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The Grand Babylon Hôtel by Arnold Bennett

April 14, 2018 31 comments

The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett (1902) French title: Le Grand Hôtel Babylon.

I’d never heard of Arnold Bennett before Tom from Wuthering Expectations (or Les Expectations de Hurlevent during his stay in France) recommended The Grand Babylon Hotel to me. Published in 1902, it’s a funny novel set in a luxury hotel and full of twists and turns.

It starts as Mr Racksole, an American millionaire, stays at the Grand Babylon Hôtel in London with his twenty-three years old daughter Nella. The hôtel is a palace that caters for the aristocracy, royalty and millionaires. It was founded by Felix Babylon in 1869 and its staff prides itself for the impeccable style of the hôtel, always spelled à la French, with a ^ on the o, for the Swiss chic.

If there was one thing more than another that annoyed the Grand Babylon—put its back up, so to speak—it was to be compared with, or to be mistaken for, an American hôtel. The Grand Babylon was resolutely opposed to American methods of eating, drinking, and lodging—but especially American methods of drinking. The resentment of Jules, on being requested to supply Mr Theodore Racksole with an Angel Kiss, will therefore be appreciated.

His choice for a drink was Mr Racksole’s first mistake. His second was to request a beer and a steak for his daughter for it’s the only thing she wanted for dinner. This triggered contempt from the staff, brought Mr Racksole in Mr Babylon’s office and Racksole ended up buying the hôtel. Things go downhill from there as Mr Racksole sums it up here:

‘But perhaps you haven’t grasped the fact, Nella, that we’re in the middle of a rather queer business.’ ‘You mean about poor Mr Dimmock?’ ‘Partly Dimmock and partly other things. First of all, that Miss Spencer, or whatever her wretched name is, mysteriously disappears. Then there was the stone thrown into your bedroom. Then I caught that rascal Jules conspiring with Dimmock at three o’clock in the morning. Then your precious Prince Aribert arrives without any suite—which I believe is a most peculiar and wicked thing for a Prince to do—and moreover I find my daughter on very intimate terms with the said Prince. Then young Dimmock goes and dies, and there is to be an inquest; then Prince Eugen and his suite, who were expected here for dinner, fail to turn up at all—’

There are a lot of plot twists in this high paced tale. It was first published as a feuilleton in newspapers, so it’s made of short chapters full of cliffhangers, with chases, kidnappings, mysterious deaths and all.

But that’s not the most interesting part of the book, at least, not for me. I loved observing Bennett’s unintentional tendency to consider all things British superior to anything else and I enjoyed his delightfully quaint style.

This is a novel from the 19th century or I should say pre-WWI. It’s a novel written by an Englishman sure of the power of his country with its colonial empire. I don’t think Bennett did it on purpose but he is condescending towards non-British people or ways-of-life. Europeans are acceptable as long as they are at their place, meaning for exampla that French and Italians take care of the cuisine. As I said before, the hotel is spelled hôtel during the whole book, because the owner is from Switerland.  The dining room handled by a faux-French maître d’hôtel is called the salle à manger. French means cuisine and luxury. For the rest, the best is British. People need to have a polsih of Britishness to be accepted. Felix Babylon, as a little Anglicized Swiss, can be considered as an equal because of the Anglicized thing. It saves him.

Just when I was thinking that Racksole – despite being named Theodore as the newly elected Theodore Roosevelt– didn’t sound American, I read:

‘I am a true American,’ said Racksole, ‘but my father, who began by being a bedmaker at an Oxford college, and ultimately made ten million dollars out of iron in Pittsburg—my father took the wise precaution of having me educated in England. I had my three years at Oxford, like any son of the upper middle class! It did me good. It has been worth more to me than many successful speculations. It taught me that the English language is different from, and better than, the American language, and that there is something—I haven’t yet found out exactly what—in English life that Americans will never get. Why,’ he added, ‘in the United States we still bribe our judges and our newspapers. And we talk of the eighteenth century as though it was the beginning of the world.

We’re saved. We can consider Racksole as a gentleman because his being educated in England redeems his infamous American origins. This undertone of superiority sometimes got on my nerves. Bennett writes as a man from a superior civilisation that is probably a marker of his time. He represents the end of an era. These men didn’t see WWI coming, so sure of their place in the world and of their right to rule it. They see the USA as an unruly child with poor manners, a country full of parvenus.

The beginning of the book is definitely the battle between the Old World and the New World, between old money and new money. (And I won’t linger of the disagreeable comments on the appearance of Jews from the Finance world.) And yet, Racksole seemed a man better equipped for the coming century than the other protagonists. Bennett wrote what the public wanted to read and his book is probably representative of a certain state of mind in the British society of the time. It reinforce their feeling of belonging to a superior civilisation.

I was referring to outmoded language and it goes with the territory. It made me think of Miss Marple, I almost expected to see quotes of poems by Tennison between paragraphs. Phrases like perhaps he had helped himself rather plenteously to mustard. made me smile. I discovered words like propitiate, nincompoop or fandango. Sometimes it sounds a bit pompous like here: he could not fairly blame himself for the present miscarriage of his plans—a miscarriage due to the meddlesomeness of an extraneous person, combined with pure ill-fortune. Phew, I’m not sure I can say it without breathing.

Despite these odd expressions, The Grand Babylon Hôtel is like a delicious sweet coming from great-grandparents. Bennett has a definite sense of humour and makes a lot of fun of the Babylon’s staff and guests.

At the close of the season the gay butterflies of the social community have a habit of hovering for a day or two in the big hôtels before they flutter away to castle and country-house, meadow and moor, lake and stream.

Later…

It seemed as though the world—the world, that is to say, of the Grand Babylon—was fully engaged in the solemn processes of digestion and small-talk.

Can you imagine all these fancy rich guests making small talk in the lobby, discussing the weather and the cook’s new dish? Their universe seems unmoveable, protected from the vicissitudes of the world, a world that will be shattered in 1914.

 

PS: I can’t resist a last quote, Nella speaking: Well, I am a Yankee girl, as you call it; and in my country, if they don’t teach revolver-shooting in boarding-schools, there are at least a lot of girls who can handle a revolver. 

Wait until the idea comes to the mind of some US President with tweeting fingers, dear Nella, and they might teach AR-15-shooting in boarding schools. Just in case kids need it for self-defence, of course.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

February 10, 2018 18 comments

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901) French title: Ma brillante carrière.

If the souls of lives were voiced in music, there are some that none but a great organ could express, others the clash of a full orchestra, a few to which nought but the refined and exquisite sadness of a violin could do justice. Many might be likened unto common pianos, jangling and out of tune, and some to the feeble piping of a penny whistle, and mine could be told with a couple of nails in a rusty tin-pot.

Sybylla Melvyn is an opinionated young girl living in rural Australia in the 1890s. She first grew up on a station until her father moved his family to start a dairy farm. Due to several years of severe droughts and poor business decisions, her family gets poorer and poorer while her father wastes all their earnings in alcohol.

She is sent away to live with her grandmother who is wealthier and cares for her company. These are the happiest years of her life. She has the opportunity to read, to have interesting dicussions and to be in good company. She gets acquainted with Harold Beecham who falls in love with her and wants to marry her.

Sybylla is the narrator of the book and we see her life and other people’s reactions solely through her lenses. And her lenses are quite biased. Her personality is extraordinary for her sex, time and age. Sybylla is quite the tomboy. Her vision of men and marriage is rather jaded and she has no intention of marrying as expected of her.

Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

Sybylla rejects the idea of love and marriage but I’m not sure it’s really to keep her freedom. She’s convinced that she’s ugly and that men only fall for pretty girls. Therefore, she assumes that she’s unlovable. So, there is no way Harold Beecham could actually love her for herself. She’s not the average young girl, not interested in clothes and appearance. She’s more into books and theatre, more interested in intellectual activities than the ones devoted to her sex.

So, if you feel that you are afflicted with more than ordinary intelligence, and especially if you are plain with it, hide your brains, cramp your mind, study to appear unintellectual–it is your only chance. Provided a woman is beautiful allowance will be made for all her shortcomings. She can be unchaste, vapid, untruthful, flippant, heartless, and even clever; so long as she is fair to see men will stand by her, and as men, in this world, are “the dog on top”, they are the power to truckle to. A plain woman will have nothing forgiven her.

Unfortunately, this still rings true, don’t you think? There are no such things as dashing silver temples for women and we still use the expression “trophy wife”. I’m with Sybylla in this, trophy wife is an awful career to have.

Miles Franklin was a teenager when she wrote My Brilliant Career and Sybylla has the unflinching mind of a teenager. She lacks nuances in her thinking, she’s blind to recommendations from older people around her and she’s certain she understands it all. She’s also at a period of life when one questions their parents’ choices and assesses their character.

My mother is a good woman–a very good woman–and I am, I think, not quite all criminality, but we do not pull together. I am a piece of machinery which, not understanding, my mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of my composition going in creaking discord.

What a great way to describe how someone can rub you the wrong way and always get the worst of you. It could sound unfair but it’s not, considering her mother’s behavior in the novel. She’s hard with her daughter, who rebels too much. She’s also embitered by her poverty and her miserable life with a useless and drunkard of a husband. Sybylla also kills any romantic ideas one could have of living on a dairy farm. As she points out:

I am not writing of dairy-farming, the genteel and artistic profession as eulogized in leading articles of agricultural newspapers and as taught in agricultural colleges. I am depicting practical dairying as I have lived it, and seen it lived, by dozens of families around me.

And this life is grueling. The chores are heavy and leave little time or energy for anything else. They destroy the farmers’ bodies, they limit their free time for cultivating their minds. They’re at the mercy of the weather and of market rates. This part hasn’t changed much and it’s a bit disheartening.

Miles Franklin must have been a spirited young lady. And a feminist. As a lot of women of her time, Sybylla doesn’t have a lot of possibilities for a career.

“What will you do? Will you be examined for a pupil-teacher? That is a very nice occupation for girls.” “What chance would I have in a competitive exam. against Goulburn girls? They all have good teachers and give up their time to study. I only have old Harris, and he is the most idiotic old animal alive; besides, I loathe the very thought of teaching. I’d as soon go on the wallaby.” “You are not old enough to be a general servant or a cook; you have not experience enough to be a housemaid; you don’t take to sewing, and there is no chance of being accepted as a hospital nurse: you must confess there is nothing you can do. You are really a very useless girl for your age.”

In Australia, like in Europe at the time, girls who needed to work didn’t have a lot of career choices opened to them. In the end, what is Sybylla’s brilliant career mentioned in the book title? Well, she wants to be a writer! You’ll have to read the book to know how this pans out.

I enjoyed My Brilliant Career for Sybylla’s tone and the picture of rural Australia in the 1890s. I have to confess she irritated me sometimes, because she was so set in her ways and so little inclined to question her vision of the world. Pride and Prejudice was a better title than My Brilliant Career for Franklin’s novel but well, it was already taken.

It was my first Australian book from the 19thC (I know it was published in 1901 but it’s still a 19thC book for me) and I read it in English. There were a lot of unfamiliar words to describe the land and some like Kookaburras or jackeroo had a funny ring to them. Like I would be later with The Three Miss Kings, I was surprised by Franklin’s freedom of speech. Sybylla’s ideas on marriage, religion, men and life in general are unconventional. Women seemed to have more space to express themselves, probably because the country was so young and made of daring people (I think you had to have guts to leave safe and mild Europe to travel so far and settle in a brand new land).

This read is another of my contributions to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. This was also my first read out of the wonderful list of Australian Literature that I made after all the recommendations I received. It is my turn to say it is highly recommended.

As you may know the Miles Franklin is Australia’s most prestigious literary award. I’m not aware of another country where their most sought-after literary prize is named after a woman writer. Do you know another one?

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg

December 29, 2017 9 comments

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg (1905) French title: Docteur Glas Translated from the Swedish by Marcellita de Molkte-Huitfeld and Ghislaine Lavagne.

Doctor Glas is a striking novella by Hjalmar Söderberg. It is the diary of the eponymous doctor from June 12th to October 7th, 1905. Dr Glas is a general practitioner in Stockholm. He’s a brilliant mind without social skills. He’s terribly lonely.

N’y a-t-il en dehors de moi personne qui soit seul au monde ? Moi, Tyko Gabriel Glas, docteur en médecine, à qui parfois il est donné d’aider les autres sans pouvoir s’aider soi-même, et qui, à trente-trois ans, n’a jamais connu de femme ? It makes me feel as if there’s no one in the world lonely at this moment but I. I, doctor of medicine Tyko Gabriel Glas, who sometimes helps others but has never been able to help himself, and who, on entering his thirty-fourth year of life, has never yet been with a woman.

Translated by David JC Barrett.

This quote comes from the first pages of the book. We know right away that Doctor Glas is an odd man with his own issues. In the first entry of his journal, he relates a promenade in the streets of Stockholm and his displeasure to run into Rev Gregorius, his patient and a nearby pastor. The man repulses him to the point of comparing him to a poisonous mushroom.

One day, Mrs Gregorius confides in him: her husband forces himself on her and she wonders if the good doctor couldn’t tell her husband that he should stop all sexual intercourse with her, for medical reasons, of course. The brave doctor is touched by her plea, a plea he’s ready to believe as he already hates Rev Gregorius. He agrees to help her and he gets more and more involved in her life, to the point of falling in love with her, even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge his feelings. She makes him cross lines, think about crossing more lines and question medical boundaries and his society’s hypocrisy.

Day after day, we read the thoughts of this unconventional doctor who writes about sensitive topics. He raises ethical questions that are still unresolved today. He wonders about birth control and abortion, not that he thinks that women should have the right to do what they want with their body or choose their time to become a mother. No, he thinks that there are already enough people on earth as it is. He also wonders about euthanasia: shouldn’t people be allowed to decide to die, especially if they have a terminal illness?

These thoughts were already in him but Mrs Gregorius’s story pushes them on the top of his mind. What is the ethical thing to do? He’s not ready to cross all lines but he can’t help thinking about these lines.

Doctor Glas was a scandal when it was published and it’s easy to understand why. Söderberg is brave enough to write about ethical questions from a doctor’s point of view. His character is not warm, someone you feel compassion for. He’s icy and perhaps his steely vision of men allows him to think out of the conventional path. Rev Gregorius, seen from Glas’s eyes, is repulsive. His wife is a lot younger than him and she’s not a sympathetic character either. Sometimes I had the impression she was manipulating Glas to be as free as possible from her husband to enjoy her relationship with her lover. It’s ambiguous.

Doctor Glas is remarkable for its directness. The doctor writes boldly about sex, death and the place of the church in the Swedish society. I don’t think Söderberg used the literary form to promote his ideas. He wrote the portray of a trouble man confronted to a complicated ethical question. How will he react? He has to choose to help Mrs Gregorius or not and this leads him to delicate questions.

I thought that Doctor Glas was a brilliant piece of literature. It’s concise and gets to the point. It’s less than 150 pages long and manages to draw the picture of a single individual while raising important ethical questions.

Highly recommended.

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki

December 18, 2016 20 comments

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki (1905) French title: Je suis un chat. Translated by Jean Cholley.

Disclaimer: I read I Am a Cat in French and will use the French transcription of Japanese names. It may be different from the one in English translation. I translated the quotes from the French and let the original French for readers who can read it and enjoy the professional translation from the Japanese.

L’étude des humains ne peut progresser si on ne choisit pas un moment où ils ont des ennuis. A l’ordinaire, les hommes sont justes des hommes : ils présentent un spectacle banal et sans intérêt. Mais quand ils ont des ennuis, toute cette banalité fermente et se soulève par la grâce de quelque fonction mystérieuse, et on voit alors se produire soudainement un peu partout des événements étranges, bizarres, insolites, inimaginables, en un mot des choses qui sont d’un grand intérêt pour nous, les chats. The study of human nature cannot progress if one doesn’t choose moments where men are in trouble. Usually, men are just men. They play a trite and uninteresting show. But when they’re in trouble, all this triteness ferments and lifts itself by some sort of mysterious feature. One can suddenly witness all kinds of strange, bizarre and unbelievable things. And these things are of great interest for us, cats.

soseki_chatNatsume Sōseki (1867-1916) is a Japanese writer. He spent three years in England, spoke English very well and had a good knowledge of British literature. He was a teacher of English literature in Tokyo. He lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). At the time, Japan stopped being an isolated country and opened to the world. It resulted in a lot of changes in politics, in economy, in mores and touched the whole society. It was a major change and it is important to have it in mind while reading Natsume Sōseki.

In I Am a Cat, the narrator is an unnamed feline and it is a first-person narration. This device reminded me of Lettres persanes by Montesquieu who used Persans characters to question the French society. They wrote letters to each other and could wonder at customs, point out ridicules and inconsistences without being offensive. They had the right to be puzzled, they were foreigners. The same thing happens here with the cat. He portrays his master and his family and friends and relates the life in this house in a neighborhood in Tokyo. Natsume Sōseki gives a vivid description of a cat’s mind. Our furry narrator explains how he shows affection to his master to be fed and how he enjoys walks in the garden, naps in the sun. He relates the sensitive politics between the cat population of the quartier. There’s a hilarious passage where he retells his first attempt at catching mice. As a reader, you really feel like you’re looking at life through cat’s eyes. He has a smart mouth and doesn’t refrain from using it to mock humans like here:

Un miroir est un alambic à vanité et en même temps un stérilisateur d’orgueil. Aucun objet n’excite plus un imbécile qui se tient devant lui avec la tête pleine de suffisance. Les deux bons tiers des malheurs qui restent dans l’histoire, malheurs soufferts par des orgueilleux qui se sont trop vite crus supérieurs, et malheurs infligés à leurs victimes, sont dus aux miroirs. A mirror is a vanity still and at the same time a pride sterilizer. No other object gets an imbecile as worked up just by standing in front of it, their head full of self-importance. A solid two-thirds of the tragedies that remained in history are due to mirrors, both the tragedies suffered by proud people who thought themselves as superior and the tragedies inflicted to their victims.

There are a lot of other examples. In addition to ironic thoughts about humans, the cat-narrator tends to think out of the box, as you can see here:

On peut croire qu’il y a une grande différence entre tomber et descendre mais elle n’est pas aussi importante qu’on le pense. Descendre, c’est ralentir une chute, et tomber, c’est accélérer une descente, voilà tout. One may think there is a big difference between falling and going down but it’s not as obvious as one thinks. Going down is slowing down a fall and falling down is accelerating a go down, that’s all.

That was for the atmosphere. Time to describe a bit more the household that took on this kitten.

Our little friend lives in Professor Kushami’s house. He’s married and has three daughters, all under 10 years old. His house is where his friends Meitei and Kagetsu gather. They talk about all and nothing. According to the cat, Kushami is rather ridiculous. He’s not a very good husband and he doesn’t care much about his daughters. He’s surrounded with books and seems to be barely average as a teacher. I Am a Cat is a comedy of manners, it could be a theatre play because everything is centered in the house. Kushami probably shares traits with Natsume Sōseki. Like Kushami, he was an English teacher and had chronic stomach aches—he died of stomach ulcer. It is true that there are a lot of laughable things about Kushami. But he’s also someone who doesn’t gamble, cheat on his wife or bends to the will of others. He’s not interested in money and would rather cling to his principles and his dignity than give in to powerful and wealthy neighbors. I loved reading about the decoration of the house, the display of the rooms, the kitchen, the dishes, politeness and all kinds of details about life in Japan at the time. My edition included useful but noninvasive footnotes.

Kushami’s woes with his wife, neighbors or friends are described in such a funny tone that I laughed a lot. Marriage is a target in I Am a Cat. The author and Kushami are not too fond of the institution which is more a necessary burden than a love match. And our cat observes:

Ce couple a abandonné le caractère fastidieux des bonnes manières avant sa première année de mariage ; c’est un couple super-marié. This couple has abandoned all fussy good manners before their first year of marriage ended. They’re a super-married couple.

Not exactly a glowing advertising for the institution. Natsume Sōseki uses comedy to amuse the reader but he still reflects on human nature. The cat-narrator compares humans and cats.

Le monde est plein de gens qui agissent mal tout en se croyant dans leur bon droit. Ils sont convaincus de leur innocence, ce qui part d’une candeur plaisante mais la candeur n’a jamais supprimé une réalité gênante. The world is full of people who behave badly while believing they’re in their good right. They are convinced of their innocence, which stems from a pleasant candidness but candidness has never made an embarrassing reality vanish.

Natsume Sōseki was born with the Meiji era and he observes the transformations of the Japanese society. I Am a Cat includes lots of thoughts about the rapid changes in the society. It impacts every area of life: relationships between men and women become less formal, Western ways of doing business become the norm. New hobbies appear. I knew that baseball was a popular sport in Japan and I thought it dated back to WWII and the occupation of Japan by American troops. Actually, Japanese people started to play baseball during the Meiji era. All things Western were fashionable and the prerequisite was “West is the best” and this bothered Natsume Sōseki. Even if he’s open to Western culture, he criticizes the blind acceptance of Western ways.

La civilisation occidentale est peut-être progressive, agressive, mais en fin de compte, c’est une civilisation faite par des gens qui passent leur vie dans l’insatisfaction. La civilisation japonaise ne cherche pas la satisfaction en changeant autre chose que l’homme lui-même. Là où elle diffère profondément de l’occidentale, c’est en ce qu’elle s’est développée sur la grande assertion qu’il ne faut pas changer fondamentalement les conditions de l’environnement. Si les relations entre parents et enfants ne sont pas les meilleures, notre civilisation ne tente pas de retrouver l’harmonie en changeant ces relations, comme le font les Européens. Elle tient que ces relations ne peuvent pas être altérées, et elle recherche un moyen pour restaurer la sérénité à l’intérieur de ces relations. Il en va de même entre mari et femme, maître et serviteur, guerrier et marchand, et également dans la nature. Si une montagne empêche d’aller dans le pays voisin, au lieu de raser cette montagne, on s’arrange pour ne pas avoir à aller dans ce pays. On cultive un sentiment qui puisse donner satisfaction de ne pas franchir la montagne. Et c’est pourquoi les adeptes du zen et du confucianisme sont certainement ceux qui comprennent le mieux cette question dans le fond. On peut être tout-puissant sans que le monde tourne comme on veut, on ne peut ni empêcher le soleil de se coucher, ni renverser le cours de la rivière Kamo. On n’a de pouvoir que sur son esprit. Western civilization may be progressive and aggressive but in the end, it’s a civilization built by people who spend their life dissatisfied. Japanese civilization does not seek satisfaction other than by changing men themselves. The biggest difference with the Western civilization is that the Japanese civilization grew on the assertion that the environment cannot be changed. If the relationships between parents and children are not ideal, our civilization does not look for harmony in changing the relationships like Europeans do. It considers that these relationships cannot be altered and it searches for a way to restore serenity inside these relations. It is the same for relations between men and women, master and servant, warrior and merchant and even in nature. If a mountain prevents you from walking to the neighboring country, the Japanese will arrange not to have to go to this country. They will cultivate a state of mind that finds satisfaction in not getting over the mountain. This is why the adepts of Zen and Confucianism are probably the ones who understand this matter the best. One can be the most powerful person on Earth but the world still won’t bend to their wishes. One cannot prevent the sun from setting, change the course of the River Kamo. One has only power over their own mind.

This quote is fascinating when you think it dates back to 1905. Not all the flaws of our Western civilization come from the landslide of consumer society. The roots were there before mass consumption and globalization. The part about the mountain reminded me of our visit to Bluff, Utah. The Mormons who founded this community used dynamite to carve their way through the mountain and arrive there. It’s called the Hole in the Rock trail. It baffled Native Americans that humans could destroy nature like this. It would have baffled their Japanese contemporaries as well.

I Am a Cat is an excellent read because it is multilayered. It’s funny, with an unusual narrator and under the lightness, there’s a real purpose to decipher a rapidly changing society. I Am a Cat is the perfect example of why we should read translations. I know that the Japanese language is far from the French and a lot of wordplays were probably lost in translation. But I don’t mind. It’s good enough in French and style is not everything. I Am a Cat allowed me to learn about Japan and its culture. Reading familiar things about human nature reminds us that whatever the culture we have things in common.

Highly recommended.

Natsume Sōseki died on December 9th, 1916. It is a coincidence but this billet will be my way to celebrate the centenary of his death. Jacqui recently reviewed The Gate. The atmosphere seems different, more melancholic. Her excellent review is here. Many thanks to Tony who recommended this in the first place.

PS: A word for French readers. I have the paper edition of Je suis un chat and it’s printed in a very small font. It’s available in e-book so I would recommend that version.

Happy are the Happy by Yasmina Reza

October 3, 2015 16 comments

Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza (2013) French title: Heureux les heureux.

book_club_2In September, our Book Club had picked Yasmina Reza’s novel Happy Are the Happy. It’s a particular novel as each chapter is named after a character and features different persons but all are related in one way or the other. They are friends, family or colleagues. Each chapter is an excerpt of their life, a moment that sheds some light on their love life. This novel feels like wandering in a gallery of portraits in a castle with a guide who stops in front of each portrait and tells you a story about the person in front of you.

I’m afraid it’s almost all I remember from Reza’s novel that I read four weeks ago. I remember that first chapter opens on a hilarious and Frenchissime domestic row in a supermarket: husband and wife fight over which cheese to purchase that week. I vaguely remember about a burial, adultery, a diner in town, stilted exchanges between parents and children, a young man who sinks into madness and believes he’s Céline Dion.

The married characters often have a poor marriage and if they don’t, their happiness seems suspicious. Don’t give this book to someone the night before their wedding day unless you want them to have a bad case of cold feet. The people of Reza’s world are lonely. They’re married and they’re lonely, which is maybe the worst loneliness. They’re trying to capture happiness but it evades them, perhaps because they don’t have a clear vision of what happiness means for them. Not for society or their family or friends, but for themselves. The reflexions on life and marriage can be spot on:

On accepte d’un héros de la littérature qu’il se retire dans la région des ombres, pas d’un mari avec qui on partage une vie domestique. One accepts of a literary hero that he isolates himself in the land of darkness but not of a husband with whom one shares a domestic life.

In other words, you can think as hard as you want but at some point, someone needs to make diner.

It is full of insightful remarks and it doesn’t lack of humour and yet, things didn’t work for me. It Frenchy French stuff. It could be a film by Christophe Honoré with Louis Garrel playing the guy believing he’s Céline Dion. As much as I loved Comment vous racontez la partie, I was disappointed by Happy Are the Happy. In 2013, it won the Prix Littéraire by Le Monde and the Grand Prix du roman by Marie Claire. I’ve obviously missed something.

The English and the French covers of this book couldn’t be more different. The French one is a drawing by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Nacktes Liebespaar (Nude Lovers), while the American cover shows a heart.

Reza_EnglisReza_Heureux

The tone of the book is a mix of the two. The French cover implies that sex is a prominent theme, which is not true. The English cover is a bit too sentimental for the tone of the book.

I’ve read two other reviews, one by Guy and one by Tony.

Norwegian blues and a Balzacian tale

October 10, 2013 23 comments

L’âge heureux (Den lykkelige alder) / Simonsen (1908) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949).

undset_age_heureuxI’m back in English, that’s probably a relief for you! –or not since I make less grammar mistakes in French. I bought L’âge heureux / Simonsen by Sigrid Undset on a whim, I don’t remember when or where. It sounded interesting; I didn’t know the writer and wanted to give it a try. Then Edith from Edith’s Miscellany wrote a review of Jenny by the same Sigrid Undset and that moved L’âge heureux / Simonsen on top of the TBR. And now you’re reading a billet about these two short-stories.

L’âge heureux. (Happy days)

There’s a famous quote from Paul Nizan which says « J’avais vingt-ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie. » (“I was twenty. I will not let anybody say it’s the best period of life”) That’s L’âge heureux in a nutshell.

When the book opens, Uni, an eighteen year old young woman accompanies her aunt Mrs Iversen and her cousins to the family house. The house was once in the country, is now in the suburbs of Christiana. Uni’s parents are dead and buried in the local cemetery. She’s about to start a new life in Christiana and she dreams to be an actress.

After this brief introduction to her circumstances, we follow Uni who is now working in an office, living in a boarding house and dating Christian. The young man is an industrial designer and although he has a decent job, he cannot afford to marry Uni and support her with his current income. He’s working hard to get a promotion while Uni goes to auditions to try to have a role in a play. Uni has a friend Charlotte who still lives with her mother and siblings; she’s an aspiring poet and feels all the angst that goes along with the status.

Undset describes the difficulty of being a young woman in the Norwegian middle class of that time. Uni and Charlotte are poor. They aspire to be artists and they need to work to make a living. Uni hates her job at the office. Charlotte resents her still living with her family and it irritates her so much that she becomes mean to her family. She’s ashamed of it and at the same time, she cannot help it. Uni has difficulties knowing what she wants and what she wants to do with her life, what she expects from it. She reminded me of Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, without the mental breakdown. Charlotte suffers from writing anxiety, struggling to find her poetic voice and feeling everything deeply, absorbing pain like a sponge:

J’aimerais travailler avec tous ces petits mots usés que les hommes emploient indifféremment, avec lesquels ils se blessent, qu’ils échangent dans une caresse, qu’ils murmurent dans un moment de détresse ou de joie… I’d like to work with all these little worn-out words that men use with indifference. Words with which they hurt each other, words that they exchange in a caress or murmur in a moment of anxiety or joy…

A tall order and she’s intelligent enough to know she might not live up to her own expectations.

Uni is torn between her strong attraction to theatre and her love for Christian. She wants to be an actress and would feel cheated if she didn’t have the opportunity to try that life. She would resent the person who would stand up against this possibility. Christian is too clever to be that person. He thus supports her choice of career.

Je voudrais que tu me comprennes bien, Uni, que tu sois sûre que je n’ai aucune arrière-pensée quand je t’encourage à suivre ta vocation. Je te jure que c’est vrai. Et si parfois je proteste, je voudrais que tu n’y fasses même pas attention. C’est sans importance, c’est simplement que j’ai des idées démodées, je me suis fait une certaine idée du mariage et j’y tiens…Maintenant que tu as vu mon père…Mais je ne veux pas t’imposer une vie qui ne te convient pas. Il n’en est pas question. Uni, I would like you to understand and be certain that I don’t have an ulterior motive when I encourage you to follow your calling. I swear it is true. And if I protest sometimes, I’d like you to not pay attention to it. It doesn’t matter; it’s just that I have old fashioned ideas, that I have a certain imagine of marriage and that I hold on to it…Now that you’ve met my father….But I don’t want to impose on you a life that you don’t want. It is out of the question.

Christian acknowledges with his brain that she has a right to have a career, to make her own choices but his guts struggle with the idea because it goes against his education. It is hard to change something you’ve learnt to be a truth from your young age. I think it’s very interesting that Sigrid Undset voices the difficulties of changing the ingrained vision of women. In a sense, Christian reminds me of Barfoot in The Odd Women by George Gissing. He’s in favour of Uni’s emancipation and he recognises her right to have her dreams and her aspirations. At the same time, he caresses the idea of a traditional wife, although he doesn’t say it openly. When Uni’s career as an actress starts, he’s faithful to his promise though and remains supportive.

Incidentally, like in The Odd Women or in L’argent by Zola, we see characters who love each other but can’t get married because the man doesn’t earn enough to support a wife and a family. Great-Britain, France, Norway, it was a common situation in Europe.

L’âge heureux gives a voice to young women before WWI whose talent and intelligence was wasted because their society didn’t have a place for them to blossom.

Ses mots, ses cris de révolte, ce n’étaient que les plaintes de toutes les jeunes filles désirant le bonheur mais dont la route est irrémédiablement barrée ; c’étaient les paroles que l’on prononce lorsque le monde vous piétine et vous force à rester dans l’obscurité, soit que l’on tourne mal, soit que, travailleuse honnête, on s’épuise toute la journée dans un bureau pour rentrer le soir, seule, dans une horrible pension ; c’était les expressions de fatigue que l’on ressent, au fond, après avoir été fiancée des années à un homme que l’on aime, et que les convenances se dressent contre vos aspirations ; ou les mots qu’on lance quand on prend sa famille en haine, qu’on bafoue sa mère, qu’on se dispute avec ses frères et sœurs : parents qui vous sont chers pourtant, mais à vivre si nombreux dans un petit logement, les heurts se multiplient. Hers words, her fits of revolt were only the cries of all young girls seeking for happiness but whose way was irremediably blocked. It was the words one says when the world tramples on you, forces you to remain in the shadows either because one turns out badly or because, although hard-working and honest, one wastes themselves in an office only to come back at night, alone, exhausted to a dreadful boarding house. It was the expression of weariness that one feels, in the end, when, after being engaged to a man one has loved for years, propriety stands against one’s aspirations. It was also the words one throws away when one takes an immense dislike to one’s family, when one ridicules their mother, fights with their siblings although one cares about their parents. But to live so numerous in such small lodgings can only multiply conflicts.

L’âge heureux is a plea for a better life for young women and its ending shows how powerful society was. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but it might be included in an omnibus edition of Undset’s works. It’s worth a try. Now…

Simonsen

If L’âge heureux is a tale of its time, Simonsen has Balzacian accents, and readers of Balzac will understand why. Simonsen is an ageing man who just got fired from his job. Again. He lives with Olga, who is an at-home dressmaker. She’s a lot younger than him. They are not married and have a daughter, Svanhild. Simonsen has also a son, Sigurd, from a previous marriage. Sigurd helps his father finding jobs when he loses one and he’s getting impatient and embarrassed by his father’s way of life. The man is unable to keep a job, lives in sin with a woman Sigurd considers from an inferior social class..

In this novella, we see life through Simonsen’s eyes. Although he is flawed (he knows he should marry Olga, he feels ashamed of losing his job again), the reader understands why Olga keeps him around. He’s nice, generous and he loves his daughter.

It’s a Balzacian tale because Sigurd and his greedy wife will do anything in their power to get rid of the embarrassing old man. And that’s all I’ll say about this short story. I’ve seen it’s been translated into English, you can track it down if you’re intrigued.

I enjoyed these two novellas and I find Undset’s style really attractive. Both novellas or short-stories picture middle-class in Christiana at the beginning of the century. Both show that society rules are stronger than individuals. I’m interested in reading Jenny but I’m not so inclined to try her historical novels set in the Middle-Ages. (I’m not particularly fascinated by this very religious period of history) and I’m not sure I want to discover her works after she converted to Catholicism. But these novellas I warmly recommend.

A simple but domineering heart

December 19, 2011 12 comments

The Good Anna by Gertrude Stein. 1909. Translated into French by Raymond Schwab. (La brave Anna)

I’ve been to the exhibition Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso… The Stein Family, in Paris. It tells the story of the Stein family and their incredible impact on arts at the beginning of the 20th Century. I thought it was a good opportunity to discover Gertrude Stein as a writer. Wandering in the museum library, I came across The Good Anna, a novella excerpted from the collection Three Lives.

The Good Anna relates the life and death of an American servant of German origin.

The good Anna was a small, spare, German woman, at this time about forty years of age. Her face was worn, her cheeks were thin, her mouth drawn and firm and her light blue eyes were very bright. Sometimes there were full of lightning and sometimes full of humor, but they were always sharp and clear.

She lives a simple life, has a simple but domineering mind. She likes to run her master’s house her own way. This is why Anna always chooses bachelors or spinsters as an employer. She selects fat and lazy women who won’t interfere in her ways. She can do as she pleases. Anna is stubborn, full of principles, scorns the people and animal she loves and don’t behave according to her standards. Her set of rules emphasizes on chastity, hygiene and hard work.

The good Anna had high ideals for canine chastity and discipline

She’s a caretaker though but she can only express her concern through tough love and rough advice. Her life is at other people’s service. Her mistresses, her friends, her family benefit from her energetic work and thrifty demeanor. She’s the kind of generous woman who meddles with your life when she cares for you. She’s the personification of the phrase Hell is paved with good intentions. If you’re an independent and free mind, you feel guilty if you hold a grudge against her because she means well but she gets on your nerves.

The story reminded me of A Simple Heart by Flaubert and I think the reference is intentional. On the one hand, A Simple Heart is a novella included in a volume entitled Three Tales just as The Good Anna is a part of Three Lives. On the second hand, Gertrude Stein nudges the reader in that direction when one of Anna’s employers gives her a parrot. But unlike Félicité, Anna never gets attached to the parrot, preferring her old dog Baby.

The story isn’t new but it’s interesting to read about a servant who’s obliging but not servile. Anna knows her temper and is lucid enough to get around the problem and choose the appropriate masters. I couldn’t help thinking: if Anna had been a man, what kind of life would she have had with such a character?

I’ve learnt at the exhibition that Gertrude Stein’s style was influenced by her relationship with painters. She makes an abundant use of adjectives like touches of paint on a painting. Matisse painted with large and colorful strokes. Stein depicts characters and situation with verbal strokes made of adjectives.

An earthly, uncouth, servile peasant creature old Katy surely was. She stood there on the white stone steps of the little red brick house, with her bony, square dull head with its thin, tanned, toughened skin and its sparse and kinky grizzled hair, and her strong, squat figure a little overmade on the right side, clothed in her blue striped cotton dress, all clean and always washed but rough and harsh to see.

It’s not unpleasant but a little raw, straightforward. Fauve?

Picasso painted Les demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, de-structuring the usual perspective. In the meanwhile, she was making attempts with the structure of phrases.

Miss Mathilde passait l’océan chaque été et restait absente plusieurs mois. Miss Mathilda every summer went away across the ocean to be gone several months.

I’ve read the novella in French, in a 1954 translation by Raymond Schwab. The sentence puzzled me and I wanted to know how the English sounded like. Doesn’t it sound unusual in English too? Anyway it’s more comprehensible in English than in French. And that one?

Elle ne comprenait pas ce qu’Anna voulait dire par ce qu’elle avait dit. She did not understand what Anna meant by what she said.

In other times, the phrases sounded strange, but only in French, which means the translation isn’t that good.

Maintenant tous les emballages étaient faits et dans quelques jours Miss Mary devait aller dans la nouvelle maison, où les jeunes gens étaient prêts à la recevoir. All the packing was now done and in a few days Miss Mary was to go to the new house, where the young people were ready for her coming.

And I’m not even speaking of translating names and including long forgotten French references such as Uniprix, which always irritates me. I see the point of translating nicknames but changing Peter into Pierre sounds unnecessary and even disturbing.

I enjoyed reading The Good Anna but I’m not in a rush to read another book by her. In any case, I’ll read it in English, that French translation was too bad. I knew she was a writer but couldn’t name one of her books, so now I can. I’m more impressed by her influence as an art patron than by her literary talent. However, I’m glad I‘ve read it and I’m more than grateful for her impact on painting and support to painters.

Short stories by Stefan Zweig

November 16, 2011 14 comments

Die Hochzeit von Lyon by Stefan Zweig. (1881-1942)

My French edition entitled Die Hochzeit von Lyon includes seven short stories by Stefan Zweig. I picked up this book because of the title as I live near Lyon, irrational reason but who said we had to be rational? The stories are very different from one another and as they aren’t too numerous, I decided to give you a quick summary of each.

Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910), aka Histoire d’une déchéance aka Twilight

A bit of historical context. This story takes place in France, in 1727. Louis XV was enthroned in 1715 but he was only five at the time. As a consequence, Philippe, Duke of Orléans was in charge of the country as a Regent until 1723. The economic situation was disastrous, people were hungry and angry. The Law scandal didn’t help the regime. Madame de Prie, the main character of Zweig’s story had been the Regent’s lover and had been most influential at Versailles during two years. It is even said she arranged Louis XV’s marriage with Marie Leszczyńska. When the story starts, Madame de Prie is exiled from Versailles to her castle in Normandy. Alone. How can she handle the loneliness, the quiet? She misses the noise, the parties, the intrigues and the fun. She needs to be adored and feared. She needs to show off, to put her life on stage. She needs to orchestrate her death.

For a more detailed review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) aka Un mariage à Lyon, aka A Wedding in Lyon (*)

Another time in French history, another place. We’re in 1793, during the French Revolution. There had been a major Royalist uprising in Lyon in 1793. After a long fight, the Republicans took the city. During the Terror, the local administrator didn’t enforce the Parisian orders to destroy the rebellious city. When he was replaced, the newcomer put it into motion, killing people without trials. They were killing so many people at the same time that the guillotine wasn’t fast enough, they just shot them and threw the corpses into the Rhône. The story takes place in a prison, before an execution and relates the wedding of two condamned people.

Im Schnee (1901) aka Dans la neige aka In the Snow (*)

This one is about Jewish people who live in a small German town near Poland. It’s Hanoucka and they’re celebrating when they hear that the “flagellants” (i.e. Gangs of men who persecuted Jewish people. I have no idea of the English word for that) are coming. To fight or to flee?

Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916), aka La légende de la troisième colombe, aka The Legend of the third Dove (*)

This is supposed to be the story of the third dove mentioned in the Bible, the last one Noah sent to the Earth and that never came back. It’s obviously an allegory about peace as Zweig wrote this short piece (about five pages) during WWI.

Das Kreuz (1906), aka La Croix, aka The Cross (*)

This one takes place in Spain, in 1810 at the the time of Napoleonic wars. The Spanish fight the French. A French batallion is walking on a road, when the Spanish “rebels” attack them. The French colonel bumps into a tree, faints and when he wakes up, he’s all alone. He decides to follow the road, hoping to find other soldiers when he realizes that all the French soldiers are dead and hung at the trees along the road. What shall he do? How can he survive?

Episode am Genfer See (1919) aka Au bord du lac Léman, aka By Lake Léman (*)

This one relates the story of a Russian peasant who runs aground on the Swiss side of Lake Léman in 1918. He’s a deserter and wants to go home.

Der Zwang (1916), aka La Contrainte, aka Constraint (*)

Der Zwang is the most political story of the book. It’s WWI. Ferdinand and his wife live in Switzerland but they are from a country currently at war. It’s not mentioned but I guess they are either German or Austrian. Ferdinand receives an official letter telling him he’s mobilized and must join the army. He’s in Switzerland, he can hide there and not go. He feels the paper pushes the right buttons in him and he feels compelled to go even if he hates war, doesn’t want to kill and doesn’t agree with the idea of patriotism. Shortly said, he’s a pacifist. Where’s his duty? To be faithful to his ideas and stay with his wife or to go against his will?

There is no foreword, so I can’t tell why the publisher chose to gather these stories into a book but I suppose that war, power and the vanity of mankind is the common point of these tales. They all talk about war (except the first one, unless you consider politics as a battle field too) and the consequences of war on everyday life and on human behaviours. Zweig wonders at our ability to kill for ideas, to accept butchery. He questions our lack of reaction: why do people go at war like sheep? Why don’t the Jewish rebel? Why do people accept to endanger their lives for ideas they don’t share and fear to resist and die for their ideal of peace? What does power do to a humanbeing, creating an unquenchable thirst for honors and attentions?

So far, I’d only read non-historical fiction by Zweig and this was my first visit into this side of his work. (I have his Marie-Antoinnette at home too). As always, Zweig excells at describing landscapes and their interaction with people and at depicting the characters’ innerminds. If Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane is a symbol of the German literature of the period, I understand why Caroline says the Germans consider Zweig as “corny”. Compared to Effi Briest, Jane Eyre is pornography; so of course, Zweig is more effusive, openly sensitive and romanesque. He has a pessimistic vision of humanity though.

I enjoyed reading these stories but to someone who wants to discover Zweig, I’d rather recommend Journey Into the Past or Letter From an Unknown Woman.

(*) I have no idea of the English title used by publishers, so I added the literal translation of the German title. I’ll never thank enough French publishers for sticking to literal translations of book titles most of the time.

La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock. Part I

October 17, 2011 30 comments

La Belle Epoque. La France de 1900 à 1914.  by Michel Winock. 2002. 387 pages. Not translated into English.

I’m not a great reader of non-fiction; somehow I just have difficulties to concentrate on non-literary books. I hesitated before buying La Belle Epoque, wondering if I’d manage to read it. I’m happy I gave it a try, it’s a wonderful book, full of useful information about the society, the political forces and culture in La Belle Epoque. Most of all, it gave the right level of information to me: it’s detailed enough to teach me many things I didn’t know or to help me pull together pieces of knowledge I had grasped through literature but not too detailed. And, last but not least, Michel Winock often illustrates his speech with literary examples and compares France to other European countries, mostly England and Germany. It’s a gold mine for me, always in search of bridges between history and literature.

Michel Winock considers that La Belle Epoque corresponds to the years between 1900 and 1914. It had to be after the Dreyfus Affair and before WWI. He often needs to come back to the preceding decades to explain the events of these years, which is even more interesting. The book is divided in four major parts: the economy, the society, the politics and culture. I’m not going to summarize everything. Although I found the parts about economy and politics really interesting and enlightening regarding the roots of French unions and the DNA of our political parties, I’ll skip on these ones here. I’d rather share social and cultural elements because I thought they might be useful to you too, reader of French literature. I’ll need two posts and this one will be a hodgepodge of facts I gathered about the mores.

Marriage / Adultery / Divorce / Babies.

Marriage is seen as a financial and social decision. Love has nothing to do with it and love life is often outside of marriage. So is sex, especially for men who go to brothels; it sounds very common when you read In Search of Lost Time, as if it were a part of a boy’s education. The basis of Civil Law in France lays in the Code Civil, which dates back to Napoleon. The law punished differently adultery for men and women. A woman risked from 3 months to 2 years in prison when a man risked a fine from 100 to 2000 francs. Divorce wasn’t possible under Napoleon, it was restored by the Third Republic in 1884. These juridical elements might explain why writers drew so many portraits of miserable marriages and doomed destinies of people attached to the wrong person.

The husbands keep the money from dowries. Women can’t work without their husband’s consent. 38% of married women had a full time job, when we consider all social classes.

France’s birth rate was low compared to other European countries. People had already started to have fewer children to give them better chances  to climb the social ladder. There’s a sort of concentration of financial means. Looking back on history, France was ahead of its time but it wasn’t analyzed that way at the time. The contemporaries were afraid of a “degeneration of the race”. Zola himself wrote a novel about it, Fécondité. The idea of decadence is also in Huysmans’s books. You can imagine all the stinking ideas that can stem from such disputable concepts.

We don’t know what kind of birth control was used, probably abstinence and coitus interruptus. As a consequence of political concern – without immigration, the population declines in numbers, which is not good for the Revanche, i.e. the next war with Germany that will erase the shame of the debacle of 1870 – the State strengthens the repression of abortion and puts into trial the “faiseuses d’anges”.

Women

I had gathered from different books (Like Madame Bovary by Flaubert, Une Vie by Maupassant, Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal, Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées by Balzac) that girls from the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie were educated in convents, with disastrous results. Michel Winock confirms my impression. The Third Republic changes that as it starts offering another alternative to convents. As a result, women’s education will be more republican and separated from religion.

Winock explains that the model for a woman is to be a stay-at-home mother. In the good society, girls are kept at home and don’t have a lot of freedom. It confirms my impression of Albertine in Proust: she’s far too free to be considered as a good match.

Some lesbians stand out, have famous literary salons and try to promote the feminist cause. The period offered small victories to women (1907: the right to keep their wages and spend it without their husband’s consent) but they’ll have to wait until 1945 for the right to vote. Indeed, in these years, women were considered as an ally to the Catholic church. After the separation between the State and the Church in 1905, the fight was hard between the clerical and anti-clerical sides. It didn’t help the feminists that the députés feared that women would support the clerical candidates.

Death / illness / doctors.

In these years, the attitude towards death shifted. On the one hand, dead people are worshipped and on the other hand, cremation was authorized in 1889. In 1907, the Préfet Lépine closed the morgue to visitors: it’s no longer a Sunday promenade. Death becomes hidden.

The government took seriously tuberculosis, syphilis and suicides. The tubercle bacillus was discovered in 1905. Health and hygiene campaigns were launched, it was a time of progress for medicine. At the end of the 19thC, there were still weird prescriptions, such as “spend the rest of your life on a steam boat commuting on the Rhône between Lyon and Avignon and eat in time with the orchestra” to heal …stomach cancer. Unbelievable. Monsieur Diafoirus and Monsieur Purgon had an offspring.

Syphilis was a great fear and a political concern as a proof of that “degeneration” I mentioned earlier and because, like AIDS, it passes from mother to child during pregnancy. If baby boys die or are in poor health, who’s going to fight the Germans? Humanism has sometimes twisted roots. According to estimations, 13 to 15% of adult males in Paris had syphilis. It seems a high percentage to me.

Suicide was a hot topic in that period, following a series of suicides among students and Durkheim’s work on suicide, which was published in 1897 and was much discussed.

That was the elements I thought relevent to better understand books regarding mores. In the next post, I’ll write briefly about social classes, the founding of a republican identity and a little about culture. I’m afraid my style is really clumsy, I lack the English words for that kind of posts. I did my best.

The Road by Jack London

October 15, 2011 17 comments

The Road by Jack London. 1907.

In The Road, Jack London relates his years as a hobo in America and Canada in the years 1894-1895. The book comes more than 10 years after the journey and there is a good chance that it is constructed for readers and written to be appealing. London had notebooks during those years, we can expect they helped him with the details. I really enjoyed reading this book, it’s full of buoyant life and a precious testimony on the USA in that time. Each chapter deals with a particular theme and I was surprised several times. For example, I thought it was easier to relay on begging than today. People would give him food when he begs, sometimes even inviting him in their homes. However, when he tells his life with other tramps, charity could become more a question of good sense than of good heart:

We [85 tramps] took up a collection and sent a telegram to the authorities of that town. The text of the message was that eighty-five healthy, hungry hoboes would arrive about noon and that it would be a good idea to have dinner ready for them. The authorities of Grand Island had two courses open to them. They could feed us, or they could throw us in jail. In the latter event they’d have to feed us anyway, and they decided wisely that one meal would be the cheaper way.

I will always marvel at the organization of these hobos on one side and at the decision-making process based on profitability on the other side. This is how I see America: able to forget about principles when it’s cheaper to surrender. I was also astonished by the tale of the two thousand tramp army led by General Kelly and its odyssey on the Des Moines River or the violence he encounters sometimes.

The chapter about how to “hold her down” i.e. travel on trains without a ticket is incredible. He relates how hobos are chased by train drivers and employees. He explains all the strategies he used to go on and off the trains and not get caught. All this was extremely dangerous and he traveled in awful conditions soaked up by rain or frozen by a fierce cold.

His description of his stay in a Canadian prison is appalling. He pictures very well the balance of power between the prisoners, the fishy business among the prisoners and with the guards, the corruption, the violence. Eat before you are eaten. Oh, we were wolves, believe me—just like the fellows who do business in Wall Street. You can’t keep the Socialist out of London for long!

The last chapter is about the “bulls”, the cops. The French translator chose to translate the word literally (les taureaux), probably to keep the impressive image of the English. In French, the two animals used to call the cops are vache (cow) or, the most used, poulet (chicken). I know, I know, for an American, calling a policeman a bull or a chicken doesn’t convey the same image at all. From what I see now that I’m looking for the original text of the quotes I’ve chosen, the French translation is exceptional. It manages to keep the originality and the freshness of London’s tone and adapt it to the French. For example, when London says the bulls is horstile, it’s translated by « les taureaux sont diabominables », diabominable being a portmanteau word made of “diable” (devil) and “abominable” (awful).

The Road fascinated Jack Kerouac. On the Road comes from that fascination but it’s already tainted. Although Kerouac’s book is the image of freedom for generation of readers, the book of pure freedom is The Road. London doesn’t search for anything, he just can’t stay long at the same place and wants to be free.

Every once in a while, in newspapers, magazines, and biographical dictionaries, I run upon sketches of my life, wherein, delicately phrased, I learn that it was in order to study sociology that I became a tramp. This is very nice and thoughtful of the biographers, but it is inaccurate. I became a tramp—well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a ducking. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because—well, just because it was easier to than not to.

THAT is why the book oozes freedom and a lot more than Kerouac’s On the Road. In London, there aren’t any drugs or alcohol or sex, no artificial paradises. He doesn’t need anything, he just wants to live from hand to mouth like a real hobo. There’s no spiritual quest and thus no expectation and no disappointment. Any book walking in the same shoes can only be a pale copy. Nothing compares to London’s appetite for a no-string life. When I was reading, I had in mind the beautiful images of the film I’m not there by Todd Haynes, the bits with the little black hobo.

PS: If you’re interested, you can have a look at my review of On The Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman, based upon On the Road by Jack Kerouac, itself based on The Road by Jack London. La boucle est bouclée, that’s what we say in French in such cases.

German Literature Month in November: my selection

September 28, 2011 22 comments

After a moment of hesitation, I decided to participate to the German Reading Month hosted by Caroline (Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life). It will take place in November and will overlap my EU Book Tour project. After Dutch literature in June, German-speaking literature in November.

I’m not well read in German literature. When I think of the German books I’ve read and loved, most of them are by Austrian or Czech writers (Zweig, Kafka, Schnitzler, Rilke). Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled by the few books from Germany I’ve read so far. The Sorrows of the Young Werther by Goethe? Romanticism isn’t my cup of tea. Mademoiselle de Scudéry by E.T.A. Hoffmann? Not a remarkable landmark in my reading history. The Left Handed Woman by Peter Handke? Brr, terrible experience. Death in Venice by Thomas Man? I can’t recall a single thing from the plot. And I didn’t even remember I had read The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum until I started investigating Heinrich Böll for this event.

I think this was all bad luck and I’m sure there must be German books I will enjoy. I never picked up the right ones, that’s all. Anyway, I looked for the German books on my shelves and on my wish lists. I’m terribly lazy, so I eliminated big books and here is the dream list.

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1895)

Caroline and Lizzy organize a readalong. I’ll probably read it at my own pace. Sorry Caroline and Lizzy, but reading determined chapters each week sounds like school and I’m not up for it. But I’m really interested in discovering Effi Briest.

 

 

Un mariage à Lyon by Stefan Zweig, a French collection of short stories including:

German Title

French Title

English Title

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) Un mariage à Lyon A Wedding in Lyon (*)
Im Schnee (1901) Dans la neige In the Snow (*)
Das Kreuz (1906) La Croix The Cross (*)
Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910) Histoire d’une déchéance Twilight
Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916) La légende de la troisième colombe The Legend of the third Dove (*)
Episode am Genfer See (1919) Au bord du lac Léman By Lake Léman (*)
Der Zwang (1916) La Contrainte Constraint (*)

(*) I have no idea of the English title used by publishers, so I added the literal translation of the German title. I’ll never thank enough French publishers for sticking to literal translations of book titles most of the time. For a review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Lettres à Lou Andreas-Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke

This small book is a collection of letters Rilke wrote to his beloved Lou Andreas-Salome. I love Rilke. There’s nothing else to say. I’m looking forward to this bath in his soothing and wise prose. I also enjoy that collection of tiny books by Mille et Une Nuits. I have other titles from it and they’re always enchanting. I owe them a great translation of Ovide.

 

Hotel Savoy by Josef Roth (1924)

I’ve had in mind to read a book by Josef Roth for a while and this one seems just great.

Beton by Thomas Bernhard (1982)

The English title is Concrete and the French one Béton. I added it to my TBR after Guy’s review. You can read it here.

 

 

 

Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt by Herta Müller (1994).

The French title is the translation of the German, L’homme est un grand faisan sur la terre. The English title, The Passport, is totally invented by the publisher. Indeed, the original title means Man is a great pheasant on the earth, which is much more intriguing in my opinion. I was intrigued by the title and interested in reading a book by the Nobel Prize Winner of 2009. 

 

Ruhm: Ein Roman in neun Geschichten by Daniel Kehlmann (2009)

The English title is Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes. The French title is Gloire. I expect a lot of fun with this collection of short stories by an Austrian writer. Another reading idea I owe to Guy. Here is the link to his review.

 

 

I wanted to try another Heinrich Böll but I wasn’t tempted the blurbs of the books available in paperback. Ooops.Now that I look at my list again, I realize I’m not going to discover a lot of books from Germany. Tant pis. Of course, I’m not sure I’ll be able to read all this in time but I’ll try. Most of the books are short.

If anyone has read one of these, I’m interested in your take.

Forever a servant: a female’s life isn’t worth living, she thinks

August 16, 2011 13 comments

The Murderess (1903) by Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911) 189 pages.

Alexandros Papadiamantis is one of the greatest Greek writers of his time. His work is mostly composed of short-stories and a few novels, among those The Murderess. I came across this author when I researched books for my EU Book Tour. How happy I am to have started that whimsical project! I would have never found this book on my own and it’s a real gem.

The Murderess is set in a rural island in Greece, the ones you imagine when you think about that country: sparkling turquoise sea, white houses, chapels, sheep and steep paths in the mountains. Alexandros Papadiamantis excels at describing the landscape, the scent of wild flowers and herbs under the sun, the pure springs, the shepherds with their sheep.

The main protagonist is Khadoula, also named Francoyannou or Yannou. She’s around 60. When the novel begins, she’s staying up at nights at her daughter’s house to watch her newborn grand-daughter. The deliverance has been difficult, both mother and baby are weak. During her sleepless nights, she starts thinking about her life:

Et là, à force de réfléchir et de rappeler en son esprit son existence entière, elle découvrait qu’elle n’avait jamais fait que vivre dans la servitude.

Jeune fille, elle avait été la domestique de ses parents. Une fois mariée, elle était devenue l’esclave de son mari – et pourtant, par l’effet de son propre caractère et de la faiblesse de l’autre, elle était en même temps sa tutrice. Quand ses enfants étaient nés, elle s’était faite leur servante; et maintenant qu’ils avaient à leur tour des enfants, voici qu’elle se trouvait asservie à ses petits-enfants.

And then, thinking hard and calling back in her mind her whole existence, she discovered she has only lived in servitude.

As a young girl, she had been her parents’ maid. Once married, she had become her husband’s slave and however, due to her own character and the weakness of his, she had also been his tutor. When her children were born, she had become their maid. And now that they had children too, she was enslaved to her grand-children.

Francoyannou was raised by a mean mother and a weak father who gave her as a dowry the less valuable of all their assets. Their avarice or perhaps simply their lack of love and generosity settled their daughter in poverty and obliged her to work hard to earn a living and build a house. They also married her to a simpleton. Her husband was so stupid he couldn’t calculate the amount of his wages and she had to interfere either to make sure he got paid correspondingly to the work done or that he didn’t drink their money. On this island, all the valuable men emigrate and are like dead to their families. They don’t write, they don’t come back and they never send money. Francoyannou’s two older sons emigrated and thus are of no support. She had to work hard to earn the dowry she gave to her daughter Delcharo, the one who just had a baby. And “what for?”, she thinks when she sees her loud and incapable son-in-law. She knows she can’t afford the same dowry for her two other daughters; they’ll have to be spinsters.

Looking back on her life, she doubts her life was worth the effort. She comes to a simple conclusion: being a woman is a curse, having daughters is a malediction. She looks at her grand-daughter and thinks that if she died now, her parents would be freed from raising her and sacrificing for her dowry. If she died now, she wouldn’t have to go through that life of servitude, she’d be an angel in the Kingdom of God. If Francoyannou helped fate and smothered the baby, it would look like she choked to death. One thought leading to the other, Francoyannou becomes sure it is the best solution. She kills the baby. She feels empowered by her action. For the first time maybe, she leads her life instead of reacting and adjusting to events and other people. It’s exhilarating. Will this baby be her only victim?

Francoyannou is a complex character. She’s a respected member of her community for her capacities, her compassion and the help she provides to others. Indeed, Francoyannou knows all kinds of herbs and works as a midwife. She can provoke abortions and wishes she could find a sterility herb. She’s everywhere, compassionate, healing neighbours, helping with laundry, working all the time to make money and survive. She’s also very religious and superstitious. She’s certain that Jesus sent her signs, approving her lethal deeds. She’s not crazy, she’s practical. Her compassion makes her cross the line.

Alexandros Papadiamantis wrote a fantastic novel on the condition of the women of that time. They aren’t really considered as citizens and yet do all the job, running households, working very hard and helping each other. They are never thanked or respected for it. Papadiamantis denounces the side-effects of emigration. It is a catastrophe for this island as it empties the native land from the most valuable men. Only the lazy, the stupid and the drunkards remain, making bad husbands and fathers. Only the shepherds are pictured as nice men. I also wonder why these emigrants never came back or sent money. Usually emigrants send money back home, helping the local economy. It was the case for Italian emigrants in America or Algerians in France.

Papadiamantis also questions old customs and the yoke they put on families. Dowries are above their means and yet mandatory for your daughter to get married. It costs them everything and prevents them from enriching from one generation to the other. As a consequence, having too many daughters is a curse. I had never heard of such a custom in a European country at the beginning of the 20th C and not among poor people. For me the question of dowries was linked to the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. I’ve heard of such customs in India though.

Papadiamantis also depicts very well the parallel economy driven by poverty. Women have no profession but do many small jobs to earn money or get paid in nature.

Despite her horrible actions, I could understand and pity Francoyannou. It’s so desperate. Of course, murder is condemnable but Papadiamantis shows very well the net of obligations that led her to this horrible conclusion: Girls are a burden for their families and will live as servants all their life. Girls’ lives aren’t worth living. Sad and chilling. I highly recommend it.

Here is another review by Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes.

They walked back to the village, a volcano in their heart

May 17, 2011 19 comments

Aline by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. 1905. 144 pages. Not translated into English, sorry, sorry, sorry…

 Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878-1947) is a French-speaking Swiss writer. Aline is his second novel, written in 1905. Born in Lausanne, Ramuz spent 14 years in Paris and came back to Switzerland in 1914, before the war started. His work is centred on country life in the Canton de Vaud.  

Aline is a short tale about a tragic love story in rural Switzerland. Julien, only son of the richest man of the village, is infatuated with Aline, a seventeen year old peasant. She lives alone with her ageing mother Henriette. It is summer, the heat is almost unbearable. Julien and Aline meet on a trail as they go back home from work in the fields. Julien flirts and persuades her to meet at night, when her mother is asleep. She accepts and they start dating secretly in the woods. Their affair lasts several months and their love follows opposite paths. While Julien progressively falls out of love with Aline, Aline’s love grows to passion. Julien is a young womaniser and for him, she’s nothing more than a summer romance. It was true love for her. The ingredients of a tragedy are all there.  

Aline reminded me of Félicité (A Simple Heart by Flaubert) and of Emma Bovary. Like Félicité, she’s good and loving. She’s a simple heart, ill-prepared to face life and inconstant boys. Like Emma, she gives herself away, as Flaubert said. She’s overwhelmed by her feelings. I don’t think Julien can be compared to Rodolphe though; he just grew tired of Aline and didn’t realize she was so deeply in love with him.  

Ramuz writes with simplicity about peasant life. Aline’s heart is pure and simple and Ramuz’s language is as pure as a mountain spring. His style comforts our image of Aline, an adolescent experiencing feelings she fails to understand and tame.

Et elle était devenue bien jolie ; ses joues étaient plus roses, ses lèvres plus rouges, ses yeux plus bleus. C’est la jeunesse qui vous sort du cœur, parce que le cœur est content, et elle est devant vous comme le matin des prés. And she had become really pretty; her cheeks were pinker, her lips redder, her eyes bluer. It’s youth pouring out of your heart, because the heart is contented and it lays in front of you like a morning on the fields.

Ramuz brings to life the village, the people, their way of life, the gossips. He points out the difference between boys and girls: when the affair is known, everybody blames Aline and Julien remains unscathed. A girl can’t fall in love but a boy can seduce whomever he wants, it’s sport.  

I didn’t know Ramuz had influenced Giono but I truly heard Giono when I read Aline. And also Pagnol. I could feel the summer heat, smell the scent of wet grass after the rain, imagine the blue sky, the fields and the bushes.  

Avril avait paru, poussant devant lui ses petits nuages comme des poules blanches dans un champ de bleuets. April had shown up, pushing before him his small clouds like white hens in a cornflower field.

It’s evocative. His description of nature reminded me of paintings by Van Gogh (Wheatfield with Crows or The Sower) or Monet (Poppies Blooming). Simple words and forceful images. It’s set in Switzerland but it could be in France. I thought of the innocence of life before the horrors of the trenches and lives untimely ended by war, throwing everyday life off balance in towns and villages.

I’m not usually fond of bucolic novels. I couldn’t finish La Gloire de mon Père by Marcel Pagnol, I thought it was mushy. However, I liked Regain by Jean Giono (Harvest) and Aline reminded me of this book. It is fresh and lovely and I’m sorry it isn’t translated into English. For readers who can/could read French or would like to speak French again, it’s easy to read and short. For other readers I recommend Regain by Giono, it has the same flavour.

PS : The perfect soundtrack for this book is La Chasse aux papillons by Georges Brassens. I borrowed a line for the title of this post.

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