Archive for January, 2016

My experience with reading poems by Keats

January 31, 2016 31 comments

Poems by John Keats. French copy: Seul dans la splendeur.

keats_poèmesAfter reading his letters to Fanny Brawne, I thought that the least I could do was read some of Keats’ poems. I know, I’m doing things a little bit backwards. Let’s face it, reading poetry in another language is hard. Reading their translation is not satisfying and bilingual editions are the best compromise. So I got myself Seul dans la splendeur, a bilingual edition of a collection of poems by Keats. The English is on the left page, and the French translation by Robert Davreu is on the right page.

I am not going to review poems by Keats only armed with my high school literary baggage and an imperfect knowledge of the English language. The poems are beautiful, eerie, light as feathers and yet deep. They are imprinted with that deep awareness that life is fleeting that only chronically ill persons seem to perceive. (When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be) I preferred the poems with no reference to other literary works (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer doesn’t fascinate me) or Greek mythology. It spoke to the readers of that time but so much to me. I always find it bombastic. Anyway.

I want to write about my reading experience with these poems, even if it’s probably not of much interest to anyone but myself.

I wasn’t happy with the translation. There were complicated French words and I had to look at the original to understand the verse (!!) That’s on me, I should have known these words. Sometimes I felt like the French was taking too much liberty with the original poem. Here’s an example with On Fame (II).


I don’t understand how grateful becomes qui rend grâce and not reconnaissante or why ripe plum becomes once prune mûre and then prune à maturité when the original repeats ripe plum twice. These are details. My main concern is about the two last verses. In the next to last verse, teasing the world for grace is translated as importun assoiffé de la faveur du monde. If I translated it back, I’d write something like unwelcome visitor greedy for the world’s grace. Does it sound like the original? Teasing sounds light, like poking slightly someone to have them do what you want. Assoiffé is another level of passion and it’s negative.

The last verse goes on with the negative vibe coming off the translation of the previous one. Again, if I translated back Pourrisse son salut pour une idolâtrie barbare, I’d write Ruins his salvation for barbarian idolatry. How can fierce miscreed become barbarian idolatry? Does the English have another meaning in Keats’ times? Were the words stronger then than they sound to me now? I hope an English native reader also fluent in French can help me with that. And of course, the next question is “who am I to challenge the work of a professional translator”?…

Something entirely different. My being a French reader did something funny when I arrived to On the Grasshopper and Cricket.

keats_grasshopperAs you can see in the translation of the title, a grasshopper is une sauterelle. Sauterelle is a feminine word and the end of the word with elle suggests femininity as well. If I were a cartoonist and I had to draw a sauterelle with human characteristics, it would be an elegant and graceful woman. So, I can’t picture a grasshopper as a he and when I read the original poem, it was a bit disturbing. It’s strange how our native language shapes our minds.

The footnote on this poem says that Keats wrote it in a contest between he and Leigh Hunt to see whether they were able to whip out a poem about grasshoppers and crickets in fifteen minutes. That’s how talented Keats was: fifteen minutes to write a beautiful poem that transports us to a hot summer day in a second. His untimely death seems such a waste of talent. Or perhaps it’s wishful thinking on our side and his talent was a comet in his youth, like Rimbaud.

Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne

January 26, 2016 10 comments

Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1819-1820) French title: Lettres à Fanny. Translated by Elise Argaud.

As far as they regard myself I can despite all events but I cannot cease to love you.

keats_fannyI don’t remember how I came to buy Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. It was probably on a display table in a bookstore and since I enjoy reading letters…

I knew Keats by name but had never read him. I’m not used to reading poetry, even in French. And in English, well, it’s very difficult. Reading his letters to Fanny was an opportunity to read about Keats, his life, his untimely death. What a waste of talent, like Pushkin or Petőfi. It’s disgruntling to think of all the poems he could have left us if he had had more time. It pushed me to get a bilingual edition of a collection of his poems. I read them after the letters and I thought there was a contrast between the sheer ethereal beauty of the poems and the relative plainness of the letters. We’re talking about Keatsean plainness, which means it’s still beautiful literature for anyone else.

These letters have the usual moans, angst and happy moments that you expect in love letters. Looking for signs. Playing his own game of she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not. Keats complains about giving away his heart and freedom and not liking it.

Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom.

These letters seem written by someone insecure, someone who’s not sure his love is requited. If the foreword hadn’t told me that Keats and Fanny met almost daily at the time, I would have sworn that they were apart. There is no mention of their meetings, their story sounds mostly epistolary when it was not.

The most moving aspect of Keats’s letters are his declining health. He’s ill, most of the time. It cripples him and gets in the way of his love, his happiness and his relationship with Fanny. He’s not well enough to party and he doesn’t want to imprison her, to deprive her of the fun she deserves at her age. (She’s only 18)

I would never see anything but Pleasure in your eyes, love on your lips, and Happiness in your steps. I would wish to see you among those amusements suitable to your inclination and spirits; so that our love might be a delight in the midst of Pleasure agreeable enough, rather than a resource from vexations and cares.

We reader know that Keats will die soon. And we read his letters knowing his fate while he suspects it but obviously doesn’t know the actual term of his life. It adds to the emotion and to the impression of fleeting moments that need to be cherished.

My edition of the letters includes an informative foreword by Laurent Folliot. He explained that when they were published in 1878, it was a scandal. The letters showed a side of Keats that the Victorian society wasn’t ready to see. He’s needy, in love and this love is not just cerebral and poetic. Fanny is not a poet’s muse. She’s disconnected from poetry and Keats doesn’t want their love to be a literary relationship or more precisely, a relationship based upon her admiration for his poems.

I must confess, that (since I am on that subject) I love you more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.

Fanny is not a Laure, a Beatrice or an Hélène. She’s a flesh and blood love. She’s wife material; meaning she sees him fully. Not just the poet façade or the thrill to be associated to a poet. He wants to be loved for himself. I find this consideration very modern. It is a pity that Fanny’s letters are lost to us. Keats destroyed them. I wonder who she was, what she looked like, how she moved. I wonder about her wits, her conversation or her dispositions.

I’m not comfortable with writing about Letters to Fanny Brawne and I hope I didn’t write anything stupid. Since I know nothing about poetry at the time, I’m sure I’m missing their invaluable worth. I can’t read between the lines and connect one detail or the other with a poem or an element of Keats’s life. For me, it was a reconnaissance, images and information to store and use for further exploration of his work.

Next billet will be about my experience with reading the actual poems and till then let’s read Bright Star, a poem allegedly written for Fanny. Enjoy.

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —

No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever — or else swoon to death.


Memoirs of a cocodette written by herself by Ernest Feydeau

January 24, 2016 13 comments

Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même by Ernest Feydeau (Published in 1878) I don’t think it’s available in English.

Feydeau_cocodetteIt’s better to read this billet after reading the one about images of prostitution in Paris from 1850 to 1910. It’s here. I have bought Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même at the bookshop of the Orsay museum. It caught my attention because the blurb mentioned that Flaubert wrote that it was tellement lubrique et indécent qu’aucun éditeur n’a consenti à le prendre” (“it was so lecherous and indecent that no publisher agreed to take it”). What could be shocking enough to shock Flaubert? I had to know.

To be honest, I’d never heard of Ernest Feydeau (1821-1873) before. He was a stockbroker and a writer and he combined his two jobs in a book about his experience at the Paris stock exchange. Apparently he inspired Zola for L’Argent. He was also the father of the playwright Georges Feydeau. His second wife was a former courtesan and she wasn’t faithful to him. The rumor says that Georges’s real father might be the duc de Morny or even Napoléon III. These biographical tidbits are important because it shows that Ernest Feydeau knew the world he was writing about in Souvenirs d’une cocodette and even if his character is fictional, there’s a good chance that her story rang true to his contemporaries.

Souvenirs d’une cocodette are the fake memoirs of Aimée. She’s ageing and she relates how she was raised by a beloved but weak father and a beautiful but unfaithful mother. Her mother didn’t like Aimée growing up and becoming beautiful. She saw her as a threat and she eventually put her away in a convent.

After her years at the convent, Aimée gets married to the baron de C*** an older man who wanted her for her beauty. It is not a love match. He married her to possess a beautiful object and started playing dolls with her. He was fond of seeing her in gorgeous gowns and jewels. She started to spend a lot of money on her appearance and became the darling of the high society. She was admired, admitted to the best circles and launched fashion. She breathed fashion and had a lot of fun parading in new clothes. I guess that today we would call a cocodette a fashionista. Life was frivolous but sweet.

Unfortunately, her husband is not as rich as he pretended to be and all this spending led them to ruin. When Aimée realizes in what predicament she finds herself into, a woman comes to rescue her. She’s supposedly the baroness of Couradilles and she acts as the middleman between women who are willing to sell their charms against money. She says that a certain gentleman would be more than happy to pay for Aimée’s body and suggests that she gives herself away against the settlement of her debts.

What I wrote is PG-rated. The text is not so polite and soft. Let’s say that Aimée describes her sexual initiation with lots of candor. First lesbian experiences at the convent in study hall and then experiences with men. The men in her world are perverse. Affairs are common, sexual favors too. Her husband sounds a bit deviant and demanding; her lover as well. Everyone in Aimée’s surroundings is rather toxic, except maybe her father. He’s just turning his head the other way to avoid acknowledging his wife’s affairs. (Something that Ernest Feydeau seems to have done too. He, whose middle name was…Aimé)

I understand why the Orsay museum put this book on display. It illustrates perfectly the theme of the exhibit. It shows how sex and prostitution had infiltrated society. Ernest Feydeau describes a society where sex is a commodity, where appearances matter so much that keeping them was worth a lot of sacrifices. Aimée speaks according to the codes this exhibit helped to decipher. She writes in an honest tone, taking Rousseau’s confessions as a model. Feydeau tries not to be judgmental but Aimée’s statements are rather condemning:

Je ne veux point me donner le ridicule de faire le procès à la société, qui, vraisemblablement, ainsi que le disait mon père, ne vaut ni plus ni moins que celle qui l’a précédée sur la scène du monde ; mais je ne puis cependant m’empêcher de remarquer que c’est à qui, dans les salons, poussera les malheureuses jeunes femmes, de toutes ses forces, à se mal conduire. En y réfléchissant aujourd’hui, je ne me sens même point aujourd’hui aussi coupable qu’on le pourrait croire. Combien de femmes j’ai connues, mariées comme moi, mères, qui se sont vues un jour contraintes de se vendre, pour apaiser des créanciers impitoyables, et qui n’eurent même pas l’idée, comme moi, de racheter ce qu’il y avait de rachetable dans leur action, en sauvant leur mari de la ruine, sans qu’il pût soupçonner le moyen pour cela, le laissant honnête homme et considéré, et prenant le supplice et la honte pour elle.

I don’t want to be ridiculous and put society on trial; as my father used to say, it’s probably not better or worse than the one that preceded it on the world’s scene. But I can’t help noticing that there’s a tendency to push unfortunate young women to misbehave. With hindsight, I don’t feel as guilty as you’d think. How many women did I know, married like me, mothers, who had to sell themselves to appease merciless creditors and who didn’t even have the idea, like me, to find a way to make amends and see what was redeemable in their action by saving their husband from ruin, without his knowing the means to it, leaving him honest and respected and keeping the agony and the shame for themselves.


(my translation, clumsy I know but Feydeau’s prose is a bit bombastic)

She sounds like her actions are rather common. Aimée also picture life from a woman’s point of view: someone who’s always at the mercy of men. She goes from obeying to her father to obeying to her husband to putting herself under the orders of her lover. With hindsight, Aimée states:

Je le répète, je n’ai eu, dans toute ma vie, qu’une seule et véritable passion, celle de la toilette. Passion qui n’est point du tout inoffensive, car elle coûte cher.

Heureusement que je ne manque pas des moyens nécessaires pour la satisfaire sans me voir obligée de subir encore les manies des hommes : je suis riche. Je suis veuve. Je n’ai pas d’enfants.

I repeat myself, I only had one true passion in my life : clothes. A passion that is not inoffensive at all because it is expensive.

Fortunately, I have the means to satisfy it without bending over backwards to the odd habits of men. I’m rich. I’m a widow. I don’t have any children.

This reminded me of Notre Coeur by Maupassant. Madame de Burne has no desire to remarry. It would mean losing her freedom.  Although it is said in a candid tone, Souvenirs d’une cocodette is also description of women’s fate in the high society. They have no other perspective than landing a rich husband or a rich lover if the rich husband fails them.

It’s an entertaining read but when you start digging and thinking about what it really means, the picture of the society of the Second Empire isn’t pretty. On top of the explicit sex talk, it’s offensive for the high society of the time. No wonder Flaubert saw it as subversive and that it was only published after Feydeau’s death.

PS: One word about the book cover. ‘Why the hen?’, you might think. In French, a cocotte is a tart, according to the dictionary but it’s also a colloquial way to call a hen.

Prostitution in Paris (1850-1910) Prequel of the billet about Memoirs of a cocodette written by herself by Ernest Feydeau.

January 17, 2016 29 comments

I bought Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même by Ernest Feydeau at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris when I attended the exhibition Splendeurs et misères. Images de la prostitution 1850-1910. A cocodette seems to be the female of a cocodes, a young Parisian from the Second Empire (1852-1870) who is only interested in showing off and being elegant. I read this short novel right away but before writing about it, I want to share with you what I learnt at this fascinating exhibition. It will help understanding the context of the Feydeau.

Splendeurs et misère was very informative about prostitution in the French society from 1850 to 1910 and how it influenced painters and writers. There were gradations in prostitution. The “happy few” if I may say, were the cocottes, the highly privileged courtesans like Nana in Zola’s novel. The painting of Blanche d’Antigny, who inspired the character of Nana was displayed.

La femme aux bijoux (Courbet)

La femme aux bijoux (Courbet)

At the time, keeping a cocotte was a proof of wealth and virility for a man. It was a social status. These women were fashionable, rich and extravagant. The papers related their parties and described their clothing.

Second rank were courtesans. Like the prostitutes living in brothels, they were listed and the police kept the records straight and implemented health controls. They had business cards that said for example “Massages hygiéniques. Massages suédois. English spoken”. English spoken? Actually, there were a lot of English aristocrats having fun in Paris at the time. Victorian etiquette wasn’t relaxing back home. Now I’m not so surprised that Odette, in Swann’s Way by Proust, peppers her sentences with English words. She’s a former cocotte and I suppose Proust did it on purpose.

Third rank were prostitutes in brothels. That part was mostly illustrated with paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Femme tirant son bas (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)

Femme tirant son bas (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)

He did series of paintings in famous maisons closes and he was friends with a lot of prostitutes. He painted them in their everyday life. Relaxing, having a bath, chatting, waiting on customers. We also had the chance to see the Prince of Wales’s custom-made love seat.


It stayed in his favourite Parisian brothel and was designed to accommodate his heavy body and allow threesomes. When you think of the hard time the current Prince of Wales was given for his long term mistress…

And then there were the others, women who had jobs that didn’t pay enough and resorted to prostitution to feed the children. They were linen maids or sales clerks. As linen maids, they had the opportunity to enter houses. (Keep that in mind for next billet) and as sales clerks, they were put on display behind the shop’s window and men had the chance to approach them. Now think about Gissing’s novel, The Odd Women and Monica who works at a shop and becomes Edmund’s wife…The implications of working in a shop ring differently.

The theatre and the opera were also an opportunity for men to meet women and for women to find a protector or at least customers. The bal of the opea was famous for that and even on normal nights, available women were lingering in the stairs and in the hallways to catch a suitor.




It was explained that dancers of the opera Garnier were fair game for the men who had a subscription at the opera. They had the right to visit the dancers after the shows and hit on them. The dancers were willing to find a protector to leave misery behind. It gives another perspective on Degas’s series of paintings about dancers, no?

Available women waited on the streets or could be seen on the boulevards at nightfall. This is why they are called Belles de nuit (night beauties) in French.

L'attente (Beraud)

L’attente (Beraud)

Sur le boulevard (Louis Valtat)

Sur le boulevard (Louis Valtat)

Gas lamppost revolutionized prostitution as the women were able to better show off their assets. To attract customers, they would lift their dresses a bit to show an ankle or show off their derriere.


Le lampadère (Jean-Louis Forain)

The other ways to find a prostitute was to go to a café. It was not appropriate for women to stay in a café without a chaperone. So, when a woman was sitting there, drinking alcohol, she sent the message that she was available for paid sex. Like here in Degas’s paintings:


L’absinthe (Degas)

Femme à la terrasse d'un café (Degas)

Femme à la terrasse d’un café (Degas)

I wonder about Albertine, from In Search of Lost Time. Her freedom had always seemed odd to me. But now, I’m pretty sure she was selling her charms. She moved in with the Narrator and she was spending time in cafés with her girlfriends.

The law regarding selling alcohol was changed during the Second Empire. It resulted in the development of specialized cafés where women made themselves available for paid sex. They called themselves The Bees or other nicknames and recruited waitresses. They were solid competition for the women in brothels who were monitored by the police.

The exhibition made the link between painting and literature, quoting Balzac (Splendeurs et misère des courtisanes), Zola (Nana), Baudelaire, Dumas (La dame aux camélias)

This fascinating exhibitions showed that new inventions like photography and cinema were quickly used for pornography. A “red room” showed the visitors that our century has nothing to teach to the 19thC in that matter.

It also showed the miserable side of prostitution and the ravages of syphilis. There is no testimony from women. All we have is seen through the men’s eyes. I bet it’s not as ugly as it felt for the women.

Honestly, I didn’t know that prostitution had infiltrated society that way. It seems like it was everywhere and a component of it. It was, let’s say, a fact of life. It was extremely informative and it gave me another perspective on the paintings and literature of the time.

Science fiction in Europe. Reality in America.

January 15, 2016 17 comments

My Parents Open Carry (2015) by Brian G. Jeffs & Nathan R. Nephew.

A friend of mine sent me this children’s book for Christmas, not as an actual gift but as a oh-my-god-she-needs-to-see-this present. So here I am opening My Parents Open Carry and gasping from the first page to the last. Flaberggasted and appalled are the right adjectives to describe how I felt about this as a reader, as a mother and as a person.

The authors who committed this opus wrote its foreword and it tells everything about it:

This book was written in the hope of providing a basic overview of the right to keep and bear arms as well as the growing practice of the open carry of a hand gun. Our fear is that our children are being raised with a biased view of our constitution and especially in regards to the 2nd Amendment. Before writing this, we looked for pro-gun children’s books and couldn’t find any. Our goal is to provide a wholesome children’s book that reflects the views of the majority of the American people, i.e. that self-defense is a basic natural right and that firearms provide the most efficient means for that defense. We truly hope you will enjoy this book and read and discuss it with your children over and over again.

my_parents_open_carryFollows the edifying day of the Strong family who shops in different stores and tries to convince people that they should carry guns and ends up at the shooting range. Their thirteen years old girl Brenna receives her first gun because she got good grades and it’s her first practice day. (!!)

Apart from being morally condemnable, this book is also poorly written and illustrated. Children’s books are also literature and good ones require a talented writer and a gifted illustrator. No literary or drawing talent of any kind was poured in this book.

The substance? It is full of fallacious arguments, dumb comparisons and syllogisms. Stupidest comparison ever: carrying a gun is like putting on your seatbelt; it’s for your safety and you hope you’ll never need it. Syllogism? Chainsaws are dangerous and yet sold in shops. Guns are dangerous. Therefore, guns may be sold in shops. (!!!)

I assure you this is not April Fools’ Day and that this book actually exists. The comforting part of the foreword is that the authors couldn’t find any pro-gun children’s book. I don’t know if their assumption about the American’s people thinking that self-defense is a basic natural right is true. I hope not.

For me, reading this is like reading science fiction. The whole debate about open carry and conceal carry has no grounds because the carry shouldn’t exist in the first place. The saddest part of it is that these pro-gun advocates/writers live in constant fear. They think they can get robbed or attacked anytime and need to feel ready to fight back. They talk about checking their surroundings all the time. What kind of life is that? Fear is the worst leader to make intelligent decisions. It works with the least evolved part of our brain. Considering the rubbish this children’s book spews from its pages, this very part of the authors’ brain was involved in its conception.

I feel like sending President Obama a box of tissues. He’s not done crying.

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy

January 13, 2016 14 comments

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy. French: Sindbad ou la nostalgie.

Krudy_SindbadThis is the English version of the billet written in French here. The English collection of stories is translated by Georges Szirtes and is different from the French one. They have some stories in common but not all. However, I don’t think that the general atmosphere of the stories differs much from one collection to the other.

The Adventures of Sindbad are short stories written by the Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). The stories are all centered around Sindbad, a recurring character in Krúdy’s work, his literary double, his imaginary adventurer. Sindbad is a love adventurer who’s doing pilgrimages and trips on the premises of old loves, either to reminisce better times or do penance for his past conduct.

The stories have been published between 1911 and 1935, a span of time of more than 20 years that saw the end of the Hungary of Krúdy’s youth. Sindbad gets older too in the stories and they become darker with time, witnesses of the ageing writer and of the state of the country.

Showing just beneath the surface is a Sindbad, traveller and bohemian, forever in love, not with one woman but with eternal feminity.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

 Voyage vers la mort (1911)


Sindbad left his life in the hands of Fate and chance. He felt obscurely that now, as many times before, a girl or a woman would cross his path. She would inspire him with a new life, she would pour new blood in his veins, new thoughts in his rattled brain. He was thirty years old and since the age of fifteen, he had only lived for women.

Journey to Death (1911). Not included in The Adventures of Sindbad. My translation from the French.

He’s a gallant from a Fragonard painting. He loves women and falls hard each time. No donjuanesque cynicism in Sindbad. No. He behaves with women like a child in a candy store. Like a gourmand. He’s attracted to all of them. He wants to taste them all, the inn-keeper’s wife, the actress, the shop-keeper, the photographer, the pianist, the girl next door. He’s always tipsy on love.

The stories slowly reveal the damages done by this hopeless womanizer, all the more dangerous that he’s sincere. At a given time. Afterwards, it’s something else. He’s a charming charmer, they are delighted, bewitched and changed. And devastated. He doesn’t hesitate to abduct or compromise them. He leaves miserable women behind. Some commit suicide; he has children he’s not aware of. He finds himself in perilous situations.

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

In those days Sindbad spent all his time at The Red Ox inn. He had gained some notoriety in town on account of a divorce which was settled amicably enough, and of one young lady, who had been determined to commit suicide on his account, then being despatched to a convent, though within a few years she had given birth to half a dozen beautiful children.

The Red Ox (1915) Translation by George Szirtes

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesHe’s upset about it, but not for long. Sindbad is elusive, unfaithful, he hops from one woman in flower to the other; he plays the field. Despite my earlier vision of a Sindbad coming out of a painting by Fragonard, we are far from the libertine salons of the 18th century. The setting reflects the Hungarian countryside, horse-driven cars, snow, cold and the odd atmosphere, a little romantic, mysterious and almost mythical of these rigorous winters. Sometimes we are a bit in the dreamlike universe of a painting by Chagall.


Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.  

Une étrange mort (1925)


A cow started to moo in the cowshed, (since biblical times this animal likes to participate to family events), the guard dog who was sleeping on the snow, went in the middle of the yard to better see the soul that was flying away to the twinkling stars. Then he carried out his funeral ceremony by baying at the moon.

A Strange Death (1925) My translation from the French.

Krúdy is a poet in prose. It took me time to read this short collection of stories because Krúdy can’t be gulped, he needs to be sipped to fully grasp the beauty of the images, the lightness of the descriptions and the eerie sense of place.

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

 Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Vegetables shone, green and fresh, in the gardens. Only the poplars stood bitter and unmoving on the pavement, indifferent to the world around them. They dropped a leaf or two into Sindbad’s carriage as he passed.

Sindbad and the Actress (1911) Translation by George Szirtes

I think it sounds better in French. Sindbad is full of nostalgia and Krúdy excels at writing down memories and brushing upon impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la visite d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)


In the night hours, when Sindbad laid his head down on the pillow and thoughts swirled about his head like departing birds of passage, ever fewer in number and ever further off; and later, in the morning, while the warm kisses of the previous night’s dream still lingered with him in bed under the covers, on the soft cushion, or lay tangled in the woolly weave of the carpet; when the aristocratic woman in the black silk dress and scarlet mask, the woman of his dreams, was still standing on the threshold in her lacquered ankle boots and delicate silk stockings, the kind court ladies wear without the queen’s knowledge — at such times, a dark-haired little actress dressed in black with black silk stockings and an eagle’s feather in her hat would often come to visit him in his lonely room, the hair behind her ears soft and loose but freshly combed, just as Sindbad the sailor had last seen her.

Winter Journey (1912) Translation by George Szirtes.

Nostalgia pushed Sindbad to the premises of the love affairs of his youth, flings or short-term relationships. His old lovers stayed in the village where he had picked them. Some died after starting over or without recovering from their blazing affair with a fickle Sindbad. We are between dream and reality, remembrance and ghostly apparitions from past times coming to haunt an ageing Sindbad.

The reader feels ambivalent towards Sindbad and it is to the credit of Krúdy’s prose. Sindbad is selfish and cruel. The poetry in the stories tones down the darkness of his actions. He’s no better than Rodolphe seducing Madame Bovary but the nostalgia filter that Krúdy puts between the reader and the facts mitigates the gravity of his actions and tempers with the horrible consequences of his amorous impulses.

Sindbad’s true thoughts will remain his.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propos des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Each man has his secret that remains untold during his life. Some things happened a long time ago, shameful actions, heartbreak and humiliations. Nothing would be more interesting that to read what someone on their deathbed would say frankly about the secrets he kept his whole life.

Sindbad’s Secret (1911) My translation from the French.

My French copy came to my mail box courtesy of the publisher, Les éditions La Baconnière. The short stories are translated into French by Juliette Clancier and Ibolya Virág.

As expected, I had a lot of trouble to switch from the French to the English on this billet. The English and the French language don’t talk about love the same way or maybe I don’t know the right English words. While the vocabulary I used in French is rather light, a bit playful, the translation is laced with words tainted with negativity or plainness. In French, we have lots of light images to describe “casual affairs”. We say papillonner (to butterfly), avoir un coeur d’artichaut (to have an artichoke heart, ie to be constantly falling in and out of love). Our language is more forgiving to inconsistent hearts, conveying the tolerance we have for these things.

Sindbad ou la nostalgie, de Gyula Krúdy. L’aventurier de l’amour

January 10, 2016 5 comments

Sindbad ou la nostalgie de Gyula Krúdy (Nouelles: 1911-1935)

For readers who can’t read in French, I will publish another post in English about Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy


Krudy_SindbadSindbad ou la nostalgie est un recueil de nouvelles de l’écrivain hongrois Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). Les textes sont tous centrés autour du personnage de Sindbad, un personnage récurrent de Krúdy, son double littéraire, son aventurier imaginaire. Sindbad est un aventurier de l’amour qui effectue des voyages-pèlerinages sur les lieux d’anciennes amours, soit pour se remémorer des temps meilleurs, soit pour se faire pardonner sa conduite passée.

Les nouvelles ont été publiées entre 1911 et 1935, une période de plus de 20 ans qui a vu la mort de la Hongrie de la jeunesse de Krúdy. Sindbad vieillit lui aussi, au fil des nouvelles et les textes deviennent plus noirs au fil du temps, témoins de l’écrivain qui vieillit et de la situation du pays. Il se dessine en filigrane un Sindbad voyageur et bohème, éternel amoureux, non pas d’une femme mais des femmes et de l’éternel féminin.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

Voyage vers la mort (1911)

C’est un galant d’un tableau de Fragonard. Il prend plaisir avec les femmes et se sent éperdument amoureux à chaque fois. Pas de cynisme don-juanesque chez Sindbad. Non. Il se comporte avec les femmes comme un enfant dans une confiserie. En gourmand. Tout lui fait envie. Il a envie de toutes les goûter, la femme de l’aubergiste, l’actrice, la marchande, la photographe, la pianiste, la jeune fille d’à côté. Aimer est le grand point, qu’importe la maîtresse ? Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse. Ces vers de Musset conviennent parfaitement à Sindbad qui est toujours légèrement intoxiqué d’amour.

Au fil des nouvelles pourtant s’égrènent les ravages faits par ce cœur d’artichaut, d’autant plus dangereux qu’il est sincère. A l’instant t. Après, c’est autre chose. Il est charmant, charmeur, elles sont charmées, envoutées et changées. Et dévastées. Il n’hésite pas à les enlever, à les compromettre. Il est impulsif. Il laisse derrière lui des femmes désespérées, certaines se suicident ; il a des enfants qu’il ne connait pas. Il s’en trouve dans des situations périlleuses :

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

Il s’en tourmente, mais pas longtemps. Sindbad est insaisissable, volage, il butine de fleur en fleur, papillonne.

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesMalgré ma vision d’un Sindbad sorti d’un tableau de Fragonard, on est loin des salons libertins du 18ème siècle. L’ambiance est plutôt celle des provinces hongroises, des voitures tirées par des chevaux, de la neige, du froid et de l’ambiance un peu romantique, mystérieuse et presque mythique de ces hivers rigoureux. On est parfois un peu dans l’univers onirique d’un tableau de Chagall

Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.

Une étrange mort (1925)

Krúdy est un poète en prose. Il m’a fallu du temps pour lire ce cours recueil de nouvelles par que l’écriture de Krúdy ne se boit pas à grandes lampées, elle se déguste à petites gorgées pour mieux saisir et apprécier la beauté des images, la légèreté des descriptions, le caractère irréel des lieux.

Une chauve-souris passait comme un soupir tremblant surgi du passé malheureux d’un inconnu.

Sindbad part en pèlerinage. (1925)

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Sindbad est nostalgique et Krúdy n’a pas son pareil pour écrire des souvenirs, nous faire palper des impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la vitire d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)

La nostalgie pousse Sindbad à revenir sur les lieux de ses amours de jeunesse, histoires d’un soir ou de quelques mois. Ses anciennes amantes sont restées dans le village où il les avait cueillies. Certaines sont mortes après avoir refait leur vie ou sans s’être remises de leur histoire flamboyante avec un Sindbad inconstant. On est entre rêve et réalité, entre réminiscence et apparitions de fantômes des temps anciens venus hanter un Sindbad vieillissant.

On est ambivalent à l’égard de Sindbad et c’est la prose de Krúdy qui crée cette ambivalence. Sindbad est égoïste et cruel. La poésie des textes atténue la noirceur de ses actes. Il ne vaut pas mieux que le Rodolphe qui séduit Madame Bovary mais le filtre nostalgique mis par le style de Krúdy entre le lecteur et les faits tamise la gravité des actions de Sindbad et tempère l’horreur des conséquences de ses pulsions amoureuses.

Au bout du bout, les véritables pensées de Sindbad lui sont propres et le resteront.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propose des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Sindbad ou la nostalgie est publié aux éditions La Baconnière. Les nouvelles sont traduites par Juliette Clancier et Ibolya Virág, qui dirige la collection de littérature d’Europe Centrale pour La Baconnière. Je remercie l’éditeur et Ibolya Virág de m’avoir envoyé un exemplaire de ce recueil de nouvelles.

Tolerance: the Beacon of the Enlightenment, an anthology compiled by the French Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, translated by students and tutors of French at Oxford University.

January 9, 2016 6 comments

Here’s a fascinating post by Lisa about an initiative to remind us what tolerance and freedom of speech mean for our societies.

Don’t be intimidated by the passage in French, it’s all in English afterwards and the texts are available in English translation.

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

ToleranceThis is a remarkable anthology.  I came across it via a Tweet from Emma @bookaround (Book Around the Corner) and I have enough French now to understand most of the article at Livres Hebdo to which the Tweet led.  It’s about initiatives at Harvard and Oxford in response to the attack on Free Speech in the Charlie Hebdo murders.  And down at the bottom of the article was this:

Dans le même souci de commémoration des attentats, une autre université anglo-saxonne prestigieuse, Oxford, a publié un essai autour du thème de la tolérance rédigé par 100 étudiants et professeurs. Le résultat: une traduction d’extraits d’œuvres des philosophes des lumières, initialement rassemblés dans Tolérance, le combat des lumières de la Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle.

L’ouvrage s’intitule Tolerance: The Beacon of the enlightment est gratuitement distribué au format PDF. Il comprend des nouvelles traductions de la Déclaration…

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Categories: Reblogged, Uncategorized

Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard

January 6, 2016 14 comments

Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard. (1987)

Elisabeth II is one of the last plays written by Thomas Bernhard. It is set in an apartment in Vienna. The old industrial tycoon Herrenstein owns an apartment in the center of the city, ideally situated to see and cheer the passage of Queen Elisabeth II during her visit to Vienna. As a consequence, his apartment will be soon overflowing with eager relatives and acquaintances who want to see the queen. That’s the plot.

Herrenstein is an angry disabled old man. If you’ve seen the French film Tatie Danielle by Etienne Chatiliez, you’ll picture him in your mind. He’s in a wheelchair but insists on rewinding the clock himself. He’s cantankerous, whimsical and has an opinion about everything. He hates his family and relatives who give it right back at him, except for one nephew. His everyday life depends on his secretary/companion Richard and his housekeeper Miss Zallinger. He’s egoistical, violent in his speech. His mind runs in circles and the play is made of long monologues where he complains about this or that, trying to decide where he’ll drag Richard on holiday the morrow. He rants and raves against anything and everything: the stupidity of watching Queen Elisabeth drive under his windows, the mentality of the Austrians, the atmosphere in Vienna, his relatives, his bad health…

This is a play that needs to be watched and leaves no room for poor acting or a weak direction. The text is composed of long rants that deserve to be told and not read. The actor playing Herrenstein is stuck in a wheelchair and speaks during two hours. According to the cast and the direction, this play can be fantastic or a total disaster. Mildly successful is not an option; as its main character, the text is not forgiving for lukewarm interpretation.

I’ve seen a version directed by Aurore Fattier with Denis Lavant playing Herrenstein.


Both direction and acting were absolutely stunning. Aurore Fattier managed to make us laugh at and with this cranky old man and made the best of the almost silent second characters. Alexandre Trocki plays Richard and he’s on stage almost as long as Herrenstein but he barely speaks. He manages to impose his silent presence to the spectator as comic counterpart to his vituperating master. The coming and goings of the servants preparing the reception for all the people who invited themselves to watch the parade of Elisabeth II is full of mischief and comical effects.

Bernhard_denis_lavantDenis Lavant owns the space, incarnates perfectly this obnoxious old man. His speech, his movements and his tone are brilliant. I admire his stamina and that kind of performance is the quintessence of theatre. Why go to the theatre? Because there’s nothing like watching actors playing live a whole text, not scenes that have been put together afterwards like in a film. Denis Lavant slips into Herrenstein’s skin for two hours. During this time, he’s Herrenstein for us and the old man becomes real. Nothing compares to that.

As a spectator, we are horrified by Herrenstein’s cruelty and at the same time, we pity him. Like the playwright, he’s been ill for a long time. He’s old and at the mercy of Richard and Miss Zallinger’s services. He’s pathetic at times and needy. He’s afraid of Richard leaving him. He’d like to be strong but he’s totally unsettled by the change in his routine coming from all the fuss around the queen’s visit.

This is my first encounter with the work of Thomas Bernhard. I expected bleak, it was as bleak as books about nasty old age can be. It reminded me of The Hateful Age by Fumio Niwa.

I also knew he was harsh on the Austrian people but I didn’t expect that he would be that harsh, basically calling them weak and talking about nests of Nazis. As the crème de la crème of the Vienna aristocracy and bourgeoisie gush about how healthy he looks and how excited they are to see the queen, he hurls insults behind their back. Bernhard emphasizes on the narrow-mindedness of the upper classes and their inherent vulgarity.

Berhnard has been ill for most of his life, suffering of lung problems. Just like Proust. I couldn’t help comparing Miss Zallinger to the poor Françoise in In Search of Lost Time and to the real life servants who took care of Proust. He must have been a difficult patient and I suspect Bernhard was one too and that Herrenstein owns a bit of his creator’s nature.

As you’ve probably understood by my enthusiastic commentary, this is an outstanding but vicious play. The ending is unexpected, ironic and perfect. The version I’ve seen is flawless. Really. But I still think it was too long. In my opinion, there were repetitions in Herrenstein’s rants that could have been cut. I understand that these long monologues are Bernhard’s brand of theatre. I don’t think I’ll read his other plays but I’ll sure watch them if I have the opportunity.

#TBR20 or #PAL20: what now?

January 4, 2016 42 comments

On May 12th, 2015, I started my own #TBR20 challenge or in French my #PAL challenge. As I mentioned it in previous post, I completed it by the end of December. I read the following books:

  1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
  2. Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes (abandoned)
  3. Lune captive dans un œil mort by Pascal Garnier
  4. U.V. by Serge Joncour
  5. Petit traité des privilèges de l’homme mûr by Flemming Jensen
  6. Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl
  7. This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (abandoned)
  8. Fun & Games by Duane Swierczynski
  9. Still Life by Louise Penny
  10. I Married a Communist by Philip Roth
  11. N.N. by Gyula Krudy
  12. Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza
  13. Vienna Tales (Collection of short stories by various authors)
  14. Fateless by Imre Kertész
  15. Runaway by Alice Munro
  16. L’outlaw by Georges Simenon
  17. Continental Drift by Russel Banks (abandoned)
  18. Wandering Star by J-M. G. Le Clézio
  19. The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy
  20. Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien

I abandoned three of them because I couldn’t find enough interest in them. Some were truly outstanding and made it to my Best of the Year Reads. I’m not going to calculate statistics about the % of female writers, of 5 star books or of French writers. KPIs are for my working life, not my blogging life. Suffice to say that all in all, it was a good selection of books, novels and short stories and from different countries. I’m glad I finished it in 2015.

What do I get out of it and how do I feel about the whole challenge?

I’m happy that my TBR decreased a bit (still 180 books to go…) and I think it was good to focus on reading what I already owned. The difficulty came from defining the list of books in advance. I had put them on a special shelf and even if I had not set a special order for them, I felt a bit prisoner of that selection. Well, I fell off the wagon twice to read Australian novels set in Perth before our Australian guest arrived, so I had a good reason. But sometimes I wanted to read something else but I stuck with the list otherwise I knew I wouldn’t make it.

The other difficulty was to refrain from buying books. This asked a lot of effort. I joked about it in previous posts as well, saying that I bought books as gifts and got some new bookish accessories. Anything to justify my presence in book stores and spend time browsing books. I feel like I’ve been on a low carb diet for months and now all I want to do is get pizzas, lasagna or risotto. In other words, I’m starved from book buying, I’m in withdrawal and I’m ready for a book buying binge. Not so good.

So, what now? I treated myself with a literary day on January 2nd. I visited four book stores, got myself three books. I found some Hemingway tea and I went to the cinema to see the adaptation of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe. (It’s a French film directed by Michel Leclerc, starring Jean-Pierre Bacri as Mr Sim. It’s a brilliant adaptation of the novel.)


I’ve been reasonable. Agostino is January’s Book Club selection, the Keats is because I’m reading his Letters to Fanny Brawne and I didn’t even know his poetry. I was delighted to find a bilingual edition. And the Craig Johnson is pure lust for the second volume of the Longmire series.

But I don’t want my TBR to regain the weight it has lost. 2016 needs a new reading diet.

I want to continue on the #TBR20 trend but I want to do it differently. I read about a book per week, meaning that I already own 3.5 years of reading, so the TBR won’t vanish overnight. So, four books per month is my reading capacity at the moment. One book comes from my Book Club selection. Two will come from the shelves. And the last one is a free read. Either it will come from the shelves or it won’t.

And I’m not going to pick the books in advance this time. I have a new shelf of the books I’d like to read this year but I may not keep my word and read them in 2016. It will depend on my mood and I like it that way.

Last but not least, I’ll try to read the books I buy or the books I get as gifts within 6 months. This will probably fill in the fourth book of the month. I’ll try not to buy books if I think I won’t be able to read them within 6 months.

I hope that with these three new rules the 2016 #TBR20 – #PAL 20 project will seem lighter to pursue. I should decrease the TBR, moderate my book buying and still feel free to read what I want. We’ll see how it works for 2016.

Will you do a #TBR20 challenge this year too?

Happy New Year from France!

January 1, 2016 32 comments

 mafalda_monde2015 is over and it started and ended with terrorist attacks in Paris. It gave us the opportunity to see how united we can be around our core values, with the massive and peaceful march in January and all the gestures towards the Parisians last November. I hope it will be enough. Sometimes I really wonder about the world we live in. I hear racist and anti-Muslim comments around me from people I’d never expect to badmouth other French citizen for the colour of their skin or the curls in their hair; the last elections left a bad taste in my mouth. I wonder where we’re headed and I’m a bit worried. I hope that fear won’t get the better of us in the long term. The billets I published about these events are the ones that got the most comments and likes, thanks for the support. Let’s be optimistic and say that in 2016, the most commented billet will be about a book.

2015 was also the #TBR20 challenge year. What do I make of it? I’m rather proud I finished it but it really feels like I’ve been on one of these unhealthy diets where you only eat pineapples for weeks. Now I’m on the edge of a book buying binge and I’m not sure I learnt moderation. For 2016, I plan on reading at least one or two books per month which are already on my TBR. And I’ll try to read the new ones not long after I bought them.

Thanks to all the readers, commenters, passers-by and likers (does that even exist?) of Book Around The Corner. I am truly grateful for the time you give me. We all have busy lives. One thing I regret most is not having enough time to explore other blogs and I wish I could follow properly a lot more blogs than I actually do. The trouble is I need to be in front of a computer to read and comment because I always end up needing the dictionary at some point. And the more it goes, the harder it gets to start a computer at home after a day in front of one in the office. I’ll try to do better in 2016.

I hope you’ve had, you’re having or you will have a fantastic New Year’s Eve. I wish you the best for 2016, health, love, money, a lot of laughter and of course lots of wonderful books.


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