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Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – a masterpiece

September 25, 2022 8 comments

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. (1985) French title: Lonesome Dove. Translated by Richard Crevier.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is Gallmeister #7 and #8, one of the first books that this newly founded publisher chose when they started their literary adventure. I understand why Oliver Gallmeister picked Lonesome Dove, it’s a page turner, an excellent western that brings modernity to the genre.

We’re in the late 1870s. Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call, former Texas Rangers, run the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium since they left the army. They are settled in Lonesome Dove, a small town in the Republic of Texas, near the Rio Grande, by the Mexican border.

They live on their property with Pea Eye, Deets, the young Newt and Bolivar. Deets and Pea Eye come from their ranger days, Deets used to be their scout and Pea Eye is a faithful companion. Newt is only seventeen, the orphaned son of Maggie, a prostitute in Lonesome Dove. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, all think that Newt is Call’s son.

They have settled on a routine. Steal horses and cattle across the Rio Grande and sell them in Texas. Captain Call cannot stay still and make Deets, Pea Eye and Newt work as ranch hands. When the book opens, he’s dead on digging a new well on the property. Needless to say, the job is harassing under the Texan summer sun. The men admire Captain Call so much that they’d do whatever he wants.

Gus is the jolly man of the group: he talks his head off all the time, spends his days sipping whisky and visiting the local saloon. His contribution to the chores is limited to cooking biscuits for breakfast. He’s a charmer. He’s also better educated than the others and keeps an interest in papers.

Call is a born leader, in a stern and steady way. Gus is his opposite and it’s easy to see how the two men balance each other and made a good pair in the army. They are loyal to each other and loyalty is precious in these unruly days.

None of them is ready to say it aloud but they are a little bored. Call itches to be on the move and do something. Gus is still thinking about Clara, “the one who got away” and left to settle in Nebraska with her husband.

Arrives Jake Spoon, another man from their ranger days. He’s flaky and a gambler. He’s running away from sheriff July Johnson from Fort Smith after he accidentally killed a man in this town.

Jake Spoon explains that he’s been to Montana and that it is heaven on Earth and an incredible place to start a cattle ranch. Captain Call didn’t need more that this nudge to decide it’s a great idea and he starts planning their departure.

The whole book is about their trip to Montana. They get the cattle, recruit cowboys, prepare their trip. During their preparation, Jake seduces the beautiful Lorena, a local prostitute who wants to go to San Francisco. They are all more or less in love with her and Jake takes her with them.

Up till now, everything I wrote is the setting of a classic western but Lonesome Dove is more than that. It’s made of unforgettable characters who all have their intimate fault lines.

Gus is bigger than life with his sensitive approach and his boldness. He cares about others, doesn’t shy away from his feelings and is very nurturing with Newt and Lorena for example. He’s the life of the group, the one who cheers them up, talks with people who are fragile and deflects conflicts. Captain Call’s natural leadership would be harsh if Gus weren’t there to smooth things over.

In Lonesome Dove, men and women aren’t cast as usual in westerns.

McMurtry pictures multi-dimensional cowboys. They are tough on the outside, living and riding in difficult conditions. They kill people if needed and without any qualms. At the same time, they are tender-hearted, vulnerable and weak.

Dish Bogget is hopelessly in love with Lorena. Gus still longs for Clara and wishes he had married her. Call is torn over Newt and his fatherhood. Jake is a coward. Another cowboy is terrified by water and is afraid to drown. Newt often cries on his horse. Sheriff July Johnson is afraid of his shadow and a poor shot. His deputy Roscoe is a riding catastrophe when he’s on a horse and doesn’t know how to live in the wilderness.

McMurtry also describes a time where women are objects of desire and never their own person. They are prostitutes to satisfy the men’s sexual needs. They are wives to be a homemaker and free workforce. They are informal properties to steal. They live a hard life and have to steel themselves against men.

In Lonesome Dove, the women are the tough ones. They are practical, strong and don’t hesitate to make hard decisions. They need to survive.

Lorena has been pushed around by men all her life and sees Jake as a means to go to San Francisco. Clara is the one who made the tough decision to marry a reliable but dull man and who proves to be resilient and intelligent.

Another woman propositions Roscoe and asks him to marry her. Her husband is dead and she needs a man to build her farm and for sex.

Lonesome Dove pictures an attaching set of characters, it’s hard not to like Gus, Call, Newt and the others. They’re enough to keep the reader’s interest but on top of that, McMurtry has an exceptional sense of place.

He shows us how tough it was to ride from Texas to Montana. We see all the dangers, snakes, thunderstorms, heat and rivers to cross. The cook is a genius and manages to feed everyone. The cowboys manage to drive the cattle from Texas to Montana, something like 1700 miles with a herd of cows. Their bull is almost a character in the book. They lose men on the way. They are attacked by bandits and Indians. They are in the last years of total wilderness.

McMurtry also shows the end of an era. Gus and Captain Call were legendary Texas rangers. Older people still remember them and they have their picture in saloons. But a new generation is taking over. One who is building towns, doing business and has lived in a rather pacified country. The Indian wars are over in most places. The bison have been decimated by greedy hunters. Pioneers arrive everywhere to colonize the land and set up farms. The land where Gus and Call used to ride freely is becoming private property.

The time of frontiersmen has come to an end. Gus and Call have become men of the past. Their way of life is dying. Lonesome Dove is a page turner that shows how a country turns a new leaf in history.

Very, very, highly recommended.

PS: This is also my contribution to Liz Dexter’s event, Larry McMurtry 2022.

Crime fiction in August: Mexico, America, South Africa and New Zealand

August 28, 2022 10 comments

Let’s have a tour of my August crime fiction travels. First, let’s go to Madrid.

Adiós Madrid by Paco Ignacio Taibo II (1993) French title: Adiós Madrid. Translated by René Solis

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a Mexican crime fiction writer. I’ve already read Days of Combat featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. Adiós Madrid is the seventh or ninth book of the series.

This time, Belascoarán is sent on a mission to Madrid by his friend Justo Vasco, the assistant manager of the museum of anthropology in Mexico. He’s going all the way to Madrid to deliver Vasco’s threat. The Black Widow, “ex-rancheras singer, mistress of an ex-president of Mexico who had recently passed away, ex-icon of the Mexico nightlife and ex-landlord of the country.”, lives in Madrid.

Belascoarán has to tell her that if she tries to sell the plastron of Moctezuma, an antique that belongs to the anthropology museum, Vasco will leak all kinds of embarrassing information about her.

Belascoarán is happy to get a free trip to Madrid, the city where his parents grew up and it’s a bittersweet experience for him to confront the Madrid that his parents described to the actual and modern one. And then of course, things don’t go according to plan as far as the threat delivery is concerned.

Adiós Madrid is a very short book for crime fiction (102 pages in French) and it was good fun but nothing more. No need to rush for it.

After Madrid, it was time to fly to Washington DC and let George Pelecanos drive me through his hometown.

The Cut by George Pelecanos (2011) French title: Une balade dans la nuit. Translated by Elsa Maggion.

In The Cut, Spero Lucas, a former marine who was in Afghanistan, works as a non-licensed investigator for a lawyer, Tom Petersen. Spero’s job is to unearth useful clues that help Petersen during procedurals.

Spero starts on a case where he finds crucial clues that unable to bail Petersen’s client’s son out of jail. The thing is: Petersen’s client is Anwan Hawkins, head of a marijuana trafficking organization and currently in jail. Hawkins uses the “Fedex method”: send the drug via Fedex at the address of an unsuspecting citizen, follow up the delivery on internet, be on location at delivery time and intercept the parcel.

Now two parcels went missing and the loss amounts to 130 000 USD. For a 40% cut, Spero is ready to track down the missing parcels. And that will prove to be more dangerous than expected, even for an ex-marine.

Spero Lucas is a well-drawn character, we see him struggle with his military past and his father’s death. He comes from an unconventional tight-knit family with Greek roots and the personal side of the book was a nice addition to the crime plot.

My only drawback is Pelecanos’s style. You can see that he’s used to writing scenarios as it is very cinematographic. Lots of descriptions of driving the streets of Washington DC were hard to picture and didn’t bring much to the book. In my opinion, it could have been more literary. It was Good entertainment though.

Then, I traveled to South Africa to read my first Deon Meyer. He’s a writer I’d seen and heard at Quais du Polar and had wanted to read for a long time.

Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (1998) French title: Les Soldats de l’aube.

Dead at Daybreak is, according to Goodreads, Matt Joubert book #1.5. This is a series I’m very tempted to read after this introduction to Meyer’s literary world.

Zatopek van Heerden is a former police officer, he’s adrift and when the book opens, he’s hungover in jail after fighting in a bar in Capetown. Like Spero Lucas in The Cut, he’s hired by a lawyer, Hope Beneke, to help her with her client Wilhelmina van As. Here’s the reason she hired van Heerden:

Johannes Jacobus Smit was fatally wounded with a large-calibre gun on 30 September last year during a burglary at his home in Moreletta Street, Durbanville. The entire contents of a walk-in safe are missing, including a will in which, it is alleged, he left all his possessions to his friend, Wilhelmina Johanna van As. If the will cannot be found, the late Mr Smit will have died intestate and his assets will eventually go to the state.’

It seems simple enough: find the will. Van Heerden will have to get out of his drunken funk, informally reconnect with his former colleagues, solve the case, get paid and move on. However, the case takes him to another affair that happened in 1983, during the time of the Apartheid and economic sanctions against South Africa.

Dead at Daybreak is a fantastic crime fiction book and it has it all. A riveting plot. Fascinating thoughts about South Africa, the change of regime and relationships between the black and white communities. Well-drawn characters.

The plot driven chapters are third person narrative, with the reader following the investigation. They alternate with chapters with first person narrative, where van Heerden writes about his life, from his childhood to the events that brought him to get into bar fights and drink too much. These chapters were captivating too. The ending of the book was both the closing of the investigation and closure for van Heerden.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

My next crime fiction book took me to New Zealand where I was happy to reconnect with Maori police officer Tito Ihaka.

Fallout by Paul Thomas. (2014) Not available in French. Published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Fallout is my second book by Paul Thomas as I’d already read and loved Death on Demand.

Fallout has a triple plot thread with interconnected stories. It starts with Finbar McGrail, the District Commander in Auckland who is on the verge of retirement. His first murder case in 1987 is still unsolved and he recently had a new lead. He asks Ihaka to look into it and see if he can find who murdered Polly Stenson at the posh Barton party in 1987.

Meanwhile, Ihaka’s former colleague Van Roon is hired as a non-licensed investigator to find Eddie Brightside. This man has been hiding abroad for years and he was seen in New Zealand.

On the side, Miriam Lovell, Ikaka’s ex-lover, contacts him regarding his father’s death, some twenty years ago. Lovell is writing her PhD thesis about work unions in New Zealand and as Ikaha’s father was a well-known unionist, she comes across breaking news: Jimmy Ihaka might not have died of a heart attack but could have been murdered. Ihaka decides to investigate his father’s death.

I loved Fallout as much as I loved Death on Demand. Ihaka is an incredible character. He’s a maverick police officer with a code of conduct of his own. He’s loud, crude but loyal. He’s either respected or despised and he’s not good with precinct politics. This is Ihaka, assessing a witness.

Gentle, thought Ihaka; sensitive; arty. Probably plays the guitar and writes songs about how hard it is being gentle, sensitive and arty in this fucked-up world.

Political correctness is not Ihaka’s strong suit and that’s why I enjoyed my time with him.

Fallout is a tour de force. I never felt lost between the three investigations, mixing up characters or stories. It was perfectly orchestrated, a fine-tuned mix of standard crime, personal matters and political issues as it branches out on the topic of New Zealand anti-nuclear stance in the 1980s. Fascinating stuff.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

So, that was my month of August with crime fiction. All in all, it was a good pick of books, various places and well-drawn characters and plots. I’m looking forward to reading more by Deon Meyer, so don’t hesitate to leave recommendations in the comments below.

All these books belong to my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

PS : Fallout is published by an indie publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, their books are available online and well, the more books they sell, the more chances we have that they bring us great crime fiction books.

Literary escapade: Marcel Proust on his mother’s side – an exhibition

July 24, 2022 8 comments

After the exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet (see my billets here and here), my celebration of the centenary of Proust’s death continues with another Parisian exhibition. Indeed, the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme set in the Marais quarter currently hosts an exhibition about Proust on his mother’s side.

Proust’s great grandfather, Baruch Weil (1780-1828) directed a porcelain manufactory in Fontainebleau and was the official circumciser of the synagogue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth in Paris. Nahé, one of his sons, married Adèle Berncastel (1824-1890) they had a daughter, Jeanne.

Jeanne Weil married Adrien Proust, a doctor from Eure-et-Loir who was probably a freemasonry acquaintance of her father.

Combray is on Adrien’s side. Adrien and Jeanne had a civil marriage and decided that their children would be educated as catholic. Nevertheless, Marcel and Robert went to the Lycée Concordet, a Républican high school and not a Catholic school.

So, Adèle Weil is Proust’s grandmother, the one who reads Mme de Sévigné and Saint-Simon in In Search of Lost Time. Jeanne is Proust’s mother. Adèle and Jeanne had a solid education and studied more than most girls of their time who were brought up for marriage and nothing else. (See Balzac and Flaubert) Here are photographs of these two important ladies who raised Marcel into the writer he became.

Marcel Proust was close to the Weil family. His great-uncle Louis lived in Auteuil where Proust used to live when he was a child. The great-uncle Louis is in In Search of Lost Time under Oncle Adolphe. He was rich and had no children: he left his money to his nephew Georges and his niece Jeanne and Marcel inherited part of his fortune after his mother died.

Jeanne Weil was very important in her son’s life. They had a close relationship. It came from the circumstances of his birth (right during the Paris Commune and his poor health. (Marcel almost died of an athma attack when he was ten) Beside her traditional role as a mother, she was the one interested in arts. She traveled with him, helped him translate Ruskin as her English was better than his. Adèle, Jeanne and Marcel were the art lovers while Robert was more into science and sports and closer to his father.

The exhibition aimed at pinpointing the importance of his Jewish roots in Proust’s life and literature. Sometimes I thought the connections were obvious and interesting to explore and sometimes I thought it was a bit farfetched. Let’s start with those.

The exhibition makes a comparison between Proust’s manuscripts and their “paperoles”, additions to the text and transcripts of the Talmud with their peripheral commentaries surrounding the text. See for yourself.

Sure, his “paperoles” and additions to the text exist but any other writer could have done the same, no?

His Jewish family lodgings in Auteuil or in Paris became places in his novel. His stays in Normandy from 1880 to 1914 among the Jewish intelligentsia are in the center of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. This is where we hear about the Narrator’s Jewish friend Bloch. It was the opportunity to see a few paintings as illustrations of the atmosphere of the time. I always enjoy impressionist paintings and I love that they give us glimpses of life at the end of the 19th century.

There is also a special display about Esther, Jewish the heroin of The Book of Esther. Jeanne Proust admired this heroin a lot and Sarah Bernhardt (La Berma) performed in the play Esther by Racine. It was also mentioned that Raynaldo Hahn, Proust’s friend and ex-lover accompanied her at the piano.

Then the passage about Charlus’s secret. He’s one of the homosexual characters of In Search of Lost Time. The link between homosexuality and the Jewish community is that both communities had to lay low. It sounds more an excuse to include the major theme of homosexuality in the exhibition than anything else.

I thought that the real themes about Jews in In Search of Lost Time are the Dreyfus Affair and how Proust paints Jewish characters. The Dreyfus Affair is a key topic in Proust’s work. He was on the Dreyfusard side, right from the beginning. He supported Zola and signed a protest. And yet he remained friend with the despicable Léon Daudet, a notorious anti-Semitic writer. (I’m glad that Proust never got to see how his friend turned out in the 1930s until his death)

His work depicts with accuracy the impact of this affair on the social order. He shows how families were torn apart. With light touches here and there, he makes the reader understand how antisemitic the French society was and I can truly say that reading Proust made me understand how Vichy happened. There were antisemitic roots that Vichy watered, grew and exploited.

The two main Jewish characters in Proust’s masterpiece are Charles Swann and Bloch. Swann represents the elegant and cultivated Jew while Bloch embodies the opposite. Proust was sometimes criticized because his Jewish characters seem caricatural while they are only the mirror of the society’s prejudices and not reflecting the author’s opinion.

The exhibition also points out that the Zionist movement rapidly stressed Proust’s Jewishness. It happened right after his death, in the 1920s. His work was quoted in several reviews and his recognition as a Jewish and universal artist was early. This is something I wasn’t aware of.

All in all, it was informative and interesting to think about Proust’s work through his Jewish background. It was the opportunity to visit this museum and see its permanent collections about Jewish history and culture.

Catching up on billets: six in one

July 17, 2022 20 comments

I really really have a hard time keeping up with billets and blogging at the moment, so I’ll catch up on different books I’ve read and write mini-billets about them. Everything is fine, I’m just terribly busy.

I’ve been reading American literature again or books related to America. All were good, I’ve been lucky with my reading choices. They all deserve a full billet but I’m too knackered to tackle six billets at the moment.

The first one is a French book, set in Ellis Island, Those Who Leave by Jeanne Benameur 2019. (Original French title: Ceux qui partent.) We’re in 1910, in Ellis Island, New York.

Emilia Scarpa and her father Donato, Esther Agakian and Gabor are all candidatures to emigrate to America. Emilia and Donato are Italian and she wants to be free and be a painter. Esther is survivor of the Armenian genocide. Gabor is a Rom and is fleeing the pogroms. All aspire to start a new life, either to leave traumatic events back in Europe or to open to opportunities they wouldn’t have in their native country.

Andrew Jónsson, an American photograph also spends a lot of time at Ellis Island, recording the arrivals of new immigrants. His father emigrated from Iceland with his grand-mother when he was a child and Andrew chases his own history through the newcomers.

All the characters meet at Ellis Island and their lives intertwine for a while. Jeanne Benameur muses about leaving, about new beginnings. Can you start over or as the song says, “You don’t rebuild your life, you only go on”? What do “roots” mean? How to you survive a genocide? How are you linked to your lineage?

Jeanne Benameur has a lovely and poetic style. Her tone is smooth, contemplative and tries to convey the characters inner thoughts.

It was a good read but sometimes I felt she could have said the same in less pages.

Then I was in New York again with The Fire, Next Time by James Baldwin (1963). This non-fiction book is composed of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew James and an essay about being black in America.

The letter was very moving, one James giving advice to his namesake nephew. Words of wisdom and self-confidence.

As always, Baldwin is spot on, direct and unflinching. He’s intelligent, nuanced and never lets himself fall into the pitfall of simplification.

He explores the idea of violence and various schools of thought about the future of the black community in America. He’s not convinced by any extremist thinking.

There is no hatred in his words but a challenge issued to white people: the condition of black people will change only if they’re willing to acknowledge that they need to change.

Then I moved to Kansas, around the same time as The Fire, Next Time, with In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) I read it in French (De sang froid) in the 1966 translation by Raymond Girard.

This translation needs to be updated, that’s for sure. It was done in a time where we were a lot less Americanized and the translation reflects this with comments about obvious American things or weird spelling. (“base-ball”, really?) I was intimidated by In Cold Blood and thought it would be best to read it in French but I think I could have read it in English.

Anyway. I’m not sure it’s necessary to remind you that In Cold Blood is about a true crime affair. The Clutter family, a well-loved family in the village of Holcomb, Kansas was savagely murdered without any reason. Capote reconstructs the crime, showing the murderers before and after their crime, including their time in jail and switching of point of view to picture the family and the KBI inspectors who work on the case.

It was a memorable time for many people and Capote’s various angles shows the trail of devastation and life-changing moment that such a crime entails for a broad cast of people.

I enjoyed it a lot more than expected and it was easy to read. The chapters cover the different moment of this terrible crime, with a bit of suspense. The writing is vivid, like a reportage and it’s well worth reading.

After Capote, I changed of scenery but remained with law representatives. I went to North Carolina, where Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (2014) is set. It was my first novel by Ron Rash, as I had only read a collection of short stories before, Burning Bright.

In this novel, Les is 52, sheriff in a county in North Carolina. He’ll retire in three weeks, handing over his job to Jarvis Crowe. He has a burgeoning relationship with Becky, a park ranger. They both carry a heavy personal baggage.

Les has to handle two cases that represent the spectrum of country sheriff duties: on the one hand, he has to deal with Gerald who trespasses on his neighbor’s property and on the other hand he has a very precise intervention to close a meth lab, as drug is a major issue in this State.

Above the Waterfall is representative of books set in small towns America.

Like Longmire, the sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County, Les has to take into account the local history, the relationship between the parties and look the other way sometimes to preserve peace. They all have to live together anyway. Btw, this reminds me that I also read Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson but I won’t write a billet about it as it’s not my favorite Longmire story. It felt like a long race in the cold, in the falling snow of the Rocky Mountains.

But let’s leave Wyoming behind and go back to Rash’s novel set in the Appalachians, where he lives.

His books are cousins to David Joy’s or Chris Offutt’s books. Should we call them the Appalachians School? They are in the same vein and as a reader, I think they give an accurate picture of their land. Rash is less violent than Joy and he’s also a poet. I know from attending his interview at Quais du Polar, that he reads his books aloud to ensure they ring well. Above the Waterfall has a very poetic side and I’m not sure I caught all the beauty of his descriptions of wilderness.

It was a story full of grey areas where what is right isn’t always legal and vice-versa. Life isn’t black and white and like with Baldwin, I appreciate that Rash doesn’t over simplify issues but turns his writing spotlight in different corners of this Appalachian county, near the Shenandoah National Park. He lets us see different point of views.

I still have another book by Rash on the shelf, Serena and I’m looking forward to it as I really think that Ron Rash is a talented writer.

Then I flew to Argentina and you may wonder how Thursday Nights Widows by Claudia Piñeiro (2005) belongs with a billet about America. Well, it does because it is set in a country, a gated community at 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires. This huge compound is modeled after its American counterparts and it’s a sort of Argentinean Wisteria Lane. Rich businessmen have their house there, they live in close quarters and their wives, who don’t work, have very few opportunities to spend time in real Argentina.

Everything is about status, not making waves and getting along with everyone. Buy a the end on the 1990s and early 2000s, a devastating economic crisis shatters Argentina and these couples’ carefully balanced life is at threat. Unemployment spreads at Covid speed. The husbands try to keep face, the wives are oblivious and everyone has dirty secrets that stay hidden (or not) behind closed doors.

Piñeiro excels at describing this microsociety and its unspoken rules. Their carefully assembled houses of cards is fragile and drama looms. We know from the start that a tragedy occurred and the author takes us to the genesis of it, coming back to recent events or to older ones with anecdotes that pinpoints the characters’ tempers.

I have read it in a French translation by Romain Magras. It is entitled Les Veuves du jeudi and I recommend it.

At my personal bingo of literary events, I ticket several boxes with these books. All but the Jeanne Benameur count for my 20 Books Of Summer Challenge. (Books 5 to 9) Thursday Nights Widow counts for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month hosted by Stu.

Have you read any of these six books? What did you think about them?

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – not enough

July 2, 2022 21 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 13 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 39 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 15 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 19 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 36 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.

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