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Theatre : Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary, a stage version by and with Stéphane Freiss

March 29, 2020 12 comments

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais.

In your mother’s love, life makes you a promise at the dawn of life that it will never keep. (Translated by John Markham Beach)

End of February, I spent a weekend in Paris and went to the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse to see a theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary. This is the second time I’ve seen this novel made into a play. The first version was by Bruno Abraham-Kremer and my billet about it is here.

Gary wrote Promise at Dawn when he was in his forties and more than a memoir, it is an homage to his overbearing Jewish mother. It has also the insight of a man who has lived several lives, had time mull over his childhood. It’s a beautiful tribute to his mother but there’s no hiding from the scars he carries from her overwhelming love. He also wrote Promise at Dawn at a crossroad of his life, he had just met and fallen in love with Jean Seberg. His married life with Lesley Blanch was about to end, just as his career as a diplomat.

Mina was quite a character, full of ambition for her son. She emigrated from Vilnius to Nice, worked hard to raise him and breathed all kind of crazy ambitions into her son’s ears. She loved France. He was to be a great Frenchman. A poet, a writer, a musician, ambassador of France, a war hero. He was destined to grandeur, she knew it, they just had to find in which field he would be famous in. Dance? Music? They settled for literature. And of course, he was to be a great lover.

She smothered him with love. She was never afraid to tell the whole world how famous her child would be. He had bad grades in math? She thought that his teacher misunderstood him. She was embarrassing and touching. She jeopardized her health for him, never complaining and he gradually discovered the sacrifices she made for him. She was a force to be reckoned with, a long-lasting fire that fueled her son his whole life.

Freiss decided upon a very sober direction. He was alone on stage. After a quick introduction to the text and his love for it, the show started. Made of literal passages from the novel carefully stitched together, the whole play focuses on the relationship between Gary and his mother Mina. Other parts of the novel are set aside, it was wise not to try to embrace it all.

Photo by Pascal Victor / ArtComPress

Freiss is Gary’s voice, turning into his mother sometimes to replay the dialogues between mother and son. There are excerpts here, in this YouTube video.  Freiss shows how Mina shaped her son, built him up, supported him, challenged him and love him enough to dare anything.

We hear Gary’s distinctive literary voice. He has this incredible sense of humor, slightly self-deprecating and pointing out the world’s absurdities, the kind of humor you find in Philip Roth’s work. Freiss adopted the appropriate ironic tone and switched to tender and emotional in the blink of an eye.

It’s an excellent ode to mothers and to literature. I’m happy I had the chance to see the play before the current lockdown. The theatre was full and probably full of Gary book lovers. Memoirs translate well into plays. The theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen was incredible. I’ve also seen an adaptation of Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, where this sociologist comes back to his hometown and blue-collar family. The direction was less intimist but lively and powerful.

The opening quote explains the title of Gary’s memoir. For a better vision of his writing, I leave you with the entire paragraph around this quote. It’s translated by John Markham Beach and he took a bit of license with the text. Since this translation dates back to 1961, there’s good chance that Gary read it and approved of it.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey – Crime fiction, cinema and urban violence

March 27, 2020 6 comments

Gone to Ground by John Harvey (2007) French title: Traquer les ombres. Translated by Mathilde Martin.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey is a crime fiction novel set in Cambridge and Nottingham. I didn’t know this writer and bought it at Quais du Polar, attracted by the cover and the publisher. (You can’t go wrong with Rivages Noir) After a quick read of his biography on Wikipedia, I see that John Harvay has written more that 100 books and his best known for his Charlie Resnick series. Have you ever read this series? Is it good?

Gone to Ground is a standalone novel, though. In this one,  Inspector Will Grayson and his partner Helen Walker have to investigate the murder of Stephen Bryan. His murderer beat him to death in his bathroom. There’s no trace of someone breaking in. Grayson and Walker will follow several leads at the same time. Bryan was gay and had just broken up with his last partner, Mark. Is it a homophobic crime? Did Mark not take the breakup well and kill Stephen?

Is it work related? Indeed, Stephen was working on the biography of Stella Leonard. She died in the 1930s and belonged to a rich and powerful family. They don’t want to hear about this bio. Is there something to hide in Stella’s past?

We follow the investigation as the two inspectors try to find out what happened to Stephen Bryan. I have to say that I didn’t expect the ending. Harvey knows Cambridge and Nottingham pretty well and Gone to Ground has a good sense of place. The writing is fluid, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention.

The police team is a bit too staged, in my opinion. The contrast between Will Grayson and Helen Walker is convenient to feed the narration. Grayson is married to Lorraine and they have two children, a toddler and a baby. They have just moved out of the city to live in a house and the commute weighs on Grayson’s days. Helen Walker is single, lives in the city and has a complicated love life. The two have a solid friendship, though and manage to have real discussions.

To be honest, Grayson’s misogynistic side annoyed me. We’re in 2007 and he’s fighting with his wife because she wants to work instead of staying at home to take care of their children? I wanted to tell him “If you think it’s so enviable, why don’t YOU be a stay-at-home father and your wife will have her career?” Helen sides with Lorraine and talks him into accepting the idea that his wife will go back to work. Thanks Helen, for getting through to him.

Despite this minor annoying trait, Gone to Ground was entertaining, a good story to take your mind off something else and we seem to be in dire need of this kind of books now.

PS: I include the covers of the French and English versions of the book. Same book, totally different vibe. Both are accurate. The French one puts the stress on the cinema thread, the story about Stella, the 1930s actress. The English one shows the homophobic violence in Nottingham, which is another side of the story. I find the difference between the two editions absolutely fascinating and I wonder what made each publisher choose this cover instead of another one.

PPS: John Harvey is British, I wonder why it’s written ‘translated from the American’ in my book, just like I wonder how Folio could write on the back cover of The Guards (upcoming billet), that its author Ken Bruen, an Irishman from Galway, is one the most talented British writer of his generation. *sigh*

Quais du Polar : Let’s celebrate anyway

March 22, 2020 52 comments

Quais du Polar is this fantastic crime fiction festival that takes over the city of Lyon by storm every year.

Sadly, this year, like many cultural event, the 2020 edition is cancelled. No crime fest in Lyon from April 3rd to April 5th. Marina Sofia and I met at this festival, attended panels with writers who discussed around a crime theme, queued to have books signed and had a lot of fun browsing through the wonderful bookstore set up in the vast hall of the Lyon Chamber of Commerce.

We still want to celebrate crime fiction this year and have decided to publish a crime fiction billet for each day of the festival. We will choose books from writers who would have attended the 2020 session or books we got signed in previous editions. We would love for you to join us and do a virtual festival with us. You can find the list of writers here and if you want to listen to previous years’ panels, it’s available in replay here.

Choose whatever book you want as long as the writer has attended the festival and post a review on your blog on April 3, 4 or 5th. If you don’t have a blog, leave a review in the comments on this post and use #QDP2020. The festival’s team is also here @QuaisPolar.

There’s another initiative: Quais du Polar is also a crime fiction prize and Pat, at South of Paris Books has decided to read the six books preselected for this year’s prize.

Let’s get together and take advantage of our lockdowns. May this post go viral.

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane

March 22, 2020 12 comments

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane (1991) French title: Outsider. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Thomas McGuane was born in 1939 in Michigan. He’s a scriptwriter, a novelist and a non-fiction writer. He lives on a ranch in Montana. An Outside Chance is a collection of “sport essays”. The themes of the essays are all about outdoors activities.

Frequent Book Around the Corner (BAtC) Reader, rolling their eyes – Oh dear, another book about fly-fishing

Emma – Well, yes there were fishing stories. Fishing in the ocean in the Keys, fishing in ponds in Michigan, fishing in Montana, British Columbia, boho fishing in San Francisco, fishing with wife and son, with wife’s grandfather and with Jim Harrison.

Frequent BAtC Reader – Is it a Gallmeister book?

Emma – No. It’s published by Christian Bourgois Editeur. However, it’s totally Gallmeister’s kind of books.

Now that we’ve had this little discussion, let’s go back to An Outside Chance. Thomas McGuane writes beautifully and I’m sorry that I have no quote to share because I read it in French translation and it’s not available on kindle. Usually, I download a sample from the kindle store and find quotes that fit my billet in the first pages. It seems like An Outside Chance is OOP in English but I’ll put quotes in French at the end of my billet for readers who can read French.

Besides the fishing, McGuane tells us about the time he bought a motorbike, his special boat, a Meadow Lark. He writes about his childhood and his youth and how he made pocket money by fetching, refurbishing and reselling golf balls near his hometown golf course. McGuane was also a rodeo champion, so a few stories are about rodeo, horses and people living off the rodeo business. He’s also a hunter and the story about antelope hunting was a bit hard to swallow.

Thomas McGuane describes nature with the words of a true nature lover. (1)  He makes you want to rush to Montana and see the Absaroka mountains, the Big Hole River and the landscapes. He drops hits of his personal life here and there. He got divorced, he son grows up, his parents die. He seems to find solace in physical activities and the slower pace of nature. Wilderness refuels him and he gives back a bit of this energy in his essays. He’s reflective and calm but never romanticizes nature. It is not always a place fit for humans. It’s often hard, unrelenting and dangerous, a place where a small mistake can be fatal.

I find his kind of writers fascinating. Have a look at his bio on Wikipedia. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Cutting Horse Association Members Hall of Fame and the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Only an American writer can these three things at the same time. It seems to me that French writers are always teachers, journalists or scriptwriters. They have little experience besides their Parisian world. I know no French writer who has been a policeman, a university teacher, a carpenter, a cowboy and a professional fisherman like Craig Johnson. Or they don’t say it because it’s not consistent with the image of what a writer should be. France is also not a country where your career path can easily take U-turns and still be on a good path, it’s getting better, though.

Writers like Thomas McGuane have studied literature in excellent universities and worked blue-collar jobs. They bring their academic knowledge into their outdoors activities. McGuane can see a parallel between fly-fishing and Camus. (2) He has a way to make more of his hikes in the Montana wilderness. He has words to describe them, to share his experience with us and take us there for a while. He’s far from the intellectual writer and his essays brings to us a world we’d never hear of.

Sometimes I thought he must be hard man to live with, since he has a propensity to take risks. Fishing when the sea is rough. Looking for a boat he can’t really afford. Buying a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Hiking in the heart of the Montana winter. Purchasing a motorbike he doesn’t know how to ride. Competing in rodeos, in contests involving bulls. What a rollercoaster it must be to have such a spouse! As far as I’m concerned, rollercoasters make me queasy.

While I skipped some pages because I couldn’t take anymore fly-fishing stories, I enjoyed McGuane soothing prose. I now want to read his fiction and have Keep the Change on the shelf.


 

(1) « Je laisse la Land Rover près d’un bosquet d’épineux. La campagne ouverte s’étend selon un entrelacs de pentes qui descendent des collines basses précédent les Crazy Mountains. Du plateau où je me trouve, j’aperçois au sud la chaîne des monts Absaroka déjà enneigés. Le temps est un peu à l’orage, des panaches de neige tourbillonnent dans les cols les plus élevés. Mais ici, en bas, le soleil joue autour de nous. »

(2) « Face à un cours d’eau inédit, je me demande toujours si je vais pêcher avec une nymphe ou pas. En tout cas, on n’attaque pas la truite de front sans réfléchir. Camus a dit que la seule question digne de réflexion est celle du suicide. Ce qui me fait penser au problème de la nymphe. »

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa – a missed opportunity

March 17, 2020 9 comments

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa (2017). French title: La mère de tous les cochons. Translated by Benoîte Dauvergne.

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa was our Book Club choice for February. (Yes, I’m late again with the billet). Set in Jordan, it features the Sabas, a Christian family who lives in the suburbs of Amman. They all live under the same roof. We follow Hussein and his wife Laila, Mother Fadhma, Hussein’s step mother and Samira, Hussein’s step sister. Muna, a cousin from the family branch who emigrated to the USA, is coming over for a vacation. We also get to know Abu Za’atar, Mother Fadhma’s brother and one of the richest entrepreneurs in town. He’s a master as smuggling merchandises across borders.

Hussein runs a butcher’s shop and sells pork. Abu Za’atar perceived that it would be a big competitive advantage to sell pork to Christian families and be the only one to do it. They imported oum al-khanaazeer, the Mother of all pigs through the black market and she was the sow they use to breed piglets. Hussein and Abu Za’atar run the farm together and make the chops, ham, etc. that they need for the butcher’s shop.

With the war in Syria, there are a lot of refugees in Jordan and their settling in Hussein’s town changes the fragile dynamics between the communities. Hussein had a consensus on opening hours: a time for Jewish customers, a time for Muslims and a time for Christians. Everyone can buy what they want without seeing each other. This consensus is shattered by radical Muslims coming from abroad and fed by ISIS.

Through Mother Fadhma, Laila and Samira, Malu Halasa explores the fate of women in Jordan. The old Mother Fadhma has been exploited all her life. She has raised twelve children, not all her own. She was treated as a commodity by her family and of course, couldn’t choose her husband. Of all of her children, only Hussein and Samira remained in Jordan. The others have all immigrated to America and rarely come to visit. Mother Fadhma made a lot of sacrifices and her lifer never belonged to her.

Laila didn’t choose Hussein as a husband but considers herself lucky that he encourages her to keep working as a teacher. She had ambitions but they were trampled by real life: small town, three children, a teacher job and a husband who does his best to make enough money to support his family.

Samira is single and she found a new meaning in her life: she joined a group of women who help Syrian women refugees who suffered from the war. She secretly goes to political meetings and hangs out with women who help her win a bit of freedom.

And Muna, the American cousin? She arrives in Jordan to see how life is near the Syrian border. She has no idea of the actual culture of her father’s country: she brings clothes to Samira and Laila that they will never wear because they’re inappropriate in Jordan. I wondered what she was doing there, except being a plot instrument, the candid eye, the pretext to explain to Western readers things that are obvious for the locals.

I had high hopes for Mother of All Pigs. I was curious about this story of the only butcher selling pork in the area and about the women’s fates.

I was disappointed and struggled to finish it. Apparently, The New York Times reviewed it and said “’It has always been the same ― what men enjoy, women endure.’ So says a character in this microcosmic portrait of the contemporary Middle East, where the generational shifts among the members of one Jordanian clan showcase a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline. Halasa’s pungently witty novel contrasts the ways in which the women of the Sabas family embrace or push back against tradition.”

It’s true even if I obviously missed the pungent and witty part. The structure and writing didn’t do it for me. It was too much of a patchwork and I never engaged with the Sabas the way I did with the families in Naguib Mahfouz’s books. I never managed to understand what the writer really wanted to say. The novel seemed to be too much of a patchwork and I saw the small pieces, found them lacking and never managed to sew them together in a way that showed me a coherent story and picture. And I hated the chapters with the sow’s stream-of-consciousness. What was the point of that?

Malu Halasa is American, and like Muna, has a Jordanian father and a Filipino mother. She doesn’t live in Jordan and the reader feels it. She has probably been there quite a lot but not enough to sound like a local writer. I also felt that her novel, written in English was intended for Western readers. In the end, it doesn’t have the same authenticity as a book written by a Jordan writer.

For me it was a missed opportunity.

PS: I’m not sure I understand the English cover. Who is that supposed to be? Samira?

Quais du Polar is suspended: bloody virus

March 15, 2020 24 comments

It’s official, Quais du Polar (April 3-5) is suspended this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The decision was inevitable and of course, understandable. We won’t be out of this crisis by April 3rd.

Each year, the festival has a theme and the 2020 edition was focused on shedding “the light on “the other Americas”, the diversity of American peoples, the minorities sometimes forgotten or misunderstood, the linguistic enclaves, the various social crisis, and the forgotten ones of the American dream. Yes, it was promising.

The Quais du Polar Prize will be announced online on April 3rd and we’ll see what suspended means as opposed to cancelled.

I’m sorry for the non-profit organization Quais du Polar and all the volunteers for all the work they had already put in to prepare the festival. I hope Quais du Polar will get financial help and that they’ll be able to recover from this year’s crisis. This festival must go on next year, 100 000 people attended in 2019 and many of them came to Lyon for the occasion. It’s good for the city, it’s good for the book industry.

I don’t know how disappointed the writers might be, they always seem to have a good time at Quais du Polar, meeting fellow writers from various countries and talking to avid crime fiction readers. Some are really impressed by the crowds and the lines at the signings.

One major side of the festival is the giant bookstore set up in the Chamber of Commerce. Indie libraires have a stand, welcome writers for signings and interact with the public to recommend crime fiction books. They are at the heart of the festival too. In 2019, they sold 40 000 books during the three-days festival. Now these shops won’t have this business and will be closed to the public until further notice. Imagine the loss for these small businesses. I will go and buy them the number of books I would have bought at the festival, as soon as I can. I hope other readers will do it too and that the bookshops will be able to ride this tsunami and hold on. We need them on our streets and in our neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, let’s all be respectful of security measures, keep working as best we can and read from the TBR.

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage – rush for it.

March 10, 2020 17 comments

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (1967) French title: Le pouvoir du chien. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down the first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was surprisingly little blood. In a few moments, the testicles exploded like huge popcorn. Some men, it was said, ate them with a little salt and pepper. “Mountain oysters,” Phil called them with that sly grin of his, and suggested to young ranch hands that if they were fooling around with the girls they’d do well to eat them, themselves.

Phil’s brother George, who did the roping, blushed at the suggestion, especially since it was made before the hired men. George was a stocky, humorless, decent man, and Phil liked to get his goat. Lord, how Phil did like to get people’s goats!

No one wore gloves for such delicate jobs as castrating, but they wore gloves for almost all other jobs to protect their hands against rope burns, splinters, cuts, blisters. They wore gloves roping, fencing, branding, pitching hay out to cattle, even simply riding, running horses or trailing cattle. All of them, that is, except Phil. He ignored blisters, cuts and splinters and scorned those who wore gloves to protect themselves. His hands were dry, powerful, lean.

This is the opening page of The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage and it sets up the place (a ranch), the two main characters (Phil and George), their relationship (they’re brothers) and this simple scene of ranch life, the castrating, reveals a lot about each brother’s temper.

We are in the 1920s, in Montana. Phil and George run the family ranch and they’re among the wealthiest families in the state. They’re bachelors, Phil is forty and George is thirty-eight. Phil is brighter than George and he’s a complex man. He’s outspoken and rash, always voicing things that would be polite not to mention. He’s the total opposite of political correctness and refuses to play social games. George’s mind is slower but he’s more sensitive to other people’s needs and feelings. See in this paragraph, how Phil purposely hints at sex, knowing George will be ill-at-ease.

Phil loves ranch life and lives it the rough way. It’s described in this paragraph through the gloves thing, a detail that will have a capital importance at the end of the book. Phil washes in the stream near the house, summer and winter. He doesn’t wear gloves, loves to ride and partake in all kind of physical activities. He also doesn’t like changes in his life. He’s a great admirer of a long-dead cowboy, Bronco Henry. He keeps mentioning how Bronco Henry did this or that. Phil is a bit nostalgic about the old days, when Bronco Henry was alive and part of the ranch staff.

Phil and George’s parents have moved out to Salt Lake City, leaving the ranch to their sons. Nothing has changed in the house and the brothers still sleep in their twin beds in their childhood bedroom. Phil is perfectly happy that way and George seems to be too.

In nearest town, Beech, Rose Gordon and her son Peter make ends meet by running an inn after her husband John died. John was a doctor but he never managed to build a good practice in Beech, there’s not enough solvent patients for it. Peter is a clever child, interested in medicine and always buried in books. He’s now a teenager and wants to study medicine. He’s an outsider at school and he’s violently bullied but soldiers on and never complains.

Phil and George go to Rose’s inn during their trip to town to sell and ship off their cattle. George and Rose start talking and much to Phil’s dismay, George marries Rose. She moves into the ranch house and Peter stays away at school.

As you can imagine, Phil isn’t happy about these new circumstances. Thomas Savage is an extraordinary writer who weaves a story, thread after thread, knot after knot until you get the whole tapestry at the last page. It’s also built like Noir, with a growing tension stemming from this lockup situation.

Charismatic and older brother Phil rules everything on the ranch, manages the hands and takes a lot of space with his cocky attitude. Rose cannot find her place her new home, she knows that Phil wants her gone and she’s under his watchful eyes and it makes her extremely nervous. George is mostly oblivious, he’s like a horse with blinders because he’s not quick enough to pick on the tension. He thinks that things will get better by themselves, he cannot imagine that his brother could be mean to his wife.

Then Peter comes live on the ranch for the summer and it adds another weight to the relationships’ scale and throws it off balance.

From the beginning, Thomas Savage drops hints about Phil. His parents acknowledge that they know but we don’t know what they refer to. He’s a complex character. He’s mean the way teenagers can be: he says whatever he wants without thinking of the consequences, he teases people, he observes their flaws and swoops down on them and he exposes people’s pretenses. Phil’s development seems stuck at teenager stage.

George is a grownup and a good man. He and Rose have a solid and healthy relationship. They want each other for companionship. She brings him out of his shell and she found a safe harbor in him. He has found someone to talk to and someone who doesn’t compare him to his outspoken and sharp brother and find him lacking.

Thomas Savage (1915-2003) grew up on a ranch in Montana. He knows the landscape and the local way-of-life. He’s worked as a ranch hand before being a university teacher and a full-time writer. It’s palpable in his writing. The setting contributes to the story and its atmosphere. He doesn’t romanticize a rancher’s life. The hands are all unmarries because they have to live on the premises and couldn’t support a family anyway. It’s a life made of hard work during the week, entertainment in town during the weekend and dreams of buying clothes and fancy gloves in catalogues. They live in closer quarters, isolated from the outside world and it fuels the story too.

The tension builds up until the very last pages. It’s remarkable, everything falls into place and all the clues dropped here and there come back to you. The characters are well-developed and I was rooting for Rose and George to find a way to live side-by-side with Phil.

Highly recommended.

Literary Escapade: an evening with Gallmeister at Au Bonheur des Ogres

March 7, 2020 26 comments

I suppose that every usual reader of this blog knows that I’m huge fan of the publisher Gallmeister. Last month, the bookstore Au Bonheur des Ogres organized a meeting with one of Gallmeister’s representatives, Thibault. The aim was to talk about this publisher’s story and editorial line.

Before telling you all about this fascinating insight of a publisher’s workings, let’s talk a little bit about Au Bonheur des Ogres. (The Ogres’ Paradise, if I translate into English the French play-on-words on Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise). It’d be a strange name for a bookshop if it weren’t the title of the first installment of the Malaussène series by Daniel Pennac. Read Guy’s review here and rush for this series if you’re in need of good entertainment. In Lyon, Au Bonheur des Ogres is a cozy bookstore operated by an enthusiastic libraire (*), Antony, who welcomed us after hours to discuss Gallmeister’s literature.

Thibault started the evening with a warm thank you to Au Bonheur des Ogres and a statement about the unique book ecosystem that we have in France. It survives under the shield of the Lang Law, something I’ve mentioned before and that is the fixed price for books. The price of a book is set by its publisher and only 5% discounts are allowed. You’re not tempted to browse through books in a bookstore, go out empty-handed and buy your book online. It won’t be cheaper. So, you buy it right away and this helps maintaining a dense network of independent bookstores in the country. This network is not always doing well, but they’re still there.

In France, ebook sales don’t take off and Amazon only represents 4% of Gallmeister’s turnover. We, readers have the power: we are the ones who decide through our buying habits where we’d rather purchase our books and we can keep the big bad American wolf at bay. Our libraires participate to the diversity of the French book ecosystem: they ensure that a large diversity of books reach their shelves and are available to meet their readers. They are a link between indie publishers and readers.

Therefore, Gallmeister’s policy has been to bet on independent bookstores and libraires.

Oliver Gallmeister founded his eponymous publishing house in 2005. Maybe I should say home instead of house, because it seems to be a good home for books, writers and literature. OG is an avid reader of Nature writing and stories featuring trappers, cowboys, and nature as an essential part of the narration and the plot. He’s able to read American literature in the original. Sadly, some of these marvelous books weren’t translated into French and that where the adventure began. A publishing house centered around American literature about nature, people living in the wilderness for a while, of people living in small towns and rural areas. Gallmeister publishes what OG loves to read and reflects his passions. He loves fly-fishing and Thibault told us with a kind humor that they publish a book per year that features fly-fishing. The employees call it “The Trout” and it comes out every November. Now you understand why I keep stumbling upon books about fly-fishing or where fly-fishing is involved! It’s even become a family inside joke.

The first Gallmeister books were The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, a story about fun and crazy eco-terrorists in Utah, and Indian Creek by Pete Fromm. I’ve never read Pete Fromm but Thibault told us that he writes about nature beautifully but truthfully. It’s not always a welcoming place for mankind and he doesn’t romanticize his experience of living in the woods. I now have his A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do on the shelf.

Gallmeister’s first bestseller was Sukkwan Island by David Vann, a novella included in Legend of a Suicide. Interesting fact, a bestseller means selling 80 000 copies of a novel. They sold 300 000 copies of Sukkwan Island. David Vann is better known in France than in his own country.

This novella was a turning point in Gallmeister’s young life. US agents started to contact OG directly to push new books. (Fun fact: in France, anyone can send a manuscript to publishers, there’s no need for an agent but in the US, you can’t.) And Gallmeister sometimes publishes books in French that haven’t even been published in America.

One of OG’s goal is that his writers are able to live of their writing. He also pushes their American agents to keep fighting and find them a US publisher when they argue that the book was already a success in France.

French people are HUGE readers of American literature and literature in translation in general. Gallmeister has found an editorial line that appeals to the French public. For example, Gabriel Tallent has sold more copies of My Absolute Darling in one year in France than in three years in the US. (Last time I saw it in a bookstore, it had a banner that said 400 000 copies) I wonder how it is in other European countries.

Thibault explained that right from the start, Gallmeister decided to rely on indie bookstores to promote their books and it made the difference, it’s part of the DNA of the house and a reason for their success. And of course, they need readers to keep buying books in these bookshops.

I think that they publish a kind of literature that fascinates the French readers and a type of books that has no French equivalent. It makes us travel, it’s far from our everyday life and doesn’t linger on first world problems of the upper classes. Their books tell stories about hardworking misfits, loners and blue-collar people. They question the American dream and show a lesser known side of America.

Thibault was here to talk about literature, share his passion for his job and tell us about the book industry and the innerworkings of Gallmeister. He failed to mention that part of Gallmeister’s success is also their innovative and killer marketing. It’s respectful of literature and readers. The books have original covers, all in the same style because there’s one illustrator. No pictures of faceless people. No aggressive colors. No cheesy or girlish stuff for female writers. The books are classy and distinctive. Here are bookmarks and a stylish catalogue of their paperback collection, Totem.

I have read or bought 34 of their 161 paperbacks, 21%. The catalogue gives a short bio of the authors and a blurb of their books. The last pages say all about the Gallmeister spirit. It’s a resume of the Totem collection with random facts like: which translation took the longest time, which one is the most beer-soaked book and the list of the most encountered animals. I loved the humor in the mention: “we didn’t list all the fish, for the lack of space”

They pay attention to the whole book chain: the printers, the illustrators, the authors and of course, the translators. The translations are impeccable, the American vibe is there and yet, it’s perfect French. New translations are crucial for Noir as their first translation was sometimes sketchy when they were published in Série Noire. This is why Gallmeister has started to re-translate all of Ross McDonald’s books.

The choice of books shows flawless literary tastes, whether the book speaks to you or not and their books are centered around five themes now: Wilderness, Cities through Noir fiction only, Intimate stories, the place of America in the world and a common theme: Noir is the Ariadne’s thread, different in each book but always present in the background.

The next big release is a new translation of Gone With the Wind, not a book I would have picked but I might after Thibault shared some passages. In 2021, they’ll expand to new countries, Italy, UK and Germany.

You know I lack of objectivity when it comes to this publisher but I truly had a lovely evening. It’s nice to hear about what’s behind the scene and how a small publishing house operates. Many thanks to Au Bonheur des Ogres for hosting this event. For me, it was a breath of fresh air after a day in the office, a wonderful way to leave my office-related worries behind and focus on reading and sharing the love for books with likeminded people. Of course, I brought two books home.

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(*) A libraire is a booklover who recommends books to other readers in a bookstore and eventually sells them. In English: a bookseller.

Termination by Petros Markaris – the trilogy about the Greek crisis

March 4, 2020 16 comments

Termination by Petros Markaris. (2011) French title: Le Justicier d’Athènes. Translated by Michel Volkovitch.

As far as I know, Le Justicier d’Athènes by Petros Markaris is not available in English. According to Wikipedia, the original Greek title of this book is Peraíosi, a word that Googles translate into Termination. I don’t know what the English title of this book would be, so we’ll use Termination. The French publisher chose to entitle it Athens’s Righter of Wrongs.

Termination belongs to the Kostas Haritos crime fiction series, and within this series, it is included in a trilogy about the 2010 Greek financial crisis. Each book exposes one angle of the Greek collapse. The first one, Liquidations à la Grecque (Overdue Loans), is about the banking system. The second one, Le Justicier d’Athènes (Termination) is about tax collection. The third one Pain, Education, Liberté (Bread, Education and Freedom) is about politics. There’s a conclusion in Epilogue meurtrier, a book I haven’t read yet.

So Termination is about taxes: Haritos has to investigate a murder and attempted murders of rich people who maneuvered to escape taxes or simply don’t pay them. And the Greek administration doesn’t put a lot of energy into recovering the money. We’ve all heard about that in the newspapers. Markaris imagines a murderer who threatens tax evaders and does not hesitate to kill if they don’t pay their bill to the Greek State. He substitutes himself to the tax administration agents and has his own way to collect the cash.

The plot is interesting and the reader does want to know who set up this unorthodox recovery agency but the most important part of the book isn’t there. Once again, crime fiction is a window to a country’s backyard.

Termination, like the Ikonòmou I read recently, pictures the despair and the struggles of the Greek people. The book opens on a triple suicide: three old ladies took their own lives because they didn’t have enough money to survive and didn’t want to burden their families. There will be two other deaths like this, people committing suicide because they had lost faith in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if Markaris had picked these stories in the newspapers.

In Haritos’s family, the daughter Katerina is seriously contemplating to leave her husband behind and go abroad to find a job. She’s a lawyer and her husband Pharis is a doctor in one of Athens’ public hospitals. They don’t have any children yet but he doesn’t earn enough money to support them both and she can’t find a paid job in her field in Greece. Their parents help them with the groceries, and, like in the Ikonòmou, we see that the family unit is tightknit and people help each other.

Yound people start emigrating again and it depresses Haritos as it reminds him of old days:

« Nous voilà revenus au temps de l’émigration. » me dis-je. L’homme partait d’abord en Allemagne, trouvait du boulot, s’installait puis faisait venir sa femme. Les enfants restaient avec les grands-parents. Et avant cette époque des Gastarbeiter, même chose. L’homme s’exilait en Amérique et en Australie, puis sa famille le rejoignait. Dans le cas de Katerina, c’est la femme qui s’exile mais peu importe. Ce qui compte, c’est que nous sommes revenus au point de départ. Nous faisons un bout de chemin, et après quelques années, tout repart de zéro. Nous n’arrivons jamais à garder le terrain gagné. Nous faisons toujours marche arrière et ça recommence. Heureusement, Phanis et Katerina n’ont pas d’enfants, que nous aurions eu à élever. On se console comme on peut. “We are back to the emigration days”

The man left for Germany first, found a job, settled there and made his wife come to. The children stayed behind with the grandparents. And before this time of Gastarbeiter, same thing. The man would exile himself in America and Australia and his family would join him there. In Katerina’s case, it is the wife who exiles herself but whatever. What matters is that we are back to square one. We move forward and after a few years, things start over again. We never manage to hold on what whatever progress we’ve made. We always go back and start all over again. Fortunately, Katerina and Phanis don’t have any children, that we would have had to raise. You got to find solace where you can.

Sobering.

Markaris portrays a country where politicians are corrupt and let influential people “forget” about their tax obligations, where tax evasion is a national sport for the rich and where the tax administration turns a blind eye to overdue taxes or false declarations. I don’t know the details about the Greek-EU crisis –I heard there’s a good film about it, Adults in the Room by Costa Gavras—but Markaris gives a good idea of its effects on common people.

Now, despite its dark topics, Termination isn’t grim, thanks to Markaris’s sense of humor. Athens is still a giant traffic jam, most of the time and Haritos spends hours maneuvering his SEAT on its busy streets. Athens is also the theatre of constant demonstrations, people protesting against the hardship. Here’s a funny scene from the book:

Quand nous approchons de l’avenue Patission, la circulation reprend, accompagnée d’une clameur venant de Polytechnique. En débouchant sur la place Omonia, on croit quitter le désert du Sahara pour la forêt amazonienne. Les voitures tournent en rond, klaxonnent frénétiquement, les conducteurs cherchent désespérément une sortir. Au centre de la place, des touristes en rade avec leurs bagages contemplent le chaos, terrifiés. Ils ne comprennent visiblement pas comment, partis pour les Cyclades, ils ont atterri dans cette jungle.

– Des Allemands, sans doute.

– Comment le sais-tu ?

– Les Français et les Italiens sont plus habitués. Les Allemands sont tout de suite perdus. Ils croient qu’on va les bouffer. Ils n’ont pas compris que nous autres, nous ne bouffons pas les étrangers. Nous nous bouffons entre nous.

When we reach Patission avenue, the traffic resumes, along with a clamor coming from Polytechnic. When you arrived on plaza Omonia, you’d think you’d just left the Sahara Desert to enter the Amazonian forest. The cars were going in circles, honking their horn at anyone, the drivers desperately looking for a way out. In the middle of the plaza, tourists left there with their luggage are contemplating the chaos, terrified. They really don’t understand how they ended up in this jungle on their way to the Cyclades.

– Germans, without any doubt.

– How do you know?

– The French and the Italians are used to it. The Germans always feel lost. They believe we’re going to eat them. They haven’t understood that us Greek don’t eat foreigners. We eat each other.

Don’t we French know everything about strikes, demonstrations and street chaos!

It is a pity that Termination isn’t available in English. It’s not an outstanding book as far as crime fiction technique is concerned but it’s a good alliance between a crime plot and social criticism, which is also why I enjoy reading crime fiction.

Recommended.

Strangers by Yamada – Japanese Literature Challenge

March 1, 2020 22 comments

Strangers by Yamada (1987) French title: Présences d’un été. Translated by Annick Laurent

I read Strangers by Yamada in January for Japanese Literature Challenge. I’m lucky that Meredith extended the reading time up to March. My late billet is still in. Phew!

Strangers is set in Tokyo, during a summer in the 1980s. Harada, a rather famous TV scriptwriter, is forty-seven, recently divorced and has moved into an apartment in an office complex. The building empties at night and he thinks he’s the only one actually living in this tower. He’s estranged from his grownup son, his parents are dead and he doesn’t have many friends. In other words, he’s lonely.

Two things happen during that summer. First, he meets Kei, an accountant who lives in the building too. He thought he was alone there after working hours but he’s not, he has a neighbor. They soon get acquainted and start an affair.

Then, feeling a bit off-kilter after his divorce, struggling a little to adapt to his newfound singlehood, Harada decides to go back to Asakusa, the Tokyo neighborhood he grew up in. He wants to see his childhood house again. When he arrives there, he meets with the new tenants, who look a lot like his long dead parents and welcome him into their home.

How will Harada’s relationship with Kei evolve? Who are the people who live in his childhood home? Harada is a middle-aged man who has to reassess his life after his divorce. His career is successful but not totally fulfilling. His marriage fell apart and he has no contact with his son. He feels adrift and tries to go back to his roots and to find comfort in Kei. I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgic tone and the blanket of melancholy that settles on Harada’s shoulders. He wants to go back to a happy place and looks for it in his childhood memories. But how destructive is it?

Telling more would spoil the novel for potential readers, so I won’t go further in its description. I’ll just say that the ending was a surprise and that it’s not the kind of books I usually read but I liked it anyway. Yamada describes Tokyo with fondness and the city becomes an important part of this atmospheric story. Harada’s visits to Asakusa, the descriptions of the area, its shops and restaurants give a good vision of the neighborhood, a foot in the past, and a foot in the present. And the story progresses towards a strange ending.

Highly recommended.

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