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Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

June 29, 2011 13 comments

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom. 1980.

On the day that Inni Wintrop committed suicide, Philips shares stood at 149.60. The Amserdam Bank closing rate was 375, and Shopping Union had slipped to 141.50. Memory is like a dog that lies down where it pleases. And that was what he remembered, if he remembered anything: the markets reports, and that the moon shone on the canal and that he had hanged himself in the bathroom because he had predicted, in his own horoscope in Het Parool, that his wife would run off with another man and that he, a Leo, would then commit suicide. It was a perfect prediction. Zita ran off with an Italian, and Inni committed suicide. He had read a poem by Bloem, too, but he could not remember which one. The dog, arrogant beast, let him down on this point.

This is the opening paragraph of Rituals. I was hooked.  

Inni Wintrop is the main character of Rituals. He walks his nonchalance on leash and through his existence and we, reader meet him at three turning-points of his life: first in 1963 when his wife Zita leaves him, second in 1953 flash-back when he first meets Arnold Taads and in 1973 when Philip Taads, Arnold’s son crosses his life. The events are described through Inni’s point of view, not that there are many events in this novel. 

The rituals evoked in the book title are the ones we attend or create for ourselves to make our life bearable. Inni’s first rituals were the ones of Catholic mass until they were damaged by an accident: the priest had a stroke and broke the smoothness of the ritual forever. Inni has a compulsory relationship with women. After his unforgettable sex episode with Petra in 1953, he will try to find that moment again, meeting prostitutes and having flings whenever he can, married or not married. It becomes one of his rituals too.

Arnold Taads is a misanthropist who hates himself. Life is unbearable to him and he divides his days into defined periods of times to cut his suffering in manageable slices of time. He has his own rituals: time to smoke a cigarette, time to read, time to walk the dog…He enjoys solitude and spends his winters in a remote chalet in the Swiss Alps. He needs to walk during six hours in the snow to get some food.

Philip Taads lives a contemplative life in a monastic room of a poor neighbourhood of Amsterdam. His mother was Indonesian. (And there we’re back to the two other Dutch books I’ve read this month) He is attracted to traditional Japanese culture and his ritual is the Japanese tea ceremony. To Inni, this ceremony looks a lot like a part of the Catholic worship. 

The author explores loneliness through the Taads and also the way we have no other choice than to surrender to social rules or live apart in seclusion.   

When reading Nooteboom, I imagined life as an untameable flow. Sometimes Inni manages to swim; sometimes he swallows water and most of the time he takes women as lifebuoys. He hangs onto them. All the images that come to my mind are linked to water, I don’t know why. Rituals is also a novel about memories, in a Proustian sense. Memory isn’t a straight path with defined mileposts. It’s a patchwork of random images and we fail to understand why that event, sensation, image, word stuck into our memory when others flew away, evading us. 

How it was that he could remember poems by heart was a mystery to him, and he often reflected that perhaps he would have done better to learn his life by heart so that in these recurring nocturnal last moments he could at least have watched an orderly film instead of all those loose fragments without a cohesion you might have expected of a life just ended. Perhaps the daily death was so mensely sad because no one was really dying at all. There were only a number of barely connected snapshots at which nobody would ever look.

Nooteboom reminded me of Philippe Djian in Impardonnables. Rituals has the same atmosphere of inevitable catastrophes. Side characters are weird. Like in most novels by Djian, the narrator is also a man who doesn’t know the meaning of his life. He lives from one day to another, selling art pieces, writing horoscopes. He has the same kind of dependence on women than men in Djian’s universe. The sense of humour also recalled me Djian. The scene when Inni is circumcised (he was an adult then, and it was rather painful to read, even for a woman) could have been written by Djian.

Apparently, Inni is a silly name for a Dutchman. To the Frenchwoman I am, it doesn’t sound stranger than Cees, the author’s first name. So I’ll be grateful if someone can decipher for me why Inni is a ridiculous name.  

Rituals is a book to read slowly, in a quiet room, to savour the taste of the words, to hear the music of the phrases and feel the waves of Nooteboom’s thoughts. There is a persistent sadness in that novel, nagging, slipping under the reader’s skin like a sneaking snake. It us one of the best books I’ve read this year so far. I wonder if Inni and Cees are the same person. In 1973, Inni is 40, just like Cees. He has received a strong Catholic education, Nooteboom attended several Catholic schools. They both love poetry.

Like Caroline, Rituals only leaves me hungry to read his other works. Philippe Noble translated Rituelen into French and I think he’s a brilliant translator. His Max Havelaar was already really good and his translation of Nooteboom flows without effort. Btw, I read the first pages of the English translation on Amazon. This is where I took the quotes in English. (Funny, the quote by Theodor Fontane isn’t translated in the English edition whereas it is in the French one.) 

This was my last Dutch book of the month, part of Iris’s month of Dutch Literature.

PS: Caroline reviewe Mokusai! by Cees Nooteboom here

If you want to know more, Stu from Winstondad’s blog  interviewed Cees Nooteboom. Click here

19th Century colonialism and oppression in the Dutch East Indies

June 27, 2011 8 comments

Max Havelaar, Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli. 1860. 400 pages. Brilliant French translation by Philippe Noble.

 Multatuli is the pseudonym of the Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887). It means “I suffered a lot”. Douwes Dekker was born in Amsterdam, son of a sea captain and joined the East Indies Civil Service in 1838. He was involved in several disputes with his superiors but nevertheless got promoted thanks to his intelligence. In 1846, he married Everdine (“Tine”), Baroness van Wijnbergen and they had two children. He didn’t approve of the colonial brutalities towards the natives and eventually resigned from service in 1846. He came back to Europe, living poorly on his writing and endeavouring to improve the situation of the Javanese. Max Havelaar was published in 1860 and is largely based on his own experience. This novel is aimed at putting the situation of the Indonesian under the brightest light as possible to provoke emotion in the public leading to political changes. Multatuli had in mind Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. It is a manifesto without the form of a manifesto. I don’t need to tell more about the plot but I sure want to explore the ideas he exposes and the literary form he chose as the adequate weapon to spread them.  

Multatuli points at the stupid system of paying the native chiefs. The Dutch remunerate them a percentage of the coffee and other raw products they sell to the Netherlands and nothing on dairy products. They are induced to impose on their people the well-paid cultures instead of rice, leading the local population to starvation. Doesn’t that ring a bell?  

Multatuli also dissects the workings of the colonial administration, from down to top. He enlightens the reader on the chain of cowardice and selfishness that ends up in suffering for the Javanese. At each stage of the chain of command, everyone bends their head down and embroiders the reports. The government in La Haye thinks that everything is fine when it isn’t. The statistics are contradictory for someone who would have a closer look at them. But no one really wants to know, they want to believe the lies. It’s more comfortable. The Civil Servants think about their career and try to smother any attempt to change. Multatuli sums up this attitude in describing “the symptoms of the General Governor’s common disease” that affects every Governor of the East Indies.  

First stage. Dizziness. Drunkenness with incense vapours. Arrogance. Excessive self-confidence. Looks down scornfully on other people and especially on “old colonials”. Second stage. Exhaustion. Fear. Discouragement. Drowsiness, need for rest. Excessive confidence in the East Indian Council. Dependence upon the General Secretary. Nostalgia about a country house in the Netherlands.

Between the two stages, as a transition – perhaps because of this transition – dysentery attacks.

He also rebels against the oppression of the Javanese people by the native chiefs with the complicity of the Dutch administration. He describes how the Dutch colonialism takes advantage of the local feudal customs. Peasants are requisitioned to work for free. Their food supplies are requisitioned to feed the chief’s large family. Worse, the buffaloes are requisitioned, leaving the peasants without a means to cultivate the fields. The Dutch civil servants know it and look to the other side, in a laissez-faire attitude, allowing the local chiefs to rob their people. They are accomplice too as they also take advantage of free work to keep up the land surrounding their colonial house.  

He demonstrates how the brutality and the stupidity of the colonial rule can only lead the natives to rebellion. They have nothing to lose. They fight. They are beaten. La Hayes congratulates the military forces who pacified the area. End of story, until despair pushes them to rebellion again.  

Max Havelaar is also a plea against racism, a prayer to consider the Javanese as equals and treat them right.  

What shocked me is how colonialism was justified by priests:

Wavelaar [A priest] said himself that God drives everything in such a way that a rigorous faith leads to wealth. “In truth”, he says “isn’t there a great wealth in the Netherlands? It comes from our faith. Doesn’t France have to face riots from time to time? It’s because the French are Catholic. Aren’t the Javanese poor? They are Pagans. The more the Dutch will deal with the Javanese, the more wealth will flow in here and the more poverty will settle there. Because this is God’s will.”

I’m not religious but as far as I know, the message of Christianity does not include robbing and oppressing poor people. Using religious texts to justify greed and want of power will always make me indignant.  

Multatuli doesn’t go as far as writing that colonialism is a wrong thing and that the European should come back home and let these people live by themselves. Even if he thought about decolonisation (I don’t know if he did), the European societies were not ready to hear that. He would have missed his short-term goal, i.e. to improve the living conditions of the people of Indonesia. He wants to reform colonialism and “only” reveals the absurdity of the system and recalls the readers that it could already be a lot better if the Civil Servants actually did their job and respected the laws.  

Multatuli used several devices to defend his cause in a light and pleasant way. The first device is rather common in literature to introduce a tale. A man, Batavus Droogstoppel, coffee trader in Amsterdam, receives a parcel from a poor man he used to go to school with. It is made of letters, essays and stories. A young German man, Stern, who lives with the Droogstoppel family decides to write a book based on this material. Droogstoppel reminded me of Scrooge (published in 1843). He acts inhumanly, only thinking about money and business. He’s narrow-minded, self-righteous, sure of his good right and his superiority as a Dutchman. He represents the right-thinking bourgeois society of the Netherlands, wrapped up in their blanket of certitudes. Droogstoppel is selfish, prosaic and compassion is totally foreign to him.  

The other devices lay in the mixed style. Multatuli is a satirist; I could feel the influence of the Enlightenment and French writers such as Diderot or Voltaire. In the foreword, the translator says he was influenced by Sterne, but I’ve never read him. His satirist tendency shows up in the names of the characters. According to the footnotes, Droogstoppel means “Dry Thatch”, and another despicable character is named Slymering (Slimy). Multatuli was also influenced by Romanticism and he particularly liked Heine. As a consequence, Max Havelaar is unclassifiable. It includes tales, poems, dialogues, classic narration and satire. It is Voltaire polished with romantic varnish, which is a strange association. Sometimes it works better than others. Sometimes it’s very funny. Eduard Douwes Dekker must have been a witted man. I suppose he’d be proud to know that his Max Havelaar is now the name of an international label for fair trade, which explains the cover of my French edition.  Western consumers, keep your eyes open and buy Max Havelaar products.

This reading is part of my EU Book Tour and contributes to the month of Dutch Reading hosted by Iris.

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As a PS, let’s digress a bit. In the comments on my post about Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, we discussed how religion influence people’s perception of poverty. I argued that in Catholic countries, poverty is a matter-of-fact. It happens. Contrary to Protestant countries, it doesn’t mean that these persons are abandoned by God. They aren’t responsible for being poor and should not be looked down with contempt. The Netherlands are a Protestant country. Here is how Droogstoppel, who speaks in the name of the Dutch society, assesses poverty and charity.

When you have so little for yourself, it is a sin to give to other people. By the way, I never give money on the streets – it is one of my principles – because as I always say when I see poor people: who knows if it’s not their fault, and I don’t have the right to reinforce their error.

This is the exact opposite reaction to a Catholic: it is a great act of faith to give the little you have to poorer than you and you have to do charity. I’m not judging here and saying one religion is better than the other, it’s just a statement. And it’s important because it is deeply rooted in our cultures and somehow explains why Latin (Catholic) and Northern European or American countries (Protestant) have difficulties to understand each other sometimes. Protestants always feel responsible for other people’s souls and assume they have to intervene, like here, Droogstoppel thinks he could comfort someone in their errors. Catholics think you’re responsible for you own salvation and if someone wants to gamble theirs by acting badly, it’s their problem.

Another priceless and chilling piece by Droogstoppel about poverty: “I don’t like poor people, because usually they can only blame themselves for it: the Lord would not turn his back on who served him with loyalty.” Scandalous. End of digression.

Bookaroundthecorner becomes Emma

June 24, 2011 9 comments

After Iris’s comment about not knowing my name and various BATC or Bookaround and fastidious Book Around The Corner, I’ve decided to give myself a first name to make your life easier.

I’ve chosen Emma. Because it’s close to my real first name, because it can be said in French and in English and because Emma Woodhouse is definitely a funny character.

I’m keeping the same Gravatar, I won’t make Mafalda disappear, I’m too fond of her.

See you soon in other posts and comments.

Emma

Categories: Opinion

Unrequited love: from book to play

June 21, 2011 19 comments

Brief einer Unbekannten by Stefan Zweig. 1922. (Letter from an Unknown Woman)

She has no name, he has an initial, R. She’s no one, he’s a famous writer. They live in the same building. At 13, she meets him in the staircase and falls in love with him. Totally, irrevocably and passionately. Love at first sight literally. From that day, she builds her life around him. He will never know it until she writes to him a heartbreaking letter after her son died. She has no reason to live any more.

Her love letter is a canto, a long cry, her testament.

When he receives her letter, she will be dead. Her letter will keep her love alive. She tells everything without any shame, she’s an open book. It’s the story of an uncontrollable passion, according to the Latin etymology of the word: to suffer. Her love is consuming, stubborn and inextinguishable. She loves him unconditionally but not blindly. She observes him and knows his flaws. She gives herself away, whatever the consequences and yet always aware of the consequences. She fully accepts the aftermath of her decisions and never condemn him for his selfish or indifferent behaviour. She adores him with a curious blend of lucidity and worship.

There’s a sort of despair in her love, as if she were doomed to love him. I pitied her but I also tried to walk in the writer’s shoes. How do you recover from such a discovery? After all, he has been spied for years. A woman dedicated her life to him, in the shadow. Isn’t that creepy? It’s a gift so huge it’s a burden for the one who receives it. How can someone repay such a love?

Letter From an Unknown Woman has been made into a theatre play in Paris. Sarah Biasini (Romi Schneider’s daughter) is the woman, Frédéric Andrau is the writer. The text is by Zweig, I recognized the words, the rhythm, the sentences. In the letter, she imagines the writer’s reactions, she talks to him. In the play, these phrases are transformed into dialogues. The two characters interact, the writer reading and walking, choking, nodding or sighing at her words; the woman crying and suffering. It’s vivid but it assumes that his reactions are the ones Zweig says she imagines. However nothing in the book confirms that the reactions she pictures are the right ones. After all, what does she know from him? Only what she observed from a rather remote spot.

The intensity of her feelings and the craziness of her passion were more obvious on stage than in the book. The actors were really good and we were in a tiny theatre. The stage and the actors were perhaps 10 meters away from me, sitting in the fifth rank. I’m always impressed by theatre actors, giving so much of themselves and sometimes so close to the public they must hear us breathe.

It’s a good novella, hard to find in English. I couldn’t find an English version or samples to type a quote or two and give you the flavour the text. Sorry. I think it’s worth reading though.

Indonesia mon amour.

June 16, 2011 9 comments

Sleuteloog by Hella S Haasse. 2002. French title: L’anneau de la clé. Not translated into English. 186 pages.

 This book is part of my EU Book Tour and also my participation to the month of Dutch Literature hosted by Iris. I thought it was my first Dutch book but I remembered later that I had read The Diary of Anne Frank and books by Robert Van Gulik. Anyway. Hella S Haasse was born in 1918 in Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). She has written more than 20 novels, all translated into French but only a few of them are translated into English. She is known for her historical novels and the influence of her childhood in Batavia on her work. She is compared to Marguerite Yourcenar. Rien que ça.  

But back to Sleuteloog

Herma Warner was born in 1920 in Batavia. She is now over 80 and is about to leave her home to live in a nursing house. She and her late husband Tjeerd belong to the last generation of Dutch born in the Dutch West Indies. They were forced to come back to the Netherlands after Indonesia became independent (1949). Both of them spent their lives studying the history and the art of their native country. A journalist contacts Herma. He wants to interview her about the past of an activist named Mila Wychinska. The now called Mila was Herma’s best friend Dee, from her childhood in Indonesia. Herma is reluctant to give information, to remember some painful moments of her past. She gives in and starts writing what she remembers. Soon, she’s overwhelmed by her memories of that friendship and of the Batavia of that time.

When I was reading, I thought about the Pied Noirs (The French settlers in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco). I also thought of Un Barrage contre le Pacifique by Marguerite Duras, for the description of life in the colonies inAsia. I haven’t read it, it is on my TBR but Guy reviewed it. Colonialism had to be fought and all the colonies deserved their independence; it wasn’t fair. That’s history at the scale of a nation. But if we come to history at the scale of a human being, it must have been hard for people who were born there to leave everything behind and come back to a country they didn’t really know. They seemed to miss their town, the climate, the plants, the food and many other things and to feel uprooted. Herma evokes a lost paradise and she was happy to go back to Indonesia for her work.

I suppose Hella S Haasse managed to describe the society of that time and the different attitudes of the Dutch settlers towards the upcoming changes. Some were so optimistic that it was almost stupidity. Some supported the natives in their fight. Some hoped to find a middle ground. I only assume it is a vivid picture of the end of colonialism because I found this book difficult to read for several reasons. My first problem was the characters. Dee’s family tree isn’t big but I had problems remembering who was the son, brother, sister or mother of whom. I suppose I’m not the only one who get confused since there is a family tree at the end of the book.

I know nothing about the history of Indonesia and I struggled to understand what happened before and after the independence. Hella S Haasse chose a non-chronological way to tell Herma and Dee’s story. Herma recalls specific moments and relates them. She goes back and forth in time and it really reproduces the way our mind works. She leaps from one memory to another, letting her mind wander. It’s certainly a good device from a literary point of view. But for an ignorant reader like me, it didn’t help learning something about Indonesia and put events in the right order.

As I’m not Dutch, I don’t know what happened to white people after Indonesia became independent. I assume they were shipped back to the Netherlands. I got that there was something about being a mixed-raced person. Some could choose to become Indonesian and stay there and others had to go, according to some criteria I didn’t catch. I suppose it is part of Dutch history as the fate of the Pied Noirs is part of French history. Without the Dutch background, I didn’t catch all the nuances and missed something about Herma and Dee’s relationship.

Then, there was the irritating constant use of Indonesian words in the text, sometimes several in one page. As a consequence, the translator added a lot of footnotes and it broke the flow of my reading. I understand that an Indonesian word is useful when it covers a notion or a reality without a French word for it. But why write becak when the word cyclo pousse (1) exists? Does that mean that cyclo pousse doesn’t exist in Dutch, leading Hella S Haasse to use the Indonesian word and then the translator to keep the Indonesian to remain faithful to the text? Or are these words commonly used by Dutch people like the French know some Arab words after the Pied Noirs came back to France?  

I think a foreword by the translator explaining the historical context would have been really helpful. I also wonder to what extend it is autobiographical. And then after those difficulties, there was the story. This is a friendship between two people who are very different in character, one really wild and rebel while the other is quiet and respectful of the established order. Rather common. It reminded me of The Last of the Savage by Jay McInerney and I already had a feeling of déjà-vu when I read this one.

All in all, I think it’s a good book in general but not for me in particular. Now I’m reading Max Havelaar and perhaps I should have read it before Sleutehoog. It could have helped for the historical context.

The Mayor of Casterbridge: Lost in translation

June 13, 2011 18 comments

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. 1886.

I didn’t plan to write a whole post about the French translation of The Mayor of Casterbridge but there were so many things to say that it couldn’t be included in the review. I’ve read The Mayor of Casterbridge partly in French and partly in English. I was settled to read it in French but I soon had doubt about the translation. So I downloaded the English original and discovered it wasn’t that difficult to read. Then I switched from one language to the other depending on how lazy or tired I was.

The Mayor of Casterbridge has been translated into French in 1922 by Philippe Neel. There is no recent translation and the book is out-of-print in paperback. It’s strange; usually it’s easy to get English classics in French. Though the translation isn’t outdated in the vocabulary, it belongs to those old translations where first names are translated (Michael Henchard thus became Michel, Susan became Suzanne) and names of places too. (Mixen Lane became La rue du Fumier, Peter’s Finger, le Doigt-de-Pierre and The Three Sailors, Les Trois Matelots). I really don’t like when the translator changes first names but for places, it’s convenient sometimes.

Other things were mysterious in this translation: the months and days of the week had capital letters, like in English but unlike the usual French. Il viendrait Dimanche ou Lundi : is that correct in French? When there were French words in the text, it wasn’t mentioned in the translation, like here:

Sérieusement mon ami, je ne suis pas si folle que ces lignes pourraient vous le faire croire. Seriously, mon ami, I am not so light-hearted as I may seem to be from this.

 Or here,

Ma conscience m’a fait impérieusement sentir la nécessité de vous prier de tenir votre promesse et de dissiper ainsi la brume que mon étourderie a amassée autour de mon nom. I ought to endeavour to disperse the shade which my etourderie flung over my name, by asking you to carry out your promise to me.

I regretted that Philippe Neel didn’t manage to translate the description of Henchard’s face: “The rich rouge-et-noir of his countenance underwent a slight change.” is translated into “Le visage coloré d’Henchard pâlit légèrement”. So many things are lost in this translation: the French words, the reference to Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal (The Red and the Black), and the real colour of his face. The reference to The Red and the Black is important. Hardy uses the image twice (Here his red and black visage kindled with satisfaction) and I don’t think it is a coincidence. There is a likeness between Henchard and Julien Sorel: they are driven by passion and pride. Their relationships with women are crucial in their fate and yet, in spite of them, as they are no womanizers. It would be really interesting to search for the parallels in their destinies but it’s not the point here. However, I liked Henchard better than the deceitful Julien Sorel.

But the major flaw is that the translation fails to give back the accents and some of Hardy’s images. The accents and the patois are why I chose to read Hardy in French, fearing it would be hard to understand for a non-native English speaker. Here is Farfrae talking to Henchard:  

« Oui, mais il n’y a rien à faire » constata l’autre sur un ton de philosophie résignée.. « Il faut écrire à Jersey, et dire nettement et explicitement à cette jeune personne que vous ne pouvez plus l’épouser, puisque votre première femme est de retour ; et que vous ne pouvez plus la revoir… et que vous lui souhaitez d’être heureuse » “Ah, well, it cannet be helped!” said the other, with philosophic woefulness. “You mun write to the young lady, and in your letter you must put it plain and honest that it turns out she cannet be your wife, the first having come back; that ye cannet see her more; and that—ye wish her weel.”

In French, the accent is gone. Farfrae speaks perfect French. Of course, it’s impossible to translate literally the English accent but a “Y faut” instead of “Il faut” or “qu’vous” instead of “que vous” would have let the French reader taste Farfrae’s language. In the original, I noticed two different types of accents/patois, the one coming from geography and the ones coming from social classes. In the English, it is clear that Farfrae (Scottish) and Henchard (English) don’t speak the same way. It’s inaudible in the translation. The difference of accents according to social classes is more commonly used in English literature than in French. Inaudible in French too.

Sometimes the translation betrays the original image. When Hardy writes “She started the pen in an elephantine march across the sheet”, it isn’t flattering for Elizabeth-Jane’s handwriting. When the translator writes La plume parcourait le papier en une marche majestueuse, which literally means The pen ran on the paper like in a majestic march, I think he betrays Hardy’s idea. Elephantine is negative whereas majestic isn’t. Traduttore, traditore.

As always I wonder if there are generally accepted rules for translators about translating names or not, about indicating the foreign words in the text… As always this kind of experience only reinforces my will to improve my English and read the original texts. I also wonder why this wonderful novel doesn’t have a more recent translation. I think it deserves one. I’ve seen that a new edition of The Woodlanders has been released in 2009. Hopefully it’s a new translation.

Sense and sensibility in Wessex

June 11, 2011 23 comments

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. 1886. Translated into French by Philippe Neel (1922)

Michael Henchard is travelling the country with his wife Susan and their baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane. He’s out of work at the moment and is looking for a position as a trusser. They reach a fair and decide to have a meal there and stop by for the night. Henchard gets drunk and sells his wife and daughter to a passer-by, a sailor named Newson. Susan follows Newson with their daughter. Sobered in the morning, Henchard is crushed by guilt and swears not to drink alcohol during the next twenty years. 

Eighteen years later, Newson is lost at sea and Susan decides to go and find Henchard. She has been haunted by remorse for a while, thinking she shouldn’t have left her lawful husband that night. When Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive at Casterbridge, a rich party is given at the Kings Arms Hotel, the finest hotel of the town. They discover that Henchard is now a rich and respected man, the Mayor of Casterbridge. That same night, Donald Farfrae comes to Casterbridge on his way to catch a boat to immigrate to America. Henchard persuades him to stay and hires him as his manager.

We will follow the twists and turns of their intertwined lives. 

Henchard is the main character of the book. He’s driven by passion. He’s impulsive, violent and unpredictable. He flies off the handle easily. His employees are afraid of him because his reactions can’t be foreseen. He makes decisions with his guts, not with his brain. Sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re a disaster. He is loud, with a sledge-hammer directness. He’s excessive in his love and hate. He fancies Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane analyses their relationship:

Her quiet eye discerned that Henchard’s tigerish affection for the younger man, his constant liking to have Farfrae near him, now and then resulted in a tendency to domineer, which, however, was checked in a moment when Donald exhibited marks of real offence.

Henchard isn’t a vile man, he’s even generous. His bad deeds are done in the course of action, on impulse. He can’t act badly in cold blood. We all know that kind of bulls, good-hearted but childish in their behaviour and tiring to live with as they keep you on edge, wondering what their next move will be.

Susan is looking for safety. She has basic needs, like animals. She chooses the path that will lead her to food and shelter and she’s able to lie for it. She has her own sense of right and wrong. She also acts for conscience’ sake, setting things in motion by looking for Henchard. (Like in the short story For Conscience’ Sake, published in 1891.) She’s not very clever and doesn’t fit well in Henchard’s new life, as a notable of Casterbridge.

Elizabeth-Jane is good and pessimistic. In her opinion, she doesn’t deserve to be happy and she should be glad to catch pieces of happiness when she can. She has no other ambition than to live honestly as a good daughter. She’s capable of rebellion though and can take care of herself if needed. Her character is more complex than it seems at first sight. She may be the literary cousin of Jeanne (A Life by Maupassant) but I don’t recall the novel precisely enough to push the comparison. Elisabeth-Jane accepts life as it comes but isn’t passive. She’s a country girl, thinks and behaves like one:

One grievous failing of Elizabeth’s was her occasional pretty and picturesque use of dialect words—those terrible marks of the beast to the truly genteel.

She has what we call in French, “le bon sens paysan”, literally “good sense of the peasant”. Elizabeth-Jane can be compared to Elinor, from Sense and Sensibility although she comes from a lower social class.

Donald Farfrae allies intelligence, goodness and charisma. He will always be grateful that Henchard gave him a chance to start in life and never turns his back on him, whatever happens. As in the short story The Fiddler of the Reels, Farfrae sorts of dazzle people with his songs. (It’s interesting to notice that the fiddler was also Scottish). He’s not openly ambitious but takes on the responsibilities when they arrive. He’s a good employer, stable and trustworthy. He is what Henchard could be if he acted with more sense than sensibility.

As I’m writing about the characters, I realise that women are called by their Christian name whereas men are called by their surname. They’re not their equals, are they? Side characters are briefly portrayed and help Hardy draw a vivid picture of life in Casterbridge, always with his unique sense of humour, like here:

Solomon Longways, Christopher Coney, Buzzford, and the rest of that fraternity, showed their sense of the occasion by advancing their customary eleven o’clock pint to half-past ten; from which they found a difficulty in getting back to the proper hour for several days.

Apart from the story – and it is engrossing, I really wanted to know the ending – The Mayor of Casterbridge is also an fascinating picture of the rural society of that time. Hardy describes the markets and the fair, the customs, the social classes of Casterbridge, the crowd at the pubs and the landscape bearing the imprint of the past (timuli, ruins of Roman edifices). It also depicts the organization of the city: the elections of the Mayor, the local court and the economy. For example, the first sowing machines appear in the country. Hardy also mentions the trade of cereals and the accompanying speculation. After my comment about finance in La Cousine Bette and Max’s post about investments in Proust, the following passage caught my attention:

Yet many [merchants] carried ruffled cheque-books in their pockets which regulated at the bank hard by a balance of never less than four figures. In fact, what these gibbous human shapes specially represented was ready money—money insistently ready—not ready next year like a nobleman’s—often not merely ready at the bank like a professional man’s, but ready in their large plump hands.

So, in Hardy’s mind, there are three different kinds of money depending on your social class and on its degree of liquidity. Interesting.  

I loved The Mayor of Casterbridge. It is one of Hardy’s early works but I found there all the elements I had enjoyed in Life’s Little Ironies. The black and fatalist look Hardy lays on life and people. How people’s lives are sealed by tiny choices or bad reactions at a moment and later call it fate. I really like his subtle sense of humour. As a reader, more than a century later, I can feel his tenderness for the rural society of fictional Wessex and its customs. Definitely a writer I want to explore.

PS: I’ll post my thoughts about the French translation soon.

Break on through to the other side

June 9, 2011 16 comments

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. 1953. Translated into French by Jules Castier.

The Doors of Perception is an essay in which Aldous Huxley relates his experience with mescaline in 1953. It was translated into French by Jules Castier in 1953 and published in 1954. I’m rather surprised that it has been published in France so shortly after it was released in America and even before it was published in the UK. I noticed the same phenomenon for the first translation of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I never suspected there was a readership for this in France in the 1950s.

I’m a huge fan of The Doors and I’ve always wanted to read The Doors of Perception but constantly postponed that reading, suspecting I wouldn’t understand it. Eventually, I decided to give it a try. As Nicolas Boileau once said:

Whatever is well conceived is clearly said,

And the words to say it flow with ease.

This post will be an opportunity to ensure I understood something about what I’ve read. I think I understood the major part of it except for this particular sentence, which could have been written in Chinese:

And how can a man at the extreme limits of ectomorphy and cerebrotonia ever put himself in the place of one at the limits of endomorphy and viscerotonia, ot, except within certain circumscribed areas, share the feelings of one who stands at the limites of mesomorphy and somatotonia?

Any volunteer to translate this in comprehensible English for me?

OK now, here is what I understood. Huxley’s hypothesis is that Nature restrains our everyday perceptions so that our mind focuses on what is useful to stay alive and perpetuate the species. Our perception is bridled. He also points out that our perceptions are ours only and vocabulary is a poor vehicle to convey the depth of our sensorial and thinking experience:

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraces, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transecendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solutide. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies–all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.  

After Huxley has swallowed mescaline, he experiences the disappearance of space and time notions. These are no longer relevant or important. His perception of objects is free from material needs, organized thinking and reasoning. He has access to another kind of perception, stronger than the every day life perception.

His vision of fabric, flowers, and inanimate objects is incredibly different. He argues that some of us have that quality of perception without mescaline. Artists are the ones who both have that superior perception and a superior gift to translate it into words or into images. Painters show it in the quality of fabric on their paintings. Poets and authors have a gift to make words sing and capture reality differently.

I agree with that. I’ve always thought that artists have a magic look on reality that I don’t have. And I’m glad they do as much as they can to help people like me have a glimpse of another way at looking reality. I thought about two poets when I read this. Huxley mentions Blake, but he’s not part of my background. Rimbaud and Eluard are part of my background. It reminded me of Voyelles by Rimbaud, a poem in which he gives a colour to each vowel of the alphabet. (Click here to read the poem in French and in English) I also reminded me of Eluard verse: La Terre est bleue comme une orange (The Earth is blue like an orange). This phrase always struck me as incredibly accurate. I wonder how he saw this image which was later confirmed by satellite images. And of course, Huxley evokes Van Gogh and the cubist movement.  

Huxley has a nuanced opinion about mescaline. When he was under mescaline, nothing was important except contemplate fabrics and flowers. No social duties or human relationship could have diverted him from this contemplative state. He writes this is unacceptable to keep the world moving. It is crucial to keep our thinking in that limited mode that allow us to act and interact with other people. However, he thinks that mankind needs drugs and especially to enforce the religious experience. There have been drugs in all civilizations, alcohol, marijuana, peyote…It is utopian to imagine a society without drugs, without moments to push the door of that extra perception or moments to shut out rational ways of thinking. He doesn’t say that mescaline is that drug. He says pharmacologists and therapists should ally to find a drug without long term effects on health or immediate effects on behaviours such as violence.

I can see how this text could influence Jim Morrison, obsessed as he was by Rimbaud and Antonin Artaud. I’m not sure at all that I understood what Huxley meant but well, I tried. And instead of mescaline, I’m addicted to Romain Gary. I couldn’t help thinking about this passage of Adieu Gary Cooper after finishing The Doors of Perception.

L.S.D, un sale truc, Lenny s’est embarqué là-dedans une fois, mais tout ce qu’il avait vu, c’était la même chose, seulement en technicolor, et le seul moment différent fut lorsque sa verge s’était détachée de lui, avait mis son anorak et pris ses skis, et il s’était mis à hurler et à courir pour les rattraper, il tenait à ses skis comme à la prunelle de ses yeux. Se faire voler comme ça par l’un des siens…On ne peut vraiment plus compter sur personne. L.S.D., a nasty stuff, Lenny got himself into it once but all he had seen was the same, but in Technicolor. The only different moment had been when his penis came off him, put on his anorak and took his skis. He had started to scream and run to catch them up, he wouldn’t have given his skis for the world. To be stolen like this by a relative…Nobody can be trusted anymore.

PS: I had to translate this quote as it is absent from The Ski Bum, the English version of Adieu Gary Cooper. I don’t know why. Either Gary invented it after The Ski Bum was published, when he wrote the French version or it wasn’t suitable for a diplomat in theUSA to write such things involving drug and sex.

You know what I love about aeroplanes? They are the last place left to us where we can be totally inaccessible.

June 5, 2011 15 comments

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe. 2010.

14 February 2009. Maxwell Sim, 48, is in Sydney, Australia. His ex-wife Caroline had booked him a plane ticket to visit his father Harold in Australia. Caroline left Max six months ago, moving from Watford to Kendal with their daughter Lucy. Their departure led Max into a depression so powerful he hasn’t been able to work for months. Max is lonely, desperately yearning for human connections. He misses physical and direct contacts with other people. He misses them so much because he has buried himself at home for the last months and also because he has never been good at it. Caroline left him because she couldn’t live with someone who likes himself so little and because of their lack of communication. Max never managed to build a close relationship with Lucy. His father Harold is like him and they never had open-hearted conversations.

So when Max observes a warm and cosy meal between an Chinese woman and her daughter in a Sydney restaurant, he finally admits to himself he’s been craving for such a bond with someone for a long time now. Things have to change.

On his flight home, he chats with Poppy who seems to understand him and makes him read a letter from her uncle Clive about Donald Crowhurst. In 1968, this amateur sailor took part in the Golden Globe Race. He left England on a brand new boat, ill-prepared. He was a fraud and knew it but could not stop the process of participating. Other people were expecting him to take this tour around the globe and when his boat encountered problems shortly after his departure, he could not face his failure and come back. He fabricated faux book entries and reported wrong positions on the radio. He disappeared and it is assumed that he committed suicide.

This story impresses Max on different levels. Why did the man choose to lie instead of facing defeat? Was it because he didn’t want to disappoint his friends and family? How did he cope with that terrible privacy on his little boat? Max wonders as he knows a fair bit about loneliness. Max is also fascinated that at the time, Crowhurst had the possibility to lie because there was no SatNav and cell phones to reveal where he really was. He gradually becomes obsessed by Crowhurst.

Back to England, after a dreadful moment of intense loneliness when he checks his mail, e-mails and Facebook account and realises he has only three meaningful messages, he meets his friend Trevor in a fancy restaurant. Trevor persuades him to join him as an employee for a small English company which launches environment-friendly toothbrushes. Max accepts to take part to the advertising campaign and starts a road-trip from Readingto the Scotland.

This road trip will give him the keys of the closed doors of his past and live him ready to open the one of his future. These keys are delivered through four personal tales: Clive, telling the story of the fake sailor; Caroline, writing a short-story about a painful event of their marriage; Alison, a childhood friend of Max’s, writing an essay about an episode of their common family holiday and Harold’s confession about Max’s conception.  

Max’s story is an opportunity for Jonathan Coe to look at our societies in a critical light. We are a society of the virtual. Relationships can be disembodied through the Internet via blogs, forums and social networks. (Hello Book Pals, how are you today?) The economy is based on services and finance, immaterial, contrary to the making of goods. Max’s road trip could be called “back to basics”: he wants physical relationships made of eye contacts, smiles and touches and he’s going to sell toothbrushes made in England.  

“Privacy”, obviously, is a key word in this book and a pure British concept just like “plaisir” is a French one. Jonathan Coe, in an interview with the French news magazine L’Express (1) said he was fascinated to discover that his translators had difficulties to translate the title of his novel because the concept of “privacy” doesn’t exist in their own language. I recently travelled to England and therefore bought a tourist guidebook. In the chapter “Understand England and Wales”, it is written: “The importance of privacy can be illustrated through houses. If public places are dedicated to socialising and dating, the house is the territory of a well defended privacy. Even very friendly meetings are seldom followed by an invitation at home. The architecture itself, be it in the suburbs or in the country, shows this need of privacy and quietness through its walls and bushes” . That was a discovery for me. According to the no-privacy granted to famous people in the British press, I thought that the concept of “vie privée” (“private life”) as opposed to “vie publique” (public life) was more French than English. But privacy seems to be something else that I struggle to grasp, something about having boundaries to keep people at arm’s lenght. I’d be grateful if someone could give me an explanation in the comments.  I understand that Internet disturbs “privacy” as strangers enter into your home.

I enjoyed this book, I thought it well crafted and thought-provoking. It’s all about frauds and forgetting who you are.

The first fraud would be England. Jonathan Coe raises questions about his country and what it has become since the 1980s. The 2008 collapse of the financial markets revealed that the chore of the country, the City,  was living on an economy that makes money out of thin air. I thought that the chapter drawing a parallelism between complicated bets on horses and market finance was fascinating. The analogy was good and I wonder if complicated financial instruments such as options really started this way. According to Jonathan Coes, by turning to services and destroying its industry, England has lost its identity.

Then the characters are frauds because they turn their back to who they are to meet other people’s expectations. They lose themselves in the process and are not well in their lives. By that I mean Harold, Clive, Caroline and of course Max.

The last fraud could be Jonathan Coe himself as a writer. At least, that’s what I thought when I read the last chapter. Not everyone can be Martin Amis. But then, Money had opened the 1980s and Thatcherism. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim closes these years of wild capitalism and deregulation after the 2008 financial crisis, sort of pointing at the failure of the system. Like Max, the country needs to reinvent itself.  

It was my first Jonathan Coe, it’s effective but I thought sometimes that the craft was too obvious for the reader. (And again I wonder, does it have something to do with Martin Amis’s style?) In the end, I could almost imagine Coe in front of a paperboard, drawing the map of the novel and the interactions between the characters and the different steps leading Max to his epiphany. It also reminded me of This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes, for the middle aged lonely character who struggles to connect to other people again and of Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland, for the exploration of loneliness. Both are better that The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim for their central character but Coe’s novel is better on the social aspects he wants to put forward.

I chose to read this book after reading Guy’s review and following the comments at the end of my review of Gut Gegen Nordwind (translated as Love Virtually)

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(1) I can’t translate the interview back, it wouldn’t be fair to Jonathan Coe. Here is the passage about “privacy”: “Le Britannique aime garder son quant-à-soi. Maintenir sa privacy, c’est partager avec les autres uniquement les aspects de soi-même que l’on veut bien partager. C’est très important dans la psyché britannique : il faut protéger avec un soin extrême son espace personnel et maintenir une forte barrière invisible autour de soi. J’ai trouvé fascinant que tous mes éditeurs étrangers aient été embarrassés par la traduction du terme. Je pensais que tout le monde partageait ce concept.

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