Archive

Archive for June, 2016

Three Horses by Erri De Luca

June 25, 2016 40 comments

Three Horses by Erri De Luca (1999) French title: Trois chevaux. (Translated from the Italian by Danièle Valin.)

Une vie d’homme dure autant que celle de trois chevaux. A man’s life lasts as long three horses’ lives.

De_LucaThree Horses is a novella by the Italian writer Erri De Luca. The book opens with a foreword about Argentina to remind the reader of its geography and of few facts about its recent history. Argentina welcomed 7 million of immigrants before 1939 and half of them were Italian. From 1976 to 1982, it was governed by a lethal military dictatorship and 40 000 persons went missing. It ended in 1982 when they failed to invade the Falkland Islands, a territory under British rule and as big as half of Sicily.

The narrator is a fifty years old man who works as a gardener for an old friend. After the introduction, we know that the narrator something to do with Argentina. He’s a quiet and literate man who keeps to himself. He’s contemplative and seeks solace in books. It’s clear from the start that he wants a quiet life made of physical labor, simple food and lots of reading. We slowly learn about his past, discovering how he ended up as a meditative gardener. He’s Italian and fell in love with an Argentinean woman, Dvora. He followed her to Buenos Aires and married her. They settled there and were caught up by history; Dvora was killed during the dictatorship and he survived.

The narrator’s past, his beliefs and his personality slowly come to life through delicate sentences. He enjoys nurturing plants and takes pleasure in gardening. He befriends other lonely souls and immigrants and meets Làila who brings Argentina back into his life.

Elle ne s’efface pas de mon corps, l’Argentine, peu de poils ont repoussé sur l’ulcère de la guerre et des assassins. Argentina cannot be erased of my body. Little hair has grown on the ulcer of war and murderers.

He’s a survivor from grief and violence. He’s not healed and still lives in a survivor mode. It’s difficult to go further in describing the narrator’s life or his state of mind without spoiling the novel. So I’ll leave it at that.

It is a slim novel written in a luminous and poetic prose. I have a lot of quotes, all due to De Luca’s unique way with words. Here’s the narrator walking in the wilderness…

J’apprends à ne pas craindre les serpents, des bêtes sages qui lèchent l’air.

I learn not to be afraid of snakes, these wise beasts who lick the air.

…or waking up in his apartment

Oui, je me lève à cinq heures, mais volontiers. L’air de la mer fait parvenir ici un peu de son odeur.

La maison craque à cette heure-là, pierre, bois, bâillements. Puis elle se tait au parfum du café. Une cafetière sur le feu suffit à remplir une pièce.

Yes, I wake up at five a.m. but willingly. The air coming from the sea brings a bit of its scent here.

The house creaks at this hour, stone, wood and yawns. Then it goes quiet with the perfume of coffee. A coffeepot on the stove is enough to fill a room.

I could picture his early mornings in a waking house.

Three Horses is a deeply Mediterranean book. The narrator is in osmosis with his environment and he’s like a living part of the scenery. The setting is almost a character in the novella. The sun, the sea, laundry pouring out of windows and basil in pots. De Luca’s writing appeals to all the reader’s senses. It brought back memories of holidays in Sicily, on the French Riviera or in Greece. The scent of the sea is like an olfactory background melody. The sun heats up the vegetation and makes it exhale puffs of perfumes. Pine trees, wisteria or rosemary. De Luca makes you feel the sea breeze on your skin and the burning heat of the sun at noon. The reader hears the soothing sound of the waves and the cries of seagulls. The narrator cooks and it reminds you the taste of fresh tomatoes, olive oil and smooth cheese. Each time I’m in a Mediterranean region, I feel content. Each time I read a book set somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea, I long to be there with the characters. This one is no different with its powerful sense of place. I also enjoyed the slow pace of the narrator’s life, so far from my own.

Above all, I loved the narrator’s relationship with literature and books. Literature plays a central role in his life and I could relate to it.

Les jours se passent comme ça. Le soir, chez moi, j’écrase des tomates crues et de l’origan sur des pâtes égouttées et je grignote des gousses d’ail devant un livre russe. Il rend mon corps plus léger.

C’est ce que doivent faire les livres, porter une personne et non pas se faire porter par elle, décharger la journée de son dos, ne pas ajouter leurs propres grammes de papier sur ses vertèbres.

Days go on like this. Home at night, I mash raw tomatoes and oregano on freshly drained pasta and I nibble cloves of garlic in front of a Russian book. It makes my body lighter.

That’s what books are for. They should carry a person, not be carried by them. They should take the day’s load off one’s back, not add grams of paper on one’s vertebras.

Isn’t that the best thing after a long day? To unload the day’s thoughts and events on the wharf of a book cover and to sail away to the wind of a writer’s prose?

He also made me question my relationship with physical books.

Je lis des vieux livres parce que les pages tournées de nombreuses fois et marquées par les doigts ont plus de poids pour les yeux, parce que chaque exemplaire de livre peut appartenir à plusieurs vies. Les livres devraient rester sans surveillance dans les endroits publics pour se déplacer avec les passants qui les emporteraient un moment avec eux, puis ils devraient mourir comme eux, usés par les malheurs, contaminés, noyés en tombant d’un pont avec les suicidés, fourrés dans un poêle l’hiver, déchirés par les enfants pour en faire des petits bateaux, bref ils devraient mourir n’importe comment sauf d’ennui et de propriété privée, condamnés à vie à l’étagère. I read used books because pages turned many times and branded by fingers have more weight to the eyes, because each copy of a book can belong to several lives. Books should stay unattended in public places to move around with passersby who would take them for a while. And then they should die like people, used by tragedies, contaminated, drowned after falling off bridges with people who committed suicide, stuffed in a woodstove in winter, torn apart by children to make paper boats. In other words, books should die of anything but boredom and private property or condemned to serve a life sentence on a shelf.

Thought provoking, huh? Why do I keep all my books? Is it selfish to keep them on the shelf instead of giving them away? Most of them I will never read again anyway. Food for future thoughts.

Three Horses is a slim novel laced with the horrors of war, a man who still look for a way to live and thinks that literature is a wonderful crutch. Highly recommended.

PS: Update after first publication. I forgot to mention Caroline’s review of Three Horses. Her review made me buy it and you can see why here.

Book Club 2016-2017 : the list

June 18, 2016 43 comments

book_club_2Time flies as we all know it and our Book Club year is almost over. In July, we’ll read Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant and The Bookstore by Penelope Fitzgerald. We had to think about next year! So we met and decided upon our reading list for our Book Club from August 2016 to July 2017. I’m happy with our choices as they mix literary fiction, non-fiction and crime. We have picked books from different countries, even if there are five French books. We also have a good mix of periods, with books from the 19thC to nowadays. We’ll read books by writers we already know and like and some by writers new to us.

*drum roll* Here’s the list:

BookClub1

  • August: The Firemaker by Peter May. (1999) Crime fiction set in China. I’ve never read Peter May, I expect something entertaining with a good sense of place.
  • September: The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling (1888) A classic. Short and perfect for September when the children go back to school and we, parents are overbooked to have the new school year organised. I have this bilingual edition, English on the left page, French translation on the right page.
  • October: I Am a Cat by Natsume Sôseki. (1905) Japan at the beginning of the 20thC through the eyes of a cat. A classic I’ve been meaning to read for a while.

BookClub2

  • November: Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos is not available in English. The title means “the big cemeteries under the moon”. It is Bernanos’s take on the Spanish Civil War and it was published in 1938.  1936-2016, I’m glad to read it this year.
  • December: The Dark Room by R.K. Narayan. (1938) I have the English edition but I couldn’t resist showing you the cover of the French edition. I’ve read Swammi and Friends and liked it very much. I’m looking forward to visiting Narayan’s world again.
  • January: All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946) What happens when someone’s immortal?

BookClub3

  • February: The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier. (1858). A classic I’ve never read and I’m curious about it.
  • March: The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis. It will be published in English in February 2017. I’ve heard a lot about Edouard Louis, I’m intrigued and I hope I won’t find him as disappointing as Houellebecq.
  • April: “Oh…” by Philippe Djian (2012) It’s not available in English but you can watch the film version. It’s Elle, directed by Paul Verhoeven. Djian is a sure thing, most of the time and I remember that the critics were good when “Oh…” was published.

BookClub4

  • May: Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann. (2015) I’ve read This Side of Brightness and loved it.
  • June: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. (2005) I know it’s a beautiful text but I have to say I dread to read it for the emotional side of it.
  • July: Les putes voilées n’iront jamais au paradis by Chardortt Djavann. (2016). The author is French but was born in Iran. The title of her novel means The whores with a hijab will never end in paradise. Her book tells the story of two young girls in Iran and it is about the condition of women in this country.
  • Bonus: Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver (1989) Just because it almost made the list and there’s always time to read short stories.

What do you think about our new list? Have you read any of the books we picked? You’re welcome to read any of these books along with us.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

June 13, 2016 16 comments

The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (1972) French title : La mer couleur de vin.

c0515_sciasciaMER.inddI was preparing a trip to Sicily when Jacqui conveniently posted a review about The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia. Lucky me, it was available in French. It is a collection of short-stories all set in Sicily and written from 1957 to 1972. It doesn’t give you an exact idea of 2016 Sicily but it makes you understand where it comes from.

The stories are varied. You’ll see higgledy-piggledy: historical fiction with the feud between two villages, immigration to the USA, journeys on a train, Swiss recruiters on the prowl to import young Sicilian workers, stories about saints and churches, the ugly face of the mafia and their vendettas, a dip in the Sicilian male’s mind and eccentric British settled in Cefalù.

Sciascia has a great sense of humor, mocking his fellow countrymen but in such a gentle manner than you can feel his fondness for Sicily. He’s not trying to picture a postcard Sicily either. The mafia is present in several stories, a sprawling monster infiltrated in the society. Philology is the dialogue between two Mafiosi, one briefing the other before he testifies in court. And the rhetoric is ugly, almost as if it was a tribe of boy Scouts. Sciascia wrote a lot about the Mafia and corruption in the Sicilian society. The Mafia Museum in Salemi is dedicated to Leonardo Sciascia and it is made of several dark chambers where the visitor can discover the many activities in which the Mafia is involved and the support it received from several institutions, including the Catholic Church. There is also a long fresco made of newspapers articles: killing after killing and eventual trials. It was very educational and my children were shocked by what they saw. Well, there’s no gentle way to present such a criminal organization.

Sciascia’s stories also picture the culture of rural Sicily, the superstitions, the rivalry between villages and the landscapes. They remind us that Sicily is a land of emigration. People leave permanently to the USA or temporarily to Switzerland. The dream of New York and of the wealth of America is still strong. Exodus is part of the Sicilian life. Jobs are also in the North of Italy. Some stories show the interaction between Italians from the North and Sicilians.

Religion is a huge part of everyday life. The story Affaires de Saints (Demotion in English) is such a funny story about a Communist husband going to church to bring his wife back home. She’s protesting against the demotion of St Filomena. For French readers, this one reminds you of an episode of Don Camillo with its unexpected ending and the husband’s behaviour in the church.

Sciascia also explores the relationship between husbands and wives and courtship, now and in previous centuries. Un cas de conscience (in English, A Matter of Conscience) is among my favourites. A man reads a letter written to a newspaper by a woman who committed adultery and wants to know whether she should confess to her husband or not. Through the details of the affair, the man tries to decipher who wrote this letter and who is the unlucky husband. He asks around and it creates a lot of gossip as a group of men talk and sweat, each one not wanting to be the cuckold. Imagine serious men speculating about their respective wives’ fidelity. Hilarious.

I really enjoyed The Wine-Dark Sea for the diversity of the stories, Sciascia’s fantastic style and his deep love for his island. In that he reminded me of Joseph O’Connor and his collection of stories set in Dublin, True Believers. Both collections are highly recommended.

Sicily2

The Brotherhood of Mutilation by Brian Evenson

June 12, 2016 6 comments

The Brotherhood of Mutilation by Brian Evenson. (2006) French title: La confrérie des mutilés. Translated by Françoise Smith.

Evenson_confrérieI have a lot of billets to catch up with, so I’ll be very quick with The Brotherhood of Mutilation by Brian Evenson because I couldn’t finish it. It sounded promising, really. I wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. Kline is a PI who lost his hand in a mission that didn’t end well. He’s hired by a secret society to investigate a murder in their community. This brotherhood is only composed of mutilated men. The more mutilated you are, the higher you climb in the hierarchy. And brothers only have access to brothers who are on the same level of mutilation –which is in contradiction with the term of brother, according to me, but I’m not the writer here.

Since access to information requires a certain rank in the secret society, how far will Kline go to investigate this murder? Will he accept additional mutilations?

The blurb was soft and theoretical. The book is not. I cringed when I read how Kline lost his hand but I’ve read worse. However, I couldn’t stomach the brotherhood. I recoiled from the concept of mutilating yourself voluntarily. I couldn’t read more about these people who are in awe of men who cut toes or fingers to score points. I couldn’t read more discussions about whether cutting a toe counted as one mutilation point or if toes should be counted as a whole to get a point. I disliked mutilation parties to celebrate someone’s new mutilation.

Really, I couldn’t go further with this, despite Télérama’s glowing review. It’s too gore for me.

So, if anyone’s read this one till the end, I’m interested in their opinion on this er…unusual novel.

Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka

June 6, 2016 11 comments

Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka. (1912) Translated from the Hungarian by George F. Cushing French title: Couleurs et années.

What a peculiar menagerie this world is!

KaffkaMargitt Kakfa (1880-1918) was a Hungarian writer. She was born in the provincial town of Nagykároly, now Carei in Romania. She was a schoolteacher by trade but turned to writing. She belonged to the circle of writers who ran the literary journal Nyugat. She spent time in coffee-houses and wrote stories about the condition of women in the Hungary of her time. She died of the Spanish influenza in 1918.

I usually don’t read foreign books in English translation but when I saw Colours and Years in a bookstore in Budapest, I couldn’t resist. What, a Hungarian novel written in 1912 by a woman who was acquainted with the Nyugat writers? I had to read this.

Coulours and Years is a first person narrative. Magda is over 50 years old, she lives alone, her daughters are grown up and live in another city. Madga lives modestly and remembers of her youth, her life. She will tell us about her childhood, her marriages and all the tragedies of her life.

She was born in a family of provincial nobility, the kind of nobility you find in Jane Austen’s books. They live in the country, are attached to the family tree and their little privileges and rank. Money was always a problem. Her father died when she was young, her mother was inconsistent, a flirt more interested in men than in raising her children. Magda’s grand-mother was the one to keep the household together.

I gathered that Magda was 18 in 1878 or something like that. Like European women of her time and of her status, her choice of “career” was: find a husband, a rich one if possible and make babies. She went out in the local society, danced and met young men. She was genuinely in love with Endre Tabódy but he wasn’t a suitable match. We follow Madga during her life journey until this little peaceful house.

Along the way, we hear about the society she lives in and it looks like other provincial towns in other countries. It’s narrow-minded, there aren’t many opportunities and life choices for women are limited. We see everything through Magda’s eyes and she talks about other women around her. Her mother who bet on men until she met one she liked well enough. Her grand-mother who had the kind of temper to run the show and depend on herself only. Her aunt Marika in Pest, who lives a boring city life. Her aunt Piroska who married a farmer and embraced farm life, always busy with housework or farm work but never missing the basics. Women around her who help their husbands build their career by being the perfect society/trophy wife.

While the theme of the novel appeals to me, I struggled with Magda and Margit Kaffka’s style.

I though Magda was a bit silly, a bit lacking in the courage department. When in financial need, she never imagines she could work. She lets her in-laws steamroll her. She has aspirations for grandeur that she cannot afford. She’s certainly the product of her childhood but she lacks the capacity to put it aside and do differently. If she were a character in Romance of a Shop, she’d be Fanny. Now that she’s older, she reflects on her life and see how ill-prepared she was to face the hurdles of life. She didn’t manage to go past her education and her environment.

Magda rejoices that the times have changed and that her daughters have different prospects and more freedom to choose their life:

Now, from the distance of three decades, I once again see the destiny of my own daughters and keep comparing it with my own. The youngest is eighteen years old now, preparing for her diploma, struggling hard, giving lessons and begging funds for herself, poor little thing. Yet all the same she writes, and sometimes I feel that she may be right, that her life is a more honest life, and her youth a more honest youth. She is still on the threshold, she can wait, make plans, rejoice in the future she feels has been put in her own hands. I suspect she has some exchange of letters and affairs of love, but as yet she has no plans or intentions to follow up on them; she continues them just for the sweetness of little thrills, festivities and tears. We folk of old knew nothing like this…

Young Magda didn’t have the guts to live her life like her daughter does. She wouldn’t have wanted to scrape by for freedom, to work for her independence. She was too willing to put herself under the protection –and the power—of a man, father, husband or uncle. She has admiration for her daughter, whose destiny resembles Kaffka’s own life. However, she’s also wise enough not to have regrets because the decisions she made at the time she made them seemed the best ones:

The years ground me down and wore me away. But would I not have grown old just the same in a life of refinement and beauty, quiet and gentle calm, I wonder? I should be exactly where I am! At this stage, I no longer ponder on what went wrong. Perhaps everyone’s life develops according to their nature; or their essential being adapts to their circumstances. Now I cannot imagine myself with a different past and present from those that became part of me and made me what I am.

Kaffka’s style is made of long sentences and lots of descriptions. It was a bit difficult to read sometimes, especially at night after a day in the office. It took me a while to read it and I guess my reading was too fragmented to really embrace the flow of Kaffka’s voice. So, perhaps it’ll be better for a native English speaker. I suppose it would have been easier in French, except that the French edition is apparently not so good. A friend of mine bought it and found  the translation clumsy and there were typos.

To be honest, I was also a bit lost in the family tree. Magda sure had a lot of aunts and uncles. Kaffka shows the life in a provincial town, full of gossip and of family interactions. Kaffka put in a lot of thoughts about women, marriage and life in general. She pictures the changes in this town at the turn of the 20th century and she based her novel on autobiographical elements. Like Krúdy, she gives life to the region of her childhood and left us a testimony of life in pre-WWI Hungary.

A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq

June 4, 2016 30 comments

A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq (1945) Original French title : Un beau ténébreux. English translation by Christopher Moncreiff.

gracq_beau_ténébreuxA Dark Stranger is set during the summer 19.. in Kérantec, a fictional seaside resort in Britanny. A group of idle young people are staying at the hotel Les Vagues. They go to the beach, swim, walk, play tennis, chess and read. The novel is mostly a diary written by Gérard who has an unconventional point of view. He spends time with this group but he doesn’t really belong with them. He has firsthand material to retell what’s going on and still has the outsider’s point of view.

The group is classically composed of Jacques, a happy-go-lucky man. He’s uncomplicated, loves sports and is a bit in awe with Christel. She’s the queen bee that all men gravitate around. Even Gérard is intrigued by her. There’s a married couple, Irène and Henri. They are the go-between to organize outings. Bored, Gérard is about to leave when Grégory, another member of the gang, announces that one of his childhood friend is about to arrive. Curiosity pushes Gérard to stay and meet with Allan and Dolorès, the new couple in the hotel.

Allan rapidly becomes the center of attention. He’s the dark stranger of the title. He seems to have it all, athletic, cultured, attractive. And yet, Gérard lets us understand that something is off in Allan’s behaviour.

That’s where I stopped to read. I was page 99 out of 255 and I couldn’t stand to read one more page of this. I took a lot of irritated notes while reading. How the group sounded a bit like a teen movie with the popular and the others. How it seemed a poor remembrance of Balbec with the tortured narrator trying to get in the pants of the pretty and elusive girl. How the picnic on the ruins in the Brittany countryside reminded me of the epic picnic in Emma by Jane Austen only without the wit. I wasn’t interested in this group at all.

See the teen movie vibe:

En quelques jours Allan était devenu le dieu de la bande “straight”. Within a few days, Allan had become the new god of the in crowd.

Gracq_pushkinStraight is the name of the group of young people staying at the hotel and led by Jacques. Until Allan’s arrival, that is. The name is mentioned right at the beginning of the novel and I kept wondering what it meant in the pre-AIDS & Gay Pride era when us French started to learn about the other meaning of straight. The mystery was solved later. Christopher Moncreiff, the latest English translator of A Dark Stranger, chose to translate it as “in crowd”, which comforts my impression of high school drama.

In the end, what made the book unbearable to me was the style. It’s bombastic, full of complicated words for no reason at all. I noted that I was page 21 and he had already called upon the manes of Poe, Balzac and Rimbaud. The pages seemed crowded, all of a sudden. I don’t like this kind of name dropping. I’m under the impression that the author is not sure enough of his craft, that he needs offerings to the literary gods for their genius to coat his literature with a rain of glitter.

Then, there is the extensive use of words in italic and piece of sentences starting with “–“. It hurts the eye. I found myself scanning the page before reading to check how many of them there were. If it wasn’t obvious to the writer, what was the publisher thinking? Isn’t it part of their job to edit books to avoid things like this? Page 96, there are NINE “–“ and THREE words in italic. Again, it leaves me with the feeling of a writer unsure of himself. A writer doesn’t need to emphasize words like this all the time. Either it’s the right word and no italic is needed or he ought to pick another word. And Gracq could have done it, his vocabulary is as wide as a dictionary.

Granted, Graq’s descriptions of Britanny are marvelous and poetic. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the rest. There are the oneiric parts, the walks and picnic at night that didn’t appeal to me at all. It reminded me of Le grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier, a book I really don’t like despite its literary merits.

Gracq wrote this during WWII and he was a war prisoner in Silesia. I suppose that he wanted to write something as far as his quotidian as possible. After all, Romain Gary wrote Education Europénne, set in the heart of the cold Polish winter when he was roasting in the Middle East. He needed the idea of the snow to escape his reality.

Of course, since I didn’t finish the book, I can’t give a fully informed opinion about the plot. Someone’s going to die, that’s for sure, we know it from the preamble. To read a better informed and more enthusiastic review, see here.

To make a long story short, it’s probably a great piece of literature but it’s not my cup of tea at all. Sometimes it’s a question of a bad timing. Here, the book is just not for me.

I’m dying to hear about someone else’s opinion on this one. So don’t hesitate to comment.

%d bloggers like this: