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Saturday news: two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade and a sugar-without-cellulite read.

September 22, 2018 33 comments

I’ve been away for work, weekends have been busy and my TBW (To Be Written) pile has not decreased. So far, September has been made of two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade in Moscow and a sugar-without-cellulite novel as comfort read.

The first abandoned book is The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2007) and it starts like this:

The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Not it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales.

Follows the story of William Thornhill and his wife Sal from London to the newly founded Sydney. The Secret River is a famous and well-beloved Australian book but I couldn’t finish it and I abandoned it after reading one third of it.

I thought that the part in London where Grenville explains how Thornhill was deported was way too long. There were too many details about a poor man’s life in London, his job on the Thames and how misery led him to steal goods from boats in order to feed his family. Grenville could have made her point in a lot less pages and it could have been even more powerful.

Then there’s the arrival in Sydney and the story progressed slowly again, with details that were useless to me while others were missing. I would have liked more information about how the Thornhills dealt with the strange land and the workings of the colony.

William Thornhill has no flaw: he’s hardworking, doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble, loves his wife and was a good apprentice. There were too many pages about this in the London part, as if Kate Grenville was trying to prove that Thornhill was a good man. I had the feeling she was trying to buy respectability to the convicts that were sent to Australia and by transitivity to all the white people who founded the current Australian society.

I stopped reading when I reached Part III. I was still not interested in the Thornhills’ fate and I thought that if Grenville had failed to engage me by then, it was a lost cause. In my opinion, she was trying too hard to make of this book an homage to the white ancestors of Australia by telling an uplifting story about how honest hard work will make you successful.

The Secret River felt like a book that had already been done, about “pioneers” who arrive to a strange land, have a successful life and participate to the foundation of a new country. But it doesn’t have the power of Cather’s My Ántonia and it didn’t work for me. I can’t believe it’s a trilogy! If you’ve read The Secret River, what did you think of it?

I’ll spend less time on the second book I abandoned since it’s L’homme qui marche by Yves Bichet, a French novel that has not been translated into English.

The main character is Robert Coublevie and he spends his time walking with his dog Elia on the border between France and Italy in the Alps.

His wife has left him for another man and he sort of replaced her by a dog named after her. Sometimes he goes back to town and spends time at the Café du Nord. The owner has a teenage daughter named Camille and when he’s back on the mountain, he realizes that Camille is there, walking with a stranger.

The blurb was crime-fictionish, which attracted me in the first place. But in the end, I didn’t like Bichet’s style with all the descriptions of the mountains and of his walking.

Again, I wasn’t engaged in the story.

These were the two first sad experiences of September but the most frustrating one was a missed opportunity for a literary escapade in Moscow.

I was there for work and all I could think about was that out there were the houses or apartments of Pushkin, Chekov, Lermontov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy and others.

I’ve only seen Moscow by night and the closest to any literary thing I went was the Pushkin square and seeing bookshelves in all the restaurants I went to. I am so frustrated.

I also read Pike by Benjamin Whitmer (more of this one in another billet) and after this gritty noir and the busy weeks at work, I needed something sugary and I turned to Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom, a book I’d downloaded after reading Caroline’s review.

The kindle cover is dreadful and I’m glad you don’t see them when you read on the kindle. I picked the paper book cover for your eyes. It’s a bit like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.

Ann Clement is 35, unmarried and works as a secretary in a London office. She’s bored with her life, spent between work, chores and visits to her brother’s family. Ann was brought up in a corseted family who denies pleasures in life and is narrow-minded but she yearns for more.

Her brother’ name is Cuthbert and his way of thinking and his behaviour is are as medieval as his name.

Cuthbert had the usual outlook of an Englishman, with the beautiful belief that though the Almighty had made the British Isles, with the possible exception of Ireland, which was Popish and Sinn Fein, the devil had undoubtedly made every other part of the world. And that was that!

When Ann wins a large sum of money in a sweepstake, she decides to embark on a cruise on the Mediterranean.

We follow her on the ship and in her excursions in Gibraltar, Marseille, Venice and more as she discovers the world outside of England, observes her contemporaries and finds herself. It was written in the 1930s and it shows the condition of single women of the time, trapped in a narrow choice of employment and living under thumb of relatives. I enjoyed watching Ann coming out of her shell and learning how to let go of old-fashioned life principles.

Besides Ann’s awakening, Bloom draws a funny picture of Brits abroad and of the misfortunes of mass tourism. They go on tours like sheep, complain about the hot weather and compare everything to some place back home. Ann is a keen observer of her surroundings, she basks in the beauty of the landscapes and points out the ridicules of her travel companions.

I found some of the comments about France and French people quite funny. Here’s Ann’s vision of Paul Vallé, one of her diner companions.

Monsieur Paul Vallé came next. He was twenty-four and he spoke extremely bad English, but thought that he spoke it very well. He sat the other side of Ann, and before the meal started she realized to her horror that he was a distinctly French eater! He spiked her with his elbows as he ate; he was very noisy; he masticated freely and thoroughly. He was little and rotund, with small dark eyes peering at the red-lipped Ethel through goggle glasses. She intrigued him ‒ he called her Mees ‒ if he had been the girl sort probably he would have had an affaire du coeur with Mees. But he wasn’t the girl sort. He was the food sort. He had come for the menu, and he wasn’t going to allow Mees to distract him from that menu.

I wondered in which alternate universe Ann Clement was living because it’s one where a Frenchman books a cruise solely to binge on British food. 😊

It’s definitely a Sugar-Without-Cellulite and Beach-And-Public-Transport book. It’s light, the comments about other people on the ship are funny and Ann is a nice character to spend time with. It’s not the literary work of the century but it did the unwinding I needed.

Here’s another review by Hayley at Rather Too Fond of Books.

That’s all for today, folks. I hope I’ll have more time for blogging and reading your reviews in the coming weeks but I doubt it.

The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

September 9, 2018 37 comments

The Alienist by J.M. Machado de Assis. 1881 French title : L’aliéniste. Translated by Maryvonne Lapouge-Pettorelli.

In The Alienist, Machado de Assis takes us to a small Brazilian town, Itaguai. Simaõ Bacamarte is an alienist, a scientist and a researcher. He decides to set up a madhouse to treat mental illnesses in his town. It will be Casa Verde (The Green House) and he convinces the town’s council to support the project.

Bacamarte is one of those scientists only interested in science, certain that scientific reasoning can lead to no wrong and blindly following their thinking to absurdity. Doubt is an alien word to him. Science is his ultimate goal, he is selfless in his endeavors in the sense that he doesn’t want to make profit from it, he’s certain his acts are a blessing for humanity. As we all know, hell is paved with good intentions.

What his cartesian and rigorist mind doesn’t see is that the starting point of his work is flawed. Which are the criteria to assess someone’s mental health? He doesn’t really question this part because he’s certain that he knows whether a person needs to be interned.

Soon, one criterion leading to the other, the whole town ends up in Casa Verde. But some will retaliate and see the opportunity to overthrow the town council and take power in Itaguai.

I have never read such a French novella written by a foreigner. Bacamarte and Itaguai would have been great in a post French Revolution Candide. The Alienist is something that Voltaire could have written if he had lived through the mad times of the 1790s. In 100 pages, Machado de Assis castigates scientific bullheadedness, makes a comedy show of how politicians take advantage of a context for their own profit and how easy it is to turn quiet people into a revolutionary mob.

And all along, a thought nags at us: what is mental illness? How do you define it? How does a doctor know when to confine someone to a mental institution? There’s a lot to say about a society by the way they treat their madmen and who they consider “crazy”. The Alienist shows how too much tinkering with criteria can lead to dictatorial decisions, how thin the frontier is between being on the right side and landing on the wrong bank. It also pictures very well the authority mechanisms that make a population unable to talk back to a figure of authority. Here, it’s Bacamarte and his scientific superiority whose power is increased tenfold by his philanthropic behavior. How bad can he be if he does it for the wellbeing of others?

And there’s the final question: is Bacamarte crazier than his patients?

On top of it, The Alienist is a comedy of mores. Bacamarte is friend with the apothecary Crispim Soares who is a total dimwit. The conversations between the two reminded me of the ones between Homais, the apothecary in Madame Bovary and Charles Bovary himself. The dynamics between the two is reversed, though as Homais leads Charles’s way while Soares is in awe of Bacamarte. Machado de Assis makes fun of the prominent citizen of Itaguai, shows their cliques and how fast the public opinion shifts from one side to the other. Flaubert also has this caustic vision of the French society of the time and Madame Bovary is very cheeky novel that demolishes French pillars of society (Church, State, Men of Power) through the ridiculous example of Bovary and Homais.

The rhinoceros on the French cover of the book is not a coincidence or a strange whim from the publisher. We read The Alienist with the same incredulity and dread that we read Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Of course, Rhinoceros was written in 1959 but it describes how a population reacts to a new phenomenon that stuns them, that takes a lot of power and ultimately changes their quotidian by instilling fear in everyday life and how quickly they adjust and collaborate. Anybody can be declared crazy by Simon Bacamarte and this is also a great opportunity to get rid of unwanted relatives or neighbors. People bring supposedly crazy people to Casa Verde.

This is an absolute must read. It’s as if Machado de Assis had captured a sample of humanity and put it in a snowglobe for our observation. It is firmly rooted in a strong literary heritage and raises a lot of questions about sanity, imprisonment, mass movements and imposing a dictatorship.

My French edition comes with a fascinating foreword by Pierre Brunel. Many thanks to the publisher Metailié because it doesn’t happen often enough and it’s very enjoyable.

I’ll end this post with a message to French translators: Please stop translating names and changing the spelling of places, unless it’s a very common name like Londres. It’s irritating. We are educated readers, we know that a Brazilian character is not named Simon, that a German man is Ludwig and not Louis. Stop it. Plus, it messes with my blogging, I have to research all the names to write up my billets in English.

And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here.

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa

September 2, 2018 32 comments

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa (1922) French title: Le banquier anarchiste. Translated from the Portuguese by Françoise Laye.

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa is a novella in which a banker explains to his audience why he is a true anarchist. It has been on my TBW (To Be Written) since April. Why? Mostly because I didn’t know how to write about it. So, it’s Catch 22. I can’t write about it properly but if I don’t, I’ll break my cardinal rule which is “write about all the books you read”.

I feel that if I start allowing myself to skip a billet, other books will be left behind as well. Where does that leave me? I still can’t write a passable billet about The Anarchist Banker but I can’t procrastinate anymore.

Solution? A short cut.

Read this witty, incredible novella where a banker will demonstrate with a lot of self-assurance that he is the only genuine anarchist in the world. If anarchist banker wasn’t such an oxymoron, the reader could believe in the banker’s reasoning.

He demonstrates that anarchism is a good system but since it’s impossible to implement, in the end the only possible system is the bourgeois system.

Pessoa has a fantastic sense of humour. His tone is both light and serious, the man totally convinced by his brilliant reasoning. He’s so ridiculous in his beliefs that it enhances the comedy of situation. This is something that could have been written by a philosophe from the Age of Enlightenment, like Montesquieu.

It is also a fascinating book to read when you think about politics and politicians. It makes you realize how a politician can convince you of something, step by step. He unfolds a reasoning in which each step holds some truth, he asks you to validate each step and one step after the other, he leads you to a path you would never have followed if you’d seen the whole journey on the map right from the start. It’s subtle and frightening and we’ve all heard politicians start with an assertion you cannot refute and then build something totally fallacious from it.

That’s what could happen to the reader here if the constant irony wasn’t a lifeline that reminds you that this reasoning is flawed.

The Anarchist Banker is also a masterful demonstration of how an idea can become the roots of a dictatorship, how radical changes in a society cannot be implemented because it’s impossible to do so everywhere at the same time and successfully. So the new system must be forcefed to the population and only an authoritative system can do it.

I really can’t tell you more about The Anarchist Banker. I highly recommend it as a masterpiece of literature but also as an educational read about all those politicians who want to attract voters through simplistic thinking.

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