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German Lit month and other bookish things

November 28, 2012 15 comments

December is almost there and I haven’t finished Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum and I won’t be able to participate to German Lit Month this year. I first tried to read Berlin Alexanderplatz by Döblin but I never managed to read it past page 30. The style didn’t appeal to me although it’s a brand new translation. I wish I could read in German but my German is very poor, despite all the years I spent learning it. I never got along with this language; it never came naturally. As often, Romain Gary says it all for me and depicts perfectly what it was for me to study it:

Je venais d’entrer dans ma chambre pour préparer ma leçon d’allemand, langue qui me donnait beaucoup de mal, par le cérémonial rigoureux et empesé de ses circonvolutions grammaticales.Les Enchanteurs. I had just entered my room to study German. This language was difficult for me because of the rigorous and starchy ceremonial of its grammatical circumvolutions.
(My attempt at a translation)

Perhaps it’s also because the only things we heard about Germany – except from the two world wars –was Derrick and car manufacturers. Not exactly glamorous. Anyway, I abandoned Berlin Alexanderplatz to try it later, when I have more brain cells available. I started Grand Hotel instead and I like it a lot so far. I enjoy the characters, the location and reading about M&A in Berlin in the 1920s.

As I’ve had problems concentrating on books, I paid more attention to the radio and magazines around me. I stumbled upon a fantastic article about translations of Noir novels. I was happy to read that new translations are on the way. The Killer Inside Me and The Getaway have already been released. It’s great because the translations from the 1950s or 1960s are outdated. This I already knew. The argot is almost incomprehensible to the modern reader and it sounds very strange. The article I read explains that major countersenses were made in translations (For example gay became, gai –cheerful— instead of homosexuel) and that 24% of the book is missing in the 1966 translation of The Killer Inside Me and so is one third of The Long Good Bye. The reason? Crime fiction wasn’t “real” literature, didn’t deserve excellent translators and books couldn’t be thicker than 250 pages. A crime to this excellent kind of fiction. Well, I’d rather struggle with the English version than read about un bar sans toita bar without a roof– instead of a topless bar. Sounds like Google Translate, doesn’t it? I hope these new translations will help the genre. If you’re interested, you can read the entire article here.

As Christmas approaches, publishers release special version of books, with new covers, new translations or like for Gros Câlin by my beloved Romain Gary, a new edition with a bonus chapter: the initial ending written by Gary and that Gallimard asked him to change. Of course, I had to have it as I wanted to discover that last chapter. It was finished on November 30th, 1973, 39 years ago and it comes from the manuscripts kept at the Musée des Manuscrits.  Alexandre Gary approved of this new edition. Well, I can understand why Gallimard didn’t want to take the chance to publish such an unorthodox ending. It’s crazy like The Breast by Philip Roth. It’s not the first time I see parallels between the two writers and Roth’s recent decision to stop writing reminded me of Gary’s exit. (I had a lot of fun, good bye and thank you)

Talking about Christmas, it’s still time to join us for our Humbook Christmas Gift event. We’ll post about the participants on December 1st. Sorry about all the personal posts I wrote this month instead of proper billets about books. This was just not a good month for reading or writing billets.

PS: What the hell happened to my Link Categories. How did they become Bookmarks?

Hell is paved with good intentions

November 23, 2012 25 comments

Breathing lessons by Anne Tyler. 1989. French title: Leçons de conduite 

Welcome to this month’s reading choice for our Book Club and it’s the first one we all read in English. I suggested this book after Caroline reviewed Back When We Were Grownups and several bloggers recommended Breathing Lessons in the comments. Let’s say it right away, we all enjoyed it a lot and would like to read other books by Anne Tyler.

In this novel, Maggie and Ira have been married for more than twenty years, their children are grown-ups now, Jessie doesn’t live with them anymore and their daughter Daisy is now leaving for college. This morning, Maggie and Ira are driving from Baltimore where they live and work to New Hampshire to attend their friend Max’s funeral. Max was married to Serena, Maggie’s best friend from high school. When she picks up their car at the workshop, Maggie hears Fiona, her former daughter-in-law on the radio. Fiona says she’s getting married and that this time, she’s marrying for safety when she married for love the first time. Immediately, Maggie jumps to the conclusion that Fiona still loves Jessie and that their divorce is a mistake. She recalls that she hasn’t seen her grand-daughter Leroy for a while, that Fiona lives on the way to Serena’s place. One thing leading to another, she decides she needs to go to Fiona and suggest to babysit Leroy while Fiona is on her honeymoon.

The whole book takes place within a day and the journey back and forth to the funeral is the opportunity for Maggie and Ira to think about their lives. Meanwhile, Maggie works at her little project of getting Fiona and Jessie back together. The trip is an opportunity to chew over the past and all the incidents that occur during their trip enforce our vision of the characters. The narrative alternates between Maggie and Ira, which gives us a better perspective on the events.

Oh dear, Maggie is annoying. She’s in the category of people who meddle in other people’s lives to bring them happiness. And most of the time, the more they interfere, the worse it gets. Maggie can’t see the world as it is; she sees things through a pink filter and always twists the events so that they fit with her vision of what the situation should be. Her relationship with Ira started on a misunderstanding and her misplaced urge to act: she heard on the grapevine that Ira was dead, decided to write a letter of heartfelt condolences to his father. But Ira wasn’t dead, the grapevine was wrong, Ira was intrigued that she was so saddened by his supposed death and so their relationship started.

Maggie isn’t satisfied with thinking about other people’s lives, she needs to take action to make things right. She interfered in her son’s and daughter-in-law’s marriage. The young couple lived with Ira and her during and after Fiona’s untimely pregnancy. Without knowing it, Maggie took control and never let the young couple a chance to grow up. She’s stifling. She never sees things how they are but can have a bit of indsight about her flaws:

She was in trouble with everybody in this house, and she deserved to be; as usual she had acted pushy and meddlesome. And yet it hadn’t seemed like meddling while she was doing it. She had simply felt as if the world were the tiniest bit out of focus, the colors not quite within the lines—something like a poorly printed newspaper ad—and if she made the smallest adjustment then everything would settle perfectly into place.

I wondered how Ira could suffer her. But he loves her despite all her flaws, probably because she has the courage to act and go for what she wants. She doesn’t fear rejection or ridicule. When she’s convinced she’s right, she’s like a freight train, nothing can stop her. Ira has issues too; he wanted to be a doctor but his needy father and sisters clung to him, smothered him and prevented him from going to college. He sees himself as a failure and only his marriage with Maggie seems a good thing in his life. Ira knows her well, knows that her flaws are also her qualities. Maggie works in a nursing home; she enjoys taking care of elderly people and Ira doesn’t understand what she sees in her job:

And it was wasteful to devote your working life to people who forgot you the instant you left their bedsides, as Ira was forever pointing out. Oh, it was also admirably selfless, he supposed. But he didn’t know how Maggie endured the impermanence, the lack of permanent results—those feeble, senile patients who confused her with a long-dead mother or a sister who’d insulted them back in 1928.

But Maggie likes it and this is something commendable. In a way, her job allows her to step in someone else’s life, interact with them and bring them comfort and a bit of happiness. Making people happy makes her happy.

I enjoyed this book a lot even if Maggie infuriated me most of the time. Someone in my family resembles her, although she doesn’t meddle as much as Maggie but she always sees things through her own set of distorting glasses and always feel the urge to give unwanted advice. In the end, these people are exhausting. They never take what you say literally but always imagine something else. Whatever you say, you can’t divert Maggie from her path. Here’s Maggie to Ira when he tries to reason with her:

“One thing about you that I really cannot stand,” she said, “is how you act so superior. We can’t have just a civilized back-and-forth discussion; oh, no. No, you have to make a point of how illogical I am, what a whifflehead I am, how you’re so cool and above it all.”

I know the feeling; you try to have a rational conversation and everything you say is twisted a way you never imagine it could be and you end up saying nothing as it is useless to talk.

Maggie tends to embroider the facts to see a comforting picture that suits her. The person I know tends to see a glass empty even if it’s actually half full. All in all, you can’t reason with Maggie; you can’t reason with the person I know. Their husbands indulge them, partly by cowardice and partly because they’ve learned with the years that no matter what they say, their wives won’t change their course of action. And as these women have their heart at the right place and mean well, it’s hard to hold a grudge against them. But still, they can do irreparable damage.

As you can read, this novel hit home and I could relate to the characters. The novel is also full of thoughts about parenthood and marriage. Maggie comes back to her life as a mother and she says:

And afterward: I remember leaving the hospital with Jesse and thinking, ‘Wait. Are they going to let me just walk off with him? I don’t know beans about babies! I don’t have a license to do this. Ira and I are just amateurs.’ I mean you’re given all these lessons for the unimportant things—piano-playing, typing. You’re given years and years of lessons in how to balance equations, which Lord knows you will never have to do in normal life. But how about parenthood? Or marriage, either, come to think of it. Before you can drive a car you need a state-approved course of instruction, but driving a car is nothing, nothing, compared to living day in and day out with a husband and raising up a new human being.”

I think every couple had that feeling when they first came home with their infant. Let’s face it, it’s scary and the only comforting thought is that there’s no reason why you shouldn’t manage. Maggie and Ira are poor parents, in my opinion. They didn’t set enough boundaries to Jessie, Maggie out of indulgence and Ira out of laziness. Daisy learnt how to live with them with limited contact, being a self-sufficient child. Maggie wants to be loved and she can’t put boundaries to her children because she couldn’t bear it if they momentarily hated her for preventing them from doing what they want.

Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize with this novel; I’m not sure it’s mind-blowing enough to deserve such a prize. I had a wonderful time reading it, I wanted to know what would happen and what had happened in the past of this family. The style is good, fluent, easy to read but it’s not innovative. I could compare it to Alison Lurie. The descriptions are spot on, the way she unravels the characters’ minds, puts on the right detail for you to picture a scene or understand the feelings. The funeral is hilarious and sad at the same time.

It’s about the life of common people, about how we are all amateurs when it comes to living. We would like to be entitled to a draft version of our life and then do it all over with the proper hindsight.

Wandering into general background, an experiment

November 17, 2012 23 comments

I know, I know, I should be writing by billet about Breathing Lessons or the one about Classé sans suite. Right now, I can’t. My brain cells have been fried for a couple of weeks; I haven’t reached the page 50 of Grand Hotel; Marcel acts like a stalker with Albertine and I won’t go on with these books as I don’t want to ruin them for me by reading them at a bad time. That leaves me with books for fried brains and the radio.

Let’s start with the radio. The other day, I heard an interview of François Reynaert and Vincent Brocvielle, co-authors of the recently released Le Kit du 21e siècle, Nouveau manuel de culture générale. I don’t know how to say culture générale in English. The dictionary says general knowledge but I’m not happy with it; it’s more like cultural background to me. Well, these two writers have described in their book the basic cultural background needed to live in the 21st century. One of them argued that this cultural background cannot be only literary as the elites think it should be, but more a common base of general knowledge about the world we live in. It goes from basic economy, to books and without forgetting TV shows, commercials and films. His opinion is that these common references are a cement to a society, a way to build a collective psyche. I agree with that.

But then I started challenging myself on this. I don’t watch TV, I have no idea of the latest shows, the commercials or the star anchormen of the moment. I know nothing about the new humorists or singers. The only thing I want to do when I have free time after work and family life is crawl on the couch with a book or play the piano. That interview made me question my way of living. Am I excluding myself from my environment, cutting myself from the general background of the French society? This is still nagging at me and I don’t have a clue. I’m not going to start watching stupid TV shows to be on the same wavelength as my fellow citizens, am I?

This brought back a conversation I had a month ago with my in-law when she asked me whether I planned to read Fifty Shades of Grey whose French translation was just released. I’d never heard of the book at the time and that she knew about a book I didn’t stung a little. I’m the bookish one in the family. So I investigated. I saw a small article about it in Télérama, not in the literary section (how wise) but in the news section. The curiosity I have for books is so endless that I’m ready to try a book like this to understand why it is such a success, something I’m not ready to do with TV shows.

And here I am, downloading the English version of EL James’s success. A nous, “mommy porn”, fried brains should suffice for this.

So what? Let’s say this read could be the source of endless sarcasm on my side and I’ll spare you the summary. I think that Stephenie Meyer could claim at least half of the money EL James makes with her book as it is only a transposition of Twilight. It’s everywhere, in the secret required from the heroin (she signs a NDA), the descriptions of the main characters, their parents, the location, the plot. It’s so blatant that it’s almost painful. Sure, EL James crosses the PC line and dares to use fuck and all its grammatical derivatives, but when it comes to style, compared to EL James, Stephanie Meyer is a reincarnation of a Brontë sister. I swear I will never make fun of creative writing classes in the future, because I wished EL James had attended some. Her style is so appalling that she doesn’t deserve to be called a writer. Scribbler sounds more appropriate. The good thing about reading this kind of book in English is that you’re sure to memorize the few words you actually don’t know because they’re hammered so many times that in the end, they stay in your memory, fried brains or not. So Christian Grey smirks and I’ll never forget that word.

The substance of the book is terrifying of stupidity but I wonder what it means about our century. Why is it so successful? It’s marketed for women. Is this what we consider a glamorous relationship? A woman needs to be submissive? And you, poor men, you need to be frightening, mercurial, controlling and domineering? When were kind, funny and attentive flushed in the bathroom of the 21st century relationships? As a feminist, I wonder what the readers find in this book. It’s not about sex games between consenting adults, it’s about power, hurting and suffocating someone’s personality. It’s about psychological harassment. Is that glamorous?

Still investigating the phenomenon, I learnt that it will be made into an American film. Immediately, I wondered about the business plan –can’t help it, job conditioning—and about the scenario for such a book in a country that has explicit lyrics stickers on their CDs. How are they going to make a profit on a film that will be forbidden to people under 18? Through DVDs and derivatives? Are they going to bowdlerize savagely and cut all the BDSM sex scenes? But then, what’s the point? I’m curious about that and about who will dare to play the main roles.

So, the conclusion about Fifty Shades of Grey? I’m glad I read it, I can criticize it freely now. After reading it, my advice is the following: if you want to read about a controlling guy, a stalker and man who has a sick vision of love relationships, just read La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust, there’s plenty of that in this volume of In Search of Lost Time and at least you’ll have a brilliant literary style. (More of that in an upcoming billet). If you’re really curious about submission, try Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage. And if you want real kinky sex, just go back to the source and read Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu by the Marquis de Sade. But forget about EL James.

After this enlightening experience, where do I stand about sharing the general background? The thought is still nagging at me, but honestly, I’m not sure I want to experiment further. May I stay in my bubble with my TBR and my piano?

Christmas? Bah! Humbook, they say

November 15, 2012 34 comments

Before starting this entry, let me introduce you to the word copinaute. It’s made of the word copain/copine (friend) and internaute (Internet surfer) Yes, we have a very nice French word for this, based on cosmonaute, which gives to internaute a nice feeling of a high-tech wandering into a structured void. So copinautes are friends who know each other through the Internet. Don’t look for it in the dictionary; it’s not in there…yet. I find this word lovely and very appropriate to our little book blogging community. Most of the time, we’ve never met and yet, a bond exists.

Last Christmas, Guy and I exchanged virtual Christmas gifts; I chose four books for him  and he chose four for me in return. I love surprises, I was quite excited to discover the books he had selected for me and I had a great time reading them afterwards.

This year, we would like to share this enchanting experience with others and organize the

Humbook Christmas Gift.

Here are the rules:

  • Choose the copinaute you will give books to,
  • Leave a comment saying you’re in and giving the name of your copinaute,
  • On December 1st, inscriptions will be closed and Guy and I will publish the official list of participants and copinautes with links to their respective blogs, 
  • On December 25th, publish a post in which you reveal to your copinaute the two books you have selected for them. 
  • In 2013, each copinaute reads the books and reviews them.

In addition, Guy and I will choose one book for each participant and give our virtual books on Christmas Day as well.

For practical reasons, each participant/copinaute shall purchase the books they receive and not the books they give. So, in your choice of book, don’t forget to make sure it is available at a reasonable price and in the right language for the copinaute you elected.

Now that you’ve read this, I guess you have some questions, like:

What if I receive more than two books, in other words, several participants decided to choose me as their copinaute?

I suggest that you read at least one book per participant.

What if the copinaute has already read the book before?

That’s a risk we’re taking if we want it to be a real surprise and not give away the book titles before Christmas. It’s like in real life; you can give someone a book they’ve already read. Of course, if you go for the obvious –like offering a Zola to Guy or a Romain Gary to me – the odds are high that your copinaute will have read the books…Good sense should prevail. And perhaps you can give another book instead; after all, no one has spent money on it.

What if the copinaute doesn’t feel like reading the books they were given?

If you’re both a participant and a copinaute, I suggest you try them anyway, that’s part of the game and who knows, you might have an agreeable surprise. And of course, no Humbook Police will check out that you’ve read them.

If the copinaute isn’t a participant, well, it’s like real-life Christmas presents: there’s no guarantee the book will be read.

How long does the copinaute have to read the books?

It would be nice to read the books before June 2013. But once again, no Humbook Police will give them a ticket if they don’t.

And from now on… Check on Guy’s blog for his introduction post to our event. I do hope you are tempted to join us. The more, the merrier, which is apt for a Christmas event, isn’t it?

Looking forward to hearing from you in the comment section.

Patrick Ourednik and the writer’s condition

November 7, 2012 13 comments

I already know that this quote won’t fit into my future extatic billet about Ad Acta by Czech writer Patrick Ourednik. Classé sans suite in French and nothing in English because it has not been translated, which I don’t understand with all the fuss you make about Perec and here you have a Perec-like / Queneau-like writer and it doesn’t reach your shelves.  How inconsistent.

But enough ranting, the quote:

Il y a lieu de rappeler, particulièrement aux jeunes lecteurs, qu’à l’époque où Dyk écrivait son premier –et comme l’avenir le montrerait, dernier — roman, les écrivains étaient livrés à eux-mêmes. Aucun manuel, pas un seul atelier d’écriture créative, pas le moindre Devenez écrivain en trois mois, leçon numéro un, choisissez un sujet adapté, leçon numéro deux, recherchez dans un dictionnaire des adjectifs peu usités, leçon numéro trois, n’ayez pas peur des métaphores, leçon numéro quatre, soyez pittoresque et suggestif, leçon numéro cinq, le regard de l’auteur sur les passages épiques éclaire mieux la psychologie des personnages que le plus réussi des dialogues. Rien de tout ça, juste la cruelle solitude du créateur, la machine à écrire, le ruban qui se coinçait sans arrêt et la gomme à papier spéciale qui trouait invariablement chaque page laborieusement tapée à la moindre faute de frappe.

A quoi il faut ajouter le handicap traditionnel des écrivains tchèques: ils prennent leurs livres au sérieux. Dyk perdit un temps fou à trouver l’idée directrice et à enchevêtrer les vérités discrètement morales qu’il convenait de faire entendre dans un roman.

If I translate it as best I can (and it’s not easy)

We need to remind the readers, especially the youngest ones, that at the time when Dyk was writing his first –and as the future would prove, his last– novel, writers were left to their own devices. Not textbooks, not a single creative writing class, no How to Become a Writer in Three Months, lesson number one, choose your subject well; lesson number two, look for seldom used adjectives in the dictionary; lesson number three, don’t be afraid of metaphors, lesson number four, be picturesque and suggestive; lesson number five, the writer’s perspective on the epic passages sheds a better light on the characters’ psychology than the best crafted dialogues. Nothing like this, only the cruel solitude of the artist, the typewriter with its ribbon that always got stuck, the special rubber that always made a hole in each laboriously typed page whenever you made a typing error.

And you need to add on the traditional handicap of the Czech writer: they take their books seriously. Dyk lost ages looking for the right leading idea and intertwining the discreetly moral truths that had to pervade in a novel.

…billet to come soon, when I’ve finished the book.

France: Back to Books and Literary Prizes Week traditions

November 6, 2012 17 comments

In French, Back to School is la Rentrée Scolaire. Journalistic creativity coined the Rentrée Littéraire, ie Back to Books. What is it exactly? Every year, at the beginning of September, we’re having a huge release of books from publishers. All their best novelties come out at that time. Papers, magazines are full of articles about the Rentrée littéraire and the year’s indisputable gems, like here in Télérama, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération or L’Express.  They come with stationary, school bags and all back-to-school related events.

646 novels were published between mid-August and mid-October for the rentrée littéraire and I wonder: how do the critics do to read them all? And the booksellers? And the librarians? How can we discover a new writer in this forest of new books? And all this at a terribly busy time of the year: after the holidays, when work picks up, children go back to school (obviously, cf my first paragraph) and millions of things need to be done.  All this literary frenzy slowly builds suspense until the first week of November when the major literary prizes are granted. So this week in France, it’s not Fashion Week but Literary Prizes Week.

The Prix Goncourt is the oldest prize, I think, created by the brothers Goncourt in their will. The first one was given to John-Antoine Nau (Who?) in 1903. The winner is always announced from the same restaurant in Paris. When the rules were established, the winner earned 5000 francs, converted in today’s money, it means a check of…10€. Hmm, let’s hope the sales are good afterwards. A teacher of French literature in Basel, Robert Kopp just wrote a book about the history of the Prix Goncourt (Un siècle de Goncourt), so, if you want to know more…

Other prizes were created in the wake of and in reaction to the Goncourt. The Prix Femina started in 1904, granted by a jury of women as opposed to the only-male jury of the Goncourt. In 1926, ten critics created the Prix Renaudot, which is announced from the same restaurant as the Goncourt, and only a few minutes after. (Personally, I find this pathetic.). In 1958, the Prix Medicis was born.

So Literary Prizes Week started today with Patrick Deville, who won the Prix Femina for his novel Peste et choléra. (Plague and Cholera). Nothing metaphoric in this title: the book is about Alexandre Yersin who worked with Pasteur, discovered the bacillus of the plague and lived an adventurous life.

Tomorrow, we’ll know who won the Prix Medicis and the winner of Prix Goncourt will be announced on November 7th.

I’m not interested in this but it’s hard to avoid hearing about it or reading articles or seeing the books in book stores. I just wanted to share about this French phenomenon, I’m under the impression it doesn’t work that way in other countries. Does it?

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