Archive

Archive for December, 2016

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston

December 29, 2016 17 comments

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston (1981) French title: Un Noël blanc. Translated by Arlette Stroumza

Winter 1980. Constance Keating is 45 and dying. After hearing about her cancer, she left her flat and her job in London to come back to her childhood home in Dublin. Her parents are dead and she and her sister Bibi had decided to sell the house but now it will be Constance’s last home. It’s almost Christmas and Constance wants a Christmas tree to recreate the atmosphere of happier times.

I was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house. The fresh smell of pine needles in the winter room; the excitement of unwrapping the sparkling glass ornaments from the tissue paper in which they had been so carefully packed eleven months before; the warm waxy smell as the tin corkscrew candles flicker for the first time in their scalloped holders. Those early days of the tree were almost better than Christmas itself, which never came up to anyone’s expectations. I must pull myself together and get a tree, something manageable, something I can cope with on my own, something that will cause no anxiety to Bibi. The latter, of course, may not be possible. I will use electric lights, not candles. I will assure her of that.

Yes, I must get a tree.

Re-creation.

All that is left

noel_blancConstance comes from a bourgeois family from Dublin. Her parents were a socialite couple, living separate lives but staying together. Constance doesn’t know if they loved each other or only tolerated each other. But in Ireland at the time, did they have another choice than staying married? Bibi followed their parents’ footsteps. She married well, popped four children and lives the bourgeois life, with all the narrow-mindedness you can imagine.

Constance has always been a free spirit. She refused to make the comfortable choice and marry Bill, who became a doctor. She decided to leave her Irish life behind and start fresh in London. She wanted to become a writer. It didn’t turn as well as she hoped but she stayed in London, took a job and never married. She remained faithful to her lust from freedom. Then she decided to have a baby and had a holiday fling to get pregnant. Her lover was Jacob Weinberg, a Jew from Poland who emigrated to Great Britain after WWII. Even her choice of lover is unconventional.

Her little girl is now nine months old and going to lose her mother. Constance writes to Jacob, to tell him about his daughter, about her upcoming death and asks him to come and get his daughter. Will the letter reach him on time? Will he come?

Constance and Bibi obviously don’t see life through the same lenses. Bibi does her duty to Constance. She takes care of her little girl, makes sure that she’s fed and well but it’s cold as a duty. She doesn’t understand Constance at all, why she doesn’t want to stay in a hospital and do treatments to prolong her life. But Constance doesn’t want to go through unnecessary painful treatments. She wants to let cancer run its course and die at home.

Bill, her former beau, comes regularly as a doctor and as a friend and accepted her decision. He would have liked for her to go to the hospital but he respects her decision. Bibi doesn’t let go and it might not be out of love. It is hard to figure out her feelings and her opinion. On the one hand, she’s upset that Constance doesn’t follow the rules and because she can’t pass on the problem to the doctors and nurses. It’s convenient. On the other hand, she refuses to acknowledge the truth: Constance is dying. Is it because losing her sister after losing her parents is too much to bear? Or is it only some obnoxious stubbornness to accept the evidence? She keeps telling Constance that she’ll get better.

We follow Constance’s last weeks in her parents’ home, a house that brings back childhood memories. She also feels the urge to write again. We learn more about her, her life and her family. Constance is a strong independent woman who chose to go against conventions to remain true to herself. She’s not one to compromise and let age and society eat at her resolve. She chose to have a child by herself, a scandal for her family. She even chose an improper lover to father her child, a Jew, a foreigner.

Constance never connected with her family. Bibi and Constance’s mindsets are too different. Their mother never understood why she left for London. Perhaps it questioned too much her own reasons to stay in an unsatisfactory marriage. And their father did his best to escape from family life, from spending time with the three females of his life. Would he have been different if he had had a son? Constance wonders.

I liked Constance for her courage. She remained true to herself, resisted peer pressure even if it came with costs. She had to emigrate, she was estranged from her family. She went against people’s expectations and lived with her decisions. It’s the mark of a true free spirit. To hell with propriety even if it can be selfish sometimes. She never wonders if her conduct exposed her mother and sister to gossip or if Bill was heartbroken when she left.

It should be a sad novel but it’s not. It has the musicality of a piano piece in Minor. I’ve read it in French, so I don’t have any other quote to share. The translation is smooth and it reflects Johnston’s prose. It’s like one of those films with flash backs in black and white family films showing a character’s past. We see vignettes of Constance as a girl, as a young woman and as Jacob’s lover. The narrative alternates between present and past, between first person narration and an omniscient narrator. It reflects Constance’s mind. She drifts to sleep. She medicates herself with alcohol and painkillers. She’s weak and the switch of point of views, the back and forth between the present and the past wonderfully create the illusion that we are with Constance, in her mind, in her room and in the last days of her life.

Highly recommended.

Joyeux Noël and 13 à table, a collection of short stories

December 25, 2016 18 comments

jooyeux_noel_tousI wish you all a Merry Christmas. For readers who celebrate this holiday, I hope you’re somewhere safe and surrounded by friends and family. For readers who don’t have Christmas as a tradition, I send you my best wishes for this day anyway. In the media and in shopping malls, Christmas has turned into a giant consuming fest. On a more private level, I think it’s still a moment of year to be with family and friends. It remains linked to childhood and, I hope, it relates to happy and innocent times.

I’m not religious but Christmas is also a time to be generous and open to others. In France, we have a charity named Les Restos du Coeur. It was founded in 1985 by an artist, Coluche. He wanted to do something to feed the poor and decided on opening restaurants. Today it distributes 132.5 million meals and started a lot of different actions to help people in need. From the start, this charity has been supported by artists, especially by singers and actors who organize a huge concert every winter. For a few years now, writers have donated short stories to put together an annual collection whose profit goes to Les Restos du Coeur. I have the 2016 edition and in the foreword, it says that in 2014, 1.4 million of meals were distributed thanks to this book. And since each book brings in four free meals, I let you do the math and imagine how many books were sold.

13_tableThe collections are named 13 à table, which means 13 people around the table. Actually, twelve writers participate. I guess the thirteenth shadow participant is the reader or the beneficiay of the meals. In the 2016 collection, the common theme was siblings. The writers are Françoise Bourdin, Michel Bussi, Maxime Chattam, Stéphane De Groodt, François d’Epenoux, Karine Giebel, Douglas Kennedy, Alexandra Lapierre, Agnès Ledig, Nadine Monfils, Romain Puértolas and Bernard Werber. Most of them I’d never read. All are francophone writers except for Douglas Kennedy. He’s American and he’s more successful here than in his own country, it makes sense to find him here.

These stories explore relationships between siblings or the feelings about only children. Love, jealousy, longing for brothers or sisters and complicity. They show the power of this unique link between people who share the same parents.

The best short stories in the collection were the ones by Michel Bussi and Maxime Chattam. Both of them are dark and I can’t tell much about them without spoiling them. These are two crime fiction writers and both stories reach a certain level of perversity.

Françoise Bourdin tells a story about two very different brothers, one wealthy and bourgeois, the other more rebel and bohemian. Both are middle-aged. They see each other regularly and the bourgeois one tends to think his brother is a bit of a mooch…until he sees he helps him out too, just not on a financial level.

In Aleyna, Karine Giebel chose to explore the implacable law imposed to sisters by older brothers into some cultures. Here it is the Turkish community and the need for a girl to be pure and ready for imposed marriages. According to the UN, 5000 women die each year in the name of honor.

Douglas Kennedy wrote a story about a man who confide in his aunt only to get slapped in the face when he realizes he played right into the unknown and unhealthy relationship his aunt has with her brother, this man’s father.

I don’t know how I missed Nadine Monfils as a writer. She’s Belgian and has already 60 novels under her belt, most of them crime fiction. Her story La robe bleue is a bit Noir but not on the crime side.

It was a very enjoyable collection to read. On this day of grande bouffe et petits cadeaux (big meals and small gifts) as Renaud sings sarcastically in his song Hexagone, I thought it was the right time to pause for a moment and remember that not everyone spends a cozy Christmas day with a full belly.

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

December 23, 2016 14 comments

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (2007) French title: Sous la glace.

I know everybody’s doing end-of-year posts and all but I’m not quite ready to let 2016 go yet. 2017 is still one week away! So, I’m writing another billet.

penny_fatal_graceLast year I read Still Life by Louise Penny and enjoyed it so much that I bought the second instalment in her Armand Gamache series, A Fatal Grace. Armand Gamache is the head of the investigation department in the Sûreté du Québec. As in Still Life, A Fatal Grace is set in the fictional village of Three Pines. It’s located in Québec, in the Eastern Townships, the part of Québec between Montreal and the American Border.

The villagers are preparing Christmas in quaint Three Pines and the festivities include a traditional curling tournament on a frozen lake. A newcomer to Three Pines named CC de Poitiers is murdered during this tournament, electrocuted on the lake. CC de Poitiers had managed to alienate the village against her, her spineless husband and her neglected and unhappy daughter. CC neglects her daughter and openly treats her bad. She has a lover, Saul, that she brought around Three Pines for the holidays. She just wrote a self-help book and is convinced she will be famous and successful. She doesn’t hesitate to trample on everyone who’s on her way to success. But nobody ever thought she could be murdered, especially in these circumstances.

No. It was almost impossible to electrocute someone these days, unless you were the governor of Texas. To do it on a frozen lake, in front of dozens of witnesses, was lunacy. Someone had been insane enough to try. Someone had been brilliant enough to succeed.

Armand Gamache comes from Montreal to solve the case. He’s accompanied by his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Gamache is rather happy to visit Three Pines and reacquaint himself with Clara and her husband Peter or Gabriel and Olivier, the gay couple who operate the B&B.

It is a classic whodunit but the setting does everything. It’s Christmas time and the descriptions of Québec at this time of year make you want to hop on the next flight and see it by yourself.

Everyone looked alike in the Quebec winter. Like colorful marshmallows. It was hard to even distinguish men from women. Faces, hair, hands, feet, bodies, all covered against the cold.

Armand Gamache is an engaging character, a middle-aged chief inspector who’s been married to his wife for a few decades.

They’d both swelled since they’d first met. There was no way either would get into their wedding clothes. But they’d grown in other ways as well, and Gamache figured it was a good deal. If life meant growth in all directions, it was fine with him.

Thankfully for him, his private life is stable and he’s good at solving crimes. However, he made himself enemies in the Sûreté du Québec in a previous case. These bigwigs are still after him and not against using inside intelligence and underhanded methods to undermine his reputation. This plot thread started in Still Life, goes on in Fatal Grace and is not solved. This is something Louise Penny shares with Anne Perry: a brilliant and humane investigator in a stable relationship but not always in the good graces of his hierarchy. Gamache is one of these intuitive investigators that make the salt of this brand of crime fiction.

Gamache was the best of them, the smartest and bravest and strongest because he was willing to go into his own head alone, and open all the doors there, and enter all the dark rooms. And make friends with what he found there. And he went into the dark, hidden rooms in the minds of others. The minds of killers. And he faced down whatever monsters came at him. He went to places Beauvoir had never even dreamed existed.

Louise Penny writes in English but her prose reflects the geography of her novels and a lot of French words are laced in her English prose. And for a French speaking reader with English as a second language like me, it’s a delight. You find expressions like a one-vache village (in full English, a one-cow village) or sentences like I don’t mind tea,’ Clara raised her mug to them, ‘even tisane. (tisane means herbal tea) or they drove over the Champlain bridge and onto the autoroute (autoroute means motorway) I don’t know how Anglophone-only readers deal with this but for me, it’s a pleasure and it reflects how closely interlaced the two worlds and the two languages are in this part of Québec. But some habits are definitely French:

Gamache held the chair for Em and looked after the young man going to the cappuccino machine to make their bowls of café au lait.

They’re drinking café au lait in bowls. Typically French and French Canadian, apparently. Last Christmas, we had an Australian student at home. She was glad to see that, as she had learnt in French class back in Perth, we really do drink coffee and tea in bowls in France!

A Fatal Grace is a good read for a winter afternoon around Christmas and I’ll continue with the series.

145_surete_quebec

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki

December 18, 2016 20 comments

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki (1905) French title: Je suis un chat. Translated by Jean Cholley.

Disclaimer: I read I Am a Cat in French and will use the French transcription of Japanese names. It may be different from the one in English translation. I translated the quotes from the French and let the original French for readers who can read it and enjoy the professional translation from the Japanese.

L’étude des humains ne peut progresser si on ne choisit pas un moment où ils ont des ennuis. A l’ordinaire, les hommes sont justes des hommes : ils présentent un spectacle banal et sans intérêt. Mais quand ils ont des ennuis, toute cette banalité fermente et se soulève par la grâce de quelque fonction mystérieuse, et on voit alors se produire soudainement un peu partout des événements étranges, bizarres, insolites, inimaginables, en un mot des choses qui sont d’un grand intérêt pour nous, les chats. The study of human nature cannot progress if one doesn’t choose moments where men are in trouble. Usually, men are just men. They play a trite and uninteresting show. But when they’re in trouble, all this triteness ferments and lifts itself by some sort of mysterious feature. One can suddenly witness all kinds of strange, bizarre and unbelievable things. And these things are of great interest for us, cats.

soseki_chatNatsume Sōseki (1867-1916) is a Japanese writer. He spent three years in England, spoke English very well and had a good knowledge of British literature. He was a teacher of English literature in Tokyo. He lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). At the time, Japan stopped being an isolated country and opened to the world. It resulted in a lot of changes in politics, in economy, in mores and touched the whole society. It was a major change and it is important to have it in mind while reading Natsume Sōseki.

In I Am a Cat, the narrator is an unnamed feline and it is a first-person narration. This device reminded me of Lettres persanes by Montesquieu who used Persans characters to question the French society. They wrote letters to each other and could wonder at customs, point out ridicules and inconsistences without being offensive. They had the right to be puzzled, they were foreigners. The same thing happens here with the cat. He portrays his master and his family and friends and relates the life in this house in a neighborhood in Tokyo. Natsume Sōseki gives a vivid description of a cat’s mind. Our furry narrator explains how he shows affection to his master to be fed and how he enjoys walks in the garden, naps in the sun. He relates the sensitive politics between the cat population of the quartier. There’s a hilarious passage where he retells his first attempt at catching mice. As a reader, you really feel like you’re looking at life through cat’s eyes. He has a smart mouth and doesn’t refrain from using it to mock humans like here:

Un miroir est un alambic à vanité et en même temps un stérilisateur d’orgueil. Aucun objet n’excite plus un imbécile qui se tient devant lui avec la tête pleine de suffisance. Les deux bons tiers des malheurs qui restent dans l’histoire, malheurs soufferts par des orgueilleux qui se sont trop vite crus supérieurs, et malheurs infligés à leurs victimes, sont dus aux miroirs. A mirror is a vanity still and at the same time a pride sterilizer. No other object gets an imbecile as worked up just by standing in front of it, their head full of self-importance. A solid two-thirds of the tragedies that remained in history are due to mirrors, both the tragedies suffered by proud people who thought themselves as superior and the tragedies inflicted to their victims.

There are a lot of other examples. In addition to ironic thoughts about humans, the cat-narrator tends to think out of the box, as you can see here:

On peut croire qu’il y a une grande différence entre tomber et descendre mais elle n’est pas aussi importante qu’on le pense. Descendre, c’est ralentir une chute, et tomber, c’est accélérer une descente, voilà tout. One may think there is a big difference between falling and going down but it’s not as obvious as one thinks. Going down is slowing down a fall and falling down is accelerating a go down, that’s all.

That was for the atmosphere. Time to describe a bit more the household that took on this kitten.

Our little friend lives in Professor Kushami’s house. He’s married and has three daughters, all under 10 years old. His house is where his friends Meitei and Kagetsu gather. They talk about all and nothing. According to the cat, Kushami is rather ridiculous. He’s not a very good husband and he doesn’t care much about his daughters. He’s surrounded with books and seems to be barely average as a teacher. I Am a Cat is a comedy of manners, it could be a theatre play because everything is centered in the house. Kushami probably shares traits with Natsume Sōseki. Like Kushami, he was an English teacher and had chronic stomach aches—he died of stomach ulcer. It is true that there are a lot of laughable things about Kushami. But he’s also someone who doesn’t gamble, cheat on his wife or bends to the will of others. He’s not interested in money and would rather cling to his principles and his dignity than give in to powerful and wealthy neighbors. I loved reading about the decoration of the house, the display of the rooms, the kitchen, the dishes, politeness and all kinds of details about life in Japan at the time. My edition included useful but noninvasive footnotes.

Kushami’s woes with his wife, neighbors or friends are described in such a funny tone that I laughed a lot. Marriage is a target in I Am a Cat. The author and Kushami are not too fond of the institution which is more a necessary burden than a love match. And our cat observes:

Ce couple a abandonné le caractère fastidieux des bonnes manières avant sa première année de mariage ; c’est un couple super-marié. This couple has abandoned all fussy good manners before their first year of marriage ended. They’re a super-married couple.

Not exactly a glowing advertising for the institution. Natsume Sōseki uses comedy to amuse the reader but he still reflects on human nature. The cat-narrator compares humans and cats.

Le monde est plein de gens qui agissent mal tout en se croyant dans leur bon droit. Ils sont convaincus de leur innocence, ce qui part d’une candeur plaisante mais la candeur n’a jamais supprimé une réalité gênante. The world is full of people who behave badly while believing they’re in their good right. They are convinced of their innocence, which stems from a pleasant candidness but candidness has never made an embarrassing reality vanish.

Natsume Sōseki was born with the Meiji era and he observes the transformations of the Japanese society. I Am a Cat includes lots of thoughts about the rapid changes in the society. It impacts every area of life: relationships between men and women become less formal, Western ways of doing business become the norm. New hobbies appear. I knew that baseball was a popular sport in Japan and I thought it dated back to WWII and the occupation of Japan by American troops. Actually, Japanese people started to play baseball during the Meiji era. All things Western were fashionable and the prerequisite was “West is the best” and this bothered Natsume Sōseki. Even if he’s open to Western culture, he criticizes the blind acceptance of Western ways.

La civilisation occidentale est peut-être progressive, agressive, mais en fin de compte, c’est une civilisation faite par des gens qui passent leur vie dans l’insatisfaction. La civilisation japonaise ne cherche pas la satisfaction en changeant autre chose que l’homme lui-même. Là où elle diffère profondément de l’occidentale, c’est en ce qu’elle s’est développée sur la grande assertion qu’il ne faut pas changer fondamentalement les conditions de l’environnement. Si les relations entre parents et enfants ne sont pas les meilleures, notre civilisation ne tente pas de retrouver l’harmonie en changeant ces relations, comme le font les Européens. Elle tient que ces relations ne peuvent pas être altérées, et elle recherche un moyen pour restaurer la sérénité à l’intérieur de ces relations. Il en va de même entre mari et femme, maître et serviteur, guerrier et marchand, et également dans la nature. Si une montagne empêche d’aller dans le pays voisin, au lieu de raser cette montagne, on s’arrange pour ne pas avoir à aller dans ce pays. On cultive un sentiment qui puisse donner satisfaction de ne pas franchir la montagne. Et c’est pourquoi les adeptes du zen et du confucianisme sont certainement ceux qui comprennent le mieux cette question dans le fond. On peut être tout-puissant sans que le monde tourne comme on veut, on ne peut ni empêcher le soleil de se coucher, ni renverser le cours de la rivière Kamo. On n’a de pouvoir que sur son esprit. Western civilization may be progressive and aggressive but in the end, it’s a civilization built by people who spend their life dissatisfied. Japanese civilization does not seek satisfaction other than by changing men themselves. The biggest difference with the Western civilization is that the Japanese civilization grew on the assertion that the environment cannot be changed. If the relationships between parents and children are not ideal, our civilization does not look for harmony in changing the relationships like Europeans do. It considers that these relationships cannot be altered and it searches for a way to restore serenity inside these relations. It is the same for relations between men and women, master and servant, warrior and merchant and even in nature. If a mountain prevents you from walking to the neighboring country, the Japanese will arrange not to have to go to this country. They will cultivate a state of mind that finds satisfaction in not getting over the mountain. This is why the adepts of Zen and Confucianism are probably the ones who understand this matter the best. One can be the most powerful person on Earth but the world still won’t bend to their wishes. One cannot prevent the sun from setting, change the course of the River Kamo. One has only power over their own mind.

This quote is fascinating when you think it dates back to 1905. Not all the flaws of our Western civilization come from the landslide of consumer society. The roots were there before mass consumption and globalization. The part about the mountain reminded me of our visit to Bluff, Utah. The Mormons who founded this community used dynamite to carve their way through the mountain and arrive there. It’s called the Hole in the Rock trail. It baffled Native Americans that humans could destroy nature like this. It would have baffled their Japanese contemporaries as well.

I Am a Cat is an excellent read because it is multilayered. It’s funny, with an unusual narrator and under the lightness, there’s a real purpose to decipher a rapidly changing society. I Am a Cat is the perfect example of why we should read translations. I know that the Japanese language is far from the French and a lot of wordplays were probably lost in translation. But I don’t mind. It’s good enough in French and style is not everything. I Am a Cat allowed me to learn about Japan and its culture. Reading familiar things about human nature reminds us that whatever the culture we have things in common.

Highly recommended.

Natsume Sōseki died on December 9th, 1916. It is a coincidence but this billet will be my way to celebrate the centenary of his death. Jacqui recently reviewed The Gate. The atmosphere seems different, more melancholic. Her excellent review is here. Many thanks to Tony who recommended this in the first place.

PS: A word for French readers. I have the paper edition of Je suis un chat and it’s printed in a very small font. It’s available in e-book so I would recommend that version.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

December 17, 2016 19 comments

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. (1895) French title: L’Importance d’être constant.

Before visiting the Paris exhibit about Wilde and after reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I turned to The Importance of Being Earnest, another landmark in Wilde’s field of masterpieces. I loved this play and I wish I could see a stage version.

wilde_importanceI guess that a lot of readers know the story. Jack Worthing is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax. Her cousin is Algernon Moncrieff, who’s also Jack’s good friend. Jack created himself an alias for when he’s in town. When he’s in the country, he’s Jack, the serious guardian of Cecily Cardew. When he’s in town, he’s reckless Ernest who’s in love with Gwendolen. Algernon and Gwendolen both know him as Ernest. For his countryside family and friend, Ernest is Jack’s daredevil brother. Jack explains all this to Algernon who was about to get in the way of his marrying Gwendolen because he saw that Ernest’s cigarette case bore the inscription “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.”

Jack decides it’s time to kill fictional Ernest and goes to his country home. At the same time, Algernon is intrigued by Cecily and rushes to Jack’s country home to meet her and arrives before Jack. He worms himself into Jack’s house and Cecily’s heart under the pretense of being…Ernest.

The rest is a series of hilarious qui proquos mixed with witty lines while sending catty remarks to the London literary milieu and joyfully trampling over an institution, marriage. This is a gem of a play that thrives on irony and good words. It has this kind of biting humour I enjoy. It’s everywhere, even in the names of the characters: Jack chooses to call himself Ernest where he definitely does not behave earnestly. Algernon is actually Swinburne’s first name, something I would have never noticed without attending the exhibition. For me Algernon is a weird name that reminds me of Molière’s characters. (Like Argan or Arnolphe)

In appearance, the plot doesn’t lead into mentioning Victorian literature, literary critics or censorship. And yet Wilde manages to throw piques here and there in the dialogues. Here we have a clear reference to Victorian triple Deckers…

I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.

Miss Prism. Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.

…and remember how Trollope and Wilde were on the same painting A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith? The plot itself with the revelation of one of the character’s identity through a mind-blowing series of coincidences reminded me of sensation novels or of early Thomas Hardy’s novels. After this little pat at successful novels, Wilde just dismisses their literary value around the corner of an offhand sentence:

Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

And after implying that people aren’t reading the good stuff because these books are not listed on the approved TBR recommendations, he throws a last punch to the literary milieu with this statement on literary criticism:

Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.

I bet these lines have made teeth grind. Then he’s playing darts with his words and targets another institution, marriage. It is shown as a nasty affair that has nothing to do with love. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell explains:

To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.

Jack’s intention to propose to Gwendolen doesn’t make Algernon gush. Congratulations are not the first thing that comes to his mind and his vision of marriage doesn’t rhyme with bliss:

I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.

He goes even farther when he talks about what we’d call today public display of affection. (Well, at least in English, there’s no French expression for that.)

That sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.

For Algernon, love and marriage don’t go together like a horse and carriage. Well, until Cecily comes along. Women are a bit foolish in Wilde’s play. Gwendolen and Cecily are both enamoured with the idea of loving someone named Ernest. This name is conductive to their love. Why Ernest? Apart from the wordplay with earnest, is there anything else behind the name?

I loved The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s so good it seemed like a giant quote from a fictional French playwright who’d be a fusion between Molière, Marivaux and Musset. Molière for the comedy, the humour and the criticism of society’s flaws and Marivaux and Musset for the tricks on identities and the play with sentiments. The tone of the play and the plot itself bring me back to French theatre but with sentences like I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them, don’t you feel like you’ve crossed the Channel?

A word about the French translation. I’ve read this in English but I’ve checked the French editions. The one in the Cahiers Rouges collection by Grasset sounds good. Ernest becomes Constant, which is the French translation of earnest. The wordplay is maintained in French, which is not always that easy to do. For readers who are either French and practising their English or English-speaking natives who want to practice their French, Flamarion has a bi-language edition of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Last but not least, I can’t resist sharing this last quote with you.

I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.

Some politicians have taken the matter in their own hands and put the fools out of the shelves to liberate us from all this annoying cleverness. Please guys, don’t bother on our account, we rather liked the intelligent ones.

The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde

December 13, 2016 13 comments

The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde (1888)

Before visiting the Oscar Wilde exhibition in Paris I killed two birds in one stone by reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales. I was immersing myself in a side of Wilde’s work I’d never read and I was progressing on my #TBR20 project. It is a collection of short stories composed of

  • The Happy Prince
  • The Nightingale and the Rose
  • The Selfish Giant
  • The Devoted Friend
  • The Remarkable Rocket

wilde_happy_princeThe Happy Prince is my favourite story. The Happy Prince is a statue of someone who was known for his sunny character. The statue is richly decorated and make the mayor and his clique very proud. Arrives a Swallow who’s stayed behind in Europe instead of flying to Egypt with his friends and family. He was in love with a Reed and was reluctant to leave her. The Happy Prince is no longer happy. He’s very sad because he realised that he had spent a happy life only because he was sheltered in his castle and had no idea of the poverty and misfortunes of common people outside his castle. He now feels terrible and convinces the Swallow to stay and help him right his wrongs.

The Nightingale and the Rose is the story of a Nightingale who sacrifices her life to make a red rose bloom so that a Student desperately in love can conquer the girl he fancies.

The Selfish Giant tells the story of a Giant who closed his garden to the neighbouring children who used it as a playground and as soon as he bans them from their paradise, Winter and his friends take possession of the place.

The Snow covered up the grass with her great white cloak, and the Frost painted all the trees silver. Then they invited the North Wind to stay with them, and he came.

The Devoted Friend is about selfish Hans and his so-called definition of friendship that makes him shamelessly take and take from his friend without never giving anything back in return.

The Remarkable Rocket is the story of a delusional and snooty rocket. He’s part of a fireworks team and he thinks he’s the most beautiful and impressive of the lot until he screws things up. But he’s so full of himself …

“I am not going to stop talking to him merely because he pays no attention. I like hearing myself talk.  It is one of my greatest pleasures. I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

…that he never realises that people around him see him differently.

I really enjoyed these stories and this is a side of Wilde I didn’t know. There’s an immediate and simple story suitable for children and underlying meanings and comments for adults.

“Shall I love you?” said the Swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the Reed made him a low bow. So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples. This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer. “It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other Swallows; “she has no money, and far too many relations”; and indeed the river was quite full of Reeds. Then, when the autumn came they all flew away.

Isn’t it both poetic and ironic? Since a lot of animals are involved in these tales, a lot of personifications happen. And my native language, French, has genders for everything. And in case of personification, I tend to imagine the animal or the object according to its grammatical gender, even when I’m reading in English. So, for me a Reed or a Nightingale is a He, not a She. A Swallow or Hail is a She, not a He. It is strange the first time I hear about a reed referred to as a she and then I get used to it. If you’re a reader fluent in several languages, does it happen to you too?

I had a great time reading these tales. I didn’t know what to expect but I thought that Wilde showed a gentle caring soul in these tales. In the exhibition about him in Paris, they said he used to read stories to his children when he was there.

After this I started The Importance of Being Earnest.

Literary escapade: Born to be Wilde

December 10, 2016 30 comments

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. (Oscar Wilde)

It totally agree with that. In Paris, there’s currently an exhibition about Oscar Wilde’s life and work. It is at the Petit Palais, a beautiful building near the Champs Elysées. The Petit Palais was built for the 1900 World Fair and incidentally, 1900 is also the year Wilde died in Paris. The title of this exhibition is Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu. (Oscar Wilde, the ultimate impertinent). It is the first time such an exhibition is organized in Paris and it is well worth visiting.

dsc_3489

It explains very well Wilde’s education and role models, his taste for art, his admiration for Ruskin and his work as an art critic. A room is dedicated to the conferences he did in America. It is on the occasion of this tour that he said his famous phrase:

We have really everything in common in America nowadays, except, of course, language.

He was like a rock star and had his picture taken like a supermodel by the famous photographer Napoleon Sarony. You needed someone named Napoleon Sarony to immortalize the emperor of irony. For the anecdote: these pictures were so famous that they were used without Sarony’s authorization by various publicists. Sarony went to court and his case reached the Supreme Court who judged that photographs should be included in the scope of the copyright law. (1884)

The exhibition describes Wilde as an intellectual well introduced in London’s high society.

frith_a_private_view

This is A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith. (1881) The painter is on the painting with Trollope, Gladstone, Browning, Millais and Wilde. Can you see him on the centre-right, near the lady with the pink dress? Wilde was also well introduced into the Parisian beau monde. But the exhibition does not focus to much on his life as a dandy. His affairs with men are mentioned but so is his marriage to Constance Llyod. Wilde as a husband and a father are displayed. Unfortunately, after Constance’s death, her family destroyed all the letters Oscar Wilde had written to her, so we’re missing out information on their relationship.

His personal life takes a good place in the exhibition but his work is celebrated as well, especially The Happy Prince and Other Tales, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salomé. It was interesting to read about the reception of these works when they were published, see excerpts of their film version or discover the illustrations of the first editions. (*)

Of course, his trial and subsequent conviction to two years’ hard labour took a significant place. I was surprised to read that Wilde was condemned in 1895 for gross indecency and that it was based on a law that was only voted in 1885. I always assumed it was a very old law that had been unearthed for the occasion. I’m shocked to read such a law was passed so late in the 19thC. That’s the Victorian Era for you, I suppose. No wonder that French prostitutes saw so many British customers that some had calling cards in English.

His detention was very hard, at least at the beginning at the Newgate Prison in London. He did hard labour, was not allowed to read anything but the Bible and it was forbidden to talk to fellow prisoners. Eventually, he was transferred to the Reading Gaol, near London. Isn’t that ironic to put a writer in a prison named Reading Gaol? The absolute silence imposed in the Victorian prisons must have been a personal form of torture to the brilliant conversationalist that Wilde was.

This section of the exhibition ends with a videoed interview of Robert Badinter. He’s a famous French attorney and he was the minister of Justice in 1981. He fought for the abolition of death penalty in France in 1981 and he remains well-known for that. 1981 is also the year the French Parliament voted that homosexuality was no longer a crime.

In this interview, Badinter explains that he studied closely the Wilde trial for a series of conference about law and Justice. He used this example and the one of all the women burnt for sorcery to demonstrate that Justice is relative. It depends on the time and place. Wilde was condemned to two years’ hard work for something that is no longer a crime. According to Badinter, since Justice is relative, it mustn’t pronounce death sentences. The State doesn’t have the right to take the life of people for crimes that might not be crimes in the future or somewhere else. Thought provoking, isn’t it?

This fantastic exhibition ended with a video of Wilde’s grand-son. He speaks French very well and had kind words to say about his grand-father and his work, even if he never knew him. Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu gave a moving portrait of Wilde. It went beyond the funny aphorisms and the dandy costumes to show an intelligent and multifaceted man. I liked that his family life was shown as well, a part of him often ignored. (The French Wikipedia page about him doesn’t even mention that he was married) I thought that the different angles helped discovering this fascinating artist.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

You were definitely pointing at the stars, Mr Wilde. Some imbeciles might have stared at your finger pointing the stars instead of stargazing with you.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

________

(*) I read The Picture of Dorian Gray when I when a teenager and read The Happy Prince and Other Tales and The Importance of Being Earnest before attending this exhibition, so more about this in the coming week.

Acceptable Loss by Anne Perry

December 6, 2016 6 comments

Acceptable Loss by Anne Perry (2011) French title : La fin justifie les moyens. Translated by Florence Bertrand

perry_acceptable_lossAcceptable Loss is the eighteenth volume of the Monk series created by Anne Perry. I’ve read them all, they’re part of my comfort reading diet. Set in London in the second part of the 19th century, the main characters are Monk, his wife Hester and their friend Sir Oliver Rathbone. Monk has lost part of his memory in a cab accident years before. Hester used to be a nurse in the Crimea war and she now manages a clinic that helps prostitutes. Sir Rathbone is a famous barrister.

In the previous volume, they had solved an ugly case of children prostitution. Monk is now commander of the River Police. He’s called to the banks of the river Thames when Orrie Jones finds the body of Mickey Parfitt in the water. Monk thinks he’s been murdered, which is confirmed by the legist. Worse: Parfitt was strangled with a knotted expensive silk scarf. The murder was premeditated. Parfitt owned a ship moored nearby on the river Thames and it was used as a secret club for members of the good society. Parfitt provided these gentlemen with sex shows involving little boys.

Monk is horrified by this traffic. On the one hand, he’s not keen on finding the murdered as he thinks Parfitt deserved his fate. On the other hand, this is the second case involving children trade and the last one was somehow unfinished. He wants to find out who financed Parfitt, helped him set up the boat and brought new clients. Parfitt didn’t have the means or the connections to start this business on his own.

Monk investigates, Hester meddles and Rathbone is in a difficult position as his father-in-law might be involved in this nasty business.

Acceptable Loss met my expectations. I picked it to be entertained the way you watch a film. Mission accomplished. Anne Perry manages to renew herself and to keep things interesting for her long time readers. I’ll read the next one when I need comfort read.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

December 4, 2016 16 comments

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) French title : Les trente-neuf marches.

Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the velt, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

buchan_39Boredom is a dangerous feeling for it can lead you to rash decisions and that’s exactly what happens to Richard Hannay. He’s at home one night when one of his neighbours drops by and starts telling him a farfetched tale about spies and war conspiracy. His visitor whose alleged name is Scudder has just staged his own death to vanish from the sight of his enemies. Hannay finds him entertaining and only half listens to him. He doesn’t pay attention to details and doesn’t quite believes him. Hannay accepts to hide Scudder even if he thinks he might be slightly unbalanced.

Four days later, Hannay comes home to a corpse: Scudder has been murdered in his flat. Hannay is between a rock and a hard place: Scudder’s murderers might find him and the police might not believe his story or in his innocence. He eventually makes a decision:

It took me an hour or two to think this out, and by that time I had come to a decision. I must vanish somehow, and keep vanished till the end of the second week in June. Then I must somehow find a way to get in touch with the Government people and tell them what Scudder had told me. I wished to heaven he had told me more, and that I had listened more carefully to the little he had told me. I knew nothing but the barest facts. There was a big risk that, even if I weathered the other dangers, I would not be believed in the end. I must take my chance of that, and hope that something might happen which would confirm my tale in the eyes of the Government.

The rest of the novel is about his flight and I won’t go further into the plot, a lot of readers have probably read this or seen the film by Hitchcock.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a page turner, a wonderful chase across the country. The suspenseful storyline is enough to keep reading but Buchan’s style amplifies the pleasure. His sense of humour lightens the atmosphere and makes the reader smile even when the hero is in a delicate position with his foes on his heels.

That was one of the hardest job I ever took on. My shoulder and arm ached like hell, and I was so sick and giddy that I was always on the verge of falling. But I managed it somehow. By the use of out-jutting stones and gaps in the masonry and a tough ivy root I got to the top in the end. There was a little parapet behind which I found space to lie down. Then I proceeded to go off into an old-fashioned swoon.

This is the essence of the book: adventure mixed with humour. Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal work for crime fiction. Hannay is a man who’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. A bad decision –to welcome Scudder in his flat—throws him in the middle of a dangerous game, one he’s not armed for, one that could be fatal. He’s a character with a strong moral compass. His patriotism pushes him to try to save the world and risk his life. He could be Charlie Hardie’s great-grand father. It would be too long to point out all the details that show how significant it is for the history of crime fiction. I’m sure there are excellent thesis about that. Instead, I’ll finish this post with a question. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps in English and came across this passage:

The trouble is that I’m not sober. Last nicht my dochter Merran was waddit, and they danced till fower in the byre. Me and some ither chiels sat down to the drinkin’, and here I am. Peety that I ever lookit on the wine when ist was red!

So puzzling that my note was “Is it Scottish language or drunk language?” If someone could enlighten me…

%d bloggers like this: