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Mister Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie – Québec City in the 1980s and Lady Oscar

January 24, 2021 4 comments

Mr Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie (2010) Original French Canadian title: La petite et le vieux.

J’étais parvenue à me convaincre que j’étais un garçon et je tenais à ce qu’on m’appelle Joe. J’aurais aimé Oscar, comme mon personnage de dessins animés préféré mais, à l’époque, Oscar était le squelette des classes de biologie et un nouveau type de balai révolutionnaire. Alors je me contentais de Joe, même si sa syllabe en cul-de poule sonnait comme une banale exclamation. Quand on évitait de penser aux Dalton, ça pouvait faire sérieux.

I had managed to convince myself that I was a boy and I wanted people to call me Joe. I would have preferred Oscar, like my favorite anime character, but at the time, Oscar was the name of skeletons in biology classes and a new type of revolutionary broom. I settled with Joe, even if its pouting syllable sounded like an ordinary exclamation. If you didn’t think about the Daltons, Joe could be a serious name. (my translation)

This is Hélène speaking. She’s the heroine of La petite et le vieux by Marie-Renée Lavoie. Hélène is an adult now and she remembers her life when she was eight-year-old. We’re in a working-class neighbourhood in Québec City, in the 1980s. Hélène is obsessed with Lady Oscar, the Japanese anime set in France just before the French Revolution.

I’m not sure English-speaking readers know about Lady Oscar anime. It is based on the manga The Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda. According to Wikipedia, the anime was broadcasted in Québec and in France in 1986 and I remember seeing it on the French TV. In this series, Lady Oscar is a woman, educated as a boy by a father who was tired of having only daughters. Her military education helps her join the royal guard and, dressed as a man, she becomes Oscar who protects the young Marie-Antoinette. With her best friend André, they live all kinds of dangerous adventures.

So, our heroine Hélène wants to be like Lady Oscar. She wishes she were a boy and when in difficulty, she always wonders “What would Lady Oscar do?”

Hélène lives with her parents and her sisters Margot and Catherine. She’s in a loving home but her parents struggle financially. It’s hard to make ends meet. Her father is a middle-school teacher, a job he doesn’t do by choice and it weighs on him. Hélène decides to help her parents and gets odd jobs like distributing newspapers or serving drinks at bingo afternoons.

Then Mr Roger moves into her neighbourhood. He’s Hélène’s polar opposite. He’s old, grumpy and always talking about his upcoming death. He drinks too much. He’s lonely and at odds with his family. And yet, they strike an odd friendship and become daily companions.

Through Hélène’s eyes, we see the life of her neighborhood and the Québec society of the time. It’s the life of a child who accidentally discovers how poor one of her classmates is and who talks about her school life. She’s hardworking, running around the neighborhood before dawn with her newspapers. She thinks she’s on her own but we understand that some adults watch her.

Hélène describes her family life, her father’s struggles with his job, her mother’s planed meals and all kinds of everyday life’s events. She sees the world through Lady Oscar lenses and keeps her innocence because she’s too young to know much about the world. And yet, event after event, she gets a greater picture of the world around her and we understand that her home life is not as easy as she thinks it is. I wonder how much of Lavoie is in Hélène as she was born in 1974 and grew up in the Limoilou neighborhood in Québec city.

The quote at the beginning of the novel comes from The Kites, by Romain Gary: « Rien ne vaut la peine d’être vécu qui n’est pas d’abord une œuvre d’imagination ou alors la mer de serait plus que de l’eau salée… ». (“Nothing is worth living that is not first a work of imagination, otherwise the sea would only be salted water…”)

Hélène’s imagination works around Lady Oscar and her adventures. The anime seeps into her life, enticing her to see things through her own glasses and to be brave, to take chances. Hélène comes to life thanks to a lively and poetic prose and her unique view of the world. Although the Gary quote comes from The Kites, La petite et le vieux compares better to La vie devant soi and the relationship between young Momo and old Madame Rosa.

I don’t know how Wayne Grady translated French Canadian into English. As always, I enjoyed the specific expressions and Marie-Renée Lavoie’s style is sensitive and imaginative.

It also reminded me of Michel Tremblay and the Mont-Royal series set in Montreal in the 1940s for its child characters, its working-class neighborhood and the darkness under the apparent lightness of the children’s views of the world.

La petite et le vieux is a lovely novel. It’s not a postcard picture of Hélène’s childhood but a realistic one. It’s a Doisneau vision of a neighborhood, with Hélène catching the beauty where it is and bringing joy with her irony and positive thinking.

A great read if you’re looking for a book that will take you somewhere else and won’t wear you out with its grimness.

PS: I prefer the Québec cover to the English one. What about you? 

Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark – an intelligent comedy about a community doomed to disappear.

January 20, 2021 32 comments

Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark (1959) Not available in French (sadly)

This week is Bill’s AWW Gen 3, which means Australian Women Writers from Generation 3 and their books published between 1919 and 1960. See Bill’s explanations here

Since I don’t know much about Australian literature, Bill kindly made me a list of books that met the GEN 3 criteria. After checking out which ones were available on the kindle, I settled on Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark.

Great choice, if you want to know.

Eleanor Dark introduces us to the inhabitants of Lantana Lane, set in Dillillibill, a rural area of Queensland, the tropical part of Australia. They have small farms and mostly grow pineapples on their land that is not occupied by the sprawling lantana weed.

In this district it may be said with little exaggeration that if you are not looking at pineapples, you are looking at lantana.

You know what pineapples look like and this is lantana, a thick bush of weed:

Dark calls her characters the Anachronisms because they like farming and their small farms are against the flow of progress. Farming isn’t a well-esteemed profession.

We are not affluent people in the Lane. As primary producers we are, of course, frequently described by our legislators as The Backbone of the Nation, but we do not feel that this title, honourable as it is, really helps us much.

This hasn’t changed much over the last decades, has it? They work a lot and their income is uncertain and low. As Dark cheekily points out the three sections of the community which always keep on working whatever happens (namely, farmers, artists and housewives), are liable to get trampled on. Note the little feminist pique and the spotlight on housewives.

Only a few of farmers were actually born in Lantana Lane, several came from the city to live their dream of farming. We get to meet everyone, the adults, the children, the dogs, the utes and another weird vehicle named Kelly and finally Nelson, the communal kookaburra.

Each chapter is a vignette that either describes a family and their history, a special episode in their lives or a specificity of this part of Queensland. And what characters they are!

Cunning Uncle Cuth manages to stay with his nephew Joe without taking on a workload. Herbie Bassett let his contemplative nature loose after his wife died for there is no need to work for the material world when you can unclutter your life and enjoy gazing at nature. Gwinny Bell is a force of nature, a master at organization and obviously a superior intelligence. As the omniscient narrator points out, her skills are wasted in Lantana Lane.

I loved Aunt Isabelle, the older Parisian aunt of the Griffiths, who arrives unannounced, eager to live the pioneer life. Our communal aunt is an active, vivacious and extremely voluble lady of sixty-eight., says the Narrator, in the chapter Our New Australian. I loved her silly but kind behaviour. Her speech is laced with French mistakes in her English and French expressions (All accurate, btw. I seize the opportunity to tell my kind English speaking readers that the endearment mon petit chou refers to a little cream puff and not a little cabbage.) The most noticeable clue of her assimilation as a true Australian is that she will cry gladly: “Eh bien, we shall have a nice cupper, isn’t it?” Tea addict.

I laughed at loud when I read the chapter entitled Sweet and Low, about young Tony Griffith, his fife and his parents’ outhouse. I followed Tim and Biddy’s endeavours to grow things on their land and slowly take into account their neighbour’s agricultural recommendations.

The Dog of my Aunt is about Lantana Lane’s barmy characters, Aunt Isabelle’s arrival and her friendship with Ken Mulliner and I felt I was reading a written version of a Loony Tunes episode. Eleanor Dark has such a funny and vivid description of Aunt Isabelle’s travels to Dillillibill, her arrival at top speed on a Kelly driven by a wild Ken Mulliner that you can’t help chuckling.

Between the chapters about the people, Eleanor Dark inserted chapters about the place. There’s one about lantana and pineapples, one about the climate and cyclones, one about the serpents and one about the kookaburras and Nelson in particular. I wonder where the chapter about spiders went.

We understand that this tightknit community is in danger. The authorities are taking measurements to built a deviation, a bitumen road that will put them on the map. Pesticides invade agriculture, the trend is to create big farms. Eleanor Dark has her doubts about all these new methods and wonders what they will do to nature.

But this is a labour-saving age, and chipping is now almost obsolete. The reason is, of course, that Science has come to the rescue with a spray. The immediate and visible effect of this upon the weeds is devastating, though what its ultimate, and less conspicuous effects upon all sort of other things may prove to be, we must leave to learned research workers of the future.

Well, unfortunately, now, we know.

Eleanor Dark has a great sense of humour and Lantana Lane is a comedy. She mixes irony and humorous observations. She has knack for comedy of situation. She writes in a lively prose, a playful tone, shows an incredible sense of place and a wonderful tendency to poke fun at her characters. She points out their little flaws with affection and pictures how the community adapts and accepts everyone’s eccentricities. But behind the comedy, the reader knows that this way-of-living is condemned.

As usual, reading classic Australian lit is educational, vocabulary-wise. I had to research lantana, paw-paw, Bopple-Nut, pullet (although, being French and given the context, I’d guessed it was the old English for poulet) and all kinds of other funny ringing ones (flibbertigibbet, humdinger, flapdoodle…)

Visiting Lantana Lane was a great trip to Queensland, a journey I highly recommend for Dark’s succulent prose. For another take at Lantana Lane, read Lisa’s review here.

Note for French readers: Sorry, but it’s not available in French.

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

January 17, 2021 8 comments

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese (2015) French title: Les étoiles s’éteignent à l’aube. Translated by Christine Raguet.

A couple of months back, I gifted myself with a Kube subscription. I described my reading tastes, chose an independent libraire (of course, I selected Charlotte, whose bookstore is named La vie devant soiLife Before Us) to pick me a monthly read. I love book blind dates.

Medecine Walk by Richard Wagamese was the first book I received through this monthly subscription and Charlotte was spot on. Wagamese (1955-2017) is a Canadian indigenous writer, from the Ojibwe nation.

Medecine Walk takes us to British Columbia, the cold part of the state. Franklin (Frank) Starlight is sixteen. He doesn’t know who his mother is and his contacts with his father have been scarce and disastrous. Eldon is an alcoholic who works to pay his booze and otherwise lives in squalor.

Frank was raised on a small farm by The Old Man. He doesn’t know how he’s connected to him but this man took him in and raised him as his son. Franklin is a quiet boy, hardworking and attuned to the majestic nature around him. He loves solitary travels in the woods and knows how to survive in the wilderness. He never made friends in school, was called Injun too many times and dropped out of school as soon as he could.

He’s quite content with his life when his father Eldon asks him to come and visit him. Frank goes reluctantly and learns that his father is dying. Alcohol got the better of him and now he wants to go and die like a warrior, sitting facing east. He has a spot in mind and wants Frank to take him there.

This cathartic journey will be an opportunity for Eldon to reveal his past to his son, give him some clues about where he comes from and who The Old Man is. For Frank, this difficult walk with his suffering father is his chance to reconnect to his past, to patch up the foundations of his soul that were fractured by his unknown origins and be stronger for the future.

When I pick up pieces of Eldon’s story to build a timeline in my head, I come to the conclusion that Frank was born around 1960, so, about the same as Wagamese. Frank doesn’t know much about his biological parents, and that’s a big issue. Eldon doesn’t talk much and The Old Man always thought it wasn’t his story to tell, leaving a young boy wondering about his mother, instinctively looking for her around him. Eldon starts talking when he doesn’t have a choice, when taking his memories with him in the grave would end up erasing his presence on Earth. After all, after we’re gone, we only survive in others’ memories.

Eldon’s story is sad but Frank holds his own and doesn’t accept his father’s circumstances as valid excuses. At least, not readily. He can’t help thinking that you always have a choice and that Eldon took the easy route, leaving his son in someone else’s care and using his addiction as an excuse not to step up. Of course, things are always more complicated than that but Frank is only sixteen.

The truth is Eldon himself doesn’t know much about his lineage. His surname is Starlight and he doesn’t know where it comes from. He feels not uprooted but “unrooted”. To be uprooted would mean he had roots in the first place but although he knew his parents, he doesn’t know much about Ojibwe traditions. He’s in a strange limbo, the whites see him as an Indian and he doesn’t belong to an Ojibwe community. It’s hard to build a strong backbone in these conditions. Although Eldon didn’t go to a boarding school for Indigenous people, I couldn’t help thinking that his not knowing about his family’s history was the direct consequence of the Canadian indigenous people policies.

As a reader, I was happy that Frank got the clues about his past when he was young enough to patch up his inner holes. He has a chance to mend himself and move on. I liked that he listened to his father but that he was smart enough to keep his critical mind. I closed the book thinking he’s be alright.

Medicine Walk is a good reading companion to The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert and Eldon’s life reminded me of stories by Annie Proulx.

Highly recommended. Thank you, Charlotte!

The Score by Richard Stark – the Parker series

January 16, 2021 14 comments

The Score by Richard Stark (1964) French title: En coupe réglée. Translated by M. Elfvik.

I don’t remember why I downloaded The Score by Richard Stark since I didn’t know him at all. I was grateful for the foreword by John Banville in this edition as it puts the book and its character in their context. Richard Stark is Donald Westlake’s penname. He didn’t want too many Westlakes published at the same time, so he decided to take a nom de plume for this series.

Like Lawrence Block in a previous billet, you’ve got to admire these prolific writers who write so much and have so many good stories in their heads that they need several pennames for the market to keep up with them.

The Score is the fifth instalment of the Parker Series and the main character, Parker, is a criminal who steals money for a living. In The Score, he’s been hired by Edgards to organize the heist of a whole mining town, Copper Canyon, North Dakota. The idea is to rob the payroll from the plant, break all the bank safes and break into the jewerly store.

At first, Parker thinks it’s madness. When he works out the details and finds the right men, he starts thinking it’s feasible. One thing he doesn’t know: this operation seems to be a personal matter for Edgards and Parker wonders if it’ll interfere with the success of the job.

The Score is split in three parts: preparation, operation and aftermath. Twelve men are necessary to secure the town, steal the money efficiently and buy time to escape, stay put for a while and split. I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t put all this intelligence and attention to details into legal activities.

Parker is a born leader. His physique inspire respect from the men:

He was a big man, broad and flat, with the look of a brutal athlete. He had long arms, ending in big flat hands gnarled with veins. His face—it was his second, done by a plastic surgeon—looked strong and self-contained.

You sure don’t want to mess up with someone like that but in operation, he’s smooth, levelheaded and tries to avoid useless violence.

Grofield liked to watch Parker work. See him before a job, or after, you’d think he was just a silent heavy, quick-tempered and mean, about as subtle as a gorilla. But on a job, dealing with any people that might be in the way, he was all psychology. Terrify them first. Terrify them in such a way that they’ll freeze. Not so they’ll make noise, or run, or jump you, or anything like that, just so they’ll freeze. Then talk to them, calm and gentle. Get their first names, and use the first names. When a man uses your first name, calmly and without sarcasm, he’s accepting your individuality, your worthiness to live. The use of your first name implies that this man really doesn’t want to harm you. The fright to freeze them, and then the reassurance to keep them frozen. And it worked almost every time.

Parker is a professional who wants to keep earning money in perfectly executed heists. He doesn’t do sloppy because he wants to stay out of prison and if he gets caught, he doesn’t want to be charged with manslaughter. So keep the violence to a minimum, don’t do any useless damages and focus on getting the money.

Stark (Westlake) is a fine author with a cinematographic writing. The Score reads itself as you watch a good crime film from the 1950s or 1960s. For a French, it’s a Gabin or Belmondo kind of movie.

Stark excels at building the tension. The preparation of the operation is detailed enough to be plausible and he transported me with the characters when they studied the town’s map in an abandoned wharehouse, when Parker went to purchase the weapons they’d need for the heist. I learnt about the underground financing of such criminal operations.

For the record, the men decide to take the risk and rob the town for an expected loot of $20 000 per person. As a comparison, the purchase of all the weapons (machine guns, tommies, rifles and handguns), the several cars and the trucks needed for the operation cost $4000. So, $20 000 is a lot of money in 1964.

Stark/Westlake writes a good story, avoids useless violence and gory details and instills a bit of humor here and there. Here’s one of the men lecturing Grofield because he doesn’t pay income taxes while every criminal knows you need to find a creative way of justifying the origin of your money on your income tax return and pay taxes like a good law-abiding citizen.

“You’re a young man, you can still learn. Pay attention to this. You can steal in this country, you can rape and murder, you can bribe public officials, you can pollute the morals of the young, you can burn your place of business down for the insurance money, you can do almost anything you want, and if you act with just a little caution and common sense you’ll never even be indicted. But if you don’t pay your income tax, Grofield, you will go to jail.”

Right. Good advice. After all, Al Capone fell for tax fraud.

Another quote, from the scene where Parker buys the weapons for the job:

Machine guns,” said the blind man. “They’re expensive, machine guns.” “I know,” said Parker. “And hard to come by.” “I know.” “The government tries to keep tabs on them. It’s tough to find one without a history.” “I need three. And three rifles. And eight handguns.” “Rifles, handguns,” said the blind man. “No problem. Machine guns, that’s a problem.”

Ah the good old days, when it was difficult to get machine guns in the USA. This is 1964. Just a reminder that government control on weapons existed at some point. See, it is possible.

The Score and the Parker series have been made into a BD (graphic novel). The French version of the BD is translated by Tonino Benaquista and should be good entertainment and the translation is recent. According to the cover, the drawings by Darwyn Cooke look gorgeous.

As an novel, The Score was published by Série Noire and translated by M. Elfvik. It’s currently out-of-print and since there’s no recent translation, I wouldn’t be too confident about the quality of the 1960s one. Other books of the series have been republished by Rivages Noir and may have been retranslated.

This is a perfect Beach & Public Transport book. It’ll keep you entertained and there’s no gratuitous violence. I’m curious about Parker and how Stark/Westlake developed his character.

The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert – tragedy strikes in Washington state

January 12, 2021 11 comments

The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert (2014) French title: L’heure de plomb. Translated by François Happe.

For Matt Lawson, the hero of Bruce Holbert’s novel, this hour of Lead mentioned in Emily Dickinson’s poem happens in November 1918. He’s at school with his twin brother Luke and they have to go home during an intense snow storm. They leave school but soon realize they will not make it home and decide to go back to school until the weather improves. Their school mistress Linda Jefferson spots them and brings them home but despite her best effort, it’s too late for Luke. He dies of hypothermia.

At home, at their farm, their father Ed leaves the comfort of the house to go and look for them. He gets lost in the blizzard and doesn’t come back; his wife Helen won’t even find his body.

Matt is fourteen when this tragedy strikes. His father and his brother are dead, his mother is walled up in her grief and he’s the only man to run the farm. Luke was the bright and sociable twin. Matt is the quiet and slower one.

Now he lives in a silent household. Neither Helen or him know how to verbalize their grief and talk about their emotions. Stocked emotions erupts in fits of violence and Matt’s love finds an outlet in his dog and his horse.

Matt starts working hard on the farm, lives besides his mother and on Sundays, he drives the carriage around, looking for his father’s body. This is how he meets and falls in love with Wendy. He doesn’t have the social codes for courting her. His ways are unusual, weird even. He frightens her and she rejects him, his second tragedy.

The Hour of Lead is Matt’s story, the life of a man who lives in a remote part in the east of Washington state. We come across other people from the area, as they come in and out of Matt’s life: Wendy and her family, Linda Jefferson and her son Lucky, the Jarms family.

It is a story of the West with people branded by the climate and the wilderness around them. They don’t say much, they act. Matt is weaned of human love when Luke and his father die. He never recovers emotionally and doesn’t know how to express his feelings. Things are not better in the Jarms household.

We are among people who yearn for love and don’t know how to share it, to show it or keep it. In this novel, women are hard, cold and don’t spread a lot of love. Matt’s mother has no interest in her son. Linda’s ways with Lucky are possessive and unhealthy. Wendy has a hard time connecting with her children.

We also witness the taming of the wilderness around them. A barrage domesticates the river. Roads are built and distances are covered more easily. The third generation, Wendy’s children seem more adjusted as if the taming of the nature also put a lid on their wildest instincts.

The Hour of Lead is a compelling story. Matt is a tough man who lost his twin at fourteen, lost himself in the process, became a hard worker to keep his sanity. He loves deeply and is devoted to the people he loves. Holbert could have changed Matt into a drunk but he drew a character who doesn’t drink much since his drug of choice for escapism is sheer physical exhaustion through brutal manual labor.

Matt’s journey in life is one of redemption, a slow walk towards inner peace with a constant care to protect others from his demons. It’s a very atmospheric novel that shows in the background how tough the life was in this part of the country at the beginning of the 20th century.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister.

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block – libraire and gentleman burglar

January 10, 2021 15 comments

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block. (2013) French title: Le voleur qui comptait les cuillères. Translated by Mona de Pracontal.

This is an impulse purchase from my last visit to a bookstore before Christmas. I’d never heard of Lawrence Block but the cover of the book winked at me and who doesn’t want to read a crime fiction book whose main character is a libraire/gentleman burglar?

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a bookseller in Manhattan. His life is split between running the shop, having lunches and drinks with his best friend Carolyn and breaking and entering into buildings at night upon clients’ stealing orders. In The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, a Mr Smith wants him to sneak an original copy of Fitzgerald’s short-story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button out the Galtonbrook Museum. Then Mr Smith wants a spoon with a portrait of Button Gwinnett who signed the United States Declaration of Independence for the state of Georgia. So, our Mr Smith is obsessed with buttons…

Meanwhile, Mrs Ostermaier is found dead in her brownstone. It looks like a burglar was disturbed by Mrs Ostermaier coming back early from her opera night. Ray, a police officer from the NYPD pays a visit to Bernie. He knows about his illegal occupations although Bernie swears that he has retired from burglaries. Ray takes Bernie to the crime scene to have a reformed burglar’s opinion. Bernie thinks that the theft is a smoke screen and that Mrs Ostermaier was murdered before the place was turned upside down to make it look like breaking and entering.

Block mixes two plot threads, the one about Mr Smith and his button collection and the one about Mrs Ostermeir’s death. Bernie and his sidekick Carolyn act as unofficial NYPD investigators. Lots of things are illegal and unorthodox in the story. Bernie gathers evidence with his burglar skills, looks closer into Mr Smith and Block dares to write a grand finale à la Poirot.

This is a gourmet and light crime fiction book. The dialogues are witty and laced with bookish and historical references or explanations. Bernie is erudite and he shares freely with the reader. The minor characters are well-drawn, even Bernie’s cat, Raffles. When she’s not involved in Bernie’s shenanigans Carolyn works at Poodle Factory and their friendship is a highlight of the book, with their daily drinks at the Bum Rap, their sleepover nights and confidences about their respective love lives. The clients of the bookstore add to the fun and New York itself is a presence in the novel.

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons is the 11th book of the Rhodenbarr series. Block is a prolific writer, with four different series: Matt Scudder, PI in New York, Bernie Rhodenbarr, libraire extraordinaire, Evan Tanner, secret agent and Keller, hitman. He has written under several pennames in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly books without recurring characters.

I enjoyed The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons and I recommend this series as lighthearted crime fiction, one of those books you read for entertainment, to cleanse your palate after a tough read or spend a few hours in oblivion, away from the news. I’d like to read more books by Lawrence Block but there are so many of them that a little help picking the good ones is welcome.

PS : The pink cover is the original edition. What was the publisher thinking? Self-sabotaging the book to have a tax write-off?

Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar

December 28, 2020 4 comments

Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar (1980 updated in 2001) Original French title: Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement.

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar is composed of seven short stories. The first one, La nuit du récit de Fatima (Fatima’s Tale) features in my French edition but is not included in the English one. This short-story was not part of the original collection of stories from 1980. It has been added in 2001. The original collection includes:

Overture

Today

  • Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1978)
  • The Woman Who Weeps (1978)

Yesterday

  • There Is No Exile (1959)
  • The Dead Speak (1970 & 1978)
  • Day of Ramadan (1966)
  • Nostalgia of the Horde. (1965)

Postface : Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound.

The title of the collection comes from the painting by Delacroix, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment.

Delacroix painted it in 1834, from drawings that he did during his stop to Algeria in 1832 after a trip to Marocco. It was after the French conquered Algeria in 1830 and Assia Djebar’s postface is an essay about this painting and its significance.

All the short stories in this collection are centered around the condition of women in Algeria.

The Today section shows them at home after the war of independence. The Yesterday section includes stories set in the past. One is about women who fled to Tunis during the fights in Algiers. The Dead Speak is set in the countryside, at the burial of a respected and strong old woman, Yemma Hadda. Her grand-son has just come back from the maquis and the war has been over for eight days. Yemma Hadda was a character and never remarried after her husband died, probably to preserve her freedom. We see the customs in the country and how stifling they are for women. This was my favorite story.

We encounter women who have played an important part in the war of independence. Several characters were imprisoned at the Barberousse Prison in Algiers and were tortured. They suffered as much as men fighters but didn’t get the same recognition after the war.

In Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, we’re with Anne, a pied-noir who has come back to Algiers and Sarah, who’s married to Ali, a surgeon. (A pied-noir is a French person born in Algeria before the independence) Their friendship dates back to before the war and remains the same after.

Assia Djebar pictures women waiting for their husbands at home, not really allowed to come and go as they like. Aïcha came to stay with Yemma Hadda after her husband repudiated her. The Woman Who Weeps left her husband because he beat her. All women depend on their husbands and are more or less trapped. Their world revolves around their home and their family.

Assia Djebar’s point is clear, the Algerian woman has always been locked away in houses, living with the extended family. She’s never had a lot of freedom and the war didn’t change her status that much.

The essay in the postface comes back to Delacroix and his painting. It’s unique because he was allowed to enter into the harem of a raïs’s house. He had the opportunity to see these women in their quarters and to capture their way-of-life. It’s usually hidden from the eyes and his painting is a stolen glance; the myth of the Orient was fueled by paintings like this Delacroix. 

These short stories are like a modern version of Delacroix’s painting. Assia Djebar proposes an answer to the question “What would Delacroix see if he entered into contemporary Algerian apartments?” The Algerian woman was locked up in domestic life and according to Assia Djebar, she was still there in the 1970s.

I thought it was an interesting peak into Algerian women’s lives but I had trouble connecting with Assia Djebar’s style. I’m glad I read it but I don’t think I’ll look for another of her books. 

Has anyone read Women of Algiers in Their Apartment

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. 🙂

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan – Australian vaudeville

December 22, 2020 13 comments

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan (2016) Not available in French.

Yesterday was quite stressful: I was waiting for my daughter to fly back from Singapore via London after her semester at her school’s campus there. She was on the Singapore-London redeye when one after the other, European countries closed their border with the UK due to this new COVID stain. Her journey from London to our home has been an adventure and of course, her luggage is missing. But in the end, all went well and thank God for technology, I was following her trip step by step.

But I needed a good distraction. I started to work on my best-of-the-year list and eventually decided that I needed a sugar-without-cellulite book to keep my mind off things. I killed two birds in one stone when I downloaded Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan. It was the perfect distraction for the day and I reached the Stella stage of my 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Brilliant.

When the book opens, Caroline and Henry just had a fight. They’re married and have two daughters, Mercedes and Paris. (I wonder how they would have named their boys. Aston and Rome?) Caroline discovered that Henry’s cheating on her with Martha, their daughter Mercedes’s grade three teacher. Henry is trying to explain to his daughters why he’s leaving with the teacher. Janice, Caroline’s sister is at their place, ready to take over and watch her nieces for the weekend and this is the scene she witnesses at her arrival:

When I get to Caroline and Henry’s bedroom at the end of the corridor, I’m faced with a scene of devastation. Henry’s suits are spread out over the unmade bed like a two-dimensional gay orgy: here a Paul Smith, there a Henry Bucks, everywhere a Zegna. The trouser-half of each and every one of them is missing its crotch and Caroline, chip off the old block, is peering over them with her reading glasses on the end of her nose and the good scissors in her hand. She’s still in her nightie, freshly foiled hair loose and a silk kimono draped over her shoulders. She looks forlornly at her symbolic castration and sighs, just like Mum did all those years ago. ‘What a waste,’ she says, as she shakes her head. ‘Maybe not super-helpful at this point, Caroline darling,’ I say. She shrugs. ‘These trousers failed in their primary duty, which is to contain the penis. They have only themselves to blame.’

Henry is actually leaving Caroline for Martha. He’s taking her to Noosa for the weekend. When Caroline realized where Henry takes Martha, she chases after them. She’s quite miffed that the mistress is going to Noosa when the wife went to Dromana. I checked what it meant in Australian standards and here’s my American translation: for his lover, Henry planned a trip to the Keys, Florida when he took his wife to a coastal town in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, the neighbours Lesley and Craig stop by, wondering what’s happening. They’ve heard the fight between Caroline and Henry and their nosiness got the better of them, they needed to meddle.

Janice is the self-conscious micro-biologist sister, she divorced Alec two years before and although she dumped him, she hasn’t recovered yet. After Caroline and Henry left, she settles with the girls and decides to sleep in her sister’s room to be near them. She’s quite surprised to find a naked Craig in the bed with her when she wakes up. Apparently, Caroline has secrets too.

Next morning, new discovery. Alec arrives on her doorstep for his planned visit to the girls. Janice didn’t know he was still in touch with Caroline and Henry.

And the show goes on, with a fast-paced plot with witty dialogues. There are laughing-out-loud dialogues, like the one when the adults talk about sex using a gardening analogy to protect the little ears that are sitting in the room. I enjoyed Jordan’s piques:

Honestly Caroline, let it go. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ ‘That’s garbage,’ she says. ‘What doesn’t kill you joins forces with all the other things that don’t kill you. Then they all gang up together to kill you.’

I agree with Caroline. I dislike this “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” saying because I’m not sure it’s true. And it guilts people into thinking that if a tragedy makes them weak, they are wrong and should overcome it and feel stronger.

Janice is overwhelmed by all the people going in and out of the house and she struggles to avoid encounters between two wrong persons. She’s a peacemaker at heart and would like Caroline and Henry to patch things up for their daughters’ sake. And of course, things never go as she’d like and she has to be quick on her feet and adapt.

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is an Australian vaudeville and it could be a theatre play with doors banging, husbands and lovers hiding behind doors or under the bed, misunderstandings, secrets, allusions and grand scenes. I would love to see this on stage.

You need to be in the right mood to enjoy this kind of book. And I was in the right frame of mind. I had a lot of fun reading it, it didn’t require a lot of brainpower but kept my mind busy and more importantly, it kept worry at bay. Mission accomplished, Toni Jordan!

Other reviews by Lisa and Guy.

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm – A Book You Mostly Won’t Know How to Put Down

December 20, 2020 22 comments

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm (2019) French title: La vie en chantier. Translated by Juliane Nivelt.

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Taz and Marnie are in their later twenties and live in Missoula, Montana. They’re married, deeply in love, settling in life. Taz works as a cabinetmaker for a contractor, Marko. Money is tight but they’re happy, enjoying the nature around them, spending time with friends and renovating the old house they bought, room by room. When Marnie announces that she’s pregnant, they couldn’t be happier to have a baby, become parents and start this new chapter of their life.

Then the unthinkable happens: Marnie dies in childbirth. And from one day to the other, Taz finds himself without his soulmate and with a newborn little girl.

The first chapters of the book show us the young couple preparing for their baby’s arrival. They decorate her room, Taz builds her a bed. They rush into finishing other rooms as well, to be as ready as possible. They enjoy their last picnics and swimming in the river days at two, or so they think. They love camping and flyfishing and upon Marnie’s insistance, their baby girl’s name will be Midge.

And then, the horror on Day Zero. Midge is born and Marnie dies.

From then on, we follow Taz through his days as he struggles to get up, to take care of his baby, to go back to work. Grief takes him to an inner place where the echoes of the world barely come to him. He’s a living robot, lost in his bubble of silence. His parents emigrated to in New Zealand and won’t come back to help him. Marnie’s mother comes to help, crushed by her own grief but thinking of her grand-daughter. His best friend Rudy takes care of him and the community rallies around Taz. His freezer is filled with casseroles, he gets stocks of diapers and baby formula. Clients add a nice tip to his checks. His friends make sure he doesn’t drown in sorrow.

His friends are there, pulling him out of his underwater tunnel, forcing him to resurface and take a breath. Rudy helps him find a babysitter for Midge and that’s how Elmo enters into Taz’s and Midge’s life.

Each chapter is named after the day after Taz’s personal ground zero and Pete Fromm takes us until Day Five Hundred and Nine to Day One of a new life. The title A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do refers to parenthood and Taz is distraught and helpless. How can he raise Midge on his own? Thankfully grandma Lauren visits from time to time, Elmo goes beyond her babysitting duties, Rudy has his back and his employer Marko is understanding.

Fromm makes grief palpable and real for the reader. There’s no pathos, no long internal monologues dissecting Taz’s feelings. He shows us Taz’s life in his long tunnel to the beginning of recovery. Marnie’s with him at all times, he mentally seeks her advice. He takes Midge to their favorite places by the river and tells her stories about her mom. Sorrow grips him at the throat at the oddest moments, because a tiny detail triggers a memory of his former life with Marnie.

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do is sad but hopeful. It’s the opposite of grandiloquent pain you’d find in other kinds of literature. It’s the pain of ordinary people who brutally lose a loved one.

Pete Fromm finds the right words to make us feel Taz’s pain. There’s no direct description of it but his picture of Taz’s quotidian is an oblique way to show the reader how he feels. How he’s slowly winning the battle against despair. Step by step. How people around him are there along the way, catching him when he stumbles from the heavy pain that he carries with him at all times. How life and hope win, in the end.

I wish I had quotes to share but I read it in French. The French title, La vie en chantier, is spot-on. It means Life as a Work in Progress and Life as a Job Site at the same time. Taz’s life is under construction and he works in construction too. The way he slowly, thoughtfully crafts wood is a metaphor of how he slowly rebuilds his life. Usually, in that case, I download a sample from the American Kindle store or use the “Look Inside” function on Amazon to find a quote from the first pages. But there is no such thing for this book, I suppose that it’s not bankable enough. That’s a shame. Surely the disastrous English covers got in the way of promoting this sensitive novel.  Look at them! They are so stupidly Women Fiction (A term I despise) that they betray the book. 

Well. Taz felt true-to-life to me and will stay with me for a long time because he’s one of us and all of us at the same time. I would love to meet the author who wrote such a beautiful and universal piece of literature.

A book I very very highly recommend.

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.

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym – meet Leonora, the manipulative spinster

December 13, 2020 6 comments

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym (1978) French title: La douce colombe est morte.

‘Life is cruel and we do terrible things to each other.’ ‘Yes, that’s the worst of it.’

My reading of The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym was sandwiched between fluffy Patricia Brent, Spinster by HG Jenkins and nightmarish The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower. Writing this billet after the others makes me realize that The Sweet Dove Died is a middle ground between the two.

Humphrey is a widower who has taken his orphaned nephew James under his wings. James is in his twenties and has started to work at Humphrey’s antique shop. His uncle is showing him the ropes, James works with him but has no artistic background, no real interest in the industry. It’s easy, that’s all. (James was not yet sure what he wanted from life, and had so far tended to avoid violent extremes of any kind.)

Humphrey and James meet Leonora at an antique book sale. She’s a middle-aged single woman. She’s attractive, old-fashioned, enamored with the Victorian era and the three strike an odd relationship. Humphrey hopes to woo her and win her over. On paper, she’s perfect for him and he’s perfect for her.

The problem is Leonora is attracted to James, who is charming and extremely handsome. She doesn’t act on it but she takes up all his attention.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, to avoid spoilers. It is an interesting story to read as Leonora is a mix between a praying mantis and a pretty poisonous mushroom. Under her fragile appearance (“At the last minute she slipped a bottle of smelling salts into her bag – one never knew, there might be unpleasantness.”) is a cold hard and egoistic woman. She’s ageing, lonely and James is a satisfying toy to have:

Sometimes it seemed almost as if she had created him herself – the beautiful young man with whom people were always falling in love and who yet remained inexplicably and deeply devoted to her, a woman so much older than he was.

Leonora stages her life, her décor, her clothes and is performing as soon as someone might watch her. (She herself preferred crème de menthe; she had changed into a green chiffon dress which gave her a feeling for that drink.) She loves being the center of attention. It wouldn’t be an issue if she didn’t start manipulating James’ life to secure his attention.

And James in all this? Contrary to Clemency in The Catherine Wheel, he never stood a chance against Leonora or other people who want his attentions. He’s got a weak mind, doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s not sure about his sexuality either. He goes with the flow because it’s easy.

Leonora is always put together and her old-fashioned vibe suits him. For example, Leonora wears gloves. In the summer. In 1978. And like Jenkins’s characters in Patricia Brent, Spinster, she thinks that Tea is a panacea for all ills and a liquid for all hours. She likes Victoriana antiques and loves Tennyson’s poetry. (I’m not British, I’ve never studied British poetry but to me, Tennyson is Miss Silver’s favorite poet and he’s associated to old ladies who love to knit sweaters for their armful of grand-nephews or nieces. What does Tennyson evoke to a British reader?)

James is a pawn between several characters in the book. All are charmed because he’s very handsome, polite, kind and never makes a fuss about anything. He got on my nerves because I get irritated by spineless characters. While reading The Catherine Wheel, I was desperate to see Clemency fall into Christian’s net, I wanted her mind to win and set her free. Here, I was watching James be a toy and I never pitied him because he was weak from the start and rather happy to go with the flow and not have to make any decision by himself. It’s not really charitable of me, but I thought he deserved his fate.

The Sweet Dove Died could be as suffocating as The Catherine Wheel but it’s not, thanks to Pym’s constant and light sense of humor. She deflates the tension with amusing remarks (The young waiters darted about, responding with charming politeness to the halting holiday Italian some of the diners felt obliged to practise on them.) or with Humphrey’s clumsy attempts at wooing Leonora.

The Sweet Dove Died is an odd tale, very different from the other Pyms I’ve read. Excellent Women starred Mildred, the spitfire spinster. Some Tame Gazelle was all about Belinda, the clever spinster. The Sweet Dove Died pictures Leonora, the manipulative spinster.

Three unmarried women who have a different reaction to their spouseless status. Mildred decides that she’s better off without a husband, Belinda accepts to live with her unrequited love for Henry. Leonora decides she wants James as a companion and that the end justifies the means.

Highly recommended.

All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker – not my cup of tea.

December 12, 2020 12 comments

All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker (2016) French title: Tout n’est pas perdu. Translated by Fabrice Pointeau

This is a short billet about All Is Not Forgotten, a thriller by Wendy Walker. I’m not a great fan of thrillers and I got Walker’s book with one of my Quais du Polar subscriptions. So, not a book I would have bought myself and after abandoning it at page 110, the only satisfaction I get from the experience is that I’m getting better at spotting books that aren’t for me.

In All Is Not Forgotten, Jenny, fifteen, is raped in the park behind the house where she was attending a party. Her parents get called to the hospital and agree to let the doctors give her a treatment that will make her forget this terrible night. The mother, Charlotte, wants to erase that night and is focused on moving on. The father, Tom, is not totally on board with this drug because Jenny’s missing memories will go against the police’s chances to find her aggressor. Charlotte wins and Jenny’s agression disapears from her consciousness but not from her mind and she’s not getting better.

Several things bothered me in this book and eventually led me to put it aside. Like Guy says in his review of A Helping Hand by Celia Dale, I prefer crime books where the killer is an ordinary person who crosses the line and becomes a murderer. I’m not too fond of serial killers and I can’t help thinking that building a plot around a teenager who gets violently raped in the woods lacks a bit of imagination.

I also found that the family was caricatural. They live in Fairview, a rich small town in Connecticut. Charlotte doesn’t work, keeps a strong hand on her husband and cherishes her membership to the local country club. She never has a hair out of her tight chignon and wears spotless clothes and make up. Well, you know the type. And her status is town is important to her, which puts pressure on her husband Tom. She’s a cold bitch, he’s an emotional carpet. Cliché.

The narrator of the book is Alan Forrester, a psychiatrist who sees Jenny after her suicide attempt. I guess he was going to take us through the story and its denouement after poking at Jenny’s mind and looking into her parents’ past hurts.

It’s not a bad book per se, it just confirms that I’d rather read Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith than this kind of stories.

Has anyone read it?

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower – toxic relationship at its finest

December 5, 2020 23 comments

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower (1960) Not available in French. 

“I felt as if something was killing me. The pressure of his personality.”

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower is set in London in the 1950s. Clemency James, 25, is from Sydney and is in London to study for the bar by correspondence. (Why couldn’t she stay in Australia if she were to study by correspondence anyway is a mystery to me) She has a room in a boarding house, where she shares a bathroom and a kitchen with other tenants. Her room is her safe harbor, her place to study, work and teach. Indeed, her life is split between studying, giving French lessons, tending to her domestic duties and meeting with her friends until Christian Roland and his so-called wife Olive move into the boarding house.

They’re an odd couple, Olive is a lot older than Christian and she left her husband to follow him to a strange life in London. Christian is handsome, tortured and uses twisted ways to take people over. He’s full of unrealistic dreams like becoming a star actor at the Comédie Française in Paris when he’s not French and doesn’t even speak the language fluently. But he’s certain that he’s entitled to a higher standard of living and that being poor is totally unfair to him.

At the beginning, Clemency isn’t particularly interested in befriending them but Christian and Olive worm themselves into her life. Christian manipulates her into giving him free French lessons. Olive is especially friendly and diffident. Clemency is more and more drawn to Christian in spite of her and he pursues her relentlessly. Olive is consumed by jealousy –according to Chrisitian—and the reader never knows whether she’ll surrender or turn violent or whether it’s all in Christian’s imagination because he wants to live in a world where women fight over him.

The whole novel is told by Clemency and it is the slow destruction of a young lady who thought herself strong enough to get close to Christian’s flame without burning her wings and fails spectacularly.

It’s the tale of a neurotic relationship based on a fight between two minds. Clemency’s mind is determined not to be conquered and it acts as a red flag to Christian’s mind, pushing him to use every trick that his sick mind makes up to win her over. It’s not the assault of a lover consumed by love. It’s the assault of a deranged and narcistic man who wants to conquer and bask into Clemency’s surrender.

I looked it up, “the Catherine Wheel or breaking wheel is an instrument of tortuous execution originally associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria”. This is exactly what Christian –funny name for a character who uses a mental instrument of torture compared to one used to execute Christians— is doing to Clemency. He’s killing her free will, her independence of mind. He tries to cut her from her friends. He embarks her in his journey towards self-destruction and madness. He lies, he cheats, he drinks, he believes in the wildest and most unrealistic schemes, like the one about Paris.

All in fair in love and war? For Clemency, all is unfair in this story but she’s not necessarily a likeable character. She seems untethered, detached from everything and living like a fish out of the water. I wanted to shake her up and seeing her so passive, even at the beginning, before she got drunk on Christian, got on my nerves.

Reading this was a mini Catherine wheel to me. I abandoned the book twice before eventually finishing it. I started to write my billet about why I had given up on it and realized that I’d already invested enough time in it and I needed to read it entirely to write this billet.

I didn’t like to read about Clemency’s destruction even if I wasn’t invested in the characters. I have no patience for tortured relationships (hence my profound dislike of Wuthering Heights) but here, I couldn’t help thinking that I was witnessing the appropriation of one’s mind by another person, that it happens in real life and that the writer was describing a frightening mechanism.

We’ve all known people whose behavior changed drastically after they started seeing or befriending someone new. We’ve seen people giving their money, losing their good sense over someone or acting against their best interest. This is what Harrower’s book is about. The mechanism of the relationship between Clemency and Christian is applied to a love relationship in this novel. It could also be between friends or family members.

Harrower’s tour de force lies in the minutia of her description. Christian’s manipulation is gradual, and described with such an accuracy that made me want to put the book down and stop reading. To breathe. And exhale my frustration because Clemency was too passive and Christian so ridiculous in his dreams that I couldn’t care less about his childish but destructive machinations.

The pun is easy, but it’s been a harrowing book for this reader. I’ll recommend it for its excellent style, the quality of its execution but you need to be in the mood for twisted relationships before immersing yourself in such a difficult tale.

I very highly recommend Guy’s excellent review of The Catherine Wheel.

This is another contribution to the Australian Women Writer challenge.

Three novellas by Turgenev

November 29, 2020 20 comments

Three novellas by Ivan Turgenev

My November reading didn’t go according to plan, I didn’t have the energy to read Concrete by Bernhard or The Confusion of Young Törless by Musil. I’m still at this uncomfortable stage where reading glasses are too much and small prints are too difficult to read at night. And my copies of Concrete and The Confusion of Young Törless are in small prints, not to mention the fact that Bernhard decided to forego paragraphs. The pages of his book look like concrete walls of words. No participation in German Lit Month this year, then.

I’m doing better with Novellas in November. I even managed to post this in the right week!

I did manage to read three novellas by Ivan Turgenev, all included in one book. The first one is An Unhappy Girl (1869) translated by Constance Garnett, whose French title is L’abandonnée. It is translated by Louis Viardot, who knew the author but no Russian. You can find the English translation here on Project Gutenberg. I browsed through it, lots of French sentences in some passages. They were not in italic in my copy, as it’s customary to signal French words or sentences in the original.

The narrator of the story is Piotr Gavrilovitch and he was 18 in 1835 when he got acquainted with Suzanne Ivanovna through his friend Fustov. She was living with her stepfather and his family and Fustov was courting her. Her fate is sad as she was the illegitimate daughter of a country aristocrat who took care of her but never acknowledged her as his daughter, even privately. When he died, she became a pawn in her step-father’s game to wealth.

The second story is Yakov Pasynkov. (1855), whose French title is Jacques Passinkov. It’s translated by Xavier Marmier, a name I’d never heard of but according to Wikipedia, what a man!

In this story, three young men are in love with the same young lady, Sophie Zlotnitski and the story is told by one of them, years later. It is the sad story of unrequited love and secret love never revealed.

The last story is Andreï Kolosov (1844), translated into French by Ernest Jaubert, another translator I didn’t know of.

The narrator, Nicolas Alexandrovitch goes to the country with his friend Andrei Kolosov. They go to the Semenitch household, because Kolosov is courting their daughter Varia. The narrator is a sort of wingman, he has to entertain Varia’s father while his friend spends time with the young girl. But things don’t go as planned in this scenario…

The three stories have common points, they’re about love and friendship.

Suzanne spent her life in the pursuit of love, her father’s, Michel’s and Fustov’s. Love may be fickle and petter out. It can be a blaze and die down after the conquest is done. It can be a slow, constant and hidden fire. It can be worth dying for. In all cases, the girls’ happiness depends on the boys’ behavior. They are recipients of young love, bask in it only to have it pulled under their feet by a father, a jealous brother or an inconstant lover who falls out of love. Women seem to have deeper feelings than men, according to Turgenev.

The stories all feature young men in their youth and their friendship with comrades. Gavrilovitch and Fustov are good friends, like the narrator and Pasynkov or Nicolas Alexandrovitch and Kolosov. As such, they assist their friend in their attempt at wooing a girl. They are sorts of chaperones, allowing their friends to spend time with their lady. In each case, it backfires and the friend’s meddling make things worse. This friendship has different texture in each story. It’s skin deep between Gavrilovitch and Fustov. The narrator looks up to Pasynkov as a better version of himself and it’s almost a bromance between N. Alexandrovitch and Kolosov.

Flaubert considered Turgenev’s stories were masterpieces. I’m not a literary critic and read only for pleasure. I sure admired them but didn’t enjoy myself that much reading them. I can’t pinpoint why, though.

PS: When writing in English about Russian books read in French translation, names are a hurdle. They’re not spelled the same way in English and in French. For example, Piotr Gavrilovitch is Pierre Gavrilovitch in the French translation. I’ll never understand why they translate first names. Another example: Pasynkov is Passinkov in French.

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