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My Father’s Journal by Jirô Taniguchi

January 25, 2013 27 comments

Le journal de mon père by Jirô Taniguchi. 1995 Not available in English, I think.

TaniguchiAfter reading Max’s entry about a graphic novel, Richard Stark’s Parker by Darwyn Cooke, I remembered that the Japanese graphic novel Le Journal de mon père had been sitting on my shelf for a few years. I decided to read it for January in Japan and let’s say it right away, this is the Japanese book I enjoyed the most, apart from South of the Border, West of the Sun.

Yochan lives in Tokyo when his sister calls to tell him that their father is dead. She’s still living in their home town Tottori. Yochan hasn’t been back for 15 years and, pushed by his wife, he decides to attend the wake which takes place the night before the funeral. The whole family is there and he gets reacquainted with them. It’s the opportunity for him to remember his childhood.

The family’s life was changed after the great fire which destroyed half of Tottori in 1952. Two-third of the city had been touched by the fire, which made more than 21000 casualties. Yochan’s father was a hairdresser and he lost his shop during the catastrophe. His wife’s parents lend him money to start again but he doesn’t like accepting a loan from them as they suspected that he married their daughter for her money. As a consequence, he starts working like a maniac to pay them back as soon as possible and this attitude will cost him his marriage. His wife meets someone else, follows her lover and leaves her children behind. For Yochan, this is the moment when he disconnected himself from his family. He resented his father for not keeping his wife, for separating him from his mom and he grew up with the idea of leaving his hometown. That’s what he did. He left to study in Tôkyô and only came back once.

Taniguchi2Taniguchi relates how Yochan slowly starts to understand his father and realizes that he never knew him, that he probably misjudged him and that he was beloved in his community. He also recreates the life in a Japanese town in the 1950s: the small shops and factories, the American soldiers and their food, the family businesses.

I really had a great time reading this graphic novel. It’s 270 pages long. The pictures are all black and white and beautiful. Each chapter starts with a one page image and then the story is told in a succession of images with dialogues or descriptions like a voice over. The characters don’t look Japanese, especially since they have Western eyes, like in mangas. The graphic form was a good medium to access Japanese culture. Things that are common and probably not described or explained in a novel are “given to see” in a manga. I looked at the clothes, the houses, the funeral, the city streets with interest. (Call me naïve if you want, but that’s what I did) I found the clothes interesting: some characters wear traditional Japanese clothes when others like Yochan and his wife wear Western clothes. His sister is more traditional: pictures of her marriage, she’s in traditional Japanese wedding gown. Picture of Yochan’s wedding, his bride is in a Western dress.

Taniguchi conveys a lot of emotions in his drawings and the accompanying narration. He shows us Yochan’s childhood memories, his feelings as an adult who hears things about his father that he never imagined.

Taniguchi1This story is partly autobiographical. Taniguchi comes from Tottori and has also spent many years away from his hometowns, his family and friends before coming back after a childhood friend had contacted him. For me, this is totally incredible. The idea of living in the same country as my family, only distant by one hour by plane and not visiting for more than a decade is unimaginable. I would never never do that and my parents would never accept it. They would play the guilt card until I give in and come to visit, or send a plane ticket or I’d see them coming to me, unannounced to see how I am or where I live. Different culture, I suppose.

It’s difficult to review a graphic novel, I hope I encouraged you to discover Taniguchi. As odd coincidences tend to multiply, there is an article about France and mangas in this week’s Courrier International. (A weekly paper that publishes articles from foreign newspapers in a French translation) Originally published in The Asahi Shimbum, this article explains how mangas are widespread in France and how it became fashionable in the 1980s thanks to cartoons on TV. I don’t know how it was in other countries but we watched A LOT of Japanese cartoons in France when I was little. It’s true you have shelves of mangas in bookstores. I’ve never tried any, simply because I didn’t know where to start but the article mentions several of them and I’m tempted to try. Unfortunately, I’m on a book buying ban. Sigh. This is so frustrating.

Murakamish

January 21, 2013 55 comments

N*P by Banana Yoshimoto. 1990

I bought this book after reading a review about The Lake by Yoshimoto book at Tony’s blog. N*P‘s blurb seemed appealing and I was trying to explore Japanese literature, so I thought, “Why not?”

Ce que je savais de Tarao Sakase, cet auteur assez quelconque installé aux Etats-Unis, c’est qu’il avait, au cours d’une vie tout aussi quelconque, écrit un grand nombre de nouvelles.Qu’il s’était suicidé à l’âge de quarante-huit ans.Qu’il avait eu deux enfants avec une femme sont il s’était ensuite séparé.

Que ses nouvelles, réunies en un recueil, avaient connu un bref succès aux Etats-Unis.

Le titre de ce livre ? N*P

L’ouvrage se composait de quatre-vingt-dix-sept nouvelles.

What I knew about Tarao Takase, this average writer settled in the USA, it’s that he had, during his average life, written a lot of short-stories.That he committed suicide at 48.That he had two children with a woman whom he later divorced.

That his short-stories, gathered in a collection, had had a brief success in the USA.

The title of this collection? N*P

The book included ninety-seven short-stories.

(My akuyaku. It’s Japanese lit, I have the right to use it)

Kazami is our narrator in this novel. When she was in high-school, she was in a relationship with Shôji, an older man and the translator of Sakase’s ninety-eighth short-story. Shôji never completed the translation as he committed suicide. Kazami was at a party with Shôji when she first saw Otohiko and Saki, Sakase’s children. She didn’t speak to them, though.

Five years later, Kazami stumbles upon Otohiko in a Tôkyô street and they start a conversation. He remembers her and one thing leading to another, she befriends with him and his sister as well. Later she will meet Sui, Otohiko’s lover and also step-sister. They have the same father and discovered it after they started their relationship. The plot gravitates around these three young people, Otohiko, Sui and Saki and their unbreakable linked created by their father and his 98th short-story. It’s hard to describe this novel without giving too much away.

Yoshimoto_NPKazami is like a means to make the story move forward and also a convenient narrator. She’s involved too, in a way, through her love story with Shôji. The story is original but the abundance of weird coincidences is a bit too much for a contemporary novel. I enjoyed the description of Tôkyô in the summer, the way the atmosphere, the light, the weather penetrate the characters and influence their actions and their moods. They seem to be attuned to the outside world. Like in a Murakami novel, there’s a bridge between Japan and the Western world: Takase used to live in the USA, Otohiko, Saki and Sui are just back from Boston, Kazami is a translator from English to Japanese, just like her mother and her former lover. The story is also a bit marked by Fate like a Greek tragedy, or perhaps it is only this fortuitous incest that reminded me of Oedipus. (Although here, it’s between siblings)

I finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago and I struggle to remember it. Not good. Yoshimoto’s style is erratic. Sometimes she’s really good and sometimes, it’s a bit laboured. I don’t have quotes, which isn’t a good sign for me. I liked it but not more.

So far I have a limited experience with Japanese literature and to be honest, I’m still waiting for the book that will make me swoon and want to run to the closest book store to buy it to all my friends. OK, I loved South Of the Border, West Of the Sun by Haruki Murakami but it’s so westernised that it doesn’t count. I enjoyed Kafka on the Shore, couldn’t finish The Wind-up Bird Chronicles and didn’t like Norwegian Wood. I remember nothing of the Kawataba I’ve read and I was horrified by the Fumio Niwa. I thought that Yoshimura was good but I missed too much of it because I don’t know enough about Japanese culture. And as there are no introductions of any kind in French books, I don’t make any progress in that field. So it’s becoming quite frustrating. Truly I enjoyed the descriptions of nature and the quality of the style. They’re all gifted writers but still, nothing got me past the clinical appraisal of the style. My emotions weren’t involved. So now, after this mild encounter with Banana Yoshimoto, I’m thinking about reading the books I have on the shelf (I Am a Cat by Soseki, On Parole by Yoshimura and Strangers by Yamada.) and then giving up on Japanese literature.

This one is my first contribution to Tony’s January in Japan.

Love X-rayed

January 17, 2013 45 comments

Notre Cœur by Guy de Maupassant.1890 English title Alien Hearts.

Aime-t-on parce qu’on rencontre une fois un être qu’on croit vraiment créé pour soi, ou bien aime-t-on simplement parce qu’on est né avec la faculté d’aimer ? Do we love because one day we meet someone we believe is our soul mate or do we love only because we are born with the capacity to love? (My poor poor translation)

When I read Guy’s review about Alien Hearts, I wanted to read this novel and I was delighted that the other members of my Book Club agreed to read it. Our meeting was scheduled on January 17th, but since I have the flu we postponed and I’m not able to share our discussion with you. Notre Coeur is the last novel written by Maupassant who was already ill at the time.

André Mariolle is a well-educated, affable man who meets with artist friends in different salons in Paris.

Âgé d’environ trente-sept ans, André Mariolle, célibataire et sans profession, assez riche pour vivre à sa guise, voyager et s’offrir même une jolie collection de tableaux modernes et de bibelots anciens, passait pour un garçon d’esprit, un peu fantasque, un peu sauvage, un peu capricieux, un peu dédaigneux, qui posait au solitaire plutôt par orgueil que par timidité. Très bien doué, très fin, mais indolent, apte à tout comprendre et peut-être à faire bien beaucoup de choses, il s’était contenté de jouir de l’existence en spectateur, ou plutôt en amateur. At thirty-seven Andre Mariolle,  unmarried and without profession, rich enough to live as he pleased, to travel where he liked, and to collect a houseful of modern paintings and old porcelain, passed for a witty fellow, rather whimsical, rather wilful, rather superior, who affected solitude for reasons of pride rather than shyness. Talented and astute but lazy, likely to understand everything and even to accomplish something, he had nonetheless been content to enjoy life as a spectator, or rather as an amateur. Translation by Richard Howard (thanks Guy)

 When the book opens, one of his friends suggests that he introduces him to the famous Madame de Burne who runs a trendy salon. André isn’t thrilled by the idea but his friend insists and organizes the meeting. Madame de Burne is a widow and her marriage has been such an awful experience that she doesn’t want to live through that again. As she’s beautiful, witty, intelligent and well-read, men tend to fall in love with her. She’s a flirt, she loves to be adored. She chooses a victim and makes him fall for her but she neither gives her heart or her body.

Cela l’amusait tant de les sentir envahis peu à peu, conquis, dominés par sa puissance invincible de femme, de devenir pour eux l’Unique, l’Idole capricieuse et souveraine ! It amused her so much to watch them being overwhelmed, conquered, dominated by her invincible feminine power, to become for them the Unique, the whimsical and reigning Idol. (My poor poor translation)

Mariolle is far from a womanizer. He’s a bachelor and happy to be:

Il considérait les femmes comme un objet d’utilité pour ceux qui veulent une maison bien tenue et des enfants, comme un objet d’agrément relatif pour ceux qui cherchent des passe-temps d’amour. He considered women as useful objects for those who want a well-tended house and children, as an object of relative pleasure for those who look for love as a hobby. (Again my poor poor translation)

Note the reference to women as objects, no more than useful furniture. I believe that at this stage, Mariolle has more affection for dogs than for women.

André becomes her next target. They spend a lot of time together and develop a close relationship. He resists at first and then gives in. Their relationship is a first for both of them. André is passionately in love while Madame de Burne is fond of him. She loves him as much as she’s capable of love. She offers companionship, stability. He wants the throes of passion. Alien hearts.

I think the English title is very well chosen. Mariolle and Madame de Burne have their own hearts, with limitations and they’re not exactly on the same wavelength. She loves him in a way he finds unacceptable. He loves her in a way she enjoys but can’t reciprocate. How will they go out of this impasse?

It took me a few pages to accept the names of the characters (literally Andrew Cleverdick and Lady Balls) but then I was taken in the flow of Maupassant’s prose. I prefer him to Balzac. He goes straight to the point, doesn’t indulge in emphatic descriptions and pictures lovely scenes:

Se tournant vers lui, elle souleva ses deux bras, par un ravissant geste d’appel, et ils s’étreignirent dans un de ces baisers aux yeux clos qui donnent l’étrange et double sensation du bonheur et du néant. Turning to face him, she raised her two arms in a lovely calling gesture and they embraced in one of those kisses with closed eyes that give the strange and double sensation of happiness and nothingness. (My poor poor translation)

Maupassant has a fine knowledge of the human heart and describes precisely the stages of Mariolle’s love. But he’s quite cynical and the book is the opportunity for him to criticize the women of his time. The generalities about women didn’t appeal to me very much but they are part of that time. Maupassant argues that the high society women are frivolous and not able to love deeply anymore. They are taken in a whirlwind of social events and are shallow in their feelings. (This is in total contradiction with the passion Zola describes in La Curée where Renée falls madly in love). To make a long story short, Mariolle wishes Madame de Burne were Mathilde de la Mole and not a mature woman who knows her own limitations.

I liked Madame de Burne because she’s honest. She doesn’t pretend to love him more than she does; she genuinely cares about him and tries to give him what he needs but can’t. And André is honest too; he wants to be adored, not less. I have to say the ending is as ironic as a Thomas Hardy short story. It was unexpected and yet so plausible.

Apart from the story, there are beautiful descriptions of the Mont Saint-Michel area and of the Fontainebleau forest. I’ve never been there but he makes you want to visit the places at once. This passage reminded me of a painting by Caillebotte Place de l’Europe par temps de pluie.

Caillebotte_Place_Europe_temps_pluie

Le coupé de Mme de Burne roulait au grand trot des deux chevaux sur le pavé de la rue de Grenelle. La grêle d’une dernière giboulée, car on était aux premiers jours d’avril, battait avec bruit la vitre de la voiture et rebondissait sur la chaussée déjà sablée de grains blancs. Les passants, sous leurs parapluies, se hâtaient, la nuque cachée dans le col relevé des pardessus. Après deux semaines de beau temps un odieux froid de fin d’hiver glaçait de nouveau et gerçait la peau. Madame de Burne’s coupé was trotting hastily on the cobblestones of Grenelle Street. The hail of a last April shower was beating noisily against the car’s window and was bouncing on the road already sanded with white grains. Under their umbrellas, the passers-by were hurrying, their nape hidden in their turned up overcoats’ collars. After two weeks of fine weather, a hateful cold of end of winter froze people again and chapped their skin. (My very poor translation. It’s awfully difficult to translate.

The quote is more than tricky to translate, don’t hesitate to leave suggestions to improve it. In English, you say April showers and in French, the corresponding expression is giboulée de mars. So the sentence, la grêle d’une dernière giboulée car on était aux premiers jours d’avril battait avec bruit la vitre de la voiture (literally, the hail from a last April shower –since we were at the beginning of April—was beating against noisily against the car’s window.) doesn’t translate easily, unless you change April into May. But then, you change the chronology of the story. And what about this one!

Qu’allait-elle lui dire ? le mot « aimer » y serait-il ? Jamais elle ne l’avait écrit, jamais elle ne l’avait prononcé sans le faire suivre du mot « bien ». – « Je vous aime bien. » – « Je vous aime beaucoup. » – « Est-ce que je ne vous aime pas ? » Il les connaissait, ces formules qui ne disent rien par ce qu’elles ajoutent. Peut-il exister des proportions quand on subit l’amour ? Peut-on juger si on aime bien ou mal ? Aimer beaucoup, comme c’est aimer peu ! On aime, rien de plus, rien de moins. On ne peut pas compléter cela. What would she say this time? Would she use the verb “love” without spoiling it by adding “very much”? Could there be much or little to add to “love.” if it was really love? Who can say a person loves “well” or “badly,” a lot or a little–were there such proportions in love? A human being loves, nothing more, nothing less, the meaning cannot be completed beyond the word–nothing further can be imagined, nothing said beyond those letters in that order.Translation by Richard Howard

When I read about it in French, I immediately wondered how the translator dealt with this. In French, you have only one verb for love and like. This paragraph is so intertwined with French language, grammar and usages that I genuinely wondered how it would be in English. Thanks to Guy for providing me with a solution to this mystery: he looked for the quote in his English copy of the novel. The meaning is there, undoubtedly, but part of the beauty of the French is gone. For example, Il les connaissait, ces formules qui ne disent rien parce qu’elles ajoutent. Literally, it would be He knew these phrases that mean nothing because they add to it. [the verb Love] It’s not in the translation. I wonder what David Bellos would do with that paragraph. This is where blogging in English adds a new dimension to my reading. Reading and knowing I’ll have to write a billet in English made me notice things about Maupassant’s style that would have remained unnoticed otherwise.

Well, that’s all, folks. I suppose my enthusiasm for this book filters through my billet. It’s a short book and I highly recommend it.

‘Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception of contingencies,’

January 12, 2013 32 comments

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy 1873 French title: Les yeux bleus.

Although I haven’t read a Thomas Hardy for a while, I’m still in my project of reading all his books chronologically. So, after Under the Greenwood Tree came A Pair of Blue Eyes. What a delight!

Hardy_Yeux_BleusElfride Swancourt is the daughter of a vicar who lives in a remote village in Wessex (of course). Her father wants to have the church renovated and hires a London architect to come and have a look at the place and propose renovation plans. When Stephen Smith, sent by the said London architect arrives at the vicarage, the vicar is stuck in bed by gout and Elfride has to welcome the visitor on her own. Stephen is rapidly smitten by her pair of blue eyes, her easy manners and they quickly fall in love. Stephen is nice and a bit mysterious, which kindles Elfride’s imagination. He behaves strangely and has curious manners sometimes. He’s educated but pronounces Latin wrong. He seems to be a gentleman but can’t ride a horse. Elfride’s father encourages their time alone and enjoys the young man’s company very much but when he discovers that Stephen is actually the son of a working man from the nearby domain, he doesn’t want him to marry his daughter or to accept him as his acquaintance. Stephen and Elfride try to elope but she refuses to marry him secretly. Stephen leaves England to take a position in India in the hope to come back wealthy and marry her with her father’s consent.

Meanwhile, Mr Swancourt has secretly courted his neighbor, a widowed rich lady. He goes on a trip and comes back married to her. Elfride’s life changes, moving to a nicer house and staying in London during the season. It’s precisely there that Mrs Swancourt gets reacquainted with her cousin Mr Knight. He’s invited to stay some time with them in the country. When he eventually comes, he becomes close to Elfride, enjoying her conversation. Mr Knight is a bachelor who doesn’t intend to get married. He’s the contrary to the Austenian assertion that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. He’s not flirtatious but Elfride wins him over with her quiet beauty and her personality. He enjoys teaching her things and challenging her. He falls for her in spite of him. (The superfluity had become a necessity, and Knight was in love., that’s as nicely put as a Flaubert sentence). She’s in awe with him and falls for his personality. Stephen Smith can’t measure up with Mr Knight.

How will she sort this out and who will have her in the end?

As always with Hardy, the plot description may seem nice and proper, 19th century equivalent of chick lit. Sorry if that blunt comment shocks the purists. And as always, it’s deceptively simple and romantic. While I was reading, I started noticing that roles were somehow reversed: Elfride behaved like a man and Mr Knight and Stephen had women’s traits. Let me explain this curious thought but beware that there will be spoilers after this part. Here’s Elfride explaining Stephen why she loves him:

I know, I think, what I love you for. You are nice-looking, of course; but I didn’t mean for that. It is because you are so docile and gentle.’ ‘Those are not quite the correct qualities for a man to be loved for,’ said Stephen, in rather a dissatisfied tone of self-criticism.

What? Stephen is nice-looking, docile and gentle. As he notices himself, these are more qualities sought for in a woman, aren’t they? And there’s this incredible scene where Elfride saves Mr Knight’s life in quite a manly manner, a scene that seemed the exact opposite of the one where Willoughby helps Marianne. Knight is suspended in a very dangerous way to a cliff and she makes a rope with her clothes to pull him up. How ironic that a character named Knight (like the best man character in Emma by Jane Austen, btw) is saved from a horrible death by a young girl. So the Knight in distress is saved by a damsel in shining amour. Interesting. Even more interesting is the following paragraph:

On reaching home after the perilous adventure by the sea-shore, Knight had felt unwell, and retired almost immediately. The young lady who had so materially assisted him had done the same, but she reappeared, properly clothed, about five o’clock. She wandered restlessly about the house, but not on account of their joint narrow escape from death. The storm which had torn the tree had merely bowed the reed, and with the deliverance of Knight all deep thought of the accident had left her.

Hmm. Now the man is more delicate than the girl. Hardy doesn’t push as far as putting Knight to bed with a fever or a headache but still, the girl’s resistance is stronger. Elfride keeps her head and wants to be loved for her mind and not for her nice looks. She’s realistic in her love for Stephen:

Stephen, I fancy I see the difference between me and you—between men and women generally, perhaps. I am content to build happiness on any accidental basis that may lie near at hand; you are for making a world to suit your happiness.’

It’s like A Pair of Blue Eyes is a negative from an Austen novel. Stephen doesn’t forget her during his stay in India and his love is unshakable. Usually, you would have a poor girl pining at home for a man who doesn’t remember her. Mr Knight is jealous of the other men who courted her. He would like her to be untouched territory, as he is himself. He behaves like a virgin; he has never sought the company of women before. He’s the innocent person in their couple while Elfride appears to be the more experienced. Quite a change of scenery from other books. We’re far from men corrupting innocent women; Elfride is the one with a secret that backfires on her.

In addition to characters that don’t seem extraordinary at first sight but are if you think of them twice, Hardy excels in describing his beloved Wessex, like here, on a grey morning:

It was breakfast time. As seen from the vicarage dining-room, which took a warm tone of light from the fire, the weather and scene outside seemed to have stereotyped themselves in unrelieved shades of gray. The long-armed trees and shrubs of juniper, cedar, and pine varieties, were grayish black; those of the broad-leaved sort, together with the herbage, were grayish-green; the eternal hills and tower behind them were grayish-brown; the sky, dropping behind all, gray of the purest melancholy. Yet in spite of this sombre artistic effect, the morning was not one which tended to lower the spirits. It was even cheering. For it did not rain, nor was rain likely to fall for many days to come.

The book is full of lovely descriptions of the countryside and the seaside. Peasants speak patois and I had sometimes a hard time understanding them but I’m getting used to it. I noticed that ladies and gentlemen use French words when they speak (“honouring her by petits soins of a marked kind” or “‘Do I seem like LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI?’”). In Is That a Fish in Your Ear? David Bellos explains that at the time, speaking French was the trademark of a good education. Translators always left French words in their English translations from the French because they knew that either their readers would know enough of French to understand them or they would be flattered to read a bit of French and attach themselves to the life style of the upper classes. Hardy’s style gives life to social differences and aspirations through accents and the choice of the words he puts in the characters’ mouths. Clever and realistic. Comments about the English society escape from his pen, taking the novel as an opportunity to write down the changes he catches in his environment:

‘My dear, you mustn’t say “gentlemen” nowadays,’ her stepmother answered in the tones of arch concern that so well became her ugliness. ‘We have handed over “gentlemen” to the lower middle class, where the word is still to be heard at tradesmen’s balls and provincial tea-parties, I believe. It is done with here.’ ‘What must I say, then?’ ‘”Ladies and MEN” always.’

Or:

‘Every woman now-a-days,’ resumed Mrs. Smith, ‘if she marry at all, must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father. The men have gone up so, and the women have stood still. Every man you meet is more the dand than his father; and you are just level wi’ her.’

It seems that the middle class was climbing the social ladder, mimicking the language and manners of the upper class. Necessity led the aristocracy to trade titles against money (women must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father) and the aristocracy tries to abandon old ways to the middle class and find new standards to differentiate from common people. Hardy is a keen observer of the world he lives in and uses it as raw material for his literature with a cheeky angle. I love that, it’s both enlightening and entertaining.

As I said before, this novel sounds like a simple romance but there’s a lot more to it than an easy read, although it is also that. Next step: Far From the Madding Crowd.

PS: I chose the French cover for this post but I read the book in English. I like the English covers less than the French one. I didn’t see Elfride in those.

Hardy_Blue_2Hardy_Blue_1Hardy_Blue_3

There’s a lot of insomnia going through the closed double-doors of a sleeping hotel.

January 6, 2013 26 comments

Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum 1929 French / English title : Grand Hotel

I know, I know, I’m like two months late for German Literature month but I needed a lot of time to read Grand Hotel in good conditions. I didn’t want to ruin it by reading it a bad time and November was such a rush in the office that any evening was a bad evening to savour this book. I discovered Grand Hotel when Caroline reviewed it and I was immediately drawn to it and I wasn’t disappointed.

Baum_Grand_hotelGrand Hotel describes a set of characters that stay in the eponymous hotel in Berlin. We’re at the end of the 1920s and Vicki Baum slowly introduces us to a crowd of lost souls. Preysing is here on business. He runs a textile company which is in a tough corner and is in Berlin to negotiate a merger with another company. He comes from the small town of Fredersdorf, just as Kringelein, who actually works for Preysing’s company as an accountant. They move into very different circles and when Preysing meets Kringelein, he seems vaguely familiar but he cannot remember why. Doctor Otternschlag lives in the hotel the whole year-round. He lingers in the salons, regularly asks the reception for messages that never come. He was badly wounded during WWI and never recovered physically and mentally from his years on the front. His face is totally ruined on one side and he doesn’t live but barely survives. I wondered what kept him alive. Curiosity? The Grousinskaja is an aging Russian ballet dancer, a star who has lost her shine. She still performs but her public is rare and she doesn’t want to acknowledge that she needs to retire before it’s too late. Baron von Gaigern is a ruined aristocrat who turned into a a con-artist to find money to keep his standard of living. He’s a Balzacian character, addicted to gambling, playing with women and unable to actually work to earn money. (Or marry a rich heiress). He’s a pleasant character though; nice to everyone, always joyful and polite. He’s the kind of entertaining parasite you’re bound to meet in such places.

All the characters are flawed and fragile and consequently rather moving. Preysing is the CEO of his company but still lives in the shadow of his step-father; the suit is too big for him. He struggles with the negotiation, isn’t shrewd enough for a business man. And the situation is so desperate that failure isn’t an option. Kringelein is dying and he decided to leave his wife, take all their savings to live in this posh hotel where he knows his boss stays when he’s in Berlin. Kringelein is seeking real life, not the poor and petty life he lived with his stingy wife. He’s seeking Life, with a capital L and takes advice from Doctor Otternschlag and Gaigern to show him the world.

This novel has the bittersweet flavor of the end of an era. Of course we know what will become of the Weimar Republic. It has the taste of the 1920s: tea dances, jazz, scars from WWI, an eagerness to live. It was written before the Black Tuesday and the Great Depression and yet you can see through Preysing’s meetings with his consultant that the economy has gone wild. Financial markets although less developed than nowadays have gone crazy. Businessmen are ready to manipulate the values of company shares. Everything and everyone rush headlong to their downfall, the people and the society.

I was fascinated by the pages where Vicki Baum describes the business meeting between Preysing, his lawyer specialized in M&A and the CEO of the acquisition target. Things haven’t changed that much. Meetings on neutral territories in hotels; selling the company’s results by doing a quick financial analysis, outlining the win-win situation of the merger without giving too much away. Deciding what to say and what to hide; balancing between giving information and thinking about its confidentiality if the deal fails. Absolutely fascinating. I wonder how Vicki Baum knew about that.

Kringelein’s story is easy to relate to. This is a man who realizes he’s going to die very soon and that he hasn’t enjoyed life. He throws caution to the wind now that he has no future and turns to frenzy of discovering the world. It’s interesting to see where the others take him to experience Real Life. He attends a show by the Grousinskaja, a boxing match, rides in a car, flies in a plane, buys expensive clothes. But he doesn’t really know what he’s looking for or what he means with Life.

I think Grand Hotel is a multilayered book. It’s very down-to-earth when it depicts the workings of the hotel, the rooms, the furniture, the habits, the staff. It portrays the German society of that time, as the hotel guests are a sample of this society. It reaches the universal with Kringelein’s quest (What is “living a full life”?), Grousinskaja’s angst (How do I cope with ageing?), Doctor Otternschlag‘s difficulties (How do I heal from a trauma?).

The French translation I have dates back to 1997, so it’s rather new. However, it sounds like the 1920s especially with the English words used in the French, words we don’t use anymore (Lift, sportsman, suitcase, jumper) but you can find some of them in Proust (especially Lift). This hotel seems midway between the hotel in Balbec and the one in Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth, a few years later.

I’d love to include quotes in this billet, to share with you pieces of Baum’s marvelous prose but I didn’t find an English version and it’s too difficult for me to translate properly. I know this book is hard to find in English, it’s only available in used copy now. I fervently hope that a publisher will decide to republish it or that it will be available for ebooks. If you can read in German or in French, go for it, it’s worth reading.

Is that a Frog in your ear? Let’s play with translations

January 3, 2013 42 comments

As mentioned in my previous billet, I’m reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. It’s a fascinating essay about translation. I’m only at the beginning of the book and at a moment, Bellos explains that without prior notice, we aren’t able to recognize a translation from an original text:

In practice, we look at the title page, jacket copy, or copyright page of a book or the byline at the bottom of an article to find out whether or not we are reading a translation. But in the absence of such giveaways, are readers in fact able to distinguish, by the taste on their linguistic and literary tongues, whether a text is “original” or “translated”? Absolutely not. Countless writers have packaged originals as translations and translations as originals and gotten away with it for weeks, months, years, even centuries.

Incidentally, this reminded me of a commercial for Danone that I’ve seen countless times on the French TV when I was a child. In this ad, they were doing a blind test to see if a person could recognise a real Danone among other yoghurts. That’s why I want to play a little game with you: I’m going to choose three quotes and amond those, one is a translation from a French original and the others are English texts. Will you find out which one is the French one? Ready?

Quote 1

“******, one of the loveliest of this race of goddesses, had the splendid type, the flowing lines, the exquisite texture of a woman born a queen. The fair hair that our mother Eve received from the hand of God, the form of an Empress, an air of grandeur, and an august line of profile, with her rural modesty, made every man pause in delight as she passed, like amateurs in front of a Raphael.”

Quote 2

“But what he allowed her, even with the addition of her alimony, was absurdly insufficient. Not that she looked far ahead; she had always felt herself predestined to ease and luxury, and the possibility of a future adapted to her present budget did not occur to her. But she desperately wanted enough money to carry her without anxiety through the coming year.”

 Quote 3

“He had quite intended to effect a grand catastrophe at the end of this drama by reading out the name, he had come to the house with no other thought. But sitting here in cold blood he could not do it. Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him. His quality was such that he could have annihilated them both in the heat of action; but to accomplish the deed by oral poison was beyond the nerve of his enmity.”

Now don’t cheat and search for the answer on the internet. So, which one was originally written in French and why? Leave a comment!

January in Japan and a Victorian Lit coincidence

January 2, 2013 23 comments

January in JapanWe’re in January now and January in Japan has started. This event is organized by Tony, from Tony’s Reading List and he created a dedicated blog for the event. Check it out here. So it’s all about reading Japanese literature this month and I’m in. And a few days ago, I started reading Is That a Fish in You Ear? by David Bellos. It’s an essay about translation. In a chapter where he tries to define what translation is, Bellos lists the different words that are available to the Japanese speaker to say translation:

Here, for example, are the main words that you have to talk about them in Japanese: If the translation we are discussing is complete, we might call it a zen’yaku or a kan’yaku A first translation is a shoyaku. A retranslation is a kaiyaku, and the new translation is a shin’yaku that replaces the old translation, or ky yaku. A translation of a translation is a j yaku. A standard translation that seems unlikely to be replaced is a teiyaku; equally unlikely to be replaced is a mei-yaku, or “celebrated translation.” When a celebrated translator speaks of her own work, she may disparage it as setsuyaku, “clumsy translation,” i.e., “my own translation,” which is not to be confused with a genuinely bad translation, disparaged as a dayaku or an akuyaku. A co-translation is a ky yaku or g yaku; a draft translation, or shitayaku, may be polished through a process of “supervising translation” or kan’yaku, without it becoming a ky yaku or g yaku. Translations are given different names depending on the approach they take to the original: they can be chokuyaku (literally, “direct translation”), chikugoyaku (“word-for-word translation”), iyaku (“sense translation”), taiyaku (“translation presented with the original text on facing pages”), or, in the case of translations of works by Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, and other popular American writers, chyaku (“translations that are even better than the originals,” an invention and registered trademark of the Academy Press)

 Amazing isn’t it? When I read it, I thought about Tony who mostly reads in translation, loves Japanese and Victorian literatures. The coincidence of me reading a non-fiction book, in January and stumbling upon a quote about the word translation in Japanese is so incredible that in matter of coincidences, Thomas Hardy seems like an amateur. Life surpasses fiction, that’s for sure.

And then I wondered about translating Japanese into English or into French. How do they do it? The way of thinking, of expressing thoughts, of putting reality into words is so different from ours that it must be awfully difficult to give back the substance and the music of the original. It’s probably impossible.

I’m also thinking about using the word akuyaku at the end of the quotes I translate from the French when I don’t have a professional translation available. If I continue like this, I’m going to have my own blogging language full of billets, copinautes and enthusiastic akuyakus. But what do you say for a genuinely bad translation of a translation? I do that when I read a Japanese book in French and then write a billet in English about it. A j akuyaku? Seems like Japanese lacks one more word to say translation! Let’s start this with my upcoming review of N*P by Banana Yoshimoto.

PS: More about Is That a Fish in You Ear? pretty soon; I want to play a game with you.

Happy New Year from France

January 1, 2013 27 comments

 Bonne année

I wish you all a Happy New Year. I hope 2013 will be good for you and your beloved ones. I wish you the best for this New Year.

Blogging and interacting with fellow avid readers has changed my way of reading. It’s become less solitary. When I had no reading plans three years ago, I find myself with some right now. I’ll read the books I got for Christmas through our Humbook Gift Event. I want to finish In Search of Lost Time; two more volumes to go after La Prisonnière. I already know that I won’t like Albertine disparue but I’m looking forward to reading Le Temps retrouvé. I remember it was fantastic.

I also have the books we chose for our Book Club. In January, we’re reading Notre Coeur by Maupassant, you’re welcome to read it along with us if you wish. I want to read more of Thomas Hardy, the next one on my list is Far From the Madding Crowd. Then I’d like to explore other European writers. And I bought White Dog by Romain Gary in English. I want to compare it to the French version. You can’t talk about translation because Gary adapted the “novel” in English by himself. So I’m curious about it.

Anyway, I’ll start first with a Japanese book as Tony hosts January in Japan for the first time this year. Therefore I’m currently reading N*P by Banana Yoshimoto.

More importantly, I’m on a serious book buying ban this year. My TBR is huge and it needs to go down. To keep my promise, I even pre-ordered Andrew Blackman’s next novel, Virtual Love, which will be released in April. See how earnest I am about it; I’m trying to set some boundaries to avoid temptation. So I’ll need to steer clear of bookshops and refrain from downloading books after reading enthusiastic reviews on other blogs. That’s going to be a tough fight with myself.

I will continue to read other blogs and comment when I can or if I have something to say. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to thoroughly follow as many bookish blogs as I’d wish to. Thanks again to all the readers who intend to follow my literary life. I send a friendly Hi to all those who will pop here now and then or land here by accident after typing something in their search engine.reading_yearPS: Special message to all the persons who arrive here after searching “How French men treat their women”: as far as I’m concerned, I’m well treated… 🙂 Please find another sentence to word your thoughts, this one sounds so Neanderthal to me.

Categories: Challenges, Personal Posts
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