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Saturday news: gloom and doom but saved by books

October 31, 2020 22 comments

It’s been a while since my last Saturday News billet but I felt I needed one today to reflect on October and try to imagine what November will look like. We’re October 31st and we woke up here to what we call un temps de Toussaint, in other words All Saints’ Day weather. It’s misty, grey, rather cold and depressing, a bit like October.

The month started with bad news. Quino, the creator of the wonderful Mafalda had died.

Photo by Daniel Garcia. AFP

She’s my alias and you can read why I picked her here. It made the news everywhere in France. What can I say, we love witty cartoonists.

Things started to look up on October 3rd, when I went back to the theatre for the first time since this bloody pandemic started. I’ve seen Saint-Félix. Enquête sur un hameau français, written and directed by Elise Chatauret.

Built like a journalistic investigation, we see four city people invading a little village in the French countryside and ask question about a drama. A young woman settled there and started to breed goats. She died a mysterious death and our four investigators want to find out what happened. The text is between tale and journalism. They interview the villagers and we witness small town gossip but also the end of a kind of rural life. Young people have left, the village was dying and this newcomer came and started a new farm. The production was lovely, served the text well and the actors brought this village to life.

Being in the theatre again was great but the atmosphere was subdued. We were not allowed to linger in the bright lighted hall and socialize. It was silent, as we headed to our seats with our masks on and went out in a single file, respecting safety distances. Better than nothing, that’s what I thought.

That was positively cheerful compared to what was yet to come.

Usually, I don’t comment the news here but this time, I need to. On October 16th, Samuel Paty was beheaded for teaching about the freedom of speech. He was a history teacher, he was doing his job, teaching the official syllabus from the French state. Nothing, and I mean it, nothing can justify this assassination. There’s no middle ground on this, no “he should have known better” or “these cartoons are offensive to some people, let’s not show them”. Sorry but no, a thousand times no. The same way women shouldn’t stop wearing short dresses to avoid being raped, we shall not tone down our right to mock, criticize and point out the extremists of this world. We already have a law that restricts the freedom of speech and condemns racism, antisemitism and speeches that advocate hatred and violence. That’s it.

We have fought over a century to earn the right to live in a secular republic, a democracy with freedom of speech and we won’t back down. Caricaturists, chansonniers and humorists are part of our tradition, one that goes back to the 18th century at least. And I’m not sure non-French people realize how deeply rooted in our culture secularism is. In the Third Republic, the one that established once for all freedom of speech and secularism, teachers were the armed arms of the said republic. Assassinating a teacher is stabbing the republic in the heart. So, in the name of our freedom of speech and against fanatics who want to impose their way of thinking…

More about this history when I write my billet about the fascinating book Voices for freedom. Militant writers in the 19th century by Michel Winock.

The month ended with other assassinations of Catholic worshippers in a church in Nice and with the news of a second lockdown until December 1st. Depressing. The doctors already say that Christmas is compromised and the perspective of not seeing my parents for Christmas is dreadful but worst things could happen, right? So, we’re settling for a month of homeworking with our son still going to high school. He joked about it, saying he’ll go out to work when we stay home like children. Daughter is enjoying herself as she’s doing a semester abroad.

With the new lockdown, the French literary world is in motion to protect independent bookstores from bankruptcy. There’s a debate about the question “Are bookstores indispensable businesses?”. Readers rushed to stores on Thursday and some booksellers reported that they sold as many books as on the last Saturday before Christmas. The jury of the Goncourt Prize decided to delay the announcement of the 2020 winner until independent bookstores are open again. Lobbying worked and bookstores are allowed to sell through click-and-collect and due to unfair competition, Fnacs and supermarkets have to close their book sections. Let’s hope that it will not boost Amazon’s sales. We are determined to maintain our lovely network of independent libraires.

Staying home means more reading time and luckily, November is rife with bookish events. I hope to participate to several of them.

German Lit Month is hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, AusReading Month, by Brona, Novella in November, by Rebecca at Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746Books. And there’s also Non-Fiction November.

I’ve gathered my books for the month, my pile is made of my Book Club pick, my Read The West readalong and others from the TBR that fit into November bookish events.

Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement by Assia Djebar is our Book Club read and The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert is my Read the West book. Then I have The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower for AusReading Month. The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper is Australian non-fiction. For German Lit Month, I’ve picked from the shelves The Confusion of Young Törless by Robert Musil and a novella by Thomas Bernhard, Concrete. I’m not sure I’ll have time to read them all but it’s good to have goals, right?

Regular reader of Book Around the Corner know that I’m a fan of Duane Swierczynski. I follow him on Twitter and last year, he sadly lost his teenage daughter Evie to cancer. He’s organizing Evie’s Holiday Book Drive, a book donation to the Children’s Hospital in LA. It’s from October 23 to December 4. There are details about how to donate on the poster and on this web site, The Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation. Duane Swierczynski tweets at @swierczy.

In the middle of all this, I stumbled upon an article by Nancy Huston in the Translittérature magazine, issue by the French association of literary translators. She wrote about the English version of Romain Gary’s books. (She’s a fan too) He supervised the ‘translations’ of his books, wrote some directly in English and then did a French version of them. I realized that I never investigated who translated Gary’s books in English and I went online to get as many English versions of his books as I could find. I already had White Dog, The Ski Bum and the recently published The Kites. Now I also have Lady L, The Enchanters, King Solomon, Europa and The Talent Scout.

December 2nd will be the fortieth anniversary of Gary’ death and I’m up to something…

While I was writing all this, the sun came out and our gloomy morning turned into a sunny afternoon. I hope it’ll translate into this month of November.

What about you? How is it going on in your world’s corner?

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