Archive for July, 2011

Holiday Reading

July 30, 2011 13 comments

As far as work is concerned, France is a dead country in August: everbody is on holiday. So as a good French employee respectful of traditions, I’ll be on holiday for the next three weeks. However, I won’t be off-line and I wanted to give you a look at the books I’m taking with me. Having a kindle should reduce the space taken by books in my suitcase but it doesn’t. It’s not appropriate for extreme reading on the beach, with salt, sand and greasy hands from sun cream.  Thankfully Mr Emma is really patient with heavy book luggage. I already know I won’t have enough time to read all of them but I like to have options and choose what suits my mood. If anyone is interested in reading one of these books with me, leave a message in the comments. I’ll be happy to have company.

No & me by Delphine de Vigan.

I’m thrilled to start another of her books after Underground Time  (Btw; it will probably be on my Top List 2011. Talking about it make people open up and I’m horrified to discover so many Mathildes around.)


Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time, volume 4)

The re-reading of In Search of Lost Time continues. If I remember well, in this volume the Narrator discovers Charlus’s secret love and sex life. I was 16 when I first read this and I’m sure I was too naïve to understand everything. I’m curious, especially after Maurice Sachs’s comments on Proust’s habits in Paris.


The Notebooks of Malte Lauris Brigge by Reiner Maria Rilke

I picked that book in Kate and Jonathan’s reading list (Un Homme à distance by Katherine Pancol). Litlove is going to re-read it in August; it’s been on my shelf for months. It’s a good time to finally get to it. I expect somthing that explains Kate & Jonathan’s personal story like all the book listed in this epistolary novel.



Syrup by Maxx Barry.

I’m really looking forward to reading a second Max Barry. People on the beach will think I’m nuts to laugh out loud on my own. I loved Company and I expect so much fun of this one that I ordered a paperback copy instead of a kindle version: I want to lend it around me. They’re now shooting the film version of Syrup and I hope I’ll be able to watch it when it is released.


 Les Ecureuils de Central Park sont tristes le lundi by Katherine Pancol.

Literally “Central Park Squirrels Are Sad on Mondays”. I couldn’t find out if it’s been translated into English. It’s the last volume of the “animal” trilogy after Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles (The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles) et La valse lente des tortues (The Turtles’ Slow Waltz). If it is as lovely as the first volumes, it should be a good page turner novel. Over 800 pages. Perfect for my 5 hours journey by train. 



The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.

After reading Pop.1280, I thought I could read Thompson in paperback edition. The contrast between Pancol and Thompson is promising. According to Guy’s review, I know The Killer Inside Me won’t leave me indifferent. Being in Lou’s head doesn’t sound comfortable. It’s on the 1001-books-you-must-read list, if anyone is interested.




The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Sarah’s Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge continues in August too. I’ve been delaying enough, now is the time to read the SF book I committed to read. This selection is in the category “A book from an unfamiliar genre” since I’m not a great SF reader.  Hopefully I’ll enjoy it.


Les Choses by Georges Perec.

After reading again and again in the Anglophone blogosphere what a great writer Perec is, I’m finally trying one of his books. As I’m far from convinced that I’ll like him, I’ve chosen a small one. Let’s hope I’m wrong to be prejudiced against him and that it will be a great discovery.  


The Murderess by Alexander Papadiamantis.

It’s going to be my first Greek novel as a part of my EU Book Tour. It doesn’t sound funny at all but I’m curious. If anyone has read a contemporary Greek novel, leave a message.

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Discovering Rabindranath Tagore

July 28, 2011 21 comments

Somapti, followed by Med o roudro by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Read hereafter for French and English titles.

Whereas two actors, the sun and the cloud were playing they game in the whole sky that was their stage, other countless plays were given beneath, in the various places of the world’s theatre.

I’d never heard of Rabindranath Tagore before reading Himadri’s post about him. I thought I should discover this great Indian writer and what a surprise, my favourite collection of books for discovery, Folio 2€, includes a small book of two stories by Tagore. The two stories are Somapti (La petite mariée) and Meg o roudro (Nuage et soleil). As always when I read foreign books in French, I have to look for their English title to write my review. Here, I couldn’t find them, so I asked Himadri to help me. Here is his answer:

Hello Emma, I’m afraid the only edition I have of Tagore’s stories in English is the collection in Penguin translated by William Radice, and Radice doesn’t include either of these stories. However, in Satyajit Ray dramatised the story “Samapti” in the film Teen Kanya. This film was a portmanteau of adaptations of three of Tagore’s short stories, and was filmed in 1961 to celebrate Tagore’s centenary.

“Megh” literally means “cloud” (or “clouds” – in Bengali, the form of the noun does not differentiate between singular and plural), and “roudra” refers to sunlight when it is particularly strong or even oppressive. “Samapti” literally means “ending”, but can also be taken to mean “fulfilment”.

Now you have as much information as me and let’s move to the stories.


Apurbo comes back to his village after passing his exams in Calcutta. When he arrives, he runs into the facetious Mrinmayi, whose face had stayed with him during school time. Mrinmayi is playful like a child, graceful as a fawn. She laughs freely, acts as she pleases despite the reprobation of her community. She’s alive and Apurbo loves her for her liveliness although she is much less educated than him.

Apurbo’s mother suggests it’s time for him to get married and has actually already selected a bride. She’s a silent, submissive and scared young woman. When he talks to her “no anwer comes out of this pile of shyness covered with clothes and jewels.” The bride chosen by his mother seems dead on her feet. Apurbo is inflexible: he will only marry Mrinmayi and his mother surrenders. Mrinmayi’s family doesn’t ask her what she wants and they are promptly married.

Marrying Mrinmayi against her will is like putting a wild flower into a box: she withers. Her mother-in-law wants to turn her into a proper bride. She balks, unwilling to comply to social rules and give up her freedom. I won’t tell more but there is a lot in this 50 pages story.

Mrinmayi symbolizes the condition of the Hindu woman of that time. She’s not the master of her life. A life of obedience is all she can expect: obedience to her family and then obedience to her husband and his relatives. She doesn’t have the right to be herself, to live in her home and choose her husband. But the men aren’t free either: Apurbo needs to sneak out to have some alone time with her. This tale explores the mystery of feeling, how they grow and how we don’t always love a person who seems right for us according to his/her education or social position.  

Meg o roudro

Giribala is a 10 year old girl. As a girl, she doesn’t have access to education and however loves to learn. When she is 8, she persuades Sashibhusan to teach her classes. He has a degree in law and has been sent to this village to manage his father’s real estate. He’s solitary and studying is what he really enjoys. He lacks the social skills to succeed in running the estate. He’s so shy that the villagers think he’s haughty. Giribala is his only friend.

Once he witnesses how Giribala’s father Harakumer gets harassed by a passing sahib. Indeed, Harakumer has refused to provide four kilos of butter for the Englishman’s dogs. Sahibhusan is most upset by this abuse of authority and persuades Harakumer to go into trial. But things aren’t so easy in colonial India.

This short story is more openly political than Sompati. I wonder if Sashi doesn’t look like young Tagore. Multatuli in Java wasn’t far from my mind. It describes the same mechanisms: the power of the white man built on the corruption of the local elites and on fear. No has ever seen or heard anything when it comes to report it to the court.

Shashi has a political conscience and it will cost him a lot. When he’s put into jail, he states “Prison is welcome. Iron bars don’t lie, whereas this freedom we have outside disappoints us and gets us into all kinds of trouble. And if we talk about good company, liars and cowards are comparatively less numerous inside because there’s less room. Outside, their number is a lot higher.”  I was sad for him that his condition was such unbearable to him that prison was a relief.

I’ve read Tagore in French and I can’t tell if the translation is faithful or not. In French, Tagore has a very poetical prose. These two stories have the same setting, small villages in Bengal. He writes very politely, sweetly with a sort of innocence. In that he reminds me of his contemporary Charles-Ferninand Ramuz. Like in Ramuz, I could feel an immense fondness for his country and its common people. His stories exhale a sort of simplicity, a naïve description of young hearts confronted to social rules. Only the landscapes are heavenly. Under the soft words, the lovely description of nature, he nonetheless describes the violence of this rural life. People are as corrupt, mean, weak and narrow-minded as everywhere else. It is first the lifeless destiny of Hindu women and then the constant fear due to the English rule, leading to insupportable behaviours. Tagore was a pacifist, a humanist and supported Gandhi’s fight. It filters through these stories.  

He shows us that poetry doesn’t prevent lucidity and the other way round, that social cristicism can be associated to a wonderful style. I really enjoyed the combination of the two.  You can find Tagore’s short stories in Penguin Classics and on Project Gutenberg.

Thanks Himadri!

Changeable Spring and Indian Summer in London: the review

July 26, 2011 17 comments

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie. 1984.

“The heart has its reasons that reason ignores.” Blaise Pascal.

Vinnie Miner is a fifty-four year old, petite, gray haired, plain, single literature teacher. She teaches Children’s Literature in Corinth University, New England. She just got a foundation grant to spend six months in London to study the folk-rhymes of school children and compare them to their American equivalents. When the book opens, she’s settling on her plane to London and prepares for her flight. Vinnie has an imaginary dog named Fido which represents her self-pity.

The dog that is trailing Vinnie, visible only to her imagination, is her familiar demon or demon familiar, known to her privately as Fido and representing self-pity. She visualizes him as a medium-sized dirty-white long-haired mutt, mainly Welsh terrier: sometimes trailing her silently, at other times whining and panting and nipping at her heels; when bolder, dashing round in circles trying to trip her up, or at least get her to stoop down so that he may rush at her, knock her to the ground, and cover her with sloppy kisses. Vinnie knows very well that Fido wants to get onto the plane with her, but she hopes to leave him behind, as she has successfully done on other trips abroad.

Vinnie Miner is Anglophile and she can’t wait staying in London once more. She feels better when she’s abroad because Fido is under good check and she can leave behind her usual self. Chuck Mumpson, an average American from Tulsa sits by her. He’s on a fifteen days tour in Europe. He breaks into her privacy and start talking to her. She responds with as short phrases as politeness allows and here is how Vinnie feels about the intruder:

She wonders why citizens of the United States who have nothing in common and will never see one another again feel it necessary to exchange such information. It can only clog up their brain cells with useless data, and is moreover often invidious, tending to estrange casual acquaintances.[…] In the British Isles, on the other hand, the anonymity of travelers is preserved. If strangers who find themselves sharing a railway compartment converse, it will be on topics of general interest, and usually without revealing their origin, destination, occupation, or name.

Meanwhile, we get to know Fred Turner. He’s  a 29, heartbreakingly handsome, married literature teacher in Corinth University. He just won a grant to spend six months in London and write a book about John Gay. Fred’s wife Ruth was supposed to accompany him but they had a terrible fight just before his departure and she stayed behind. (I won’t say what she did to upset him, it’s too funny). So he feels terrible and is not so excited about living in London.

On her side, Vinnie Miner feels good. She’s in London, in a British flat, among her British friends, working in British libraries. Unlike Vinnie’s, Fred’s first weeks in London are miserable. He misses his wife and tries to cope with being single again. His wages aren’t high enough for him to enjoy London now that he lacks Ruth’s income. He hates the British Library. He pays regular visits to American friends who hate London too and mopes with them. They try to convince him that Ruth wasn’t the right woman for him. They mean to help him but Fred realises that “When things have gone wrong it is no consolation to hear that your friends expected it all along and could have told you so if they hadn’t been so polite.”

When Vinnie realises that Fred is unwell, she invites him to a party she’s giving for her English friends. There he meets Rosemary, a British actress and they soon start an affair. Rosemary is older than him, beautiful, fairy, unpredictable and unbalanced. On the other side, Vinnie runs into Chuck again and starts a friendship with him, a bit against her will. As you imagine,  Foreign Affair will be the interlaced adventures of Fred and Vinnie in England and I won’t tell more about the plot.

Fred and Vinnie are like a pair of scissors. They are bound by the Literature Department in Corinth University. As they cut through their life in London, some events bring them together, some separate them. Vinnie feels responsible for Fred in spite of her. As a fellow American and as a more experienced colleague, she finds herself paying attention to him whereas she wouldn’t have at home. She is led by the hand of duty, pride – He represents Corinth University, he must behave – and sympathy too. He could be her son; I thought she acted like a mother figure sometimes.

Alison Lurie explores several topics through her tale. The most important one I think is the impact of beauty on people’s lives. Vinnie is described as plain and Fred as beautiful. Vinnie resents her lack of beauty whereas Fred doesn’t consciously take advantage of it but sometimes thinks it doesn’t make his life easier. In The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq states:

Sans la beauté, la jeune fille est malheureuse, car elle perd toute chance d’être aimée. Personne à vrai dire ne s’en moque ni ne la traite avec cruauté mais elle est comme transparente, aucun regard n’accompagne ses pas. Chacun se sent gêné en sa présence et préfère l’ignorer. Without beauty, the young girl is miserable because she loses any chance to be loved. Nobody mocks her or treats her with cruelty but she is transparent, no look follows her footsteps. Everyone feels ill at ease in her presence and would rather ignore her.

Somehow, that’s what happened to Vinnie and she never recovered from it. Her childhood ended when she became aware of it. She deducted that she’s too plain to be loved and has built walls around her to protect her from actually truly loving anyone. She expects to be dumped so she doesn’t let anyone the opportunity to do it and leaves first. Her life is full of soothing rituals supposed to bring her safety but her orderly life is artificial. She fills her life with activities but doesn’t really live it.

Fred is too handsome for his own good. He is propositioned all the time and can’t be as friendly with his students as he’d wish to. Indeed, as he’s young and attractive, he ends up being chased by grapes of female students. He dresses seriously not to look too young. His beauty prevents him from enjoying his job as much as he could. When his wife leaves him, he’s lost. He never had to work to win a woman’s attention. To be honest, I felt little empathy for the trials and tribulations of Fred’s love life and he sounded a little too spoiled. I thought his voice was less convincing than Vinnie’s. Even when he feels pretty low, he has an ingrained self confidence and optimism which help him recover. He’s young, handsome, and successful; his present miseries can only end soon. Really I can’t pity beautiful people.

I loved Vinnie Miner despite her flaws and her apparent coldness. She has a very disillusioned vision of her possibilities in life:

As has sometimes been remarked, almost any woman can find a man to sleep with if she sets her standards low enough. But what must be lowered are not necessarily standards of character, intelligence, sexual energy, good looks, and worldly achievement. Rather, far more often, she must relax her requirements for commitment, constancy, and romantic passion; she must cease to hope for declarations of love, admiring stares, witty telegrams, eloquent letters, birthday cards, valentines, candy, and flowers. No; plain women often have a sex life. What they lack, rather, is a love life.

I felt her fragility under her protective shell and I watched her improve as her wall of self preservation crumbles. At 54, Vinnie has decided she’s old now. Too old to dye her hair and dress nicely. Too old for sex. Too old for love and relationships. Too old for any life outside work and work related activities such as lectures, art and theatre. She has a terribly self depreciating vision of herself. Alison Lurie is a teacher of Children’s Literature in Cornell University. She was 58 when Foreign Affairs was published and was separated from her husband at the time. Is her analysis of over-50 “love market” a first hand experience?

I felt tenderness for Chuck. He’s the caricature of the American middleman from the South. He’s huge, wears cowboy outfits with a leather tie, a plastic raincoat, speaks with a terrible accent and sprinkles his phrases with grammar mistakes. In other words, he’s the exact opposite to Vinnie’s acquaintances. But he’s also a decent man who disregards appearances. He’s not impressed by people’s wealth or by London’s glorious past.

In Chuck’s opinion, London isn’t much of a place. He doesn’t mind the weather: “Nah. I like the variety. Back home it’s the same goddamn thing every day. And if you don’t water, the earth dries up hard as rock. When I first got here I couldn’t get over how damn green England is, like one of those travel posters.” On the other hand, he complains, the beds in his hotel are lumpy and the supply of hot water limited. English food tastes like boiled hay; if you want a half-decent meal, you have to go to some foreign restaurant. The traffic is nuts, everybody driving on the wrong side of the road; and he has a hell of a time understanding the natives, who talk English real funny. Vinnie is about to correct his linguistic error rather irritably and suggest that it is in fact we Americans who talk funny, when their tea arrives, creating a diversion.

Apart from Vinnie and Fred’s love lives and how beauty impacted their self-confidence, this novel is also about cultural differences between American and English upper classes. Here is Fred’s first steps in British parties:

She had asked him where he was living; that was a good sign, he had thought, not having yet learnt that in England such inquiries don’t precede or hint at an invitation, but rather serve to determine social class; they are the equivalent of the American question “What do you do?”

People are all friendliness and politeness but it is mere hypocrisy. The friendliness disappears at the first wind of change. I’m not British and I don’t like to generalize but I have to admit it reminded me of Nick’s misadventures (The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst) and of the way Linley treats and hurts Barbara Havers in What came before he shot her by Elizabeth George.

There are also interesting thoughts about the influence of novels on people’s vision of love relationships. I’ll try to post about it later, if I can find the time. It echoes Notes on a Love Story by Philip Langeskov that I reviewed in The Best British Short Stories 2011. It had already left me thinking.

I’m fond of books in university settings, they sound so exotic to me. Usually they’re about literature teachers; I don’t recall reading one with a science teacher, except Rebecca Connell. Are they like their writers? The only thing that bothered me in this book was the parallels Fred could make between his life and John Gay’s literature. I’ve never read John Gay – and I dare think I’m not the only one – I felt confused or left apart as if the character and its author were whispering secrets I couldn’t hear. This was a minor flaw, though. I loved this book; it made me stay up late on a working night to finish it. It had been a long time since my last Alison Lurie and I had forgotten how sensitive, subtle and lucid she can be.  

PS : Summer quizz: now try to reconcile the characters mentioned in the review with the one on the drawing in the teaser post!


Changeable Spring and Indian Summer in London : teaser

July 24, 2011 8 comments

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie. 1984.

Before writing anything, here is my mind map of Foreign Affairs:

See you in a few days for the review ! 🙂

The Best British Short Stories 2011. Part II

July 23, 2011 8 comments

The Best British Short Stories 2011, presented by Nicholas Royle.

Here is the second post about The Best British Short Stories 2011 published by Salt Publishing. As in the first one, I will only mention the short stories I preferred in the last ten ones. It’s my personal taste; it doesn’t mean that the others aren’t good.

The Rental Heart is SF, it takes the expression “heartbroken” literally and imagines what would happen if someone leaves you and afterwards your heart is actually “shatter[ed] like a shotgut pellet, shards lodging in [your] guts” Kirsty Logan imagines you could rent a new heart and change it when you change of partner. That leads us to feelings and emotions without risk, very intriguing. It’s a symptom of our societies where risk is a bad thing. In France the “principe de précaution” was included in the constitution in 2005. We want security in our everyday life. Love is a risk for your heart. Kirsty Logan fantasies about a way to secure your heart against pain, scratches and other marks. It made me think. I even started to imagine what kind of novel it could be, a world where broken hearts don’t exist.

Notes on a Love Story is an original tale in its form. As mentioned in the title, the important here are the notes. The short story is constructed around a four pages story of Sam and Sarah leaving London to spend a week-end in Sussex. It’s not that important. It’s a pretext to include long notes and digressions. Sam is a writer and in one note, he thinks about our expectation of love. We learn about love and relationships in stories (books or films). He says that as a writer he contributes to creating the imagery of what a love relationship could be. At the same time, his own love stories influence his writing. It’s a circle and as a circle, it has no beginning and no end. Well done, Philip Langeskov.

Slut’s Hair is about a woman harassed by her husband. I was horrified by what happens in that short story.

“Three years. That was all the time it had taken for him to become somebody she didn’t know, and make her into somebody she didn’t recognise in the mirror, somebody who had given up her job because he told her to, somebody who would sit in a chair at the kitchen table and let him prise her teeth out with electrician’s pliers. Now, she was sick and in pain, and all she wanted to do was get away from him, but she knew she couldn’t. She was too scared.”

The atmosphere is full of anxiety, violence and self-depreciation. I needed to pause in my reading, gasping for air. As a woman, her fear of him reached me. No one should be living that way.

Tristam and Isolde made me feel ill at ease right from the start. The crushing love described sounded unhealthy, I couldn’t explain to myself why I felt so compelled to twitch on my chair. It’s remarkably constructed and the ending, unexpected but so rational when you think about it afterwards, is well brought up.

When the Door Closed, It Was Dark made me claustrophobic. I felt compassion for that poor girl sent as an au pair in a developing country among strangers who have quite another conception of family and individual liberties than her. I would have wanted to steal her from there and put her on the first plane home.

I liked Epiphany too, where Charlie meets his father for the first time after he looked for him. His personal history is not what his mother had told him and he has to swallow a bunch of disturbing news.  

It took me a while to read that collection because I didn’t want to read two stories in a row. As they are from different writers, I found it hard to switch from one atmosphere to the other just by turning a page. I wonder what these short stories mean about today’s Great Britain. Reading your writers, it’s not a funny place to live. I didn’t laugh a lot, I’m afraid. Where’s your legendary sense of humour? Did I miss something as English isn’t my native language? Diner of the Dead Alumni was the only entertaining one. Otherwise, the themes are rather dark: war, death, broken hearts, harassment, panic in closed environments, oedipal love, strange fascination for birds, rotten marriages…Several stories took the breath out of me, not with fascination but with stress as their setting is in a heavy atmosphere. SF and ghost stories are well represented, with at least five stories. Several stories played upon the relationship between the reader and the writer, showing the process of creation.

If I had to choose five stories among the twenty, it would be Emergency Exit by Lee Rourke (best style, really), Love Silk Food by Leone Ross (great construction of the story and wonderful style), The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan (original idea, efficient style but not so imaginative), Notes on a Love Story by Philip Langeskov (thought provoking in the form and the substance) and Slut’s Hair by John Burnside (chilling).  

The End.


Here is the list of the short stories included in this collection:

Pop.1280 by Jim Thompson

July 21, 2011 26 comments

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. 1964.

‘Oh, Nick! There’s just no one like you!’ ‘Well, I should hope not,’ I said. ‘The world’d be in a heck of a mess if there was.’

As a reader, I also hope there’s no one like Nick but I know it’s an illusion. Nick Corey is the sheriff of Pottsville, Potts County, somewhere in the Deep South of the USA (Oklahoma?). He’s a slacker, the kind of sheriff who eats like a pig (I bought a bite of lunch […] just a few sandwiches and some pie and potato chips and peanuts and cookies and sody-pop), puts his hat on his face, his feet on his desk and takes a nap after his giant meal. He carefully avoids arresting anybody. When a problem occurs, he always manages to come when the worse is over, makes a lot of noise to show he’s there but stays away from the battle field.

Nick is married to Myra and his fiend of a brother-in-law lives with them. Myra trapped him into marriage, pretending that he raped her. Myra has a murky relationship with her brother who skulks around in the streets at night, playing the peeping tom and staring at women through the windows. Let’s face it, Myra and Nick hate each other. We have a first glimpse at Nick’s twisted mind when he talks about his affair with Rose. She pretends to be Myra’s best friend to get around Nick but she loathes her and Nick knows it. He also perfectly knows that Rose’s husband Tom beats her and it never occurs to him he could enforce the law and do something about it.  

At the moment, Nick has too major problems:

1) The two pimps who pay him commissions in return for his turning a blind eye to their illegal business start to scoff at him.

2) The next sheriff election is coming soon and for the first time, he feels he could loose his position. And what else could he do? As he admits to himself:

All I’d ever done was sheriffin’. It was all I could do. Which was just another way of saying that all I could do was nothing. And if I wasn’t sheriff, I wouldn’t have nothing or be nothing.

At lost about what to do, he decides to pay a visit to his friend and mentor Ken, sheriff in another county. He values Ken’s recommendations and here is how he suggests treating the pimps problem:

‘So I’ll tell you what to do about them pimps. The next time they even look like they’re goin’ to sass you, you just kick ’em in the balls as hard as you can.’ ‘Huh?’ I said. ‘But – but don’t it hurt awful bad?’ ‘Pshaw, ’course it don’t hurt. Not if you’re wearin’ a good pair o’ boots without no holes in ’em.’ ‘That’s right,’ Buck said. ‘You just be sure you ain’t got any toes stickin’ out and it won’t hurt you a-tall.’ ‘I mean, wouldn’t it hurt the pimps?’ I said. ‘Me, I don’t think I could stand even an easy kick in the balls.’ ‘Why, shorely, shorely it would hurt ’em,’ Ken nodded. ‘How else you goin’ to make ’em behave if you don’t hurt ’em bad?’

Great consultant, that Ken, right? But Ken humiliates Nick and on the train home, he meets his former fiancée Amy. Now he knows how to deal with the pimps and starts wishing he could get rid of Myra and Rose.

Nick’s evil instincts remain in rather good check until this trip. It will take the pin of the grenade he has in his head and spread death and desolation in Pottsville. Step by step he will take any action necessary to achieve his goals: take revenge of Ken, get rid of Myra, secure his re-election, treat the problem of the pimps, break-up with Rose, re-conquer Amy. But for Nick, the end justifies the means. And cold blood murder IS an acceptable mean as long as it serves his interests.

What I loved was myself, and I was willing to do anything I god-dang had to to go on lying and cheating and drinking whiskey and screwing women and going to church on Sunday with all the other respectable people.

Nick is dangerous and crazy. Dangerously crazy or crazily dangerous, it depends on how you see it. He plays the dummy so that his adversary underestimates him. His spoken speech is full of grammar mistakes but his mental voice is perfectly correct. I thought it was a good device to point out Nick’s duplicity.

I nodded at the paper he was reading. ‘What do you think about them Bullshevicks?’ I said. ‘You reckon they’ll ever overthrow the Czar?’

Only Amy seems to know him well. She notices:

‘About your grammar, possibly. You’re no ignoramus, Nick. Why do you talk like one?’

She’s the only one he still respects and she acts like a moral guide. She tells the difference between right and wrong, partly guesses what he’s been doing and threatens to turn him down if he doesn’t come back on the right path. 

Nick is intelligent. He has a chilling gift to grasp the motivation of his speaker. It made me think of selling techniques. Sales reps are taught to identify the motivation of a client in order to adapt their speech and improve their selling efficiency. The main motivations are security, pride, novelty, comfort, money and sympathy. Nick is an artist at manipulating people. He does know how to play on the right motivation to get what he wants from someone.  

I wouldn’t want to be one of the 1280 souls living in Pottsville. The picture isn’t very attractive: the inhabitants are racist (they still doubt that black people have a soul), violent (they beat their wives and children) and ignorant. In comparison, Nick seems tolerant sometimes, especially when it comes to coloured people. They seem to deserve their lazy and screwy sheriff. And after all, don’t they vote for him? Jim Thompson’s vision of humanity is of the blackest black. The events follow from one awful thing to the other at such a pace that it becomes black comedy sometimes.  

That wasn’t easy for me to read, with all the slang and words like prezackly, Kee-rect!, Natcherly or Shorely. I still try to figure out what the French word for “God-dang” is. Given the context and the use, my guess would be putain but I’m not sure. The French title is 1275 âmes, I wonder why the 1280 from the English title became 1275. Because of 5 murders?

Anyway, I really enjoyed it and will read another Jim Thompson. It will be the The Killer Inside Me, which came in the post last week. I owe this discovery to Guy’s Noir Fest. He reviewed Pop. 1280 here and reading his review is highly recommended.

About Coup de Torchon, by Tavernier, the film version of Pop. 1280.

After reading the book, I decided to rent its film version, Coup de Torchon (1981), a French film by Bertrand Tavernier. Tavernier transposed the setting in the French colonies in Africa, in 1938. If Tavernier wanted to give a French context to the film, I think it was a good choice. He was able to keep several crucial elements of the story: the awful treatment of black people, the absolute power of the policeman/sheriff on the city, the small town far from big cities, the corruption, the atmosphere of poverty of means and mind. He couldn’t have given back the atmosphere of a small town in the middle of nowhere, self-sufficient in Métropole. France is too centralised a country to film this in Métropole.

Here is the cast, with French first names: Philippe Noiret (Nick-Lucien), Stéphane Audran (Myra-Huguette), Isabelle Huppert (Rose), Eddy Mitchell (Nono-Lennie). The choice of actors can be discussed. I’m not sure that Philippe Noiret was the best actor to play Nick. He lacks the glint of madness needed for the part. Maybe Depardieu would have been better?

The scenario is well-written. Exact sentences of the novel can be heard in the dialogues but it’s too polite, except for Rose. Lucien speaks too well; he doesn’t make as many grammar mistakes as Nick. I’ve read the book in English; so I can’t tell how it’s been translated into French. But in my experience, French translators fail to give back the accents included in Anglophone books.

What lacked in the film is the vision the reader has of Nick’s mind. I wrote the book review before watching the film. Like I said before, Jim Thompson created two different voices for Nick (thoughts and speech) and I thought it very efficient. I think it even more efficient after watching the film, as I missed the vision of Nick’s duplicity. Perhaps a voiceover would have been useful.

One word about the music: a sort of circus music came again and again at crucial moments, enforcing the idea of a black comedy.

All in all, I think it’s a good film and but it’s not as black as Thompson’s novel.


July 19, 2011 20 comments

Vendetta by Honoré de Balzac. 1830.

I decided to join Caroline and Danielle in their readalong of Vendetta by Balzac. It is part of our contribution to Thyme for Tea and Bookbath’s July in Paris. Vendetta is part of La Comédie Humaine, in Scènes de la vie privée.

The story starts in 1800, i.e. when Bonaparte was First Consul, before he had the French Senate proclaimed him Emperor in 1804. The Piombos arrive in Paris after a vendetta with the Porta that decimated both families. A vendetta is a do-it-yourself justice. You don’t rely on the State justice but feel entitled to kill anyone belonging to the family you have a vendetta with. As Corsicans, the Piombos go to Napoléon and the father serves the Bonapartist administration.

In 1815, the Piombo family is still is Paris and are well-off now. Their daughter Ginevra loves to paint and takes painting lessons at Servin’s. He’s the most fashionable painting teacher among the high society and young girls from different families meet in his studio. It is just after the Restauration and Napoleon’s failed comeback to power. The aristocracy is triumphant and the Bonapartists are defeated.

As a Corsican, Ginevra is of course a fervent admirer of Napoleon. So when she realises that Servin hides Luigi, a former soldier of the Great Army in the studio, she doesn’t report it to the authorities but helps concealing his presence to the other students. As the reader expects, they fall in love and want to marry but Ginevra’s father is strongly opposed to this marriage, on the one hand because he doesn’t want to lose his daughter and on the other hand because Luigi is a survivor from the Porta family and the vendetta is still running.

It’s a short book but nonetheless full of thought-provoking events and descriptions.

Of course, the theme reminded me of Romeo and Juliet and I know Balzac admired Shakespeare a lot. We have the same ingredients here with these two young persons genuinely in love with each other and disregarding their family hate.

Balzac also insists on the particularity of Corsican temper all along this novella. According to him, it’s a lethal combination of pride, stubbornness and courage associated to a strong identity as a Corsican. The parents would rather turn their back on their daughter than accept her marriage with Luigi. Actually, Corsica has always had a very strong culture and it remains even today. One of their specialties is bombing public buildings to claim for their independence. These terrorist attacks rarely kill people but cost a lot of money. It’s become part of the folklore, of every day life. Allow me just an anecdote. There was an earthquake in the Mediterranean Sealately. The epicentre was somewhere between Marseille and Corsica. The morning after, you get to hear the habitual interviews on the radio: “how did you feel?”, “did you realise what was happening?”, blah blah blah. On the continent, the interviewee would have talked about her puzzlement. In Corsica, the interviewee naively declares that at first she thought the earthquake was a huge bombing. Her first reflex thought is bombing, isn’t that incredible? Well, back to Balzac.  

I wondered why Balzac chose Corsicans as characters. Under the romance I could feel political ideas. Does Balzac want to criticize Bonaparte through this Corsican family? He was a royalist and had little consideration for Napoleon. By describing the circle of these young girls learning how to paint, Balzac shows us a representative sample of the French society at that time. The aristocratic girls stick together and look down on the Bonapartist girls. They despise them as the defeated, the ones whose families chose the wrong side. The climate in that studio is that of the aftermath of a civil war. It’s not the first time Balzac describes this and it is also part of The Red and the Black. Is the word vendetta also relevant to call the chase of Bonaparte’s partisans after the Restauration? Luigi had to hide and walking in a uniform of the Grande Armée wasn’t safe.

Apart from the political issues, Balzac also takes the opportunity to describe the relationships between a father and a daughter. The moment when Ginevra announces she wants to get married is awful. Even before knowing the name of the groom, the father doesn’t want her to leave him. He’d rather she remained single than let her marry. It sounded so selfish and so different from the usual behaviour of fathers in Balzac’s time. Getting married was the only decent destiny for a woman in those times and being a spinster was being a sort of loser without a safe social status. Her father is over 70, could die pretty soon and leave her alone. As a parent, you don’t raise children to keep them by your side.

Furthermore, I wondered if Balzac criticised love marriages as foolish and wanted to teach the reader that loveless but reasonable marriages. I felt him conservative on the subject and condemning Ginevra for living according to her feelings rather than surrendering to her parents’ will. That their will is inappropriate, selfish or not doesn’t matter. As a daughter, she should obey. He also shows the consequences of a marriage defying the social rules and the social cost of such a choice.

As always, Balzac is a fine painter of human nature in all its pettiness. The scenes in the studio when Ginevra is observed by a jealous aristocratic girl are priceless. It could take place in a classroom between contemporary teenagers.

I wasn’t thrilled by this novella but it’s interesting to read. You can find Caroline’s review here and Danielle’s here. Very interesting too and really better written as well.

Bonus post: Vendetta by Guy de Maupassant.

After reading Balzac’s Vendetta, I noticed that Maupassant had written an eponymous short-story. I was intrigued and wanted very much to compare them. It’s a short story, shorter than Balzac’s text.

Bonifacio, in Corsica. Antoine Saverini is killed by Nicolas Ravolati. Antoine’s old mother swears on his dead body that she will avenge him and declares a vendetta. Nicolas flees to Sardinia. The old woman has no family, so she’s well aware that no one will murder Nicolas if she doesn’t. But how can she kill a strong and young man? She will imagine an incredibly cruel and efficient way to get him.

I leave you the pleasure to discover how she did it. Maupassant was really a master in short stories. There isn’t any superfluous word, everything runs smoothly until the shocking ending. Better than Balzac.

If someone wants to read it, here is the pdf file: vendetta

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

July 17, 2011 21 comments

Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. 1998. 316 pages.  British title: Atomised US title: The Elementary Particles.

Ce livre est avant tout l’histoire d’un homme qui vécut la plus grande partie de sa vie en Europe occidentale, durant la seconde moitié du XXème siècle. Généralement seul, il fut cependant, de loin en loin, en relation avec d’autres hommes. Il vécut dans des temps malheureux et troublés. Le pays qui lui avait donné naissance basculait lentement, mais inéluctablement, dans la zone économique des pays moyens-pauvres ; fréquemment guettés par la misère, les hommes de sa génération passèrent en outre leur vie dans la solitude et l’amertume. Les sentiments d’amour, de tendresse et de fraternité humaine avaient dans une large mesure disparu ; dans leurs rapports mutuels, ses contemporains faisaient le plus souvent preuve d’indifférence, voire de cruauté. This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men. He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled. The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives. Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared. The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.

Michel Houellebecq is often described as a genius. At least, that’s what international journalists claimed when his last novel, La Carte et le Territoire was published in 2010. (How they knew that when the book hasn’t been translated into English so far is a mystery to me. There are really a lot of fluent French speakers out there.) It won him the Prix Goncourt. I thought it was high time for me to try one of his books and I bought Les Particules élémentaires. Published in 1998, it is Houellebecq’s second novel. It relates the parallel lives of Michel (the ‘he’ of the previous quote) and Bruno, two half brothers who have the same mother, Janine.

Bruno was born in 1956 and Michel in 1958, like Houellebecq himself, btw. Janine was a dismissive mother who never took care of her children, not even seeing them. Bruno was raised by his motherly grand-mother, first inAlgeria and then in France near Paris. After her death, he was sent to a boarding school where he was relentlessly and violently harassed by older pupils. He used to spend his week-ends with his father who was totally at loss at how to create a healthy and solid relationship with his son.

Michel was raised by his fatherly grand-mother, first in the Yonne department and then near Paris, not far from Bruno. He was always a solitary and silent child, interested in scientific reviews and science TV programs. When they were teenagers, the adults decided they should meet.

At the beginning of the book, they are fortyish adults, both dysfunctional in their own way. Michel is an acclaimed researcher in biology, particularly interested in the human DNA. When the book opens, he’s leaving his research unit to think and then work on his own. Bruno was a French literature teacher but had to quit due to psychiatric problems.

Michel is all superego. He has no sex life, no sexual impulse even as a teenager and doesn’t know how to create bonds with other people. He was born an adult. He is all mind, his body tolerated only as the biological vector of his thoughts. He sublimates his personal needs into a higher goal, his research. He’s a failure as a person, but he’s useful to the society through his work. I should have felt admiration for him but I didn’t.

Bruno is the id. Horny is his normal state of mind. Sex is the only thing he’s interested in. He finds solace in food. He’s immature. At 42, he still reads Les six compagnons (1) and compares his lover Christiane to Claude, one of the characters of the Famous Five by Enid Blyton. Very mature indeed, something he admits to himself. Bruno never grew up and screwed up his life because he can’t grow up. He’s pathetic, a personal failure, useless to the society and even a parasite in a way. I should have felt compassion for him but I couldn’t. Pleasure is his aim but according to him, he’s not the only one:

Les individus que Bruno eut l’occasion de fréquenter au cours de sa vie étaient pour la plupart mus par la recherche du plaisir – si bien entendu on inclut dans la notion de plaisir les gratifications d’ordre narcissique, si liées à l’estime ou à l’admiration d’autrui. Ainsi se mettaient en place différentes stratégies, qualifiées de vies humaines. The people Bruno happened to meet during his life were mostly driven by the research of pleasure, that is, if one includes in the notion of pleasure the gratifications of a narcissist kind, linked to other people’s regard or admiration. Thus were put into place different strategies, called human lives.

This quote sums up the sour taste of the Elementary Particles. It is written in a detached tone. I thought about the even voice of a commentator to a documentary on a specific animal, the Western European man. It’s the tone of a scientist/god observing the humans from above, as if they were ants bustling around their anthill. The book is full of sociologic insight and philosophical analysis. Michel Houellebecq is a pessimist. He judges the Western civilization is doomed and seems to present Bruno as its typical decadent offspring. I agree with some of his observations, like the one on the indestructible core of one’s personality.

Cela faisait maintenant vingt-cinq ans que Bruno connaissait Michel. Durant cet intervalle de temps effrayant, il avait l’impression d’avoir à peine changé ; l’hypothèse d’un noyau d’identité personnelle, d’un noyau inamovible dans ses caractéristiques majeures, lui apparaissait comme une évidence. Bruno had known Michel for twenty-five years now. During this dreadful span, he was under the impression he had barely moved on. The hypothesis of a core of personal identity, of a permanent core in its main characteristics seemed obvious to him.

Conventions and social rules build layers around it, that all. However, I refuse to take Bruno as the template of our Western species. Most of us have had loving parents, weren’t harassed in school and became adults. It’s something Michel Houellebecq acknowledges but mocks:

Après quelques années de travail le désir sexuel disparaît, les gens se recentrent sur la gastronomie et les vins ; certains de ses collègues, beaucoup plus jeunes que lui, avaient déjà commencé à se constituer une cave. After a few years as a worker, sexual desire vanishes; people concentrate on gastronomy and wines. Some of his colleagues a lot younger than him, had already started their wine cellar.

Oh dear, I had never guessed that boring business lunches about food and wine stem from the end of sexual desire of the male participants. Please gentlemen, mend this so that we can talk about something else.

The Elementary Particles conveys a pessimistic vision of humanity. Men are more challenged than women in this work. Houellebecq grants them goodness and disinterested love and denies it to men. I disagree with him on that point. Just thinking about dictators’ wives is enough to reject that thought.

It’s a disturbing book and I was fascinated, bored, bothered, annoyed, entertained and never indifferent. I got lost in the scientific bits and in some of the metaphysic reasoning: I lack the academic background. Anyway, I understood what I could. It’s been a while since I last read such a disturbing French book. Parts reminded me of Sade, alternating sex descriptions and intellectual thinking, always provocative. It also reminded me of Martin Amis. On the one hand, there’s the criticism of our materialist society like in Money. Bruno is as pathetic as John Self and has the same flaws. On the other hand, Bruno’s unquenchable thirst for sex at any cost recalled sex in Dead Babies, i.e. pleasure without love and in collective settings. I was rather bored by descriptions of orgies and swinger night-clubs.

I wasn’t blown away by The Elementary Particles but I’m really glad I read it. I think Michel Houellebecq has a unique place in nowadays literature. The ending surprised me and was well brought up. I need to read another of his novels to figure out his style. Here, the style serves the story, nothing can tell me if it’s his real literary voice or if it’s a fabricated one for the occasion. I’m tempted by Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever in its English translation) or La possibilité d’une île. La Carte et le Territoire is said to be less provocative, toned down to win the Prix Goncourt. I’m more inclined to read thought provoking books written as the author wanted them than self-censored books designed to win a literary prize.  

This book was part of Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s challenge hosted by Sarah (A Rat in the Book Pile), category “Seek out a book by an author who has earned ostracism by being so good that any further novel could surely never measure up…?”

It’s also one of my contributions to July in Paris, hosted by Thyme for Tea and Bookbath.

PS: M. Houellebecq, Bruno can’t eat at McDonald’s in Paris in 1975. The first MacDonald’s was opened in 1979 in Strasbourg. I checked because 1975 sounded early.


 (1) Les six companions is a French series for children. It takes place in Lyon in the popular neighbourhood of La Croix Rousse. The six friends solve mysteries, like the Famous Five.  

Translations: The first quote comes from the sample I downloaded on my kindle. I translated the others and I did my best but I can feel it remains clumsy.

The Best British Short Stories 2011. Part I

July 12, 2011 9 comments

The Best British Short Stories 2011, presented by Nicholas Royle. 239 pages.

 It all started by a funny mistake. An employee of Salt Publishing was looking for John Self’s blog, The Asylum. But Google is facetious –or just basically logical– and she ended up on my post about Money by Martin Amis. She enjoyed it and asked me if I would like to read two of their books. I was interested in a copy of The Best British Short Stories 2011. Nicholas Royle sent me the PDF file of the book after exchanging a few e-mails in his almost perfect French. (I’m delighted to discover fluent French-speaking Anglo-Saxons everyday).

It isn’t easy to write about a collection of short stories written by 19 different authors. Obviously, I can’t describe them all, it would be fastidious and boring to read. I thought I’d pick the ones I liked the most, because their style suited me or the theme triggered something in me. It doesn’t mean that the other ones aren’t worth reading. It’s a personal blog, it’s going to be a personal selection. I’ll write the full list of the short stories at the end of the post.

I found Emergency Exit by Lee Rourke really special. A man, in an office, feels the urge to leave the premises through the emergency stairs. We don’t know what he runs from, it just seems urgent. I needed an emergency exit from that short story because the atmosphere cut my breath. I felt oppressed myself. I remembered reading reviews of The Canal and I was intrigued. He sounded like a promising writer which this short-story confirms. His style is precise, vivid, cut with a razor. 

Total change of setting and style. I can’t help quoting the first paragraph of Love Silk Food by Leone Ross.

Mrs Neecy Brown’s husband is falling in love. She can tell because the love is stuck to the walls of house, making the wallpaper sticky, and it seeps into the calendar in her kitchen, so bad that she can’t see what the date is and the love keeps ruining the food: whatever she does or however hard she concentrates, everything turns to mush. The dumplings lack squelch and bite – they come out doughy and stupid like grey belches floating in her carefully salted water. Her famed liver and green banana is mush too: everything has become too soft and falling apart, like food made for babies. Silk food, her mother used to call it.

Mrs Neecy Brown’s husband is falling in love. Not with her, no.

 We follow Mrs Neecy Brown through her day, in her vain attempt to swallow that his husband is falling in love with someone else. Again. I won’t spoil the unexpected turn of her journey.

In Foreigner, Christopher Burns explores the absurdity of Western wars, when we send soldiers to defend a cause they don’t fully understand like the Falkland War and nowadays Iraq and Afghanistan. The main character is a soldier. His ex-wife questions the motives of these wars, facing the facts that soldiers haven’t fought for a right cause, that they have been fooled. He can’t accept this or his life would be a lie, he would have sacrificed his peace of mind for nothing.

Diner of the Dead Alumni by Adam Marek is a strange story, half-real with magic thoughts and half-ghost story:

Today the streets of Cambridge are crawling with dead alumni. Their ghosts perch on punts, trailing their fingers through the green weed without raising a ripple.

We’re in Preston’s mind, who’s 32, married with two daughters and still clings to his teenage belief “in the spontaneous orgasm of two people perfectly attuned to each other”. Now Preston sweeps the reader along the streets of Cambridge, running after a woman he imagines will be his perfect match for the spontaneous orgasm. Usually I’m not fond of ghost stories but the idea of playful dead alumni from Cambridge lingering in the streets of the city, interfering in human affairs and hovering over a diner to celebrate the 350 anniversary of the famous university was entertaining.

 As a mother, I thought So Much Time in a Life by Heather Leach rather chilling. I didn’t know where she wanted to lead me and I enjoyed the intertwined plies of the characters and the writer acting on the characters slowing knitting a story. It’s not new but it was well-used.

I confess I didn’t understand Feather Girls by Claire Massey. I would have pitied Jack in Staff Development if he hadn’t been so obsessed by sex.As I had already too much to tell about the first 10 stories, I’ll write another post about the last 10 ones and try to make a wrap up of the book.

To be continued…


Here is the complete list of the short stories.    

I expected a chef, I got a four stars chef

July 9, 2011 16 comments

L’homme aux cercles bleus by Fred Vargas. 1996 English title: The Chalk Circle Man

The Chalk Circle Man is the first novel of the Adamsberg series but one of the last translated into English. I’d rather read them in the right order so I started with this one. Commissaire Adamsberg has just been appointed to a Parisian police station (5ème Arrondissement, i.e. le Quartier Latin). In this volume, we discover Adamsberg world, personal history and his way of thinking without thinking, loving without loving and solving crimes with a slow voice and an incomparable coolness. We guess that he and Inspecteur Danglard will be an complementary and efficient duo.

Now the plot. A strange man draws blue circles around inanimate objects on the sidewalks inParis. He does it at night, chooses random objects and draws a circle around them. Is it a sort of work of art pointing at our consumer society? Is it the work of a maniac? From the start, Adamsberg smells cruelty behind this and carefully keeps watch. No crime has been committed so far but he expects a murder. So he’s more resigned than surprised when the first corpse is found.

As always I’m not good at writing about crime fiction. I can’t even describe Adamsberg, Danglard or the side characters. However, after spending a great time reading it, I wondered why I liked this one and couldn’t finish Michael Chabon’s book the other day. But first, I have to say that I don’t read a writer’s biography before reading his/her book. I love diving into a book clean of any prejudice or assumption about the writer; I want to meet his/her work before meeting him/her. I hadn’t heard of Chabon when I bought his book; it just seemed right up in my alley. This is why I didn’t know he had won the Pulitzer price in 2001 or that he was a champion of creative writing classes when I started reading his book and at the same time thinking of a recipe, an idea I used for my post.

I wouldn’t say Chabon is a bad writer, not at all and btw, who am I to judge? I thought it was well-written, with a complex plot, unusual characters but it sounded fake to me. As we say in French “La mayonnaise n’a pas pris”, literally, “the mayonnaise didn’t thicken”.

On the contrary, Vargas doesn’t sound fake and I marvel at the chemistry she creates between her work and her readers. Talk with a French reader about books. At a moment, he/she will ask “Have you read Fred Vargas?” Whatever your answer, he/she will follow by a “Oh how I love Adamsberg!” So it’s not only me. How does she do it?

In appearance, Vargas’s book didn’t make me think. But now, if I let my mind wander, it does address a lot of issues in such light touches that it reaches you. Cruelty and how it is intrinsic to human nature. Love. Loneliness. Parenthood. Handicap. Pride. It reaches you in spite of you, like a drizzle of issues. You don’t realise what’s happening until you’re wet. Is that the clue, the difference between Chabon and Vargas? She’s more profound than him? I’m not sure.

Fred Vargas works as a researcher. She never graduated in literature. I don’t think she’s taken writing classes. Writing isn’t her job. Writing is her hobby and maybe a necessity. The idea lingers in my mind, flows back and forth in tidal waves and brings back Reiner Maria Rilke and his letters to Franz Kappus. It carries along Rilke’s ideas about writing as a necessity, as something personal you have in you, something you have to do to be yourself, something that gives away who you are.

And that’s it. I didn’t feel Michael Chabon was giving me something personal through his book. I feel Fred Vargas does. In my eyes, he’s a gifted craftsman, she’s an artist. I have nothing against craftsmen but I prefer artists.


I expected a chef, I got a short-order cook

July 6, 2011 21 comments

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. 2007. 454 pages. French title: Le Club des policiers Yiddish. Translated into French by Isabelle Delord-Philippe.  


Two policemen with very different characters. One must have the usual characteristics of a crime fiction investigator, policeman or PI. He’s been crashing for ages in a dump hotel room since his tumultuous divorce. He drinks heavily but still has a sharp mind when it comes to solving crimes. If possible, add family issues, like an obnoxious father who committed suicide and an uncle who has muddy relationships with the law. The other policeman must be his opposite, happily married, with children, the kind of guy who smells of cereals and baby lotion but can still play the tough guy when needed. It is recommended to add an identity problem, such as a mixed blood origin between an Indian man and a Jewish woman.

A setting. Choose an improbable place no one knows in a rough environment. Try to be original, like Sitka in Alaska. If the book is a success like Twilight, the city might even benefit from tourist tours. If you want, you can mix reality with fake history. It is called alternate history. You imagine what would have happened if an historical decision had been made another way. It’s a good thing as, in case of Jewish policemen, it might even relate you to Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, which is a good reference. And it could attract SF readers in addition to crime fiction readers.

A murder. It has to be mysterious. Try to mix personal drama, like a stiff obsessed by chess game like the policeman’s deceased father. If the murder reaches the policeman personally, it will give him a reason and the energy to overcome difficulties, fear and pressure to solve the mystery at any cost. The corpse must belong to an odd guy. A fake identity will spice things up as the policemen will have to research his ID before starting to look for his murderer.

Side characters: Think of several funny or frightening or controversial side characters.

Spices: Whatever you want as long as it tastes better. Try to be original, like using loads of Yiddish words so that your characters’ speeches sound more genuine or having the policeman’s ex-wife become his boss.

After you have gathered the ingredients.

Set the computer on Word. Grease a 450 pages book tin. Cream the two policemen together until they have a real connection. Stop when the dough creates phrases as

According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Lansman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead.

Warm the events and side characters in a pan and add to the mixture. Mix well to a stiff consistency. Put into the tin and write until the 450 pages are done. Let it cool down and sell it to a publisher.  

A couple of years later.

By then it lays on a display table in a French bookstore where a reader named Emma buys it. She takes it home, put it on the TBR shelf and after a while decides to have it for her next reading fest. She chews a few chapters and quickly needs a break in the form of a British short story. She resumes reading her dish and after a couple of chapters, wants a sip of Lermontov. Then after 164 bites of the Jewish policemen recipe, she decides she can’t stomach it, pushes her plate away, gets up and fetches a Fred Vargas as a dessert.  

For a serious review of Michael Chabon’s book, read Wikipedia.

Princess Ligovskaya by Mikhail Lermontov

July 4, 2011 14 comments

Princess Ligovskaya by Mikhail Lermontov. 1836. I haven’t found the English translation.  

I came across this little book published by Folio in their 2€ collection a few months ago. (I find the cover rather silly, btw). Two things made me buy it: first, I wanted to try Lermontov before reading A Heroe of Our Time; second, it had the same theme as Journey into the past by Stefan Zweig and South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Harukimi Murakami, ie the come back of an old romance after years of separation.

A little disclaimer before starting. I read non-English books in French translations. The problem with Russian literature is that names aren’t transcribed into French the same way as they are in English. For example, the princess is named Ligovskoï in French and Ligovskaya in English. I suspect the English is more faithful to the Russian than the French. When I can, I try to find the English spelling, but here I couldn’t find an English version. This book doesn’t seem listed on Lermontov’s page at Wikipedia but it is mentioned in the text as a record of his doomed love for Barbara Lopukhina. Well, it’ll give to the Anglophone reader an idea of how it sounds for a French one.  

According to the foreword of my French edition, Princess Ligovskaya is an uncompleted novel written by Lermontov and his friend Sviatoslav Raïevski in 1836, before A Hero of Out Time (1839-1841). Lermontov died in 1841 and I don’t know why he never resumed writing this novel. Was it started as an outlet for his unfortunate love and abandoned when the pain had soothed?  

Princess Ligovskaya opens with a Balzacian scene of a young civil servant on foot roughly jostled by an officer on horse. The officer is Grégoire Alexandrovitch Piétchorine and I suppose it would be Pechorin in English, like in A Hero of Our Time. His friends call him Georges (In French). This scene is important as it gives us an insight of Piétchorine’s temper and at the same time settles an enmity between the two men.

Piétchorine lives with his mother and his sister and is a member of the upper classes in Saint Petersburg. He is courting the now fading Elisabeth Nikolaïevna, but it’s more a game for him than true love or even financial interest. When he gets home, his valet gives him a card from Prince and Princess Ligovskoï who have left Moscow to spend some time in Petersburg. He reacts violently, burns the card and becomes restless. We quickly understand that he used to be in love with Viéra Dmitrievna, now married to Prince Ligovskoï and that it hurts him to see her. Follow their encounters at the theatre and later at a diner.

That’s for the plot.

It left me really frustrated and a bit angry at Lermontov. I wish he had taken the time or the pain to complete this novel. It is so full of promises. He had a vivid tone, I imagine him walking briskly through life, with a sharp mind and an impertinent conversation. The descriptions of the Russian high society are lively and full of irony. The scene at the theatre reminded me of Balzac, in the description of clothing and the way people behave according to their social class. I could image the swish of gowns, the gossips in the boxes, the people watching, the buzz of conversation in the interval, the fancy crowd in the stairs at the end of the play. His prose sounds so French. The long description of Elisabeth Nikolaïevna’s fate as an ageing single woman reminded me of Jane Austen. He throws an uncompromising look at this poor young woman nobody wants to court with a serious wish to marry her. It is not without cruelty but also with lucidity: women’s fates were really like a lottery game. Either they picked a good number i.e. a decent husband or they didn’t and were miserable.

Unfortunately, the renewal of the acquaintance between Pietchorine and Viéra Dmitrievna is barely touched upon, evidence that this text was meant to be a long novel and not a novella. I would have wanted to know more. Again, I thought of Balzac when reading the passage where they meet at a diner. We can guess their respective misery is due more to a lot of misunderstanding than to one of them falling out of love with the other. Their passion smoulders, it wouldn’t need a lot to kindle it.

After finishing this book, I don’t really know how Lermontov would have covered the same topic as Zweig and Murakami. But I sure know I want to read A Hero of Our Time.

Literature and me: nursing the enchantment

July 1, 2011 12 comments

 Usually I don’t write personal posts but Max’s post The Death of Enchantment and its comments have been nagging at me. His post is about What Ever Happened to Modernism, by Gabriel Josipovici, a book I’d never heard of before reading reviews on blogs. It hasn’t been translated into French that maybe why. Two things have been nagging at me.  

The first thing was the answer to my provocative comment stating that for me, literary criticism is cutting hair in small pieces. Someone named Steve replied it’s a self-destructive thought. That bothered me as I don’t think of myself as self-destructive. He was very educational and tried to lead me back to the right path through enlightening readings. And I’m very grateful that he took the time to do it, as I love to learn. It led me to a blog post about Borges I couldn’t understand and to researching Maurice Blanchot on Wikipedia. I came to the conclusion that all these ideas are out-of-reach for me because I lack the academic and cultural background to grasp them. But I’m not really satisfied with that simple explanation and it has a sour taste of defeat I don’t like.

The second thing was when I read the following exchanges. “Read” is a big word. “went through them” is more appropriate. I couldn’t get interested in them despite their obvious intelligence. And I wondered why because usually my curiosity is endless. Plus, I don’t particularly shy away from abstract thinking. Was that because it was beyond my brain’s abilities? After further thinking, I thought not. It’s not that I can’t understand the discussion –I probably could if I took the trouble reading closely and studying a bit, it’s just that I don’t want to. OK, that’s also better for my ego, I admit it.

The truth is I thought it was pointless. The discussion about “modernism” and its status, dead or alive, seemed pointless to me. And that was the chore of the problem. I think these philosophical discussions about the novel, its form, its future pointless and even dangerous for me. Why dangerous?

I have enough of reality at work and in my everyday life with groceries, homework and so on. Literature is my hobby. It’s my enchanted world. I want to ogle at books, I want to be a child, I want to dream. As a child, I never wanted to know how a magician did his tricks. As an adult, I don’t watch films make-overs. I don’t want to know that a painter put that touch of white precisely there to enforce perspective. And I don’t really want to know how a writer created his/her book. I’m looking for pleasure. I want to stare at beauty with bewildered eyes.

I don’t know if what I say is clearly expressed, so I’ll take an analogy. Let’s say I’m looking at a handsome man and think he has a sexy smile. I’m interested in understanding that I find his smile sexy because he has dimples and reminds me of someone I love. It tells something about me and my relation to beauty. I don’t want to see his X-ray and know that he has that sexy smile because his jaw has such a form that it could only end up showing dimples. I don’t want to see the X-Ray because after that, every time I’ll look at this handsome man, the X-Ray will be there, somewhere in my mind, killing the enchantment and altering the beauty, the sensation of looking at beauty.

That’s how I feel about literature. I’m reading for the enchantment. I’m reading for beauty. Therefore I block out everything that could kill the enchantment and spoil my pleasure. According to Wikipedia “Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals.” I leave this study, evaluation and philosophical discussion to others.

I have a childish way of reading and I’m proud of it. Who said I needed to be an adult in every area of my life?

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