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Wednesdays with Romain Gary: the end

April 30, 2014 12 comments

Gary_LecturesThis is our last Wednesday with Romain Gary. Gary loved women and was a womaniser. Being successful with the ladies was a proof of a good education by his mother’s book. A man had to be charming. He wrote wonderful pages about love, attraction and relationships in many of his books. For our last week, I picked a quote from Les clowns lyriques about perfume:

Le parfum à peine perceptible, à peine esquissé, est comme un murmure prometteur du corps ; lorsqu’il insiste trop, il ne parle plus que de lui-même, ne livre plus que son propre nom. A perfume that is barely perceptible, barely hinted at is like a promising murmur of a body; when it is too persistent, it no longer speaks about anything except itself, it reveals nothing but its own name. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald

Isn’t that entirely true? I’m sensitive to smells and scents and I hate to have my personal space invaded by a strong perfume. Like in offices, lifts, train carriages or other closed spaces. Some cologne scream “I’m cheap” and I always think that nothing would be better than this too-much. Some perfume scream “Look at me” and I’m not sure they bring the looks they meant to capture. I associate perfumes with the people who wear them and I wouldn’t want my husband to use the same cologne as my father. Some perfumes remind me of teachers because a classroom is exactly the kind of place where you smell perfumes, which reminds me there’s a funny scene in Straight Man by Richard Russo where the main character acts crazy after a colleague’s heady perfume meddled with his sanity.

But perfumes are also familiar scents, bringing comfort because they belong to someone you love.

I hope this series of billets encouraged you to read Romain Gary. See you tomorrow with the official opening of Romain Gary Literature Month.

I can’t resist: a last quote for the day!

[C’était] un de ces bouquets de fleurs qui partent toujours à la recherche d’un cœur et ne trouvent qu’un vase.Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable. [It was] one of those flower bouquets that always reach out for a heart and only find a vase.In Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid.

 

Happy birthday, Book Around The Corner!

April 27, 2014 38 comments

Hi everyone,

Mafalda_50Despite the image, I’m not fifty. April 2014 is Book Around the Corner’s fourth anniversary. I can’t believe another year has already flown by. 2014 is a special year for this blog as it is the centenary of Romain Gary’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of Mafalda by Quino. May will be Romain Gary Literature Month, but more of this in another billet. And who’s Mafalda? She’s the little girl on my profile and if you don’t know how fond of her I am, have a look at this.

That said, blog anniversaries are a time to think about reading and sharing. I have a literary calendar at work and once I started my working day with that quote:

L’accès au livre, plus que tout, réclame des passeurs : on vient au livre parce que quelqu’un vous y conduit. Et cela durant toute la vie. Combien de fois avons-nous lu, et souvent aimé, un livre parce qu’il nous venait de quelqu’un que nous aimions, en qui nous avions confiance ? Mieux : qui nous avait fait, dans tous les sens, le don de ce livre.Danièle Sallenave (« Nous, on n’aime pas lire » 2009) The access to books, more than anything else, requests a middleman. You come to books because someone leads you to them. And that’s for all your life. How many times have we read and often enjoyed a book because it came from someone we loved, someone we trusted? Better, someone who had in every sense, turned this book into a gift.Danièle Sallenave (We don’t like to read)

This is how I see blogging. I’m a middleman between the books I read and you. I don’t always carry good news –negative billets— but I always try to convey my enthusiasm when I fall for a book. I’m not an academic, I just write my thoughts and I have a casual relationship with literature and author. A writer may be a literary genius, if their work didn’t work for me, I’m not ashamed to say it. I enjoy our exchanges and our cross-recommendations, the stream of conversation between our blogs.

Now that I’ve been blogging for four years, I was curious to see which billets got the more hits since the beginning of my blogging journey. (Statistics courtesy of WordPress) *drums* Here are the Top Ten posts at Book Around the Corner:

I’m disappointed by this list, to be honest. These are not the best books I’ve read since I started the Book Around the Corner. Except for Charming Mass Suicide, most of them are classics or books you imagine picked by a teacher, like Lullaby or Sexy. I hope students know what they do if they use my billets for their assignments. Well at least, I don’t write like a literature teacher, there’s a good chance they won’t get caught if they smuggle bits of my billets in their papers. I also hope they wandered on the blog for something else than mandatory essays and that another book caught their attention. I’d love to be their middleman and give them the urge to read. Just because:

La baguette de fée du romancier abolit les distances et le temps, se joue de la logique et ordonne le hasard. En somme, le roman est la clé de nos songes au prix d’un effort minimum : la lectureMichel Déon (Lettres de château. 2009)  The novelist’s magic wand destroys time and distances, plays with logic and sorts out fate and coincidences. All in all, novels are the key to our dreams with a minimum price to pay: reading.Michel Déon (Letters of a castle)

SAMSUNGThis sounds like Thomas Hardy’s brand of novelist’s magic. Nowadays reading is in competition with video games, computer time, tablets and all kind of electronic devices. Will the good old book survive this? I think it will, just like radio survived television and the internet, exactly for the reasons mentioned by Michel Déon in this quote. Books bring you to someone else’s world but allow you to remain close to yours. When you watch a film, you’re in someone else’s imagination. When you read a book, part of the imagining is done by you. Characters are described but you see your mental vision of them, not the actor that was cast for the role. It’s your version of the character. Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but like Romain Gary, I can’t give up on hope.

Thanks a lot for following, reading and commenting. Along the way, I’ve spiced my English with French words like billet, explained the word libraire, invented with Guy the word humbook and translated quotes by Romain Gary with Erik McDonald’s much appreciated help. Aren’t we living in a much civilised and friendly book blogging world?

I feel privileged to share that corner of the blogosphere with you and books. See you around.

Emma

 

What if a sense of humour is like hair –something a lot of men lose as they get older?

April 24, 2014 9 comments

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby 2001. French title: La bonté: mode d’emploi.

If my thoughts about our marriage had been turned into a film, the critics would say that it was all padding, no plot, and that it could be summarized thus: two people meet, fall in love, have kids, start arguing, get fat and grumpy (him) and bored, desperate and grumpy (her) and split up. I wouldn’t argue with the synopsis. We’re nothing special.

book_club_2Katie Carr is about forty, married to David. They have two children Tom and Molly. She’s a GP, he’s a columnist, stay-at-home father, would-be writer. According to Katie, David is chronically angry and spiteful. She’s come to the breaking point and has a fling at a work conference. She’s ready to have a divorce and tells David but he refuses to hear her. At the moment, David’s got a back ache and to mock his GP wife, he consults with a healer, GoodNews. GoodNews heals his back, David feels better. He brings Molly there, to heal her eczema, it works. That alone goes against Katie’s every belief. When Katie tells him about her affair with Stephen, he leaves the house and spends a few days at GoodNews’s place. He comes home cured from his angriness and ready to be good. So David goes from perpetually angry to beatifically good and helpful. GoodNews and he are almost joined to the hip and Katie can only stare in confusion:

David has become a sort of happy-clappy right-on Christian version of Barbie’s Ken, except without Ken’s rugged good looks and contoured body.

David has lost his edge, his sense of humour. Everything turns crazy from then on. It’s not totally crazy, it’s just a liberal deciding to put what he preaches into practice. Katie feels emotions she’d rather not. In her mind, she’s a doctor, her job is to help people. She’s a good person already. David is high on a brand new kind of logic, one that makes her mundane thoughts sound selfish. One day, they’re having Katie’s parents for lunch. She cooks a meal, she’s about to serve it when David demonstrates that they should give it to the homeless shelter and have frozen lasagne instead:

‘I have to give this away,’ says David. ‘I went to the freezer to get the stock out and I saw all that stuff in there and … I just realized that I can’t sustain my position any more. The homeless …’ ‘FUCK YOUR POSITION! FUCK THE HOMELESS!’ Fuck the homeless? Is this what has become of me? Has a Guardian-reading Labour voter ever shouted those words and meant them in the whole history of the liberal metropolitan universe?

She hates herself for these words afterward. Katie represents the good-thinking liberals, the ones that have money but pretend they despise the conservatives but live like them anyway. In French, we have an expression for this, it’s called the gauche-caviar. (The caviar liberals) Hornby mocks Katie and David and corners them, dares them to act upon their beliefs. It could be patronising but it’s not, thanks to Hornby’s ferocious sense of humour. We’re in Katie’s head. She sounds real, the woman next door. See her analysis of her affair with Stephen and its lack of drama:

OK, I’m just about attractive enough for Stephen to want to sleep with me, but when it comes to jealous rages and dementedly possessive behaviour and lovelorn misery, I simply haven’t got what it takes. I’m Katie Carr, not Helen of Troy, or Patti Boyd, or Elizabeth Taylor. Men don’t fight over me. They saunter over on a Sunday evening and make weak puns.

Hornby_EnglishShe’s a rather good person, selfish as we all are. She loves humans in general but rebels when she has to act and actually do something concrete to help. A lot of us are like Katie. She’s “normal”; she wants to protect her family, her comfort and if she thinks of the poor homeless, it’s with pity but no intention to go further. She’s funny and natural. She watches as her children pick a side, Molly turning into a good-thinking little girl and Tom rebelling against it, feeling his father is rather phony.

That’s one side of the story. Their marriage is still sinking, just not for the same reason as before. How to Be Good is also the exploration of a common marriage and a lot of the details mentioned in there are terribly realistic. When you’ve been married for a few years, some arguments or feelings or attitudes, good or bad, ring a bell. It’s sad but so funny. Katie has a way with words and despite the lightness of her expression, she delves into serious questions. What’s your identity when you’ve been married for long? How do you salvage a relationship? What about the children? Is it even realistic to dream of a fresh start?

How to Be Good is deceptive. Yes, you laugh a lot when you read. But behind the curtain of the humour, there’s a serious questioning about relationships and politics. An excellent combination.

Thanks Guy for recommending it!

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fifteen

April 23, 2014 8 comments

L’angoisse du roi Salomon by Romain Gary. 1979. English title: King Solomon. (OOP, used copies available)

Gary_LecturesL’angoisse du roi Salomon is the last book by Romain Gary and it was published under the pen name Emile Ajar. The narrator of the story is Jean, a young cab driver who met Monsieur Salomon his taxi. Monsieur Salomon is eighty-five years old and made a fortune in the clothing industry. Now, he’s doing good deeds by welcoming SOS Bénévoles (“Mayday Charity”) in his home. When Jean explains that he borrowed money with two friends to buy the taxi, Monsieur Salomon gives him the money to reimburse the loan on condition that Jean takes care of home calls for people who need assistance. Jean will meet with Monsieur Salomon’s former lover and will discover the old man’s past.

This week, I’d like to share this quote with you:

Le silence aussi a des variétés. Ou bien il ronronne, ou bien il vous tombe dessus et vous ronge comme un os. Il y a des silences qui sont pleins de voix qui gueulent et qu’on n’entend pas. Des silences SOS. Des silences comme on ne sait pas ce qui leur arrive, d’où ça vient, il faudrait des ingénieurs. On peut toujours se boucher les oreilles, mais pas le reste. Silence also comes in many varieties. Either it purrs or it falls down on you and gnaws on you like a bone. Some silences are full of bawling voices that nobody hears. SOS silences. Silences like you don’t know what happened to them, where they come from, you’d need engineers. You can always shut you ears but not the rest. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

Silences have different textures according to the moment, the place or who you share them with. Silences can be as warm as a comfortable blanket or as cold as a North wind. They can be peaceful or disquieting, meaningless or loaded with repressed emotions. We’ve all tasted these different types of silences. Gary has his way to describe them.

Next week will be our last Wednesday with Romain Gary and May will be Romain Gary Literature Month on this blog.

And Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle

April 20, 2014 26 comments

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. 1874 French title: Loin de la foule déchainée.

OK, I don’t know if Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle and a more literate reader may prove me by A+B = QED that it was someone else, but it’s a nice title for my billet.

When the book opens, Gabriel Oak is a young shepherd who has just leased a farm and Bathsheba Everdene moves in the neighbouring farm with her aunt Mrs Hurst. She’s a proud beauty and Gabriel assesses her as such when he meets her for the first time but he falls in love with her anyway. They befriend, she even saves his life once but when he proposes she refuses him. She doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to get married.

“Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry—at least yet.”

Shortly after this, Bathsheba moves out of the village and Gabriel thinks he’ll never see her again. Then Gabriel loses his farm after his inexperienced sheep dog pushes his sheep over a cliff. He’s ruined and his search for employment brings him in Weatherbury. He helps putting out a fire on a farm and discovers that it’s Bathsheba’s property. She has inherited an estate from her uncle and is now a rich woman. Despite their shared history, she hires Gabriel as her shepherd.

William Boldwood is the other wealthy farmer in Weatherbury. He’s about forty, a confirmed bachelor and happy to be so. He never expressed admiration to Bathsheba’s beauty and she’s a little piqued by the lack of attention. On a whim, she sends him a secret Valentine card. He discovers where the card comes from, starts looking at her and falls head-over-heels in love with her. She has now another admirer in the village.

Arrives Sergeant Troy. He had a relationship with Fanny, a maid who eloped shortly after Bathsheba arrived in Weatherbury. She never knew why Fanny disappeared while Gabriel and Boldwood do. Troy is handsome, courteous and flirty. As a hopeless womaniser, he soon starts to court Bathseba who falls for him. The other two don’t stand a chance against the charming Sergeant.

Now, you see the love rectangle between Gabriel, Boldwood, Troy and Bathsheba. Who will get the girl? How will Fanny’s relationship with Troy influence the game?

Monet_meulesSummed up like this, the plot is simplistic. However, there’s a lot more to Far From the Madding Crowd than the love relationships. There’s the usual description of the country life in fictional Wessex and Hardy’s descriptions of the landscape are picturesque. Natural disasters are plausible and become handy plot devices; that comes with the genre. I enjoyed reading about the farming customs and he doesn’t repeat himself. Far From the Madding Crowd tells about sheep breeding and tending to fields. These topics weren’t in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The novels complete each other and are a part of the jigsaw picturing rural Sussex.

The four characters have more depth than my summary of the plot lets on. There’s an Austenian feeling to these characters. Bathsheba is a mix between Marianne and Emma. Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon. Troy resembles Willoughby and Wickam. And Gabriel is more like Mr Knightley.

Bathsheba is a fascinating character. She’s independent, intelligent and stubborn. She’s also young, inexperienced and passionate like Marianne. She’s proud and level-headed like Emma.

Bathsheba, though she had too much understanding to be entirely governed by her womanliness, had too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage.

Marrying Gabriel the farmer was a reasonable decision to make when he proposed. He was on his way to be a respectable and solvent farmer and she didn’t have a higher prospect. Yet she refuses him. When she inherits her uncle’s estate, she decides against hiring a bailiff and runs the estate herself. That’s against traditions and her workmen don’t know how to accept their mistress in such a role. Gabriel is there to smooth things out, always in the background. Because she’s aware of his regard for her, she accepts his help reluctantly. She’s alone on the farm and she enjoys their conversations. She needs someone to turn to. They remain friends and Gabriel doesn’t hesitate to tell her what he thinks of her behaviour when she goes overboard.

Gabriel Oak is also an interesting character, the most likeable of the novel. His name says it all: he’s as good as an angel and as solid as an oak. He’s intelligent and responds to Bathsheba’s intelligence. They are good partners at managing the farm and they both keep their heads in case of emergency. He loves her for herself, flaws and all. He’s the most mature character of the novel. His solid knowledge of farming, his simplicity and his interactions with Bathsheba reminded me of Mr Knightley.

Troy is the proverbial bad boy, thoughtless, lazy and self-centred:

Idiosyncrasy and vicissitude had combined to stamp Sergeant Troy as an exceptional being. He was a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity. Simply feeling, considering, and caring for what was before his eyes, he was vulnerable only in the present. His outlook upon time was as a transient flash of the eye now and then: that projection of consciousness into days gone by and to come, which makes the past a synonym for the pathetic and the future a word for circumspection, was foreign to Troy. With him the past was yesterday; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after.

Not exactly a man you want to build a future with. In addition to that lightness of character, he’s mercenary and Bathsheba’s money attracts him even if it’s not his first motive to pursue her. However, when you consider his relationship with Fanny, he’s a lot more complex than he seems to be.

Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon because he’s also much older than Bathsheba, he’s wealthy and brooding. His passion comes as a surprise; he wasn’t really interested in women before and was content with his bachelor life. Bathsheba kindled an unexpected fire and he has trouble dealing with his feelings.

Each male character represents a way of feeling passionate about someone. Gabriel’s fire for Bathsheba is a homely one, a steady chimney fire, anchored in daily life. Troy is more like fireworks, beautiful, amazing and short-lived. Boldwood’s passion is a fire hazard, simmering and potentially destructive. And Bathsheba? She’s confusing, burning for Troy and capable of a strong bond with Gabriel. Sometimes she irritated me but I liked her for her courage and her intelligence. Even if she’s conceited, she also admits her faults and flaws. Despite her apparent carelessness, she has a strong business head and is intelligent enough to acknowledge Gabriel’s worth. She appeared to me as mostly young and needing the guidance of a mother (as long as the mother is not Mrs Bennett). Gabriel and Bathsheba show how hard it is to step out of one’s condition: Bathsheba wants to manage the farm and it’s not a woman’s job in these times; Gabriel wants to be a farmer, or at least, a bailiff.

Far From the Madding Crowd is pure Hardy and I had a wonderful time reading it. It took me time to re-acquaint to Hardy’s style and vocabulary. Each writer has his ocean of words and it took me a while to feel confortable swimming there again. I wondered about the title and Wikipedia tells me it comes from a poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751)

   Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

   Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

   Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

   They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

 

Romain Gary captures my fascination for America in one sentence

April 20, 2014 6 comments

I’m reading White Dog in English for Romain Gary Literature Month in May and on the second page, here’s a quote that sums up

That day, a rainstorm hit Los Angeles with the kind of larger-than-life fury you soon come to expect in America, where everything tends to be more dramatic and violent than elsewhere, with both nature and man trying to outdo each other at the art of showmanship.

I’ve been to America several times now and every time the size of everything hits me. Everything seems huge from buildings, to cars, roads, portions in restaurants. And renaming French fries into Freedom fries is a perfect illustration of the dramatic side of the country, one that leaves me dumbfounded.

Incidentally, the equivalent of that sentence in the French version of the book is:

Ce jour-là, une averse démesurée comme le sont la plupart des phénomènes naturels en Amérique lorsqu’ils s’y mettent, s’était abattue sur Los Angeles.

The second part of the English sentence is absent from the French one. I knew there was a good reason to read White Dog in English. I suspect it’s going to be a slow read if I’m tempted to check the French version of every quote.

PS: Here’s Delphine’s billet about Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joann Sfar. She included pictures of Gary and the corresponding drawings by Sfar.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fourteen

April 16, 2014 13 comments

Les Racines du Ciel. 1956 English title: The Roots of Heaven.

Gary_LecturesRomain Gary won his first Prix Goncourt with Les Racines du ciel. It was published in 1956 and it’s the story of Morel who is in Africa to save elephants. Great challenge. This novel is an ode to wilderness and a plea to humanity to preserve natural resources. Gary advocates that preserving natural beauty is a way for humanity to prove its superiority to its basic instincts. Elephants are at stake, but there’s more to the story than preserving elephants and stopping illegal hunting. Morel is an idealist, a type of character Gary liked to explore. I picked a quote that sums up Morel’s fight and vision of nature:

Est-ce que nous ne sommes plus capables de respecter la nature, la liberté vivante, sans aucun rendement, sans utilité, sans autre objet que de se laisser entrevoir de temps en temps ? Are we no longer able to respect nature— freedom in living form —, which offers no yield, no usefulness, which has no other aim than to let itself be observed from time to time? Translation more than reviewed by Erik McDonald.

I had a lot of trouble translating this; the French sentence with all the commas isn’t easy to put together in English. Many thanks to Erik for his help. That quote asks the ultimate question: are we still able to admire and respect beauty for free.  Where is our civilisation going if we can’t value beauty for itself not for what it brings us?

Les Racines du Ciel was written nearly sixty years ago and I can’t help wondering what Morel would do about global warming. The preservation of elephants is the cause Morel fights for. Gary takes advantages of his character’s presence in Africa, in the soon-to-be former French colonies to discuss decolonisation and more importantly, its aftermath. He always has a sharp analysis of the world he lives in. These regions will be free from the French in the early 1960s and Gary already sees the dictatorships coming. I admire Gary for his capacity to decode the world around him. He’s sharp about politics but he also feels the trends in society in France or abroad. White Dog, Lady L, The Ski Bum, Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid…a lot of his books have that side analysis seep through the pages.

In my opinion, The Roots of Heaven is an excellent book but perhaps not the one I’d choose for a first Gary. It’s been made into a film which I haven’t seen.

PS: The celebration of Gary’s centenary continues in France and you’ll find useful links here, in Delphine’s post. I really want that version of Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joan Sfar. It weighs two kilos so it’s not very handy but I’m really curious about it.

 

Quais du polar 2014: welcome to crime fiction

April 13, 2014 20 comments

quais-du-polar-2014In 2014, Quais du polar celebrates its 10th anniversary. It’s a festival set in Lyon and dedicated to crime fiction in books and films. (See the meaning of the name here) The whole city is about crime fiction during three days. There are conferences, exhibits, films, a great book fair and a walk turned into an investigation in the Vieux Lyon. James Ellroy was there for a conference and he was the star of the festival. I didn’t have time to participate in anything but go to the book fair. Compared to other salons, publishers don’t have stalls there, only independent book stores do. It is reserved to independent book stores from Lyon. If you look up book stores in Lyon in the yellow page, there are 95 results. They some are specialised in SF or comics, children lit, scientific books… Only a few of them participate to Quais du polar. Each stand corresponds to one book shop and the writers present at the festival are dispatched among them. I guess the book shops made good money during the weekend, there was a lot of people there. The atmosphere was like a swarm of crime fiction readers buzzing around stands, waiting to meet writers and chatting with book sellers. It’s always nice to be among book enthusiasts.

KotzwinkleTime to introduce you to a new French word: libraire. A libraire is a bookseller, a person who works in a book shop. But when I see bookseller I see vendeur de livres and not libraire because I’m under the impression that the selling part of the word is more important than the book part. When I hear libraire, I think of someone who loves books, reading books, being around books, talking about books and recommending books to others. The cash part of the story is only the ending, not the purpose. Books are not cans of green peas. A libraire is not a book seller. Libraire is a noble word that implies that the person in front of you is knowledgeable about books and will be all lit up if you share your reading with them. One of those owns the book store Au Bonheur des Ogres.  I was happy to chat with him again as last year he had recommended The Blonde and Nager sans se mouiller. I told him how the copy of Nager sans se mouiller I purchased from him in 2013 is now sitting on a shelf in Beirut thanks to the magic of book blogging and that I had LOVED The Blonde. He’s a true crime fiction aficionado, he oozes crime fiction enthusiasm, it’s incredible. You could spend hours talking to him about books. This year, he recommended The Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle, La place du mort by Pascal Garnier and Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons by Sébastien Gendron. (Turns out I already had the last one). We’ll see how it goes this year.

GendronGarnier

Lauren Beukes was also there, she’s very friendly. I now have a signed copy of her Zoo City. It was on my wish list after reading Max’s review. I managed to snatch a signed copy of The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson for my in-law. I haven’t read him –yet— but in France, he’s published by Gallmeister. So I suppose he’s good. Even without his cowboy hat and plaid shirt, you’d know he’s American. He’s very friendly too.

beukesJohnson

I said earlier that publishers don’t have stalls at the book fair. They are involved in the festival, though. I really liked the ads for the publisher Points. Tu ne tueras Points… mais tu liras des polars. Literally Thou shall not kill but thou shall read crime fiction. There’s a pun on Points / point which is an old version of the negative form pas.

Quai_points

I had a lot of fun that afternoon and I hope I’ll have more time to go to conferences and exhibits next year.

 

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part thirteen

April 9, 2014 6 comments

Les Enchanteurs 1973. (The Enchanters).

Gary_LecturesI’m not sure this one has been translated into English and to be honest, this is not my favourite Gary. A lot of readers love it but I’m not drawn to magical realism. The narrator of Les Enchanteurs, Fosco Zaga is an old man. He’s more than two hundreds year old and he cannot die until someone else loves a man or a woman as deeply as he loves Teresina. He talks about her because if he stops, she’ll really die. The book is set in Russia when Catherine the Great was ruling the country. Fosco Zaga grew up in a family of enchanters and of travelling entertainers of Italian origins and he resurrects Russia in the 18th century with his memories. Fosco is a dreamer, an illusionist that bathes in dreams:

Je vais vous avouer qu’il m’arrive souvent de donner une préférence au rêve, ne laissant jamais à sa rivale la Réalité plus de cinquante pour cent des bénéfices, ce qui explique peut-être ma longévité, dont tant de gens s’étonnent, car ne vivant vraiment qu’à moitié, il est normal que ma ration de vie s’en trouve doublée. I must admit that I’m often in favour of dreams, only giving away to their rival Reality barely fifty per cent of the profits, which might explain my longevity. It surprises a lot of people but as I only half-live, it is quite normal that my life ration be doubled. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

That’s Gary’s logic.

We only have three Wednesdays left before May which will be Romain Gary Literature Month. Several of you were interested in participating back in January, I hope you’ll still be there and willing to celebrate this wonderful writer with me.

Let’s read Romain Gary!

Gary_Enchanteurs

 

Until the end, we are our body’s child. A puzzled child.

April 7, 2014 15 comments

Le Journal d’un corps by Daniel Pennac. (The Journal of a Body)

I wrote that billet in French back in October 2013 and said that if anyone needed a translation, they should just ask for it in the comment section. Well, Sophie left a message asking for one, so here it is. A billet in French was a first, self-translating it is another first. For the original French, click here. So enjoy!

Emma

_______

I was reading this book and I was thinking I won’t be able to write about this book in English, I don’t have the words. Then I thought that since most of the regular readers of this blog can read in French, I’d write in French for a change. I’m a bit intimidated, I must say. I’ve never written any billet in my native language. And the human brain is a strange thing, it compartmentalizes our experiences, learns, makes inventories and settles patterns. My brain is used to writing billets in English. This activity has been in English from the start and for my brain, switching from one language to the other is a bit against nature. But it’s not to ramble about my brain or my body that I cross that path today, it’s for Daniel Pennac.

Life is a grand theatre and we make out little performance every day, walking out on stage in the morning, as soon as someone lays eyes on us. The look of others makes our inner actor stepping in because as soon as we’re no longer alone, the other expects something from our presence, a certain behaviour, a feedback or simply reassurance. Writers like to show us what’s behind the curtain of that theatre and unveil the thoughts and feelings of the characters. With his Journal of a Body, Daniel Pennac chose to shed some light backstage. Our body. An unusual project, I have to admit.

When he turns twelve, a boy decides to control his body that betrayed him, giving away his fear. A paralyzing fear took his body and his sphincters abdicated, a real disaster in his pants. This child is the son of a Great War soldier, weakened and eventually led to death by the consequences of the toxic gas inhaled on the front. The father fades away, betrayed by his body. A little while after his death and this intestinal debacle, the son takes himself in hand. We are in 1936 and until his death, he will write the journal of his body, his life companion. The book is constructed as a diary and no significant event is written in it unless it has a bodily impact or unless it can be described through an alteration of his body. We guess what is happening in his life because some furtive words here and there unravel his great moments. After all, these events affect his body. The death of his nanny, Violette. His first lover. The first time he sees Mona, his future wife, love at first sight. And now, he’s a father:

To become a father is to become one-armed. I’ve only had one arm since a month; the other holds Bruno. One-armed from one day to the other, you get used to it.

The Journal of a Body is a funny book that talks about what cannot be said, what cannot be written. There is no deep analysis of feelings here, just the sensations of a body. Some are familiar to me like yawning, feeling fear squeezing your guts, dizziness, water on your skin in the shower, the dazzling attack of a tooth ache. Some are foreign to me since I’m a woman; I know nothing about the pleasure of a good shave in the morning. Some of the sensations reveal his feelings, show what’s happening on stage, where our man interacts with his public, his colleagues, his employees, his family.

I love Pennac; his ten inalienable rights of the reader are in a visible pad on my blog and the Malaussène series is a wonderful memory of reading. I love his humour, his warmth, his joie de vivre. His style is gourmand and gourmet, blunt but never vulgar. (“Love punctuation by Mona: give me that comma to turn it into an exclamation mark”) He intertwines poetry and mundaneness with a happiness that smells like childhood, cheeks reddened by games and the absence of ulterior motives. (“Our voice is the music that the wind makes when it goes through our body –well, when it doesn’t go out through our backside”) He never takes himself seriously. (You can scratch yourself to ecstasy but tickle yourself as long as you want, you’ll never make yourself laugh) His strength is that he doesn’t only describe his body as the recipient of stolen pleasures; he goes through everything, the good and the bad. This visible lightness, this sensorial badinage doesn’t prevent Pennac from serious thinking about the place of our body in society.

We spend our time comparing our bodies. But after childhood, only in a furtive, shameful manner. At fifteen, on the beach, I compared the biceps and abs of the boys of my age. At eighteen, I compared the bulge in their bathing suit. At thirty, forty, men compare their hair. (Poor bald ones!) At fifty, they look at pot bellies (Don’t have one), at sixty, they check teeth (don’t lose them). And now, in the assemblies of old crocodiles that are our supervisory bodies, they check backs, steps, the way you wipe your mouth, you get up or you put your coat on. Old age, actually, just old age. John looks older than me, don’t you think?

It’s so true, we do it without thinking. This story is both universal and unique. I’ve described the universal moments. But this man has also a relationship with his body that tells about his generation. We feel him a bit stiff, this father whose children never see him in pyjamas. At some point, he says he’d like to read the journal of a woman’s body to have a glimpse at this intimacy and understand, among other things, what it is to have breasts. Intriguing for a man, I assume. He describes his little miseries, his illnesses and his curiosity for a body that we only pay attention to when it violently or repeatedly reminds us of its presence. He makes experiments with his body like yawning in a meeting to see if it generates a yawning wave among the audience. This novel is brilliant, tender and sad at the same time. We discover a traditional, deadpan and generous man. A successful man, a faithful husband, a somewhat distant father, an affectionate grand-father. A man who sees his body as a roommate, in for life.

I really like this text and unfortunately, it’s not been translated into English for the moment. It was published in 2012, it may be available in English later. It’s probably a good book to buy for someone who’d like to work on his/her French. It’s a journal, composed of tiny moments; it allows a disjointed reading

Well, the billet comes to an end and to be honest, writing in French isn’t easy. The English language kept on coming to my mind; it’s become my language to write about literature. My brain switches to English when I want to express my thoughts about a book. I had to delete Anglicism (you don’t say “compartimentaliser” in French, but “compartimenter”) or false friends (you don’t say “caractère” for “character” but “personnage”) and I had to translate a few adjectives that came in English first. Bizarre, je sais.

Lucky Hank and the academic warfare

April 4, 2014 15 comments

Straight Man by Richard Russo 1997 French title: Un rôle qui me convient.

Russo_Straight_ManWe’re in Railton, Pennsylvia, in the late 1990s. William Henry Devereaux Jr –Hank— is fifty, has been married to Lily for years and has two grown-ups daughters. He teaches English and manages a creative writing workshop at the local university. Lily teaches in a high school and devotes her career to difficult students. They live in Allegheny Hills, on the best side of town, surrounded by other members of the faculty. Railton is a small town; Hank points out that it’s not possible to go to a restaurant without stumbling upon a colleague from university. They live a quiet and comfortable life.

The whole novel covers a pivoting week in Hank’s life. He rethinks his choices in life, his job is threatened by cost cutting and his colleagues want another chairman, his womanising father is back in his life after a long absence, his daughter’s marriage is sinking and his wife is away to apply to a new job. It seems a lot for one man but Russo makes it entirely plausible. A week born under the sign of Murphy’s law, that’s all. However, the main plot concentrates on the current drama on campus.

At the present, Hank is the reluctant interim chairman of the English department which is as peaceful as the Middle East. Each faction camps on their position, thoroughly hating each other and having no other choice than to bear each other’s presence. Their carry their shared history like a burden instead of building something on it. The book starts with Hank having his nose injured by an angry colleague during a meeting organised to pick up the future chairman. Everything goes downhill from there as the rumour says there is no budget to hire a chairman and that instead, the dean has required a list of lay-offs.

April is the month of heightened paranoia for academics, not that their normal paranoia is insufficient to ruin a perfectly fine day in any season. But April is always the worst. Whatever dirt will be done to us is always planned in April, then executed over the summer, when we are dispersed. September is always too late to remedy the reduced merit raises, the slashed travel fund, the doubled price of the parking sticker that allows us to park in the Modern Languages lot. Rumors about severe budget cuts that will affect faculty have been rampant every April for the past five years, although this year’s have been particularly persistent and virulent. Still, the fact is that every year the legislature has threatened deep cuts in higher education. And every year a high-powered education task force is sent to the capitol to lobby the legislature for increased spending.

Now, they all want to know if Hank drew a list or not and who’s on the would-be list. Hank spends his time dodging questions from all sides, trying to figure out what is really happening. And at the same time, he’s indifferent to his fate as he’s not interested in power and the glamour of a chairman position doesn’t tempt him.

He doesn’t fit in the academic mould, so he’s ill-equipped to face the duties of a chairman. He’s saved by his wicked sense of humour and his propensity to look at events with the lenses of humour. It’s a defence mechanism and Hank is more affected by his surroundings and people’s life circumstances than he let show.

Straight Man was one of my Humbook gifts from Guy. It’s my third Russo; I’ve read and loved Empire Falls and Mohawk. I was happy to meet with Russo again and enjoyed his talented walk on the dangerous line of tragi-comedy. Hank’s adventures are funny and Russo is not lacking in the imagination department. (Hank isn’t either). But there’s also serious thinking about ageing and assessing your choices in life. Hank is fifty, he’s suffering from  the male version of PMS – Prostate Malfunction Syndrom— which never lets him forget he’s ageing. As his quiet life is attacked on all sides, he’s forced to think. If these issues had happened one after the other, he would have been able to shrug them off, one at a time. But now, he can’t avoid them all and he’s obliged to face them just as his failing prostate obliges him to acknowledge his age.

As in the other two Russos I’ve read, Railton is a declining city with an industrial background and it falls apart. The city’s economy is in bad shape; Hank’s son-in-law is currently unemployed despite his degree. The university is underfunded; there aren’t many cultural events. Railton is like a cul-de-sac. A metaphor for Hank’s life?

In Straight Man, Richard Russo describes an academic world as toxic and ridiculous as the one pictured by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim. Hank’s nickname is Lucky Hank and I think it’s not a coincidence. I’ve read Lucky Jim recently and the story and characters are still fresh in my mind. Sure, the academic world in England in the 1950s is more formal than the one in America in the 1990s. But the two microcosms look alike. The English teachers in Railton have all something wrong with them, from minor ego problems to pathological drinking. I haven’t been to university and I’ve never had contact with university teachers, but seriously, when you read novels, you wonder if it’s really a good idea to leave young and impressionable minds in their hands. Would I like my children to be tutored by the teachers described by Richard Russo or Kingsley Amis? Like in the other “university” books I’ve read, the atmosphere strikes me as full of intrigues and the path leading to promotion is covered with banana skins. But it’s a caricature, isn’t it?

Russo_RoleLucky Hank could be an older Lucky Jim. They have the same fantasy, the same unwillingness to take themselves seriously and the same tendency to sabotage themselves. They also suffer from a bad self-image. However, both are lucky in love as Hank is in a good relationship with Lily. They try to navigate through the system and both refuse to stoop to anything for advancement. They don’t think that their work is important. They’re both anarchists in disguise and can have hilarious behaviours in stressful moments. In Lucky Jim, the protagonist makes cigarette burns in his bed sheets when he stays at his boss’s house. Follows a hilarious attempt at hiding the mischief. In Straight Man, Hank pees in his pants, hides in the ceiling to conceal his wet clothes and to eavesdrop on a key meeting. You need serious mind juggling capacities to get out of situations like this undetected. They find ways, not always straight, not always efficient but they make it.

I chose to read Straight Man in French, which means I don’t have a lot of quotes to share unless they are in translation. You’ll have to trust me and the little quote above when I say that Russo’s prose is witty, compassionate and utterly human. I didn’t detail the excellent side characters you’ll encounter in Railton or Hank’s manifesto with a goose in front of the media. You’ll have to read it yourself to hear about that. If you decide to read it, I hope you’ll have a great time in company of this novel. Even if Hank’s behaviour is puzzling at times, he’s really a straight man.

Thanks Guy for picking this Russoas my Humbook gift. I loved it. Now I’m reading Stu’s Humbook gift, Encyclopaedia of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Twelve

April 2, 2014 8 comments

Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou. 1962 English title: Birds in Peru.

Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou is a collection of short stories and a film directed by Gary himself, starring Jean Seberg. The film is notoriously bad, so don’t bother. I picked this quote from the first short story of the collection:

Il faut espérer que l’âme n’existe pas : la seule façon pour elle de ne pas se laisser prendre. Les savants en calculeront bientôt la masse exacte, la consistance, la vitesse ascensionnelle… Quand on pense à tous les milliards d’âmes envolées depuis le début de l’Histoire, il y a de quoi pleurer. Une prodigieuse énergie gaspillée : en bâtissant des barrages au moment de leur ascension, on aurait eu de quoi éclairer la terre entière. L’homme sera bientôt entièrement utilisable. On lui a déjà pris ses plus beaux rêves pour en faire des guerres et des prisons.

Let’s hope that the soul doesn’t exist, it’s the only way for it not to get caught. Scientists will soon compute its exact mass, its consistency, its rate of climb… When you think about the billions of souls that have ascended since the beginning of times, you have good reason to weep. Such a tremendous amount of energy wasted: if we had built dams at the moment of their ascent, we would have had enough energy to light up the entire planet. Humanity will soon be entirely usable. Their best dreams have already been taken away from them to start wars and build prisons.

Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

Gary_LecturesFor me, this quote shows two of Gary’s obsessions. The first one is that everyone should keep their part of mystery. It’s not necessary to know everything, to explain everything with science or rationally. We live better if there’s room for dreams and imagination in our lives. Love isn’t that magical if you think of it in terms of hormones.

The second idea is that humans can’t be disposable goods. He rejects the trend considering that anything is marketable. Not everything is marketable. Humans are not. Wilderness should be protected and also everything related to art. Not every human activity should be evaluated according to its return on investment or its usefulness. I wonder what he’d think of surrogate mothers, fights to exclude films and books from international trade agreements and in general of how money has become the unique compass to assess someone or something’s worth.

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