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The Cut by Anthony Cartwright – Subtle, poignant and balanced

February 28, 2021 16 comments

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright (2017) Not available in French.

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright opens with a foreword by Meike Ziervogel from Pereine Press.

The result of the EU referendum shocked me. I realized that I had been living in one part of a divided country. What fears—and what hopes—drove my fellow citizens to vote for Brexit? I commissioned Anthony Cartwright to build a fictional bridge between the two Britains that have opposed each other since the referendum day.

And Anthony Cartwright delivered a poignant story that points out the differences between these two Britains, builds a tentative bridge and avoids the pitfall of judgment. I’m reading this with the eyes of a foreigner, so forgive me if I missed cultural undercurrents or if I’m making naïve remarks.

We’re in Dudley, in the county of West Midlands. (I had to look it up on Wikipedia, I’m not good with UK geography) It’s a former coal, iron and limestone industrial area.

Cairo Jukes, in his early forties, has lived his whole life among the canals of the Black Country. He’s been divorced for years and he’s already a grand-father as his daughter Stacey-Ann got pregnant at 19. He lives with his parents because he can’t afford a flat. He struggles to support himself on zero-hours contracts.

Grace is a successful documentary film-maker and she comes from London to do a reportage in Dudley. They meet by chance in downtown Dudley and Cairo agrees to speak with her and participate to the documentary. They are attracted to each other but clearly don’t live in the same world, with the same codes and same vocabulary. The bridge is hard to build as they don’t have the same foundations.

Cairo lives one day at a time, he literally can’t afford to make projects. He never knows how many hours he’ll work and how much he’ll earn. This is where the current pandemic puts us all on equal footing: we all have to learn to live with uncertainty and the impossibility to plan ahead. And it’s hard.

We know something dramatic happens and page after page, we discover Cairo’s life, his world and Anthony Cartwright manages to put the right words on it. He’s never condescending. Cairo comes to life, a multidimensional character with hollows and bumps. I found him very moving and of all the differences between Cairo and Grace, their circumstances, their past and their hope for the future, the one that upset me the most was in this paragraph:

What swayed him was when she said it might be fun. She actually used the word fun. She was a person who used words such as fun and wonderful, and he was not sure he’d ever met anyone who spoke like this in real life, or anywhere else for that matter. It seemed to open something up. Maybe it was OK, changing again after years, to feel himself becoming someone new, when he’d assumed he’d shrink away.

Something is seriously wrong with our countries if we have people who don’t know how to use the word fun anymore.

The campaign for the Brexit is in the background, a white noise that makes itself more and more persistent as the book progresses. Cartwright shows a mosaic of people around Cairo and none of them can be pingeonholed in a comfortable little box. Brexit is a complex matter and turning complex matters into a simple referendum question leads to disaster.

Cartwright doesn’t make a statement, doesn’t take any side but paints an accurate picture of two people who don’t live in the same country. Hell, they put subtitles on the television when Cairo’s interview is broadcasted. I’ve never seen this on the French TV, except sometimes for Québec speakers. Most Francophone speakers are intelligible without subtitles.

Cairo’s vision is summed up here:

People are tired. Tired of clammed-up factory gates, but not even them any more, because look where they are working now, digging trenches to tat out the last of whatever metal was left. Tired of change, tired of the world passing by, tired of other people getting things that you and people like you made for them, tired of being told you were no good, tired to be told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong. Tired of supermarket jobs and warehouse jobs and jobs guarding shopping centres. Work had always worn people out, the heat of furnaces, the clang of iron, but this is tiredness of a different order, tiredness that a rest will not cure, like a plague, eating away at them all.

That’s one reason people vote for Brexit, to try something new. That’s how they put on their yellow vests and invest roundabouts and city centres. But the reasons are more complex than that and it’s time the Grace side of the world pays attention to them.

The Cut is set in the UK but it goes with books like And Their Children After Them by Nicolas Mathieu, Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis, films by Robert Guédiguian or plays like I Took My Father on my Shoulders by Fabrice Melquiot or the stage adaptation of Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon. Hot topics that were swept under the carpet by a pesky virus but will come back full force in 2022.

Many thanks to Marina Sofia for sending me this book. Her interesting review is here. It’s still time to add this to the #ReadIndies challenge hosted by Karen and Lizzy. It’s a Pereine Press book, after all.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek – still relevant, alas.

December 26, 2020 19 comments

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1935) French title: La guerre des salamandres. Translated by Claudia Ancelot.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek is our Book Club choice for December.

Written in 1935, it’s a dystopian fiction where Čapek imagines a world where a huge population of newts grows and lives under the sea. It sounds bucolic said like this but War of the Newts is more a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfall of wild capitalism.

When the book opens, Captain Jan Van Toch is a sailor who does trade in the Indonesian waters and he barely makes ends meet. One day, he hears about Devil’s Island, a place that the locals avoid because it’s populated by devils. Van Toch goes there anyway and discovers that the so-called devils are actually salamanders. Better than that, if he trades knives with them, they can fish oysters and help him find pearls. Van Toch likes the newts and strikes an agreement with them: he provides knives to help them fend off their enemies, they fish oysters for his pearl business. Van Toch is like a character by André Malraux, an adventurer.

Van Toch goes into business with G.H. Bondy, a tradesman who accepts this weird pearls/salamander business. Van Toch handles the newts on the field, GH Bondy manages the pearl trade back in Europe. It’s mutually beneficial.

Progressively, the territory of the newts expands, humans discover that they can learn how to speak and how to use tools. Scientists study the salamanders and name the species Andrias Scheuchzeri. (Knowing Čapek, I wonder if there’s a pun under that name.) The salamander become underwater workers. They are not paid but fed and armed. They work well in hydraulic jobs and their workforce is much appreciated.

The first book closes with Van Toch’s death. As soon as he dies, his legacy is trampled by triumphant capitalism, ie GH Bondy. The newts are not profitable enough, there are too many pearls on the market and their price dropped. And a new company is created to develop the salamander business as docile and efficient underwater workers.

The second book shows the expansion of the salamander phenomenon. They reproduce quickly, their predator is at bay and the collaboration with the humans means that they work against knives, steel, food. They colonize the waters of the whole globe.

A whole economy develops on this trade. Through articles from newspapers, Čapek shows us how the salamander issue impacts a lot of aspects of human life. They are shows with performing salamanders and scientific studies. All aspects of their presence beside humans raises questions: do they have a soul? Is it slavery? Are they citizen? Can they be enrolled as soldiers? Which language should they learn? What rights should they have?

A lady organizes the first schools for newts in Nice. Unions say nothing because protesting against the development of the salamanders would jeopardize the human jobs linked to the businesses  with the newt colonies.

Čapek imagines the reaction of several countries and I laughed out loud.

France is the first country to impose strict social laws in favor of the newts. When the newts start stealing apples in orchards in Normandy, the farmers protest, resulting in the destruction of a police station and a tax office. Demonstrations were organized in favor of the newts and their outcome was a strike in Brest and Marseille and confrontations with the police. So, my dear foreign readers, if you hear anything about events like this in contemporary France, don’t worry for us, it’s part of our folklore.

The reaction of the British government to the newts settling in their fishing waters was priceless. Any likeness to recent events is fortuitous and demonstrates how much Čapek knew of the various European mindsets.

Intellectuals try to warn the world, especially the Houllebecq look-alike prophet of doom and gloom, Mr. Wolf Meynert.

There is a lot to say about War With the Newts and it’s still so relevant that it’s almost scary.

Reading this today, you could interpret the path taken with the salamanders as a metaphor of our destruction of nature, the inexorable climate change and how we fail to change of direction because the economy prevails.

Čapek shows how small-scale operations with a balanced relationship –ie the partnership between Van Toch and the newts – become destructive when mass capitalism and politics come to the playing field.

The minutes of the board meeting of G.H. Bondy’s company are edifying. Anything to cut the costs and increase the profitability. Anything to distribute dividends to the shareholders. Anything to have the biggest colony of newts and be stronger than the neighboring country. The 21st century is not even original.

And then there’s the underlying question of slavery, racism and colonization.

And then you have Mr Povondra, the one with a conscience.

He used to be G.H. Bondy’s doorman and he made the decision to open the door to Van Toch and was thus instrumental to their meeting. This tiny decision had huge consequences.

Like the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, like the inventor of the internet or the early programmer of Facebook, Mr Povondra wonders if he made the right decision that day. His action has results he couldn’t have predicted but he’s still regretful.

War With the Newts wasn’t always an easy read because of its form.

The first part is rather straightforward, the second part is a patchwork of articles and speeches coming from Mr Povondra’s collection of all things salamanders. The last part was the consequence of the two firsts. I struggled at the beginning of part II but it was worth continuing.

I am in awe of Čapek’s ability to dissect human patterns, denounce capitalism through this fable.

He shows a very astute analysis of the economy, its mechanism and of politics and geopolitics. He lives in a dangerous world at the time. The 1930s. The aftermath of WWI, the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships. The War of the Newts is a warning against human propensity to choose a path of destruction, ignore relevant warnings and renounce to profits for the common wellbeing.

We’re doomed, guys.

As often, I’ve played the book cover game and downloaded covers in different languages: French, Czech, English, Russian, German, Spanish and Swedish. They are very different and don’t give the same idea of the book. In the French and Swedish editions, the salamanders seem harmless. The Swedish newts look like Casimir, from a children show. The German cover transforms the newts into Goldorak and on the Spanish one, the newts are really hostile. The others are more symbolic. Now, you need to read the book to see which publishers are closest to the book. 🙂

Voices of Freedom: militant writers in the 19th Century by Michel Winock – France between 1815 and 1885.

December 16, 2020 22 comments

Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC century by Michel Winock (2001) Not available in English. Original French title: Les Voix de la liberté. Les écrivains engagés au XIXème siècle.

After reading an anthology of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs From Beyon the Grave, I decided to finally pick from my shelves Winock’s Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC. It’s a 600 pages essay that describes how writers fought for the freedom of speech in France from 1815 to 1885.

It goes from the fall of Napoléon to the death of Victor Hugo. Since several of you liked the timeline I included in my Chateaubriand billet, here’s a new one with political regimes in France from the birth of Chateaubriand to the death of Victor Hugo. I chose these two writers because they have been involved in public life during their whole career. Chateaubriand was well-respected and Hugo wanted to be Chateaubriand or nothing.

Years

Political Regime

Leader

Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

Hugo’s age

1768-1792

Monarchy.

King Louis XV

King Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

Not born

1792-1804

First Republic

Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

Born in 1802

1804-1815

Empire

Napoléon

1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

2-13

1815-1830

Constitutional Monarchy

King Louis Philippe

King Charles X

 

47-62

13-28

07/1830

Constitutional Monarchy

King Charles X

July Revolution

62

28

08/1830-02/1848

July Monarchy

Louis-Philippe

 

62-80

28-46

02/1848

Second Republic

Lamartine

Abolition of slavery

80

46

12/1848-12/1851

Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

12/1848 : Louis Napoléon Bonaparte is elected President

Dead

46

12/1851

Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

Coup d’état

Dead

49

1852-1870

Second Empire

Napoléon III

 

Dead

50-68

09/1870

Fall of the Second Empire

Third Republic

 

War with Prussia

France loses Alsace-Moselle terrirories

Dead

68

1871-1885

Third Republic

(1870-1940)

 

1871 Commune de Paris

Dead

69-83

It’s not going to be easy to sum up this book and I’ll concentrate on my reaction to it.

Winock’s angle in his essay is the fight for the freedom of speech and for free press but he ends up writing up 70 years of public life in France. He takes the word “écrivain” (writer) is a broad sense, including literary writers (Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand), historians (Michelet), political science writers (Tocqueville, Guizot, Quinet, Prévost-Paradol), theology and religion thinkers (Renan, Veuillot), journalists (all of them!), social writers (Flora Tristan) and “socialist” theorists (Proudhon, Saint-Simon). Let’s use the anachronistic term “intellectuals” to embrace them in one word.

It tells so much about where France comes from and explains our vision of a secular State, our attachment to political and religious caricatures and our idea of freedom of speech as a cardinal value of the republic.

Winock takes us through the political battles, revolutions and theories that involved writers between 1815 and 1885. These are fascinating 70 years. The country had to recover from the Revolution and the Empire, political thinkers and writers started to research the revolutionary years and assess these years and especially the Terror. What good did the Revolution do? They all agree upon one thing: going back to the old absolute monarchy isn’t possible. The French society has changed too much.

During these years, intellectuals researched and wrote about the best regime for the country. Parliamentary monarchy? Empire? Republic? Various strong currents pulled or pushed one way or the other and the Catholic church meddled in the discussion. Monarchy and religion go hand in hand. For the monarchists, the country must be catholic and the power in place an alliance between church and politics. (The Pope Pie IX played a role too) In opposition to the monarchists, how strong political currents developed under the “secular” banner, to keep faith and religion private and out of public affairs. Tocqueville travels to America and comes back with ideas. There were a lot of debate about voting and which citizen should qualify to vote. 

These seventy years also see the industrial revolution settle in France and modern capitalism building lasting roots. Writers start to pay attention to the poor: Victor Hugo writes Les Misérables; in spite of him, Eugène Sue becomes the champion of the destitute with his Mysteries of Paris and Zola too, with L’Assomoir or Germinal.

Feminism finds voices in Flora Tristan, George Sand and Louise Michel.

Newpapers bloom or survive, according to the times and how tight the power in place takes the reins of freedom of speech. Newpapers may need an approval before publication or not. Books and articles are published abroad, mostly in Belgium and Switzerland and cross borders secretly. Napoléon III was especially ferocious against freedom of speech. For example, the newspaper La Lanterne crossed the border between Belgium and France hidden in Napoléon III busts. They got busted when one of the sculptures broke at the border and the smuggling was discovered.

In parallel to political thinking, technical and social progress improve the people’s access to newspapers. At the beginning of the century, political opinions traveled through songs written by political singers like Béranger, who was a huge star at the time. There were also reading cabinets, where readers could borrow papers and read. Between 1815 and 1885, more and more children went to school. In 1832, 53% of twenty-year olds couldn’t read. Their number dropped to 8.5% in 1892. The press soared, as Maupassant describes it in Bel Ami and technical progress in printing and assembling articles for print concurred to its growth.

The book is a vivid rendition of these years, moving from one writer to the other, showing their personal development and the course of their thinking. Lamartine was instrumental to the Second Republic. Balzac had ideas that were really backward and Winock points out that his books had the opposite result to what he expected. Flaubert stayed away from politics but stirred some trouble with Madame Bovary. Stendhal wanted to be consul in Italy. We see Constant, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Vallès, Sand and many other writers and their position on events.

Victor Hugo is truly a monument of the century. Romanticism applied to theatre plays (the battle of Hernani) fought against the theatre rules imposed by classicism (Corneille, Racine) It was an oblique way to champion the Revolution and its ideals. Hugo led that battle. His exile in Guernsey for as long as Napoléon III was in power increased his prestige. Like Chateaubriand, he didn’t change sides when it was convenient. Les Misérables was a literary bomb and what I discovered about his political views warmed me to him as a man and a thinker. Already dreaming of the United States of Europe in the 1880s! He was always on the side of the poor and that endeared me to him.

I loved this journey among militant writers in the 19th century. It showed me how hard earned is our current freedom of speech, why our streets have these names, where our contemporary vision of the republic stems from. These seventy years are a cauldron of thoughts, of theories that founded our modern society. It’s the development of today’s capitalism, the roots of communism and socialism, the birth of social thinking (unions, benefits for the poor, solidarity between the haves and the have nots), the political development that discarded monarchy forever and settled on republic for the country and the real beginning of education for the masses and mass communication through newspapers.

A fascinating read. Now I need to read Les Misérables, Bel Ami and Les Mystères de Paris.

Three good entertaining books by Dominique Sylvain, Pierre Christin and HG Jenkins

November 22, 2020 15 comments

Let’s face it, my TBW is out of control, the end of the year is coming and with the second lockdown, I keep reading. I’m not used to mixing several books in a billet but I’m doing it today, mostly focusing on light and entertaining books. See it as an attempt at taming the TBW.

First, we’re going on a trip to Japan with Dominique Sylvain. Her crime fiction novel Kabukichō takes us to Tokyo’s red-light district.

Kate Sanders works in a hostess bar, Club Gaia, and shares an apartment with a coworker, Marie. One night, Kate doesn’t show up for work. Her father in London receives a text message, a photo of his daughter with the caption “She’s sleeping here”.

A few days later, Kate is found dead. Captain Yamada is appointed to the case. He and his lieutenant Watanabe will investigate Kate’s life in Kabukichō. She was very good friend with Yudai, a charming young man who owns a host bar, the male version of the hostess bar.

I’m not familiar with Japan and I found Kabukichō fascinating for its description of the functioning of this red-light district. The crime plot was well-drawn, mixing the private lives of Kate, Marie and Yudai. Captain Yamada, old school compared to his lieutenant was an attaching policeman. All the characters have cracks in their souls, minor but irritating like a never healing small wound or major rifts that make them cross-over to the side of craziness.

It was a quick read, entertaining and enlightening with a stunning ending. It would make a wonderful film. Sadly, this book is not available in English.

Obviously, Kabukichō is exotic for a French reader. For me, the setting of Little Crimes Against Humanities by Pierre Christin was almost as foreign as Tokyo. The whole book is set in the French academic world and there’s a specific vocabulary related to positions and to the French university system. I’ll use American terms, as best as I can.

In Little Crimes Against Humanities, we’re in the small university of Nevers, in the center of France, basically the French equivalent of Iowa.

Simon Saltiel wrote his PhD thesis about Death in Art. Think about vanity paintings and such things. At the moment, he’s a teacher at the Humanities department but without a tenured post. He’s friend and roommate with an older teacher, Etienne Moulineaux. Their dean is Goulletqueur, notorious for preferring local candidates to others and this is why Simon has failed again to get a permanent position. The dice are loaded.

Léon Kreisman, a famous academic, art and book collector, collapses on the university stairs after a lecture. Fatal heart attack. He has no wife or children, only a pit bull secretary Madame Danitza.

Simon was among the first people on the premises and is dragged in spite of him, in the intrigues coming after Kreisman’s death. People want to put their hands of Kreisman’s collections. Goulletqueur wants to have a new library and hope that these resources will attract foreing academics and finally put the Nevers university on the international map of universities. L’Hours, a big man in the ministry of Education in Paris wants the collection to fill a new museum he will inaugurate. A private collector wants this collection for himself.

A mysterious poison-pen letter writer sends vengeful messages to several members of the faculty. The police get involved. The poor commissaire has his hands full with this foul business at the university on top of agricultural happenings from the Confédération Paysanne, a radical agricultural union that doesn’t have the decency to follow the usual methods of demonstration of the established union, the FNSEA.

Mild-mannered Simon finds himself in the middle of all this and with the help of two other colleagues, things won’t pan out as expected for the hot-shot and ambitious academics.

Besides the plot about Kreisman’s heritage, this is a satirical picture of the French universities, a milieu Christin knows from inside out. He shows the bureaucracy, the lack of money, the pettiness and the ambitions. An institution whose tenured posts are trusted by people who were young the the 1970s, a time when the Humanities were polarized, Trotskyists or not in the aftermath of 1968. He also shows an institution that, at local level, tries their best for their students. Their janitor is a genius at repairing anything with little means and teachers remain invested in their job.

Very humoristic about universities, small town France, Parisian centralization and the Ministry of Education but also about international academic relationships and symposiums. It’s almost as if David Lodge had written cozy crime.

Still on the lookout for easy and entertaining reads, I asked for recommendations to fellow book bloggers. Jacqui came up with Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins. Published in 1918, it’s in the same vein as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a way to spend a moment in a bubble far away from 2020.

Patricia Brent is 24 and works as a private secretary to a “rising MP”. She lives at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, in other word, a boarding-house.

One night, she overheads the other tenants talk about her and commiserate that she was lonely and never went out with young men. Piqued, Patricia invents herself a fiancé, tells them that she won’t be there for dinner the next day because she was to meet him at the Quadrant. She plays along, actually shows up to the restaurant, intending to dine there on her own when she realizes that the Galvin House gossipmongers are there to spy on her. She plops herself on a chair at a man’s table and asks him to play along. This is how she meets Lt.-Col. Lord Peter Bowen, DSO.

The outcome of the book is a given from the first chapters but Jenkins draws a colorful picture of the guests at the boarding house, the MP’s family and Lord Bowen’s circle. It’s a great comedy, the light plot designed to cast an amused glance at the different classes of the London society. I loved Jenkins’s sense of humor. Today, he’d write TV shows. His characters are quick at repartee, here’s a sample:

“Can you, Mrs. Morton, seriously regard marriage in this country as a success? It’s all because marriages are made in heaven without taking into consideration our climatic conditions.”

And

Bowen turned slowly and re-entered the taxi. “Where to, sir?” enquired the man. “Oh, to hell!” burst out Bowen savagely. “Yes, sir; but wot about my petrol?”

He’s also extremely funny in his descriptions of places, people and manners.

Mr. Archibald Sefton, who showed the qualities of a landscape gardener in the way in which he arranged his thin fair hair to disguise the desert of baldness beneath, was always vigorous on Sundays.

The whole book is a fast paced comedy. Patricia Brent, Spinster did the job. Easy to read, entertaining and good escapism. Much needed this year but as Jenkins writes, When you lose your sense of humour and your courage at the same time, you have lost the game.

PS: I have the Jenkins on kindle with a bland cover so I added the cover of the original edition that I found on Goodreads. It’s terrible, isn’t it? These eyes seem ominous.

Memoirs From Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand – Chateaubrilliant, I should say

October 18, 2020 11 comments

Memoirs From Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand (1849) An Anthology Original French title: Mémoires d’outre-tombe. Anthologie. 

I bought this anthology of Memoirs From Beyond the Grave during my literary escapable to Combourg in July. Jean-Claude Berchet, a literary critic specialist of Chateaubriand, selected the texts of this anthology. I trust him to pick the best parts of the forty-two books of Chateabriand’s Memoirs for lazy readers like me.

This billet will not bring anything to literary critic of the Memoirs, I don’t have the skills or the knowledge to do that. It’ll be my experience as a reader, which is personal and has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of this monument of literature.

When Chateaubriand writes about his birth and childhood, he mentions that his mother inflicted life upon him and he wasn’t happy to live. Karma is a bitch, he’ll be on this Earth during eighty years. (September 4th, 1768-July 4th, 1848) and what eighty years! Here’s a little historical digest of the times.

Years

Political Regime Leader Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

1768-1792 Monarchy Louis XV

Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

1792-1804 First Republic Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

1804-1815 Empire Napoléon 1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

1815-1830 Constitutional Monarchy Louis XVIII

Charles X

47-62

July Revolution (07/1830)

62

08/1830-02/1848 July Monarchy Louis-Philippe

62-80

02/1848 Second Republic Abolition of slavery

80

Chateaubriand was a soldier in the Revolutionary wars (on the monarchy’s side), fled the country, stayed in England, came back and occupied various political capacities. (deputy at the Chambre des Pairs, minister of Foreign Affairs…)

I was really interested in his childhood, the passages related to his travels to America and his life during the French Revolution and his exile in England. He endured hardship with stride and never complained. I found the last books interesting too as he reflects upon France and democracy. The other books were about his political career and as you can see in the table before, the political scene is very complicated. All the explanations about where he stood and why he supported this or that side went over my head, due to the my lack of historical knowledge. I’m sure that the Memoirs are invaluable material for historians.

I was disappointed that there was almost nothing about his personal life. There’s a nice book about his wife, very polite. It was an arranged marriage that lasted until 1847. They rarely lived together and had no children. (I guess living apart is an efficient method of contraception.) Chateaubriand had mistresses and I hope his wife had lovers too.

Everything was centered on him and History. There were some passages about his books and their success but nothing about his literary life. Nothing about literary salons, only mentions about Mme de Beaumont and Mme Récamier, in passing. Not a word about the battle of Hernani. Almost no literary reference except Lord Byron, and a passage about George Sand. No description of Paris, its people, its changes. He lived in the Paris of Balzac, Musset, Hugo, Lamartine, Nerval and Stendhal and he says nothing about it. What a disappointment! (Or Jean-Claude Berchet cut all these passages)

I enjoyed reading his thoughts about political regimes, though. He was in favor of a controlled monarchy, thinking that the ultimate regime for France would be a Republic but that the country needed a transition period with a constitutional monarchy. It’ll take until 1870 for the republic to be the stable political regime for France but he foresaw that trying to reinstall a full monarchy was a pipe dream. The French population had moved on. There are fascinating thoughts about the public stance a royal family should have that could interest British readers. (Book 37)

There’s a book set in Switzerland, where he’s on holiday, walking in the mountains, trying Rousseau and Lord Byron’s paths, I suppose. And I thought, “Here we go, Romanticism and the bliss of hiking in the mountains.” And no, dear Chateaubriand surprised me with this ironic statement:

Au surplus j’ai beau me battre les flancs pour arriver à l’exaltation alpine des écrivains de montagne, j’y perds ma peine.

Au physique, cet air vierge et balsamique qui doit réanimer mes forces, raréfier mon sang, désenfumer ma tête fatiguée, me donner une faim insatiable, un repos sans rêves, ne produit point sur moi ces effets. Je ne respire pas mieux, mon sang ne circule pas plus vite, ma tête n’est pas moins lourde au ciel des Alpes qu’à Paris. J’ai autant d’appétit aux Champs-Elysées qu’au Montanvert, je dors aussi bien rue Saint-Dominique qu’au mont Saint-Gothard, et si j’ai des songes dans la délicieuse plaine de Montrouge, c’est qu’il en faut au sommeil.

Au moral, en vain j’escalade les rocs, mon esprit n’en devient pas plus élevé, mon âme plus pure ; j’emporte les soucis de ma terre et le faix des turpitudes humaines. Le calme de la région sublunaire d’une marmotte ne se communique point à mes sens éveillés. Misérable que je suis, à travers les brouillards qui roulent à mes pieds, j’aperçois toujours la figure épanouie du monde. Mille toises gravies dans l’espace ne changent rien à ma vue du ciel ; Dieu ne me paraît pas plus grand du sommet de la montagne que du fond de la vallée. Si pour devenir un homme robuste, un saint, un génie supérieur, il ne s’agissait que de planer sur les nuages, pourquoi tant de malades, de mécréants et d’imbéciles ne se donnent-ils pas la peine de grimper au Simplon ? Il faut certes qu’ils soient bien obstinés à leurs infirmités.

For the rest, it is vain for me to exert myself to attain the Alpine exaltation of the mountain authors: I waste my pains. 

Physically, that virgin and balmy air, which is supposed to revive my strength, rarefy my blood, clear my tired head, give me an insatiable hunger, a dreamless sleep, produces none of those effects for me. I breathe no better, my blood circulates no faster, my head is no less heavy under the sky of the Alps than in Paris. I have as much appetite in the Champs-Élysées, as on the Montanvers, I sleep as well in the Rue Saint-Dominique as on the Mont Saint-Gotthard, and, if I have dreams in the delicious plain of Montrouge, the fault lies with the sleep.

Morally, in vain do I scale the rocks: my mind becomes no loftier for it, my soul no purer; I carry with me the cares of earth and the weight of human turpitudes. The calm of the sublunary region of a marmot is not communicated to my awakened senses. Poor wretch that I am, across the mists that roll at my feet I always perceive the full-blown face of the world. A thousand fathoms climbed into space change nothing in my view of the sky; God appears no greater to me from the top of a mountain than from the bottom of a valley. If, to become a robust man, a saint, a towering genius, it were merely a question of searing over the clouds, why do so many sick men, miscreants and fools not take the trouble to clamber up the Simplon? Surely, they must be very obstinately bent upon their infirmities.

 Translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Chateaubriand. He is the perfect blend of the Age of Enlightenment with its Voltairean irony and the angst of the first half of the 19th century. He’s a French spirit to the core. Born in the Britany aristocracy, he embraced democracy as the final target for France. His intelligence brought us insightful thoughts about politics and the way to lead a country. Many of analyses are still up-to-date. He was true to his beliefs all his life, not compromising for a position. It left him poor sometimes but with his integrity. Freedom of speech was not something to be trifled with and he understood that King Charles X willing to suppress it contributed the 1830 July Revolution. To be honest, I expected someone a lot more conservative than he was.

Chateaubriand writes beautifully, as the quote before displays it. I wish he had dropped the frequent Greek and Latin comparisons though, because I think they weigh his sentences down. And of course, but that’s not his fault, they are mostly obscure to the modern reader.

So, what’s the verdict? I’m on the fence. I really struggled with some passages that I found truly boring. His speeches, the passage on Napoléon but I’m curious about the missing passages because I wonder if they have descriptions of his personal life. Thinking of reading the whole Memoirs is daunting, it’s more than 3500 pages. Perhaps I should just download a free ebook edition and read what interests me.

I’m happy I read this anthology as I met a great writer and a man with an exceptional intelligence. He surprised me with his modern thinking and how relevant some of his assessments are.

Literary Escapade: Combourg and Chateaubriand

August 6, 2020 26 comments

Chateaubriand (1768-1848) is a writer that my highschool BFF and I had nicknamed Chateaubrichiant. (Chateauboring) That’s how much we enjoyed the excerpts of Memoirs of Beyond the Grave that we studied in school.

Since then I’ve read Atala and René and mused in my billet that I didn’t know that Chateaubriand was in favor of kibbutz (Atala) and missed the opportunity to invent Kleenex (René) The whole billet is here.

Chateaubriand is taught as the precursor of Romanticism and I have to confess this is not my favorite literary movement. Too much gloom and doom for my tastes. And indeed, see what Chateaubriand writes about his own birth:

Il n’y a pas de jour où, rêvant à ce que j’ai été, je ne revoie en pensée le rocher sur lequel je suis né, la chambre où ma mère m’infligea la vie, la tempête dont le bruit berça mon premier sommeil, le frère infortuné qui me donna un nom que j’ai presque toujours traîné dans le malheur. Le Ciel sembla réunir ces diverses circonstances pour placer dans mon berceau une image de mes destinées. A day seldom passes on which, reflecting on what I have been, I do not see again in thought the rock upon which I was born, the room in which my mother inflicted life upon me, the tempest whose sound first lulled me to sleep, the unfortunate brother who gave me a name which I have nearly always dragged through misfortune. Heaven seemed to unite these several circumstances in order to lay within my cradle a symbol of my destiny. 

Translation Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

Kill me now…Anyway, this house is still there, in St Malo, in what is now Chateaubriand Street. (of course)

Chateaubriand was brought up in Combourg, a castle bought by his father who made a fortune as a fisherman in Newfoundland, tunred corsair and then invested in slave trade. A man of his time. Combourg is still owned by the descendants of the family and it’s open to visit, with a guided tour. The castle was empty during 80 years after the Revolution and was renovated by Viollet-Leduc. Here’s a general view of the castle.

And here are the grounds, taken from the stairs of the castle. There’s a lot of space to run around.

The visit takes us through parts of the castle and it’s a Chateaubriand tour, with quotes from Memoirs Beyond the Grave and all.

Here’s the room where he slept as a child, in a remote tower of the castle. The poor boy had to accompany his mother and sisters to their rooms, lock doors and check that there were no monsters and then had to go back to his isolated room in the dark and on his own. I can’t imagine what scars this you-will-be-a-man kind of education leaves on a young boy. Don’t you think that his room looked like a cell?

Chateaubriand died in Paris, rue du Bac. (Like Romain Gary, btw) His furniture was moved to Combourg and they have redone his Parisian room in the castle.

It was a nice tour, telling about Chateaubriand’s early life in Brittany.

The most moving part for me was this tree. It comes from the north of Canada and it’s called a faux cyprès de Lawson in French and according to the dictionary, a Port Orford tree in English. I couldn’t help thinking about The Overstory by Richard Powers, who keeps reminding us that trees, if we don’t destroy them, often survive us.

It’s two-hundred-and-fifty-years old, it has known Chateaubriand as a child. The little stone structure is the Lucile cross, a place where Chateaubriand and his sister Lucile used to chat. She was the one who encouraged him to write.

I left Combourg with an anthology of Memoirs Beyond the Grave. I’m not up for the whole memoirs, so I’ll rely on the work of Jean-Claude Berchet who selected the parts he thought worth reading.

I’ve started to read it and I find it a lot easier than expected.

I’m very curious about the historical aspects of Chateaubriand’s life. He has lived through several political systems in France: born under Louis XV, formative years under Louis XVI (1774-1792), he lived through the Revolution and the Ist Republic (1792-1804), Napoléon and the Ist Empire (1804-1815), the Restauration (1815-1830), the July Monarchy (1830-1848). When he died, the Second Republic had just started. All this in a lifetime.

He traveled a lot, had piolitical responsabilites. I’d like to read his biography some day. (And Lamartine’s, for the same reasons)

I always wonder how common people navigated and survived all these changes.

Sisters by Ada Cambridge – a bleak and cynical vision of marriage

May 20, 2020 14 comments

Sisters by Ada Cambridge (1904) Not available in French.

After reading The Three Miss Kings and A Humble Enterprise, I was ready for another feel-good novel by Ada Cambridge and randomly picked Sisters in my omnibus edition of Cambridge’s work. Forget about feel-good and fluffy novels, this one is bitter when the others are optimistic.

The book opens on sailor Guthrie Carey, who is on leave and taking his young wife Lily and their baby to their new house. They have to sail there and Lily dies during the crossing. He leaves the baby with a temporary nanny and comes back several months later to find a more stable home for his son. He doesn’t want to get married again, which rules out an easy way to find a new mother to his son.

This is when he gets acquainted with the Urquharts and the Pennycuicks, families who have been friends for a long time and live on neighbouring stations. Strong ties bind the two families and through the Urquhart, Guthrie and the reader meet with the four Pennycuick sisters.

The oldest, Deborah, is beautiful, in her twenties and everyone expects her to marry the local aristocracy, Mr Claud Dalzell. Deborah is lively, slightly self-centred and has a high opinion of her rank in the community. She’s the queen of her little world, boys and men are at her feet. Claud Dalzell, her godfather who’s old enough to be her father, Jim Urquhart and even Carey: all fall for her.

The second sister, Mary, is too plain to get married. She turns her affection on other people’s babies and takes care of the household.

The third sister, Rose, is pretty but not as beautiful as Deborah. Frances, the youngest, is still a child when the book opens but she promises to be even lovelier than Deborah.

Sisters tells the fate of the four sisters while Guthrie Carey appears on and off in the book, like a deus ex machina that throws their lives off balance and makes them go on a spin.

Ada Cambridge weaves a story with the underlying idea that love and marriage are not compatible. Love doesn’t survive the quotidian and people you love shouldn’t be the ones you marry since you should want different qualities in a spouse than in a lover. And also, loves remains beautiful when it stays an idea and doesn’t turn into a real relationship.

In Sisters, Ada Cambridge also shows that pride, prejudices and class conscience make people miserable. Deborah is only the daughter of a rich landowner. She’s the aristocracy in her neck of the woods. She’s very attached to her status and would never marry below her rank or what she believes her rank is. She behaves as if she were a princess.

Cambridge points out that, even in on a station where these people started from scratch, they managed to recreate a hierarchy, like in the old world. In Deborah’s eyes, trade is degrading and none of the Pennycuick sisters should marry a tradesman.

As the oldest daughter, she’s in charge of her sisters when her father dies and she’s not fit for it. Her pride will not allow her to make the sacrifices they should do.

She should have managed better with the resources at her disposal than to bring herself to such a pass, and that so soon; either Mary or Rose would certainly have done so in her place. But Nature had not made her or Frances—whose rapacities had been one cause of the financial breakdown—for the role of domestic economists; they had been dowered with their lovely faces for other purposes.

She was supposed to marry a rich man, and that’s all the preparation she had to face life.

In Sisters, men are all flawed. The pastor is a moocher, a greedy man and his temper is not fit for religious duties. Mr Pennycuick is weak, like Mr Bennet. Mr Thornycroft, Deborah’s godfather, lusts after her “ever since she was a kiddie” Eew! Claud Dalzell is a cad. Guthrie Carey falls in and out of love easily and doesn’t want to get married again. The only two decent men are the ones who work to make a living, Jim Urquhart who manages the station and Paul Breen, a draper who will marry one of the sisters, against her family’s will.

I won’t tell much about the plot, to avoid spoilers but the sisters’ lives are dictated by their marital choices. And Cambridge’s conclusion is that:

He did not know what a highly favoured mortal he really was, in that his beautiful love-story was never to be spoiled by a happy ending.

Wow.

I still wonder what she wanted to prove in her novel and why it’s so bitter compared to the others. She was a pastor’s wife and she spent her life in various parishes. Is Sisters the bleak offspring of her observations of married life?

Did she want to point out that men make women’s lives more difficult and that their hard work never has the recognition it deserves?

Mrs Urquhart and Mrs Pennycuick, plain, brave, working women of the rough old times, wives of high-born husbands, incapable of companioning them as they companioned each other, had been great friends. On them had devolved the drudgery of the pioneer home-making without its romance; they had had, year in, year out, the task of ‘shepherding’ two headstrong and unthrifty men, who neither owned their help nor thanked them for it—the inglorious life-work of so many obscure women—and had strengthened each other’s hands and hearts that had had so little other support.

Sisters has a feminist vibe but I found Deborah insufferable. Mary’s lack of confidence was her Achille’s heel. Rose was the most sensible one and Frances, frivolous and vain deserved her fate.

For this reader, it’s always interesting to catch glimpses of everyday life in the 19thC. If you tend to forget you’re reading an Australian book, Cambridge reminds you of it with scorching hot Februaries and by comparing something to an opossum.

Brona has read it too and her review is here.

This is another contribution to Australian Women Writer Challenge

AWW_2020

The Wrong Case by James Crumley – Classy noir

May 15, 2020 6 comments

The Wrong Case by James Crumley (1975). French title: Fausse piste. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

There’s no accounting for laws. Or the changes wrought by men and time. For nearly eight years the only way to get a divorce in our state was to have your spouse convicted of felony or caught in an act of adultery. Nor even physical abuse or insanity counted. And in the ten years since I resigned as a county deputy, I had made a good living off those antiquated divorce laws. Then the state legislature, in a flurry of activity at the close of a special session, put me out of business by civilizing those divorce laws. Now we have dissolutions of marriage by reason of irreconcilable differences. Supporters and opponents were both shocked by the unexpected action of the lawmakers, but not as shocked as I was. I spent the next two days sulking in my office, drinking and enjoying the view, considering the prospects for my suddenly very dim future. The view looked considerably better than my prospects.

My office is on the fourth floor if the Milodragovitch Building. I inherited the building from my grandfather, but most of the profits go to a management corporation, my first ex-wife, and the estate of my second ex-wife. I’m left with cheap rent and a great view. At least on those days when the east wind doesn’t inflict the pulp mill upon is or when an inversion layer doesn’t cap the Meriwether Valley like a plug in a sulfurous well, I have a great view.

This is the beginning of The Wrong Case by James Crumley, the first book featuring the PI Milo Dragovitch. We’re in Meriwether, a fictional small town in Montana, not a quaint one surrounded by ranches and trout-fishing streams but a by-product of the mining industry gone awry. We’re in the 1970s and Milo is waiting for his 35th birthday to get his hands on his trust fund. He used to work for the local police station but resigned and settled as a PI. Between the end of the adultery business and his ex-wives, money is tight.

His days are spent between the office and the local bar where he has an unofficial office in the back. His friends are Simon, who drinks with diligence and towards a slow suicide and Dick, a local teacher with whom he plays handball. Ex-Wife #1 is now married to Jamison, the Meriwether chief of police. Milo and Jamison despise each other and that makes any work relationship between the two awkward.

Milo’s life is about to get more complicated when Helen Duffy struts into his office. She’s that kind of femme fatale, the poisonous beauty that reels PIs into taking on cases they know they should stay away from. The Wrong Case is exactly that.

Milo knows that digging into the disappearance of Helen’s brother Raymond will do him no good. It quickly appears that Raymond is involved with the local crime scene. It doesn’t help that Milo lusts after Helen who has a passionate liaison with a married Dick, the friend I mentioned before.

Milo will follow the Raymond lead and it takes him to a wife abandoned when her husband discovered his homosexuality, the local mafia, the town drug trafficking and all kind of dangerous businesses that confirm that he should have stayed put.

We are in classic noir territory here and James Crumley builds a believable Meriwether, kicking the bucolic Montana image to the curb. There are drugs, criminality and misery like everywhere else. Milo is an interesting character with his ex-marriages, his loyal friendship to Simon and Dick and his imperfect father role to his children.

Crumley’s style belongs to literary crime fiction. I’m currently reading a Viveca Sten, and that’s subject-verb-complement crime fiction. Crumley is classy and poetic. Milo is a no-future kind of guy, he trudges through life, one day at a time, carrying his baggage of his father’s untimely death, his failure as a husband and a father. And yet, despite his frequent visits to the bar and his prayers to the gods of drunkenness, I liked him a lot more than Jack Taylor.

Recommended to fans of classic noir fiction. Another book published by Gallmeister.

A Humble Enterprise by Ada Cambridge – Melbourne, tea cups and romance

April 26, 2020 20 comments

A Humble Entreprise by Ada Cambridge. (1896) Not available in French.

I decided to sign up for Australian Women Writer Challenge again. I had joined this literary event in 2018 and all my Australian readings are in here. AWW (#AWW2020) is hosted by Australian bloggers and its rules are described on their website.

The idea is to read four, six, ten or more books written by Australian women writers. I’ve already read four, so I’m joining the party now. The first ones are two books by Catherine Helen Spence, her novel Mr Hogarth’s Will and her Autobiography

I had A Humble Entreprise by Ada Cambridge on the TBR because it was included in my omnibus collection of books by Cambridge that I acquired when I read The Three Miss Kings.

It also includes Sisters, A Mere Chance, Materfamilias, The Retrospect and her memoirs Thirty Years in Australia. I’ve read Sisters (upcoming billet). Among the ones I still have on the TBR, which one would you recommend?

A Humble Entreprise doesn’t seem to be one of Cambridge’s most famous books, it’s not even listed on her Wikipedia page.

A Humble Entreprise opens with a familiar scene of 19thC novels: Joseph Liddon, a dutiful clerk at the Churchills’ offices and dies in a tram accident, leaving his wife and his three grown-up children without an income.

His young son is hired as a clerk in the same office as his father but he can’t support the whole family with his entry-level wages. The eldest daughter, Jenny, comes with a plan: she convinces her mother and sister to open a tea shop in Little Collins Street, Melbourne. To keep the running of the shop simple and efficient, they decide to serve tea, coffee and scones, since Mrs Liddon excels at baking them.

She puts an ad in the paper to advertise the place and Mr Churchill, her father’s former employer, stumble upon it. He remembers about the late Mr Liddon and also that his family declined any financial help from the firm. He’s impressed by their entrepreneurship and their willingness to support themselves with their tea shop.

He decides to visit the place and endorse it. He asks his wife and daughter to have tea there on their next shopping trip to Melbourne and to promote the shop to their lady friends.

Soon, thanks to Jenny’s sound management of their money and Mrs Churchill’s patronage, the place is successful.

Meanwhile, at the Churchill mansion, the family prepares themselves to the return of Mr Churchill’s eldest son, Anthony, from his trip in Europe. His stepmother is particularly happy to see him again, she who hoped to marry him but eventually married his father. She’s still romantically attracted to her stepson, which brings a certain twist to the story.

Anthony is thirty-five, still single and thinks it’s time to settle down. If only he could find the right wife. He has played the field enough and knows he doesn’t want a frivolous wife who only cares about clothes and parties. He wants an industrious, caring wife, one who’ll want to take care of their children and not let them too much in the care of nannies.

Guess what happens when he meets hard-working, no-nonsense and entrepreneurial Jenny?

A Humble Entreprise is written for a readership of young girls. Ada Cambridge uses this light and fluffy romance to give advice about love and marriage. There are several passages in which Anthony muses over the qualities he wants in his future wife. Pretty doesn’t come first, he’s more looking for companionship. Ada Cambridge addresses directly to her readers:

And, my dear girls—to whom this modest tale is more particularly addressed—I am credibly informed that quite a large number of men are inclined to matrimony or otherwise by considerations of the same kind. You don’t think so, when you are at play together in the ball-room and on the tennis-ground, and you fancy it is your “day out,” so to speak; but they tell me in confidence that it is the fact. They adore your pretty face and your pretty frocks; they are immensely exhilarated by your sprightly banter and sentimental overtures; they absolutely revel in the pastime of making love, and will go miles and miles for the chance of it; but when it comes to thinking of a home and family, the vital circumstances of life for its entire remaining term, why, they really are not the heedless idiots that they appear—at any rate, not all of them.

Something Jane Austen says in one sentence in Emma, “Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.”

Of course, her views on marriage are in accordance with the mores of her time but she still advocates equality in the personal relationship. She sees marriage as a loving partnership and she clearly wants to teach her readers that beauty evaporates with time and that a good character with adequate skills lasts longer. They should work on useful skills instead of entertaining ones.

I wonder why she didn’t go further and explain to her female readers what they should look for in a husband. After all, women of sense do not want a silly husband either. Drunkards, gamblers, idlers, spendthrifts, cheaters and quick-tempered men should raise warning flags as well. Perhaps she didn’t go there because girls didn’t have the luxury to be picky and could only hope for the best.

A Humble Entreprise is a fluffy novella I’ve read in one sitting, which was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to read a feel-good novella and it filled the bill. Cambridge writes in a light tone and has a good sense of humour, as you can see in her description of the Churchills going out to downtown Melbourne:

Half an hour later her husband and stepdaughter, two highly-finished, perfectly-tailored figures, sober and stately, severely unpretentious, yet breathing wealth and consequence at every point, set forth together through spacious gardens to the road and the tram—which appeared to the minute, as it always does for men of the Churchill stamp, who are never too soon or too late for anything.

As always, because I’m curious about everyday life in other countries and previous centuries, I enjoyed reading about Melbourne in the 19thC.

Recommended to readers who enjoy 19thC literature and are not allergic to romance.

PS: About the cover. I really don’t understand where this cover comes from. It’s miles away from the atmosphere of the book, as far from it as Nana is from Emma. The second picture is more accurate, you can imagine Jenny running the tea shop while her mother bakes the scones and her sister holds the cash register.

#1920Club. The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie – how you can hear French in Poirot’s English

April 15, 2020 25 comments

The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie (1920). French title: La mystérieuse affaire de Styles.

This time I was received with a smile. Monsieur Poirot was within. Would I mount? I mounted accordingly.

When I heard again about the #1920Club hosted by Simon, I decided to read The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie. I have fond memories of binge reading Agatha Christie when I was thirteen. I borrowed her books in French at the library and they were all in the collection Le Masque. I’ve always been fond of detective stories. In primary school I read a lot of Famous Five, Nancy Drew or Fantômette. I guess that Agatha Christie was the next step.

It’s been years since I’ve last read a book by her and I’d never read one featuring Hercule Poirot in the original and what a delight it was.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles is the first book with Hercule Poirot as a detective. Set in a rich country house in Essex during WWI, old Emily Inglethorp dies in her room from strychnine poisoning. We have the usual setting of such stories: the lady had just remarried to Alfred Inglethorp who is twenty years her junior. Her stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish, live with her and hate her new husband. She also has a young protégée, Cynthia. Hastings is friends with John and has arrived at the estate for a few weeks of R&R.

Poirot, a former detective from the Beligan police is living in the village near Styles. He’s a refugee from the war and is delighted to meet Hastings again. They will investigate the murder and give a hand to Scotland Yard when Inspector Japp arrives to take charge of the case.

I will not get into the plot as it’s the usual Agatha Christie book and we’ve all read some. I found Hastings delightful with his naïve and overdeveloped ego, he has such a refreshing voice.

The setting is the usual lovely English countryside where people’s main hobby is walking in the woods. I’ve never seen so many characters having walks than in English literature, it’s like a national sport.

We also hear the tone of other books of that time, the Downtown Abbey comments about faithful servants and the uncomfortable little remarks about foreigners and Jews.

For this reader, the best thing about The Mysterious Affair At Styles was discovering Poirot in the original instead of reading him in French translation. Poirot uses a lot of French words in his English like Pouf!, Voilà, mon ami, Voyons!, A merveille!. He swears like Captain Haddock in Tintin (Milles tonnerres!), not that I’ve ever heard this insult in real life. He makes little grammar mistakes like using his instead of its, a common thing for French people because there is no neutral gender in French. The reader can’t forget he’s a foreigner.

Poirot speaks English like a French native and makes delightful errors, even funnier for me who heard the French behind his English sentences. Let’s see:

Excuse me, mon ami, you dressed in haste, and your tie is on one side. Permit me. Poirot uses Permit me instead of Allow me because in French it would be Permettez.

I comprehend perfectly. instead I understand perfectly, a literal translation of Je comprends parfaitement a natural way to speak for a French speaker.

A little minute,(…) I come is the direct translation of the French, Une petite minute, j’arrive. One of the most difficult step in speaking another language is to know how things are said. In English, you’d say something like Give me a minute, I’ll be down soon, which is not the French way to express this.

Deciphering when to use little or small, forgetting to add down, off, up, etc. after verbs and understanding when to use the present continuous are common difficulties for French speakers who learn how to speak English.

You are annoyed, is it not so? brought me back to the classroom and the endless lessons about how to conjugate the equivalent of the French invariable n’est-ce pas? (literally is it not so?)

My favourite Frenchism remains the incomparable I will mount to my room, literally Je vais monter dans ma chambre.

To be fair, Agatha Christie also shows what happens when an Englishman tries to use a French word. When I read Me and Moosier here have met before, it took me a few seconds to understand that Moosier was Monsieur, as I had no clue of how an English native would pronounce Monsieur!

Many thanks to Kaggsy for reminding me of this blogging event, I had a great time with The Mysterious Affair At Styles and reading Poirot made me chuckle many times.

 

QDP Days #1 : Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh – Visit Melbourne and its police department

April 3, 2020 14 comments

Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh (2015) French title: L’affaire Isobel Vine Translated by Fabrice Pointeau.

This is Day 1 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar. Our beloved festival has been cancelled and we decided to post a billet about a book by an author invited to the festival. Marina’s first review is here. As far as I know, we have three other participants: Lizzy, Andrew and Guy. And maybe Max. I remind you that Pat, at South of Paris Books, read and reviewed the books short-listed for the Quais du Polar prize. The winner will be announced online today.

The festival has organised some online activities, go check them here. Here’s the program for April 3rd, the one for April 4th, and the one for April 5th. Now, let’s go back to Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh, who was invited to Quais du Polar in 2019, the year he signed my copy of his book. It seems a fitting book to illustrate Quais du Polar, Cavanaugh even mentions Lyon and its famous Edmond Locard, who was a pioneer of CSI. (more of that in an upcoming billet)

Kingdom of the Strong is an excellent cold-case crime fiction set in Melbourne. It won the Prix du Meilleur Polar awarded by readers of the publisher Points in France.

Burned out, Darian Richards resigned from the Melbourne police force four years ago and settled in an isolated cabin in Queensland. To Australian standards, it sounds like leaving the heart of civilisation to live as a recluse in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, only with warmer weather. Poor Darian tries his hand at fishing but doesn’t have the skills of a Jim Harrison character.

So when his former boss and mentor, Copeland Walsh comes to take him out of retirement to work on twenty-five-year-old cold case, the death of Isobel Vine, he has mixed feelings. In appearances, Darian has no wish to jump back into action, in Melbourne or anywhere else but he cannot refuse anything to Walsh, a sort of father figure to him. And, burned out or not, he misses the job.

Copeland was offering more than a job. I’d been trying to fight it but having a hard time. I was remembering the buzz and the thrill of an incoming murder announcement. We lived for murder. It was exciting. In Victoria we’d have about a hundred a year, but we always wanted more. Give me two hundred, three hundred, give me a city of killings. The swirl of the eighth floor, the crews working Homicide, the buzz and the thrill, the oxygen that gets us moving. Eventually, over time, I was poisoned and burned out, unable to break free of the victims and their wraith-like murmurs of anguish fingering out like tentacles, reaching into my increasingly vodka-soaked mind as I kept searching for the very few killers, most notably The Train Rider, who slipped the net, stayed in the shadows, killing again and again or maybe retiring after one or two successful shots at it, leaving behind the plaintive sounds of the victims, calling for justice. Or calling out for me, at least, the guy who wanted to be perfect, Mr Hundred-Per-Cent, that’s how it seemed. I couldn’t deny, not after seeing the boss and hearing the war stories, that old feeling of camaraderie within the ranks of the crews of the eighth. The idea of going back to HQ, to solve a twenty-five-year-old killing, was giving me flutters of excitement.

Against his better judgement, he goes back to Melbourne, and demands his former partners Maria and Isosceles as a team. They start investigating Isobel’s death.

Isobel was in high school and involved with her English teacher, Brian Dunn. She had spent a year in Bolivia as an exchange student and upon Brian’s request had brought a “present from a friend”, drugs. The customs caught her at the Melbourne airport and the police was after her to get the names of her contacts.

Isobel was found dead, hung up with a man tie at her bedroom door, naked. The police concluded it was suicide, a sexual game with a deadly outcome. The night she died, there was a party at her flat and four young cops were among the guests. One of them, Nick Racine is now a serious contender for the position of Police Commissioner in Melbourne. The Premier of Victoria wants to make sure they endorse someone with a clean past.

Darian is in charge of re-opening the Isobel Vine investigation with the purpose to prove once for all, that Nick Racine has nothing to do with her death and that his nomination as Police Commissioner is possible.

They start digging and poking around everyone’s past. They meet with Isobel’s boyfriend, her teacher and the guests of that last fateful party. They stir up bad memories, things that people would rather leave buried now that they have moved on. They do their best to piece together Isobel’s life and see what happened to her.

Tony Cavanaugh is a screenwriter and his novel benefits from it. It’s very cinematographic, it’s fast paced, with a lot of twists and turns. Sometimes, I thought that one or two plot devices were a bit farfetched and now I wish I could ask Tony Cavanaugh if he invented them or if he read about it in newspapers as sometimes reality surpasses fiction.

The narration alternates between the past and the present, letting the reader peek into Isobel’s life. Cavanaugh uses an omniscient narrator for all the characters except Darian. He speaks at the first person. The cast of characters was well drawn and Darian and Maria make a great pair.

He’s like a lone wolf PI, responding to his own moral code and said moral code is not always in line with legality. He’s a man scarred by his years in the police force, to the point that every street in Melbourne reminds him of a case. It spoils his pleasure of strolling in the city. He only sees the ghost of investigations past. You see that both the French and English covers show a lonely PI with a gun and the Melbourne skyline. I prefer the English cover.

Maria is a spitfire and her boyfriend used to be a big shot in the Melbourne crime community. It’s at odds with her job and she’s always afraid that his former life is not completely over and that his criminal endeavours put stains on her career in the police force. She and Darian make a great team. Helped by Isosceles’s uncanny ability to unearth information about people, they dive into this investigation head on and don’t hesitate to ruffle feathers in the process.

Cavanaugh take us in Melbourne’s back-alleys, in the corridors of the police force where well-established cops feel that they now are on a hot seat. Will they get out of it unscathed? Will they manage to find out what happened to Isobel, twenty-five years ago?

Read the book and find out. It’s an entertaining read, one that will virtually take you out of lockdown. It will take your mind off epidemic thoughts and wash away the virus of anxiety that eats at us, despite our best efforts. Recommended.

A little word about French stuff in this book. I love noting them down.

I mentioned Edmond Locard earlier but several other odd references to French things pop in Cavanaugh’s novel and it was unexpected.

Maria listens to Les Négresses Vertes.

There’s a funny explanation of Voilà! I paraphrase since I have the book in French translation: Cavanaugh says it seems to mean anything from take this to the cat is dead. Well observed, I’d say.

And then when the characters go to a -stuffy- French restaurant in Melbourne, the French waiter is named Jean-Paul. What is it with Australian writers and the name Jean-Paul? Is there an Australian reader out there who can spot the French textbook with a character named Jean-Paul? There must be one. I have no intention to write a book, but I promise that if I ever change my mind, I won’t name the British characters and their dog, Brian, Jenny and Cheeky.

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel – Superb and surprising

January 2, 2020 32 comments

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel (2005) Original French title: La petite fille de Monsieur Linh

Before writing anything about Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel, let’s talk about the French and English titles. In French, it is La petite fille de Monsieur Linh. Since there is no hyphen between “petite” and “fille”, it means Monsieur Linh’s little girl and not Monsieur Linh’s granddaughter. The English publisher chose Monsieur Linh and His Child and I wonder why they picked “child” instead of “little girl”. But back to the book.

Monsieur Linh is an immigrant from Vietnam, probably one of the boat people. We never know exactly where he comes from. He left his home after his family was attacked. He’s an old man and he’s disoriented by his journey. He arrives in France and everything is strange: the language, the food, the city, the smells. He is sent to a refugee center where there are other families from his country. An interpreter comes from time to time to talk to him and help him out with the administrative duties.

He settles into a routine, goes to the park nearby and becomes friends with a widower, Monsieur Bark. They can’t talk to each other with words because one is a native French speaker and the other only knows his mother tongue. But somehow, they speak the same language of sadness and loneliness. Monsieur Linh has left his country and his family is dead. Monsieur Bark mourns his wife and doesn’t have any children. Their common need for company brings them together on this bench morning after morning. Somehow, they communicate and bring each other some much needed warmth.

All along the text, Monsieur Linh has his little girl with him. He travelled with her, never left her alone and he dotes on her. She’s his link to his country, to his past and his family.

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is a perfect novella, as striking as Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman-Taylor although their theme is different. They have the same way of building a story up to an unimaginable denouement. And in both books, the clues that lead to the ending are scattered along the pages, the reader just overlooks them. The construction of this tale is perfectly executed.

The other outstanding quality of Claudel’s novella is his compassionate tone. We are in Monsieur Linh’s head and we witness his puzzlement with his new life. He seems to have arrived in Calais or Dunkirk. He’s cold, the city smells, there are a lot of automobiles everywhere. The food is strange, except when his fellow refugees feed him at the center. He doesn’t know what to do anymore and his only goal in life is to take care of his little girl. Although he’s traumatized by the war and his journey to France, he won’t let go because she needs him.

Philippe Claudel imagines Monsieur Linh’s feeling and makes the reader “experience” the pain of being a war refugee. It means leaving a country without preparation and without a real will to emigrate. It’s not a choice, it is imposed on him by dreadful circumstances. The reader feels empathy for these refugees.

I remember the arrival of boat people refugees when I was a child. For us, it meant changing from a tall grumpy French dentist with huge paws and no patience for children fears to a tiny Vietnamese dentist with agile embroiderer hands and a calming presence. I can tell you that his customer base grew quickly.

Not surprisingly, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is taught in middle school. It’s short, easy to read and has obvious qualities to build the character of tomorrow’s citizen.

Very highly recommended. Lisa also reviewed it here.

PS: Sorry to be blunt, but the cover of the English edition is ugly. There’s no other word for it.

Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb – Mystery in the countryside, US mode

December 22, 2019 4 comments

Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb (2014) French title: Meurtres à Willow Pond. Translated by Laurent Bury

I swear that when I purchased Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb, I was drawn to it because of its classic British crime vibe in an American setting. Indeed, it is set in a country lodge in Maine, a sort of US equivalent of the country house in England. A murder occurs and the murderer is among the family and guests. See what I mean with the “classic British crime vibe”? The fact that the lodge is specialized in fishing trips with two family members as renown fishing guides is incidental and has nothing to do with reading William G. Tapply or John Gierach. That said, Ned Crabb put as much care and craft in the plot and in the characters as Gierach in making his flies.

The book opens on Alicia and Six Godwin, retired university teachers, who live on their compound on Winsokkett Pond. They love books and fishing and live for them. They are the happiest with a book in their hands on their porch or on the water with their fishing rod. They have a good marriage, with a warm complicity and the reader likes them immediately.

They are related to Iphigeny Seldon, “Gene” who owns and runs Cedar Lodge, a famous upscale fishing lodge on Willow Pond. Gene is over seventy, she runs everything in a military way. She’s loud, insensitive and relishes in the power she has as the master of Cedar Lodge. She’s a spinster and after her brother and sister-in-law’s accidental death, she took over Cedar Lodge and operates it with her nephews and niece.

Brad Seldon is her oldest nephew. He’s 48, an alcoholic, a celebrated fishing guide whose reputation makes guests book their vacation at Cedar Lodge. He’s married to Renée, who is ten years younger than him. Their marriage has been dead for a while but Renée doesn’t want a divorce if she can’t get a nice settlement, one that Brad can’t afford without his inheritance. And Gene holds the purse strings, if Gene-the-tomboy ever had a purse.

Merill Beauchamp is Brad’s sister. She’s 45, addicted to cocaine and is the other fishing guide asset of Cedar Lodge. She’s married to Huntley Beauchamp, a crook. Their marriage is a sham, they both want out but, guess what, Beauchamp won’t let go without a nice settlement. Now Merrill is involved with Bruno Gabreau, a French fellow fishing guide and she really wants a divorce but she can’t have it unless she puts her hands on her inheritance.

Kipper is the third Seldon sibling. He works in managing Cedar Lodge and he’s the only one who has a decent relationship with Gene. He’s 40, gay and has a relationship with Cedar Lodge’s cook, a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Lemaire. His lover is tired of living out in the woods in Maine and wants to open a restaurant in New York. Kipper is all for it but he needs his inheritance to fund the restaurant.

Beauchamp is Cedar Lodge’s financial advisor and he embezzled money. He’s afraid that Gene will find out. He took measures against it, mostly to have people temper with the books and hide the missing money. But now he’s not sure that he didn’t put himself in the hands of gangsters and brought them to Cedar Lodge.

They all hate Gene. They all need money. They all contemplate murder. And now Gene organized a family weekend to tell them that she changed her will. They all converge to Cedar Lodge for this family reunion. So, when Gene dies during a thunder night at the lodge, there are plenty of suspects.

Lightning Strikes merges Nature Writing with Crime Fiction, the two wrapped in a light touch of humor. There are beautiful descriptions of the nature around the lodge and the Godwins’ compound. In that respect, it’s very similar to Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Lightning Strikes has the same slow-life tempo as any Nature Writing book, despite all the twists and turns of the story.

The well-oiled mechanism of the classic whodunnit is there too. We are both on familiar and unfamiliar grounds. The minor characters are excellent too: the old playboy who wants to marry Gene as a retirement plan, the pseudo-British guests, Tory and Nelson, a couple of tourists who aren’t at the lodge only to fish trout. The sheriff team is not used to dealing with murders like this. Sheriff Doucette (which, for a French, equals to reading Sheriff Sweetie) is not sure about what to do and Crabb opens a window to the team’s dynamics. These interactions are delightful too. And the Godwins play the sheriff’s assistants and love it.

It’s not a highly memorable book but, like Weekend at Thrackley, it’s entertaining.

It’s a Gallmeister book, and as always, the translator is excellent. I loved how he transcribed the American way of saying Beauchamp, because I never would have guessed it was Bi-tcheum.

 

Figurec by Fabrice Caro – Appearances are deceitful

December 15, 2019 4 comments

Figurec by Fabrice Caro (2006) Not available in English

Figurec is Fabrice Caro’s debut novel. His first love is BD (comics) with an offbeat sense of humor. He has a knack for picturing our world, our quirks and inconsistencies. You’ve heard about him twice this year on this blog, first when I blogged about his BD Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and then when I wrote about his latest novel, Le discoursFigurec is a first bridge between his BD and novels, Le discours is more accomplished.

Now the book and how can you sum up a book like Figurec?

The first chapter is an “Act 1, Scene 1” of a theatre play. The second chapter is a man attending a funeral and who thinks:

L’enterrement de Pierre Giroud m’a énormément déçu, c’était une cérémonie sans réelle émotion. D’accord, il y avait du monde, bien plus qu’à celui d’Antoine Mendez, mais tout cela manquait de rythme, de conviction. Même la fille de Pierre Giroud –du moins celle que je supposais être la fille de Pierre Giroud—n’était pas très en verve. Elle hésitait en permanence entre une pudique retenue et des sanglots bruyants de qualité très médiocre. Le résultat était assez caricatural, sans nuances. Pierre Giroud’s funeral was a stark disappointment. It was a ceremony devoid of real emotion. OK, there were a lot of people, a lot more than at Antoine Mendez’s funeral but this one lacked rhythm and conviction. Even Pierre Giroud’s daughter –or at least the one I assumed was Pierre Giroud’s daughter –wasn’t in brilliant form. She was always between modest self-restraint and loud sobs of poor quality. The result was caricatural, without proper nuance.

He watches the funeral as if he were watching and commenting a theatre play or a soccer game.

After this funeral, the narrator goes to diner at his friends Julien and Claire’s place. We learn that he dines with them five times a week but they don’t seem to mind. He likes them but still thinks he’s mooching off them and at the same time bringing entertainment in their otherwise dull marriage. For fun, Julien collects original 45s that were #1 at the Top 50 French chart in the 1980s and his enthusiasm about his latest find is puzzling, but who are we to judge someone else’s passions?

Our narrator also goes to diner at his parents’, a diner that his successful younger brother and lovely girlfriend attend too. His parents worry about him because he won’t settle down and doesn’t seem to grow up. He feels like a failure compared to his brother.

Our narrator is a would-be playwright and the “Act Something / Scene Something” inserted in the novel remind us his attempts at writing his play and his true goal in life.

After the first few pages, the reader feels that they’re spending time with a weird narrator, a sort of loser who attends funeral for fun, takes advantage of his friends, makes his parents believe he’s a writer-to-be when he just bums around. At this stage we think we’re just with a pathetic and nutty character.

Things get strange when a man approaches him at a funeral and asks him whether he belongs to Figurec too. That’s where the off-the-wall story takes you to a parallel world of false pretense where you don’t know who is who and what to think. All this is wrapped up in Caro’s unique brand of humor and talent for alternate universes.

A fun and disconcerting book. Next week I’ll see the theatre version of Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and I can’t wait to see how the director translated this BD to the stage.

The Black Echo by Michael Connelly – Perfectly executed

July 29, 2019 10 comments

The Black Echo by Michael Connelly (1992) French title: Les égoûts de Los Angeles.

Michael Connelly was the star at Quais du Polar this year. I attended two events where he was a guest star, a film about LA and Connelly’s writing and a wonderful jazz & literature session with him and James Sallis. I saw him on the street, simply having a sandwich at the terrace of a bakery. I liked his attitude, he didn’t behave like he was a big deal and yet he is, if you consider the number of books he has sold. It made me want to read one of his books and I picked The Black Echo, the first opus of his famous Harry Bosch series.

Harry Bosch is a detective on the LAPD homicide team and he has just been demoted. The Internal Affairs are after him. When he and his partner are sent on a scene where a dead body was found, he’s the only one not to dismiss this death as an overdose. Something doesn’t sit well with him. And then he realizes that he knew the victim. It’s Billy Meadows, a fellow veteran who fought alongside him in the Vietnam War. There is no way Harry will let this case alone, despite all the roadblocks on the path: he has enemies in the LAPD and he crosses the FBI’s path. It’ll be a dangerous case for Harry’s career and even physical integrity.

I wasn’t sure that I’d like Connelly’s books but I did. Harry Bosch is an attaching character and The Black Echo is polished debut novel. Bosch is fully formed, believable and Connelly’s knowledge of police procedure and LAPD’s ways is precious and accurate. Bosch’s quotidian sounds real, like here:

Two hours of typing and smoking and drinking bad coffee later, a bluish cloud hung near the ceiling lights over the homicide table and Bosch had completed the myriad forms that accompany a homicide investigation. He got up and made copies on the Xerox in the back hall.

The reader believes that Harry is a real detective, a maverick among his peers and that make him interesting. Details about the Vietnam War ring true too, a black echo was a soldier who went into tunnels, in search of Vietcong soldiers. Connelly doesn’t give useless information about the war but only the ones relevant for the plot and the reader’s understanding of Bosch’s past.

Connelly describes himself as a storyteller and that’s an accurate description. His prose is good, efficient. The Black Echo is an excellent page turner, I was eager to continue, to see how it would end. I liked Bosch and was totally engaged at his side during the story. It’s captivating and everything is well done: the LA setting, Bosch himself and his interactions with his colleagues, the atmosphere of the police investigation. It’s efficient, like Stephen King, only in a different genre.

Connelly is a wonderful and engaging writer but not an artist like other literary authors, which is not something he claims to be. From what I see in The Black Echo, the Bosch series is an excellent source of reliable, good and entertaining reads. We do need this kind of books because reading is above all a pleasure. And sometimes, literary books are interesting or challenging but not all that pleasurable.

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