Archive for November, 2011

German Lit Month: my personal wrap-up

November 30, 2011 26 comments

Before starting my personal wrap-up, I’d like to thank Caroline and Lizzy for organizing such an event. It’s probably been a lot of work and I’m happy for both of them that it is such a success. BIG THANK YOU TO YOU TWO.

I have the feeling that German literature is more read in English-speaking countries than in France. At first, I thought it was just my being ignorant. Then I started digging. Caroline gave me names; most of the books are out-of-print and never made it into paperbacks. I was unable to find Effi Briest or The Marquise von O. by Kleist in pdf file when lots of classics are available. In my copy of Effi Briest, the foreword deplores that Fontane isn’t better known in France. This vision was comforted by my experience with German crime fiction, it seems nonexistent in France.

I have read eight different books; you can find the links to the reviews:

So it’s been a month full of discoveries. The best bookish discovery is Effi Briest, I had never heard of that novel before the event. I enjoyed reading other people’s thoughts about the novel. My best blogging discovery is Tony’s blog  I didn’t have time to read all the reviews I would have wanted to but I know have Kleist, Stemmer, Schnitzler and I ordered Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum.

On a personal note, I also learnt a few things about myself. My professional life has been shaken for a year now and I’ve been questioning my choice of a career for a few months. Am I sure I should be buried in figures all day long when what makes my heartbeat quicken has always been literature? But, like Kehlmann points out in Fame, “reading books isn’t a profession.”  So what?

This month unexpectedly brought the answer to that question. On the one hand, I’ve been reading professional literature again and on the other hand, I’ve been reading literature professionally. In other words, I’ve been studying for work and reading novels according to a schedule to meet the deadlines. Reading professional literature rekindled my interest for my career and I found myself totally unable to read the German books according to plan and meet the weekly deadlines. I am not good at reading on demand. I had chosen books I wanted to read, some were on my TBR shelf, some were on my wish list. The only one I didn’t have in mind before the event was Effi Briest and I’m happy I read it, it’s an excellent book. Someway, I found it hard to read them this month. I wasn’t exactly in the perfect mood for Hotel Savoy and I had to put aside books I wanted to read because it was German Lit month. (I’ve been dying to start that book about 19th-Century England since I received it). Nobody forced me to do so but when I commit to something, I respect the commitment I made. As a consequence, I’m not sure I enjoyed the books I’ve read as much as I would have if I had read them separately and in the right mood.

As an aside, my strong reaction against following the Effi Briest readalong, made me think about my personal history with literature classes. Again. There was no way I could make myself follow the Effi Briest readalong, read the chapters in due time and answer the questions. Just the thought of answering questions like for a school assignment made me cringe from it. I’ve been a heavy reader since I was 8 and I’ve always hated literature classes. If I had to shoot a movie about me and literature in school, it would be full of yawns, irritated glances and I can see myself bored in Grammar school and loathing the excerpts of Le Roman de Renart and the inept – so I thought – questions asked by the teacher. I see myself fighting internally to finish that bloody scene from Le Cid or the chapters of Terre des hommes in due time and sluggish hours when a teacher with a sleeping-pill voice tried to pull answers out of unresponsive students. I remember autopsying poems by Baudelaire or Eluard, killing all their beauty. I’m damaged when it comes to studying literature. I thought I was past that now; after all, the years are piling up quickly but being that thoroughly repulsed at answering innocent questions proved it be an unsolved issue. I’m frustrated and sad to discover I haven’t moved on as I thought I had. Well, let’s say there are bigger personal issues than that!

So, I’m better off dealing with figures at work and read for pleasure. And if I come back to German literature, I enjoyed most of the books I’ve read but it hasn’t been a mind-blowing experience. We’ll see how I’ll enjoy the new German-speaking books I’ve put on the TBR and that I’ll read according to my mood. I hope the other participants will also write their thoughts about this reading month, I’m interested in reading how it has been for them.


Categories: Personal Posts

Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary: from book to play

November 27, 2011 22 comments

La promesse de l’aube by Romain Gary. 1960. English title: Promise at Dawn.

Not a regular reader of this blog ignores that I worship Romain Gary the way an American teenager kisses Robert Pattison’s feet. Not very mature from me, I know, but when it comes to him I’m fifteen again. (Feels good sometimes too, I dare say) So, when I discovered – by chance, thanks to my attentive husband – that Promise at Dawn had been made into a play, I had to see it. Lucky me, my professional schedule allowed the trip to Paris and I could watch the play.

Romain Gary wrote Promise at Dawn when he was a diplomat in Los Angeles and the opening scene is on the Big Sur beach. It is the story of his mother, Nina Borisovskaia and of his childhood. May we call it “auto-fiction”? For me, it is not a memoir or an autobiography. Some of the anecdotes aren’t true; some elements are purposely missing; Gary used his past to create a novel, a tribute to his mother.

And what a mother!! She was a Jewish Russian actress and she did everything she could for her son. She dreamt of one country for his son: France. She wanted him to be an artist; she imagined him ambassador of France, the new Victor Hugo, a hero. She made her way from Vilnius to Varsovie to Nice for him. Her ambition and her trust in him were unlimited and did not include respecting propriety if propriety got in the way of what she wanted for him. Any job was respectable if it brought the money she needed for him. In a way, her eccentric view of his future – I’m a mother too and I don’t expect my son to be the next Tolstoy or President one day – saved his life. The family that stayed behind in Vilnius died in concentration camps.

She was a divorced mother and she loved him in an excessive way, bringing hot chocolate in school, riding miles in a taxi to say good-bye when he was in the army. She infused courage in him, faith in his capacities. She was a loving tyrant, expecting a lot from him, from heroic behaviour to being a womaniser. Her love was also really demonstrative and he was sometimes ashamed of her, and feeling guilty to be ashamed of such a gift.

How can you ever repay such a love? By following the program she designed? How can a woman ever measure up with such a mother, every man’s first love? People who knew Gary say she stayed with him all his life, that he was imagining what she would say before making a decision.

In addition to the mother-son relationship, Promise at Dawn also drops thoughts about being Jewish in pre-WWII France, about the war itself, the RAF, the comradeship, about being poor, all this with a serious sense of humour.

Bruno Abraham-Kremer and Corinne Juresco adapted the novel for the theatre in a marvellous way. Gary loved theatre and it’s great to see one of his novel made into a play. The whole text is made of Gary’s sentences from Promise at Dawn. Abraham-Kremer has a common past with Romain Gary. He’s Jewish; his family comes from Vilnius too and he says they both had the same kind of education. Gary’s choice for literature reflects his own choice for theatre. Romain Gary is a special writer to him; he helped him; they have an invisible connection. He was the one playing Gary and Nina on stage; changing his voice let us hear mother and son. She rolls her “Rs” like a Russian speaking French, swears in Polish, Russian and probably Yiddish. She wants her son to become a “Mensch”, something Gary thought incredibly hard to achieve. The play brings her to life. Abraham-Kremer wears clothes that look like the ones Gary wears on photos and in a way, he manages to look like him. I’ve heard Gary’s voice in radio programs and sometimes I forgot the actor and heard the real man talking.

An exquisite moment, a great adaptation, I’m so happy I could make it.  Thanks, M. Abraham-Kremer.

My Mother’s Lover by Urs Widmer

November 26, 2011 18 comments

Der Geliebte der Mutter by Urs Widmer. 2000. French title: L’homme que ma mère a aimé. English title: My Mother’s Lover. 

Clara is the only daughter of a self-made-man from Italian origins. In the 1920s and in her twenties, she gets involved in the creation of a young orchestra whose brilliant conductor is Edwin. Clara volunteers for the orchestra, taking charge of the organization of concerts. Edwin and Clara have an affair but aren’t on the same page. He’s looking for a sexual partner; she’s in love with him. Edwin marries someone else. Clara never falls out of love with him.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig. There are similarities. Two women desperately in love with a famous man (a writer / a conductor); two men unaware of the consuming love they have kindled. Contrary to Zweig’s woman, Clara is unbalanced, she’s had a hard childhood with a dominating father, has known poverty, rejection. She’s madly in love with Edwin, in the literal sense of the word. She behaves like Virginia Woolf, going into the water at night, all dressed up, carrying a heavy rock, as if she intended to drown herself. She’s suicidal, a terrible mother dragging her boy in her crazy behaviors. I pitied the poor boy and I wondered where his father was. (I think there’s a book about the father’s story)

Clara’s son relates her story, as the title shows it. I didn’t find it convincing. How did he get to know how his mother felt? How did he know about her sex life, her internal turmoil, her personal demons? Is it healthy for him to know that? Clara had no friend, she couldn’t have confided in anyone. Now I found that I miss the 19thC device that consists in an introductory chapter in which the narrator explains where he/she knows the story from.

When I was reading, I saw black and white news films from before WWII. People move slightly faster than their real pace, there’s no sound, only a voice over. I saw the images of Clara’s life and heard her son’s detached tone commenting. A voiceover, flat, matter-of-factly describing things with well-chosen words, maybe taking a necessary distance with it to protect his sanity. I remained aloof too, it didn’t reach me. Plus I had guessed one of the key things of the story, which irritated me a bit.

I wonder if I could rate the books I read according to the number of quotes I note down. I guess on this scale of stars, it wouldn’t grant a high rating to this book. No quote at all. The style is good though despite a wild use of punctuation. Sometimes I was tired of exclamation marks, constant insertion of text in brackets or – and so on. It has a musicality but it didn’t move me. Honestly, that’s me, not the book. Caroline loved it; I perfectly understand and it’s worth reading her review as it covers parts I didn’t mention. What she writes is absolutely true but didn’t have the same effect on me. I recommend reading it in one to three reading sessions (It’s short) to have the time to enter the book and hear the music of Widmer’s words. Something else may have prevented me from fully enjoying it: I’m a zero in classical music and I didn’t get the references included in the book. For someone better informed, it can be more enjoyable. So, to sum it up, it didn’t work for me but it’s a good book, very well-written.

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth

November 24, 2011 25 comments

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth. 1924

End of WWI. Gabriel Dan has just come back from Russia, where he was held prisoner. He walked back from camp, all the way from Russia. He’s now in an unnamed town at the doors of Western Europe. In Ukraine, a town like Brody where Joseph Roth was born? Gabriel settles at the Hotel Savoy. At first, his room seems luxury to him after all these rough years. He has nothing but his clothes, Russian clothes that shout his poverty to the world and let them know where he has spent the last years. The hotel is huge, 868 rooms, a condensed version of the world. The lower floors are the richest rooms. There it’s warm, clean and tidy. Neat maids take care of the rooms and guests. The more you climb the stairs, the poorer you are and the hotel counts eight floors.

Gabriel lives in room 703. He’s only there for a few days, he thinks, before heading West. But he’s soon stuck in the hotel and gets acquainted or even befriends with other guests. Roth describes the colorful crowd: the showgirls, Stasie who works for a local cabaret, the military doctor, the liftman, Neuman the industrial captain whose workers are on strike… Gabriel isn’t alone in this town; he’s got a rich uncle, Phöbus Böhlaug. But he doesn’t seem eager to help his impoverished nephew.

The city in itself sounds terrible: grey, polluted with wild industries, always under the rain. There are no sewers, and the stench is almost unbearable. It’s full of unemployed men, demobilized and exhausted soldiers and trumps. The city overflows, but not with wealth, with refugees coming from the East and heading West. It has an end-of-the-world atmosphere. And indeed, it is the end of a world, the one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its peoples become again only Serbs, Romanian…

I imagined it as a graphic novel, in black and white, full of details. Roth glances at life disenchanted eyes. He pities these human ants. I couldn’t help thinking of that quote Max included in his review of Musil’s feuilletons about flypaper.

In addition to the end-of-an-era ambiance, there was a feeling of déjà vu. That picture of people living in poor conditions in hotel rooms reminded me of Maurice Sachs in Witches’ Sabbath, of Orwell in Down and in Paris and London or Steinbeck in Cannery Row. It’s the era of living in pensions and hotels that has almost disappeared. Romain Gary’s mother operated such a pension in Nice, that’s where he lived when he arrived in France. Speaking of my dear Gary, here’s a quote by Roth…

Sehen Sie, Herr Dan, die Menschen haben kein schlechtes Herz, nu rein viel zu kleines. Es faβt nicht viel, es reicht gerade für Frau und Kind. You see, Mr Dan, men don’t have a nasty heart, it’s just much too small. There isn’t a lot of room in it, just enough for wife and child.

…that sounds typically Gary to me. The more I read Russian and Eastern Europe literature, the more I realize how influenced he was by his background and his origins. He was a Slav, a Jew and despite his changing Roman into Romain, he was part of this culture. But back to Roth.

Some passages sound like predictions and oddly modern.

» Siehst du, Glanz macht ganz gute Geschäften «, sagt Onkel Phöbus.» Was für Geschafte ? «» Mit Valuta «, sagt Phöbus Böhlaug, » gefährlich ist es, aber sicher. Es ist eine Glückssache. Wenn einer keine glückliche Hand hat, soll er nicht anfangen. Aber wenn einer Glück hat, kann er in zwei Tagen Millionär sein.  «» Onkel «,sagte ich, » warum handeln Sie nicht mit Valuta?  «» Gott behüte «, schreit Phöbus,» mit der Polizei will ich nichts zu tun haben! Wenn man gar nichts hat, handelt man mit Valuta. « – You see, Glanz makes good business, Uncle Phöbus says.- What kind of business?- With currencies, Phöbus Bölaug says. It’s dangerous but safe. It a question of luck. When one has no lucky hand, they should not start this. But when one has a lucky hand, they can become millionaire in two days.- Uncle, I say, why don’t you deal currencies?- God prevents it! Phöbus cries, I don’t want to be involved with the police. You only deal currencies when you have nothing.

Hmmm. Nothing new under the sun, it seems.

It’s hard for me to put words on Hotel Savoy, its eclectic inhabitants, its condensed misery that brushes against wealth. Poverty has the same taste as Orwell’s in Down and Out in Paris and London. Roth describes these people and their suffering. They run after money, die in poor conditions, live in poor and unhealthy rooms and have to use their suitcases to guarantee the payment of their room. They live in fear of losing the roof above their heads. I am grateful to writers such as Joseph Roth, Orwell or Steinbeck. They give a voice to people who don’t have one.

Hotel Savoy leaves me with one question: if Joseph Roth had survived WWII in Paris, would he have written Hôtel Lutetia?

PS: I have read it in French, unfortunately my German isn’t good enough to read books. I downloaded the original version and translated the quotes with the help of the French text.

For another review, read Caroline’s thoughts here

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

November 21, 2011 19 comments

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. 1894

I’ve read Effi Briest for the German Lit Month but I didn’t follow the readalong and answer the questions; I wanted to write a review.

Effi Briest was published in 1894 and is Fontane’s last book. At the beginning of the novel, Effi is 17. She lives with her parents and is chatting animatedly with her friends in the garden. She’s telling them that she’s just met Innstetten who used to be in love with her mother but wasn’t rich enough to marry her at the time. Instetten is 37, has never been married and is a Landrat, a civil servant. He’s currently appointed in Kessin, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Now Effi has to get prepared as he’s coming to their house. When she comes home, she discovers that Innstetten proposed and they’re engaged. She has met him for the first time the day before.

After a short trip to Berlin to organize the wedding, they are promptly married and Effi moves into Innstetten’s house in Kessin. The house is decorated in a bizarre fashion; Effi is uncomfortable. The upper floor is empty but for a drawing of a Chinaman, who’s supposed to be the ghost of the house. Innstetten makes it a good thing to have a ghost; it’s chic; like having a distinguished butler.

Kessin is a small town and Effi fails to make interesting acquaintances. The only one is an old man, Gieshübler. Innstetten is ambitious and often leaves her alone to travel for work or to attend receptions at the court. She’s left alone and lonely. She is soon expecting a baby and her little Annie is born on July 3rd, the summer after their wedding. Motherhood doesn’t bring more happiness and Effi is bored until the Crampas moves into town. Frau Crampas is a bear and won’t be the friend Effi needs. So only Crampas will get acquainted with the Innstettens. Crampas is over forty, a womanizer who quickly starts flirting with Effi.

I let you imagine what will happen.

We are here on the same path as with Madame Bovary: a young woman, with an ill-matched husband, bored, who falls into the hands of a skilled seducer. But Effi and Emma only have their initials in common. I have to say I prefer Effi to Emma. Emma is foolish and in a way makes her own bed. She’s also guiltier as she actually sleeps with Rodolphe. Effi is a lot more intelligent and insightful.

So it came about that she, who by nature was frank and open, accustomed herself more and more to play an underhand part. At times she was startled at the ease with which she could do it. Only in one respect she remained unchanged–she saw everything clearly and glossed nothing.

Some compare Effi to Anna Karenina; I don’t remember it well-enough to comment on that.

Effi is a pure victim of the German society. At the beginning of the book, she’s full of life, running, joking, playing with girl-friends. Her engagement switches her off. It’s the end of innocence, she has to be serious. But as Rimbaud pointed out “On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans”. Innstetten has the manners of a rigid teacher; it’s as if he whistled the end of playtime. Effi takes things as they come, she dutifully obeys her parents. She has her opinion about about marriage, though:

“Yes, I think so, too, mama. But just imagine–and I am almost ashamed to say it–I am not so very much in favor of what is called a model married life.”

“That is just like you. And now tell me, pray, what are you really in favor of?”

“I am–well, I am in favor of like and like and naturally also of tenderness and love. And if tenderness and love are out of the question, because, as papa says, love is after all only fiddle-faddle, which I, however, do not believe, well, then I am in favor of wealth and an aristocratic house, a really aristocratic one, to which Prince Frederick Charles will come for an elk or grouse hunt, or where the old Emperor will call and have a gracious word for every lady, even for the younger ones. And then when we are in Berlin I am for court balls and gala performances at the Opera, with seats always close by the grand central box.”

“Do you say that out of pure sauciness and caprice?”

“No, mama, I am fully in earnest. Love comes first, but right after love come splendor and honor, and then comes amusement–yes, amusement, always something new, always something to make me laugh or weep. The thing I cannot endure is ennui.”

Poor Effi, boredom is exactly what she’ll get as entertainment doesn’t agree with Innstetten. He’s a good but righteous man. He’s kind and amiable; he’s fond of his wife but he’s not a lover. He treats her as an enjoyable and precious object. He’s only interested in his career in the stupidest way. In a French novel, Innstetten would have taken his pretty young wife with him to attend parties, socialize and make himself known. She would have been an asset; they could have worked as a team. Here, he works hard to succeed, which leads him to leave Effi behind and he does get promoted on merit, which always takes more time than getting promoted through playing with politics.

The society seems military; people surrender to rigid social rules, there’s no space for individuality. Think that this story is contemporary to Jude The Obscure, What Maisie Knew or La Bête humaine. The novel is like a tragedy by Racine: duty and society are more important than happiness and individual needs. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in that society; it’s so up tied; rigorous, it lacks warmth. Men and women are blindly obedient to duty and social conventions. In a way, Innstetten is also a victim of his education; he doesn’t act according to his heart but according to what he was taught to be right.

On the psychological side, there’s this thing about Innstetten being Frau von Briest’s ex-lover. I couldn’t help thinking of Freud. What are Innstetten’s motives in marrying Effi? Catching up with the daughter? Taking revenge? The old physician in Berlin claims that Effi looks exactly like her mother at her age. They barely knew each other when they got engaged; he didn’t love her. He just chose a wife the same way he would have chosen a horse or a dog, according to her breeding, upon her mother’s qualities. Why did Fontane add this detail at the beginning of the book? Effi Briest is a naturalist book; Zola is mentioned in the novel. Zola relies on heredity as a back bone of Les Rougon-Macquart. Does Fontane want to show that despite heredity, Effi IS NOT like her mother? The mother should have married Innstetten; they’re made in the same wood but he and Effi are an ill-matched couple.

Some things puzzled me in the novel. I didn’t quite understand the role of the Chinaman story. Is it to prove that women are weak creatures with poor nerves? Is it to illustrate Innstetten’s character? Is it “natural” for a German book, as part of the culture? The absence of gossip in Kessin also surprised me. Innstetten never knew. Why? Was it because people didn’t like him enough to tell him? Was it because people feared his reaction and protected Effi? Or is it because there was nothing to gossip about?

Fontane’s style is sometimes rigid too but with hints of his sense of humor, like here:

Innstetten actually wrote every day, as he had promised. The thing that made the receipt of his letters particularly pleasurable was the circumstance that he expected in return only one very short letter every week.

The dialogues can be very witty. But as soon as it comes to feelings love or bodily topics, he refrains. Was it dangerous to write about adultery at the time? Did he fear censorship? He’s a wonderful writer but full of restraint.

I’m used to reading foreign books but the culture here was unexpectedly far from my own. I come from a part of France with a strong German culture and for example, the descriptions of Christmases in Kessin reminded me of home. Is it because I’m not used to reading German literature? But I didn’t feel that alieness when I discovered Dutch literature in June. Really, I can’t nail the reason why I feel like this. I’m all brain with that book. It’s extremely well-written but really predictable. When you’ve read French classics, there’s a taste of déjà vu. I was wondering who would be the lover and had guessed the ending. I enjoyed reading it though, it’s an excellent book. Highly recommended.

Other reviews: Tom, from A Common Reader, Iris from Iris on books and participants following the rules of the readalong



Life is a serious matter because of its futility

November 19, 2011 30 comments

Gros Câlin by Romain Gary (Emile Ajar) 1974. Not translated into English, alas…

Gros Câlin was published in 1974 and it is the first book by Emile Ajar. At the time, nobody knew it was Romain Gary’s pen name. I’d like to digress a bit and tell you about a famous French literary mystification. In the 1970s, Romain Gary was under the impression that journalists welcomed his books as the “new Gary” without really reading them. He decided to give himself a rebirth as a writer and created Emile Ajar. “Gary” comes from the Russian “Gari”, which means “burn” in the imperative form. “Ajar” means “embers”, also in Russian, a clue regarding the true identity of the writer. Only Gallimard knew.

At first Ajar remained hidden, which excited the curiosity of journalists and critics. When Ajar won the Prix Goncourt in 1975 for La vie devant soi (Life Before Us), it became urgent that Emile Ajar met the press. Therefoe Gary asked his cousin Paul Pavlowitch to impersonate Emile Ajar. He will perfectly play his role and the truth will only be discovered when Gary committed suicide in 1980. In the meantime, everyone bought the lie. I watched a documentary about it lately and it was incredible. “Ajar” was invited in the most famous TV shows and the puppet Pavlowitch was soon out of control from his master’s hands. Gary was still publishing books under his own name at the time. While Ajar oozed youth and creativity, Gary published Au delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable (In English, Your ticket is no longer valid), the story of an ageing man in love with a young woman and who experiences erection troubles. The critics saw Gary in that character; he sounded worn out when Ajar was full of vitality. Could they have guessed?

Back to the book.

Monsieur Cousin is the narrator of this rather plotless novel. He’s 37, a bachelor and lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Paris with a python named Gros Câlin, which means Big Cuddle. M. Cousin works as a statistician in some office. The acknowledged aim of his narration is to write a guide book about the life of pythons in Paris. Cousin looks a bit eccentric, old-fashioned and slightly ridiculous for the time, if we read how he is dressed.

Je me tenais là discrètement, avec mon petit chapeau, mon nœud papillon jaune à pois bleus, mon cache-nez et mon pardessus, très correctement habillé, veston, pantalon et tout, à cause des apparences et de la clandestinité. Dans un grand agglomérat comme Paris, avec dix millions au bas mot, il est très important de faire comme il faut et de présenter des apparences démographiques habituelles pour ne pas causer d’attroupement. I was standing there quietly, with my little hat, my yellow bow tie with blue dots, my comforter and my overcoat, very well dressed because of appearances and secrecy. In a big conglomeration like Paris, with at least ten millions, it is highly important to behave and to present the usual demographical appearances to avoid creating crowds.

He says his hair is scarce, blond and he has a banal face, one of those no one notices. The novel describes Cousin’s lonely life in a big city. He lacks of human interaction. He craves for human relationships. He tries to create bonds with neighbors, people on the metro, colleagues, and clients in cafés. Gary’s style is innovative and funny and it alleviates the sadness you feel for Cousin but his loneliness is nonetheless heartbreaking. M. Cousin is madly in love with his colleague Mademoiselle Dreyfus.

C’est une Noire de la Guyane française, comme son nom l’indique, Dreyfus, qui est là-bas très souvent adopté par les gens du cru, à cause de la gloire locale et pour encourager le tourisme. Le capitaine Dreyfus, qui n’était pas coupable, est resté là-bas cinq en au bagne à tort et à travers et son innocence a rejailli sur tout le monde. J’ai lu tout ce qu’on peut lire sur la Guyane quand on est amoureux et j’ai appris qu’il y a cinquante-deux familles noires qui ont adopté ce nom, à cause de la gloire nationale et du racisme aux armées en 1905. She’s a black woman from French Guyana, as her name Dreyfus shows it. There, native people often take this name, because of the local glory and to promote tourism. Capitaine Dreyfus, who wasn’t guilty, spent five nonsense years in the penal colony and his innocence reflected on everybody. I’ve read everything one can read about Guyana when one is in love and I learnt that fifty-two families chose this name because of national glory and racism in the army in 1905.

He interprets every move she makes as a mark of attention. He longs for their morning elevator rides that he imagines as travels. He has renamed every floor by the name of a country.

And what about the python? Gros Câlin is a medication against loneliness.

Lorsqu’on a besoin d’étreinte pour être comblé dans ses lacunes, autour des épaules surtout, et dans le creux des reins, et que vous prenez trop conscience des deux bras qui vous manquent, un python de deux mètres vingt fait merveille. Gros-Câlin est capable de m’étreindre ainsi pendant des heures et des heures. When you need a hug to fill your gaps, especially around the shoulders or in the small of you back, and when you really how much you miss two arms around you, a python of 2.2 meters long is marvelous. Gros-Câlin can hug me for hours and hours.

Gros Câlin hugs him tight and helps him fight his loneliness. Cousin becomes intriguing for other people and their curiosity brings them near him. Cousin has a problem though. Gros Câlin eats living mice. He bought a white mouse but he wasn’t able to feed Gros Câlin with her and he adopted her. She becomes Blondine. So now he worries sick that Gros Câlin might elect Blondine as his next meal. There’s a funny scene where Cousin meets a priest, Father Joseph and explains him his dilemma. He needs to feed Gros Câlin but can’t because he grows attached to the python’s food. Here’s the priest’s advice:

Achetez-en un tas, de souris. Vous les remarquerez moins. C’est parce que vous les prenez une à une que vous faites tellement attention. Ca devient personnel. Prenez-en un tas anonyme, ça vous fera beaucoup moins d’effet. Vous y regardez de trop près, ça individualise. Il est toujours plus difficile de tuer quelqu’un qu’on connaît. J’ai été aumônier pendant la guerre, je sais de quoi de parle. On tue beaucoup plus facilement de loin sans voir qui c’est, que de près. Les aviateurs, quand ils bombardent, ils sentent moins. Ils voient ça de très haut. Buy a lot of mice. You’ll notice them less. It’s because you take them one by one that you pay so much attention. It becomes personal. Take them in an anonymous bunch; it will affect you a lot less. You look at them too closely, it individualizes. It’s always more difficult to kill someone you know. I was a chaplain during the war; I know what I’m talking about. You kill more easily from afar without seeing who it is than when you’re close. The aviators, when they bomb, they feel less. They see it from far away.

When you know that Gary was in the RAF during WWII…

Then why a python? It’s company but it’s also a quest about humanity. For Gary, the humans aren’t finished; they haven’t reached the real degree that will entitle them to be called humans. It’s probably a way for Gary to swallow the inhuman horrors of the war. Pythons slough, they change of skin, and it’s a sort of rebirth. Something Gary burned to do. Something he was doing with Emile Ajar.

After reading Gros Câlin, I can’t help thinking that Gary was right to create Emile Ajar. Critics did not read his books attentively anymore. How did no one notice the likeness in the style between Gros Câlin and Adieu Gary Cooper? How come that nobody realized that all the Gary-ian themes are there, in the core of Gros Câlin. Fraternity, loneliness, love, WWII, the fondness for prostitutes and the endless question, “what does it mean to be human?” And the typical sense of humor. Gary considered himself as a Russian writer of French expression. The scene when Gros Câlin escapes the apartment through the toilet pipe and ends up tickling the neighbor’s bottom is absolutely hilarious, a taste of Gogol and his wandering nose.

The style is incredible, playful, innovative, funny, witty. M. Cousin misuses words and his speech becomes poetical and comic. It’s full of literary references used as casual expressions. They are not crutches, they are winks. M. Cousin will use phrases like the raw and the cooked, fruits of the earth, the confusion of feelings. Gary plays with Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Les affinités electives in French: C’est des sélectivités affectives, je veux dire des affinités électives. Then he talks about Gros Câlin’s intuitive affinities (affinités intuitives) A lot of vocabulary comes from economical words, extracted from papers that were full of the economic crisis of those years and also coming from Cousin’s profession. The coldness of the vocabulary enforces the feeling of numbers, of being no one is a big city. M. Cousin purposely uses words he doesn’t understand, thus creating funny effects. Sometimes Gary uses English turn of phrases:“C’est la dernière position qu’on a recours à, dans le yoga” instead of “C’est la dernière position à laquelle on a recourt dans le yoga”

It’s a delight; I have pages of quotes. And I’m very very frustrated that Gros Câlin hasn’t been translated into English. Can a publisher hire David Bellos to translate it? Really, it’s worth it and who could be more qualified for the job than Gary’s biographer and Perec’s translator? I’ll post a second entry after our book club meeting.

PS: Of course, I had to translate the quotes myself, and as I’m obviously not David Bellos, the translation does no justice to the original. The title of the post is a quote from the book.

PPS : What’s your favourite cover?

Book Club Les Copines d’Abord: December readalong

November 17, 2011 6 comments

For December, the book club Les Copines d’Abord will read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

I am curious to discover Muriel Spark and I expect an enjoyable read. The only thing I know about the book is that Miss Brodie is a teacher and that Muriel Spark used her own teacher as a model. As I’ve said before, I love blind dates with books, films and plays…as long as they come recommended by someone I trust. Knowing that and also all the spoilers you can find in reviews and blurbs, I didn’t investigate further and will open the book with a clean mind.  I also love surprises.

We will meet on December 29 and I’ll post my review on that day. We’d be happy to read other reviews and have other readers join us. If you’re interested, let me know in the comments. You can add the link to your review in the comments or post your it there if you don’t have a blog.

 I hope some of you will be reading this along with us.

Categories: Book Club

Short stories by Stefan Zweig

November 16, 2011 14 comments

Die Hochzeit von Lyon by Stefan Zweig. (1881-1942)

My French edition entitled Die Hochzeit von Lyon includes seven short stories by Stefan Zweig. I picked up this book because of the title as I live near Lyon, irrational reason but who said we had to be rational? The stories are very different from one another and as they aren’t too numerous, I decided to give you a quick summary of each.

Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910), aka Histoire d’une déchéance aka Twilight

A bit of historical context. This story takes place in France, in 1727. Louis XV was enthroned in 1715 but he was only five at the time. As a consequence, Philippe, Duke of Orléans was in charge of the country as a Regent until 1723. The economic situation was disastrous, people were hungry and angry. The Law scandal didn’t help the regime. Madame de Prie, the main character of Zweig’s story had been the Regent’s lover and had been most influential at Versailles during two years. It is even said she arranged Louis XV’s marriage with Marie Leszczyńska. When the story starts, Madame de Prie is exiled from Versailles to her castle in Normandy. Alone. How can she handle the loneliness, the quiet? She misses the noise, the parties, the intrigues and the fun. She needs to be adored and feared. She needs to show off, to put her life on stage. She needs to orchestrate her death.

For a more detailed review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) aka Un mariage à Lyon, aka A Wedding in Lyon (*)

Another time in French history, another place. We’re in 1793, during the French Revolution. There had been a major Royalist uprising in Lyon in 1793. After a long fight, the Republicans took the city. During the Terror, the local administrator didn’t enforce the Parisian orders to destroy the rebellious city. When he was replaced, the newcomer put it into motion, killing people without trials. They were killing so many people at the same time that the guillotine wasn’t fast enough, they just shot them and threw the corpses into the Rhône. The story takes place in a prison, before an execution and relates the wedding of two condamned people.

Im Schnee (1901) aka Dans la neige aka In the Snow (*)

This one is about Jewish people who live in a small German town near Poland. It’s Hanoucka and they’re celebrating when they hear that the “flagellants” (i.e. Gangs of men who persecuted Jewish people. I have no idea of the English word for that) are coming. To fight or to flee?

Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916), aka La légende de la troisième colombe, aka The Legend of the third Dove (*)

This is supposed to be the story of the third dove mentioned in the Bible, the last one Noah sent to the Earth and that never came back. It’s obviously an allegory about peace as Zweig wrote this short piece (about five pages) during WWI.

Das Kreuz (1906), aka La Croix, aka The Cross (*)

This one takes place in Spain, in 1810 at the the time of Napoleonic wars. The Spanish fight the French. A French batallion is walking on a road, when the Spanish “rebels” attack them. The French colonel bumps into a tree, faints and when he wakes up, he’s all alone. He decides to follow the road, hoping to find other soldiers when he realizes that all the French soldiers are dead and hung at the trees along the road. What shall he do? How can he survive?

Episode am Genfer See (1919) aka Au bord du lac Léman, aka By Lake Léman (*)

This one relates the story of a Russian peasant who runs aground on the Swiss side of Lake Léman in 1918. He’s a deserter and wants to go home.

Der Zwang (1916), aka La Contrainte, aka Constraint (*)

Der Zwang is the most political story of the book. It’s WWI. Ferdinand and his wife live in Switzerland but they are from a country currently at war. It’s not mentioned but I guess they are either German or Austrian. Ferdinand receives an official letter telling him he’s mobilized and must join the army. He’s in Switzerland, he can hide there and not go. He feels the paper pushes the right buttons in him and he feels compelled to go even if he hates war, doesn’t want to kill and doesn’t agree with the idea of patriotism. Shortly said, he’s a pacifist. Where’s his duty? To be faithful to his ideas and stay with his wife or to go against his will?

There is no foreword, so I can’t tell why the publisher chose to gather these stories into a book but I suppose that war, power and the vanity of mankind is the common point of these tales. They all talk about war (except the first one, unless you consider politics as a battle field too) and the consequences of war on everyday life and on human behaviours. Zweig wonders at our ability to kill for ideas, to accept butchery. He questions our lack of reaction: why do people go at war like sheep? Why don’t the Jewish rebel? Why do people accept to endanger their lives for ideas they don’t share and fear to resist and die for their ideal of peace? What does power do to a humanbeing, creating an unquenchable thirst for honors and attentions?

So far, I’d only read non-historical fiction by Zweig and this was my first visit into this side of his work. (I have his Marie-Antoinnette at home too). As always, Zweig excells at describing landscapes and their interaction with people and at depicting the characters’ innerminds. If Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane is a symbol of the German literature of the period, I understand why Caroline says the Germans consider Zweig as “corny”. Compared to Effi Briest, Jane Eyre is pornography; so of course, Zweig is more effusive, openly sensitive and romanesque. He has a pessimistic vision of humanity though.

I enjoyed reading these stories but to someone who wants to discover Zweig, I’d rather recommend Journey Into the Past or Letter From an Unknown Woman.

(*) 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.

Letters to Lou Andreas Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke

November 12, 2011 18 comments

Letters to Lou Andreas Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1897-1926

Your being has been the door that allowed me to reach fresh air for the first time.

Rilke met Lou Andreas-Salomé in 1897. He was 22, she was 36. Their love story lasted until 1901 and turned into a friendship that only ended with Rilke’s death in 1926. The little book I’ve read is composed of letters coming from their correspondence. The first one dates back to 1897 and the last one was written a fortnight before he died.

The first letters are beautiful love letters. Once I wrote that I didn’t envy Albertine for being loved by the Narrator as he seemed complicated and difficult to live with. Nothing like that with Rilke. These letters are sunny despite the absence and how much he misses her. His love is a gift; it doesn’t claim anything else that what he already receives. These letters are full of acceptance, of loving Lou just the way she is. She loves him back, he’s happy. Their fierce passion isn’t a tortured one.

I think of you at any time of the day and my worried thoughts accompany all your steps. The slightest breathe on your forehead is a kiss from my lips and each dream speaks to you with my voice. My love is like a coat wrapped around you to protect and warm you up.

In 1897, Rilke stopped signing his letters René (his firstname) and became Rainer. His meeting with Lou was his rebirth.

The following letters are more about him and his creating process. One of them, written in 1903, describes his life and sufferings in Paris. I recognized the raw material he will use in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Rilke suffers from acute sensitivity. He’s a sponge, he absorbs the outside world to such a point that it hurts him. He perceives the mood, the emotions of his environment. He has no filtering system and it hits him badly every time. He’s a disquiet man, disturbed by fears and anguish. What fascinates me is that despite his disquiet, he manages to describe his fears in a lucid way. He doesn’t complain although he somatizes a lot and has a poor health. In a way, he tries to tame his pain and at the same time cherishes it as he knows part of his work will come from it. For the reader, his fears sound real, painful but he doesn’t sound unbalanced.

When reading these letters, the reader witnesses his artistic quest. He admires Rodin for his work, his ability to materialize his inner mind into statues, into art. He chides himself for not being able to concentrate and work as much as he should. He gropes around, aware that he’s piling up ideas, sensations, characters, observations in his soul and in his mind. But he’s not able to reach them and turn them into art. Yet. It’s fascinating to read about his quest. It’s obviously painful but he doesn’t complain. He takes the pain, doesn’t wallow into it but probably sees it a step to creation. He’s also lucid about his failure as a husband and as a father. In French, we say être mal dans sa peau, literally, to be ill-at-ease in one’s skin to say to feel bad about oneself. Rilke was literally like that and his skin reacted to it.

In the last letters, he has found the inspiration and managed to let out the work he was sitting on. The joy when he writes the Elegies, the Sonnet to Orpheus is palpable. His health declines, he talks a lot more about physicians. He also thought about doing a psychoanalysis but preferred to keep his demons as part of his creating process. He’s a man who suffered from a poor health all his life and never rebelled against it, took it as the way life was for him and lived day by day.

All these years, Lou became his distant spine, his anchor in life. She immediately saw him as a gifted writer and he trusted her judgement. She believed in his talent, thought highly of his work and that gave him the strength and the confidence he needed. She was his confidant, his safe – she received a copy of his work –, his living diary. Would we have Rilke’s work without her? I’m not sure. These letters had the same effect on me than Letters to a Young Poet and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: a profound fondness for the man who wrote them, awe for his literary gift and sadness for him that it should come with so much pain. When I read Kakfa’s letters to Milena, I heard his pain but I never really sympathized with him. He sounded complicated and whimsical. I sympathized with Rilke, deeply. He was a man I would have loved to meet.

German Lit Month: my entry for crime fiction week

November 10, 2011 20 comments

Die Therapie by Sebastian Fitzek, 2006 – Der Detektiv-Roman by Siegfried Kracauer. 1925

I didn’t know any German crime fiction writer and I had difficulties to choose a book for week two. So I used a basic method: go to a bookshop, browse the crime fiction shelves from A to Z and picking any book whose author had a Germanish name. I only found a novel by Sebastian Fitzek, Die Therapie and a non-fiction book by Siegfried Kracauer, Der Detektiv-Roman (1925). I bought both. A double disaster.

Fitzek is the German Patterson, the book is so bad it doesn’t deserve a review. End of story. The Kracauer’s cover is totally misleading. I expected an essay on the origins of crime fiction. I read the intro, I was fine. First page of first chapter, he was already referring to Kierkegaard. I tried to read further but I didn’t understand a word about what he was saying. I have to admit I’m a total zero when it comes to metaphysics. I’ve never been good at understanding philosophy, especially when it deals with time, metaphysics and theology. End of story. (bis)

That must be the shortest entry I’ve ever written about books. So it goes as Vonnegut would say. That leaves me with lots of questions: how is it possible that I couldn’t find any German crime fiction writer on the shelves when books in translations are so widely sold in France? How is it possible that I didn’t know any author? Why don’t they make it on the French market? Are French readers so put off by Derrick and Tatort that they wouldn’t buy German crime fiction books?

What’s your opinion?

The Passport by Herta Müller

November 8, 2011 27 comments

The Passport by Herta Müller. 122 pages. 1986.

How can I describe this? Consistent with the idea I had of Romania under Ceaucescu. My apologies to potential Romanian readers, but it’s true.

Herta Müller wrote The Passport in 1986, before she left Romania to immigrate to Western Germany. She’s a Romanian writer of the German speaking minority. (Do they also have the German nationality? That would explain that only a passport was needed to immigrate). The short biography in my French edition indicates she left because the regime was after her.

The original title, Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt, means The Man Is a Grand Pheasant on the Earth. The English title, The Passport, reflects the thin plot of the book, a man named Windisch and his desperate quest for a passport to immigrate in Germany. The original title reflects Müller’s incomprehensible but poetical style. Indeed, some paragraphs are made of words I all knew individually but had never seen put together in that particular order. Hence a feeling of being lost in an ocean of words and poetical images. Here are examples. (my translation)

Windisch feels the water giggle in his shoes.

Windisch feels the grain of sand in his skull. He makes it go to and fro from temple to temple.

The wind beats against the wood. It sews. The wind sews a bad in the ground.

Jesus sleeps on the cross besides the church door. When he wakes up, he’ll be old. The air in the village will be lighter than his naked skin.

Her prose is made of apple trees which swallow their apples (a metaphor for Communist countries?), of owls who circle around the houses of the dying, of crazy watermelons. And of course, there’s the “modernist” or “post-modernist” or whatever-the-term affectation:

The mill is silent. The walls are silent and the roof is silent. And the wheels are silent. Windisch has pressed the switch and put out the light. Between the wheels it is night. The dark air has swallowed the flour dust, the flies, the sacks. (translated by Martin Chalmers)

True, she writes well in sharp sentences full of images. I wonder how it sounds in audio version, by the way. The experience was moony which echoes the French cover of the novel. After passing through the curtain of unintelligible paragraphs, I could see the frame of the picture she wants to describe, a village in German-speaking Romania. Well, that’s not a place you’d want to stay.

Though it’s not said, the reader understands it takes place after the war, the wounds of the period still unhealed. Windisch and his wife Katharina got married after the war, when they came back to the village. He was in detention; she was in working camps in Russia. They got married not because they were in love but because they were alive whereas their legitimate fiancés, Barbara and Joseph, weren’t. Barbara died in Russia. Joseph never came back from the war. The door to the war time is ajar, enough for the reader to understand the horror of the experience, the violence, the cold, the hunger.

Everything in this village is repulsive. The villagers are nasty, racist, corrupt and illiterate. There is no warmth, no solidarity. None of them has a redeeming quality. To get a passport, the female relative (wife or daughter) must sleep with the clergyman to get the birth certificate, with the policeman to get the other official papers. The post-office clerk drinks the money of stamps and doesn’t process the sending of the letters. The mayor is corrupt too. You need to bribe in money or in kind (food or sex) at every stage of the process to get the precious key to freedom.

Racism is everywhere. The villagers want to live in Germany but despise the Germans. They say their women are worse than their worse women. They feel superior to their fellow Romanian citizens; they don’t consider themselves as Romanian, don’t speak the language and don’t intend to. You sure understand that a marriage between a Romanian and a German would be frowned upon, if not impossible. There’s hatred between the communities, the Romanians resent the condescendence of the German minority. Of course they’re anti-Semitic and also gossip about the Baptist community. Some villagers are wacked. Is it a consequence of consanguinity? Windisch’s wife is as ignorant as can be: when her daughter Amalia tells her she’s on the pill, she asks if she’s ill and needs pills. All in all, everything is depressing in this book.

As an aside, I’m wondering if there’s a connection between Windisch and Herta Müller. Windisch is a miller (Müller in German). Is he the author’s avatar? Hopefully not.

It’s a short book I almost abandoned page 39 and kept reading because it was short. I was bored; the prose put me off-balance at first and just put me off at last. I can see that Herta Müller is a gifted writer but that kind of prose isn’t for me. Genius for some, painful experience to me.

For a positive review, read Lisa’s take here.

Fame: A Novel in Nine Stories by Daniel Kehlmann

November 6, 2011 19 comments

Fame: A Novel in Nine Stories by Daniel Kehlmann. 2009. Original title: Ruhm. French title: Gloire.

This is my first read for the German Lit Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I chose it after reading Guy’s review here. Fame is a strange exhilarating book. It’s made of nine different stories, each making sense as a stand-alone but taking an extra dimension when read among the others. Indeed, the stories bounce on each other, featuring recurring characters, one story explaining a detail included in another story or casually referring to an event that took place in another tale.

The recurring characters are a famous actor Ralph Tanner, an acclaimed writer Leo Richter and a successful writer of self-help books Miguel Auristos Blancos. They are either main characters in a story or side characters in others, impacting other people’s lives. It’s very well-constructed; it’s a real pleasure to cross-reference events, characters and to discover the network of relationships and events that tie them together. Seen Short Cuts by Robert Altman? That would be it.

Fame is a topic but not the only one. I enjoyed the interaction writer/character in Rosalie Goes Off to Die and in In Danger. Leo Richter isn’t a likeable character and his lover Elisabeth always fears she’ll end up as a character in one of his stories. I’ve always wondered how relatives and friends of writers handle that when it happens. Do they have the feeling that the author steals their lives and betrays them? Leo is a coward; he’s constantly ranting, moping and whining. And selfish too, not grateful at all that these readers who come and hear his lectures buy his books and allow him to pay the bills. He’s looking down on them, mocking their clothes, their questions, their conversation. There’s a huge gap between the quality of his literary work and the qualities of the man.

A recurring them is modern communications. It’s present in A Contribution to the Debate through Mollwitz, a nerd spending most of his awaken time commenting on forums and blogs. His avatar is mollwitt, the “translation” of his German name into English, as witz means witt. Several characters work for a cell phone company. It also explores the way we have the world within touch in our pocket with our web phone. We, bloggers know that, the virtual proximity with people we’ve never met and live on the other side of the planet.

Daniel Kehlmann also depicts the globalization of culture and of thinking through the Brazilian writer Miguel Auristos Blancos (Paolo Coehlo??) He writes self-help books and pseudo-philosophical works about accepting life and living in peace with yourself. His books appear in every story, in a way or another, whatever the country, whatever the décor or the social background of the characters. It made me think of bookstores in airport: look at them, you’ll find the same authors everywhere.

In How I Lied and Died, Kehlmann shows how cheating is easier with technologies and it reminded me of Jonathan Coe’s character who captures noises in airports to help cheaters make their spouse believe they are where they aren’t.

I’d like to focus a bit on Contribution to the Debate, probably my favorite story. It is a first person narrative by Mollwitz himself. It’s written in the language of nerds, full of English words. My mom wouldn’t understand half of it and I could imagine her complaining “Can’t they write in French? Don’t we have enough words?” Actually, I think the story can be pretty obscure for someone who doesn’t speak English and/or knows nothing about forums and blogs. (Since my mom meets both criteria, reading this would be like deciphering the Rosetta Stone). I wrote this – I who just learnt that the French word for “post” is “billet” – and then I wanted to include a quote and see how it looked like in English. (thanks Amazon “look inside”!!) So here is the opening paragraph of the story:

Là il va falloir que je re-monte en arrière. Sorry et : je sais bien que lithuania23 et icu_lop vont à nouveau se moquer de la longueur de ce post et bien sûr lordoftheflakes, ce troll, comme récemment dans son flame sur movieforum, mais je peux pas faire plus court et celui qu’est pressé, il a qu’à passer direct à la suite. Rencontrer des people ? Alors là attention !Je dois dire au préalable que je suis un fan hard-de-chez-core de ce forum. 24 carats, comme idée. Des types clean tels que moi et toi qui repèrent les celebs et en parlent : cool à profusion, vachement bien conçu, intéressant pour tout un chacun et ça fait aussi fonction de contrôle, pour ce qu’ils savent qu’ils sont scannés et peuvent pas se comporter comme je sais quoi. Ca fait des siècles que je voulais mettre un post ici, mais pas de problème, d’où problème. Or là-dessus le week-end dernier, et de suite, tous azimuts. Here I have to back up. Sorry: perfectly clear that lithuania23 and icu-lop will flame this posting for being too long; so will that troll lordoftheFlakes, just like he flamed on MovieForum, but I can’t do it shorter, and whoever’s in a hurry can just skip it. Meeting celebrities? Heads up!Must signal that I’m a huge hardcore fan of this forum. Platinium idea. Normal types like you and me who spot famous people and report on their sightings: chill, no? wicked idea, really well worked out, interesting to everyone and besides it acts like control, so they know they’re being scanned and can’t just goof off. Wanted to post here forever, only where to get the stuff. But then came last weekend, the whole load.

The English version has as many syntax errors and spoken language than the French but I think the French version is more obscure to the offline reader than the English. Unfortunately the “look inside” of Amazon Germany didn’t allow me to find the same quote in German. Are there all these English words in the original version or is it the work of the French translator? However, the reader understands that Mollwitz lives in an alternate reality as his real life is nonexistent. He lives with his tyrannical mother, has no friends and having a girl-friend seems out of the question.

The style varies from one story to the other, showing characters trapped in their lives and living through events due to the decisions made by other characters in another story. It’s full of spot on and witty remarks on life in general and on our modern world in particular. A delight.

Weeks, bloody weeks

November 4, 2011 15 comments

The Gods Are Athirst by Anatole France. 1912. Original title: Les dieux ont soif.

On doit aimer la vertu; mais il est bon de savoir que c’est un simple expédient imaginé par les hommes pour vivre commodément ensemble. Ce que nous appelons la morale n’est qu’une entreprise désespérée de nos semblables contre l’ordre universel, qui est la lutte, le carnage et l’aveugle jeu de forces contraires. We should love virtue; but it is well to know that this is simply and solely a convenient expedient invented by men in order to live comfortably together. What we call morality is merely a desperate enterprise, a forlorn hope, on the part of our fellow creatures to reverse the order of the universe, which is strife and murder, the blind interplay of hostile forces.

1793. Citoyen Gamelin, an aspiring painter is nominated to be a member of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The novel unfolds step by step the terrible events that will lead this man to become a heartless judge who’ll send many people to the guillotine. Gamelin is a strong believer in the Revolution. He is coldhearted and it prevents him from understanding other people’s passions. He turns mystic about his mission and oddly, the memory of Nick Corey, the crazy sheriff of Pop 1280 popped up in my mind.

There are many valuable ideas in that novel, about politics, justice, the use of violence and the means we are entitled to use to defend a cause. It shows how an ordinary and virtuous man becomes a bloody judge, loses his mind and changes into a fanatic. Since Anatole France wrote this novel, sadly we’ve had many opportunities to challenge and check his theory. The capacities of humanity to behave in inhuman ways seem abysmal.

It also exposes Anatole France’s rejection to violent outbursts and revolutions (He had hated La Commune in 1870). An generous idea transformed into an official dogma becomes lethal:

J’espère, du moins, citoyen Brotteaux, que, lorsque la République aura institué le culte de la Raison, vous ne refuserez pas votre adhésion à une religion si sage/- J’ai l’amour de la raison, je n’en ai pas le fanatisme, répondit Brotteaux. La raison nous guide et nous éclaire ; quand vous en aurez fait une divinité, elle vous aveuglera et vous persuadera des crimes. I hope, at least, citoyen Brotteaux, that, as soon as the Republic has established the worship of Reason, you will not refuse your adhesion to so wise a religion!”“I love reason, but I am no fanatic in my love,” was Brotteaux’s answer. “Reason is our guide and beacon-light; but when you have made a divinity of it, it will blind you and instigate you to crime,”

Enlightened by Winock, I noticed several passages where Anatole France addresses contemporary issues. Indeed, in 1910-1911, Jaurès had started working for the rehabilitation of Robespierre. Socialism was becoming an important political force and an international movement. The anti-clerical and clerical parties were still opposing arguments. Therefore I saw a reference to socialism in the following quote:

Sous l’apparence de préparer le bonheur universel et le règne de la justice, ceux qui proposaient comme un objet digne de l’effort des citoyens l’égalité et la communauté des biens étaient des traitres et des scélérats plus dangereux que les fédéralistes. These men who, under pretense of securing universal happiness and the reign of justice, proposed a system of equality and community of goods as a worthy object of good citizens’ endeavours, were traitors and malefactors more dangerous than the Federalists.

My edition has an excellent foreword by Marie-Claire Bancquart, a specialist of Anatole France. His father owned a bookstore specialized in the French Revolution. The young Anatole had access to all his documentation (including the newspaper tainted with blood that Marat was holding when Charlotte Corday killed him). It was original documents, from books, to almanacs, pamphlets, letters, etc.  Anatole France had an immense culture on the subject and knew very well the era, its politics, its famous people, its way of life. Bancquart says that his description of everyday life in 1793-1794, of the people’s state of mind, of the clothes, of the language and the songs, of the gardens in Paris are all accurate. As I said before, when France wrote his novel, Jaurès was trying to rehabilitate Robespierre and the discussion about the Terror was in the air. The novel is highly political, showing at the same time a bloodthirsty power and revolutionary ideas replacing religious faith, creating a violent and intolerant faith. It describes the not-so-slow evolution of a page of history that promoted justice and freedom to a paranoiac State that condemns people without a fair trial and on dubious testimonies.

From an historical, political and philosophical point of view, it’s an excellent novel. Accurate, insightful, meaningful. From a literary point of view, the style was a put off for me. Sure, the characters come to life under his pen, they sound real and the picture of Paris in that time was great. The beginning of the book was promising until Gamelin is appointed to the Tribunal. Then the style becomes heavy, complicated, too filled with many allusions and references I didn’t understand. The prose is too erudite for the modern reader. I have studied enough of Latin to understand that kind of references:

– Dictateur, traître, tyran ! il est encore des Brutus.- Tremble, scélérat ! la roche Tarpéienne est près du Capitole. “Dictator, traitor, tyrant! the race of Brutus is not extinct.”“Tremble, malefactor! the Tarpeian rock is near the Capitol!”

But I missed many comparisons. Despite the end notes, I was totally lost in the name dropping of politicians and other famous people of the revolutionary period. And the pompous tone sometimes!

Ô pureté ! ô douceur ! ô foi ! ô simplicité antique ! ô larmes de pitié ! ô rosée féconde ! ô clémence ! ô fraternité humaine ! Oh purity! oh sweetness! oh faith! oh antique simplicity! oh tears of pity! oh fertilizing dew! oh clemency! oh human fraternity!

OH DEAR!! As another example of old-fashioned ways, I took me a second or two to figure out who Guillaume Shakespeare was. It’s certainly well-written but it didn’t age well. Proust admired France so much that Bergotte is portrayed after him. Proust is a lot more gifted than him and it’s remarkable that this man who was so literate didn’t need to call his culture to back up his prose. In Proust’s novels, culture stays behind the curtains but nurtures his prose. In France’s book, it’s on stage.

Update on December 16th, 2018 : See Kaggy’s review here.

Interview with Paola Calvetti

November 2, 2011 8 comments

Paola Calvetti, author of PO Box Love: A Novel in Letters accepted to do a interview via e-mail after we had selected her book for our book club. So we wrote down a list of questions after discussing the novel.

Thanks again, Paola, for taking the time to answer our questions!

How did you imagine Emma’s bookstore? Does her shop exist somewhere or is it your dream of a bookshop?

Paola Calvetti: Emma’s bookshop is the sort of bookstore I dream of discovering. I miss that sort of independent bookshop and there are so few of them. I dreamed it up because I felt the need to go there in my head, to dream and to discover books. Every time Emma goes to her shop and I describe it I felt at home there, nostalgic. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found it in real life…but I am still looking!

Why did you choose the renovating of the Pierpont Morgan Library as a central “character” of the book?

Paola Calvetti: I chose the Pierpont Morgan Library because it is an absolutely extraordinary place, in many ways. It is more than just a building. John Pierpoint Morgan, was a man who loved beauty and wanted to surround himself with it. I find it very symbolic that his Library was transformed by a modern day genius, Renzo Piano, such that it has now been transformed into a place of extraordinary vitality, where people go to exchange thoughts, ideas, perhaps even meet for the first time, or just enjoy a silent moment. You can have a coffee and meet Jane Austen together.

Why the epistolary form?

Paola Calvetti: Federico chooses to write letters and through those letters he reflects on his life, his marriage and his work. The Morgan Library and Emma’s bookstore are two places that serve as metaphors where the two lovers “use” to recount their lives, their passions, their thoughts, and project their future….Writing a letter by hand allows you the time which an email does not. It is “slow” communication as opposed to the two lines of an sms or an email which is the literary equivalent of Fast Food.

Did you intend to place this book on the path of great love stories?

Paola Calvetti: I see the novel as a on the path of great love: romantic love but also a love of books, of family, of time, friendship…all those values which are eternal and keep us alive.

 Before opening her bookstore, Emma spent time in Lapland to think about her life. In Paolo Giordano’s novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Mattia accepts a position in Sweden to leave his personal problems behind. Is there an Italian myth of going North to find isolation and think?

Paola Calvetti: I was born on January 10th. I love snow and Northern countries in both Europe and North America. Montreal for example is one of my favorite cities, marvelous, truly.

Have you read all the books listed in the novel?

Paola Calvetti: Yes I have. A true bookseller reads all the books she recommends. And I would never dare write about anything I didn’t know.

How do you use Internet to promote your books?

Paola Calvetti: I use facebook, and in France the publisher organized a blogger meeting, where I met with a group of bloggers. For the US editions, there is a fabulous marketing plan in place which will begin in January in which the book itself will be the protagonist talking about how excited it is to be in the bookstores in the States.

How is the situation of independent bookstore in Italy ?

Paola Calvetti: The general trend is not in favour of the independents but I love them and they (thankfully) love Emma. Amazon just arrived in Italy, so the readers still depend on the bookstores, but unfortunately, over half of sales are in the chains or supermarkets.

Who’s you favourite author ?

Paola Calvetti: I have so many, please don’t ask me to choose one. It would be like asking you to pick your favorite child. Some of my favorites are : Cunningham, Cameron, Foer, Tolstoy, Austen, Woolf. And I am always looking for new authors.

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