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Four novellas, four countries, four decades

November 20, 2021 25 comments

The blogging event Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca has a perfect timing, I was in the mood to read several novellas in a row. One has been on the shelf for almost a decade (Yikes!), two arrived recently with my Kube subscription and one was an impulse purchase during my last trip to a bookstore. So, here I am with four novellas set in four different countries and in different decades.

The Origin of the World by Pierre Michon (1996) Original French title: La Grande Beune

We’re in 1961, in the French countryside of Dordogne, the region of the Lascaux caves. The narrator is 20 and he has just been appointed as primary school teacher in the village of Castelnau. It’s his first time as a teacher. He takes lodgings at Hélène’s and discovers the life of the village. Soon, he becomes infatuated with the beautiful Yvonne, the village’s tobacconist and the mother of one of his pupils, Bernard.

Michon describes the narrator’s sex drive as he walks in the country, as he visits caves with paintings, as he obsesses over Yvonne but still has sex with his girlfriend Mado.

The English translation is entitled The Origin of the World, probably as a reference to the caves, their rock painting and the beginning of humanity and to femineity, like Courbet’s painting. The French title, La Grande Beune, is the name of the river near the village.

Pierre Michon is considered as a great writer by critics. He’s not my kind of writer, I don’t connect well with his prose. I can’t explain why, there’s something in the rhythm that doesn’t agree with me. It’s the first time I read a book by him, I only saw a play version of his book, Vie de Joseph Roulin. Roulin was the postman in Arles, the one who was friend with Van Gogh. I expected a lively biopic, it was one of the most boring plays I’ve ever seen.

After my stay in Dordogne, I traveled to Sicily, in a poor neighborhood of Palermo.

Borgo Vecchio by Giosuè Calaciura (2017) Translated from the Italian by Lise Chapuis.

Calaciura takes us among the little world of the Borgo Vecchio neighborhood. Mimmo and Cristofaro are best friends and Mimmo has a crush on Celeste.

The three children don’t have an easy life. Mimmo’s home life is OK but he’s worried about Cristofaro whose father is a mean drunkard and beats him badly every evening. Celeste spends a lot of time on the balcony of her apartment: her mother Carmela is the local hooker and she works from home. Her daughter stays on the balcony, to avoid her mother’s clients and witness her dealing with men. Cristofaro and Mimmo find solace in nurturing Nanà, a horse that Mimmo’s father acquired to run races and make money on bets.

The neighborhood’s other legend is Totò, the master of the thief squad, a quick worker who gets away with everything because he’s fast, agile and knows the neighborhood’s every nook and crannies. The police can’t compete with that and the fact that the inhabitants of Borgo Vecchio protect their own.

Calaciura’s prose is poetic, almost like a fairy tale. It tempers the horror of the characters’ lives but doesn’t sugarcoat it. It breathes life into Borgo Vecchio and we imagine the alleys, the noise coming from the harbor, the life of the community, the importance of the Catholic church.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. It’s a mix of acceptance, —Carmela belongs to the community and is not really ostracized—and cowardice –nobody intervenes to save Cristoforo and his mother from their abusive father and husband.

We get to know the neighborhood and the tension builds up, leading to an inevitable drama. The reader feels a lot of empathy for these children. What chance do they have to do better than their parents?

After Borgo Vecchio, I traveled to Japan and read…

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) French title: La fille de la supérette. Translated from the Japanese by Mathilde Tamae-Bouhon

With Sayaka Murata’s book, I discovered the word kombini, a work that comes from the English convenient store (supérette in French)

The main character, Keiko Furukura, is a peculiar lady. She’s 36 and had been working at a SmileMart convenience store for 18 years. She’s single, never had a boyfriend and, according to her voice, she seems to be on the spectrum.

Her life is made of working hard, following her routine and learning social cues from her coworkers. Anything to sounds and behave like a normal woman, whatever that means. All is well until a new employee, Shihara, joins the team. He has his own issues with Japan’s expectation of him.

Convenience Store Woman is a lovely novella about a woman who struggles to fit in a society that likes nothing more than conformity. She stands out because she’s single and is not looking for a husband and because she’s happy with what is considered as a temporary job for students. Shihara disrupts her life and makes her question herself.

This theme about fitting in reminded me of Addition by Toni Jordan, with less romance and more sass. I liked Keiko and I’m glad got to spend time with her. The author has a good angle on the pressure for conformity of the Japanese society.

Then I virtually flew to Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to…

Remembering Laughter by Wallace Stegner (1937) French title: Une journée d’automne. Translated from the American by Françoise Torchiana.

Alec Stuart and his wife Margaret are wealthy farmers. Their life changes when Elspeth, Margaret’s younger sister, comes to live with them, freshly emigrated from Scotland.

Elspeth is 18, full of life. She marvels about the farm, looks at everything with enthusiasm and with a fresh eye. She instills energy and joy in Alec and Margaret’s settled life. She’s also awakening to desire. She and Alec become close, until an unhealthy love triangle arises from their staying in close quarters.

Love, betrayal and tragedy are round the corner of the barn.

Wallace Stegner is a marvelous writer. His characters are well-drawn, revealing their complexity, their innocence or their flows. The countryside of Iowa leaps from the pages, with its sounds, its smells and its landscapes. According to the afterword written by Stegner’s wife, this novella is based on the true story of her aunts, which makes the story even more poignant.

This was my second Stegner, after Crossing to Safety, which I recommend as highly as Remembering Laughter. Imagine that Stegner taught literature and had among his students Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey and Larry McMurtry. What a record!

As mentioned at the beginning, this is another contribution to the excellent even Novellas in November. Thanks ladies for organizing it! Reading novellas is fun.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – life assessment at old age

October 27, 2019 10 comments

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987) French title: En lieu sûr. Translated by Eric Chédaille.

I have heard of people’s lives being changed by a dramatic or traumatic event–a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam. I never heard of anybody’s life but ours being changed by a dinner party.

This is Larry Morgan’s voice, the narrator of Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. He’s now 64 and he and his wife Sally arrived at the Lang compound in Battel Pond, Vermont. This is the property of Charity and Sid Lang, their long-life friends. (There is was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.) They’re not here for fun, though, but more for a last farewell to Charity who’s losing battle against cancer.

Larry starts recalling their lives and tells us how their friendship started in 1937, in Madison, Wisconsin. Larry and Sid were both teachers in the English department at the local university. It’s the Great Depression and positions are rare. Larry and Sally are poor, they come from the West and from working class. They have to live on Larry’s salary, unless he keeps selling stories and develops his writing.

Charity and Sid come from the opposite side of the country and social ladder: they are a wealthy couple from New England. Sid’s fortune comes from his family’s business and his father was very disappointed when he turned to literature. Charity comes from a family of academics, her father is always buried in a book and in research while her mother runs the house.

On paper, they come from different worlds. In reality, they clicked immediately and bonded over their love for literature. Larry reflects on these early years in Madison, on the start of their friendship and how Sally and Charity took an immediate liking to each other, how it started at this diner party and wonders:

Is that the basis of friendship? Is it as reactive as that? Do we respond only to people who seem to find us interesting?… Do we all buzz or ring or light up when people press our vanity buttons, and only then? Can I think of anyone in my whole life whom I have liked without his first showing signs of liking me?

This and the opening quote earlier represent Larry quite well: he’s unassuming. He wonders why Charity and Sid are so fond of them. They graduated from Smith College and Harvard while he went to Berkeley and Sally dropped out of school to support them. They are more worldly than he and Sally are. Even if he doesn’t say it that way, he doesn’t understand what they bring into the relationship that puts them on equal footing.

[Friendship] is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking. It is therefore rare.

Larry is a gifted writer and he brings the aura of talent into their tightknit group.

Sid wanted to write poetry but neither his family nor his wife support him. He was strong enough to go against his family about literature but not enough to fight Charity on writing poetry. She thinks he needs to have an established career as an academic for him to indulge into writing poetry. He doesn’t think he’s a talented enough and gives up. But it gnaws at him and Larry thinks it’s a shame he doesn’t keep on writing poetry even if he might not be a good poet, as long as it makes him happy.

And sure, why should he stop writing poetry just because he’s not good enough to be published? (Something we are not even sure of) Do amateur painters or photographers stop doing their hobby because they’ll never have an exhibition in a gallery? They don’t, and nobody tells them to stop painting or taking pictures. Why do we expect that a writer should be published or stop writing? Isn’t it what we think, in spite of ourselves?

Charity is a force of nature. She has ambition for the four of them and works to reach her goals. The issue is that Sid needs to publish articles about literature, if he wants a promotion. Stegner makes fun of this obligation that takes precedence over being a good teacher:

You hear what the dean said about Jesus Christ? ‘Sure He’s a good teacher, but what’s He published?

Larry loves to write, for himself first, but also because selling short-stories helps paying the bills. Sally and he have no family money to fall back on. They have no safety net and need the money to keep coming in. That’s his first ambition.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else — pathway to the stars, maybe. I suspect that what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without benefit of drugs or orgies, have more fun.

I love the idea that Ambition is a path, no a destination. In Larry’s eyes, Charity has unconsidered ambition for Sid and that she had to carry him during their hiking on her ambition path because he didn’t quite have it in him to walk this trail alone and succeed. She’s also both generous and stubborn about how things need to be done. She loves control and cannot bear to relinquish it, whatever the cost. Larry and Sally give in because most of the time, they are guests and don’t feel untitled to go against her wishes. Sid does because he knows from experience that he won’t win. He loves her and indulges her.

Crossing to Safety is a celebration of friendship, a scrutiny of its workings, a reflection on two long marriages but it is also an older man looking back on his hardworking life, its ordeals and its successes. Of his marriage to Sally, he won’t say much, probably because it is a happy one. He resents Charity’s micromanaging of Sid’s life, he questions their marriage and the Charity’s domination.

It’s also a novel about old age, on looking back on one’s life and assessing what it was compared to what one imagined when they were young. Larry is on out on the porch, looking and smelling and recherching temps perdu and he tells us:

“Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards – the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees –have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with.”

Probably because

It is love and friendship, the sanctity and celebration of our relationships, that not only support a good life, but create one.

Highly recommended.

PS: I haven’t read Cicero’s De Senectute and De Amicitia but Larry mentions them. I wonder how they influenced Crossing to Safety.

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