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Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd – Meet Edmond and his family in the Armenian community in Iran.

October 10, 2021 8 comments

Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd (1997) French title: Un jour avant Pâques. Translated from the Persian by Christophe Balaÿ.

This is my last billet about the twenty books I read this summer for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge. It’s OK, it’s Indian summer at the moment, right?

I hoped to write about Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd for WIT Month but my TBW pile was too high. The French title of the book is Un jour avant Pâques, The Day Before Easter and it seems to be the direct translation of the original title. And it makes sense.

Born in 1952, Zoyâ Pirzâd is an Iranian writer from the Armenian community in Iran. Her book Space Between Us is set in this community and covers several decades of the main character’s life, Edmond. Three chapters, each set at a key moment of Edmond’s life, all three times around Easter day.

In the first chapter, Edmond is twelve. He’s an only child and lives in a small town by the Caspian Sea. His father is the director of the local Armenian school. Edmond’s best friend is Tahereh, the concierge’s daughter. She’s Muslim but goes to the Armenian school too, since its more practical. A drama will occur in the tight-knit community, forcing Edmond to grow up.

In the second chapter, Edmond is older, married to Marta and they now live in Teheran. They have a grownup daughter, Alenouche who announces that she’ll marry her Muslim boyfriend. Edmond accepts it willingly but Marta is rigid about it, a Christian devout and she takes it as a personal insult.

In the last chapter, Edmond is even older, a widower now. He hasn’t seen his daughter in four years, since her fight with Marta.

Space Between Us is a lovely book. It’s very poetical in its description of childhood, of food and smells. It has a melancholic ring that matches Edmond’s temper. He’s a quiet child, Tahereh is the daring part of their duo. He’s observant too and shares his thoughts about his family and the Armenian community around him. He knows that his mother is not the traditional Armenian mother, she’s not keen on housekeeping and she had to live with a formidable mother-in-law. Edmond’s father is a quiet man too who loves his wife the way she is and never pressures her to comply to traditions but the community, though helpful, is also stifling.

Marta was thick as thieves with Edmond’s grandmother. They shared the same sense of community, a strong will to keep traditions alive and not change anything in their vision of the place of men and women in a couple, the duties children had to pay or the fact that one remained in their community.

The grandmother never liked Edmond’s friendship with Tahereh and Marta didn’t take Alenouche’s engagement well. It felt more like a will to keep the Armenian community alive, not to have it dissolved into the Iranian society than anything else. They are survivors of the Armenian genocide and they have the duty to keep their community and their traditions alive not to lose their identity and lose their history. It would mean forget about their lost country, about the genocide and their tragedy as a people.

Zoyâ Pirzâd doesn’t write a political novel. She writes about the quotidian, its little beauties and the family traditions. She takes us into Edmond’s life, full of ladybugs, friendship, painted Easter eggs and Armenian dishes. He sees family politics with his child’s eyes and, as an adult, lives through it by avoiding conflicts. The French cover of the book, a watercolor is perfect for the book.

Pirzâd’s writing reminded me of Philip Roth’s when he describes the Newark of his childhood or when Peter Balakian remembers his youth in New Jersey among his Armenian family in The Black Dog of Fate, also published in 1997. A community of immigrants in a country with other traditions.

Highly recommended, both Space Between Us and The Black Dog of Fate.

20 Books of Summer 2021 : It’s a wrap!

September 4, 2021 20 comments

I’m late with the wrap-up of my 20 Books of Summer challenge. Life got in the way of blogging lately, mostly for good reasons. Holidays. Getaway weekends. Driving our daughter back to her campus. This summer, I’ve read 20 books, abandoned one, and wrote only 13 billets. *sheepish* I read seven books out of the original list.

I don’t think I’ll be able to catch up with all the billets as I’m drowning in work and I keep reading and adding to the billets pile.

I’m happy with my armchair travelling as my books took me to Egypt, Pennsylvania, Montana, Australia, Mississippi, Romania, Iran, Scotland, France, Denmark, Tennessee, New York, Colombia, Texas and Massachusetts.

As I began to compile the list of books, I noticed several recurring themes, all unintentional.

Uprooted, colonized and ostracized people

L’Arche de Noé by Khaled Al Khamissi. From story to story, the reader discovers all the reasons why people want to leave Egypt and how to emigrate to a Western country.

A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara. Set in the Northern Territory in Australia, this satire explores the absurdity of the Aboriginal ordinances Act of 1918. You need to read it to believe the way Aborigines were treated by the Australian government.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Matthis. Mini billet upcoming. I expected to like this one better than I did.

The Man Who Saw the Flood and Down by the River Side by Richard Wright who comes back to the devastating 1921 flood in Mississippi.

Terre des affranchis by Liliana Lazar. Mini billet upcoming. Liliana Lazar is a French writer of Romanian origin. She writes in French but the story is set in her native corner of Romania. It’s not available in English.

Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd. Mini billet upcoming. I wish I had had the time and energy to write about this one for WIT Month. She’s an Iranian writer and Space Between Us is a lovely book that deserves to be read. It is set among the Armenian community in Iran.

In Search of One’s Self

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I wasn’t completely fine with this one, too many irritating clichés for my tastes.

Rosa Candida by Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir. A coming-of-age novel and thoughts about fatherhood, filiation, parenting and gardening.

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane. The story of an outsider from Montana who feels like a fraud as painter but cannot run the ranch he inherited either.

Art related books

Sundborn ou les jours de lumière by Philippe Delerm. Sundborn is about a group of Scandinavian painters and incidentally, there’s an exhibition about one of them, Kroyer at the Musée Marmottan-Monet in Paris. You enjoyed the paintings I included in my billet. Here’s one of them

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka MuhlsteinThis is a perfect companion read for In Search of Lost Time. It focuses on reading in Proust’s masterpiece and on his literary influences.

Vers la beauté by David Foenkinos. Antoine, an art history teacher, becomes a museum attendant at the Musée d’Orsay after his life is turned upside down. Will staring at his favorite Modigliani painting heal his wounds?

The crime fest was bigger than expected.

Vintage by Grégoire Hervier. This one took me in search of a mysterious guitar and to the origins of rock music. I ended up with a new blues and rock playlist. Plus I had fun looking up all the guitars he talks about.

The Lonely Witness by William Boyle. An excellent neo-noir book set in the atmospheric Brooklyn.

Perdre est une question de méthode by Santiago Gamboa. I enjoyed my visit to Bogota in company of Victor Silanpa, journalist extraordinaire and amateur sleuth.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke. I loved this multilayered book as it explores the early 80s in booming Houston, its oil industry, the years after the civil rights movement and the main character’s personal struggles.

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan. Upcoming billet. A book I’m ready to buy to all my friends and another great find by Gallmeister.

Money Shot by Christa Faust. Upcoming billet. This is the first book with Angel Dare, former porn star. It’s a hell of a ride in the world of crime and porn industry.

Dark Island by Susanna Crossman. No billet. I bought this one at Quais du Polar and read it right away. It’s the dark tale of a group of people who are invited by Josh on an isolated island in Brittany. Josh’s personality makes people uneasy and the tensions in the group are a recipe for drama. I haven’t been able to figure out whether it’s available in English or not. The author is British, the book has been written in English and yet it seems to be only available in French translation.

Colin-Maillard à Ouessant by Françoise Le Mer. No billet. A thriller set in Ouessant, Britanny. The plot was well drawn, the duo of inspectors was an odd pair but the writing wasn’t as fine as like it in my crime books now. It’s the first of a series, it may be a bit clumsy before the series improves.

Abandoned book

Call Mr Fortune by H.C. Bailey. It’s cozy crime from the 1920s, a collection of short stories with Dr Fortune as the amateur sleuth. The plots have the complexity of a Scooby Doo episode. The humor is fun but the stories weren’t catchy enough to keep my attention. And since reading hours are a rare commodity, on the Abandoned Books pile it went.

Books from the original list that I didn’t read

  • Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett
  • Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash
  • Ballad of Dogs’ Beach by José Cardoso Pires
  • The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury
  • Tales From the Otherworld by Ji Yun
  • On Monday Last Week and The Shivering by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’m still interested in reading them, of course but I read Dark Island, Lesser Evils, Space Between Us right after buying them. When I received Eleanor Oliphant through my Kube subscription, an easy read was what I needed at the time, so I dived into it. I had Black Water Rising on the shelf and a discussion with Buried in Print pushed me to finally read it. I couldn’t resist Open Press’s copy of Monsieur Proust’s Library and I now have two other books by Anka Mulhstein on the TBR. And my visit to the Musée d’Orsay led me to Antoine from Vers la beauté.

I read 14 books from the TBR but new books have joined the pile. Oh well, now I’m all set for the next reading months.

Categories: Challenges, Personal Posts Tags:

20 Books of Summer Episode ’21: I’m in!

May 8, 2021 48 comments

It’s that time of year again! We’re planning for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer. The aim is to read 20 books from June 1st to August 31st. For most of you, it’s no big deal. It’s going to be a challenge for me, especially after starting a new job a month ago. But I’ll still try and, in any case, I had fun making my list, with a constraint: pick books that are already on the TBR.

Last year I did several categories, i.e. Book Club Choices, Read-the-West-With-Sister-In-Law, Ghosts of Trips Past, Ghost of the Missed Trip, Ghost of the Upcoming Trip to France. This year, I’ve decided upon categories as well.

*Drum roll*

THE LIST

Book Club choices.

This category remains as I’m still reading a book per month with my Book Club girlfriends. We’ve already picked:

  • L’Arche de Noé by Khaled Al Khamissi (Egypt) –– Not available in English
  • The Twelve Tribes of Hattie By Ayana Matthis (USA)

There’s another book TBD since at the moment, I don’t know what our choice for August will be.

With-Sister-In-Law Readalong choices

I’m on a monthly readalong with my sister-in-law too and our summer books are:

  • Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane (USA)
  • The Lonely Witness by William Boyle (USA)
  • Money Shot by Christa Faust (USA)

Upcoming bookish events

If these events are organized as usual, I plan on reading a book for Lisa’s Indigenous Lit Week in June, two for Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month.

  • A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (Australia)
  • Ballad of Dogs’ Beach by José Cardoso Pires (Portugal)
  • Perdre est une question de méthode by Santiago Gamboa (Colombia) – Not available in English. The title means Losing Is a Question of Methodology and it intrigued me when I saw it in a bookstore.

Cut the Kube TBR

Kube is my monthly blind date with a book chosen by a libraire. So far so good, they sent books I would have bought myself and I’d heard of only one of the books they sent my way. I haven’t read two of them:

  • The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury (USA) It’s a Gallmeister book, I should be OK.
  • Rosa Candida by Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir (Iceland) I’m curious about this one, published by Zulma, an excellent publisher.

Of course, I’ll get new ones in June, July and August.

Old TBR members

Some books have been on the TBR for a looong time. I thought it was high time to read…

  • Terre des affranchis by Liliana Lazar (France/Romania) – Not available in English. Liliana Lazar was born in Romania, emigrated in France and writes in French.
  • Sundborn ou les jours de lumière by Philippe Delerm (France) – Not available in English. Delerm’s book is about the community of Scandinavian painters who lived in Grez-sur-Loing in France.

Cheating with the 2€ Folio collection

The 2€ Folio collection is made of short books (around 100 pages), often short stories by well-known writers and it’s a good way to sample a writer’s style and see if it’s worth trying a longer work. These three will help me reach the 20 books count.

  • Nouvelles de l’au-delà by Ji Yun (China) – Tales From the Otherworld (18th C)
  • The Man Who Saw the Flood and Down by the River Side by Richard Wright (1961 & 1938), from the collection of short stories Eight Men (1961) and Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) It was published in this collection after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans.
  • On Monday Last Week and The Shivering by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Crime fest

On top of Boyle and Faust, already mentioned in my readalong picks, I love to read crime books while I’m on holiday or at home by the pool. I may switch some books later, after Quais du Polar, the crime festival in Lyon, scheduled for the first weekend of July. But at the moment, my choices are:

  • Colin-Maillard à Ouessant by Françoise Le Mer (France) – Not available in English. Set in Brittany, it will be a great reminder of last year’s holidays in this beautiful region.
  • Vintage by Grégoire Hervier (France) – Not available in English. This is a rock-blues thriller that should take me on a road trip to Scotland, Paris, Sydney and The Blues Highway, a trip I’ll definitely make as soon as my children are 21 and allowed in bars.
  • Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett, USA, 2019.

Kindle Books to read while Mr Emma is driving.

I get car sick if I read a paper book but I don’t have this problem with Kindle books! 😊 So, I’ve added two books from the Kindle TBR for the long drives to our vacation spots.

  • Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (USA)
  • Call Mr Fortune by H.C Bailey (UK)

And that’s it. 19 books, plus the unknown Book Club choice for August. 20 opportunities to cut into the TBR. The good news is that I’m still interested in reading the books that are on the TBR, even if some have been there for a long time.

What about you? Will you take part in 20 Books of Summer too? Have you read any book on my list?

The #1936Club starts tomorrow – some reading suggestions

April 11, 2021 26 comments

Tomorrow starts the #1936 Club co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It lasts a week, from April 12th to April 18th.

I’m in with two books, Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie with clever Hercule Poirot and Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell with stupid Gordon. I should be able to post my billets about these two books in the upcoming week.

Incidentally, I’ve read two other books published in 1936 in the last four months.

In December, our Book Club had chosen War With the Newts by Karel Čapek, a stunning dystopian fiction. It’s an odd book, a strange patchwork of narration, board minutes, newspaper articles and other sources. It takes us to a fictional world where a population of working newts colonizes the world. It’s a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfalls of wild capitalism. If you haven’t read it, the #1936 Club might be the perfect time to do it.

In March, for Southern Cross Crime Month hosted by Kim at Reading Matters, I read Death in Ecstasy by Nagaio Marsh, a clever and entertaining investigation by Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn and his journalist friend Nigel Bathgate. It’s a perfect read to spend an evening with a book and forget about the world. Readers of classic crime will have a great time with it.

I also would like to draw your attention to Return to Coolami by Eleanor Dark. According to its blurb, it is an emotional novel that explores the psychological impact of four people thrown closely together during the course of a (…) two-day motor car trip from Sydney, across the Blue Mountains to the country property, Coolami. I heard of it in January, when Bill at The Australian Legend hosted his Australian Women Writer Generation 3 Week. I haven’t read it yet (I might read it in the summer when Lisa organizes her Eleanor Dark Week) but I’ve read her Lantana Lane and really enjoyed her writing.

I realize that this billet reveals one thing: how dynamic is our corner of the bookish bloggosphere. Events are numerous, varied and remain a wonderful and friendly opportunity to discover new books or eventually read ones lying on the TBR. Many thanks to all the bloggers who take the time to host such events.

Happy #1936 Club!

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?

20 Books of Summer, it’s a wrap! And I’ve made it! :-)

August 31, 2020 18 comments

Congratulations to me, I completed the 20 Books of Summer challenge. I’ve read 21 books from June 1st to August 31st. OK, I abandoned two of them but only after reading at least 120 pages of each. Out of the 21 books read, 17 come from the TBR, so that’s good.

I didn’t have time to write a billet about the 21 books, I’m only at billet 14 but I did seven Literary Escapades billets from June to August. I guess it makes up for the missing “book review” billets. Since September is going to be very busy at work and slow on reading, I’ll catch up and 20 Books of Summer will turn into 20 Books of Indian Summer. Is that OK with you? 😊

In my billet introducing the 20 Books of Summer challenge, I explained that I’d read books for my book club, books I’m reading along with my sister-in-law, books that represent the Ghosts of Trips Past, the Ghost of the Missed Trip –I was supposed to visit Wyoming, Montana and Colorado this summer—and the Ghost of the Backup Trip to Brittany, France.

So, here’s a wrap-up of my last reading months.

My first readalong was our Book Club’s choices.

 1 – Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski.

 2 – Snow by Orhan Pamuk

 3 – La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio

While I had a lot of fun taking a walk on the wild timeline of Expiration Date –I think I could read anything by Duane Swierszynski— I couldn’t finish Snow or La Horde du Contrevent, the two books I abandoned. They are well-written and well-constructed books but they didn’t work for me.

My second readalong was Read-the-West-With-Sister-In-Law. We had picked three excellent books.

4 – The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke. If you’ve never read anything by Burke, just add him to your TBR.

5 – Cathedral by Raymond Carver. Beautifully written short stories.

6 – Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo. The billet is yet to come but I’m so sorry that Richard Hugo didn’t have time to write other crime fiction books. How could he die on us before writing other books? I hope he’s trout fishing with WG Tapply in the great rivers in the sky.

I enjoyed all the books from the Ghost of Trips Past

7 – Québec: Therese, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay. The billet is upcoming and I loved visiting with Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone in Montreal in the 1940s. The language is a delight and Tremblay doesn’t write a classic childhood book.

8 – Sicily: Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia. A chilling parody that unveils the absurdity of Italian politics and the deep roots of dishonesty in public life.

9 – Spain: Nada by Carmen Laforêt. I read it along with Vishy for Spanish Lit Month and we both found it stunning. Laforêt was so young to write such a powerful and novel. Barcelona in the 1940s is trying to recover from the Civil War and it left wounds.

10 – Australia: Blood by Tony Birch. I read it for Lisa’s Indigenous Lit Week. Two children stick together to have a better life and escape from their absentee mother’s claws.

11 – Portugal: Lisbon’s Poets. This was my first introduction to Portuguese poetry and a nice souvenir to bring back from a lovely trip to Portugal.

12 – UK: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. Berlin in the early 1930s and how the Nazis take over the city and its inhabitants’ lives.

13 – Denmark: The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg. Honestly, I still can’t make up my ind about this one. I found it charming and irritating, refreshing and fake, funny and profound.

14 – Hungary: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy. The billet is yet to come. A true Krúdy book that I read in English because there’s no French translation. In true Krúdy fashion, it’s funny and melancholic with a scatterbrained womanizer.

15 – USA: Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante. Another upcoming billet. I’ve read several Fante (and will read another soon) and I loved them all. This one belongs to the Bandini Quartet and reuniting with Arturo was as delightful as ever.

There’s the Ghost of the Missed Trip and its two books, although Death and the Good Life qualifies for this as well.

16 –The Overstory by Richard Powers. This is a book tree, powerful but a bit cold. Powers was on a mission and it’s a clever book, I thought I lacked passion for the characters.

17 – The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson. I read it during a long car drive and I was happy to go back to Wyoming and see Sheriff Longmire again. Upcoming billet about a great Beach & Public Transport book.

Ghost of the Backup Trip to Brittany, France. For this, I switched books and ended up reading books set in Brittany:

18 – Last Concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen. I discovered a Breton publisher of crime fiction novels. I bought two and read this one. The billet will come in September and it was a decent polar.

19 – Fisherman of Iceland by Pierre Loti. A surprise and accompanied by a great literary escapade in Ploubazlanec, or how to mix literature, books and tourism.

And, last but not least, a bridge between the three Ghost Trips, between France and the USA and both in line with the news.

20 – Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, written in 2007 for the 20th anniversary of Baldwin’s death. Upcoming billet.

21 – Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira. It was very educational and I would recommend it to French readers.

On the list and not read:

  • Who You Think I Am by Camille Laurens
  • An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg.
  • A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How To Do by Pete Fromm

I’ll catch up on those because I still intend to read them. I’m looking forward to the Fromm, I keep hearing that he’s an outstanding novelist.

Many thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for organizing this fun event. I’ll do it again if you’re up for it next year.

And what about you? Did you take part to 20 Books of Summer challenge? If yes, please leave a link to your wrap-up post in the comments. I’ll enjoy reading what you’ve been up to.

Categories: Challenges Tags:

20 Books of Summer – 20 Books Around the Corner

May 17, 2020 35 comments

Cathy at 746 Books launches her yearly challenge of 20 Books of Summer. The title is self-explanatory: Read 20 books in June, July and August.

Twenty books in three months is a lot for me. I usually manage to read a book per week but I’m willing to try this year since I’m working remotely until the end of August and will save the time and fatigue of commuting to work. I might make it. Now to the fun part: book picking!

I’m already committed to reading with my Book Club and to a Read The West readalong with my sister-in-law. That’s five books. How to choose the fifteen others?

Thanks to a pesky virus, my trip to Montana and Wyoming is cancelled and I’m still grieving this missed opportunity. (Rich white girl problem, I know) So I decided that 20 Books of Summer would be a celebration of the ghosts of trips past, the ghost of the missed trip and the ghost of the upcoming trip to France. I’ll read books related to these summers. If I know where I bought the book, I’ll mention it, as a friendly hello to independent bookstores who have to survive the tempest of this worldwide lockdown.

*Drum roll*

Here are my twenty choices

Book Club choices.

  1. Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski
  2. Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Read-the-West-With-Sister-In-Law choices

  1. Montana: The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke
  2. Cathedral by Raymond Carver
  3. Montana: Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo

Ghost of Trips Past

  1. Québec: Therese, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay (Québec City)
  2. Sicily: Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia
  3. Spain: Nada by Carmen Laforêt
  4. Australia: Blood by Tony Birch (Readings, Melbourne)
  5. Portugal: Lisbon’s Poets (Bertrand, Lisbon)
  6. UK: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (London)
  7. Denmark: The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg (Copenhagen)
  8. Hungary: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy (Budapest)
  9. USA: Wait Until Spring, Bandini (City Light Bookstore, San Francisco)

Ghost of the Missed Trip

  1. Wyoming: An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg
  2. The Overstory by Richard Powers
  3. Wyoming: The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson
  4. Montana: A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How To Do by Pete Fromm

Ghost of Upcoming Trip to France

  1. Who You Think I Am by Camille Laurens

And, last but not least, a bridge between the three Ghost Trips, between France and the USA

  1. Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, a letter to James Baldwin.

I’m happy with my list: a mix of lit fiction, short-stories, poetry, non-fiction and crime. Some in English, some in French.

I’m not sure I’ll have time to read all these books but I had a lot of fun making up the list. It’s also a good way to push myself to read more from my TBR. I know I’ll buy new books anyway, we need to support our independent bookstores, and I’ve decided to reallocate to book buying all the toll money saved up with homeworking. A perfectly good excuse to indulge in a book buying spree.

Will you participate to Cathy’s challenge too?

Categories: Challenges Tags: ,

Next reading club year is 1956: It’s heaven sent, I’m rooting for this edition

April 27, 2020 20 comments

Kaggsy and Simon have announced the year they chose for the next reading club. The idea is to read books published in a specific year and write reviews about them.

It will be 1956 and it will take place from October 5 to October 11.

Can you imagine that The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary was published on October 5th, 1956?

Now, is there any other book to read for #1956Club? It’s serendipity! 😊

The Roots of Heaven won Gary his first Prix Goncourt. Set in Africa, we follow Morel, an early environmentalist who fights against the killing of elephants. Morel is assisted in his task by two misfits, Minna and Forsythe. In Morel’s mind, the destruction of nature leads to the destruction of humanity and while saving elephants from extinction sounds futile, it’s actually symbolic. If we lose that fight, what will become of humanity?

Est-ce que nous ne sommes vraiment plus capables de respecter la nature, la liberté vivante, sans aucun rendement, sans utilité, sans autre objet que de se laisser entrevoir de temps en temps? Are we no longer able to respect nature— freedom in living form —, which offers no yield, no usefulness, which has no other aim than to let itself be observed from time to time? 

Can you imagine that Gary wrote this in 1956? What would he think about the environmental crisis we’re facing now? The Roots of Heaven also mentions the burgeoning fight for independence of African colonies and Gary proves to have a lot of insight when you know what will happen next.

If you want to know more about this outstanding novel, I recommend James Henderson’s review.

But there were other noteworthy books published in 1956. I’ve done a bit of research and came up with:

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. This one I want to read as I’m a Baldwin fan.*

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming. Espionage isn’t my cup of tea, I’ll skip this one.

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. I really recommend this one and my billet about it is here.

There’s Always a Price Tag by James Hadley Chase. I don’t know what this one’s worth.

French Leave by PG Wodehouse. I’d like to read this one, just because of the title, especially since in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, literally, to take the English leave. It’s all a question of perspective, right?

Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Mishima. I guess everyone has heard of classic of Japanese literature.

The Fall by Albert Camus. I read this one a long time ago and a re-read could be welcome.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa. (Diadorim, in French translation) I’ve had this daunting masterpiece on the shelf for ages. Maybe it’s time to read it.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. I really recommend Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. It’s wonderful and full of life.

The Fingerprint by Patricia Wentworth (La Trace dans l’ombre, in French) I’ve read it pre-blog. I used to read a lot of easy crime fiction like Wentworth when my children were little and when juggling with toddlers, a full-time job and other obligations didn’t leave a lot of brain power to read. I have fond memories of these books.

Nedjma by Yacine Kateb. I’ve never heard of this one but I’m tempted to read a novel by an Algerian writer published during the time of French colonization. I’d like to read more about it from the Algerian perspective.

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Mcdonald (La côte barbare, in French) Gallmeister has started to publish new translations of Mcdonald’s books, it could be an opportunity to read one.

– In 1956, Ed McBain published three books of the 87th Precinct series, Cop Hater, The Mugger and The Pusher. Has anyone read them?

The Diamond Bikini by Charles Williams. Does anyone know if it’s good?

– For French readers, there’s L’histoire d’une solitude by Milán Füst, a Hungarian book not translated into English.

I already know that I won’t be able to read all these books but I had a lot of fun researching them and you should have seen me internally squeal when I discovered that 1956 was the next chosen year. 1956, the year The Roots of Heaven was published!

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.

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John – the waste of a relationship

November 3, 2019 14 comments

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John (1997) Not available in French. (Translation Tragedy)

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John is set in London, even if its author is Australian. I wonder why this novel needed to be in London, Sydney or Melbourne would have done the trick too. Well.

One night, when Nicola comes home after going out to buy a pack of cigarettes, her partner Jonathan tells her to come and sit down. The ominous “We need to talk” arrives and he coldly informs her that he wants her to leave their flat.

He considers that their relationship has run its course, he doesn’t want to live with her anymore, and since she can’t afford to buy him out, he will. He calmly explains that everything is settled, he’ll be gone for the weekend, implying she should be gone when he comes back. Meanwhile, he’ll stay in the spare room. Come Monday morning, a real estate agent will evaluate the flat’s worth.

Nicola is stunned, she never saw that one coming, she thought they were in a happy relationship. At first, she listens to him, flabbergasted. She thinks he doesn’t mean it. And she slowly realizes that yes, he’s serious and that she’ll have to leave her home.

We see Nicola stumble, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She’s obliged to move on. Her friend Susannah is outraged for her and tells her she can move in with her family as long as she needs it. The dialogues between Nicola and her friends, between Susannah and her husband Geoffrey introduce a bit of lightness in the sadness. We witness the end of a relationship, the crushing pain inflicted on Nicola by a cold Jonathan.

Soon, Nicola finds her backbone and demands answers. She wants to know what happened, since when he felt that way and she feels utterly betrayed that he never mentioned anything before he reached the point of making such a rash and final decision.

Nicola loves him deeply and he says he doesn’t love her anymore. She wonders what she did wrong and her self-worth crumbles quickly. Her heart is broken but so is her self-esteem. She feels unworthy and questions her judgment: how could she be so blind and misread him that much?

We see her holding on to her job, taking care of the painful details of separating her life from Jonathan’s and living through her heartache. Jonathan’s rash actions planted darts in her self at several points at the same time: her heart, her pride and her self-esteem.

Nicola lay under the bedclothes, hunched around her pain, despising herself.

She despised herself for her failure to oppose Jonathan’s frozen blankness with the tears and shrieks which would have expressed her true feelings. She despised herself for the mean little sarcasms which had been her only mode of attack—she despised herself even though these slights had found their petty targets, because the wounded pride to which they gave expression was—or ought to be—the least of her complaints. She believed that the wound Jonathan had dealt to her heart (her truly loving, trusting, faithful heart) was a more serious and honourable wound than that to her self-esteem. She supposed these two could be differentiated, and so long as they could, she had shown him nothing of the real pain she was suffering. In the face of his cast-iron indifference she was apparently as dumb and cold as he. She despised herself for this dumb coldness. She had never before so plainly been shown the difficulty, the near-impossibility, of speaking truly to an interlocutor who will not hear, but she knew one must attempt it nevertheless, and thus far she had failed even to make the attempt. She swore she would make it on the morrow, and at last, wretched, now, beyond tears, she slept.

But we also see Jonathan’s side and discover a man who made a decision thinking he was doing the right thing. But why doesn’t he feel more relieved or happier?

Madeleine St John vividly describes the end of a love affair. I felt Nicola’s pain and heard with horror all the hurtful words that Jonathan threw at her with perfect calm. As you can see in the previous quote, St John conveys Nicola’s sorrow and you cannot help but empathise with her.

As the story unfolds, we understand that Jonathan is clueless, unable to express his feelings properly, even to himself and whatever they are. At first, like Susannah, I thought he was a perfect rat and then I felt sorry for him.

Apart from watching the train wreck of Nicola and Jonathan’s relationship, I had fun with all the French words peppered in the text. Lots of French words. Without any footnote or translation. How do you deal with that? And, as usual, the only French character has an improbable name considering he’s young and we’re in 1997. After a young Jean-Paul in a book by Max Barry and a young Michel in Zadie Smith, now a young Jean-Claude. Writers, these are typical baby-boomers’ names.

Apart from this slight mishap only visible to a French reader, The Essence of Thing is book like the marmalade that Jonathan’s mother makes. It’s a good balance between the sassy conversations of the minor characters who rally around Nicola and the bitterness of the end of Nicola and Jonathan’s couple.

Highly recommended.

You can read Lisa’s review here.

This was my second book by Madeleine St John. The first one was The Women In Black and my billet is here.

It is also a contribution to Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

AusReadingMonth: Lexicon by Max Barry – “Words are weapons sharper than knives”

November 1, 2019 17 comments

Lexicon by Max Barry (2013) Not available in French.

Wil Parke is brutally kidnapped at Chicago airport. A mysterious team takes him to the lavatories and try to make him confess his true identity. He doesn’t know what this is all about. He’s a carpenter and his girlfriend is waiting for him at the arrivals. That’s all he knows. Things get violent quite fast and a man named Tom explains that their pursuants are “poets”, members of an organisation where leaders take the name of famous dead poets.

A mass killing happened a year before in Broken Hill, Australia. The whole population of the town was killed. Officially, it’s due to industrial leakage but the organisation knows that their agent Virginia Woolf went there with a weapon of mass destruction. She escaped and Wil is the only other survivor. He seems to be immune to the weapon. Problem 1: The weapon is still in Broken Hill and nobody can approach it without dying. Problem 2: Virginia Woolf is on the loose and she’s very dangerous. Poor Wil finds himself in the crossfire of two different factions among the poets and has to fight for his life.

Lexicon alternates chapters between the ongoing man hunt and Virginia Woolf’s story. Her name was Emily Duff. She was a sixteen-year old girl playing tricks on the streets in San Francisco when she was recruited to attend a special school near Washington DC. The school head is a poet, Charlotte Brontë. Her teachers are Lowell and Eliot. At the school, students learn the art of manipulating people’s minds. This is Emily’s epiphany:

But the truth was, she had just figured it out. Attention words. A single word wasn’t enough. Not even for a particular segment. The brain had defences, filters evolved over millions of years to protect against manipulation. The first was perception, the process of funnelling an ocean of sensory input down to a few key data packages worthy of study by the cerebral cortex. When data got by the perception filter, it received attention. And she saw new that it must be like that all the way down: There must be words to attack each filter. Attention words and then maybe desire words and logic words and urgency words and command words. This was what they were teaching her. How to craft a string of words that would disable the filters one by one, unlocking each mental tumbler until the mind’s last door swung open.

The poets master the art of “compromising” people, meaning that they take control over their minds and make them do what they want. Students learn languages, psychology and neuroscience. People are put into narrow segments, each segment reacts to certain words that make their mental walls collapse, enabling the poet to take over their mind. This is what it feels like:

Vartix velkor mannik wissick. Be still.”

Her mouth snapped closed. It happened before she realised what she was doing. The surprise was thet it felt like her decision. She really, genuinely wanted to be still. It was the words. Yeats, compromising her, she knew, but it didn’t feel like that at all. Her brain was spinning with rationalisations, reasons why she should definitely be still right new, why that was a really good move, and it was talking in her voice. She hadn’t known compromise was like this.

Frightening power, isn’t it?

What happened to Emily? Are Wil and Eliot right to be afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or should they be more concerned about Yeats, the director of the organisation? The two branches of the story converge in the end, giving the reader a whole picture of what happened. It is hard to give more details about the plot without giving away too much. This blog is spoiler free, so…

In Lexicon, Max Barry explores the power of language and how people can be manipulated. He imagines that the most lethal weapon is a word, a word so powerful that people die around it. The leaders of the organisation are poets because they are good with words. At their school, students have to learn to control their mind. They know they could be “compromised” and they know how to do it to others. They are taught to mask their feelings. Desires are unwanted, even basic ones like the desire to love and be loved. Desires are weaknesses and poets must keep their thoughts under a tight leash.

Emily is somehow resistant to it. She grew up cheating to survive and this instinct stays strong in her. Eliot never managed to tame his natural tendency to empathy. In the eyes of perfectly controlled Yeats, Eliot is weak. These two have one thing in common: they bend the rules because they don’t have the same ironclad control that the others have.

Lexicon plays with the idea of dominating people by feeding them words so well chosen that they target specific responses. Poets do what ill-intention press does, what social network can do, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us. The master idea behind the organisation is that if you manage to attach someone to his adequate psychological segment, you’ll know how to get to him.

Now I have a question for English literature specialists. I’m not a good reader of poetry, not even in French, so I don’t know well Anglophone poetry either. Of course, I know about Yeats, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and other poets mentioned in the book. What I don’t know is what their names trigger in a British or American mind. Is it normal that the dissident poet is TS Eliot? Does it mean something that the cold, unfeeling and repressed leader is named Yeats? For example, when Yeats-the character says this…

“When I experience base physiological needs for food, water, air, sleep, and sex, I follow protocols in order to satisfy them without experiencing desire. Yes, it’s funny.”

“You fucking what?”

“It’s required to maintain a defence against compromise. Desire is weakness. I’m sure I explained this.”

…does it make any sense compared to Yeats-the-real-poet? I’d be grateful for a little bit of insight. I’m afraid I missed some subtext.

Lexicon is the kind of dystopian fiction you want to have on a long plane journey. It’s a page-turner, it’s entertaining and it makes you think.

This is my fifth Max Barry after Company, about the absurdity of corporate life and management methods (anyone in HR should read it), Syrup, about marketing and the launch of a new soda on the market, Jennifer Government, about consumerism, Machine Man, about transhumanism. All books are dystopian fiction and work around an angle of our contemporary societies. My favourite ones are Company and Jennifer Government. A new novel, Providence is expected in March 2020.

For another review of Lexicon, read Guy’s here. Thanks again, Guy, for introducing me to Max Barry. I also read it as my participation to Brona’s AusReadingChallenge. It’ll last the whole month of November.

My year of reading Australia

January 3, 2019 34 comments

Before disclosing my best of 2018, I’d like to come back to my year of reading Australian Literature. End of 2017, I wrote a billet asking for recommendations and came out with an incredible list of suggestions. I read or tried to read a total of 19 books, which is a good score for me since I read 55 books in 2018, including the twelve of my book club.

I decided to participate to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and read or tried to read nine books by female authors, so I qualify for the Miles level (6 books read) and almost reached the Franklin level (10 books read).

In January, I got into the Australian Women Writes Gen 1 Week, organized by Bill at The Australian Legend. That month, I also read my first indigenous book along with Lisa.

It was True Country by Kim Scott. I had read about Aboriginal literature on Lisa’s blog but it was the first time I dived into a book where a group of white teachers and educators started their job at a mission in the Northern Territory. The cultural shock was incredible. The main character, Billy is a métis and his appointment at the Catholic mission is also his come back to country.

I continued by journey through Aboriginal culture and issues in June when I signed up for Indigenous Literature Week organized by Lisa, at ANZ Lit Lovers. I read Of Ashes and Rivers That Flows to The Sea by Marie Munkara, the poignant true story of a woman who is an unfortunate member of the Stolen Generations, a term to call the Aboriginals who were taken away from their families to be raised by white parents or state-run or religious institutions.

I ended my journey around Aboriginal issues with Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. It’s an excellent collection of texts by Aboriginal Australians who describe what it meant to grow up Aboriginal. In their own way, each writer shows the reader what racism means and how it undermines someone’s self-esteem. They also express how their Aboriginal roots enrich their lives.

Anita Heiss is the editor of this powerful collection but she’s also an author. I read one of her chick lit books, Not Meeting Mr Right. She calls it choc lit, for chocolate literature and she uses the chick lit cannons to show that her Aboriginal protagonist lives like any young woman of her age. And sure, her character Alice is as obnoxious as other chick lit characters in her search of the perfect partner!

Contrary to Alice, Don, the main character of The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion has a scientific approach to the quest of the perfect spouse. Simsion’s light book could be tagged as chick lit but since Done is not a chick and since the writer is a man, it’s considered as romance. I liked The Rosie Project better than Not Meeting Mr Right mostly because I got attached to Don’s matter-of-fact view of life when I found Alice irritating. Don was funny.

I also read an Australian classic from the 19thC, The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge. It’s the story of three young women who leave their house in the country when their parents die and decide to settle in Melbourne. Set during the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, it was a good way to read about the city at the end of the 19thC. I was happy to visit the Carlton gardens and see the pavilion of the exhibition. The Three Miss Kings sounds like early works by Thomas Hardy.

I read two other classics. I had to read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin who founded the most prestigious Australian literature prize. It’s the story of a young girl living in the country with poor parents. She wants a brilliant career as a writer when all that society expects of her is to have a brilliant career as a wife and a mother. It was a great book to discover Australia in the 19thC and life in stations. There are fascinating descriptions of the life of the farmers and early settlers.

Then I decided to read another classic, For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. It relates the story of an English convict in Port Macquarie. I wanted to read about Australia as a penal colony and it was a good way to see how the penal colonies were organised. It was difficult to read because of the old-fashioned English style and because of its gothic elements which are not my cup of tea at all.

The other book I read about early settlers is Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. Set in Queensland, it’s about a village of early settlers, their adaptation to Australian climate and their difficult cohabitation with the local Aboriginal nation. It opens with a white man who had been stranded in the area, had lived a few years with the Aboriginals and was now coming back to live with the European settlers. The major question for the villagers is “Is he still white? after all these years living like a native?”

The question of classifying people according to the whiteness of their skin seems to plague the Australian psyche. From the start, it was a way to screen people between civilised (white) and not civilised (black) It brought the horrors of the Stolen Generation and a lot of heartache to the writers of Anita Heiss’s collection.

I tried to read The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It’s the story of a man who is convicted to deportation for theft. It relates his life after he arrived in the penal colony in Sydney and how he settled there with his family. I couldn’t finish it because it was too slow and boring for my taste and also because it was too “clean”, as if she was trying to gentrify the convicts.

A good way to learn about the colonisation of Australia was to read the graphic novel Terra Australis by the French authors LF Bollée and Philippe Nicloux. It explains the political aspects, the journey of the First Fleet and the founding of the penal colony in Sydney.

I explored another aspect of Australia and its literature, the outback myth or bush stories. With Down Under, the American writer Bill Bryson wrote about his road trip in Australia. I had a lot of fun reading his adventures and descriptions of the land, the customs and his observations of Australian way-of-life. It’s interesting to see the country through the eyes of a foreigner because what puzzles him might puzzle me too.

I also loved reading The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook as it was in the same vein. Cook knew the outback well and all his stories involved a dangerous animal of some sort.

No wonder that the outback is a dream setting for crime fiction like Wake in Fright by the same Kenneth Cook. I’m not sure you’d want to visit Bundanyabba after spending time there with John Grant, the main character of this horrifying story.

The bush also inspired Jane Harper for her crime fiction novel Force of NatureA group of women are on a company seminar that consists of sending a group of male employees and a group of female employees in the bush with an itinerary to follow and see which group arrives first at destination. Both groups come back but the women’s group misses one participant. Is she still alive or did she die en route?

I enjoyed Force of Nature so much that I also read Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry. I thought it was even better and didn’t notice anything amiss until Bill read it and pointed out all the inconsistencies in the country life described in the novel. Oh well, it was a good reading time anyway and non-Australians won’t notice. The small-town atmosphere of The Dry was well drawn and totally plausible. The rest didn’t seem farfetched, seen from this hemisphere.

As far as literary fiction goes, it wasn’t a very good year. I read a book by an Australian writer but set in Brighton, UK. It was The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. He sure has a twisted sense of humour and his unreliable character Bunny Munro had funny quirks until I realised that these quirks led to crime. Laughing-at-loud idiosyncrasies turned into black humour, like a sunny day ends with a storm.

Fortunately, I loved I, For Isobel by Amy Witting and I’m interested in reading its sequel. I didn’t read any Tim Winton, mostly because his books are chunksters and because none of the blurbs filled me with enough enthusiasm to embark in so many pages.

I’ve heard a lot of good about Gerald Murnane but I don’t think he’s a writer for me. I’ve looked into Patrick White but Voss is also huge. I am tempted by Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and a book by Richard Flanagan. I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey but its Australianness lost me along the way. As I said in my billet, its references were too far away from my home to be understandable. It’s something I had experienced before, when I read The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay a few years ago. I spent quite some time googling animals…

I never thought that Australianness would be an issue but it was. I’m happy I read True Country in French because the footnotes of the translator were a lifeline. Not knowing the geography of Australia, its fauna and flora (besides the obvious kangaroos and koalas), the history of the colonisation and basic info about Aborigines made my reading difficult. This is why I had to abandon That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott when I first tried to read it. I think I’m better equipped to read it now.

I didn’t expect 19thC Australian English to be challenging but it was. Marcus Clarke was particularly hard to read and his vocabulary sounded ancient compared to the British literature of the time. Miles Franklin was easier to read but I faced the issue of Australianness and I needed some time to adjust.

This explains why I didn’t read more books, I was slow reading them. It has been a fantastic journey, one that certainly enriched my trip to Australia last summer.

Last but not least, I did a Literary Escapade billet about Australia and it was one of most liked billets of 2018. You seem to enjoy the Literary Escapade series.

West McDonnel National Park

What now?

I still have Australian books on the TBR. I will join Bill’s AWW Gen II Week and I intend to read the first book of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henri Mandel Richardson, if I can finish Dead Souls soon enough. Otherwise, my Australian TBR includes books I brought back from Melbourne and books I didn’t have time to read. As I know you’re curious about it, here’s the list:

  • Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss (Indigenous lit)
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Spenser
  • The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper (nonfiction)
  • The Catherine Wheel by Elisabeth Harrower
  • Five Bells by Gail Jones,
  • The Essence of Things by Madeleine St John
  • A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (Indigenous lit)
  • Lexicon by Max Barry (SF)
  • Dirt Music by Tim Winton (my mom lent me a French translation)
  • Blood by Tony Birch (Indigenous lit)

I could sign up for another AWW Challenge, level Stella. (Four books) or Miles (Six books). After all, I have seven books by women on my Australian TBR. If my timing is good, I can participate in another Indigenous Lit Week.

As you see, I have a lot to look forward to and you’ll probably hear about Australian lit again on this blog.

PS: Let’s get things straight: Miles Franklin and Henri Mandel Richardson are women. Kim Scott is a man.

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth – German Lit Month – Wunderbar

November 18, 2018 17 comments

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth (1938) French title: La crypte des capucins. Translated from the German by Blanche Gidon.

Nous avions tous perdu notre position, notre rang, notre maison, notre argent, notre valeur, notre passé, notre présent, notre avenir. Chaque matin en nous levant, chaque nuit en nous couchant, nous maudissions la mort qui nous avait invités en vain à son énorme fête. We all had lost our position, our rank, our house, our home, our money, our worth, our past, our present and our future. Each morning when we got up, each night when we went to bed, we cursed death who had invited us in vain to her grand party.

The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) is a sequel to The Radetzky March (1932). You don’t need to have read the first one to read the other but both feature the same Trotta family. The Radetsky March takes us from the 1860s to 1916, the year the Emperor Franz Joseph died. Roth pictures the tragic fate of the Trotta family, a fate that is linked to the slow death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He shows how rotten the Empire had become and how ready to collapse it was.

Then The Emperor’s Tomb pictures the Trotta family after the collapsing due to WWI, during the fragile First Austrian Republic up to the Anschluss in 1938.

It begins in April 1914. Franz-Ferdinand Trotta is 23. He’s young, idle and spends his nights drinking and partying with his friends. He’s living a dissipated life and barely sees the sun because he only lives at night. He’s influenced by his friends, he wants to fit in so badly that he represses his true self. He doesn’t openly court Elisabeth, one of his friends’ sister, because it was not fashionable to be in love. He’s carefree to the point of carelessness. He’s totally unprepared for adult life and he’ll have to grow up quickly because his life is about to change.

Franz’s father has just died and left some money to Joseph Branco, a cousin of the peasant branch of the Trotta family, the one still living in Slovenia. Branco is a farmer during the summer and a travelling chestnut seller during the winter. Franz-Ferdinand welcomes him with open arms, somehow glad to be with someone who is a link to his countryside roots.

During his winter travels around the Empire, Branco has befriended a Jewish coachman from Galicia. His name is Marès Reisiger and he has a son who wants to study music in Vienna. Franz calls for a favor and the young man gets in his music school.

A bond is formed between Franz, Branco and Reisiger, strong enough for Franz to go to Galicia during the summer 1914. That’s where he is when WWI starts. He comes back to Vienna to join his regiment, marries Elisabeth in haste and in fear of not coming back and leaves town. He quickly asks to change from his designated regiment to a less prestigious one to be with Branco and Reisiger. They are quickly captured by the Russian army and spend the whole war in a prisoner camp in Siberia.

Back to Vienna, Franz tries to adapt to the new reality of his life. Everything he knew has fallen apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is dead. His wife is a stranger. His mother is ageing and declining. He has no trade and is unfit to earn any money. His fortune is vanishing quickly, due to poor investments and the economic situation of the country.

Franz is a disarming, charming and yet infuriating character. His candidness is endearing and he doesn’t try to hide his flaws. He’s not class-conscious and doesn’t look down on Branco. He never makes fun of him, even when he takes him to breakfast in a posh café in Vienna and he asks for soup because that’s what he eats at home. He’s not ashamed of him and he even envies him in a way. Branco knows his place in the world, in the society.

Franz partially died when the empire fell. He’s a man from the past and he has trouble adjusting to the moving reality. Roth describes a feeling of disorientation and loss. Franz has lost his identity. He feels “ ‘extraterritorialised’ from the land of the living.” Franz is nostalgic of monarchy made of different countries and people, patched up into an empire through administrative and everyday life landmarks, like the railway stations and the post office. There are no borders and things feel familiar everywhere he goes. You could say that it is the beauty of colonialism seen from the side of the colonizer and that the people of the Austro-Hungarian empire certainly didn’t feel that way. But Roth argues through Franz that the Empire collapsed because it failed to see that the people from the Slovenia, Galicia, Romania, etc. were its wealth thanks to their diversity. Vienna made the mistake to turn to their German roots instead of embracing the vitality and diversity of the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Interwar period in Vienna sounds similar to the Interwar period in Budapest described in books by Zsigmond Móricz or Dezső Kosztolányi even if the description of the political context is not the aim of their books.

Contrary to The Radetsky March, The Emperor’s Tomb is a first-person narrative. Franz talks to us, bares his soul and lets us in. He shows his helplessness. He knows he’s not equipped to survive properly in this new world. He tries to stay afloat  and live one day at a time. He’s oblivious to the changing political context, he’s too focused on what he lost. He’s like the frog who is in a water bucket and the temperature of the water increases, increases, increases and the frog is dead before it realized it was time to leap out of the water.

The Emperor’s Tomb is really moving even if I wanted to shake Franz and urge him to live his live instead of suffering through it. But Franz, like the monarchy he was born under, is an oak with old roots. And oaks, like Lafontaine told us, do not bend like reeds when the wind is too strong. They get uprooted and die.

There would be a lot more to explore about this book, about its form and its substance. I didn’t write anything about its style but it was exceptional. I have read The Emperor’s Tomb in an excellent French translation by Blanche Gidon who knew Roth when he was exiled in Paris in the 1930s. My paperback edition includes a good foreword by Dominique Fernandez and a touching afterwords by Blanche Gidon about her last meeting with Roth and her take on The Emperor’s Tomb. There’s an English translation by Michael Hoffman, and I heard from you all that he’s a good translator.

This was my second contribution to Caroline’s and Lizzy’s German Lit Month. I had The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth on my shelf and I’m happy that Lizzy’s readalong pushed me to read it at last.

Reading Bingo 2016

November 29, 2016 17 comments

reading-bingo-small
Reading Bingo is back, according to Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books. The game is easy : for each square you need to find a corresponding book among this year’s reads. I don’t have much time to do that, to be honest, but I find it fun. It’s also a way to remind you of billets you might have missed about books you might enjoy. I don’t read much compared to other book bloggers but apparently my reading tastes are eclectic because I managed to find a book for almost all the squares. Ready? Let’s play.

soseki_chatA Book with more than 500 pages.

To be honest, I don’t read a lot of long books. I don’t have enough reading time and the book stays a long time on my night stand. It took me several weeks to read  I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki because I was too tired at night and because my paper copy is in really small print, not eye-friendly after a long day in front of a computer. It was worth the effort, though. I haven’t written my billet about it yet but it’s coming soon. In this Japanese book from 1905, Soseki uses a cat as a narrator. It is a first person narrative and the cat describes his master’s life with a lot of candor and a lot of irony. It was full of comical moments and I was fascinated by the description of life in Japan at the time. It is also amazing to see how Soseki imagined what it is to be a cat.

DurasA Forgotten Classic 

For this square I choose The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras. Set Indochina in the 1920s, it is based upon the author’s family story. Through the fate of a mother and her two grow-up children, Duras describes the life of poor white people in Indochina. She explains the workings of the colonial administration and how it steals from settlers and lies to them. It also show how a young woman can be tempted to get married just to provide for herself and her family. It is a theme that Duras will also explore later in her famous novel The Lover.

Ferey_ZuluA Book That Became a Movie
Zulu by Caryl Férey
is a French crime fiction novel that has been made into a film. I haven’t seen the film and I don’t intend to. It is an excellent crime novel set in South Africa. It was very violent in its descriptions of war between gangs and the use of torture. It was difficult to read and I can’t imagine watching it on screen and that’s why I won’t look for the film. The novel is excellent though, with lots of insight about life and culture in South Africa. The author is French and he researched a lot of information before writing his book.

 

malte_garconA Book Published This Year.

I usually don’t read books that just come out. I don’t have time for review copies and I tend to wait for the paperback edition of books. This year for the Rentrée Littéraire, I asked a libraire which book he’d pick among the ones that went out in September. He picked Le garçon by Marcus Malte. It’s a French book, so it’s not available in English for now. I guess it will be translated because it won the prestigious Prix Femina. It is the odyssey of a boy from 1908 to 1938 through France, life, war and love… And he doesn’t speak. It’s epic, poetic, well-written and totally unusual. Keep it in mind for when it comes out in English. In France it is published by Zulma and their stylish covers.

Peace_1974A Book With A Number In The Title

I actually read two books with a number in the title and I pick 1974 by David Peace. This was a disquieting and dark book. Peace’s description of Yorkshire in 1974 is not good for tourism. At all. It is about a journalist who investigates the murder of a little girl and finds himself in the cross-fire of corruption and collusion between politicians, journalists and the police. No one is likeable, no one is totally clean and our poor journalist gets into something too big for him to handle with no real chance to escape from it. Powerful but it makes you queasy.

keats_fannyA Book Written by Someone Under Thirty

Early this year, I read Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne by John Keats. It is Keats’ correspondence to his lover Fanny. It was an opportunity for me to discover Keats. I read a bit about him, I saw a bit of the lover through his letter and it led me to read his poetry. I bought an bilingual edition of a collection of his poems: the original on the left page and a French translation on the right page. It helps but even if my English is good enough to read novels, I will never be able to grasp the full beauty of English poems.

A Book With Non Human Characters

I could have chosen I Am a Cat for this square but instead, I want to draw your attention to The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay. He’s a French Canadian writer and in this first volume of the Plateau Montréal chronicles, one of the characters is a cat. In this wonderful little novel Tremblay takes us around a popular neighbourhood in Montreal. We go from one character to the other, seeing them in their everyday activities, hearing their thoughts, watching their interactions with their family, friends and neighbours. It is a fantastic read. I have already bought the second volume.

de_fao_callingA Funny Book

I love funny books, it’s one of the great pleasure of reading. Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao is the story of a hitman who grows a conscience and finds a new interest in architecture. He’s getting tired of killing on demand and wants to be left alone to pursue his research in Georgian architecture. The more he wants out, the more botched his jobs become until his employers starts to notice. We follow him on the streets of Paris, London, New York and Barcelona and it’s hilarious.

KaffkaA Book By A Female Author

This book might be OOP in English. I bought it in Budapest in a Hungarian edition. I usually don’t read books in Englis translations but I have a soft spot for Hungarian literature and this one was not available in French. And it was by a female writer of the turning of the 20th century. So Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka is my pick for this square. I didn’t like it as much as I expected, mostly because the main character irritated me. It is still a fascinating picture of Hungary before WWI.

penny_fatal_graceA Book With A Mystery

I read a bit of crime fiction and I recently had a great time with A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny. It is an upcoming billet, so I won’t say more about it. I had liked Still Life a lot and this one confirms that it is a series I will follow. I was back in Three Pines, a lovely village of the Eastern Townships in Québec and I was happy to be back despite the terrible murder that happened there. It is still a delight to read Penny’s prose laced with French words to remind you than Anglophones and Francophones coexist in Québec.

boulerice_javotteA Book With A One Word Title

I wasn’t sure to have a book for that square but I did! Javotte by Simon Boulerice is a coming-of-age story of a French Canadian teenager. Javotte lost her father in a car accident and doesn’t get along well with her mother and sister. She’s a quirky teen and she has her own way to deal with the cards she has in hands and to cope. It’s not the novel of the century but it’s entertaining. Simon Boulerice is kind with his character and the reader is on Javotte’s side as well.

c0515_sciasciaMER.indd

 

A Book of Short Stories

I’ve read several this year and my favourite one is The Wine-Dark Sea by Leornardo Sciascia or Sicily from 1957 to 1972. It takes you to this island and its various facettes: its history, its values, its family traditions, its respect for  religion, the influence of the mafia, its tighs to immigrants in the USA.

 

 

Swierczynski_hell_gone

Free Square

My Free Square is for the Charlie Hardie trilogy by Duane Swierczynski. It’s fast-paced, funny, suspenseful and totally crazy. It’s crime fiction and A LOT of fun. Plus the covers are gorgeous. Isn’t it a great idea for Christmas?

 

 

 

Chavarria_french

A Book Set on a Different Continent

With Castro’s death, let’s go to Cuba with Daniel Chavarria and his Tango For a Torturer. This is a dark story of revenge loosely based upon The Count of Monte Cristo. Aldo Bianchi is in Cuba for business and pleasure when he realises that the man who tortured him in Argentina during the dictatorship is hiding on the island. He sets a plan in motion to get his revenge. A fantastic novel by Chavarria who manages to sew a great plot and give educational insight on dictatorships in South America. I love this kind of books.

claudel_la_criseA Book of Non-Fiction

I’m not good with reading non-fiction and this is why I love books like Tango for a Torturer. I learn things but it’s still fiction. I was intrigued by The Great Depression. America 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel. It is a exerpt of Claudel’s correspondance to his minister in France when he was ambassador in Washington from 1927 to 1932. These letters are only about the economic situation of the time. It was fascinating to see how modern the concerns were and how history repeats itself.

The First Book by a Favourite Author

Sorry. Nothing here. But if you want to read Romain Gary’s first book, it’s entitled Education européenne. 🙂

De_LucaA Book You Heard About Online

Lots of my reading year could fit in this category as fellow book bloggers are a great source of reading ideas. I’ll choose Three Horses by Erri De Luca. It’s a novella by an Italian writer about an Italian man who’s back in Italy after spending years in Argentina. He was a victim of the violent dictatorship there. It’s a book full of humanity and very reflective. The style is beautiful as well, a short book that makes you want to go to Italy too. I have another of his books on the shelf now.

Orr_Hands

A Best-selling Book

I don’t read best-selling books. It’s not by principle, it usually happens because the more I hear about a book, the less I want to read it. So instead of sharing a best-selling book, I want to share a book that deserves to be a best-selling book: The Hands: An Australian pastoral by Stephen Orr. It is the story of a family on an isolated ranch in Australia. Orr describes beautfully the hard life of these ranchers but also their culture. Their parents or grand-parents settled there and work hard, their heir feel indebted to their hard work and not losing the farm is the ultimate goal and worth great sacrifices. Orr created complex and plausible characters. I wanted to know what would become of them.

Ervas

A Book Based on a True Story

My billet about Don’t Be Afraid If I Hug You by Fulvio Ervas didn’t get a lot of response from readers. It is the story of an Italian father and his autistic son Andrea who go on a road trip. The first part of their journey is from Florida to Los Angeles. Then they go to South America. It was interesting to read about the places they went but also to read about Andrea. It is the story of the love of a father for his son but without angelism. Life with Andrea is tough sometimes.

kipling_roi

A Book at the Bottom of you To Be Read Pile

My bilingual edition of The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling says “Noël 1989”. It’d been on the TBR since 1989, I think it wins the title of the oldest book of the TBR. I had to read it twice to enjoy it but I found it better than I expected. And Kipling surprised me.

 

 

Neilan_Apathy

A Book Your Friend Loves

Hey Guy, I think Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan fits this category. I know you’ve read it several times with delight. I was in stitches when I read this. Shane, the main character in Neilan’s novel is in jail for murder. We go back to the beginning of the story that led him there. The passages where Shane works as a temp in a insurance company are hilarious. Neilan nails the corporate world in a way that only Max Barry surpasses.

 

A Book That Scares You

I don’t read scary books. However, Zulu by Caryl Ferey and 1974 by David Peace scare me for their dark vision of our societies.

O'Brien_Leaving_Las_Vegas

A Book That Is More Than Ten Years Old

I was blown away by Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. I’ve never read anything like this about alcoholism and the description of how addictive alcohol can be. It is the story of two lost sould who find comfort in each other for a while. It is the idea that two sadnesses can help each other even if they can’t save each other. When a prostitute meets an alcoholic in the articial paradise that is Las Vegas, you need a talented writer not to make it sordid. And O’Brien succeeds. Recommended.

Johnson_camp_morts

The Second Book in a Series

Death Without Company by Craig Johnson is the second Walt Longmire book about this sheriff in Durant, Absaroka County, Wyoming. I enjoy Johnson’s style and his set of character. He lives in Wyoming himself and you can feel it in the descriptions of the landscapes and of the climate. This is someone who’s experienced the cold winters he describes. There’s also a lot about the culture of the native Americans of the region. The plot is well done and again, it’s educational.

gracq_beau_ténébreux

A Book With a Blue Cover

A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq has the bluest cover. I didn’t like the book much but it fits the bill of A Book with a Blue Cover!

 

 

 

That’s all for my Reading Bingo. I had a lot of fun finding a book for almost each square. I hope you enjoyed playing with me. Have you read any of these books? Which one would tempt you?

PS: I hope the layout is OK on your side. It is on mine but I really had trouble for WP this time.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

November 30, 2014 42 comments

Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955) French title: La mort à Venise. Translated by Félix Bertaux and Charles Sigwalt. (1925)

German_Lit

I happened to be in Venice in November, during German Lit Month. So I decided to re-read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.

Disclaimer: I have read this in French and I tried to find an English translation of the quotes I wanted to use in this post but I didn’t find any. So I did the translations myself which isn’t easy with that kind of prose. If you can, read the French text.

Mann_VeniseGustav Aschenbach is a famous and ageing writer. He lives a quiet and rather solitary life, working on his books. On a whim, he decides to go to Venice on holiday. He stays at a hotel at the Lido and sees a young adolescent, Tadzio. He’s Polish and he’s also on holiday with his family. Aschenbach thinks Tadzio is about 14 and he finds him very attractive. The novella describes Aschenbach’s growing obsession to the young Tadzio. Where will that lead him?

Death in Venice was written in 1912 and Thomas Mann manages to pack a lot of things in his novella. Thoughts about literature and the role of writers in society, art and homosexuality. Mann really spent time in Venice in 1911 and he said lots of things included in Death in Venice are true. As always with a classic, I can only write my response to it and I won’t pretend to analyse anything that more literate people have analysed before me. Hell, some have even tracked down the real Tadzio and written a book about him!

The novella first describes Aschenbach’s personality. He’s first portrayed at home, in his environment. He’s a respectable and respected writer and he was ennobled when he was fifty. He’s an institution and he reminded me of Edward Driffield in Cakes and Ale. He’s very literate as a writer of his time should be. He has a thorough knowledge of classics and Roman and Greek authors.

À égale distance de l’excentrique et du banal, son talent était de nature à lui attirer à la fois les suffrages du grand public et cette admiration des connaisseurs qui oblige l’artiste. At equal distance between eccentricity and banality, his talent was such that he attracted both general public’s attention and the praise from connoisseurs that pleases the artist.

Isn’t it the writer’s dream? Popular success and peers admiration?

Aschenbach is not a big traveller except for hygienic reasons which, in my mind, says a lot about him. In everyday life, nothing should be done for only hygienic reasons except taking a shower and cleaning the house. Aschenbach seems a tiny little bit uptight and Mann’s prose gives it back perfectly. There’s nothing funny here, no attempt at irony or humorous vision of life of any kind. He sounds like someone for whom the importance of being earnest must be taken literally. Aschenbach is a stern man, living an ascetic life and he’s clearly acting out of character in this novella.

Aschenbach is also a closeted homosexual. It is a novel of its time, he can’t be anything but closeted. During the journey to Venice, von Aschenbach sees a group of young people accompanied by an older man.

Mais l’ayant considéré de plus près, Aschenbach constata avec horreur qu’il avait devant lui un faux jeune homme. Nul doute, c’était un vieux beau. Sa bouche, ses yeux avaient des rides. Le carmin mat de ses joues était du fard, sa chevelure, noire sous le chapeau à ruban de couleur, une perruque; le cou était flasque et fripé; la petite moustache retroussée et la mouche au menton étaient teintes; les dents, que son rire découvrait en une rangée continue, fausses et faites à bon marché, et ses mains qui portaient aux deux index des bagues à camées étaient celles d’un vieillard. But seeing him closer, Aschenbach realised with horror that he had a faux young man in front of him. No doubt he was an old beau. His mouth and eyes had wrinkles. The red on his cheeks was make-up. His hair, black under his hat with a colourful ribbon was a wig. His neck was flabby. His little turned-up moustache and the beauty spot on his chin were dyed. His teeth he showed in laughter were aligned but fake and cheap. His hands whose index fingers wore two rings were those of an old man.

It is hard not to think about Sodome et Gomorrhe by Proust when you read this. It could be a description of the ageing Baron de Charlus. Sodome et Gomorrhe was written after Death in Venice. I wasn’t able to find out whether Proust could read in German or if the 1925 translation of Death in Venice I read is the first one. (which means it was released in French after Proust’s death) So I don’t know if Proust had read this novella before writing Sodome et Gomorrhe or not.

Anyway. We readers of Death in Venice are warned before Aschenbach reaches Venice: he’s repulsed by old beaus and this group of young men. This passage makes his fall for Tadzio even more tragic and enforces the power his infatuation has over him:

La passion oblitère le sens critique et se commet de parfaite bonne foi dans des jouissances que de sang-froid l’on trouverait ridicules ou repousserait avec impatience. Passion erases good judgment and indulges in perfect good faith in pleasures that one would find ridicule or would reject with impatience where they in thinking clearly.

We feel that he’s old, he’s managed to keep his homosexuality bottled up and the dam breaks late in life, overcome by the Greek beauty of the young Tadzio. (Of course Tadzio is compared to a Greek statue which I find a bit trite from Mann. Proust is more original in his comparisons, using Renaissance paintings for example.) Poor Aschenbach doesn’t know what hit him and I felt pity for the old man struck by such an embarrassing passion at his age.

There is much to say about this rich novella. I enjoyed reading it even if Mann’s style is a little too bombastic for my taste. All the stuffy references to Greek myths and Latin sentences didn’t age well. It was perfectly clear for the reader of his time (and I believe Max had the same experience with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) but not so much for today’s reader.

That said, the descriptions of Venice are gorgeous and it was a treat to be there and read about it in great style.

V009_Vue_de_place_San_Marco

I didn’t explore here all the thoughts about art and writing displayed in Death in Venice. I don’t have time to dig further, unfortunately. I leave you with one quote about writing that I liked particularly.

 La pensée qui peut, tout entière, devenir sentiment, le sentiment qui, tout entier, peut devenir pensée, font le bonheur de l’écrivain.  Thoughts that can become feelings and feelings that can become thoughts are a writer’s happiness.
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