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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

August 30, 2012 20 comments

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. 1920. French title: Le temps de l’innocence.

We start our new reading year with The Age of Innocence and it’s a breathtaking start. If the other books are half as good as this one, this new Book Club year is going to be a treat. I had seen the film by Martin Scorcese (1993) but I didn’t remember all the details so it didn’t spoil my reading. Except that I couldn’t think of the main character, Newland Archer differently from picturing Daniel Day-Lewis, who proved to be a good choice of actor. But back to the book.

New-York, 187– Newland Archer is a young member of the high society, well-bred, well-integrated, a perfect model of the New-York gentleman.

Newland Archer was a quiet and self-controlled young man. Conformity to the discipline of a small society had become almost his second nature. It was deeply distasteful to him to do anything melodramatic and conspicuous, anything Mr. van der Luyden would have deprecated and the club box condemned as bad form.

He’s in love with May Welland, a beautiful product of the society he’s accustomed to. May is young, innocent, pure; Newland sees her as the lily-of-the valley he sends her everyday.

Countess Ellen Olenska is May’s cousin; they have the same grandmother, the eccentric and domineering Catherine Mingott. Her realm is her family and she’s a tough sovereign. Ellen was raised abroad by the black sheep of the family, Medora Menson. Ellen married the Count Olenski in France and has now done the unthinkable: she left him and came back to America. The Mingotts show their support by taking her to the opera, where everybody can see her and their intention to reintegrate her in the high society. Newland knows her, he used to play with her as a child and he thinks the Wellands quite daring to expose her to the eyes of the society after what she’s done. He frowns at the idea that the Mingotts back up Ellen but soon feels he could help his future in-laws in a move. If they announce his engagement to May, two families will be behind Ellen and ease her return.

That’s what he does, that’s what happens. The only problem is that Ellen doesn’t slip that easily into a New-Yorker’s clothes. She’s been living abroad for too long and unconsciously disregards many unspoken rules with unaffected manners. Newland tries to help her into fitting in her new environment. Ellen has the intellectual vitality May is lacking. She’s more spontaneous in her language and her actions, less willing to abide by the rules if they go against her moral integrity or what she thinks is right. She’s a catalyst for Newland. He already ached for a more satisfactory life. In his New-York, the intellectual life and the high society life exist in two parallel universes, contrary to Paris where Ellen used to live. No literary salons there, despite Medora Manson’s attempt to settle one:

Medora Manson, in her prosperous days, had inaugurated a “literary salon”; but it had soon died out owing to the reluctance of the literary to frequent it.

So Newland meets with writers in their neighbourhood and endures dull diners in his world. He’s drawn to Ellen and genuinely tries to help her find a middle ground between her need for freedom and the level of independence the social will tolerate. They soon fall in love. She’s married and can’t get a divorce as it would be a society suicide. He traps himself into a marriage with May. What’s going to happen to them?

I love Edith Wharton. The whole story is told through Newland’s eyes and she has a talent for sensitive young men. I was fond of Ralph when I read The Custom of the Country and I’m fond of Newland now. Her male characters appear to be trapped in their lives, not freer than women to live their lives as they wish. The mothers are manipulative and families keep young people in iron claws. Nothing escapes their attention. They will do anything needed to avoid scandal and preserve peace.

Newland has modern expectations about his wife. He’d like May to be more curious about books, to be willing to learn new things but she’s not. And as he admits it years later, how could she be?

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.

I don’t know why, but I don’t like the word wifely. It might be perfectly neutral in English but to me it sounds like a condescending word to talk about a brainless married woman. Is it because it rhymes with silly? May wasn’t raised to use her brain for abstract thinking. She was raised to be pretty, well-bred, knowledgeable in all kinds of social rules. She’s more outdoorsy. She wouldn’t be an accomplished woman in the Austen world: she can’t stitch and she can’t sing or play an instrument. She lives in a narrow world and is perfectly happy with it. She’s a mystery to me. How can she cling to a fiancé who only likes her? Perhaps she does because she has a very practical vision of marriage: on paper, he’s a catch. She knows everything and lives with it. And she’ll participate to anything that will her world stay as it is.

Edith Wharton paints a scary picture of the New-York society of that time. It’s a spider’s web knit with tight family knots. Don’t try to walk out of the admitted path, don’t threaten the web with liberal views on women and marriage, don’t try to change the rules. Why did that microcosm put so much effort to part Ellen and Newland? It’s a world where the individual has no weigh, no importance. Only the community counts. Yes, Newland was well-read but ill-prepared to face the world anyway. He’s too innocent: he thinks he hides his feelings but he doesn’t. (Strange as you always think you can conceal your interest in someone and always fail because whatever you do, you never behave naturally). And May isn’t as innocent as it appears. Like in The Custom of the Country, women are more shrewd and manipulative than men.

If I had read The Age of Innocence twenty years earlier, Newland and Ellen would have infuriated me. I would have liked them to elope, put everything behind and be happy or at least take the chance to be happy. Now I understand them. I’ve had enough years of compromising to understand that you cannot just do what you want and disregard the consequences of your choices for the people who love you. The tone is melancholic and this novel made me think. Is their choice wisdom, generosity or cowardice? Is it worth it? Is their sacrifice worth it? It might as it keeps their love beautiful. I also understand Newland and his questionning. He lived his life as an active member of his community but the best part of him was dead all along. He wasn’t strong enough to liberate himself from the impact of his education. And if he had? He didn’t have it in him to live as a pariah; he wasn’t adventurous enough to start over abroad. He would have been like a fish out of his bowl and he had the insight to acknowledge it. Is his life a waste?

This novel is a masterpiece written in a delicate prose unravelling feelings, motives and the workings of a smothering society. It shows the violence hidden in the smooth politeness of boudoirs and dining rooms. In French, we say, “an iron hand in a velvet glove”. As for the relationship between Ellen and Newland, now I want to read La Princesse de Clèves again.

Literary escapade: Dublin

August 26, 2012 29 comments

Welcome to my personal literary tour of Dublin, the city where the sun shines several times a day. Dublin is a Unesco City of Literature, like Melbourne, Iowa City, Reykjavik and Edimburg. I purchased this marvellous guide, Dublin, City of Literature by Muriel Bolger and it helped me spot the different places I should look for. It includes four literary walks and lists and describes 200 Irish writers. That’s a goldmine for me and to be honest, I didn’t know there were as many writers as that. For a city of this size, there are so many references to writers everywhere that it’s impossible to see everything.

So I decided to do this literary tour my way and show you what I saw while strolling through the city. It started with Swift at the St Patrick’s Cathedral. Swift has been the Dean of the place from 1713 to 1745. He’s buried there with his beloved Stella at his side and you can read parts of his bio.

This is the way I enjoy learning about a writer’s life, being on the premises, seeing and reading things. (That’s the luxury and unrealistic way to do it, I know. I can’t travel all over the globe to see the places where writers came from.) In the nearby park, the literary fest continues with plaques of different writers embodied in a wall. Swift used to live in Dublin Castle, the oldest part of the city and of course, there’s a plaque to draw your attention to it.

Around Merrion Square, it’s a festival of plaques and writers.

I have to admit I’d never heard of “AE”, but I’m not much into poetry or of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Has anyone read him? This Georgian area was visibly a place much enjoyed by artists. It’s quiet with similar houses around a garden which used to be for the sole use of the inhabitants of these houses. (Aren’t there places like this in London as well?)

The garden is pretty and has this big statue of Oscar Wilde.

It looks painted but it’s not. It’s made of different kinds of stones. Honestly, I’m not sure the poor man would be happy about it. Or proud. He’s got a lopsided smirk which is a bit insulting for his wit. Otherwise, you keep stumbling upon his aphorisms in shops and the Olympia Theatre currently features A Woman of No Importance.

Let’s leave Dublin for an instant to say that in Galway, they have a double Wilde statue: Oscar and Eduard, an Estonian writer.

Of course I’ve never heard of Eduard but I will certainly check him out. After all, I still don’t have a writer for Estonia for my EU Book Tour. And of course, there are the inevitable quotes by Oscar painted on a souvernir shop that looks like an American wedding cake. That was for Galway.

Back to Dublin. There you have various statues of writers in St Stephen’s Garden. I never found Yeats but I was surprised to meet with Tagore in an alley. I wonder why he’s in Saint Stephen’s Gardens with Joyce and other Irish writers.

As I haven’t read Ulysses — Yet. I have it both in French and in English and I’m told I need a guidebook, but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for — I missed most of the Joyce references while visiting.

I knew I had to look for plaques on the pavement but the only one I saw is the one I included here and I have no idea whether it’s part of the Ulysses pilgrimage or not.

I did figure out that Sweny’s, Drugist and Chemist had something to do with Ulysses when I walked by it since the front window is full of Joyce references. And that’s where the guidebook becomes handy: it gives explanations. This is the shop where Leopold Bloom waited amid the spell of sponges and loofas to buy his four-penny cake of sweet lemony soap. Right. I’ll know what that means when I’ve read the book. This explains why I didn’t visit the James Joyce Centre, I couldn’t impose this on my husband and children.

Then I came accross the hands of Edna O’Brien, on a plaque sealed in the pavement, like famous actors’ hands on Hollywood Boulevard and Trollope was waiting for us at the Post Office since he worked for the post office in Ireland from 1841 to 1844. That was quite unexpected.

I didn’t go to the James Joyce Centre but I paid a visit to the Dublin Writers Museum. That’s a nice place to visit. It’s settled in a beautiful old house and it gives information about Irish writers. They have first editions, clothes and all kinds of relics bookworms long to see. I was a bit in a rush as the rest of the family was waiting outside but I enjoyed the time I spent there and of course, I bought books at the bookstore.

But there’s more to Dublin’s literary side than the constant reminders of the great writers who lived, worked or were born here.  We all enjoyed seeing The Book of Kells in Trinity College, the process of making a book in the Middle Ages fascinated the children. They loved to see how they corrected mistakes with drawings and they had difficulties to wrap their mind around the concept of copying a book by hand. The Chester Beaty Library is also extraordinary, showing books in different cultures: Western illuminations, Ottoman, Chinese and Japanese traditions. The building is fantastic in itself.

I could write more, add more pictures and I would fail to tell you how much I enjoyed my stay in Ireland. True, the weather gods were with us, we had a lot of sun. But still, I’ve seen more statues of Joyce than of the Virgin Mary and it means something in a Catholic country, no?

PS: I have to thank my husband (who took most of the pictures) and my children for their patience. They think I’m nuts but they let me have my way. As always when I write a post with many pictures, I hope it looks fine on your computer, phone, tablet or whatever you use to watch this. It looks good on my computer.

The customs in the country

August 25, 2012 6 comments

Les âmes fortes by Jean Giono 1949 Not translated into English.

After reading Ramuz, I wanted to read Giono again. I picked up Les âmes fortes because I thought it was set in Châtillon near Paris; I was curious to read Giono out of the countryside setting. Actually, the Châtillon of the book is located in what we call now La Drôme provençale, not far from Romans. So it’s in the country, so much for wanting to read Giono in an urban context.

Alfred is dead and several women gather to vigil over his corpse. Among them is old Thérèse, aged 90. They start chatting and gossiping, preparing a snack for the long night to come. One thing leading to another – and it took approximately 100 pages – Thérèse starts recalling her life in the 1870s. She eloped with Firmin and ended up living in Châtillon. Firmin was an orphan, a cheap blacksmith but a golden scoundrel. Thérèse happened to meet Mme Numance, who was 65 at the time. She was a much admired woman in Châtillon, always dressed in classy clothes and taking long walks in the woods. The Numances were a happy couple, still in love with each other and they mostly kept to themselves. One day, they were ruined and rumors spread to explain how they lost so much money. But before that ruin, Thérèse and Firmin had come to live in a pavilion in their garden. Mme Numance was childless and loved Thérèse as a daughter. The latter took advantage of it. Mme Numance wasn’t fooled but let Thérèse have her way with her.

It seems that the name Thérèse is linked to muddy characters in French literature. Thérèse Raquin, Thérèse Desqueyroux and now this Thérèse. She’s an unreliable narrator and when she walks away from the truth, another woman cuts off and puts the story straight. Firmin is either a conning individual or a fool, according to who narrates the story. And when Firmin is a fool, Thérèse is the scoundrel and vice versa. In the end, it’s difficult to know what really happened.

I had difficulties with this story. The Numances have a strange addiction: they’re addicted to giving. They get a kick out of giving their love, their fortune, even to the wrong persons and always without publicity. I didn’t buy the main plot of the Numances addicted to charity. Their behavior is sick; it isn’t even mixed with religious feelings. They just sounded unreal and weird. Thérèse and Firmin are just parasites who’d rather spend their energy in conning people instead of working.

The villagers in this novel are as nasty as Balzac’s urban characters, greedy and fighting for someone’s inheritance even before their death, plotting to get richer at any cost. Giono shows the little traffics that occurred in the country when they built new tunnels to improve the road network. Some took advantage of this and I thought about the fortunes made when the railway was built across America or when Haussman started the piercing new streets in Paris. Giono is far from a bucolic vision of life in the country. However, I know a little the region described in the book and Giono has a knack for vivid descriptions of the nature, the winds and the seasons in this place.

I’m reading The Age of Innocence right now and it struck me that the social rules and conventions in Thérèse’s life are as complicated as the ones in Newland’s. Subtle differences of class separate people, displayed by clothes, manners or living standards. Châtillon is in the country but none of the characters of this book are peasants. It’s a market town, travelers change horses there and the inhabitants live upon trade and servicing around the mail.

I have to say I was rather bored by Les âmes fortes, I almost abandoned it. Although I could imagine Thérèse and Firmin, the Numances were too strange to be plausible. I didn’t get into the story, I thought the narrative labored; it could have been more powerful if it had been shorter. It had the material to be a striking novella like The Murderess by Papadiamantis but Giono failed there. Perhaps this is why it was not translated into English. This novel has been made into a film in 2001. It was directed by Raoul Ruiz. The actors were Laetitia Casta (Thérèse), Arielle Dombasle (Mme Numance), Frédéric Diefenthal (Firmin) and John Malkovitch (M. Numance). The Numances are thus a lot younger than in the book.

Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich

August 22, 2012 15 comments

Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich 2010

The other day, I got on the train, happily anticipating 3.5 hours of journey in an Espace Calme carriage to finish Distant Star and start The Age of Innocence. Well I had my head in the stars and was far too innocent to imagine that paying an excess fare would guarantee silence. Behind me, a couple with a baby who had hardly been there for five minutes before changing wet diapers and feeding him. Ahead of me: four guys well decided to voice loudly their opinion about the comparative merits of Iphones and Android phones. On the side, a girl who visibly couldn’t understand the picture of a cell-phone going to sleep although stickers were plastered in the whole carriage. I sighed, put the Bolaño aside and blessed the kindle for not letting me short of reading alternatives. This how I decided to read Elliot Allagash that I’d previously downloaded after reading Litlove’s charming review.

Elliot Allagash probably fits into the YA category as it is about teenagers in a high school, which brings the images of insipid teen movies. But it’s more than that.

Seymour is an only child living with two nice and caring parents. They play Monopoly together every week, always have their evening meals together and the parents are a happy couple. So no family problem in sight for Seymour. He’s a freshman at Glendale’s Academy, New York. It sounds furiously funny for a French as glander means to loaf about, so this school sounds like a joke in itself. Chubby, clumsy and not-very-smart Seymour is bullied by other students. He sits alone at lunch and doesn’t have any friends, until Elliot Allagash joins Glendale Academy after his father settles in NY. And that’s where the book turns away from the mawkish-silly path of teenage book to dark fun. Because Elliot is rich, bored and blasé, he decides to give Seymour everything he wants provided that Seymour gives him his freedom of mind and obeys him in any way. And what does Seymour want? The whole package of the American high school boy: popularity, a membership in the basketball team, the hottest girl in the school and excellent grades without being a nerd. All in that order. He’s ready to give his freedom against it and Elliot is willing to have fun changing his beast into to a beau.

Elliot takes Seymour as a scientific experiment and implements all kind of schemes to achieve his goals. Elliot is rich and can afford any kind of twisted means to con people and make of Seymour the person he wants to be. Simon Rich avoids the pitfall of political correctness and goes against American mythology. Seymour isn’t going to turn into a beautiful swan thanks to hard work, prayers and honesty. Elliot buys everything he needs, conjures up good feelings and gives the adults what they want to see. He cheats on tests – easily done when they’re MCQ and not essays, creates fake charities and advertises for them posing Seymour as a disinterested benefactor. The biggest the lie, the better it works. He manipulates other people’s pride and presses all the right buttons to mold Seymour into what America expects from a model student.

Elliot has his own issues, his father Terry is like him and there’s a sort of competition between the two. Terry takes pleasure in exposing to Seymour his best stunts. Elliot lives in a fantasy house and Seymour lives in a vernacular house in comparison. The atmosphere of the book is that of comics like Superman where the shy guy becomes a superhero thanks to magic. At the same time it’s a ferocious criticism of high schools, adults’ expectations and criteria used by universities to select students.

I know it won’t suit everyone but I still found it funny and entertaining. And it leaves me with the same question about American high schools: is it really like that? I mean the dumb dances where you need a date, the cheerleading squads and the guarded territories at lunch? It seems more like a long social event than a place to actually learn something. But I’m sure that students get more from it than what we see from this side of the Atlantic.

PS: The first cover is the American edition and it suits the atmosphere of the book. The second one is the UK edition and Simon Rich should complain about it, his book seems silly.

Kennedy and me by Jean-Paul Dubois

August 19, 2012 5 comments

Kennedy et moi by Jean-Paul Dubois. 1996 Not translated into English. (*sigh*)

Je m’appelle Samuel Polaris. Mon nom ne doit pas vous dire grand-chose. Dans la profession, on m’a toujours considéré comme un auteur sympathique mais secondaire. Quelqu’un de lisible mais de mineur. Un saisonnier de la littérature. Je n’avais pas à me plaindre de cette situation, d’autant que, dans son ensemble, la critique me ménageait. Jusqu’au jour où, invité d’une émission littéraire, en direct, à la télévision, j’ai refusé de réagir aux questions que l’on me posait. Je n’avais pas prémédité cette attitude. Simplement, lorsque le présentateur s’est adressé à moi, j’ai marqué un temps d’hésitation avant de répondre. Séduit par ce vide, j’ai senti que je devais en rester là et retenir mes phrases comme un plongeur sous-marin retient sa respiration. J’ignore encore pourquoi je me suis comporté ainsi, mais, ce jour-là, moi qui suis en permanence hanté par le doute, je sais que j’ai fait preuve de dignité. Devant ces caméras, face à tous ces gens, mon silence était une forme d’obscénité. J’étais assis sur mon siège, immobile, calme, buté, et je laissais fondre les mots dans ma bouche. Au cours de cette longue apnée, il m’a semblé que mon père, mort bien des années auparavant, était à mon côté et m’encourageait.Lorsque toutes les tentatives pour me faire desserrer les mâchoires eurent échoué, il se trouva quelqu’un d’assez lucide pour proposer d’interrompre l’émission. C’est ce moment que je choisis pour sortir de mon mutisme. Je me levai comme un homme qui s’apprête à faire une déclaration et poussai un cri interminable, un cri terrifiant qui remonta de mon ventre. Ensuite, je ramassai mes affaires et sortis sans bruit. My name is Samuel Polaris. It probably doesn’t mean anything to you. In my profession, I’m considered as a nice but secondary writer. Readable but minor. A seasonal worker of literature. I couldn’t complain about it, especially since most of the critics left me alone. Until the day when, as a guest in a literary talk-show broadcasted live, I refused to react to the questions I was asked. I hadn’t planned this attitude. However, when the anchorman talked to me, I hesitated before answering. Seduced by this void, I felt I should remain silent and hold back my sentences like a diver holds their breath. I still ignore why I behaved like this but that day, I who is always haunted by doubt, I know I was full of dignity. Before these cameras, in front of all these people my silence was a form of obscenity. I was seated on my chair, immobile, quiet, and stubborn and I let the words melt in my mouth. During this long apnea, it seemed that my father, who had died years before, was standing by my side approvingly. When all attempts to make me utter a word failed, eventually someone was lucid enough to suggest ending the show. I chose this moment to come out of my absolute silence. I stood up like a man ready to make a speech and I yelled a long cry, a terrifying cry coming from my guts. Then I picked up my things and left silently.(My translation)

I know this is a long quote but it represents well the tone of this fantastic novel.

Samuel Polaris is 46, he’s a writer and he hasn’t been able to write a line after the episode he relates in the previous quote. He just stays home, idly spending his days in his office with a beautiful view on the ocean. His wife Anna is a speech therapist in a private clinic. She’s been cheating on her husband for three years with the clinic’s ENT specialist. Samuel knows it but doesn’t care. Samuel and Anna have three grown-up children and they don’t understand them anymore. Sarah, the eldest is finishing school to become orthodontist. She chose this career path for money and heads to a petit-bourgeois life. Nathan and Jacob are twins and work in the Internet industry. They are some kind of geeks, talk in binary mode and have that secret understanding only twins have. Samuel doesn’t relate to them and to be fair, Anna doesn’t either.

The novel is a first person narrative, giving us a direct access to Samuel’s troubled thoughts. It’s intertwined with Anna’s point of view, told by an omniscient narrator. Samuel is depressed and he slowly drifted away from family life. His children are materialistic strangers, creatures from a generation he doesn’t understand. He has now sunk to the depths of his own black pool of misery. He buys a gun. (Note to American readers: this is not a common thing in France) Will he manage to give a kick at the bottom and resurface to the light of life?

The best adjective to describe this book is FRENCH. It’s introspective, seen from the side of a man who doesn’t know what to do with himself anymore. It was made into a film and, as the cover of my copy gives it away, the director chose Jean-Pierre Bacri to play Samuel’s part. A perfect choice. He has the physic, the voice, the right frown and the right pout to impersonate Samuel. I even wondered if the scenario wasn’t written before the book. Now, I want to watch the film and I could imagine it. Dubois’s style is excellent, sober and yet powerful. He was born in 1950 like Samuel and he might have poured some parts of him in this novel.

Dentists have several parts in this novel as Samuel suffers from an acute tooth ache at some point and as Sarah and her boyfriend are dentist-to-be. I don’t know how it is in other countries but in France’s imagery, the dentist is a symbol of a greedy, petit-bourgeois and snob person. Dentists are supposed to make a lot of money, charge a lot for their work and enjoy their wealth. It’s not as noble as being a doctor, as if they chose dentistry because they failed in medical school. I wonder why they are so mocked; after all, anyone with a tooth ache will tell you they are very useful. Perhaps it stems from the difficulty to bond with a human being who works on your teeth with a surgical mask while your mouth is wide open. It doesn’t foster communication, does it?

A character who is a writer, who experiences a mid-life crisis, who lives beside the ocean, probably in Biarritz since Dubois refers to surfers, a wrecked marriage, difficult children, all this sounds like a book by Philippe Djian. The two writers are from the same generation but don’t have the same sense of humour. Dubois has a dark sense of humour and applies it to situations while Djian is more into self-irony. However, if I’d read Kennedy et moi without knowing the name of its author, I would have guessed Djian.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that this novel was translated into English. Dubois’s other novel Une Vie française is available in English but I didn’t enjoy it as much as this one. Well, you still have the film…

Guest post: Marion reviews The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

August 15, 2012 18 comments

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck French title: Le poney rouge. 1945.

Marion is 11 and she’s my daughter. I’m very proud to publish her first billet about a book we read together this week. She wrote it in French, so I’ll leave the French text and translate it into English for you. I’ll tell you my thoughts about this novella afterwards. If you wish to leave a comment, it would be lovely to write it in French if you can.

Ce livre parle de Jody, un petit garçon de 10 ans qui va à l’école. Il vit dans un ranch en Californie avec ses parents et Billy Buck, le garçon d’écurie. Un jour, son père lui offre un poney qu’il appelle Gabilan. Jody s’en occupe toute la journée sauf quand il est à l’école. Billy Buck est très bon pour s’occuper des chevaux et aide Jody à dresser le poney. Un jour, le poney reste dehors sous la pluie et il tombe malade. Le poney va-t-il survivre ? Jody va-t-il s’en remettre ? C’est un livre émouvant avec à la fois de la joie et de la tristesse. J’ai bien aimé ce livre car il y a de l’aventure et des émotions fortes. Aussi c’était super de savoir ce qui se passe dans un ranch en Californie, comment ils vivent avec beaucoup d’animaux, en particulier des chevaux. J’ai bien aimé les parties de descriptions car on pouvait vraiment s’imaginer les endroits avec les détails. Je me suis posé quelques questions : Jody appelle ses parents « M’sieu et M’dame ». Cela m’a surprise parce que d’habitude on n’appelle pas nos parents comme ça. Donc si vous lisez le livre vous vous poserez peut-être des questions vous aussi…

Infos pratiques : Ce livre est conseillé à partir de 11 ans. John Steinbeck a sorti ce livre en 1945. Les personnages sont : Jody et Gabilan, des amis très proches, Billy Buck,le meilleur soigneur de cheval de la Californie, et M et Mme Tiflin, les parents de Jody.

Translation: This book is about Jody, a ten-year-old boy who goes to school. He lives in a ranch in California with his parents and Billy Buck, their cowboy. One day, his father gives him a pony. Jody names him Gabilan. Jody takes care of him all day except when he’s in school. Billy Buck is very good at taking care of horses and he helps Jody train Gabilan. One day, the pony stays in the rain and gets sick. Will he survive? How will Jody cope with the situation? This book is moving and is both joyful and sad. I liked this book because it includes adventure and strong emotions. It was also great to know what happened in a ranch in California, how they used to live with a lot of animals and especially horses. I enjoyed the parts with the descriptions because I could really imagine the scenery, with all the details. I had some questions: Jody calls his parents “M’sieu” and “M’dame” [Emma: Sir / Ma’am] It surprised me because you don’t usually call your parents like that. So, if you read this book, perhaps you’ll have questions too.

Information: This book is for children over 11. John Steinbeck published this novel in 1945. The characters are Jody and Gabilan, close friends, Billy Buck the best horse raiser in California and Mr and Mrs Tiflin, Jody’s parents.

I hope you enjoyed reading Marion’s thoughts about The Red Pony, which I read in French too, so I’m a little bit embarrassed to include quotes in my billet although I’d love to because Steinbeck’s descriptions of California would be worth quoting.

The Red Pony is composed of three episodes of Jody’s life, a little boy who lives in a ranch in California, near Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown. The first one gives the book its title and recalls the moment Jody got a red pony. The second one is about an old paisano, Gitano, who comes to the ranch. He wants to stay here until he dies because he was born in a nearby ranch which is now abandoned. Jody’s father can’t afford to feed someone who can’t work and refuses to keep him. This episode was the most difficult for Marion. I guess a child has difficulties to grasp how poignant it was. The old man has nowhere to go and like an animal, comes to his birth place to end his life. The third episode is about Jody, a new colt and Billy Buck. This time Jody’s father decides that he can have a horse and sends his mare Nellie to the stud to provide his son with a colt. Jody has to wait and take care of Nellie until the colt is born and months are a lot of time for a little boy.

This novella is an incredible glance at the life in such a ranch before WWII. Steinbeck’s love for his native California filters in his descriptions of the surroundings. Life is incredibly violent and instable. Everyone needs to earn their bread and the violence is in the human’s life and in the wildlife. The scene with a harrier hovering an animal which just died is almost unbearable. Carl Tiflin, Jody’s father struggles to repay the loans for the ranch and doesn’t have extra money for fantasies or to take care of old Gitano. He’s a hard man, hardened by a tough life on the ranch. (His father was a disciplinarian. Jody obeyed him in everything without questions of any kind.) He’s used to shutting out any emotion and fails to comforts his son when he needs it.

Billy Buck is the cowboy living on the ranch and he dearly loves Jody. He understands more than Carl Tiflin how much Jody loves his red pony and what it costs him to wait for Nellie’s colt to be born. He’s the one who takes into account the boy’s feelings when he has to make a difficult decision. In the end, he’s the real father figure of the book. Steinbeck doesn’t say it but it gives a new perspective to cowboy’s life: Billy Buck can’t afford to have a family and probably would have loved to have a son like Jody. His life is only made of hard work and a substitute son in Jody. I thought it was very sad.

The relationships between the characters are defined by rank and sex. Billy Buck doesn’t come for breakfast until Carl Tiflin, the master is in the kitchen. Mrs Tiflin is just a woman; she has no first name. The male characters are called by their Christian name and family name but Mrs Tiflin is only Carl’s wife. She has no identity of her own. This also says a lot about the rural society of the time.

I’m not a great Steinbeck fan but this little book is worth reading. It encapsulates the life of rural California, the landscapes, the living conditions and the social rules. All this in a very short book.

Lost illusions in Stockholm

August 14, 2012 22 comments

The Red Room by August Strindberg 1879 French title: Le cabinet rouge (Out of print)

Rules always have exceptions or perhaps it’s my being French, we don’t have a grammar rule without an exception to it. So it’s ingrained. One of my rules is that I don’t read books in English translation; if it’s translated, it has to be in French. Unfortunately, I wanted to read The Red Room by August Strindberg and I couldn’t put my hands on a French copy whereas there’s a free kindle version in English. So I read it in English.

The Red Room is a picture of the Stockholm society in the 1870s. It opens on a scene between Arvid Falk and Mr Struve, in a park in Stockholm. Falk has decided to change of career path:

“I mentioned a little while ago,” Falk resumed, “that I’ve broken to-day with my past life and thrown up my career as a government employé. I’ll only add that I intend taking up literature.” “Literature? Good Heavens! Why? Oh, but that is a pity!” “It isn’t; but I want you to tell me how to set about finding work.” “H’m! That’s really difficult to say. The profession is crowded with so many people of all sorts. But you mustn’t think of it. It really is a pity to spoil your career; the literary profession is a bad one.”

That sets the context: Arvid Falk quits his job as a civil servant to become a writer and we’ll follow him in this important change. Arvid isn’t a rich man; he lived upon his salary and is quickly penniless. He starts mingling with the artists’ crowd who cheaply lives in gardens in the surroundings of Stockholm and gathers in The Red Room, a special room in a café that serves cheap meals. This group of artists (and I couldn’t help thinking of L’hommage à Delacroix by Fantin-Latour) is composed of a philosopher (Yberg), a writer (Arvid Falk), two painters (Séllen and Lundell), an actor (Rehnhjellen) and Óllen (artist-to-be).

Falk has a brother, Nicholas who is throwing himself in the business world in a ruthless manner. He recently married and his wife wants to climb the social ladder through a feminist society and charities.

According to Wikipedia, in 1866 Sweden became a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament, with the First Chamber indirectly elected by local governments, and the Second Chamber directly elected in national elections every four years. It was considered as a liberal reform and The Red Room relates how the society had difficulties to accept the change and turned back to conservatism. The text is full of acerbic remarks about Sweden and Strindberg shows a picture that doesn’t add up with the image I had of this country.

Following these characters serves Strindberg’s goal to draw a dark picture of the Stockholm society. The criticism is harsh: the civil servants are lazy, the dice of politics are loaded (“But you mislead public opinion.” “The public does not want to have an opinion, it wants to satisfy its passions), the newspapers only tell what suits the power and create artists through fake critics, the businessmen have no ethics, the women do charity to show off their generosity in newspapers, the unionists are uneducated people who take advantage of their position and the clergymen have a not-so-Christian tendency to brag. (“You know,” he continued, “that I’m a popular preacher; I may say that without boasting, for all the world knows it. You know, that I’m very popular; I can’t help that–it is so! I should be a hypocrite if I pretended not to know what all the world knows!)

Arvid Falks wanders into the Swedish society, accepting low paid jobs at a publisher, becoming a journalist himself, which gives him the opportunity to attend political events, trials, the general assembly of companies and all kinds of events.

Strindberg depicts MPs totally disconnected from their country, unable to listen to the sensible speeches of people’s representatives. The particularities were a bit lost to me, I don’t know enough about the history of Sweden to get all the details and references to real events. (There were most probably some)

Business caught my attention. At this time – and it was the same in France – Sweden was investing in industries and fortunes were building in finance, insurance and industrial fields. These investments require large funding and companies with limited liabilities increased in number. But as you can also read it in Zola or Maupassant, business was a war zone, there wasn’t much regulation. And shrewd investors took advantage of that new kind of company, as Strindberg shows in this conversation:

“But if–but if–matters should go wrong….” “One goes into liquidation!” “Liquidation?” “Declares oneself insolvent! That’s the proper term. And what does it matter if the society becomes insolvent? It isn’t you, or I, or he! But one can also increase the number of shares, or issue debentures which the Government may buy up in hard times at a good price.” “There’s no risk then?” “Not the slightest! Besides what have you got to lose?”

In The Red Room, members of the high society put their credit in an insurance company along with other adventurous self-made-men. The scene of the general assembly of the insurance company is incredible. The company had to face important reimbursement of claims and makes a loss but the shareholders don’t care, they want a dividend! When you know what Solvency II EU regulations have in store of today’s insurance companies, this sounds surrealist. It also shows the beginning of modern corporate world and I find it fascinating.

Strindberg is also extremely hard on journalists, another profession whose ethics had yet to improve. Here is a newspaper looking for a new chief editor:

There only remained the necessity of finding a new chief editor. In accordance with the new programme of the syndicate, he would have to possess the following qualifications: he must be known as a perfectly trustworthy citizen; must belong to the official class; must possess a title, usurped or won, which could be elaborated if necessity arose. In addition to this he must be of good appearance, so that one could show him off at festivals and on other public occasions; he must be dependent; a little stupid, because true stupidity always goes hand in hand with Conservative leanings; he must be endowed with a certain amount of shrewdness, which would enable him to know intuitively the wishes of his chiefs and never let him forget that public and private welfare are, rightly understood, one and the same thing. At the same time he must not be too young, because an older man is more easily managed; and finally, he must be married, for the syndicate, which consisted of business men, knew perfectly well that married slaves are more amenable than unmarried ones.

Hard task, isn’t it? No the kind of man to turn his newspaper into a fourth power. And indeed newspapers change of side if needed, turning from liberal to conservative if it sells more copies. Strindberg describes how they praise books they haven’t read to please friends and not to promote real talent. They are extremely conservative when it comes to paintings. I saw in Séllen a sort of Manet when he scandalized the good society with Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe or Olympia. Lundell is more an official artist, accepting jobs for a living (portraits, religious scenes for churches). They create reputations not based on talent but on favoritism.

I suppose The Red Room is a coming-of-age novel but I’m not good at labeling things. Perhaps Arvid Falk has something to do with Strindberg as a young man. Arvid starts his life as a writer full of illusions about life, society and progress. He hurts himself against the glass of conservatism and is knocked out. Will he find a way to be a member of this society without giving up his principles?

Now, what about the form? Strindberg is mostly known as a playwright and his skills for theatre filter through the text. Sometimes it sounds more like scenes than like a real novel, he doesn’t have the talent of a Maupassant even if I felt it was what he was trying to achieve. However, he has a great sense of humour and a knack to coin funny images:

he could only concentrate his thoughts on one spot inside a not very large circumference, his tailor could have expressed the size of it in inches after measuring him round the stomach.

or

he looked deadly pale, cold and calm like a corpse which has abandoned all hope of resurrection.

or

The cigar continued talking.

or

Arvid tranquilly pocketed the insulting compliment.

But he’s also able to write lovely descriptions of his home town:

He sat down on a seat, listening to the splashing of the waves; a light breeze had sprung up and rustled through the flowering maple trees, and the faint light of the half moon shone on the black water; twenty, thirty boats lay moored on the quay; they tore at their chains for a moment, raised their heads, one after the other, and dived down again, underneath the water; wind and wave seemed to drive them onward; they made little runs towards the bridge like a pack of hounds, but the chain held them in leash and left them kicking and stamping, as if they were eager to break loose.

Beautiful picture of Stockholm’s seaside. Strinberg spent years in France and I noticed he uses a lot of French words in his text. Or is it in the translation? I don’t know. But I wasn’t aware that you could use the words employé, crèche, coup de vent, femme entretenue or coup de théâtre in English.

I found this book extremely interesting but a bit patched up sometimes. The style is uneven, brilliant sometimes and heavy at other times. As I said before, I’m not sure Strindberg has a real talent as a novelist. It’s my first one by him, so I can’t compare. Nevertheless, The Red Room is worth reading for the picture of Sweden it describes.

Bleak hotel made me blue

August 11, 2012 29 comments

Bord de mer by Véronique Olmi. 2001. English title: Beside The Sea. 

On avait pris le car, le dernier car du soir, pour que personne ne nous voie. Avant de partir les enfants avaient goûté, j’avais remarqué qu’ils ne finissaient pas le pot de confiture et j’ai pensé que cette confiture allait rester pour rien, c’était dommage, mais je leur avais appris à ne pas gâcher et à penser aux lendemains. We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. The boys had their tea before we left, I noticed they didn’t finish the jar of jam and I thought of that jam left there for nothing, it was a shame, but I’d taught them not to waste stuff and to think of the next day. (translated by Adrianna Hunter)

Right from the start you know something isn’t normal. Why doesn’t she want to be seen leaving town? Why does she care that there’s some jam left? Stunning paragraph. Those tiny details tip you off and you dread the worst.

Our narrator is a mother of two sons, Stanley (9) and Kevin (5). For a French reader, although Kevin has become a fairly common name, Stanley sounds very American. Only poorly educated social classes burden their children with American names coming from soaps or sitcoms. She takes her children to the seaside to show them the sea. It’s a school day, the weather is foul, the trip is unprepared. Something is off, as if she decided this on a whim. The journey quickly turns into a nightmare. The rain is pouring, the hotel is bleak, there isn’t enough money. She’s obviously very poor, why would she mind wasting jam? Her nest egg for the holidays is made of petty cash from the groceries and amounts to 52 FRF, 7,5€. Almost nothing, the kind of cash you give a kid for their allowance.

With small touches we learn more about this uncommon mother. She doesn’t know how to take care of her kids. She loves them but her psychological problems stand in the way. She’d like to be a common mother but she simply can’t. She’s totally unbalanced and her mental health is so wrecked that she’s often unable to get up, leaving the children unattended. She suffers from panic attacks in the stairwell of the hotel. She’s disoriented in the small seaside town, disoriented in her own life. She loves them dearly though and they love her back. However, she knows that their years of being inseparable are behind.

Il imite déjà les grands, j’ai pensé, et je me suis demandé combien de temps un enfant peut rester le fils de sa mère, à partir de quand il était méconnaissable, je veux dire, pareil aux autres. He’s already imitating grown-ups, I thought, and I wondered how long a child could go on being his mother’s son, exactly when he became unrecognizable, I mean: just like the others. (translated buy Adrianna Hunter)

Stan is nine and she knows he starts judging her, comparing her to other mothers. Both children go to school, have a life of their own outside the house, apart from her. She resents that Kevin likes his school mistress so much. She resents that Stan evades in books and observes her silently when she collapses in the kitchen table or stays in bed.

Véronique Olmi’s style is excellent, the mother has a moving voice and although she’s obviously a bad mother, it’s hard to judge her. She’d like to improve but she can’t. Neither the psychiatrist she sees nor the social worker who follows her are able to help her efficiently. I felt compassion for her and an awful lot of pity for the children.

When my first child was born, I grew a new self who includes an internal watchtower that makes me acutely aware of children in my surroundings. I started to notice and step in when a child was doing something dangerous. So reading about Stan and Kevin made me sad. Sad because the story is plausible. Sad because this mother doesn’t have the strength to overcome her problems. Sad that we, as a society, can’t help people like her. Sad because her children still love her the way children love their parents, unconditionally.

Bord de mer is located by the sea, I imagined the North coast, given that cold and that foul weather. I read this when I was on holiday by the Mediterranean sea. I did it on purpose because I knew it was difficult to read, emotionally, I wanted a quick escape from the book if needed. The weather was bright, azure sky, 30°C outside, 24°C in the water. My children were playing in the sea, totally carefree, mostly concerned by the flavour of their next ice-cream. Reading this novella in this décor was a mistake. The contrast between what I was reading and what I was living was even more violent. I know there are Stans and Kevins somewhere and I wish they could have as good a childhood as my own children. And I wondered how I could explain to my kids how lucky they are. Because in the end, all this is luck. A good health is luck. Escaping redundancies is luck as well.

Bord de mer has been abundantly reviewed in the English speaking blogosphere. Here are other reviews other than the ones already listed by Max. Reviews by Sarah, Tony, Stu

Max: a big thank you for providing in your post the English translation of the quotes I wanted to include. I was more than happy to discover them here.

Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño

August 8, 2012 32 comments

Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño 1996. French title: Etoile distante.

Se tuer, dit-il, dans cette conjoncture sociopolitique, est absurde et redondant. Le mieux : se métamorphoser en poète secret. To commit suicide in these socio-political circumstances is absurd and redundant. The best is to turn into a secret poet, he said. (Sorry, my translation from the French)

Arturo Belano relates the story of Carlos Wieder, how he met him in Concepción, in a poetry group at the university, how he later discovered he was a serial killer, a right-wing activist and an army pilot. It was in 1972 or 1973. He and Wieder weren’t really friends but our narrator kept tabs about his life mostly through the letters of his friend Bibiano O’Ryan. Wieder had that kind of artistic glow that appealed to women and made men jealous of him. He was secretive, strange and it added to the seduction power he had upon others.

It’s difficult to sum up this novel. Wieder is the Ariadne’s clew but his life is also linked to the history of Chile, the end of democracy with Allende’s fall and the switch to dictatorship. It’s also about Art and especially poetry.

Our narrator, like Bolaño was briefly imprisoned after Pinochet’s coup and like Bolaño again, chose exile in Barcelona. I know almost nothing about Chile but I had the feeling that Wieder’s life illustrates the country’s history. When the new regime discovers his awful crimes against women, he’s already a famous pilot in the army and a famous poet well introduced in the intelligentsia. He doesn’t get arrested. If he hadn’t revealed his crimes himself in an attack of artistic happening, nobody would have known about them. After all, disappearances were common at the time and were certainly not investigated. Unpunished crimes felt like everyday life in the Chile of that time.

I imagine that these three students, Wieder, O’Ryan and our narrator, represent the three paths followed by people in Chile after 1973: active cooperation with the new regime for Wieder, low profile for Bibiano who stayed in his country and exile for our narrator.

As far as the art aspect is concerned, Bolaño lost me there. I’m not educated enough to catch all the references, the name dropping. I couldn’t figure out if they were real names or fake ones and there were too many for me to check out. Some were real ones, I recognised them. I also got lost with art concepts:

Defoe en arrivait à affirmer que la révolution liée à la littérature amènera en quelque sorte son abolition. Quand la poésie sera faite par les non-poètes et sera lue par les non-lecteurs. Defoe ended up maintaining that the revolution linked to literature will lead it to its abolition, in a way. When poetry will be written by non-poets and will be read by non-readers.

Excuse me but I thought genuinely that writing poetry is what makes of someone a poet and that reading made a reader of me. I don’t understand that kind of concepts. It’s like when people tell you they eat cholesterol-free food not to be in the statistics of heart-attacks. But they are in those statistics anyway, just on the other side, the side of the people who have not had a heart-attack.

I’m also well aware that I’m too ignorant of Latin America’s history and customs to fully understand the book. It left me a bit unsatisfied but I’m glad I read it. I haven’t read a lot of South American literature and I know from experience that it takes a good number of novels to start linking things together in your head and draw a mental picture of the country you read about. It’s a piece of a jigsaw for future reading and also the appeal of reading in translation. What doesn’t make sense now will help build the picture later.

What I enjoyed immensely was Bolaño’s style. Sometimes I wondered how he sounds in English. It’s a flow with strings of adjectives, of propositions separated by commas, things that the English language doesn’t bear as well as the French. Bolaño is incredible when it comes to describing the horror of Wieder’s or the new regime’s crimes.

Et à leur suite la nuit pénètre dans la maison des sœurs Garmendia. Et quinze minutes plus tard, peut-être dix, quand ils partent, la nuit ressort, tout de suite la nuit entre, la nuit sort, efficace et rapide. Et on ne trouvera jamais les cadavres, ou plutôt si, il y a un cadavre, un seul cadavre qui apparaîtra des années après dans une fosse commune, celui de Angélica Garmendia, mon adorable, ma sans-pareille Angélica Garmendia, mais uniquement ce cadavre, comme pour prouver que Carlos Wieder est un homme et non un dieu. And following them the night enters the house of the Garmendia sisters. And fifteen minutes later, maybe ten, when they leave, the night goes out, all at once the night enters, the night goes out, efficient and quick. And the corpses will never be found, or actually yes, one corpse will be, one single corpse will reappear years later in a common grave, Angélica Garmendia’s corpse, my lovely, my one-of-a-kind Angélica Garmendia. There will be only this corpse as if to prove that Carlos Wieder was a man and not a god. Sorry again, still my translation from the French.

Powerful, isn’t it? Few words, nothing special in appearance and still you’re chil(l)ed.

I wanted to read this for Spanish Lit Month but I couldn’t finish it on time. This was my first Bolaño and certainly not my last. I first heard of him on Richard’s blog, Caravana de Recuerdos, so thanks, Richard. You can discover his review of Estrella Distante here (in Spanish and English)

Maigret as a bleu

August 5, 2012 19 comments

La première enquête de Maigret by Georges Simenon (1903-1989) The title means : Maigret’s first investigation.

I’ve only read Le chien jaune by Simenon. I have a vague memory of a novel in a foggy city in Britanny and of sitting in a classroom, head resting on my hand, waiting for the bell to ring with patient resignation. After reading reviews of Simenon’s books by fellow bloggers, I decided to try another one. True, the reviews I read weren’t about the Maigret series, but still I wanted to try one again, in an attempt to wipe away the ennui I endured when I first read him.

Now the book.

We’re in 1913, in Paris, pre-WWI and the city is still full of fiacres. Jules Maigret is the secretary of the commissaire in the Saint-Georges police station. In the night from 15th to 16th April 1913, a musician, Justin Minard arrives at the police station and declares that he heard a shooting in an hotel particulier rue Chaptal. The mansion belongs to the powerful Gendreau family and Maigret’s boss, well introduced in the Parisian high society, doesn’t want an investigation. Feeling Maigret isn’t ready to give up, he sends him on an unofficial one, hoping he will fail. We follow him during his investigation.

I can’t say I was enthralled by the plot but I’m convinced I should read more of Simenon. Here is the opening paragraph of the book:

Une balustrade noire partageait la pièce en deux. Du côté réservé au public, il n’y avait qu’un banc sans dossier, peint en noir lui aussi, contre le mur blanchi à la chaux et couvert d’affiches administratives. De l’autre côté, il y avait des pupitres, des encriers, des casiers remplis de registres énormes, noirs encore, de sorte que tout était noir et blanc. Il y avait surtout, debout sur une plaque de tôle, un poêle en fonte comme on n’en voit plus aujourd’hui que dans les gares des petites villes, avec son tuyau qui montait d’abord vers le plafond, puis se coudait, traversant tout l’espace avant d’aller se perdre dans le mur. A black balustrade split the room in two. On the side reserved to the public, there was only one bench without a back. It was black too and set against the whitewashed wall covered with administrative posters. On the other side of the balustrade, there were desks, inkwells, lockers full of huge books, also black. Everything was black and white. There was also, standing on a metal sheet, a cast iron stove that can only be still seen in railroad stations of small towns. Its pipe climbed to the ceiling, then bent and crossed the whole room before getting lost in the wall.My translation, please be lenient, it’s not easy to translate.

A few sentences and you’re propelled in this commissariat. You can imagine the place, smell the dust, feel the atmosphere, the people going in and out bringing into the building the ugliness of the world. It reminded me of the first paragraph of Skylark.

This volume is not the first Maigret Simenon wrote though. Contrary to contemporary crime fiction writers who develop their character in later volumes, Simenon imagined his character’s beginnings in the police after his readers have known him as an accomplished commissaire. Is it because he wrote it in Arizona in 1945 that this novel is so tainted with nostalgia? Simenon never knew Paris during La Belle Epoque, he arrived in the City of Lights in 1922. However, this first Maigret brings to life the popular Paris of that time: the cafés, the apaches, the working class, the food, the drinks (Mignard drinks fraisette) and the still new neighbourhood of the future 17th arrondissement.

In French, a bleu is a beginner. It conveys the idea of being freshly out of school, educated but lacking field experience. Maigret is a bleu. His head is full of the principles and methods he learnt in the police academy and he struggles to put them into practice or to pick the useful ones and leave behind the inapplicable ones. He discovers at his expense that not all the things he needs to know were included in the textbooks.

Simenon confronts Maigret with reality. In his head, the difference between good and evil is clear. He’s certain that the police is efficient and wouldn’t cover a crime. In his mind, things are black or white, like the commissariat he works in. This first investigation throws him in all kinds of grey shades. He won’t get out intact. Simenon also shows him as ambitious, already eying the Quai d’Orsay as his future office. And Maigret is newlywed and it is kind of funny to meet Mme Maigret before she becomes a dull wife.

La première enquête de Maigret was entertaining and I enjoyed reading Simenon reconstructing his hero’s first steps in his profession and the first months of his married life. It was funny to read about a clumsy Maigret full of illusions about justice and police as you might expect a beginner to be. Someway it broke in my head the automatic equation Maigret = Bruno Kremer, which is good.

The artist according to Strindberg in The Red Room

August 4, 2012 4 comments

In The Red Room (one day, I’ll have time, alert and available neurons to write my billet about it)August Strindberg exposes his views on the artist as a character:

“‘I can analyse the much-talked-of artistic instinct because I was endowed with it myself. It rests on a broad base of longing for freedom, freedom from profitable labour; for this reason a German philosopher defined Beauty as the Unprofitable; as soon as a work of art is of practical use, betrays a purpose or a tendency its beauty vanishes. Further-more the instinct rests on pride; man wants to play God in art, not that he wants to create anything new–he can’t do that–but because he wants to improve, to arrange, to recreate. He does not begin by admiring his model, Nature, but by criticizing it. Everything is full of faults and he longs to correct them. “‘This pride, spurring a man on to never-ceasing effort, and the freedom from work–the curse of the fall–beget in the artist the illusion that he is standing above his fellow creatures; to a certain extent this is true, but unless he were constantly recalling this fact he would find himself out, that is to say find the unreal in his activity and the unjustifiable in his escape from the profitable. This constant need of appreciation of his unprofitable work makes him vain, restless, and often deeply unhappy; as soon as he comes to a clear understanding of himself he becomes unproductive and goes under, for only the religious mind can return to slavery after having once tasted freedom. “‘To differentiate between genius and talent, to look upon genius as a separate quality, is nonsense, and argues a faith in special manifestation. The great artist is endowed with a certain amount of ability to acquire some kind of technical skill. Without practice his ability dies. Somebody has said: genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains. This is, like so many other things, a half-truth. If culture be added–a rare thing because knowledge makes all things clear, and the cultured man therefore rarely becomes an artist–and a sound intellect, the result is genius, the natural product of a combination of favourable circumstances.

It seems a bit negative to me although I agree with the vision of art as the Unprofitable. That’s why it’s essential. It’s good the be reminded that everything doesn’t need to be profitable or provide return on investment.

See you soon with the full billet about this interesting Swedish novel.

Libertinages

August 2, 2012 16 comments

Point de lendemain by Vivant Denon 1813 (English title: No tomorrow) and La Petite Maison by Jean-François de la Bastide. 1758.

Last Christmas, a relative gave me a literary perpetual calendar. One quote for each day. This calendar is in my office so that I can start my day of stressed executive with a parenthesis of beauty. It’s a good calendar, plenty of quotes by Proust in there. Last week, I turned the page to read this quote:

Il en est des baisers comme des confidences : ils s’attirent, ils s’accélèrent, ils s’échauffent les uns par les autres. En effet, le premier ne fut pas plutôt donné qu’un second le suivit ; puis un autre, ils ne pressaient, ils entrecoupaient la conversation, ils la remplaçaient ; à peine enfin laissaient-ils aux soupirs la liberté de s’échapper. Now, kisses are like secrets. One leads to another, they quicken, they grow more heated by the process of accumulation. And so it proved now. The first had scarcely been given when a second followed, then a third, each crowding closely on the heels of the one before, interrupting our talk and then replacing it entirely, until at last they hardly left any path for our sighs to escape by. Translated by David Coward

Beautiful, isn’t it? The syntax shows the urgency, the breathlessness, the heat of the moment. It reminded me that Point de lendemain by Vivant Denon had been on the shelf at home since the moment I read Max’s review of that little gem. I picked up the book when I came home and took a journey back into the French 18thC in an instant.

I read the 1813 version of the text, which is also the one translated by Lydia Davis. The publisher included the former version of 1777 in the book; I only browsed through it.

In Point de lendemain, our narrator relates how he was seduced and duped by Mme de T…, his lover’s friend. Our young man is only twenty and is inappropriately early in the theatre, waiting for his mistress when Mme de T… suggests that he comes with her to her house in the countryside. They leave and hurry to her house where he is to meet her husband with whom she has just been reconciled after being apart for several years. I’m not going to tell too much of the plot.

Once again, you’ll notice that we’d be wrong to think that making out in vehicles was invented with the automobile. There’s this scene between Emma and Mr Elton in Emma, one in La double méprise de Mérimée and this incredible one in La Curée by Zola. Believe me, naughty things happened in these carriages. Here, the flirting starts with brushing against one another as the carriage jolts along. The atmosphere is already on an erotic mode when they reach the house and the heat and teasing increases as time goes by:

Quand la crainte est bannie, les caresses cherchent les caresses : elles s’appellent plus tendrement. On ne veut plus qu’une faveur soit ravie. Si l’on diffère, c’est raffinement. Le refus est timide et n’est qu’un tendre soin. On désire, on ne voudrait pas : c’est l’hommage qui plaît… Le désir flatte… L’âme en est exaltée… On adore… On ne cédera point… On a cédé. When fear is banned, caresses search caresses: they call each other more tenderly. A favor must be stolen. Postponing is refinement. Refusal is coy and is nothing more than a tender care. One desires but would like not to: the enjoyment lies in the compliment. Desiring is delightful… The soul gets carried away. One adores…One will not surrender…One has surrendered. (my translation, sorry)

No Tomorrow is a tale of seduction, of manipulation and of pure marivaudage. (the dictionary says “light-headed banter” but this retrieves the allusion to Marivaux, a famous playwright of the 18thC who excelled in this flirting, seducing and art of discussion). It is so French that I almost wrote my billet in French. You can imagine them strolling in a French garden like in Versailles and reach a little pavilion in a remote part of it and meet there for a rendezvous. Because our narrator is twenty, he gets mixed up in this through a cocktail of self-confidence, naïveté and passion. After all, he’s arrogant enough not to be that surprised that she proposes to him. He’s too naïve to imagine ulterior motives. And he’s too passionate and spontaneous not to take his chance and see where this will lead him.

In my edition, La petite maison by Jean-François de la Bastide is after Point de lendemain and indeed they complement one another. A petite maison (a little house) meant at the time what we call now a bachelor pad, or more elegantly, a love nest. In La petite maison, the Marquis de Trémicour is determined to seduce the pure Mélite thanks to the beauty of his petite maison. She perfectly knows where she’s going to and is determined not to give in. She’s known to have excellent taste in arts and the marquis wants to use the artistic and exquisite architecture of his petite maison to seduce her. During the whole tale, he leads her from one room to the other, showing off the magnificence of the decoration with the sole purpose of putting her in such a state of artistic rapture that it ill bring her guard down and surrender.

En effet, ce salon est si voluptueux qu’on y prend des idées de tendresse en croyant seulement en prêter au maître auquel il appartient. Indeed, this room is so voluptuous that one gets ideas of tenderness while believing only to credit some to the master to whom it belongs.(My translation, even more sorry)

Honestly, I struggle to translate this and give back the double entendre in it. prendre des idées de tendresse means get ideas of tenderness and it is in opposition with prêter which also means to lend but I used to credit in English. Don’t hesitate to suggest a better translation. It’s a good example of the elegant style of M. de la Bastide.

The decoration is done to put lovers in the right mood and you’ll need to read the book to discover if he succeeds in seducing her or not. This short story is also a gallant tale from that century, the kind that goes with paintings by Watteau, stories about the Regent and plays by Marivaux.

If you fell for Les Liaisons dangereuses, then you need to read this. It has this particular atmosphere that I associate with the 18thC in France.

Here are other reviews of Point de lendemain by John Self (Thanks for including the quote I’d selected and thus providing me with a good translation) and at Book Slut (spoilers there though) and by Kevin from Canada

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