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Agnes is more black and white than grey

March 31, 2014 11 comments

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. 1847.

This month our Book Club’s choice was Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë and since it’s a classic, I assume I can afford a bit of spoilers in this billet.

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a clergyman who ends up working as a governess to earn her living after her family is impoverished by poor investments. She first lives at the Bloomfields’ where she’s supposed to teach to three young children. All of them are little devils who treat her like a servant.

Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience.

Their weak parents don’t support her educational aims and she can’t discipline the children. Their parents never scold them or make them respect their governess. The mother spoils her children and can never find a fault in them while the father blames Agnes for not managing to tame them. Eventually Agnes has to go.

She seeks another position and arrives at the Murrays’. This time, she’s in charge of four older children, two boys and two girls. The two boys are soon sent to boarding school while the two girls stay at home. The oldest, Miss Rosalie Murray is a stunning beauty and she’s soon out and ravishing hearts around her. She’s praised for her beauty and shallow is her middle name. She’s a shameless flirt while her sister Matilda is a tomboy. Matilda loves her dogs, her horses and spending time with lads and hunters.

As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational; and, consequently, very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding her to acquire those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest.

Like the Bloomfield children, they have no intention to study anything. They have a loose schedule, decide of meals and activities at random hours and have Agnes at their beck and call. During her stay with the Murrays, she will become acquainted with Mr Edward Weston, the new parson. There seem to be mutual attraction between the two but how will it end for Agnes?

In our Book Club meeting, we all agreed to say that Agnes Grey was interesting but not a page turner and that it had flaws. The interesting part was about Agnes’s treatment in the families and the image it gave of the Victorian bourgeoisie. We’re far from the benevolent country people we encounter in Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, the only two Austenian characters are Agnes who sounds like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Edward Weston, who manages to be named after Edward in Price and Prejucide and Mr Weston, the man who marries the governess in Emma. No, the high society in Agnes Grey is not really people you care to associate with. The husbands are cruel; they like to torture animals and let the children do it. Indeed, Mr Bloomfield delights in Tom’s wicked ways with a bird and Mr Murray loves to hunt. They don’t care much about their wives and children. They tend to like eating and drinking. The wives and mothers are weak and conceited. They don’t want to trouble themselves much with educating their children. Mrs Murray doesn’t hesitate to marry her daughter to Sir Thomas Ashby because he’s rich and has a large estate. She perfectly knows he’s a bad match for Rosalie but doesn’t mind sacrificing her daughter’s happiness for greed and social status.

They all have poor education and poor moral values. The girls grow up to be very ignorant. They are never asked to put effort in their studies. Nobody cares that they can hardly read, never learn anything and have the attention span of a goldfish. They are brought up to marry well but can flirt in the meantime. Agnes endures seing the Misses Murray busy batting eyelashes to Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody-else (a couple of military fops). What would be flirting in the English countryside in the 19thC without the military stationed nearby, I wonder?

With Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë dives in her own experience as a governess to describe the odd place of a governess in a household. Agnes is lonely. The family treats her like a servant and the servants don’t acknowledge her as one of them. She’s not good enough to be part of the family but of too high a rank to be among domestics. Agnes is intelligent, a bit young and naïve but she’s clever enough to analyse her situation. And that’s what makes her position difficult. She perfectly knows she’s being bullied.

Either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.

The Bloomfield children don’t hesitate to beat her up and the Misses Murray have her sit in the place in the carriage where she always gets motion sickness. She’s not the mistress of her days and Miss Murray will ensure to have her occupied to squash any possibility of free time. They send her to performs their charity duties in their place and do their utmost to smother any burgeoning romance between Agnes and Mr Weston.

Agnes Grey underlines the narrow path traced to women of her time. Agnes’s mother married Mr Grey out of love and had to turn her back to her rich family for that. She became poor and never got assistance from them since she married below her rank. Women of their class don’t have a lot of choices to earn money. They can be governesses or teachers in school. That’s about it. As Gissing will point it out in The Odd Women that lives children with teachers that don’t have a true calling for teaching. Agnes has no experience with teaching; Anne Brontë never mentions textbooks or teaching methods or programs to be covered according to the children’s age. Agnes seems to play it by ear but perhaps there were manuals. Even with more docile children, could she be a good governess?

This was the interesting side of Agnes Grey. Now the annoying part. Anne Brontë was 27 when she wrote this novel. She had left home and lived as a governess. She wasn’t a child anymore and the ending of Agnes Grey is well, too romantic for me. I expected drama and a dramatic death due to pneumonia caught wandering in the fields in a rainy day or at least due to melancholy. I kept waiting for a Balzacian ending and got something more Hollywood-like. Agnes lacks substance compared to Jane Eyre. God, how dull she is! I know she’s young, she’s had a sheltered life and she went through tough times in these families. But does she have to be so forgiving, so religious and such a doormat? (Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance were my only weapons; and these I resolved to use to the utmost.) Don’t we all remember fondly of teachers who were strict but fair? Wouldn’t she have gained a bit of respect from her employers by standing up for herself? Was her position as a poor woman so precarious that she couldn’t take the risk to be fired? There’s a boring passage of her discussing religion with a cottager of the neighbourhood, Nancy Brown. What a moralising speech and a picky inspection of conscience! Agnes is so virtuous it hurts (Lady L. wouldn’t have liked her a bit) and I’m sorry, virtue being rewarded in the end seems a bit too simplistic to me. We’d know the trick if you only needed to be a good girl to have your wishes come true, wouldn’t we?

So, yes, Agnes Grey gives an interesting portrait of the Victorian little nobility but lacks in characterisation. Agnes is too good and the children/adolescent she teaches too are too bad. Despite this black and white picture, it’s still worth reading.

Any time a noble and generous idea inflates until excessiveness, it becomes narrow-mindedness.

March 29, 2014 20 comments

Lady L. by Romain Gary. 1963

Gary_LadyL2Back in February, when I prepared the fourth Wednesday with Romain Gary post, I felt the urge to reread Lady L and I wasn’t disappointed You’ll find additional information about the book in that post so now, let’s dive into the review.

When the book opens, Lady L. is celebrating her 80th birthday. She lives in England, is the matriarch of an affluent aristocratic family and is of French origin. A great party with her children, grand-children and friends is taking place at her house. Right from the start, we gather that Lady L. is rather, um, unconventional. She looks at the spectacle around her, inwardly cringes about all the attention she gets due to her rank and her age. She sees them all as stiff shirts, solidified in their good manners and respectable ways of thinking. She’s making a tour of the place, in company of Sir Percy official poet. Percy is her knight in shining armour and although she likes him, he irritates her. She’d like him to be less honourable and less good-hearted:

Il y avait longtemps que ses espoirs s’étaient évanouis devant l’évidence d’une intégrité morale à vous soulever le cœur, qui émanait de Percy comme une sorte de funeste radiation. C’était vraiment un homme honorable et comment la poésie était allée se fourrer là-dedans, Dieu seul le savait. C’était d’ailleurs le seul homme qu’elle eût connu qui ait un regard de bon chien tout en ayant les yeux bleus.

Her hopes had vanished a long time ago, confronted to the moral integrity solid enough to make you sick that oozed out of Percy like a dreadful radiation. He really was an honourable man and how poetry had ended up there, only God knew. By the way, he was the only man she’d ever known who had the look of a good dog while being blue-eyed.

See what I mean about unconventional? During the party, she learns that her pavilion where she hides all her favourite things will be destroyed because the land is needed to build a motorway. This prompts her to bring Percy over there and tell him the truth about her origin and her life. Poor Percy is in for a hell of a journey.

Lady L was born Annette Boudin, a poor girl living in the slums of Paris. Her father was an activist and an anarchist. She was raised with bottles of revolutionary theories while her mother struggled to make ends meet.

Sa mère peinait dans la cour, son père parlait de justice, de la dignité naturelle de l’homme, de la réforme du monde : peut-être eût-elle gardé un souvenir moins pénible de ses leçons s’il était descendu dans la cour pour donner un coup de main à sa femme.

Her mother was working hard in the courtyard and her father was speaking of justice, of the natural dignity of humanity, of the reform of the world. She might have remembered these lessons more fondly if he had went down to the courtyard and given a hand to his wife.

This behabiour rooted in her a solid weariness towards grand theories to improve the welfare of humanity. Humanity is demanding, appeals to high ideals and makes a man forget about the needs of everyday life. Annette grows into  beautiful and starts working as a prostitute. This is how she meets Alphonse Lecoeur, prince of the Parisian crime scene and financer of Armand Denis’s fight against the establishment. Armand Denis is a charismatic anarchist. He believes in his cause; he wants to save humanity and is ready to do anything for that. At the present, anything means training Annette to behave like an aristocrat, introduce her in high society and use her as an informer. The objective: bombings, killing of key people and burglaries to finance The Cause. Despite her previous knowledge of the inner workings of an activist’s mind, she falls head-over-heels in love with Armand. They become lovers but where Annette would be happy with a normal life, Armand cannot give up The Cause:

Mais il y a une chose que je ne comprends pas. Tu dis que tu m’aimes. Comment peux-tu aimer quelqu’un sans l’aimer tel qu’il est ? Comment peux-tu m’aimer et me demander en même temps de changer complètement, de devenir quelqu’un d’autre ? Si je renonçais à ma vocation de révolutionnaire, il ne resterait plus rien de moi : tu ne peux pas me demander à la fois de renoncer à ce que je suis et de demeurer celui que tu aimes. Ce n’est pas facile, tu sais, d’être dans ma peau. Ce n’est pas facile d’être Armand Denis. C’est très précaire. On se réveille parfois le matin tout surpris de se trouver encore là. Tu devrais être ma force, ne pas essayer de miner ma volonté, mes convictions.

But there’s something I don’t understand. You say you love me. How can you love someone and not love him the way he is? How can you love me and at the same time ask me to change completely, to become someone else? If I abandoned my calling as a revolutionary, there wouldn’t be anything left of me. You can’t ask me to renounce to who I am and still be the man you love. It’s not easy to be in my skin. It’s not easy, you know, to be Armand Denis. It’s very instable. Sometimes you wake up in the morning, all surprised to be there, still. You ought to be my strength, not to try to undermine my willpower, my beliefs.

Humanity is like a mistress in their couple. In French, « humanité » is a feminine word, which explains the metaphor Gary uses. Annette fights with limited weapons against a powerful opponent. Armand won’t give up his cause. He’s ready to die for humanity. And as he points out, would she still love him if he changed that much? Who will win the fight? The flesh and blood lover or the demanding and idealistic mistress?
Along with Annette’s story –how did she go from slumming to Lady?—Gary explores the theme of passionate devotion to a cause. He shows that activists become slaves of their idea and end up being as narrow-minded as the people they’re fighting against. He sees humanity as a bloodthirsty mistress that takes men into her nets and makes them her slaves. Their passionate love for her might change them into monsters, without their realising it until it’s too late.

La soif d’absolu, un phénomène très intéressant, d’ailleurs, et assez dangereux : cela donne presque toujours de beaux massacres. C’est un de ces grands passionnés de l’humanité qui finiront bien par faire disparaître un jour leur bien-aimée dans un crime passionnel, par dépit amoureux.

The thirst for the Absolute, a very interesting phenomenon, by the way, and rather dangerous. Most of the times, it ends up in big massacres. One of these great devotees to humanity will eventually kill their beloved in a crime of passion, out of unrequited love.

Armand Denis fights for more freedom and yet, he’s a prisoner of his ideas. He turns into a fanatic; he loses perspective. Gary advocates that it is difficult to have enough inner fire to keep on fighting and believing and at the same time keep things in perspective. On the one hand, you need passion to go on and on the other hand, you need to cool that passion to prevent yourself from committing injustices in the name of your fight for justice. That’s a catch 22 situation.
Needless to say I highly recommend Lady L. Gary’s style is excellent, witty, lively and full of wonderful images. The ending is quite surprising and the passages about activism are thought-provoking. A potent combination of great style, gripping plot and deeper thoughts.

PS : I translated the quotes myself, so please, be indulgent. Something else, I used to copy-paste tables from Word with the biligual quotes, but something has changed in the WP features and I can’t do it anymore. That leaves me with the blog quotes. If anyone knows how to fix this, I’ll be glad to hear it.

 

 

 

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part eleven

March 26, 2014 4 comments

La Tête coupable (1968) English title: The Guilty Head.

Gary_LecturesLa Tête coupable is the third volume of a trilogy. The first volume, Pour Sganarelle, is an essay about novels, novelists and literature in general. The second one is La danse de Gengis Cohn and you can read my sloppy billet about it here. The last one is La Tête coupable. It’s out of print in English but you can get really cheap used copies online. I haven’t read Pour Sganarelle — yes, there are some Garys I haven’t read. Regular readers know I’m not good at reading essays, so it’s not a surprise that this one is on the shelf, unread.
I have read La Tête coupable a very long time ago. We find again the character Cohn. He’s now living in Tahiti under the protection of Bizien, the Napoleon of tourism. He apparently lives a peaceful life with a Tahitian woman. Sometimes he cons people into paying a Gauguin tax, surfing on the guilt the island feels towards the painter. As I’m browsing through the book, picking paragraphs here and there, I can feel the energy of Gary’s writing, his fantasy. I don’t remember the plot but it sure sounds totally crazy with snippets of insight about the world’s affairs. It’s hard not to think about William Somerset Maugham.
Cohn is a cynic and a picaro. Sganarelle is a character of the comedia dell arte and a famous facetious valet in Molière’s plays. Gary is going towards comedy there but as always he uses humour and laughter to cover his traces. Cohn is a histrion with a sad side.

Un cynique (…) est en général un homme très vulnérable qui tuerait père et mère pour essayer de se désensibiliser.

A cynic (…) is usually a very vulnerable man who would kill his own father and mother to try to desensitise himself.

Or:

Un cynique (…) est en général un homme très vulnérable qui tuerait père et mère pour essayer de se désensibiliser.

A cynic (…) is usually a very vulnerable man who would kill his own father and mother to try to keep himself from feeling. (Translation reviewed by Erik Mc Donald.)

The first one is my translation, I wanted to keep the verb “desensitise”. In French, “se désensibiliser” is not really used in the sense Gary uses it. It’s a medical term. He applies it to emotions. I wanted to keep it because it represents Gary’s ways with the French language. Using a word in a close but in a different meaning and always surrounded by other words that make its new use sound perfectly natural. It brings wit in the text and also a lightness that contradicts the seriousness of the message.
Shuffling through the pages of La Tête coupable, one word comes to my mind: déjanté. That’s the word for a special brand of French craziness for which I still haven’t found an equivalent in the English language. Feel free to throw ideas around.

Imagine that Into the Wild turns into a Tarantino movie

March 23, 2014 18 comments

The Man Who Walked to the Moon by Howard McCord 1997. French title: L’homme qui marchait sur la lune. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

I am William Gasper. And if it seems strange that I repeat my introduction so soon, remember that I am as plain a my cooking, have no friends to speak of, and blend, by practice, into any background. I am something like sea-level: a constant always in turmoil, never quite evident from observation. I move even when I sleep, though my name gives me demarcation. I came to Sterns five years ago and persuaded Mary-Gail Henry, who runs the café there, to rent me the packing case which rests about one hundred yards behind the café. I have no knowledge of its original contents, mining equipment probably, but it now contains those personal effects of mine which I do not carry on my back, some score of magazines which I will eventually bequeath to the fire, and other odds and ends which even a scrupulous person may acquire unaware. I do not sleep in the packing case, having eschewed picturesque romanticism some time past, but I sleep beside it. In the worst weather I pitch my tent, but generally, that’s a bother. I wash from a pot, and scurry a quarter-mile or so into the desert each morning to take my bowel movement. I piss after a short walk. All this, of course, occurs only when I am in residence. But as I told you, my vocation is walking, and Stern sees me no more than a dozen days a year.

Long quote, but you have the atmosphere of the book. Or so you think. During the first chapters, you assume you’ll be walking in the wilderness with William Gasper. More accurately, you’ll be exploring, the Moon, Nevada:

The Moon is the mountain of nowhere, ignored by those who live within sight of it, as well as by those, who, in different times, might be fascinated by its isolation and difficulties. It is not a climber’s mountain, nor a hunter’s. There are some fine walls in two canyons, and half a dozen crags nearly worth the effort; there’s some game. But its charms, like certain women’s, are not obvious and reveal themselves only into an occasional misfit.

McCord_MoonSo you’re with him, walking to the Moon and he sounds like a wilderness enthusiast, a sort of walking Thoreau. He leads a frugal life, limits his interactions with the world to a minimum and enjoys his solitude. Slowly, as you spend time in Gasper’s head, you start realising that something is rotten in Gasper’s state of mind. First, he uses his container in Stern to keep guns and rifles; the man is fond of rifles. Then you discover he’s had a traumatic experience during the war in Korea and he never really recovered from it. Later you understand he had a career as a hit man and a sniper for the US army. Reading his ramblings, you get that a lonely boy became a loner and perhaps a loony. He doesn’t have any regrets about his choice of career. He doesn’t have much respect for human life. He likes guns, the hunt and a job well done; he’s a cold-blooded assassin. He’s not motivated by money and he has built his own system of belief, with Cerridwen as a goddess following him and appearing at key moments of his life. He thinks she’s after him, toying with his life. I’m not familiar with Welsh traditions and the Arthurian myth, so it is highly possible that I didn’t grasp everything Gasper said about Cerridwen and Cath Palug. Someone seems to be following Gasper to the Moon and the bucolic hike becomes a man hunt.

I have read The Man Who Walked to the Moon in French and even in translation McCord’s prose is incredibly poetic. It’s a strange mix of poetical descriptions of landscapes and of Gasper’s inner thoughts and violence. It’s as if a folk song ended in punk-rock or if you were watching a scene with a gruesome murder and the soundtrack were The Sound of Music. From what I read, McCord is a hiker too and he’s the same age as his character. He’s also a veteran of the war in Korea. I assume his experience with hiking in different countries nourished his novel. The Man Who Walked to the Moon is hard to sum up, difficult to review without giving away too much and impossible to classify. It’s at the cross-roads of literary fiction, poetry and crime fiction and that’s quite an achievement.

I have to thank Gallmeister for publishing McCord in France. They are a small French publisher  specialised in American literature. They pick books set in the Western states of the country. For example, they have also published Montana 1948 by Larry Watson, The Last Picture Show that I’ll review soon and Indian Country by Dorothy M. Johnson, which I have on the shelf. I like their choice of sober covers and the writers they bring to our attention.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part ten

March 19, 2014 2 comments

Gary_LecturesFor newcomers, we’ll be celebrating Romain Gary’s centenary in May and there will be a Romain Gary reading month at Book Around the Corner. Every Wednesday, I share with you one or two quotes from a book by Romain Gary. This week, it’ll be from Clair de femme (1977), a poignant novel.

Michel whose wife just died bumps into another broken soul, Yannick. They will spend the night together, talking, healing. Clair de femme is a hymn to love and to the strength we have in us to recover from hardship. Sounds corny but it’s Gary, and it’s not. There could be an easy love relationship between Michel and Yannick (a woman) but Gary doesn’t go for the obvious. Hollywood stories aren’t his line of work. It’s sad but not bleak, because there’s always this touch of hope, Gary’s trademark.

Il ne faut pas se fier aux cheveux blancs, à la maturité, à l’expérience, à tout ce qu’on a appris, à tous les coups qu’on a pris sur la gueule, à ce que murmurent les feuilles d’automne, à ce que la vie fait de nous quand elle essaie vraiment. Ça reste intact, c’est toujours là et ça continue à vivre. You can’t rely on white hair, maturity, experience, on all you’ve learnt, on all the times you’ve been punched in the face, on what the autumn leaves murmur or on what life does to us when it really gets at it. It stays intact, it’s still there and you keep on living. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald

In this quote, we find one of Gary’s line of thoughts. Hope and youth stay intact in us when we get older. Despite what we’ve been through, “it” stays intact. “It” is your spunk, your hope for a better future, your appetite for life, your capacity to fall in love and in a way, the illusions about life that you had when you were younger. It refers to the spark of youth that never dies in us, even when our body betrays us and gives away our age.

Here is another quote from Clair de femme:

Les vérités ne sont pas toutes habitables. Souvent il n’y a pas de chauffage et on y crève de froid. Le néant ne m’intéresse pas, précisément parce qu’il existe. Truths are not always liveable. Often there’s no central heating and it’s freezing cold. I’m not interested in nothingness, precisely because it exists. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald

I think it’s true. Looking at things objectively can be really cold and a lot less comfortable than entertaining dreams or half-truths. Self-delusion is more comfortable than blunt lucidity. Gary is affected by acute lucidity and he deals with it by tempering the North wind it brings on his life by the South wind of humour.

I’ll leave you with news about the celebration of Gary’s centenary in France gathered by Delphine, from Romain Gary et moi. For once, I wished I lived in Paris.

PS: Clair de femme has been made into a film, directed by Costa-Gavras.

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, made into a play

March 16, 2014 16 comments

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran (1923)

Gibran_prophete_livreI don’t remember how or when I first heard of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. My copy dates back to 1993; perhaps Amin Maalouf mentioned him in one of his books. Anyway. I had fond memories of that little book of wisdom, so I jumped on the opportunity to see a stage version of this text.

Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was a Lebanese writer, born in a small village in the North of the country. He later moved to Boston with his mother and siblings, moved back to Lebanon to study in Beirut. Then, he spent a couple of years in France before immigrating to New York. He wrote The Prophet in English and it was published in America in 1923. It was immediately a huge success.

The Prophet is a collection of parables. In the introduction, the prophet Almustafa is about to leave the city of Orphalese, where he has spent twelve years in exile. He’s saying goodbye to the place and its people when they question him about life. What does he have to say about love, marriage, self-knowledge, children, pain…? In twenty-six chapters, Almustafa will answer the questions. It’s a bit written like the New Testament, a bit like poetical philosophy and I suspect a bit in the Arabic literature tradition. (I wouldn’t know that since I haven’t read any, just heard about the importance of its poetry in novels by Maalouf, Mahfouz or more recently Awwad) Gibran’s text is a mix of Eastern and Western culture, of poetry and philosophy. Each chapter is one to three pages long and tackles with a different question. It explores life from a human point of view and gives advice to live your life more peacefully. Personally, I like his vision of marriage, children, giving, joy and sorrow or teaching. I want to share with you the part on Reason and Passion, it will be a long quote but it gives you an idea of the atmosphere of the book and the tone of the text:

AND the priestess spoke again and said: Speak to us of Reason and Passion.

And he answered, saying:

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.

Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.

But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

YOUR reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.

If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.

For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.

Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing;

And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.

I WOULD have you consider your judgment and your appetite even as you would two loved guests in your house.

Surely you would not honour one guest above the other; for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both.

AMONG the hills, when you sit in the cool shade of the white poplars, sharing the peace and serenity of distant fields and meadows – then let your heart say in silence, “God rests in reason.”

And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, and thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky, – then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion.”

And since you are a breath in God’s sphere, and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.

I won’t tell more about the book as The Prophet is a highly personal text for the reader. It resonates differently according to who you are and what your life has been. I believe that everyone can find something good for them to meditate. If it’s a personal journey for the reader, it must have been a personal one for the author too. I’d love to ask Gibran why he wrote something so oriental and personal in English and not in Arabic. It’s his native tongue, he studied in that language (and in French) while English is his third language. Few authors choose to write in another language than their mother tongue. Sure, writing in English helped being published but was that all?

Gibran_prophete_pieceThe Prophet was made into a play by Noredine Marouf. I saw it in a tiny theatre in Paris, the Guichet Montparnasse. Imagine: there’s room for fifty spectators, seated on five rows of benches. The stage is minuscule. We were nine spectators and it was the premiere. The actor and director Noredine Marouf was a few meters away from us, I’m sure he could see every move we made on those benches. He stayed after the show was finished and chatted with us. He said he was nervous for the premiere and we gathered he wasn’t happy with his performance. He’d been working on the text for ten months but it didn’t take away the anxiousness of the premiere. He explained that he chose to work on this text because Gibran’s words speak to him and because he wanted to play something that would make the audience think. He wanted to bring more than entertainment and to leave us with thoughts to ponder when we went home. We were nine people in the audience and one of us was Lebanese. She pointed out that Gibran’s village was really a tiny village and that it was incredible that he moved out of there to live in cities like Paris and New York, especially at his time. Nordine Marouf confessed that working on Gibran’s text had been trying, that he had ached physically while learning the text, as Gibran’s words sank in. It was fascinating to hear him talk about the preparation of the play. He said that with powerful texts as this one, at first, the actor carries the text on their shoulders and after a while, the text carries them. Noredine Marouf is French of Algerian origin; his parents are from Oran. Like Gibran, like Maalouf, his personal history is made of the fruitful meeting of Eastern and Western cultures.

So yes, it’s true, the acting wasn’t perfect. But being there, nine people on benches in a tiny theatre and discussing the play and its preparation with the director and actor was a treat. If you have the chance, go and see Noredine Marouf tell Khalil Gibran. He will be there until April 27th. These theatres must survive and as Gibran points out in the chapter about Bying and Selling:

AND if there come the singers and the dancers and the flute players, – buy of their gifts also.

For they too are gatherers of fruit and frankincense, and that which they bring, though fashioned of dreams, is raiment and food for your soul.

For most of you who won’t have that opportunity, the book is available and worth discovering or re-reading

He changes his philosophy into corpses

March 13, 2014 11 comments

Caligula by Albert Camus (1945)

Caligula is Camus’s earlier work of fiction and one he amended several times. He wrote the first version of the play in 1938 and the last one in 1958. I have seen the 1945 version, the one the public saw at the Théâtre Hébertot in Paris, with Gérard Philippe as Caligula. The title of the play sounds like Shakespeare, or for France, like Corneille or Racine. But, forget about references to plays like Julius Caesar or Horace or Britannicus. Think about Hamlet and Ubu Rex by Alfred Jarry, you’ll be closer to the mark.

The play opens on an act where different persons from the court are looking for the Emperor Caligula. He’s been MIA for three days, since his sister and lover Drusilla died. When he finally comes back, he’s haggard and has had an epiphany: Les gens meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux. (People die and they’re not happy). Life is absurd and Caligula turned his existential angst into a new vision of life.

Ce monde, tel qu’il est fait, n’est pas supportable. J’ai donc besoin de la lune, ou du bonheur, ou de l’immortalité, de quelque chose qui soit dément peut-être, mais qui ne soit pas de ce monde. Really, this world of ours, the scheme of things as they call it, is quite intolerable. That’s why I want the moon, or happiness, or eternal life –something, in fact, that may sound crazy, but which isn’t of this world. Translated by Justin O’Brien.

Since he’s an emperor his new philosophy results in a new version of exercising power. He can do whatever he wants to pursue his dream and make all the decisions he judges necessary.

Je viens de comprendre enfin l’utilité du pouvoir. Il donne ses chances à l’impossible. Aujourd’hui, et pour tout ce qui va venir, la liberté n’a plus de frontières. Ah my dears, at last I’ve come to see the uses of supremacy. It gives impossibilities a run. From this day on, so long as life is mine, my freedom has no frontier. Translated by Justin O’Brien.

The first act sets the context and prepares the spectator for the three other acts. In these acts, we are three years later and Caligula has put his ideas into practice. The Patricians are outraged and are plotting to murder Caligula. The emperor stripped them of their possessions, violates their wives, mocks them publicly. He kills people after fallacious reasoning. Meanwhile he’s still depressed and aching. This is where Hamlet and Ubu come into one named Caligula. Mix Hamlet’s angst with Ubu’s hard-liner’s tendencies and you can picture Caligula. There’s is in Caligula a bit of the outrageous comedy you see in Ubu Rex. Caligula’s action are funny sometimes, bordering to farce and it lightens the mood, even if it doesn’t erase the horror of his ways.

Camus_caligulaIn appearance, he’s crazy. The director sang that tune. Caligula yells, gesticulates, laughs like a lunatic sometimes and Drusilla’s ghost visits him. I had read half of the play before going to the theatre and it wasn’t how I had pictured Caligula. For me, he’s not crazy. In appearance, he is but he’s just someone who has the power to put his personal philosophy into practice and at a large scale. Unfortunately, he’s unbalanced and his deadpanned reasoning leads to deaths and disasters. Thinking Caligula is crazy is a way to say he’s irresponsible of his actions. He is not. He knows what he’s doing and he’s playing with other people’s lives. Caligula is a criminal, not a lunatic. The real Caligula had an odd childhood and lived in troubled times. History made of him a cruel and crazy emperor but from what I’ve read, historians tend to balance what Suetonius wrote about him with other sources.

In the old tradition of authors writing in times when freedom of speech was limited, Camus used a character from the Ancient Rome as a device. There are a lot of thought-provoking lines in Caligula. Given the time and the political context of the years it was written, it’s hard not to look for political references in the text. The way Caligula confiscated the Patricians’ wealth recalls communism. Caligula is a dictator of the cruellest kind and the time provided numerous examples. His twisted mind allied to unlimited power led to chaos. That side of the play brings thoughts about power and how to exercise it. The other side of the play is all about the meaning of life. Is it absurd as Camus states it is? Despite his unlimited freedom of mind and action, Caligula never manages to deal with the revelation of the beginning: Les gens meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Nine

March 12, 2014 3 comments

Gary_LecturesLa Vie devant soi or Life Before Us is probably one of the most famous book by Romain Gary. It has been made into a film and into a play. Gary won his second Goncourt Prize with this novel under the pen-name Emile Ajar. This was an extraordinary literary mystification as a relative –Paul Pavlowitch – impersonated Emile Ajar. If you want to know more about that, read Litlove’s excellent post here.

La Vie devant soi is set in Paris, in the 19th arrondissement. This is a very multicultural arrondissement, even today. The narrator is a child, Momo as in Mohamed. He’s an orphan of Arab origin and he’s living with Madame Rosa, a Jewish old woman. Momo’s voice is unique. As a child he’s a mix between naiveté and perception. He doesn’t understand everything but his perceptions are spot on. That’s often how it is with children, they don’t have the conventional words to express what they think or feel but they still have an accurate insight. Momo has a fresh voice, full of ingenuousness and this is what I wanted to share with you in this quote:

Je sais qu’il y a beaucoup de gens qui font du bien dans le monde, mais ils font pas ça tout le temps et il faut tomber au bon moment. Il y a pas de miracle. I know there are a lot of people in the world who do good deeds but they don’t do them all the time and you need to be there at the right moment. No such things as miracles. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

The part « Il y a pas de miracle » translated as “No such things as miracles” is an expression we often use in French to say “so it goes” or “expecting too much is like believing to miracles”. This quote represents Gary’s ambivalence towards Humanity. There are good people but they’re not always leading the game and you need a bit of luck to cross paths with them. One can’t give up on humanity because of these good people and they sustain Gary’s hope in humanity. Gary’s belief is that hope is indestructible in a human and it’s both a strength and weakness. It makes one stronger; it fuels one’s resistance, helps persisting in something important and fighting against despair. And it’s a weakness because it prevents one from cutting their losses and abandon something that obviously won’t work, be it a relationship, a cause or a pursuit. It’s a recurring theme in Gary’s work.

I leave you until next week with a last quote from La Vie devant soi:

Les cauchemars, c’est ce que les rêves deviennent toujours en vieillissant. Nightmares, that’s what dreams always become when they get older.

You’ll be on probation your entire life

March 9, 2014 17 comments

On Parole by Akira Yoshimura 1988. French title: Liberté conditionnelle. Translated from the Japanese by Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle.

I intended to read On Parole for Tony’s January in Japan  but I didn’t finish it on time and February flew by and the billet is still to write. Oh, well, c’est la vie!

On Parole is my second book by Akira Yoshimura. I’ve already read La Jeune Fille suppliciée sur une étagère / Le Sourire de pierre which left me perplexed but certain to have met with a great writer, which On Parole confirms.

Yoshimura_On_ParoleShiro Kikutani has been in prison for fifteen years when he’s released on parole. The novel starts with Kukutani’s departure from prison. Kikutani has been released because of his good conduct but also thanks to Akiyama who is willing to hire him when he goes out. So, it is all set for Kikutani: he will work at Akiyama’s chicken farm. During the first months, Kikytani is under the responsibility of Kiyoura, who runs a free home for ex-convicts. Kiyoura takes Kikutani under his wing to help him readapt to life outside of prison. They go shopping, they take the bus and the train and later he assists him with his search for an apartment. After Kikutani has left the ex-convict home for his own apartment, he’s transferred from Kiyoura’s care to Takebayashi’s. Takebayashi is doing pro bono work as an ex-convict counsellor and Kikutani must visit him regularly at home. In French on parole is liberté conditionnelle or conditional freedom. We also use liberté surveillée for probation. Literally, it means freedom under surveillance. I think it reflects well Kikutani’s position in life. His freedom is conditional: he must respect the rules of probation.

We are in Kikutani’s mind and we discover what brought him to prison in the first place. He walked into his wife sleeping with someone else and he killed her on the spot, wounded her lover and killed the lover’s mother by setting the house on fire. We follow Kikutani through his journey back to normal life. Except his life isn’t normal. He’s on parole for life as he has been sentenced to life imprisonment. He has to visit Takebayashi, can’t leave Tokyo without his consent and must report regularly to the authorities. Kiyoura explains to him that since the longest sentence possible is twenty years of imprisonment, if he behaves properly for ten years, he can ask for grace and be totally free again. Although Kikutani is grateful to be out of prison, he also resents that his freedom is not full.

In the beginning, his everyday life is a struggle. Yoshimura describes well how even the smallest tasks are a challenge. For example, Kiyoura recommends that he chooses a low cost hairdresser because they work quicker and are less likely to engage him into small talk. And small talk and banal questions put Kikutani in a spot. Work at the chicken farm is tough but Kikutani holds on and get used to his new schedule and new environment. His body has to readapt to softer conditions: there is no central heating in prison and he’s used to marching instead of walking. Life has changed outside and he’s a bit frightened by crowds everywhere.

Kikutani is lonely. His brother avoids him, his parents are dead and he has lost his former friends. He can’t go back to his home town. He used to be a teacher there and the scandal was too big for him to move back there. He stays alone with his thoughts and doesn’t share anything too personal with Takebayashi either. We realise that he’s been released but he hasn’t atoned for his actions and he still doesn’t regret killing his wife. He’s sorry for the lover’s mother but not for his reaction upon finding his wife in her lover’s arms.

Les longs mois qu’il avait passés en prison à lutter contre l’horrible souvenir et ruminer l’idée que son acte était inévitable avaient exacerbé ses sentiments. Le juge qui avait prononcé la sentence devait compter sur son incarcération pour qu’il regrette son geste, mais il ne regrettait rien, bien au contraire. Cependant, le temps avait adouci ses souvenirs en les estompant, de sorte qu’il ne s’énervait pratiquement plus jamais. C’était le seul soulagement qu’il lui était donné de ressentir, et il ne voulait pas remuer tout cela maintenant. The long months he has spent in prison, fighting against horrible memories and brooding over the idea that his deed had been inevitable had sharpened his feelings. The judge who had sentenced him probably expected that his being in prison would make him regret his bad actions, but he didn’t regret anything, quite the opposite. However, time had soothed his memories by blurring them and now he hardly ever got angry anymore. It was the only relief he could experience and he didn’t want to stir all this now.My translation from the French.Please don’t judge Yoshimura’s style upon this.  

From society’s point of view, it’s a bit chilling. The system has him under surveillance but he never gets real counselling. He’s on the loose and he’s not reformed. Although I acknowledged his struggle, I never really empathised with him. There’s something cold in this man and I felt apprehensive, wondering what kind of drama he was heading to. Through Kikutani’s individual story, I also had the feeling that Yoshimura was criticising a system which seems to coach ex-convicts very well but doesn’t in the end because it doesn’t take their mental state of mind into consideration. They take practicalities into account and the fact that they are estranged from society but they assume that calm and hardworking means well-balanced.

Yoshimura’s style is precise, not much adorned and leaves us with a good vision of Kikutani’s routine and state-of-mind. The construction of the novel is excellent, from one chapter to the other, we discover Kikutani’s past, his thoughts and the net of surveillance set by the Japanese State. We also see the tempest of emotions brewing under his calm composure and I was looking forward to know the ending. On Parole shows that the border between Noir and literary fiction is a thin one, at least for me. We have the same ingredients as in a Noir novel: a murder, a man in a struggling position, fighting against his past and trying to start anew. His wife proved to be his femme fatale. There’s also a feeling of doom.

On Parole is a multi-facetted book and I can only recommend it.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Eight

March 5, 2014 8 comments

Gary_LecturesThis week I’d like to share with you a quote from Promise at Dawn. It’s one of Gary’s most famous book, a memoir, an ode to his mother Nina. As Gary’s biographers will point out later, he took some liberties with the truth and rewrote certain parts of his personal history. But still. Promise at Dawn remains a beautiful book about the unconditional love of a mother for her son and an exceptional ode to France, his adoptive country.

There are dozens of wonderful quotes in Promise at Dawn. I’ve chosen one that represents Gary to me:

Je crus mourir de honte. Il va sans dire que j’avais alors beaucoup d’illusions, car si on pouvait mourir de honte, il y a longtemps que l’humanité ne serait plus là. I thought I’d die of shame. Needless to say I had a lot of naive ideas then because if one could die of shame, humanity would have disappeared a long time ago. (Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald)

In two sentences, he mentions a deep personal feeling (I thought I’d die of shame or of embarrassment since honte covers the two meanings in French), makes fun of himself and branches out on a thought about mankind. He goes from the intimate at human size to consideration about humanity with a hint of self-deprecating humour. Talented man. He has a way to put things in perspective. No need to dwell upon your little miseries, they’re nothing in the grand scheme of things and you’ll move on and feel better.

I know that some of you will read Promise at Dawn in May. I’d love to know if this quote is in the English translation/version of the book and how it’s been translated. Let me know if you come across that part.

PS: As I’m writing this, my husband is watching a program about Khrushchev’s visit to Los Angeles in 1959. He started yelling, I turned my head towards the telly, and guess who was in the audience? Romain Gary.

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