosophique” (Philosophical Tale).

 – The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. An inventive style, a story full of rhythm and my first encounter with Philip Marlow. I’m curious to see how Chandler developed his character in the following novels.

 In 2010, I have also started to read Proust again, the first two volumes. It’s even better than in my memory. It’s not in the 10 books of the year because, like in Cannes, it’s a special prize. It’s hard to compete with Proust, though ‘competition’ is not the right word.

Enough of 2010. My reading project for 2011 is not to have a reading project, actually. So it’ll be a surprise.  I’ll be following other bloggers’ literary adventures with interest and pleasure and I hope you’ll enjoy reading mine.

Bonne Année 2011 et Bonne Santé.


Special thanks to my children for the drawings.

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