Archive for December, 2012

My deepest secret fear

December 29, 2012 8 comments

Tu verras by Nicolas Fargues. 2011 Not translated into English. (Perhaps it will be later)

Fargues_tu_verrasI picked this novel in a bookshop because the first page gripped me. A father was talking about his difficulties with his twelve-year-old son Clément and his newfound interest in R&B. After a few pages, I realized that Clément had died less than a week before and that his father, Colin was trying to cope with his grief.

It’s a first person narrative and Colin’s head is a sad place to be. His pain is a mountain that comes from his belly, invades his lungs and overflows through his eyes. Every detail from everyday life reminds him of Clément and it strikes him he’ll have to keep on living without him. Fargues manages to avoid the pitfalls of useless pathos, though. Colin is lucid, inventories his flaws, and comes back to his life as a son with divorced parents, to his failed relationship with Clément’s mother, to his lacking as a father. Colin bares his soul but is never an exhibitionist. His life is now tasteless but this new indifference to consequences leads him to take initiatives he wouldn’t have taken otherwise.

I think that this novel is particularly contemporary. Nicolas Fargues was born in 1972, he has the same age as his character. Colin got the custody of his son after his wife divorced him. He decided to renounce to a promotion to take care of Clément and fatherhood is vital for him. He changed nappies, prepared bottles of milk and doesn’t rely on a woman to raise his son. Welcome to the 21st century and welcome to a new generation of men, my generation, who are invested in their fatherhood. Colin is like many fathers in France these days; the ones you see in a suit, pushing a trolley in the morning; the ones that attended ultrasounds, helped with anti-stretchmark cream and studied parenthood books. Imagine that novel written in the 1950s? No way.

I was overwhelmed by the text because I can relate to Colin. Losing a child is probably one of my deepest fears and just thinking about it makes me shiver. Sometimes, I also saw myself in Colin’s reactions to Clément’s small rebellions. All parents know that, sometimes the stress of everyday life unleashes the worst out of us. Clément was 12, like my daughter now. I could relate to the struggles of this father with his adolescent son.

Clément qui était mort au seuil de l’âge des tentations, des mensonges et des conneries à ne pas faire, où l’on se gave de chewing-gums pour couvrir une haleine de cigarette et où l’on dissimule un joint dans le rabat de son carnet de correspondance, à l’âge où on rêve de coucher avec une fille, où l’on se connecte en douce sur le site YouPorn, à l’âge où vos parents ont du mal à s’enfoncer dans le crâne que vous n’êtes plus un enfant, que vous ne leur appartiendrez plus comme avant et que ça passe nécessairement par cela, devenir un adulte et préparer tout seul son bonheur pour demain : s’affanchir, qu’ils le veuillent ou non. Clément died on the threshold of the age of temptations, of lies and stupid things not to do. The age when we stuff our mouth with chewing-gum to cover a cigarette breath, when we hide a joint in the cover of a school textbook, when we dream of sleeping with a girl, when we connect to YouPorn in secret. The age when your parents struggle to get in their heads that you’re not a child any more, that you’ll never belong to them the same way and that this step is necessary to become an adult, to prepare on your own your happiness for the future. To set free, whether they want it or not. (My clumsy translation)

Adolescence is a difficult period for a child and twelve is the turning point between childhood and adolescence. Fargues depicts this beautifully. Children need to adjust to the changes in their bodies; they start shifting their set of references: what their friends think becomes more important than what their parents think. They start challenging their parents’ beliefs and values. The turmoil of adolescence is often described, but most of the time, nothing is said about the parents’ feelings. Sure, you’ll hear about fights and shouting and irritation. But what Fargues portrays here is how a parent needs to adjust too, when their child becomes a teenager. It’s a time to let go, to accompany your child towards adulthood. A parent needs to turn a page in their relationship with their child at this moment. The time of easy games and Santa Claus is over. It’s a time when you think “When did I shift from faking Santa Claus has come over to lending my mascara?” It’s not always simple to move on and react tactfully. Colin becomes aware of all this as he thinks about Clément, the futile fights over clothes, music or school. Clément was trying to find himself and Colin was trying to find another himself in him. It could only end up in conflicts. I sympathized with him, with his grief, his regrets. It made me think about my own behaviour as a mother.

This novel is also an accurate portray of today’s France. This is not Paris with Amélie Poulain, it’s the real one. Some critics said it shows that our children live in a world of consensus, of appearances and are under the pressure of “normality” and want to blend in. I don’t think it’s new for this generation; it’s always been like this. Clément wanted to be accepted by other children in school like every child in the world. I don’t think children and adolescent really like to stand out and be original, or if they do, it’s only marginally.

As you see, it’s a thought-provoking book and really, don’t shy away from it because of its theme. It’s well-written and Colin’s voice rings true, which is certainly why the book is so good.

Best of 2012 : my choices among the books I read

December 27, 2012 31 comments

Mafalda_merci2012 is ending and now is the time for me to look back on my reading year and think about the books I loved the most. I don’t have any categories, only what we call in French my “Coups de Coeur”, literally “blow of the heart”. (I still don’t know the English equivalent of this phrase, so if someone can enlighten me…)

1 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

This one stayed with me. I have a special connection with Newland Archer, even deeper than the one I felt with Ralph in The Custom of the Country. He reached me personally and I understand him better than I’d wish to. I think Wharton portrays men the way men writers don’t, in their humanity, their weaknesses.

2 – In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson.

Besson is my discovery of the year. I love the flow of his prose, the way he describes passion as a demanding force, a hurricane. It’s not a wailing passion like the Romantics describe it. It’s a compulsive force the characters surrender to but always with their eyes open and perfectly aware of the risks they’re taking. This one also made Max’s end-of-the-year list, which is a great reference for me.

3 – Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

Philip Roth and I are in a one way literary relationship. In appearance, I have nothing in common with Nathan Zuckerman. And yet, there’s something in Roth’s prose that always crawls under my skin and stays there. It’s the heady mix of the trivial and the deep thinking, coloured with dark humour. He seems to write effortlessly but this degree of apparent nonchalance is the brand of a gifted and skilled writer.

4 – Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi.

Bone chilling. It haunted me after I read it and I need to read another of her books to connect her with something else than this story.

5 – The Ripening Seed by Colette.

Adolescence pictured in a breathtaking prose. A revelation for me. And why had I never read Colette before?

6 – The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt

I’m not a specialist but it floated in the air of this novel a scent of a Noir novel. It’s not crime fiction but I had the feeling some of the codes of Noir applied there. It’s beautifully written and the characters are unusual.

7 – Miss Mckenzie by Anthony Trollope.

I owe this one to Guy and last year’s virtual Christmas gifts. I loved it. I loved Miss Mckenzie, Trollope’s prose and his undercurrent feminism. It seems like a light novel but it’s not. It’s a precise picture of the society of that time and the condition of women.

8 – La curée by Emile Zola

Guy pointed it to me when he was reading all Zola. I loved it for the characters and for the historical background of the Second Empire and the transformation of Paris. Some things don’t change in human behaviour when money or sex is at stake.

9 – Washington Square by Henry James.

On the second reading, I saw the violence of the battle of wills between Catherine and her father. I still don’t know if Morris’s intentions were honest or not. Does it matter? I think that James wanted more to write about the confrontation than about the love story.

10 – Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham

Beside the exceptional prose, I read it the same year as Exit Ghost and both explore the posterity of a writer. How can a writer control what others will write about him after his death? And then of course, I’m reading all Thomas Hardy, so the connection with this writer was interesting too.

In addition to this selection of books, I want to draw your attention to several other French books:

  • Kennedy et moi by Jean-Paul Dubois
  • Tu verras by Nicolas Fargues
  • Eloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim.
  • Apocalypse Bébé by Virginie Despentes
  • A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

I hope I piqued your curiosity, that you’ll be interested in trying one of these books. They’re really worth it. To the readers of this blog, I’ll say thank you. Thanks for taking the time to read my rambling, babbling or chatting about books or whatever the appropriate expression is. Thanks for the comments and for clicking on the Like button to say “Hi, I’ve been there”

I’ll continue writing billets about the books I read in 2013. Sharing my thoughts with you is a real pleasure and I hope you’ll still be willing to read them.

All the best, Emma

Categories: Personal Posts

Merry Christmas! Humbook! They say

December 25, 2012 34 comments

Dear Copinautes,

I wish you all a Merry Christmas from France. For New Year’s wishes, you’ll have to wait for my first post for 2013. In France, we don’t wish a Happy New Year in advance.

Many thanks to regular readers and commenters for your steady reading of my rambling, babbling, prattling or whatever word suits best to my billets. Thanks to readers who don’t dare to comment but click on the Like button to say “Hi, I’ve been there”, it’s much appreciated. I’m still surprised you devote part of your precious free time to read Book Around The Corner.

Now, don’t forget today is the day for our virtual exchange gifts, the most famous Humbook event.


Follow the links to check on the participants’ blogs to discover what they picked for each other and of course, have a look at Guy’s entry. As promised, Guy and I picked one additional book for each participant:

For Lisa, from ANZ Lit Lovers: The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis. Its feminist side should suit you and the descriptions of the Greek countryside are gorgeous.

For Tony, from Tony’s Reading List : Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac. Here you are, Tony, Balzac is waiting for you!

For Himadri, from The Argumentative Old Git: Novel With Cocaine by M. Agueev. Some said it was written by Nabokov. Give us your opinion about that.

For Brian, from Babbling Books: Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson. Historical and thought-provoking; it sounded right in your alley.

For Stu, from Winston’s Dad Blog : The Pets by Bragi Olafsson Funny and non-English, isn’t it the definition of great book for you?

For Sue, from Whispering Gums: Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar

We’ll be checking out your blogs to read the reviews but it’s nice if you leave a link here, in the comments. As mentioned in our previous entry, we also picked two books for Tom, from A Common Reader and they are:

  • A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée
  • The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante.

We’ve also picked two books for Leroy, who doesn’t have a blog (yet?) but will review the books anyway and I’ll publish his thoughts as guest posts here. It was tricky to find ideas, I realize I’m blind without a blog to refer to and also because Leroy is really well read. So, I hope you haven’t read these two ones, Leroy, and that you will enjoy them:

  • In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson. It’s on Max’s best reads of the year and it will be on mine too.
  • The Chatelet Apprentice: The First Nicolas Le Floch Investigation by Jean-Francois Parot. It’s crime fiction in Paris in the 18th century. Refreshing and entertaining.

Don’t forget to send me you reviews for publication!

Last but not least, I picked two books for Guy. Thanks Guy for sharing the organization of this little literary event with me, many thanks for all the comments you left, for the support and exchanges along the year. You almost got your first Romain Gary this year. I was about to give you White Dog because it has lots of things you’d enjoy (A dog, L.A. and cinema, first hand info on the Black Panthers and their movement.), but I wasn’t sure of the translation; I thought it might have been bowdlerized for the American public. So, I went for two books you’ve heard of but haven’t read:

  • Thérèse Desqueyroux by François Mauriac. A new film version with Audrey Tautou has just been released. As you’re fond of watching films versions of books, I thought you’d enjoy this one.
  • The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas. She’s someone you’ll like, I think. And it’s the first one of a series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg, so if you like her, there’s more for you to enjoy later.

That’s all, folks! I had fun with this event. I’m curious to find out what you chose for each other and I’m looking forward to reading the reviews in 2013. I hope you’ll enjoy your gifts, that you’ll discover new writers. Now I’m curious to discover what my virtual gifts are!

To the revolution in a Citroën 2 CV

December 23, 2012 14 comments

Alla rivoluzione sulla Due Cavalli by Marco Ferrari 1995 French title: En 2CV vers la révolution. I didn’t find it in English.

April 25th, 1974. When Vasco, a Portuguese young man who studies cinema in Paris hears about the uprising in Portugal, he runs to his best friend Victor and talks him into driving to their native city, Lisbon. So the novella is a road trip in a decrepit 2 CV from Paris to Lisbon, through the quiet of the French countryside, through a Spain closed up in fear, full of policemen along the roads and to the disquiet in Lisbon. Communists or revolutionaries or separatists? Who are they, the ones who help Vasco and Victor cross the border between France and Spain through the Pyrenees?

What struck me is how French people seem to live in a bubble:

A quatre heures de l’après-midi Poitiers n’est qu’un jeu d’ombres et de lueurs, la moitié des toits embrassée par le soleil, l’autre moitié obscurcie par Notre-Dame-La-Grande. Les gens se promènent dans les rues piétonnes, discutent dans les cafés, les hommes boivent le Pastis, les femmes le thé, les enfants mangent des tartes : on dirait un monde à l’écart, intangible, sans émotion au regard de ce qui se passe autour, le garrot franquiste, la révolte portugaise, les assassinats en Espagne, les bombes italiennes, les lamentations du Chili, les cris de l’Europe de l’Est. At 4pm, Poitiers is only shadows and lights, the sun set half of the roofs aglow while Notre-Dame-La-Grande shadows  the other half. People stroll in the pedestrian streets, chat in cafés, the men drink pastis, the women drink tea and children eat pies. It seems a world apart, intangible, without any emotion regarding what happens next door. The pro-Franco gag, the rebellion in Portugal, the murders in Spain, the bombings in Italy, the lamentations in Chile, the cries in Eastern Europe.

Ferrari_2CVThis was certainly true there and it is still true now. How little we hear about the economic situation in Spain, Portugal or Ireland. I’m not talking about statistics or complicated negotiations in Brussels. I’m thinking about people’s everyday life. I was in a meeting in Madrid recently and I arrived earlier than expected. No traffic jam. My host explained that with the high level of unemployment, more people staying at home means…less cars on the roads. Reading regularly collides with reality. The same week I read this book, I read an article about Portuguese students and their attitude towards recession. The journalist mentioned the irony of these young people emigrating again to find a job. He also pointed out incomprehension between today’s youth and their parents who grew up under the dictatorship. Vasco’s children, I thought.

Marco Ferrari is Italian; I don’t know why he chose to write about that particular spring in Portugal. I’m too young to remember about the time Europe included dictatorships; this novella made the dictatorship in Portugal more tangible. I realized I didn’t even know the name of the political police in Portugal, the PIPE and I wondered how it is possible to ignore such a thing about a European country. It reminded me how I felt after watching The Lives of Others; to think it happened so close to home without a real consciousness of it was unsettling. Perhaps I understand better why the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the EU now. Troubled times are not that far away.

This book put me face to face with my ignorance of the history of other European countries. In addition to these thought-provoking details, this novella is full of encounters with more or less nice, serviceable, crazy, nasty human beings. Ferrari’s prose is rather funny and strong emotions pervade through the text. For Vasco, memories of the past mingle into his present, interrupted by his internal monologues to François Truffaut. There are beautiful passages about cinema. And the 2 CV is a character in itself. A classic car by now, a cheap, reliable popular car by then.

Sur la route, la 2 CV est une cible toute désignée pour les policiers. Selon eux, les propriétaires de 2 CV jaunes sont des exhibitionnistes, et, pour cette raison, ils les ont à l’œil. Une 2 CV couleur sable est tolérable, passe encore pour une anonyme 2 CV blanche, ou bien violette, style féminin, mais cette couleur si évidente, si particulière ou recherchée, presque provocatrice, ne peut être que la marque d’une excentricité certaine. Les flics la coincent au fond de l’avenue : ils l’ont repérée pendant qu’elle doublait la file de camions qui semblent presque endormis après la pause du repas chez Les Routiers. On the road, a yellow 2CV is an easy target for policemen. According to them, owners of a yellow 2CV are exhibitionists and for this reason, they keep their eyes on them. A sandy 2CV is tolerable, so is an anonymous white 2CV or a purple one, feminine style. But this showy colour, odd or studied, almost provocative can only mean powerful eccentricity. The cops corner her at the end of the avenue: they have noticed her as she was overcoming the long line of lorries who seemed almost sleepy after their lunch break at Les Routiers.

Note: Les Routiers is a kind of cheap restaurant where lorry drivers (un routier) go. They serve traditional and filling food.

Vasco praises the qualities and the endurance of his 2 CV, how these cars are involved in treks and rallies. Once she breaks down and they find help in a member of the local 2 CV club. (Note to foreigners: there isn’t a widespread automobile club in France like The AA in England) This car is a symbol of these years, it’s the car Mafalda’s father buys in Quino’s comics. It reminds us the time when owning a car meant social status and freedom.

I bought this novella in a second hand bookshop (the French word for this is bouquiniste, like bookish-shop, isn’t that nice?) The title caught my eyes and the blurb hooked me. Of course, the irony of a writer named Ferrari writing about a road trip in a 2 CV wasn’t lost on me. Sometimes compulsory book buying leads you to funny and unexpected books.

Au pied du sapin, a collection of Christmas texts

December 22, 2012 6 comments

Au pied du sapin, which means Under the Greenwood Tree, but I think this title is already taken.

Someway the Christmas spirit was evading me this year and I decided to put myself in a Christmas mood. So I bought a CD of jazzy Christmas carols and started reading Au pied du sapin, a collection of texts related to Christmas. It’s a small book, most stories aren’t more than a few pages long. As you won’t find the exact equivalent in English, here are the stories included in the book:

Unexpected Christmas Eves:

  • Le Réveillon du Colonel Jerkoff by Joseph Kessel
  • Nuit de Noël by Guy de Maupassant
  • Un Réveillon dans le Marais by Alphonse Daudet
  • La Petite Fille aux allumettes by Hans Christina Andersen

Dream Christmas Eves

  • Noël by Théophile Gautier
  • Les santons by Jean Giono
  • Noël sur le Rhin by Luigi Pirandello
  • Un arbre de Noël et un mariage by Fedor Dostoyevsky
  • Noël quand nous prenons de l’âge by Charles Dickens

Unconventional Christmas Eves

  • La Fascination by Honoré de Balzac
  • La fugue du Petit Poucet by Michel Tournier
  • Conte de Noël by Alphonse Allais

Au_pied_du_sapinIt’s a great list from various authors and it’s a good way to read in French if you want to improve your knowledge of the language. My favourite stories were the ones by Maupassant, Pirandello, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. I tried to read the Dickens twice but I couldn’t finish it. It’s only nine pages but its patronizing tone put me off.

Maupassant relates how a man got trapped for life for looking for the company of a woman on Christmas Eve. It’s Maupassant, so it’s not what you think and it’s quite surprising.

Pirandello’s story moved me. It’s a first Christmas in a family after the father died. A man helps decorating the Christmas tree. Sadness filters through the narration, Pirandello’s sensitive prose shows subtly how merriment in marred by the loss of a beloved husband and father. Life is fleeting, he seems to say in an undertone.

Balzac brings us into one of his familiar settings: the family of a former officer of Napoleon’s army. They are gathered for Christmas Eve, the servants are gone for the night. They’re sitting in the living room and Balzac describes the caring father, the loving mother and the children with many relevant details. He depicts the light of the candles and the fire on faces, the shadows in the room and how the feelings of the characters reflect in the setting. It looks like a Dutch painting. The peace is disturbed when a stranger pounds on the door and begs for hospitality. He brings a storm into the household…

Dostoevsky is bitterer as he relates a Christmas Eve party where he witnesses how a grown man lusts for a girl after her parents made it clear she would get a hefty sum when she marries. The contrast between the man looking at this eleven year old girl as his future bride and the girl playing with a doll is striking. It’s sordid, tainting innocence with greedy thoughts. It’s also even more shocking on a Christmas night. Dostoevsky makes it clear that daughters are commodities, livestock. Pretty, they’re valuable because a good marriage can bring in money or connections to the family.

As you can read, the stories are quite different and some are more essays than stories. (the Dickens and the Giono) I enjoyed reading this collection of texts, it was a sort of journey into time and places, visiting Christmas nights in different countries. It showed Christmas under a kaleidoscopic light: poverty, traditions, parties, family, grief, love, lust and all kinds of notions mixed up in one night.

A nice introduction to that time of year.

Literary UFO

December 16, 2012 10 comments

Ad Acta by Patrick Ourednik 2011. French title: Classé sans suite Not translated into English, I think. So I translated all the quotes, sad attempt, I know.

I bought this little gem of a book upon the recommendation of a bookstore employee. He told me it was funny and he was right. I had a lot of fun reading this novel but I don’t know how to write about it; I don’t know if I lack the words or if I just don’t know where to start. By the first chapter, perhaps?

1.e4 e5 é. F4 exf4 3. Fc4 d6 4. Cf3 Fg4 5. o-o Dd7 6. d4 g5 7. c3 Cc6 8. Da4 Fe7 9. b4 h5 10. b5 Cd8 11. Cbd2 Ch6 12. E5 Ce6 13. Fa3 Cf5 14. D5 Ceg7 15. Tfe1 Ce3 16. Bb3 Th6 17. exd6 cxd6 18. Ce4 Fxf3 19. gxf3 g4 20. b6 a6 21/ Fe2 Cgf5 22. Bd2 f6 23. c4 Rf7 24. Tac1 Tg8 25. Rhi h4 26. fxg4 Cg3+ 27. hxg3+ 28. Rg1 Tgh8 29. Ff3 Dxg4

This is the first chapter of the book. For me, it was cryptic and it intrigued me. Ad Acta is a literary UFO in an organized gallery of portraits while playing with literary genres. Our main character is grumpy and nasty Mr Viktor Dyk. He’s an elderly man, utterly cynical.

Dyk avait coutume de déclamer des sentences de son cru agrémentées de fausses références, le plus souvent bibliques. Il avait compris depuis longtemps que dans ce pays, la plus haute manifestation d’intelligence consiste à répéter ce que quelqu’un a déjà dit. Dyk was in the habit of declaiming sentences of his own making spiced up with faux references, most of the time biblical. He had understood a long time ago that in this country, the highest proof of intelligence was to repeat what someone else had already said.

He was a poor husband, a poor father. He’s not likeable at all. He’s the homonym of a famous Czech writer and committed a bad novel a long time ago. He likes that other people view him as a writer even if he has no illusion about his literary gift. When the book opens, we meet him in a park in Prague, where he’s sitting on a bench. He purposely gives wrong directions to a female student who asks for help to find her way. Dyk is nasty like an old man in a cartoon or like Scrooge maybe. As he discusses with other elderly people from the neighbourhood, he learns that Mrs Horak has just died. She was in a car accident. But the reader soon finds out that her death is suspect. Suicide or murder?

The novel alternates between the characters, more or less related to Dyk and Mrs Horak’s fate. And Ourednik starts playing with the codes of crime fiction.

Ourednik_classe_sans_suiteRegular readers of this blog know that I’m not keen on reading writers’ bios or checking their background or the context a book was written in. But here, after reading half of the book, I stopped and wondered. Wait, who is this writer? Why are there so many references to France? Does he live in France? Why do I feel like I’m in the middle of a Queneau-Perec experience? I looked for Ourednik on the Internet. Ah! He does live in Paris and he’s fond of the Oulipo movement. Mr Dyk writes under the pen name of Viktor Jary a book entitled La Vie devant soi. (Life before us) For this reader, it can only be a reference to La Vie devant soi by Romain Gary, which is btw the biggest literary mystification of the history of French literature. Is that a hint that Ad Acta is another literary mystification? It could be…

Ourednik has a witty prose and I loved his sense of humour and you can discover it in these short quotes:

Cher monsieur, vous avez bien un cerveau dans le crâne. C’est scientifiquement irréfutable. Trouvez-le. Dear Sir, you do have a brain in your skull. It’s scientific and undisputable. Find it.


Et voilà qu’un autre débarquait. Un gars comme une montagne, pétillant de santé, un de ces connards que même les maladies évitent. And right there, another one appeared. A guy as big as a mountain, bubbling with good health, one of those pricks that even illnesses avoid.


Monsieur Prazak avait raison au moins sur un point: l’idiotie humaine est la seule chose sur terre qui puisse donner une idée de l’infini. Mr Prazak was right at least on one point: human stupidity was the only thing on earth that could give one a fair understanding of the infinity.

Maybe I’m totally obsessed with Romain Gary (I see you nod enthusiastically at this assertion) but this last quote reminded me of this one in Adieu, Gary Cooper:

C’était pas croyable qu’il pût y avoir dans un seul mec tant de connerie. Il y avait de quoi nourrir tout un peuple. It was unbelievable that there could be so much stupidity in one man. There was enough to feed a whole people.

In addition to his sarcastic prose, Ourednik plays with the reader, leading them astray, addressing them directly on a facetious tone. The ending is puzzling. Literally a puzzle you’re not sure you put together the right way. Reading this is more than enjoyable; I chuckled and laughed and had fun trying to figure out all the hidden references. It’s a riddle.

Ourednik also portrays Prague and the Czech Republic after 1989. He points out the changes, the impact of capitalism, of consumerism. The city is a building site, foreign companies invest there and sometimes buildings, cemeteries from the past disappear. It’s also full of little remarks about the Czech character. But isn’t Ourednik making fun of us, avid readers, when he spreads these little pearls of wisdom through the book? After all, he says about Dyk:

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.

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.

I can almost imagine him winking at me! Or is he making fun of Milan Kundera?

Find another review here

What can I say, I’m a city girl

December 15, 2012 16 comments

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimbal 2010. French title: Une vie pleine. Mon histoire d’amour avec un homme et une ferme.

A while ago, I read Le mec de la tombe d’à côté by Katarina Mazetti, a nice little novel about a Swedish city girl falling in love with a farmer. So someone lent me The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, which is in appearance, the same kind of book. Except that Katarina Mazetti is a writer creating a funny story while Mrs Kimball relates her life. Kristin Kimball was journalist, working in New York and she was sent on an assignment in a farm in Pennsylvania. Mark grows organic vegetables and raises animals. They fall in love, she leaves New York to start a new life with him on a decrepit farm. She wrote a book about their first year together.

That’s for the story. I could be fine with it. After all, I had already read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.

Before writing more about The Dirty Life, I have to say a few words about myself. I grew up in an urban environment. My first encounter with country life was when I was seventeen. That summer, I had signed up for a three weeks stay in a German family and ended up in a farm in Bayern. The farmer there thought that t-shirts were optional pieces of clothing, went around the place bare chested in tiny shorts, scratching his behind. The couple were very nice to me but I can’t say I enjoyed getting up in the middle of the night and stand in the barn in my nightgown to watch the cow calve. No epiphany there. My idea of a perfect location for a home is How far is it from the bakery and from the cinema? Although this is not a life for me, I have a deep respect for farmers, they work really hard and they love their job, otherwise they’d quit. I also cook mostly from produce, we compost part of our food scraps, so I know what vegetables and fruit look like before they’re in cans or in frozen pieces. In addition, I believe in moderation in every thing and I have trouble getting along with extremists of all sides because black and white situations are just too simplistic for me. Now that I’ve written a long disclaimer, let me tell you my opinion about The Dirty Life.

Mrs Kimball and I started off on the wrong foot right from the first pages when she describes her first encounter with Mark:

I recorded two impressions in my notebook later on: First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. This one lived in his body. Second, I can’t believe I drove all this way to hoe brocoli for this dude.

Then a few pages later you have:

Michael [a farm employee] handed me a hard-toothed rake, and we set off in adjacent rows. Penn State was just down the road, and Michael, a film major, had graduated that spring. He’d begun volunteering weekends at Mark’s farm to see if, as he put it, hard work would make him a man.

Kimball_Vie_pleine_HardI can deduct from these quotes that cerebral men are not real men but only ersatz and that being a real man means working with your hands. Hard work at university or in the office doesn’t make a man of you. I frowned. Old clichés don’t apply only to women. I could have forgiven her that gratuitous comments if she hadn’t nailed them a few pages later when she says she wishes to every woman that she finds a man with a body fit by hard work and not by working out at the gym. Well, Mrs Kimball, there’s no accounting for taste but I rather like living with a graduate of the French equivalent of an Ivy League school who wears business suits to go to work and doesn’t come home caked with mud or stinking cow dunk. I can live without the farming muscles. Who does she think she is?

As expected, she describes with lots of details her experience with farming. I skipped lots of pages of descriptions of vegetables, milk, the colour of butter and other edifying explanations. To be fair, she doesn’t hide that it’s exhausting and that it takes their whole days. But I’m a bit suspicious about the rosy description of her neighbourhood: what? All are perfectly friendly, no one’s nosy, no one’s eyeing suspiciously the newcomers and their crazy project?

Because, I haven’t told you everything yet. They start farming but Mark is an extremist: no tractor, no chemical products. He doesn’t want plastic anywhere, had a phase of living without electricity and doesn’t own a car. He rides a bike. I’m all for organic agriculture and being cautious with technology but really, was horsedrawn farming absolutely necessary?

Of course, she glorifies farm work, sometimes in a strange way. The slaughtering of animals doesn’t bother her but ploughing does, she finds it violent to the Earth. (obscene is the word used by the translator) That puzzled me. What surprised me too is how little regulation there seem to be in America. In France, you can’t slaughter a pig or a calf in your backyard; you need to bring them to the slaughterhouse. And is putting a horse to sleep with a gun authorised?

Kimball_Vie_plein_1018I finished this book out of respect for the person who lent it to me. I can’t wait to discuss it with her. As you now know it, I didn’t like The Dirty Life neither in substance nor in form. Barbara Kingsolver honestly shared her experience of farming with her reader. It was an interesting and intelligent narration. Here, I found the tone patronizing.  I’m married to a man who spent his adolescence making up fake homework to avoid being enrolled to farm work by his father, I don’t find farming glamorous. I don’t envy her, I don’t think her life is fuller than mine. If living from farming was that fantastic, can you explain to me why all these people left the country to take a job in factories and in cities in the 20th Century?

PS: I have a copy published by France Loisirs, that’s right in their alley. But I discovered that 10:18 published it as well and I’m disappointed that my favourite publisher picked this book for their collection.

A painting which portrays Charles Swann

December 11, 2012 17 comments

A la Recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust. (In Search of Lost Time)

When I visited the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, I stumbled upon a painting that reminded me of Odette Swann. This time, when I visited the exhibition Les Impressionistes et la mode, I saw the painting Le Cercle de la rue Royale by Tissot.


When I looked at the caption, it listed the men painted there and I saw that Charles Haas was the last one on the right. I thought: He’s the one Proust based Charles Swann upon and I noted down the reference of the painting. Like Haas, Swann was a member of the Cercle de la Rue Royale and of the Jockey Club.

I always thought that scholars had recouped information spread throughout In Search of Lost Time and thus deducted that Charles Haas was the model for Charles Swann. Therefore I was quite surprised when I came home, resumed reading The Captive and read about Swann’s death. Proust indulges into self-congratulation as he muses over the immortality the first volume of In Search of Lost Time will grant to Charles Haas/Swann:

Et pourtant, cher Charles Swann, que j’ai connu quand j’étais encore si jeune et vous près du tombeau, c’est parce que celui que vous deviez considérer comme un petit imbécile a fait de vous le héros d’un de ses romans, qu’on recommence à parler de vous et que peut-être vous vivrez ». Si dans le tableau de Tissot représentant le balcon du Cercle de la rue Royale, où vous êtes entre Galliffet, Edmond de Polignac et Saint-Maurice, on parle tant de vous, c’est parce qu’on voit qu’il y a quelques traits de vous dans le personnage de Swann. And yet, my dear Charles——, whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a little fool has made you the hero of one of his volumes that people are beginning to speak of you again and that your name will perhaps live. If in Tissot’s picture representing the balcony of the Rue Royale club, where you figure with Galliffet, Edmond Polignac and Saint-Maurice, people are always drawing attention to yourself, it is because they know that there are some traces of you in the character of Swann.

He was quite smug, wasn’t he? Or confident in his gift as a writer, which is not the image the Narrator gives about his writing abilites. The reference to the painting by Tissot leaves no doubt: Charles Haas and Charles Swann are one unique person.

More importantly, in this passage, the Narrator is dropping the masks and writes as Marcel Proust and In Search of Lost Time sound like his memoirs. So, look at the picture, the man on the right with a hat is Charles Haas/Swann.

PS: Here is the list of the men portrayed on this painting, from left to right. (courtesy of Wikipedia)


A little research on Wikipedia teaches you that Edmond de Polignac is supposedly the one who introduced Charles Haas to Marcel Proust. Gaston de Galliffet inspired the Général de Froberville, involved in the Dreyfus Affair. These men were used to spending time at the Comtesse Greffuhle, who inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes.

Every breath you take; every move you make, I’ll be watching you

December 8, 2012 14 comments

La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust. 1929. English title: The Captive translation by CK Scott Moncrief.

Ironically, I have to thank EL James for teaching me all kinds of useful words to write this billet about La Prisonnière (except flogger, I don’t think I’ll need it. Wait, shall I wax Oulipo and challenge myself into using flogger in this billet?) I almost called it Fifty Shades of Marcel, but, no, that would be too great an honour to Ms James.

I’ve been reading La Prisonnière since August and I’m only half through it; I knew this one would be difficult because of its claustrophobic tone. I remembered being tired of Marcel the first time I read it but as a teenager, I didn’t have enough insight to realise how sick Marcel is. And here, I’m not talking about his asthma.

Let’s rewind a bit: at the end of the previous volume, Marcel whisks Albertine away from Balbec and takes advantage that his mother is away to invite Albertine to stay with him. So Albertine now lives with him, kind of secretly as this is still frowned upon at the time. The first long chapter of La Prisonnière is his life with Albertine.

As always, we only have the Narrator’s POV but I’d love to hear Albertine’s. Poor, poor girl. Marcel does have a sick vision of love relationship. He’s a control freak, a stalker. Jealous doesn’t even cover his attitude. He suffocates her and then is surprised that she lies to him to cover herself! He checks on her, calls her girlfriend Andrée to verify whether she really went where she said she’d go. (What kind of friend is Andrée, btw?) He enquires about whom she spoke to. He sabotages her plans any time he thinks she might meet someone he doesn’t want her to talk to. Marcel is obsessed with Albertine’s supposed homosexuality. Whereas he accepts perfectly well the love relationship between Morel and M. de Charlus, he’s horrified by lesbianism.

Marcel wants to own Albertine body and soul. He gets a kick out of domineering her:

Les robes même que je lui achetais, le yacht dont je lui avais parlé, les peignoirs de Fortuny, tout cela ayant dans cette obéissance d’Albertine, non pas sa compensation, mais son complément, m’apparaissait comme autant de privilèges que j’exerçais ; car les devoirs et les charges d’un maître font partie de sa domination, et le définissent, le prouvent tout autant que ses droits. Et ces droits qu’elle me reconnaissait donnaient précisément à mes charges leur véritable caractère : j’avais une femme à moi qui, au premier mot que je lui envoyais à l’improviste, me faisait téléphoner avec déférence qu’elle revenait, qu’elle se laissait ramener, aussitôt. J’étais plus maître que je n’avais cru. Plus maître, c’est-à-dire plus esclave.

The frocks that I bought for her, the yacht of which I had spoken to her, the wrappers from Fortuny’s, all these things having in this obedience on Albertine’s part not their recompense but their complement, appeared to me now as so many privileges that I was enjoying; for the duties and expenditure of a master are part of his dominion, and define it, prove it, fully as much as his rights. And these rights which she recognised in me were precisely what gave my expenditure its true character: I had a woman of my own, who, at the first word that I sent to her unexpectedly, made my messenger telephone humbly that she was coming, that she was allowing herself to be brought home immediately. I was more of a master than I had supposed. More of a master, in other words more of a slave.

Les devoirs et les charges d’un maître font partie de sa domination”, ie “the duties and expenditure of a master are part of his domination”: just how sick is that? He says he doesn’t love her and yet he takes her away from the world, for the pleasure of owning her.

Et cependant, pour moi, aimer charnellement c’était tout de même jouir d’un triomphe sur tant de concurrents. Je ne le redirai jamais assez, c’était un apaisement plus que tout.

Yet to me to love in a carnal sense was at any rate a triumph over countless rivals. I can never repeat it often enough; it was first and foremost a sedative.

This is what EL James would translate into 21st century trash prose as he doesn’t make love, he fucks.

Albertine can’t invite anyone home as her living with our Narrator is a secret, which increases his power over her. (“Elle [Gisèle] ignorait que la jeune fille [Albertine] vécût chez moi, rien qu’à moi” ie, “But she would not know that the girl was living with me, was wholly mine”)

He uses the language of property and in French it is not the language of love. (“la possession que j’avais d’elle”, ie “my possession of her. The French sentence is strange and heavy, btw). He speaks the language of domination: esclave, claustration, chaîne, esclavage, servage, prison. (slave, confinement, chain, slavery, prison)

In a previous billet, I wrote I wouldn’t want to be loved by the Narrator. I say it again. He has a sick vision of love, a vision where the woman must be submissive, this submission being a balm for his permanent disquiet. He’s jealousy driven and although he’s lucid enough to acknowledge it, he can’t help it. He ruminates memories, trying to extract new meaning from benign situation. And I can’t help thinking, Get a job, man, you wouldn’t have time mulling over meaningless details. But, then if he had, we wouldn’t have that fine piece of literature, would we? I shudder to think about what Marcel would do with today’s technology. Call her on her mobile phone every minute? Track her cellphone? Her car?

He finds his peace of mind in the idea of her being pliant. He tortures himself and therefore Albertine with thoughts about her betrayal. How can you have a relationship full of trust, genuine love and be happy with a man who picks at every word you say, sees double-entendre in innocent chatter and imagines ulterior motive at every outing? It must be exhausting. He’s mercurial and his mood swings are unpredictable. I bet the poor girl doesn’t know where to stand with him as it filters through this note she sends him:

« Mon chéri et cher Marcel, j’arrive moins vite que ce cycliste dont je voudrais bien prendre la bécane pour être plus tôt près de vous. Comment pouvez-vous croire que je puisse être fâchée et que quelque chose puisse m’amuser autant que d’être avec vous ! ce sera gentil de sortir tous les deux, ce serait encore plus gentil de ne jamais sortir que tous les deux. Quelles idées vous faites-vous donc ? Quel Marcel ! Quel Marcel ! Toute à vous, ton Albertine. »

“My darling, dear Marcel, I return less quickly than this cyclist, whose machine I would like to borrow in order to be with you sooner. How could you imagine that I might be angry or that I could enjoy anything better than to be with you? It will be nice to go out, just the two of us together; it would be nicer still if we never went out except together. The ideas you get into your head! What a Marcel! What a Marcel! Always and ever your Albertine.”

You can’t see it in English but in French, she mixes tu and vous. She uses vous to address to him and refers to herself as tu. (ton Albertine). By doing this, she places herself as inferior to him or in a servant-master relationship. In French, it shows an inequality between people when they don’t address each other with the same pronoun. A tu-vous relationship reveals either formal respect (son-in-law / mother-in-law) or inequality. For example, children say vous to adults who say tu in return.

I wonder why she stays. To climb the social ladder?

In English, the title is The Captive and as Seamus pointed out in his entry about this volume (The Captive / La Prisonnière), Marcel is as captive as Albertine, in a different way. In French, prisonnière is feminine and can only refer to Albertine. But still, despite the gender implied by the title, Marcel is a prisoner too. He stays home, he’s imprisoned in his tortuous way of thinking until his restlessness and jealousy act as a mental flogger (did it!) and push him out of the house. Chapter 2 is entitled: Les Verdurin se brouillent avec M. de Charlus. (The Verdurins quarrel with M. de Charlus). Relief. He’s socializing again and we’ll get some fresh air.

Poor lady, what hath she committed, which any lady in Italy in the like case would not?

December 2, 2012 16 comments

Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford. 1629. French title: Dommage qu’elle soit une putain.

This play by John Ford was the next one of my subscription to the theatre. It was directed by Declan Donnellan, played by British actors and therefore in English with subtitles. I thought I’d better read it before seeing it; and it proved an excellent idea.

The plot is surprising. It is set in Parma, where Annabella, beautiful as her name says it, is the centre of attention. She is to be married and several suitors fight for her hand. Her father likes Soranzo but will not marry her against her will. And actually, what’s not to like to Soranzo, according to Annabella’s tutoress, Putana (another understatement in names for putana means whore in Italian)

As I am a very woman, I like Signior Soranzo well; he is wise, and what is more, rich; and what is more than that, kind; and what is more than all this, a nobleman: such a one, were I the fair Annabella myself, I would wish and pray for. Then he is bountiful; besides, he is handsome, and by my troth, I think, wholesome; and that’s news in a gallant of three-and-twenty: liberal, that I know; loving, that you know; and a man sure, else he could never have purchased such a good name with Hippolita, the lusty widow, in her husband’s lifetime. An ’twere but for that report, sweetheart, would he were thine! Commend a man for his qualities, but take a husband as he is a plain, sufficient, naked man; such a one is for your bed, and such a one is Signior Soranzo, my life for’t.

So the 17th century tutoress openly cares about a suitor’s manhood, which I found quite unusual for the time. This sets the tone of the play. One of Annabella’s suitor, Bergetto, is so stupid than he thinks that this is a compliment:

Forsooth, my master said, that he loved her almost as well as he loved parmesan. 

Therefore Bergetto is not even close to win Annabella’s heart for he lacks the wit. And indeed, does a woman swoon of love when compared to cheese? In any case, Annabella’s heart isn’t available any more as she’s in love with her brother Giovanni who loves her in return. Where Racine depicts passionate but platonic love from Phèdre to Hippolyte, John Ford goes further. Annabella and Giovanni consume their love and the spectator has absolutely no doubt about it as Giovanni comments:

I marvel why the chaster of your sex

Should think this pretty toy called maidenhead,

So strange a loss; when, being lost, ’tis nothing,

And you are still the same.

Add to the mix that Soranzo’s ex-mistress Hippolita wants to take revenge on him because he dumped her, that Annabella gets pregnant with her brother’s baby and that several side plots implying love, betrayal, violence, sex and revenge spice up the whole and you have a good idea of the play.

Dommage_qu_elle_soit_une_putain_001While reading it, it left me with an impression of a buoyant, controversial and punchy text. Now how would that be on stage? Director Declan Donnellan chose to cut the sub-plots and concentrate on the main one: the incestuous relationship between Annabella and Giovanni, Soranzo’s suit, Hippolita’s interference and the pregnancy. The text is the original but scenes have been cut off. Well that’s not something I usually support but here, I have to say it was brilliantly done. In addition, the play has been transposed from the 17th century to our time.

Annabella has a room with posters of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and True Blood. All the furniture is red, the colour of brothels. She has a laptop and an Ipod, she looks like any adolescent wearing sexy lingerie. Some scenes are also a musical, with today’s music and dancing. The difference in social classes are highlighted by accents; the noblemen speak copyrighted BBC English while the male servant, Vasquez has a popular accent. The friar is a black actor who speaks American with the tone of a TV preacher. I loved Putana: picture an actress who looks like Bette Midler, dressed in a soubrette costume, wiggling her behind in the room while flicking off imaginary dust with a feather duster. Hilarious.

John Ford goes straight ahead to all kinds of subversive themes. Giovanni defends himself in front of the friar and explains why incest should be tolerated. The Church is pictured as greedy and immoral, because the nonce doesn’t condemn obvious murders. (Justice is fled to heaven, and comes no nearer.) Lust rules the world, wild violence is accepted and feral behaviours are common. In this world, citizens are allowed to kill another human being when they feel they are entitled to.

And it is incredible to read a play so blatant about incest, which is a huge taboo. Annabella and Giovanni love each other like lovers, like husband and wife. It’s a passionate, possessive love that will lead them to an untimely death. They go against every rule and let love and lust win the best of them. Their love is a landslide that takes the carpet under their feet and leads them to an inevitable fall.

Ford’s style is terribly crude sometimes with very straightforward comparisons, like here, when Soranzo realises he married a pregnant woman:

To marry a great woman, being made great in the stock to your hand, is a usual sport in these days; but to know what ferret it was that hunted your coney-berry,—there is the cunning.

And along with these blunt comparisons, he writes beautifully about love and its torments.

For every sigh that thou has spent for me,

I have sighed ten; for every tear, shed twenty:

And not so much for that I loved, as that

I durst not say I loved, nor scarcely think it.

As you have probably understood it by now, I loved this play. I don’t try to analyse it but can’t help marvelling at its modernity. Donnellan’s version is astonishing. It brings back the full force of the text, the fun, the powerful feelings, the brutal violence. Under his direction, all the arthritis a text like this can get over the centuries vanishes and is replaced by freshness and creativity. It lasted two hours, it seemed two minutes and I loved every moment of it.

Humbook Christmas Gifts: the participants.

December 1, 2012 21 comments

Hello everyone,

HumbookThat’s it, we’re December 1st and it’s the day Guy and I sum up the participants to our Humbook Christmas Gift Event. Check Guy’s introductory post here and mine here. As promised in these billets, here are the participants:

Himadri from The Argumentative Old Git and Brian from Babbling Books will play together. Himadri’s blog is full of thoughtful entries about Russian literature, British classics along with argumented and thought-provoking rants. Brian has eclectic tastes in literature and is highly interested in history. Have a look at their blogs to discover them if you don’t know them already.

Lisa from ANZ LitLovers decided to choose Tony from Tony’s Reading List as her copinaute. Tony agreed to reciprocate so we’ll see what they selected for each other. Lisa’s blog is a gold mine regarding literature from Australia and New Zealand. Despite his love for Trollope and other Victorian writers, Tony reads many non-Anglophone books, either in translation or in the original when they’re in French or in German. He’s also very fond of Japanese literature and will host the event January In Japan. Read more about it on Tony’s blog dedicated to this event, January in Japan.

I’m thrilled that Brian, Himadri, Tony and Lisa decided to participate. Brian will pick two books for Himadri and verse-versa and Lisa will select two for Tony and verse-versa. Guy and I will choose one book for each participant. I will also choose two books for Guy, I have a lot of ideas and my problem now is to narrow the list down to two books.

We also wanted to add a guest participant: Tom, from A Common Reader, was very interested in the event but couldn’t name a copinaute. So Guy and I will choose two books for him as well.

The gifts will be given in posts published on December 25th. So, pay attention to the activity on our six blogs that day. If anyone wants to come aboard now, let me know in the comments.

I hope Himadri, Brian, Lisa and Tony will have a lot of fun discovering the gifts and reading the books and that Tom won’t mind that we picked him as a Christmas guest.

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