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Like a rolling stone

May 25, 2011 25 comments

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. 1936. (230p)

Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.

I wanted to read Down and Out in Paris and London after reading Lisa’s review. I discovered in the introduction that I was actually reading an English version reconstituted from the first English version published and the French translation approved by Orwell himself. Indeed, the first English edition was bowdlerized (tut tut tut: no swear words allowed!) whereas the French one was not. So here I am, French native, reading a book in English and discovering that reading the French version would have been easier and better. How ironic. Things became even more ironic when I came across foot notes added to the text and translated back from the French edition. That’s what happens when you buy books online. *Sigh*

Apart from this slight inconvenience, I really liked this book.

In the first part, Orwell is in Paris, working as a plongeur (the one who washes dishes) in a fancy hotel. Before finding this job, he had started to experience poverty and hunger, both appalling and weakening body and mind:

You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs. (…)

You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future.

He details the rush in the hotel when it is breakfast, lunch or diner time. He works from “seven in the morning till quarter past nine a night”. He gives a vivid picture of the heat (110°F), the dirt, the noise. In the hotel, hierarchy is as important as in the army. The plongeur is on the lowest part of the scale. Orwell relates how people insult each other in their hurry but also how the hierarchy disappears during breaks, allowing friendly discussions. His work is stupid but requires attention. He is exhausted at the end of the day, sleep is a delight. I was disgusted when he recounts the dirtiness of the hotel cuisines:

Everywhere in the service quarters dirt festered – a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man’s body.

He relates the dirt, the insults in the kitchen and the luxury and politeness to clients, just on the other side of a slim door. Some issues seemed still accurate or brought comparisons to mind.

Despite the dreadful working conditions, employees of the hotel take pride in what they do. The management is not as inhuman as it seems at first sight. After reading Underground Time and Company, I noticed that these were terrible working conditions and thankfully laws were passed to change them. But they were hard for bodies but not soul-destroying. However, they have no life besides work and the week-end drinks.

Nothing is quite real to him [plongeur] but the boulot, drinks and sleep; and of these sleep is the most important.

In France, we have a phrase to sum up life in Paris: “Métro, boulot, dodo”. (literally: Métro, work, beddy-byes). Some things have not changed, I see.  

Orwell also tries to analyse the situation of what we call now poor workers, ie people who have a job but with such a low income that they only survive. He questions the necessity to maintain such jobs as plongeur as fancy restaurants are not indispensable to the society and states that:

This instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.

Now it is safer to keep them too entertained to think. The president of TF1 (French TV channel) once said in an interview “The spectator’s brain must be available. Our programs aim at entertaining them, unwind them to prepare them between two commercials” It was a scandal inFrance. But then, he had just said aloud what all these upper-classes representatives think about the working class. 

This part is also enjoyable for the description of life in Paris. Orwell portrays all kinds of colourful characters from work and his local bistro. It is full of French phrases such as « Tu t’es bien saoulé la gueule, pas vrai ? » or « foutre le camp ». And I loved the neologism « we were tutoied », sure I’m going to use this one. All the French words gave a real flavour of Paris but I wonder how an English speaking reader perceives it. 

Then Orwell crosses the channel and lives as a tramp in London and my reading became less fluent with phrases as these:

A can o’ hot water wid some bloody oatmeal at de bottom; dat’s skilly. De skilly spikes is always de worst.

It’s hell bein’ on de road, eh? It breaks yer heart goin’ to dem bloody spikes.

Now I knew what the English speaking reader had felt in the first part with the French words… 

The part in England is different as Orwell lived as a tramp. He describes the spikes (workhouses) and their terrible rules: no smoking, no keeping money, no privacy, no beds. Tramps are treated like animals. They wash in terrible conditions and can hardly sleep because of the cold, the promiscuity, the absence of beds. It stinks.

Orwell denounces the absurdity of laws against tramps: they can’t sleep twice in a month in the same spike, so they keep moving from one spike to another. Sometimes, tramps are locked in a room for the whole day and boredom is awful. It’s inefficient because tramps spend their time looking for a shelter for the night instead of looking for a job.

A tramp tramps, not because he likes it, but for the same reason as a car keeps on the left; because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so.

As begging is against the law, they sell matches to be considered as sellers. The police would catch them if they sit on the ground.  

Orwell depicts different characters; the most likable one is Bozo the screever – the pavement artist. Despite his living condition, he keeps his humanity alive.

He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but so long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.

How remarquable. He fights against poverty. He doesn’t want poverty to invade his brain and destroy his dignity.

There is also a fascinating chapter about the evolution of London’s slang and how bloody became middle-class and fuck had to replace it in the working-class.

 I could write pages about Down and Out in Paris and London. Why is this book so good? Because Orwell is compassionate and tolerant. Because he gave a voice to these second-class citizens and immigrants. Because he never lost his sense of humour.  

There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher’s daughter.

 Poor Orwell, if he heard of Dan Browns and Marc Levis, he would be devastated.

Swedish Delicacy

May 23, 2011 12 comments

La délicatesse by David Foenkinos. 2009. 210 pages. The English translation, Delicacy (PS) will be released in English (UK) in December 2011.

 Let’s rewind my last weeks’ readings: a book about working conditions in the 21st century, a book about a French widow bullied at work by her boss, a book about poverty and poor working conditions in Paris in the 1920s, an improbable love story in Sweden between a young widow and a farmer, an autobiography full of literary references.

Now, I managed to read a book about a romance in an office between a young French widow and a Swedish employee with literary references in the text. Bizarre.

Nathalie meets, falls for and marries François. Nathalie finds a job in a company. Her boss Charles is in love with her but she’s very married. Charles’s hopes remain silent. François is run over by a car. Nathalie mourns. Nathalie works. Nathalie is available. Charles is still in love with her and now his hopes skyrocket. But Nathalie kisses the insignificant and colourless Markus. His hopes skyrocket and Charles’s hopes plummet. By the coffee machine, gossips go up and down around Nathalie. It is well known that:  

To evaluate the strength of a gossip, you only have to check the takings of the coffee machine. Today, it would be historical.

The plot is rather banal but the structure is original.  It is split into 117 chapters (the number means something) and some chapters are an excerpt of a song, a statistic, a definition. All are related to the story. 

End of Chapter 44

“I’d like to know why you kissed me.”

(…)

“I don’t know”, Nathalie whispered.

Markus would have wanted an answer, even a rejection, but certainly not this nothing.

– You don’t know?

– No, I don’t

– You can’t leave me that way, you owe me an explanation.”

There is nothing to say.

This kiss was like modern art.

 45

Title of a painting by Kasimir Malevich 

Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918)

It is full of gratuitous comments by the writer and funny phrases from Markus with his dry sense of humour. It also relates how relationships are based on funny misunderstandings.  

It was a quick read (less than 3 hours). It’s simply written but with nice images:  

When leaving that Friday night, he was really happy to take shelter in the week-end. He would use Saturday and Sunday as two big blankets

Although I didn’t buy La délicatesse, it strangely echoed with books I’ve just read. It’s delicate and witty. A good novel to take on a train.

One can forget their past, it doesn’t mean they’ll recover from it.

May 20, 2011 12 comments

Un roman français by Frédéric Beigbeder. 2009. 246 pages. Will be published in English (UK) in June 2012. Prix Renaudot 2009

Dear Frédéric,

May I call you Frédéric? I think I can after reading Un Roman français; after all, you’ve already let me enter into your head. Notice how English is comfortable here, I don’t have to choose between “tu” and “vous”. Convenient.

I received your book as a Christmas gift and I read it because I chose it for the Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge, category Take a chance. Read a book which you would rather not. For instance when the OH says ‘you’ll really like this’ and you’re thinking ‘no, I really won’t…’ Yeah, I know, that hurts your pride a little. If that can help, Michel Houellebecq is in my hell’s challenge too. Feel better?

It’s not your fault if I’m suspicious when famous people write books. And you’re famous, well at least in France’s media cosmos. Even I who don’t watch TV or read Elle or tabloids have heard your name. In short, I don’t really know your public character and I started reading your book reluctantly but with fresh eyes. So what’s the verdict? I enjoyed it. Aren’t readers won against their will the most precious ones?  

You say you started writing this autobiography in your head when you were arrested for cocaine abuse on the street. The chapters about your experience in jail aren’t my favourite ones. Don’t you exaggerate a little?

You’ve had a nice childhood and you know it. Your family has always been rich, partly aristocratic and with high connections. Your parents got a divorce; that happens. Your father was absent and week-ends at his place were more about partying than family life. Your mother changed of lovers but was present. Your elder brother looks perfect and you decided you could exist only by being his opposite. You two used to fight constantly.

All this is really banal.  

You’re at your best when you describe your mal de vivre, your clumsiness and your vision of life as a child, like here: “I spent all my childhood fighting against blushing. Someone talked to me? Rosy blotches blossomed on my cheeks. A girl looked at me? My cheekbones turned garnet. The teacher asked me a question in class? My face flushed bright crimson. I had imagined techniques to hide my blushing: redo my shoelaces, turn back as if there were suddenly something fascinating to look at right behind me, run out of the room, hide my face behind my hair, take off my jumper.”

I could feel the tenderness for your daughter Chloë and I appreciate you don’t try to disguise you fail her as a father sometimes. I enjoyed reading your book for its honesty. You genuinely tried to bring back the little boy you were. You also manage to give back the flavour of these years in France. I’m younger than you but I recognised parts of my own childhood. However, I wonder how your translators will deal with Mako Moulage and all those French references but it brought back those years.  

Something else, Frédéric. Stop dropping names and making literary comparisons such as “She was a tall, blond girl bended over her piano like a heroine in a novel by Henry James”. You use them as mental crutches to rely on but you don’t need them. Your writing is good enough, when you write such phrases as “When I left the church, I saw the sun dissolving into the branches of a cypress tree, like a gold nugget in a giant’s hand.” You don’t need to ask for literary approval by invoking the lares of all the dead writers you admire.

You wrote “I haven’t found a better definition of what literature can bring: hearing a human voice” Well, I heard yours.

Best regards.  

PS: I rescued your novel 99F from the archive room at work where it laid abandoned. I’ll probably read it.

 

They walked back to the village, a volcano in their heart

May 17, 2011 19 comments

Aline by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. 1905. 144 pages. Not translated into English, sorry, sorry, sorry…

 Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878-1947) is a French-speaking Swiss writer. Aline is his second novel, written in 1905. Born in Lausanne, Ramuz spent 14 years in Paris and came back to Switzerland in 1914, before the war started. His work is centred on country life in the Canton de Vaud.  

Aline is a short tale about a tragic love story in rural Switzerland. Julien, only son of the richest man of the village, is infatuated with Aline, a seventeen year old peasant. She lives alone with her ageing mother Henriette. It is summer, the heat is almost unbearable. Julien and Aline meet on a trail as they go back home from work in the fields. Julien flirts and persuades her to meet at night, when her mother is asleep. She accepts and they start dating secretly in the woods. Their affair lasts several months and their love follows opposite paths. While Julien progressively falls out of love with Aline, Aline’s love grows to passion. Julien is a young womaniser and for him, she’s nothing more than a summer romance. It was true love for her. The ingredients of a tragedy are all there.  

Aline reminded me of Félicité (A Simple Heart by Flaubert) and of Emma Bovary. Like Félicité, she’s good and loving. She’s a simple heart, ill-prepared to face life and inconstant boys. Like Emma, she gives herself away, as Flaubert said. She’s overwhelmed by her feelings. I don’t think Julien can be compared to Rodolphe though; he just grew tired of Aline and didn’t realize she was so deeply in love with him.  

Ramuz writes with simplicity about peasant life. Aline’s heart is pure and simple and Ramuz’s language is as pure as a mountain spring. His style comforts our image of Aline, an adolescent experiencing feelings she fails to understand and tame.

Et elle était devenue bien jolie ; ses joues étaient plus roses, ses lèvres plus rouges, ses yeux plus bleus. C’est la jeunesse qui vous sort du cœur, parce que le cœur est content, et elle est devant vous comme le matin des prés. And she had become really pretty; her cheeks were pinker, her lips redder, her eyes bluer. It’s youth pouring out of your heart, because the heart is contented and it lays in front of you like a morning on the fields.

Ramuz brings to life the village, the people, their way of life, the gossips. He points out the difference between boys and girls: when the affair is known, everybody blames Aline and Julien remains unscathed. A girl can’t fall in love but a boy can seduce whomever he wants, it’s sport.  

I didn’t know Ramuz had influenced Giono but I truly heard Giono when I read Aline. And also Pagnol. I could feel the summer heat, smell the scent of wet grass after the rain, imagine the blue sky, the fields and the bushes.  

Avril avait paru, poussant devant lui ses petits nuages comme des poules blanches dans un champ de bleuets. April had shown up, pushing before him his small clouds like white hens in a cornflower field.

It’s evocative. His description of nature reminded me of paintings by Van Gogh (Wheatfield with Crows or The Sower) or Monet (Poppies Blooming). Simple words and forceful images. It’s set in Switzerland but it could be in France. I thought of the innocence of life before the horrors of the trenches and lives untimely ended by war, throwing everyday life off balance in towns and villages.

I’m not usually fond of bucolic novels. I couldn’t finish La Gloire de mon Père by Marcel Pagnol, I thought it was mushy. However, I liked Regain by Jean Giono (Harvest) and Aline reminded me of this book. It is fresh and lovely and I’m sorry it isn’t translated into English. For readers who can/could read French or would like to speak French again, it’s easy to read and short. For other readers I recommend Regain by Giono, it has the same flavour.

PS : The perfect soundtrack for this book is La Chasse aux papillons by Georges Brassens. I borrowed a line for the title of this post.

Who took the donut from the donut jar?

May 12, 2011 25 comments

Company by Max Barry. 2006.

MONDAY MORNING and there’s one less donut than there should be. Keen observers note the reduced mass straightaway but stay silent, because saying, “Hey, is that only seven donuts?” would betray their donut experience. It’s not great for your career to be known as the person who can spot the difference between seven and eight donuts at a glance. Everyone studiously avoids mentioning the missing donut until Roger turns up and sees the empty plate.

These are the opening lines of Company by Max Barry. I was already laughing. Four lines that catch the essence of office life, made of implicit social rules and of time wasted on details that have nothing to do with actual work. And that donut is important for our story. After the donut scene, Barry takes us to the reception area where Jones is waiting for Roger to pick him up at the reception desk.

Sitting there with his hands in his lap is young, fresh-faced Stephen Jones. His eyes are bright. His suit glows. His sandy-brown hair contains so much styling mousse it’s a fire risk, and his shoes are black mirrors. This is his first day.

I so imagined  Jones, the young business-school graduate who’s learnt management guide books by heart and is eager to jump into the real world at last. He’s killing time reading the company’s marketing brochures. He’s been hired to the Sales Training Department of Zephyr Holdings as Roger’s assistant. The Sales Training Department is composed of a manager, Sydney, her PA Megan, three sales representatives (Roger, Elizabeth and Wendell) and three sales assistants (Jones, Holly and Freddy). He’s already pining for Eve Jantiss the gorgeous receptionist.

After a few days, Jones realizes that the Sales Training Department is only selling to internal customers. When he asks, nobody is able to tell him what Zephyr Holdings really does and who are its real clients. Jones doesn’t accept this and is determined to find out the real purpose of Zephyr Holdings. He wouldn’t want to work for an arm maker or a porn company, he needs to ensure the company he works for is ethically acceptable. With the boldness of youth, he forces the doors of the CEO to understand what Zephyr Holdings is actually doing. He thus becomes a team member of the secret Senior Management of Zephyr Holdings and learns the real aim of the company. How will Jones cope with the news and work into that team?

The first third of the book relates Jones’s time at Zephyr before he discovers its aim and become a part of the secret management. In that part, we discover Zephyr, its social codes, its written or non-written rules. I really laughed a lot, seeing how close to real life it was. Cost control is pushed so far that it becomes inefficient and creates absurd behaviours. Employees work in open floors supposedly enforcing productivity (called “cubicle farm” by Max Barry, a good image, I thought). Comments are spot on, such as for sales representative who have “six-figure salaries, seven-figure quotas, and single-digit golf handicaps.” or when he calls outsourcing ” the nuclear bomb of Human Resources’ arsenal”. Many anecdotes felt real: the network falls, promotions come from political skills and not actual competence, managers give work at the last minute, creating stress.

At that time, I started to think of Company as a dystopian novel, like Fahrenheit 451. Zephyr Holdings is another world, with a physical presence and a designated area through its building:

The Zephyr Holdings building sits nestled among the skyscrapers of Seattle’s Madison Street like a big, gray brick. It is bereft of distinguishing features. You could argue that it has a certain neutral, understated charm, but only if you are willing to apply the same logic to prisons and 1970s Volvos. It is a building designed by committee: all they have been able to agree on is that it should be rectangular, have windows, and not fall over.

Zephyr is the new working world. The old world is the company before flexible jobs, a time older employees remember and young employees think of as real as a lost paradise. Zephyr is a country with its own logic and its way to standardize people and take away their freedom and their free will. The Company is named after a wind. Is it innocent? I don’t think so. Every Zephyr’s employee should be able to see which way the wind blows or feel the wind change. In French, “faire beaucoup de vent” (literally “to make a lot of wind”) means “to make a lot of noise” in the sense of speaking a lot but not acting. “C’est du vent” (Literally, “it’s wind”) also means “it’s hot air”, in the sense of an empty posturing. All these expression apply to Zephyr Holdings whose name is also really ironic when you think that a zephyr is a warm, agreeable and gentle wind. North Wind would have been better.

The Sales Training Department is a sample of common people met at work. The manager Sydney is petty and driven by ambition.

How she became manager remains a mystery. But there are only two possibilities. One is that Senior Management mistook her tirades for drive and a commitment to excellence. The other is that they knew Sydney was a paranoid psychopath, and that’s exactly the kind of person they want in management.

Freddy, Holly, Megan represent the silent majority who follow through, tries to adapt and cope with the environment but however tries not to hurt anyone. They have a sheep-ish and thus sheepish behaviour. Elizabeth is a promoter and a believer, she “falls in love with her clients”. Roger is a promoter but he’s an opportunist and slightly unbalanced. “Roger is a powerful, confident, good-looking man kept awake at nights by the heart-gripping fear that other people don’t think he is powerful, confident, and good-looking.” He’s dangerous as he thinks he deserves to be promoted and as the end justifies the means in his eyes. Roger takes the missing donut affair seriously.

Jones is the rebel who questions the system. He’s human and needs to understand what he does. He sees his co-workers as persons and not as positions. He’s brave enough to fight. He’s the hero who won’t accept the situation and lead changes. He has strong values and doesn’t want to compromise. Ethics at work is important to him. When Jones’s ethics is shattered, he’d like to leave but stays, rationalizing his decision. As we all do when we don’t exactly agree with a task, we think that if we don’t do it, someone else will. And that someone could have less moral concern than us. So we conclude we’d better stay.

At Zephyr Holdings, Senior Management is nowhere to be seen but is always to be heard via voicemails, like robots or a disembodied power who anonymously controls their employees’ lives. They govern the company as dictators. They can decide to fire anyone at any time: they have the power to kill someone professionally. They spread fear and employees comply to any rule, accept any rationalization. On paper, Zephyr is cautious not to do anything illegal. But work regulations are twisted in such a way that what should have been a protection for employees becomes a weapon for management. For example, they use drug test to discover pregnant women. The code to prevent sexual harassment is such that innocent office romances are impossible. HR are the armed arm of Senior Management. They apply mechanically the decisions without blinking.

All this made me think of a parallel world and of dystopian novels’ codes. Hardboiled also came to my mind when I thought of the relationship between Jones and Eve Jantiss. He has everything of the PI with his own moral code, who won’t change but doesn’t mind bending the rules to a certain point if need be. He’s ready to have dirty hands for his cause. Eve Jantiss is the typical femme fatale of noir crime fiction. She’s tempting Jones, has no conscience and is venal. A lethal combination for our hero.

The conclusion of the novel could be a plea for better working conditions and more ethics in the treatment of workers.

We spend half our waking lives here. We know it better than anyone. We care about it more than anyone. That’s what people do, Blake, when you put them in a workplace: they get emotionally involved. We’re not inputs. We’re not machines.

We’re not headcounts, we’re human beings. The “it’s not personal, it’s business” slogan is a way to wipe away the guilt born from inhuman decisions.

I loved this book. I think it is masterly crafted. Max Barry manages to play with the codes of SF (not that I’m an expert in that field) and with the codes of hardboiled. However his Company felt awfully real. It’s funny and thought-provoking. Brilliant. Guy recommended Company to me when I read Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan. You can find his review here. I’m glad I read the two books almost at the same time. If Underground Time shows how a multi-national firm can destroy a strong person, Company shows how the destruction machine works. The two books are complementary as they describe the same reality but from a different perspective. I really recommend to read them together, 1 + 1 = 3 in that case.

PS: I’m so sorry that an Australian writer can describe office life in France in a book that is set in America. That’s called the “globalization of management techniques and financial doctrines”

The guy next grave

May 10, 2011 22 comments

Grabben i graven bredvid by Katarina Mazetti. French title : Le mec de la tombe d’à côté. 1998. 254 pages. English title : Benny & Shrimp. (I don’t speak Swedish but I guess that the French title is the exact translation of the Swedish.)

Katarina Mazetti is a Swedish writer born in 1944. Le mec de la tombe d’à côté – I’ll keep the French title since it’s the right one – was published in 1998 in Sweden and its French translation was published in paperback in 2009. She sold 400 000 copies in France, it was made into a theatre play and should be made into a French film. A huge success. I picked it by chance, during one of my visits to a bookstore.  

Desiree is in her thirties and her husband Örjan died five months ago from a stupid bike accident. “I feel let down that Örjan went and died. (…) Örjan should be feeling let down, too. All that tai chi, organic potato and polyunsaturated fat. What good did it do him?”  Several times a week, she spends her lunch break on his grave, thinking. Benny does the same on his mother’s grave, next to Örjan’s.

Örjan’s grave is a simple stone with his name and Benny’s parents grave is the kitschest (does that word exist?) grave Desiree’s ever seen. They observe each other with sided glances and don’t like what they see. Here’s Desiree seeing Benny for the first time:

A few weeks ago I saw the bereaved by monstrosity for the first time. He was a man of about my age, in a loud, quilted jacket and a padded cap with earflaps. Its peak went up at the front, American-style, and had a logo saying FOREST OWNERS’ ALLIANCE. (…) He had a funny smell and only three fingers on his left hand. 

And Benny’s exasperation at finding Desiree there, on the bench near the grave:

And then she’s there.

Faded, like some old colour photo that’s been on display for years. Dried-out blonde hair, a pale face, white eyebrows and lashes, wishy-washy pastel clothes, always something vaguely blue or beige. A beige person.  

Things change on a misinterpretation of a smile on both sides and they start a relationship. We progressively discover their life and their past as they struggle through their affair.

The problems are Cultural Difference and Education Difference. Desiree is a librarian. She likes classical music, reading (obviously), going to the opera, discussing books and philosophy. Benny is a dairy farmer. He likes pop songs, TV, popular films and reads The Farmer. There’s something between them they can’t explain (Desiree says her ovaries loop the loop) 

Written like this, it sounds corny. But it isn’t. Desiree is repressed and her marriage with Örjan was peaceful, egalitarian and intellectually interesting. It lacked passion and fun though. To me, being married to Örjan seemed as funny as being married to a golden fish. Desiree’s parents are alive but her mother is ill and doesn’t recognise her any more and her father doesn’t care for her. She’s alone and lonely. She hardly lets herself feel anything.

Benny’s parents were loving and more openly affectionate. His background is louder, more traditional too. He isn’t stupid; he had good grades in school. But he dropped out of school when his father died to take over the farm. Benny could sound misogynistic but he didn’t to me. Katarina Mazetti captured very well the life of a dairy farmer and the difficulty to meet someone who’s willing to live this life. It’s close to slavery because the cows must be milked twice a day. And they can’t wait. You need to be at home for them whatever happens in your personal life. And you need to be thorough because the milk is tested and the whole tank is wasted if the results are bad. You can’t afford to waste a whole tank, money is tight. You’re alone and you must face calving cows, out-of-order farming machines and all kinds of problems. Benny works A LOT, like dairy farmers do. So when he says he expects his wife to take care of the house, it’s more because he doesn’t have time to do it than because it’s a woman’s task. He’s very frustrated that his city girl-friend can’t cook meat balls. (Thanks to IKEA, the whole world knows that Swedish like meat balls) He’s looking for a partner, someone who shares his problems and helps him in case of emergency. It sounds sensible as a basis for a long-term relationship. The difficulty is that his emergencies are hard to handle for a city woman. They involve mud, dirty green overalls and wake-up calls in the middle of the night. Desiree thinks: “I tried to imagine myself in his life. But no picture came to my mind”   

When Desiree tries to have him into her life, he gets bored or falls asleep, exhausted. She’s frustrated too. They need to hire two videos on Saturday nights, one for him and she does something else during the film and one for her and he usually bores himself to sleep. It’s the symbol of their couple. 

Is their relationship doomed to failure?  

I really enjoyed this book. It sounds simplistic and déjà-vu but it raises the eternal questions: what are you willing to give up for your lover? How far can you go to adapt to his/her way of life? Does it work on the long run? Do you need to share the same background, have similar tastes? Örjan and Desiree were a modern couple, sharing tasks, common values and but they weren’t that happy. I understand Desiree’s reaction – I couldn’t help in fields or with cows, I’m not build that way – and I also understand what Benny wishes for in a wife. I won’t tell the ending, it surprised me. It’s also a nice portrait of a contemporary dairy farmer, really true to life. I know one, I can tell.

I have to admit that the French cover is mawkish and if it hadn’t been published by Actes Suds, I wouldn’t have picked up the book to read the blurb. Once more, the English title has nothing to do with the original one. Why? For a reference to Frankie & Johnny? Benny & June? Marketing is always stronger than the respect of the artist’s idea. I hope Mazetti agreed to this title.

Something else about the English version. I downloaded a sample on my kindle for the quotes and was surprised to discover that this American version pushed the mawkishness to start Désirée’s chapters with embroidering pattern and Benny’s chapters with a cow pattern, in case you forgot he’s a farmer. I wonder why Désirée doesn’t have a book  pattern since she’s a librarian. Is it too feminist to think she too could have a reference to her job instead of her sex? I suggest that Benny have an axe pattern, isn’t that a man’s job to cut wood?

Katarina Mazetti wrote a sequel translated into French, Caveau de famille (The Family Tomb). As far as I know, it hasn’t been translated into English. Yet. After my terrible experience with the sequel of Love Virtually — My 2011 winner of the stupidest title, so far — I’m going to skip on Caveau de famille.  

Charming Mass-Suicide by Arto Paasilinna

May 6, 2011 22 comments

Hurmaava Joukkoitsemurha by Arto Paasilinna. 1990. 291 pages. French title : Petits suicides entre amis. Not translated into English. I’ve asked to a Finnish acquaintance, the original title means Charming Mass-Suicide.

Arto Paasilinna is a Finnish writer born in 1942 who writes in Finnish and has already published around twenty novels. Several of them have been translated into French and only one in English (The Year of the Hare). Petits Suicides entre amis is the first novel of my EU book tour.

Midsummer’s Day in Finland, by a lake, late 1980s. When Onni Rellonen goes bankrupt for the fourth time, his properties are about to be seized by a bailiff. As his marriage is also a failure, he decides to commit suicide in a remote barn in the area of his summer cottage. He arrives there just in time to save Colonel Hermanni Kemppainen who had started to hang himself in the barn. The two men start chatting, decide to postpone their suicide and come back to  Rellonen’s cottage. They spend some time together, befriend, talk a lot and realize that there are probably other Finnish suicidal persons who would need someone to talk to. They decide to help them by placing the following advertisement in a newspaper: 

DO YOU CONSIDER SUICIDE?

Don’t panic, you’re not alone.

Several of us share the same idea and even a beginning of experience. Write to us and tell us shortly about your situation, we might be able to help you. Enclose your name and address and we will contact you. All the data gathered will be considered as strictly confidential and will not be communicated to anyone. Serious applications only.

Please send your answer at Poste Restante, Central Post Office, Helsinki under the nom de code “Let’s try together”.

Rellonen and Kemppainen are flabbergasted to receive over 600 answers. They decide they need help, if possible from someone used to clerical work. This is how they end up fetching Helena Puusaari, whose letter was among the 600 answers. Answering to everyone would have taken a lot of time and they end up sending an invitation to a symposium about suicide in Helsinki. The meeting is a success and the most decided to commit suicide end up in a coach driven by a suicidal tourist coach driver. 

They head up to Northern Norway to commit suicide together by driving the coach into the sea from a high cliff. Will this trip be the end of their journey on this Earth? 

Only the book will tell. It’s a pretext for Arto Paasilanni to describe all kinds of desperate persons, from the beaten woman –a classic, I’m afraid–to the original mink-breeder. We meet a worn-out peasant, a drunken Sunday sailors, an AIDS-stricken woman, a crazy aviator. It’s also an opportunity to nail some problems of the Finnish society and point out the faults of our dehumanised Western societies. Sometimes he’s very harsh with his country, like here:

The travellers sighed with delight when they saw the bright villages and their cosy houses. They thought that if a thousand citizens of the Finnish suburbs settled here, the touristy sites of this romantic tour would be covered with graffiti within twenty-four hours and all the colourful buildings – ornate detached houses, fences around churches, winepresses–would be kicked until demolition. The old ladies by hard-hit by wars would meet the same fate.

That’s not exactly the image I had of Finnish citizens.  

After the decision to die is taken, it’s as if the participants can now live more fully. Who cares about smoking, drinking too much or eating junk food? They can afford reckless behaviours; they’re headed to death anyway soon and might as well enjoy the trip. They are liberated from their fears as they don’t care about tomorrow. The underlying question is “Can we live by the Carpe Diem phrase only if we know that today is one of our last days?”  

It’s all written with a ferocious sense of humour and some passages are really funny. Of course, black humour is best suited for the circumstances.

When he placed the advertisement in the newspaper office, the president Rellonen was forced to pay cash. The clerk, after reading the text, decided he couldn’t risk sending an invoice whose ultimate payment was obviously so doubtful.

The co-travelers are always named “the desesperate”, the “suicidals”. They create a charity named “The Anonymous Mortals”. There are play-on-words or allusions about death scattered all along the novel. For example, when they cross the border between Finlandand Norway, the driver throws to the customs officer “Those who are about to die greet you”.

I enjoyed reading this book to to discover the Finnish way of life. Of course, it’s a European country and we have things in common. However, some habits remain exotic for a French woman. When Rellonen and Kemppainen go back to Rellonen’s cottage near the lake, they prepare the sauna and spend time there, chatting and unwinding. The characters have childhood memories of moments spent in saunas with their families. I also noticed that the fear of an invasion from the USSR came back several times in the text. The book was written before the USSR collapsed but it sounded like an enrooted fear. Here are the opening lines of the novel:

The most formidable enemies of the Finnish people are melancholy, sadness and apathy. An unfathomable weariness hovers over this miserable people and submits them under its yoke pushing their souls towards bleakness and seriousness. The weigh of pessimism is such that many see in death the only remedy to their anguish. Spleen is an opponent more relentless than the USSR.

On a lighter note, I wondered what a sauté of reindeer is like and I read about fish I’d never heard of. What surprised me is the way the suicidals enjoy camping. Camping seemed natural to them. It wouldn’t be for Frenchmen. You couldn’t make a bunch of French people drive in a coach, sleep in tents, catch their own salmons and smoke them for the next meals. They would rant, miss their beds or their TV and run into the first shops they encounter. Look at camp grounds in France, they’re  like small cities. They’re not aimed at experiencing life in wilderness like in American parks or here in Finland, they’re aimed at providing cheap housing for summer holidays.

To conclude,  I wouldn’t say it’s the book of the century but starting my EU book tour by a road-movie novel was entertaining. Btw, if Anglophone readers are interested, this novel was made into a film (Sensational Groupe Suicide) and it’s available on Amazon UK.

 

Take a walk on the money side

May 3, 2011 24 comments

Money by Martin Amis. (1981) 394 pages.

Maybe money is the great conspiracy, the great fiction. The great addiction too: we’re all addicted and we can’t break the habit now. There’s not even anything very twentieth century about it, except the disposition. You can’t kick it, that junk, even if you want to. You can’t get the money monkey off your back.  

Last year, I read Dead Babies and Money was a recommendation. As I regretted no to have read Dead Babies in English, I bought Money in the original. A mistake maybe, but more about this later. Now, the book.

 John Self is the narrator. He’s 35, single, lives a relationship based on a sex-versus-money trade with a hot and venal woman named Selina. He’s a Londoner publicist who’s about to shoot a movie in America. He’s famous for trashy commercials advertising junk food and he turned his personal expertise in pornography into a juicy business. Some of his commercials were even censored. His idea of a script has been bought by Fielding Goodney, an American middleman who’s in charge with finding money and actors to shoot the movie. John flies back and forth from London to New York to meet with Fielding and play his part in the project.

We follow him in meetings, choosing the actors and reading the script of the film. Amis vividly pictures the insecurity of actors, their eccentric way of life, their need to be loved and worshipped. Each actor has specificities and wants to take advantage of them in the film. Each actor tries to influence the scenario in order to put forward their strength and hide their weaknesses. John spends his time in diplomatic missions to make these egotistic personalities work together.

Caduta Massi is the ageing actress with no children but show-off motherly instincts. Lorne Guyland is the model of the ageing actor who still wants to play sexy parts and insists on shooting nudity scenes.

Butch Beausoleil is the typical young actress who claims she has more brains than you imagine but is stupid anyway. She’s the kind of girl who says she already had two abortions this year but doesn’t know how she got knocked up this time as she was convinced to be sterile.

Spunk Davis is the perfect illustration of the star-to-be coming from a poor neighbourhood, reborn Christian, at first full of principles.  

Back to our narrator. John Self, what kind of name is that? A John Doe replaced by Self for selfish, self-centred? Or is it a I’m-just-myself claim, like a slogan for a commercial? His way of life is a hodgepodge of pornography, booze and laziness. He’s so deep into pornography and paid sex that I wonder if his name deserves a capital letter. He’s materialistic (he loves money), violent (he casually explains he has just quit hitting women), misogynistic (women are sex toys), vulgar (porn magazines are the only ones he reads) and illiterate (ah the glorious passage about Animal Farm!!). He’s everything but a catch.

He only cares about money. All his relationships are based upon money. It’s his safety zone. No problem with that, he thinks, you know where you are. So he thought. His father taught him that. Martina Twain is his only relationship not based on money. She challenges him, buys him books and only meets him if he’s sober. She has an inherited wealth; she oozes money but doesn’t find it fascinating as she’s never been short of money. I wonder what Martina sees in John Self. A puppy, a child who needs her help? Or does she just have the classic attraction of women for bad boys and the also very classic temptation to reform the said bad boy?  

John’s childhood memories are scattered in the novel, generally after a hammering hangover. His mother died of melancholy, like a heroin of a Romantic novel. She was American and never got used to Great-Britain. John was shipped in New Jersey to live with his aunt when his mother died. Then she shipped him back to London, where everything seemed smaller. His father is a jerk who runs a pub. He’s a gambler and also into pornography. Money is his religion too; once when he was broke, he billed John for the money he spent on his education. With these two parents, what chance did John have to escape self-loathing, violence and love of money? Not a lot, right? After all this, the reader starts to sympathise with John despite his flaws. 

Through John’s eyes, we also visit New York before Giuliani, the New-York of the Velvet Underground. His business partner Fielding has him slumming in all kinds of neighbourhoods. He walks a lot in NY, it’s a city to explore on foot. His description of LA is also spot on as far as walk is concerned:

The only way to get across the road is to be born there. All the ped-xing signs say DON’T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of Los Angeles, don’t walk. Stay inside. Don’t walk. Drive. Don’t walk. Run! I tried the cabs. No use. The cabbies are all Saturnians who aren’t even sure whether this is a right planet or a left planet. The first thing you have to do, every trip, is teach them how to drive.

In New York, he watches strip dancers, goes into sex shops, drinks heavily. The night is longer than in London where pubs closed at 11pm at the time, if I’m correct. He runs on coffee, booze, handjobs, pornography, fags and greasy junk food. He drinks himself dead, passes out and doesn’t remember which day it is or what he did of his night.  

Beware spoilers: skip the following paragraph if you haven’t read the book.

I thought the plot a little weak sometimes. I had guessed that Selina was sleeping with Ossie and I was disappointed to have guessed right. I’m also disappointed by the ending, a little too moral for me. John Self sorts of feel better without money and has found a Georgina who loves him for who he is? Isn’t this a little too conventional?

I was suspicious when reading, wondering where John Self had met this Fielding. The plot of his movie sounded far from fascinating. I thought the money poured over his head a little too easily and an alarm bell rang in my mind when I saw John signing contracts without reading them. I was suspicious but I hadn’t guessed it was a swindle. Like John, I saw the clues but misinterpreted them. Well, that’s the story of our lives; we run into clues but misinterpret them and make ill-founded decisions.

Earlier I said John played his part in the project. It should have been read literally as it was a setup, a show. His car is a Fiasco, the perfect name for his ride through life. He has played by rules he never knew existed and drove himself out of the road. Isn’t it what happens when you’re an outsider in the world of money? Or did he just play recklessly like during his chess game with Martin Amis?

If you have skipped the previous paragraph, you can resume reading now.

Martin Amis has a gift to encapsulate the flavour, the scent of a time. He’s smart and lucid, as I expect a real artist to be. In 1981, he felt the turnaround of the 80es and how money, sex, junk food, the want of fame would invade our societies. He also understood that language would become less formal. 30 years later, we have junk food everywhere, even in France. People are overweighed from fatty food. Pornography is an industry, porn stars are known from the public now. People spill out their lives in lousy talk-shows; I always wonder how they look their baker in the eyes after that.

John Self personalizes how the 80s pushed vulgarity and illiteracy on the front of the stage, a trend that never changed since and reaches its apogee in today’s reality shows. They encompass everything: money, sex and fame at any cost, including humiliation if need be. The more stupid and illiterate you are, the best chances you have to be invited in dumb TV shows. And everything has to be a show for people with limited concentration capacities. Politics is a show and it started in the 80s, with publicists working for politicians. Polls make decisions instead of politicians.

The Western Alliance is in poor shape, I’m told. Well what do you expect? They’ve got an actor and we’ve got a chick. More riots in Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, the inner cities left to rot or burn. Sorry, boys, but the PM has PMT.

The show goes on with the narration: John Self talks to the readers, feels their looks on him. He’s performing a show too. He’s watching us watching him. The whole novel is constructed around boomeranged looks. The reader looks at John who looks at John the reader. Martin Amis observes John who observes Martin Amis.

Some sentences are constructed in a sort of vache-qui-rit pattern, they spiral, like here in this description of London:

The car and I crawled cursing up the street to my flat. You just cannot park round here any more. Even on a Sunday afternoon you just cannot park here any more. You can doublepark on people: people can doublepark on you. Cars are doubling while houses are halving. House divide, into two, into four, into sixteen. If a landlord or a developer comes across a decent-sized room he turns it into a labyrinth, a Chinese puzzle. The bell-button grills in the flakey porches look like the dashboards of ancient spaceships. Rooms divide, rooms multiply. Houses split – houses are tripleparked. People are doubling also, dividing, splitting. In double trouble we split out losses. No wonder we’re bouncing off the walls.

I saw the designs repeated in the novel: the observation of the weather and the sky in particular, the Polish uprising led by Lech Walesa, the wedding of Charles and Diana, John’s aching tooth, the economic crisis in Great-Britain. They were a kind of Ariadne’s clew along the novel. Like in Dead Babies, Amis lets you know he’s pulling the strings of the story. He puts up a good show of him as a writer too. It isn’t serious; it’s more a way to enlighten the reader, to make him aware that writers manipulate them. You don’t forget that what you’re reading isn’t true; you’re reading someone’s work of art. And in work of art, there the word “work”. Never forget that, Amis seems to say.

Two strange things happened while I was reading Money, as if the style of the novel had backfired on me. Firstly, I read most of it during the weak William and Kate got married, an event difficult to avoid, even in France. I don’t want to think what it must have been in Great-Britain. I was hearing of this wedding a lot everywhere –TV, covers of magazines, people talking in shops…– and at the same time I was reading John Self hearing a lot about Charles and Diana’s wedding in cabs, shops, TV and covers of magazines. The novelist Martin Amis entered into his character’s life and his character entered into mine. It was as if the mirror effects he had designed in his book had sprung into my everyday life as an ultimate way to involve his reader into the story. Weird and powerful.

Secondly, I was reading Money and at the same time writing the post on Witches’ Sabbath. I couldn’t help seeing similarities between Maurice Sachs and John Self, between a real man and a fictional character too, like Amis/Self in Money. Again, the frontier between reality and fiction was blurred. Sachs’s life permeated into my reading and his worn-out tone interfered with my vision of John Self. Instead of laughing at/with John, I found him sad. I already thought that Dead Babies was sad.

After all, what do I think about this book? I tell you my friend, this wasn’t an easy read. No, Money wasn’t an easy read. I was often bored and I can’t define why. Perhaps the two effects I just described spoiled the book for me. Perhaps the difficulty of the language prevented me from enjoying the fun, although I really laughed sometimes. I certainly missed tons of references and play-on-words. You might have to be British to fully appreciate it. Amis is really talented; his descriptions of people and situations are often funny.

Then it hit me: stress – perhaps I need stress! Perhaps a good dose of stress is just what I’m crying out for. I need bereavement, blackmail, earthquake, leprosy, injury, penury… I think I’ll try stress. Where can you buy some?

Or

His head looked like a fudge sundae – I swear to God, he could have put a spoon in his ear and a maraschino cherry on his crown and looked no worse.

Hilarious, isn’t it? I know I’m talking about a major, nasty and funny book and I won’t contest this assertion. Yet, I didn’t have a lot of pleasure reading it.

PS : For Guy’s review, click here

When our qualities are off wandering, what can we do with ourselves?

May 1, 2011 27 comments

Le Sabbat by Maurice Sachs (302 pages) 1939. English title : Witches’ Sabbath.

I was interested in reading Maurice Sachs’s memoirs, Le Sabbat after enjoying his Au Temps du Boeuf sur le Toit, which I reviewed here. As Guy Savage was interesred too, we coordinated and read it at the same time. So another post is published on his blog.  I recommend to read his review as it will show these memoirs in another light.

 Maurice Sachs was born in 1906, in a bourgeois family in Paris. He was of Jewish origin but never went to the synagogue. He has few memories of his childhood, except his English nurse Suzy and his wish to be a girl. His parents were divorced, he was living with an indifferent mother (very close to the character of Mrs Farrange in What Maisie Knew, now that I think of it) and never heard about his father after he left. He was sent to boarding school where he learnt nothing useful but read a lot and definitely accepted to be gay. Back from school, he spent a few years with his newly-wed mother. He lived his first true love with a boy named Oscar, a feeling he says he’d struggle to relive all his life.

When his mother inherited a large sum, she decided to manage it herself and went bankrupt. His world collapsed and he helped her evading to Great-Britain to avoid prison for debts. He was 15 when it happened, was left alone and had to fend for himself as almost all their acquaintances turned their back on him. After a while, he decided to join his mother in London, where he worked for a twelve-month as a bookseller. He chose to come back to France in 1922. He was only 16.

1922 was a turning point in his life.

Le Maurice Sachs louche, fuyant, combinard, ivrogne, prodigue, désordre, curieux, affectueux, généreux et passionné, ce Maurice Sachs qui s’est formé toujours un peu malgré moi, mais avec ma complicité et qui a donné ce personnage parfois répugnant, souvent attachant, auquel je donne tant d’importance parce qu’il est quand même moi, (…) ce Maurice Sachs dont j’espère qu’il écrit ici avec cette main qui est la sienne et la mienne la confession qui clôt un cycle de notre vie, date vraiment de ces premiers jours de l’année 1922 quand je revins d’Angleterre.

This Maurice Sachs who is shady, elusive, a real schemer, a drunkard, untidy, curious, loving, generous and passionate; this Maurice Sachs who grew up in spite of me but with my complicity and who turned into that repulsive but sometimes touching character and to whom I’m so attached because he is me anyway (…); this Maurice Sachs who writes this confession that closes a period of our life and hopefully writes it with this very hand that is both his and mine; this Maurice Sachs really dates back to those early days of 1922 when I came back from England. Chapter 9

In 1922, he started partying in Paris; it was the time of Au Boeuf sur le Toit, a place where the golden youth of that time used to hang out. He was part of Cocteau’s crowd and he adored him like an idol. He was his fan, worshipping the ground Cocteau walked on. He was 16 and had the same enthusiasm for Cocteau than a nowadays teenager could have for a rock star.

Thanks to Cocteau, Maurice Sachs met Jacques Maritain, a Catholic devout. He changed of guru, converted to Catholicism, planned to become a priest and got in a seminary. No one seemed more ill-fitted for seminary life than him. (apart from Casanova maybe?). After a few months of happiness and peace in blissful rituals, strict routine and soothing prayers, chastity became a burden. He left the seminary.

He was due to military service and had to spend 18 months as a soldier. He didn’t want to be an officer. He rather enjoyed life in the army, which is highly improbable for someone not so keen on discipline. There was no such rule as “Don’t ask, don’t tell” but he thought it more prudent to hide he was gay and manfully survived through his relationship with a girl who had elected him as her man of the moment. The other soldiers thought he was lucky, it was impossible to refuse such a gift.

Back to civilian life, he came back to Paris and had an awful meeting with André Gide. He worked as a librarian for Coco Channel, tried to be part of the high society of the Boulevard Saint Germain, always spending more that he could afford and thus always running after money.

After a while, he shipped himself to New York to manage an art gallery. A failure. Introduced in the NY society, he was hired as a speaker for a tour of the USA. During that tour, he met Gwladys, who wanted to get married to liberate from her parents and leave her little town of Morpheus. On a whim, Sachs proposed to her and she accepted. They got married in Morpheus after he converted to their Presbyterian faith. Unsurprisingly, the whole marriage turned into a big failure and he abandoned her. It was the kind of departure where the guy goes out to buy cigarettes and never comes back. Sachs writes “I had married her like a crazy man; I left her like a coward”.

In California he met Henry; they fell passionately in love and Maurice Sachs persuaded him to come back to Paris with him. After a few months of happiness in the country near Chartres, they were back to Paris. Their come back was a slow go down into the underworld of poverty. They were filthy poor, lived in a dump hotel, the Hôtel Saint-Joachim, among a strange crowd of semi-artists. Maurice Sachs drank heavily and spent his time chasing after money.

When Maurice Sachs wrote his memoirs, in 1939, he was only 33. Really young to write memoirs. I think he wrote this book when he was in rehab for alcoholism. It’s an exorcism. He tries to slough off his former self, the hateful Maurice Sachs who, as quoted before, was born in 1922. He wants it to be a resurrection, at 33, the age Jesus was when he died and resurrected. I’m not sure it is a coincidence.

Maurice Sachs had no moral roots, no principles. He just grew up like a weed. He was lazy, crazy, always making a fool of himself and always full of himself too. No idea of grandeur was foreign to him. That same grandeur that turned men into heroes during WWII turned him into a weed. His male models were either weirdos, debauchees or saints. He never compared himself to average men, to reachable models.

He was aware of his vices and aimed at virtue but he lacked persistence and temperance. Words like “decency”, “integrity” or “honesty” were in his dictionary but as a vague ideal he couldn’t reach for himself. This book can only foresee what he would do during WWII, black market, work for the Gestapo. As long as there was money to be earned, no moral issue could get in the way.

He drank heavily, tried drugs. And yet, with all this, he managed to be a member of the prestigious reading committee of the NRF (Nouvelle Revue Française) He always kept in touch with the literary world. How charismatic, witty and intelligent he must have been for people to help him along the way despite his despicable flaws. In the last years of these memoirs, he had started to write plays and novels but he doesn’t talk about his literary work.

For some reason, the guy was incapable to work. He could have been a waiter, a cleaner or whatever instead of living in misery in a dump hotel. It seems that having a regular job was impossible to him. He was too snob, too lazy for that. He had so much pride and blinded confidence in luck and in his personal qualities. He was a gambler. He gambles his life, bet on his qualities and always expected a turnaround of luck.

Maurice Sachs was a homosexual and I appreciated how he casually describes his sexual preferences in this book, although it was still a crime at the time. His lack of moral education was an advantage on that field. He was never taught to think homosexuality as a deviance. Cocteau was homosexual too and so was Proust. He knew he wasn’t alone and had great models in mind.

I thought his memoirs a little dry; I would have liked more anecdotes or thoughts about society and “l’air du temps”. I enjoyed the chapter about Proust and Albert, the model for Jupien. The description of Morpheus is really vivid and the other inhabitants of the Hôtel Saint-Joachim are depicted in a colourful manner. Sachs had a real literary style, rather close to Kessel for example. They were from the same generation and the reader can feel the imprint of the time. The syntax is still traditional; he uses the “imparfait du subjonctif”, a past tense nobody uses any more. It’s not heavy, it’s formal, more formal than Gary’s first short stories I read lately. He sounds a bit old fashioned too, like when he uses such expressions as “the age of manhood”. It would also be interesting to compare his style to Saint-Exupéry’s, another writer of that generation. As shown in the next quote, Sachs could write well but he was not innovative.

Je revois la commode bien polie et je ne sais quelle odeur de confort me monte aux narines, comme si le salon sentait le pain frais; quel appétit me revient du poulet du dimanche que l’on mange le cœur content.

I recall the well-polished drawers and a scent of comfort reaches my nostrils as id the living-room smelled of fresh bread; I’m reminded of Sunday chicken that one eats with a contented heart and a heartily appetite. (chapter 13)

I translated the quotes and I found Sachs really hard to translate into English. Curiously, Sachs mentions that being a writer was the first career path he thought of. Writing was important to him but he seldom evokes his literary work but for the last chapters.

There is a lot of name dropping in this book. It didn’t bother me, it came naturally to Maurice Sachs. He lived in the literary world and literature was the one and only topic he really studied.

His work is full of literary references: he sees himself as a Balzacian heroe, as a new Julien Sorel. Proust is hovering over his shoulder as THE model, I think. He’s hidden in that sentence “C’est pourquoi elle était revenue y terminer ses jours pour tenter to recapture the past The English translation would be “She came back to end her life here in an attempt to recapture the past. In English, Time Recaptured is the last volume of In Search of Lost Time... The following quote reminds me of Candide by Voltaire:

Il faut être son propre jardinier : arracher ses mauvaises herbes, faire côte à côte avec soi-même le terrible chemin et quand on se dégoûte trop, suer les odeurs mauvaises, travailler, travailler jusqu’à ce que l’âme soi nette. Car il ne faut se remettre à personne le nettoyage de son être, à Personne. Sur cette route solitaire et brûlante, il y a pourtant des poteaux indicateurs. Il faut les examiner, suivre certains indications, repartir. Personne en chemin, personne à l’arrivée ; quelques bras tendus sur la route. You have to be your own gardener: pull out your weeds, walk the dreadful path side by side with yourself and when you’re disgusted with yourself, sweat out the bad smells and work, work until your soul is all cleaned up. Because you can’t rely on anybody to clean up your soul. On Nobody. On this lonely and scorching path, there are road signs though. You need to watch them carefully, follow some of the instructions, resume walking. Nobody on the way, nobody at the arrival; some arms held on the road. Chapter 13

Doesn’t Mlle Viaud who lives in the Hôtel Saint-Joachim look like La Cousine Bette?

J’y trouvais Mlle Viaud, une petite noiraude au visage tanné, aux mains sèches, qui faisait de la couture mais était l’âme des potins qui circulaient d’étage en étage avec une incroyable rapidité. Here I found Mademoiselle Viaud, petite, dark-haired with a tanned face, dry hands, who used to sew but was the soul of the gossips that circulated from stair to stair at an incredible speed. (chapter 32)

When he’s in the army, his lover’s name is Lisbeth and she sorts of force him into the relationship. Does he think himself as the Stanislas that Lisbeth (La Cousine Bette) loves and who has to put up with it? Is Lisbeth her real name or was it just for the literary reference?

Sachs also plays with words and knowing Guy was reading the English translation, I often wondered how the translator had fared with specific passages or translated double meanings of words. Here is an example at the end of chapter 14:

Tout en nous croit en elle, comme tout de nous a crû neuf mois en elle du jour de la fécondation” (All in us believes in her, like all of us have grown nine months in her from the day of fertilization). Sachs plays with the conjugation of “croire” (believe) and “croître” (grow). So the sentence could also be translated as All in us grows in her, like all of us have believed in her from the day of fertilization. Only the ^ on “cru” lets the reader know that the first meaning is the good one. Orally, the sentence can be understood in both ways.

I’d be curious to know what the translator did with “J’aurais aimé la voix d’une femme qui dit “mon ami” et qui veut dire “mon amant”, ce vouvoiement qui tutoie” (chapter 18) , which means I would have loved the voice of a woman who says “my friend” and means “my lover”, addressing to me as a “tu” but saying “vous”. In French, “mon ami” can be used for friend, lover or partner. Only the inflection of the voice can tell you what the person intends to say.

Like Rousseau in Les Confessions, Sachs is looking for the reader’s compassion. Though he doesn’t show any indulgence for his vices and never tries to present himself as a victim, he wants the reader to forgive him all the things he has done. I didn’t find Maurice Sachs likeable because of his unquenchable need for money combined with his laziness. Post Office was a novel about a drunkard and Bukowski is not a model for virtue. But he worked hard in that post office, enduring horrendous hours and dreadful working conditions. Maurice Sachs was never able to keep a position for long without taking advantage of it. Of course, you can always argue that he had a miserable childhood and that no one really took care of him during his formative years. That’s an explanation, not an excuse.

In the 1960s, Maurice Sachs would have been Jim Morrison, enjoying fame, money, sex, booze and drugs while dreaming of being Rimbaud or some other literary model.

In the 1980s, he would have been a well-read John Self, the fictional character of Money by Martin Amis. With his rotten background, he would have written commercials, enjoyed money, sex, booze, cocaine and would have died of AIDS before the end of the decade.

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