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From there, you see the sea by Philippe Besson

March 31, 2015 12 comments

 De là, on voit la mer by Philippe Besson. 2013. Not translated into English. (yet?)

Tu es une femme sans hésitation.

book_club_2For March, our Book Club picked De là on voit la mer by Philippe Besson. It was a safe bet, none of us has ever disliked a book by Philippe Besson. This one has not been translated into English but English-speaking readers can try In the Absence of Men and French readers may try Un homme accidentel which is my favorite of the three I’ve read.

In appearance, the plot of that novel is rather banal. Louise and François are over forty; they’ve been married for years. Louise is a famous writer and François has a corporate job in Paris. She’s currently writing her new novel and it requires her total attention. So she’s living in Tuscany in a friend’s house while François remains in Paris. Literature is a demanding lover. Arrives what must arrive, she starts an affair with a much younger man, Luca, until François is in an accident and his condition is serious enough to make her go back to Paris.

Besson_merReading this, you probably think you’ve seen it all before. (Even the cover of the book, a lot cornier than the other ones) That’s what I thought also for the first fifty pages. Since I’m fed up with foreign authors writing books set in Provence, I even wondered if the Italians feel the same about books located in Tuscany. So what makes a difference? The characters and the last twist in the plot. Since I don’t want spoilers in my billet, I’ll write about the characters.

First, the usual roles are reversed. You’d expect a male writer with a mousy wife sacrificed on the altar of Literature and you have a strong selfish female author with an almost submissive husband. Louise reminded me of Marguerite Duras in The Lover. Louise is cold, terribly self-centered and rude with François. He’s so in love with her that he accepts everything. He’s used to playing second fiddle to her art. He suffers from it but it’s for a good cause, the cause of Literature. And of course, Louise would have left him if he hadn’t complied. They don’t have children, Louise has no desire to be a mother. François had to accept this as well. He’s ready to accept everything for her in the name of love. Someone said to our meeting it’s the purest love possible. I’m a bit harsher, I found him a bit of a doormat. I don’t find this kind of love commendable because it’s unequal, partly unrequited. I wondered what kind of pleasure he found in his sacrifice.

Louise just takes what she wants. Luca. François. Her independence. Literature provides her with the best excuse ever. It’s her calling, how can she resist to its pull? Besson pictures a writer who uses her need to write to impose her lifestyle to her husband but also a writer consumed by the need to write. Louise’s life is writing material. Potentially, anything could end up in one of her novels.

Pour l’accident lui-même, c’est trop tôt. Elle ne connaît pas les circonstances. On les lui racontera. Ça fera un beau chapitre dans un livre.

As for the accident, it’s too early. She doesn’t know the circumstances. Someone will tell her. It will make a nice chapter in a novel.

There’s something final in this passage that tells everything about the ambivalence Louise feels towards literature. It owns her. And yet she uses it.

The relationship between Louise and François is odd and her attraction to Luca comes as a surprise for her. She wasn’t looking for an affair. She didn’t miss her husband very much but she was intent on writing her book and going home afterwards. Luca falls down on her like a bad curse. It’s supposed to be passionate and yet, I thought that something was missing in Besson’s writing.

I wondered how his being gay influenced this novel. Was he able to create such a female character as Louise because he’s not sexually attracted to women and thus sees them as human beings and not surrounded by an aura of I-don’t-know what? Does that give him another perspective? I can’t answer this question but it crossed my mind. For me, in creating Louise, he showed that he considers women as equal to men. Not all women want children and a woman is not necessarily soft and loving. Louise is cold, just like some men are. François is giving, just like some women are. What’s sure, though, is that it influences part of his writing. He’s better at describing passion between two men than between Luca and Louise. He didn’t manage to transcribe the urgency they’re supposed to feel for each other the way he did it in Un homme accidentel, for example. His style is elegant though and his voice takes you in his world with his short sentences where verbs may be omitted.

Voilà, c’est ainsi : il y a des moments dans une existence où on demande la vérité alors qu’on présume qu’elle va nous heurter. Des situations dans lesquelles on renonce au confort de l’ignorance, aux vapeurs anesthésiantes de l’incertitude et où on prend le risque du réel, de la dureté du réel. Des exaspérations telles qu’on a besoin d’en finir, une fois pour toutes. Voilà. That’s it. There are moments in life when you demand the truth even if you assume it will hurt. Circumstances in which you give up on the comfort of ignorance, on the anesthetic vapors of uncertainty and then you take a bet on reality, on the harshness of reality. Exasperations such that you want to end things, once for all.

I guess we’ve all been there one day or the other. I’m always drawn to his writing and I already know I’ll read more by him. I really recommend In the Absence of Men. You can also have a second opinion on that one here, at Pechorin’s Journal.

My two days at Quais du Polar

March 28, 2015 17 comments

This weekend, there’s the crime fiction festival Quais du Polar in Lyon. It lasts three days but I could only attend yesterday and today. I met with Marina Sofia and we had a great time together, chatting about books, browsing through books, attending conferences and having literary fun.

Yesterday, I took time to check out the huge bookstore set up in the beautiful hall of the chamber of commerce. It was wise to spend time there on Friday because today, it was overcrowded. It was my shopping day. Here are the new members of my TBR:

Dias de combate by Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Jours de combat, translation by Marianne Millon). He was present at the festival. I followed Guy’s recommendation and got his book. It’s the first one of his series, it dates back to 1976.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (Marée noire, translation by Clément Baude). The blurb says that Jay Porter is a black lawyer and former civil rights activist. We’re in Houston in 1981 and when he saves a white woman from drowning he knows his life just got a lot more complicated.

Attica Locke was there signing her books. I got to talk to her a bit and her parents were activists. I couldn’t help asking if her name had anything to do with Atticus Finch. She says she was named after the Attica prison. She’s also a militant and I wish I could have attended the conference she gave.

Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson (L’enfer de Church Street, translation by Sophie Aslanides). In the booklet advertising Quais du Polar, each author presents themselves with a short biography and mentions their favourite book, film and writer. Jake Hinkson said that he was raised by Christian fundamentalists in the mountains in Arkansas, that he used to snuggle banned crime fiction books in Bible camp. He added that if Jim Thompson had knocked up Flannery O’Connor in a sleazy motel in Ozark, he’d be their offspring. After that, I had to get one of his books and Hell on Church Street sounds like a hell of a journey. A man is victim of carjacking and instead of giving up his car, he bargains with the thief. He promises him $3000 if he drives him to Little Rock and listens to him confess something.

Les yeux des morts by Elsa Marpeau. She’s a young French writer and she’s not been translated into English. (yet?) I was drawn to this novel by the blurb: Gabriel Ilinski is a medical examiner who’s called to the ER of the Hôpital Lariboisière and has to be admitted as a patient in the hospital to move his investigation forward. I thought the idea was original. I’m curious to discover her writing.

La amigdalitis deTárzan by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique (L’amygdalite de Tarzan, translation by Jean-Marie Saint-Lu). The writer is from Peru. It’s not a crime fiction book but the title (Tarzan’s Tonsillitis) caught my eyes. I wondered what kind of book could be hidden behind such an odd title. Well, it’s an epistolary novel and I’m really fond of them.

Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. It’s her last novel, it’s just been released in French. So, no translation is available so far. I hoped to have it signed and talk to her but the line was too long to even enter the building on Saturday afternoon. Tant pis!

Quais_Polar_2015

Apart from buying books, I also attended three conferences. Marina Sofia and I managed to hear Elizabeth George talking about her work. The conference was in the theatre des Célestins, where I recently watched the play Comment vous racontez la partie by Yasmina Reza. This play is about a writer who participates to a lecture in a provincial town and it shows the sensitive triangle between the author, the journalist who interviews her and the local librarian who organized the reading. Well it was a bit odd to be on the same premises, to hear a real reading this time. Anyway.

The hour with Elizabeth George was lovely. She gave information about how she writes books, how she sees her characters. She was gracious, fun and humble. She’s very successful but doesn’t show off. I liked her sense of humor, her thoughts and what her reactions gave away about her vision of life. I enjoyed hearing her discussing her main characters, Linley and Barbara Havers, how they were born and how they live in her head. She said she starts her books with the characters and the location and the plot comes to her later.

The second conference I attended was done by Michael Connelly and John Grisham. To be honest, I’ve never read their books and I’ve never been tempted to. The conference was about the judicial system in the USA, its representation in books and movies. The theme was interesting, the conference, not so much. The journalist kept trying to bring the two writers into thought-provoking territories but they kept surfing on the surface. They obviously didn’t want to analyze anything or worse they actually had nothing to say. Connelly seemed to have a bit more substance that Grisham that I thought vapid. Well, they didn’t win a new reader. (Not that they care about winning my readership)

The third conference was entitled Are noir novels companions to the fight for equality between men and women? Frequent readers of this blog know that this would attract me. The writers participating to this discussion were Kishwar Desai (India), Edyr Augusto (Brazil), Santiago Gamboa (Colombia) and Elsa Marpeau. The four of them have written books where women have a key role, fight for themselves. They also use their novels to picture the society they live in. I found Elsa Marpeau and Kishwar Desai very interesting. Desai uses her books to dig into topics where women are mistreated by society and custom, harassed and exploited. She believes that her books can bring awareness because they raise questions and start discussions. Maybe it sounds optimistic to think that books can change something but as Virginie Despentes pointed out in another conference I attended a couple of weeks ago: as far as we know, all over the world, dictators take measures to ban or destroy books. If books had no power, why would they ban them?

That’s all folks! I had a wonderful time at Quais du Polar. The event grows every year and it was the first time I saw such a line to enter the building. It’s fun to see writers wandering in the city center, it’s a great opportunity for indepedent bookstores to find new customers and it’s a fantastic festival for readers. I wonder what writers think about it.

Friday Fun: Bookshops in Lyon

March 27, 2015 11 comments

Hi everyone

I usually don’t reblog posts but I couldn’t help reblogging this one.

That’s Lyon and its great bookstores, although I’d add the wonderful Librarie Passages

See you in a few hours, Marina Sofia Sofia.

Have a nice day

Emma

findingtimetowrite

Starting a little early today, as I’ll soon be heading off to the Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon, one of my favourite events of the year. So a great excuse to combine two of my favourite things: bookshops and the beautiful city of Lyon. At last count, Lyon boasted 21 independent bookshops (as well as well-stocked big chains such as Fnac and Decitre). Long may they live on!

Vivement Dimanche, from their website. Vivement Dimanche, from their website.

The staff at Vivement Dimance will do anything to inform and entertain you. (from their website) The staff at Vivement Dimance will do anything to inform and entertain you. (from their website)

Entrance to Le Bal des Ardents. From Pinterest. Entrance to Le Bal des Ardents. From Pinterest.

Au Bonheur des Ogres specialises in crime fiction and noir. Au Bonheur des Ogres specialises in crime fiction and noir.

L'Esprit Livre (from their website). L’Esprit Livre (from their website).

Libraire de France, from lyoncapitale.fr Libraire de France, from lyoncapitale.fr

Libraire Diogene, from yelp.fr Libraire Diogene, from yelp.fr

Now, I haven’t been to Lyon in a while, so I cannot guarantee that all of these look exactly like this at the moment. However, I’ll be…

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In Syria by Joseph Kessel

March 21, 2015 24 comments

En Syrie by Joseph Kessel (1926) Not available in English.

Joseph Kessel was born in Argentina in 1958. His parents were Jewish and had fled pogroms in Russia. He grew up between the Urals and France. His cosmopolitan origins influenced him and he was a citizen of the world.

In 1926, Kessel was sent in Syria as a journalist. He spent around four weeks there and as he points out in the disclaimer of the book, he cannot pretend to know the region. However, his childhood memories of caravans arriving near his home in the Urals left him captivated with the Orient. En Syrie is a collection of the reportages he wrote during his assignment there. In the first one, Une vue sur Beyrouth (A view over Beirut), he writes:

La Syrie? Que savons-nous d’elle? Avouons-le sans faux orgueil : quelques reminiscences historiques sur les croisades, quelques pages célèbres, les beaux noms de Damas, de Palmyre, de l’Euphrate, voilà tout notre bagage pour une grande et féconde contrée placée sous le mandat français. Syria? What do we know about it? Let’s admit it without false pride: some historical memories about the crusades, some famous pages, the beautiful names of Damascus, of Palmyra, of the Euphrates. This is our only knowledge of a great and fertile country placed under French mandate.

Kessel_SyrieTerribly true. When we study decolonization in school, we learn about the countries rebelling against the French rule and winning their independence one by one. We learn the names of the leaders who led the fights for freedom. We linger a bit on the war in Indochina and the one which left the deepest scars, the war in Algeria. We never hear anything about Lebanon and Syria. And of course nobody tells us about the wars to submit these territories in the first place. I had to read Maupassant to realize it took thirty years to conquer Algeria. The way it’s told, you’d think these people were waiting for us to take charge. So, with the current war in Syria, I was curious to read these reportages, republished for the occasion.

The first pages reveal two things: first the cultural, historical and political context is incredibly complex for a Westerner; second, Syria is at war and it seemed nothing had changed in almost a century, except that they rebel against the French mandate. (I’d never heard about this fights.)

Depuis l’insurrection que seul –il faut le dire—a réprimée le bombardement du général Sarrail (qui peut-être ce jour-là a sauvé le mandat français), la « gouta » de Damas abrite toutes les bandes que stipendie le comité syro-palestinien qui, du Caire, dirige la révolte. Elles sont embusquées là, invisibles, guettant avec la patience orientale l’imprudent qui s’aventure sans protection suffisante. La nuit, souvent, elles attaquent les postes.« gouta » = jardin Since the insurrection that, it needs to be said, only the bombing done by general Sarrail (who may well have saved the French mandate that day) had managed to repress, the “gouta” of Damascus shelters all the groups that the syro-palestinian committee reviles while organizing the rebellion from Cairo. They lie in ambush, invisible, watching out with oriental patience for an imprudent who would wander without sufficient protection. At night, they often attack military positions. “gouta” = garden.

It sounded familia and I wondered what hope there is for this region to be at peace in a foreseeable future. I also thought that the West meddles in issues they know nothing about and probably only makes things worse.

Then Kessel takes us with him in his travels in the country. It’s not a political analysis. It’s more a colorful picture of both sides and a global message of mistrust for politicians. They’re assigned in Syria for too short a time to know the culture of the country and create a reliable network with the influential natives. They see the issues through their Parisian lenses. Consequence: they make rooky mistakes.

Kessel is a strong storyteller. The landscapes and the people come to life under his pen. His cosmopolitan origins and his unquenchable curiosity for the world are an asset. He’s never arrogant. He accepts other cultures as as valuable as his own and this approach gives the reportages a special tone. Almost a century after they were written, they are still readable without blushing of shame for all the contempt that we, colonist countries, poured down on conquered territories. He doesn’t think that the West holds all the answers or that his civilization is superior. It’s refreshing and this special angle makes that the reportages do not sound dated, even if they relate past events.

PS : sorry for the clumsy translation of the second quote, Kessel’s syntax is complicated to translate into English.

I denounce humanity by Frigyes Karinthy

March 17, 2015 31 comments

Je dénonce l’humanité (1912-1929) by Frigyes Karinthy. Not available in English.

Because we only run left and right in this tormented world. We hop high and low without thinking of the particular path our soul is taking in an invisible world…

Karinthy_humanitéJe dénonce l’humanité is a collection of very short stories (2-3 pages each) written by Frigyes Karinthy between 1912 and 1934. There are 39 stories gathered in this volume. Fifteen were written before the Great War, four during the war and the rest in the 1920s. These delightful texts are full of fun and of every brand of humour possible: comedy, irony, absurd, self-deprecating humour, black humour. Karinthy plays with paradoxes, points out inconsistencies. He made me laugh-out-loud, chuckle under my breath in trains, attracting intrigued looks from fellow passengers.

The stories cover domestic situations, they mock the Hungarian society and talk about the Great War through circuitous paths.

I loved the one about a boy struggling with his homework. He’s in front of a math problem and his father stops to help him. He wants to show off how clever he is and he starts reading the wording. He realises he’s clueless but he doesn’t want to lose face. So he turns the tables on his son, accusing him of being distracted and not enough into his work. He forges his own reasons to yell and leave his son to his own devices. As soon as he’s done, it dawns on him that his father did exactly the same when he was a little boy and he understands his father was also clueless…

There’s another fantastic one about a man engaging conversation with a stranger in a café. He makes a heartfelt speech on the importance of being discreet. He gives as an example his affair with a married woman. The more he tries to hammer his point, the more he discloses private information about the woman until he lets her name slip. Then the other man reveals his name and…he’s this woman’s husband!

Black humour seeps through one story written during the war. Two men chat in a café –there are a lot of cafés in Budapest—about the use of gas in the trenches. After a few paragraphs, we understand that the man talking is not worried about the use of gas on the soldiers but he’s worried about his business. Indeed, he makes a living out of exterminating bugs and all this mustard gas kills bugs, who, poor things, don’t wear a mask. It destroys the bugs and jeopardises the future of his business.

The stories are also a mirror of their time, like in At the Neurologist’s where Karinthy makes fun of the enthusiasm for Freud’s theories.

I gazed pensively and said:

– I like yellow broad bean soup.

My friend, who’s been practicing Freud’s psychoanalysis lately looked at me sharply.

– Why do you say that you like yellow broad bean soup?

– Because I like it, I said truthfully

– Didn’t you date a blue-haired woman when you were six?

– I don’t remember. Why?

– Because blue and yellow are complementary colours. One never says anything without a reason: it’s one of psychoanalysis’s accepted facts. Every assertion is either unintentional repressed sadism or repressed masochism. Everything stems from something sexual and can be reduced to childhood memories. You dated a blue-haired woman, therefore you like yellow broad bean soup.

The stories also reflect the history of Hungary. In some tales, people pay in koronas, in others in pengoes. The currency of Hungary was koronas until 1927. Then it was replaced by pengoes until it was changed for the forint in 1946. Three different banknotes and coins in fifty years. And by the way, there’s a fantastic story based on currency. It dates back to 1917 and it’s actually a letter written by a critic to the Hungarian central bank in Budapest. The critic requests a sample of the new 1000 koronas banknote for the sole purpose of writing a review about its artistic form. Of course, getting a “review copy” of a 1000 koronas banknote wouldn’t hurt his wallet…

As you’ve guessed by now, Karinthy is extremely funny, witty and literate. There’s a change in tone between the stories written before the war and the ones written after. His natural confidence in progress and humanity was swiped away by the butchery of the war and its devastating aftermath. Industrialised killings made their toll on his morale. Karinthy saw himself as an heir of the Encyclopaedists. He had faith in Reason and science. His experience with war sounds like a wakeup call and I can’t help thinking about Candide. The Great War rattled his faith in men. Karinthy died in 1938, so he never witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. I bet this would have shattered his faith in humanity for good.

I loved this book and I’m extremely sorry to report that these stories are not available in English. We French readers owe the delight to read them to the publisher Viviane Hamy. They also publish Dezső Kosztolányi and I’m pleased that Frigyes Karinthy is reunited with his dear friend Dezső on the shelves of their French publisher.

For French readers, I’ll say that Viviane Hamy advertises that book with a jacket which asks “What if Desproges was Hungarian?” It’s true, you can imagine Desproges telling Karinthy’s books on stage. The acerbic tone, the absurdity of life, the peskiness of people and the black humour would have suited him.

PS : For non-French readers, Pierre Desproges was a comedian who used to do one-man shows. He had a nasty but oh-so-funny brand of humour. He was ruthless when it came to denounce the stupidity of the human species. He denounced humanity too.

Many a true word is spoken in jest

March 14, 2015 16 comments

L’Epouse rebelle (1934) by Zsigmond Móricz (1879-1942). Translated into French by Suzanne Horvath. Not available in English (I think) Original title: Az asszony beleszol, which means “She says” according to Google Translate.

Zsigmond MóriczImre and Ilonka Vigh are a young married couple in Budapest. The book starts on March 28th, 1933. Imre is a journalist of what we call in French the “faits-divers”. There’s no exact translation of that word in English, I think. It means that Imre writes articles about odd stories, murders, conjugal disputes and various accidents. He’s often out late at night, chasing stories for the newspapers he works for. Of course, Ilonka doesn’t work and spends all her time in their apartment, cleaning, cooking and waiting for him to come home. The country, like the rest of the world, is in a deep economic crisis. Ilonka juggles with money and indeed, money is a central character of this falsely humoristic novel.

The novel opens on a special night where Imre witnesses something intriguing in his own building and starts investigating to dig out a juicy story. That same night he receives four free tickets to go to the theatre. When he comes home, he says to Ilonka that they should go and invite her aunt and cousin who help them financially. It’s a way to thank them for their generosity.

Ilonka immediately points out that they don’t have the money for this evening at this time of month. Indeed, the tickets are free but they would still have to pay for the tramway to go there, the cloakroom at the theatre and sweets for the family. Despite Imre’s wishes, she decides to offer the tickets to a neighbor, Mrs Véghely, so that they don’t go to waste. What seems like a nice gesture is actually a poisonous gift since the Véghelys face the same problem as the Vighs: they don’t have the money for all the side expenses attached to going to the theatre. The tickets make their way to the Schultheiszes. The husband is a civil servant, he should have the money. But are they really better off? Follows a comedy in the apartment building where women meet and try to place these tickets somewhere.

It is funny to witness the circus created by these four free tickets. But it allows us readers to enter the homes of several families in the apartment building. It is mostly occupied by bourgeois families and we discover everything through the wives’ point of views. Zsigmond Móricz discloses the tricks they use to save money, the consequences of the crisis on families from all social circles. The story of the tickets that nobody wants is a pretext to show a society that has reached the end of its rope. What should be an opportunity –free tickets—turns into a nightmare. These tickets aren’t a gift anymore but a burden because money is so tight that finding the cash to cover the extra-expenses to enjoy the evening requires too much energy. And at the same time, they have too much pride to cut-off these expenses and see the play without the extras. Zsigmond Móricz mocks these bourgeois who are too attached to their social status to see how ridiculous they are.

All the families struggle with money and it weakens the husbands’ place in the family and in society. They’re used to having all the power for being the provider and protector of the family. They also run the State and the institutions. The wives accepted their position in the household as natural. Husband and wife had a role and they played by the rules. As the economic crisis lasts and worms its way in every aspect of their lives and as the end of the tunnel is yet to be seen, the wives start questioning their husbands’ “natural” position in society. They go down from their pedestal: they don’t know how to solve the crisis, they don’t know how to keep or improve their income and they fail to provide for their family. So why should they rely on them? Why should the wives accept their submissive position? They start to rebel.

L’Epouse rebelle would make an excellent film: it is a situation comedy with twists and turns, misunderstandings and funny dialogues. And yet it shows a realistic vision of the crisis. Some passages are painfully contemporary like this one:

– Les jeunes gens d’aujourd’hui n’ont ni emploi ni avenir. A trente ans, ils ne travaillent pas encore. Un technicien diplômé a trente-deux ans et il n’a pas encore gagné un sou ; de notre temps un homme de trente-deux ans occupait déjà un poste de dirigeant, on le prenait presque pour un homme âgé.

– Et ça ne changera jamais ?

– Crois-moi, Gizi, ici il n’y a aucune perspective.

– Tu seras d’accord avec moi : on supporte n’importe quoi, à condition de pouvoir espérer un meilleur avenir pour ses enfants, mais sinon ?…

– Tout ce qu’on peut faire, c’est les pousser dans les études. Mais quand un garçon ne trouve pas de travail, ce sera bien pire encore pour les filles.

– Young men have no job and no future. At thirty, they don’t work yet. A technician with a diploma is thirty-two and has never earned money. In our time, a thirty-two year old man had already a managing position. He was almost an old man.

– And it will never change?

– Believe me, Gizi, here, there’s no perspective.

– You’ll agree with me: we can bear anything as long as we can hope a better future for our children. But otherwise?…

– All you can do is push them to study. But when a boy doesn’t find a job, it will be even worse for girls.

Or this one, where a housekeeper talks with Ilonka:

– L’argent…Çui qui veut du pain, la ville lui en donne à gogo. On le distribue par kilo ou par deux kilos…Et il suffit d’aller à la soupe populaire pour avoir des déjeuners comme c’est pas croyable. Il ne faut rien d’autre pour les avoir que d’être en chômage. Moi, Madame, j’y ai pas droit, parce que moi, je travaille.

– Mais ne vous montrez pas si cruelle. On leur en donne parce qu’ils sont dans le besoin. N’enviez pas un tel pain.

– Pourquoi ? J’suis pas dans le besoin, peut-être ? C’est justement mon malheur. Comment que je peux leur expliquer qu’entre mon mari et un chômeur, c’est du pareil au même ?

– Money…If someone wants bread, the city gives him as much as he wants. It’s given away in kilos…You just have to go to the soup kitchen to have incredible lunches. You need nothing else that to be unemployed to have them. Me, I can’t have them because I work.

– Don’t be so cruel. They give them bread because they’re in need. Don’t be envious of such bread.

– Why not? Am I not in need too? That’s my misfortune. How can I explain that between my husband and an unemployed person, it’s all the same?

Sounds familiar, eh? It reminds me of many discussions I’ve heard about poor workers and workers who earn just enough to be above thresholds to receive social benefits but still struggle to make ends meet. It’s a bit disheartening to discover something like that in a novel from the 1930s, especially when you know where this economic crisis led Europe.

In the foreword of the book, they say Zsigmond Móricz could have immigrated to the United States. He chose to stay in Hungary and write about the life there. His tone is light but his lightness is deceitful. Many a true word is spoken in jest could be the symbol of this book that uses comedy to describe a very serious economic situation for the population of Budapest.

I heard about L’Epouse rebelle on the French blog Passage à L’Est. Thanks Bénédicte, that was a find.

This review is my first contribution to Stu’s Eastern European Lit Month.

 

 

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi

March 8, 2015 29 comments

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi (1997). French title: La tête perdue de Damasceno Monteiro, translated by Bernard Comment.

Tabucchi_DamascenoManolo, an old Gypsy living in a shanty town near Porto discovers the corpse of a headless man. Where is the head of the victim? Who is it? Who was so interested in hiding the identity of the dead man? Acontecimento, a popular newspaper of Lisbon sends a young reporter to Porto to investigate and write about the affair. The mystery of the beheaded corpse is right up their alley. Their reporter is Firmino who’s studying literature in Lisbon and writes as a sensation journalist for a living until he finishes his thesis about post-war Portuguese literature.

Firmino is not exactly happy to go to Porto. It interrupts his work on his thesis, his girl-friend is in Lisbon and he dislikes Porto as the city is attached to childhood memories of a boring aunt. But duty calls and he goes anyway. The newspaper has booked him a room in a boarding house managed by Dona Rosa. Soon, mysterious callers fill our young reporter with leads to help him with his articles and he finds himself more and more involved as an investigation reporter. He will get back up from a lawyer known as Loton. He’s a quirky man, coming from old money and willing to work pro-bono if it helps justice. Firmino and Loton engage in literate conversations and help each other on the case. As the investigation leads to incriminate the authorities, Firmino and Loton make a good pair. Firmino gets scoops for the newspaper and since details are published in a national newspaper, they can’t be buried which in return helps Loton.

The starting point of The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro is a true story. In 1996, Carlos Rosa was killed in similar circumstances in the suburb of Lisbon. However, the novel is a lot more than a crime investigation. It also pictures Portugal after 20 years of democracy, the fragility of its institutions and the inequalities. While the reader wants to know how it will end, Tabucchi discusses the idea of justice and its transcription in law. To be honest, I’m not sure I was able to follow these parts. Abstract thinking is not my forte and I was lost in the literary references.

I liked Firmino a lot. For me, he’s the embodiment of the concept of saudade. I enjoyed following him in the streets of Porto, looking at buildings, going to restaurants (The poor guy can’t stand tripe and it’s Porto’s special dish) and meeting with people. He’s young and full of doubt about his writing and at the same time full of hope for the future. Loton the eccentric loner could become a mentor to him, someone to have challenging conversations with.

ManoloThe novel also opens with a poignant chapter about Manolo the Gypsy, his living conditions and his being a pariah. Tabucchi recalls how the Gypsies used to live in Andalusia at the time they were still breeding horses. Manolo is old and the weight of the years eroded his pride. The nostalgia seeping through this chapter reminded me of a childhood story, Le voyage de Manolo by Chantal de Marolles. It was about a little Gypsy whose parents traded the caravan and horses for a car and a trailer. He missed the old way of life. I loved this story.

It’s hard to say more about the book without spoiling the plot for others. I can’t say I was thrilled by The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro. It is an excellent novel and it shows that the boundaries between literary and crime fiction can be blurry. (Like in Incidences by Philippe Djian). However, I lacked cultural references to understand the intricacies of the conversations between Loton and Firmino and this is why I can’t leap from like to love when I think about this book.

Recommended anyway.

Saturday bookish news

March 7, 2015 21 comments

Hello,

This is just a little post to share a few bookish news.

First, Héloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim is finally available to British readers. It’s been translated by Sophie Lewis. I loved that book (my enthusiastic billet is here) and I was looking forward to its translation in English. Of course, Stu from Winstonsdad’s blog has already spotted it for his 2015 reading list. The Independent also published a glowing review here. Two things are disappointing from my point of view. First, the cover. Look at this! What the hell was the publisher thinking? It looks like paranormal romance.

Turckheim_Heloise_BaldMeyer_hostSee what I mean? Now, here’s the French cover:

turckheim_heloiseThe French cover reflects the atmosphere of the book which is perfectly described in the review of The Independent. Once again, I find an English cover vulgar and almost ridiculing the book it represents.

The other thing that irks me is the reference to Lolita by Nabokov. In French we say Comparaison n’est pas raison (Comparing is not reasoning) Well in this case, comparaison est déraison. While it’s certainly flattering to be compared to a literary genius, while Héloïse does have a love affair with a much older man when she’s underage, Heloise is bald has nothing to do with Lolita. When I read Lolita, I felt terribly ill-at-ease. I felt the kind of uneasiness that nestles in your stomach when you read about abuse, pedophilia and unhealthy relationships. Here, it’s a totally different feeling, more like being in an alternate universe and witnessing an unusual story.

So please, British readers, if you stumble upon this novel in a bookstore, don’t be put off by this cheap cover or by a potential misplaced reference to Lolita in the blurb (I haven’t seen the blurb on the physical copies) and give Emile de Turckheim’s book a chance. She deserves it. I’m truly happy that her novel made it into English.

Otherwise, this weekend is the Fête du Livre of Bron and I hope to see Philippe Djian tomorrow afternoon. He’ll be giving a lecture with Virginie Despentes. He’s one of my favourite contemporary French writers and I really hope I’ll be able to hear that conference. I’m a bit like a teenager who would have a chance to see Robert Pattinson. (Just following the previous trend of reference…)

Other bookish fest to come: Quais du Polar. (26-28 March) Marina Sofia has advertised the festival here and for Parisians readers (there might be some, who knows?), the SNCF is sponsoring the event: it costs only 25€ to come to Lyon by TGV that weekend. It’s a nice opportunity to discover a truly beautiful city.

I have my special membership pass, I’ll be meeting Marina Sofia there and I’m looking forward to it. It’s not going to help downsizing my TBR but I’ll live with it. The list of crime fiction writers attending the event is the following:

  • Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Mexico)
  • Leonardo Padura (Cuba)
  • Horacio Castellanos Moya (Salvador)
  • Daniel Quirós (Costa Rica)
  • Paulo Lins et Edyr Augusto (Brasil),
  • Luis Sepúlveda (Chili),
  • Santiago Gamboa (Colombia),
  • Ernesto Mallo (Argentina),
  • Diego Trelles Paz (Peru)
  • John Grisham (USA),
  • Elizabeth George (USA),
  • Anthony Horowitz (GB),
  • Don Winslow (USA),
  • Shannon Burke (USA),
  • Emily St John Mandel (Canada)
  • Maurice G. Dantec (Canada),
  • Attica Locke (USA),
  • Nicci French (GB),
  • Val McDermid (Scotland),
  • Denise Mina (GB),
  • Mike Nicol (South Africa)
  • Sebastian Rotella (USA).
  • Michael Connelly
  • Ian Rankin
  • Tom Rob Smith (GB),
  • Michel Quint (France)
  • Michel Bussi (France)
  • Maxime Chattam (France)
  • Yasmina Khadra (Algeria)
  • Caryl Férey
  • Ian Manook
  • Kishwar Desai (India),
  • Saul Black (GB),
  • Dror Mishani (Israel.),
  • Gert Nygårdshaug (Norway.)
  • Elena Piacentini (France),
  • Michaël Mention (France),
  • Christophe Reydi-Gramond (France)
  • Nicolas Matthieu (France).

Have you read books by writers of that list?

Btw, Quais du Polar wants to create a list of French-speaking book bloggers who read and review crime fiction. There’s a questionnaire here, if you want to participate. Now the tricky side of it: Am I a French-speaking book blogger? My native language is French but the blog is in English. It seems I don’t fit a proper category and to be honest, I love it! 😉

I hope you’re all doing well and I wish you a nice weekend.

Emma

Candide. If that’s the best of possible worlds…

March 1, 2015 43 comments

Candide by Voltaire (1759)

I had tickets to a stage version of Candide by Voltaire and it prompted me to re-read this conte philosophique. (It means philosophical tale and Candide is filed under that genre in French. In English, I believe it’s a satire and although the French word satire exists as well, it is not used in this case.) Candide is perhaps Voltaire’s best known work. For those who wouldn’t know about it, Candide is a young man who lives in a castle in Vestphalie. He’s allegedly the illegitimate son of the baron’s sister. He’s been raised with the baron’s children, Cunégonde and her brother. Their tutor is Maître Pangloss, a philosopher who teaches the metaphysico–theologo–cosmolonigology and the basis of his education is that

Il est démontré (…) que les choses ne peuvent être autrement : car tout étant fait pour une fin, tout est nécessairement pour la meilleure fin. Remarquez bien que les nez ont été faits pour porter des lunettes ; aussi avons-nous des lunettes. It is demonstrable,(…) that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles

Candide truly believes in Pangloss’s education and he’s convinced that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. One day, Candide is caught kissing Cunégonde behind a curtain and is thrown out of the castle. Here starts his journey around the world, pushed from one place to the other by events and still hoping for a happy ending with Cunégonde. His belief in Pangloss’s teaching is repeatedly attacked by what he sees in other countries. His travels lead him through Europe and South America. He’s confronted to wars, earthquakes, Inquisition, fights for power, greed and desolation.

I see three layers in Candide. The first one is the obvious Leibnitz-bashing dripping from Pangloss’s ridiculous philosophy. The second one is the strong criticism of hypocrisy, obscurantism and institutions. The third one is on a more individual level and questions our personal way to give our life a meaning in such a world.

I haven’t read Leibnitz and I don’t know to what extend Voltaire distorted Leibnitz’s thoughts but I find Pangloss’s philosophy ludicrous and harmful. If we all think like this, then we never rebel against anything. We’d still be living in caverns since improving our living conditions is futile; after all, we live in the best of all possible worlds. With that line of thinking, we never discover vaccination, Martin Luther King preaches acceptance of your fate as a black person and women never get to become doctors or astronauts because they’ve always stayed at home. I refuse to think things can never change, especially institutions or mentalities. It’s too depressing.

Then Voltaire shoots at everything that looks like an institution. The descriptions are coated with lethal irony. Armies look full of morons but still able to joyfully kill each other, murder and assult populations, especially women. The baron is full of aristocratic contempt and unable to detach himself from his snobbish ways. Candide saves Cunégonde, loves her, wants to marry her after she’s become poor, battered and ugly and still, the baron thinks Candide’s unworthy of her because he doesn’t have the right degrees of noble decent. Smart guess from Voltaire here: inability to let this go and accept equality among men will cost a lot to the French aristocracy during the French Revolution.

Religious institutions and their representatives are exposed as hypocrites and deviant from the real message of their faith. The Protestant pastor preaches about love being the basis of everything and won’t help Candide who needs food and water. The Catholic Inquisition in Portugal hangs and burns people who dare stray from a floating and blurry line of conduct imposed by the Church, blatantly ignoring the Thou shalt not kill command. The Muslims are at war against each other and awful massacres are conducted in the name of God and yet they never missed the five stated times of prayer enjoined by their prophet Mahomet. In South America, the Jesuits are more a political force than a religious congregation. Voltaire never mocks or criticizes personal faith in any God. He points out the way humanity translates honest faith into religious codes and rules and rebels against using other people’s faith to achieve personal, greedy and very earthly goals through religious institutions.

After all these travels, Candide and friends come to the conclusion that the best way to live is to work without disputing and that it is the only way to render life supportable. And Candide concludes with the famous Il faut cultiver notre jardin (Let us cultivate our garden) Although I’ve been taught that this statement should be taken literally, I want to see it differently. In French, we often have one word for something concrete and its related concept. Example: maison means house and home. Etre cultivé (to be cultivated) means to be farmed and to be educated. I want to see Candide’s garden as one’s brain and cultiver as to educate. I strongly believe in education to fight efficiently and long-term against obscurantism. That’s the only way to the best of all possible worlds.

When I tweeted my Friday Read last Friday, I wrote “I wonder what Volaire would write today.” After re-reading Candide, I know. Sadly, he would write Candide again since everything is still valid. The text was adapted for the theatre by Kevin Keiss and Maëlle Poésy, who also directed the play. It was brilliant, mixing actual passages of the novella and adding contemporary references to carry the message. The actors were fantastic in picturing the emotions, the travelling and the philosophical parts. The direction was creative with lights, sound effects and décors. It brought out the fun of the text, its raw power as a thought-provoking comedy. Pangloss looked as ridiculous as the tutor Trissotin in The Learned Ladies by Molière.

In France, Candide is a text often studied in high school. In class, we insist on the philosophical side and never on the funny side. Here, the production managed to preserve the serious topics and make the public laugh. A tremendous evening. Once again, the theatre proves to be the right place to expose the modernity of a text, to give life to words and show why reading books written a long time ago by guys who had funny hair brings pleasure and enlightenment. Voltaire loved theatre. I think he would love to see his text played like this and would bask in the public’s clapping.

If you’ve never read Candide, it’s time to read it. You can get free copies in electronic files. It’s probably in every decent library. It’s easy to read. It’s less than 200 pages. It shows you part of the French DNA, the part that puts 3.5 million people on the streets to stand their ground for the freedom of speech and the right to criticize, not someone’s faith, but the way faith is institutionalized and weaponized (I know the word doesn’t exist) for earthly possessions and power.

I have to mention an extra bonus in the leaflet I got in the theatre. Voltaire’s text was illustrated with literary quotes. One of them was by Romain Gary.

Aussi longtemps que des phares de la pensée humaine prétendront au monopole de la lumière, il ne saurait y avoir que des successions d’éclairs de lumière et de ténèbres, de foi et de désillusion, d’excès dans la croyance et dans la démystification, de fanatisme et de retrait, de croisades sanguinaires suivies d’une haine du mot même de foi, de dévouement total puis de nausée totale, le genre d’amoralisme qui vient d’une morale trop rigide, puis à nouveau le genre de morale rigide qui procède d’un excès d’amoralisme.

In L’Affaire homme.

As long as beacons of human thinking pretend to have the monopoly of light, we will only experience a series of lightning of enlightenment and dark ages, of faith and disillusion, of excesses in beliefs and demystification, of fanaticism and retreat, of bloodthirsty crusades followed by hatred of the very word of faith, of total dedication and then total nausea. We will only live through the sort of amorality that comes after a too rigid morality, then through another time of rigid morality that is born from an excess of amorality.

 

 

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