Archive for September, 2013

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

September 30, 2013 25 comments

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. 1956 I don’t think it’s been translated into French.

London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.

It’s quite rare that I write a billet about a book more than a month after finishing it. It’s interesting to see what remains of it after several weeks.

Sam SelvonSam Selvon was from Trinidad and lived in London in the 1950s. The Lonely Londoners describes the life of immigrants from the West Indies. It starts with Moses who goes to Waterloo Station to welcome a fellow Trinidadian who’s arriving to London. His name is Henry Oliver and Moses quickly renames him Sir Galahad. The same day, Tolroy is also at the station, waiting for his mother’s arrival from Jamaica and he’s filled with dismay when he realises she didn’t come alone, but also took FIVE other family members along with her. Follows a funny scene at the station where the mother plays on the guilt chord, is interviewed by a journalist while Tolroy wonders how everybody will fit in his lodgings.

Henry’s arrival is the opportunity for Selvon to introduce us to the life of the Trinidadian immigrant. He mentions the difficulty to adjust to the cold, the lurking racism and the constant articles about the flow of immigrants from the West Indies in the papers. Moses regrets that so many of them arrive in London, building up a community visible enough to catch attention from the media. I loved the part where he describes how easier it  becomes to find food from his home country in London, as Jamaicans gather in a neighbourhood. Shopkeepers adjust, they have in store what they customers want.

Selvon depicts a vivid picture of the daily lives of immigrants in Notting Hill. Moses stays away from trouble but his life never really moves on. He doesn’t spare any money and doesn’t manage to climb any social ladder. He lives in a shabby room, cooks there, sleeps there and shares it with fellow countrymen until they can live on their own. He’s a stable figure of his community. He explains British social rules to Galahad and guides him in through paperwork at the labour office to find a job. Here’s Moses mentioning how job agencies classify unemployed people according to their origin and colour of skin:

‘Now, on all the records of the boys, you will see a mark on the top in red ink. J-A Col. That mean you from Jamaica and you black. So that put clerks in the know right away, you see. Suppose a vacancy come and they want to send a fellar, first they will find out if the firm want coloured fellars before they send you. That save a lot of time and bother, you see. In the beginning it cause a lot of trouble when fellars went saying that they come from the labour office and the people send them away saying it ain’t have no vacancy. They don’t tell you outright they don’t want coloured fellars, they just say sorry the vacancy get filled.’

Selvon portrays several colourful characters, fete among immigrants (I didn’t know that this French word had migrated into English). Moses and the others barely survive. Some never really work but float on the surface living off other people’s help. Selvon also describes Sundays in Hyde Park, men dressing up to chat up women, nights at the theatre. The lingering feeling is that they all fight against loneliness and homesickness as best they can.

Moses belongs to early immigrants. He’s been in London for ten years when Galahad arrives. He knows he will probably never go back to Trinidad but still entertains the fantasy. He likes to evoke his old life and to hear from people he knew there. He reminded me of Maghrebi workers in France in the 1960s. They lived in dreadful conditions and had the toughest jobs. Some are retired now and still live in their old and decrepit “foyers Sonacotra”, in other words, special council flats built for migrants.

The Lonely Londoners is also an ode to London, the city of the immigrants’ dreams:

The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Picadilly Circus is my play-ground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world.

Living there is still a dream, no matter how tough their circumstances are. Selvon describes streets, parks, shops and places. It seems that belonging to this place is a privilege that overcomes any hardship. They don’t have an American dream, they have a London dream. Galahad is happy to be in places he had only heard of before. In a way, NW by Zadie Smith is a child of Selvon’s Lonely Londoners. They make you feel the city.

Selvon’s tenderness for London doesn’t prevent him from being realistic. He mentions that the environment is sometimes hostile. He also doesn’t give a rosy picture of his people. Some are on survival mode which means that honesty isn’t as crucial as it should be. That’s something Hamsun describes very well in Hunger. When life gets too hard, honesty and moral principles cost too much to be followed.

The Lonely Londoners is written in vernacular English (is it the right adjective?) and it wasn’t always easy for me to read it. See: ‘Yes, yes,’ Galahad say, so relieved to see Moses that he putting his hands in his shoulders like they is old pals. Phew! I needed more attention than usual to keep on reading. It gave an authenticity to the text though; how could have Moses spoken perfect Oxford English? He would have sounded all wrong. I also had trouble with a ten-page passage where there was no punctuation at all. (p92, if someone has the same edition as me). It’s nice stream of consciousness but it’s hard to follow, at least for me.

Anyway, I recommend this book for its style, its picture of these immigrants’ way-of-life and of working class London in the 1950s. Selvon shows their neighbourhood from the inside and gives a voice and a face to people we hardly hear of. I don’t know if a Moroccan or Tunisian writer has written such a book about North African immigrants in France. I hope so, it could be worth reading.

Thank you Max for recommending this book when I mentioned I wanted to read something set in London.

Theatrics in Reykjavik

September 26, 2013 14 comments

The Pets by Bragi Olafsson. 2008 French title: Les animaux de compagnie.

September proved as challenging as predicted. Every year I swear I’ll be better organised and every year I’m as overwhelmed as the year before with school, things to buy, activities to schedule, etc. The Pets was our Book Club choice for September. It’s as crazy as the month and it kept its promises of entertainment. You may have noticed, this book is filed under the category Beach and Public Transport. I use this category for books that don’t require much concentration. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good books; they’re entertaining. The Pets sure fills the bill but reading it on the beach or in public transports might win you strange looks for the constant chuckles and reading it during a flight might give you the creeps. After all, as Olfasson mentions it:

Really it’s no small risk one takes, boarding an airplane. For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink over you—and the only place of salvation is the toilet.

Olafsson_petsSo we’re with Emil S. Halldorsson who is flying back to Iceland after a shopping trip to London. He comes home with CDs and books and gifts for his family and friends. As he settles on the plane, his neighbour starts talking to him. He introduces himself as Armann Valur, linguist. The guy is a complete nut case and he invades Emil’s privacy. Of course, Emil can’t get rid of him. On the plane and later in the airport, he also chats with Greta, a woman he had a secret crush on years ago. He has the opportunity to chat her up and he manages to have a rendezvous at his apartment later in the evening.

At the same time Emil is flying back to Reykjavik, we follow Havard Knutsson who has just come back to town after a long stay in Sweden. He intends to meet with Emil with whom he had spent a fateful summer in London five years before.

Arriving at his apartment complex, Emil learns through his neighbour that someone has tried to visit him just before he came home. Then he realises that he has accidentally taken Armann’s spectacles with him. So he leaves him a message on his voicemail to let him know where his glasses are. After that, he’s preparing coffee when he sees Havard coming over and hurriedly decides to hide under his bed to avoid him. Havard notices the coffee in progress, climbs through the window and settles to wait for Emil’s return. Emil dreads meeting with Havard and doesn’t show up.

Acquaintances (Armann, Greta) and friends arrive at Emil’s and Havard opens the door, welcomes them and starts a party while they’re all waiting for Emil’s return. Surely, he can’t be far away, since he was making coffee? That’s where Sartre proves right “Hell is other people”. Or perhaps it’s a remake of Goldilocks and the three bears with reversed roles. Havard, Armann and Greta make themselves at ease at Emil’s while Emil is hiding under his bed and listening to everything. Emil doesn’t lack a sense of humour or lucid self-analysis:

I pause for a moment over the word supernatural. Here I am lying under my own bed, recalling the ridiculous death of several animals which my companion and I were paid to look after five years ago, and now this Havard, whom I thought had cleared out of my life and was under careful supervision in an institution abroad, is back to haunt me, standing just a partition’s width away in the living room. Am I imagining all this? Am I all right? Is something strange going on in my brain, just as I imagined a few hours ago was the case with Armann Valur? Am I experiencing what I felt earlier today, that I don’t really belong here, that this isn’t my own home? Is the eccentric up there playing with me?

That’s Emil in all his glory. The first part, relating the trip back home, is already funny, the second part can be hilarious. It shows a lot about Emil and his immature doormat attitude. Things happen to him, he never leads the dance. He’s thirty-something and has a son who lives with his mother in Denmark. He doesn’t see him very often. He has a girlfriend, Vigdis, who works in a hotel in another town but he doesn’t really miss her and doesn’t hesitate to invite Greta over. He’s a bit naïve; during his first trip to London, he expected to find books at bookmakers’:

He discovered that one could walk into certain offices—that I initially took for printing firms because bookmakers was printed on the signs—and bet on horses and dogs, amongst other things.

You’d want to give him self-help books and urge him to grow up. He’s afraid of Havard and when he unravels the events that took place in London five years before well, you can understand why he’d rather dodge out of seeing him. Honestly, I couldn’t pity Emil’s predicament. He had brought it all to himself with his cowardice. However, who says “Sorry, I don’t want to talk” to someone who starts up a conversation on a plane or a train? Who is able to go out politely but frankly of a relationship they don’t want to pursue? Don’t we all know people we’d rather avoid and whose presence we dutifully bear? I’m a quiet person and for me, hell is chatterboxes who want to make me talk when I don’t feel like to. They exhaust me especially when they relate mindless stories about acquaintances or colleagues I don’t even know. I know someone like this. When I say it doesn’t interest me, she says I’m too intellectual and not enough interested in other people. It makes me want to isolate myself in a bubble of silence. Perhaps I should try hiding under the bed?

Anyway, it was funny to imagine Emil under his bed, witnessing everything that was happening without intervening. Olafsson has a wicked sense of humour and has a way with words, as you can read it here:

 “But I am asking you, Armann,” Havard interrupts. “Do you think I’m ugly?” Armann hesitates for a few seconds and then says: “I think you harmonize quite well”


The smell in there was the smell of yesterday, or all the yesterdays that had been since it opened—stale cigarette smoke that seemed somehow to choke any possibility of good memories.

olfasson_animauxI couldn’t help imagining what a great theatre play this book would make. It has everything to be staged. Not too many locations, lots of comic effects and funny dialogues, this seems a good recipe for a comedy. Once again, this book was on my TBR thanks to Guy’s review. Thanks Guy! You can also read Max’s review here.

PS: An anecdote about names again. Emil S. Halldorsson. When I thought about him, it reminded me of a comic film by Les Nuls where one character named Emile is constantly urged to have a chewing-gum because of his chronic bad breath. (“Prenez un chewing-gum, Emile”) One day at diner, I mentioned this book to my family and that Emile brought back memories of that film when my daughter said. “Me, it makes me think of Emile Zola”. Before you go straight to cloud nine thinking how nice it is that a twelve-year old mentions Zola, let me bring you back to Earth: she only knows Zola because he’s a street name. She knows he’s a writer, sure, but she remembers him for the street name. We have this strange habit here, we name streets after writers, musicians, poets and less bucolic, war heroes. Some writers are eternal more because of their street name than because of their literary merits. And they become garages, cafés or driving- schools because owners name their business after their address. I’ve seen a Zola car workshop and a Balzac driving-school.

Netta was a fish but she had George in her net and wouldn’t let him off the hook

September 20, 2013 21 comments

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. 1941 French title: Hangover Square

Set in London in 1939 and more precisely in Earl’s Court, Hangover Square describes the obsessive, consuming and destructive passion that George Harvey Bone has for the attractive Netta Longdon. But, let me introduce you to George:

He was thirty-four, and had a tall, strong, beefy, ungainly figure. He had a fresh, red complexion and a small moustache. His eyes were big and blue and sad and slightly bloodshot with beer and smoke. He looked as though he had been to an inferior public school and would be pleased to sell you a second-hand car.

This short description conveys information about his features and his character. George is weak and reminds me of Charles Bovary. It must be the beefy look –literally bovin in French— and the apparent slowness of mind. Contrary to Charles, George suffers from mental illness; sometimes his mind snaps and he starts living in an alternate reality. Hamilton mentions schizophrenia. George was born like that, is used to living with his funny moods and has never seen a doctor for this. He’s known and mocked for his stupid moods and people around him wait for him to come out of his mindless state.

Poor George is incapacitated by strokes of schizophrenia and he’s intoxicated to the point of stupor by alcohol and his special brand of dope, Netta Longdon. Alcoholic states have been abundantly described in literature and I don’t think I need to add anything to it. Plus, you may have experienced drunkenness yourself. However, you’ve mostly likely not experienced schizophrenia and this is how Patrick Hamilton pictures it for us:

A silent film without music – he could have found no better way of describing the weird world in which he now moved. He looked at passing objects and people, but they had no colour, vivacity, meaning – he was mentally deaf to them. They moved like automatons, without motive, without volition of their own. He could hear what they said, he could understand their words, he could answer them, even; but he did this automatically, without having to think of what they had said or what he was saying in return.

Hamilton has a fascinating way to describe George’s inner mind when his brain is off-balance. When he’s in his other mood, he has an idée fixe; he must kill Netta Longdon and then go and live in the country, in Maidenhead. The book alternates between chapters when George is “normal” and chapters when George is “gone”. Each time he’s “gone”, he goes further in the preparation of the murder. And the reader wonders: will Netta die?

George’s mind is assaulted by two illnesses: his schizophrenia enhanced by his heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages and his desperate and unrequited love for Netta Longdon which results in the said heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages. He’s in a vicious circle and his life spirals out of control. He can’t fight the attraction and loves her and hates her at the same time for the hold she has on him:

Netta. Nets. Netta. A perfectly commonplace name. In fact, if it did not happen to belong to her, and if he did not happen to adore her, a dull, if not rather stupid and revolting name. Entirely unromantic – spinsterish, mean – like Ethel, or Minnie. But because it was hers look what had gone and happened to it! He could not utter it, whisper it, think of it without intoxication, without dizziness, without anguish. It was incredibly, inconceivably lovely – as incredibly and inconceivably lovely as herself. It was unthinkable that she could have been called anything else. It was loaded, overloaded with voluptuous yet subtle intimations of her personality. Netta. The tangled net of her hair – the dark net – the brunette. The net in which he was caught – netted. Nettles. The wicked poison-nettles from which had been brewed the potion which was in his blood. Stinging nettles. She stung and wounded him with words from her red mouth. Nets. Fishing-nets. Mermaid’s nets. Bewitchment. Syrens – the unearthly beauty of the sea. Nets. Nest. To nestle. To nestle against her. Rest. Breast. In her net. Netta. You could go on like that for ever – all the way back to London.

And Netta is what Guy would call a nasty piece of work. She’s lethal as a syringe full of heroin. She’s lovely outside and rotten to the core inside. George is aware of her lack of qualities, of her brutal use of her beauty. She’s a bully. She’s a beauty and uses her charms as a weapon. But she’s not charming. Netta is not a courtesan who flatters, entertains and bewitches a man with agreeable manners and stunning looks. Netta is a black witch who oozes fatal attraction and George is caught is her spell like a butterfly to a light:

Then it happened. At one moment she was just something he was talking to and looking at; at the next she was something of which he was physically sensible by some means other than that of sight or sound: she was sending out a ray, a wave, from herself, which seemed to affect his whole being, to go all through him like a faint vibration. It was as though she were a small amateur wireless station, and he alone was tuned in to her and listening. And the message she was tapping out was, of course, her loveliness.

George is helpless. He despises himself for his weakness and loathes her for her power as soon as he’s far enough from her range of attraction. She’s stupid. Some people are stupid and nice; some are stupid and mean. Netta falls into that category. She uses George for his money and at the same time can’t bear his presence. She has no conscience, no moral compass, no compassion. Hamilton says she’s like a fish:

Her thoughts, however, resembled those of a fish – something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid, moving solemnly forward to its object or veering slowly sideways without fully conscious motivation.

I don’t know how it is in English, but in French, if someone compares your brain to that of a goldfish, it’s more than derogatory. She acts like an animal, taking what she needs without thinking about other people’s feelings or the consequences. George has no chance to fight the attraction and he knows it. That’s why killing Netta is the only solution he sees but only voices when his mind has snapped. George seems stupid with his strange moods but he still has quite a good grasp of political matters and people. He sees people and events with clarity. He can’t defend himself because he lacks confidence. He’s always been treated as inferior by teachers, family and comrades. I felt compassion for George because he’s lucid about the lethal attraction and can’t help it. I also felt compassion for him because he’s lonely, isolated by his illness which he doesn’t recognise as an illness.

Hamilton_HangoverApart from Netta and George, Hangover Square is full of colourful second characters, London being one of them. Netta’s friends aren’t better than her and Peter is particularly repulsive. He’s a fascist and George loathes him for his privileged relationship with Netta and despises him for his political involvement with fascist activists. With Peter and Netta, Hamilton evokes the fascist current in England in 1939 and the country on the eve of WWII. I liked Johnnie, George’s only friend. He’s ambiguous and kept me wondering if his friendship for George was sincere or not. I mentioned London as a character. The novel is set in Earl’s Court but it also describes other neighbourhoods and part of the action takes place in Brighton. Hamilton describes the city and its pubs where George spends most of his time. I wonder if George’s desire to kill Netta Longdon and go and live in the country isn’t a metaphor for the city. Is the corrupted and insensitive Netta a metaphor for London and its failings while the good and slow George represents the countryside? London is the place where George is currently unhappy; the countryside is where he feels peaceful and happy.

Hangover Square is a multi-layered book. The toxic relationship or lack of relationship between Netta and George is interesting in itself. The description of George’s mental illness, its effects on his consciousness is brilliantly done; it could be a book in itself. Then there’s the ambiance in London just before the wart starts, the divisions among the citizens and the fascist movements which have touched part of the population. All this is enveloped in the global atmosphere of the city, its streets, its pubs, its boarding houses. I’ve read that Hamilton drank heavily, used to live in a boarding house and lived in London. This is probably why his descriptions sound so right.

Hamilton’s style is excellent, sharp and spot on. Few words bring the reader where he wants them and nail a character. See what he writes about Netta She looked like a Byron beauty, but she was a fish. or about George He seemed to carry his loneliness about him on his person, like someone branded. I can imagine him pretty well, his loneliness showing through his postures, his looks, the way he carries himself. I liked George, despite everything. I pitied him and the idea that someone like Netta could have such a hold on somebody else’s life made me shudder. I think this book will stay with me for its characters and the beauty of its language.

One last thing: many, many thanks to Max, from Pechorin’s Journal for recommending this fine piece of literature. I owe you one.

Zadie in Metroland

September 12, 2013 44 comments

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012.

Let’s say it right away, I couldn’t finish that one. I tried, asked Twitter followers to cheer me up and convince me to finish it. Thanks everyone for the replies and the links to reviews. I soldiered on and lost the war. I still wonder what went wrong with that book or more precisely, why the fact I couldn’t stand Leah, one of the main female characters and that I couldn’t picture her French thirty-something husband named Michel was enough to make me abandon the book.

Since it’s hard to summarise a book you haven’t finished, here is the blurb from Amazon:

Set in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragicomic novel follows four locals—Leah, Natalie, Fox, and Nathan—as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. In private houses and public parks, at work and at play, these Londoners inhabit a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end. Depicting the modern urban zone—familiar to city-dwellers everywhere—NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.

Smith_NWSure, the style and the description of the city are marvellous. I could see that even if I didn’t even finish the first part of the novel. Zadie Smith’s style is brilliant and vibrant, really. No doubt about this. She captures very well the fleeting sensations one has when walking in a city. She describes the environment in an impressionist way which felt close to reality. Her pace changes, she plays with the layout, inserts a chapter 37 after the seventeenth and has a rather hectic prose at times. It didn’t bother me at all. It could have been a put-off but it wasn’t. I’m sure I missed a lot of subtleties that only a Londoner can see.

It seemed clever in its assessment of city life and it’s erudite in an off-hand manner, which I like in a book. I heard Michel de Montaigne in the text, like here Laurels. And you rest on them, you don’t sit on them. You sit on your arse. It reminded me of this quote by Montaigne Sur le plus beau trône du monde, on n’est jamais assis que sur son cul ! (Even on the nicest throne in the world, one still sits on their ass !) I’m sure there were other references like this in the novel.

Unfortunately, I’m a reader who cares about characters and plot. In the first section, we meet Leah and her husband Michel. Leah is white and Michel is French and black. That’s important. They’re both in their mid-thirties and we’re in Leah’s head. And that’s an annoying head to be in. I didn’t like Leah at all. She reminded me of Bruno in Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. The style is totally different but these characters have something in common. They go nowhere with their lives, whine, have the blues of the unsatisfied white adult and make shocking decisions. Boring. I’m still trying to figure out why Leah put me off a book I found extremely well-written and captivating in its picture of the urban world. I have trouble putting words on my emotions about her. Usually, I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a book, or I wouldn’t read crime fiction. I even liked books where I found the characters infuriating, like Maggie in Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

So why Leah? Actually, I stopped reading after she got her third abortion and this one without telling her husband who desperately wants a child and thinks they have fertility problems. She got on my nerves. I’m all for doing whatever you want with your body but being 35, with a stable job in a country with NHS and not being able to take proper contraception three times irritated me. I thought she was plain stupid, selfish and dishonest with her husband in a way which is, in my book, as bad as cheating on him. I didn’t want to be in her head any more. I know it’s judgemental but I couldn’t help it. I realise I abandoned a book before because I couldn’t stand the main character. It was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and the poor Toru Okada has things in common with Leah. Thirty, married, childless, bored and spineless. That’s for Leah.

And then there’s Michel. Who’s French, has an accent and makes grammar mistakes familiar to a French speaker. (Of course, your skin is white, it’s different, it’s more easy, you’ve had opportunities I didn’t have.). I have troubles with a Michel who’s 35. You see, in France – and I double-checked on the INSEE web site – a Michel is born before 1960. Think of actors, writers and singers like Michel Piccoli, Michel Blanc, Michel Houllebecq, Michel Butor, Michel Berger, Michel Jonasz. Smith’s Michel is thirty-five and I couldn’t picture that, no matter how hard I tried. He’s of Algerian and Guadeloupian origin, OK but still. It’s odd. I asked around, for my generation, Michel is an avuncular name. Maybe Michel is named after Houellebecq and Montaigne. Who knows? For the same reasons, I also had trouble imagining a thirty-ish Jean-Paul in Jennifer Government by Max Barry. Please Anglophone writers, pay attention to the names of your French characters, as some names are like time stamps.

Imagine this. I’m reading, I find Leah annoying and I couldn’t picture a Michel without a pot belly and wrinkles. Hmm. When I thought about watching TV instead of picking NW, I knew it was time to let it go and start another book. My loss, I know.

Anyway, for readers who’d want to know more, here are serious reviews about NW:

Alan’s excellent review at Words of Mercury

David’s at Follow the Thread

Guy’s at His Futile Preoccupations

Lisa’s at ANZ Lit Lovers

Naomi’s at The writes of women

Several faces of feminism in The Odd Women

September 8, 2013 23 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893. 

After my entry regarding the plot of the book, I wanted to write something about the feminist message brought by The Odd Women. As I mentioned in my previous billet, this is a militant book. Three characters are feminists: Miss Rhoda Nunn, Miss Barfoot and Everard Barfoot. The conservative ways are represented by Mr Widdowson and Mr Mickelthwaite. Through his characters, Gissing questions everything regarding the status of women and his arguments are very modern. The first cause that Gissing defends is the right to have a proper education. This is based upon a daring assumption: women are as intelligent as men and are able to learn as much as them. This statement is already a revolution for conservatives. Gissing questions the way his society treats their women.

Our civilization in this point has always been absurdly defective. Men have kept women at a barbarous stage of development, and then complain that they are barbarous. In the same way society does its best to create a criminal class, and then rages against the criminals.

Personally, I never understood how societies could waste half of their brains by keeping women at home. Deep down, Gissing questions the idea that women are different by nature and advocates that everything comes from education. It’s an important source of debate, even now. Are women and men equal human beings or are they different in their mind because of their biological differences? For Gissing and for me, it is clear, we are the product of our society. In his time, women never learn how to swim, not because nature made them unable to swim but because their clothes are not practical. Women seem weak but their clothes prevent them from free movements and impair physical activities. I’ve been to an exhibition Les Impressionistes et la mode. (Impressionists and fashion). As you can guess from the title, it was about fashion in the paintings by impressionist painters. It was very educational, as it showed the paintings but actual clothes as well. Visitors commented how uncomfortable women’s clothes were compared to men’s. Big and long skirts, gloves, hats, corsets, everything prevented free movements. In Gissing’s mind, women aren’t meant to stay at home and take care of the children, nor are they naturally good at teaching children. They do it because they don’t have a choice; he dares to say that some are bad at domestic tasks:

And when the whole course of female education is altered; when girls are trained as a matter of course to some definite pursuit; then those who really are obliged to remain at home will do their duty there in quite a different spirit. Home work will be their serious business, instead of a disagreeable drudgery, or a way of getting through the time till marriage offers.

As I said in a comment in my previous post, I really agree with that. I’d be miserable as a housewife. This is not something for me at all. I love my children dearly but PTA meetings, playing the taxi back and forth their various activities, cooking and doing all kinds of domestic chores aren’t part of what I consider a fulfilling life. That’s my opinion for myself, not necessarily for others. There’s no accounting for taste, I’m fine with others feeling good with this life. I just want everyone to have the choice. And that’s what Gissing is saying. He points out that womanly doesn’t mean anything when it is applied to a profession.

Womanly and womanish are two very different words; but the latter, as the world uses it, has become practically synonymous with the former. A womanly occupation means, practically, an occupation that a man disdains.

The man doesn’t mince his words and unfortunately, he’s right. He also knows that women are their first enemies. Here’s Virginia Madden after her first conversation with Rhoda: She is quite like a man in energy and resources. I never imagined that one of our sex could resolve and plan and act as she does!’. The first task is to convince women that they can do more, that they are worth it, that their opinion is as worth as their husband’s. I read The Odd Women just after Brick Lane. This is the journey Nazneen had to do to blossom into a fully conscious human being. She had to erase the preconceived ideas she had about her capacities and learn to believe in herself.

Gissing believes that education will provide women with decent jobs and give them financial independence. This independence will help them growing into adults instead of remaining children depending upon their father and then their husband. He shows the arguments opposed by his adversaries:

‘They will tell you that, in entering the commercial world, you not only unsex yourselves, but do a grievous wrong to the numberless men struggling hard for bare sustenance. You reduce salaries, you press into an already overcrowded field, you injure even your own sex by making it impossible for men to marry, who, if they earned enough, would be supporting a wife.’

Haven’t we heard about this one recently? Every time there’s an economic recession, the temptation is to point out that women should stay at home instead of taking men’s jobs. In France, the State finances parents who want to stay at home with children until they’re three years old. Most of the time, when a couple uses it, it’s the woman who stays at home. (Since women earn 20% less than men, it’s usually more interesting financially for her to temporarily give up her job). In appearance, it is for the child’s well-being. On second thoughts, it helps with unemployment figures.

I think Gissing approached feminism is a broad way, showing the injustice of the condition of women in his time and, depend on the country, in ours. He puts forward feminist arguments and uses three characters to show the different sides of militancy. Rhoda is the most radical. In the 1970s, she would have been in demonstrations, showing her breasts, burning her bras and shouting that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. See her vision of marriage and men in general:

I would teach them that for the majority of women marriage means disgrace.’ ‘Ah! Now do let me understand you. Why does it mean disgrace?’ ‘Because the majority of men are without sense of honour. To be bound to them in wedlock is shame and misery.’

Rhoda is strongly against marriage, although she doesn’t go to the end of her idea and explain how the human species will go on if nobody gets married and has children. She would like women to live as monks because she thinks that love, feelings in general and sex are a weakness:

I am seriously convinced that before the female sex can be raised from its low level there will have to be a widespread revolt against sexual instinct. Christianity couldn’t spread over the world without help of the ascetic ideal, and this great movement for woman’s emancipation must also have its ascetics.’

This is the only area in which Gissing was wrong. He didn’t foresee the pill and contraception in general. It was out of his range of thoughts to imagine how contraception would liberate women and couples from the risk of unwanted pregnancies. Rhoda professes extreme ideas and she’s not against extreme means to reach her goal:

‘And I wish it were harder. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place for the crowd to stare at.’ Monica gazed at her with wide eyes. ‘You mean, I suppose, that people would try to reform things.’ ‘Who knows? Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off.

Imagine her during the French Revolution. She would have been in a revolutionary tribunal. I didn’t like this side of Rhoda but I think she’s a face of militancy. She wants it all now and thinks that extreme measures are efficient. Contrary to Rhoda, Miss Barfoot is moderate. She’s not against marriage, she wants to act at her level and save one girl after the other. She wants to adapt her teaching to each case and thinks that not all girls are cut out to stay single and live on their own. She doesn’t want to be an example to follow; she aims to serve.

She had come into possession of a modest fortune; but no thought of a life such as would have suggested itself to most women in her place ever tempted her. Her studies had always been of a very positive nature; her abilities were of a kind uncommon in women, or at all events very rarely developed in one of her sex. She could have managed a large and complicated business, could have filled a place on a board of directors, have taken an active part in municipal government—nay, perchance in national. And this turn of intellect consisted with many traits of character so strongly feminine that people who knew her best thought of her with as much tenderness as admiration. She did not seek to become known as the leader of a ‘movement,’ yet her quiet work was probably more effectual than the public career of women who propagandize for female emancipation. Her aim was to draw from the overstocked profession of teaching as many capable young women as she could lay hands on, and to fit them for certain of the pursuits nowadays thrown open to their sex. She held the conviction that whatever man could do, woman could do equally well—those tasks only excepted which demand great physical strength.

She’s intelligent and sees beyond her immediate goals. A Miss Barfoot would rather move the institutions from the inside whereas a Rhoda wouldn’t be opposed to violence if need be. Fights for rights always seem to dither between radical changes and small steps changes. One side thinks violence is acceptable, the other side prefers pacific methods. Personally, I prefer Miss Barfoot to Rhoda. It takes longer but it’s less violent and perhaps more efficient.

The last feminist is Everard Barfoot and he brings in a man’s point of view. Everard sees that The gain of women is also the gain of men. He supports feminism because he is convinced it is an intelligent cause. He shares the review of the current state of marriage and relationships between men and women. He sees that men will be happier if women are better educated and marry them for themselves rather than for their wallet. More couples will be able to get married if the wife can bring an income through her job. All in all, men will benefit from progress made for women. The Everards are important for such a cause because men have the power. Only they will be able to change the laws and improve the condition of women.

I hope that after reading this billet, you are convinced that The Odd Women is an intelligent novel  and that you are tempted to read it. I have an immense respect for the man who wrote this novel in 1893 and I wish I could welcome him at home and show him around. He could see that part of his dream came true and that his theories proved right. Women have access to education and can have a profession they like and keep it after their children are born. Marriage is not mandatory to live together or have children. Financial independence helped reaching equality in the couple. Not everything is perfect but the progress is real. Once again, I’m grateful I wasn’t born a century before.

When all women, high and low alike, are trained to self-respect, then men will regard them in a different light, and marriage may be honourable to both.’

Love and marriage don’t go together like horse and carriage

September 5, 2013 15 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a little late to write about our Book Club choice for August, sorry. Actually, I have so many things to say about The Odd Women that it took me a while to find the quality time necessary to write my billet. I introduced the book in a previous billet , we’ve had our Book Club meeting and I’m delighted to say that this novel exceeded our expectations.

The Odd Women opens in the Madden household. Dr Madden is a country physician, a widower living alone with his six daughters. We’re in 1872 when he dies in a carriage accident. Mrs Bennet’s worst fear becomes a reality for the Maddens: six unmarried daughters, no relatives, no income, no perspectives. The girls must fend for themselves. Then we fast-forward in time and we’re now in 1887. Only three daughters have survived: Alice, Virginia and Monica. Alice works as a governess; Virginia is between two governess positions and Monica works as a shop girl. Virginia and Monica live in London.

Miss Rhoda Nunn knew the Maddens from the country and when she stumbles upon Virginia in London, she renews the acquaintance. Rhoda lives with Miss Barfoot and both run a school where they train young women for office work. They improve their minds, teach them typewriting and but also self-respect and the capacity to stand for themselves. Their goal is described early in the novel when Rhoda discusses her work with Virginia:

‘Oh, I’m not so severe! But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?’ ‘Half a million!’ Her naive alarm again excited Rhoda to laughter. ‘Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally—being one of them myself—take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world’s work. True, they are not all trained yet—far from it. I want to help in that—to train the reserve.’

A commendable and sensible goal. (20 years from there, the Great War will take care of training the “reserve”). Following her first meeting with Rhoda, Virginia entertains the idea to start a school for girls in the country and run it with Alice. Rhoda also meets with Monica to convince her to quit her job at the shop and join her school to be able to find a clerical job in the future. Monica is at a turning point in her life as Miss Nunn’s offer happens at the same time she is courted by Mr Widdowson whom she had met in a park. He is besotted with her and soon proposes. Monica accepts although he’s much older than her and she perfectly knows that she doesn’t love him.

She felt no love in return; but between the prospect of a marriage of esteem and that of no marriage at all there was little room for hesitation.

Rhoda disapproves of her marriage because she thinks that financial security is a bad reason to get married. Miss Barfoot lets it go, accepting that Monica isn’t built to remain single.

At the same period, Miss Barfoot’s cousin, Everard Barfoot, is back in England after years of living abroad. He’s single and perfectly happy that way. He’s against marriage having witnessed disastrous ones among his friends. He becomes highly interested in Rhoda when he discovers she’s a woman who doesn’t look for a husband. She’s against marriage too and thinks that her being single and successful is an example for the girls she trains. Everard sees it as a challenge to make her fall in love with him and throw her principles to the wind. He starts courting her. Will he win his bet and how will it affect him?

The whole novel gravitates around the two couples, thoughts about the institution of marriage and the condition of women. The question of marriage is predominant in the novel. For Gissing, it has reached a point where it is poisonous for everyone. He questions the possibility to get married, the marriage itself and its termination.

The first problem is that since genteel married women aren’t supposed to work,  a man needs to earn enough money to afford a wife. The first example is that of Mr Bullivant, who works at the same shop as Monica and chases after her. She doesn’t like him and uses rational arguments to push him away.

‘Then will you let me ask you a rude question?’ ‘Ask me any question, Miss Madden.’ ‘How would it be possible for you to support a wife?’ She flushed and smiled. Bullivant, dreadfully discomposed, did not move his eyes from her. ‘It wouldn’t be possible for some time,’ he answered in a thick voice. ‘I have nothing but my wretched salary. But every one hopes.’

Monica’s objection to their marriage is a valid one, one Mr Bullivant can’t deny. She’s satisfied with it because it serves her cause. But imagine how awful it was for two people genuinely in love? This issue is then seen through the example of Mr Mickelthwaite, a friend of Mr Barfoot’s. He has been engaged for 17 years to his wife before he made enough money to marry her. It was too late to have children; they had lived separately for ages and luckily still liked each other. What kind of life is that? Yet, this man considers it a duty to marry a woman when a man has sufficient means and he exposes his view to Everard as the latter explains he will never marry:

‘Then I think you will neglect a grave duty. Yes. It is the duty of every man, who has sufficient means, to maintain a wife. The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate.’

Who would like to be married to fulfil a duty? Everard has very modern views of marriage. He would like the partners to be equals. He sees a possibility in Miss Nunn because she doesn’t behave like other women. She has a mind of her own, doesn’t play coy, doesn’t want to seduce him with her charms as she is not hunting for a husband. She just enjoys his conversation and he appreciates to have a valuable female companion to talk to:

In this humour she seemed more than ever a challenge to his manhood. She was armed at all points. She feared nothing that he might say. No flush of apprehension; no nervous tremor; no weak self-consciousness. Yet he saw her as a woman, and desirable. ‘My views are not ignoble,’ he murmured. ‘I hope not. But they are the views of a man.’ ‘Man and woman ought to see life with much the same eyes.’ ‘Ought they? Perhaps so. I am not sure. But they never will in our time.’ ‘Individuals may. The man and woman who have thrown away prejudice and superstition. You and I, for instance.’

Think how you may about man and woman, you know that there is such a thing as love between them, and that the love of a man and a woman who can think intelligently may be the best thing life has to offer them.’

Everard is the living example of Austen’s statement in Emma when Mr Knightley declares Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wive. Everard would rather be a bachelor than be burdened with a woman he doesn’t consider as his equal. Before Rhoda, he thought no woman on earth could be his match. Contrary to Everard, Widdowson represents the old-fashioned vision of marriage and women.

Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief.

In the traditional way of thinking, women are barely above the animal –I suspect some men thought their horse was more intelligent than their wife—and like children, need guidance. The poor and jealous Widdowson sees himself as a pastor for Monica and this belief combined with his possessive love turns him into a tyrant.  Unsurprisingly, Widdowson has trouble interacting with Monica, who, even if she’s not as radical in her behaviour as Miss Nunn, has nonetheless stayed long enough in her company to behave like a feminist. He sees her as his possession and is puzzled when the living object he calls a wife thinks, objects and makes decisions of her own.

Gissing is revolutionary in his vision of marriage. In his opinion, marriage as it is can only lead to unhappiness. He advocates a marriage based on love, equality and trust. He writes clearly that it should not be permanent when these criteria aren’t met anymore.

How many marriages were anything more than mutual forbearance? Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage.


But—perhaps, someday, marriage would be dissoluble at the will of either party to it. Perhaps the man who sought to hold a woman when she no longer loved him would be regarded with contempt and condemnation.

This vision is close to mine and it’s rare that I agree with a Victorian writer about marriage and relationships. Usually, I don’t share their views and take them for what they are, a reflection of their era. If Jane Austen is discreetly subversive, Gissing is openly subversive. Marriage shouldn’t tie couples forever; women should have the right to work according to their skills. Both men and women should have the choice to select a profession they enjoy. They should decide to get married or not. His feminism is blatant and I’ll write more about this in another billet. Austen and Gissing are subversive because they put the happiness of the individual before the needs of the society. Perhaps Austen is an heir of the Enlightenment; after all the right to pursue happiness is in the Declaration of Independence of United States, written at that time. In any case in Pride and Prejudice, the main characters consider that their happiness is more important that what the society wants from them. Elizabeth first refuses to marry Darcy, even if this alliance would provide financial security to her whole family and Darcy prefers to marry out of his social class to have a wife he loves. Gissing shows what marriages of convenience do to people. Monica’s choice is a disaster but the author also gives other examples such as poor Mr Poppleton who married a silly wife or Everard’s brother who married a selfish and whining one.

This is a militant book and yet, the novelist is not set aside by the activist. The characters are subtly drawn, Gissing investigates their inner minds, dissects their feelings and thought processes. He pictures their hesitations, their struggles against their ingrained vision of the world and relationships. Through their difficulties, he shows how hard it is to change of mind set. It serves his cause and makes of The Odd Women a compelling page-turner. Gissing seemed like a city Thomas Hardy in the way the events unfold. Apparent fate and coincidences play a role in the story. I say “apparent” because, like in Hardy’s Life Little Ironies, the coincidences are more like the collateral consequences of tiny decisions made by one of the protagonists than sheer chance.

I absolutely loved this book both thought provoking and entertaining, the best combination in literature. We all loved this novel and I’d buy it in French for every reader around me if it were translated. This new Book Club year starts divinely.


PS: Once again, thanks Guy. Read his excellent review here.

Book recommendations needed

September 2, 2013 56 comments

Mafalda_merciHello everyone,

Could you please recommend me books set in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas or Utah? If you know some set in Amarillo, Chicago, Las Vegas, Saint Louis, Sacramento, San Francisco or Santa Fe, that would be great too. It can be literary fiction or crime fiction.

Many thanks. The comment section is all yours!



Here are the recommendations received, sorted by place:



McTeague (SF) by Frank Norris

California Fire and Life by Don Winslow

Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

Watch Me Die by Lee Goldberg

The Postman Always rings Twice by James M Cain

Oil! by Upton Sinclair

Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes

Hell hath No Fury by Charles Williams

Joe Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard novels

This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M.Homes

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

Book Lover by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack

Golden Days, by Carolyn See

The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck

Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream by Joan Didion (essay)

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Anita Loos

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

Storm, by George Stewart

Charlie Chan novels by Earl Derr Bigger

Martin Eden, by Jack London

What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg

Bret Harte

Ambrose Bierce


Plainsong, or any other, by Kent Haruf


The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson


Mark Twain

Chronicle of the Mound Builders, by Elle Marie

New Mexico

Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels.

SIlko’s Ceremony by Leslie Marmon

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday


Point Omega dy Delillo


The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck


Jim Thompson

No Country for Old Men by Mc Carthy

Kinky Friedman


Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer



The Chicago Way by Michael Harvey

In Babel by George Ade

1001 Afternoons in Chicago by Ben Hecht

Aleksander Hemon

Herzog by Saul Bellow

Sister Carrieby Theodore Dreiser

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet

Sara Paretsky’s mysteries

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock.

Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

Last Call by Tim Powers

Saint Louis


The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Run, River, by Joan Didion

San Francisco

Dark Passage by David Goodis

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth

The Magician’s Tale, by David Hunt (William Bayer)

The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammet

Santa Fe

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather


Book Club: would you like to read The Pets by Braggi Olafsson?

September 1, 2013 10 comments

September is usually a busy month. Children are going back to school, activities such as football, track and music resume. After the relative idleness of August, bye-bye cicadas, welcome back, busy little ants. Unless an Icelandic volcano plays tricks on us again, this is what September should be like. It called for an entertaining novel to relieve the stress and it’s going to be The Pets by Braggi Olafsson. So last month our Book Club was exploring the condition of women in the Victorian Age, now, we’re headed to contemporary Iceland.

Here is the blurb:

olfasson_animauxBack in Reykjavik after a vacation in London, Emil Halldorsson is waiting for a call from a beautiful girl, Greta, that he met on the plane ride home, and he’s just put on a pot of coffee when an unexpected visitor knocks on the door. Peeking through a window, Emil spies an erstwhile friend—Havard Knutsson, his one-time roommate and current resident of a Swedish mental institution—on his doorstep, and he panics, taking refuge under his bed and hoping the frightful nuisance will simply go away.

Havard won’t be so easily put off, however, and he breaks into Emil’s apartment and decides to wait for his return—Emil couldn’t have gone far; the pot of coffee is still warming on the stove. While Emil hides under his bed, increasingly unable to show himself with each passing moment, Havard discovers the booze, and he ends up hosting a bizarre party for Emil’s friends, and Greta.

An alternately dark and hilarious story of cowardice, comeuppance, and assumed identity, the breezy and straightforward style of The Pets belies its narrative depth, and disguises a complexity that grows with every page.

Doesn’t it sound marvellous? It’s a find we owe to Guy’s eclectic tastes for books and it seems funny in the department of odd relationships between bipeds. I had to show you the cover of the French translation of The Pets, Les animaux de compagnie. I think it’s excellent.

I will publish my billet at the end of the month. Anyone interested in it is warmly encouraged to reading it along with us. I’ll read all the blog posts you’ll publish about it and of course, you’re more than welcome to leave comments and links below my billet.

More info about The Pets?

Disover Guy’s review here and Max’s here.

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