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A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – not enough

July 2, 2022 20 comments

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1997) French title: Promenons-nous dans les bois. Translated by Karine Chaunac.

After a few of very busy weeks and weekends, I’m back! I kept on reading, so expect a burst of billets. Let’s start with 20 Books of Summer #1, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

In 1996, Bill Bryson moves back from England to America and settles in New Hampshire with his family. He’s near the Appalachian Trail (AT) and decides that he wants to hike this mythic trail. He starts his journey in Georgia with his old friend Stephen Katz. Both are rather inexperienced hikers, no athletes –Katz is overweight and a recovering alcoholic— and not fully prepared for their travels.

The book is a mix of chapters between their walking, their progression on the trail and how things go.

They’ll hike 870 miles before abandoning their project and it represents around 40% of the entire trail. Chapters alternate between Bryson and Katz’s adventures and facts about the AT, the mountains and the places they go to or through.

It’s readable, informative but quite superficial. In my opinion, Bryson was a bit condescending at times and lacked of self-deprecating humor. He wasn’t always kind to Katz and I found that a bit jarring.

They engage into a project that consists in hiking a long and tough trail for which they are unfit. Unless Bryson downplays his fitness for the sake of the narration. They aren’t trained for that but go for it anyway. I’m torn between awe (How gutsy!) and consternation (How imprudent!)

Each time they are out of the trail, they rush to fast food restaurants to gorge on soda, hamburgers, pies and other junk food. That’s so far away from a usual hiker’s way of life that I didn’t know what to think about this. Typically American? I can’t imagine reading about someone walking the Camino de Santiago and stopping at McDonald’s at any opportunity. Maybe I read too many nature writing books.

A Walk in the Woods was published in 1997 and felt quite dated sometimes. Obviously, there’s the technology part: they do it without GPS or cell phones and the maps they have aren’t always as useful as they should be.

But it is also a book of its time. It was written before climate change really became a hot topic and the awareness about nature wasn’t as important as it is now. Bryson gives information about the trail, the places they go through and describes the landscape but not with the reverence and gratefulness I expected from my 2022 perspective. Again, maybe I read too much nature writing.

But in the last 25 years, at least in France, hiking has developed tremendously. According to a survey ordered by the FFRandonnée (French Federation of Hiking), in 2021, 56% of French people had done at least one hike in the last twelve months. It has become a widespread hobby for people who want to find some quiet time in nature. It’s also linked to a trend to put our foot on the brake of our frantic consumer life. I didn’t find this in Bryson’s book, mostly because it was written in 1997 and we’ve changed since then.

On another aspect, I would have liked more introspection on Bryson’s side. How did this challenge affect him beyond the blisters, the wet clothes and the uncomfortable shelters? What did he get from it besides the satisfaction to deliver a new book to his publisher? One can’t go out of 870 miles of hiking in the woods without soul searching moments.

In other words, I expected more, probably because Pete Fromm and Rick Bass spoilt me with Indian Creek and The Book of Yaak. Now, if you know a book about the Appalachian trail that is closer to these books than to A Walk in the Woods, please leave a comment.

PS : the French title of A Walk in the Woods is Promenons-nous dans les bois.

It means “let’s walk in the woods” and comes from a nursery rhyme that says “Let’s walk in the woods as long as wolves aren’t there because if they were there, they would eat us”. Children stuff is scary, sometimes.

Three beach-and-public-transport crime fiction books: let’s go to Sweden, Japan and Australia.

June 12, 2022 12 comments

The summer holiday are coming soon, with lazy reading hours, waiting time in airports or train stations, train or plane travels and all kinds of noisy reading environments. That’s what my Beach and Public Transports category is for: help you locate page turners that help pass the time and don’t need a lot of concentration. So, let’s make a three-stops journey, starting in Stockholm with…

The Last Lullaby by Carin Gerardhsen. (2010) French title: La comptine des coupables. Translated from the Swedish by Charlotte Drake and Patrick Vandar.

It’s a classic crime fiction book that opens with a murder. Catherine Larsson and her two children are murdered in their apartment. She was from the Philippines, got married to Christer Larsson and they were divorced. He was deeply depressed and had no contact with his children.

Catherine lived in a nice apartment in a posh neighborhood in Stockholm. How could this cleaning lady afford such a lavish home?

The commissaire Conny Sjöberg and his team are on the case. The troubling fact is that their colleague Einar Ericksson has not shown up for work and hasn’t call in sick. Sjöberg looks for him and soon discover that Catherine Larsson and Einar Ericksson were close, that he used to come and meet her and play with the children. His sweater was in her flat.

Now the police are in a difficult position: their colleague is a suspect but Sjöberg thinks he’s a victim too. It complicates the investigation.

I enjoyed The Last Lullaby as the story progressed nicely, all clues clicking into place one after the other. I thought that the police team’s personal lives were a bit heavy. What are the odds to have on the same team someone with a traumatic past, someone who was raped and filmed, someone recovering of a heart attack and multiples divorces and affairs. It seemed a bit too much for me.

That minor detail aside, it’s a nice Beach and Public Transport book. Now, let’s travel to Japan for a very unusual story.

The House Where I Once Died by Keigo Higashino (1994) French title: La maison où je suis mort autrefois. Translated from the Japanese by Yukatan Makino. Not available in English.

The unnamed Narrator of the book and Sayaka met in high school and were a couple for a few years. Sayaka broke up with him when she met her future husband. He wasn’t too heartbroken, they never meant to spend their life together anyway. Seven years later, they reconnect at a high school reunion.

Sayaka contacts the Narrator a few weeks later and asks him to accompany her on a strange trip. When her father died, he left her with a key to a house. She knows that her father used to go there once a month but never talked about it. Since her husband is on a business trip, she doesn’t want to go alone. The Narrator accepts and they drive to a strange house in the woods by Matsubara Lake.

Sayaka doesn’t have any family left and has no memories of her early childhood. She wants her memory back and hopes that this house will trigger something in her.

The Narrator and Sayaka enter the house and start playing detective to find out whose house it is, why it is empty, where its inhabitants are and how they are linked to Sayaka’s father.

The House Where I Once Died is a fascinating tale and as a reader, I was captivated from the start. It’s like a children’s mystery tale, a strange house, clues in the rooms, a memory loss and weird details everywhere.

Step by step, along with the Narrator and Sayaka, we discover the truth about the house and its family. The ending was unexpected and the whole experience was a great reading time.

That’s another excellent Beach and Public Transport book at least for readers who can read in French, since it hasn’t been translated into English.

Now let’s move to Tasmania with…

The Survivors by Jane Harper (2020) French title: Les survivants.

This is not my first Jane Harper, I’ve already read The Dry and Force of Nature. This time, Jane Harper takes us to the fictional Tasmanian small town on Evelyn Bay. It’s on the ocean and along the coasts are caves that can be explored when the tide is low and that get flooded when the tide is high.

Kieran and his girlfriend Mia live in Sydney with their three-month old baby but they both grew up in Evelyn Bay. They are visiting Kieran’s parents Brian and Verity in their hometown. Brian has dementia and the young couple is here to help Verity pack their house to move Verity into an apartment and Brian goes to a medical facility.

This family is still haunted by the drama that occurred twelve years ago. Kieran was in the caves when a bad storm hit the town. Finn, his older brother who had a diving business with his friend Toby, went out to sea to rescue him. The storm turned their boat and they both drowned. Kieran has always felt responsible for the death of his older brother.

The storm devastated the town. The material damage was repaired. The psychological one, not really. That same day of the historical storm, Gabby Birch disappeared and never came back. She was fourteen and she probably drowned too. Her body was never found.

That summer, Kieran and his friends Ash and Sean were a tight unit who partied a lot. They were just out of high school and Kieran had secret hook-ups with Olivia in the caves. Gabby was Olivia’s younger sister and Mia’s best friend.

So, the group of friends who meet again in Evelyn Bay has this traumatic past in common. Olivia and Ash are now in a relationship. Olivia works at the local pub, with a student who is there for the summer. Bronte is an art student at university in Canberra. She waitresses at the pub too and shares a house on the beach with Olivia.

One morning shortly after Kieran and Mia’s arrival, Bronte is found dead on the beach. Who could have wanted to kill her? Old wounds reopen and everyone thinks about the storm and Gabby Birch’s unexplained death. The digital rumour mill runs freely on the town’s forum.

Are the two deaths related? How will Kieran deal with being in this town again in the middle of another dramatic event? What happens in those caves?

The Survivors isn’t an outstanding crime fiction book but it does the job. It’s entertaining and exactly what you need to read on a beach. Well, except for the fear you may get about rising tides and being stuck in caves…

The Survivors is my first of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge. Do you look for easy and entertaining reads for the summer or do you take advantage of the slower pace (no school and related activities, holidays…) to read more challenging books?

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm – A stay in the Idaho woods

June 5, 2022 15 comments

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm (1993) French title: Indian Creek. Translated by Denis Lagae-Devoldère.

Pete Fromm was born in 1958 in Wisconsin and Indian Creek Chronicles are the memoir of the winter 1978-1979 that he spent on his own, in a tent in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho. The book opens on his first moments alone in his new lodgings:

Once the game warden left, the little tent we’d set up seemed even smaller. I stood in front of it, shivering at a gust I thought I felt running across my neck. Could this really be my home now? My home for the next seven months? For the entire winter? Alone? I glanced up at the river canyon’s steep, dark walls, already cutting off the mid-afternoon sun. Nothing lay beyond those walls of stone and tree but more of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I was alone, in its very heart.

The shadow of the canyon’s wall fell over me and I hurried away from it, into the sunlight remaining in the meadow. My steps rustled through the knee high grass and the breeze soughed through the towering firs and cedars hemming the small opening. The river’s whispering rush ran through it all, creating an insistent quiet that folded around me like a shroud.

I stopped at the phone pole the warden had said would link me to the outside. Yesterday we’d discovered the phone didn’t work. I picked it up anyway, listening to its blank silence, the voice of the rest of the world. With the receiver still against my ear I turned and looked back at the shadowed tent, far enough away now for perspective.

The canvas walls closed off an area fourteen by sixteen feet. The wardens had told me that, bragging it up, making it sound spacious. On the phone, sitting at a college swimming pool, when I’d been accepting this job, it had sounded palatial.

Fromm explains that he went to the University of Missoula on impulse, after stumbling upon a brochure. He had been camping and hiking with his family but he was not familiar with the West. He read a lot about frontiermen, fur trapper and other mountain men. He knew about Hugh Glass through books like Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred and had loved The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie Jr. He was definitely attracted to life in the woods and solitary exploits.

He was on the swimming team at college and when the program got canceled, he was angry and jumped on the opportunity to take on a job with the Fish and Game department in Idaho. His mission consisted of monitoring salmon eggs during a whole winter for a science experiment.

The mama bear in me had a surge of empathy for his poor mother, who had to live several months with the knowledge that her son was on his own, in the Rocky Mountains, in a tent, in winter with snow and temperatures dropping to -30°C, with roads closed and without a phone. The only comforting thought is that bears hibernate and wouldn’t be around.

Pete Fromm has a lot of humor and we follow his preparations for his trip. The warden gave him almost no guidance. His roommate Jeff Rader helped him pack. He had to decide upon which camping gear to take with him and buy his own food.

Imagine that when he went there, he didn’t know how to drive with a stick (The Fish & Game truck had one), he didn’t know how to use a rifle and he had never spent so much time in the wilderness on his own. He didn’t know the codes of his new environment as we understand it when the wardens leave after settling him in the woods:

The wardens climbed into their truck, ready to leave. ‘You’ll need about seven cords of firewood. Concentrate on that. You’ll have to get it all before the snow grounds your truck.

’ Though I didn’t want to ask, it seemed important. ‘What’s a cord?’

I thought “Wow. How can you be so bold as to go and live in the woods with so little knowledge of life in the wilderness?” I’m in awe for this mix of confidence and carefree attitude. I wish I were more like him.

He’s here to tell the story, so we know from the start that all is well that ends well, but still.

Pete Fromm writes about his experience and we see a young college guy become a mountain man in front of our eyes. The job of monitoring the salmon eggs lasts about fifteen minutes per day but must done daily. The goal is to ensure that the water around the egg farm is always running, so breaking the ice everyday in winter is a necessity.

With so little to do for his actual job, his quotidian is made of activities to ensure his daily life. He talks candidly about his months there, the mistakes he makes and various episodes that could have really taken a bad turn. Fortunately, he’s intelligent and fit, he understands what he did wrong and doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He must have had real frights sometimes, though.

He walks a lot in the woods, observes the wilderness around him. The wardens check on him once in a while, to bring him his mail. The visits don’t last long. He doesn’t hide that it was hard to adjust to the loneliness and he was glad when his roommate managed to come and visit him on a snowmobile.

I won’t tell any episodes of his stay at Indian Creek, you’ll have to discover them yourself. I’d rather write about the atmosphere of the book.

I’d already read his novel A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do and I found in Indian Creek the same steady voice as in his novel. His prose is lovely and progresses at the rhythmic and peaceful pace of a hiker. One word after the other, carefully chosen. One foot after the other, carefully put on the trail, so as not to stumble.

The quiet observation of nature pervades in his reflective thoughts and he shares with us moments in the wilderness that he was the only one to witness. He takes us far away from our daily lives and through his eyes, watch with awe the miracle of nature.

Very highly recommended.

Crazy me, I’ll do 20 Books of Summer again #20booksofsummer22

May 22, 2022 38 comments

I’m crazy busy and yet, I plan on doing 20 Books of Summer again.

Cathy from 746Books is the mastermind behind this event. I could pick only 10 or 15 books but I wanted to have 20 books to choose from and then we’ll see how it goes.

I already have the books from my ongoing readalongs with my Book Club, my sister-in-law, my Proust Centenary event and my non-fiction challenge. That makes seven books.

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (USA)
  • Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro (Argentina)
  • The Survivors by Jane Harper (Australia)
  • Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (South Africa)
  • Fall Out by Paul Thomas (New Zealand)
  • Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (France)
  • Proust by Samuel Beckett (Ireland)

In August, I’ll be travelling to the USA, going through Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve already read The Line That Held Us by David Joy and Country Dark by Chris Offutt. I love to read books about the place I’m visiting, so I’ll be reading:

  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (Louisiana)
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (North Carolina)
  • Serena by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Southern Region)
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Appalachians)
  • The Cut by George Pelecanos (Washington DC)
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Southern Region)

That’s eight more books and some of them rather long. I also wanted to do Liz’s Larry McMurtry 2022 readalong as I’ve had Lonesome Dove on the shelf for a while. That’s two chunky books in a beautiful Gallmeister edition.

And then I’ve selected four novellas, to help me reach the 20 books with one-sitting reads:

  • Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (France)
  • A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi (Algeria)
  • The Miracles of Life by Stefan Zweig (Austria)
  • Adios Madrid by Pablo Ignacio Taibo II (Cuba)

I’m not sure I’ll make it but who doesn’t love a little challenge? I’m happy with my choices, a mix of countries, of crime, literary and non-fiction and of short and long books.

Have you read any of the books I picked? If yes, what shall I expect?

If you’re taking part to 20 Books of Summer too, leave the link to your post in the comment section, I love discovering what you’ll be up to.

The Man With the Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – a 1958 satire of the U.N.

April 24, 2022 14 comments

The Man With The Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – 1958/1984. Original French title: L’homme à la colombe.

It’s not easy to write a billet about The Man With The Dove by Romain Gary. I tried to pull a Murakami this morning, went for a run and hoped it’d clear my head and help me write a tentative billet about this farce. It didn’t work so you’ll have make do with this billet.

First, a bit of context. Romain Gary first published The Man With The Dove in 1958 and under a penname, Fosco Sinibaldi. At the time, Gary was a diplomat and was a member of the French delegation in the UN in New York. He wasn’t allowed to publish such a book under his real name and you’ll soon understand why. A new version was published in 1984 after his death and under his real name. It’s the version that I have.

If you’ve never read Romain Gary, you need to know a bit about his literary universe and his references. He fought with de Gaulle during WWII, he was an early resistant. He’s a humanist and a promoter of French moto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. He believes in it and it is etched in his soul. He saw firsthand what communism meant as a diplomat in Bulgaria. He’s fond of the comedia del arte and loves the Marx Brothers. He uses humor as a weapon to take the pin out of mentally explosive situations. He has a wicked sense of humor and he’s the epitome of the saying “Many a true word is said in jest”.

Now that you’re aware of this, the book.

The Man With The Dove is set inside the building of the UN in New York. The tone of the book is set from the first pages. The UN is organized in such a way that it seems to take care of problems but does everything not to solve them and drag them as long as they can. That’s how the top management acts. And as always, Romain Gary thinks out of the box and points out:

A l’autre bout des longs couloirs qui unissaient le bâtiment de l’Assemblée à l’immense tour rectangulaire du Secrétariat, trois mille cinq cents fonctionnaires de toutes les races, couleurs et croyances, continuaient à résoudre tranquillement, jour et nuit, pour leur propre compte, tous les problèmes d’amitié entre les peuples, de coexistence pacifique et de coopération internationale dont leurs chefs débattaient en vain depuis plus de dix ans, dans les salles de conférences et les réunions de l’Assemblée.At the other end of the long hallways that connected the building of the Assembly to the huge square tower of the Secretary, three thousand and five hundred civil servants of all races, colors and beliefs quietly kept solving, night and day, on their own account, all the problems of friendship between nations, of peaceful coexistence and international cooperation that their bosses had been debating upon in vain since more than ten years in conference rooms and Assembly meetings.

The introduction of the book is clear: the UN works on its own, goes through the motions of taking care of international issues but does whatever it takes not to solve them. It is a theatre where the American-Russian relationship is staged and choregraphed, where everything is done to avoid any kind of escalation. It’s a comedy and the hustle and bustle is more about communication than a real attempt at efficiency.

The novella opens on a scene among the top management of the UN. The Secretary-General Traquenard (Trap) and two trustworthy members of his team, Bagtir, known for his calm and Praiseworthy, known for his prudence have a crisis meeting.

Traquenard and his men have a new problem: the building seems to have a new unofficial tenant. A man with a dove occupies a room in the building, one that is not on the map and he was seen wandering in the hallways, presenting his dove to secretaries and other staff members. They want to track him down. This mysterious character with the dove is Johnnie Coeur, supported by other outsiders of the building, a Hopi chief, three illegal gamblers who are there for the diplomatic immunity granted by the international zone of the building and a shoeshine-man. Johnnie is in search of a grand scam.

Le sourcil froncé, il rêvait de commettre, lui aussi, quelque immense escroquerie morale, quelque abus de confiance prodigieux, pour se venger de ses illusions perdues et pour montrer qu’il était complètement guéri de ses errements idéalistes.With his brow furrowed, he dreamt of committing some sort of huge moral scam, a phenomenal breach of trust that would avenge his lost illusions and would show to the world that he was totally healed of any idealistic wanderings.

And light bulb! Johnnie will simulate a hunger strike. With a little help from his friends, he’ll pull it off so well that things won’t turn out the way he thought.

The Man With The Dove was written in 1958, rather at the beginning of Gary’s literary career. It announces the themes of The Ski Bum and the ferocious tone of The Dance of Gengis Cohn. It reflects Gary’s disenchantment with the power of diplomats and international institutions.

Et oui, que veux-tu, c’est une chose qui arrive fréquemment aux Nations Unies. Les choses les plus concrètes deviennent ici des abstractions—le pain, la paix, la fraternité, les droits de la personne humaine—les choses les plus solides se volatilisent et deviennent des mots, de l’air, une tournure de style—on en parle, on en parle et à la fin, tout cela devient une abstraction, on peut passer la main à travers, il n’y a plus rien.What can I say? It’s something that happens frequently in the UN. The most concrete things become abstractions here –food, peace, fraternity, human rights—the most solid things vanish into thin air and become words, a breeze, a turn of phrase. People talk about them, again and again and in the end, all this becomes abstract, you can stick your hand through it, there’s nothing anymore.

Now you see why he couldn’t claim this book as his own when he was a diplomat. He spoke several languages, and was fluent in French, English and Russian. I can’t imagine what kind of conversations he overheard in the hallways and in meetings, with people unaware that he could understand them.

The Man With The Dove is a farce that rings true. It’s even prophetic. We saw the inefficiency of the UN peacekeeping forces during the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The UN is powerless against Putin and doesn’t help Ukraine now.

In 1958, thirteen years after the UN was founded, Gary’s analysis was that it was a cynical farce and he decided to take it at face value and actually wrote one.

Theatre: Eve of Retirement by Thomas Bernhard – Horrifying

March 9, 2022 14 comments

Theatre: Eve of Retirement by Thomas Berhnard (1979) French title: Avant la retraite. Translated by Claude Porcell (Original title: Vor dem Ruhestand. Eine Komödie von deutscher Seele)

I’m not a total novice with Thomas Bernhard’s work. I read and enjoyed Concrete, a novella I tagged as “a beautiful grumpy rant.” I’ve seen the play Elisabeth II, where Bernhard makes fun of the Austrians and their eagerness to welcome Queen Elisabeth II in Vienna. I’ve also seen André Marcon play the main role in The Theatre Maker, (Le Faiseur de théâtre, in German, Der Theatermacher.)

The three have in common the long monologues, the rants, the old cranky man irritated by everything and everyone and especially his fellow Austrian citizen. He despises them and his characters’ rants are so outrageous that they turn out funny. Berhnard has a scandalous and dry sense of humor.

I expected the same of the play Eve of Retirement, directed by Alain Françon, with André Marcon as Rudolf, Catherine Hiegel as Vera and Noémie Lvovsky as Clara. The three actors are known to be excellent, and I was keen on seeing Catherine Hiegel on stage.

The actors and the direction were incredible. You don’t have the impression that they play a role and the direction fit perfectly with the text. Nothing superfluous, it just enhanced the power of the text and boy, how uncomfortable we felt.

We’re in the 1970s, somewhere in Germany. Rudolf Höller is a ex-SS Officer lives with his two sisters, Vera and Clara. Vera is both his mother and his lover while Clara has been stranded in a wheelchair since the war. She’s bullied by her incestuous siblings. The play happens on a single day, the 7th of October, the most important day of the year for Rudolf as they celebrate Himmler’s birthday. He’s Rudolf’s hero and everything must be perfect. This year is even more special as Rudolf is retiring from his position as president of the tribunal of their Land.

The nausea starts right away in the first act. There are only Vera and Clara on stage and as Vera describes the preparations of the clandestine festivities of the day, the spectator’s mood sets to horror. Vera casually points out how she gave their deaf-and-dumb servant her day off and why it is mandatory for them to only have deaf-and-dumb servants. They can’t afford anyone to know what’s going on in their house.

The horror grows as the play unfolds: the special diner in Himmler’s memory reenacts the “good old days”. Vera carefully closes all the curtains so that no one can peak in and see the décor of their living room for the evening. They are in hiding, well aware that their continuous fidelity to Nazi ideas is not proper anymore.

Vera chatters away, thinking ahead of all the details needed for Rudolf to have a perfect evening. She lovingly irons Rudolf’s Nazi uniforms. She’s serious when she explains to Clara that she should be happy that this year she doesn’t have to wear a deportee’s uniform. The word vomiting that comes out of her mouth is terrifying and yet normal for her. The sideration grows as Rudolf comes out as a human monster. He has absolutely no remorse, remembers with Vera how he hid during ten years in their basement, until the authorities stopped looking for him, how he changed his name and became the respected president of the tribunal.

Clara is the only sane person in the household and she’s at her siblings’ mercy because she can’t live on her own. It is awful to enter into the intimacy of a man who sleeps with his sister and is nostalgic of the Nazi regime.

As always, Bernhard writes to rip off all illusions and to show facts in their naked ugliness. Indeed, this play is based on true facts. He hates hypocrisy and bending to social standards. He wants to dismiss false historical narrative and put people in front of their actual responsibilities.

Bernhard’s play shows what a true Nazi is and why this word shouldn’t be used lightly to qualify someone or another country’s political regime. Words have a meaning. Rudolf is both ruthless and childish, which painfully reminds us that inhuman behaviors are one side of humanity’s coin.

The Traveling Companion by Gyula Krúdy – Translation Tragedy.

March 6, 2022 16 comments

The Traveling Companion by Gyula Krúdy (1918) French title: Le Compagnon de voyage. Translated by François Gachot. (1990)

Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) was a Hungarian writer and journalist. The Traveling Companion was published in 1918 but the first French translation only dates back to 1990 and it’s still not translated into English. So, if George Szirtes doesn’t know what to do with his free time…

I’ve already read N.N. by Krúdy, also published by the Swiss publisher LaBaconnière, in the collection directed by Ibolya Virág. According to their website, LaBaconnière sounds like an independent publisher. Lucky me, Lizzy and Karen have extended #ReadIndies until mid-March…But back to the book.

The Traveling Companion has a classic opening: in a train compartment a traveler confides his story to a fellow passenger. The narrator relates the man’s story, how he settled in a small town after wandering around the country. He was forty-four, experiencing a mid-life crisis and this is how he describes himself:

Quant à ce genre de fou que son esprit chevaleresque incite à se faire secouer douze heures durant dans un wagon, si ce n’est une voiture ou un traineau, pour aller baiser la main d’une femme, écouter le chuchotement d’une voix, respirer la senteur d’une jupe ou d’un corsage, exprimer, en retenant son souffle, son adoration au fond d’un jardin sous une tonnelle ou dans un sentier où l’aimée s’est rendue, après avoir quitté subrepticement son lit, eh bien, ce genre de fou est aussi rare qu’un merle blanc. Il fut, néanmoins, un temps où j’ai été cette sorte de merle blanc. J’ai explosé d’amour, comme une charge de dynamite placée dans une carrière d’où une fumée jaunâtre s’échappe le long de la pente de la montagne, avant de se disperser sans laisser de trace.As for this kind of crazy man whose chivalrous mindset encourages him to be rocked during twelve hours in a train compartment, a carriage or a sleigh in order to kiss the hand of a woman, listen to a whispering voice, breathe the scent of a skirt or a blouse or go to a garden and breathlessly express his adoration under a gazebo or on a path where the loved one met him after secretly leaving her bed, well, this kind of crazy man is as rare as a white blackbird. However, once upon a time, I was that kind of white blackbird. I blew out of love, like a stick of dynamite set up in a quarry from which a yellowish smoke goes up the side of the mountain and disappears without leaving a trace.   (My clumsy translation.)

This is a man whose profession is to fall in love with women all over the country, but preferably in small provincial towns of Upper Hungary. This quote (pardon my clumsy translation) sounds like a long sentence by Marcel Proust where the Narrator would mull over all his attempts at getting close to one woman or the other. Except that Proust’s Narrator usually remains at the dream stage and Krúdy’s character acts upon his desires.

The man arrives in town by train and explains that he doesn’t like to stay in hotels but prefers bed and breakfasts. This is how he enters into Mrs Hartvig’s house. Her husband is often away on business, she’s at home with the children and could rent him a room. He seduces her the first day, charmed by the turn of her legs and the unexpected elegance of her shoes. Krúdy, like his character can be straight to the point. This is how he portrays Mrs Hartvig:

Eh bien, Mme Hartvig était comme une nonne qui serait née avec des jambes de putain.Well, Mrs Hartvig was like a nun who was born with a whore’s legs.   (More of my clumsy translations)

He doesn’t believe his good luck and how this lady could fall into his lap so easily. The affair doesn’t last but he stays with the Hartvigs and settles in the small town. Krúdy has a knack for the description of small-town life. We meet the local bourgeois and learn about their life, their customs and their ways. His style has a lyrical tone, he mixes the feeling of his character, who is always on the verge of falling in love with descriptions of the countryside. He’s a butterfly who flies from one woman to the other, heart fluttering and lust simmering. But he can still point out the ridicules of the provincial community.

This goes on until he really falls for Eszéna, a young girl in flower. Her mother is unmarried and she wishes that her daughter becomes a nun. Eszéna wants to know love before going to the convent and she’s ready to let herself fall for this stranger. He’s all too willing, of course.

I know I shouldn’t read books written in 1918 with my twenty-first and post-feminism glasses. But still, I was ill-at-ease with a forty-four years old man planning to meet an adolescent for a tryst. The man is a scoundrel, when you analyze things with hindsight but everything he does is genuine. He loves women, falls in and out of love, can’t help it and would rather deal with the consequences than refrain from anything.

He’s close Krúdy himself, as I discovered him in the autobiographical N.N. and I found in The Traveling Companion the same kind of old-world poetry. I suspect he’s not easy to translate into French, especially since French and Hungarian have nothing in common. (You can’t find the toilets in Budapest without a pictogram to lead you to the right direction.) Krúdy gives the impression of a man deeply moved by beauty and able to find it everywhere.

The Traveling Companion leaves you with a feeling of fleetingness, of a man passing through like a southern wind, of someone on the move and who loves to love.

Translation Tragedy.

Other books by Krúdy on this blog: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda – Budapest in 1913 and The adventures of Sindbad.

Marcel Proust & Paris Exhibition – People and characters

February 28, 2022 18 comments

I imagine that a lot of readers of In Search of Lost Time wonder who were the real people behind the main characters of Proust’s masterpiece. The characters are so striking that they stay with you years after you’ve read La Recherche and it’s natural to want to dig out who was who between the Narrator’s life and Marcel’s. It doesn’t help that the Narrator is named Marcel, it blurs the lines between fiction and autobiography.

The Marcel Proust and Paris exhibition that I mentioned in my previous billet showed real life person vs characters.

Odette de Crécy

Odette de Crécy is the courtesan who captures the imagination and the heart of Charles Swann. We meet her in the first volume, Swann’s Way. She’s also the mother of Gilberte, the Narrator’s first love.

Odette de Crécy is modelled after Laure Hayman. She was a courtesan, first the mistress of Proust’s great-uncle Weill, then of his father Adrien. The rumor says the Marcel wanted to take over the family tradition and propositioned her but she rejected him. She had a salon, 4 rue La Pérouse in Paris, where famous writers went. Some dukes too but not their duchesses. She wasn’t too happy to recognize herself in Odette de Crécy, even if Proust always denied that it was her.

Charles Swann

Charles Swann is the key character of Swann’s Way. He was friends with the Narrator’s parents, went to salons in the high society and his love for Odette led him to the bourgeois salon of Madame Verdurin. He was very cultured and refined, his love for Odette was a surprise in the higher circles.

Swann’s real-life counterpart is Charles Haas (1832-1902) He was a star of several salons, including Madame Straus’s. Like Swann, he was Jewish, well-introduced in the world and known for his intelligence, his excellent manners and his broad culture. He was the lover of several famous ladies, like the actress Sarah Bernhardt. (Herself a model for La Berma in La Recherche)

Robert de Saint-Loup

Robert de Saint-Loup is the Narrator’s dear friend. They confide to each other, spend a lot of time together. They have a really close relationship. The Narrator knows about Robert’s liaison with the actress Rachel and Robert knows that the Narrator hides Albertine in his home.

Proust had several friends from his high school days but two dear friends stand out in his life. The first one is Raynaldo Hahn. They were close friends during twenty-eight years, it ended with Proust’s death. Hahn was a musician and a composer. Their relationship started with a liaison that turned into a long-lasting friendship. I’d like to think that there is something of him in Robert de Saint-Loup. The specialists think differently.

Robert de Saint-Loup was modeled after two other friends of Proust: Prince Antoine Bibesco (1878-1951) and Bertrand de Salignac-Fénelon (1878-1914).

A scene in La Recherche, where Robert de Saint Loup goes for the Narrator’s coat when he’s cold in a restaurant has happened in real life between Marcel and Bertrand. Bertrand de Fénelon died in combat in 1914, his body was never found. Proust only learnt about his death in March 1915 and was very distressed by his loss. Specialists think that Fénelon misunderstood Proust’s love for friendship. He died the same year as Agostinelli and the grief has certainly fueled Albertine Gone.

The Baron de Charlus

The Baron de Charlus, brother of the duc de Guermantes is the most famous homosexual character in La Recherche. He’s an art afficionado, appreciated in salons for his artistic tastes. In La Recherche, we will see him in the throes of passion, we will follow him to gay brothels and discover the underground gay Paris. Proust knew it well too.

Everyone agrees to see Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) in the Baron de Charlus. Proust and Montesquiou met in Madame Lemaire’s salon. They admired each other greatly and Proust called him “professeur de beauté” (teacher of beauty)

Montesquiou was a dandy, a poet and a novelist. He was the cousin of the comtesse Greffulhe. Like Laure Hayman, he was furious to discover himself as a character in La Recherche. I’ve never heard of him as a writer, even if he wrote eighteen collections of poems, two novels and twenty-two art and literature critics. He was very influencial in Proust’s life, for introducing him in salons and for developing his artistic tastes. He was an early promoter of lots of poets and artists, with an incredible capacity to unearth new talents and adopt new forms of art.

I haven’t read Against Nature by Huysmans, but Montesquiou also inspired the character of des Esseintes.

Madame Verdurin

Madame Verdurin has a salon that grows from bourgeois to high society in the course of La Recherche. She has around her a little clique of writers, musicians, painters and other professions. Madame Verdurin is based upon Madeleine Lemaire.

Proust was a frequent visitor in Madame Lemaire’s salon. He met there several of his close friends or acquaintances, like Raynaldo Hahn or Robert de Montesquiou. Madame Lemaire had a famous salon where numerous artists met. She was a painter herself and illustrated Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours, in 1896. Like Madame Verdurin, she was very peremptory in her likes and dislikes and regular visitors of her salon were expected to bow to her judgements.

The duchesse de Guermantes

The duchesse de Guermantes was the Narrator’s ideal. He dreams about her and maneuvers to go to her salon. Being a regular guest at Oriane de Guermantes’s soirees is the highlight of his society life. The enchantment lasts a moment but the Narrator quickly discovers his idol’s flaws and the duchesse de Guermantes turns out to be not so likeable after all. The duchesse de Guermantes was created after the Comtesse Greffulhe, Madame de Chévigné and Madame Straus.

The Comtesse Greffulhe was a star in the Parisian high society at the turning of the 20th century. She was a painter and played the piano. She promoted various artists and loved Wagner, whom Proust adored too.

The Comtesse Geffulhe met Proust in 1893, at a soirée at the princesse de Wagram’s. She was a lot more intelligent than La Recherche lets out. She helped artists but also funded Marie Curie, as she was also interested in science.

Proust met Laure de Sade, future comtesse de Chévigné in 1891. She’s the descendant of the Marquis de Sade and she had a famous musical salon in Paris, 34 rue de Mirosmenil. Like the Narrator with the duchesse de Guermantes, Proust used to watch out for her when she was taking her morning stroll. Proust was fascinated by her and in love with her too. They remained friends during twenty-eight years, until she was hurt when she discovered herself in Madame de Guermantes and refused to read Proust’s novel.

Some say that the duchesse de Guermantes was also inspired by Madame Straus (1849-1926)

She also had a famous salon where artists gathered. Maupassant was a frequent visitor (She’s the main character of his novel Fort comme la mort). Robert de Montesquiou went to her salon too.

This is where Proust met Charles Haas, who will become Swann. In 1898, the Straus move into their new mansion, 108, rue de Miromesnil.

The duc de Guermantes

The duc de Guermantes is a formidable character in La Recherche but he’s not as interesting to the Narrator as his wife Oriane or his brother Charlus. Indeed, he has nothing in common with the Narrator. He cheats on his wife, he’s rude, talks with a booming voice, and is not interested in the arts.

He’s modeled after the comte Greffuhle. He was fabulously rich, cheated on his wife repeatedly and as soon as they were married. He loved hunting, understood nothing to art and disliked his wife’s artistic friendships. Sounds like the duc de Guermantes to me, indeed.

Albertine

And what about Albertine? It is admitted that Albertine was modeled after Alfred Agostinelli (1888-1914) He met Proust in 1907 when he drove him to Normandy. Agostinelli was a chauffeur who became Proust’s secretary. Agostinelli was passionate about aviation and he died in a crash in 1914. Proust was in love with him but his love was unrequited. Now you know where Albertine Gone comes from.

Artists in La Recherche.

Bergotte is THE writer in La Recherche. The Narrator loves his books. Bergotte is a frequent guest at Madame Verdurin’s, which confirms her ability to detect real talents. He seems to have been made of Anatole France and Paul Bourget. Ironically, unlike Maupassant or Zola, they are not a writers that people commonly read today. The irony. Anatole France had national funerals when he died but I think that his books are unreadable today.

Elstir is THE painter of La Recherche. He’s an impressionist based upon Monet, Manet, Renoir, Helleu, Whistler and Boudin. Proust must have met Monet, Manet and Renoir through Mallarmé, who was close to Berthe Morisot’s circle. He’s also a member of Madame Verdurin’s salon.

Vinteuil is THE composer of La Recherche with his sonata. There’s no actual link with a real composer.

La Berma. This actress features in beautiful pages about Phèdre and theatre. It is notorious that Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) and Réjane (1856-1920) inspired the character of La Berma.

After writing about all these characters of La Recherche and their real-life inspirations, it strikes me that it was really a small world. The salons were very close, geografically and they all knew each other. How was it to be surrounded with so many great artists? What has become of salons today and what replaced them?

A lot of Proust’s models didn’t like how he portrayed them in his novels. Was he too harsh or didn’t they like that he saw through them so well? I suppose there are some clues in Proust’s abundant correspondence. What they didn’t foresee is that their socialite friend or acquaintance would give them a form of immortality. Truly, all these people would have been long forgotten if Proust hadn’t used them in La Recherche. So, literature gave them their immortality. The only ones who survived through their own merits are the painters who shaped out Elstir and and in a lesser way the writers who inspired Bergotte.

I hope you had fun with me in peaking at what was behind the scenes of La Recherche and read about its who’s who.

PS : Another thought. We must be grateful that Robert Proust was not the same prick as Paul Claudel. Otherwise, you bet that some serious editing about homosexuality would have been done in the volumes published after Marcel’s death. And let’s not think about what could have happened to his correspondence.

Marcel Proust & Paris Exhibition – Proust in Paris

February 24, 2022 35 comments

The exhibition Marcel Proust, Un roman parisien at the Musée Carnavalet shows the importance of Paris in Proust’s life and in In Search of Lost Time. (“La Recherche”). It explores Proust’s Paris and the fictional Paris of La Recherche.

Proust has lived in Paris all his life, except for his stays in Illiers-Combray or Cabourg and his travels to Venice. The exhibition traces his family’s origins, the apartments they occupied in Paris and the places they used to spend time in. There are even maps of them!

Proust was born in 1871 in Auteuil, a village incorporated to Paris in 1860 and which is now the wealthy 16th arrondissement. His great-uncle had a country house there and Proust’s parents found shelter there during the Commune. Then they moved to the 8th arrondissement, where Proust would spend all his life. This area of Paris was modeled by the Baron Haussmann: large avenues, trees, not far from the Bois de Boulogne.

Rich bourgeois had mansions built there. In today’s touristic Paris, it’s the Boulevard Haussmann and its famous department stores, the Garnier Opera, the La Madeleine Church, the Saint-Augustin Church. We have to remember that for Proust as a child, everything around him was rather new.

The exhibition shows all the places that were Proust’s quotidian in Paris, so there is nothing about Cabourg or Illiers, translated as Balbec and Combray in his novel.

Proust spent his early childhood in Auteuil. Laure Hayman, a famous cocotte of the time was his great-uncle mistress. Marcel went to play at the Champs Elysées and he had various crushes on girls. His father, Adrien Proust, was a gifted doctor who had a brilliant career fighting for hygiene and against epidemics (cholera). He studied how epidemics spread and how to prevent their spreading. I listened to a series of podcasts about his work and actions during the first lockdown and it was fascinating. Proust’s mother, Jeanne Weill, came from a rich Alsatian-Jewish family of tradesmen. They had stores in Paris. She was the one who shared Marcel’s interest for literature and the arts, and, as the Narrator’s mother, was devastated by her mother’s death.

Proust had his mother’s eyers, no? We can imagine that Proust’s younger brother, Robert, who became a doctor, was closer to their father.

Marcel Proust went to the high school at the Lycée Condorcet. The students there were mostly non-religious bourgeois as the others were in private Catholic schools. Imagine that he had Stéphane Mallarmé as a teacher! They say he was very influential in Proust’s youth. Personally, I find Mallarmé’s poetry unreadable, I tried again after reading Berthe Morisot’s biography. Proust met close friends during his formative years at Condorcet and was an active participant to the high school newspapers and started his first literary work during those years.

La sortie du Lycée Condorcet by Jean Béraud (1903)

Growing up, he met people who introduced him to the high society. I took pictures of all the key people who inspired the characters of La Recherche but that will be in another post. These are the years he spent in salons, translating Ruskin, writing articles for Le Figaro and gathering memories and material for his future masterpiece.

Une chanson de Gibert dans le salon de Madame Madeleine Lemaire
by Pierre Georges Jeanniot (1891)

Following the death of his father (1903) and his mother (1905), he had to move to a smaller apartment, still in the same neighborhood.

The exhibition shows what Paris was like for Proust at the time, knowing that he never left the very wealthy 8th arrondissement. Maps showed the places he used to go to, like shops and restaurants. Some still exist, like the bookstore Fontaine and the restaurant Maxim’s. The gay brothel he financed and frequented, the Hôtel Marigny was on the map too. There was a map of the theatres and operas he loved and out of the nineteen places, I counted that only three don’t exist anymore. They may have moved but they are still there and that, in itself, is a tribute to the vibrant Parisian theatre scene. See an illustration with this very contemporary street corner in the 10th arrondissement.

The most surprising thing was Proust’s subscription to the Théâtrophone service. It was a service you could subscribe to in order to listen to live theatre plays and operas over the phone. It started in 1890 and was in operation until 1932, replaced by the radio. Proust loved theatre and operas and he signed up for this service in 1911. He listened to Wagner’s operas and Debussy’s music. We’re talking about the first streaming service for music and theatre here. Isn’t that mind-blowing? Reading a bit about it, I discovered that this service was invented and sold by Clément Ader, who made a fortune out of it and used the money to finance his researches on aviation. From music to planes!

When we think about Proust, we picture the whirlwind of soirées, shows and salons, but Proust wasn’t disconnected from politics: he was a fervent support to Dreyfus and Zola. He followed closely the battles during WWI and stayed in Paris during the whole war. He was interested in the world’s affairs.

Meanwhile, in 1906, he starts writing La Recherche, as if he needed his parents gone to spend some serious time on writing. The first official recognition came with the Goncourt prize for In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower in 1919. He finished the first draft of the whole La Recherche in 1922, and told his housekeeper Céleste that he was done and could die. He hadn’t left his bed much during the last years.

Proust’s bed, coat, cane and writing instruments

His brother Robert made publishing Marcel’s work his mission. Tough job as Proust never reviewed Time Regained and added corrections and additions with sticked bands of paper. The last volume of La Recherche, Time Regained, was published in 1927. Then, Robert published Marcel’s correspondence. Céleste Albaret’s book of souvenirs was published in 1973 and it’s a gold mine of information.

It was a fascinating exhibition with a lot of information and things on display. Paintings, posters, pictures, maps and scale models were numerous and all accompanied by useful explanations. I loved it and I’m not the only one. There were a lot of visitors, which explained the poor pictures. It wasn’t easy to take them.

I will post the pictures about people who mattered in Proust’s life and inspired characters in La Recherche and I hope I’ll have time to post about Paris in La Recherche, the second part of the exhibition.

A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux – where the author owns her working-class background

February 23, 2022 22 comments

A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux (1983) Original French title: La place.

I’ve read A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux in one sitting, drinking hot chocolate in a café in Lyon after spending my first afternoon of holiday in bookstores. Because where else would a bookworm rush to on her first glorious day of leisure? A splendid afternoon.

I had never read Annie Ernaux despite everyone’s raving about her.

She’s known for her autofiction and I’m ill-at-ease with this concept. Either it’s an autobiography or it’s fiction, the blend of the two seem to me a way to either skive off the obligation of relative accuracy in a biography or broadcast the origins of one’s fiction. Plus, it means navel-observing books, which is not a trend I love in literature. All this deterred me from picking a book by Annie Ernaux. And then, A Man’s Place was on display tables, I thought “Why not?” and here I am.

A Man’s Place was written in 1983. The author comes back to 1966, when her father died. She was 26 then and she’s 43 when she writes her book. Dates matter because she’s matured since this funeral took place and the passing of years brings a serenity to her writing. Distance helps with calm analysis too. Literature will be a way to explore the complexity of her feelings towards her father, her family background and her change of social class.

Her father was born in 1899, in the countryside in Normandy. He was hired as farmhand when he was twelve. After his military service, he left the country to work in a factory and met his wife.

Au retour, il n’a plus voulu retourner dans la culture. Il a toujours appelé ainsi le travail de la terre, l’autre sens de culture, le spirituel, lui était inutile.When he came back, he never wanted to go back to “culture”. That’s how he called farming. The other meaning of culture, the spiritual one, did no good to him.

He climbed to a middle-management position and then bought his café-grocer’s shop in a small town. All his life, he struggled with money, to pay for the shop, to keep it afloat, always scraping by and worrying about money.

When she tells her father’s story, Annie Ernaux pictures the peasant and blue-collar social classes from 1900 to the mid-sixties. Her parents were one couple in millions, living through WWI as teenagers, the 1929 economic crisis, WWII and the Post-war economic boom. She gives a voice to the masses, the ones that are rarely in literature.

Her narration reaches a universal nature in the description of her social background. She gives life to a way of thinking, a way of speaking and an attitude towards life. Even she keeps an analytical tone, it is very moving and I could hear my blue-collar grandmother’s mentality in her words.

Annie Ernaux climbed up the social ladder and landed in the academic middle-class world through school. Classic. She became a teacher of French literature and met cultured people in school. She left the world of manual labor for the world of intellectual work.

She describes the rift between her parents and her. It happens as soon as she keeps going to school and it widens with time. She doesn’t despise them but they can’t understand each other anymore. They don’t live in the same world, that’s all.

Coming from her blue-collar household, Ernaux has also a hard time reconciling her family story with her reading. For example, she doesn’t hide how squalid her father’s childhood had been and she muses:

Quand je lis Proust ou Mauriac, je ne crois pas qu’ils évoquent le temps où mon père était enfant. Son cadre à lui, c’était le Moyen Age.When I read Proust or Mauriac, I don’t think that they write about the time when my father was a child. His background, it was the Middle Ages.

She has to make her own metamorphosis from blue-collar to intellectual bourgeoisie and it is not easy as people in her new world look down on people from her old world. Her husband doesn’t go to her parents’ house, which is something I find shocking. I get that he has nothing in common with them but it’s like denying part of your partner’s identity. When you love someone, you don’t carve out of them the parts that bother you. In this case, it must have contributed to drill into her that she needed to cut ties with this humiliating world. The attitude of her new milieu makes her ashamed of her background:

Il se trouve des gens pour apprécier le « pittoresque du patois » et du parler populaire. Ainsi Proust relevait avec ravissement les incorrections et les mots anciens de Françoise. Seule l’esthétique lui importe parce que Françoise est sa bonne et non sa mère. Que lui-même n’a jamais senti ces tournures lui venir aux lèvres spontanément.Some people relishes “the picturesque of patois” and of vernacular language. Like Proust, who raved about Françoise’s mistakes and old words. Only the aesthetics matters because Françoise is his servant and not his mother. Because himself has never felt these turns of phrase spontaneously come to his lips.

The redneck bashing isn’t new, of course and I think that the metamorphosis is never complete. No one cannot fully deny their roots. I believe that changing of social class can be as violent as emigrating to a new country. New codes to learn, a chasm between the old world and the new one and the impossibility to make the old world and the new one mesh properly because they have no common ground.

Annie Ernaux chose literature to explore her ambivalent feelings towards her father and her background. A Man’s Place is also a vibrant homage to her parents, to her hardworking father and a priceless testimony of a social class ways.

The philosopher and sociologist Didier Eribon partly explores the same topic in his essay Returning to Reims (2009). Eribon is gay and his father was homophobic, which cut him from his family. I haven’t read his essay but I’ve heard radio programs about it and I’ve seen the brilliant theatre play directed by Thomas Ostermeier and based upon it. When Eribon wrote his essay, he was already successful and he was 56. He influenced Edouard Louis for his book The End of Eddy, in French, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule. The main difference between Louis and his predecessors is that his book is angrier, maybe because he was only 22 when he wrote it.

A Man’s Place is an excellent book, I was taken by Ernaux’s simple but spot-on style. Her voice is clear and pleasant to hear. Her parents’ expressions are stated in italic, to point out a way of speaking that was theirs and representative of their social class.

The original French title is La place and I wonder why they changed it in English for A Man’s Place. The meaning is broader in French and saying a man’s place discards Ernaux’s struggles with finding her own place in her new world. Maybe One’s Place would have been better?

Discover Claire’s thoughts about this book here. It was also her first Ernaux.

PS: The clumsy translations are my own.

The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo – What a blast!

February 15, 2022 28 comments

The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo. Total Kheops (1995) Chourmo (1996) and Solea (1998). Original French titles: Fabio Montale (Total Kheops, Chourmo and Solea)

Les belles journées n’existent qu’au petit matin. J’aurais dû m’en souvenir. Les aubes ne sont que l’illusion de la beauté du monde. Quand le monde ouvre les yeux, la réalité reprend ses droits. Et l’on retrouve le merdier.Beautiful days only exist in the early morning. I should have remembered that. Dawns are only the illusion of the beauty of the world. When the world opens their eyes, reality takes over. And we’re back in deep shit.

I just spend two days visiting Marseille and I took The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo as a traveling companion. What a marvelous idea it was! I am not going to describe the plot of each volume, that would be too long and useless. I want to give you the flavor of the books and the irresistible urge to get them and read them on the spot.

Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000) was born in Marseille in family of Italian and Spanish immigrants. His mother was born in a working-class area of Marseille, Le Panier. He was a member of the Communist party from 1966 to 1978. He was a journalist, a poet and a writer. It’s important to know his background to understand his character, Fabio Montale.

Fabio Montale is in his forties. When the first book opens, his childhood friend Ugo got killed when he himself killed a gangster to avenge the death of their other childhood friend, Manu. The three of them were thick as thieves when they were young, in the figurative and the literal way. They parted after a break-in at a pharmacy that turned bad. Manu chose a career in crime. Ugo left the country. Fabio went to the army and later joined the police force. They were all in love with Lole, the only girl of their group.

The volume go from this settling of scores, from organized crime to the presence of the Mafia in the South of France, in the Var (Toulon), Alpes Maritimes (Nice) and Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille) departments and through the raise of racism and religious extremism. The plots of the three books are suspenseful and you want to keep reading to see what will happen next. As often in good crime fiction, the best is on the side, though.

At the end of Total Kheops, I thought that Montale was a lot like Connelly’s Bosch. He’s a maverick and compassionate investigator. He loves music, especially jazz. He’s single, lives in a house with an incredible view. He loves his town. But unlike Bosch, Montale loves to fish and lives in a cabin by the sea. He inherited it from his parents, which explains why his neighbor Honorine is over seventy and treats him like her son. In the next volumes, the comparison isn’t so obvious, Montale takes off as a character and becomes unique.

Music plays a capital role in Montale’s life. It’s soothing, raging, uplifting, consoling. A haven through life’s storms, a constant blankie to pick him up or pacify him. The books are named after songs. Total Kheops comes from a rap song by IAM, a group from Marseille. It means total mess, in their language. Chourmo comes from a word from Provencal patois and is a song by Massilia Sound System, another group from Marseille. And Solea is a piece by Miles Davis. Like there’s a Harry Bosch playlist on Spotify, you’ll find a Fabio Montale one too. It’s made of jazz, French, Arab, Italian, Cuban music. It’s a melting-pot of sounds and influences, the spitting image of Marseille, in sounds.

Like Los Angeles in the Bosch series, Marseille is a character itself in the Fabio Montale trilogy. Izzo has lived all his life in Marseille, except for a mere two years in Saint-Malo. He knows the city in and out and his love for this multi-cultural, blue-collar city pours off the pages of his trilogy. It gives us evocative descriptions of the weather and the town.

Il a fini par pleuvoir. Un orage violent, et bref. Rageur même, comme Marseille en connaît parfois en été. Il ne faisait guère plus frais, mais le ciel s’était enfin dégagé. Il avait retrouvé sa limpidité. Le soleil lapait l’eau de pluie à même les trottoirs. Une tiédeur s’en élevait. J’aimais cette odeur.It rained, eventually. A violent storm, and brief too. Furious, even, as Marseille has them in the summer sometimes. It wasn’t cooler but the sky was clear, at least. It was limpid again. The sun was lapping up the rain on the sidewalks. A warmth came off them. I loved this scent.

I walked around the city, knowing of the streets, some restaurants and bars, some places sounded familiar, thanks to Izzo’s books. Izzo was also a poet, his first literary love. It gives a flavor to his writing as his poetic sensitivity applies to his descriptions of his beloved city but also to Montale’s love interests and hypersensitivity.

Fortunately, Izzo doesn’t stick to postcard Marseille full of sea, sun, local soap, pastis and wonderful cuisine. He also writes about its darker side, the rampant criminality, the corruption of the politicians, the collusion between organized crime, politicians, the police and other administrations. He describes the raging unemployment that feeds racism, fuels resentment and raises candidates for organized crime, drug trafficking, religious extremists and extreme-right political parties. He can only deplore the extremist and violent path that his beloved city seems to take.

The trilogy is set at the end of the 1990s and Montale is in his forties. His parents are dead and his best friends too. He’s nostalgic of his youth and also understands that these 1990s are the end of an era. The post-war society doesn’t exist anymore and the witness of his youth are almost all gone. His old neighbords, Honorine and Fonfon, are the last generation of the Marseillais you have in Pagnol’s plays. Honorine has even a Pagnol name, typical from the South. They speak with the Marseille accent, something that is transcribed in Izzo’s dialogues. For a tourist like me, she sounds like sunshine, cicadas and holidays (I wonder what the translators of these books did about that.)

The 1990s were my formative years. Highschool, business school, first job, meeting the man who’ll become my husband, starting our life together. That decade was busy and self-centered. For Montale, the 1990s are the end of the communist dream (and thankfully the end of the communist nightmare for Eastern countries), the final collapse of old industries and the defitinive take-over of money and capitalism as a leading power over the world. It’s the decade of the war in Yugoslavia, the massacre in Rwanda and the terror of the FIS in Algeria. From Marseille, right on the other side of the Mediterranean. With inevitable repercussions in France. He also describes the settling of the Mafia in the South of France.

It’s also the last decade before 9/11, before other wars and the bloom of the digital revolution. We’re pre-smartphones, digital services and all that will come with the 21st century. Montale’s melancholy is a black echo to the end of the century.

The sadness is tempered by an indomitable joie de vivre. Life cannot be too bad as long as there’s the sun, the sea, good food, good music and pretty ladies. Women are Montale’s Achilles’ heel. He admires them and loves them. He attracts them but never really recovered from Lole. His failed love life torments him.

But Montale is also a bon viveur –how did the French bon vivant turned into the English bon viveur, I wonder. He loves good food and I wish there were a cookbook of all the recipes of Honorine’s cuisine along with a Fabio Montale wine list. Maybe it exists somewhere. Like music, food is a soothing balm to his soul. Honorine’s cuisine is a like an umbilical cord to his childhood. Another blankie.

I turned the last page of this trilogy with sadness, like I was leaving a friend behind. I love the South of France too and that’s probably why this passage felt like a little dig:

Du ciel à la mer, ce n’était qu’une infinie variété de bleus. Pour le touriste, celui qui vient du Nord, de l’Est ou de l’Ouest, le bleu est toujours bleu. Ce n’est qu’après, pour peu qu’on prenne la peine de regarder le ciel, la mer, de caresser des yeux le paysage, que l’on découvre les bleus gris, les bleus noirs, et les bleus outremer, les bleus poivre, les bleus lavande. Ou les bleus aubergine des soirs d’orage. Les bleus verts de houle. Les bleus cuivre de coucher de soleil, la veille de mistral. Ou ce bleu si pâle qu’il en devient blanc.From the sky to the sea, it was an endless variety of blues. For the tourist, the one who comes from the North, the East or the West, blue is always blue. It’s only afterwards, if you take the time to observe the sky, the sea, to caress the landscape with your eyes, that you’ll discover the grey blues, the black blues, the ultramarine blues, the pepper blues, the lavender blues. Or the eggplant blues of stormy nights. The green blues of swell. The copper blues of sunsets, on the eve of a mistral day. Or this blue so pale that it’s almost white.

I beg to differ, Fabio. I’m a tourist from the North and the East but I know the variety of blues. I know how beautiful the landscapes are, how radiant the sea can be and how different the light is from one season to the other. That’s why I keep coming back, in all seasons. February smells like mimosa. April often smells like rain and wind. July and August give off the heady scent of pine trees heated by the sun and salt from the sea. October fights against the upcoming cold season and spreads a last hooray of sunshine, warmth and summer scents.

Go and rush to The Marseille Trilogy. You won’t regret it. No translation tragedy here. The only tragedy is Izzo’s untimely death that deprived us of more books. Fucking cancer.

PS: There’s a TV adaptation of the trilogy with Alain Delon as Fabio Montale. I would have prefered Gérard Lanvin. I’m not sure I want to replace my mental images of the book with the ones of the series. I’m not inclined to watch it.

Albertine Gone by Marcel Proust

February 5, 2022 24 comments

The Sweet Cheat Gone (Albertine Gone) by Marcel Proust. (1925) In Search of Lost Time, volume 6. Original French title: Albertine disparue.

Before diving into Albertine Gone by Marcel Proust, some information. I have read it in French, of course. Then I downloaded the cheapest translation available, the Scott Moncrief one. All the quotes in English come from this translation.

In the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time, the Narrator acts like an insufferable stalker and control freak with Albertine, who now lives with him. Imagine what it must have meant at the beginning of the 20th century, even if, officially, she was staying at his mother’s house. Here are my two billets about The Captive: billet one and billet two.

It took me nine years to move from The Captive to Albertine Gone. In this volume, Albertine leaves him and moves out. How I understand her. Before he can go after her and make her change her mind, she dies in an accident. (Albertine may have been modeled after Alfred Agostinelli, Proust’s flame, killed in an airplane accident in 1914.)

The first part of the volume is about the Narrator’s grief and his relentless research to understand once for all if Albertine was a lesbian and if she cheated on him. Yes, to both. He gets his answer after torturing us with soul wrenching what-ifs, sending out his valet to investigate Albertine’s last days, questioning her girlfriend Andrée, etc. The Narrator is sick with jealously and he seems to be missing Albertine only marginally, because he didn’t get all his answers before her death. Sometimes I felt like he was grieving because grief was what he was supposed to feel and not what he was actually feeling. The Narrator was such a gossip.

However, Proust wrote excellent passages about grief, the recovering process and the Narrator’s feelings. There are beautiful thoughts about memories of people who passed away and what remains of them after they’re gone.

On dit quelque fois qu’il peut subsister quelque chose d’un être après sa mort, si cet être était un artiste et mit un peu de soi dans son œuvre. C’est peut-être de la même manière qu’une sorte de bouture prélevée sur un être, et greffée au cœur d’un autre, continue à y poursuivre sa vie même quand l’être d’où elle avait été détachée a péri.We say at times that something may survive of a man after his death, if the man was an artist and took a certain amount of pains with his work. It is perhaps in the same way that a sort of cutting taken from one person and grafted on the heart of another continues to carry on its existence, even when the person from whom it had been detached has perished

Then he starts going out again and traveling to Venice. He reconnects with his high society friends and tells us what have become of our former acquaintances: Gilberte, Robert de Saint-Loup, the Baron de Charlus, Madame de Guermantes…He’s found his wits and his irony again and this reader thought, “Yay we’re back to socializing and watching people with a magnifying glass!”

We’re back to witty observations and come-backs, this is the Proust I love.

Le snobisme est, pour certaines personnes, analogue à ces breuvages agréables dans lesquels ils mêlent des substances utiles.Snobbishness is, with certain people, analogous to those pleasant beverages with which they mix nutritionus substances

It’s like having coffee with your parents when they start telling you all the news of people you used to know and have lost contact with because you moved out of your hometown. All distant cousins, uncles, acquaintances, neighbors, friends of friends. Who got married, who got sick, blah blah blah. Only Proust says it with a lot more style.

Although you don’t read In Search of Lost Time for the plot, I won’t spoil your reading and tell you the breaking news about Gilberte and Robert de Saint-Loup that are dropped like bombs in this volume.

In Albertine Gone, Proust also makes peace with homosexuality. In the first volumes, it’s described as something unnatural to be ashamed of. Towards the end of this volume, Proust says that Charlus loves doing visits with Morel because he feels like he’s remarried. He loves acting as a couple. This passage is explicit about the Narrator’s views on homosexuality and very modern:

Personnellement, je trouvais absolument indifférent au point de vue de la morale qu’on trouvât son plaisir auprès d’un homme ou d’une femme, et trop naturel et humain qu’on le cherchât là où on pouvait le trouver.As far as morality was concerned, it was indifferent to me whether one finds their pleasure with a man or a woman. I found it only too natural and human to seek pleasure where it could be found.
(my translation)

A century later, I wish this sentiment were more widely spread. It would avoid a lot of bullying and heartaches. These two passages about Charlus and this statement about homosexuality are missing from the Scott Moncrief translation. I don’t know if they were censored or if Scott Moncrief worked on a French version that didn’t include these paragraphs.

Albertine disparue isn’t the easiest volume to read, at least for me. It is nonetheless a masterpiece and I have bright memories of Le Temps retrouvé, the next and last volume.

Magellan by Stefan Zweig – a belated billet

January 15, 2022 22 comments

Magellan by Stefan Zweig (1938) French title: Magellan. Translated by Alzir Hella.

Magellan by Stefan Zweig was our November Book Club read. I’m very late again with my billet, I know. As the title of the book implies, it is a biography of Magellan, written by a literary author.

I’m not going to write a detailed summary of the book or Magellan’s life, there’s Wikipedia for that and, as much as I respect Zweig as a writer, he’s not a historian.

In his introduction, Zweig says that he was travelling comfortably to America on a passenger ship when he got to thinking about Vasco de Gama, Magellan and all their fellow explorers and their grueling traveling conditions. He decided to write a book about Magellan and started to research that time in the ship’s library. Imagine that these ships had libraries so well stocked that he could read several books about the Age of Discovery. Now I understand why one would want to quit flying and travel on a passenger ship instead! It’s an opportunity for binge reading. (For the anecdote, I have a four-week break in February and when I said to my husband that I was going to have a book orgy, he deadpanned “Isn’t that what you’re doing already?” Ahem…)

The book opens with a quick summary about the spice trade and its importance at the time. It explains how the Portuguese became a great nation of explorers and what was at stake. It gives an overview of the importance of Prince Henry the Navigator and King João II (1481-1495) and King Manuel I (1495-1521), the one who ordered the building of the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, if you’ve ever been to Lisbon.

Magellan (1480-1521) was born in Portugal, as a nobleman. His real Portuguese name is Ferñao de Magalhães. He was always a sailor, went to the West Indies in 1505-1512. He and his cosmologue friend Faleiro were convinced that there was a way to the Spice Islands by sailing west from Europe. Carlos I, future Charles the Fifth, financed the trip after King Manuel refused to do it. Magellan and his men left Spain on September 10, 1519 with five ships and 285 men. They came back on September 6th, 1521 with one ship, 18 men and without Magellan who died in the Philippine Islands. One of them was Antonio Pigafetta, the scholar who wrote a journal about the trip, a great source of information. We owe him a lot.

Zweig relates Magellan’s life and travels, explaining the political intricacies, the financing of the project, the fiddly preparation, the conflicts between the captains of the fleet and all the dangers these sailors had to face.

As you know, Magellan and his crew discovered the Strait of Magellan, in southern Chile. It’s a dangerous route, not really a practical one but one of the few natural passages between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. The 18 men who came back did the first circumnavigation of the world and proved that the Earth is not flat.

I found some facts astonishing. Imagine that the Pope approved of the split of the world between Spain and Portugal after drawing an imaginary line: new territories west of the line belong to Spain and east of the line to Portugal. Hence Spain’s motivation to sponsor Magellan’s trip from West to East. I’m always floored by the arrogance of the Catholic Church and the kings of the time. I know I shouldn’t judge the past with today’s eyes but I can’t help my reaction.

Imagine that the stations along the African coasts from the Good Hope Cape to Europe all belonged to the Portuguese. Magellan’s last ship didn’t take the risk to moor there or stop for food and water. The crew was afraid to be imprisoned as they were sailing under Spanish pavilion and as this expedition fueled the competition between Spain and Portugal. (If I understood properly) So they’d rather risk dying of thirst and hunger than have a pit stop at one of those stations. Borders weren’t a joke at the time!

Zweig pictures Magellan as a hard-working and stubborn man who overcame all kind of difficulties to prove his theory. I can’t fathom the courage these sailors had to leave everything behind and risk their life to go and face the great unknown. It’s hard for us to imagine as there aren’t many unexplored places these days. Except other planets. The value of one’s life wasn’t as important as today, I suppose. See Magellan’s family. He died during his trip, facing all kind of dangers. Meanwhile, his wife and son died at home, doing nothing special. Untimely deaths were common, maybe they didn’t rate the risk taken by these sailors as high as we do now, with our modern eyes.

Magellan is an easy read as Zweig is a smooth writer. It has the right level of details for a reader who is not a history buff: you learn things but don’t feel too lost in details you don’t understand because you lack of historical background. I don’t know how accurate it is but I think that the major facts are right and these are the only ones I’ll remember anyway.  

The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss – a trip to the Southern Ute Indian Reservation

December 5, 2021 8 comments

The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss. (1995) French title: Le canyon des ombres. Translated by Danièle et Pierre Bondil.

James D. Doss (1939-2012) is the author of the crime fiction series set in the Southern Ute Indian Reservation (Colorado) and featuring the Ute detective Charlie Moon. The Shaman Laughs is the second book of the series.

It all begins when Big Ouray, Gorman Sweetwater’s bull, is found dead in the Cañon del Espiritu. The bull was mutilated and it is a great loss for its owner as it is a valuable breeder. Gorman had insurance for his bull, a policy he subscribed through a local and Ute insurance broker, Arlo Nighbird.

Arlo is not the most well-loved Ute in the community. He cheats on his wife, Emily. He’s a sexual predator. He’s a shrewd and dishonest business man who doesn’t want to pay Gorman for the loss of Big Ouray. He’s working on a project with the Federal government to bury nuclear waste in the Cañon del Espiritu, which means that Gorman won’t be able to let his herd graze there and that Daisy Perika, the last shaman of the community will have to move out of her trailer set at the mouth of the canyon. The man is a nuisance to the community.

So, when Arlo is found dead with the same mutilation as Big Ouray the bull, nobody grieves him too much. But the tribal police, led by Charlie Moon and Scott Paris, flanked by a rookie FBI agent James E. Hoover have to investigate the murder.

The Shaman Laughs owns its title as there is a great sense of humor in this book. Charlie Moon plays tricks to Hoover, not openly lying to him but leaving out important information that bring comical effects. Like not correcting him when he assumes that Big Ouray is a human. Charlie Moon and his people enjoy playing pranks to Matukach (white) people, mostly using their own prejudice and clichés about Indians against them.

We go into Charlie and Scott’s love lives. Charlie’s unexpressed feeling will stay buried with the girl’s death. His grief is private, full of what will not be. Scott doesn’t quite know where things will go with his girlfriend Anne, now that she has taken a job in Washington D.C. and he’s still in Colorado.

Humor and diving into the characters’ personal lives is not new and happens a lot in modern crime fiction books, to get the readers attached to the characters and alleviate de tension.

The additional kick of this series, one that Tony Hillerman started in the 1970s with its Navajo Tribal police mystery novels, is the Native American setting and the description of the Ute beliefs and traditions. You’ll find the same in Craig Johnson’s books as he always makes room for Cheyenne customs. The common point between these Western series is also the role of law enforcement in small rural communities. They are sheriffs (Walt Longmire), Tribal Police (Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Charlie Moon) or Game Warden (Joe Pickett) and they have to compose with being the law in a small community where everyone knows everyone, a community they are a part of. What they do on duty impacts their off-duty life as they live among the people they work for.

The Shaman Laughs emphasizes on nature and its connection with animal and human lives. The landscape descriptions are stunning, vibrant and captivating. Several times, the point of view switches to an animal’s like a mouse or a rabbit. It connects the reader to the land in a different way.

A lot of spirituality comes off the land and the story relies on dreams, visions and intuition. It leaves imprints on people and impact their actions but it doesn’t sound artificial. It seems to be embeded in the place. Even Scott the white man feels it. Daisy goes into trances, seeks for answers in her dreams and leaves offering to the pitukupf, a sort of Leprechaun who lives in the Cañon del Espiritu. Christianism is part of the mix and Doss pictures how the Ute incorporate Christian faith and Ute spirituality. He also shows that the Ute customs are dying with the elder and that they need to be protected.

Black Mesa Landscape New Mexico, Out Back of Marie’s II,1930 by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Doss’s talent lies in his ability to mix all these ingredients into a story that makes you travel into this Indian community, far from your home and daily life, looking forward to knowing who killed Big Ouray and Arlo.

Incidentally and thanks to Goodreads, I discovered that November was Native American Heritage Month in the US.

Four novellas, four countries, four decades

November 20, 2021 37 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Borgo Vecchio, I traveled to Japan and read…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lectures épicuriennes

Tony's Reading List

Too lazy to be a writer - Too egotistical to be quiet

Whispering Gums

Books, reading and anything else that comes to mind...with an Australian focus...on Ngunnawal Country

findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing...

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