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Luck, be a gentleman tonight

January 30, 2014 35 comments

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. 1954 French title: Jim la Chance. (awful title in French)

For once in his life Dixon resolved to bet on his luck. What luck had come his way in the past he’d distrusted, stingily held on to until the chance of losing his initial gain was safely past. It was time to stop doing that.

 Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is our Book Club choice for January. Lucky Jim and lucky us. That was fun.

Jim is James Dixon. He’s a young teacher in a provincial university. He teaches medieval history and he’s under the supervision of Professor Welch. Jim is also sort of involved with Margaret, who is just recovering from attempted suicide at the Welches. He doesn’t know how to behave around her anymore. When the book opens, the term is almost over; Jim is still on probation and he’s dying to know if he is going to be fired or not. Dixon is a reluctant medievalist and since his most private thoughts about the Middle Ages would be more like this…

As he approached the Common Room he thought briefly about the Middle Ages. Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kaishek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages.

…it is hard to imagine that he manages to keep his feelings for himself. He doesn’t exactly sound passionate about his work, does he? He hasn’t published an article yet and that weighs against him. He hasn’t made the best impression on Welch either. The older man has probably caught up with Jim’s refrained yawns whenever he talks to him. Welch is the epitome of the pompous and boring teacher who is oblivious to anything but himself. The Professor has a dragon wife and two grownup sons named Bertrand and Michel. He has Dixon at his beck and call and he quietly uses the power he has over the young man’s future. At least, that’s how Dixon feels.

amis_kingsley_jimOnce, Dixon is invited by Welch to spend the weekend at his house where he’s hosting a party in the honour of Bertrand, the painter-to-be. There, Jim feels like a fish out of the water. He doesn’t belong to that crowd, he’s bored, he doesn’t know the right codes and he takes an instant dislike at Bertrand. After he accidentally burns the sheets and covers in his guest bedroom, he’s looking for a way to hide it from Mrs Welch and gets help from Christine, Bertrand’s girlfriend. This moment will create a bond between the two. However, by the end of the weekend, he has managed to alienate every Welch present at the house.

We see Jim struggling with academic rules. He really has a hard time adjusting to this life and the atmosphere of the university, of his boarding house. He’s bored by medieval history; he makes enemies among students and colleagues; he doesn’t know how to behave around Welch. Jim lacks a precious skill in his new world: he’s not good at small talk. Margaret comes at his rescue sometimes, mending with perfectly rounded sentences the hole that Jim’s bluntness has drilled in his credibility.

We see the university and the events through Jim’s eyes. It’s his perception. Mine was that he had a rather low opinion of himself, that it wasn’t all deserved and that it made him clumsy. I thought he was considerate to Margaret, he worked dutifully on the conference Welch asked him to write. He lacks confidence; he finds the article he has written of poor quality when it doesn’t seem that bad.

More than confidence, Jim lacks a strong belief in what he’s doing. Contrary to his peers, he’s not convinced by his own importance. He doesn’t take himself seriously and has a hard time considering academic life as worth it. Sometimes I wondered why he didn’t simply quit in order to do something else. Anything sounded better for him that this life. Welch seems to be spreading obstacles along the road to see how high Jim will jump. In appearance, he’s trying to make up his mind about the renewal of Jim’s contract. In reality, his mind is set but he enjoys power, like here, when he’s asked Jim to prepare a new class for the Fall:

The getting together of the syllabus had been, of course, Welch’s idea; on receipt of it, the candidates for Honours in History were to ‘see whether they were interested’ in studying this new special subject, in preference to the old special subjects taught by the other members of the Department and examined in one of the eight papers required for B.A. Clearly, the more students, within reason, Dixon could get ‘interested’ in his subject, the better for him; equally clearly, too large a number of ‘interested’ students would mean that the number studying Welch’s own special subject would fall to a degree that Welch might be expected to resent.

Isn’t it a minefield? Whatever Jim does, he displeases Welch.

I have a hard time making up my mind about Jim. James, Jim, Dixon, Dickinson, who is he really? Sometimes I pitied him as he was so obviously outside of his comfort zone and Welch did seem like a bore. At other times, he did such silly things as getting drunk at the worst moment. I couldn’t help thinking he was bringing it all to himself. I could understand why he got on other people’s nerves but also why Margaret and Christine are so fond of him.

Kingsley Amis depicts the academic world as a society with pedantic scholars who try to mix with artists more for the style than for the art. When I first read about the French names of Welch’s children I wondered where he got the idea to pick such names for his sons. Thanks to a previous discussion, I already knew that Michel sounded effeminate. (It’s like Laurence for me, I never think of a man when I see that name.) But Bertrand! That must be one of the most difficult French names to say in English. Two Rs and a “an”. It reminds me of the poor French kids named Brian or Ethan; it can never be said properly. Well, we learn later that Mrs Welch has a thing for everything Gallic.

The university is a world of sharks where one needs to publish articles to be accepted and where rules may be bent to have a promotion. I’ve never been to university, I don’t have a clear idea of how it is organised in France. However, novels by David Lodge, Alison Lurie, Philip Roth and now Kingsley Amis all draw the same picture. The temples of culture are not always civilised place to live in. This is an atmosphere you expect in the corporate world but not among scholars who are intelligent and supposedly above that kind of petty details such as advancement or competition.

I’ve had a lot of fun reading Lucky Jim. Amis is extremely funny and has a great sense of style. Here’s Jim coming back to the Welches after a long moment at the local pub:

He broke off, panting; it was hard work walking up the dry sandy track to the Welches’ house, especially with so much beer distributed about his frame.

And now Jim the morning after:

He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

I felt bad for him, poor thing. Dixon’s head is a funny one to be in. His imagination runs wild as in a cartoon.

As he left the bar with Christine at his side, Dixon felt like a special agent, a picaroon, a Chicago war-lord, a hidalgo, an oil baron, a mohock. He kept careful control over his features to stop them doing what they wanted to do and breaking out into an imbecile smirk of excitement and pride.

Jim has a great sense of humour, self-deprecating sometimes but also often at the expense of other people. But lots of it remains safely tucked in a corner of his brain and that’s the reader’s privilege to know what runs through his head. In lots of ways, he’s childish and he shies away from conflicts. During this journey of uncertainty, Jim also learns to accept confrontation as a positive outcome to clear the air, he learns to fight for what he wants and to live under pressure.

For the anecdote, I also loved the stylistic onslaught of Britishness in sentences as this: ‘Upon consideration I feel it incumbent upon me to doubt it. I have miscellaneous concerns in London that need my guiding hand.’ Isn’t that a solid brick of politeness? Ever tried to sneak around a wall of English politeness built out of these verbal bricks and have a British admit that he won’t be doing the job you want him to do? It took me half an hour of rephrasing sentences just this afternoon.

Lucky Jim is a very agreeable read and I sided with Jim all along the book. With his humble background, he doesn’t have the keys to open the doors of academia without a struggle. What he’s facing would have been a nightmare to me. The depressing topics to study, the obligation to lick your boss’s boots to achieve anything, the undermining done by colleagues and the smug students, I would have left running.

For more information about this novel, read Guy’s review here.

PS: Here’s a little challenge to end this post. Read this sentence I expect you know his book on medieval Cwmrhydyceirw and please tell me how to pronounce the last word. 🙂

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part three.

January 29, 2014 4 comments

Hello,

Gary_LecturesTime for our weekly Gary quotes. Today I’ve chosen two quotes from Les Cerfs-volants. (1980). It’s Gary’s last book and I don’t think it’s been translated into English. The title means Kites. It’s a story of love, hope and war from 1930 till after WWII and from Normandy to Poland.

Like last week’s quote, Erik McDonald helped me with the translation. The quotes I picked are short but triggered exchanges about their translation. I found it fascinating that we both struggled with the same words or expressions and that we had so much hesitation to translate such short passages. It gave me a tiny glimpse of what it must be to translate a book; the exchanges between writers and translators must me interesting and I wonder how translators of dead writers do to make all the choices they have to make every sentence along the way.

First quote:

Je comprends qu’on meure d’amour parce que parfois, c’est tellement fort, que la vie n’arrive pas à tenir le coup, elle craque. I understand how you can die of love because sometimes it’s so powerful that life can’t stand it and it shatters

Our problem was about the translation of “elle craque”. I had initially written “it breaks down”

Erik commented: I would suggest “bursts,” or perhaps “breaks apart” or “splits open” or “shatters,” if “craquer” sounds like a metaphorical use of the physical meaning (pants splitting, for instance). “Breaks down” works for “craquer” in the sense of “be unable to resist,” but in this short phrase I would take “break down” to mean “stop working,” the way a car can break down.

I answered:I had trouble with “craquer”. I went for “breakdown” because of the word “mourir” at the beginning of the sentence and also because “craquer” is a word you use for “to have nervous breakdown”. Perhaps “breaks apart” is the best or “falls apart”? Or “shatters”? It’s difficult because “craquer” means both mental and physical. You can use “craquer” for “pants splitting” as well. So maybe “shatters” is the best, eventually. (I’m writing and thinking at the same time)

In the end, I settled for “shatters” but it’s not exactly the same meaning as “elle craque”. For me, “to shatter” is more violent than “craquer”. What do you think?

The second quote is the following:

Le rêve a touché terre et ça fait toujours des dégâts. Même les idées cessent de se ressembler quand elles prennent corps. The dream has landed and that always causes damage. Even ideas stop seeming like themselves when they take on flesh and blood.

This is a recurring theme in Gary’s work, how good or nice ideas can become ugly when someone tries to put them into practice. I had first translated “a touché terre” by “has landed” and “prennent corps” by “embodied”

Erik changed them into “run aground” and “take on flesh and blood”. I agreed immediately about “take on flesh and blood”, I knew “embodied” sounded strange but I couldn’t find anything better. However I wasn’t so keen on “run aground”.

Here are Erik’s arguments: “Run aground” sounds like a ship metaphor: the ship gets into water that’s too shallow and hits bottom. That would cause damage. I first took “toucher terre” to be an airplane metaphor, in which case “has landed” or “has touched down” would work, but it would then be unclear what causes the damage.

And this is my answer: I prefer “has landed” because in French you don’t use that for ships. (You’d say “échouer”) and because Gary was an aviator. Airplane metaphors are more probable. And dreams are in the sky. (Day dreaming is « avoir la tête dans les nuages », “to have one’s head in the clouds”) What causes the damage? A dream is not supposed to land to remain intact. It can’t land without crashing and being damaged. That’s what he means.

I wanted to share our exchanges with you because I found it interesting that we had so much trouble translating passages as short as these. I hope you enjoyed this and I’m curious to know if you have other suggestions.

Thanks again for your help, Erik.

See you next week with quote from Lady L.

The three puddin’ musketeers

January 26, 2014 17 comments

The Magic Pudding (1918) by Norman Lindsay (1879-1969)

We swear to stand united, Three puddin’-owners bold.

Lindsay_Magic_PuddingLisa chose The Magic Pudding as my Humbook gift for Christmas and receiving a book starring a pudding is kind of spot on for Christmas, isn’t it? She hoped I could read it along with my daughter but alas, no French translation was found. So it’s just me writing about it now.

The Magic Pudding is a traditional Australian children book, featuring Sam Swanoff, Bill Barnacle, Bunyip Bluegum and a Magic Pudding named Albert. He’s a steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy who regenerates himself when eaten. So basically, the pudding-owners can’t starve. The story starts when Bunyip Bluegum decides to leave his home to see the world. Along the road, he meets and befriends with Sam and Bill and they decide to travel together. Their magic pudding is much wanted by Pudding Thieves incarnated by a possum and a wombat. The story is mostly about rescuing the pudding from being stolen. The plot is simple enough to appeal to children and an undercurrent of irony lets adults understand that there’s more to it than the apparent story.

When I discovered Lisa’s pick for me, I thought, “Children lit? Piece of cake!” (Or in this case “Slice of pudding!”) How wrong I was. Firstly, I forgot (again) that Australia is far away and that there are many things about the environment that I don’t know about. So I ended up reading on the kindle and with a tablet in front of me set on Google image where I’d look for pictures of wombats, barnacles, bandicoots, bunyips, kookaburra, flying-foxes, possums and wart-hogs. Secondly, I forgot that Australian English is like Canadian French: same language but lots of different words. The definitions of words in the kindle dictionary would often start with “Early 17th century”, which brought the comparison with Canadian French. (Nincompoop, galore). And of course, there’s slang. Fortunately, Lisa came to my rescue and sent me a link to a website for Australian slang.  In addition, there are Hergé-esque insults like ‘Of all the swivel-eyed, up-jumped, cross-grained, sons of a cock-eyed tinker,’ which are probably very funny with their Captain Haddock style but were lost on me. Plus, there are distorted words like in this sentence

‘You ain’t poisoned, Albert,’ said Bill. ‘That was only a mere ruse de guerre, as they say in the noosepapers.’

I could guess this one but I still wonder how many of them I missed. The text is also full of songs and has a folk-song musical style like here:

Out sprang Bill and Sam and set about the puddin’-thieves like a pair of windmills, giving them such a clip-clap clouting and a flip-flap flouting, that what with being punched and pounded, and clipped and clapped, they had only enough breath left to give two shrieks of despair while scrambling back into Watkin Wombat’s Summer Residence, and banging the door behind them.

I read slowly, trying to hear the musicality in my head.

And last but not least, I forgot how much children literature can be rooted in the quotidian. The book keeps telling about this steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy and I don’t even know what it tastes like. Initially, I thought pudding was a dessert. The mention of steak-and-kidney in a dessert didn’t bother me, after all, English cuisine has the reputation to be weird and I knew about the ingredients of mincemeat. Then, they mentioned the gravy and everything I had imagined about this pudding crumbled.

Reading The Magic Pudding was an unexpected challenge. It made me think again about how hard it is to know about another country without growing up there. Reading this children book reminded me of all the tiny cultural details that build a country and hold a society together. It was also confusing because I guessed that Norman Lindsay was sending messages to the adults through the apparently innocent adventures of the Pudding Owners against the Pudding Thieves. Bunyip Bluegum speaks like an English aristocrat and Sam and Bill came on a ship but speak like sailors –or English criminals deported to Australia? I wonder if they represent the ruling class and the first settlers in Australia. The Pudding Thieves are a wombat and a possum, typically Australian fauna. Do they represent the natives? I couldn’t help wondering about a metaphorical pudding. Wealth in the form of everlasting food is kept by the pudding owners while the others are condemned to try to steal their share…

Even if it’s been a challenging read, thanks Lisa for choosing this book and for answering my questions while I was reading. I feel a bit frustrated because I know that I didn’t understand everything but I’m glad I had the opportunity to read about this classic of Australian literature for children.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part two

January 22, 2014 6 comments

Gary_LecturesHello everyone, it’s Wednesday again !

Time for our weekly quote by Romain Gary. Great news! I got help for the translation of the quotes! When I asked on Twitter if an Anglophone who could also speak French fluently would help me with the translation of quotes from the French, Erik MacDonald answered my tweet and came to my rescue. So Erik kindly reviewed and co-translated the quote you’re reading today. You may want to check his blog here.

Today I chose one from the first Gary book I’ve read, Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable, or in English, Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. It was translated by Sophie Wilkins, a “real” translator, not Gary hiding behind a pen name this time. This novel was pulished in 1975, the same year as La Vie devant soi. So he was able to write two books at the same time with very different styles.

Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

Gary_Ticket It is hard to conceive of any subject that would be taboo in the contemporary novel, but Romain Gary’s latest theme, the onset of male impotence with age, attacks the myth of unassailable virility that may well be held sacred by our society Gary’s hero, Jacques Rainier, is a prisoner of his own maturity, of a lifetime of hard-mindedness and of his own highly evolved personal style. In what should be the prime of life, he finds himself facing the humiliation of vanishing manhood. Tycoon and Resistance hero, a man accustomed to power Rainier must suffer the waning of his virility at a time when his country France, must endure the economic upheaval of the energy crisis. His business empire is jeopardized, as is his affair with Laura, a beautiful young woman with whom he is deeply in love. He engages in desperate financial strategies and finds himself in bitterly comic consultations with the medical profession. Then Ruiz enters his life and, more significantly his consciousness. A thief, a foreigner, the embodiment of sexual potency Ruiz may also hold the possibility of release. Rainier’s options range from resignation and fantasy to suicide; his choice, finally is a disturbing one. YOUR TICKET IS NO LONGER VALID is a novel of sexual and financial decline, of the endgame between necessity and desire; but, more profoundly it is an examination of the nature of love which forces a reevaluation, a revision, of ourselves.

I still wonder how Gary reached out to my eighteen year old self with such a plot. Now the quote I want to share with you:

Le racisme, c’est quand ça ne compte pas. Quand ils ne comptent pas. Quand on peut faire n’importe quoi avec eux, ça ne compte pas, parce qu’ils ne sont pas comme nous. Tu comprends ? Ils ne sont pas des nôtres. On peut s’en servir sans déchoir. On ne perd pas sa dignité, son honneur. Ils sont tellement différents de nous qu’il n’y a pas à se gêner, il ne peut y avoir… il ne peut y avoir jugement voilà. On peut leur faire faire n’importe quelle vile besogne parce que de toute façon, le jugement qu’ils portent sur nous, ça n’existe pas, ça ne peut pas salir… C’est ça, le racisme. Racism is when it doesn’t count. When they don’t count. When you can do anything to them, and it doesn’t count because they’re not like us. You understand? They don’t belong. We can use them without demeaning ourselves. We don’t lose our dignity, our honour. They’re so different from us that there’s nothing to worry about, there’s no…there’s no question of them judging us, that’s it. We can have them do whatever lowly task we want because the judgment they pass on us doesn’t exist anyway. It can’t sully us…This is what racism is.

I chose a quote about racism, which is a theme that touched Gary deeply. He was Jewish and it wasn’t easy to be one in France in the 1930s. His mother never ceased to fear deportation when they were in France. He also lived in the USA during the fight for the civil rights and through Jean Seberg, he observed closely the movement of the Black Panthers.

I like this quote because it’s true. Racism is failing to see a fellow human being in someone who looks different. It’s looking down on someone because of the colour of their skin and feeling protected by this difference to do to them what you wouldn’t do to someone you acknowledged as your equal. This is why the Valladolid debate was so crucial.

This is not the place for such debate and I’ll add that there are lighter quotes in that book. Despite Jacques Rainier’s preoccupations being far away from mine, his way of considering love and relationships talked to me in a special way. Plus I fell in love with Gary’s style and unique sense of humour.

Thanks again to Erik for taking the time to review that quote and others to come. I feel grateful and lucky to experience the best that social networks can give.

See you next week!

A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin

January 19, 2014 14 comments

A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin. 1894. French title: Une Parisienne à Chicago.

Voyager. Ce mot devrait se pouvoir définir ainsi « Voir avec intérêt pour se souvenir avec bonheur et profit » To travel. This world should be defined as such : “To watch with interest in order to remember with happiness and profit”

Marie Grandin (1864-1905) went to Chicago in 1892 with her husband Léon Grandin who was a sculptor. He was hired to work on a fountain for the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. This exposition was to celebrate the fourth centennial of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. When she came back to France, she wrote the memoir of her trip in the USA. It was rediscovered in the 21st century thanks to the work of two academics from each side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Marie Grandin starts her memoir with her trip on the boat from Le Havre to New York. Lucky her, she wasn’t sea sick. She first spends some time in New York before taking the train to Chicago. Here’s her arrival in New York and her description of the Manhattan skyline:

Au réveil, un radieux et féérique décor s’étalait devant nous. En face, la terre bordée de chalets qu’ombrageaient de luxuriantes verdures ; dans la baie immense que formait l’océan, une multitude innombrable de bateaux de toutes espèces qui se croisaient en tous sens et, sur le côté dominant la mer, la colossale statue de « la Liberté éclairant le monde », du sculpteur Bartholdi. When we woke up, we saw a glorious and fairy landscape. In front of us, the land was lined with cabins in the shadow of luxuriant greenery. In the immense bay formed by the ocean, there were lots of ships of various shapes cruising in every way. On the side towards the sea, there was the colossal Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World by the sculptor Bartholdi.

Grandin_françaisIsn’t that incredible? With the image of New York we have now, it’s quite difficult to imagine cabins and greenery. Her stay in New York is interesting to read. I didn’t know there used to be overhead trains in the city. She says it was quite dreadful for the people living by because of the noise and the fumes of the locomotives. On her way to Chicago, she visits the Niagara Falls. I never imagined that it was so touristy at that time. She pictures rentals of rubber boots and coats and locals making money out of tourism while tourists are herded through a defined path. The only different thing compared to nowadays was the absence of tourists shoving other tourists out of the way to take pictures.

Then Chicago. The couple lived in several boarding houses, which allowed her to share the life of the average American from Chicago. She describes everyday life like cooking, washing clothes and shares all kind of details. For example, she says that men and horses used to put wet sponges inside their hats to fight against the heat and the risk of sunstroke. I enjoyed reading about shops, life insurances, travel insurances, food safes. She was in America during the campaign of the presidential election. (Hamilton vs Cleveland) and she was surprised by the way the campaign was done and how citizens were involved in it. There were a lot of meetings, door-to-door visits to convince electors and parades to promote the candidates. She visited schools, slaughterhouses, went to Milwaukee when it was on fire.

Grandin_EnglishShe needed to adjust to the cold and the snow in winter, and she tells us about skating on Lake Michigan and how inhabitants coped with snowy and slippery roads. I loved the description of street merchants selling pop-corn and peanuts and how she had to explain carefully what it was to her French readers. That was totally unknown in France and if peanuts were common when I was a child, we still didn’t have pop-corn. I don’t think they sold popcorn in French cinemas before the mid-1990s.

Apparently, the population of Chicago being composed of a lot of German immigrants, French people weren’t that welcome in the city. She makes comparison with Paris, of course, and it’s even more interesting for a Frenchwoman. It counterbalances Edith Wharton’s blind Francophilia in French Ways and their Meaning. She compares the educational system and notices how the philosophy of teaching is different from France. I believe it’s still the case. She’s astonished by the relationships between masters and servants, servants having too much freedom in her opinion.

She observes relationships between men and women and assesses that men marry women for love and not for money whereas the French looked at the bride’s financial prospects and her dowry. Perhaps it’s right, I think I remember Sándor Márai mentioning the same thing about the Parisian society. Marie Grandin marvels at the kindness of American husbands. She finds them more caring than the French ones, more participative in housework. Personally, I thought that what she describes sounded more like treating women as fragile little flowers who shouldn’t be burdened by anything. I understand better Wharton’s flamboyant plea for a more equal partnership in marriage.

An anecdote. Once, a burglar broke into the boarding house she was living in. The men of the house managed to frighten him and he flew out of the premises. Nobody was injured and nothing was stolen. Marie Grandin says:

D’ailleurs, aucun des survenants n’était armé, et la surprise que j’exprimai parut les surprendre à leur tour.« Etre armés ? Pourquoi ?- Mais pour tirer sur cet affreux coquin !La notion scandalisa tout à fait ces braves gens. Le voleur n’ayant pas paru en vouloir à leur vie mais simplement à leur bourse, ils ne se jugeaient pas en droit de l’atteindre dans son existence. Quant à s’en rendre maîtres autrement pour le livrer à la justice, cela ne leur semblait guère plus utile, ledit voleur, dès le lendemain, pouvant être sous caution rendu à la liberté. By the way, none of the men was armed and the surprise I expressed seemed to surprise them too:“To be armed? Why?”Well, to shoot at this awful scoundrel!”The notion totally scandalized these brave people. The burglar never intended to harm them; he only wanted their money. They didn’t consider that they had a right to kill him. To get the better of him and bring him to the justice didn’t seem more useful as the said burglar could be bailed out the next day.

I found that passage really interesting as the situation would probably be reversed now. The right to have a weapon and use it for self-defense didn’t seem that necessary at the time in that part of America. Today, these men may have a weapon and the Frenchwoman would be, if not surprised, quite frightened by it.

I also liked the description of the exposition and like her, I marveled at American pragmatism. They organized day-care for children so that they could play with nannies while their parents visited the exposition. That was something completely new to her.

On her way back to France, she visited Washington DC and I can’t resist quoting another passage:

Le palais de la présidence, White House, la Maison Blanche, est une construction assez simple et dont l’accès est des plus faciles. Il suffit de demander la permission d’entrer, et l’on passe successivement dans différentes pièces qui n’ont en somme rien d’intéressant. Une fois par semaine, régulièrement, le Président reçoit toutes les personnes qui veulent bien lui rendre visite. The palace of the presidency, the White House is quite a simple building; it’s easily accessible. You only need to ask for permission to get in and you stroll through a succession of rooms which are not that interesting. Every week, regularly, the President welcomes all the people who kindly call on him.

Isn’t it incredible when you know how things are now?

All in all, Marie Grandin thought that the Chicago society was way more relaxed than the French one and that women had more freedom. She portrays a dynamic city and today’s reader can discover that part of today’s American way of life has its roots in that time too.

The only flaw of the book is its style. Marie Grandin is not a great stylist from a literary point of view. She candidly describes what she sees and sometimes it sounds great, and sometimes not so much. She probably paid more attention to what she wanted to say than to how she was going to say it. She has a style mannerism, which consist in putting long adjectives before nouns. In French, adjectives can be put before or after the noun they refer to. Most of the time, they are after the noun. Usually, the adjectives put before the noun are short ones. (Une petite fleur) but it’s not a rule (une fleur bleue). Marie Grandin repeatedly put long adjectives before nouns. (un funéraire parpaing, un monumental escalier, d’enfantins cerveaux, féminins talents) It sounds weird and heavy and there were too many of them. Good thing for English speaking readers, this is lost in translation!

I suppose it seeps through my words but I can’t tell you how much fun I had reading this. I love learning about the living habits of the past and particularly about how people like you and me used to live. I’m more interested in these everyday details than in political strategies and this book was fascinating to me. It points out differences between the way the French envision life and social rules and the way the Americans do. Sometimes what she describes is still true.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part One

January 15, 2014 19 comments

Gary_LecturesAs I mentioned in my Let’s read Romain Gary billet, we’re going to wait until May for the Romain Gary Literature Month with a weekly quote from one of his books. For our first week, I picked up a quote from Adieu Gary Cooper that makes me laugh. Lenny is the hero of the book, he’s an American ski bum who skies his butt out to forget about himself and his American origin. He stays in the Swiss Alps with other pathological skiers and he has funny ways with the language. When you read Adieu Gary Cooper, you can see that this one and La vie devant soi have been written by the same author. But back to Lenny. We’re in the 1960s, so they experience drugs:

L.S.D., un sale truc, Lenny s’était embarqué la-dedans une fois, mais tout ce qu’il avait vu, c’était la même chose, seulement en technicolor, et le seul moment différent fut lorsque sa verge s’était détachée de lui, avait mis son anorak et pris ses skis, et il s’était mis à hurler et à courir pour les rattraper, il tenait à ses skis comme à la prunelle de ses yeux. Se faire voler comme ça par l’un des siens…On ne peut vraiment plus compter sur personne. L.S.D., nasty stuff. Lenny had tried once but the only thing he had seen had been the same as usual, only in Technicolor. The only different moment was when his penis had detached itself from him, put on his anorak and taken his skis. He had started to yell and run after them, he wouldn’t give his skis for the world. To be robbed like this by your family…Really, no one could be trusted. (my tentative translation)

The English version of Adieu Gary Cooper is entitled The Ski Bum. I’ve read both books and I’m afraid that the English version is a bit toned down compared to the French. It’s definitely not a translation as the passage I translated earlier is not in The Ski Bum. So, here is now a quote from The Ski Bum.

Albert Camus, prophet of the absurd getting killed in an absurd automobile crash, which proves he was wrong and that there is some inner logic in life.

See you next week!

That summer could have been without us as well

January 12, 2014 10 comments

The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt 2011 French title : Un été sans les hommes.

Hustvedt_EteWhat does an avid reader do when two people whose opinion she respects have an opposite vision of a book written by a writer she likes? She reads the book herself to make up her mind. This is how I came to The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt. Caroline didn’t like it. Someone else loved it. So what’s the verdict? I have to admit that like Caroline, I wonder what happened to Siri Hustvedt.

In this novel, Mia, 50ish, spends the summer in her hometown in Minnesota. Her husband has asked for a Pause in their marriage after 30 years together and she ended up in a psychiatric hospital. For her husband, the Pause has the form of a French young woman (talk about cliché) and for her it means recovering from a major nervous breakdown. So Mia is there, near her mother, connecting with a young neighbour, teaching poetry to a group of teenagers and spending time with old ladies. Ah, yes, because Mia is a Poet while her husband is a scientist. Talk about cliché again.

With a bit of imagination and a good dose of humour, it could be a good scenario but the way it is written kills everything. I didn’t believe in any of the characters and frankly, I didn’t feel any empathy for Mia. Her constant references to poets or philosophers irritated me. I’m not well-read in poetry and philosophy and the few poets I know are almost all French. So I didn’t get the references and I felt left behind. I hate it when writers show off their culture and leave readers behind. If they use other writers for their story, it needs to be subtle or at least bring some depth to the book. Here, none of this happened. I have to give some credit to French publishers: the silliness of the cover captures well the silliness of the novel.

I’m not a very patient person and I couldn’t finish it. So yes, Caroline, you’re right, this book is utterly disappointing. If you’ve never read Siri Hustvedt, I suggest you start with The Enchantment of Lily Dahl and stay away from this one.

Let’s read Romain Gary

January 8, 2014 56 comments

Gary_LecturesIn my New Year billet, I mentioned that 2014 is the centenary of Romain Gary’s birth. Indeed he was born on May 8th, 1914 in Vilnius, Russian Empire. It was the year WWI started and the year WWII ended in Europe. Talk about a man to be destined to be influenced by war.

I decided to celebrate this anniversary with you. I thus declare that May 2014 is Romain Gary Literature Month. On the 8th of May, I will post a billet about one of Gary’s books, I don’t know which one yet. I hope I won’t be celebrating it only with myself but that some of you will want to join me. All you have to do is to read a book about him or by him and post a billet on your blog. Participants who don’t have a blog are welcome as well and can either leave a comment here or contact me to arrange the publication of a guest post. (bookarounthecorner@gmail.com or Twitter @BookAround) Ready to participate? Here are some reading recommendations:

For completists, Gary has two books included in 1001 books you must read before you die:

  • La promesse de l’aube, (Promise at Dawn)
  • Les raciness du ciel,  (The Roots of Heaven)

For aficionados of literary prize winners:

  • Les racines du ciel, Prix Goncourt 1956
  • La vie devant soi, Prix Goncourt 1975 under the pen name of Emile Ajar. (Life Before Us)
  • Education européenne, Prix des critiques 1945

For people who repeatedly land on my blog after googling “How French men treat their women”, try Clair de femme or Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable.

Otherwise, here are what are considered his best books:

  • La promesse de l’aubre
  • La vie devant soi
  • Les racines du ciel
  • Chien blanc
  • Clair de femme
  • Lady L
  • Education européenne
  • Les enchanteurs
  • Les cerfs-volants.

Personally, I have a soft spot for Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable (Your ticket is no longer valid) and Adieu Gary Cooper.

Bellos_GaryGary’s life is literary material. Poor, rich, aviator, war hero, diplomat, writer, son the jewishest Jewish mother, immigrant, married to the glamorous Jean Seberg, guilty of the most incredible literary mystification with the creation of Emile Ajar. Intrigued? A biography might tempt you. In English, you can find Romain Gary, a Tall Story by David Bellos and in French, Romain Gary by Dominique Bona or Romain Gary le caméléon by Myriam Anissimov.

If you want to read what others have written about him, check out Tombeau de Romain Gary by the Canadian writer Nancy Huston. She’s a huge Gary fan. Pierre Assouline from Le Monde wrote a wonderful article on his blog –Sorry, it’s in French. His first wife Lesley Blanch wrote Romain, un regard particulier. Several writers arranged a collective book, Lectures de Romain Gary in which each of them tells about one of Gary’s books. Nancy Huston and Pierre Assouline are among them.

I hope you are now excited to try one of his books and join me in May. Meanwhile, I will publish a quote by him from different novels every Wednesday, starting today.

Il faut toujours connaître les limites du possible. Pas pour s’arrêter, mais pour tenter l’impossible dans les meilleures conditions.  in Charge d’âme.

You need to know the limits of what’s possible. Not to stop yourself but to aim at the impossible in the best conditions. (my translation)

Love autopsy

January 4, 2014 20 comments

Contempt by Alberto Moravia (1954) French title: Le mépris

Contempt was our Book Club choice for December. (I know, this billet is late) It managed to push Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh out of my list of favourite books for 2013. Here is the opening paragraph of the book:

During the first two years of our married life my relations with my wife were, I can now assert, perfect. By which I mean to say that, in those two years, a complete profound harmony of the senses was accompanied by a kind of numbness –of should I say silence?—of the mind which, in such circumstances, causes an entire suspension of judgment and looks only to love for any estimate of the beloved person. Emilia, in fact, seemed to me wholly without defects, and so also, I believe, I appeared to her. Or perhaps I saw her defects and she saw mine, but, through some mysterious transformation produced by the feeling of love, such defects appeared to us both not merely forgivable but even lovable, as though instead of defects they had been positive qualities, if of a rather special kind? Anyhow, we did not judge: we loved each other. This story sets out to relate how, while I continued to love her and not to judge her, Emilia, on the other hand, discovered, or thought she discovered, certain defects in me, and judged me and in consequence ceased to love me.

Moravia_meprisThis is Riccardo speaking and analysing the end of his marriage to Emilia. Contempt a first person narrative and it never switches to another point of view. Riccardo and Emilia have been married two years when their relationship starts to deteriorate. Riccardo is an aspiring playwright and he’s been doing odd jobs to support his wife. At the beginning of their marriage, they were renting rooms in a house as they couldn’t afford more expensive accommodation. Now, Riccardo has just bought an apartment, which changed Emilia’s status from aspiring to official housewife. She’s delighted with the new flat and her ambition is fulfilled.

When the novel opens, Riccardo has just landed an interesting contract to write a screenplay for the film director Battista. It comes as a relief since he’s struggling financially to pay the mortgage of the apartment. Just when he can stop worrying about money, Emilia’s behaviour towards him changes. Without any obvious reason, she starts distancing herself from him. He feels that she no longer loves him but he doesn’t understand why. His first move is to pressure her until she acknowledges that she fell out of love with him. Then he wants to figure out what changed her heart and he will not let go until she eventually blurts out that she despises him. He would have recovered better if she had slapped him.

Everything goes downhill from there. Relocating from Rome to Capri to work on another screenplay for Battisti won’t help. Riccardo knows that Battisti is attracted to Emilia, it was clear from the first evening they had diner together. How does his presence in their lives influence their couple?

Moravia_contemptMoravia is a fantastic writer. He combines Proust’s analytical skills with Maupassant’s style and lucidity. There is something of Swann and Odette, of the Narrator and Albertine in this relationship. Like Swann and the Narrator, Riccardo is a cerebral who feels too much. He over analyses everything, pays attention to tiny details and elaborates theories to explain Emilia’s behaviour. He breaks down her every move, her words and tries to decipher what she meant exactly and why she said this or that. As Riccardo describes Emilia, it becomes clear that they have very different interests and ambitions in life. Riccardo is an intellectual. Emilia loves her home and is content with taking care of the house. She isn’t interested in Riccardo’s job. She’s pretty, he loves her but they don’t seem to have much in common. After the honeymoon stage, how can this relationship blossom?

Like Swann and the Narrator, Riccardo is well-aware of Emilia’s limits. She’s not well-read, she’s a bourgeois and her mind bears the marks of her upbringing. But, as Riccardo says There is in love a great capacity, not only of illusion but also of forgetting.

Like in Notre Coeur by Maupassant, Moravia shows how difficult it is to love someone who doesn’t love you back or not enough. More than unrequited love, Moravia pictures the damage done by contempt. It destabilises Riccardo because it nibbles his self-esteem. Losing Emilia’s love is painful but that kind of wound heals, eventually. Arousing Emilia’s contempt shatters his peace of mind. He wonders what he did to deserve this and more importantly if she’s right.

Contempt is a fascinating read on several levels. Moravia’s style is close to perfection, lucid, matter-of-fact and yet full of emotion. He manages to build a bridge between opposite notions. The reader reads with detachment and yet reaches out to Riccardo’s pain. He explains everything with logic and yet stirs an illogic sense of dread. He’s analytical and warm. Riccardo explains:

I have noticed that the more one is overcome with doubt, the more one relies on a fake lucidity in the hope to clarify though reasoning what emotions have muddled.

He’s centred on Riccardo’s turmoil but doesn’t neglect to picture the beautiful landscapes of Capri. He manages to connect the reader to Riccardo’s inner mind and to his surroundings.

We were quickly driving down the hills to the sea among pine trees and magnolias, the blue gulf as a setting. I was feeling drowsy and exhausted like an epileptic whose body and soul have been wrecked by a violent and uncontrollable convulsion.

Very Proustian, this to-and-fro between the scenery and the emotions of a character. It reminds me of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs when the Narrator rambles about Albertine and her girlfriends and the landscapes of Balbec.

The construction of the book is impeccable. Moravia builds the tension masterfully and plays his score of words like a gifted pianist. Cherry on the cake, his take on the place of scriptwriters in the film industry was interesting. This is a short book, my copy is only 152 pages but it encapsulates universal and profound notions in the unique story of two indivuals. As the cover of my copy recalls us, Contempt has been made into a film by Jean-Luc Godard.

Highly recommended.

PS: The opening quote is translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson. I’ve read the book in French and I translated the other quotes myself from the French. At least you have the rather long first quote to sample Moravia’s wonderful prose.

PPS: I find the English cover a bit creepy.

Bonne année et bonne santé!

January 1, 2014 26 comments

Dear all,

Mafalda_Noel2That’s it, 2013 is over. I enjoyed writing billets and discussing books with you. A thousand thanks to you who spent time reading my billets, commenting them or sending a virtual little wave of the hand by clicking on the Like button. Special thanks to Guy, Caroline, Vishy, Brian, Max, Edith and Tom who have been the most frequent commenters. I appreciate the time you gave me and the thoughtful comments. As time goes by and with my reading your blogs as well, it feels like we are in a permanent conversation about books and I love it.

I wish you all a Happy New Year 2014. In France we usually say Bonne année et bonne santé and kiss on the cheeks twice. We wish each other a good year and a good health and we don’t say it before the 1st of January. I wish you all the best for this New Year. I assume we’ll hear a lot about WWI and about football, at least in Europe. For me, 2014 is also the centenary of Romain Gary’s birth.

It’s time to tell my best wishes to our literary microcosm. I wish us, avid readers, to spend many delightful hours with the words of others. I wish writers inspiration and translators a lot of work to bring us the world of authors who write in other languages. I wish indie publishers success in promoting good and unusual literature and I wish independent bookshops a lot of customers.

In other words, I wish us a wonderful reading year full of discoveries, exchanges, thought-provoking books, delights and emotions. I leave you with a quote from Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary:

Je prenais encore la vie pour un genre littéraire. *

 * I was still thinking that life was a literary genre.

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