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Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power

March 29, 2012 27 comments

La Curée by Emile Zola 1872   English title: The Kill

La Curée is our Book Club’s choice for March. It is the second volume of the Rougon Macquart cycle. Zola’s aim was to draw the ups and downs of a French extended family during the Second Empire. (1852-1870). In this volume, Eugène Rougon is a rising politician when his brother Aristide moves to Paris to become rich. Eugène manages to have him hired at the Hôtel de Ville, which means he’s a civil servant for the city of Paris. Aristide starts a new life then and changes his surname for Saccard.

Eugène and Aristide also have a sister, Sidonie, a spinster who runs an apparently honest shop, as a façade for her more shady business; she lives upon discreet services to rich persons who confide in her and rely on her for some of their dirty dealings. Knowing many secrets, she manages to marry Aristide to Renée, the pregnant daughter of a respectable and rich bourgeois. Aristide has been on the lookout for a juicy opportunity to launch a business. When he marries Renée, he has just discovered he could make a fortune on speculating on the houses and lands the Hôtel de Ville will have to buy out to current owners to change Paris according to the Baron Haussmann’s plans.

It works. Saccard is now awfully rich and lives as a parvenu. René, who had a miscarriage, launches herself into a life of pleasure made of soirees, gowns, jewelry and lovers. She befriends with Maxime, Saccard’s son from his first marriage. They are close comrades, sharing their love lives, hanging out together like too young men and they have no secrets for each other. One night, they have sex, putting an end to their friendship. And while Maxime sees it as an agreeable fling, Renée is more and more involved emotionally.

The title of the book, La Curée, refers to the moment when dogs kill the animal they are hunting. The hunt is the underlying theme of the novel.

The hunt is in Saccard chasing money, cornering people to have them into his schemes. He noses out Paris when he arrives, in an attempt to smell a source of wealth. He is on the watch for any opportunity at the Hôtel de Ville, hidden, waiting for the right moment to catch hold of his chance for wealth. Nothing can stop him once he has smelled money. He’s alternatively the hunter and the fox. He hunts down people when he needs them; his creditors can hunt him down any time his risky financial schemes fail. The master of the hunt is Eugène, who holds the whistle and can socially kill Saccard at the first faux pas or whenever he wants to end the game.

The hunt is in Renée, relentlessly pursuing pleasure. She too has two roles, the hunter and the bait. Maxime is her prey, she doesn’t hesitate to corner him. Saccard uses her as bait in his hunt for money. He takes advantage of her stunning beauty and of her social skills to attract people in his salons and push forward his business deals. Renée is a great character, abandoning herself to her senses, surrendering to her carnal desires, behaving on instinct.

The hunt is in Madame Sidonie, chasing after comprising information and useful secrets. Confidences are her weapon; she can be unleashed on someone on demand.

The hunt is also in the society. It’s the portrait of a time when the politicians, the nouveaux riches are sent like hounds on the old Paris, tearing it down, putting it to pieces, selling it to the wolves. It’s a strong criticism of the Second Empire. I’m not saying that Zola is inaccurate but the reader must remember that he was a fierce republican; that he wrote under another regime which loathed the previous one. I was interested in Saccard’s shady dealings, the mechanism used to increase the values of the properties bought back by the city to cut what we now know as the Grands Boulevards. I also thought about Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All this sex, this debauchery, the alliance between Maxime and Renée, like Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. It has a whiff of decadence and all oozes vulgarity, which can be heard in the protagonists’ name, Saccard. In French, the suffix “ard” (pronounce “ar”) is negative, underlying vulgarity.

I’d forgotten how descriptive Zola’s prose is and I thought it lacked dialogues sometimes. He talks to all our senses, describing the lights, the scents, the air, the fabrics, the sounds. I saw languid paintings by Manet or Ingres. The vivid descriptions of the atmosphere match with the characters’ feelings, especially Renée’s. The episode of the promenade in the Bois de Boulogne is a masterpiece. Renée is the only one who really questions her life, touches its limits. She suffers from ennui, knows her life is shallow. She’s a remarkable feminine character, as fascinating as Nana, far more interesting than Madame Bovary. If you still hesitate about reading La Curée, I recommend that you read Guy’s excellent review here. Like him, I wonder why this heroin isn’t more famous; she has everything to be a great literary character. Is it because the sex is rather explicit? Did that prevent to book from reaching high school classes?

What if John Self and Lou Ford had a merger?

March 25, 2012 23 comments

Get Me Out Of Here by Henry Sutton

Matt, I know all this. You’ve told me countless times, but as I’ve said before, and as plenty of other people have said too, including Mum – she was always saying it – you’re not the easiest person to live with. You’re obsessive, you get paranoid, you can have a horrible temper, made worse by drink, half the time you live in a fantasy world, and you’re a snob, too. You don’t help yourself, Matt. It’s weird but you also have this horrible, macabre side to you – part of your overactive imagination? I don’t know. You should have done something that required a little more imagination. You should have been an artist. But you do tend to think the worst of every situation, and then you try to make everyone else think the same. It’s scary. I’m not surprised it didn’t work out with Fran.’

I wanted to read Get Me Out Of Here after reading Guy’s review. This was a shattering book. The more I progressed in my reading the more I was screaming internally Get Me (Emma) out of here (Matt’s head). As you can guess, it’s a first person narrative. Matt Freeman is a totally unreliable character. He’s a Londoner who lives in a complex designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, silly admirers of Le Corbusier, responsible for hideous post-war suburbs in France. Matt got on my nerves right from the first pages when he makes a fuss about his spectacles in the optician’s shop. He’s obnoxious, obsessed with luxury brands and treats awfully the poor sales clerk. He supposedly works as an independent ???, maybe marketer, I never quite figured out what his profession was supposed to be. He’s obsessed with leaving for North Korea, which is in itself a proof of his insanity. He despises other people and feels superior to everyone:

I couldn’t put up with this for a moment longer. It wasn’t just public transport that was insufferable, it was the public, too.

Nice man, right?

At the beginning, he sounds picky but rather normal. The more you read, the more you discover his true self, the more you want to run away from him. The novel unravels his talent for lies, his violent relationships with women, his total lack of interest for others. Here is Matt, describing his supposed best friend Roger:

She and Roger had two hideous, red-haired children. One, in theory, was my godson. I still hadn’t got his christening present engraved. In fact I couldn’t remember where I’d put it, or what it was. He was possibly six or seven. I had no idea when his birthday was.

He has trouble remembering his sister-in-law’s name and of course doesn’t know the names and ages of his nephews. He only thinks of himself, never questions his perceptions and always sees other people’s reactions in a twisted way.

Why this post title? John Self is the hero of Money by Martin Amis. Matt is also obsessed with money, wealthy people and also fosters unrealistic career prospects. He’s attracted to the same kind of women. Lou Ford is the hero of The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Matt is as psycho and disturbing as Lou, they are both highly despicable characters.

Sutton is excellent on the plot side and the style side. The book slowly reveals evidences of Matt’s craziness and the style is cutthroat but dark funny:

This was a chunk of Westminster barely touched since the days of Orwell. It made Bobbie’s flimsy abode look like a designer penthouse. Just being at Suze’s made me feel down and out.

The only thing I regret is all that brand quoting, I missed some references, my interest in fashion being null. I supposed they were all expensive clothes and equipment. I’ve been to London only once and I remembered enough of the tube to follow Matt in his underground wanderings but it’s true this book must have another flavor for a Londoner than for a foreigner.

Henry Sutton is an excellent writer but I didn’t have a nice moment reading his book. It took me a lot of time, being in Matt’s head was really uncomfortable, claustrophobic. In a way, Sutton is too good a writer, Matt invaded my consciousness to the point I had to put the book down and rest. After this, I needed light and funny.

PS: Another review by Kevin here

Saturday musings : to Toni Jordan and Emilie de Turckheim

March 24, 2012 20 comments

My Saturday musings are a message to Toni Jordan and Emilie de Turckheim. I know, it’s a bit presumptuous from me to write directly to authors and imagine I’ll be read but I’ll do it anyway. If history serves, it happens that writers Google themselves or their book titles.

My first message is to Australian writer Toni Jordan. I’ve just finished her novel Addition and I would like to react to her foreword, which is the following:

This story takes place in my home, a land sometimes called “down under.” This land is like yours in many ways, but in other ways it is very different. Our summer months are December, January and February, and our winter, June, July and August. Our temperatures are measured in Celsius; a summer’s day of 36 is almost 97 degrees Fahrenheit, and a cooler day of 12 is more a pleasant 54. We measure length in centimeters—one is almost half an inch. We also eat pancakes and drink coffee, and go shopping and to football games (although a different sort).

Why do you apologize for not being American? Seen from this side of the planet, from a country which fights for its “cultural exception”, it’s puzzling. OK, I don’t ask you to be as smug as a French, but a little pride won’t hurt. By the way, I am happy that you use the metric system, don’t play soccer but football and talk about degrees Celsius, because for once, I didn’t have to use my homemade bookmark with Celsius/Fahrenheit conversions on one side and inches/centimeters on the other side to understand your book.

I’ll write my thoughts about it later; I only hope that my “review” will be as lovely as your book. Thanks for writing it.

Australia also leads me to French writer Emilie de Turckheim although through circuitous ways. Let me explain. I wrote an entry about promising French women writers and Emilie de Turckheim was among them. She left me a message and I was seriously considering reading her book Héloïse est chauve. After reading Lisa’s post on Hate, a Romance by Tristan Garcia, I’m even more decided to read Héloïse est chauve. (Discover Lisa’s review of this French contemporary book here) I want to show you there is more to nowadays French literature than pseudo-intellectual ranting writers, that Houellebecq’s characters and Garcia’s characters aren’t what we are. So, Emilie, I’ll get your book at the library, and if I can’t find it, I’ll buy it although I usually don’t buy hardcovers, just because I’m glad you didn’t write about male bourgeois-bohemians with libido problems.

Categories: Opinion, Personal Posts

Readalong : Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

March 24, 2012 7 comments

In April, our book club Les Copines d’Abord will be reading Remarkable Creaturesby Tracy Chevalier. I’ll post my thoughts on April 26th and will let you know the outcome of our book club discussion.

You’re welcome come aboard and read it along with us, just leave a comment to say you’re in. If you have a blog, I’ll read your review and link it to mine ; if you don’t, just write your thoughts in the comment section.

I haven’t read it yet, but here is the blurb on Amazon:

A voyage of discoveries, a meeting of two remarkable women, and extraordinary time and place enrich bestselling author Tracy Chevalier’s enthralling new novel

From the moment she’s struck by lightening as a baby, it is clear that Mary Anning is marked for greatness. On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, she learns that she has “the eye”-and finds what no one else can see. When Mary uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious fathers on edge, the townspeople to vicious gossip, and the scientific world alight. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is barred from the academic community; as a young woman with unusual interests she is suspected of sinful behavior. Nature is a threat, throwing bitter, cold storms and landslips at her. And when she falls in love, it is with an impossible man.

Categories: Book Club, Personal Posts

Son of a pitch

March 20, 2012 10 comments

99 Francs by Frédéric Beigbeder 2000. British translation: £9.99

This is my second Frédéric Beigbeder and like the first one, I didn’t buy it. I read Un Roman Français last year, remember, it was part of my Not A Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge. It was better than expected. I found 99 Francs in the archive room at work. It laid abandoned on a shelf and the pull was too strong, I couldn’t leave the poor book alone, it howled for a home. OK, if it had been a SAS, I would have thought it was better it kept company to all these boxes of invoices. But it wasn’t, so I brought it home.

Frédéric Beigbeder was born in 1965 in a bourgeois family and used to work as an advertising executive before becoming a writer, among other things. Once he was arrested because he had cocaine on him. 99 Francs is the story of Octave, a thirtysomething advertising executive who loathes his job and sniffs cocaine. Now you understand why I wrote the biographical elements, I who never cares about a writer’s life.

Octave has the same name than Musset’s character in The Confession of a Child of the Century. And indeed it’s not a coincidence at all. So Octave is bored. Octave is heartbroken because his lover left him. Octave wallows in debauchery. Octave thinks about how shallow the world is, how corrupted and money driven it is. And Octave shows us what happens behind the curtains in the advertising world.

Honestly, I didn’t like it although there are definitely some good things in this book, especially at the beginning. I didn’t enjoy it for several reasons. First, I’m a business school graduate, I suffered during marketing classes and only Max Barry could make something entertaining with that. Second, the bits about corporate world reminded me of where I don’t want to work ; it was easy to picture the meetings with they client Madone. Third, binge drinking, cocaine, raw sex and partying are more glamorous when they’re set in Manhattan and written by Jay McInerney. What can I say? The best marketers are American, they even invented Santa Claus. Plus, when you’re not a native, things sound less silly when they are in English. Song lyrics are the perfect example.

Octave is fed up with his job, he questions its worth and points out that it helps money governing the world, making people only wanting to buy new things instead of focusing on the real values. Haven’t we heard it all before? Beigbeder rebels like a bourgeois kid who wants to bother their father, yelling with small fists clenched in designer jeans. The parallel with Musset could sound fake but didn’t I see a parallel between Musset’s generation and mine when I read Confession of A Child of the Century? I can’t criticize Beigbeder for it, for I could feel the connection too.

The structure is original, each chapter is written in a different personal pronoun. It starts with I and finishes with you (plural). The point of view shifts and between each chapter, there’s a mini-chapter written like a commercial break. Clever.

If someone still wants to read it and if you’re not French, don’t read it in French. You wouldn’t understand it. This book doesn’t need a translation, it needs a transcription. It’s full of references to well-known commercials; you need to see the images conveyed by the slogans, otherwise you’re missing the fun and Octave’s point.

After re-reading my review, I notice that I have a lot of links to other posts in it, more than the usual. It shows how it echoed with other books, this novel is indeed a child of its century.

PS : Something else about this book. In his interviews about Claustria, Régis Jauffret makes a comparison between watching TV and the cavern in Plato’s essay. Well, dear M. Jauffret, Frédéric Beigbeder wrote this comparison before and it’s in 99 Francs.

Promising French women writers, they say.

March 17, 2012 44 comments

I’m sorry but this post is only a selfish reminder. The news magazine L’Express published a list of promising contemporary French women writers and I’m interested in discovering them, but of course, I won’t remember their names if I don’t write them down. And then I thought, where do I file the paper list? So here I am, writing an entry as a post-it, to keep the information somewhere I know it won’t get lost.

So here we are with the recommended books:

Confidences à Allah by Saphia Azzedine

She’s influenced by Robert Merle and Philip Roth. That’s a good sign for me.

Héloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim

Her references are Faulkner and Malcom Lowry. I never managed to finish a Faulkner and Under the Volcano has been sitting on the shelf for 3 years now. Heloïse is bald, the title says. Why do I fear a book about Heloïse having cancer?

Des vies d’oiseaux by Véronique Ovaldé

She likes Faulkner, Bolaño, Antonio Lobo Antunes. I don’t know this Portuguese writer but I should check him out.

Du domaine des Murmures by Carole Martinez

She’s fond of Faulkner (Is there a Faulkner mania I’m unaware of, in this country?), Goran Tunström (Don’t ask me who he is), Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Maupassant, Claudel, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Claudel ? Brr… I have Le Coeur Cousu at home, her other book but I haven’t started yet.

Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit by Delphine de Vigan

She’s a fan of Modiano, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Tournier, Laura Kasischke and James Salter. After reading Underground Time, I wouldn’t have imagined her as a fan of the Nouveau Roman.

Les Séparées by Kéthévane Davrichewy

Her influences? Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Marguerite Duras and Francis Scott Fitzgerald. An intriguing mix of writers.

La Ballade de Lila K by Blandine Le Callet

She’s into Greek tragedies and contemporary American literature. Hum.

Cronos by Linda Lê

Her favourite writers are Marina Tsvetaeva, Louis-René des Forêts, Louis Calaferte and Stif Dagerman. I don’t know her and I’ve never heard of the writers she mentioned. I’m terribly intrigued.

La Mémoire des murs by Tatiana de Rosnay.

She’s influenced by Daphne du Maurier and Ian McEwan. I’ve never been tempted by her books but I may be wrong.

Have you ever heard of them before or read their books?

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg

March 14, 2012 18 comments

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg (1898-1973) Published in 1949.

From 1949 to 1959, the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg wrote the Emigrants series, which counts four volumes.

  • The Emigrants (1949)
  • Unto a Good Land (1952)
  • The Settlers (1956)
  • The Last Letter Home (1959)

The series relates the story of a Swedish family from Småland, a rural part of Sweden, who emigrates to Minnesota. Don’t ask me why the French edition has five volumes, the second one relates the crossing of the Atlantic. I suppose it’s included in the first book in the English edition.

The Emigrants describes the life of peasants in Småland in the early 1850s. As the law on inheritance splits properties equally between children, the heir who wants the estate must buy out their siblings’ part. If the division is done during the parents’ lifetime, they keep an allowance. It has a huge impact on their living conditions.

We follow the Nielsson who are small landowners. The eldest son, Karl Oskar bought the land but their property isn’t vast enough to support his family and pay back the loan they subscribed to buy the part that belonged to Karl Oskar’s siblings. Plus, the soil is poor, full of rocks, with small return. No matter how hard Karl Oskar and his wife Kristina work, they can’t make enough money to make ends meet. As the family grows, they risk starvation and cannot pay their debt any time the weather is foul and endangers the crops. Slowly, the idea of moving in America settles in their minds as they cannot see any future for them in Sweden. Despite their fear, they decide to risk it and settle in the country of gold and honey.

I understood that there were four official conditions for a person in Sweden at the time: clergyman, aristocrat, peasant and other. The Emigrants details the living conditions of small peasants. It shows how they are under the yoke of the Church and of secular power too. Farm workers sign contracts with masters that are close to slavery. They can’t leave the estate, they can be beaten and can go to prison if they escape. (The equivalent of gendarmes chase them and bring them back to their masters)

Moberg also puts forward the power and intolerance of the Lutheran Church. “Heretics” are chased and some emigrants left because they were persecuted and couldn’t live according to their faith. I saw there the roots of obscure American churches that these emigrants brought with them. This is something odd for a French, as these alternative churches aren’t widespread here.

It’s a tough life ; I thought the villagers hardly held together, there seemed to be no dances or joyful gatherings. It’s not very different from what Herbjørg Wassmo described in the Dinah Trilogy. Did the Church forbid dances and fests? It was a rigid life, dedicated to work with little pleasure. However, sometimes Moberg is unintentionally funny, like here:

Le pasteur avait pleinement confiance en Per Persson. Comme celui-ci ne buvait pas plus d’un demi-pichet d’eau-de-vie par jour, c’était un modèle de sobriété pour les autres paroissiens.

The priest fully trusted Per Persson. As he didn’t drink more than half a jug of schnapps per day, he was a model of temperance for the other parishioners.

Humph! If like me, smelling schnapps is almost enough to get you drunk, the idea of half a jug of it makes you shiver and imagine alcoholic coma straight away. And to think that half a pitcher is temperance!

From the literary point of view, the narration is very straightforward, it’s in chronological order, narrated in the third person. The style isn’t literary enough for my taste and I think Moberg could have said as much in less pages. The second volume is the crossing, I wonder why he needed 300 pages to describe the trip, no matter how awful it must have been. The French translator wrote in the foreword that he couldn’t translate the dialect and that the Swedish-English words spoken by the emigrants in America were impossible to give back into French. So, I suppose it’s better to read an English translation than a French one. Perhaps these difficulties retrieved some of the literary effects of the original text.

Notwithstanding, I thought it an interesting read, more for the historical side than for the literary pleasure. Between 1850 and 1914, one million of Swedish emigrants arrived in Ellis Island, which means that 25% of the population left their country. This was a surprise for me, I knew from reading Jim Harrison and Siri Hustdvet that States like Minnesota or Dakota had welcomed Norwegian and Swedish settlers, but I didn’t know that so many families left Sweden for America. To me, massive emigration of that time meant Italian, Jewish and Irish communities. It is a curiosity for a French as we don’t share that history of emigration to America. We had the same problem of land division between heirs and of properties becoming smaller but the French chose to have less children. As a consequence, the low birth rate was a concern for the different governments. Anyway, people didn’t leave, except to settle in the colonies. I wonder what it means about our people: are we less adventurous or does it only mean that we live in such a blessed country that people won’t go away?

Let’s die for ideas, OK, but only of slow death

March 8, 2012 10 comments

The Suicide by Nicolaï Erdman 1928. French title: Le Suicidé. Translated into French by André Markowicz.

Mais rappelez-vous comment ça se passait dans le temps. Dans le temps, les gens qui avaient une idée, ils voulaient mourir pour elle. A l’époque où nous sommes, les gens qui veulent mourir n’ont pas d’idée, et les gens qui ont une idée ne veulent pas mourir. C’est une chose qu’il faut combattre. Aujourd’hui plus que jamais, nous avons besoin de défunts idéologiques. But remember how it was in the old days. In the old days, the people who had an idea wanted to die for it. Nowadays, the people who want to die don’t have any idea and the ones who have an idea don’t want to die. It is something we must fight against. Now more than ever we need ideological deceased.

I’d never heard of Nicolaï Erdman before I watched his play The Suicide at the theatre the other day. If you’re like me, then a bit of biography won’t hurt. Nikolai Erdman (1900-1970) is a Russian writer. His first play, The Mandate was played in 1925 and was a huge success until 1930 when the authorities thwarted it. It wasn’t showed again until 1956. He wrote his second play, The Suicide (In French, Le Suicidé, literally The Suicided) in 1928. It was censored in 1932 and won’t be put on in Russia until 1982. It will be the end of Erdman’s career as a playwright. From there on, he will live upon his job for the cinema and will influence the Russian theatre by working with young directors. He will always remain in the shadows but according to the foreword of my French edition, he will be highly influential.

Now, the play.

First scene. Semione, an unemployed Russian of the 1920s wakes up his wife in the middle of the night because he’d want more of the sausage they had for diner. His wife isn’t pleased and they start arguing. During their fight, Semione resents that his wife has a job when he’s out of work. He feels bad to live on her wages and his wife is afraid he might commit suicide. When he leaves the room, she wakes up the neighbour and tells him his husband is suicidal. From then on, the word spreads among a small community and all kinds of people want to use his suicide for their own profit and want to influence the substance of his farewell note.

The intellectual representing the intelligentsia asks him to mention that he killed himself for the sake of the persecuted intelligentsia. A nymphomaniac wants him to explain he couldn’t live without her and committed suicide for unrequited love. A writer also wants to use Semione’s suicide to promote his cause. The priest wants to use his suicide to show that the Church is oppressed.

They all go very far, negotiating what he should write, organizing a farewell lunch, setting an hour of death and taking care of the funeral. Only Semione doesn’t want to die.

In one of his songs, Georges Brassens says Mourons pour des idées, d’accord, mais de mort lente, which is the title of this post. In this play, Erdman explores the reasons why someone should sacrifice themselves for a cause. As mentioned in the opening quote, those who have ideas don’t want to die and those ready to die don’t have ideas, the intellectual says. It reminded me of the terrorists who put a bomb while they know they won’t survive. They are manipulated into thinking they are heroes for their cause, that they bought their ticket to paradise. Several people try to feed Semione with ideas to take over his suicide for their own ends.

On the verge of killing himself, Semione wonders about life after death and someone advises him to ask the priest, as he’s a specialist. Here is the priest’s answer:

Le Père Elpidy– Voulez-vous que je réponde comment: selon la religion ou selon la conscience?Semione – Quelle difference ça fait?Le Père Elpidy – Une difference co-los-sale. Ou je peux parler aussi selon la science.

Semione – Moi, ce serait selon le plus juste, mon père.

Le Père Elpidy – Selon la religion – c’est oui. Selon la science – c’est non. Et selon la conscience – personne ne sait.

Father Elpidy– Do you want me to answer according to religion or according to consciousness?Semione– What’s the difference?Father Elpidy – A HU-GE difference. Or I can speak according to science too.

Semione – For me, I would like the most accurate, Father.

Father Elpidy – According to religion, it’s a yes. According to science, it’s a no. And according to consciousness, nobody knows.

Semione questions the meaning of being human, there is a direct reference to Hamlet in the text. He brings historical events at a human-being’s height. For example, he says that when there is a war, leaders think of political moves while all John Does only wonder if their battalion is call up right away or not. In French we say, chacun voit midi à sa porte (literally, everyone sees noon at their own door) or in other words, we all grasp events and circumstances according to our own selfish and narrow or limited perspective. It’s also from a man’s point of view, far from Nations and big collective concepts.

The Suicide is like a Vaudeville with a Gogolian sense of humour and a slight touch of Beckett. Can you imagine it? It’s hilarious and cynical at the same time. The text includes incredibly bold sentences on Marxism and the author certainly knew well that the play would be censored. It’s about suicide but it’s also Erdman’s suicide as a playwright.

I think the French title, Le Suicidé (The Suicided) is better than the English one. The word doesn’t exist in French either but the neologism express very well the plot of the play: everyone wants Semione to commit suicide and be a useful victim when thinking of suicide only makes him realize how much he enjoys life, as miserable as he can be, it feels good to be alive.

Highly recommended.

An Awfully Good Book

March 4, 2012 20 comments

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge. 1989 French title: Le Dernier amour du Capitaine Crochet (Out of print)

First thing, I wonder why the French publisher decided to give such a silly title to such a wonderful book. Of course, it is out of print! Who would like to buy a book entitled Captain Hook’s Last Love? A Disney fan looking for a spin-off of Peter Pan? Are there many such readers out there? To top it off, it relates to events that don’t happen until the last third of the book. But enough ranting, let’s talk about the novel.

The novel opens on an incomprehensible scene, a theatrical one, warning the reader that dramatic events just took place. Then the narration goes backward and starts telling the story.

Liverpool, early 1950s, Stella is 16. She lives with her Uncle Vernon and her Aunt Lily who run a small hotel, more a pension actually. Their clients are mostly tradesmen. Stella is a strange child, her schooling didn’t go well. She keeps to herself and often sounds off the mark. Uncle Vernon realised it was useless to force her into studying and called in a favor to have her hired at the local theatre. Stella took acting classes and she starts as an assistant. Meredith Potter and Rose Lipman run the theatre. It’s the beginning of the new season, other actors have been hired to set up a company. Except for Geoffrey, all were already actors before the war and some were even famous. All have issues, broken hearts, fears and some suffer from loneliness. They’re aging and seem a little ridiculous too.

We follow Stella who doesn’t act as a “normal” girl of sixteen would. Beryl Bainbridge drops hints here and there and we slowly get the picture. The girl’s mother is missing but why? Sick? Selfish? Run-away? Remarried? Stella discovers another world, helps with costumes, runs errands for the actors, plays small parts, performs in the backstage during the shows. She observes a lot and she’s quite disconcerting because she either has a flat mind and misses the obvious or happens to have an incredible insight on people. We witness the rehearsals, the nights at the local pub where the company meets and Stella progressively unfolds their lives. She has a crush on Meredith who can’t return the feeling, actually.

Stella had believed herself in love with him. Now when he allowed her so much of her time, she realized that what she had felt before was but a poor shade of the real thing. The very mention of his name caused her to tremble, and in his company she had the curious sensation that her feet and her nose had enlarged out of proportion. When he spoke to her she could scarcely hear what he said for the thudding of her lovesick heart and the chattering of her teeth. Often he told her she ought to wear warmer clothing.

Beautiful description of teenage crush. She worships him as a god and of course, he can’t be wrong, he can’t be mean and he has to be perfect in everything.

It’s a coming of age novel. Some company members try to educate Stella as she’s terribly ignorant or candid or innocent, whichever way you choose to look at it. Here’s a reporter taking advantage of her, as it happens several times in the story:

She tried to pull her hand free, but it was held fast. The protuberance under her fingers felt soft and hard at the same time, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Attempting to bring what Meredith would call a philosophical approach to her predicament, she pondered on the differences in men’s and women’s clothing. Trousers, she now realized, were so designed not because their wearers had funny legs but because men were constantly worried that an essential part of themselves might have gone missing. They wanted instant access, just to make sure things were in place. What was more puzzling was why they needed everyone else to check as well.

This passage also shows the author’s wonderful sense of humour. Actors and other theatre staff feel responsible for Stella. For example, an actress buys bras for her when she discovers she doesn’t have any. Bunny, Meredith’s right hand and stage manager, is a real keeper, following her at night from a distance to make sure she goes home safely. Uncle Vernon also cares about her a lot; he needs to let her grow up and it is difficult for him to adjust. I wondered why he insisted that she became an actress. At the time, it wasn’t a glamorous career for a woman. But that was all cleared up at the end of the book.

It’s also a book about how the past can backfire on you; how things you thought well kept in a box in the attic suddenly spring free and get back to you.

As an aside, An Awfully Big Adventure is a vivid picture of post-war England. The war isn’t the theme of the book but it’s unforgettable, it’s all in the details. People still suffer from war restrictions; Uncle Vernon’s hotel is an example. Hot water for a bath is a luxury. Clothes are expensive. Men are broken, physically or mentally.

Next door to the hotel was a garden laid out in memory of some worthy citizen of an earlier century, its beds planted with roses pruned brutally to the soil. The municipal railings had been taken away for the war effort and through the gaps in the makeshift fence of galvanized iron he saw a tramp in an army greatcoat sitting on a green bench.

The company’s state mirrors the city’s state. It’s a bittersweet tale, humans and city try to recover from the war, resume the occupations they had before these shattering years. It has left its marks and the reconstruction is slow.

I read An Awfully Big Adventure in English, in a paperback edition. Pff. I’m not good at British English, I’m sure I missed part of the fun. I couldn’t figure out the food they had on their plates. (What can be a buck rarebit?) It’s full of local expressions, some of them I knew, some other not. But I recently found a new teacher for purely British idioms, I should improve in the next months.

An Awfully Big Adventure was made into a film by Mike Newell in 1995. Hugh Grant plays Meredith (I don’t know why but I imagined Kenneth Branagh in that role) and Alan Rickman plays P.L. O Hara. Georgina Cates is a wonderful Stella. I watched it and it’s an excellent version of the book, really faithful.

Last but not least, this novel was among Guy’s virtual Christmas gifts. . Well chosen again, Guy, it’s three out of four now. Thanks for making me discover a new writer.

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