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Archive for April, 2013

Blog’s birthday: one more chapter

April 30, 2013 34 comments
Les mots sont faits pour scintiller de tout leur éclat. Il n’y a pas de limite concevable à leur agencement parce qu’il n’y a pas de limite à la couleur, à la lumière. Il n’y a pas de mesure à la mesure des mots. Il ne viendrait à l’idée de personne de mettre un frein à la clarté nue de midi en été. Les mots. Silex et diamant. Votre rôle est de fouiller là-dedans à pleine main au petit bonheur. Pourvu que ça rende le son qui est en vous quand vous écrivez.Louis Calaferte. Words are made to scintillate of all their brightness. There is no conceivable limit to their order because there is no limit to colour, to light. There is no measure that measures up with words. Nobody would dream of refraining the raw brightness of light at noon in the summer. Words. Flintstone and diamond. Your role is to dig in there heartily and haphazardly. As long as it gives back the sound that is in you when you write.

Bonheure_LireI find this quote beautiful as it intertwines all sensations with the pleasure of reading and writing. One more chapter is what I say to myself at night when I know I ought to turn off the light but am reluctant to put my book down. When a book is gripping, how can you resist?

One more chapter: Book Around the Corner is three-years-old. I decided to celebrate that milestone with a little book entitled Au Bonheur de lire or To Happiness in Reading. The English translation doesn’t give back the literary reference of the French title. Au Bonheur de lire refers to Au Bonheur des Dames by Zola. (Ladies’ Paradise for you, dear Anglophone readers) It’s a collection of texts about reading and it is split in three parts.

The first one covers childhood memories of hours spent with a book. They are either fake (excerpt from Madame Bovary) or real (Les Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau). The second part describes the pleasure of immersing in someone else’s words and thoughts, and sometimes feel like they’re your own. I was touched by the passage of Septentrion by Louis Calaferte; I’d like to read this book. The third part concentrates on books as an object and the strange relationship we have with our books. This relationship is changing now that we can read on ebooks. (Well, not in France since only 1% of books sold are ebooks, according to a recent article in Télérama)

It was a lovely book, an ode to my favourite hobby, to the blissful hours spent with the words of others. As a coincidence, I read it shortly after watching a fantastic theatre version of Farenheit 451. It was directed by David Géry who has also directed a theatre version of Bartleby. The play was faithful to the book (spectacular fires on scene) and once again it struck me how Bradbury managed to imagine things that are now part of our daily life: music in the ear, huge flat screens, pills. The people who fight against the loss of books were present on scene at the end of the play. They weren’t actors, only avid readers sharing a quote from their favourite book. Very moving and an incredible celebration of literature.

My blog aims at celebrating literature too, at sharing my enthusiasms or my disappointments. I hope it makes you want to try a new writer sometimes. Talking about favourites.

Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes recently posted his personal Pantheon of writers, based on a simple criterion “after reading one of the books by the author, I had the strong desire to read everything that author had ever written”. I like this criterion because I feel free to leave aside geniuses who don’t speak to me or are interesting but no fun reading, even though I acknowledge their literary worth. So, here is my Pantheon:

  1. Romain Gary. Do I need to say something?
  2. Jane Austen. Under polite and civilized phrases lays a sharp analysis of the society of her time.
  3. Philippe Djian. American in style and French in the characters.
  4. Molière. Laugh was his weapon. Massive destruction of egos in his wake.
  5. Philip Roth. From a character’s daily trivialities to the analysis of our world.
  6. Raymond Chandler. Crime fiction breaking into literary fiction.
  7. Thomas Hardy. Irony and poetry in rural England.
  8. William Somerset Maugham. Leaning on a character’s story to explore the core of mankind.
  9. Emile Zola. Isn’t he almost historical fiction?
  10. Dezső Kosztolányi. Humanity, poetry and description of society all wrapped in one.
  11. Philippe Besson. For his incredible ability to share passion and its forceful wave.
  12. Jim Harrison. For the American dream and his flawed characters.
  13. David Lodge. For his British sense of humour.
  14. Rainer Maria Rilke. Beautiful, soothing and painfully human.
  15. Anne Perry. Excellent series of historical crime fiction in London. She manages to renew herself.
  16. Edith Wharton. Acute perception of the human heart, feminism and both in France and America.
  17. Max Barry. When I read Company, I laughed so hard I decided I wanted to read all of his books.
  18. Antal Szerb Impossible to describe in a few words.
  19. Elizabeth George. Inspector Linley and Barbara Havers are sort of relatives by now.
  20. Steven Saylor. No one resuscitates Rome during the Roman Republic like he does.

Please welcome this billet as a heartfelt thank you for reading, following, commenting, putting up with my typos and misuse of the English language and take it as an opportunity to share your Pantheon in the comments. I’d love to discover the writers who thrill you.

The School for Wives by Molière.

April 26, 2013 13 comments

L’école des femmes by Molière. 1662. The School for Wives.

L_ecole_des_femmes_001_image_article_detailleI’ve seen a brilliant production of The School for Wives by Molière, directed by Jean Liermier and I can’t wait to share this with you. It’s a play I’d never read and the French title misled me. When I heard L’école des femmes, I thought The School for Women as in French we only have one word for woman and wife. I assumed it was something about educated women like in The Learned Ladies. Not at all.

The main character of this play is Arnolphe. He’s a middle aged bourgeois, a rich merchant. He recently changed his name into de la Souche, to give it a noble resonance. Arnolphe is a bachelor and his greatest fear in life is to be married to an unfaithful wife. He abundantly made fun of husbands among his acquaintances when they were unfortunate cuckolds.

Arnolphe is now ready to settle down and his friend Chrysalde warns him against the risk of ridicule if his wife eventually deceive him. Arnolphe then exposes his plan: he took the young Agnes away from her peasant family, had her raised in a convent and now keeps her in a separate house until he marries her. He made sure that she’s as stupid as possible as he doesn’t care for an intelligent wife. Quite the contrary. His assumption is that a silly wife will be less tempted to flirt and betray him. So Agnes is naïve, so ignorant that she recently asked whether babies are born in a woman’s ear. Arnolphe is more than delighted by her stupidity.

When Arnolphe comes home to see her, he stumbles upon Horace, one of his friends’ son. The young Horace doesn’t’ know that Arnolphe is now M. de la Souche and he tells Arnolphe that he’s madly in love with Agnes and that she returns his affections. Arnolphe is devastated and confronts Agnes. She has met Horace quite innocently and relates the origin of their acquaintance. He flirted with her, sent a messenger to win her heart with sweet paroles:

Agnès. “Have I wounded any one? ” I answered, quite astonished. “Yes,” she said, “wounded; you have indeed wounded a gentleman. It is him you saw yesterday from the balcony. ” “Alas!” said I, “what could have been the cause? Did I, without thinking, let anything fall on him? ” “No,” replied she; “it was your eyes which gave the fatal blow; from their glances came all his injury.” “Alas! good Heaven, ” said I, “I am more than ever surprised. Do my eyes contain something bad, that they can give it to other people? ” “Yes,” cried she, “your eyes, my girl, have a poison to hurt withal, of which you know nothing. In a word, the poor fellow pines away; and if ” continued the charitable old woman, “your cruelty refuses him assistance, it is likely he shall be carried to his grave in a couple of days. ” “Bless me!” said I, “I would be very sorry for that; but what assistance does he require of me?” “My child,” said she, “he requests only the happiness of seeing and conversing with you. Your eyes alone can prevent his ruin, and cure the disease they have caused.” “Oh! gladly,” said I; “and, since it is so, he may come to see me here as often as he likes.’’

Arnolphe(aside). O cursed witch! poisoner of souls! may hell reward your charitable tricks!

Agnès. That is how he came to see me, and got cured. Now tell me, frankly, if I was not right? And could I, after all, have the conscience to let him die for lack of aid?—I, who feel so much pity for suffering people, and cannot see a chicken die without weeping!

Agnes is so ignorant of all worldly manners that she doesn’t catch the figurative meaning of words and takes everything literally. How can she not rescue a poor man who’s dying because her looks almost killed him? Poor Arnolphe is now the victim of his own scheme.  He raised her to be stupid; she behaves accordingly and with such a perfect honesty that he can’t complain. Agnes falls in love with Horace. Like any adolescent, she discovers love and desire. She rebels against Arnolphe and is unhappy to be so uneducated. She resents Arnolphe for keeping her away from the world. He wanted to play God, to be Prometheus and it didn’t work.

Molière is a brilliant playwright, very accessible. He mocks everyone. Arnolphe is ridiculous is his attempt to create his perfect wife. However he loves Agnes and I felt compassion for him and his unrequited love. There are memorable passages about Arnolphe’s vision of women and marriage.

“The Maxims of Marriage; or the Duties of a Wife; together with her Daily Exercise.

First Maxim. “She who is honourably wed should remember, notwithstanding the fashion now-a-days, that the man who marries does not take a wife for anyone but himself.’’

(…)

Second Maxim. “She ought not to bedeck herself more than her husband likes. The care of her beauty concerns him alone; and if others think her plain, that must go for nothing.

Third Maxim. “Far from her be the study of ogling, washes, paints, pomatums, and the thousand preparations for a good complexion. These are ever fatal poisons to honour; and the pains bestowed to look beautiful are seldom taken for a husband.”

Fourth Maxim. “When she goes out, she should conceal the glances of her eyes beneath her hood, as honour requires; for in order to please her husband rightly, she should please none else.”

Fifth Maxim. “It is fit that she receive none but those who visit her husband. The gallants that have no business but with the wife, are not agreeable to the husband.”

Sixth Maxim. “She must firmly refuse presents from men, for in these days nothing is given for nothing.”

Seventh Maxim. “Amongst her furniture, however she dislikes it, there must be neither writing-desk, ink, paper, nor pens. According to all good rules everything written in the house should be written by the husband.”

Eighth Maxim. “Those disorderly meetings, called social gatherings, ever corrupt the minds of women. It is good policy to forbid them; for there they conspire against the poor husbands.”

Ninth Maxim. “Every woman who wishes to preserve her honour should abstain from gambling as a plague; for play is very seductive, and often drives a woman to put down her last stake.”

Tenth Maxim. “She must not venture on public promenades nor picnics; for wise men are of opinion that it is always the husband who pays for such treats.”

The audience – full of teenagers as this play is studied in school –guffawed at the words. Heartily. This sounded so ridiculous. I’m glad French men find it funny and improbable. However, I thought about the film Wadjda directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour from Saudi-Arabia and I recalled that Wadjda wouldn’t find this so funny but rather close to her everyday life.

I love Molière because he’s always an advocate of moderation. He makes fun of  Arnolphe in this play and of learned ladies in another one. He shows his contemporaries that ignorance isn’t a solution; only balance can be a viable path. In the end, Arnolphe hurts someone to save himself from a potential ridicule, for honour’s sake. Chrysalde tells a great speech about how to react when your wife cheats on you. To make a long story short: shrug it off. I’m not saying I approve of it but this might explain when the French are rather relaxed about extra-marital affairs. It’s a personal matter and the betrayed partner is the only person entitled to assess the importance of the affair on their relationship. From outside, nobody will judge the cheating partner the same way as they would judge them for being a thief.

In this play, Molière speaks directly to the cuckolds in the audience, which is unusual for him and it initiated laughter across the room. The production was excellent, timeless. The clothes were nice, each character wearing a coherent ensemble and yet they were hard to attach to a century or another. It was a patchwork of fashions across the centuries without looking like a weird costume.

Jean Liermier gave a comical and lively pace to this play. I forgot the alexandrins and the text is rather neutral regarding contemporary references like living in a kingdom or driving carriages. It highlighted the universal themes of the text. To picture Agnes’s isolated house, the director chose to build a house in a tree. I thought it was an excellent idea. Agnes was above the ground, kept prisoner in her wooden cabin. It gave the play the eternity of a fairytale, it reminded me of Rapunzel, kept in her tower. I also thought about Oedipus who stayed away to avoid fate, all in vain. Myths and fairy tales tell us it’s useless to try to protect someone from life.

An excellent time in the theatre.

Every pun intended

April 23, 2013 17 comments

Ceci est bien une pipe. San-Antonio by Frédéric Dard. 1999. Not available in English. (Again, I know, I know…)

San-AntonioFor a French, San-Antonio is probably as famous Philip Marlowe. He a commissaire created by Frédéric Dard, a French crime fiction writer. There are 175 San-Antonio books and the first one was published in 1949. It’s a cult crime fiction series, my paperback edition even includes a guidebook by category. For example, you can know which novels are about a kidnapping. With such a reputation and such a fan base, I had to try one and my random pick brought me to Ceci est bien une pipe. Well not exactly random since the title is a reference to Magritte’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe and I love Magritte.

Frédéric Dard is not translated into English and there’s certainly a reason to it: the style. It’s literary lad lit. – Try to say this aloud. That’s probably why this genre doesn’t exist in book stores, you can’t even pronounce it. So Frédéric Dard writes lad lit. That’s an undeniable fact: sex, dead bodies, fights, sex, dead bodies, fights,… the pattern is easy to recognize – not that I’m that familiar with the genre. The plot in Ceci est bien une pipe is as engaging as an episode of Scooby-Doo. Wait, actually, I still have to decide whether Scooby-Doo isn’t even more suspenseful than this. In addition, the characters aren’t well-drawn and they all seem rather strange. San-Antonio and his colleagues still live with their mothers in their old childhood rooms despite behaving like stinking machos. I’m not sure I want to know the Freudian interpretation of it.

Why didn’t I abandon the book? Because of the Queneau-like style. Frédéric Dard was well-read and his writing was full of puns, cultural references, inventions, use of English grammar in French and twists with words. The text is full of allusions and double-entendres. It starts with the title as pipe is both a pipe and a blow-job. Now my challenge is to translate a few sentences to try to show you what I mean.

English syntax Contremauvaisefortuneboncoeurfaisant Makingthebestofabadjobly
Literary reference : Apollinaire’s poem Sous le Pont Mirabeau. Quand tu deviens gênant pour ton entourage, retire-toi dans un mouroir ou enjambe le parapet du pont Mirabeau sous lequel coulent la Seine et nos amours, tout le monde t’en saura gré. When you become a burden to your relatives, retire in an old people’s home or cross the parapet of the Mirabeau bridge under which the Seine and our loves flow, everybody will be grateful.
Old FrenchChangeons de page, je vas te narrer la chose ! Let us change of page, I will narrate thou every thing!
Subtle lad litMon Dieu, pouquoi avez-Vous fait les “autruis” si chiants? Je ne demande que leur cul aux unes et un peu d’amicalité aux autres. Pour le reste, je parviens à m’arranger. Dear God, why did Thou create the “others” so annoying? I only ask their ass to the ones and a bit of friendshipness to the others. The rest I can manage.
Play-on-words after discovering a mutilated bodyAujourd’hui, le fond de l’horreur est frais.Based on the French phrase « le fond de l’air est frais », meaning it’s chilly. Today, the horror is chilly.

It’s pearl after pearl of funny, inventive language and major use of argot – some words I didn’t even know. Lots of good play-on-words. Excellent ideas to twist the French syntax, include literal use of English expressions. To be honest, I had a lot of fun during the first 100 pages. Then it becomes old and tiring and since the plot wasn’t worth it…I finished it but used a lot of times the second unalienable right of the reader: I skipped pages, scanned through many ones and reached the end. You might love chocolate, when you eat too much of it in a row, you get sick.

By the way, Frédéric Dard comes from in Saint-Chef, a quaint village in the Dauphiné. It’s between Lyon and Grenoble and he makes several allusions to his region in the book. He includes local ways of speaking (mimi for kiss on the cheek), allusions to the Basilique de Fourvière (Lyon) and a touching reference to the cemetery in Saint-Chef, where he is now buried.

[Je] songeais qu’après une longue immersion dans la médiocrité, je prendrai un pied éléphantesque dans le nouveau cimetière de Saint-Chef-en-Dauphiné où j’irai attaquer mon éternité à l’ombre de la « Tour du Poulet » (XIIè) [I] was thinking that after a long immersion in mediocrity, I’ll get an elephantly kick out of starting my eternity in the new cemetery in Saint-Chef-en-Dauphiné, in the shadow of the Chicken Tower. (12thC)

There really is a Tour du Poulet in Saint-Chef and it really dates back to the 12th century.

Touching as this is, no more San-Antonio for me, but I’m glad I read it. Frédéric Dard also wrote La Vieille qui marchait dans la mer, which was made into a film with Jeanne Moreau. I want to read this one as it doesn’t feature San-Antonio.

Loneliness as a trait of character

April 20, 2013 15 comments

L’histoire d’une solitude by Milán Füst 1956 (Egy magány története) Translated by Sophie Aude. No English translation found. (I even twitted to George Szirtes to ask if he knew any but he doesn’t)

Fust_Milan_solitudeI’d never heard of Milán Füst before stumbling upon this novel in a bookstore, which again points how much we need brick-and-mortar bookstores to discover new writers. Milán Füst (1888 – 1967) is a Jewish Hungarian writer. Imagine what he’s been through during his life: like a Frenchman a century before, he has lived under several political regimes. He was born in Austria-Hungary, after WWI, it collapsed; he lived through the 1920s, the 1930s, WWII and communism. I wonder how someone can cope with all the changes. For the record, Füst was friend with Dezső Kosztolányi and Frigyes Karinthy. (I haven’t read Karinthy but he wrote a novel entitled Reportage céleste (de notre envoyé spécial au paradis) in other words, Celestial Report (from our special correspondent in paradise). Doesn’t it sound marvellous?) Füst is famous enough in his country to have a literary prize named after him and be seen as a Nobel Prize candidate in 1965. Füst’s most famous novel is A Story of my Wife, which is available in English, unlikeA Story of a Solitude.

Vendel Probst is the hero of A Story of a Solitude. He’s our narrator and relates some events of his life during the 1910s. He lives in Pest, not yet united with Buda. As the novel opens, Vendel is living with his mother when a young woman knocks at their door. She says her name is Erzsébet Lakos-Lőwy and that she’s coming on behalf of a mutual friend. She needs money. The Probsts believe her and give her the money only to realize later they’ve been conned. However, the young woman was enchanting and her image lingered in young Vendel’s memory. At his age, he’s never been in love and he dreams of falling in love:

Il aurait fallu chercher quelqu’un que j’aurais enfin pu aimer vraiment, et sans tracas ni entrave…Je caressais le rêve d’un amour léger et vaporeux, qui ne pèserait pas, se répandrait au contraire dans un cœur comme touché par le rayon du soleil, d’un amour qui coulerait tout transparent et tendre comme le miel. Mais qui a jamais rien connu de tel ? je savais bien déjà que pareil amour n’existe pas. I should have looked for someone I could really love, no strings attached…I caressed the dream of a misty and light love, a love which would have no weight, which would spread in a heart as if touched by a sunbeam. I dreamed of a love that would flow crystal clear and sweet as honey. But who has ever experienced that? I knew already that such a love didn’t exist.

After graduating from university where he studied painting, Vendel works in a museum; he’s a specialist of Caravaggio. During WWI he joins the army and has not been sent to the front yet when he enters into a fight with a captain. Both are judged, the captain is sent to the front and Vendel is punished. As he fell ill, he’s transfered to the hospital. And, who does he find working there as a secretary? Erzsébet! Only she says she’s Teréz now. Imaginative as he is, he soon thinks himself in love and his feelings are returned since Teréz pulls strings to liberate him. They don’t get married but live together in Vendel’s apartment and he gets his old job back in the museum.

I think A Story of a Solitude is a coming-age-novel. It’s partly based upon Füst’s life – he was 22 in 1910; Vendel is the same age as Füst and there are probably similarities between young Füst and Vendel. In the foreword, Péter Esterházy mentions that Füst reported to a friend an incident with a young woman similar to the first encounter between Erzsébet and Vendel. The relationship between Vendel and Teréz is interesting but not in itself. It’s the Ariadne’s clew that holds the novel together. I thought that Füst mostly intended to relate how Vendel turned into a man.

Vendel has a formidable mother, both Jewish and German in her education. The mix is so powerful, especially in the absence of a father, that it’s almost lethal. When Vendel’s mother moves to Vienna with her new husband, Vendel stays behind in Pest and enjoys his freedom. She’s the usual Jewish mother in her way to keep in touch with her son but without the overwhelming love. She’s attentive, protective but her German side tempers her displays of affection. Her principles are rather rigid; falling in love is to be avoided; studying Caravaggio is not a serious occupation…She’s controlling and steps in if she thinks her son goes overboard according to her values. Vendel tries to break free and even if he’s in his twenties, he acts as a rebellious adolescent:

Il est vrai que je m’étais toujours plus à scandaliser ma mère, c’est un vice que j’ai depuis longtemps. Car elle savait bien, par-dessus le marché, que je vivais avec quelqu’un. Il était en effet impossible qu’elle ne sache pas tout sur moi, puisqu’elle me faisait en effet surveiller, se faisait envoyer des rapports à mon sujet, — mais j’y reviendrai plus tard. It is true that I always enjoyed shocking my mother, it’s a vice I’ve had for a long time. Because she knew very well, to top it off, that I was living with someone. Indeed, it was impossible that she didn’t know everything about me since I was under surveillance and she had someone send her reports about me, — but I’ll come to that later. 

Needless to say that Teréz is not marriage material in the eyes of Vendel’s mother.

During this formative decade, Vendel will also see his character settle. He knows more about himself, his likes and dislikes and forms an opinion about his personality. He comes to the conclusion that solitude and imagination are the two roots of his self.

Lorsque que je me suis assis pour écrire cette histoire, j’ai longtemps délibéré pour savoir quel serait son titre. Je voulus d’abord l’intituler Histoire de chien, mais je le remplace maintenant par Histoire d’une solitude, c’est ce que je viens d’écrire tout en haut, car c’est bien de cela qu’il est question, et de rien d’autre. De ce que seules la solitude et l’imagination, rien de plus, sont faites pour moi. C’est triste, mais c’est ainsi. When I sat down to write this story, I pondered a long time to find its title. First, I wanted to entitle it The Story of a Dog but now I replace it by The Story of a Solitude. It’s what I just wrote at the top, because that’s what it is about and nothing else. About how only solitude and imagination agree with me and nothing else. It’s sad but so it goes.

He refuels on his own and needs time to let his imagination wander. After he settled this, he’s more at peace and able to live his life.

I also enjoyed this book as it shows another side of Hungary than the one in Kosztolányi’s novels. In Skylark (1923), you’re in Hungary. People speak Hungarian, eat Hungarian and live among themselves. It’s a mono-cultural environment. In A Story of a Solitude, you’re in Austria-Hungary. Vendel’s mother is probably of Austrian origin and moves to Vienna with her new husband; the officers in the army are mostly Austrians. The dialogues are full of German words (not translated, and I suppose they were in German in the original Hungarian text). A few samples of his lively prose:

Was heisst das ? Seulement. Qu’est-ce que c’est seulement ? Vous avez de drôles de façons de parler, vous, Hongrois.  Was heisst das ? Only. What’s only ? You have strange ways of speaking, you, Hungarians.
Pouah ! Popanz ! Doch eine Schweinerei. Continuez à dessiner.  Pouah ! Popanz ! Doch eine Schweinerei. Keep on drawing.
Schon wieder etwas. Avec toi, il faut toujours s’attendre aux pires complications  Schon wieder etwas. With you, I expect the worse complications.

It gives back the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city but also the domination of Austrian over Hungarians. You can imagine the sound of different conversations in the streets in German or in Hungarian. Beside the mixed languages, the text is also full of thoughts about life, spiced up with a good sense of humour.

Pour être plus précis, il semble que quiconque connaît bien la vie et y a bien réfléchi soit capable de rire aussi froidement, même si c’est à sa propre existence ou à sa propre mort qu’il pense. More precisely, it seems that anyone who knows life well enough and has thoroughly thought about it is capable of laughing so coldly, even if they think about their own existence or their own death.  

The fight between Vendel and the captain, the young woman reminded me of Lermontov. I had the feeling that Füst wanted to root his work in the Russian literary tradition. Furthermore, I know I’m more than obsessed but again, after reading this book written by a Jewish man from Central Europe, I can feel how much this cultural background influenced Gary’s writing.

Eventually, I’ll leave the last words of this billet to Vendel:

Et il y avait encore beaucoup d’autres choses. Mais ce n’est quand même pas possible de tout raconter. On n’aurait assez ni de poumon, ni de tristesse. And there were lots of other things. But it’s not possible to tell everything. One wouldn’t have enough lungs or sadness for that.

I is somebody else

April 10, 2013 18 comments

A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman 2013. Not available in French.

Dear Andrew,

Right now, I’m very happy that you and all the regular readers of this blog are familiar with the word billet. After turning the last page of A Virtual Love and putting down the paper book on the table, the last thing I want to do is write a blog post. And I’m glad the word billet covers the good old-fashioned letter I’m going to write. I hope you don’t mind. It seems more intimate than a usual blog entry but I don’t feel like slipping into the blogger’s shoes. I’m also glad I had a paper copy of your book and not a kindle version, A Virtual Love made me want to distance myself from virtual things.

Blackman_Virtual_LoveNow, hopefully, readers who don’t know your book are curious. Allow me to tell them a bit about the plot. Jeff Brennan is a nobody who works as an IT consultant, not the space-age ones who implement complicated systems but the ones you call in the office when the report you’ve been typing since three hours without hitting the save button, suddenly goes AWOL. As a total geek he spends his Saturday nights with his equally geek friend Jon playing video games, drinking. His score with the ladies is approximately of zero. So when he accidentally meets Marie and she mistakes him for his homonym, the famous political blogger Jeff Brennan, it seems easier not to correct her. This is how a relationship starts on a lie, a lie that stays, grows larger, invades the smallest corners of his life and turns it into a living hell. How will he get out of it?

I shied away from the reviews I came across and started it with a fresh mind. I was hooked from the first chapter; I really enjoyed your novel, Andrew. I had a hard time putting it down, my mind drifted to it when I was driving to work, pondering the different possibilities for an ending. Of course, the identity quest made me think, and think twice since I’m also a blogger. I felt a bit self-conscious as I was reading these pages while tweeting to people I’ve never met. It made me pause and think about the web of lies created out there. I liked the description of Jeff’s identity jungle. It’s so simple to recreate yourself on the internet, be the one you want to be but also say out loud all the things you’d never dare to say in so called “real life”. It’s easy to criticize this side of the Internet and social networks, so let me be the devil’s advocate. Thinking of real life vs virtual life is a reflex from people who weren’t born with the internet. For younger people, it is life. There’s no dichotomy. Their internet identity is another side of their personality. Other people always see a side of you, the one you show them in the function they know you into and the one conjured up with the assumptions they make about you. Think about it. As a child, would you have imagined that your schoolmaster could play in a rock band during his free time? Probably not. You had him pigeonholed in the role of a schoolmaster and he couldn’t have any other activities, other functions than this one. Well, for me it’s the same on the Internet, people see one side of you and make their assumptions according to what you show. The difference is that you can cheat on an exponential scale and if you do it right, nobody can recoup the lies. But even the lies are yours and tell about who you are. The lies differ from a person to another.

Then there’s Marie. Marie loves someone who is not who she thinks he is but doesn’t she deserve the deception? After all, she loves the idea of dating the famous blogger more than the idea of loving a man. She’s living with someone she would have looked down on if she hadn’t assumed he was a celebrity. You show us a whole love relationship based on a wrong assumption. But I don’t think it is new, you know. Only the means differ. Swann’s love for Odette is kindled by an assumption: she looks like a painting he loves. The Odette he loves is not the real one but the one he created in his imagination. Marie finds all kinds of ways to eliminate all doubts that creep into her mind. She rationalizes and her brain finds consistent explanations for everything. Anything not to admit that this man isn’t as wonderful as she wants him to be. Loneliness is too frightening. I’ll spare you the quote by Romain Gary that came to my mind when I mulled over this.

Have you read or seen Cyrano de Bergerac? I think Jeff genuinely loved Marie. Your novel is a bit like a modern Cyrano, with Jeff borrowing someone else’s identity to have Marie fall in love with him. The difference is that technology speeds things up, widens everything and there’s this underlying thirst for fame which is a trademark of our Western societies. I think it always existed because it’s a human trait. Now, cheap technology allows everyone to act upon it.

On the form side, I thought your style flowed more freely, less constrained than in your debut novel, On the Holloway Road. I felt you more confident in your writing and it sounded effortless. Either this book poured out of your head or you sweated on this novel but managed to make it sound effortless to the reader. Describing the events from different points of view except Jeff’s was a good idea. I loved the grandfather’s voice, he’s my favourite character, the one who keeps in touch with his values. The imposter never has a chance to explain himself and he was a multiple personality through his friends, family or lover’s eyes. He remains elusive. What do they know of his real motives, his insecurities? What do I know? What’s my picture of Jeff?

The title of this billet, I is somebody else is simply the translation of a phrase by Arthur Rimbaud, “Je est un autre”. I want to add something about what you read on this blog: I’m the real thing just a lot less shy than in flesh-and-blood life; I can’t invent a personality far away from mine, lying is too much work. Moreover, when you click on a “like” button or leave a comment, what worth would it have if I knew you were actually talking to a mirage?

I hope your book will be a success and invite other readers to discover more conventional reviews on A Virtual Love here.

All the best,

Emma

Swimming Without Getting Wet by Carlos Salem

April 7, 2013 16 comments

Matar y guardar la ropa by Carlos Salem. 2008 French title: Nager sans se mouiller. Not available in English, sadly.

Remember last week I mentioned I bought three crime fiction books at Quais du polar? Well, here is the billet about the first one I read, Matar y guardar la ropa, the second book by Argentinian writer Carlos Salem.

Salem_NagerIn the first chapter, we meet Number Three in the course of action: he’s killing a man in an elevator, in cold blood. Not surprising since Number Three is a professional killer. His real identity is Juanito Pérez Pérez and in appearance, he’s a successful but dull executive in a large corporation. He’ll turn forty soon, is divorced from Leticia and has two children Antonio (10) and Leti (15). After finishing his job in the lift, he’s on holiday, going to a camp-site with his children for he first time in two years.

On his way to pick up his children, Number Two, his boss in the Firm contacts him to send him on a surveillance job right away. Juan must watch the victim of a future job, the driver of a certain car in a campsite. Unfortunately, Juan knows the licence plates of the car since it belongs to his ex-wife. Unable to walk away from the job, he drives to the camp-site with Leti and Antonio, only to discover that they will be staying in the camping space right beside his ex-wife and her new lover, the judge Beltrán who shouldn’t be there without bodyguards since he works on touchy cases. Who is he supposed to watch? His wife or the judge? Anyone would be ill-at-ease in such delicate circumstances…especially when the campsite happens to be for nudists.

So here is our Juanito, on a job for the Firm, a job that possibly involves his ex-wife or a judge he admires for his valuable contribution to the justice of the country. And in the said ex-wife’s eyes, he’s just Juanito, boneless, boring corporate executive. When his childhood friend Tony, the one he injured twice while trying to protect him, shows up in the same camping with his lethal blondie of a girlfriend, Juanito thinks the world is kind of small. When he accidentally stumbles upon his co-worker Number 13 in the lavatories, he starts thinking these are two many coincidences to be true. Is he really on a job or did the Firm decide it was time to eliminate him?

In a way, Matar y guardar la ropa is the mid-life crisis of a professional killer. Juan regrets not finishing medical school, wonders about his unofficial job and is plagued with guilt about what he did to Tony. He’s in a stressful moment of his life. He’s mulling over the failure of his marriage, he doesn’t have a real connection with his children, he’s still haunted by the death of his mentor, the former Number Three, the one he was ordered to kill. When he meets young, beautiful and sexy Yolanda in the camp site, he turns into a horny teenager and starts re-assessing his life. Can he start a new relationship? Can he mend the broken bond with his children? He has trouble reconciling the official Juanito, a person who needs to be a wallflower to be invisible and cover his illegal activities with the efficient Number Three he has become for the Firm. It’s the first time he has to be the two persons at the same time under the eyes of his children and ex-wife and his two personalities permeating into one another. His conscience starts nagging at him about the people he killed, his life style. But is quitting his job at the Firm even an option?

Salem’s style has a steady pace, showing the events through Juan’s eyes. The absurdity of the location, the nudist camp site, is an opportunity to bring comic situations into the mix. How do you conceal a weapon when you have to go around stark naked? How do you behave when you’re ruining the romantic getaway of your ex-wife with her new lover and that you’re there with the children? It brings light moments in the heavy atmosphere, since after all, a life is at stake.

Salem’s novel is gripping in many ways. It’s a page turner as the reader wants to know the ending (What’s behind the surveillance? Who’s the real target?). I became engrossed with the personal anguish Juan feels and I wanted to know what was going to happen and what turn Juan’s life was going to take.

Highly recommended. Well, to those who can read in French or in Spanish…

Quais du polar: Lyon celebrates crime fiction

April 1, 2013 17 comments

Quais_PolarThis weekend Lyon hosted a festival dedicated to crime fiction named Quais du polar. Let me explain the name. In French, polar is a crime fiction category that covers Noir, thriller, hardboiled and pulp. Cozy crimes and whodunnits aren’t called polars. I have a category Polar on the blog since I never know exactly how to tag the crime fiction book I’m reading. So more precisely, a Raymond Chandler is a polar and an Agatha Christie isn’t. That was for polar. Now, what about Quais? In Lyon, we have two rivers, the Saône and the Rhône. This means lots of banks and piers (Quais) in the city. In addition to this geographical consideration about Lyon, 36 Quai des Orfèvres is the address of the police department in Paris. So a festival named Quais du polar makes sense when it deals with crime fiction.

This event is a firework of crime fiction feasts. There are conferences with writers and publishers, a literary fair (more about that later), an investigation organized in the city, theatre plays, touristic tours, operas and films in the Institut Lumière, the place where the cinema was born.

We did the investigation with the children and I went to the literary fair. It was held in the Palais du Commerce, the beautiful buildings owned by the Chamber of Commerce, located Place de la Bourse. (Stock-exchange plaza). I mused about the irony to have a book fair in the premises of the corporate world. There, independent book stores had stands and each stand had writers present to meet readers and sign copies of their books. I’m not usually looking for signed copies of books, except for particular writers. I was really happy to discuss with Nancy Huston once, more to talk about our common love of Romain Gary than about her own books. This time I was on a mission; my mother is a huge crime fiction reader and with Mother’s Day coming soon, I had the perfect idea for a gift! So I got the signed books I wanted.

Quai_Polar_SalonTo me, the most interesting part was to meet with enthusiastic booksellers. (Sorry, sorry, writers… I never know what to say to you). The nicest one was the crime fiction aficionado from Au Bonheur des Ogres. The name of the book shop itself is attractive since it’s the first title of the Malaussene series by Daniel Pennac. (You can read a review of Fairy Gunmother another volume of this series here) This bookseller uses “tu” at first sight because we’re members of the great brotherhood of compulsive readers. He recommended a Spanish writer, Carlos Salem, and you’ll read about him soon. This bookseller helped Salem’s career in France, along with two other independent bookstores in Toulouse and Paris. I know because they are all mentioned in the acknowledgments of Matar y guardar la ropa, the book I purchased. Yes, as far as I know, the only murder that occurred during the festival is that of my book buying ban. I came home with:

  • Matar y guardar la ropa by Carlos Salem (Nager sans se mouiller). I’m loving it so far.
  • Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest by Jean-Patrick Manchette (Three to kill, review here) I’ve never read Manchette and I’ve been willing to try him for a while.
  • The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski. Also recommended by the friendly bookseller. I knew the name though, thanks to Guy. (See his review of Severance Package)

Salem_Nagermanchette_Bleu

Swierczynski_BlondeI love crime fiction, I’ve always read this genre and I wondered why I hardly read any lately. I came to the conclusion that it stemmed from a language Chinese puzzle. I don’t know much about French crime fiction writers and I’d rather read English-speaking ones in English. And here come the difficulties: I enjoy reading crime fiction to unwind and reading crime fiction in English requires more concentration than in French. Plus, I came to question old translations of crime fiction classics, so reading them in French isn’t an option anymore. With hindsight, it seems quite stupid not to pick crime fiction on the shelf because of a bad concentration-fun equation. So I’ve decided to read recent polars in French; you’ll have to make do with billets without quotes (terribly frustrating at times) and probably poor ones too because I’m not very skilled at reviewing crime fiction.

I think the festival was a success, the place was full of people engrossed in conversations with booksellers, avidly reading their recent purchase on one of the side benches and writers seemed happy to be there. There were lines in front of the conference rooms, we crossed a lot of families and couples also doing the fake Chinese investigation in town. The Palais du Commerce is gorgeous, it gives a classy touch to the event and I hope these independent book stores gained new readers. I can tell you Au Bonheur des Ogres has me now, especially since they also deliver books.

PS: The book buying ban is a phoenix, it can be born again from its cinders.

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