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The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov

September 27, 2014 21 comments

The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov. 1965/1966. French title: Eveils (translated from the Russian by Elena Balzamo)

François dévisagea son ami avec compassion. Il l’examinait comme s’il le voyait pour la première fois : ce visage ordinaire, ces yeux tristes, ces mains très blanches, très propres, aux ongles coupés court, cet air de propreté que dégageait tout son être. Pierre donnait toujours l’impression d’avoir tout juste pris un bain, de s’être fraichement rasé, de sortir tout droit de chez le coiffeur, d’avoir mis un costume qu’on venait de repasser. A part ça, il n’avait rien, même pas un métier, qui le distinguerait de milliers d’autres individus et qui rendrait son existence moins banale que la leur. Ce sont ces êtres-là que sociologues et journalistes appellent le « Français moyen ». François looked at his friend with compassion. He examined him as if he saw him for the first time: his plain face, his sad eyes, his very white and very clean hands with his nails cut short, this impression of cleanliness that oozed from him. Pierre always seemed to have just taken a bath, just shaved, just come out of the hairdresser, just put on a freshly ironed suit. Otherwise, he had nothing, not even a job, that could single him out of thousands of other individuals and that would make his life less ordinary than theirs. These people are the ones that journalists and sociologists called the “Average French” (my translation)

You’ll make up your mind about Pierre while you read this billet but to me Pierre is not the average Frenchman.

Gazdanov_EveilsEveils opens with Pierre leaving Paris to visit his friend François in Provence for the holidays. Pierre’s mother just died, he feels lonely but almost regrets accepting François’s invitation. François has an old house in the country and when Pierre arrives there, he stumbles upon Marie. François found her unconscious on the road in Provence in 1940 during the Exode. She suffers from amnesia and has become like a wild animal. François lets her live in a cabin near his house and feeds her. She’d been there for six years when Pierre sees her. Something in her tugs at Pierre’s heart and he decides to bring her home with him, in Paris. There he starts a slow process of giving Marie her humanity back. Will her condition improve? Will she learn again how to behave in society? Will she remember who she is and where she comes from?

It is hard to write about Eveils without spoilers. The French title is a give-away, Eveils is plural, contrary to The Awakening. Pierre and Marie are awakening together. Pierre had a quiet childhood with ill-matched parents. His father wasn’t good at keeping a job and tended to waste money on gambling. When he discovered he wouldn’t get the heritage he was expecting, he let himself die, all hopes of a better life extinguished. Pierre decided to take care of his mother and found a job as an accountant. Working for his mother’s well-being was Pierre’s only purpose in life. After she died, he’s disoriented and his life makes no sense anymore. In Pierre’s mind, his place on Earth is to nurture someone. So when he sees the filthy Marie in her stinky cabin in Provence, he cannot turn a blind eye and let her be while thinking he could take care of her.

Eveils relates Marie’s progress, her re-awakening to the world but also Pierre’s awakening through her. She’s not a pet project. While helping her with infinite patience, Pierre opens himself to others, finds a reason to live and builds them a nest. His apartment becomes a home.

Eveils is a beautiful novella for its sensitivity and its subtlety. It’s quiet. Pierre is a quiet person but he’s also dependable, caring, loving. He’s someone you want to be friend with because he’s the kind of friend you could call in the middle of the night and he wouldn’t let you down. He’s an honest and lucid guy. He questions his motives, analyses his relationship with Marie and knows how to put her interest first. He wonders if he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t have a hero complex. He’s being Human and that’s the toughest goal to achieve.

So if I refer to the quote before, no, Pierre isn’t the average Frenchman. Who would take on the responsibility of a woman who doesn’t talk, forgot how to take a shower, go to the toilets, eat with cutlery? Who would be that selfless?

In addition to Pierre and Marie’s story, Gazdanov puts the spotlight on ordinary people who are extraordinary for the people around them. Sure they’ll remain anonymous, like most of us but they still make a difference in their friends and families lives. Eveils and The Golden Gate have this in common: they picture our ordinary frailty and put forward the place we have in this world. These books are moving; they don’t display grand passions and dramatic scenes. They ring true because they don’t have big declarations, soul-searching conversations and spectacular epiphanies. Honestly, while they’re great plot devices, do we often have these in real life? Eveils and The Golden Gate convey deep feelings through small gestures and show the unsaid.

Eveils is great material for a French film, I insist on the French before film. This novella reminded me of the atmosphere you find in French films exploring off-the-mark relationships, like Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. Not much is said but a lot of the characters’ thoughts are visible through their actions. I would love to see it with Sandrine Bonnaire as Marie and Grégoire Colin as Pierre.

The only slight thing that bothered me about The Awakening is Pierre’s clichéd job. Why do writers make characters be either civil servant or accountants when they want a character with a boring job? Trust me from experience, accountants, controllers, CPAs and CFOs can be quite feisty.

Anyway. The Awakening was our Book Club choice for September and apart from my earlier little complain, it was a great pick. In France, it’s published by Viviane Hamy, an excellent publisher. They have Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Fred Vargas on their catalogue. I couldn’t find trace of English copies of The Awakening. Please leave a comment if you found its English translation. If you’re interested in Gazdanov, you might want to read Guy’s reviews of An Evening With Claire or The Spectre of Alexander Wolf.

In San Francisco’s snowless winter The gray weeks rinse themselves away.

September 20, 2014 28 comments

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth (1986) French title: Golden Gate, translated by Claro. (It should be good)

 “…Don’t put things off till it’s too late.

You are the DJ of your fate.”

Seth_Golden_GateThe Golden Gate is a novel and it relates something quite banal, the lives of a group of friends in the San Francisco area. They are named John, Janet, Philip, Liz and Ed. They’re you and me. John, Janet and Phil were at the same university. At the beginning, they’re single and lonely. John works in an office, has a great job, is good at it but his life is empty. Janet decides to push him into dating by placing an ad in a paper. This is how he meets Liz and who later brings into their group her siblings Ed and Sue. Phil is now raising his six-year old son Paul by himself after his wife Claire fled to the other side of the country. He quit his job after Claire’s departure to take care of Paul and because he was working for a company designing weapons. Phil is an anti-nuclear war activist. Although things weren’t exactly perfect between them, he doesn’t understand why Claire left and more importantly how she could leave her son behind. He’s still recovering from his divorce. Janet is part-musician, part-sculptor and she tries to make a name on the art scene. She used to be John’s lover at university. She hides her fragility behind an apparent strength and a proclaimed autonomy. Ed is homosexual and a fervent Catholic, an explosive combination for his peace of mind. He doesn’t quite know what to do with himself.

Now, that seems quite banal and simple. Except the interwoven relationships between the characters aren’t conventional. Except that each character is troubled and flawed. That would be enough material to write a good novel. This novel is exceptional in its form and its style.

As the Appetizer showed you, The Golden Gate is a novel in verse, more precisely in tetrameters. It’s divided in 13 chapters, all composed of poems of 14 verses. (sonnets, right?) For example, the second chapter is made of 52 poems. I’m sure I missed part of the beauty of the text because my English isn’t good enough, especially my pronunciation. We French people never know where to put the stress on English words and I’ve just discovered in my English literature manual that it’s important for poetry and the construction of verses. (Plus in French, as far as I know, we only have syllabic verses) Well, I loved it anyway.

Vikram Seth achieves a tour de force. As the poet pulling the strings of the story and the pace of the narration, he’s present in his text as the bard, the man who tells the story and interacts with his readers. For example, he intervenes just after he’s described John and Liz’s young love. His description of John and Liz’s new relationship reminded me of the fantastic scene played by Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg in I’m not there and illustrating the song I want you. I was indeed thinking that the passage was heading towards corny when he disarmed all criticism with this:

Judged by these artless serfs of Cupid

Love is not blind but, rather, dumb.

Their babblings daily grow more stupid.

I am embarrassed for them. Come,

Let’s leave them here, the blessed yuppies,

As happy as a pair of puppies,

Or doves, who with their croodlings might

Make even Cuff and Link seem bright.

Let’s leave them to their fragile fictions—

Arcadia, Shangri-La, Cockaigne—

A land beyond the reach of pain—

Except for two slight contradictions,

To wit…but what transpires next

Is furnished later in this text.

Seth knows it’s time to move on and he does.

Self-deprecating humour and witty interactions with the reader are one of the highlights of the book. Then there’s the sound of his poetry, the way he depicts San Francisco and his incredible gift to put human feelings into words. The text is light, sad, deep, funny and witty. It is set in San Francisco and like the Golden Gate, the characters wander in life with their feet in the clear and their nose in the fog. Seth’s words drizzle in a lovely mist and envelop the events and the characters of the text in a special aura.

This group of friends has fairly common inner struggles: what’s my part in this world? Who would remember me if I died? How do I deal with death and grief? How do I recover from a broken relationship? How do I reconcile my job with my beliefs? While exploring his characters angst and making them move forward with their lives, he also discusses nuclear war, homosexuality, marriage, feminism, civil disobedience.

He shows John’s prejudice and inflexibility of mind, Ed’s struggles between his earthly love for a man and his faith, Phil’s honesty with himself and Liz’s internal conflict between her job and her convictions. For me John is the most troubled, the one who has the strongest mental barriers to isolate him from happiness. He lives his life with sadness sitting on his left shoulder and the weight of miscommunication on his right shoulder. He’s grounded in loneliness. With his poetry, Seth conveys the sensation of these toxic hands on John’s shoulders. You’d want to hug John to ease his pain. Phil is living in a cloud of loneliness but he’s better equipped to fight it and reach out for the companionship he craves.

It’s a lovely text, for its take on human experiences and its bright description of our world’s beauty:

It’s spring! Meticulous and fragrant

Pear blossoms bloom and blanch the trees,

While pink and ravishing and flagrant

Quince bursts in shameless colonies

On woody bushes, and the slender

Yellow oxalis, brief and tender,

Brilliant as mustard, sheets the ground,

And blue jays croak, and all around

Iris and daffodil are sprouting

With such assurance that the shy

Grape hyacinth escapes the eye,

And spathes of Easter lilies, flouting

Nomenclature, now effloresce

In white and lenten loveliness.

It’s difficult to write anything after that. In case you haven’t guessed yet, I really recommend this book. It’s 300 pages long but let yourself ride the tide of Seth’s poetry.

PS: Cuff and Link are cats. There’s another cat in the book, Charlemagne. He’s Liz’s pet and the description of his jealousy of John’s place in Liz’s life is absolutely hilarious.

The Golden Gate : Appetizer

September 19, 2014 9 comments

5.1

A week ago, when I had finished

Writing the chapter you’ve just read

And with avidity undiminished

Was charting out the course ahead,

An editor –at a plush party

(Well-wined, -provisioned, speechy, hearty)

Hosted by (long live!) Thomas Cook

Where my Tibetan travel book

Was honored–seized my arm: “Dear fellow,

What’s your next work?” “A novel…” ” Great!

We hope that you, dear Mr Seth–”

“…In verse,” I added. He turned yellow.

“How marvelously quaint,” he said,

And subsequently cut me dead.

 

5.2

Professor, publisher, and critic

Each voiced his doubts. I felt misplaced.

A writer is a mere arthritic

Among these muscular Gods of Taste.

As for that sad blancmange, a poet–

The world is hard; he ought to know it.

Driveling in rhyme’s all very well;

The question is, does spittle sell?

Since staggering home in deep depression,

My will’s grown weak. My heart is sore.

My lyre is dumb. I have therefore

Convoked a morale-boosting session

With a few kind if doubtful friends

Who’ve asked me to explain my ends.

 

This reader to Mr Seth just says: “Thank God writers are stubborn and do as they please.”

To the readers of this post, she promises “See you soon with a billet about this luminous book.”

But more importantly she cries out THANKS SCOTT!!! 🙂

Indian Country by Dorothy M Johnson

September 7, 2014 13 comments

Indian Country (A Man Called Horse) by Dorothy M Johnson 1953 French title: Contrée indienne (translated by Lili Sztajn)

I started Indian Country because I wanted to read short stories in French between chapters of The Grapes of Wrath which turned out to be difficult to follow with its constant somepin, purty and other spoken words. Contrée indienne is again a book published by Gallmeister. It’s a publisher I’ve already mentioned and I really really like their picks. They’re specialised in American literature and you can see the map of the writers they publish here. I’m a fan, everything I’ve read coming from this collection was excellent. Back to Indian Country, a collection of eleven short stories by Dorothy M. Johnson published in 1953 that includes the following short stories:

Johnson_liste_nouvelles

Johnson_Contrée_indienneAlthough I’d never heard of Dorothy Johnson, I had heard of her famous The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. When I started the book, I thought I’d read one short story sandwiched between two chapters by Steinbeck. Big mistake. Dorothy Johnson’s stories are addictive and sound like bedtime stories when you want to say “please, another one. Just one, I promise”.

All the stories are set in the Great Plains. Although not defined in time, most of the stories happen at the arrival of settlers and in the second half of the 19thC. They either describe the settlers’ life (Prairie Kid, Beyond the Frontier or Laugh in the Face of Danger) and the harshness of their living conditions or they explore the interaction between the Whites and the Native Americans. I have absolutely no idea if what Dorothy Johnson describes about Native American customs is accurate. It seemed non-judgemental to me and since she was made honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe, I assume she knew what she was talking about.

The issue of identity is central in this collection of short stories. Through her characters, Dorothy M. Johnson questions the essence of our identity. Who are we? Are we deep in and forever a member of our childhood culture? Can we merge into another culture and live our birth culture behind?

1010_NavajoSeveral stories revolve around the integration of white people in an Indian tribe, temporarily or not. The men or women came to live with the tribe as prisoners and managed to assimilate their culture…or not. In The Unbeliever, Mahlon Mitchell would love to leave behind his white culture to become a Crow in his heart and soul. But he has trouble with the spiritual side of the culture, not that he’s a devoted Christian. He’s at ease among the Crows; he respects their culture and believes they treat old people better than the American society does. Still, he can only state that he remains “white” in his reflexes, ways of thinking and vision of the world. War Shirt is another example. It’s about two brothers, one coming from the East to look for his long lost brother. He’s led to believe that his brother has become a fierce Indian warrior. When they meet, the question is open: is this man his brother although he denies it? Has that man who had been rejected by his father and sent to the new territories turned his back to his past up to the point of pushing back his brother?

Another side of the identity quest is: can we reinvent ourselves? As a Native American, as a mountain man, as a farmer. Are the new territories of the West an opportunity to become someone else? Is it even possible?

And above all, are we only the sum of our actions? This idea is explored in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or in Warrior’s Exile, where Smoke Rising is not considered as a man because he never had his vision and never killed an enemy. He’s a nonentity. Dorothy M. Johnson shows that both culture value bravery and the capacity to kill as an abacus to measure the value of a man. Basically, the identity of a man is based upon violence. Do I sense a feminist criticism here? Since Ms Johnson prided herself for her independence after a nasty marriage, I can’t help wondering if she purposely put this forward.

Although Dorothy M. Johnson doesn’t hide the violence among settlers and between the settlers and the Native Americans, her tone is moderate and the stories never too harsh. The times are difficult and dangerous but there’s hope. I’ve also read Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx and her vision of the time is a lot darker. People die in horrible conditions, the weather is deathly, the settlers are isolated from one another. When you read Proulx, you realise that what she writes is totally plausible and that make the short stories even more unsettling. One mistake can cost you your life. Make the wrong decision and you freeze to death. Johnson is not that dramatic but sounds plausible too.

Oddly, Indian Country is out-of-print in English but used copies are available. I understand that westerns are out-of-fashion but it’s not a reason to dismiss Dorothy M. Johnson as a writer. Luckily, there are always libraries and I’ve heard they’re quite good in America.



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