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About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 41 comments

I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.

Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.

My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.

My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.

Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.

I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.

Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.


Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)

vonnegutI had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:

We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!

And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)

beauvoir_hommesI managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.

All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.

A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.

Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.

Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?

When Lost Time is not searched but stubbornly imposes itself

August 17, 2010 9 comments

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut openly states that this book is about his experience of WWII. He was a war prisoner working in a slaughterhouse in Dresden when the city was bombed by British and American air forces. He was one of the seven American prisoners who survived. This bombing turned Dresden from a beautiful earthly city to a place looking like moon.

 Can life be more ironic than surviving a massacre thanks to a shelter in a slaughterhouse ?

 The first chapter of the novel is an introduction in which Kurt Vonnegut describes the genesis of this book, published in 1969. He had been struggling to write about the bombing in Dresden for years and explains why the book is dedicated to Gerhard Müller and Mary O’Hare. The first one was the German cab driver he and his war companion Bernard V O’Hare befriended with when visiting Dresden for this book. The latter is O’Hare’s wife, Mary, who was angry that Kurt Vonnegut would write a book about his war experience. She thought it would show war as glamorous and she resented that. Kurt Vonnegut promised her he would not write anything turning this book into a tribute to war. I read this first chapter one night, and in the next morning, powerful as it was, it lingered in my mind. The afternoon on that same day, when visiting an Air and Space Museum, I experienced what Mary O’Hare had feared. The history of aircraft was told in such a way that it shown war as attractive. Almost everything was about war, a little about civil companies and nothing about commercial, humanitarian, or postal aircraft. It struck me as I was starting Slaughterhouse Five, would it have struck me the same way without it ? I’m not sure. Back to the book.

Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of Billy Pilgrim who was sent to WWII as a chaplain’s assistant in 1944 and was a war prisoner in Germany. Like many soldiers, Billy resumed a “normal” life after the war, as anyone expected him to do. He married a rich girl, passed his exam as an optometrist and succeeded in the business. He became rich and was well acquainted and praised by the local bourgeoisie, in Ilium, New York. He would live a humdrum life, but “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” and has spent time on another planet, Tralfalmadore. The Tralfamadorians are a people who observe Earthlings and have a totally different conception of life and time.

  “All moments, past, present and future always have existed, always will exist. (…) They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have on Earth that one moment follows the other one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever”.

There is no need to mourn when someone dies, because the moments where he is alive still exist. In this idea of time, there is no lost time, every moment is permanent. War souvenirs pop up in Billy’s everyday life. Like in Proust, smells, colours, scenes bring him back that Lost Time, except that, contrary to the Narrator in Proust, he would rather not remember. These moments still vividly exist for him.

I was impressed by the style and the construction of this novel and spent some time in dictionaries, looking for words I did not understand, because every word seemed purposely chosen and there to contribute to the story. Vonnegut’s little sentences are walking in line, like obedient soldiers. Precise. Well-ordered. Never stopping. The novel is full of cross-references, which show how Billy’s war time leaks into any moment of his post-war life. Vonnegut uses the technique of repetition for this. I noticed three examples of repetitions, but there are probably more.

The first one is a “striped banner of orange and black”, which is on the train carrying the war prisoners. Later, the tent that Billy’s daughter had for her wedding reception was striped and “The strips were orange and black”. The second one is when Billy walks among other American war prisoners. He sees “corpses with bare feet that were blue and ivory”. This image of blue and ivory bare feet is also used twice to describe Billy’s feet in his home in Ilium and once more for corpses. The third one is a dog barking, first just before Billy is caught by the Germans. “The dog had a voice like a big bronze gong”. Later, this image is used again both for civilian and war time.

 These repetitions create the effect of the flashes which occur in Billy’s mind. We understand that at any time in his everyday life, a word, a sensation can bring him back to war. Like in Tralfamagore, the past moments are not dead, they still live and can be lived again. 

Moreover, to emphasize the number of occasions in which death is involved, every time a death-related word is used, the sentence “So it goes” ends the paragraph. It can be an actual death (someone gets killed) or not (Some champagne without bubbles is described as “dead”). Counting the number of “so it goes” would give the number of times death is involved.

Sometimes, an interruption from the author reminds us that  it is his story too. “I was there. So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare”

In the end, everything fits like a big puzzle. It is wonderfully and cleverly crafted. Besides this extraordinary net of people and feelings, I like Vonnegut’s sense of humour in describing things or people, like for Maggie White :

“She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away”

 Billy looks like the Candide of Voltaire to me. In English, Candide is categorized as “satire”. In French we say “conte philosophique”, literally “philosophical fairy-tale”. For me, this is how I would call Slaughterhouse Five. It allies the magical elements which are natural in fairy-tales and the philosophical quest and critic of our society. Like Candide, Slaughterhouse Five is built on real historical events. Both characters live through atrocities but take things as they come and look ridiculous. Candide’s optimism is ludicrous and Billy is dressed like a clown. Both have a personal philosophy which is their inner compass. 

In addition, it seems to me that Tralfamagore is a mean to bring to life Bergon’s theory of Duration through science fiction elements (a saucer, aliens, another planet, etc.). I am not educated enough in philosophy to develop fully that idea, but I have the intuition that it is related. Like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Slaughterhouse Five is a thought on Time and Memory. (I’m also reading Proust and I think there is something between Bergson’s theory and Proust too)

And of course, Slaughterhouse Five is known to be an antiwar novel.

It questions the justification of the bombing in Dresden. How Americans relieve their conscience of killing innocent civilians by comparing the number of victims of Dresden to that of the victims from the Nazis. Kurt Vonnegut does not accept the rationalization of this act and its deceptive justification. He still thinks that this bombing was unnecessary to win the war and caused the death of 135,000 persons and destroyed a beautiful city. When Billy leaves from his first war prisoner camp to Dresden, his English co-prisoners tell him he is lucky to be sent there because “You needn’t worry about bombs, by the way. Dresden is an open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentration of any importance”.

In Slaughterhouse Five, all good soldiers and war lovers are dangerous persons in civilian life. For example, among the other American prisoners, Roland Weary is a distasteful and crazy man, whose main interests in life are weapons and torture tools and Paul Lazzaro is obsessed by revenge, and can wait for years before acting. Billy’s own son, a Green Beret during the Vietnam war is described like this:

“This was a boy who had flunked out of high school, who had been an alcoholic at sixteen, who had run with a rotten bunch of kids, who had been arrested for tipping over hundreds of tombstones in a Catholic cemetery one time. He was all straightened out now. His posture was wonderful and his shoes were shined and his trousers were pressed, and he was a leader of men”

In Kurt Vonnegut’s mind, one must be a freak to love war. There is no comradeship between the American war prisoners, something often put forward by former soldiers. The American soldiers are all anti-heroes, poor little human beings and only children.

 There would be a lot more to say about Slaughterhouse Five. I did not relate the criticism of the American society included in this book, through the articles of a character named Campbell. The question of free-will is also important and discussed. I could have written pages about the construction of this novel, but I think this post is long enough.

To conclude, I am indebted to Max Cairnduff from Pechorin’s Journal for giving me the title of this book when I asked for recommendations to discover SF authors. Thanks a lot, I loved it.

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