Archive for April, 2011

The Learned Ladies by Molière

April 27, 2011 17 comments

Les Femmes savantes by Molière (The Learned Ladies). 1672.  

Recently, I’ve watched The Learned Ladies for the first time. As often with Molière, it was a thought-provoking comedy. In the 17th C imagery, the “Learned Lady” is the female of the Pedant.

In that play, the main family is composed of two parents and two grown-up and single daughters. The mother, Philaminte and the elder daughter, Armande are the learned ladies. They’re under the spell of a ridiculous pedant named Trissotin. He acts like a guru; they think he hung the moon and swoon over every single verse he writes. The father, Chrysale and the younger daughter, Henriette have more matter-of-fact concerns, are far from well-read and totally accept it. In between stands Clitandre, once infatuated with Armande and now in love with Henriette. The plot is centred on Clitandre and Henriette who want to get married and need to obtain her parent’s consent. Chrysale agrees with the project while Philaminte would rather marry Henriette to Trissotin.  

Several themes are quite modern in this play. In the opening scene, Armande and Henriette argue about marriage. Armande can’t understand why her sister rejoices in marrying Clitandre. She thinks she should have higher goals than taking care of a family and run a household. She preaches an interest in philosophy, that Henriette should study to improve her mind. But Henriette is perfectly satisfied with the fate of a housewife.  

Chrysale is the model for the bourgeois vision of life when Philaminte would be more the spoke-person of the Parisian literary salons. The play reflects the discussion of the time, the bourgeois being despised and the salons praised. (The spectators of Molière’s plays did come from the court and he was their protégé.)

Marriage was abundantly discussed in salons: was it an honest or a degrading situation? The question was also debated in the famous novels by Mlle de Scudéry. Philaminte and Armande want to promote a mind-over-matter attitude. Love must be ethereal, without physical contact and the mind must overcome instincts and natural desires. Armande lost Clitandre on the Map of Tenderness because she fancied a cerebral love. He gave up on her. However, she can’t help being jealous when she realizes that her former lover eventually fell in love with her down-to-earth baby sister. Molière seems to remind us that it’s not easy to shut out feelings, perceptions and act rationally all the time. I also saw in this attitude a disguised critic of Cartesianism. On the contrary, Henriette is happy with every day life routine and she doesn’t want to ignore the needs of her body. As she points out, Armande should be happy that their mother followed her desires at least twice or they wouldn’t be here to talk about it. She also states that someone needs to give birth to the future scientists and philosophers.  

The other great issue is the education of young girls. In the foreword, we are reminded that in 1672, a girl would be hardly taught how to read and would receive a religious education. Things were changing in the 17th C as scholars began to write in French instead of Latin. Their work became accessible to women who wanted to study and in fashionable salons, women became more educated. Molière mocks the Learned Ladies, not because he thinks women shouldn’t be educated but because their excesses make them ridiculous. He mocks their blindness, the way they worship Trissotin. It could be sexist but I didn’t think it was since he also makes fun of Trissotin himself. Clitandre is the most sensible character who manfully holds the middle ground: flesh and mind should live in harmony; temperance in everything is the key; learned women are respectable and even desirable. He only criticizes pedantry. Trissotin represents the old school of thought: he refers to Ancient philosophers like Aristotle; Clitandre represents modernity.

Another theme is followed all along the play: the roles of husband and wife in a marriage. Chrysale argues that the man should command but he’s not the master in his own house. Philaminte wears the trousers and he’s afraid of her. His challenge will be to gain power to impose Clitandre as his choice of a husband for Henriette. There are enjoyable scenes during which he tries to re-gain the lost ground and face his wife. He needs a lot of encouragements from his brother and his daughter to do it. 

In the foreword and afterword of my edition, it is explained that the condition of women was abundantly discussed in the 17th C. The ideas that women were doomed to ignorance and servitude, that marriage wasn’t always fair, that the education of young girls needed to be improved started to stem from these discussions. The roots of feminism were born in that century and will be developed in the 18thC.  

The Learned Ladies is a play in “alexandrins” which are to classic French theatre what iambic pentameters are to Shakespeare. I hardly noticed them when I watched the play. It is full of comical devices which are Molière’s trademark. It’s funny, witty, thought-provoking. The questions regarding the position of women in the society, their access to education and the opposition between motherhood and work still exist nowadays. This play talked to me as a woman, despite the time distance. Obviously, in our Western world, the situation of women has improved immensely since the 1970s. However, in some countries, women still have to choose between their job and motherhood. And there’s a lot to do in developing countries to promote equality.

A EU book tour

April 22, 2011 26 comments

 I realized lately that I had never read any Dutch book, although the Netherlands are a country really close to my own, France, and are one of the 27 members of the EU. To me, the EU means we try to live together with a bunch of common rules, well, except for the British who always ask for an exemption for everything, on principle. Thinking about it, we don’t know a lot about each other, though. So I imagined I would start by reading at least one book from another country member of the EU and thus do a little literary tour. As a reminder, the 27 countries are:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Cyprus
  • CzechRepublic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latonia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom

That was a great decision, made on a whim, without thinking of any practical consequences. I have already read one or several books from the countries in blue in the list but I want to read more of them. Then my first thought was to write a list of books by country and then choose at least one of these books. For France, I’m tempted to read a writer from the Négritude Movement, like Aimé Césaire and for the UK, I’d be glad to pick one from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I’m already worried about how to find a book from Luxembourg, Malta and Cyprus translated into French. I decided not to try to find the best book of each country (who could point it out to me, btw?) but look for books a) translated into French b) available in paperback c) last but not least, appealing to me.

So here I am, with an Excel spreadsheet and Internet, ready to type that marvellous list. And then a doubt poured down on me. Where do I start? How do I identify the “nationality” of a book? Chewing over this, several possibilities came to my mind:

According to the nationality of the writer.

That sounds only fair, otherwise countries like Belgium or Ireland wouldn’t have any books since their language is French, Dutch or English. But then what happens if the country no longer exists or if the borders have changed?

Do you refer to where the writer comes from and see in which country the place is now? And where does a writer come from? The place he/she was born? Then Romain Gary, the one who changed his birth name Roman Kacew into a French one on his ID card (a nom de plume wasn’t enough) would be a Lithuanian writer because he was born in Vilnius? Or Kessel would be Argentinean because he was accidentally born in Buenos Aires? And of course, then you have to face all the writers who were born in the colonies (Camus in Algeria, Duras in Indochina…) So forget about the place of birth, I mused.

Then what?

Do you refer to the nationality written on their passport? What if they have several? And what about writers who emigrate? Is Milan Kundera still Czech after so many years in France? 

That left me with more questions than answers and moving on to the next possibility. 

According to the language of the book.

At least, you don’t have to care about the existence of the country or of changing borders or of emigrating writers. Objection 1: how do we deal with countries with several languages, official or not? (Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, Spain…) Objection 2:  Where do I file Samuel Beckett who wrote in English and in French?

And in this case, Kafka is a German writer even if Prague is his city. When I think of Kafka, I think of Prague not of Hamburg or Dusseldorf. His cultural background, his environment seems Czech. Is that the other alternative?

According to the cultural background of the books and the residence of the writer.

Then Kafka is Czech.This leads some readers to wonder if Murakami is still a Japanese writer as in some of his books, if it wasn’t for the Japanese names of the characters, you could forget they take place in Japan. But another difficulty pops up now. How do you give an objective definition of the “cultural background”?

That’s when my brain threatened to blow up. The complexity of European history was exposed in front of me and each possibility seemed to bring more questions than answers.

So I don’t have a clear answer.

Bookstores don’t have a clear answer either. They seem to choose the language of the book as a criteria to select the appropriate shelf. Some do differently. For example, there’s a travel bookstore near my office. They have tourist guides and fiction books (mostly literary and crime fiction) on their shelves. I thought it was the best place to go to find books sorted by country, fiction books sitting beside the guide books. They have another method. They choose books according to the nationality of the writer and/or the setting of the books. For a given country, you can find books written by foreigners but that describe the life in the country you want to visit. Whoa, another idea… 

That leaves me with no rule at all to draw the list or choose the books. The idea was a whim, the choice will be a whim too, and that’s perfect for me. I’m now asking to all the readers of this post to free their minds and write all their recommendations, suggestions and “coup de coeur” (*) in the comments. Hopefully, there will be enough of them to make a list. I’ll publish it on the Reading Lists page, accessible to every one and you’ll have to follow the blog if you want to find out which books I’ll read for my EU tour because honestly, right now, I have no idea.


(*) Un coup de coeur is a French expression which literally means “blow of the heart”. It is frequently applied to the books you love and want to recommend to other readers. In bookstores, you can see signs “coup de coeur du libraire” to point out the books the employees particularly liked.

She should be playing with toys, not be the toy

April 19, 2011 21 comments

What Maisie Knew, by Henry James. 1897.

Beale Farange and his wife Ida have a stormy divorce. We never get to know what happened between them; we just know the outcome: they hate each other.

It was indeed a great deal to be able to say for Ida that no one but Beale desired her blood, and for Beale that if he could have his eyes scratched out it would be only by his wife.

In the middle of their relentless hatred for one another stands little Maisie. After Beale fails to pay Ida the money granted in the first judgement, they go to court again. This time, Maisie’s custody will be shared between her two parents and she shall spend six months per year with each of them.

They need a governess. Ida hires Mrs Wix. Beale hires Miss Overcome. Maisie gets attached to her governesses “Parents had come to seem vague, but governesses were evidently to be trusted”. Life goes on and Ida leaves England to Italy for an extended period of time. Maisie stays at her father’s longer than planned. This situation suits Ida well as she takes revenge on her former husband by imposing on him his daughter’s presence longer than otherwise needed. This situation also suits Miss Overcome as Maisie’s presence provides her with an excuse to stay at Beale’s house and pursuit her goal and marry him.

When Ida comes back from Italy, she’s married to Sir Claude and Beale is married to Miss Overcome, now called Mrs Beale. Sir Claude is a charming young man who calls himself a “family-man”. He’s interested in Maisie and comes to her father’s house and brings her back with him at her mother’s. That day, he meets Mrs Beale.

Months pass by, the two marriages are in a bad way and Sir Claude and Mrs Beale are attracted to each other. Ida cheats on Sir Claude. Beale cheats on Mrs Beale. The two new partners want to set free and be together. In the meantime, Mrs Wix takes care of Maisie. “The charm of Mrs Wix’s conveying that somehow, in her ugliness and her poverty, she was peculiarly and soothingly safe”.  

I won’t give too many details but I felt terrible when reading What Maisie Knew. I felt a lot of compassion for Maisie and as a parent, reading what was done to her was almost unbearable. How can the adults in Maisie’s life be so childish and selfish? They utilise her. She’s a carrier pigeon supposed to bring hateful messages from one parent to the other. Miss Overcome uses her to marry Mr Farrange. Sir Claude uses her against his wife who frightens him. Mrs Beale uses her to get close to Sir Claude. Mrs Wix is probably the only one who genuinely loves her a little bit but she’s desperately in love with Sir Claude, so she may use Maisie to be near Sir Claude who does spend time with Maisie. No one sincerely loves Maisie for herself without expecting anything else in return but her love.  

In this sad tale, James is ahead of his time for two issues: the divorce and its aftermath and the lucidity of children. Children perceive more than they can express and thus more than the adults think they do. Maisie is no exception.

It was to be the fate of this patient little girl to see much more than she at first understood, but also even at first to understand much more than any little girl, however patient, had perhaps ever understood before.

After that divorce, Maisie’s childhood is over. She can’t afford to be joyful, unconcerned or buoyant. She isn’t a child any more. She learns what she shall say and what she shall hide. She acquires the skill to avoid touchy questions and dodge tricky situations.  

These adults are driven by their passion and have no sense of duty or of responsibility at all. They are unable to ignore their needs to take care of a child. They act on a whim, mix Maisie into their love affairs, retrieve her from a home without thinking any moment of her feelings. A child needs at least three fertilizers to grow: love, security and a solid education. Maisie has none of the three.

The adults around her don’t love her. They pretend to love her because their open love for her serves their interests. They demonstrate their love through hugs, carresses and kisses. But Maisie isn’t so easily deceived. She soon simply states: “Mamma doesn’t care for me”. Coping with indifference is one thing. Facing hatred and underhand manoeuvres is another thing. Reading the passages I had highlighted, I was hit by the raw violence the child had to deal with. Mrs Beale tells her “Have you been a hideous little hypocrite all these years that I’ve slaved to make you love me and deludedly believed you did?” Her mother throws to her face “Your father wishes you were dead”. Mrs Wix confides her “You know your mother loathes you, loathes you simply”. How can a child survive to such verbal violence?

Security isn’t part of her world either. She can be moved from one house to the other at any moment, separated from her governess, almost kidnapped and brought to France. She constantly thinks about how she should act, not to bring any ire on her. She lives with an uncomfortable fear sitting in a corner of her mind:

She therefore recognised the hour that in troubled glimpses she had long foreseen, the hour when –the phrase for it came back to her from Mrs Beale – with two fathers, two mothers and two homes, six protections in all, she shouldn’t know “wherever” to go.

She perceives that the adults face financial insecurity. Her father abandons his home to live with an ugly rich mistress. Her mother seems to survive on her lovers’ income. 

No one cares about her academic education. (Would it be the same if Maisie were a boy?) As their parents are totally unable to overcome their hatred for each other, they can’t agree on the choice of a unique governess who would follow Maisie and change of house every six month. They hire one governess per home, exposing their child to the absence of a stable figure in her life and to an erratic education. After Miss Overcome’s marriage with Beale, Mrs Wix will be her only governess. And what a governess! She was probably elected because she’s ugly and cheap. Maisie receives no structured education; Mrs Wix teaches her what she fancies without any schedule. The school room is poorly decorated, dull, cold showing how little Ida cares for her daughter’ well-being. 

All the adults around her fail her. They see her either as a weapon or as a burden, sometimes as an ally. Ida and Beale are too preoccupied with chasing lovers. Miss Overcome/Mrs Beale is driven by ambition and then by passion. Sir Claude is probably fond of Maisie but too weak to fight against Ida and Mrs Beale’s will and choose duty over passion. Mrs Wix takes her as her confident, exposing her to thoughts and feelings unsuitable for her age.

James shows us the events through Maisie’s eyes which are less and less innocent as time goes by. I wonder what kind of adult can Maisie become after such a dreadul childhood. 

A word about James’s style. I struggled with his prose. Some tortuous sentences needed several reading to be understood. My English isn’t the only cause, I guess James is difficult to read for Anglophones too. Sometimes I just couldn’t figure out where he wanted to take me. He sort of lost himself in circumvolutions full of semi-colons and French use of commas. Like in here:

It didn’t spoil it that she finally felt he must have, as he became restless, some purpose he didn’t quite see his way to bring out, for in the freshness of their recovered fellowship she would have lent herself gleefully to his suggesting, or even to his pretending, that their relations were easy and grateful.

Ouf!! Proust’s long sentences are a summer path in the countryside where a wanderer muses, James’s long sentences are a mountain path taken by a reader who sweats and suffers to reach the summit. A little editing would have been welcome from time to time.

I certainly didn’t have fun reading What Maisie Knew. It demanded a tremendous amount of concentration and the miserable life of this poor little girl overwhelmed the mother I am. However I’m glad I’ve read it. It was one of the books Kay and Jonathan discuss in Un homme à distance. I guess I know the link between Maisie and Kay’s brother.

PS: Thanks to Sarah from A Rat in the Book Pile, I have found another review of What Maisie Knew here.

Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

April 18, 2011 36 comments

Les Heures souterraines by Delphine de Vigan. Translated into English by Underground Time.

Paris, May 20th, 2009. Mathilde, 40, wakes up at 4am and knows she won’t sleep again. Her three children are peacefully sleeping and she will turn in her head once again the events that brought her there. Today is a special day: a fortune teller has predicted that she will meet a man on that day. Mathilde ironically states that she’s now low enough to trust a fortune teller.

Same day, same hour. Thibault, 43, wakes up in a hotel room, looks at his sleeping lover Lila. They spent the week-end together, they’ve made love and she said “thank you”. After that simple and dreadful “thank you”, Thibault abruptly decides to face the truth and accept that she doesn’t love him and will never love him. He knows the only way left is to break up with her today. Sitting in the bleak bathroom of their hotel room, he wonders if he’ll be strong enough to do it.

Mathilde is a senior executive in the marketing department of a flagship. Her professional life is a nightmare; she’s been the victim of bullying for months. Thibault is an itinerant GP in Paris. In the morning, he drops Lila home, breaks up with her and takes his first call. Mathilde and Thibault know they’ll have a tough day. Mathilde fights against her will to take a sick leave and stay home. Thibault will have to live through that first day after the break-up.

A decisive day starts for both of them. Mathilde unfolds her life and analyses how it all happened. One day during one meeting, she contradicts her boss Jacques in front of other people. From small silences to bad looks and petty measures, she is progressively set aside of her working team. She isn’t invited at meetings any more, her boss stops talking to her, her colleagues start to ignore her. She’s devastated as she’s been working with Jacques for eight years and everything has always run smoothly between them. She’s given a lot of time to the firm, her job helped her resurfacing after the death of her husband. Mathilde feels betrayed because she invested a lot of herself in this company, because Jacques hired her and had always trusted her.

Delphine de Vigan perfectly describes life in an office: the furniture, the discussions near the coffee machine, the gossips, the lunches with colleagues, the good moments too. The relationships are friendly but shallow. Everything Mathilde says is true to life: the hypocrite speech of the HR lady, the cowardice of her colleagues who are too afraid to lose their jobs to help her. She also perfectly shows how violent it is, and how difficult it is to survive when you become the black sheep. We see the slow deconstruction of Mathilde. She’s the victim and yet she’s ashamed of her situation, as if she were responsible of what happens to her. The firm is a merciless machine that breaks the feeble, promotes selfishness through a good dose of fear. The psychological mechanisms made me think of women beaten by their husbands.  It also reminded me of Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb.

Thibault has a different form of fatigue. His job eats him alive too. He spends an awful lot of time on the streets, stuck in traffic jam and wasting time to park his car. At 43 and after a solid decade as an itinerant GP, he has seen his lot of misery. We accompany him during his visits to the old lady who lives in a filthy apartment, to an obnoxious businessman who’d decided of his prescription by himself, to a lovely young woman who has all the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Somehow, on that 20 of May, his protective armour has holes. He’s affected by his patients, he’s upset to a point he needs pauses between appointments. His ruined love life left him bare and sensitive to his patients’ miseries.

Through eyes of Mathilde and Thibault, Delphine de Vigan gives an acute vision of working life in Paris. I worked there during three years. It was exhausting and we didn’t have any children at the time. Mathilde uses public transports to go to work and what Delphine de Vigan minutely describes is true, totally true. Everything is there, the unwritten circulation rules in the underground, the speed, the urgent need to get into the métro not to be late, the heat, the crowd. If Mathilde experiences underground transports, Thibault lives the nightmare of driving in a big city. Both are sort of crushed by the city, the anonymity, the indifference to other people, the incivility. When I moved in Paris, I looked at all these people rushing, running, looking like they could kill someone to get in their métro. I swore to myself I’d never become like this. And I kept my promise, any time I was tempted to run to catch a métro, I resisted.

The chapters alternate between Mathilde and Thibault and their voice felt real. Everything takes place in the same day, with flashbacks. Their pain, their fears, their despair were tangible and vivid. Delphine de Vigan chose to put the same sentences in their minds sometimes, it enforced the feeling of parallel lives. People think and feel alike but don’t meet in the big city. Her prose is sober and I felt close to the characters.

Although what she writes is really Parisian, there are no obscure references and it is easily accessible to foreigners. I have listened to the audio version and it was gripping. Our lives hold together on nothing. In the comments on my post about La Cousine Bette, we discussed the fear of ruin in 19th C novels and noticed that we tend to forget this threat is real nowadays too. This novel is a reminder. Modern life and security aren’t words that go together well. Have a boss a little too ready to take offence and your life turns to hell.

I’m not usually attracted by books that remind me too much about my working day but this one is good and it is important that novelists write about our life and our society.  I’m not saying that Delphine de Vigan is the new Zola but her novel is an honest scrutiny of the incredible violence experienced by people at work. It is also a lucid look at what big cities and their oppressive atmosphere do to their inhabitants. And if Zola were alive now, wouldn’t be interested in how companies can be weapons of destruction for their employees?

Cyber Crush 2 The Battle: Marshmallow against Cotton Candy

April 15, 2011 5 comments

Every Seventh Wave by Daniel Glattauer, the sequel of Love Virtually. Original title : Alle Sieben Wellen. Translated into French by La septième vague.

After reading Love Virtually, I lent my copy to a colleague, who liked it and bought the sequel. I’m not sure I would have read it otherwise. This is how I ended up reading Every Seventh Wave on a train, on my way back from Paris.

I was curious to read about Emmi and Leo again. I knew from Caroline’s review that maybe writing a sequel wasn’t a good idea as the ending of Love Virtually was perfect. I agree and as often when I write reviews I have a song in mind. This time, it’s a French song by Anaïs and the following  lyrics really express my feeling about this book:     

Ça dégouline d’amour It drips with love,
C’est beau mais c’est insupportable. It’s lovely but unbearable
C’est un pudding bien lourd It’s a very heavy pudding
De mots doux à chaque phrase Of love words at every sentence
“Elle est bonne ta quiche, amour” “Your quiche is good, love”
“Mon cœur, passe moi la salade” “Sweetheart, pass me the salad”
Et ça se fait des mamours, And they cuddle
Se donne la becquée à table. Feed each other during meals
Ce mélange de sentiments This mix of feelings
Aromatisé aux fines herbes Flavored with fines herbes
Me fait sourire gentiment Makes me gently smile
Et finalement me donne la gerbe ! But in the end makes me puke!

Since I’d rather spend time writing something – if possible intelligent – about What Maisie Knew or keep on reading Witches Sabbath or Money, I suggest that anyone interested in a serious review of Every Seventh Wave read Caroline’s prose, which is better than mine.

We are sun born

April 12, 2011 18 comments

Le soleil des Scorta by Laurent Gaudé. (281 pages) Translated into English as The House of Scorta (US) or The Scorta’s Sun (UK), which is the exact translation of the French title.  

La chaleur du soleil semblait fendre la terre. Pas un souffle de vent ne faisait frémir les oliviers. Tout était immobile. Le parfum des collines s’était évanoui. La pierre gémissait de chaleur. Le mois d’août pesait sur le massif du Gargano avec l’assurance d’un seigneur. Il était impossible de croire qu’en ces terres, un jour, il avait pu pleuvoir. Que l’eau ait irrigué les champs et abreuvé les oliviers. Impossible de croire qu’une vie animale ou végétale ait pu trouver – sous ce ciel sec – de quoi se nourrir. Il était deux heures de l’après-midi, et la terre était condamnée à brûler. The heat of the sun seemed to crack the earth. Not a breath of air made the olive trees rustle. All was still. The scent of the hills had vanished. Stones moaned with heat. August weighed on the Gargano mountains with the haughtiness of a lord. It was impossible to believe that on these lands, it once had rained. That water had irrigated the fields and flooded the olive trees. Impossible to believe that any animal or plant life could have found some nourishment under this dry sky. It was 2pm and the earth was condemned to burn.

 These are the opening lines of Le soleil des Scorta by Laurent Gaudé. I don’t know if I managed to translate it well enough, but in French, I can feel the heat weighing on my shoulders, crumbling any will to do anything.

In 1875, in the South of Italy, Luciano Mascalzone comes back to Montepuccio after 15 years in jail. He deliberately goes to one particular house, where a woman named Filomena lives. He’s been dreaming of making love to her for 15 years. Yet he knows that as soon as he’s done, the villagers will kill him. Rocco Scorta Mascalzone’s birth will be the tangible consequence of this fleeting embrace. Rocco is the first Scorta and violence is the fairy upon his filthy and poor craddle.

Saved from a cruel death by the priest don Giorgio, Rocco will live from robberies, terrifying the whole area with his violent raids. Rich from these extortions, he comes back to Montepuccio and settles in a house outside of the village, gets married and has three children, Giuseppe, Domenico and Carmela. When he dies, he makes a deal with Don Giorgio: all his money goes to the Church provided that all the Scortas’ funerals are grandiose.

This sort of whim leaves his children with nothing. The three siblings are poor, more than poor. They are shipped to New York and come back with enough money to start a business. It will be a tobacconist’s shop. They won’t leave Montepuccio again.

The Scorta are a bit crazy and outcasts, like their ancestor Rocco. They stick together, living of nothing, earning what they own with their sweat. Their pride and their love of family is all they have. They work, they marry, they have children, they get old, they die. Lives among millions of small lives that make most of this world. 

Laurent Gaudé describes the life of this family with poetry and respect for his characters. Chapters alternate between the narration and Carmela’s voice confiding the family history and secrets to another priest, don Salvatore, the saviour. He will have to pass on the story to Anna, her grand-daughter. It’s the history of the place, with its customs, its pasta and olive oil, its superstitions. Through this family, it’s the story of Montepuccio that the reader discovers. Time goes by, the village changes, Mussolini is on power, the war doesn’t come to them, tourists discover the region.  

I can’t find the English words to give you back the sun reverberating from this book. I was terribly moved and I find it really cinematographic. I could see the place, the people and I wish someone makes it into a film. I enjoyed the landscapes, the love of these people for their land, their slow and silent way of enjoying life despite their difficult conditions of living. It’s about family intangible inheritance, that thing that is different from one family to another and makes it difficult to adapt to your in-laws sometimes. Somehow it echoed with great-uncles loudly playing cards, Saturdays’ traditional pasta and a grand-mother praying St Antony of Padoua any time she loses something. It echoes with what it is to be a loving family.

Et Donato était la seule personne à qui Elia pouvait parler de son enfance en sachant qu’il serait compris. L’odeur de tomates séchées chez la tante Mattea. Les aubergines farcies de la tante Maria. Les bagarres aux jets de pierres avec les gamins des quatiers voisins. Donato avait vécu tout cela, comme lui. Il pouvait se souvenir avec la même précision que lui et la même nostalgie de ces années lointaines. And Donato was the only person to whom Elia could talk about his childhood knowing he would be understood. The smell of dried tomatoes at Aunt Mattea’s. The stuffed egg-plants at Aunt Maria’s. The stone fights against the boys from the next neighbourhood. Donato had lived through this, like him. He could remember these years long time gone with the same precision and the same nostalgia.

 Isn’t this what brothers and sisters are about?

The roots of a literary heaven

April 8, 2011 7 comments

La petite femme, followed by L’orage. Two short-stories by Romain Gary. Not translated into English, as far as I know.

When I read Belle de Jour, Kessel’s style reminded me of Romain Gary. As I knew Gary admired Kessel a lot, I wanted to read the two short-stories written by Gary and published by Kessel in Gringoire, the news magazine he co-founded. They were published under his birth name, Roman Kacew. According to his biography, Gary refused to publish other texts in Gringoire after it professed anti-Semitic ideas in its pages, although he desperately needed the money. “Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là”, he said. (« I won’t eat that bread »)

Gary was living in Paris at the time, studying law and gathering with members of the Russian community and friends from Nice, the Agids. (They will be friends all their life; I like the idea of his fidelity to friendship). He begged to be introduced to Kessel, also Russian and I was curious to see if Gary tried to mimic Kessel, especially in early works.

So, let’s see what these stories are about.

La petite femme. (The Little Wife) published in Gringoire on May 24th, 1935.

Indochina. The road engineer Lacombe is having a hard time building a road through the bush. His wife comes from France to stay with him. One of his men tells the story and starts like this:

Oui, monsieur. C’était une toute petite femme. Blonde, frêle, maquillée, elle se promenait dans la brousse en fumant des cigarettes américaines et, au début, nul au monde ne l’aurait empêchée de changer de robe deux fois par jour. Yes, Sir. She was a very small woman. Blonde, slender, made-up, she wandered in the bush smoking American cigarettes, and at the beginning, no one could have stopped her from changing her dress twice a day.

I enjoy that kind of descriptions, I can picture her very well. In a few words, we imagine how bold (wandering alone in the bush!) and unusual (smoking American cigarettes!) this woman was. “Was”: the readers understand immediately that they will be told what became of her.

L’orage. (The Storm), published in Gringoire on February 15th, 1935.

Ils étaient installés dans l’île depuis quatre ans : le soleil du tropique avait tué en lui, l’homme, en elle, l’amour. They had been settled on the island for four years: the tropical sun had killed the man in him and love in her.

Doctor Partolle and his wife Hélène live on an island in the Pacific. It’s a day hot as hell, a storm is announced and hoped but it seems it will never come. Nobody visits them on this remote island, ever. So when a boat reaches their coast, it is an extraordinary event. A rough man named Pêche has come from a distant island to see Doctor Partolle for an important matter. Partolle is absent and Hélène welcomes Pêche, who is immediately attracted to her. He almost molests her but abruptly stops. Why? Why did he come? Why did he stop?

As I said earlier, I decided to read these stories to compare their style to Kessel’s style. Writing the review, I realise I forgot my original goal. What is most interesting in these two short stories is that they were written in 1935 before the war, when all the literary work by Gary was published after 1945. He was deeply changed by his experience as a soldier and haunted by the Holocaust. It came to my mind when I wondered why I found these short stories “lighter” than his later works. Gary’s themes (brotherhood, humanity, goodness, hope, love as a salvation…) are absent. However, his sense of humour is already there, showing up in the middle of a paragraph:

Son plus grand chagrin eut pour cause la mort de son pékinois ; il avait essayé de jouer avec un serpent. Mais les serpents sont d’humeur plutôt acerbe, et les plaisanteries, même les meilleures, sont perdues pour eux ; le pékinois paya de sa vie son besoin de société. La petite femme Her deepest grief was caused by the death of her Pekinese; he had tried to play with a snake. But snakes are usually in an acerbic mood and even the best jokes are lost for them; the Pekinese paid with his life his need of company. The Little Wife.

Strange that both short-stories take place on the other side of the world? No, very Gary to write about implacable heat in the cold of a French winter. Later, he will write about snow while he was knocked out by heat in Africa.

I could feel this is the work of a young man, on the verge of life and filled with the great expectations his mother had fed him with. After the war, his work will always have an underlying tone of despair as his hopes about humanity were smashed by the horrors of the war. Here, humour is for fun. Later, it will be a protection of the mind. La petite femme and L’orage are well constructed, with no useless detail and with a good sense of drama. I can tell that the roots of his literary heaven are already growing in these two little stories.

PS: Usually I don’t complain about the price of books, I consider that paperbacks are rather cheap in France, but really, €8,50 for 58 pages of short-stories is a little bit overrated.

“What the devil was he doing in that galley?”

April 7, 2011 18 comments

La Cousine Bette, by Honoré de Balzac. (1846)

I said in my previous post about La Cousine Bette that theatre was everywhere in the novel. I’m not a specialist of Molière or of Shakespeare but when I was reading La Cousine Bette I had this persistent feeling of reading theatre. If I’m not a expert, I do enjoy watching plays and I believe this impression came from the type of characters, the form of the novel itself with its 132 chapters as short as scenes and in particular moments or dramatic tools used by Balzac.

The characters seem to be inspired by Molière or Shakespeare.  

The Baron Hulot corresponds to the character mocked in Molière’s plays, like Argan in Le Malade Imaginaire, Orgon in Tartuffe or Harpagon in L’Avare. These characters are ridiculous old men led by a passion (money) or manipulated by impostors (Tartuffe, Diafoirus). They are wealthy and other characters try to put their hand on their money. 

Valérie Marneffe is the deceitful and interested character of Molière’s plays. She’s married to an ill man much older than her. Her marriage looks like the one between Argan and Béline in Le Malade Imaginaire. In this play, the young Béline patiently waits for the death of her old and sick husband to inherit his fortune. In several Molière’s plays, an old man is married or plans to marry a pretty woman much too young and too beautiful for him. (Like Harpagon with Marianne in L’Avare)  

Hortense is the typical character of the virtuous and loving daughter who marries a young man for love, like Angélique in Le Malade Imaginaire or Elise in L’Avare.  

Crevel reminded me of Monsieur Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The main character of this play is a rich bourgeois who wants to be a gentleman and takes classes to acquire the skills of a gentleman (clothes, speech, dancing…) Crevel is like him as Valérie teaches him how to speak, how to behave, what to wear. He is thankful for all the good advice she gives him and never realises that he is ridiculous. Exactly like Monsieur Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.  

M. Marneffe, who tries to confuse him with a complicated speech, is cut off by the Prince of Wissembourg with a

– Trêve de discours à la Sganarelle, “No more of Sganarelle speeches,”

Sganarelle is the valet in Les Fourberies de Scapin. He’s the character that invents a fake kidnapping on a Turkish galley to get some cash from the old Géronte. Hence the famous phrase “Mais que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?” (“What the devil was he doing in that galley?”)  

I don’t think Lisbeth’s character exists in Molière. Hatred isn’t a feeling he wrote about. Envy, lust, greed, fake devotion to religion, yes. Hatred and evil, no, except in Dom Juan perhaps. I thought she may come from Shakespeare and indeed Balzac compares her to Iago:

Et Mme Marneffe avait eu peur en trouvant tout à la fois un Iago et un Richard III dans cette fille, en apparence si faible, si humble et si peu redoutable. And Madame Marneffe had been terrified to find this old maid a combination of Iago and Richard III., so feeble as she seemed, so humble, and so little to be feared.

I can’t tell, I haven’t read or watched Othello. There will be another reference to Othello later:

– Je ne puis pas vous le dire ici, devant tous ces Iagos… , dit le baron brésilien. “I cannot tell you before all these Iagos,” said the Brazilian.

Like in Molière, the male characters are weak or desperately in love when the female characters are angelic or manipulating.

Balzac uses theatre references to make comparisons.


Il jeta sur Mme Hulot un regard comme Tartuffe en jette à Elmire. He gave such a look at Madame Hulot as Tartuffe casts at Elmire
“La femme est le potage de l’homme”, a dit plaisamment Molière par la bouche du judicieux Gros-René. “Woman is soup for man,” as Moliere says by the mouth of the judicious Gros-Rene.

 … and Shakespeare  

– Savez-vous l’anglais ?- Oui. Avez-vous vu jouer Macbeth, en anglais ?- Oui.- Eh bien, mon fils, tu seras roi ! c’est-à-dire tu hériteras ! dit cette affreuse sorcière, devinée par Shakespeare et qui paraissait connaître Shakespeare. “Do you know English?”“Yes.”“Well, my son, thou shalt be King. That is to say, you shall come into your inheritance,” said the dreadful old witch, foreseen by Shakespeare, and who seemed to know her Shakespeare.
Nous devons quatre termes, quinze cents francs ! notre mobilier les vaut-il ? That is the question ! a dit Shakespeare. “We owe four quarters’ rent, fifteen hundred francs. Is the furniture worth so much? /That is the question/, as Shakespeare says.”
C’était enfin la Tempête de Shakespeare renversée, Caliban maître d’Ariel et de Prospero. In fact, it was the converse of Shakespeare’s Tempest — Caliban ruling Ariel and Prospero.

Some scenes sound like scenes in Molière or Shakespeare plays.

Le Malade Imaginaire and the doctors.

Other scenes reminded me of Molière, especially the ones involving physicians. I couldn’t help thinking of famous scenes in Le Malade Imaginaire with Doctor Purgon and Doctor Diafoirus.  

Le docteur Bianchon, le docteur Larabit, le professeur Angard, réunis en consultation, venaient de décider l’emploi des moyens héroïques pour détourner le sang qui se portait à la tête. Doctor Bianchon, Doctor Larabit, and Professor Angard had met in consultation, and were prepared to apply heroic remedies to hinder the rush of blood to the head.

The doctors try to cure their patients but seem helpless when the disease is a bit exotic.

Handling three lovers.

The scene (chapter 46) in which Valérie is in Bette’s room and needs to conceal to her three lovers the existence of the others is particularly molieresque I couldn’t help thinking of Le Malade Imaginaire, when Argan hides to listen to Béline or Tartuffe when Elmire hides Orgon to make him understand that Tartuffe is an impostor. It is also very “théâtre de boulevard”, with lovers hiding in closet and wives trying to get husbands out of the room. Hiding in closets or behind curtains and faking an illness are so linked to theatre in my mind that I couldn’t help imagining the room as a theatre setting. 

Behaving like actors on a stage.

The moment in Chapter 90 when Valérie convinces Crevel not to give Adeline 200 000 francs reminds me of Molière’s style. She uses hypocrite love words such as “mon minet”, pouts, makes faces, speaks silly like an actress on a stage. And indeed, she is playing a role:

Et elle frôla le visage de Crevel avec ses cheveux en lui tortillant le nez.- Peut-on avoir un nez comme ça, reprit-elle, et garder un secret pour sa Vava – lélé – ririe !…Vava, le nez allait à droite ; lélé, il était à gauche ; ririe, elle le remit en place.- Eh bien, je viens de voir… Crevel s’interrompit, regarda Mme Marneffe.- Valérie, mon bijou, tu me promets sur ton honneur… , tu sais, le nôtre ? de ne pas répéter un mot de ce que je vais te dire… And she swept her hair over Crevel’s face, while she jestingly pulled his nose.“Can a man with a nose like that,” she went on, “have any secrets from his /Vava–lele–ririe/?”And at the /Vava/ she tweaked his nose to the right; at /lele/ it went to the left; at /ririe/ she nipped it straight again.“Well, I have just seen–” Crevel stopped and looked at Madame Marneffe.“Valerie, my treasure, promise me on your honor–ours, you know?–not to repeat a single word of what I tell you.”

Can’t you imagine actors on a stage rather than real persons in a room? It made me think of Toinette toying with Argan in Le Malade Imaginaire. This particular scene also reminded me how Mrs Ferrars convinces her husband he needs not give to his stepmother and stepsisters all the money his father asked him to give on his death bed. (Sense and Sensibility) 

Romeo and Juliet: the poison.

When I read about the death given through a disease but with a possible antidote, I thought about Romeo and Juliet.  

L’un de mes nègres porte avec lui le plus sûr des poisons animaux, une terrible maladie qui vaut mieux qu’un poison végétal et qui ne se guérit qu’au Brésil : je la fais prendre à Cydalise, qui me la donnera ; puis, quand la mort sera dans les veines de Crevel et de sa femme, je serai par delà les Açores avec votre cousine, que je ferai guérir et que je prendrai pour femme. Nous autres sauvages, nous avons nos procédés !… One of my negroes has the most deadly of animal poisons, and incurable anywhere but in Brazil. I will administer it to Cydalise, who will give it to me; then by the time when death is a certainty to Crevel and his wife, I shall be beyond the Azores with your cousin, who will be cured, and I will marry her. We have our own little tricks, we savages!

This trick sounded like tools to make the action progress in plays. 

Balzac intervenes as a writer and gives instructions like indications in theatre plays.   

La scène par laquelle commence cette sérieuse et terrible Etude de mœurs parisiennes allait donc se reproduire, avec cette singulière différence que les misères prophétisées par le capitaine de la milice bourgeoise y changeaient les rôles. So the scene with which this serious and terrible drama of Paris manners opened was about to be repeated, with this singular difference –that the calamities prophesied then by the captain of the municipal Militia had reversed the parts.

See the vocabulary: “scene”, “drama”, “open”, “parts”, like for theatre. In the following quote I saw the instructions written by a playwright to help the director:  

En ce moment, le maréchal Hulot entra dans l’antichambre et sa voix se fit entendre. La famille comprit l’importance du secret, et la scène changea subitement d’aspect. Les deux enfants se relevèrent, et chacun essaya de cacher son émotion. Just then Marshal Hulot’s voice was heard in the anteroom. The family all felt the importance of secrecy, and the scene suddenly changed. The young people rose, and every one tried to hide all traces of emotion.

 Comparisons with theatre are used to describe a scene, a feeling, an attitude.

Crevel aurait voulu descendre dans la cave par une trappe, comme cela se fait au théâtre. Crevel only longed to vanish into the cellar, through a trap, as is done on the stage.

 Sometimes, replies or dramatic tools sound like theatre:

– Monsieur, nous allons fermer l’appartement, la farce est jouée, et vous remettrez la clef à M. le maire. “Now we will lock up; the farce is played out, and you can send your key to Monsieur the Mayor.”


Cachez-vous là, vous entendrez tout. Cette scène se joue aussi souvent dans la vie qu’au théâtre. Hide there, and you will hear everything. It is a scene that is played quite as often in real life as on the stage.

Again, words linked to comedy: “farce”, “stage”.  

And I have many examples, it would be boring to show them all. I can’t imagine people talking like that in real life. That’s partly why I didn’t love La Cousine Bette. I thought the dialogues theatrical, exaggerated like phrases of a play, when the actors speak loudly and articulate so that the spectators in the last row can still follow the plot.  It sounded fake, overplayed and it prevented me from feeling anything for the characters. I should have pitied Hortense, but I couldn’t. I looked at them like a spectator from a balcony in a theatre or like a child who observes ants in a box.

PS : I know the style of this post is even more clumsy than my usual English but I lack the vocabulary to describe precisely what I mean.

La Cousine Bette (1846) by Honoré de Balzac

April 6, 2011 20 comments

La Cousine Bette by Balzac. Translated into English by James Warin (Cousin Betty)

La Cousine Bette is included in La Comédie Humaine, in the section Scènes de la vie parisienne. It was first published as a roman-feuilleton in a newspaper, Le Constitutionnel. I read the kindle version from Gutenberg Project. The book is divided in 132 chapters, each chapter having a specific title. It appears that not all editions have this chapter subdivision and it may be a good thing for the modern reader as it breaks the flow.

La Cousine Bette is the story of an implacable vengeance fomented by Lisbeth Fischer, the poor relative of the extended Hulot family. Lisbeth and Adeline Fischer are cousins, and both women come from a remote village of Lorraine, in the Vosges. Lisbeth is ugly while Adeline is beyond lovely. Here’s Balzac’s idea of an ugly woman:

Paysanne des Vosges, dans toute l’extension du mot, maigre, brune, les cheveux d’un noir luisant, les sourcils épais et réunis par un bouquet, les bras longs et forts, les pieds épais, quelques verrues dans sa face longue et simiesque, tel est le portrait concis de cette vierge. A native of the Vosges, a peasant in the fullest sense of the word, lean, brown, with shining black hair and thick eyebrows joining in a tuft, with long, strong arms, thick feet, and some moles on her narrow simian face–such is a brief description of the elderly virgin.

The peasant family wants to make the best money out of their two assets:

La famille, qui vivait en commun, avait immolé la fille vulgaire à la jolie fille, le fruit âpre à la fleur éclatante. Lisbeth travaillait à la terre, quand sa cousine était dorlotée. The family, living all under one roof, had sacrificed the common- looking girl to the beauty, the bitter fruit to the splendid flower. Lisbeth worked in the fields, while her cousin was indulged

Lisbeth has more value in the fields or later as a worker than on the marriage market and Adeline’s value lays in her beauty as she can expect a rich marriage, which is what happens when she meets Hulot. The injustice of the situation plants in Lisbeth an entrenched hatred towards her spoiled and beautiful cousin. In her eyes, Adeline has everything: beauty, money and family.

At the beginning of the book, Adeline is married to Le Baron Hulot and has two children, Hortense and Victorin. Her son is married to Célestine, M. Crevel’s daughter. Lisbeth, nicknamed Bette, lives in Paris in a poor neighbourhood and weekly visits her cousin Adeline. Lisbeth’s hatred is under good check until she reveals to her cousin Hortense that she has a secret lover. Indeed, she has a secret relationship with a Polish immigrant named Wenceslas, but it isn’t a love affair. He’s a handsome, poor and unknown artist. She supports him financially, encourages him in his work and loves him. He’s younger than her but her love is half-motherly, half-tender. When the beautiful Hortense steals Wencelas from her and marries him, Bette’s hatred is set on fire. She decides to avenge herself on Adeline and her family.

Meanwhile, we learn more about the Baron Hulot, who became rich during the Empire and now works for the War Office. He was handsome and took advantage of it. He is a pathological womanizer and as coquettish as a courtesan. Crevel, Victorin’s father-in-law and Hulot have known each other for a long time as they have been companions in debauchery. When Hulot steals the courtesan Josepha from him, Crevel wants to avenge himself by seducing Adeline. The virtuous Adeline resists and Crevel needs to find a new way out to his fierce resentment.

The tool will be Valérie Marneffe.

She’s a bourgeois, living poorly in the same filthy building as Lisbeth. She’s beautiful and knows how to make the better of it. Her husband gives her free rein and she’s absolutely decided to bet on her charms to enrich but without being a courtesan.

Lisbeth and Valérie befriend and share their secret. Lisbeth wants the financial and social death of Hulot to reach Adeline. Valérie wants to find a rich lover. They realize they can achieve their respective goal if Hulot fall madly in love with Valérie and if she withdraw from him as much money as possible. In the meantime, Valérie also resolves to seduce Crevel, whose rivalry with Hulot is known and who has even more money. Lisbeth’s vengeance can’t be completed until Valérie has also Wenceslas at her feet and thus ruins Hortense’s happiness.

Lisbeth has a one track mind and is an accomplished actress. She has an incredible talent to disguise her feelings and deceive her relatives, who rely blindly on her to protect their interests while she’s the one who sets in motion the machine that will ruin and dishonour them. She looks like a dull and devoted spinster when she’s consumed by hatred.

Hulot is a perfect imbecile, totally led by passion. He’s not very strong-willed and is solely driven by his libido. He needs to make himself attractive to women. I loved the description of the ageing Hulot with dyed hair wearing a corset to look younger. He looks so ridiculous.

Crevel is a more interesting character, as he’s a womanizer but he keeps some control over himself and doesn’t make reckless decisions about money. He’s more a libertine than passionate. He’s also interested in climbing the social ladder and leans on Valérie’s knowledge of worldly manners to improve. He’s a former shopkeeper and he doesn’t speak very well.

Wenceslas is weak too, easily turned away from art to flirt in Valérie’s salon. He could have been a great artist but lacked the perseverance.

Victorin is the most interesting man. Lacking of personality at the beginning, he improves as the novel progresses. He’s actually utterly honest and good and behaves gentlemanly. He’s the most reliable man in the family. His marriage with Célestine happens to be a good match.

The women are charming and deceitful (Valérie), ugly and evil (Lisbeth), good but not without pride (Hortense) or generous to imbecility (Adeline). All correspond to a stereotype of women. I read on Wikipedia that Lisbeth and Valérie have a lesbian relationship, I hadn’t noticed it but thinking about it, it’s quite right. (There were also lesbians in La Fille aux Yeux d’Or). All in all, the courtesan Josepha looks less evil than Valérie. At least she doesn’t hide that she lives on sex when Valérie plays the virtuous bourgeoise. (I wonder if Valérie inspired Nana. I don’t remember Nana well enough, I read it such a long time ago.)

Among all the events, descriptions and thoughts left by Balzac in this dense novel, I want point out specific elements that stayed with me.  

There is a great emphasis on the Lorraine origins of Lisbeth, especially at the beginning of the book. Coming from there, I can’t imagine why such dark features could be representative of a Lorraine girl, especially before the immigration waves from Southern Europe. Lisbeth Fischer is a German name, and her nickname Bette is German too. Though Balzac doesn’t mention it, she must have had a strong German accent, as French must have been a learnt language for a Lorraine peasant of that time. Dialects were eradicated in France in the 20thC through zealous school teachers who forbid pupils to speak in dialects at school. But at that time, in that region, she probably spoke a German dialect. Balzac enforces the origin from this country by using “la Bette” when referring to her. This locution has two impacts: it’s a regionalism, people in Lorraine use “la/le” (the) before first names, like authorized in German but grammatically wrong in French. It’s less frequent now but it still exists. It’s also a way to show the animal nature of Lisbeth, because “la bette” sounds like “la bête” which means “the beast”. In addition, as Lorraine was ruled by a Polish prince, Stanislas Leszczyński in the 18thC, it is quite ironic to put Lisbeth’s heart in the power of a Polish immigrant. I don’t know if Balzac did it on purpose or if the Polish character was fashionable at the time, as it also appears in La Fausse Maîtresse.

I was hugely interested in the picture of Paris during the Restauration. I was amused to read that the neighbourhood in which Lisbeth and Valérie first live and meet, near Le Louvre was a place of ill repute. Now, it’s one of the neatest places of the capital. I also enjoyed the descriptions of pre-Haussmanian Paris. Political references were fascinating too such as the place of heroes of the Napoleonic wars in the society, the war to conquer Algeria, the construction of a new civilian society based on the remains of the Ancien Régime and the Révolution. There would also be a lot to say about religion and how Catholic faith was at work to gain the masses after the Revolution.

I wondered if Hulot could be medically considered as suffering from hyper-sexuality. It’s the medical term for abnormal sexual needs. He is quite an addict and would need a therapy. I can’t compare him to Don Juan, he’s not excited by the thrill of the chase. He’s more what we call in colloquial French a “chaud lapin” (a “randy devil” according to the dictionary).

I was also really fascinated by the means people use to get cash money. I was puzzled by the financial instruments and the pledge of pensions and future income. Balzac speaks naturally of all this, I can only think it was very common. At a moment, Crevel says:

Pour avoir deux cent mille francs d’argent vivant, il faut vendre environ sept mille francs de rente trois pour cent.

To have two hundred thousand francs in hard cash it would be needful to sell about seven hundred thousand francs’ worth of stock at three per cent.

I was intrigued by this. I wondered how many later payments of 7000 francs were needed to get 200 000 francs in hard cash with a 3% interest rate. An Excel spreadsheet later – you can’t shut up the accountant for a long time, *sigh*– I could tell that 66 periods were needed. Obviously, these periods weren’t years and could only be months. That leaves us with a monthly 3% interest rate, roughly equivalent to 36% a year. Ruinous, especially with an inflation rate inferior to 5%.

I really enjoyed Balzac’s wits. He’s an example of sharp French eloquence. For pure pleasure, here are excerpts:

Et, en effet, à quarante-sept ans passés, la baronne pouvait être préférée à sa fille par les amateurs de couchers de soleil And, in point of fact, at seven-and-forty the Baroness might have been preferred to her daughter by amateurs of sunset beauty.
Elle saisit son adorateur dans une de ces stupéfactions où les oreilles tintent si bien, qu’on n’entend rien que le glas du désastre. [She] came upon her adorer, standing lost in amazement–in the stupid amazement when a man’s ears tingle so loudly that he hears nothing but that fatal knell.
Mme Crevel, femme assez laide, très vulgaire et sotte, morte à temps, n’avait pas donné d’autres plaisirs à son mari que ceux de la paternité. Madame Crevel, ugly, vulgar, and silly, had given her husband no pleasures but those of paternity; she died young.

The first quote sounds better in French, I’m afraid as it’s more elliptic and I don’t know why the “glas du désastre” wasn’t translated by “the knell of disaster”, I suppose that “fatal knell” sounds more English.  

There has been two moments for me with this novel. The first two-thirds of the book are dedicated to the how: how Bette takes revenge on her relatives and how Le Baron Hulot carries away the whole family in his fall. I thought this part particularly theatrical and melodramatic. I could see a stage, with doors slamming from people entering and going out. I could imagine the settings changing between each chapter according to the house in which the scene took place. The vocabulary and Balzac’s constant references to Molière didn’t help me disregard this impression, but this will be developed in another post. I expected something like Eugénie Grandet or La Femme de 30 ans and not theatre in prose. I almost stopped reading it. I persevered because it was Balzac and because this book came highly recommended. I enjoyed the last third of the book better. The impression of theatre dispelled. I didn’t read the last chapters but heard them in an audio version. (I was in one of those cooking week-ends and wanted to know the ending, so I opted for the audio version. Cousin Bette’s revenge must have broken through into my life as it has been the worst cake of my history as a cook.)

Though I can tell it’s a great novel, I didn’t love it. It sure deserves to be read. Theatre filtering through the novel really bothered me. That may have been avoided with a paper edition without the short chapters sounding like scenes in a play. In addition, I found the characters too simple, lacking of subtlety. Bette is all vengeance. Adeline is all saintly acceptance, virtue and resignation. The old opposition between a devilish ugly brunette vs angelic beautiful blonde, vice against virtue annoyed me as life isn’t so simple. I prefer books where the nasty have redeeming qualities and the good have flaws because life isn’t black and white, or brunette and blonde, I should say. I loved the ending though, so typically French that it made me smile.

For another review, read Lisa’s from ANZ LitLovers.

Soleil Noir

April 4, 2011 17 comments

Dispatching Baudelaire, by Ken Bruen. Translated into French by Marie Ploux and Catherine Cheval.

I decided to read Ken Bruen after Guy’s post about London Boulevard. I thought I would like his style as the quote “she was an expensive sixty” stayed with me. “Expensive sixty”: you can see everything in two simple words: the Botox, the make-up, the manicure, the pricey clothes, the constant diet, the hours spent at the hairdresser’s, the beautician’s… That’s exactly the kind of style I enjoy, short sentences made of odd and powerful association of words. I ordered Dispatching Baudelaire online, because of the “Baudelaire” in the title. So it was a blind date between this book and me. And what did I get? A CPA going wild in a plot involving Baudelaire and a lot of literary references. Wait, what’s the famous phrase again? Life’s little ironies.

So how does a CPA named Mike go wild according to Ken Bruen? He looses his pants. First, he rebels against suit pants and buy jeans. There’s a hilarious scene where the anti-hero asks where the crease is as he tries the jeans on. Second, he sleeps with an unbalanced girl he hardly knows. When the steady and dull Mike meets the firework Laura in a pub, he has a fatal crush on her. Going to her place, he meets there her crazy and dangerous father Harold. Harold is obsessed by Baudelaire, his relationships with women, his poetry and his vision of life. He is also extremely rich and powerful. Several little incidents make Mike understand that his life is now controlled by Harold who has connections everywhere. Mike comes to the conclusion he needs to kill Harold to be free again.

The English title has a double-meaning (1) as dispatching corresponds to all the quotes by Baudelaire scattered in the novel and also means “killing Harold”, the ultimate goal in Mike’s life.  This book is funny, full of crazy actions and rhythm. I had a great time reading it and the entertainment was welcome after La Cousine Bette and before resuming What Maisie Knew.  

The translation was wonderful, probably not faithful to the word as there were a lot of play-on-words in French. I suppose the two translators managed to transfer the equivalent witty sentences in French. Despite the French, I got lost on one page, when Mike talks about a sport with references I didn’t get. A few pages later, I eventually understood it was cricket. That’s the only flaw of the novel: I think Ken Bruen uses too many references to contemporary people or events as well as too many British innuendos sometimes impossible to get for foreigners. Fortunately there were relevant footnotes from the translators. I would have missed that if I had read the book in English. The matter “read in English or get a translation” remains really tricky, reading this one in French was better. The problem is that I know in which language I should read a book after reading it.  

(1) Special thanks to my personal slang-central, I would have missed the double meaning of the English title without him. 

PS: The title of this post Soleil Noir comes from Baudelaire. He invented this oxymoron to describe his black mistress Jeanne Duval, with whom he had a tempestuous and poisonous relationship. Click here to see her portrait by Manet. (Soleil Noir means Black Sun or Noir Sun if I take into account the two meanings of “noir” in French)

Much Ado About Nothing

April 3, 2011 19 comments

Indignez-vous by Stéphane Hessel (13 pages)

 For once, this is a post about the book everybody is reading in France. Indignez-vous was the best-selling book of 2010. I read that 1 million of copies were sold…in two months. I bought my copy in January and it is the 12th edition. According to Wikipedia, this essay was translated into English (Time for Outrage!) and published in March 2011 in the US magazine The Nation. I wondered why it was such a success and decided to read it.

What is it exactly, who is Stéphane Hessel and what is it about?

Indignez-vous is published by a small publishing house named Indigène Editions. It is settled in Montpellier, in the South of France, far from Paris and the literary world. Here is their blurb about their editing policy:  

Indigène Editions is a publishing house dedicated to the knowledge and arts of non industrial cultures of First Nations – Aborigines from Australia, Native Americans, Inuits, Tibetans, Maoris…. It is also dedicated to the “Natives” of our own societies, these pioneers who, here and now, want to break free from mercantile, protectionist and standardized logics and intend to create new hubs of intellectual authority and economical viability.

Indignez-vous is published in their collection entitled Ceux qui marchent contre le vent (Those who walk against the wind), baptized after the phrase used to name the Ohamas, Native Americans from the Great Plains. John Berger initiated this collection in 2009 with his essay “Dans l’entre-temps, Réflexions sur le fascisme économique” (Meanwhile, Thoughts on Economical Fascism). Now British readers fidget on their chair and start to be interested. 

That was the publisher. Now who is Stéphane Hessel, whom I had never heard of before this book? I’m not proud of my ignorance, and you’ll understand why after reading the following paragraphs.

Stéphane Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917 and became French in 1939. Incidentally, and for cinema lovers, his mother Helen is the model for Catherine from Jules and Jim and his father Franz was Jules. Jim was their friend Henri-Pierre Roché, author of the eponymous book. Mythical.

He studied economy, philosophy and was interested in the Sartrian vision of life based on responsibility. In 1939, as the war began, he was mobilized into the French army. After the French capitulation, he was made prisoner. He evaded and joined his family who had found shelter in Sanary (French Riviera) at Aldous Huxley’s house. He reached London through Algeria and joined the Général de Gaulle in 1941. Sent in mission in France in 1944, he was caught by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald. He escaped death twice, was sent to Dora in 1945. He evaded again and joined the American army in Germany.

He was a diplomat from 1945 to 1985, and took part in the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He worked for different liberal government as a counsellor. He’s a human rights activist.

An incredible life, somehow similar to that of Joseph Kessel or Romain Gary. Foreigner, nationalized French citizen, Resistant, diplomat, sent in the UNO in New York. 

Now, the essay.

The main ideas are that we should recall the principles put forward by the Conseil National de la Résistance, just after WWII : social benefits, free press, good education and nationalized companies in strategic areas, such as rail and electricity. Then he urges French citizens to think about the things that outrage them and react, be activists for the cause they choose. He talks about what outrages him such as the situation in Palestine. He advocates non-violence as the only way to solve difficulties. Rather thin, even for only 13 pages.

Then I thought, “So what?” What’s new in this? I found his arguments honourable but well-known. I expected something new, a fresh angle to look at things. I expected something more revolutionary than this, considering the aims of the publisher. I was disappointed.

And I still wonder “Why such a success”? The “book” has been N°1 of L’Express best-selling list for 22 weeks now. There are 50 articles related to him on the website of Le Monde. I know Stéphane Hessel won’t make money of it as he gives what he earns from this book to charities. At least, if it isn’t a breakthrough in essays, I’m happy to think a small publishing house will improve their financial statements.

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