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Around the World in Eighty Days : from book to play

September 30, 2011 21 comments

Le Tour du monde en 80 jours by Jules Verne (1828-1905). 1873.  English title: Around the World in Eighty Days

A couple of weeks ago, I took a bunch of CFOs and CFOs-to-be to the theatre in Paris. Yes, contrary to what you read in books and newspapers, finance guys have a soul, can be a lot of fun and half the time are women. I had chosen Around the World in Eighty Days and as always in this case, I like to read the book first to compare it to the theatre version.

It can sound strange but I had never read Jules Verne at all. In this novel, Mr Phileas Fogg, a British gentleman, bets with acquaintances in his club that he’ll be able to travel around the world in eighty days. He takes his French valet Passepartout with him. At the same moment, £50 000 are stolen from the Bank of England. The Inspector Fix, from Scotland Yard, is certain that Fogg is his thief and he follows the man in his trip around the world, in the hope to get a mandate to arrest him as soon as they are on British grounds. The novel relates their adventures in boats and trains, in foreign countries.

Several things struck me while I was reading.

The first one is its buoyant optimism, present in the style as Jules Verne makes an abundant — and sometimes tiring — use of exclamation marks. Verne shows a strong confidence in science and marvels at technological progress. Transcontinental trains in America. The Canal of Suez. The book was written in 1873 and I thought the morale of the country was rather low at the time, not far after the defeat of Sedan and riots in Paris. Was he trying to cheer people up?

The second one is the caricature of the British gentleman. Really, Fogg corresponds to the perfect cliché the French have about British gentlemen of the Victorian Era. Imperturbable. Utterly polite. Dressed to the nines. Generous and chivalrous. Unmovable whatever the difficulty. Self-confident. By the way, I suppose it’s highly improbable that a man like Phileas Fogg could marry an Indian woman without a huge scandal in his social circle. In real life, wouldn’t that even mean banishment from his beloved club? The opposition of characters between Fogg and Passepartout is rather funny. The valet’s name means “master key” or as an adjective “all-purposes”. Passepartout admires Fogg and his bonhomie. They make a good comic team, the British forecasting all the problems and the French creating most of them. In French we say “avoir une idée fixe” i.e. to have an obsession. I wonder if Inspector Fix’s name comes from that expression as he relentlessly pursues Fogg.

The third one would be the style and the vocabulary. All amounts in pounds are dutifully converted into francs for the French reader. Today, it sounds so odd. I also noticed many many English words instead of French ones. Like: Londoner, railway, steam-boat, cab, steamer, pardeck. I can’t tell when the corresponding French words were invented but “billet de banque” for “bank note” must have existed in 1873, as well as “chemin de fer” for “railroad”. I wonder why Verne wrote like this. Sometimes, I also thought that the syntax was strange, like L’Etat de Névada, when we now say l’Etat du Névada or Il égalait le Mongolia [a boat] en vitesse mais pas en confortable where we would usually say Il égalait le Mongolia en vitesse mais pas en confort. Some phrases are incomprehensible out of the context, like Il y avait grand concours de populaire for Il y avait beaucoup de peuples différents. He even included English expressions in sentences like Ce “great attraction” de la représentation devait clore la série des exercices. Weird for a French reader, really, it kept catching my eyes and attention. I wonder how it is translated into English.

For once, the play was a lot better than the book. I was rather bored by Fogg jumping from boats to trains and trains to boats. Of course, he doesn’t get seasick, finds a solution to any impediment, all this with perfect class. I’m bored by perfect characters, they don’t exist in real life so I was a little bored by the book. The play was…playful. It was so funny. The actors yelled, jumped, danced and created the atmosphere of boats and trains in a very convincing manner. They inserted double-entendre and allusions to today’s society that perfectly fit in. We had a wonderful evening.

For another take, Amateur Reader has written a great review Ballooning with the dummy in the top hat. I love that title.

German Literature Month in November: my selection

September 28, 2011 22 comments

After a moment of hesitation, I decided to participate to the German Reading Month hosted by Caroline (Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life). It will take place in November and will overlap my EU Book Tour project. After Dutch literature in June, German-speaking literature in November.

I’m not well read in German literature. When I think of the German books I’ve read and loved, most of them are by Austrian or Czech writers (Zweig, Kafka, Schnitzler, Rilke). Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled by the few books from Germany I’ve read so far. The Sorrows of the Young Werther by Goethe? Romanticism isn’t my cup of tea. Mademoiselle de Scudéry by E.T.A. Hoffmann? Not a remarkable landmark in my reading history. The Left Handed Woman by Peter Handke? Brr, terrible experience. Death in Venice by Thomas Man? I can’t recall a single thing from the plot. And I didn’t even remember I had read The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum until I started investigating Heinrich Böll for this event.

I think this was all bad luck and I’m sure there must be German books I will enjoy. I never picked up the right ones, that’s all. Anyway, I looked for the German books on my shelves and on my wish lists. I’m terribly lazy, so I eliminated big books and here is the dream list.

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1895)

Caroline and Lizzy organize a readalong. I’ll probably read it at my own pace. Sorry Caroline and Lizzy, but reading determined chapters each week sounds like school and I’m not up for it. But I’m really interested in discovering Effi Briest.

 

 

Un mariage à Lyon by Stefan Zweig, a French collection of short stories including:

German Title

French Title

English Title

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) Un mariage à Lyon A Wedding in Lyon (*)
Im Schnee (1901) Dans la neige In the Snow (*)
Das Kreuz (1906) La Croix The Cross (*)
Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910) Histoire d’une déchéance Twilight
Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916) La légende de la troisième colombe The Legend of the third Dove (*)
Episode am Genfer See (1919) Au bord du lac Léman By Lake Léman (*)
Der Zwang (1916) La Contrainte Constraint (*)

(*) I have no idea of the English title used by publishers, so I added the literal translation of the German title. I’ll never thank enough French publishers for sticking to literal translations of book titles most of the time. For a review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Lettres à Lou Andreas-Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke

This small book is a collection of letters Rilke wrote to his beloved Lou Andreas-Salome. I love Rilke. There’s nothing else to say. I’m looking forward to this bath in his soothing and wise prose. I also enjoy that collection of tiny books by Mille et Une Nuits. I have other titles from it and they’re always enchanting. I owe them a great translation of Ovide.

 

Hotel Savoy by Josef Roth (1924)

I’ve had in mind to read a book by Josef Roth for a while and this one seems just great.

Beton by Thomas Bernhard (1982)

The English title is Concrete and the French one Béton. I added it to my TBR after Guy’s review. You can read it here.

 

 

 

Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt by Herta Müller (1994).

The French title is the translation of the German, L’homme est un grand faisan sur la terre. The English title, The Passport, is totally invented by the publisher. Indeed, the original title means Man is a great pheasant on the earth, which is much more intriguing in my opinion. I was intrigued by the title and interested in reading a book by the Nobel Prize Winner of 2009. 

 

Ruhm: Ein Roman in neun Geschichten by Daniel Kehlmann (2009)

The English title is Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes. The French title is Gloire. I expect a lot of fun with this collection of short stories by an Austrian writer. Another reading idea I owe to Guy. Here is the link to his review.

 

 

I wanted to try another Heinrich Böll but I wasn’t tempted the blurbs of the books available in paperback. Ooops.Now that I look at my list again, I realize I’m not going to discover a lot of books from Germany. Tant pis. Of course, I’m not sure I’ll be able to read all this in time but I’ll try. Most of the books are short.

If anyone has read one of these, I’m interested in your take.

The Heartguard

September 25, 2011 15 comments

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt. 2008.  Translated into French as Eligie pour un Américain.

This is my first Siri Hustvedt and it deeply impressed me. Unlike my other readings, I felt the urge to take notes while I was reading, not to write down ideas but as a means to tame the strong reaction I had to her text.

Erik Davidsen is a divorced psychiatrist who lives in New York but grew up in Minnesota, in a family of Norwegian origins. His sister Inga also lives in New York with her teenage daughter Sonia. Inga is a philosopher and a writer and she’s the widow of the famous writer Max Blaustein. Max died five years ago from cancer but Inga still suffers a lot from his absence. When the story begins, Lars Davidsen, Erik and Inga’s father, just died and as Erik’s house is now too big for him after his divorce, he rents a level to Miranda and her five-years-old daughter Eglantine. Mother and daughter enter into his life.

Erik explores his father’s past through Lars’s memoirs and Inga is face to face with Max’s hidden past. She’s also the keeper of his literary work. It’s about mourning, memory and the question of identity. We define ourselves according to our environment and our relationships with other people. What does it do to our self when a beloved person dies? Who is Inga without Max? The part of Inga who was “Max’s wife” has to die too. Who is Erik without his father’s figure? The part of Erik named “Lars’s son” has to die too.

The absence of joy seeps from this book but it’s not weepy at all. Our narrator, Erik, is beige and whispering. All the characters have a secret crack in their soul, in their being. And Erik isn’t photosensitive but sorrow-sensitive. Other people’s pains go under his skin and meet his, not by osmosis but by capillarity. There’s a sort of permeability of pain from Erik’s patients to himself. From Inga to Erik. From Sonia to Erik. I felt him breathing in his environment and breathing out sorrow in thoughts and dreams, feelings and visions. He’s also a caretaker. Some people are bodyguards. He’s the heartguard of his family. In French, I would have said « Il est leur garde du cœur » Nonetheless, I was watching him but not living with him. He’s a distant person with a vast personal space. As a reader, I couldn’t enter his bubble. Dreams, ghosts and secrets have a great part in the characters’ lives.

This novel is entitled Sorrows of an American and I didn’t see Erik as an American. I felt him more Norwegian than American. After that thought had crossed my mind, I wondered “What does it mean?” And I have no clear answer to that. Perhaps it’s because it reminded me of Wassmö’s books or because it also sounds like Nancy Huston. Or maybe it is because I pictured him silently crying like the man on Munch’s painting, The Cry. Erik has a muffled voice to tell painful memories and events, to evoke people who grew up in a family where too much was left unsaid. Erik exudes sadness and smothered sorrows. So do Inga, Miranda, Sonia.

It is the story of America, in a way or probably more the story of the American psyche. Through Lars Davidsen’s memoirs, the story of immigrants and farmers in Minnesota resurfaces. The Great Depression. The hardworking men. The distance between the farms and the snow that cuts them from the rest of the world during winter time. The poverty. It’s far from the myth of the glorious emigrant who came to the country of milk and honey. Emigrants don’t get rich but spend a lot of sweat. However, social ascension is a reality: Erik’s father was a history teacher and Erik himself is a psychiatrist.

The central question of races is present as another part of the origins of the American psyche. I’m always puzzled when I read that characters define themselves according to the percentage of black or Cherokee blood they have in them. Or more precisely, they give the percentage of non-white blood they have. Miranda is black, from Jamaica. Eglantine’s father is from mixed origins.

And then the trauma of 9/11, as Sonia was in school in Manhattan when it happened. She suffers from nightmares.

Siri Hustvedt’s father died when she was writing this book and she had time to ask him his permission to use parts of his memoirs in her novel. So I was moved to discover that Lars Davidsen’s memoirs were real. I wondered if Siri Hustvedt, from Minnesota and of Norwegian origins had split herself into Erik and Inga. Erik is the one who reads his father’s memoirs, like she did. Inga is a woman. She’s a little unbalanced, I don’t know how to phrase is into English except under the general “it’s the nerves”. Which brings us back to Siri Hustvedt and her book The Shaking Woman: A History of my Nerves. (Read Caroline’s excellent review here) Inga’s husband is a much acclaimed writer, innovative, a literary genius who overshadows his wife’s talent as a writer. Like Paul Auster? All in all, I had the feeling that she had put a lot of herself in this book.

The only thing that bothered me in that novel is the name of Miranda’s daughter, Eglantine, a French word meaning Wild Rose. An improbable name to me, I even downloaded a sample of the book to see if the translator had translated another name into Eglantine for the French public. But no, her name is really Eglantine, a floral name. So when she’s called Eggy, I sort of superimposed an image of an egg head on a wild rose bush and it was really weird. But it is a minor flaw and a personal incident.

That said, I loved this book (and if you reader hasn’t understood that by now, I’m a poor reviewer) and I want to read another one from her. Any suggestion?

War of the Worlds : without me

September 24, 2011 22 comments

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells 1898.

Title of the book one: The Coming of the Martians. It was such a put off that I took the book several times in hand before turning that first page. Without Max’s previous comment that War of the Worlds was a way to criticize British colonialism, I would have put the book back on the shelf.

So I started it and really, the first chapter was promising, I could see the metaphor with European colonialists. But then, no sorry, metaphor or not, the story of Tripods and Heat-Rays (I know, it’s for rifles) didn’t make it. I flipped through the table of contents: 150 pages of war before the description of life under the Martian rule, which seemed more interesting to me.

Too much for me. I hesitated (I could try to read past page 69, couldn’t I?) then saw my TBR shelves and thought about using that reading time for something that would really appeal to me. Un livre qui me ferait plaisir.

This is why I abandoned War of the Worlds, a book victim of my limited reading time. I’m sure it’s a great novel but not for me, not at this moment.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

September 22, 2011 13 comments

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. 1966. 239p French title: La prisonnière des Sargasses.

Wide Sargasso Sea is known as a prelude to Jane Eyre but there’s more to it than a simple addition to Charlotte Brontë’s novel. It is a stand-alone novel anyone can read even without knowing the details of Jane Eyre.

We are in the 1830s in Jamaica. Antoinette Cosway is a young Créole, a white young woman born in Jamaica from English colonists. Her brother is retarded and her father died when she was young. The first part of the novel relates her childhood in her family’s estate and the ruin following riots with black slaves and eventually the abolition of slavery (1834). It’s a first person narrative, Antoinette is rather solitary as her family is despised by other colonists. Moreover, their estate Coulibri is on a remote place of the island. Antoinette describes the country, the atmosphere, the flowers, the exotic trees. I saw paintings by Le Douanier Rousseau. She’s a sensitive child, afraid of many things, a bit superstitious. She’s impressed by the stories that her black nanny Christophine tells her. That Christophine is an uncanny character. She was prosecuted in La Martinique for practicing voodoo. She influences Antoinette with her beliefs and stories. As Antoinette is left to herself – no governess, no proper education – nothing counterbalances Christophine’s power over her sensitive mind. Her mother has no interest in her education and she runs wild in the nearby wilderness.

Antoinette’s mother is a sort of weird, proud and beautiful woman who escapes destitution by marrying Mr. Mason. He then becomes Antoinette’s stepfather. They live together until a terrible event costs her brother his life and make them flee to Spanish Town, the capital of Jamaica. Her mother will never recover and will sink into madness. Antoinette is left in a convent, to get a little education with nuns and be safely kept. The fears and ghosts are still there. When she’s old enough, her stepfather marries her to an English gentleman she has never met before. This gentleman is never named but we know it is Mr Rochester, one of the main characters of Jane Eyre.

The second part is also a first person narrative but the voices alternate between Antoinette and her husband. They live in Antoinette’s family house. He shares his thoughts, depicts the strangeness of this new environment, the fauna, the flora, the ambivalent relationships with the black domesticity. They are all old servants of the family but he feels hostility towards him and white people in general. Everything is different from what he has always known and he struggles to adapt to the customs of this country and the presence of these unfriendly servants. She details her vision of him, their marriage, their new life together.

Antoinette and he have been thrown into this arranged marriage to satisfy their greedy families. Mr Mason needs to marry his stepdaughter to a stranger, someone who ignores the background of the family and the local gossip. The man’s father needed to marry his cadet son to a rich girl, to secure his living. They’re part of a trade. The man will do his best to adapt. He knows the marriage has been arranged for financial reasons. When a local man sends him a letter revealing the several cases of madness in his wife’s family, all his good intentions vanish. Before that letter, he could live with the idea that they had both been the victims of a trade. After that letter, he will consider that Mr Mason duped him and that he’s even more a victim than she is.

Antoinette perceives the change in her husband’s mood and attitude. She resents it as she tries to love him. She’s always been unbalanced but his rejection throws her into madness, not helped by Christophine’s toxic presence and influence. It turns to hell. Their thoughts and emotions are laid bare and we watch the implacable machine of hatred, madness and violence.

This is a multi-layered book. As a background, we have the history of Jamaica, the colonies, the riots and the conflicts between Black slaves or former slaves and white colonists. Jean Rhys was born in Jamaica and her description of the nature is gorgeous. I heard her pain and her nostalgia in this book, the same kind of feeling that is underlying in the novel by Hella S Haasse I’ve read earlier this year. It’s the particular feeling of the creole, the white person born and raised in a colony. Their childhood memories are there, they belong to this country and yet it isn’t their country. They’re foreigners in their home country in Europe and considered as foreigners in their adopted country. I’ve read that Jean Rhys needed nine years to write Wide Sargasso Sea and that it comes a long time after her other books. I suppose it was tough for her to think about Jamaica, the lost paradise of her childhood.

It is also a fantastic prelude to Jane Eyre, explaining one of its main events in a convincing manner. Charlotte Brontë’s device may seem a little artificial but it makes sense after reading Wide Sargasso Sea. It’s impressive how Jean Rhys perfectly manages to make the stories fit into each other.

I disagree with the French blurb of the book, making of Antoinette alone a victim of a cruel husband. She’s not the only victim and the English man’s hatred grows in spite of him, out of pride. The thought of being a toy in his father’s and in Mr Mason’s hands is enough to ruin all his good intentions to make the better out of the situation. It’s the story of a double imprisonment in marriage. Hence the title. The Sargasso Sea is a sea without shores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, near Bermuda. It’s a place where the water is full of seaweed floating on the surface. It could be a place full of life. It isn’t. There aren’t many fish there and sailors dread that area as the winds are weak and the boats get stuck. It’s the perfect metaphor for Antoinette and her husband’s story. They’re stuck in Jamaica, in a nest of lies, of violence and suspicion. The vegetation is luxuriant and keeps them captive. Their relationship is sterile. It is all madness and hatred between the spouses, between white and black people and even between members of a family. The Sargasso Sea is the image of the society that imprisons Antoinette and her husband.

The description of madness is masterly crafted, one of the bests I’ve read. We see Antoinette’s slow journey to hell, fighting against the ghosts of her past and the tricks of her mind. It’s full of pity but doesn’t hide the reality. It is hard for Antoinette but it is also hard for her relatives, including her unfortunate husband. It also shows how helpless he feels in the presence of that illness. Voodoo plays a part as Christophine fuels Antoinette’s craziness with her ideas.

Jean Rhys has an extraordinary style – even in translation – and yet I’ve heard this one isn’t her best book. Lucky me, I have treasures to read ahead. Many thanks to Max from Pechorin’s Journal for bringing her to my attention. He reviewed La Grosse Fifi, Quartet and Good Morning Midnight.

Book Around The Corner and Wikipedia

September 18, 2011 15 comments

I’m a daily user of Wikipedia, especially for literature as it’s the place where I find original book titles. It’s priceless in order to reconcile French and English titles of books. And sometimes guessing is impossible, like Whatever for Houellebecq’s Extension du domaine de la lutte. Without Wikipedia, I’d get mad or I’d write mistakes.

Honestly, until tonight, I never really wondered who writes articles for Wikipedia. I know it’s a community of writers, that errors are checked and corrected by the group. I took it for granted and never really thought further about it. Now that I’ve discovered that my blog is listed among other literary blogs in the Litblog article, after a solid moment of sheer puzzlement, I really wonder who put me there. Anyway, I’m shallow enough to be proud of it… 🙂 So thanks to the anonymous contributor who added me to the list of examples.

See you as soon as possible for the review of Wide Sargasso Sea, when job applications, resumes, work and family life will leave me enough time to write.

Categories: Personal Posts

Hollow Highways Revisited

September 14, 2011 28 comments

On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman. 2009. 202 pages.

The curse of our generation is that everything’s been tried before. Drink, drugs, God, sex, meditation, masturbation, crystals, mushrooms, peyote, shamanism, communism, consumerism, tai chi, feng shui, kung fu, flower power and TV shopping. It’s obvious to anyone that out little road trip here is nothing more than a tired repetition of an age-old formula. But have you got any better ideas, Jack? Have you thought of something that nobody else in the world before you has thought of?

As regular readers might have noticed, I’m in a “classics revisited” mood these days. After the excellent 1280 âmes, the awful Madman Bovary and before the fantastic Wide Sargasso Sea, I read Andrew Blackman’s debut novel, On the Holloway Road. It’s an assumed adaptation of the mythic On the Road by Jack Kerouac in modern Britain. I was curious to discover what he had done with such a pitch, a slippery slope, in my opinion. As I had re-read On the Road last year and reviewed here, it was recent enough for me to see the links between the books.

Jack lives in London with his mother after his father died. He’s in his twenties or maybe early thirties and has decided to become a writer. While he struggles with his first novel, he meets Neil Black during one of his errands on the Holloway Road. They embark in his Figaro for a road trip to the extreme North of Great Britain. They have with them the audio book of On the Road, read by Matt Dillon. It’s a first person narrative, we only have Jack’s version of the events, he might be an unreliable narrator.

I’ve noticed that road trips in Britain consist in driving in the wild North. (cf The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim) Jack muses: “It’s a landscape of possibilities, where for a while you feel as if you can breathe air that hasn’t recently passed through someone else’s lungs”. Does going beyond the Wall of Hadrian still symbolize something? Incidentally, I wondered what it would be in France and I couldn’t figure it out. Such road trips would be more on foot, on the way to Santiago de Compostella or in the Massif Central, with a donkey on Stevenson’s footsteps. But back to the book.

In French we say “coup de foudre” (literally “flash of lightening”) for “love at first sight”. I prefer the French expression because it can be used for many situations, including friendship and doesn’t have necessarily a romantic meaning. Jack has a “coup de foudre” for the buoyant Neil. They are like fire and ice. Neil is weird, unpredictable, prone to verbal logorrhea and incoherent theories about life and freedom. Jack is quieter, respectful of rules and principles, desperately reasonable. Jack is fascinated by Neil, their relationship is based on rather blind adoration and even if Jack is aware that it is toxic for him, he can’t walk away from Neal. He’s like a drug to him.

I got a sensation that was strange to me at the time but would soon become familiar: that Neil was doing enough living for the two of us, and there was nothing left for me to do but watch.

I wasn’t fond of Neil (I wasn’t fond of Dean either btw) but I sure felt sorry for Jack. Being myself rather shy and quiet, I understand perfectly why he’s so attracted by the extroverted Neil. Still, I wonder if there isn’t a hint of homosexuality between the two.

All along their trip, we realize that their dream of American wilderness and of carefree behaviors such as Sal and Dean’s cannot happen in today’s Britain. The environment makes it hard to break the rules. Attempts at driving wild are cut short by traffic cameras and automatic flashes. Soon Jack is afraid to lose all his points on his driving license. When Neil throws away some trash on the highway, they are quickly arrested by the police and get a fine: someone had reported it. When they want to be hired on a drill platform, they learn you need qualifications and a special security training and that two good arms and a will to work aren’t enough.

For those who haven’t read On the Road or don’t remember it, the characters of the book are Sal and Dean, respectively Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy in real life. When I thought about the two sets of characters, I saw butterflies. Sal and Dean are day butterflies, the colorful ones who fly playfully from one flower to another under a sunny sky. They have a vivid and joyful way to fly, as if they were enjoying their short time on Earth and trying to make the best out of it. They’re jazz, light, fun, sad, full of life. On the contrary, I saw Jack and Neil as night butterflies. They’re grey, hollow, and live in a dark world and their pool of light is made of electric bulbs. When they fly, it’s only to bump into that artificial light they take for the sun and burn their fragile wings. Their freedom is sad and limited. It’s limited by their time and by their country, the cops, the camera, the rules and the absence of vast wilderness. They’re electronic music, mechanic, repetitive and inhuman. Their goal in itself draws the difference between them. While Sal and Dean drive to the sunny California, Jack and Neil drive to the windy and cold island of Barra.

On the Holloway Road left me singing Send A Picture of Mother by Johnny Cash. It’s a sad song about a man whose friend just got liberated from prison and who knows he’s himself  in jail for life. It stayed with me as a bridge between today’s Britain and 1950s America. After all, isn’t it what this book is all about?

 

The Narrator and Molière: comedy in Sodome et Gomorrhe

September 11, 2011 13 comments

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. Translated into English as Sodom and Gomorrah or Cities of the Plain (C.K. Scott Moncrieff) I used this translation for the quotes.

I thought that this volume is the most comedy-oriented so far and I imagined it deserved a special review. There’s no thinking or admiring hawthorn bushes. Molière and vaudeville hover over the book; the Narrator interacts with the reader:

« Tout ceci, dira le lecteur, ne nous apprend rien sur le manque de complaisance de cette dame ; mais puisque vous vous êtes si longtemps arrêté, laissez-moi, monsieur l’auteur, vous faire perdre une minute de plus pour vous dire qu’il est fâcheux que, jeune comme vous l’étiez (ou comme était votre héros s’il n’est pas vous), vous eussiez déjà si peu de mémoire, que de ne pouvoir vous rappeler le nom d’une dame que vous connaissiez fort bien. » C’est très fâcheux en effet, monsieur le lecteur. All this,” the reader will remark, “tells us nothing as to the lady’s failure to oblige; but since you have made so long a digression, allow me, gentle author, to waste another moment of your time in telling you that it is a pity that, young as you were (or as your hero was, if he be not yourself), you had already so feeble a memory that you could not recall the name of a lady whom you knew quite well.” It is indeed a pity, gentle reader.

Reading it again, it resonates with theatre too. In Molière’s play, a character can be alone on stage, talking to the public and explaining the situation or his intentions.

The evening at the Princesse de Guermantes is clearly the opportunity to mock the aristocrats. The Narrator is more used to them now and the awe is gone. He observes them with a caustic eye and sees how vapid, snobbish and silly they can be. They are down from their pedestal. This stems from a double phenomenon: on the one hand, the Narrator is more mature and on the other hand, he’s used to them now. The repetition of diners dispels the magic.

Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was ‘no help,’ they had made up their minds not to be silent but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia; without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to breathe, the interval was filled by the murmurs of the Grandee of Spain who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

The bourgeois world, ie the Verdurins, isn’t better. Madame Verdurin may have good taste in art, her world is as codified and as narrow as the aristocratic circles. The Narrator ridicules them too. He also makes fun of the employees at the Grand Hotel, but the tone is kinder. Comedy is spread through the novel in the description of characters or in particular scenes. References to Molière are frequent and that’s why I think there’s an assumed aim at comedy and irony in Sodom and Gomorrah. I could quote many comical passages, I laughed a lot and Proust proves again how funny he is. I thought that in the previous volumes, he was observant and amused. In this one, I thought he was still incredibly observant but also more nasty. The Narrator himself is never nasty but he reports other people’s speeches. Here is M. de Charlus unleashing his irony on Mme de Surgis:

Peut-être aussi M. de Charlus, de qui l’insolence était un don de nature qu’il avait joie à exercer, profitait-il de la minute pendant laquelle il était censé ignorer qui était le nom de ces deux jeunes gens pour se divertir aux dépens de Mme de Surgis et se livrer à ses railleries coutumières, comme Scapin met à profit le déguisement de son maître pour lui administrer des volées de coups de bâton.

Perhaps too M. de Charlus, whose insolence was a natural gift which he delighted in exercising, took advantage of the few moments in which he was supposed not to know the name of these two young men to have a little fun at Mme. de Surgis’s expense, and to indulge in his habitual sarcasm, as Scapin takes advantage of his master’s disguise to give him a sound drubbing.

I really thought there was a deliberate constant reference to Molière who used comedy to violently criticize his time. Proust isn’t soft with his world either. In the previous quote, Scapin is a valet in Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière. He’s a scoundrel who plots against his master to help the son’s master marry the girl he loves. Now, the Narrator describes the lift-boy’s way of speaking, using a comparison with Molière:

J’ai pas pour bien longtemps, disait le lift qui, poussant à l’extrême la règle édictée par Bélise d’éviter la récidive du pas avec le ne, se contentait toujours d’une seule négative. Haven’t any too much time,” said the lift-boy, who, carrying to extremes the grammatical rule that forbids the repetition of personal pronouns before coordinate verbs, omitted the pronoun altogether.

Oops, Bélise, the pedantic character of The Learned Ladies was lost in translation. And now Céleste and Marie, the two chamber maids, playfully chiding the Narrator:

Ah! Sac à ficelles, ah! Douceur ! Ah perfidie ! Rusé entre les rusés, rosse des rosses! Ah! Molière!

Oh! The story-teller! Oh! The flatterer! Oh! The false one! The cunning rogue! Oh! Molière!”

This sounds like the passage in L’Avare. (Ma cassette!) or in Les Fourberies de Scapin (“What the devil was he doing in that galley!”) or maybe Toinette, the energetic maid in Le Malade Imaginaire. It reminds me of the scenes where characters yell and dupe others which are rather frequent in Molière’s plays. The English version is slightly bowdlerized, btw.

Medecine and physicians are attacked, as the Narrator sees his doctor more often than he’d wish to and as Cottard is a famous physician. It starts softly with a general sentence like this one:

C’est que la médecine a fait quelques petits progrès dans ses connaissances depuis Molière, mais aucun dans son vocabulaire.

The fact is that medicine has made some slight advance in knowledge since Molière’s days, but none in its vocabulary.

It’s an allusion to a famous scene in Le Malade Imaginaire where Purgon stabs Argan with complicated medical words and words in Latin and Greek. Purgon’s power over Argan partly lays in his supposedly superior knowledge. But he’s totally inefficient as a physician. This play is also present in the following phrase:

Il est tombé de la neurasthénie dans la philologie, comme eût dit mon bon maître Pocquelin. He has lapsed from neurasthenia to philology, as my worthy master Pocquelin would have said.

Pocquelin was Molière’s real name and it’s another allusion to the Malade Imaginaire. He died on stage when he was playing Argan. And another one, directed at Cottard:

L’éminent professeur, dit Brichot, s’exprime, Dieu me pardonne, dans un français aussi mêlé de latin et de grec qu’eut pu le faire M. Purgon lui-même, de moliéresque mémoire ! The eminent Professor,” said Brichot, “expresses himself in a French as highly infused with Latin and Greek as M. Purgon himself, of Molièresque memory!

Argan, the main character of Le Malade Imaginaire, thinks he’s sick and is in the power of his doctor, named M. Purgon. This play is a strong attack against charlatans and so-called doctors. It’s not exactly flattering for Professor Cottard, who’s an eminent physician too.

On another tone, here is Cottard speaking:

Vous avez, dit Cottard, une veine de… turlututu, mot qu’il répétait volontiers pour esquiver celui de Molière. You have,” said Cottard, “the luck of… turlututu,” a word which he gladly repeated to avoid using Molière’s

The missing word is “cocu” (a “cocu” is a deceived spouse) There’s a French idiom that says “avoir une chance de cocu”, ie to be very lucky. It’s colloquial. I hope you have a footnote in your English edition for that sentence or it must be rather obscure. One of Molière’s plays in entitled Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire.

What is really interesting is that characters from all social classes (employees at the hotel, artistocrats and bourgeois) refer to Molière. As a great fan of Molière too, I wanted to point out the wonderful tribute Proust does to that playwright, the most popular of French theater, the one that even the dullest French teacher cannot ruin. I didn’t remember all these references to Molière and honestly, Molière isn’t the writer I’d associate to Proust at first thought. Proust’s image is more linked to digressions, thoughts and reverie than to comedy. I suppose that it comes from the first volumes but Sodom and Gomorrah anchors Proust in the tradition of French literature and French “spirit” in other ways than his love for Balzac. It’s all in the nasty but witty observations and descriptions. I don’t know how to call that, but I can hear the particular tone used to utter those cutting remarks that are the basis of French sense of humour. In the 17th C literature, the Narrator’s grand-mother may worship Madame de Sévigné, the Narrator himself prefers Molière.

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust

September 9, 2011 14 comments

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. 1921/1922 English titles: Cities of the Plain or Sodom and Gomorrah. All the quotes come from the Scott Moncrief translation.

After a long introduction on homosexuality – another post, if I have enough time – the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time opens with a worldly diner at the Princesse de Guermantes. The Narrator is now a great friend of Oriane de Guermantes and is well-acquainted with the aristocratic world. He’s used to meeting them and notices their flaws and ridicules. We hear again of those ludicrous first names (Adalbert, Herminie, Antioche, Arnulphe, Victurnien, Amanien) but the Narrator has lost his illusions and sees the hypocrisy behind the politeness:

I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

The Duchesse de Guermantes is as delicate as ever:

« La proximité de la dame suffit. Je me dis tout d’un coup : « Oh ! mon Dieu, on a crevé ma fosse d’aisances », c’est simplement la marquise qui, dans quelque but d’invitation, vient d’ouvrir la bouche. Et vous comprenez que si j’avais le malheur d’aller chez elle, la fosse d’aisances se multiplierait en un formidable tonneau de vidange. »

The proximity of the lady is enough. I say to myself all at once: oh, good lord, someone has broken the lid of my cesspool, when it is simply the Marquise opening her mouth to emit some invitation. And you can understand that if I had the misfortune to go to her house, the cesspool would be magnified into a formidable sewage-cart.

And I don’t have enough space to quote another of her verbal pearls. The Dreyfus Affair is still tearing apart the French society but the wind is shifting.

Ensuite et surtout, un assez long temps avait passé pendant lequel, si, au point de vue historique, les événements avaient en partie semblé justifier la thèse dreyfusiste, l’opposition antidreyfusarde avait redoublé de violence, et de purement politique d’abord était devenue sociale. C’était maintenant une question de militarisme, de patriotisme, et les vagues de colère soulevées dans la société avaient eu le temps de prendre cette force qu’elles n’ont jamais au début d’une tempête.

Moreover and above all, a considerable interval of time had elapsed during which, if, from the historical point of view, events had, to some extent, seemed to justify the Dreyfusard argument, the anti-Dreyfusard opposition had doubled its violence, and, from being purely political, had become social. It was now a question of militarism, of patriotism, and the waves of anger that had been stirred up in society had had time to gather the force which they never have at the beginning of a storm.

The innocence of Dreyfus isn’t acknowledged yet but more and more people support his cause. His detractors radicalize and the opposition between the two sides is violent. 

After a long description of that evening, the Narrator leaves to Balbec again. The departure and arrival are quite different from the first time as he now knows the place very well. In the Grand Hotel, he stays in the same room as the year before and the descriptions of the employees are little gems of comedy. He’s comfortable with this room even if it’s not the best one in the hotel. He can endure it as long as he doesn’t have to tame a new environment. At first, he’s happy to be in that room again until it reminds him that his grand-mother is dead. All the sorrow he hasn’t felt or has pushed aside crashes upon him. Mourning starts and Proust wrote beautiful pages about recovering from the death of a beloved one. That kind of pain is still ahead of me but I empathized with his description.

The Narrator’s months in Balbec are also an opportunity to get acquainted with the Verdurin circle. Indeed, the Verdurins rent a house from a now destitute aristocratic family, the Cambremer. This announces the shift in social circles that the last volumes will emphasize. The members of the circle join the parties by train, getting on the same carriage one by one. At the last station, cars wait for them. Proust depicts marvelous moments on that local train. The protegees socialize (I love that English word, it doesn’t have a French equivalent and at first, it was a puzzling notion for me.). They share easy banters or discuss etymology or literature. Professor Cottard, Saniette are there. And so is the Baron de Charlus, in love with Morel, a gifted violinist that Madame Verdurin sponsors. The Narrator takes advantage of that time to make out with Albertine. 

The Narrator’s relationship with Albertine continues. From my perspective, I thought “Poor Albertine”. The Narrator is as whimsical as a spoiled child – which he was, of course. He expects her to be available at any time of night and day. For example, he asks her to come to his place at 1 am. They had a rendezvous after his diner at the Princesse de Guermantes and she stood him up. He imagines her having fun with friends in a café and he’s so jealous that he insists on her coming to his place despite the late hour. Albertine’s freedom surprised me. She can go wherever she wants. Was it common or is it a sign that she doesn’t belong to a respectable family? Or as the real Albertine was a man, did Proust forget that a woman wouldn’t have had such a liberty? When they are in Balbec, they spend a lot of alone (and intimate) time together. She’s supposed to be his cousin but everybody knows it’s a front. It respects social conventions and doesn’t oblige his acquaintances and friends to show a public disapproval. His social circle pretends to buy the story and lets them do what they want.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be loved by the Narrator. His mind is tortuous, his imagination is wild and he makes scenes for details. He’s a little tyrant and wants to have power over her. After all, he’s always had women at his service: his mother, his grand-mother, Françoise. There’s a parallel between Swann’s love for Odette and the Narrator’s love for Albertine. They are not built on reality, on the real person or on the nice moments they spend together. Their love is fueled by imagination and jealousy. Swann doesn’t love Odette until he realizes he could lose her. The Narrator doesn’t love Albertine until he imagines she could have a homosexual relationship with Andrée or another friend.

After all this time, people start to expect a wedding (wait, what about the cousin front?) and his mother informs him of the gossip. Does he intend to marry her? With an incredible gift for guilt and psychology, she lets him understand she’d rather he didn’t marry her. She doesn’t think Albertine is a good match. So far, he has pushed the question aside but now, he’s forced to think it through.

In this volume, the Narrator has an idle life. Writing and working aren’t on his program. I felt him more actor of his life than spectator like before. Although he’s still ill, there’s more vitality, it’s less contemplative and there are very few digressing on art, on woman’s beauty or feelings. I suppose that’s also why I found this volume more caustic and purposely comical. (I’ll try to write something about that too.) I also enjoyed reading about the new technologies. He talks about “téléphonage” for “phone call”, and no one uses that word now. I smiled when he describes the first times he rented an automobile and wonders at all the things he can do in one afternoon.

PS: I mentioned in my post on Rilke that sometimes he sounded like Proust. Here is Proust sounding like Rilke.

dès que, pour y parcourir les artères de la cité souterraine, nous nous sommes embarqués sur les flots noirs de notre propre sang comme sur un Léthé intérieur aux sextuples replis, de grandes figures solennelles nous apparaissent, nous abordent et nous quittent, nous laissant en larmes.

as soon as, to traverse the arteries of the subterranean city, we have embarked upon the dark current of our own blood as upon an inward Lethe meandering sixfold, huge solemn forms appear to us, approach and glide away, leaving us in tears.

Madman Bovary by Claro: read Flaubert instead

September 9, 2011 11 comments

Madman Bovary by Claro. 2008.

When I entered a book store and asked for Madman Bovary, the clerk looked down on me and replied “You mean Madame Bovary” and it wasn’t even a question. She didn’t say “of course” but I heard it. So my voice was slightly irritated when I confirmed that I really wanted Madman Bovary by Claro, published by Babel.

It’s the story of a man who’s been dumped by his lover Estée. He decides to stay in bed and drown his sorrow in re-reading Madame Bovary. The blurb was intriguing, I wondered what he did with that pitch.

Then I lost myself in a sort of incoherent stream of consciousness in a style full of affectation. I hate sentences as “Naturellement virgule par nonchalence virgule il en vint à se délier de toutes les résolutions qu’il s’était faites.”. (“Naturally comma out of nonchalance comma then again he came to free himself of all the resolutions he had taken”.) I wonder why it’s not written full stop at the end. Claro should read Jean-Bernard Pouy to learn how to play with the language without sounding pedantic. You can’t take yourself too seriously when you want to twist grammar and vocabulary.

I didn’t survive past page 47, too mad for me. I left the guy where he was, thinking I should re-read Flaubert instead.

1280 âmes: In search of lost characters from Jim Thompson’s Pop.1280

September 6, 2011 14 comments

1280 âmes by Jean-Bernard Pouy. 2000. Not translated into English. The title means “1280 souls”

Pierre de Gondol owns the smallest book store in Paris, 12m² of over crowed shelves and his literary knowledge seems inversely proportional to the size of his bookshop. His clients are mostly composed of erudites, lunatics of literature who moon over their favourite authors, researching details and original editions. The kind of weirdos who must have had their foreheads hit by an encyclopedia of literature when they were in their crib.

One day, a new customer bursts into the shop and asks Pierre to enquire after the five people who disappeared from the original version of Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. Indeed, the mythic book number 1000 in the even more mythical Série Noire collection, ie Thompson’s Pop.1280, was translated into French by Marcel Duhamel and entitled 1275 âmes. Where are the five missing inhabitants? Pierre starts his enquiry in Parisian libraries and flies to America, to Oklahoma to try to discover the real Pottsville and solve the mystery.

Presented like this, it sounds a little dry and slippery as it’s always difficult to write based-on-a-classic books. But Jean-Bernard Pouy isn’t a newcomer in the Noir world (well, at least, in France). He has written over 30 novels, mostly published in the Série Noire Collection and is the creator of Le Poulpe, a character whose adventures are written by different authors. His character, Pierre, as he says, is a fan of Raymonds. Chandler. Carver. Queneau. A nice guy who drinks white wine as his American fellow Noir heroes drink whisky. His girl-friend Iris is a actress-to-be, accepting lousy experimental theatre festivals to make a living. She’s his opposite and a little crazy.

C’est ça, les couples. Moi, j’aimerais écrire comme Joyce ou Gadda et elle, parler comme Micheline Dax.

That’s what couples are about. I would want to write like Joyce or Gadda and she would like to speak like Micheline Dax. (1)

They have an undefined relationship, not living together but always on the razor’s edge. He loves her but sometimes he’s not sure she loves him in return. The side-characters, ie the customers, are funny and original.

I really had huge fun reading this. Coincidence after coincidence, it resonated with my last months’ reading in an incredible way and those who follow this blog will understand why immediately. Pouy has an extraordinary use of the French language. He’s a great admirer of the Oulipo movement and refers to Perec and Queneau every now and then, like here:

J’ai été alors interrompu dans toutes ces périgrinations mentales par l’arrivée intempestive de Serge énervé comme un perecliste ayant enfin trouvé le seul “E” qui paraît-il existe dans La Disparition.

Then Serge interrupted untimely my mental peregrinations. He was as agitated as a Perecist who has eventually found out the only “E” that supposedly exists in La Disparition.

So when one of Pierre’s last literary enquiries was to discover what had become of “the flat couple of Perec, the one in Les Choses, I thought he was winking at me. “Couple plat”, “flat couple”. I wish I had thought of that image myself when I reviewed Les Choses last month. “Flat couple”, it’s even better in English as this couple is flat and their flat is in the centre of the story. Allusions to Proust and Joyce are mixed with onomatopoeic spelling like in Zazie dans le métro by Raymond Queneau. He speaks French like a gourmet has diner in a fine restaurant. He plays with the sounds, spelling New-Yorkais as Nouillorquais, the words and the concepts. (In French slang, a “nouille” is a dummy)

He plays with the codes of genres, mostly Noir and road movies. He plays on the clichés of America for Europeans, just like Thompson creates Pottsville as the archetype of the Southern little town. The French translator, who is also the founder of the legendary Série Noire, wrote that Pottsville is Ploucville, literally Hickville. So we hear of the inevitable long highways, the dreary hotel rooms, the bad food. Look at Pierre leaving his motel room, somewhere in Oklahoma:

J’ai refait mon sac, et comme tous les acteurs de sitcoms dans ce genre de situation, j’ai jeté un dernier coup d’oeil lourd sur la chambre, putain c’est la dernière fois que je viens ici où j’ai été si heureux avec Cindy, et j’ai claqué la porte.

I packed my things, and like all the sitcoms actors in this kind of situation, I threw a last meaningful glance at the room, it’s the God-dang last time I’m coming here where I’ve been so happy with Cindy, and I slammed the door shut.

And to top it off, Pouy knows his Thompson perfectly. He makes correspondences between the original text and the translation, explains Pop. 1280 with biographical elements. It’s a good complement to the reading of Thompson’s novel. He finds a logical explanation to the disappearance of five people between the English and the French version.

As a mirror to the Oulipo, I also discovered the BILIPO, the Bibliothèque des Littératures Policières. I didn’t know there was a special library dedicated to crime fiction in Paris. I checked, it really exists and has all kinds of archives about this literature, books of course, but also university essays and magazines.

1280 âmes is definitely a UFO in the literary world, the kind of book you love or hate depending on who you are and when you read it. For me, the timing was perfect, I read it in a row, unable to stop, laughing out loud and learning fascinating literary details. The only flaw lays in the numerous digressions sometimes hilarious and sometimes less successful. I recommend to read it after Pop. 1280 and I understand perfectly that it can be obscure to someone who doesn’t know the book. For me, it was a treat. 


Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

September 4, 2011 22 comments

Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. by Peggy Orenstein. 2011

What do you think of this picture? It was taken in a souvenir shop in Paris. Shocking, isn’t it? This explains why I had to read Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein when I first heard about it on Caroline’s blog. The mother of a 10 year old girl and a 7 year old boy had to read it. Peggy Orenstein admits that she hoped to have a son because she didn’t know exactly how to put into practice the feminist approach of education she preaches. I liked her honesty and the general tone of the book, half-memoir, half-research. I agreed with almost all her views on what she wants for her daughter and how she wants to raise her. She started this book when her daughter Daisy was confronted to mass marketing for the first time. Her aim is to decipher the codes imposed on us when we raise a girl. She points out very well the impact of marketing, the tendency to gender division and the general ground swell that being a woman is being pretty, a shopping addict and a chatbox. I’m not going to repeat what Caroline has already summed up in her review. (As an aside, she published today my answers to her questions about this book.) I’m just going to comment it and share my thoughts. It’s only my experience and my opinion and it isn’t backed up by researches.

Orenstein’s first shock was when Daisy started pre-school and got interested in Disney Princesses. “Is that harmful?” she wonders. After all, they teach to little girls that their goal in life is to be pretty and rescued by a handsome and brave prince. And they’re everywhere. In Europe too. I paused to think about Disney Princesses in our family. My daughter has a towel, a plastic glass, a drawing notebook. She had a princess dress but not a Disney one. She loved her plastic heel shoes that make noise when you walk, like Mom’s shoes. But she never really identified with the princesses. We don’t have those Disney DVDs and as pre-schoolers, my children liked other cartoons. My son was more hooked by Lightening McQueen than she was by Disney Princesses. And that was perfect for me. As a feminist, I view Cinderella and Snow White as pretty housewives waiting patiently for a prince to rescue them. Not really the kind of active women who take their destinies in their hands I’d like my girl to become.

Is it worse than when we were children? Peggy Orenstein thinks it is. I’m not so sure. The media has changed but the message is the same. We were fed by the same stories, only they were in books. We also learnt that what you need most as a girl is to be pretty and gentle and that your best achievement is to catch a prince. And there was no Dora the Explorer. What has changed is mass marketing and the loss of decency and good sense. I was astonished by casual sentences like this:

“Meanwhile, one of her classmates, the one with Two Mommies, showed up to school every single day dressed in a Cinderella gown.”

Or

“About two-thirds of the audience at our local multiplex had been African American—parents with little girls decked out in gowns and tiaras—which was undeniably striking, even moving.”

When did costumes become regular outfits? In France, people will stare if your child is dressed as Cinderella, unless it’s Carnival. Don’t even think to bring your daughter to school in such attire. These clothes are not dresses, they are costumes. Children are smart. They make a difference between games and real world but if princess costumes become everyday clothes, it’s normal that they start thinking they are actual princesses. You don’t need a degree in psychology to figure it out. So you can say whatever you want about aggressive marketing, the Marketing VP of Disney is not the one who dresses your daughter in the morning, right? Just say No.

Then there’s the chapter on pink and how marketing imposes pink a THE girls’ colour. Incidentally, when I started reading the chapter about pink that I was wearing a fuchsia miniskirt with pink sandals. Am I a victim too? Pink is everywhere for little girls and it’s difficult to find cheap clothes that aren’t pink. Orenstein explains very well how splitting genders make families buy twice the same toy, once for their girl and once for their son. My daughter had her pink period but it’s over now.

I was appalled by the passage in the toy store in Manhattan, when Orenstein’s friend ends up spending more than $200 on toys. Again, the problem is not marketers, they’re doing their job. The problem is parents who can’t say no. In our family, children get toys for their birthdays and Christmas. In the meanwhile, they get books and small gifts on holiday. That’s it. If they ask for toys in a store, the answer is no. Always No. Even if they throw a tantrum and everybody looks at me like I’m Snow White’s wicked stepmother. Who said being a parent was always fun and nice? We have to hold our ground. We adults decide and frustration is part of growing up, part of life, actually.

Now about make up. I was surprised to read that “Close to half of six- to nine-year-old girls regularly use lipstick or gloss, presumably with parental approval; the percentage of eight- to twelve-year-olds who regularly use mascara and eyeliner doubled between 2008 and 2010, to 18 and 15 percent, respectively.” Call me old-fashioned, but for me, make up isn’t until at least 13 and the question “Should you let your three-year-old wear her child-friendly nail polish to preschool?” doesn’t require more than a 10 seconds thought. No is the answer. In France, girls don’t go to school with make up before Collège (Junior High)

How about this one: “So if a spa birthday party would make your six-year-old happy” In my experience, cooking a chocolate birthday cake with Mom and eat it with friends at her birthday party is what makes a six-year-old happy. Spa birthday parties are for teenagers at least and they’re toxic because they comfort girls in the idea that to be happy or feel good you have to do something for your body and because they promote non-mixed parties, as you can’t invite boys.

All these tendencies have strong consequences. First, “Both Princess and American Girl promote shopping as the path to intimacy between mothers and daughters”. And I think she’s right and this is a pity. I regretted that the author didn’t question more our consumer society. Everything is based on buying things. Becoming a woman is learning how to consume what marketing has decided to be woman-oriented goods and services. For me and Peggy Orenstein, raising a girl isn’t teaching her how to choose nail-polish. Second, it puts girls in ghettos and separates them from boys. She describes gender segregation in classes and there’s even a survey to try to develop mixed playing in school. In my experience, the segregation is not as strong here. Take birthdays. We’ve always had boys and girls at birthday parties. My daughter has boy-friends (in the sense of friends that are boys) and my son has girl-friends. I asked to other parents and we have the same experience. Things have also improved. My daughter plays football with boys in school. When I told her that when I was a girl, boys wouldn’t let girls play football with them she replied “They let me play because I’m good at it”. Sweet melody.

The following passage also struck me:

Hormones, genes, and chromosomes, then, aren’t quite as powerful as we tend to believe. And that has implications for how we raise and educate our children. “If you believe it’s all immutable, then what is the harm in plunking girls in a pink ghetto or letting boys get by without doing art or singing or all the things they used to like to do before they got associated with girls?”

For me, this is very American and I’m glad that Orenstein stands against it. From my French window and from books and films – how much they reflect reality is another debate – genders are more differentiated in America than in France. And there’s a deep tendency in America to believe in fate and genes are just a scientific name for fate. The difference between XX and XY is what defines female and male behaviours. Here, we tend to think it’s cultural. Of course men and women experience sex differently because their bodies are different but the way we raise children is what matters. I don’t believe that a girl is programmed to like pink, to chat, have mother instinct and other clichés about being female.

About growing up faster.

We have the impression that nowadays children grow up faster but I’m not so sure. I think we know better what they have in mind because they have a wider freedom of speech. True, they are exposed earlier to things like sex and sometimes school programs enforce the early knowledge. My daughter learnt everything about human reproduction in school. I didn’t have time to explain what periods are, the teacher beat me, he explained everything in class. (She’s 10, remember?) But do they understand it better than we would have at their age? Orenstein also notices:

As it is, girls are going through puberty progressively earlier. The age of onset of menstruation has dropped from seventeen at the beginning of the twentieth century to barely twelve today; pediatricians no longer consider it exceptional for an eight-year-old to develop breasts.

An acquaintance who lives in America told me that American paediatricians recommend giving organic milk to children to avoid the hormone doped regular milk. Early puberties can stem from too much of that milk and since American kids drink milk like ours drink water…

When I reached the chapter on social networks and on line BFFs, I was in an area I haven’t experienced so far. But I admit it worries me. I don’t know yet how we’ll handle that aspect of their adolescence and I agree with Peggy Orenstein when she states:

Gossip and nasty notes may be painful staples of middle school and high school girls’ lives, but YouTube, Facebook, instant messaging, texting, and voice mail can raise cruelty to exponential heights. Rumors can spread faster and further and, as the case of Phoebe Prince illustrates, there is nowhere to escape their reach—not your bedroom, not the dinner table, not while going out with your friends. The anonymity of the screen may also embolden bullies: the natural inhibitions one might feel face-to-face, along with any sense of accountability, fall away. It is easy, especially among young people, for behavior to spin out of control. Further, this risks exposing them to consequences they did not—or could not—anticipate.

That’s the cause of my worry. But let’s take one step after the other, right?

I thought Peggy Orenstein’s experience with looking for positive girl models in books and films fascinating. I never tried to look for them. Instead, I pay attention to buy neutral magazines and books. She isn’t satisfied by the experience either. The girls are strong and active but a little too active. They don’t need boys or men. They do everything on their own. It’s fine, but it’s not what she wants for her daughter.

I may want my girl to do and be whatever she dreams of as an adult, but I also hope she will find her Prince (or Princess) Charming and make me a grandma. I do not want her to be a fish without a bicycle; I want her to be a fish with another fish. Preferably, a fish who loves and respects her and also does the dishes, his share of the laundry, and half the child care.

That’s exactly what I want for my daughter too and I hope she has a good example at home.  

All in all, I think there are two different bad influences on our daughters’ development: the ones you can control and the others. I thought Orenstein talks too much about the ones you can, not avoid, but control: Disney Princesses, beauty pageant, make-up and sexualisation, Hannah Montana. As a parent, you have the power to say No. Plus, you are aware of these influences and you tend to think them through. As least I do. When my daughter receives a silly magazine named Julie which is a ten-year-old version of women magazines, I’m alerted and I talk about it with her. I’m not so preoccupied by those. It takes times and explanations. Yes, it’s not easy in everyday life and I don’t always spend as much time as I should talking to her. But then, do I want her to fear that every time she asks a question or talks to me, she’ll have a lecture?

I’m more concerned by the insidious representations of women that I don’t notice any more or those I can’t fight against. The T-shirts on the picture. Advertisements where half naked women seem always necessary to sell anything. The images in books in which the parent who cooks is always the mother. In cartoons and children albums, mothers wear dresses and are stay-at-home mummies. Fathers don’t wear pink shirts, work and don’t do housework. The neurologist Orenstein interviews explains that all these permanent images influence the way the connections are made in the brain in the same way that hearing French all the time makes of you a French native speaker who will never pronounce “th” like English-speaking people do. That worries me. A lot.

After reading this book, I’m decided to pay even more attention. It’s difficult to avoid constant lectures and not let it go at the same time. I didn’t succeed in explaining why I didn’t want her to subscribe to that Julie magazine. I don’t know what kind of adult she’ll be. I’m happy that she finds Hannah Montana uninteresting but I have to say no every day to gloss or nail-polish. Sometimes I think that my son has more pressure about what it is to be a boy. I’m also afraid that men are becoming as objectified as women, as the following picture shows:

It’s an advertisement and I took that picture in a grocery store. Men, fight against this!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by Francis Scott Fitzgerald

September 2, 2011 13 comments

The Curious Case of  Benjamin Button by Francis Scott Fitzgerald. 1922

This short story was our first try for our newly founded book club I baptized Les Copines d’Abord. I suppose most of us have heard of Benjamin Button after the film by David Finchet with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchet. I haven’t seen it. I may watch it now that I’ve read the short story.

Benjamin Button was born in a hospital in 1860 in Baltimore. But when his father Roger comes to see him, the nurses lead him to his son and “Wrapped in a voluminous white blanket, and partly crammed into one of the cribs, there sat an old man apparently about seventy years of age.” He is devastated. His son has the appearance and the mind of an old man. The first moments are huge fun: Mr Roger Button tries to cope with the news

People would stop to speak to him, and what was he going to say? He would have to introduce this—this septuagenarian: “This is my son, born early this morning.” And then the old man would gather his blanket around him and they would plod on, past the bustling stores, the slave market—for a dark instant Mr. Button wished passionately that his son was black.

Imagine how low he is: we’re in 1860 and that Southerner from a good family would rather have a black son than this one!! Fortunately, the Civil War breaks out shortly after Benjamin’s birth and the gossips fade away. The story continues, relating Benjamin’s life and his difficulties. Childhood is complicated: he’s bored by children games and needs to dye his hair in a vain attempt to hide his body age. His best friend is his grand-father. As a young man, he’s a lot more serious than others and he’s more interested in working than in having fun. He becomes a successful business man, marries a beautiful young girl who likes older men. The problem is that Benjamin doesn’t grow up but grows down…

I LOVED this text. I read The Great Gatsby a long time ago and I vaguely remembered something about partying and idle life. I don’t recall it was funny. But here, I thoroughly enjoyed Fitzgerald’s sense of humor. Like here, when Benjamin was born:

A few people who were unfailingly polite racked their brains for compliments to give to the parents—and finally hit upon the ingenious device of declaring that the baby resembled his grandfather, a fact which, due to the standard state of decay common to all men of seventy, could not be denied.

The moment when Mr. Button needs to buy clothes for his “baby” son is absolutely hilarious. Fitzgerald thought about every detail turning plausible moments into black comedy. This story is part of Tales of the Jazz Age and the title is so appropriate. It’s like jazz. Sometimes terribly light and entertaining, sometimes very sad and serious. I have mentioned the fun, but it’s also thought provoking.

It tells something about the Southern society: the allusion to black people, the customs and the society. Women have no voice. Benjamin’s mother is nowhere to be seen. She delivers a baby and she’s never mentioned again.

Fitzgerald wrote in the introduction that ‘this story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. By trying the experiment upon only one man in a perfectly normal world I have scarcely given his idea a fair trial,’ Benjamin’s youth isn’t enviable. He’s ill-fitted in this world. The dean in Yale refuses him as a student; he looks so old he doesn’t believe the age written on official papers. He spends his ‘youth’ earning money and when he has worked for twenty years and can let his son take the business after him, he’s getting younger and younger. He’s in perfect health to enjoy the pleasures of life when he’s middle-aged and rich. Problem: his wife gets older and he finds her less and less attractive.

Benjamin was a burden and a shame for his parents. He becomes a burden and a shame for his son. The ending is quite sad, actually.

And what about Mark Twain’s assertion? Benjamin is a freak and totally misunderstood by his family. His father tolerates him. He encumbers his son. His wife never admitted that he wasn’t getting younger on purpose. He had his good years like everyone else, not more, not less. I don’t think his situation is enviable in that context as he’s an outsider in his world.

What if everyone were like this? What would it mean for progress and creativity? At the time you start your professional life, your brain is slow and not in the best shape. So is your body. Would it mean a more conservative society? Or in the contrary, would it really be better: our brain would be at his best at a time when we have both experience and possibly money. So: would it dope progress, inventions and arts since the creators would have the means to experience everything they have in mind? I don’t have the answers but underneath the lightness of the subject and the apparent fun lay real questions.

This is what I wrote before meeting my friends and discuss the book.

What came out of our meeting last night?

J. didn’t like it as much as me and C.: the SF elements bothered her since what happens to Benjamin isn’t possible. C. & J. have read the bilingual editions and had comments on the translation by Dominique Lescanne. Sometimes, it’s far from the original or it brings new elements. For example, “small boy clothes” are translated by “costume marin”, ie sailor suit, the kind of outfits children had in the past. In another sentence, “costume” is translated by “déguisement”. In French, the word “costume” exists and has the double meaning of “suit” and “costume” for carnival. For us, using “déguisement” is interpreting. I could give many examples.

The first thing that came out spontaneously is that women don’t matter. They have no voice in this society, they deliver babies, act pretty. They are exotic plants. Benjamin’s mother delivers a monstrous baby and Fitzgerald never tells how she felt about him. How does she accept her abnormal son? Her absence is shocking, we wondered how she reacted. When Benjamin falls in love with his wife, it’s because she’s pretty. Is she intelligent? No one cares as long as she’s beautiful, well-bred, rich and with good manners. Men stay with men and spend some amusement time with women but don’t really share their lives with them. Benjamin gets along with his grand-father but where are his grand-mothers? He talks to his son but what relationship does he have with his daughter-in-law? In every situation, he only interferes with men and females are like vague shadows.

In this tale, Fitzgerald also criticizes conformism. It’s done on a light tone but the attack is serious. To each age of life he associates standards (clichés?) of what a person should be. And age is defined by the body appearance, even if a birth certificate contradicts what the eyes see. Of course that’s what we do everyday when we meet someone. We measure his/her age according to what the person looks like. The way our body looks defines our age, even if our mental age is different and usually our bodies age more quickly than our minds. People often say “I’m 50 but I don’t feel 50 in my head” But what should it feel to be 50? No one can really tell. Here, each age corresponds to defined activities, tastes, behaviors.

We also thought that there isn’t much love in Benjamin’s world. Social duties and conventions prevail. It is sad to realize that the Buttons never really adapt to their son. They can’t handle the difference and thus the story lacks of love. Fitzgerald never say they love their son anyway and accept his difference. Would they have fared better with a handicapped son? They want him to meet their expectations, even if it is ridiculous. Mr. Button is particularly stubborn and persists in acting as if he had a normal baby. Here he is, buying baby toys to his septuagenarian son who can speak and read:

He brought home lead soldiers, he brought toy trains, he brought large pleasant animals made of cotton, and, to perfect this illusion which he was creating – for himself at least – he passionately demanded of the clerk in the toy-store whether “the paint would come off the pink duck if the baby put it in his mouth.”

When you’re expecting a baby, you can’t help imagining what he/she will be or what you want to share with your child. I think it’s an important part of the process in becoming a parent when the baby arrives. Of course, what you expect stems from your own experience and from what the society defines as “normal” for a child. You need to adjust when the child grows up but some parents can’t. Mr. Button has an imaginary son and denies him the right to be different and his behavior is even cruel sometimes. They all deny him the right to be different: his father, his wife, his son. They’re irritated by what they think is a sort of stubbornness on his side not to submit to social conventions. His wife doesn’t support him either.

We thought it was a fantastic tale, easy to read, fun and deep at the same time. I’ve read a few of the other tales and they are the same mix of social criticism, political and psychological questioning.

Next month we’ll be reading L’Amour commence à la lettre A by Paola Calvetti, an Italian novel. (Original title: Noi due come un romanzo) It is not available in English as it will be published in 2012. However, it is also available in German (Und immer wider Liebe: Roman). Our meeting is scheduled on October 27th, review the day after.


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