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Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell – Gordon and his pride and prejudices

April 17, 2021 19 comments

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936) French title: Et Vive l’aspidistra!

The aspidistra became a sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, flower of England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell is my second read for the #1936Club co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

Gordon Comstock lives in a boarding house in London. He’s almost thirty, works at a bookshop for two pounds a week and has declared war to the money-god. He barely survives on his wages.

He earns enough to support himself but has no money left after he pays for his essentials. He’s very proud and doesn’t accept any help from his friends. For example, his good friend Ravelston is rich and he’d rather not go to the pub than let Ravelston pay for a pint.

Gordon has a girlfriend, Rosemary, who also lives in a boarding house. Neither of them can invite someone of the other sex in their room. They are condemned to meet outside and stay outside since Gordon doesn’t have any money to invite Rosemary even to a tea-shop and of course, he won’t let her pay for them. As Orwell sarcastically points out:

It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money. The ‘never the time and the place’ motif is not made enough of in novels.

So, Gordon is sexually frustrated and Orwell has a go at the Nancy Mitfords of the world. It’s not easy to be in a relationship when you can’t invite your partner to your home or go anywhere.

Gordon used to have a ‘good job’ in an ad agency where he showed some talent as a copywriter. But he despises capitalism and doesn’t want anything to do with money making. He fancies himself as a poet, has published some pieces in several newspaper. He’s rather live off literature but when did poetry ever paid off?

The pretence was still kept up that Gordon was a struggling poet – the conventional poet-in-garret.

It also means a hungry poet. With principles. Strong enough to hate his ‘good job’, quit and take a lesser-paid but nobler job in a bookstore.

Gordon doesn’t want to succeed. At all. It would mean that the money-god won and he’s pig-headed to the point of stupidity. He’s prideful and won’t accept help. He’s prejudiced against the middle-class, represented by their aspidistras. He loathes the middle-class and doesn’t want to partake in their way-of-living.

The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak – Strube’s ‘little man’ – the little docile cit who slips home by the six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears, half an hour’s listening-in to the B.B.C. Symphony Concert, and then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife ‘feels in the mood’! What a fate!

Aspidistra

He’s almost thirty and still thinks as a rebelling teenager, when you think you won’t have the same life as your parents and then reality catches up on you. Gordon has some growing up to do and I found him exasperating and immature.

It is true that Gordon has a point about capitalism and money as the goal for life.

What he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success.

So, he sticks to his principles even if they make him sink further into poverty. Orwell has a very graphic way to make the reader understand what it means to be poor, to count every penny. Soon, Gordon understands that he cut his income himself in order not to yield to the money-god only to be tied up to it by poverty.

Money again, always money! Lack of money means discomfort, means squalid worries, means shortage of tobacco, means ever-present consciousness of failure – above all, it means loneliness. How can you be anything but lonely on two quid a week?

Orwell shows how worrying about money takes all one’s mental space and Gordon realises that fighting the money-god is not as freeing as he thought it would be.

The devil of it is that the glow of renunciation never lasts. Life on two quid a week ceases to be a heroic gesture and becomes a dingy habit. Failure is as great a swindle as success.

Orwell portrays a Gordon who wants to be noble but his going against the flow is counterproductive. He loves Rosemary (a saint, IMO, to be able to put up with him) but their relationship is in a dead-end because they can’t afford to get married. Well, at least, according to middle-class standards. Orwell hints that if they were working-class, they’d get married and see afterwards how they’d get by.

Gordon enjoys Ravelston’s company but he can never get past their difference of income and social class. Ravelston doesn’t mind but Gordon lets it become a barrier between them.

Gordon thinks he’s over the middle-class way of thinking but it’s hard to escape the mental frame in which you were raised into. He struggles to set free but the ties are strong and his refusal to go Dutch on meals with Rosemary or to let Ravelston pay his beer show that he’s not free from the middle-class minset.

It’s exactly the same for Ravelston who comes from the upper-classes and claims that he’s a socialist while he secretly dislikes poor people.

The truth was that in every moment of his life he was apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income. You could make him uncomfortable as easily by reminding him that he was rich as you could make Gordon by reminding him that he was poor.

He tries to play down his wealth but his social origin speaks up as soon as he’s caught off guard.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying mocks the English class system and its stultifying codes. It shows that it’s hard to change of social class, to shed one’s education and become someone else.

From the beginning to the end, Gordon got on my nerves. I was amazed at Rosemary’s patience with him and at Ravelston’s steady friendship. They don’t give up on him and he should be grateful for them. Disliking the main character doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the book. Orwell gets his point through and shows the mechanism that changed the 1968 revolutionary students in what we call in France the “caviar left-wing”.

Something else. Each time I read a British book, I come across singularities that remind how not-British I am. In Barbara Pym, you’ve got all the subtle differences between churches and who goes to which. In several books, I noticed derogatory remarks against Welsh people and digs at Scotchmen.

‘Gordon’, ‘Colin’, ‘Malcolm’, ‘Donald’ – these are the gifts of Scotland to the world, along with golf, whisky, porridge, and the works of Barrie and Stevenson.

And somewhere else.

Mr McKechnie wasn’t a bad old stick. He was a Scotchman, of course, but Scottish is as Scottish does. At any rate he was reasonably free from avarice – his most distinctive trait seemed to be laziness.

I find this pretty harsh but what do I know, right?

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is well-worth reading, Orwell’s prose is witty, cutting sometimes but always excellent.

Highly recommended.

PS: Here’s Karen’s review.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie – The #1936Club

April 14, 2021 26 comments

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie. (1936) French title: Cartes sur table.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie is my first read for the #1936 Club hosted by co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. I bought it during my stolen escapade to an English bookstore in Paris last February.

Mr Shaitana collects various objects but puts his life on the line when he decides to invite to diner four sleuths and four murderers who got away with it. After the meal is over, the guests are split into two rooms to play bridge.

The four sleuths are Superintendent Battle from Scotland Yard, Colonel Race from the Secret Service, Hercule Poirot, a private detective and Mrs Oliver, a crime fiction writer.

The four murderers are Dr Roberts, a middle-aged and jolly GP, Mrs Lorrimer, a very clever widow and skilled bridge player, Major Despard who seems to have been to every corner of the British Empire and Miss Meredith, a rather poor young lady who works as a paid companion.

Mr Shaitana stays in the room where the four criminals play bridge and is murdered, stabbed with one of his own daggers.

Scotland Yard opens an investigation and Superintendent Battle handles it in his official capacity. However, he decides to involve the other three. Each has their own method to dig out the truth and of course, Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells is always ahead.

Agatha Christie draws a very clever plot, full of suspense and with original premises. Colonel Race is less involved in the investigation than the three others but Christie shows three different and yet complementary ways to search for the culprit.

Battle has his official position and the means that go with it: he’s all about clues and interviews.

Poirot takes the psychological route and asks left-field questions to understand the murderer’s mindset and deduct who did it.

Mrs Oliver uses her literary clout to befriend Miss Meredith’s friend and collect gossip about the past. I suspect that Mrs Oliver is a sly caricature of mystery fiction writers like Agatha Christie herself.

When I was in my teens, I read a lot of Christie books, all in French. It’s the second time I read a book with Poirot in the original. It’s a delight to read Poirot’s English and its French ring. Poirot never makes too many blatant grammar mistakes but here and there, his turn of phrase sounds French. Like here:

Je crois bien – a Grand Slam Vulnerable doubled. It causes the emotions, that! Me, I admit it, I have not the nerve to go for the slams. I content myself with the game.

It causes the emotions implies an improper use of the, something French native speakers struggle with when they learn how to speak English. When do we have to use nouns without articles? That’s a tricky question for us.

The I admit it is the literal translation of Je l’admets, which is often used in French but sounds weird in English. It’s the same about I content myself with the game, which stands for Je me contente de jouer and means I only care about the game. I’m not a native speaker myself but I don’t think one would use sentences that include it causes emotions, I admit it or I content myself with.

Here’s another example:

It is not my business – no. But, all the same, it offends my amour propre. I consider it an impertinence, you comprehend, for a murder to be committed under my very nose – by someone who mocks himself at my ability to solve it!

In this passage, you comprehend is the literal translation of vous comprenez which, in this context, means, you see. And someone who mocks himself comes from the French se moquer, which is reflexive. Poirot means either that someone makes fun of his ability to find out the murderer or wants to test it.

It amuses me to spot the things in the text. However, the language I certainly didn’t understand in this book is the one regarding bridge. I don’t know how to play bridge and I was totally lost in the explanations of the game, like in the first quote. I get the general meaning but not the subtelties that helped Poirot solve the crime.

Cards on the Table is an entertaining book, published in 1936 but it is timeless. Nothing from the outside world and its political affairs interferes in the characters’ lives. It is a good Beach and Publish Transport book. Un roman de gare, quoi!

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym – meet Prudence, the Harriet spinster.

April 4, 2021 19 comments

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym (1953) French tile: Jane et Prudence.

After reading Ravage, I needed to read something nice, clean and proper and turned to Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym.

Jane and Prudence met in Oxford when Jane tutored Prudence. Despite their age difference, they remained good friends. After Oxford, Jane married Nicholas, a clergyman. They have a daughter, Flora who’s going to Oxford in the fall. Prudence does editing and secretarial work for Arthur Grampian, a professor. When the book opens, Jane is about to move to a new parish in the countryside, near London.

Prudence is twenty-nine, lives in London in a flat and works to support herself. She’s unmarried but has had several admirers in the past. She cleans up well, is charming but never managed to find a husband. She has a crush on her boss, Arthur Grampian. Jane hopes that Prudence forgets about married Arthur Grampian and finds a suitable candidate in her new parish.

Jane and Nicholas move into their new vicarage and through Jane’s eyes, we see how they settle down in their new life. Jane used to research seventeenth-century poets but abandoned any attempt at a career when she married Nicholas. And now, she always feels like a failure even if Nicholas seems to love her the way she is.

Jane is not cut out for being a clergyman’s wife, of what she thinks a clergyman’s wife should be. She can’t cook, she never can say the right thing at the right time, she can’t be bothered with parish work and she’s not very religious.

They rose to their feet and bowed their heads. Jane tried very hard to realise the Presence of God in the vicarage drawing-room, but failed, as usual, hearing through the silence only Mrs Glaze running water in the back kitchen to wash up the supper things.

With Flora leaving the nest, Jane reflects on her marriage and the passing of time:

Mild, kindly looks and spectacles, thought Jane; this was what it all came to in the end. The passion of those early days, the fragments of Donne and Marvell and Jane’s obscurer seventeenth-century poets, the objects of her abortive research, all these faded into mild, kindly looks and spectacles. There came a day when one didn’t quote poetry to one’s husband any more. When had that day been? Could she have noted it and mourned it if she had been more observant?

I felt sorry for Jane and her lack of career. This is not the life she would have chosen for herself. No wonder she feels like a failure. However, she never loses her sense of humour:

‘I’ve been such a failure as a clergyman’s wife,’ Jane lamented, ‘but at least, I don’t drink; that’s the only suitable thing about me.’

She’s invested in Prudence’s future and sets her up with Fabian, widower in her parish. They start seeing each other and the two ladies hope for marriage…

Life at the vicarage has this sepia set of characters with churchgoers and goody-two shoes. It describes life in the early 1950s, the food restrictions have only come to an end. There are several mentions of how much men need meat and eggs, hinting that it’s still rare. (Jane tends to think women need them too and I agree with her on principle) Nicholas mentions a can of something and Jane replies that it’s American food and that it’s not available anymore, reminding us of the American food program for Europe after WWII.

Barbara Pym has a wonderful sense of humour, as always. She describes all the little quibbles in the village, the gossip around the vicarage, the not-totally-sincere charity work and all the kind of village quirks you expect.

As in other books by Pym, she doesn’t praise married life too much. Prudence is 29 and, as one of her spinster friends points out, it’s time to make a choice: look for a husband (at any cost, I might say) or settle down as a contented and active spinster. Prudence is still undecided. Does she really want to be a wife and give up her independence? Pym describes Prudence’s life in London and it sounds a lot more fun than Jane’s life as a country clergyman’s wife. No wonder Prudence is in no hurry to tie the knot.

Jane and Prudence is loosely based on Emma by Jane Austen. There’s a direct allusion to it at the beginning of the novel:

Prudence disliked being called ‘Miss Bates’; if she resembled any character in fiction, it was certainly not poor silly Miss Bates.

I guess that Jane is Emma and Prudence is Harriet. Nicholas has Mr Knightley’s kindness and humour. Fabian is Frank Churchill and you’ll need to read the book to look for the other characters!

This was my fourth Barbara Pym after Excellent Women, about Mildred, the spitfire spinster, Some Tame Gazelle, featuring Belinda, the clever spinster, and The Sweet Dove Died with Leonora, the manipulative spinster.

Other reviews by Jacqui here and by Simon here.

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel – stinking dystopia

March 21, 2021 26 comments

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel (1943) Original French title: Ravage.

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel is on the list of books teachers in collège (middle-school) can use in French class. In my opinion, it needs to come with a truckload of explanations not to lead the students astray.

Ashes, Ashes is a dystopia written in 1943, during the Occupation. The book is composed of four parts: The New Times, The Fall of Cities, The Trail of Ashes and The Patriarch. For this reader it went from fun, to déjà-vu, to boring and to distasteful.

We’re in Paris, in 2052. François Deschamps comes to town after a stay with his parents in Provence. (Barjavel was from Nyons, in Provence). He’s waiting for the results of an exam to work in agricultural engineering and he’s looking forward to meeting Blanche, his childhood sweetheart. When he was away, Blanche has been recruited to be a new singer on a famous TV channel and is about to start a new life. She knows that François won’t approve but she wants to have fun and enjoy her life.

In 2052, people travel on high-speed trains, live in skyscrapers, have AC, can’t walk more than a few meters and eat industrially grown food. It’s always fun to read old dystopian books and see how people imagined the future.

Barjavel imagines apartments in skyscrapers with big screens on the walls with TV shows. Some things are spot on – People can “facetime”— and some things show how difficult it is to think out of the box and imagine technologies or services that don’t exist yet.

For example, when François is on the train, Barjavel imagines that, to read at night, you can adapt a screen on your book, put on earbuds and call for a service where the book is read to you. He doesn’t imagine e-books with backlit screen but an armload of readers over the phone, reading you the book of your choice in your language.

People don’t do anything by themselves. Dead relatives are conserved in apartments as if they were in a wax museum and people live under the scrutiny of their elders. Art is controlled by state run schools and only official artists are allowed to sell their work. Everybody lives in towns, the countryside has been left behind, except in some areas in Provence where a few families people kept farming like in the old times. And François and Blanche come from these families.

We’re in a society shaped by technology and François is very critical and would rather have people going back to the land. His attitude towards Blanche rubbed me the wrong way but I kept thinking that it was other times. I didn’t think Barjavel was very ironic about the ancestors’ watching their offspring. I kept thinking that it was creepy and that your parents could be real bastards you’d be happy not to see ever again. This started to feel a bit too Travail, Famille, Patrie for my tastes.

Then the power is out and everything falls apart. The heat is intense (climate change!), people start loitering, fighting and killing to survive. It’s the Fall of Cities. Without electricity, everything collapses very quickly. Lifts don’t work, planes drop from the sky, dead ancestors thaw, communications are cut and nobody knows how to do anything by hand. All we see is violence, devastation, cholera and fires destroying this modern civilization. François gets Blanch under his arm, gathers a group of people and prepares to leave Paris. This part is probably a reminder of the 1940 exodus.

François and his group leave Paris as fast as they can and start walking south to find shelter in Provence. This third part, The Trail of Ashes, is their journey to safety. We follow the group of people during their travels to Provence, through a hostile environment. The country is so dry that it’s burning everywhere and water gets scarce. I thought this part was a little too long, we got his drift from the start. Brother will turn on brother, nature quicky becomes hostile. I still didn’t like François Deschamps and his patriarchal attitude.

And then came the last part and epilogue, a mere fifteen pages of stinking garbage. The group of people have arrived in Provence and started to cultivate the fields, to provide for themselves. So far, so good. Follows the description of the new civilization built by François, the Patriarch.

They are all peasants and live off the land. A system is organized to maintain peace between communities. Villages mustn’t have more than five hundred families living in the same place and a man can’t own more land than the surface he’s able to patrol in one long summer day.

Polygamy is the rule and ugly girls are grateful for it because they couldn’t get a husband otherwise. Blanche accepted it gracefully because men had to plant as many seeds as possible to repopulate the world. François remarries at an ancient age to a very young girl to have more offspring. He’s valued as a patriarch:

Autant que sa grande sagesse, et la longue et claire vie que Dieu lui a accordée, ce qui a valu au patriarche le respect des populations, c’est que parmi les deux cent vingt-huit enfants nées de ses femmes respectives, il n’a eu qu’une fille. Encore lui est-elle venue alors qu’il avait dépassé cent ans. A cette miraculeuse abondance de mâles, les paysans simples ont reconnu la faveur octroyée par le Ciel à une race de maîtres et s’en sont réjouis.

More than his great wisdom and this long and clear life that God granted him, the patriarch won the respect of the population because among his deux hundred and twenty eight children born to his respective wives, he had only one girl. And she was born when he was more than a hundred years old. The simple peasants saw in this miraculous abundance of males, the blessing of Heavens to a race of males and rejoiced in it.

Paul, married to François’s only daughter named Blanche will replace him when he dies. Of course, Paul is blond. So, a blond guy married to a woman named White will be the next patriarch and rule France. I think that this detail is significant in 1943. (I checked, only 10% of French people are blond.)

Technology is forbidden because François is against it. Books are banned and burnt as soon as someone finds one. Books are evil. That was the last sentence that broke this reader’s back. 

Writing this billet, I reread the passages and tried to find a second meaning, a veiled criticism of this new world. The only trace of it is when a young man comes to François, proudly showing off a steam machine, built to help with field work and alleviate the workers’ burden. Barjavel seems to concede that progress is inevitable and that humanity won’t stand for too long to live at the Stone Age. François promptly destroys the machine as evil too. Apart from this tiny detail, nothing.

I didn’t expect Ashes, Ashes to reek of Petain’s ideology. One reads books by Céline with their eyes open. In my mind, Barjavel was the author of La Nuit des Temps (1968), a wonderful love story I loved as a teenager and of the Chemins de Katmandou. (1969) I never expected him to be this reactionary. Heck, I don’t expect dystopian fiction to be reactionary. I expect dystopian books to show what will happen to humanity when humanism is thrown away. And more than that, I don’t expect the rebel of the dystopian book to be the founder of a new civilization that is way worse than the one they wanted gone.

I’d like to think I got it all wrong. According to Wikipedia, Ashes, Ashes was first published during the war in the collaborationist and antisemitic weekly newspaper, Je suis partout. Knowing that, it’s hard to think that Barjavel wasn’t seriously on board with the thesis developed in the fourth part of his novel. Or he really perjured himself writing Ashes, Ashes. If I missed something, I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments. 

See why this book needs to be thoroughly discussed in class when young minds read it? 

Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi – And fear changes sides

March 16, 2021 14 comments

Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi (1991) French title: Dirty Week-End. Translated by Jean Esch.

My Kube subscription brought me Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi, a society and feminist novella, one that was almost censored, according to the libraire who chose it for me. What a ride it was! It opens with this stunning paragraph:

This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realized she’d had enough.

She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.

She could have done the decent thing. She could have done what decent people do. She could have filled her gently rounded belly with barbiturates, or flung herself, with gay abandon, from the top of a tower block. They would have thought it sad, but not unseemly. Alas, poor Bella, they would have said, as they shovelled what remained of her into the waiting earth. She must have had enough, they would have said. At least, she had the decency to do the decent thing.

As you imagine, Bella did not decide to do the decent thing. Quite the contrary.

Bella lives in Brighton, in a mezzanine flat. She’s single, lives a quiet life, reads a lot and keeps to herself. One day, she realizes that a man observes her from a nearby apartment. He starts calling her on the phone, he accosts her in her favourite park. Her life becomes filled with constant fear. She shuts herself away in her flat, closing the curtains. She stops answering the phone.

And one day, she has enough of living in fear. She doesn’t want to be a victim anymore. She doesn’t want to be afraid to go out, to open her windows or answer the phone. It’s time for fear to change side.

Bella goes over the edge and starts a killing spree against men who persecute her, force themselves on her or threaten her.

It’s a rough ride and of course Bella’s solution to her problem is not the right one. But Helen Zahavi shows one thing: how fear is ingrained in women. Don’t go out alone at night. Don’t walk in dark alleys. Don’t wear short dresses or plunging necklines. Don’t go in an unknown man’s car. Don’t accept a drink you haven’t prepared yourself. Take care of your own safety.

And Bella tells us it’s not normal to live in fear and in constant worry for one’s security. It’s not normal to be obliged to be prudent because you’re a woman. Bella seems to say: Enough. Guys, live my life. It’s your turn to be afraid.

I’ve read that Dirty Week-End caused an uproar when it was published and that a request for its interdiction was brought to the Parliament. Some people in 1991 England thought it was immoral, pornographic and subversive. Thirty years after its publication, I don’t see why this book should be censored. (or any book, but that’s another debate) Let me get this straight: a book with a man serial killer who preys upon women doesn’t raise an eyebrow and the reverse is immoral?

Dirty Week-End is not a revenge novel, as it has been labelled. It’s more a novel that makes some men uncomfortable because this time, the tables are turned.

Readable in one sitting. Highly recommended.

PS: Covers are interesting to compare, for that kind of book. They influence your view of the book. I think that the French and the American one with the gun are the most faithful to the text.

The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage – it deserves to be rediscovered

March 14, 2021 8 comments

The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage (1973) Not available in French

The worst scars don’t show at all, but you can learn to live with them. Believe me.

When I read The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage, I went to Wikipedia to read his biography and discovered he’s been married to writer Elizabeth Savage. (1918-1989) I’d never heard of her –but would have I heard about her husband without Gallmeister? – and I got curious.

I am thankful for e-books and Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust because I could easily put my hands on The Last Night at the Ritz (1973) and The Girls from the Five Great Valleys (1976), her most famous novels. A woman of her time, Elizabeth Savage only started to write novels when she was 42, after her three children had grown up a bit, I suppose. I haven’t read The Girls from the Five Great Valleys yet.

The Last Night at the Ritz is set in Boston, at the end of the 1960s. The narrator of the book remains unnamed, so, we’ll call her the Narrator. She’s a middle-aged woman and she’s meeting with her fried Gay, her husband Len and her friend Wes for a luncheon at the Ritz. Gay and the Narrator have been friends since they were teenagers. They went to high school and college together. Gay and Len met in college as well.

We know from the start that there’s something final about this Last Night at the Ritz and Elizabeth takes us there in the last pages, building the suspense –you can’t help wondering what happened—and at the same time promenades us through the Narrator’s past and the present days issues.

The Narrator relates that luncheon, which turns into booking a room at the Ritz and attending a party organized by Len’s office. (Len works for a publisher, he’s an agent. Gay and the Narrator studied literature in school too but never made a career out of it.)

The Narrator is unreliable, and if the reader doesn’t guess it, she says it candidly: Nobody — except for Gay—has ever trusted me. And for good reason.

The Narrator comes back to her lifelong friendship with Gay. They are very different in their approach to life, Gay trying to tick all the right boxes and the Narrator doing whatever pleases her.

My poor friend: she is so good and so grave. And so vulnerable. She really thought she knew just how it’s done. First you work hard and thoughtfully and win all the prizes. Then you marry your true love and live passionately forever after. And your children call you blessed because simplicity and discipline and truth gird you in triple brass. It isn’t all that simple. You are going to say that I am jealous, and perhaps I am—it is an idea that I have entertained. But I think I love my friend, and I think I honor those fine and wholesome notions that she has. I just haven’t found them practical. In my book, it also takes a little laughter.

Gay sounds like a lady who behaves by the book, through discipline and a bit of blindness. The two girls had an unusual childhood. The Narrator lost her parents at a young age and was raised by an eccentric aunt. Gay was raised by her grand-parents, among a swarm of uncles. Her grand-mother was a literature teacher at university (like E. Savage’s mother) and the house was full of books. Her grand-father was a drunkard.

Having met the grandmother, I understood Gay’s passion for order; after I met the grandfather, I understood her passion for temperance

The Narrator comes back to Gay’s marriage to Len, her relationship with their children, especially the oldest, Charley. We learn about her first marriage to Barry, her pain after his death, her long affair with Wes and her marriage to Sam. While her time with Barry was tumultuous, her affair with Wes was limited since he wouldn’t leave his wife, she now is into a calm, mature and loving marriage with Sam.

Her flashbacks alternate with the day’s events. Len and Gay are worried about their son Charley, who’s in Canada, fleeing the Vietnam war. Len is obviously tense and the Narrator suspects he had bad news about something. Gay doesn’t approve of Wes, wondering if her friend is cheating on her husband Sam with him. The Narrator says that Sam should be here, that she should call him but she doesn’t and we only learn in the last pages why she doesn’t.

Gay and the Narrator are like oil and water and I wondered how their friendship lasted so long. The Narrator muses:

The fact of the matter is that what everyone is looking for is total acceptance and unqualified approval. Some one person in the world who feels that everything you do is right. Not someone who tries to be a good sport while you make the old mistakes.

Usually, we have this unconditional love from our parents, maybe from our siblings. Gay and the Narrator didn’t have this kind of love, and may have found it in their friendship. Perhaps this deep need is the cement of the relationship between these two very different women.

Besides her life story, the Narrator comments on the changes in Boston. She obviously loves the city very much. The town destroys older building to build brand new skyscrapers. Old shops disappear, downtown neighborhoods aren’t as safe as before at night. She describes hippies on the street and a new way-of-life emerging from the 1960s. We’re in the Mad Men era, here.

Despite her flaws, and maybe because she owns them with gusto, I couldn’t help liking the Narrator. She lives with her mistakes and losses and doesn’t wallow, not because it’s the right thing to do (You know, the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) but because it doesn’t make sense to wallow. As she points out, if you sulk your life away, who has won? I liked her attitude, even if she sounds careless sometimes.

She also accepts other people’s flaws and doesn’t judge them for being human. I think she’s a bit jealous of Gay, of her landing Len and having children but deep down she knows she wasn’t cut-out of that kind of life and had she been in Gay’s place, things wouldn’t have turned the same way. She has the kind of lucidity I am drawn to.

And last but not least, who wouldn’t like someone who thinks that It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read.

Highly recommended, especially to readers who enjoyed The Eastern Parade by Richard Yates.

PS: This is not available in French. Hence the Translation Tragedy Tag and Category.

Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh – #SouthernCrossCrime2021

March 3, 2021 16 comments

Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh (1936) French title: Initiation à la mort (First translation) and Mort en extase (second translation)

I picked Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh for Kim’s Southern Cross Crime Month. I wanted to read a book by Marsh something I hadn’t done since my years of crime binge-reading in my teens. To be honest, I didn’t know that Marsh was from New Zealand.

Death in Ecstasy is a whodunnit but the setting is not a classic one. No country manor or seaside resort here, but the House of the Sacred Flame, a sect located in Knocklatchers Row, London. The priest of the cult is Mr Garnett, self-proclaimed Father. The church has Initiates and two acolytes, like adult altar boys. The ceremony is in full swing…

‘Now the door is open, now burns the flame of ecstasy. Come with me into the Oneness of the Spirit. You are floating away from your bodies. You are entering into a new life. There is no evil. Let go your hold on the earth. Ecstasy – it is yours. Come, drink of the flaming cup!

… when poor Cara Quayne, who was in religious extasy and about to become the Chosen Vessel, drinks from the cup and drops dead. The wine was spiced up with cyanide.

Nigel Bathgate, who lives nearby, was in the church when it happened. Out of curiosity. After a doctor from the attendance confirms Cara’s death, Nigel rings Roderick Alleyn, Chief Detective-Inspector at Scotland Yard.

The investigation starts right away, Alleyn accompanied by Detective-Inspector Fox, Bailey, in charge of forensic and the Yard’s surgeon. We have a classic investigation of a murder that can only have been committed by a limited number of people, the Initiates.

Marsh draws up a curious group of people. Mr Ogden, an American business man who is in London on business, M. de Ravigne, a Frenchman who is in love with Cara, Miss Wade, an observant spinster, Mrs Candour, an old gossipy bat, jealous of Cara, Mr Pringle and his fiancée Jeney Jenkins and the two gay acolytes, Mr Wheatley and Mr Smith.

No need to go further into the plot, it’s classic crime. The fun of the book is between the lines and beyond the plot.

I thought that Ngaio Marsh was a lot more playful than Agatha Christie. I enjoyed the relationship between Alleyn and Nigel, who bows to Alleyn’s superiority. It’s clear in their names: in the book, Nigel Bathgate is Nigel and Roderick Alleyn is Alleyn or Chief. Alleyn teases Nigel about his journalistic style…

‘What style are you adopting? You have been reading George Moore again, I notice.’ ‘What makes you suppose that?’ asked Nigel, turning pink. ‘His style has touched your conversation and left it self-conscious.’ …

but Nigel teases back, like here:

‘Chief Detective-Inspector,’ he said, ‘I am your Watson, and your worm. You may both sit and trample on me. I shall continue to offer you the fruits of my inexperience.’

The relationship between Alleyn and Fox is also quite amusing, Alleyn giving him nicknames, like Foxkin, lightly making fun of his attempts at learning French through a radio program.

As often in books of that time, foreigners have to sound foreign and in line with what their nationality entails. This is why Nigel exclaims that “de Ravigne’s a Frenchman. He is no doubt over-emotionalized” or that Ogden looks like an American commercial: “He was a type that is featured heavily in transatlantic publicity, tall, rather fat and inclined to be flabby, but almost incredibly clean, as though he used all the deodorants, mouth washes, soaps and lotions recommended by his prototype who beams pep from the colour pages of American periodicals.”

In British books, Frenchmen are always emotional and oversexed and Americans always vulgar.

I had fun observing how Marsh tiptoed around homosexuality and what periphrases she used to make the reader understand that Wheatley and Smith are a couple. Mr Garnett reads central-heated books hidden in brown paper covers that make Wheatly blush and Marsh drops hints and roundabout phrases to let us know that Mr Garnett had sex with women among the Initiates. It seems like sex talk is a big no-no in the publishing industry of the time.

I also grinned at Marsh’s ironic mentions of the crime fiction industry, its tropes and star writers and characters. See here, when I was at 53% of the book, according to my kindle:

‘Look here,’ said Nigel suddenly, ‘let’s pretend it’s a detective novel. Where would we be by this time? About half-way through, I should think. Well, who’s your pick.’ ‘I am invariably gulled by detective novels. No herring so red but I raise my voice and give chase.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Nigel. ‘Fact. You see in real detection herrings are so often out of season.’ ‘Well, never mind, who’s your pick?’ ‘It depends on the author. If it’s Agatha Christie, Miss Wade’s occulted guilt drips from every page. Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter would plump for Pringle, I fancy. Inspector French would go for Ogden. Of course Ogden, on the face of it, is the first suspect.’

Now I have to look for a book with Inspector French, preferably published in 1936 for the #1936Club.

Last but not least, I keep learning funny-sounding English words when I read books from the 1920s and 1930s. This time I’ll quote Lumme!, rum, mellifluous, hanky-panky, jakealoo or fossicked. I’m grateful for ebooks, their instant dictionary and the fun I have looking into all these words I don’t know. It’d make me sound like a great-grand-ma if I used them, right?

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison – drugs, alcohol, ecotage and road trip

February 7, 2021 13 comments

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison (1973) French title: Un bon jour pour mourir. Translated by Sara Oudin

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison opens in Key West, Florida. Two young men meet in a bar. One, the narrator, is in Florida on a fishing trip and the other ended up there after a tour of duty in Vietnam. During a drunken night, they conceive the crazy plan of driving west, buying a case of dynamite and destroy a dam on the Grand Canyon that they heard was under construction

On their way, they go through Tim’s hometown to fetch Sylvia, Tim’s ex-girlfriend. Sylvia goes along because she still hopes that Tim will change his mind and come back to the white-picket-fence dream she still entertains.

Follows a memorable road trip of three young people who don’t want to conform anymore. The narrator, an aspiring poet, was thrown out of his wife and child’s lives because she felt he was impossible to live with. He was probably not ready to bend to the routine life that children need. The booze he consumes didn’t help his case but he has an incredible capacity to wax poetry over trout fishing in mountain streams.

Tim is damaged by the Vietnam War and bonds with the narrator over fishing. They are both passionate fishermen. Tim has nightmares from the war and struggles to readjust to civilian life.

Sylvia finds herself in the middle of them, still in love with Tim but the narrator is soon growing on her. She tries to keep Tim out of trouble and ends up disappointed.

There is no way this is going to end well. 

When I started to read A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison, I had a sense of déjà vu. A road trip with three damaged young people driving west, with music, drugs and booze, passionate with fishing in the wilderness and on a mission to dynamite a dam on the Grand Canyon. It sounded like a merger between On the Road by Kerouac (1957), Trout Fishing in America by Brautigan (1967), The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975) and Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987). I’m almost sorry Abbey didn’t publish his book in 1977, it would have made a one-per-decade road trip book series.

Although the article about ecotage on Wikipedia states that the concept was popularized by Abbey’s book, Harrison wrote A Good Day to Die before The Monkey Wrench Gang, and according to the foreword by François Busnel in my copy, Harrison’s book influenced Abbey. 

I suppose that Jim Harrison put a bit of himself in A Good Day to Die. I know from McGuane’s Outside Chance that he and Harrison went fishing in Key West. And the narrator comes from Michigan and his knowledge of fishing in Montana and Wyoming comes from Harrison’s experience too. 

I know A Good Day to Die is an excellent book but since I read the ecotage/drunken poets/fishing gurus road trips out of order, the feeling of déjà vu tainted my reading. To be honest, I’m not a huge Kerouac fan. I loved Abbey for his playfulness. His characters are quirky, borderline crazy and he has a wicked sense of humor. As much as I love Jim Harrison, I didn’t enjoy A Good Day to Die as much as The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Still, the message is there. We’re in 1973 and Harrison worries about huge construction projects, wild deforestation and sprawling towns that disfigure the landscape, destroy ecosystems and ruin the environment. Maybe we should have paid more attention to these counterculture books at the time.

Fuck America. Bronsky’s Confession by Edgar Hilsenrath – Bandini on steroids

January 30, 2021 11 comments

Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath (1980) French title: Fuck America. Translated by Jörg Stickan.

Last time I visited a bookstore, I thought I’d browse through the German literature shelf and see if I could find a book that wasn’t about WWII and wasn’t too depressing. Sometimes it seems that only those make it into French translation. Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath caught my eye for its bold title and its colorful cover.

The book opens on a prologue: letters exchanged between Nathan Bronsky and the American consul in Germany. After Kristallnacht, Nathan Bronsky, a Jew who lives in Halle an der Saale, wants to emigrate to the USA with his family. The consul answers that it will take several years.

Then we’re in New York in 1953. Jakob Bronsky, Nathan’s son has been in America for a year. He lives in a boarding house and spends his nights at the emigrant cafeteria on Broadway and 86th. It’s open all night long, coffee is cheap and Bronsky stays there to write his great novel, The Wanker.

We follow Bronsky in his daily life, where he alternates odd jobs to save enough money to live off this cash for a while and write other chapters. He describes all his tricks to take the bus without paying and to make his money last longer. He steals a bit of coffee and some eggs in the communal kitchen at the boarding house. He eats in restaurants and leaves without paying, escaping through the bathroom windows.

Bronsky lives in a poor neighborhood, full of emigrants, prostitutes and bums. He associates with street smart emigrants or bums and follow them in small scheme to swindle money while on their jobs. Small tricks, not too risky, not too illegal. Just poor guys who turn the tables on those who try to exploit them.

Bronsky is not a good emigrant. He writes in German and has no intention of ever writing in English. He doesn’t feel at ease in the American society. He doesn’t want to become an American because he doesn’t buy the American dream. He doesn’t want to work hard and become rich. He doesn’t subscribe to consumer society, to the need to show off, to earn more to buy more.

Then the book turns into a confession and we learn what happened to the Bronsky family between 1939 and 1952 and how he arrived in America. I understand that Jakob Bronsky’s life is based on Hilsenrath’s. And that part is not so funny.

Bronsky is a Jewish Bandini merged with a sober Bukowski and a Portnoy born in 1926 Germany. He’s offensive. The dialogues are crude, absurd and hilarious. He’s obsessed with sex, obsessed with writing. He has a wicked sense of humor and he points out the foibles and prejudices of the American way of life. The passages when he does odd jobs are funny and vivid. Jakob is not a bad guy. He does what he can to survive and write his novel, trying to expurge from his sytem the burden of his war memories. He’s a survivor of the Holocaust and we tend to forget it because of the dark humor instilled in the book.

So, OK, I didn’t manage to read a German book that doesn’t talk about WWII but I sure want to read more by Hilsenrath.

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

January 20, 2021 36 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.

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.

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 21 comments

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936) French title: La guerre des salamandres. Translated by Claudia Ancelot.

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

Published in 1936, 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. 🙂

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

December 13, 2020 7 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.

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.

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