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Pellizzari’s change of life

August 27, 2013 14 comments

Il padre degli orfani by Mario Soldati. 1950. The orphans’ father. French title : Le père des orphelins.

soldati_orphelinsI’ve mentioned this before but I like to discover new writers through Folio’s 2€ collection. They publish short texts by writers in a 100 pages format. Either the book is composed of short stories or it’s a novella. For me, it’s an opportunity to read someone I’ve never tried without starting with a long book. I picked up Il padre degli orfani because its cover caught my eye. Mario Soldati (1906-1999) is an Italian writer and film maker. His most famous book is Le lettere a Capri, published in 1954. Il padre degli orfani is included in A cena col commendatore, a book composed of three stories (La giacca verdeIl padre degli orfani and La finestra)

We’re in Italy in the 1950s, not far from Milan. The narrator has received a letter relating that his friend Antonio Pellizzari, director of the Scala had quit his functions to start and run an orphanage in his villa in the countryside near Milan. The narrator has known Pellizzari for a long time and although they are friends, he judges him as rather cold, selfish and living a private but scandalous love life. He never married. The narrator wonders what prompted this abrupt change in his friend’s attitude and interests. He decides to go and see by himself. When he visits the orphanage, Pellizzari is rather happy to see him and show him the place. The boys are well-kept, Pellizzari is very committed to his new mission and he hired nuns and a priest to educate the children. He takes care of their schedule, outings, games…The narrator is impressed by Pellizzari’s work, his dedication to his cause but is still puzzled at the sudden change. Deep inside, he doesn’t believe that a man can change that much at that age.

Pellizzari explains with eyes full of tears how a poor and sick little boy on a train moved him so much that he decided to help him. When he eventually looked for him, it was too late, the boy was dead. If Pellizzari had come earlier, he could have purchased the medicine the boy needed and he would have been saved. The orphanage is a way to redemption. Still, the narrator remains sceptical. Just when he’s about to leave and grant his friend the benefit of the doubt, he notices his cufflinks on a side table. The narrator knows that these are his cufflinks as they are a family jewel that was stolen from him a couple of months before. It’s unlikely that his friend has the same cufflinks as him, which means they are his. When he asks his friend where he got them, Pellezzari obviously lies. The narrator confronts him and eventually drops the subject but he’s intrigued and this outright lie confirms that he shouldn’t trust his friend’s good intentions.

The novella focuses on Pellizzari, the narrator and the cufflinks. Who is Pellizzari? Is he genuinely interested in these children? Is his interest selfless? When the narrator describes him in all the years he’s known him, he seems like an arrogant man, not the devoted Christian he is in his orphanage. Has he really changed or has he just switched from one role to another? His lie about the cufflinks ties him to his past and tips the narrator off: Pellizzari is not to be trusted.

It’s an interesting questioning about who we are, who we are in the eyes of others and who we’d like to be. Aren’t we all playing roles from time to time? Pellizzari caught himself in his game. He’s always reinventing himself and for now, he’s set on being a Good Samaritan. The narrator would like to unmask him but is it worth it? Isn’t he actually doing a good job with these children? Does it matter if he does it for the wrong reasons?

And what about the narrator? What pushes him to dig into his friend’s life, to probe Pellizzari’s motivations as if he were an insect under a microscope? Why is he so eager to find flaws in this man? Is it jealousy?

The novella tackles important themes like identity, good conscience and more importantly our capacity to change for the best. Can a selfish man turn into a saint? Are we able to change deep inside? While I think it’s a well written and intriguing story, I liked it but nothing more.

Do you know Mario Soldati? As a film director maybe?

Writing doesn’t know any other country than that of their mother tongue.

August 22, 2013 24 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. Egy Polgár Vallomásai. French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois.

After a billet about the events told in Confessions of a Bourgeois, I thought that the book deserved a billet dedicated to literature. Márai exposes his views on writing, on being a writer and he unravels how he came to his vision of literature and writing. For him, it’s an obsession and naming it a calling is just a way to embellish an urge. He was 14 when he knew he had to write but it took him years to know what he would write. He’s not a writer who spent his youth scribbling stories or writing theatre plays he would play with his cousins in front of the family. Márai doesn’t mention a lot of influential writers but he does refer to Kafka as a writer who “spoke” to him:

Il s’avère toujours difficile de cerner la notion d’influence littéraire et de rester objectif et sincère à l’endroit des auteurs qui ont déclenché en vous ce qu’on peut appeler une vision littéraire du monde. La littérature, comme la vie, comporte des affinités mystérieuses. Il m’est arrivé une ou deux fois— pas plus— de rencontrer des êtres qui me paraissaient aussitôt douloureusement familiers, comme si, en quelque époque préhistorique, j’eusse manqué avec eux je ne sais quel rendez-vous. Ces êtres ont la faculté de m’arrêter sur mon chemin et de me révéler à moi-même. It’s always difficult to grasp the notion of literary influence and to remain honest and objective about the authors who triggered in you what you may call a literary vision of the world. Literature, like life, has mysterious affinities. I happened once or twice –not more often—to meet with a being that immediately seemed painfully familiar, as if I had missed a rendezvous with them in some prehistoric era. Such beings have the power to stop me on my journey and to reveal myself to me.

I think all readers have had this experience of reading a book which suddenly seemed to have been created only for them. Some writers have a direct access to our inner selves, knocking down the barriers of time, sex or language. That’s a wonderfully soothing effect of reading. After a few years, Márai made up his mind about what a writer should be:

Je me méfie de ces âmes délicates qui fuient la vie, comme je trouve profondément antipathique l’écrivain « naturaliste », qui, semblable à un violoniste tsigane, « n’écoute que son cœur » et « décrit l’existence » avec une précision minutieuse. C’est entre ces deux pôles extrêmes que vit, crée et se débat l’écrivain. I am wary of these delicate souls who shy away from life, just as I deeply dislike the naturalist writer who, like a Hungarian Gypsy fiddler only listens to his heart and describes life with a thorough precision. An author lives, creates and struggles somewhere between these two extremes.

For me, Rilke is a writer of the first category, it is clear in his Letters to a Young Poet while Zola is, of course, one of the other category. As a reader, I enjoy both and struggle with both. I’ve had a hard time following all of Malte’s inner musings in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and I didn’t enjoy much the lengthy descriptions of Les Halles in The Belly of Paris. I guess Márai has a point when he says a writer should find a middle ground between the two. Philip Roth manages that brilliantly; he can mix the most down-to-earth details with deep thinking. However, I’m not sure about Márai’s idea of writing only in your mother tongue:

L’écrivain ne peut travailler que dans l’atmosphère de sa langue maternelle, et ma langue maternelle était le hongrois. C’est pourquoi, quelques dizaines d’années plus tard, alors que j’écrivais déjà passablement en allemand, et baragouinais tant bien que mal le français, pris de panique devant ma surdité quant à l’essence même de ces langues étrangères, je rentrai précipitamment au pays pour me réfugier au sein de ma langue maternelle. A writer can only work in the atmosphere of his mother tongue and my mother tongue was the Hungarian language. Therefore, a few decades later, when I could passably write in German and jabber away in French, I panicked because I was deaf to the essence of these foreign languages. I hurried home to find shelter in my mother tongue.

Zachary Karabashliev wrote his book set in America in Bulgarian, even if he’s been living in Ohio for years now. He didn’t translate his book into English himself. It seems to confirm Márai’s theory. I’m not a writer and I’m not sure my opinion about this is worth anything. But still. On the one hand, writing in another language can be liberating because the words aren’t loaded with unconscious meanings or don’t carry the same emotional weight. On the other hand, they’re new to the writer but aren’t new to the reader who may load them with a meaning unexpected by the author. More importantly, I wonder if writing in another language doesn’t give the writer to innovate in their adopted language. Perhaps it is an opportunity for the adopted language. Romain Gary never wrote a book in Russian. However, he transposed some of his Russian heritage in his writing in French. He has a unique way of using the French language, something someone with a French background may not have invented. I wonder what Márai who have thought about Beckett or Milán Kundera?

Then, if a writer can only write in their mother tongue, translators are vital. Márai also mentions translations as he discovered French literature in translation.

Etrange métier que celui du traducteur, qui requiert toujours la présence de deux artistes. Le traducteur est souvent un écrivain avorté, comme le photographe un peintre dévoyé. Translator is a strange profession as it always requires two artists. A translator is often an aborted writer, just as a photographer is a corrupted painter.

While I agree that translating literature requires more artistic skills than translating directions for use, the rest of the quote is a little too harsh for me.  I think that photography is an art of its own; it’s not the residue of a more noble art called painting. Plus, aren’t translators literature lovers who strive to promote foreign literature in their language? They bring the world to us, readers and allow us to wander outside of our culture, our language. I like better what Zachary Karabashliev wrote in the Acknowledgments section of 18% Gray “I grew up in a country whose language is spoken by fewer than nine million people. Most of the literature that shaped me as a reader and an individual, and later as a writer, was in translation, mostly English works in Bulgarian. This translation of 18% Gray from Bulgarian to English is, in a way, my chance to give back what’s been borrowed, a raindrop returning to the ocean it came from.” I told you I liked the man behind the book.

Last, but not least, I leave you with a quote coming just after Márai sold his first article written in German:

Ce fut mon premier article écrit directement en allemand. Je rédigeai en cette langue étrangère avec une assurance aveugle. Après coup, l’entreprise me parut d’une folle témérité. Fixer mes idées en un idiome, que certes, je comprenais et parlais, mais en lequel je n’avais jamais encore écrit la moindre ligne, relevait de la gageure. This was my first article written directly in German. I wrote in this foreign language with a blind assurance. Afterwards, this initiative seemed to be of a crazy boldness. To lay down my ideas in a language that I could understand and speak but in which I had never written a line was a real challenge.

At my own little level, I know the feeling quite well…

Happy who like Ulysses has explored

August 19, 2013 16 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. (Egy Polgár Vallomásai). French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois. Not available in English.

du_bellay

Although the title of the book refers to La Confession d’un enfant du siècle by Alfred de Musset, I felt that these verses by Joachim du Bellay suited better to the book. Sándor Márai (1900-1989) is a Hungarian writer and this memoir was published in 1934, which means Márai was still young and had many years to live, which of course he wasn’t aware of. The Confessions of a Bourgeois relate his formative years until he became a writer. The first part covers his fourteen first years until the Great War starts. The second part relates his years from 1919 to 1928 and ends when his father dies.

The first part interested me for the description of his hometown, Kassa. He describes the architecture, the society, the rules, the way of life. There’s a fantastic passage about servants in the Hungarian bourgeoisie and I intend to come by to it when I read Anna Edes. He pictures a society where Catholic and Jews live at peace, where people speak both German and Hungarian. Márai was born in a family from the small bourgeoisie. His father was a lawyer and he built a successful career. Márai had a strict education with every component of what was considered as good education: high school + French + English + piano. He portrays his extended family, showing the most colourful characters, some wealthier than others. Later, he was miserable in his boarding school in Budapest.

Mes ambitions me liaient à la famille et celle-ci appartenait corps et âme à une classe. Tout ce qui se trouvait en dehors de cette famille et de cette classe –hommes, femmes, intérêts ou relations—n’était que matière informe, brute, impure, assimilable aux déchets. Même à l’église, les pauvres étaient considérés comme des malades responsables de leur état, car ils n’avaient pas sur maîtriser leur vie. My ambitions were linked to my family which belonged heart and soul to a certain social class. Everything that was out of the realm of this family and this social class –men, women, interests, connections—were only made of an undefined, gross and impure clay comparable to trash. Even in church, the poor were considered as sick people responsible for their circumstances because they didn’t manage to shape their lives.

marai_confessionsAfter high school, he went to university in Leipzig. This is the starting point of a decade of living abroad. He lived in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Berlin and then six years in Paris, interrupted by months in Florence and frequent visits to London. He wants to discover “Europe” and in his mind, Western Europe means France and Great Britain. What did he do during these years? He wrote articles for different newspapers, especially for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, lived hand to mouth and went from one rented room to the other. He mingled into all kinds of circles. He went to class but never actually got a diploma. He wandered, dreamed, drank and contemplated life.

There are fascinating passages about Berlin in the early 1920s, insight about the French society in the 1920s. (Some observations match with what Edith Wharton wrote in French Ways and their Meaning.) During that time, he got married with Lola, a woman from Kassa who was also in Berlin. These ten years are the decade during which he matures into a writer. He stores – consciously or not – material for future books.

Then, he eventually decided it was time for him to go home, not in Kassa, but in Budapest. He wanted to come back to his culture, but more importantly, to his language. He didn’t think that a writer could fully express themselves in another language than their mother tongue. (More of that in an upcoming billet) Hence the du Bellay reference.

What did I think of this memoir? First, a word about the translation. My French copy was translated by Georges Kassai and Zéno Bianu. I found it annoying because of the extensive use of quotation marks around words. For example:

Je n’avais aucune intention de “faire carrière” et, au fond, je n’attribuais guère d’importance à mes relations avec ce “journal de province” I had no intention to “make a career” and actually, I didn’t care much about my connection with this “provincial newspapers”

Please tell me why we need quotation marks here. Either it’s the right choice of word, either it’s not, and then the French dictionary is thick enough to provide the translator with a better fit. Isn’t making a choice –no matter how imperfect it is—the job of the translator? It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this under Kassai’s pen. This frequent indecision irritated me.

I’m not much into knowing writers through their memoirs or their detailed bios. I bought this because I wanted to read about Hungary at the beginning of the 20thC to illustrate and understand its literature better. Save for the first part, most of the book (almost 600 pages) is set outside of Hungary. I was very disappointed that he totally skipped the Great War’s years and politics in the 1920s. Two sentences about the war (he was mobilized at 18) and not a word about the devastating consequences it had on the Austro-Hungarian empire and thus, on his life. In once sentence, you learn that he can’t go back to Kassa since it’s now in Czechoslovakia. The war made him stateless. Isn’t this a major event? He mentions the fascists when he relates his stay in Florence, he mentions the economic disaster experienced by the German bourgeoisie, the riots in Berlin. But all this is said on a light tone, in the middle of a paragraph, without analysis or personnel assessment of the events. Frustrating, especially when he writer is a journalist.

What does he say, then? He’s self-centred, talks a bit about the characters that cross his life. He was quite a womaniser and never was seriously involved with a woman and suddenly, he’s married. One meeting for tea and a few months later, they’re married. He must have been in love, given his track record with women but he doesn’t say a word about his feelings. It’s called “confessions” but the man himself remains aloof. He neither uses this book to analyse the world he lives in –which Musset did—nor to expose his inner self—which Rousseau did. It’s just his peregrinations, his thoughts about writing, being a writer and his slow process of turning from an adolescent to a man, an author. To be honest, I didn’t like much the man half revealed in this book. I want to read one of his novels now, to see how this mildly interesting man was as a writer.

What happened to him later? The fled from Hungary in 1948, lived in different European countries and eventually settled for the rest of his life in San Diego, California. He only wrote in Hungarian.

Here’s one last quote:

Mais dans les instants privilégiés de notre existence, une explosion assourdissante –le pianissimo du silence équivaut quelquefois au fortissimo d’une déflagration—nous avertit que nous nous sommes trompés de chemin, que nous n’habitons pas là où nous voudrions vivre, que nous n’exerçons pas le métier pour lequel nous sommes faits, que nous recherchons les faveurs et suscitons la colère de personnes avec lesquels nous n’avons pas grand-chose en commun, alors que nous traitons avec indifférence celles qui nous importent vraiment. Si l’on reste sourd à ce genre d’avertissement, on risque de passer à côté de la vie, de passer une existence mutilée et superficielle. Il ne s’agit nullement d’un rêve, fût-il diurne, mais d’une sorte d’illumination qui nous révèle notre réalité profonde, nos obligations, nos engagements et notre destinée personnelle –tout ce qui, au-delà de la misère échue à la condition humaine, nous appartient en propre. But during the precious moments of our existence, a deafening explosion—the pianissimo of a silence sometimes equals the fortissimo of a blow—warns us that we have taken the wrong path, that we don’t live where we’d like to, that we don’t have the profession we are meant for, that we seek the favours and raise the anger of people with whom we have barely anything in common while we treat with indifference the ones who really matter. If one remains deaf to that kind of warning, one risks to miss out on life, to live a mutilated and shallow existence. It has nothing to do with a dream, even diurnal. It is a sort of enlightenment which reveals us our true reality, our obligations, our commitments and our personal destiny, everything that belongs to us, above the misery inherent to the human condition.

Here’s another review by Passage à l’Est.

Long is the road

August 15, 2013 10 comments

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. 2008. French title: 18% gris.

 “Listen my friend. This isn’t a script for a thriller. This is a story about…” I try to calm down and sound convincing. “Actually, this is not a story about drugs. This is a story about a guy who loses his talent…”

“His…what?” Elijah’s eyes narrow, puzzled.

“And loses his faith,” I keep going.

“Ay, ay, ay.” He shakes his head mockingly.

“…loses his appetite for life…”

“Existentialism?” Pure disgust.

“…loses his love…”

“So you’re writing a love story?” Sarcasm, plain sarcasm.

“…himself…”

“And he finds a bag of ganja? Genius!” Elijah slams the table with his fist.

“But one night, one crazy night, as if in a dream, he stumbles upon a bag of marijuana”.

Stella has been gone for ten days and Zach is lost. He’s in a ain’t-no-sunshine-when-she’s-gone kind of mood when he tries to lose himself in booze in Tijuana. This is where he accidentally comes in possession of a bag of marijuana. He decides to leave California behind, drive through the country and sell the weed in New-York. That’s the starting point of the book.

As he drives away from California, Zack follows three paths. The first one is in the present. The second path is the chronological story of his life with Stella. The third one is a journey down memory lane, snippets of conversations with Stella. The three paths are visible in the form of the novel. The present is written in normal script and lay out. His life with Stella is in italic. The snippets are in low-case letters, on the right side of the page, like this:

-look at me

-i’m thirsty

-look at the camera

-i’m cold

-c’mon, please

-i need coffee…

-we’re almost done

-i want to get dressed already…

-this is the last roll of film and i swear we’re done

-the last one?

-the very last one.

The present is a road trip between San Diego and New-York. Zack and Stella are immigrants from Bulgaria. They came to America as students, never left but their whole set of values was formed in their home country. 18% Gray was translated from the Bulgarian and the main character has the same name as the writer. I assume the author poured part of his experience into the book. The road trip is an ode to the American myth. Zack is a photographer who gave up on photography when he couldn’t find a job in his field. He buys a camera for this trip and starts taking pictures again. 18% gray is a technical term for photographers, the equivalent of a diapason for musicians.

I now realise that my American West was not a geographical place, but a secret territory in my dreams. Perhaps everybody has their own Wild West. From a very young age, I knew with certainty that one day I would live in mine. I’d caress the yellow prairie grass and the wind would kiss my face. When did I lose all that? How did I manage to desecrate my West by replacing it with the plastic version of what I’ve been living in for the last few years of my life?

This road trip confronts the real America to his dream America. Despite all the years he’s lived there, he still looks at America with the starry eyes of a European. And yet, what he describes corresponds to the idea I have of rural America. Motels. Poverty. Wilderness. Dinners. Strange characters. People stuck in small towns. Ghost towns abandoned when business went somewhere else; I’ve never seen a ghost town in Europe. All sort of weird encounters happen on this trip and Zack copes with everything that falls down on him. He also takes the opportunity to visit friends scattered on the way. As the book progressed I felt closer and closer to Zack, probably because I share part of his European dream of America and part of his perpetual puzzlement at some American habits:

I try to find a radio station that doesn’t irritate me. I know that every ten or fifteen minutes I’ll have to deal with the next attack of ads—something I have never learned to ignore after all these years in America. Most likely I never will. The locals handle this as if they have an implanted chip that switches their attention on and off during commercial breaks. Maybe the mechanism is formed in the first early years of television watching. I’m missing the “first seven” in this respect. I grew up somewhere else, with a different kind of television.

Karabashliev_grisAfter saying this, he stops to buy CDs and listen to his own free-of-ads music. When we visited California, we did the same. The radio was unbearable and we bought CDs. The TV was unbearable as well. It’s not music or a show with ads, it’s ads with music or shows. We wanted to watch TV and listen to the radio, you learn about a country that way, but we couldn’t. Zack points out the same things that attract our attention as being different from Europe: the huge size of everything, the greasy food everywhere, the preachers on TV or on the radio, the religious stickers on cars, the trailers or the mail boxes in the middle of nowhere.

I also felt close to Zack when he relates how he abandoned his dreams and how it probably cost him his relationship with Stella. Zack drives and thinks about Stella. We learn how they met in Bulgaria and their relationship was based upon a strong connection. When he was a student, Zack wanted to be a rock star but failed, the band disintegrated as its members started to grow up. He learnt photography in Ohio, after they moved to America and it became his passion. Stella’s passion was painting. She had always wanted to paint. When they moved to California, they couldn’t find a job, Zack started to work for a pharmaceutical company and Stella gave lessons. He made good money and lost himself in the process. Stella stuck to painting.

I loved this book, the three paths and lay-outs weren’t artificial. I loved the story, the encounters on the way, the honesty in Zack’s description of his failed marriage. I loved the voice behind the characters of this novel and I had wonderful hours reading it. This is a book I owe to Guy (again), so Guy, a thousand thanks for this. You can read his review here.

PS: The title of this post is a song by French singer Jean-Jacques Goldman. The lyrics talk about the American dream of each immigrant knocking on America’s door, the dream of success and the disappointment that often follow. You can read the lyrics here.

Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie

August 13, 2013 11 comments

Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie 2003. French title: Dix petits indiens.

Alexie_Dix_Petits_IndiensThis book came in the same birthday gift as Notting Hell and it just confirms one thing: J’ai Lu can’t be trusted while 10:18 are a sure bet. I’m referring to the respective publishers of the two books. While I never take a chance buying an unknown J’ai Lu book, I often give in trying an unknown writer published by 10:18. As I’m settling to write this billet, I’m very frustrated that I have a copy of Ten Little Indians in French, which means I won’t be able to insert quotes in my post. And Sherman Alexie’s prose deserves quotes. Ten Little Indians is a collection of nine short stories published in 2003 and Sherman Alexie sounds like a merger between Joseph O’Connor and Woody Allen.

Alexie is an Indian Spokane who lives in Seattle. His stories feature Spokanes who live in Seattle. I loved his quiet tribute to his people that resonates through his stories; this is his Joseph O’Connor side. The characters are single moms, losers, successful businessmen, homeless or students. This collection was published in 2003 and the consequences of 9/11 are present in the book. For example, Indians have a brown skin and are mistaken for potential terrorists by white racists. Alexie describes life in Seattle and detaches himself from Indian clichés.  Just as Joseph O’Connor pictures contemporary Ireland without falling for Irish clichés, Alexie avoids the pitfall of showing Indian traditions or portraying poor and drunk Indians. His Spokanes are like everyone else, poor or well-off, uneducated or university teachers, faithful spouses or cheaters,…His stories are original, full of funny characters and ooze tenderness for the Spokanes. Alexie wonders: what does it mean to be a Native American in the 21st century?

Alexie_Ten_Little_IndiansThe characters have a wicked sense of humour and deep feelings for their family. I loved Alexie’s sense of humour. That’s his Woody Allen side. When I was reading, I was thinking his characters had a Jewish sense of humour. Then later, one of them says that the funniest tribes are the Indians and the Jews and that it must have something to do with a sense of humour inherent to genocide. In another story, William is afraid to fly. Every time he needs to hop on a plane, he listens to his special playlist of songs written by artists who died in a plane crash. The story The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above made me laugh out loud. It’s told by Estelle’s son and he sounds like Alexander Portnoy minus the sex obsession or like Gary in Promise at Dawn. Jewish lit, I tell you. He relates his adolescence in 1976 with his feminist Spokane mother. Hilarious.

Writing about short stories is always challenging, I hope I was good enough for you to check out Sherman Alexie if you haven’t read him yet. He’s worth discovering. He’s certainly a writer I want to explore.

Now that I think of it, most of the regular readers of this blog can read French. You know what, I’m leaving you with quotes from my favourite stories of the book and coming from the French translation. It’s better than nothing, right?

Corliss se demanda ce qui arrivait à un livre qui demeurait trente ans sur une étagère de bibliothèque sans être lu. Est-ce qu’un livre qu’on ne lisait pas pouvait encore mériter le nom de livre ? Si un arbre s’abat dans une forêt et qu’il est réduit en pâte à papier dans le but de fabriquer un livre qu’on ne lira jamais, là où il n’y a personne pour le lire, est-ce que cela s’entend ?

In The Search Engine

 Another one:

Elle m’a emmené à sept matchs de baseball et quatorze lectures de poésie, et j’ai trouvé ces deux passe-temps étonnamment semblables :

1)      Est-ce que je dois applaudir maintenant ?

2)      C’était beau ?

3)      Pourquoi il se gratte les couilles ?

In The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above.

And the last one:

Jusqu’à ce jour, il ne m’est pas souvent arrivé de me regarder dans la glace et de me dire : je suis un Indien. Je ne sais pas nécessairement ce qu’un Indien est censé être. Après tout, je ne parle pas la langue de ma tribu et je suis allergique à la terre. Quand la verdure pousse, j’éternue. En salish, « Spokane » signifie « Enfants du soleil », et je suis un peu allergique au soleil aussi. Quand je passe trop de temps dehors, je récolte de vilaines éruptions. Je doute que Crazy Horse ait eu besoin de talc pour traverser une chaude journée estivale. Vous imaginez Sacajawea en train de franchir la ligne de partage des eaux la goutte au nez ? Je ne suis pas particulièrement représentatif de la fierté indigène. Je ne pense à mon héritage tribal que quand un Blanc me le rappelle :

Q : « Hé !, me, t’es Indien, hein ? »

R : « Euh, ouais »

In The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above.

I’m busted

August 10, 2013 9 comments

You Never Know with Women by James Hadley Chase. 1949. French title: Garces de femmes.

Close your eyes and imagine. Azure blue sky. Air 30°C (86°F). Sapphire blue sea at 28°C (82°F). Since I’ve changed from my business suit to my swimsuit, the only thing I’ve been working on is my tan. The only bottom line I’ve worried about is the net result of the above mentioned swimsuit and tan. *contented sigh* Is there any better moment to read a good James Hadley Chase?

Chase_WomenFloyd Jackson just decided to quit his job as a PI in San Luis Beach, California. He’s run out of money; the Lieutenant of the Police Redfern wants him in jail. Floyd is both a PI and a crook. He’s been involved in blackmail in another state and Redfern knows it. Floyd is about to drink goodbye to his office when a man shows up to propose him a job. His name is Gorman and he’s an agent who sells the services of strippers to moneybags for their private parties. One of his girls, Veda Rux was at Linsday Brett’s house the night before. During the party, Brett showed off an antique Cellini dagger, so precious it is kept in a safe. Gorman relates that Veda Rux walked in her sleep, opened the safe, took the dagger but left her compact in the safe. Gorman wants to return the dagger and have the compact back but he doesn’t want to involve the police. He proposes one thousand dollars to Floyd to do the job: enter Brett’s house, open the safe and make the exchange. Floyd sniffs that Gorman’s story is phony but he needs the cash too badly to be picky.

Of course, the job isn’t as simple as it seemed and when Floyd accidentally meets Veda Rux in Gorman’s garden while preparing for the job, her big blue eyes fry his brains and after a searing kiss, his decision making process crashes. Veda Rux is living trouble and Floyd heads there straight on. I won’t tell more about the plot. You’ll find the usual femme fatale, gunshots, punches, whiskey, gambling joints, rotten policemen, millionaires, powerful friends and a well-knitted intrigue.

Floyd narrates the whole story and we know things didn’t turn right for him. When he starts his story, he presents himself as a loser and he’s disappointed with himself. As the plot unravels, he’s confronted to circumstances that push him to question his motives and his set of values. He discovers that his values are stronger than he imagined and that he’s not as disillusioned with life as he thought he was:

I drew a line at murder. Even if no one ever found out, and the betting was that they wouldn’t, I still had to live with myself and although I hadn’t been very fussy the way I had acted in the past, I was changing my ideas now. I was going to walk upstairs instead of down for a change, and see if I liked myself any better for doing it. I thought I should.

He hopes for a better future but can he escape from his past? Will Veda be his redemption or his fall?

You Never Know with Women is a classic of the genre and it was a great read. It’s lighter than No Orchids for Miss Blandish because Floyd is a more likeable character than Slim Grisson who is positively a sick vicious man. Floyd reminded me of the characters in Johnny Cash’s songs from the album At Folsom Prison. Weak men, making the impulsive wrong decisions for a woman or for money.

The title You Never Know With Women comes from Floyd’s assessment of women, which comes early in the book when he first meets Veda:

I’ve been around and I’ve known a lot of women in my time. They’ve given me a lot of fun and a lot of grief. Now women are funny animals. You never know where you are with them—they don’t often know where they are with themselves. It’s no good trying to find out what makes them tick. It just can’t be done. They have more moods than an army of cats have lives, and all you can hope for is to spot the mood you’re after when it turns up and step in quick. Hesitate, and you’re a dead duck, unless you’re one of those guys who likes a slow approach that might get you somewhere in a week or a month or even a year. But that’s not the way I like it. I like it quick and sudden: like a shot in the back.

I leave you with that piece of male philosophy about the other sex.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

August 6, 2013 15 comments

Brick Lane by Monica Ali. 2003. French title: Sept mers et treize rivières. 

Nazneen was a premature baby born in 1967 in rural Bangladesh; her survival was left to Fate. Deliberately, her mother decided not to take action to save her but let Fate decide if her baby should survive or not. This part is very important because it’s the crux of Nazneen’s education.

What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life.

Ali_Brick_LaneNazneen was born in a village and she and her sister Hasina hardly receive any education. In 1985, when she’s eighteen, Nazneen is sent to London to marry Chanu, a Bangladeshi emigrant. Chanu is in his forties, he’s an old man to her. She moves with him in an apartment in Tower Hamlets, near Brick Lane, London. Brick Lane relates Nazneen’s story, her slow adaptation to her new life and her new environment. She doesn’t speak English, her only contacts are with other Bengladeshi women in the apartment complex. At the beginning, Chanu works for the council as a clerk and is dissatisfied with his job. He’s educated and hopes for a promotion that never comes.

Brick Lane is a four dimensional book. The first dimension is the slow opening of Nazneen’s mind to her right to individuality. The second dimension is Chanu’s personal journey. The third one is the evolution of the neighbourhood, the Bengladeshi community and the children of the first immigrants. The last one is Hasina’s life, back in Bangladesh.

As I said before, Nazneen is a simple woman. She barely knows how to read and write, she has no opening on the world, she’s a devout. She’s passive because that’s how she was educated. She’s a woman therefore she was born to serve her husband. She cooks, cleans the apartment, cuts Chanu’s hair, nails and corn. All this is normal to her. She had no preparation for what she would find in London. She tries to adjust to her new environment as best she can. Things puzzle her:

This woman was poor and fat. To Nazneen it was unfathomable. In Bangladesh it was no more possible to be both poor and fat than to be rich and starving.

She’s introduced to respectable women of her community. Her life really shifts when her children grow up enough to bring the outside world at home and when she starts sewing at home and earning money. The whole novel is told through Nazneen’s eyes. She has difficulties to process her thoughts. The prose of the early chapters reflects her struggle. She doesn’t know how to think by herself but her being left alone in her apartment in a foreign country forces her to. Progressively, she opens her mind, lets herself assess her husband, the community around her. She dares to act, to go against fate and her ingrained acceptance of others choosing her life for her.

Her husband Chanu likes to read and to learn but isn’t really a man of action. He’s discontent because he wants to succeed. He thinks his education is his passport to success and he wants to make it in the English world. For example, he doesn’t want to rule a successful business aimed at his community, he wants to be a success among the whites.

But he was slighted. By customers, by suppliers, by superiors and inferiors. He worked hard for respect but he could not find it. There was in the world a great shortage of respect and Chanu was among the famished.

When you read Chanu speaking, although he’s bombastic, you realise he is actually cultured. Nazneen is too ignorant to realise her husband is cultured. His political analysis of the consequences of 9/11 is good. He has a good knowledge of the history of India and Great Britain. He reads intelligent papers, loves poetry. In a way, doing what he does for a job, he’s wasting his intelligence and he resents it.

Nazneen and Chanu’s mind follow adverse courses. While Nazneen slowly learns that she has a value as a person, that she can think, act and take care of herself, Chanu realises his ambitions will not be fulfilled.

Meanwhile, the neighbourhood undergoes through changes. The parents want their children to be Bengladeshi but they are English instead. Chanu tries to teach Tagore to his daughters, to infuse pride of their culture into them. It only leads to conflicts. Children crave for normality. They were born in England, they are in the English school system and they want to be English. At the same time, rampant racism doesn’t help and some have trouble building their identity. The years go by and drugs appear in the building. Foreign imams open prayer groups and preach about oppressed Muslims in the world. They teach about the jihad. The youth are stuck between their parents’ culture and their country’s culture.

To be honest, I almost abandoned Brick Lane along the way but I was interested enough to push a little farther and finish it. I ended up liking it a lot and the flaws that almost made me give up on it appeared to be strengths. There are interesting passages about immigration. Chanu has a negative analysis of the immigrant’s situation:

‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’ ‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’ ‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.

However, other Bengladeshis see their circumstances differently:

 ‘Why do you make it so complicated?’ said the doctor’s wife. ‘Assimilation this, alienation that! Let me tell you a few simple facts. Fact: we live in a Western society. Fact: our children will act more and more like Westerners. Fact: that’s no bad thing. My daughter is free to come and go. Do I wish I had enjoyed myself like her when I was young? Yes!’

Where is the truth? Somewhere in the middle. If I lived in London, I’d cook French meals and I’d want my children to speak French. As I come from a Western country, everybody would find this natural or that this bi-cultural environment is a chance for my children. If I came from Bangladesh, would people find it normal? Don’t we think in the West that our culture is superior to theirs and isn’t it why we don’t understand why immigrants don’t drop it to embrace ours? Chanu points out that when it comes to India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, we don’t hear about Tagore, we hear about floods and misery. Sadly, it’s true.

Ali_sept_mersI think Monica Ali wrote a great novel. Being in Nazneen’s head is not for everyone as she can be annoying when you look at her with your Western eyes. I tried to detach myself from my cultural background to see things through her eyes. It is hard for her to allow her mind to wander out of the path her education programed her to follow. I thought it was a fair portrait of a woman’s life. Chanu is a good man. He’s much older than Nazneen but he’s kind, respectful, sober and faithful. Monica Ali could have thrown her heroin in a terrible marriage. She didn’t, it would have been too obvious. Chanu is nuanced and she didn’t make a tragedy of this arranged marriage. I appreciated that she didn’t go for the easy dramatic path.

The life of the neighbourhood seeps through Nazneen’s thoughts and it is clear that she doesn’t see or understand everything that’s going on. Monica Ali describes the fights between gangs, the search of identity for young men. For example, Karim, the young man Nazneen knows, idealises Bangladesh but he’s never been there. He sees her as the perfect Bengladeshi wife. For him, religion is a way to find his roots. He changes from sweat pants to Panjabi clothes and grows a beard. What Monica Ali describes applies to French banlieues as well for young French people coming from the North African immigration. The only difference is that they’ve all been to the country their parents or grand-parents came from. It’s not far; you can drive and take the boat to visit for the holidays, even if you don’t have much money. It’s different story to plan a trip from London to Dhaka.

Through Chanu, Monica Ali also points out the behaviour of white people. She remains factual but I think she nails it. At the same time, she doesn’t hesitate to picture the abuses inside the Bengladeshi community. How women gossip and spy on each other. How some take advantage of poorer members of the community and lend money at usurer rates. How people back home beg them to send money. Every time I wondered if Nazneen would have been happier in her home country, a letter from her sister Hasina popped in the book, reminding me that her life could have been much worse. Hasina is beaten by the husband she married out of love. Her life becomes a constant struggle when she leaves him and tries to survive by herself.

I also enjoyed this book because it is well written. Monica Ali’s prose adapts to Nazneen’s thought process. Her writing is more assured as Nazneen broadens her mind. She also has a knack for descriptions, like this:

DR AZAD HAD the misfortune of youthful hair. It was hard not to smile at his thick and shiny pelt, especially as the years had not bypassed his face. They had, in fact, trampled it. His cheeks hung slack as ancient breasts. His nose, once so neatly upturned, appeared to crumble at the end. And the puffy skin around his eyes was fit to burst.

Brick Lane has a message but it’s not black and white. Immigration is a complex issue on a human being level (Nazneen, Chanu) and on a collective level (how to “integrate” these migrants) Monica Ali shows both sides, doesn’t make accusations or portray victims of an unjust system. She states facts. Chanu’s unsuccessful life is both due to his lack of personal skills and to his origins. Thinking he wasn’t slighted because he was an immigrant would be hiding from the truth, thinking it was the only reason is equally wrong.

I value books that make me think and this one did. For another take about this book, here’s the review published in the Guardian.

PS: I hate the title of the French translation and I hate the cover of the paperback edition. It’s not faithful to the book.

Not even good enough for a beach read

August 4, 2013 28 comments

Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson 2006. French title : Le diable vit à Notting Hill.

I don’t know what woke me up – I drank no alcohol last night, I observed the carb curfew, I had only one espresso during the day, plus I did a Pilates class and hours of gardening in the fresh air – but I’m definitely awake now. Wide awake.

Johnson_Notting_HellThis is the first paragraph of Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson. I know what you’re thinking: Why on earth did she pick this book? Well, I didn’t, I got it for my birthday. It’s not a book I would have chosen for myself but I decided to give it a go. We’re now in the South of France, for a couple of weeks of R&R by the sea. I’m exhausted by the last weeks at the office and I thought this would be the perfect time to read Notting Hell. My brain cells are frozen by fatigue and it sounded smart to not to waste good books on the first couple of days of reading at the beach. That’s why I went for this book that didn’t require many brain cells. Actually, it didn’t require brain cells at all and the few I had left threw a tantrum in my skull, urging me to abandon the book. I followed their lead after 80 pages of silliness, not with a capital S, that wouldn’t be big enough, but with a huge initial letter S like in the book of Kells.

The story is about rich families living around a private square in Notting Hill. They’re rich and they have problems. Every sentence mentions a brand of some sort, there are so many of them that I wondered if their marketing VPs paid the “writer” on their advertising budget. I have little patience with that kind of setting. The characters are thin, they have obvious professions; the husbands are bankers, the wives are a free-lance journalist specialised in deep articles such as the pros and cons of being flat-chested or, of course, stay-at-home mothers. Heaven forbid that the women have a job in a scientific field. Their main concern is who sleeps with whom around the square. They observe each other and gossip. Zzzzzzzzz.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some snobbish intellectual who only raves about Proust. I enjoy light reads too. But light doesn’t mean stupid. Now, my beach read is You Never Know With Women by James Hadley Chase (THANKS GUY) and I’m having a great time.

I’ll be back soon with a billet about the excellent Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

Our Book Club reads The Odd Women by Gissing and you’re welcome to read it along with us

August 1, 2013 24 comments

 The Odd Women by George Gissing. (UK, 1893) 432 pages

book_club_2August is the first month of our new Book Club year. You can find the list of books here. This month our Book Club is reading The Odd Women by George Gissing. For a reason I don’t understand, it is not available in French. If there was a translation and it’s just OOP, then let’s hope it gets republished, at least in an ebook version. Regular readers of this blog know that I like Victorian literature very much and that I’m interested in the condition of women. So when I read Guy’s review about The Odd Women, I knew I had to read it. I’m very happy it is part of our Book Club reading this year as it’s always interesting to discuss thought-provoking novels. Here’s the blurb:

gissing_women_travail

“A novel of social realism, The Odd Women reflects the major sexual and cultural issues of the late nineteenth century. Unlike the “New Woman” novels of the era which challenged the idea that the unmarried woman was superfluous, Gissing satirizes that image and portrays women as “odd” and marginal in relation to an ideal. Set in a grimy, fog-ridden London, Gissing’s “odd” women range from the idealistic, financially self-sufficient Mary Barfoot to the Madden sisters who struggle to subsist in low paying jobs and little chance for joy. With narrative detachment, Gissing portrays contemporary society’s blatant ambivalence towards its own period of transition. Judged by contemporary critics to be as provocative as Zola and Ibsen, Gissing produced an “intensely modern” work as the issues it raises remain the subject of contemporary debate.”

gissing_two_womenOn Wikipedia, it is stated that there was an excess of one million women over men in Victorian England. This meant there were “odd” women left over at the end of the equation when the other men and women had paired off in marriage. I wonder why there were so many more women than men at the time. Girls were more likely to reach adulthood than boys? Untimely deaths left many widows? It must have worsened after WWI and all the young men who were killed.

I’m not a specialist but I’m under the impression that these “feminist” novels are a distinctive characteristic of British literature. In Pride and Prejudice and in Emma, Jane Austen has her leading characters discuss the position of women. It’s Mrs Bennet, all stressed out about marrying her daughters to be sure they won’t live poorly and Charlotte explaining to Lizzie that Mr Collins is her best prospect in life. It’s Emma saying that being single isn’t a problem as long as you have your own money. In Miss McKenzie, Trollope also describes the fate of women. If Miss McKenzie doesn’t find a husband, what can she do after her brother’s death? I haven’t read Agnes Grey but I understand it is about with the life of governesses, one of the acceptable positions for gentle women who had to earn their income.

Gissing_women_femmeI don’t remember reading a French novel of the 19thC challenging the role of women in society and showing how narrow their life choices are. I’ve been thinking about the Balzacs, Maupassants, Flauberts, Dumas or Zolas I’ve read and I didn’t find a title about this. There are hints in Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées by Balzac, but both girls are married and it’s more about the different kind of marriages one can enter into. Otherwise, women are for passion, lust, social ascension. They are mothers, daughters and lovers. They are rarely partners. They are either seen as cruel and manipulative or mocked for they naiveté and seen as feeble creatures, like in La Cousine Bette.

There is Notre Coeur by Maupassant which portrays an independent woman, Mme de Burne. I always think of Maupassant is a terrible chauvinist and it is visible in the names of the characters of Notre Coeur. Mme Michèle de Burne doesn’t want to remarry. Her name suggests that she has balls (des burnes) and her first name is both masculine and feminine (Michel/Michèle), so she’s not a real woman, right? The main male character, André Mariolle respects her position and his name means clown; so his opinion cannot be taken seriously. I haven’t read all of Zola, so there might be a volume about women in Les Rougon-Macquart. Can you think of a 19th French novel which depicts with objectivity the lack of prospects for women beside marriage?

Gissing_women_belle_epoqueI’m quite fascinated by this aspect of British literature. I will publish my billet about The Odd Women at the end of the month. Anyone interested in The Odd Women is warmly encouraged to reading it along with us. I’ll read all the blog posts you’ll publish about it and you’re, of course, more than welcome to leave comments below my billet.

I have included several book covers because they’re quite different for the same book. They don’t convey the same image at all. I wonder which one I’ll think best fitted to the book after I have read it.

Want to know more about The Odd Women? Discover Guy’s review here

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