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The Guermantes Way, book II

February 28, 2011 15 comments

Le Côté de Guermantes (Book 2) by Marcel Proust. A la Recherche du Temps perdu, volume 3. (Translated as The Guermantes Way, Third volume of In Search of Lost Time)

As a foreword, I would like to mention that The Guermantes Way is a very good title for this volume. It has a fuller meaning than the French one (Le Côté de Guermantes) but it is really well chosen as “way” covers the sense of “côté” or “chemin” (path) and of “mores”, which is a central part of the book.

 How is the narrator doing in this book?

 He has to face pain as his grand-mother is ill and shall not recover. He relates her illness, her suffering and the reactions of family and acquaintances to their grief. Two scenes are particularly horrible. The first one is when his grand-mother cannot take the pain any longer and tries to throw herself through the window. The second one is the Duc de Guermantes intruding to their house the night the narrator’s grand-mother is dying.

The narrator’s health seems to decline, he talks more often about lying in bed. He welcomes Albertine in his room, as he is in bed, which will prove most convenient for making out. Robert de Saint Loup crosses a whole restaurant in a rather special way, leaping from chair to chair to reach the narrator in the crowded room and put a coat on his shoulders so that he would not catch a cold.

On a happier tone, the narrator learns the benefits of indifference: Albertine comes to visit him and willingly lets him kiss her. The Duchesse de Guermantes invites him to diner.  

An important section of the book is dedicated to the narrator’s diner at the Guermantes. After describing the Guermantes spirit, during a long – too long? – moment, Proust is back with his acute and ironic look on people and events. The narrator assesses the situation with more hindsight than before. He is more mature. For example, he is now able to refuse to attend a high society evening at the Guermantes to spend time with his mother coming home from the country. He is utterly disappointed by his first diner at the Guermantes. He imagined these people much more intellectual. Their conversation is boring. The narrator gets bored. As Proust is a great writer, the reader is as bored as the poor Narrator.

Était-ce vraiment à cause de dîners tels que celui-ci que toutes ces personnes faisaient toilette et refusaient de laisser pénétrer des bourgeoises dans leurs salons si fermés, pour des dîners tels que celui-ci? pareils si j’avais été absent? J’en eus un instant le soupçon, mais il était trop absurde. Was it really for the sake of dinners such as this that all these people dressed themselves up and refused to allow the penetration of middleclass women into their so exclusive drawing-rooms—for dinners such as this? The same, had I been absent? The suspicion flashed across my mind for a moment, but it was too absurd.

The relationship between the Duc de Guermantes and his wife is analysed. It is more a business partnership than a marriage in the way we understand it nowadays. There is no love between them and there has never been any love. The narrator even implies that the Duc is a violent man. He has many mistresses and the Duchesse knows it and is obliged to invite them to her tea parties and dinners. Nothing is said about her affairs. Does she have the same liberty as him in her love life? Although love is absent, the Duc de Guermantes is always utterly polite with her in public and always puts her forward in society. They play their parts skilfully. He is proud to show her around in the richest clothes and relates her “bons mots” with delight, as if she were a trained monkey. They have a sort of unspoken but nonetheless real partnership in running the most fashionable salon of Paris.

All in all, their life is shallow. Oriane de Guermantes may be the most fashionable woman in Paris, her life is empty. She does not seem to have children. She does not spend any time studying or improving her mind. She does no good deeds. She spends her time visiting family or acquaintances and gossiping. Her husband despises her and considers her no more as a witty and beautiful object. If she weren’t so conceited, the reader would pity her.

Whatever his attraction to the aristocracy, the narrator shows benevolence for small people and progressive ideas. He disapproves that Mme de Guermantes asks her valet to go and fetch the pheasants one of her guests had killed during his latest hunting party because it was the valet’s day off and she perfectly knew he had a rendezvous with his girl-friend, who is also a servant and had her only day-off on the morrow. Talking about politics and discussion at the Chambre (Parliament), the narrator declares normal that the rich should pay more taxes than the poor.

Even after he had stopped stalking Mme de Guermantes in their neighbourhood, he keeps on taking his morning walks to meet the working people, the shopkeepers. The reader can feel a certain fondness for these people in the way he describes the atmosphere in the area, which is very Parisian. As always, Proust links what he sees with art, with painting, like here:

D’ailleurs l’extrême proximité des maisons aux fenêtres opposées sur une même cour y fait de chaque croisée le cadre où une cuisinière rêvasse en regardant à terre, où plus loin une jeune fille se laisse peigner les cheveux par une vieille à figure, à peine distincte dans l’ombre, de sorcière; ainsi chaque cour fait pour le voisin de la maison, en supprimant le bruit par son intervalle, en laissant voir les gestes silencieux dans un rectangle placé sous verre par la clôture des fenêtres, une exposition de cent tableaux hollandais juxtaposés. And then also, the extreme proximity of the houses, with their windows looking opposite one another on to a common courtyard, makes of each casement the frame in which a cook sits dreamily gazing down at the ground below, in which farther off a girl is having her hair combed by an old woman with the face, barely distinguishable in the shadow, of a witch: thus each courtyard provides for the adjoining house, by suppressing all sound in its interval, by leaving visible a series of silent gestures in a series of rectangular frames, glazed by the closing of the windows, an exhibition of a hundred Dutch paintings hung in rows.

We can really picture the scenery.

I would like talk about the first names of the aristocracy in Proust. If Oriane is not very frequent, it is not rare. However, Palamède, Basin, Hannibal, Walpurge or Amanien are first names as strange as the ones in Molière. All those first-names sound snobbish and that makes their short-names (Mémé, Babal, Mama) even more ridiculous. They are typically French though and still exist. At work, many people around me have such silly nicknames and I’m glad that my first-name has a natural short-name which prevented them from inventing one for me. I don’t think I could stand it.

But back to Proust. The Baron de Charlus takes the narrator as his protégée. It was an offer the narrator was made at the end of the first book and a crazy meeting with him closes the second book and sort of introduces Sodom and Gomorrah, as Charlus is the central character of this volume.

I will probably write a post dedicated to the Duc de Guermantes and I’m trying to write something about how Proust’s description of society comforts Edith Wharton’s views of French ways. And of course, what I write here isn’t even one tenth of all the things, ideas, feelings Proust shows us.

French Ways and their Meaning by Edith Wharton

February 24, 2011 29 comments

French Ways and their Meaning by Edith Wharton. (134 pages)

Edith Wharton had been living in France since twelve years when she wrote these articles about France in 1917. These essays were aimed at American readers and their purpose was to explain how French people behave and think.

When I started to read Edith Wharton’s book, I had two available options: either take her uncontrolled enthusiasm for France literally and shut the book immediately or try to catch whatever was relevant in her exposé. Here is what I mean with “uncontrolled enthusiasm”

 French people “have taste” as naturally as they breathe: it is not regarded as an accomplishment, like playing the flute.

Or

As life is an art in France, so woman is an artist. She does not teach man, but she inspires him. 

I laughed at the possibility of being anybody’s Muse and mused over my above mentioned options with this book. I chose to keep on reading, taking what I was reading “au second degré”, which means with some distance and not literally at all.

It also took me a while to figure out how I would write about this book. Though it’s rather short, there’s a lot of material in it. So I decided to give an idea of the general tone of her essays and then unleash some of the spontaneous comments that came to my mind when I was reading. It is what we call in French a “liste à la Prévert”, which means a random list of items with no particular sequence or obvious link between them. I’m not sure it’s of interest to anyone but me, though. Anyway, back to the book.  

After a brief introduction, Edith Wharton details in six chapters the main particularities of French ways.

  1. First Impressions

  2. Reverence

  3. Taste

  4. Intellectual Honesty

  5. Continuity

  6. The New Frenchwoman

She is well aware that writing about a people is tricky and begs the reader to accept the use of “Anglo-Saxon vs Latin” conventions as it is convenient. I will use them too, even if it is simplistic. Her main argument when comparing France to America is that France is an adult country whereas America is only a child. I first thought this statement ludicrous then recalled the childish “Freedom Fries” and revised my judgement. Then in each chapter, she explains how great the French are. That’s it, the general tone is of an undeserved and ridiculous great praise of France. I will not cover all the generalizations she wrote.

However, as I’m reading and writing in English, I was very interested in her conclusion, where she discusses the meaning “the four words that preponderate in French speech and literature”: Amour, Gloire, Plaisir, Volupté and how their immediate translation, Love, Glory, Pleasure, Voluptuousness doesn’t convey the same images and background than in French. I wish she had added Séduction to her list, I would have loved to read her take on this one. I’m not going to rephrase everything but I think it’s worth reading for someone who enjoys French literature and wants to understand it better. She has a point here and it was very educational for me. I’ve experienced difficulties to translate the concept of “pleasure” and the verb “jouir”, either in posts or in comments. Here is what Edith Wharton writes :

And from their freedom of view combined with their sensuous sensibility they have extracted the sensation they call “le plaisir,” which is something so much more definite and more evocative than what we mean when we speak of pleasure. “Le plaisir” stands for the frankly permitted, the freely taken, delight of the senses, the direct enjoyment of the fruit of the tree called golden. No suggestions of furtive vice degrade or coarsen it, because it has, like love, its open place in speech and practice.

It’s something that can be applied for very different situations such as enjoying the sun caressing your face, spending an afternoon with a good book, quietly walking in the nature and of course to sex. Is she right to say it’s a different meaning than “pleasure”?  

In some ways, her enthusiasm blurred her vision but she does have a point on several subjects I don’t know if I must rejoice that these things are still relevant one century after she wrote them. Perhaps it proves her right when she assesses that the French are conservative. I don’t pretend to hold the truth. This is only my opinion and it should be taken as such.

Let’s start by clichés: wine and relationships between men and women.

 About Wine.

Above all, the rich soil of France, so precious for wheat and corn-growing, is the best soil in the world for the vine; and a people can possess few more civilising assets than the ability to produce good wine at home. It is the best safeguard against alcoholism, the best incentive to temperance in the manly and grown-up sense of the word, which means voluntary sobriety and not legally enforced abstinence. All these gifts France had and the French intelligently cherished.

Um. Has she read Zola or was he too dirty? Sure binge drinking – now coming here too and regularly worrying the authorities – is not a French custom. But to say we don’t have any problem with alcoholism is wrong.

 About casual relationships between men and women.

The French have always been a gay and free and Rabelaisian people. They attach a great deal of importance to love-making, but they consider it more simply and less solemnly than we. They are cool, resourceful and merry, crack jokes about the relations between the sexes. (…) They define pornography as a taste for the nasty, and not as an interest in the natural.

I can’t tell how it is abroad but what she writes about us is probably true. Take our presidents. One apparently died in action, meaning here, not arms at the ready but between the arms of his mistress. Another had a secret family. The current one got a divorce and married a former model when he’s still in charge. And no one is shocked.

About jokes about the relations between the sexes, sure, we have a lot of them. But I never considered this as a French thing. Should I?

As for the latest part, pornography, I’m sure comparing the rating of films regarding the age of the audience would be fascinating. Which makes me think I’ve always been astonished by the “explicit lyrics” stickers put on CDs in American stores.

About Theatre and Cinema.

“What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.”

This is exactly the sentence I was looking for to explain why Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas would have had another ending if it had been shot in America. But I’d rather talk about “Hollywood films” vs “Indie films”, whatever their nationality.

About L’Académie Française and the fight for French language.

And Richelieu and the original members of the Academy had recognised from the first day that language was the chosen vessel in which the finer life of a nation must be preserved.

The Academy still exists and is still in charge with inventing new French words to address to new realities. Our government advertises about the proper way to say in French foreign words, mostly coming from the English. I blogged about that once here. I’m not sure that we keep a proper balance  between “preserved” and “kept in mothballs”, though.

 About Americans and Art.

It is the pernicious habit of regarding the arts as something that can be bottled, pickled and absorbed in twelve months (thanks to “courses,” summaries and abridgements) that prevents the development of a real artistic sensibility in our eager and richly endowed race.

Whereas I don’t agree with her on the last part of her statement and reject the word “race”, I chose this quote because it reminded me of the discussion about creative writing Max started on his blog. Somehow, Edith Wharton shows that a fertile soil for those classes has been there in America for a while.

In addition, when I first read it, I also thought about our position named “cultural exception” and the way our government usually refuses to consider art as any consumer goods in trade agreements.

About morality.

It distinguishes, implicitly if not outspokenly, between the wrong that has far-reaching social consequences and that which injures only one or two persons, or perhaps only the moral sense of the offender. The French have continued to accept this classification of offences. They continue to think the sin against the public conscience far graver than that against any private person. If in France there is a distinction between private and business morality it is exactly the reverse of that prevailing in America.

This reminded me I discussion I’ve had with Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers on Madame Bovary. She asked me if it was taught in school and wondered how teachers would handle the moral/ethical issues in it with school kids”. My answer was “This is a very Anglo-Saxon question! For me, and I believe for a French, it’s not a moral or ethical question. It’s a personal matter. It’s private and unique as these people are unique.”

I couldn’t properly explain why “private” was the word that came to my mind. Edith Wharton has put words on this. Emma’s cheating on Charles has no consequences for the society. It is sure a misfortune for Charles but I can’t blame her or judge her – Flaubert doesn’t either. It’s a “sin against a private person”. Teaching about this can’t have consequences on the morality of the students. There is nothing subversive in openly talking about cuckooed Charles in class.

That’s also why we don’t care about our presidents being faithful to their spouse – I was about to write “wives” but let’s be optimistic, someday a woman will be president – or not. 

Women, men and business.

In small businesses the woman is always her husband’s book keeper or clerk, or both; above all, she is his business adviser. France, as you know, is held up to all other countries as a model of thrift, of wise and prudent saving and spending.”

This hasn’t changed and I see it everyday at work. Is that something really French? After the divorce rate exploded and left women working with their husbands without any money, the law was changed to give them a status. It is aimed at protecting women and giving them social protection and a retirement pension if they get a divorce after working “for free” in their husband’s business.

The second part explains our incomprehension regarding junk bonds and the sub-primes crisis in America and also strikes against any attempt to change the retirement system to an Anglo-Saxon one, ie with money invested in the stock markets.

 Leisure.

This point assured, they want only enough leisure and freedom from material anxiety to enjoy what life and the arts of life offer. This absence of financial ambition should never be lost sight of: it is not only the best clue to the French character, but the most useful lesson our own people can learn from contact with France. (…) The requirements of the average French man in any class are surprisingly few, and the ambition to “better” himself socially plays a very small part in his plans. What he wants is leisure to enjoy the fleeting good things of life, from which no one knows better how to extract a temperate delight, and full liberty of mind to discuss general ideas while pursuing whatever trade or art he is engaged in.

In presidential election of 1997, one of the slogans was “Work more to earn more.” OK, the candidate pushing that slogan won the election and put it into practice as soon as he could. He increased the possibility of doing overtime hours, allowed retired persons to work. It doesn’t seem to be a success. People would rather work less and earn less than lose free time. Somehow I thought it was a new tendency coming from a general eagerness for leisure. So I was surprised to discover this in Wharton’s little book.

 Fortunately, everything is not as perfect as she says.

 About the status of the Frenchwoman.

The French wife has less legal independence than the American or English wife, and is subject to a good many legal disqualifications from which women have freed themselves in other countries.

At least, some critic. Yes French women had to wait until 1944 to have the right to vote, years after American women (1919), British women (1928) or Brazilian ones (1932)

About politeness at tourists.

The complaint of Anglo-Saxons that, in travelling in France, they see little of the much-vaunted French courtesy, is not unjustified. The French are not courteous from any vague sense of good-will toward mankind; they regard politeness as a coin with which certain things are obtainable, and being notably thrifty they are cautious about spending it on strangers.

I’m sorry to say this hasn’t changed much. Stand in a street in San Francisco with a map and someone will come and help you. Do the same thing in Paris and see how long you wait until someone finally comes by you. I promise I don’t leave tourists in distress whenever I meet some.

In the end, she can’t avoid caricature, but it’s difficult to avoid short-cuts, clichés and generalizations in that matter. She’s really carried away by her enthusiasm, which is harmful to her thoughts. Most of the compliments are really undeserved. I far from agree with everything she says but it was interesting and thought-provoking anyway. So I’m glad I’ve read it.

London Caller

February 20, 2011 16 comments

Promenades dans Londres, by Flora Tristan. (122 pages)

Flora Tristan (1803-1844) was a French activist. She was a feminist and a socialist. Her life was a novel in itself. She is the daughter of a Peruvian officer and a French woman. When her father died, her mother wasn’t able to prove that they were legally married. As a consequence, Flora Tristan became an illegitimate child and could claim no inheritance from her father’s fortune. She married young, in 1821. Her marriage was a failure as her husband, André Chazal, was a violent man (1). In 1839, he was condemned to 20 years of hard labour, after he tried to shoot her. They had three children, the youngest one, Aline, will be Paul Gauguin’s grand-mother.

Flora Tristan got involved with people defending the cause of workers and women and was against slavery. She travelled a great deal, considering her time. She travelled to South America, to meet her father’s family and claim some financial support and to Great-Britain, several times. She travelled all over France to spread her ideas. She was restless and eventually died of exhaustion in 1844. Nowadays, we would call it a burn out.

In 1839, she was in London again and wrote chronicles about her trip. This edition of Promenades in London is a selection of these chronicles. England was ahead of other European countries in many ways at the time. The industrial revolution had started earlier and Flora Tristan was prejudiced against England’s economical system. Her ostensible aim was to warn people on the continent against the effects of the industrial revolution. She wanted to let people know what was happening in England behind the curtains in order to prevent the same things to happen in France. Futile effort. In the second part of the 19th C, industrialisation in France will have the same consequences as in England. (cf Zola’s Germinal) All this to say that she didn’t go to London to marvel at the gas lit streets – even if she actually did – but to visit the darkest sides of the largest city in the world.

 She started by describing the size of the city and the time lost in transportation for any minor errand. Follow the inevitable chapter on the climate (“so irritating that many Englishmen cannot get used to it”) and one on the Londoner, that I didn’t like because generalizing about so many people without even living in the country can only lead to absurdities, such as:

Le Londonien est très peu hospitalier. La cherté de la vie, le ton cérémonieux qui règle toutes les relations s’opposent à ce qu’il le soit. The Londoner isn’t very welcoming. The cost of life, the formal tone which rules all relationships prevent them from being so.

I don’t like those kind of gratuitous assertions. Edith Wharton didn’t do better with French people in 1917 after living 12 years in France, but that will be another post.

I enjoyed her account of how she entered into the Parliament dressed as a Turkish man because women weren’t allowed. Of course, she was irritated by this, “half of the Nation is deprived of his civic rights”, she said, but the situation wasn’t better in France at the time. MPs quickly discovered she was a woman and she was outraged by the way they treated her.

I was more interested by her industrial tourism. Since “beer and gas are the most important parts of London’s consumer society”, she visited the brewery Barclay-Perkins. Her description of the machines, the noise, the danger and the poor working conditions in the factory are breathtaking. She couldn’t help marvelling at the mechanisation of the activity and already imagined how it could be profitable for the workers:  

Si d’abord je ressentis de l’humiliation à voir l’homme annihilé, ne fonctionnant plus lui-même que comme une machine, je vis bientôt l’immense amélioration qui ressortirait un jour de ces découvertes de la science : la force brutale anéantie, le travail matériel exécuté dans moins de temps, et plus de loisir laissé à l’homme pour la culture de son intelligence ; mais pour que ces grands bienfaits se réalisent, il faudra une révolution sociale. Elle arrivera! At first, I felt humiliated to see men annihilated, only working as machines. Then I quickly grasped the huge improvements that these scientific discoveries would bring one day: the destruction of brutal strength, material work accomplish in less time than before, more time left to improve one’s mind. But, these great benefits will only happen thanks to a social revolution. It will come!

 I don’t know how things went in England, but in France, her wish will eventually come true in 1936, a century after she wrote these words.

 She also visited the Irish and the Jewish neighbourhoods. She walked into the poorest places, describing an unbearable poverty and an appalling stench. She was outraged by the cynicism of merchants and captains of industry. Her analysis was that the workers had worse living conditions than slaves. Indeed, slaves had a value for their owner, who’d rather have slaves in good health to maintain the value of the capital they invested. But workers were provided for free by the Nation. So why should the employer bother to give them decent wages? When they died, they were replaced by others, always for free. Contrary to slaves, workers were free but this freedom is of no use to them as their wages didn’t make a living. (And here we find again the Maslow pyramid of needs : as long as the basic needs aren’t covered, men can’t reach the next stage).

After a little research, she wasn’t as objective as she should have been. For example, according to Wikipedia, a law was voted in England in 1801 regarding children at work. A child had be 8 to work. The same kind of law was be voted in France in … 1841. Maybe the delay between the two laws was only due to the fact that England was more industrialized and the problem occurred earlier. But maybe not. 

The section about Ascot Racecourse is priceless. She marveled at how the traffic was perfectly smooth despite the incredible number of carriages.

J’étais stupéfaite et ne pus m’empêcher de réfléchir que, si de pareilles courses avaient lieu en France, trois compagnies de gendarmes à cheval ne suffiraient pas pour maintenir l’ordre parmi ces trois mille voitures. I was flabbergasted and couldn’t help thinking that, if such races took place in France, a great number of mounted gendarmes would be necessary to to police these three thousand carriages.

I suppose it would still be a terrible mess in France today. Is queuing quietly and orderly an English quality? She pictured the social event that these racecourses were (still are, if I’m right).

As a feminist, she couldn’t not write a chapter about the Englishwoman. “One only needs to live a few months in England to realize how intelligent and sensitive Englishwomen are.” despite their education and living conditions. I’m not sure that what she described (impossibility to do anything without their husband’s consent, social life in a limited circle) was really different in France at the time. I was more interested in her thoughts about female writers:

Il y a en Angleterre plus de femmes auteurs qu’en France, parce que les Françaises ont une vie plus active et sont moins exclues que les Anglaises du mouvement social. There are more female writers in England than in France because French women have a more active life and are less excluded from social life than English women.

I always wonder where the French Jane Austen, Brontë Sisters or Mary Shelley were. This is Flora Tristan’s explanation. The French women who were educated enough to write were too busy running their salon to have the time to write. If she is right, then it’s a shame. All the witty words they must have told and the brilliant ideas they may have had have vanished in the air of their salon or – who knows – have been plagiarized by the male writers who visited them frequently.

Flora Tristan had quite a temper. Her prose is full of exclamation marks, O!s and Ah!. She was fighting for a cause, so you can’t expect her to be neutral in her account of what she witnessed. Even if what she says is only half true or exaggerated, it’s still interesting to hear.

I admire her for standing against what society expected from her. She had the courage to live according to her convictions, sacrificing her comfort and her health to her fight. I learnt something about London in that time. It was an agreeable and interesting read.

I’m a little uncomfortable with writing this post because I can imagine her thinking isn’t flawless. It’s difficult not to be on such a matter and with such a goal. But I’m not educated enough to contradict her point by point and I honestly don’t have time to study, even if it would be really interesting. So readers who know better will probably be irritated by this post but instead of ranting about my ignorance, I’d be grateful if they took time to share their knowledge in the comments.

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(1) Louis XVIII had abrogated the law allowing divorce in 1816 previously voted in 1792. Divorce will be impossible in France until 1884.

Betrayal at Lisson Grove by Anne Perry

February 19, 2011 10 comments

Betrayal at Lisson Grove by Anne Perry. (438 pages)

I have read a lot of Anne Perry’s crime fiction novels when my children were babies and I was too tired to read anything more challenging than basic crime fiction and page-turner novels. So I’m familiar with her characters and finding them again is like taking some news about distant relatives.

 Betrayal at Lisson Grove is a novel from the Thomas Pitt series. At the beginning of the series, Thomas Pitt is a policeman in the Bow Street police station in London, around 1885. He’s usually in charge with solving murders among the high society. His wife Charlotte and her sister Emily take part in his investigations, entering into the receptions and gathering clues for Thomas. After he was dismissed from the police, Pitt is hired by the Special Branch.

Charlotte and Thomas Pitt are an unusual couple. They met in the first book The Cater Street Hangman, when Thomas investigates the murder of Charlotte’s older sister Sarah. Thomas is the son of a steward and has been raised with the son of the estate his father was running. He’s educated and has good manners. He’s intelligent, honest, sober. His status in undefined, somewhere between the domestic and the gentleman. Charlotte is from a higher social class than Thomas and was no marriage material in her social circle as she expressed her opinions too freely. Marrying Thomas means turning her back to her social life. She does it anyway, losing material comfort to win freedom of speech and of action. Meeting Thomas makes her go out of comfortable boudoirs and face the real world.

So what’s happening in this one? While Thomas Pitt is led to investigate in St Malo (France) with his colleague Gower, his chief Victor Narraway is unjustly accused of embezzlement. The money he had secretly sent to an Irish activist who gave him information about the movement in favour of Home Rule, mysteriously came back on one of his own and rarely used bank accounts. He decides to go to Ireland to discover who sent the money back. As Pitt is his protégé, it is highly probable that he loses his job as well when he comes back from France. To protect her family’s revenues, Charlotte decides to accompany Victor Narraway to Ireland and help him discover the truth.

The plot is rather simple, it is easy to follow. The descriptions of the English and Irish societies are pleasant. Poor Englishmen lost in Saint-Malo, they miss their marmalade and their eggs and bacon for breakfast! These incredible French people never do things as English people would, so they only get apricot jam and omelette.

Anne Perry was right to have her main character change of job since she had already written about many possible ways and reasons to murder someone for personal motives. The shift in Thomas Pitt’s career gives her the possibility to explore political fights and discuss the uprisings for social rights that take place in many European countries at that time. She also writes about the situation in Ireland.

I read it on a train, it was perfect, I had an agreeable journey. I got what I was looking for, easy but satisfying crime fiction. I think my tastes are shifting regarding crime fiction: I’m more attracted by polars, as we call them in French. (I don’t think I’ll ever manage to understand the subtleties between English crime fiction categories, so I’m using the French term.) Good for me there are plenty of good polars that I haven’t read.

“Be good, O my Sorrow, and keep quiet.”

February 15, 2011 19 comments

Lettres d’une Religieuse portugaise.  Anonymous. (337 kindle loc.) Translated as Letters of a Portuguese Nun. I couldn’t find a translation online, so I translated the quotes myself.

I first heard of this book when I read Un Homme à distance by Katherine Pancol, in which Kay and Jonathan correspond and discuss the books they love. Each book has a clue to explain either the characters or the plot. This is why I’m hugely tempted to discover the books they talk about and that I haven’t read.

Letters of a Portuguese Nun is a French text written in 1669. It is attributed to the Comte de Guilleragues and it is composed of five letters sent by a Portuguese nun to her former French lover. Until the 20th C, the letters were believed to be real letters translated from the Portuguese and written by a nun named Mariana Alcoforado to her French lover, Noël Bouton, Marquis de Chamilly.

We can guess the story through the letters although it is never clearly told. Mariane has met her lover when she was already a nun. He was in Portugal for military reasons and left her behind when he went back to France. His name is never told. Mariane trusts another officer to give her letters to their addressee. We understand that she first saw him from her window and that it was love at first sight. They managed to meet in her room and be physically intimate. This was really bold of her, even if she hadn’t been a nun. Her behaviour was scandalous for the time. By succumbing to him and living her passion, she turns her back to her reputation and her family.

She is desperately in love with this man. We only read her letters and although he seems to answer to her from time to time, we never know precisely what he says. His letters are neither included in the correspondence nor quoted in Mariane’s letters. Writing these letters is part of her healing process, she writes as much for herself as for him.

Il me semble que je vous parle, quand je vous écris, et que vous m’êtes un peu plus présent. It seems to me that writing to you is speaking to you and it brings you closer.

From the first letter to the last one, the reader follows Mariane’s state of mind and the evolution of her pain. The text is poignant because she explains in simple words what she feels and how she suffers from his absence, from his desertion. She’s never bombastic and it makes her feelings more real.

Je me jetai sur mon lit, où je fis mille réflexions sur le peu d’apparence que je vois de guérir jamais : ce qu’on fait pour me soulager aigrit ma douleur, et je retrouve dans les remèdes mêmes des raisons particulières de m’affliger I threw myself on my bed and I had a thousand thoughts about how it seems I’ll never heal : what is done to relieve me only bitters my pain and I found in the very remedies the same particular reasons to aggrieve.

She doesn’t understand why he left. She thought he was truly in love with her too. The reader can’t make up their mind about her situation, as she never gives precise details and as the situation is only seen from her point of view. We don’t know why he left, if he’s as broken-hearted as she is or if it was just an affair for him. She’s in pain from the absence, the memories and the unexplained.

Et comment est-il possible qu’avec tant d’amour je n’aie pu vous rendre tout à fait heureux ? How is it possible that I haven’t been able to make you happy despite all my love?

Nonetheless, despite the pain, she doesn’t regret anything.

J’aime bien mieux être malheureuse en vous aimant que de ne vous avoir jamais vu. I’d rather be in love with you and unhappy than having never met you.

It is really moving. The version I’ve read is in modern French. Sure, the sentences have 17th century cadences. But, as there aren’t many descriptions of her everyday life, she could be the girl next door. She’s just a woman in love who has been left by her lover. And that’s why The Letters of a Portuguese Nun is worth reading.

And yes, when Kay recommends it to Jonathan, it’s a way to share with him part of her past.

PS : The title of this post is my translation of the first verse of the poem Recueillement (Meditation) by Charles Baudelaire. The original French text is “Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille”. The entire poem and several English translation can be found here. These letters reminded me of this poem.

 

The Boy in the Last Row, by Juan Mayorga

February 12, 2011 21 comments

El Chico de la última fila by Juan Mayorga. Translated in French as  “Le Garçon du dernier rang” by Dominique Poulange et Jorge Levelli. The title means “The boy in the last row”

 I have seen Le Garçon du dernier rang last November and I really spent a good time. It is a play written  in 2006 by a contemporary Spanish playwright, Juan Mayorga.

I don’t think it has been translated in English so far but others of Mayorga’s plays have.

On the cover of my copy it is indicated: “French text by Dominique Poulange and Jorge Lavelli, so I wonder if it is a faithful translation or if the original play has been adapted for the French public. As always, the first names have been translated or changed, I don’t know the Spanish names.

The play opens on Germain, a middle-aged frustrated literature teacher and his wife Jeanne. Germain has asked his students to write about their latest week-end. He is now reading their works and ranting a great deal about the emptiness of their thoughts and the poverty of their language. This is a familiar scene to Jeanne: she is used to hearing him thundering about the silliest students he ever had and she is also used to listening their compositions. Then Germain comes to Claude’s text. Claude is the boy sitting in the last row and here the beginning of what he wrote:

Samedi je suis allé étudier chez Raphaël Artole. Cette idée m’était venue parce que depuis un certain temps, je voulais entrer dans cette maison. Cet été, tous les après-midis, j’allais regarder la maison depuis le parc mais un soir le père de Rapha faillit me surprendre à espionner depuis le trottoir d’en face. Vendredi, profitant de ce que Rapha venait d’échouer en mathématiques, je lui proposai un échange : « Tu m’aides en philosophie et moi, je t’aide en mathématiques. » Ce n’était rien qu’un prétexte, bien sûr.

On Saturday, I went to study at Raphael Artole’s place. This idea came to my mind because I had been willing to enter into this house for a while. Last summer, I used to go and look at the house from the park every afternoon, but one night, Rapha’s father almost caught me there, spying. On Friday, as Rapha had just failed in mathematics, I offered him a trade: “You help me in philosophy and I’ll help you in mathematics.” It was only a pretext, of course.

His text ends by “To be continued” Germain is hooked like a soap-opera addict. He wants to know what will happen next, at any cost. Jeanne is immediately suspicious, feeling something unhealthy about Claude’s fascination for Rapha’s family.

The play follows three different subplots, all intricate with one another. The first one is the relationship between Germain and Claude, the second one is the everyday life in Rapha’s family and the third one is the professional life of Jeanne.

 A relationship starts between Germain and Claude — two Roman emperors’ names, btw, Germanicus and his younger brother Claudius, who will succeed to him. Germain, as a failed writer and a desperate teacher, hopes he has in front of him a future writer, someone who could justify by his later works that his carrier as a teacher won’t have been sterile. He wants to reach some immortality through Claude, like Camus’s grammar school teacher did. Indeed, after Camus got the Nobel Prize, he wrote to his teacher Louis Germain – is this a coincidence? – to thank him for his help during his childhood. Germain thus starts lending books to Claude, to develop his literary tastes. He reads the story with avidity, gives advice.

Jeanne also follows Claude’s literary progress and indirectly intervenes in the process as Germain’s professed opinions often come from her. Jeanne worries for Germain and questions the ethics of what Claude is doing. Isn’t he spying Rapha’s family? She is Germain’s moral compass and often needs to remind him where North is. The relationship between the master and the student isn’t of a Pygmalion kind. Claude respects Germain but he also has power over him. Curiosity leads Germain into compromising with moral standards, despite Jeanne’s warnings.

The second plot relates to Rapha’s family. The father, Rapha Senior is something like a salesman or a middleman in a trade company. He and his son share a common passion for basketball. Rapha Senior sounds ridiculous, the average philistin. On stage he was wearing sweaters and was often hopping, like a sportsman does to warm up. He reminded me of Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading. He’s a committed and loving father though and a nice husband as well. Esther, the mother is a bored housewife. She seems to have a common body with the house.

Là, assise sur le sofa, feuilletant une revue de décoration, je découvris la maîtresse de maison. Je la fixai jusqu’à ce qu’elle lève ses yeux, dont la couleur s accorde avec celle du sofa.

There, sitting on the sofa, browsing through a decoration magazine, I saw the lady of the house. I stared at her until she lifted her eyes, whose colour matched with that of the sofa.

 Esther constantly intends to redecorate her house as if it would also redecorate her life. She dreams of finishing her law degree started 20 years ago to find a job.

 The third plot is about Jeanne’s job in a contemporary art gallery. The new owners of the gallery think that contemporary art is just nonsense and that they would rather use the place for a more profitable business. She has a month to prove them wrong, so she looks for more sellable art products.

 In addition to the three intertwined stories, thoughts about literature and painting creation processes are scattered all over the text. Germain is the speaker for literature and Jeanne for painting. Juan Mayorga either makes fun of contemporary art or mocks Germain’s incapacity to understand it. Here is Jeanne showing her new catalogue from the gallery: 

Ce sont des objets normaux, mais manipulés pour produire un étonnement. Regarde bien la pendule : 13 numéros. L’artiste intervient dans l’espace domestique en mettant en évidence des signes que nous ne percevons plus à force de les voir. Il parvient ainsi à montrer la mécanisation de notre vie et à défier les frontières entre intérieur et extérieur, entre privé et public. These are normal objects but manipulated to create astonishment. Look at that clock: 13 numbers. The artist intervenes in the domestic sphere by showing the signs we fail to see because we are so used to seeing them. He thus manages to show how our life is mechanical and to defy the boundaries between the inside and the outside, between the private and the public.

 Sometimes it’s funny. I perfectly understand Germain. I’m often puzzled by contemporary art. I read the description and I don’t understand what the artist really meant. And I never know if I’m too stupid to understand or if someone is trying to sell me a lie, though I tend to think my mind isn’t able to grasp the artist’s intention.

The reader peeps into Rapha’s house, along with Germain and Jeanne. Sometimes the spectator feels ill at ease and wonders if Claude isn’t unbalanced.

This is a very powerful text. The scenes aren’t cut off. There is a continuum of reading, with cinematographic effects that I hadn’t understood when I watched the play. I didn’t see the end coming. Here is Germain advising Claude about the end of his story:

Tu sais quelles sont les deux composantes d’une bonne fin ? Le lecteur doit se dire : je ne m’attendais pas à ça et pourtant, ça ne pouvait pas finir autrement. Ca, c’est une bonne fin. Nécessaire et imprévisible. Inévitable et surprenante. Do you know two ingredients of a good ending? The reader must think: I wasn’t expecting this and yet it couldn’t end differently. This is a good ending. Necessary and unpredictable. Inevitable and surprising.

 Juan Mayorga practised what Germain teaches. The denouement is good.

 

Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?

February 9, 2011 14 comments

Un homme à distance by Katherine Pancol. (152 pages) Not translated in English. The title means “A man at a distance”

Un homme à distance is a disconcerting little book. It’s an epistolary novel between Kay Bartholdi and Jonathan Shields. Kay is a bookseller in Fécamp, Normandy. Jonathan is American, travelling across France to write a tourist guide. He stopped in Fécamp, left a note and bank notes at Kay’s book-store. The note includes the addresses of the hotels he will stay in during his tour of France. The money is for Kay to send him books. They start a correspondence, talking about the books they like. They bounce on each other’s references. Jonathan guesses right. Like the reader, Kay is disconcerted.  

Est-ce qu’on sait tout de l’autre quand on aime les mêmes livres?Est-ce que les livres sont le moyen de tout se dire, même l’inavoué, le plus terrible secret?Si vous m’aviez parlé de livres qui m’indiffèrent, si je vous avais annoncé des livres qui vous laissent froids, auriez-vous pensé à moi comme si vous saviez tout de moi?

Et pourquoi me suis-je livrée à vous aussi facilement?

Pourquoi suis-je allée vers vous en aveugle confiance?

Parce que j’avançais sur des livres, complices muets, farfadets malicieux?

Parce que vous me répondiez en glissant d’autres volumes sous vos pas?

Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?Are books a way to tell everything, even the unspoken, the most terrible secret?If you had talked about books that are indifferent to me, if I had chosen books that left you cold, would you have thought of me as if you knew everything about me?

And why did I open to you so easily?

Why did I go to you with blind trust?

Because I was walking on books, silent accomplices, impish elves?

Because your answers would slip other volumes under my steps?

 

 A thought-provoking question, indeed and I don’t have the answer.

Unlike my Guernsey marshmallow friends from the other day, this doesn’t turn into ridiculous mawkishness. And I was surprised by the denouement.

I’m embarrassed with this post because writing more about the text would reveal important pieces of the plot. It’s a book about books but it is more than that. It’s a book about love, but it’s also more than that. It’s a book about how book lovers can find help, comfort, shelter in novels.

It’s a book about the freedom brought by solitude. He has a bird name. She has the name of the designer of the Statue of Liberty. Each of them has their idea of what freedom is. In French, Un homme à distance means at the same time a man who is far away and a man to keep at a distance. And Jonathan is both.  

I enjoyed this one-evening read and I thank Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat for recommending it to me. I’m curious about the books Kay and Jonathan talk about, especially The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rilke, since I really loved Letters to a Young Poet last year.

I wish Katherine Pancol had made a moderate use of exclamation marks, but apart from that, her style is flowing. It improved in her following novels, Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles and La Valse lente des tortues. In the latter, there are references to Romain Gary. In this one, Jonathan is American but has spent his childhood in Nice, where his father was a consul. My one-track-Gary mind saw here a discreet allusion to Gary’s own adolescence in Nice. And as he was the consul of France in Los Angeles, I couldn’t help thinking about him. Incurable me.

Something else. I always have a lot of fun reading clichés about CPAs. They are always dull and shy little men with glasses. They supposedly love nothing else than numbers and usually have no imagination. Whenever a writer wants a boring character, you can be sure he’s an accountant. No writer can imagine a CPA as a thirty-something woman who loves books. Life is more imaginative that literature, I suppose.

PS : For readers able to read in French, it is easy to read.

Don’t worry, I’m fine, they all say

February 7, 2011 16 comments

Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas by Olivier Adam. (155 pages). Not translated in English. The title means : Don’t worry, I’m fine.

 I decided to read Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas by Olivier Adam, after watching the eponymous film directed by Philippe Lioret. The film upset me and left me with terrible questions about right and wrong. In order to better understand the characters, I bought the novel. The title means “I’m fine, don’t worry”. But who is fine? Claire, Loïc, their parents Paul and Irène?  

The first part of the book pictures Claire and her automatic life. She works as a cashier at a Shopi, a French equivalent of a 7/11. This jobs requires no brain and that’s fine with her. She’s suffering. She’s thinking of Loïc all the time. What he would do. What he would say. What he would think. Loïc is Claire’s little brother. They are as close as twins. Loïc is absent. And his absence changed Claire into a robot. Her parents are silent, loving but silent, ill at ease with their feelings. We don’t know where Loïc is, just that he is physically absent but present in all Claire’s thoughts. A ghostly presence at her side and haunting questions.

Second part. A flash back. Claire comes home from holidays. Loïc is gone, the parents say. He and Paul had a dreadful fight. He left six days ago and hasn’t called since. Claire sinks, stops eating, lets herself wither with chagrin. She wants to die. She feels hollow, a living part of herself is missing. One day, a postcard. Loïc wrote to her. He’s fine, he wants to travel. And from this moment, every now and then, a post card. “I’m fine, don’t worry.” Claire still feels hollow but her death-wish fades away.

Third part. Claire struggles to move on, decides to go to Portbail as Loïc’s latest postcard comes from there. And I won’t say more about the plot.

After watching the film, I wanted to read the novel. After reading the novel, I needed to write about it, not type, but write with a pen the words pouring out of my head.  Because the story touched me and the atmosphere wrapped me in a veil of gloom.

Adam writes in a staccato style, figuring Claire living like a robot. He captures Claire’s automatic life, how she feels ill at ease everywhere. Out of place. Not in the mood. Alien. He portrays France in the 1990s, the quiet suburbs around Paris, with fathers and husbands like Paul, commuting everyday, spending two and a half hours per day in the suburb trains. (RER) Claire and Loïc’s childhood sounds like any childhood of middle-class children from that time. They are ordinary people. Spot on. Such are also the descriptions of the parties among Parisian students, not asking what one studies but where. Snobs who look down on the poor cashier.  

This novel made me think of Skylark by Deszö Kosztlányi. Not that Olivier Adam is as talented as Kosztlányi. But there’s a recurring theme: “How children suffer for their parents, and parents for their children”. How they can suffer side by side, knowing what the others are feeling but never telling it. Saying it aloud would only increase the pain greatly. Better do anything rather than inflicting pain on their beloved ones?  

Adam’s book hasn’t been translated in English. It’s easy to read in French, not too much slang, not too many complicated words. I felt the melancholy and a sort of nostalgia when reading about the food references, the music, the prices in francs. For those who can’t read French, I recommend the film. Philippe Lioret has done a wonderful job there. He encapsulated the atmosphere of the novel. He turned the words into images on the same tune. Mélanie Laurent (Claire) and Kad Merad (Paul) are excellent in their roles. Watching the film is as good as reading the book, and that doesn’t happen so often.  

In case anyone is interested, the DVD I have includes English subtitles and French subtitles for the hearing impaired.

Hostage of parental love

February 6, 2011 20 comments

L’otage du triangle d’or, by Gérard de Villiers. (252 pages) This book hasn’t been translated into English. The title means “The Hostage of the Golden Triangle”

In the hall of our local library stands a basket where readers can drop their books and other people can take them home for free. A couple of weeks ago, my daughter picked up L’Otage du triangle d’or by Gérard de Villiers, while she was at the library with the nanny. I thought she had chosen it because of the cover, but no, the choice was even more thoughtful. She explained to me that she knew I wouldn’t like the cover but she chose it anyway because I enjoy reading crime fiction. She had read a few pages, thought it was very descriptive and that I would like it.

 

Face to face with such a love as only children can give, I had no other solution as to read the book, which turned out to be, as expected, a painful experience. It brought me back to school days, when I had to read books I found boring. I have vivid memories of me, lying on my bed at my parents’ and urging myself “come on, only 50 pages left. You HAVE to read this for tomorrow”. I started reading a few pages only to discover that my mind had gone wandering far away from the book and that I couldn’t remember what I had just read.

 

But, back to the glorious Gérard de Villiers. He is a prolix author of hundreds of books of a series named SAS. Thankfully for Anglophone readers, his books haven’t been translated in English. When I type his name in the search engine of my online French bookstore, there are 420 results. All crime fiction, I don’t know which genre, the one with spies, CIA, DEA, drug dealers and nasty dictators.

 

The plot is the following: In Thailand, the CIA agent Matt Gritt is kidnapped by Khun Sa. The local CIA officer, Mike Herald is informed that Matt Gritt will be liberated if a drug dealer kept by the DEA in a drug traffic investigation is freed too. The drug dealer made a prosecution deal and is to be extradited to the USA. Malko Linge, who seem to be the recurring character of the series, is called upon by the CIA to clear this mess.

 

It’s like an indigestible lasagne dish: one layer of violence, one layer of sex, one layer of violence, etc. It is full of wicked Chinese and oriental torture methods, like cut fingers. Women are only objects, bought, used as sex toys. The male characters are caricatures. A book aimed at pleasing lobotomised male readers. I hope my daughter didn’t browse through page 43 where the first blow job is meticulously described.

 

The language is terrible, full of English words and American expressions with footnotes for the translation (!!) I thought the French dictionary included enough words and insults to satisfy such a silly writer, but apparently not. So, here are little excerpts of Villiers’s fine “Frenglish” prose:

 

“Ces types sont la crème du Crime Organisé à Bangkok. A bunch of fucking rats.”

“Matt Grit est un des meilleurs assets de la Company.”

“Tiger Trap va faire beaucoup de mal aux bad boys

“En tout, il en a plus de soixante. Outstanding!

If someone is interested in the translation, feel free to ask in the comments. I spare you the footnotes to translate the English words.

 

I told my daughter she couldn’t have known I wouldn’t like it and that it was sweet of her to give books to me. I explained to her that sometimes we don’t like the book we read, that we can’t know it before. (Half lie, I know…) I think she understood. Lying to her was out of the question anyway. At least, this has been an opportunity to talk about books with her.

 

PS: Do I have to mention that I DON’T RECOMMEND this book, unless you have to make a gift to your worst enemy?

The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of a man

February 3, 2011 14 comments

The Trembling of a Leaf. Little Stories of the South Sea Islands by William Somerset Maugham. (kindle version. 2831 locations)

L’extrême félicité à peine séparée par une feuille tremblante de l’extrême désespoir, n’est-ce pas la vie ? Sainte-Beuve Extreme felicity only separated from extreme despair by the trembling of a leaf, isn’t this life? Sainte-Beuve

This quote was chosen by Maugham himself to explain the title of this collection of short stories. It is a perfect summary of the persistent feeling left by these pearls of literature. 

The Trembling of a Leaf is composed of six short stories, framed by an introduction text on the Pacific and a conclusion picturing a boat leaving the islands. The title of this post is actually the first sentence of the book. All the stories take place or are related to South Sea Islands, Tahiti, Hawaii or Samoa Islands. Of course I had Gauguin’s paintings in mind when reading and indeed, following Gauguin’s footsteps was Maugham’s purpose for his own journey into these islands in 1916.

These short-stories are full of colourful characters dressed in white duck pants and Mother Hubbard dresses, “which the missionaries of a past generation had, in the interests of decency, forced on the unwilling natives” Clothes are important as they give away a man’s way of life. White men who adopt the local lava-lava or wear pareos have totally or partly abandoned the Western way of life.

In all, there is a tiny event, hardly felt as the trembling of a leaf, which will change the character’s life. At a certain moment, the choice they’re making, the way they react to an event or answer will be decisive for their future. Yin shifting into Yang. In all, appearances are deceptive.

The main characters are American or British men. They most of the time get involved with native women. I was less convinced by the characters passionately in love with natives and able to throw their future away for them. These women sound enchanting, literally, like the sirens or Circe in Homer. They have a façade of purity, a taste of heaven that makes white men fall for them head over feet.

It was a more natural life than any he had known, it was nearer to the friendly, fertile earth; civilisation repelled him at that moment, and by mere contact with these creatures of a more primitive nature he felt a greater freedom.

Maugham also tells a lot about these societies and their hierarchies between the natives, the half-castes, the white. Maugham describes how passionate love and lust with their inevitable bad choices bring mischief. He points out cultural differences and the resulting misunderstandings or difficulty to live together on the long run. He portrays conceited white men and how they look down on natives with contempt. He shows how little we know of other people’s mind and even sometimes of our own mind.

Maugham’s prose is beautiful. The descriptions of the landscapes are breathtaking and made me want to fly there immediately, especially in the middle of winter.

Three coconut trees grew there, like three moon maidens waiting for their lovers to ride out of the sea, and I sat at the foot of one of them, watching the lagoon and the nightly assemblage of the stars.

Two short stories will stay with me, I think. The first one is Mackintosh and the second one is The Fall of Edward Barnard.

Mackintosh is the name of a British man, working as Walker’s assistant, the British governor of Talua, a Samoan Island. Marckintosh and Walker have opposite tempers. While Mackintosh is quiet, sober, literate, Walker is loud, drinks a lot, sleeps with natives. He is always sure to be within his rights, whatever he does.

Mackintosh began to see the real man, and under the boisterous good-humour he discerned a vulgar cunning which was hateful; he was vain and domineering.

Walker can’t respect Mackintosh’s boundaries. He makes fun of him, not realizing “there was nothing Mackintosh could stand less than chaff”. Despite these differences, he likes Mackintosh and he is convinced that Mackintosh likes him too, when the latter only feels a growing hatred for him.

Here he [Mackintosh] was a prisoner, imprisoned not only by that placid sea, but by his hatred for that horrible old man.

Mackintosh despises Walker although he acknowledges he is a good manager for the island. He tries to improve the roads and does not exploit the natural wealth of the place for his own fortune. Walker runs his island as a British aristocrat would run his estate. He’s fond of this land and he considers the natives as his peasants.

The fragile balance between the two men cracks when a native named Manuma comes back to Talua. He has been in Apia, the closest city and is better educated than his people. So when Walker wants some villagers to build a road for half the salary paid in Apia, he rebels. Silently, like Gandhi, the villagers rebel. They will not build the road. Walker then uses his knowledge of the Samoan customs to break the rebellion by a trick. The villagers surrender. The road is built.

But Manuma now considers Walker as his enemy. The enemy of my enemy being my friend: how can this new hatred help Mackintosh?

This short story is a jewel because everything is there: action, psychology and politics. It can be read through different lenses. On the first level, there is a basic story of hatred between two men. The psychological analysis is clever. Mackintosh is an apple name and like Adam, he is about to be thrown away from the Garden of Eden. He’s going to lose his innocence.

On a higher level, there is a metaphor of colonialism. Walker is a perfect colonialist, the white man patronizing the natives that he calls his children. He thinks ‘They love me’, ‘They won’t rebel’. Blinded by the love he is sure they feel for him, he thinks he can do whatever he wants. No harm can be done, no consequences should be feared. I couldn’t help thinking of India when I was reading this. Manuma shows what will happen in all the colonies: with education, the native elites question the power of the white man. It was written in 1921, very lucid on Maugham’s part.

The Fall of Edward Barnard is the other one that touched me. This one is more about what we should expect of life. Edward Barnard is engaged to the rich Isabel, a member of the high society in Chicago. When his father looses his fortune, he decides to spend a few years in Tahiti, to learn about business and if possible become a rich man and then come back to Chicago and marry Isabel.

Bateman is Barnard’s best friend and has been secretly in love with Isabel for ages. When Barnard’s return is delayed without any valuable reason, Bateman decides to figure out what is happening and travels to Tahiti. He finds there a Barnard who has totally changed his way of living and aim in life. Here are Bateman (first speaker) and Barnard talking:

“This is no life for you”

  “You talk of this sort of life and that. How do you think a man gets the best out of life?” 

“Why, I should have thought there could be no two answers to that. By doing his duty, by hard work, by meeting all the obligations of his state and station.” 

 “And what is his reward?” 

 “His reward is the consciousness of having achieved what he set out to do.”

“It all sounds a little portentous to me.”

And then comes the one question I don’t want to look at too closely, for I’m not sure my answer would be consistent with the life I’m living:

Is that what we come into the world for, to hurry to an office, and work hour after hour till night, then hurry home and dine and go to a theatre?”

(…) Bateman asking, Barnard answering

What do you value in life then?”

I’m afraid you’ll laugh at me. Beauty, truth and goodness.”

This short story questions our Western way of life, our unquenchable thirst for money and material goods. It challenges what our societies consider as happiness. It is really modern and I wonder what Maugham would write about our world in the 21st century.

I’ve read The Trembling of a Leaf in English and discovered that the dictionary on the kindle can’t find compound words. I searched for the funny-looking ones, such as higgledy-piggledy, hanky-panky or shilly-shally. I probably missed tons of British references and discovered others.

There is something with Scotland in these stories. Several characters are Scottish – Mackintosh, Dr Macphail – and in The Pool, when the couple goes back to Great Britain, the man finds a job in Aberdeen. And what it is between Scottish and English people? I noticed that sentence: “His Scot’s name gave an opportunity for the usual jokes about Scotland”. In France we have jokes about Belgians, it seems that Scots are English’s Belgians. I also really enjoyed the dialogues, like this little pearl of British polite way to say no:

“Do you believe in the supernatural?”

“I don’t exactly know that I do,” I smiled.

I sometimes thought the phrases sounded like French. But then I knew it was Maugham’s first language, so perhaps I imagined it. I wonder why he never wrote in French.

Anyway, these short stories are really worth reading. There’s the depth of the questioning about life, the relationships between the characters, the descriptions of the heavenly landscapes and the fair analysis of the domination of white men on these islands.

A last quote, just for the sheer pleasure of Maugham’s prose:

It seems to me that the places where men have loved or suffered keep about them always some faint aroma of something that has not wholly died. It is as though they had acquired a spiritual significance which mysteriously affects those who pass.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

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