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Manchette pushes all the right buttons

June 29, 2013 18 comments

Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest by Jean-Patrick Manchette. 1976. English title: Three to Kill.

I bought Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest at the crime fiction festival Quai du Polar. I’ve had Manchette in mind for a long time and decided to try this one. I was hooked by the cover and intrigued by its title, but more of that later. Let’s read together the first paragraph of the novel.

Et il arrivait parfois ce qui arrive à présent : Georges Gerfaut est en train de rouler sur le boulevard périphérique extérieur. Il y est entré porte d’Ivry. Il est deux heures et demie ou peut-être trois heures un quart du matin. Une section du périphérique extérieur est fermée pour nettoyage et sur le reste du périphérique intérieur, la circulation est quasi nulle. Sur le périphérique extérieur, il y a peut-être deux ou trois ou au maximum quatre véhicules par kilomètre. Quelques-uns sont des camions dont plusieurs sont extrêmement lents. Les autres véhicules sont des voitures particulières qui roulent toutes à grande vitesse, bien au-delà de la limite légale. Plusieurs conducteurs sont ivres. C’est le cas de Georges Gerfaut. Il a bu cinq verres de bourbon 4 Roses. D’autre part il a absorbé, voici environ trois heures de temps, deux comprimés d’un barbiturique puissant. L’ensemble n’a pas provoqué chez lui le sommeil, mais une euphorie tendue qui menace à chaque instant de se changer en colère ou bien en une espèce de mélancolie vaguement tchékhovienne et principalement amère qui n’est pas un sentiment très valeureux ni intéressant. Georges Gerfaut roule à 145km/h. And sometimes what used to happen was what is happening now: Georges Gerfaut is driving on Paris’s outer ring road. He has entered at the Porte d’Ivry. It is two-thirty or maybe three-fifteen in the morning. A section of the inner ring road is closed for cleaning, and on the rest of the inner ring road traffic is almost non-existent. On the outer ring road there are perhaps two or three or at the most four vehicle per kilometre. Some are trucks, many of them very slow moving. The other vehicles are private cars, all travelling at high speed, well above the legal limit. This is also true of Georges Gerfaut. He has had five glasses of Four Roses bourbon. And about three hours ago he took two capsules of a powerful barbiturate. The combined effect on him has not been drowsiness but a tense euphoria that threatens at any moment to change into anger or else into a vaguely Chekhovian and essentially bitter melancholy, not a very valiant or interesting feeling. Georges Gerfaut is doing 145 kilometers per hour.Translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Personally, I thought that was brilliant and it is Manchette in a nutshell. The style is precise, clinical, mixing descriptions of feelings or a state of mind with descriptions of the environment. I imagined the place, the orange lights of the Paris’s outer ring road, the Porte d’Ivry and its industrial landscape. It’s bleak and we don’t know Georges Gerfaut yet but we already know that something’s gone awfully wrong in his life. Then we just discover what kind of bad turn his peaceful life has taken.

manchette_BleuGeorges Gerfaut is a middle manager in an IT company. He has a wife, two children. He’s average, not particularly brave, a bit of a coward to avoid conflict. He has a good relationship with his wife. They’re about to go on holiday at Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, on the West Coast, near Royans. One night, as he’s driving, he passes near a car that was in an accident and brings an injured man to the ER. When he arrives there, he drops the man and leaves. This will prove to be a bad decision. As it happens, this man was involved in the crime world and now Gerfaut is a target. Two hit men are after him and they first attempt at killing him at Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, on the beach, or more exactly in the ocean. Gerfaut manages to get rid of them and takes off. Without thinking, he climbs in his car and leaves his wife and children behind and goes back to Paris. The rest of the book relates the game of hide-and-seek between Gerfaut and his assailants.

As you may have guessed from the quote above, Manchette is excellent. His style fits the genre and keeps the reader on edge. He’s a man of few words but his descriptions are striking. He’s not trying to imitate the great American masters. No, he’s better than that. You’re not reading a dubbed version of an American novel. You’re reading a French polar, a book which is totally French in its essence and its references but respects the rules of noir fiction. Manchette has read, has taken over the codes and have transposed them in a French atmosphere. Or perhaps he’s just following Simenon’s path and I didn’t notice it because I haven’t read Simenon yet, except for two Maigret.

The style sounds like a cold voice over and the plot is simple but gripping, I wondered if and how Gerfaut would get out of this. I wanted to keep on reading to know the ending.

The novel dates back to the 1970s and it’s rooted in its decade. Manchette refers to political fights and reminded me how violent these years were. Why doesn’t Gerfaut go to the police? Well, the police don’t have a good reputation in these years. Not after the métro Charonne or after Mai 68. It’s written in 1976, between the two energy crisis and France’s economy is in stagnation. The whole context pervades in the book and explains why Gerfaut is how he is. He’s a product of the French society. While I was reading, I was also reminded again how little privacy we have now. We’re used to it and we don’t notice anymore. I noticed how Gerfaut easily vanishes from his life. Nowadays, it would be almost impossible to move without leaving traces of your cell phone, your credit card or your way through tolls on the motorway. Even this first paragraph would be hard to write today: Georges would get caught by the CCTV on the outer ring road, he’d get an automatic fine for driving over the speed limit. The authorities would have known he’d been there. Inconspicuous is hard to manage these days.

As always when I write about crime fiction, I’m terribly dissatisfied by my billet. Somehow, I never manage to analyse properly a crime fiction novel. So I’m glad that you can read Guy’s post here or Max’s here, you will find excellent analysis of the literary merits of Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest or relevant comments about its political content.

Now about the title. The English title, Three to Kill is the translation of the French subtitle, Trois hommes à abattre. The French title, Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest, is difficult to translate. It has different meanings and I didn’t know what it meant until I read the book. Manchette was a great amateur of jazz and so is Gerfaut in the book. The title can be translated as The little blues of the West Coast and there are indeed references to jazz in the book. And the West coast is where Gerfaut is on vacation the first time the killers attempt to murder him. Moreover, un petit bleu is a telegram and a telegram plays a key role in the plot. And last, un bleu is a rookie and that’s what Gerfaut is on the crime scene. See how many meanings Manchette managed to convey simply in the title of his book? That’s him. Not many words but much to ponder about.

PS: There’s a “cross-language” pun in the title of this post. For readers who’d need help, here’s a clue: go to a French-English dictionary and check out the French word for cufflink.

Paris in August by René Fallet

June 22, 2013 18 comments

Paris au mois d’août by René Fallet. 1964. Not available in English.

D’abord c’est obligé qu’tu craques pour mon ManoucheIl adore la pluie et le ventIl aime René Fallet et y pêche à la mouche

Et en plus il est protestant

Renaud, Mon Amoureux.

You can only fall for my GypsyHe loves the rain and the windHe likes René Fallet and he fly-fishes

And even better, he’s protestant

Renaud, My Sweetheart

I love the singer Renaud and ever since I heard this funny and lovely song Mon Amoureux, where a teenage daughter tries to describe her sweetheart to her father, I wanted to read René Fallet. Well, it’s done now and what a discovery!

Paris au mois d'aoûtHenri Plantin is 40, has a wife, Simone and three children. We’re in 1964 in Paris. The Plantins live near rue Beaubourg, in the center of Paris. The General de Gaulle is still president, the Halles (The Belly of Paris) haven’t been moved to Rungis and Brigitte Bardot is the ideal feminine. Henri works as a salesclerk at the Samaritaine, a nearby department store. He works in the fishing department. This summer is special as he wasn’t authorised to take his days off in August. So his wife and children leave him behind to spend the month at the beach and he will go fishing in September.

During his first days, he enjoys being alone in the apartment, meeting with friends and doing whatever he wants. One day, as he takes a walk along the Seine after work, he meets Patricia. She’s English and she’s spending the summer in Paris. She asks directions to go to the Pantheon and Henri suggests he walks her there. They start talking, Patricia stumbling upon words in French, Henri knowing only a few words of English. Henri is smitten and Patricia likes this shy Frenchman. He says he’s a painter, to impress her. She says she’s a model, to impress him. They develop a summer romance.

The plot is quite simple and it’s not what makes the marvellous bittersweet taste of this novel. The encounter between this Frenchman who’s never left his country and this English young woman is funny at times. Patricia wants to visit the Pantheon to see Napoleon. Henri explains that Napoleon isn’t at the Pantheon but in the Invalides.

– Je croyais. Il y a sur le Panthéone “Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante.” Napoléon n’est pas un grand homme pour les Français?- Si affirma Plantin qui n’avait jamais tant parlé de l’empereur, si bien sûr.- Alors?Il ne put opposer à cette logique britannique que la plus détestable fantaisie continentale:- Alors, il est aux Invalides. – I thought he was there. It’s written on the Pantheon “To great men. The country thanks you” Isn’t Napoleon a great men for the French?– Yes, Plantin said. He had never talked so much about the emperor. Yes of course, he is– So?He could only oppose to this British logic the most distasteful continental whim:– So, he is in the Invalides.

Patricia challenges him. She looks around her with fresh eyes and a different background. Henri is 40, he married young and never lived alone. This month without his family is the first time he spends not being a son, a husband or a father. He feels liberated. He also feels the weight of his average life. He has a dull job at the Samaritaine, his life is full of routine.

Il n’était pas laid. D’accord il n’avait plus la chevelure ondulée de son adolescence. Ses tempes s’étaient fleuries de pâquerettes de cimetière, et le le peigne n’avait plus à livrer de sévères combats pour ordonner le tout. He wasn’t ugly. OK, he no longer had the thick and wavy hair of his adolescence. His temples were covered with a cemetery bloom of daisies and the comb no more needed to lead a fierce battle to tidy the whole.

He’s fond of his wife and children but he feels his life passing by and these thoughts were already there when he meets Patricia. She’s like a breath of fresh air, a moment of the youth he never had time to enjoy. Henri is in love again and even if he knows this relationship is doomed, he intends to enjoy it fully. He wants to make the sweetest memories and Patricia finds him relaxing, nice and handsome enough. It’s only August, but she’s his Indian summer.

Together, they wander in Paris and that’s another great aspect of the book. It was written in 1964. It describes the Paris of its time but when you read it now, it seems to similar and so different at the same time. The neighbourhood is still popular. Prostitutes, employees, tramps and small shop owners populate the area. Now it’s mostly touristy –that’s where the Musée Pompidou is–and like almost everywhere in Paris, very expensive. It’s Paris with its working class. People smoke Gauloises, go to the bistro, play tiercé and wear shirts in fabric made by Boussac. (That company went bankrupt in the 1970s). For the contemporary reader, everything says “before the crisis of 1973”. Henri complains about the flow of cars and the metro which swallows and regurgitates workers and employees everyday. The walks in Paris are pleasant to read.

Most of all, René Fallet has a wonderful style. He has a sense for wrapping images in short sentences.

Un petit jeune homme charmant vomissait son excellente éducation dans le caniveau. Il serait dans la politique ou dans le yaourt, comme papa.

A charming little young man was vomiting his excellent education in the gutter. He will be in politics or in the yoghurt industry, like his daddy.

Ce dimanche, le pigeon blanc roucoulait en anglais.

That Sunday, the white pigeon was cooing in English.

Nul ne savait qu’un amour venait d’emménager en cet immeuble.

Nobody knew a young love had just moved into this building.

His language reflects the popular setting and the social class of his characters. He switches from descriptions of the city to a sort of stream of consciousness when Plantin reveals his feelings for Patricia or his thoughts about his life.

This is a delightful book which is unfortunately not available in English. It was made into a film by Pierre Granier-Deferre. Charles Aznavour plays Fantin and Susan Hampshire is Patricia. I haven’t seen it but I don’t see why the excellent style of Fallet wouldn’t be transferred into the dialogues.

I wonder if Renaud was reading Fallet when he wrote his album A la Belle de Mai. Mon amoureux is on this album, just as another song entitled La médaille which describes how pigeons leave excrements on a statue of Pétain. In Paris au mois d’août, René Fallet writes:

Les pigeons de Paris n’avaient pas bonne presse. On les accusait de décorer les maréchaux d’Empire du Louvre d’ordres que n’avait pas créés Napoléon. The pigeons of Paris didn’t have a good reputation. People accused them of decorating the marshals of Empire of the Louvre with medals that Napoléon had not given.

Did this inspire Renaud? I’ll never know for sure but I suspect it.

Anyway, I’m happy I decided to read René Fallet and I intend to read another of his books. So, thanks for the nudge, Renaud. One day, I’ll read Eric Holder, after all, he’s mentioned in the song Fanny Ardant et moi by Vincent Delerm and I love that song.

PS: sorry for the clumsy translations. I did my best.

Why I had to abandon That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

June 20, 2013 43 comments

That Deadman Dance  by Kim Scott. 2010. Not available in French.

Scott_DeadmanLisa from ANZ Lit Lovers gave me That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott as my Humbook gift last Christmas. It took me a while to start it and it took me a while to acknowledge defeat and abandon it. I so didn’t want to quit reading it but I had to, this is too great a book to be understood and enjoyed half way through the lenses of non-native English speaker. I need a French translation with a foreword and explanatory footnotes and it’s not available in French.

That Deadman Dance relates the foundation of settlements in Australia and the relationships between the first white people coming there and the natives, the Noongar. I know absolutely nothing about the history of Aborigines and lots of things were totally lost to me. I did go to an exhibition of Aborigine art in Paris after Lisa gave this novel to me, to prepare for the book but I didn’t learn much that day. French museums have a knack for lacking of educational signs in exhibitions. Either you’re in and you already know something about what you’re seeing or you get out almost clueless. Once I’ve been to one called Contemporary art told to children. We brought the children there, mind you, all the pieces were a contemporary version of a previous and famous art work. It was explained alright, but do you think they had put a picture of the painting or sculpture it referred to? Of course not. We spent the whole visit looking for the missing pictures on our smartphones and showing them to the children on a tiny screen. But back to Scott and my difficulties.

I can read what you may consider difficult books (like Henry James) because the vocabulary is rather easy, at least for a Frenchwoman. Lots of your big words look like French words anyway. Reading a book about Australia with lots of descriptions of the landscape and a narrative leaping from one voice to another is another thing. Here’s a quote, just to hum to you the music of Scott’s voice:

They followed a path, rocky and scattered with fine pebbles that at one point wound through dense, low vegetation but mostly led them easily through what, Chaine said, seemed a gnarled and spiky forest. Leaves were like needles, or small saws. Candlestick-shaped flowers blossomed, or were dry and wooden. Tiny flowers clung to trees by thin tendrils, and wound their way through shrubbery, along clefts in rock. Bark hung in long strips. Flowering spears thrust upward from the centre of shimmering fountains of green which, on closer inspection, bristled with spikes.

Evocative, isn’t it? Kim Scott writes beautifully and the story in itself interested me. (You can read more about it here, under Lisa’s pen). I stopped reading it because I was sabotaging a marvellous piece of literature and I didn’t like that a bit. Other books by Scott are available in French, I’ll try one of them and perhaps, once I know more, once my English is better, I’ll return to this one. Right now, I’m frustrated not to be able to enjoy That Deadman Dance. Thank you Lisa for bringing this writer to my attention. And thank you to Actes Sud for translating some of his former books in French. This publisher is a gem.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

June 16, 2013 39 comments

Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit by Delphine de Vigan. 2012 English title: Nothing Holds Back the Night. 

book_club_2Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit was highly praised when it was published and I’m glad we had it on our Book Club list for this month. Delphine de Vigan started this novel after her mother Lucile committed suicide. She found her dead in her apartment, four days after she took her life. Imagine the shock, the sight, the stench and the pain. This book is a quest to find out about her mother, who she was, where her pain came from.

Sans doute avais-je envie de rendre un hommage à Lucile, de lui offrir un cercueil de papier – car de tous, il me semble que ce sont les plus beaux – et un destin de personnage.

Mais je sais aussi qu’à travers de l’écriture je cherche l’origine de sa souffrance, comme s’il existait un moment précis où le noyau de sa personne eût été entamé d’une manière définitive et irréparable, et je ne peux ignorer combien cette quête, non contente d’être difficile, est vaine.

I was certainly willing to pay a tribute to Lucile, to give her a paper coffin – because it seems to me that they are the most beautiful of all – and the destiny of a character.

But I also know that I’m writing to find out the origin of her pain, as if there were a precise moment were the kern of her being had been damaged forever and beyond repair. I cannot ignore that this quest is difficult and most of all, vain.

I don’t think it makes sense to summarise the events that Delphine de Vigan relates in her book. Suffice to say that Lucile faced several dramas in her childhood, that her beauty was a curse. She grew up among eight siblings, three of them died of an untimely death. Her parents were unconventional, bordering irresponsible. She was always a secretive child. She married young and pregnant. She wasn’t cut out for motherhood even if she loved her daughters. She was bipolar and her demons ate her alive, bit her daughters’ childhood and left a permanent dent in their bodies and souls. She had prolonged stays in psychiatric institutions and her siblings and children were always concerned about her. Yet, she was strong enough to start afresh at forty.

This is Lucile’s story and it is a peculiar one, her own, interesting enough to make a book. But that’s not what makes the book so compelling.

The true achievement of the novel is in the narration. The chapters alternate between Lucile’s story and the author’s struggle with her task. Writing this cost her a lost of energy and resulted in sleepless nights. She interviewed her family and dug out memories. Not all of them were pleasant ones. She read all the material her mother left (letters, poems, diaries, notes) She listened to the tapes her grand-father had recorded. She re-read her own diaries. All this stirred a lot of emotions, raised a lot of questions.

J’écris ce livre parce que j’ai la force aujourd’hui de m’arrêter sur ce qui me traverse et parfois m’envahit, parce que je veux savoir ce que je transmets, parce que je veux cesser d’avoir peur qu’il nous arrive quelque chose comme si nous vivions sous l’emprise d’une malédiction, pour pouvoir profiter de ma chance, de mon énergie, de ma joie, sans penser que quelque chose de terrible va nous anéantir et que la douleur, toujours, nous attendra dans l’ombre.

I’m writing this book because I am now strong enough to think about what goes through me and sometimes invades me. Because I want to know what I pass on, because I want to stop dreading that something will happen to us, as if we were living under a bad spell. I want to be able to make the most of the chance I have, of my energy or of my joy without thinking that something terrible will crush us and that pain will always wait for us in the shadows.

This novel is both an homage to Lucile and a therapy for the author, or is therapy too strong a word? Perhaps it was just part of her healing process. I genuinely hope it brought her peace.

Vigan_NuitShe’s well aware that some of the things she writes won’t please her family. She tells her doubts, silently asks for their forgiveness, shares the reassurance she gets from some relatives. To me, she seemed strong and fragile at the same time. Strong in her resolution to finish her project. Fragile about herself. I noticed that she never says my ex-husband or my partner; she says my children’s father or the man I love as if writing my before a noun referring to a spouse burnt her hand or could jinx the relationship.

This book is different from what I expected. She voices her uncertainties about her right to do this, the accuracy of what she’ll write and the fear to reopen old wounds. She’s not here to settle her differences or to judge her family. However, she doesn’t shy away from the truth even if she knows it can only be her truth. She pays attention to her relatives’ feelings but doesn’t let them get in the way of her work, her quest.

Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit is remarkable, overwhelming with sincerity. It’s hard for me to convey all the emotion and sadness this book kindled. Life is harder for some than for others; Delphine de Vigan had a difficult childhood but turned into a great novelist.

PS: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit is a quote from the lyrics of a famous song by Alain Bashung, Osez Joséphine. Delphine de Vigan says she was listening to Bashung when she wrote the book. She passed this on to this reader, the song was in my head all along.

Down and out in Kristiana, Norway

June 6, 2013 44 comments

Hunger by Knut Hamsun. 1890 French title: Faim. 146 pages. Made into a play entitled Ylajali by Jon Fosse.

The instant I opened my eyes I began, from sheer force of habit, to think if I had any reason to rejoice over the coming day. I had been somewhat hard-up lately, and one after the other of my belongings had been taken to my “Uncle.” I had grown nervous and irritable. A few times I had kept my bed for the day with vertigo. Now and then, when luck had favoured me, I had managed to get five shillings for a feuilleton from some newspaper or other.

I started to read Hunger before going to the theatre to see its theatre version but I didn’t manage to finish on time. Hunger was written in 1890 by Knut Hamsun and the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse made it into a play, Ylajali. I’ll start with the novella and will then talk about the play.

Hunger is a first person narrative where a young aspiring writer relates his struggling life in Kristiana, Norway. It is based upon Hamsun’s own experience of poverty. The novella is split in four parts, each of them referring to a time of hardship for the narrator.

We follow the young man’s wanderings, his attempts at selling articles to earn money. We see how hunger affects his brain, how people start to see him more and more as a tramp. We witness how he clings to his dignity, how he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s poor, famished and desperate. It prevents him from asking for help but it also prevents him from falling into pieces. Reading this novella was almost unbearable and the reader sees this young man’s life spiral into poverty. Hunger holds on him, a bearable touch at the beginning, an iron claw in the end. Hunger grips him and Hamsun describes very well how it impacts the narrator’s body and his mind. It starts with physical pain:

It was three o’clock. Hunger began to plague me in downright earnest. I felt faint, and now and again I had to retch furtively.

Or

Here I was going about starving, so that my entrails wriggle together in me like worms, and it was, as far as I knew, not decreed in the book of fate that anything in the shape of food would turn up later in the day.

But then, as the time of hardship stretches to months, he is malnourished and suffers from the consequences of his lack of food for a long period of time:

The last crisis had dealt rather roughly with me. My hair fell out in masses, and I was much troubled with headaches, particularly in the morning, and my nervous strain died a hard death.

Or later in the book

Hunger lodged once more in my breast, and I had not tasted food since yesterday evening. This, ’tis true, was not a long period; I had often been able to hold out for a couple of days at a time, but latterly I had commenced to flag seriously; I could not go hungry with quarter the ease I used to do. A single day made me feel dazed, and I suffered from constant retching the moment I tasted water. Added to this was the fact that I lay and shivered all night, lay fully dressed as I stood and walked in the daytime, lay blue with the cold, lay and froze every night with fits of icy shivering, and grew stiff during my sleep.

Hamsun describes hunger with painful realism and my heart reached out to this poor man. No one can stay indifferent to passages like this:

The only thing that troubled me a little, in spite of the nausea that the thought of food inspired in me, was hunger. I commenced to be sensible of a shameless appetite again; a ravenous lust of food, which grew steadily worse and worse. It gnawed unmercifully in my breast; carrying on a silent, mysterious work in there. It was as if a score of diminutive gnome-like insects set their heads on one side and gnawed for a little, then laid their heads on the other side and gnawed a little more, then lay quite still for a moment’s space, and then began afresh, boring noiselessly in, and without any haste, and left empty spaces everywhere after them as they went on.

From the start, the narrator tells us that hunger affects his thinking abilities. At the beginning of the book, he’s a little worried:

I had remarked so plainly that, whenever I had been hungry for any length of time, it was just as if my brains ran quite gently out of my head and left me with a vacuum—my head grew light and I no longer felt its weight on my shoulders, and I was conscious that my eyes stared far too widely open when I looked at anything.

As the hunger settles in, he feels that his mental capacities are more and more impaired. His mind gets out of control. He goes from worried to frightened as he feels madness getting to him.

My madness was a delirium of weakness and prostration, but I was not out of my senses. All at once the thought darted through my brain that I was insane. Seized with terror, I spring out of bed again, I stagger to the door, which I try to open, fling myself against it a couple of times to force it, strike my head against the wall, bewail loudly, bite my fingers, cry and curse…

His situation worsens. Sometimes he manages to sell an article and has a little money for a few days. All of his possessions have been pawned. (By the way, in English you say to go to my “Uncle’s”, in French you go to your “Aunt’s”). He doesn’t have any money to clean himself and his appearance starts advertising his poverty:

Meanwhile my clothes commenced to steam. Hunger put in a fresh appearance, gnawed at my breast, clutched me, and gave small, sharp stabs that caused me pain.

He sinks further into poverty. As his living conditions deteriorate, he stops clinging to his principles, his dignity. Right and wrong don’t have the same importance when you need food and shelter.

Conscience, did you say? No nonsense, if you please. You are too poor to support a conscience. You are hungry; you have come on important business—the first thing needful. But you shall hold your head askew, and set your words to a sing-song.

At the beginning, he would lie to hide his situation, to be seen as a gentleman. He was ashamed to show he had no money, no prospects. The more he has to live through this, the less he cares about his appearance. He can’t afford to be proud anymore and he accepts treatments of him that would have revolted him a few months before. Hunger shows the slow dehumanisation of a young man.

Nevertheless, Hunger is never miserabilist. I was very moved by the resilience of this young man. He keeps writing, assailed by inspiration from time to time. He writes frantically in parks or in his lodgings. Writing transports him somewhere else.

Suddenly a few good sentences fitted for a sketch or story strike me, delicate linguistic hits of which I have never before found the equal.

But, as a freelance writer, his bread depends on his capacity to deliver sensible and interesting articles or stories. But how can he write well when his thinking process is impaired by hunger? It can only spiral out of control as his capacities to earn money are hampered by his living conditions which keep degrading if he doesn’t sell articles…

Despite his miserable conditions of living, he’s still able to see beauty around him. This quote comes from the beginning of the book:

If only one had just a little to eat on such a lightsome day! The sense of the glad morning overwhelmed me; my satisfaction became ill-regulated, and for no definite reason I began to hum joyfully.

He’s still optimistic; he hasn’t been filthy poor for too long. He’s sure it won’t last, the reader isn’t too surprised by his attitude. But when days turn into months of hardship and he says…

The sun burst over the heights, the sky was pale and tender, and in my delight over the lovely morning, after the many dark, gloomy weeks, I forgot all cares, and it seemed to me as if I had fared worse on other occasions. I clapped myself on the chest and sang a little snatch to myself.

…I find him incredible. Despite his terrible situation, he isn’t blind to the beauty of his surroundings. Hope is his dope. It gives him strength and the reader witnesses how he clutches every tiny hope to make money. Once, he wants to sell the buttons of his coat, he’s so sure they’re worth something and it’s enough to keep his mind positive for a while.

The novella pictures his ups and downs, his attempts at getting out of his predicament. It portrays a young starving artist who refuels on his own, driven by hope and inner strength. Any feeble spark of hope makes his day better. He always hopes for the best and overcomes his despair. He does wish to die sometimes but he holds to his positive attitude. That’s probably why it’s so moving.

Of course I thought about Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Hunger affected me more. Perhaps it’s because Orwell’s days felt more like a journalistic experiment. I knew he could have turned to his family and put an end to this time of his life. This young man was in it for good and I felt a lot of compassion for him. I also thought about Arturo Bandini in Ask the Dust. This young man and Arturo have something in common: their faith in a better future, their need to write, their ability to stay positive. There’s something about the narrator’s ramblings that made him a kindred spirit of Arturo’s and of Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge.

So how do you make a play out of this intimate confession?

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Jon Fosse chose to set aside the starving-artist part of the novel. The play is set in a public garden in autumn and a man, any man, you, me is there, trying to survive. The young man has no defined occupation, he’s unemployed. When Jon Fosse leaves behind the reference to writing, he makes his play universal. Anyone could be sacked, fail to find a new job and fall down like this young man.

The play was directed by Gabriel Dufay, who also played the role of the young man. The setting was a park in autumn, with a lamppost. A pianist was on stage, playing music from time to time, lifting the atmosphere which could have been heavy, given the topic. It gave back the tone of the book which avoids the pitfall of miserabilism. The actor impersonated the young man and two other actors played the role of the different men he speaks to in the book and Ylajali, the young woman he fantasises about. Gabriel Dufay was more than excellent. He was gripping, full of energy and showing exactly what the narrator was in the book. Hopeful, nice, extravagant. He showed the claws of hunger grasping the young man’s brain. He showed the slow degradation of the social status of this man. The first night in the park with policemen hovering, the shoes with holes, the cold that seeps into the bones. The hunger which weakens the man’s body, makes him dizzy and nauseous.

The book overwhelmed me, the play punched me in the stomach. We were out of words when we went out of the theatre. I thought “I’ll never look at homeless people the same way” but I know it’s not true. Feelings like this are fleeting. I’d need to act upon it if I really wanted to keep that silent promise I made to myself. Otherwise the emotion subsides; life goes on and the feeling is just stocked somewhere in my memory.

Needless to say I warmly encourage you to read Hunger if you haven’t read it yet.

‘Tis a rock!…a peak!…a cape! A cape forsooth! ‘Tis a peninsular!

June 2, 2013 21 comments

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand 1897.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a historical play by Edmond Rostand, loosely based upon the real Cyrano de Bergerac. It is set in the 17th century, in France, in the musketeer’s era. Cyrano is a proud, quarrelsome soldier from Gascogne, like d’Artagnan. He’s loud, brave, and loyal to his friends. He lives upon a strong code of honour. He doesn’t like to compromise, always speaks his mind even if it will only gain him enemies. Cyrano is a poet and a swordsman; he handles words and swords with elegance and success. But Cyrano is ugly, a big nose disfigures his face. He has a complex about it and while nobody dares to mention his nose, he chooses to make fun of it. This is one of the most famous lines in the French theatre, and even if it’s long, I can’t resist the pleasure to share it with you:

Cyrano_Nez.emfCyrano is in love with Roxane and Roxane is in love with gorgeous Christian. She fell for his pretty face but she has a passion for poetry and fine lines, which was fashionable in the 17thC. She wants her lover to be witty and wax poetic. Poor Christian can’t write a line and poor Cyrano isn’t handsome enough to attract her. Roxane confides in Cyrano and tells him about her love for Christian. Both men are in the same regiment and Roxane asks Cyrano to protect Christian. Cyrano loves her enough to only want her happiness and promises to take care of Christian. Meanwhile, Cyrano discusses Roxane with Christian and offers his help with writing love letters. Cyrano is adamant that Christian can win her heart if Cyrano writes the lines and Christian delivers them. This leads to another extremely famous scene: Roxane is on a balcony and Cyrano is in the shadows, murmuring lines to Christian so that he can repeat them. Roxane notices something is wrong in Christian’s rhythm of speech and Cyrano takes over, taking the opportunity to reveal his feelings. Roxane never guessed that it wasn’t Christian speaking.

Cyrano_TorretonI have seen a surprising version of Cyrano directed by Dominique Pitoiset, starring Philippe Torreton in the role of Cyrano. The first scenes were a bit awkward. The setting looked like a psychiatric hospital, with crude white lights, white plastic furniture. The characters were dressed in sweat pants, snickers and undershirts. They looked like lunatics indeed. A juke-box coming from the 1960s in America was set along a wall and used from time to time to broadcast music. (I’d never thought I’d hear Queen along with Rostand’s verses). In the play, this is set in soldiers’ quarters. Cyrano was bald, with a mustachio and of course a big nose. Some spectators left after twenty minutes and they should have been a tiny more patient because the oddity vanished after a while and the beauty of the text just swept us along.

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Pitoiset managed to give back the power of the text, the sheer energy of the words. This play is simply beautiful, mixing irony, comedy, sentiment, war and love. The direction was innovative and even if it was sometimes offbeat because of the difference between the language and the setting, I thought it worked well. As you can read it in the quotes, the play is in alexandrins and mentions things that don’t belong to the 21thC (swords, battle of Arras…) It lasted two and a half hours and I never got bored a minute. The balcony scene I mentioned earlier was replaced by an internet scene. A huge screen went down on the scene and Christian and Cyrano were at a laptop, dialling to have an internet phone call with Roxane. It was an excellent find for two main reasons. The obvious one is that it showed how modern this scene was. Just as Roxane couldn’t know that Cyrano was prompting Christian’s answers with the darkness surrounding her balcony, she couldn’t know that there was someone else near the computer. It made me smile because when I read A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman, which is, among other things, about impersonating someone else to conquer a woman, I thought about Cyrano, Christian and Roxane. And then I saw that I wasn’t the only one to link the anonymity of the internet with this. The other reason is that the screen showed Roxane’s face in close-up. This scene is very moving, Cyrano pours his heart out and wins her with his words. She doesn’t know she’s falling for Cyrano and not Christian. We could witness all the emotions on the face of the actress, which couldn’t have been possible without the screen. The emotion was palpable and it brought an incredible force to the moment. Brilliant idea, brilliant acting also.

Torreton is an amazing actor. He’s totally at ease on stage, you’d think he was chatting in his living room. His diction is perfect without any hesitation in the text. He never stumbles upon a word or yells when it’s unnecessary. He has the right tone at the right moment and he does justice to the beauty of Rostand’s style and to the panache of Cyrano as a character. I had already seen him in Uncle Vania by Chekov and I’d been impressed. Great performance.

If you don’t know Cyrano de Bergerac, it’s worth discovering and here is another quote to hear his wonderful prose:

Cyrano_baiserThere’s a film version with Depardieu playing Cyrano; I remember I liked it. I enjoyed the modernised version I saw and that’s something only the theatre can do. When I read a novel, although I often feel that what the novelist wrote reaches out to me across the centuries, I remain rooted in the century it was written. When I read Money by Zola, I recognise patterns that exist in my century because human traits remain the same but I still see images of the 19thC. When I watch a play that has been relocated from its century to ours, I may forget about the original century. It’s set here and now and this liberty offered to the director gives a new dimension to the text.

PS: the quotes come from the English version available on Projet Gutenberg. It was translated from the French by Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard.

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