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My best reading memories of 2014.

December 30, 2014 20 comments

Hello everyone,

2014 is almost over and it’s time to go back to my reading year and do the best-of-the-year exercise.

Gary_LecturesFirst, 2014 has been special for me because it was the centenary of the birth of Romain Gary. I’ve been posting a quote by him every Wednesday from January to May. (Find them all in the Wednesdays with Romain Gary category) and I’ve re-read Lady L and Chien Blanc. Both are worth reading. Fellow book bloggers have been reading Romain Gary along with me and Vishy is probably the one who enjoyed his Gary the most: he read Promise at Dawn. Find all the billets about this event and some more on the Reading Romain Gary page.

For the rest of my favourite 2014 reads, I created personal categories, I hope you’ll have fun.

Best Off-the-wall book: Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle

It’s crime fiction, it’s funny, it’s crazy and the billet’s title says it all: They Read That Post And Rush To The Nearest Bookstore To Buy The Book.

 

Best Humbook: The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth

For new visitors, a Humbook is a virtual Christmas gift and by extension a book offered by another book blogger. Scott from Seraillon picked The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth for me and it was deep, poetic, fantastic about San Francisco, sad, tought-provoking. Bref, amazing. The title of the billet is two verses

In San Francisco’s snowless winter

The gray weeks rinse themselves away.

Ah, yes, I forgot to tell you: it’s a novel written in verses. Thanks again, Scott.

Best PhD-material book: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

It’s a tremendous novel, complex, rich. The characters are deep and rather mysterious is their motivations, the narrator is unreliable and the style is breathtaking.

 

Best city Book : Manhattan Transfer by John dos Passos

In his song C’est quand qu’on va où, the French singer Renaud sings:

L’essentiel à nous apprendreC’est l’amour des livres qui fait

Qu’tu peux voyager d’ta chambre

Autour de l’humanité,

The most important thing to learnIs the love of books that

Makes you travel from your bedroom

Around humanity

It’s never been as true as in Manhattan transfer. You read Dos Passos and you’re in New York, New York.

 

Best please-translate-me-into-English book: Eveils by Gaito Gazdanov

Among the books I’ve read this year that are not available in English, there was this little gem by Gazdanov. Please NYRB or Pushkin Press or Pereine bring The Awakenings to English readers.

 

Best Beach & Public Transport Book: God and I Broke Up by Katarina Mazetti

Beach and Public Transport Books are good but easy reads. Precious books that transform your journeys into a literary feast. Billet can be found under The Linnea trilogy.

I’m sorry to report to fans of books filed under Sugar Without Cellulite that I didn’t read any of those in 2014.

 

Best LOL Books: How to Be Good by Nick Hornby, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and Straight Man by Richard Russo.

I couldn’t choose only one of them and it’s interesting to read Straight Man not long after Lucky Jim. Find my billets here:

Thanks again Guy for picking Straight Man as my Humbook in 2013 and recommending the other two.

 

Best classic: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I started to read it when we were driving through Oklahoma. Books have a different flavor when you read them and you’re there, where the action is. The Reasons of wrath is my billet.

 

Best haunting book: Run River by Joan Didion.

The end of the California of pioneers and the destruction of a marriage, all wrapped in an incisive and beautiful prose.

 

Thank you for reading my billets, putting up with my mistakes in English, making time to comment, leaving all kinds of recommendations. If one of my billets helped you discover a new author this year, then all this writing was worth doing.

More fun to come in 2015…

A bientôt

Emma

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Swami and friends by R.K. Narayan

December 28, 2014 33 comments

Swami and Friends by R.K. Narayan 1935 French title: Swami et ses amis (out of print in French, I think)

NarayanMaybe I’m sentimental but there’s something special about reading a book that has travelled half the world to get to you. My copy of this omnibus edition of Narayan’s work was sent from India by Vishy from Vishy’s Blog and I’m really grateful he made me discover this writer.

My copy includes four works by Narayan (1906-2001), all set in the fictional city of Malgudi: Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, The Dark Room and The English Teacher. Of these four novels, only The Dark Room is still available in French. So far I’ve only read Swami and Friends but you’ll be sure to hear more about Narayan in the coming year.

Swami and Friends introduces us to Malgudi where Narayan frequently set his novels; it seems to be his Wessex. Malguldi is not featured with pages of description but we get a strong impression of the city through passages like this one:

During summer Malguldi was one of the most detested towns in South India. Sometimes, the heat went above a hundred and ten in the shade, and between twelve and three any day in summer the dusty blanched roads were deserted. Even donkeys and dogs, the most vagrant of animals, preferred to move to the edge of the street, where catwalks and minor projections from buildings cast a spase strip of shade, when the fierce sun tilted towards the west.

I don’t know you, but I can imagine the heat, the blinding sun that weighs on one’s shoulders and make you want to crawl into shade and not move until it relents. Details add up until you have a sense of the place.

Swami and Friends relates moments of Swami’s life at the age of 10. (Swami is short for Swaminathan.) It’s not a story with a beginning, events and an ending. It is more composed of sketches about Swami’s life that give you a picture of the childhood of a middle-class Indian boy in the 1930s.

Swami lives with his parents and his grand-mother. His father is a lawyer and his mother stays at home to take care of her family. At the beginning of the book, Swami is an only child until he is informed that his mother has given birth to a little brother. Apparently, nobody told him about her pregnancy. He doesn’t know what to think of the little bundle that occupies his parents greatly. I loved the following paragraph:

Now he peered in and was disappointed to find the baby asleep. He cleared his throat aloud and coughed in the hope of waking him. But the baby slept. He waited for a moment, and tiptoed away, reminding himself that it was best to leave the other alone, as he had a knack of throwing the house in turmoil for the first half-hour whenever he awoke from sleep.

Poor Swami doesn’t know how to interact with this baby and he’s still adapting to all the changes his little brother brought to the family’s routine. It reminded me of my daughter’s puzzled look when she first saw her younger brother. She didn’t seem to know what to think of this strange thing lying in his crib.

Narayan_françaisEverything is described from Swami’s point of view so we see life through the lenses of a ten-year old boy. The narration is consistent with a child’s vision of time and life. He’s absorbed in school that gives rhythm to his life and his days are filed with children’s routine: school, homework, relationships with friends. He’s trying to be a good pupil but sometimes he gets bored. He’s afraid of some of his teachers but shows a great deal of character when confronted to adults.

The opinion of his friends is as important as the opinion of his parents. When a new boy comes to town, Rajam, everyone wants to be part of his crowd. He’s an important boy, his father is the new chief of the local police. He’s more sophisticated, he’s richer, he’s got nicer toys. Swami’s full of admiration for him and Rajam becomes popular and gets his power after leading a little war against the former popular boys.  Swami and his friend Mani befriend him after Rajam takes the power. Rajam will be the one to finance the creation of a cricket team. Swami plays well and is passionate about the game. It’s one of the most important things in their lives, something they’re ready to fight for, even if it means go and talk to a dreaded headmaster to secure regular practices.

Swami and Friends is about school, friends, cricket, the birth of a younger brother and Swami’s relationship with his parents. It is set in India but Swami’s main concerns are the same as any middle-class pupil of his time and ours. Of course, there are cultural differences. He learns how to count with mangoes when a European boy would have heard about pears and apples. And he plays cricket, a game almost nobody plays in France. (I’ve seen a team in a neighbouring town: all the players were of Indian or Pakistani origin). And for him Europe is as imaginary as Neverland.

He sat at his table and took out his atlas. He opened the political map of Europe and sat gazing at it. It puzzled him how people managed to live in such a crooked country as Europe. He wondered what the shape of the people might be who lived in places where the outline narrowed as in a cape, and how they managed to escape being strangled by the contour of their land.

I thought it was quite funny. But apart from local differences, it felt universal.

The fact that this is colonised India also seeps through the novel. For example, at the beginning of the book, Swami goes to Albert Mission School until his father decides to change him of school and make him attend the Board High School. The change came after a teacher denigrated the Hindu religion in class only to praise Christianism. And there is a protest march in Malgudi because a political militant was arrested in Bombay.

I read Swami and Friends at the same time I was reading My Ántonia by Willa Cather. Both relate childhood memories but I preferred Narayan’s tone. As it is Swami’s point of view, the reader can’t expect a deep insight on what’s happening around him. It is different when it’s an adult telling his story like in Cather’s novel. Narayan’s book has the warmth of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels. The two writers were contemporary. Small people come to life under their pen and the characters and places become familiar and loveable.

Thanks Vishy!

PS: Swami and Friends is out of print in French but I picked the French cover anyway because it’s a collection for young readers and I’ve discovered many great books in Livre de Poche Jeunesse. These covers belong to my childhood memories.

Joyeux Noël

December 25, 2014 16 comments

Mafalda_Joyeux_Noël

Bonjour tout le monde!

I wish you all a Joyeux Noël. I hope this is a peaceful and joyful day for you all. I hope you’re spending this special day with your beloved ones. This year I’m sending a special Joyeux Noël to the book bloggers I’ve had the chance to meet in real life. It was always a very pleasant moment and always surprising to see how easy we could connect thanks to our shared book blogging.

Our family comes from two different regions of France and we celebrate Christmas according to the two traditions. So we’ll have papillottes like real Lyonnais and Christmas cookies like in Moselle. Papillottes are chocolates wrapped in a paper with a funny or literary quote on it and then in a shiny paper. And Christmas cookies are only cookies with christmassy shapes. Here is a picture of the two.

NoelI leave you with a photo of Santa Claus sailing on the river Moselle in Metz.

Pere Noel Metz

Categories: Personal Posts Tags:

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

December 23, 2014 25 comments

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915) French title: Le bon soldat.

I call this the Saddest Story, rather than the ‘The Ashburnham Tragedy’, just because it is so sad, just because there was no current to draw things along to a swift and inevitable end. There is about it none of the elevation that accompanies tragedy; there is about no nemesis, no destiny. Here were two noble people – for I am convinced that both Edward and Leonora had noble natures – here, then, were two noble natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heartaches, agony of the mind and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorated. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all darkness.

In 1904, John Dowell and his wife Florence are 36 and 30 when they meet Edward and Leonora Ashburnham who are 33 and 31. They’re in Nauheim as Edward and Florence are both taking baths for their health. They strike an acquaintance and will spend nine years travelling together in Europe. They become a close set before tragedy unfolds. Now John is writing their story like the narrator of a classic English novel:

So I shall imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars. (p32)

Ford_Good_SoldierI thought of Wuthering Heights and later of Frankenstein. When John starts to write, Edward and Florence are dead and John has just discovered that they had a long lasting affair and that Leonora knew all about it. He then endeavours to desiccate what happened, to put in the open everything that was brewing under the surface of their proper lives. The knowledge of all this dirty business came after Edward had an outburst and told him everything and after Leonora did the same.

John and Florence are American, from Philadelphia. They come from old money in Philly and initially came to Europe to travel. On the boat, Florence got sick and she made John believe that her heart was weak. The doctors confirmed that another journey on a boat could be fatal to her. So they’ve stayed in Europe and had been there for three years when they meet the Ashburnhams.

It is a story of deception, as Florence made John believe she was sick to protect a secret and as the three of them kept him in the dark regarding the affair between Florence and Edward. John retraces the Ashburnham marriage from the start, depicts the protagonists’ characters to understand what happened.

Florence started the whole sordid affair. Before marrying John, she explained what she wanted:

She wanted to marry a gentleman of leisure; she wanted a European establishment. She wanted her husband to have an English accent, an income of fifty thousand dollars a year from real estate and no ambition to increase that income. And – she faintly hinted – she did not want much physical passion in the affair. Americans, you know, can envisage such unions without blinking. P72

John had all the qualifications but wasn’t English. Edward was and Florence wanted him. She inserts herself like a disease between Edward and Leonora. Their marriage was then on the mend.

In addition to his enviable status, Edward is described as a handsome and striking man.

That chap, coming into a room, snapped up the gaze of every woman in it, as dexterously as a conjurer pockets billiard balls. p42

(Btw, would an American use the word chap? I thought this one was pure English) Edward is from an old English family; he owns land and farms in the old fashioned way. He’s also a soldier. John portrays him as a raging stallion but not a libertine because he was a sentimentalist. He doesn’t like his wife and falls genuinely and successively in love in a courtesan, a prime and proper Mrs Basil, a Mrs Maidan, Florence and later for another girl. He goes from one mistress to the other, driven by a candid passion. John tells us he’s a romantic, he reads sentimental novels, he’s full of old-fashioned ideas about honour, propriety and his role as a landlord. He cannot manage his money and he once drove his household almost to ruin for a mistress. According to Leonora, he’s too extravagant in his expenses. He seems as naïve and emotional as a young girl out of convent. For example, John says:

It will give you some idea of the extraordinary naivete of Edward Ashburnham that, at the time of his marriage and for perhaps a couple of years after, he did not really know how children are produced. Neither did Leonora. I don’t mean to say that this state of things continued, but there it was. P112

Does it remind you of someone? Someone who’s silly, fed with novels, romantic, genuinely passionate. Someone with a hearty sexual appetite and no qualms about adultery? Someone who’s mismanaging money and sowing misery in her wake? Emma Bovary.

And Leonora, who is a lot more sensible than poor Charles Bovary is in a similar position. She wants her husband back, a bit because she loves him and a lot to preserve appearances. She manages their estate in his place, she controls his expenses and manages his mistresses. She’s a total control-freak. She’s a Catholic from Ireland, educated in a convent. She’s quite inexperienced with the world and religion drives her actions. She takes advice from her religious advisors. But what do Catholic priests and nuns know about matters of the heart?

So when a serial monogamist is married to a Catholic control-freak, it leads to disaster. They cannot communicate directly to each other, use other people as intermediaries. The have a love-hate relationship alternating between admiration and disdain. Florence comes between them as a rotten skittle inserted in an already rotten skittle game. And poor John is not part of the game but will be the one bowled over by the revelations.

The Good Soldier is a study of character, of how passion brings devastation and of how sticking to propriety for society’s sake kills people. It was published in 1915. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton was published in 1913. Both are about terrible marriages and the clash between American and European cultures. Undine is an awful character and Florence seems made of the same wood. But at least, Undine acts in the open. Here, we see people who play the role of good people, who are convincing enough for others to believe they are a happy couple when they aren’t. Divorce is not an option for Catholic Leonora.

This is a tale of passion where the men are weak and the women manipulative. It reminded me of The Dangerous Liaisons for Leonora’s manipulations, of the Deuxième Sexe by Simone de Beauvoir for the passages where she describes how ignorant about sex bourgeois girls were. The unhealthy relationships in the group reminded me of Autumn by Philippe Delerm. This novel by Delerm is about the pre-Raphaelites and since Ford Madox Ford had previously written the biography of his grand-father Ford Madox Brown, I wonder if the dynamics of this group of painters influenced his writing of The Good Soldier.

The Good Soldier sounds like a French novel written by an Englishman. I didn’t like much his generalisation about Catholicism when John spoke about Leonora’s motivations. I wonder why he used an American narrator. Perhaps it’s a convenient device to have a character unable to decipher the Ashburnhams’ behaviour and the English ways. I also wondered about John. Is he a reliable narrator? He pretends he saw nothing of what was happening under his nose because he assumed that Florence was sick and weak. When he speaks about himself, he uses words that deprive him of his manhood. He says he’s a eunuch, a male sick-nurse, a trained poodle. He envies Edward for his appetites, his courage to go and grab what he wants. He envied him his success with women and here’s how he imagines Leonora saw him:

Buy God, she looked at me as if I were an invalid – as any kind woman may look at a poo chap in a bath chair. And, yes, from that day forward she always treated me and not Florence as if I were the invalid. p45

Friend-zoned from the start and sexless, that’s how he perceives himself. He regrets to have sacrificed twelve years to Florence’s well-being. This admiration for Edward prevents him from hating him. He speaks of him fondly despite his deception. He doesn’t dislike Leonora but he does blame Florence. A psychoanalyst would have a lot of fun analysing the sexual tensions and repressions in this novel. The previous quote about Edward’s naivete regarding sex also shows that John isn’t seeing things clearly. How could a man like Edward, brought up on an estate in the country be so ignorant about reproduction? Didn’t he have the birds & bees explanation in the stables? I’m sure he saw animals even he had no formal sex education.

As you imagine, there’s a lot to say about The Good Soldier. Despite its classical device of a narrator telling the story, John’s narration is unusual. It’s not linear. He goes back and forth in time, changing of point of view, coming back to link the events. In the introduction in my Wordsworth Classics copy, Sara Haslam says it’s like an impressionist painting. Small touches are added here and there and in the end the reader has a good picture of the protagonists and the events. I thought it was more like Picasso, seeing on the same painting a face from different angles because John reports several points of view. His, Leonora’s and Edward’s.

I hope I conveyed how much I loved this tortured book despite my dislike of the characters. I barely revealed the complexity of this study of characters and criticism of the traditional English society. The Good Soldier is our Book Club read for December. The meeting is up-coming so I can’t tell you anything about the others’ vision of this marvellous novel. Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal joined us this month and her review is here. Max from Pechorin’s Journal is also reading it, so we can expect a review in the future. And Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat may join us too.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

December 22, 2014 22 comments

My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918) French title: Mon Ántonia

 As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

Cather_AntoniaThis is Jim Burden’s first impression of Nebraska in the early 1880s. Jim is ten, his parents are dead and he was sent from Virginia to his grand-parents’ farm in Nebraska. He arrives by train at the same time as the Shimerdas who arrive directly from Bohemia. The Shimerdas settle in a farm not far from Jim’s grandparents’ and Jim befriends with Ántonia, the eldest daughter. She’s fourteen.

In My Ántonia, Jim relates his relationship with Ántonia. My Ántonia doesn’t mean Ántonia is mine but This is my perception of Ántonia. Jim recalls his first eighteen months on the farm, the first brutal winter he and the Shimerdas spent in Nebraska. His family helped the newcomers as well as they could but Mr Shimerda was more a literate fiddle player than a farmer. The move from Europe was initiated by his wife and he never recovered from it. Jim teaches English to Ántonia and her sister because almost nobody speaks their language. The beauty of that first part is in the description of nature…

JULY CAME ON with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world. It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green. If all the great plain from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a thermometer, it could not have been better for the yellow tassels that were ripening and fertilizing the silk day by day. The cornfields were far apart in those times, with miles of wild grazing land between. It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather’s to foresee that they would enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerdas’ cornfields, or Mr. Bushy’s, but the world’s cornfields; that their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war.

and in the description of hard life in a new country.

After that, Jim’s grandparents decided to move to the nearest city, Black Hawk, because they were getting old for farming and also wanted Jim to attend school. The next part of the novel is dedicated to these years of his life, also filled with Ántonia as she came to town too. She became the hired help of Jim’s neighbours. And at last, Willa Cather came out of nostalgic recollection to offer a bit of social analysis of life in Black Hawk:

THERE WAS A CURIOUS social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living, and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school. Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.

That was my favourite part of the novel. I craved for more insight on the workings of the society there. How do you create brand new towns in the middle of nowhere? This passage describes the difference between the American settlers (people coming from the East to settle in Black Hawk) and immigrants. The American girls seem lifeless to Jim because they are not allowed to go out much. In winter, it’s too cold. In the summer, it’s too hot. They are educated like European girls in a book by Gissing: they’re too high on the social ladder to work, even if poverty lurks. The only acceptable job would be to become a teacher.

Then we follow Jim to college in Lincoln (founded in 1856). It’s a rather new university, established in 1869 and Jim says:

Our instructors were oddly assorted; wandering pioneer school-teachers, stranded ministers of the Gospel, a few enthusiastic young men just out of graduate schools. There was an atmosphere of endeavour, of expectancy and bright hopefulness about the young college that had lifted its head from the prairie only a few years before.

It is hard to imagine, isn’t it? Especially when you live in Europe.

He doesn’t study in Lincoln very long. After a year, he joins Harvard and stays on the East Coast. He comes back once in Nebraska to see Ántonia and know what has become of her.

My Ántonia is based upon Willa Cather’s experience. She moved from Virginia to Nebraska when she was nine, then moved to a city called Red Cloud, went to the University of Nebraska and then lived in Pittsburg and New York. Jim is following the same path.

I thought My Ántonia was a nice book but it lacks the depth needed to be a great book. It’s lovely to read about the prairie, the early settlers and everyday life in Nebraska at the time. But I would have liked a bit more of analysis of the living conditions, the political context, the integration of new migrants, the rules for agriculture, the economy and all. It lacked of historical content. Jim is an adult recollecting his youth, it was easy to insert insight and analysis in his memories. Willa Cather didn’t do it and it weakens her novel. However, it is an easy and pleasant read that can be pushed towards teens.

PS: I got a French copy at Christmas last year but I found a free English copy on my ebook so I read it in English.

The Linnea trilogy

December 21, 2014 13 comments

The Linnea trilogy (my term) is composed of the following books by Katarina Mazetti:

  • Det är slut mellan Gud och mej (God and I broke up, available in English) 1995
  • Det är slut mellan Rödluvan och vargen (The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up. Not translated into English) 1998
  • Slutet är bara början (The End Is Only the Beginning. Not translated into English) 2002

mazetti_trilogy

I’ve already read two books by Katarina Mazetti (Benny and Shrimp, the English title is silly because the original means The Guy Next Grave) and Family Grave) and I thought they were good light books. You know, the kind of books that aren’t too difficult to read but are still well written? The ones I put in the Beach and Public Transport category? They’re relaxing. When I was struggling with Berlin Alexanderplatz, I read God and I Broke Up. When I was drowning in Flan O’Brien’s prose, I read The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up. And I closed the trilogy with The End Is Only the Beginning. I’m a bit in a rush to finish writing about the 2014 books I’ve read before the year ends, so I’m writing one billet about the three novellas.

In the first volume, we meet with Linnea. She’s sixteen and her best friend Pia has just died. She’s grieving while trying to live her adolescence.

On n’a pas de statut quand on a perdu un ami! Si ton mari meurt, tu deviens veuve, une veuve vêtue de noir et les gens baissent la voix en ta présence pendant des années.Si c’est ton meilleur ami qui meurt, les gens te demandent après quelque temps pourquoi tu broies encore du noir. You have no status when you lose a friend! If your husband dies, you become a widow dressed in black and people talk to you in a low voice for years. If your best friend dies, after a while, people ask you why you’re still feeling down.

The novella is a first person narrative; we’re in Linnea’s head and the style reflects perfectly the mix of cockiness and insecurity of adolescence. Losing Pia makes Linnea feel isolated even if in appearances, she’s well adjusted. She has rather good grades, socialises with her classmates and takes part in family life. God and I Broke Up is not the portrait of a depressed teenager. It’s the portrait of an adolescent who lost her confident, the person she could loosen up with. Linnea used Pia as a sounding board for her ideas and vice versa. She’s grieving this precious intimacy. God and I Broke Up is the story of a banal adolescent. She lives in a small Swedish town where there’s not much to do, she goes to school and has the usual crushes, stories about classes and lunch breaks. Her mother is divorced and remarried with Ingo, an inspiring artist. He builds artwork with wood and lets his wife be the bread winner. They have a son together, Knotte who’s very close to Linnea. She’s a middle-class Swedish girl.

The salt of the novella is in the characters, their quirky ways and Linnea’s voice. It addresses the typical questions of adolescence: what about God?, what about love?, what about my future? and who am I? And Linnea tells you…

Il ne faut pas gaspiller sa vie en courant entre les manèges et les stands comme à une fête foraine. Restez là où vous vous sentez vraiment bien. Il vaut mieux se décider en conscience que de laisser tout au hasard. Car il faut se décider. On ne peut pas conduire une moto et écouter le chant des oiseaux en même temps. On ne peut pas être à la fois cascadeuse et heureuse mère de sept enfants. You shoudn’t waste your life running from one attraction to the other like you would in a funfair. Stay where you feel very good. It’s better to make the decision than let chance decided. Because you have to make a decision. You can’t ride a motorbike and at the same time listen to the birds singing. You cannot be a stuntman and the happy mother of seven children.

I liked the second volume, The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up, less than the first one. I don’t know if it’s the same in English or in Swedish –the French title is the exact translation of the original Swedish title, I checked— but in French, Elle a vu le loup (literally, She saw the wolf) means She lost her virginity. So in this second opus of the series, Linnea runs away to Los Angeles and loses her virginity on the way there. I was less keen on this one because I found it a bit unrealistic. What is interesting though is the depiction of Los Angeles. It demystifies the American dream that most European adolescents have. Linnea doesn’t end up in shiny Rodeo Drive. She ends up in the side of Malibu where people speak Spanish better than English and have two or three crappy jobs to survive. That’s a good wake-up call for us who see from the US mostly what the sunny TV series show us.

The last volume relates Linnea’s last year of high school…

Nous voilà au début du premier trimestre de terminale, les professeurs se promènent en levant l’index d’un geste menaçant qui a l’art de plomber l’ambiance : « Ce sera peut-être l’année la plus importante de votre vie, vous comprenez, c’est maintenant que vous décidez de votre avenir !!! » Here we are at the beginning of the first period of senior year. The teachers walk around with their index finger raised in a threatening manner and are masters at spoiling the fun: “This may be the most important year of your life, you understand. This is when you decide on your future!!!”

…—it does ring a bell, doesn’t it? — and it’s about Linnea’s first love relationship with Per, Pia’s older brother. I thought this volume was as good as the first one. It doesn’t go for corny but for funny and real, like here when Linnea describes her attraction to Per:

La pilosité dans le visage des garçons a quelque chose d’attirant, j’avais l’impression que ses sourcils lançaient des décharges de phéromones, et, pour être franche, je ne peux pas y résister. Une tablette de chocolat sur le ventre ne me fait aucun effet—mais donnez-moi un visage poilu et je craque sur le champ. Parfois je me dis que c’est parce que je n’ai jamais eu de chien quand j’étais petite… Hair on a boy’s face is attracting. It was as if his eyebrows were shooting pheromones discharges and to be honest, I can’t resist it. Six-pack abs do nothing to me but give me a hairy face and I melt on the spot. Sometimes I think it’s because I never had a dog as a child.

Er, I suppose the first part of this quote is rather comforting for hairy boys. Please note that in French a six-pack is tablette de chocolat (bars of chocolate). Back to the book. While Linnea contemplates and comments the effects of love on her mind and body, life goes on around her. Her friend Malin is in a tough spot, her grand-mother has a stroke and questions about university linger. Her relationship with Per stems from their connection to Pia and not from common interests so it fizzles over different visions of life. Per is in the military and Linnea’s background is rather alternative. Katarina Mazetti is a feminist and Linnea is a quiet feminist as well. She holds her ground and won’t let Per control her and that’s a valuable message to adolescent girls.

The Linnea trilogy is a light, fun and spot-on read. If you have teenagers around you, I recommend it because it’s the kind of book that leaves you relieved as in “Good, I’m not the only one who feels that way”. And I think it’s a very comforting thought. Plus, it’s easy to read and it may be a way to lure some into reading books!

 

Recommendations from Quebec

December 20, 2014 26 comments

Flag_of_Quebec.svgThis post is more a post-it than a billet. A friend from Quebec sent me a few recommendations about Quebec literature and I decided to store the information in a blog post and share it with you. I haven’t checked if these books are translated into English. I’m not proud to report I’ve never read a book written by an author from Québec or even set in Québec.

Nelly Arcan (www.nellyarcan.com) (1973-2009)

  • Putain
  • Folle
  • Paradis, clef en main

Marie Uguay (1955 – 1981)

  • Poèmes
  • Journal

Michel Tremblay (1942-)

  • Les Belles Sœurs (theatre)
  • Un ange cornu avec des ailes de tôle. (novel)

Pierre Falardeau

Louis Caron (1942-) especially the trilogy Les Fils de la liberté :

  • Le canard de bois
  • La corne de brume
  • Le coup de point.

Gabrielle Roy (1909 – 1983) www.gabrielleroy.mb.ca

  • Bonheur d’Occasion (The Tin Flute)

Anne Hébert. (1916 – 2000)

  • Kamouraska
  • Les Fous de Bassan.

Yves Beauchemin. (1941)

  • Le Matou

English-speaking writers

Margaret Atwood (www.margaretatwood.ca)

I knew about her but I’ve never read anything by her. Recommendations are welcome.

Anne Michaels:

  • Fugitive Pieces.

Have you read any of these writers? If yes, what did you read and how was it?

Agnes by Peter Stamm

December 14, 2014 24 comments

Agnes by Peter Stamm. 1998 French title: Agnès. Translated by Nicole Roethel.

Preamble: I have read Agnes in French. Sorry for the crash course in French conjugation included in this post but it was relevant to my reading. It also means that I had to translate the quotes into English, so they may not reflect Stamm’s style as well as they should.

Agnes is dead. A story killed her. The only thing I’m left of her is this story. It started nine months ago when we first met in the Chicago Public Library. (my translation) Agnes ist tot. Eine Geschichte hat sie getötet. Nichts ist mir von ihr geblieben als diese Geschichte. Sie beginnt an jenem Tag vor neun Monaten, als wir uns in der Chicago Public Library zum ersten Mal trafen. Agnès est morte. Une histoire l’a tuée. Il ne me reste d’elle que cette histoire. Elle commence il y a neuf mois, le jour où nous nous sommes rencontrés pour la première fois dans la bibliothèque municipale de Chicago.

These are the first sentences of Peter Stamm’s novella, Agnes. You’re mentally prepared to read a story with a bad ending.

Stamm_AgnesThe unnamed narrator is Swiss and temporarily living in Chicago. He’s a writer of non-fiction books and his publisher commissioned him to write a book about luxurious train carriages in the USA. He’s in Chicago for research. Agnes is writing her thesis on a scientific theme I’m not able to translate into English. They meet at the Chicago Public Library, go for coffee, smoke together outside the building and gradually fall into a relationship and in love.

The narrator is a lot older than her (at a moment he says he could be her father). He’s writing non-fiction because it pays the bills and has abandoned the idea to write a novel. Agnes encourages him to write a story about them. He starts reluctantly but he’s soon caught in the game. He writes what happened, writes in advance how he would like things to happen. And their lives become muddled and influenced by the story. There’s a sort of twisted pattern where what he writes must happen and eventually guides their actions. It also generates discussions afterwards about Agnes’s and his vision of moments they spent together. It’s a bit like those books boys used to read when I was a teenager: it’s called gamebooks in English but in French it was marketed under livre dont vous êtes le héros. (book in which you are the hero.) You create your own story. That’s what Agnes and the narrator embark on and it’s a dangerous game.

This novella is excellent, well-constructed and I wanted to know how things unravelled and what happened to Agnes.

Peter Stamm’s style sounds formal in French. The translator chose two tenses that are a little dated for contemporary literature in French. For example, Agnes says Mon père y tenait absolument, bien que je détestasse cela. (My father was adamant about it, although I hated it). The détestasse is no longer used in French, especially in dialogues. It is a tense called l’imparfait du subjonctif and nobody uses it in spoken language and hardly ever in written language. The ending in asse sounds heavy and pompous now. Although grammatically incorrect, it has been replaced by the subjonctif présent in common language. It means that the sentence would have been Mon père y tenait absolument, bien que je déteste cela.

I also noticed the use of a past tense called passé simple in the first and second person plural. It’s not as dated as the imparfait du subjonctif but it’s not so used now for the first and second person plural. In Agnes, I mostly noticed it in descriptions, when the narrator relates his time with Agnes. Again, it sounds heavy and emphatic. For example: Nous louâmes une voiture et, tôt le vendredi matin, nous prîmes la direction du sud. (We rented a car and early on Friday morning, we headed South) I’m not sure a contemporary French writer would have written like this. I imagine more a sentence using another past tense, the passé composé : Nous avons loué une voiture et, tôt le vendredi matin, nous avons pris la direction du sud.

Tony from Tony’s Reading List has read Agnes in German and he also speaks excellent French. So I twitted him to know if the German text sounded as formal as the French translation. (See his review of Agnes here) He said that Stamm uses the subjunctive more than other German speaking writers. I hope that Caroline drops by and gives us her opinion about that. So I assume that the translation is accurate and that the use of these tenses in French is the best way to give back the flavour of the German prose.

I’ll go further. I also noted down the use of passé antérieur like in this sentence said by Agnes, Même si parfois je l’eus souhaité. (Even if sometimes I wished I did.) Nobody says Je l’eus souhaité anymore. We would say Je l’aurais souhaité. Choosing Je l’eus souhaité gives a sense of narration to the phrase. Indeed, the passé antérieur is not used in spoken language but in written language. It’s as if Agnes was speaking in written language because this scene is destined to be included in their novella. It sort of prepares the transcription of what they’re living into future literature.

It participates to the feeling of aloofness oozed by the narrator and Agnes. He’s always preferred keeping his total freedom than give it up partly to be in a relationship:

Et la liberté avait toujours été pour moi plus importante que le bonheur. Peut-être était-ce cela que mes petites amies successives avaient appelé égoïsme. Freedom had always been more important to me than happiness. Perhaps it was what my successive girlfriends had called selfishness.

Although he claims to be deeply in love with Agnes, he holds himself back. And Agnes does the same about her past and doesn’t share much about herself. Both characters are rather hard to define. In appearance, they don’t have much in common. They’re different in gender, age, nationality, occupation. But they do have the same detachment from their life, as if they were more spectators than actors. I have the impression that they watch themselves live through a glass wall and that the story they write is a literal way to indulge in this tendency. Their love is passionate but cold or reserved. It is difficult to nail, that cold passion. They’re detached but not indifferent.

The narrator’s voice is strong and unique. Stamm recreates Chicago very well and his characters came to life in my head. It would make a great film by Won Kar Wai or by a French director. I leave you with one last quote that left me thinking…

Nous pensons tous vivre dans un seul et même monde. Et pourtant, chacun s’agite dans sa propre tanière, ne regarde ni à droite ni à gauche, et ne fait que défricher sa vie en se coupant le chemin du retour avec les déblais. We think we all live in one and only world. And yet, each of us stirs in their own burrow, never looking left or right and only clears their life path while cutting their way back with debris.

 

I’ve read a book by Modiano

December 6, 2014 40 comments

Dimanches d’août by Patrick Modiano (1986) Not available in English. (yet)

Modiano_DimanchesSo Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in literature this year. It was as surprising as having a French laureate for the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. I had never read Modiano because of the image I had of him. I imagined his books as boring ramblings of white men distressed by their middle age crisis, tortured and endlessly looking for the perfect woman that doesn’t exist. I looked at his books in bookstores, read the blurb and put them down. Several times.

When he won the Nobel Prize I sort of saw it as my duty as a French book blogger in the English speaking blogosphere to at least try a book by him and see. Therefore I took my wary self to a book store and bought a Modiano. The one I knew about, Rue des boutiques obscures, was not on the shelves. I discarded Place de l’Etoile because it was –again—about Paris during the Occupation and I’m sick of reading about WWII. I asked for help to the libraire, who had not read Modiano either. Some libraire he was. After reading several blurbs I picked Dimanches d’août.

We’re in Nice in the 1980s. The narrator, Jean stumbles upon an old acquaintance, Villecourt on the boulevard Gambetta. The two men are not so pleased to meet again. They have a Sylvia in common, they both come from somewhere on the banks of the Marne near Paris. It is soon very clear that Sylvia is gone, that she and Jean fled to Nice, that Villecourt used to be her lover or husband. Seeing Villecourt again will decide Jean to relate what happened. At once, the reader feels that something went wrong, that this story goes beyond the usual love triangle. This comes from the diamond that Sylvia had. It is named Croix du Sud and part of the mystery is linked to it.

In a classic Noir tale, the narrator is in a bad place –Jean ran aground in Nice and now wanders there like a broken soul—and he starts telling his story from the beginning. The reader follows how he ended up where he is. Here, Jean goes backward. From one detail to the other, we will rewind the moments and events from Nice to the banks of the Marne where it all began.

So, the verdict? Bof, as we say in French. You can’t judge a writer by one book but I wasn’t thrilled. Before reading Modiano, when I heard his name, it conveyed the image of a solitary man walking on a deserted beach in Normandy, wearing a beige wool jumper. This novel was set in Nice and the man was wandering on the Promenade des Anglais but the impression remains.

Sure, he pictures Nice and the French Riviera with talent. The story is well crafted but rather classic and I guessed part of the ending which is not a good sign. He writes well but he’s no Albert Camus or J.M.G. Le Clézio. I have only two quotes for a book of 190 pages. I had more from the 50 pages I’ve read of At Swim-Two-Birds! Still, here’s a sample:

Je me suis approché d’elle et bientôt son parfum était plus fort que l’odeur de la chambre, un parfum lourd dont je ne pouvais plus me passer, quelque chose de doux et de ténébreux, comme les liens qui nous attachaient l’un à l’autre.

I went close to her and soon her perfume was stronger that the smell of the room. It was a heavy perfume I couldn’t live without, something sweet and dark, as the bond that tied us to each other. (my translation)

Lots of writers are as good as this, no? I expect from a Nobel Prize winner to be innovative, to bring something new to literature, to have a style that looks like no one else’s. I’d like to know what prompted the Nobel Jury to grant him such a prestigious prize because after reading Dimanches d’août, I can’t figure it out. A Nobel Prize winner should let me wide eyed and mouth hanging from admiration. Next time maybe?

Stout born

December 3, 2014 17 comments

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. 1939 French title: Swim-Two-Birds.

OBrienMea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, I’m late for November’s Book Club billet. I have abandoned the book so I don’t have any excuse for the late entry, except that work got in the way. I have to say it was a general abandonment, nobody managed to finish the book this month. It was At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. I bought my copy at the bookshop in the Dublin Writers Museum. The quote by Dylan Thomas on the back caught my eyes This is just the book to give to your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl. I thought it sounded fun. I wish I had seen that Flann O’Brien had been knighted as “real writer” by James Joyce. It would have tipped me off.

So what’s it about? Er…I don’t exactly know. There’s some guy who’s attending Dublin’s University. He lives with his uncle and loves staying in his room until the air is stale. He likes to drink beer in pubs (well, he’s a Dubliner, right?) He writes unclassifiable stories that are related in the book. The reader, me in this instance, is totally disoriented. I have the novel in English, it’s full of parody of Irish things I know nothing about and I felt I was drowning in an ocean of words perfumed with Irish stout.

I’ve struggled with 50 pages and then I gave up. I asked for help, got some and was told to basically enjoy the funny ride. The problem I couldn’t because it was too complicated to follow. I’ve read 50 pages and I have 13 quotes, most of them marked down as “funny”. Examples:

It was only a few months before composing the foregoing that I had my first experience of intoxicating beverage and their strange intestinal chemistry.

Or

To convert stout into water, I said, there is simple process. Even a child can do it, though I would not stand for giving stout to children. Is it not a pity that the art of man has not attained the secret of converting water into stout?

I enjoyed the booze induced parts of the pages I’ve read and the descriptions of the narrator’s life in Dublin. Apart from this, it is hard for me to describe O’Brien’s work. It’s totally wacked and yet innovative. It’s unsettling especially since it’s populated (in the 50 pages I’ve read, at least) with legendary heroes of Ireland, fictional Mr Furriskey created by the fictional narrator of the book, Irish version of cowboys… It made me dizzy in a Laughing-Cow sort of way: the Laughing-Cow has earrings, in which there’s a Laughing Cow that has earrings that have a Laughing Cown that…etc. And that’s where you forget where you came from. All this in a language rather difficult for me, as a non-native. It’s a literary scrap-book of the narrator’s thoughts and excerpts of his writing.

I do enjoy crazy books but this one was too much for me. Perhaps it should be read under the influence of stout, to be attuned to the character. Alas, I don’t drink stout. Or perhaps I should have read it in French? Anyway, don’t dismiss this book because of this billet. The problem is clearly on my Book Club’s side.

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