Archive for April, 2015

Teen Spirit by Virginie Despentes

April 29, 2015 11 comments

Teen Spirit by Virginie Despentes. (2002). Not available in English (unfortunately)

Despentes_teen_spiritThis is my second Despentes after Apocalypse Bébé. (available in English, this one) and before Vernon Subutex, her latest opus which is sitting on my shelf.

Bruno is thirty, living with his girlfriend and doing nothing. He’s unable to leave the apartment, out of agoraphobia. He watches TV, smokes pot, hopes to write something one of these days. One day, Alice, his former girlfriend from high school barges into his life and tells him she was pregnant when she left him. So Bruno has a daughter, Nancy, who’s thirteen. Nancy has always lived with her mother, thinking her father was dead and when she discovered by chance that he was actually alive, she wanted to meet him. And she made her mother’s life a living hell, so Alice caved. Bruno is rather shocked by the news but is willing enough to meet his daughter. Nancy enters his life and their budding relationship will help them both.

This sound like a nice little novel with hearts and flowers, you could almost smell roses from the loveliness of the description. Except you’re in a book by Virginie Despentes. So it doesn’t smell like roses but it Smells Like Teen Spirit. Virginie Despentes loves rock music and it permeates through her literature.

Bruno is the narrator of the story and he has a bit of a Peter Pan syndrome. He’s depressed because he doesn’t want to grow up. He has to give up some of his dreams, leave behind his self with the rock attitude to adjust to the world of adults. He’s still grieving the loss of his illusions but he needs to turn the page and move on. Before Alice and Nancy, he was hiding away. Alice made him go out of the apartment to meet her, he couldn’t tell her about his phobia, so he pushed himself. She was the catalyst he needed. Her difficulty to raise Nancy leaves some space for him in Nancy’s life; she wanted to get to know him and Alice welcomes any help she can have with her daughter.

Virginie Despentes captured very well the hesitation of adolescence, like here, in her description of Nancy:

Deux versions d’elle-même se disputaient dans un seul corps. Entre la montre Kitty et le bracelet clouté, elle n’avait pas encore choisi son camp. Two versions of herself were fighting in one body. Between the Kitty watch and the studded leather bracelet, she hadn’t picked her side yet.

Sometimes, Nancy sounds like she’s the adult. Between Bruno whose paternity make him accept to cross the bridge between adolescence and adulthood and Alice who struggles to keep sane, she seems the most grounded of the three.

Despentes also captured well the emotions brewing in Bruno. When I wrote about Apocalyse Bébé, I compared Virginie Despentes to Michel Houellebecq, saying why I thought she captured our world better than him. When I read Teen Spirit, I wondered it was a response to Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles. Indeed, in this novel written by Houellebecq in 1998 one of the main characters is also named Bruno. He’s as much as a loser as this Bruno and also someone who doesn’t want to grow up. Bruno by Despentes is less self-centered than Bruno by Houellebecq. He doesn’t know how to be a father and as he’s not totally an adult, he manages to communicate with Nancy, with slight touches, with hesitation and feeling his way along. The book was written in 2002, Bruno is 30, so he was born in 1972. Houellebecq’s Bruno belongs to the babyboom generation, like his creator. Despentes’ Bruno belongs to the Generation X. In my opinion, this is the first generation of men fully involved in raising children along women. (at least in France) This is the generation of men who change diapers, don’t think that a stroller cramps their style and get up at night when kids are sick. It makes sense that our Bruno in Teen Spirit doesn’t reject Nancy and makes effort to get to know her. This Bruno has accepted this society made of unemployment, consumerism and lives with it, even if he doesn’t approve of it.

Despentes seems to have more faith in individuals than Houellebecq even if both writers share a dark vision of our society. Alice comes from a wealthy family and Bruno is poor. Spending time with her father, Nancy goes out of her protective shell. She discovers Paris on foot and Bruno shares his concerns about money. I heard Virginie Despentes talk about her work. She said she wants her book to show how violent our society is. She doesn’t mean “violent” in a sense of riots and physical threats. She points out the violence of a society with high unemployment, sometimes pressure in the work place and too much interest in consuming.

I liked Teen Spirit a lot. It’s fairly optimistic and I’m not sure it reflects Virginie Despentes’ other books. I enjoy her punchy style, her take on the French society, her insolence, her rejection of political correctness. She rocks!

Find another short review by Marina Sofia, here


My Hungarian Könyvespolc (Bookshelf)

April 25, 2015 47 comments

As mentioned in my entry about my literary escapade in Budapest, I gathered some names while traveling. There’s a great list of Hungarian writers on Wikipedia; my list isn’t here to compete with what Wikipedia can provide.  It’s a personal list, a reminder of the names that caught my eyes.

I visited Mór Jókai’s residence in Balatonfüred where I learnt he was the most famous Hungarian writer of the 19th century.



As I’d never heard of him, I had to check him out later on. Only Rêve et vie is available in French but he did write a lot of novels. I wonder why they aren’t translated.

I’ve also visited the Petőfi Sándor museum. Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) was something like the Hungarian Lermontov (1814-1841). Both were poets, died young and were in the military. Sándor Petőfi was a renowned poet and only 26 when he disappeared during the war following the Hungarian revolution of 1848. He’s considered as Hungary’s national poet. I’m curious about his poetry –although he’s a Romantic—but I wonder how Hungarian poetry can be successfully translated into French without losing too much.

Of course, I spent some time in a bookstore and came back with books:


I’m looking forward to read them, especially Colours and Years because it’s written by a woman. Apart from these, my TBR of Hungarian literature consists of a few other novels:

  • Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
  • Oliver VII by Antal Szerb
  • Epépé by Férenc Kárinthy
  • N.N. by Gyula Krúdy that I intend to read with Passage à l’Est in July
  • Fateless by Imre Kertész that I’ll read in September with Caroline

I know I should read The Door by Magda Szabó and Satantango by László Krasznahorkai but every time I’ve had them in hand in a bookstore, I’ve put them down. Dark and daunting. I’m not sure they’re for me. I’d rather read Journey Around My Skull by Frigyes Kárinthy.

Here’s a list of writers I want to explore, the problem is time, time, time…

Writer   In English In French
Endre Ady 1877-1919 Neighbours of the Night. Selected Short Stories
Iván Bächer 1957-2013 Magyar Menu
Miklos Banffy 1973-1950 The Transilvania Trilogy La Trilogie de Transylvanie
Adam Biro Two Jews on a Train: Stories from the Old Country and the New.One Must Also Be Hungarian Deux Juifs voyagent dans un train
Peter Esterházy 1950- The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (down the Danube)Celestial HarmoniesShe Loves Me L’œillade de la comtesse Hahn-HahnHarmonia cælestisUne femme
Géza Gardonyi 1963-1922 Eclipse of the Crescent Moon
Mór Jókai 1825-1904 The Man With The Golden Touch Rêve et vie
Margit Kaffka 1880-1918 Colours and Years. A Novel Couleurs et années
Győrgy Konrád 1933- The Case Worker Départ et retour
Endre Kukorelly 1951- Je flânerai un peu moins
Gyula Krúdy 1878-1933 The Charmed Life of Kázmér RezedaThe Adventures of Sinbad N.N.
André Lorant Le perroquet de Budapest : une enfance revisitée
Kálmán Mikszáth 1847-1910 St Peter’s Umbrella. A Novel Le parapluie de Saint Pierre
Ferenc Mólnar 1878-1952 The Paul Street Boys Les gens de la rue Paul (jeunesse)Liliom ou la vie et la mort d’un vaurien pour le moment. (théâtre)
Zsigmond Móricz 1879-1942 RelationsBe Faithful Unto Death L’épouse rebelle
Péter Nádas 1942- Parallel Stories Histoires parallèles
Petőfi Sándor 1823-1849 Selection From Poems Nuages
János Székely 1901-1958 L’Enfant du DanubeLes infortunes de Svoboda
Lajos Zilahy The Dukays Les Dukays

If someone is interested, you can find my billets about Hungarian books filed under the category Hungarian literature. (Sándor Márai, István Örkény, Zsigmond Móricz, Dezső Kosztolányi, Frigyes Karinthy, Antal Szerb, Milán Füst)

Do you know any of these writers? If yes which ones and who would you recommend?

Hell On Church Street by Jake Hinkson

April 22, 2015 10 comments

Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson. 2012. French title: L’enfer de Church Street. (translated by Sophie Aslanides)

Hinkson_churchI purchased Hell on Church Street at Quais du Polar as I was intrigued by the writer and it’s published by Gallmeister which is starting to be a way to pick American literature with eyes closed and without thinking. Remember what I wrote then: 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.

The starting point of Hell on Church Street is original. We have a typical ex-con trying to lie low in a job but his temper gets the better of him. He needs to get away from town and decides to steal a car at a gas station. He chooses Geoffrey Webb’s car because all he sees is a fat man unable to fight back. It’s an easy theft. Fatal mistake.

Geoffrey Web has nothing to lose and he needs to unburden his conscience. While he drives with the man’s gun pointed at him, he locks hard to the left and makes his aggressor understand that he too has their lives between his hands. He starts bargaining: if he lets him drive them both to Little Rock, Arkansas and tell his story, he will give him the three thousand dollars he has in his wallet. The ex-con accepts the deal and Geoffrey Webb starts talking. He will relate a tale of sex, murder and criminality set in the community of the Higher Living Baptist Church in the southwest section of Little Rock.

Hinson_Hell_churchGeoffrey is hired as the youth minister of the church and he’s a perfect psycho Tartuffe. He spouts on passages of the Bible like he means them while he actually recites them as a salesman delivers their pitch. He’s the kind of youth minister who blabbers chaste messages about love, Jesus and being good while keeping porn tapes for his evening fun and lusting after the pastor’s teenage daughter.

When Father Card, the pastor of this church hired Webb, he didn’t realize he was letting a wolf enter into the sheepfold. Geoffrey Webb is not only a nut job, he’s also a ticking bomb waiting to explode. And all it takes is a threat issued by the local sheriff and his pushing Webb to do something illegal to set everything in motion.

I don’t want to tell too much about the plot. I always try harder than usual to avoid spoilers in crime fiction billets. You’ll have to discover the rest by yourself.

I was warned that Jake Hinkon’s books were known to be violent. Well, Hell on Church Street is violent but not more than Drive by James Sallis or The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Hinkson respects the codes of the genre. The originality of his novel is the setting and the relentless vitriolic remarks he makes about the Higher Living Baptist Church. He portrays a hypocrite being accepted in the community as long as he says the right things and apparently behaves with propriety. He destroys the illusion that with people, what you see is what you get –if anyone still nurtured that illusion. He shows power games within the community leaders and how people who think they are holier than the Pope –well, not exactly since they wouldn’t want to be associated with the Pope or any papist—are actually very common people with any many flaws as anyone.

I had a good time reading Hell on Church Street. Hinkon’s style is punchy and even if it wasn’t always comfortable to be in Webb’s head, it was a hell of a journey.

Literary escapade in Budapest

April 19, 2015 24 comments

At the beginning of the 20th century, Budapest had around 500 cafés or kávéház in Hungarian. Some were literary cafés. They were open night and day and were the writers’ second offices. Some even provided them with free quills, ink and paper and waiters granted credit to writers. Sándor Márai relates in Confessions d’un bourgeois how he had to choose a café to become a writer.

Obeying to a tacit convention of our fraternity, I chose myself a café. According to a passably romantic theory dating back to the beginning of the century, any real Hungarian writer spends his life in a café. It wasn’t the same abroad (In London, that kind of places didn’t even exist). But in Buda, I thought, one had to frequent these literary aquariums where writers, like objects in an exhibition, were gathering dust behind bow windows. I decided to choose an old café from before war, located near the Horváth garden and opened until midnight. I befriended the waiter and the tobacconist and I soon realized that my mail and my phone calls were directly transferred to the café. My visitors first came to my “annex”. I settled down in the local climate without any difficulty. I was treated with regard, my whims were taken with benevolence. I always found on my table an inkpot, a quill “made in Great Britain”, a pot of fresh water and matches. All the conditions seemed met for me to become a real writer in the way my country meant it. I started to envision my literary career with confidence. Abroad, in cafés full of noisy clients and rude waiters who are always in a hurry, I never benefited from such a heavenly quiet. There never had been fresh water and an inkpot on my table. As soon as these accessories were in place, I started to work. (my translation from the French translation)

Amazing, isn’t it? I believe the rude and hurried waiters come from Márai’s stay in Paris. I had to visit at least two of these cafés that have been renovated, the New York Café and the Central Café.

The New York café opened on October 23rd, 1894 and was nicknamed the most beautiful café in the world.


It is built is eclectic style, Italian Renaissance and baroque, and it’s beautiful but a bit flashy for my taste.


It’s hard to imagine struggling writers in this place. It’s not exactly the same as Hemingway’s time in Paris. The history of the café is more interesting to me than its architecture. It became the meeting point of the writers of the time. The café even had a writer’s special (a plate with cold meat, cheese and bread) and a writer’s discount! This is where the famous literary journal Nyugat (West) was founded in 1908. It lasted until 1941 and three generations of writers contributed to this journal. Dezső Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Sándor Márai, Frigyes Karinthy, Zsigmond Móricz and other writers I haven’t read yet wrote for it. The journal was about literature, poetry, philosophy and it contributed to make psychoanalysis known. They had their editorial office at the New York café. It is reported that the writer Ferenc Molnár threw the key of the New York café in the Danube to ensure that it stays open night and day.

The New York café relies on its famous past but the Central Café has truly been renovated to sing the praise of its literary past.


There’s a wall full of pictures of writers


In this very café, in March 1936 at 7 am, Frigyes Karinthy had a hallucination: he heard a train leave the station. This became the ground material of his novel Journey Around My Skull. In this novel, he describes his operation of a brain tumor. I haven’t read it yet but it sounds fantastic and quite funny. He has his picture on the wall of the Central Café.

DSC_1234And you can see copies of Nyugat journals in displays.


I love to visit places like this an imagining all these great writers lingering, thinking, discussing and creating the books we discover later. I hope for Budapest that other places like this celebrate the city’s literary past and I think it deserves a museum of literature like the one in Dublin.

More to come about Hungarian literature since I gathered names here and there and I want to check them out before sharing the information with you.

Gorgeous, makes-you-swoon library

April 17, 2015 25 comments

I’ve been to an gorgeous library today and I wanted to share some pictures with you. (taken with my phone, sorry)






There are something like 100 000 books in this library.

There are no words to describe the bliss it is to contemplate these shelves of books from floor to ceiling.

You probably wonder where it is: it’s in Keszthely, Hungary.

B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins

April 6, 2015 20 comments

B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins. (2009) French title: B comme bière. Translated by François Happe.

Robbins_beerI recently realized that there’s no French word to say teetotaler. I wonder why. Because it’s a wine country? Because it used to be a Catholic country with wine at mass? Because alcohol has never been prohibited? I don’t have a clue, I only know we don’t have a word to describe someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.

As a matter of fact, I don’t drink wine or beer because I don’t like the taste of them. Don’t ask me how I survive in wine country without drinking any of it –imagine me enduring wine tasting at the Hospices de Beaune, standing beside friends and waiting for the boring thing to end—or how I survived being a student in a city where a street is renamed Rue de la bière because it’s the local Temple Bar. So, when I saw that B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins promised to explain beer to children, I thought it was meant for me. At last I’d know what the fuss was all about!

Here’s the first paragraph:

Have you ever wondered why your daddy likes beer so much? Have you wondered, before you fall asleep at night, why he sometimes acts kind of “funny” after he’s been drinking beer? Maybe you’ve even wondered where beer comes from, because you’re pretty sure it isn’t from a cow. Well, Gracie Perkel wondered those same things.

Gracie is almost six and she wonders what this mysterious beverage the adults drink is all about. Her father doesn’t volunteer but her Uncle Moe starts explaining and even promises to take her to visit the Redhook brewery. When Uncle Moe lets her down and the visit is cancelled, she’s very angry and steals a beer can in the fridge. She drinks it, gets drunk and sick and the Beer Fairy appears to her. The Fairy will take her to the beer country to explain to Gracie how beer is made and how it is consumed. Follows a fantasy journey to a fantasy land.

Tom Robbins is funny in many aspects. He has a funny mind and a funny style. For example, the Perkels, like the writer himself, live in Seattle. Even here in France we know it’s a rainy city. Here’s how Tom Robbins decribes rains in Seattle:

Do you know about drizzle, that thin, soft rain that could be mistaken for a mean case of witch measles? Seattle is the world headquarters of drizzle, and in autumn it leaves a damp gray rash on everything, as though the city were a baby that had been left too long in a wet diaper and then rolled in newspaper. When there is also a biting wind, as there was this day, Seattle people sometimes feel like they’re trapped in a bad Chinese restaurant; one of those drafty, cheaply lit places where the waiters are gruff, the noodles soggy, the walls a little too green, and although there’s a mysterious poem inside every fortune cookie, tea is invariably spilt on your best sweater.

The whole book is full of humorous descriptions, witty comments about humanity and its attraction to beer. The Beer Fairy shows the good and the bad about beer, subtly recommending moderation. Everything in life is about balance and not taking yourself too seriously. I had a wonderful time with that book. I read it in one sitting, an evening I needed distraction. It’s a joyful fairytale that will take you to another world. Tom Robbins has a unique angle on things, seeing fun in little details and creating a plausible Beer Fairy. He brings back your childhood, a time when you loved to imagine these hidden worlds or that there was a little man working a switch button to put light in the fridge when you open it.


I have B Is For Beer in French and the translation is outstanding. François Hoppe managed to translate the puns in a very convincing way. It must have been complicated sometimes to find something equivalent without betraying the original text.

It’s the perfect book to pick while traveling or in-between two serious books or before visiting Ireland or Belgium but I’m afraid it didn’t change my mind. I still can’t swallow beer. 🙂

PS: Something else, for non-European readers. In this book, you’ll read “In Italy and in France, a child Gracie’s age could walk into an establishment, order a beer, and be served”. In case you’d take this seriously, don’t, because it’s not true. You need to be 18 to drink alcohol and it’s forbidden to sell alcohol to a minor, even in a supermarket.

Joe by Larry Brown

April 4, 2015 15 comments

Joe by Larry Brown. (1991) Translated by Lili Sztajn.

Brown_JoeJoe Ramson is an ex-convict, ex-husband, ex-father but not an ex-alcoholic. He’s in his forties, lives with his dog and makes a living as a contractor for a forest company. He hires day laborers, equips them with poison and lets them lose in a section of the forest to poison the trees to make them die. The company that owns the land wants to destroy the old forest to plant new species more apt for industrial exploitation. Joe’s job is to get it done in time. Joe has a routine, mostly to avoid feeling. Drive around in his truck to pick up workers. Drop them at the store to buy breakfast before work. Manage the working team. Pay them. Sip beers all day long. Go grocery shopping for a friend. Catch a glimpse of Charlotte. He goes by, reaching numbness with alcohol. He’s only sure of one thing: he doesn’t want to go to jail again.

Gary Jones may be fifteen. He doesn’t know exactly because his birth was never registered. His parents are bums. They live from hand to mouth. The father Wade is a nasty bastard and the mother is a wreck because she never recovered from losing her son Calvin. Two daughters are with them, Fay who’s older than Gary and little Dorothy who stopped speaking one day and nobody knows why. When they arrive in the neighborhood, they settle in an abandoned house infested of rat droppings and inhabited by wasps. Wade makes the family walk along the roadside to pick up cans to recycle. They do odd jobs and Wade barely buys groceries and drinks the rest of the money. And he’s a nasty drunk. The Jones are out of society by Wade’s doing. He has a shady past and he spent his life bumming around with wife and kids in tow. This Neanderthal doesn’t have a lot of consideration for his wife; he likes her barefoot and pregnant but without the proverbial kitchen.

Gary and Wade work for Joe in the forest although the old man is too lazy to work at the required pace. Joe sees Wade for what he is and fires them. He will take pity on Gary and rehire him later. Gary is on survival mode but he still has goals. Step one: buy Joe’s truck to find work. Step two: find work. Step three: put food on the table. He’s never been to school and he’s still innocent despite his rough life.

The novel is set in rural Mississippi, at the same time it was written, I assume. However, the opening reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath.

The road lay long and black ahead of them and the heat was coming now through the thin soles of their shoes. There were young beans pushing up from the dry brown fields, tiny rows of green sprigs that stretched away in the distance. They trudged on beneath the burning sun, but anyone watching could have seen that they were almost beaten. They passed over a bridge spanning a creek that held no water as their feet sounded weak drumbeats, erratic and small in the silence that surrounded them. No cars passed these potential hitchhikers. The few rotting houses perched on the hillsides of snarled vegetation were broken-backed and listing, discarded dwellings where dwelled only field mice and owls. It was as if no one lived in this land or ever would again, but they could see a red tractor toiling in a field far off, silently, a small dust cloud following.

Larry Brown’s style is powerful and he excels at describing this part of Mississippi. Joe or Gary spend a lot of time on the country roads, in the woods, by the river. Nature is both giving and threatening with dangerous snakes lurking around. Joe feels a little guilty to destroy these trees. Brown describes the heat and the rain with acute precision. The men sweat at work. The heat makes them thirsty and they don’t to rush to mineral water. Larry Brown was born and lived in Mississippi himself. He did odd jobs for years before a publisher noticed his short-stories.That explains why his description of the landscape and these workers rings so true.

Joe_filmThere’s no real plot in Joe, in a sense of reading a story from the beginning to an ending. Joe is a book that reminded of the film Rosetta by the brothers Dardennes. And indeed, Joe has been made into a film by David Gordon Green, with Nicolas Cage playing Joe. I think it’s a great choice of actor. Joe is very cinematographic, the reader has the same view as a camera that would alternatively follow Joe, Gary or both when they’re together. We spend a lot of time in the truck, walking on the roadside or buying food and beverages at the local grocery store. The novel is a slice of lives; we see the characters during a few weeks of their lives.

All along we see lives broken by war, alcohol abuse, and untimely pregnancies. Charlotte divorced Joe to escape a fatal spiral of alcohol and poverty. When the man drinks all the money, what’s left for the wife to buy food and clothes for the kids? Wade has always been violent. He’s a mean drunk and sober, he’s even meaner. He’s conniving as an addict can be: he will do anything to get his dose of booze. He’s selfish to the core, devoid of feeling for any fellow human being, even his kids.

Gary comes from a miserable background and the reader wonders what will become of him. He’s never been to school. He doesn’t know some basic things necessary to survive in society but he’s not stupid and he’s trying. Joe shows an awful side of America but it could be in any country. After all, homelessness is everywhere.

Joe left me puzzled. I found it bleak, Beside-the-sea bleak with a tiny ray of hope. I didn’t understand where Brown was going. Maybe he wasn’t going anywhere, just using reportage techniques in literature. Reading Joe felt like watching a documentary about that little corner of Mississippi with a focus on Joe and Gary.

Would I recommend this book? It’s hard to say yes because of the absence of a plot. And I prefer my books with a plot. At the same time, it’s hard to say no because Larry Brown was truly talented. His descriptions of the countryside are stunning and you can’t help feeling something for Joe and Gary. Joe works hard to maintain his image of a cold bastard while he longs for his ex-wife and is soft hearted enough to help Gary out. And Gary carries the misery of the world on his shoulders. With such parents, it’s a miracle he’s so put together.

So yes, I liked Joe but I was a bit frustrated by the approach. It’s Ken Loach without the British sense of humor. I missed the sense of humor.

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