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The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy – great literature.

January 21, 2023 25 comments

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (1987) French title: Le Dahlia noir. Translated by Frédéric Michalski.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy is probably one of the oldest books of my TBR. The mention inside says my roommate gave it to me in 1995. Ahem. I was reluctant to read it, not sure I’d get along with Ellroy. I only started to read noir fiction after I went online with Book Around the Corner and discovered Guy’s blog, His Futile Preoccupations. Guy’s a crime fiction and noir afficionado.

And now I wonder: what was I waiting for?

The Black Dahlia is loosely based upon a real case, the murder of Elizabeth Short that the press nicknamed the Black Dahlia. She was born in 1924 in Boston and was murdered in Los Angeles in 1947. Her case became famous because her body was horribly mutilated and it’s still unsolved.

Ellroy uses the Black Dahlia case as a basis to write a complex story with a striking picture of Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is our narrator. He’s a former boxer and LAPD agent. He met Lee Blanchard, another LPAD agent when they covered the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. Both have a checkered past. Bucky is the son of a German immigrant who doesn’t hide his racist tendencies. Bucky’s patriotism was tested during WWII and he agreed to give his Japanese neighbors up to keep his job with the LAPD. He’s still reeling from it.

Lee Blanchard is famous for solving a hold-up case and shacking up with Kay, the criminal’s girlfriend after the trial. He still lives with her and this scandalous relationship cost him a promotion. His little sister was murdered when he was a teenager and he feels guilty of not protecting her enough.

As semi-famous former boxers, their bosses ask them to fight against each other to raise funds for the LAPD and promote a bill that would increase the wages of the LAPD agents. They get a transfer to the Warrants department. They agree to it. The fight is highly publicized, they are nicknamed Fire and Ice. Their bond is based upon camaraderie and respect but is also tainted by politics and tactics. The relationship between Bucky, Lee and Kay is central to Ellroy’s book.

As you imagine Bucky and Lee are detached to the police force dedicated to solving Betty Short’s murder. They get swallowed in the case and the book moves to a classic investigation.

Ellroy follows the thread of a murder investigation and shows corruption and power fights in the LAPD. He takes his characters to the shadiest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and takes pleasure in describing brothels, dives, underground gay and lesbian meeting points and seedy hotels. He also brings us to rich neighborhoods and uncovers the ugliness present behind closed doors and polished manners. Greed. Sex. Perversion. They invade every corner of the city and Ellroy exposes what’s behind the Hollywood dreamy facade.

He conveys the pulse of the city, its rapid growth and real estate moguls, the Hollywood hype and the sordid world of hopeless hope of aspiring actresses.

He takes us across the Mexican border to Tijuana in an even more violent and corrupted country. He describes perfectly the intricacies of office politics in the LAPD, the violence against suspects and police procedurals. Or lack thereof.

It’s well-oiled book that keeps the reader on edge. I wanted to know how Bucky would come out of it, if Ellroy would make his characters solve the murder while reading about Los Angeles in the 1940s. I was curious about Bucky, Lee and Kay’s trio. I wondered if the big LAPD machine would run over Bucky or if he’d make it alright.

A brilliant book but I’m glad I waited to read it. There will be more Ellroy in my future.

For the record, I also have the graphic novel of this book by Miles Hyman Matz and David Fincher and it’s a good companion book.

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga – the dark sides of real-estate in Mumbai and of human behaviour.

January 15, 2023 18 comments

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga (2011) French title: Le dernier homme de la tour. Translated by Annick Le Goya.

Bombay, like a practitioner of yoga, was folding in on itself, as its centre moved from the south, where there was no room to grow, to this swamp land near the airport.

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga is set in Mumbai, in the Vakola district near the airport, in a two towers apartment complex built in the 1970s.

Tower B, known as “Vishram Society” is like a vertical village of lower middle-class people. It’s also known as ‘cosmopolitan’ (i.e. ethnically and religiously mixed.) The various families have been living together in this building for years, they’ve raised children, grown old and have to share their private lives due to paper thin walls and building practicalities. Like in small town life, everybody knows everything about everyone and keeping a secret is illusory.

The Secretary [the concierge], not for the first time during his tenure, cursed the early – morning cat. This cat prowled the waste bins that the residents left out in the morning for Mary [The cleaning lady] to collect, in the process spilling beans, bones, and whisky bottles alike. So the residents of the building knew from the rubbish who was a vegetarian and who merely claimed to be one; who was a rum – man and who a gin – man; and who had bought a pornographic magazine when on holiday in Singapore.

What was I saying about secrets?

Now, in the ever growing and changing Mumbai, a property developer, Mr Shah, has set his eyes on two towers built in the 1970s. He wants to buy out all the current owners, demolish the towers and rebuild expensive condos on the land.

Mr Shah is ready to pay a hefty sum to all the owners based on the square meters of their apartment to encourage them to move out.

A useful note at the beginning of the book explains that Mr Shah’s offer is equivalent to $330,000 per family, in a country where the average per capita annual income in 2008 was around $800. So, if people accept Mr Shah’s offer, they become very rich and have enough money to relocate somewhere else.

Last important thing to know: Vishram Society is a Registered Co – operative Society. Not a jungle. If even one person says no that means that the Society cannot be demolished.

The novel shows the dirty methods used by property developers in Mumbai to put their hands on prime land, to throw working classes out of some neighbourhood to gentrify the area. In Mumbai, slums, older building and modern towers are near each other and this passage about a beach sums it up:

Here, in this beach in this posh northern suburb of Mumbai, half the sand was reserved for the rich, who defecated in their towers, the other half for slum dwellers, who did so near the waves. Residents of the slum that had encroached upon the beach were squatting by the water, defecating. An invisible line went down the middle of the beach like an electrified fence; beyond this line, the bankers, models, and film producers of Versova were engaged in tai – chi, yoga, or spot – jogging.

Builders have no qualms about bullying people into agreeing and they have special people to do it.

Every builder has one special man in his company. This man has no business card to hand out, no title, he is not even on the company payroll. But he is the builder’s left hand. He does what the builder’s right hand does not want to know about. If there is trouble, he contacts the police or the mafia. If there is money to be paid to a politician, he carries the bag. If someone’s knuckles have to be broken, he breaks them.

People in Vishram Society have heard stories about builders’ methods and swindles. They are cautious, they wonder where things could go and how they can be sure to get the money after they’ve signed the papers to sell their apartment.

Rather quickly, all the inhabitants agree to sell and the only one who doesn’t want to is Masterji, an old widower who refuses to leave the memories of his late wife and daughter behind. At least, that’s what he thinks his motives are.

This opportunity to get rich for the owners and to get richer for the promoter is like a bomb in a carefully built life balance between the inhabitants of the Vishram Society.

Last Man in Tower relates how Mr Shah manoeuvres to get what he wants. It also depicts how this tower-village copes with the one inhabitant who blocks their way to wealth.

Adiga’s book is cleverly done because it is not Manichean, the bad developer on one side and the poor old man on the other side. The greedy people and the virtuous one. Mr Shah intends to pay the money he promised, in the builder category, he’s not the worst one. But still. He counts on the neighbours to pressure Masterji into selling.

Masterji’s neighbours want the money, and most of them for good reasons: to provide for their son with Down’s syndrome after they die, to raise their children in a better neighbourhood, to help their grownup children to settle in life, to live a little and stop counting every penny.

And Masterji’s refusal is not just sentimental. There’s something else at stake here, someone who wants to stand up for himself when he wasn’t able to do it in this life, someone who sticks to his principle for the sake of them only.

Last Man in Tower is a dark tale, a book that shows how quickly people turn on each other when money is involved and circumstances push them to pick a side. We know that dark side of humans, we’ve witnessed it in wars and it’s the same mechanism at work here.

Adiga’s novel exposes the workings of the real estate market in Mumbai and digs into the dark corners of the human soul but it is also a vibrant picture of Mumbai and life in this sprawling city. The slums, the markets, the temples, the overcrowded public transports, the heat, the monsoon and the incredible pollution.

South Mumbai has the Victoria Terminus and the Municipal Building, but the suburbs, built later, have their own Gothic style: for every evening, by six, pillars of hydro – benzene and sulphur dioxide rise high up from the roads, flying buttresses of nitrous dioxide join each other, swirls of unburnt kerosene, mixed illegally into the diesel, cackle like gargoyles, and a great roof of carbon monoxide closes over the structure. And this Cathedral of particulate matter rises over every red light, every bridge and every tunnel during rush hour.

When I was reading, I thought it was a bit too long but now that I write about it I realize that the pace of the narration suits what the author had to show and say.

The book was published in 2011, wonder how the real-estate market is in Mumbai now.

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams – it’s a question of hooks

January 8, 2023 4 comments

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams. (1953) – “Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive.”

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams was previously entitled Hell Hath No Fury. This noir thriller dates back to 1953 and I guess it was renamed after the film version of the book was released in 1990.

In French, it was translated by Bruno Martin for the Série noire collection in 1955. The French title was Je t’attends au tournant and I found a copy in a second-hand bookstore.

The original translation seems out of print which is good because it’s an abridged version. There’s no way to translate all the sentences of a 190 pages English book into a 185 pages French paperback, since the said French paperback is smaller than the English book and French takes more words than English to say the same thing. I checked a random paragraph and bingo, the original sentences are cleverly cut to keep the book under 200 pages as it was supposed to be read in one sitting on a train journey.

Lucky French readers, Gallmeister published a new translation by Laura Derajinski 2019 and kept the title Hot Spot. These different translations didn’t impact my reading though, since I read The Hot Spot in English.

Now, the book

I lighted a cigarette and smoked it out nervously, listening to the night sounds and thinking of the dangerous mess I was drifting further into all the time. I had twelve thousand dollars I couln’t touch, I was crazy about a girl who was in some kind of trouble she couldn’t tell me about, and I was getting more hopelessly fouled up every day with crazy Dolores Harshaw.

This is Harry Madox. He’s a twenty-eight drifter who comes to a small Texas town, finds a job as a car salesman and settles in a boarding house. He works for George Harshaw who also has a side-business in car loans to go with the dealership. Gloria Harper runs the loan office.

Harshaw is married to Dolores who seduces Harry for what he thinks is a simple hookup. She doesn’t see it that way and although she’s definitely not in love with him, she sinks her hook in him and wants him all to herself. He’s her ticket out of her boring marriage. But Harry falls for Gloria who has a lot of issues of her own. When Gloria and Harry start dating, it sends Dolores on the war path.

Besides the sex and love affairs, Harry put himself in a nice little mess of his own doing when he robbed the local bank.

Two events sparked this crazy idea: first, during a fire on Main Street, he noticed that all the people were focused on the fire and that the bank was left almost unattended and second, as Dolores asked him to help her move some boxes in an abandoned building near the bank, he noticed it was full of junk and that is was an incredible fire hazard. What if he set the building on fire, robbed the bank and made sure to be seen helping the firefighters?

That’s what he does it but the local sheriff is cleverer than he expected. He doesn’t buy it and intends to question him until he relents and spills the beans. He’s only released from custody because Dolores spontaneously lies and gives him an alibi. His relief is short-lived. Now she has him and she knows it.

Harry still thinks he can get out of it if he lays low but his feelings for Gloria get in the way. He feels protective of her and things get out of hand when he tries to help her with her own issues.

Harry is taken in a web of lies and crimes. Dolores is a skilled manipulator but she’s enabled by Harry’s actions. The robbery and his relationship with Gloria give her leverage. She’s poisonous but his actions leave him with his flesh exposed and she just sees where and how she can sink her hooks into him.

The Hot Spot is a masterpiece of noir fiction. All the right ingredients are there.

An unreliable narrator who would want us to forget he’s a bank robber. A beautiful young woman who’s not as innocent as she seems. A femme fatale who knows what she wants and how to get it. And the whole plot, clever and articulate as a Shakespearian tragedy is served by an excellent literary style. We are with Harry in this little Texas town. We imagine the heat, the town, the dealership, the cars and the characters in their 1950s outfits. We sweat with Harry and recoil from the violence and we see how events unfold in an implacable manner.

A must-read for all crime fiction lovers.

Have a look at Guy’s excellent review here.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Baindridge – it puts the reader on edge

December 28, 2022 18 comments

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge (1974) French title: Sombre Dimanche. Translated by Françoise Cartano.

The Bottle Factory Outing is my second Beryl Bainbridge, after An Awfully Big Adventure and I can find similarities between the two books.

In The Bottle Factory Outing, we’re in London and our protagonists are two roommates, Freda and Brenda. They live in a boarding house and like each other well enough but have opposite characters. Freda is outgoing and flirty. She loves clothes and make up and wants to marry well. She’s energetic and knows what she wants.

Brenda landed in London after she escaped from an abusive marriage. She’s mousy, down-to-earth and wants to be left alone. She’s passive and her attitude sends mixed messages to people around her and gets on Freda’s nerves.

In the following passage, Freda and Brenda are watching a funeral from their window and their interaction gives away their personalities:

‘You cry easily,’ said Brenda, when they were dressing to go to the factory.
‘I like funerals. All those flowers – a full life coming to a close…’
‘She didn’t look as if she’d had a full life,’ said Brenda. ‘She only had the cat. There aren’t any mourners – no sons or anything.’
‘Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you. When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…’
‘Men always go first,’ said Brenda. ‘Women live longer.’
‘My dear, you ought to participate more. You are too cut off from life.’

See how Freda romanticize what she sees and projects her future and how Brenda remains practical and attempts to bring her back to reality? It’s typical.

Freda and Brenda work at the same bottle factory owned and managed by Mr Paganotti. He’s Italian and all the workers come from the same Italian village, except Patrick, an Irishman, Freda and Brenda.

Freda has a crush on Mr Paganotti’s nephew, Vittorio. He’s handsome, prances around the factory and flirts a little bit with Freda. She grows things out of proportion because she’s decided that he’s the perfect candidate for the handsome and rich husband she ambitions to marry.

She’s infatuated with him but she doesn’t know him well. In order to spend time with him outside of the factory, she organizes a factory outing on a weekend. But things don’t turn out so well…

Relationships between men and women are creepy in The Bottle Factory Outing just as they were in An Awfully Big Adventure.

Brenda was in an abusive marriage and even if nothing precise is revealed about her past, the reader guesses that it must have been pretty bad for Brenda to take action. And she’s barely started to work at the bottle factory for three days when she starts getting a lot of unwanted attention at work from Rossi, the foreman. She doesn’t know how to rebuff his advances because she doesn’t want to lose her job. Brenda the mouse also caught the attention of her coworker Patrick. He offers to fix her toilet to see her outside of work. At least this one seems respectful.

Freda has Vittorio’s attention but he’s unlikely to marry her and she sets herself up for deception. It’s a classic case of wishing to be the wife and being seen as a mistress. Usually, it only means a broken heart, nothing life-threatening. As far as Freda is concerned, the most disturbing events occur during the outing.

Beryl Bainbridge has a great sense of humour and it shows in her descriptions of her characters and of the outing. But the ending takes a very dark turn, one I didn’t expect. She’s an author who keeps her reader on their toes as her characters are a bit off, as they can sense that events are about to take a dramatic turn or that painful pasts lurk in the characters’ background.

This is a very well constructed novel.

Have you read books by her? What did you think of them? I still have The Dressmaker on the shelf.

Guy has reviewed several of them and his take on The Bottle Factory Outing is here.

Five crime fiction books, all different

December 21, 2022 4 comments

Friendship Is a Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle (2018) French title: L’amitié est un cadeau à se faire. Translated by Simon Baril

This is my second book by William Boyle after The Lonely Witness and he’s definitely an author I want to keep reading.

Friendship… is set in Brooklyn, in the Bronx and upstate New York. It all starts when Rena Ruggiero, the widow of a mafia gangster, kicks her eighty years old neighbor and thinks that she killed him as he lays unresponsive on her floor. High on Viagra, he tried to rape her.

Rena takes his car and drives to the Bronx where she wants to stay with her estranged daughter Adrienne and rekindle her relationship with her granddaughter Lucia.

She arrives there just as Richie Schiavano decides to steal money from a mafia gang.

Rena and Lucia find shelter at Adrienne’s neighbor’s house. Lacey, ex-porn star known as Lucious Lacey, welcomes them in her home and they end up fleeing the Bronx with the mafia on their tail.

The book takes a delightful Thelma and Louise turn and the reader is in for a fantastic ride.

William Boyle has a knack for a crazy plot, for attaching characters and an fantastic sense of place. A wonderful discovery by Gallmeister.

Alabama 1963 by Ludovic Manchette & Christian Niemiec (2020). Not available in English.

This is a French crime fiction novel set in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, just before President Kennedy was assassinated and right in the middle of the Civil Right movement.

Girls are rapped and murdered. Bud Larkin, a white PI, former police officer, is volunteered to help a black family find out who killed their daughter. His former colleagues also hire him a black cleaning lady, Adela Cobb. In segregated Alabama, she’ll be an asset to Larkin as black people talk to her but not to him.

As other murders happen, Bud and Adela get more and more anxious to find out who’s behind these crimes. And if this adventure can help them sort out their lives, all the better.

I’m always a bit suspicious about books written by French writers and set in America, written as if they were American writers. This one was OK, and the fact that the two authors’ day job is to translate American TV series into French probably helps writing a convincing story. They know all the codes.

I had a good time reading it, I got attached to Adela and Bud.

As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson (2012) French title: A vol d’oiseau. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

This is the 8th volume of the Walt Longmire series. I read them in English now since the French paperbacks are no longer published by Gallmeister but by Pocket. The books aren’t as nice, so, the original on the kindle is better.

This time around, Caddy, Longmire’s daughter is getting married in two weeks on the Cheyenne reservation when Walt discovers that she no longer has a venue.

He’s on his way to visit another location with his friend Henry Standing Bear when they see a woman fall from a cliff and die. She had her six-month old baby in arms when she fell. The baby miraculously survived.

Walt Longmire will mentor the new chief of the Tribal Police, Lolo Long during this investigation. She’ll learn a few tricks, soften some hard edges and see how to navigate the tricky relationship with the FBI. Very useful skills if she wants to keep her job or stay alive while doing it.

As always, Craig Johnson delivers. The plot is well-drawn, a part of fun is introduced with Lolo Long’s blunders and the relationship between Walt and Caddy is lovely. This volume is set on the Cheyenne reservation and it rings true, at least to my French ears.

Craig Johnson doesn’t disappoint and I’m looking forward to reading the ninth book.

Sœurs de sang by Dominique Sylvain (1997, reviewed by the author in 2010). Not available in English

I’ve read several books by Dominique Sylvain. Kabuchiko, set in Japan, Les Infidèles and Passage du Désir set in Paris. The three books are different and Soeurs de sang is closer to Passage du Désir than to the other ones.

We’re in Paris. Louise Morvan is a PI who is hired by Ana Chomsky to find a former lover that she spotted as a character in a video game. Louise starts investigating, discovers that he’s Axel Langeais, one of the creators of the game.

It could stop here but Victoria Yee, the lead singer of the group Noir Vertige is murdered on Axel’s barge, in front of his sister Régine. Louise embarks on a murder investigation that will lead her to Berlin and Los Angeles and into the strange artistic world of the Victim Art.

I read this with pleasure, a novel set in a very peculiar milieu, the one of extreme art and I was curious to see how the story would unfold.

Ames animales by JR Dos Santos (2021). Not available in English.

This was one of our Book Club choices and it was a promising read.

It’s a Portuguese novel set in Lisbon. The main character is Tomas Noronha whose wife Maria Flor is involved with a charity that works on animal intelligence. When the director of this charity is murdered, she’s the last one to have seen him and is accused of murder.

Chapters alternate between the crime plot and flash backs where the militant and director is enlightening Maria Flor about the latest researches about animal intelligence. These lengthy explanations were too didactical for me, cut the flow of the crime investigation and I lost interest.

I abandoned the book. I don’t read crime fiction to read scientific lectures, there are radio podcasts for that. A missed opportunity.

I have also read The Hot Spot by Charles Williams but this one is so good that it deserves its own billet.

Literary Escapade: the Proust Exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

December 18, 2022 13 comments

For the centenary of Proust’s death, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Bnf), the French equivalent of the Library of Congress, curates an exhibition entitled Marcel Proust – La fabrique de l’œuvre. It means Marcel Proust, the making of his work.

In French, A la Recherche du temps perdu, In Search of Lost Time in English, is nicknamed La Recherche and I’ll use that expression in my billet as it conveys a familiarity and a fondness for it.

This exhibition takes us through Proust’s creative process. For each book of we can see how Proust wrote and reviewed his work and, for the volumes published after his death, how his work came to us.

The exhibition shows 370 pieces from the Proust fund at the BnF. Marcel Proust had kept all of his manuscripts and his brother Robert inherited them when Marcel died. Suzy Mante Proust, Robert’s daughter, donated the manuscripts to the BnF in 1962.

Therefore, the BnF has almost all of Proust’s manuscripts from his school essays to La Recherche. They have 26 volumes of proofs and boards, 23 type-written texts, drafts typed by various secretaries, many paperoles, 23 notebooks of edited texts, 75 notebooks of drafts, hundreds of paper sheets, four other notebooks and one diary. That’s a lot of material and here’s a picture of the different sources.

Marcel Proust didn’t write La Recherche from the beginning to the end in a linear fashion. He wrote Swann’s Way and Time Regained at the same time. He wrote episodes of La Recherche here and there and put them in the volumes where he saw fit.

Now, let’s have a tour of the different volumes and I’ll share with you pictures and anecdotes.

Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way). 1913 (self-published) and 1919 (reviewed edition – Gallimard)

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure is probably one of the most famous incipits of French literature, along with Aujourd’hui, maman est morte, from The Stranger by Albert Camus. The BnF showed the different versions of this incipit until Proust settled on Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. They did the same about the madeleine, from toast (1907-1909 drafts) to rusk to a madeleine.

It was fascinating to witness Proust’s thought process, the attention to details and have the evidence that the incipit and the key moment of the madeleine were thoroughly forethought. The first version of Swann’s Way was published in 1913 but it was in the making since 1907. It goes against the idea of a Proust who wasted his time in society life and didn’t start working hard until later in life.

The exhibition also features key objects of the books and for Swann’s Way, I was mostly interested in this drawing from a magic lantern telling the story of Geneviève de Brabant.

It’s a story that the young Narrator used to love and this shows us what kids saw in their magic lanterns.

Proust was a master of copy-paste, long before office solutions and computers were invented. This board from Swann’s Way shows how Proust worked.

Fascinating, no? (Or maybe a typist’s nightmare…) Now let’s move on to the Narrator’s adolescence with…

A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) 1919 – Prix Goncourt

This volume is key as the Narrator gets acquainted with major characters of La Recherche: Robert de Saint-Loup, the group of girls to which Albertine belongs, the painter Elstir, the Baron de Charlus and the Verdurin clan. We’ll follow them all during our literary ride with the Narrator, from Balbec to Paris.

Le côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way) 1920-1921 (Published in two volumes)

The Guermantes Way is where the Narrator is of all the parties and in the heart of high society. It’s the turning point of his adult life: the high society isn’t a glamorous fairytale anymore, as the harsh words of the Duc de Guermantes to a dying Swann remind us. He’s about to explore the kingdom of Sodom and Gomorrha through Charlus and Albertine.

Sodome et Gomorrhe – 1921-1922 (Published in two volumes)

The discussion about homosexuality was conceived as soon as 1909. Marcel Proust didn’t know yet where he would include it. The reader understands as soon as the Baron de Charlus is introduced that he’s gay. The Narrator will only see the light when he catches the Baron de Charlus and Jupien.

Homosexuality is also a hot topic as the Narrator suspects that Albertine is a lesbian. He’s aware of lesbian relationships since Balbec when he saw Mlle de Vinteuil and her friend.

Sodom and Gomorrah were the last volumes published under Marcel Proust’s supervision. Marcel Proust changed the structure of La Recherche several times; for example, he toyed with the idea of three volumes for Sodom and Gomorrah.

The last three volumes were published by Gallimard with the help of Robert Proust. Here’s a letter from Gallimard to Robert Proust describing the final division of La Recherche in the current number of volumes.

The Narrator has now feelings for Albertine and their relationship mirrors Swann and Odette relationship.

La Prisonnière (The Captive) –1923

Marcel Proust wanted La Prisonnière to be the third volume of Sodom and Gomorrha and he sent to Gallimard his last review of the typed version of La Prisonnière a few days before he died.

The exhibition shows a report from A. Charmel, the concierge of the 8 bis rue Laurent Pichat where Marcel Proust lived from May 31st to October 1st 1919. This report is about all the cries from the street vendors and the various trades on a typical Parisian Street.

It will become a famous scene in La Prisonnière where the Narrator listens to the noises coming off the street. It’s a vivid passage that brings the reader to the Paris of this time, to all the street vendors and odd jobs that have disappeared now.

Except from 1909 to 1911, Proust wasn’t a solitary man. He had a lot of people around him, helping him. He sent out friends and servants to check certain details and facts and all this was included in his work.

Albertine disparue (The Fugitive). First title La fugitive 1925

Just before he died, Marcel Proust retrieved 250 pages of Albertine disparue, undermining the consistency of the volume. Robert Proust decided to keep these pages after Marcel died. I guess it was the best choice, no one knew how Marcel would have modified his work to straighten the narrative. I’m relieved to know that Marcel Proust thought that something was off in this volume as it’s the one I struggled the most with.

Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained) – 1927.

In Time Regained, Proust writes about Paris during WWI and here’s a picture of a bombing near the metro St Paul, rue de Rivoli (Night 12-13 April 1918)

It also means that the first version of Time Regained, written before the war started, has been augmented. Marcel Proust added a fascinating picture of Paris during WWI, life behind. He lost friends and acquaintances during the war and he adapted his characters’ fates to the events. He even changed the location of Combray from the West of Paris to the East.

In each room of the exhibition the visitor could see how the novel was finished and got ready for publication: drafts, notebooks, typed sheets, additions through paperoles, phrases crossed and rewritten…All precious testimonies of the making of La Recherche.

This is a major exhibition about Proust. I wasn’t aware of his writing process. I knew about the drafts, adds-on or paperoles and that he sent out Céleste or her husband to check out things.

I didn’t know that he wrote La Recherche in pieces and not in the chronological order. I didn’t know that his books were made of pieces stitched together and that Proust sewed his book together like a couture dressmaker.

I had this image of a Proust writing frantically, knowing his years were counted. It may stem from Time Regained where the Narrator understands late in the game what he has to write. But in Proust’s real life, this epiphany came a lot earlier than I thought and his work is even more astonishing.

We’re talking about a writer who had his masterpiece in mind from the beginning. Given the length, the complexity and the number of characters, his mind was more than a brilliant machine. He knew what he wanted to demonstrate but he didn’t have everything mapped out, or he wouldn’t have changed the structure of the volumes until the end or included historical facts along the way. He had key scenes written and the global idea of what he wanted to pass on about art, life, memory and our journey on this earth.

The key scenes are wonderfully polished because they were written and rewritten, his ability to adapt to real life events roots the novel in French history and this vision of society is also priceless. Proust has the amazing ability to dig deep into people’s inner life without cutting them off real life. He was like that too, having the vivid imagination of an introvert and living the life of a social butterfly.

Extraordinary.

Now, a last picture for the road, this is Marcel Proust’s writing material.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – magnificent

December 7, 2022 16 comments

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946) French title: Tous les hommes du roi. Translated by Pierre Singer.

I had never heard of Robert Penn Warren before receiving All the King’s Men through my Kube subscription. I read it in a French translation by Pierre Singer and in a magnificent edition by the publisher Monsieur Toussaint Louverture. It has a beautiful golden cover, the pages are on very nice paper, the text is published in an agreeable font. It has several tiny details that cost nothing but appealed to me as a reader and showed the reverence and the care this publisher has for books. Like that MERCI printed beside the price of the book on the back cover.

A gorgeous book as an object and a gorgeous piece of literature.

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) is a Southern writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for All the King’s Men a complex novel about politics, legacy and the meaning of life. A tall order.

The narrator is Jack Burden and we’re in 1936 in the Deep South. We know from the start that he’s recovering from a tragedy and the fall of his boss, Willie Stark.

Governor Willie Stark is the king mentioned in the book’s title and his men are composed of Sadie Burke, his secretary and long-time lover, Jack Burden, his right hand and sounding board, Tiny Duffy an obsequious man Stark would rather have with him than against him and Sugar Boy, his faithful driver.

Willie Stark comes from a poor farm, studied law by himself and decided to go into politics. He’s a populist who addresses to the redneck voters and who got genuinely angry when children died in the collapse of a school due to poor workmanship. Thanks to corrupt politicians, the contract wasn’t awarded to the most competent bidder.

Jack attached himself to Stark after he covered his first campaign for a newspaper. It was in 1922 and he was a journalist at the time. Now, he’s in his thirties, has a degree in history and he has no ambition. Jack comes from Burden’s Landing, a small town on the coast. His family is wealthy, at least his mother is. His parents are divorced and he despises them a little. He sees his mother as a serial monogamist who married for the third time, and to a much younger man. His father, a former lawyer, now devotes his time to religious endeavors. Jack thinks that his mother is materialistic and that his father is idealistic. During his younger years, Judge Irwin, a friend of the family, mentored him.

Willie Stark started out his political career with excellent ethics but he soon learnt that he had to play the same game as the current political circles if he wanted a chance to be elected and pass laws.

Now he’s powerful, has enemies and knows how to pull strings. He’s ruling the State as a dictator and his long-time opponent is still after him.

The beginning of the end starts when the virtuous Judge Irwin starts sniffing around him and Stark decides to use his usual method of threats and intimidation.

Jack tells us what happened from the moment the king’s men arrive at Burden’s Landing to threaten Judge Irwin. It doesn’t work and Stark missions Jack to investigate the judge’s past and unearth some dirt for Stark to gain leverage. From now on, Stark’s orders overlap with Jack’s private life. He’s known Irwin since he was a kid, it’s his hometown and this will set everything into motion.

Robert Penn Warren writes a perfectly oiled tragedy. The various characters ignite things here and there and lives blow up.

Jack is a man whose family picture doesn’t add up. He knows something is amiss and but he doesn’t know what. His background is like a jigsaw with a missing piece and he feels incomplete. He tends to be depressed. He never got over his adolescent love affair with Anne Stanton, his best friend Adam’s sister. He goes with the flow, trying to swim in clear waters and avoid joining the sewage that surrounds Stark.

Jack takes Stark as he is: he has no illusion about what man is ready to do to win an election and yet he forgives him a lot of things because he knew him before he became governor and because the local political scene is rotten to the core. If Stark doesn’t play by the corrupt politician playbook, how can he win an election? And if he doesn’t win, how is he going to implement his program and improve the people’s lives? Jack maneuvers to stay on Stark’s good side without getting his hands too dirty.

Stark is a complex character based on the real politician from Louisiana Huey Long. Yes, he’s a bully who manipulates people around him. Yes, he’s a shameless populist. But he did something for his fellow-citizen. He had roads built. He raised taxes to improve public services and transports. He wanted to have a positive legacy through affordable health care. Robert Penn Warren shows that some good comes out of Stark’s mandate despite his despotic ways.

Like in a Greek tragedy, Stark’s public fall and Jack’s private shattering come from their Achilles’ heels. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

All the King’s Men is a brilliant novel that allies Stark’s rise and fall and Jack’s private life as he finally finds some peace. The style is elaborate and stunning. It’s a novel from the South before air conditioning. It’s hot and the weather puts a lid of languor over Jack. Since Huey Long was the governor of Louisiana, the novel is supposed to be set there but there is no direct mention of a precise Southern state. I was thinking more about Alabama or Mississippi as there is no mention to Cajun culture in the whole book.

It’s also a novel from the South before the Civil Rights movements. There are no black characters in this novel except quick mentions to black servants. This microcosm around Stark lives in an all-white environment.

It’s also a novel from the South with its religious undercurrent. Religion is not present through churches and clergymen. It’s understood in Jack’s questioning about moral compasses and fate. I can’t explain it but the characters ooze some kind of Bible Belt vibe.

Robert Penn Warren writes an intelligent book with multidimensional characters. He could have written something really polarized, good versus evil, virtue against sin but he didn’t. He chose to draw complex characters, flawed humans who have their moments of darkness and their moments of generosity and loyalty. Their emotions overrule them sometimes, they are unethical and accept to have their hands dirty. I liked Jack’s voice, lucid and poetic. No sugar coating for Jack.

I don’t know if All the King’s Men is “The definite novel about American politics” as the New York Times says. I hope not because it would be depressing. What I do know is that it’s an exceptional piece of literature.

Highly recommended.

Proust reads and reading Proust

November 20, 2022 18 comments

Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (1905) Original French title: Sur la lecture. Suivi de Journées de lecture.

Proust by Samuel Beckett (1931) French title: Proust. Translated by Edith Fournier.

Proust died on November 18th, 1922. The centenary of his death has been celebrated here with books, TV specials, newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, exhibitions and so on. I meant to publish this billet on November 18th but life got in the way.

Days of Reading is a short essay by Proust, where he muses over the pleasure and the experience of reading.

As often, Proust shows his talent for a catching incipit.

Il n’y a peut-être pas de jours de notre enfance que nous ayons si pleinement vécus que ceux que nous avons cru laisser sans les vivre, ceux que nous avons passés avec un livre préféré.There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all:the days we spent with a favorite book. Translation by John Sturrock.

In the subsequent pages, he remembers the glorious hours he spent with books as a child. He wanted to be left alone with his books and not do anything else. I can relate to that.

His thoughts about finishing a book, the fact that we leave the characters on the last page to never “see” them again is relatable too. Who has never reached the end of a book thinking “That’s all? What will become of them now?”. He muses over our relationship with books, our connection to writers and how they lead us to beauty and intelligence. La lecture est une amitié, he says. And yes, reading is a friendship with books, authors and imaginary worlds.

While Proust talks about his love for reading in Days of Reading, Beckett writes about his response to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

Beckett wrote Proust, his essay about In Search of Lost Time, in 1931, when he was only 25. Time Regained had only been published four years before in 1927. Beckett was an earlier adopter of Proust and it says something about his ability to understand modern literature and spot a breakthrough in literature, even if Proust wasn’t taken so seriously at the time.

Proust is not an academic essay, it’s the brilliant review of a book through the eyes a passionate reader. Beckett shares his experience with reading Proust and displays a deep knowledge of Proust’s work.

He gives very detailed and precise examples – he quotes from memory, a nightmare for the French translator of his essay because she needed to find the actual quotes in French…He shows a profound understanding of what Proust intended to do with his work and he was ahead of his time.

Beckett goes through all of Proust’s favourite themes: the force of habit, the importance of a setting, his fascination for the Guermantes, his passion for art (literature, painting, opera, music, theatre and architecture.) He has valid points about the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator.

And then come thoughts about memory, remembrance and our thought process. He gives his perception of how memories are triggered by sensations.

Proust is an impressive review of Proust’s masterpiece and it’s a tribute to Beckett’s intelligence as much as an ode to Proust. It’s an excellent companion book for any reader of La Recherche, as we have nicknamed In Search of Lost Time in French.

Proust reads and Beckett reads Proust. I missed the actual day of the centenary of Proust’s death but still decided to bake madeleines to celebrate this anniversary.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown – pleasant and educational

November 13, 2022 5 comments

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (2014) French title: L’envol du moineau. Translated by Cindy Colin Kapen.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown came with my Kube subscription and became our October Book Club read.

It’s historical fiction based on the true story of Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711). She was born in England and emigrated to Salem in 1650 before her father settled down in Lancester, Massachusetts. In 1656, she married Reverend Joseph Rowlandson and they had four children.

In 1676, during King Philip’s War, she was captured by Native Americans in a raid led by Monoco, a Nashaway sachem. She was ransomed a few months later and came back to live with her husband. She wrote about her captivity in 1682 (A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson) We are a few years after the setting of The Scarlett Letter and a few years before the Salem witch trials.

The characters of Flight of the Sparrow are all historical figures and the facts of the book are actual. The people’s inner thoughts come from the author’s imagination.

In her much-appreciated afterword, Amy Belding Brown explains what historical sources she relied on and where she took some liberty. She concentrated on Mary and around her some facts that actually happened but to other people. I can understand that choice and I appreciate that it’s disclosed.

Flight of the Sparrow gives the reader a good vision of life in the Massachusetts colony in the 17th century and I felt the same than after finishing The Scarlet Letter: relieved I wasn’t born in that time and in this rigorist religious context. But then, when you’ve been raised and born in this culture, you don’t know anything else, so…

Amy Belding Brown decided to draw Mary as an early feminist. When the book opens, she’s quietly defying her husband’s authority by helping out Bess, a woman who had a child out of wedlock with Silvanus, a black slave she fell in love with. The story is true but is Mary’s open support plausible in 1676 Puritan Massachusetts?

Then she’s taken by the Nipmuc tribe and follows them in their whereabouts during the hard winter of 1676. This part of the novel was interesting as I enjoyed the descriptions of the Nipmuc way-of-life. I choose to believe that the information is accurate, as I know that Mary Rowlandson wrote about it in her memoir.

Amy Belding Brown describes the slow awareness of a woman who doesn’t want to play second fiddle to her husband, who has doubts about her faith, who internally challenges the Puritan way of thinking. She experienced another culture during her captivity where the women’s place was quite different from what she knew. I can imagine that she didn’t come unscathed of her captivity but did she really go as far as reassessing her whole beliefs? Or was she more relieved to go back to the life she’d always known?

The author also imagines a love story between Mary and Wowaus, also known as James Printer. They were contemporaries, he had been raised by an Englishman and had gone to school. As a translator, he was instrumental during the negotiations between Native Americans and England that led to Mary Rowlandson’s liberation. The relationship between Mary and James seemed a bit farfetched but I can imagine that they were civil to each other.

There’s a thread about romance, marriage and what to expect of a partner all along the book and I wonder if it isn’t a bit anachronistic. People’s vision of love and marriage sounded different from ours but maybe Amy Belding Brown’s choice is alright. What do we really know about what happened between people behind closed doors? What do we know about all the undocumented thoughts of people who were caged into society’s propriety and censored themselves or simply didn’t leave a trace?

Still, that romance thread seemed unnecessary to me as Mary Rowlandson’s story is fascinating enough. No need to spice it up with romance.

I enjoyed Flight of the Sparrow for its historical content. I didn’t know anything about King Philip’s war and almost nothing about early settler’s life in New England. Literary wise, it’s a solid narrative, well-constructed but not as literary as I would have liked. I’m getting more and more demanding on that side, so don’t mind me. It’s worth reading for the time travel to colonial and Puritan Massachusetts.

Did you read Flight of the Sparrow? If yes, how much did you like it?

Contemporary and opposite essays : The Painter of Modern Life by Baudelaire and Walking by Thoreau

November 6, 2022 11 comments

The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire (1863) Original French title: Le peintre de la vie moderne.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau (1862) French title: De la marche. Translated by Thierry Gillyboeuf.

I’m still doing The Non-Fiction Reader Challenge and I had picked books from the TBR for it.

Among my choices were The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire and Walking by Henry David Thoreau. I had randomly decided to read them in September and October and actually did them within the same week.

Without this timing, I don’t think I would have noticed that these two essays were published at the same time (1862 and 1863) or how opposite they are. I enjoyed both as they each speak to a different part of me. I read Baudelaire, excited about my next visit to Paris and its museums and I started Walking on a picnic break while hiking in the Estérel mountains.

Thoreau and Baudelaire were contemporaries but, according to their bios, couldn’t be more different. A nature lover vs a city-dweller. An American for whom civilization meant England vs a Frenchman. A man who lived in a cabin in the woods vs a dandy.

The Painter of Modern Life is a collection of essays about Baudelaire’s vision of art and Beauty.

He sees Beauty in art and here, he writes specifically about painting. He was an art critic, went to painting Salons and was deeply involved in the contemporary art world.

Baudelaire rejects the official art, what we call in French l’art pompier. Baudelaire argues that contemporary paintings shouldn’t picture Ancient Rome or Greece sceneries like Ingres but real life. He’s anti-Ingres and his Illness of Antiochus. Classic story, Ancient temple and clothes, you see the drift.

He says that what we consider classics now was contemporary art in their time, with their architecture and fashion. These works of arts stayed with us through the centuries because their contemporary side was only half of the artwork. The other half was that universal quality that makes us relate to them now. We see their fashion as historical information and their universal side speaks to us. Their beauty lies in a perfect combination of the two:

La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent, la moitié de l’art, dont l’autre moitié est l’éternel et l’immuable.Modernity is made of transitory, of fleetingness and contingency; it’s half of art whose other half is eternity and permanence.

The actual painter of modern life of the title is Constantin Guys whom Baudelaire loved because his art captured the present. He painted what he saw, Paris and its life but also the Crimea War battlefields. Baudelaire uses Guys’ art to write an ode to modernity which consists in urban life, fashion, frivolity, artifice and make up.

Talk about someone totally opposite to a Thoreau who went to live in a cabin in the woods. Can you imagine Baudelaire in Walden? Not really, eh?

In Walking, Thoreau explains how walking is essential to his well-being. If I understood him properly, he tries to keep alive a link between us as part of the natural world and Nature.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.

Cheeky me immediately thought he wasn’t living in the Louisiana bayou rife with alligators or in the Great Dismal Swamp and its moccasin snakes.

He thinks we forget to turn to Nature as a source of beauty.

While almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society, few are attracted strongly to Nature. In their reaction to Nature men appear to me for the most part, notwithstanding their arts, lower than the animals. It is not often a beautiful relation, as in the case of the animals. How little appreciation of the beauty of the land- scape there is among us!

He wants us to retain our freedom of being, our untamed side and not to yield immediately to human laws. Walking is a way to ground oneself, to think freely, a moment to just be, leave other worldly occupations at rest. Being in communion with Nature is a way to reach a certain state of mind that opens people to their surroundings, to learning new things and simply be curious.

Thoreau sees the source of beauty in Nature while Baudelaire sees it in city life.

In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire explains that we should find beauty in our quotidian and to me, he opens the door to the Impressionist movement. He implies that it is noble to paint ballerinas and guinguettes.

And they will paint cities, their streets, their theatres, their parks and their people. I see paintings by Caillebotte as witnesses of life in the 19th century but I also see the permanence of human condition and that’s a bond between the people on the paintings and me. They reached Baudelaire’s goal to paint their modern life and create universal beauty.

But the Impressionists will also paint a lot outside. They’ll picture gardens in the country, people walking in fields, the light on the sea, the boating and all kind of outdoors activities.

Thoreau died in 1862. He might have enjoyed Monet’s research on light in Impression, soleil levant, in the Nymphéa series or on the Rouen Cathedral series as they capture beauty in the quotidian and in nature. There’s a quest here to paint the quiet beauty of a sunset on the Seine, on the Mediterranean or on the Channel.

I see in Thoreau’s walks a quiet time to refuel on one’s own, something he needed. It’s a way to collect one’s thoughts and be “in the moment”. And Baudelaire seems to praise all activities that will distract one from their thoughts. Thoreau enjoyed being with himself while Baudelaire’s to use modern life to run away from himself. I wonder where a conversation between the two would have taken them.

I think neither disposition is sustainable for the mainstream. Thoreau could afford to walk four hours a day to clear his head and think because he had no family obligations. He only had to earn his keep. Baudelaire could afford his whirlwind and dissolute Parisian life for the same reason.

But the rest of us, we have people who depend on us and jobs to keep. And we refuel as best we can and try to lift our heads from the daily grind and catch a sunset here and there. We steal moments to contemplate beauty in museums and during occasional hikes and live vicariously through Nature Writing books.

And now, with all the attempts at destroying beautiful paintings in the name of Nature, I’ll get Civil Disobedience and read from the source.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

November 1, 2022 11 comments

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) French title: Underground Railroad. Translated by Serge Chauvin

The Underground Railroad is my second Colson Whitehead, after the impressive Nickel Boys (2019) and I have Harlem Shuffle (2021) on the shelf for our Book Club.

The Underground Railroad is a historical novel set in pre-Civil War America. Cora, a sixteen-year-old enslaved girl flees from the plantation of her master in Georgia. Along with Caesar, another enslaved man, they reach a meeting point of the Underground Railroad that will lead her first to South Carolina and then to Indiana, via North Carolina and Tennessee.

We see the risks, the difficulties, the money owners put into finding the fugitives. Cora never feels safe, wherever she is. She has a hard time taking down the mental stronghold that her masters built in her head. She was raised on a land of fear, in a place where you didn’t know when you woke up if you’d be still alive and healthy at night. The success rate of actually leaving the plantation and starting over in a free state was extremely low.

The people who help with the Underground Railroad put their lives in danger too. Helping out enslaved people may have you killed. More progressive States had also hidden agendas. There’s no safe haven without a major change in white people’s mentality.

I read it while I was in South Carolina and visiting houses and plantations where enslaved people worked and were kept as well as the Old Slave Mart Museum. I know that everything that Colson Whitehead describes is accurate (unfortunately) and his book is very educational.

It’s written in a straightforward manner and gives the reader a glimpse of what being enslaved meant. I say “a glimpse” because we can’t pretend that we fully understand in our bodies and in our souls what bein enslaved entailed. It’s a good book for history classes and book clubs because it raises a lot of questions and fuels healthy discussion about slavery and its aftermath. It’s useful and we need this kind of books, like we need them on the Holocaust to spread information about what happened, put it at a human-sized scale and keep educating people. Over and over again.

As far as literature is concerned, I found that The Underground Railroad was a bit lacking. It doesn’t compare with a novel by Toni Morrison or with The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, but it’s not an issue because I have the feeling that Colson Whitehead’s goal was not literature but education.

I think that Handful in The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd was livelier than Cora. I was horrified by everything that Cora had to live through, her status as a sub-human and the way she was hunted like an animal. I was shocked by the atmosphere of hatred against black people and the ones who helped them and the idea of “great replacement” that starting seeping into white people’s way of thinking. This violence wasn’t as striking in The Invention of Wings, perhaps because the focus of the book was on Sarah Grimké.

It’s worth reading because it’s like watching a documentary with Cora as the main character. Just don’t expect a literary breakthrough in the style. It’s good, it’s efficient and it does the job. In these times of fake news and people re-arranging history and events for their own benefit and conscience of mind, The Underground Railroad is a necessary book, accessible to teenagers. The consequences of slavery in the USA still have an impact on the country nowadays and this book is a bridge to explain where it all began.

Incidentally, we were travelling back to Europe and happened to drive near Halifax, North Carolina. This city is officially tagged as a participant in the Underground Railroad. We stopped and paid a visit this old colonial town and its historical landmarks. It has a trail that leads to the spot of the Underground Railroad with explanations along the path.

They also had two books by Colson Whitehead in their Little Free Library on the street of the historic city center. We need all the help we can get to spread history and facts.

Bookstores, publishers and readers – everlasting love

October 31, 2022 14 comments

We, book lovers, are a different species.

We love to read, we love to read about reading, we love to read about people who run bookstores, we love to discover other people’s reading lists, we love to discuss our TBRs and self-imposed book-buying bans, we love to read about publishers, we love to talk about books, we love pictures of bookshelves, we love a good debate about the best way to organize the said bookshelves, we love visiting writers’ houses and we love to read about people going to bookstores.

Let’s own it: to non-readers, we’re weird.

Since I’m a proud card holder of the Weird Club, I had to read Our Riches by Kaouther Adimi – 2017. (Original French title: Nos richesses.)

Kaouther Adimi was born in Algeria in 1986 and she now lives in Paris. Her book Nos richesses has been translated into English under two different titles, Our Riches and A Bookshop in Algiers.

In 1936, Edmond Charlot, a French young man born in Algeria founded the bookshop Les Vraies richesses in downtown Algiers. Kaouther Adimi imagines that in 2017, Ryan, a young man gets an internship in Algiers that consists in tidying this old bookshop to turn it into a sandwich shop. That side of the story wasn’t very interesting: Ryan doesn’t read when he arrives and, no epiphany there, he still doesn’t read when his internship is over.

The most fascinating part of the book is the tribute to Edmond Charlot. This man was an incredible book lover, fostering talents and writers. He knew Albert Camus in Algiers and was his first publisher. He knew Mouloud Feraoun and Jean Giono. He published Albert Cossery and Emmanuel Roblès. He wanted to promote poets and authors from the Mediterranean. He had an incredible career as a libraire and as a publisher.

He was also a resistant, a promoter of literature and books for all, lending the books of his shop to his poorest clients. He published Le silence de la mer by Vercors during the war and L’armée des ombres by Joseph Kessel.

During WWII, he relocated in Paris, becoming a renowned publisher. He was inventive in the publishing industry but he was not a good enough businessman. He struggled with money, with paper procurement and never had enough working capital to weather all his business ups and downs. He went back to Algiers but had to move after Algeria became independent.

We owe him a lot. I’d never heard of him and I’m glad that Kaouther Adimi chose to write about him. It is important to know about men like him, who wanted people to be able to read, who wanted to spread the words of others, who believed in the power of books.

A healthy reminder. Read Lisa’s excellent review here.

The same Weird Club card played a new trick on me and I couldn’t resist buying Eloge des librairies (A Tribute to Bookshops) by Maël Renouard (2022) when I saw it on a display table in a bookstore in Montchat, Lyon.

I could totally relate to his first paragraph:

D’un grand nombre de mes livres, je peux dire, bien des années après, dans quelle librairie je me les suis procurés, et je m’en souviens comme je me souviens de la ville où je me trouvais, du jardin public ou du café où j’allais en lire les premières pages. For a lot of my books, I can tell, even years later, in which bookshop I bought them, and I remember that just as I remember in which city I was, or in which public park or café I went to read their first pages.

I will remember where I bought his book and that I read it in one sitting, during a lazy afternoon on the beach in an incredibly warm October month.

Maël Renouard is about my age and this tribute takes us with him in different cities and different countries, sharing with us his bookshops and book memories.

He mentions San Francisco Book and Co in Paris and this is where I bought Cards on a Table by Agatha Christie for the #1936 Club. It was the only shop open in Paris on this Sunday morning. It was February 2021, we were under COVID rules and we had just driven our daughter to her school in the Paris suburbs. It was eerie, to be in Paris in such circumstance, with empty streets, no noise, no cafés and consequently no toilets.

I’m a reader of fiction, I didn’t go to university to study literature or any “soft science”. I have no culture of academics, nights in libraries or doing research. I don’t know the names of respected historians, linguists, literary critics or sociologists unless they are in mainstream media. So, he lost me when he talks about fantastic discoveries in second-hand bookshops, books for his studies and research. I have no clue how rare or precious these old editions are.

I felt a bit left out and would have wanted to hear more about literature but he still makes me want to visit the bookstores he writes about, especially the ones in Paris and London. Bookstores are the beginning of the relationship with the books we buy there.

I could relate to the passages about holidays, taking a big pile of books, knowing you wouldn’t have time to read them all but needing to have a wide choice on hand, and eventually reading a book you bought on impulse in a local bookstore. I managed to tame this (a bit) with a Kindle, only to end up taking with me a pile of already-read books to catch up with billets…Unless I have restricted luggage due to flights or train travels, I always load a bag of books when I go on holiday.

Eloge des librairies is a lovely book for book lovers and even if Maël Renouard and I don’t read the same kind of books, we still share an infinite love for wandering into bookshops and making a permanent link between a book and the place where we bought it.

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns – drama in the Appalachians

October 30, 2022 4 comments

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns (2020) French title: Les femmes n’ont pas d’histoire. Translated by Héloïse Esquié.

I received Shiner by Amy Jo Burns through my Kube subscription. It was serendipity to get a book set in the Appalachians just before my trip there. I read it during the summer and well, real life got in the way of blogging. (All for good reasons, though. Nothing to complain about.)

It’s a hard book to describe, for its bewildering setting, the story it tells about people who seem to live like their grand-parents and according to old-fashioned and self-made rules. So, to help you figure out Shiner‘s atmosphere, let’s hear Wren introduce her story:

Making good moonshine isn’t that different from telling a good story, and no one tells a story like a woman. She knows that legends and liquor are best spun from the back of a pickup truck after nightfall, just as she knows to tell a story slowly, the way whiskey drips through a sieve. Moonshine earned its name from spending its life concealed in the dark, and no one understands that fate more than I do.

Beyond these hills my people are known for the kick in their liquor and the poverty in their hearts. Overdoses, opioids, unemployment. Folks prefer us this way—dumb-mouthed with yellow teeth and cigarettes, dumb-minded with carboys of whiskey and broken-backed Bibles. But that’s not the real story. Here’s what hides behind the beauty line along West Virginia’s highways: a fear that God has forgotten us. We live in the wasteland that coal has built, where trains eat miles of track. Our men slip serpents through their fingers on Sunday mornings and pray for God to show Himself while our wives wash their husbands’ underpants. Here’s what hides behind my beauty line: My father wasn’t just one of these men. He was the best.

[…] “It’s a true story,” I begin, roosting in the back of an old truck. “I swear it.”

Then I tell them that these woods can turn eerie or romantic, depending on the company you keep.

[…] The story of the snake handler’s daughter began when I’d just turned fifteen. I knew little then of the outside world my father kept from me. Ours is an oral civilization, I used to hear him say, and it’s dying. He blamed coal, he blamed heroin. He never blamed himself. He thought he had the only tales worth telling, and he never understood what my mother had run from all her life because she’d been born a woman—

The truth turns sour if it idles too long in our mouths. Stories, like bottles of shine, are meant to be given away.

This is a long excerpt of the first chapter of Shiner and it sums it up beautifully.

We’re in West Virginia, in the mountains and the nearest village is Trap. Three families live scattered in the woods. The Birds, Ivy and her family and the Sherrods.

The Bird family is composed of Ruby, Briar and their daughter Wren. She’s the narrator in this introduction and Briar is the snake- handler, gift that supposedly gives him a direct access to God. Ivy is Ruby’s best friend; she’s married to Ricky and then have four children. The Sherrods are moonshiners and the son Flynn was in school with Ruby, Ivy and Briar.

Briar is a preacher and his prestige comes from his surviving to a lightning and handling snakes. He keeps his wife and daughter captive in their cabin in the woods, away from civilization. Ivy stays close to her best friend that she swore to never leave behind. She’s the only visitor to this uncomfortable cabin and Wren follows school syllabi from Ivy’s son who is her age.

When Briar performs a miracle on Ivy, it sets in motion a series of events that will lead Wren to liberate herself from her father and discover all her family secrets.

Honestly, I don’t know what to think about this book. It’s well executed and beautifully written. But it’s another bleak story about a domineering and religious man who imposes on his wife and daughter to live off the grid, according to his own rules.

I have trouble with these books because I can never relate to this religious frenzy. I want to slap these men who imprison their families into narrow lives and don’t practice what they preach. I want to shout at their wives to take their kids and leave and stop being so gullible or down on their knees with admiration for their impostors of husbands.

Not very empathetic, I know. I had the same problem with Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson or with the ghosts in Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.

I have a feeling of incredulity with these books. In a way they seem realistic enough not to require a suspension of belief and at the same time the families they describe seem so disconnected from mainstream life that they appear to be unrealistic. And here I am with very ambivalent feelings about Shiner, a remarkable novel I didn’t connect to as much as I would have expected.

Shiner is the story of modern Appalachia, and yes, there’s everything Ron Rash, Chris Offutt or David Joy talk about: a dying culture, a terrible problem with opioids and heroin, poverty after the mines closed, sickness after tap water was poisoned and the utter beauty of the woods. So, I have to consider that people like Ruby, Briar, Wren, Ivy and her family and the moonshiner Flynn are true-to-life characters.

And in that case, it makes me sad and angry towards several States and their politicians who accept that their constituents live like this. Has anyone read this? I’d love to discuss it with another reader.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – Thanks, Bénédicte!

October 29, 2022 23 comments

Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2010) French title: Sur les ossements des morts. Translated by Margot Carlier.

The other day, Arti left a lovely comment on my post about Time Regained, thanking me for my Proust billets because they prodded him into finishing In Search of Lost Time. I could deliver the same message to Bénédicte, from Passage à L’Est, for prodding me into doing her Olga Tokarczuk Lecture Commune (French for readalong).

I was worried about finding another Herta Müller in Tokarczuk and I’m happy to report that I was wrong and that I loved Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

The narrator is Janina, an old spinster that people see as eccentric and dismiss as a nutcase. She’s sick, suffers from several chronic diseases but still walks around in the woods that surround her house on an isolated Polish plateau near the Czech border. She’s quite resourceful, considering her age and her condition. Stronger than she seems, even.

She’s rebellious, an animal lover who is outraged when animals are poorly treated. She hates hunting and poaching with fierceness. She reports crimes against animals to the police, writes letters which are promptly dismissed as coming from a crazy old lady. At the police station, they indulge her rants out of politeness but in their eyes, Janina has two major flaws: she’s old and she’s female.

She only has two neighbors who live all year long on the plateau and she nicknamed them Oddball and Big Foot. While Oddball is neat, Big Foot is dirty, untidy and a poacher. So, when Oddball wakes her up at night because he found Big Foot dead in his house, she’s not happy to go out and tidy thing up before the police comes.

That’s the first death. Others will follow, leading to police investigations.

It’s an odd and fascinating novel. It strays from the plot along with Janina’s thought process and yet remains on track as far as the murder investigations are concerned. Our narrator enrolls Dizzy and Oddball in investigating these deaths.

Meanwhile, we learn about Janina, her quirks and her life. I loved spending time with Janina as she’s so funny. She’s unconventional, always thinking out of the box, exercising her critical mind, describing her village, her country and the evolution of mores.

Janina doesn’t like her name and thus thinks nobody has the name they should have – hence the nicknames she gives to everyone around her. She’s obsessed with horoscopes and peppers her narration with bits like this one:

“He generally doesn’t say much. He must have Mercury in a reticent sign, I reckon it’s in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde—that produces reserve.”

It went all over my head but I suppose that if someone tells you this with enough conviction, you’ll either believe them or think they’re crazy. Janina is convinced that all things in the world are arranged under a grand scheme that can be deciphered through astrology.

She goes to the village from time to time, especially to teach English to pupils at the elementary school. Her lessons are …err…unconventional. She kept in touch with a former student, Dizzy, who comes to see her once a week to chat and work on his translation of William Drake’s poems.

The teaching is one of her sources of income, the other one is watching the summer houses on the plateau during winter. She’s like a concierge. People know her. As long as you don’t hurt animals, she’ll welcome you into her house and share what she has with you. She draws people to her, making up a new family.

Janina is an unreliable narrator because she sees life through her own unusual lenses. She believes that animals are taking revenge and that the Deer killed Big Foot to punish him for hunting and poaching.

On top of the mysterious deaths, the everyday life of the village and the construction of an odd family around Janina, Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a philosophical novel. Janina muses over the meaning of life and the essence of the human condition. Her reflections about our need to classify things and actions two categories, “useful” or “useless” are spot on. Who decided who and what fits in each category and why useful is considered better as useless? Fascinating question.

Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is full of random questioning that challenge our way of thinking, all done through Janina’s offhanded comments and vision of the world. It’s deep without weighing on the reader. It’s not a lesson but you still make a pause on the page and think a little bit.

It also has a fairytale vibe due to the woods, the hunters, the deer and the mysterious deaths. It brings back Grimm and Perrault, something I’m not usually fond of. But here, Tokarczuk manages to mesh these dreamlike elements with reality. She does it masterfully.

I’ll end this billet with a word about translations.

I’ve read this novel in French and downloaded the kindle sample of the English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. It helped me find out what the nicknames were in English. Grand Pied became Big Foot, which I could have guessed but I have no clue how Matoga turned into Oddball.

I also noticed from the sample, that the English translation often has words in capital letters, something that isn’t included in the French translation. See:

A ce moment précis, la personne au téléphone se mit à débiter un tel flot de paroles que Matoga écarta le portable de son oreille en lui jetant un œil dégoûté. Puis nous avons appelé la police.Then the Person at the other end started gabbling at length, so Oddball held the phone away from his ear, casting it a look of distaste. Then we called the Police.

See how person and police have capital letters in the English translation and not in the French one? I wonder how it is in the original.

And have you seen the variety of covers?

I think that the Dutch one is very creepy. The French one conveys the dreamlike elements but totally neglects the fun of Janina’s mind. The English one is puzzling. The Polish one would be better with a deer on it as this animal is central in the book.

I love the Portuguese cover. It would have drawn be to the book if I’d seen it in a bookstore. It’s intriguing.

For other reviews, see Jacqui’s, Ali’s and Marina’s.

I had a wonderful time with Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and it will probably make my best-of-the-year list.

Which Olga Tokarczuk should I read next?

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie – #1929Club

October 28, 2022 4 comments

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie (1929) French title: Les Sept cadrans.

I enjoy reading books for Karen and Simon’s club.

This time, we’re reading books published in 1929. I would have liked to reread Les enfants terribles by Cocteau or Colline by Jean Giono but I needed something light and fun and settled for The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie. Entertainment is guaranteed with her books and this one is no exception.

It’s the second book featuring Superintendent Battle, Lady Eileen Brent (“Bundle”) and Bill Eversleigh. It’s a classic whodunnit by Agatha Christie.

The starting point of the story is that Lord and Lady Coote have rented Chimneys from Lord Catherham, Bundle’s father. They have guests for the weekend, a group of young people who either went to school together or work together in the Foreign Office.

One of them, Gerry Wade, is found dead one morning. Suicide, accident or murder?

Superintendent Battle is inclined to think it was murder. The young men present at Chimneys this dreadful weekend want to investigate Gerry’s murder and Bundle intends to help them as it happened in her house. I won’t reveal too much about the plot, just enough to say that it’s well-constructed and plays with the reader’s imagination. It involves espionage, secret societies and industrial patterns.

Superintendent Battle only appears in four books by Agatha Christie and I wish she had used him more often. He’s got this avuncular and quiet authority that makes him endearing. He was also in Cards on a Table that I read for the #1936Club.

Contrary to books featuring Poirot, women have great roles in The Seven Dials Mystery.

I love Bundle. She’s a fun heroin, a bundle of joy, energy, courage and sense. The young men seem rather lazy and slow, a contrast to Bundle’s energetic actions. (“She did not fancy that Gerry Wade had been overburdened in an intellectual capacity”)

Bundle lost her mother when she was little and lives with her father, Lord Caterham, who is described as a rather frivolous and stupid man. She has free reign to run the house and her relationship with her father as well as their conversations reminded me of Emma Woodhouse’s ones with her own father. See for yourself, here’s one of Lord Caterham’s tirades, speaking of Lord Coote:

‘One of those large men,’ said Lord Caterham, shuddering slightly, ‘with a red square face and iron – grey hair. Powerful, you know. What they call a forceful personality. The kind of man you’d get if a steam – roller were turned into a human being.’
‘Rather tiring?’ suggested Bundle sympathetically.
‘Frightfully tiring, full of all the most depressing virtues like sobriety and punctuality. I don’t know which are the worst, powerful personalities or earnest politicians. I do so prefer the cheerful inefficient.’

And yet, Lady Coote, older and more traditional, with her quiet stubbornness gets her successful and imposing husband to do what she wants. She seems meek but she has a great force of character or her husband would walk over her. Loraine Wade, the victim’s sister, is no fragile flower either, never hesitating even in dangerous times.

These female characters seem to be in line with the 1920s women who want more than what their mothers had. Bundle drives the family car, doesn’t have a chaperone and has male friends. Bill is one of them and he admires her intelligence a great deal. We’ve entered into modern times.

Besides the crime plot, Agatha Christie has a lot of humour, like here, in another dialogue between Bundle and her father.

‘Well,’ said Bundle. ‘Great Aunt Louisa died in your bed. I wonder you don’t see her spook hovering over you.’
‘I do sometimes,’ said Lord Caterham, shuddering. ‘Especially after lobster.’

Can you hear him say that with a posh accent and a perfectly serious face? I can’t help laughing, just imagining the scene. I didn’t remember that Agatha Christie was so funny. Perhaps it was toned down in the old translations I read.

As you might have guessed, I had a great time reading The Seven Dials Mystery. It was perfect escapism.

Many thanks to Simon and Karen who host the #1929Club and prodded me into revisiting Agatha Christie in English, for almost all the ones I’ve read were in a French translation.

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